Saturday, January 19, 2019

Those Vast and Perilous Estates


“…Their bodies – those vast and perilous estates,
pulsating with the energy that made the worlds…”
– C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters




            Paralyzed with shock and dismay, Amalia watched the entourage continue up the street to the castle. 
            What had just happened?  One moment was all joy and laughter and the next was filled with tension and animosity. 
            With tears blinding her eyes, Amalia pushed her way through the remaining crowd and hurried home. Once there, she burst through the door and ran to her room, sobbing. Her aunt Beatrice heard the disturbance and went to Amalia’s room. She sat down on the bed next to her and gently stroked Amalia’s head.
            “Amalia, my dear, whatever is the matter?” she said.  Amalia raised her head, the very picture of misery.
            “Oh, Aunt Beatrice, it is too awful,” she said. “I was so happy to see Skunk, I mean Skandar, that I called him ‘Skunk’ in front of everybody. And then the prince came over and wanted to know what I said. When Sku..Skandar told him, he grew quiet and stern and said that I had insulted his brother. Then he told Skandar to strike me, which Skandar couldn’t do. So the prince was going to strike me himself. But when he raised his hand, I looked at him and thought, why are you doing this?  I think he heard me because then he dropped his arm and made Skandar leave with him. And now I will never see Skandar again, and it’s all my fault.”
            “My dear Mole, do not distress yourself. From your account, the prince merely acted in haste and made a mistake; but seeing as how no one was hurt, it should turn out well. It was a small error on his part.”
            Amalia shook her head. 
            “I do not think this is a small error. My heart tells me that something terrible will come of it. It seems that Skandar never told his brothers about his nickname ‘Skunk.’  Perhaps that is something he should have done. Perhaps there was a reason he did not want them to know; oh, what do I know? I know nothing except how to be stupid!” 
            Amalia burst into fresh sobs. Her aunt wisely left her to her grief. That her niece had suffered a great disappointment was evident. She needed time to sort it out. In the meantime, Beatrice would make her with a strong cup of tea.

~

            The next evening, King Rheynold sat alone in his chamber. He wanted no company, although his wife made it clear that she was displeased at her dismissal. Hours passed, and still Rheynold remained motionless. He was in agony over his son; he could not understand why he deemed such a harsh punishment necessary. He was aware of Rhino’s overwhelming distress and longed to go to him and comfort him, but he was bound by his fear that to do so would show weakness where strength was required. He was so deeply engrossed in his thoughts that it took him several seconds to notice a commotion outside his door. Voices were raised in anger; there were sounds of scuffling, and Lord Lokinvar burst into the room.
            “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY SON!” he roared. 
            He reached Rheynold in a few swift strides and pulled him up from the chair by the front of his shirt, his face inches from the king. 
            “HAVE YOU SEEN THE STATE HE IS IN?” 
            Guards rushed into the room but by the time they reached Lokinvar, he had already released his hold on Rheynold and had shoved him back into his chair. As his men laid hold of Lokinvar, Rheynold held up his hand. 
            “Leave us,” he said.  Then he stood and walked over to a window, his back to Lord Lokinvar, who remained standing, shaking with rage.
            “Your visit is most unexpected. To what do I owe the honor?” Rheynold asked quietly.
            Lokinvar could scarcely believe his ears. He walked over to Rheynold and spun him around so that both men were facing each other. 
            “I received a warning to look out for my sons. It seems that it was timely, seeing the treatment Skandar has received at your hands. How do you account for it?”
            Rheynold stifled the quick retort that rose to his lips. He had always prided himself on his honor and integrity. In truth, what justification could he give Lokinvar for his actions?
            “I would that I had an answer for you. As yet, I have found none to my satisfaction. All I can tell you is that I thought it best at the time.”  Rheynold lifted pleading eyes to his brother.
            “Lokinvar, you know yourself one of the rules of the training—that if the prince makes a mistake or an error, then his brothers are to be punished for it. We lived under the same edict ourselves. We survived.”  Lokinvar turned away in disgust.
            “We survived because of justice and fair play. Had you made the same mistake as your son, we brothers would never have suffered the punishment you inflicted on my son.  I want to know why. Why was he treated in such a manner? Have you seen him? Have you seen what you have done?”
            At this, Rheynold moved slowly over to his chair and lowered himself in it like an aged man.
            “I could not bear to,” he whispered. “I have not even seen my own son, who they tell me is in an even worse state.”
            Lokinvar asked sardonically, “How could Rhino’s condition be worse than Skandar’s?”
            There was a long pause. Then Rheynold said dully.  “Your son is battered and bruised and will heal with his love for you intact. My son is dead, killed by his hatred of me.”

~

            Rhino sat at the table with unseeing eyes. He listlessly pushed the food around the plate, taking a tiny mouthful every once in a while which he swallowed without tasting.  Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert watched in silent wariness. Since the incident with Skandar, none of the brothers had spoken to Rhino. The only time they were in his presence was at mealtimes. They ate in relative silence, speaking in hushed whispers. after two days of this, they realized that Rhino would not have responded had they raised their voices to the rooftops. Rhino was a ghost, a hollow shell that went through the motions of walking, sleeping, and eating. He did nothing else, save sit for hours in the inner courtyard. Once, in passing by the window, King Rheynold spied Rhino sitting on a bench below. A small lizard scampered up Rhino’s leg and settled on his hand, sunning itself. Rhino made no move to shoo it away or even acknowledge that the lizard was there.  Rheynold turned away in grief. Today Rhino was thirteen years of age.
            Wilfred, Trevor, and Elbert spent every hour of the day with Skandar until the physician’s servant shooed them away. Skandar was recovering quickly and was beyond delight at seeing his father. He tried to tell him about Amalia, but his mouth was too bruised for speaking. Lord Lokinvar put a finger to his lips, indicating that Skandar should not try to talk. Then he kissed him and went to see the king.
            On the third day, the brothers walked in to find Skandar dressed and sitting at a small table, eating breakfast. His face still looked dreadful, but the blackened eyes glowed with inner contentment.
            “I say, this is almost as bad as the tumble in the tannery drum,” he said, through a mouthful of bread.  Wilfred came bounding over. 
            “Well, I don’t know—perhaps the brine pits was worse. But with a face like yours, it’s hard to tell.” He pounded on Skandar’s head.  “My, but it’s banner-wavin’ good to see you up again.”
            “How are you feeling?” said Elbert.
            “Hungry! Want some food? It’s great.”
            Trevor hung back, trembling and flushed. Skandar noticed and called him over.        “Hey, Trev, come have a bite.” Trevor just shook his head. Skandar rose from table and walked over to Trevor.
            “What is it, Trevor? I honestly do feel better.”  He put an arm around Trevor, who promptly burst into tears.
            “Oh, Skandar, can you ever forgive me? I just watched what Rhino did to you and I made no move to prevent it or interfere. I am so sorry.” 
            Elbert and Wilfred dropped their heads in shame. They felt their own guilt for their unwilling participation in the incident. Skandar thought a moment and then gave Trevor shake.
            “Listen, I know what happened and how it came about. I was there; remember?  The way I see it the king gave none of us any choice in the matter, especially Rhino. I think we all did the best we could under the circumstances, even Rhino.  Speaking of Rhino, where is he?”
            The other boys exchanged significant looks.
            “Oh, he’s…around. You know, just sitting here and there,” said Elbert.
            “What do you mean ‘just sitting’? What’s he been doing? Has he said anything about it?  How is he?”
            Wilfred stepped forward. 
            “It’s like this.  Rhino…he ain’t there. I mean, his body is in the room well enough but Rhino himself, he’s just…well… gone!”
            “I think Rhino is broken,” said Trevor.  “He was alone in his room after we left to take you to the physician. The next day when we saw him, he was changed; it’s like something was taken out of him. He hasn’t said a word since to anybody.”
            Skandar’s heart was moved within him; he ached for his friend and wondered what could be done for him. Then he thought of Amalia.

~


            It was two days after Amalia’s disastrous meeting with Skandar and all that day, Amalia felt anxious, though she was hard pressed to know why. A feeling of foreboding hung over her that she could not shake. Her instincts told her that something was amiss with Skandar. That evening, as she was sewing, her mind replayed again the encounter with Skandar and Rhino.
             If only I had acted differently.  If only I could do something to make it right?  But what? 
            She scarcely attended to her work, her hands moving automatically. After a while, she thought she should check it. To her surprise, the fabric looked small, as if she were viewing it from a distance. She held her hands in front of her face; they, too, looked far away. 
            “Amalia, what is it?” 
            Amalia looked up at her aunt and uncle who were sitting across the room; how very tiny they were. 
            “Aunt Beatrice! Uncle Hosten! You seem to be very far away—has the room suddenly grown long?”
            Instantly her uncle sprang to his feet.
            “What do you mean? You said we are far away?”
            “Yes.”  Amalia frowned. “Everything is backing away from me and growing ever so tiny.”
            “Amalia,” shouted her uncle, his voice sounding faint in the distance. “Go to the inn. Go to your father’s inn. Amalia, go to the inn.”  Then everything collapsed into darkness.

~

            “Oh, bother,” groused Amalia, “where are the lights? Uncle Hosten? Aunt Beatrice?  I can’t see a thing in this room. Hello…hello…is anybody here?”
            “Oomph!  Well, I’m here; or at least I would be if you were not sitting on my head, you great lump.”
            Amalia felt a movement underneath her. Startled, she leaped up.
             “Who’s there?” she asked in a none-too-steady voice.
            “I am,” answered a rather grumpy voice.
            “Who are you? What is your name?”
            “I am myself and my name is Mole.”
            “Mole!”  Amalia exclaimed.  I’m Mole.”
            “Well then, there are two of us.  Now don’t stand there with your mouth open; follow me out of this hole into the light where we can get a look at one another.”
            “I can’t see you, much less follow you.”
            “Grab hold of my tail. Gently…gently, I say. Got it? Good, now, tread carefully after me.”
            Amalia reached out a tentative hand and felt something long, thin, and shaped like a rope. She got down on her hands and knees, and with one hand on the tail, crawled along a dirt path. It was a warm and close environment and soon her face began to bead with sweat; she felt it trickle down her back. Her legs soon started to ache from their cramped position, and her arms grew tired. 
            “Are we almost there?” she panted.
            “Just one last turn,” answered the voice. “And here we are. Let go of my tail.”
            Once she cleared the turn, Amalia saw a light from what appeared to be the entrance of a cave. She looked overhead and saw that she would be able to stand. She rose to her feet and stretched her back.  Then she walked to the entrance of the cave.  There awaiting her was a mole. Amalia walked over and held out her hand. 
            “Hello, Mole,” she said. “I am sorry I landed on your head. I did not expect it to be there.”
            “Not to worry,” said Mole. “I have had worse things land on my head. Oh, the stories I could tell you of excavations! The thrills! The dangers! But, never mind about all that. What are you doing here?”
            “I don’t exactly know what I am doing here now, but I know what I am supposed to do next. I have to go to the inn.”
            “And what inn is that?” Mole cocked her little brown head curiously.
            “It’s my father’s inn on the River Avon. My father is Virgil, the innkeeper.  Have you heard of it?”
            Mole shook her head. “I cannot say that I have, but perhaps my friend has. Shall I call him?”
            “Oh, please do.”
            Mole pattered down a path leading from the cave to a large clump of bushes and called out,
            “Skunk! Hallo, Skunk! You are wanted here.”
            Amalia’s mouth dropped open.
            “I also have a friend called Skunk,” she said.
             Presently a black and white head poked through the leaves. 
            “So there is another Skunk,” it said. “Good. I have always felt that there were too few of us.” 
            With these words, a little skunk hauled himself out of the bushes, looked up at Amalia, and then said to Mole, “What is she doing here?”
            “She is doing here whatever she needs to do to get to there, which is the inn at the River Avon. I thought you might help us.”  Skunk nodded his head. 
            “I know of the place.”  Then he shook his head.  “But I don’t know how to get there from here.”
            “Well,” said Amalia, “I am going to look around a bit to determine where I should go.”  Amalia then proceeded to thread her way down a narrow path. Mole and Skunk looked at each other and then scampered after her. The path led to a stream that Amalia started to cross. 
            “Wait!  Wait for us,” cried Skunk and Mole in unison. Amalia stopped and scooped them up in her arms; then the three of them crossed the stream. 
            “I think we should follow the stream for a while; it might lead somewhere.”  Setting the animals on the ground, Amalia walked alongside the stream until it disappeared under a clump of thick grasses. Determined to see whether the stream reappeared, Amalia leaped over the clump and landed in an unseen crevice. She immediately began tumbling head over heels down a steep slope.
             “HELP! HELP! OH BOTHER!” she yelled at the top of her lungs as she rolled with increasing speed down the slope. The force of her descent landed her on a wide expanse of sandy beach at the edge of a vast ocean. Amalia sat up, turned her head, and caught a mouthful of water. She crawled away from the water’s edge and stood up on shaky legs. Then she scanned the cliff for any sign of Mole and Skunk. She noticed a figure at the top; it looked like a horse. The horse spied Amalia and began running down the side of the cliff.
            “Mountain Horse!” cried Amalia, as the magnificent creature cantered to her side.
            “I heard your call for help,” he said.
            In the meantime, Mole and Skunk were making their way down the crevice to Amalia. When they reached her, Amalia made the proper introductions.
            “Mountain Horse, this is Skunk and Mole. Skunk and Mole, this is Mountain Horse. He helps people; that is why he is here. He is going to help me get to the inn.”
            “Before I can show you the way, you need to tell me where you are,” said Mountain Horse.
            Amalia looked around. 
            “I do not know where I am—that’s the problem.” 
            Mountain Horse merely shook his head. 
            “Be curious. Search for the truth. Look again and tell me where you are.” 
            Amalia did as he said and began looking intently about her. She looked all around her, turning slowly in every direction, allowing reality to have its way.  Then she spotted ita faint hint of rose that blushed in the distance.  She had seen that color before. It looked like…yes, it was…it was the home of Skandar, the castle by the sea that he had once shown her by magic. 
            “I know!” she said excitedly. “We are at Caerleon, where Skunk comes from.  Not you, (looking at Skunk), my Skunk—Skandar.”
            “If you will climb on my back, you will be able to guide me to the inn,” said Mountain Horse kneeling on the sand. Mole and Skunk padded over to the horse’s head.         “May we come, too?” they asked.
              Mountain Horse nodded. Amalia carefully lifted Mole and Skunk onto Mountain Horse’s back. Then she grabbed his mane and swung herself up behind them. Amalia looked dubious. How would she be able to guide Mountain Horse to the inn if she had no idea how to get there? However, as Mountain Horse rose to his feet, the land beneath his hooves started shrinking. It diminished in size until Amalia saw the country spread out below her like a map. Now she understood. She had previously traveled this way from a great height.  She leaned forward to Mountain Horse’s head. 
            “Go this way,” she said, pointing to the southeast.
~

            “Oh, my tail is rumpled from the ride,” said Skunk. He inspected it critically.  “I never seem to get it to lie smooth”
            “Rumpled is it?  Mine is in an absolute knot.” Mole tugged and pulled at her thin tail.  She noticed Amalia smiling. “Oh, you may think it is funny, but I tell you that the care of tails is serious business.”
            “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t making fun—it just sounds like how I complain about my hair.” 
            From her perch atop Mountain Horse, Amalia had successfully guided the party to a willow tree. The country around them had resumed its normal size and the four of them were resting in the shade of the tree. Amalia figured they were a few hours away from the inn. She looked around their surroundings. The day was fine and warm with just a hint of a breeze tugging at the leaves.  he willow tree was singing songs in a hushed voice, and the birds were contributing to its harmonies. Mountain Horse, Mole, and Skunk were attending to the music with a look of contentment. Then Amalia heard it; a faint coo floating on the breeze. The others seemed not to notice. Amalia listened and after a few minutes heard it again. 
            Coo. 
            Leaving the others, she followed the sound as it repeated its call intermittently.  At last she found the source. It was Dove.
            “Dove,” said Amalia, “whatever are you doing in there?”  As it happened, “there” was a large bramble bush. Dove was in the very center of it.
            “Oh, Mole, it’s you,” said Dove. “I heard voices and was frightened so hid myself in this bush to be safe. Unfortunately, I cannot get out.” The bird touched a feathered wing tentatively to a sharp thorn.
            “I think I can manage. Just hold still,” said Amalia. 
            Slowly and carefully, she placed her hand into the bush. Its thorns swallowed her arm up to her shoulders before she was able to reach Dove with her hand. Dove hopped onto Amalia’s hand, and Amalia gently closed it around Dove in order to protect her from the thorns. As she drew out her hand out of the bush, its thorns tore at her flesh, scratching and poking and drawing blood. After what seemed like an eternity, Amalia’s hand was clear of the brambles. She opened her hand and out flew Dove.
            “Thank you, Mole. That is the last time I ask a bramble bush for protection. It became a prison.” 
            “Yes, that is a problem with bramble bushes,” said Amalia. “Their help can be deceptive. And, Dove, we have another Mole here about so you better call me Amalia.”
            “Well done, Amalia,” said Mountain Horse, trotting toward Amalia, with Mole and Skunk scampering behind him. “Shall we continue to the inn?”
            So the five of them—Amalia, Mole, Skunk, Mountain Horse, and Dove—continued their journey to the inn. After an hour’s walk, they came to a clearing in the trees that led to a meadow. In the middle of the meadow was a large stone, a standing stone that since had fallen on its side. Amalia hurried forward.
             “We are almost there,” she said. 
            The others joined her at the stone. Amalia pointed to the right of the stone.
             “The inn is through this patch of trees. Follow me.” 
            But as Amalia stepped around the stone, a shadow spread in front of it, barring her way. Amalia shuddered.  Something about the shadow was menacing. She moved to go around the other side of the stone but the shadow grew from that direction also. As she watched in dismay, the shadow surrounded the stone, blocking all paths to the inn.  Amalia turned to the others.
            “I cannot pass through the shadow. We have to find another way.”
            “Amalia, you are the only one who knows the way to the inn,” said Mountain Horse.  “This is your path to take. We can only follow.”
            Desperately Amalia gazed out over the shadow, seeking any sort of break in its darkness. Instead, she perceived a small patch of something that showed up black against the shadow. She leaned forward as much as she dared, trying to make out what it was.  Then, with a shock of recognition, she saw it was Rabbit huddled in the shadow.
             “Rabbit is in there!  I’ve got to get him out.”
            Taking a deep breath, Amalia plunged into the shadow. A sickening stench filled her nostrils while the shadow swirled about her like smoke. She looked down; around her feet were thousands of dead and dying bluebell flowers.  Amalia was heartsick with grief; nevertheless, she pushed forward until she reached Rabbit. She gathered him tenderly in her arms. Suddenly, the shadow dissipated. Sunshine and warmth filled the meadow.  Amalia hugged Rabbit. 
            “Oh, my dear, I was so worried about you. Whatever were you doing in the shadow?”
            Rabbit twitched his nose.  “I was going to give you the courage you needed to help you through the shadow, but I got caught in it myself.”
            Mountain Horse, Mole, Skunk, and Dove joined Amalia and Rabbit.
            “Amalia, I think it is time you led us to the inn,” said Mountain Horse.

            Amalia led the group through the trees along a river and presently saw the back of the inn. Her father and mother were waiting for her. Amalia ran as fast as she could until she was in their arms.
            “Amalia, Amalia, you made it!”  Virgil and Franna cried out in relief.
             “Come,” said Virgil, “your aunt and uncle are inside, awaiting to guide you back to London.”
            “What!” Amalia exclaimed. “What are they doing here? Why are they taking me back to London? Can’t I stay here for a while? Why do I have to go back to London?”
            “Because, my dear, that is where your body is.”


~

            Lord Lokinvar rode slowly down the street, keeping an eye out for the baker’s shop. Sir Arlan and Sir Matson accompanied him. He told no one of his errand, having given his promise of secrecy to his son. The delicious aroma of bread soon led him to the door of a small but neat shop. The knights positioned themselves outside the door while Lord Lokinvar entered the shop.
            “Good morning, my lord.”  Sybil greeted him with a smile. “How may I serve you?”
            “I am looking for Hosten, the baker. Is this his establishment?”
            “It is indeed, my lord. I will go fetch him. May I give him your name?”
            Lord Lokinvar said, “Tell him I am a friend of Virgil, the innkeeper.” 
            Sybil curtsied and left the counter. After a few minutes, Hosten emerged from the back, wiping floury hands on his apron.
            “My lord, this is an honor. My daughter said you are a friend of my brother, Virgil, and that you wished to speak with me.”
            “I am Lord Lokinvar, of the province of Wales. I am perhaps better known as the father of Skandar, who is acquaintance with your niece, Amalia. I met her on a stay at the inn about a year ago. I was there with my wife and my other son, Alanar.”
            Hosten widened his eyes in recognition.
            “Ah, yes, we have heard of young Skandar,” said Hosten.
            “The reason I am here is on behalf of my son,” said Lokinvar. “He urgently desires to see Amalia, if this is possible.”
            “Let us inquire of the young lady herself. Please excuse me, my lord.”  Hosten then went through the back door and emerged a few moments later with Amalia. 
            “Here is Amalia, my lord. Amalia, do you remember Lord Lokinvar? He was a guest of your father’s at the inn.”
            Amalia smiled and curtsied. 
            “My lord,” she said.
            Lord Lokinvar took her hand. “Well met, my dear. I am here with a message from Skandar. He very much wishes to see you and asks that you would allow me to escort you to him at the castle. That is, if your uncle permits.”
            Amalia turned excitedly to her uncle. “May I, Uncle Hosten?”  Hosten nodded and smiled. Then he reached for some loaves of bread. “Take these with you, with our regards.”

            It was a silent ride back through the streets that led to the castle. Amalia was too overwhelmed with curiosity to say anything, and Lokinvar was content to leave her to her privacy. When they reached the main gate of the castle, Lokinvar turned aside and spoke to his attendants.
            “You may go now. We will enter through the back.”
            Lokinvar led his horse around to a small tunnel. He dismounted and helped Amalia down. Then he took her to the entrance of the tunnel.
            “Follow this tunnel to a gate; inside the gate is a private garden. Here is the key.  You will find Skandar waiting inside.” Then with a bow, Lord Lokinvar left Amalia alone outside the tunnel. With a rapidly beating heart, Amalia fairly raced down the tunnel. Her trembling hands could scarce insert the key in the lock. The gate swung open silently as Amalia pushed her way inside. She walked slowly into the garden and saw Skandar sitting on a bench with three other boys. She heard the sound of laughter. One of the boys glanced in her direction and saw her standing there.
            “Hey, Skandar, I think your friend is here.” Skandar whipped his head around.  Then with a whoop he sprang from his seat, sprinted over to Amalia, and crushed her in a whirling embrace. 
            “Mole, I am so glad to see you. I am so glad that you came. Oh, Mole, I have missed you so.”
It was several seconds before he released her so that she could look at him properly.
            “Great Light!  Look at you! This is as bad as the nettles. Am I ever going to see what you really look like?”  Skandar laughed and they embraced once again.
            “Hoy, lads, come here and meet Amalia—Mole. She is the one I was telling you about. If anyone can find Rhino, she can.”
            Amalia had no time to question this strange salutation because the next instant, she was surrounded by the other boys as introductions were handed around. Her hand was grabbed and pumped repeatedly.
            “Hello, I’m Trevor; my father is Lord Vortimer of Essex” 
            “I’m Elbert of Kent, the son of Lord Ethelred.” 
            “I’m Wilfred—but they call me ‘the Mighty’.”
             “We do not.” 
            “Well, you should.”
              “Why?  What are you so mighty at—eating?” 
            “Lads, will you settle down a bit?  You are going to scare her away.”
            “Come on, Amalia, over here,” said Skandar as he led Amalia to the bench. She and Skandar sat down, and Wilfred, Elbert, and Trevor settled themselves on the grass in front of them. They looked up at Amalia expectantly.
            “Amalia, I told the lads all about you and about the magic we discovered. They know about the cave and its magic ‘cause I took them there. So whatever you want to say about it, it’s alright. I even told them about my nickname, ‘Skunk.’ They like it so much they want one of their own.” He looked pointedly at Wilfred. “But no one is calling you ‘the Mighty’.”
            Amalia was taken aback.
            “Err…what is it you want me to do,” she asked.
            “We would like you to find Rhino and bring him back,” said Elbert. “We think he is lost.”
            “Where exactly is he?”
            “We don’t know, but it’s somewhere none of us can get to.  However, Skandar thinks you might be able to help. He told us how one time, you and he somehow connected…you know, shared thoughts and experiences. We thought you could find a way to connect to Rhino and bring him back to himself.”
            Amalia was silent. She looked at the brothers’ anxious yet hopeful faces. If she was going to help them, they must be told the truth. 
            “Well, I can try to do what you ask, but first you have to know what it is you are asking.”  Amalia then proceeded to tell the boys about her gift of heightened perception.  She told them of her experiences with Merion and with Henry William. Lastly, she told them about her journey through her own vast and perilous estate.
            “When I found myself back in London, I was once more ‘inside’ my own body—even though I never really left it.  I don’t quite understand it yet. Uncle Hosten explained that I could go inside my own inner world at any time, as long as I can find my way out.  Usually people don’t experience that until they are much older and know what they are doing. With me, it happened unexpectedly. I found myself inside without a way to get out.  My uncle and aunt, my father and mother, well, they entered into my world at a place we all know in order to guide me back. Otherwise, they might never have found me. I doing so, they had to actually leave their bodies for a while—which is what someone can do if you can do if you don’t stay away too long.”
            Amalia paused and looked at the boys; their mouths were agape in wonder. She looked uncomfortable; nevertheless, she continued. 
            “When I entered Merion’s world and Henry William’s world, they guided me so I was able to return. But if I enter Rhino’s world without his knowledge and without his permission, I may get lost myself. I don’t know anything about Rhino, where he has been or what he has experienced. I want to help you but I don’t know if I can.”
            “Could you at least try?” asked Skandar. “We are really desperate. We will do whatever you want if you will help us.”
            Amalia thought for a few moments.
            “Alright,” she said, “I’ll do it. Hmm…I think to start I need to know everything you can tell me about Rhino. What is he like?  Where are some places he might go? Does he have any favorite things he talks about?”

            For the next few hours, Elbert, Skandar, Wilfred, and Trevor painted a picture of Rhino. They walked Amalia through their adventures in each of the four provinces, recalling special occasions and significant anecdotes. They reminisced about times of joy, times of sorrow, times of laughter, and times of tears. They opened their hearts to Amalia—nothing was held back. In doing so, the brothers realized how much they loved each other and how much they loved Rhino. Amalia was impressed by the strength of their commitment to each other and considered that it could help her in her task.
            Next they made a plan to spirit Rhino out of the castle to a secret meeting place; Amalia was confident she could guide them there undetected. The brothers agreed to meet Amalia the following night at the end of the tunnel. They had just finished fixing a time when Lord Lokinvar strolled into the garden, saying he had come to take Amalia home. Amalia embraced all of the boys and left in a much better frame of mind. Here at last was an opportunity to put to right a wrong she had done. She was more talkative on the ride back to her uncle’s house. Lord Lokinvar smiled at the change. If Virgil was correct in assuming that something was taking shape, Lokinvar had no doubt that Amalia and Skandar were a part of it. When he reached the bakery, he escorted Amalia through the door, bid good night to Hosten, who was waiting for her, and kissed Amalia on the forehead. Lord Lokinvar then made his way back to the castle, comforted that his son had such a friend.

Next Week: How to Disturb the Universe

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Vast and Perilous Estates ~ When the World Falls Apart


Returning to the question, then, of being loved or feared,
I conclude that since men love as they themselves determine but fear as their ruler determines,
A wise prince must rely upon what he and not others can control.
He need only strive to avoid being hated.
– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince


           

            Amalia stared in amazement. A magnificent black and white horse of black was hurtling down the mountainside. Closer and closer it came, bearing down on Amalia who stood in its path, rooted to the ground. When the horse reached her, it swerved to one side and continued down into the valley. This was not to be ignored. Hastening after the swiftly moving animal, Amalia followed in pursuit. She ran without effort; her feet seemed to fly over the ground, lessening the distance between her and the horse. As she ran, exulting in the strength of her body, Amalia wondered why she was not out of breath.  Abruptly the horse slowed its pace and stopped in front of a tumbledown cottage. 
            An old woman peered out a window; then she came through a small door and shuffled over to the horse. It was then that Amalia noticed that the horse was burdened with saddlebags. The woman said not a word as she fumbled with the straps on one of the bags. Immediately Amalia hurried over.
             “Allow me to help,” she said. She undid the straps and threw the top flap over the back of the horse, which was standing like a statue. Then the woman reached inside the bag and pulled out three loaves of bread. She nodded her thanks and made her way back to the cottage. As soon as the door was shut behind her, the horse sprung forward.    “Wait,” called Amalia but it was too late. The horse was already a diminishing figure on the horizon. 
            “Oh, bother,” said Amalia and then she, too, resumed her pursuit.
            On and on ran the horse; on and on followed Amalia. Just as she began to think the horse would never rest, it came to another abrupt halt, this time by a river. Seated by the river was a man with a staff lying next to him. The horse approached the man slowly.  “Who’s there?” the man cried. He turned blind eyes that blazed like meteors to the horse. The horse lowered its head so that the man was able to grab hold of its mane and pull himself up with his staff. Then, walking with one hand wrapped about the horse’s mane and the other holding onto his staff, the man made for the river. His foot stumbled slightly over the rough ground. 
            “Let me help,” said Amalia. She stood on the other side of the man and laced his arm through hers. Then she and the horse helped the man across the river. Once they reached the other side, the man raised his face to the sun and threw down his staff. 
            “A beautiful day, this”, he said, as he walked down the river path, no longer blind.  The horse made a motion as if it would run away again but Amalia was too quick.  Seizing its mane, she wrapped her arms about the horse’s proud neck. 
            “Do you need my help?” the horse asked her. Surprise caused Amalia to lose her hold but not her wits. 
            “Yes, I do.  I need help knowing your name.”  The horse whickered softly—it could have been a laugh.
             “That is easy enough. My name is Mountain Horse.”
            “Mountain Horse! How very fitting! Mountain Horse, my name is Mole. Do you help people?”
            “That I do. Whenever I hear someone’s cry, I hasten without delay to help. I apologize for not stopping earlie,r but I cannot let anything or anyone come between me and a person in need.”
            “Oh, that is quite alright. I would not dream of interfering when…” 
            But Amalia did not finish her sentence because Mountain Horse immediately bolted across the river. Amalia had no choice but to follow. No doubt, there was another call for help.
            This time, however, Mountain Horse did not run very long or very far. He pulled up short in front of a door standing alone in a meadow; the door was painted bright yellow. Amalia caught her breath. The door looked familiar; she had seen it before.   Sitting on the ground in front of the door was Henry William. Amalia looked around.          “Grandfather William! Grandfather Henry!” 
            She ran up to them in delight and held out her hands. The two old gentlemen embraced her warmly.
             “Amalia, my dear, so you have found us again.”  Amalia then ran over to Henry William. 
            “Henry William, what are you doing here?” she asked. Henry William pointed to the door.
            “See, it’s open and I want to go through it. But I need some help,” he said.
It was then that Amalia noticed the yellow door was open wide. Peering through it, she saw verdant meadows, snow-capped peaks and oceans of wildflowers. A delicious fragrance of honeysuckle wafted by. 
            “It looks like a beautiful place, Henry William. But are you sure you want to go there?”
            “Oh, yes, it’s time.  I just can’t manage on my own; I’m having a little trouble with my legs. The grandfathers would help me if they could, but they can’t seem to move me.”
            Amalia tried to bite back her next words, but they tumbled forth from her lips.
             “I can help,” she said aloud though her heart cried please don’t go. 
            “No.”
            The voice of Mountain Horse filled the meadow.
             “It is not allowed. I am the only one that can help Henry William through the door. Trust in the good, Mole.” Then Mountain Horse greeted the grandfathers. “It is good to see you, Grandfather Henry. It has been a while, Grandfather William. Are you ready to meet Henry William on the other side of the door?”
            “Yes, indeed. We were getting plumb worn out fighting against those storms. We are mighty grateful that the door was unlocked so that Henry William could open it. He opened it two days ago but we haven’t been able to get him through.”
            “That is because it was not given for you to do. That is my task. Now.”  Mountain Horse kneeled next to Henry William. 
            “Henry William”, he said, “once you go through the door it will no longer be needed. It will disappear from view. Can you trust in a world without the yellow door?”
            “I know I need to,” replied Henry William  “As long as there is a door, I will never be truly at one with my mother and father. I no longer wish to be separated from them.”
            “Very well, then. Climb on my back.”
            Henry William rolled himself next to Mountain Horse’s side and took hold of his mane. He attempted to pull himself up onto the horse’s back, but try as he might, he could not lift his body weight. His face began to redden with the effort and sweat gathered on his brow. Amalia could watch no longer. She rushed over to Henry William.     “Are you certain I cannot help?” she pleaded with Mountain Horse.
            “In this you may.”
            So Amalia put her arms around Henry William’s waist and heaved him onto Mountain Horse’s back. Once the boy was settled, Mountain Horse rose from the ground, taking Henry William with him. How proud, how straight, how strong Henry William looked sitting on Mountain Horse! Amalia stood next to the grandfathers; clasping hands, the three of them watched Mountain Horse walk with Henry William through the door.  Once on the other side, Henry William leaped off the horse’s back.
             “Hey,” he called, “my legs are just fine.” Grandfather William and Grandfather Henry then kissed Amalia and walked through the door themselves. They stood next to their grandson, and all three waved to Amalia. Then Mountain Horse walked back through the door. Immediately the door disappeared, leaving Amalia and Mountain Horse alone in the meadow. Amalia awoke.

            That evening Uncle Hosten brought word from Derwin the miller that Henry William had passed from this life. It happened earlier in the day when he was sitting under his favorite tree in his chair, having tea with his mother and father. It was a wonderful tea. Margery sang songs and Derwin told stories. Henry William looked at his mother and his father with love and touched a hand to their cheeks. A butterfly drifted by and landed on Henry William’s hand. When it flitted away, Henry William accompanied it. Through her tears, Margery smiled at Derwin the miller, the most fortunate of men. 

~
            It was the third week of May, a fortnight after Henry William departed. Lord Lokinvar was going over the accounts of the estate with his steward when his chamberlain entered the room.
            “I beg your pardon, my lord, but there is a man here who says he has a most urgent message for his lordship.”
            “Indeed? Who is this person?” queried Lord Lokinvar.
            “He gives his name as Osfrid. He works the land just south of Caerleon.”
            “Send him in; we are nearly finished.”
            A few minutes later, Lord Lokinvar’s chamberlain reentered followed by a tall man wearing the clothes of a peasant. His hands were large and calloused and his hair an unkempt mop of yellow. His weathered face bore the marks of one who has spent many hours in the sun. However, despite his appearance, he exuded an air of quiet dignity.  Lokinvar motioned him forward.
            “You have a message for me? Well, what is it?”
            “My message is for your ears only,” the man replied, with a quick glance at the steward and the chamberlain.
            Lokinvar understood. 
            “Thank you, Perrin,” he said to the steward, “I am satisfied with your accounts.  We will review them again at the end of the month.” 
            “My lord,” said the steward as he and the chamberlain bowed their way out of the room.
            After their departure, Lord Lokinvar looked expectantly at his visitor.
            “My lord, this message is from Virgil, who keeps the inn at the River Avon.”
            Lokinvar’s eyes widened slightly. 
            “I know the man,” he said.  “Continue.”
            Osfrid closed his eyes and said slowly and distinctly, “Lord Lokinvar, look to the welfare of your sons.”  Then he opened his eyes.
            “That is all? This is the message sent by Virgil?”
            “Yes, my lord—his exact words. ‘Look to the welfare of your sons.’ ”
            Lord Lokinvar was not a man to quibble. There was an honest look about the man that spoke truth. He rang a bell and immediately his chamberlain entered the room.
            “Thank you for your time. Oswald will see you to the kitchen where you will be provided with food as well as coin for your trouble. And Oswald, please send word to Lady Rhowena to meet with me right away.”
            After they left, Lord Lokinvar paced about the room, considering the words from Virgil. From what he knew of the man, Virgil would not send such a message lightly.  Why sons? Is one of them in peril? If so, which one?  The message said “sons.”  If both face a threat to their welfare, from whence does it come? And which is the greater?  Lokinvar broke off his musings at the entrance of Lady Rhowena.
            “My lord,” she said, holding out her hand. “I received word that you required my presence without delay. What is it, my love?”
            Lord Lokinvar kissed her hand and led her to a chair. Seating himself opposite her, he took her hands in his and related his visit from the peasant Osfrid and his message from Virgil. Lady Rhowena’s face instantly registered concern.
            “Our sons? Both Alanar and Skandar? Whatever can it mean?”
            “I think it means that the debate about the covenant has resurfaced after many months of hiding underground. Something has happened to stir it up again, and I mean to find out what it is.”
            “What are your intentions?”
            “I am going to travel to Tyne to meet with Alanar; he seems the most vulnerable, unprotected as he is in the monastery. Although he is the son of a ruling lord, he is afforded no special treatment. There are no knights in arms to see to his safety. Once I am satisfied with his situation, I will then make haste to Kent, where Skandar currently resides. In the meantime, Sir Arlan and Sir Matson will see that no harm befall Skandar.”
            “If such is the case with Skandar, then why make the journey to Kent?”
            “If the message came from anyone other than Virgil, I would undertake neither journey. But I must trust that Virgil is aware of something and wishes to put me on my guard. However, I would have your opinion. Do you think I should stir myself in this manner, or do you think I should seek further information before I act?”
            Lady Rhowena bowed her head, considering her husband’s words. After several moments, she looked into Lokinvar’s eyes.
            “I will see that you are ready to depart as soon as possible.”

~

            Bishop Stephen, the abbot of the monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul reread the letter from the archbishop. Its contents trouble him. He wondered what business called Alanar to Canterbury in this hasty manner. The letter was explicit in its instructions. He was to send Lord Lokinvar’s son without delay to the Archbishop of Canterbury upon the receipt of this message. He could get no further enlightenment from the messenger, Brother Simon, who was ignorant of the contents of the letter. And here was another mystery. Why was Brother Simon assigned here to the monastery? Not that his presence would be unwelcome—on the contrary, Brother Simon’s reputation as a scholar preceded him. The abbot would have no difficulty in procuring him a teaching position here at the monastery. But why was he sent here? 
            The abbot’s heart was troubled. He was a simple man; for all his learning and experience, the political intrigues of principalities and powers were quite beyond his comprehension. But his lack of understanding in such high matters did not render him derelict in his duty. He called for his secretary and told him to make arrangements for Brother Alanar to leave in the morning for Canterbury. He further requested that the young man be summoned immediately to his study. Brother Stephen determined that he himself should undertake the task of informing Alanar that he would be leaving the monastery.
            “And Brother John,” said he, “see that a message is sent to Lord Lokinvar regarding his son.” The abbot did not know that at that moment, Lord Lokinvar was already on the road to Tyne.

            Brother John found Alanar sitting in the kitchen garden with Brother Simon. As soon as the latter had arrived at the monastery, Brother Simon sought out Alanar in order to become acquainted with him. Having met Skandar, he was more than a little curious about his brother. He wondered whether Alanar harbored any ill feelings about Skandar’s situation, or if he would exhibit jealousy at the thought of others supplanting him in Skandar’s affections. However, Alanar showed nothing but delight in hearing about the brothers. Once Alanar learned that Brother Simon was their tutor, he could not ask enough questions about Skandar, Rhino, Trevor, Wilfred and Elbert. Alanar seemed relieved that Skandar was getting on so well with the others and laughed heartily at their adventures.
            “Brother Simon, if you only knew the half of the madcap schemes that Skandar dreamed up; I only agreed to many of them because I wanted to make sure Skandar would not get hurt. It gladdens me to hear that he is in the company of such good-hearted lads. He was initially worried that he would not fit in.”
            “I can assure you that Skandar is as well-beloved as any of them. Each of them, in his own way, has qualities that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Skandar seems to be the binding link that holds them together—if he doesn’t break their heads first.”  Both of them laughed. At that moment, Brother John poked his head over the kitchen door.
            “Brother Alanar, you are wanted immediately in Bishop Stephen’s study.”
            Alanar looked somewhat surprised but rose from his seat. He clasped Brother Simon’s hand with both of his. 
            “You have refreshed my soul greatly by what you have told me; truly good news from afar is like a cup of cold water. I hope we may continue our conversation at a later time.”
            “It would be my pleasure,” replied Brother Simon.
            However, a second encounter was not yet to be. When Brother Simon came to chapel the next morning, he learned that Alanar had left before sunrise for Canterbury.  Upon hearing the news, Brother Simon was filled with suspicion. He did not trust the situation, yet he could do nothing but trust in God and pray for the Almighty’s will to be done.
            The next evening after vespers, Brother Simon was walking along the pathway that led to his room when he heard footsteps behind him. It was Brother John, who was striding hastily up the path.
            “Brother Simon, you are wanted immediately in Bishop Stephen’s study,” he panted, slightly out of breath. “An important visitor has just arrived and demands to see you. I will show you the way from here.” 
            “Thank you, Brother…er…I cannot recall your name.  There are so many of you and I have not yet sorted out all the names and faces.”
            “It’s John. And your ignorance is forgiven. The monastery at Tyne is home to one of the largest communities of monks in Albion,” Brother John stated with a touch of pride.
            The two men proceeded in silence to the abbot’s study. It was located in the main building and was a spacious, richly appointed room, serving a dual purpose as the place in which Bishop Stephen conducted business and where he received visitors. Once they reached the door of the study, Brother John bid Brother Simon good night and left him alone. When Brother Simon entered, he saw the abbot seated in a chair in front of the hearth. Standing next to him was a man dressed in a travel stained cloak, though of excellent quality. The man turned at his entrance. It was Lord Lokinvar.
            The bishop rose and greeted the monk. 
            “Lord Lokinvar, allow me to introduce Brother Simon, who is newly arrived to our monastery, having come from Lord Ethelred in Kent. It was he who bore the message from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the one I told you about.”
            Lord Lokinvar motioned Brother Simon forward. When the monk moved closer he could see the resemblance to Skandar in Lord Lokinvar’s face. So unlike Alanar, he thought. Brother Simon also noticed the fine lines and shadows about the eyes that indicated care and worry. He instantly felt compassion for him. When Lord Lokinvar addressed Brother Simon, his voice sounded weary, but its measured tones lost none of its courtesy.
            “Brother Simon, I understand from the abbot that you were engaged by Sir Arlan as a tutor to the prince and his brothers. I would hear about your time with them, especially about my son, Skandar. But for now, I desire that you tell me all you know about this business with the archbishop.”
Bishop Stephen took this as his cue to exit. 
            “I will be in the chapel, should you need me,” he said. 
            After he left, Brother Simon seated himself where Lokinvar indicated.  The two men sat facing each other.
            “Now, what can you tell me?  I come here intending to see my son Alanar and find that he has been summoned to the south. Do you why?” asked Lokinvar.
            Brother Simon spread his hands. 
            “My lord,” he said, “I have as much knowledge of this matter as you do. I was not made privy to the contents of the letter when I received it into my safekeeping. As a matter of fact, I was not given the reason for my own commission to the monastery. That I was sent here was as much a surprise to me as it was in hearing that Alanar was to go to Canterbury.”
            “And is this the usual protocol for the Church?  It seems strange to me that Alanar has been so abruptly spirited away. According to the instructions given to the abbot, Alanar was to leave immediately with a single escort and travel in obscurity. The monk traveling with him was told to ensure that Alanar did not disclose his identity. Why is this? Was it for his safety or for some other purpose? And if there is, who is behind it?”  Lokinvar stopped and ran his fingers distractedly through his hair; the gesture sharply reminded Brother Simon of Skandar.
            “Four days ago I received a message from an innkeeper urging me to look to the welfare of my sons…what is it?”  Lokinvar noticed the swift look of recognition that passed over Brother Simon’s face.
            “My lord, you mentioned an innkeeper. Was he named Virgil who keeps the inn at River Avon?”
            “Yes. Do you know the man?”
            “Yes, I do. It so happens that I passed a night there on my journey to the monastery. You said you left for Tyne four days ago? That would be the day after I left the inn.”
            Lokinvar’s eyes narrowed.
             “Then I must assume that something was said by you that spurred him to take action.”  Lokinvar laid his hand on the monk’s arm.  “Please, Brother Simon, you must share with me what was said about my sons. I must know whether Alanar or Skandar are in danger.”
            Brother Simon nodded.
            “My lord, if Virgil sent such a message to you, then he must have had a valid reason. In the brief time I was with him, I perceived that he is not a man to hastily interfere in the business of others. Seeing as how he has communicated with you, I feel free to disclose all of our conversation. It was most extraordinary.”
            Brother Simon then launched into a full account of his time in Kent among the brothers. He told of Father Caril’s dismay at his philosophy of teaching and his attempt to destroy Elbert’s drawings. He recounted Father Caril’s journey to Canterbury and the subsequent result of his being ordered to go to the monastery at Tyne. Then he shared with Lord Lokinvar what Virgil had told him of his daughter Amalia and her unique gift.  During Brother Simon’s narrative, Lord Lokinvar grew increasingly dismayed by what he heard. His suspicion that his sons were being used as pawns was confirmed.  However, when he heard about Amalia, suspicion gave way to astonishment…and hope.
            “And you say that Virgil’s daughter, Amalia, is now in London? That is most interesting.”
            “Virgil thought so, my lord. He deemed it significant that his daughter had developed a friendship with both of your sons. It was his opinion that they would meet again.”
            Lokinvar released a long breath and eased his shoulders. For some reason, the burden he had been bearing seemed lighter though he knew not why. Brother Simon noticed the change.
            “My lord,” he said, “if I may be so bold—Virgil believes that all of these events are a part of a greater pattern, a purpose, of you will. I cannot help but agree with him.  Virgil is a man who trusts in the truth; I am willing to join him in that trust.   recommend that you do likewise.”
            “And in the meantime?” asked Lokinvar.  “Do you recommend that I sit on my hands and do nothing until I see clearly what transpires?”
            Brother Simon hesitated.  “My lord, what is your current plan?”
            “I had planned on traveling south to Kent after my visit with Alanar. But now…I think it best to make for London. I will not overtake Alanar on the road, and Skandar is sure to be leaving for London any day now. If various paths are converging on London, then mine will also.”
            “Then I recommend that you hold to it. Bishop Stephen has no doubt offered you the hospitality of the monastery for the night. Accept his offer and leave refreshed in the morning.”
            “Very well,” said Lokinvar. “But before I retire for the night, I would like an account of Skandar and the rest of the lads; that is, if you are not overly tired.”
            Brother Simon bowed.  “It would be my pleasure. As it is, I have in my possession treasures I think you would very much want to see.”

~


            “Elbert, you missed that corner.” Trevor pointed with his pitchfork. 
            “I thought that was Wilfred’s corner” 
            “No chance; my corner is over here.” 
            “Well, I am sure that is not my corner.” 
            “It’s somebody’s corner and I vote for you—what do you say, Rhino?” 
            “It’s my corner.” 
            Rhino shouldered his pitchfork and made his way to the offending corner and began to clean it. It was the day before the brothers were leaving Winchester for London, and Sir Arlan was having them muck out Lord Ethelred’s stables. He was giving them one last reminder that they had not yet assumed their titles. Lady Sarai was scandalized.  Lord Ethelred was amused. He found the sight of his son grubbing in the rank straw and manure highly edifying. He also found a new respect for Elbert. It gratified his heart to see the change that a year had wrought in his son. In truth, all of the brothers had changed. They were not the same group of awkward, gangly, suspicious strangers that had set out from London last June for the four provinces of Albion.  They were a united band of brothers, ready to enter the next phase of their training.
            The next morning, Rhino, Skandar, Elbert, Trevor, and Wilfred set off with a company of knights for the one-day journey to London. They would make camp outside the gates of the city in the evening and on the morrow, ride into the welcoming arms of the townspeople. Along the way, the brothers talked excitedly about what the next year would entail. They were full of speculations about what the training would be; to their disappointment, they could wheedle no hint of it from Sir Arlan. The corner of his mouth twitched at their wild suggestions. Time passed quickly and soon they saw the gates of London on the horizon. Upon their arrival, a company of knights was dispatched from King Rheynold to act as an escort and honor guard into the city. The boys were so excited they could hardly get to sleep that night. For five embryo lords, the morning could not arrive quickly enough.

            The next day dawned bright and golden. The last days of May seemed determined to showcase all of the beauties of the spring before they were overtaken by summer. The brothers mounted in haste and with beating hearts turned their horses’ heads toward London. As they approached Byshoppe’s Gate, they could hear the faint roar of the crowds gathered in the streets. The roar intensified and soon they arrived at its source—a waving, fluttering, seething mass of faces and arms, shouting its approbation at the sons of Albion. Nothing could have prepared the lads for this occasion. Their hearts were stirred to unspeakable heights of joy and humility. All of the preceding months of labor and lessons and blood and sweat coalesced into a single, mighty Hurrah! With shining eyes and flushed faces, Rhino, Elbert, Wilfred, Trevor, and Skandar rode through the city to the castle of the king.
            And then Skandaer heard it. A faint voice above the crowd…what was it calling? Did he hear it aright?  Skandar looked about wildly. He heard it again. Searching for its source, he strained to listen. 
            Skunk!  Hallo, Skunk!  Over here! 
            Skandar’s heart nearly burst at the sound of the voice; his eyes almost popped from his head. She was here! Amalia! In the crowd, in the streets of London! How could this be?  
            Without a second thought, Skandar dismounted and pushed his way through the crowd. He wriggled past bodies and astonished faces until he reached her. 
            “Mole!”  Skandar grabbed both her hands as if she would vanish.  “Is it really you?”  Through her tears, Amalia was laughing. 
            “Skunk! My dear, dear Skunk!” Then both of them laughed as they were carried along a river of pure delight.
            Rhino was the first one to notice Skandar’s disappearance into the crowd. He, too, dismounted and began searching for Skandar. He found himself annoyed at Skandar for interrupting the procession. He heard a girl’s voice call out Skunk and, turning in the direction of the sound, he saw Skandar’s head. His irritation grew when he saw Skandar talking and laughing with someone. In the meantime, Skandar had Amalia by the hand and was dragging her through the crowd with the intention of presenting her to his brothers. He reached the edge of the crowd and bumped into Rhino. 
            “Rhino, here is my good friend Mole, I mean, Amalia.”
             “Oh, Skunk,” Amalia giggled, “You can introduce me as Mole.”
            By this time, the crowd around them was growing still. Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert had joined Rhino, Skandar, and Amalia.
            “What did she call you?” Rhino asked. Skandar looked surprised, delight slowly ebbing from his features.
            “Sk…Skunk.” he said.
            Rhino was aware of the crowd around him.
             “She called you ‘Skunk’, a commoner called you ‘Skunk’.”  Rhino assumed a lordly tone.  “I say strike her for her insolence and let us be gone.” Then he smirked, and looked around at the crowd, pleased at how he handled the situation. No doubt his father would be impressed. However, one look at Skandar’s pale face told Rhino that he had made a mistake. He felt the eyes of his brothers on the back of his head.  Rhino attempted to laugh it off.
            “Did you hear what I said? Strike the wench and have done with it.”  Still Skandar made no move; his eyes pleaded with Rhino. 
            “Rhino,” whispered Skandar, “I cannot do it.” 
            Rhino felt trapped. What could he do?  He had to save face in front of the crowd of spectators now watching. He swaggered over the Amalia. 
            “It’s easy. Let me show you how.”  He raised his hand as if to strike Amalia; he felt Skandar flinch and heard an audible gasp from Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert. 
            Why are you doing this? 
            There was an eternity of tense silence. Then he dropped his arm and clapped Skandar on the shoulder. 
            “It was only a joke,” he laughed, with false heartiness.  “Come. The king is waiting.”  Without a backward glance at Amalia, he took hold of Skandar and led him back to his horse. Like a stream around pebbles, the crowd once again swallowed up the entourage, leaving Amalia alone in their wake. Father Caril had witnessed the entire episode and followed behind wreathed in secret smiles. Here was the incident for which he had been waiting.

            That night there was a great feast in honor of Rhino and his brothers. King Rheynold carefully hid the pride and love he felt for his son. As he watched him work his way through the throng of the nobles and lords who had come to wish him well, King Rheynold marveled at Rhino’s social and political adeptness. He was unaware of the shadow that lay between the prince and his brothers. He had not witnessed the event between Rhino and Amalia, and none of the company had thought it worth mentioning. 
            Rhino, however, was very much aware of the disquiet among Trevor, Wilfred, Elbert, and especially Skandar. He determined to make amends as soon as they were alone together. In the meantime, his father expected him to act the part of a prince and he was not going to disappoint him.

~

            The next day, the brothers were scheduled to pay their respects to Bishop Pascent and to attend a chapel service for the sake of their souls. Father Caril did not accompany them, much to their surprised relief. Instead, he loitered about the castle, now in the garden, now in the library, now in the stables until at last he caught sight of King Rheynold. He watched as the king entered a breezeway adjoining the eastern and southern section of the courtyard. Father Caril entered the courtyard as if by chance and intercepted the king.
            “Your Majesty,” Father Caril bowed low. The king acknowledged the priest with a brief nod.
            “Father Caril, what brings you here? I would have thought you would be in attendance at the chapel service.”
            “I had planned on it, your Grace, but found I had business that could not be ignored.”
            “Nothing serious, I hope,” said Rheynold, making as if to leave.
            “Oh, not at all, your Majesty—just a few final notes while the memory is still fresh. You see, I have been keeping a journal of my time spent with your son, the prince, and his brothers. It has been a most illuminating year.”
            “Indeed,” responded the king. “And what sort of things would you write about my son? Keeping track of all the mischief he has been in?”  Father Caril sensed a tendril of fear interwoven with Rheynold’s levity.
            “There is no mischief at all to report, sire. Your son has exhibited all of the qualities most desirable in a king of Albion. Strength, resourcefulness, intelligence, honor, and even…mercy.”  Father Caril put a slight emphasis on the last word.
            King Rheynold’s brow puckered slightly. “Mercy, you say?”  The tendril of fear took root.
            “Why, I suppose mercy is an inadequate word; a better one would be ‘kindness’.”  The fear stretched forth its tentacles.
            “Well, I suppose kindness is to be desired in a ruler. But why does Prince Rhino strike you as kind?”
            “It is curious that you use the word ‘strike’ for it was out of kindness and mercy that the prince did not strike when he had every right. I am sure the crowd noticed and deeply approved of it.”  The fear grew thorns which imbedded themselves in King Rheynold’s throat, constricting his breath.
            “See here, Father Caril, do not play at words with me. I demand to know of what you are speaking.”
            “If it pleases your Grace.” 
            Father Caril then proceeded to relate all that had occurred with Skandar, Amalia, and Rhino. He told his tale in honeyed tones as if hesitant to show Rhino in an unfavorable light, yet all the while painting a picture of that which Rheynold feared the most—a weak and ineffective king. When he was finished, he stepped back and surveyed his handiwork. The king was roiled with anger, anger fueled by fear. Father Caril was almost forgotten in the blind wrath that consumed the king and made havoc of his judgment.
            “Your Majesty?” Father Caril’s gentle inquiry shook the king back into the present moment.
            “Yes, well, that is all. You are dismissed,” said the king, with a wave of his hand.  Then he strode down the breezeway, purpose in every step. He knew what he must do; Father Caril was counting on it.

            On the way back from the chapel service, Rhino managed to slip a quiet word to his brothers.
            “Lads,” he said, “I have something to tell you; I ask you to join me in my chambers.” The boys nodded, and they all made their way to Rhino’s room. Upon entering the room, they were startled to find King Rheynold and Sir Arlan awaiting them.     “Your Majesty,” they all said, bowing as one.
            “Step inside, all of you. There is a matter I wish to discuss with you.” The king’s voice held menace. Wondering apprehension made the brothers approach the king cautiously. They stood in a semicircle before the king.
            “I hear that your entry into the city was not without incident,” said King Rheynold. “A young girl in the crowd caused a disturbance, did she not?” 
            Rhino and Skandar glanced at each other and then at Sir Arlan. Had he exposed them?  His impassive face revealed nothing.
            “I see by your looks it is true. Then it must be also true that you, Rhino, gave a command that she be struck—a command given to Skandar that he disregarded.”  He turned to Skandar.  “How is it that your prince gives you a command, and you do not instantly obey?”  Skandar blanched. Rheynold then directed his attention to Rhino.  “And what future king do we have that allows his commands to be so lightly cast aside?”
            “Father, I mean, your Grace,” Rhino stammered, “I didn’t mean to…that is, it was merely a joke…I was…that is, it was a mistake.”
            “A mistake? A joke? The citizens of London get their first look at their future king, and he serves up a joke! Do you imagine that they will love you for it? When the enemy is at the gates and you give the command to strike, will your men-at-arms think it a joke? Will the people of Albion love you then when they see their land overrun and their prosperity destroyed because you were too weak to give a command?”
            “A mistake, you say? Yes, it was a mistake and according to the rules of the covenant, your brothers will be punished for it.”  King Rheynold motioned to Wilfred and Elbert.
            “You two, come and hold Skandar by the arms so that he cannot move. Quickly, I say!”
            With leaden feet, Wilfred and Elbert positioned themselves behind Skandar, held his arms fast behind him, and stood, trembling. Then Rheynold addressed Skandar.
             “You were given a command to strike. You shall be shown what it is to obey.”  He then turned to Rhino. “You will strike Skandar the way you intended that he should have struck the peasant girl. If you fail to do so, then Sir Arlan will stand in your place.”
            Rhino looked at his father and saw resolute will. He then looked at Skandar.  How could he raise a hand to his beloved brother? His arm felt lifeless. 
            “Do it, I say. Sir Arlan, stand at the ready.”
            Skandar cast a brief glance at the knight and took in his broad shoulders and powerful hands. Hands that could kill, he thought.  Then he looked at Rhino and gave him the briefest of nods. Skandar’s look pierced Rhino’s heart and suddenly Rhino knew that he hated his father. He hated his life, he hated the covenant, but most of all, he hated…he hated…that girl! That stupid, interfering girl who was the cause of all this trouble! Blind rage filled his heart as the image of Amalia rose before his eyes. His impotent wrath gave strength to his nerveless arm. He raised his hand and struck!
            “Again,” commanded his father. “Skandar has not learned his lesson. Strike him again.”     
            Rhino struck again.
             “Again!”  Rhino obeyed.
             “Again, I say! And keep to your task until I tell you to stop.” Rhino continued to strike Skandar with the back of his hand. With each blow, Wilfred and Elbert shuddered with their burden. Each blow brought a strangled sob from Trevor, who was standing behind Wilfred and Elbert with one hand on each shoulder. Each blow produced a fresh shower of blood that struck Rhino’s face and hand. With each blow, Rhino felt his life being chipped away.
             After what seemed like an eternity, King Rheynold finally said, “Enough.”  Skandar’s head hung down and his body was limp in Wilfred and Elbert’s arms.
            “Take him away and get him attended to. And remember, the king is to be obeyed.” 
            With that the king turned on his heel and left the room, followed by Sir Arlan.  Wilfred, Elbert, and Trevor gently picked up Skandar and bore him out of the room without a word or a glance at Rhino. As soon as the door closed behind them, Rhino vomited. Shame and humiliation made him retch again and again until the contents of his stomach were empty. Even then, Rhino continued to heave as if his body were trying to rid itself of images indelibly etched in his mind.
            How could I? How could have he commanded it? What have I done? 
            Rhino staggered blindly to the nearest window, gasping for air. 
            What have I done? I am undone. I am nothing. I have destroyed everything. A wave of wrath swallowed him. 
            It was the girl! It is all her fault. Next time I see her, I will kill her. I will tear her apart with my bare hand. It was she that deserved the punishment, not Skandar.  At the thought of Skandar, Rhino fell to the floor.
             Skandar, do you see that I had to do it? It was better me than Sir Arlan. Sir Arlan would have killed you. Skandar, you will recover, won’t you? Promise me that you will recover!
            The room began to melt around Rhino, dripping its heavy weight on his shoulders. He felt every piece of wood, every nail and every rivet; the curtains and tapestries drooped lifeless over his head.
             I felt this before, only the last time I wore the castle, it was a ceremonial robe. I felt its weight as I was waiting for my brothers.   
            A great abyss opened at his feet. Ringed around the abyss were Trevor, Wilfred, and Elbert. Rhino held out his hands to them, but their arms and feet were bound.
            My brothers! I have brothers. You will help me; you will undo the damage.  I will give you my kingdom in exchange for your hands. The weight of this crown is too much to bear. Albion is drowning around me. 
            Rhino heard the sound of glass breaking, bones breaking, trees crashing to the ground. Albion was bearing down on him. He was going to be crushed; it was inevitable.  Rhino bowed his head to his fate.  In a heartbeat, Rhino’s life was shattered, and he was gone.


Next week: How to Enter Those Vast and Perilous Estates