John had hoped it would pass. He felt, however, that the danger had only grown since the day he had seen Richard in the audience hall, trailing some noble whose name John did not recall. He knew that Richard had seen him, too. He did not mind that the Longfurrow had recognized him, for the man had tried to be his friend during their short time together. At least, he had been more accepting than the other two, though John could not say the one called Valun had been rude.
Every day John rued his missed opportunity to find Richard and tell him of the problem. Perhaps if he had said or done something the next day, when Valun appeared before the king and proclaimed himself as a lord in exile-he had said king but the seal had not proved that much-he would be less worried for his own welfare now. In fact, he had many chances in the weeks afterward, while Valun was living in the palace alongside him. But the strength to act had never come to him. This was because he was caught between two fears.
As part of an ongoing attempt to ease his mind, John often left the palace to go out on long rides or to hunt. More often than not, he was alone. However, many times he was joined by a rider who seemed to spring from the shadows after John had left the palace courtyard, who would not leave until John had come back within sight of the palace, despite John’s reluctance to speak to him. This was such a day. John had taken his horse out, intending to ride alone for some hours and perhaps clear his mind. The rider, who set no pattern for himself, had appeared alongside John without a prior warning, as if nothing was the matter between them. In point of fact, it was the rider himself who was the chief cause of John’s anxiety.
“Greetings, young prince, and where are you bound today?”
“I am only riding out over the fields. I do not intend to return for some time. I wish only to be left alone.”
“Ah, but I have orders, and that I cannot grant until you give me the answer I am ordered to return to my master. Will you hunt soon?”
John let this question hang in the air, turning his face forward and concentrating on the ride through the streets and out the city gate. It was not until he had ridden clear of the city, and out into the open space beyond, that he spoke again to the rider, who had followed him the whole distance.
“When it happens, you will be there, if you wish.” Urging his horse, John began his ride. His unwanted companion kept pace with him and continued the conversation.
“That is a fine thing to know, but I still do not have what I want from you. Will you do it or not? Time presses, and my master does not appreciate refusal.”
“Why has nothing been done against me, then? For I care not who your great master is, I will not fulfill his command. Tell him that, if you dare.” With this, John prepared to ride away hard, but he was pulled up short, both literally and figuratively, as the other man grabbed the halter of John’s horse and replied in an ominous tone.
“Nothing has yet been done to you because you are too important to my master’s plans, and till now you have been able to avoid refusing his command. But now you have, and the delay will make him angry. When things begin to go ill for you, remember your own words.” Releasing John’s horse, the other man turned and rode away toward the city. John did not stand to watch him disappear, but put spurs to own steed and continued the ride he still intended to take.
He returned to the city in the late hours of the afternoon, hardly more settled in his mind than he had been when he left. He felt more pride in himself at having finally given a definitive answer to the secretive questioner, but now felt a different worry. The other man’s parting words had been a clear threat against John’s own peace, and perhaps his life. In wondering how the threat would manifest itself, John found that he had only traded one cause of anxiety for another almost as bad. Furthermore, there was yet nothing he could do about this threat, for he did not know how it would be carried out, and in addition he did not have the least idea where the potential perpetrator was hiding. These facts compelled him to decide against involving others in his difficulties until the vague threat had caused real trouble for someone.
He refused the help of the stable-hands, dismounting in the courtyard and taking his steed back to its stall himself. He completed all the usual steps of caring for the animal in the distant manner of one who is more occupied with his thoughts than the task at hand. When the job was done, he gave the horse a pat on the neck and left the stable without saying a word.
At dinner that night he was still troubled, and as a result found himself picking over the food and sometimes even staring blankly at it as he agonized over the unanswerable question of exactly how and when the threat of his mysterious watcher would manifest itself.
He was brought back to life with a start by the king’s voice inquiring after his health. Not willing to give a true answer to the question, he replied in the distant manner of one who claims his thoughts are of no consequence. “What, my lord? It will pass. I will be as well as ever tomorrow. You’ll see I speak the truth.”
No one troubled him with any more inquires, or in fact spoke to him at all except to offer something else that was there on the tables. After some time, before the meal had been properly concluded, he found that his anxiety had gotten the better of him once more, so he rose quietly from his seat and left the hall by the quickest way, hoping that only few had marked his action.
In fact, the whole of the next week passed, free of anything John would have thought to be a result of the threat against him. He did not even see the mysterious rider himself at all that week, and so began, as people sometimes will, to believe that nothing was going to come of it after all. On the morning of the eighth day since the encounter which had ended with that as-yet-empty threat, John decided that he wished to go hunting in the mountains to the east of the city.
Giving such orders as were necessary for the preparations, he went out into the courtyard to assure himself of the welfare of his horse and dogs. All was right with the horse. When he approached, the animal returned his greeting with a strong toss of its mane, as if it was eager to get out on the hunt. Satisfied with what he saw, John left the stable and next made for the kennel to make sure his two favorite dogs would be ready.
The moment he had come close enough, he began to hear a noise which he recognized as a dog’s howl, instantly concerned, he increased his pace, anxious to discover what was causing the noise. He had not gone much farther when he came to a group of keepers crowding around one particular kennel. With a start, he realized that it was the one in which his best dogs were housed. More anxious than ever before, he began to force his way to the head of the group.
“What’s gone wrong? What’s happened to them? I heard howling from a good way off.”
As he approached, the keepers made way and saluted him. One dog was sitting, and reacted to John’s arrival with only the tip of its tail. Clearly it was not willing to move from the side of the other dog in the kennel, which was lying prone on the ground as the chief keeper studied it. He rose when John came near and wiped his brow.
John heard the keeper’s speech as if from a great distance as he fell to knees within arm’s length of the dogs. As he reached one arm out to touch the one, he stretched out the other automatically to give comfort to the other. Under his breath he admitted his pain. “My faithful dogs, why them, and now? What does this mean?” The keeper spoke as if he had said nothing.
“The news is not good, my lord. The dog’s dead and I see no sign that it was done by man or beast. There were two keepers out here last night, and the only dog close enough was the mate here. But as I said, no man stabbed him and there are no bite marks either. We’ve a puzzle, my lord, a deadly puzzle.”
“What have you done to the two keepers who were out here last night?”
“Put ‘em under guard, sir. That dog was alive and well when I looked in yesterday afternoon as they were feeding.”
“Lead me to these keepers. They want questioning.”
Leaving the remaining dog to the care of the other keepers who had come, the head man dutifully led the prince to a place not far away, where two men-at-arms of the king’s household were standing guard over the unfortunate keepers. Indicating that the guards should step away, John spoke to the prisoners.
“Were you both on duty last night together?”
“No sir” answered one “He relieved me. Then I went to my cot and slept.”
Turning sharply to the first man, John asked him “Did you see both of my dogs alive while you were on watch?”
“Yes sir, I did. I checked every one. They were all alive and well.”
John turned his attention to the other prisoner. “And what of you? Can you say the same?”
“My lord, I also checked every one. All the dogs seemed to be asleep. As I knew nothing would happen till morning, I thought it would be acceptable to get some more sleep myself, and I took myself to a seat in a dark corner. I had not yet fallen asleep when I was startled by a sound, one which I knew was not a dog. I leapt up to discover the cause of it, and in so doing I was taken from behind and forced unconscious. They tell me I was still on the ground in the morning and they first thought me as dead as the dog.”
John turned away and spoke again to the chief keeper, who was still attending him. “I must see the place where this man was found. If I do not find what I seek, I shall know that someone in the castle itself wishes me ill.”
The keeper did not reply to this in words, but strode off, gesturing that the prince should follow him. The two men walked silently through the aisles of kennels until they came to a barrel set up against the courtyard wall on the opposite side of the kennels from the prisoners. Then the keeper spoke.
“A man found him lying here, sprawled in front of this barrel.”
“Thank you, that is all I needed from you…” said John as he moved closer to the wall, and began to inspect it carefully “Ha! I see it. There are cracks in the mortar where the scoundrel’s climbing spikes broke it. The man we seek came from outside the gates.” A glint of metal caught his eye and he looked down at the ground. Reaching down to retrieve it, he continued “And here is one of the things themselves. Our poisoner must have lost his grip on it as he returned over the wall.” Turning, he showed the keeper an iron spike about the size of a dagger. “He has only one for the moment, but we must beware, for he can get another as easily as getting a new knife. That keeper shall be taken off duty until we find the one who did this, but do nothing more, for I do not blame him.”
Leaving the kennels, John made his way back indoors. On the way, he passed the stables, where his horse was being made ready. He ordered the stable-boy to stop. “I no longer wish to hunt today. I will not need my horse. Let him rest.” Without stopping to see that his words were heeded, he continued on. At that point he decided that he had to tell the king what had happened, for it then became apparent to him that someone was working against one or both of them personally, someone who knew something of their habits.
What had convinced him that the vendetta was personal was the fact that none of the other dogs had been killed. The only ones apparently targeted had been the same pair that John was in the habit of using regularly when he rode to hunt. Therefore their enemy was one who knew much, at least, of John, and which dogs he should attack to wound John effectively.
John found the king in his chamber dealing with stacks of documents and attended by several servants. As he entered, he announced “My lord, I have need to speak to you alone.”
The king looked up in surprise at this statement, but a moment later when it had sunk in properly, he acted on it at once. Taking up the documents and thrusting them at the servants, he said “Take these now and leave us till I call.” The servants obediently filed out without a word. Then the king turned and looked back at John.
“What do you have to tell me?”
“My lord, someone is attacking us, and us alone.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Not two hours ago I found one of my favorite hunting dogs dead by poison. The keeper on guard had been knocked unconscious, but not killed. The attacker left the way he came, over the courtyard wall.”
“So we have a spy who poisons dogs. Why do you say he is attacking you? Perhaps he did not care where his foul meat would land.”
“The dead dog was caged too far from the wall for random chance. He left it for the dogs I used every time I have hunted this past year. I thought to warn you because he may have a try at one of us next. We must devise a way to guard ourselves.”
“You have given this good thought, and I will believe you. Give orders that from this day no food or drink shall be offered either of us unless two men have tasted it and survived. The two shall be different for each meal. This way the poisoner cannot be sure of escaping his own trap. But now you must go, for I must return to my duties.”
As it happened, yet another week had passed before anything untoward occurred within the castle grounds. On the ninth day since the dog had been found dead, John again felt the urge to take a long ride in the countryside. He again gave orders that the usual preparations should be made for him, and went out straight after the morning meal to visit the stables. He was immediately concerned by what he failed to see, rather than what he did. For he did not see any stable-hands going about their customary tasks. Instead of actually entering the stable, he decided to search for the servants, and in a short time he found some of them standing in the shade, grouped around one of their number who was seated against the wall of the building. The man tried to regain his feet at the sight of the prince, but John waved him back down.
“I know what you would say. You were taken unawares, and you had been lying there until the others found you. Do not follow me now.”
He left the group with a heavy heart, for he suspected that he knew what he would find when he looked in. His feelings sapped his strength, and so he struggled mightily to open the doors of the stable without help. The moment he had gotten the door open, he rushed over to the stall of his own horse. Although it nearly brought tears to his eyes, what he found did not surprise him in the least.
His horse’s body lay sprawled in the stall, its throat cut. It had clearly been dead for some time and the injury had in any case been instantly fatal. He stood silently for almost a minute, not moving, only trying to discern what it could mean. When he finally moved again, he turned back toward the door of the box. A paper with an unsigned message was written on it. He pulled the thing off and read it. The message only said “Remember your own words.”
Then the spiteful words of his mysterious belligerent riding companion came back to him all at once. The understanding made him cry out in helpless fury. “So that is it, is it? He would bring me down to such a level as that? I will not. I could not live with myself for it. I will not.” Having made this declaration, he stormed out of the stable room, and without bothering to try to close any doors behind him, went up to his room. He stayed there for some time, but when he at last came out he was once again calm and firm in his resolution not to give in.
He again sought out the king to tell him the news, but found that this time the king had already heard of John’s loss. Once told of this, John decided not to pursue it further in the castle itself. However, directly after he had eaten, he sent for two strong and trustworthy men-at-arms, to whom he gave orders that they should inquire throughout the city for one who answered the description of the man who had made the original threat against him.
John knew after the second attack that it had come down to a contest of will alone. Whether he would break and give in or his attacker would give up and leave him ion peace. The days crept by as John waited for the report that his enemy was captured and brought before him. Instead, his searchers ended each of his days with the unwelcome news that the man had not been found, nor been seen in great swaths of the city. Ordinarily, John would have accepted news like this as being nothing strange, since it was likely that the man kept as much to himself as he could. But the circumstances of this search were preying on his mind; the man must be found and delivered to justice before John himself lost his mind. One night, when the men brought the same unfortunate news, John simply exploded.
“Not found, again?! What have you been doing, playing shell games with your friends while I sit here? I need him found, or I swear I’ll clap you both in the dungeons to wait for executions. Find him by sundown tomorrow. Your life depends on it!” At the completion of this loud and totally unjustified speech from his seat at the king’s table, John left his dinner and stormed out, for the first time since the day he had last seen the man he knew was behind the attacks. This time every man watched him go, and as soon as he was gone the reason for his outburst became the primary topic of discussion at each table in the hall.
This time, instead of going straight up and sulking in his room, John equipped himself secretly to depart the castle, and rode out of the courtyard gate while the rest of the castle population was still eating and discussing him. He rode through the city with no plan in his mind except that he wanted to fight the man to the death as soon as they met. However, they did not meet, and John eventually felt too cold to stay out any longer in the dark, having crossed half the city as curious townspeople watched from their windows. He tried to return in secret, but was caught before he could pass the gate. The servant who met him then also told him that he was wanted by the king. Giving his horse over to the servants, he went up again to the king’s room, where he had been directed to go.
“The servants discovered that you had left the castle during the meal. No one could explain your behavior, so I expect you to do so.”
“I was hunting for the man who has been attacking me. Have I not reason enough for that?”
“I do not dispute that you have been given reason, but that it was wise to do it at all. If my guess is right you have had men searching for him now these seven days and more, yet they have not succeeded. Why would you believe that he would reveal himself to you, or even give you a chance to strike a blow? Had he come out, he might easily have killed you before you were aware of him. There shall be no more of this. Be content that he has left you alive. You may go now.”
“So far” John added under his breath. Then in a normal voice he continued. “Yes, my lord. I will not do it again.”
The following morning he was awakened by a totally unexpected commotion coming from somewhere beyond his door. Preparing himself as quickly as he could, John hurried out into the passage. There were several men standing about in the hall, who seemed to have grouped themselves near a single door, which upon closer examination proved to be the door to the king’s own room. Totally confused, John turned to one of the men standing nearby.
“What is the meaning of this? Why has nothing been done?”
It was clear that the man had not yet regained complete mastery of his senses. “Some of us heard noises in the king’s room. We came to discover what was wrong, but we heard him order us not to enter. All the same, not a man here with me believes all is well, for he would have come out by this time.”
John’s mind went back to the mysterious killings of his hunting dog and his horse. The servant’s assertion that all was not well with the king, even though he had been heard to speak to the contrary, suggested to John that this was his enemy’s last and most dangerous throw. If he could find a way out of this, then perhaps the man would leave him alone. He replied to the servant.
“You and all the others may go. It is best that I deal with this alone.”
“Yes my lord. I hope you succeed.” Gesturing that the others should follow, the servant made his way toward the far end of the passage. As soon as the last man had left the area, John turned back to the door.
He gave out no cries that would warn his enemies, but in determined silence crossed to the other side of the passage, intending to break the door open with a sudden charge. It was only when he was but an instant from crashing against the stout wood that he realized he was unarmed. In the next instant, he thought “I will get a sword before the next charge.” However, to his great surprise, the door swung wide at his first contact with it, and he stumbled into the confrontation unprepared.
As he regained his footing, he noticed that there were two men in the room with the king. One of them was holding a blade out toward John’s guardian, while the other seemed only to have been waiting for someone to come to his rescue. As John grabbed at the wall to steady himself, this man advanced toward him.
“Ah, and are you not just the man we wanted to see dashing in here like a saving hero? You forced our hand. We waited for a message from you, but as you know none came. Our time presses. We had to do something, and we have.”
While the intruder stopped to make this speech, John noticed that it was the same man who had accosted him so many times as he went out to ride, now returned with an accomplice. As he tried to think of something he could do, he answered the man, his tone belying the tension he felt inside. “And what if I refuse to do as you will? Will you kill me this time, though you could have done that before?”
“We would not kill you here, yet, though we might assist his highness here out that window he was so conveniently staring from when we came in.”
“That is no good to you. If you kill him, I become king, with full power to have you both executed tomorrow.”
“That may be, but in that case you still have to escape this room alive, to say nothing of capturing us. What will you have?”
“I have had enough of talk!” cried John, and with a tremendous spring he bounded up onto the king’s bed and executed a roll across it as the others in the room only stood and watched. He hit the floor on his feet, and nothing else being close to hand, snatched up two pillows and advanced on his foes. Not daring to give them a moment to react to this rash move, John promptly heaved the pillows at the intruders. Without waiting to see what the result of this, he charged at the nearer of the men, which was now the silent one holding the king prisoner.
But John’s throw had gone awry, and the other man had not been touched and still held a weapon and a prisoner. Seeing this, John tried at the last second to change his course and made a grab for the king with a desperate idea of gaining something of a stalemate. But again he missed, and as his foe pulled the king abruptly aside, John’s momentum carried him through the window.
John had only moments to wonder whether refusing to do what he had not done was truly worth doing what he had actually done, before he would have crashed down and died a horrible death in the courtyard below. The reason he did not fall to his death was that one of his enemies had reached the window a fraction of a second after him, and had grabbed a tight hold of his right ankle. So now John found himself dangling out the window of the king’s room, totally at the mercy of his mysterious antagonist. As his head began to pound harder every second, John heard the other man speaking.
“Well now, this is better is it not? This way we don’t even have to threaten you to get what we want. You refuse, I let you go, and you die. You agree, we pull you up and let you live. However, there is still the possibility that we will have to kill you later. Orders, you know. What’ll it be? Death now, or later?”
John could no longer think; he had been hanging head downward too long. He raised his voice, as it cracked under the shame of what he was agreeing to. “Later!” he cried. As his two enemies dragged back into the room, he avoided the look of the king, who was staring at him as if he desired to know what this was about. John struggled to keep his face straight, and he very nearly lost. He had held out for so long, sacrificed much that he would not get back, and when at the last throw he could have done the greatest service to his honor by refusing at the last, dying without telling anyone why, he had failed, and now he would be scarred forever.
As it happened, the two intruders, having broken him to their plans, actually treated him quite well once they had set him on his feet again. They did not go so far as to show any remorse for what they had done, but while they kept John with them, they treated him like an equal and made no reference to what was in store for him. They even waited for him to eat well and say his farewells before, not waiting until the next day rose, they rode off with him into the evening sun.