He was winning the battle. One more slash, and the ferocious beast would be slain. It reared its ugly head, enormous fangs spread in revenge. Three hard-won injuries had weakened the hideous, scaled creature. The other knights looked on with awe; no one had been brave enough to face it. James winked at them and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was all in a day’s work for a mighty warrior king. He picked up the heavy and ornate Royston family sword, its ruby encrusted handle glinting in the early morning light. Glancing at the door, he launched it straight and true into the creature’s heart. It let out a sickening cry and fell to the ground. Heart leaping, he removed the sword from its chest and turned to face his admiring audience. He held the sword up high in victory to the sound of thundering applause. “All hail the mighty king of Royston!”
Just as he was about to bow, he heard the study door creak open. Pip poked his freckled face inside. “Master, the king has finished breakfast and is on his way back!” he whispered sharply.
Reverie broken, James dashed to the fireplace and placed his father’s sword back on its brackets. He would not hear the end of it if he was caught. Despite being the heir to the throne, he was strictly forbidden to touch the royal sword, which had a rich legacy. After wiping away his fingerprints, he made one last adjustment. Satisfied that it was straight, he waved goodbye to his admiring audience and strolled through the door. He winked at Pip, who stood watch guard with darting eyes. Pip shook his head and broke into a sly smile. “One of these days, master James…”
James grinned, and caught a glimpse of himself in a large mirror as he made his way down the hall. He smoothed a few loose hairs from his otherwise perfect blond locks. His chiseled features, dimpled grin and piercing blue eyes often caused the ladies of the kingdom to swoon. Smiling at his own reflection, he peered outside the wide window at the top of the stairs, which provided an excellent perspective of the kingdom. The castle was perched on the hillside so the royal family was elevated amongst the people. He saw white specks that represented farmers, already hard at work on the field with their livestock. Border collies dashed about, herding sheep and cows flecked their tails as they chewed sweet meadow grass. Eagles soared, stretching their magnificent wings in the open sky. He thought about going hunting, but realized he could not miss his lesson. Father had threatened to take away his prized horse, Maverick, if he missed another. Sir Lance was vigilant about his training; he was a renowned knight who had fought in great battles. Everyone told James how lucky he was to be his squire, but he thought otherwise.
Crunching an apple, he sauntered over to the stables, where he saw Lance and Gabe shooting arrows at targets. He grabbed a bow and arrow and took his spot next to his younger brother. Even though they were only a year apart, Gabe was often praised for his serious and responsible nature, much to James’s chagrin. He wished his brother was less of a stick in the mud and could have fun once in a while. Gabe shook his head at him disapprovingly, his dark curls glistening in the sun, which was starting to peak through the clouds.
Lance towered over them, his massive height blocking the light temporarily. James looked up and noticed his belly was straining against his leather surcoat, which was embroidered with a dragon coat of arms. He smirked at the look of his ridiculous, long blond mustache, which outdated him by a century.
“Late again, James? Your father will hear about this. Now let’s see you hit the target.”
James peered at the bull’s eye through the top of his arrow. He pulled the string taut and released it. The feathered arrow flew into the grass dismally.
“Haven’t been practicing, have you, boy?”
Before he could respond with something sarcastic, Gabe sent an arrow flying, which hit the bulls eye dead center.
“Excellent work, Gabriel! I can see your diligence has paid off. You will make a fine knight in a few years’ time.”
Gabe smiled. “James could be just as good if he practiced. Instead he spends his days carrying on with the village girls and stealing my new tunics to impress them.”
James could feel the heat pricking under his tunic, which he had indeed “borrowed” from his brother. He had to restrain his temper or else face losing his horse.
“I do not carry on with the village girls. I was helping father with business this week, which is why I couldn’t practice.”
Gabe and Lance both rolled their eyes in disbelief.
“When you are in battle one day, my boy, you will wish you had spent hours at target practice. You can be assured our enemies’ squires are hard at it. Carry on practicing, boys. I have a surprise for you.”
Lance gestured at the stable boys who were wiping down the horses a few yards away.
“If he makes me clean the stables again, I swear, I’ll leave.” grumbled James.
“James, a squire’s duties include caring for the livery, polishing the weapons...”
“Yes maybe for an ordinary squire, like yourself; but I am no ordinary man, I am the future ...”
“King. Yes, you remind me of that every day. I wish you would realize that being King will require sacrifice, and responsibility…
James missed the target again. He swore and was about to tell Gabe off, when Lance reappeared with a beautiful white and brown flecked gyrfalcon on his gloved arm.
“Amazing! I’ve always wanted to hunt with one of them!” exclaimed James.
“Now, now boys. This is a rare bird, given to your father from a neighboring kingdom. As you know, they are known for their incredible flight endurance. They will pursue prey for miles and never falter. Perseverance is an admirable, but rare quality in today’s youth. Ahem. We shall take him out with us if you can both hit the target three times.”
Gabe raced to the bull’s eye and hit the target at once, and then began redrawing for the second shot.
James felt the blood drain from his face; why hadn’t he practiced last week? He remembered going to the stables to practice but then galloping away on Maverick to see … Ingrid. Or was it Emily? He willed himself to concentrate. He was just as good of a shot as Gabe. He peered over his bow, hands shaking. Zip. He just missed it, the arrow piercing the outside ring.
He looked over and saw that Gabe had pierced the bullseye three times. He swore and threw down his bow.
Sir Lance tut-tutted and stroked the gyrfalcon. “Looks like you’ll have to stay behind and practice.”
James stormed over to the bird. “That bird is property of my father! You cannot withhold it from me. Release it at once!”
He moved towards the majestic bird. Lanced bellowed, “Do not alarm it! It will become vicious if provoked!”
But it was too late; James launched himself at the bird in a rage.
Its dark eyes grew wide with panic and its beak snapped. Within seconds, James’s arm was gushing with blood. He looked at it and turned pale. Gabriel rushed to his side and tied his cloak tight around the wound.
Sir Lance whistled and the stable boys ran towards them. “Prince James has been injured. Please take him to the doctor at once.”
James followed the boy, embarrassed but still fuming. His brother walked shoulder to shoulder with him.
“I don’t need a chaperone. I’m fine.” He gritted his teeth.
“I just want to make sure you’re okay.” Gabe replied.
“No, go hunting with that malicious creature. I hope you have a great time.”
“Alright, have it your way, James.” Gabe turned on his heel.
By the time the doctor had cleaned and sown up his wound, James was infuriated. He was angry at Lance for assigning the targets, jealous of Gabe for hitting them, and enraged with the hawk. How dare it bite the future King of Royston! It was almost like it had lashed out on purpose.
He was thinking these thoughts when he arrived at the stables to take Maverick for a ride. The black beauty neighed at his presence, almost bowing to acknowledge his master. He had been a birthday present; a prize wild horse from the Far East. He was going to visit Ingrid; her cheerful laughter always took his mind off things. Wincing as he grabbed the reins, he galloped through the palace grounds. He was about to take the winding road to the village when he pulled at the reins and stopped. Maverick chewed on some grass happily. Who was Sir Lance to say he couldn’t go hunting? He was going to find them in the forest and interrupt their lesson. He knew the very spot they would go, where game was plentiful near the river. With the midday sun beating down his back, he turned around.
After riding for almost an hour, he arrived at the gurgling stream where he and Gabe had spent many childhood hours. He tethered Maverick to a sturdy trunk and stealthily padded through the trees. He passed the entrance to the forbidden forest, which legend held was alive with strange creatures. The few who had ventured in never returned. He felt shivers down his spine and he thought he heard whispering. Like a magnet, he felt his feet moving towards the gnarled and twisted trees. He shook himself and turned the other way. He knew Lance and Gabe would be close by. To his right, he heard the distinct cadence of human chatter. He padded behind a tall oak and peered around it. He had found his quarry; Lance was pointing at something in the distance, the gyrfalcon still perched on his arm. Anger boiled up in James’s chest. He felt the gash on his arm throbbing, still tender where the malicious creature had pierced him a few hours ago. Blind rage surged and he set his jaw in determination. One clean shot and the miserable creature would be gone, paying the price for shedding royal blood. It was only justified, even if Sir Lance didn’t see it.
Gabe inserted an arrow into his bow and began to aim it towards Lance’s target. The arrow sailed in a beautiful arc and hit a small animal. From James’s view, it appeared to be a rabbit.
“Excellent shot, Gabriel. I feel safe knowing the future of the kingdom will be in your hands, my boy.”
He gave him a hearty slap on the back and released the hawk to fetch their prey. Its beautiful speckled brown wings opened and it soared into the air. He saw its brown beady eyes and vicious beak, sharp and curved, and he reacted out of instinct. He pulled out his bow and aimed at its heart, his injured arm shaking unsteadily. Just as he was about to strike, the bird took a dive and then swooped back up. He thought it was gloating, as if the creature knew it had got away with a crime. A bead of sweat dripped over his perfect chiseled features. It was time, his moment had come; the gyrfalcon was flying low and in perfect view. He locked onto the hawk’s chest, aimed for the heart and let the arrow go. It flew up with great force, striking the bird down. He watched with satisfaction as it fell unnaturally with a thud.