Once upon a time, a prince was looking for a bride and could not find one. Not too far from Champion Creek, in a land known as Walnut Woods, King Daniel thought his son, Prince Edmund, was being rather picky. Pamela talked too much and had a funny name. Dorothy was just too blonde for Edmund's taste. And young Barbara, though pretty, was the daughter of one of their servants. The thought of his son marrying Barbara just didn't sit right with King Daniel. There was always something about any of the potential matches that made either King Daniel or Prince Edmund question whether or not they could possibly become real princesses. So, the prince and the king of Walnut Woods gave up for the time being. Unrealistically, yet hopefully, they both wished for a real princess to wander into their forest, see their village, and come visit.
Meanwhile, back at Champion Creek, Anders Anderson walked out of his cabin and, with a yawn and a stretch, wandered over to the vegetable patch to pull some early carrots. He glanced down at the village below and saw a beast walking through the forest, away from the village. What startled Anders so was that the beast walked upright like a man. I guess the legends are true, he thought to himself. It seems harmless enough. He doesn't look as though he'll attack the village or anything. I just hope none of the villagers notice him and try to gain themselves a trophy. With a shrug of his shoulders on that final thought, he pulled up some carrots and walked back into his cabin. He never noticed the young girl crying and running in the opposite direction. One can only be glad of that, or perhaps Anders would not have come to the conclusion that the beast was harmless.
Princess Halena did run. But it wasn't long before the exercise wore her out, and she rested to catch her breath and ease the muscles in her slender legs. "Oh, whatever shall I do? Wherever shall I go?" She posed the questions aloud, hoping for some answer from the creatures of the forest, but the birds and squirrels and insects continued to chirp, unconcerned about the fate of the young lady. Eventually, Halena got up, and, at a slower pace, she walked steadily with the sun at her back. It didn't seem long before night fell, and, although she was frightened to do so, she found a comfortable spot on the ground to sleep. The days passed like this until, eventually, she came to another village.
"Robert, I want to carry the pail," a young girl with dark curly hair called to the boy in front of her.
"No. It's my turn," Robert replied. He looked so very much like the girl, that Halena, peering from behind a tree, was certain they had to be brother and sister. "Barbara, you always get to carry the pail on the way to the well, then you make me carry it back."
"But you should carry it back. It's so much heavier when the water is in it." The pair continued to climb the hill to a small well.
Halena waited until they had fetched their water and headed back down the hill before she stepped out of hiding. She immediately went to fetch herself some water as well.
"Hey, there!" Robert called to Halena. He had turned around to tease his sister, who was walking a little bit behind him, and had noticed the beautiful young maiden drawing water from their well.
Halena was not used to being addressed in such an informal manner, and she wasn't sure whether to turn back into the forest to hide or to try and find some decent shelter where she could bathe and eat real food. Her needs won out over the vanity of her disheveled appearance, and she turned to the boy. "You may address me as Your Highness, knave," she replied to him coolly.
Barbara broke into a fit of giggles. Then, without bothering to lower her voice, she turned to her brother. "Does she think she's a princess?"
Robert laughed as well.
"I am a princess," Halena called down. "I expect you to address me as such."
Robert dropped the pail of water on the ground and ran up the hill to greet this unusual girl. With an exaggerated bow, he knelt before the disheveled, dirty-smelling lass. "May I be of service to you, Your Highness?"
The sarcasm was lost on Halena. "Yes. I need a place to bathe, some fresh clothes, and decent food."
"Then follow us home. We will gladly offer our humble abode so you may freshen up and eat your fill." He gestured with his arm towards a small farmhouse in the hollow. As he stood up, his dark curly hair tumbled not unpleasantly into his eyes, and he brushed the locks away. Then, he offered his arm as support to the young lady, all the while mirth twinkling in his eyes.
Barbara was not so mirthful, but enjoyed the show all the same. She scowled, however, when Robert walked past her and the pail of water, leaving Barbara to carry the heavy pail back to their home.
They came upon a dilapidated little farmhouse when Princess Halena noticed a castle nearby. "Is that a castle up there? Can you take me there instead, please?"
"Oh, wonderful! I always enjoy visiting the castle!" Barbara exclaimed. "Let us just leave this water with Mother."
"Mother! Mother!" Robert called as he opened the door. A friendly woman came to greet her children. "I found this beggar by the well. We are going to escort her to the castle, for she insists that she is a princess."
"Of course, dears," Robert's mother replied. She turned to look at the young girl. "A princess?" she questioned quietly, but not quietly enough.
"I am a princess, and I expect to be treated as such," Halena told the woman haughtily.
Barbara nodded silently behind her brother and the stranger. Robert and Barbara's mother raised an eyebrow, but let them wander off on their adventure. She wondered what kind of reception they would have at the castle.
The sky had darkened, and rain was about to pour down on the small village. Before they got to the castle gates, the clouds burst open, and the three of them were drenched. The two guards, Joseph and Thomas, recognized the twins, though not the girl with them, and let the three pass quickly into the shelter of the courtyard. Soon, they had an audience with the queen.
"A princess, you say? A real princess? And you need a place to stay?" The queen was very curious. She got up to examine the stranger more closely.
As she did so, Princess Halena immediately noticed something about the queen. "But ... but ... you're a cripple!" she cried in disgust. "I cannot stay here with a cripple! I finally find a castle, and the queen is a cripple. How can a princess be expected to stay here?" Princess Halena slumped to the ground and started to cry.
"There, there, child," the queen soothed. "I know it is a bit startling, but really, it is just the result of a childhood disease. I was not born this way." The queen was not at all put off by Halena's rudeness. Instead, she was somewhat pleased, for certainly a real princess would think that way. Perhaps here was a match for her son after all. "Thank you, Robert, Barbara. I will have our servants take care of her now."
Robert and Barbara bowed and curtsied and then made their way back home to tell their mother the news. Of course, Barbara's portion of the tale was splattered with how wonderful everything was.
It wasn't long before Halena had calmed down and had a decent bath and some fresh clothes laid out for her. She then joined the royal family for a dinner that was certainly fit for royalty. It was here she got her first glimpses of the king and his son. While the king's long, black, bushy beard was not at all becoming in Halena's opinion, the prince, she thought, looked quite handsome. Maybe my fortune has changed.
Prince Edmund, in turn, was stunned by Halena's beauty. The queen was pleased by how well the stranger cleaned up and her impeccable manners. King Daniel (oh, how, Halena hated that name, but, for Prince Edmund, she could certainly deal with it!) was also impressed with the young lady. But he was not convinced by her rather bizarre story. He conferred with his wife, and, together, they came up with a plan to test the girl's true heritage.
"Princess Halena," the queen politely addressed their guest, "I am sure you must be tired after your long journey. Perhaps you would care to retire early this evening, and, tomorrow, we can learn more about you and your family?"
"Yes, Your Highness, I am rather exhausted. It has been such an ordeal; you cannot imagine. I am very grateful for your kindness and apologize for my earlier rude behavior."
"Think nothing of it. I am sure I would not be acting my best either after such an experience as yours. Come. Let me show you to your room." The queen led Halena down a hallway and into a comfortable looking bedchamber. On the tall four-poster bed there were twenty mattresses, and, on top of that were laid twenty down comforters. "I hope the bed will be soft and comfortable enough for you, dear."
Halena eyed the enormous and luxurious looking bed greedily. "I'm sure it will be fine, Your Highness. Thank you, again, for all your kindness." She curtsied gracefully, and the queen left her for the evening.
The next morning, Princess Halena met the king, queen, and prince for breakfast.
"Good morning, dear," the queen greeted her.
"Good morning, Your Highness." Then, turning to greet the others, Halena added, "Your Highness, and Your Highness." She sat at the table rather stiffly.
King Daniel looked knowingly at his wife. "Did you sleep well, princess?"
Halena flushed guiltily. "I hate to complain, but, no, I did not."
"Pray tell," the queen asked interestedly.
"I tossed and turned all night. I feel positively black and blue all over. It was as if the bed were full of rocks." Halena had the grace to flush again. "I do not mean to insult you, my lady, but perhaps you should check with the servants."
The queen nodded her head gracefully. "It is I who must apologize to you, Your Highness."
Halena looked quite confused.
"You see, my husband and I were not sure if the story you were telling us was fabricated. We decided to test your royal heritage." The queen flushed just the teeniest bit, and, if you could see under King Daniel's beard, he would have looked quite red. "We had a small pea placed under the mattresses and comforters. It is this you must have felt, as only a real princess could. Forgive us for not trusting you, and I promise, if you stay, tonight's sleep will be much more restful."
Halena was not sure whether she should be angry with her hosts or forgive them, as they had been kind to take her in. She had learned something during her rough nights outdoors: the discomfort from the pea was not nearly as bad as the discomfort of sleeping on the ground. As she was about to let the royal family know that there were no hard feelings, Prince Edmund spoke up. "Please stay, Princess Halena. I would very much like to learn more about you, and, perhaps, some day soon, make you my wife?" This last part was drawn out in a questioning manner.
"Oh, yes," Princess Halena replied. "I would very much like to stay. I was about to mention that the pea was nothing compared to sleeping on the ground. And I really do understand the test you put me through. I am sure I would have done the same had our situations been reversed."
"That's a relief!" The king cried heartily. "So, it is settled then. Stay and get to know our son, and, hopefully, we will be celebrating a wedding soon."
And so it was that, in just a fortnight's time, Princess Halena and Prince Edmund were officially engaged. Their wedding was a large, elaborate affair, and they lived mostly happily ever after, although Edmund occasionally tired of his wife's nagging. To be fair, Halena occasionally tired of Edmund's inattentions, as Edmund was more interested in hunting rabbits or other such sport. Also, it was not long before Halena discovered that her uncle Andrew lived sometimes in a nearby estate, and Halena was once again re-united with some of her family.