DOWN IN THE GLEN
When he was a squire, impatiently waiting to be knighted, she started following him. The king's youngest daughter, Princess Rhosyn, walked a few feet behind him wherever he went. She was six when it started. Some mornings, he found the princess waiting outside of the guest room he used when staying in the main castle. At first, he was annoyed with her, then unnerved. People gave him strange looks. Their unspoken thoughts hit him like daggers.
One morning, he brought the issue up to the king, Rórdán.
"Your majesty," the squire said. "I don't know what to do about her. I fear others may begin spreading indecent rumors about the both of us."
"Nevermind them. Let her be." King Rórdán said. "You are the son of Sir Cuán, her mother's champion. With her mother and your father gone now, she may see you as her protector. As one soon to be a knight yourself, accept the little lady's choice and be her hero."
"Yes, your majesty." The squire bowed to his king.
The answer didn't satisfy him. The little girl's attention made him feel more like a nanny than a hero. At seven, she grabbed at the back of his tabard when she followed him. He wanted to tell her to stop, but he wanted to please the king more.
His father, Sir Cuán, was well known throughout the lands as the defender of the kingdom and the queen's champion. Sir Cuán first gained the public's attention when he rescued the newly wed queen from a dragon. Tournament after tournament, his father defeated every challenger. He watched his father from the stands, sitting next to the queen, His own mother, he never knew. She was a peasant girl who his father fell in love with. Due to a lengthy quest, his father postponed the wedding and planned on marrying her when he returned victorious. Unknown to his father, his mother was already pregnant when he left and she, sadly, died giving birth. That was what his father told him.
Queen Rhoda was a kind woman. He looked forward to serving her as his father did. When Princess Rhosyn was five, both his father and Queen Rhoda were found poisoned in the castle garden. They were buried together, the kingdom wishing for Sir Cuán to guard the queen in the afterlife. The king cried more than anyone that day, and remarried the following week to provide his children with a new mother.
That was the first time he questioned the king's choices. He understood the need for a queen and a mother for the king's children, but he thought there should be at least a three to six months wait in between the funeral and the wedding at the earliest. But Rórdán was the king and he served him, so he let it go.
The following year, Princess Rhosyn became attached to him. When he was knighted at twenty-three, the king introduced him as Rhosyn's champion and protector. From that day on, he was required to stay wherever the princess was and he was no longer allowed out on quests for the kingdom. His annoyance toward the girl grew, and he questioned the king once more.
His annoyance grew further as the king pushed them together more. Most of his days, he watched the young princess play outside with her toys. He paid little attention to her, aside from when she begged him to watch her do something. Often, she requested he play hide-and-seek with her in the forest where the old ruins were.
She hid better than he did, but he never tried himself. Rhosyn always wanted to play for hours. When she grew tired, she brought him over to the old, crumbling tower. All that remained of the building was part of the stairs. She'd make flower crowns out of forget-me-not's and roses for the both of them and tell him every little thing that came to her mind. At sunset, he walked her back to the castle, hiding the crown inside a pouch at his side. He turned in at night, disappointed with himself and questioning the king. His life went on like that until the princess's fourteenth birthday.
The king chose an appropriate husband for the princess in the second son of a neighboring king. The young man was twenty-four and the prince's father had just finished a castle for the prince to move into. Both kings were happy about the arrangement. There were rumors about a king to the west seeking to start a war with another war-hungry king. Many of the nearby, smaller kingdoms were banding together in preparation for what may be coming. The marriage between the princess and the prince would be a statement to the public of the two kingdoms standing together in face of their uncertain future.
Shortly after the announcement, the king spoke with the knight privately.
"Sir Caleb, I have a task for you.""The king stood by an open window. He stared out at the horizon. "I want you to personally escort Rhosyn to her new home, alone in secret."
"In secret? May I ask why, your majesty?" He asked.
"You mustn't say anything about this to anyone." The king lowered his voice. "I have reason to believe there may be an assassination attempt on my dear Rhosyn before the wedding."
"Who would do such a thing? And why? You haven't done anything to anger anyone." Caleb said.
"Brion has taken the coming marriage as a threat that we may side with Argus." Rórdán sighed. "I would never side with that monster. Brion's merely getting worked up over ridiculous rumors, but I can't risk Rhosyn's life or the wedding. I need you to protect her. We're going to use another girl, a servant around her age, to pose as a decoy. You will travel alone with my daughter along a different route dressed as peasants."
"I see. You can count on me, your majesty." Caleb bowed to the king. "I am most honoured to be chosen for such an important task."
Caleb smiled as he bowed deeply. Finally, he would be free of the princess to be a proper knight like his father. He could hardly wait.
Princess Rhosyn stopped following him in the weeks prior to leaving for the wedding. She stayed in her room in silence, barely eating anything. The king grew worried by her behavior. He ordered Caleb to visit her every morning and keep her company in the days before the coming journey.
Every morning, he knocked at her door and waited. She wouldn't answer him. Caleb would let himself in and wait for the hands of the clock to set him free. In her presence, he only saw all the hours stolen from him.
To appease the king, he set aside questing and fighting, and his reputation slipped from him with each sunset. By now, he should have married and had a child or two, if not more. He should have a name bestowed upon him by the public for his deeds. He had nothing of the sort, and no time to choose a wife or do anything else other than watch over the princess. He saw his father's role as the former queen's champion noble and worth aspiring to, but he was not the princess's champion. He was no hero or warrior. He was a nanny with a sword.
As the princess hid away inside herself, he counted each minute. Their time together was nearly over. Soon, he'd be free.
The morning of the journey's beginning came upon them both like a summer rain. Neither was ready at sunrise. Caleb dressed himself in peasant attire and met with the princess at a secret location in the castle. The path they initially took was carved out specifically for the royal family to use in emergency escapes. From there, he took her on horseback and rode deep into the forest.
The window of time left for them to say anything to one another was closing fast. He used that dwindling amount for small talk. The forest was far too quiet for his liking.
"Princess, your wedding is almost at hand. Are you excited?" He asked.
"I trust that...this must be what is best..." She said. Her voice was so soft it put the moss beneath them to shame.
"Do you not like the prince? I've met him before. He's a decent man." Caleb said.
"Oh, I have never met him." Rhosyn said. Her voice was even softer now. "I'll never see home again, will I?"
"You might. I'm sure there will be visits, at least from your father, to see you as well." Caleb patted her on the head. "Your future husband's home will be your new home. You'll come to love it in time."
"I suppose." She went quiet after that.
At night, the princess kept her distance from him in the tent. He thought nothing of it. She was close enough for him to be able to protect her if a situation called for that. It was strange enough for the two of them to be sharing space like this. He was glad for the distance.
The following morning, she was reluctant to leave the tent. He couldn't blame her for it. To be uneasy as a young noblewoman before her wedding was expected. Still, it bothered him that she was stalling. He wanted to get the journey over with as quickly as possible. He made breakfast for the two of them, ate, and ushered her out of the tent. For the rest of the day, she stayed quiet.
The silence was getting to him.
Another night passed, followed by another quiet morning. The princess hardly ate anything since they left. Rhosyn politely ate a few bites of anything Caleb made her, then left the rest untouched while claiming to be full.
On the third morning, he confronted her about it.
"Princess, I know you're hungry. Eat your breakfast, all of it. I can't have you withering away before we reach the castle." Caleb said as he ate his own food.
Rhosyn put her bowl down. "I don't want to see the castle."
"Princess, please, don't be difficult. We must all marry at some point. It won't be that bad."
"What do you know? It won't kill you if your wife has a baby. You don't even have a wife yourself to worry over." Rhosyn stood up and ran off into the woods.
"Princess!" Caleb followed right behind her. His annoyance with the girl rose. He caught up with her and grabbed her from behind. "Where do you think you're going? Someone's out looking to assassinate you and you're running around out here without any regard for your own safety."
"Let me go! I don't want to go! I hate you! I hate you so much!" Rhosyn kicked at him. Tears drenched her face.
"Hate me? Hate me?! I've spent how many years of my life being stuck as your nanny when I should have been out serving the kingdom because you demanded it? And you have the audacity to say you hate me? What have I don't to you?!" All of Caleb's anger throughout the years flowed out. He shouted at her in a way he knew he shouldn't to anyone, certainly not a young girl he was charged with protecting. As she cried before him, guilt hit. He let go of her and apologized. "I am sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you. You didn't do anything to me. My pain is not your fault."
"I want to go home." Rhosyn begged him. "Please, take me back to the ruins. I don't want to go."
"It is not my will. It is your father's. There is nothing I can do." Caleb spoke softly. "Before you, I serve him."
"Mama said you'd protect me from bad people." Rhosyn kept her gaze away from him.
"I am." Caleb said. He slowly approached her. "I know you're scared. Anyone would be in your position, but it's going to be alright. You'll get used to your new life in time."
"I told Papa I don't want to marry yet. I'm too young. I don't want to leave yet."
Caleb's anger and frustration at the girl faded away. He put his hand on her shoulder. "I know you don't want to, but your father is doing what he thinks is best for all of us."
Rhosyn turned around and cried against him. "No, he's not. He's not making my older sisters marry yet. I should have been last. He only picked me because my hair doesn't match his or mother's."
"Shh...I doubt he thinks on that." Caleb said that to comfort her, but her reminding him that the king had two older, unwed daughters he could have chosen made him question the king's decision. 'Perhaps he wanted her out of the public's sight and this was the perfect opportunity. No, surely, he wouldn't...'
"Yes, he does. That's why..." She couldn't finish speaking. The sadness inside her was too great for her to contain. She cried more and buried her face into his tabard.
"Shh...Calm down. That's why what?" He put his hand on her head.
She wrapped her arms around his waist. "That's why....why Mama's not here."
Caleb's body went cold. "What are you talking about? She was poisoned by an assassin."
"No..." She clung tightly to him. "She told me one night that Papa saw her with another man and he was really angry this time."
"This time? This wasn't the first time?"
"She'd been caught before. Her first child, that baby didn't belong to Papa. They told everybody the baby died, but she gave the baby away to the real father. She promised Papa there would be no more affairs and then..." Rhosyn was crying so much that Caleb's tabard was soaked through. He patted her hair. She wiped off her face. "I was born looking like that man and everyone knew the truth. She swore to him it was the last time. Before she told me about all of this...he caught her again with that man. Papa was so angry. Mama told me...something might happen to her, and if it did, I should stay by you, but you hate me!"
She cried louder than before. Caleb felt so sick from hearing what Rhosyn told him, he couldn't speak for a moment.
"I'm sorry." He managed to finally say. "I didn't know..."
Rhosyn begged him once more. "Please, please, don't make me go."
"I...I don't know if I can...I serve your father before anyone, and my fate...is his to choose..." Caleb didn't realize his shoulders were shaking. "I'm sorry."
Rhosyn cried there against him for another hour. He had nothing to offer her.
They spent the rest of the day dancing in awkward silences and quiet pain. His mind was lost in his memories; of the queen and his father, and the place he kept beside the queen when his father competed in tournaments; of his days spent watching the princess pick flowers outside the old, ruined tower; and of all the times the king refused to listen to him. He watched Rhosyn closely over the day. She moved with a slowness unfit for the girl in his memories, and her rosy cheeks were pale. Her feet were light upon the ground, as if she were begging the wind to take her.
At sunset, he searched his memories again. He couldn't recall the princess's favorite food, but he remembered the queen's. Caleb prepared a simple vegetable stew and rice. When it was ready, he looked for the princess. He found her at the top of a hill watching the setting sun. Caleb joined her on the hill. Quietly, they ate and watched the horizon.
The warmth of summer enveloped their cold spirits, thick and heavy like the steam of the stew in their bowls. Around them, the warm wind shared its space with the sounds of night. Cicadas and frogs competed for that invisible space, their voices becoming one with the night birds as the sun's last rays fell below the horizon. Flickers of light glowed briefly in the darkness. The little lights rose and vanished, blinking in and out of view. The beautiful display of fireflies reminded him of a summer night long ago.
He came across the queen and his father catching fireflies at the edge of the forest. Caleb joined them. Thinking back on the memory, he could smell the air and feel the way the wind graced his skin. He remembered laughing about how the bugs' legs felt walking in his palm and the queen pointing to the darkened woods.
'If you look closely, there are fairies hiding in the lights. Do you see them?'
He looked long and hard for them, but there were only the tiny flames of the familiar, winged creatures. Though he found no magic at the forest's edge, he couldn't help but feel the night itself was full of enchantment. Why he forgot about that night, he did not know. His heart stung with a deep pain.
Caleb pointed at the fireflies down at the bottom of the hill. "Do you see the lights down there? They say at night, fairies fly with the fireflies, hiding in plain sight."
Rhosyn's voice returned to its usual tone. "Mama used to say that all the time, when she'd take me out at night with Sir Cuán."
"They used to take me too, when I was small." Caleb couldn't look away from the lights before him. "They've been gone so long. Where did all the days go?"
"I miss them." Rhosyn said.
"So do I." Caleb took in the heat of the stew and the texture of the wooden bowl in his hands. Another memory pulled at him.
He saw his father before him, training for the queen. He wanted so much to be like his father. Caleb picked up a training sword and stood beside his father. His father indulged his whims and let him train alongside him. At the end of the day, his palms burned. The skin turned a bright red. His father took him inside and washed him off in their tub with warm water and soothing herbs. He remembered splashing the water and watching the reflections of candlelight and stars fracture into flameless sparks on the water's surface.
That night, when his father tucked him into bed, he told him, 'My son, stay strong...not for any king, but for yourself. Put no master before yourself within your heart.'
In his innocence, all he could think to answer with was, 'Of course, Father. I won't let you down.'
His father kissed him on the forehead and pulled the blanket up higher. He said, 'Don't worry over me. Goodnight.'
Caleb looked away from the forest lights and over at Rhosyn. He offered her his hand. "Come. Let's turn in for the night."
Rhosyn nodded and followed him to the tent. She closed her eyes and went still. The night weighed heavily on Caleb. He tried to recall other memories, but the voices of the queen and his father, their faces--the details were fading. In all the time they'd been gone, he never truly accepted their absence. He distracted himself from the quiet space they left behind by dwelling in frustration over not being able to recreate his father in himself and finding a princess beside him instead of the queen he needed. Under the dark veil of night, in the summer symphony, he allowed his voice to join the others hidden in the dark as he finally mourned the loss of the ones he loved most.
Rhosyn listened attentively, memorizing every note.
Morning came again, and Caleb was the one lingering inside the tent.
Rhosyn asked, "Are you not well? Usually, we've left by now."
"I know." Caleb got out of the tent. "Don't worry over that. We can take our time."
"But...the wedding...we need to..."
"Don't worry over that. Let me fix breakfast." Caleb prepared lentils and rice for them. He made a lavender drink for them to share with their meal.
"Sir Caleb, we're losing a lot of time." Rhosyn reminded him. She watched him eat deliberately slow.
He only smiled at her and said, "Don't worry over that. There's no time to waste."
"But...Papa said...we have to be there by..."
Caleb took some cheese out of his bag and cut them each a piece. "He can wait forever. Our time is ours."
"What do you mean?" She asked.
"These woods, they're practically calling for new residents. Can't you hear them?" Caleb smiled widely.
"What...what are you saying?"
"We're not going." Caleb sipped from his drink. He watched Rhosyn's reaction.
Over the span of a minute, her expression shifted from shock to joy to an overwhelmed mix of emotions that poured out into tears. She put her food down and hugged him. Caleb hugged her back.
"Where will we really go?" She asked.
"Somewhere, anywhere. It doesn't matter." Caleb said. "We'll build a new home together, where we will answer to no one."
The girl known as Princess Rhosyn and her knight, Sir Caleb, never arrived for the wedding. After months of searching, it was presumed the plan was foiled and both were assassinated. The king mourned the loss, and married off one of his other daughters to the prince in her place. War came anyway, a month after the wedding.
Deep in the great forest to the west of the kingdom, in a glen with a little river running through it, a small wooden house was completed on the day of the wedding. A man stayed there with a young lady he called his daughter. They kept to themselves, only occasionally venturing into the town nearby to sell dyes they made together. The family never gave their names. Those in the town simply knew them as the family from the glen and didn't question where they really came from.
Once, a butcher asked the man where his wife was.
The man from the glen said, "She died long ago, when my daughter was born."
The butcher asked him why he didn't remarry.
The man from the glen stared at him with eyes full of intensity. "Those I love will always be here with me. I see them there in the forest lights on the darkest nights."
He answered no more questions for the butcher. Without another word, he left the town with his daughter back to their little house in the glen. In their quiet space down in the glen, they spent their days peacefully sheltered from the battles and betrayals outside their forest. When night fell in winter, they counted the infinite stars and in summer, the flickering lights of the earth, searching for the magic hiding in plain sight.