One Thousand Furs : Chapter Five

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Petra had become so disoriented in the wood she could not tell in which direction the hunting party now rode. Her tutelage as the heir to her father's kingdom had included memorizing neighboring states and their leaders but the dark forest was a border seldom crossed and so it was possible that Prince Markus hailed from a state unknown to her. Perhaps it was for the best. Otherwise he might have recognized his strange furry cargo and carried her back to her death with the best intentions.

The trip was not an unpleasant one. Markus' companions heeded his command to refrain from pestering the Lady Bear and instead prodded and cajoled each other with friendly bickering and teasing most of the way. More than once their chorus of voices burst into song, tunes familiar but words different enough to make joining in impossible and her head spin. All the while her arms were wrapped tightly about Markus' waist. He rode expertly, urging his horse toward easier paths and over obstacles without a second thought.

Sunlight embraced Petra as the riders broke through the edge of the forest and out onto a bed of rolling hills. A fresh dusting of snow littered the otherwise yellowing grasses that ascended upward in the distance until they became triumphant mountain peaks, stalwart and grey. Just at the base of the mountains stood a castle, its towers gleaming against the bright blue sky like pinnacles of ice.

"Welcome to my home," Markus said, turning his head to look back at her over his shoulder.

"It's beautiful," Petra said her eyes scanning the outer ring of farms and fields that receded into closely packed houses, finally giving way to a tall stone wall at the base of the castle.

"What should we do with you Lady Bear?" he asked over the rush of the wind through her ears. "I must admit I feel strange returning from a hunt with a woman in tow."

"I have nothing," Petra responded, her chest tightening in anxiousness. "If there is work to be done I will do it, I simply need a place to rest my head and food in my belly."

The prince hummed, the feeling vibrating against Petra's chest.

"A simple request from a mysterious woman," he finally said after a pause. "I will see how we might accommodate you."

"Thank you," Petra said, the smallest hint of relief taking root in her chest. "You have been...kind."

"One should always try to accommodate mysterious women found in magical old forests, wouldn't you say?" Markus chuckled.

Petra let out a bubble of laughter that surprised her with its simple joy. "Not an unwise precaution," she said.

The pair grew silent as the hunting party moved on to a well-worn road, the horses forming up into a thin line as they moved around frosted fields and furry cows thick with winter coats. Petra admired the art dedicated to even the most simple of farmhouses. Hearths were decorated in swaths of colorful painted flora in contrast to the dark beams the homes were built from. Window sills and doors were hung with greens and the smell of sweet baking permeated the breeze from more than one stead.

"Your people seem prosperous, Prince Markus," Petra said as they moved into the portion of the town more densely populated. Now the sounds of a blacksmith's hammer mixed with the chirp of laughter and music coming from a guesthouse.

"Our land is fertile and the growing season was gentle with us this year," Markus replied as he too cast his eyes about the cobblestoned streets, watching as a pair of children gawked up at them in awe. "As for neighbors we have few close enough to quarrel with but not so far trade is inconvenient."

"You seem to attribute your success to luck," Petra said back.

"We plan for the worst and give thanks for the best," Markus replied simply.

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