The Runaway Princess
MEG RAN ALONG A NARROW PATH TOWARD THE pond that lay hidden in the tall meadow grass northeast of the castle like a duckweed-colored button. Cam, the gardener's boy, came after her, having finished his weeding. Meg could hear frogs hitting the water and ducks scolding away into the rushes as they approached. When they reached the pond, they slowed and moved more quietly, crouching beside the water on opposite sides to catch tadpoles.
Cam scooped swiftly, then lifted his hands. "Got one!" he crowed, showing Meg the prisoner cupped in his palms.
Meg went him one better. She hitched up her skirts and started after the frogs themselves, like a pink satin heron. Her dress was a great hindrance.
Cam glanced over at her. "Don't you have anything less frilly?" he asked.
"I've told you before, it's all they give me." Meg lunged after another frog and missed.
"Maybe if you asked ..." Cam suggested.
"And if I asked for armor and a sword?"
Cam slid his tadpole wriggling back into the pond. "I just wondered."
"They won't even let me go into Crown without a herd of soldiers and ladies. Anyway, there's something wrong with my parents."
"No, not that," Meg told him, knee-deep in water. "But my father spoke to me the other day."
"What did he say?"
"He inquired if I was well," Meg said portentously. Cam waited. "He said he wanted to talk to me sometime soon," she added.
Cam was still waiting. A dragonfly careened over the pond.
"That's all," Meg said with a shrug.
"Seems ordinary enough."
"No. It isn't. He hasn't noticed me in years." Which was why she never talked about him, not even with Cam. She had nothing to say.
Cam sat down in the grass and mud on the banks of the pond. "I'm sorry."
"I shouldn't complain. At least they're ..." Meg pretended to see an intriguing new frog just to her right.
"Alive?" Cam said.
Meg blushed. Cam's parents were dead. His sisterhad a small farm on the other side of the Witch's Wood. Did it matter terribly that Meg's father was busy being king of Greeve?
There really was a frog. Meg reached for it, but it sprang away and disappeared with an irate splash.
"I wish my mother wouldn't notice me," the princess said.
Cam waggled his brown feet in the water. "Why not? Sometimes you make no sense at all."
"Because," Meg snapped, "she's been making me embroider for days."
"Embroider?" Cam asked. "What for?"
Meg pretended to sew the air. "You know, stitchery? She calls it a 'wifely art.'" Meg imitated her mother's voice.
Dilly bustled along the hall, her arms full of towels. When she wasn't assisting Sterga, the fourth-floor housekeeper, with the linens, Dilly was Meg's maid. She was usually level-headed and cheerful, but she went all pink and worried as soon as Nort approached her.
"The princess is wanted in the throne room immediately, and I'm to help you find her!" Nort announced. It would be Nort, Dilly thought irritably. The younger housemaids called him Nort the Creep because he acted as though he was better than anyone, and eavesdropped and told tales to boot.
"Thank you, but I don't need any help." Dilly tried to leave him behind, but Nort followed.
"Guard Captain Hanak's orders," said Nort. Not that he was helping. He just trailed around after Dilly, poking his narrow nose into her business.
Dilly made a show of opening the door to one of the fourth-floor drawing rooms and closing it again.
"She's not there?" Nort asked in his oily, sarcastic voice.
Dilly spun around. "Go away!"
"They sent me to help," the apprentice guardsman repeated, leaning his scrawny frame against the nearest wall and folding his arms.
"You can help somewhere else!" Dilly hissed, folding her own arms.
Nort shrugged. "I would think the princess's personal maid would know where she is," he said. "I'll just go tell the king you can't find her."
"You can tell Hanak I'm still looking," Dilly answered. She didn't need to remind Nort that the guard captain was her uncle.
"When I'm a knight, you won't be allowed to talk to me like that," Nort told her.
"Knight? You'll be lucky to make senior guardsman," Dilly spat, but Nort was already slithering around the corner with a final pointy grin.
Dilly waited a moment or two before she hurried away in the opposite direction. She knew exactly where to find Meg. She just didn't want Nort knowingor telling. On a day like this, when the sky was as blue asMeg's best gown, the princess wouldn't be inside the castle. She would be out in the meadow with the gardener's boy, ruining yet another dress.
Nort waited till he was out of sight of Meg's maid before he ran all through the twisting corridors and slid to a stop, breathless, beside the throne room doors.
"No sign of her?" Guard Captain Hanak asked coldly.
Hanak was a compact, muscular man with a terrifying blue stare. He'd made it clear he thought Nort got his apprenticeship only because he was the prime minister's third cousin once removed, a relationship the prime minister himself seemed to have since forgotten. "No, sirCaptain Hanak, sir," Nort said.
"Go back and look again," Hanak told him. Nort scuttled away.
Hanak stuck his head into the throne room, where a hundred colorfully dressed courtiers, merchants, and hangers-on buzzed like a garden full of bees. The room made a good garden, as it was hung from floor to ceiling with flower-filled tapestries. A closer look showed knights dying tragically among the roses, but that was proper chivalry for you.
At the end of the room, the king and his lady sat on their great, uncomfortable thrones with as much grace as possibleshe looking like a hothouse plant in need of water and he like a bad-tempered Percheron. The primeminister caught sight of Hanak and pushed past a gaggle of ladies to reach him. Prime Minister Garald resembled an anemic accountant.
"Well?" Garald asked.
"Not yet," Hanak said quietly.
The prime minister bit his lip. "Where is she?"
"No one seems to know."
Garald made his way to the king's side.
"Have you found my daughter?" King Stromgard asked.
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty" the prime minister began, but the king was turning to his wife.
"Istilda, you were supposed to get her dressed and curled for the occasion."
The queen grimaced. "You didn't say anything of the sort."
"It was implied."
"After twenty years, I still can't read your mind. Furthermore, as I told you this morning, I have a headache. I asked you to wait."
The king managed to look woeful and hopeful at the same time.
His wife relented. "Tell them to check the meadow," she said. "And you should play some music. Or feed these people."
"Just what would a royal princess be doing in a meadow?" King Stromgard asked.
"Embroidering a likeness of the flowers?" the prime minister put in.
"Enjoying the fresh spring air?" the queen suggested.
The king stood, and the room quieted. "The princess will join us shortly," he announced. "We will proceed to the dining hall to await her."
Meg dove after a frog and missed, falling flat on her face in the water. Cam laughed and laughed.
"It's not that funny," Meg told him, wringing out her heavy skirts.
"Yes it is." Then Cam's face changed, looking past her. "Uh-oh," he said.
"Uh-oh what?" Meg turned around. Dilly was halfway across the meadow, and even from here Meg could tell her maid was frantic. "Oh. Uh-oh," Meg agreed.
Ten minutes later, Cam was back in his garden, and Dilly was hurrying a soggy Meg up the steps to the castle. They came around a turn and stopped short at the sight of Nort rushing down.
"Ah. The missing princess," Nort said slyly.
"Nort?" Dilly asked.
"Yes, Dilly?" he said, smirking.
"Be very careful how you report the fact that the princess is dressing and will be along shortly." Her expression resembled Hanak's at that moment. As for Meg, even though she was still two steps below Nort, she looked down her nose at the apprentice guardsman.
Nort's smirk faded. "Yes, Dilly," he said, and made his escape.
"That Nort reminds me of a lizard," Meg remarked after he was gone. She ran into the castle and went dripping through half a dozen passageways, with Dilly trying not to slip on the damp floor behind her.
When they reached the princess's chambers, Dilly stifled a shriek. Dresses were strewn every which way, on and under the bed, across chairs, and in friendly heaps and sad little solo piles of skirt and sleeves like headless dolls. "What have you done now?"
"I was looking for something less lacy," Meg confessed.
"But I just tidied up this morning!" Dilly wailed, her black hair falling from its usual neat bun, her cheerful smile erased.
"I'm sorry, Dilly," Meg said sincerely.
Dilly took a deep breath and mustered a weak smile. "Well, we'd best find a dry dress, the least wrinkled one. Or rather, I'll find a dress while you wash the bog water out of your hair."
And so it was that a scant half hour later, Princess Margaret of Greeve walked into the dining hall dressed in a green satin gown that only Cam would have thought was frog-colored. With her hair combed up and her face washed, she looked nearly ladylike. A fresh murmur spread through the gathering as the princess made her way across the room. Faces turned toward her from each of the tables. Meg could feel herself flushing as she sank into an empty seat beside her mother.
King Stromgard leaned across the queen. "What have you been doing, Margaret?" he rumbled.
On the other side of the king, the prime minister whispered, "You did tell her, didn't you?"
The king sat back before Meg could answer, but the queen gave her daughter a quelling sideways look. "We were waiting for you, all of us, in the throne room."
"I'm sorry, Mother," she said, reaching for her soup spoon. Everyone else was finishing their roast peacock. Far too many curious eyes were upon Meg. Why hadn't anyone told her they were having a state dinner?
Meg's soup was cold. Behind her, a minstrel sang in a reedy voice about a prince who sailed across three seas to fetch his ladylove, only to find that she had turned into a pigeon and flown across the same seas the other way to find him.
Up the table, Garald peered at the king. "Did you, Your Majesty?"
The king lifted his bread with a mutter.
"You didn't," Garald breathed. "Not even a little warning?"
In spite of all the talk along the table, the queen heard. "Didn't what?" she asked her husband.
Beleaguered, the king tugged nervously at his beard. "More of a woman's role, eh, Istilda?"
"What is it this time?" she asked him. Her eyes widened. "No! You promised!"
"Not the properlater, my dear," he replied.
"I'll admit I was surprised to see her so calm," the queen told the king.
"What's the matter?" Meg asked on the other side of her mother, but Istilda shook her head grimly. Uneasy, Meg returned to the task of catching up to the rest of the company without devouring her food like a wild boar.
She glanced down the table. An elderly knight was flirting quaintly with one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, who pretended to be pleased. An earl's son was watching Meg. He smiled when he saw her looking. Meg concentrated on taking another bite of scallop salad.
Soon enough Meg finished her dinner, just in time for her father to make one of his long speeches. Meg wondered if Cam would be able to escape from Chief Gardener Tob in the morning. Then again, her mother seemed to be feeling better, so tomorrow would probably be full of uneven stitches and snagged threads. Meg sighed.
"I remind you that your interests are my interests," the king proclaimed, sounding like the prime minister. "As a kingdom, we must unite our efforts to accomplish the greatest growth and progress in our illustrious history."
Garald probably wrote the speech, Meg decided. He looked very proud. Was he mouthing the words under his breath?
"We can put an end to this slight yet worrisome economic slowdown even as we rid ourselves of the balefulscourges upon our fair land," the king continued, "freeing up valuable real estate with a great deal of potential."
What scourges? Meg wondered. Some of the courtiers whispered to one another, probably asking the same thing.
"In addition, the events embodying the solution to these blights will generate much-needed income as an influx of spectators with their pockets full of gold flock eagerly to spend their money in the noble city of Crown."
Spectators? "What is Father talking about?" Meg asked.
"Shh," said Queen Istilda.
Garald was definitely mouthing the words.
The king raised his hands dramatically. "A dragon darkens our dells. A witch haunts our woods. Bandits roam our moors.
"It's not that bad," Meg whispered.
"Shh," Queen Istilda said with a severe expression that seemed out of place on her porcelain face.
Meg slumped in her chair.
"But with the help of our fair daughter"Meg straightened"we can transform our beleaguered kingdom into a new and shining realm."
Meg looked at her mother, utterly baffled. The queen avoided her eyes.
King Stromgard swept on. "In the great tradition of so many monarchs, I offer my daughter's hand in marriageand half my kingdom to the prince who can rid us of these evils, restoring peace and prosperity to our realm."
The crowd burst into applause, covering Meg's horrified response. "I won't!" She jumped to her feet. Everyone smiled up at her, still clapping. The king stood, too, and put his arm around her. The entire court cheered, calling Meg's name, as the king led his bristling daughter out of the room.
Copyright © 2006 by Kathryn Coombs All rights reserved