Ash the Stablehand
In a small kingdom within a larger confederation (which was constantly at war with the similar arrangement to the east), a young Baroness had just remarried and expanded her interests. Her son (who is to be born in due course) is the subject of this story, not she, but the Baroness' tale is also of some interest and relevance, and so I will tell it here.
She had held a higher rank in the kingdom before marrying her first husband, who had gone off to war with the confederation in the east and died. She would have very much preferred that he had not, for she loved him a great deal, and found herself in the increasingly problematic situation of increasing without assurance of the child's future, with an estate that many of the neighboring fiefs would have liked very much to subsume. Perhaps she would have been able to govern the fief had she not panicked about the future of her child, and in panicking she found solace in the arms of her husband's recently widower'd cousin, and they made plans to marry once the child was born.
The child was born, and given his father's name (as was only appropriate), and the Baroness begged more time, so that the child could stand for his mother's remarriage. Her fiancée (let us call him by his rank, for now, the General) agreed to this, but warned her that his sons were without a mother now, and the longer she waited, the angrier they would be at her coming. But the Baroness wished to mourn her husband, and to try her hand at running the estate, and continued to delay the wedding.
In this time, her son grew, and learned to crawl, then speak, then stand. When the Baroness was not busy, she would tell the boy stories of his father, for whom he was named, and other heroes. The boy would ask the Baroness whether she wanted him to become like his father, and she would answer, perhaps, but not in whole; for you are here and he is not.
When the boy was a child of three, and the Baroness had deferred upon the General for as many years, the General offered her a gargantuan sum for her property, if she would not give him her hand or his sons a mother. She told him it was one and the same to her, but the General said that no, it was not, because if she married him he would love her, and if she did not he would abandon her and her son as well. She told him that she could manage the fief effectively and would not sell it, and he said that if she would not sell, he would take it by force, for his army would follow him into such a cause.
And so, with no options but to yield or risk the lives of all who inhabited her fief, the Baroness consented to marry the General. His and her holdings and households were combined, and her son found that he had two elder brothers, one four years his senior and one three.
Now, all concerned thought that some good could come of this arrangement; the General waned a wife, and his sons a mother, and thought that they would find that in the Baroness, and she did believe that even a man such as the General would be a good model for her son, and that he would benefit from brothers. This was not the case, for the Baroness (quite understandably) denied the General her attentions, and treated her own son with more care than her stepsons. Her son, also, appreciated that his mother still loved him best, and while he did not mean to lord it over his stepbrothers, even the most heroic of children can be cruel.
Five years into the marriage, when all the boys had come to the age at which children are the cruelest of all, the Baroness took suddenly ill and died. (The General, historical accounts agree, is not to blame, for her death changed him for the bitterer. The sons, however, are not immune from scrutiny.) When she was buried, the General could not stand the sight of her son, took all that was his, and relegated him to work in the stables. The boy, without a room to call his own, took to sleeping by the hearth, and all called him "Ash" because of the soot in his hair, and also because it was short for his given name.
Years passed, and the children grew to the ages of warriors. The elder of the General's sons was not an able fighter, but had inherited his father's predilection for strategy and was being groomed as a leader of men; the younger was a proud and capable swordsman, but a few strokes short of a volley and inclined to be a brute. Because of his status, Ash did not have the formal training that his stepbrothers received, but Ash had more woodcraft than either of them, and would perhaps be an able soldier when he was grown enough to run away from his stepfather's home.
In the height of summer, around the time that Ash was about to enter his sixteenth year, a Herald arrived at the General's house. Ash received the Herald at the front gate, and because the Herald pleaded weariness from a long journey issuing the same proclamation, Ash brought water and bread and a chair for the Herald to relax with, and a small mirror for the Herald to look in and pull an unseated wig back into place. The Herald had a striking, comely face, and was very particular about how to frame it. Ash found himself blushing and stammering as he explained to the Herald where to find the General, and asked what the matter was with the king.
The Herald explained that the Crown Princess (the King having lost her brothers in the war) was to select a groom from among the men of the kingdom. She did not wish to be won in a tournament, being disinclined toward marrying simply the strongest man available, but consented to hold court and give a ball that she might converse with these men and thus select her consort. All eligible and interested men of rank in the realm were, thus, invited and encouraged to attend, and so the Herald was to issue the invitation to every estate.
Ash found this very interesting, and asked the Herald how much the princess expected to learn from just one conversation.
The Herald explained that one can learn a great deal from a single conversation—or even from a single question. This made Ash's cheeks heat a bit more, and he apologized to the Herald, but asked that the Herald explain further. So the Herald went on for several minutes, citing examples of people who never ask questions at all, and therefore learn nothing. And Ash listened to this very attentively, laughing at some of the Herald's stories, and supplying a few of his own when he felt more comfortable doing so. (His stepbrothers were particularly egregious examples.) So the Herald laughed too—a high, somewhat thin laugh, with a hand across the mouth—and soon, Ash had to remind the Herald to continue with the initial errand.
So the Herald left him there, to issue the proclamation to the General and his sons—but before the Herald left, Ash gave the Herald his name—both what he was called, and the name of his father.
The Herald insisted that Ash come to the ball. Ash said he would do everything he could, and the Herald offered a hand for Ash to seal the promise on. They clasped hands, and Ash was struck by the softness of the Herald's palm, and, emboldened, smoothed the pad of his thumb over it. (The Herald blushed to a lovely shade as well.) They pried apart very quickly, and tucked their hands behind their backs, and muttered hurried goodbyes.
The General's sons turned out to be very eager to marry the Crown Princess. The elder one, the Strategist, set Ash out to several other manors to see if they had any information about the Princess' tastes in fruit and flowers; whenever he came back the younger one, the Brute, set Ash about polishing his armor and weapons and mending the cape he'd be wearing over it. Ash chose not to tell either of them he was planning on going to the ball himself, but he did breach the subject with the General.
The General said nothing on the matter, so Ash, in what little time he had, cobbled together a suit from his old clothing, and mended his boots with leather from the stables. He knew enough about dancing and courtly procedure from listening to his stepbrothers' lessons (or at least he thought he did), so he thought he would be passable when the time came.
But on that night, the Strategist threw Ash's suit into the manure, and the Brute locked and barred him in the stables. By the time Ash battered his way out, the carriage was gone.
When he turned back to the stables, thinking he might just ride to the ball as he was, an old and kindly-faced man stood in the wreckage of the stable door. Ash had never seen this old man in the fief or the surrounding area, and so (remembering the Herald's words) asked the old Greybeard his business.
The Greybeard explained that he was a friend of Ash's mother and father, the Baron and Baroness. He had been with Ash's father when he died in the east, and took a long time getting home from the war, and when he discovered that the Baroness had remarried, dared not reveal himself. But now that Ash had come of age, and had suffered such demeaning treatment at the General's hands, the Greybeard had every intention to set things right.
He took Ash's cobbled-together suit from the muck in the stables, and said several words in a language that Ash did not understand. But all the filth was stripped from the cloth, and the awkward seams melded into graceful lines. The fabric also seemed a great deal richer than what Ash had originally assembled. The Greybeard handed this to Ash with a smile, and also gestured toward his boots, smoothing and shining the leather.
When the Greybeard stood aside, one of the manor horses was girt in impressive livery, with shining shoes nailed to its hooves. He led the horse to Ash's side and told him to go, and quickly, for these enchantments would only work until midnight. So Ash thanked the Greybeard profusely, and galloped off posthaste.
The ball was as impressive as the Herald had implied, and all of the eligible young men of the kingdom cut an impressive sight. The old Queen laid an assessing eye on all of them, but beside her the Princess seemed cold and nonplussed (though there was something familiar about the shape of her face).
The Strategist was among the first to dance a turn with her; he had brought her flowers that he'd been assured were her favorites, but they did not complement her dress very well, and she sent him away after only one pass. The Brute danced with her later, but was clumsy in his armor and barely lasted a single count of sixteen. Most of the men she danced with took little time at all, and again he recalled the Herald's words.
But when Ash's turn came to dance with her, he held her hand and raised his eyes (though his cheeks seemed to heat with the effort) and recognized that she was quite familiar after all.
And so he asked her, "So, it only takes one question?"
The Princess was somewhat dumbstruck, and so before she could answer, the castle's bells tolled midnight, and Ash, taken aback, dropped her hands and tore off the dance floor.
To his surprise, the Princess had chased him all the way to where he'd moored his horse, dragging behind because of her heavy skirts. By the time she could reach him, he'd already swung up and gotten to a canter—but when he returned home, the horse was tripping on three shoes.
The following morning, the stepbrothers were horribly vexed, their chances with the Princess utterly ruined. But Ash went happily about his work, having received all the confirmation he'd ever need on the matter.
That afternoon, the Herald came to the front gates, twirling a silver horseshoe in her hand.