Neither Fish nor Fowl
A Kingdom Come Short Story
By Jim Doran
[Author’s Note: This short story precedes the novel Kingdom Come a year (see timeline) and serves as a prologue of sorts. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll discover it develops a relationship between two characters that don’t share scenes in the book. It is spoiler-free for those who haven’t read the novel. It also doesn’t assume you’ve read the novel. All you need to know is Kingdom is a fairy tale land its inhabitants don’t speak in contractions. Enjoy!]
The two men in the corner of the Inn of Five discussed a topic that, if overheard, would have had them arrested and placed in the foulest dungeon for the rest of their lives. Voices low and heads covered, they conversed quietly, slow to answer one another.
A broad-shouldered man with a tangled, obsidian-colored beard glanced around the Inn’s tavern. A table of men and women sat in the corner near a candelabra, one of them emitting sparks from her fingers, chatted above the din. Nearby, three farmers rolled small totems and read the results. A leporine figure, shadows enveloping him from the shadow of wood beams, drank deep from a cracked stein. In a recess across the way, a dwarf reached across the table and took a gnome maiden’s hand. All in all, the man judged it to be a typical Tuesday night. He lowered his head to speak. “Twenty gold. ’Tis a large risk for me to take.”
“It is too much, Honest John. I do not have such an amount.”
“Not my concern.”
The other, a thin, bald man in a ragged traveling cloak and threadbare tunic shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “I have heard you were a compassionate man. You understand the position of my family. If we do not escape, he will come for my daughter. I cannot allow it.”
“Perhaps he will make her his wife.”
The bald man snorted, blue eyes flashing. “King Shade is not about to take a wife. Marriage will come when he ages, long after he has taken the flower of innocence from many a young lady of Kingdom.”
The larger man slapped his palm on the table. “Hold your tongue, Ramsford.”
“You know I am right, Honest John. You understand why I have to flee. I love my daughter too much to remain in Kingdom.”
The man named Ramsford rubbed his eyes. Honest John gazed around the pub nervously. He spotted the owner behind the serving bench—a young lady with auburn hair, elbow-length white gloves on her hands. Her eyes spotted him and narrowed.
Honest John turned his back to the pub owner. “I shall be forced to leave if you carry on. ’Tis dangerous for me even to be in this den of bugbears.”
Ramsford reached out and grabbed his sleeve. “I will flee to Nor. You must help me.”
“Have you thought this through? I assume you have heard of the brutality of the ruler’s daughter.”
“It is worth the risk.” The balding man released Honest John’s sleeve and sighed. “You are the only one with the resources to assist me. With your position, you are allowed to travel close to the border without anyone questioning you. Get me to the border, and my family and I will flee for sanctuary.”
Honest John held up a finger. “You have told me the plan once. Do not repeat it.”
Ramsford sat back on his chair, nodding. “I shall find the payment you request with loans I have no intention of repaying. I shall have it in a fortnight.”
“We shall meet here at that time. Do not seek me out until then. Remember—”
A sprightly, young woman with short, black hair and lively eyes appeared from nowhere. “Would you two gentlemen care to sample the Inn’s mead now? Or perhaps daff juice would be more to your liking?”
Honest John’s cheeks burned, and he glared at the woman. Beyond her, the owner stood with her hands on her hips, frowning. Ramsford turned away, hoping the server wouldn’t see his face. Honest John started to speak, but the barmaid wiped their table, missing the cue.
“The other customers are discussing the legend of the five queens tonight. Surely, you have heard of the tale of the five modest women who would rise from obscurity and ascend to the throne, ruling Kingdom with benevolence and justice.”
“We do not—”
The server tucked the rag back into a sash, interrupting him. “A group of men and women on a pilgrimage have debated for the past hour whether it will come true. ’Tis interesting that women think the prophecy true, and the men believe it a children’s story. What is your view on the subject? Is it a prophecy or gobblesnot, destiny or free will, fact or fantasy?” She smiled at her ability to form contrasting sentences. “This is rather fun. Midnight or noon? Summer or winter? Fish or fowl?”
“Neither fish nor fowl,” snapped Honest John. “We do not wish to be disturbed.”
The woman pouted. “Then you should order something.”
Ramsford stood. “We shall be on our way.”
He turned on his heel and marched toward the door. Honest John gathered his buckler, glaring at the barmaid. “You are new here?”
The woman nodded.
He tossed his hair back and rose to leave the inn when the owner called out to him. “Payment.”
He strolled to the bar and thrust his shoulders back, towering over her as a wolf over a dog. She held her ground, more bite than bark, and glared at him. Various eyes around the tavern watched him as he dropped a coin on the counter. “Train your help in the future.”
Honest John left the inn, removed the putty covering his nose, and departed, not returning for a fortnight.
Three weeks later, Honest John, Ramsford, his wife and family made their way through Kingdom’s Forest of Death. They had journeyed past the king’s border checkpoint under the cover of the night. Honest John’s involvement in the trek should have ended there, but he sojourned on with them. As they made camp for the night at the edge of the forest, Ramsford’s wife thanked him for escorting them all the way to Nor’s borders.
Honest John shrugged. “Lucia, it does not profit for you to die here after bypassing the king’s guards. I do not want to risk my neck for nothing.”
Lucia regarded him with her bright green eyes. “I do not believe you. You act like a hard man, and as an advisor to the king, you think the facade important. But I remember you as a young man, an advisor to the king’s parents. You were nothing if not loyal.”
“Loyal perhaps, but not kind. I killed their children.”
“Others have relayed a different ending to me. Whatever you are, the gold we gave cannot express my gratitude. You do not have children—you do not know how important this is to us.”
Honest John pursed his lips. “Do not be deceived, my lady. Chivalry is a lie. A man hides his true intentions behind noble actions.”
She reached across and took his hand. “I pray not.”
Honest John said he would take the first watch, and the family went to sleep. He sat on the grass, crossed his legs, and stared out into the darkness. He waited two hours, eyes peering into the night, scanning. A shadow moved—most would mistake it for the fluttering of a blackbird, but the guard observed the motion had purpose. He waited another minute and spied it again. Shadow arms and legs moved yards away. He could only do one thing—he shut his eyes.
“Keep moving, Kingdom spies,” snapped the Nor soldier.
The soldier shoved Ramsford, and he stumbled but regained his footing. “But I want to go to Nor. I fled here with my guide. You do not need to escort us—we go willingly.”
The sun peeked over the horizon as the Nor soldier spit on the ground. “We caught Kingdom’s spies not a month ago trying to cross the southern mountain border to sneak inside our city. We left them for the giants. They made short work of them, by God.”
He laughed, and the four others joined him.
“We are not spies,” said Ramsford. “If you would only listen to us.”
The soldier retorted, “’Tis not our place to listen. Our duty is to escort you to the dungeon to give the executioner someone else to add to his list.”
The husband and wife looked at each other, color draining out of their faces. Honest John remained calm and gestured to them reassuringly. “’Tis not common for spies to travel with children.”
The soldier eyed the girl. “Hardly a child.”
Ramsford said, “Leave her. I tell you they are my family, and we are fleeing to Nor.”
The soldier nudged him back in line. “Not my concern.”
Another soldier with a pointed helmet put a hand on his shoulder. “Gedras, remember proclamation twenty-three. We escort them and nothing more.”
Gedras, the lead soldier, shrugged off the man. “Do not remind me of the law, inferior. Blast the Lord of Nor for having a daughter. Young ladies have too many laws about them.”
Hands tied behind his back, Honest John walked forward beside the man. “You should escape to Kingdom if you feel that way.”
“Hold your tongue,” said Gedras. “Kingdom’s weak king will not acknowledge it, but whole communities have turned away from him. Dol Garath pays their taxes but no longer follows its laws. Bremen is in open revolt. The balance of power in Kingdom is shifting. Lord Helvys of Nor will soon replace your king.”
The soldier with the pointed helmet murmured. “Or a lady.”
The soldiers became quiet. Gedras said, “Brynkiln, if Lord Helvys fell, Lady Helvys would lead us admirably.”
Honest John eyed Gedras. “Perhaps he refers to Lord Helvys’s daughter.”
The soldiers eyed each other nervously. Gedras pushed Honest John. “Any Helvys on Kingdom’s throne is better than your insipid monarch. Move. We wish to hand you over and resume our rounds.”
Honest John paced around his constricted cell. No bed or window adorned the cobblestone-walled chamber. His stomach roared—they hadn’t brought him a meal since they left him in the squalid room yesterday. He slept on and off, unable to tell if it was day or night.
A guard appeared and opened the door. “Come with me.”
Honest John hesitated. The uncertainty of his fate was the worst part of the waiting. “I wish to parley with the jail keeper. I have important information.”
The soldier said, “Not my orders.”
“And what are your orders?”
“‘Move’ are my orders.”
The soldier, using his drawn short sword, guided Honest John down hallways that transformed from dungeon to living quarters. He walked past windows after climbing a spiral staircase and marched down a hallway with portraits. The soldier pointed to a small room containing a square table and four chairs. Honest John stepped inside, and the door locked behind him.
He eyed the cracks in the walls and pictured someone on the other side of the wall watching his every move. He sat on a chair, folded his arms, observing nothing. Waiting.
The door opened fifteen minutes later and a group of heavily armed soldiers entered. Two of them grabbed him and forced him to his knees. A third unsheathed his sword and pointed it at the back of his neck. Flowing into the room, a large man, more muscular than Honest John, tossed his purple robe over his shoulder. He had a thick, well-groomed beard and bushy eyebrows. The man drew two swords, twirled them, and aimed both at the prisoner. “Do you know who I am?”
Honest John shook his head.
“Come now. King Shade has drawings of Lord Helvys. He must have shared them with you. Is that not so…Honest John?”
The prisoner knew the lord expected him to react, but he remained impassive, head hanging down.
Lord Helvys grunted. “How could you have possibly believed I would not think you a spy? You are the king’s most loyal advisor. And I am to believe you are merely a guide helping an unfortunate family into Nor? King Shade must think me an imbecile.”
Honest John didn’t answer.
The lord rubbed his beard. “My first inclination is to chop off your head and send it back to Shade, yet I think acting rashly is precisely what he wants me to do. You know he would not pay me a stiver for your life.”
“As the true king,” said Honest John, “I am not surprised.”
“Humph! What I find surprising is how our population grows in Nor while yours declines. A true king needs citizens, yet Shade’s subjects flee from his territory.”
Honest John looked up and didn’t reply.
Lord Helvys crossed his arms. “Let us come to it. What are your true intentions here?”
“Let Ramsford and his family go. They are true to Nor and are but pawns.”
Lord Helvys considered the request. “You are in no position to bargain, but I am curious as to why Shade has sent you. Releasing the family is of no consequence to me. Soldier, depart and free the family after they swear an oath to Nor.”
One of the soldiers nodded and left.
“I have granted you your request, and now I want you to answer my questions. Why are you here? What does Shade want to say to his usurper?”
Honest John replied, “I am only allowed to communicate it in private.”
Lord Helvys snorted. “Of course. And now you expect me to say ’tis impossible. No, I shall grant your request. You are a hearty man, Honest John, but I could easily lop your head off.” He turned to the others. “Leave us.”
Without a word of protest, the rest of the soldiers left the room. Honest John stood and Lord Helvys sheathed his swords, confidence in his superior strength and apparent in his swagger. He motioned to a chair and both men sat down.
Lord Helvys said, “I am not a king, but a lord. When I become a ruler, I shall change the title, and give people more freedom than they have under your despot. And now, why did the whiny brat on the throne send you?”
Honest John folded his hands. “I come to ask if your daughter is open to a proposal of marriage to the king.”
Lord Helvys, not expecting this offer, opened and shut his mouth. He sat back on his chair and regarded Honest John curiously. “You have me at a disadvantage. I thought your monarch too free with women to think of such an endeavor.”
“He has heard of the remarkable talents of your daughter Helga and would like to know if you are open to such a union. Only I alone may deliver the answer to him. He trusts no one else. Kill me, and your answer is clear. But if you slay me, he says he will put Helga’s head on a stake and make you watch.”
Lord Helvys waved a hand as if swatting a gnat. “Words are his only weapons. Yet the man is impetuous and unpredictable. He may try something rash, something that would hurt us both.”
The lord reflected and, for the moment, appeared to forget about Honest John. Then his eyes focused on King Shade’s messenger. “Honest John, you are well-known throughout Kingdom. Many whisper you should be king, although I can tell you do not have the makings of a leader. You are not in Kingdom and may speak freely here. I guarantee no one listens at the cracks—there are no Kingdom spies within earshot.” The lord leaned forward. “You know the king. If you were my advisor, what would you say?”
Honest John unfolded his hands and placed them on the table. “You cannot answer the question without bringing his wrath. If you answer no, the animosity between Nor and King Shade’s territories becomes a focal point. His subjects will take it as a personal affront, and rally to his side.”
“Indeed, he has much to gain politically from my refusal.”
“If you answer yes, your daughter Helga dies within a week of her marriage to him.”
Lord Helvys’s eyes widened at the statement. Honest John remained imperturbable. “You doubt me?”
“Absolutely not,” replied the lord. “I know the tyrant would mean to kill her. I am shocked to hear you say it. You are nothing if not scrupulous.”
“He will kill her when he has finished with her. There will be no heir.”
“Truly? He wants no heir?”
Honest John sat back. “Only at the end of his life, and it will not be a Nor-woman. He has plans for Nor, Lord Helvys.”
“His power grows more weak by the day.”
Honest John rubbed his wrist. “Do not underestimate his allies. Have you found his spies yet? Why not? Your daughter is in danger no matter how you answer.”
Lord Helvys rubbed the hilt of his sword and stared at the man across from him for a long time. Suddenly, he clapped his hands together and laughed. “I like you. You will live.”
He stood and opened the door. “Give him food then escort him to me in Raider’s Row.”
The soldiers brought bread to Honest John who ate every last crumb. After he finished the meal, they marched him out of the room and up two staircases. They deposited him in a room with an oriel window overlooking a grassy plain. Lord Helvys sat near the opening, surveying the scene below. He motioned Honest John over to him.
“Come, take a look.”
Honest John approached the window. Below, an open field sprawled before him, a high ridge in the horizon surrounding it. Helmeted soldiers were engaged in maneuvers and performing exercises. As he watched, the soldiers formed a circle. Three guards broke apart, proceeded to the middle of the squadron, and stood at attention. Another soldier with a purple cloak strode from the castle toward the circle, and the men made a hole for him. He marched forward and faced the three guards.
The man from the castle raised his hand and then lowered it. The three guards rushed the newcomer with their swords drawn, leaping into battle. The purple-cloaked figure avoided two sword thrusts without drawing his weapon. A sharp blow to the back of the neck felled one of the attacking soldiers. A sword nicked the cloaked man’s arm but his opponent ignored the wound. The outnumbered man’s hand flew out faster than a cobra and landed on the second guard’s nose. A noise like the snapping of a branch echoed across the plain.
The third had made his way behind the man and drew back his sword to pierce him. However, the solitary defender anticipated his movement and ducked and rolled, knocking the third guard from his feet and leaping on top of him. The purple-cloaked man wrestled his sword from the surprised guard and held it to his neck. The guard raised his hands and cried, “Mercy!”
The purple cloaked stranger held up the sword and then thrust it down into the man’s side. Blood spewed from the man as he screamed and howled in pain. The victor got to his feet and stood in the center of the soldiers. Removing his helmet, the figure revealed not a man’s features but a girl’s. The girl shook her long, dark hair and glared at the crowd. “Let this be a lesson to you all. Do not surrender until your last breath. You will find no mercy here.”
Shocked, Honest John watched as the teenaged girl marched back toward the castle, flipping her cloak over her shoulder. He turned to Lord Helvys who shook his head. The lord said, “I have to tell her to stop maiming my soldiers.”
“It cannot be.”
“My daughter, Helga? The rumors are true. Snuck out and disguised herself as a footman against my wife’s orders and felled three giants in her first battle. I witnessed her victory over the giants, not realizing she was my daughter, and I was never prouder.”
“She is skilled in battle.”
Lord Helvys crossed his arms. “No, she is ruthless in battle. Her ability to view her adversary as a victim and not as a man gives her the advantage. She has no fear which makes her my most dangerous soldier. The legends you have heard about her, and some tales you have yet to hear, are true.”
Honest John said, “You will not allow her to marry.”
The lord raised his eyebrows. “I dare not. King Shade plots to kill Helga within a week of their marriage, but my daughter will kill him on their wedding night, taking control of Kingdom.”
“You would not want her to assassinate the king?”
Lord Helvys frowned. “Do you think I would gain the throne so dishonorably?”
“You do not appear to be such a man.”
“Astute you are, Honest John. The answer to your impossible offer is neither yes nor no. Tell Shade, if he wants my daughter’s hand in marriage, to come here and ask for it. She will give him his answer, but he will not like it.”
Honest John replied, “Wise. Answer an impossible question with an impossible condition. I understand why you are a leader.”
Lord Helvys clapped Honest John’s shoulder. “If the king shall fall, I will remember you. Recall these words before swallowing poison or falling on your sword. There shall be a place for you in Nor’s kingdom. Now, I shall call my guards to escort you to our borders. Farewell.”
Lord Helvys exited the room.
Rafter’s Glen, a bowl-shaped field, sat northeast of the royal castle. Three square acres wide, the glen was the site of many famous battles from Kingdom’s history. Former kings and queens planted memorial plaques into the ground commemorating key events of campaigns long past.
Honest John stood in the middle of the glen, waiting an hour past midnight. His breath mixed with the mist rising from the ground, standing resolutely as a sentry on watch. He cocked his ear at the rhythmic hollow sound of hooves on the soil.
Four soldiers emerged from the enfolding darkness, followed by a larger, more regal stallion behind them. The guards dismounted and rushed toward Honest John who ignored them, eyes focused on the man in back. Stopping at a distance of ten feet, they drew their bows and arrows and aimed them at him. The fifth figure also dismounted and approached him out of the line of fire of the archers.
Honest John kneeled. The fifth figure, a diminutive man with thin black hair, stopped six feet in front of him. Honest John remained kneeling for a full minute, awaiting his orders.
Honest John stood. “All went well, King Shade.”
The king had an irritating, nasal voice. “You are alive…I assumed as much. Tell me details.”
Honest John drew a deep breath. “The answer was if you want to marry Lord Helvys’ daughter, you shall have to ask her yourself.”
The monarch exhaled loudly. “The answer does not matter. Did you see her? Are the rumors accurate regarding her skill as a warrior?
“They are. I saw her engage three soldiers alone, and believe she may have been able to take on more. She also wounded one of her own when he cried for mercy. I fear the rumors may have underestimated her talents.”
The king released a heavy sigh. “If we battle Nor and she defeats us, there shall be no end of ridicule.”
“As well as loss of life.”
“Yes, replacing soldiers is costly. Did Helvys offer you sanctuary?”
Honest John swallowed. “He offered a position if he defeated you.”
“You have his trust. Good. I knew the rumors I started of our disagreement would benefit me. We must continue to meet like this. The people think you oppose me, and their loose tongues make you the eyes and ears of Kingdom.”
“As you wish. Speaking of which, I would like to return to the Inn of Five.”
The ruler’s eyes narrowed. “You have spent too much time there. I have warned you about the tavern owner. She is not to be trusted.”
“She is worthy of watching. I have brought you many reports on her. She has hired a new barmaid, and I stand to gain much with another visit.”
King Shade waved his hand. “Very well. Go and may the devil chase you if you are slow. I am disappointed for I wanted you to see the new heads in my collection. They may have rotted off by the time you return.”
“New heads? On the spikes as you enter the city?”
The king chuckled. “Precisely. I had Ramsford’s sister and her family slaughtered for his defection. The effect on the town is exactly what I had hoped for.”
“Sir, we set in motion the plot against Ramsford. You pretended interest in his daughter so he would flee.”
The king tapped his nose. “I know. I wish I could award myself a medal.”
He chuckled and retreated to his horse. In a moment, he sat astride the beast, turned it, and rode it back to the castle with his soldiers following.
Honest John sat at the bar at the Inn of Five on a busy night, the smoke hanging thick and twirling around its patrons. The sharp-sighted brunette owner strolled to his end of the counter. Her white gloves poured a drink and set it before him. She retrieved a small parchment, and read it aloud, whispering its words. When she finished, she looked him straight in the eyes. “How did your mission to Nor go?”
Honest John pushed back his chair. “What mission? You mistake me!”
The owner said, “The spell I read transforms our words into other words. To others, it sounds as if we are discussing trivial subjects. Do not worry.”
“Are you sure?”
“The parchment only has several uses before it vanishes forever. ’Tis a parting gift from a trusted companion.”
Honest John pulled forward his chair, deciding to trust her. “I had better information for Shade than for you. I do not believe Helga is one of the legendary five queens.”
The owner fiddled with her white gloves. “She was the right age, adopted, and calls herself a princess. I was certain she was one of the five. Tell me why you think her unworthy of consideration?”
“She was merciless on the battlefield. The legend of the five queens states the princesses are honor-bound, merciful, fair-minded. From what I saw, Helga is ruthless…and vicious. Hardly a maiden queen.”
The owner sighed. “I had hoped the rumors of her brutality were exaggerated. You do not mistake what you have seen?”
Honest John shook his head. “Do not pursue this one, Penta.”
She lapsed into silence, and Honest John spotted the new server chatting with a group of women in the corner. “You have hired a new barmaid. She has a loose tongue.”
The woman traced her finger in the water on the bar. “Her name is Planet, and I know her secret. Do not worry about her.”
“If she keeps speaking of the legend, there will be trouble.”
“The inn is named after the legend. How much more trouble could there be?” The owner regarded her companion. “Honest John, I thank you for your dangerous journey to Nor. I was worried the entire time you were there. I am relieved you are back safe.”
“We shall find them.”
“I am not completely discouraged. I overheard a man from Bremen yesterday talking to his companions. I may have another mission for you.”
Honest John leaned forward. “Another potential queen?”
“Possibly. It requires you to ask about a maiden. A magic mirror is causing her grief.”
“A maiden and a magic mirror? This is my quest?”
The brunette’s eyes flashed. “Yes. The time for the queens to ascend to the throne is near. We have only to look for them.”