In the Land of Ever After

Table of Contents

Chapter 12 - The Servant Girl

Adam runs across a limping servant girl who needs a ride home.


Adam ended up staying at the Castle of Asher quite a bit later than he’d intended, and then he’d taken a wrong turn on the road and had rather a time of it figuring out which direction he should actually be going in. He’d finally managed to make sense out of his location and was riding back to the inn when he spotted her – although he actually heard her first, because she was crying. He reined in his horse with a frown. It was what looked like a little servant girl, possibly a scullery maid, and she seemed terrified as she scurried limpingly along in the shadows beside the road. “Little girl, what’s happened? Why are you out here in the middle of the night like this?”

She flinched when he spoke to her, and tried to draw further back into the shadows. “I…I…the ball…”

Oh. “Snuck out to see it and got caught out away from home, did you? Afraid you’ll get caught if they get back first?” She nodded vigorously. “Well, if it’s not very far, I can take you. Dard could do with a run.”

“Dard?”

He made a face. “A lady of my acquaintance named him that – she’s from the North. She’d be hurt if I didn’t call him by the name she gave him, so he’ll just have to suffer.”

That made her laugh. “It’s not so very bad a name.” She stepped out onto the road, cautiously, and he saw that she was not so little and definitely more than a girl – she’d been hunching over, trying to make herself look smaller. She dropped him a curtsey. “If you would be so kind, my lord – my stepmother will kill me if she finds I went to the ball.”

Oh dear, it sounded like this one wasn’t a servant, either, in spite of the plain, worn clothes she was wearing. Adam dismounted and offered her his hand. “In that case, up you get and we’ll be off.” He helped her to mount, then swung up in front of her. “Tell me which way and hang on!”

Dard had indeed been wanting to run, so they made it back to the lady’s house in record time. Adam pulled up short before they reached the yard, not wanting any servants to see them, and she slid off before he could dismount to help her. “Thank you, thank you so much! Would that I had something to offer you…”

“No need,” he admonished gently. “Just be more careful next time.”

He’d already lost sight of her in the darkness, but he heard the sniff. “There…won’t be a next time.”

 

Adam took the ride back more slowly until he got back to the main road, not wanting to get lost again, and to his surprise he met Prince Charming going in the opposite direction, looking nearly frantic. “What in the world…!”

Charming almost unseated himself coming to a stop. “Have you seen her? A beautiful princess with one shoe? She lost the other on the steps as she was running away, and the guard said her carriage vanished…she can’t have gone far!”

Adam shook his head. “No, I…wait, one shoe?” He turned and looked back into the darkness in the direction of the manor house he’d dropped the limping woman off at. “Oh bother, so that was it. My friend, if that’s the lady you were telling me about over supper, you’ve got bigger problems than you know – and you don’t dare go after her, not right now. Something very strange is going on.”

“So you did see her!”

“Not exactly.” Adam frowned, then shook his head again. “Turn around, come with me – we must find a safe place to discuss this, to be overheard could be her life.”

“No!”

“Stop that!” Adam ordered, sparing a moment to reflect that he was starting to sound like Cogsworth – which probably wasn’t a bad thing, as Charming responded to the order immediately. “Turn your horse and come with me, and if we meet anyone tell the truth – you went riding out after her and didn’t find her, but you ran into me on the road and we’re returning to the palace. I’ll tell you what I know, we’ll come up with a plan.”

Charming turned his horse, which touched noses with Dard and fell into step almost immediately, seeming glad of the reprieve, and the two princes rode back to the palace. The party was reluctantly breaking up, and Charming essayed a brief apology for the disruption, citing too much wine and dancing and promising to make it up to them all in the near future. Then he whisked Adam up to an inner room with thick stone walls, summoning his father as they went. Once the door was closed, he dropped into one of the room’s worn velvet-covered chairs like all the life had gone out of him. “Something’s gone very wrong, Father.”

“So I gathered, when the pretty lady I was hoping was the answer to my prayers for grandchildren suddenly ran out of the palace like she was on fire.”

“I suspect she was running for her life, Your Majesty,” Adam told him. “Not from you or Charming,” he added quickly when the older man went red in the face. “From her stepmother, who she said would ‘kill her’ if she found out she’d gone to the ball.”

The king calmed back down and took a chair of his own. “Tell me all of it,” he ordered. “If that’s who I think it is you’re talking about…well, the girl was probably right to fear that woman and we’ll have to find her quickly.”

Adam smiled. “I know where she is, Your Majesty, and for the time being at least she is safe from discovery. You see, after I left you I finding my way back to the inn and I heard someone crying in the shadows beside the road…”

 

Trying to understand what was going on – and what to do about it – proved rather more complicated than either the king or his son would have liked. The little glass shoe the mysterious princess had lost on the castle’s wide marble steps, they determined, had a very powerful enchantment on it – and a fairly vicious one at that, as it would bloody the foot of any woman who tried to put it on, presumably unless they were the rightful owner. The obvious solution – make every woman in the kingdom try the shoe until they found the rightful owner – was rejected by both Adam and Charming as being overly cruel. “As my Royal Bookkeeper says, people tend to lose their heads and do stupid things when money and power are dangled in front of them,” Adam told the stubborn king. “Your Majesty, you’ve probably no end of subjects who would risk the lie and willingly endanger their daughters if they thought it would net them a royal marriage. Can’t you just imagine how many would order a reluctant girl to go through with such a thing on the grounds that once she’s royalty she won’t need to walk that much anyway?”

“Fully half of what comes to the balls, I’m sure,” King Rupert agreed grumpily. “But if we don’t do that I don’t know how we’ll make this ‘search’ look good for the populace.”

Adam smiled. “Well, for starters, the prince knows who he saw and who he didn’t see at the ball – any woman he saw while he was dancing with the girl of his dreams obviously can’t be her. Send out a proclamation first thing in the morning stating that Prince Charming is going to be riding out in search of his one true love – the woman who can wear the enchanted shoe his love left behind on the steps last night – and that anyone he saw while he was with her last night is disqualified. His equerry can warn them at the door that the shoe is…unforgiving of liars, and that withdrawing a bloody foot will put the entire family out of favor. That should stop all but the worst of them, I’d think.”

“And those worst?” Charming wanted to know. “You said it yourself, some would not think the risk was too great.”

“Or they might try to destroy the shoe,” the king added. “Which would put us back to the beginning. I’m not getting any younger!”

“Oh, I’ve an idea about the shoe,” Adam told him. “Don’t you worry about that, Your Majesty. I’ll be back in the morning and then we’ll set out to ‘find’ Charming’s bride and get her back here safe and sound.”

itlandofea_story-footer

Table of Contents