(Continued from Part III)

“Of all the world’s inventions,” Brita said from among the bubbles, “hot water is definitely the finest.”

“I agree,” Elda answered. “Now would you please get out of that tub and help me dress? You will not be taking my place today: not for the world!”

Elda’s Day of Engagement was here, and she drummed her fingers and fidgeted as she peered out the castle window. The royal procession had begun to arrive and a crowd lined the courtyard, cheering as each of the prince’s knights, then the prince himself, passed beneath the raised portcullis.

“Oh, he’s everything I ever dreamed of.” Elda’s shoulders quivered as Brita fastened the back of her heavy dress. Her pale skin was cold, though droplets of sweat covered it.

The prince rode atop a white horse, his purple cape flowing from his neck to his black riding boots.  His face was one of singular grace. Brown locks tumbled from beneath his cap and rolled over his shoulders.  Brita said nothing in reply.  She could only think of the other time she had seen him, barely six months prior…

Brita had drawn her arrow slowly as the stag grazed. It was upwind of her. She reminded herself to breathe as she waited patiently for it to move out from behind a tree. There was no way she could miss from this distance, but she patiently waited for a perfect shot. She didn’t like to wound animals; far better for all involved when the kill was clean.

Her red hair lay hidden under a hooded cloak and leather gloves covered her fingers, blending her perfectly into the heavy growth. This was the best season for hunting, she thought, as even her green eyes matched the dense summer foliage. The wet forest floor smothered any noises she might have made, but she hadn’t made any. She felt as much a part of these woods as the stag, except that she was armed.

In front of her, the stag snorted and lifted its head. With a sudden leap it bounded away, crashing through the thick underbrush with its tail-flag waving. She lowered her bow, the arrow still nocked loosely on the string, and listened for whatever had spooked the buck. A twig snapped in front of her; a muffled curse followed. Brita lowered herself into the brush as the sounds grew louder. Two armed men entered the clearing before her. Brita hoped they hadn’t seen her and she held her knees tightly in her arms as she watched them through the leaves.

Both men were dressed for hunting. Brita noted from the cut of their tunics that they were noblemen seeking sport rather than farmers chasing dinner. The younger one squinted in the direction of the buck’s flight, his crossbow loaded but held loosely at his side. The older man lingered behind him, scanning the area as if he were being hunted himself. Then in one smooth motion he raised his crossbow and fired it, driving a bolt deep into his companion’s back. The surprised victim collapsed to the ground, landing heavily and looking up at his partner. His mouth was open as if to scream, but no words escaped.

“An unfortunate hunting accident, Your Majesty.” The man smiled, casually loading another bolt into his crossbow. “I’m sure your royal father will be saddened to hear of your passing. It’s such a tragedy, especially with your engagement so near.”

The young man struggled for his own weapon, but the bolt protruding from his chest had caught in the soft forest floor, pinning him in place. The older man admired his prey briefly, as if he were the prized beetle that completed a collection. Then he raised his crossbow a second time. A feathered arrow sprang from his eye.

Brita stepped from the underbrush, drawing another arrow and scanning the forest carefully to ensure that she and the prince were alone. Don’t panic, she remembered her mother warning. She tried to control her breathing. Never panic.

The young man lay on his side now, his fingers still trying to reach the fallen crossbow. Brita kicked it into the brush, approaching him warily. The large head of the bolt stood out from his chest, covered with a mixture of blood, leaves, and mud. His every movement made the crimson circle on his back grow.

He finally lay motionless, despairing eyes resigned to whatever fate she had in store for him. Brita set her bow on the ground and placed the arrow between his straight teeth. There was blood in his mouth and gurgles increased with each breath he expelled.

“Bite on this,” she said. He clenched down on the arrow and his jaw jutted out. A little blood dripped from his nose onto the leaves. Brita drew a large knife from her belt and began to saw the bolt’s enormous head off, bringing a stifled scream from the prince. Finally, the bloody steel fell among the leaves. She worked the bolt back through the wound, drawing both the weapon and a second scream from the prince. She sliced his tunic into bandages, stuffing them into the holes, front and back, to slow the bleeding. The prince groaned again and passed out.

Brita studied him as he lay, listening in hope that he might have rescuers nearby. Apparently the would-be assassin had picked this spot with care: there was no one in sight and no sounds of movement reached her ears. Even the birds and squirrels were silent. The sky was darkening and Brita knew there was no way he would survive until morning. Not with a lung wound.

Was this the time to use her gift? Brita shivered. Mother said “Never.” But mother had used it. Jenna said she used herself up, that she was foolish. But mother did the right thing, always the right thing. Even when it hurt. And it still hurt, even ten years later.

Rolling him on his side again, she pulled the makeshift bandages from the holes. Blood resumed its flow, though more slowly than before. She removed her gloves. Taking a deep breath, she pressed a bare hand atop each wound. His body jolted. His breath slowed and deepened. The color returned to his pallid face.

Brita could feel the heat in her hands, but the rest of her body grew cold, starting at her ears and toes. The ice rose to her knees and spread across her back. Brita’s breath came now in ragged gasps. Finally she removed her hands from his chest and back, leaving only matching white scars behind. Picking up her bow, she relieved both the prince and the dead noble of their purses and staggered into the woods on clumsy, frozen feet. So cold.

Brita shivered again as she fumbled with the buttons of Elda’s dress, remembering only parts of the long walk back to the camp. She had nearly died from using her gift. And the only man who had ever received it had just ridden through the gates beneath her.

“What’s the matter with you?” Elda asked. “I’m supposed to be the one who’s nervous today, not you.”

Brita forced herself to laugh aloud. “There, all done.”

“How do I look?” She turned away from the empty courtyard to face Brita.

“You look absolutely beautiful.”

“Oh, Brita, I’m so scared.” It showed on her face.

“Nonsense. You’ll be great. He’s all yours. You just need to go get him.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” the princess said.

***

Brita peeked from an empty gallery above the banquet hall as Elda entered. She did look beautiful. The families were gathered, the speeches were finished. Two kings had made clear the importance of a royal alliance cemented by marriage. The engagement would begin immediately, subject to Elda’s acceptance, and end with a marriage that would unite two kingdoms against the marauding bands that prowled the forests and the dreams of conquest being played out along bloody borders. It would mean peace for so many.

The prince waited patiently upon the raised dais. He held his chin high, and the sword that represented his kingdom hung gracefully at his hip. His hair was inclosed by a golden circlet, and his eyes shone with the pride of young manhood. But his face bubbled in confusion when Elda climbed the steps before him, and his eyes bounced down to his glowing father’s, then to hers.

He whispered something in her ear, and her face took on the same confused expression. She cupped her hand over his ear, whispering back. Murmurs arose from the assembled families.

“It must have been a dream,” he said aloud, stepping back from her. “I have dreamed of you and of this day all my life. May our marriage always be blessed.”

The crowd cheered and the court musicians played. A smile spread across Elda’s face and her eyes twinkled. She took his hand as they turned together toward the assembly.

“I accept,” she said to the assembled families and a second chorus of cheers erupted. The prince’s smile stood frozen as he studied her face, her hair, and her bare hands. His expression warmed and he waved toward the crowd. Two sets of parents looked on approvingly.

Brita, hidden by a pillar, was shocked by the cold jealousy she felt in the pit of her stomach.

(Continued in Part V)