Being a princess on the run was far less glamorous than in fairy tales.
Alba Malcastria groaned, rubbing her eyes after yet another night spent sleeping under the stars. She walked on her heavy boots to the bank of the thin river, little more than a gurgling brook, running downhill to embrace the silver ribbon of the Alph. She took a moment to take the scenery in – for some reason, watching it from here, dirty and bruised and worn out as she was, still made it feel more real than when she used to look down upon her valley from her uppity window.
The Alph encroached verdant fields, sparkled with farmhouses as it coiled southward, passing on the outskirts of the city she had been forced to abandon. The black walls, red roofs and white towers of the Cittadella seemed to mock her with their impossible distance, even if she was just a couple kilometers away, peeking at her lost kingdom from the deluded safety of a copse of trees.
Behind, the snow-capped crown of the Alps grasped at the ceaseless blue sky. If only for the moment, they seemed might enough to hold back the mounting tide of the Austrian Empire.
Air smelled like summer, carrying the scent of blooming flowers, the damp smell of earth, and just a hint of manure.
Ah, yes, she was definitely outside of her home.
In the fields, like a commoner.
On the run, like a bandit.
The things she had to cope with in order to win.
But Alba was not just a young woman on the run: she was the last one of her blood and she would go to any distance in order to secure a future to her kingdom, no matter how small.
She looked down at the stream. How long had it been since she had a bath? The water wouldn’t be ice-cold, not in summer, would it? She fancied a look around and saw only flowers, willows and pines. No trace of… of the other.
Maybe it would be safe.
With a huff, throwing hesitation away like a real Malcastria, she began to take off her coarse, thick farmstead clothing, kicking off her boots and unfastening her grey shirt and trousers, taking much more time than she’d have even just a few months before. Her left hand still showed pale pockmarks, the foul gift of cowpox. And her right… the less she thought about her right hand the better, she decided, moving her gaze to the stream.
A spindly girl of average height looked back to her – her well-kept blonde hair now a relic of the past, their hung around her shoulders like a sad drape. At least her blue eyes still shone with the same fire as ever. Or so she liked to believe.
As the last of her underwear fell against the bank, she covered her small breasts and her crotch, still trying to make sure there was a certain pair of green eyes spotting her through the foliage.
She couldn’t, for the life of her, find one.
Alba tentatively touched the stream with her left foot and shrieked at how cold water was.
“This was a bad idea,” she groaned withdrawing her foot.
But then she grimaced. Was this where her courage went to die? She had faced ruffians, smallpox, untold amounts of menial labor and suffered a murderous Duke trying to take over her country only to withdraw before a bit of cold water?
What would her father say?
“Not in blood but in bond!” She shrieked, in the hope her family motto might give her strength, and while it did warm her heart, it did little to stop the freezing water. “Ow, ow, ow,” she sputtered, splashing water all over her body as she washed herself as fast as her paralyzed limbs afforded her.
What would she do to go back to her rose-scented, comfortable, warm washtub back in the castle! Another thing Duke Sparagmos would have to answer for, the moment she regained her rightful place at the castle.
And yet, it was getting a bit better.
Little by little, water stopped being so biting cold (which allowed her to stop clatter her teeth, so unbecoming of a princess) and in fact it started getting… warm? Not bath-warm, but tolerable.
I must be getting good at this, she thought. In fact, as her muscles began to feel much better, she allowed herself a pleased groan as she fell completely underwater. Must be a… warm spell, or maybe her skin did get used to cool water sooner than she expected. How would peasants even get washed otherwise? It did make sense.
What did not make so much sense was the blooming flowers starting to run down the river. Tiny golden crowns, carried by the placid current. They smelled like burnt incense. And the water rippled now in tiny waves, forming circles going upwards.
Against the current.
“Witch!” She screamed, covering her privates at once. “What did I tell you about sneaking up on me?!”
A chuckle came from the woods. She turned her head, but found no one.
“I only tried to make your bath more pleasant, my lady. Should I let freezing water kiss your skin as nature intended?” Her voice was as smoky and… unpleasantly alluring as ever, coming as if from every direction at once. No matter how much she whipped her head about, Alba couldn’t pinpoint her.
Which made her a priceless asset while they were on the run or fighting the Duke’s witch-hunters, but at the present moment…
“I did… not order you that,” she replied, her face heating up just like water did before. “You can keep this spell up. But stop it with the flowers and the ripples! It’s weird!”
“I only meant to keep my Lady entertained.”
“I don’t need entertainment,” she replied, letting her body entirely disappear between the surface as the flowers disappeared downstream. She suspected the Witch might see if she wanted to, but that did not mean making things any easier for her. Rubbing her body, she looked at her right hand: wizened, charred as if by some invisible fire. Her fingers had lost all sensitivity and she had to focus to correctly use them, even for something as simple as rubbing her body. “I need a weapon.”
A cooler wave washed over he body, soon going back to the heat she got used to so quickly.
“I am perfectly aware, my Lady.” Leaves rustled, and Alba lifted her gaze to meet an emerald pair of eyes, seemingly glowing between the foliage. The silhouette of a tall and slender woman, her black hair framing her body until her naked calves, sat just behind the pale decoy of a willow. “Yet, is it too much to ask of my Lady to enjoy what she already paid for? A warm bath and a few flowers is but an ear of wheat in the golden field she paid for.”
Alba tried closing her right hand. It felt like she was holding sand, slipping eternally through her fingers, as she ordered her digits to form a claw, and then a fist. Fighting against her cursed flesh, she managed to do it. A slight pant had broken into her breath.
“I will need every ear. But if you feel like making my morning bath a little more bearable… I won’t stop you,” she said, turning away from the green gaze and quickly splashing her face.
If anything, she had started to feel a little too much heat.
Author’s Notes: these two have been the bane of my existence for years. I have written an entire novel about their shenanigans and I am tempted, as Patina is approaching its end, to translate it in English and upload it here and in some other corners of the internet. If headstrong princesses and sassy Witches (who totally don’t fall in love with each other) is the kind of story you’d like to know more about let me know. I might think about it. At any rate, thanks for reading.