“Drink up, lads!” the king yelled. “Tonight we feast, and tomorrow we storm the castle!”
A cheer rose from manly throats eager to dine and drink.
But not from Thomas. He casually wandered away from the roast beeves and the hogsheads of ale.
He went off into the woods, alone. When he came to a little clearing, he sat on the ground and rested against a stout tree.
“There must be more to life than storming castle after castle on the say-so of a mad king,” he muttered.
“Couldn’t agree more,” said an unexpected voice.
Thomas looked up and saw a man emerge from behind a tree. The man was adjusting his lower garments, making it easy to guess what chore of nature he had been tending to.
“Who’s there?” Thomas asked.
“Nobody important. Just the son of the mad king who keeps ordering us to storm castles.”
Thomas began to scramble to his feet. “My prince!”
The prince waved him down again. “Sit while you can. There’ll be standing and running enough tomorrow, thanks to my father.”
“Er … I meant no treason, your highness.”
“None taken. As I said, I agree completely. What will this be? The fifth castle we’ve stormed in the last eight months? Plus the various forts.”
“I quit counting, your highness.”
“Please, just Corwyn. And you are?”
“Thomas Porter, your … er, Corwyn.”
“Pleased to meet you, Thomas.” The prince reclined against an adjoining tree, and Thomas stared at him in the receding light. The prince was an agreeably handsome young man; he must have gotten his good looks from his late mother as the king was a fright. The lad seemed weary to his very bones, though.
“Dear God,” Corwyn said, “I wish I were home in my own bed. I’m bloody sick of all this marching from place to place in all weather just to storm castles and kill people. How many enemies can one king have that his army must be in the field for so very long?”
“Makes you wonder if maybe someone is storming your father’s castle while he’s away,” Thomas said.
“I’ve thought that, too,” the prince agreed, “but he told me the bishop said a special prayer that is protecting Redheart Castle. Surely some of these castles we’ve taken had bishops, too.”
“Maybe their bishops didn’t know the special prayer.”
“And maybe there’s no such thing and that bishop is in league with some of Father’s enemies. Not like I’d care, particularly. I didn’t leave anyone behind me. Although His Majesty said something about finding me a bride in the castle of one of his enemies. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? We attack, kill lots of people including the lord of the castle, and then I marry the dead man’s daughter. What a wedding night that would be!”
Thomas said nothing for a moment. “I’ve left a wife and two young boys behind. How they’re surviving without me I’ve no idea.”
The prince made a commiserating noise deep in his throat. “That’s hard. Brings us right back to your question, doesn’t it? Why do this stupid thing rather than stay home and take care of what’s ours already? Well, Thomas, I’ll tell you the simple answer: my father lusts for blood. The more heads he can put on pikes, the better he likes things. And what you can do with a man like that I do not know.”
Thomas had several ideas but kept them to himself; there were surely limits to a royal being chummy with a peasant.
A trumpet stuttered in the distance, causing the prince to groan.
“My father came up with that call. He got tired of sending people to look for me when I wasn’t at hand.” He stood, and Thomas politely joined him. “I’d better get to his side before he gets annoyed. But what of you, Thomas Porter?”
Thomas shrugged. “I might as well head back and get something to eat. If my captain doesn’t get too drunk he might start wondering where I’ve gotten off to.”
They started back toward camp, and Corwyn sighed.
“Here we are, an army as strong as any seen since the days of the Romans, all of us in thrall to one man. We march, attack, eat, sleep, and die all at his whim. All of us so strong together, Thomas, yet not a single one of us owns himself.”
“True. I guess that’s how it’s always been. ‘Obedience to the king is obedience to God.’ That’s what the priests always say.” He stole a glance at his highborn companion. “I hadn’t though of things from your side, though. I never thought a prince would feel as trapped as a lowly peasant like me.”
“Prince or peasant, doesn’t matter. There’s not a damned thing I can do to help either of us.” The horn bleated once more. “One of these days, I’m going to take that horn and…”
Corwyn stopped. He regarded Thomas for a moment and then pulled his signet ring off his finger. He used his command voice to say, “As your prince, second in command to the king, I am sending you on an important scouting mission. Show my ring to your captain, and to anyone else who might need to see it. Say to them that I have charged you with discovering what ills may lie between here and Redheart Castle. I want to know the lay of the land, whether any enemy armies are afoot, that sort of thing.”
His voice became quiet and gentle again. “But when you’re in familiar territory, go to your family and stay with them.” He reached into a purse. “And take these,” he said, handing Thomas five gold coins. “If I survive my father’s misadventures, I’ll come looking for you to get your report and retrieve my ring. If I don’t, well, it’ll be a souvenir for you.”
“Your Highness…” Thomas whispered.
“Corwyn,” the prince reminded him. “I was mistaken a moment ago. I can’t do a damned thing to help myself, but, by God, I can help you. I think that’s what being high and mighty is supposed to be about. If ever I inherit my father’s throne, that’s how things will be. Knowing that I’ve freed one man from this insanity will lighten my spirit. Go, Thomas. Go tell your captain you must leave at first light on an errand for your prince. Go home and care for your family.”
“On my honor. Thank you. Thank you.”
Corwyn clapped Thomas on the arm and smiled. Then he heard the trumpet again.
“I’m coming, you blasted blowhard! Fare well, Thomas.”
“Fare well … Corwyn.”
The prince smiled and moved off at a trot toward his father’s tent.
Thomas looked at the gold coins, scarcely believing he held them. He put them in a little pouch inside his hat where they wouldn’t jingle. Then he ran off to find his captain.
And if prayers meant anything to God, then he would storm Heaven with prayers for the safety of the prince who was now more of a prisoner than a peasant.