In the Land of Stories Old
Of course, leaving the cottage was not as simple as throwing a few things in a bag and heading off down the road. Jack was determined that Serena should take her possessions with her, scant though they were, and so he showed her how to—rather crudely, he admitted it without shame—build a small cart which they could put all the things in which would be too heavy or awkward to carry. He even fashioned a sort of harness so they wouldn’t blister their hands pulling the cart, and made a place in it for her to sleep. The garden was harvested to the extent it could be, some bundles of kindling and even a couple of small logs were packed in for future fires, and a week later they were ready to leave. Jack was careful to leave a small woodpile behind and to latch the door from the outside. “So the wind will not blow it open,” he explained to Serena. “You no longer need it, but this clean, dry place can shelter others who are caught out in the woods. Best to let Fate know you care what becomes of those who come after you, no?”
“Fate,” he repeated, taking up the harness and starting off towards the road. “I do not believe every action, every meeting is predestined, but some are. And some we can help along, with a little bit of forethought.”
That made her smile. “I like that idea, being able to help…someone I don’t even know.”
“It is never a bad idea to think ahead,” he agreed, and then he stopped talking, because pulling a loaded cart through the trackless woods as a two foot high dwarf was no easy task. They made it to the road without incident, however, and then they traded places while Jack went over his map. “We want to avoid running into too many people,” he mused. “But at the same time, prolonging our journey would be silly. And this route has too many hills, if I…lose control of the cart on one of them it will crash and where would we be then? No, I think this way will be best. We will go up this road until nightfall, and then we will stop,” he told her. “And then I will show you the way I have chosen, so we will both know where we are going in case something happens.”
She almost stopped pulling. “Wait, do you mean if something happens to…”
Jack poked her leg to keep her moving. “Many things can happen while traveling, it is best to think of them all and make plans. Surprises do not so easily become tragedies if you have a plan.”
“No, we don’t want a tragedy,” Serena agreed, and kept this new worry to herself.
They’d been traveling for three days when they saw someone coming towards them from further down the road, a man who walked with a swinging stride and looked to have a sword at his hip. Jack thought fast. He was too late to hide Serena under his cloak, but if he hid himself the man might decide she needed help and refuse to leave her alone. Unless the man was a bad man, in which case Jack being under his cloak might be the only advantage he would have in protecting her…he brought the cart to a stop, moving it to the side of the road, and then moved Serena to one side of it so that the man, if he passed, would not be within range to grab her. And then he himself hopped up on top of the cart and waited. “If he becomes violent, run and hide,” he told Serena. “Invisibility is only an advantage if he does not have another target.”
The man got closer, and Jack felt a pang of remembrance at how much he resembled Arthur from before the curse. And then the man got closer still, his stride faltered, and he waved. Jack hesitantly waved back, wondering who the man thought he was…and then his mouth dropped open. “ARTHUR?!”
“JACK!” The man picked up his pace and within less than a minute was beside them. “What in the world are you doin’ out…” and then he saw Serena, “…here?”
“Not that,” Jack said, punching him in the arm. All of the things he wanted to say, wanted to ask, were trapped behind the bridle the curse imposed on his tongue. “This is the Princess Serena, she is a little sister I have adopted. I am taking her back to our home where she will be safe.”
Arthur decided not to ask why Jack had decided to adopt a princess and bring her home with him, it could wait. He eyed the cart and the harness. “Well, I guess this will go faster with three of us, then.” He offered Serena a bow. “My lady, Prince Arthur Pendragon at your service. Jack and I have been friends for a long time, and I’ll be pleased to help the two of you make it back to our home…if that is quite all right with you.”
Jack noticed that while Serena obviously did not recognize the name, she was still rather starry-eyed when she nodded her agreement. He considered that. He’d thought maybe Hans might like her, but an un-cursed Arthur would also do. Maybe. She was his responsibility now, and he would be choosy on her behalf. “Look at you, so mannered,” he teased. “His people are barbarians, Serena. Your cottage would be a dwelling fit for a noble where he is from.”
Arthur gave him a look. “I can decide to rest my legs in the cart instead of pullin’ it, Jack.”
Jack turned up his nose. “And I can let the cart sit still on the road while you rest, Arthur.” He made a show of looking Arthur up and down. “Perhaps Hans has been making too many pastries, yes?”
“Why you little…” The playful shove turned into a sideways hug, however. “I was just lettin’ my feet take me…wherever,” Arthur said. “I’m glad Fate brought me to you.”
Jack returned the hug. “I am glad as well. I was…concerned, taking to the road with just the two of us, but we had no other choice and staying at the cottage would not have served.”
“How many days away are you?”
“Three today.” Jack wrinkled his nose. “Not far enough for my liking, as I do not know whether we are out of that kingdom yet. The map does not show it.”
Arthur picked up the harness, which was too small for him to use, then tossed it into the cart and pulled on his heavy gloves before taking up the poles on either side. “Well, let’s get movin’, then. Princess, if I start goin’ too fast for you just tell me and you can ride in the cart instead.” He looked down at Jack, who had hopped off the cart. “You, however, need the exercise, so try to keep up.”
Jack poked him in the leg. “Be nice or I will trip you. Serena does not need to learn your poor manners.”
Travel was definitely easier now that Arthur was with them, and safer as well—no other traveler they encountered even looked twice at their little group, and Jack no longer had to worry about someone thinking Serena needed help and refusing to leave her alone. Arthur did not look like the sort of man who needed help with anything. He had actually grown and gotten more muscular since the last time Jack had seen him as himself, which was no bad thing as he had been a very handsome man before and was even more so now. But now there was also a look in his eyes, a maturity there which Jack had not seen before and which he knew must have come from the breaking of the curse…which he could not ask Arthur about, because of that very same curse.
It was frustrating as hell, to use an Arthurism which Jack would have died before uttering out loud. But at least Serena was safer now.
As the time of the full moon drew nearer, however, Jack began to worry again. He had made a point of telling Arthur that Serena was a Moon Princess one night while she was asleep, so they would not have a problem there, but they were out in the middle of nowhere and he was becoming more and more concerned about her safety on the night she would change. Were there hunters in the woods? Witches? Farmers or herdsmen who saw wolves as a threat to their flocks? So very many things could go wrong on that night, and he didn’t want them to. Serena’s curse was more of a gift and he wanted her to enjoy what it gave her. He did not want to make her afraid, to teach her to hide.
Arthur confronted him about this beside their fire, finally. “You’re worried.”
“Of course I am,” Jack snapped, although he kept his voice down so he wouldn’t wake Serena. “We have no way of knowing who may be out here, and the full moon is just a few days away! Of course I am afraid we will not be able to protect her.”
Arthur got a funny look on his face. “Do you love her, Jack?”
Jack huffed and rolled his eyes. “Like a baby sister, Arthur, I told you that and it was the truth. I do not have romantic feelings for her, or she for me. You, on the other hand…”
That made Arthur blush. “I’m bein’ a good boy and not flirtin’,” he said. “She’s what, seventeen?”
“Eighteen as of a few months ago,” Jack corrected. “But still very young for her age, yes. Although I have no doubt her parents would have already betrothed her to some politically advantageous stranger by now if they could have. Mercenary bastards—daughters are not a trade item!” He calmed himself back down. “She has a great deal of interest in you, of course, and if you begin to share it I do not mind if you express that. Just keep it in your mind that she is young and quite the innocent and do not let things go too far.”
“Understood,” Arthur agreed. Jack thought he looked relieved, and he considered again what sort of match that would be as he was going to sleep that night. He supposed he would just have to see what Arthur made of Serena’s moon-form, how he reacted to it, before deciding how much more encouragement he was willing to give.
They next day was much the same as all the others had been, and the next, and the day after that…until one of the wheels on the cart came loose and necessitated them finding a place to empty everything out of the cart so it could be fixed. As it was already afternoon, they further decided that it was as good a place as any to stop for the night, and Jack got to work on the cart while Arthur and Serena started making camp. He had just finished making a new pin to hold the wheel in place and was putting said wheel back onto its axle when it slipped out of his hand and the cart listed sideways, knocking him off balance…and directly into the rock he’d been using to hold up the cart. Jack saw stars, and then had to catch himself against the edge of the cart when he tried to stand up. The world was spinning around him, and he closed his eyes against it because the movement was making him nauseous, plopping back down onto the ground. “Stupid,” he hissed through clenched teeth when Arthur came running. “I let it knock me over.”
Arthur felt through his hair and grimaced when he found a sizable bump forming. “Feelin’ sick?”
Jack didn’t nod, he knew better. Instead he leaned against the side of the cart. “Everything is spinning. Stupid! I should have kept the rock under it.”
“You couldn’t do that because the wheel wouldn’t go on with it there, remember?” Arthur chided. He actually felt a bit guilty. It was possible that either he or Serena had glanced over—or glanced away—at just the wrong time, and the momentary shift was what had unbalanced Jack. That the rock had been right there when he fell was just bad luck. “Okay, you stay put while we finish up makin’ camp, and then you can sleep it off. I’ll watch Serena tonight.”
And Jack nodded once, very gingerly.
In the Land of Stories Old