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April 15, 2024

The Courage of a King

By Kevin Landis

Stormy clouds churned overhead as a gentle rain descended on the yellowing fields. An occasional and powerful clap of thunder shook the earth and it's lightning counterpart lit up the night sky. It was around dusk but black as midnight from the storm's dark presence on the countryside.

A lone figure trod down a wide path. His firm leather boots were soaked with rainwater and sloshed with each step. Green stockings clung to his legs, seeming to weigh twice what they did when he put them on. A light brown tunic was now dark from the falling rain. Atop his average frame, a wide brim hat covered black hair and deflected some of the rain.

It was never Dobbins' dream to become a traveler, or to even leave his home village. It was clear though that he needed to search out a new home, and so far his quest met with no success. He had visited half a dozen villages and found no place that suited his needs or wants. He was about twenty-five years and common, of course no member of nobility would be out slopping though the rain on such an awful evening.

Dobbins paused to remove a small canteen from his satchel, removing the metal cap he took a quick sip.

"Excuse me, kind sir." A raspy whisper called from behind him.

Dobbins spun around, dropping the canteen and drawing his sword.

A short and frail old man stood hunched over and supported by a cane. The old man wore a dark cloak that shrouded most his face and all his body from view.

"I mean no harm," The man spoke again, a bolt of lightning lighting his gentle features "I just wonder if you might give me a glass of water."

Dobbins smiled and sheathed his sword.

"You gave me quite a scare, old man." Dobbins laughed, picking up his canteen and after seeing that no water had spilled handed it to the old man.

The old man snatched away the canteen greedily and took a thirsty drink. After he had emptied the container he handed it back to Dobbins with a grateful smile.

"You are a generous soul, lad." The old man said, his voice a little stronger now. "You mustn't be from around here."

"I'm not," Dobbins admitted, stashing his empty canteen in his bag, "I come from far south, Ultarian country."

The old man was surprised, he took down his large hood and stared up into Dobbins' eyes.

"Why would you choose to leave such a wonderful place to travel this defiled land?" He asked.

Dobbins' looked down ashamed to answer. "I was banished."

The old man seemed surprised, but not overly so. He simply looked down and shook his head.

Dobbins couldn't help but notice the old man's frail state. He was, by far, the oldest person Dobbins had ever laid eyes on. His wrinkled skin seemed to hang off his thin bones. Long white hair was often hanging down in his face, obstructing his vision.

"So," The old man said, "You are on a quest for a new home?"

"Yes," Dobbins answered, "I seek a place that matches the one I was forced to leave."

"I too am on a quest," The old man said, shaking his head to throw off some of the rain, "I carry an important item, it must be delivered to Suno-Doras in a week's time or a great deal of lives will be lost."

"You can't make Suno-Doras in three weeks time, much less one, your quest is doomed, old man." Dobbins replied, stepping closer, trying to get a better look at the man.

"The journey can be made in one week, but you are correct, not by me alone." He said, dropping his head low.

"Don't feel bad," Dobbins said, putting his hand on the old man's shoulder, "No one could make it in a week. The forest of Kin'lar lies between us and Suno-Doras, It is at least four weeks if you go around to the east, and five if you go west."

"But what," the old man hissed, "if you went straight through?"

"You can't go through it!" Dobbins exploded, "Entire armies have failed to cross that forest, and only a handful of brave men in history have ever entered and returned to tell the tale."

A weak smile appeared on the old man's lips.

"You aren't afraid, are you?"

"Of course I am!" Dobbins said defensively. "Inside that forest dwell creatures more vile and hideous than you or I have ever dreamed, it is a lurking place of all that is dark and evil."

The old man let out a chain of laughter with a weak cough between chuckles. He pulled his cloak tight around him and shivered. Dobbins too, felt the east wind pick up the breeze chilled him to the bone, as he was still quite damp.

"Fear will do you no good when you enter the forest, my young friend." The old man said, taking a step closer to Dobbins. "You will need every scrap of courage you can find in our journey to see the prince."

"I won't enter that forest," Dobbins said, "That's suicide, plain and simple."

"But you must." The old man pleaded, grabbing hold of Dobbins' tunic, "If we don't deliver the king's scepter to Suno-Doras this week, a civil war will surly result. Once it starts who knows when it will end, the last such war lasted centuries."

Dobbins carefully detached the old man from his tunic.

"Who are you, old man?" He asked.

"The great king's most trusted servant, he sent me to deliver his ruling scepter to his son Praxis before he started a war with his twin brother Anixus. The king is near death, and it is time for the new ruler to be chosen."

"The king's squabbling children could cause the deaths of thousands," Dobbins said, shaking his head, "the nobles can be so foolish."

"What is your name lad?" The old man asked.

"Dobbins, Sir."

"Well, Dobbins, will you join me on my quest to stop a war. Will you lead me safely though he forest of Kin'lar?"

Dobbins raised his eyebrows, a little surprised at himself for even considering the proposition.

"You say this Praxis is the heir to the thrown in all men's view?" Dobbins asked.

"Everyone agrees it is so, the king wishes it." The old man replied readily.

"Good," Dobbins said, "For we shall soon see if God approves of him. For it is only with God's help that we will ever come out of Kin'lar alive."

Dobbins and the old man walked the path for several hours, talking and sharing experiences. Finally the old man asked the question pressing on his mind.

"Why, may I ask, were you banished from Ultaria."

Dobbins almost stopped in his tracks, the question clearly upset him.

"I challenged a tradition," He said, "I wanted to see Ultaria become a better place, a place where change is embraced and not shunned. Perhaps I was wrong."

The two reached a fork in the road.

"This is it," Dobbins said, turning to the old man, "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Absolutely certain." He answered.

And the two men stepped off the path and into the forest of Kin'lar.

Dobbins drew his sword immediately, his eyes darting right and left, looking for danger in whatever form it might take. The forest's undergrowth was waist high on the old man, and he was wading through it with a little difficulty.

Tall, thick trees grew straight up, crooked branches creating a canopy that made the evening darkness even more ominous. A light rain continued as water dripped off the forest's trees.

"This is quite a courageous act, you know." The old man said, stepping over a large log, "Perhaps when I tell the King he will show you favor and give you a position in his new government."

"I'm worthy of no such honor," Dobbins answered, noticing some very large animal tracks, "I'm simply doing what any self respecting citizen would do in my place."

"I'm sure your good deed will not go overlooked." The old man said, as he caught up beside Dobbins.

The two stepped into a clearing. They were now deep in the forest and could see very little. The old man started to continue on, but Dobbins grabbed his arm.

"Wait!" Dobbins hissed as quietly and authoritatively as possible.

"What?" The old man asked.

Dobbins pointed to the far side of the clearing. There was a large fire and twenty odd tents surrounding it. The tents were the size of barns, their poles were whole trees.

"Who might that be?" The old man asked.

"The Q'mar, I think," Dobbins said, nervous to be even this close to them, "They are fearsome and destructive creatures, about two of the fit in one of those tents."

"How do you know?" The old man asked.

"See those things swinging from poles at the outskirts of their camp," Dobbins said, pointing and squinting. "Those are their breakfast."

The old man's eyes got very big and he looked like he might faint.

"But those are people!" The old man whispered.

"Yes," Dobbins said, "It's a Q'mar's favorite dish."

"It looks like they're still alive!" The old man said pointing.

"Not surprising," Dobbins said, "They like their breakfast fresh."

"We have to help them!" The old man said, unable to take his eyes of the poor men hanging from there feet.

"That would be unwise." Dobbins said, "One of the reasons they hang them that way is to attract 'rescuers'."

"But the beasts are sleeping," The old man lamented, "We could save them!"

"No, " Dobbins said, "We couldn't. But we are meant to think that we could. A Q'mar's ear is the size of you," Dobbins gestured to the old man, "They always sleep with one ear to the ground so they can hear vibrations from a quarter mile away. We're lucky they haven't heard us yet."

The old man quickly twisted around to look behind them.

"Did you hear that?" He asked, beginning to tremble ever so slightly.

"Yes," Dobbins said, turning also and tightening his grip on his sword. "We should continue on, what ever it is, it will think twice about entering a Q'mar campsite."

"We aren't entering the campsite are we?" The old man said.

"I'm afraid we have no choice." Dobbins replied, taking off his shirt.

"Why do you undress?" The old man asked, confused.

Dobbins cut the cloth into two equal halves and folded the cloth into two small squares. He then proceeded to bind one to the bottom of each boot.

"The Q'mar rely on their remarkable sense of hearing to kill, If they cannot hear our footsteps they will probably not notice us." Dobbins said.

"Ingenious!" The old man said, taking Dobbins' sword and cutting cloth from his flowing robe. "You are a most wise young man."

Dobbins shivered, now feeling the cool of the night full force. The old man bound the cloth from his robe, just as Dobbins had done and the two men entered the clearing.

They stepped carefully, raising each foot straight up and bringing it lightly down, making sure not to let the cloth scrape the dirt. The clearing was well lit, as the moon had now moved from behind the clouds.

About halfway across the clearing and no more that fifty feet from the camp of Q'mar both men turned their heads. At the edge of the clearing stood a firlen, silhouetted by the moonlight.

Both men could still easily make out the creatures massive jaws, opening and closing in earnest anticipation of a meal. Six man-sized legs stood on the ground supporting the creature's small midsection and large head with iron jaws.

"Should we run?" The old man asked, looking at Dobbins, eager to avoid looking at the firlen.

"No," Dobbins whispered, "Twenty firlen are no match for a Q'mar. That beast won't dare enter the clear-"

Dobbins stopped mid thought as the firlen stepped into the clearing and into the light. It looked around somewhat sheepishly, not sure whether or not to proceed.

"We should hasten our steps, but make no sound, head straight fro the Q'mar camp." Dobbins said, moving swiftly and silently. The old man continued beside him; taking worried, frequent glances over his shoulder.

A few moments later they reached the outskirts of the camp where the men were hanging up-side-down from the long poles. The men were wearing ragged clothing and had cuts and bruises all over, their arms hung limp a few feet from the ground.

"Please!" one of them said, "Help us."

"I can cut you down," Dobbins said, in a whisper, "But I'm not sure how much more help I can be."

Dobbins quickly helped both men down, they were skin and bones, and their eyes were full of terror.

"Thank you." The men said in unison as Dobbins helped them up.

"It's nothing," Dobbins said, "Not much of a rescue anyway, we're caught between a camp of Q'mar and a very hungry firlen.

"No, no," The men said, "There are no Q'mar in this camp, they are away hunting."

"Still," The old man said, "Someone has to deal with that firlen."

"I'll take care of it." Dobbins said, walking towards the firlen, "You wait here."

"Are you sure you can take it alone?" One of the men asked.

"I welcome any help you can give." Dobbins said, not turning around.

Neither of the men moved.

"Won't you help him?" The old man asked, shocked.

"No thanks," They answered, "We already nearly died this week, I'd rather not try fate again."

The old man sighed and looked back to Dobbins.

Dobbins and the firlen both stopped about ten feet apart and tensed for battle.

The beast struck first, lunging forward and snapping its powerful jaws, it narrowly missed Dobbins right arm and he swung back with his sword cutting a deep gash in its face. The wound was large, but superficial. The two circled, Dobbins struck next.

He dove forward swinging his sword in a narrow arc, removing the firlen's nearest leg. The dismembered creature shrieked in pain snapping back toward Dobbins and missing by only inches.

Violet blood flowed from the firlen's stump, it tilted it's head high and let out a shrill call.

Four more firlen stepped out of the trees and into the clearing and started to pace towards Dobbins and the injured firlen.

The old man and the two rescued men gasped in unison, no on could defeat four of those vile creatures.

The old man quietly reached into his robe and pulled out an ivory whistle. He pressed it to his lips and blew. The high pitch noise was raw and painful, but the firlen continued on.

"Nice try, old timer" one of the men said to him, "But it'll take a lot more than that to scare away five firlen."

"I don't doubt it," the old man said, "And don't call me 'old timer'."

A moment later hundreds of men entered the clearing, all soldiers wearing the insignia of the king. They carried, spears and lances, cross-bows and swords. The army sprung into action and split into divisions and attacked the firlen and drove them back into the woods.

Dobbins was confused, he turned to the old man.

"Sir?" he said, "Where did this army come from?"

"This is my army," The old man said, smiling, "They have been with us from the start, hiding just behind the last hill."

Dobbins shook his head.

"No," he said, "That is the kings army, and if you had them all along, why ask for my help?"

"I am King," the old man said, grinning ear to ear as Dobbins put it together, "But I am near death and have borne no heir to the throne. I wanted to find someone courageous and kind, someone who could rule justly and make the land a better place."

Dobbins frowned, and scratched his head.

"Your fighting sons, the impending war, all this was just to test me?" he asked.

"Yes!" The king said, happily, "I tested your kindness by asking you for water; you put the lives of others ahead of your own by entering the forest of Kin'lar; and you just courageously defeated a ferlin single handed."

Dobbins looked down chuckling to himself.

"I looked among the nobels," The king continued, "They were all spoiled brats, not one among them had the courage of a king. I entered this very forest with no less than twenty different men, all proved to be cowards."

The old king put his hand on Dobbins shoulder.

"You are the man we have searched for. Kind, courageous, self-sacrificing, You will make a fine king."

"This is a little much to take in," Dobbins said, rubbing his head.

"You've passed," the king said, "You are King, from this day forward, as long as I am alive I will be your advisor."

"King Dobbins." Dobbins said, smiling at the sound of it.

"How do you feel?" The old king asked.

"Like the king of the world." Dobbins said, laughing and giving the old man a slap on the back.

Article © Kevin Landis. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-01-31
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