The Boy From Between Two Rivers
Last updated- 6/8/2021
He hobbled back to his village, tattered in all respects. He can’t recall where he ditched his armor; he carried only his helmet. He twirled the coin in his pocket occasionally, running his calloused fingers over the lion etching. His eye stung and he had to hold back tears to prevent any further damage. His sword was scuffed and jagged from the battle, but he couldn’t care less. The sword could break right down the center and it would hurt less than his mind, his wit, and his heart. Abandoned on the battlefield, that was all Cartland had to fight with as he fended off the knights and their mutts.
He took breaks from time to time while he walked. He would set himself down and nibble on the small amount of food he spared. He navigated by the two landmarks he could see anywhere in the land: The castle in the northwest and the mount in the northeast. Cartland lived in his small village in the southeast, so he knew that to get home he had to walk away from the castle. He didn’t mind not having to look at the looming structure and found solace in leaving that world behind. His partner in direction was the mount always on his left side. It burned for days throughout his journey, a sight that must have been terrifying and upsetting to everyone who saw it. To Cartland, it only served as a landmark memory of his story.
He still couldn’t believe it, even after thinking about it on the days long journey home, that the princely hero had fallen back in the midst of battle. They had gone in together, as a team, side by side. They were an unstoppable duo, both leading the frontline with no doubts on their mission. So why?
It started when Leo presented the recruitment coin to Cartland. Leo, a princely knight of the King’s highest court, had arrived in Cartland’s village unannounced. It was unlike men of high honor to do so without a messenger first arriving. Especially to a village so dusty and ruined and far out in the land. He had traveled there to find Cartland’s father to aid in his quest, for he was the man who knew of the Wizard and how to defeat him, but Cartland explained how his father disappeared in the last war and was presumed dead. Leo took the news with some ounce of disappointment, but didn’t falter in handing him the first of forty coins. It glimmered in the light, the silver making Cartland hesitate, but with a quick swipe, he joined. Maybe Leo had taken a liking to him, or maybe he thought Cartland knew something, but in return for Cartland’s service, he and his family would be taken care of graciously.
He was the first of many to join their army. He followed Leo through the outstretched land recruiting thirty-nine more fighters. There were swordsmen, butchers, leatherworkers, farmers, journeymen, and even other notable knights. He was sure that Leo would be a steadfast leader, unquestionable in his decisions and yet Cartland still had questions. Questions about the end. Questions about the future. Questions about them.
He spent his journey home remembering. He pondered the events that led to the end and switched between anger and tears. He felt so fond of his days at the castle, and to realize it was all just a lie, tore him apart. The group had been chosen and gathered, all with their coins shimmering in hand, ready to fight in the castle’s training yard. Cartland came to find out that Leo was not only a subject of the king, but his son. Granted only his youngest son, for he had brothers ahead of him in line for the throne, but that also made him a prince. They didn’t broadcast that anywhere. No one talked about the stories of Leo and included “and of course a prince, too.” He was just a knight of many honors and no other connection.
This information offset Cartland, but he soon became grateful for it as that was why the group was cared for with such amenities. Their meals were that of Kings and they each had a room with their own personal bathroom. Best of all, he had access to education, something he never put in the same sentence as himself.
Cartland expressed an interest in reading when he had wandered into the library after Leo. He didn’t want to say he was following him, but more that he felt like a string was tied from one end of Leo all the way to him. He felt the tug of the string on his heart whenever he moved away. One day it led him among the many shelves of books where he tried desperately to decipher what they said. He picked up leather bound manuals, scripts, and legends but couldn’t make sense of a single one. He liked the pictures in the encyclopedia of weapons, but that was about it. Leo hadn’t realized he had company until he spied the confused man in a space between books on the shelf. He smirked curiously at him and watched unnoticed as Cartland picked up books from their place to either drop them loosely on the ground or put them back in an entirely new spot. He looked utterly lost. He eventually made his way around and coughed lightly.
“Looking for anything in particular?” he asked with a joking concern.
Cartland stopped and looked at him embarrassed. He didn’t want him to know of his illiteracy, but he also wanted the help.
“Just...browsing” Cartland said, brushing it off cooly. He continued to rifle through the books, not really paying attention to what they were anymore. His embarrassment caught him and his pride wouldn’t let him admit to anything. Leo watched him struggle to pick up the books he littered and sort them in any comprehensible manner. With a shake of his head, he moved forward and helped to reassort them on the shelves.
“You know, if you needed help with any of the literature here, I know a great tutor.” Leo eyed Cartland while taking glances at titles and continued to shelve books. Cartland froze and he could feel flames around him.
“Well! I don’t think I like what you’re saying about my intelligence,” Cartland stuttered out, barely getting through the syllables in intelligence. Leo chuckled and kept one book from the stack he had. It was the encyclopedia on weapons and their uses.
“I’m not trying to insult you or imply anything about your smarts. I’m just offering help because it is now my duty to help you.” He handed Cartland the manual. “I think you would quite enjoy this title. If you need help, you can ask me for lessons.” Leo’s sincerity made Cartland rethink his anger and he hesitantly accepted the book, though he knew he wouldn’t be able to read it. He watched Leo saunter away and, with little to no more thought, jogged up to follow him again.
The lessons became a daily part of his routine. He woke up, he bathed, he dressed, he ate, he trained, and then he booked it to the library to learn just a little more of what Leo had to teach. They hid in the back where Leo had his own personal study, so they could be unbothered by the outside world. English was the worst. Math made sense, it was numbers and based on logic, but reading. Reading was the worst thing Cartland ever encountered in his life, and it made him want to tear his own skin off.
they started with children’s stories. How demeaning. But Leo would encourage him to push through each sentence. He would say, “just sound it out” in such a babyish manner that Cartland felt like he shouldn’t even bother. Leo promised though that it would get easier. So he tried for him.
Whenever Cartland seemed to hit a stride in those studies, Leo would threaten to teach him a lesson on Latin, so he would purposefully stumble on the next few words in hopes of avoiding it. He constantly felt at odds with his English lessons. With reading came writing though. Leo helped Cartland write letters back home to his sister, Anya. He would tell her the basic day to day details, but as he grew more independent in writing, the letters became more personal. It started with Leo transcribing them, and then he helped Cartland learn to spell each word, always offering up a spell check if needed.
Cartland wondered why it mattered to be able to read and write because he could speak good enough English, so why should he have to read it? When would writing matter in a battle? He was trained extensively as a fighter and that was what he was good at. Combat came naturally and he never felt at a loss. This new feeling was practically the opposite. The mixture of frustration and hopelessness burned in his stomach as he battled to keep trying, but wanted to just give up and leave it. Leo didn’t want him to though.
They grew close during these lessons and found each other’s company more enjoyable. They figured out a way of smooth banter that seemed to never end, even in training or at meals. Cartland never felt so close to another person. The thought killed him when he realized what might be happening, and he was sure Leo saw it, too. Neither one spoke of it though. They never touched the subject, but rather let their relationship go unnoticed and unspoken.
Cartland was afraid that it might be too good to be true and one day Leo might decide that they were done. That day never came, but the thought never left the back of his mind. Sometimes Leo insisted they study in other areas of the castle. He would lecture about how change of scenery would help the mind, but Cartland was too busy making sure their new location was still just as secluded.
A couple weeks into the lessons, Leo instructed him to meet in a lounge in the west wing. Nothing was really kept in the west wing. It was just the living quarters for all the staff in the castle and during the day no one hung around there.
Leo brought a stack of reading material and snacks. Cartland brought himself. They were tackling books about the history of (the land). The books were simple and only gave surface level knowledge on a lot of events, so Cartland found himself constantly asking more about them.
That was until they reached a section about the great war. He read reluctantly about the wizard and the evil plagues he cast on the land. Each one reigned for 2 weeks and caused a period of wartime all over. The section ended with the final battle. A battle that didn’t end well. The king had collected an army of knights across the land and sent them in to defeat the wizard. Each one did not return.
Cartland gripped the book as they continued. He knew all of this already. How only one man made it far enough to see the wizard and still failed. How there were years where the wizard had not resurfaced and everyone assumed he was defeated.
Leo rested his hand on the book, covering the section they were reading and signaling a stopping point. He was clearly concerned for Cartland. ““If you don’t mind me asking,” he tested the waters. “What happened with your father?” His eyes were soulful and touched Cartland, but there was a sting to the question.
“Excuse me?” Cartland coughed out. He was caught off guard by the question. It made sense though. Leo must have only been getting close to him for this information.
“I’m sorry. I know that it’s personal, but I couldn’t help but wonder.” Silence hung between them, but Leo dared to keep talking. “Only because he was the last one to confront the wizard and win. I just thought that perhaps you knew something about that.” Cartland’s blood boiled.
“So that’s all you want from me, huh,” He tried to joke. “Not because of my fighting ability or because you-” He stopped himself before he mentioned the unspoken.
“Cartland! Of course not!” Leo shifted in surprise. “Cartland, you know that I-” He hesitated, also not wanting to make the taboo real. “Right?” Cartland stared at Leo and saw his concern and melted a little. He relaxed and turned his focus back to the book
“I know. I’m sorry, it’s just a sensitive topic for me”. Leo laid a hand on his shoulder which sent chills through Cartland.
“I also apologize. I know losing a parent is rough.
“In the last war, he was the knight to face off with the wizard. Everyone says he won, but really does anyone win if they lose their life with it.”
“He died?” Leo asked softly.
“I only assume. He sent a letter to my sister telling her his plan. He wanted to trap the wizard with his own magic inside an amulet, but he never returned.”
“An amulet?” Leo pondered. Cartland thought he was making a mental note of it. “That must mean he wasn’t successful then.”
“I don’t know. When my father didn’t return I thought he’d failed. It only makes sense now that princess Violet is captured,” Cartland trailed off. He didn’t feel much like reading anymore and he closed the book in despair. It was silent while Cartland waited for Leo to say something more, but he decided to change the subject entirely.
“You know the King’s Cotillion will be coming soon,” Leo said lightly. There might have just been an ounce of unease in his voice.
Cartland shot Leo a look of confusion. “Is that the big ball that happens before we leave?” he asked. He had never heard the word cotillion before. He didn’t even think he could pronounce it.
“Yes. We leave in a few weeks, but I thought I would ask now,” Leo left an intentional pause.
Leo eased closer and grabbed Cartland’s hand with both of his. “If you would consider attending with me,” he smiled widely and didn’t remove his gaze from Cartland.
Cartland’s face felt warmer than it should and he panicked. He looked around them and the open area they sat. Surely someone could see them and this would be all over. No one was around though, the lounge just as empty as when they arrived. His heart didn’t stop beating rapidly though and he almost couldn’t speak.
Cartland swallowed and relaxed. “I would actually love to,” he answered. Leo’s face beamed and he let go of Cartland’s hand to pull him into an embrace.
The lessons felt just like an asterisk in the weeks as the majority of time was spent in the training yard. The group was chosen based on their experience, so they would mostly spar each other on a daily basis. Leo would discuss battle strategies and back up plans. While there were 40 of them there, and Leo insisted the sparring partners were randomized each day, Cartland always found himself on the opposing side to Leo. They were inseparable.
(I want to insert something else here that is more specific to the training and combat, I just didn’t get time to do so)
It was the last lesson Leo would be teaching before they spent the next few days preparing to depart. There was a celebration to be had, packing to the highest degree, and a ceremony to bid them farewell. There would not be time to learn until the battle was over, that is if they survived.
“I hope you’ve been at least attempting to read that manual” Leo lectured while digging through his personal library. Cartland rolled his eyes and flipped the book open to a random page. He saw that it was about axes just from the pictures, but he struggled when starting the entry.
“It’s not that I’m not trying. I just have trouble with this certain book” Cartland explained. Leo walked over with a book hidden in his hands and looked over Cartland’s shoulder at the passage.
“Well, I guess there is a lot of vernacular specific to blacksmiths in there.” Leo pondered a second and then waved his hand dismissively in the air. “We can try that later, but I think we should do this story today,” he spoke and seated himself close to Cartland. He slid the mystery book on the table and Cartland looked up at him confused.
“A children’s story? You’re not saying after all these months I still need to be reading these?” Cartland took the book and examined it from every angle.
“Look at the title.” Leo took the book from his hands and laid it flat, pointing at the cover. Cartland read in bold letters: Leo the Lion-hearted. He was struck with awe before a laugh escaped him.
“There’s a book about you?” He chuckled. Leo took offense at the outburst, but after having looked back at the book, smiled with amusement as well.
“Yeah, I guess it is sort of silly, huh?” He giggled.
Cartland stopped his laughing and took a moment to admire Leo. “No, it’s sort of incredible actually. That you did so many great things that people want to teach their children about you.” Cartland saw Leo grin from the corner of his eye.
“I’m surprised you haven’t seen this before. Almost every town library has a dozen copies of it,” Leo joked.
Cartland frowned. “My village didn’t really have any books. Just the few that my sister was able to barter for.” Cartland remembered the feeble shelf in their home that held Anya’s favorite books. She would journey into town to trade the ones she read and disliked in hope of a newer better adventure. He would tag along when he was younger to try and sell the rocks and bugs he found in the forest nearby. He always came home with what he left with, but on occasion, Anya would get him a special treat for going with her.
“I’m so sorry that I assumed. I just thought since you knew about me-”
“All the stories I ever heard of you came from my sister. She would hear the tales of your adventures when she was in town and then tell us when she returned. I loved hearing her stories about the daring knight and his battles. I almost wanted to be him, or at least know him,” Cartland explained. Cartland could tell Leo was staring at him, but he felt at ease for once.
“I think that’s why I fell in love with you-” Cartland stopped when they made eye contact. Leo’s eyes were wide and hopeful that Cartland would finish. Cartland wanted himself to finish it. He wanted to just say it and leave it there for them to enjoy. A statement so simple and loving and it would finally solidify what they were. “y-your character. You know. You’re a very noble person and that’s really admirable.” Cartland’s cheeks flushed and he almost couldn’t breathe. Leo relaxed but acknowledged the moment for what it was.
“Well, thank you. I also find you to be very admirable.
“And why is that?” Cartland laughed. He was not one to admire. He contemplated stealing on a daily basis, he picked fights when he couldn’t control his anger, he was a nobody from nowhere. What was admirable about that?
“You’re very caring. I don’t think you realize how sweet you can be sometimes, but I can tell when you really care for something,” Leo didn’t take a moment to stop looking at Cartland. He could tell that the prince was studying his features and that made him blush more. “Or someone”. At that comment he buried his head in his arms on the table and tried to control his heart. He heard Leo let out a boisterous laugh and felt his hand pat him on the back. Yes, what a jes. He clearly still gained a lot of pleasure from making Cartland blush. Cartland then lifted his head and stared defiantly at the children’s book.
He opened the book to the first page to distract himself and smiled at the drawings made of a lion in armor. Leo watched along as Cartland read aloud with ease. The story recounted the lion fighting off hordes of monsters and looking for glory. It was definitely childish, but endearing. As Cartland turned the next page, he found Leo resting his hand there, and he looked up. The eye contact drove too much into his brain. Cartland felt overwhelmed and breathless. His heart stopped and waited for Leo to tell it to beat again.
The moment broke when Leo glanced down and then frowned. He stood up swiftly and went to examine his bookshelves. His slender fingers ran over the spines, but Cartland knew he wasn’t reading the titles. He felt his heart fall into his stomach. A split second and then everything switched. What happened to their moment? Before Cartland could say anything, Leo spoke strong and clear.
“You should know,” he paused but didn’t turn towards him. “I am to be wed to Princess Violet.” The silence stung the two of them.
Cartland didn’t dare to move. He waited to speak. He hoped that the joke would land any second. “Surely, you don’t mean that,” he weakly laughed.
Leo dropped his hand from the books and his shoulders slumped. “It was an arranged marriage. In exchange for me finding the princess, her parents were to let me marry her.”
Cartland felt sick. He took a second to look down at the next page in the story. There it was. The story continued with the lion knight saving the princess from falling into the fire. His eyes stung, but he wasn’t going to let himself cry.
“So then,” Cartland choked, “what was all this for then?” He stared a hole into the back of Leo’s head. “Was I just a joke? Or was this something different to you?” Hearing Cartland’s tears in his voice, Leo turned around concerned, he rushed over, and put a hand to Cartland’s cheek. Cartland pulled away.
“No! I mean, I didn’t plan on this. I just want to be honest with you in case this is real. I believe though that the princess does not have feelings towards me, just as I do not for her.”
“You’re just saying that.”
“I’m serious. I believe Violet to have her heart set on my eldest brother, Alfred. She has sent him letters for the past three years declaring her love, that is until they stopped abruptly. He has denied her because he is waiting for a worthy wife to take the throne with him when my father passes. I do not intend to marry her, please believe me,” Leo pleaded.
Cartland rubbed his face and closed the children’s book. “How can I believe that?” Cartland waited for Leo to respond.
Leo looked around the room for the answer, but grabbed Cartland’s hand as the answer. “I can only make this promise. I promise to find you if you are ever lost, to stand by you in all moments,” Leo stopped. “And to never give up.” Cartland took those words as the new law, for both of them. He would never leave Leo’s side. He stuck true to that even when they ventured out of the castle walls.
Cartland was instructed to meet Leo before the ball by his room. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen while he was there, but after putting on his best outfit, he made his way to the north wing of the castle. Leo’s room was at the very end of the long and tedious hallway. Cartland barely had to knock once before the door opened and revealed a grinning Leo.
“Cartland! Come in!” he ushered him in and closed the door with haste. Surely it was because he didn’t want anyone nearby to see Cartland entering the prince’s room, cause that could only spell trouble. There was also the possibility of Leo actually being thrilled to see Cartland outside of an academic or combative setting.
“Just wait right here. I want to show you something,” Leo spoke with a bit of whimsy before waltzing off towards a door on the other side of the room. His room. His bedroom. Cartland wondered what series of events could have ever led him to being in the private quarters of a prince. Boy, was he a lucky man. The room was large with a bed that could have held four Leos all next to each other. Who would ever want four of him! He tried to dismiss that intrusive thought. It was dimly lit by the sun creeping through the windows, but he could make out the ornamental wallpaper and gold etchings along the furniture.
He noticed the door Leo went through must have been the closet, because he could see another door that led to a private bath, which he presumed was also massive. He tried to fight the urge to dig around his belongings. It was his nature to do so; search for anything valuable and then try to pawn it in a nearby village. It wasn’t because he was a bad person, but just because his family wouldn’t be able to afford anything otherwise. He knew better than that though. This was the room of someone close to him. He opted to stand by the bed instead while he waited for Leo’s return.
That was until he noticed a box on the dresser. It was plain and unremarkable, but he saw a more than intriguing name scrawled on top. He almost couldn’t make it out due to Leo’s fancy writing. Princess Violet. He felt his body twitch. He couldn’t decide what would be in the box or if he should even look. He made the decision to look.
He slinked over and carefully removed the top of the box. Inside was a stack of letters, all in the same envelopes and stamped with the same crest: A floral V. Cartland noticed one on top of all the rest that had yet to be opened. He started to panic. Didn’t Leo tell him she was writing to Prince Alfred and not him? What were all these letters for? In the moment he swiped the top letter and pocketed it. He was sure it was wrinkled and bent now from the force, but he didn’t really intend on returning it.
Just as he managed to slip the lid back on, Leo emerged from his closet. “Close your eyes,” He instructed from just behind the door.
Cartland hesitated and tried to peek at him. “Why?” he questioned.
“Just do it. It’ll be worth it, I promise.”
Cartland begrudgingly closed his eyes and waited. Her heard the door creak slightly and shuffling towards him. After a pause, Leo told him to open his eyes. When he did, he saw Leo striking a ridiculous pose in a gorgeous outfit. It was a princely garb with an intricate pattern sewn throughout. It wasn’t flashy, but he looked sophisticated in the outfit. The tunic was clearly made of some expensive fabric and was lined with hints of gold. Cartland saw the pristine boots on his feet and the crown that sat daintily on top of Leo’s head.
“What do you think?”
Cartland was lost for words. He felt so underdressed now that he was next to the most handsome man in the land. (not done with this section, but it leads into the next one).
The King’s cotillion was more intense than Cartland thought. The wide ballroom felt empty when he first saw it, but now it was too full of people he had never seen before. There were people of high status that had come from all the surrounding lands, and even further, just to celebrate the departure of their army.
Even though Leo had asked Cartland to attend the ball with him, he had to be there early to be by the throne with the rest of his brothers. The king and queen sat in their respective seats, and all 4 of the brothers were lined up, oldest closest to the king. Cartland saw Leo, who was third in line, standing all proper and scanning the crowd. It seemed like he was searching for something, but Cartland realized it was him when a smile crept on Leo’s face when they made eye contact. Cartland gave a small awkward wave and Leo winked in response. Apparently one of his brothers saw the wink and elbowed him jokingly. He was sure Leo was now being asked who the lucky lady in the crowd was.
Leo stayed up there until the ball officially commenced. A fanfare played and then the king stood. He gave a welcoming statement and made a toast to the warriors. When all was said and done, the music swelled and everyone began to dance the opening waltz. Cartland had no partner for such a thing so he sunk to the outskirts of the room. Others seemed to also slink away to other areas. Some continued to socialize off to the side, some went to the large table on the one side to grab a refreshment, and others also stood by awaiting someone to ask them to dance. Granted, those waiting for a dance were all women and Cartland felt somewhat uncomfortable waiting in the same group as them, so he sunk past the decorations and clung to the wall.
When the opening song ended, a lot of people dispersed and some joined the dance floor. That was when Cartland was startled by a tap on his shoulder. Leo stood smiling with his hand outstretched.
“Is this your way of asking for a dance?” Cartland mocked. He thought it might have come off harsher than he meant, but luckily Leo laughed.
“I would hope my date to the dance would want to dance with me,” he joked back. Cartland took his hand and faltered. Cartland never took note of their height difference until Leo insisted on leading. He was only a few inches taller, but in that moment it felt more than that.
They danced awkwardly for a while before they figured out each other’s rhythms and fell into sync. Once in awhile they would take a break for a refreshment or so Leo could walk around and be seen by the many party guests. They always met back up in the shadows though. Leo’s smile would turn more genuine at the sight of Cartland again.
A couple hours later they were still dancing. They never wanted to stay away for very long from the other. They talked while they danced. A little about Leo, a little about Cartland, sometimes gossip about a nearby person. Sometimes Leo would earna loud enough laugh from Cartland that they would have to move their position so to not be found out. Each time it felt like a game where they were hiding from an enemy and would stealthily make their escape.Cartland never knew it was possible to feel this much joy in a moment, but he remembered the letter that was tucked close to him still. If only Leo knew. This night would not be as happy if he did.
Leo noticed the demeanor change and scanned the area around them slyly. Cartland wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but as they danced closer to the corner of the room, further away into the shadows, he truly felt like they were the only two people alive. Leo’s hands were firm and sure of what they needed to do. His stance never faltered or doubted what he was doing. He never pulled away from Cartland.
Cartland was sure he was becoming lightheaded. It was almost like he was being overpowered by Leo in all he was. The sight of him in the outfit from earlier still made his heart flutter. He could smell the scent that was purely Leo; (trying to think of what he smell like). Just the glimmer in Leo’s cornflower eyes sent him reeling. Cartland was sure that description, when said aloud, would earn him a demeaning laugh, but truly that was what they reminded him of: a field of cornflower on a sunny day.
Leo had navigated them to the other end of the room and then let go of Cartland. His heart sank and he tried to keep him close. Leo chuckled before leading him over to a large double door. The glass doors led to a balcony outside and Leo held one of them open for Cartland to go through. No one was out there in the night air, but now they were out there, dancing along to the faint music.
They didn’t speak, only because they felt like there was no need to. They just listened to the steady breathing of the other. Cartland took the moment to rest his head Leo’s shoulder. At this point they were just swaying with each other, but it didn’t matter. This was just for them.
Leo spoke up, “Cartland.” That was all he muttered to make him lift his head. There was a split second before Leo had gone in for the final blow.
Cartland had never kissed anyone before. He had no idea it felt like this. After the second of shock he gave in and gripped tighter at Leo. He didn’t know how long it lasted, but it definitely was not long enough. The song changed and Leo released the grip he had on Cartland’s lips. They both stared at each other with the same amount of amazement.
That was it. This was real. Cartland wasn’t entirely sure if they were truly meant to be doing this, it didn’t feel like it was, but he didn’t much care either. Leo was the only thing for him now. Nobody else could match him in his heart.
That was until their journey began. The miniature army split to better traverse the land. They were each given a map of the kingdom for reference. Leo lead the first group and, as they tracked villains and detained enemies along the way, He would leave instructions with local figureheads for the following groups. He detailed the next location to head towards and they marched along like that for weeks. Leo and Cartland were side by side each step, both leading the first group to their location. Cartland would send letters at every other location back home to his sister. He told her about Leo and their newfound relationship, even if it was hard to decipher from his terrible spelling.
The land was not that large, but it proved difficult to find any information on the Wizard. He was elusive, and no evidence was left when the princess was abducted. Her parents, rulers of a neighboring kingdom, paid a great deal to Leo’s state to find their daughter. they were sure that the Wizard had taken her somewhere there as they had already conducted an extensive search of their country, which was the size of a thimble in comparison.
Eventually they found the answer to where the Wizard was hiding out. A travelling salesman said he had encountered the Wizard on the trail between the two countries. He was disguised, but the man found it suspicious that the woman in the carriage was tied up. He didn’t meddle though, and just sold him some herbs. The Wizard made mention to the man of heading towards the mount, and how it would be best for the man to not make his stay long in this land.
It suddenly struck Cartland as Leo was leaving the final set of instructions to meet at the base of the mount. Cartland knew why he was there, but he tended to forget. He knew about the war he caused from which his father never returned. He knew the terrible things the Wizard had done and how he held a princess from another land in captivity. He knew there was danger and risk to going and saving her, but he couldn’t help but feel that there was a greater purpose for this adventure. He was almost afraid for it to end. He was afraid for the first time.
The journey surmounted in a final battle, on the mount, where they expected minimal deaths and a victory. Looking back, He wasn’t so sure about the victory part at this point. There was a miniature castle built at the top, and a bridge connecting the rift on the cliffside and the villains residence. They marched their way up to the bridge and saw on the other side the horde of monsters. Some suited up as knights were in the frontline, all with a matching hellhound. Behind them were villains alike. Most were ogres or goblins, some orcs were scattered. The rest were humans, or presumed human, maybe with some sort of power. Cartland watched the enemy start to inch closer, anxious to start the bloodshed. He grabbed Leo’s hand and whispered a love poem under his breath. He could hear a voice whisper something back.
Once Leo made the first step onto the bridge, the chaos broke. The enemy wildly charged forward, racing down the bridge at them. Leo started to charge as well, all the men with them in pursuit. They met at the first third of the bridge, swords and axes clashing. Maces and clubs were thrown wildly and they all clashed in a giant mess.
Leo promised to give Cartland the answer to all his questions if they survived, but he answered them all without saying a word. The enemy was more experienced in combat than they expected, and Cartland watched as the friends he made along the way charge headfirst into battle. Many were wounded, he wasn’t sure how many were dead, but just as quickly as the battle began, Leo had left. Cartland was shocked and he faltered in the fight. Leo had slipped by the battle and headed down the bridge. Cartland was left in the front as bait while he rescued the girl.
Of course, the girl. How could anyone, especially Cartland, forget the girl. That was all he cared about. Their journey was only meant for his selfish pursuit of honor, glory, and breasts. He was no hero. He was as garbage as the rest of them, and it didn’t matter what Cartland did, because the hero’s attention would always be turned towards that hideous princess. It didn’t matter what Leo said or promised, it was all a sham anyway to get Cartland’s undying loyalty. Cartland’s heart hurt, and he felt ashamed for ever believing the stories about the knight, for ever believing that he was brave and strong and handsome. He was half at best.
His moment of emotional hurt ended when the orc he was battling had took the opportunity to slash Cartland across the face. He buckled down and gripped at his left eye. Pulling his hand back he could see through his right that blood was spilling. Tremendous pain filled him and he cried out. Cartland was lucky to have broken out of the battle after that. The hounds had almost done him in as he stumbled past, but after seeing Leo escape upon the only dragon with the princess, he fiercely fought his way out. He was just quick enough to shout into the distance, swearing to Leo to never see him again.
Now Cartland was walking. He had been walking for days, maybe a week. He knew almost roughly where his home was, but relied heavily on locals for direction. He thought about the end of the battle. He called out to the army to fall back. The mission had been completed. He led them back down the mountain and they regrouped there. He enlisted the weaponsmith from the south, Edgar, as the new leader to count the men and head back, as he needed to seek medical attention. He was bandaged a few miles off and he gathered supplies by bartering anything he had on him.
His first instinct was to head back to the castle. He thought of all the belongings he still had there in his room, both sentimental and meaningless. He especially wanted to keep the books him and Leo worked with for so long. The closer the castle became, the sicker it made Cartland though, so he decided it would be best to just go home.
As Cartland caught sight of the outskirts of his village, his heart felt less heavy. He could see the mothers drying clothes and the children chasing each other, and he saw the familiar faces of his siblings by the fire, preparing for a roast. They were the same as he remembered, but they stuck out in comparison to the rest of the locals. They wore clothes that were not torn or dirtied and the younger siblings played with toys much newer than anyone around there had ever seen. The sight made him feel slightly sick, to think he could not fully abandon his connection to Leo, as now it was his duty to care for their family. He hobbled no closer before his eldest sister noticed him in the brush.
“Cartland!” she shouted as she dropped her bundle of sticks and twigs. He almost collapsed from the weight leaving his heart. She hurried over and offered her shoulder for support. “Cartland you look injured! What happened?” She helped him over to a log to sit upon and took to examining his wounds. He watched the rest of his siblings huddle around and question what the commotion was.
“Don’t worry, Anya. It looks worse off than it is.” He winced when she moved towards his eye. She then took to removing his pack and anything else that weighed him down.
“What happened to you? Why are you here?” She sent one of their sisters, Lilli, to grab the medical kit and started to remove his old bandages. She directed the oldest brother to continue the chores and pushed the others away.
“Shoo! All of you. Cartland is injured and he doesn’t need you to harass him right now.”
Anya cleaned his wounds and treated them, maybe a bit more properly than he had been taking care of them. She didn’t ask a single question after that. She didn’t wonder about the journey, or the battle, or even Leo. She just took to silently caring for Cartland. He almost felt ashamed for not telling her everything immediately, but he knew the story would be told in time.
After she was done, she only whispered an apology before continuing her chores. He stayed by the fire pit and watched as his family finished the laundry, gathered up sticks and branches, and brought back food. Everything was so familiar and yet different. The clothes were clean, the tools they used were new, and the food resembled what he ate at the castle. There was no more having to patch holes in pants or hunt or harvest food hours before the meal. It was not a lie when Leo promised to treat his family to better luxuries.
The fire started and then they ate. He supposed Anya told them all to not ask questions or stare too long at him, in fear of being disrespectful. Instead, he felt cast out from them. Like he was a ghost hovering by the fire and watching his family eat and laugh. They didn’t acknowledge his presence, and there was no need to, until the youngest brother approached him.
“Can you please tell us a story? I missed your stories Cartland.” He sat down in front of his older brother waiting for anything. Anya froze and glared through the fire at Malin, as if her stare could make him turn around. Cartland instead took kind to his brother. He was about to respond when Malin kept talking.
“I want to hear one about Leo the Lion-hearted! He’s my favorite. You met him right? Was he as daring and brave as always?”
Cartland’s face spoiled at the mention of his new enemy, but his siblings grew with excitement at the mention of their favorite hero. They scuttled over to get a better seat for the expected tale and chattered amongst one another. He shifted uncomfortably and tried to keep his calm.
“No. I’m not really feeling up for it,” Cartland said as he rested his rebandaged arm. The younger kids whined and protested at the denial. Anya stood from her place and marched over to them.
“If Cartland says no, then that means no. Give him some space. He’s been through a lot” Anya comforted Cartland. This answer did not seem to settle the children any more.
“But we want to hear about it! About the amazing Leo and his unbreakable armor! And how he can conquer any enemy with just one swing of his sword!” Malin held a branch like a sword and pretended to be striking down an enemy. His sister Robyn stomped around mimicking a dragon being slain. It was either the intense flicker of the fire or the poor re-enactment, but Cartland felt a burning in his soul.
“I don’t think his stories were really all that true.” He nearly hissed out.
“What do you mean? Surely he’s just as heroic as you mentioned. Didn’t you battle by his side?” Robyn questioned as she jumped up from her pretend death. Cartland snapped.
“Leo does not possess the heart of a lion, but rather that of a snake.” Cartland stood up, towering over the young ones, and they could tell this wasn’t going to be a lighthearted fairytale.
“I’ll tell you story. Yes, while he, ironclad, did follow us into battle, he made less than a scuff on their armies. His mighty sword, of handcrafted and blessed steel, made no significant impression on the knights, from which I had to escape. He fled like a coward as soon as the battle picked up and kidnapped the damsel. He does not fight for the innocent and less fortunate, he is a murderer by my definition. Leaving me to die amongst the demon dogs is an act of which no amount of forgiveness can help.”
Cartland could feel his temper rising. He knelt down closer to his young counterparts and he could feel the warmth of the fire on his face. He spoke again, slower and more menacing, “The truth is, dear siblings, Leo is a coward. He tears down villages and harms all those who come near him. He does not care for the people who help him, because we are nothing but mere tools in his schemes. I would dare to call him a villain.” On the final syllable of his sentence, Cartland caught a glimpse from the side of his view, of a figure spying in from behind the fire. He didn’t flinch or make any indication that he was aware of this predator. He knew who was there.
“But, why would Leo do that?” Lilli’s voice trembled. Cartland stood at full height and turned slightly, so he could direct the words of importance to the visitor.
“Because he’s a selfish monster. He destroys hearts and minds so he can pursue riches and glory.” He knew the comment would trigger a movement.
“You know that’s not true!” A different voice spoke then expected. Cartland flinched as he saw, not Leo emerging from the brush, but his sister standing defiantly and tearful. Leo had started to move to expose himself, but hesitated. Anya moved towards Cartland with anger in each step.
“Would he have come here and saved us if he were like that?” She shoved Cartland lightly on his chest, as if she was picking a fight. “Would he have fed and clothed us while you were away?” Her temper was now rising. She paused and silently spoke, “Would he have loved you, if he were that way?” Cartland felt weak in the presence of this different version of his sister. He took a chance and glanced over at Leo who froze in the darkness. He didn’t dare move forward or make his presence known.
Cartland tried to cry out to Leo with his eyes in just a moment of vulnerability. He wanted to tell Leo how much he hurt him, how much he missed him, and how much he dearly loved him. But Leo didn’t move. He just stared back waiting for Cartland to say something. He took this as a sign, an answer to all the hurt feelings he felt. His heart found the bottom to the pit. He felt the second of weakness melt away and harden over the hole in his body. That day Leo created a villain. Without hesitation and staring straight at Leo, Cartland responded to his sister, calm and resounding.
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