The Prince and the Princess Find Refuge…
It might have been five minutes, it might have been ten. Just before a bend where the road veered off to the left, was another road, perhaps a driveway, barely visible in the dimming light as afternoon faded and darkness grew near.
“Which way should we go?” asked the Princess.
“I don’t know,” said the Prince, frustrated with himself. He had never noted the landmarks on the ride home, at least not until they came to the statue in honor of the fallen on the outskirts of the city. He should have paid attention. They’d gotten so turned around during their unexpected swim. The capital city could be forwards or even backwards
“Let’s go up this driveway,” the Princess said. “Maybe there’s a house.”
Her voice was quieter now. The rain was hard but steady, no longer pounding down on their heads.
“I don’t think we should,” the Prince answered. “If we stay on the road someone is bound to come along.” But truthfully he wasn’t sure. No one had gone past, and if the rains were this bad, no one was likely. If their driver had been badly injured or killed, he couldn’t have called for help, and no one would yet know that they were missing.
“If we go on, we might find help,” the Princess said. “Let’s.”
“All right,” he finally agreed, “but if we find someone, let me do the talking.”
“Why you?” the Princess said, with a laugh.
The Prince ignored her and stormed off ahead.
A flash of lightning and crack of thunder came in rapid succession, brightening the countryside with an instant glare that left an afterimage tingling in their eyes.
A tree crashed not far away.
“I see a building!” the Princess said.
“We’d better hurry if we don’t want to be electrocuted,” said the Prince, taking off at a run.
The Princess paused to take off her shoes and then ran. She caught up with her brother just as he stopped suddenly in front of an open door.
She banged into him, and they both fell inside.
“Well well,” said a woman’s voice. “Look what the rain’s brought.”
“Two children,” said another voice, a man’s. “They’re soaked. Come over here by the fire.”
The Prince and the Princess stood up awkwardly and took in the scene.
They were just inside a large structure with a packed dirt floor, a barn of some kind. It was old, but still somewhat sound. Rain poured in from several holes in the roof, but most of the dirt floor was quite dry and even a little dusty.
A small bonfire lit the middle of the barn. Set well away from the ancient timber walls, the smoke from the fire rose to the ceiling and floated out through the nearest hole, which was, sensibly enough, not directly over the fire pit.
The Prince and the Princess were embarrassed. Their eyes were still getting adjusted to the light.
Around the fire was a gathering of men and women, none of whom looked as if they would be comfortable dining at a Royal dinner banquet. It was hard to tell how many there were. They were old and dirty and looked rather poor. Their faces were dimly lit, but their eyes were bright.
“Who do we have here?” said a large dark-skinned man with a Van Dyke beard and moustache. His eyes were a glittering brown and his grin was wide.
“What are your names, children?” asked the woman next to him. She had light skin, and a long frizz of hair that shot wildly in all directions.
The Prince was instantly wary. He felt in his pockets for the knife that he always kept there, but it seemed to have been washed away in the flood. He resented being called a child, but decided that correcting the speaker, whoever she was, was something that could be handled later.
The Princess was about to curtsy and introduce herself, when a sudden touch of her brother’s hand stopped her.
“Maybe we should go,” the Prince said, softly.
“Nonsense,” said another voice, a deep old man’s kind voice. “Never mind who you are or where you’ve come from or why you’re here. That’s the rule. It’s true for us and it’s true for them too. It’s getting dark and bucketing down rain out there. It’s dry in here. Come over here by the fire and get yourselves warm.”
The Princess looked at her brother, “He’s right, you know. It’s very cold out there.” She was starting to shiver.
The Prince nodded, but through a clenched smile whispered to his sister, “Stay on this side of the fire. If I shout to run, don’t wait. Just run.”
She squeezed his hand. “All right.”
The fire was warm. It shot sparks and threw out heat. Its flames were red and bright and yellow and blue all flashing and intertwined.
Circling round the fire pit were logs and boulders and bales of hay and even an old rocking chair. Inside the circle, sitting on these logs and boulders and bales of hay were a dozen men and women of all shapes and sizes and colors.
The man in the rocker was clearly in charge. He had a long and old face, heavy with wrinkles. He had been the one who had spoken most kindly to the Prince and the Princess.
Because of the flickering light and the irregular smoke, it was difficult to tell who was younger and who was older or even what the true shades of their skins were. They were a mixed lot of light and dark, thin and fat.
The woman with the frizzled hair passed the Prince a jar. He looked at it and tried to refuse, but she smiled, took a drink first. “It’s just water,” she said kindly. “Gathered from the rain.”
The Princess took it from her and said, “Thank you so much.” She sipped and passed it to her brother.
The water tasted clear and good. Soaked and drenched, they hadn’t realized how thirsty they were. At last, when the jar was emptied and filled and half-emptied again they stopped.
So they sat on a log with their backs to the door, listening to the rain and warmed themselves as evening fled and the darkness of night deepened.
“So, have yer a story?” a harsh man’s voice from the other side of the flames suddenly demanded. He sounded gruff and looked rough. His face was poorly shaved, he had dark reddish hair and dim eyes and was dressed all in black.
The Prince and the Princess blinked. They wanted to say who they were, and that they were lost and alone, but weren’t sure it was a good idea. A thousand questions went through their minds. Where were they? Who were these people? Could anyone help? They were frightened to ask. Both the Prince and the Princess knew that while most people are kind and friendly there are some who can be dangerous, and they dared not show themselves to be frightened or weak.
“Now now,” said the old man in the rocking chair. “Never mind who you are or where you’ve come from or why you’re here. That’s the rule. It’s true for us and it’s true for them too.”
The Prince was tired and frightened. It was hard to keep track of everyone. The mood in the barn was shifting. Everyone was growing fidgety and restless. He was just getting ready to reach for his sister’s hand, getting ready to tell her to run. Yes they were comfortable now. Yes they were warm, but little good it would do if they were kidnapped or worse.
“It’s time, don’t you think?” said red haired man dressed in black.
“A story then,” agreed the old man in the rocker. “Now that’s the idea. Eh? Let’s get to what we came here for to do. A story for a story for a story. Who knows one and will pass the time?”
There was a moment’s silence. And then another. And another.
The Prince felt his shoulders beginning to tighten. He was just about to shout when a young man’s soft voice began.
“This is one you may know…
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