The deer nosed through the deep snow, browsing perhaps for a bit of frozen moss, or perhaps, if lucky, a frozen apple to chew. Raising its head, it beheld the Great Castle in the distance; blankets of snow layered its gables and fairy-tale towers, looking all the world for an over-iced gingerbread house.
Inside the Great Hall stood Baron Von Wardstein, Sir Kyle, and Archduke James. They were alone; King Paulus the Goodheart had summoned them. In typical kingly fashion though, he was making them wait for his arrival.
James was looking at his reflection in a shiny suit of armour. “Guys! Did you see my new winter coat? I insisted it be crafted from ONLY the hides of fetal minks. For extra softness, you understand.” He turned side to side, flapping his coat extravagantly. The hides were kind of small looking, but did indeed look comfortable.
Wardstein ignored the call for attention. He was annoyed the summons to King Paulus had occurred during mealtime. “Whatev,” he remarked. “Blasted winter season, it wreaks havoc on my amorous needs. It’s so hard to discern the figure of a maiden who is wearing three blankets!”
Sir Kyle puffed his pipe silently, making a mental note to have a cool coat made of some sort of expensive baby animal. He’d spent the morning shining his armour, the better to impress the King with. Because everybody likes shiny stuff.
At that moment, Paulus strode into the room. “Hey guys!” he proclaimed. “Been a while! How about a hug?” The three men exchanged looks, shrugged, and embraced the king. “HA HA HA! Nobody’s too big for a hug. Eh, Wardstein?” Wardstein giggled childishly. It was true, hugs were enjoyed by all.
“Down to business!” the king declared. “I am sending you boys on a very important mission.” He snapped his fingers, and an excited servant appeared, laying a small treasure chest at the feet of the king. “You will be taking carriage of this chest – it must be delivered to your uncle, James. Duke Georg the Generous. He has been waiting for this for a very long time.” He leaned forward and opened the chest, and his face was immediately bathed in a warm, glorious light. He stared within, transfixed.
“What the hell is in there?” Wardstein hissed.
“Shhht! Don’t look at it, or your face will melt!” Sir Kyle urged.
The king closed the lid of the chest, satisfied, and affixed his Great Seal to the lock. “You will depart immediately, and send word of your successful delivery at your earliest convenience.”
“Wonderful!” James exclaimed. “I love sending word! Nobody can do it like I can!”
“Indeed,” remarked the king in annoyance, his face reddening at his son’s outburst. Though always friendly, the king was easy to colour when things didn’t go his way.
“Guys!” James yelled, though Wardstein and Kyle were standing right there. “Call the servants – pack the wagons! And, oh. We need road maidens! Lots of them, I saw lots of fresh faces earlier. And – “
“Silence,” the king cut him off. “This is a discreet journey, James. There will be no entourage. No servants or ‘road maidens.’ Just you three. ‘Tis very important.”
Wardstein and James soured immediately.
“But the cooks –“
“Dad, there’s SO many maidens – “
“Wagon drivers for the FOOD and it’s COLD –“
“..acting like a TOTAL JERK!”
“ENOUGH!” the king roared. “It will be so. And – Sir Kyle. You will be my eyes and ears on this journey. Because you are not of my blood, but came from beyond the Forgotten Lands, I know I can rely on your objectivity in this affair. I am trusting you absolutely in this matter – on this journey, you, and you alone Sir Kyle, speak for me. King Paulus the Goodheart.” He thumped his chest and pointed skyward. “Word.”
Sir Kyle swelled with pride. He KNEW shining his armour today would pay off. “You can depend on me, sire.”
Wardstein and James looked at each other, and then glowered at Sir Kyle.
Sir Kyle stood alone beneath the ramparts in the interior of the Great Castle. It was morning, but the sun had not yet risen. Reaching into his small bindle of basic supplies, he produced a pinch of tobacco from a leather pouch, tamped it down inside the charred briar of an unornamented pipe, and set it alight.
The years spent rising before daybreak on his family’s manure farm meant that his internal clock would have roused him quite on its own; however, the trust King Paulus had placed in him the day before filled him with such vigor, he had no reservations about disabling that particular app before lights-out.
Sure enough, Sir Kyle hadn’t slept a wink. Despite being light on supplies, he had been saddled with the weight of responsibility.
From across the courtyard a large silhouette appeared. Sir Kyle could discern that it was Baron Von Wardstein and instinctively put his foot atop the chest they were to deliver to Georg the Generous. As the colossus drew nearer, Kyle observed him taking bites of an Egg MacGuffin between yawns.
Wardstein chose to belch his greeting. “Well—I’m here. Time to rock and roll, or what?”
“Still waiting on the Archduke,” Sir Kyle replied.
Suddenly, another silhouette strode confidently from the darkness.
“Well whadda ya know!” said Wardstein. “James finally did something on schedule for—-“
“—-Mornin’, guys!” said the cheerful voice of King Paulus. “Sleep well? Gosh, beautiful out, eh? More crisp than cold, wouldn’t you say, Wardstein? Should be good for travel! Hey, there’s the man! Lookin’ chipper today, Kyle! You know that pipe is bad for you, right? Heh heh, I’m just kiddin’. Anyway, I just came to see you off and thought—“
The King trailed off and began to scan in confusion.
Sir Kyle and Wardstein looked at one another nervously as they watched King Paulus’s good humour melt away like a cheap tallow candle.
“…where is he!?”
“Archduke James is uh…not here yet,” said Sir Kyle. “I’m confident though that—“
“—what is this, BIZZAROVILLE?!” interrupted Paulus as he turned and stomped away from them.
Wardstein and Sir Kyle stood in awkward silence a moment.
“…does look pretty nice for travel,” said the Baron.
“…uh—yeah. Yeah, it should be decent, should be decent.”
The two men then observed a faint light climb steadily through the slits of the arrow loops to the top of the nearby tower. It was followed by a loud pounding and then a smash.
They could only make out one side of a conversation.
“…HEY! RISE AND SHINE! … Don’t ‘Come on Dad,’ ME!”…. Five more minutes? Are you CRAZY, they’re already OUT THERE! ….YES, RIGHT NOW! …what?…WHADDA YA MEAN YOU HAVEN’T PACKED YET?! …I know YOU don’t! I do! I CARE!”
Four hours later, the Archduke shuffled up to Sir Kyle and Wardstein in the courtyard, cradling himself with both arms under his baby mink hides. It was quite sunny and the area was now buzzing with village merchants and shoppers.
“Thhhhhsssttttt! Freakin’ cold out, or what?” James hissed, squinting up at the sky. “Doesn’t look like a good day for travel, either! Hey, got a smoke, Kyle?”
Four servants followed behind the Archduke, dropped the two enormous chests and then scurried away.
“Well, are we GOIN’ or are we GOIN’?” growled the Archduke. “JEEEEZUS!”
People got jealous. Kyle knew that. He had seen it a thousand times. Well, probably not a thousand. That was a fairly large number, and he had for the most part led a simple life. There had been no cause for jealousy on the manure farms of his youth; no need to crave the manure of another as there was plenty to go around. All in all he had seen jealousy perhaps 120 times, he amended. Give or take, obviously. Anyway, he had seen it enough to recognize it. And even he, normally as detached as he was, had envied his companions before for one reason or another. James’s various pre-natal accoutrements or Wardstein’s winner-take-all eat-or-be-eating attitude were examples. So he understood. But this was ridiculous. After a decent start on a crisp (yet not cold) day, the two men he was companioned with had done everything in their power to avoid him. They refused to humour his attempts at conversation and just hurled daggered glances his way at every opportunity. He was sure they were talking about him, too. He had heard Wardstein mumbling something about ‘poop farming’ that the Archduke had apparently found hilarious. He wasn’t going to let it bother him, though, nay. His mission from the King was the only thing that mattered. His sacred duty to take something to someone, and then possibly return. He wasn’t sure, details weren’t his strong suit. Someone, somewhere was getting this chest because he was delivering it to them intact and more or less on time. That was all that mattered. He once again tried to bridge the chasm between he and his comrades.
“Dudes,” he said amicably, “What did you guys get up to since our last crusade?”
“Hmmph,” the Archduke snorted, turning his nose in the air. Wardstein merely glowered at him.
“What a stupid question, from a stupid man with a stupid face,” James continued, with venom dripping from his voice and spittle from his lips. He snarled. “Why don’t you just sit over there and do what you do best – look stupid.”
Wardstein lowered his glare and kicked at the dirt. Pitching his voice so it wouldn’t carry he said “So, uh…what did you do in these intervening months? Seems like a pertinent question.”
“Well, my father was none too pleased with me once he finally got ahold of me,” James said. “ Something about smearing his good name with feces. Anyway, after all the litigation and the payment of some healthy fines I was tasked with doing some things to help out with the community. Ugh. It was dreadful, let me tell you. Building fences, painting wagons. I had to mentor children. Which actually wasn’t that bad. There were a lot of crafts and sparkles.”
Wardstein nodded sagely. Even he had a weak spot for sparkles. “I too had to pay penance for my deeds,” he said. “My wife, having finally tracked me down, forced me back home to fulfill my husbandly duties. Which involves no sex. Let’s get that clear and outta the way. No sex involved in husbandly duties. I don’t care what it seems to imply. No sex. None. No, I had to refit the door frame, stock firewood, dig a fresh latrine and go to dinners with my in-laws.” Wardstein shuddered, gathering himself. “I had to go to events and mingle. I had to hang out with my kids, man. My kids! Can you imagine what my kids are like? They terrorize the neighborhood. Seems like every day I was over apologizing to another poor set of parents, shelling out money for damaged property or eviscerated pets. Gods, but was it hellish. That’s why when I received the summons I left in the middle of the night, leaving only a polite note begging for leniency and forgiveness. That woman is fearsome.”
“That’s cool,” Kyle said, having heard everything since he was only ten feet away. “Sometimes the real life adventures are the best. Do you wanna hear about what I did?”
“No!” came the answer from both men simultaneously.
“I once urinated on you, you know?” Wardstein said. “Do you think I want to associate with a man who I have urinated on?”
“Yeah,” James added. “And you had a penis-helmet.”
“You guys are gonna have to accept the fact that I am in charge. But it’s like a first among equals thing, so don’t even sweat it. …Except it’s not quite equal, on account of my being first. But I’m gonna be super reasonable about it. I won’t tell King Paulus that you, James, were smearing more feces all over his name just cause you don’t, oh I don’t know, make me some pancakes.” He smiled and winked expressively.
“Is there something wrong with your eye,” James asked.
“What? No. I was suggesting something in a roundabout way.”
“I think maybe you have something wrong with your eyes,” Wardstein agreed.
“God, I’m winking. It means make me some goddamned pancakes or I’ll make up lies that has you building fences for all of eternity. And I will claim that sparkles are a carcinogen, and Paulus will ban them.”
“NOOOO!” James screamed girlishly.
“Well…” Kyle said.
“I’ll get to work.”
“James, these pancakes are actually pretty good,” Wardstein called happily. He forked chocolate-chip encrusted pancake into his cheek with gusto. The thing about Wardstein, was that although his temper was terrible, it never lasted, and never erupted at all so long as food and women were around. At that moment, he’d totally forgotten the mission they were tasked with. The men were sitting around a campfire about a hundred yards from the castle walls, where they’d set up camp for the night. Their tents were flopped in a heap in the snow – in their experience, things like tent assembly seemed to happen magically without any involvement at all on their part, so they were confident that the tents would be ready to sleep in presently.
James smiled with pride, tilting his custom leather chef’s cap back atop his glorious locks.. “Well, the old man is annoying sometimes, but he’s passed along his love of cooking to me. Have you not noticed he always smells of spice?”
Wardstein nodded. “Indeed – I thought though he just needed a shower.”
Sir Kyle dabbed his mouth in careful, feminine fashion. “A delight,” he announced, in what he felt was a kingly proclamation. “So, my report to the king today will be described in nothing but the most glowing of terms. Well done, gentlemen.”
“I’m so relieved,” James said acidly. “More brown pancakes to eat, my lord?” He grinned devilishly, significantly. Wardstein too, was paying close attention.
With a start, Sir Kyle suddenly realized they weren’t chocolate chips in the pancakes.
Wardstein leaped to his feet, pointing at Sir Kyle. “HA-HAAAA! Gotcha! I thought you manure farmer guys knew the real thing when you tasted it!”
“BRRRRRRRR!” grumbled King Paulus with a shudder as he hurried barefoot across the cold, slate flooring of his royal bathroom to a bear hide mat. He was well aware that the Romans had once heated their flooring, but he wasn’t keen on such lavish purchases.
“Burrswides!” he said, pausing a moment from brushing his teeth, spitting, then looking at his grinning reflection in the mirror. “We all know what happened to the Romans! Hwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!”
“…what happened?” said a voice.
“—JUH-HEEEEZUS!!” screamed Paulus, spinning quickly and pulling his housecoat shut. “Don’t ever sneak up on me like that again, you hear me?! EVER!”
“Many pardons, Sire!” said a diminutive old manservant. “I—I didn’t mean to startle you!”
“Psshhhh! What happened to the Romans, he says! Were you born in a barn or something?”
“…erm, yes my King, as a matter of fact.”
Paulus opened his mouth to say something, but hesitated.
“…seriously? Hmmph. Gee, I’m sorry about that. I was just mulling over a few financial matters before bed, that’s all. Mainly how I should really try to focus on necessities rather than luxuries in the hope young James will some day follow my example. Needs rather than wants. You know what? Let’s get started with you, right now! Every man in my kingdom should be entitled to an education! Make a note! That year supply of carob that arrived this morning? The huge chest? Cancel the order and send it back to the supplier. The savings will be put to better use.”
“…’carob,’ my King? What is that?”
King Paulus sighed. “You poor fellow. Carob chips? They’re a cheaper and healthier soy product designed to mimic the look and taste of more expensive chocolate chips. I’ve been combining the two to cut costs. Now that I think of it, neither is a necessity. A chest of genuine chocolate chips was also a part of that order, but see to it they’re both returned for a refund!”
“Sire, I did see two such chests this morning, but—“
“But Archduke James, my King. He left earlier towing them both on crude sleds!”
“What! Is he determined to ruin this kingdom!? Now I’m never going to recoup that loss!”
“Sire?” said the servant, gesturing with his eyes toward the tower window.
King Paulus looked out and observed James, Kyle and Wardstein squatting just outside the gates.
“You have got to be freakin’ kidding me!” he yelled.
“—you hear something?” asked Sir Kyle. “Sounded like your Dad.”
“Impossible,” said James between bites of pancake. “You were sayin’ summin?”
“Oh—just that if these pancakes did in fact contain manure, Wardstein would have been gobbling it up too, which would be pretty stupid of him, wouldn’t it?”
The Baron hung his head in both shame and agreement.
“Naw, this isn’t feces—these are carob chips, a lousy substitute I remember well from my youth. Conversely James, I know you’d never stoop to eating something so thrifty, so I can only deduce that one of those chests you’ve been sledding along with us contain nothing but the soy-carob crap, while the other is full of genuine chocolate chips for your own pancakes!”
“PFFFWAAHHH!!” exclaimed the Archduke, spitting out a mouthful of high-velocity pancake.
Suddenly, a voice from the distance. “JAMES, YOU GET BACK HERE WITH THAT SHIPMENT!”
“FORGET IT, DAD!” screamed the Archduke. “THIS IS MY CHOLLIT NOW! MINE!”
“KYLE!” King Paulus shouted back. “I put you in command on this, and yet you’re parked just outside my gates? This is on YOU if it doesn’t go to plan, young man!”
“Yarrrrrwww, Kow!” said James, his mouth packed with genuine chocolate chip pancakes. “Wuhhwerroo INKING?!”
Sir Kyle swallowed hard. They were right to scold him. Like Wardstein, it had taken but a hundred yards for him to do something completely idiotic. He had demanded a meal of pancakes and was willing to sit down in the snow within eyesight of his benefactor to eat them. Maybe what they said was true? Maybe this whole absolute power thing can corrupt a man’s character!
“Maybe,” he muttered to himself. “Huh! More like absolutely!”
“ARCHERS!!” screamed Paulus from the tower. “ARCHERS, GODDAMMIT!”
“Who votes we split right about now?” asked Wardstein, looking to Sir Kyle and the Archduke.
…who had already sprinted away a moment or two before with Georg’s chest.