The daughter of the feared King and Queen of Neustria, Rigunth of Soissons is on her way to marry her betrothed when her bridal train is overtaken by bandits. Instead of being merely robbed, her party is slaughtered, and she overhears a plan to kill her in the name of a queen. Furious, Rigunth escapes and stumbles upon a fairy in the woods who promises to help her in exchange for a piece of magic: two sisters, one blessed with gems and flowers to fall from her lips with every word, the other cursed with snakes and toads.
On her journey, Rigunth and the companions that she meets along the way find much more than they expected.
Loosely draws from the French fairy tale "Diamonds and Toads." Updates every Friday. Show Less
Beside her, Theogund winced and whimpered as one of the bandits cut yet another of their retinue’s throats. The man, a slave whose name Rigunth had never learned, coughed and gurgled as he died. Unlike Theogund, Rigunth remained still and silent. She had no intention of being captured and ransomed by these bandits. Her pride would not allow it.
“Do you see her?” the bandit who’d slit the slave’s throat called. His Latin was thickly accented. Italian, Rigunth thought. Not Roman, though. This close to the Alps, she’d heard that accent on occasion, that of the Lombards who lived in and around the mountains.
One of the other bandits, an older man with a deep scar across his forehead and disappearing into his thick brown hair, dug through the contents of one of the overturned carts and shook his head. Rigunth felt her temper rising. The sheer humiliation of having her bridal gift stolen by bandits would have driven her to violence if she hadn’t known to keep hidden. As it was, her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists and her jaw tensed almost painfully.
“She can’t have gone far,” the scarred man answered, holding up a gold necklace to the late afternoon light. Rigunth saw a few glints of red reflected. Rubies along with the gold, then. The scarred man wrapped it around his wrist and kept digging. “She’s just a girl on foot, we’ll catch up with her soon enough.”
Rigunth found herself wincing as Theogund dug her fingers painfully into her upper arm. “M’lady--” she whispered.
Rigunth glared furiously at her, not willing to risk a larger movement. If she’d been able, she would have cuffed her maid for her stupidity. As it was, she had to rely on the fearsome look that she’d seen so many times on her own mother’s face.
It worked, for Theogund fell silent again, her blue eyes wide and frightened. Rigunth wished that she could will her thoughts directly into her maid’s mind, but even should she be able to do so, the girl was too stupid to follow orders correctly at the best of times and too scared to be relied upon now. All that Rigunth could do was to hope that Theogund would follow her lead as they pressed themselves among the thick dark shadows of the forest and did their best not to crunch the dead leaves underfoot. Enough pine grew along the road among the oaks that the bare branches did not completely give them up, but their green, thick presence was sparse enough that she needed to wait for the bandits to move on before making her own more permanent escape. They had been near to Toulouse, no more than another day’s journey. She could swallow enough of her pride to ask the current Duke of Toulouse to give her refuge while she sent word to her mother.
The bandits showed no great hurry to leave, and Rigunth ground her teeth again in frustration. “We’ll live like kings,” the scarred one said, tossing a broach to a young man with dark skin and curling dark hair. “I can buy some land in the mountains and retire with this.”
“You could finally get a woman for more than one night with this,” the man who’d cut the slave’s throat said, laughing.
The scarred man aimed a kick in his direction, though it was a half-hearted joking gesture. Rigunth felt sick. She hadn’t know the slave—hadn’t known most of the retinue in her bridal train, even after months of travel—but when the scarred man moved to kick his friend, she saw a cloak that she recognized on the ground. The body of the scarred bandit had blocked her view until now, but she recognized her guard Sigimund’s wool cloak. She’d given him the money for that cloak just after they’d left Soissons. He’d thought that the make and the fanciful pattern woven into it were quite fine; she’d thought him quite fine in it as well.
Rigunth hadn’t given him any thought as she’d run into the cover of the forest, though now seeing his body, covered by her almost-gift to him lying amongst the ones who’d killed him while they jested and stole, was altogether too much for her. It was her turn to move suddenly, beginning to rise from where she hid, to confront the thieves, no matter how many of them there were or how sharp their swords were.
Theogund grabbed her arm again, keeping her still. Rigunth nearly slapped the girl, but reason seized her a moment later. She closed her eyes in mingled anger and grief. She had not loved Sigimund, but she had been fond of him. Of many of those who had traveled with her on her way to her betrothed in Spain; the long journey would have been unbearable otherwise. She wondered how many more had been killed and how many had managed to escape.
“Racolo, Berin, Gaido.” The scarred man—the leader, Rigunth guessed, of the bandits, given how he seemed to be the first to help himself to her bride gifts and the one to whom the others deferred—nodded at three of the others. “Go find our missing princess.”
One of the men, light-haired and missing part of an ear, twisted his face unhappily. “While these crows pick over all the riches?”
“You’ll do as I say and be done with it,” the scarred man said, no longer joking. “The sooner you kill her, the sooner we move on.”
Rigunth stopped breathing. Beside her, Theogund let out a little squeak, but Rigunth did not reprimand her.
Someone wanted her dead?
The three men that the scarred man had called grumbled, but Rigunth faintly heard them discussing how they would best split up to find her as they began walking down the hard earth road. The other bandits busied themselves with emptying out the carts of riches and stripping the corpses for anything of worth.
This would be as good of a chance as they would have, it seemed. Rigunth tapped Theogund on the shoulder and motioned in the direction that they would go, deeper into the forest. Theogund’s eyes widened, and Rigunth thought crossly that if the girl’s eyes went any larger then they’d fall right out of her head. But if one rather dim maid was the sole companion that she had been granted, then she’d have no choice but to make use of that asset.
Rigunth slowly, quietly wound her warm cloak tightly around her upper body and gathered her long woolen traveling dress to just above her knees. Theogund looked scandalized, but followed suit with her own dress, shivering as the cold breeze cut through past her woolen stockings.
The wind made the oak branches rattle, which Rigunth was thankful for. Perhaps the noise would block out their own clumsy escape. She was no woodsman, that was certain, and she doubted that Theogund had any hidden talents in that area either.
Rigunth eyed the deepening shadows and chose a direction. As quickly and quietly as she could, she raced over to the next thick copse of trees, hoping for more soft pine needles and less dry oak leaves to mask the noise. Theogund followed behind, and they hid in the shadows for several long minutes until their hearts stopped racing. Rigunth chanced to look around the trunk of one of the trees in the direction of the road.
The bandits, smaller now with distance, were still busy. Good.
Each subsequent scurry away from the road was terrifying. The road was safety. The woods were dark, wild, full of animals and bandits.
Well, she thought wryly, I’ve already run into the bandits.
She and Theogund were both panting by the time they were deep enough in for Rigunth’s satisfaction. Walking all day was irritating but something that they’d grown used to since leaving Soissons; the constant start-and-stop of sneaking was something else.
“Are we safe?” Theogund dared to whisper.
“Of course not,” Rigunth snapped, though quietly. “We’re in the God-forsaken woods and all alone with bandits hunting for us. For me. Use your head.”
“Sorry, m’lady,” Theogund said automatically. “I’ve got an idea, though.”
“What?” Rigunth began picking leaves out of her long mouse-brown braids. The Lord above only knew what a fright she looked now.
In the dim of the last light through the trees, Theogund looked as if she was gathering all of her scant courage. “We should switch dresses. At least if they find us…”
Rigunth paused, considering as Theogund trailed off. Both of them were dressed finely, as a princess and a princess’ maid, even in traveling clothes. However there was still a marked difference between Rigunth’s dyed dress and cloak and Theogund’s. “It isn’t a terrible idea,” Rigunth said reluctantly. “One of your better ones, really.”
Theogund took no pleasure in the compliment. “Your linens—”
“I’m not giving you my underclothes,” Rigunth said. “I won’t run naked in the woods like a pagan, desperate or no.” And privately, there was always the worry of theft in the back of Rigunth’s mind. Theogund was more trustworthy than some of the maids that her mother had assigned to her over the years, but the lesson that she had learned through her unhappy childhood had been to trust no one save herself.
It did not help that she had secreted some items in the hems of her linens, just in case. Theft would mean more than the loss of comfortable underclothes.
They both began pulling off their cloaks and travel gowns, with Rigunth swapping her brightly dyed new dress for Theogund’s faded one, shivering in the late winter cold all the while. She only reluctantly handed her cloak over as well, given its sturdier weave and superior warmth. “No fire,” Rigunth said, setting her jaw stoutly. She lacked the flint and iron to start one in any case and had never been a deft hand with them, but would never admit so to her servant.
“Of course, m’lady,” Theogund said, pulling her close and wrapping the two of them in Rigunth’s cloak. “Would you like me to fix your hair?”
What does it matter now? Rigunth thought bitterly. Am I to look pretty for my murderers? Out loud, she said, “I would.”
Even in the dark, Theogund’s hands were deft at their task, unbinding the twin braids down Rigunth’s back, finger-combing out the worst of the leaves that had been caught in them, and rebraiding them quicker and more evenly than Rigunth ever could. Theogund’s own dark hair was held in a single braid, likewise disheveled.
“Who would want to kill you?” Theogund asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Killing me doesn’t make sense? You’ve met my mother and father, haven’t you?” Rigunth rolled her eyes, even if the gesture could not be seen, and crossed herself automatically. “God rest his soul. They certainly don’t make friends easily.”
“But ransoming princesses and princes is the done thing, isn’t it?” Theogund asked, tying off Rigunth’s left braid. “It makes a point, humiliates the king or queen, and makes a tidy profit. And your mother’s rich as the Pope.”
“She’d be glad to hear you say that.” Rigunth brooded darkly, stoically bearing the rhythmic tugging on her hair. “What I wouldn’t give to question one of those bastards alone…”
“Language!” Theogund squealed.
“Hang your language. If I’m old enough to marry Reccared of Spain, I’m old enough to stop being chastised for my language. You may be older than me but I’m your senior in every way that matters. You answer to me, not my mother, do you understand?”
“Yes m’lady.” Theogund, duly chastised, returned to her braiding.
As they sat in the dark and cold, now silent save for the occasional chattering of their teeth, Rigunth continued to brood. Bandits were a known danger of the road. It was why her mother and father had sent such a large retinue with her from Soissons, for protection as well as to keep her own household when she arrived in Spain. The daughter of Chilperic and Fredegund of Neustria, her father had declared, would not have to rely on those Arian Visigothic savages once she was wed to one.
Not that such things stopped her from being wed to one of said heretic savages, but that seemed a moot point now.
The venture seemed cursed from the very start, anyhow. There had been such a fuss among the slaves picked to accompany her. Some had killed themselves rather than go to Spain, she’d heard—as if she was any happier about the arrangement than they were. And along the way, people began to disappear. She would never have noticed at first if Sigimund had not informed her. Worse yet, some of them were stealing her bride gift. Small pieces, to be sure, and her bride gift was an almost unheard of amount of gold and gems. At first she’d paid it no mind. Let them leave. She’d be left with the loyal ones in the end.
But by the time they’d been set upon, there had been too few men to guard the carts, and the women and slaves were of no help at all, scattering like rabbits. Rigunth’s anger burned within her anew.
They slept poorly, cold and shivering against the trunk of a large pine tree. At the first sign of dawn through the branches Rigunth shook Theogund awake. “We need to keep moving,” she said. “If we push hard, we may be able to make Toulouse by the end of the day.”
“Do you think that’s wise?” Theogund asked, rubbing sleepily at her puffy eyes. “They may be looking for us along the road.”
“We’ll stay in the trees,” Rigunth said, standing and brushing detritus from her borrowed dress. The dawn air was chilly, and she wrapped Theogund’s well-worn woolen cloak around her tightly. “Keep on the lookout for anything we can eat.”
“What I wouldn’t give for a bowl of hot porridge,” Theogund said, standing and stretching.
Rigunth, already in a foul mood, glared daggers at her maid as she wrapped Rigunth’s cloak around herself.
“Stop thinking of food and keep your belly silent,” Rigunth said, dropping her voice to a whisper again. “From now until we get there, we need to be as quiet as possible.”
Theogund nodded and together they began walking. As the sun rose, southwest became easier to discern, and Rigunth adjusted their course duly, occasionally pausing to listen for bandits or animals. They’d been lucky the night before, she knew. She would not count on luck twice.
For all that she’d reprimanded Theogund that morning, her own stomach grumbled from hunger as well. She would have given quite a lot for so much as a bowl of cold barley porridge to fill it. Half of one, even. She said nothing out loud. Even if Theogund would not say anything for fear of upsetting her mistress, Rigunth would not give her maid the satisfaction of hearing her complain.
Walking had never been exciting, but since leaving Soissons Rigunth had had people around her to converse with, and villages every few miles along the old Roman roads to stop and rest at. Now there was only herself and Theogund, who had never been the best conversationalist to begin with, and even if she had been they must still remain as silent as possible. It was maddening.
Some time after midday, Theogund tugged at Rigunth’s sleeve, stopping her. Rigunth looked back over her shoulder to see Theogund holding up a finger to her lips, then tapping her ear. Rigunth understood and listened.
She heard leaves crunching nearby. Her heart quickened.
It was too loud to be an animal, she thought. Even a large animal like a deer would move quietly, at home in the forest. This was a person. “Hide,” she whispered to Theogund. No sooner had the word been spoken than Rigunth gathered her skirts and sprinted to a copse of dead oaks, thrown against a small rocky outcropping. She found herself thankful for Theogund’s plain dark cloak, throwing it over herself to hide as much as possible among broken branches and dead leaves.
Theogund dithered and ran in another direction, looking for a hiding place of her own. Finding none, she dove into a ditch, throwing Rigunth’s cloak over her body and trying her best to cover herself in the leaves on the ground, though it was a less than convincing disguise. Fool, Rigunth thought.
For long minutes, Rigunth peered out from between the dead oak limbs, forcing herself to breathe slowly and quietly. She could hear the steps getting closer, and eventually even voices.
It was the three men that the scarred Lombard bandit had sent out. The young dark one, one with a thick brown beard, and the cut-eared one. “I know I heard them,” the cut-eared one said.
“They’re hiding,” the bearded one said certainly. “We’ve just got to flush them out. Like doves.”
“One nice fat dove, anyway,” the cut-eared one said. “Once we’ve brought her head back to the queen.”
Rigunth bit back on her gasp. She had more control than that.
Theogund did not.
Rigunth could not hear whatever tiny sound Theogund had made, but the Lombard men clearly had. The young one jerked his chin in the direction of the ditch. The bearded one had a wicked-looking knife out already, and the cut-eared one’s hand strayed toward a short sword at his hip.
Theogund burst out of the ditch, stumbling and tripping over Rigunth’s borrowed dress. The bandits were on her in seconds. At the sound of Theogund’s wordless shriek, Rigunth closed her eyes.
The gurgling went on for some time, or else it may have just seemed that way. When Rigunth opened her eyes again, the bearded Lombard had blood on his hands and the cut-eared one was hunched over, his back to her, clearly sawing away at Theogund’s body.
To the end, Theogund had never called out for Rigunth. She’d been the one to suggest switching clothes. She knew her duty. Rigunth felt hot tears sting at her eyes and closed them again, unable to move to wipe at them should they start in earnest and unwilling to sniffle and call attention to herself.
“Where’s the other?” the young one asked, not watching the cut-eared man do his grisly business.
“What’s it matter?” the bearded one said. “You said you saw the princess and a servant run off. We’ve got the princess.”
The young one grunted, but said nothing. The cut-eared one pulled Theogund’s head away, holding it by her long braid. Rigunth’s gorge rose. “Pity to waste that fine cloak on carrying this,” he said, winding Rigunth’s cloak around his other arm. The patterned wool was blood-stained. “A good wash’ll get the blood right out. Think it’ll fit me?”
“You’re small enough,” the dark one said. “Could work.”
The cut-eared man dropped Theogund’s head carelessly on the ground, stripping off his undyed cloak and fastening Rigunth’s in its place. “Not bad,” he said admiringly. “Since we did all the hard work, Berin, you get to carry the head back to Irnerius.”
“I tracked them this far,” the young man—Berin—said, though he crouched and gathered Theogund’s head up in the cloak.
“And you haven’t got a spot of blood on you,” the bearded man said. “You carry the head.”
“It’s going to smell.”
“Next time we’ve got to kill a princess, you do the cutting and I’ll do the carrying, how’s that?”
Their voices faded as they walked, the crunching of leaves and snapping of branches loud and careless now that they had their quarry. Rigunth waited long after they were gone before creeping out of her hiding place.
Theogund’s body lay where they’d left it, the blood sticky and half-dried where it hadn’t soaked into the loam. Her clothes—Rigunth’s clothes—were in disarray from where she’d been searched for valuables and liberties with her body likely taken. The thought turned Rigunth’s stomach.
Theogund had not been a friend. But she had saved Rigunth’s life. And Rigunth could not offer her so much as a proper Christian burial in return.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, finally allowing her tears to spill. “I’m so sorry, Theogund.” She attempted to arrange her maid’s body in as dignified a position as she could given the beheading, but the body was already stiff and cold. Rigunth laid two twigs across Theogund in the shape of a cross, instead. It would have to do.
That task done, Rigunth plunged into the forest. She was all alone now, and night was fast approaching.