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Mr. Diggley Poppin, an older gentleman with prickly looking gray hair, a stubbly beard, and a bright blue vest beneath a violet waistcoat was resting quite comfortably at a table in the Blue Pig, his favorite alehouse with a pint of Tibi’s Best. Not only was the Blue Pig a favorite of Mr. Poppin, but Mr. Poppin was also a favorite of Hedrick Tufft, owner of the Blue Pig. The reason was not because Poppin drank a lot of ale, which of course he did, but because when Poppin was in the house, others were sure to follow and business would be brisk. Mr. Poppin, you see, loved to tell stories…the old tales…tales of great deeds and war and honor and beauty…and no one else in town could tell them nearly as well as he did.
So, it was on this night, as it was on most, that Poppin’s quiet solitude was short lived. The table was soon rather crowded as he was joined by Herny Jinks, and then Bob and Roy Mawten, followed by Gub Trinkle, Norry Lumlock, Bertie Veztle, and several others. Herny waited for what he thought was a polite amount of time before bringing up the topic that everyone came for.
“Naw, that’s been mighty unusual,” said Herny, responding to Roy’s comment about the amount of rain they’d had the past month. “Reminds me of the story ya telled us about travelin’ to that great castle down south,” continued Herny to Poppin.
“Yes, the southern hills can get wet at times,” said Diggley, sensing that Herny was working his way up to a more direct question.
“Could be tha’ p’rhaps ya got time t’ leave us another tale? I’m thinkin’ p’rhaps the one ‘bout them giants, when’s they got their comeuppance from the Lady...or p’rhaps the one about those critters what lives in Yolli, ya know, them ugly grawks…at least I think that there’s what ya called ‘em. Why I’d even settle fer another time a hearin’ ‘bout those salt dogs…maggocs ya said folks in the northeast called ‘em.”
Poppin cleared his throat before taking another draught from his glass. “Yes, well I suppose I could tell one short story. Let’s see now…I don’t believe I’ve told you the story of Richard and the Lady Queen in quite some time.”
There were nods all around the room and several present piped in that they didn’t remember that story at all and couldn’t he please tell a story with giants in it.
“Ah, yes, giants…no this story does not have giants. But since there seem to be quite a number of you who have no recollection of ever having heard it, this must be the one for tonight. So, let me see…it all happened down south, not too far from the Great Castle of Emendi where the Lady Queen lived. Richard…quite a sad story really…young Richard was a soldier in the Queen’s personal guard. He came from a poor family, but without him…aah, life would be quite different for all of us.” With that, Poppin began the tale in earnest.
“Richard ran away from home just shortly after his sixteenth birthday. His father was mean…meaner than a full grown maggoc…and continually drunk, which was usually a good thing because, when he was drunk, he didn’t beat Richard as often as he would when he was sober. Richard had no mother…she died when he was just a boy. All he remembered of her was the softness of her lips and her warm cheek when she would kiss him goodnight. Since her death, life had been hard, almost unbearable at times it seemed, but Richard was strong. And he had a gift—the ability to dream. Even when everything around him was painful, when his father was in a fit of rage, or when he couldn’t find a morsel of bread to eat—even then, he could dream. Richard kept his sanity and his will to live by dreaming.
“His favorite, his most private, most special dream was this: that one day he might meet and serve the great and beautiful Queen who ruled all of Emendisira. It was a dream that kept him warm on the cold nights when he slept under the trees to avoid another beating. It was also a dream without hope. A poor farm boy like Richard would most likely never even have a chance to meet the great Queen, let alone serve her.
“But life is full of surprises, and so it happened that one day, while Richard was at market buying a little bread and some potatoes to fix for his father’s dinner, the unexpected happened.
“The market was busy as usual in the town square of Mendila…Mendila, as you know, is a sizable town down south. I once had the good fortune of spending some time in Mendila myself,” said Poppin.
“An’ tha’was on yer trip to the Lady’s castle, weren’t it?” asked Herny.
“Yes, yes. That was the time. But we were talking about Richard. He was at the market, you remember. People buying and selling, haggling over prices, inspecting produce and wares for any imperfections that might lower the price. Richard had only a few pennies to spend, money he earned himself. His father hadn’t earned anything for years and he spent most of what Richard brought home on wine and ale. But the father still expected that food would appear each night on the table. If it did not, Richard knew he would have a few more bruises the next morning.”
Diggley Poppin rose out of his chair now and stood before the gathering crowd. His face was reddening from the heat of the fire and from the tankard of ale, which Hedrick Tufft continued to refill. Poppin was warming, as he always did, to the tale and to his audience.
“So it was that as Richard headed back up the road to his father’s home he met them…the Royal Guard. And not only the guard, but Her Majesty! Nothing could have been more unexpected to the poor boy. The Lady Queen was riding on a beautiful dark stallion, with a mane the same color as her long dark hair. Richard bowed low along the forest highway as the procession passed, terrified but still trying to sneak glances at the Lady because this would certainly be his only chance to ever see her.
“Then the unexpected happened. As the Queen came up along side him, she stopped. Richard could hear the stallion breathing and then it seemed as if an angel spoke.
Rise young man, she commanded in a gentle, but compelling voice. Tell me your name.
Richard had to look around to determine if the angel was speaking to him. It was then that he looked up into those perilous dark eyes…eyes into which many greater men had gazed…gazed and lost their lives. No one ever looked upon those eyes and remained the same person. Richard was no exception. He would never again see the world in the same way. But at that moment he could not imagine any reason the great lady would have anything to say to a poor peasant boy like him.
Richard is what I am called, My Lady, he replied, trying to sound as calm and mature as he could.
“As he spoke, Richard looked again into the Queen’s eyes. They were dark, as dark as midnight, and yet from them shone a light that penetrated into the deepest recesses of his soul. Tears welled up in his own eyes because he knew that he could keep nothing from her…if she asked he would have shared with her the deepest desires and darkest corners of his mind. But she did not ask…she did not need to ask.
Richard, come closer, said the Queen.
“She reached down and lifted his face so that he was transfixed by her penetrating gaze. It was only a brief moment, but it seemed an eternity before a smile traced its way across her lips and she spoke.
You have nothing to hide, Richard. That much I can see clearly. Your heart is pure and you have an inner strength greater than many men twice your age. I can also see that you are kind…that you are a young man of courage and honor. I do not see into the future, but if I could see into the future, I believe I would see that you have something great to do in this world.
“With that the Queen released him and turned to go, but hesitated.
Richard, if, when you come of age, you still desire and wish to serve me as you do now, then I will grant your wish. Come to Emendi, to the great castle, after your sixteenth birthday and you will be trained and fitted for the Royal Guard. I will always need men of honor like you.
“The Queen smiled again at Richard before motioning to the Royal Guard to move on. Richard knew then that he loved her more than anything else in this world.
“The two years seemed like an eternity, but finally the time came. Richard left home before dawn on the day of his sixteenth birthday and never looked back. Life at the castle was exciting and he frequently caught glimpses of the Lady Queen. He spent his first year in training…and he excelled, not because he was the strongest or the tallest or the bravest, but because he had the most heart, the most desire.
“At the start of his second year he was appointed to the Royal Guard. To be appointed at such a young age, seventeen, was almost unheard of. Among the current guardsmen, only Captain Yorth had been that young at the start of his service. Yorth remembered his own youth and knew that both good and bad came with being young. The young ones had quicker reflexes and keener senses, but they were also impulsive and tended to overlook important things because of lack of experience. Yorth knew that Richard had the necessary desire, the necessary training, but he was still not sure Richard was ready for the Royal Guard. Nonetheless, the Queen insisted.
“Later that same year…they say it was a beautiful fall afternoon with the forest trees of the Emendi Hills covered in reds and golds…the Queen and her guard were traveling light and quick to the stronghold of Oliindivi to meet with the Olii Council, a group of weak-kneed men who needed constant nurturing from the Queen to keep them from doubting her power and her intentions. Her guards were not even in full armor, only a light coat of mail, because no enemy had attacked in this part of Eastern Urth for many years.
“The road through the forest was always dangerous, but the Queen loved it because of the beauty of the trees. The guard marched both in front of, beside, and behind the lady. Richard’s place was at the rear of the guard, a place reserved for the most expendible of the men, since it was usually the rear that was attached first.
“It happened just after they had passed a particularly dense clump of trees. Richard heard the snap of a twig. In front of him, Richard could see the Lady Queen riding next to Captain Yorth and laughing gently as they talked. Why, thought Richard, should he worry about one small noise among the trees? There was no reason to suspect that any of the enemy was left in this part of the kingdom. Regular brigands and highway robbers would not dare to attack the Royal Guard. And yet, when Richard turned toward the noise, there under the darkness of the trees, he could see the glint of a pair of eyes and the movement of a bow.
“Richard had only the briefest moment in which to make his decision. Without saying a word he slipped up alongside the Queen, reached up and took hold of one of the straps of her horse’s saddle. Then with a quick thrust of his strong young legs he leaped up into position behind the Lady. He wanted to tell her not to be afraid, to tell her that he loved her, to tell her that this was the greatest honor of his life, but his leap had been timed perfectly. An arrow, its tip enhanced perhaps by some evil enchantment, pierced through his coat of mail and into his back, stopping only after it had punctured his heart. Richard slumped forward, his body still protecting the beautiful lady with the dark eyes as two more arrows found their mark in his back.
“Captain Yorth spun in time to see that young Richard, requested to be with the guard by the Queen on this journey (even over Yorth’s protests) was leaping up onto her horse. What impertinence! Yorth thought in that one short second before he saw the first arrow find its mark.
The enemy is upon us! Defend the Queen! he shouted as the men went from relaxed and laughing to positions guarding all sides of the Lady.
“Two more arrows flew from the trees before a hail of return fire felled the assassin. He was only one…but one assassin is often more dangerous than a whole army. And this one almost found his mark—almost, but not quite—one brave young man, a young man of virtue and honor, had remained vigilant.
“Captain Yorth lifted Richard’s body gently down from behind her majesty. She dismounted and sat for several minutes holding the young man close to her, her tears washing down onto his pale face. Richard Pureheart she named him. There he was buried with all the honors the Lady Queen could bestow. Later a monument was raised over his grave to honor him and the woods were renamed, ‘Richard’s Forest’, by which name it is still known to this day.
“It is said that if Richard had not been there that day, the world as we know it would be quite a different place. Without the Lady Queen to lead them, the peoples of the Eastern Urth would never have resisted and repelled the invading armies of the west, without her the Chosen One never would have come, no, he never would have even existed…and without her, your humble servant would never have left the Northeast Bolk.”
Poppin said the last part in almost a whisper.
With the story finished, an unusual quiet pervaded the normally noisy alehouse. It was Herny Jinks who finally broke the silence.
“I do think I’d like to see that forest sometime,” said Herny.