“Can we keep her? Please? P--lease?”
“Shhh, be quiet. You want her to wake and see us?”
“Quiet, I said!”
I opened my eyes slowly. Faces hovered above me, and a roof above them. A roof. I was indoors. When had that happened? I tried to speak, but the pain in my head---I put my hand to my face.
“She’s awake,” said the second voice. I couldn’t match it to a face. Struggling, I pulled myself to my elbows.
“Careful; careful now,” warned the eldest of the faces. His was a queer, heavy-jowled head, squarish and with short white beard yellowed with dirt. “You’ve hit your head, and been too cold for too long. Be easy, Princess.”
Princess. They know who I am. She’ll find me. She’ll find me and kill me!
“Easy; easy,” continued White Beard. “No need to worry. You’re among friends.” The second voice from earlier snorted. It belonged to a little man at the food of the bed they’d laid me upon. Dwarves, I thought. The last time I’d seen a dwarf, he’d played acted from a wooden cart when one of the French lords came visiting. It thought he’d been the only one.
“I know,” said the first voice excitedly. “She can run the house for us while we sneak into the mines!” The first-voice dwarf walked around the others, and came to stand at my left, near my head. His smiled was lopsided but kindly, his chin bare.
“Pretty little princess, scrubbing our floors?” said the dwarf at the end of the bed. “I think not. Most likely she doesn’t know how. Most likely she doesn’t know how to do anything at all.”
“I do so!” The words burst from my lips before I could help them. Gahh, my head. “I know plenty,” I amended, quieter.
“Is that so?” asked White Beard.
“Yes.” I replied, leaning back into the pillows. Better. “I know geography and the romance languages. I know the tricks of fencing. I know my numbers and can keep accounts, and can sew and sing and all sorts of things.”
“Fencing? Singing? Whatever help would those be to us?” grumped the dwarf at the end of the bed, but I wasn’t sure his heart was in it any longer. His beard was dark like soil.
“Enough,” said White Beard to Dark Beard. “He’s right,” added White Beard, gesturing to Lopsided Smile. “She shall stay with us, for it is too dangerous to loose her when the Queen’s men are about, and she is injured. Besides, it would be nice to have such a fair-faced maiden meet us every night, would it not?”
Pretty little princess … fair-faced maiden … these dwarves had strange standards of beauty. But I was not adverse to that, if they would let me hide here with them. The dwarves — there were seven in total, all bright and grubby and clinging to the bed frame — nodded in assent, smiling. Mostly. Dark Beard merely glowered.
Winter passed, and then several more. My home with the dwarves was a happy one, if small—literally, for growing as I was, walking indoors required a constant stoop — and my days were again filled with people and with their problems. Most might think that a bad thing; to spend the day portioning stolen silver so that in times of scarcity we were as settled as in times of plenty, to turn a kind ear on the complaints of the wood folk, who now shied away from the Queen and her harsh edicts… not that I, as “Fraulein,” could do anything for their troubles. But compared to what my previous life had become, I lived awash with joy.
In the summers I gathered wildflowers with the wood children--in the wintersI taught numbers and languageto these little ones--and placed the blooms on every open surface of the house. Strangely, Dark Beard, whose real name was Jaap, liked this better than all the rest. The first time he found a bouquet at his bedside he blushed as red as his lips. In the evenings I cooked and sewed for them, and they taught me the fierce, woe-laden songs of the gentry—much more lively than the courtly ballads I’d learned as a child-- full of fake tears, stomping and clapping sing-yelling them into the night until we grew hoarse.
I was so completely hidden that I forgot. I forgot who I had been, and reveled instead in who I was. Then, the apprentice cobbler came.
“Oh Fraulein,” he said, his handsome face lined with burdens. When he sat at the kitchen table, the heavy, stale scent of smoke billowed from him; not the kind which signaled memories of warm, dream-thickened nights and snappy winter mornings, but an older, more unfriendly kind that pinched at the nostrils. The scent crowded out that spicy richness of the wildflower bouquet in the window.
“My… home… is all but destroyed. Last night, the Queen sent her guard into the woods to find the princess all thought dead. I was not yet at home, for I must travel far and wide to … sell my master’s shoes. When my eldest sister answered the door, they demanded to know where the dead princess was hiding, and when she told them she did not know, they slew her, and burned the house. My littlest sister only just survived, and told me the tale this morn…now she too lies in the ground.” He buried his face in his hands for the space of a few very long heartbeats.
I schooled my face, though my pulse thundered in my wrist, my neck, my chest. Surely he will hear my heart, I worried. When he finally lowered his palms from his face, he rested one on the table near mine.
“But I think she did know, Fraulein,” he said quietly, head turning just so, to keep an eye out the window, perhaps on the bird, perhaps on something else, or the coming of something—or someone—else. “I think we all know, all of us here in the woods, who have grown so fond of your sweet smile and kind ways.” The hand on the table, knuckles both rougher and smoother at the same time with their smears of soot, twitched.
I looked out the window as he did.
“This is true.” And I hung my head.
“Your friends shall rally behind you, Prin—”he paused, licked his lips, “Fraulein. You will have support; I speak for us all. I came to warn you, and to ask that…that you finally claim your name, and set the kingdom’s ills aright.You must do this soon; the forest is no longer safe for you.”
I had not even a moment to reply, for he stood, swallowing.
“I go to warn the others, so that you may have safe keeping for a while longer. But you must think wisely and act quickly, for we cannot throw the Queen’s guard off for long.” He bowed, and again the smoke drifted towards her, again his blackened hands twitched toward hers. “Goodbye, my fair…Fraulein.”
And he was gone.
With the door closed, the smell of stale smoke lingered; there were never enough flowers to banish the stench of death. Inside the cottage was silence, as usual, but for my heart and my stomach, pounding and rumbling each. The silence and the pounding and the rumbling filled my body, and my head, and I realized I was moving, flinging myself around the room. By the light that filtered through the fat bouquet in the window, I stitched together a knapsack. I could fill it with some food and other essentials, and would strike out in darkness, heading for the caves in the hills far beyond the silver mines, where I could plan in safety. But I did not get the chance, for the moment I was ready to leave, the dwarves arrived, back from the mines. With them arrived half the forest.
“But you cannot leave us, fool woman, you cannot!” Jaap pounded his dirty fist on the long wooden table, around which we all had gathered. I never had gotten him in the habit of washing his hands. The thirty or so of the woods folk nodded fretfully, some biting their lips.
“I want to keep her,” added Win, his ever-present grin slipping even lower on the one side. Sweet Win.
“Listen to me, little Win. Listen, all of you. The longer I stay here, the longer I you are all endangered. I must leave.” Did they not understand? I had to hide somewhere new, somewhere I could plan my return to the throne, for return I must, as she would see me dead herself if I did not take wrest the crown from her. I had to think, had to plot, had to plan.
“My sisters are proof the Queen will not stop just because you are not acknowledged, fair Fraulein,” said the apprentice cobbler. His was a grim—but pleasant—sort of smile. Heavy around the edges. He was right, I supposed. “We shall be no more safe if you leave, and nor will you. Here, we can protect you, for a time at least.”
“Fraulein?” asked Meinrad after a long silence, his white beard quivering a little, “what is it you need? “
“No,” I said firmly. “No. I will not have you involved.”
“But Fraulein,” Meinrad said softly, “we already are. There’s no going back, not for any of us. And with the Queen deposed…we’ll all sleep safer at night. Tell us what you need.”
If I was to be queen, I either led, or I did not. That was the way of things; I could not let even those dearest to my heart call decisions for me. But as I looked from face to face, hesitant expressions of worry and fear etched across each I saw below that, something else entirely. Something kind, and loyal and…determined.
“Alright,” I said. “Paper. Bring us paper. And plenty of ink.”
It was time to see how many friends the so-called dead Princess Rosa had amongst the aging nobility.