Conrad mulled over the conversation upon which he had unintentionally eavesdropped. If that talking horse was to be believed, then Elle was the princess of the far kingdom, and Lady Celia was the real goose girl! He bit back a grin. Elle was great and all, but he wouldn't mind having Celia as a companion. She was very easy on the eyes, after all.
Elle walked in silence beside him as they traipsed towards the tree upon the hill. Conrad could tell that she, too, was lost in thought. In an attempt to breach the barrier of silence between them, Conrad coughed and a sly smile spread over his face.
"Race you to the tree," he dared her. No sooner had the words left his mouth than his stomach dropped. He had just addressed the princess of the far kingdom! She probably wasn't used to such physical challenges, and would probably go along with it only to hide her true identity. But she would be scraped and bruised and completely unused to pain.
No sooner had Conrad finished thinking this did he realize that Elle was a good twenty yards in front of him. He gritted his teeth and galloped after her, letting the cool afternoon breeze whip his tawny hair around. He sprinted through the tall grass of the field, his eyes trained on Elle. Her dark hair streamed behind her like ribbons of black silk and her bare feet darted nimbly around the molehills and small boulders that dotted the landscape of the field. She was laughing breathlessly.
She thinks she's won, Conrad thought. I'll show her. He spurred himself on faster, hurdling over rocks and tree stumps. He was almost within arms' length of her hair when—
Wham. Conrad ran full-throttle into the tree to which he was racing. He staggered backwards, clutching his face. Elle had collapsed into laughter. They weren't the demure, chiming giggles that one would expect from a princess, but deep, throaty guffaws that issued from deep within her. Once she had composed herself, she wiped tears of mirth from her eyes and choked, "Well, I guess you beat me to the tree, didn't you?"
Conrad sat catlike beneath the tree, wincing and holding the side of his face. Elle's laughs quickly subsided. "Are you all right?"
"'Mfine," Conrad grunted, turning his face away from her. He smirked. His face did smart a little bit, but it wasn't that bad.
"Oh, no, you're hurt. We'd better get you to Liza," Elle said, worry dripping into her voice.
"I said 'mfine," Conrad insisted. Elle scrambled over to take a look at the damage. Conrad pulled his most pitiful face and turned towards her.
"Damn," Elle said unhappily. Conrad was startled to hear her curse. "Yeah, you'd better get that looked at."
"I don't wanna go to Liza," Conrad said gruffly. "She puts these weird smelly ointments on me that sting and make it hurt worse."
"Well at least let me pick the pieces of bark out?" Elle sighed. Without waiting for his answer, she sat on his legs so that he couldn't move and began to pull shards of tree bark from his forehead and cheek.
"Ow, stop, jeez," Conrad protested, squirming to get away.
"Stop struggling," Elle commanded, and there was a power in her voice that made Conrad freeze. She sounded almost… authoritative. Meekly, he sat and let her remove the rest of the bark and dirt from the scrapes on his face.
"There, that's better," she said almost tenderly. "Now go down to the pond and just… clean it with water or something. No ointments. Here, take my cloth." She pulled the kitchen rag out of her hair and handed it to him. "Now shoo," she said gently.
Conrad walked down to the pond, numbly holding Elle's cloth. He knelt down by the water and soaked the rag in it. Before bringing it up to his face, he shot a glance up at Elle. She was looking down at him too, but her head snapped away the moment she noticed he was returning her gaze. Conrad began to clean his wounds, using the pond as a mirror. He noticed the puzzled expression on his face. Who is this girl, anyway?