Author’s note: I wrote this whole long story in several different word processors, only to find that my blog erases all of my formatting. Below is the pure text. Link to a properly formatted document here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ESz_rOOaJVCuLG7OUWJmJhJL4XafxEzWWcRbNDbEkMo/edit?usp=sharing
“Come here, little lad. I won’t hurt you,” said Gustavio.
A little squeak emanated from the dark space behind the cabinet. Gustavio collected a few cheese and bread crumbs from the floor. He sprinkled them just outside the hole.
“Just a little further, little lad. I’ll help you get to freedom.”
First whiskers, then innocent black eyes poked through the hole. The mouse nibbled on the scraps. When he was finished, he emerged from hiding in search of more.
Quick as a wink, Gustavio snatched him up. “Gotcha” Let’s get you out of here.”
He opened up the door and let him out into the pre-dawn glow.
“Don’t come back, You’re lucky I found you. If the prince found you instead, you’d be dead… or wishing you were. Now go. Go!”
Today was Saturday, which meant that the prince would be expecting his cornmeal flat cakes for breakfast with maple syrup. Then the bath needed hot water. Plus he’d need help dressing for the public address. All in a day’s work.
With the stove fired up, Gustavio poured the premade batter into the pan.
“Mornin’, love. Got an early start this morning, eh?” said Ganda. Her rebellious hair was springing a revolt against her bonnet. “I’ve got to. The prince has the most demands of the royal family and the kitchen gets so busy. Besides, it gives me a chance to clear out the tiny creatures before anyone has a chance to kill them.”
“Oh bosh. You’ve got a big heart, just not much use out of it.”
“What do you mean?”
She cocked an eyebrow at the boy. “Suppose I ask you to get some lard from the cellar…”
A shade crossed the boy’s face and despite his best efforts, it shown clearly. Ganda let loose a laugh that was clear and pure as a church bell.
“You’ll have to go down there eventually, love. My old bones won’t hold up this frame forever. Ah well, enough gobbering. I oughta get a start myself.”
Ganda gathered her ingredients to whip up breakfast for the queen and got to work on Gustavio’s left. Rusa, Linea, Oroe, and Coulran entered next. Soon the kitchen was a stew of smells: sweet, savory, buttery, and juicy. The bells tolled seven times. The signal for breakfast was at hand. Last preparations were made. Garnishes were added. Gustavio readied his tray to bring to the prince.
“Come on out, my little subject. I won’t hurt you.” said Prince Zalve with a smirk. “Yes, that’s it. Just a little more. Little more.” Shink! The sound of the prince’s dagger piercing flesh punctuated the air.
“That’s what you get for not minding your own business, rat.” Prince Zalve turned around to find Gustavio standing in the doorway, gobsmacked, the tray contents rattling slightly.
“You’re late, Servant.”
“Bu- bu- but your Highness, it’s only been a few minutes since the seventh bell.”
Prince Zalve walked up and backhanded him. A red mark marred Gustavio’s face, which was normally only noticeable for his flat nose and myriad freckles.
“I said you’re late. Set the tray down and dispose of this, servant boy; the rat, not the dagger, mind you. Ugh, disgusting. I’ve lost my appetite. Throw away the food while you’re at it.”
“As you wish, sir.”
Gustavio dashed through the castle hallways to the nearest courtyard and buried the rat at the base of tenacious tree roots. Before returning, he made sure the dagger was spotlessly clean.
Once back in the prince’s chamber, he handed the dagger to the prince by presenting the dagger horizontally, the tip on one hand and the handle on the other. When the prince grabbed it up, the tip pricked Gustavio’s hand, drawing a bead of blood.
“About time you’re back. What took you so long? Come, help me get dressed.”
The prince walked to the wardrobe and dressed down to his underwear. Gustavio stood behind Prince Zalve in front of the mirror. The contrast was stark. Even though the prince was only a few years older, he stood (stood) a head taller than Gustavio; even with Gustavio’s fiery red curls. The prince practiced glaring into his own eyes, determined to intimidate his reflection. Gustavio’s eyes were big and full of fright from just being so close to the prince.
“I’m bored. Converse with me, servant.”
“Are you ready for today’s public address, sir?”
“Ha! I’ve been born ready. Today’s the day when I name my betrothed. My campaign to bring our kingdom back to its former glory begins today.”
“What of your father, sir?”
“My father is weak! Weak of mind and body. His placidity has been our downfall since he took the throne. I shall not make the same mistakes. When my turn comes to rule, I will be ready.”
“And your betrothed sir, who have you chosen to be your lucky wife?”
“First wife, actually. A servant girl, named Thizdella. Perhaps you’ve crossed paths with her here in the castle. I hear she is popular with the peasants. I’ll need their support at the beginning.” Gustavio’s eyes grew even wider upon hearing the name. “A wise choice, m’lord.” Gustavio finished by clasping the cape onto the prince.
Thizdella beat the sheets to launder them. The whole castle was incapable of sleeping without sweating out an entire lake’s worth of water, even in winter. For better or for worse, it gave Thizdella a job. Everyday there were more sheets, towels, and undergarments to launder. It was laborious, monotonous work. The one redeeming quality is that she had plenty of time to gossip with the other lady servants.
“You girls ever take a gander at Oroe?” said Caula.
“What? Of course not! He’s married to Ganda,” said Tane.
“Well, sure. But there’s no harm in looking.” said Caula, sticking out her tongue. “I mean those big arms… That wide back…”
“Stop! What if Ganda hears?” said Tane. She splashed water at Caula playfully.
“What about you, Thizdella? Who’s caught your eye? Surely there’s some boy you fantasize about,” said Caula.
Crimson rose up Thizdella’s cheeks.
“Ooooh, look at those cheeks glow. Hmm, who could it be? Oh! How about that Gustavio boy? Haha, you should see your face. You look like you’ve been baking in the sun too long, dear! Oh my, we should play Gambler’s Gambit someday. I’ll clean you out of your rations in just a few hands,” said Caula.
Just then, Gustavio burst through the door. “Del!”
“Tavi!” said Thizdella.
The whole room fell silent as a graveyard. Half the eyes watched Gustavio, half watched Thizdella. Gustavio immediately regretted rushing it. It was a huge mistake. He tried uttering something several times, then settled for mumbling something unintelligible, and closed the door behind him.
Thizdella, eyes wide, looked from woman to woman, unsure what to do next.
“Go, child! What are you waiting for? If anyone comes looking for you, we’ll say you’re fetching more soap. Just be quick about it.”
Outside the laundry room, Thizdella pressed Gustavio to the wall. She searched his eyes for answers like an ancient cartographer reading an old map. Her concern showed on her face in the deep wrinkles on her forehead.
“The Prince aims to propose marriage to you. Today at the Public Address. What are we going to do?”
“Oh no! We have to run. I can’t marry that awful man. It’s too horrible to think about.” Thizdella shuddered at the thought.
“But where? How will we get out? What will we do?”
Thizdella bit her lip, “There is a way out. There’s a trap door at the back on the dungeon. I found it one day when I was cleaning down there.”
“Where does it lead?”
She pressed her lips together and looked down. “I don’t know.”
“We’ve never been on the outside. How will we live?”
A single teardrop fell away from her angelic face and landed on the stone floor. It left a dark mark. That was all the answer he needed. He pulled her chin up.
“Listen, we’ll get out of this. Together. You and me. We’ll figure something out. Trust me. Meet me in the dungeon at midnight.”
“No. I don’t finish my duties until well after midnight. You have to go through the trapdoor without me.”
“We should go through the trapdoor together. I’ll wait in the dungeon until you get there.”
“You have to go through first. You can’t wait in the dungeon. Trust me. Meet me on the other side. Promise me you won’t dwell in the dungeon. Promise me.”
“I… I don’t like it, but if you insist.”
Gustavio laid in bed, half paralyzed from the fear of what comes after the dungeon, half paralyzed from the familiar ache of a long day’s work. Today had been especially strenuous. Not only did his muscles and joints ache, his bones ached. It hurt to move. The dungeon dominated his every waking hour since talking to Thizdella. He imagined dancing skeletons, devious imps, and malicious spirits. He broke into a sweat thinking about it. His body shook like he was experiencing a personal earthquake. He picked at his nails until they were as jagged as a steak knife. He chewed his lower lip till it bled.
For some three hours he lay there, waiting, hoping without reason that Thizdella might be waiting for him in the dungeon. Maybe he would find her on the way there. The candle on the window sill had nearly consumed itself and lay in a slump, outlined by a sea of stars in the night sky that were in the process of consuming themselves too. Finally the candle sputtered and spat, relinquishing it’s vital spirit to the endless atmosphere. It was now or never.
He rolled out of his lumpy, moldy, straw bed and threw on his mud-colored canvas tunic and trousers. They still smelled of garlic and rosemary and sweat from working in the kitchen that afternoon. Finally he laced up his leather boots. His bag was already packed with all of his essential belongings, which wasn’t much.
It was a quick walk to the dungeon since the servants’ quarters were already on the ground floor. He lifted the iron bar that crossed the door, which existed to prevent it from being opened from the dungeon side. It was a heavy oak door, splintered and rough on the outside, lacquered in patches with something black… or red on the inside. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Once opened, a cacophony rang out. A mix of mutilated pleas, murmured threats, and desperate denials of criminality. Gustavio wasted no time slipping in before someone heard.
The door shut behind him, and with a sound of a sword piercing a chest plate, Gustavio knew that the iron bar had fallen back into place. There was no backing out now. After several attempts, he was able to light a small torch. The sounds and his shaking hands made it that much harder. He couldn’t see much, but what he could see horrified him. Sallow skin with bloodshot empty eyes watched his every move. They weren’t demons or dancing skeletons, but humans reduced to their bestial state, which was almost worse. He checked his torch. It wouldn’t last long. No time to waste pitying the damned. Still, he lingered for a moment, hoping that Thizdella would walk in.
Gustavio walked down every row and column of prisoners searching for a trap door. He nearly stumbled on a pile of bones which were arranged conspicuously into a pyramid. He heaved at the thought of what he was about to do. He kicked the pile at the base and sent the majority of bones scattering. Little rats skittered away. Lo and behold, there was a trap door, with motley lacquering just as the door to the entrance was. It had a rusted metal ring which he pulled up, releasing a plume of musty air. He coughed a few times and descended the wooden makeshift ladder. He made sure to place his feet on the outermost portion of the rungs, since many of the rungs threatened to snap or had already been snapped by the previous descender.
His torch was now halfway through. He stood in a stone tunnel. Ahead of him lay a black void. The walls were coated with a thick ooze of ancient water that had nowhere to go and had instead congealed, at least, that is what he told himself. With no other option but to go but forward, he processed.
The tunnel was long and straight. He figured that it must lead due north, though the destination was still a mystery. He had never learned to read, never taken an interest in geography, nor ever conceived of a life outside of a castle. He had always planned on being a servant in the castle until his final breath, and if he could manage, would someday marry Thizdella. Now that looked unlikely, though Thizdella seemed keen on staying with him for at least awhile longer.
Finally the torch got so short, that it singed his fingers. In reflex, he dropped it to the ground where it fizzled out. He was submerged in darkness like falling backward into a lake of ink. It was perfect darkness. His ears started picking up sounds they didn’t before. A drip echoed from a distance. The sound of his breathing was punctuated by the sound of his heartbeat.
He continued on, now blind. He dragged his right hand along the way, just in case the tunnel turned, or there was a doorway. The worst case scenario would be that this tunnel dead-ended. In that case, he would keep his right hand on the wall and hope desperately for an opening on the west side of the tunnel. He didn’t want to think of what would happen if he had to return to the castle.
His boots stomped one after the other. It felt like he was a pack animal walking endless circles to power the wheat mill. On the edge of his consciousness, he could hear a scritching, snickering sound. He halted temporarily to make sure it wasn’t an echo from his walking. It wasn’t. His pulse and pace picked up. His heartbeat boomed in his chest. Surely it wouldn’t be long before he got to the end of the tunnel.
The sound was getting louder… He couldn’t take it any longer. He broke into a sprint, removing his hand from the safety of the wall. His forehead and pits were now coated in sweat.
Without warning, his toe slammed into stone. His hands connected with the cold steps as he caught it fall. He was shaken, but otherwise unscathed. After a few deep breaths, he pushed himself up, brushed himself off, and felt his way up the stairs. They lead up to a wooden door. He pushed the door open and walked through.
Inside, a fire illuminated a large room with a large man hunched on his elbows on a wooden countertop. Behind the man was a wall covered with weapons and armor that would have made even the king drool. Each sword had a cut gem embedded in the hilt. Each chest plate was embellished with gold leaf and engravings. They looked just as functional as they looked decorated.
The man wore a sour look. His nose was bulbous and red. Atop his head was a horseshoe of curly white hair, matching his mutton chops. His shoulders were large and square, the opposite of his stomach which was nearly spherical.
“What are you doing going through the secret tunnel? Who are you, lad?”
Gustavio stumbled over his words since was caught off guard. Finally he spat out, “I’m Gustavio, a servant of the king. I’m looking for my-, a girl, Thizdella. Has she come this way?”
“No one has passed this way, lady or otherwise,” said the man.
“Could I just wait here for her?”
“In that corner? Sure. I don’t see why not.”
Gustavio waited for only a short while. His feet were tired from the long trek and the long day of work. He would need to find shelter once Thizdella arrived.
“You don’t happen to know of a place I could post up for the night, do you, sir?”
“Unfortunately not. There’s not much available in town. And you wouldn’t want to stay at the places that are available.”
“Maybe I could stay here? You must have an extra room. Maybe a cellar you’re not using?”
“Well, I have a cellar -”
“Great!” interrupted Gustavio
“-But it’s infested with rats,” continued the man.
“Ah.” said Gustavio deflated.
“I have stores of goods down there that I haven’t been able to access since my old knees have given up on me. No one else will fetch my goods on account of the rats. I’ll make you a deal. If you remove the rats for me, I will allow you to stay there. I’ll even invite you to sup with me,”
“That’s great! I’ll get started now.”
The man smirked, laughter hiding in his eyes. He showed Gustavio over to a trap door and a wooden ladder that lead into a dark room below. He lowered a lit torch on a fishing line into the room. Gustavio got down on his stomach to get a better view inside. He couldn’t see much, even with the torch. Then he spotted it. Two rubies burning a few inches apart, staring right at him. They circled around the suspended torch. The beast was the size of the king’s dogs. The tails could be mistaken for a fully-grown snake. The claws were making scritching noises on the stone floor below them. It was the same sound that haunted Gustavio in the tunnel. This must have been the source. All of his running didn’t bring him farther; it brought him right to them.
The man watched in mild amusement as the blood drained from Gustavio’s face.
“Don’t you fret, my boy,” said the man as he turned back to his counter. “Here. Take this sword. I call it Firepoker”
The word, “sword,” was a generous one. It was a block of wood skewered by a crooked thin beam. Gustavio figured out that the wooden block must be the hand guard, and that the blade must have indeed once been used to prod burning logs in a previous life, but was now sharpened.
“Go on. Don’t be scared.”
“Maybe I could borrow that before I got in?” said Gustavio pointing to the ornately decorated armor hanging on the wall.
“Ha! I doubt it would fit you. It is more likely that it slow you down. Go now, while they still think you’re weak. You can get a jump on them. Unless you’d rather wait here for your lady?”
Gustavio heaved a great sigh and plunged into the darkness.
Gustavio had never fought before. Not once did he even get into a scuffle with the other servants. When he was much younger, he believed in the rumors of legends of Sir Rhawland. Sir Rhawland was the finest knight in all the land. Valiant and gallant, Sir Rhawland had bested many beasties which lurked and loomed in the many forgotten realms of the kingdom. Gustavio tried to pretend he was Sir Rhawland. He descended the wooden ladder with one hand, white knuckling the Firepoker with his other hand. He swung it aimlessly in the general direction of the rat below him. The only good it did was stir the anger of the rat.
Gustavio took one step lower. The rat responded by getting on its hind legs. Another step down and his heels would surely be gnawed down to the bone. Gustavio turned around, placing his heels in the ladder rungs . He tested the rat by dangling his foot just above its nose. The rat made a little jump and hiss, but Gustavio pulled his foot up just in time. Gustavio did it again and again. After the sixth time, Gustavio felt a little more comfortable. On the seventh test, he stabbed the rat in the nose. The rat screeched in pain. It was furious and raced around the ladder. It wouldn’t get on its hind legs anymore for fear of exposing its nose. Gustavio lowered himself a little more and swiped and stabbed at the rat until it gave up. It wasn’t a glorious kill, but it worked.
“Well done, my boy! Well done, indeed.”
Gustavio was feeling proud of himself until he noticed the other two rats on the far end of the room. They were eating something and ignoring him. When they noticed his staring, they turned around and bared their blood-stained teeth.
He got into what he thought might be a fighting stance and used both hands to point his puny sword at them. They both started running at him. The larger jumped and lunged for his midsection. Gustavio held the sword steady, eyes pinched shut, and skewered the rat. The other rat clamped down on his ankle. Pain shot through his leg. That foot felt like it was being pulled off by a torture device. Gustavio struggled through the pain to stab this one, too.
He fell back on his bottom, exhaustion flooding through him. He breathed through his nose for a minute while the walls around him spun.
“Don’t get too comfortable down there,” shouted the man.
Gustavio was halfway up the ladder when the man grabbed him by the back of his shirt and heaved him up. “Well, well, well, how rude of me not to introduce myself. My name is Sund Codswollow, third descending of the Count and Contessa Codswollow. Pleasure to meet you, young sir. And, what is your name?
“The name’s Gustavio, m’lord. I’m just a servant of the prince, no need to give me any ‘sirs.’”
“Ah well, Gustavio. I don’t see any prince here, so there is no reason to consider yourself a servant any longer. Seeing as I didn’t inherit the county, there is no need for any ‘m’lords,’ either, hmm? Just Sund is fine. Say, I am in dire need of a spare set of hands and a strong back to help me run this general store. Why don’t you stay awhile and help, and I will provide food and lodging, hmm?”
“Oh, that’s very generous of you… Sund.” Gustavio choked out the name. He was unused to calling people by their name unless they were other servants. “But I can’t accept. I must wait for my friend Thizdella, who should be arriving at any moment.”
“Suit yourself. There’s still about twelve hours before sundown.” Sund threw up his hands in a shrug and gave him an ample smile.
He looked out the window of the little shop and rubbed the fatigue out of his eyes. The sun was already bounding above the horizon. He must have walked all night. If she was behind him in the tunnel, surely she would have heard him, or he her, on the way here. He limped back into the tunnel. He forgot about his injury until it pained him to put weight on his foot. The wound already stopped bleeding, so it couldn’t have been deep.
He yelled her name but only heard his echo in response. She wouldn’t bail at the last minute like this. Maybe something came up. Maybe she couldn’t get away until tonight. Gustavio resolved to stay until she showed up.
Back in the store, Gustavio cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Sund. I was wondering if… would it be possible… is your offer still good?”
Sund guffawed. “My boy! I would be overjoyed to have you. Come, break your fast with me in the kitchen. Then I’ll show you your room. You look worse than a scarecrow in the rain.
Sund led him through the door behind the counter and through several other rooms into the kitchen, which housed a kitchen table, a chair and a stool, and dusty pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. The room was decorated with as many empty tankards as dirty dishes strewn about. Sund cleared a spot on the kitchen table by redistributing some dishes and tankards. Soon there was a hearty spread of bread slices, orange marmalade, smoked sausage, and full tankard for each of them.
Once Gustavio had his fill, began nodding off in his chair. Sund nudged him on the knee and beckoned to be followed up the stairs. He quickly made the bed. Gustavio fell asleep in his clothes as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Gustavio woke up in the middle of the night. Beneath him was a modest mattress, but at least it was a mattress. His blanket was made of the same itchy material as potato sacks. He tried to go back to sleep, but it was no use. All he could think about was Thizdella, and how she still hadn’t showed up yet. Reluctantly, he climbed out of bed and washed his face. He needed something to occupy his mind until the sun rose. He resolved to go downstairs to clean up the kitchen. He was nearly done when he got lost in thought again. What if the prince found out about their escape plan? What if he was punishing her right now? She could never escape then. He would never see her again. The sun was brushing the horizon with a salmon hue.
He was shaken out of his train of thought by the loud crash at his feet. A shattered plate was on the floor while his hands were now empty.
“Ugh, stupid, stupid, stupid.” He cursed himself for being so clumsy. There was a stirring from the stairs and Gustavio froze. Sund came storming in brandishing an ornate gold and silver sword with wing-styled hand guard.
“Who goes there?” bellowed Sund. “Oh King’s beard! It’s just you.” Sund braced himself on the door frame and caught his breath. “You gave me quite the fright. What are you doing up this early?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” Gustavio stammered heavily.
Sund sighed deeply. “Well, it is no wonder. You you’ve been through quite a bit in the last day. I must say though, I cannot have you be so easily frightened and completely paralyzed. We live a long way from the King’s Law and I run into a seedy devil once in a while. Not to mention Muldoon lurks about these parts.”
“Who is Muldoon?”
“The most fearsome bear in the king’s land. He terrorizes the local villagers here. I haven’t been able to track him down and kill him myself, with my knees as they are. He took a small child once. Mostly he keeps his distance, though he does scare away even our hardiest lumberjacks away from the choicest lumber. They say his bite can rip the limbs right off the trees and he leaves claw marks on the trunks that go right to the core.
“He sounds terrible.”
“Oh, he is,” Sund said with a chuckle.
Gustavio gave him a quizzical look.
“Well I’m thankful for the monsters of this world. They give the courageous a chance to show off. Anyway, there is no need to worry about ol’ Muldoon. He does all of his hunting at night and there have never been any reports that he has entered a house. Now, you have a mighty lot to get done today. Why don’t you get started on the wood out back. There’s a small pile that needs to be split.”
There was no small pile of wood out back. There was a formidable mountain. The wood had been piled up for some time it seems because the lower logs were laden with moisture. The sun had already crested the blue dome above him by the time he had even made a dent in the pile. His shoulders felt like they were on fire and ready to fall off. Several times, he had to take seven or eight swings just to split a single log. Sund visited and mercifully taught Gustavio better form, as well as taking care of a sizable portion of logs himself. Sund never tired. As far as Gustavio was concerned, with shoulders as big as Sund’s, he could probably rip the logs in half without the ax if he wanted. They took a break for a brief midday meal, a welcome respite for his hot red skin and blistered hands. The meal was a simple stew of potatoes, carrots, and celery in a beef stock. They washed it down with a tankard for Gustavio and two for Sund.
Sund informed him that he would need to clean out the basement of the dead rats and cobwebs. Gustavio was grateful to have an indoor activity to do. While disgusting, cleaning the basement was a simple task that kept his mind occupied without requiring much effort. After a dinner of more stew and beer, Sund asked, “You ever learn how to fight?”
“Fight? Me? No. Not in a million years.”
“Not even if your life depended on it?”
“What about your friend? The girl. What if her life depended on it?”
“I suppose I’d do what I could. It wouldn’t be much use. I’ve never learned how to fight, but I’d put in a good effort,” said Gustavio reluctantly.
Sund slammed his tankard on the table. “Then we fix that tonight! Go fetch two brooms.”
Gustavio returned with the one broom covered in cobwebs from his cleaning that day, and a newer broom. Sund took each one and snapped the handle off of the bristles, and tossed the heads away. He motioned for Gustavio to follow behind as he tromped into the store front. He retrieved a small circular metal shield from the lowermost shelf, and proceeded out into the cool breezy air outside.
“Now hold the shield, that’s called a buckler, in your weak hand. Good. Get a good grip on the broomstick with the other. Now come at me. C’mon.”
“You want me to hit you?” said Gustavio with incredulity.
“Well, you won’t hit me, so don’t worry about it. Just give it your best shot. Try to imagine that friend of yours is in danger.”
Gustavio took a few swings at the man in front of him, half afraid that he would injure the very person who showed him such kindness, and half afraid that the man was stark raving mad and this was all part of his ploy. He was surprised how difficult it was to land a blow, given that Sund’s bulk made sizable targets.
Sund parried each blow and replied with instructions, “Keep your shield higher and closer. Keep your sword out farther. Stand up straighter. Bend your knees. There you go. Now get ready.”
Bong! His shield rang out like a gong. It vibrated violently in his hand for a minute, shaking his forearm and shoulder. He was stunned. Whap! Sund’s broomstick smacked smartly on Gustavio’s thigh.
“Come on. Look alive.”
Gustavio increased the intensity of his assault. He was surprised at the vivacious fervor that Sund put into his fight. It didn’t match his large stature and calm nature. Try as he might, Gustavio could not land a blow on Sund.
Finally, Sund smacked Gustavio’s broom handle so hard that it flung out of Gustavio’s hand. It went whirling into the long grass. Gustavio propped his hands on his knees panting. His cheeks were flushed the same color as the setting sun. Sund put his hands to his rotund belly and gave a fully body laugh.
“Oh, that was good! Good indeed. I haven’t fought like that in years. You’ve got much to learn, but I’m confident that I’ll make a fighter out of you yet.”
Gustavio went to bed that night with aches in every part of his body. If it wasn’t raw from chores, it was battered from fighting Sund. There was another ache that he couldn’t name. He felt it every time he thought of Thizdella. He woke up six days in a row feeling exactly the same. Each day he would do a new grueling chore for Sund and cap the night with a broom fight. They had already snapped several broom handles and were down to the last pair in the whole house. At some point they would run out of broom handles, and Gustavio would run out of hope of ever seeing Thizdella again. Sund was in the kitchen taking heavy droughts from a tankard when Gustavio walked in. There was a tankard waiting for him too, which Gustavio partook.
“Today I have a special task for you. I want you to go out into the woods and find some morel mushrooms. Ever had a morel? No? I didn’t think so. They only grow out here in the countryside. I haven’t had them in years and I figure, while I have an extra pair of hands, now’s the time to get them again.”
Sund explained what morels looked like and where to find them. Gustavio would need to venture into the forest and be back by sundown. Sund had already prepared Gustavio’s pack. On top of the pack was Firepoker and the buckler. Gustavio strapped up and headed out into the fragrant forest.
He hiked for some time, stopping to smell the flowers occasionally. A great many butterflies flitted across his path. Swallows swooped along side him, snatching up the butterflies as snacks. He decided to stop and have a quick snack himself. He kept his eyes peeled for the morels along his path.
By noon, he was worried that he had misunderstood one of his instructions. He followed the path perfectly, and yet there were no mushrooms to be found. Not even the poisonous ones were fruiting. Determined not to head home empty-handed, he ventured off the path a ways, always keeping it view. To his left was a sunny meadow and squirrels foraging for lost acorns. Along his right was a gentle slope that ended in a giggling brook below. This deep into the woods, his eyes had still not become accustomed to the myriad wildflowers that polka-dotted the floor. It was when he was walking and admiring a particularly colorful wildflower when he was whapped in the head by a low hanging branch. It caught him totally unexpectedly. He tumbled down the slope. Once he picked up speed, there was no stopping his tumultuous roll. With a plop, he found himself soaked through to the trousers in the icy clear water of the brook.
He was slightly disgruntled by this setback. He’d have to walk all the way back up, and back home in soggy clothes. It didn’t help that he still had no prize to speak of. Not even one measly mushroom. He sat on a boulder by the brook and ate some of his rations. As he bent down to drink from the brook, he noticed some morel mushrooms on the other side of the stream. He was overjoyed. Finally he could head back in pride with the prize in hand. Properly nourished, revived, and refreshed, he set up the hill to get back on the path.
When he completed his ascent, he was astonished to find that the path was nowhere in sight. It was gone. Completely gone. There was no trace of his footprints, trampled grass, or broken branches. He could have been a ghost passing through the night and left more of a trace.
He looked up to the sky and saw that the sun was to his left which meant he was facing North. A cool breeze brushed against his left cheek and tousled his curly hair. He resolved to walk due south, the woods would end, and he would follow the treeline back to Sund’s house.
He marched south, passing tree after tree, each one renewing and vanquishing his hope of finding his path again. He paid little attention to the ground now, focusing his effort to break free of the forest before sundown.
After some time, the trees abruptly stopped and he arrived at a meadow, coated in a thick soft grass. The setting sun cast a lurid shadow across the meadow. He waffled between hiking in the dark and setting up camp to try again tomorrow. The deciding factor was the abundance of dry wood in the area and the fleeting warmth of the day, not to mention the extreme difficulty of navigating by the stars in a forest. He wasted no time starting a fire and setting up camp. He roasted some mushrooms, drained his canteen, and ate some smoked jerky. He was too tired to clean up his cookware, so he let the fire die down, used his pack as a pillow, and tried to fall asleep under the stars.
He must have nodded off because he awoke to the sound of a low grumbling. Somewhere in the distance, something was aggrieved. Something big took personal offense at Gustavio’s apparent trespassing. The grumbling echoed off of every tree, giving the sense that it came from everywhere all at once. He sat upright, scanning his surroundings, trying to perceive the source. It was a fruitless endeavor on this moonless night. He armed himself and stood with his back to the fire. Though he steadied his limbs as best as he could, they trembled relentlessly. His heart thumped in his chest and echoed in his ears.
From the shadows ahead of him emerged a monstrous beast. It’s muscles undulating under it’s shaggy fur. It was baring its yellow teeth, which glinted in the fading fire. Two mean eyes peered at Gustavio, appraising, and despising. It stalked closer and closer, approaching a pouncing distance, snarling the whole time. It reared back on his hind legs and let loose a thunderous roar. This monster could be none other than the infamous Muldoon. Gustavio was shaking so violently that he could barely grip his sword and shield.
He knew he would probably die. The bear would probably rip him to shreds. He could only see one other option. He turned and fled, leaving his sword, shield, campsite and equipment behind. The bear thundered after him. It ran fast and recklessly, leaving a wake of destruction behind it.
Gustavio ran as hard and fast as he could. His muscles burned like a bonfire. Sweat poured down his forehead into his eyes. He risked a glance backwards. Twigs and branches exploded behind him. A roar that shook the leaves off the trees ahead of him was all the encouragement he needed to keep going.
He thought he saw a clearing ahead. The trees grew sparse and revealed that it was actually a path. The blood pounding in his ears prevented him from hearing a clopping approach him. Once on the path, he could see a hefty man riding a horse towards him. Gustavio jumped, waved and sprinted towards him. In the darkness of night, he had to get closer to realize that it was Sund. He thanked the stars.
Sund pulled up beside him, “Where’ve you been? I’ve been searching all day for you. I can hear Muldoon about in these woods. We best be going.”
“I know! He’s right behind me!”
Sund dismounted and walked behind Gustavio. He lifted the boy by his armpits onto the horse.
“What are you doing?”
“What needs to be done.”
“No! We need to get to safety.”
Sund gave Gustavio a look to remember, but said no more. He slapped the horse on the rump which made the horse break into a gallop. Gustavio, not expecting a nighttime ride, did all he could to hang on and steer along the path back home.
The path became more obvious the closer he got to Sund’s house, making it easy to get back. The rush from running and riding was wearing off and weariness was setting in. Once back at the house, he dismounted the horse, tied it up, and went inside. He warmed up some milk for himself and sat down. He was uncomfortable in his chair. He drifted in and out of sleep. He couldn’t rest, and he couldn’t fight the fatigue.
Gustavio awoke to the thump of the door opening and stomps of heavy boots. The light breaching through the kitchen windows hurt his eyes. His rump and back were sore from sitting in the chair. At the sight of Sund again, he found himself squeezing Sund as hard as he could. He surprised himself with this sign of affection that he had never shown before. He was equally surprised when Sund hugged him back.
“I’m glad you’re OK,” said Gustavio.
“I’m glad you’re OK. You really had me going there for a bit,” said Sund.
Sund poured himself a cold one before lumbering into a chair across from Gustavio. “So what happened? After I left, I mean.”
“I fought Muldoon. Killed him. He won’t be bothering the village any more.”
“But how did you do it?”
“I just faced him, Gusvatio. What you should have done.”
“Me!?” said Gustavio with incredulity.
“You. You had the opportunity. You should have taken it.”
“But I’m just a boy.”
“And I’m an old man. My fighting days should have been behind me. When it comes to the people you love, you have to stay and fight, no matter what.”
“But I was afraid! Muldoon scared the wits out of me.”
“So was I,” said Sund with a sad twinkle in his eye.
“Really? After all the beasties you’ve encountered, you still get scared.”
“It’s true. Let me tell you something, Gustavio. All men have fears, but the brave put down their fears and go forward, sometimes to death, but always to victory.”
That gave Gustavio something to ponder for a minute. Faintly, the sound of bells lolled across the forest and broke the silence in Sund’s house.
“What’s that? They must be from the castle, but I’ve never heard them before,” asked Gustavio.
“They are. They’re wedding bells. Did you say you had a sweetie back there?”
Gustavio turned red. “She’s a friend. And yes.”
The bells finished.
“I should go,” said Gustavio.
“You should go,” said Sund at the same time.
“You don’t have much time. Grab your stuff. I’ll meet you at the horse,” said Sund.
When Gustavio arrived, his eyes lit up. Sund had readied the horse and attached a sword, instead of Firepoker. Gustavio nearly tripped on his way.
“For me? You’re letting me use a real sword.”
Sund grunted and said, “Use it well,” he lowered his gaze, “And bring it back.”
Then he lifted the boy by the armpits onto the horse and smacked its flank. The horse reared back. Gustavio would have fallen off except that he was already hanging on for dear life. When the beast landed, it fell into a steady gallop that tore at the wind and ripped up the soil.
The path took no time at all by horse. Before he knew it, he arrived at the castle gates, which were open since it was daytime. He had never seen the courtyard festooned with so many exotic flowers in every shade of red and yellow, the colors of the royal family. The crowd grew thick as porridge and became impassible by horse, so he hitched his horse at the stables. Everyone around him tittered excitedly as baby birds for the royal wedding. Gustavio pushed his way to the front, slipped between couples, and managed to get to the front. On a constructed platform, ornately decorated with bouquets and garlands, stood two figures, each stood cornstalk straight. The boy was wearing a garish red tunic with orange cape. The girl was wearing an orange dress with a red belt and red bows in her hair. He looked triumphant. She looked condemned. The royal holy-man stood behind them and waved his hands at the crowd for quiet attention. A wave of “hush” and “shush” sounds fell across the crowd the way the wind sweeps across grass.
Gustavio couldn’t wait any longer. This was his last chance. “Wait! Wait! Stop!” he yelled. He clambered up the front of the stage. “Don’t marry her!”
“And why not, peasant?” sneered Prince Zalve.
“Because she doesn’t love you.”
The crowd gasped at the same time.
“No matter. I am the finest prince in all the land. I’m sure she’ll learn to love me.”
“And you don’t love her.”
The crowd gasped louder.
“Why else would I want to get married to a servant?” asked Prince Zalve with disdain.
“For political points. You just want to gain popularity among the working class.”
Several people in the crowd fainted from shock. At this point, Prince Zalve turned as red as his tunic.
“How dare you question my motives, accuse me of pandering, ruin my wedding, besmirch my reputation, and show disrespect for your country! How dare you! I could have you hung for your transgression, but I fear that may be too light on you. No, I challenge you to a duel!”
Gustavio knew it would come to this. He felt the same as when Muldoon was chasing him, but also calmer. Despite his shaking knees, he glowed in his resignation to his fate.
“Very well. As I am an honorable noble, and since I proposed the duel, I shall let you decide upon the weapon.
Gustavio unsheathed his sword, threw the scabbard behind him, and stood in the ready position as his only reply.
“As you wish. Prepare to suffer! Guards! Bring me Dolor.” Two guards rushed onto the stage. One pulled the sword while the other held the scabbard with a flourish. Then they bowed and presented the sword to the prince, with the sword resting on four hands. Gustavio could tell the sword as a rapier. The sword was thin and lithe with serrations on each side. The gold hilt was laden with bulbous gemstones. On the pommel, a plump ruby acted as a counterweight for the sword. Prince Zalve picked up the rapier and practiced shredding the air in front of him.
“Engard!” said Prince Zalve.
“Engard,” said Gustavio.
Prince Zalve lunged. Gustavio parried. The two went at it, back and forth. The midday sun shone down on them. Their shadows shrunk beneath them. The crowd jeered and whooped for one or the other to win. Though Gustavio worked up a sweat, he remained unscathed. His week of training with Sund gave him the foot work necessary to stay one step ahead of his formidable foe. Prince Zalve feinted right and jabbed left. When Gustavio blocked, Prince Zalve rushed in and grabbed Gustavio’s sword hand. Gustavio did the same to Prince Zalve, so that they were locked in a temporary stalemate.
“I remember you. You’re my servant boy who ran away,” sneered Prince Zalve.
“I’m Gustavio, and I’m back to stop you now,” replied Gustavio.
The two shoved off of each other and made space between them.
Prince Zalve, sword raised, made a mad dash towards Gustavio. At the last minute, Gustavio side stepped and wrapped his arm around Prince Zalve’s middle. And in one fluid motion, put his sword to Prince Zalve’s throat. Prince Zalve struggled to get out of Gustavio’s grip, but couldn’t budge without his throat being cut. Finally he relaxed.
“Okay. You win. Finish me off.”
Gustavio thought of Muldoon and pressed his sword tighter so that a thin stream of red snaked down into Prince Zalve’s tunic. But Muldoon was different. Muldoon was a monster that couldn’t be reasoned with and couldn’t change. Gustavio had demonstrated his courage, resolve, and dedication. Prince Zalve surrendered. Killing would accomplish nothing.
When Gustavio relaxed his grip, Prince Zalve whipped around, swept the legs out from under Gustavio, pressed his leather boot on Gustavio’s chest, and readied the final blow.
“ENOUGH” bellowed a voice from the back of the courtyard. A rotund man, in a flowing red cape and orange trim marched up to the stage. On his head was a crown with jewels in every color and cut. The crowed parted for him and bowed at the middle as he passed. Silence spread throughout, including Prince Zalve, whose eyes were now as wide as saucers.
“I have seen quite enough. Release this boy, and return to your chambers at once!”
“But father! The wedding-”
The crowd watched in awe as the king yelled in his son’s face in public.
“And you! Get up! What are you doing here? I should have you banished for you impudence,”
“I’m here to rescue my friend… My love… Thizdella,”
“The bride to be? Hmm.” The king considered this as he stroked his curly white beard. “Your actions are unforgivable and for that, it is only fitting that you are banished. However, for the mercy you showed my child, I shall allow you this one unorthodox request. You may go with your love, and I hope for both of our sakes that you never return.” Thizdella and Gustavio ran into each other’s arms and kissed passionately.
The two ran through the crowd back to where Gustavio tied up the horse. As they galloped away from the castle, Thizdella said, “You came back for me. I thought you might be dead!”
“I thought the same about you.”
“Where will we go? Castle life is the only life I’ve ever known.”
“I think I know a place,” said Gustavio with a knowing smile.