In the King's Wood
The creaking door of the chapel came at the end of his prayer. Lucien finished by making a spiral over his heart before he stood and turned away, preparing to leave. He froze upon seeing Esmeralda entering the chapel.
At the sight of him, the princess broke into a radiant grin. “Lucien! What a pleasant surprise. I hope I didn’t interrupt your prayers.”
“Not at all,” the young lord replied. “Though I don’t want to stop yours, either.”
“Prayers can wait,” the princess replied. “Now that I see you’re here, I have a much better idea. Would you like to join me on a ride to the king’s woods?”
He smiled at the idea. “A very tempting offer. Darkfire wouldn’t mind a chance at extra exercise. Is it a far ride?”
Esmeralda shook her head. Her blonde curls had been drawn back into a long, thick braid, which swung across her back. “Not at all. They’re just north of town. My father hosts hunts in them, deer and boar and such.”
Lucien gave the princess a cursory glance. She wore a plain dress of soft, faded blue, practical and simple. Over it was a plain, brown cloak to ward off the lingering evening chill. Had she been dressed to prepare for a hunt, she surely would have worn something different; trousers, perhaps, or a nicer dress to proclaim her status, and doubtless her tiara would be in her hair. She wore no jewels, only a simple silver chain, from which hung a dark, smoke-colored quartz. Only her bearing gave away the fact that she was not a common girl; she stood tall, head high and posture perfect.
“What are you going to do in the woods?” he asked.
“I like to harvest herbs and other plants from the woods, to have ready for spell work. My lady in waiting and guards accompany me, but it would be nice to have some extra company. We won’t be racing any wolves, but I thought you might enjoy an excuse to have a ride.”
Lucien glanced down at his own plain clothes. They were already scuffed and dirtied from a quick training session with Kadir to start the day. What harm would a trip to the woods do? When he met her eyes again, he smiled. “Let me get Bryce to saddle Darkfire.”
Esmeralda beamed. “Perfect. I’ll meet you at the stables in a moment, then.”
Darkfire’s ears pricked as soon as Lucien swung into the saddle. The stallion did not react to the swirl of his cape behind him; the fearless horse never did. Bryce, holding the horse by the reins, watched with awe-struck eyes as Esmeralda mounted her own mare just steps away. Lucien leaned down to ruffle his squire’s fiery hair with a fond hand. “I’ll take care of Darkfire when I come back,” he told the boy. “Have fun while I’m out, why don’t you? Maybe Kadir or Delu will give you some sword tips.”
The boy’s bright, eager eyes came back to him. “You think so?”
“I do. Kadir is probably still at the barrack grounds if you hurry.” Lucien laughed as Bryce scurried off with a quick farewell. Esmeralda’s soft laughter mingled with his. He glanced over to the princess.
Esmeralda returned his smile with one of her own. With her were two guards, as promised. The princess herself had a series of pouches fastened to her saddle. “Ride with me?” she invited as she urged her mare forward.
It was an honor he didn’t hesitate to accept. He urged his horse up beside the princess’s as they made their way through the long, tall stable. Darkfire stood taller than the mare, putting Lucien still above the princess. “She’s a lovely one,” he said, nodding towards the silver-dappled mare. “Does she have a name?”
“Of course. I call her Moon Kissed, for her dappled coat. She was darker as a filly, and apparently will continue to lighten as she ages, but she’s always been a beauty. Not as brave as yours, but she takes me where I need to go without fail.” Esmeralda twisted her fingers in the mare’s mane as she spoke, and the horse’s ears twitched back to listen to her. “We are true companions.”
Lucien nodded in understanding. There was a deep and wonderful bond between a horse and their rider, a soul-deep connection. They moved as one, needed no words and only the smallest gestures. Every action was effortless together. He and Darkfire had always been so, and he saw clearly that Esmeralda and her mare were the same.
Esmeralda led the way through the stable and out the far end. On the opposite end was a large, grassy courtyard. Much of it was fenced off into pastures where the palace horses grazed. Some trotted up to the pasture fences to nicker at the passing horses. They rode down the middle space between the fences and towards a closed gate.
“The kings wood is separate from the forest,” Esmeralda explained as the gates began to swing open. “It’s walled off from the rest of the woods and guarded and magically warded. I doubt anyone could get past it, but my guards are here to protect me in case anyone does.” She cast Lucien a smile. “And you as well, of course. But I doubt you’ll need your sword.”
Esmeralda coaxed her horse to a trot, and Lucien followed suit, collecting his horse so its longer strides would not carry him past his companion. “I bring it everywhere, just in case,” Lucien replied, smiling as well. “You never know when you may need a blade.”
“Very true. I certainly always carry a dagger with me. Did someone give you that advice?”
“Yes, though I imagine I would have come to it on my own in time. But my sword master told it to me when I was old enough to be trusted with a weapon. I’ve had some sort of weapon on my person, or near at hand, ever since.” Lucien chuckled to himself. “I even have a dagger under my pillow back at Darkelm, just in case.”
“There is no shame in being prepared for the worst. We often are here.” Esmeralda’s pretty smile faded to something cool and dim. “We have to be. I wish more than anything that it weren’t so, but peace is not easily won when your neighbors disagree with your beliefs.”
Lucien did not know how to respond. What words could offer her any comfort? A pledge of assurance that his kingdom would be loyal to hers always? Would that truly be any form of comfort?
Esmeralda nodded towards the trees around them, swiftly changing the subject. “What do you think of my father’s forest?”
He looked around, studying the wood. He was used to thickets of evergreen trees, riding over the quiet carpet of shed needles, breathing in the pine scent of them; elm trees interspersed with the evergreens, granting the name to his ancestral hall. The woods of Grismere were deciduous instead, and in the height of spring they were rich and green and bursting with fresh life after the cold grip of winter. But that was not the only difference. The woods surrounding Darkelm Hall stood thick and wild, untouched by man except to harvest wood for building or fires.
The king’s wood of Bornesher Castle clearly had been cultivated by human hands. The trees did not crowd together, leaving only narrow trails tracked by elk or deer. Ample space stood between the trunks, making navigation easy and much safer than in a wild wood where the horses could stagger and trip over twisted roots. The undergrowth of the forest, from ferns and shrubs to even simple grass, seemed almost manicured, planned.
“A manmade forest,” Lucien stated. “But just as alive as a natural one.” He could hear birds singing around them, and see the trails carved by whatever animals lived among these trees. “It’s lovely still. And much safer, I’m sure.”
“Certainly,” Esmeralda agreed. “It was built in the time of my great grandfather, King Gadriel. His uncle died in a hunting accident in the true woods beyond the wall. They encountered a bear, and though the party slayed the animal and took it back as their hunted beast, it had clawed the uncle. The wound became infected and he could not be saved. So King Gadriel ordered the king’s wood be made, where the king could control the beasts he encountered in a hunt, in hopes to avoid those accidents.” She shrugged a bit. “It’s mostly successful. The wild boars can be a trouble still.”
“Certainly,” Lucien agreed. “One of my father’s cousins died from one of them. He was too proud to admit he needed help in taking it down. Pride is the downfall of many men, unfortunately.”
Esmeralda breathed out a faint laugh. “If I didn’t know better, I’d guess you sometimes to be an old, withered philosopher.”
Lucien grinned at her. “Who knows? Maybe I am. Maybe my necklace is a wizard’s charm to make me look young so I can woo a beautiful princess.”
Her laugh deepened and brightened. “You are a delight, my dear northern lord. Come, halt,” she urged, drawing Moon Kissed to a stop. “We’ve found what I want.”
Lucien halted beside her and swung down. Before Esmeralda could move to dismount, he had come to her side and raised his hands. He hesitated when their eyes met. “I – forgive me, if I’m overstepping. I imagine this is more a job of your guards.”
Esmeralda giggled; if Lucien were not mistaken, her cheeks flushed the slightest shade of pink. “I usually beat them to it. But I won’t turn down the offer from you, Lucien.”
He smiled up at her. Esmeralda’s hands braced on his shoulders as she kicked her feet from the stirrups of her side saddle. Lucien grasped her waist with great care. The princess slid forward in the saddle, but before reaching the edge of the seat, Lucien lifted her upward and brought her to the ground.
Her feet touched, lighting soft and gentle. Yet they did not immediately part. Lucien stood caught in her gaze. Her dark brown eyes gleamed in the firelight, burning with the glow of embers. They gazed up at him, wide and bright, fixed on his own. Her hands lingered on his shoulders while his remained on her waist.
Silence hung between them in that moment, interrupted only by the birds singing in the trees. Lucien couldn’t help but think how simply right it felt to hold her like so, to be with her, to share this moment with her.
Esmeralda’s eyes finally blinked, breaking the spell that had interwoven them. “Thank you,” she said, drawing her hands back to herself.
“Of course,” Lucien replied, the response automatic as his hands left her. “What are we gathering?”
“Sage and mugwort,” she replied. Esmeralda turned back to her horse and pulled a couple pouches and a delicate pair of cutters from her saddlebag. “The first I can use for protection spells, always a good thing to have at the ready. The mugwort is for my father.”
She led Lucien over to the first plant. Lucien recognized the sage plant with its grayish leaves. Esmeralda harvested some of the plant, being sure to leave more than enough for it to continue growing, then wandered over to a second plant that Lucien did not recognize. Obviously, it was mugwort. He knelt beside her as she harvested it. The pointed leaves made it stand out among the other plants in the forest.
“What is mugwort used for?” he asked as she worked.
The princess did not instantly reply. Lucien felt her judging how much she should divulge. He reached over, lightly touching her wrist. “I won’t judge you, Esmeralda. I may not be able to perform your craft, but I respect that you can, the power you wield through it. I am genuinely curious about it.”
“It’s used for divination,” she finally replied. “Every witch is gifted in certain ways. I haven’t found my own gift yet, but my father is blessed with the third eye – another term for divination. He can see things that have happened, things that will happen. It is no fun experience for him, but it can be useful.”
Lucien could hardly imagine. To be able to see the past and the future would certainly be a gift, but how could one live with that knowledge? How could one live knowing if something bad was going to happen? “Can these visions be changed?”
“I believe so, but I can’t speak from experience.” Esmeralda finished her harvesting and cinched her pouches shut. Lucien stood first, offering his hands to help her to her feet. When her bare hands touched his, he felt a little shock spark up each arm.
Esmeralda smiled as she stood up again. She did not look a princess in that moment, her hair worn plain and no makeup on her face, her simple wool dress grass-stained at the knees. Yet she looked equally as beautiful as she did in her fine gowns at dinner every night. Lucien knew if he were not careful, his heart would fall in this moment alone.
“You’re quite the chivalrous one,” she said, still smiling. “Do you plan to help me up on my horse as well?”
“If you’d like the assistance, I’d be happy to provide it,” he replied, sketching a small, playful bow.
Esmeralda laughed in delight. “I see no reason to turn the offer down. Shall we?”
Their horses had not strayed, far too interested in the lush, sweet grass growing before them. Lucien handled the princess with care as he lifted her up into the saddle, cautious against touching her in any fashion that he should not. When she had settled, she reached down and brushed a gentle touch on his cheek.
“Thank you,” she murmured, “for coming with me. I deeply appreciate the company, and your understanding.”
“Of course,” he replied, his voice just as soft.
Her touch lingered a second longer before retreating. “We ought to be going back, I’m afraid,” the princess declared. “I don’t want to be missed for too long.”
The ride back to the palace was as quiet as the ride out. They chatted together for the ride as said their goodbyes in the stable. Lucien lingered, untacking and grooming his horse, remembering the softness of her touch on his hands and his cheek.