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Roland’s First Tale

Once upon a time, there was an old king who promised his only son in marriage to a princess in a land far away. He bade his son farewell and entrusted to him a golden cup that had been in his family for many generations. This, he told his son, would be part of his dowry to the princess, and a symbol of the bond between her family and their own. A servant was told to travel with the prince and to care for his every need, and so the two men set out together for the princess’s lands.

After they had traveled for many days, the servant, who was jealous of the prince, stole the goblet from him while he was sleeping and dressed himself in the prince’s finest clothing. When the prince awoke, the servant made him vow, on pain of his own death and the deaths of all those whom he loved, that he would inform no man of what had transpired and told him that in future the prince would serve him in all things. And so the prince became the servant, and the servant the prince, and in that way they came to the castle of the princess.

When they arrived, the false prince was treated with great ceremony and the true prince was given a job herding pigs, for the false prince told the princess that he was a bad and unruly servant and could not be trusted. So her father sent the true prince out to herd swine and sleep in the mud and straw, while the impostor ate the finest food and rested his head on the softest of pillows.

But the king, who was a wise old man, heard others speak well of the swineherd, of how gracious were his manners and how kind he was to the animals under his charge and to the servants whom he met, and he went to him one day and asked him to tell him something of himself. But the true prince, bound by his vow, told the king that he was unable to obey his command. The king grew angry, for he was not used to being disobeyed, but the true prince fell to his knees and said: “I am bound by a death vow not to tell any man the truth about myself. I beg you to forgive me, for I mean Your Majesty no disrespect, but a man’s word is his bond, and without it he is no better than an animal.”

So the king thought for a time, and then he said to the true prince: “I can see that the secret you keep inside is troubling to you, and perhaps you would feel happier once you have spoken it aloud. Why don’t you tell it to the cold hearth in the servants’ quarters, and then you may rest easier because of it.”

The true prince did as the king asked, but the king hid in the darkness behind the hearth, and he heard the true prince’s tale. That night, he held a great banquet, for the princess was due to marry the impostor the next day, and he invited the true prince to sit on one side of his throne as a masked guest, and on the other side he placed the false prince. And he said to the false prince: “I have a test of your wisdom, if you will agree to take it.” The false prince readily agreed, and the king told him the tale of an impostor who took on the identity of another man, and as a result claimed all the wealth and privileges that were due to another. But the false prince was so arrogant, and so certain of his position, that he did not recognize the tale as being about himself.



“What would you do with such a man?” asked the king.

“I would strip him naked and place him inside a barrel studded with nails,” said the false prince. “Then I would tie the barrel behind four horses, and I would drag it through the streets until the man inside was ripped to death.”

“That that shall be your punishment,” said the king, “for such is your crime.”

And the true prince was restored to his position, and he married the princess and lived happily ever after, while the false prince was torn to pieces in a barrel of nails, and nobody wept for him, and nobody spoke his name after he was gone.

 

 

When the story was done, Roland looked at David.

“What did you think of my tale?” he asked.

David’s brow was furrowed. “I think I read a story like it once before,” he said. “But my story was about a princess, not a prince. The ending was the same, though.”

“And did you like the ending?”

“I did when I was little. I thought that was what the false prince deserved. I liked it when the bad were punished to death.”

“And now?”

“It seems cruel.”

“But he would have done the same to another, had it been in his power to do so.”

“I suppose so, but that doesn’t make the punishment right.”

“So you would have shown mercy?”

“If I was the true prince, then, yes, I think so.”

“But would you have forgiven him?”

David thought about the question.

“No, he did wrong, so he deserved some punishment. I would have made him herd the pigs and live the way the true prince had been forced to live, and if he ever hurt one of the animals, or hurt another person, then the same thing would be done to him.”

Roland nodded approvingly. “That is a fit punishment, and merciful. Sleep now,” he said. “We have wolves snapping at our heels, and you must rest while you can.”

David did as he was told. With his head upon his pack, he closed his eyes and instantly fell fast asleep.

He did not dream, and awoke only once before the false dawn that marked the coming of day. He opened his eyes and thought that he heard Roland speaking softly to someone. When he glanced over at the soldier, he saw that he was staring at a small silver locket. Inside was a picture of a man, younger than Roland and very handsome. It was to this image that Roland was whispering, and although David could not understand everything that was said, the word “love” was spoken clearly more than once.

Embarrassed, David drew his blanket closer to his head to block out the words until sleep returned.

 

 

Roland was already up and moving about when David woke again. David shared some of his food with the soldier, although there was only a little left. He washed himself in a brook and almost began to perform one of his counting routines, but he stopped himself, remembering the Woodsman’s advice, and instead cleaned his sword and sharpened its blade against a rock. He checked that his belt was still strong and that the loop holding the scabbard in place was undamaged, then asked Roland to teach him how to saddle Scylla and to tighten her reins and bridle. Roland did so, and also taught him how to check the horse’s legs and hooves for any signs of injury or discomfort.

David wanted to ask the soldier about the picture in the locket, but he did not want Roland to think that he had been spying on him in the night. Instead, he asked the other question that had been troubling him since the two had met, and by doing so was given an answer to the mystery of the man in the locket as well.

“Roland,” David asked, as the soldier placed the saddle on Scylla’s back once again. “What task have you set yourself?”

Roland drew the straps tight around the horse’s belly.

“I had a friend,” he said, without looking at David. “His name was Raphael. He wanted to prove himself to those who doubted his courage and spoke ill of him behind his back. He heard a tale of a woman bound to sleep by an enchantress in a chamber filled with treasures, and he vowed to release her from her curse. He set out from my land to find her, but he never returned. He was closer to me than a brother. I vowed that I would discover what had befallen him, and avenge his death if such had been his fate. The castle in which she lies is said to move with the cycles of the moon. It now rests at a place not more than two days’ ride from here. After we have discovered the truth within its walls, I will take you to see the king.”

David climbed onto Scylla’s back, and then Roland led the horse by the reins back to the road, testing the ground in front for hidden hollows that might injure his mount. David was growing used to the horse and the rhythm of her movements, although he still ached from the long ride of the day before. He held on to the horn of the saddle, and they left the ruins of the church as the first faint light of morning scratched at the sky.

But they did not leave unobserved. In a patch of brambles beyond the ruins, a pair of dark eyes watched them. The wolf’s fur was very dark, and its face had more of man than beast about it. It was the fruit of the union between a loup and a she-wolf, but it favored its mother in looks and instincts. It was also the largest and most ferocious of its kind, a mutant of sorts, big as a pony with jaws capable of encircling a man’s chest. The scout had been sent on by the pack to look for signs of the boy. It had picked up his scent upon the road, following it to a little house deep in the woods. There it had almost met its end, for the dwarfs had set traps around their home: deep pits with sharpened poles at their base, disguised with sticks and sods of grass. Only the wolf’s reflexes had prevented it from falling to its death, and it had been more careful in its approaches thereafter. It had found the boy’s scent mingled with that of the dwarfs and had then traced it back to the road again, losing it for a time until it reached a little stream, where the boy’s spoor was replaced by the strong odor of a horse. This told the wolf that the boy was no longer on foot, and probably not alone. It marked the place with its urine, as it had marked each step of its hunt, so that the pack might follow it more easily when it came.

The scout knew what Roland and David could not: the pack had ceased its advance shortly after crossing the chasm, for more wolves were arriving to join it in its march upon the king’s castle. The scout had been entrusted by Leroi with the task of finding the boy. If possible, it was to bring him back to the pack for Leroi to deal with. If this could not be achieved, then it was to kill him and return with only a token—the boy’s head—to prove that the deed had been done. The scout had already decided the head would be sufficient. It would feed on the rest of the boy, for it was a long time since it had eaten fresh man-flesh.

The wolf hybrid had again detected traces of the boy by the battlefield, along with a stench of something unknown that stung its delicate nose and made its eyes water. The starving scout had fed upon the bones of one of the soldiers, sucking the marrow from deep within, and its belly was now fuller than it had been in many months. Its energy renewed, it had followed the horse’s scent once more, and had arrived at the ruins just in time to see the boy and the rider depart.

With its massive back legs, the scout was capable of long, high leaps, and its bulk had driven many a rider from the saddle of a horse, forcing him to the ground and allowing the scout to tear his throat out with its long, sharp teeth. Taking the boy would be easy. If the scout judged its leap right, it could have the boy in its jaws and be ripping him apart before the horseman even realized what was happening. Then the scout would flee, and if the horseman chose to follow, well, it would draw him straight into the jaws of the waiting pack.

The rider was leading his mount at a slow pace, carefully negotiating low branches and thick patches of briar. The wolf shadowed them, waiting for its chance. Ahead of the horseman was a fallen tree, and the wolf guessed that the horse would pause there for a moment as it tried to work out the best way to overcome the obstacle. The wolf would seize the boy when the horse stopped. Quietly, it padded on, overtaking the horse so that it would have time to find the best position from which to strike. It reached the tree and found, in the bushes to its right, a slab of elevated stone perfect for its purpose. Saliva dripped from its jaws, for it was already tasting the boy’s blood in its mouth. The horse came into view, and the scout tensed, ready to strike.

A sound came from behind the wolf: the faintest hint of metal against stone. It turned to face the threat, but not quickly enough. It saw the flash of a blade, and then there was a burning deep in its throat, so deep that it could not even make a sound of pain or surprise. It began to smother in its own blood, its legs giving out beneath it as it fell upon the rock, its eyes bright with panic as it began to die. Then that brightness began to fade, and the scout’s body spasmed and twitched, until finally it lay still.

In the darkness of its pupil, the Crooked Man’s face was reflected. With the blade of his sword, he cut off the scout’s nose and placed it in a little leather pouch on his belt. It was another trophy for his collection, and its absence would give Leroi and the pack pause when they found the remains of their brother. They would know who they were dealing with, oh yes, for no other mutilated his prey in this way. The boy was his, and his alone. No wolf would feed upon his bones.

So the Crooked Man watched as David and Roland passed by, Scylla pausing for a second before the fallen tree, just as the scout had guessed that she would, and then jumping it with a single leap before taking the rider and the boy toward the road beyond. Then the Crooked Man descended into the briars and thorns, and was gone.

XX


Date: 2015-02-03; view: 880


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