Flash Fiction Friday: Miscalculated Rescue

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Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

Miscalculated Rescue

by Kelly F. Barr

Sir Tobias the Dragonheart rode through the woods upon his ebony warhorse. He followed the path to Redmont Castle. King Redmont’s soldiers had stormed the gates of Clayborne Castle a week before and had captured Princess Octavia. King Redmont now held the princess in a tower high above the Redmont castle walls, and Sir Tobias determined to rescue her.

Sir Fendril the Butcher and Sir Tancred the Hawk rode behind Sir Tobias. When Redmont Castle came into sight, Sir Tobias slowed his horse. Just inside the wooded boundary, he raised a hand, motioning the others to halt. He studied the layout of the castle, quickly spotting the tower that surely held Princess Octavia.

“I will hasten to the tower and use my grappling hook to gain access to the window. You two keep watch. Do your best to stop anyone from entering the tower room while I attempt to rescue the princess. Sir Tancred, use your hawk call to warn me of any impending danger.”

Both men nodded, and the three separated to take their places.

Sir Tobias undid the rope from his waist. He began to swing the rope in a circle over his head, letting more rope out with each rotation. When the rope appeared long enough to reach the window ledge, he gave a quick lasso-type throw, and sure enough, the hook landed, caught, and upon Sir Tobias’s tug, it held.

He paused to see if anyone had heard the clink of the hook landing and scraping into the window ledge. After a couple minutes of silence, he began his climb up the wall toward the tower. He climbed and climbed until his hands ached and his legs and arms burned. Finally, he reached the window ledge and heaved himself over its edge.

He landed on the stone floor with a clink of chain mail against stone. He heaved deep breaths in and out. The scent of lavender and roses floated on the air in the room. He looked up and noticed he was surrounded by Princess Octavia and twelve other women. How was he supposed to rescue the princess and ride off into the sunset now?

“Sir Tobias! You’ve come to save us.”

Sir Tobias rose to his feet. “Mi’lady, I have come to rescue you. I had no idea there were other women here. Who are all these ladies?”

“Apparently, King Redmont and his son have been capturing women and keeping them here for their own carnal pleasures.” Princess Octavia shivered.

Rage rose within Sir Tobias like a tornado. “They haven’t laid a hand upon you, have they?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. The prince wants to save me for himself. Claims he will make me his wife.”

She reached out and gripped Sir Tobias’s arm. “You have to get us all out of here. Some of these women have already been used and are ashamed. The rest cling to one another in fear every time we hear the key in the door lock.”

Sir Tobias began pacing back and forth. How could he rescue thirteen maidens with the help of just two knights and three horses? He moved to the window, looked down and spotted Sir Fendril with his bow, an arrow nocked and ready.

“Fendril!” Sir Tobias called down, and the knight looked up. “We need a wagon. Raid their barns and stables, and be quick about it.”

Fendril nodded and pressed his horse into a gallop around the left side of the castle.

Sir Tobias turned back to Princess Octavia. “How many come to take the ladies?”

“It is always three—one to lead the women, and two to follow.”

Tobias nodded. Those odds weren’t bad. He’d probably survive such a battle, but he still hoped to avoid a confrontation, if possible. Any battle would draw more unwanted attention.

Finally, the pounding of horses’ hooves and the rattling of wagon wheels reached Tobias’s ears. He peered out the window and took a deep breath. Fendril had succeeded in securing a wagon. Now the problem was how to get thirteen women down from the tower without getting caught.

Princess Octavia touched his shoulder and he turned toward her. “We can do it.”

He raised an eyebrow at her.

“We can make it down the side of the castle, if you can secure a rope around our waists to keep us from falling in case we lose our grip or footing.”

Sir Tobias frowned and his brow creased. The princess nodded at him. He looked around at the other women, who all nodded their agreement.

“Okay. Let’s give it a try. You will have to move as quickly as possible if we’re going to get all of you out of here undetected.”

The smallest woman stepped forward. “I will go first.”

Tobias quickly fastened a rope around her waist and clipped it to the grappling rope. The little woman climbed upon the window ledge, turned her back to the ground, placed her feet upon the edge of the ledge, held the rope in her hands, and began her backward descent.

When only the princess and one other woman remained, Sir Tancred released his hawk call and a chill ran through Tobias. Without wasting a minute, he tied a rope around both women’s waists and clipped them to the rope around his own waist. “The three of us must descend together.”

Tobias was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the two women adjusted to move as one with him. On the ground, he unclipped all of them and the women ran to climb into the wagon. As Tobias grasped his grappling rope to try to wrench it free, three heads appeared in the tower window. They began shouting.

Tobias released several curses under his breath as he let go his grappling rope and leaped upon his horse’s back. Fendril, his horse already hitched to the wagon, pushed the horse to gallop toward the road. Tobias and Tancred followed the wagon while watching over their shoulders for any trouble from behind.

As they raced through the gates of Clayborne Castle, Tobias shouted for the gatekeepers to shut and bar the gates quickly. The wagon and two horses came to a halt and curious Clayborne residents surrounded the wagon, staring at the women who clung to one another.

Princess Octavia stood up in the wagon and shouted, “Get back. Please. Haven’t you ever seen a group of women before?”

Sir Tobias grinned, dismounted his horse and strode to the back of the wagon. “Ladies, please follow me.” He helped the women down from the wagon, and Fendril and Tancred joined the group. Tobias led, and the rest followed him into the castle.

King Clayborne entered the large foyer and welcomed them, then sent the twelve women with several of the castle handmaids to be taken to rooms and settled for the night. Then he wrapped Princess Octavia in a warm embrace.

“Octavia, I’m so glad you are home. Are you … unscathed?”

“Yes Father.”

“Wonderful. Join me in the dining hall, won’t you?”

Octavia flashed a look toward Tobias, then turned back to her father. “Give me a few minutes?”

Her father chuckled. “Of course.”

As her father walked toward the dining hall, Octavia turned toward Tobias.

“Thank you for coming to my rescue, and for taking on the job of rescuing so many more.” She smiled up at him.

“Of course, Mi’lady. No woman should be treated as farm stock.”

Octavia grinned at the big man, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed his cheek.

Heat crept into Tobias’s face. He looked around to see if anyone was near enough to have seen the princess giving him affection.

Octavia giggled and grasped one of his large hands in her delicate one. “Come on. Escort me to the dining hall. I’m sure my father has an offer you can’t refuse.”

Tobias raised an eyebrow.

She looked into his brown eyes. “Don’t play innocent with me. You do want to marry me, don’t you?”

“M-m-marry!” Tobias spluttered.

“Oh come now. You’ve been vying for my attention for over a year now. You’ve already won my heart. You might as well accept the rest of me.”

This time, when she raised upon her toes, she placed her soft lips against his. His heart thumped in his chest, making it clear there was no turning back now.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Wedding Secret

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Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

The Wedding Secret
by Kelly F. Barr

Kalliope smoothed the front of her white lace wedding dress and reached for her bouquet of lavender roses and white carnations with shaking hands.

She placed a hand on her stomach and looked at Riah, her bridesmaid. “I don’t know if I can go through with this.”

Riah stepped toward her and took her free hand. “You do love him, don’t you?”

Kalliope nodded. “Of course I do, but what will happen if his family finds out? I feel like we should have told them.”

“You know what would’ve happened if they knew, right?”

“They would’ve found a way to prevent us from marrying.” Tears welled in Kalliope’s eyes.

“Don’t let those tears fall. You’ll ruin your makeup.” Riah smiled. “You’re doing the right thing. You and Jerry belong together. You can’t let someone else’s prejudices prevent that.” She squeezed Kalliope’s hand.

“But they’re his family.”

“And he made his choice and his decision. This way, if they find out, it will be too late, and the two of you will deal with it together.”

Organ music drifted into the room. Riah gathered the train of Kalliope’s dress and pointed to the door. “It’s time to go.”

Kalliope gave Riah a wobbly smile and moved to the door. Riah arranged Kalliope’s train then stepped around Kalliope with care. They watched Gretchen, Kalliope’s sister, walk down the aisle, then Riah gave Kalliope a thumbs-up before walking down the aisle.

When Riah reached the front of the church auditorium, the organist began the “Wedding March”. Kalliope took a deep breath, released it, and gained some courage as her father smiled at her and she took his arm.

As she and her father walked down the aisle, Kalliope looked around at all the faces. They were all smiling at her. She wondered how many on Jerry’s side would be smiling if they knew. Then she fixed her eyes on Jerry, who was standing at the front, his eyes glued to her, a smile on his face. She found strength in his presence and her doubts melted away at the love she saw shining through his eyes.

Her eyes locked with Jerry’s when her father placed her hand in Jerry’s. The two of them turned to face the pastor. The ceremony moved along smoothly until the pastor asked if there was anyone present who could give reason that this man and woman should not be joined together.

Kalliope’s heart thudded and every muscle in her body grew tense as she held her breath silently urging the pastor to continue. Someone cleared their throat and the lights flickered three times before blinking off completely.

It took a couple minutes for everyone’s eyes to adjust to the pale light that peeked through the draped windows. Then the organ began playing and the organist stood up and backed away from the instrument. The organist’s eyes and mouth opened wide as the organ played without anyone touching it. Several gasps came from the right side of the room, the side where Jerry’s friends and family sat.

Kalliope looked at Jerry, who quirked an eyebrow at her. She shrugged her shoulders as she tried to quell her elevated emotions. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and released the breath through slow puffs of air. The organ music stopped, and when Kalliope opened her eyes, the lights had come back on and the pastor finished the ceremonial words before anyone else could find their voice, further easing Kalliope’s emotions.

When the pastor told Jerry to kiss his bride, he took her in his arms, dipped her as if they were dancing the tango, kissed her passionately, and as he returned her to her feet, whispered in her ear, “The lights and organ … that was you, wasn’t it?”

“I still struggle to control my magic abilities when my emotions are running high.”

Jerry grinned at her. “Marriage to you will certainly not be dull.”

As Kalliope savored the wedding meal, enjoyed cutting the cake and feeding a bit to Jerry and him feeding her, she began to relax. The dancing began and she took her place in Jerry’s arms.

He looked into her eyes. “You are beautiful and I am the luckiest man alive.”

She couldn’t help but wonder if he would still feel that way when his parents discovered her secret. His family wanted nothing to do with those who practiced magic—they said they were the reason the world was filled with hate, but Kalliope didn’t know any people with magic abilities that hated those who had none. It was always those without abilities spewing hate and being cruel toward those with magic abilities.

The dancing ended and Jerry’s parents loaded the gifts into their van to take to Jerry and Kalliope’s house while the newlyweds drove to the airport to fly to Missouri where they would spend their two week honeymoon in the Ozarks.

When they were seated on the plane, Jerry took her hand in his and rubbed his thumb over the back of it. Then he leaned over and spoke to Kalliope just above a whisper. “I’m looking forward to seeing what magic might happen tonight on our wedding night.” He winked at her and chuckled.

Kalliope’s face warmed and she knew she was blushing.

A Special Post — A Short Story– “The Princess of Winterberry”

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Photo by Tim Rebkavets on Unsplash

“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.

Ashley winced.

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.”