Prince John, who had retained a short-lived tenure as a noble of favor in Corridane, which had lasted only until he had seen the Princess of Gairbairia, had not been home long, but was already causing people to wish him gone once more. He prowled the halls of his family’s ancestral castle with a sullen air, determined to find someone he could snap at to relieve his own stress. The reader may well be wondering what was causing him to act this way, in a situation that should have had a more cheering effect on his mood. The reason was the Princess.
John’s brother, the king Elmbran, a fair-minded man, had made no objection when John had arrived at the castle some days before in the company of the Princess and her guards. He had only given orders that the Gairbairns should be housed in the castle as befitted their rank. This meant that John was required to give up his own chamber and move into that of a lesser man, which caused him to rage privately at his brother in addition to the animosity he was beginning to feel toward the Princess due to her refusal to answer him. Unable to find a satisfactory answer on his own, John resolved to speak with his brother again. Accordingly, he turned his steps toward the king’s chamber.
Upon reaching Elmbran’s chamber, John pushed the door open without knocking, causing the king to look up in surprise.
“Why, John! I did not expect to see you in here for a long time yet! No doubt this means you have good news?”
Snatching up a chair that stood nearby and seating himself on it, John asked “Why should I have good news?”
“Why?” Elmbran replied, laying down the quill he had been holding. “You only burst into my room without announcing yourself, which is not done unless one means to attack the occupant or has some great news to announce. May I congratulate you?”
“No. She has not agreed, if that is what you mean.” Finally taking notice of the letter on the king’s desk, John added “Who are you writing to?”
“Really, John. You are not yourself. You have not been since you arrived. Perhaps if I request that this Princess return to her homeland, you will be able to make yourself comfortable again. As to your question, I would not offer to reply unless it concerned you. This is a message to Valun, the king of Corridane that your party has arrived.”
“No! No! Do not even think of that! I beg you! Let me live in peace!”
If Elmbran had been disconcerted by his brother’s earlier behavior, it was nothing to what he felt now. “My brother! What can be ailing you, to make you speak so desperately?”
“Only that which you have said, my brother.” replied John, who had risen from the chair only to lower himself on one knee before the king. “Do not, I pray you, send any message to Corrandion. I have lost favor there, and when they hear of this, they will descend upon your land with revenge and war in their hearts. Also, I beg you, do not ask the Princess to leave, for if you do I will follow her or die. Moreover, you are mistaken. The Princess does not come from Corridane. She is from Gairbairia.”
“Then she will find it easier to return home than I had thought.”
“No! You can not send her home, just as you can not, to save yourself, send me back to Corridane. I visited her country soon after I ended my previous visit here. Her father the king advised me to escort her to Corrandion, with the intent that she should wed the king Valun. If she returns to her homeland alone, you will have offended her father, who will no doubt wish to avenge the slight he will perceive.”
“You drive me into a corner. It seems I can do nothing without bringing harm upon myself and others.”
Almost jerking himself upright, John said “Elmbran, you are a wise man. It would be unreasonable to think you do not see the path. Do nothing.” Setting his jaw firmly, he adopted the grim expression of one resigned to a fate he is sure will come, whatever he might do to avert it. Crossing to the door, he opened it, let himself out, and then shut the door in a manner which seemed meant to deny that he had ever been rash in his life.
Ordering that a horse be prepared, he left the castle in a darker mood than he had entered. Mounting in the courtyard, he called the kennel master to his side. When the man had arrived, he said “Release only Halstaff, Warrior, and Wolf today. I am in no mood to bear the howling of the whole pack. And bring me a new spear and bow. I go for dangerous game in the mountains this day.”
“Yes, my lord.” The servant turned and hurried around a corner to bring out the dogs John had named. A few moments later, a cacophony of disappointed howls started up as the rest of the pack voiced their objections at being left behind.
As John clenched the reins tightly in his hands, prepared to shout across the whole courtyard that someone must silence those dogs, the keeper came into sight carrying the weapons he had called for, and trailed by the three dogs.
Halstaff and Warrior were stocky, powerful, tanks of Mastiffs, while Wolf was a long and lean bloodhound. They were John’s favorite dogs, because the three of them had scored kills against everything John had brought them against, from foxes to bears, and had, of course, come out alive. They ran eagerly to his side, so excited that they seemed ready to pull down the horse so that John would be forced to come down to them.
Trying to deter them gently with the haft of the spear he now held in his hand, John spoke, almost laughing. “No, no! my boys! You must save your great strength for the hunt to come. I am not worthy prey for the likes of you. Come, we will go. Forward!”
The dogs seemed to understand what he had said, for they ceased their leaping about and instead ran forward, waiting for John to catch up with them.
“Yes, my boys! We go!” Gesturing at the gatekeeper with the spear, which he yet to put down, John urged his horse forward and through the gate.
As John rode down the central, cobblestone paved highway of Ronaiera, slowly to allow his fighting dogs to keep pace without tiring themselves, he felt his spirits rise to great heights they had not attained in the past ten years since he had lived here as a boy. True, he had been little short of a slave in the beginning, and had gotten into all sorts of trouble which only Valun’s influence and John’s strength had rescued him from, but within himself he had been happy. And now, here, he felt it again. At long last, he was truly home.
He passed several people, coming and going, who were so busy with themselves that they scarcely spared a glance at the prince riding by in practical finery with three dogs around him. The vast majority of the people were the usual outlying farmers and business travelers who always seemed to be on the road. John, knowing there was nothing unusual in the presence of so many of this sort of people, treated them as they did him.
There was one party, however, which caught his eye. Three men were walking close together, as if to ensure that they were not separated. This behavior in itself was not unusual among men carrying large amounts of money, but this party stood out because they were dressed in a manner John was very familiar with, having seen the style on the Princess’s guards for the past several days. In addition, their faces were entirely covered, save for their eyes. John thought no more of them after his initial shock, saying to himself “They are probably Gairbairian merchants sent here by their masters to bargain for what they can get. There is nothing the matter with them at all.”
A short time later, John turned off the main road to take a direct path toward the forest in which he meant to hunt. He called to the dogs to keep them closer to his side, adjusting his hold on the spear, which he now held across the saddle. They traveled uneventfully for several minutes, and they had actually reached the foothills of the mountain forest before John realized quite where they had gotten to.
He released the dogs, crying “Wolf, lead us well! Go deep! On, Halstaff! On, Warrior! We go for a prize today!” At the word of command, the dogs sped off as if they had been launched by coiled springs. John prodded his horse harder than was necessary in his eagerness to follow them, causing the horse to cry out in protest. Nevertheless, the beast obediently hurried off in pursuit of the hunters.
It was not long before Wolf hit upon a scent he knew well. He alerted the others with a long howl, speeding off into the underbrush on the track of the quarry. The forest was an ancient one, and had weathered a great storm only a short time ago. Many trees had come down, which made the trailing far more strenuous than it would otherwise have been.
Wolf led them through winding trails for nigh on half an hour before stopping short and howling. It was clear to John that the trail did not extend farther, so he began to study the ground. He and the three dogs had come to a clearing which extended twenty feet in each direction. On one side there was a large outcrop of rock, under which a cave had been dug out to provide shelter to some animal.
It was not long before the animal in question came lumbering into view. The bear Wolf had tracked to its den was bigger than any John had hunted before. It’s length upright clearly reached eight feet. It was enormous, powerful, and made John question whether he actually wanted to attack it. But a moment later he remembered what he had come for. “Forward, Warrior! On, Halstaff!”
Giving out low growls of challenge, the two mastiffs leapt at the bear, seeking to lock their jaws onto it and bring it down.
Enraged, the beast rose upon its hind legs, shaking off the dogs, which fell hard to the ground. These dogs, though, were made of strong stock, and they shook off the falls in moments. In their new attack, they displayed new caution. The dogs, fearful of another fall, were slow to approach, even while John egged them on again.
Suddenly, as one leapt from the ground and locked it’s jaws upon one thick leg, the other bounded up to the top of the cave, and from this height leapt and sank it’s teeth into the beast’s neck, holding on with all it’s strength.
As such things often do, the bear only became all the more dangerous for it’s imminent demise. Giving out a blood-chilling roar, it shook the dog off it’s arm as if it were nothing more than a rag. The dog flew through the air until it collided with a tree a few yards away and died instantly. Rid of the dog’s weight, the bear lowered itself to the ground and charged John upon his horse.
Knowing the bear was about to die, and knowing also that he could not have outrun it anyway, John stood his ground, primarily because his horse, in it’s fright, had thrown him. In the fall, the spear John was carrying had broken. As he lay on his back, he had only a split-second to raise the blade before the massive jaws descended upon him.
John came to his senses some time later, and was surprised to find himself surrounded by the open maw of an enormous, dead, bear which had not died until he buried his spear in its heart.
Thrusting the monstrous head from him, John crawled from under it and went to the aid of his dogs, which were now hovering over the limp body of Halstaff, pushing it withe their noses, whimpering, and generally showing their distress at the fact that the fallen warrior had not risen with them.
Crouching between them, John put an arm around each dog’s neck. As they turned their puzzled looks toward him and licked him anxiously, he said “I’m sorry, my boys. He can’t come with us. Nothing I can do will make him get up either. Perhaps I can bring him home. I must do what we came for first, though.” Crossing over to the dead bear, he pulled a long hunting knife from his belt and proceeded to remove the hide, head included, from the bones and meat it had encased. The hide removed, he called his dogs. “Here. Wolf, Warrior. Eat your fill. We must hasten back soon.”
Five minutes later, during which time the sound of enthusiastic chewing had not stopped once, John spoke again. He had by now smoothed the hide to the best of his ability, slung it over himself like a coat supported only by its hood, and slung the dead dog across his shoulders. “Leave off! Wolf, lead us home again! We have a long way to go!”
At the sound of John’s voice, the two dogs left their feast and obediently turned homeward. The return journey, on foot while carrying the weight of a bearskin on his head, and a dog on his shoulders, was much harder and more strenuous than the original trek. John struggled to cross barriers which his horse had leapt over easily. Nigh on three quarters of the hour since the kill had passed when the prince and his dogs finally emerged from the forest. After a short pause to recover his breath, John turned his steps toward the highway and broke into a trot. His pace was quick and steady, for this time he was alone on the road.
At the gate of the city, he was stopped. John had almost passed through before the guard belatedly swung his weapon down to block the way. “Just a moment... sir...what would you be doing in the city?”
The guards quavering voice annoyed John. Shrugging off the bearskin, he said, emphasizing his superiority over the other “I am the prince John, whom you let past not three hours ago! Do you take me for a mountain hermit? My business is my own.”
“Of course, sir. It was always so.”
John stalked past the man without replying.
Throwing the skin back over himself, John hurried on, making for the castle. People got out of his way as he approached. It would be difficult to fault some of them for showing fear as they did so. Even while carrying a dead dog back from the forest, John had not discarded the broken spear he had slain the bear with, instead thrusting it into his belt.
As he closed in on the palace, John spotted two of the men he had seen on the road earlier. They were leaning against a wall, doing nothing. The third one was nowhere to be seen, but John assumed he was nearby. Stopping, John barked “What are you men doing?”
At his cry, one of the foreigners turned toward him and began talking faster than seemed necessary. John listened, but soon realized that he could make nothing of the other’s speech, save that the man was violently agitated. When he indicated as much, the speaker, who had evidently misunderstood the signal, charged toward him with anger on his face. He was stopped only by a growl from John’s living mastiff. Catching sight of the dog, the man backed away in fear.
Frustrated at the waste of his time, John turned and continued on his way. He arrived at the castle a short time later. He was met by the kennel-master, to whom he transferred all three dogs. “Be sure to treat them well. They have gone through more today than they have in a very long time.”
“Permit me to say, I can see that, my lord.”
“Give Warrior space to grieve. He and Halstaff were littermates and he is reacting already. Do not step too close to him.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Wolf. Warrior. Follow.” Gesturing toward the warden, John turned away. Then, as an afterthought, he turned back to the warden and thrust the broken spear toward him. “Mark the spot with this. It is useless, and that beast deserves to be remembered. Has my horse returned?”
“Yes, my lord. At his return alone, we feared you might be lost.”
“Well, you see that I am alive.” John replied in a toneless voice that conveyed a desire to be ignored.
The warden, understanding his intent, turned away without replying.
As he moved up the stairs to the higher part of the castle, wherein were situated the various bedchambers of those courtiers who held such favor as to be guests of the king, John asked himself “What am I doing? Why, you are bringing what you call a gift to that Princess you consider your all. Why do I think that? Yes, that is a good question. Why do you believe that? Because I believe that I love her. Even when you know she will not have you? Yes, I believe it or I would not be acting this way! Is it possible that you simply want such a lady as your queen? By the One, do not ask me to wish my brother’s death! I know you have a heart. I question whether your heart is leading you correctly. Isn’t it? Isn’t that the question? If you really wish her to accept you in return, you must show the best you can be. Do not try to force her to see you acting so, either. And...? You will be a better man, and you may even find that your heart is calling you down a different path. But different paths are uncertain! So are all. Even the one a man follows is uncertain beyond what he is doing now.”
At the conclusion of this dialogue within himself, John found that his feet had taken him to the door of the Princess’s room. Shrugging off the bearskin, he let it drop in front of the confused guards, spread it out neatly, as if it were simply a doormat, and turned away.
It was not long after his return, while he was alone in his own chamber reading a tale he had sent for, that he was surprised by a loud knock on his chamber door. Shutting the book, he looked up just in time to see the Princess, flanked by two of her men, who were carrying the bearskin John had worked so hard to get.
He nearly dropped the book in his haste to rise, but was stopped short by the icy tones of the Princess. “It is no matter to me whether you sit or stand in your own chamber.”
At a signal, the men threw down the skin, which landed at John’s feet. The head, and its fearsome open jaws, were pointed toward him. “My men told me what you have done. You mean this as a trothplight, do you not?”
Steeling himself for what was to come, John straightened his back and replied firmly “Yes, my lady. It was. What is the matter with it?”
“There is nothing the matter with it. There is something the matter with you. If this thing is as you say, then I reject and spurn it and you. From this moment, I ask that you keep your distance from me and my men. You may eventually win back my trust, but do not look for my friendship.” With that, she turned and left the room, having the door closed behind her.
John collapsed and sprawled upon the skin, defeated. For some time he lay there, trying not to mourn the loss of something he had never actually gained. Suddenly, the questions his own hidden self-doubt, which had surfaced through the anxiety he had felt at the possibility of the present occurrence, returned to him. At this, he leapt up, saying to himself. “My brother the king is wise. He will help me, if I have speech with him.”
So saying, he left his chamber and made his way by a circuitous route to the door of his brother’s chamber. Remembering Elmbran’s earlier words, he stopped and knocked, expecting to be invited in immediately.
What he heard in response to his knock was a harsh cry in a language he could not understand. But though he did not understand the words, he did recognize the voice that spoke them; it was surely one of the strange men he had seen on his way to the castle. Fearing for Elmbran’s safety, John called out “I shall break the door down if I do not hear the king’s voice now!”
There was sharp speech from the foreigner, after which, to John’s equal consternation and relief, Elmbran called out “Do not enter, I pray you! They have three blades on my neck for your entrance!”
“Then I am entering all the swifter!” John shouted back, pulling his hunting knife from his belt. “Why do they threaten you?”
“I can not tell. Send the Princess’ guards. Perhaps they speak the same tongue.”
“They do, but I can not get near them now. I will explain if I ever can.”
As he walked away in preparation to throw himself at the door, John heard Elmbran call after him. “I charge you, do not enter! Your entrance is my death!”
John paid no heed to his brother’s warning. He was determined to enter, because he had the hubris to believe that because he was attempting it for the benefit of another, he would succeed flawlessly.
Lining himself up directly across the corridor from the chamber door, John allowed himself one deep breath and charged. He was across in seconds. Lowering himself, he put forth all his strength against the lock---- and stumbled inside as the unlocked door swung wide before him. The first to recover from the shock of his entrance, shaken though he was, John hurried over and thrust aside the intruders who had pinned Elmbran against the north wall. Turning, he faced them.
“Get yourselves away from here or I shall slay you!” he said, brandishing his long hunting knife.
The men paid him no heed. They advanced in turn, brandishing broad-bladed cutlasses.
John did not wait for the men to surround him. Hurrying forward, he came within the range of two mens’ blades as the third moved behind him. At the last possible moment, John dove to the floor. As he did so, the three blades clashed above him. Turning on his back, he slashed at one of the mens’ calves with his knife, causing that man to fall to the floor. Snatching his enemy’s blade, John leapt up to face the other two.
Lashing out with his long legs, John knocked one man hard to the side. Elmbran then caught the man by the arms and wrenched the cutlass from him, throwing it out the window.
John exchanged blows with the last man several times as he backed his enemy against the wall. John clearly had the upper hand and was bringing all his strength to bear on the man’s guard, when suddenly the man thrust back at him and spun away. The sudden application and removal of strong resistance caused John to carom forward into the wall, jarring his shoulder and loosing his grip on the sword. In a moment, the enemy was charging at him from behind as he leaned against the wall. At a word of warning from Elmbran, John quickly adjusted his hold on his hunting knife, turned, and threw it at his onrushing foe. Going over to the dead man, John took the cutlass from the corpse. Retrieving the one he had taken earlier, he moved to stan over the other two.
“These men won’t kill me. I’ll explain why later, but you’ll have to bring the guards yourself. We deserve an explanation, do we not?”
“I am already suspicious that it involves the royal house of Corridane.” So saying, Elmbran left to fetch the guards.
It was not long before Elmbran returned with two guards in tow. When they saw John, they glared and moved to their blades. In response, John moved to exit the room. “You will have to tell me what they say when their task here has passed. I am under orders to avoid them.” He jumped out of the way as the Princess swept into the room after her men.
She raised her hand to stop the forthcoming noble complaint from Elmbran. “You would not understand my mens’ speech. I am prepared to watch anything they may feel compelled to do.”John closed the door, unnoticed by the others.