The funny thing is, I never even knew who he was until days afterwards. I mean, how was I supposed to know? You meet an injured guy in the forest, in terrible pain, and you help him. Of course you do. I mean, what else would you had done in my position?
It all began when I found my herb cupboard dangerously low on ragweed…
“Ma, we need more ragweed!” I called from down in the cellar. Through the ceiling I could hear the thundering of one of my sisters charging up the stairs, the laughter of another from the top of the house, and Ma doing washing in the laundry room. The echo of my ma’s voice shouted back to me,
“You’ll have to get it yourself, I’m busy!” I sighed. I didn’t want to leave the warm, cosy house. Still, I wasn’t doing anything else important today. I threw my pretty travelling cloak around my shoulders. I loved it, even though it was threadbare and should by rights be in the bin. I hooked my basket under my arm and pulled my hood over my head. Flicking the latch up, I stepped out into the blustery streets.
Head down, I walked hurriedly past houses, through alleyways, towards the edge of town. No-one else was about, but I wasn’t surprised. The weather was atrocious, freezing cold and fiercely windy at the same time. If it got any colder, then the entire village would be buried under a snowstorm. It was grey and miserable and everyone stayed inside and busied themselves as much as they could.
I exited the arched gate that signalled the edge of town and headed for the forest. Between the trees, the wind was a little less rough. I followed the paths I knew so well, treading quietly between the mossy trunks. Before long I came to a small hill, which led down into a small valley. Down there, it was never too cold or too windy; the surrounding hills took the edge off the weather. Down there was a stream, leading to a pond. And growing by the edge of the pond was ragweed, in the perfect conditions: water, mud, and no extremes of temperatures.
I pushed down my hood. I couldn’t hear the moaning of the wind between the trees any longer: now the cascading of water met my ears, like glass twinkling in the wind. My heart lifted slightly and I smiled. My favourite place was away from the village – sometimes I felt so suffocated in there. It was only in the woods I stopped to breath.
I skipped down the path like a little child, swinging my basket. When I reached the ragweed, I pulled up my skirts and walked out into the water until it rippled around my shins. I floated the basket next to me and, reaching down for the distinctive raggedy plant, pulled it up by the roots. I then tore off the leaves, chucked them away, and threw the lovely golden brown roots into my floating basket.
I don’t know how long I spent pulling up ragweed before I realised something was wrong, that I could hear a sound that didn’t belong. I had lost myself in the rhythm: reach-pull-tear-chuck-throw-reach-pull-tear-chuck-throw… and so by the time I stood up, muddy hands clutching my skirts, I didn’t know how much time had passed. Maybe an hour, maybe more.
My basket was full, anyway, so I splashed back to the pond bank. I put my basket safely on a large boulder then stood again, ears cocked. It was then that I heard the sound again. It was a human sound… a grunt of pain. Cautiously I headed for the sound; and soon saw the man.
He was crouched over, brown hair falling in front of his face, his hand desperately clutching his arm. He rocked forwards and backwards. There was no blood, so at first I couldn’t see what was wrong. But then he raised he face and I saw his eyes squeezed shut, his clenched teeth, his tense muscles. Everything about him screamed, ‘I’m in pain!’ For the first time I really looked at his arm, and saw the way it hung so limply, lifelessly.
I go to him, crouch down. “Can I help, sir?” I ask softly, gazing at him through his veil of long hair. His eyes fly open, widen with surprise: but he still rocks, and clenches his arm. His teeth are gritted but he nods. “Could you move your hand?” I ask, wanting to see whatever dreadful wound he must be hiding beneath his fingers. But he shakes his head violently, and spits a few words between his clenched teeth;
“No… arm… broken it… fell off… horse,”
I gently take hold of his arm, say firmly, “Let me see it,” and he does, still rocking back and forth and groaning. I feel all the way up his arm, starting at the wrist, and begin to frown. “Your arm isn’t broken,” I inform him. Then I reach his shoulder and my gentle probing makes him howl. “Ah. You’ve dislocated your shoulder.”
He’s shaking, pulling away from me. I grab his uninjured shoulder and look him in the eye. Sternly I tell him, “I can put it back for you, but you’ll have to stay absolutely still, okay?”
He nods. I gently lay my hand on his shoulder, placing my palm against the jutted out bone. “Okay. Three… two… one!” I push with all my might and am rewarded with a gruesome cracking noise as the bone slides back into place. He screams, a short scream, scaring the birds in the trees. Then he slowly removes his hand from where he had been gripping his injured arm so tightly. He flexes his fingers, and both of his hands twitched. A smile spread across his face, brightening his eyes.
He stood, bowing to me. “Thank you, lady. You have done me a great kindness.” A smiled cracked my face too, and I dropped him a quick curtsey. “Will you be able to find your horse, sir?” He nodded. “He’ll be close by, I don’t doubt.” I couldn’t help noticing that now his face wasn’t screwed up in agony, he was actually quite pretty. “For what you did, I again thank you.” And with that he turned and headed up the hill, out of the little valley.
I returned home with my basket of ragweed, thinking nothing of it. It had just been a young man I’d met in the woods, nothing more. It was a couple of days later, when my sisters came back from the market with exciting news, that I realised just who that man had been. They all spoke at the same time, loud fevered voices, their words spilling into each others. I lay down my sewing on my bed and hurried down the stairs.
Marina saw me and rushed over, taking both of my hands in her own. Hers were frozen; the bad winds had continued, haunting our village with terrible weather. “Oh, Sally, you’ll never guess what! You know the young prince? Prince Arthur? He’s hurt!” I took my sister by the arm and sat her down. “Hurt?” I asked, sensing a good story coming. “What happened?”
“Well, he was out in the woods, you see, and his horse just bolted! Threw him right off. He thought he’d broken his arm, but actually he had dislocated his shoulder! Oh, it’s so exciting. I can’t believe it. The King is in uproar, they say he’s furious at Arthur for going out alone, while Arthur is angry at not being allowed to go for a ride with a guard, and it’s just so entertaining. I just can’t believe it.”
My brain had frozen. I had met Prince Arthur. In the woods. With my muddy hands and threadbare travelling cloak. I had put the Prince’s shoulder back in place.
“Hang on… did the Prince say anything else about the woods?”
“No,” Marina said blankly, shaking her head. “Just that he managed to right his shoulder and find his stallion and head back home.”
Okay. That’s weird. He didn’t say a word about me…
So, Prince, for some reason you don’t want the world to know I was there. That’s perfectly fine with me; I’d rather not be involved in this fight between you and your father. But why didn’t you tell them? I never did anything wrong. Why did you make me into a secret? Why would you pretend I was never there?
What is it you’re hiding from the rest of the world?