Author Note: Hello, you wonderful people! And yes, I am alive and I have not passed away from some deadly virus or else forgotten you completely! I am still here, and I apologize profusely for not having posted anything since school started. It's been a busy semester, let me tell you, but it's over with and next semester hopefully will hold more opportunities for writing! Anyhoo, I know I said I'd post on Tom's Story and I will as soon as a finish that chapt (I'm working on it, hold on), but this chapter seemed easier to write and I thought I owed it to you all! Really, there's not much more to say than that, so I hope you enjoy it and I also hope that you have had a great Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/whatever it is you celebrate this time of year! And I wish you all a good New Year with God's blessing upon your lives and your fictional exploits! :D Thank you for being patient, kind reviewers, and for caring enough to take time out of your day to read these stories :) I appreciate it, guys, I really do.
Soli Deo Gloria
Disclaimer: Disney owns Tangled, its characters, and its story
Lord Brian watched his daughter as she gazed out of the taxi coach's window. He smiled slightly, noting how her profile, as outlined by the afternoon sunlight, so greatly resembled that of her mother's. Pretty and intelligent, with just a hint of rebellion hidden behind those green eyes.
"Katie-," he adjusted his trouser leg, asking slowly, "-why exactly did you want to join me on my monthly visit to the palace?"
Catherine continued to look out the window, apparently not having heard him.
"Why are you coming with me, again?"
"Oh—because Tommy invited me."
Ah yes. The prince of Corona had invited his—Lord Brian's—daughter to come see the stables with him. Lord Brian thought he had never heard of anything sillier in his entire life. But he knew, as his wife had reminded him just that morning, young people were silly. Of course, Lord Brian had argued that he certainly was not that silly when he was young. His wife merely laughed at him and told him that he had missed a button on his vest.
The taxi coasted up the curving street that led to the palace, its wheels clicking evenly on the pavement and the horse hooves tapping out a brisk trot. Very soon they were rolling into the main courtyard, the walls of the palace rising up in front of them with all the might and majesty the crown had to offer.
A footman came to the door just as the carriage slowed to a stop. He opened it and helped Catherine from the vehicle. The man then offered Lord Brian a hand. In answer, Lord Brian gave him such a stern glare it sent the footman whistling awkwardly away.
Catherine gazed up at the palace, thinking about Thomas and what he had said to her that night out on the Macintoshes' drive. He had seemed so earnest and welcoming then. But now, in the shadows of his home, Catherine felt very small and nervous. It was an awfully big building, and he was an awfully important individual.
"Having second thoughts, Katie?" Lord Brian asked quietly.
Catherine squared her shoulders, responding, "No it's just—well, it's a bit bigger than I remember."
Lord Brian shook his head, "Only if you look at it like that."
"Looking up, instead of straight-on." He smiled and squeezed her hand, "Shall we go?"
She smiled, "Yes sir."
They ascended one of the staircases to the palace terrace, listening to the ever-present crashing of the ocean. Two solemn-faced guards were posted outside the open front doors, squinting in the sunlight.
Lord Brian nodded politely to them as he passed the threshold and led his daughter into the shady entrance hall. Their footsteps echoed on the marble floor as they walked across the royal sun crest. Catherine looked around, puzzled. The prince was nowhere in sight.
"Did he specify a meeting place?" Her father asked, noting her look of confusion.
"He said he'd meet me here. I told him two-thirty."
Lord Brian checked his pocket watch, muttering, "It's actually much closer to three. Katie, I'm going to be late for my meeting if I don't head upstairs."
She nodded, "Go ahead, I'll be all right. He's probably just running late."
"Or he forgot."
Catherine frowned defensively, "He didn't forget."
Lord Brian smirked, "Very well. If you need anything I'll be in the council room listening to the king and my fellow lords moaning about business difficulties."
"Now you sound like your mother."
She laughed, "Go, Daddy."
Lord Brian obeyed, hurrying up the main staircase and taking a right to disappear into the east wing of the palace. Catherine turned around slowly, glancing up at the high ceiling above her. Where on earth could he be? He had promised he would be here. He had told her, specifically, that he would meet her at the door.
Catherine's eyes narrowed. Where was that man?
She considered the possibilities and then settled on what to her seemed the most obvious solution. Thomas must have gotten tied up with work and was unable to come down or even send someone. But how to find him…
Catherine walked over to the front door and hesitantly tapped one of the formidable soldiers on the elbow. He looked down in surprise.
"Yes, how may I help you, Miss?"
"Um, I-," she cleared her throat, "-I was just wondering where the prince's office might be?"
"And why do you want to know that?" Asked the other guard, suspicion in his voice.
"He asked me to meet him here and he hasn't—hasn't shown up yet. I thought he might be busy with work."
The two soldiers exchanged doubtful glances.
"This is a first." Said the first guard.
His partner nodded, "Usually he tries to avoid the ladies."
"I know, but I'm not one of them." Catherine interjected.
They both looked down at her, eyebrows raised.
"You sure look like a lady." The second guard remarked.
Catherine rolled her eyes, correcting, "I mean I'm not interested. I'm just a friend."
"A lady friend?"
The second guard snapped his finger, "Maybe she's an assassin."
His partner snorted, "Oh, come off it. She couldn't make a dent on him."
"How do you know?"
"You're just a right idiot, scaring a girl like that."
"Who's calling who an idiot?" He thumped the other's breastplate.
"I just polished that this morning, you dirty rotten-!"
Catherine set her hands on their elbows again, "Gentlemen, please."
They stopped, taken aback by her boldness.
"Now how do I get to the prince's office?"
The curtains were absolutely horrendous.
Catherine frowned, staring up at the ghastly yellow drapery. She held one away from the window in an effort to see if it was the lighting or if it really appeared that dreadful. Nope. It was not the lighting.
"What could possess a person to string up such horrible curtains?" She murmured, stepping away from the window and bumping into the prince's desk.
She turned around, setting her hands on the worn surface and looking at the empty office. Thomas was not there, of course, nor did there seem to be any indication of where he had gone. At first, Catherine had been confused. Now she was just annoyed.
Sighing, the girl walked around Thomas's office, looking at the high bookcases that flanked his walls. She ran a finger over a few of the books, discovering that while they had been dusted, they were far from being read regularly. On impulse, she selected one and opened it.
"First edition…signed by the writer…and not a wrinkle in the spine." Catherine smiled, adding, "And you said you were a big reader."
She replaced the novel and continued her scan until she found one she had not expected. Catherine pulled it out, admiring the newness of a green cloth cover that had to be over a hundred years old. Once again, it was first edition.
"'Rory of Clare, a Midlander'. I didn't know this was allowed in Corona."
She started to read, breathing in the musty smell of a book that was aged but unused. She had half a mind to curl up in the prince's chair and spend the rest of her visit reading. After all, the prince was the one who had missed their appointment, not her. Before she had made up her mind, however, Catherine's musings were interrupted by the arrival of the queen.
"Tommy dear, you're late for—oh." The queen smiled upon catching sight of Catherine. "Hello."
Catherine dropped the book she was holding in surprise. She hastily bent down to retrieve it, stammering out an apology, "I-I'm sorry, your Majesty. I didn't know you were—um-," the book slipped out from her hand and Catherine muttered something rather unladylike. "Oh, I'm sorry! That was rude." She placed the book on the side table, trying to ignore how hot her face felt.
The queen smiled, "No, dear, it's quite all right."
There was an embarrassed pause.
Then Catherine started for the door, "I should be leaving."
"Wait a minute—you're Catherine, aren't you? Marie's daughter?"
Catherine stopped and nodded, half-turning around. "Yes, your Majesty."
"How is your mother—your family?"
She turned around to face her, answering, "Mother's fine. They're all fine."
"And how are you?" The queen asked.
Catherine grinned sheepishly, admitting, "Honestly I feel a bit stupid. I suppose people aren't normally allowed to be reading the prince's books."
"Considering he never reads them himself, I don't think it really matters." The queen picked up the green-covered book from the side table. She then handed it to Catherine, "You can probably borrow this, dear. I'm sure he won't mind."
Uncertainly, she accepted the book, replying, "Thank you."
The queen smiled, her blue eyes kind. They were a lot like her son's.
"Now, I'm afraid I have to ask you, what exactly are you doing here in my son's office?"
Catherine nervously tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, replying, "Tom—his Highness asked me if I could come over this afternoon."
"Come to the palace?"
She nodded, "He said he'd meet me downstairs at the door, but he wasn't there so I wondered if he had been caught up with work or something. I asked one of the guards and he told me where T—the prince's office was."
The queen sighed dully, "And, like me, you have yet to find him."
"The room was empty when I arrived."
"Mmm." The queen walked over to the desk, rifling through the papers upon it. "Well I'm sure he didn't just step out with no note or—ah." She removed a folded piece of stationary from the pile. "This has your name on it."
Catherine took the message, smirking at the bold 'Cat' written across the front. She read its contents within a few seconds, announcing: "Apparently he's waiting for me down at the stables."
Thomas's mother groaned, exasperated, "I promise you, dear, I did raise him better than this."
Catherine smiled, shrugging, "Oh, I don't mind."
"You have Marie's patience, certainly." The queen laughed, a warm sound that did much to calm Catherine's remaining nervousness. "All right, Catherine. Would you mind very much to go down and scold Tommy senseless for abandoning his post? I'd do it myself but somehow I think you deserve the satisfaction more."
"I—I would but I don't know where the stables are."
The queen nodded, "Then I'll take you down there myself. Perhaps along the way I can tell you some stories about your mother and I when we were in academy together."
"You were in academy together?"
The queen companionably took Catherine's arm in hers, leading her out into the hallway. "We met my second year of school and disliked each other on sight. She was far too smart and pretty and I was far too clever and rich. Either way, though, we became the best of friends after serving detention together."
Catherine raised her eyebrows in surprise, "Mother never told us about serving detention."
"She probably also never told you about how she ended up with thirteen demerits at the end of the semester, either. Granted, about half of those were my fault, but most of them were hers."
"I can't believe my mother got demerits." Catherine said, amused.
Thomas's mother smirked mischievously, "Oh, there are a lot of stories I could tell you, dear. And, if we run out, we can always talk about my son. That's twenty-two year's worth of stories there."
"Tommy wouldn't like that."
The queen felt an inward cheer at Catherine's use of her son's nickname, responding, "No, he wouldn't. But that is what makes it so much fun."
Catherine's trip down to the stables, as led by the queen, proved to be quite enjoyable. The walk was nice, the breeze fresh and clear, and the stories were hilarious.
"And then the dear boy marches into my room, his chest puffed out and head held high. He announces dramatically, 'Mother, do you notice anything different?' And of course, me, being his mother, I exclaimed, 'Oh no, dear, what on earth could you be talking about?' Then he juts out his little chin and declares proudly, 'Do you see how well it's coming in?' And I said, 'Dear, it looks marvelous.' Truth be told, all he had were a few tiny hairs—not anything to be bragging about. But the dear boy was so happy I didn't have the heart to tell him anything different. Then he went off to show his father."
"What did his Majesty think?" Catherine asked, laughing.
The queen smiled fondly, "I heard the laughter from downstairs. I don't think William ever found anything quite as funny in his entire life. Tommy had a bruised ego the rest of the day and it got even worse when I told him to shave his whiskers off. I managed to convince him to keep shaving until it could grow in properly. It wasn't until after he turned twenty-one last spring that it really came in. He grew it out fully during the winter. Now, of course, he looks quite handsome with it and wouldn't shave it off for anybody in the world."
"He would look rather strange without it." Catherine agreed.
"Dear, he'd look absolutely naked. I mean, I'd laugh but the poor boy wouldn't speak to me for a week." She sighed, glancing around as they walked into a set of trees, "Really, I suppose I'd better warn whatever girl he does marry not to broach the subject with him. Otherwise the marriage could end rather badly."
"Has he actually expressed interest in any girls?"
The queen pursed her lips thoughtfully, answering, "A few. Some more than others, of course. Overall, though, I think he's still striding boldly into the dark and claiming he does not need a wife. And I understand. He really doesn't need one to rule a country. But he needs one to live—and that's something he doesn't understand yet."
Catherine nodded understandingly as the queen slowed to a stop.
"It appears we have arrived, Catherine dear. The stables are off in that direction-," she gestured to their right, "-but I'm sure if you walk around for a minute you'll trip over Tommy eventually. It's been delightful talking to you."
"Your Majesty, the pleasure is mine, I am sure." Catherine replied, smiling.
The queen shook her head, "Nonsense. I hardly have anyone to talk to on weekdays. My husband's usually working and all of my other friends are planning weddings for their reasonable sons so… Perhaps—could you ask your mother to come over for tea sometime? She need only send me a letter in advance and I'll organize everything."
The girl nodded, "I'll tell her. I'm sure she wouldn't mind tea."
"Probably not." Thomas's mother smiled, "Have a wonderful day, dear. Make sure he does get back to work—eventually. And give him a thorough tongue-lashing for skipping out on you."
"I will. Good day, your Majesty."
"Good day." The queen turned and began to make her way back to the palace, leaving Catherine to walk alone amongst the trees.
They were apple trees—most lacking apples as it was not the season for them—and they were quite large, healthy things. Their lofty branches provided an abundance of shade, broken only by ribbons of sunlight that fell down through gaps in the leaves. Catherine turned her face to the strong sea wind, watching and listening as it stirred the green grasses with its fierce call.
It sounded louder out here. Wilder. Unhindered by the buildings and walls of the city, the wind was free to blow, as poets often say, where'er it pleased. And today, it did just that.
She took her shoes off and tread barefoot across the sun-warmed earth, holding her shoes in one hand while the other cradled Rory of Clare's writings. The land sloped into a slight rise, and she ascended through the trees, breeze catching at her skirt and tossing her hair playfully about her shoulders. She smiled under the gleaming face of the sun.
This really was a lovely place. She did not blame him for coming out here, though she did wish he had waited. But where was he?
Then Catherine spotted a pair of long legs stretched out beneath a nearby tree. After further inspection, she found the prince of Corona lying sprawled on his back, arms behind his head and a smile of deep contentment below his mustache.
Catherine purposely stood in front of his sunshine and crossed her arms, clearing her throat.
Thomas opened one eye, and, upon seeing whom it was, parted his lips in a grin. "Good afternoon, Cat."
She cocked her head, "'Good afternoon, Cat'? What about, 'I'm sorry I forgot to meet you in the front hall, Cat'? Or maybe, 'I apologize for the inconvenience my absence has caused you, Cat'?"
Thomas sat up, laughing, "Well it's good to see you too. Are you really that upset that I didn't meet you at the door?"
"You said you would." She replied, her tone pointed.
"Yes, I did." He nodded. "But do you know what would've happened if I had waited around for you?"
"I would have been summoned to a meeting, you'd still have to come down the stables all by yourself, and I wouldn't be here to enjoy this absolutely gorgeous day with you."
Catherine feigned indifference, "Somehow I can't see how that would be a bad thing."
"All right, all right—I'm sorry for not meeting you when I said I would. Now, would you like to pull up a bit of grass?" He patted the ground at his side, looking at her expectantly.
His friend took a seat next to him and plucked a blade of grass, handing it to him.
"What's this for?"
"You said to pull up a bit of grass, so I did."
Thomas's grin widened and he took the piece of grass, set it between his thumbs, and proceeded to 'whistle' through it.
Catherine snorted, "Oh you sound like a dying duck, stop it."
"I feel like a dying duck after being verbally abused by you. Why, the shame!" He 'whistled' again. "The shame of being considered less than a gentleman!"
Smiling, Catherine hit him lightly on the shoulder, protesting, "Stop making me laugh! I'm still not happy with you."
He shrugged, "That's okay, cause I'm still not happy with you either."
"What did I ever do?"
"You-," he paused, thinking up an answer before settling with, "-you were late."
Catherine's eyes narrowed, "I was not late."
"You were outrageously late." Thomas said, adding another grass 'whistle' just for kicks.
She snatched the grass from him, "I wasn't."
"You stole my grass."
"Yes, and I'm not apologizing."
He suddenly noticed the book in her hand, "Is that mine?"
Catherine started defensively, "Your mother said I could borrow—hey!"
But he had already taken it from her and was flipping through the pages. "I don't recognize this book."
"Then how do you know it's yours?" She asked, folding her arms again.
"Emblem on the spine-," he tapped the golden sun, "-crest of the royal house of Corona. You only find them on books personally owned by the crown."
"Well give it back." Catherine held out her hand.
"Why should I?"
"Because you've never read it before and I don't see you starting now."
Thomas frowned, humming as he continued to read, "A-hmm—hmm…" suddenly his eyebrows shot up in surprise, "Mmm?"
"What is it?"
"This was written by a Midlander." He gave her the book and lay back down, remarking, "That's interesting."
She nodded, "Yes, Rory of Clare is a very interesting writer."
"No." He said. "What's interesting is that you chose that book out of the hundred or so in my office."
"Well-," Catherine hesitated, watching his face, "-my mother's a Midlander and she-."
"Is she really?" Thomas looked up at her, clearly surprised.
"Yes, she is." The girl replied, a slight edge to her voice.
"I never knew that."
"It's not really something you tell people."
"All the same-," he propped himself up on his elbow, "-you're a Midlander?"
Catherine shrugged, "On my mother's side only. As for Daddy, his ancestors have been chasing cows over Corona's pasturelands for generations."
"Half Midlander." Thomas grinned, "Well that explains why you've developed a habit of throwing books at me. You've got rebel blood in your veins."
Catherine rolled her eyes, "Tommy, please. They're not all rebels."
"I know they're not all rebels. I've even got some relations in the Midlands somewhere up the line. Almost every family in Corona does. We're essentially one people separated into two countries."
"I imagine there a several noblemen who would argue with you there." She said quietly.
He sighed, "Yes, and they are quite wrong. The Midlands may have rebelled, but those people are still Coronan. Not necessarily under Corona's rule but most certainly under our protection."
"At one point our grandfathers were probably enemies."
"At one point." He inclined his head, adding, "But not any longer."
"How did your mother get here?" Thomas asked.
"Her father was an attorney and got a job in Corona. They moved to the capital when she was sixteen, and she met your mother at academy."
"I remember her saying that they knew each other when they were young."
Catherine grinned, gazing up at the leaves, "They got into all kinds of mischief at school. Apparently, during her second year, my mother led a group of girls out of bed after hours to steal cookies from the kitchen. The matron found them, and everyone was given detention." The girl shook her head, whispering, "I never knew that. But your mother told me so many stories and I just had to ask for more…"
It was a moment before Thomas's mind registered what she had just said.
"You talked to my mother?"
Catherine nodded, glancing at him, "Yes, don't you remember? I said she let me borrow your book."
"Did you talk to her long?"
"Well, she walked with me most of the way to the stables and we talked during the trip."
"My mother doesn't do walking." Thomas stated, almost as if Catherine had made some ludicrous claim.
Catherine tilted her chin in satisfaction, leaning back against the tree. "Evidently, she made an exception today."
Thomas pouted, "What did you talk about?"
"Why should you care?" She asked, finding the guarded curiosity in his voice rather enjoyable.
"Because I—well, because I do."
"Be—cause there are certain stories I would rather my friends not hear." He said all this very quickly.
"Oh, well, we talked about those." She responded, opening her book to read.
"Cat." He actually sounded injured.
Catherine ignored him as she plowed on: "Yes, we giggled about all the ridiculous things you've done in your life. All the misdeeds and mistakes you've incurred from boyhood to manhood and everything in between."
He frowned up at her, and she laughed.
"All right, all right. If you must know, all we talked about was my mother and one story about a certain young man who is very proud of his whiskers."
Thomas rubbed his jaw, "Well, they're a nice set of whiskers. He should be proud of them."
"So you don't like them?"
"I didn't say that." She turned a page.
"So you do like them." Thomas remarked, pleased.
"I didn't say that either."
"Ah, Cat… you give me a headache." He mourned, placing his hand over his eyes.
"Ask me silly questions and you'll receive silly answers." She replied lightly.
He gave a rumbling, wry chuckle, listening to the twittering of birds and the soft sounds of Catherine running her finger along the pages of her book. The world beneath him was wide and living. Grass tickled his ears and the smell of dirt and salt filled his nostrils. He could almost feel the heavy breakers smacking against the rocky shores of the island. It was a very peaceful sensation, especially when he considered what the alternative plans for his day had been. Instead of a sitting in a stuffy meeting room with a group of boring old men, he was able to relax outside under the sun with much prettier company.
The very tiniest twinge of guilt struck him in the form of his abandoned duties along with the fact that he had not thought about his cousin at all today. For some reason, he was starting to miss him less and less, and the reports, as of late, seemed to be piling up unread. But Freddy was fine and doing well, and his work could wait.
Catherine turned another page in her book, and he peeked out from between his fingers, once again appreciating the freckles on her face.
Wait for all eternity if it wanted to…
Thomas removed his hand and, asked, "If you could change one thing about the kingdom, what would it be?"
Catherine wrinkled her nose, "What kind-of question is that?"
"A random nonsense sort of question you ask somebody lying under an apple tree."
"I'm sitting up." She corrected.
"And I'm not. So-," he beamed at her cheerfully, "-if you had unlimited resources and could change one thing about the kingdom, what would it be?"
Catherine looked into the distance, "Unlimited resources?"
"Everything at your disposal. Anything you possibly could need."
"I could change one thing?"
"One thing only." Thomas said.
It was a second or two before she finally decided, "Your curtains."
"The curtains in your office—I don't like them and I would change them."
Thomas looked at her incredulously. "What's wrong with my curtains?"
Catherine shrugged, "They're horrible. I don't know who picked them out but the coloring clashes dreadfully with the carpet."
"I happen to like those curtains."
"Do you know what color they are?"
"Yes, they are my favorite color." He lied.
"Which is?" She asked.
Catherine looked at him, "My eyes are green, Tommy. Those curtains are the color furthest from green."
"Oh." Thomas suddenly discovered he had a new favorite color—the exact same shade and tint as the girl's eyes.
"Exactly." She returned to her reading.
Thomas frowned, clearing his throat uncomfortably. Finally he declared, "I liked your sister's answer better."
Catherine sighed and closed her book, resigning herself to conversation. "Whose answer?"
"Georgiana. She said she'd fill up the fountain in the plaza with melted chocolate."
"And set little strawberries skating across the surface?" Catherine asked.
The prince raised his eyebrows, "She didn't get that detailed, but I'm sure she wouldn't object to the addition."
"And what would you change?"
"You mean besides the chocolate fountain?"
She smiled, "Yes."
He thought for a long moment, staring up at the patches of sky through the leaves and pulling absently at the grass. Then he grinned, answering, "I'd change the curtains in my office."
"You're picking on me!" Catherine cried, half-laughing.
Thomas shook his head, "No I'm not—I'm being perfectly serious. If they're really so atrocious they deserve to be changed and I might just do that this afternoon. But of course-," he glanced over at her, "-you'd have to come and help. I don't do patterns or matching very well."
"No you don't."
"How do you know that?"
"Did you pick out that cravat to wear today?" She asked, opening her book again.
"What's wrong with my cravat?"
She shook her head, muttering, "I wouldn't know where to start."
Thomas gazed down at himself, "Well it's not—it doesn't match my vest, does it? Is that the problem? Just a-," he noticed an inchworm crossing his chest, and grinned, "-hello, there."
Catherine frowned, "Hello, what?"
"Now that's going to take you all day to measure."
"Tommy, what are you-?" Catherine glanced at him and spotted the little green worm bunching itself up to climb a button.
Wordlessly, she scooted over an inch or five away from the man.
"I'm getting measured for a new suit, Cat." Thomas answered her unfinished question, smiling down at the little creature.
"I can see that."
Amused, Thomas began to count, "One inch, two inches, three…"
"Are you seriously going to let it crawl all over you like that?"
"He's not doing me any harm."
"Tommy it—he—oh-," she rolled her eyes, "-whatever you call him! He's just gross."
Thomas smirked, "Ah. You don't like bugs."
"I don't like bats. Why on earth would you think I like—don't you dare-!" Catherine jumped up, backing away from his outstretched hand on which the caterpillar now perched.
Thomas laughed, rising to his feet, "My, my, if ever a Cat could glare."
"Tommy, that's not funny."
"I beg to differ." He replied, carefully moving his hand so the inchworm could clamber over his knuckles.
Catherine stepped back again, lifting a warning finger, "You just keep that little, green, wiggly thing away from me."
"What do you want me to do? Kill him?"
"No, of course not!" She exclaimed. "Just—go put him on a tree or something far away from here."
Thomas bowed, "If you insist. Far, far away from here."
"Very far." Catherine called, sitting back down upon the grass as he walked off through the trees.
Thomas smiled down at the inchworm, whispering, "Can you believe that? She's afraid of little old you."
The caterpillar continued its trek around his palm, its tiny feet hardly noticeable on his flesh.
"Probably not afraid of much else, though." The man remarked, glancing around at the trees.
He remembered having swordfights around these very trees with his cousins. Although back then, the trees were columns in some forgotten cathedral or the remains of a dragon's ruined fortress. Every summer they used to come out here, running about and shouting. And they had built a tree house just—there.
Thomas grinned, gazing up into the branches of a large apple tree. There was a fairly rickety construction of wooden planks crisscrossing the limbs. Granted, it had been years since they had built it, but Thomas felt a stroke of pride that the construction was still in existence.
"Tell you what, my friend-," Thomas said to the inchworm scrunching its way around his wrist, "-I'll just set you up there. Far away from Cat, and far away from whatever birds happen to be about."
'I tread down the streets of Roscommon, my eyes flitting about at the many soldiers cloistered in a nearby pub. The men are young, most of them should probably be in school, and each one wears a uniform sewn by his mother. They are whispering about treason-about rebellion and about leaving the country that had so long called itself their homeland. I can't bear the thought of the fellows torn asunder by the sword. But what can a poor writer do? What can anyone do when the kingdom is breaking to splinters and ambitious mercenaries are pouring in from the Lock shouting their cries of "freedom"?
'Today is the last day before the battle. I can feel it. The whole city can feel it. We are at the brink of...'
Catherine had been absorbed in the words of Rory of Clare when a strange sound—it sounded like a yell—and a faint tremor of the earth caused her to look up in confusion.
Then confusion quickly turned to realization and shock.
"Tommy." Catherine hastily got to her feet and ran off in the direction that the prince had taken not five minutes before.
She reached a clearing and stopped, glancing around. There was a man lying at the base of a tree.
Catherine hurried over, falling to her knees as she repeated, "Oh no, oh no, oh no, no, no."
Thoughts of being put on trial for having let the prince go and kill himself began to flood the girl's panicked mind. She could see the queen (whom she quite liked, having now met her properly) condemning her to forty years' hard labor, glaring at her with majestic disapproval.
But then Thomas was opening his eyes and she had more important things to worry about.
"Tommy, are you-," she set her hands on his face, brushing back his hair, "-are you all right?"
Waking up to a splitting headache is probably one of the worst experiences in the world. However, since Thomas was also waking up to the inexplicably pleasant experience of soft hands stroking his face, he found himself distinctly confused. Therefore, his response to her question was far from adequate, as it mostly consisted of a weak, puzzled moaning.
"Oh, you dear stupid man. What on earth were you doing?" Catherine muttered concernedly.
Thomas grinned. It was nice to be fussed over.
"Are you smiling?"
He rearranged his face, murmuring, "I wasn't—that was a wince. Get off."
"Are you sure you should be sitting up?" She asked, even as he attempted to do just that.
Thomas replied irritably, "Cat, I'm fine."
"Let me check your head."
"No I-." But she had already bent his head forward and was examining the back. He could feel her fingers gingerly moving his hair around.
She hissed, "Oh dear. You've got a bump."
"I know I've got a bump. I fell out of a tree."
"Don't be cross." Catherine ordered absently, removing her hands. "Hmm—you may have a concussion."
Thomas rolled his eyes, "I don't have a concussion."
"Who is king of the country?"
"Cat, I'm not-."
"Who's the king?" She asked sternly, looking at him.
The prince sighed, answering, "My father."
"And what is your name?"
"What's your favorite color?"
"Your eyes." He said without thinking.
Catherine frowned, "What?"
"Green. And I'm fine, so stop with the questions." Thomas began to stand, using the tree for support.
She watched him, responding, "Well, I suppose you're okay."
"Still, we should probably get someone to have a look at you." Catherine said, also standing.
Thomas shook his head, earning himself another bout of headache pain, and said, "No, I don't think so."
"There might be someone in the stables."
"I'm not having some horse doctor poke the back of my head."
"And I'm not having your mother saying I didn't take care of you properly. We're going to the stables." She grabbed his hand and began towing him along.
"Cat I don't—I can walk on my own." He objected.
"Come along, Tommy."
And so it was, with a throbbing headache and feeling very much like a misbehaving toddler, Thomas allowed himself to be pulled towards the stables. They only stopped once to collect Catherine's shoes and the book he had already written off as 'forever hers'. The rest of the way, however, Catherine kept a firm grasp of his hand and led him straight on to where the stables stood.
There were only two men working in the stables that day—a horse groomer named Klip, and Ladson, a farrier. The farrier was replacing a shoe on one of the horses while the groom mucked out the stalls. They both glanced at each other as their prince and his lady friend approached the building.
Ladson smirked as he finished filing down the nails in the horse's hoof, grunting, "Looks like Prince Tom 'as a girlfriend."
"'Oo is she?" Klip asked, leaning on his shovel handle.
"Dunno. Better be polite though, cos 'ere she comes."
Catherine tugged Thomas into the stable, smiling at the men. "Good afternoon, Gentlemen."
The groom doffed his hat respectfully, "'Ello, Miss. Wot can we do fer you?"
She shrugged, gesturing to her ward, "Well, his Highness here took a tumble and bumped his head."
"I fell out of a tree." Thomas snapped.
Klip frowned, "Wot was 'e doing h'up h'a tree?"
"I'm not quite sure." Catherine glanced at her friend, "What were you doing up there?"
"Does it matter?" He asked wearily.
She raised her eyebrows, "I suppose not. At any rate, would one of you fine men mind checking him out to see if he needs to see the physician?"
"I'm fine." Thomas said.
Ladson stepped away from the horse, wiping his hands on his soot-spotted apron, "I'll 'ave a look at 'im, Miss. After all, 'e's about as beg as a 'orse anyhow."
Catherine beamed, "Thank you so very much."
"I'm not as big as a horse." Thomas muttered.
Catherine gently pushed him forward, "Go, Tommy. Let the man look at you."
Grudgingly, Thomas allowed himself to be seated on a bale of hay. The farrier patted him on the shoulder in a friendly fashion, "All right, sir, if you'd jest bend for'ard a bit."
Catherine leaned against a nearby stall, looking at Klip, "You gentlemen keep a fine stable. It's very clean here."
The groom grinned, "Why thankee, Miss. We try to do our best."
"It reminds me a little bit of home." She said, inhaling the smell of straw and horses. "I grew up on a dairy farm and—oh!" Catherine felt something bump her in the back. She turned around to find a white horse snuffling at her.
Klip nodded, "That'd be Maxie—Maximilian, to those 'oo give 'im that respect."
"Maximilian." Catherine smiled, rubbing the horse's nose. "Is this your horse, Tommy?"
He glanced at her, "Yes, and don't you go spoiling him or—ouch!"
"Lookee there. A little lump on 'is 'ighness's 'ead." Ladson said, evidently amused.
"Is he all right?" Catherine asked.
The farrier bowed, "Yes, Miss. 'E jest needs to see a proper doc to get fixed up and 'e'll be fine."
"Oh, you're a proper doctor too. Isn't he, Maximilian?" Catherine said, setting her cheek against the horse's face and humming happily. The horse responded with an affectionate nicker.
Thomas rubbed the back of his head, glaring at the two of them. He had never envied a horse so much. Why the stupid creature was getting kisses simply by being fuzzy! And of course, Catherine's interactions with the horse only made her more adorable, which only made him more—wait—where had that thought come from?
"Must've hit my head harder than I thought." Thomas muttered, standing up and going over to where Maximilian was getting his chin scratched.
"He's such a sweet horse." Catherine complimented, beaming up at him.
Perhaps it was the hit on his head—or perhaps it was the way her green eyes seemed to sparkle in the sunlight—but Thomas cleared his throat: "Klip."
"Can you get a couple of apple slices for Cat to feed Maximilian?"
Klip bobbed his head, "H'all right, your 'ighness. I'll jest be a mo'—I think I've got a few summer apples in the back."
Catherine gazed at the prince, "You'll let me feed your horse?"
"Yes I will. And after you've finished, I'll even let you march me up to the infirmary so the court physician can get his share of prodding for the day."
She laughed, stroking Maximilian's nose. Thomas reached out and petted the horse's forehead, commenting, "He's an old flirt, really. Knows how to get treats, don't you, Maximilian?"
The horse snorted, and Thomas smiled.