The horse galloped hard through the meadow though Elswith felt it barely quiver beneath her. Flowers shattered as the beast's legs knocked them aside and the long grass swayed in its wake. The dull pounding of hooves on earth and the horse's workful breath sounded deep in the ground. There were no clouds in the sky, no hills in the distance, just meadow rolling by and by and by.
Elswith had to get there. She had to get there as soon as possible. It wasn't enough for the horse to simply gallop as fast as it could, it had to get there, now. She had been called back. She didn't know why. Her mother and father wanted to see her, before her marriage, one last time. It was important, more important than Prince Ulf. More important than anything.
A small cottage pinpricked in the faraway, just within sight but almost beyond seeing, was her destination. But it never seemed to get nearer no matter how hard she rode. It was always so far away for all that the horse galloped. She would never reach her destination, never get to where she needed to be, even though she had to be there immediately.
And then she was. She found herself tying the horse up; she didn't know how she had alighted. The horse had no sweat and no saddle, as though it had not been ridden at all. She turned to look at the cottage: it was tiny, just a window and door framed in fieldstone and slung low below a heavy ragged thatch. She went inside.
The room was small and bare. The middle of the far wall was taken up with a fireplace which burnt steadily, though it was warm and sunny outside. A door lay to one side of the fire and in a chair to the other side sat the queen, Elswith's mother, dressed in her finest gown.
"Oh, Elswith!" The queen exclaimed as Elswith walked in through the door. "I am so glad you came back to see us one last time!"
"I came as soon as I got your message, mother, though we were half way to Westrich." Elswith went over to her mother, knelt down, and took her mother's hands in her own.
"You are a good daughter," the queen smiled softly, "I could not be more proud of you. You will make a wonderful wife for Prince Ulf. He shall be blessed with you."
"And I am sure I will be blessed with him. My parents have done me a great service in choosing my husband so well." Elswith kissed the hands of her mother. "Pray tell, mother, why you sent for me to come back to you even though I was half way to Westrich?"
"His Highness forgot to give you our wedding gift. It is important that you have it and we were quite remiss to send you away without it."
"What is this gift, mother?"
"It is an old piece of my jewellery. My parents gave it to me for my wedding to His Highness. I want you to have it and wear it in turn."
"That would be a great honour, mother." And Elswith kissed her mother's hands again. "Where is my father now?"
"His Highness is in the back room, my child. He would like to see you now."
With that Elswith stood and made her way to the door by the fireplace. Upon opening the door she saw her father at a bench, leaning over a long band of gold and clutching a small hammer in one hand. There was nothing else in the room but for a fireplace and a window.
The king did not notice Elswith enter the room, but sat engrossed in the jewellery before him. He leant in even further as if to take in the finest detail that could be seen with the naked eye.
"Hmm, almost. Almost." The king muttered.
"Your Highness," Elswith curtsied though she knew her father was not looking, "you wished to see me? I came as soon as I could."
"Ah, Elswith!" The king stood up, kissed Elswith on the cheek, and held her by the shoulders. "How good it is to see you again! I am so sorry to have called you back from Prince Ulf. I was so thoughtless to send you off without your wedding gift, which just wouldn't do, would it?"
"I am grateful that you had me in your thoughts and wanted only the best. It is no hardship to return for my parents."
"Good, good." The king sat back down, picked up the band of gold and held it aloft in front of Elswith. "This is your wedding gift, Elswith. It was your mother's belt, which she wore when she was sent to me. We shall send you to Prince Ulf with it likewise."
"Father," Elswith reached forward and touched it softly, "it is beautiful. It will be a great honour to wear it at my wedding as my mother wore it for hers."
"Excellent!" The king put the belt back down on the table and picked up the hammer. "But I must make just a few alterations for you, so that it fits. It will take no time at all."
Elswith wanted to speak but when she opened her mouth no words came out. She simply stood looking at her father as he looked at the belt. After a few moments he raised the hammer and slammed it down on the belt with a ringing clink. And then he raised the hammer again and dropped it once more with a clink–clink.
Again and again. Clink. Clink.
"Elswith!" The queen was calling urgently from the other room. "Elswith!"
"Elswith!" Why is my mother calling?
At that moment the horse came into sight through the window, neighing and snorting. My horse is loose!
The horse was agitated. It ran back and forth neighing.
The horse came again louder, rearing up at the window.
Elswith shut her eyes. The sound was too much.
The horse snorted and beat with its hooves. It seemed to be almost on top of her.
Elswith opened her eyes. Before her was the face of Samfer, contorted and red.
"Elswith!" Samfer cried. "Elswith! Something is wrong. I think we are being attacked."
The noise outside the carriage washed over Elswith as she lay in a haze. The horses were running and neighing and snorting. Swords locked together with great clash and armour clanged and rattled. For a few moments she lay still, barely knowing what was dream and what was real.
"I daren't look outside, Elswith!" Samfer wept. "My lady, what should we do?"
Elswith sat up and, almost without thinking turned to the window of the carriage and peep through the side of the curtain. A swirl of men and horses surged this way and that. The sounds now had pictures but still made little sense.
"It...," Elswith shuddered, "you are right." She turned back into the carriage and stared at Samfer. "I don't know what...," and then she fell silent. Neither of them said a word for they could not believe what they saw and heard.
Elswith turned back to look once again out of the window. Then she turned more to face Samfer in the carriage. "Samfer," she broke down and shouted, on the edge of weeping, "we are under attack! What are we to do?"
"Stand up, my lady, stand up!" Samfer suddenly felt a rush of desperation and stood up, with Elswith almost at once following her lead. Samfer turned to the seat and opened it to reveal the bed folded up inside. "We can hide in here. Get in!"
"No, Samfer, that's not going to work. We won't fit!" It was obvious. There was no room below the seat, none at all, the bed took up the whole of the space.
Samfer let the lid of the seat slam back down, but could only scream, "Then what can we do?! They're going to kill us, aren't they?"
Elswith slumped back into the seat and grabbed her face, "I don't know! I don't know!" Samfer hugged her and they embraced for several minutes, seeking to forget about the noise, to forget about the attack outside.
Eventually Elswith broke away from Samfer's arms and turned again to the window. The sound was lesser now.
"What can you see? What is happening?" Samfer put her hand on Elswith's shoulder.
Outside Elswith could see several men lying on the ground, bloodied and dead. They were her father's men, mostly. A few riderless horses darted between the trees.
"It's...," Elswith stopped. The sound was seeping away. Now a few men came walking into view. Two or three of her father's men with their hands on their heads; the others she could not recognize. Her father's men sat down on a low bank at the side of the drove. The other men stood over them. "I think it's over Samfer. I think they're going to kill us now."
Samfer said nothing.
Elswith continued to watch. Two riders came to a stop at the side of the front carriage and alighted their horses. One marched forward and slung open the door of the carriage. He said something that Elswith could not hear to understand. The head of Minister Bern emerged from the doorway, and at once the riders snatched him and pulled him out throwing him on the ground. Then Nanny too, but instead of falling she managed to steady herself and instead swiftly sat down in the mud.
Elswith saw Nanny look at the second carriage, right at the window where Elswith sat, and her mouth moved to say a single word. The riders stepped forward, but Elswith pulled back from the window. "They're coming! They got Nanny and Minister Bern. Now they're coming for us!"
Samfer stumbled away from the door and Elswith soon followed her. They stood pressed up against the opposite side of the carriage, impossible for them to move any further. Elswith instinctively grabbed Samfer's hand, and Samfer squeezed Elswith's hand tight.
The door swung open, and a rider clad in blood–dirtied armour stuck his face in at once. He looked at the two young women for a second, then thrust out his hand to grab them. Elswith and Samfer screamed and shrunk back yet further into the far wall of the carriage.
"Get out! Come on, get out!" The man shouted, pulling away from the door. Seeing that the two women did not move, he leant forward again. "Come out, or I'll drag you out!"
Samfer stepped forward, letting go of Elswith's hand as she did so. But she shuffled, stopped, and began to turn back to Elswith. The rider grasped her wrist and yanked her through the door. Samfer fell down the carriage steps and stumbled onto the ground. The rider dragged her a little away from the door and then left her to stand up again.
"You now!" The rider shouted again at Elswith from the doorway. "Come on!"
Elswith began to cry.
"Get out of the carriage! Now!" The rider was screaming.
Elswith staggered forward through her tears, as was in turn pulled from the carriage by the rider. She fell on her side and lay still for a second. The rider hoisted her up with a hand below her armpit and threw her forward to stand next to Samfer.
"Which one of you is Princess Elswith?" The rider strode before them and stared.
They're after me! Elswith's mind raced with terror. They were going to kill her, surely. They had attacked in order to get her. To kill her. They're going to kill me! The tears were still growing in her eyes. Her heart leapt up. Her body shook through.
I have to do something. The young woman's mind span with fear, but instead of falling apart it hardened into resolve. I can act. She knew she would have to be brave. It must be now.
"I am Princess Elswith." Samfer said as she stepped forward.