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Chapter 1

Drawing a deep but silent breath, Joseph carefully parted the young green leaves of the ancient tree. Standing in the shadows of the castle arch, was the now-familiar frame of a large bearded man who shrank back a little when he saw the leaves rustling. Joseph turned to the young girl sitting on the branch across from him. She looked extremely beautiful in her extravagant lace dress.

"What is it?" Liliana asked. "Has Father come?" She would have moved down the branch to view for herself who Joseph peered at, but he prevented her by speaking softly, in a warning tone.

"Don't show yourself, Liliana. There's a man over there, slinking in the shadows of the archway. He's been following me around for over a week. I've seen him, each day, watching me. He's seen me here, in the tree now. I must return to my work."

"Why would someone watch you, Joseph?"

Joseph smiled. He liked it when Liliana used his secret name. Everyone else called him 'Apples.'

"I've no idea," Joseph answered, "and I must be careful not to imagine trouble..."

"He who answers a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame to him," Liliana quoted softly, adding; "it was my proverb today, and it fits so well."

Joseph leapt from the tree. He stumbled, but righted himself quickly. It would not do to have Liliana see him fall over! Joseph heard the vibrant rustle of her lace dress and knew she was climbing from the tree.

Before he could speak to prevent her joining him, allowing the man to see them together, she was at his side.

"Don't forget; we promised to remember each other," she said, "And, bring me another verse, soon; please. I'll be watching for you."

He shrugged inwardly, knowing the man would have no doubts now that they had been in the tree together.

Plucking one of the tree's first blossoms, Joseph touched it to his lips before offering it to Liliana, a thing he always did. A leaf; a flower; always with the hint of a kiss. This was as close as he dared come--he the pauper, she the lady. She smiled, taking the fragile flower in her small fingers, touching it to her lips. It was very precious to her.

Liliana, cushioning the blossom in her palm, said, "I keep them all, and all our verses, too."

Knowing he must not linger, and be seen passing time with the lord of the castle's daughter, Joseph hurried away without a backward look.

Taking up the heavy hoe, the lad continued working the damp soil of the castle garden, slicing small weeds growing between young vegetables. He hoped the sun would come out hot and wilt the wretched weeds, preventing them from taking root again. They were not large enough to remove by hand; it would take too long. Joseph hoped that if he hoed the garden every other day, it would keep weed free; but it had rained every morning, for four days. He had been too busy on the fifth day to come.

He sighed. So much to do; it was good to be occupied, but he hated having to behave in a frantic manner about his tasks. He realized the jobs he had to do in one day no longer matched the daylight hours.

Perhaps I should give up the castle garden, he thought...But I wouldn't see Liliana then. No, I can't give it up...the garden...or rather, Liliana. Just to see her gives me happiness. It's like gazing at a beautiful, unreachable star; but I still want to gaze...to be near to her...is bliss!

His eyes roved to the tree and he saw the shining fabric of Liliana's dress. She stood by the thick trunk, watching him, now smiling brightly. She waved and blew a kiss.

A blush surged over Joseph's face and he turned to see the man, still there, closer to the garden now, observing him at his work. He feared that the man disapproved of Liliana being there. Someone was going to prevent him seeing her. Bowing his head to the soil, he worked non-stop for over half an hour.

Looking up again, he saw that while Liliana had gone, the man still watched.

Joseph breathed deeply, savoring the earthy tang of the air. The weather had been alternatively cool, wet in the mornings and sunny in the afternoons. While it was good for the young vegetables, it also encouraged the weeds. Joseph attacked the unwanted intruders diligently, working until the whole garden was freshly turned.

Young vegetable shoots now stood plainly in their well-groomed rows. Joseph relaxed for a few seconds, viewing his work, then moving quickly here and there, he diligently smoothed any untidy soil with a narrow rake.

Everything he set his hand to, must be perfect; at least, it must be the very best he could do, he believed. Do the best you can with all you have, he reminded himself.

Snatching up a prepared bag, Joseph headed away from the castle, climbing the nearby hills, moving up a mountainside. It was still morning, and he hoped the sun would stay behind the blanket of cloud.

He had been commissioned to collect certain herb roots for the doctor who worked at the royal castle.

Joseph remembered the man in the arch, his personal spy. With a swift turn, he looked backward down the hillside. Sure enough, the man was in the distance, tailing him. Frowning deeply, Joseph pulled out his small work dagger. Kneeling down, he dug the roots and began filling the bag, conscious that the man was drawing closer than before. He soon could hear the man's heavy breathing. Joseph was being scrutinized as he worked.

I can understand him watching me at the castle--if it's because of Liliana--but here? Up here? While I'm digging roots? he mused, knowing he had no reasonable answer.

Joseph decided, as before, to ignore his uninvited observer. He pretended the man was invisible and chose not to look his way. Spying a certain rare berry growing nearby, he carefully uprooted the whole plant and wrapped the root with its own large leaves as Widow Allison had instructed. This plant, the widow had told him, mixed with certain other herbs, was a fast cure for bee and hornet stings. 'Take a few drops in a whole pitcher of water, and it will fix it,' she explained, 'gets rid of poison in the blood, it does.'

After delivering the full bag of herb roots to the doctor, Joseph took one of two pennies he received, to Widow Allison, with the berry plant. The widow looked after five small orphaned children, plus her own three. Tears rose in her eyes when Joseph gave her the penny. "You're my answer to prayer," she said, as she had many times before. "God will bless you, Joseph. I know you don't want thanks, but I thank you with all my heart. I baked corn buns, and you must have one." Joseph accepted the large bun hungrily. On the way past the city center well, he helped himself to a drink of the cool water, conscious that his watcher was not far behind.

For the hundredth time, he asked himself, Why would someone follow me? Lord Chester must have found out that Liliana meets me in the garden. He'll be real mad if he learns we're such agreeable friends...Joseph could imagine no other reason for someone spying on him. He quoted Liliana's verse, under his breath, "He who answers a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame to him."

Chapter 2

Joseph fetched his rickety handcart and pushed it to the forest edge where space had been made for people to collect wood. When he returned through the city gates, his load would be assessed and tax would be charged; this was why he had kept the penny. His cart fully loaded would cost a farthing. He had four loads to transport today.

Taking up an old axe, he chopped wood and stacked it neatly, piling the cart high. To his horror, the cart creaked, shuddered, and then collapsed.

Returning to the city, Joseph borrowed a hammer and some nails from one of the many carpenters, after which he walked back to the forest, unloaded the wood, repaired the cart and began reloading. The large man who had watched his diligent work joined him; the man he now considered to be his 'personal spy.'

"I'll help you," the man said gruffly, removing his costly cloak. He began throwing the wood on the cart.

Joseph stared at him in surprise. Close up, the man was larger than ever. His clothes were not those of a servant, but of a rich man of consequence. Buttons on the man's velvet vest glittered in the sunshine.

"Thank you, Sir," Joseph said earnestly. He would never refuse a helping hand. "But please, be careful; although the cart is repaired, it's not very strong. I'll not load it so high this time."

Joseph rearranged the wood thrown in by the man. He liked to stack it properly rather than have it in an untidy heap. He was glad to see the man obey his wish; but by the appearance of the man's large smooth hands, Joseph knew stacking wood had not kept his hands busy before.

To Joseph's surprise, the man helped him by supporting and pushing the cart when they came to a rough piece of road. The man had not introduced himself, and did not speak again. Joseph wondered whether or not to ask why he was following him.

When in doubt, it's better to be quiet, he reminded himself. However, he asked, "Do you live in the city?"

The man did not answer.

After returning the hammer and remaining nails, Joseph delivered half the wood to the widow's house, and then took the rest to another house where he was paid one penny. Returning to the forest, he collected what he had left behind and chopped wood until he refilled the cart. A baker in the city needed three loads today.

Again, the man helped load the cart and Joseph felt he was watching for his reaction as wood was deliberately placed out of kilter. The lad said nothing, but restacked the pieces. After following Joseph back to the city, the man disappeared.

Joseph did not receive money from the baker, but food. For the three loads, he was given enough food for twenty people, but Joseph knew it would have to feed thirty--thirty-one--if he counted himself.

He took crusty bread rolls to the place outside the city wall where homeless beggars slept. There was Dan who was old and blind; Harry, younger, was blind too. Dolly, an old lady who went everywhere with the younger lady, Jill, was also blind. Dolly's sister, Cherry, was terribly deformed and stone deaf. The other twenty-five were a mixture of cripples, disabled, aged, and handicapped.

Having distributed the food, Joseph made sure they all had their rugs and were settled for the night, in the shelter of the wall, under the overhang of the steps leading to the wall top. As he turned away, he saw that his personal spy had returned. This time, a smaller man stood with him, watching as Joseph bade his friends good night.

***

The sinking sun painted the city with orange flames, creating deepening shadows. Feeling bone weary, Joseph could have easily skipped his evening wash, but he remembered how much better he slept after removing the grime of the day. Therefore, he headed down to the river, collecting his sun bleached, well-worn clothes from the branches where he had left them to dry. Placing them on a large rock, he moved around the riverbank to a high place. Joseph leaped in, fully clothed, causing a large splash.

He felt good, making the splash. It gave him a sense of power; something big happened when he hit the water. Diving into a deep spot, he pealed off his clothes, surfacing to rub the hem of his tunic where it had brushed in the soil when he knelt to collect the herb roots. He placed his sopping garments on the edge of the rock.

Joseph swam across the river and back, enjoying the relaxation of the water, diving under the water, massaging his scalp with his fingertips.

The warmth of the large rock at the river's edge was welcome and Joseph sat there, pulling on his dry clothes, listening to the last songs of the birds as they settled for the night. Deepening twilight painted the sky blood red and Joseph relaxed in his beautiful out-door bath chamber. Lifting his eyes to the sky, he said, aloud, "Thank You Father. I'm the richest boy in all the world."

"What makes you imagine such a thing?" a deep voice resounded from the shadows behind Joseph.

Feeling indignant, Joseph spoke without thinking, "Who are you? Why've you been following me?"

"I asked you a question, child. What makes you think you're rich?"

Joseph felt intimidated at the commanding tone of his watcher. The smaller man stepped closer to the river's edge, waiting for the lad's reply.

Joseph decided to answer truthfully, "Well, Sir; do you see the beautiful sunset? Look at the crimson reflections in my river--my favorite things are here; they were made by my Father and they belong to me."

Silence.

Joseph stood, collected his wet clothes, and added, "My Father made it all; and I like it all so much."

"And who is your father?" the smaller man asked, following Joseph with his tall broad shouldered companion.

"Why, God, of course." Joseph climbed the tree, hanging his clothes in the branches. When he descended, the men had disappeared.

Chapter 3

Joseph arrived in the orchard, just outside the city wall. He knelt under the apple tree where his mother was buried, and prayed aloud for all his friends, for Liliana, for his acquaintances, and dependants; and for the king and queen. All the while, he felt the unnerving, continuing sensation that he was being watched.

He prayed, "And God, bless those who watch me. Keep me from harm."

He strode to his place near the wall where he slept under a ledge. Feeling around in the darkness, he discovered the space was empty. His blanket was missing. The night was cool, damp; and Joseph knew it would grow colder. He could not sleep here without his woolen rug since his tunic was too thin and he would shiver from cold. Perhaps he would catch a chill. He sighed. This had happened before. Someone must have needed the blanket. He would go to the place he slept in winter, when snow covered the ground and it was much too cold to sleep outside.

The kitchen chamber in the royal castle was warm as toast and Joseph entered it as though he were the owner. Castle guards knew him and just today they had allowed him passage through here to take the herb roots to the doctor. He often felt he was looked upon in a manner similar to the castle cats that also came and went as they pleased. They caught rodents--and he fetched wood.

The cook in the kitchen allowed him to sleep there as payment for keeping the wood and coal boxes full. Even in summer time, Joseph did this chore, and the cook allowed him to gather scraps and leftover food from the kitchen to feed his friends and often himself. Although he knew that this 'payment' cost the cook nothing, he did not murmur or demand something more.

Curling up by the massive hearth, away from the feline creatures and their fleas, Joseph slept until three a.m.

All was still and dark in the castle at this hour. Even the guards slumbered. Joseph placed a candle in a holder and lit the wick. The stone floor under his feet was cold and he shivered as he traversed the dark, empty corridor and walked up the narrow spiral staircase.

Soon he entered the chamber he often visited at this hour of the morning. It was the royal library. Sometimes, in the winter, when it was too inclement to work, he would spend all night here, after which he slept most of the day.

Joseph lit the large oil lamp in the library and drew the Bible from its place on the shelf. He liked to read from the book of the Proverbs because much of the advice given there, he could apply in his daily life. Many of the warnings could be passed on; and Joseph often quoted verses he had learned from this book. This morning he discovered a verse that was new to him, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."

I'm known as Apples; and I live in this kingdom of Justiceburg that some people call the 'Kingdom of Gold.' I must make sure that every word I speak is like gold, valuable and worthwhile. He thought of Liliana; She's like gold in a picture of silver...I'll share this verse with her next time I go to Chester Castle.

Joseph sat thinking about Liliana, watching the dawn lighten the thick glass window at the other end of the library chamber. People search after gold; it's very precious. I'd like my words to be precious, like gold.

"What are you are doing in here?" a deep, stern voice questioned.

Joseph turned in dismay. Never before had he been interrupted whilst reading in this library. His eyes grew wider when he saw it was that man, his watcher, his personal spy.

Joseph was speechless. The tone of the man made him feel out of place, as if he committed a heinous crime.

The old curator had often warned, "Although no one comes to the royal library before breakfast, you must always return to the kitchen at dawn, Apples." He had also told the lad, "Before King Lemuel comes to his library, castle attendants and guards always precede him to make sure the library is dust free, tidy, and unoccupied. All will be well, so long as you are careful with the books and do not stay after dawn."

Standing, Joseph bowed low, then said, "Please Sir, I came here to read...but I always leave before dawn..."

"You came to...to...read? Who taught you to read?"

"Brother Simon, Sir; he taught me many things; but he's dead now..."

"And who gave you the right to come to the king's library?"

"Sir Howarth did, Sir."

"Sir Howarth?"

"Yes Sir. He's the castle curator."

"I'm quite aware of Sir Howarth's position, boy!" The man stared intently at Joseph. His brown eyes narrowed as he said, "King Lemuel will be surprised..."

"The king?" Joseph said, alarmed.

"Before I tell him of this irregularity, perhaps there's something else you may like to divulge about your activities, boy." He waited, but Joseph did not speak, so he said, as though summarizing, "You have no given name, but are known as "Apples." You sleep in the king's kitchen, and you read books in the king's library. Have you anything else to add?"

"No, Sir," Joseph said politely; then blushed and added quickly, "Except perhaps, Sir, I believe I pay my way well. I keep the king fed all the year around, and warmed in the winter."

"And how do you do that?"

"I fetch wood, and coal, for the kitchen fires; all year. In the summer, I fully stock the courtyard bins with both wood and coal. If the winter is longer than usual, as it was this year, Sir, I restock the bins."

"You do, do you?" The man said. He grinned suddenly, from ear to ear as though he found the matter most amusing. Then he extended his hand in a friendly manner, saying, "I am Sir Pippin. And you are...Apples..."

Joseph shook Sir Pippin's hand, and then said, "As you have said, Sir, 'Apples' is the name people know me as, Sir; but I privately call myself Joseph."

"Joseph; why Joseph?"

"I read of Joseph in the Bible, Sir; and, next to Jesus, I like him best of all. Although he spent a long time as a slave, and in prison, he never lost his faith in God."

"I'd like to know more about you, Apples...Joseph..."

The two sat together at the small desk and Joseph found himself telling Sir Pippin things he had never had the opportunity to tell anyone before. It seemed to Joseph that Sir Pippin was very interested, as he asked many questions and listened intently to the lad's answers.

When Joseph descended to the kitchen, it was late. He ate leftover cold porridge, and hurried off to do his chores. He was troubled, because Sir Pippin had told him that King Lemuel would be hearing about him, and the king would want to speak with Joseph himself.

"Stay within the castle perimeters today, Boy--that means not going outside the outer wall. I'll come for you myself, when the king finalizes a time."

It was impossible for Joseph to understand why the king would wish to speak with him; what was it that he had done so wrong?

Joseph tried to picture King Lemuel; he had rarely seen the royal person. Paupers like Joseph stayed much in the background; and never had he been close to the king. He recalled the few times he had seen the king and queen at a distance, riding in the royal carriage, in a royal procession. Soldiers in bright uniforms rode with the carriage, and the immaculately groomed horses were decked out in bright dressage, with golden fringing. Joseph, though greatly interested, had always found himself too busy to stand and watch on such occasions.

Now he was to meet the king and perhaps answer to him about his intrusion into the royal castle.

Chapter 4

When the summons came, it was late in the day. Joseph, escorted by Sir Pippin, and inwardly trembling, stood before King Lemuel, who sat on his golden throne in the amazing throne room of the royal castle.

The massive chamber was practically empty. Joseph felt overawed by the size and beauty of his surroundings.

He was aware of a smaller throne beside the king's throne and that a queenly figure sat upon this throne; but he dared not gaze upon Her Majesty; his eyes were directed to the floor at his own feet.

Joseph had not thought he would have to stand before the king's throne. It seemed every nerve in his body reacted to his emotions; his heart thumped in his throat and he was unable to prevent his body from trembling.

"Apples, of Justiceburg," Sir Pippin announced.

The king stared down at the young lad who bowed, then knelt, awkwardly, due to his nervousness.

Lifting his head, and standing on the royal command, "Rise," Joseph looked briefly at His Royal Majesty who wore the jewel studded golden crown. He had no idea how old the king might be. Hints of silver tinged the king's dark hair and his thick beard was sprinkled with silver as well. To the boy, he appeared fierce and uncompromising; the ultimate judge under God.

Joseph's apprehensions made him unable to imagine that the king might have kindly eyes.

Then the king spoke and his deep voice reverberated in the great chamber, causing Joseph to tremble all the more.

"Apples; you were born in this city. Your father, Elam, was a loyal soldier who lived in the city, married to your mother whose name was Merola. When your father died from a riding accident, in the king's service, your mother was left alone. She had no income and no home. Sadly to say, she is buried in the orchard outside the city walls. Therefore, Apples, you are an orphan."

The king then spoke about the way Joseph lived, and his work. It sounded to the lad, as though King Lemuel was talking of someone else. Joseph felt strangely detached.

It was obvious to Joseph that Sir Pippin had told the king everything about him. But the king did not mention Liliana or the fact that Joseph read in the royal library.

"Apples, we would be pleased to have you dine with us now."

Joseph was overwhelmed at this invitation--or command--and he felt disagreeable, reluctant. But one did not say 'no' to the king!

The dining chamber, to which Joseph was ushered, was small and private, one the king and queen rarely used. Meals were normally partaken of in the Great Hall and with a large company of people, the king's court, and often, numerous guests.

Due to the fact that only the king and queen and Sir Pippin were present, the lad was more nervous than ever. Wherever he looked, he felt royal eyes upon him.

Joseph took every care to behave as best he knew how, although he ate little of the food. His stomach churned into a cramping knot. He felt out of place and wished he could leave.

After the sumptuous meal, the king commanded they move to a sitting chamber. King Lemuel explained to Joseph the reason why he had been followed.

"Both the queen and I were the only children of our parents, and we ourselves have no children; therefore the Kingdom of Justiceburg is without an heir.

"We have searched and searched our kingdom for the right person to train for the position of king. No one has been suitable as far as we, Queen Lois and I, have determined. So we prayed and asked God to show us who should become the next king.

"Then, one night, as we looked down from the top of the western wall of our castle, we saw a small figure kneeling under the apple tree; a young boy. At first we did not believe that a beggar boy from the city could be the one. For seven evenings, we watched the same lad kneel to pray; then we asked Sir Pippin to discover everything he could about the boy.

"We believe, Apples; you have the potential, the character, to train as king. More than that, we feel, strangely, that God may have led us to you."

Joseph gulped and closed his eyes. Never in a hundred years would he have imagined such a thing. Sir Pippin had been following him to see how he spent his time, to study him as a prospective prince!

The king spoke again, saying, "I've read, in the Holy Scriptures, a verse that assisted our search, and I believe that time may prove you to be that one, Apples."

Unrolling a scroll, the king read, "Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no longer be admonished."

"Oh, Sir...but...Your Majesty; you're not old, or foolish," Joseph blurted, then bowing his head he said, "forgive me for being so out-spoken."

To his concern, the king laughed, but not unkindly.

"And you are as wise as you are poor..."

"Wise beyond your years, Joseph," Queen Lois agreed softly, her blue eyes filled with tenderness. Joseph felt the soft voice calm his fears. He looked at the queen's face for the first time. Her face glowed with beauty, and her blue eyes were filled with love. She smiled at him and Joseph felt his eyes fill. He bowed his head, blinking away the unexpected tears.

I never cry, he reminded himself; to cry is most unseemly. It was impossible for him to understand the depths of his emotions.

Two more castle officials joined the king and queen, and together they talked about Joseph and his life. The hour grew late. Joseph gave honest answers to the many questions with which he was plied. Soon just the adults were conversing.

"Can a leopard change it's spots?" one counselor asked.

"Who said we are dealing with a leopard?" the queen asked.

"Time will reveal the inward colors of the spots; they will come to the surface, just as time alone can reveal the cunning fox, or the true royalty of the lion's heart."

Joseph lost concentration at this point, feeling he had missed something; why were animals being discussed? His eyes rebelled his efforts to hold them open. His body felt numb from sitting still in the huge chair to which he had been directed; one of his legs had gone to sleep, but he dared not stand to move about, or suggest that he leave. His head nodded. The day had been long; had he not been in the library this morning before dawn? Was it still the same day? He began to wonder if he were dreaming.

Joseph found himself led to a large bedchamber and put to bed. He lay awake on the unfamiliar, soft mattress, daring not to move, unable to sleep a wink, yet unable to compile his thoughts. The king's last words circled his head, and he knew he had no choice, but to do as told.

"You'll sleep here, tonight, Apples; you'll stay in the bedchamber until Sir Pippin comes for you."

Before dawn, he climbed from the bed and curled up on the lush thick mat on the floor, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Sir Pippin said nothing of Joseph sleeping on the floor. He brought a breakfast tray to an anteroom and the pair ate hot porridge and fruit, in silence. A man arrived; the royal tailor. Joseph was measured for new clothes.

Then Sir Pippin, alternating with the other two royal advisers, Sir Vokoll and Sir Bradley, read a list of rules. After each one, Joseph was asked to promise to abide by it.

"Just reply, 'I promise,'" he was told.

"You will obey each directive given you by King Lemuel and Sir Pippin, without questioning; do you so pledge?

"I promise," Joseph said.

"You will not leave the Royal Castle outer walls, on any occasion, for any amount of time, for any reason; other than that directed by the king. Do you so promise?"

"I promise."

"You will never tell a soul, nor write down the fact that once you were a pauper named Apples. Do you so agree?"

"Yes."

"You make a promise?" Sir Vokoll demanded.

"I promise."

"You will tell no one that you are training to be a prince. You will keep secret the idea of being crown prince or, one day, the king. Do you so promise?"

"I...I...the king?"

"You're just required to promise," Sir Bradley reminded him.

"I...I promise."

"You will serve the king and be loyal to him, believing he has been appointed by God to rule this kingdom."

"I do believe that, Sir; and, I promise."

"You will strive to be the very best you can be in the manner the king wishes to educate and train you."

"Yes...I promise."

Joseph felt his head whirling; things were moving so fast; too fast, changing too rapidly. No longer was he the free boy who could please himself to work all day long and earn his pennies. He wondered if he really wanted to do all these things? Had he not just promised he would? Never to leave the castle perimeter?

I'm trapped, he told himself; to disobey the king is to commit treason...to disobey our king is to disobey God.

Joseph was ushered to an office where the king and queen awaited him. All morning, the king forecast the role Joseph would take to become the crown prince.

The promises Joseph had made were reconfirmed.

"Never again will you be called 'Apples,' we will call you 'Joseph,' for a lengthy trial period; then if we, the queen and I, feel you are a worthy prince to ascend the throne of Justiceburg, we will have a ceremony installing you as crown prince. At that ceremony you will be given a new name. You will be formally adopted as our son and heir. But; until then, you shall not be known as, or even considered part of, the royal family."

It seemed so final. Joseph felt he was still dreaming...the same dream had not ended yet, but was continuing. Perhaps he would wake up, under the ledge in the wall, or beside his mother's grave under the apple tree. The tears of the previous night threatened him and he shook his head, forcing them back.

He tried to imagine why he should feel like crying; why he was sad? He had no understanding of his deepest emotions.

Another sensation swamped Joseph; he was losing himself, somehow his inner being, his self-assured nature, was dissolving; nothing would be the same again.

Chapter 5

Joseph was unhappy. How could he explain to the great King Lemuel and his beautiful wife, Queen Lois, that he wanted his 'old' life back--to care for the beggars and the widow woman who took in homeless children because he, Joseph, was able to help the widow with money, wood and food; the destitute folk in the city who depended upon him. If he became crown prince, who would take care of them?

King Lemuel had never once asked Joseph what he wanted, and Joseph felt sure that no one considered his feelings on the matter. Who would believe that a pauper would not want to be a prince? he mused.

What about Liliana? As Joseph thought of the beautiful Liliana, a wistful smile crossed his face. If he had such a position as prince, he could dare to think; perhaps; one day; perhaps, yes, he might, one day, reach and touch the impossible star.

Instead of kissing a flower or a leaf, perhaps he may even kiss her hand, or, dare to kiss her cheek, or, her lips?

His past was a dream--a lonely memory hidden in the deepest part of his heart where he forced his unshed tears.

Sir Pippin tested Joseph's reading skills and knowledge and told him that he was most uneducated. Although he could read, and had a good knowledge of words and their usage, he had little knowledge of the world outside the royal city. Five tutors were appointed to teach him history, languages, geography, mathematics, reading, writing skills, and grammar; with kingdom law and map reading to follow when he had made sufficient progress. Lessons would take the largest portion of each day. A sun-lit chamber was set aside as Joseph's schoolroom.

The adjacent dining room was where the king and queen would take breakfast with him; but he, alone, would take his evening meal here. All other time, save sleeping, Joseph would spend in the presence of King Lemuel, wherever his royal majesty was, to learn about kingship. Joseph was to listen to all the king's judgments, and to learn from him.

A place was assigned for Joseph to stand, to the side, and beneath the dais upon which the thrones of the king and queen were situated. The king's advisors stood with Joseph. The lad, in his mindless, cheerless state, has no idea of the great privilege he had been accorded.

Joseph's unhappiness increased. He did not appreciate, or like, the training to become a prince. Lessons were somewhat enjoyed, reading of course, history and geography were favorites; but he disliked languages and mathematics. At first, he found it extremely difficult, learning to write properly; to hold the quill correctly and control it to make the letters form accurately. His fingers felt clumsy and it was then he wished he were outside, in the fresh air, chopping wood.

The new clothes felt restrictive and unfamiliar; he must get used to wearing leather boots; and he was to be tutored on how to bow to the king and queen; what to say in their presence and how to address their Royal Majesties.

Joseph worried, constantly, about his beggar friends and the old folk; the widow and her children. He did not sleep very well at night, other than on the floor rug.

One night, unable to rest at all, Joseph crept to the kitchen where he gathered the leftover food and asked a servant who was refueling the huge kitchen stove fires, to take it to the poor at the wall in the city. Having been assured that his wishes would be obeyed, the lad slept deeply for the remainder of the night. A castle guard had followed him to the kitchen and back.

He longed to go and see Liliana and wondered who did the gardening now? Perhaps Liliana liked the new gardener more than she liked him? In his dreams, Liliana seemed further away from him than ever. Like a star in the eastern sky, he feared she would grow dimmer in the light of his own unwanted promotion. "I will never forget you, Liliana," he whispered. The following night, he could not sleep, so he went to the library to read.

Joseph read from the Bible. He read about Jesus; how Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. 'Whosoever receiveth children . . . receiveth Me,' he read, and, 'Whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.'

Joseph longed to help more of the truly needy people he had seen in his city.

But now he had to serve and impress rich people. Learning to say the right things; to say them in French and German; to bow correctly. He had promised to obey.

I'm a prisoner of my promises, he told himself, feeling miserable. "Please God," he prayed softly, "help me to do what is right, even if I have to give up being a prince...I'm only in training. Perhaps they won't want me at the end of the time. I want to help the homeless...the orphaned children...dear old Dolly...they were my family..." he brushed tears away as faces and names of the poor and disabled flashed across his mind. "I have to help them."

Again, he returned to the kitchen and sorted the small food portions, those considered 'leftovers' and stale food, placing it into a large bowl. This time, he had to wake the servant to ask him to take it to the folk at the wall. The man demanded payment. Joseph replied that he owned not even a quarter of a farthing, a tad.

"Surely you c'n oblige, young sir," the servant persisted, "in y' high and lofty position y' can give me a few tads. What are y'? A page? Surely they give y' an allowance?" His piercing eyes wandered across the rich fabric of Joseph's new tunic. "Y' can tell me what y' do, can't y'?"

Joseph remembered his promises, and knew he could not answer this man's questions, so he said, "I...I don't have any coins at all. I...I don't receive even a tad; I have no allowance. But, keep an account; one day I'll repay you, with interest." Joseph felt sure he could go back to chopping wood if necessary.

The servant seemed satisfied and said he would keep a 'finger account' of what Joseph owed. "One tad each night that y' want me to take the food," the servant said. "I'm real busy y' know; I have to keep this monstrous place fuelled with wood 'n coal...it's a huge task 'n I'm never done."

Joseph swallowed; he was sure that the man would find it much more taxing after the summer, when the weather grew colder. "All right," he agreed, "a tad each night, but you must make sure that you take food every night."

Joseph knew the tads would soon add into pennies and that after a few months, he would owe a much larger sum than 'just a few tads.'

Chapter 6

Queen Lois noticed the dark rings under Joseph's eyes. The queen had grown to love Joseph like a son. She longed to put her arms around him and hug him. He seemed so sad; so lonely, unreachable. If only she could tell him how she felt. To her, he was not just a 'project' to become a prince, but someone to care for and to love; the son she had not given birth to, her son. But King Lemuel commanded his wife that she not show any sign of acceptance or affection until the 'trial' period was over. The queen would never disobey the king's orders so she was unable to offer Joseph any comfort.

Queen Lois asked Sir Pippin to find an appropriate moment to discover what was troubling the prospective prince. She wanted an answer as soon as possible.

Sir Pippin had not been as observant as the queen, but he knew Joseph was not of the happy countenance he had been when he had lived as 'Apples.'

The adviser found Joseph in the library, doing research on a history assignment.

After watching the lad for some while, Sir Pippin realized there would be no 'appropriate moment.' Joseph was extremely diligent about his lessons; and soon he would attend the king, for his 'king-ship lessons.'

Dark rings under Joseph's eyes took his attention.

"Do you sleep well, Joseph?" he asked.

Without looking up, Joseph answered truthfully, "When I sleep, I sleep very well, Sir Pippin."

"Are you happy, Joseph?"

Looking up from his books, he replied, "I'm enjoying this history assignment very much, thank you, Sir."

"You are happy in your new role?"

"My role?"

"Training to be crown prince," Sir Pippin persisted, adding, "Something troubles you, Joseph, and I'd like you to confide in me. I may be able to help."

"I...I do not wish to seem ungrateful," Joseph said, wondering how to explain. "I...I...perhaps..." he smiled wryly, "I should have promised to be happy...but happiness wasn't a requirement. I...but it seems ungrateful..."

"You've never been ungrateful, Joseph," Sir Pippin encouraged, taking a step backwards to perceive such deep pain in the lad's eyes.

"I...I need forgiveness then," Joseph said, bowing his head, "for I have to say, I've been ungrateful..." He plunged into the center of his worries, saying, "And I felt more at home...more useful...before. I'd rather just live my life as 'Apples' if it means I can help those in need."

"Those in need?" Sir Pippin knew of whom Joseph spoke, but wished to draw the lad out, to solve his problem. "How can I help you do this, Joseph?"

"I...I would like to be able to earn," Joseph took a deep breath and said, "seven tad each week."

"Less than two farthings? To help those in need?"

Although he felt sure it was known, Joseph explained how he had been going, at night, to the kitchen to arrange for food to be taken to the poor, and how the servant had demanded payment.

"Seven tad, would mean one tad, for each day of the week," Joseph said earnestly.

"Food is distributed to the poor every day," Sir Pippin said, feeling he must defend the king in this matter.

"The food is given out at the front of the castle, where all can see," Joseph said softly. "It's a good gesture, and shows that there's kindness coming from the royal castle; but those who sleep by the city wall can't walk that far--some cannot walk at all--so--perhaps they go hungry; I don't know for I promised not to leave the castle. I...I feel responsible. Every time I sit at a laden table, I think of those who have nothing. And...I do not criticize King Lemuel, no. He does give to the poor; but those I speak for are poorer than front-of-the-castle folk, and they are in more need. Is...is...seven tad too much for them, Sir?"

Sir Pippin could not reply. Joseph was earnest in his request, he had no clue as to the vast riches of the king, and it was obvious to the king's adviser that Joseph was not about to exploit his position.

"I'd be happy to chop wood. I could earn several pennies in one morning, and that would take care of the food..." he almost bit his tongue because he longed to be able to send a penny to the widow, but perhaps that was too much to ask.

"I'll see what I can do," Sir Pippin said.

***

Queen Lois was amazed when Sir Pippin recounted what Joseph had said. She decided she must tell her husband.

King Lemuel pondered on the problem. He'd grown very fond of Joseph. As the lad followed him around, he found it easy to imagine this was his own son, following in his footsteps. It troubled him that Joseph did not feel at home in the castle; that he had to sneak to the kitchen to make sure the scraps were given to his friends in the city.

Joseph may never have imperial blood, or a prince's mind, the king thought, especially if he believes he could give it all up and go back to being a beggar boy.

"He wants to chop wood?" the king asked, unable to comprehend how Joseph could consider it.

"Surely as a prince in training, Joseph should be able to help those who suffer poverty," the queen said seriously, "and surely he does not have to be a ragged urchin to help those in this city. He must never be allowed to go back to that kind of life, but he must be encouraged to show kindness and charity to those in need."

King Lemuel spoke with his wife and their three advisers. "We have no hope of having a son of our own blood. We like this boy, and believe he could make a good king; the people will relate to him. We can learn from Joseph; we need more compassion for our subjects. We'll give Joseph an incentive to help him accept his role."

Turning to Sir Pippin, the king said, "See that Joseph is given an allowance, each week. One...no, two crown, to begin. Have him keep an account of how he apportions it."

When Sir Pippin placed the velvet pouch in Joseph's hands, the lad's eyes lit up with joy and thankfulness.

"It's your allowance...two coins," the advisor said, a twinkle in his eye.

"Two pennies?" Joseph said, opening the bag.

"You underestimate your king..."

Two crowns gleamed their golden images into Joseph's eyes. He felt his vision dancing with excitement.

"Perhaps you do not have a use for such an allowance?" Pippin suggested.

Smiling, Joseph pushed the coins across the table, saying, "Yes, thanks, Sir, but they need tads, farthings and pennies. Those I know, have no use for crowns."

"You want it...both coins...changed into coppers...and tads? You'll need a small chest! Oh...and I must tell you, Joseph, you must account for it all. King Lemuel wishes to know how you spend it."

"It will be the first time I'll enjoy writing figures, Sir Pippin," Joseph said, his happiness overflowing. He could again give help to those who could not help themselves.

Joseph did not know yet that he would be receiving two crowns each week. He imagined this allowance would have to last him several months!

Chapter 7

Joseph paid the kitchen servant, whose name he learned was Floyd, two week's fee for taking the leftover food to the paupers who slept by the wall. He gave an extra tad to encourage the man.

Then, when he asked questions about the paupers, Floyd demanded another tad, "For information," and Joseph obliged, wishing he could visit his needy friends himself.

He wondered if he could trust Floyd to buy food for the widow and her children, or to take a small amount of money to her each week. Next time he saw Floyd, he asked, "Floyd, I'd like you to take a penny to Widow Allison. She lives in the last house on West Lane. And I'll give you two farthings for supplying her with wood."

"I'll do it this week, but I'll have to see about it in the future...I work hard y' know, and don't have much spare time for doin' all these extras you wants."

I used to take care of the wood and other tasks as well, Joseph remembered, feeling sure that Floyd did not work as hard as he had. He does not extend himself at all.

At the beginning of the next week, when Sir Pippin gave him two more sovereigns, and after he recovered from the shock of owning such a handsome weekly allowance, Joseph shared the difficulty with the king's adviser.

"I should have thought it to be obvious, young sir," Pippin said, and explained, "your allowance should buy you any and all the assistance you require, without having to use someone who already receives adequate employment here in the royal castle. Unlike yourself Joseph, when you did such work, Floyd is well paid."

"Then, what do you advise? Who should I employ?"

Sir Pippin beamed. As an adviser to King Lemuel, his favorite activity was to give advice. He had hoped that this young lad, who, as far as Pippin could see, was headed for the throne, would ask advice of him.

"Now, it's this way, young sir. Because you can't make yourself known at all, it would be best if you employed a personal messenger, one to go about doing all those things that you would want to do yourself."

"But surely someone like that would have to be greatly trusted, and, he would also require a handsome salary..."

"Of course he'd have to be trusted," Pippin said, "and I know just the lad. He's the second son of my cousin. He's always declared he wants to live in the royal castle, like me, and, one day to advise the king. I'll ask King Lemuel if you may employ him. I'd say a quarter of a crown a month, with food and board here in the castle, would be a good starting salary for him. He may want the option of a day off sometimes, to visit with his family."

"And he'd keep confidence?"

"Closed as a night owl, young sir; all he'd ever ask, is 'who' and then he'd keep the rest to himself and report right back to you. That's how I started out, when King Lemuel was a lad like you. I remember an axiom that King Lemuel's own father told him..." he paused briefly, then said, "The wise old owl sat on the oak and the more he heard, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard--we should be like that wise old bird."

Joseph smiled and said, "I really like that quote; I shall memorize it," and he repeated it, word for word.

"King Lemuel also liked it, young sir; and together we memorized it, when he was a young lad, about your age."

Joseph pondered on the fact that once King Lemuel had been a young lad; it was difficult to imagine him to be any other that the absolute monarch, the kingly being he was. But once, the king too, had been a boy in this huge castle.

"Well, young sir, do you approve of my advice?"

"Approve? Yes, Sir Pippin, thank you. And it will be good, also, to have someone my age to talk with..."

Sir Pippin was very pleased that his cousin's boy, Philip, was so easily placed into service in this, his castle. The boy's father had died when he was 12, and the lad's mother would be greatly honored, and relieved, to have her second son started on a good vocation, one the lad wanted himself. The eldest son, who had inherited their small estate, was able to manage it without Philip's help.

The day Joseph received his third allowance, Philip moved into the royal castle to be Joseph's personal helper and messenger.

Joseph's first meeting with Philip was one at which all three king's advisers were present.

Philip was taller than Joseph, broader, and looked older than his fourteen years. His countenance emitted an aristocratic air, similar to that of his second cousin, Pippin's. Like the elder-adviser's eyes, Philip's eyes were brown, as was his glossy mop of hair, swept back and tied with a ribbon as was the fashion for young men of genteel up-bringing.

Philip was required to make promises, somewhat similar to those Joseph had made, except that the young adviser, two years older than Joseph, was permitted to leave the royal castle at Joseph's command. He was to be 'Sir Joseph's' feet, eyes, ears, hands, and lips, upon any errand, which was to be done without hesitation or question. Philip promised 'not to question Sir Joseph's position in the castle, nor to seek knowledge of it from any other person.'

Sir Pippin gave Philip a silver ring, a miniature of the ones all three advisers wore. They bore the crest of the crown of Justiceburg and could be used for sealing official messages.

The only others with this ring were the three royal scribes. King Lemuel, as absolute sovereign, wore his own special ring, one of a kind.

"You will promise only to use your ring when questioned by an elder as to your business about the city. "

"I promise," said Philip, pushing it on his largest finger.

"You will promise, at all times to refer to Sir Joseph, only as 'Sir.' When asked whose business you are about, you will reply, 'I am on business for Sir Pippin, of the Royal Castle.' Then, if questioned more, show your ring."

"Yes, I understand; and, I promise," Philip replied.

"You will promise, Philip, that if you have any questions, any disagreements about your role here, you won't discuss them with Sir Joseph, but bring them to one of us. As an adviser-in-training, you will learn to take advice from us three."

"I promise," Philip replied.

"Any deviation from these promises you have made, Philip, and you'll be sent home. However, upon keeping your promises and being of service to Sir Joseph, you will find yourself worthy of promotion within the royal court."

Sir Pippin turned to Joseph, "We require you, Sir Joseph, to promise not to discuss personal matters from your past or present roles, or your future hopes with Philip; this promise is to be kept until we absolve you from it."

"I promise," Joseph said, feeling his heart sinking. Past, present, future...it covers everything about me. I can't talk to him, unless it's about someone else; how can one have a friend who isn't able to discuss personal things?

Philip was allocated a bedchamber next door to Joseph's and was told that Joseph's aide-de-camp, Vance, would serve both lads.

Joseph found it hard to sleep that night; in spite of his dampening promise, he was excited. I'm only about twelve years old, but already I have a personal messenger--he's two years older. It's hard to believe. Tomorrow, I must put Philip to work. I have five crowns and a heap of tads and farthings. I'll get him to visit Widow Allison and see how she is faring with the children. And then, I want to know all about Dolly, Jill and Dan, Harry and Cherry; and Peet, Susie, Carol, Johnnie and Douglas. Philip can use my allowance to buy what they need, mind, I must make sure he only gets what they need, or they'll keep wanting more. That's what it was like when I took care of them out there; they can be like a bottomless bucket, they can.

And, I must pray that God will make me worthy of Philip's service and trust.

After tossing and turning for half an hour, Joseph climbed out of the bed, pulling the covers with him as other times, to sleep on the floor. Rolling himself into a cocoon, it dawned on him that a great honor had been accorded to him--he had his own personal messenger. Perhaps one day, I shall be king. Perhaps one day, I shall dare to ask Liliana to be queen...

Chapter 8

Philip was everything Sir Pippin had hoped he'd be. Although he often came to the elder cousin with questions about 'Sir Joseph,'--questions that could never be fully answered--Philip proved himself to be loyal, circumspect, and well able to keep a confidence.

Greatly puzzled as to why 'Sir Joseph,' when first going to bed, and was seen by Philip to be actually in the bed, was not in found bed, the young adviser asked, "Some mornings when Vance and I have risen before Sir Joseph, and we go into his bed-chamber, we find him fast asleep on the floor. When we wake him, he's been in such a deep sleep, that I don't think he's slept very well during the night hours, but sleeps deeper, later. Why do you think this to be so, Sir Pippin?"

"Sir Joseph's sleep habits will improve greatly, Philip. You'll have the privilege accorded to few, to see him, perhaps within the next year, sleeping all night, in the bed."

Philip could not fathom why it would be a privilege to watch Joseph's sleep habits. He wondered if this whole exercise were not just an experiment, a test, invented for his own benefit? Philip thought, I must be all the more diligent with my commission to serve Sir Joseph...but, it's all so peculiar, very peculiar...

Sir Pippin was proud of his cousin's son, he wished he had a son like him, but his wife had died in childbirth with their first child, and the babe had died within her. Pippin's life and family, was totally contained within the castle walls, with the king's needs and wishes.

As for Joseph, he was delighted with Philip's service. He discovered all he needed to know about Widow Allison and the small children living with her, now numbering nine.

"The boy, Marvin, almost died last week," Philip told the attentive Joseph. "He suffered three bee stings on one arm, and this was followed by a dreadful fever, but with the widow's care, he recovered. Widow Allison said that soon she won't need charity. She's working at gaining a regular income from the sale of a tonic she makes for babies and small children. It's in much demand, she told me, and she's almost run off her feet, with producing the tonic and minding the children. I suggested she use the coins you sent, Sir, to hire home help, child care, and someone to assist in the production of the tonic."

"That's marvelous!" Joseph exclaimed, knowing that his worries about the widow were over; his prayers for her had been answered.

"Then, Sir, she accepted the money, as she said she's been a bit short, but only as a loan; she wants to repay it."

"And did she believe you when you told her that a benefactor from the castle had sent it?"

"Yes, she did, Sir. And she smiled, saying it was an answer to her prayer."

Joseph wondered if she remembered 'Apples.'

News about the paupers by the wall, however, was not so heartening.

"Dolly has passed on," Philip reported, "and so has a blind man named Dan. But, Sir, evidently, over the past few months, the numbers have risen; there are over fifty sleeping out there, when once there were only about thirty, they say. And I agree with you, Sir, something should be done about those poor homeless people."

"Tell me about it, Philip; what it was like..."

"Well, Sir, I wasn't really wanting to say, but, yes, I promised to answer your questions, didn't I? Well, when I went with Floyd to take the kitchen leftovers, there was a...a dreadful battle..."

"A battle?"

"Well, Sir, I don't quite know how else to describe it--perhaps it was more like a scramble; they were rather more like animals than people, all so hungry and all so very disabled; but then, some of them there were taking more than they needed and did not seem so...so disadvantaged. One poor cripple couldn't even get any food, and neither could the blind lady who was with her; she was quite young, too, actually, she, she seemed different somehow..."

"You're referring to Cherry and Jill," Joseph said sadly, "she's a lady, Jill. I believe she came from a very well to do family who cast her out because she went blind after an illness. They treated her as if she was dead already..."

"Oh, that's terrible," Philip said spontaneously, sincere. Having been brought up in an upper-class family, he could never have imagined such poverty happening to someone like Jill. He thought of his younger sister, and his eyes filled with tears. Then, his thoughts flew to Joseph and he blurted, "Oh, Sir, were you once cast out, like that?"

Knowing that he could not answer Philip's question, Joseph asked one of his own, "As my adviser, Philip, I wish you to work on ideas and propositions as to what we can do for the disabled and homeless people who are not able to beg. Perhaps we could use my allowance to secure accommodation and care for them..."

"I'll work on it Sir, I will," Philip said, and drew a deep breath. He had broken one of his promises, and Joseph had chosen not to record it to report it against him. I'll have to speak to Cousin Pippin about it, he told himself.

But Sir Pippin wasn't accusative when he heard Philip's confession, "Unless you have a reported deviation against you; forget it. Sir Joseph is keeping his promise by not speaking of his past. It will be difficult for you both, but it will prove of great benefit for your future together."

To Philip, this sounded like a riddle, and he had no idea as to the answer.

Chapter 9

It was an hour before dawn. Joseph sat up suddenly, awakened with a disquieting impression. His first thought vanished for a moment, as he was pleased to find he had slept so well, and, he was still in the large bed.

He knew that every time Philip and Vance, and sometimes Sir Pippin, came into his bedchamber, they disapproved of him sleeping on the floor.

Vance's unspoken opinion was obvious to Joseph; animals sleep on the floor, people sleep in beds...

Jumping out of bed, Joseph dressed in the clothes that had been set out by Vance the previous night. Vance would be peeved that he had not been there when Joseph dressed, as the aide-de-camp considered it his task to dress him. Joseph pulled on the vest over his tunic, thinking how simple a task it was, to dress himself.

To Joseph, it seemed Vance was unnecessarily in the way, but when he had spoken to Pippin about it, the adviser supported the king's wishes.

Then, when he laced the elaborate boots, he wished Vance was there; he threaded the laces through the wrong holes, and try as he could, was unable to right it. Pulling the boots off, he went to the walk-in closet and selected a pair of soft moccasin slippers from the lower shelf.

Sir Pippin had told him, "Vance is your mirror to make sure you are dressed properly; and at this time of your life, it's important that you learn to allow a valet to assist you, so that in the future it's part of your accepted routine."

To Joseph, it seemed that there were a lot of words said about nothing that really mattered.

Joseph descended the castle steps and hurried along the quiet corridors to the kitchen. The staff was used to his face and took no notice of him.

"Where's Floyd?" he asked.

"He's fetching coal, so it'll be here to stoke the stove after breakfast is served; and not too soon, we're out, we are," the servant said dourly, as he stirred one of the huge cauldrons. These cauldrons would feed all the people in the castle. The king and queen ate this same porridge for breakfast, which made Joseph feel agreeable. At least he himself, one day, as king, would not be taking preferential treatment and causing extra expense by demanding exotic foods as one could imagine a king could do.

However, during certain seasons, King Lemuel and Queen Lois were partial to having fresh fruit chopped and stirred into the porridge, and Joseph, having tasted this luxury, could well see how it could become a preference.

He remembered how good it was to eat the apples from the trees in the orchard, but as they belonged to no one in particular, they were soon gone, taken to be sold by those who saw extra income from the free fruit. Last season, Joseph had climbed the trees and picked apples to take to Widow Allison to be dried, then he shared in the dried stores, last winter, when fresh fruit was unobtainable.

Joseph strode around the outside of the castle, to a crook in the inner wall, where Floyd shoveled coal into a large square bucket with wheels. He waited until Floyd, having seen him, stopped working. Leaning on the shovel, the man stared at him resentfully, waiting.

"Floyd, I'm puzzling about something, and would like a truthful answer; did you take the penny, and the wood, to the widow?"

Floyd's eyes roved everywhere, but he did not look at Joseph's face as he replied, "Course I did."

"Did Widow Allison accept the penny, and the wood?"

Floyd stared right into Joseph's eyes, silent for a moment, then he replied, "She didn't want it; said she didn't want no charity..."

"Then what did you do with it?"

Floyd's eyes wandered to the coal bin and he shrugged, saying, "The wood came here, of course; what else did y' expect?"

"What about the food, for the paupers?"

"Well, I took that there, didn't I? Y' gave me a tad for doin' that, didn't y'?"

Joseph persisted, asking, "You took food every night?"

"I took it with that page fellow--messenger--the one what took me to see them all..."

"But you didn't take the food every night?"

"What for? They weren't hungry at all. Any ways, I got much more importint fings to do w' me life, I have, and if it will please y' now, I'd like to get this here coal to the kitchen fires, before they in there all criticize me; the cook can be a right royal mouth, she can; and the chef in the afternoons; and I'm getting sick of it, it makes it not worthwhile in the end..." Turning away, he dug the shovel into the coal as if he were killing a deadly snake. Flinging its contents into the bucket, he yelled, "Well, get on with y'; don't hold me up; you've wasted too much o' me time already." Turning back again, he muttered, "I hate this black stuff; 'n all this hot work!"

"Why did you not return the money to me?" Joseph had to ask.

"Look! I did the job! I went there for y', didn't I? And y' have more money than y' knows what t' do with. I know people who need it more than y', anyways..." Floyd caught view of Philip approaching and yelled, "Oh, no, not that pushy, overpaid peacock--pup--to waste me time now! Well, I'm not stopping, or I won't start again; take y' lazy limbs somewheres else!"

Joseph turned away, his eyes on Philip's surprised face. Joseph led the way to a side door. Together they bounded up the steps and walked back to their quarters.

As Joseph sat heavily in an armchair, Philip asked, "What was that all about?"

Joseph recounted the situation, word for word, to Philip, then said, "I've got a full day today; aside from all of my lessons, I'm to have my first riding lesson this afternoon, and that will be an experience, I'm sure; so I'll have to leave it in your hands, Philip, as to what to do."

"What...what do you think I should do, Sir?" Philip asked. He did not want to confront Floyd and demand the money back; he was likely to get punched! "Floyd's so bad-tempered, Sir; he wants to blame everyone else for his own laziness. He wants everything for nothing, Sir."

"Check with Widow Allison that she never received the penny, but that she told Floyd it was charity; and that she refused the wood; and, the paupers, go first, if you like; find out how many times Floyd took food to them. Write it down, Philip. After that, we'll ask Sir Pippin's advice about Floyd."

"He's a downright underhanded thief!" Philip declared.

"He shouldn't be allowed to get away with it," Joseph said, agreeing, then standing, saying, "Well, let's go to breakfast..."

"You'd better see Vance first, Sir; he was upset that you'd gone from your bed...dressed without him..."

"Oh, bother; but I'll skip Vance's condemning stares of disapproval, and we'll go to breakfast."

"But Sir, you're wearing moccasins; and your vest is on inside out--look; see the inside threads, and the hand stitching of the side seams," he grinned, pleased that Joseph laughed at himself as he looked down at the vest, and beyond, his ankles bare in the soft slippers.

"You're right, Philip; I can't breakfast with the king and queen of Justiceburg like this, can I? I'd better find Vance, and give him my apologies."

Chapter 10

Joseph's morning flew. His lessons absorbed him; he worked hard, and enjoyed them. The tutors had not told the lad, but the king had been informed; Joseph was a very intelligent young man, his learning and retention three times more than that of others his age. "After being told once, he does not forget."

"His questions are stretching our resources," one tutor told the king, the others agreeing.

"His grasp of both German and French is outstanding," the language tutor said. "After just a few weeks, he is able to converse, though simply, in both languages. I'm astounded."

Karl, the son of the language tutor, was the young palace guard delegated to watch over Joseph, and today, to teach Joseph to ride. He had selected a docile mare for the lad to mount, and expected to spend the afternoon demonstrating to Joseph how to mount and dismount; how to sit and how to control the animal by use of the reins.

First of all, Karl wanted Joseph to know that it was not as easy as it appeared, and, with a bit of pride, to show off his own skills.

"Well, then, get up on the saddle, Sir," Karl said, as Joseph stood and stared at the high rump of the gray mare.

"Perhaps, Karl, you'll show me how you do it," Joseph asked, wondering that the young man had not thought of this. Karl was the best rider there was, Sir Pippin had said.

With a deft action, Karl placed his left boot into the stirrup and swung his right leg over the back of the horse to sit astride the creature that did not move. Just as expertly, Karl dismounted.

Joseph stared at the saddle, the height of it, and mentally calculated the twist of body Karl had performed. Well, I can climb trees, and swim; and it was said that my father, a soldier, was a rider--he died in a riding accident--I might die just mounting this thing, if I don't get it right. I don't want to disgrace myself and land face down. He hesitated, performing the action in his mind, wanting to gain the momentum to push up from the ground as Karl had done.

"Don't be afraid; the horse won't bolt," Karl encouraged, grinning; about to say, "We all have to go through this initiation..." when Joseph copied Karl's previous mounting of the horse, almost perfectly.

Seated astride on the animal, Joseph took the reins in his hands, drawing them in as he had seen others do, asking, "What do I do next?"

Karl mounted his own horse and drew it close to the mare, saying, "Touch the horse's sides with your heels, flick the reins, and we'll be off."

Later, cantering back to the castle, Karl called, "You've done this before Sir, haven't you?"

"Never; and I have a very sore rump to prove it!"

Joseph felt exhilarated. He knew he was going to enjoy riding! This was the first time he'd been permitted to leave the castle and go out into the countryside. Although Karl had taken a different road from the one to Chester Castle, Joseph already had dreams of riding out to see Liliana, his unforgotten love.

"You need to sit more erect in the saddle; square your shoulders and lean back more, don't slump forward," Karl said after the horses had been taken to the stables, "but after your first lesson today, I say we jump to stage four."

"Stage four?" Joseph asked.

"You can ride something with more spirit tomorrow," Karl promised. "I'll select a young gelding for you; that will give you more to hold on to and control, beneath the reins. Next week, you can ride a stallion like mine."

Feeling hot and sweaty after the hour-long lesson, most of which he had spent in the saddle, Joseph sent for Vance and said, "I'd like a hot bath, Vance, please."

"A...a hot bath, Sir?" Joseph had always commanded cold water for his baths.

"Yes; and put some of that stuff you told me about, in it, you know, salts, for aches and pains." He saw the surprise on Vance's face and said, "I sat in a saddle for almost an hour; it was like nothing I've ever done before. Karl said I did extremely well, but I'm sure I'll have bruises...all that bouncing, up and down!"

Vance smiled, delighted. At last his young master wanted a hot bath, and hadn't he slept in his bed, all night? Not one of the bedclothes had been on the floor this morning. Things were progressing.

After the bath, and knowing that he should be attending the king, Joseph looked for Philip. He was not in any of their usual places of rendezvous, and when Joseph joined King Lemuel in his counsel chamber, Philip was not with the other three counselors as he was often found to be when Joseph had completed his lessons.

It's taking Philip much longer to gain the information than I expected, Joseph mused, trying to keep his mind upon the matters King Lemuel discussed.

The session finished early and Joseph decided to search for Philip. He had not stepped far along the corridor, when a messenger brought a scroll to him, saying; "A man brought this scroll to our door, and said that it was to be placed into Sir Joseph's hands, and none other; well, here it is, Sir."

Joseph stared at the address, written in Philip's even hand-writing; "Sir Joseph, from Philip; for Sir Joseph's eyes only." It was sealed with candle wax, impressed with Philip's crown ring, making it very official at the castle.

Joseph felt his heart leap in his chest; such a strange thing, this scroll from Philip; he did not know why he felt it, but he knew it was a message with ill tidings.

Breaking the seal, Joseph unrolled the scroll. He read, "Sir; it's with a heavy heart that I write this message; but I'm being held by those who believe you have the resources to purchase my ransom. Just before sunset, a man wearing a brown fur hat will attend you, near the paupers' place in the wall, to collect the ransom of one hundred gold crowns to secure my release. To authenticate this message, that the man is able to release me, he will give you my silver crown ring. I've been told to write that if you tell anyone of this message, and one hundred crown are not given over, then my life will be floydfeit and you will be able to retrieve my remains from the river at dawn tomorrow. "

It was signed, "Philip Tomas Steven Vermont."

Tears surged to Joseph's eyes and he rebuked himself, this is not a time to shed tears! Philip is not dead; and if I give the ransom, he won't be. I must believe he will live! Taking a deep breath, Joseph rolled the scroll and hurried to the kitchen. Two castle guards were there, shoveling coal into the stoves whilst another wheeled the bucket away, having stocked the bin with its contents.

"Where's Floyd?" he asked, not of anyone in particular. The dinner chef looked across at Joseph and answered, "No one's seen him since he quit his task this morning, right after breakfast; he left the kitchen with no fuel and told no one about his leaving, either. If we don't get these fires hot, we won't be able to serve dinner on time tonight."

"He'll be in trouble when he returns," one burly soldier said. It was extremely irregular for him to have to perform this lesser task.

Joseph drew another deep breath, feeling as if he was on the crest of a tidal wave; he knew who had instigated this dastardly deed, but he had no idea how to deal with it.

His mind flew to Sir Pippin, and the king; he himself had made a pledge that he would not leave the castle. Did Philip's life not mean more than his promise? He decided that it did. Philip has to live...I'll not accept that his remains will be collected tomorrow morning; but Floyd has to be captured; he must not be allowed to get away with this.

Philip is worth much more than a hundred crowns; I'd give a thousand and that wouldn't be enough! But I don't think Floyd will want to be caught, and Philip will be able to name him. What a quandary. What shall I do? What shall I do?

Chapter 11

Hurrying up to his quarters, Joseph entered the sitting chamber that both he and Philip shared. Moving out on the balcony, he dropped to his knees.

"Oh Dear God in Heaven; I need your help. Protect Philip; spare his life. Help me to do what's right; not just what I want to do. And please, give me wisdom in this matter; help me not to break my promise, yet help me to rescue Philip."

Breathing heavily, Joseph knew that wrong moves could hasten Philip's death. Castle and city soldiers joining together to deal with this abduction would mean that the kidnappers would scatter. "Kidnappers," Joseph breathed the word. "Yes, there'll be more than just Floyd. Did he not speak of others this morning who need money more that I do? What else did Floyd say? I must find out where Philip is being held. A bunch of thieves--that's who Floyd would mean--people who 'need' money--and Floyd, if he'd done this alone, he wouldn't have asked for a hundred crown, he likely would have wanted ten, or perhaps twenty..."

Unrolling the scroll, Joseph told himself he must slow down his thoughts, and use wisdom to work through any clues that Philip may have included in the ransom note. As he reread the note, the word 'floydfeit' flew out at him. He had been right; Floyd was involved. Although the 'l,' the 'y,' and the 'd' were camouflaged in the word 'forfeit,' nevertheless they were there, making the name, 'Floyd.' There was not another spelling error on the scroll; just perhaps the name, Tomas; it usually was spelt with a Th. Joseph prayed for understanding as to what this meant, but the answer did not come to his racing mind.

"Philip, Tomas, Steven, Vermont; and the 'TOM, the ST, and the V, are all larger letters than even the 'P' for Philip. TOM--ST--V; what could it be, other than a person, or perhaps a place? The place where Philip is being held?"

Joseph rolled the scroll and prayed again, "Lord, I trust in You; and You've promised that if we acknowledge You in all our ways, You'll guide us. So, Lord, please, direct me now. Tell me how I can keep my promise, yet leave this castle to help Philip."

Joseph bumped into Sir Pippin as the lad hurried from his sitting room into the corridor.

"Well young man, yes, you should be in a hurry; we're waiting for you to join us--you left your place, Joseph," Pippin smoothed the chain he wore around his neck and straightened the medallion hanging low on his chest.

"Sir Pippin; what's your cousin, Philip's, full name?"

Frowning at such an unexpected question, Pippin then answered, "Why, it's Philip Charles, and Pippin of course."

"Philip Charles, Pippin, of course," Joseph said. Side stepping, he said, "I must attend the king, Sir Pippin."

Before the adviser could reply, "That's what we're supposed to be doing," Joseph was gone, walking as fast as he could without running, then bolting down the stone steps, hurrying to the counsel chambers where he expected the king to be. But King Lemuel was not there. Joseph raced up the steps to meet Pippin awaiting him at the top.

"In the library, Sir," Pippin said, adding as Joseph ran ahead, "We're looking at some of the ancient laws of Justiceburg. And you're not supposed to run, Sir!"

Joseph dived into the library, and found the king seated at a desk, surrounded by his scribes, two military leaders, and the other two counselors.

Breathing heavily, Joseph wove his way to the desk.

"Ah, Joseph," King Lemuel said, his tired eyes lighting up a little before clouding to see Joseph's ashen face.

Joseph dropped to his knees. Taking the king's right hand in his, he kissed the king's seal ring as he had seen others do when they had a burdensome request.

Looking up, Joseph waited for the king to speak.

"What is it Joseph? What grieves you?" King Lemuel knew there was both pain and fear within the familiar blue eyes, such that he had not seen there before.

"I've kept every promise I made to you, Sire; I've kept them with all my heart, Sire." Joseph bowed his head, praying for the right words.

"Yes, Joseph; you've not failed me in any matter. In fact, Joseph, you have done more...better...that we expected."

The men all nodded their heads; and Pippin, who had joined the group, also nodded, but his heart was in his mouth. The adviser suddenly feared Joseph was going to give up everything, for some unknown problem that had occurred.

"Sire, I promised not to leave the castle walls, other than directed by yourself, Sire. I...I have a need to leave the castle walls, Sire; for...for perhaps two, or three hours, Sire; and I will return, then..."

Silence followed Joseph's request.

"Sire, I need you to trust me, that I will return."

"Joseph; we need you to trust us; we need you to explain your purpose in going," the king wisely counterbalanced.

Bowing his head, Joseph said, "Sire, it's my fault. If I had not wanted to care for the paupers, and the widow, then it wouldn't have happened; and the allowance--it would have been better if I'd never had it. I just want the opportunity to put it all right again, Sire."

The king, frowning, looked up at Pippin, who also frowned. The men looked around at each other, meeting eyes with eyes, but no clues could be gained from their glances. The lad's words made not a scrap of sense.

Squaring his shoulders, and blinking away tears, Joseph again kissed the king's ring. He stood. All in the room expected him to declare that he would take his leave. The moment had arrived; for some reason, Joseph felt he could no longer carry on.

The lad's shoulders slumped, and he knew in an instant that to try and make the rescue, alone, was too great; if something went wrong--he had to have the king's approval and his assistance.

"I do trust you, Sire, and I need your advice; but, I just beg that you hear me through on this matter, that you give me the opportunity first to put it right."

The men in the chamber all had questions on their tongues, but waited for their king to speak.

"If you've done wrong, Joseph, and admit it, then we'll give you the opportunity to right it," the king replied, wondering, wanting the lad to explain his dilemma. The pain in Joseph's eyes was like a barb to the king's heart, and in that instant, he loved the boy as a father did a son. Only by drawing on his deepest reserve of self-control, could the king prevent tears from rising. However, the advisers and scribes, those closest to him, perceived King Lemuel's emotions; the slow blinking of his eyes which were glistening more than usual.

Without speaking, Joseph laid the scroll in front of the king who looked at the scroll, then, with dismay on his face, stared back at Joseph. He believed Joseph had written a formal letter of resignation.

"Read it to us, Joseph," the king commanded.

"Oh, Sire; that's so difficult," Joseph blurted.

"But you wrote it, Joseph, did you not?"

"No, Sire," Joseph said, then in a low voice, divulged, "it...it's from Philip..." He turned the scroll over so the outside address could be seen.

"Then read it out, Pippin," the king ordered.

"No, please Sire; it would be too difficult for...for Sir Pippin...to...to read. Let...allow me, Sire...and...and perhaps, Sir Pippin, you...you should sit down." Joseph stammered, taking up the scroll. Pippin did not sit, but stepped closer, his face growing graver by the second.

"It's from Philip, and it...it was written to me--Sir; it's with a heavy heart that I write this message; but I'm being held by those who believe you have the resources to purchase my ransom. Just before sunset, a man wearing a brown fur hat will attend you, near the paupers' place in the wall, to collect the ransom of one hundred gold crowns to secure my release. To authenticate this message, that the man is able to release me, he will give you my silver crown ring. I've been told to write that if you tell anyone of this message, and one hundred crown are not given over, then my life will be flord...ford...for..." Joseph struggled and swallowed, and waited, breathing heavily, then stammering, "for-feit, and...and...and you...you will be able to...to retrieve my...my remains from the river...at...at dawn tomorrow. It's signed, Philip Tomas Steven Vermont."

An ominous silence circled the library chamber when Joseph finished. Pippin leaned both hands, heavily, on the desk, bowing his head. No one dared speak, but waited for the king. Then, when the king did not speak, exclamations, questions, and statements of denouncement of the murderous kidnappers broke out. No one gave any answers, or hope of a rescue.

Joseph's mind was upon the larger letters of Philip's signature: 'TOM--ST--V,"--and his memory told him the place--a place simple city folk called 'Tombstone Valley,' a rock-strewn gully just outside Justiceburg, a deserted area from where legends had grown that spirits of ghosts and goblins haunted the land, day and night, waiting for the time when some of the human shaped rocks would change into bodies they could inhabit. Deep caves at the bottom of the gully, were suitable for robbers to hide in.

Joseph remembered playing in the caves of Tombstone Valley when he was small; he had played, and slept there with other orphan children, until they had been scared away by older vagrants and nomads.

The perfect place to wait with a kidnapped hostage, Joseph thought. He shivered, then lifted his head, waiting; he knew the ultimate decision was in the king's hands.

When the chamber was quiet again, and Pippin had stood to his full height, the king asked, "You have...a plan, Joseph...some kind of rescue plan? You know who may have done this...this dastardly deed?"

Joseph's heart leapt with hope; this was his chance to explain to the king that an army of soldiers was not needed, but that he, with a few trusted helpers, and with God's help, could rescue Philip.

"You have a plan?" the king repeated his question, kindly, but with more urgency.

"Yes, Sire," Joseph replied, then said, "I don't discount the resources, the man-power that you have at your command, Sire, but I believe the ultimate end of this matter is that Philip is returned here, alive and unharmed. And, Sire, that if the kidnappers, as the note reads, if they believe I've told anyone at all, then...then..." Joseph's voice became a whisper as he said, "they'll kill Philip; but Sire, I have a bad feeling they plan to do that any way."

"Oh no; dear God, no," Pippin moaned, and turned, his eyes searching for something upon which he could sit.

Captain Randell quickly brought a chair. As one of the heads of the king's army, he was intensely concerned with this abduction; the handsome young Philip, second cousin of Sir Pippin. As for Joseph; Captain Randell had often seen him about the castle, and often in the king's presence, but other than perhaps being an adviser-in-training, as was Philip; the Captain had never been specifically told of Joseph's role in the castle. And because Joseph, other than to ride that very day, never left the perimeter of the castle walls, no security had to be arranged for him. That Joseph was someone very important to the king had just been demonstrated to Captain Randell and his peer, Berman.

"Outline your plan, Joseph, and Captains Randell and Berman will advise us of its merit..."

Chapter 12

Joseph, having visually searched the pauper's place at the wall, hurried across the terraces beside the river to where the disabled often sunned themselves. Deftly jumping over a low wall, he silently approached Harry, the blind pauper and crouched beside him. He wished that his feet did not smart so much. They had become softened because he had been indoors, wearing boots and shoes. But to wear shoes of any description, now, would be to give away his disguise.

Me? Disguised? he mused, realizing that he had changed. No longer was he the ragged 'Apples,' and it had taken this charade for him to realize just how much he had altered, both inwardly and outwardly.

"Who's it?" the man asked sharply, turning his sightless face towards the shadow he had felt take away the warmth of the late afternoon sun.

"Harry; I need your help," Joseph spoke softly in the man's ear.

"Apples--or is it yer ghost?" the man shot both hands out, grasping Joseph's face, feeling it, his hands ruffling the boy's longer hair, then dropping to the lad's shoulders, feeling all the way down the frayed, tattered clothes, grasping both hands in his gnarled grasp. "You've growed some. Only you could creep up on me like that when I'm not almost asleep. We thought you was dead."

Joseph did not answer, but said, "I need your help, Harry." Joseph drew the blind man to his feet, pressing a farthing into his hand, asking urgently, "Did you overhear somebodies discussing stealing a kid for ransom?"

Harry bit on the farthing, to check its authenticity, then whispered, "Yeh, you know we hear 'bout most ev'rythin'. But it'd be worth more than me life to tell anyones about it...I'd likely end up in the river too..."

Joseph's heart leapt with pain; he was on the right track, but maybe it was too late, "All I need to know, Harry, is, how many of them were there--and is the kid still alive yet?"

"Oh, yeah; he not be done for, they say, till midnight; and there weren't that many; only three or four; they didn't want to share the ransom too many ways...and I heard some'it that I'm not sure I should repeat t' y'."

"I've another farthing, Harry, that could be of use to you," Joseph urged, convinced that a few farthings would buy all the secrets he required. Captain Randell had not believed that Joseph could use mere farthings to gain relevant information. Upon the Captain's command, Joseph had brought another bag with him, containing 10 crowns, to use if larger bribes were needed.

"Where'd y' get them?" Harry asked, again biting on the farthing. "Still choppin' wood?"

"No, I've another job, a permanent one; not out in city places, but in a different spot," Joseph replied, knowing that Harry would respond to receiving a little 'personal knowledge.'

"They looked for y'--all around," Harry said, "Folks was even sayin' about gettin' someone t' drag the river for y' body, but then, 'cos ya was no one valuebull, they officials left it off--it'd cost so much, and none of us had anything. But then, there was that rich young girl from the castle wot was askin' around about y'--Lillie something--she came herself she did, right down here, and to the orchard, too, cryin' an' all--I even heard her--that is, when her father came and fetched her home; now that was a scene it was...yeh! Course, like y' know, I seed nothin' so I really knows nothin'--nothin' at all. So I cain't be quoted on at all."

Joseph felt his heart beating quicker. Liliana. But he could not think of her right now, he must keep his mind upon his task; Philips' rescue. It was less than two hours to sunset, and he only had until then; then Captain Randell would bring out the king's soldiers--an army of over 500 would scour the city and surrounding locations, beginning at Tombstone Valley. If Joseph hadn't returned by then, they would be searching for him as well as for Philip.

Joseph had expressed surprise that Captain Randell had 500 men-at-arms available, at call; then Captain Berman had boasted they could call another 1,500 if need be; those who were 'off duty' and who lived in the city and nearby. "That's not leaving the castle under guarded either," Captain Berman had asserted.

The captains had been reluctant about Joseph's plan, but, not knowing the lad's importance, they had agreed. Indeed, the plan, successfully implemented, could well mean that Philip's valuable life was spared. This scrawny teenager, who declared he had been to Tombstone Valley and played in the caves, may just make the rescue that he seemed so positive, 'with God's help,' he could, they agreed.

"Here, give this one to Jill--how is she?" Joseph asked, pressing another farthing into Harry's hand.

"She's gone to hide across the city in the old ruin," Harry said, "Like, she wanted to keep out o' the way...with them, like, y' know; planning to come here later..." realizing he had said too much, Harry bowed his head.

"They're hiding out at Tombstone Valley, aren't they?" Joseph asked.

"I'm not sayin'--but I'm not sayin' y'r wrong," Harry said, then lifted his head nervously, asking, "But don't you get involved in this; it ain't anything t' do w' y'."

"Y' never saw me, Harry," Joseph said, lifting his head to look up over the wall, up the terraces, to see if anyone was in sight. Near the wall, at the top of the terraces, he saw Karl, as planned, slouching against the wall, dressed as a pauper. Not another person was in sight. All the other paupers were greatly intimidated by those who had spoken about this deed within the hearing of the blind folk.

A similar situation had occurred many years ago. Joseph had been told by blind old Dan, of a plot to break into the castle, and Joseph himself had warned a castle guard about the matter, and the plot had been foiled. None of the 'wall paupers' had slept by the wall for a month after that, fearing repercussions from acquaintances of the felons.

Justiceburg folk often held grudges for years.

"I ain't saw nothin'," Harry said, then emitted a short guffaw. Seriously, he asked, "Do y' consider I should move meself from here, Joseph--I jest wanted t' be 'round; y' know me, I like t' hear th' action."

"You'd be wise to take yourself off to a safer place," Joseph advised, "Tap your way along the wall, and go around to the old ruin, with the others; you'll be safer with the group, Harry." He touched the man's shoulder and leapt down, moving to the river, where he dove in, swimming strongly, over-arm, across to the other side.

Karl had been frustrated that Joseph planned to swim the river, it meant that he was left out of the action on the other side, over the fields, beyond West Woods, down in the gulch that Joseph had claimed was known as 'Tombstone Valley.'

Chapter 13

Joseph peered through the brush, looking down on Tombstone Valley. Already the valley was plunged into shadow; he knew he had about an hour until sunset; then the king's soldiers would move in.

Slithering on his stomach, Joseph worked his way across the rim at the top of the valley. Feeling fear rise within him, he stopped to pray. I need you to guide, me, Lord; help me find Philip; help me to rescue him.

Joseph recalled vividly, King Lemuel's face, as he had charged him not to take unnecessary risks; "We don't want to lose you both," the king had said, with an anxiety in his voice that he could not restrain.

Joseph again realized how different his life was now; he was growing unused to this outdoor experience. If I had my way, he told himself fiercely, I'd never lose my skills of the outdoors; look at me now; I even feel afraid to be out here alone! I need all the nerve I can muster to help me through this. I need the courage of David facing Goliath, the trust of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, and the dependence of Daniel in the lions' den...

Joseph continued around the rim, and then at a more concealed place, he began to slither downward, downward, feeling sure that the criminals would have someone posted as a lookout. He prayed he would not happen upon the sentry, but that he would somehow find their lair, the place where Philip was being held. If he could free Philip, and they could hide until sunset, then the king's soldiers would rescue them.

This was the plan; but as Captain Randell had warned, with murderous brigands, nothing could really be expected to run to a 'plan.'

Joseph saw a 'tombstone' figure ahead. He slithered to the tall rock and leaned his back upon it, catching his breath. When he was breathing normally, he snaked around the rock and across to another, on and on, crawling closer to the hillside where the caves were situated.

He saw the mouth of one cave, close now, yawning its mouth at him, and prepared to stand and run to it.

"Aha! What do we have here?"

Joseph was pounced upon and pinned to the ground, a sharp dagger blade at his throat. The man, in his soft deep voice, whispered, "Well, answer, and keep it quiet; what are you doin' coming down like that on us, secret like?"

"I...I was trying to get to the cave down here...to where someone can hide," Joseph bluffed, yet knew he told the truth. His mind raced; how could he get out of this dilemma? He realized he must change his speech to fit his clothes.

"And who's it that you be to hiding from?"

"I...I got some'it that some folks might want...and...and city soldiers might be lookin' for me..."

The man released Joseph, and dragged him to stand; yet still pointing the dagger at him, demanding, "Show me! What did you steal?"

Feeling so grateful to Captain Randell, that he was almost overcome, Joseph said, "Aw, it's mine, it is..." then, as the man pushed the point of the dagger at him threateningly, he added, "well, I c'n share it if y' want." Pulling the bag of farthings off his rope belt, he tendered it.

Snatching the bag, the man, rubbed the coins together within the bag so that he could tell they were farthings. "A nice little catch, but I'm not fooled! You weren't hidin' from city soldiers for this lot!" He jabbed the dagger upwards, into the air, moving closer to Joseph who, backing away, pulled the other bag from his rope belt. The lad threw the bag down and dropped to his knees, plucking up the grass as he had seen one of the paupers do when they threw a tantrum at not having grabbed enough food to eat.

"Ah, there, now that's more like it," the man said, rubbing the gold coins together in the thin sack bag. "Awe, don't take it so hard like; p'raps before the night's out, I'll give y' one or two back agin. Now, git in that there cave, not ahind y'--over there, the next one; we'll talk about how y' got passed our lookout up there on the top. Y're a slimy one--p'raps we'll take you along wiv' us." He grinned.

Joseph turned and walked ahead of his captor, his head bowed, eyes cast downward. He cowered as the large man strode to his side, draping his muscular arm around his shoulder, saying, "Tell me where y' got such a catch--it's pretty good for a young'un like y'self."

"From rich folks wot had lots to spare," Joseph said, speaking to the ground he walked on.

"Well, don't feel so bad about it now; there's more out there, y' know; much more."

The cave was dark, but the man drew Joseph inward.

"Hoy! Show the light; we can't see the way!" he called.

A slim guard drew a thick canvas-like cover back from a narrow opening in the rock at the side of the cave. Joseph's heart sank. Unless the king's soldiers had torches, they would never find them in this dark hidden place. At the man's push, Joseph went ahead to enter the cave beyond. Dim light greeted his dilated eyes.

"Who've that you got with you, Jardie?" the rasping voice asked, then Joseph saw the man's face and his heart leapt. At first glance, he looked like Floyd.

"An accomplice, that's who. One who's after me own heart," the burly Jardie replied. "I'd jest like t' know how he got pass' that brother of you'n."

"Pooh! Floyd'd let an elephant pass, he would; we jes' thought it'd be easier for us later, if he didn't know we was here; in case like he did get away, or got caught, or some'it."

A female voice came from the back of this cave, "Well, it's time to move; you'd better get that fur hat, Jardie, and get yourself across the river to the place of rendezvous."

"Ronday what?" Jardie asked, then, "I've got more'n half-hour; I reckon on it only takin' quarter t' get there."

Joseph examined this new cave; it seemed familiar, but smaller than he remembered.

"Sit over there, and wait till we find y' some'it useful t' do," Jardie commanded, then, "Look what I found the lad had stolen..." with that, Jardie threw the bag with the farthings in it, to the young woman, "you can have it all, Poisy, all for y' own."

Joseph sat on the rocky ground, drawing his feet in, circling them with his arms, behaving as if he were afraid, which he was.

Catching the bag deftly, Poisy tipped it into her palm. Finding her palm too small, she knelt before a small candlelight, emptying the farthings on the ground. While she counted the stash, Joseph's eyes flew to the back of the cave. Poisy had been in the way before, but now he could see the outline of a person, lying as if trussed up, not moving. He hoped that Philip was not unconscious, or worse; how could they escape? He had no hope of the soldiers finding them in here without someone, namely, Philip, or himself, being harmed.

They think I'm one of them; I need to use this to help Philip. But, how do I escape from here, with Philip?

Memories from the past flooded his mind, and he closed his eyes, rocking himself as he huddled on his haunches. There had been caves that connected, one with another, he remembered crawling between them, playing 'hidies' with his orphaned friends. How would he remember which cave he was in now?

"Now, then, you; what's y' name?" Jardie said, as he stared down at Joseph, "what'd they call y'?"

"Appie," Joseph said, for want of a reply; he remembered a small child who couldn't say 'Apples,' calling him that.

"Well, Appie, d' y' want a share in our quest, or what?"

"Corse I do," Joseph replied.

"Well, you can stay safe in here, and watch that heap o' stuff over there, and guard it, not that it's goin' nowheres, an' me an' Poisy go out w' Jim an plan our moves for after I returns from the city..."

"Twenty two; that's how many," Poisy said, placing the farthings back into the bag and drawing the strings together.

"Say thank you then," Jardie demanded, leaning forward to kiss her, "an' come wi' me; we got'a talk w' Jim about wot he's gonna do about that brover of his."

"Floyd?"

"Yeah, corse I mean Floyd; who else--now we got Appie, he can fill his place..."

Chapter 14

Joseph stared as the couple left the cave; he felt fearfully exuberant; it was unbelievable, they had left him alone here with Philip.

Crawling to a rucksack, Joseph felt inside it, hoping to find a flask of some sort. Then his eyes contacted a water skin, behind the candle, and he scurried across to it. Moving back to what Jardie had called 'the heap o' stuff,' Joseph felt around the form.

Philip, trussed up like a chicken, was firmly gagged and blindfolded as well. Taking the small sharp dagger from the leather sheath tied to his rope belt, Joseph cut Philip's bonds, removing both the gag and the blindfold, rubbing the dents in his wrists, trying to smooth the rope marks.

Pouring the cool water from the skin over Philip's face, Joseph then pressed his hand across the boy's mouth, preventing his cry sounding out too loudly.

"It's me, Joseph; Philip. How badly hurt are you?"

"Ahh! I...I'm not sure...where are we? It's so dark."

"You must get yourself awake, Philip; you've been kidnapped and I've come to get you out of here, but you've got to wake up..." Joseph felt alarmed; Philip slumped, relaxing, limp, as if faint. He poured water on the closed eyes, and across his face. Philip gasped, sitting up. Joseph waited, supporting him, dreading the time that he knew was passing.

"Sir...it's you. You're...here...Oh, my head! How..."

"Don't waste breath, Philip," Joseph urged, "just do as I say. Can you crawl?"

"I don't know..." Philip reached his hand upward to his forehead, but not touching it. "Uh--they hit me, twice, I remember that; I stayed awake, but still then; and they brought me here, and after I'd written the ransom note, they hit me again. Oh!" He reached around, feeling the back of his neck, "I've a headache, like never..."

"Philip, save your breath!" Joseph hissed. "You've got to get yourself ready to crawl--and I mean lots of crawling!" Joseph scampered back to the torch, toppling it to lie on the rocky ground, pouring the rest of the water over it, making it die with a loud hiss. Taking the small candle in its holder, he rejoined Philip saying, "Follow me, stay close on my heel."

Reaching ahead with the candle as he moved on his knees, Joseph ignored the sharpness of the rock beneath him. At least Philip is wearing his breeches and boots; they didn't steal his boots. My feet are killing me...

They crawled under a low ledge Joseph had remembered, and he lifted the candle ahead to see the way through the low shaft beyond. Soon they were in a narrow tunnel, with hard clay beneath their knees. Joseph could hear Philip breathing heavily, right behind him; and he pressed on, and on. Soon they were on rock again, moving downward. Hard shafts of rock imprinted Joseph's knees, but he crawled on, moving the candle ahead so that he could see the way. He remembered this shaft as being so long that he had once imagined it had no end; then he had emerged on the Valleyside, the other side of Tombstone Valley.

Chapter 15

Captain Randell decided he must confer with his military peers; he now believed strongly they should move in, before sunset; in fact as soon as possible. His military mind suggested several options, all with little risk to either Joseph or Philip. He felt the risk, for the lads to be close to such murderous felons, was greater than that which the king's army would contribute.

The king had explained to him, after Joseph had left, exactly who the lad was; what his future role involved. It had taken all of the captain's will power, not to explode! He could not believe that the king had allowed the boy whom he had chosen as son, and heir, to go out, practically alone, to face murderous criminals.

For some months, Joseph had been sheltered in the royal castle, hidden away from 'the mob'--from questioning people and prying eyes; being groomed and educated secretly; and now--thrust back into a world that was cruel and unrelentingly greedy. Many people considered life to be cheaper than spit!

It was too late; the lad had found his pauper's disguise from a pile of rags in the cleaning closet, and he had left the castle. Karl and two other men had accompanied him. The latter two, each towing a riderless horse, were going to ride across the river-bridge, to wait in the woods, not far from the said valley.

Striding out of the library, Captain Randell had summoned the other captains to a meeting with himself. There was no superior chief of the army of Justiceburg, but a counsel of a quorum of half the captains who numbered twenty made decisions. They were the Knights of the Kingdom; the military leaders.

Only six captains could be found at such short call, but Captain Randell decided to proceed with the meeting, held in the military counseling chamber of the castle. Four empty chairs were joined to the circle as others could yet arrive.

"This is an unprecedented emergency, a matter of life and death; a matter of grave concern as to future kingdom continuance and security," Randell said, and paused whilst a seventh captain joined the group. "What I have to tell you, is, at the king's request, a classified matter of confidentiality, which must not leave this chamber," he began, then plunged into explaining the situation.

Before he had completed his disclosure about 'Joseph' the orphan-boy whom King Lemuel was considering for adoption; "Already it's obvious that our king has great affection for this boy; somewhere about thirteen years old, I believe,"--the king himself entered the chamber, causing the captains to stand to bow. The three advisers, Pippin, Vokoll and Bradley, followed the king.

"I believe we should gather as many men-at-arms as possible, Sire, and we should move out, cautiously, of course, before sunset, to apprehend these criminals and rescue the young men..." Captain Randell began.

While the meeting temperatures had risen, Joseph had been swimming across the river.

***

It was less than ten minutes till sunset.

Jardie, with the fur hat under his arm, rode his horse across the river-bridge, towards the city gate.

Tethering his horse in the security of the City Post, and tossing the groom there, a whole farthing, Jardie sauntered through the open gate, unchallenged. He intended to view the 'lay of the land,' before he returned, to walk around the outside of the wall, to 'Pauper's Place.' Just inside the gate, he was quickly grasped, a soldier on either side.

Hauled to stand before a captain, who snatched the fur hat from his armpit, he was asked, "What have we here? It's early summer, and you have a fur hat?"

Cursing loudly, Jardie demanded, "Unhand me you mongrels."

Receiving a punch to his face, Jardie found himself thrown face down on the road, and frisked. He felt the bag he had taken from 'Appie' torn from his belt. A soldier stood, his foot on Jardie's back. Another held a sword, pointed at his face.

"Fetch Captain Randell!"

The captain, who was conferring with Karl, hurried across to the prisoner. Taking the moneybag in his hand, he opened it. Ten gold crowns, and one silver ring, shone into his intelligent eyes.

"Where did you get this?" Randell demanded of Jardie.

"If y'll let me get up, I'll tell you," Jardie replied, inwardly relaxing, now believing that the military here were looking for 'Appie' and not for kidnappers.

When Jardie stood, the captain asked again, "Where did you get the ten crown...and the ring?"

"A thieving little kid had it...he's the one you want. He said he got it from rich folks...the ring too..."

"Where is he?" Randell demanded.

"I got him safe; Sir," Jardie said respectfully, now hoping that there was some reward in it for him. Then, as he remembered that 'Appie' was with Philip, their kidnapped hostage, beads of perspiration rose on his brow like a row of glassy pearls.

"Where...have you got him...safe?"

"That, Sir, I'm not saying; not till I have me own safety assured, Sir..."

"We'll assure your safety, all right!" the captain said grimly. "Lock him away, and make sure he's kept safe."

While Jardie, cursing and struggling, was hauled off, with a quad of guards joining him, Randell conferred with Karl and three captains. Within minutes, a soldier was sent to fetch Jardie's clothes; the latter being left to be escorted to prison in his shabby underwear.

***

It was just minutes before sunset, and Captain Randell, whose size closely resembled Jardie's, rode towards the woods where a growing band of soldiers awaited.

Tethering the horse, and followed distantly by a dozen soldiers, disguised as surfs, Randell climbed to the rim at the top of the valley; then the Jardie look-a-like stepped around the rim, waiting.

"Jardie; Jardie--have y' got the gold?"

Floyd popped up from a crop of sparse undergrowth where he had been lazing, staring down the hill, hoping to see Jardie coming with his long-awaited 'easy-money.'

The Captain recognized the castle fueler, Floyd, and was pleased. Such treachery; having absconded that morning, Floyd had helped action the life-threatening abduction. How quickly he had fallen into their hands.

"Here, Floyd, let me show you what a hundred crown look like," the Captain called.

Something in Randell's tone; something in his cultured accent; this uncharacteristic offer; the 'early' sinking sun; and Floyd caught the smell of reverse treason. It wasn't Jardie; it was someone else. He panicked. Backing away, he turned and ran, helter skelter, down the hill, deftly weaving between the rocks, running to the safety of the cave where Jim was facing a different dilemma.

Pulling his horn from the back of Jardie's belt, where he had fixed it, Randell blew it; three short blasts, then, dropping it to hang from its cord, he hurried down the slope, seeking to follow Floyd's flight.

A minute after sunset, Tombstone Valley was filling with king's soldiers; torches being lit and fixed to the rocks strewn across the valley floor, lighting up the area. A systematic, foot-by-foot search of the valley and caves was begun.

***

Cowering in the inner cave, in darkness, were Jim and Floyd. Their prisoner, and the boy, 'Appie,' together with Poisy, had disappeared. All light had vanished.

Poisy, clutching the bag of farthings, followed the dim light; trailing the freed hostage who had disappeared down this undetected exit. She had no idea that military were amassing in the valley; or of Jardie's capture; or of Jim and Floyd's predicament; Poisy was hoping to gain Jardie's approval by pursuing the escapees, then return to inform Jardie where they were hiding. She expected this tunnel to lead to another cave.

Chapter 16

Joseph, seeing dim light ahead of his candle, blew out the light, feeling worried that it may give away their presence to an enemy.

Followed closely by Philip who was moaning with throbbing head pain accentuated by the effort of crawling in the constricted burrow, Joseph pushed out through strangled grass, into a thicket of blackberry vines. They caught on his ragged clothes and tore into his skin.

“Ouch,” he cried, trying to free himself from the grasping thorns. “Ouch! Ah!” Thoughts of other enemies vanished as he fought these thorny adversaries.

“What’s this?” a soldier called, pointing his torch down at the pile of blackberry vines.

“Take care, or you’ll set it alight,” another soldier warned, drawing his sword.

A third man joined them. Pulling a long dagger from its sheath, he began attacking the vines, saying, “Help me clear it away; there’s a boy under there.”

Within minutes, Joseph and Philip stood before them, balancing themselves on the hillside, being congratulated by the group of soldiers, now numbering six. Captain Berman arrived, and he blew three short blasts on his horn, followed by a long-lasting one; the signal to broadcast the safety of the two boys.

Distant cheers rang out, echoing over the rim, caused by receipt of the signal’s good tidings.

Not far inside the burrow, Poisy waited; hearing the fanfare; creeping closer, wanting to crawl out to escape from this situation, which she knew, was turning into a nightmare to trap her forever. Wait! wait! she warned herself, listening as the captain outside the cave told Joseph and Philip about the capture of Jardie and that men were now searching the Tombstone Valley caves.

“Have no fear,” the captain said, “We’ll soon have every one of those evil kidnappers in our custody.

“Come on then, young sirs; I think the order of the day will be to get you both back to the castle and give you hot baths and good square meals.”

***

King Lemuel and Queen Lois waited together in the castle foyer. They sat, clasping hands, appearing to all who saw them, as anxious parents, waiting for news.

Joseph rode tandem with a young soldier who helped the boy dismount. He had to support him to stand. Joseph’s knees threatened to give way.

Philip was the same; his head spun alarmingly, and he still felt as if he still crawled in a dark compassing hole.

The king and queen stood at the main castle doors, watching as Joseph and Philip were supported to walk up the steps.

“Well done, Joseph,” the king said as he stepped closer. Four captains with dozens of soldiers followed, applauding.

King Lemuel stepped to Joseph’s side, lending him support asking, “Are you harmed?”

“Not really, Sire; a few thorns and grazes; but Philip is safe, Sire; and I’m so glad it’s over. It’s good to be home.”

***

Poisy was never found, though thinner soldiers were sent through the tunnel and the caves and surrounding countryside was searched several times.

Jardie, Jim and Floyd, were condemned to be hanged; and because both Joseph and Philip had been the victims in the crime, they were expected to be present while this death penalty was carried out. The execution would take place at sunset, just two days after the crime. King Lemuel, as sovereign judge, was required to give the executioner the final nod.

***

Poisy watched from the great crowd in the city that day, from a distance, and wearing a disguise, a wig and makeup; she watched with tears of anger and disbelief as Jardie, Jim and Floyd received the ultimate sentence for the crime in which she had shared. She was thankful not to be there with them; but hateful towards the man wearing the crown; the king who had condemned the love of her life; Jardie.

“I’ll avenge your death before I die meself,” she promised, “and I’ll keep me eyes on that there king! I’m aimin’ to make him miserable before he dies, that I swear to do; upon the soul of my Jardie, I swear it!”

Chapter 17

Joseph and Philip discussed that fateful day, reliving it several times over.

Philip told Joseph how he went to Paupers’ Place, as commissioned and gained information from the paupers, that Floyd had only ever taken food to them twice, plus the time, more recently, he went with Philip.

He had been accosted, as he left Paupers’ Place and was dragged into a recess in the wall.

While Jim and Jardie had gagged and tied him, Floyd and Poisy had kept a lookout.

“Evidently, criminals don’t bother about paupers; they just keep watch for city soldiers,” Philip told Joseph. This explained why the paupers, having seen the abduction had scattered; but not Harry, who relished such drama.

“I was taken out to the cave in Tombstone Valley; it must have been before noon, as it was so hot I thought I would suffocate. They had put me in a huge sack, and then, I was thrown over the back of Jim’s horse. Jardie took Poisy with him and I expect Floyd walked out to the rim where he was supposed to keep a look out.

“They made me write that scroll, to the torch-light in the cave, and, having heard the name, ‘Tombstone Valley,’ I decided to include it. None of them could spell properly enough to check up on me. They made me read the note back to them, three times...”

“You were really clever, changing your name,” Joseph said, “and the ‘floydfeit,’ though I did guess about Floyd, almost right away.”

“After I’d written my name, I had visions of your trying to come out alone, and them capturing you; I was paranoid. Then they knocked me out...and they tied me up again. I must have slept until you woke me.

“I never want to go through something like that, again...”

“You won’t have to,” Joseph said, then asked, “What did you think of the hangings?” This was the first time Joseph had mentioned it.

“The murderous thugs all got what they deserved, and I’m sure Poisy heard about it; she won’t show her face in the city again!”

“Taking people’s breath away like that; they all have souls, and they’ll never get a chance to confess or be forgiven...” Joseph spoke his thoughts.

“You heard what King Lemuel said; neither Jim nor Jardie wanted forgiveness; and Floyd was only sorry because he hadn’t gained money with an easy life. I wouldn’t want them out there...waiting around the corner for an innocent fellow to pass by so they could steal from him, or steal him; would you?”

“No; I agree,” Joseph said.

Philip’s bumps and bruises; and Joseph’s feet and knees healed quickly, but the inner emotional turmoil--caused by the kidnapping, the brief trial and sentencing followed by the executions--took much longer to repair.

Knowledge that Poisy was still ‘out there somewhere,’ reminded Joseph of the different life-style he had once lived. Thieves and murderers had passed among the paupers of the city, yet their conspiracies had been considered a normal part of living. Joseph knew he could never return to his former life; not in a hundred years! When he had said to King Lemuel, “it’s so good to be home again,” he had meant it from the depths of his heart.

The king had given no commands to Joseph, made no changes, since the kidnapping. The advisers agreed with him, to wait and see what changes the boys made themselves.

The difference in both Joseph and Philip was commented on by King Lemuel’s three advisers. Philip spent more time in the library, doing research and study with Joseph, on new subjects; law, and philosophy. No longer did Philip go out on errands or to check on the poor.

Joseph paid two trusted servants to take leftover food to Paupers’ Place. He charged the men to make sure that the food went to the ‘disabled needy’ and that he would commission a couple of soldiers to escort them if necessary.

Still keeping his account in his ‘record book,’ Joseph decided to stock-pile his allowance, with a goal figure, planning to rent and staff a building that would serve as a hospice and training facility for the disabled and dispossessed of the city. When the king was shown the account record with the projected goal, he made no comment, but nodded his approval.

Two weeks after the executions, both Joseph and Philip were summoned to stand before the king and queen’s thrones. The advisers, their wives, the scribes, captains, and a few selected members of the court were present.

Captain Randell was called upon to speak for the king and queen; “Sir Joseph; and Philip Charles Pippin; you both showed presence of mind and bravery in your escape from those who sought to do you harm. In particular we must congratulate Sir Joseph for his unselfishness in planning and actioning the rescue, and, under unforeseen obstacles pursuing it to a successful conclusion. We hereby grant you both Medals of Courage, with a select Badge of Valor for Sir Joseph.”

Philip stepped up the dais steps to kneel on one knee, before the king’s throne. He bowed his head as he received the Medal of Courage, feeling that he had done nothing to deserve it; this one should have gone to Joseph as well.

Joseph followed Philip and knelt beside him. King Lemuel gave him the medal, then, placing a sash over his head and across his chest, he pinned on the Badge of Valor.

Commanding him to stand, the king kissed Joseph on both cheeks, and everyone in the throne-room cheered. Queen Lois stepped over to Joseph, and she too kissed his cheeks, congratulating him, and clasping his hands warmly.

It was a moment that would never be forgotten by those present.

Few ‘in the know’ could understand why the king had not yet installed Joseph as his heir; why he wanted more time. There were others though who did not understand. Why could the lad’s future not be broadcast? The whole kingdom should be rejoicing that King Lemuel had chosen such a wise, intelligent, courageous son.

When questioned by a captain who dared, at the next meeting of captains, the king replied; “You all know now, where Joseph came from; his parentage. We do not question his background; a father-soldier who died in the king’s service; a faithful mother figure; but we have lived long enough to know that people change. One thing one can depend upon, is that one cannot depend upon people.”

The captains looked around, eyes contacting eyes; some of them did not understand, while others nodded, causing some confusion.

“My father, King Arpius, was a wise and just king; his father before him, not so. It was said that my grandfather was good and considerate as a boy, but he changed when he grew older, to become very cruel and extremely unjust. My father followed his father, at first being compassionless and cruel to both peers and servants. Then, when he became king, he changed, and gave himself to following God’s Word and God’s Laws--as do I.

“Some of you, here,” the king looked around the chamber, “Some of you, are older than I, and you know what kind of lad I was. Foolhardy; selfish and unreliable; but nevertheless, heir to this throne. You have seen me change, and for the better...” King Lemuel paused and waited, while the men agreed and conferred about this.

“A man who is constant all his life, is difficult to find; I know of few...

“Now, we have this young man, Joseph. The queen and I prayed to God about him, before we met him. We asked God to lead us to ‘the right one,’ and to help us know that he was, indeed the ‘right one’ for the throne of Justiceburg.

“We found the orphan, Apples, as he was known, out in our city. He seemed to be too good to be real; a pauper, living among the scum of the city, yet he was good. Most of you know that there was a plot a few years ago, to enter our castle for the cause of murder and pillage. What you may not know, is that it was the child, Apples, who reported this planned travesty. Somehow, Apples survived, as if he had a host of guardian angels watching him and helping him to be good and do the right thing.

“A king has powers, to be good, or not to be good. He has ultimate choice over his subjects. What a daunting task, to choose a subject, to become king! We wanted to have a son of our own flesh; but that was not to be. And then we discovered Apples. Kneeling in the orchard, every night, he prayed. Sir Pippin followed him around the city, and not a fault could he find, other than the fact of where he lodged, and whom he associated with. But what choice did the boy have? He was making the best of the worst situation; and we believe that God was helping him and protecting him, as much as Apples was choosing to have faith.

“Queen Lois and I pledged to God that we would not install Joseph as our son and heir, not until we were sure that he would continue in the way he began. We see him displaying obedience; wisdom; and courage of late, with great discretion that many older men would not show. In the kidnapping of his young adviser, Philip, he did not act rashly and rush off without advice and direction; he faced up to the consequence of his past choices and took a wise course of action.

“We wish to be patient, to keep our pledge, and wait until Joseph is eighteen. If he is continuing on the course he has chosen, we’ll continue with the plan to install him as son and heir. But until then, he shall renew his promises, every year. And so shall his adviser, Philip.”

Never did anyone question the king, and the meeting was officially closed.

***

Three years passed.

Chapter 18

Joseph learned to ride as masterfully as Karl who had been promoted to replace a retiring captain.

Joseph’s wisdom and knowledge had grown so much, that he unintentionally surpassed his tutors, and it was decided he needed them no more.

The king demanded Joseph’s presence, but only when many others were also there, in the throne room at Judgment Assembly Time; and also when judgment was being determined in the counseling chamber, sometimes at military counseling meetings.

Joseph felt profoundly frustrated that the king never asked his advice, nor showed any desire to know the young man’s opinions or ideas. It was humbling, because Joseph believed he had good suggestions to share and discuss, for the betterment of the kingdom.

Dressed in the manner and fashion of the gentlemen of Justiceburg, Joseph now wore his wavy brown hair tied back with a velvet ribbon. On a scale of up to 100 for good looks, Joseph would have received the top score for being handsome. Yet he never looked in a mirror, for he had Vance to care for the way he was presented.

Philip became to Joseph, his closest friend, though the latter still could not speak of his own past, or present role, or any future hopes, in view of the throne of Justiceburg.

Although Philip was not told about Joseph’s future, he was astute enough to guess that the young man, younger than himself, and not brought up in so noble a setting, had been selected for something very special. Joseph is special, Philip reminded himself whenever he felt a pang of envy; He saved my life; I could be just an obscure memory now, if it weren’t for him, and the knowledge he had from his unspeakable previous life.

Philip had discovered, from his cousin, Pippin, that Joseph had once enjoyed swimming in the city river; and that he had enjoyed both sunrises and sunsets.

“I’d like to take you somewhere,” Philip told Joseph, late one afternoon, after they had finished in the library. Following Philip, Joseph rose to the battlements where he was led to a position where he could see the vivid crimson of the sunset sky, reflected in the city river.

Puzzled, Joseph worded a question in his mind, until he was sure he would not break a promise. This had become second nature to him. He finally asked, “How did you know I particularly enjoy the river at sunset time?”

“Pippin told me,” Philip replied.

The two stood, watching the sun setting, not speaking another word, but the beautiful colors, changed by the sinking sun, cemented their friendship forever. Joseph knew he had someone he could depend upon, someone he could trust and someone who sought his good.

In turn, Philip knew that he had done the right thing; that Joseph was pleased; and he felt great inner pleasure.

When Philip told Pippin about the sunset, and his feelings, the old counselor said, “You’re learning wisdom, Philip; you’ll make a good counselor for a good king.”

King Lemuel remained distant to Joseph; it seemed to the lad that the king spoke more with Philip, than with him. Joseph had to admit, though only to himself, that he was covetous of the time Philip spent talking with the king and the other advisers.

Philip was free to travel to his home to visit, and Joseph found himself feeling lonely, wishing he too, had a family, a mother, he could visit.

Sometimes Philip was invited to take the evening meal with the king and queen, and the court. Joseph felt ostracized on these occasions, when he had to take his meal, alone at the table in the dining room not far from his schoolroom. He felt as if he had grown up, but was still confined to the children’s ‘nursery.’ It was difficult for Joseph not to feel resentful.

He rewarded these lonely meal times, by placing a volume of the Bible opposite himself, on the table, reminding himself, speaking out loud, “Even if no one else takes the evening meal with me, Lord God, You are here; for You promised, in Your Word, never to leave me, never to forsake me. And Lord, I must stop my murmuring; I have so much to be thankful for; food, clothes, friends, and faith; I take far too much for granted, and I have become used to an affluent life. You give me what I need, Lord; You are with me, and I’m thankful. I’m dining with the King of Kings--how dare I feel sad!”

Queen Lois wanted desperately to compensate for the restraint her husband placed between himself and their prospective son.

When she spoke again about her ‘being closer to Joseph’ King Lemuel relented, agreeing she could spend time with him, but only if she had one of the counselors’ wives with her, and not when the lad was scheduled to be elsewhere, or when Philip was present. These times would be few.

“You may encourage him to speak with you about anything, Lois, anything at all, but as he instigates it. That way, we’ll learn something of his inner ambitions. Don’t tell him your aspirations, even if he requests it. And I will want to know all he says to you. Remember, answer his questions; show him none of our emotions.”

Queen Lois felt crushed. She mulled it over in her mind, feeling that the king, using many words, had asked her to ‘spy’ on Joseph. Then, remembering his last dictate, ‘show him none of our emotions,’ she realized that he, too, had deep feelings for Joseph, feelings that would rise to the surface one day.

Queen Lois cautiously chose the times when Joseph was alone in the Library, but found that though she greeted him, and sat by the window light with a book, looking up at him often, he dared not interrupt her.

She discovered, from Pippin that he walked up to the battlements to look down at the orchard at sunrise; and at the river, at sunset. This was the spot she and the king had often gone, to watch him praying in the orchard.

The queen decided to approach him with a greeting, so that he would not feel she was ‘stealing up on him,’ but that she had pleasure in finding he also was where she had chosen to venture.

He was silent to begin with; then, Joseph commented about the colors of the clouds; naming birds as they flew ‘home,’ speaking about, and predicting, the weather. Their friendship, in their approval towards each other, began to grow.

Spring turned into an early summer. The king’s fostered, but not adopted, son, to all the advisers’ calculations, was well into his seventeenth year, perhaps not far off from eighteen years old.

Joseph leaned into the crenellation, looking down at the orchard, seeing that the apples were ripening; watching as paupers came along to reach for the lower fruit. These few snatched minutes were a time to consider the day ahead and to pray. Joseph recalled proverbs, and as usual, he found it difficult not to think of Liliana.

The queen approached, with a bright, “Good morning, Joseph; I’m glad to see you here too.”

“Your Majesty,” Joseph, said, bowing and kissing her hand as schooled. He gently touched his lips to her hand. He remembered kissing leaves and flowers, a long time ago, and giving them to his first and only love. Liliana had lifted them to her lips as if very precious.

“Lady Bradley,” he bowed to the queen’s companion.

Turning, they watched the river, feeling the rising sun warming their backs.

“Did you know about...about Liliana?” Joseph dared to ask, feeling bold in the fact that he had never promised not to speak of his past to the queen, and she already knew most of it.

“Lord Chester’s daughter?” the queen asked, and replied, “Yes; you used to garden at the castle and also visit her; or rather, she came out of the castle to visit with you. Sir Pippin told us about it. She’s a fine young lady.”

“Yes,” Joseph replied, then divulged his heart secret, “I used to dream that I’d marry Liliana, one day.”

The queen raised her eyebrows. She felt surprised that Joseph would tell her this. Remembering the king’s directive, she waited.

“Am...am I permitted, Your Majesty, to speak with you, candidly?” Joseph asked, and smiled his naturally stunning smile.

“Yes, you are, Joseph; I have our king’s permission. You may share with me anything you wish.”

“I may?” Joseph asked, his smile even wider. It was obvious to the queen and Lady Bradley that Joseph would do nothing that would displease the king.

“And...and that includes Lady Bradley?” Joseph asked, turning to her.

“Yes,” the queen replied, laughing. Then she grew serious, thinking he was too astute in his private conversation. Philip and Randell had both declared of late that it was unnatural, how Joseph considered his words. Yet, when the king was told, he was pleased; the boy had learned the greatest lesson of all; an accomplishment few ever attained; to guard his tongue.

“Then I’ll be candid; and I hope we’ll not regret it,” Joseph said, and, with his eyes upon hers, he said, “You have no idea, Your Majesty, how much I long for the time that I can use the term, ‘Mother’ for you; I need you to know, Your Majesty, that for a long time, you have been ‘Mother,’ in my heart.” Sensing pain in her eyes, he looked away, down at the river, which strangely blurred.

The queen’s heart skipped a beat. She felt tears rising to her eyes. “Liliana...she’s a fine choice,” she said. She found his words emotionally painful; how could she talk about his need for a mother, when it was all she longed to be to him? He had not asked a question of her.

“Liliana would make a good queen,” Lady Bradley said, knowing that her queen was struggling to speak. She had not been told by the king to be silent in Joseph’s presence.

“I am able to share, anything?” Joseph asked, without waiting for an answer, “I plan to name the king’s first grandson, after His Majesty; Lemuel,” Joseph said, his eyes still upon the river.

Joseph, having begun, needed to explain his deepest thoughts. He felt relief from the pain in his heart, just to speak to her, as he said, “I’d like to share with you; that I need you as mother in my life, Your Majesty; I...I need the relationship that a son has with his parents; or else I continue to live as an orphan, though dwelling in the king’s castle.

“I have unresolved emotions for Liliana that I can’t discuss with anyone. Sometimes, I feel almost crushed by it, Your Majesty. You see, she came searching for me; a pauper told me, three years ago; she came looking for me. The blind man heard her weeping in the orchard. Liliana and I...it’s difficult to explain, but we...we were like...like...” He could not find the words he needed...

“Twin souls? Kindred spirits?” Lady Bradley offered, lifting her lace handkerchief to blot her tears.

“Yes; but more. Without words, it was as though, before God, we were meant to be together. She did not speak of it, as she was not poor; and I did not speak of it because I was not of her class; but our hearts spoke, and when our eyes met, it was a language without words.

“Did you never speak about it...with her?” Lady Bradley asked.

“No; we mostly shared verses, from memory. Each time we met, we always chose a verse to quote each other; and she told me that she wrote the verses in a diary, to keep them forever.”

Lady Bradley bowed her head. Never before had she heard of young folk, yet children, behaving in such a spiritual manner. Looking up at Joseph again, she knew that he sincerely spoke the truth.

“Breakfast has been served! The king is waiting on you; Your Majesty; Sir Joseph!” A messenger called urgently, waiting for their response. It was unthinkable for the king’s breakfast to be delayed by anyone other than the king himself.

But the queen’s thoughts were upon Joseph’s previous claim, that he wanted a mother, that he ‘needed to have parents in his life, or else he continued to live as an orphan, though dwelling in the king’s castle.’

How much we have missed, the queen thought, feeling utterly miserable. Lemuel and I...we have wasted over four years! God gave us this wonderful son, and we made our imprisoning pledge, because we did not believe that the city dregs could produce from its lowest, a child who could be so pure. How wrong we’ve been; how unjust for him, to have lived here with us, but without our parental love.

Before she could muster her queenly self-control, tears rose like a flood, gushing from her eyes, streaming down her cheeks. She bowed her head and sobbed into her hands.

The messenger saw the queen weeping as though heart-broken, and, turning on his heel, he hurried down the steps to inform the king.

Joseph, his eyes upon the queen, was utterly dismayed; he had done the unthinkable; a thing he had never wanted to do; he had troubled her and caused her grief.

“Please; forgive me, Your Majesty,” he begged.

She wanted to tell him that it was not he who needed forgiveness, but she, and the king, but her words came out as sobs, and as Lady Bradley wrapped her sisterly arms around her, they cried together.

Joseph waited, but still they wept. He was bewildered; and had no idea what to do, what to say. “I’m sorry, so sorry,” he offered.

Lady Bradley realized how embarrassing it was for her queen; they had both lost their self-control and needed privacy to regain it. “Leave us, Joseph; leave us!” the lady insisted.

Backing away, Joseph obeyed. As he began to tread down the step way, he came face to face with King Lemuel. As it was a ‘one way’ situation, Joseph made a quick semblance of a bow in the restricted space, and hurried back up to the walkway.

“Is the queen...weeping?” the king asked, in disbelief. The messenger had whispered this news in the king’s ear. Moving past Joseph, the king saw for himself that his queen wept.

“You made her weep?” he asked in shock; adding, “What did you say, or do, to make her weep? It’s unthinkable. The queen never loses her self-possession.” King Lemuel could not remember a time when his wife had wept; not at either of her parents’ funerals! Not even when they learned they would never have a child of their own.

“Go!” the king ordered, pointing at the step way.

Confused, Joseph stood stock still, staring. If the queen was his mother, he would have been welcome to comfort her; and he felt, in the depths of the king’s command, there was much left unsaid.

“Where shall I go, Sire?” Joseph asked.

“Anywhere; just go!”

Joseph did as told; he was not sure how far he would ‘go,’ but he was sure of two things; he had made the queen weep; and King Lemuel disapproved of him, telling him, ‘go.’ If ever there was a directive to leave the castle perimeters, Joseph was sure this was it! The king did not want him around; not at all.

Chapter 19

King Lemuel could gain nothing coherent from his wife; and upon questioning Lady Bradley, he found her answers disturbing; the boy declaring he wanted a mother--that he also had spoken of marriage? Of still being an orphan? It seemed hopelessly confusing and much out of place.

The king realized, as had Lady Bradley, that this was no place to find comfort and resolve for his wife’s distress. Giving her needed support, he guided her down the steps, and all the way to their quarters where she seemed to be in a worse state than ever. Women attendants hovered around, but the king waved them away.

Sitting on the long sofa beside her, he wrapped his arms around her, rocking her as he may have, a child.

“Tell me what grieves you, dear heart,” he prompted.

Between sobs, she replied, “What...have we done? What...have...we...done?”

King Lemuel was suddenly still. Releasing her, he stood, asking, “What are you asking of me?--and why? What have we done?” He sat again, asking, “You refer to Joseph?” the incredulity in his voice made her weep more. “What we have done, for Joseph, is to take him in; to make him what he is today; perhaps to be our son?”

The king stood, feeling helpless and angry. Looking at Lady Bradley, he saw that she too, still wept, though not as grievously as the queen.

Striding to the door, he spoke to an upper woman servant, commanding, “If the queen stops weeping soon, send for me; if she weeps more than an hour, send for me.” Turning, he spoke to a man-servant, waiting outside the door, “Have them find Sir Joseph, and have him meet with me--in his school room; inform me when he is there.”

But Joseph was nowhere to be found.

Returning to the queen’s quarters, which were situated next to his own, the king saw that she still wept and could not speak to him. Then, an hour later, when it was reported that she had stopped weeping, he was also told that she did not want to speak to him, but she wanted to speak with Joseph. Could the king send Sir Joseph to her?

Irritated almost more than he could contain it, King Lemuel visited his queen.

He knelt in front of her, taking her hands in his, asking, “Tell me about it, Lois; tell me what made you weep like that, and why did you ask, ‘what have we done?’”

Tears rolled from the blue eyes, and she spoke in a broken voice, “I want...to tell you, Lemuel; but you...you need to hear it...as Joseph said it.”

The king stood, and his eyes contacted Lady Bradley’s.

“You heard what Joseph said?” he asked.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” she replied.

“All of it?”

“Yes, Sire.”

“And--it’s too difficult to speak about?”

Lady Bradley lowered her eyes, knowing that she supported the queen’s mood; and to speak her mind right now, may be to overdo her support of the queen.

“Yes, Sire; it is...it is...very emotional, Sire...”

The king paced to the balcony, stepped out and stood in the sun for a few moments, then walked out into the corridor to command, “Fetch two scribes.”

“Sire, the King’s Council is awaiting you...”

“We know...” he replied grimly. Returning to the sitting room, he said, “This is what we shall do, so that we may gain an unbiased report of what happened up there on the Western Lookout. You shall both dictate to a scribe, what was said and done. Then, taking as much time as you need, you shall dictate to him, the reason you both wept. The scribes shall bring these reports to me. You shall not confer about the matter, nor see each other again until I have both reports in my hands.”

When the scribes arrived with their tablets and writing portfolios, the king, having kissed his wife’s forehead, escorted Lady Bradley, with one scribe, to the library where there was space for the two to sit at the desk.

Half an hour late, the king entered the counseling chamber, realizing they were two scribes short. Captains and advisers, including Philip, waited for him.

Before the king signaled that the meeting be formally opened, he asked, “Philip Charles, stand before me.” Then, “Do you know where Sir Joseph is?”

“No Sire,” Philip replied, then said the obvious, “he should be attending you here, Sire.”

King Lemuel’s eyes scanned the faces of his attentive council, and commanded, “Captain Karl; go with Philip and find Sir Joseph; he may have left our castle; when you find him, bring him back here, at the king’s command.”

Everyone in the chamber knew that Joseph was greatly out of favor with the king.

Sir Pippin, deeply concerned, moved out, intending to go with his young cousin, to help seek Joseph, but the king said, “I did not give you leave, Sir Pippin,” and the older man returned to his place.

Chapter 20

Joseph, having run down the narrow step way, could think of nothing else but the word ‘go.’ Indeed, he wanted to go--he needed time-out to consider his terrible travesty and why it had turned into something he could not mend. It dawned on him that both the king and queen had emotional issues; the queen perhaps from having been childless, and the king from unresolved matters in his past.

Choosing the winding, narrow step ways, he found himself at the side door leading to the stables. I want to ride; and I want to ride far away, so that I can look back on myself and my life here, he told himself.

The stallion, now considered to be Joseph’s mount, stamped his feet eagerly when he heard Joseph’s voice. Assisting the groom with the task of saddling the creature, Joseph soon led him outside and mounted.

The sun was growing hotter; Joseph had never ridden in the morning before, and after riding across the river bridge he steered the horse out towards the great forest where he knew the road would be shaded and perhaps, in the glade there, he would find tranquility.

But a band of gypsies camped in the glade.

Cantering further, Joseph arrived at the Western Crossroads; five different ways to take. One led south, passed Chester Castle, and Joseph knew there would be no point taking this road, he would find no peace of mind there. He chose the northern-most road, where he had never ridden before, hoping to find a place of refuge.

Urging the horse into a gallop, mile after mile flew beneath the hooves; yet he kept up the pace. Resentment rose, and he dug the hard heels of his boots into the stallion’s sides, calling, “Faster; we’ll go as far as we can!”

Half an hour later, Joseph noticed his horse’s discomfort and slackened his tension on the reins.

Snorting and foaming at the mouth, the creature dropped its head.

Dismounting, Joseph apologized to the animal. He had a new problem now; he had distressed another friend, his beloved ‘Bandit.’ White foam; sweat that had risen and congealed, oozed from beneath the saddle.

Drawing the animal into the shade of tall trees beside the road, he wove between them to move upward, over the rise. Joseph hoped to find a water source where he could wash the horse and rest him for a while to recover.

An incredible vista met his vision; a castle, with four towers lay ahead. Surrounded by a moat, it sat side on to this vantage position. Beneath him, was just what Joseph wanted; the water source feeding the castle moat.

Keeping amongst the trees, lest castle guards saw him, Joseph drew Bandit down the slope. The horse took no urging; he was eager to reach the water. Having been schooled in the care of horses, Joseph knew that the creature needed to cool down before he drank. Being dehydrated and very hot, to drink too much cold water too soon, could cause his demise.

Tethering the horse closely, Joseph unclasped the saddle buckles and undid the straps. Taking off the heavy leather load, he dropped it into the long grass. Peeling off his tunic, he took it to the narrow channel of water and dipped it in and out until the close weave was wet through.

When Bandit had been rubbed down, with several washings of the tunic, and when he had stopped snorting and foaming at the mouth, Joseph took the creature to the canal for a short drink.

Seated beside the horse, as it stood close to the branch to which it was tethered, Joseph relived the conversation with the queen and Lady Bradley. He found no relief in meditating upon it, but rather, more anxiety.

Having allowed Bandit another longer draft of water, he unclipped the reins on one side and fixed the leather clasp to an exposed tree root. “Eat, Bandit; look at that thick green feast. At least one of us may take breakfast!”

Having scanned the area for spectators, Joseph peeled off all of his clothes. Pushing them under a bush, he again scanned the area, then jumped into the deep canal, savoring the fresh water that flowed towards the castle moat. For a moment, he was a young boy again, diving deep and drinking in water while he was beneath the surface, rising to spurt it out of his mouth like a fish.

Swimming had been one of Joseph’s favorite things, and he relished the freshness of the deep waters after his frantic gallop of escape from the king’s rejection.

Drifting with the flow, he paddled along the edge of the canal where long grass hung down from the banks. Before long, he found himself swept into the moat itself, the stone of the back castle walls looming up ahead. Looking up, Joseph sank beneath the water’s surface as he saw the back of two men’s heads, their soldier’s helmets glinting in the sunlight. Emerging close to the wall, he allowed the current to draw him on; not wanting to struggle with anything, not even against the water.

The moat portcullis ahead was raised as usual, since it was daytime, and guards could watch the water. Joseph let himself drift under the risen spikes, into the dark tunnel, and the bowels of this unknown fortress. He pictured himself floating out the other side and swimming back around to the inlet. He relaxed, wanting to find rest in his unwelcome freedom.

Horse’s hooves sounded out, and a woman’s voice ended his relaxation, “You’re back, Faidor; at last.”

Then the man, from his horse, “Been waiting for me, Sissy?” Dismounting, he kissed her, saying, “I like it.”

Joseph pushed backwards, paddling under the arch, into the darkness, snatching at a metal ring set into the stonework of the slimy walls, preventing himself being swept out again.

He suddenly felt vulnerable; an intruder in an unknown castle, trespassing; and, he realized, naked. It would not be unreasonable for any castle lord to have him executed on the spot and his remains hanged from the castle gate as a warning to any other brazen transgressors. The king and queen may never know what had happened to him.

“I like it, too,” the woman said, drawing away, asking, “How’d it go? Is it all set up?”

The man named ‘Faidor,’ replied, “Yep. But I’m nervous; they’ll know it was me, and there’ll be a search for me. Tell his lordship to give me my reward, now, and leave here with me, now. Start a new life, with me, Sissy.”

“I’m not leaving nowhere’s till I knows the king’s right dead, I’m not; and it could take up to three weeks.”

“We should go before then,” Faidor replied; “I don’t reckon his lordship is trusty, not even for a bit of spit! If he finds out I’ve been having it on with you, he’ll likely have a fit of rage, and I’ll be his target...”

“Look, you’ve done y’ part; I’m staying here; I’ve waited for four years for this, and I’m not missing out on a tad of it.”

“You never did tell me why you hated him, did you?”

“The king an’ I have old score to settle. Waited me time, I have, and got meself in a good spot out here with his lordship. But I’d like to be there when his majesty sits on his throne; just to watch his face and see his pain! Are you really sure that what you did will work right?”

“Sure as I stand here; he’ll be so pained on that throne! I’ve got it set so it’s on different springs and the spikes will rise as he puts more pressure downward. Y’ wouldn’t understand it all, Sissy; I’m an inventor, I am, and I set the throne on ratchets so’s with pressure, it’ll drop down a few inches...so long as y’ poison is all it should be, Sissy.”

“Huh,” and she laughed, and said, “they didn’t call me ‘Poisy’ for nothing--a tad of it is all it takes, so even if he just gets a scratch, it’ll do it! Real slow, it is; it’s got a name, it has; “Cyclic Death” it said on the recipe scroll...means it goes on and on, and that’s where I read it can take three weeks...”

The horse snorted loudly, stamping impatiently.

“I’d better take this laddie to stable; his lordship will want to know that it’s just a waiting game now; guess I’ll stay around...and later his lordship will move in with his soldiers and sit on that throne himself; without the poison spikes, of course.” He guffawed loudly and added, “Just as well the king has no other heir...” he laughed again, saying, “he’ll never get one now.”

“That’s why I wanta stay ‘round, Faidor; imagine what positions we can prescribe from him as king! Here, I’ll come with you--yore horse looks like it needs t’ get out of the sun.”

The horse’s hooves clopped on the cobblestones, fading.

Joseph felt chilled. He could not believe what he had just overheard. It was too bizarre, his being here, at this place, having chosen it at random; it was too much of an impossibility for him not to have invented this ridiculous conspiracy, wasn’t it? Yet, the woman, Poisy; yes, anything was possible with her. He wondered who Faidor was, and how he had gained access to tamper with the king’s throne? Poisoned spikes?

Have I heard right, he wondered?

Oh, God, he prayed, as he turned back, and began swimming against the strong current, is it at all possible, that You are able to lead me here, even though I was going blindly? Does nothing happen by chance?

Dear God, You have to be with me; give me wings; I have to fly home...

Chapter 21

Joseph dived deep into the moat to swim underwater to the other side, having calculated the distance. However, he had not counted on the current dragging so strongly here, and when he surfaced, he was some yards short. Drawing another deep breath, he plunged under the water again, swimming fiercely, realizing again that the moat was very deep. He emerged where he had calculated, at the steep side of the canal, beneath the overhanging grasses and reeds.

Looking back, checking he was hidden from castle view, Joseph swam over-arm, alarmed that it was harder than he had projected and took him what seemed ages.

Dragging himself from the canal, he was pleased to see Bandit. Within seconds, he found his clothes, pulled on his under breeches, then his tailor-made velvet trousers.

Lifting the saddle from the long grass, he staggered with its weight. It’s almost as heavy as I am, he thought, breathing heavily. Mustering his strength, he carried the saddle to a thicket and pushed it into concealment. His boots and their long laces, followed the saddle.

Placing his damp tunic on the horse’s back, he then clipped the reins back to the mouth bit.

Mounting the horse, he urged, “Ride like you never have before, Bandit; we must be back before the king goes to the throne room for the morning Judgment Assembly Time.

Joseph did not spare Bandit, but without the weight of the saddle, the refreshment of water and feed, and time to recover, the horse fared better than he had on the ride out.

Not pausing at the stables, where castle guards moved to stand with the groom who waited to greet him, Joseph, bare feet, and bare chest, rode on, around to the front doors of the castle.

I’m late, I know it’s late; Dear God, don’t let me be too late...

His muscled chest rippling with the shine of perspiration, Joseph abandoned the horse and bound up the front steps. He ran past captains, guards, and attendants, ignoring their calls to stop.

“Joseph!” Captain Karl said, hurrying after him, with Philip as his side. “What? Where are your clothes?”

Joseph drew the captain with him, gasping to catch his breath, asking, “Who is Faidor; what does he do?”

“Faidor, the new Steward of the Throne Room? Why...”

“Does he have anything to do with the king’s throne?”

“Yes, he had it apart late yesterday, and last night he worked on polishing it, all the gold, inside and out...I heard he finished it off just this morning, assembling it; but what...you can’t...”

“Support me, Karl; it’s...the king’s life...or death...”

Looking into Joseph’s eyes, Karl saw the same earnestness and resolve he had seen when Philip had been abducted and Joseph had determined to rescue him.

They turned the corner in the corridor, just as the king, having walked from the other direction, was announced to enter the throne room.

The court was assembled, with lawyers and city officials, having waited over half-an-hour, now giving obeisance as the king strode along the plush purple carpet toward his throne.

Joseph, with Karl and Philip’s help, pushed open the doors and entered the chamber. While Karl and Philip struggled with guards, Joseph, fiercely pushing an outraged guard aside, ran, gaining pace with the king, then running on ahead, up the dais steps to the throne itself.

King Lemuel heard the scuffle behind, and exclamations of astonishment all around. Then he saw Joseph. At first, he thought some mad man had entered the chamber; then he saw that it was a young man; his chest naked, bare of feet; his hair in disarray, hair the same as...wearing dark blue velvet trousers, the same as...he looked like...

“Joseph?!” the name thundered from the king’s mouth in an unbridled response of deep dismay.

Ignoring the king, and all others, Joseph’s focus was upon the throne. He had never seen it without the king seated on it.

How could someone place poisoned spikes in it? he wondered. In the light of great chandeliers, the golden lattice pattern gleamed reflections into Joseph’s gaze. The huge wooden throne was completely covered with heavy gold filigree. Having walked right around the great throne, Joseph plucked an oblong velvet warmer from the seat of the throne itself. He could see nothing amiss.

King Lemuel, now at Joseph’s side, hissed, “Have you finished?” Turning, the king signaled Captain Randell who was now close to the dais, a quad of guards in tow. Karl and Philip had been seized and detained at the door.

Other castle guards and captains quickly formed a circle around the dais, seeking to block this unfortunate spectacle from the eyes of the court and waiting nobility.

“Go with Captain Randell, Joseph.”

“Step down, Your Majesty; King Lemuel!” Captain Randell urged. He was worried that Joseph had lost his reason, and therefore any violation was conceivable.

The captain stepped between the king and Joseph.

“You must not sit on your throne, Sire,” Joseph countered, not moving from his place in front of the seat. “Captain, there’s treason here; the king must not sit on the throne!” He saw, in the captain’s eyes, pity and disbelief.

Horror struck Joseph; he had thought that his word would be believed, and they would, at least, examine the throne. But he was not believed, and, in a moment, he would be dragged from here.

The king, unaware of any danger, would sit down.

Joseph felt a surge of fear about sitting on the throne, and he wondered what else he could do; he knew he had to do something! My feet won’t hurt as much as my seat, his reasoning told him, and before the captain could step forward to stop him, Joseph stepped up on the throne of the kingdom of Justiceburg.

Combined protests sounded out; the insane youth actually stood, right up, on the king’s throne!

In the instant he stood on the throne, Joseph wondered if the plot he had overheard was a fabrication; then, as he placed his other foot down, an ominous series of clicks sounded out beneath the surface, and one by one, sharp spikes were released through the holes in the gold lattice where the king would have sat. A black oily paste had been brushed across the points of the spikes.

Four soldiers rushed up to assist the removal of the ‘mad young man’ from the throne; then they stood still as if turned to stone.

With a gasp born of excruciating pain, Joseph recoiled forward. He clutched the high back of the throne, unable to think, his breath catching in his throat as he felt his feet being impaled. He was stuck, and could not lift his feet from their captors. One foot felt more impounded than the other; it was the first he had placed on the throne. With a series of sharp shudders, the whole throne moved downward, pressing the spikes into his flesh even deeper.

Blood oozed through wounds in Joseph’s feet as the spikes exited, and Captain Randell, gazing at what was happening, yet not comprehending, could not find his voice to utter the command to clear the throne room. He reached his hands towards the lad’s feet, wanting to help Joseph, to somehow lend support.

“Don’t touch them!” Joseph cried, “The spikes are poisoned.”

King Lemuel, his anger having made his face red, felt his heart pounding loudly within his chest. His jaw dropped as he found himself looking down at a sight that would haunt him for months to come.

His eyes lifted to meet Joseph’s.

In the throes of the most violent pain he had ever suffered, Joseph whispered, “I’m sorry; I had to disobey you...”

Finding his voice, Captain Randell shouted the command to clear the throne room. “Tell the herald to announce that there will be no Judgment Assembly today...it...it’s...cancelled.”

Another captain called,“Fetch Doctor Wells.”

Karl and Philip heard the commotion, but having been hauled from the throne room, could not reenter because of the mass exit that had been ordered.

Six palace guards, with a captain suggesting movements, lifted Joseph from the bed of spikes, and carefully lowered him to the floor of the great throne room. No one within hearing would ever forget Joseph’s cries of pain and anguish.

King Lemuel was unable to think, or to speak; he knelt beside Joseph, horrified at the growing pool of blood on the white marble. Taking Joseph’s hand in his, he clasped it between his two and kissed it. Tears gushed down his cheeks, and he did nothing to stem them. Joseph’s eyes closed and his moans grew softer.

Sir Pippin knelt on Joseph’s other side. He saw beads of perspiration rising on Joseph’s brow and that the lad was trembling in shock. “Who did this?” he asked, his head close to Joseph’s face. Captain Randell knelt at Joseph’s head, and heard the answer; “Poisy...and...and...”

Joseph felt strange; it was a feeling he wished would go away; his feet, his legs were on fire and his body was trying to leave them, but it would not. The fire was moving higher, and higher...his tongue felt thick, as if it had grown larger.

“The man’s name; Joseph,” Captain Randell asked, and his deep voice, loud in Joseph’s ear caused the lad to recoil. The captain repeated the question, with no response, then asked, “Who was with Poisy, Joseph? Joseph, can you hear me? Who was with Poisy?”

Suddenly Joseph wanted to tell them everything he could remember, because, he realized, it could soon be too late, and Poisy and Faidor were still at large. His eyes flew open.

“Faidor...Faidor, and Poisy...she made poison...‘Cyclic Death’--it takes--three weeks...”

“Where did you see them? Where were they?”

“They didn’t...see me; I was swimming...and riding...

“It’s too far...” he closed his eyes again, feeling that he had faded into nothing, so glad that he felt nothing.

Doctor Wells arrived, and, after visually examining Joseph’s feet, without touching them, he said, “Fetch linen, and pitchers of cold well water,” then asked, “how on earth did this happen?”

After viewing the spikes sticking up all over the seat of the king’s throne, he shook his head, asking, “He stood on these? What on earth for?”

“Why would you think, Wells? Should he have watched the king sit on them?” Sir Bradley asked, making every man in the chamber whiten at the voicing of the dread that was in every horror-struck mind. Captains, soldiers and members of the king’s Court stood as if stunned, many unable to hold back tears at this terrifying disaster.

“Who is he? The lad?” the doctor asked, striding back to Joseph, then, seeing the king sitting beside Joseph, holding the boy’s hand, his crown cast to the floor, he bowed, saying, “Your Majesty; I did not realize it was you, Sire...”

“This...lad...is my son, Doctor Wells; do your best to heal him. He...he said,” and the king’s voice faltered, “he said...the spikes...they were poisoned.”

Chapter 22

Doctor Wells, having consulted with the three most renowned city doctors, gave their composite prognosis to the king and queen of Justiceburg. Two days had passed since the scene in the throne room

“We have the painful duty to announce to you, Your Majesties, that Sir Joseph’s days on this earth are numbered. We cannot heal him from the poison that has entered his frame. We are all most distressed Your Majesties, and offer you our heartfelt condolences. The best that can be done is to make him comfortable; attend to his needs and seek to carry out his last wishes.”

“How...how long...will it be?” the queen asked, wishing with all her broken heart that she had not asked this question, but wanting to know.

“No more than a week, Your Majesty,” Doctor Wells said; “and, perhaps, two or three days.” Silence followed these words. The queen began to sob.

“It’s our advice, Your Majesty,” Doctor Wells said to the king, “that you refuse liquids or food of any kind; that way, it will be easier for Sir Joseph.”

If Joseph had been a son born to the king and queen, they could not have been more devastated by Doctor Well’s announcement of impending death for him. So great was their grief at these words, that they saw no one else’s reaction to the news. Everyone, in the castle, who knew Joseph, and knew about his sacrifice for the king, was in deep shock.

The captains, not consulting the king, convened a special meeting, to share their united grief and to discuss, not only how this had happened, but how to prevent any repeat of such premeditated betrayal and treason, enacted right in the innermost sanctuary, before the eyes of those who should have had the powers to prevent it.

“I should have been the one to sit there,” Captain Randell asserted. Others repeated this statement, until Captain Randell announced; “No one should have been poisoned. But we must agree; Joseph did this, not just for King Lemuel, but for us all here; we should have done it, not only for the king, but for Joseph, but he has done it for us. The least we can all do, is to fast and pray to God that somehow...somehow...” bowing his head, his voice broke, then he continued, “pray...Joseph will be spared. Pray that God, in His wisdom and love...will see fit to allow Joseph to recover health, and one day to sit on the throne of our beloved Justiceburg.”

***

Joseph was alternately in pain, terrifying pain, then his legs felt numb. He heard people talking about him; the queen’s soft voice telling him how much she loved him; the king agreeing with her; and he believed he was dreaming a good dream. On opening his eyes, he could not focus, and soon closed them, moaning so deeply that when he stopped, those in the room thought he had ceased breathing.

The king had commanded that Joseph be placed in the bedchamber closest to the king’s and queen’s quarters. This chamber soon filled with people who needed to be near the king and queen at a time like this, and although the crowd around the walls grew, and people stood for hours at a time, no one told them to leave.

On the second night, Philip sat close to the bed, holding Joseph’s hand; praying that his friend would not die; feeling helpless and hopeless, but nevertheless, keeping on praying. Wanting to be close to him, to see any change, to be with him till the end.

Joseph opened his eyes, knowing someone was holding his hand. The room was dimly lit by candlelight, and he managed to focus on Philip’s face. As in a rushing tide, memories of what had happened flooded him.

“Philip,” Joseph called.

Philip, who had been half slumbering, sat up, erect, “Joseph,” he replied gladly.

“Fetch...the widow...Allison, and...and...Vance...I’m thirsty...please...a drink...”

Vance, who had been standing by the wall, propping himself up now as he had rarely left the spot since Joseph’s forfeit, came forward, taking Philip’s place.

Having previously inwardly cursed at the doctor’s advice, Vance took up a goblet he had set on the bedside table. Cradling Joseph’s head, he felt it to be a momentous answer to his prayers; Sir Joseph swallowed the contents of a whole goblet. How can he ever live, if he does not take liquids? Vance inwardly repeated his previous question.

Joseph lapsed back into the unconscious state he had lain in for almost two days.

The king and queen, both having retired to their bedchambers, were summoned and the news was relayed.

“Joseph asked for the widow, Allison?” the king asked, “Well, send for her.”

“Philip has gone, Sir Joseph told Philip to go,” Captain Karl said, “and Captain Randell went with him.

***

Widow Allison, having demanded larger candles to be brought, examined Joseph’s feet and legs. They were purple, swollen up to his knees. Pus oozed from the wounds in his feet.

“What poison was used here?” the widow asked.

“How do you know it was poison?” Captain Randell asked. The news of the poison in the throne room had become a carefully guarded secret.

“It’s obvious, Sir,” Allison said, “I know a poisoning when I see one.” She peered at Joseph, and moved to look at his face. She asked, “Who is he? Do I know him?”

King Lemuel stepped to her side. He did not wear his crown, and a thick dark blue dressing gown covered his silk nightshirt. To Allison, the king could have been any man who lived within the royal castle.

“Do you remember a boy named Apples?” the king asked.

“Apples? He liked me to call him ‘Joseph,’--is this Joseph? Oh, I thought...it was reported he died...”

Allison moved close to Joseph’s head, saying, “I need to speak to him; can he tell me anything about the poison?”

Captain Randell said, “He said it was called ‘Cyclic Death,’--have you heard of it, Madam?”

“I’ve heard of most kinds of poison, Sir; from bee and hornet stings, snake venom, to ones like you name...that’s why Joseph would call me, he knows I heal troubles like his; he used to fetch berries and herbs for me...”

Pippin, who was present, remembered. “Can you do something for Joseph? Could...might...can you heal him?”

“I could, for sure, if I’d have been called right away.” Allison stared at the king’s ashen face and said, “I’ll do my best; I’ll have to fetch medicines; and a large pot of the salve that draws out this nasty poison...” she looked back at Joseph’s face. Reaching to his brow, she stroked it, saying, “He’s the best there is; with some prayer and God’s best products of nature, he should mend; mind, he’ll get worse before he gets better. Well, shall we go; we need to get on with it right away; I’ll need help, some folks to carry things...”

“Sire...shall we...allow her?” Pippin asked.

“We must,” the king said. “The doctors have given up; I’ve been praying, many have been praying; now it’s time to do something, yes, we must.”

***

Allison, with potions and salve; bowls and instruments, moved into Joseph’s bedchamber. To everyone’s chagrin, but the king’s approval, she sent the spectators from the room, “Except for a few earnest helpers; those closest to Joseph,” she said, adding, “We need someone in here who can mother him, as he’ll need it, he’s going to suffer a violent fever before he turns the corner toward recovery.”

Queen Lois demanded that she assist Allison. Not wanting to complicate the widow’s task, she cast aside her silk dress and borrowed a cotton one from the women servants’ closet, feeling glad when the king voiced his approval, saying “You’re the perfect mother Lois; I know how much you love him.”

King Lemuel had not mentioned the two reports he had received, and read, before he entered the throne room that fateful day. His wife’s written words matched those of Lady Bradley’s, though were not as descriptively embellished as the lady’s. The king had understood his wife’s tears; he had understood her words, “What have we done?”--and when he had entered his throne room, he had been ready to make amendments with Joseph and admit that he was ready to accept a more intimate parental role, for both himself and the queen, in the lad’s life.

What a shock it had been, to see Joseph, half undressed; his unusual actions and words; to believe he was deranged.

But more shock had been the king’s portion to see Joseph sacrifice himself; taking poison into his own body to save his king.

King Lemuel had whispered, more than a dozen times, since that hour, “I wish it had been I; I wish it was not Joseph; I wish I was in his stead.”

***

Allison used her doctoring skills combined with her homemade remedies. The doctors, if they had known, would have accused her of witchery, a serious crime. The king felt relieved and absolved of guilt, to hear the widow speaking of her cures as being ‘God’s gifts, from nature.’

Using sharp needles that had been held in candle flame, Allison opened all the wounds in Joseph’s feet, causing pus to ooze more freely. She was pleased that Joseph had swallowed the goblet of water, but declared that she was mixing medicine into a pitcher of water that he had to be coaxed to swallow over the next twelve hours.

“The whole pitcher full,” she told Vance, who nodded eagerly, in agreement. “It will flush his body of the poison,” she said firmly, knowing that many would disagree with her. It was a resolute belief of the doctors of the day that water caused the body to lose what goodness it contained.

Making a poultice with thick grainy porridge like goo, she had the queen and Lady Bradley bandage it around Joseph’s legs and feet, telling them, “Renew it every three hours.”

After 24 hours of Allison’s treatment, Joseph fell into a violent fever; suffering diarrhea and terrible body cramps.

“This is good,” Allison told the queen, “I didn’t expect him to get the fever so quickly; it’s very good. I’m more persuaded that he’ll recover. You must go and sleep and rest; it’s a task for the men folk for a day or two. I’m going to my home to check on my children; and I’ll take some sleep if I can--one always sleeps better in one’s own bed.”

Pippin, with the widow’s approval had sent a small team of servants to her house to care for the twelve children she fostered, with the three of her own, extra. He knew that she would find everything well cared for. “Return soon,” he said, feeling alarmed at Joseph’s feverish state.

“He’ll be fine; he’s a fighter, he is; he wants to live, I can always tell. Just make sure he drinks the mixture from the special pitcher; he has to have a pitcher full every 12 hours. If he won’t take it for you, send for me, and I’ll make sure he does.”

Chapter 23

A few days into Joseph’s fever, the news was brought to the king, that two bodies had been found in the river, near Paupers’ Place.

“One is definitely Faidor, Sire; and the other may well prove to be Poisy.”

“Murdered?” the king asked.

“Yes, Sire, so we believe; strangled, both of them, then thrown in the river so that we may not find out who really was behind the attempt on your life, Sire. We’re all sure that the placement of them in the city river, is a decoy.”

“Question the paupers, and offer rewards,” the king commanded, “Investigate the matter.”

“We shall also maintain the extra security on the castle and city, Sire,” the Captain affirmed.

For a week Joseph’s fever raged, and every day, Widow Allison expressed surprise that he was still only semi-conscious, hallucinating and groaning.

His diarrhea problem ended; and the cramps he suffered lessened.

The swelling had gone, and his legs and feet began peeling as if they had been badly burned.

Widow Allison assured the queen that Joseph’s legs and feet would, in time, return to normal. “All that will remain will be spot scars from the spikes. A good lot of sun on the top of his feet and you won’t see the scars at all,” she said as she gently patted a healing salve on them.

Widow Allison had learned who ‘Lois’ was, and although she recovered from the shock of having ordered Her Majesty around, she decided not to divulge her knowledge but to continue treating the queen as a peer. A close friendship had grown between the two.

It was not long before dawn, and Allison entered Joseph’s room to find the queen already there.

After changing Joseph’s night-shirt and bed linen together, the two women sat down, one on either side of the bed. “Joseph needs lots of sunshine; with little clothing on, Lois; he must be encouraged to sleep out in the sun. It will put health into his body.”

“Who taught you, about medicine, and healing skills?” the queen asked.

“My late husband’s parents; and of course my husband; we learned a lot together. And, as God made every person so very different, a lot of it is like taste and see.” She laughed lightly.

“How...how did he die? Your husband?” the queen asked, hoping his demise was not from a mistake with his own medicines.

“Well, you see, my husband was actually a trained doctor, but he didn’t believe in half of it, certainly not the bleeding and the refraining from liquids...anyway, he got a fearsome cold, he did, after attending Lord Chester when he was ill. His horse went lame and he had to walk home in sleet. I couldn’t bring down his fever and he died with fluid in his lungs.

“I never thought I would recover from losing him, but God does use time to heal, He does.

“And it was Joseph who was my life-line then; I’d never have made it if it wasn’t for his help and encouragement.”

Joseph, opening his eyes, uttered the words that countless patients before him had, “Where am I?”

In the predawn dimness of the room he focused on the queen’s face softly lit by the candlelight.

“You’re in your bed-chamber, Joseph.”

“Who...are you?”

“I’m your mother, Joseph,” she replied, taking his hand in between her two, kissing his forehead.

Smiling a thin smile, he sighed and said, “That’s nice,” and closed his eyes.

“Joseph? Will you take some broth for us?” Widow Allison asked.

Opening his eyes and looking into her face, he asked, “Who are you?”

“Widow Allison--you know me, Joseph, don’t you?”

His blank stare was her answer, then he said, “I know you now--Widow Allison.”

They assisted him to sit, propping him up with pillows; and he drank a thin herbal broth that Widow Allison had prepared for this moment. Then, lying back into the pillows, he closed his eyes and slept.

“He’s definitely going to recover,” the widow said, “but at the moment, Lois, I don’t think he has any memory. His fever raged too long, and affected his memory.”

“Will...will the loss be permanent?”

“I don’t think so; but it could be a long time before it returns, and then, it could well be quite sketchy; parts of his memory may never return; but then, they could...oh, I’m sorry, I’m not making any sense, but then, memory is such a strange thing...and we must be so thankful that he was not affected more seriously.”

“How?”

“Some folks have brain failure from poisons, and from fevers, and they’re never the same again; they can’t think to speak or to calculate at all. So we must thank God, and pray for Joseph to keep on recovering.”

King Lemuel was not worried about Joseph’s loss of memory; he was overjoyed that recovery and healing had come. He commanded everyone to give thanks to God for answered prayer.

The next time Joseph woke, King Lemuel, not wearing his crown, visited him. He greeted him; “Well, how are you doing today, Joseph; my son?”

Joseph jumped to see such a grim, bearded face, so close. He stared up at the king after he had been kissed on each cheek.

“You remember me, Joseph, don’t you, your father?” the king asked.

“You...you are my father?” Joseph’s voice trembled.

The king’s heart jumped, both in gladness and in sorrow; the lad’s speech was clear, but his memory truly had been affected.

“I’m your father, Joseph; call me ‘Father,’--but we’ll discuss it more, another day. In the meantime, is there anything I can get for you? What would you like most?”

Joseph looked into the attentive eyes, which radiated with love and kindness, and said, “I...a lady...earlier today, she said she was my mother...she and you must be...”

“Yes, we are; we’re married, Joseph; we’re your parents.”

“I’d like to see Mother again,” Joseph said, his thin face brightening.

Joseph continued to recover, and with the assistance of the widow’s tonic, his appetite increased so much that he began to put on weight. Parts of his memory began to return; and, because he could memorize so well, and remembered every name he heard, every face he saw, it was difficult to ascertain how much of his recollection was from information recently given him.

Pippin sat with him, reading manuscripts and also parts of the Bible that he knew Joseph had read. When he asked Joseph about the reading, Joseph was able to complete the rest of the piece, correctly.

“He hasn’t lost his memory,” Pippin concluded; “he just has to be prompted to recall it.”

Vance and Philip supported Joseph to sit on the balcony in the sun. After a few minutes, King Lemuel strode out into the fresh air to visit with Joseph.

“Father,” Joseph asked, “What do you do; I mean; for a living?”

“I’m the king, Joseph; the King of Justiceburg.”

“Yes, I remember, now,” Joseph agreed, then said, “I’d like to see you with your crown; you wear one don’t you? And, I don’t recall my child-hood, Father, I’d like you to tell me about it.”

The king blanched, wondering if Joseph ever had a real child-hood, having worked so hard; then he said, “You spent the latter part of it here, in the castle; don’t you remember your advisers; your tutors; and, Philip your messenger?”

Joseph felt disapproved when someone said ‘don’t you remember,’ and he longed to be approved of, so he said, repeating what Philip had told him, “Philip and I are best friends.”

The next day, Joseph walked on his own, and Allison declared that she need not come every day, but only if they needed her. “Joseph should be dressed each day, and begin returning to the things that he used to do,” she advised.

Captain Randell and Captain Karl questioned Joseph about where he had ridden on that fateful day; but he could not tell them. Though they suggested it was a near a river; that he had been swimming; perhaps it was in the city river? Joseph could not say, his mind felt blank. He asked, “I go swimming do I?”--and they knew they could make no progress yet.

When the queen asked Joseph if he remembered a girl named ‘Liliana,’ Joseph asked, “Oh Mother, I feel so grieved to have to say no. Who is she? Is she someone important? Am I to meet her?”

The queen did not know what to answer.

Lady Bradley saved the day, saying, “You may remember her, one day.”

“I find it very tedious,” he said. “This fever I had, it took my memory away; it’s tiresome, sometimes, not knowing what people are talking about.”

However, that night, Joseph dreamed, vividly, the whole scene in the throne room; he remembered the king’s look of horror, and he remembered the spikes; but he did not know why he had stood on the king’s throne. He had no recollection of how he had heard the plot. His groaning caused Vance, who slept in an alcove in the same room, to rise and wake the lad, telling him he must be suffering a nightmare.

King Lemuel, summoned to Joseph’s side, answered the lad’s questions. Then, when Joseph asked, “Father; I know I have holes in my memory; would you, Father, could you tell me everything you know about me? Then I will know, instead of people saying, ‘do you remember.”

The king agreed, and while Joseph listened attentively, he told him, truthfully, about ‘Apples,’ about his father and his mother, buried in the orchard. When Joseph asked, “May I visit her grave?”--the king agreed, “We’ll go together, some time soon.”

The next morning, just before dawn, when the queen was about to visit to see how her son had fared through another night, king Lemuel said they would talk with Joseph, today, about his past life. King Lemuel realized they could have told Joseph anything, so great was the lad’s trust in them, but all the king wanted now, was to tell him the truth; that though once he was an orphan; a pauper; he was now the king’s son.

When breakfast was announced, King Lemuel and Queen Lois commanded it to be brought to Joseph’s room.

The king cancelled all of his sessions for the day, determining that this day, Joseph’s needs would come first.

It was a day of bonding between the three, and it was the day that Joseph emotionally became son of the king and queen of Justiceburg.

It was afternoon, and the trio sat on the balcony. Joseph asked, “Tell me about Liliana, Mother.”

After the queen had exhausted her knowledge, and also shared all he had told her about Liliana, Joseph said, with a smile, “I’m looking forward to meeting her.

“Tell me, please, exactly why I’ve lost my memory?”

The king spared nothing in recounting the day. He even accused himself for not believing Joseph’s credibility. “You gave your life for me, Joseph; and I did not deserve it; I can never repay you, my son.”

“You must not say that,” Joseph said. “I’m horrified to think you could have...have...sat on...that...” his eyes filled with tears and he added, “it’s been worth it, Father and Mother; I have you both; we have each other; I never want to be without both of you; we must thank God every day.”

Not only did the royal father and mother realize that Joseph had been restored to them; but he had the same selfless spirit as before.

Joseph asked many questions about the day he stood on the king’s throne, and the king answered them all.

“Weren’t you angry with me, Father, for disobeying you?”

“Of course I was,” King Lemuel said, with a twinkle in his eye, wanted to lighten this heavy discourse. “I was furious; then, later, Joseph, you apologized for disobeying me, and I wept like I have never wept in my life before.” He smiled, wanting to change the subject; the vivid red of Joseph’s blood-stained feet were still bright in his memory, “I promise I’ll never be angry with you again, my Son; and you shall never disobey me again...”

“No,” Joseph said, with fervor in his tone, “Never.”

Later the king said to his wife, “You were right, my dear; we’ve missed out on so much with Joseph; we should; I should, not have pledged away valuable time. But we cannot relive the past; and we must do all we can to make it up for it, with Joseph, in the future.”

Chapter 24

The following morning, Joseph’s bed was empty. His nightshirt had been left on the bed, and Vance was sure that a set of clothes was missing from his dressing room. He woke Sir Pippin.

Pippin found Joseph in the library. It was just after dawn. Joseph was reading from the book called ‘Genesis.’ A large candle sat close to the book.

“Good morning, Pippin,” Joseph said cheerfully, having been told by the king that he could drop all the ‘Sir’ titles when speaking in private--but the king had added, “just remember, Son, in private, you may call me ‘Father’--but in public, call me ‘Sir.’”--And Joseph, smiling, had asked, “What do I call Mother, in public? ‘Queenie’?” Smiling, the king had answered, “You call her ‘Marm.’”--“That’s nice,” Joseph had replied, “it’s much like Mother.”

Pippin said, “Joseph, you’re up early.”

“You must remember,” Joseph said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve always liked coming to the library, early.”

“You remember?” Pippin asked, excitedly.

Joseph’s face clouded, and Pippin knew the answer. Joseph’s remembrance was in having been told.

“I’ll be back,” Pippin said, knowing he must inform the king and queen as to Joseph’s whereabouts.

King Lemuel entered the library, glad to see Joseph so alert, reading. He asked, “What is it you are reading?”

“The Bible account of the life of my namesake.”

“Your namesake?” the king asked, remembering that he had plans to change Joseph’s name.

“Joseph. Do you realize, Father; Joseph remained true to God all of his life. He was good and pure, and never turned aside. I want to be just like Joseph. I’m praying that I’ll be like Joseph. And do you know, Father, there are footnotes here, suggesting that Joseph can be favorably compared with Jesus. I think that’s wonderful.”

Placing his hand, affectionately, on Joseph’s shoulder, the king said, “Joseph; you, yourself, can be compared to God’s Son, did you realize that?”

“No,” Joseph said, puzzled.

“You didn’t hesitate to offer your life for mine, Joseph. Your unselfish sacrifice is like the Christ’s. He gave His life, that we may believe in Him and have eternal life.

“Few people would have done what you did. I’ve read a verse, in the New Testament that says there is no greater love than that of laying down ones life for another.”

Spontaneously, Joseph said, “I do love you, Father; I believe I’ve always loved you; for as long as I have known you, I have loved you.”

“I believe you, Joseph. And I want you to know that I love you too, I love you, very deeply.”

A week later, at a private meeting of the king’s court, including the captains and the advisers, the king and queen were told what these people wanted to do to honor Joseph’s sacrifice in rescuing their king.

“If Joseph had died, Sire,” Captain Randell said, “Would we not have mourned long and paid many respects and tributes; and would we have spared any expense for the proclamation of such a worthy person who gave himself so selflessly? Would we not have placed a valuable monument upon his tomb?”

The king agreed saying, “We’d have spared no expense.”

“Then, as Joseph is not dead, Sire, but alive, though with some memory loss; yet still the same selfless person he was, should we not still give him our heartfelt esteem for what he has done for us all? Is such admiration only for the dead? Should we not acclaim the hero while he’s yet alive? The least he must receive is the Zenith Emblem which is awarded to families after their loved one has died in Service to Justiceburg.”

King Lemuel agreed; and together they made plans to honor Joseph.

Chapter 25

Vance took extra care in Joseph’s appearance this day. He himself, was dressed in his best outfit as he, too, had been invited to be present in the throne room for the Ceremony of Honor that was to be accorded to his charge. Philip entered the room just as Vance had finished positioning Joseph’s sash with its Badge of Valor on it.

“Sir Joseph; Vance,” Philip acknowledged them, then repeated, “Sir Joseph?

Joseph had been staring into nothingness as he often did now, while Vance made ‘finishing touches,’ and he had been racking his mind to try and remember how he had earned the two awards he wore.

“Philip, your explanation last week was sketchy and we didn’t have time to discuss it; but did I really rescue you from a band of murderers?”

“Yes, Sir; you did. And you realize, Sir, that the Ceremony today is being given to honor your heroism in saving the king’s--your father’s life.”

“I do remember standing on the throne to prevent him sitting on it,” Joseph said, remembering his nightmare, “but anyone would have done that. I hope they don’t make too much fuss about it.”

Vance stepped to Philip, straightening the lad’s Medal of Courage; hoping that the young adviser would keep silent. Vance liked nice surprises, especially if they were for someone as admirable as Joseph.

“Yes, Vance; I’m missing your help in my presentation,” Philip said, smiling, “I have to use a mirror now.”

The throne room was packed with members of the king’s court and selected others. Not one captain wanted to miss out on this celebration, and ‘temporary captains’ had been appointed for the day so that chain-of-command could still be kept while they took time away from their posted duties. Captains, their wives and families waiting in the great hall, wore their finest apparel and those who had earned badges, medals and other awards, had these with them.

The advisers and wives were dressed in their best outfits, as were all others present.

Philip and Vance hurried into the throne room ahead of the king and queen, not wanting to be left out.

“King Lemuel, and Queen Lois; Monarchs of the Kingdom of Justiceburg,” the herald announced.

Queen Lois gave the somewhat apprehensive Joseph a kiss before she left him to follow the king to the dais. Three thrones sat upon the dais; simple thrones, with no gold overlay, and without solid bases. The thrones were fashioned from elaborately carved and polished cedar.

King Lemuel sat on the center one, while the queen, as usual, sat on his left.

The herald made an announcement, saying as the king had commanded, “All give obeisance to the son and heir of King Lemuel and of Queen Lois, and of the Kingdom of Justiceburg.”

This was the first announcement of Joseph’s reception into the royal family.

Joseph walked along the plush purple carpet to the dais, knowing he had done this before, but forcing himself not to think about when. His heart pounded faster in his chest, then his eyes connected with the queen’s, and he felt himself calming. He prepared himself to bow before kneeling; but they descended to him, and with one on either side, escorted him to sit on the throne that had been set on the right hand of the king’s.

Queen Lois waited for her husband to sit, then at his nod, she sat on her throne.

King Lemuel spoke, saying, “We are gathered here today, to honor our son. The first item, is to proclaim his name.” At the king’s nod, an attendant struck a small gong, and two heralds, bearing a scroll each, came forward. Having bowed to the thrones, the heralds stood back to back; one facing the dais, and the other, the company. In unison, they read, “Their Majesties, King Lemuel Arpius Charles Justice, and Queen Lois Elizabeth Anne Justice, proclaim that from henceforth, their chosen son shall be known as Prince Arpius. His full name shall be His Royal Highness, Prince Arpius Joseph Lemuel Justice.” As the heralds moved back to their places, the company in the throne room applauded.

Joseph smiled, thinking, I like the name, Arpius.

As Queen Lois looked across at him, she thought, How princely he is; and, he’s not at all disagreeable, but he’s enjoying it. I’m glad he likes his name.

The king commanded, “Rise, Prince Arpius.”

Joseph, or rather, the new Prince, Arpius, stood, and the king and queen also stood. Moving over to his son, the king commanded, in a loud voice, saying, “Prince Arpius, come and receive two awards; one is the Justiceburg Imperial Cross; and the other, the Zenith Emblem.”

He did as requested, and the king, with the queen’s help, affixed the awards to his sash. The prince did not realize that these priceless awards had only ever been given to the families of deceased champions, in memory of heroic acts.

Congratulations erupted from all around.

The king said, “Be seated, Prince Arpius, on my throne.” To make sure it was understood, he indicated with his hand palm up, the middle throne.

The company gasped; no one had any idea that this was what the king would do.

“Sire...Sir...Your Majesty; but I can’t,” the prince stammered.

“You promised not to disobey me,” the king said; his voice so low, that only his son could hear.

Without hesitating, Arpius grasped the king’s right hand, and lifting it, kissed the seal ring. Stepping across, he did as he had been told.

Turning, the king said, “I have asked my son, Prince Arpius to be seated upon my throne, because that is where he belongs. He gave himself for me, without hesitation, and I make it known today, that I give myself without hesitation, to him, to serve him and love him as a father should a son; for the rest of my days.”

The king then sat on his son’s throne, nodding for his wife also to be seated. “We shall proceed with our program,” the king commanded.

Philip, as youngest and second least in the court, came forward as planned. Lifting his Medal of Courage with its gold chain, over his head, he said, “I give you this medal today, Prince Arpius, to honor your amazing courage and your outstanding sacrifice for all of us here.”

Taking it to the center throne, Philip placed it around the Prince’s neck, kissing each of his cheeks.

Vance came up next, feeling full of deep pride that he was even here. Having bowed, he said, “I’ve been with Prince Arpius, every day, for over four years. He’s the most unselfish...admirable...” and tears began to roll down his face as he tried to continue, “he’s uncomplaining, he is...and, and...he...I have nothing to give, but all my heart and all my strength, and with God’s help, to serve him in every way I can, all the days of my life.”

Rising to the throne, he knelt to the prince and before Arpius realized what was happening, one by one, he kissed his boots. Few had dry eyes. A spontaneous cheer rose as Vance stumbled back to his place.

Captain Karl came next. After extolling Arpius’s great qualities, and hailing him as a hero, he laid his captain’s medal, with his family’s Zenith Emblem, on the dais, by Arpius’s feet. Following Vance’s lead, he kissed the prince’s boots. Looking up, he said, “I pray that your feet will be blessed as much as once they bore the curse of poison for our king, in my stead for him.”

One by one, the captains came and laid their awards on the dais, proclaiming that the prince’s sacrifice had been their own; he had done it for all, that they all might share King Lemuel’s reign for as long as God willed.

Soon, a pile of badges, medals on sashes, awards and trophies, lay there, together with priceless Zenith Emblems and Justiceburg Imperial Crosses.

Captain Randell had prepared a speech, but he found that others had stolen his words and his cheeks were wet with tears. Laying down his medals and badges, he knelt to Arpius and said, “I give myself, to serve you, all my life.”

The ladies were also permitted to pay homage. Lady Bradley was the first, and, with Sir Bradley’s help, placed a small chest full of gold crowns in front of Arpius, saying it was a small tribute for all he had done, and she wanted him to receive it, and use it for whatever he wished.

When the last adviser had made his presentation and given his speech, the queen stood and, laying down her crown, she moved to her son. “You are all that I could ever wish a son to be, Prince Arpius. Your presence with us has made us richer, from the first moment we saw you. I give you myself, as your mother, to serve you in every way I can. I pledge to pray for you every day, that God will continue shining in your life, and that many may see Him through you.” She kissed him on both cheeks, murmuring, “My dear son, I love you.”

King Lemuel, taking off his crown, laid it on the pile, and rose to kiss his son again. “I love you, Son,” was all he could say, before moving back to sit on Arpius’s throne.

Cheers rang out, and then there was silence.

Prince Arpius, his head bowed, knew that they all expected him to speak. He stood, and the king and queen followed suit. “No, please sit; Sir; Marm.” He felt alarmed; nothing in his life before had prepared him for this. What could he do? What could he say? Everyone was looking to him.

He moved around the great pile of treasures. Gold and jewels shone back into his gaze. Moving down the steps, he turned and looked back at the thrones whereupon his parents now sat. The center throne was empty.

The company waited, feeling sure that he had wise and kind words for them all.

King Lemuel, though he trusted his chosen son, felt a little apprehensive in that moment. He had given Arpius, Joseph, full powers, and the right to be, as of now, King of Justiceburg. If his heart-felt knowledge of his son’s selflessness was accurate, he knew that Arpius would do the right thing.

“I want to thank you all for these gifts today,” Arpius said, “and I want you all to know that I esteem them all highly, as being your most valued treasures.

“Many of you have expressed your wish to have done what I did, for our king, my father. Therefore, we all should serve King Lemuel; he is a good king, who in turn serves you all.” He bowed to the king, and everyone cheered.

“For the good of Justiceburg, and following on from the very reason for my once standing upon the king’s throne, I wish to return my father’s crown to him.” Arpius stepped up on the dais and retrieved the crown. Kudos rang out, and when the applause did not cease, the king rose and stepped across to his son, to kneel.

Silence was instant, the king kneeling to the prince?

The prince placed the crown on his father’s head and said, “It’s my command that you sit upon your throne and continue to rule this kingdom wisely.” They kissed cheeks and hugged, and everyone laughed and applauded.

King Lemuel sat on his throne.

Taking the queen’s crown, Arpius stepped across to his mother, saying, as she slipped to her knees, “Queen Lois; we need you to continue as queen of this realm. Please receive your crown, and...and...” his voice slid to a whisper, as he said, “always be my mother.”

The applause was deafening, and long lasting, until the herald, at the king’s signal, sounded the gong.

“We have one other matter,” the king said, causing the heralds to frown. There was no other item to be read.

“Prince Arpius,” the king called, and the prince stood before him.

“You have been...very brave; and you have received acclaim and honor, as well as many awards, today. However, I wish to give you anything else that you want; up to half of my kingdom.”

The prince blinked; he had no idea how much this was worth, or what he could need, of that value.

Sir Pippin smiled, feeling sure he knew the prince’s thoughts; the lad still had no idea and no ambitions to know, the value of the wealth of his father, the king.

“Something; anything you want,” the queen said softly.

“I have everything,” he replied, now speaking as if they were not in the throne room with the whole court present, but in a private sitting chamber.

The silence continued and Arpius felt a little embarrassed. Breaking the hush, he said, “I have all I need; my father, my mother; my friends...”

“Think of something, anything,” the king prompted, wanting to show his son how pleased he was with him.

Arpius tried to think of something. “I have horses to ride,” he said, “I have a good house to live in...” At that, the company broke into laughter, “And porridge for breakfast...” More laughter, “Vance to be my mirror, and...” his eyes lifted to the king’s face. He stopped. The king said, “Yes?”

Arpius was silent, and bowed his head.

King Lemuel was not going to stop now.

“Prince Arpius will announce his wish...something to have, or something for us to do for him.”

The prince shook his head, saying, “I can’t Sire, Sir, I...it would have been better for you not to have asked me, Sir.” But it was too late, and the king and everyone present, knew it.

“Arpius,” King Lemuel said firmly, frowning his 'do not cross me', frown.

His face broke into a wide smile and the Prince said, “Perhaps, Your Majesty, you will regret asking me.”

King Lemuel blinked; he wondered, after having relinquished his throne and laid down his crown, what on earth can the lad be thinking about?

The company, as one, held their breath.

“Anything, Sir?” Arpius asked.

“Anything, Son,” the king affirmed.

“Then, Sir, as I find you very daunting--quite fierce to be exact, Sir, and often overwhelming to be honest; and, I’d like very much, Sir, to look more like you, Sir; I request that you have all of your beard shaved off, Sir. And, Sir; it should include the moustache, Sir, and, perhaps, your eyebrows may be trimmed a little too, thank you very much.”

Silence followed these words, the company waiting for the king’s reaction. Queen Lois, astounded at first, saw the humorous side of the request and burst into a musical peel of laughter. King Lemuel, thinking of his kingdom, his castles, his wealth, began to laugh. Sir Pippin, who could not remember laughing very much in his life, roared so much, that he almost made himself ill. The contagious joviality was caught by all.

Before the laughter began to fade, the king signaled Captain Randell, who quickly left the throne room.

The captain strode back to the sound of the last laugh, bringing with him shaving gear, and the king’s aide-de-camp, bearing a bowl of water and a towel.

“Oh, Sir; I didn’t mean right now,” Arpius said, feeling alarmed. In fact, he had been quite prepared that the king would refuse, later, of course.

But King Lemuel commanded that the task be done.

It was a most unusual happening; the king, seated on his throne, having his beard cut close, then shaved right off, including the moustache, as requested.

“And, trim my brows as well,” he ordered.

***

Arm in arm with Prince Arpius, the king and queen of Justiceburg, escorted their son to the celebration feast where the captain’s families and the extended families of the court, would learn that the king and queen of Justiceburg had a son and heir named Prince Arpius. Soon, everyone in the kingdom would know and, in a week’s time, there would be the formal installation of the Crown Prince of Justiceburg.

But who was it, on the arm of the prince, with the queen? Many people did not recognize the king; there was such a startling difference, without his beard and moustache.

The queen smiled widely. King Lemuel looked years younger, and much less gruff; and, with his blue eyes and smooth chin matching the Prince’s, they truly did look like father and son; the likeness was remarkable!

Chapter 26

“What has Widow Allison decided--about the reward?” Arpius asked. It was breakfast time on the day of the Official Ceremony of Installation of the Crown Prince. “She has finally agreed to accept a reward for her services, but needs more time to decide,” the king replied. “I’d like to proclaim her an official physician of the realm and have her train others.”

The queen agreed, saying, “Her skills are remarkable, and as she said, combined with a doctor’s training, and giving over many ill-advised fables, with common sense and God’s gifts of nature, we could soon have doctors who would be able to heal as they should.”

“If she will not receive a material reward, we should find a place for her to set up a school, with a herb garden, so that she will have space and a place to do what you say, Mother.”

Breakfast chatter was soon abandoned; the day held so much that they must move on with their personal and court-combined preparations.

***

It was early afternoon, and Arpius found himself walking on that purple carpet once more, towards the king’s throne. This time, the nobility were here, and the prince felt the change in the atmosphere.

Last week, he mused, it was friendly; like being with my family; now it’s more formal.

Lords and ladies wore their decorations, the men sported their brightly colored sashes with their ancestral crests and awards, adorned with self generated embellishments. Ladies dressed elaborately, proudly displaying coronets and tiaras.

The installation was not a long ceremony, and to Arpius, was just a formal reinforcement of the ‘family celebration’ of the week before.

King Lemuel himself placed the Crown Prince’s coronet on his head; a plaited band of pure gold.

Although it was a formal occasion, not one person of the nobility missed the affection that the king, queen and prince had for each other.

A group of Christian brothers who had traveled from a monastery in the mountains, completed the installation with prayers and laying-on of hands, entreating God’s blessings and long life for the prince.

Then, following the king, the queen, and the prince who left in single file; the noblemen and women of the kingdom filed out, in rank, to share in the ‘Crown Prince’s Banquet,’ in the great hall.

Having tasted of every dish, and enjoyed himself to the full, and while people conversed before the desserts were brought, Prince Arpius asked softly, “If all the lords and ladies of the nobility were invited, and Lord Chester does not have a wife, does that mean that Liliana will be here, with him?”

“Yes, it does,” the queen replied, “and later, when the people form a line, we shall be introduced. Then, tonight, Arpius, Liliana should be at the celebration ball here.”

Arpius looked around at the guests, speculating as to which one she may be. He had learned, from Pippin, that Liliana had fair hair, and was very pretty. As his eyes scanned across the ladies, he realized that many were very pretty; over half had fair hair, and all were looking at him with great interest. Some...many of these ladies...they are already married, Arpius told himself, then leaning back to speak into his mother’s ear, he caught sight of one sad face; a young face. He continued with his thought, saying, “You are the most beautiful, the most radiant here.” She smiled.

As the desserts were served, Arpius asked softly, “Do you know what Lord Chester looks like, Marm?”

“Yes.”

“Is that him, at the table, on our left; in the corner?”

“I believe it is, Arpius; and that must be his daughter, beside him. She wears the Chester tiara well.”

“She looks sad,” Arpius said, but the queen made no comment. She knew that the prince did not recognize her, and wondered if he ever would remember his past friendship with Liliana.

***

The reception line seemed to stretch forever. The king, the queen, and the prince each had a herald, and as they moved at different paces, their herald informed them of the names of the lords and ladies of the kingdom.

Chapter 27

The ball was a grand affair. Joseph, having been taught to dance by Philip, with Vance’s assistance, had recently ‘brushed up’ with his mother. He was perfectly at ease with her, and together they made a striking couple as they swirled across the floor of the great hall to the sound of live symphonic music.

Across Prince Arpius’s chest was a golden chain upon which hung seven Zenith Emblems. Five Justiceburg Virtue Crosses were pinned to his sash. Vance had been afraid to add any more; these, together, were heavy enough! As Arpius never looked in a mirror, he had no idea which of the medals he wore.

Liliana, as planned, stood beside Lady Bradley, watching the prince with his mother. A pang of jealousy struck her, to see their intimacy.

“Your mother died when you were young, didn’t she?” Lady Bradley asked.

“I was only two, Your Grace, so I do not remember her.”

They were silent then, watching as other couples joined at the king’s signal. Then, King Lemuel strode from the podium where he had been sitting and approached Lady Bradley who blushed deeply.

“I’d like the honor of dancing with Miss Liliana,” the king requested.

Lord Bradley rescued his wife and drew her on to the floor.

The dance was soon over, and King Lemuel escorted Liliana back to her place. For some reason, her heart was in her mouth; I have to dance with him next, she thought.

Prince Arpius and Miss Liliana were the focus of all, as together they initiated the second dance of the ball.

“You dance well,” the Prince said, for want of having something to say.

“My father made sure I do,” Liliana said sourly.

“You don’t enjoy it?” he asked, surprised.

“No,” she replied, then added, “Your Highness.”

“Perhaps you may tell me why, Miss Liliana.”

“Why?” she asked, finding she had to concentrate on the music and the steps, as well as compiling answers for this overpowering royal.

“Why do you not like something as delightful as a dance--with a friend?”

“It...I...it is, that, I don’t like being held close like this, by a stranger. Your Highness.”

“I don’t feel that we’re strangers,” he said, his mouth near her ear.

“But we are,” she maintained, thinking, and I really don’t like being held so close...But her emotions contradicted her, and she felt a thrill run through her from head to foot. “Your Highness,” she added, a little breathlessly. She felt she melted into him as they danced, and they were one person on the floor, not two. Then, it was over and she found herself standing beside Lady Bradley again. Her emotions defied her, wishing she were still dancing with him, being held close.

Other dances were more traditional; with changing partners; and some folk dances, with an inner circle of ladies and an outer circle of men. Liliana would have stood out, but if the prince did not reach her first to request her to dance, other young men did.

One man who seemed to Liliana, not young, yet not old; was particularly attentive to her. Having partnered her until the end of a sequence, the man introduced himself as “Dragmore; Lord Dragmore,” adding, “My friends call me ‘Dear Drag,’ and my enemies call me other things; I’d like to think you’re my friend, Liliana.”

She had trembled, but in a different way, to his words and his closeness to her. She disliked him intensely; and, for reasons she could not fathom, she disliked the prince, though she knew the two were vastly different.

It was not supposed to be a banquet, but the buffet supper was so comprehensive that everyone, if they wished, could partake of a complete meal.

Liliana did not eat much, and when Lady Bradley suggested they step out into the garden for a breath of fresh air, Liliana agreed.

As Lady Bradley already knew, the prince and the queen had already gone into the oblong garden at the side of the castle; a garden of marbled terraces, flower beds and exotic pot plants that were only taken outside in the summer. She drew near the place where the prince and the queen sat, and encouraged Liliana to sit on a marble bench with her.

“The prince’s family must have been very renowned for him to own so many valuable awards,” Liliana said the same words that were on many lips tonight.

“Yes, very renowned,” Lady Bradley replied, adding, “But he earned them himself.”

“He...he earned them?” Liliana had more questions to ask about this new ‘prince,’ but she gasped in shock, feeling as if she had been thrown in ice-cold water...

Prince Arpius plucked a flower, a white rosebud, and, touching it to his lips, he reached up and placed it in his mother’s hair, pushing the stem up under her crown.

It was the way he touched it to his lips that she remembered. First, Liliana felt faint; then tears began to rise; then, she blushed brightly with deep indignation rising from the depths of her crushed affection for a memory she had cherished for over four years.

Unable to prevent herself, Liliana stormed over to Prince Arpius, demanding, “Who are you?” She stared into the depths of his blue eyes, and in the shadows of the castle flares, she remembered the sunlight filtering through the tree where they had shared verses together.

“You are him, aren’t you? I can’t believe it!” She shook her head, her mind trying to take it in. “You...you sit there, knowing me, but you...you allow me to remain...bereaved?”

“My dear,” the queen said kindly, noticing that guests were congregating, “Perhaps we should find somewhere private to discuss this.”

Liliana looked around, briefly, then turning back, she said, “There’s nothing to discuss, Your Majesty; I...we...we are strangers; and I’m sorry to have spoken...forgive me; I’m out-of-place.”

Turning, Liliana ran from them, back through the brilliantly lit great hall, and along the corridors to the front foyer of the palace. “Fetch my maid Nance; and have our groom bring the carriage around.”

“We’ll see if your groom has returned, Miss Liliana,” a castle steward told her, adding, “He said he was going to visit relations in the city, while the ball was on; but I’ll send for your maid, Miss.”

Prince Arpius stepped to Liliana’s side, saying, “You must give me an opportunity to explain, Liliana...”

“Explain? You’ve had four years, Joseph. What would there be to explain now?” The light of castle flares caused his golden awards to gleam brightly, and she said, tartly, “It’s obvious that the gaining of wealth and position has been the first consideration of your life. A lowly castle lord’s daughter would never be good enough...”

Philip and Captain Karl both stepped into the shadow behind the prince, wishing they could speak in his defense.

Not sure how to answer, nevertheless, wishing to say something, Arpius said, “Things are not the way you perceive them to be, Liliana.”

“Then how are they? Why did you not send word that you were alive? You must have endless servants at your command? Even if you had sent me a message, that you were still alive! Have you no sense of what you meant to me? Did I never mean anything to you; but perhaps my castle was not so valuable as the king’s? Why did you just disappear off the face of the earth? You have no idea, do you...of the pain you caused...you have no idea what I went through...and, and, it was all for nothing!”

Nance arrived, with a footman who carried Liliana’s valise and shawl. He placed the shawl around Liliana’s shoulders. Stepping closer to the prince, she whispered, “I believed in you; but I despise you now. All...all those verses; I shall burn my diary--our book--as soon as I am home--and it shall be over, forever!” Her eyes glistened brightly, but, though sequined with tears, they were not released. She blinked them back, bowing her head, turning away from him, not seeing his anguish.

Lord Dragmore stood not far away from Liliana, looking their way. She hurried to his side.

“Dear Drag; do you have your carriage here?” It was an unnecessary question; every lord had his carriage there; but Liliana envisioned some young men having ridden to the king’s castle.

“I certainly do, Miss Liliana, and it’s entirely at your disposal.” He smiled his smug smile.

“Then please have it fetched; I wish to return home.”

“I shall gladly accompany you,” he said vainly, signaling his groom to fetch the said carriage, and at the same time, wondering why the lady was so very distressed?

“I’d prefer just the company of my maid, Nance,” Liliana countermanded.

“Then it’s my pleasure to allow what you prefer,” he said. When the carriage arrived, he hurried to speak with the driver and the groom, obviously giving instructions.

Prince Arpius watched Liliana step up into the carriage, his heart heavy; then, knowing that he was supposed to be the ‘Prince of the Ball,’ he returned to the great hall.

When Liliana was in the privacy of Lord Dragmore’s carriage, she wept so tumultuously, that she felt ill. Nance tried to comfort her, but Liliana was beyond comfort.

“You’ve not cried like this, Deary, not since that young fellow went missing; what did you call him? Apples? Joseph?”

“Oh, Nance...don’t you see it? Prince Arpius...it was him, all the time...he knew me, and didn’t tell me...oh I feel as if I could die. How could he? I believed in him...”

But Nance didn’t understand.

Liliana continued weeping; and the journey home went on and on; it seemed to last forever.

***

The words said to the Prince, by Liliana, had been overheard by several of the court ‘family’ and they were soon circulated. Everyone who knew, felt his pain.

Lord Dragmore had been trying to piece together why Miss Liliana was so cool to the new prince who obviously favored her. He smiled smugly, sure that soon he would have some answers. Returning to the ball, he mingled, hearing many things that explained some of the mystery; how delighted he was that he had stayed; it was not wasted time, not at all.

Chapter 28

The ball was officially closed soon after midnight, to the sound and sight of an amazing display of fireworks set off from the battlements, lighting the sky, and the city.

The city was alive with people, watching the wonder, shouting their cheers and kudos.

Lord Dragmore was one of the last to take his leave from the royal three and their court family as they farewelled their guests in the castle foyer.

“I thank you for a successful day and a worthwhile night,” Lord Dragmore said as he took his leave, having received and given the expected blessings and quotes from the royal three.

The prince followed his mother and father up the great castle stairway. At the top, the queen turned to him, and offered, “Do you wish to talk about it, Son?”

“I wouldn’t wish to keep you up, Mother. You both must be exhausted.”

“I admit to being weary,” the king said, “it was a great day; and the ball; it was successful was it not? By the way, what happened to that young lady I danced with? You did too, Arpius--Miss Liliana?”

The king was oblivious to the distress of the night.

Although Arpius did not wish to detain his parents from their rest, the queen insisted, “Our dilemma must be discussed and a positive decision made as to what we might do on the morrow. Let’s go to the small sitting room.”

“We’ll all rest easier after talking about it,” agreed Pippin, who joined the growing group.

The king listened as his wife, with Lady Bradley’s assistance, explained Liliana’s reaction.

“We cannot just leave her, thinking of you, like that!” the king declared, feeling responsible. “It was my idea to have ‘Apples’ disappear, not yours.”

The prince did not want to tell the king all of Liliana’s words to him in the castle foyer, but Philip, who had also entered the chamber, gave a graphic account of both her facial expressions and her words.

“She loves you very much, Arpius,” the queen said, softly; “And she has missed out on a mother’s love; she has no one to talk to, about it. And...and I understand how she believed in you; even then, many years ago, you were a prince among men. She understood all that we have only just accepted...”

“We shall go and see her, tomorrow,” the king decided, firmly.

The prince did not speak; he was unsure, and wondered if anything would make Liliana change her mind about him. She is burning her diary, ‘our book,’ he remembered, wishing he could see it. Perhaps the diary holds something to bring back my memories of her...

“We should all go and see her,” Philip declared; adding, “We’d all be able to tell her a thing or two, wouldn’t we?”

With the decision having been made, that the king and queen would go to Chester Castle on the morrow, to speak with both Liliana and her father, everyone went to bed feeling that a resolve was on the way.

***

It was half after one in the morning, and Captain Karl shook Prince Arpius awake, telling him, “I’m sorry to wake you, Your Highness, but Lord Chester sent a messenger down here to our castle. The messenger says that Lord Chester is almost beside himself. He waited up for his daughter, Miss Liliana; but the carriage came home empty, he said. He wants to know where his daughter is--and Nance the maid who was with her, is also missing.”

Arpius jumped out of bed, and Vance appeared. The latter snatched up the Prince’s coronet, ready to place it on his head as he had been commanded not to allow the Prince to leave his chambers without it.

“I’ll dress first,” the prince said, then, “Liliana left in Dragmore’s carriage, Karl. What do you know about him?”

“Not much; he’s one of the richest barons; a widower, I believe. Keeps to himself; has a well-trained army out there, I’ve heard. But...he was the last to leave, wasn’t he? And it was the same carriage. It had returned.”

“Don’t wake the king, or queen; come with me; let’s ride out to Chester Castle; it’s only two miles; we’ll be there in a few minutes, with Bandit and Wanderlea, won’t we?”

Philip joined them, and a groom fetched the horses.

***

Lord Chester was sleeping when the prince, Captain Karl and Philip, arrived. The guards would not wake him. “He needs his sleep, Sirs, he’s very frail. It took him all this time to fall asleep...”

The pre-midnight duty castle guards were summoned.

“You’re absolutely sure that no other carriage came in here, other than his lordship’s?” Captain Karl asked.

“Yes, only his,” one guard replied.

“And Lady Liliana is not in her room?” Arpius asked.

“We didn’t check, Your Highness. We were told by Lord Chester, that she was not in the carriage, it was empty.”

“That carriage would have been empty,” Philip said, “and if Miss Liliana was crying, as I saw her when she got in the other carriage, she may have gone straight to her room. Perhaps Lord Chester had been slumbering and missed her; and he woke to believe she had not come...”

It sounded feasible, and Captain Karl asked; “Perhaps someone should look in the lady’s room?”

“I can’t authorize that, Sir; only Lord Chester may do that, Sir.”

Summoning Lord Chester’s aide-de-camp, he reaffirmed that they should not wake the old man.

“Well, go to Miss Liliana’s bed-chamber, and check if she is there, man!” Karl said, feeling tired and impatient.

“Oh, I can’t do that Sir; it is against the rules for one man, alone, to go to the young Miss’s quarters.”

“Then fetch a women servant!” Karl commanded.

“But they’re all down in the city; celebrating the new prince; only Nance was here; and she went, too...”

“Then, perhaps, you’ll escort us to Miss Liliana’s room,” Arpius suggested.

“Come,” the man said, taking up a candlestick bearing five glowing candles. As he followed the aide-de-camp, the prince collected another candelabra.

Liliana’s quarters, which included the servants’ quarters in the lower chambers, totaled a quarter of the castle. Lord Chester with the men-servants and castle guards, occupied the other three quarters.

Liliana’s quarters were not dark and dingy like the rest of the stone castle, but the walls had been plastered with a mix of white mortar in which the whitest of crushed marble had been mixed. This gave the walls a crystalline appearance, reflecting light from many facets.

But the prince’s attention was not upon the walls, or the beauty of the pastel shades of the furnishings, nor on the four-poster bed, unslept in; he held his candelabra up to light a huge silver frame upon one wall, in which sat a metallic golden apple. Beneath the frame was a heavy scroll, and on the scroll in large script, were the words, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” then beneath the verse; “In loving memory of ‘Apples of Gold’--Joseph--A prince I will never forget--Liliana Lois Anne Chester.”

“Miss Liliana’s bed has not been slept in,” the aide-de-camp announced unnecessarily; and moved across the room to an alcove. Drawing back a curtain, to reveal a narrow bed, he said, “and Maid Nance has not been here, neither, Sirs. What are ye going to do?”

But the attention of the three was upon the scroll beneath the silver frame. “How amazing,” Philip whispered; and the prince said, “to think she didn’t know...mine was the same...” He referred to the verse, remembering now, he had chosen the same one. It seemed a lifetime ago.

Captain Karl said nothing; Arpius had always been a prince to him...a true prince, serving God, and men...he reflected.

They moved around the massive chamber, which included sitting and dining areas. All around the walls were heavy scrolls like the first they had read, and the prince recognized verses he and Liliana had shared, many years ago, now written in beautiful script like writing.

Believing they were looking for clues, the aide-de-camp placed his candelabra on the small round dining table and stood waiting, by the outer door.

“I remember all these verses,” Arpius said softly.

“You’ve been here before?” Philip asked.

“No--I never came inside the castle--these were verses we memorized to share when we met in the garden. I remember her now...I remember...” his eyes misted with tears; he remembered being an orphan, a pauper, who wore sun-bleached rags; but even then, she had thought of him as a prince! He recalled many things she had said to him about their verses, reminding him to think of her, to pray for each other.

“Your Highness; don’t you think we had better go back to our castle and organize a search for Miss Liliana?” Captain Karl asked.

Arpius moved to a bookcase besides which was an ancient letter writing desk. Lifting the lid of the desk with one hand, he held the light closer to its contents. A large book, covered with white satin took his attention. In the middle of the cover, in gold embroidery, was an apple.

Opening the book, and carefully leafing through the thick pages, he saw, that on each page, a leaf, or a flower had been carefully pressed. The pages were interleaved with tissue paper to protect the delicacy of the pressed foliage. Each page contained two verses, one with the name, ‘Joseph’ beside it, and one with ‘Liliana.’

A few times, they had chosen the same verse, and the last entry was the verse that he himself had chosen, and which Liliana had beneath the silver frame on the wall. No flower had been pressed and included for the last entry. She had written her name beneath the verse, not knowing that he had chosen that same verse.

“It’s a real work of tender love, it is,” Philip said softly in the prince’s ear.

Closing the book, he returned, softly, “It’s not going to be burned. It is not over--it never will be.”

Taking the book with him, he said, “Yes, we must organize a search for Miss Liliana; but, where to begin?”

“I hope the carriage did not leave the road, Sir,” the aide-de-camp offered, “our carriage is sound, but not so some of those that has to travel a long ways.”

“Your carriage is here,” the captain said, frowning, “tell his lordship that we’re mounting a search for Miss Liliana. At first light, we’ll search the roadsides between here and the city,” Captain Karl said, adding “we’re looking for a different carriage, and we’ll look for signs of that carriage having left the road.”

***

As Arpius gave the satin covered book to the Captain to place in his mount’s saddlebag, he said, “We’re tired. We’re missing something about this matter, Karl...”

“You mustn’t be anxious Your Highness, we’ve no evidence yet that an accident did happen. In my life-time, I’ve discovered that there is usually a logical explanation for something like this--perhaps Miss Liliana, being so mightily upset, decided to go to one of the houses in the city where one of her servant women had gone for the night...”

Philip interjected, “Then the man who drove the carriage, the one who returned for Lord Dragmore, I saw him; he’ll know where she went...and, and...”

“That means there was no accident,” Arpius concluded.

“Exactly,” Philip agreed.

“We’ll send a quad out to Dragmore Castle and question the groom and the footman,” Karl said.

“I’d like to go out there, wherever it is,” Joseph said, “We should ride out there now. Which way is it?”

“I’ll show you the road, when we get to the crossing; but we’re not going out there, Your Highness, not without informing the king of our intentions.”

“That’s wise,” Arpius agreed.

Chapter 29

Just before they reached the Western Crossroads, where the five roads joined with the one leading to the city, the trio saw ahead, silhouetted in the light of the moon, riding towards them, a small band, about a dozen, led by Captain Randell.

To their surprise, Lady Bradley rode among them.

Drawing her horse close to the prince’s she explained; “I wasn’t sleeping very well, Your Highness, and when I heard about Miss Liliana, I decided to join Captain Randell’s posse to lend you any support that was required; especially as the lady was so distressed when she left the ball. I thought, perhaps, she might need a lady to talk with her, one who knew the truth...”

“Thank you, Lady Bradley, you’re most thoughtful,” Arpius said sincerely, then, “However, Miss Liliana is not at her home castle, and we wish to ride to Dragmore as she was last seen getting into his carriage.”

“She...she did not arrive...home?” Lady Bradley asked, obviously upset. Turning, she looked meaningfully at Captain Randell.

“What is it?” Arpius asked.

“Dragmore has a reputation,” Captain Randell said, hating to voice it, “it was rumored, but never properly documented, that he abducted one of the young ladies he later married, a lady in a similar position to Miss Liliana, her father a sole parent. After having been detained in his castle for a few nights, she then had to marry him, or suffer a ruined reputation. It was about six years ago; she died in child-birth.”

“You said one of the young ladies,” the Prince asked, “what happened to the others?”

“One other; he married her soon after the death of the first; and it was recorded that she accidentally drowned in the deep moat that surrounds the castle.”

“Suicide?” Philip asked, feeling shocked to the core. The man had been widowed twice over, and he had been smugly conversing with the lovely lady who, he was sure, belonged to his prince.

“I want to ride there, now,” Arpius said firmly, adding, “to Dragmore Castle.”

Captain Randell said, “If Miss Liliana was not at her home, we would have suggested that.”

“And Lady Bradley?” the prince asked.

“Count me in,” the Lady said, “I know it’s quite a ride, but as I ride most days, I’m well equal to it.”

The prince turned to Captain Karl, saying, “You’ve been on duty all night, Captain; I’d like you to take Miss Liliana’s book to the queen, and then to speak with my father, the king. Perhaps, if we have not returned soon, he should send a larger company to assist us.”

Captain Randell laughed, saying, “It will likely all prove to be a proverbial chase after wild geese.”

“That’s exactly what I said,” Karl agreed, looking forward to finding his bed, to get some needed rest. He could not count the hours since he had slept last; but knew that it was more than twenty.

“Claude: raise the standard of His Highness, Prince Arpius; and lead the way!” Captain Randell commanded. A young rider raised a pole with an elaborately embroidered pennant attached to its gold tipped pointed end. The flag depicted a golden lion with a red heart. Placing the blunt end in a leather holder at the side of his saddle, Claude supported the pole with his left hand. Riding to the fore of the band, he trotted his horse across the wide crossing named Western Crossroads, taking the northern-most road.

The prince stared at the standard, feeling greatly honored. He knew the king had a standard; it depicted the same lion; but he had not been told that one had been made for him.

“How far is it?” Arpius inquired, as he followed, walking his horse in unison with Captain Randell’s. Soon they would be cantering, perhaps galloping for some of the journey, and conversation would be restricted.

“Twenty miles,” the captain replied, adding, “we’ll have to rest our horses before we return, but I’m sure that though Dragmore is considered at bit of a blue-beard, he will pour out all his best resources when he realizes that he has the honor of entertaining the Prince of Justiceburg at breakfast.”

Arpius had not considered his visit to Dragmore Castle in this light. He grinned.

***

It was dawn when they rode over the rise, and Dragmore Castle was in their view. As the moon was descending, the sun was rising, and all in the band drew deep breaths of appreciation of the beauty of the morning. The moat around the castle was so still that it was a perfect mirror for all in the perimeter of its view.

As they approached, the moat bridge was lowered, and grinding chains heralded the rising of the portcullis.

Walking their horses over the bridge, the captain said, “The guards have seen the standard; and I believe Lord Dragmore will be summoned; see if I’m not right; he will be falling over to be there when we ride into his courtyard.”

Lord Dragmore was there, waiting in the courtyard, a group of ten soldiers making a half-moon behind him.

As the last of their band rode under the portcullis, it unexpectedly dropped with a thunderous crash. Captain Randell and the soldiers in the prince’s band, looked back in shock; beyond the bars of the portcullis, the moat bridge was being raised.

Riding his horse in a circle, around his unit, as if inspecting the line-up, Captain Randell intended to ask the meaning of the closure; it was against all protocol. His eyes contacted dozens of men, Dragmore’s soldiers, all with loaded crossbows; pointing at the backs of the prince’s company. Step by step, they drew closer.

Quickly calculating their position, Captain Randell steered his horse beside Bandit, his eyes upon Prince Arpius. To all appearances, the prince did not seem perturbed. Then, as the noise of the rising moat bridge began to subside, he said, “I had the dread feeling that I’d been here before; but now I’m sure, Captain. There is great trouble here in this place.”

“Welcome! Your Royal Highness; Prince Arpius Joseph Lemuel Justice of Justiceburg; Captain; and company,” Lord Dragmore said, his smug face changing into a grin. “We’ve been hoping you’d come, but we weren’t sure; now you’re here, we trust you’ll enjoy your time with us.”

The lord commanded, “Take the prince’s standard, and place it on the Southern Tower.” Turning back to his visitors, he said, “Our grooms will take care of your mounts; and you shall leave all weapons at the door. Come, take breakfast with me. After your long ride, and at this hour, you’ll be hungry.”

Lady Bradley, having dismounted, hurried to the captain’s side, asking, “What on earth is going on here?”

“It is all in Lord Dragmore’s hands, Lady Bradley; I advise that we do as he says, and perhaps he’ll explain himself.” Turning to his men, he said; “We’re outnumbered; I command that you all stay close to Prince Arpius; do nothing that would jeopardize his life.”

As they were herded into the great hall, and the prince saw that food awaited them on the table, he spoke softly, hoping that only those in their band would hear, “Take care; it may be poisoned. I believe Dragmore is responsible for the poison in my father’s throne.”

Captain Randell turned sharply to Arpius, asking, “How do you know that?”

“I rode here,” the prince whispered now, “I swam in the moat and I overheard the plot in the courtyard when Faidor arrived. My saddle and boots will be out in the woods to prove it all. Pass the word around; don’t eat or drink...”

However, Claude was very thirsty and snatched up a waiting goblet, downing it before either the prince or the lord of the castle had been seated.

“Let’s be seated and take your repast,” Dragmore said, then, “Perhaps His Highness shall honor me by sitting at my table?”

“Keep an eye on Claude,” Arpius urged as he left the captain’s side, Philip shadowing him.

Lady Bradley, usually a patient soul, could keep silent no longer. The voicing of perhaps being poisoned was too much! If the men accept this without a squeak, then I shall not. Still standing, she called, “Lord Dragmore; before we accept your enforced hospitality, perhaps we should discuss the reason we are here?”

“Oh, I know why you’re here, Lady. Is it not to seek the location of Miss Liliana? Do not fear, dear lady; she’s safe, quite safe.”

Prince Arpius watched Claude as he sat, steadying himself, with his two hands grasping the edge of the table. Then, as if in slow motion, he slumped forward, his face in a plate of fruit, then, releasing his grip, he began to slide backwards.

The men either side of Claude supported him, then, dragging him off the bench they lay him on the stone floor. Feeling for the jugular vein, one man felt a slow heart beat.

“He’s breathing,” said the other, relieved.

“You poisoned him,” Lady Bradley cried, pointing at Dragmore.

“Not poison, dear. Don’t be melodramatic. Just a little sleeping draught,” Dragmore said, then, “Well, well. We’re touchy, aren’t we? You’d all have been much easier to handle if you’d complied. Perhaps we should dispense with the breakfast and get on to other matters.”

Signaling his guards, he said, “Take the lady upstairs, with Miss Liliana. Then help put all the rest below, as we discussed. Prince Arpius and I shall take some discourse together.”

It was useless to argue or resist. However, one young castle guard drew a short sharp dagger from his boot. Holding it erect between his forefinger and thumb, he calculated his target and aimed it at Dragmore’s throat. With a swift action, Dragmore ducked sideways and the dagger hit into the stone wall, bouncing back and landing with a clatter on the floor.

Using the flat of his crossbow, one of the soldiers clouted the culprit on the back of his head, rendering him unconscious.

Prince Arpius stood, feeling deeply upset, watching as the loyal soldier was dragged from the chamber by his feet.

He watched Lady Bradley being marched from the room, a soldier on each arm.

“I’d like to remain with Prince Arpius,” the captain called as two men hauled him off the bench upon which he had sat.

“You’re not here to do as you like,” Dragmore said, shaken by the dagger. “Who are you?” he asked of Philip.

“A servant, Sir,” Philip replied, wanting to remain with the prince.

“Well, make sure you keep silent and serve,” he growled, turning his attention back to the prince.

“I’m glad you came, Arpius, and I’m hoping that your father will soon follow your lead. Do you think so?”

“I hope not,” Arpius replied, then added, “He won’t leave the city.”

“Why would he not come for his son?” Dragmore asked.

“He has militia to take care of crimes that are committed,” the prince said, wondering if he could somehow bluff this evil man out of his evil plans. “I’ve never known him to leave the royal castle when there’s danger involved.”

“But how will he know there is danger?”

“And how do you know that I’m truly the Prince of Justiceburg? Perhaps I am part of a collusion, sent to discover how far you’d be prepared to go to gain the throne that you once conspired against?” Taking off his coronet, the prince placed it on the table.

“What? What are you saying?”

“Do you not realize, Dragmore, that for several months now, the king has been working at discovering who was behind the plot involving the throne upon which he almost sat? Now we know for sure who contrived it.”

Dragmore frowned deeply and asked, “If you’re not the prince, why were you wearing his coronet?”

“I wanted you to believe I was he. Perhaps you should ask Miss Liliana if I’m truly the son of the king of Justiceburg.”

“Everyone knows the prince is adopted...”

“Do they? Miss Liliana did not accept me; did you not hear us arguing last evening? She knew me before I was assigned to this task, and she recognized me.”

Dragmore was silent, confused.

“You did everything to expose your guilt, Dragmore; you took the opportunity last evening, to steal the prince’s ‘lady’ as bait. Admit it, you were hoping the prince would ride out to your castle, as I have done; then, the prince would become bait for the king. You’re hoping, Dragmore, that the king will follow me; but that’s where you’re wrong. If we don’t return soon, he’ll know that his suspicions are correct. You want his throne. Don’t worry; King Lemuel won’t buy your plot. You will not sit on his throne.”

Dragmore gave an unearthly cry. Drawing his sword, he pointed it at the prince who began backing away. With a sweep of the sword, the lord sliced all of the candlesticks in a candelabrum, in half. Running towards the prince, he circumnavigated a table. Kicking out with his foot, he pushed another table over, sending goblets and plates of food in all directions.

Prince Arpius circled a third table to put something between himself and the crazed man, looking around to see if there was something with which to shield himself. A row of knights’ shields decorated the front of the main table, and he wondered why he had not seen them before.

The soldiers, their crossbows at the ready, did not advance, but watched as if this were their lord’s normal behavior when enraged.

Collecting a bowl from the floor, Philip also snatched up the dagger that had fallen. With it hidden beneath the bowl, which he cradled in one arm, he approached behind Dragmore as the latter kicked over the third table.

“Sir; I did not tell you, but I’m also an adviser, and I have many good ideas,” the lad began.

Swinging around, his sword extended, the lord shouted, “Keep out of my way! No one will stand in my way between the throne and me!” He turned back to Arpius, both arms flung out and the sword pointed again at the prince.

Philip did not hesitate. Dropping the bowl, he flung himself forward, grasping the man around his neck, the dagger at the man’s throat.

“Drop your sword!” Philip shouted. But Dragmore, with a backward thrust, spun himself around and around, moved so fast that he took Philip’s breath away, slamming him into the castle wall so hard, that Philip was almost knocked senseless. But as the lord was spinning, two guards released their bolts, targeting Philip.

Together, the tangled pair slipped to land in a heap on the floor. Two bolts protruded from Lord Dragmore’s back.

Staggering to his feet, Philip saw Arpius with a shield in each hand. “Catch,” the prince said as he vaulted the main table to collect Lord Dragmore’s sword.

Crossbow bolts clattered on their shields. The prince and Philip both knew that it took almost two minutes to reload the bows. Behind his shield, he called, “Make your way to the door through which Lady Bradley was taken.”

Looking out from the shield, he called, “Any of you who wish to join us may assist us to where Miss Liliana is being held...”

But most of Lord Dragmore’s men were loyal; now frenzied; they did not know whether their leader was dead or alive; but they were pledged to serve him, to protect him, to kill for him. Only two men decided to change sides, and as these two opened the doors, flying bolts brought them down.

Keeping their shields between themselves and the bolts, Arpius and Philip hurried to the exit. “Go first,” Philip urged, shielding the prince’s back. Together they dragged the two injured men the other side of the door. Pushing the door closed, and sending its bolt across it, Philip followed the prince up the winding step way.

Chapter 30

There were no guards at the door to the room atop the tower, they were not needed as a heavy crossbar secured it.

Prince Arpuis, followed by Philip, entered the chamber.

Liliana, still dressed in her beautiful ball gown, together with Lady Bradley and the maid, Nance, started in fear when Arpius and Philip burst in, the former carrying a sword and a shield.

A smashing noise from beneath made them jump with fright. After a few more thunderous bangs, the noise ceased.

“Barricade the door,” the prince urged, “it’ll keep them out and give us more time.”

Philip helped drag a wooden bed across to the door, and together they pushed the heavy table, Lady Bradley joining them to help wedge it behind the bed. An unfixed wooden closet was shunted to lie behind the wedged furniture. It would now be very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to enter.

Panting, Arpius moved to look out the tower window. A smashing noise broke the silence. Shouts and curses sounded out. Then all was quiet.

The smashing, crashing, thudding began again, this time the splintering sounds ground on their nerves. It was impossible to talk, the sound was so loud.

Boots sounded out on the steps and the door was banged upon.

“Clear the door, or it will be the worse for you all!” a deep voice bellowed. When there was no answer, he spoke in a more normal tone, but threatening, “Unblock the door and we’ll not harm any of you!”

The Prince strode to the furniture at the door, calling, “Leave us in peace. We’ll wait in here for the troops to come from the city. They’ll sort you out.”

Silence permeated the tower chamber and the only sound Arpius could hear was his own heart beating, faster than usual. He stared out the large window opening, looking across the moat at the road, hoping his father would not come, but that his captains and soldiers would.

“Oh, no!” Liliana cried, “Look!”

Arpius turned to where Liliana pointed. Wafting between the furniture, drifting ominously from under the great steel braced wooden door, thin wisps of smoke rose like snakes, poising as if to attack.

Nance broke into uncontrolled weeping.

“Dragmore is so wicked!” Lady Bradley exclaimed, wringing her hands. “He’s going to suffocate us, or burn us alive. There is no way out of here!” Sitting down, she hid her face in her hands.

“Lord Dragmore is no longer in control of this castle,” Arpius said.

“We think he’s dead,” Philip said.

“You killed him?” Liliana asked, and the prince saw an accusation rise in her eyes.

“Two of his own men shot him,” Philip said, having understood Liliana’s question.

The five watched in horror as the smoke grew thicker, rising like black thunderclouds to fill the room.

Arpius leaned out the tower window, seeking to calculate the distance to the surface of the water.

“We’ll all have to jump and swim the moat,” he said, coughing as clouds of smoke funneled out the window.

“I can’t swim,” Philip said, in his ear, “but I can float, and perhaps paddle enough to get to the edge.”

“Lady Bradley?”

“I could stay afloat, too; but I’d never be able to jump that far...”

“Miss Liliana?”

“I’d prefer to wait here,” she said primly. “I did not like Lord Dragmore, but I don’t trust you; you know that.”

The prince strode to where she sat, on the floor out of the way of the rising smoke. Folding his arms to look down at her, he said, “It’s very tiresome, Liliana, to have to put up with your rejection when I’ve done nothing to earn it.”

“Hear, hear,” Philip said, coughing.

“Give one reason why I should trust you.”

“I’ve never asked you to trust me, Liliana. You know the things we used to discuss; our trust is in God, not in each other. ‘Not in kings or princes, but in God,’ remember the verse? Then, as we both trust God, we know we can trust each other...”

She made no reply.

“I’d like you to consider, Liliana, a proverb you shared, with me; it was the last time I was with you as Apples--‘He who answers a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame to him.’ Now, as we don’t want either folly or shame, perhaps it would be better to hear the matter, do you not think?”

Liliana would not meet his eyes.

“We have two choices,” Arpius said, “one is to stay here and suffocate to death, or to jump, and, with God’s help, save ourselves. I can swim well enough to help you all, so long as you can stay afloat.”

Crouching beside Liliana, he took both her hands and said, “If it would make any difference, Liliana, I can tell you truthfully, that I had no control over my so-called disappearance; and also, until early this morning, I did not remember you because I suffered a loss of memory due to a grave illness from which I almost died. I’m telling you this because I love you. I’ve never stopped loving you, and I want us to be happy, together. Now come, and be brave. I’m not leaving you here and if I have to carry you, I’ll do so.”

She rose, shaking him off her hands, trying to fan away the choking smoke. She went with him to the window. They coughed painfully.

Without speaking, Arpius helped Liliana up on the stone ledge. Gathering the white ball gown in her hands, she leapt from the tower window. Arpius pushed himself forcefully as he jumped, hoping he would not land on top of her.

The water was cold and very wet. From the height they had jumped, both Liliana and Arpius sank deep into the moat. Liliana thought she would never come up. She surfaced, a split second before Arpius.

“Don’t struggle, Liliana, just relax. Let me swim with you to the bank.” Arpius kicked hard, holding Liliana with one arm and paddling with the other. Just as they reached the clay bank, a loud splash sounded out. It was Lady Bradley.

“I’ll pull myself out,” Liliana said, “help Lady Bradley. And, Joseph, Arpius, I’m sorry...please forgive me.”

The prince swam to where Lady Bradley was thrashing around like a terrified cat in the moat water. She had swallowed a mouthful and would have drowned if Arpius had not been there to keep her afloat. He swam with the lady to the bank where Liliana helped haul her out.

Another splash sounded; Philip had pushed Nance out the window. He followed the maid.

Looking up, Arpius could see a pall of black smoke ascending through both the windows and crevasses in the roof of the tower. The enraged men must have lit a large fire to create so much smoke!

Swimming to Philip, who was dog paddling towards him, Arpius by-passed him to help Nance. In spite of being distressed, Nance was keeping herself afloat. With the prince’s help, she gained the safety of the bank where Philip was already climbing from the water.

They were all safe.

Then a shout spoiled their new freedom, “Hey! Hey! How did y’ get over there?”

It was a guard, peering over the battlements. He disappeared.

“Come. We must find somewhere to hide. That man will tell the others that we’ve escaped. They might shoot arrows from the battlements. I hope they don’t bring long-bows.”

They clambered to their feet and Arpius directed the way, moving away from the castle, following the canal edge. Lady Bradley, now assisted by Philip, was gasping. Hoping he was taking the right direction, the prince led the way through the woods and up the hill.

“We’ll follow the road, and if we hear anyone coming from the castle, we must hurry down into those trees,” the prince said, indicating the forest on the other side.

They made good progress, but all were out of breath.

“Someone’s coming!” Philip said, “I hear hooves.”

The sound made everyone’s heart beat faster, and they hurried down the incline to the forest.

Lady Bradley sank to the forest floor, as did Liliana. Nance hid behind a tree. Philip returned to where the prince crouched behind a large stump, watching the road, knowing from the sound of many hooves, that it was a large company. He could not tell whether the sound came from the castle gates . . . or from the road leading to them.

“It’s Father!” Arpius cried in jubilation. “It’s Father. I can’t believe it! He did come!”

The prince rushed up from the woods, waving both hands, smiling broadly. King Lemuel pulled on the reins of his horse and with his hand up, he halted the company. Turning, Arpius beckoned the wet escapees to come from their hiding place.

Liliana found it difficult to walk up the slope with her heavy wet ball gown draping around her; it felt like cold soggy porridge. The beautiful dress was no longer beautiful. It was not white any more. The lace looked forlorn and pieces of moss and slime from the moat were caught in the fills and flounces. Dirt and clay from the moat bank clung to the satin like brown mould. Her golden hair hung in wet tendrils around her pale face. Liliana felt shy as she attempted a lame curtsy, Nance joined her.

Turning, the prince watched as Philip helped Lady Bradley up the slope. She smiled a wan smile, saying, “I pray I never have to meet you out on the highway again like this, Sire.”

The company broke into laughter.

“Come, Father; we have some friends to rescue,” the Prince said.

Chapter 31

Prince Arpius and Lady Liliana said their wedding vows beneath the tree, which was in full bloom. Petals drifted, dancing down on the couple, adding to the beauty of this breath-taking sunny spring day.

The prince had proposed to Liliana beneath this very tree, soon after she had returned home from Dragmore Castle. To know that his beloved daughter was betrothed to the crown prince who was her original first love, gave Lord Chester a new lease of life. “I plan to live to be one hundred,” he said excitedly, “so that I will hold my great grandchildren!”

Men closest to Lord Dragmore, those ‘in the know’ had admitted their support of the scheming murderer who had evil ambitions of taking the throne. In exchange for their lives, Dragmore’s men had told the whole story, making the jigsaw complete. King Lemuel realised how close he had been to losing everything, his throne, his crown, his kingdom, and his life. Prince Arpius had never seemed so precious, so valuable to him as now. Then, King Lemuel realised, this son would become dearer every day he lived. “I love you more today, than yesterday, but not as much as I will tomorrow,” he told his son.

Preparations for the wedding took everyone’s attention. The wedding ceremony was convened in the gardens of Chester Castle, then the banquet and celebrations were held in the royal castle. The road between was lined with people from all over the kingdom who paved the way with flowers upon which the royal carriages were driven, the bride and bridegroom leading the procession. Cheers and kudos erupted at ear deafening pitch as the carriage moved slowly on its course.

The couple took an extended honeymoon at ‘Allison’s Place,’ previously ‘Dragmore Castle.’ Liliana had been dreading returning to this place, but she had to agree that the widow had brought about so many changes that the castle had a whole new atmosphere.

Lavender grew everywhere, with rosemary, jasmine vines and many other fragrant and healing plants.

The prince taught his princess to swim, and together they swam under the moat portcullis where Arpius retold to his bride, the plot he had overheard.

A year later, there was rejoicing and celebrating for a different reason; the prince and princess became parents; making the king and queen, and Lord Chester, proud grandparents.

Queen Lois carried the newborn prince to meet his father for the first time. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I had no idea it would feel like this, Arpius Joseph; I feel as if he is mine; my own child, the feeling is completely overwhelming!”

“He is yours, Mother; as I am,” the prince said, looking down at the tiny baby boy. “Here, I want to take him to his grandfathers, I want to present ‘Prince Lemuel’ to them.”

King Lemuel wept unashamedly, as did Lord Chester. A grandson, a prince whom they both shared and loved.

***

Three more children were born to the prince and princess, two more sons, then a daughter. The little princess was named ‘Merola,’ after Arpius’ mother.

When each of them was born, Queen Lois felt as if each belonged to her.

“That’s how grand-parents feel,” Lady Bradley told her; “Our grand-children are our children’s children, and there is such a blessing in the heart that it takes the breath away. Each one of them is precious, a gift from the LORD.”

***

Even when they had been married for ten years, the Crown Prince Arpius and Princess Liliana, of Justiceburg continued to share verses; and each day, the prince brought his princess a flower; and each day she kissed him and told him that she trusted him, and that he would always be the ‘apple of her eye’ and the prince of her life. ‘Forever,’ she added.

End