Meanwhile, on the sunny side of a tall peak that overlooked Brakehed Pass, a herd of sheep was peacefully grazing, while their master, who was none other than Lathan, sat on a rock nearby and thought about the Princess.
Lathan didn't know much about girls. He was a shy, unassuming lad who lived with his grandmother in a snug little cottage in the woods, and, other than sheep-shearing festivals, he didn't get out much. He was popular with his sheep and with other shepherd lads⎯shepherd girls either treated him with disdain, or, more frequently, ignored him altogether. Princess Purella though.....hmm. She seemed different.
Lathan was roused from his reverie by the sound of galloping horses⎯this was something no one would expect to hear near dangerous Brakehed Pass.
Alarmed, he darted over to a spot where he could look down on the road. When he looked down he beheld a frightful sight: the runaway royal coach tearing up the road at breakneck speed. Lathan's astonishment turned to horror when he looked further up the road and saw, just around a sharp corner, a large wagon completely blocking the road. The driver of the wagon was tugging ineffectually on his reins, trying to encourage his pony to move forward. However, the pony remained standing very still, and looked abstractedly at the rock formations which bordered the road, apparently lost in geologic contemplations. In fact, a close observer would have noted that his eyes were closed, clearly in an effort to block out any extraneous data. But alas, his scholarliness proved his undoing, for just as the pony was about to determine the density of the roadbase by lying down on it, the royal coach careened around the corner and crashed into the stalled wagon.
A cloud of dust rose into the sky, obscuring the site of the accident. Lathan, horrified, scrambled down the steep mountainside as best he could, hoping he could be of some assistance.
Soon the dust cleared, and Lathan saw that the road was littered with papers, bottles, gadgets, and cooking utensils, all of which had fallen out of the wagon marked "Oddities", the remains of which were dangling precipitously over the edge of the cliff. The driver was vainly trying to pull his battered vehicle to safety, while his pony (who had somehow become unhitched) staggered around like a professor who had just been denied tenure. Sprawled next to the pony were six horses, who were each moaning, and inwardly vowing that they would never do this sort of thing again.
The royal coach looked only moderately damaged. Lathan climbed down almost to the road, but when he saw that there were no serious injuries, he stopped short. He looked ruefully down at his ragged clothes, and didn't come any closer.
The Queen and Purella climbed out of the coach to assess the damage. Purella suddenly began looking frantically about, and soon let out a scream.
"Floppy! Floppy! Where's Floppy?!!"
The sturdy pup was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly the air was split by the cry of a familiar voice.
Purella ran over to the edge of the cliff and saw, twenty feet below her (O horror to relate!), her faithful friend sprawled out on a narrow ledge above the sheer cliff. The impact of the collision had caused him to fly off Purella's lap, out of the window, and over the cliff, where only a freakish outgrowth of rock and some suspiciously good luck could save him.
"Oh please save him!" cried Purella, looking at the Head Coachman and his Assistant with stone-melting eyes.
The Assistant took one look over the edge, and then began giving a rapid summary of his many physical disabilities, in surprisingly precise medical terminology, while the Head Coachman mumbled something about his job description.
Floppy's face was dotted with tiny beads of perspiration. He looked down. Eight hundred feet below him he could see the white water of the river raging through the gorge. A few hundred feet below him he could see buzzards, circling. They were looking up at him, and smiling.
"Oh save him! Somebody save him! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!" Purella shouted, without much originality of phrasing, but with unfeigned sincerity.
Lathan stood transfixed. He had been about to leave, fearful in the presence of royalty, when the pathetic cries of the Princess pierced his youthful breast. Without further ado, Lathan scrambled down to the roadway, and, without stopping to say a word to anyone, climbed down the cliff toward Floppy. He scooped up Floppy, scrambled back up the cliff, and soon stood panting on the safety of the roadbed, while Floppy ran over to his overjoyed mistress, who hugged and kissed him over and over.
Meanwhile, Lathan took a long look at the Princess, and was awestruck by her beauty and femininity. Everything about her dazzled him.
Compared to this vision Lathan was an unimpressive sight, and Lathan was sadly aware of it. He knew very well that he looked like a basic, dirty (albeit robust) shepherd lad. He had two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth, which are the amounts generally accepted in polite societies, but he had rather poor specimens of each, which often saddened him. His ears were big, his eyes were weak, his nose was red, and his mouth, which generally remained wide open whether he was talking or not, housed a high, rather squeaky voice. He was short, had knobby knees, skinny arms, foot fungus, one leg shorter than the other, allergies to six kinds of grasses, an occasional bladder problem, and three ingrown toenails. He was, however, quite robust.
Lathan considered quietly leaving to rejoin his sheep, but then Princess Purella, her face flushed with relief as well as admiration for the robust hero, set Floppy down and bounced happily over to Lathan to express her gratitude.
"I don't know how to thank you! This is the second time you've rescued my dog today! You're so good, brave, and wonderful!!!"
Lathan responded by turning crimson, repeatedly opening and closing his mouth with great rapidity, and staring fixedly on the ground in front of him as if it were the most interesting thing he could ever possibly see. Purella sensed his uneasiness, and, speaking in a gentler tone, asked him what his name was and where he lived.
It took Lathan about two minutes to respond to these questions, because for some reason he would repeat each word twice before going on to the next one.
"You live at the edge of the Sweedle forest!" Purella responded, "Why, I think that's the most beautiful place in Hoodahooda. Every Friday I make a special visit to the Trollerist church, and on the way I stop by Bonkers Wells. I love to just sit there and enjoy the day. Lots of times I go to Bonkers Wells and eat my lunch. You should join me sometime."
"My-my, grandmother-grandmother, is-is, also-also, a-a, Trollerist-Trollerist," said Lathan.
"Really? That's wonderful!" said the delighted Purella.
While engaging in this conversation Lathan never dared look at Purella's face, but behind her he did eventually notice her companions: the Queen, who stood outside the coach looking dazed and surprisingly passive, and two bald coachmen covered with dust, the elder looking at the battered coach with great resignation, and the younger looking blank.
"Why don't you come along with us, Lathan?" Purella asked, "I could show you the castle and introduce you to my father. He's really a fine man, and I'm sure he'll be pleased when I tell him how brave you are."
"Well, I, I, certainly, that is, that is, I mean, thanks, that is, I certainly will if you want, I mean, I want to of course, but that, that would be fine, of course," elucidated Lathan, while nodding his head up and down with great rapidity, as if attempting to fully demonstrate the elasticity of his neck.
"That's wonderful!" said Purella happily, "I can show you the castle and you can tell me all about being a shepherd. It can get lonely being a Princess, and it will be nice to have someone new to talk to."
"Let's go," the Queen said as she climbed back into the coach. The two coachmen quickly prepared the horses.
Lathan, whose face was crisscrossed with astonishment, was led over to the coach by the smiling Princess. He would have compared this situation to a dream, but Lathan's dreams were usually much more realistic. Not only had he met a beautiful Princess, but she was actually nice to him, and was even a believer in "Trollkiller" Sven Svensson just like his own grandmother! And now she was taking him to the castle! He had lived in Hoodahooda all his life, but had never come near its threshold.
Purella led Lathan up to the coach, but just as he was about to take his seat Jack Crackback's wagon slid a foot further over the edge of the cliff and dangled even more precipitously than before. Jack moaned in despair, and his pony was so excited by this occurrence that he fell into a deep trance, somewhat resembling sleep.
"My goods, my life, my everything!" cried Jack, "Somebody help me pull it back from the cliff, or I'll lose all I have in the world!"
"Drive on," the Queen said.
"Mother, can't we stay and help him?" Purella pleaded.
"Drive on," the Queen repeated.
"But someone has to help him!" Purella cried.
The two coachmen hesitated. Lathan climbed down from the coach and ran over to help Jack.
"Drive on!" the Queen repeated firmly.
"But mother, we have to wait for Lathan!"
"I'm getting hungry and I..."
Before the Queen completed her sentence the Head Coachman, who needed no further prompting, started the horses racing toward home.
"Quick Lathan, jump aboard!" Purella called out as the coach began to rattle away.
Lathan, fearful of being left behind, ran after the coach until he was only a step or two behind it.
"I'll never get my wagon up!" cried Jack.
"Jump!" cried Purella.
"Everything⎯I've lost everything," Jack sobbed.
Lathan, whose hand could almost touch the back of the coach, slowed down and came to a stop. The coach quickly disappeared around a corner, and the dust it made blew back into his face. Half-smiling and half-frowning, Lathan turned and walked back to where Jack Crackback was standing, wringing his hands.
"Don't worry sir. I'll be glad to help you, if I can," said Lathan.
"What a fine lad!" Jack replied happily, "What's your name, my boy?"
"Well Nathan, Jack's my name and oddities is my game! Potions, powders, lotions, chowders..."
Before long Lathan and Jack had pulled the wagon to safety.
"I won't forget this, Laman," said Jack solemnly, "Now, do you think you could help me load it up again?"
It took quite awhile, but finally all the "oddities" were loaded back onto the wagon and Jack was ready to leave.
"Lad, you've saved an old man's life," Jack said as he gazed at his rescued vehicle, "I don't know how to thank you."
"Oh, forget it," Lathan said with a sigh. He was thinking about all he had missed by stopping to help the old man.
"Are you sure you don't need a ride somewhere?"
"No. Thanks anyway."
"My pony is a very smooth walker. Isn't that right?" said Jack, directing the question to his steed.
The pony gave a noncommittal neigh.
"No thanks. Really."
Jack smiled, patted Lathan on the back, and slowly climbed up onto his perch. He put the reins in his hand, adjusted his cap, and looked back at Lathan.
"What did you say your name was, Mike?"
"No, it's Lathan."
"Well, if you ever need anything from me, don't hesitate to ask."
"That's all right," said Lathan, "I've seen all your things, and they're all very nice, but I don't think any of them could help me."
Jack thought for a moment.
"Well, you could be right. Still, you never know."
Jack urged the pony forward, and the wagon began to waddle away.
"I'm sorry you didn't get to visit the castle. But I have a feeling you'll see the Princess again." Jack called back to Lathan.
Lathan was surprised. Jack had appeared so upset by the potential loss of his wagon that Lathan didn't think he had even noticed the Princess, let alone hear what she and Lathan were talking about.
"Goodbye Johnson, and thanks!" Jack called out as his wagon rounded the corner and disappeared from view.
"Goodbye," said Lathan.
The sun was setting. After spending a few minutes standing in the spot where Purella stood, Lathan climbed back up the mountainside and rejoined his sheep.
It was a warm night, even on the upper slopes, and most of Lathan's livestock were gathered around a little mountain pond; the fatter sheep were grazing, while the more athletic sheep were having a swim. When they saw Lathan trudge back toward them they snapped to attention.
Lathan's subsequent behavior was most inexplicable. Instead of guiding the sheep down to the lower slopes, he walked over to where they were sitting and collapsed in a heap. He then sighed, moaned, groaned, called himself an idiot, jumped up, paced feverishly back and forth, flopped down again, jumped up again, banged his head against a tree, carved a couple of names into the tree, sighed several hundred times more, kissed the tree, quickly apologized to the tree for being so forward, expressed the opinion that he couldn't help kissing the tree because of its great beauty, wandered aimlessly over to a nearby stream, mentioned repeatedly a polysyllabic name that started with a"p" and ended with an "a", completely melted, flowed downstream several hundred feet, came ashore and reconstituted himself in another flurry of sighs, and then, inexplicably, rose up into the air and floated all the way home.
The sheep were shocked, and concluded that their master was suffering from some pathetic, rare, and extremely debilitating disease. This assumption was only partially correct, for though the disease their master suffered from is indeed debilitating, it is certainly not rare, and over the centuries has ravaged a remarkable number of people, and has effectively turned many a vigorous six-footer into a grinning, bon-bon buying babbler.
Meanwhile, the royal coach arrived home, and, although they were late for dinner, the Queen was still too dazed by the accident to have anyone punished. After dinner she went straight to bed and lay there thinking for some time. Purella had really annoyed her.
"Invisible gods? Ha!" she thought, "We'll see about that!"