When Grandma arrived, seeing the damage, and our faces, she burst into tears instantly and gave all three of us a hug, She didn’t cry often. The knot in the pit of my stomach twisted. Something else was wrong.
They told us the truth about dad. He was dead. It was him they had heard about and had gone to help if they could. They were too late. But I was right about one thing-- Olly had been lying. Dad died saving his fellow soldiers-- and countless civilians from a sudden swarm of goblins. He saved them. But he died. Olly was just a little rat who had robbed a corpse. It didn’t matter that this made more sense, or that it honored my dad’s memory. It was ten times worse to hear it from my grandparents, because I knew they wouldn’t lie.
I didn’t want it to be true.
“Why didn’t you bring him back?” my mother asked, her voice hoarse. “Why didn’t you have him buried here?”
My grandparents exchanged glances. My grandad answered. “It wasn’t a pretty sight, Maeve. There-- there wasn’t much left to bury.”
Mother covered her face in her hands.
“It was really the last battle of the war,” Grandad went on. “Neither side was up for fighting when it was done. It’s one they’ll long remember. They’ve started calling it ‘the Baker’s Battle.’”
It wasn’t something we were likely to forget either. When I told them about my apprenticeship, they nodded solemnly.
“I think that’s for the best,” Grandad said. “You couldn’t ask for a finer place to apprentice for.” Since the house was half burned down, it was decided that none of us would stay in it anymore.
“Why don’t we go to Italy?” Grandma suggested, with a forced vigor. “My parents would love a visit. What do you think, Maeve?”
My mother looked up with ashen eyes. “Italy. Why not?”
“Would you like that, Ian?” Grandma said, bending down. “We’ll go to the sea and travel on a boat!”
“I do like boats,” Ian said. He didn’t really remember our dad. Ian had only been three years old when the war had started-- years and years ago-- was it only four years? It seemed longer. It was hard to remember a time when we weren’t at war.
So it was decided. We packed up whatever we could salvage from the house, and the villagers were very kind in feeding and housing us that night. The Faery King lingered uncertainly at the edge of our group.
“Why don’t you stay the night and see us off tomorrow?” Grandad asked him.
The king smiled, unusually shy. “If I’m not a bother.”
“You’re the hero of the evening, my good king.” Grandad put an arm about his shoulders, and his other arm around me. “Well, you and Meg both!”
“And me!” Ian added, squeezing under the same arm as me. “I knocked two of ‘em out with my sling!”
“Did ya? You do me proud.” Grandad patted his head, and mine.
The next morning, we all rode to the seashore on horses. The journey seemed fast, but it lasted most of the morning. Before I knew it, my family was hugging me tightly and then waving from the boat until I could no longer see them. Ian had loved the boat. He would laugh every time a large wave smacked against the side. Grandad said again that he was proud of me. And then they were gone.
“Well!” the Faery King said loudly as we rode back. “This is a bit different from last time. Now Thomas has practically foisted his grandchild on me! How the world has changed!”
This failed to get a reaction from me. I didn’t so much as glance up. He tried again.
“If you're going to work in my kitchens again, you'll have to learn how to make something other than pie and stew, you know. Not that I mind eating them, but it will get boring fast. There are so many other dishes in the world! You'll have to branch out!”
Silence prevailed, apart from the clopping sound of horse hooves. The king ran a hand through his shiny black hair and sighed.
“Oh, come on! Cheer up. I know things must be difficult for you, but there's a bright future ahead... you know...” he trailed off, apparently not knowing what to say.
“You don't understand,” I said finally.
“What don't I understand? A lot happened, but it was simple enough--”
“You don't understand! That man was lying-- Grandad was wrong-- they don't know what they're talking about!” My fist, still small, hit the pommel of my saddle.
“I don't pretend to know what you're feeling, but I don't think your grandparents could have been mistaken--”
“You don't understand!” I repeated. “This is my dad we're talking about! An ogre threw a tree at his head once and he was fine!”
He tilted his head to the side, as if to acknowledge my point. “It was a whole army, you know. Even I wouldn't have survived that. I doubt I would have lasted as long he did, either.” He glanced back at me. “It was a hero's death, too. He saved a lot of people.”
“He can't be dead!” I said stubbornly.
The Faery King lost patience and turned around in his saddle. “Is it my job to convince you?! What do you want me to do, show you his body? He's already buried, you know! You heard your grandfather-- he said they put a headstone there and everything! You want to dig him up?”
“Stop it!” I covered my ears, choking back a sob.
He sighed. “I’m sorry. You've been up all night and fighting bandits. Since you’re on an ordinary horse, we have a long trip ahead of us. We'll get back to the mountain by sundown, I should think. Try to sleep for now.”
As if I could. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. “If I sleep on a horse, I'll fall.”
"Just take this.” A heavy lump of cloth hit my head and fell onto the saddle. My initial rage at having something thrown at me dissolved into confusion when I saw that it was his cloak, something I’d never seen him ride without.
“Why are you giving this to me?”
“I’m not giving it to you! I’m just letting you borrow it. It was enchanted to keep me from falling off my horse when fighting or sleeping.”
“You can have it back; I don’t need it,” I said ungratefully, and threw it back to him. He was being unusually kind, and I didn't like it. Who was he trying to charm?
“Shut up and go to sleep, all right?” the king snapped. Obviously being charming was not his objective. “I know you've had a rough two days, but I don't want to hear about what you're going through. They're your feelings, so it's up to you to sort them out, not me. Cheering you up is not in our contract.”
Neither was being kind, apparently. Glumly, I adjusted my position on the saddle, and we rode on in silence again.
“Look,” the Faery King said, thinking better of his outburst. “You lost your dad, and your home, and just said goodbye to your family. I can't imagine how you're feeling. I don't want to. It seems like a black nightmare from the start, and I don't want any part of it. I can’t think of anything to say that will help you. So... let me do this for you instead. Just rest for now.” He held out his cloak, looking at the road ahead of us.
I was tired. Although it was a warm day for April, I took his cloak and wrapped it around myself tightly. I didn’t think it would help, but it was nice to have the hood tugged down so nobody could see me. The Faery King’s cloak steadily kept me on the saddle as slumber tugged my eyelids closed.
“Are you done sleeping like a good-for-nothing?” My shoulder was shaken. “It’s lunchtime.”
I awoke with a jolt; the sun was bright, and for a moment, everything was tinted blue. I squinted at our surroundings and saw that we were at an inn on the edge of an unfamiliar town square. With my slow, ordinary horse, we were taking a different and more direct route back to the mountain. There were market stalls, a few tents, and people bustling around, selling their early crops and livestock.
“That’s hardly fair,” I answered back as he dismounted and led our horses by the reins. “You’re the one who told me to sleep.”
“Yes, well, I had thought it was a good idea until you started snoring.”
“Oh.” I reddened. “Mother says that I usually stop if someone pokes my shoulder.”
“My dear child, I assure you that no amount of poking, pleading, or scolding had any effect whatsoever. Do you feel any better?”
I felt groggy. “A little.” The pain was still there, but it was as if sleep had put a thick, warm blanket over it and tucked it into a corner. “What are we going to eat?”
The Faery King, who somehow blended right into the crowd-- even with the silver crown on his head, put a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun. “By the looks of things, potatoes. I’ll see if I can get us some cold ham, though.”
He handed me the reins and walked a few paces over to one of the stalls. I looked around for a while, and then noticed a young man staring at me, mouth open.
I stared back, mouth closed. After a long minute, he approached me.
“Madam,” he said, and I looked over my shoulder for any nearby ‘madams.’ No, he was talking to me. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Please do me the honor of becoming my bride!”
I blinked and blinked. He was still there. I turned my head to see the Faery King stop on his way back from the market stall, food in his hands. He looked as dumbfounded as I felt. I looked back at the young man, who was now holding up a yellow daffodil and smiling earnestly.
Earlier that day, I’d wondered how long it would be before I’d really-- you know, really laugh again. Life is full of surprises. I covered my mouth, but the chuckles just spilled right out and turned into gales of laughter. “You can’t be serious,” I said, wiping my eyes.
“No, I really am.” The young man insisted. “It’s not often that such a lovely woman rides through here. I am richer than I look, too. Will you at least stay for a few days?”
“Young man,” the Faery King firmly pulled him back by his collar. “Are you drunk, or just crazy?”
“Neither! ‘Tis love at first sight!” The crazy man protested. “Unless--” He looked at the king suspiciously. “You’ve already claimed her hand?”
The king threw up his hands, dropping the food. “You do realize she’s a child, right? And a little brat to boot?”
Although I didn’t like being called a “brat,” he was right. I had only grown two inches or so in height in the last year. Perhaps my arms weren’t quite so thin now that food was no longer scarce, but at eleven years old, I was still a skinny, gangly child.
The young man looked confused. He stared at me again, squinted, shook his head twice, and smacked his temple with his palm. “Ohhhhhhh,” he said, blushing. “I am sorry. I am so sorry; please forgive me. My foresight was still in effect.”
Our confusion only tripled at that, as you can imagine.