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“You speak?” responded Poplazi. “All the time you spent grunting this morning waking me up from bed! You made such a fuss that for a while I thought that we were being attacked.”
“Had I woken you up to catch a rabbit, would you have come?”
Now was not the time for a conversation, but Poplazi who missed the important parts of the stories he told, also missed what was important about the moments in life as well. So he thought the argument was perfectly appropriate.
“Well, no. But that doesn’t…” Before he could continue Kilewal interjected.
“Then my grunting was well served. But now is not the time to talk. Dashtek you must take the lioness and leave now.”
Dashtek grabbed the princess’ bag from her tent and asked the hunter which direction the tracks of the wizard lead. Kilewal pointed to the east. The two began to run. Kilewal tried to yell just before they were out of earshot, “You will not find a wizard on that path.” He could not risk being any louder as the hunting party was closing in and might have also heard.
Dashtek and Jan were only just out of sight just as the hunting party and the nephews arrived. The oldest nephew called out to the huntsman.
“Kilewal! Did you see the lion? The only lion in the land! What a trophy that would be, eh? Will you help us find it?” Hearing the name of Kilewal the crowd became more excited. Kilewal had no small reputation among the all the kingdoms. The crowd behind him cheered the idea of having a great hunter assist them.
When the cheers of excitement subsided, Kilewal shrugged his shoulders and grunted.
Confused at the grunt the hunting party turned to Poplazi for an explanation. Poplazih suddenly became quite excited to have a willing audience. In his usual fashion he relayed the facts focusing though on the most insignificant things of the narration and confusing his audience in the process. He never bothered to tell the party where the lioness had gone. Instead, he focused on how just moments ago he was rudely interrupted while trying to have a reasonable conversation. He continued his rant and relayed the inconvenience of being impolitely awakened from a nice dream, and carried off to go trap a rabbit instead of having his normal sleep. Oh and he was sure to mention that he did not have a proper breakfast. After all, it is the most important meal of the day.
He became so impassioned about these inconveniences that his accent became more pronounced and his words harder to understand. When he got to the part of meeting the lioness and Dashtek, burying the knight, and the hunting party coming, he was speaking entirely in his native tongue. The members of the hunting party, seeing him so animated, did not want to interrupt to let him know he wasn’t speaking English. Instead they chose to nod at the appropriate times making Poplazi think that the whole time he was being understood.
When he finished the tale of their adventures that morning Poplazi continued to ramble away entirely in any number of languages other than English and mistakenly thinking that he had found a group of men who actually understood and care for his ramblings. And so he recounted all of the adventures and inconveniences he suffered on his travels. His stories were told with such irrelevant eloquence (although in another language) that the hunting party understood none of the details. Even if they did understand all of the things he was saying it only would have led them to conclude that none of it was actually important.
The conversation may have continued for much longer had it not been for a dark cloud that began to rain as it passed over the group. A hunting party is something like a parade, and a little rain can go a long way to spoil both.
By this time the princess and Dashtek had made their way toward the church where the two old friends were inside getting married. They chose a path through a field of nearly ripe wheat tall enough to mask a lioness moving among the stalks, and made good progress until they came to a road that lead directly into town.
The width and straightness of the road made it easy to see for miles in the distance along its course. Dashtek told the princess to wait concealed in the stalks, then he walked to the middle and looked both ways. At first the scene appeared to be fairly safe. There was no one who appeared to be traveling towards them from either direction. The only threat to their being spotted was a small number of people at the bazaar near the church busily exchanging goods. Dashtek stood there another minute to ensure no one was watching then signaled for the princess to cross while he watched toward the town. She bolted across the road and it’s rather a shame no one was watching. A lioness in motion at top speed is a rather beautiful thing to behold. Especially when she’s not hunting you. Once he heard her soft pads pass behind him he waited to a count of twenty looking to see if anyone was moving in the town. Then he went and joined her in the field on the other side.
“I couldn’t tell if someone had seen you, your highness. I think it’s wise if we wait here a minute to see if they sound an alarm.” A couple of minutes had passed and Dashtek again returned to the road to have one last look to see if anyone was coming. At his final step to the middle of the road he heard a peal from a large bell in town. Thinking it was the town alarm he ran back to the side of the princess and the two of them sprinted for a nearby wood and kept running for some time.
The truth of it was the bell wasn’t the grab your torch and pitchfork sound of an alarm to gather the townspeople. It was the sound to announce the come and throw rice at the new bride and groom for the marriage of Alamus and Arable. Oftentimes the things that we run from in life are based more on fear than fact.
It was late afternoon when the two finally stopped at a cool spot surrounded by oaks and hemlocks with a stream running through it. They hadn’t run at a dead sprint the whole way. There were times when they merely walked, but on the whole they had been moving at a good pace for the better part of the day and were tired. In a few hours the sun would be setting, but neither companion felt the need or desire to go any farther. Jan was tired from her first day walking around on all fours. Having gotten used to fancy carriages and strong horses carrying her everywhere to a full day of running was exhausting even if she did have four feet to spread the work around. After taking a good drink she laid down on some leaves underneath one of the trees, put her head on her paws and slept.
Dashtek knew better than to lay his head down right away. He was still uncertain that they hadn’t been followed. The rain earlier in the day concealed their earlier tracks closer to the campsite well, but the afternoon air had been dry and the wet soil from the morning rain only made their afternoon tracks more obvious for anyone looking.
He was ready to move at a moment’s notice, but if they had to move again, they’d be moving all night on an empty stomach and that would be a recipe for trouble. Any two people who are tired, hungry, and moving across unfamiliar country are generally prone to make poor choices. This should be obvious for anyone who’s taken a family car trip. How often do family members act tired and hungry? It’s probably not relevant to describe all the trouble of such car trips, but it is ironic to note that in the car, the engine is doing all of the work. Here it was Dashtek and Jan who had to do the work and that makes the situation all the more stressful.
Dashtek had a particularly good way of dealing with the problems he faced in life. He’d do his best to understand the situation and decide what needed to be done to resolve it. He had a very practical way of organizing the work required to fix things. He’d start by working on the part of the solution he could control, and thinking about the problems he couldn’t while he did what he could.
In this situation he knew he couldn’t control whether or not they’d be found, but he could control whether or not they’d be hungry. He looked in the princess’ bag for anything practical to eat or use to get food. Inside the bag the things he found were entirely unsuited for the task of survival. He found a leather-bound copy of the Hallbrook, some hairpins, a backup pair of Lady Arable’s reading glasses, the plain dress the princess had complained about having to wear rolled up at the bottom, and a mirror. Not exactly the sort of things you’d want to be able to survive with.
Bending down to get a drink Dashtek noticed some unusually large fish, marooned in one of the deeper pools of the stream. The fish were likely trapped there when the water receded from the last flood of spring. The fish were a good sign for two reasons. Not only did it mean he could have something for dinner, provided he could start a fire, but if more people had known about the pool they would have fished them out long before Dashtek and Jan got there. This put his mind at ease about being spotted and he was able to think more clearly.
Dashtek knew the fish were nearly useless without a fire and since he needed time to figure out how to get the fish, he decided to work on the fire. He didn’t have all of that problem figured out either as he knew he didn’t have any flint or steel to use to light it. Regardless of how to light the fire he knew he’d need something to burn and so he began gathering sticks off the forest floor. After moving a couple of armfuls with the sunlight beaming through the leaves above he realized that he could use the reading glasses as a magnifying glass to start the fire.
While picking up rocks for the fire pit he found some grubs that would make good bait for the fish. If only he had a hook. As he placed the rocks around the fire pit he realized he could use a couple of the smoother ones to bend a hairpin into a hook and pull a string from his coat for a line.
By the time the princess woke up everything was coming along nicely. A good cooking fire was going, and Dashtek had already caught a few fish and laid them on sticks angled at the fire to cook them. The princess, who hadn’t seen the mental or physical labor it took to prepare the evening meal devoured the cooked fish and was impatiently looking at Dashtek to provide the next one. He caught and prepared four more fish each ending up in the belly of the lioness. By the time she was full, the fish had generally stopped biting while his stomach remained empty.
He didn’t wait to hear a thank you, and she didn’t offer one.
She laid herself near the fire and let its warmth lick her skin. The warm and pleasant dance of the flames had entranced a tired Dashtek. He was pleasantly drifting towards those moments between sleep and awake. The only thing keeping him awake was the emptiness of his stomach and as they watched the mesmerizing red and yellow sparks and flares challenge the blackness that was closing in around them he even started to forget his hunger.
Then they heard a noise that got both of their attention. It was subtle but unexpected enough that Dashtek placed all of his senses on high-alert trying to determine the source. As the noise continued Dashtek could tell it was coming from the lioness. He looked over at her and smiled.
Still uncertain of what was going on she responded to his look with her own expression of bewilderment. It was the look someone gets as if they had uncontrollably belched during the middle of a prayer. If a lioness could blush Jan certainly would have been.
She was purring.
Embarrassed she tried to control it, but after a few attempts she realized this was futile and continued to purr away next to the fire. Dashtek left his line tied to a branch and moved closer to address the princess.
Dashtek had no idea that the hunting party had been bored to death and then rained on. Nor did he realize that the bell in town announced a wedding. He still estimated that their current situation was that they were being hunted and in response he tried to think like a fox.
“We’ve traveled far today but the soft mud in the afternoon left some pretty distinguishable tracks. If anyone wants to follow us it will be pretty easy to do for the next few days or until it rains again. I don’t think we can stay here safely past morning.”
In reply the princess could only offer a thoughtful look and a nod confirming that she understood. Dashtek continued.
“I think we should head north into the mountains. There are still enough days of warm weather that I think we can travel through the passes to the North Country. There are fewer towns there and that means fewer people who would follow us and do us harm. If we decide to go now the mountain passes will be clear of snow and we can eat whatever game we can kill along the way.”
She nodded again and then put her head on her paws deep in thought. Though she was new to being a lion, she had been a lion long enough to believe that the change was somewhat permanent and couldn’t help but be a little sad.
Gratitude is an expression of appreciation for something before it is taken away. The princess may have never expressed gratitude for the life she had, but she still felt a loss at its ending. She sat there remembering the dinners and parties and the hours of lessons with Lady Arable. The memories traveled at different speeds across her mind. Some came very quickly, while others floated before her like a cloud.
Leaving the princess in thought Dashtek began prepping for bedtime. He went to retrieve the fishing line he’d tied to the tree only to discover a small fish caught on the hook. He gutted it with his knife and placed it on a stick as he did the others, letting it cook while he gathered another pile of braches for the fire. He knew the nights of late summer would bring with them a bit of a chill and he didn’t have a blanket. Stoking the fire would at least give him some warmth to sleep by for a little while.
The fish was cooked by the time he sat down again. With something in his stomach Dashtek began to get sleepy. He laid down so he could look at the princess. It was his way of thinking that he was guarding her. She responded only with the same distant look of someone deep in thought. He let out a few deep breaths, and went to sleep.
Taking the time to reflect on one’s life is a very good habit to have. It generally leads to finding opportunities to doing better and being a better person. Since Princess Jan had usually focused her energy and efforts on the next thing she wanted instead of who she was, she rarely spent any time thinking about her past. In fact, she was only now discovering some of her choices while her mind wandered through its fields of memories. She saw the faces of her mother and father, her siblings, teachers, noble visitors who warranted great feasts, and she noticed how often her memories included a loyal squire named Dashtek.
She glanced over and saw him asleep next to the fire. His face was relaxed and peaceful. Even asleep it conveyed a sense of confidence. It was an expression worth pondering, and for some time she stood watching. There was something about it she liked, but could not understand why. In another moment his expression changed. She could see the muscles in his face tense as the chill of the night began to settle. She lowered herself down next to him and went to sleep. And so Dashtek passed that night with one side of himself being warmed by the fire and the other side being warmed by a lioness.
About The Illustrator
Liz Erickson has always enjoyed using her talents to create. Those who know her will not be surprised that she took on the project of drawing the illustrations for this work. Liz worked with ease to adapt her style and provide the author with the specifically desired drawings for this book adjusting quickly from her experience in fashion and painting.
It seems safe to predict that this will not be the last time Liz’s name appears as the illustrator of a printed work. She is just as much a magician with her talents as Alamus with his wand.