[I wrote this story when I was just a young lad, and it is written for a teenage audience. It is a semi-serious retelling of the legend of King Arthur with the protagonist doing all the magical things that are attributed to Merlin.]

(read it online)


[This story is more recent, from either 2010 or 2011. It is a retelling of the story of Noah. It should be far better than the Aronofsky film starring Russell Crowe. :) ]

(read it online)


[This is a story I started years ago (1991) and never finished. I thought I'd post it to see if anyone had any thoughts.]

Being born to trouble is a lifelong problem.

Without warning, a bright, promising young man had just become an enemy of the state. Someone he knew to be in the service of the King had tried to erase him neatly and quickly. The worst part of it was that he was beyond all doubt an innocent man.

Well, not entirely innocent.

He was innocent of what his attacker accused him, but of many other things, he was definitely guilty as charged.

At court, stability exists only in the minds of the unaware. It has been so since kings began to reign. Intrigue and advancement are the rule, and those who do not play by the rules fall from favor sooner than later. Counts and dukes bid for power, and their ladies and mistresses ply the back staircases and hidden hallways for power and prestige and undoubtedly other things as well. At court, only the king can afford to be honest, but only if he is also shrewd and strong.

This young man, then, should have been born a king. Never enthusiastic about the way of the court, he would rather have spent his time hunting or riding or engaged in learning what there is to learn. But his father was a count and well-steeped in the courtly game, and his mother, unfortunately, loved the gossip and done her share to generate it. He had had little choice when the king himself appointed him to a minor position—that of secretary to the Royal Armor Master, a job that required little time or effort and forced him to spend long hours among weapons and their experts. So, he was trapped at court through no fault of his own. Fortunately, the trap was to his liking.

Not anymore.

They had accused him of selling "a secret device" to the enemy and said he was a spy trying to overthrow the king. Amazingly, rather than wait and endure the rigors of public trial, they had sent after him an assassin—a fellow only mediocre in the professional art of death—who had failed to do his job and failed to live a minute longer. Accordingly, the count’s son felt lucky to be alive.

Of the accusation, he was pure as spring rain. As a minor functionary, he knew of no secret device, nor had he had any dealings with the enemy—in fact, he had never spoken with one of their kind. On a few other, unmentioned counts, though, he ashamedly admitted to himself, he stood guilty.

First, he had intermittent social contact with a few "revolutionary" friends who openly spoke of the country needing "a changing of the guard," but he never consorted with them in any of their activities, whatever they were. If drinking ale with them at the inn and singing a few bawdy saloon songs were now considered capital crimes, he should rightly be condemned.

Secondly, in a recent exhibition of swordsmanship at the Palace, he had soundly beaten the Duke of Brenon's son without as much as breaking a sweat. At the time, he did not seem to care that the Duke of Brenon was the king's present favorite councilor or that the portly future Duke was a climber in the same mold. The way it worked was that, by unwittingly embarrassing the Duke's son, he embarrassed the Duke, and in turn, he then embarrassed the king himself. For all he knew, by embarrassing the king, he had also slighted God and all His angels too. Nor could he deny he had been a bit cocky and boastful about his accomplishment either. It was just his inimitable way.

Lastly—and most importantly—he had by pure coincidence made the acquaintance of a certain young and quite enchanting lady, whom, it was said in whispers within the halls of the Palace, the king himself had had his lecherous eye upon for quite some time. They immediately launched themselves into a solid and true friendship that had in fact not progressed any further—not that he had not tried, but she was as virtuous as she was beautiful and engaging. She kept him safely at arm’s length for proprieties’ sake, a thing that he respected immensely, although he would never let such a fact be known among his friends at the inn. Be that as it may, word of a ride together into the countryside one bright afternoon reached the king's ear, and two days later an assassin's dagger aimed at his heart was plunged up to its hilt into his recently and rapidly vacated bed.

After the assassin lay unmoving at his feet, he recognized him as a sly, furtive individual whom he had seen lurking here and there in the Palace hallways of late. Never again. Not one to need more than one warning, he scribbled off a hasty and appropriately vague note to his enchanting young female friend, slipping it and a silver piece into the palm of an amiable and honest sentry. Within a quarter-hour, he had saddled his horse and ridden through an unguarded postern gate. He rode as far as he could that first night before stopping to rest and eat a quick bite in a small stand of trees near a stream well east of the city. Even then, he was far from safe, so he rode on for another two days, bringing him to lands under a different king—the enemy—and ironically, to relative safety.

For a week, he stayed there without seeing another person. He lived as a fugitive, trying to remain unnoticed by anyone passing by, living off the land, never sleeping in the same place twice, observing as much as he could. Whenever he needed a fire, he built a small one, as deep into the forest as he dared to go. At night, he laid his bedroll among thick stands of trees and littered the ground around him with dry twigs and brittle leaves so no one could approach his lair soundlessly. However, try as he might, he was not as well hidden as he thought himself to be.

His attackers rushed his camp in the pre-dawn darkness. Asleep, he never had a chance to defend himself against them. In that fleeting few seconds of consciousness, he could only assume that they were local bandits, the kind of murderers and robbers that lay thick along the roads in those days. He never saw them. He heard harsh yells and shrill screams just seconds before a long knife plunged into his exposed side, and he saw only black.

He awoke to pain, the searing variety that has the power to rend both mind and body. In trying to turn over, he had jarred the knife locked between two ribs and the burning agony shot through him. Shuddering uncontrollably, he slowly, carefully propped himself against a nearby tree trunk, nearly losing consciousness again. Desperately fighting to remain awake and alive, he clenched his teeth and pulled the knife out as fast as he could and threw it aside. His world verged on total blackness. He was losing blood—too much blood too quickly. His vision wavering grayly as he tore off the sleeve of his shirt, the last thing he remembered doing was covering his wound with that bit of brown cloth. Then, nothing else.
"I'm alive!" he rasped the very second he regained consciousness.
"Barely," answered a quiet voice just a few feet away.
Upon opening his eyes, he saw that he lay in a soft bed in a small, spartanly furnished room. The walls were dull white and unadorned, the floor covered with azure hand-woven rugs. Sun seeped through the dark blue curtains over the lone window to his right. Under the window stood a small table, supporting an unlit candle and a porcelain pitcher, next to a side chair with a dark blue and red upholstered seat. All was quiet and still.
"Anybody there?" he asked after a moment, licking his cracked lips with a dry tongue. Both tongue and lips had just enough moisture in them to risk another sentence. "Where am I? I . . ."

"You were lying nearly dead in a small wood a short way from here," interrupted the quiet voice. "You have received a great gift, young man."

The voice belonged to a woman, but one he could not see. Her low voice was pleasant but impersonal, as he expected a nurse's voice to be. He slowly rolled his head to both sides to locate her, as he could not tell from which direction her voice had come, but no one sat or stood by. He made to raise himself to see the foot of the bed.

"You're not that well," she said firmly. He sank back into the comfort of the plump, clean pillows, breathing heavily from the exertion. "See? You have put your body through a tremendous strain these past few days. You should let it heal itself."

"How long . . . ?" he asked, suddenly realizing he had no idea of the passage of time.

Her voice softened. "How long have you been unconscious? Oh, about two days. I have no idea how long you lay there in that clearing before my Cerdic found you. He said the tracks of the men who attacked you had crusted over, so it must have been some time. A day. Two. I should give thanks, were I you."
He nodded. He had lost track of three or four days at the least. "I will,” he croaked. “Thank you for your help. If you had not, I would be food for beasts."

"Very likely." She said it in such a matter-of-fact manner that he was nonplused for a moment. Then she laughed, a bright, rippling laugh that spoke of contentment and sheer humor. "I should not tease you so soon after your rendezvous with death. I could not pass up the opportunity." She laughed again, tickled by her own humor.

Because laughing would hurt too much, he smiled. "Do you treat all your patients this way? Is cruel humor your remedy?"

"Oh, no," she said, serious once more. "As for patients, you are my first and only. I do not plan to have to do this regularly. It was only by chance that you came here at all."

"Who are you, then, if not a nurse?" he asked, very confused.

"A nurse!" She laughed again, her laughter rolling merrily through the air in the small room. "Is that what you thought?" At his embarrassed nod, she continued. "Of course. How could you think otherwise?"

After a long moment of silence, he asked, "Well, aren't you going to tell me who you are?" Her manner of toying with him was beginning to annoy him.

After a moment of apparent consideration of the idea, she sighed, "Oh, I guess so. You deserve some kind of explanation, since your life has taken a turn you never expected." The room lapsed into silence, as she seemed to be thinking about what she had just said.

"Well?" he urged.

"Oh! I nearly forgot!" She giggled girlishly again. "I haven't had so much fun in a long time. My name is Fandra, daughter of Collen, and a woman of Garaland. That's all I'll tell for now."

"Why so mysterious?" he asked, not amused by her games.

"No rational reason," she said quickly, serious again. "I'll just save the rest for the next time you wake up. Our conversation would be pretty boring later if I told you everything now, wouldn't it? Besides, you are much to weak to hear my life story now."

He smiled, unable to refute her. She had a point. As he thought about it, he yawned.

"That's a good sign, my friend," she said, sounding very mature again. Her voice took on a flowing, soothing quality. "Go with it. Sink into slumber. Leave your cares and dream. No time to talk more now. Sleep. Sleep."

His eyes refused to stay open. Fighting to stay awake, he tried to concentrate on the sunlight coming through the curtain, but he could not. His eyelids fluttered uncontrollably before closing heavily and finally. But not before he saw a flash of golden hair and sea-blue eyes, as she placed a hand on his forehead. Obediently, he slept.

When he awoke again, he felt considerably better. The sleep had done him a great deal of good, allowing his body to heal under the best circumstance and free of complications. The world outside was plunged in darkness, and the room itself was as black as coal. He sat up slowly, not wanting his head to spin, a process that proved unsuccessful. After his head cleared a few minutes later, he swung his legs from under the blanket and scooted to the edge of the bed, not sure he wanted to risk trying to stand. Deciding that he was up to it, he gingerly eased his weight onto his feet, holding tightly to the headboard for balance. Wavering slightly, he took a tentative step, then two.
That was all his weakened body could stand. As his legs began to buckle under him, he lurched for the bed, missing it only by inches. He could not stifle the cry of pain as he hit the floor on his injured side. Through his new aching pain, he heard the sound of running feet coming toward the room. He lay there on his back as if dead, knowing he could not pick himself up.

Fandra, her golden hair loose and disheveled, gasped as she opened the door, instantly spotting the hunched body on the floor in a swath of light from the hallway. Gliding quickly down to him, she shook him gently on the shoulder. His only response was an unqualified groan.

"Now look what you've done, you foolish and ungrateful patient!" she said, an annoyed tone in her voice. "Who do you think I am, a Master Healer? Recovering from near-death takes time!" Despite her exasperation, she did her best to make him comfortable on the floor. She put his head in her lap, cradling him as best as she could. After a moment she yelled, "Cerdic! I need your help!" Knowing the man she called would come immediately, she lifted the young man into a sitting position as she waited. "That’s as much as I can do. I can't pick you up off the floor myself. You're not a small man."

Nor was Cerdic. When he entered the room, his frame filled the entire doorway, cutting off most of the dim light. He possessed a barrel-shaped chest topped by huge shoulders. His arms were thick and his hands broad and strong. But any sign of malice fled away from a permanent, kind smile that dominated his large face. He stooped down and gently lifted the sprawling man into the bed, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders and patting his cheek with a wink. He grunted in a way that seemed to express “hello.” He took a moment to light the candle on the bedside table.

"Thank you, Cerdic," said the lady, placing a delicate hand on his branch-like arm. He nodded with a slight bow and left the room soundlessly. Fandra looked after him fondly, her eyes full of memories of other times the giant man had helped her without asking for anything in return.

"Men like him make life worth living." He said it softly, but his words seemed to jar her out of her private reverie. She smiled and nodded, but said nothing, gliding about the room and straightening things already straight. He watched her for a moment before he asked, "Who is he?"

"Cerdic?" She seemed to have forgotten all that had occurred in the last several minutes. She stopped and gazed into the ceiling thoughtfully, crossing her arms over her shimmery blue nightgown. "He is my servant and bodyguard. His family, all as big or bigger than he, has been allied to mine for generations. But Cerdic is special. He is the last of his line, for his parents had only him and his twin, who died just hours after his birth. From that trauma, Cerdic was not left untouched: He cannot speak. It is his only flaw."

"Oh. I’m sorry." He could not think of anything appropriate to say. The way she spoke made it all seem so mysterious, so that more questions sprang to mind.

"And he is so devoted," she went on after a moment. "I have known him all my life—he is only three years older than I, and he was bonded to me the day I was born. He has always been my helper and my protector. I really don't appreciate him enough."

"I think I know what you mean," he said lamely. "We always had servants about, but I never gave them much thought."

"That's not what I meant," she snapped. She continued her useless tidying in silence. He could not figure out if she did it because she was nervous or distracted. After blowing out the candle, she finally reached the door but turned back before she closed it. "You should sleep some more. You are not well yet. Don’t try any more unaccompanied tours."

"I'm sorry I disturbed you," he said, feebly trying to apologize, though, truth be told, a bit perturbed by her manner.

"No matter." She abruptly pulled the door shut and plunged him back into darkness. What she had divulged roused his curiosity, but surprisingly, it failed to keep him awake for more than a few minutes. His body still seemed to need rest more than answers.

The next time he awoke, the room was bright with daylight. The curtain had been pulled back and the window opened to let fresh air in. The morning was brisk, but the brilliant sunlight presaged a warm day. He took a deep breath, sitting up gingerly but feeling relatively healthy and definitely hungry.
The room was as plain and scantily furnished as it had appeared when he first saw it. One other chair, a mate to the one by the table, stood against the wall beyond the foot of the bed. In the corner his neatly arranged gear—his sword and its belt, his saddlebags, a pack of hastily assembled odds and ends, and his boots—looked as if it had seen recent care, though he was sure it had not been his own. Nothing else broke the monotony.

After the anxieties of his flight, he was content to sit and enjoy the peace and solitude, but he had only been awake for a few minutes when Cerdic lumbered down the hall and into his room. He gave the same grunted greeting accompanied by a warm grin. He made a quizzical face and pointed to the man’s bandaged wound.

“It still hurts when I move,” he said, grinning in return, “but otherwise I feel better.”

Cerdic nodded, looking pleased. He gave the man another questioning look, pointing to his stomach and pantomiming eating.

“Yes, please!” he replied. “I thought you would never ask! I could eat a cow.”

Cerdic’s bellow of laughter filled the small room. His eyes opened wide as he nodded his head in understanding, an expression that seemed to promise a large and filling repast. He arched his hand and arm forward, pantomimed eating again, then acted as if he were washing himself. It took little experience with mutes to tell what he was trying to communicate.

“Yes, after breakfast I would enjoy a bath!” said the wounded man. “I do not remember the last time I felt really clean, though I assume you bathed me somewhat when you brought me in.”

The huge man nodded solemnly, making a concerned face as if remembering the man’s weak and dirty condition when he found him lying nearly dead in the forest. The expression left his face quickly, replaced by a more cheerful one. He pantomimed eating again and pointed out the window quizzically. He breathed deeply and flashed a satisfied smile.

“Breakfast outside? Definitely! That will heal me faster than anything else!” He began to climb out of the bed, but Cerdic stopped him with a stern shake of a huge index finger. He left the young man perched on the bed’s edge, hurrying out of the room and returning moments later with clean clothes and soft slippers. After a few minor struggles, the recovering invalid was ready to go. Cerdic hefted him without so much as a grunt.

For a man so strong, Cerdic handled him gently, navigating around corners without once bumping the young man against a jamb or wall. The house, more a mansion or a castle, was bigger than he had thought. Cerdic took him down long passages, up and down stairways, through large rooms big as banquet halls, and past dozens of doors and intersecting hallways. The large man’s footfalls echoed against the gray stone walls, uninterrupted by the sounds of any other person. No one else seemed to live or serve in the huge, rambling house.

At last, they passed through multi-paned double doors onto an expansive, flagstone patio exposed to the morning sun. Lush gardens on either side of two meandering streams comprised the borders of the patio, and where the streams converged, they formed a larger watercourse that descended by steps and short waterfalls to the woodlands below. Dotting the patio in no particular pattern, small gardens of dwarf trees, shrubs, ferns, and flowers sprang up, all of which contained a seat or a bench amidst the foliage. Alone, near far edge of the patio, stood a small table and two chairs overshadowed by an indigo umbrella. His hostess sat there, relaxed and smiling, the young sun highlighting her golden tresses.

“It is a pleasure that you could join me as I break my fast,” she said with a glorious smile, the previous night’s vexation seemingly forgotten. “You must be starving! You haven’t eaten a morsel since Cerdic brought you here.”

“I have been busy with other matters,” he said with a smirk.

She laughed at his attempt at humor. “I’m glad you can joke about all this. You will heal faster, and your incapacities won’t bother you nearly as much.”

“Madam, I intend to have none,” he replied. “I have been a burden to you and your servant too long already. You need do no more for me, a man—a stranger—on the run. There is no need to endanger you any longer.”

“A gallant speech, no doubt,” she said with a kind smile, “but you are in no condition yet to do anything but rest. Were you not carried here? Had Cerdic made you walk, you would now be only a few feet from the door of your room! It will be many days before you are fit to go anywhere.” She said it as a pronouncement that could not be countermanded.

“Very well,” he said. “I can see that I cannot convince you otherwise, either by word or activity. The truth is that I am very weak and grow weaker with every passing second.”

Her ringing laughter echoed off the walls of her residence. “That may well be the most courteous request for food that I have ever heard! Cerdic, you are remiss! Serve this famished man before he faints! Give him nothing that will shock his stomach. Let him heal on plain food and drink.”

The big man served him a simple gruel of several grains, with a small bowl of cut fruit, a slice of brown bread with butter, and milk to drink. He ate slowly, savoring the tastes that seemed altogether new, while being careful not to tax his ability to absorb the food. Fandra left him to his breakfast and walked about the various gardens, tending them here and there, humming snatches of old tunes while she worked, as if these were her normal tasks. Occasionally, she glanced over toward him to check his progress, but otherwise she ignored him.

As the young man finished, Cerdic poured him a hot drink that smelled of herbs and flowers and honey. He sat back to enjoy it and the beautiful gardens that surrounded him. He felt greatly refreshed and ready to rebuild his strength. Before he could attempt to stand, however, Fandra returned, taking her seat and pouring herself a cup of the warm, brewed tea.

“Now that you are fed,” she began, stirring the contents of her cup, “we must talk. You must have questions you want answered, and I certainly have a few I wish to ask you.”

He grinned. “Ah, the truth must be told, eh?”

“That is what I’d prefer,” she answered. “Of course, I have little way of knowing whether what you tell me is true or not, but I can usually discern if someone is lying to me. It is a kind of gift, you might say.”

“Well, I promise to be honest. I really have nothing to hide. I am mostly innocent of the crimes of which I have been accused. Yes, I am on the run from my sovereign, and I am sure that there is a price on my head—though I cannot be certain how high that price may be, if you should want to collect on it.”

Her easy laugh pealed out. “I have no need of money. You can rest assured that I have no intention of turning you over to whatever authorities are chasing you. From the looks of things, they prefer you dead to alive.”

He grimaced. “It seems that way. I am not sure that whoever knifed me took his orders from the king, but it is possible, I suppose. I did not see them. I just assumed that they were local brigands taking advantage of a lone traveler.”

Her unexpected laughter disturbed him. “What is so humorous about that?” he asked in a piqued voice.

“Local brigands?” she chuckled, holding down a deeper laugh. “Thieves and cutthroats don’t come within twenty miles of this place. Their kind have long memories of swift and severe judgment of such crimes as they commit. No, agents of your foreign king did this to you, not anyone local.”

“All right,” he acquiesced. He sipped his tea for a few moments before continuing. “Anyway, I have been accused of treason against my king, something about selling the enemy a new weapon of some sort. You see, I am employed in the Royal Armory, with access to all the inventions my lord’s engineers devise.”

“And you didn’t do that?” she asked pointedly.

“Not at all!” he affirmed. “I swear it on all that is good. I have had no dealings with the enemy—in matters of weaponry or anything else.”

“Good! Then we can set that aside—if there is nothing more to your flight.”

He hesitated before he decided he could divulge the whole matter. “There is more. They add intrigue to the whole mess rather than substance.” He paused.


“Now that I think about it, it all seems so silly and insignificant, but on the other hand, it was enough to bring me this close to death.” He shook his head in disbelief as this insight opened up new ways of looking at the whole matter. “It is almost embarrassing to relate these things to you because my other ‘crimes’ are so petty. It does not please me at all to reveal how insipid the head of my country is.”

“It’s the exception to that rule that surprises me,” said Fandra. “I know by experience of what you speak.”

“Good, then you will understand better. My king is upset at me on two additional counts: First, that I bested the fawning duke’s son at swords, and second, I took a ride in the country with a certain fetching young lady whom I consider a friend. Both activities I admit to and proclaim that I did them in all innocence. Oh, I forgot a third: I also tossed a few drinks with a couple of friends who have—how can I say this?—revolutionary ideas?”

“And you are not a revolutionary?” she asked, again pointedly.

“No! If anything, I am indifferent to politics and all the trappings and intrigues of court. No, that is untrue. I hate them. I have grown up amidst them, and they sicken me! My indifference is a defense against doing something foolish and regrettable. I am like a child who closes his eyes and believes no one else can see him.”

This time her smile was warm and understanding, and her eyes softened. “We’re in agreement then. Kings and courts are often petty, and the wise frequently find themselves at odds among them. Such a state has imprisoned me here for longer than I care to remember, and I see no remedy any time soon.” She finished her tea, setting the cup back on the saucer with a clink of porcelain. She sat back in her chair. “I think it is time you told me your name.”

He laughed, turning red in the face. “My pardons, dear lady! I foolishly assumed that you knew it, or that I had already told you, or something ridiculous like that! Allow me to present myself. I am Jeric of Lakemont, and I was once heir to large holdings of lakes and mountains and forests and several towns and castles in the far north of my country. I fear my present disfavor has disinherited me of my family’s peerage and wealth. I am a mere penniless beggar, truth be told. All I own rests on the floor of my sickroom.”

“We’ll see how it all ends,” Fandra said with a shrug, “and consider it just a temporary obstacle for now. You have one advantage that you’ve probably not thought of yet: Your king believes you are dead, lying on the forest floor and being consumed by vermin to erase your memory from the earth. You have time and anonymity on your side, whatever you decide to do.”

“You are right,” he replied, “I did not consider that. I have not thought much about my situation at all. I beg your leave to remain here until I heal sufficiently and can plan my future.”

“Of course you may stay! Cerdic and I would never turn you out, no matter how long you decide to remain with us. You could even join my massive staff, if you so desire,” she added, amused with her own joke.

“Thank you. I may take you up on that. I have no skills to offer but what I learned at court, and that is of questionable worth. I guess I could take care of your horses, if you have any. Or polish your armor and weapons—again, if you have any. And if I cannot do either of those, I may have to learn something new altogether. Growing up among the royal apartments prepares one for little but courtly nonsense.”

“I say, you are down on life at court! Maybe your king drove you off to lighten the mood among his courtiers!”

Jeric had to chuckle at that. Cerdic, who had been standing nearby throughout the conversation, refilled his cup and stepped away again. The younger man thanked him and turned again to his mistress. “I have a few questions for you as well, if you do not mind.”

She raised her eyes to his, saying matter-of-factly, “It depends on the questions.”

“Fair enough. I will try not to pry too deeply into your private affairs. First, where is this place?”

“We sit within an easy ride of the place Cerdic found you. In fact, he happened across your body on his morning stroll through the countryside.”

“Pardon my doubt, but I find that hard to believe. Why did I not see this castle during the few days I lingered there? I know I surveyed the whole wood and the countryside round about for several miles. I looked in every direction and never saw this. I cannot believe I could have missed such a place as this.”

“Nevertheless, what I said is true. If you wish, Cerdic will take you down there and show you the place you lay wounded, and you can try to see my home from there. You will not.”

Jeric shifted gingerly in his chair, stalling for time to think this information over for a moment. “How?” he asked finally. “I cannot understand how I could not see it from down there then, or why I would not see it even now.”

“It is not something that is easily explained,” she responded after a moment. “I don’t know if I could explain it to your satisfaction. It’s not something that most people would consider believable.”

“I greatly desire for you to try, my lady,” he said. “I do not care for mysteries, especially those in which I am personally involved.”

She took a second cup of tea, taking the time to mull over how she would answer him. “To answer your question fully, I have to blow out of a strange quarter, if you will. At least it will seem that way, but it is vital for you to know the background so you have the proper perspective. This is a matter that most people would dismiss as preposterous because they don’t know the whole story.”

“All right,” he said with a smirk. “I like stories, even long ones, and I certainly have nowhere to go.”

“The history of my family—and Cerdic’s family, for that matter—goes back for many hundreds of years, no, thousands, so long ago that our story begins before these kingdoms around us did. Your king’s line is a mere child compared to my line’s grandparent. We were involved in the affairs and history of these lands when there was only one kingdom fighting an Enemy far greater than what confronts in these times. If you care to see it for yourself, my library contains several books with my family’s genealogy documented in fine detail.

“My earliest known ancestor, a man by the name of Lamadon, was a man known by all as a wise man. He lived at a time of peace, a rare time when the Enemy’s strength was withdrawn from these lands. He was the closest counselor to the king of his day, and the people credited him for all the positive works and projects and decisions in the realm. By all accounts, he was the first man of the kingdom, what is today called the prime minister.

“As sometimes happens, the kingdom was thrown into chaos by rebellion and intrigue, and the king was deposed, and then he, through tragic misfortune rather than assassination or war, died. And by dying, he had left his throne empty and his line without an heir.

“Of course, this is exactly what the rebels had been hoping for, but because of their rebellion, they had little credibility with the people, who wanted none of them to become the next king. A kingdom will not work without a king; by definition, it becomes something else altogether. The nobility and the common people submitted many and various ideas about who should be king or what kind of government they should have, but none of them garnered much support. It appeared that, if the situation lasted any longer, the kingdom would dissolve into petty fiefdoms that would fight among themselves for decades before some strong leader could unite them again. This would have been intolerable and foolish, as everyone knew.

“It began to be apparent to many that the most popular idea for a new ruler was to make my ancestor Lamadon the new king. He had, in effect, been running the kingdom for many years already, and it seemed the most practical thing to do was to formalize it by giving him the crown. Lamadon, though, flatly refused every time and everyone who suggested it.

“’I am an old man, and entirely unfit for such a thing,’ he said, ‘and besides, I was not made to be a king. I would fail miserably in such a position. I may be a competent counselor, but I would make a mediocre monarch.’

“No one could change his mind over several months of trying. They offered him various inducements, some greater, some lesser, but nothing tempted him. Finally, he wearied of their arguments and their constant cajoling and haggling. He called a great assembly of all the nobles and all the leaders of the common people in the great hall of the king’s palace.

“When all were assembled, Lamadon rose and began to speak. He summarized all that had happened within the past year and listed many of the ideas that had been put forward. As he spoke, it was evident that the audience was divided into many camps. Last of all, Lamadon mentioned that many wanted him to become king, and the great hall erupted in clamors of agreement and clapping and whistles and general pandemonium. Lamadon, it is said, just stood before them shaking his white head in refusal.

“When the room quieted, he said solemnly, ’I have said that I will not take the throne. I am unsuited for such an office, and you would soon know that and rue the day you laid the golden scepter in my hand. I am too fond of you to let that happen.’ This did not satisfy the crowd in the least, but they respected him too much to argue, so they remained sullenly silent.

“’But,’ Lamadon said after a moment, ‘I propose a solution to our predicament, if you are agreeable.’ Many of the shrewder among them, knowing he would not take the throne, had been waiting for just such an offer from him. There were excited whispers throughout the hall. ‘I propose,’ he went on, ‘that you give me one month, and in that time, I will put forth all my effort to discover who is best qualified to be our next king. Then, one month from today, we will assemble here again, and I will name my candidate before you all. You can decide at that time if you approve of whom I have chosen.’

“After taking a moment to digest his simple plan, the people stood almost as one and applauded their consent. It was a good compromise, and they knew Lamadon would choose wisely. Most thought he would choose his own son, a young man already respected and expected to follow in his father’s path.

“But Lamadon already knew whom he would choose. In fact, he had spent the last several months doing exactly what he had promised the nobles and leaders he would do in the next month. You see, that month was not for him to decide who would be king, but for his candidate to decide if he wanted the job.”

“Clever man,” interjected Jeric, “but he passed up a great opportunity. He could have been king by popular acclaim. Why did he do it?

“I’m getting to that,” Fandra answered. “But you’re right, most men would have grabbed the opportunity with both hands and never let go. That, too, comes into the story.

“Lamadon had chosen the second son of a minor house, who had proven himself capable and loyal to the monarchy in the past. He was good looking, married yet without children, a good athlete and swordsman. He had acquitted himself nicely during the rebellion, having led and won several engagements against rebel officers known to be excellent leaders. Lamadon considered him the perfect choice.

“But the young man, Brekhelm by name, did not want to be king. He told Lamadon that he was glad he had an older brother to head his father’s house! Lamadon knew it would take an entire month to convince Brekhelm, and it did. He only gave in after his young wife, Gelia, convinced him to accept the crown for her and for their country. Seeing that it would make Gelia happy, Brekhelm acquiesced under the condition that Lamadon would remain as his counselor until one of them died. To this, Lamadon agreed, as he had intended this all along.

“When Lamadon made his choice known at the next month’s assembly, it came as a great surprise to most. But the people kept their promise and confirmed Brekhelm as king, and it was not long before they saw the wisdom of Lamadon’s choice, for Brekhelm made an excellent monarch. How much of his good rule can be credited to Lamadon is a matter of opinion, but if nothing else, Brekhelm looked every inch a king and filled the position admirably.

“And now we get to the part of the story that you’ve been waiting for. When Brekhelm died after a prosperous and peaceful twenty-four-year reign, Lamadon, now a very old man though hale and vigorous, had a strange and fearsome experience in the courtyard of his residence near the palace. As he contemplated whether he would serve Brekhelm’s son or hand the task to his son, Lamadon heard a voice behind him calling his name. He turned and saw a human figure radiating great light. He quailed and kneeled on the flagstones, shielding his eyes with his arms.

“’Lamadon!’ said the commanding voice. ‘Lamadon, My servant! Do not be afraid! I have come to you for good and not evil.’ With these encouraging words, the man peeked out and saw that the brilliance had diminished, and the figure looked like a king in costly garments. But of his face he could not tell, for the figure was hooded, hiding his features.

“’Yes, Lord,’ answered the man at last, ‘I am Your servant, but I do not know who You are.’

“The Other laughed softly but not unkindly. ‘You speak truly,’ He said. ‘But you have done My work for many years, and you have been faithful in doing good for others and fighting the Enemy at every opportunity. I have come to reward you for your labors.’

“’Reward?’ said Lamadon. ‘I have been blessed already beyond the measure of a normal man. Beyond wealth and honor, my life has been full and joyous, and my children and grandchildren are healthy and prosperous. I am content. But I thank You, Lord.’

“’You have a noble heart, Lamadon, the key to your success. But I have set My will to bless you, and I will not be denied.’ He bent down and lifted the still-kneeling man to his feet. ‘Let us walk among the trees of this fine courtyard, and I will tell you why you are worthy of My gifts.

“’A score and four years ago, you passed a great test: You put your own ambitions aside for the good of your nation, choosing another man to rule your people. No one but you and I know the great struggle you endured in making that decision. Yet you made it and have had no regrets. You have spent the last two-dozen years advising the king you made, consolidating his throne and his line. You have never corrupted your hand in your tasks, though you had many opportunities to do so. You have always weighed every choice against the good of the nation. You have been the ideal counselor. You deserve a reward.’

“Before Lamadon could protest, He went on, a smile in His voice. ‘As with all My blessings, there is a price.’

“’A price, Lord?’ asked Lamadon.

“’Yes, but nothing you cannot pay. I ask you only to continue to fulfill your duties to the king, and after you, your heirs as well, until your line or this world ends. Is this too much to ask?’

“’No, Lord, I would be pleased to place my family in service to You and the king forever,’ the old man said, bowing low, ‘but truly, I can speak only for myself. You will have to work with my children to make them follow this path.’

“’Yes, I will summon each one to My service,’ answered the Other, ‘but they will be eager to serve Me after your example. Your shadow will be long down the years.’ He walked for a short while in silence. ‘Now I must advise you of your blessings: I will endow your progeny with length of life double that of ordinary men so that they can correct the mistakes of their youth and see their labors completed. I will build them a new home in the midst of the land where your family can live and thrive away from the capital and away from the eyes and meddling of others. I will also send them a family of servants to help them in their labors; they will free them from the mundane matters of life so they can devote themselves to My work. Finally, I will grant your children wisdom and understanding and vision to aid them in their task.’

“’Lord!’ said the old man. ‘Every man wishes to see his children long-lived and prosperous, but this is more than I deserve! My deeds do not compare to the reward!’

“’To my mind, it does,’ answered the Other, ‘and through the long years your reward will be paid for many times over in service. Believe Me, My servant, I, who have all things to give, will by this gift reap far more than I have sown.’

“Lamadon bowed low and gave profuse thanks. After a moment, he ventured, ‘May I ask You a question?’

“The Other laughed again as He had before, saying, ‘I am certain you have many questions, Lamadon! But ask, and I will determine if I shall answer.’

“He asked the first question that came to his mind: ‘Who are you, Lord?’

“The Other chuckled knowingly. ‘Of course you would want to know that, for before this I have not revealed Myself to you. You have not known that you have served Me all your days, yet you know Me better than you think. I am All-That-Is-Good just as our Enemy is All-That-Is-Evil.’

“’We have fought long against the Enemy, Lord, but it seems a long, losing struggle. Are You stronger than the Enemy?’ asked Lamadon.

“Again, He laughed. ‘Of course. Can any creation be stronger than the Creator?’

“’Then, You created the Enemy?’

“The Other shook His head, saying kindly, ‘No, I did not create our Enemy. I created a strong, wise, and skilled servant to help Me in My work, but he rebelled against Me and against all that is good. The evil that is in him he created himself, and now he can hardly even feign what is good.’

“’Will You lead us against the Enemy to destroy him?’ asked the old man.

“Again, He shook His head. ‘He cannot truly be destroyed, only contained, imprisoned, restrained. Immortality is one of the gifts I gave him at his creation to help him perform My tasks, but now it proves a hindrance to his defeat. And as for Me leading you against him, I always have.’

“’How can we defeat him then? If he lives forever, and he is strong and cunning, and You take no direct part in our battles, we are doomed always to struggle against him.’

“’Perhaps, but the light of even a little candle banishes the deepest darkness. Swords and spears will not cast him down, but goodness and truth will hit their mark.’

“Lamadon weighed this knowledge for a moment. Finally, he said, ‘Since I have served You so long not knowing You, how can I serve now that I know You?’

“’Just as you always have: live, guide, teach, work, improve.’

“’And what should I call You, All-That-Is-Good?’

“’Certainly, if you wish,’ the Other replied, ‘for I have many names. But simple names are sometimes best. Call Me the Voice, for you hear Me but cannot see My face. I will speak to you and your children when the need is great.’ And without warning, He vanished in a sudden blaze of light.”

“So ever since then, your family has been some kind of a guardian to the kings of your nation?” asked Jeric, somewhat skeptically.

“’Guardians’ is a strong word,” replied Fandra. “’Advisors’ or ‘counselors’ would be better. And we understand our sphere of influence as the boundaries of the Old Kingdom as it was when the Voice first called us to our task. So ‘our nation’ includes Garaland, your king’s domain, and most of the kingdoms and cities on the continent.”

Jeric whistled. “That is a huge territory! You and your family must be kept busy ‘advising’ all the monarchs in it!”

“No,” she said. “I have no family to assist me. Like Cerdic, I am the last of my line.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” he said sincerely, “but I am glad my misfortune occurred while you were home. I thank you for my life.”

She smiled. “Cerdic and I could not leave you there to die. We feel it is our duty to help whenever we can. But you have assumed something else: I have never left this House to counsel the rulers of the nations. My task has not yet begun.”

“Tell me that story,” he asked softly.

Fandra rose, walking a little way toward one of the small gardens nearby. She stooped and picked a few weeds from the border, talking as she worked. “My father, Collen, spent most of his time advising the unpleasant king of Garaland. He was a jealous master, demanding his servants’ and counselors’ complete attention. Serving him was a burden, almost a prison sentence. How my father chafed under the restrictions! He only rarely returned here because the king kept him and everyone else on very short leashes.

“I tell you this because it was the king’s fault that my father married very late in life. Like many crotchety people, the king live to a ripe old age, and though my father’s lifespan was twice the length of a normal man’s, he was nonetheless old when the new king assumed the throne and dismissed him from his service. By comparison, my mother was a mere girl, the daughter of a fellow advisor at court. She had taken a fancy to my father for his kindness, I think, but he was still a good-looking man for all his years. Maybe she saw him as a father figure of sorts as well. Who knows in the affairs of the heart?

“Anyway, he brought her here as soon as he could after they married. They were happy. They had each other, and here, all their needs were cared for. Who could not be happy in this place? When my mother learned the secrets of our family, she insisted on conceiving as soon as possible, to rebuild the line of counselors that had dwindled just to my father over the long and difficult years of our service.

“It was a noble desire, but it proved to be her undoing, I think. Otherwise, she was healthy and strong, but something about giving birth drained her of all strength. After she bore me, she lingered in weakness for a few months, but her body never recovered. She took ill one night, coming down with a high fever and chills, and by morning she was dead.

“My father aged many years that night. He felt suddenly old and began to look his age. He did not die immediately, but he never stopped mourning for her. A local woman and her family came into the House at that time, and she became my nurse and my mother until my third year. From that time, my father and Cerdic’s father raised me, schooled me, taught me manners and court etiquette, and prepared me to take up my own task.

“But my father never recovered from my mother’s death, and by the time I reached maturity, he wearied of life and died. The bond between him and Cerdic’s father—built over two lifetimes of normal men—was so strong that he, too, lost all will to live and died within a year. Since then, Cerdic and I have been alone. Now more than twenty years have passed, and only now do we believe our task is beginning. We have prepared as well as we can, and we think we are ready. We wait only for the right opportunity.”

“What kind of opportunity?” asked Jeric.

Fandra shrugged. “We will recognize it when it arises, but we believe it will be a way to interject ourselves into a monarch’s court where we can do our work.”

“From what I know of the courts of kings, you should not expect an invitation,” he said wryly. “I have yet to know a king who desires more advisors. Pardon my cynicism, but usually kings are trying to get rid of them—and sometimes violently.”

Fandra returned to the table, wiping her hands on a napkin, smiling at the young man’s jest. “You seem to have naturally grasped a fundamental part of a king’s mentality. Most, especially those born into hereditary monarchies, are autocrats because they are reared to be so from the beginning. ‘Yes, your highness,’ is all they ever hear. It is a rare prince’s warden or tutor who has the temerity to tell him, ‘No, your highness.’ So by the time they take their throne, they believe that everything they think, say, and do is right and cannot be gainsaid. Indeed, kings do not want advisors, especially one from my family.”

“I am surprised, then, that your family has lasted this long,” said Jeric with a whimsical smirk.

She laughed that girlish laugh he had heard the first night when he thought her a nurse. “I’ve likely overstated our effectiveness. Several of my ancestors barely escaped with their lives through the long years. The Voice did not promise us perpetual safety, and I believe that an objective chronicler of some periods would consider that some of my kin brought their troubles on themselves. Infallible we are not.”

“So not all of his descendants had Lamadon’s character,” he said flatly. “Yet the Voice’s blessings continued unabated.”

“Yes and no,” she replied. “I have spent many years studying the writings of my forefathers, and one fact has consistently risen to my attention: Those who worked for the good of the kingdom and the people ultimately succeeded and lived long and productive lives. Those who followed their personal ambitions for wealth or power usually failed and died miserably and prematurely. It seems to be a consistent principle.”

“So ambition does not pay in the end,” he summarized.

“No, not at all! You misunderstand completely!” she said with more feeling than he expected. “Ambition is not the problem; it is what one is ambitious for and how one seeks to achieve it. You said it yourself a minute ago in speaking of Lamadon. With the Voice, everything is about character. My ancestors have learned by experience that following the example of Lamadon brings rewards and happiness, but falling from that height brings misery and failure.”

“From what you have told me of your father, he does not fit easily into your pattern,” he said thoughtfully.

She shook her head. “Exactly. No one’s life ever fits the pattern exactly, but the general principle holds true even so. My father counseled his king in the manner of Lamadon, but his reward for it was not riches or prestige or anything that most men desire. His reward was a loving wife and peaceful if not joyous final years. He saw his line and craft continue in me, and I think he was satisfied with his lot when he died. And I have not mentioned the satisfaction that comes from doing a good job, especially with a recalcitrant and bitter monarch. One does his best with the materials at hand, we like to say.”

“Ah, humor of the trade,” he said, shaking his head and grinning. He yawned. “I think our discussion has wearied me more than I thought it would. But now I know a little more about your situation here—and mine too. I know that I’m in good hands.”

At a sign from Fandra, Cerdic padded silently up and waited patiently a few steps away. Jeric took a long swallow of his now-tepid tea and made as if to stand. He sat back. “I hope our conversation helped you at least a little. I would hate to have been useless to you.”

Fandra smiled, waving Cerdic over. “You were quite helpful. More than you realize.”
The next several days passed with similar activity: a late breakfast, a long talk with Fandra, a midday nap, afternoon exercise, an early dinner, conversation or reading until he tired, then early to bed. Jeric slowly gained strength and freedom of movement. Soon he was able to walk, albeit slowly and with a short rest halfway, to the breakfast patio, and back again after his meal. Cerdic, he found, was the real nurse, and his ministrations proved effective and rapid. Within a week, Jeric felt well along the road to recovery.

Once he could walk without Cerdic’s supervision, one of the first places Fandra showed him was the castle’s vast library, a spacious room that filled an entire floor of one wing. Countless shelves of leather-bound books lined the high walls from floor to ceiling, and massive, freestanding bookcases stood row upon row with just enough space for a person to walk between them. In the center of the massive room, a small open area contained only a comfortable, upholstered chair with an ottoman and a table with a straight-backed, wooden chair. A couple of lamps, lit only at night as the windowed copula above flooded the room with light, stood over each of these.

The sheer number of volumes astounded Jeric, as did the range of subjects. There were books on topics from astronomy to zoology, many of which the man considered too arcane for anyone to be seriously interested in. By far, the largest section covered the history of the various kingdoms, including biographies of most of the illustrious personages who had inhabited them, most of whom Jeric had never heard of. Some of the books were ancient and brittle, but he did not even try to handle any of these, as the titles on their spines were clearly in a language he could not decipher. One large section of wall near the door had, instead of shelves, thousands of pigeon holes filled with yellowed parchment scrolls, each marked with a tag on a string, indicating its title, author, and year of composition.

Across from this section stood several distinctive bookcases, made so because of the locked iron grilles over their faces. Fandra produced a key and opened the case nearest them. She pulled out a book, seemingly at random.

“Oh, this is one of my favorites,” she said as she recognized it, a twinkle in her eye. The title was simply a set of dates about two years apart, and the author’s name read “Duke Torgond of the Highlands.” “Torgond was, let’s see, my father’s great-grandfather, and you can see the dates are about four hundred years ago. Do you know why I like this one so much?”

“Um, well,” he stalled, thinking furiously. “I never did well in history class at the palace. I was more interested in outdoor activities.” He did some quick calculations, then tentatively suggested, “I think that would be about the time of the breakup of the Old Kingdom into the five kingdoms there are now.”

“Very good!” said Fandra, smiling. “You must have listened more than you realize. Now, why do you think this should interest me so much?”

“Because the events of those years were really interesting?” he said lamely.

“Of course they were!” she said sharply, her brows narrowing sternly. “But I’m not a schoolgirl drooling over her favorite novel!” She looked disappointed. “What have I told you about my family and our work that makes this particular time interesting to me?”

He took a stab in the dark, hoping this answer sounded more intelligent. “Because your family—the Duke primarily, I expect—was responsible for it?”

She shook her head, though her brows unknitted slightly. “Wrong! Not that we weren’t somewhat responsible for it, mind you, but that’s not why it intrigues me. Take another guess.”

“I’m not very good at this sort of thing,” he said. He had a terrible urge to look out the windows of the copula, yearning to escape the questioning, but he forced himself to concentrate on what he remembered from his droning tutor in history. He had spent most of those history classes staring out the window, daydreaming of horses and swordplay. “You haven’t given me very much to go on.”

“All right,” she said, playing along, “I’ll give you a hint: an echo.”

“’An echo’? That’s the hint?”

“Think it through,” she insisted. “It’s a perfectly good hint, and I will not give you another, nor explain it any further.”

“Okay,” he said, realizing she was testing him. “An echo occurs when one’s voice bounces off of walls or cliffs or something. It sounds like someone else is answering you, like someone is repeating what you say.” He paused, remembering the last time he had returned to his family’s lands and yelled himself hoarse listening to his voice echo in the rugged hills above their manor. What in the world could an echo have to do with events that happened four hundred years ago? His mind voluntarily summoned up a memory of his tutor intoning his fervent belief that time flows in a great, ever-turning circle and that similar events down through history proved his theory. “You think that history is going to repeat itself soon—that the five kingdoms are due for a major upheaval.”

“That dart shot closer to the mark!” she answered, somewhat appeased. “But you’ve still not hit the bull’s-eye.” She pressed the book into his hand. “It looks like you’ll have to read the Duke’s journal to appreciate what those years mean to me.”

“Wait! I promise I’ll read his book anyway, but please tell me what makes the Duke’s time so special!”

“No,” she said, her eyes bright, “I think withholding it from you will help you study it more intently. Let me know anytime you think you’ve figured it out.”

“But that’s not fair!” he complained. “No two people get the same thing out of a story! How do you expect me to read this through your eyes?”

She looked at him shrewdly. “Now that’s one of the most insightful things you’ve said all day, Jeric. But I’m still not going to tell you. You’ll just have to take what you know of me and use that to understand what I see in it. Try to put yourself in my place and think of my future when you read it. Now, I will leave you to it.” She locked the iron grille and slipped the key in a pocket. “Happy reading!” she said and swept out of the library.

He stood there for a few moments, piqued by her stubbornness, but then he chuckled, realizing he had nothing better to do. Working his way through the maze of bookcases to the comfortable chair in the center of the library, he sat, propped his feet up, and opened the book to the title page. It read:

Spring 2741 to Summer 2743

The Continuing Journal of My Time of Service
to the Kingdom of Mandorina

Duke Torgond of the Highlands

It did not inspire him. In fact, it sounded rather dull, suggesting repetitive and mundane diary entries of a courtier, but he overcame his reluctance to read any further and turned to the first page of text. The Duke wrote in a fine hand, and it soon became apparent that he was not a tiresome pedant by any means. The journal began:
The Sixth Day of the First Month of the Year 2741:

Today dawned chill when most expected sun, and the day’s chill seeped into the very bones of the castle and all its inhabitants. The King’s mien toward everyone, even his beloved Queen, was brusque and stern. He curtly answered each question with one word only—mostly, “No!” —and seemed to think that most matters brought to his attention were trivial and base. He called early for luncheon, dismissing his court with a shooing wave of his hands. We all scurried out in hopes of brighter atmospheres elsewhere than in the King’s presence.

I was not so fortunate to escape. As soon as my back was turned, he called me to heel, so I accompanied him to his table, where I dined sumptuously with him, but the food might as well have been dust for the enjoyment I took from it. The King plied me with questions on the situation in Tilarden, for many of which I had no answer, as my agents in the area had given me no new information in the last week. My unsatisfactory responses made him only more taciturn, and we finished the meal in strained silence.

I excused myself as soon as decorum allowed and made my way to my chambers, outside of which sat one of my best “eyes” in the capital. He hopped up as soon as he saw me, and in some impatience urged me to open the doors swiftly for a private dialogue. We swept into my office, closed all doors and windows, and spoke in soft whispers for some time. It seems that he had stumbled upon a bit of intelligence that substantially changed the face of the current Tilarden crisis, if it could be trusted.

The substance of the new information was that a faction we had assumed to be loyal to the King was playing him for a dupe and planned to switch sides publicly at a most crucial moment in the coming weeks, at the King’s yearly royal pilgrimage to the holy place at Crusden in Tilarden. His sworn supporters were required by tradition and propriety to accompany him on this annual visit—or send a high-ranking representative—and the most powerful aristocrat among the traitorous faction planned to demonstrate his disloyalty in a most distressing and shameful manner—if the rumor was accurate.

This news, of course, left me in a sore dilemma: How could I counter such a move? Should I counter it? In reality, the latter was the proper initial question, as it dovetails with our sacred mission of doing what is best for the land. If I answered it in the affirmative, then I could proceed to the method and means. As for my relationship to the King, I have always served him properly and in his best interests, but I have never had any personal loyalty to him. He is, in fact, a thoroughly disagreeable person, spoiled and petty, the kind who, in a just world, would never have been given the power he holds. But my personal antipathy for his rather base character must not cloud my judgment in regard to the coming Crusden revolt, and its subsequent affect on the realm, if it happened.

My father and I had been holding the Kingdom together for several generations, and I admit, it was becoming more difficult with each passing year. There were clear fissures running through Mandorina, and they constantly threatened to widen and break off huge chunks of territory. Tilarden was merely the latest in a long line of regions to exercise a bit of independence, and it would not be the last. The only glue binding the Kingdom together was a series of mutually advantageous relationships among the peers, and if any one of these should weaken or dissolve, it would shatter like a clay pot dashed on the floor.

And, as luck would have it, the aforementioned, powerful aristocrat who planned to rebel was a major player in the peerage, and his defection could propel the Kingdom into civil war. Such a war is always more bloody and destructive than a war against foreign enemies because a civil war is essentially a fight against oneself. Outright war, then, would definitely need to be avoided, if at all possible. Easier said than done.

So, by the time I had finished interviewing my informant, I had decided to preside over the dissolution of the Kingdom of Mandorina into several smaller realms, and I had presented myself with the challenge of bringing this to pass without resorting to the facile measure of civil war. I had to laugh at that point, since I knew that living up to this would prove almost impossible, but I would make the attempt and let history (and my successors) judge the results.

[That's all I had written up to 2004. I can't say that I've had much time to write very much since then. Perhaps someday....]