Part II can be found [here]
Kern’s name indeed proved a password to the castle, much to Larvik’s surprise. Gate guards had recognized the little man, and they led Larvik and his burden to a rough stone anteroom, whence one of them hurried away. Minutes later, a new set of guards guided them to a chamber lined with suits of armor and ornate draperies. A red carpet ran from the entryway to a dais at the far end. Upon a jeweled chair sat the queen, who rose as they entered. Her large eyes shone with relief. Larvik was surprised that she was awake at such a late hour. Or was it early?
She was too young to be a proper queen, Larvik thought, though he remembered her wedding to the prince – now the king, since his father fell in battle a year ago. He had watched the ceremony from far off, beyond the adoring crowd, more from a lack of anything else to do than in actual interest.
There was nothing queenly in her bearing, nothing regal in her appearance other than the innocent beauty that radiated from her tender features. And there was nothing queenly about the way she scampered down to Kern, hugged him, and messed his stringy hair. Even her guards seemed to bristle at this breach of protocol, but their helpless expressions revealed that not only was it not the first time this had happened, they weren’t allowed to do anything about it this time, either.
Kern had regained his consciousness fully and his feet mostly, and he told her in halting sentences of their entry into the warlock’s tower, his find, and his rescue. He held out a bit of burned, wooden beaker, its royal seal still attached but broken. The queen took it in her hand, studying it carefully. She sighed, then looked into Kern’s black eyes again. The worry had returned to her features, though perhaps it was lessened somewhat by Kern’s presence.
“Did you find…anything else?”
“I am sorry. I could not locate it. There was no time.”
A distant sadness arose in her eyes as she shrugged, such as one might see in the eyes of someone remembering a loved one lost. Larvik remembered when his eyes might have looked the same, when he was younger than this girl, when men dressed in black closed to lid of his grandmother’s coffin. She was gone forever, with her tattered apron and her thou-shalt-nots. Though many women in his family shared her smile and her warm kitchen, there was only one of her. Gammy was unique, irreplaceable. He had cried bitterly beside the brown rectangle of earth where she had gone.
The queen took a deep breath and her shoulders seemed to straighten.
“Kern, I fear I must send you on another mission, yet I pray this one shall not prove as dangerous. Go to the king where his army camps at Tennon Pass. Inform him that the papers from King Gadmon have been stolen and their contents read. He will doubtless need to change his battle orders, but perhaps some semblance of surprise can be salvaged from the fact that we are aware of our enemy’s knowledge. Tell him as well that the warlock stands traitor to his crown. This news will not cheer him, but it may help him.”
“It shall be done, my queen,” he said. Larvik was surprised by the regal voice Kern had assumed. Perhaps he was just parroting what he heard others say in this chamber.
“Kern,” the queen said, shaking her head slightly and taking a knee. “Please call me by my name. We have been friends too long for an accident of my birth to separate us.”
“Yes, Terebintha.” Kern’s grin spread as he bowed smartly and stepped back from her.
The queen rose to her feet, turned to Larvik, and smiled. A man who lives by wheedling coin from strangers learns to read faces or he starves. That smile was no mask hiding disdain, as were the faces of the beautiful people who pretended to not see him begging in the royal city. He blushed.
“Larvik, I thank you for returning my friend to me,” she said. Her voice belonged to her smile. “Kern and I have known each other since I was a girl and he was a young gnome mining rubies in the hills of my father’s country estate.” She seemed to study the beggar’s face briefly. “You didn’t guess the truth about him, did you?”
Well, that certainly explained some things, Larvik thought as he glanced toward the little man. He had heard tales of diminutive miners and craftsmen while sitting on the knees of his grandmother, long ago, when he could have exchanged clothes with the man standing next to him. Perhaps there was some truth, some power, in old wives’ tales after all. He wondered why he suddenly saw that hateful brown rectangle again. Why did he smell the newly-turned dirt of her grave? It wasn’t the gnome: he smelled like a courtesan. Kern blushed under his gaze – perhaps misjudging his expression – and looked down, shuffling his tiny feet back and forth.
“It pains me to ask these things of him,” the queen continued. “But he is singularly helpful to me, for his loyalty is born of love rather than expedience. If I had lost my oldest friend I should not have been able to live with myself. You have brought him back from certain death to me.”
The queen placed a hand atop Larvik’s head and smiled, which made the guards bristle again. Her brown eyes shined on him and a small tear ran across her cheek.
“I am in your debt. If there is any way I can repay you, you need but ask. Though we have only met this night, I should like to think I have gained another friend. Live secure in the knowledge that you have gained one forever.”
She gently kissed his misshapen brow, and as she stepped back, Larvik noticed a flake of black skin upon her lower lip. He expected her to vomit in disgust, but she did not even seem aware of its presence. The flake fell lightly away, lifted by her warm breath, and his eyes followed it as it floated down the front of her gown, black against the white, finally reaching the floor. She reached for his chin and raised his face once again, holding his eyes with hers.
“One more issue must be settled,” she said. Her face looked serious now, almost regal. “I cannot protect you here. The sword arm of the king is long, but his shield is not broad. Because you were noted by the guards in your escape, your life stands in danger until the king can visit justice upon this traitorous warlock. Therefore I send you to the lands of King Gadmon, my father. If you keep your profile low, you may escape this warlock’s wrath. Should you decide to return one day, you will find a warm welcome here. But for now it is best that you accept this exile.”
She signaled to a guard, who approached and set an apple-sized bag in her palm. She placed it into Larvik’s, closing his fingers about it with both of her hands. It automatically sought his pocket: his full pocket. His eyes dropped again as he remembered why the pocket, so long empty, now bulged and hung heavy at his side.
What was this tightness in his throat? What was this tear upon his cheek? He studied the bag briefly, its heavy cloth, its ornate ribbon. Its contents would keep him warm and satisfied for years. His hand began to move again. Then a voice spoke to him. It was not the voice of the warlock this time, but of an old woman long dead:
“His freedom comes in turning from his weakness in his weeping.”
The bag lay heavy in his hand. Had gold ever kept him warm? Had gems ever kept him satisfied? The voice spoke again; this time he could feel disappointment in it. Larvik had tried to give the bracer back, but that was not what needed to be returned. Images flooded his mind: heavy bag, coins, gold. Security and warmth. Gems and old wives’ tales.
He sighed. If he kept it, he would have stolen it not from a wizard to avenge a manufactured wrong, but from a friend who had showed him only mercy and kindness. Would he sleep every night in a bed of goose down, dreaming of this girl’s sad eyes, until the day men carved his name above his own rectangle of newly-turned dirt? What security was worth that?
He looked up at the young queen again. She seemed confused by his indecision.
“There is something else, your highness,” Larvik said.
He dropped the bag to the floor and removed the tiara from his pocket. Terebintha’s eyes lit up and her hands reached immediately for it. They stopped short, trembling.
“I found this in the tower,” he said. “I believe it belongs to you.”
The queen accepted the tiara from his hand. Suddenly, a sound like the breaking of a crystal chalice echoed from the walls. Larvik shook himself as he had shaken the flakes of black skin from beneath his cloak countless times. But this time, shards of gold and steel fell to the floor, ringing and tinkling like hail on a copper roof. He ripped his arm from the cloak and black flakes joined the gold. Beneath them was no longer blackness. Fresh pink like the skin of a newborn greeted his eyes.
Larvik leapt in the air with a shout. He opened and closed his pink fist a few times, then looked up at his queen. She looked confused but pleased. Her guards looked confused and annoyed.
“Thank you,” he said.
“One day you shall return and tell me what marvel we have just witnessed. But for now, dear friends, our thoughts must be on our duty. Larvik, this guard” – she waved a different one over – “will equip you for your journey. Kern, your pony waits in my stable.”
“Yes, my… Yes, Terebintha.” Their voices spoke in unison, even making and correcting the same mistake. Their friend took a deep breath and her smiling eyes fell on the gnome.
“I think you smell great.”
Part II can be found [here]