“Ah, there you are.”
His father’s voice was a mixture of amusement and annoyance, and Daniel hastily stepped to his side as to not let the mood tip toward the wrong side. He straightened his coat and the ornate scabbard hanging from his side, before he answered, “Well, I’m punctual, am I not? They aren’t even in sight yet.” His gaze wandered to where the road led out of the forest in the distance; while there was significant peasant and merchant traffic along the royal highway, the noble visitors that they were here to greet were not yet in sight.
“Indeed you are,” his father stated dryly, his eyes on the forest's edge as well. “Unlike your sister.” He paused and turned toward a young woman standing to the side.She wore a simple, yet elegant dress, appropriate for her status, her hair hanging in long blond braids over both her shoulders.
The woman in question bobbed a curtsey, her eyes cast politely downwards. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Tell me, when will the Princess be here? Our guests should be arriving any moment now.”
Rachel fidgeted slightly. “She… should be here any moment, too,” she said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
Daniel couldn’t hide his grin at the maidservant's nervousness regarding her mistress’ whereabouts. Ruff, as Rachel usually got called, was actually a fairly good liar, as he’d learned early in his life. But even she wasn’t able to fool the King on this matter.
“She’s not coming, is she” King Osmond said, sighing; it wasn’t a question.
Rachel hesitated, but then shook her head. “No, Your Majesty. She’s not.”
In exasperation, the King rubbed his forehead and groaned, while Daniel chuckled quietly.
“Ruff, go and send your brother to look for her,” he commanded. “And make sure she’s presentable and present for tonight’s dinner. I’m sure she wouldn’t want to insult the Grand Duke of Eastervale and his son by staying away.”
Ruff curtseyed again with a slight smile on her lips. “Of course, Highness. She'll be there.”
The woman retreated, and King Osmond's shoulders slumped a little. “I swear, that girl will one day be the death of me,” he stated grudgingly, but Daniel could easily detect the humorous tone beneath. “And I’m blaming you for her behaviour.”
“Me?” Daniel exclaimed, still grinning. This wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation after all.
“Yes, you. She spent too much time with you and your friends playing knights. No wonder she's not acting like a lady now that she’s older.”
“Oh, and I’m sure the hunting trips you took us both on all the time had no effect on her whatsoever,” Daniel teased. “Teaching her how to use a bow and a knife surely was of great use to her governess.”
They shared an amused look before both men began to laugh.
“It’s a good thing she still has two years until her customary marriage age,” the Prince stated after a while. “I doubt any of those lordlings would willingly put up with her as his wife. Although,” he paused as an absurd thought crossed his mind. Laughing, he added, “Who knows? Maybe, marriage would finally be able to tame her. She wouldn’t be the first woman to become at least a little domestic and well behaved as soon as it is her own home and family she's responsible for.” Frigga forgave him… It was true, but even trying to imagine his wildcat of a sister as lady of her own household… No, that was just hilarious .
The King threw him a thoughtful look as if honestly considering his words, but then chuckled, and shook his head. “That might be true for some women. Not sure about her though.”
Daniel wanted to reply, but got interrupted by a horn sounding from the nearby watchtower. Both men looked up, just as the lookout called out.
“They're here! House Jag'r is here.”
And they were. A group of riders appeared at the forest’s edge, led by two men on impressive black stallions, and slowly made its way down the road toward the castle.
“Huh… That's unusual,” King Osmund murmured with a frown on his ageing face.
“True,” Daniel replied, frowning as well. “Where are the horses? It would make sense if they sent them ahead to the stables directly, but…” his gaze rested on the two men at the front of the group. Clearly, both the Grand Duke and his son were riding with their men so neither of them was overseeing the herd. That was unusual indeed.
“Well, we're going to learn what happened soon enough.”
But when the riders reached the stairs where the King and his Crown Prince waited, their expressions were anything but alarming. The men and horses looked equally tired from the long journey as well as relieved to finally have reached their goal, but there was no significant sign of anxiety or worries to be seen.
“So, you finally made it,” King Osmond greeted his old friend.
“Indeed, we have. And about time, I’d say. Odin, I’m getting too old for this.” Sir Eret of House Jag’r, Grand Duke of Eastervale, awkwardly dismounted from the saddle, and stiffly went to take the King’s offered hand. He was a big man, tall and with broad shoulders. His long hair, once black, had become noticeably more silvery during the years, and his face, weathered by spending a lot of time outside, was marred by hundreds of tiny wrinkles. “It’s about time I hand over the reins to my son and retire, or I won’t be able to enjoy retirement anymore.”
The King smiled knowingly, and let his gaze wander to the younger man standing by his friend’s side. He looked like a younger copy of his father, except the wrinkles and grayish hair. “And there he is. young Eret in all his glory. It is good to see you again, lad.”
As so often, Daniel was amused by the familial tone of the King’s voice. If an outsider was to listen in on them, he surely would think it strange, but to all those involved it came naturally. Sir Eret was one of the King’s oldest and closest friends. Every year, he spent a few months in the castle, and his son, who was only two years Daniel’s junior, had always accompanied him. By now, Eret the younger was one of his own closest friends as well, his and his sister’s.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” the young man replied, bowing skillfully. “It is good to be here too.”
The King nodded, and turned his attention back to his friend, while Eret turned toward Daniel instead. The two young men grasped their forearms in greeting.
“So, you finally made it?” Daniel started, grinning, and Eret grinned right back at him.
“Looks like it. I managed to reach the required age of twenty-one without getting myself killed. If that’s not a deed worth getting knighted for, then I don’t know the world anymore.”
“Indeed. And, maybe, you can even accompany me to the West once the formalities are dealt with. I’ll return there in a couple of weeks. Those skirmishes are great to earn some glory. Maybe you’ll even find a girl for yourself then, even ugly as you are.” Daniel winked at his friend.
“You mean, like you did?” Eret replied teasingly. “I didn’t know you’ve finally found yourself a future queen. Why haven’t I met her yet?”
At that, the Prince laughed. “Alright, you got me. Let’s not go there. We’re too young to settle down just yet. Not while there are adventures to go on and glory to earn. Another reason for you to accompany me though.”
Eret seemed to think about it, but then shrugged, and turned to pet his stallion’s nose. “Maybe I will. It depends on the King’s orders, I guess. Although, I think Father is going to ask him to let me return with him. To defend the noble horses of House Jag’r , or something like that.”
“Well, those are important, so you might be right. Which reminds me though… Where are your horses? I’m actually only here at the castle because Bento broke his legs in a dastardly ambush, and I had to put him down. I hoped you might have an adequate replacement among your herd this year. Maybe even this one?” He gestured toward the beast of a horse standing behind Eret. Up close, it was even more impressive.
“ Crusher here?” Eret shook his head. “No, I don’t think he would be a good choice. He’s not trained as a war stallion. But I think we will be able to find a good one for you, I have two or three in mind already. I’ll show them to you during the next days. And as for the herd… Well, we sent them ahead already. It was a long journey, for everyone.”
At that, Daniel raised an eyebrow. “On their own? That’s new. I thought you wouldn’t trust anyone else to appropriately put up your most valuable horses, not even your own stablemasters.”
“Ah, that...” An almost sad smile crossed Eret’s face which made Daniel wonder for a moment. “Well, we found a new pair of helping hands a few months ago. And even if it is embarrassing to admit, the boy is even better with those beasts than father or me.”
“Oh, is that so? I can hardly believe that,” Daniel laughed, and shook his head. House Jag’r’s talents in breading and breaking horses were legendary . “That really must be an impressive young man.”
Again, Eret’s face clouded for a moment, before he nodded, “That he is.” For a moment, he seemed lost in his mind, but then he shook his head as if to chase away unwanted thoughts. His face brightened again, eyes twinkling. “But on to more entertaining topics. Where is your sister? I had expected to see her here.”
“No, you didn't!” Daniel laughed cordially, and Eret chimed in on his own joke as well. “You know her just as well as I do. Of course, she’s not here to greet some honoured guests when there are animals to admire instead. We both know exactly where Astrid is.”