The sun was just coming up. Its long slanted rays set the mists to rise, and warmed both the shoulders and the heart of Princess Star. She was walking down a country road, still deserted at this early hour. When Star looked back, a thing she was doing with some frequency, the mighty city of Delia was just a small pale bump on the horizon. It gave her a funny feeling to realize that little bump held everything she’d ever known. Star had gone at least fifteen miles. She was further from her home than she had ever been. And she was starting to feel lonely.
After she had left the city, the moon set, clouds moved in; the darkness was complete. Star could have stopped but she went on, a small cloaked figure, moving through the night she loved. When it finally started to grow lighter the first thing she’d seen was the grass which grew along both sides of the Great Highway. Star thought of the grass as an old friend now; it had kept her on the road throughout the night.
During her long walk she passed many farms. Even in the dark she could tell by the smell as well as the sounds of animals rustling in their pens. She also passed The Breezy Hill Inn; she knew the name because they kept a lantern lit next to their sign. From within Star heard sounds of merriment and for a moment she was tempted by thoughts of a soft bed. But she pressed on.
Now, as the sun rose and the mists cleared, she could see the densely wooded hills of the Great Forest, for the most part still buried in night. Once in a while she caught a glimpse of the blue-gray line of the Black Mountains—her destination. The farmland was gone. This was the beginning of wild country; no manicured parkland or open woodland meadows. Also (Star was surprised to discover) the Great Highway was much narrower here. If two wagons met, one would have to yield.
My Quest has really started, she thought. This is it! But how am I going to do it? Decipher the Head Priest’s prophecy and save William?
Star saw movement ahead and stopped. It was a family of deer picking their way down the mountainside to the sun-streaked road where the grass grew sweet and long. Good idea! thought Star. Let’s have breakfast. She moved a little way into the woods, found a nice stone to sit on and took out a hunk of bread and some cheese. She had a thermos of tea and there was just enough left for a cup. As Star ate she watched the deer, how they lifted their heads to watch for predators, how they nibbled daintily. It was a beautiful sight. For a moment Star felt like those deer were her family and they were having breakfast together. Suddenly, a tail lifted, the leader snorted and the family of deer leapt into the forest. Star was startled, as well. She quickly gathered her things and without knowing why, moved deeper into the forest. Crouching near the trunk of a tree, she drew her cloak around her, put a hand on her rapier, and waited.
First she heard a horse clopping, then the jingle of a bridle, the snap of reins, and lastly the silvery tinkle of a bell. A solitary rider came into view, an odd character for sure. He wore a multicolored cape over a raglan shirt and pantaloons—all three garments embellished with large, crudely-sewn patches portraying stars, half-moons, and asteroids. This outlandish outfit was topped by a pointy hat from which dangled the silver bell Star had heard. Probably, she thought, a jongleur or some other type of street performer. A foreigner! I bet he’s on his way to Delia.
As Star watched from the shadows, the man stopped and looked suspiciously around. Seeing only empty road, he pulled an oilskin pouch from beneath his cape and unfolded a large map. After making a few notations with a small pen he hurriedly put the map away. His face was at odds with his gay attire: lean, unshaven, and hard-eyed. He carried no sword, but Star could see the top of a short crossbow sticking out of a saddlebag close at hand.
You see some strange people on the Great Highway, she thought.
Suddenly the strange dark man looked up, as startled as the deer had been. He dismounted and quickly led his horse off the road into the bushes, a little way from Star. He must have tethered his mount in the forest and returned because the next she saw he was leaning against a tree trunk, merged with the shadows. He’d left his jingling hat behind. The short crossbow dangled from his hand.
Next Princess Star heard singing—a kind of early-morning, melodious, joyful singing. Growing louder and louder, a man’s voice (it sounded like a boy, actually) and he was singing an old Eulalian folksong, Breeney and Potts. Star knew it! Breeney and Potts were star-crossed Ossetsian lovers who “did-the-sort-of-thing-that-never-really-works-out-in-folk-songs” with predictable results. Star found herself admiring the pitch, phrasing, and timbre of this young singer’s voice. He was just getting to the “predictable results” part when Star began to smell something…terrible. Really, really bad. Years later when telling this tale she always shuddered when she tried to describe the smell. It smelled a little like something rotten. And a little like manure. (It was, in fact, rotten manure. A whole wagon full!)
Princess Star so wanted to catch a glimpse of this golden-throated singer that she forgot about the jongleur concealed in the shadows. When she looked back she saw (to her horror) he was aiming his crossbow at the road right where the singer would shortly emerge.
A team of horses appeared. Star cupped her hands and started to shout, “Look out!” but before she could the driver pulled on the reins sharply, stopping the wagon with a jolt. Star heard the crossbow’s deadly twang. A quarrel shot past the driver’s head. He dove off the wagon. As the jongleur reloaded, Star drew her rapier and ran quickly, quietly, and low. The bowman was just searching for his target when Star’s rapier penetrated his shoulder. With a curse he whirled to confront her. Too late! The rapier had moved. It was already at his throat.
“I will kill you,” Star said quietly. She pushed the point forward a fraction of a millimeter.
For one second Princess Star and the strange traveler locked eyes. Star’s eyes: determined, questioning, steeled to do the unthinkable. The jongleur’s eyes: strangely superior (considering the circumstances) and calculating.
“Let fall the weapon,” said Star.
With a shrug that was more felt than seen the crossbow began its fall to the ground. Then, with an explosion of movement, the jongleur jumped back from the point of Star’s rapier, turned and ran.
Star sensed movement on the road and glanced over. The young wagoneer was running to her rescue—with a branch in one hand and a stone in the other. The branch was just the right size to scare off a housefly—not one of the big, determined houseflies who probably would have laughed it off and kept doing whatever it is flies do, apparently just fly and then rub their hands together in anticipation of even more flying—and the stone could properly be called a “large pebble.”
Star took in this brave and foolhardy charge against a crossbow in one (as I said) quick glance. Only one. A teeny-weeny glance. When she looked back the jongleur had vanished! Gone! There was no place he could have hidden. He was just….gone. She looked in all directions. These foreigners have strange ways, she thought. Maybe… She whirled around. Nothing. She advanced a few steps through the low bushes (which her botany master referred to as forbs). Still nothing. He foot nudged the crossbow. At least that was real. Star picked it up and turned to the young wagon driver.
“Did you see that!” asked Star. “Where did he go?”
“I have no idea,” said the youth, equally astonished. “One moment he was here…the next…poof!” (He made a poofing sound that looked sort of cute.) “He must be a foreign magician.”
At this point Star took a good look at the young man. True, there were the rags he was wearing (with more than a little of that smell clinging to them so…okay…smelly rags) but inside them she was a tall and handsome youth with the wispiest of beard just starting to come in. A youth with a twinkle in his eye; and brave no doubt (to attack a crossbow with a pebble); and strong (well, he had strong-looking arms and Star was a sucker for strong-looking arms, she was just realizing)—but unfortunately she said the first thing that came to mind (which was):
“What is that awful smell?”