The Short wagon driver said little as they rode along. As they passed by farms, people in their fields stopped work to look. In the villages, they were close enough that Gabe could see the disapproving stares, first at the Tall soldiers, then at the Short driver who served them, and finally at the boy who was both, and neither.
All his life, he had known the look. Talls stared because he was so dark, Shorts because he was so tall.
And it was more than stares. If he did well in school, his teachers would smile and say his Tall mother had raised him well. If he got in trouble, they would whisper about his Short father.
But as the day went on, the villages and farms grew fewer and the stretches of forest longer, and deeper.
A half dozen soldiers rode on horseback in front of the supply wagon and a half dozen behind, with Captain Stahl sometimes trailing, sometimes leading, as he examined the roadside for signs of the rebel army.
The forest, however, was still except for bird song and an occasional squirrel in the treetops.
Sometimes, a young corporal named Jed rode up alongside the wagon, and he and Gabe would have brief conversations. At one point, Jed leaned out of his saddle to scoop a handful of berries from a bush as they passed it, and handed some to Gabe.
“These are kind of sour,” he remarked, moments before Gabe made a face and spat out the small, dark berries.
Jed laughed. “I guess they take some getting used to. They make good pies and jam, if you sweeten them. But we always ate some right off the bushes, when our mothers would send us out to pick.”
Gabe continued to spit out bits of sour pulp. “You grew up in these woods?” he asked.
Jed popped the rest of the berries into his mouth. “Not these,” he said, then finished chewing and swallowed. “I’m from the eastern forests. We’re not all city folk, you know. There’s country on the Tall side of the kingdom, too. It’s a lot like this, but this is about as wild as it gets. We don’t have the deep woods we’re about to come into. Forests, farmlands and rolling hills, but no real mountains.”
Indeed, the woods became thicker and the hills they rode over became steeper, until, as the sun went behind the mountains ahead, they passed through the stone pillars and iron gate of the Royal Hunting Lodge.
Captain Stahl and a sergeant rode up alongside the wagon as the soldiers began up the long, winding drive to the lodge.
“This brush must all be cut back,” Stahl said to the sergeant.
“We can’t clear it back far enough to stop an archer,” the sergeant said.
Stahl nodded. “We still don’t have to make it easy,” he said. “Bring a party down here this evening before it gets too dark to see and figure out how much you can get done by noon tomorrow.”
The wagon continued up the long drive. Gabe had seen a painting of the lodge, but it turned out to be larger and grander than he had expected, set in the middle of a green, mossy clearing with a looping driveway of white crushed rock leading to its long, dark wooden porch. As they came close, the front door opened and a Short couple came bustling out.
Stahl dismounted and handed his reins over to a soldier, then he and the sergeant walked up on the porch, scanning the front of the building.
“Welcome, sir,” the Short man said. “I am Werner, this is my wife … “
“Yes, yes,” Stahl walked past them into the lodge. He swept his cape from his shoulders and unbuckled his sword, handing them to the woman without looking at her, then added his hat to the pile in her arms.
He stopped in the middle of the large entry way and turned to face Werner. “The lodge must be ready to receive guests by tomorrow noon. The Queen and Crown Prince Rupert will arrive in mid-afternoon.”
“Certainly, sir,” Werner said, “It is a great privilege! I think you will find all in good order and we will be ready in time for their arrival.”
Stahl looked around. “It is in good order,” he said, and walked through an archway into the next room. He drew off a glove and dragged a fingertip over a tabletop, then looked at the spotless result. “Why?”
“Sir?” Werner asked.
Stahl turned to face him. “Why is the lodge in such good order?”
Werner flushed nervously. “We always keep it clean … “
“No, you don’t,” Stahl shot back. “Not this clean, you don’t.” He snatched the flowers from a small vase on top of a harpsichord and threw them into the Short butler’s face. “You don’t put out fresh-cut flowers in a room nobody has visited in 14 years!”
“Well …” Werner struggled for words, but Stahl cut him off.
“This building has been shut up for 14 years, and yet, here it is, dusted and aired out and ready for guests! How did you know?”
The Short trembled and stuttered, but no words came.
“You knew the Queen was coming!” Stahl said. “I want to know how? Who told you?”
“I don’t know … “ he began.
“We can take you outside and find out,” Stahl thundered, and the little man fell to his knees.
“Sir, no! Please!” he said. “I don’t know how we heard it. It was being spoken of in the village. Everyone was talking about it.”
Stahl turned to his sergeant. “You see? The birds carry news from tree to tree in this forest! You might as well try to hide a thunderstorm as keep a secret!”
Text c. 2004, Mike Peterson - Illustrations c. 2004, Clio Chiang