There was a repetitive, musical sound dancing around him as he drifted in and out of sleep. When he awakened, he tried to open his eyes, but there was something keeping him there in the darkness, comfortable and warm. If he allowed the light to come in, where would he find himself? Each time sleep released him, he felt a little more awake than the last time. He finally realized that it was the sound of water trickling then something cool touched his forehead. Though his body felt sore, he was lying on something softer than the ground he’d passed out on earlier.
“He’s awake,” said a woman.
“Cousin?” he rasped.
He groaned as he struggled to sit up. Daylight came to him in the form of tiny slits as his eyelids slowly lifted. As his sight adjusted, he took in the drab surroundings. His heart sank at the realization that he was far from any castle and the woman who spoke earlier was definitely not his cousin. He stretched out his tight muscles, feeling dizzy.
“Hello,” said a woman.
He turned over on his side to look at the source of the voice. The peasant woman was a shadowy form sitting in the corner stirring something in a bowl.
“Where am I?” he asked, too tired to hurl an insult at how disgusting her house was.
“You’re in a village called Komoke. I found you by the river – and I wasn’t sure if you were dead or alive, but I had to try helping you. Figured I should load you up in my cart along with the frogs I caught before someone worse came along.”
He seethed inwardly at his bad luck. This was no place for a prince or anyone of noble birth, but he couldn’t leave until the exhaustion lifted from him.
“I think I hit my head,” he muttered. “I can’t remember how I passed out.”
“You swam across the river?” she asked, standing up to bring the bowl over to a tiny stove.
She was a taller woman, though her ill-fitting clothes did nothing to highlight her figure. Not that it mattered. Inferior blood flowed through that one’s veins. Her hair was wrapped up in a scarf like most peasant women. Despite the filthy, depressing surroundings, his stomach growled.
“I haven’t eaten in so long.”
“I’m preparing a soup. It’s not much, but it should help fill you up.”
He stared at the ceiling as she prepared the meal. He refrained from asking her what was in the soup. Did poor people eat rats? Mice? He shuddered at the thought, but as the minutes passed, he determined that he wasn’t willing to go hungry. He needed the sustenance. She didn’t seem to be ill; her health wasn’t terrible. If she was eating diseased animals often, she likely would have looked worse off. That’s right – she mentioned the frogs. Of course. Frogs aren’t unhealthy. The palace chef prepared them as hors d’oeurvres sometimes. Once he regained his strength, he’d be able to get out of there and find the way to his beautiful cousin. He hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep until he awoke to her soft singing. The room smelled surprisingly good – not unlike the kitchen back at the palace. Or was he just losing his mind?
“Soup?” he rasped, his throat dry.
She looked at him over her shoulder. “It’s almost finished.”
When she brought it to him, he sat up, desperate to fill his belly. Barely noticing that there was no spoon for the stew, he tipped the bowl and guzzled down the broth. There were small chunks of meat and finely diced vegetables in there which he saved for last, using his fingers as a utensil. The woman served herself a bowl and ate it in the corner. When he was finished, he leaned against the wall.
“Can I have some more?” he asked, glancing across the room at her.
Her eyes widened. “This soup needs to last us the week. We can’t afford to have anymore than this … but I’ll see if I can spare some of the cheese.”
He bit back a biting retort. People wanted to kill him back at the castle. If he said the wrong thing, she might do something terrible in his sorry state. She opened the cupboard and pulled something out. His stomach gurgled. He didn’t want to dwell on how old the cheese was – or what it had been exposed to. It was food. In no time, he’d be dining at a fine table with his dear cousin queen and all this squalor would be behind him. The peasant handed him the smallest little section of cheese. He gritted his teeth. Just a day or so and he’d be gone.
“Thank you,” he forced himself to say.
She ducked away just like the servants did back at the castle. She must have sensed he was of high birth. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, but at least he knew that even in his bad condition, he looked better than any peasant. She grinned as he chewed on the soft, bland cheese. That was when she started humming a tune again – the one he heard when he was in between sleep and awake. She washed the dishes, singing a few lines. Her voice was nice enough for a common woman, but under the circumstances, it was grating to listen to. She lived in filth and couldn’t afford to feed herself and her guest a proper meal.
Rolling his eyes, he scoffed. “What the hell do you have to sing about?”
Her song ended with a sharp inhale of air. She hanged her head.
“I didn’t mean to sound harsh,” he said quickly.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, turning to look at him with wide eyes. “How could she be happy in this filthy place with nothing to her name? But you see, there’s so many things to be grateful for. Some don’t have a place to come home to after a long day. Many don’t have food to eat so they beg. I live close to nature. In the forest, I am as free as anyone. I could be a queen or a slave for all the trees care. Nature doesn’t discriminate. Even you had a taste of that.”
His hands balled into fists. He would have beaten a servant for speaking that way to him. Who did this woman think she was? He didn’t want to give her any reason to harm him while he slept, so he kept his mouth shut. In any other situation, he would have slapped her across the face. The wench probably had to tell herself all manner of fables in order not to off herself. He couldn’t imagine how anyone wanted to live like that. What would be the point?
“You make a good point,” he lied. “I’m humbled by your help.”
Her frown softened as she smiled shyly. “I’m happy to help a fellow human. Everyone’s out for themselves around these parts, it seems, and many people hate the rich. I don’t know if you’re from here or just passing through, but I try to help those in need.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
He looked away from the childish expression she wore. Poor people were so gullible. One had to be stupid to find themselves living in such a condition, but at least he would be safe with her until he left for a better place.
“I’m going to turn in for the night,” she said. “I hope you sleep well.”
“Thank you, Miss. I wish for you to do the same.”
She disappeared behind a thin, tattered drape. In all his life, he never thought he’d need to sleep in such close quarters with a female vagrant. He settled back into his bed and closed his eyes. As he slipped into the comforting world of his dreams, he imagined his cousin greeting him with open arms and red painted lips, drowning out the bleak room he was lying in.
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