The Hero and the Princess
by Sherwood Smith


Tam stomped the mud off his boots and shouldered the inn's door open.  Cold, rainy air swirled in around him, causing the occupants of the common room to turn his way.

He paused on the threshold to scan the room, one hand near the sword at his hip, the other hand gripping the pack on his back that contained his travel gear, bow, and arrows.

He saw three men scowling at him, a couple of others busy with a game of skill, a woman and children in one corner, and at the other tables a scattering of old folks and young, but no threats, except maybe the three at the best table alongside the fireplace, still glowering his way.

He slammed the door shut.  His heart thumped in his chest, but he kept his cold-numbed face unrevealing as he watched the scowlers assess his size, his heavy double-edged saber in its worn sheath, then turn back to their tankards, none of them quite meeting his eyes. 

The innkeeper bustled up, wiping his hands. "Drink?  Food?"

"And a room for the night," Tam said, carefully hanging his water-warded cloak on a hook besides the other patrons’ rain gear.

"I'll have to see your coin," the innkeeper said, frowning at Tam's patched pack and worn leathers.

"I'll have ten gold pieces by tomorrow eve," Tam said, keeping his voice firm.  "This is the village where the troll's been carrying off your livestock?"

Conversation in the room stopped.

"That it is, that it is, I'm sorry to say."  The innkeeper scratched his chin through his beard, and sighed. "Not just livestock.  Two youngsters, both in the last week.  Still, you haven't earned that gold yet, and I need coin now."

Tam knew better than to show any reaction.  "The troll will be dead by tomorrow night," he said.  "I can pay you then."

One of the three bravos at the fireside made a derisive noise.

"He can come join us," came a woman's voice.

The innkeeper did not hide his relief.  He nodded and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.

Tam looked around, saw the woman at the corner table gesturing to him. Feeling a little angry and a little embarrassed at the reaction his announcement had caused--so different from what he'd imagined during the long week's walk up the mountainside through bands of stinging rain--he said nothing as he crossed the room.

The woman sat at a rough peg table with a small girl and a half-grown boy, travel-worn tote bags beside each. There was room on the high-backed bench beside the boy.  Tam adjusted his sword across his knees for fast access and sat down.

The boy's dark gaze took in the sword, then he looked away, his indifference plain.  Tam wondered if the boy was a lackwit.  When he'd been that age, just a glimpse of a fine blade like that had made him mad with yearning.

"Nelath," the woman said, smiling as she touched her bodice with a quick, graceful gesture.  "And you are--?"

"Tam," he said, hoping that soon people would recognize him by reputation--and their voices would repeat his name, maybe with a fine descriptor added.  Tam the Brave.  Tam the Blade.  Just like he'd listened to stories of great heroes all the years he'd had to labor away at his father's carpentry shop, practicing his swordwork during long evenings when everyone else was at leisure.

"Lornat and Elska," Nelath said, nodding first to the girl, then to the boy.

The children gave Tam a polite nod, and went back to eating their food.

"May I ask where you're from?" Nelath went on.

Tam knew it for a polite question--the type to make conversation--but he'd decided that heroes didn't come from dull villages like Bywater.  You never heard commonplace details about heroes in the stories.  So he said, "I go anywhere there's trouble, wrongs to be righted."

"A worthy goal," Nelath said, cutting her meat before she took a bite.  Tam, distracted by his hunger, looked at her plate, and her hands.  She had very dainty manners.

The innkeeper arrived just then, and set a substantial meal before Tam, and a foaming tankard.  Nelath nodded her thanks to the innkeeper--again a gesture of trained grace.

Savory aromas rose; for a time Tam had attention only for his food.

When his stomach let him pause and look up again, the children had finished, and their plates were neatly stacked.  The boy Elska had taken from his tote-bag a length of wood.  Good balim, Tam noted, though of course he would never admit to recognizing types of wood at a glance.  Elska now took a carving knife out.  With slow, inexpert strokes he started carving chunks from his wood.

On the other side of the table the girl pulled from her tote a battered lesson-book, and a slate and chalk.  She set them on the table and opened the book, all with an air of long habit, as though she studied thus in mountainside inns every day.  Tam sipped at the good autumn brew, watching her follow with her finger the handwritten words on the old book pages, then use her chalk to write them out. 

Nelath finished her meal slowly, absently, pausing only when her daughter tipped the slate for her mother to see.  Nelath would either nod or shake her head; after each response the child cleared the slate and worked again, either repeating a phrase or going on to the next.

Both children looked weary, Tam thought, as he sipped again from his tankard.

He looked up, met the mother's gaze.  She, too, looked weary. Both weary and tense. "Where you from?" he asked.

Her smile was a mere thinning of the lips, a quick glimpse of self-mockery.  "We make our home wherever we happen to find ourselves."  So saying she laid her fork and knife neatly across her plate, piled it atop her children's, and then pulled from her own tote-bag some sewing.

The door opened then, bringing a gust of chill air.  Nelath and the two children all looked that way, quick as startled birds.  The newcomer, an old man, shuffled in and addressed the innkeeper in a low voice.

Curious, Tam strained to hear, but only a couple of words carried: "Horse," "foal."

Nelath dropped her gaze to her sewing, and she started a hem with fast and neat stitches.  She was even faster than his own mother had been, Tam realized, her stitches marvelously fine. 

Her children, unbidden, bent dark, curly heads back to their tasks.

"You're waiting for someone," Tam said, putting together the clues at last.

He hadn't meant to speak aloud, but Nelath only smiled a little, and nodded once. "My husband."

A sudden roar of laughter from the three bravos caused another silence in the common room, and quick, defensive glances from the other customers.  The innkeeper hovered in the door to the kitchen.

"More ale!" that was the biggest one.

"Don't you think you've had enough, Morvan?" the innkeeper asked in a coaxing tone, with a placating smile.

"More!  NOW! You fat old potbellied rat, or I'll --"

"Right away, Morvan," the innkeeper said with fair bluster.  "But you know your wife will be angry come morning.  Yours too, Perda, saying you’re a fine example for your babes.  And it's not just you who'll feel the edge of their tongues--"

A foul oath from Morvan sent the innkeeper to the kitchen in silence.

Tam heard the three cursing, but they seemed to have forgotten him.  He sipped at his own ale, and returned to his scrutiny of Nelath.  There was something out of the ordinary about her.  She was plain to look at: wheat-colored hair with a few gray strands bound up on her head; threadbare bodice, old gown beneath.  Somewhere between his age and his mother's.  He sensed something amiss, but he couldn't quite define it.

"You a seamstress by trade?" he asked.

Nelath smiled again, this time a real smile.  "No.  I haven't one calling, but I've learned a little of several."

"What's this word, Mama?" Lornat asked.

"Ves-ku-treh,” Nelath sounded carefully, pointing to each letter in the battered book.  "One of the elementals.  And those are--" she prompted.

Lornat sidled a glance Tam’s way, lifted her chin, and stated with the conviction of one who knows she’s right, "The elementals are the fundamentals of natural magic."

She looked maybe eight or nine summers--if that.  Her tone reminded Tam of himself when he was that age. I know the eight death strokes, he'd announced to a passing soldier once, and the man's laughter echoed harshly in his memory.

He said to Lornat in what he hoped was an encouraging voice, "What are you studying?"

"I'm going to be a healer-mage," the child said, her blue gaze earnest.

Tam whistled under his breath.  "That's a hard one.  But you're not big enough to test for apprenticeship yet, are you?"

"Three springs off," Lornat said.  She wriggled on the rough bench, her whole body expressive of her determination.  "I will be ready when I face the Mistress of Mages."

Tam was aware of the boy watching, though his slow strokes had scarcely paused.  He was just getting some height, tall and strongly made.

Tam said, "And you?"

"I'll try at the capital end of summer," Elska said in a low voice.  "I want to be a minstrel.  You have to make your own instrument and play it for the first test," he added, pointing to the wood.  "Here's to be my rebec."

Tam opened his mouth to say that balim made a poor rebec.  It was an easy wood to carve and its grains were handsome to look at, but it had poor resonance. He shut his lips.  A hero wouldn't know anything about resonance, or balim, or rebecs, or anything else so uninteresting.

Another roar from the three drowned out any chance of further conversation.  The screech of wood--a chair being shoved back on the floor--followed by a tankard flying across the room, snapped Tam's head round to the bravos' table.

The tankard hit an old woman on the back of the head, knocking her forward across her soup bowl.  She cried out, soup splashing everywhere.

Tam felt battle lust rush through him.  Here at last was a cause!  He stood, hand grasping his swordhilt, but Nelath's thin, nail-bitten fingers reached across the table to grip his wrist.

No. She mouthed the word.

"Morvan!" the innkeeper said, hustling out of the kitchen.  "Blaek! Now you'll pay for--"

The drunken bravo stood almost within sword's reach, waving his arms. "I won't pay for nothing, you old sack o’ mulepoop--"

What happened next was so quick that Tam hardly had time to react.  He realized both of Nelath's children had vanished.  He looked around--and saw Nelath snap her fingers lightly and point.

In the time it takes to blink an eye Lornat darted out from under the table and crouched down.  Elska lunged up from next to his sister, pretended to trip, and knocked into Morvan, who was just in the act of pulling a knife on the startled innkeeper.

But Elska's elbow blocked Morvan's knifehand in a neat disarm, and Morvan wavered, off-balance, then fell over the crouched Lornat. He crashed to the floor.  His knife spun harmlessly under an adjacent table.

Lornat had rolled away under another table, vanishing from sight.

The other two bravos lunged to their feet, bawling drunken threats at the innkeeper. 

The other young people in the common room laughed at the sight of Morvan groaning on the floor, the oldsters exclaimed questions no one listened to as they crowded around the woman injured by the flying tankard.  The angry innkeeper waved his hands, trying to calm and placate.

The two bravos swung around, glaring at those who’d laughed.  One of them pulled a long hunting knife and nodded at his friend.  They took deliberate steps toward the unarmed youths, who watched, silent now, and pale.

Tam's hand tightened on his sword hilt--

Nelath rose to her feet; Tam saw her left hand clenched.

There was a blur of movement as Nelath and the bravos seemed to tangle up in arms and legs.  Tam, fascinated, kept his gaze only on her. Moving neatly and swiftly, she elbowed one in the gut--robbing him of his breath--and kicked the side of the other's knee, sending him windmilling for balance.  She then opened her left hand, releasing a puff of yellowish powder, and with her right made a complicated swirling movement.  The powder glowed briefly, all three bravos snuffed it in--and fell atop Morvan who had just begun to climb to his feet.  All three began to snore.

"Here!  Are you all right, lady?" the innkeeper cried, springing forward.

"No harm done," Nelath said, smoothing her skirt with a quick, elegant gesture--so quick, so inadvertent it had to be habit, not intent.  "I sent my children for more thread just as these fellows rose--and I guess we got all tangled!"

She’s a noble, Tam thought, realizing why Nelath's accent sounded so pleasing.  She talked like a high-born lady.  Yet she and those children had just felled three drunken, mad brawlers.

She gave a quick nod of command. The children disappeared in the direction of the back door.

Nelath smiled at the innkeeper.  "Maybe you should just put these fellows in the barn and let them sleep off their potations?  I wager they'll waken with sorry heads come morning."

"Aye," the innkeeper said, looking down at them in puzzlement.  “My ale has never done that before.  But we don’t know what they might have been drinking before they came in.” He gave a shrug and added wryly, “One thing for certain, it’s with crashing heads they’ll have to go off to labor come dawn.” He turned and shouted toward the kitchen, "Ambie!  Danac!"

Two long, stringy youths emerged, both of them wearing aprons, and under the direction of the innkeeper (who gripped Morvan's ankles) began to drag the fallen men out into the rain.

Nelath reclaimed her seat, and picked up her sewing as though nothing had happened.

The children were still gone.  Tam said, "That was a nice piece of work, but you didn't have to put your children to it.  I could have taken all three--drunk as they are."  He added the last in a low voice, feeling very sure now that bragging was not going to impress her.

"I'm certain that you could," she said.  She looked up, her gray-blue eyes narrowed with comprehension and humor.  "But don't you think it's better for three young men to wake up--perhaps sorrier and wiser, certainly with aching heads--and go to earn their living, than for three families to be mourning?"

"Mourning," Tam repeated.

"Did you not hear?  Two of those men have wives and small children.  The other, I chanced to overhear earlier, supports an ailing father."

Tam blinked, feeling as if someone had tangled up his own feet, sending him off-balance. His inner vision had been of swift sword-strokes, three mean drunks dead, and the village celebrating his prowess before he even faced that troll up the mountain.

He watched the last man's head disappear through the back door as one of the innkeeper's boys dragged him slowly out.  Tam had seen only a roaring lout, someone ready for a fight.  He didn't think of such men having families--but they did. Every man had a family, if only a mother.

He thought of his own mother, weeping when he left.  His father saying, Leave him be, Serah.  He has to be true to his own vision, we raised him to be true

The children reappeared, coming from the direction of the kitchen.

"I asked in the barn. No one on the road," Elska murmured.  He ducked under the table and slid into his spot next to Tam. Then, in a lower voice, barely discernable over the louder fuss on the other side of the room as the old woman protested that she was all right, he said, "We've the liniments laid out, and salve, and bandages."

Lornat too ducked under the table and popped up into her place in the corner.  She yawned fiercely, and picked up her chalk again.  

"Bandages? Did one of you get hurt?" Tam asked, looking from one child to the other.

Lornat said softly, "They're for Father. In case we need them."

"My husband is up the trail," Nelath said.

Tam waited for further explanation, but none came.

A sudden suspicion of what the man might be doing caused him to say, "Who is your husband?"

"His name is Telnora," Nelath said.

Astonishment burned through Tam.  Telnora!  Tel the Black Knight's Terror--Tel Kingslayer!

Could it be the same?  His inner vision was of a man just about his own age, but taller and stronger, a vision that had been before Tam's eyes ever since he was old enough to listen to stories.  Telnora, who had appeared in the capital after killing the evil Tower Mage's Black Knight; Telnora who fought the wicked old King Alstrus in a duel, saving the kingdom from an invasion.  He'd been given the old king's daughter in marriage, and had gone on to great glory . . . .

Tam had loved those stories ever since he could pick up a sword.

And unlike Atticas the Dragonslayer and Raniar Swordmaster, who had lived long ago, Telnora was supposed to still be alive!   Alive, and young and strong, because there were new stories about him all the time--Tam had listened eagerly for each bit of news of the hero all the years he grew up and practiced sword and bow faithfully.

All the years . . .

He closed his eyes, thinking back.  It had been the summer he was seven when the old veteran of King Alstrus’s border wars showed up in Bywater, looking for a quiet place to settle, and Tam begged him for sword lessons.  That was . . . twelve, fifteen years ago?

He opened his eyes, and looked again at Nelath.  Here was a woman of maybe forty years, possibly older.  A woman who used the manners of a lady--

"Princess Nelatharian," he whispered.

Nelath put her finger to her lips, and shook her head once. She was smiling, a smile more wistful than merry.

Tam couldn't have spoken if he'd wanted to.  Was he really sitting across from a king's daughter?  How could she come to be stuck in a mountain village, dressed in worn clothing?

He thought back, trying to make sense of the stories that had come through Bywater.  She'd been married to Telnora, and, and, hadn't Telnora taken his place at the new king's side?  Yes, so the stories went.  And the capital was quiet and orderly, for Telnora reorganized the new king's guard, getting rid of the corrupt guards of the old king.  But just a couple of years ago when that king died during a pirate attack on the royal fleet, and his young son took the throne, stories about Telnora had changed.  He was always vanquishing this leader of thieves, or those marauders, or--three or four times--trolls, which was why Tam had been so eager to get his own career begun with troll vanquishing once he heard about the one up the trail from where he sat right at that moment.

When he opened his eyes, Lornat's head had fallen forward on her folded arms, and she breathed deeply.  Elska still worked at his wood, but his strokes were listless, and he yawned frequently.

Nelath said, "Lornat doesn't like the old stories.  She likes happy endings." 

"So you are the Princess!" Tam whispered.  He recalled her efficient moves in dropping the three men.  Her children, too.  They'd been trained by an expert--so expert, in fact, that the rest of the customers in the inn hadn't been aware of what had really happened.

Why wasn't Elska being trained as a hero?

"Yes," she murmured.  "Or, I was.  When my brother ruled."

"But--I thought--" Tam wasn't sure what he'd thought, except it had obviously been wrong.

"Tel knows nothing of ruling, or of court politics," Nelath said, still with that slightly sad smile.  "My brother knew his value; my nephew, raised in the atmosphere of court flattery, was afraid of him, and his new young queen professes to be offended by Tel’s lack of ‘good blood.’  It was better to leave." She glanced at her children.  "And I found that I did not want my own young ones growing up in the poisonous air of court."

Elska glanced up and smiled briefly at his mother.  Obviously none of this was new for him.

Tel swallowed.  "So . . . Telnora  . . ." It was hard to say out loud the name of his revered hero.  "He's up the mountain fighting my troll--that is, the troll prowling there?"

Nelath nodded.  "This is why we wait."

And why the bandages, and salve.  But liniment?

Tam thought then of his old vet trainer Helv, with one arm nearly useless, and his bowed back.  The villagers had made fun of him when he couldn't get off his bench without groaning during the cold winters.  Tam mentally counted up his years, and he was startled to realize that his trainer and Telnora had to be the same age.  Old wounds, boy, old wounds, Helv used to say.  They don't ever heal, just harden.

"Fighting is all Telnora knows," Nelath went on.  "His father trained him from the time he could walk; he had the very best swordmaster in the kingdom. When he was scarcely ten, he could vault atop a horse's back and throw a javelin farther than grown men.  Accurate, too--but you were probably trained the same way," Nelath added.

Tam nodded, but he secretly acknowledged he wasn't that good even now.  Good enough to defeat fools like those three snoring out in the barn, for he was young and strong and fast, but his old vet had never claimed to be the best.  I'm alive, Helv had said, over and over.  That's good enough.

"It's all he knows," Nelath repeated.  "So this is how we earn our living, wandering across the kingdom from trouble to trouble--for only kings can afford rich rewards.  Ten golds will just do to get us through the coming winter.  In spring we’ll be off again, looking for trouble. He'll do it until a younger, stronger, and meaner trouble wins."

Tam looked at the little family before him.  The small girl asleep uncomfortably on the table, the tired boy steadily working on his rebec.  The woman who had once been a princess, and now repaired castoff clothing, and waited.

Telnora had obviously trained them all to defend themselves; Tam had no doubt that the princess, old as she was, could have gutted the three fools herself.  Maybe the children could have as well, but instead she'd used disarming moves and a bit of harmless magic that she must have learned during her days as a princess. 

And she and her children sat, waiting either for the husband and father they obviously loved, or--he remembered those anxious glances at the door--or for bad news.  For the encounter with something faster, stronger, meaner, than a hero.

Tam realized he was still clenching his swordhilt.  He freed his fingers, and turned to the boy.  

"You should know," he said, "before you go much farther, that balim is not a good wood for rebecs.  Fine enough for decorative frames or jewel boxes, but for a good resonance, what you really need is a length of seasoned paak-wood.  Now, let me show you how to hold that knife for carving . . . ." 

 

About the Author:

Sherwood Smith began making books out of taped paper towels when she was five years old, and at eight began writing stories about another world full of magic and adventure--and hasn't stopped yet.

She studied history and languages in college, lived in Europe one year, and has worked in jobs ranging from tending bar--to put herself through grad school--in a harbor tavern to various jobs in Hollywood. Married twenty years (two kids, two dogs, and a house full of books) she is currently a part-time teacher as well as a writer.

She has twenty-five books out, ranging from space opera to children's fantasy, many of which have appeared overseas in Russia, Israel, Denmark; also has numerous short stories. "Augur's Teacher," from Tor, for adults and for children, is the first 'officially' sanctioned sequel to L. Frank Baum's Oz stories.


Story 2005 Sherwood Smith. Print by A. J. van Ostadt, circa 1620.