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It wasn’t a pleasant night’s sleep for either of them. Sleeping on top of someone else works only for a little while before you start to notice how terribly bony people really are. That, combined with the cold, made the whole experience rather uncomfortable. To say the pair awoke in the morning as though they’d had a good night sleep would be entirely misleading and a little too much like a fairy tale. The important thing to say here is that in the morning, both of them woke up.
The pair moved from their shaded outcropping. Stepping forward they noticed sun was out and reflecting on the snow with such brilliance that it took several minutes for the companion’s eyes to adjust. Several large black rocks from that part of the mountain pass jutted out of the snow and the pair realized that the warm weather they were feeling would cause it to melt. Weather in the mountains is often unpredictable, and storms can pass as quickly as the come.
They ate their jerky while they walked, their course still leading upward. By the afternoon the snow was mostly melted off the pathway. To protect her paws, the lioness traveled on what remained of the snowdrifts as much as possible.
They found a rather good spot to camp that evening. Dashtek’s shoes were soaked from walking through the wet snow, and he took them off to dry by the fire. He reached into the bag to inventory their provisions and discovered they only had enough jerky for the evening’s meal. The princess let him have first pick. She had grown remarkably more kind toward him, but that’s to be expected. You normally don’t save the life of someone you don’t care for, and you normally don’t spend a night letting someone use your body heat for survival without having some sense of caring.
After they had both eaten he put the bag down between them and they both warmed themselves by the fire happy to be alive and in good company. Then, the princess buried her head in her bag as if to look for something.
“There’s no more food, princess. I’m afraid I should have saved you more.”
She carried on digging about in the bag for a little while longer. When her head emerged again she had her leather bound copy of the Hallbrook gently in her teeth. She moved over to where he was sitting and dropped it on his lap, then sat on her hind legs with her tail flicking back and forth. She waited for him to open it.
“Princess, I don’t think I can read this. I’ve been a squire, not a schoolboy.” He continued on, but it did not matter. She maintained her anticipating pose and regardless of his protest her eyes begged him to read. One might think that getting asked by a lioness to do anything would be motivation enough, but Dashtek didn’t see the lioness. He only saw a pair of brown eyes pleading at him. The difference here is that he was motivated by a request and not a demand.
He said as he finally gave in. “All I can promise is that I will try.”
He turned a few pages looking for some portion of the book that was short. The section he selected was a brief rhyme about a bird. Dashtek could read, but having never been to school had never practiced. This meant that when he read each word came out slowly in a series of unconfidently strung together syllables. The poem about the bird, although only a few lines, took a considerably long time to read and had you been present to hear his recitation you would not have known it rhymed.
Dashtek, uncertain of himself, looked up several times as he read. This meant when he returned to the book he had to find his place again making the experience quite awkward. He was embarrassed. The princess still looked on with the same eagerness she did at the beginning. The steadiness of her expression only made him more nervous, so when he got to the end he was happy to be done and quickly closed the book, and put it back in the bag. Job done!
When he looked up from putting the book away, she was still sitting there, the same brown eyes asking for more. He opened the bag again, removed the book and turned to another poem. This one was shorter, but as he stumbled through they syllables of the first word he heard a low growl come from the princess.
He turned the page and began a different poem from either of those before.
He started with the first word.
Again, she growled.
This routine occurred several more times until finally he returned again to the poem about the bird. He read it through the second time and it was only slightly less awkward than before. This time before he closed the volume he looked up at the lioness to see if she was through listening. She wasn’t.
He opened the book and read it again. This time the words were considerably less cumbersome. Had you been listening this go around you would have noticed that at least two of the lines rhymed. When he finished he looked up again. The princess was now laying down, but her eyes still asked him for more. And so he read the poem again, and again, and again. As he grew better at reading the words she began to purr and finally on his last recitation she had playfully rolled over on her back, watching the stars and listening to a little poem about a bird.
The exact words of the poem were not particularly romantic or particularly sad and so Dashtek wondered what her interest was in the simple poem. Did she like birds? He knew a great many things about the princess, but if she developed an affinity toward birds it was news to him. No, he did not understand until much, much later that her interest wasn’t in the words of the poem, but in the person who was reading it.
In the morning they began their journey on empty stomachs. Before lunch time they had crested the mountains and noticed the journey downward was considerably shorter than the one upward. By afternoon they caught site of the North Country and below were the two towns of Popalzai and Ashoqa, the Argandahb river separating the two. The river was swollen from the melting snow and Princess Jan and Dashtek both stood watching the ribbon of water wind its way through forest and farmland then between the two towns and off again into the distance. They each took in deep breaths of air drinking in both the scents of the fertile valley and the freedom that lay ahead of them. Here they were sure no one had heard of a lion in their country and therefore no one would be hunting for one.
As the pair watched, they observed the patterns of life of the farmers and villagers, noting the roads that were more defined and those pathways that were less used. Dashtek pointed to a wood near Ashoqa.
“There. There is where we will set up. The leaves aren’t all turned yet so there’s still enough time in this valley to build a hut before winter sets in. In the woods we’ll have game enough to eat. It will not be a palace or a palace feast, but it will be the best we can do.”
He looked at her face hoping to judge by her response by the expression. What he saw was something new to him and he wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly what it meant until years later when he would repeat this story to the children who would request it at their bedtime.
The rest of that day they dared not travel for fear of being seen. They agreed to go by nightfall, and spent the rest of that afternoon resting. As each of them lay down for a nap, the pangs of hunger set in. Dashtek could find nothing edible in the area but a few bitter onions. They each tasted one and resolved that it was better to just go hungry. Each of them tried once again to sleep.
Some time passed while they each made their attempts to calm down and sleep. The lioness gave up more quickly than Dashtek. After waiting a few moments she turned her head to Dashtek and watched him. Dashtek, sensing he was being watched by a lion, couldn’t sleep, and though he tried to remain still she saw through the ruse and drew closer. He heard her move, but remained as still as he could. She playfully picked up the bag with the Hallbrook and dropped it with a thud on Dashtek’s head. He was vertical almost instantly and just as quickly realized that she meant it as a playful joke. He knew that was her way of saying that he should read again. Since his stomach was a large reason why he couldn’t sleep he agreed to spend the time reading thinking it would at least distract him from his empty belly.
Instead of remembering yesterday’s reading experience as an accomplishment, Dashtek only remembered the awkwardness of his first few attempts. He was embarrassed by the memories of his failures and not by the success of his achievement. On the other hand she remembered his success. Once again he tried to say no, but she was ready for his protest. It did not take long for Dashtek to be reminded by her eyes that she was still the princess.
This time Dashtek chose a short story called “The Dolmen.” It was about a good knight whose wife had died while he was off defending the kingdom. It was a sad tale and Dashtek’s first reading of it was cumbersome and stripped all the emotion from the story. When he finished the princess gave him the same look of persistence she had given him the night before and so he read it again, and again, and again. He continued to read it until the words seemed to flow from him. Eventually he was able to settle his mind and he imagined that he was reading it with the same tone as the author’s mind. This simple trick made it easier to read, and to listen to.
In the end, though both had heard the story many times, the companions felt like crying, Dashtek because he had connected with an author’s emotions, and the princess because she had begun to understand what caring for someone else actually felt like. Speechless, they aimed their eyes toward the sunset and watched feeling equally happy for the being at the beginning of the next chapter of their story, and sad for the one they had read.
About The Illustrator
Liz Erickson has always enjoyed using her talents to create. Those who know her will not be surprised that she took on the project of drawing the illustrations for this work. Liz worked with ease to adapt her style and provide the author with the specifically desired drawings for this book adjusting quickly from her experience in fashion and painting.
It seems safe to predict that this will not be the last time Liz’s name appears as the illustrator of a printed work. She is just as much a magician with her talents as Alamus with his wand.