Clang says my father’s hammer. And clang says mine.
“What’re you smiling for?” he asks. “Thought you didn’t like making daggers.”
I give him a look. I’m very good at those. My sisters say I shouldn’t bother with words at all, and sometimes I agree with them. The workshop is just so loud. The pounding hammers, the roaring fires, the hissing steel. It’s impossible to say more than two words at a time.
My father laughs. “Alright, alright. ‘M just messing with you. I know the parade is tomorrow.”
“Just one more sleep,” I say.
* * *
That was a lie. A complete lie. I barely slept a wink. When my sisters get up to make breakfast, my eyes are already open. I leap out of bed, grab my best pants and tunic, and brush my hair extra carefully. Normally, it doesn’t need much care. Working in the workshop all day every day means it’s easier to keep it short and out of my eyes. Sometimes, though, I wish my hair was as long as Princess Mylea Niheria Wysamenor’s. Not that it’d look as pretty.
“D’you want me to do your hair?” my youngest sister asks, peeking around the door. “I don’t mind lending you one of my ribbons.”
“Ha!” I laugh. “That’d be like putting ribbons on a double-faced sledgehammer. Wouldn’t make the thing any prettier.”
My sister’s round face scrunches up. “Don’t be so harsh on yourself, Minty. You’re actually quite pretty underneath all that grime.”
“You’re mistaking novelty for beauty. But no mind. It’s not like Princess Mylea Niheria Wysamenor will look at me. Not when there’s a crowd of people lining the streets!”
* * *
There is, in fact, already a crowd of people waiting impatiently along the main road. The sun is barely up. The late Autumn air is cold and fresh, so unlike the heat and musk of the workshop. I take in a deep breath. It stings my throat like a glass of cold water.
I go to my usual place, the second bend in the road. There’s only two bends in the main road: one that wraps around the bakery and one that swerves towards the end of the village. It’s the latter that’s the best. The second bend is sharp and twisty, so the royal carriage always goes slow. Meaning I get to see the royal family Wysamenor and the Princess Mylea Niheria Wysamenor for longer than if I were to stand on a straight stretch of road.
I walk towards the back of the crowd. With my height, standing in front is out of the question. It’d be rude. Besides, a familiar face is already at my spot.
“Oh, gee! Good morning, Minto,” Filibert, the baker’s son and my best friend, says. “I see you’re busting out the new tunic I gave you last Yule.”
I slap him on the back and laugh when he stumbles forward. “‘Course, my friend! You told me you dyed it yourself. ‘Tis only fit for royal eyes.”
Filibert rights himself. I can see he’s pleased. “I knew the purple would suit your dark skin splendidly, so I saved our red cabbage specially for you! I did need to add a bit of vinegar in the end to retain the color, though.”
“You did well.” I let out a laugh. “The color is more vibrant than the jealousy in my eldest sister’s eyes.”
* * *
The sun is high in the sky when unrest starts hopping from townsfolk to townsfolk. Words are being whispered excitedly, and hands are held over eyes as they squint into the distance. I feel a spike of excitement run through me too. Won’t be long now.
“What do you think she’s wearing?” Filibert asks. “I hope it’s blue. The Princess looks wonderful in blue.”
“Princess Mylea Niheria Wysamenor wore blue last year, and three years before that,” I say. “She never wears the same color in a row. Or even two years after. I reckon she’s wearing green, since she wore green four years ago.”
“Oh, shoot, you’re right. How stupid of me to forget.”
“No worries, my friend.” I slap him on the back again. “You’re excited. I get it. I promptly forgot my name when I saw the Princess for the first time.”
“When was that again?”
“Twelve years ago, the day before my twelfth birthday. The air was warm and thick with pollen. Like snowflakes they flew through the air. The Princess had a bright blue handkerchief, but she mustn’t have held it firmly, because it slipped from her fingers and landed in front of my feet. She looked at me, then. Her eyes were as shining blue as the handkerchief. And then the carriage was gone.”
Filibert sighs dreamily. “And you picked up the handkerchief?”
“‘Course I did! Had to fight this scrawny little kid over it, but my arms were big then too. It was an easy fight. Kid snitched on me, dad got mad, but I was too much in awe of the Princess to be upset.”
“And that was it for you.”
“That was it for me,” I agree. One look of the Princess was all it took to fall helplessly in love. Oh, I didn’t recognize it as love at the time. But as I grew and grew, eventually towering over even my father, so did my feelings. Twice a year I would stand at the main road, waiting for Princess Mylea Niheria Wysamenor to look at me again.
She never did.
* * *
Finally, the royal carriage comes into view in the distance. It’s wrought from iron and gold, and the doors are solid birch wood. Birch trees make up the majority of the town’s surrounding forests. For the royal carriage to be built with them says: we belong here. This land carries us.
My father says our family helped build the royal carriage many years ago, when the workshop was in the rough, able hands of his great-great-grandfather. My heart swells when I look at the curved iron surrounding the wooden frame. I feel prouder than ever to be a blacksmith apprentice.
“Here they come,” Filibert says excitedly.
The townsfolk all cheer and clap as the royal carriage passes them. Beside me, Filibert jumps up and down, trying to catch a glimpse of the royal family in the distance. I have half a mind to lift him up and put him on my shoulder, but then the carriage has finally reached us.
And I see her.
Her blonde hair falls over her shoulders like liquid gold. Her delicate frame is covered with a plush pink cape that highlights the blush on her cheeks. Underneath the cape, she’s wearing green, like I predicted. But I don’t gloat.
Princess Mylea Neheria Wysamenor’s blue eyes are looking at nothing and no one in particular. Certainly not me. She’s staring straight ahead, most likely daydreaming about the coming of spring. I heard a rumor that she isn’t fond of winter. Then the Princess’s eyes widen.
It’s because I’m barely blinking that I catch the arrow burying itself into the side of the carriage, an inch from the Princess’s arm. The feathers at the end of the arrow tremble from the force. Someone in the crowd shouts. And then hell breaks loose as men in cloaks run onto the road. The horses in front of the carriage rear back. The coachman shouts something that I can’t hear over the screams. Meanwhile, the Princess is still staring at the arrow in surprise.
“What’s happening?” Filibert shouts at me, eyes wide with fear. “Who are these men?”
I have no idea. Whoever they are, they operate fast. They have the carriage surrounded in no time, leaving the driver no other choice but to halt the horses.
One of the hooded figures jumps onto the carriage. I see steel glinting underneath his cloak as he reaches for the Princess and roughly hauls her to her feet. He shouts something at her. When she doesn’t respond, he shakes her terribly. My stomach turns. I can’t let this happen. Without thinking, I rush towards the carriage.
“Minto!” Filibert shouts, but I don’t listen. People part easily for me, and before I know it, I’m behind the hooded figure.
“Let her go!” I growl, grabbing his cloak. With a mighty pull, I haul him off the carriage. He screams as he tumbles back and hits the ground. I don’t pay him any mind. Quickly, I climb onto the carriage.
“Princess!” I say. “It’s not safe for you here.”
The Princess’s eyes are wide when she looks at me for the second time in all of my twenty-four years. And it’s then that I decide I will do whatever it takes to make sure she’s safe. Even if it means grabbing the princess around the waist and hauling her over my shoulder like a sack of coal. The Princess lets out a yelp.
“I’m so sorry, Princess!” I shout, jumping off the carriage.
“Hey!” a ruffian shouts at me. His eyes are squinted and mean-looking. “Stop!”
He comes running at me, sword in hand.
I don’t think.
I slap the sword out of his hand, plant my boot on his chest, and kick. Hard. With an urgh and an oof and flailing arms, he goes flying back. I don’t watch what happens next. I dash out of there as quickly as I can. Granted, I’ve never been the fastest. Hauling crates of steel, using heavy sledgehammers, and shoveling coal for the furnace do make for excellent upper body strength. Running, however. Not something I have a lot of experience in. Still, with the princess slung over my shoulder, I make it my business to learn quickly.
I zig-zag through the crowd, accidentally pushing over a man or three in my haste. I have no idea where I’m going. Or where it would be safe. Since we’re at the second bend in the main road, I simply run towards the end of the village and don’t stop running. Eventually we reach the woods, which seems like a good place to hide.
“Okay, okay, okay!” The Princess shouts, as I run through another bush. “That’s quite enough! Put me down.”
“But Princess,” I say. “We’re not far enough from the ruffians yet.”
She huffs. It’s a very un-delicate sound. “Ruffians.”
“The men with cloaks.”
“Oh, what? There were men with cloaks? I’m so glad you just explained that to me, because I had no idea.”
I’m a little confused as to how she could’ve missed them. Perhaps she was too startled by the attack.
“It’s okay, Princess. I’ll make sure you’re safe.”
“Ha-ha!” she laughs. Only it doesn’t sound like she’s actually happy. “The one time something interesting happens in my life, some peasant takes me away from it all.”
I start to run slower. “Interesting? Those men were after your life.”
“Really? I didn’t know. I must’ve forgotten to ask what they wanted. You see, I was busy being carried off like a sack of flour.”
My cheeks warm up. The Princess is right. I shouldn’t carry her like this. I stop running and adjust my grip on the Princess, awkwardly maneuvering her into my arms.
“What are you—ow! That’s my ass, you peasant.”
I look down at the Princess now draped over my arms like a piece of valuable cloth. Better. Much more suitable for someone of her standing.
“I’m sorry, Princess Mylea Neheria Wysamenor,” I say. “I only wanted to protect you.”
The Princess snorts. It’s not quite the sound I would’ve expected a princess to make. It’s rough and throaty and sounds like old Ponto in the pub when he’s had too much chewing tobacco.
“No one uses my full name,” she says. “Absolutely no one.”
“They don’t? Why not?”
“Because it’s dumb. I usually just go by Mel.”
I’m horrified. “But that’s so simple.”
She finally looks up at me. Her golden hair tumbles over her shoulders and tickles my wrists. It’s so smooth. So soft.
“Wow, okay,” she says, looking at my face with interest. “Guess you’re not so simple after all. He-llo. How you doing? I’m Mel.”
I blink in confusion. “I know that.”
“Good. Great. Now would you kindly put me down, Arms?”
Confused, I do what she asks. Her cloak falls heavily yet perfectly around her body. A strand of golden hair brushes her cheek as she looks around.
“I need to piss,” she says. “Do you mind turning around?”
My eyes widen. “What?”
“Like. Pee. I need to pee. I drank a liter of water before we went out, because I drank too much last night. My head was killing me. It’s fine now. But I need to piss. So kindly turn around.”
Dumbfounded, I kindly turn around so Princess Mylea Neheria Wysamenor can lift her expensive green dress, squat over a bush, and… piss. A very peculiar feeling fills my chest. It closely resembles finding out that the Yule presents are not, in fact, sent to us by fairies, but bought and wrapped by dear old dad.
“Ahh,” the Princess says. “That hits the spot. Okay, I’m ready to go again.”
* * *
As we walk through the forest, the Princess tells me many things.
“And it was so stupid of her. I told her I didn’t want to take up the flute, but she refuses to listen. Sometimes I feel like I’m just an expensive, purebred dog for them, something to parade around town twice a year. Look at her genes. Look at the tricks it can do! Just wait until you see its offspring! So I told my mother to fuck off, broke the flute in two, and tossed it into the fire. Right in front of the Duke’s family. Ha! It felt great.”
“My brother always likes to brag how he’s better than me. Which is untrue. I’m sure if I had had the opportunity to learn sword fighting or archery or, heaven forbid, chess, I would be just as splendid as he. Did you know I’m not allowed to play chess? God, even dumbfounded you look hot. Yes, it’s true. They are worried the sport is too clever for me and if I were to learn it, my brain would grow too big and deform my head. I’m not kidding, Arms. I wish I was. At any rate, I said to him that I could quiet father’s council meeting faster than he could. Father’s council meetings are always very hectic, you see. Too many men in one room who think they know what’s best. Of course, my brother did not believe me, so I showed him. I marched straight into the room and unbuttoned the top of my dress. I’ll have you know they were all quiet within seconds.”
“You won’t believe what he gave me after the party. I thought I was finally rid of him, but he ushered me into a dark alcove and pressed a piece of paper in my hands. His breath reeked of wine and his face was so red and blotchy, you wouldn’t believe. I had half a mind to scream. Thankfully, he left. Which was really for the better, because when I opened the paper I laughed so hard I’m sure he would’ve been offended and called off the trade contract. Arms, you would not believe it. He had subjected an artist to draw a picture of his penis. His penis!”
My face feels warm. “Princess,” I say, louder than I intended to. “The sky’s already turning dark. Should we head back?”
“Oh, but I’m having such a jolly time.” The Princess sighs. “I suppose you’re right. We should head back before my father sends his army after us and has you hanged for kidnapping his daughter.”
My blood turns to ice.
The Princess lets out another laugh. “I’m joking, of course. Well. Probably.”
* * *
We loop back to the end of town, which is now the beginning. The closer we get to familiar grounds, however, the quieter the Princess becomes.
I glance at her. She is so unlike what I thought she would be. In my mind, I had created a shy, fragile and dreamy person. I had looked at her long, golden hair, her sparkling blue eyes and her delicate hands, and I had decided they made who she was.
I had no idea that she was loud and fierce and a bit crude.
I had no idea that someone’s outside
wouldn’t match their inside.
“Why are you staring at me?” the Princess asks.
“I’m always staring at you,” I say honestly. “Ever since that day you lost your handkerchief, and I picked it up.”
She turns to me. Her blue eyes search my face, then flit to my short hair, my broad shoulders, my rough hands.
Finally, she looks back up. “You know that sounds slightly creepy, don’t you?”
I lower my head. “I promise I mean nothing creepy by it.”
“Pffsh,” the Princess says. “I believe you. You might look like you could snap me in two with your bare hands, but you are actually a big softie, aren’t you? So. You kept my handkerchief.”
My head snaps up.
The Princess is grinning at me. Her eyes are sparkling, and one side of her mouth is quirked up. And I see her in that expression. Not Princess Mylea Neheria Wysamenor, but the person I have been wandering through the forest with. Mel, apparently.
“Yes,” I say. “I kept your handkerchief. But I don’t use it.”
“Why not? It would frankly be less creepy if you did. It’s just a handkerchief. I have a dozen more like it.”
We near the forest edge. Through the birch trees, the lanterns lining the main road come into view. Their fire flickers prettily, so unlike the fierce flames in our forge that I’m used to. That I lovingly tend to every day. I wonder if there’s a metaphor there.
“So you don’t miss it?” I ask.
“No, I don’t miss the handkerchief.” She looks curiously at me. “But I wonder if I might miss you.”
* * *
The gravel crunches underneath our shoes as we walk along the main road. There aren’t a lot of people out and about. Must be around dinner time.
“Tell me something,” the Princess says. “Before someone recognizes me, throws a hissy fit, and disrupts this strangely peaceful day.”
Suddenly, no topic comes to mind. Nothing at all.
“You’re a blacksmith, aren’t you?” the Princess prompts. “I’m surprised this town welcomes a female one.”
“Ha!” I laugh. “They don’t have a choice. I don’t have any brothers. Mom is dead. Dad won’t marry again. It’s just me and my sisters.”
“And they also work the forge?”
I’m surprised and pleased she knows the phrase. “No,” I say. “Just me and dad. My sisters are more interested in cooking, painting, and dresses.”
“But you’re not.”
“I’m not. Can’t paint. And I have no patience for it. I don’t know how to get the image in my head onto the paper. Just give me steel and a hammer, a sledgehammer, tongs, chisels, punches and drifts.”
The Princess snorts. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“Just tools I use, Princess. As for cooking, there’s no need for me to when I have three sisters fighting over who gets to cook that night. I couldn’t come near the stove if I tried.” I shudder. “They’re vicious.”
“Well, that’s fair. You wouldn’t want to let them near the forge, would you?”
The Princess nods. “See.”
I do see. Though I try to be subtle about it. But the Princess turns and catches my eye, so I quickly look away again.
“So,” I say awkwardly. “What was the last one?”
“Dresses,” the Princess says, amused.
“Right. No use for those either. No dress would fit me. Not like they fit you.”
“And how do they fit me?”
I gesture at her small figure. “Like that.”
The Princess throws her head back and laughs. It’s a beautiful sound, and it makes me feel warm all over. Until she starts snorting and tearing up. For a moment, I watch her in bewilderment, then join in her laughter. We must be loud, because soon the entire street is poking their heads through the door, wondering what the ruckus is about. When they see the Princess, they do exactly what she predicted they would.
Throw a hissy fit.
Before I can say excuse me or calm down, they’re all over her. They try to push me aside, but my bulk requires more strength than a few middle-aged people can muster. One of them runs off in search of an officer.
“Ah, here we go again,” the Princess says. “The boring stuff.”
“I thought I was part of the boring stuff,” I say without thinking.
Her eyes sparkle as she looks at me. “Arms? Could you do that thing again, where you sweep me off my feet and erase me from a crowd of frantic people?”
“What?” I ask.
“Lift me up like a sack of flour.”
I do that. People jump back as the Princess’s legs swing through the air in a manner that is not befitting for a member of the royal family. Little do they know she once showed her naked chest to a room full of old men.
For the second time that day, I run away from the second bend in the main road. Only this time, I run in the opposite direction. And this time, the Princess is laughing wildly over my shoulder.
* * *
‘Course I put her down before we reach the Wysamenor castle. The castle is a small thing, impressive in its details rather than its bulk. The opposite of me, basically.
“There you go,” I say. “Home.”
“Or something like it,” the Princess mutters. Then she straightens up, her face serious. “Arms. Thanks for rescuing me today. You made me feel like a princess, which I hated, but then you listened to me piss, and you listened to my stories without admonishing me, and I even saw you smile once or twice, though I’m sure you were embarrassed. I greatly appreciate everything you’ve done.”
My heart is beating strangely fast in my chest. “No problem, Princess.”
Princess Mylea Neheria Wysamenor nods shortly. It seems like she wants to say something, but no words follow. Her eyes dart to my face and away. She brushes a strand of smooth, golden hair behind her ear, and the act looks so fragile that I suddenly long for the blunt person from the woods.
“Mel,” I say, daringly using the Princess’s short name. “Do visit me when you take up sword fighting. I’ll forge you the best one.”
Her mouth quirks up. “Can it have an indecent name?”
“‘Course. Anything you want.”
“Splendid. Because I think Piss Taker has a nice ring to it.”
I don’t even bother with words. I don’t need them anyway. I’m sure the Princess’s mirth is reflected in my own eyes. And without any sense of decorum, we laugh until we’re snorting and crying and are red in the face.