“Climb on, child, and get a good grip on her mane. But try not to touch me-- your hands are really quite dirty.”
I hesitated. “It won’t go underwater, will it?”
“Why, are you that afraid of having a bath?” The Faery King gave me a flat look.
“It’s freezing out here! Maybe faeries like the cold, but humans can die from it!”
“It was a joke. No, she won’t go underwater while I’m riding. Get on, child.”
I grimaced and climbed on. The kelpie’s skin was colder than the freezing water that was now numbing my feet. Colder than ice. I wove my fingers into her seaweed mane, and hoped for the best. She took off at a fast pace, faster than a galloping horse on land. The water dragged my feet backwards and the cold wind that wasn’t blocked by the Faery King’s broad back bit my ears.
“The nearest village with the supplies you need is across the lake and down the river-- not far from here.” the king said over his shoulder. He was reading the contract more thoroughly as the kelpie swam. “What kind of a list is this? You don’t just mean supplies, you mean an entire winter’s worth of food! How many humans are there in your village?”
“Twenty-nine including me.” I answered, wincing at my feet becoming numb. “How long will it take to get the nearest village?”
“It’s just across the lake. Not long.” he said. That didn’t make me feel better. It was a rather big lake. In a strangely light tone, he added, “So Thomas had children! How many?”
“Um, just the one son-- my father.”
My hands were so stiff and cold from touching the kelpie that I didn’t think I could move them if I tried. My whole body felt stiff and numb. The swish of the water was lulling. It became quite comfortable, really. I let my head fall forward and closed my eyes-- just to doze for a bit until we got to the other village.
“And what of your grandmother? Is she well?”
“Huh?” I was shaken awake. “Um, she--”
The ride suddenly became rough, as the kelpie dodged a few boulders. She leaped out of the water and over one of the rocks, and then jerked to the right. To my dismay, I felt myself falling through the air like a sack of meal.
The king shouted something, but I was beyond help. My body crashed into the icy lake, knocking me unconscious.
When I opened my eyes next, the Faery King was sitting on a stool next to me, staring into the fire that was burning in a misshapen stone hearth. I was covered in blankets and lying on a low bed in a small, one-room cottage made of stones and thatched with straw. I felt nice and clean, like a baby that’d been bathed and swaddled. I would have liked to rest a bit longer in the quiet, warm room, but my stomach growled like an angry wolf. The king looked over.
“Oh, awake are you? Eat this.” He pushed a wooden bowl of hot soup in my face.
It smelled good, but I jerked away from it, remembering who was giving it to me.
“The old woman made it,” he said irritably. “It’s perfectly safe, providing she isn’t a witch in disguise. She’s purported to be this village’s healer.”
Faery kings don’t generally tell outright lies. I sat up and took it, blowing on it hurriedly and gulping it down while it was too hot. My tongue was a little scorched, but it was delicious soup.
“Old woman?” I asked in between bites.
“Yes, this is her hovel. I brought you here after you fell into the lake like an imbecile, and she nursed you away from death’s door.”
“Thank you.” I said.
“Don’t thank me; it was in the contract. Did you intend to collapse in the middle of traveling? Trying to best me and save your village without food in your belly was really foolish. Honestly, sometimes I think you humans forget just how mortal you really are,” the king nagged. He let out a huff of laughter suddenly. “You are a bit like Thomas, you know. Once he stubbornly tried to take down an ogre by himself with nothing more than a rusted sword.” He smiled, an unusually soft look on his face. “He’d have died if it wasn’t for me.”
“You really were good friends with him, weren’t you?”
His face hardened again. “He’s an idiot. I don’t want to owe him any more favors. Nor you. If you hadn’t put in that bit about preserving your life in the contract I don’t think I would have bothered to save you.”
“Even if I am the best baker in my village?” I tilted my head up at him, raising my eyebrows.
“Is that supposed to be true? A little brat like you?”
“It is! Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Oh, you will.” The king was assuring me, but not with malice, just as the old woman who owned the cottage bustled in. She had a happy, wrinkled face with a large nose in the center. She closed the little door behind her and smiled at me, crinkling up her eyes.
“Oh, you’re awake, love!” she said. “And my daughter’s dress fits ye finer than I thought it would!”
I thanked the woman, and nervously shot the king a glance, wondering if my gender was a surprise, but he was still looking into the fire. His face was a veritable mask, and I could not tell what he was thinking.
“Ye did well to bring her to me when ye did, sire, for more exhaustion would’ve meant a killing fever. All she needs is rest now.” The old woman clucked on at me, but I didn’t really hear her. Finally, she said something about digging up more potatoes and bustled out of the room with a bucket and spade. The only sound to be heard in the room was the fire’s crackling.
“You’re not angry, your majesty?” I ventured.
Not looking away from the fire, the king asked, “Why should I be angry?”
“Since I slowed down our journey by falling... and on account of my boyish clothing. I did not mean to lie.”
“Oh, that. You didn’t deceive me.”
The king rolled his eyes in a patronizing fashion. “Child, it’s not so easy to fool me. I assumed you had a reason for it.”
I nodded. “Grandad told me it would be much less dangerous to travel that way.”
“He was right about that. Not that you’re much to look at.” He was quick to add.
“No need to be rude.” I said mildly. “I’ve looked in a mirror a time or two. At my age all I had to do was cut my hair and lower my voice, really.”
“You’re what, ten years?” He frowned, like he was adding the number to a larger sum.
“Eleven in a few months, your majesty.”
“So you’re not angry, then? You looked angry just now.”
The king gave me a stern look. “Like I said, not fooled.”
My mouth twisted and I couldn’t help but say kindly, “There’s no need to be embarrassed, sire, it was a very good disguise, and I was covered in mud--”
“I’m not embarrassed! Besides,” he added more quietly. “I might have expected it anyway. It’s become very typical for any would-be heroine striking out on her own without anyone to protect her. But why you?”
“Why didn’t your village send anyone else?”
It took me a moment to answer. It wasn’t that I was the strongest, or the healthiest, or even the most clever, which sometimes I thought I must have been, but... “No one else would go that could. They are afraid of faeries and creatures with the powers of darkness.”
The faery king gave a huff of laughter. “You should have told me that before I bought food for them.”
“You bought it already?” I looked around, expecting to see boxes and boxes of supplies.
“Yes, while you were sleeping like a good-for-nothing. Then, thinking that others in your village may also be at the fainting point, I started it on its way on the backs of a herd of faery horses.” The king looked down at me, a mocking gleam in his eyes. “That won’t frighten the poor humans, will it? A herd of magical, flaming horses delivering possibly enchanted food?”
“Oh, dear,” I said, thinking of several widows in particular.
“Nevermind. Just finish that and rest. We’ll leave in the morning.”
“No, I’m fine now. We have to leave as soon as possible!” I put the bowl down and tried to untangle my legs from the heap of blankets, which was more of a task than I thought. My arms got sore after a few tugs and my legs were refusing to budge. Unceremoniously, the king lifted the heap and plopped it over my head.
“Don’t be an idiot. My horses will be fine, and your villagers can panic all they like ‘til morning.”
“But--” I uncovered my head.
“No arguments, child. Just rest and get your strength back so I don’t have to go diving into any more lakes for you.”