Clever Arula: Chapter Two

“You will return to the keep tomorrow,” the king says. “Then I shall decide what you owe me in exchange for your father’s freedom.”

I sag with relief, the fight instantly draining from my limbs. “Yes, your Majesty,” I agree, trying at once to speak evenly and calm my raging heartbeat. I stand stiffly, knees sore from kneeling on the hard marble floor, and curtsey. I dip my head low, gaining myself a few moment’s reprieve from the king’s intense stare. My knees burn and my head spins dizzyingly, but I do not waiver. I have lost all ground gained in this terrible game of wits, but nothing stings worse than knowing I can never win; not when my opponent is the king. Yet somehow all hope has not died within me.

The man on the throne assesses me, seeming to take in every inch with a single sweep of his eyes, and for the first time, I remember I am covered in dirt. I discreetly tuck my grimy hands in the folds of my skirts and lift my chin under his gaze once more. The king meets my eyes. His are full of thoughts, a fiery maelstrom that warns me he is not yet finished with me.

We observe each other, simultaneously scheming, and I wonder if he sees the workings of my mind and if they are as transparent as his. I am desperate to come up with a plan, but my options are sickeningly few in number. The words spring to my lips before I can reason them away.  “There is surely a caveat, your Majesty,” I remark.

The king’s smile is genuine, and the mirth sets his eyes alight. “You are a discerning woman, Arula,” the king concedes, “and far too keen for me to allow you to walk out of here without a proper challenge. These are my terms: tomorrow, you shall come to the keep neither riding, nor on foot, and you shall be neither on the road, nor off it.”

I keep my expression neutral, but my heart sinks, for what the king asks sounds nigh impossible. Bolstering my courage, I retort, “I am not a magician, your Majesty.”

“Surely you need nothing but your wits to complete my challenge,” the king replies. He stands abruptly. “I believe you have much to contemplate,” he says, a clear dismissal. I curtsey again, but when I turn to leave, the king adds, “As I see it, the most daunting obstacle is that of overcoming self-doubt.”

I feel my brows knit as I turn back and stare at the king, unsure how to respond to a man who has in one breath discredited all of my concerns with his absurd request and voiced my greatest flaw. Then a question blooms in my mind, begging for release, and I know I should not speak to the king in this way, but the question slips out regardless of the rules of social decorum. In hardly more than a whisper, I ask, “How did you overcome your self-doubt?”

Despite the slight terror at my own gall causing my stomach to flutter in my throat, I cannot take my eyes from the king’s steady gaze.

A moment of silence stretches between us, a bridge neither of us is willing to cross. I am both horrified and delighted when the king responds, “I realized almost every decision I make affects the lives of the people around me, and I could not allow uncertainty to overrule rational thought knowing Rheinhold would suffer for it.”

My eyes fall from the king’s face, no longer riveted there by the thrill of expectation I experienced while awaiting his answer. Sensing my disappointment, the king chuckles. “Not the answer for which you had hoped, Arula?” he asks. He presses onward with barely a pause. “You want to know about the day that wrought the change in me,” the king says seriously, plainly speaking my thoughts aloud. “We hardly know one another well enough for that.”

I cannot help but meet the king’s eyes as I say sardonically, “What with my father now living under the same roof, I should think we are well beyond that, your Majesty.” I keep my tone light and fight the pressure of tears at the mention of my father.

“For a woman struggling with self-doubt, you are shockingly brazen,” the king observes, his words lacking the admonition I expect. His face reveals little as he goes on, “As such, I have one last directive regarding your journey tomorrow; in addition to those already stated, you shall also be neither clothed, nor bare.” Instructions delivered, the corner of his mouth hitches with the hint of a smile, and the challenge is clear in the determined set of his brow.

I maintain an impassive expression and fight the laugh bubbling up my throat, for although the most outlandish, the last of the King’s devious requests instantly piques my interest and an idea begins to form in my mind. “Yes, your Majesty,” I say with a deep curtsey, biting my tongue to contain my laughter, for I now know I have a chance to best the king at his own game. “If it would please you, I would take my leave to prepare.”

As soon as I receive the king’s permission, I retrieve Britta and ride swiftly from the keep. Pedestrians scatter before her heavy hooves, so I cut a path to the side of the road to avoid the thicker crowds on the thoroughfare. As I ride, I mull over the pieces of my plan. I do not have much, but at least I have somewhere to begin. I start with the attire for my journey tomorrow, and having met many people during my years of begging, I know where I will be able to procure a suitable garment. I am certain Martja will have what I seek. I just hope the price she demands is not too steep. Jaw set, I go west towards the docks.

Ships sway gently within the safety of the harbor, and the late afternoon sun gilds white sails a soft golden yellow as they billow in the light breeze. When the crowds grow too thick for me to ride any further, I dismount and tie Britta to a post, for I know she will kick anyone foolish enough to attempt to steal her, and go in search of Martja. I walk swiftly the rest of the way to the docks and find the women quickly by her flaming red locks. Her equally flame-haired son Martin cleans the deck of their fishing vessel and stows gear, preparing for tomorrow and another early day of fishing. I notice Meira is absent and groan inwardly, knowing Martja will strike a much tougher bargain than if her daughter were here to help turn the tide in my favor.

“Hello, Martja,” I greet the woman. “Martin,” I call, waving in his direction.

Martja has a large net draped over her lap, deftly moving a netting shuttle through the loops to mend a large tear. She does not waste time on pleasantries, “Arula, girl, ya must be needin’ somethin’, or ya’d be sowin’ the fields at this hour.”

For a moment, the entire morning feels like a dream and I am sure I will awaken at any moment in my own bed, or simply return home to find my father there working the fields without me. I exhale, and the moment is gone. “Yes, Martja,” I admit.

She scrutinizes me for a moment, her hands still upon her work. “So what’s it ya be needin’ from me, girl?” Martja asks.

“I need a net, one not too large or heavy,” I explain.

Martja looks at me as if I have claimed my hair is the color of hers. Martin no longer moves about the boat, blatantly listening to our conversation as he leans on the gunwale. “What ya be needin’ with a net?” he hollers down to me.

I am not sure how to rightly explain myself, so I opt for a slight perversion of the truth. “I need it to impress a boy.”

Martin openly guffaws, bending over to clutch his stomach as he heaves for breath. Martja squints at me as if sensing the untruth. “I’ve not known ya ta be chasin’ boys,” Martja says, still examining me as if she can see my falsehood written on my face. “Does this boy ‘ave a name?”

“Yes,” I answer, unforthcoming.

Martja’s eyebrows shoot skyward at my evasion. “An’ that name would be?” she presses. When I fail to elaborate, Martja lets out a disbelieving snort. “Ya want ta impress a boy an’ don’t even know ‘is name? That’s not yer way, girl.” Martja glares, but I stand straight-faced, lips together, teeth apart, relaxed and confident. “I wasn’t born this mornin’ an’ that face ye’re pullin’ ain’t foolin’ no one.”

“Darien,” I relent, the king’s name foreign on my tongue as I add another layer of truth to bolster my flimsy excuse and deter Martja from more prying questions. I am certain she will never guess I truly speak of the king himself, what with all the boys in the kingdom who are his namesakes.

My response has the desired effect, and Martja’s scowl softens. “Must be a real looker if ye’re goin’ ta such lengths, whatever they be, ta catch ‘is eye,” Martja says.

“Yes,” I admit, the memory of the king’s eyes momentarily overtaking me.

By now, Martin has ceased his wheezing. He tosses a mass of netting onto the dock several feet from where I stand. “Tore this mornin’,” Martin says.

Martja clicks her tongue in annoyance, her glower renewed and now turned on her son. “Help me mend this,” Martja says, looking back to me and gesturing at the net flowing off her lap, “an’ I’ll give ya the mess Martin left o’ that one.” She cuts her sheepish son another scathing glare, and mutters, “Boy is always tryin’a catch more’n ‘e can handle.”

“Where shall I begin?” I ask.

I help Martja spread out the net, and she identifies several additional tears. I take to the work immediately, running my netting shuttle deftly through the loops, twisting and knotting the thick chord to mend the damaged areas into neat squares. The task brings me back to years past when my labor with Martja was the only way I kept food on the table. Then, I labored in exchange for fish, oftentimes doing tasks alongside Martin and Meira. I blink the memories away and continue my work as the sun slowly sinks ever lower on the horizon.

As I work, I watch sailors on a nearby ship scale the ratlines affixed to the ship’s shrouds, ascending the mainmast with agile grace and swinging easily from the rigging to the yard. The men spread out in a wave of motion, two crouching nimbly on the yardarms, as they gather the huge mainsail and tie it down securely in preparation for the imminent night. The manner in which the sailors traverse the ship, almost never touching the deck, intrigues me, and a plan begins to form in my wandering mind as I mend, the net a heavy weight in my hands.

The sun is setting when Martja finally releases me, our project complete, the net again whole and ready for the morning’s voyage. The filthy, torn net Martin relinquished is my only reward for the hours of back-stiffening, finger-cramping labor, but I am overjoyed. I am now one dirty net closer to forging my path back to the keep and one hurdle closer to overcoming the king’s ludicrous challenge.

I return to Britta as quickly as I am able to hobble on my stiff legs, my steps halting as my legs regain proper function. The ride home seems to take forever, and there are stars sparkling in the black sky when I burst into the yard, startling the sleeping chickens into loud squawks and a flurry of beating wings. In the barn, Britta watches me with large gentle eyes as I gather rope and all our spare tack into a heaping pile. She stands tolerantly as I cut lengths of rope and slice various pieces off a spare harness, altering the harness hugging her strong body until there is a sling securely affixed to either side of her wide girth.

I assess the heft of a large bag of grain, pouring out portions until the sack is approximately the same weight as my person. I place the grain bag into the sling on Britta’s right side and tie it on securely. I sit in the opposite sling on her left, testing the balance. I continue to make fine adjustments until the counterweight is perfect. When I feel stable in my sling, I give a tentative cluck and Britta plods forward. I climb out of my makeshift rig, satisfied the new mode of transportation cannot be considered riding. Then I shed my clothing until I stand in nothing but my boots and wrap myself in my newly acquired fishing net such that the overlapping weave makes it difficult to discern exactly what lies beneath. My makeshift garment smells strongly of saltwater and fish but certainly will not be mistaken for clothing.

Standing wrapped in nothing but the briny net, part of me relishes the opportunity to complete the king’s challenge. A greater part of me is thoroughly mortified. Baring my calves is one thing, and this is quite another.

Sunlight leaks through a crack in the barn, and I know I have little time left to spare. This trip will take much longer than the one I made yesterday with my father since Britta must walk the entire way for my plan to work.

I ignore the part of me that begs to stay hidden in the barn for the rest of forever, and lead Britta to the yard. I carefully climb back into my sling, adjust the netting encasing me to ensure I am mostly decent, and make Britta walk slow circles around the yard, experimenting with dragging my hands or feet on the ground. I find it easiest to sit backward and drag the tip of my boot with the balance of my rig.

With a deep sigh, I cluck my tongue, and we set out on the road.

Britta walks slowly, and I try to preserve my dignity as I sit awkwardly in my sling, holding myself upright with my arms, my boot trailing an uneven path through the dirt just beyond the road’s edge so that I am neither in the road nor completely off it. As the morning progresses, I am joined by an increasing number of people making the journey into the heart of the city. I hear murmuring as I pass the travelers on foot, catching only snatches of surprise from those traveling more quickly. Soon, people begin to stop on the roadway and gather along the roadside, news of my approach drawing an interested throng of onlookers. I smile, not allowing my embarrassment to show. One mother covers her daughter’s eyes, and the girl struggles out of the protective grip to get a better look at me. Men holler, several of them receiving slaps and cutting glares from the women accompanying them. My smile comes easier.

The journey is excruciatingly slow, and I become worried I will not reach the keep in time. By this hour, the road is lined with spectators. I dare a look over my shoulder, and the crowd of onlookers stretches as far as I can see. My foot aches from the constant dragging and my backside is nearly numb from the net and rope sling cutting into me.

At last, I see the large gate of the keep up ahead. My heart flutters in my chest while my stomach turns to lead in my gut. My face aches from my constant smile, but the expression is now a permanent fixture on my face; my muscles refuse to heed my brain begging for them to relax.

I pass through the gate, and the massive crowd cheers. I crane my neck to look behind me to the end of my path. The king and his retinue await my arrival in the center of the courtyard. He takes in my attire as I approach, and for the first time I feel my cheeks burn. The king claps his hands slowly, casually applauding my success as he closes the distance between us. He stays Britta with a hand on her nose and deliberately circles us to stand in front of me.

“Well done, Arula.” the king says. “I knew you had it in you.”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” I say, not sure where to look, my cheeks still hot.

The king gently grabs my chin and tilts my face up, forcing me to look at him. I glance down to avoid his eyes.

The king clears his throat, and I cannot deny him any longer. I look up into his eyes.

“I promise no harm has come to your father,” the king says gravely. He releases my chin, as I now look at him of my own volition. “Now, as to the matter of what I would have of you, if you would please stand.”

I place both feet on the ground, parts of me tingling with numbness at the motion after the long journey in the sling. I rise shakily, and the king steadies me with a firm grip on my arm. He removes his cloak and drapes it over my shoulders, pulling the rich fabric modestly closed in front of me. The garment is surprisingly soft against my bare arms.

I am still processing the fine quality of the cloak when the king kneels in front of me. My heart nearly stops at the sight of him in the dirt at my feet. I stare down at him, unable to move or even breathe.

“Arula,” the king intones loudly, so that all gathered may hear, “I ask that you do this not merely for me, but for the good of all of Rheinhold; I ask that you do us all this service.” The king’s voice softens as he asks, “Arula, please marry me, and join me in ruling this kingdom as my queen.”

“Your Majesty,” I say, shocked my voice is steady at all. I do not know what to say, and no one expects the words that spill from my lips less than I when I choke out, “We hardly know one another well enough for that.”

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