Our story so far: The Tall woman turns out to be the missing princess, and within a few days of being old enough to claim her father's throne. However, the Shorts continue to travel deep into the safety of the mountains.
After another hour, they passed a small house, and then another. The path turned into a road and led them to a village, high in the mountains.
''Iron miners,'' Kurt said, as he and Gabe walked along together ahead of the wagon. The Short men and women stood in their doorways, but, unlike the colliers, they did not hesitate to cheer and to call out to the Princess and her council.
''Here, we are safe,'' he went on. ''Ahead, the river disappears into the glacier, but the road veers off through a narrow pass and into Ruritania. That's where the people here sell their iron ore.''
''Do you ever go there?'' Gabe asked.
''We do now,'' he nodded. ''Prince Karl's father would have nothing to do with us. He knew the truth, but did not want to be drawn into a war. But since young Karl took the throne, we have begun to talk. That is, I go, and some of the others go. Never the Princess. It's important that she stay here. It means something to people for her to be always in our country.''
And, indeed, there was in the very middle of the village a Tall house of stone, far grander, and far more permanent, than the home the colliers had built for her in the forest.
As they approached, the doors of the house opened and servants, both Short and Tall, came out to greet their Princess. She paused upon the steps, then turned to face the crowd that had been following them through the village.
She smiled, and held out her hands to Rupert, and then to Gabe, inviting them to join her.
''My friends, it is good to be home!'' she said, and the people cheered. ''I bring with me some honored guests. This is a great moment for me, for I have been reunited with family. This is my brother, Prince Rupert!'' There was surprise and some grumbling, but she went on. ''He is my brother, and I ask you, dear friends, to greet him as such, and to make him welcome in your hearts, as you would me!''
There was a moment of silence, and then someone called out, ''Three cheers for the Prince!'' and the crowd took up the shout as the Princess beamed her approval.
''And a surprise for all of you! This young man is Gabriel, son of Rolf the Huntsman!'' This time, she did not have to ask for the crowd's welcome, for a cheer filled the streets.
''I don't understand,'' Gabe said. ''Why do they cheer? Why did the colliers cheer when they heard my father's name? It was his fault that you nearly died. He was the one who let you get lost!''
The Princess looked surprised and her eyes filled with tears. ''Oh, no, dear heart!'' she cried, and hugged him. ''Did nobody ever tell you? It was your father who led me to safety! When my life was in danger, he took me deep into the forest to live with the colliers! Your father saved my life!''
''This is a wonderful place,'' Jed was saying. ''The only real road here is through Ruritania. You could never get an army up that goat's path we took.''
''Exactly,'' Kurt agreed. ''The Ruritanians wouldn't let an army pass through their territory, and we'd be gone before anyone got close coming from the other direction.''
The Princess had gone up to her room for the evening and Jed, Gabe and Prince Rupert were sitting by the fire talking to the council members. Rupert had just come back from the kitchen with a platter of cheese and fruit which he placed on the low table for all to enjoy.
''Has she been living here the whole time?'' Gabe asked.
''No,'' one of the council members said. ''When she was little, it was too dangerous to have her stay in one place for very long. We weren't sure yet who was loyal and who might turn against us. Then, as she grew older, she wanted to travel around and keep in touch with people. She felt it was important that they see her, that she be more than a story to them.''
''She was right about that,'' Karl said. ''We couldn't let it seem like there were these men who had a little girl and wanted to rule the country. People had to know that she was the true heir to the throne, that she herself was going to be queen. On her own.''
''And she has become a true queen,'' another said. ''She has always been kind, but she has grown to be wise as well. In some ways, she is like our daughter, but she has grown far beyond that. We respect her. She will be a great leader of our nation.''
Having brought the Princess her own plate of cheese and fruit, a servant came down the stairs and began to pick up the empty tumblers around the room where they sat talking. He started to reach for the poker to stir up the fire, but then paused and wiped his face with a napkin he had picked up.
Then he turned away for a moment, breathing heavily, and they stopped talking to look at him. When he turned back, his face was sweaty and covered with red splotches, his lips were swollen and he could barely speak.
''The Princess!'' he gasped. ''I '' he grabbed at his throat and gasped for air. ''As I brought the plate to her, I ate a piece ''
He fell to the floor just as one of the maids shrieked from the floor above, ''No! No! Help!''
She ran down the staircase to where she could see them. ''She's dead! The Princess is dead!''
Next week: ''Wurgerweed''
Text copyright 2004, Mike Peterson Illustrations copyright 2004, Clio ChiangCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun