The prince and the serf (short story)

A multiple-part medieval short story. Stay tuned for the rest!

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“Matilda! Get over here at once and scrub these floors!” barked the portly, scowling woman. Matilda wiped her dirt-encrusted hands on her apron, already dappled with many stains and rushed to the kitchen overseer, who stood in the scullery with her hands planted on her broad hips. The young scullery maid scrambled about, grabbing a bucket of dingy water and a brush, stumbling a bit as she lugged the heavy water-filled pail.

All around her, fellow maids rushed about, washing dishes and cleaning in a frenzy. Matilda was curious as to why they were in such a hurry. She peered up from her duties, and upon seeing her the overseer whipped her with a rolled up cloth.

“Stop dawdling, girl! Keep scrubbing that floor, the prince is coming to visit soon and I want this place spotless!” At this she turned on her heel to inspect the other girls’ work, mumbling under her breath. Blasted prince! Why must he insist on coming down here so often?

At the overseer’s words, Matilda’s cheeks grew warm. The prince is coming? She thought to herself and immediately began washing the floor frantically. The prince had visited the scullery often as of late, quite unusual she thought. It was not a common practice for royalty to involve themselves directly in the affairs of common folk. Regardless, Matilda always found herself looking forward to his visits as they brought joy to her difficult life as a scullery maid. She stopped scrubbing for a moment and wiped the sweat from her brow with her wrist, sighing. The overseer tromped over and gave her behind a nudge with her foot.

“Girl, how many times do I have to tell you to keep cleaning?” She huffed.

Pulling herself up from the kick, Matilda went back to scrubbing ceaselessly, praying that someday God would deliver her from this life.

 

Prince Ulric sat in his chamber, praying to the Lord for courage to speak to the girl he most fancied. While he knew that ought would likely never come of it, he still held out hope that his father, King Quinn would someday change his mind. Upon leaving his chambers, Ulric was greeted by the chamberlains Bertram and Gerbois.  Noticing the prince in a hurry, Bertram spoke up.

“Your majesty, where are you headed with such haste?”

Ulric stopped and wheeled about, his purple cloak flowing from the motion. “To the scullery,” He said dryly.

The two chamberlains looked at one another and then nodded in the prince’s direction, but he was already out of sight.

“Perhaps we should tell the King,” Gerbois suggested.

Bertram nodded in agreement. “His majesty Quinn won’t be happy to hear his son is mingling with the peasants again.” At this, they called for one of the guards to deliver the tidbit to the king.

 

Prince Ulric made his way through the castle keep and down into the scullery. As he descended the small stone staircase his palms grew damp and clammy. He knew that he’d face his father’s ire later for associating with such low-born stock but he couldn’t help himself. He had to see her again. Once he reached the wooden door to the scullery he knocked.

On the other side, the kitchen overseer Helga heard the knocks and fussed with her dress and wimple, tucking any stray sweat-caked strands back up under it.

“Your majesty, is that you?” She asked nervously.

“It is I, Prince Ulric.” The muffled voice said.

Immediately she rushed to the other maids, who were still busy scrubbing and tidying tirelessly.

“He’s here, get yourselves presentable!” She clucked, herding the girls around like a bossy old hen.

Matilda stood and wiped her hands furiously on her apron, feeling very self-conscious. Her face was stained and her hands darkened with soil from the cleaning. The only one who looked half-decent was Helga who stood proudly lacking the dirt of the other scullery maids.

“Come in.” The overseer said.

At once, Prince Ulric appeared looking as regal as ever. The scullery maids kept their heads bowed in reverence, with only Matilda daring to peek every so often at the prince. Helga bowed low.

“Your Majesty. I believe you will find the scullery once more to your liking, we were sure to scrub every inch-”  She trailed off as he walked past her.

He looked around the room for appearance’s sake but his gaze came to rest on Matilda who stood further behind the others, her head down and hands clasped in front of her soiled apron.

Helga watched the spectacle before her and felt a little huffed. She spent the last few hours driving the maids to make the scullery spotless but the prince seemed to have one thing on his mind: The young Matilda.

Suddenly Ulric turned to Helga and spoke.

“The scullery looks magnificent, Helga. You are dismissed.”

Smiling, Helga bowed and left, happy to be relieved of her duty. Whatever the prince was up to wasn’t her business and her job here was finished for now.

Prince Ulric dismissed the other maids as well, all but Matilda. He approached her, heart skipping a beat but his words failed him. What it was about the girl, he did not know. She was as common as any other peasant, nothing special that would draw a man to her, at least from an outside observer. But to him she was more beautiful than any girl he’d ever laid eyes on:

Her dirty blonde hair was tied into a sloppy thick braid beneath her wimple and she wore a plain olive green dress topped with a soiled white apron. Her ruddy skin was dotted with a few freckles and her light green eyes shone with youth and innocence.

Matilda felt her heart stop as the prince stood before her. She dared to steal a few peeks at him through her lashes and found him no less handsome than she’d always known. Dressed in a gold brocaded white tunic topped with a red surcoat depicting the royal coat of arms in gold: two roebucks standing on either side of a two-toned shield; at the top of which was a gilded crown. He wore tall leather hunting boots over black hose and around his shoulders was a burgundy cloak fastened at the front with a golden brooch. Atop his head of shoulder-length blonde hair was a small golden crown encrusted with jewels. He gazed at her with warm brown eyes and smiled, small dimples forming at the corners of his mouth.

Breaking the silence, he finally found his words. “Greetings.”

Matilda looked up and replied nervously. “Hello…yo-your majesty.”

“Call me Ulric, please,” He said.

Matilda trembled, wishing to flee but her feet would not obey. She looked down at her shoes, face burning. Seeing her discomfort, Ulric hesitantly reached for her hand but paused, thinking better of it. He then turned to leave, feeling elated that he was able to speak to her but had one more thing he wished to do.

“What is your name, miss?” He asked.

The girl looked up, surprised. “M-Matilda your Majesty…I mean Prince Ulric.” She stammered.

Matilda. He thought to himself, sighing dreamily. Suddenly he took her hand in his, startling her. “Matilda, would you please meet me in the meadow outside the castle tomorrow?” Within him, fear and exhilaration battled as he searched her face.

Matilda just stared into his eyes, feeling overwhelmed at the intense fire burning within them. She broke her hand off from his and stepped back. Why was Prince Ulric so interested in her? She was a mere peasant, a nobody!  She didn’t understand it and felt afraid. “I-I must be going,” She said stepping farther back from the prince. Ulric reached out for her instinctively but let his arm dangle back to his side. He felt like a fool.

At this he turned and left, but not before glancing her way one last time.

Matilda grasped the hem of her apron in frustration, feeling bewildered. Hot tears welled up in her eyes as she sank to her knees in the empty scullery. She loved Prince Ulric and he had spoken to her, showing genuine interest but she had balked. It’s better this way. She thought to herself. Perhaps I am but a fleeting fancy for him and he will eventually forget.

 

Ulric made his way back to the keep’s main floor, his heart elated but heavy. God had granted him the courage to speak to the girl his heart loved, but he’d behaved like a fool in front of her, letting his emotions get out of hand. He stopped at the top of the stairs, leaning against them with a bent arm, his hand clenched into a fist. Taking a deep breath he squared his shoulders and ascended, putting on a façade of nonchalance.

As he made his way back to his chamber he saw his father, the king standing in the hallway with crossed arms and a scowl on his face. “Ulric! Come hither boy, we need to talk!” He growled, walking past the prince without looking at him. Ulric knew he’d face rebuke from his father and felt even worse about it this time, due to his less than favorable interaction with Matilda.

 

Once in his father’s study, Ulric braced himself for the onslaught. After a few excruciating moments of silence, the prince finally spoke up to relieve the strangling tension.

“I am sorry father,” He said with his head bowed.

The king arose from his chair, slamming both fists on the table in front of Ulric.

“Sorry? Sorry! Such words are nonsense to me!” King Quinn bellowed.

The prince sat rigid, avoiding eye contact with his incensed father.

“Enough is enough, boy! This is the third time I’ve been informed of your dalliances with the castle peasants. Must I remind you that you will someday be King yourself, or are you too dense to realize that, boy?”

Ulric just kept his head low, not speaking.

“I do not know what draws you to low-born scullery maidens, but it must stop! A crown prince your age should be seeking eligible princesses at court to take in marriage, not dallying with peasant scum.” The king spat.

The words cut Ulric deep, stirring within him an intense desire to stand up for Matilda. He stood to his full height abruptly, startling the king.

“She is not scum,” He growled, his tone full of warning.

Seeing his challenge, the King arose likewise. “She? So, my son, the prince loves a scullery maid?” Quinn burst out laughing, further humiliating Ulric.

“That’s enough, Your majesty.” The prince warned, abandoning all familiarity with his father.

“Is that a threat, boy? I may be your father but my position as king trumps such petty relations.” The king bit back, his eyes rife with a warning.

Ulric sat down once more, his countenance softening at his father’s counterattack.

“That’s what I thought. Listen, boy! Princess Angmar is coming for a visit in a week’s time. I am negotiating a possible marriage contract with her father in regards to an alliance. I expect you to be there and be prepared to court the princess when she arrives.” A smug smile spread across Quinn’s face, seeing these words caused more pain to Ulric than any prior.

Ulric looked at his father with a pleading glance, but Quinn was oblivious as he arose and prepared to leave, his work finished.

“Remember boy. I call the shots around here, if I don’t see you eagerly awaiting the princess’ arrival there could be repercussions for those who dare to steal your attentions.” The king warned before exiting.

Ulric exhaled deeply and leaned forward, burying his head in his hands.

What have I done?

He retreated to his bedchamber for the rest of the evening, feeling sad and hopeless.

Will Ulric have his chance at happiness, or will his duties as crown prince steal that from him? Stay tuned to find out!

 

 

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