Queen Marfascence led us into the royal audience room, usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. She sat in the throne usually reserved for the King.
“Scribe, dictation,” the queen said. “As follows, ‘Your Highness, my Beloved Husband,’ new line, ‘Our son, Branfel Blarfgold Bringlstone, has died. In your present state of incapacitation, I am taking all royal power. With the heir out of the way, I will be free to pick an heir of my choice. As of now, since my great-great-great-grandmother lived to 175 years old and all other ancestors after her, up to and including my mother, are still alive, I choose to put off this decision for at least a century. Please affix your seal as royal approval.’ New line. ‘Yours Royally,’ new line. ‘Queen Marfascence Bringlestone, nee Malrod, Ruler of all Branland.’ Scribe, take this to the King for his Royal Seal.”
After the scribe left, the queen turned towards us.
“As for the two of you, I have plans. You are to be both made official Knights of the Realm and given plots of land fitting to your new offices. Lord Chancellor!” She shouted this to a man on the other side of the room. He came forward and bowed.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Please see to it that these, two, Sir Lorunce and Sir Merla, are recorded in the Official Record as Knights of the Realm, First Order and are given estates from those of the late Prince Branfel that are fitting to such a position.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The man left the room with two servants.
“Now that you are Nights of the Realm, I am going to station you at the fortress Grimstone. It is one the border of Slore. As you are surely aware, all attacks have ceased. Never the less, I would like the two of you stationed there and at the ready in case there are any further attacks.”
I could tell Merla was about to say something, but she was interrupted by the scribe.
“Your Royal Highness, the king has affixed his seal. You are now officially the one and only ruler of Branland.”
“Please take note. From this day forward, I am the one and only true ruler of Branland. All shall obey my law to the letter.”
Everyone in the room bowed.
“Send in the Royal Guard.”
Eight soldiers in royal livery entered and bowed. I realized that neither the prince nor any of his soldiers bore the royal colors.
“Sir Lorunce and Sir Merla, please commence immediately to Grimstone. These soldiers will accompany you as an honor guard. That will be all.”
We bowed and were led out.
Once outside we were surrounded by eight more soldiers on horseback and 16 bowmen. Merla gave a questioning look at the captain of the guard.
“The land is dangerous, my lady. We need to make sure you reach Grimstone with no problems.”
Something was off, but I couldn’t place it. I had heard the name “Grimstone” but knew little about it. As for the “honor guard”, they felt more like prison guards. But everything they said made sense.
It was late and we stopped just a few miles outside of the city for the night. The honor guard shared their provisions with us, but otherwise kept their distance.
As it grew dark, Merla came close to me. A warmth flooded me from head to toe. I was now a Knight of the Realm, First Order. Her father would approve of me. But then I saw the look in her eye. She was close so we could talk privately.
“I don’t like this,” she said.
“You have good reason to not like it,” Srilriend said. I had almost forgotten about him, though wasn’t surprised he had stayed with us. “Two facts. I followed the scribe. He did the Royal Seal himself. There is no king. Also, The Castle Grimstone is the Royal Prison. It has been mothballed for over a century. I have a feeling you are being sent to this out of the way place so you can’t cause trouble. You won’t be imprisoned, not precisely, but you won’t be free, either.”
I felt a presence come close. Merla snuggled closer.
“Oh, Lorunce, this is the chance we’ve been waiting for,” she said in a mock whisper.
I felt the presence of the guard go away. Merla, unfortunately, moved so as not to be pressed up against me quite as close.
“So what are we to do? Just hang out until we get our chance? Maybe sending Soe-Ar and Warph out as spies? I’m sure the five of us could take on this bunch when it is time to go.”
Merla sighed. “Unfortunately, that is about all we can do for now. We have our swords. We have our titles. And we have the help of eagle, wolf, little folk and fairy. We should be fine. But I don’t like it. I need more information!”
“Well, for now let’s just stay as we are, snuggling against the cold and watching the beautiful sunset,” I said.
“Sunset?” Merla looked at me. “The sun set over an hour ago. Don’t you remember?”
We both turned towards the glow. Instead of shrinking, the glow was growing.
Merla closed her eyes in concentration. “Soe-Ar tells me that there is large fire off in the far-west villages.”
I glanced around. All of the Royal Guards were standing looking off at the growing fire that now filled the horizon. A nervous buzz filled the air.
I heard the hoofbeats of a fast approaching horse and the challenge of the guard. Merla and I walked over to the captain as a soldier approached.
“Sir, I need to get to the King or Prince immediately. There is a dragon in the west laying waste to field and village. The resulting conflagration is out of control and looks to burn the entire kingdom to the ground. We need help.”
“The Queen is in charge and I am the Captain of her Guard. I will deal with this. Go to the main barracks and meet with Baron Picknel. Give him your report and let him know that I am on my way to assess the situation.”
After the outrider had departed, the Captain of the Royal Guard gathered the soldiers.”
“Men, we have a change of plans. We will go immediately to the west villages and deal with the fire and the dragon.”
“Sir, if I may be so bold,” one of the soldiers said. “The Queen told us that we must follow her instructions to the letter. She did not tell us to go off chasing dragons. As you know, a dragon can fight off a thousand armed men. We are but 32, not counting our priso.., sorry, our charges. The Queen was specific, no turning aside for anything until we reach Grimstone.”
“We are not normal armed men, we are the Royal Guard. Our duty is to our kingdom, and we will protect the kingdom at any price. We will face this great threat to our kingdom, as is our duty. Any coward can remain behind, but I will lead the brave to save us from the invader.”
The Captain stared down his men and no others raised a complaint.
“Right, then, we break camp in 30 minutes.”
“But it is night,” one of the bowmen said.
“Stop your squeaking and get ready. Your time is short.”
The men whispered as they broke camp. All of them stopped every so often to cast round-eyed glances at the glowing horizon. Even in the dark and at a distance I could tell most of them were trembling.
Merla, though was smiling.
“Do you know something I don’?” I asked.
“Shhhh,” was her only answer.
I closed my eyes and reached out. I could feel Warph in the nearby forest. He was wary, but calm. He had some small experience with the dragon Glindilla and felt he could care for himself and save me if needed. Feeling the comfort of the large wolf made me feel better. I patted the sword Trowr and my confidence went up another notch. Merla was hiding the smile, but I could tell that she was happy. I didn’t know what we would find ahead, but I would be prepared, even if it meant facing death, for I knew I would not face it alone.
Soon we were marching westward across the land, passing through the hordes of scared villages who were fleeing the fire.
The scale of the conflagration became more apparent as we approached. Whatever happened, it would not be pretty.