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The Princess in the Tower

Author's note: So this is actually like a story within a story.  In another book I was writing, the main...  Show full author's note »
Author's note:

So this is actually like a story within a story.  In another book I was writing, the main character was reading a book about Princess Hannah and Sir Frederic, and I figured, "Hey, I can work with this!"  So this is the story a main character in another story was reading, if that makes any sense at all.

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Chapter Five

The entire kingdom was buzzing about Sir Harold’s return. Some of the villagers were shocked he was back so soon, others shocked he was gone for so long, but most were annoyed that he did not come back with the princess. As Frederic wandered the city one afternoon, he could not help but hear rumors and complaints all around.
“I heard that he was travelling for a month and then became too tired to continue…”
“… wonder if his companions went on without him? That lazy…”
“Do you think he was too scared to continue?”
“No, not Harold. He’s never scared. I heard a wizard told him to turn back…”
Each story was more preposterous than the next, and each one left Frederic more confused. He did not know what to believe, and although Sir Timothy reassured him that Harold would never have given up without cause, still the young squire doubted.
Head down, arms full of results from his errands, Frederic walked back to the castle, lost in thought. He did not get past the drawbridge, though, because he bumped into someone, lost his balance, and fell into the moat, only saving his groceries by throwing them up and onto the drawbridge at the last second.
“…so sorry, my boy!” he heard once he resurfaced. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Thank you,” Frederic replied, swimming to the shore and hauling himself up. “Lucky for me, I learned how to swim when I was five.”
“That is lucky,” the man said, helping him to his feet. “That was quick thinking, saving your errands like that.”
“Not really,” replied Frederic modestly. “It was just instinct.”
The man laughed and helped the wet boy pick up his food. “Then you have good instincts. Where are you heading with all this food?”
“Sir Timothy wanted it for… I’m not sure. He just told me to get it.”
The man smiled. “Well, if Sir Timothy told you to do it, then it must be a worthy cause.” They began walking across the drawbridge again, when suddenly the man stopped and stared at Frederic and exclaimed, “Hullo! You’re Frederic!”
“Yes, sir,” Frederic replied, trying to think of who the man was and if he had known him before.
The man laughed. “I hardly recognized you, wet as you are! And you’ve grown since I was last here. You wanted to save Hannah, didn’t you?”
“I still do, sir,” Frederic said, a little more stiffly than he probably should have. He had just realized that this worn and weary man was the failed Sir Harold. “And I think I might do a better job than you.”
Sir Harold’s eyes flashed for a moment, dormant anger waking. But then he sighed and hung his head, all hostility gone. “It’s probably true,” he said, ashamed. “Do you know how many people – commoners, Frederic! – have told me the same thing? That they could have done better?” Harold sighed again and raised his head, staring at something only he could see. “I’d like to see them try,” he whispered. “I’d like to see their comrades and friends disappear and wander off one by one, knowing that there’s nothing you can do for them. See if they don’t come home.”
“I’m sorry,” Frederic said. His voice was barely audible. “I didn’t mean –”
“Oh no, Frederic!” Harold said, dropping to his knee so they were eye-level. “I did not mean it toward you – I’m not angry. It’s just… frustrating. I know what they say. About me. About Phillip and Henry and Anthony and Peter and Patrick. And it saddens me to think that they despise men who were so honorable.”
“I’m sorry,” repeated Frederic. The two were silent for a moment. Tentatively, after working up his courage, Frederic said, “Should we go inside, Sir Harold?”
Sir Harold grinned. “Yes. I think we should.”
Inside, Frederic began to walk to the kitchen, but Harold stopped him. “Come see the king with me.”
Shocked, Frederic stuttered, “I – uh – I can’t, I – I’m not presentable.”
“Do you think I am?” Harold said. Frederic examined the knight’s stained and weary clothes, and figured they both looked about the same.
“But,” Frederic still protested, “I don’t have any reason to be there. When Hannah was around…” He paused, embarrassed. Harold nodded encouragingly and, swallowing his pride, he continued. “When Hannah was around, she would always let me stay. She always… protected me… from the king.”
“Well, let me protect you now,” Harold said smiling. “I’ll vouch for your presence.”
They knocked on the king’s door, and after a few seconds of patient waiting, the door opened and the king allowed them inside. First, he did not see Frederic. He only saw Sir Harold, but as the door opened wider to allow the knight in, the king spotted the blushing Frederic, still holding his armful of groceries.
“Frederic,” the king said, surprised, “shouldn’t you be heading toward the kitchen with all that stuff?”
Frederic opened and shut his mouth several times, staring at anything but the man in front of him. When Harold realized the boy wasn’t going to say anything, he placed a hand on Frederic’s shoulder and said, “Sire, I want him to stay with me while I speak to you; Princess Hannah was his friend, and I think he should hear about this.”
The king stood very still for what seemed to Frederic a very long time. Finally, King Oliver nodded and let the two into his council room. He gestured for a maid to take away Frederic’s burden and sat down at a table. “Sir Harold,” he began, not bothering to look at the knight, “I am, frankly, disappointed in you.”
Frederic waited for Harold to bow his head and mumble a humble apology. Sir Harold, however, did not. He stood erect and proud and said, “With all due respect, sir, we never stood a chance.”
“What?” the king said, deadly calm. Frederic unconsciously backed into a corner.
“It was a fool’s errand, Oliver, and you knew it.”
“How dare you address me by my first name! No one has that right except the queen!” Frederic wished he still had his armful of groceries he could hide behind as the king stood and faced Harold, eyes burning with rage.
Sir Harold only blinked. “The only one who can save the princess is her true love. A prince from another land, most likely. You knew it. You knew you were most likely sending us to our death. And here I am, the only one to return. So are you happy to have spent your distraction? Are you happy five of your best knights are gone forever?”
As Harold was speaking, the king’s eyes lost their anger. His body relaxed, and he fell into his chair. “No,” he whispered. Frederic was surprised to see him crying. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Harold. I’ve forgotten – I’ve forgotten our friendship; I’ve forgotten my sanity. I can only think of Hannah’s empty room, and my desire to fill it again. I’m sorry.”
Harold did not move. Neither his voice nor his stance softened, but his eyes grew less steely. “Oliver,” he said, “I know. I forgive you.”
The king looked up, composed himself, and said, “Alright. Are you willing to tell me what happened?”
With a sigh and a shudder, Harold took a seat and began his story. He began with the unicorn, and the disappearance of Phillip and then Anthony. Then he told of how they agreed to not stop again until they found Princess Hannah. Within twenty-four hours, however, Sir Patrick stopped to talk to a fairy, and in the morning they heard far off screams of pain and cruel laughter, and Sir Patrick was nowhere in sight. A day after, Harold said, Sir Peter couldn’t keep up. He slipped and fell, and when Henry and Harold tried to help him to his feet, he waved them off and told them he would catch up.
Harold closed his eyes. “Needless to say, he never did.” Then he opened his eyes again and continued, telling how a great dragon came and stopped them, forcing them to turn around. “So you see,” he told the king, “it wasn’t our fault. The dragon clearly stated he would kill anyone except for the right prince.”
King Oliver nodded, eyes downcast. “What happened to Henry?” he whispered.
“Henry – there’s no chance of Henry coming back.” Harold’s voice was tired and sad. “I don’t know what it was – he just stopped. He fell over, and when I went to see if he was alright, his eyes held the glaze of the dead, and his heart was no longer beating.
“I buried him in a meadow. It was two days before I began home again.” Sir Harold stared at the king. Frederic gulped, ashamed of himself for mocking the knight earlier. “I came back,” Harold continued, “to a town full of mocking neighbors. So forgive me, Your Majesty, for being harsh.”
Silence filled the room. No one would look at the other, and no one wanted to. Finally the king cleared his throat, “Thank you, Sir Harold,” he said, standing. “Everyone in the kingdom is eager to hear what happened, but are you eager to share it?”
Harold shook his head. “I’m going to try and forget what happened, and I wish the kingdom to do the same.”
King Oliver nodded. “Understood. You’re excused, Sir Harold.”
Sir Harold bowed and turned to go. As he left the room, the king added, “I am always glad to be a listening ear.” Frederic thought he saw the corner Harold’s mouth twitch upward, although the knight did not stop walking when the king spoke.
“Should I go too, Sire?” Frederic asked quietly when the knight had left.
“Yes, perhaps that is best,” the king whispered absently. Frederic scurried from the room, not looking back. As he went in search of Sir Timothy, he thought of Harold stating that he would try to forget. Secretly, Frederic decided to remember, in case Sir Harold succeeded in forgetting.
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