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Escort Duty – Part 8

The next morning, Simon was enjoying a mug of wine and some bread when Erika and Soren came down the stairs from their room. Soren wore his normal drab tunic and breeches, but Erika had changed into a gown of blue satin with white fur collars and cuffs. A chain of pearls hung from her neck, and at her breast a brooch of silver and pearls glistened in the light.

Simon stood as she alighted from the stairs, bowing dramatically to her as she smiled at him.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said, “You are certainly the most beautiful woman in these parts.”

“Why thank you, good sir,” she replied, her voice light and sweet. A good meal and a night in a comfortable bed seemed to have done wonders for her mood. Soren looked at Simon suspiciously, but said nothing.

“Why, I’m sure your appearance today will be the talk of these folk for weeks to come,” Simon continued, leaning against the table, “and of everyone who passes through.”

Erika’s smile faded, her brow wrinkling to a scowl.

“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” she said, her tone changing from the tinkle of a silver bell to a low growl.

“Of course, not, my lady,” Simon replied, “I look forward to the excitement of trying to dodge patrols and pursuers who seek the beautiful lady dressed in rich raiment.”

Erika fumed at that, and opened her mouth to retort, but Soren cut in.

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” he demanded.

“Actually, I think I’m hilarious.”

“What makes you think you can poke fun at your betters?”

“Well, since my mother is a princess of the Chanani, and her line stretches back to before her people were driven into the Wispmark, and your grandmother was the daughter of a goat-herd, I think we really ought to evaluate the term ‘better,’ shouldn’t we?”

Soren tried to respond to that, but the words caught in his throat. Erika arched an eyebrow and suppressed a smile of her own.

“How did you know that?” he hissed after a few moments.

“Soren, do you really think I hired on with your master without learning everything I could about those he trusts?”

Soren said nothing, but stole a glance at the princess.

She arched an eyebrow and said “A goatherd?”

“She married well, my lady,” Soren explained, his pale face flushing in embarrassment under his beard.

“Scandalous,” Erika replied with a small smile.

“It was, my lady. The court never let her forget it, but my grandfather loved her.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t matter,” Erika said, “Any house that traces its lineage finds such things regularly.”

Soren nodded, then turned back to Simon.

“And what of the princess? Are you her better?”

“Oh, no, not at all. I am but her servant.”

“Then you should act like one,” Erika snapped, “Greta knows her place.” Greta looked up at the mention of her name, but seemed to be trying to shrink out of sight while the others argued.

“My place, lady, is to protect you. You are making that difficult by attempting this trip in such finery,” Simon replied.

“What would you have her do, travel in rags like a beggar?” Soren said, a touch of anger in his voice.

“No, that shouldn’t be necessary. But we must do something so that she does not shine like a diamond in the dust.”

Erika glowered at the half-elf. She again opened her mouth to retort, but stopped and turned when the door opened behind her. Branka came in, a basket of eggs hanging from the crook of her elbow. A younger woman, smaller than the innkeeper and carrying a basket of greens and vegetables from the garden, followed her.

Simon considered the younger woman for a moment. He smiled at Branka and said, “Is this little Annya? Say it isn’t so!”

The young woman blushed and looked at the floor as Branka replied, “Of course, who else would it be?”

“Why, it seems only yesterday she was tottering around and singing like a little angel!”

“Well, she’s all grown up now,” Branka said, setting her basket on the bar, “She’s to be married at the first full moon of summer.”

“Ah, a blushing bride,” Simon said, tipping his head down to level his eyes with Annya’s, “And which of the strapping young men hereabouts is the lucky groom?”

“He’s a groom at the palace in Pesht,” Branka said with a smile. She chuckled at the joke. “She’ll be leaving her dear mother here in the sticks and be a maid for the Count’s wife.”

Simon considered that for a moment, then tilted his head and smiled at the innkeeper’s daughter. She set her basket down on a table and joined her mother at holding the eggs up to the light from the window to find the ones which had been fertilized.

“We met when he came through here with his lord a few months ago,” she said in a soft, piping voice.

“A fine match, and I’m sure he’ll be as good a husband as you will be his wife,” Simon said thoughtfully, “Do you have a wedding gown yet?”

“I have a few things,” the young woman said, looking away from her work, “and Oleg says I can get something nice once I get to Pesht.”

Simon turned and winked to Soren and Erika. The Princess’ eyes bugged out as she understood where he was going.

“You’re in luck, little one,” he said after turning back to the two women candling their eggs, “My companions here deal in ladies finery, and I believe they’re of a mind to make a bargain today.

Both Branka and Annya turned to face their guests. Branka was the first to speak.

“Bargain? How so?”

“My lady Erika is in need of some traveling clothes. Hers seem to have been mislaid, and all she has are such as you see her wearing now.”

“And she’d be willing to part with it if we have something to offer?”

“Yes, she’d like to get something that doesn’t attract the eye so much, if you catch my meaning.”

Erika gave Simon a hard look, then smiled at Branka and her daughter.

“Yes, ladies,” she said sweetly, “This is a wonderful gown, but I’m afraid that it just won’t do for the road.”

Branka stood and walked over to Erika, wiping her hands on her apron. She reached out and pinched a bit of fabric between her calloused thumb and forefinger.

“Very nice,” she said, “but what do you want in trade?”

“Annya, how tall are you?” Erika said sweetly.

“I am seventeen hands at the top of my head, my lady,” Annya said, standing up.

“What a coincidence,” Erika said with a smile, “We’re almost the same height, and if I don’t miss my guess, we’re about the same at the shoulders and hips.”

Soren looked quizzically at the princess, but said nothing.

“Would you be willing to trade a dress or two for the ladies gown?” Simon said, looking more at Branka than at Annya.

The older woman considered it for a moment, then said, “She only got the one dress better than what she’s wearing now. You could have that.”

“What if you threw in a few odds and ends to seal the deal?” Simon replied.

“I can make sure you leave here with enough food to get you through Pesht, if that’s what you’re after.”

Annya blushed, saying, “It’s a beautiful dress, but I’m not sure I could wear it.”

Erika waved her hand at her dismissively. Smiling warmly, she said, “Pish, don’t worry about that. Come with me and we’ll see how it fits.”

The princess extended her hand to the innkeeper’s daughter and gently led her up the stairs to her room. Greta followed, her eyes shifting from her mistress to Simon and back.

“If she likes it, is it a deal?” Simon said.

Branka looked at him through slitted eyes, then spit on her hand and extended it to the half-elf. Simon returned the gesture, and they shook on it.

“Annya’s good dress and some provisions for one ladies gown,” the innkeeper said before picking up the eggs and walking into the kitchen.

“Call me when she’s done,” she called over her shoulder, “I want to see my baby girl in a fine dress.”

Soren waited until he heard her working in the kitchen before he turned to Simon and glared.

“Did you just trade away a fine gown for some bread and a set of plain clothes?” he demanded.

Simon sat back down to his breakfast and took up his cup. Gesturing to the stool across from him, he answered, “Here, have a seat and eat something.”

Soren’s lips tightened to a white line, but he took the offered seat. As he sat there, he crossed his arms and looked at Simon expectantly.

Simon took another bit of the bread, and after swallowing it, said, “Soren, this way we will be able to go through most villages or even a city or two without sticking out. If she’d gone about dressed like that, we’d have had to stick to the wild lands and this trip would take three times as long.”

Soren considered that, then nodded.

“All right,” he said, “But you’re just lucky she cooperated.”

“If I didn’t think she’d cooperate, I wouldn’t have tried to do it,” Simon replied, “She’s just like her father. Bit of a hothead, but practical when it’s needed.”

“I suppose you knew her father when he was that age?” Soren said, taking a piece of the bread.

Simon snorted. “What tales you all believe about the elves,” he said, “I’m younger than you are, and if I’m lucky to die in my sleep as an old man, I won’t be any older than you will be when you meet such an end.”

“But I thought you all lived forever.”

“Old wives tales. I’m as mortal as you are. I’m just better looking.”

Soren looked at him darkly, then saw the smile on Simon’s face. Shaking his head, he returned to chewing his bread.

“I spoke with someone last night,” Simon said after washing a mouthful down.

“About?”

“Pesht.  You heard what Branka said about a plague?”

“We heard that there’s some epidemic going through the capitol, but we’re not going that way, are we?”

“Not if we can help it,” Simon replied, “But my friend said it’s spreading along the main roads.”

“Should we go back?”

“Do you think we could convince her highness to go back to your master and admit defeat?”

Soren thought about that as he chewed a mouthful of bread, then shook his head.

“Not a chance,” he said, “Can we go around to the coast and get a ship?”

“That would double our journey, and I didn’t exactly bring along a treasury to hire a boat and crew.”

“What about the mountains in the north?”

“That’s twice as far as going straight through to Booda, and it would force us to go through their capitol.  All roads lead to Pesht in Pesht.”

“So what choice do we have?” Soren asked, putting his mug down.

“Hollo says that he knows ways through the hills which will keep us off the roads,” Simon replied, “That’ll only cost us a few days.  It’s either that or we turn back now and have Dveglammar hire a ship to take the princess home.”

Soren considered Simon’s words for a moment, then picked up his mug.  He drained the last of his wine before saying, “We’ll follow Hollo, but we won’t take any chances with the princess.  If we come upon a place the sickness has reached, we’ll turn back.”

Simon nodded and lifted his own drink in acknowledgement of the soldier’s decision.

Both men turned when they heard footsteps on the stairs behind them. Greta came down first, followed by Erika. The princess had changed into a simple long-sleeved shift of green wool, with a few embroidered accents at the throat and hems. The only hint of the finery she normally wore were the leather riding boots peeking out from under her skirt as she walked down the stairs.

But both men’s attention was drawn to Annya, who came last. Her tawny brown hair had been let down from the braid she normally kept it in, and now her tresses fell in curls down either side of her face. Her eyes sparkled as she carefully walked down the stairs in the blue satin and white fur gown. She had been pretty, if a little plain, before, but she seemed to almost glow in the sunshine from the windows now.

Simon and Soren gaped for a moment, then bowed to her as one when she alighted from the stairs. Behind them, Branka came out of the kitchen, stopping with one hand to her mouth.

“Oh, but that’s a beautiful lady there, that is!” was all she could squeak out before rushing forward to take her daughter’s hand and turning her around.

“Do you like it, mama?” Annya asked in a hushed tone, “Is it too much?”

“Darling, it’s wonderful,” Branka said with tears in her eyes.

“Your Oleg will be the envy of the court, Annya,” Simon said, “He’ll certainly be the luckiest man there.”

Branka turned and engulfed Erika in a tight hug. The princess gasped as she felt the older woman’s arms crushing in on her, but returned the embrace as best she could.

After setting Erika down again, Branka dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her apron, saying “I’ll make sure you eat well on your trip, my lady. Thank you for this.”

Erika smiled warmly at the woman’s happiness, saying “Think nothing of it. She looks better in it than I do.”

“Come,” Branka said, clearing the emotion from her throat, “Let me make you a proper breakfast.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

2 Comments

  1. And I love it. Reread it yesterday on the airplane coming home! 🙂

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