Authors: Heidi Willard
THE UNWILLING APPRENTICE (THE UNWILLING #2)
Copyright © 2014 by Heidi Willard
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A dirty, tired group of three people and a dog-monster descended the hills from the south of the city of Galaron. It was a large, crowded city of bustling, narrow streets. Everything was made of white stone that had long ago been smudged with soot and filth, even the high defensive walls that surrounded the metropolis. At the rear of the city stood several tall towers that made up the castle, home to the city's king. There were dozens of guard towers positioned along the thick, tall walls, but only three large arched entrances at the front and the sides. The three strangers with their dog-monster approached the front gate that ran along the main road, and mingled in with the throngs of people and carts that made their way into the city. At the guardhouse the old man of the group was stopped by one of the guards. "I don't see any goods on you. What's your business here?" he rudely asked the aged fellow.
The old man raised his eyes to the guard, and they twinkled with mischief. "Our business is to cause trouble, and it seems we're making a good start at it here."
The guard scowled and looked at the others. They waited patiently to the side of the gate and the cantankus drooled all over the stone floor beneath the arched gate. The guard cringed back with a scowl of disgust. "We have enough trouble of our own to want more uninvited troublemakers." He shoved the old man away from the gate. "Get along now and don't try the other gates. They'll be warned your coming."
The old man chuckled. "They should have already been warned about my coming," he countered.
The guard furrowed his brow, and the young woman of the group stepped forward. "My apologies, my good sir." She shot the old man a glare. "My senile father means you no harm."
"Do I have that honor now?" the old man countered.
The girl growled, and the guard stepped between them. "That's enough out of both of you. Leave now or I'll be forced to toss you out into the plains."
"What seems to be the problem here?" a voice spoke up. Everyone turned to see a captain in a neat uniform step out of the guardhouse.
The guard gestured to the girl and old man. The boy stood off to the side with his dog. "These two are causing trouble, sir. The old man here says that's what they've come to cause."
The captain raised an eyebrow, and a smile twitched at the corner of his lips. "Really? What trouble do you intend to cause?"
The old man stepped forward and bowed to the captain. "A great deal for King Stephen, and perhaps he's told you something of us. We're expected."
"Are you?" the captain asked. "We'll have to see about that. Come inside, but the cantankus must stay here." A great crowd had gathered around and watched the proceedings with interest.
The boy patted the cantankus on the head. "We'll be right back," he promised the beast, who sat down and licked the young man's face.
The three human companions stepped inside the guardhouse and the captain led them to a small chamber room. The captain allowed them in and shut the door behind them all. He took a seat in an old chair and gestured for the others to do likewise. They declined; they were in a hurry. "Now tell me what brings you here, strangers."
The old man spoke up first. "We had hoped to enjoy the hospitality of the people of Galaron and their king, but it seems dark days have fallen on their manners."
The captain cupped his chin in one hand and gave a nod. "Indeed the skies grow darker even as we speak, but what of our king? You said you were expected. Can you show me proof?"
The old man smiled and tapped his staff against the stone floor. The tip of the staff lit up with a blue-colored flame. "Is that what you were looking for?" he asked the captain.
The captain's eyes widened slightly, and he straightened up. His eyes fell on the travelers with a new, more scrutinizing eye. "Then you are Ned and this is Elsa Lamikan?" he guessed.
Ned nodded. "Indeed, the very same. Can you take us to the king?"
"Immediately, but I must ask who this boy is," the captain countered as he gestured to the young man. "I wasn't told there would be a third human, nor a cantankus."
"Plans changed, and we have procured ourselves more allies," Ned replied.
The captain sighed and stood again. "We will have need of as many as we can find." He bowed his head to the three. "But allow me to introduce myself. I am Captain Alexander Hawkins, leader of the king's guard."
They bowed likewise to him and Ned stepped forward. "Lead on, Captain Hawkins, and be quick. The sooner we arrive at the castle the sooner I can get the smell of that cantankus off me."
Captain Hawkins led them back to the gate, and they paused only long enough to pick up Fluffy before they went on their way. The city of Galaron was a winding maze of crooked and dead-end streets. Shops were scattered among houses and women showed off their wares from upper windows. Fred thought it an uglier place than Tramadore, and cringed when he heard a wail of sorrow down an alley. A brown and gray-patched white cat stood on a crate beside an open door, and its golden eyes watched them pass hurriedly.
Ned noticed his young friend's look of disgust. He sidled up to Fred. "The captain here is leading us along the slums of the city. Other parts are more hospitable to tourists and visitors such as ourselves."
Fred shook his head. He wasn't bothered by the scenery. "I saw worse on the estate," he countered. "I just wasn't expecting to see it in as grand a capital as this."
Ned pursed his lips together. "Unfortunately, poverty doesn't confine itself to any one region or city, but shares its misery among many people. Remember that we guard Pat for the future of these people, and all the others in the city." Fred didn't reply. He had a feeling the fate of them guarding Pat would lay with this King Stephen. The royal highness may decide to toss them aside in favor of knights or other castors.
Captain Hawkins guided them past the main entrance to the castle and to the left side. A small door lay hidden behind a dense bush, and with a key in his possession he allowed them inside. They had a little problem in the form of the big cantankus. Poor Fluffy couldn't hope to fit through the doorway that even Ned had to duck into.
"Is he obedient enough to stay here?" Captain Hawkins asked them.
The three companions looked at one another, and shrugged in unison. "No clue," Fred replied for them all.
The captain looked over the lovable oaf who sat and slobbered close by. "Perhaps you should chain him up with your magic. The people of Galaron know what a cantankus is, but to have one unfettered and loose in the city would cause a small panic. They're very destructive creatures when they're hungry and afraid."
Ned chuckled. "I'm sure he'll be fine. This cantankus seems to be much smarter than the average beast. Though just in case..." Ned pulled off all their bags and dumped out their food on the ground, minus the remains of the greens. Fluffy dove atop the meat and crunched happily on the bones. "That should distract him long enough for our interview with the king."
The humans stepped inside and followed Hawkins through a new maze of corridors until they reached the entrance hall. Long tapestries hung from the washed walls, and Fred peered curiously at some of them. He didn't know much about art, but he did notice there was a recurring theme of winged creatures and sky scenes. The group moved on to a wide, regal staircase at the center of the hall that led up to two large, wooden doors on the second floor, and then curved to the left and right to balconies. Those balconies had hallways that led off into the depths of the castle rooms. Hawkins led them up the stairs and through the wooden doors. The guards bowed to their captain and looked curiously at his filthy companions. Fred noticed Ned's face tighten and his lips purse together, especially when he heard the guards mutter Pat's real name. They were found out, and in a day's time all the city would know they were there.
The room behind the two doors was the throne room, and at the far back sat a ridiculously high pedestal. The platform rose two yards off the floor and a short flight of stairs led up to a single throne. The throne itself was ridiculously tall with two small steps that allowed easier access to the seat. The chair had a high back nearly eight feet tall and large arms that ended in roaring lion heads. Fred wondered if somebody was trying to compensate for a lack of royal assets.
The chair was occupied by a man of middle age, King Stephen. He had thinning golden hair and a brown beard. His clothes were of the finest silk and he wore a crown that glittered with jewels. Fred thought he saw a resemblance between the king's nose and that of Pat's own schnoz. At his side precariously situated on the narrow platform stood a woman with one clear blue eye and the other a bright green color. She had hair as black as night that hung down to her waist, and her dress showed off her curves and full breasts. Pat noticed Fred's ogling and elbowed him in the side. "What?" he mouthed.
"You know what," she mouthed back.
They stopped their bickering as they approached the king. Ned and Pat knelt on one knee and bowed their heads. Fred followed, but tumbled over on the bow. Pat rolled her eyes. Captain Hawkins stepped in front of the long staircase that led up to the royal chair. "Sire, I bring with me those whom you were expecting."
A smile graced the king's lips and he jumped up with open arms. "Edwin, my old friend! What a relief to see that you are well and arrived in my kingdom." He moved down the platform and Ned stood up in time to be embraced in a bone-crushing hug.
Ned gave a pain-filled smile. "Yes, it is a relief to be here at last."
The king sniffed Ned's clothing, wrinkled his nose and pulled Ned to arms' length. "By all the gods, but you smell like a cantankus."
"Yes, well, an evil necessity when one's companion is such a beast," Ned replied.
Stephen raised a brow. "Truly? Your last letter spoke only of you and the girl." He looked past Ned and at Fred. "And now I see that you have a boy with you. What trouble did you find?" Ned pursed his lips together and his eyes flickered over to the woman. Stephen noticed where Ned's gaze lay and gave a hearty laugh. "No need to worry about that, old friend. She is my adviser." Stephen half turned and opened his arm to her. She smiled and stepped down so he could wrap his arm around her shoulders. "Mariana Martley, allow me to introduce you to-"
"-Edwin the Castor," she finished for him. The woman curtsied to Ned. "It's an honor to be introduced to you, sir. I've heard much about you."
"And I nothing about you," he countered.
The woman smiled and shrugged. "Perhaps in time we'll get to know each other."
"But for now I would listen to your tale," Stephen interrupted. "You are a few days later than expected, and I was forced to inform more of my guards to be on the lookout for your coming."
"You missed one at the front gate, but that was an unwise move, Your Highness," Ned scolded. "What if one had told Canavar?"
Stephen brushed aside Ned's concerns with a wave of his hand. "Water under the bridge, my friend. Besides, I had planned a birthday party for the young girl and she is nearly late for it."
Ned raised an eyebrow. "Is that wise, Your Highness? Lord Canavar followed us all the way to Salaron Bridge, and beset us with many tricks. We would do better to not attract his attention."