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The Princess and The Pig

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    [Complete] The Princess and The Pig

    I live. It's been almost a decade since I posted here last and quite a bit as changed. As soon as I sort out the reason why I can't change my birthday information, I'll update my profile more fully. Until then, here is an original fairy tale that I wrote early this year. Enjoy.

    ###############

    The King of Eastern Shore had only one daughter. As he lay in bed, awaiting the long rest, he called her to his chambers.

    “Soon you will be heiress to the wealthiest kingdom in all the land. But I have neglected much during my time. Our merchant fleets are fast but they are not strong and there are pirates on these waters. Our army is weak and our walls could not defend us against a true threat. The most profitable trade routes have made for us great alliances with kingdoms and empires across the sea. But they have also made us the object of envy and greed to those with whom we share this land.”

    “What would you ask of me father?” the princess asked.

    “What a father may ask of all daughters and a king may ask of a princess. I urge you to marry a prince of Iron Hall.”

    Entire empires lay in ruin, having wasted every soldier and every resource trying to thwart the well trained armies of Iron Hall. A kingdom that lay to the west of Eastern Shore, it was surrounded by a wall that no army, beast, nor force of nature could penetrate. And it was known to the King of Eastern Shore that the King of Iron Hall, who also awaited the long rest, had three sons.

    “Any city that shelters an heir to the throne of Iron Hall will have the protection of their armies. Their engineers would benefit from the knowledge and goods we can acquire from lands across the sea. Your marriage to a prince of Iron Hall would be the birth of the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world.”

    From her bedroom window, Princess Alethea gazed at the sea. She wished for a better solution but when the morning came, only ships returning from their journeys sailed into port. And nothing washed upon the bluffs well below the castle.

    She sent a messenger to the King of Iron Hall, relaying her father’s wishes as if they were her own. For if she was to marry for the purpose of alliance, she wanted her subjects to know her decision was that of a competent ruler and not merely an obedient daughter.

    When the messenger returned, the king’s reply read:

    These are times of sorrow and of swift action. A most beneficial alliance would there be if our kingdoms were bound by marriage.

    In three days my eldest son, Prince Elpstar will pay you a visit. Should this match be suitable, my one request is that I may witness the ceremony. I too am nearing the time of my long rest. I am proud of all that I have built and to see my son happy as he takes the throne would be my greatest reward.

    Alethea summoned the head cook to her chambers. Graham was a plump old man who served the King of Eastern Shore and his court since before Althea was born.

    “We must celebrate the prince’s arrival,” she declared. “Make him feel welcome in our home. I count on you to prepare a feast that will satisfy his belly and his soul.”

    “It is my pleasure to serve you, Your Highness,” Graham said with a bow. He could barely contain his glee as he left Alethea’s chambers and returned to the kitchens in search of his first apprentice. He found the boy plucking chickens in the larder and grabbed him by the wrist, roughly dragging him to the stables.

    “Listen here, boy,” Graham said, in so only the apprentice would hear. “Before I served the King of Eastern Shore as head cook, I was a pot scrubber just like you. I began my long and distinguished career in the kitchens of Iron Hall. There I witnessed the birth of the prince who’s visit is imminent and I know that he has a taste for porcine flesh.

    “An eternal feast awaits me. And what a story I shall have for those who went before me that I served the fattest and finest pig to the future king and queen of a brand new empire. You go now and find me that pig. The best that may be prepared and placed before Prince Elpstar. Do not fail me and you will be the new head cook.”

    The apprentice set out at once. At first he tried the butchers in the nearby villages. Then he went from a farm on one end of the kingdom to a farm on another. He asked every owner of every shop and tavern, every captain of every boat and no one had a pig to sell.

    “A strange blight has killed all the sows,” they all said. “There hasn’t been a pig within the walls of Eastern Shore going on a year.”

    For two straight days the apprentice searched, stopping only to water his horse and to eat just enough to carry him further. Never did he rest. Never did he sleep. He searched the woods for wild boar but there was none to be caught and none of the huntsmen he encountered seemed to have found any in their travels. When the sun came up on the third day, the apprentice feared that he would fail in his mission.

    He found himself at the edge of a forest, looking out at a vast stretch of land. The ground was hard and dry, the dead grass crunched beneath the horse’s hooves. All he could see that gave him some hope was a cottage in the distance. The closer he got the further his heart sank. There were gaping holes in the tiled roof and the steps were broken. The apprentice shivered from the sight of the windows, without drapes or glass to keep away the cold. Behind the cottage there was a fence in need of mending but mud within was still wet, with signs it had been disturbed. A familiar scent tickled the apprentice’s nose and he drew close to investigate. Sure enough there it was. A tiny runt of a shoat with its head happily buried in it slops.

    The apprentice tied up his horse and carefully climbed the steps of the cottage. The door was closed but through a tiny window he could see the weak glow of a fire on the hearth.

    “Good morning,” he called to whomever might be inside. “I have come from the Castle of Eastern Shore at the orders of the head cook. I seek a pig which we will feed to the future king of the empire that will be when our future queen is wed to a prince of Iron Hall.”

    There was silence. Then,

    “Come in. Please, do come in. We rarely get visitors.”

    The feeble voice belonged to an old man. When the apprentice walked in, he saw the man sitting in what seemed to be the only chair in the cottage. The arms and legs of other furniture now fed the flames on the hearth.

    The old man looked up from his chair, tightly wrapped from head to toe in blankets. His face was worn with time but his eyes were bright and his smile did what the fire could not. The apprentice removed his hat as if he were in the presence of nobility.

    “Forgive me for intruding,” he said, sincerely. “I only come to you in this desperate hour, as I have searched the kingdom for a pig and have found none. You have in the pen outside a pig that would suit my needs.”

    “That pig is all that we have.”

    The apprentice turned and saw a man standing by the back door of the cottage. Beyond the door was the pen, where the shoat now wallowed in the mud. The apprentice introduced himself to this new man, who was scarcely a year old than he.

    “I heard you,” the young man said. “And I heard your plea to my father. The answer is no.”

    “Don’t be so rude, boy,” the old man said with a chuckle. “This apprentice comes from the Castle of Eastern Shore. He is an emissary of your future queen.”

    “Be that as it may,” the young man said. “We cannot give you our pig. Don’t you see that we are pour and my father frail? This shoat is all that survives of the blight that killed every pig in the kingdom. It is the only thing that may restore my father to health so that we may finally leave this land that yields no crops.”

    The apprentice looked once more at the shoat in the pen. It looked so healthy and yet it was so scrawny. It could barely fill a bowl of soup, much less was it a worthy beast to slaughter for the prince. The apprentice looked to the old man, who smiled at him and into the eyes of the weary son whose lines grew deeper than his father.

    “Of course I cannot bring myself to take this pig from you,” he said. “I thank you for your time and wish you good health.”

    When the apprentice returned to the castle, Prince Elpstar had already arrived. The village was alive with dancers and jugglers. Musicians performed in the street, tamers displayed strange and exotic animals, and poets of varying talent entertained the crowds with verse.

    The apprentice was not to enjoy the festivities. For when he showed Graham his empty hands, he was beaten until he could stand no more. And while he lay, injured and bleeding, Graham paced about the kitchen.

    “Go to the larders,” he told all his cooks. “Get every chicken, every turkey, every pheasant and duck. A feast of fowls will please Prince Elpstar and Princess Alethea. Make every dish I taught you and make it without mistake. You!” Graham pointed to Linn, a young woman who had served in his kitchens since she could walk. “You are my new first apprentice. You will see to it that these novices and scrubbers do not botch up this meal. Serve me well and you will be head cook when I have earned my eternal feast.”

    Through the night the kitchen fires burned. Every bird in the castle was plucked, cleaned, and prepared. The cooks worked tirelessly until the rise of the sun and under the watchful eye of Linn, they made no mistakes.

    When Alethea and Elpstar sat down to a feast, Alethea was quite impressed.

    “Such a meal I have not seen,” she said. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

    Elpstar grimaced and scoffed.

    “You must never have eaten at all, if you think this is quality.” Elpstar started with a chicken. He finished every morsel, cleaning every bone and finishing every piece of garnish. “Goodness me, was this chicken depressed before it lost its head?” Then a whole turkey. “Such cruelty. Were I this animal’s family I’d seek vengeance at once.” Pheasant and duck. “The food tasters must really hate you, Your Highness. Marriage would be a blessing no doubt. How can you boast such wonderful trade when it’s clear your kitchen staff has never seen a speck of spice in their lives.”

    Alethea clenched her fists and concealed them beneath the table. She ate slowly, enjoying every piece, but her appetite was waning. Elpstar took a long sip of wine, though he had finished half the bottle.

    “And this swill,” he crowed. “Wine comes from grapes, not the puss of bunions. How can your kingdom be considered a threat? Just throw this at them along with the food and you’ll be more feared than my own armies.”

    Finally, Alethea had heard enough.

    “Will this night be an example of a whole lifetime with you? If so then good riddance. Leave the bottle and go. Get out of my sight.”

    Elpstar threw back his chair and swept out of the room. Not without shouting, “One star falls upon this night and no more. I’ll be glad when I am home.”

    Alone and relieved at the silence, Alethea finished the rest of the wine in a few deep gulps then summoned Graham to the dining hall. Her speech was slurred and she could barely keep her head up as she told him, “This meal was exceptional. Feed the rest to anyone who is hungry.”

    “At once, Your Highness.” Graham concealed a sigh as he passed the orders onto his staff.

    #2
    In the weeks that followed, ships were lost at sea. Some were taken in a storm or by other natural causes. Once or twice in the past few years, a small boat carrying injured and desperate men made it to shore, whereupon Alethea would learn of a squadron of pirates terrorizing the sea. And fair weather allies weren’t always so honest in their dealings with the Kingdom of Eastern Shore.

    “Why must I be heir to so many mistakes,” Alethea wondered. She was walking along the harbor with the royal adviser at her side. That morning she had given a eulogy at a memorial service for those lost at sea and the faces of widows and their children haunted her. “Why is our navy not as impressive as our merchant fleets? For that matter why do we have no navy? And why is our army so weak? I shall order the design and construction of frigates that will protect our merchant vessels and I shall require our armies to be strengthened and better trained.”

    “While your father still breathes,” her adviser said. “Your authority is nil, unless you are to marry.”

    And her father did linger. Even in bed, with the long rest at hand, his lungs were still strong and his mind was as sharp.

    “Why would we waste good money and good time?” he asked his daughter. “A marriage to Iron Hall would bring about all that you have denounced. If only your tongue was as schooled as your thoughts, you would now be the queen of an empire that was wealthier and stronger than any other.”

    Alethea gazed at the sea from her bedroom window. Thick clouds rolled in as the wind turned waves into walls of white, blue and green. Her rooms filled with the smells of sea air. Parchment flew from her desk, flames from the lamps sputtered and flickered. She watched and marveled and took great comfort in the chill of the storm as the words of her father rang deep within her thoughts.

    In the morning things were calmer. Her father still lived and her power was nil, so she sent word once again to the King of Iron Hall. His reply came a few days later.

    What troubled times we live in when a king cannot command his son. So sorry am I that he was not the one but perhaps my second eldest will do.

    In three days time he will pay you a visit. I only ask that if this match be suitable, I be allowed to see my son happily wed before I go onto my long rest.

    Graham found his new apprentice and dragged her by the hand to the stables.

    “Her Highness has called on me once again,” he said. “This time I will not be made a fool. The princes of Iron Hall have liking for porcine flesh and I will have a pig to place before this next prince in three days time. You saw what happened to your predecessor when he returned empty handed. I won’t be so kind to you.”

    Guided by fear and ambition, Linn set out at once to find a pig. She went to every shop, every butcher, every tavern. She went to every trader in every port, promising rich rewards for what she sought but the answer was the same each time.

    “The pigs have died of a mysterious blight. There are no sows for breeding and no shoats for trading.”

    For two days Linn traveled with nothing but the fear of failure to guide her. Only stopping to feed and water her horse, she took little food for herself as the memory of the former first apprentice’s frail and broken body robbed her of any appetite.

    When the sun rose on the third day, Linn found herself at the edge of a forest that marked the border of Eastern Shore. She looked out upon the dry and barren land and wondered how it came to be. Saddened and defeated, Linn prepared to turn around when she saw a cottage in the distance.

    Curious and cautious she went for a closer look. No one could live there, she thought. The windows were bare, except for a flimsy sheet of cloth that billowed in the breeze. The steps were in splinters and there was significant rotting in the frame of the house. Only when she saw the smoke rising from the chimney and a faint flicker of firelight from beyond the makeshift drapes did Linn have a sliver of hope. Her spirit rose when she heard the delighted squeal coming from a pen behind the cottage.

    Sure enough, she saw it running in energetic circles around the pen, squealing with delight. Plump and covered with mud, spots of the brightest pink glistened in the harsh light of day. In spite of the dryness that plagued this land, this pig was well fed and watered. What a perfect feast to place before the future king of Eastern Shore, if only Linn could take it.

    She tied up her horse and approached the cottage. The steps were wobbly and the door open a crack. Linn climbed them with care and called,

    “Is anyone home?”

    No answer. A fire crackled and hissed.

    Linn leaned closer to the door and said, “I’m an apprentice to the head cook of the Princess Alethea, the future queen of Eastern Shore. I seek a pig to place before the prince who will soon be our new king.”

    There was creaking noise.

    “Hello? Come in, dear. Warm yourself by the fire.”

    She found a man lying beside the fire on a bed made of moth eaten furs and flimsy planks of wood. He was wrapped in blankets only slightly thicker than the ones that covered the windows and his head was propped on a pillow that might have once been someone’s coat. When he turned to see her, she could see the pain in his eyes.

    “What a pretty young lady,” he said. “A princess yourself, are you?”

    Linn forced a chuckle. The man moved to raise his hand and she went to her knees to take it. His grip was weak and his warmth was failing.

    “I’m but a cook’s apprentice sir,” she told him. “Though I could be a head cook one day. I seek a pig to place before the prince. I am certain the future queen of Eastern Shore would generously reward anyone who helped her to secure this alliance with the Kingdom of Iron Hall.”

    “And when would this reward come?” A young man stood beside the fireplace. His face and his clothes were covered in mud and sweat. Though he was many years younger than the man on the floor the pain and exhaustion in his eyes were enough to be considered an inherited trait. “Would this reward come before my father’s death or after? Could it be a nice coach with a coffin made from the finest trees?”

    The old man coughed and wheezed.

    “Boy, I’ll put you over my knee if you don’t apologize to this young lady at once.”

    The “boy” shook his head but did as the man asked. Linn accepted his apology out of politeness and rose to greet him. He listened as she told him of the prince’s pending visit and his love of pig. Then she led him to the pen where the pig now rested beneath the warm sun, breathing deeply.

    “I’ve been feeding it scraps and anything I can find,” he said. “I’ve walked many miles to find and trade for the blankets to keep him warm and the clean water to make the simple broth which is all my father’s body can take in. This pig might have saved his life once but now it may be all I have to trade for a better place to spend his final hours.”

    Linn saw the pig and imagined it’s value with all the pigs in Eastern Shore dead. She saw the cottage and the poor old man beside the fire. She sighed.

    “I cannot take your pig,” she said. “I wish you and your father well.”

    When Linn returned to castle there was much celebration.

    In the surrounding villages, performers lined the streets. Sword eaters, fire eaters, tricksters of the card and coin, comedians who made audiences laugh and tragedians who made them weep. In the court fortune tellers read cards, stones, tea leaves and the sky itself to regale those who could pay with promises of riches to come.

    Princess Althea was not so enthralled. She sat in dignified resignation, biting the inside of her lip as her guest, Prince Hacksbee, the second son of the king of Iron Hall, rambled on.

    “It is I who approves the licenses for all the performers and fortune tellers,” he said. “For my own psychic gift grants me the power to see those who are sincere and those who are merely charlatans.”

    “Is that so?” the princess muttered.

    “It is quite so, Your Highness. It is also true that I see and speak to those who have gone to their long rest. Just think of all those poor souls who were lost at sea, cut down by the forces of man and nature. For a nominal fee our subjects would find closure.”

    At this Alethea sat up straight and fixed her guest with a sidelong glare.

    “And why should they pay any sort of fee at all? Is it not an act of kindness to share your gift with our subjects free of charge, that their closure might make them more productive?”

    Hacksbychuckled and patted his belly.

    “Don’t seers deserve to eat, My Lady? On that matter, where is this feast I was promised?”

    In the kitchens below, Graham raged and bellowed. Staff cowered and ran as he threw pots, pans, and any thing he could lay hands on, Linn dodged and backed away, attempting to reason but finding the head cook to be in no reasonable mood.

    “How dare you fail me!” he shouted. He backed her into a far corner and made ready to pummel her. Linn grabbed for the nearest thing she could find and swung it hard.

    Graham stumbled backwards crying out in confusion and pain. His vision blurred as blood poured from the wound in his head. Linn watched as he tripped over a pan and fell onto the range of a stove, spilling a pot of boiling water onto his feet as a flame covered his face and chest. Servants quickly ran from his path as he stumbled from the kitchens and down the hall. In confusion and pain, Graham was unaware of the window at the end of the hall until his distinguished career came to an end on the rocky shoals far below the castle.

    The kitchen staff all looked on Linn with a mixture of terror and admiration. She looked at them and handed the meat tenderizer to the nearest boy.

    “Throw that into the sea,” she told him. To the rest she said, “It appears that the position of head cook has become available. Anyone mind if I take it?”

    No one did.

    “Then lets get to work. Why are you still standing there? I said throw that away and burn your clothes. You got some blood on you and it’s not sanitary. You three, gather all the nuts and fruits you can find. You two: Cheese and lots of it. And bread, lots of bread! Is there any fish?”

    Alethea’s appetite was quite depleted by the time she took her seat across from Hacksbee, who still prattled on about how great a psychic he was and how rich these gifts made him. She wondered how he could be psychic and not recognize the sheer boredom on her face.

    The servants set the table with dishes and bowls. Alethea watched with interest, greeting them and offering gratitude for their good service in the form of praise and coins. The servants were not accustomed to such attention and expressed their own gratitude, giving the princess something to hear besides how great her guest was.

    The prince went silent as he perused the dishes.

    “Cherries?” He said with disdain. “These will irritate my bowels. So will the prunes, the dates, and the apricots. Ugh, bread! This bread is loaded with unhealthy preservatives. They’ll turn my blood into sludge and weaken my mind’s ability to talk to the dead. And this fish looks like it was rescued from the cat bowl.”

    He pulled the lid off another bowl and chucked it aside. Alethea winced as it clattered against the stone and clenched her fist.

    “Nuts!” the prince bellowed. “You dare to feed nuts!”

    “A very healthy meal,” Alethea replied. “One that celebrates our dedicated farmers and our wondrous bounty.”

    “I’m allergic to nuts!” the prince shouted.

    “And I’ve grown tired of them as well!” Alethea matched his tone and volume, much to the surprise of the servants in attendance. She rose from her chair and came around the table to grab the prince by his rotund arms. “Get out of this castle at once. Sleep in the cemetery since the dead seem so eager for your company!”

    Taking no chances, Alethea half-dragged the prince to the stables where his team of horses were kept. She supervised the saddling of the carriage and didn’t take her eyes off Hacksby until he was well beyond the horizon of Eastern Shore’s borders.

    She returned to the hall and brushed off anyone who offered words of sympathy, ordering them to enjoy themselves and the festivities as she returned to the dinner table. She summoned the head cook and was surprised to see Linn standing before her.

    “Where is Graham?”

    “He had an accident and had to leave in haste, Your Highness.” Linn said, without the slightest hesitation. “His last words to me were that I would become head cook in his place.”

    Alethea considered Linn’s words and nodded.

    “Very fortunate,” she said. “Well, Graham was more my father’s cook than mine. Congratulations on your new position. This was a fine start to your career, whatever that ambulatory mound of offal might have said.”

    Comment


      #3
      A messenger arrived at the castle as Queen Alethea and her handmaidens traded black for purple. The letter from the king of Iron Hall read:

      It fills me with great sorrow to learn of the passing of your beloved father. It has kept me lying awake as I try to fathom his state of mind. What could possess a man of such wisdom to use the remainder of his failing strength to try and ingest so many pecans at once?

      Do not despair Your Highness. For I am certain your father did not aim to take his life but instead tried to renew it in desperation to be whole. And yet in his loss I am both pleased and saddened by your assent to the throne. In the short time following your coronation I have heard many rumors circulating among my subjects. They say your fleet has increased in strength and the fiercest of pirates now turn and run at the sight of your flags. You have made powerful allies and your kingdom is wealthier for it.

      But I am afraid things may yet take a darker turn. When you have received this letter I fear I shall be speaking with your father during our Long Rest. In my weakening state my sons have already made plans to move our armies on the kingdom of the Eastern Shore, for the perceived slights they have received in your presence.

      It is my final act to warn you of their plans. My words may fall deaf on their ears but I trust they will spur you to raise your defenses in preparation. It is lamentable that things should end on such a dark note.

      Queen Alethea sat at the head of the table, hearing the wisdom and experience of her generals.

      “Our armies should remain within the border. Iron Hall is not used to such a strong defense.”

      “Nor are they accustomed to being met on the battlefield. Sending a wave of troops to slow down the advancing armies by land will give our allies time to reach us by sea.”

      “What if these spirits who know no border and betray our plans to Prince Hacksbee?”

      “Cock and bull,” Alethea said with a wave of her hand. “As are the rumors of Iron Hall’s strength, propagated, no doubt, by his brother Elpstar.”

      “We mustn’t underestimate our enemy, Your Highness.”

      “Nor do I intend to,” she reassured them.

      Well into the night, Alethea studied detailed maps of the Kingdom of Eastern Shore. She read reports from the furthest outposts of the kingdom and allocated soldiers and resources to parts where the fighting was fiercest. Allies provided provisions and weapons but the armies of Iron Hall proved most formidable and enduring.

      From the early hours of the morning, Alethea’s handmaidens worried for the health of their Queen as she postponed rest to visit the wounded and comfort grieving families of the fallen. She went to the dungeons to see to the well being of captured prisoners of war. Some offered information in exchange for clemency and others still offered insults. She paid the latter no mind but gave them little more than the barest necessities to live. The former were given comforts until their wealth of information ran dry and they were given a new uniform and sent back into battle with the latest regiment.

      Late one evening Alethea sat in her chambers, staring out at the window and trying to find comfort in the clouds that drifted lazily beneath the full moon. She had dismissed her advisers and generals hours earlier and the map still covered the table, held in place by the crown.

      Lynn entered the room carrying a tray with carafe of wine and a pot of coffee. Alethea chuckled. She only ordered one of those.

      “Do you want it?” she asked, gesturing to the crown.

      “No, Your Majesty,” Lynn said without hesitation.

      “Very wise.”

      Linn placed the tray on the table and poured a glass of each. Alethea graciously accepted the wine and asked Linn to remain.

      “What I am about to show you should not leave this room. I would not burden you with such knowledge and yet there are few others I can trust.”

      Linn nodded. “I am gratified to be of service.”

      Alethea produced two letters bearing the seals of Iron Hall. Linn read the first aloud.

      “Three stars shine in testimony to your army’s strength and skill. No wiser adversary have I encountered and it moves me to offer you this one chance to apologize for your transgression. Marry me and submit the kingdom of Eastern Shore to the rule of Iron Hall and no more blood shall be shed.

      “Of course, should you prefer to wed my brother, then I would be honored to extend the protection of my five star armies to any future heir of Iron Hall.

      “Sincerely, His Royal Highness, Prince Elpstar.”

      Then Linn read the next one.

      “I have been in deep conversation with your father and my own. Since leaving this world for the one beyond the veil, I have consulted with them for their wisdom. Your father is proud of what you have done with the Kingdom of Eastern Shore but he is disappointed that you would throw away any chance to bring about a peaceful end to our conflict. My own father lingers in the afterlife, hoping to one day see grandchildren and to watch our proud kingdoms form a mighty empire.

      “For this I can see no alternative but to offer you a chance to fix the mistake you made when last we met. Should you accept my proposal of marriage, the Kingdom of Eastern Shore will become a province of Iron Hall. Or, should you prefer, my brother also offers you his hand in marriage. Though it would sadden me not to share my bed with you, the spirits which I command would protect the future heirs of Iron Hall for all eternity.

      Sincerely, His Royal Highness, Prince Hacksby.”

      Alethea sighed.

      “Though I swear no one but you or I have read this letter, I am surrounded by those who echo their sentiments. And yet I have looked to the sea and can find no other solution. More lives will end if I don’t choose between the opinionated snob or the psychic fraud.” When Linn was silent, Alethea looked at her and saw her eyes were downcast.

      “What is it?”

      Linn hesitated. She remembered where she was and to whom she was speaking but it was the first time the burden of her decision really began to weigh on her.

      “The head apprentice before me made a terrible mistake. I’m afraid that I made the same mistake, Your Highness.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “Graham, who served His Majesty for many years had also once served in the kitchens of Iron Hall. He knew that the princes of Iron Hall had a craving for porcine flesh.”

      Linn told Alethea of the first apprentice, who came home empty handed. She went on to explain how she too found the old man and his son at the edge of the kingdom, with the pig she also not bring to take from them.

      “Please forgive us, Your Majesty,” Linn said, nearly in tears by the end of her tale. “So much blood is on our hands now. Had I insisted on taking the pig I might have at least helped to avert this war.”

      Alethea said nothing. She looked down at the map on the table and rose, examining the borders closely.

      “Could you find this cottage again?”

      Alethea gazed out at the barren land surrounding the cottage. At first she didn’t believe anyone would want to live out here when the interior of the kingdom provided so much. Then she saw the smoke rising from the chimney and with the confident reassurance of Linn, who had lead the way, she waited as the head cook climbed the broken steps.

      “Hello?” Linn shouted through the window, now covered by a thick canvas. “Is anyone there?”

      A deep, masculine voice replied, “Go away.”

      “Please sir, it is I; the head cook who serves the Queen of Eastern Shore.”

      “I don’t care. Leave me in my misery.”

      Linn looked to Alethea with an expression of helplessness. Alethea dismounted and joined Linn at the door.

      “I am Queen Alethea. Your house falls within the outermost border of the kingdom and you are therefore a subject of mine. Let me in at once and I will forgive this impertinence.”

      Silence was the reply. Then the door opened slowly and Linn at once recognized the young man from before. He was thinner now, with a beard that covered his face but did little to conceal the sad, broken man that he now was.

      “Your Majesty,” the man said, with the barest hint of respect. “Forgive me. I am not at my best.”

      “Few of us are,” Alethea replied. “May we come in?”

      “It is, as you say, your kingdom.”

      He led them to some chairs beside the fire. Linn looked around and could not find the older man.

      “Your father… is he…”

      “He’s not with us,” the man said, collapsing into a chair nearest the flame. The light of the flame danced across the sleeping body of another familiar face.

      “The pig,” Linn said. “You never killed it.”

      The man looked up and frowned. “He’s all I have.”

      Alethea gestured for Linn to move aside. She stood between the man and the flame and glowered at them both.

      “That pig may have spared us all of this,” she said, making a sweeping gesture to indicate the war on all sides. “But for one sacrifice, your life would have been much improved. Your father may have been treated and cured.”

      The man returned the glare without the slightest bit of fear. But he didn’t rise.

      “If you cared so much you might have sent more than a couple of apprentices. I’m surprised you came here yourself to deal this final bit of admonishment.”

      Before Linn could speak on her Queen’s behalf, Alethea raised a hand to silence her.

      “Compassion is not a crime,” she said, for the benefit of her servant as well as the subject who lay before him. “For what my head cook and her predecessor have done I cannot find fault. One could say that my refusal to placate the princes of Iron Hall did far more damage than your refusal to surrender a pig that might have restored your father to health.

      “It is I who must apologize for intruding upon you during this time of mourning. Yet if your father truly has moved on to the Final Rest, then I must wonder if this pig truly means more to you than the entire Kingdom, for now there is no good reason to keep it alive. Yet plenty of reasons to see it slaughtered.”

      The Queen drew her sword and Linn protested.

      “Your majesty, please no.”

      “I have no choice,” Alethea said. “You might never have brought this to my attention but now you’ve have left me with no choice. I must act for the good of my people.”

      At this the young man rose and stood between the queen and the pig.

      “Leave my house at once!” he shouted. “I care not for who you are or why you are here. Get out of this house and leave me and my pig alone!”

      “I will not leave here until I have done what must be done!” Alethea replied.

      Before anyone could act, the queen turned the sword around and held out the hilt. Confusion stole everyone’s voices so that all that could be heard was the crackling flame and the wind from outside. The pig snored in blissful ignorance of its surroundings.

      “Iron Hall may not see much advantage in this barren land,” Alethea went on. “But it exists within my borders and therefore you are under my protection. I will send a small contingent to repair this house and fortify the surrounding area in short time but until then, you may need this to protect yourself and your pig.”

      When he made no move to take the sword, she returned it to the sheath and placed it on the mantle. Without a word, Queen Alethea left the cabin. Linn followed dutifully and at the door, paused to look over her shoulder at the still dumbfounded young man. Neither of them could have been more surprised if she buried the blade in their stomachs, then turned it on the pig.

      At last the armies of Iron Hall converged on the Kingdom of Eastern Shore.

      “Marriage or martyrdom,” Alethea whispered to herself over and over. “If I marry they will seize control. If I die they seize control. What am I to do?”

      She gazed out at the sea and again no answer came. The smell of battle lingered on the air as her navy formed a barricade to ward off any attackers from the sea and to lay fire on the land if Iron Hall’s forces should make it to the interior of the kingdom.

      Scouts from all corners reported that the armies were setting up camp at the outer most borders and awaiting Alethea’s reply. She could accept the marriage proposal of either of the brothers and end this at once, or she could meet them with the full force of Eastern Shore’s army and surely be overwhelmed.

      “Prepare my armor,” she told the quartermaster at last. To her seamstresses she said, “Prepare my wedding dress. I’ll wear them both and make up my mind when I get there.”

      And there on the field of battle Iron Hall and Eastern Shore stood at the ready. And Alethea had not yet made up her mind. Her armor glistened in the noonday sun and her dress billowed in the wind as she stood at the front of the army with a shield in hand.

      “What is your answer Your Highness?” Prince Elpstar called. “Will you receive five stars in my arm, or do you wish to find yourself in the bed of my brother?”

      “The spirit world awaits your answer!” Prince Hacksby added. “Join me or my brother or join your father in the afterlife. And all your subjects will pay the price for your ultimate decision.”

      A most difficult choice indeed, the Queen thought. For their armies did seem vast but their numbers were quite depleted from previous battles. However her own army was sophomoric in its experience and even with their considerable skill, Iron Hall had the advantage over Eastern Shore. She thought back to the man and his pig and how bravely he defended so helpless a creature.

      In fact, everyone now thought of that pig. Everyone who could see it waddling out into the middle of the battlefield apparently out of nowhere. Confusion soon gave way to laughter. Such an odd thing to happen at so critical at time that even the queen was somewhat amused. But not by what happened next.

      A man rode up to the pig and dismounted. He wore a full suit of armor and flowing robes. At first soldiers on both sides thought this was some fool breaking rank. Others thought it was some misguided knight errant hoping to seek his fame and fortune with some misguided challenge to one side or the other.

      Then the knight removed his helmet and turned to the the queen. Alethea saw the man’s face and realized she was looking into familiar eyes. The beard was gone but there was no mistake; this was the man from the cabin. And that pig that now sat at his side was the same one Linn refused to take from the belly of a dying old man. Then Alethea saw the crest on his chest plate and soon, the princes Elpstar and Hacksby recognized him, too.

      “Prince Elwyn! What is the meaning of this.”

      Elwyn turned on Elpstar with a demonstrative gesture.

      “Impertinent fool. Do you not see the crown, brothers? I am now your king.”

      Hacksby’s belly rippled as he nearly laughed himself off the seat of his horse.

      “King? No one has seen you for months. You’ve no claim to the throne of Iron Hall!”

      At this, Elwyn produced a scroll.

      “This was signed by our father in the long standing tradition of the Iron Hall line.” He turned to Alethea and his gaze softened. From a purse on his belt he produced a simple gold ring. “Your majesty, I have a proposal. Upon verification of this document, I would very much like to offer you my hand in marriage.”

      Alethea was quite shocked by all of this. She dismounted and approached this strange man and his even stranger companion. The pig simply sat there and looked on as if all of this were normal.

      “What crown do you speak of?” she asked.

      Elwyn laughed. He pointed to the pig.

      “A most unusual diadem, no doubt. But it is the descendant of a long line of pigs that began with a sow. This sow was owned by my ancestors who built the cabin you and your servants have visited. My ancestor was a common woman with no brothers to care for her after her father passed away. The youngest son of a noble lord wanted to lead a quiet life. He married her and took care of her family’s debts and expenses and over the years, the Iron Hall pig farm became a robust industry that eventually destroyed the land that surrounded it. The young lord was forced to move his family back to the city where his family ruled as its protector and soon became the first king of Iron Hall.

      “These pigs became the royal pets and it’s a matter of some confusion. The princes of Iron Hall love pigs but we do not eat porcine flesh. Had your cooks taken my pig, or had you slaughtered him in that cabin, we would truly be at war for they must also be present at the coronation of any king or queen of Iron Hall, as per our traditions.”

      Alethea didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Elpstar and Hacksby had plenty enough for all four of them.

      “That pig is not our crown anymore!” Hacksby shouted. “It is foul smelling and offensive. While you were lazing about in a cabin, Elpstar and I were waging a campaign to seize control the land once and for all.”

      “Five stars shined in testimony to our effort,” Elpstar agreed. “You, brother, are not even worth one half of a star.”

      “Our traditions have not faded,” Elwyn replied. “The documents are legal and the signatures valid, should you wish to have them verified.”

      Within hours, a tent was erected and the three princes and the queen Alethea summoned a lawyer whom they could trust. The four lawyers purused the documents provided by Elwyn. In silence, Alethea asked Elwyn,

      “Why then would you marry me, assuming all this is true?”

      “Your cooks came to me as I tended to my father, the king of Iron Hall. Their actions spoke to me of a wise and noble leader, who was perfectly human and made mistakes, and maybe did some things she’d rather the world not know.” Elwyn shelled a pecan and gave her a knowing smirk, which she pretended not to notice. “All I knew of your father told me it could not be he who sent them. And I remember Graham. He was but a low ranking cook but he was mean and surly and he terrified me in my youth. I could only imagine how those apprentices must have felt, traveling so far and so wide in search of a pig. That they would choose compassion over their own safety and potential advancement moved me. My father died shortly before you arrived and I had only been a king for a few hours yet. I was not yet sure how I would proceed or go about seizing control of the army from my brothers. I stared into the flame seeking an answer. When none came I returned home to Iron Hall and learned of the proposal my brothers made to you in their own hands.”

      The lawyers each concluded that the document was genuine. The signature was not forged and King Elwyn was in fact the rightful ruler of Iron Hall. Alethea then produced the letters provided by Elpstar and Hacksby and to their disgust, the lawyers agreed that by their own words, they would be required to honor their promise if Alethea accepted Elwyn’s proposal

      In full view of the armies and all the citizens of Eastern Shore and Iron Hall, Elwyn got down on one knee and offered Alethea the ring once more. She accepted and the war was over. But the wedding did not happen that evening. It didn’t happen the next day. The wedding did not happen for many years.

      “For we are merely engaged,” Alethea once said with a playful laugh.

      “And who is to say when we are to be wed,” Elwyn agreed. “I am certainly in no rush and you will have my armies to protect your kingdom until that day.”

      The Kingdom of Eastern Shore and Iron Hall formed a perfect alliance. No enemy dared to breach their walls or steal from their ships. And the people enjoyed peace and prosperity under the benevolent rule of their king and queen. And on the eventual day of their wedding, Linn, the head cook to Queen Alethea, requested an audience with King Elwyn.

      “There’s something I don’t understand your Majesty. There were no pigs in all the land. They died of a mysterious blight. How is it your pig was the only one to survive this disease?”

      To this, Elwyn only smiled.

      “There was never any disease,” he admitted. “A series of bribes and lies ensured that anyone seeking a pig would have to come to me in one way or the other. It seems underhanded and sneaky but then, nothing has ever been so simple.”

      With that, Elwyn took a very familiar looking blunt object and used it to crack open some pecans. Linn didn’t know whether to be amused or surprised. In either case, she chose to say nothing.


      The End

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