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- Mattie Stepanek
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In the faraway land of Libertas, there lived a King and his small family of three. They lived in a beautiful square stone keep, guarded by a moat that went around. The king had a strong son, his prince of about eleven years of age. The castle had thick stone walls that kept out the harsh winds at winter. It was surrounded by six watchtowers past the moat, in a hexagonal shape. Four of the towers kept watch at the perimeters, and two of them were situated on the Eastern and Western side each, looking to the sides of the castles, and with watch points to note along the perimeter wall. The castle faced north, which was the direction in which the drawbridge was constructed. The prince dearly loved his home, his castle. He spent a great deal of time wandering around the vast halls, running up and down the old stone steps and chattering with the guards, pointing at a hundred different things all at once, asking questions endlessly. He was loved by his people, as evidenced by the throng of citizens who sang his praises on his birthdays and showered gifts of flowers as he passed the city roads.
The prince as much as he loved his castle, was sometimes bored. His father, the king, was quite sullen, always fearing for his son’s safety, lecturing him about climbing the walls and stealing bread from the kitchens. “Like a kitchen maid’s son!” was what his father would scold. But the prince never bothered, no, he in fact enjoyed having the king and his guards chase him around. Sometimes, he would gather with his friends and climb their garden trees, picking the juiciest apples and having a feast of them. Oh, how he enjoyed watching his father yell from the ground, giggling all the while.
The prince was a bit of a troublemaker, yes, but the King, though seemingly dull, was a genial man. He was kind and just, and ruled with a firm hand. But his son was the apple of his eye, so why wouldn’t he worry? Why, hardly a fortnight before, the prince had snuck away with his wretched friends into the city to catch a glimpse of the night bazaar. Of course, they squabbled with a couple of locals. One thing led to another, and the king was suddenly faced with a handful of red-nosed teenagers and an angry mob of villagers, who didn’t understand the prince’s ideas of fun. That was one chaotic night.
The king did however overreact at the many complaints, and needless to say, the prince was sufficiently punished. The prince’s favourite haunt was however, the watchtower by the Western quarters. He’d steal a swig of ale from the guards, ignoring their many pleas and swipe their bread, laughing and joking all the while. His personal guards would shake their heads and mumble about him being a spoilt brat. He would then watch the sunset, enjoying the dying rays fall on his face. At times, he’d arrive by noon and wait beyond sunset, into the murky nights, for a sight of his grandfather, his Queen mother’s father, to arrive with his retinue.
Nearing the prince’s twelfth birthday, the King finally heeded to his plea to accompany him on a hunt. It was in the marshy river lands located about two days away from the main keep. The prince was seated with a retinue of guards and was instructed to only watch. The king then demonstrated the use of a spear, a sword and a dagger in the hunt. Soon after, the king became engrossed in the hunt, especially after his son said he’d enjoy wild duck for dinner.
The prince noticed his father was out of sight for quite a while, and seized the opportunity. He skulked away from his guards on the pretext of spotting a deer, and rushed into the wildflower bushes that grew in the marshy lands. Once assured they couldn’t find him, he slowly spread out his wings and began to fly! Yes, he had hidden his ability as a secret from his father for a while now. He enjoyed the wind whipping his face, the cold, fresh air on his strong arms and legs as he cruised over the skies gently. He was careful, yes. He had heard of the fable of ‘Icarus and the Sun’ from his father and he surely didn’t want his feathers to melt, or worse, burn off. He proceeded to fly slowly past the ditch across which his father’s horse had leapt and finally reached the hunt. He settled on the strong branch of a tree, and proceeded to enjoy watching his father aim an arrow at the duck.
The king’s senses were generally sharp, and he could sense a disturbance in the air. He feared for his son’s safety, but dismissed it as a silly parental worry. Strange how intuition works in a parent! He found an aim at the duck he had been chasing and slowly drew his bow. The arrow then went out singing through the air, when suddenly in a flash of feathers, he found the prince rushing towards the duck… flying?! His son was flying like a bird, with wings as grey as a rain-laden cloud, as soft as silk. He yelled for his commander, who thankfully, broke the arrow’s pursuit with one of his own. The king threw away his bow and ran for his son, who sat quivering, with his arms around the duck.
The prince had no words to explain himself. All he remembered was watching the duck cornered, and with a sense of horror he had swept through the air to save the poor thing. His father was crouched before him, horror struck, and he felt very stupid. “I’m sorry, father. I didn’t mean to disturb your hunt, but please! Don’t kill him, father! I don’t want any duck for dinner, ever! Please don’t!” His father shakily pointed at his wings and the prince then remembered his flight to the duck. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I can fly, father! Look, isn’t it beautiful?”
The king had seen many a strange sight over his life, in his travels, but never anything quite like this. His son, had wings? He then remembered of a blessing his son’s Godmother made, a priestess, who was the Queen’s childhood companion. “He will be a strong, bold boy, and oh, he will taste absolute freedom so very early!” The king hugged his son, but scolded him for jumping out from the tree and for hurtling towards the arrow. The company abandoned the hunt and proceeded home, for celebrations of the prince’s birthday.
The prince luckily wasn’t punished, since it was his birthday. What splendid luck it was! His birthday preparations were made with such pomp and fanfare, the prince eagerly counted down the minutes to reach home and to take off into the night sky from the Western watchtower, from where he could head to the village nearby the castle and meet his friends. The prince did enjoy the company of his noble friends, but every once in a while, he would escape from the castle to meet the village lads and maids. The lot would play hop scotch, hide and seek, all up to suppertime, after which the prince would be fed morsels from the village womenfolk. The prince would begrudgingly bring along his favourite bodyguard, who swore secrecy of his adventures from the King.
Six months from his birthday saw the prince hard at work, with his lessons on governance and warfare. The prince was given training on the basics of fighting on foot, and was pushed to taking archery lessons. The prince happened to be excellent at horseback riding, so rides across the country were common. He underwent a growth spurt and gained some pre teenage maturity. The king was very proud of his son, and did all he could to tell him so, but the prince was embarrassed by his loving outbursts and would push his father away playfully. In late autumn, the king held a festival, to mark the turn of seasons. The prince was resplendent in his new armour, crafted specially for him by the smiths, bearing the sigil of their royal house Zephyrus. The sigil was of a man with two wings, symbolising his freedom of thought, action and belief. The king held tourneys for horseback riding, archery and wrestling, in which the prince won the horseback riding championship. A feast was prepared and the entire country celebrated, with festivities of various scales cropping up as the first snows fell.
As winter set in, one fine morning, the prince begged for his father to take him to the village he always visited, and his father surprisingly obliged. The royal company was received wonderfully by the village head, and the prince introduced his family to his friends, the village children. Later that night, the prince and the king sat together by the bonfire lit as a part of the dinner held for them. The prince asked his father, “I feel calm and light, father. I haven’t unfurled my wings in days, because I do not feel stifled on foot. Yet, I wonder, can this lull last forever? Will we always be truly happy?”
The king looked at his son in concern. The winter always brought out melancholy in him. The King usually fobbed it with a valiant story, but today he decided to speak his mind. “Son, enjoy the calm you feel. There’s a saying – it is always calm before the storm. But no matter where the storm, and how hard it blows, we can stand steady and face it. Fly when you feel son, and walk when you must. Your flight may be held at bay, but your wings are always yours. When you feel the time is right, fly, high and fast, to do what you feel is right, is of utmost importance.” The prince smiled at his father, gave him a very rare hug, and took flight into the sky, yelling that he would be back in a few minutes. The king in the meanwhile called the prince’s favourite guard and thanked him for all he’s done for his son.
It all happened so suddenly, the prince couldn’t even fathom the speed. One dour night, as the winter winds blew angrily outside the Keep, the sounds of war horns and warning bells were heard throughout the city. The Eastern watchtower had sent emergency reports of an invasion by the neighbouring kingdom. Within minutes, the royal family was assembled in the Keep’s largest hall. The queen mother looked terrified and the king terse, as he barked instructions and commands at his many officers.
The king ensured the safety of his family and courtiers were taken care of, and issued orders to bring in the women and children to safety shelters. He wrote deployed messengers to his allies seeking urgent support. The king then rushed to mobilise his men. Before he left, he asked for a moment alone with his family. He spoke words of courage to his wife, asked her to be brave for the family. He spoke to his son’s Godmother, requesting her to watch over his family carefully. She blessed him and wished him good fortune. He lastly turned to his son. “Dear boy, remember I told you about a storm? Well, here it is. I remember hearing news of unrest from the East and it has worried me, but an attack in the middle of winter is unexpected. Be safe and wary. Take excellent care of our family and our home while I’m gone. I expect a full report from you on my return.”
The king turned to leave, but the prince caught his hand. “Father, I may still be just a boy, but I wish to come with you. Take me with you, at least as your page. I will chronicle this war accurately. I have full confidence in our winning this battle. Father, please!” The king tried many things to dissuade the boy, gave him a stern scolding, yelled at him that a war was no place for a child, tried playing sentiments… but the boy refused to back down. “My king, this is our war. It is a war against our country, our family. How can I stand aside and watch the people I love get taken away? I will participate.” Finally, the king acknowledged defeat against the pleas of the prince and nodded his approval. The queen blessed her son in resigned determination. His Godmother hugged him and counselled him, “My sweet godchild. Don’t worry, however this war turns out, there is a light shining bright past this tunnel. Everything will turn out alright. Go bravely and I’ll see you on the other side.”
It took them a day of frenzied riding to reach the battle site. The enemy nation had sent a long list of terms and threats, demanding the kingdom submit to them as vassals. The king flung the scroll aside and asked his troops to prepare for the forthcoming war. The prince shuttled from tent to tent, carrying important notes and messages for his father. His guard followed him closely, as nightfall approached the camp.
The sound of war horns and drums awoke the prince to the battle. He quickly dressed and donned is armour and stepped out of his tent. His father greeted him at breakfast and quickly issued instructions to him. The prince served his father his bread and jotted down numbers for rations. He itched to fly over the battle and oversee what transpired. But a huge part of him was terrified at the prospect. He asked for his horse to be saddled and set off to join the battle.
His father caught his hand and calmly spoke to him. “You managed to weasel your way into the encampments but that’s as far as you’ll go, dear boy. Your guard will accompany you to the survivor camps pitched further away from here. Stay there, till I join you in a few days, if not tonight. Our injured men would be transported there. You will take stock of rations and medicines and ensure messages are sent in a timely manner to the capitol and to the battle ground. Do not argue, do not fight me on this, I refuse to back down. I love you my son, take care and fare well.” The king subjected his only prince to one last hug and swept away with his Commander.
The prince knew there was no way he could find a way out of this one and sighed in resignation. He arrived at the survivor camps and sat outside the tents, writing and writing, scribbling, bitterly waiting for his father. He saw a great many soldiers brought in, injured and ran helter-skelter to fetch bandages and medicines. The soldiers blessed his tiny self and made the boy beam. His smile brought ease to their hearts and they saw a lot of the sweet king in his prince.
The king over the next week laid down his enemies like timber. He had the upper hand, with far more experience with the cold and understanding of the terrain. The enemy was soon outnumbered and a truce was reluctantly called for by them. The king now drew up terms and waited patiently for word on the battle site. He couldn’t wait to head back to the camp, fetch his son and return to their home.
The prince woke up a week later at the camp feeling something to be terribly wrong. A cold sweat trickled down his back and he had difficulty drawing breath. There was a heavy sensation thrust upon his shoulders and his head, oh his head screamed in pain. He staggered out of his bed, and almost immediately the voices buzzing about him fell silent. “What is the matter? Is it my father? Is it the commander?” A letter was pressed into his hands and tears blurred his vision as he read about a sudden ambush in the crack of dawn by the enemy. The men at the camp held the prince down and patted his back, but the little boy had had enough waiting. To their surprise, he spread his wings and flew high and fast, eastwards to his father.
His flight may have been held at bay, but his wings were unfettered. He felt the time was right and flew, high and fast, to do what he felt was right and was of utmost importance.
The prince flew at the nick of time to throw his sword at a man stringing an arrow aiming for his father and almost fell into his father’s arms, so relieved,-
The man’s tears fell freely at the last line, the last proper sentence his son could frame. Right before his frail body began to convulse and collapse. He threw the tiny notebook aside, and traced his fingers over the castle he had so lovingly built.
Towers made of tubes and walls of cardboard, painted grey to match stone walls. Watch towers built with narrow boxes, the western watchtower his son so badly wanted, adorned with his favourite picture, a man with wings. Blue coloured sponges made up the moat, and the drawbridge was constructed with old ice cream sticks.
The man yelled in rage, rage for his son leaving so soon, for not finishing his lines of the story, for just leaving, and he fell to the ground, as his memories took over, anguish washing over him like waves of the sea.
“Father, let’s make a story! Before you took me out of school, our class was assigned a story telling assignment. We take turns to write a paragraph in a book, each with our part of the story. I really wanted to do it, can we do it please?”
“Father, if I’m to be prince, you are the king. But you worry too much, is that how a king works?”
“Father, you’re supposed to build a castle for me! Where are the prince and his family to stay?”
“You go first daddy, I don’t know how to start! We’ll say it out loud, and you write it down!”
“I’m his Doctor, and his Godmother. You know how much I love him, you do. But I cannot lie to you; the tumour is slowly eating his functioning. First his legs went, now his arms. He’s lost so much weight. It kills me to see him like this, but the upcoming operation, there’s a very small chance it might work. It is a small chance, but it’s worth the risk. However, even if the operation fails, I want you to remember, its best he’s put out of his misery, rather than stay a vegetable. There is light past this tunnel my dear, I just don’t know the outcome. I’m terribly sorry it’s come to this…”
Plastic Lego littered the floor, and the man curled up next to the miniature prince holding it tight, the paper wings crushed under his palm. He relived memories, better and worse as he sobbed, unable to stop the thoughts, and hence the tears.
“It is so unfair!” screamed the man. His son didn’t even get that chance. He spread out his wings and flew even before the chance arrived at his door.
The remnants of the Kingdom lay strewn across the room. Cardboard kingdom, how cruel, the prince’s life was as fragile as his kingdom.