Free story: Moxie Gets Betrothed.

This episode is taken from my novel Moxie’s Problem.

Backstory:
Moxie is an obnoxious teen-age princess who has never been outside her father’s castle. Her father, King Smedley, has arranged her betrothal to a Count Gamel who lives a distance away. Smedley hires three Knights of the Round Table to escort Moxie to Gamal’s lands. Gareth is a knightly chef, uses a spatula and a skillet instead of a sword and shield. Bors is also an accountant and Percivale makes drawings of his adventures and battles.
The journey is Moxie’s first taste of the outside world

==========================================

Percivale stopped his horse at the edge of a tree line. From there he could see a small, dreary settlement nestled at the bottom of the hill. Beyond the village, more hills sparkled in the light of the setting sun. In the cluster of mud huts, a few people roamed the dirt streets. Percivale counted only two wooden buildings.
“Why are we standing around?”
Percivale flinched at the shrill voice of Princess Moxie as if someone had picked at an open sore. He didn’t have to see her to know she had one hand on an ample hip while the other lashed the ends of the reins against her saddle. Percivale had trouble accepting that it had been only four days since they rode out of Smedley’s castle in the middle of the night. Somehow, the four days on the road with Moxie seemed like four months.
“Why are we standing around?” Moxie repeated the question in a more strident voice. “Why aren’t we moving?”
“I wanna make sure this village isn’t filled with bandits,” Percivale replied.
“Well, I’m tired and thirsty, so stop stalling and get on with it. I want to sleep in a bed, not on the ground.”
Percivale’s lips curled in disgust before he looked over his shoulder. The princess gave him a withering stare to which he had grown accustomed. Behind Moxie, Bors rolled his eyes and Gareth shook his head with a grim smile.
“Percivale is right, Princess,” Bors said. “Your father charged us not to place you in danger.”MoxieProb_eBookCover
Moxie made a face at the comment.
Percivale shrugged and nudged Onyx forward to descend the hill. He wished he had more time to study the village, but a bandit trap was preferable to listening to more of Moxie’s whining.
“I’ll hang back a bit in case there’s trouble.” Gareth stopped his horse at the edge of the trees.
By the time Percivale, Moxie and Bors reached the village, three men in threadbare clothes had gathered in the road. They looked fearful as the riders approached. Percivale slid off his horse and held up empty hands palms forward. “We’re travelers and we come in peace. We’re lookin’ for a place to spend the night.”
“A clean place.” Moxie leaned down over the horse’s neck and talked out of the corner of her mouth. “Tell him!”
Percivale ignored her.
“Travelers who come in peace are welcome,” the man in the middle said. “The inn is the last house on the road.”
“The guy on the right.” Moxie hissed and kicked Percivale in the shoulder. “He’s thinking dirty thoughts about me. How dare a peasant do that. Kill him!”
Percivale’s jaw dropped open. The villager did stare at Moxie. Her long dark hair had been done up in an intricate design that hadn’t traveled well. Her messed-up hair and her unpleasant facial features combined with a figure resembling an ale barrel — short, squat and strong — made for a frightful-looking woman. “Umm, maybe he’s never seen a royal before.” Percivale didn’t think Moxie looked very royal with road dust covering her gray blouse and black trews.
“Anythin’ wrong?” Gareth moved his mount alongside Moxie’s.
“No,” Percivale said as he climbed back on his horse.
“Kill him!” Moxie said in a low, determined voice.
The villagers shuffled their feet and exchanged glances.
“Not a chance,” Percivale said through compressed lips.
“You insolent lout! You disobey an order from a royal princess?”
Percivale resisted the urge to tell her where to stick her complaint. He gave the villagers a nod and rode through the village.
When they reached the inn, they dismounted and removed their saddlebags. Percivale lead the mounts to the stable while the other three entered the inn.
When Percivale joined them a few minutes later, Moxie sat at a table staring straight ahead, as if it was beneath her royal dignity to acknowledge the dingy condition of the inn. Bors talked to the innkeeper. Gareth was nowhere in sight, but Percivale knew he’d be inspecting the kitchen and swapping recipes.
Percivale stacked his saddle bags, ax and shield near the table. He oozed into a seat across from Moxie who sniffed the atmosphere of stale beer and old sweat.
“Don’t say it,” Percivale told her. “All inns smell like this and there’s nothin’ you can do about it.” He rummaged in his saddlebag and brought out a pipe and bag of hemp.
“Surely you don’t expect me, a princess, to sleep in a filthy shack like this?” Moxie raised an eyebrow as if daring him to argue. “This will be as bad as sleeping on the ground under trees.”
Bors walked over carrying a tray and handed out mugs of ale.
“You can sleep outside or inna stables iffen you want,” Percivale replied, “but I smell rain and I bet the stable roof leaks.” He loaded his pipe and lit it from a candle. After two mouthfuls, the hemp took effect and his edginess lessened. He handed the pipe to Bors.
Gareth came out of the kitchen with a bread and cheese. After he sat down, Bors passed the pipe.
“How much longer is it to Count Gamel’s castle?” Moxie asked.
“One day less than when you asked yesterday,” Bors replied.
Moxie glared at Bors. “When I ask a question, I expect an answer. How many days?”
Bors took a sip of ale before replying. “Yesterday it was four days, now it’s three days.”
“Seems much longer than that, doesn’t it?” Gareth drained his mug and held it over his head to order another round.
“Then in four days, I’ll be married.” Moxie grimaced, the closest she ever came to a smile. “Gamel and I will be famous lovers. I just know it. Did I tell you about my wedding dress?”
“Only four times,” Gareth replied. “So far.”
“It’s pink crimson brocade and ankle length with a tight waist and three-quarter sleeves. I’ll look so pretty in it.”
Percivale didn’t think Moxie would ever look pretty, but declined to say anything.
“I’m sure Gamel is quite the handsomest count in all of Britain. He and I’ll become a famous couple. Even as famous as King Artie and Guinevere.”
Moxie stared at the wall. “And when my father dies, Gamel and I will be regents until our son comes of age.” She clasped her hands to her bosom. “Then I’ll be the mother of a king.”
Moxie glared at the three apprentice knights. “You better not make me late.” She shook her fist. “I’ll have Gamel flog you all if I’m late for the wedding.”
Percivale choked back a retort and drained his mug instead. Life with Moxie was miserable, but the end neared. This was an ordeal, not an adventure. He could survive it as along as the hemp lasted.

# # #

Near the end of another day of traveling, Bors, in the lead, searched for a suitable campsite. As an adventure, this one bored him to tears. He had gone on many hunting trips with his father and all of them were more exciting than this journey. The boredom was a counter-point to Moxie’s loathsome personality. If this was a ‘real’ adventure, he could have faced the thrill of battle followed by sorting through the loot and possibly even auditing the accounts of the defeated. Instead all he heard was whining and complaints. Every morning she demanded to be allowed to sleep later. She described every meal as disgusting and not suitable for one of her high station.
Bors shook his head and emptied his mind of Moxie thoughts. He was the only son of a wealthy knight and had grown up on an estate. His parents had arranged a few potential marriages, but Bors had refused to consider them. Instead, he left the estate and enrolled in the Heroes Guild to become a knight and an accountant.
When Bors was a young lad, his father had hired a traveling accountant to check the estate’s books. The accountant showed Bors his abacus and taught him how to use it. Bors was astonished by the device and thought it magical. He determined to use one when he became an adult.
Bors liked Perc and Gareth, but felt uneasy in their presence. Perc’s father was a farmer. That made Perc a peasant and Bors had never met any of the ones who worked his father’s estate. Bors was not permitted to speak with the workers except to give orders and, while growing up, he certainly wasn’t allowed to play with their children. As a consequence, Bors grew up alone and lonely. Bors now knew a peasant as both a friend and a fellow apprentice knight. Perc didn’t seem inferior in any way to himself and Bors was now puzzled by his father’s attitude. With Gareth, a king’s son, Bors felt equally uncomfortable. His father always went to a knee whenever anyone from a noble family was about and Bors wasn’t sure how to act around Gareth. It seemed to Bors that things he could say to Perc might be insulting to Gareth. He wished he had spent more time around people on his father’s estate. Maybe he could have learned more about how to treat and deal with them.
Bors rode to the top of a hill and examined a flat, boulder-strewn summit. Beyond the boulders, a grassy knoll butted against a tall outcrop that would shelter them from the wind. Bors rode past the boulders, dismounted on the grass and removed the saddle from his horse, Escrow. Bors grunted in pleasure as a cool breeze wafted over him.
Percivale, Gareth and Moxie joined him on the knoll. Soon, all the mounts were unsaddled, hobbled and grazing nearby.
After tending to his horse, Bors studied the boulders. Something about them seemed strange, almost unnatural. The rocks were in lines almost like the beads on his abacus. He ignored Moxie’s latest outburst of whining and continued to examine the rocks. Dark gray boulders — dozens of them — covered the area in three lines with exactly twenty rocks in each line. A fourth rank, separated from the other three, contained five rocks.
“How dare you!” Moxie roared.
Bors grabbed his sword hilt and whirled towards the sound of her voice. Moxie stood ten feet away glaring at a boulder in the middle rank.
“What’s goin’ on?” Percival asked her. Gareth stood near Percivale, looking quizzically at Moxie.
“I’m a princess, you impudent rock. Apologize this instant or I’ll break you into rubble.”
Bors gawked at her. The memory of a story an old hunter once told him and his father flooded his brain and almost overwhelmed him with the danger they faced. His skin crawled.
Moxie picked up a fist-sized rock.
Bors gasped. Moxie was about to get them all killed.
Moxie bounced the rock off the boulder.
Bors ran to her and grabbed her arm before she could do more damage.
“The stone insulted me.” Moxie frowned at Bors as if she suspected his motives.
“Why did you throw the rock?” Percivale asked.
“Moxie just attacked one of the rock-folk,” Bors said in a quavering voice.
“I did what?”
“She did what?” Percivale said. “I’m confused.”
Bors waved an arm around the boulder collection. “This is a rock-moot. I’ve heard about them. The rock-folk come together to settle problems and make new laws. And the stone Moxie threw was a rock-baby.”
“The big one degraded me.” Moxie sniffed and pointed at the boulder. “It made lewd suggestions.”
“Rocks can’t talk,” Gareth said. “Leastwise, not so we can hear them.”
“I can hear them. I’m descendent from the ancient ones. Royal ancient ones, of course. And the ancient ones were descended from the fairies.”
“We have to get out of here,” Bors said. “Fast.”
“Why is the ground shaking?” Moxie looked alarmed. She grabbed Percival’s arm to steady herself.
“It’s the rock-folk,” Bors said. “They’re gettin’ all worked up over Moxie’s attack.”
Their mounts whinnied in fear at the trembling ground. They jumped and stamped their hooves and strained at the hobbles until they broke free. The four horses ran down the hill and disappeared into the forest.
A worried Bors said, “We have to get out of here. Let’s grab the saddle bags and put some distance between us and the rocks.”
A boulder inched closer to Moxie’s foot and she shrieked.
Percivale made a face at the sudden pain in his ear from Moxie’s reaction, but didn’t move, as if frozen in place.
“Someone has to get my horse,” Moxie said.
“I ain’t goin’ through those rocks.” Gareth pointed to a group of rocks rolling to form a line between them and the direction the horses went.
“We have to leave.” Bors pushed Moxie in the back. “That way.”
“Unhand me! And what about dinner? I’m hungry.”
“Dinner will be very late tonight, Your Royal Feyness.” Bors kept his hand on her back, nudging her away from the builders. He grabbed Moxie’s saddle bag and handed it to her, then picked up his own.
“You expect me to carry that?”
Bors dropped her saddle bags. “If you don’t carry it, it stays here and gets crushed by the rocks. I’m not carryin’ yours, you are.”
Bors looked at Percivale who stood without moving, his face drained of color. Bors grabbed an arm and yanked Percivale backward. Percivale blinked and gave Bors a strange look. “Come on, Perc,” Bors yelled. “Snap out of it and let’s get goin’.”
Percivale picked up his saddlebags and trotted away from the boulders.
A few minutes later, they descended the hill.
“Moxie, look out!” Gareth yelled.
Bors turned and saw a boulder thundering down the hill. A bow wave of dirt sprayed out on both sides of its path.
Gareth dropped his saddle bags and pushed Moxie out of the way. Both landed in a heap a moment before the boulder sped past them.
“Get off me, you blundering lummox.”
Gareth picked himself up and pointed to the boulder now at the bottom of the hill and rapidly losing speed. “Must have been a sentry.” He went over to his saddle bags, partially crushed by the boulder.
“Are these rocks stupid or something?” Moxie stood with her hands on her hips. “Commoners are supposed to ignore royal misunderstandings.”
“I don’t think rock-folk are impressed with your royal birth,” Bors said. “Let’s get movin’.
“When do you think the horses will come back?” Moxie asked. “I can’t carry my saddle bags all the way to Count Gamel’s.”
“Those animals ain’t comin’ back,” Percivale said. “Not after the way they got spooked. They’re inna next county by now.” The color had returned to his face.
“Can someone please carry my bags?” Moxie asked in a pleasant voice while fluttering her eyelids. “They have my wedding dress in it.”
Bors slung his own bags over one shoulder and said, “It’ll do you good to get some exercise.” He turned his back on her and walked east.
“We gotta get a lotta miles from here before we can stop for me to cook the rabbits I caught.” Gareth tied two hares to a saddle bag. “We better start pickin’ nuts and berries if we see any.”
Bors shook his head. He wished the adventure would go back to being boring again.
Moxie huffed, stamped her foot and picked up her saddle bags. She followed the three knights while raining insults and curses down on their collective heads.
Moxie had never thought that life outside the castle could be so difficult. Her escorts made her sleep on the ground with only two thin blankets: one under her and one on top of her. She had to sleep in her clothes. The men made her get up at dawn. She had to eat cold meals when it rained. They had made her ride the horse all day long and now they expected her to walk all day long. The knights were disrespectful of her nobility. They often ignored her commands. It was if she was a peasant, not a princess. And now they didn’t have horses and had to walk and no one would carry her saddlebags.
Moxie dropped the saddlebags to wipe her tear-filled eyes. Gamel better be worth all this misery, she thought.

# # #

Percivale woke Moxie before dawn. He shook her shoulder and awaited a tirade.
“It isn’t even light yet,” she whined. “How are we supposed to see where we’re going? Really, I don’t understand why my father didn’t send you three bumblers back to Camelot and insist on more experienced knights.”
“The rock-folk have traveled all night to catch up with us. We have to put more distance between them and us.” Percivale stretched to relieve some of the stiffness from sleeping on the ground. He hadn’t slept much and kept recalling his sense of terror when faced with the rock-moot. Percivale couldn’t understand it. He didn’t panic or even think about danger when the road bandits attacked them on the way to Smedley’s castle. So why did he freeze at the sight of the moving boulders? Was it the fear of facing the unknown? Was it because he didn’t have a weapon to defend himself from boulders? Several times during the night he dozed off only to awake from a dream where a boulder rolled up his leg, crushing every bone in it.
“Come on,” Percivale said to Moxie. “We have to move out if we wanna get to Gamel’s in time for the weddin’.”
“That’s Count Gamel to low-lifers like you.”
“And remember we don’t have horses anymore.”
“And who’s fault is it the horses ran away?” Moxie glared at Percivale, who ignored her. Percivale wondered if Lancelot could force Smedley to pay a wergild for the mental stress caused by the king’s daughter.
After eating handfuls of nuts and berries, they set out and came to a meadow around mid-morning. The meadow was bathed in sunlight from a cloudless sky. They halted to give the open space an inspection before leaving the cover of the trees. A few hundred paces wide, early-blooming yellow flowers dotted the field and provided vivid contrast with the bright green of the new grasses. Squadrons of bees worked on the flowers. A small hillock rose at the far end. Percivale didn’t like the hillock. Anyone with mischief in mind could hide behind it and ambush them.
“I think we should chance it,” Bors said. “It’ll take an hour or more to go around it.”
“I agree,” said Gareth.
Percivale nodded and led them across the grassy field. He kept his head moving from side to side, seeking unusual movement. Bees buzzed around his head to protest the interruption of their work. When he reached the middle of the field, he stopped.
Moxie bumped into his back. “What are you —“
Percivale whirled around and slapped a hand over her mouth. “Horse tracks,” he whispered to Bors and Gareth. “A lot of ‘em.”
Bors examined the tracks while Percivale kept Moxie quiet.
“Looks like a patrol. Maybe a Saxon one. Heading north-east. Iffen it’s a patrol then there’s a lot more of the buggers someplace nearby.”
“Could also be a band of brigands,” Gareth said. “Looks to be more than ten sets of tracks. Whoever they are, they’re dangerous. I say we go north-west for a while. And let’s get outta this meadow before we get seen.”
Percivale change his direction and headed north-west. Up until now they had traveled toward the north-east.
“What are we doing?” Moxie said. “Is this the fastest way to Count Gamel’s?”
“We have to take a detour because of the tracks,” Gareth said.
“How dare these horsemen interfere with our plans.” Moxie stamped a foot. “I demand you meet with their leader and explain how we have an important date and can’t waste time on detours.”
“We now got somethin’ to do that’s more important than your weddin’,” Bors said.
“What could more important than that?” Moxie looked puzzled.
“Stayin’ alive long enough to have the weddin’,” Bors replied.
To Percivale’s surprise, Moxie’s eyes filled with tears.
“Just so you understand, Moxie, stayin’ alive is job number one right now,” Percivale said. “Job number two is gettin’ you to Gamel’s —“
“That’s Count Gamel and it’s Princess Moxie.”
“– but we ain’t worryin’ about the date.” Percivale cleared his throat. “Not any more.”
“Pay attention,” Gareth said to her. “If it comes down to a choice of gettin’ captured or gettin’ killed by Saxons or brigands, dead is less bad.”

# # #

Gareth, on guard duty, sat with his back to a tree. A feeble light came from a partial moon filtered by the trees. He held Flippa, his spatula, in his right hand and listened to the night sounds. He could recognize every forest sound he was likely to hear and this made it easy to pick out any unnatural sounds that might signify danger. He had often spent hours like this up north in the Orkneys where he had grown up. It was his preferred way of hunting; sit still and let the game come to you.
His two favorite activities while growing up were hunting and hanging out in the kitchens in his father’s castle.
Gareth thought this was an easy adventure. Or so far, at least. He ignored Moxie as much as possible and that made life more tolerable for him than it was for the other two knights. Poor Percivale. Moxie had fastened on Perc as her personal complaining target. He had to listen to all her griping and her never-ending complaints. As far as Gareth could tell, Moxie possessed an inexhaustible supply of such material and wasn’t afraid to use it.
Bors and Perc wanted to reach Gamel’s stronghold to dump Moxie on him and finish the job. Gareth wanted to get there for a different reason. He wanted to talk to Gamel’s chef and swap recipes and ingredients. Maybe he could find some new seasonings or spices in Gamel’s kitchens.
A strange noise interrupted Gareth’s musings. It was soft and not too far away. He focused his mind on listening. He heard it again and recognized it. A footfall from someone trying hard not to make any noise. Gareth grinned. Finally, some sport to liven things up. He figured they were brigands since Saxons didn’t sneak around in the dark; Saxons simply charged, making as much noise as they pleased.
Gareth moved away from the tree and shook Perc’s arm. He whispered a warning in Perc’s ear and then did the same to Bors. Perc crawled over to Moxie and woke her by placing a hand over her mouth.
Gareth heard Perc’s whispered instructions to her. “Pretend to be asleep, but be ready to run. Whatever you do, don’t talk or make any noise.”
Gareth lay down and pulled up a blanket to conceal his weapons. He barely heard Bors slide his sword out of its scabbard. Perc returned to his blanket after readying his ax. Moxie noisily gulped air. Gareth hoped she didn’t tip off the intruders. If there was a sizable number of them and they weren’t surprised, the situation could get nasty real fast.
Through half-closed eyes, Gareth watched six men pad silently into their camp. Good, he thought, not enough of them to be a real danger. One came over to him and moved a dagger toward his throat. Gareth threw off his blanket, swung Flippa and severed the man’s dagger hand. His scream of pain shattered the silence of the night. A return stroke opened up the brigand’s stomach. Gareth leaped to his feet. The other five bandits cursed and milled about in confusion.
Moxie’s wails of terror added to the chorus of screams and curses.
Perc’s ax left a brigand standing temporarily on one leg. Bors jumped up and dispatched two more with quick thrusts of his sword.
Through it all, Moxie stood and screamed like a banshee.
Gareth came up on the blindside of another attacker and clobbered him with Frya, his skillet. The last bandit went down under Perc’s ax. He dropped the ax and pounced on Moxie, stifling her screams. “Shut up! You’re lettin’ others know where we are.”
“I couldn’t help it,” she whispered looking down on a dead body. “They’re so ugly and scary.”
“We gotta get outta here fast,” Bors said, “in case there are more of them. They’ll know where we are thanks to all the screamin’ and we won’t be able to surprise the next attack.”
The wounded brigands groaned and sobbed.
“I have a sword slash on my arm.” Gareth gripped his arm and blood ran through his fingers. “I have to stop the bleedin’ before we go.”
“I took a jab inna ribs,” Perc said, “but it ain’t serious. Nothin’ broke.” He took a spare shirt from his saddlebags, wrapped it around his torso and had Moxie pull it tight and tie it.
Meanwhile, Bors tended to Gareth’s arm slash.
With the wounds attended to, they grabbed their sleeping gear and stuffed it into saddle bags. Bors led them away using a feint animal track. The bandits, if there were more of them, would investigate. With luck the brigands wouldn’t discover their track until morning.
They had a only slight lead if the bandits decided to pursue.

###

After another three days of running from boulders and brigands, Percivale twitched with increasing frequency. So did Bors and Gareth. They didn’t twitch because of the danger. They didn’t twitch because they had been walking for more than a week. They didn’t twitch from lack of sleep and proper food. They didn’t twitch from the constant pressure of staying alert.
They twitched because of Moxie.
She never stopped yapping. She insulted them hourly because her wedding was supposed to have taken place two days ago. She whined about not having enough to eat and that her wedding dress would have to be altered because of her weight loss. She grumbled about having to walk so far and so fast. She carped on the lack of rest breaks. She bleated about sleeping on the ground. She griped about the heat, the rain, the insects, the snakes, the spiders and several subjects Percival couldn’t recall.
“Do you ever think of anyone or anythin’ except yourself?” Percivale asked her one night while eating yet another meal of berries and roots rather than disclose their location with a cooking fire.
“Or course not,” Moxie replied with a hint of surprise in her voice. “I am noble-born and it is the duty of others to attend to my needs. Especially those who are born un-noble like you three.”
Percivale suppressed a caustic remark. He certainly was not noble-born having come from farming stock, but Gareth came from a noble family. Moxie ignored that inconvenient fact.
At least the end of the journey was near. According to his dead reckoning and the maps he had drawn, they should reach Gamel’s later today or early tomorrow at the latest.

# # #

Moxie had never been so tired in her life. Everything ached. She had trouble forcing herself to take each additional step. Ever since she had attacked the rock-moot she had existed on three or four hours sleep at night, instead of the ten or twelve she was accustomed to. The brigand’s horse tracks and the night attack on their camp made the situation worse. After those incidents, her escorts increased the pace until Moxie’s legs threatened to collapse. And the food was miserable, unsuitable for someone of her high station. Such hardships may be acceptable for the knights, but not for a princess. Her daddy had a lot to answer for. After all, it was his idea to send her on horse instead of using the carriage escorted by a battalion of seasoned castle guards. It would be a long time before she forgave him.
Perhaps it would all be worth it. She would have an exciting story to relate to her children later in life. Despite the hardships of the travel, Moxie liked the freedom of being out of the castle. The walls had formed a prison for her entire life up until now.
And Gamel would be grateful for her trials and suffering during the journey to join him. She was sure Gamel would be proud of her.
Soon, Moxie’d have her own life and she looked forward to being the mistress of her own home. She felt as if she had lived in a cage back in her father’s castle where she was little more than an annoyance to the servants and guards. They refused to obey Moxie’s orders unless her father approved them.
Moxie planned to establish her own circle of lady friends, all noble-born of course. And children. Her sons and daughters wouldn’t be brought up the way her father had raised her. He treated her as one more nagging problem that had to handled; one that interfered with important matters of state such as waging war, raising taxes and wooing mistresses. Perhaps, her life wouldn’t have been so miserable if her mother hadn’t died when Moxie was three years old.
Moxie focused her mind on the immediate future. If Percivale was correct, they should see Gamel’s castle soon. Surely, Gamel would order a feast once his betrothed arrived. She yearned to sit at a table and eat real food, not forest edibles. Moxie looked down at her clothes. Her gray blouse had rips in three places from brambles. It was stained with berry juice and streaked with dirt. Her knees stuck out of holes in her black trews and the right knee had an ugly scab. Moxie patted her hair and removed a twig, several leaves and a spider. She tossed the spider into a bush. Before this journey began, a spider would have sent her running and screaming through the castle.
Moxie didn’t feel very bride-like at the moment, but she was sure Count Gamel would be considerate and allow her freshen up before they met for the first time.
She saw Bors drop to the ground and peep over the crest of a hill. Moxie had grown accustomed to the knights’ habit of wasting time by scouting out the far side of a hill for enemies before cresting it.
After a minute of searching, Bors climbed to the top, turned to look at Moxie and grinned. “We found it.”
Moxie scrambled up the hill, her heart beating rapidly with excitement. From the crest, she gazed on her future home. Across a stream she saw a hilltop fort consisting of several wooden structures surrounded by a log palisade. Inside the walls, goats, swine, flocks of chickens and horses ran around loose. So did several naked children.
Moxie slammed her hands on her hips and snarled, “It’s wood!”
After huffing and stomping around the crest, she added, “His home is made of wood! Only peasants live in wood houses.” She glared at her future home for a few seconds before her face lit up in a grimace. “Oh, I know. This must be Gamel’s summer home. I’m sure he has a real castle some place else. I’ll wager he came here so my journey would be shorter. How sweet of him.”
Moxie ran a hand down her blouse, smoothing it out marginally.

# # #

Gamel received them in his great hall. Percivale didn’t find it very great. A tiny amount of sunlight came through a dozen arrow slits. More light came from the flames in a large fire pit. The light was just enough to disclose the dreary condition of the hall. Wall coverings tried to brighten it up, but failed. Their faded colors were covered with a patina of dirt relieved by occasional food or wine stains. The dismal condition of the wall hangings emphasized the gloomy atmosphere. Percivale wrinkled his nose at the stench from old floor rushes. Two wolfhounds crunched bones under a table.
Nevertheless, Percivale’s spirit rose; his first adventure was about to come to a successful conclusion and they would be rid of Moxie. Permanently. She would be Gamel’s problem from now on.
Gamel waved them forward. Lanky and clean-shaven except for a thin mustache, his brown eyes darted around the room and never stopped moving even when he talked to someone. The count sat on a throne with a dozen spearmen standing behind him.
“You must be Princess Moxie. You’re quite late.” He smoothed his mustache. “Obviously, your father tried to save money by hiring a bunch of amateurs instead of experienced warriors.”
Percivale gave the Count a glare of derision. “We ran into brigands and had to take a detour. We also had other problems.” Percivale heard Bors and Gareth shift their feet in reaction to Gamel’s insults.
The spearmen tightened their grip on the spears.
“When can we hold the wedding?” Moxie asked.
Percivale sensed Moxie wasn’t thrilled with Gamel’s sarcasm and his lack of enthusiasm over her arrival.
“Hmm. If I want to become regent after your father dies, I suppose I’ll have to honor the treaty I made with him.” Gamel paused to grin at Moxie. “Rather then waste all the feast preparations, I took a serving wench as my second wife. So — “
“What!” Moxie roared. “A second wife? You already had a wife when you agreed to marry me? And now you have another wife?”
“Just so,” Gamel replied. “You’ll be number three and subservient to the first two, of course. We can have a quiet ceremony when I return from a tour of my lands. I should be back by mid-summer.”
Out of corner of his eye, Percivale watched Moxie. She looked on the verge of a stroke. Red-faced and quivering, Moxie glared at the man of her recent dreams. Gamel didn’t know it yet, but he had made a bad enemy.
Gamel addressed Percivale and the other two. “As a reward for your services — feeble as they were — I’ll allow you to rest for two days at my expense. You may eat in the soldiers’ mess hall.”
“Our instructions from King Smedley,” Gareth said, “were to stay with the Princess until we witness the weddin’.”
Percivale had hoped no one would bring up that requirement. He couldn’t think of anything worse than spending more time with Moxie.
“Well, I am certainly not feeding you for free,” Gamel said. “You’ll have to fend for yourself unless you wish to earn your keep. I need hands to muck out the stables.”
Percivale couldn’t believe what he heard. Knights working as stable hands? How insulting. He knew Bors and Gareth also seethed at the Gamel’s insults and a fight was close to breaking out. “Peace,” he whispered to his companions.
“You, Princess, can stay in the women’s quarters. Make yourself useful by attending to my wives.” Gamel stood up. “I’ll have a servant bring in food. And now I must be about my business.” He left the hall followed by the spearmen.
They all sat down at a table. Gareth used Flippa to sweep away the remains of a meal. The wolfhounds pounced on the scraps.
Percivale sat opposite Moxie. Her face contorted in rage. She pounded a fist on the table and pointed a finger at her escorts. “We’re leaving. Immediately.” Her eyes filled with tears. “How dare he suggest that I attend his second wife, an ex-servant girl. My fairy blood tells me he isn’t interested in me at all. He only wants my dowry and the regency. And I’m sure he won’t hand it over to my son when the time comes.” She sniffed, then wiped her nose with the sleeve of her blouse. “Well, I’m not marrying that pig. He’s nothing but a jumped-up thrall. I’m breaking the betrothal and you’re talking me back to my father.”
Before anyone could respond to Moxie, a servant entered carrying bread, cheese and a pitcher of milk.
After the servant left, Bors said, “See here, Princess. Your father hired us to watch you get married. And that’s what we have to do, lest we breach the contract. Your father can demand his money back if you don’t marry Gamel.”
“This bread’s stale and the cheese’s moldy.” Gareth tossed a chunk of cheese to one dog who snatched it out of the air. The second whined until Gareth threw another piece.
“I refuse to stay in this over-sized peasant’s hut,” Moxie said. “And I’m certainly not attending to his wives. I’m leaving with or without you. And if something happens to me, my father will hunt you down like rabid dogs.”
Percival scratched his chin and noticed he still didn’t have anything resembling a whisker. “This is a tough nut. No matter what we do, we lose out. It’s either return our fee or lose our reputations and our honor.”
“This is unseemly, Princess,” Bors said. “It flies in the face of the sanctity of contracts. You’re playing loose with the foundation of accounting principles.”
“Oh, shut up, Bors. I’m not interested in your accounting principles.” Moxie glared at the wall over Percival’s shoulder. He could hear her foot tapping on the floor. From the fierceness of her expression, he expected the wall to collapse outward.
“All right,” Moxie said. “I’ll tell my father it wasn’t your fault I missed the wedding and that I’m the one who broke the betrothal. I’ll insist the return trip is really a second adventure and he owes you another fee.” Moxie’s face softened so she looked merely unattractive.
Moxie’s offer stunned Percivale. “That’s awfully nice of you,” he said. Moxie had displayed a flexibility and talent for accommodation that he hadn’t thought she possessed.
“I like that offer,” Gareth said. “To tell the truth, I didn’t like that Gamel guy. I think he’s the sneaky type.”
“Then we agree?” Bors asked.
Gareth and Percivale nodded.
“Good,” Bors said. “We’ll escort you home, Princess.”
Percivale grinned at Moxie, but his smile quickly faded. The Princess gasped for breath and her face turned purple. Alarmed, he jumped up and ran around the table to her. She stood and fell into his arms. Unnerved by her actions, he hugged her and patted her back. “There, there,” he mumbled in her ear. “Are you all right?”
Moxie stepped back and wiped away more tears. “I . . . don’t know. I never did anything nice before. I feel so . . . so — “
“Gratified?” Percivale asked.
“Pleased?” Bors suggested.
“Happy?” Gareth added.
“Slimy . . . and debased. Only thralls do nice things.” Moxie shook her fist in Percivale’s face. “Well, I’m noble-born, so don’t you ever make me do something nice for you three again.”
Percivale slapped his forehead. “I guess we better get goin’.”
“Wait,” Gareth said. “We can’t go right away. Gamel thinks Moxie is his property now and he’s not the type to give up anythin’ he thinks is valuable. Let’s wait until Gamel has enough time to leave the area so we get a big lead on him. I say we leave just before dawn.”
“Do you expect me to attend to his wives until then?” Moxie had a fighting look in her eyes.
“You can stay with us in the stables,” Bors said. “It’ll be better for us if we’re all together. Besides, we’ll be busy. We have to steal horses and supplies before we can leave.”
Percivale had trouble believing that he and his mates were making another journey with Moxie.

===============

Did you like this story? There’s much more in the novels Moxie’s Problem and Moxie’s Decision. Percivale and his mates have many more adventures with Moxie, much to their annoyance.
Both novels are available individually or as a boxed set called Princess Moxie.
Over the course of these novels, Moxie changes from her obnoxious, self-centered, whiney teenager into an independent-minded, decisive young woman.