Chapter 02

The next morning, after quite a comfortable night’s sleep, John was woken by the sun rising right in his face. He nearly fell off the roof of the stables when he rolled over, but managed to hold on to the ledge and gently land on his feet, in the hay. Surprisingly, not landing within a few feet of a horse that could kick him in the head.

It was still early and not a lot of people were in the streets of the village, so he decided to take a walk around the settlement, making mental notes what could be done to help defend this village a little better, should they want his help.

Inside the tavern, Aracely visited with Vala for their morning cup of tea while Danyel worked on the couple’s finances. “The King isn’t going to be leaving us with much, this year,” he said. “We’ll be lucky if we get to keep the profits from a full night to live on. Again.”

“Oh my Danyel, don’t be so negative,” Vala smiled and winked at her husband. “Who needs food when you have love to live off of?”

“When you decide that we’ll have a child and we have nothing to feed her, what can love buy us?” he asked as gently as possible.

“Well, maybe we have to consider leaving this place, then.” Vala made a face. “Not that I want to, but…”

Danyel glanced at their friend who sighed. He knew Aracely had been trying to keep people from having to leave their homes, simply because of that reason. “We do what we have to for our families,” he said simply, knowing that he wasn’t just speaking to Vala.

“Things will change, they have to change!” the woman cried before she ran to the back, with her husband chasing after her.

Aracely sat quietly in the empty supper hall. Her friend was absolutely correct. Things needed to change, but how?

After his walk around the village, John made his way into the tavern, finding it empty apart from the nice young lady he had met the day before. “Good morning,” he greeted with a smile. “I think we got off wrongly yesterday, for which I apologize. My name is Johan.”

She looked up and nodded slowly. “Johan…interesting name,” she replied, still not giving him hers. “You seem to be causing a great deal of gossip since your arrival.”

“Really?” he replied, amused. “Such as?”

Sipping her tea, Aracely wrapped her fingers around the warm mug. “The people speak of ideas that you may have to defend our village. What interest in our people do you have – Johan?” The way she spoke his name was different. Speculative even, as if she did not believe it to be so.

“I am just a traveler, miss.” John smiled. “I just can’t seem to help myself when it comes to helping pretty ladies, such as yourself.” He winked. “My mother always raised me to be aware of my surroundings and help where I can. My father… well… he makes different choices.”

The small smile that had been ghosting her lips disappeared. “So you are here for our women,” she said bluntly.

“Oh please, no!” John realized what he had said. “As of yesterday, I had never heard of Chulakka and their raids here.” He wished he could eat his foot right now. “Had it not been for Radell being so open about your troubles, I would not have offered my help and would have left, with my horse, for further traveling.”

Aracely looked him over. The man was well fed and appearing to be in good health. “Just what does your resources have to offer us?” she asked, slipping into her presider mindset. If the man truly was capable of fending off the upcoming season, she needed to at least entertain the options he might set forth.

“Well, first off, I’d like to know in what way your men defend this village, without the help of this… alchemist. I’ve already walked around the village and I have seen that you have not dug deep holes yet. Did you know that you could dig deep holes and put spikes in them, cover them up and none would be the wiser? Your attackers would not see it coming when they fall in.”

“Have you not seen our men to begin with? My people here are not in the health that would be able to sustain the heavy labor that would be required to dig your holes,” she pointed out. “I struggle to maintain steady nourishment for those of the village that have more strenuous specialties, such as Radell, who you saw for yourself, yesterday.”

John nodded. “In how many days do you think those peopleare coming?” Maybe he had time to dig at least one hole and let Radell fill it with pointy swords.

Aracely shook her head. “There is no way to know. It depends more on the amount of women they wish to acquire. If they want more, they come earlier. If just for a few, it could be as late as the harvest.”

“Fine. I’ll start digging holes, if you’ll allow me to,” John said. “I could also try to send word to my…friends and see if they’re willing to help out.” He was going to help these people. If this woman wouldn’t allow him to – he figured she was the head of the village, the presider that Danyel mentioned – he’d get on his horse, go back home and force his father to do something about this situation.

There was an air about him, of grandeur and poise, that she both could relate to and despise at the same time. While the man was free to dig all the holes his heart wished, she found it odd that he asked permission. It was very unusual. Nodding slowly, she gave him her blessing. “As long as you do not seek payment for your labor.”

John rolled his eyes and fumbled five gold coins out of his pocket. “Here,” he said, “I’ll pay you for letting me try and do something for your village.” He sat down in front of her with a big, goofy grin on his face. “I’ll give the other five gold coins when I’m done.”

She picked up one of the coins he dropped on the table and studied it. It was clean, as if it were freshly pressed. Only the currency that came out of the castle was ever this glimmering. Aracely looked at Johan, rolling the coin around in her fingers. She knew that her friends were preparing the wine still for the evening, so they were alone for the time. “Who are you?”

“I told you.” John realized that this woman could very well be on to him, but he was sure going to try to hold off on the truth for a bit longer; it could save him his life.

“If you speak lies to me, I will know,” Aracely said, pushing the coins across the table, away from her. “Take your money. We do not want it.”

John sighed as he pushed the coins back. “My father is a nobleman. I took some of the money he received from the King and left home. With the money, I want to try and help out as many people as possible. Please, let me prove my sincerity to you. I don’t wish you any harm, I only want to help.”

She matched his gaze with a fire of her own. “I will know if you are sincere by your actions,” she replied. Of course, that meant more than just digging holes to her. Feeding the hungry, bringing heat to the cold. There was so much that people needed that went unnoticed by the rich.

He thought for a second, and remembered that one of his father’s army stations was close by. Which was nonsensical, considering they weren’t even helping the citizens of San Franciskus, simply because his father hadn’t ordered them to. “Give me three days, I’ll have to leave the village for three days.” He knew that there weren’t many soldiers stationed there, but the least he could do was to bring a cart with food to the people, even if it meant to leave his horse behind for the soldiers to break it. The station was only a day away, but if he wanted to keep his cover, he needed more days.

Aracely wasn’t sure. She couldn’t stop the man from leaving of his own will, but the dangers out there were too great. Even she wouldn’t send this strange man out to his death like that. “I will ask Halling to accompany you. Two men are less likely to be attacked on the paths than one. He is one of our strongest fighters,” she offered, with clear concern for his safety.

“Miss, I’ve traveled to this place on my own. I thank you for your concern, but the scariest thing I encountered was a wild boar, which I caught and gutted for dinner.” John smiled. “I am sure that I will be fine and, I promise you, I will return with something your village could use.”

“Then you, Sire, were fortunate. You may not be as so a second time.”

“Don’t do that.” John glared and cocked his head. “What are you? A seer?”

Aracely smiled and figured she could give him a sampling of his own. “I am simply well-travelled, myself.”

“That’s not a real answer,” John pointed out and walked to the bar. “Danyel! There’s a gift for you on the bar, I’ll be back in a couple of days. Thank you for your hospitality!” He put the gold coins the lady discarded earlier on the bar and bowed to her. “Milady, I’ll see you soon.”

She watched him through narrowed eyes. After he left, she let out a deep breath. This man could very well be the end of the village but, yet, he also brought a sense of hope that hadn’t been there in a long time. Aracely took two of the coins and left to find her friend. She felt an unease about the future and knew it would be wise to have Halling follow the man, for his own safety and her conscience. At least with the coins, the man would be able to purchase medicine for his own father.

At the end of the first day, John was traveling slow; he could tell he was being followed. Sighing, he started to set up camp and waited for his follower to catch up. “Look, I know she sent you to come and follow me, so at least you could join me at the fire and have a rabbit with me,” he called out as he started to skin the beast.

“Aracely means well. The forest is not safe at night, especially during this time,” Halling said when he reached the man’s fireside.

“Ah, Aracely, huh? So that’s her name.” John pushed a stick up the skinned rabbit’s behind and held it over the fire while he handed Halling the bottle of wine he still had in one of the satchels on his horse.

“She is like a daughter to me,” he said sternly, taking note of the man’s tone as he sipped some of the wine. “For her to request for me to watch over you, she sees something that the others have yet to.”

“I don’t need a babysitter.” John looked at Halling and sighed. “I don’t want a babysitter, I’ll be fine.”

Shrugging, the older man grinned. “Who said I was one? I’m just having a rabbit with another traveler. That wine…it’s not from our village.”

“No, it’s from my father’s orchard,” John said. “Apart from some coins, I took a few bottles of wine, as well.”

At the mention of the currency, Halling pulled out one of the said coins. “Yes. I have been – ordered – to purchase medicines while on my travel. I wonder just how much this pretty thing can offer.”

John had to chuckle. So she did take a few coins to help out some of her villagers. “Well, I’d say plenty.” He nodded. “I was thinking about purchasing medicine for your village as well, amongst other things. I mean, those soldiers up ahead must have plenty!”

“I wish you luck. At least once every moon, we go to them with as much of the funds we can spare to ask for their assistance, but we are never successful. They tell us that what they had was just sent out to other villages also in need. I even studied them from the woods. They have not sent out any stock from their walls, but I observed much going in,” Halling described with disgust.

“Well, that’s not right,” John muttered as he turned the rabbit. The more he learned about his father, the more he started to despise him. Who in their right mind would have heartless soldiers?

“Aracely insists that we keep trying, that someone will do something. Her heart is so big, but, sometimes, we cannot help but think that it is due time to move on to other lands.”

John nodded; he had had that conversation with Danyel. “Not to worry, Halling, I will do what I can, and help defend your people.”

The man snorted. “You speak as if you have the King’s ear, boy.”

“Well, some people say I bear a striking resemblance to the King’s son. Maybe that will help me get the medicine and food I want from the soldiers.” He smiled wickedly.

“You may look like Prince John, but, dressed like that, they won’t give you a second glance. Have you truly no experience with the rich? They are not at all like Aracely.”

“Oh, my clothes…” He looked down on himself and then remembered he did have something of use packed on his horse. He just wished that Halling would stop following him. “I can try. I told Aracely that I want to prove my sincerity to her, and I will. I will try with the soldiers, and I will keep on trying until I’m successful. My father is a nobleman, thus I have had my share of interacting with the rich, but they bore me. All they can think about is their bloodline. And setting up arranged marriages between families,” John spat. “I decided to leave and find my own… soulmate, without anyone interfering.”

Halling stared at the boy. “Doing a fool’s errand like this is not the way to earn her trust. When she says something like that, she expects you to go hungry for a night to feed your neighbor…” It was suddenly as if a light lit above him. “Dear God…”

“What?” John said and quickly pulled the rabbit out of the fire. It wasn’t burned. “Halling, you scared me. For a minute there, I thought I had burnt our dinner.”

All he could do was stare at this man. Swallowing hard, Halling lowered his head. “Forgive me. But there had been a messenger that came through the village about two fortnights back, who said Prince John had left to travel the country. I – we – found it difficult to believe and, now, you…Please forgive me,” he repeated and kept his head down.

John blinked. “Halling, please don’t.” He should have shoved his foot in his mouth a long time ago.

“Lady Aracely warned that you were not who you said you were. I did not believe her, and I know that she is usually right when it comes to noble bloods. Please, my apologies…”

“Stop that, please.” John rolled his eyes and tore the rabbit in half, handing Halling the bigger piece. “I have done nothing to have earned your respect, Halling.”

“You still are the Prince,” he said, taking the meat after some hesitation. “I fear that we have spoken too – freely.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” John smiled and took a sip of the wine, then handed the bottle back to Halling. “There’s a reason I set out on my own, and there’s a reason why I don’t use my own name.”

Nodding slowly, Halling grew to understand. He had witnessed Aracely do much of the same and it was only then that the village came to depend on her help. With the withered crops and the attacks, the others of her title had left for homes closer to the castle. “Is it true, then? That you truly left to find a wife?”

John nodded slowly. “Father is ill, and the laws require me to get married before I can become king. I really want someone to get to know me for who I am, not because I’m the prince. However, time is running out, and I fear that I will have to settle for my father’s choice.” He then shrugged. “In the meantime, I will do whatever I can to help your village, as long as you keep my true identity to yourself, please.”

Halling was reluctant, but agreed. “Lady Aracely should be informed, Sir. She – is more than what you may think,” he said carefully, watching for his reaction. When the man said the girl was like a daughter, he was speaking the truth. He also could tell, when she asked of him to look after the traveler, that there was something of curiosity that he had never seen in her eyes before.

“If you’ll just stop with the ‘sir’ calling and being polite, I will inform her.” He smiled. “Although, I might have to do that outside the village, to stop her from smashing my brains in with something heavy.”

To that, the older fellow could not help but laugh. “Perhaps. She does not care for the King and she makes no attempt to hide that from anyone.”

“You know.. I always thought my father was this great man, a good carer for his underlings,” John said, with a hint of disappointment in his voice. “But, what I’ve learned in just the last day just… it makes me so angry.”

“There are times that our parents let us down in some way. What you must remember, after he passes, is the good that he had done in his time. It will be up to you to redeem the land for his misfortunes as, in the end, we are all simply men,” Halling assured him. “What you should be looking for, in your quest for your bride, is someone who is familiar with the needs of those who have not been as fortunate as you, but still has the will to stand for herself.” Like Aracely.

John nodded. For some odd reason, he had felt this strong pull towards Aracely, but she was obviously a leader to her people, and it didn’t feel right to take her away from them. He would, however, take care of the village to the best of his abilities when he was King, even if it had to be with Chaya. “Thanks, Halling.”

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