he young prince stood by the burned out cottage. His face was streaked with sweat and smoke. His youthful exuberance had drained from the face. He looked older, tired, sick. Lawrence was no longer a boy. The lines in his visage attested to his manhood.
The war between the crown and those who wished to steal it had resembled nothing like the images of bright, colorful, clean lines of knights and men at arms coming together gloriously and struggling with honor and valor that he had in his mind as he rode with his father and brother to their first battle. Instead it had been dirty, cruel, stinking and utterly without glory. The cottage he stood by now had housed a farmer and his family. They lay tangled in the ruins and the charred pieces of it, the farmer missing his head and even the little children bloody and mangled.
The King was a broken man. Not long after the first battles they had gotten word that Queen Eleanor had died. What defiant spirit the King had had spilled out of him like sand from a broken hourglass. Prince Arneth was grayer and grimmer, if that was possible. He had an ulcerating wound from an arrow in his right shoulder. That the armies of the crown were overcoming the usurper's was scant good news for the grieving men.
There had been battle after battle, as the crown chased the usurper from village to village, watching them burn as the defending armies approached, destroyed so they could not aid and provision the King. The battles had been more like skirmishes, with Nestor's captains sending smaller cadres of soldiers to harass the royal forces. These cadres sustained nearly total casualties, and Lawrence and his brother could not fathom the purpose of squandering men's lives for such hopeless attacks. The unreason of it weighed on their minds and souls, but they had no choice as an army but to cut the men down.
In all this Lawrence had not taken a life. His father had kept him back from the main line to command the archers. He had wounded enemies but never dispatched a man. Whatever he felt before his first taste of war, he was glad. He knew someday he would have to kill, but with all the sorrow and butchery around him, that he had not yet had to was the only solace he had.
He pulled off his helm to take a drink from a well, then reeled back as he saw the face under the water. A pretty young girl, drowned in the village's drinking and cooking water. He turned and vomited onto the ground. He looked up shamefaced but found the only faces turned to him held only compassion and understanding.
Lawrence walked out of the village to the royal tent and stepped in through the loosened flap. The King his father was sitting in his camp chair, his head in his hands. Lawrence shot a look of fear at his brother, who was scowling. The King looked up at his younger son and tried to smile.
"What is it? What is happening?" Lawrence pleaded with his eyes.
The King looked at his heir as if to beg him to answer for him. Arneth instinctually caught the plea. "Nestor has taken refuge in a monastery. He said he will kill the monks if we do not retreat."
Lawrence stared, dumbfounded. "What are we going to do?"
The King spoke, "We must go and rip him out of there like a rat from a hole."
"But, Father, the monks.." Lawrence protested.
"There is no help for them, Lawrence," the King sighed.
Lawrence looked at Arneth. The young man stood, staring at the ground, and he said nothing.
The monastery turned out to be an ambush. As the King's army rode up to lay siege and try whatever they could do to save the religious in the monastery, a force swept down from the woods nearby and cut off the royal party from the rest. Seeing his brother among the ambush party, the King roared in anger and rode to engage him. They came together with a crash of swords, the horse's armor ringing as they too collided. The brothers wheeled and wound about each other, striking and parrying. Arneth and Lawrence were sore harried themselves, so they could not come to their father's defense. Each felt a stab of fear when they heard the cry.
Arneth and his brother pulled from their own battles to see their father leaning at an unnatural angle from his saddle. The usurper's sword was red with fresh blood. The King's sons spurred their horses to the King's just as he fell, a slash from his neck to his armpit.
Arneth roared with rage and set on his uncle. While Nestor had had the advantage of rest where the King had been aggrieved, tired and downhearted, he was sore pressed when meeting his young strong nephew's onslaught. They fought ferociously, both taking blows and wounds. Lawrence tried in vain to engage his uncle along with his brother, but the mêlée was so fierce he could not urge his mount forward into the fray.
Lawrence's blood froze in his veins at what he next saw. His sword arm incapacitated, Arneth had resorted to wielding his sword in his left. A skilled dagger fighter, his offense had been well up to it. But accustomed to a sword and a dagger, one inn each hand, he did not have the second weapon for defense. As Nestor wheeled about to deflect a blow from Arneth, he deftly sank his sword into the Prince's right side. Arneth stared unbelievingly at the blood gushing from his side. He looked at his uncle, then at his brother, and fell from his saddle almost atop his own father's body.
Lawrence stared dazed as he saw his brother's own prophecy come to pass. Then he looked up at his uncle, and seeing the look of triumph on the man's face, and the look of thirsty murder that the man cast on him, he sprang into action. With all the fury of a cornered child, he flew at his uncle. Caught unprepared that the boy would fight with such vicious anger, Nestor was unable to defend himself as Lawrence got his first kill.
Lawrence, not heeding the other soldiers around them, jumped from his horse, his bloodied sword in his hand, and knelt by his brother. "Arneth!" he cried.
His older brother's eyes narrowly opened, unfocused. "Lawrence," he choked. A spasm wracked his body and blood gushed from his mouth and nose and he died.
The young King did not notice as the soldiers around them melted away. The crown was…. victorious.
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com