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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer
#226

Unaccompanied



                In the fading darkness just before night admits it may actually be morning, King Rowan waited for the groggy stablehand to bring Leggy, his swiftest horse, to the courtyard, saddled and ready to ride. He didn’t know if it was his anxiety about Prince Golman’s safety, an identity issue related to his position atop the social order, or the clothes themselves, but King Rowan was not comfortable in his commoner disguise. The pants, the shirt, the coat, the hood, the boots, the gloves, none of them felt right. At least the sword on his hip was his. He doubted anyone on his forthcoming journey would recognize it. Not until the end, at least. He’d never been one for excessive ornamentation on a tool made for killing.

               He turned at the sound of footsteps, heavy and hurried. They belonged to Lord Therwyn Grathmeer, King Rowan’s oldest friend. They had known each other since infancy. Best friends for 51 years. That was hard to believe.

               “What are you doing here?” asked King Rowan.

               “I’m going with you,” said Lord Grathmeer. He was also dressed as a commoner, though less convincingly than King Rowan. The stitching on his cloak was too fine, his boots too shiny. And too many people knew the distinctive white streaks in his black beard, not to mention the gaudy hilt of his infamous sword.

               “No, you’re not,” said King Rowan. “No one is going with me. This is something I have to do alone.”

               “Nonsense,” said Lord Grathmeer. “I’m going.”

               “You’re not,” said King Rowan.

               “Yes, I am.”

               “I’m going north,” said King Rowan. “You hate the north.”

               “Nevertheless, I’m going,” said Lord Grathmeer.

               “As your king, I command you to leave me to handle this myself.”

               “As your friend, I refuse.”

               “‘Friend’ doesn’t trump ‘king,’” said King Rowan.

               “It should,” said Lord Grathmeer. “It does with me.”

               King Rowan lapsed into silence, contemplating the depths of stubbornness on Lord Grathmeer’s face. “Therwyn…” he began.

               “I’m going,” said Lord Grathmeer. “I’m already in disguise. My horse is on the way. I have my sword. And my devotion to you and your family.”

               “Golman created this mess himself,” said King Rowan. “I can’t ask anyone else to risk their life to rescue him.”

               “Right,” said Lord Grathmeer. “And you didn’t ask me. I’m coming of my own volition.”

               “How did you even hear what’s going on?” asked King Rowan. “I just got word myself not…Lynthia. It was Lynthia, right? The queen told you? She sent you to look after me?”

               “I swore an oath not to reveal my source,” said Lord Grathmeer.

               “You also swore an oath to obey your king.”

               “Yeah,” said Lord Grathmeer. “But that’s different.”

               “I don’t need your help,” said King Rowan. “I can take care of myself.”

               “I’m the superior swordsman,” said Lord Grathmeer.

               King Rowan snorted. “Uh, no. You’re not.”

               “Yes,” said Lord Grathmeer. “You’re better on horses, I’m better with the blade. I’m almost as skilled with the blade as Sir Drush was, may he rest in peace.”

               “That’s not true,” said King Rowan, rolling his eyes. “You’re nowhere near as good as Sir Drush was. You’re not even as good as me. And even if you were, this mission is going to be 99 percent riding horses.”

               “Well, I’m good on a horse,” said Lord Grathmeer. “Just not quite as good as you. Because I devoted more time to studying the art of the blade. And you don’t know how much swordplay there will be. What if bandits attack you on the way? It’s not like you’re going unarmed.” He gestured at the sword on King Rowan’s hip. “Even if you’re right, that one percent of the trip requiring the blade could be the end of you or Prince Golman or both.”

               “What’s all this about ‘the blade?’” asked King Rowan. “‘Blade’ this, ‘blade’ that. ‘The art of the blade.’ Give me a break.” He could see in Lord Grathmeer’s eyes that he’d wounded him, which made him feel guilty, but maybe that hurt would make Lord Grathmeer bitter enough to let King Rowan go unaccompanied.

               “You’re not going unaccompanied,” said Lord Grathmeer. “I’m going with you.”

               “You’re not,” said King Rowan. “You think you are, but you’re not.”

               The clop of hooves announced the approach of too many horses. Too many by one. King Rowan and Lord Grathmeer turned to see the stablehand leading both of their horses by the reins, Leggy on his right and Lord Grathmeer’s stallion Evening Dusk on his left. A second stablehand, even groggier than the first, had been enlisted to carry a torch now that the first stablehand had his hands full.

               “No,” said King Rowan, pointing an authoritative finger at the stablehands. “Take Lord Grathmeer’s horse back to the stable. He’s not going.”

               “Nonsense,” said Lord Grathmeer, motioning the stablehands toward him. “Bring him here. The king and I will depart together.”

               The stablehands stopped and exchanged a look.

               “Why are you looking at each other?” asked King Rowan. “There’s nothing to consider. I’m your king and I told you to do something. Why would you hesitate?”

               “Because,” said Lord Grathmeer. “They revere you so much that they want me to go with you.”

               “They don’t even know where I’m going!” said King Rowan. “Or why!”

               “They aren’t fools,” said Lord Grathmeer. “They’re very intuitive. Young people are more intuitive than we are. And so are people who are good with animals. They have to be able to read an animal’s moods. You think the horses have ever said anything to these stablehands? No, but the stablehands somehow know what the horses want.”

               “You,” said King Rowan, directing his still-pointing finger at the stablehand with the torch. “What’s your name?”

               “Bup, Your Highness,” said the boy. He looked too young even for the pitiful stubble there on his chin and upper lip.

               “Bup,” said King Rowan. He resisted the urge to say it two or three more times. It was an unpleasant name but it compelled repetition to determine the depths of its unpleasantness. “Take Lord Grathmeer’s horse back to the stable, take his saddle off, and put him back in his stall.”

               “Yes, Your Highness,” said Bup. He took Evening Dusk’s reins from the other stablehand and headed back in the direction from which they’d come.

               “Halt!” said Lord Grathmeer.

               “Do not halt, Bup!” said King Rowan. He turned to Lord Grathmeer. “You’re encouraging treason now. You’re encouraging open defiance from my subjects. From lowly stablehands. Which I should remind you is treasonous in itself.”

               “It would be treasonous to let you ride into danger without lifting a finger to help,” said Lord Grathmeer, almost poutily.

               “You don’t get to decide what’s treasonous and what isn’t,” said King Rowan. “We have a fixed definition of treason in the Royal Code and it isn’t compatible with your definition.” He strode over to Leggy and mounted her in a swift motion. She whinnied and pranced, kicking up little clouds of dust. She was eager to go, to run. “If you want to help me, stay here and prevent plotting against me in my absence,” said King Rowan. “And don’t let people spread rumors about Prince Golman. But don’t tell them he needs rescuing either.” Then he dug his heels into Leggy’s ribs and they were off, galloping across the courtyard, beneath the raised portcullis, over the drawbridge, and onto the open road.

              

               Lord Grathmeer caught up with King Rowan an hour later just after he’d stopped to relieve himself in a thicket. Evening Dusk was breathing hard and dripping lather as King Rowan came back to the road fastening his pants. “Nice job, Therwyn,” said King Rowan. “Now I have to hang a stablehand for treason. Or have him beheaded. A boy.”

               “Nonsense,” said Lord Grathmeer. He was breathing hard, too. “Why would you have to do that?”

               “He contradicted my direct command,” said King Rowan.

               “He did no such thing,” said Lord Grathmeer. “You told him to take Evening Dusk back to the stable, which he did.”

               “He knew my intention,” said King Rowan.

               Lord Grathmeer shrugged. “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he perceived a secret intention of which not even you are aware. Maybe he took note of the fact that you did not explicitly forbid him from letting me take my horse once you’d departed. Because in your heart of hearts, you want me to accompany you. You desire my presence and that of my…sword. You need me.”

               “You’re not coming!” shouted King Rowan, scrambling back into the saddle. “Go back to the castle!”

               “Never,” said Lord Grathmeer. “I will not return to that castle until you do, My King.”

               “Well, that’s where I’m going now,” said King Rowan, and he wheeled Leggy around and pointed her back toward his home, his wife, and his son’s empty chambers.

               “Hold on,” said Lord Grathmeer, following on Evening Dusk at a trot to keep pace with King Rowan. “You’re abandoning the mission?”

               “You’ve given me no choice,” said King Rowan.

               “But you’re not going to try to rescue Prince Golman at all?”

               “Not until you let me go alone,” said King Rowan.

               “That’s absurd,” said Lord Grathmeer. “Isn’t the prince in imminent danger?”

               “That’s what the message said,” said King Rowan. “Makes your insistence on going along seem pretty petty, doesn’t it?”

               “On the contrary,” said Lord Grathmeer. “You’re the one leading us in the wrong direction, Sire. I’d say that makes you the petty one.”

               “You don’t even know what the right direction is,” said King Rowan.

               “You said ‘north,’” said Lord Grathmeer. “That’s how I knew which road you’d take.”

               King Rowan scoffed. “There are a lot of places north of us, Therwyn. I know it was Lynthia who told you I was going to rescue Prince Golman, and I know she didn’t tell you specifically where I was going because she doesn’t know. The message came from a bird, I read the message, I burned it, and I gave Lynthia a bare minimum of detail when I told her what I was leaving to do.”

               “That’s fine,” said Lord Grathmeer. “I don’t need to know any of the details. All I have to do is go wherever you go, fight whoever you fight, watch your back, keep you company, and die for you, if need be.”

               King Rowan resolved to not say anything to Lord Grathmeer for the rest of the ride back to the castle. Total silent treatment. To see how much he’d like that.

 

               The stablehands were surprised to see King Rowan and Lord Grathmeer back so soon. “No, don’t take my horse,” said King Rowan. “Only Lord Grathmeer’s. Then gather all the other stablehands and bring them back here.” He hailed another passing servant who was carrying a basket. King Rowan wasn’t exactly sure what kind of servant she was, but it didn’t matter, he knew she would do what he said. When she came over to him, the servant girl seemed disturbed by the sight of her king in peasant clothes. King Rowan saw that her basket was full of eggs. “Go fetch Queen Lynthia,” said King Rowan. “And tell her to come down to the courtyard. I have something to say to her. To her and others.” He glanced at Lord Grathmeer and saw that he did not seemed concerned at the departure of his horse.

               The servant said, “Yes, Your Grace,” and hurried off, eggs clicking together in the basket.

               The sun was up now, dousing the courtyard activity in gooey light. King Rowan stood holding Leggy’s reins and patting her neck. It gave him something to do other than interact with Lord Grathmeer. The stablehands assembled first in a disorderly cluster, murmuring among themselves. Minutes passed. King Rowan was about to send another servant after his wife when Queen Lynthia appeared. She was a small woman fond of wearing her hair in intricate braids. This morning, her hair was not braided, it hung free to her waist, which meant a new braid must be scheduled for the afternoon and evening. She didn’t wait for King Rowan to declare his reason for requesting her presence. She just started talking.

               “You shouldn’t be leaving at all, Rowan, and you know it. You should be sending Lord Grathmeer in your stead along with a whole troop of soldiers. But if you insist on going yourself, then the very least you can do is bring Lord Grathmeer along for additional protection. He’s the best swordsman in the kingdom now that Sir Drush is dead and you just want him to sit here by the fire while you ride into danger by yourself? You want me to just accept the possibility of losing my son and my husband without doing anything to prevent it?”

               “I have an announcement to make,” said King Rowan. He climbed back into Leggy’s saddle for some additional authoritative height. “First, it has never been conclusively proven that Lord Grathmeer is currently the best swordsman in the kingdom. Much has changed since the passing of Sir Drush, others have been practicing, refining their skills, getting better and better, perhaps even surpassing those who are still perceived as superior. Second, Lord Grathmeer is not to be allowed to ride a horse until I have been gone for two days. That is my wish, that is my command, that is my decree. No horses for Lord Grathmeer. Not Evening Dusk, not any other horse. Stablehands, do you understand?”

               Some of them nodded at him. Others of them seemed to assume that the nods of the others represented them as well.

               “My Queen, do you understand my command?” asked King Rowan.

               “I don’t understand why,” said Queen Lynthia.

               “You don’t have to understand why,” said King Rowan. “I’m the king, I don’t have to explain.”

               “But I’m your wife.”

               “‘Wife’ doesn’t trump ‘king,’” said King Rowan.

               “It does for me,” said Queen Lynthia. “It should.”

               “Agreed,” said Lord Grathmeer.

               “Nothing trumps king!” shouted King Rowan. “That’s not just my opinion. That’s in the Royal Code in black and white. Look it up!”

               Queen Lynthia scowled at him. “I’m Golman’s mother, I’m worried about him, and you won’t give me even a word to make me feel better about your foolhardy plan.”

               “Haven’t you seen enough from me over the years to trust my judgment?” asked King Rowan. He now wished the stablehands were not here to witness this. He should have just told them not to let Lord Grathmeer have a horse and sent them on their way before Queen Lynthia showed up.

               “I don’t know,” said Queen Lynthia. “You’ve made good decisions in the past, for the most part, but I just can’t see the sense in this one. It makes me think something’s wrong with you. And that makes me worry that I’ll never see you or Golman again.”

               “All right,” said King Rowan. “The message told me I had to come alone or Prince Golman would be killed. They said they would have spies along the road, and if I was seen to have anyone with me, they would send word ahead and Golman would be dead before I even arrived. They said the only good thing about having someone with me would be the extra set of hands to help carry Golman’s body home.”

               Queen Lynthia narrowed her eyes, then glanced at Lord Grathmeer. “It said all that in the message?”

               “Yes,” said King Rowan.

               “You said it was a short message,” said Queen Lynthia. “You said it was very short.”

               “That is very short,” said King Rowan. “That was pretty much the whole message. You don’t get messages as often as I do, Lynthia, sometimes they’re pages and pages long.”

               “What else did it say?” asked Queen Lynthia.

               “Where to find Golman and his captors,” said King Rowan. “And a few other details I don’t trust you enough to share.”

               “Pretty convenient that you burned the note,” said Queen Lynthia. “So none of this can be confirmed.”

               “You think I’m lying now?” asked King Rowan. “Wow, that really makes me glad that I took pity on you enough to explain myself. I’m leaving now. But everyone remember my command! Lord Grathmeer is not allowed to use a horse – not even his own – until I’ve been gone for two days!” And with these final words, he turned and again galloped out of the castle in a now much-belated quest to rescue his troublesome son.

 

               King Rowan had been riding at a steady clip for at least a couple hours when a tendril of paranoia snaked into his brain. Unable to resist its whispering, he waited until he rounded a bend and then dismounted and guided Leggy into dense shrubbery so he could watch the road from a concealed position. Less than fifteen minutes later, sure enough, there came Lord Grathmeer trotting past on Evening Dusk.

               “Aha!” shouted King Rowan, leaping from his cover.

               Lord Grathmeer shouted in surprise and almost lost his saddle when Evening Dusk reared up in response to King Rowan’s accusatory ambush.

               “This is a direct defiance of my explicit order!” said King Rowan. “This is definitely treason this time!”

               “On the contrary,” said Lord Grathmeer, regaining his composure and steadying his mount. “Queen Lynthia overrode your order as soon as you crossed the drawbridge.”

               “She has no right to do that,” said King Rowan.

               “On the contrary,” said Lord Grathmeer again, clearly enjoying these opportunities to be contrary. “As soon as the king departs the castle, the queen is considered to be the reigning authority in the castle until he returns. With full right to override any standing orders she believes to be detrimental to the safety of the kingdom. That’s in the Royal Code in black and white. Look it up.” Oh, how he savored throwing King Rowan’s words back at him. Why had King Rowan been friends with this man for 51 years? Why had he ever been friends with him at all?

               King Rowan fumed, but he said nothing. Instead, he went back into the bushes to retrieve Leggy. Then he mounted up and turned back toward home.

               “Are you serious?” asked Lord Grathmeer. “You’re turning back again? You know Queen Lynthia will just override your orders again and send me after you. Why not just give in? If you just let me stay a good distance behind, whoever it is who has Golman will never know I’m with you. I can be very stealthy. I’ll only intervene if it seems necessary.”

               “I’m not willing to gamble my son’s life on that chance,” said King Rowan.

               Lord Grathmeer mumbled something King Rowan couldn’t hear.

               “What was that?” asked King Rowan.

               “Nothing,” said Lord Grathmeer. But then, after a few minutes of silent riding, he said, “I just said that the message didn’t even say what you said it said. It didn’t tell you to come alone.”

               “And how would you know?” asked King Rowan.

               “‘Cause if it did, you would have just said so from the beginning,” said Lord Grathmeer. “Kind of strange that you didn’t even bring it up until we’d had multiple arguments about me accompanying you.”

               “You know Evening Dusk is a stupid name,” said King Rowan. “Right? I mean, it’s redundant. Dusk is always in the evening.”

               Now it was Lord Grathmeer’s turn to give King Rowan the silent treatment, which King Rowan endured with ease.

 

               Back at the castle, Queen Lynthia was not pleased when King Rowan burst into their chambers while she was in the midst of an intense hair-braiding session with her team of hairdressers. “You’re back, Rowan? Ladies, stop for a moment.”

               “Of course I’m back,” said King Rowan. “You knowingly went against my wishes. I’m not willing to gamble our son’s life because –”

               “Just stop,” said Queen Lynthia. “Everyone knows you’re lying about the message telling you to go alone.”

               “None of you know anything,” said King Rowan. “I’m the only one who saw the message, I’m the only one who knows what it said, and the responsibility to get Golman back is mine and mine alone.” He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled his riding boots off, tossing them into a corner. Then he stepped into his gold-and-purple slippers, which clashed badly with his commoner disguise, and headed for the door.

               “Where are you going?” asked Queen Lynthia.

               “To consult with the seer to see if our son is still alive,” said King Rowan.

               “You hate the seer,” said Queen Lynthia. “You’ve never trusted her.”

               “Well, you haven’t left me with a lot of options, have you?”

               “I’ve given you a better option and you refuse to take it for reasons you won’t truthfully explain,” said Queen Lynthia. “That’s what I’ve done.”

               King Rowan slammed the door behind him provoking several startled cries from his wife’s hairdressers. Then he wound his way through his castle until he came to the seer’s tower, took a deep breath, and embarked on the long trek up the spiraling stairs. The seer had asked for better accommodations on several occasions, but King Rowan preferred to keep her out of sight. Although he could see how these stairs would be a problem for an old lady. No wonder she took most of her meals in her chambers these days. Queen Lynthia had advocated for giving the seer a better room, too, but King Rowan had dug his heels in. He didn’t really know why. He just had. And once he did, he had to stick with it.

               When he reached the heavy wooden door at the top of the tower, King Rowan took a full minute to catch his breath before knocking.

               “Coming!” came the seer’s voice from within. What followed was a long series of scrapings, shufflings, thumpings, clinkings, and so forth, none of which sounded like the seer making progress toward the door.

               “It’s your king,” said King Rowan, hoping to hurry her.

               “I know, Your Highness,” said the seer. “That’s why I’m cleaning up.”

               King Rowan wondered if she knew it was him knocking at her door because she’d had a vision of his visit. But if that were the case, why hadn’t she already cleaned up? Unless she’d only had the vision a few minutes ago. In which case the vision didn’t seem that helpful. She could have just waited for King Rowan to tell her who he was.

               At last, the door creaked open. “Come in, Your Highness,” said the seer. “Sit down wherever you please.”

               Upon seeing the condition of the room, King Rowan wondered what cleaning could have possibly been taking place over the last few minutes. The two windows were both covered with thick, dusty tapestries of scenes that had always struck King Rowan as borderline evil, though the seer insisted that depiction did not equal endorsement. The stone floor was covered with overlapping carpets which were covered with several layers of seer junk: battered books, scraps of parchment, broken quills, dried-up inkpots, balled-up robes, animal bones, plates and utensils and cups never sent back to the kitchen, pouches of herbs, stoppered vials of liquid, candles reduced to misshapen lumps, and more. The atmosphere was oppressive. There were a few open chairs positioned around the room, but wading to them would be a tiresome task, so King Rowan said, “I’ll stand.”

               “Whatever you want, Your Highness,” said the seer, and she stumbled her way back to her work table. She was a tall woman with a straight back and a confident bearing despite her otherwise frail appearance. Her hair was a uniform gray color and it hung out of the hood of her robe and over each shoulder to the scarlet cord knotted at her waist.

               “I have something I need you to do for me,” said King Rowan. “With the maximum amount of discretion.”

               “Understood,” said the seer. “I’ll let you know when it’s finished.”

               “But I haven’t told you what it is yet,” said King Rowan.

               “That’s all right,” said the seer. “I’ll use my abilities to figure it out.”

               “I’m already here,” said King Rowan. “I could just tell you. It’ll take two minutes.”

               “Oh, OK,” said the seer. “If that’s what you’d prefer.”

               “It is,” said King Rowan. “I want you to prepare an elixir for me that will knock two people out for at least, I don’t know, twelve hours?”

               “I knew it,” said the seer. “Insomnia.”

               “That’s incorrect,” said King Rowan. “But it doesn’t matter. I’m not telling you why I need it. Can you make it for me or not?”

               “Why not just use that?” asked the seer.

               “Use what?” asked King Rowan.

               “There,” said the seer. “By your foot. Your left foot. Yes, that foot.”

               “What, this?” asked King Rowan, crouching to point at one of the loose vials scattered in his immediate vicinity.

               “Uh, sure, yeah, it must be that one,” said the seer.

               “Well, is this the one you meant?” asked King Rowan.       

               “It doesn’t matter,” said the seer. “That’s the one you saw, that one will work.”

               “I want to make sure I have the right one,” said King Rowan. “You’re telling me you already had this knockout elixir made and I just happened to be standing right next to it?”

               “I’m a seer,” said the seer. “I probably knew you were gonna need it and knew you were gonna stand there.”

               “You aren’t sure?” asked King Rowan.

               “I forget a lot of what I find out,” said the seer. “Once I’ve done what needs to be done, it’s just – whoop! – right out of my head.”

               King Rowan stooped to retrieve the vial. He examined it, noting how inconspicuous the liquid inside looked. It could have been well water, it could have been rainwater. “And this won’t hurt them?” asked King Rowan. “Whoever drinks it?”

               “I guess not,” said the seer. “Not if that’s the one you picked. Unless you actually do want to hurt them. Whoever drinks it, I mean.”

               “I just want them to sleep for a while,” said King Rowan. “Without waking up. And then, when it wears off, I want them to wake up and feel fine.”

               “Then that’s what it’ll do,” said the seer.

               “If it doesn’t,” said King Rowan. “If anything goes-”

               “Just a moment, Your Highness,” said the seer. “I’m getting a vision.” With that, she closed her eyes and began to breathe heavily through her nose. Each breath was of irregular length. This went on for some time. At one point, the seer appeared to open one eye to a sliver so she could find something on her work table, but whatever she wanted must not have been handy. At last, she opened her eyes and said, “Help me remember this, Your Highness. In the distant future, there is an…object. Tethered to the wall by a length of black rope, perhaps. One man holds it in his hand while a second man sits before him covered from neck to knees with a shiny cape. The first man grasps the object and it springs to life, humming in his hand like a horrible insect. He applies the object to the scalp of the second man and the second man’s hair falls away before the greedy object like wheat before a scythe. Back and forth and around the first man moves the object across the head of the second man until the hair is all gone, fallen on the floor around the men’s shoes, which are also strange.” The seer stopped speaking abruptly, but she looked at King Rowan with expectant eyes.

               King Rowan didn’t know what to say. Everything and everyone everywhere annoyed him. “If this elixir harms the people who drink it, you’ll hang,” he said, finishing his thought from before the interruption.

               “The queen,” said the seer. “That’s who you’re giving it to. And the kingdom’s second best swordsman, I forget his name.”

               “On this one point, you’re correct,” said King Rowan. “But don’t tell anyone. About the elixir, I mean. Feel free to mention that Lord Grathmeer is the kingdom’s second best swordsman all you want.” He paused before leaving, anticipating the seer’s request. Almost desiring it for the opportunity to reassert some authority.

               It didn’t come. She watched him mildly.

               “You’re not going to ask for a different room?” asked King Rowan.

               “No need,” said the seer. “I’ll receive it shortly.”

               King Rowan snorted, slipped the vial into his pocket, and departed to be about his devious work.

 

               It was easy enough to slip the elixir into Queen Lynthia and Lord Grathmeer’s wine glasses during dinner. No one was watching to make sure the king wasn’t drugging people. Or if they were, they didn’t feel confident enough to confront him about it. After the queen and his oldest friend passed out in their chairs, King Rowan had servants carry them to their respective chambers and tuck them into their respective beds. Then it was only a matter of heading back to the stables, ordering the stablehands to again ready Leggy for a long ride, and he was off! With no chance of Lord Grathmeer sneaking after him or Queen Lynthia overriding his orders or anyone else confounding his careful planning because they were so sure they knew better than him. And as he rode north, traveling by day and camping by night, into lands where winter’s grip yet held firm, King Rowan felt cold, yes, maybe a little underdressed, but he did not feel lonely at all.

 

               In the northern town of Muckrem where the burgeoning rebellion had only recently taken root, King Rowan uttered the code phrase from the message to a guard at the newly-constructed palisade and was taken directly to the cell in which his son, Prince Golman, was held. The cell was in the back of the local jail, a drooping timber building that appeared to have been built to encourage escape attempts. There was only one guard on duty inside. He wore no armor but for a helm. King Rowan counted three knives hanging from his belt, though. So he was a knife guy. King Rowan had known a few. Morons, mostly.

               When Prince Golman looked up from his straw pallet on the floor of his cell to see his father standing outside the bars, it took him a moment to process what he was seeing. Then, he spoke. “Where’s Lord Grathmeer?”

               “I came instead,” said King Rowan. “I’m your father and it’s my responsibility to rescue you.”

               “You didn’t bring him at all?” asked Prince Golman, scrambling to his feet. “But I specifically requested Lord Grathmeer!”

               “Yes,” said King Rowan. “But only because you didn’t think that I, as king, would be willing to take the risk, even for my own son. You thought that I would let my kingly duties stand in the way. But ‘father’ trumps ‘king,’ Golman. Not in the Royal Code, of course, but it should, and it does for me. And thus, I am here.”

               “What?” said Prince Golman. “No. This is a trial by combat for my life, Dad! I asked for Lord Grathmeer because he’s the second best swordsman in the kingdom!”

               “Exactly,” said King Rowan. “But now, instead of the second best, you’ve got the best.”

               Prince Golman stared at his father in disbelief. His golden hair, bound behind his head in a golden pony tail, was dirty nearly to the point of being merely yellow. There was dirt in it. His eyes and cheeks were sunken. His rich clothing was torn and baggy. “Wait,” he said. “You’re saying you’re the best swordsman in the kingdom? That Lord Grathmeer is second best to you?”

               “Yes,” said King Rowan. “I’ve been practicing. Well, not practicing, but strategizing, I guess you’d say. Devoting a lot of thought and willpower to improvement.”

               “Dad,” said Prince Golman, collapsing against the bars, his voice breaking. “Dad, Sir Drush is alive. He’s the one leading this rebellion. He’s the one you’ll be fighting in my trial by combat. And he is really mad about what you did to him.” Prince Golman began to weep. “He’s going to kill you. And then he’s going to kill me. With Lord Grathmeer fighting for me, I thought there might be a chance, a slim one, sure, but there would be at least sliver of hope. But now…” He trailed off, overcome.

               But King Rowan did not notice his son’s despair. His heart soared and swooped within him like an exultant bird of prey. This was the opportunity he’d craved without knowing it, an opportunity he would have thought impossible. An opportunity to not only defeat Dir Drush, but Lord Grathmeer, too, and Queen Lynthia, the seer, the stablehands who hesitated to obey him, everyone and everything that annoyed him everywhere. His son, too, who was now sobbing. He would defeat him even as he rescued him. King Rowan could actually feel his eyes sparkling as he gazed beyond the physical confines of the shoddy jail and into the hallowed halls of legends where his statue was already being carved. He felt a sudden compulsion to henceforth refer to his sword as his “blade.”




Discussion Questions

  • Can a horse name be both redundant AND good?



  • Think about the last time your will was thwarted by a technicality. What did your simmering resentment then drive you to do? Something smart, I hope?



  • Where do you think you currently rank in terms of sword fighting ability in your country? I think I’m in the top 30% in the United States.



  • Do you think that giving yourself a haircut with electric clippers and having the thought, “What if someone from the distant past had a vision of electric hair clippers?” is a good enough reason to include a scene in your story where someone from the distant past has a vision of electric hair clippers?



  • What would it take to get you to start referring to your sword as your blade? What would it take to get you to stop?