"Why did you lead me to that terrible town and those awful people?"
The horse snorted and neighed, hanging its head as though ashamed - which it was. He knew to his sorrow, that he had repaid the young Princess's fearless rescue of him very badly indeed by leading her into danger and pain. Like her, he was not a free agent. Sara had paused to rest some eight hours after leaving the mysterious lake, which, when she looked back, had quite vanished, being replaced by bare and arid land. She drank from the water bottle, filled from the phantom lake. At least that water had not evaporated! Far from it! She noticed, to her amazement that the bottle was still full to the brim, despite the copious draught she had just swallowed, and the water was ice cold, despite the heat of the day that had just passed.
After putting her through that dreadful ordeal, it seemed that the unseen spirits were making amends for their cruelty. She found a comparatively soft spot to rest her head, slept and soon dreamt that the Fairy Queen was talking to her.
"I do so deeply regret what happened to you in that town at the hands of those cruel zealots, who have all perished, but you were wrong to sleep with that boy the other day. You did it not merely for him - to give him warmth and protection, but more for yourself, to satisfy your perfectly understandable and, in many ways laudable, desire for human contact. I know that you had no thought of making love to him and that you remain a pure virgin, but you wilfully disobeyed the injuction that you remain alone for one year. Contact of that kind is forbidden and you must avoid all unnecessary dealings with people in future.
"We turned a blind eye to your weeks with Martha, who had been vilely and unjustly used by one of our number, but this night with the youth was too serious a matter for us to overlook. We could not permit such an infraction to go uncorrected. You were severely punished and, but for the intervention of your feathered friends, would have suffered far more before we allowed you to be released from your torments. Another such offence and your fate will be a great deal worse - immeasurably more painful, and there will be no healing to follow - you will bear the marks of any future punishment for ever, through this life and into the next."
When she woke she pondered these stern words and the awful warning she had been given. The Fairy spirit had the power to make good her threat - she was all too well aware of that after yesterday! Even so, she could, at least partially, diminish the power that the unseen Fairy world had over her with the help of the animal world. Despite this, she hesitated to provoke their anger again, for she could not bear the thought of being maimed and scarred for life. Or could she bear it, she subconsciously thought? Would she one day decide to defy these unseen forces in order to be herself and live her own life - exactly as she pleased?
What is the body's worth compared to that of the soul? If her freedom could only be purchased by undergoing permanent physical damage, then ought she not be willing to pay that price? A seed of defiance against the tyranny that had brought her from security and luxury to poverty, pain, loneliness and danger was germinating inside her. Then she saw the face of her beloved before her, and all thoughts of rebellion fled from the mind of this lovesick girl. Love makes the most abject slaves of even the proudest.
A month had passed since the lovely Princess Sara's brutal flogging at the hands of those wicked people. The physical agony might have been taken away and the wounds may have healed shortly after the horror, but the memory of the ghastly pain and the public humiliation she had experienced had not left her. She was justly proud not to have cried out for mercy to those despicable people, but ashamed of the way that she had been on the verge of meekly letting go of her hold on life, surrendering herself to death many long years before her time was due and her duty done.
Even now she was not permitted to ride on the white horse, which she still had not named. She preferred to address him with endearments, such as "darling", "my sweet companion","Precious love" "my faithful friend" or "Sweetheart" and many, many more. Now that all human love and companionship, even of the most perfunctory and innocent kind, were forbidden her it was only the birds and animals, her beloved mount in particular, who sustained her through the loneliness of her exile.
Flocks of birds were always overhead, following her for every step of the way. Her protectors would never allow themselves to be absent again in any hour of her need. In addition to the birds overhead, there were always beasts prowling about - foxes, wolves, wild cats and dogs, all fiercely ready to protect her from harm to the best of their ability. She speculated from time to time whether these creatures would be able to shield her from the full measure of Fairy wrath, should she ever do anything again to incur it. On balance, she was not inclined to put it to the test!
Autumn in these southern regions was even hotter than the summers in her Northern Kingdom and she wondered whether the weather ever became cool in these arid parts, where the grass was parched and burnt after month after month of burning summer sun. It had been wet only on one day in the last six weeks, and she had gloried, on that ocassion, in the feel of the driving torrent as it swept into and down her unprotected body cleansing her of every last drop of sweat and speck of dust.
She longed for more rain, but had heard from those she met that it was not for a few weeks yet that the long summer drought was likely to be over. Folk told her that the winter rains could last for days and even weeks on end, when they came. She eagerly looked forward to this, having come to hate the heat and dust of this unfamiliar part of the world. The dryness of the land made every bit of grit and stone along the way bite into her feet. How wonderful it would be to have lots of wonderful soft mud to walk over!
For weeks after her experience at the hands of the angry townsfolk and the terrible price they all of them, down to the last man and woman, paid for laying hands on her, she was treated with great deference and not a little fear by the inhabitants of those settlements near enough for news of her amazing rescue to have reached them. There had been no need for her to offer to work in return for food and drink - these nesessities had been eagerly thrust upon her, in the hope that she would move on and allow them to sleep peacefully in their beds of a night. The sight of many birds circling overhead made people feel somewhat uneasy!
Gradually she moved into more distant parts, where her fame or notoriety had not spread. Again she found herself toiling and sweating to earn her daily bread.
Once she had been asked to plough a field for a certain farmer, who seemed to think that her horse could pull the plough, but Sara refused to allow her fine thoroughbred to do such menial work and did it herself, astonising both the farmer and herself by completing the heavy task in one day. Looking down at her arms, she could see how much stronger she had become these past few months and wondered how she would adapt when she resumed her old life. It was a life which seemedm, more distant and totally unreal, the further south she travelled. She longed for human company, but not for a life of ease. She would never accept that again, she was sure.
Another thing that was gnawing away at her mind was resentment that she, who had learned so much about ordinary folk in these months, knowledge that would stand her in good stead should she ever come to rule in her father's place, was to return and be the wife of the next King - just the little woman giving birth and keeping house, keeping in the background while allegedly wise, pompous, middle aged men with grey beards and large paunches settled the affairs of the Kingdom. She wanted more, much much more, than that, deeply though she loved Prince Adelbert. She wanted to reign herself and railed inwardly against the law which made this impossible. She was inclined to think herself happier as a homeless, naked wanderer than a pampered doll cocooned in her palace dressed in fine clothes, a mere decoration, a beautiful adornment, with no real function - no role to play.
It would serve everyone right if she never came home! She knew by now she could survive in this new harsh and difficult world, not only survive but enjoy the experience. But it was a hopless dream! Not only was she bidden to remain away for no less than a year and a day, but she knew that she must on no account exceed this period, or the protection she had enjoyed would be withdrawn. She feared to take the step of disobeying the Fairy and betraying her destiny. She still wanted a proper job, however, when she did return. Somehow or other, she would have her way and no male conspiracy would consign her to purdah!