Keeping the Lamp Lit - Epilogue
t was still early morning, with the sound of the smithy ringing outside my window, and the chorusing of birds echoing through the late Spring air. A steward brought me my tray, but I was really far too absorbed in my writing to eat. With Matthias so busy these days catching up with Lady Kimberly and my own recent illness, someone had to make up the slack in "pay copy" production....
Absently, I thanked her, then returned the pen back to my mouth and pressed on.
The words were hateful and spiteful, I knew when I had finished, but somehow they just seemed right to me. I rather hoped Oren would like them, seeing as how the story was intended for one of his anthologies. It seemed to me that the otter was a rising writing star, and I hoped profoundly that he would add to the literary stockpile of Metamor in a major way in the future.
Breakfast was all the more delicious for being delayed, and the parsley was especially sumptuous despite the heat. I was eagerly nibbling away at it when a messenger from Thomas arrived. "Phil," it read in the Duke's own hand, "I will be taking a short trip this afternoon, and would like to know if you can accompany me. We would be back by dinnertime. And Rupert is invited as well. A little sunshine would do him some good, too."
I responded in the affirmative to the messenger, of course, and asked him to invite Rupert on the way back to Thomas. My guard and friend was still convalescing from his broken leg, and spending most of his time either with Healer Coe or swapping outrageous lies with Misha down at the Mule. Nodding, the courier left, and once again I returned to my lunch and dreams of faraway places.
Eventually I began to write again, this time a rather thinly disguised version of my own life story. Wessex had made it absolutely clear to me that I was not to stress myself in any way for at least a month, and Tenomides himself had sent a Royal Command by dragon, of all things, to enforce this requirement upon me. For the first time in months I had time enough to write.
When afternoon came I met the Duke already alongside Rupert in his seldom-used carriage out front. To my surprise, Matthias had come along as well. After the rat pleasantly greeted me, I hopped in, and we were off. Thomas had been right, it was a fine day indeed for a little outing, and the four of us made merry together as each of us discussed our little parts in the events of the past few days. The coach jounced along happily, and it was not until we stopped that I thought to wonder where we were. I got up on my hindlegs, looked out the window...
...and saw that we were on a little rise overlooking Loriod's castle.
Suddenly, the world was not such a happy place. Matthias seemed to feel the same way, shivering at the sight of that piebald edifice. Quietly, A servant opened the door and we got out and stretched our legs a bit.
Then Thomas spoke. "Your Highness, I seek your advice."
I was rather bewildered. "Go ahead, My Lord. I have sought your counsel many times as well."
"Metamor has a problem here, one that needs an immediate solution. You see, Loriod left no heirs."
"Thalberg and Macaban are running things for now, trying to make sense out of the horrible mess the Foul Lord left behind. The fiefdom is horribly in debt, it seems, and the peasantry uneducated and not very productive. The lands are being farmed very inefficiently. And I have no one available to me of noble blood whom I trust to untangle things and make them right."
"Thomas, we have discussed the nobility many times. Both of us believe that changes must be made. Why not begin here? Why give a noble control at all? Let the peasants choose a leader, and give him or her the reigns of power."
Charles started at my comments, which took me by surprise. "Let the peasants choose a leader?" He asked incredulously. Perhaps it was time to educate the rat on matters politic as well. It seems our task is cut out for us if even our own number suffer the same knee-jerk reaction to the idea. Time would tell, as it always did.
"Why not let them choose?" I responded. It was obvious that Charles was struggling with the idea, his whiskers drooping and his eyes thoughtful.
The horse-man sighed. "Would that I could, Phil. Would that I could. But I had terrible problems just getting the nobility to allow me to bring Loriod to justice as it was. In fact, had he not assaulted you, a fellow noble, they might have stayed my hand. I fear that they will not accept, yet, that their time is past. And I must also ask, what about the peasantry? Are Loriod's people ready to take on such a task, to try and govern themselves when their land is in such a mess? I think this would be the recipe for a disaster, one that would discredit the principles we hold so dear. And we cannot afford that."
Grudgingly, I realized that as usual Thomas was right. "I agree. We cannot set these poor people up to fail yet again. And until Nasoj has been dealt with we dare not open any divisions between ourselves and the rest of the nobility."
"Then you'll do it?"
"Huh? Do what?"
"Prepare this land to be free. Help the people pay off their crippling debt, build their military back up to respectability, encourage the people to be proud and bold instead of serfs...."
"Now hold on just a damn minute..."
"Your Highness, I do not ask that you take this on as a full-time job. Macaban is recovering quite well, thanks to young Wessex, and he is full of anger and resentment at the way he was manipulated and humbled. He is fully capable of running this fiefdom, I believe, and absolutely committed to preventing others from being degraded as he once was. All I ask is that you take on another minor title, oversee and counsel Macaban, lend him your authority and wisdom...."
"Wisdom!" I snorted, but the Duke cut me off before I could say more.
"Yes, wisdom! And, I want to ask you to do what you do best, to travel these lands that once belonged to Loriod and inspire the peasantry to dream and to make their dreams come true." Thomas sighed, and went on. "I know fully well you cannot take on much more work, that your Curse prohibits it. But truly, do you not enjoy helping others grow and be free? And if you will not help make our vision of people determining their own futures come true, who will? How can you ask someone else to do that which you will not?"
I just shook my head.
"And, your Highness, someday you MUST be a King. Why not begin here, in a small way?"
"Thomas, I am... touched. But..."
Then Matthias put in his bit. His confusion was past, and he seemed to be in complete agreement with the Horselord. "Phil, you have a role to play. You know that!"
At this point Rupert screeched loudly and nodded "yes" emphatically.
"Rupert, I am sorry to disappoint you, but..."
Then, from behind a bush appeared Joesephine and the fishkeeper Barney, whom I had dispatched to Whales for their own safety what seemed a lifetime ago. My jaw dropped as both fell to their knees and groveled before Thomas and I.
"Please," I said, "Get up! You don't have to abase yourselves like that! Neither Thomas nor I..."
"We must, Your Highness" said Josephine, "Unless we are made free."
I looked helplessly at Thomas, who was staring back impassively at me. Taking a quick glance at Charles, I noticed that he seemed to be smirking. Had he known this was going to happen? Then Josephine spoke again. "I bear a message from King Tenomides for his beloved son. May I beg leave to speak?"
Helplessly, I nodded.
"'Prince Phil,' the King says, 'Well do I know your reluctance to rule, and much pain has it caused me. Yet if you do not rule, to whom are you abandoning the weak and helpless, such as these whom you sent to me for succor? To whom are you entrusting the future? You and Thomas and I are of like mind and see the need for many changes. Do you dare to make the future happen, or will you sit passively by and let events flow on past like a rabbit hiding in his hole? Stand and be counted, my son, I urge you. Failure can be excused, but only cowards fail to try.'"
Stunned, I sat in silence. Why was it that people always sought from me that which I hated most to give, that which would cause me nothing but pain and heartache and but little joy? I was not like Loriod, to enjoy looking down upon the two helpless figures prostrate beneath me....
And then it came to me. Dammit, I was NOT like Loriod, and that was why they wanted me to help them. Not to rule them really, but to help them. And protect them from those who would exploit their labors and stifle their growth.
If I said "no", could these folk be facing another Loriod? If so, they were helpless to prevent it...
"All right, then" I said in a near whisper. "All right. But on one condition."
"Yes?" Thomas asked warily.
"This land shall no longer be called a fiefdom, or a vassalate. It shall simply be known as Lorland, and my title shall not be 'Lord' but rather 'Protector'. And Macaban shall be known as 'Steward'. He will hold the reins- I will merely serve as a figurehead and advisor."
"Done," said Thomas. "Of course."
And with that there was great celebration as Josephine and poor old tired Barney leapt to their feet and danced in joy. Charles patted me on the back, chuckling at my involuntary investiture. Even Rupert capered about as best he could outside the carriage as Thomas waved a red blanket over his head in what was clearly some kind of signal...
Suddenly lamps appeared in each window of the ugly edifice. And from the tallest remaining tower of Loriod's hideously over-decorated castle burst a huge white banner with, of all things, a carrot embroidered upon it. In shock, I looked at the grinning horse. He just grinned the wider. "Well, Your Highness, Lorland IS primarily known for it's fine vegetables...."
I just nodded sadly in reply. Sometimes, when events run away with you, it is better to run with them.
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