The Pauper Prince 3
For Kenneth it had been a good day. For one, he’d finally convinced Mara to let him help lug the water jugs to and from the well. It had also dawned on him the irony of regarding a day as “good” that had meant an increase in manual labor. She had agreed to share the chore, not relinguish it. That was a start. Still, and he knew better than to say it aloud, he really did hate the thought of a woman performing such arduous labor alone, when it was supposed to be a shared responsibility. And so it was, now.
For another, the day and evening had been quiet enough that he had the time and energy to play a little bit of his lute before sleeping. Mara seemed to be indifferent to his music, except when he tried to substitute her name for the name of one of his song’s heroines. It struck her as immodest, which she would not abide. Dejected, he put aside the instrument and prepared for bed.
Something in the corner of the room caught his eye. He pointed and chuckled.
“What’s that over there?” he said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was a broadsword.”
Mara started and spun around. “What? Where?”
“Just behind you,” he said, and she saw it and snatched it before he finished the phrase. She yanked up the sheets of her cot and then covered the object.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Let’s get to bed.”
“Nothing? Then why be so quick to hide it?” he said, then with another chuckle: “Don’t tell me I was right.” She only glared at him and kept arranging the sheets. His smile faded. “Mara…”
“Wha-? Why are you using that tone? I’m only curious. Of course it’s not a broadsword, so what is it?”
“It’s…a broadsword.” Sometimes she hated her own hatred of lying.
“What? Show me.”
“Why do you have a sword?” he lowered his voice into a whisper. “Please tell me that’s not Erick’s! Or worse: one of the guest’s!”
“One of the-?? I am no thief! It’s mine!”
Kenneth said nothing as Mara yanked back the sheets and held up her weapon. The scabbard, even in the dim candlelight, looked like nothing special: some old, worn leather with frayed straps. The grip and guard were utilitarian, with no ornamentation that he could see.
“Why do you have a sword?”
“My father gave it to me,” she said, pulling it out just slightly before snapping it back into the scabbard with a clack. She held onto it while speaking. “I’ve had one for as long as I can remember. This one he gave me… I think I was 11, perhaps 12. It’s always at my side when I sleep. But tonight I was s-s-stupid and forgot to hide it. Just forget about it. Let’s to bed.”
“I don’t think I’m going to ‘forget’ that there’s a weapon in our room,” he said. “Why would your father give you a sword?”
“What’s the matter with you?? Must you ask questions about everything you see??”
“Hey! I don’t deserve that tone, woman!” said Kenneth. “I am not your enemy! And I just found out that you’ve been sleeping with a deadly weapon every night!”
She leaped to her feet and put her face inches away from his, gritted teeth, nostrils flared, rapid breaths. To her dismay Kenneth did not flinch. His expression was stern, not angry. Half a minute into their standoff, she fought to calm herself, slowing her breaths, biting her lip, breaking the gaze.
“I’msorry,” she muttered.
“? I didn’t hear what you said,” he said.
“I’m-!” she said, her anger returning, which she fought to beat back. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. You’re right; you– didn’t deserve that.”
“Apology accepted,” he said. “And.. truly, if this is not something you wish to discuss-”
“I don’t, but I could at least tell you that my father gave me a sword, because he certainly didn’t mean for me to be working at places like this,” she said with a sigh. “I was meant to be on the battlefield, like him.”
“A soldier, you mean?” said Kenneth.
“Yes,” she said. “Well… a soldier of no kingdom. Offering his- and then my- sword for whoever paid enough.”
“A mercenary?” said Kenneth. “And he raised you to be one, too?”
“He preferred calling us ‘warriors’,” she said. “But… I suppose being paid to fight is a mercenary, no matter what we want to be called.”
“But you’re a w–” Kenneth said, then caught himself. Mara only looked at him as if daring him to finish. “That is, no kingdom allows… well, women… to serve as soldiers.”
“Right, no kingdom does, that I can find,” she said. “Individuals, that’s different. There’s always somebody who wants to put together a fight. Well… not so much lately, not around here. I haven’t found a good scrap in a long time. It’s the only reason I work at places like this. It’s that, or starve. I learned that the hard way.”
“Where is your father now?”
She shrugged, then looked at the ground. “Dead. Gone. I’m not really certain.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said softly. “How old w-?”
“I’m not looking for pity,” she said.
“Not pity. Just condolences. Would you… mind if I asked what happened?”
She shrugged again. “Just… part of wars and battles, you know?”
“Do you?” she said. “Have you been a soldier?”
“I’ve… served my king, but have never been called to fight. As I said, Gildern has been at peace for a number of years.”
“Good for you, then,” she said. “Things were a little bit ‘rockier’ up north, where I’m from.”
“Uhh… ‘Breech’ or something,” she said. “It wasn’t terribly important for me to know.”
Kenneth seemed to ponder this a moment. “Breech,” he said. “Yes, I’ve heard of it.”
“I guess it was important for you to know,” she said. “All I know is that it was colder more than warmer, and not very good land. I don’t remember seeing any farmers in my village, now that I think of it. It was all livestock and fish. My father was a ‘warrior,’ but he had some cattle, for milk and meat. But there was reason to keep his sword, because other villages and tribes were always fighting with each other. Sometimes us, sometimes them.”
“Was your mother also a ‘warrior’?” asked Kenneth.
Mara glared. “No,” she said. “And don’t ask about her.”
“I had no intention of offending.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m just giving fair warning.” She sat on the edge of Kenneth’s cot and held the sword in front of her, tip on the floor. Sometimes she twirled it absent-mindedly while speaking. “Like I said, Father raised me to take his place in battles. It’s all I know. I mean, I ruined his life by being a girl and by killing my m–” She cursed quietly to herself, then clamped her mouth shut and looked at the floor again. Then looked up again, but not at Kenneth.
“Mara, you don’t need to tell me what happened,” said Kenneth softly. “I was merely curious.”
“I’m fine,” she said, twirling the sword again. “These are just things I hadn’t really… thought about much until now. My first real battle wasn’t until my fifteenth, maybe sixteenth, year. I don’t remember the day being much different than any other. It was summer, I think. Yes, it had to be summer, because it was warm enough that we didn’t need our thick clothing, and there were some green here and there. That was ‘summer’ for us. And I remember… that is, I don’t remember hearing anything, but my father was very good at that. He had very good hearing. Good instincts, too. We were outside and… he was angry with me about something. But he always was, so it was nothing special. Nothing memorable. Then he looked off into the hills, and the next thing I remember, he was yelling at me to get into our hut and hide. Hide! I didn’t know why he was saying that, but he grabbed some weapons, then yelled at me again to hide. To take cover. Then he ran back out, and truly, the door-skin had hardly flapped down when a blur of horses thundered by. Father yelled – actually, it was his battle roar – and then he was gone.”
“I don’t mean ‘gone’ like I said before,” she said. “I mean that he was part of whatever battle was going on outside. Even from inside I could tell this was not just another raid from a village or tribe. These people were marauders. They were out for blood and God knows what else. I have no idea why. There was screaming, more horses thundering by, battle cries. Then I smelled smoke, so they were setting the village on fire, too! And… and my father, who’d taught me my whole life to fight, and be brave, and– and– told me to hide in our hut? As if I couldn’t go out there and defend our own home?”
“I grabbed my sword,” she said, and held up hers, “This very one – and pulled on whatever protection I could in a moment, and ran outside to help.”
She fell silent suddenly and looked off into the distance. After a time Kenneth thought about prompting her for more, but decided to wait. “To this day I don’t know who those marauders were,” she said finally. “But they wanted blood. And it was everywhere. Blood, and flame, and… and smoke. Some of us were still fighting. I think most were dead. Or maybe taken. That happens a lot, taking women and girls. There was more groaning and screaming from the injured and dying than screams of fear. But off in the distance, I heard my father, still roaring his battle cry. He had gotten to high ground, which is good in a fight. And I don’t really remember how, but I managed to run through all of that to get to him, without tripping on a body, or being overcome by smoke, or getting killed, for that matter.”
“I reached him,” she said, “And I was so proud of myself for making it there. So proud that I was going to be fighting at his side. He had his back to me, so I don’t think he knew yet that I was there. I just started swinging wildly, forgetting pretty much everything he’d taught me, until I suddenly remembered what I was supposed to be doing. After that I was holding my sword properly, keeping my balance properly.”
“There was… a man…” she said, her voice getting a bit lower, “One of the attackers. He was storming up the hill to get to us. I think my father was busy with some others. So… this was my moment, you know? I was excited at first, and then… it happened again. Whatever he taught me, it just… froze up in my mind. I think it’s because that the closer the man got, the bigger he was getting. And… look at me! See how tall that I am. And the look on his face, and his eyes… This was no training or practice. This was Death, coming at me. Coming for me.”
“My mind froze up, and I stuck out my blade,” she said, miming the motion, “And did the stupidest thing anyone could do in a fight.”
“You closed your eyes?”
Mara looked up, surprised. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly what I did. A lifetime of training, and I closed my eyes. I should be dead, or… horribly maimed, if nothing else. Instead, I felt a push against my hand, and a noise like ‘Uck!’ I opened my eyes, and saw…” Oddly enough, she smiled and chuckled a little, “He had run right into my sword.” She held it up again. “He had buried his own neck into it, almost up to the guard. I’m not sure who looked more surprised: me, or him. In fact, he… looked at me, and I think he was trying to speak, but just gurgles of blood came out. Then I tried to pull out my sword, but it was harder than I thought it would be. It was stuck in there – stuck! – and then he started to fall onto me. But I managed to push him so that he rolled away from me, onto his back. Only then could I pull the sword out. And he was still alive. Still… gurgling away the last bit of his life.”
“And instead of fighting more of them, I just… held my sword and stared at it,” she said. “Stared at the blood. Watched it sliding down the blade. It was someone else’s blood, on my sword, for the first time. And… those were the last thoughts I can remember of that day. Somebody grabbed me and started shaking me. I thought it was one of them, but I didn’t even fight back. Then I finally looked up and saw that it was my father. He was… more enraged than I’d ever seen him, but for the first time, he wasn’t striking me. Shouting, yes, but I couldn’t tell you anything he was saying. I kept seeing that man instead, and his blood. And then I was falling backwards. I think my father pushed me away and I fell down the hill. At least, that’s where I was lying, the next thing I remember. My head was so heavy; my ears ringing. I must have hit something on the way down and been knocked out.”
“I don’t know if it was the same day, or another,” she said. “There was still smoke coming from the hill. It took me a while to get properly to my feet again. The slope of the hill didn’t help, but eventually I got to the hilltop, and… my village was gone. Burned to the ground. Burnt and bloodied bodies everywhere. Most of them too burnt for me to recognize, even my father. The small bodies told me that children weren’t spared, either. Livestock was slaughtered or missing. And… no father. Not that I could find. That’s why I don’t know if he’s dead, or just gone.”
She realized that she’d come to the end of that story, and was quiet. She gazed at the floor idly, spinning the sword, then looked up in curiosity when she heard someone sniffling. Kenneth?
“Are you crying?” she said.
“I… was,” he said, rubbing his nose. “A little, yes. Your story was so moving.”
“I wasn’t trying to make you cry,” she said. “I was just saying what happened.”
“And ‘what happened’ moved me to tears,” he said. “Did you listen to your own story? Anyone who could hear that and be dry-eyed is made of stone.”
She sighed. “Father beat the tears out of me long ago. He said that they’re weak. Like a woman. I can’t remember the last time I cried over anything.” She gasped. “Oh, no! I didn’t mean to say that you’re weak or like a woman. I just didn’t expect anyone to… uh…”
“I took no offense,” he said. “I wasn’t raised to believe that tears are a weakness. But… oh, Mara. I never would have imagined something like that happening to anyone, let alone you.”
“And yet such things happen,” she said, then forced a smile and a sad chuckle. “I have no idea why I told you all of that. I’ve never told anyone, any of it, before. But it was as if I couldn’t stop, once started.”
“Then I’m honored to be the one you shared it with. You lost an entire village. Everyone you ever knew or loved.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘loved’,” she scoffed. “People didn’t like me much.”
“Surely that can’t be true.”
She shrugged. “Taller than all the other children, the girl who was supposed to be a boy, a father who hated everyone,” she said. “People knew to just avoid me.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Back to pitying, I see,” she said.
“I’m not-! pitying you,” said Kenneth.”Yes, I’m greatly saddened by your story, but don’t pity you. You’re to be admired.”
“Now I know that I’ve kept us up too late,” she said. “And for that, I’m sorry. The last thing I intended tonight was to rob us of sleep.”
“Think nothing of it,” he said. “As I said, I’m honored that you trusted me enough to tell your story. But, um…” he said, pointing to her sword. “You still mean to sleep with that beside you?”
For the first time she seemed contrite. “It’s… not that I don’t trust you,” she said. “It just helps me feel safe.”
“But now I don’t feel safe.”
She shrugged. “I’ve had it at my side every night, and you didn’t know it,” she said. “This is no different.”
Kenneth frowned and folded his arms. “I still don’t like it. But if it helps you feel ‘safe,’ I’ll not push it. I won’t tell Erick, either.”
“Oh, he knows about this,” she said with a wave. “He won’t let me wear it out there, though. I don’t like that, but then, I can also imagine some idiot grabbing for it if I had my hands full with food or drink. So… I grit my teeth and bear his rules.”
“Hmph,” said Kenneth, then was quiet in thought. Finally he unfolded his arms and shrugged. “I suppose it’s to bed, then.”
Mara was relieved that Kenneth had not noticed the small dagger she always kept in her boot. Nor had Erick, for that matter.