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THE KING'S SON: by Eagle
Disclaimer: This story is set in an alternate reality we might call eagle_earth. The characters and setting which inspired this are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance.
Rating: This story contains no offensive content in regards to either sex or violence.
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The King's Son
The Cecilia and Melodia bells rang out, the high-low sounds complementing one another. She got stretched and yawned and rolled from her bed, remembering how the bells had come to them. Every time they sounded she remembered, and she would never forget.
The boy had been both bright and frightened, both timid and bold, she recalled. He had come riding up on his pony behind his father with his head held high, urging his horse into a gallop, but after they had all stopped he had grown limp and afraid, and had slipped off his pony and handed over its reins to a groom passively, slipping behind his father and waiting quietly for him to speak.
His father seemed barely to have noticed his furtiveness; or perhaps, instead, he had grown used to it. Either way, he stood tall and spoke for the whole group, and spoke honest and bold words. They were fleeing the King; they were in danger for their lives; and they had come for refuge. They would wait upon her mercy.
She grinned in memory of her impatience. How little time she had had for people hiding away behind closed walls, then! She had been brusque with him and had shown him clearly she was not interested in his quarrels nor his troubles. She had no need to risk her life for him, and she would not.
He had pulled out the boy from behind him and had cast him roughly at her feet. He was his son; and he was the son, too, of the queen, and as the King had discovered this when the queen died, he was like to kill the both of them in righteous fury. And there it was.
She had turned for a minute. They thought, to think and decide things; but it was to look about at the things she had and to regret them. She looked at her cottage which she had built in the spot by the willow tree, close by the river; the curve of the river itself, with its quiet eddies and its rough whiteness amongst the black rocks; the view of the mountains, peaceful and unchanging. Blessed solitude. She turned back and picked up the boy from the dust at her feet and indicated she would take him alone. She had no time for a man who could not look after himself, and she had no doubt that soon enough no matter what she did he would get himself killed. But the boy, of course, was different. Cursed from birth by others' sins - she had enough in her to pity him and allow herself to regret solitude for a while, until the King's fury passed by and - a new queen, perhaps, had borne another son.
They had left the pony and they had left a story for the boy, of where his father was going and when he would return. It was, of course, a story, and perhaps even the boy knew that. But then they left, riding swiftly over the mountains, and the boy stared at them with a hunted look until not even a speck on the horizon remained. Even then he stayed standing and staring.
She had had the wisdom to leave him, and to settle the pony. She wondered whether she would find one night that the boy had slipped away on the back of his beast in search of his father. If so, it wouldn't be the King he had to fear - it would be common brigands and thieves. She wondered if, as the King's son for - what, perhaps ten years? - he had learned how to fight. The movements for fencing, and wrestling, and fighting with sticks, perhaps. Well, she could teach him that, and more, easily enough.
When she came back to the front of the cottage he was still standing there. She handed him a bucket.
"Fill this with water from the river. Where it's moving, not where it's still, for that water is no good for anyone. Bring it into the house, and then we can cook some food. You can get yourself a drink, too, if you need."
He gripped the bucket as though he had need of something to do, and she decided then to work him, hard, at least for the first few days. She left him by the river, and busied herself gutting fish and peeling potatoes for the boil. She would make a plain stew, with what she had pulled earlier from the garden, to eat with slices of the bread she had bartered for. She could not bake bread, she had discovered with chagrin after many attempts; so instead she bartered fine fish for her loaves from a widow woman near the east road. Both benefited from the transaction.
The boy backed his way into the cottage, the bucket too full, splashing water over the edges onto the floor. He poured it carefully into the stone water-holder by the big table. He was soaked, she saw, but she said nothing. He would learn, soon enough. He put down the bucket and looked up at her boldly.
She was almost thrown by him, by the look of strength in his eyes. A moment ago he was at the point of weeping; and now he was almost confronting her. Well, he had not got that from his father. All he seemed to have gained was trouble; and that was no mystery, for wherever his father went trouble followed. She knew him well. She had fought with him, back in her mercenary days, and he had changed from side to side at a moment's notice, because of fear. He had charm, but it brought him more grief that it was worth, to him. To seduce a queen! It was boldness, but boldness borne of stupidity.
She handed him the knife to chop the potatoes into pieces and they stood together at the bench, she scaling and cleaning the fish, preparing them for the stew, he tackling a pile of vegetables for perhaps the first time. They worked together in silence. When she had work to do she saw no need for words. It was better to listen to the sounds of the coming twilight, to feel the air cooling subtly as the night bore on, to feel the stillness of nothing urgent before her or ahead.
They finished their work together and then ate, he sopping up the stew with his bread awkwardly but ravenously. She smiled quietly. Such plain fare was most likely unknown to him, but would suit a boy better than highly spiced foods and wines. He might find that being the King's son was a burden that he could shed more easily than he had thought.
"You cook well." He said, looking up at her at the end of the meal with those same unafraid eyes.
"Aye, and you cooked it yourself." She answered.
They cleaned up in the same silence they had cooked, and then she went out to check on the horses for the night. They were calm, and though a whole new world had now dropped into her lap, she too felt calm as though nothing, really, could ever change.
She walked round to a bend in the river where she could hear the river splash and see the sun setting over the mountains. It was worth everything to have this place of solitude. She regretted her past; but here, she did not have to regret anything.
When she came back into the house, he was there sitting on the window seat and looking out at the mountains where his father had gone.
"You're almost asleep, boy." She said with a smile in her voice at his weary eyes. "You've come far today."
It wasn't a question, but he answered it.
"I've never been so far in my life. Miles and miles, all day, since early morning." He replied almost absently. His eyes reflected pain and she wondered when he had been told that his father was not whom he had thought. She wondered if he had always known.
"Then you must be tired, true enough."
She had made a bed of sorts under the stairs, with hay and blankets, and he sank onto it gratefully, though he was used to duck-down and silk sheets. Well, it would be warm, and his tired body would rest on it just as well. She left him almost asleep and went upstairs to the loft where her own bed stood. Sitting down upon it she thought of what she had done. Would she defend the boy from a King and his army - or sent assassins, more likely? She tugged off her boots and stood them by the bed. Would she chase after the boy himself if he decided to flee? She pulled her tunic over her head and hung it over the three-legged stool. Would she keep the boy forever if no one came for him?
At that anxiety came over her. The father would not return; the boy was, perhaps, ten years old. Would she care for his boy for the next ten years?
Lying down upon her rough bed, she stared out at the stars in the indigo sky. Many people kept a boy around to do their rough work. They kept them for years, and later apprenticed them to a trade, or kept them on for the horses, or, if they had no child, to take care of them when they grew old. She knew those boys became like sons to those who had no child of their own. She did not want a son. She did not want his son.
Morning came quickly enough, and when she came downstairs, she found him still sleeping sweetly. She deliberated a moment, but then stood over him and woke him. He got up immediately, even though he was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and went outside. When he returned, she had two fat fish frying next to eggs, and they sat down quietly to eat. He had woken up by the time the breakfast was over; she set him to scrubbing the dishes and went to chop some more wood. They'd go out on the river that day, she decided, and fish, and talk about what was going to happen. She could not have him around forever, that was all, and it was best if that was sorted out from the start. He was only a child, and a child needed security, and a family. She had seen enough broken and violent men fighting beside her in battle to know that. Their sons became like them.
"Can you row?" She asked him abruptly, returning to the room. He had not only finished all the washing, but he was sweeping the floor with a brush. "You need to scatter drops of water in front, or the dust will just rise and settle again." She explained, showing him.
"I've never done this before." He said, less as an excuse than as a reason. "No, I can't row."
She watched him finish off the rest of the room, and noticed that he moved a little tenderly. Well, he had ridden and ridden the previous day, he was probably sore.
"I'll show you." She said, and they went out to where the boat lay on the shore. She pushed it in, and directed him to roll up his pant legs. He waded into the river gingerly and she suddenly wondered if he could swim.
She dug the oars into the river and with swift, strong strokes moved the vessel into the main current. The boy seemed awkward and uncomfortable with the movements of the small boat, and gripped onto the sides with his hands, his knuckles white and tense.
"You have no need to fear, boy. See, we're nearing the island."
The bottom of the boat scraped along the sand and she got out and pulled the boat up onto the shore with the boy still within. He did not look afraid, merely anxious - but she wondered.
"I can't swim." He told her, helping to pull up the boat back from the water. "And the current was swift."
"You would not have fallen."
She took him out to the rocks west of their landing point and set up two lines. It would be here, she decided, that they would talk. He was old enough to understand things.
"Your father won't be coming back, I'd say, boy." She said, as they sat companionably watching the lines.
"No - he won't." The boy replied equably.
"I can't care for you forever. A child needs a family." She went on.
He was silent then. They concentrated on the tautness of the lines for a moment - then the string relaxed.
"I had a family." He said sadly.
"There's a farm out near the riverside, just east of my place. They need a boy to work there. You've shown you can work hard, and they are good people, who don't have children of their own."
"When will I go?"
She was surprised to find herself rebelling inwardly at his equanimity and felt almost a pang of betrayal. It had reminded her for a moment of his father's mercenary calling, where he would change sides in a moment.
"It won't be for a while. I've promised to protect you, and I can best do that with you near me. So until I am sure the King will not come after you, you will stay with me."
There was a swift nod at that, and a smile, too, and she felt eased, though she did not wish to link herself to the child.
The lines pulled taut once again, and she showed him how to ease the fish in, to deceive the fish into giving itself up; and how to show strength, too, when it needed to be contest of strength; and he learnt quickly.
They ate the large fish he had caught for lunch, none of the others coming near that size. He was fairly bursting with pride as she taught him how to gut and cook the thing. She was impressed herself. Deep inside she could feel all the old warnings and she tried to heed them, but was not sure how or why.
She got out her old training sticks to see how he was at the fight, and was surprised at his clumsiness.
"Haven't you ever -"
He was a quick learner, and eye and his hand were good.
"Push forward on your left leg to compensate for your right." She advised. "It will seem a more ordinary position then - yes, like that." She watched him attend with everything he had and knew even within a few days he would learn.
"Yes, you will be good one day, but you must practice these positions each day." She told him. "After the sticks, then the sword, but you need a strong arm and a good eye and the sticks will give you strength and balance, too."
"Even with my -my leg like it is -"
"No-one will be staring at the lengths of your calves in battle, boy. If you learn to balance your weight and align your hips correctly -" A thought came to her. "You're sore from your ride yesterday still, aren't you?"
He mumbled something, and she understood. She had not known another King's son who could not swim, or fight - now, she understood.
It was in the depths of night when she was alerted.
She had woken to the shaking of hooves and in the moment of waking flung herself out of bed and down to the boy. She pushed him into the cavern under the stairs and all evidence of his existence with him. Casting a hasty look around the room, it seemed just as it always had. Then she stepped out and met all the King's horses and all the King's men as they reached her cottage and surrounded it.
She had never met the King; she had never fought with or against him. When he dismounted in a single bold movement and stood before him she knew immediately she had made a great mistake.
She could have wept for the situation she found herself in, and her own foolishness; but she never wept, just burned in anger. To have believed where he wanted her to believe; it was so unlike her that she wondered what had changed in her during those months of isolation.
"You have my son." The King said clearly to her.
She did have his son, and why she had believed the boy was anything apart from a King's son she could not tell. The King moved with a quickness delightful to see, and unlike the kings she had fought with dressed simply and was lithe and easy with her, though she was, she could tell, not what he had expected.
"Please come in, my lord, and we will talk in the light." She said finally.
He looked at her once, and then nodded swiftly. Following her into the small room, he peered around hopefully a moment and then turned back to her.
"I have heard of you; a mercenary turned hermit. I did not know you were aligned in any way with that man."
The venom with which he spoke those words made her long to defend herself. But what could she say to defend utter foolishness? And there were more important things to say, she realised, conscious of the listening child only feet away.
"He does not believe he is your son." She said finally.
That was a blow. He looked away a moment and then stared at her suspiciously.
"Aye, and that man who wormed his way into the castle, who knows how, bided his time until my Lady died and he could say as he wished -"
"And he has a crippled leg, does he not?"
"Not crippled -" It burst out, and then; "His right leg is a little shorter, that is all. He had a fever which left his muscles weak."
"So perhaps he does not feel like a King's son, not being taught to fight, or row, or even ride, so that a day's ride left him sore."
"So when that man suggested what he did, perhaps he believed it, believing himself not good enough to be a prince - only good enough to be the son of a rogue with a good hand at a sword."
The King was silent now.
"Aye, and perhaps I have done him wrong. But he has always been my son -"
"Oh, he has everything regal within him, my Lord, and nothing base like that man. And he has your quick eye, and your quick mind, too - and your grief, perhaps -"
The cavern burst open and the boy threw himself into his father's arms. There was a jumble of words, and suppressed sobs, and declarations of regret and forgiveness, and all the time she wondered what would happen.
"Do you know where that man is?" He asked her finally.
"Only what he told me, and the boy, that he was going over the mountains. But I suppose he will send plans of a ransom, and -" A thought crossed her mind. "I suppose it was for ransom that he stole the child?"
"Nay, I believe it was for war." The King said, pacing now. "A prince in the hands of the neighboring warlord would be a good thing. He is likely brokering some deal for the boy now. Aye, and the warlord who has been blustering most lies over to the south of those hills."
She knew the man he meant, and he was as merciless a leader as any she had known.
"Well, he'll have no mercy on a man who cannot keep his bargains." She shrugged. "If he promises the boy and cannot deliver, he'll be in great danger for his life."
"Or you will be." The King suggested.
"Oh, I'm more than a match for that man." She replied scornfully. "He would not fight me."
"What, with his whole league of villains with him?"
The King looked disbelieving.
"Take the boy back with you, and teach him what he needs to know. You need not worry as to me." She advised. "And remember, boy, move forward on that left leg - and watch your back!"
The boy laughed, and ran forward to her. All the dreams she had only barely allowed herself to entertain had withered away as soon as she had seen the boldness in his father's eyes - but she could not regret this upheaval, when it meant knowing such a boy.
They left soon after and she returned to bed, wondering when that man would come, or whether he would have heard of the King's coming - whether the warlord himself would have heard and have executed him in frustration.
But when the next morning she heard the brisk tap on the door and went down with all her armoury to meet it, she did not expect a fair-haired girl with a cheerful face and a tenacity that even a King's son could not match.
The bells chimed again, and she returned to her chamber. By the time that King had decided to reward her, she had moved from her isolation to a place with high walls and many voices. There he had seen bells more useful than gold or jeweled weapons. And so the Cecilia and Melodia bells rang out; ringing out for a son, ringing in for a King, ringing in reminder that in any isolation there would always be a voice.
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