Saturday, January 26, 2019

Vast and Perilous Estates ~ How to Disturb the Universe

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
– T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


            Father Caril felt triumphant. The lines had fallen into place beyond his expectation. Not only was Skandar discredited before the king, the king’s son, Prince Rhino would be exposed as unfit to rule—his condition could not be kept hidden for long. Father Caril had hastened to Canterbury where Alanar remained in seclusion in the abbey. He and the archbishop had found in Alanar everything to their liking.  It would not be difficult to present him as God’s chosen ruler. 
            Father Caril saw it in his mind’s eye. Skandar rejected as unsuitable to assume his father’s title, Rhino deemed unfit to assume his father’s throne, and the ensuing political crisis that would follow. With the future of Albion uncertain, the church would then produce its beneficent solution. Do away with the covenant and its ruling lords and establish in its place God’s anointed king—Alanar, with a betrothal to King Rheynold’s daughter to strengthen his position. Father Caril was confident that the princess would be an added inducement to secure Alanar to their side.
            The priest hummed a bit as he went to his room to take care of a final detail. He needed Alanar in London. A meeting of the king’s council was taking place the day after tomorrow that included the lords of the four provinces. During that time, the issue of the Covenant and the royal succession would be decided. Father Caril wanted Alanar close at hand, his presence undetected, ready to be revealed at a moment’s notice. Father Caril thought of a way it could be done and was going to leave for Winchester within the hour.  Truly, the lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places. 


            Two of the king’s guards were securing the castle for the night. They stopped by the door of Rhino’s room and knocked. 
            “Enter,” said a muffled voice. One of them poked his head in and saw the physician’s attendant. She was seated by Rhino’s bed with her back to the door. 
            “He is asleep,” she said, without turning her head. A prominent snore came from the bed. The guard shut the door, assured that all was well. As soon as the guards’ footsteps died away, the “attendant” pulled off her veil, exposing Wilfred’s flaming hair.  Skandar threw off the covers and the two of them went to the balcony off Rhino’s room.  Attached to the balcony was a ladder made of rope, which extended to the balcony below.  Wilfred and Skandar scrambled down the ladder and landed on quiet feet in Skandar’s room. Elbert was waiting for them with Rhino. It had not been difficult to persuade Rhino to make his way down the ladder; he offered no resistance to anyone or anything. Now all they had to do was wait for Trevor’s signal.

            The guard on duty had just finished his final rounds and was settled in for the night. After a while, he heard faint strains of music and the sound of singing. He frowned to himself and decided to investigate. He followed the music down the length of the corridor and around a corner into a small alcove. Sitting on a stool was Trevor, playing his harp. At the sight of the guard, Trevor immediately arose, overturning his stool and dropping his harp on the ground, causing a racket.
            “I beg your pardon,” gasped Trevor. “I did not think anyone would be in this part of the castle.” He turned soulful eyes to the guard. “You see, I need practice my music but…but the other boys make fun of me so I have to do it in secret, where they won’t hear. But I will go if I disturb you.”  Trevor sighed as he picked up his harp and made as if to leave.
            “Wait,” said the guard, “that will not be necessary. There is no one here about, and I would welcome a song, if you have one.”
            Trevor beamed. “That I have,” he said.

            Back in Skandar’s room, Wilfred, who had his ear to the door, heard the sound of the stool and harp crashing to the floor.
             “That’s the signal; let’s go,” he said.
            He eased opened the door just enough to allow Skandar, Elbert, and an unresisting Rhino to pass; then he followed. Wilfred and Elbert supported Rhino under either arm so that his feet barely skimmed the ground, and the four of them proceeded on tiptoe down the corridor, passing by the corner in which Trevor was entertaining the guard. Trevor gave a slight wink as the boys hurried past and increased the volume of his singing. The boys reached the door that led to the private garden, and Skandar pulled out the key that Amalia had given him. He unlocked the door, and they all entered the garden. Then they felt their way down the tunnel where Amalia was waiting. Skandar unlocked the second gate.
            “Where is Trevor?” Amalia whispered.
            “He should be here presently,” answered Skandar. 
            Sure enough, after a few minutes, they could here the sounds of unsteady feet stumbling down the tunnel. It was Trevor.
            “Whew,” he said, “It was a good thing for us that the guard was a music lover.  He actually wanted to sing with me.”
            “How did you get rid of him?”
            “I told him I would give him music lessons in the morning.”
            “Hush,” said Amalia. “Follow me.”

            It was nearing midnight, and the streets of London were dark. A fog had descended on the town, which effectively obscured the six figures moving furtively through back streets and alleys from any inquisitive eyes. Amalia’s route led the brothers to the outskirts of town, down a lonely street that led to a mill. There were no lights in the cottage nearby; nevertheless, Amalia motioned for silence as she took the boys around to the back of the mill and in through a side door. Once inside, they seated themselves in a circle with Amalia facing Rhino. The latter showed no interest in his surroundings nor gave any indication that he was aware of the others.
            “When I enter Rhino’s world, my body will probably go limp so don’t panic,” said Amalia. “Just make sure I don’t bump my head. I do not know what I will find there or how Rhino will react, so you must be ready to grab him and hold him, if necessary. May the Great Good guide me.”
             Amalia then took a deep breath and gently took Rhino by the hand.


            Amalia looked around.  She was in a world of washed out color, indistinct shades of brown. The landscape spread before her like a vast moor, unbroken by rock or tree.  She walked a pace or two, searching for Rhino. In the distance she spotted a tiny figure on the horizon. She ran to it; it was Rhino, sitting on a tree stump, kicking his heels.
            “Hello, Rhino,” she said. The boy lifted vacant eyes to hers. “My name is Amalia.”
            He made no response. Amalia stood in front of him, arms akimbo.  
            “Rhino, I’m Amalia,” she repeated, “This is a dull place. I want you to take me somewhere else.”
            Rhino shook his head. “I don’t know where to go. What other place is there?”
            “The brine fields, I want you to take me to the brine fields. Come on, now, you can do it.”
            “The brine fields? Why do you want to go there?”  Amalia was encouraged. So far he had asked her two questions.
            “I have never seen the brine fields,” she answered. “I am curious. Please?”
            Rhino looked at her as he would a bothersome gnat. “Very well; here are the brine fields.”
            Instantly the landscape changed. Rhino and Amalia were on a large, sandy beach marked with pits over which the tide ebbed and flowed. Waves crashed into nearby rocks.
            “Those waves look treacherous. Has anyone ever drowned in them?” asked Amalia.
            Rhino gazed out over the waters. His eyes narrowed as he mind edged toward a memory. The surf crept forward and soaked Rhino’s feet. His face registered recognition.
            “Yes,” he said. “Once, Trevor got swept away by the surf. He wasn’t paying attention, as usual, and the waves just knocked him over. I had to go in after him. It nearly drowned us both but we made it; we made it out alive!”
            Rhino looked pointedly at Amalia. “I have a brother, you know—a brother named Trevor. I saved Trevor from the waves, and now I must look out for him.”
            “How wonderful it is,” said Amalia, “that you have a brother! Do you have any other brothers?”
            Rhino’s expression became dull. “No, I only have Trevor. Is that all? Are you content now that you have seen the brine fields?”
            “No, I am done with the brine fields. I want to go somewhere else. Will you take me to…the town of York? Do you know it?”
            Rhino snorted.  “Of course, I know it. See? Here it is.”
            Amalia and Rhino were standing in the middle of a village square. Streets and alleys sprouted in all directions.
            “It looks very confusing,” said Amalia. “I suppose one can easily get lost. I’ll bet even you could lose your way in such a maze as this.”
            “Is that what you think?” said Rhino. “Come, I’ll show you.”  Rhino grabbed Amalia by the hand and began pulling her through alleys and over fences and under wagons and around carts.
            “You act like you have been this way before,” panted Amalia.
            “I have,” shouted Rhino, over his shoulder. “It was in the midst of a battle and I was pursuing one of Wilfred’s sisters.”
            “Who is Wilfred?”
            “Don’t you know? Wilfred is my brother.  He is…” Rhino pulled up short.  He laughed. “I have a brother named Wilfred.  Trevor and I were saving him from his sisters—he has too many of them, you know.”
            “So you have two brothers.  Have you any others?”
            “No,” said Rhino, lightly, “just Trevor and Wilfred.  Come, I’ll show you more.”  Rhino tugged once more on Amalia’s hand but she pulled back.
            “If you don’t mind, I think I have seen enough of York to last a lifetime. I have a mind to see another city. I want to see Caerleon. Please, take me there.”
            “NO!” said Rhino, dropping Amalia’s hand.  He stood in front of her with his arms folded across his chest. “I will not go there and that is the end of it.”
            “Oh, you are so stubborn. Well, if you will not take to me Caerleon, will you take me to Winchester instead?”
            “Hmmm.” Rhino eyed Amalia with suspicion. She stared back in wide-eyed innocence.
            “Winchester is alright, I suppose,” said Rhino grudgingly. “But if you don’t like it, don’t complain to me.”
            Winchester turned out to be a library filled with books. Amalia gazed in wonder at the towering shelves.
            “What a marvelous place,” she whispered. “What did you do here?”
            Rhino’s face shone. “This is where my brothers and I learned about art; it was here that we learned about the Golden Ratio and how to draw.”
            “And what did you draw?”
            “Oh, all kinds of things. We had to divide a line in perfect proportions; then we drew a vanishing point. But none of us could compare to Elbert. He drew the most amazing pictures of the miracles of Jesu—so realistic, so full of compassion.”
            Rhino’s face clouded.  “But not everyone saw them for the wonders that they were. There was one who wanted to destroy them.” He looked at Amalia. “Elbert is my brother, you see, and I had to save his drawings from the fire, for Elbert’s sake.”  Rhino smiled.  “I have three wonderful brothers: Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert. I would do anything for them.”
            “Then, for their sakes, would you take me to Caerleon?”
            “NO! Stop bothering me about that place because I am not going to take you there!”  Rhino stomped to a corner of the room and leaned against the wall, sulking.
            Oh, bother! thought Amalia. This is awfully frustrating. I need to get him to Skandar. Think, Amalia, think!
            Presently, her face cleared.  She knew what do to. She sidled over to Rhino, still pouting in the corner.
             “I thought of another place to go—somewhere IN…TER…EST…ING.”
            “Oh? And where is that?”
            “I want to go to the cave.”


            Inside the mill, Skandar sat with Amalia’s body in his arms. Rhino sat with his head bowed, and his hands relaxed. A few times a smile played across his lips, and once he laughed aloud, nearly causing Wilfred to jump out of his skin, but other than that, he remained motionless and silent.
            “I say, Skandar,” whispered Trevor, “Amalia looks terribly pale and her skin is like ice.” He held Amalia’s hand and raised it to his mouth, trying to warm it with his breath. “How long do you think this will take?”
            “I have no idea; we must trust Amalia to know what she is doing.”
            Trevor made no response but continued to warm Amalia’s hand as he and the others kept their silent vigil.


            “Is it much farther?” called Amalia. She was following Rhino up a deer trail on a densely thicketed hill.
            “Not much,” was the reply. There followed several more minutes of climbing in a silence broken only by the crackling of twigs underfoot and the sounds of labored breathing.
            “Here it is,” Rhino said at last. In two strides, Amalia reached Rhino’s side at the mouth of a cave. Without a word, he turned and went inside, Amalia following. The two of them slowly moved toward the interior, rotating their bodies in a circle, eyes sweeping the vault overhead. Rhino paused and shrugged.
            “Are you satisfied?  As you can see, it’s not much to look at.  What did you expect to find here?”
            “I heard this cave contained magic.” Rhino started at the word.
            “Magic? Oh, no, it’s just an ordinary cave.” He made for the entrance.
            “Wait, Rhino, please wait,” said Amalia. “I know there is magic here. I can feel it, and I suspect that you can, too. What was it like, the day you came here? What was it like to know magic? Won’t you please tell me what happened? Were you with your brothers, Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert?  Did they know it as well?”
             Amalia bombarded Rhino with her questions; her voice was insistent, demanding. Rhino could tell that he would get no respite unless he told her everything so that she would realize there was no magic in the cave.
            “Alright! Enough! If you must know, I was here with Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert.  We sat in a circle in the center of the cave, like this.” Rhino plopped on the ground; Amalia joined him.
            “Then we joined hands and talked about the story.”
            “What story?” Silence. “I said, what story?”
            “The story of David and Jonathan.”
            “Tell me the story.” Silence. “Rhino, I insist you tell me the story.”
            There was a long pause; then in a low voice Rhino began.
             “David and Jonathan were friends who loved one another like brothers. One day, Jonathan’s father, the king, grew angry with David and wanted to kill him. But Jonathan would not let him…he…he refused his father. He protected David from his father’s wrath. He faced his father’s anger himself rather than let him harm his brother…his father cursed him but he found a way to save David…he…saved him. He saved his brother…he saved Skandar…he…I…”
            Rhino raised his head and looked at Amalia, his face twisted by grief and shame. Tears streamed down his cheeks; Rhino rose to his feet with his hands clenched at his side.
            “But I didn’t!” he shouted. “I did not protect Skandar. I have a brother named Skandar, but I did not save him. I saved Trevor; I saved Wilfred; I saved Elbert, but Skandar I did not save. Oh, what have I done? What have I done? My beloved brother, Skandar!” 
            He remained standing, immobile; the sounds of his weeping filled and echoed off the walls and ceiling of the cave. Amalia stood in front of him and grabbed him by the shoulders.
            “Rhino, listen to me. You did save Skandar—you saved his very soul. Think!  Think of what you did that day in the cave!”  She gave Rhino a shake.  “You can remember. What did you feel?  What did you see?  What did you do?”  Rhino’s body trembled. Amalia could hear his ragged breathing. His words made their tortured way through Rhino’s lips. 
            “I remember thinking about the story and about having a brother…I thought about Skandar and about his brother, Alanar.  Skandar had to give up his brother Alanar in order to become mine. As I thought about that, it did not seem fair. Why should Skandar have to shut Alanar out of his life?”   Rhino’s breathing grew faster.
            “So I suggested to Trevor, Wilfred, Elbert, and Skandar that we make Alanar our brother, too.  So we did—right here in this cave—we swore fealty and love to Alanar.”
            “Rhino,” said Amalia quietly, “when you did, you saved Skandar, too. Your actions that day returned to Skandar the heart that had been taken from him. Don’t you see? You saved Skandar.” 
            Rhino raised his eyes to Amalia, his face a study in wonder as understanding enlightened his heart.          
            “I did, didn’t I?  He threw his arms about Amalia in a healing embrace.
            “Amalia,” he said, the light of love shining in his eyes, “I want you to know that I have five brothers:  Trevor, Wilfred, Elbert, Skandar, and Alanar.” Then he laughed out loud; his laughter rang through the cave and floated down the hill. Amalia joined in laughter with him. Then she and Rhino left the cave and walked into the sunshine. Hand in hand they trotted back down the deer trail to the bottom of the hill.
            “Well, then,” she said, “Don’t you think it’s time you went back to your brothers?”
            “Oh, yes. Where are they? Which was do we go?”
            Amalia stiffened.  “What do you mean ‘which way do we go’? You’re the guide.  I want you to take me back now—back to your brothers.”
            Rhino pulled up short. “I don’t know the way back. I thought you did.”
            A faint thrill of fear passed through Amalia.  If Rhino did not know how to get back, then what would happen? She ran through the litany of what Rhino’s brothers had told her.
            Essex, Northumbria, Kent, and Wales, she thought. We have been to all of them.  Rhino has acknowledged all of his brothers—he remembers. What else is there?  Then she had an idea.  She took a deep breath and called with a loud voice, “MOUNTAIN HORSE!  HELP!  WE NEED HELP!”
            “What was that for?” asked Rhino, startled. 
            “You’ll see,” answered Amalia. “It’s someone who can help us.” Both of them looked about, trying to catch sight of the expected help, but Mountain Horse did not come. Flummoxed, Amalia sat on the ground with her chin in her hand. Rhino sat beside her.
            “Oh, bother,” she said. “It’s probably because he is in my world.”
            “Who is where?” asked Rhino. “What are you talking about?”
            “Oh, never mind.  I need to think.”  Amalia put her head in her hands. Presently she looked up.   
            “Rhino,” she asked, “is there some place that you never told your brothers about?  I mean, a secret place that you alone know?” Rhino averted his eyes.
            “Is there?” Amalia eyed him suspiciously. A ghost of a smirk played on Rhino’s mouth.
            “There is!” she cried. Amalia leaped to her feet. She grabbed Rhino’s hands and pulled him up.
            “Rhino, this is important.  If we are ever going to get back home, you must take me to your secret place. I promise I will tell no one about it.  Rhino, do you trust me?”
            “Well…” Rhino grinned. “It has been a secret a long time. Promise you’ll never tell?”
            Amalia nodded.
             “Well, then…here it is,” Rhino said with a flourish.
            The next instant, Amalia and Rhino were in a large room with high ceilings. A massive oak table was in the center of the room, its polished surface reflecting the light of the candles overhead. The hearth was burning brightly. All around the walls were hung richly woven tapestries.
            “What place is this?” asked Amalia.
            “This is the king’s council chamber.” Rhino walked over to one of the tapestries.  “And this,” he said, “ is my secret hiding place. He drew back the fabric, and out leaped hedgehog.  It went straight for Amalia. 


            Back at the mill, Rhino suddenly opened wide his eyes. He threw himself on Amalia, his hands reaching for her throat.
             “IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!  IF IT WASN’T FOR YOU, NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED!” he shouted, all the while throttling Amalia’s limp body.  Wilfred and Elbert were caught off guard; it took them precious seconds to realize what Rhino was doing. They leaped on Rhino and began prying his hands from Amalia’s neck.  He fought as one possessed.
            In the meantime, Trevor joined Wilfred and Elbert in wrestling with Rhino; between the three of them, they managed to pull Rhino off Amalia and hold him, struggling, on the floor.


            “Rhino!” gasped Amalia, “You have got to grab hold of this creature. Hold it and demand to know its name!” But Rhino remained rooted to the spot, his eye wide with terror.
            “LET ME BE!” roared the hedgehog. “I HAVE NO NAME!  I WILL NEVER HAVE A NAME!”  It redoubled its assault on Amalia and raised its sharp quills so that they began to pierce her arms, hands, and chest, drawing blood.
            “RHINO! Grab it!  Grab hold of this animal! If you don’t, neither of us will get home. NOW!  DO IT!”
             Still Rhino hesitated. The hedgehog was a veritable monster, a screaming, writhing, whirlwind of teeth, claws, and quills. Amalia was weakening.
            “I cannot hold it any longer. You must help me. Please, Rhino.”  Amalia’s voice trailed off, and she released her hold. The hedgehog turned to flee but found itself in Rhino’s strong arms instead.

            “Mole!  Mole!” cried Skandar, holding her close. Amalia’s eyes remained closed; her body lifeless in his arms. Trevor, Elbert, and Wilfred were barely managing to subdue Rhino who continued to kick and thrash about, yelling at the top of his lungs.  Suddenly, Rhino’s body went rigid. He face was a mask of pain as his heart walked in unseen agony.


            The fury the hedgehog unleashed on Amalia was nothing compared to the attack it launched on Rhino. It seemed to have increased in size so that it threatened to crush Rhino, who maintained his hold on it. Its teeth were knives at Rhino’s throat; its claws raked his arms, his face, and his back; its quills were a thousand arrows that pierced his heart. The only thing that kept Rhino steadfast against the onslaught was the thought of his brothers—and Amalia.  He cast a quick glance at her, slumped on the floor.  He had to get her back to where she belonged.
            “What is your name!” he demanded.  he hedgehog snarled and scratched.
            “WHAT IS YOUR NAME!” he shouted. The hedgehog kicked and roared.
            “I HAVE NO NAME!”
            “YES, YOU DO!”  Suddenly, Rhino knew! “YOUR NAME IS RHINO!”
            The hedgehog immediately ceased its rampage; it seemed to diminish in size; its claws retracted and its quills smoothed themselves. Hedgehog rested its head against Rhino’s bruised and bloody chest.
            “Yes, it is,” it said. “Now take Amalia home. Follow me.”
            Hedgehog leaped lightly from Rhino’s arms and headed toward the tapestry.  Rhino hurried over to Amalia. 
            “Amalia,” he said, lifting her in his arms, “all is well. I am taking you back. Can you put your arm about my neck?” Amalia nodded weakly.
            Rhino carried Amalia to the tapestry that Hedgehog had pulled aside. With a final nod at Hedgehog, Rhino stepped into the alcove. It was dark except for a light that shone through the window of a small cottage. It illuminated the outline of a mill. Rhino ran in haste to the mill carrying his precious burden.


            Rhino’s body relaxed; he looked around him. He was still held fast by Wilfred, Trevor, and Elbert. 
            “Where is Amalia,” he cried. “Amalia, where are you?”  His voice was frantic.  He saw Skandar who was bent over; he appeared to be weeping.
            “Amalia, are you here? Skandar, where is Amalia?  Trevor, Wilfred, help me!”
            “I’m here, Rhino.” An arm waved about weakly. “I will be well if Skandar doesn’t smother me.”
            At Amalia’s words, Skandar straightened up, revealing Amalia still in his arms.  Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert were so startled they forgot to restrain Rhino who hurried over to Amalia. Before anyone could prevent him, he grabbed both her hands and kissed them. Then he looked at Skandar.
            “Skandar, I plan on apologizing most handsomely for my behavior to you and will spend the rest of my life making amends; but right now, we need to see to Amalia. I noticed a light on in the cottage; we should take her there.” 
            Skandar looked stunned for a few heartbeats; then he nodded. He and Rhino gently picked up Amalia and made their way to the cottage, the other boys following.
            Wilfred banged on the door of the cottage. 
            “Hallo, there! We need help. Will you let us in?” 
            The door opened, and they all hurried inside. Seated at a table were Derwin the miller, his wife Margery, Beatrice, and Hosten. Upon seeing the boys, Hosten rose at once.
            “How is she?” he asked. In response, Amalia smiled at her uncle.
            “Hello, Uncle. Fancy seeing you here.”
            Margery motioned to Rhino and Skandar. 
            “You may bring her in here.” They followed her into a small bedroom and laid Amalia on the bed. Then all five of the boys stood around anxiously as Beatrice examined Amalia. Hosten came to her side and gently laid his hand on her head. After a few minutes, he smiled.
            “Well, my dear, you have been off exploring, haven’t you?” Amalia grinned mischievously, though her face was still wan.  Hosten then turned to the brothers, smiling.
            “Am I correct in assuming this is Trevor, Wilfred, Elbert, Rhino, and the famous Skandar?”

            Later that night, Hosten guided the five brothers through the streets of London and back to the castle. Along the way, the brothers relived in hushed voices the events of the evening. They told Rhino about Wilfred in his attendant’s dress and Skandar’s imitation of Rhino sleeping and Trevor’s diversion of the guard. Rhino was sufficiently impressed. 
            “The rope ladder sounds like one of Skandar’s brilliant inventions,” he said.
            “You should have been there, Rhino,” whispered Wilfred. “I mean, you were there but you weren’t…well, you know what I mean.”
            When they reached the tunnel, Hosten stopped and took each boy by the hand.  Even in the dark, they could discern his look of approval.   
            “Farewell,” he said. “This night’s work is not yet done.” 
            Then he disappeared into the darkness. The brothers made their way back into the castle and crept stealthily down the corridor that led to Skandar’s room. Then Rhino and Skandar climbed up the ladder to Rhino’s room for their own private meeting. 

            The mood in the council chamber was grim.  The last time there was a meeting of the full council was when Rheynold was crowned king. At that time, the Archbishop of Canterbury was not in attendance; he was today. Another addition to the council was Father Caril, who stood unnoticed in a dark corner of the room. As was the usual custom, there was no talk among the members until the king opened the discussion. They all waited in silence for his entrance. Lord Lokinvar, Lord Vortimer, Lord Ethelred, and Lord William occasionally exchanged brief glances, and Bishop Pascent kept his head bowed and hands folded in a semblance of saintliness. The other council members studiously avoided looking at anyone or anything, thus producing a constant cacophony of shifting robes, rustling papers, creaking chairs, and discreet coughs. At length they heard the sound of King Rheynold’s approaching footsteps down the corridor. They all rose when he entered the room.
            “Be seated,” he said. “My lords and members of the Church, at the behest of the Lord Terlian, I have summoned this council. His request included an invitation to the Lords of the four provinces and Archbishop Cecil of Canterbury, so we will now hear the reasons for this council.”
            Then he, too, sat down and waited. A titter of dismay swept around the table.  Those who had been most adamant to meet were reluctant to broach the subject foremost on their minds. They were counting on the king to fire the first salvo so that they could respond. King Rheynold was aware of this and intended to give no support to their agenda. Several uncomfortable minutes passed. At length, Lord Varyk indicated he wished to be recognized.
            “Your Majesty,” he said, “allow me to express my condolences for Rhino’s unfortunate condition.”  (Everyone noticed his omission of the title.)  “From what I understand, it is linked in some part to an incident with Skandar, one of his ‘brothers.’  Therefore, it seems fitting to discuss what can be done in such a case as this.” 
            Lord Lokinvar shifted in his chair but said nothing. Lord Gorlas saw his opportunity to support Lord Varyk.
            “As minister of the archives, I have spent the last week researching the covenant for any precedent in which a king is deemed unfit to rule before assuming the throne. In generations past, there have been two or three examples of ruling kings relieved of their duty but in those cases, there was an heir waiting in the wings, so to speak, that could assume the throne. Rhino at this time is the heir, but he may not be fit to rule?”
            “Before you lightly cast my son aside, you would do well to remember that Albion currently has a king on the throne who is very well fit to serve,” King Rheynold said with a hint of menace.
            “Sire, if I may,” said Bishop Pascent. “We are not suggesting that Rhino be put away at this time. Instead, we must consider the more profound issue—that being the course of events that brought about this unhappy situation. We must consider that we have been given a warning, a sign from God, that we are tampering with His divine will.”
            “And what would that be?” asked Lord Lokinvar quietly.
            “My lord.” Bishop Pascent was trembling. “You have raised two fine sons; there is no question about that. But the elder, Alanar, not the younger, Skandar, is God’s chosen vessel, as difficult as it may be for you to acknowledge. It was because of Skandar’s heedless conduct that Rhino was put in a compromising situation. I understand that this is not the first time such a thing has occurred. Skandar is a good lad, but he has not demonstrated the qualities of leadership that Albion requires. The Almighty knows this and has seen fit to reveal the consequences of disregarding His will before it is too late.”
            At this, Lord William and Lord Vortimer rose to their feet.
            “You dare hide behind the will of God in your judgment of Skandar,” cried Lord William. “You know nothing of him, of Rhino, or of any of the other brothers.” He turned to the king. “Your Majesty, what sham is this that we allow these men to speak so about our sons. If we allow these accusations against Skandar, then any one of them could be unfairly and unjustly condemned.”
            “Peace, my lords,” said King Rheynold. “No one is being condemned. As I said, this council was called because some of its members had something they wished to discuss. At this time, we will hear all voices. But the fact remains that Prince Rhino is the heir to the throne and that Lord Skandar, Lord Wilfred, Lord Elbert, and Lord Trevor will assume their titles as lords of the four provinces at that time. So is the decree of the covenant.”
            “The covenant!” Archbishop Cecil spat out the word in contempt. “The covenant is a weak and fading document, a pathetic remnant of another time.”  He looked at the faces around the table.
            “Are you so blind that you cannot see the writing on the wall. God has judged Albion and has found it wanting. For six hundred years, He has been waiting patiently for the people of Albion to cast off the chains of heathen rituals and embrace the truth of the gospel. For six hundred years, the rulers of Albion have been allowed to disregard the teachings of the Church, God’s divine institution on earth.”
            “But that time is over. God will see His will done in Albion as it is in heaven. Go then, place your broken prince upon the throne. His reign will be short and bloody as Albion’s enemies swarm like a plague over the land. Then you will know the wrath of God and suffer His judgment.”
            “Your Majesty,” pleaded Lord Gorlas, “must we put our faith in the covenant so exclusively and run the risk of its betraying us? Can we not consider what the Church has to say regarding Albion’s future? I am sure that we all desire the same outcome—the peace and prosperity of Albion. Who are we to say that this outcome might not need the guiding hand of the Church?”
            “You would allow the Pope and his minions to dictate the course of events?”  Lord Vortimer asked sardonically. “What shining examples of leadership do we see coming from Rome? How well have the people of Normandie, of Brittany, and of Gaul prospered under its rule? As for me, I would rather stand by the covenant which has served us well since its inception than trust in the tender mercies of the Church.”
            A multitude of voices rose instantly at his words, some supporting Lord Vortimer’s position while others argued against it. Father Caril listened to the conflicting words patiently. A few minutes more and he would make his move. Focusing on the thoughts of those present, Father Caril was weighing to a nicety the precise moment when his proposal would have the most impact. A little while more and…now.  He slowly emerged from the shadows. He probed into the minds of those at the table as he made his approach, commanding their attention.  By the time he reached the table, every voice was stilled. All eyes were on the priest.
            “Your Majesty, my lords,” he quietly began. “There has been, I think, a misunderstanding.  It is not God’s will to overthrow the covenant. It is a good document and one that should be upheld and honored. Rather, God’s plan is to work through the covenant. The Church has no desire to rule Albion. Let the covenant still rule Albion but as a new covenant in place of the old.  ‘Behold, old things are passed away; I make all things new.’  That is the message of Jesu. He makes all things new. In his mercy and goodness, the Almighty God is poised to establish a new covenant in which His appointed king will rule Albion in truth, in honor, and in power.”
            Father Caril’s voice was seductive; his words a soothing balm to the wounded spirits. A picture insinuated itself into the minds of those present.  A golden throne, a mighty warrior upholding peace and prosperity—a young man tall and straight whose raven hair flowed around a fair face and out of whose eyes shone knowledge and wisdom.  Oh, that Albion could have such a king!
            “My lords,” continued Father Caril. 
            “NO!” The door of the council chamber flew open. In walked Rhino, Skandar, Wilfred, Elbert, Trevor…and Alanar.
            Rhino and his brothers bowed to the assembly.
            “We apologize that we are late,” he said. “Did we miss anything”
There was a shocked silence. Father Caril stood rooted to the floor.  Then Lord Terlian rose from his seat.
            “This is a private council. There is nothing here that concerns you.”
            “Oh, I think there is quite a bit that concerns the lads,” interposed Lord Ethelred, “and I, for one, wish to hear what they have to say.”  He followed his words with pointed look at Rheynold.
            “My lord Terlian, we will listen as Lord Ethelred has suggested.”  Rheynold held up his hand against Lord Terlian’s protest. Then he nodded at Rhino.
            “Thank you, your Grace,” he said. Rhino then addressed the council.
            “We are aware that there has been a long-raging debate over who or what should rule Albion, the covenant or the Church. The issue seems unresolvable. It has provoked some to such a degree that they would propose that Alanar be installed as king by order of the Church, thus overthrowing the covenant.”  Father Caril blanched and backed slowly away from the table. Rhino paid him no heed and continued.
            “We come to this council today with our own question. Why? Why must it be one or the other? Here you sit debating over how Albion should be governed. Whether by the covenant or the Church, the outcome is still the same. Thousands of men, women, and children are told how they must live their lives.  Why must that be?”
            “Without the rule of a recognized authority, people will resort to lawlessness,” protested Lord Preban, minister of justice.
            “And who would trade with an ungoverned and ungovernable country?” asked Lord Gwyhedd, minister of commerce.
            “Our financial stability would suffer and poverty would eventually overtake the land,” said Lord Ulfin, minister of the treasury.
            “Rhino,” asked Lord Lokinvar, “are you prepared to answer your question?”
            Rhino smiled.  “Yes, my lord,” he said.  He nodded at Alanar.
            “Your Grace, my lords,” began Alanar  “It has been suggested that God has chosen me as the prince’s brother and the future Lord of Wales.  he first part is true; I am the prince’s brother by the will of God but not by the decree of the Church. Rather, God’s will has been accomplished by the outpouring of brotherly love from Rhino, Trevor, Wilfred, Elbert, and Skandar. They have embraced me as one of them, and I am honored to be their brother. However, the second part is false. It cannot be God’s will that I inherit my father’s title because if it were, I would recognize it. I am only just learning about the God of the Christian church, but I know this: God’s chosen vessels are made aware of his plans for them—even if it takes a blinding flash of light, a burning bush, or a voice from heaven. I have received no such message from God, not even a still, small voice.  Moreover, I am not fitted by temperament or desire to inherit my father’s title. To suggest otherwise is an error.”
            Elbert stepped forward. 
            “My lords, according to the Scriptures God created us with a free will. In the story of the creation, a man and a woman were allowed to make a choice—whatever the outcome. The Church teaches that they chose evil.  Perhaps that is so. The point is that God allowed them a choice, knowing that they might choose to their destruction, and if the Almighty was willing to take such a chance, why shouldn’t we as well?” 
            Lord Ethelred’s mouth twitched to stifle a smile.
            “The thing is, we gotta let the people of Albion decide if they want the covenant,” said Wilfred. “See, there’s a lot of good, decent folk who work, play, cry, and laugh and do all sorts of things to make a life for themselves and for their families. Who are we to go muck it up for them by forcing them to do what they probably would want to do anyway?  Does that make sense?”
            “No!” said Trevor and Skandar in unison.
            “What Wilfred means is, the people of Albion are the covenant,” said Trevor. “It is interwoven in the fabric of their lives. It’s the difference between hearing a story and living it. The people of Albion live by the principles of the covenant. We must trust they will continue to do so if they are given the choice.  For some of them, that choice means abiding by the teachings of the Church. They do not need a set of complicated rules to order their behavior.”
            “So it doesn’t really matter who sits on the throne or who wears the crown,” said Skandar, flanked on either side by Rhino and Alanar. “It could be Rhino or Alanar or anyone else—even me. What matters is that people of Albion have leaders who love them, who will serve them and look out for their best interest to the point of laying down their lives for them. Whatever this council decides, we are committed to serve the people of Albion.”
            The men of the council said nothing. Archbishop Cecil was livid. These young upstarts had effectively tipped his hand. That fool of a priest had set him up for ruin. He wanted to bolt from the room but could not do so without drawing undue attention. He looked about for Father Caril, but he was nowhere to be seen. The minutes crawled by.  Still no one said a word. Finally, Lord Lokinvar rose from his seat and walked over to Alanar and Skandar.  Placing a hand on each one’s shoulder, he looked at the council members.
            “I stand with my sons,” he said.
            Then Lord William, Lord Vortimer, and Lord Ethelred also rose and positioned themselves behind Wilfred, Trevor, and Elbert. All eyes turned to King Rheynold. He remained in his seat, his face pale and drawn. Fear was battling with love. Then Rhino walked over to the king and stationed himself behind his chair. 
            “I stand with my father,” he said. 
            As if on cue, Trevor, Wilfred, Elbert, Skandar, and Alanar took their fathers by the arm and escorted them to the table. The five brothers of both generations stood ringed about the council members in solidarity. Rhino smiled at his brothers with calm assurance. He then looked at the king. Rheynold slowly lifted his eyes to Rhino and beheld what was written on his face.  He rose from his chair and threw his arms around his son.

            It was the end of a weeklong celebration of Rhino’s thirteenth year. There were feasts and games and dramas; Trevor had favored the gathered nobles and officials with a tale of a lost prince who was found in a snowdrift. To his great delight, Malcolm was invited to sing at one of the banquets. King Rheynold’s guests found Malcolm’s songs and tales highly entertaining. He remarked later to his wife and son that he never saw so many noble gums flapping.
             When not with their fathers or attending special engagements, Trevor, Skandar, Rhino, Wilfred, and Elbert spent as much time as they could with Amalia, who gave them her own tour of London. They saw the many sights and sounds that comprised her world—they even engaged in a fierce battle with the children of Moor Gate (which ended in a draw.) They found time to visit Derwin the miller and Margery and learn of Henry William.
            Alanar returned to Caerleon with Lord Lokinvar. He still was fascinated by the library at the monastery in Tyne and requested permission to return there. In Brother Simon, he recognized a soul not unlike Skandar’s and desired to strengthen the acquaintance. Princess Rhiannon also was of the party, having gained permission from her father for an extended stay with her Aunt Rhowena. If King Rheynold noticed that the distance from Caerleon to Tyne was half the distance from London to Tyne, he made no mention of it.

            The evening after Lord Lokinvar’s departure from London, Amalia was sitting in the kitchen with her uncle and aunt and her cousin, Sybil.
            “So, Amalia,” said Hosten, “are you quite sure you want to remain in London?  The sights and the smells will probably remain the same.”
            “Yes, Uncle,” replied Amalia.  “After what happened in Rhino’s world, I realize I am in need of much further training. Think of it! I could have been lost there forever.”  She shuddered.
            “Your aunt and I would have taken steps to see that did not happen.”
            “But if you knew all along what I was about, why did you allow it in the first place?”
            “Choice, my dear. It’s all about choice. You had to learn by experience. If I had prevented your actions or interfered with them, you would only then have to learn what you needed to learn at another time and another place. The Great Good sees to that.”
            “But what is to prevent someone from engaging in all sorts of dangerous or evil behaviors just for the experience of it? Should I jump off a cliff to learn what it is like?”
            “I grant you, there is the temptation to adopt such an attitude. However, usually that sort of thinking is a sign that something is broken inside. When the mind, heart, and body are in agreement, the choices they make are for the good. Take your choice to remain in London. You have realized that there is still much for you to learn and so you have chosen to stay. And we won’t even mention the fact that Skandar and his brothers will continue their education in London for the next year.”
            Amalia nonchalantly sipped her tea. She peered at her uncle over her teacup.
            “And what about you, Uncle Hosten? How is it that you knew where to find Alanar? Were you doing a bit of exploring yourself?”
            Uncle Hosten’s eyes twinkled.
            “Oh, I have my own ways of knowing.”

Next Week: Epilogue