“The Princess of Winterberry”
by Kelly F. Barr
It’s strange how I’d never noticed her before. I mean, I’d seen her but never really paid attention. Now it seemed I couldn’t look at anything else—anyone else. Not after what she’d told me. And she had proof—a copy of a page from her mom’s diary, or at least the woman she’d always known as her mother.
“You were kidnapped as a toddler?”
She nodded. Her emerald eyes met my gray-blue ones. “You don’t suppose I’m … I could be the missing princess of Winterberry, do you?”
I had to cough to stifle the chuckle that almost erupted from my throat. She was serious. I paused and really looked at her. In the past, the only thing I found attractive about her were her eyes. They were large and emerald green. Other than that, I’d found her plain.
Today, however, I noticed her nose was perfectly straight and she had high cheekbones. Her long hair, the color of goldenrod, hung in waves past her shoulders. It’s the first time I ever saw her with it down. She usually tied it back in a ponytail. Her pink bow-shaped lips stood out from her flawless cream-colored complexion. She wasn’t plain after all. She was … beautiful.
“Ashley, just because you found out that you were kidnapped, don’t you think it’s far-fetched to jump to the conclusion that you are the princess?”
“Why do you automatically assume I couldn’t be?” Her eyes flashed and she raised her chin.
I’d never seen her like this before. She had always been meek, quiet, and mostly kept to herself. She had surprised me when she sat down across from me here in Josiah’s Tavern.
“You hope you are … don’t you?”
She made a huffing noise. “Why do you keep responding to my questions with questions?” She leaned toward me. “Brock, don’t you think it would make sense? I don’t look anything like Hannah, the raven-haired woman with dark brown eyes and Zeke, the brown-haired man with golden brown eyes that raised me. Maybe that’s why they treat me more like a servant than a daughter—making me scrub the floors and windows, cook, and wash the dishes, bake the bread and churn the butter, beat the rugs, and hang the clothing out to air.”
“So how did you get away today? And what about the other days I’ve seen you in the market or walking through a field? Seems to me they give you plenty of freedom.”
“I may do as I please when my work’s all done, and as I like to spend time alone, I’ve learned to get my work done quickly so I can wander where I please. Will you come with me to Winterberry Castle?”
My lower jaw dropped, but I quickly regained my composure. “You’re planning on going to the castle?”
“Well, how will I know if I’m the lost princess unless someone from the castle sees me and recognizes me?”
“First, I’ll ask my mother to tell me what she knows about the missing princess. If I find enough information that points to the possibility of you being the princess … I’ll take you to the castle.”
“I’ll give you three days.”
“Ashley, why did you come to me about this? What makes you trust me?”
“Brock, you’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me.”
“I hardly noticed you.”
“Oh come on, Brock. I’ve seen you sneak glances at me when I’ve walked by in the market place. I felt your eyes on my back as I walked through a field. I know you were in a tree above me … watching over me … every time I’ve sat by the creek, and I know you’ve often followed me to be sure I arrived home safely.”
My face flushed. I hoped she didn’t notice. I wouldn’t admit to those things, even though they were true. I wouldn’t have her thinking I was interested in her. It’s just … I always found her … enchanting somehow.
“I think you must’ve mistaken someone else for me. Maybe Robin Rhoads is the one’s been doing all those things.”
She rose to her feet, came around the table, and stood next to me.
“It’s all right Brock. I like that you watch over me. It makes me feel, kind of … special, and safe.”
She leaned down, gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, and sashayed out the tavern door as my face burned with heat and my heart beat loud in my chest.
Three days later I found Ashley waiting outside the tavern for me. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the side of the building.
“Well, what have you found out?”
“You’re the right age to be the princess. My mother said her sixteenth birthday is just two weeks away. She said that Queen Miranda of Winterberry has emerald eyes and goldenrod hair.”
Ashley slipped her fingers through a handful of her hair.
“My mother also said the princess was born with a birthmark on her inner right thigh, the shape of a crescent moon.”
Ashley began to hitch up her skirt.
“Ashley, not here. Not in front of me.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. It’s only my leg.”
She held her skirt at the top of her thigh, revealing her entire shapely leg. She turned it out so that the light could shine on her inner thigh, and there… There was a reddish tan birthmark in the shape of a crescent moon.
Without a thought, I dropped to one knee before her, placed my left hand upon her thigh, and brushed my thumb across the birthmark. A tingling sensation shot through my fingers and up my arm.
Ashley pulled her leg back and dropped her skirt. She looked at me through wide eyes and she was breathing heavy causing her chest to rise and fall. I wondered if she’d felt the tingling too.
“You have to take me to the castle. Tomorrow. I’ll meet you by the creek in the early afternoon.”
I nodded and, with a swirl of her skirt, she was gone.
I tossed and turned all through the night, an ache in my heart. The next morning I plodded through my work, my every thought on Ashley—Ashley, the girl I had come to realize I am in love with. The girl I am no longer worthy of. She is a princess, and I am just a peasant … a farmer who lives in Winterburgh village and gives one-third of his crops to the lords that manage the village for the King and Queen of Winterberry—Ashley’s parents.
When my work was finished, I trudged to the creek. Ashley was already there, her eyes alight with excitement. She placed her hand in mine, and again the tingling shot up my arm, stronger than the evening before.
“I’m ready to go.” She smiled at me.
I gave her hand a gentle squeeze and rubbed my thumb over the back of it. I longed to fall on my knees and beg her to stay with me. To continue living as the daughter of the village cobbler and his wife. To … marry … me, but I could not. If she was indeed the princess, she deserved so much more.
“Brock, how could I have been right under the king’s and queen’s noses all these years and they not know it? Didn’t they send knights to look through the village for their missing child? It seems that would’ve been the first course of action.”
“They did, but your father and mother, I mean, Zeke and Hannah had taken you far away. They didn’t return to Winterburgh for four years. By then, the king and queen had given up and done their grieving, and were living their lives the best they could without their child. You were six years old when I first met you.”
“And you were ten. You must’ve thought me a bother as I followed you around.”
“I never saw you as a bother. You were always sweet.”
“Oh my…” Ashley stopped, her free hand covering her mouth.
We stood looking at Castle Winterberry.
A tear slid down Ashley’s cheek.
“Ashley, are you okay? Is something wrong?”
“Oh Brock, could I really belong in a place like that? It will be a whole different life. Will I still be … me?”
She turned to look at me and I saw fear in her eyes.
“Yes, your life will be different, but Ashley, you will always be you.” I lifted her hand to my mouth and kissed the back of it. “Just promise you will never forget me.” I dropped her hand.
“Don’t be silly, Brock. How could I ever forget you?” She turned and started toward the castle, then turned back to me. “You’ve been my guardian angel for years. That’s why you had to come with me.”
“Ashley, I can’t stay at the castle with you. It will become someone else’s job to protect you now.”
“I … I can’t go without you.”
Then she was in my arms, clinging to me as she wept into my shoulder.
I smoothed her hair. “Sh, sh. It will be all right. This is your destiny, Ashley. You were meant to be the Princess of Winterberry. Soon you’ll find…” I swallowed around the lump in my throat, tried to clear it. “Soon you’ll find … your prince.” A knife pierced my heart at the thought of someone else holding her, loving her. But she could not be mine.
I released her, took a step back from her, and brushed the tears from her face. I began walking toward the castle and soon she was walking beside me once again. We walked the rest of the way in silence.
At the castle gate, I spoke quietly to one of the castle guards, who then escorted us to the castle door.
A tall gentleman bid us entrance and led us down a long hallway. We stopped before a set of double doors. The tall man opened the doors and motioned for Ashley and I to enter.
We entered a room where, seated on two chairs were a grand gentleman with hair the color of sand and eyes the same blue as the sky on a sunny day. Next to him sat a very regal woman.
Ashley looked at the woman and gasped. Her fingers touched her own hair. The woman’s hair was the same goldenrod color.
The woman rose and stepped toward Ashley, looked into her eyes and touched her hair. Tears began to pool in the woman’s eyes—eyes the same emerald color as Ashley’s. “Could it be?” She spoke so soft, it was a mere whisper. Her eyes moved to Ashley’s skirt. “Would you mind? Could I see the inside of your right thigh?”
Ashley nodded and lifted her skirt. The queen fell to her knees and examined Ashley’s inner thigh. She took her thumb and rubbed the crescent moon much more vigorously than I had.
The queen rose to her feet. “I’m sorry dear, but I had to be sure the mark was real.” Then she wrapped Ashley in her arms and wept. After what seemed a long time, she held Ashley at arm’s length and smiled through her tears. “It’s you. It’s really you … my daughter! You’ve come home!” Then she hugged Ashley again and both were crying.
The king moved to join them, and wrapped both of them in his arms. “After all these years, we are a family again.” Then he noticed me for the first time. “Young man, however did you find her, and how did you know she was our Arabella?”
“She actually figured it out, Your Majesty. She found a page in the diary of the woman she thought was her mother telling how they had kidnapped her when she was quite young. She knew of the missing princess and spoke with me about her suspicion. I asked my mother what she knew of the missing princess and my mother told me the story and gave me a description which I shared with Ashley … I mean, Arabella. She found she had the birthmark, and asked me to come to the castle with her.”
He smiled at me and shook my hand. “Now that Princess Arabella has come home, we must celebrate her safe return. Next week, for her sixteenth birthday we will have a ball where she will have the chance to be introduced to all the eligible knights in the land. Surely, you must attend the ball.”
The king, true to his word, sent a royal invitation for me to attend the ball. How could I attend and watch Ashley … Arabella dance with all the eligible knights as they vied for her hand? But I could not resist a chance to see her one last time.
I washed and dressed in my finest clothes and walked to the castle. I paused before the door. Surely I would draw attention being the poorest dressed man in the room. People would wonder what business I had there. I took a deep breath and knocked.
The same gentleman bid me entrance and led me to a large ballroom with crystal candle chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. A small symphony orchestra sat in one corner, playing soft music while knights and ladies dressed in beautiful clothing mingled. I stepped inside and hurried to a place along one wall, hoping not to be noticed. I would simply watch. It would have to be enough—just to see the princess once again.
There was a grand staircase at the back of the room. It led to a balcony of sorts and my breath caught in my throat as Ashley appeared on the balcony and moved to the top of the stairs. She glided down the staircase, dressed in a green gown with gold trim, long white gloves on her hands and up her forearms, a gold necklace with sparkling emeralds and diamonds hung at her throat and matching earrings dangled from her ears. Her goldenrod hair was piled atop her head but several tendrils hung down by her face to touch her collarbone. She was exquisite. She had truly been transformed from the seemingly unremarkable Ashley, who had stolen my heart, to an enchanting princess—Princess Arabella.
I shrank back against the wall, hoping she wouldn’t see me. I didn’t come to ruin her evening, and she deserved one of the knights, who eagerly awaited her, near the bottom of the stairs. I could give her … nothing.
I slipped to the refreshment table as the dancing began and Princess Arabella was whisked onto the dance floor by a tall, handsome man with dark brown hair. I downed a glass of punch and grabbed another then slipped back to my place against the wall.
I watched as the princess danced with man after man. She smiled at each of them, but her body held tension and her eyes seemed to search the room frequently. I stuck to the shadows willing those searching eyes not to find me.
Then one of the gentlemen escorted the princess to the refreshment table and handed her a glass of punch. She responded politely and with a smile, then set her eyes to searching the room once more.
That’s when it happened—her eyes met mine and I could not look away. My heart thudded in my chest and I thought the whole room must hear it. Ashley set the glass of punch down and moved toward me. I stood frozen in place, though my head told me to leave.
“Brock, you’re here. Why are you hiding here by the wall? I’ve been looking for you. You must dance with me.”
“Ashley … uh, I mean, Arabella … uh, I mean, My Lady, I am not worthy to dance with you. I should not be here. There are many worthy gentlemen who wait to dance with you. I should go.”
The princess reached out and took my hand in one of her gloved ones. “You must dance with me. I insist.” The corners of her lips twitched and her emerald eyes sparkled.
She pulled me to the dance floor, as my feet didn’t seem to be able to move of their own accord. The music began and she placed my hand on her waist, held my other hand and raised it to shoulder level, and placed her free hand on my opposite shoulder. We danced. I don’t know how I managed to move as I felt stiff, but somehow we glided across the floor and Ashley relaxed. The rest of the people seemed to melt away.
“Will you ask for my hand?” She searched my eyes.
“I … I am not worthy. I have … nothing … nothing to offer you. You are a princess. I am a peasant.” I lowered my gaze.
She placed a gloved finger under my chin and lifted my head so that my eyes, once again, looked into hers.
“But we have a bond. Our hearts belong to one another—they have for a long time. I love you and I know you love me. Princess or not, maybe that is why I was kidnapped and raised in the village.”
I looked at her with raised brows.
“To meet the man intended for me. Had I been raised in this castle, we may have never met.”
“But…” She placed a gloved finger on my lips, and we danced through open glass doors I hadn’t noticed before. We were on a veranda overlooking the courtyard.
“Brock…” She placed a hand on my chest—over my heart, and stepped close to me, so close I felt the breath of her next words on my lips. “I may be a princess, but my heart will always belong to you, and I will live in a castle or on a peasant farm. None of this…” She moved an arm in an arc from her waist outward, indicating the castle. “…means anything to me without you.”
I searched her eyes and all I saw was love—a strong burning love directed toward me. “Oh Ashley.” My lips found hers and I kissed her deep and long as I had yearned to do for over a week.
When the kiss ended, we remained in each other’s arms until someone cleared their throat. We turned to find the king and queen looking at us. I quickly released Ashley.
“I beg your pardon, Your Majesties. I … I’m sorry. I should not have come. I have … overstepped my bounds. I will take my leave now.” I took a step, but a gloved hand reached out and grabbed me.
“No!” Ashley’s voice sounded strangled. She looked to her parents. “Please. I know he’s not a knight, but my heart belongs to him. Please. He is the one I choose.” Tears glistened in her eyes.
I stood frozen to my spot, fear filling every part of me.
The king and queen looked at one another, then at Ashley, then at me. Their look was not disapproving. They looked at one another once again, and the queen nodded to the king.
The king looked at me and said, “Well, young man, are you prepared to accept my daughter’s hand in marriage?”
My lower jaw dropped. I couldn’t speak for a few moments. Then, “But, Your Majesty, I am a peasant farmer. I have nothing to offer her.”
“Oh but you do. You offer her the most important things in life, things that cannot be bought and paid for—love, faithfulness, loyalty—your heart—yourself. We could not ask for anything better for our daughter, the Princess of Winterberry.”