Wendell blinked and smiled. What a wonderful dream. The light of the sun came into the room, lively and steady. He slowly got up, and looked around at the room. All the horror of the past days seemed to be gone, and he felt almost cheerful now.
There was a knock on the door. He slipped out onto the floor, and padded over to the door, and opened it. A page boy came in, bearing an immense tray of all kinds of food, muffins and apples and hot waffle cakes and steaming drinks.
He remembered that he must be hungry, and that he should probably eat something, which he did, thanking the boy before he left. The food was very good, much better than anything he had ever had before. The steaming drinks were filled with all kinds of spices and flavors that he didn’t know the names of, and the muffins were soft and delightfully chewy. His stomach was glad to have food, even if the rest of him didn‘t much care.
He stuffed the food down, and before he knew, it was almost gone and he felt somewhat stuffed. A delightful thought came to him, which quickly turned sour. The painting! The painting was here!! He wanted desperately to see it, but the mere thought of standing and seeing her with his own eyes again was too much to even think about. He looked at the last bit of food, but he felt too jittery to finish it now.
Another servant came to the room, with a message.
“You are to go to the royal gardens, where the general will instruct you.”
When pressed for more details, the servant shook his head dumbly. Wendell followed him down the corridor, and through several more, remembering to take his sword with him, which had been lying on the bed with him. Finally they came to a nicely wrought gate, which opened easily. Through it, the beginning of the gardens was there. There was a clearing of grass, with some small trees at the edges.
Beyond, he could see some hedges and rose bushes laid out in a neat pattern, and beyond that, walls and arches. There was no one there at present, so he sat down in the shade of a nice apple tree and waited. The garden was pleasant, and there was nothing to do, so he found himself thinking about the dream.
It was true!! He would find Karen after all. He smiled and closed his eyes. The stars all sang when he was born, and he could not fail. He was the perfect one.
“You’re not perfect.”
He looked around, startled. It was a man’s voice. It sounded ordinary, and was matter of fact, without malice. At first he thought it was a gardener or something, but how would a gardener know what he was thinking?
He looked around everywhere, but there was no one. Now his good mood was completely disheveled. He put his head down and tried to think about something else.
The general came out from the gardens, striding with a military assurance that had long ago graduated to swagger. He had an eye patch over one eye, and was chewing on something. Wendell stood up, and started to wave, but the general saw him already, and met him in the center of the grass, which grew wild here and was still covered with dew. He smiled swaggishly, and Wendell got the impression that he was in a sort of good mood, but he was not one to be trifled with. It was still early in the morning, and the air was still fresh and bright with new sunshine.
“Well you certainly don’t look like much. I heard about how you slipped up my guards. That must have been a nice piece of work. I should punish them for letting you get past, but I’m already punishing them for not letting you get past. Maybe I‘ll punish them for both.”
He gave a laugh, with a thin layer of friendliness in it.
“I had to do it. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Just call me Hangs.” he said, clapping Wendell on the back. “I wish I had more soldiers like you, brave as a marsh pig and just as stupid. So you had to do it. Well let’s see how you handle a sword. If you get caught next time, you’d better know how to swing that potato peeler of yours, or you’ll end up in the dungeon for longer than I can remember. I suppose you should get a better sword, but you‘re already used to that one and I can‘t teach you all over again in a day.”
Now the general drew his own dagger, which was about the same size as Wendell’s. He had another sword on the other side, a real sword. The general spat out whatever he was chewing, and took up a position, holding the dagger in a way that made Wendell’s blood run cold at the sight. He slipped his own dagger out of the belt and held it out in what he hoped was a menacing way.
The general dropped his pose and walked over to him.
“No, no, no!! You’ll get clobbered at the first strike holding it like that. That’s not a real sword, it’s made for parrying, so it should be used defensively.”
Hangs took hold of his hand and arm, moving it into a different position. It felt strange and he wasn’t used to it, but he tried to memorize every angle. Now the general moved Wendell’s arm slowly through a sweeping arc.
“That is the first defensive position.”
Now Hangs took his position up, and held up his dagger.
“Now do what I showed you.”
Hangs gave a sort of half-hearted jab at Wendell, who clanged his own dagger down on it furiously in the way he had been taught. With lightning quickness, Hangs made a step forward and stopped his dagger on Wendell’s throat.
“Control is more important than power for defense. You must divert the attacker’s force, not overpower it. Try it again.”
Wendell tried the move again and again, each time receiving comments, some appreciative and some very disparaging. It was hard work, and he was surprised at how difficult it was to do this simple block. In the back alleys, fighting against Derrick, his own determination and improvising was all he needed to win.
It was good to do something, anything, and he welcomed this task. It brought a numb quietness to his raw nerves, and the garden‘s stillness was a gentle balm, broken only by the ringing of steel that faded suddenly into the trees.
The most frustrating part was having to painstakingly think through every single muscle bend. He always imagined himself pushing back impending armies with great, cutting swings. The general seemed to be able to fight without even thinking, always coming out with a new, more deadly attack just when he thought he was safe.
Now the general stood back a bit.
“I suppose we’re done for now. Good job, kid. If it were up to me, and it isn’t up to me, I’d train you for a lieutenant and forget about the king’s brat.”
The general’s words shook Wendell for a moment, but they only reminded him of who he was dealing with here, and that the world he had entered now was not a kind place.
The general turned and started to walk away. Now he turned suddenly and leaped at Wendell, who brought his dagger up stoutly, and the general’s weapon was glanced aside. Hangs grinned a wide, dangerous grin for a moment.
“There’s hope for you yet, boy. If you make it back in one piece, I’ll make you a lieutenant if you’re not too busy. Violet is quite a handful, even if she is beautiful.”
“I don’t care about Violet, okay!! Just… Karen.”
The general glanced around at him, amused, and he laughed a chuckling laugh to himself, as if he knew something. Wendell wondered what he was laughing about. But soon enough, the general was gone.
Now that the lesson was over, he felt quite tired and sore. He was alone in the garden again, but somehow he didn’t feel like just sitting and resting right then. He went back through the decorative gate, and through an entrance to the castle. He realized, after a while, that he was wandering through the castle grounds, lost in a sort of half-thought.
Now he came to something like an informal gathering room. There were some elegant white curtains hanging for decoration, and some chairs, as well as a white couch. He wandered into the room, when he realized who was there. It was Violet, in a luxurious violet dress, lounging over the couch. She didn’t see him.
For a moment he was startled, because he only knew Karen and her sisters as motionless faces in a painting. She was humming a listless, lazy, bored, wandering tune, and snacking on a plate of some kind of cakes.
Now she looked up, and looked as if she had seen him every day of her life. Now Violet was very pretty. But she just smiled a cool, amused smile.
“You must be the boy they’re talking about. It’s very brave of you to go fetch my sister. You’ll choose me, of course. They always do. My father tries to bring princes to meet my sister, but once they see me, they never look at her again. She cries about it later. She denies it of course, but I hear her, in her room. But I’m not worried, a little boy like you will never make it back from the labyrinth.”
Wendell spoke up indignantly.
“I’d choose Karen instead of you every time!! She’s the most wonderful, beautiful girl that ever lived!! And she has a beautiful heart too, which is more than I can say for you, you stuck up witch!!”
Violet sat up now, in a fit of regal, girlish rage.
“So that’s what you think? Well, she’s crazy anyways!! She’s always going out into the garden to talk to her imaginary friend. It was cute when she was little, but now it’s getting kind of old.”
“She’s not crazy!! You’re just telling me lies!!”
Violet seemed pleased by his outburst. Now she leaned back, as if purring.
“You’ll find out soon enough. That is, if you make it back.”
Wendell clenched his teeth against the fury. He started to speak, but turned and saw two other girls standing at a doorway. He recognized them as the yellow-haired twins from the paintings. One of them looked at him with a concerned, sad expression, and the other giggled and covered her mouth when he saw her. The kind one spoke first.
“It is very good of you to go and find our sister,” she said sincerely.
Then the other one piped up.
“Yes. Don’t mind Violet, okay you nice boy?” And then she giggled again and ran off.
He decided there was nothing else to be done, so he turned and left.
Now he went through the hallways again, but this time he had no idea where he was. Eventually he found a servant, and snapped a question about where his room was.
The servant looked startled, and quickly led him along. He finally made it to his room, and the servant opened the door for him. He threw himself onto the bed and sunk into a deep, restless sleep, filled with hallways that never went anywhere.