Princess Ben

Chapter One

(excerpt)


[Or listen to an excerpt from Chapter Five — that’s the audioclip there on the left; just click it — courtesy of Brilliance Audio and read by yours truly.]


How many times I have wondered what my fate might have been had I accompanied my parents that rainy spring morning. Such musings, I recognize, are more than a trifle insane, for envisioning what might have been has no more connection to our own true reality than a lunatic has to a lemon. Nevertheless, particularly in those bleak moments that at times overwhelm even the happiest of souls, my thoughts return to my dear mother and father, and again I marvel at the utter unpredictability of life, and the truth that our futures are so often determined not by some grand design or deliberate strategy but by an ordinary run-of-the-mill head cold.

      To be honest, my sickness did not occur completely by chance. I had exhausted myself in preparing for my fifteenth birthday fete the week before, had gorged myself during the party on far too many sweets, and had then caught a chill during a lengthy game of stags and hunters with my guests in the twilight forest. Now, however, denying all my symptoms, I begged to join my parents.

      “I have to go!” I insisted from my sick bed. “It’s my grandfather.”

      My mother sighed. “Your grandfather would never approve of his granddaughter of all people making herself twice as ill on his account.” She replaced the cloth, soaked in her own herbal concoction, on my forehead, and coaxed some tea across my lips. “Why don’t you draw him a picture instead? I promise to leave it in a place of honor.”

      “A picture?” I scoffed. “I wish you’d realize I’m not a child.”

      She kissed my flushed cheeks with a smile. “Try to sleep, darling. We’ll be back before dusk.”

      These words, too, I ponder. No matter how loudly I may have denied it, all evidence demonstrated I was still very much a child. After all, I had brought this illness upon myself. Worse, I had sensed the head cold brewing yet petulantly refused to follow my mother’s advice, so sacrificing that pinch of prevention for cup after cup of homemade cure. My bedroom remained crowded with piles of fairy tales, many of the pages illuminated with my own crude drawings, and dolls in varied displays of dishabille. How easy it would have been for my mother—indeed, were the tables turned, I would have so responded without hesitation—to point out my childishness. I told you so may be painless to utter, but that does not diminish the anguish these four words inflict upon a listener already in pain. That my mother held her tongue and gave me only love when I merited chiding demonstrates her empathy. So many times in the decades since I have reminded myself of her innate compassion, and on my best days have striven to match it.

      At the time, though, I simply sulked, and so my father found me as he strode in to wish me well. Even in the gloom of that overcast morning he looked magnificent, his dress armor polished to a high gleam and his prince’s circlet, excavated from the woolen trunks for its semiannual outing, shining against his graying curls.

      He settled on my bedside with a clank or two. “’Tis a great shame you can’t join us today.”

      I pouted. “I could go. If you let me.”

      “And have your mother put my head on a stake? Do you have any notion what that would do to my handsome good looks?”

      I refused to be cheered.

      He eyed me with a twinkle. “What if I returned with a dragon?”

      Through enormous focus, I maintained my glower.

      “A wee green one that whistled like a kettle? It could roast chestnuts for you on winter mornings.”

      Despite my best efforts, up crept the corners of my mouth. “And warm your chilblains when you’re old,” I added.

      “‘Ben,’ I’d call out, ‘where’s that blasted dragon of yours? My old toes are freezing!’”

      “And I’ll go and find the dragon—”

      “Where it’s playing with my grandchildren—”

      “And ask it, quite nicely, to come inside and attend to the needs of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Montagne.” I giggled; I could not help it.

      “Oh, bosh! You say that to a dragon and it’ll gobble me up, as sure as salt’s salt.”

      “And what would that do to your handsome good looks?” I teased him.

      “Improve them, I’d wager,” he answered with a grin. “Now, you be good and drink that wretched concoction, and I’ll take you up there next week. Just the two of us.”

      “Truly? With a picnic? A big one?”

      “Absolutely.” He, too, kissed my cheeks, and with a last exaggerated bow in my direction, he clattered down the stairs.

      Wrapping myself in a quilt, I crept to the window. In the courtyard below, Mother frowned as she struggled to fit her own golden princess circlet, for she had little skill at ceremony. With a flourish of trumpets, Uncle Ferdinand appeared at the great entrance to the castle proper, looking every inch the king in his robes of state. Unlike my father, Uncle Ferdinand truly was handsome, tall and lean and solemn. At his side stepped the group’s martial escort, Xavier the Elder, a grizzled warrior who had shaved so thoroughly that several nicks still oozed blood. Queen Sophia appeared as well, displaying the precise gestures and expressions expected of a woman of her rank.

      A quintet of soldiers played a military hymn, and then Mother, Father, Ferdinand, and Xavier strode across the drawbridge through a double phalanx of saluting guards. Father glanced back to smile a last greeting at me as Mother slipped her arm through his and lay her head on his shoulder. His armor must have been cold, given the unseasonable chill of the day, but the love between them transcended such trivial discomfort.

      Seeing them off, the queen stood at attention for exactly the amount of time that a queen should, and then with a cool flick of her gown turned back toward the castle, the footmen falling in behind her.

      Alone at last, the quilt about my shoulders, I sighed as I considered all the tasks that awaited me. A wool vest I had begun for Father the previous autumn lay half finished, my efforts immobilized by a plethora of dropped stitches. Clearly it would not serve him this winter; at the rate I was progressing, years could pass before the thing warmed him. My mother had delegated to me the task of transcribing her grandmother’s yellowed recipes, the goal being to learn the art of cooking while improving my penmanship. Unfortunately the assignment always left me famished, rooting through the kitchen pantries like an autumn bear. Hunger was a burden I could not tolerate for even a heartbeat, a truth that my physique amply demonstrated. Simply glancing at the stack of stained and curling recipes sent my stomach to growling.

      Outside, the master of hounds returned with his pack, the dogs gleeful and wet from a long run and a swim in the Great River. But even their prancing enthusiasm did not lift my own misery. With only the ubiquitous murmur from the soldiers’ barracks to comfort me, I crept back into bed, seeking refuge from the oppressive mist that cloaked the castle’s turrets. Perusing my shelves, I could not find one volume to satisfy me. The fairy tales I had read countless times. The more recent additions held even less interest: dry histories of Montagne, geometry textbooks, a medical treatise on bloodletting that my mother appeared never to have opened and that she now put to use as a bookend.

      I squirmed further under the covers. My mind drifted, wondering if the foursome had yet arrived at my grandfather’s tomb, what they would say there in his honor. I had practiced my own speech for weeks, and had been quite proud of my little poem praising the Badger’s courage, the last stanza in particular:


           You perished to save all of us.

            I hope your armor never rusts.


A dramatic conclusion, I believed at the time, though it now occurred to me that any armor entombed with a corpse for thirty-odd years would doubtless experience some corrosion. This realization only deepened my malaise.

      At last I drifted into a fitful sleep. Though slumber should remove us from the trials of our waking life—surely I always settled my head with this expectation, and ere this day had always found satisfaction—my present nap did rather the opposite. Almost at once, it seemed, my rest was disturbed by haunting images of the castle corridors. Not my familiar apartment, constructed scarce a century earlier with the new perimeter fortifications, but the castle proper, noble and ancient, with walls as thick as three men, and the Montagne hedgehog, emblem of the kingdom, carved in countless obscure corners.

      In this dream as I walked the corridors, one of these hedgehogs uncurled itself and turned to stare at me with black, unblinking eyes. Try as I might, I could not escape this piercing glare; I was trapped as utterly as a fish on a hook, though unlike a fish I could not even thrash about, for the paralysis of nightmare held me immobilized. Larger and larger those eyes grew, until their impenetrable blackness filled my vision. I had the sensation, provided by that sporadic omniscience that accompanies dream-state, that I must creep forward, though I had not a notion in the world whereto I was headed, or whether the floor below me would dissolve in abyss. At once a voice, opaque and unidentifiable, filled my ears: “It is time.”

an excerpt from Chapter Eighteen (scroll down for it)   •   awards


Author Q&A   •   about the cover   •   questions for readers

I just finished reading Princess Ben. I absolutely loved it and I could go on and on but I assume that would get rather boring. My question is, will you please write a sequel? Or at least more fairytale sort of stuff? My favorite part was that it had such a wholesome blend of strong moral, gentle romance, and life truths about the value of hard times to strengthen our souls.


  1. -Grace

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