One black and bitter night when even the moon had gone dark, two men dragged a stumbling, gray-cloaked woman down the road from the castle. When they arrived at the gatehouse, the shorter man shoved open the heavy doors facing the main road.
The other man tossed the old woman to the ground. The sneer on his handsome face deepened as her knees hit the hard earth with a thud.
“Get out, old woman. You’re not welcome here,” the short man said, laughing until he started coughing. He sounded like he was choking. “Curse this cold weather,” he muttered once he caught his breath.
The woman begged, “Please, oh, please, Sir Knights, it is cold. Don’t throw me out. I’m all alone. I’ve nothing left but my bones.”
The handsome knight smoothed back his wavy hair and said, “Nothing left, eh? Let’s see. You might be right.” He started counting on his fingers. “No husband, right?”
She stared at him in shock.
“True,” the choking knight said. “He’s dead. Quite dead.”
A fire began to kindle in the woman’s pale eyes.
The handsome knight continued, leaning elegantly against the gatehouse doorway. “No king.”
The choking knight laughed until he had another coughing fit. When he could speak again, he said, “That’s right. The king’s dead too. But you know that,” he said, leaning over the woman. “You watched him die. You couldn’t do anything to save him, could you?”
The fire in her eyes disappeared as the woman began to cry without a sound.
“It’s cold,” the handsome knight said with a yawn and a shiver. “I’m going back inside.” He nudged the woman out of the doorway with his foot. “Be gone, old woman. Never show your face here again!”
The knights crashed the doors shut in her face. She tottered to her feet, only to wander through the village crying out, “Please, have pity on an old woman! Have mercy!” over and over again. No one heard her frail cries for help. Exhausted, she spent the rest of the night in a ditch, huddled under a pile of dry leaves. At first light she turned her back on the village, realizing there was only one place left for her to go.
“You won’t be rid of me that easy, you filthy knights,” she muttered. “You robbed me of everything I loved—my home—my husband—even my king. You’ll pay for this!” She set off across the fields, disappearing into the thick morning fog.
Our horses’ hooves left trails of puddles as we plodded along the rain-soaked path. Dripping leaves scattered us with icy drops, making me glad I wore a thick wool cloak. Outside, I felt cold and wet and uncomfortable, but inside I buzzed with happiness like bees in a hive of fresh honey. My best friend Kaye and I were on our way to live at the queen’s castle, and that could mean only one thing—adventure!
“Are we almost there? I’m so excited! Aren’t you excited?” I asked, forgetting that Kaye already lived in a castle. His father was Sir Henry Balfour, the greatest knight in Knox. I lived in the town of Crofton, where my father was a wool merchant.
“Yes, of course,” Kaye said. He rubbed his chin hard, which meant he was thinking.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Alfred frowned at me. He never spoke, but I knew he wanted me to be quieter. Bandits lurked along every road in Knox, and Alfred’s job was to deliver us safely to the castle.
“The other knights at the castle won’t be happy to see me again. Most of them hate me,” Kaye said.
He was right. A few weeks ago, the new queen of Knox had knighted Kaye for rescuing her nephew. At first, the knights only laughed at the idea of a twelve-year-old knight, but after Kaye defeated the great Sir Melchor in a tournament contest, they hated him—especially Sir Melchor and his friends.
“Do you think they’ll beat you up?” I asked, feeling worried. The other knights were much bigger than Kaye.
“I hope not!” he said. “I was just thinking that if the other knights hate me, I can never be a truly good knight. Nobody hates the good knights. Everyone still loves Sir Gregory—and he’s been dead for probably a hundred years. People love my father too. I want to be like that so I can help people, and I want my father to be proud of me when he comes back.” Sir Henry had been in the neighboring kingdom of Eldridge for two years now, working to keep peace between the two countries.
I snorted. “Your father is always proud of you. Be glad you don’t have my father. He’s never proud of me. I’m not good at anything. I think he would like me better if I were a sheep. At least then he could sell my wool.”
Alfred—Kaye and I secretly called him Old Stone Face—gave a little grunt and stared at me with that blank look cows have when they chew. Tiny drops of mist coated his long beard until it glittered with silver. I blushed, feeling like Alfred had just yelled at me for being rude about my father. “Sorry,” I muttered. “I just wish—”
I was interrupted by a noise that sounded like a little axe whacking sharply into a tree. I wondered if there were woodcutters nearby.
Kaye yanked out his sword and sent his horse Kadar crashing into the dense bushes along the trail. Alfred followed close behind him. Confused, I blinked and looked around. I saw that a single dark arrow had bitten deep into a tree just above my head. Kaye and Alfred had gone after the archer and left me alone.
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