When I was a senior in high school, I was tasked with the semi-enviable job of cutting down a Shakespeare play to thirty minutes while keeping it intelligible. This was for entry into a local high school festival, and the play we chose to perform was "The Winter's Tale", which veers wildly from tragedy to comedy about halfway through.
The turning point, when the story changes from being about an insanely jealous king and his stupid mistakes to being about bumbling rustics and two young lovers? That would be one of the most famous stage directions ever, referring to the lord who has been sent to abandon the supposedly illegitimate princess: "Exit, pursued by a bear."
I can't be sure what brought that old memory of mine to the top of my head today, except perhaps that the people who go out and do things for insanely jealous kings, princes, or leaders of any sort always do seem to come to sticky ends. Thus, today's Fiction Friday offering. What if that lord hadn't been alone? Read on and find out.
The small boat drifted up to the shore, and the more broad-shouldered of the two adults seated in it climbed over the side to wade towards the rocks, a rope in his hand. His companion, left to her own company and that of the bundle in her arms, alternately watched him work and regarded the tiny, relaxed face which lay trustingly against her sleeve.
"Are we really going to do this thing?" she asked when the man had made the rope fast to a convenient tree stump.
"Do we have a choice?" The man stretched his shoulders, then walked back out to the boat, holding up his arms for the woman. "The King gave orders."
"The King has lost his mind," the woman retorted, keeping hold of the baby as she seated herself in the man's grasp. "Declaring the Queen unfaithful without a shred of proof, snatching her child away almost as soon as the poor thing was born, ordering us to expose his only rightful heir—"
"I like it no more than you." The man set the woman on her feet above the waterline, then returned to the boat for the packs of provisions stored under the seats. "But we took oaths, and we must honor them."
"So we did take oaths." The woman shifted the baby into one arm, allowing the other to fall to her side. "You to the King, and I..." She ensured she had a good grip on the item which had never left her side through the voyage. "I to the Queen."
The man stopped in the act of stepping ashore for the last time, to regard the woman coolly. "You think those interests no longer coincide," he said, completing his step and laying down the packs beside the tree stump. "That one, or the other, must give way."
"I do. And therefore—" The woman stepped forward, drawing her knife in the same motion, and struck without mercy.
"And that, my love," the woman concluded to the round-eyed child listening to the tale, "is why we live here by ourselves, away from other people. Because someday you will be the Warrior Princess who will save our people, and our good Queen, from a foolish and evil King."
"But what about the knife?" The girl glanced around their cottage as though she expected this weapon to materialize out of the darkness. "You didn't stab Papa with it—"
"Of course she didn't," said the man, coming inside with more wood for the fire. "She cut the rope which held the boat to the shore, so that it would drift away and the King would think we had all been drowned or eaten by wild beasts. And so may he think until the time is right."
"Until I'm a Warrior Princess, who fights evil, and wins!" The little girl danced in place with excitement. "But first, I have to grow up."
"And so you will, my little one." The woman smiled. "So you will."