Two brothers follow a wary white German Shepherd to search for the King of a secret realm.
Chapter Six - How the Quest was Won
Then he got an idea!
An awful idea!
The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea!
"I know where you hid the gargoyle," Michael said. "And when I tell Aunt Eva, she's going to make you go get it."
Michael's smile made me a little nervous, but I tried not to show it.
"You don't even know what you are talking about," I said.
"Yes I do."
"No you don't."
"Yes I do."
"Fine," I said, "tell Aunt Eva whatever you want. If you know where it is, then she will know you put it there."
Michael's smile vanished.
"You'd better go get it, Tim!"
"Hey, if you know where it is and you want the stupid thing so bad, why don't you get it?" I wondered if he really did know where it was. I was beginning to wish I'd destroyed the thing.
"You know why," said Michael. "I'm not going in there."
Now I was confused.
"I'm not going...not going in the shed-room!" Michael watched my face closely.
He had it wrong, so wrong. But I wished I'd thought of that. Still, it gave me an idea...
"OK," I said in a gloating kind of way, "How about I go in there and see if I can find it?"
Mike could tell I was up to something.
"Why are you saying it like that?"
"Oh, no reason Mike. I'd better get searching right away," I said, hoping he would take the bait. I really, really did not want to go into the shed-room alone.
The shed-room was a dark corner of the upstairs, really not even closed off from the rest of the Farmhouse by a wall or even by a curtain. No matter. If you had to go to the upstairs bathroom at night, you would have to pass by the hallway that led to that fearful place. When my mother was a child, she and her cousins used to believe a witch lived in there. Although she no longer believed any such thing, both Michael and I tended to put more stock in Mom's childhood opinion than her adult one, especially whenever we were bold enough to risk a peek into the foreboding room.
I left Mike bewildered and standing in the family room while I went in search of a flashlight.
In an instant, he was on my heels. He never seemed to stay bewildered very long.
“I know why you want to go into the shed-room. You are going to move the gargoyle again, or smash it into a million pieces!”
“Not at all,” I answered. “But you’d better stay out here, you know. There’s a witch in there.”
“You’re just trying to keep me out of there!” he yelled. “Stop it!”
Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like I wouldn’t have to go in there alone after all.
“Mike, all I’m saying is you should stay out here where it’s safe. I’m just trying to protect you.”
“Yeah, right,” Michael said. “I’m going in there and there isn’t anything you can do about it.”
I pretended to put on a sour face and grumble all the way upstairs. Soon, flashlight in hand, we were standing at the dreaded dark entrance.
I turned on the flashlight. The beam didn’t illuminate very much. There were sheets draped over piles of things, or maybe old furniture. There were a few boxes, stacks of books, and an old Victrola. I couldn’t see the far wall. I began to have second thoughts about going in there. But I glanced at Michael, who was fidgeting. I smiled, thinking how scared he’d be when I acted out my plan.
I plunged into the darkness, whistling part of the theme to the Twilight Zone.
“Cut it out!” Michael said, but he followed close behind.
After going midway into the room, a path through all the boxes opened up to my right. I looked that way. It seemed even darker, if that was possible. It was perfect for my plans.
“Wait,” said Michael as I turned. But I wanted to put a little distance between the two of us.
Some ways in, I saw a small alcove to my left. Michael was a few steps behind me. ‘Now’, I thought to myself.
I said, “Hey, what—“
Then I made a muffled grunting noise while at the same time shutting off the flashlight. I quickly and quietly stepped into the alcove to the left and sat on a little wood box protruding from the wall.
It was totally pitch couldn’t-see-my-hand-waving-in-front-of-my-face black.
“Tim?” came the voice of my brother from somewhere in the darkness. “Tim, stop it. Turn the flashlight back on. Tim! It isn’t funny!”
I heard some scuffling noises.
“Tim?” Michael’s voice had a tremor in it. “Where are you?”
I leaned back on my makeshift seat, trying not to laugh. At that moment the box I sat on crumbled beneath me. The wood was old and rotten with age, and as it collapsed I sank butt-first right into the cavity that opened up.
I let out a yelp of surprise, and I heard Michael make a turn around the corner in the dark. I turned on the flashlight, and it shone right in his face as he faced me. He was white as a sheet. He was terrified.
But I wasn’t in the mood to laugh, because I was stuck. I couldn’t get up. And as soon as Michael became aware of my predicament, he laughed that goofy laugh he reserved for special occasions.
“Ahuiy ahuiy ahuiy ahuiy--”
He stopped very suddenly. There was a footstep somewhere nearby.
“Help me up!” I whispered. I did not want to be in that vulnerable position any longer. I squirmed for dear life, like my neighbor’s grandmother when I’d accidentally left the toilet seat up at their house and she had fallen in. There in the dark shed-room with the footsteps drawing nearer, I vowed never to laugh again about the memory of Mrs. Stonus weakly calling for help and tossing soap and toothbrushes at the bathroom door.
I’m sure Michael wouldn’t have thought twice about leaving me to die in the clutches of the approaching Unknown if it weren’t for the fact that abandoning me probably would mean he’d run right into the creature’s arms. And since he didn’t feel like facing whatever or whomever it was alone, he grabbed my arms and pulled mightily. The flashlight fell out of my hand and went out just as the footsteps came around the bend of the alcove. We both screamed and Michael gave one more adrenaline-inspired pull, dislodging me both from the splintered wood box and the better part of my shorts (which remained caught on a jagged piece of wood). We were both catapulted into the maker of the footsteps. Her own face lit up – seemingly on its own – as the eerie face of an older woman in a dark dress. Her hands gripped us each by the shoulders. We screamed again as her face went dark…
…because her own flashlight had fallen to the ground.
“What in the world am I going to do with you boys?” asked Aunt Eva.
I sat bolt upright in large, canopied bed. These dreams of mine were becoming more and more vivid. I flopped back onto my soft cotton pillows.
The "imprisonment" wasn't so bad, all in all. True, I wasn't allowed to wander free throughout the Manor. Nor did I get a chance to apologize to the King, who made no attempt to see me at all. But my room was magnificent (the big, round blue window overlooked the King's River rushing away downstream to the southeast), the food was top notch (it didn't come when I wanted but it came regularly), and I did have visitors. Michael had come by every night for five nights, and pretended to be nice to me, but I completely ignored him. With any luck, he wouldn't be back. Morning-Tamer usually stopped by in the morning with breakfast, and he at least was interesting to talk to. The only time I got annoyed with him was that first morning after the curds and whey disaster. I had asked him if he was angry with me, and he said:
"I am not angry with you, Tim. I am happy that the truth has been discovered. The whole Kingdom of Elkwater depends on this quest and the quest depends on a true beginning, among other things. I am full of joy at these developments."
After that, he said no more of the matter. From Morning-Tamer, I learned a lot about the different "Verses" of Elkwater and even a little history, which he told like bedtime stories (even though his visits were always in the morning). Even better, he taught me some of the "secrets of water-war", as he called it, just to pass the time. For "stream-fighting", he taught me some weapons-free fighting techniques, kind of like a form of martial arts I guess, but with dirty tricks thrown in. "River-fighting" had to do with weapons, and so he snuck in practice-swords and even showed me how to use a bow. "Spring-fighting" was mounted warfare, so as much as I wanted to learn some of it, there was no chance of getting permission to ride around outside on a horse. "Lake-fighting" was the strategic tradition of defending a fortress, or a town, or even a camp. "Rain-fighting" had to do with pitched battle and generalship. He spoke little of these last two, and I wasn't much interested anyway.
Aside from Morning-Tamer, my most surprising regular visitor was Erm. Phosphorus-Ambellicor, Earth Mage of the King and Steward of Pepperwood Manor. Believe it or not, he began to take a liking to me. Every day he came to visit around lunchtime, just long enough for me to have recovered from swordfighting practice with Morning-Tamer. I especially looked forward to his visits because he was the only one who took me out of my lavish "cell". The first day or two he was pretty crabby and grumbled that if he had to "babysit" me then I'd just have to tag along while he accomplished his daily duties. Most of these duties consisted of keeping Pepperwood Manor in working order, which was no small task. Even though it looked like a giant wooden castle on the outside, in reality it was more like a giant machine. The big waterwheels I had seen when I'd first arrived by keelboat actually wound up an elaborate system of springs and gears, like an old wind-up watch. The springs, in turn, stored up the potential energy of the winding-up until that energy was needed for elevators, clocks, trapdoors, dumbwaiters, powering water-pumps, and all sorts of ingenious things. But these things required a lot of maintenance, and Erm. Phosphorus was in charge of the team appointed to keep things working. Nor was he afraid to get his own hands dirty.
The Mage quickly picked up that I was fascinated by the giant clockwork mechanisms, as well as by the work he did, so his tone softened considerably. After a few days of watching him, I supposed the only "magic" Phosphorus used was the regular, scientific kind. But once, when he was trying to fix a broken trap-door that opened up to the river, he could not dislodge a wayward bolt that was stuck in the hinge. He looked around to see if anyone was looking, said "power due North in eleven cubed" in a different language while flicking his wrist a certain way, and the bolt sped out of the hinge and into the air as if it were shot by a cannon.
"Don't say a word to anyone about that!" he whispered to me. I got the impression that Earth Mages preferred to rely on their brains and only resorted to magic as a last resort. That made little sense to me, but I kept his secret. After all, he never once mentioned the matter of my lies or my current disgrace.
But all this did little to genuinely cheer me up. This great and important "quest" for a new king was being given to my extremely unimportant little brother, all because of his stupid good luck at seeing into Elkwater before I did. All the attention from the Knight and the Earth Mage was pure "consolation-prize" stuff. What was worse, one of those nights when I was ignoring my brother he blurted out that the King said I would be going back to the Farm "any day", as soon as the Usher showed up to take me back. But the clincher was that Michael said I'd forget everything about Elkwater as soon as the walnut shell cooled, just like before. He said it in anger, after he had been trying to engage me in small talk for 20 minutes with no response. I pretended not to hear him, and he stormed out of my room. I cried myself to sleep that night.
But when I awoke in the middle of the night to the yellow moon shining bright through my window, an idea tickled my brain. My eyes popped open. My schemes began to unwind like the great springs of Pepperwood Manor. I might not be able to go on the quest, but I might be able to take all the fun out of it for Michael. If the Usher gave me enough time, that was. I smiled, and fell back to sleep with darkly pleasant dreams. Some of them didn't even involve the Farm. But my new idea did.
Morning-Tamer was surprised to see me up and dressed, but not dressed for “River-fighting”, which was scheduled for that day. I’d managed to figure out all the buttons on the “court outfit” I’d been given for times when the King might summon me. Morn narrowed his eyes and folded his arms when I expressed a desire to see the King (humbly, I hoped), but after I pleaded with sincerity and fervor for several minutes, he shrugged his shoulders and tried to make arrangements.
The King agreed to an audience, but not until that afternoon. In the end I got back into casual clothes (orange and teal – always orange and teal) until just before the audience when with Phosophorus-Ambellicor’s help I got back into the formals with a good deal more trouble than when I did it all by myself.
“What’s this all about?” he asked as he was putting buttons into the wrong holes.
“I owe the King an apology, that’s all,” I said.
The Earth Mage snorted. “If that’s true, then it’s wise enough. But if you are hoping to get him to change his mind about sending you on the Quest, I’d advise you not to waste your time. Or his.”
I looked the Earth Mage right in the eyes. “This has got nothing to do with me going on the Quest. I know for sure I will not be going.”
Since every word was true, the wizard couldn’t magically test me for signs of deceit, and so he only rolled his eyes and shook his head at me.
The audience with King Warren was pretty simple. The King was seated at a desk in his study, a room full of books and windows and with a glass-domed ceiling. Another man was standing at the desk, and shot me an irritated glance.
“Good afternoon, my young prisoner,” said the King, not unkindly. “Please come closer.”
Then he turned to the man with the grimace. “Chief Counsellor Mascin, will you excuse us? I have a parole to deny, I think.”
“Your grace,” said the chisel-faced Counsellor, and he left with the Earth Mage following behind.
The Hickory King leaned back in his chair. He did not offer me a seat.
“How has your imprisonment been thus far?” he asked.
“Good. Good for me, your Majesty. It has given me a long time to think.”
“Seen the light, have we? Turned over a new leaf? Resolved never to lie again?” The King was smiling in a way that made me realize he wouldn’t believe any such thing.
“No,” I said. “I don’t even know why I told those lies so I don’t know how to stop myself from doing it again. But I know it was wrong. Before I’m taken back to my own world, I just wanted to say ‘I’m sorry’.”
“I’m not the one who is due an apology,” said the King.
“Yeah, I know. Mike and I argued last night, though. Would you please tell him I have something to say to him, if he has time to stop by tonight?”
King Warren raised his eyebrows.
“Oh!” I said, in realization, “I guess it isn’t proper to ask you to bear a message, you being the King and all. Is there some way to get a message to Mike?”
“Ask Erm. Phos. He will see it done, if he remembers. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, sir. I just want to say…I want to say that Mike can be a pain in the …pain in the neck sometimes, but…(I swallowed hard)…but I think he is a good choice for Kingfinding. Better than me.”
The King stared at me searchingly for a moment, and his features seemed to soften.
“You realize,” he said, “that there will be danger in his mission. He is afraid, and he feels very bad that you are a prisoner, even though you deserve it. This is a difficult time for him.”
I wanted to shout for joy. The King opened the door wide for me to begin implementing my dastardly plan. But I dropped my head in fake shame to hide my smile.
“I don’t know if I can make him feel less afraid,” I said, “but I can help with him feeling so bad for me.”
The King was silent for a long time, but I was afraid to look up. I wondered if he was on to me, and I began to be afraid.
“I see,” he finally said. “Perhaps you are not thoroughly wicked after all. Your apology is accepted contingent on your behavior from now on. If you can be selfless in this matter, then I will see to it that history will be kind to your name.”
Big deal, I thought, but I said, “That is really more than I deserve.”
“On the other hand,” said King Warren, “if this is a part of some childish scheme to hurt your brother, I will make sure that before the Usher returns you to your own world that you are punished in such a way that every mother in Elkwater for the next thousand years will be telling your story to naughty children, just to scare them into good behavior. Do you understand?”
I very nearly lost my nerve when the King said that. The only thing that kept me from confessing my plan was fear of punishment for even taking it this far. I just kept my head down.
“You may go,” said the Hickory King, and I did. In a hurry.
When Michael came to my room that night, I was sitting by the window, staring at the river as it rushed between tree-lined banks. I didn’t turn around.
“Did you ask me to visit you so you could ignore me again?” asked my brother.
After a few seconds of silence, just when I heard him begin to move back towards the door, I said, “I wonder where that river goes.”
“I don’t know,” said Mike, annoyed. “Probably Phosphorus-Ambellicor knows. Why don’t you ask him?”
“I mean, does it end up in a lake?” I asked, ignoring Michael’s attitude. “Or does it go out to the sea? Or does it end in a hundred little streams that fizzle out into nothing?”
Mike didn’t say anything. I turned to look at him.
“I was mad that the Usher didn’t choose me. I’m sorry. I really hope you find the new King, Mike.”
Michael stared at me a long while. Then he said, “I wish…I wish…”
“No,” I interrupted. “I don’t even want to go any more. Not really. Too many people are mad at me, and it’s my fault. I just want to go back so I can forget everything.”
“I never thought you would say ‘sorry’ to me.” Michael looked thoughtful, staring past me.
“Things are different than before,” I said, lying through my teeth.
Michael was still staring off into space. “I wonder if it’s true, then, what King Warren said…”
“What?” I asked.
“I’m not sure I’m supposed to tell you.” Michael’s eyes met mine again.
I really really wanted to know. So I said, “That’s ok. I probably don’t deserve to know anyway, and turned to look at the river again.
“Well, maybe it’s ok,” said my brother, “since you are going home again soon anyway. King Warren said that ever since we each got to Elkwater, the stile started to change stuff in us – in our brains. He said part of the magic is that it accel…accel…”
“Accelerates?” I chimed in, helpfully.
“Yeah, accelerates our minds growing. Or something like that. He said by the time I find the King I should be able to think like a grownup. So, maybe that’s why you are being this way – your mind is growing.”
Oh what an underhanded compliment! Michael couldn’t even give me credit for being sorry – he had to give credit to the stile. But I couldn’t help being interested in what he said. Maybe improved brain function was responsible for the subtlety of my new plan. Come to think of it, lately Mike seemed to be talking as if he was a lot older than eight. It explained a lot. I wondered if it would complicate my plans.
“Maybe,” I said. “So, anyway, you can come and see me any time you want. Until the Usher takes me back, I mean.”
“O.K.,” Michael said, and went to open the door. But he stopped with his hand on the door handle.
“Hey, Tim, there’s going to be a sending-off ceremony for me next week. If you are still around, would you mind coming to it? I mean, only if you want to.”
“Sure,” I said. And I very much hoped I could.
“Cool,” said Michael. “Good night.”
From then on, Michael’s visits were longer. At first, he talked a lot about the preparations for his journey. It seems he would have a guide appointed by the King, and then Michael would get to choose a guide too. But who Mike would choose was not in any doubt. Apparently Mike had his very own “Knight of the Hidden Stream” training him and spending time with him, much like Morning-Tamer did with me. Michael’s knight was named “Mountain-Chaser”, and it seemed he was specifically chosen to be Michael’s companion. Jealously, I realized that Morning-Tamer would have been my own companion had I been chosen Kingfinder. I tried to channel that envy into moving on with my plan.
I started to look sort of pitiful when Mike would go into his long discourses about the Quest, and eventually he realized how forlorn it made me. So instead, he tried to get me to talk about the farm. I pretended to be reluctant to talk about the farm at first, but let him gradually draw me out. His patronizing sympathy was insufferable, but I bore with it. It wouldn’t do to show my anger at this stage of the game.
And so we spoke more and more of the farm. He would bring it up as a way to cheer me up from my depression, and then we would talk for hours about catching fireflies and exploring the woods and canoeing and creeking. Then I would talk about how good it would be to see Aunt Eva and Uncle Martin and speculate on what kind of jam Aunt Eva would be making next. Slowly, Michael would grow quiter and some somber as our conversation turned to these matters, and by the third night I almost thought he was going to ask me to stop talking about the farm. So I changed the subject before he left, and admitted to him that I was secretly afraid of going on the Quest, secretly afraid of the unknown dangers that would be ahead. Michael was downright downcast when he left me that night, and I was joyful that my plan was beginning to take effect.
On the fourth night after our “reconciliation”, Michael was late coming to see me. I was actually afraid he’d decided not to any more. If he did visit, I decided this would have to be the night to implement the critical part of my scheme. I prepared myself by inventing false terrors, letting all my childhood fears come rushing into my mind at once.
So when Michael threw open the door cheerfully with a “Hey, Tim!” (he’d apparently had a good pep-talk that day from someone), he found me sobbing on the bed.
“Oh…I didn’t think you were coming!” I said, and hurriedly wiped my eyes.
“Gee,” Mike said, astounded, “I’m really sorry I’m late—“
“No, no, it’s not that,” I said, wondering how Michael could be so full of himself to think his tardiness would make me cry, “It’s just…no, never mind.”
“What?” asked Michael, concerned.
“I…well, when you didn’t come I got thinking about the farm and all, and then I got thinking about Mom. And…(the sobs began to well up inside me)…I miss her.”
I buried my face in the pillow.
“Well, you can call her when you get back to the farm,” said Michael. His voice was flat. His cheerfulness was gone.
“Yes but that might be days away. I just wish I could call her right now,” I cried out in a muffled voice from between a downy crease.
I peeked out to see Michael facing away from me. His lower lip was trembling.
“Mom,” he whispered.
I put my face back in the pillow. “I’m not cut out for this. I am so glad I don’t have to go on that quest because I couldn’t bear the thought of not talking to Mom for who knows how long? Even this is too hard for me. How do you stay so strong, Michael? How?”
He didn’t answer, so I looked up.
But he was gone.
I went to bed imagining my brother crying his eyes out, and I dropped into a sickly slumber.
I awoke to a falling sensation. The back of my head hit the floor.
“Get up!” a harsh voice said. It was dark. I couldn’t see who spoke. Whoever it was had lifted me out of bed and thrown me to the floor.
I blinked the sleep out of my eyes and saw the face of Morning-Tamer flickering in faint candle-light. He had a very un-Morn like expression of anger on his face.
“Get up!” he repeated, and I stood up shakily. There were others in the room. Another well-muscled man, black-skinned, was holding a candle but I imagined me that his hand was more accustomed to holding a sword. Behind him stood the Hickory King and Phosphorus-Ambellicor. Beside them were Chief Counsellor Mascin and a sharp-eyed woman I’d never seen before. All were glaring at me sternly.
“I didn’t—“ I began.
“The Kingfinder Michael no longer wishes to find the King,” interrupted King Warren. “But he has no choice. He will be forced to go. The reason he will be forced is because only one chosen by the Usher may find the new King, and the Usher made it clear before he went to your world that there will not be another qualified Kingfinder for some time to come. However, we cannot wait. I will not live that long. And if I die with no King to replace me - a King discovered by the Kingfinder - Elkwater will perish in the Tempest of the Torc. All its people will die.
“Because Michael is now being forced into this quest, there is a good chance it will fail. The reason Michael no longer wishes to Find a King is because you, his foul-bred sibling, have used your manipulative tongue to turn his love for his family against him. If this quest fails, you will be responsible for the death of every man, woman, and child in the kingdom. My only comfort is that soon the Usher will come to bring you home and we will be rid of you.
“This deed will not go unpunished. Morning-Tamer will accompany you to Kingston in the Trees, the town just down the river where most of the servants and craftsmen here in Pepperwood Manor have their families. You will knock on the door of every dwelling of that town, wake every family, and tell them that you have done your best to kill them all, but the King has found you out. You will say just that. Afterwards, you will return to your room until the Meros on the day after tomorrow, when we will send forth the Kingfinder and his chosen guides. You will watch it reverently and will return to your room until the Usher comes to bring you to your own world.”
“I…won’t do it!” I shouted. “You can’t make me go to Kingston and say all that.”
The King’s eyes blazed with fury. “Very well,” he said. “In that case you will be dragged to the center of Kingston, stripped and tied to a pole until daylight, and then whipped with leather sixteen times in view of all.”
My heart pounded. “You wouldn’t do that…you’re a good king.”
“I will do it precisely because I am a good king,” he answered unwaveringly. “If I left you unpunished I would be an accomplice in your wicked deed.”
I put my head in my hands.
“All right, all right; I’ll do the first thing you said,” I wept.
“And Morning-Tamer will see to it that you do it exactly as I have proscribed. Fare better, Tim McFadden. I hope it will be unnecessary for us to converse again.”
I wish I could say that the memory of that night was a blur, but every step taken and word spoken is as clear and crisp as the day it happened despite the twenty-eight years of forgetfulness that lie between now and then. Morning-Tamer was none too gentle, and said nothing to me except "knock" or "speak" or "this way". It felt like I visited thousands of homes, rousing the occupants in the night, speaking my intentions to kill them all in front of scowling fathers, horrified mothers, and astonished children.
When the dim dawn turned to bright morning, Morn said, "Enough," and led me back to Pepperwood Manor and to my quarters, where I collapsed in bed in total exhaustion. I was ashamed, angry, and full of a strange blend of resentment and remorse. But even this could not fully quench my secret joy that Michael was just as miserable as I was.
I received no visitors at all that day or the next. Gone were the delicious delicacies brought to my room, replaced by simple bread, cheese, and plain water. I wasn’t just a prisoner in name only any more. There was nothing to do. There were books in the room but I could not read them. The spoken word of any language I understood, but the written word of all but my own was a mystery. So I simply stared out the window all day, or slept, or examined the creases in the walnut shell that was the start of all this trouble. When it got dark, I had trouble falling asleep. And when I finally fell asleep, I was jostled awake right away.
Dawn had crept up on me, and my room was bustling with activity. A simple breakfast was laid out, a bath was drawn, and two servants were making sure my court suit was perfectly wrinkle free…or only wrinkled in the places it was supposed to be. Morning-Tamer stood by, supervising everything while keeping an eye on me.
“Is this the day?” I asked.
This is the day of the Meros, Morn answered.
I ate, washed, and allowed the servants to help me dress. I looked pretty good, and was actually looking forward to getting out of my room, even if it was for Michael’s stupid ‘send-off’.
My attitude quickly changed when Morning-Tamer clapped iron shackles to my wrists.
“Hey! What—“ I began.
“It is the command of the King,” said the knight, and he prodded me out into the hall.
The Grand Hall had been transformed from a banqueting facility to a giant Throne Room. Apparently the regular throne room was not equipped to handle the amount of visitors attending the “Meros” for Kingfinder Michael. The walls were lined with things to eat and nearly everyone seemd to have a goblet in his or her hand…except for maybe thirty muscle-bound men dressed in sparse leather like Morning-Tamer.
“I thought there were only sixteen Knights of the Hidden Stream,” I said aloud.
“No,” answered Morn, “there are almost four hundred of us. Sixteen greet the Kingfinder to symbolize the sixteen Verses of our Kingdom. But only thirty-two will fit in this room with all these nobles and Counsellors and Governors taking up space.”
I noticed many people staring at me, but everyone whose stare I returned looked away. I caught one fat lady looking at me with a sneer, so I reached up and shook my chains in her face. She jumped and would have fallen backwards if three strong men hadn’t been behind her to catch her fall. As it was, spilled wine was on all four and the floor.
Morning-Tamer’s considerable grip pinched my shoulder until it hurt.
“Have you no remorse at all? No humility?” asked the knight.
I sulked until a commotion at the far entrance announced the arrival of both the Hickory King and the Kingfinder Michael, side-by-side. They strode to the dais and turned to face the now still crowd.
“Welcome to the day of Elkwater’s Destiny!” shouted the King, and a loud cheer went up from all the crowd except for the stoic Knights.
When the cheering died down the King nodded to Michael, who knelt before him and held out his half of the walnut shell. With his princely green and yellow clothes, I might have barely recognized my brother. But his too-tall curly hair still made him look goofy. I wonder why they didn’t cut it for him.
The King touched the torc around his neck with his left hand, then took his scepter in his right and touched its knob to the stile in Michael’s hand. I strained to see. Was that a hickory nut embedded in the King’s scepter? As soon as the two items touched, the whole room tingled with an otherworldly electricity.
The King sat on his Throne and smiled as applause rose and so did the chant “Meros, meros, meros!”
I was full of spite. In the last few days I tried to convince myself that I didn’t want any part of this stupid quest anyway, and that I really did want to go back to the farm and forget the whole adventure. But the deepest desires of the heart can’t be easily cast aside. Also, I still had the mission laid on me by the beautiful Ari. I couldn’t bear to think of her imprisoned for another seven hundred years. But events had conspired to take the matter out of my hands. To be frank, it sucked.
When the chant died down the King spoke in a booming voice, “The time has come to choose the guides for our young Kingfinder. First, I have carefully chosen a guide from among the Knights of the Hidden Stream. Let no one question the choice of the King!”
There was a bit of murmuring at that. “Who would question his choice?” whispered a gaunt noble nearby.
“The guide I have chosen…is Vis Cloud Warrior! Come forward, old friend! Meros!”
A gasp rose up from the crowd and only scattered applause. One or two voices weakly called out “Meros!” I looked up at Morning-Tamer and saw his mouth open in surprise. I craned my neck to see who this person was, that he should create such doubt.
But I saw no person.
Bounding up to the dais was a large, white German Shepherd, collared in brown leather with the Elk-antler insignia of the Knights of the Hidden Stream. An unmistakable white German Shepherd.
It was Loner.
And to the horror of onlookers, “Cloud Warrior” ran right up to the Throne, put his paws on the lap of the Warden of the Third Verse and Overseer of Waskindia and began licking his face enthusiastically. King Warren laughed and rubbed behind Loner’s ears.
“Enough, my friend,” chuckled the Defender of Sylvas, “this is not a time to dispense with formalities!”
Loner – or “Cloud-Warrior” turned and sat erect on the other side of the King. Michael’s eyes were wide as clamshells. This was not the kind of guide Michael would have asked for. He was scared of big dogs and Loner in particular. He was terrified. At that moment he happened to look directly at me.
I grinned at him. “Happy Questing,” I mouthed.
I don’t know if he read my lips but he sure read my attitude. He clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes.
“Now it is time for Kingfinder Michael to select a guide. Kingfinder Michael, have you carefully considered your choice?”
Michael mumbled something inaudible.
King Warren looked at Michael with concern.
“Yes,” Michael said louder.
“Is your chosen guide in this room?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Then touch your stile to his shoulder. Meros!”
”Meros” shouted the crowd, a little recovered from canine coma.
Michael stepped off the dais, walnut shell in hand, and walked over to the black-skinned knight who held the candle in my room the other night.
That must be Mountain-Chaser, I thought.
Michael paused before him, blinked, took a big breath, and moved away from him. Murmurs arose again from the crowd. Mountain-Chaser had a puzzled look, and even the King shifted in his seat. Michael walked past all the other Knights of the Hidden Stream. He walked past the Counsellors, including the scowling Mascin, the Nobles, the Governors, and even past Erm. Phosophorus-Ambellicor.
He began walking in my general direction. In fact, he was staring straight at Morning-Tamer.
Fury rose in me. In a final swipe at me, Michael was going to choose the Knight appointed to me. It was a cruel vengeance, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Morning-Tamer stiffened at my side. I don’t think he liked it either. But he lowered his shoulder as Michael drew near.
I closed my eyes. I absolutely could not watch.
And that’s when I felt the tap of the stile on my own shoulder.
My eyes opened and I stared at my brother in surprise. He wore an evil smile.
“Guess you won’t be talking to Mom any time soon after all, will you?” he said.
"Meros, I croaked, because there didn't seem to be anything else to say.
And pandemonium reigned in the Grand Hall of Pepperwood Manor.
Chapter Seven (City on a Quill) will begin October 12