I like stories that can be read in bite-sized chunks. Because of this, and for the sake of the tale, you will have to wait until Tuesday for the final part of The Winter King’s story. In the meantime, here is part three, some Sunday reading for you (or Monday reading depending where in the world you are at this precise second! Thank you as always for your love and support!
The Winter King. Part Three. J R Manawa.
When the young king regained consciousness, he was lying on the floor of a little wooden cabin on a mattress stuffed with straw. The big amber eyes still loomed over him, and he cowered instinctively as his eyes focused on her face. He remembered the spade and her strong arm well.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, pulling away from him once she realised he was awake.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Are you going to hurt me?” she asked, “I only hit you because I thought you were going to hurt me. No one comes into my garden, you see.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but stopped short as he gave himself a moment to consider his situation. She watched him silently, her hand was still lingering over the handle of the spade where it was propped up against the sagging sofa. He looked around the cabin cautiously. It did not contain much else other than the mattress on which he lay, the sofa, a fireplace with a disarray of cooking utensils laying on the hearth in front of it, and a large horde of gardening tools wedged between the back of the sofa and the wall. He realised he must be in the groundsman’s hut, once belonging to his father’s chief gardener.
Looking back to the girl who had attacked him, he was caught again by her eyes, they were a real liquid amber, the warmest molten brown he had ever seen. They were big and round, set in a heart shaped face with a pointed pixie-like chin. Her features were drowned in sun kissed skin and swathes of yellow blonde hair, with locks so thick and wavy she could have buried herself beneath them. The silver dress she wore was simple and once must have been very beautiful, but it was ill-fit, too long for her, and the trailing ends where she had not tied them up about her waist were discoloured an earthy brown.
He had paused with his mouth open rather rudely for a second too long now. He swallowed, and then spoke, “I’m not going to hurt you, no,” he said rather meekly. He lifted his hand to run his fingers through his hair as a lot of men do when they are short for words, and he realised there was a fresh bandage around his hand. He looked down at it with surprise.
“It was rotting.” The girl explained.
“I’m sorry?” he blinked at her.
“Your hand, it was rotting. I had to suck the poison out or it would have killed you.” She told him this without batting an eyelid. “That’s why you have such a terrible fever.”
He lifted the edge of the bandage to look in on the cut. It was still red, but it no longer festered and oozed. “Poison?” he repeated.
She nodded, her golden hair falling over her face. “Why were you in my garden?” she asked him.
He was dumbfounded again. “It’s my garden,” he replied, defensively.
She laughed at him.
“No, it is my garden,” he insisted.
“Oh, is it now?” she said, sitting down on the floor beside him, crossing her legs and resting her chin upon her fist inquisitively. “Tell me now, who waters the flowers?”
He opened his mouth to reply, but he didn’t know what to say.
“Who cuts the grass? Pulls the weeds? Tends to the broken branches? Who feeds the fish and offers grain for the birds so they stay and keep the snails and caterpillars at bay?”
“I supposed you do,” he said. He knew she was patronising him, and it made him a little indignant. “But who owns the land? Whose family laid the gardens? Paid for the exotic flowers, and the architects to construct the hanging gardens?” he asked.
At that moment the caretaker whom the king had left in charge of the summer palace burst into the little hut, calling for urgently for the girl, his daughter. “The king’s horse is here my dear! Riderless! I found it wandering through the vegetable patch, what shall we–” He stopped himself short when he saw his king lying on the mattress of straw, with a fever flushed face, a bandage over his hand and a bump the size of an egg on his forehead.
“Father!” The girl exclaimed in surprise.
The caretaker fell to his knees before his king. “Forgive me my lord,” he begged.
“Oh,” said the girl, and she was silent for moment before she said quietly, “It is your garden.” Her cheeks blushed a deep red. She stood up and ran from the hut without another word.
The king watched her go with dismay. He had not meant to embarrass her, just as he knew she had not intended to disrespect him. “Where will she go?” the king asked as he got up off the mattress.
From the floor, with his head bowed low, the caretaker replied, “My king, forgive my daughter, she does not know you,”
“Get up,” the king sighed, rather irritated by the whole situation.
The caretaker got to his feet, brushed the dirt from his knees, and stared at the ground.
“I did not know you had a family,” the king said, as he looked out across the garden.
The caretaker looked up, “I brought my wife and daughter with me when you asked that I care for the palace.” He told the king his wife had passed of a terrible cold one winter when his daughter was still young, and now since her eighteenth birthday, his daughter had cared for the palace gardens, while he took care of the palace itself.
“I did not remember the gardens being so beautiful,” the king admitted absently as he set out to find the caretaker’s daughter.
Her father believed she would climb high beyond the labyrinth, so it was there the king went, up and up into the hanging gardens. As he climbed, the day waned into golden dusk, and the sun began to set. The view out over the ocean was full of colours, rich shades of gold and green and blue.
Despite the beauty around him the king could not stop to enjoy it, for as he walked his mind returned to other affairs, namely the urgency with which he should have been searching for his bride-to-be. Secondly, why was he was specifically searching for her in the first place? He had no wisdom as to why there had been such a pressing need for him to go to her in the middle of the night. In hindsight it had been a dangerous decision for a king to make, to rush out into the night with all the unsavoury kinds that were known to inhabit the deep forest at the foot of the mountains.
Perhaps most disconcerting of all was his personal revelation that he could not even remember the face of his betrothed. Nor even the colour of her hair.
He did not have long to worry his mind over such a matter, for the labyrinth which wound its way to the top of the hanging gardens was designed to confuse an inattentive mind, crawling with tenacious vines and swelling shrubs that had burst out of their pots years ago.
As a boy he knew the quickest way to the top, and he would go there to spy on his mother and father when they went for peace in the evenings to discuss the pressing issues of the day in private, and to gaze at the stars. The years had changed the path, and it did not take long for the king to realise he was hopelessly lost.
He turned corner after corner in confusion until he finally came to a garden where he found a girl sitting on a bench and looking out over the ocean.
But this girl was not the caretaker’s daughter.
The fourth and final instalment of The Winter King will be here on Tuesday evening, GMT. If you haven’t yet, you can always subscribe to get up to date information on all my stories – I would love for you to join me on this journey!