“You’re crazy, Wen.”
Derrick shook his head in agitation. He chewed on a piece of wheat feverishly and spat in the dust.
“You’re absolutely crazy. I’ve known you since… I’ve known you a long time, ’nd you’re the slyest one I ever met. But you’re not all great, you know. Not that great!”
Wendell stared at Derrick’s head as it looked down at the dirt in the deserted alleyway.
“You don’t care, do you? It doesn’t mean anything to you!!” he spouted irately.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Wen!! We’re a couple of street rats!! What do you want me to do, go march off into the forest at random, probably get eaten by wolves on the first night? What do you want me to say??”
Wendell’s chest burned, and he braced against the shame. He had decided to tell the plan to his best friend, and now that the secret, precious thoughts were laid bare, he felt stupid and useless.
“If you only… if you had…” he stammered.
“Forget ’bout it. I don’t want to lose you, Wendell, you’re a good friend!! Can’t you see that? Why are you doing this?? John even asked about you. You could be an apprentice too!! You could have a real job for once!”
Wendell looked at his friend‘s turned away face, his own face twisted with frustration. Without a word, he turned and walked out of the alley, never looking back.
“You’re crazy! You hear me? You stupid bastard! That’s what you are!!”
The voice faded away and then finally stopped.
The dagger was where he had left it, wrapped in a torn piece of sackcloth. It was heavy as ever, but somehow now all the weight was like a dull itch that he didn’t bother to notice. The streets were the same as always, and he went through them quickly.
Now he came to the wider, more prosperous streets, where the houses rose higher and more elaborate, and the streets were clean and paved with perfectly fitted stones.
He turned a bend, and at the end far ahead the castle sat, huge and looking down indifferently on all the houses, the great royal banners flying like handkerchiefs from the parapets. He made his way up the middle, step by step, along the wide road that stretched out long into the distance.
Finally, the dark specks of castle guards became larger, and every now and then he could see them say something to each other or fidget in the hot sun. They stood in two rows, one on either side of the bridge. Now the plumes on the top of their spears and helmets became clear, the bright red sometimes flashing bright in the sun, flapping listlessly in the breeze.
Inevitably he reached them. The main guard put his spear out sideways to signal for him to stop.
“What is your business, lad?”
“I’ve come to see King Rowan,” Wendell said lamely.
The guard looked at him with a bored, irritated expression.
Wendell’s mind squirmed with indecision. He felt like a chicken asking a wolf to eat her. But he stood up tall and tried to sound grave.
“The proclamation says that anyone can come see the king.”
The guard gave a spiteful sort of snorting laugh.
“You’re just here to see what you can steal, aren’t you?? Get out of here, you little runt.”
Wendell’s face burned with rage. He went right up to the spear, and stuck his finger at the guard.
“It said anyone could come!! You have to let me pass!!”
“I said get out of here!”
“You can’t just… ! You can send a soldier to make sure I don’t steal!! I’ll leave my sword behind!!”
“Is that what you call it?? Go or I’ll throw you in the dungeon so long you won’t even remember your own name!!”
Wendell’s eyes stung with acid. He formed mouthless, irate words at the guard’s stony face, and clenched his hands until they were sore. He backed up a few steps, never turning around. Finally he turned and looked back down the road. He was about to take a step and walk away, but somehow it was the end of everything. He would be walking into that thin black lie which had smothered the sky every night after the minstrels sang.
He knew it was utterly pointless to try to pass the guards, but every time he tried to think of leaving, disgust and horror raged through him until he forced it away, as if he was crushing something innocent beneath his foot with each step. He spun around and shouted at the guards.
“I don’t care if you throw me in the dungeon!! I’m staying right here!! I’m not going until you let me pass!!”
Wendell waited for the inevitable. He was suddenly aware of how stupid he sounded, and that he wasn’t wearing anything but a ragged tunic and leggings. But he didn’t budge.
The guard looked somewhat amused beneath his distemper. He had had a boring week, evidently.
“Very well. We’ll see how well you do without food. Or water. If you’re still here at the end of two days, I’ll let you pass. But you can’t leave, even for a moment.”
Wendell looked at the head guard and nodded grimly, his face smiling an awful, joyful smile.
The hot sun bore down mercilessly throughout the rest of the day. But Wendell had stood outside all day before, and he didn’t even have to chase away any ravens.
He wiped away the sweat that trickled down from his hair. He walked back and forth before the guards, just like he had always done, and sang the minstrel’s songs. He sang about David, who sat by the sheep killing bears, and wasn‘t afraid even of a giant. He sang about the great warrior Ren Zael, who fought death itself and stole the keys of the underworld from the great dragon!
He sang until he was too dry to make a noise, and then his chapped lips formed the words. Finally, mercifully, the sun went down, and the guards changed, clinking away wearily in their armor. The head guard talked to the new leader, who nodded gleefully and looked at Wendell.
By now Wendell’s head ached, and his whole being trembled for the coolness of water, drowning out any semblance even of hunger or tiredness. At last, he lay down on the hard stones and curled his arms over his head, and passed fitfully into a horrible half-sleep.
The sun beat down warmly and gently, casting a red glow through his half-closed eyes. Wendell slowly eased himself up to a leaning position, and looked around puzzledly. He saw the guards, and he realized what was going on again. Determination twisted in his stomach, overpowering the deplorable thirst that throbbed in him. He stared blankly at the guards, his mouth working uselessly.
He sat and waited on the ground. All he had to do was wait for one more day. One more day, and he could go see the king.
The guards passed around a skin of water, gulping down chugs of it manfully. One of them looked at Wendell pitifully, but Wendell just shook his head weakly. All he had to do was just sit and wait and wait. Just sit here and watch the guards, don’t move, and you can see the king. The king! The most powerful one in the land. Surely he could help. The king could help him.
He remembered a song he had heard, something about “I’m going to see the king”. He mouthed the words listlessly. Somehow it helped to sing. It made the fitfulness of hope grow stronger, as if the ones of old who wrote it had been here in their own days, sitting and waiting. He felt somehow that he was singing the very secrets of how they all succeeded, that he was singing them all now, even though he didn’t hardly understand what those secrets were.
But saying the words and notes made him feel that he did know the secrets after all, and for a moment he forgot to worry and knew only of their terrible strength and hope, as the notes rose so pure and full of hidden glories. But then he would think that it was just a feeling, and so hope withered back to a dying stump.
The sun came down in an unrelenting torrent that threatened to scour away all thoughts and consciousness. Wendell was lying away from it on the ground. Feebly, thoughts and feelings still trembled through him, and a vision of the well and bucket came unremittingly to him. But all he had to do was wait!! Just lie here and wait…
Wendell woke up the next morning, not remembering the previous evening or night having passed. Something cold hit him, and he started up, only to flop down again. It was water.
“Have a drink.”
The voice was almost familiar. He looked up, and the face of the head guard looked down at him, somber and disgruntled.
“It’s the third day. Have a drink.”
Wendell reached up, his head swimming. The water skin flopped on the ground, and he grabbed it and poured water all over his mouth and his face, wincing violently as the water touched the dangerously chapped skin. After a minute, the water soaked in, and he began to feel almost alive again. The guard looked down at him, then began laughing. He laughed on and on, more uproariously now, and Wendell wondered if something was wrong.
“It was all a joke!!” the head guard said hilariously.
“The king can’t be bothered with silly young knaves. He’s too busy. You can go home now.”
It took a moment for his mind to piece together the words. Then he staggered to his feet, and dizziness took over. He had only a few moments to think of something, anything. He looked over, and saw a group of trees beyond the last great house before the castle.
He wandered over to them, and took refuge in the shade, the guard laughing behind him. He sat at the back of a tree, his back to the bridge, and took stock of nothing, because there was nothing to take stock of. He was so tired. So tired. There was no way he could even swim across now, even if he found a way. There was no way he could fight them off, even if he could fight. There was no way he could do anything.