A prince returns from the north. Missed the contest deadline by 3 minutes. Oh well...
|Word count: 1,127
The wind blew across the river lifting the royal banners gently into the sky above the white towers on the city walls. As the sun was reaching its peak, an army emerged from the king's forest following the north road back south to the capital. The horn of the tower guards sounded a warm greeting as the sun glinted off spears and helmets. The colours of the crown prince waved above the troops as the army horns returned the cities greeting.
"At long last there it is," said the young duke at the prince's side. "It's always been so beautiful this time of year."
The prince surveyed the fields around the city in the midst of being harvested. "Looks like things have gone well without me."
"And they will continue to go well with you here as well," encouraged the duke.
"Look," called a baron behind the two nobles, "The gate is opening."
"It's the king!" went the cry throughout the ranks.
The duke laughed, "A warm welcome indeed."
The ranks took up a marching song as they continued forward. The prince breathed deep and let his shoulders relax as he listened to the joyful choir of men behind. Harvesters and their helpers rushed from the fieldwork to see the parade of soldiers along the road. An audience seemed to cause the men to sing all the louder with pride.
Let the horn sound for battle, let the drum beat for war,
Merry sounds of adventure to a soldier.
A spear in the hand, a sword at the side,
Merry tools of adventure for a soldier.
Set eyes to foreign hills, set eyes to foreign valleys,
Merry sights of adventure to a soldier.
And on they sang as they marched forward along the road. Finally, the signal to halt was given, and the king and his guard trotted up to the prince and nobles at the head of the army. The royal guards of the king and prince saluted each other with raised lances and deep-throated bark. The prince and the nobles around him bowed in their saddles.
"Raise your heads, my prince, my nobles," greeted the king as he lifted an open hand to the sun. "My son, you've returned in victory. Parade your gallant army to the palace and your men will rest in the homes of my citizens tonight."
"You honour me too much, your majesty." answered the prince.
The king and his guard moved to the side of the road, and the signal was given to continue onward. As the men passed the royal company, they shouted, "Hail the king!"
As they came to the city gates, people had already lined up along the road and in the side streets to see the army pass through to the palace. Everyone was cheering, and the ladies rushed bundles of flowers into the hands of any soldier that raised an empty to wave at the crowd. The nobles on their horses were no exception, and soon they each had a mound of flowers spilling off of them and their saddles. About half-way to the palace, a man stepped out of the crowd in front of the parade with a small girl in his arms. The father lifted his little daughter to the prince as he rode up to them. She held out a white flower with a giant smile on her face as her father kept pace with the horse.
"Thank you," said the prince as he accepted the flower. "Almost as pretty as you."
The little girl's face beamed with delight as her father carried her back into the crowd.
The king sat in his private study with a book of poetry. The banquet had gone well, and everyone had retired to the rooms for the night. Celebrations like these always left him more awake than he would like to admit, but a good reading of the classics was usually enough to settle his mind for the night. A knock came from the door.
"Yes?" he asked, lifting his eyes off the pages.
His guard answered from the other side of the door. "The prince seeks an audience with your majesty."
"Send him in," smiled the king. It had been so long since they had just chatted together.
The door opened, and the prince came in. He stood in silence until the door latch clicked into place.
"I am sorry to disturb you at this time of night, your majesty," the prince said as his eyes darted about.
It hurt the king to see his son so purposefully avoiding eye contact. "Come," the king motioned to the chair beside him, "sit with me a while." A moment of hesitation passed across the young man's face as he looked at the chair before obeying the request. "Tell me what troubles you," asked the king as he closed his book.
The prince shook his head as he stared at the floor. "I'm sorry, your majesty, it's because of me that Duke Hathen is dead." The flame flickered on the wick of the candle. "I charged the barbarians prematurely and ended up stuck in the mud with the enemy all around me. Hathen led the counter-attack that saved my life... and paid for it with his own." The young man swallowed hard. "I will accept any punishment for the loss of your most loyal duke."
The king put the book down on the side table. "Hathen was a good friend. Before the campaign, he had written to me that this would be his last adventure into the northlands. 'Either I die in glorious battle or pass my duties to my son,' he said." A tear left the corner of the king's eye as he let out a short chuckle. "And do you know what the stories were at the banquet tonight, my son?" The king kneeled in front of his son and took his hands. "Those stories were about you rushing in to protect your men from ambush even as everyone was running the other way. You become the rearguard to the rearguard, a stonewall, and a rallying point for your army."
"No, no," cried the young man in a near whisper, "it was a complete disaster! There was so much blood, and I couldn't stop the bleeding!"
"My son, my son," the father squeezed the boy's hands, "Jason, you did stop the bleeding. Hathen gladly gave his life for you and his son did the same when he charged with you. Your charge was hasty true, but it stopped a route." The father placed his hand on his son's shoulder. The young man looked into the eyes of his father. "Don't let yourself do what the enemy couldn't; do not turn your own victory into defeat."
Word count: 1,127