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To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.

 - Winston Churchill

Chapter Three

The Visit

            The visit of King William was accomplished with much pomp. The retinue was magnificent, and consisted of over a thousand men. One hundred of these men were knights, and made an impressive display. Even more impressive was the towering figure of the king himself. Princess Margaret, in her place on the royal reviewing stand, could easily see that he had not once been called Mighty Prince William for nothing.

            King William was known and admired everywhere, and the population of the city turned out in record numbers. Waving banners, and cheering the visiting monarch, they made their own king feel quite jealous and suspicious, two feelings easily aroused in the malicious ruler.

            From her eavesdropping and spying, Margaret knew of her father’s plans. Her father would try for one of two things. Ideally, he would like to arrange an immediate marriage between the king and the princess. Barring that, he would try for a marriage arrangement with the King’s seven year old son, Prince Carl. Neither idea sat well with the princess. At twelve years of age, marriage to a seven year old boy suited her no better than marriage to a thirty two year old man.

            As was the custom, the armed escort accompanying the visiting king encamped outside the walls of the castle. He was permitted a score of men to act as a personal guard, but this too was merely a custom. He had safe conduct within the castle, and would not need a bodyguard. The Princess would meet him at a great feast that night. With the foreign army encamped, and the visiting king in his quarters, it was time to get ready for the evenings festivities.

            Knowing nothing of discretion, or at least caring little for it, Margaret’s father had seated her right next to King William, at the royal banquet table. She and King William spoke little, and he hardly gave her a glance. She would occasionally look his way, as much out of curiosity as anything else. She had mixed feelings about what she saw.

            At close range, the King was massive and powerful. It seemed as if none might resist the will of such a man. He wore heavy garments of the finest materials, silks, leathers, cloth of gold, and fine linen. Upon these were embroidered jewels, an intricate tapestry of pearls, and minutely rendered scenes of battle. Though completely polite and soft spoken, he was fearsome and intimidating.

            There was a certain appeal to the thought of having such a powerful creature at her side, she had to admit. On the other hand, if he would offer certain advantages, he would also make certain demands and have certain expectations. These were sides of life for which the young princess was not yet ready.

            The one thing about the man that did appeal to her was the one thing which made him somewhat unappealing to the court ladies that found so much else to admire – he smelled of horses. There were few things in life that Margaret liked more than horses, and she was always happy riding, working around the stables, or mending tack.

            It was arranged for the two of them to go riding. As always, nothing could be done simply. Margaret’s ladies spent hours getting her ready, and the stablemen appeared to take nearly as long combing, braiding the mane, and cleaning her favorite mount. They then arrayed the horse with the finest bridle, and saddlry, these being the gear belonging to the queen herself.

            Resplendent in their magnificence, Princess Margaret and her horse went out to meet the King; but she did not go out alone. Custom demanded a pair of guards follow at a discreet distance, to act as a chaperone. As Margaret approached King William, she noted that he seemed as uncomfortable with the arrangements as did she. The man looked around and shifted in his saddle. He gave a polite nod, and smiled, when Margaret rode up.

            “Good morning little princess.” the king said cheerfully.

            “Good morning your highness.” was her expected proper reply.

            In contrast to the painstaking preparation lavished upon Margaret and her mount, the King was plainly attired, in loose clothing of sturdy construction. His saddle and accoutrements were those of a common soldier. To any that might have chanced upon the two of them, he might appear to be the valet or squire, with her being the lady. One thing of which she took instant note was that the King carried a pair of daggers, and a short sword. A man of war was a man of war, even when courting a young girl.

           Margaret looked the King over slowly and carefully, and then said “I appear to be overdressed, you highness. Was there not to be a grand fancy ball out here in the woods?”

            The king smiled at the mockery and replied “I believe you were misinformed. It is to be tonight after the moon rises, and humans are not invited, except as part of the menu. Perhaps we will find other things to hold our interest in the woods this morning. Come and join me unless you are ashamed to be seen with such a plainly dressed king.”

            “I will be derided for my choice of company; but poor company is to be preferred to poor manners.” she answered pleasantly.

            The King laughed at the implied insult and said, “Little princess, you are everything I expected you to be, based upon the tales I have heard – everything and more. Tell me, what did you expect from me?”

            “You, too are more than I expected.” was her guarded reply.

            “My dear girl, we both know what is expected from us by others, and what is hoped for. Let me put your mind at rest on this subject. I am not interested in marriage to a girl young enough to be my daughter. I already have a child, what I am looking for now is a queen.”

            Margaret felt a wave of relief wash over her, and yet was also somewhat offended. She stiffened a bit, and was uncertain as to how she should treat such an admission. So certain had she been that he would be smitten, and that she would need to contrive ways to cool his ardor, that it had never occurred to her to consider any other possibility.

            Certainly she had grown old enough to now start being taken seriously as a young woman. Now that she considered, it grated on her nerves to have the King call her “little princess.” He was older than her, certainly; but at thirty-two he hardly qualified as a wise old man.

            In irritation, she said “So you have gone shopping for a wife, and decided I am not the one you would choose. Do you intend then to pass me down to your son, as a sort of an heirloom?”

            The King answered “Though he is as precious to me as my life, and is all that remains of his dear mother, he is not without faults. The boy is a bit weak, and could use some strengthening. I would like him to have a strong and capable wife, as a support and help to him; but I fear that an iron willed young woman like yourself, particularly being a few years older than he, might completely overwhelm the boy.”

            Margaret asked “You fear I will take advantage of your son, and lead him around by the nose?”

            The King replied “You will be a handful for whoever ends up with you.”

            “And who says I must become some man or boy’s property? Suppose no one ends up with me?” responded Margaret.

            “That would be a sad waste.” said The King.

            “You are a funny sort of a king. You are straightforward, and seem to like being treated insolently. My own father, the king of this land, seeks always to weave intricate structures by which he might manacle and pinion ally and enemy alike. He thus encourages insolence only so he may draw out and crush his enemies more resolutely.”

            “I enjoy wit, intelligence, and honesty, even if they often take the form of barbs. Your parents must be very fond of you, and have taught you well.”

            Margaret laughed at this, and said “They hardly know me. My mother packed me off to a wet nurse before she even took a look at me, and my father busies himself with his kingdom.”

            “Does your father not speak with you, and enjoy his family life?”

            “My father trains and cultivates my older brothers, as if they are prize horses, so that he might make of one of them a great king to take over his kingdom. He gives me little thought, except as a brood mare to foster the taint of his bloodline on the royal families of other kingdoms. I do not believe he has any love for anyone but himself.”

            The King looked grimly off into the distance, “This is sad news. It is also not a proper way for a daughter to speak of her father, and is certainly not a proper way for a subject to speak of her king.”

            “I speak only the truth.”

            The King offered no reply, and seemed to have lost his taste for conversing with Margaret. So they rode on a while, and stopped after crossing a shallow river, to sit along its banks. Eventually, King William said “I have no wish to join my family to yours. I already have the Dukes of Canard to contend with – always causing me problems. One such family in my kingdom is enough.” He then sat silently, looking into the water. The courtship, it appeared, was over.

            Margaret quickly became bored with the silence, and amused herself by taking small stones, apples, acorns, and other objects, and throwing them across the river, to bounce and ring off the helmets of her guards. The long suffering guards bore the treatment without comment, preferring dignity to protest. They dared not get out of sight of their charge, and knew from experience, that trying to dodge the projectiles merely made the game more amusing for the princess.

            As she was about to let fly with a particularly soft and ripe piece of fruit, King William grabbed her hand, and shook it open.

            She protested “It isn’t hurting them. I doubt they feel a thing, between the protection of those hard helmets, and the hard heads underneath. At any rate, they will not dare to cross the river and stop me.”

            King William said “While you must never hesitate in striking out in your own defense, it is wrong to strike out at another, merely because they are unable to strike back. From such acts spring much of the misery in the world.”

            Margaret responded, “But I am striking out in my own defense. It is in defense of my privacy, my freedom, and my right to do as I wish, without being watched, followed, judged, and reported to my father the King.”

            King William looked at her and shook his head, muttering to himself “A handful.”