Everybody knows that a princess is bad news, especially to her father. That was the thought that occurred to King Cympo in the two seconds it took him to fall from the battlements of his castle onto the very hard courtyard below.
Such a thought was unfair. A large part of it was his own fault. A few months earlier he had said, “My dear, I want you to marry Count Gwenki.”
“He’s a pig.” “Maybe so, but he is also an extremely noisy member of my council, probably earns more than me and certainly has a bigger army.”
“I’d rather die.”
Princess Cadarn chose not to die immediately but stormed up to her room, slammed the door and threatened not to come down until her father had changed his mind. The king had no alternative but to forbid any food or drink to be taken up to her until she became more tractable. A fearsome two days followed, during which the palace servants tiptoed around quietly, as if someone had died. Then the princess summoned the cook, ordered two breakfasts and the king arranged a date for the Count to visit.
When Cadarn saw the Count she realised that she had been wrong in thinking him a pig. He was more of a weasel. He was tall, thin and his eyes were constantly darting around as if looking for prey. He barely looked at her, but seemed more interested in pricing up his surroundings. But he had brought with him a good quantity of nice gowns and sparkling jewels, so she concluded that he could not be all bad.
Cadarn enjoyed the wedding ceremony. She was the centre of attention and knew she had never looked so beautiful and she could not deny that she felt an intense physical anticipation. She had never seen an aroused naked man, she was a princess after all, and began to feel a little irked by all the dancing and feasting, which she normally enjoyed, wanting to get on to the main event.
At last, accompanied by some rather coarse songs, the pair were carried to their chamber and laid on the bed. With some last tasteless words the door was shut and they were left alone. The Count gave her one proprietorial smile and then turned over on his side and went to sleep.
She lay in bed, not sleeping, concentrating her hate onto a black spot of ceiling. At the first streaks of dawn she left her snoring husband and took the fastest stallion from the stables and rode it as fast as she could, along the river that ran beside the castle. She thought that, at some point, she might ride into the swift flowing river, because then they would be sorry, but the opportunity never seemed to be quite right. She rode the horse until it could not gallop and even her own anger could not inflict any more pain with her whip.
It was then that she saw the horseman, a dark shape on top of the ridge, who must have been watching her for some time. A chill went through her when she saw him kick his horse forward and begin the slow descent towards her. Kidnapping was a common means for poor nobles to make themselves a fortune. But her horse was spent, so she could do nothing, just let him approach with as stiff a back as she could muster.
As he came nearer it was just as she feared; a young man, farming clothes but a well-bred horse, just the sort that would be looking out for easy money. She did not like that smile. A pity she had not brought a pistol.
“Are you lost?”
“No, this is my father’s land.”
“Some would dispute that.”
“They would answer to my father for it then.”
He smiled and she realised she had just doubled her ransom value. “Will you show me the road back to the castle.”
She was pleased that her voice could still be so haughty in such trying conditions. For a moment he seemed to weigh up his options, then shrugged. “This way.”
They went slowly, for the sake of her horse. As her heart calmed she found herself a little disappointed and the silence between them began to annoy her. “What’s your name? My father will want to reward you. No, my husband will.”
She had forgot all about Gwenki until that moment.
“Priddo, but don’t tell your fool husband that. There is no love lost between him and me. That is your road. You cannot go wrong from here.”
“If I can’t tell my husband, perhaps you will meet me at this spot tomorrow morning. I will make a point of bringing a suitable reward.”
“I will not sleep thinking of it.” She was not used to people laughing at her and was not sure if she liked it.
Back at the castle no one seemed to think her disappearance anything out of the ordinary. Most of her servants were taken up with clearing up after the Count, who had managed to be sick into every nook and corner of the bedroom.
The Count did not seem over concerned that his wife had taken to long rides out into the countryside. He was more interested in the fact that his new status had moved him ten places higher on the Council. On her fourth trip she came back even more flushed and wild eyed than usual, but the servants found her in a much better mood than she had been of late.
On returning from the sixth she called for her lady in waiting, who was a local girl. “You know the local wise women, which is the best?”
“My lady, I don’t really…”
“Don’t fool me. The doctors around here are appalling. Everyone of sense uses a wise woman. Fetch me the one you would most trust to be discreet.”
The next day a thin old woman was brought before here, a little over-awed by her surroundings but who still looked the princess in the eye. “If there was someone on this earth whom you think ought to be removed from it, what would you use? A curse or a potion?”
The old woman looked at her closely with her dark eyes. “A curse is as like to rebound on you as on the recipient. Herbs tend to be easier, as long as you have an easy way to deliver them.”
“That will be my problem, not yours. Can you bring me something that will be quick?”
Within a couple of days the old lady returned, with two small pouches. “You only have to pay me for one, it’s best to have a back-up.” She said. “And sometimes doing anything once makes you want to do it again.”
The old woman went away richly rewarded. That night the princess slept with the two pouches under her pillow. She fell asleep happily plotting opportunities to administer them.
The following morning the Count called for her. She hid one of the pouches in her underwear draw and put the other in her pocket; perhaps there would be an opportunity.
The Count was in his new study that overlooked the courtyard. He looked as if he was in a good mood.
“Ah my dear, there you are. You are looking very vivacious this morning. Come, let us look at the view together.”
“I was born in this castle. I know the view very well.”
“Nevertheless, I think there will be something to interest you.” He took her very tightly by the arm and led her to the window. In the courtyard was a gallows, the new wood still bright. On the gallows, swinging gently in the light morning breeze, was the corpse of the old woman. The princess’s knees almost buckled and her stomach had a great weight in it.
“You see my dear, I know all about your plots and stratagems. People are loyal to me. I will be king when your father dies. Give me what that crone gave you.” He held out his hand and meekly she dropped the pouch into it.
“And I think this had better be an ending to your rides outside the castle. Don’t think you can fool me. We will say no more of this unpleasantness, unless I hear of anything else against your name. Then I will be forced to tell your father.”
She returned to her apartments on watery legs. She noted that the lady in waiting avoided her gaze. That morning she should have been meeting Priddo. She thought of him waiting for her. Would he despair? Would he be angry?
Days passed. Sometimes she was tempted to try the contents of the pouch on herself. Then one night, when she adjusted her pillow to try to make it comfortable, her hands closed on a piece of cloth. When she pulled it out she saw writing on it. “Get him to come to the place where we meet.”
She went to see her husband. “My dear,” she said to him, with all the humility she had refused him before, “I have been foolish. Let us put the past behind us. Come riding with me this fine morning.”
All men like flattery and he had nothing else pressing. They rode down the river path together. She wondered if she ought to make conversation but he seemed happy enough, looking at the cliffs above him, probably setting out troop dispositions in his mind. He turned as if he had heard some noise and a red hole appeared in his throat.
The sound of the rifle shot only reached her at the same time as the flump of his body hitting the ground. He stared at her with sightless eyes.
A movement out of the corner of her eye and Priddo was hopping down the rocks towards her, hunting rifle carelessly over one shoulder. “What the hell have you done!”
He shrugged as if uninterested in her distress. “They will hang you for this! They will burn me!”
With a smile he picked up the body of her husband onto his shoulders, bumped it a couple of times to get a better balance, walked to the edge of the water and threw it in.
“Not if we blame the Nixie of the river. Say it came out and dragged him in.”
The castle guards saw two riders returning but quickly realised that one of the riders was not who they were expecting. Soon the exciting news went around the castle that the Count had been devoured by the water spirit. In the short time he had lived there he had not made himself popular and the locals all remembered being told by their mothers to be careful by the river in case the Nixie should get them. And they knew the princess would not lie.
Priddo was richly rewarded for coming to the aid of a princess in distress. At her suggestion he was given a place at court. One of his first acts was to drag the lady in waiting who had betrayed them before the princess for judgement.
“What shall we do with you?” said the princess, who really did not know the answer. “Strip her naked and throw her to the Nixie.” suggested Priddo, with a rather unpleasant leer on his face.
“No, I don’t think we will do that. Put her in the dungeon until we make a decision.”
A few days later the King came to see her. “My dear, I know you have become close to Priddo. Understandable given the help he was to you. But be careful about him, we know little of his lineage.”
A few days later the king fell from the battlements to his death. It had been raining, so the stones were slippery, but her father had known those stones all his life.
One night she put her hand in her underwear draw and it closed on the pouch the old woman had given her. In the morning, at the end of the council meeting, she indicated to Priddo that he should stay behind. “You haven’t visited me at night for some time.”
“I thought discretion…”
They drank wine together. She wondered if the old lady had deceived her and deserved her death but then the contortions started. When it was all over she lifted him up as he had lifted the Count, her anger making her strong. She went to the window and threw him out, satisfied when she heard the splash below. “Another one for the Nixie.” she said to herself.
Without her father she felt very much alone. Her father had generally been accounted wise and she had no idea how one did that. Whispers were abroad that this was a kingdom that needed strong leadership and could not thrive with a woman in charge. She had already received reports that several distant cousins were trying to raise cash for mercenaries.
She remembered that she had unfinished business with the lady in waiting who had betrayed her. She had her brought from the dungeons.
She had not realised that people could smell so badly. For a moment she thought of having the creature sent back to where she came from but she decided to breathe through her nose.
“You did what you did out of ambition. My father always said it should be rewarded, so you have one chance to save your life. Tell me what I must do to be wise.”
The woman looked the one time princess, now queen in the eyes.
“That’s easy. Take me on as your adviser.”
The queen laughed for the first time since her father had died.
“Yes, I’m brazen,” the woman said. “But think about it. I will owe everything to you so I will be loyal. As for being wise, let us give it a month and see how things go.”
So the queen did and she found that the woman did indeed have wisdom and gave her good advice. Her confidence rose and her courtiers went about with more of a smile on their faces. The pressure on the borders faded away.
A few months later, the weather being hot and humid, the lady in waiting suggested a walk by the river as a way of keeping cool. They were discussing affairs of state in a light, relaxed way when the servant cried out in pain. “I’ve got a stone in my shoe. You go on. I’ll catch you up.”
Queens do not wait for their servants, so she did so. There was a figure in brown rags standing by the water’s edge which the queen took for a fisherwoman. The common touch, not arrogance, her servant had told her.
“How is the fishing?”
The figure shook its head sadly. “It was good, when you were throwing bodies in. They were good eating. But now it’s been quiet for too long.”
The figure turned and seemed to dissolve, as if Cadarn was viewing it from behind a waterfall. Then it solidified and she could see long fronds of green hair like water weed, a head that was no more than a skull, the long green teeth as it opened its mouth in a grin. “But it looks like my luck has returned.”
The Nixie smiled and started to flow towards her.