St Swithin’s Day
The roof of this inn leaks like an old boot, I must leave at dawn to embark on twenty miles of hard riding, my noble steed is behaving like a mule, and I’ve just drained my
sixth seventh tankard of disgusting, third-rate ale. So let me be ill-advisedly frank.
I don’t dispute it was your royal prerogative to enter my employ in the guise of a peach-cheeked squire. How could I? Over the eighteen years of my career I have been denied countless commissions on account of my sex and my modest stature. I am well aware disguise is sometimes necessary.
Most newly apprenticed squires have only a dozen summers under their belts, but absence of whiskers aside, you looked mature enough to have fathered a whole forest of such saplings. “I spent many years nursing my sick brother,” you said, “but his health is much improved, and he has a loyal friend at his side. I need to see the world.” Your Sweet Sable, a suspiciously high-spirited mount, was laden with supplies.
Of course I resisted. I was in a sorry state at the time. Like nearly every other knight of the realm, I am adept at seeing off dragons, unicorns and the occasional over-ambitious hippogriff, but there simply aren’t enough threats to keep us all gainfully occupied, and given my other disadvantages, I was on the bones of my arse. The last thing I needed was another two mouths to be responsible for feeding. But you were persistent. You said you’d travelled to find me, in particular. That you’d heard of my feats.
Naturally I was flattered. But for me, the chivalric life is a vocation, a livelihood; to you, it was a mere adventure. (This ale tastes worse with every mouthful; I think it’s cursed.) If I’d known you would exclaim in rapture at each new creature we encountered and charge headlong into all manner of mortal dangers, despite my best attempts to stop you, I would have refused from the outset. The number of times I was convinced you would be stung, burnt, poisoned, turned to stone, gored, or eaten outright—
But I’ll admit my neatly patched clothes and polished armour did make Certain Idiot Patrons take me more seriously. Your skill with a crossbow improved, and your insights into the natural world, coupled with my own extensive experience, meant I was offered more work, and my reputation flourished. I likely would not have been able to rid Gubblecote Market of its basilisk weasel problem without your advice that the beasts only attack when cornered.
However! You could have mentioned you’d gleaned that weasel lore from the royal library, during your royal fucking tutoring sessions! And did you have to adopt one of the damned creatures as a pet? He’s nothing but a bright-eyed, chattering nuisance
as were you. When it rains, I miss you, and it’s raining like Hell right now. I have called for another tankard and a messenger to convey these words to you at
The palace. Piss shit fuck Goddamn. I’ll just burn them now and spare myself the humiliation.
The Day After St Swithin’s Day
Your Highness, Princess Rhoslyn
Some highly confidential pages are missing from my private journal. I find myself indisposed, and recollection of their fate presently eludes me, but should they appear in your possession I trust you’ll do the honourable thing and burn them unread.
Since I’m putting pen to paper anyway, what about Beasley? I can’t entrust a basilisk weasel to the care of an ordinary messenger. He’d inevitably get lost or make trouble on the way. If you want him, you’ll have to send someone experienced to collect him in person.
Last night my camp was overrun with carnivorous itching worms. I had to sleep up a tree, surrounded by indignant woodpeckers and insomniac squirrels. You would have made atrocious jokes about their squ-worming all night.
I can’t send this. You’re back where you belong. But every morning and every evening I find myself wishing I could turn back the seasons. Beasley is some small consolation, but I miss my squire.
St Clement, Leicestershire
It’s been months, and Valour is still pining for your Sweet Sable. Meanwhile Beasley dozes all the time. You never had any trouble with him that I recall, but he let me scratch him behind the ear a few nights hence, then bit me for my trouble. Not that I noticed much; I acquire ever more badges of honour in the form of scars. The price of success in this line of work.
Did you really have to flee the palace and take a menial position to stand in the rain with your arms outstretched? Don’t they have weather in those exalted heights? You looked astonished, nay, transported by it. If I’d had my wits about me, I would have guessed then. No one who’s ever gone cold and hungry can be driven to ecstasy by soaking themself to the bone in a rain shower!
When the King’s guard came looking for a missing princess, you were knee deep in mud on the other side of the field, setting the snatcher traps, and Valour and I were too busy herding the trollhogs away from the hamlet to pay the palace guards any mind. They continued on their way, none the wiser.
If I’d known, would I have told them? Of course! Lying to the King’s guard would have ended me in a dungeon. Valour would have been forfeit, and she’s too small to make a respectable guard horse. And it’s not as if you were in jeopardy: you must be immeasurably happier at the palace, surrounded by courtiers and servants, eating quail egg pie, bathing in warm water, and dancing with snooty princes.
God help me, a winged truth adder found a chink in my armour as I was evicting it from the Snittlegarth village well, and under its potent influence, there are sentiments I can’t help but commit to paper.
I guessed you were a runaway on the day we met and knew you were a woman not long after. It wasn’t that you insisted the innkeeper provide us with clean bed linen. It wasn’t even your curves, nor that you forgot to stuff a sock in your britches as often as not. It was your lips. I never find myself staring at men’s mouths.
Anyway, I went along with the pretence. Who am I to say if you’re a man or a woman at heart?
The old witch who bound my adder bite said the effects would wear off in three or four hours. (It’s been four and a half; my blood is sluggish in this weather.) Honestly, she wasn’t that old, and passably good-looking. She invited me to stay until morning. A generous invitation, a warm bed. I opted for another seedy overcrowded inn.
If you’d taken the guise of a witch instead of a squire, you could have been the one to strap a poultice to my thigh and tell me I’d survive. You could have been the one to invite me into
Oh, what’s the use. Another letter I won’t send. I don’t want to think about you anymore. I’m tired of seeing your face in my dreams and waking with your name in my mouth.
A Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset
All Hallow’s Eve
I’m under siege and doubt I’ll last the night. I may as well put pen to paper to pass my final moments.
I’m in a dank cave the size of a bed chamber. I sent Valour away, and Beasley is curled in a tight ball at my back, asleep again, the useless creature. I have only half a candle. It’s cold, and escape is impossible thanks to a pair of belligerent rainbow cockatrices, which only cease clawing chunks of rock from the cave entrance to growl at each other with bloodcurdling menace. I think they’re vying for the right to bite my head off.
I’m sure I heard knights’ heads are a delicacy for rainbow cockatrices. You must have mentioned it one night around the campfire.
I think often of the dashing arrival of your friend, Prince Thurstan, come to take you away. I believed I knew everything about you by then, that your ruse had grown ever more threadbare, but that was a lie in itself. The revelation of your status was a stunning blow to my pride and more.
You greeted Thurstan gladly. It was plain as a shadow in sunlight that he cherishes you, and his news of your brother’s failing health persuaded you to throw off your charade and return to the palace without a second’s hesitation. When you turned to me, extended your hand in farewell and said my name, what did you expect?
I knelt. Of course I knelt. A subject before her liege lady. Idiot that I am, I couldn’t even look up to see—
Ah, another bout of growling, a nearer scoring of the rock. One of the beasts has wedged its whole foot into the cave and is groping around blindly. It nearly knocked over the tiny stub of my candle just then. That’s the reason for the ink blot. It won’t be long now.
I admit, I was starting to enjoy the recent change in my fortunes—not just the acclaim I’ve garnered, but the variety of work and the challenge. Any fool with a lance can slay a unicorn or a dragon. These other beasts require stratagems, and I seem to have a talent for those.
But I couldn’t have come this far without you.
If you were here—not Princess Rhoslyn, but Rho, my squire, with her inexhaustible supply of trivia about the natural world and truly appalling puns, I’m sure between us we could have devised a route to freedom. We always did, didn’t we? And if no opportunity for flight presented itself, I would take your hand, as I did not—as I could not—when you left.
It’s not raining, and still I think of you, arms open wide. If Fate contrives to deliver me from this certain death, I swear to God I will send this.
The Royal Palace
By the Heavens, L., you are impossible to reach! I’ve sent letters to every corner of the kingdom, and they all return unopened. I hope this missive will outshine its predecessors, and that it finds you in good health and spirits, with an escape route planned out if needed. But to business—
Sir Lorica, we are in desperate need of your services. The royal library is infested with fire leeches. As you may know, they are terribly dangerous in dry environs, and we are unable to snuff them out ourselves. Centuries of folklore and philosophy as well as several famed bestiaries hang in the balance.
I know I can count on you.
P.S. My brother is finally rallying, to Thurstan’s profound relief.
P.P.S. If I’d revealed myself sooner, would we have been parted so long? I was sure you’d send me back. I’ve missed my surly Lorica every morning, noon and night since the day I was compelled to return here.
P.P.P.S. Rainbow cockatrices! Magnificent! How I would have loved to see them.
Two days after Martinmas
Your message has found me. There was no need to send so many men; surely your armed forces have better things to do than search for one lowly hedge knight!
Frankly, I question whether your report of fire leeches in the library is truth or fabrication, and there must be a dozen chevaliers between here and the palace, but I am a knight, sworn to defend this land, and I will not ignore your cry for help.
Thankfully, Valour awaited me and the heroic Beasley in East Dundry, at the inn with the cider you like. We will arrive at the palace as soon as my guard escort permits—or sooner, if I can give them the slip.
P.S. Basilisk weasels only attack when they’re cornered, just as you said.