The sound of screams woke Jorgen from his nightmare. For that brief moment between sleep and wakefulness, he thought the screams had been part of his dream. But they dragged on. Endless in the night outside his window.
The seventeen-year-old lad leaped from his bed and pulled his jet-black, shoulder-length hair back from his face. As he scrambled to pull on a pair of loose-fitting, dark riding pants and a loose-fitting dark shirt. He didn’t know what was going on out there, but if he had to flee in the night, it would be best to blend in the darkness.
Crashing sounds grew louder and more menacing. He couldn’t be sure, but if Jorgen had to guess, it sounded like buildings were being razed from the North by something large that was moving in his direction.
Jorgen knew he needed to escape immediately. He didn’t bother to take time to put on his shoes. The lad grabbed them, along with his scabbard, and ran for the door. He joined the fleeing mob running down the street.
He glanced briefly over his shoulder to see a huge, leathery creature almost the height of a house coming behind them. Although the monster didn’t seem to be attempting to catch the people. It moved to a house and tore through the roof as if searching for something.
The crowd ran for the castle, and Jorgen ran with them. Although based on the creature’s immense size and strength, he wasn’t sure that the castle would be able to withstand a full-on attack if this strange beast decided to focus his attention on its walls.
When he arrived at his destination, the guards were already raising the drawbridge. People screamed to cross, but the guards waved them on and yelled for them to take cover in the woods.
Jorgen ran with all of his strength and prepared to attempt a leap across the short distance onto the slowly rising wooden bridge. It was only about three feet off the ground. A few desperate people were hanging onto the edge of the drawbridge, trying to clamber up onto the bridge as it continued to rise into the air.
He knew he could make the jump easily enough. The only thing he had to worry about was jumping far enough over a few people already ahead of him, so he didn’t knock them off into the dark waters of the moat below. Jorgen could see the reflection of the moonlight on the scales and fins of the Moatmorphins already teaming under the drawbridge, waiting for someone to lose their grip and drop into the midst of their feeding frenzy.
Some said that a former king and brought them from the eastern kingdoms. Others said that they had been created by magic specifically for the purpose of defending the castle from anyone attempting to swim across the murky waters.
A break appeared as one of the men hanging onto the drawbridge managed to scramble over the edge and slide down to the bottom. The guards at the gate didn’t lower it, but they had stopped raising it to allow this already clinging to it to pull themselves over before it became too difficult for them to make it over the edge.
Jorgen prepared to leap into his spot but saw a feeble, elderly woman and the child she was carrying at the edge of the embankment. She must have slipped at the edge as the drawbridge rose and was clinging there with one hand as she struggled to push the squalling child that couldn’t have been much older than three.
He reached down and grabbed the child by its flailing arms to drag it up to safety. Jorgen held onto it with one arm so the child didn’t slip back over the edge and reached down to help the elderly woman with his other arm.
“Thank you, young man. A million blessings be upon you in this life and the life to come for saving me life and the life of the child. If I had lost him, it would have been better for me to fall into that roiling mass of Moatmorphins than face her fury.”
Jorgen smiled and bid her well on her way. But by time he turned back to the drawbridge, everyone had lived over and the guards had begun raising it again. It was too high and too far out of reach for him to make the jump now. He actually thought he might have been able to make it with a running start, but it was too risky. Besides, he actually knew another way to get into the castle.
The crowd had scattered in all directions, seeking safety from the onslaught of the beast crushing roofs behind them. The elderly woman was hobbling along with the young child in tow. She was too weak and frail to carry it, and the kid was screaming and walking slowly, unaware of the danger behind it.
The elderly woman’s warm smile was all the thanks he needed as he grabbed the child up in one arm and helped her with the other. She thanked him gratefully over and over as they walked around the side of the castle to a secret entrance.
“You must swear to never tell anyone what I am about to show you. If you do, I will deny it.” Jorgen threatened her sternly.
He waited for her to promise that she wouldn’t ever tell anyone under any circumstance before he pulled back the bushes to lead her and the child through it. She gasped in pleasant surprise as he triggered the secret latch that caused the side of the building to swing open. She wanted to know if he was one of the royal spies.
“No, nothing like that,” Jorgen replied with a chuckle. “I just happened to overhear two drunk men talking a little too loudly in the kitchen one night as they came through one of the secret doors. I kept quiet, and they never realized I was there. After that, I began exploring the tunnels and passageways to learn my way around.”
Jorgen didn’t tell her he was one of the king’s armor squires. Nor did he tell her he had been brought here from Manisuk as a hostage. The king called him his ward, but Jorgen knew what it really meant. As long as his family kept their treaty with the king, he would live. If they ever broke their alliance with him, Jorgen would be decapitated and his head sent on a pike back to his relative as a warning. He had seen it happen to a few of the other wards in the palace over the years.
Not that Jorgen was overly worried about it. His family was peaceful and prospered under the king’s reign. He had never felt his life threatened previously. The lad served the king as best he could and took advantage of the opportunity to study and train with the other up-and-coming knights. He applied himself diligently and excelled at every challenge Lord Soren placed before him.
Jorgen led the elderly woman a short distance to an exit at the palace gardens where he knew the guards would send others who had crossed the drawbridge. He smiled and winked at her as he placed a silent finger over his lips. She smiled and clasped his hand with both of hers to express her gratitude. Then the elderly woman moved her fingers across her mouth to let him know her lips were sealed.
He jogged across the gardens, weaving his way through the small crowds that huddled there. Jorgen overheard them discussing what they had seen as they tried to piece together a complete description of the creature that was attacking the city.
It would have been nice to stay and listen to what they had to say, but he knew the king would be waiting for him. He was easily irritated, and the last thing Jorgen wanted was a good tongue-lashing at this unearthly hour of the morning.
“Where have you been, lad? What took you so long to get here? Do you know how hard it is to put this armor on by myself?” the king bellowed the moment Jorgen walked through the door.
He hurried forward and quickly helped King Karl don his armor. Just as they were leaving, a beautiful red-head burst breathlessly through the doors.
“What news have you brought, Naja?” the king demanded.
“Aye, I bring news, my lord, but I fear it is not good,” Naja said, still panting.
“Well, say on, woman. Don’t keep me waiting.”
“Tis a Silver-Eyed Smogpod that tears up the city, my lord.”
Jorgen wanted to roll his eyes at the formal way the king wanted everyone to speak in the castle. He never had though and simply pretended that it was too difficult for him to learn. Naja reveled and boasted in her ability to speak it fluently though. She had also been brought to the castle as one of King Karl’s wards.
Naja came from a kingdom to the south called Kangsatsarsuk. That wasn’t her real name, though. King Karl had named her Naja and ordered everyone to call her by that name. Jorgen didn’t know what her real name was. Just as she probably didn’t know his real name, either.
“Goodness gracious!” The king roared. “How in the world are we to rid our kingdom of this thing. I’ve heard they are almost impossible to kill.”
“Aye, my lord. Although I conferred with the royal mastermind as you ordered and learned some encouraging news.”
“Well, tell me. Spit it out, lass!” King Karl bellowed.
“I was told that there is a melancholy melody that when played on the flute or lyre will draw the Silver-Eyed Smogpod away. Someone could play the song and lead the creature back to the forest.”
“Splendid!” King Karl shouted with glee as he clapped his hands together.
“Find a minstrel who can play this tune. No, find several. Send them out to draw this furious creature away from my castle. Meantime, I shall prepare the soldiers for battle your strategy doesn’t work.”
Naja bowed and spun to leave. Her coppery red hair glowed in the light as she left, setting off her dark blue dress perfectly. She smiled at him before leaving, and his heart sang as he watched her leave.
“Come, Jorgen!” King Karl ordered. “Tis not the time for swooning. I fear her little song will do naught to dissuade this vile beast from tearing apart our city. Let us prepare for war.”
The king marched out the door with his helmet under his arm. This long, black cape trimmed with gold snapped sharply as he spun toward the door and marched toward the royal hall. The king was an enormous man. Big and bulky. He was a heavy man, but not fat. His long legs chewed up the distance down the hall, and Jorgen had to rush to keep up with him.
Blond-headed Soren, the king’s right-hand man, was already there, waiting. Martin and Niels, the brothers from Eqalugartaq were also there. They were all older than Jorgen, and like him, they had all been wards at one point in time.
Now they had become the king’s trusted warriors. Knights trained in his castle, who had grown up under his care, tutelage, and command. And all had demonstrated admirable courage and skill. To be like them was Jorgen’s greatest aspiration. Someday, he hoped to serve as a knight in King Karl’s royal guard.
“Hail, King Karl!” the men shouted as the king strode into the hall.
Once again, Jorgen wanted to roll his eyes at their exaggerated show of formality. It’s not like there was even anyone around to perform for. They were just buttering up the king to remain in his good graces.
“Come, men! To the walls. Let us view what havoc this foul monster from the fathoms of the deepest forest has wrought upon our city.”
The knights all jostled to fall into line directly behind the king. Soren managed to get ahead of the brothers as they pushed and bumped each other out of the way. They weren’t as blond and fair as Soren. Their hair was a darker shade of blonde, almost a light brown.
They were identical twins, but Jorgen could tell them apart because Martin kept his hair a little longer. He was the smarter of the two and very pragmatic towards life. Niels, on the other hand, carried a little more muscle on his bulkier frame and was very intense, no matter what task he was performing. He threw himself into it with vigor and gusto.
Jorgen was taken aback by the scene before him. Houses were in shambles. Some stoves had been knocked over in the destruction and the fires were blazing away and consuming them rapidly. A flickering orange glow reflected off the haze of smoke that had begun to gather over the city.
He could see the vile beast wreaking havoc in yet another house as it tore apart the roof and stuck its head inside the building.
“Soren, take the archers and prepare them to fire at my command. Martin, you prepare the lancers and swordsmen. Niels, find horses for as many of them as can ride. You will lead the cavalry. We must be ready to attack swiftly.”
Each of the men nodded and trotted off as soon as their orders had been delivered. The king turned to Jogen and looked him in the eye.
“And as for you, young Jorgen, it is time for you to lead a group of your own. Hurry down to help Lady Naja and the minstrels. Take them each a swift horse. Be their eyes and ears. You have been here long enough to know the city well. Lead this evil beast down the broadest streets where it can do little damage. Preferably past homes that have already been destroyed. Lead it away from the city and toward the forest. If the creature gets too close, though, order them to scatter and flee for their lives. Do all that is in your power to help them fulfill their task.”
Jorgen bowed and trotted away quickly as the others had. He felt pleased that King Karl had seen fit to give him his own mission. At the same time, he felt a twinge of nervousness. This was his first time actually being in charge of his own group.
But there was no time to ponder these things. He made a beeline for the nearest secret entrance and used it to cut across to the courtyard, where he crossed to the stable. He ordered the stable boys to prepare four horses for riding. Jorgen chose the quickest and most sure-footed creatures himself.
These were the king’s own horses, and they were the best in all the kingdom. Riding was one of Jorgen’s favorite pastimes, and he knew each horse’s strengths and weaknesses. When they were ready, he led them to the front of the castle.
He saw Naja and her two minstrels standing with a small band of guards at the castle gate. Jorgen called her name as he rode up with the horses.
“Jorgen, where are you going?”
“King Karl bid me ride with you. The horses will be quick and sure-footed in case the Smogpod doesn’t like your tune.”
Naja’s laugh was musical and light. He felt his heart pounding with joy at her reaction. The knights helped her mount one of the horses. One of the minstrels mounted a horse quickly as well. The other, however, admitted that she had never ridden a horse before.
Jorgen couldn’t imagine how it could be possible that someone not know how to ride a horse, but he suggested that one of the knights come along with them to help her. She smiled coyly at a young knight named Sir John who promptly hopped up onto the horse. Then Sir John helped her climb up to sit behind him.
The minstrel wrapped her arms tightly around the knight and smiled a little too much. Jorgen had the sneaking suspicion that the pretty young minstrel really did know how to ride. She was just taking advantage of the situation to spend some time with the handsome knight. He didn’t begrudge her the opportunity, however, it just didn’t seem like hunting monsters was the most appropriate time to be out romancing her beau.
As soon as the drawbridge came down, Jorgen led the group quickly through the gate and down through the city streets. They could hear the beast crashing around the city down near the marketplace. He did as the king commanded and moved along the widest streets until they came close enough to see the Smogpod.
The beast pulled its head out of yet another roof that it had smashed in roared into the night sky. The horses became skittish, and didn’t want to move any closer to the ferocious monster.
It was the first time Jorgen had gotten a good look at it. The Smogpod was bigger than he had first thought because it stooped over as it moved about. Its long arms were thick and muscular, with long, bony fingers and sharp pointed nails.
It looked as if its father had been a gorilla and its mother a giant lizard. When it opened its mouth in a roar of challenge in their direction, Jorgen could see multiple rows of sharp teeth waiting to devour them and their horses. Sir John kept a straight face, but the women all cringed at the sound it made. It let off a loud shriek at the end of its roar along with a series of chirps.
“Well, ladies. It’s time to see if your musical ruse works to draw it away. Lady Naja and Lady Kristina, if you’ll give me your reins, I can lead your horses so your hands are free to play your instruments.”
Lady Naja lifted the flute to her beautiful lips and began to play the haunting melody as the minstrels joined her. Kristina played her lyre. Dorthe played a stringed instrument that Jorgen had never seen before.
The Smogpod cocked its head and began to move in their direction. Jorgen picked up his pace, leading the women’s horses behind him. The hideous beast continued to move in their direction, knocking over houses until it reached the street.
Lady Naja and her minstrels continued to play without pause, but the creature didn’t follow them down the road to leave the city. It cocked its head and roared at them again. Then it turned to look back at the city in the direction of the castle.
“No! No! No!” Jorgen yelled. “This way. This is the way you want to go.”
Smogpod lowered its head and replied to his yell with a scream of its own. Then it let off that same strange screech at the end with a series of chirps before turning to walk down the street in the opposite direction. When it came to the next house along the way, it shrieked again and tore through the roof.
The minstrels were still playing. Jorgen raised his hand for Lady Naja to give it a rest.
“It’s not gonna work. You’ll either have to find another tune that it enjoys.”
“But I don’t understand,” she whispered. “The king’s mages assured me that this tune would mesmerize the creature and draw it away from the city. Lady Juliane told me she had seen this used once by hunters who were attempting to lure a Smogpod out of the woods.”
Jorgen shrugged. “I guess that it just didn’t like the song.”
“Either that or else it’s desperate to find whatever it’s looking for,” Lady Kristina answered.
“Yes,” Lady Naja agreed. “It’s intent on finding something that it thinks is inside one of those houses.”
Sir John slid down from his horse and unleashed an arrow from his bow. The Smogpod was far down the street and he had a small riding bow, so the arrow didn’t seem to have much effect on the creature. The arrow flew low and bounced off the back of its hind leg. He shot a second and third arrow higher in quick succession.
The second arrow found its mark and dug into the Smogpod’s ribs on the left side. The monster let out a loud shriek of annoyance and swatted at it. It didn’t come out, which irritated the beast. It then grabbed the arrow with its claws and pulled it out. After tossing the arrow to the ground, the Smogpod hissed in their direction.
“Tis no brute beast for sure. Methinks it’s quite intelligent.” Lady Dorthe said, not wanting to be left out of the conversation.
“Aye, it knew we were responsible for the pain it felt,” Sir John muttered.
“It’s better we let the archers take it down with their longbows from the safety of the castle walls. They’ll do more damage as well as have the effect of multiple simultaneous hits. Let’s head back and report to the king.”
Jorgen tossed the reins of the horses he had been leading back to the ladies. Then spun his horse around to lead his little band back to the castle through the allies of the city he had come to know so well and loved as his own.
“You were so brave, Sir John,” he overheard Dorthe cooing to her knight.
He looked over at Lady Naja and rolled his eyes. She just smiled and winked at him.
“You were brave too, Sir Jorgen,” she murmured quietly.
When they returned to the castle, Jorgen left the horses with one of the guards to return to the stables. He found the king up on top of the walls with Soren and the archers who were prepared to shoot. Jorgen quickly filled them in on what had taken place.
King Karl sighed, “As I suspected. I figured Naja’s plan wouldn’t work. But we were hopeful at the attempt.”
“At least we know that the infernal reptilian’s skin isn’t as thick as a dragon’s. We’ll pierce it through with arrows until it looks like a porcupine.” Soren growled threateningly.
Jorgen felt a hint of sadness flush through him. Sure, the creature was destroying the city, and they needed to stop it. But he didn’t get the impression that the beast was trying to harm them or kill anyone. As soon as it found what it was looking for, it would leave of its own accord.
King Karl headed to the royal hall to speak with his counselors and check in with the mages before engaging the monster. Jorgen followed along. The royal hall was abuzz with chatter. Everyone stood around Naja who had just finished giving them her account of their failure to lure the beast out with music.
They quieted when they saw the king striding toward his dais. Karl threw himself onto his throne, as if exhausted. He looked as if he hadn’t gotten any sleep before this early morning madness had begun.
“Come, my counselors. Share with me your sage advice before we take action. As Lady Naja has told you, plan A failed to remove this feral beast from our city. Even as we speak, this monster continues to destroy our homes. If we fail to act, it will tear down every home one by one.”
“Your archers stand at the ready, my lord king. Do they not? Let them fire upon this beast and take it down now before it destroys another home.”
“Aye, they do. However, the beast has not yet come within shooting distance. If we leave the safety of the castle walls, we run the risk of the creature tearing into their midst and either killing or maiming them before we annihilate it.”
“I agree, my lord king,” Lady Juliane spoke up. “This foul creature is a danger to us all. We all want to put an end to its rampage, but we should be very careful before sending men out to their death.”
“So, what do you suggest, my lady?” King Karl asked. “Even though you are not a knight or a warrior, you know I value your wise suggestions.”
Jorgen wanted to groan at all this flattery and buttering up that took place among the nobles. Why couldn’t they just speak freely and say what they thought?
“If we can’t draw the beast away from the city, then we must attract it closer to the castle walls so that the arrows of the archers find their mark.” Lady Juliane said.
“Aye, but that is the question. The crux of the matter. How can we draw it close? What will attract it in this direction so that it stops what it is doing long enough to come close. We must also consider that if we shoot as soon as it gets close enough, all it has to do is turn back out of reach of our arrows. It is necessary to wait until it gets close before shooting at it.”
A familiar scent that Jorgen recognized hit his nostrils. The sweet smell of lilacs. Jorgen turned to find Lady Naja standing next to him. She leaned in so close that her arm was brushing against his.
“I don’t trust that woman,” she whispered in his ear. “She’s up to no good. It was her suggestion to lure the Smogpod out with music. I think she knows more than she is letting on. Juliane is playing the king for a fool.”
Jorgen nodded. “This isn’t a random attack. Smogpod is searching for something.”
He looked up to notice that everyone was silent. The king was looking in his direction with a bemused smile.
“Jorgen, you braved the fierce beast and stop face-to-face with it. Do you have a suggestion or bit of wisdom that you care to share with us?”
The young man smiled nervously at the attention and started to shake his head. The king raised his eyebrows and cocked his head, waiting expectantly. Jorgen sighed.
“My lord king, when we were riding toward that creature, I did get a good look at it. I looked deep into its burning eyes. As the minstrels played their melody, the creature did in fact begin to follow us. But then it turned to look back as if something stronger than the melody had its attention.”
“And what do you think that was, lad?” the king asked.
Jorgen could tell that King Karl was intrigued by his insight. The king didn’t rush him but waited encouragingly for Jorgen to process his thoughts and put them into words. Jorgen was pleased with his choice of words. Even though he hated the flowery prose of formality, Jorgen knew the nobles ate it up.
“It seeks something, my lord. The way it searches from house to house. It tears off the roof and looks inside. It lets off a shrill shriek and then chirps several times at each home. Almost as if calling for something.”
Jorgen’s voice trailed off at the realization of his own words. The memory of the elderly woman and young child he helped at the drawbridge. Something she said stuck in his head. How had she worded it?
If the child died, she didn’t want to face its mother. It would be better to die herself than to face the wrath and grief of the childless mother. Jorgen didn’t remember her exact words, but it was something to that effect.
“Jorgen?” the king finally asked after a long period of silence. “You seem to have realized something that may help us.”
Jorgen smiled and nodded excitedly. “I believe this is a mother that lost her child. And for whatever reason, it thinks that someone from this village has hidden it in their home.”
King Karl stroked his beard and listened intently as Jorgen retold the story of the woman and child. He could sense Lady Naja’s interest and attention. He was acutely aware of her hand resting lightly on the back of his arm as she listened to his story.
“Hm! So, that’s why our young hero took so long to arrive at the castle. Well, I guess I can forgive your delay then. But if your assumption is correct how do we find her child to return it to her.”
King Karl looked around the room and let the small crowd discuss ideas among themselves. Lady Juliane was the first to speak up again.
“My lord king, surely you don’t entertain this boy’s foolish notion? You remember what his father was like. Lets’ be reasonable.”
Jorgen’s face burned and felt the sting of her words cutting through him. They didn’t even make much sense. How did she know about his father? And what did that have to do with his suggestion that the creature was looking for its young?
“It’s not a foolish suggestion,” Lady Naja spoke up. “The same thought crossed my mind. It reminded me of the mother ducks we raised when I was a child who called and her ducklings came waddling back to her.”
“Don’t be daft, child,” Juliane scoffed. “That monster is nothing like a duck.”
“Why do you attack us personally if you don’t agree with our idea,” Lady Naja retorted hotly, her green eyes blazing. “If it a bad idea, tell us why.”
“I just think it’s silly,” Julian said with a sniff.
“Uh, it does make sense, Lady Juliane,” King Karl said. “It would explain why she didn’t follow the minstrels out of the city. The urge to find her young would have been more powerful than a mesmerizing melody.”
Juliane continued to scowl and fidget with the hem of her sleeve.
“So, the question is, who took the Smogpod’s young? And if we give them back to her, will she return home and leave us alone?” Lars asked.
“But who would be so foolish as to rob a Smogpod of its brood?” the king asked.
“Perhaps they didn’t know what it was. Maybe a hunter thought it was a small reptile. They could have thrown it into the pot and eaten it for supper.” Soren laughed in scorn. “If it’s already doing that kind of damage, I wonder what the mother will do when she finds their bones.”
“Well, we’ve been sitting and discussing this far too long. Spread the word and see if anyone has seen or heard anything about Smogpod broodlings within the city. Hopefully, someone has some information.” King Karl said as he dismissed the crowd to carry out his command.
Jorgen had an idea and spoke up. “My lord king, if you will permit me to speak once again.”
“Say on, lad,” the king said with a wave of his hand, motioning for Jorgen to speak.
“If some hunter knows the sound a Smogpod young makes and can imitate them, perhaps that would be the melody that the mother would be willing to leave the city for.”
“Brilliant idea, my boy. Spread the word people. Gather what information you can and bring me news swiftly. We have no time to lose.”
The crowd scattered, and the hall was soon silent. The king grunted as he stood wearily and walked for the door.
“Good thinking, Jorgen. You’ll make a fine addition to my ring of counselors once you are an adult and no longer under my ward.”
The king’s warm words of praise rang like music in Jorgen’s ears, and his heart felt like it was bursting with pride. Then a troubling thought crossed his mind.
“Sir, if I may ask, what did Lady Juliane mean about my father?”
Karl was walking quickly ahead of Jorgen, so he couldn’t see the king’s face clearly. However, it seemed to him that the king becomes quite uncomfortable and agitated. He picked up his pace and cleared his throat a few times before answering.
“It’s nothing, my boy. You are my ward and you know what that means. But don’t let it trouble you. Lady Juliane was just jealous that she didn’t come up with your idea herself. That’s the way she is. If the idea is solid, she attempts to attack your character to make others doubt you.”
There was a brief pause, and the king chuckled.
It’s the oldest trick in the book. Just wait till you get married. Wives are masters at using those kinds of tactics to manipulate their husbands. I should know. I have three of them myself.”
Jorgen smiled politely, but his mind was busy analyzing Lady Juliane’s words. He sensed intuitively that the king was dodging the question. He knew there was more, much more, to what the woman’s words had meant.
The Smogpod had continued its path through the city. The creature was farther from the castle than it had been previously. Broken houses with roofs torn off lay in its wake. It continued ravaging homes and huts in its desperate search.
“But why had it risked coming here into the city? What was it looking for?” Jorgen wondered.
The king spoke up, breaking through his reverie.
“Men, this vile villain seems to be most intelligent. It is aware of the danger we pose to it here in the castle and avoids us as it continues its ferocious rampage. Let us prepare to take the battle to the Smogpod and fell it before it razes the entire city.”
The archers fell into formation along the walls. Jorgen could see the cavalry and foot soldiers in the courtyard do the same.
Just then there was a shout and a young woman came running up to the king with a knight right on her heels.
“I’m sorry, my lord king. This fair maiden rushed at you without heeding my orders to halt.”
The knight seemed quite miffed that she hadn’t obeyed him, and he grabbed her by the elbow to lead her away. The king raised his hand, and the knight let go of her.
“Calm down, sir knight, in your haste to stop her. It seems something troubles her. She is unarmed and may have urgent news for us.” King Karl said with a smile.
The knight nodded and stepped back, but kept his hand on the hilt of her sword in case she made an attempt on the king’s life.
“Say on lady,” the king said with a smile. “What troubles your beautiful heart?”
The girl was panting from her hurry to get to the king, and she was still trying to catch her breath.
“My lord king, I heard that some think that fearful beast tearing apart our city is a mother looking for its younglings,” she said in between heaving breaths.
“You speak true words, my fair lady,” the king said. “The young Jorgen here first came up with this theory based on upon his brave observations when he first faced this dreadful monster.”
“Oh, my. What a brave, young man. And quite handsome at that.” she murmured and flashed Jorgen a beautiful smile.
“Yes, but pray tell what bit of news you have for my ears,” the king said.
“Yes, of course, my lord king. I should have told you right away instead of babbling on about a fair knight in this midst of this danger as this scandalous monster razes the homes of our dear neighbors.”
“Yes, of course. You are forgiven, my lady. Please, say on and tell us your news.”
“Of course, my lord king,” the lass said with a curtsey. “So, at supper, I overheard my father talking with my mother. Well, she’s not really my mother, anyway. She is his wife because my mother died. So, she’s really my stepmother. But I still call her mother.”
Jorgen bit his tongue and closed his eyes so that no one would see him rolling them back in his head in exasperation.
“Yes, it’s okay. I understand. Please say on.” the king said, noticing Jorgen’s closed eyes. “Jorgen, do you feel alright? I know you have had little sleep tonight. I’m exhausted myself. Do you feel the need to lie down?”
The young man’s eyes flared open, and he smiled at the king as he shook his head. He said nothing for fear that the king would begin interrogating him. Jorgen just wanted the girl to hurry and tell them what she had come to say.
“Please, continue, my lady. You were about to tell us what your father said to your stepmother.”
“Yes, my lord king. So my father told her that he saw a weird man entering the North Gate with a cart. Father thought little of it, but he swung by the tavern before coming home. While he was there, he overheard the man muttering to himself as he sat in the corner.”
“That is strange,” he replied and waving his hands, encouraging the girl to continue her story.
“And you know, Father talks to everyone. He never meets a stranger. So, he exchanged a few words with this man. The man was nervous and coy with his answers. But father bought him a few rounds, and he began to open up. Father said he didn’t hold his liquor very well. He became quite tipsy and as time wore on, this man spoke freely.”
“Of course,” the king murmured. “It’s only proper that one should open up and talk if another is buying you a round of ale. So, what did the man tell your father?”
Jorgen could tell that the king’s patience was wearing thin. He was trying to remain patient and friendly. His voice was a little snappier at the end as he tried to get her to tell them the bottom line. More so than usual. Yet still, he tried to remain polite and flowery in his words.
“Well, then the man told father he was delivering eggs,” she replied, finally taking the hint and tell the king what he wanted to hear.
“Eggs,” the king roared in exasperation.
His voice thinly veiled his exasperation and annoyance at having gone through this entire conversation to have been told something so mundane. King Karl spun and called for Soren.
“Prepare the archers and begin marching them out front of the direction the beast is headed. Send scouts to find some high ground. Preferably somewhere that offers an excellent view of the beast within range of their arrows. And that offers protection.”
“But sir, I haven’t finished telling you the rest of my Father’s story,” the young woman said.
“Yes, please continue, my lady,” the king sighed. “But I must beg you to summarize anything not pertinent to what I must know to deal with this creature because the men are preparing to attack.”
“Yes, my lord,” the charinged girl said, nodding quickly. “I understand your hurry and will tell you everything you need to know as quickly as possible. I shall tell you the facts you need to know to make an informed decision.”
Jorgen wanted to roll his eyes and bob his head as she prattled on.
“Anyway, to make a long story as short as possible, Father learned that this man was making a delivery of eggs to the city under very strange circumstances. However, the weird, little man wouldn’t give Father many details. He didn’t tell Father what the eggs were for or where they were coming from or even who ordered them.”
The king nodded and waved his hands together as he bobbed his head. He took a deep breath and sighed as he looked around to make sure Soren was doing as he commanded, as the girl continued talking.
“When the man got up to leave, Father followed him outside. He offered to buy some eggs, but the man said they were all spoken for. He acted strangely, as if he didn’t want father to see them. So, Father pretended to go back inside the tavern. After the man continued on his way, Father followed him from a distance. The man stopped once to urinate because he had drunk so much ale. While he was occupied, Father snuck up and peeked in his cart. He had to dig through the straw to find them.”
“Yes, and what did your father find in the cart? Did he find Smogpod younglings?” the king asked, unable to contain himself any longer.
“No, of course, he found eggs in the cart, just as the man said,” the girl replied sweetly.
That was almost too much for the king. “What? Please, tell me what this has to do with the Smogpod, my dear lady?”
King Karl was clenching and unclenching his fists in exasperation. Protocol dictated that he should let the woman finish her story. But his nerves were wearing thin.
“It’s just that the eggs were large. Much larger than chicken eggs. Much larger than ostrich eggs. Even larger than the great gray hens of Oqatlaq up along the great Northern mountains.”
“Hm! So you think these may have been Smogpod eggs?” the king’s voice rumbled. “What happened then?”
“Well, Father continued to follow the weird man. He said that he followed the man pushing the cart all the way here to the castle.”
“What! Here?” the king roared. “Here, to my castle! Does that mean the Smogpod will come here and tear the castle down looking for its eggs? Why didn’t your father warn us?”
The poor girl was almost in tears.
“Please, my lord king. Be not angry with my father. He thought the eggs had been ordered for the feast of the full moon. Father told mother that those three eggs were big enough to feed an army. He thought you were a lucky man to eat such delicacies.”
“No, I did not order giant eggs for the feast of the full moon,” the king roared in exasperation. “Jorgen! Fetch me the royal cook or anyone in the kitchen that knows about these giant eggs.”
Jorgen raced off to the kitchen as the king roared for Soren to have the knights round up the guards who had been on watch at the gate earlier that evening, who might have seen a weird, drunk man pushing a cart.
The cook and assistants all denied having received a cart of giant eggs. Jorgen took a quick look in the pantries and cupboards, as well as anywhere else that might have been large enough to hide three giant eggs. But he came up empty-handed.
When he returned to report to the king, a trembling guard was apologizing profusely.
“I did see a man who matched this description. He came pushing a cart. Told me he was making a delivery of eggs. I thought little it. Delivery people come through these gates all the time.”
“And did you not think it strange that he was making a delivery at night?” the king growled in irritation.
Jorgen had never seen the king so irritated.
“I assumed that there was a shortage of eggs,” the man stammered. “Or perhaps, that you, my lord, desired some dish that required more eggs that the kitchen had available,” the man stammered in a pleading voice.
“Who did he say the delivery was for?” the king asked.
“He didn’t say, my lord king,” the man said.
The king sighed in exasperation.
“But, I did see Lady Juliane talking with him shortly afterward,” the guard said, his countenance brightening. “Perhaps she may know.”
“Jorgen, fetch me Lady Juliane,” he roared when he saw the boy standing beside him.
The young squire rushed off to find the king’s counselor. She wasn’t in her chambers, but he found her in the king’s kitchen, talking with one of the butlers in a hushed voice. She seemed surprised that the king wanted to see her. Jorgen thought that she even seemed a little nervous.
“What does the king want with me?” she demanded to know.
Jorgen just shrugged. He wasn’t about to tell her any more than necessary. She was a shrewd woman, and he didn’t want to give her any time to prepare for King Karl’s interrogation. Besides, he was still angry at the way she had attacked him and Lady Naja’s personal character just because she didn’t like their idea that Smogpod was a mother looking for her young.
“What did you mean earlier when you reminded the king of what my father was like?” Jorgen asked abruptly.
Lady Juliane didn’t turn to look at him, but he could tell that she was watching him from the corner of her eyes. He got the impression that she was trying to keep a smug smirk off her face.
“Don’t worry about it, lad. Things are never what they seem.”
“The way you spoke of my father. It felt as if you were speaking of someone long gone. Someone who was no longer alive.”
“Well, my lad, tell me what you know of your father?” she said as they turned down a dark hall where the torches hadn’t yet been lit. Jorgen pulled a torch off the wall so they continue on their way.
“My father is Chief Atanarjuat of the Manisuk. His name means Fast Runner. He is one of the greatest chiefs our people have ever known. They sing songs about him around the campfires at night.”
“Do you remember your father?” Lady Juliane asked.
“No, my lady. I was only a small child when I was brought here as the king’s ward. I do not remember my father, nor my mother, nor any of my siblings.”
“Have you ever met them? Or even seen them?”
Jorgen shook his head. “No, my lady. The castle is the only home I have ever known and the people here the only family I have ever had.”
“Do you not find that strange, Jorgen? Other wards are visited by their families. They are even permitted to visit their old homes.”
“Not really. I never gave it much thought. The other wards come from noble families and enormous castles. My people live in tribes that roam the lands around the mountains during the summer and near the sea in the winter. My family isn’t like the families of the other wards.”
“And yet, you never felt the desire to meet your family?” Lady Juliane persisted.
“Of course, when I was young. But I don’t think about it much anymore. Some day, I suppose the king will allow me to visit my family. Once I become a knight and gain my independence.”
“Yes, of course,” the tall, gracefully woman said quietly.
But by the tone of her voice, Jorgen could tell that she doubted it. He glanced at her and still had the feeling that she was attempting to keep that same smug smirk off her face.
They turned down the main hall leading to the courtyard, which was well lit. Jorgen paused to place the torch on the wall. He pondered what Lady Juliane had said. Jorgen didn’t understand it, but sensed that there was a deeper meaning behind her words. He tried asking her a few questions, but each time she changed the topic with standard bits of castle gossip.
When Jorgen returned to Karl, the king was fit to be tied. He was ranting and raging as the knights looked on glumly. The king whirled to face Lady Juliane.
“Who was the drunk man you were speaking to earlier this evening?” King Karl roared.
“Excuse me, my lord?” she replied meekly.
“Don’t play me for the fool, Lady Juliane,” the king bellowed. “I was told that you had a cart full of Smogpod eggs delivered to the castle. That’s why that beast is tearing up our city. And that is why you dismissed Jorgen and Lady Naja’s ideas earlier. Because. You. Didn’t. Want. Me. To. Find. Out!”
A strange smile flickered across Lady Juliane’s pale face.
“My, my! How fast the little birds do fly around the castle this night carrying bits of news.”
“Is this true, Lady Juliane?” King Karl demanded.
Jorgen thought she would deny. Surely she feared the king’s fury. Even if it were true, Lady Juliane would deny it. There was no way she would admit to being responsible for bringing this attack on the city. Or so he thought. To his surprise, she admitted it.
“Yes, my lord king. As you were told, I did have three Smogpod eggs brought into the city.”
The king was outraged. His face went livid. He couldn’t speak. Jorgen was absolutely flabbergasted. He looked from the king to Lady Juliane and back to the king again.
“And what in the world did you do with those eggs?” the king finally managed to gasp.
“Why, I ate them, of course. Why else would I have ordered Smogpod eggs, my king?”
“You ate them, you say? You say you ate them?” King Karl said, repeating himself as he tried to process this information. “What did you do a thing like that for? Did you not think of the consequences?”
“I’m only joking, my king. I did not eat the Smogpod’s eggs. And no, I did not think that the Smogpod would follow its eggs here.”
The king was so furious he could hardly speak. He paced back and forth along the rampart several times before suddenly stopping and fixing his eyes on Lady Juliane.
“Why did you not tell us you had the eggs as soon as you knew it had arrived? Instead, you made up that entire story about playing some stupid melody to draw it back into the woods. Yet you knew it was here looking for the eggs you had taken.”
“I, I…” Lady Juliane stammered. The smirk wiped from her face.
“You what, Lady Juliane,” the king lowered his voice into a growl.
“I was afraid, your royal highness,” Lady Juliane said quietly. “I hoped you would deal with the beast quickly, before it did much damage. And yet you sit here like a coward instead of rushing out to face it like Jorgen’s father would have done.”
Jorgen looked at her in confusion. What was she getting at?
“Lady Juliane, I’m warning you,” he said, pointing a finger in her face.
“Or what, Karl. Or you’ll kill me too? It’s too late. You’ll be dead before the day is done and another will rule in your stead.”
The king looked at her in confusion. Jorgen thought that the king’s face turned an even deeper shade of livid, as if that were somehow even possible.
“Have you gone mad, Lady Juliane? How dare you utter such words?” King Karl bellowed in rage. “Guards throw her in the deepest, darkest dungeon. Do not permit anyone to remove her until we’ve had a chance to deal with this churlish Smogpod monster. Then I will deal with your treachery myself, lady.”
“As you wish, my lord. However, I don’t think I shall see you again in this life.” Lady Juliane said with a sweet smile.
“Oh, you’ll see me alright in this life,” the king screamed in fury. “My face will be the last thing you see as the royal executioner cuts off your head tomorrow.”
The king turned toward the destruction taking place in the distance and screamed again in rage as the guards led Lady Juliane away.
“Wait,” the king shouted as he spun back around. “You didn’t eat the eggs, you say? Then where are they?”
Lady Juliane looked over her shoulder and smiled, but didn’t stop walking. The guards who had stopped at the king’s command had to hurry to catch up with her.
“Don’t let that woman go. Stop her!”
The king trotted over and changed his tone. “Come, Lady Juliane. This was all just a misunderstanding. I apologize for my anger and harsh words. Of course, you didn’t know the Smogpod would come. Tell us where you placed the eggs and we will let you go. We can put a stop to this mess and all will be well.”
“Suck Smogpod, Karl,” Lady Juliane said with a smile and added, “Your royal highness.”
King Karl roared in fury again and screamed for the guards to drag her away. “You’ll never see my face again, woman. Not even when the royal executioner cuts your head off.”
The king continued to rant and rave. He stormed around and kicked at the parapets.
“Uh, my lord,” Soren interrupted him. “Should we move the men to attack the Smogpod?”
“Has the Smogpod actually killed anyone yet?” the king asked with a sigh from where he leaned against one of the merlons.
“No, my lord. No reports have come in yet of anyone having been attacked or killed directly by the Smogpod. So far it has only destroyed houses and buildings.”
The king ran his fingers through his hair and signed, “Then it is true. Young Jorgen was right. The mother seeks her eggs.”
“So, what would you have us do, my lord?” Soren asked. “The beast seems to be changing direction and coming this way.”
“Send everyone to sweep the castle. Search every room from top to bottom. Direct the knights so they aren’t backtracking or searching the same areas. If we can find the eggs, perhaps the Smogpod will leave the city.”
“But, sir, with all due respect, we could attack and kill it much more quickly. We may not find the creature’s eggs. And even if we did, would we want more of these monsters being bred?”
The king ran his fingers through his hair once again and pondered Soren’s words.
“Sir Soren, have you ever heard tales of anyone killing a Smogpod?” the king asked.
“No, my lord. Dragon’s of course. But never a story of a knight slaying a Smogpod. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”
The king snorted.
“When a knight slays a dragon, minstrels across the kingdoms sing of his bravery and courage. I have never heard a single song of a knight anywhere in the known history of mankind that ever slew a Smogpod. Which either means that they never tried or, if they did, never lived to tell the tale. Now, so far, this creature hasn’t attacked any person. No lives have been lost. I would like to keep it that way. We can rebuild the city, but we can’t raise the dead. I would prefer we find those Smogpod eggs and return them to their mother. We can have it followed and find its lair later. Then if you desire to be the first knight to have minstrels sing songs about his victory over a Smogpod, you shall have my blessing to slay it.”
“Yes, my lord king,” Soren said with a bow. He turned to order the men to search the castle for the Smogpod eggs.
Jorgen joined the men in the search for the eggs. But instead of running off randomly to search hidden corners of the castle, he wanted to be strategic. He first asked interrogated the young lady who had brought news to the king of what her father had seen.
He hoped to get a description of the man and possibly even locate him. But she didn’t know much more about the weird, drunk man her father had followed to the castle. She didn’t even know where her father had disappeared to in the mad melee as everyone escaped in the night. They had gotten separated in the crowd. She had hoped to find them in the castle, but hadn’t seen them since arriving. She hoped they had safely escaped the city until things settled back down.
Next, Jorgen questioned the guard, who had claimed to see the man entering the castle with the cart. His description was vague. The knight said that he had been about the same height as the king, although perhaps a little shorter. He walked slowly, with his shoulders hunched over. He had silvery-white hair down to his shoulders, with a short beard that matched the color of his hair.
But that was about all the knight could remember. Nor did he remember seeing the man leave the castle later.
“Perhaps he is still around,” the king mused, and ordered the knights to spread the word. “Be on the lookout for this strange fellow.”
Next, Jorgen went down to the dungeon to speak with Lady Juliane.
“Ah, young Jorgen. I hoped to see you before things got out of hand,” the woman said with a pleasant smile.
“Please, my lady, tell me where these eggs are kept so that we can return them to the Smogpod and rid the city of this foul beast.”
Lady Juliane reached out through the bars of her dungeon cell and traced the side of his face with her finger.
“So, much like you father, may he rest in peace,” she murmured.
“But my father yet lives,” Jorgen replied, pulling back at her words. “Please, just tell me where the eggs are. What have you done with them?”
The woman gave him a sad smile and pulled her hand back inside her cell.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, young Jorgen. Plans have been set into motion. There are forces at play that cannot be undone. But fear not. Once all has been said and done, and the events have played themselves out, I will explain everything.”
“Will you live long enough to tell me? I fear the king plans to execute you as soon as he rids the city of this monster,” the squire said.
Lady Juliane shrugged and backed away from him toward the far wall. She slid down against it until she was seated on the floor.
“Let’s hope that he is unsuccessful until my help arrives,” she replied.
“Please, Lady Juliane. The city is being torn apart even now as we speak. Surely this isn’t what you intended. Have mercy on the poor villagers. Winter will be here shortly. Think of their families and their suffering.” Jorgen pleaded.
She just shrugged. “I do. This is justice. This is no different from what King Jorgan does when he sends his armies out to conquer other cities to expand his borders and increase his wealth. He razes their homes and destroys their families. Karl did it to my city and family. He did it to your city and family. I don’t see why this displeases you.”
Jorgen looked at her in shock. “You really did plan for this, then?”
Lady Juliane beamed at him and leaned forward as she said, “Yes. Absolutely. This and so much more.”
The squire shook his head in surprise. He wasn’t sure if he should be impressed with her astuteness or upset at her for the havoc she had brought upon his home. But he knew that chiding her would do no good. He opted to try flattery to get her to open up.
“That is a most impressive strategy,” he said.
She scoffed and waved her hand at him. “Don’t attempt to flatter me, boy. It’s a useless strategy to get me to open up and tell you my plan. It might work on a silly schoolgirl, but not me. I’m way past that stage.”
“You are most astute, Lady Juliane. I must give you kudos for your cunning. You are the most insightful person I know, which is why King Karl trusted your counsel. I hope someday to be as wise and quick-witted as you.”
“Well, I have worked hard for it,” she admitted. “I’ve been scheming to take down King Karl since the day he killed my father and left my uncle to rule in his stead. I spent years earning his trust. Now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of my labor.”
“It is a most genius plan. To exact revenge by cunning without even lifting a finger.” Jorgen continued with his line of flattery. “To think that he never even saw this coming or suspected a thing from you.”
Lady Juliane smiled at him and nodded in agreement. “I’ve had my people looking for a Smogpod for some time. They found signs of this one over three years ago but couldn’t find its lair. Rasmus happened to stumble across it just as the last winter snows melted. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the creature to lay eggs. I worked swiftly to place the rest of my plan into motion, and well, here we are.”
“So, we wait here for the Smogpod to destroy the castle? Why did you stick around and not flee before the king found out? Your life is in danger too when the Smogpod comes to tear down these walls.” Jorgen said as he leaned back against the wall.
She nodded and shrugged. “I didn’t expect the king to find out about the eggs. I should have been more careful in allowing Rasmus to bring the eggs here. As for Smogpod destroying the castle, I’m sure King Karl will kill it before then. Even if he doesn’t, we’re in the safest place possible here in the depths of the dungeon.”
Jorgen smiled and wagged his finger at Lady Juliane. “Ah, my lady! Truly, you are a wise woman. You always come out on top.”
He slid down the wall to sit down himself. Suddenly, a flash of insight hit him, and Jorgen realized something.
“Don’t tell me you placed the eggs in the King’s chambers. If you wanted Smogpod to destroy the castle and exact revenge against King Karl, that’s where you would have put them. Wouldn’t you?”
Lady Juliane tried to hide her smug smile, but Jorgen was pretty sure that he had hit the nail on the head. He stood to his feet and turned to leave.
“Leave them, Jorgen,” she called out as she leaped to her feet. “I’m doing this for you and all the other wards as much as for myself. King Karl is getting what he deserves.”
He turned to see her gripping the bars of the dungeon door and shook his head. “I’m not doing this for King Karl. I’m doing this for my friends and the people of the city. They don’t deserve to have their home destroyed.”
“Wait, Jorgen!” Lady Juliane shouted as he turned to leave. “It really is too late. Stay and I’ll tell you everything. There is more to my plan.”
The squire shook his head and continued backing away. “We can talk more later. Right now, I need to stop that Smogpod you unleased on my city.”
“I’ll tell you the truth about your father.”
Jorgen stopped and took a step back toward her. “What could you tell me about my father that I don’t already know?”
“I shouldn’t tell you this yet. I should let you discover it for yourself. But you force my hand. The truth is that your Father and King Karl were once great friends. Or so the king led your father to believe. He used your father to learn how to survive in the land. He made an alliance with your father to strengthen his power. Your father helped make Sarsuit the powerful kingdom that it is today. And it was all because of the sword your father carried. A magical sword powered by a mystical suit. And King Karl deceived your father into helping him. He made your father many promises. But after he built his kingdom and strengthened his power, Karl betrayed your father and killed him in an attempt to take your father’s sword. Your father was mortally wounded, but managed to flee. They finally found his body, but not the sword, nor the helmet, nor the suit that powered it. The only part of it that remained is the black and gold cape that King Karl wears today. And that is why King Karl continues to war and take other cities. He still seeks your father’s armor because some say that your father had it scattered among the tribes in an attempt to keep Karl from obtaining it. Your people hope that someday, someone worthy will rise up to wear it and free the land from King Karl’s reign.”
“But he’s a good king. He rules well and allows people their freedom.”
“So you think because that is what he wants you and the other wards here to believe.”
“Then who is Chief Atanarjuat if he’s not my father?”
“One of your father’s brothers who helped King Karl betray him. Part of his agreement was to claim you as his child to keep you from learning the truth. Did you never wonder why you aren’t allowed to travel to visit your family? It’s to keep you from learning the truth. When you grow older, he will allow you to serve as his knight, but King Karl will always send you somewhere other than home to your family. Ask any of the other wards if they have ever been allowed to go home.”
Jorgen took a step toward her as his mind processed all of the information.
“Please, Jorgen! Let me out of here and we can escape together. I’ll show you the secret corridors to escape and return to your home.” Lady Juliane said quietly.
“I know about the secret corridors and entrances to the castle,” Jorgen said, and cocked his head. “You just made up this entire story to get me to let you go. Didn’t you? Do you really think I’m that foolish?”
It irritated Jorgen that he had let himself get sucked into her story. She had probably just made it all up to manipulate him into helping her escape.
“No, Jorgen. It’s all true. Let me out and I can prove it to you.”
He shook his head as he turned to leave. “I’ll ask around to find out if any of this is true. If so, I’ll come back to talk more. But I’m pretty sure that you’re using some sort of spell to make me believe your story. Arent’ you?”
“No, Jorgen!” she sighed and slid back down to the ground as she watched him leave.
The young squire stormed up the dungeon steps and crossed the bailey toward the keep. Once inside, he moved swiftly through the halls and corridors to the king’s chambers.
King Karl was surprised to see him. Jorgen was surprised to see King Karl as well.
“I’m sorry, my king. I didn’t expect to find you here. I thought you were still up on the wall walk with the knights.” Jorgen stammered.
“No, lad. I came to change my boots. The new ones were hurting my feet. I came to change into an older pair that is already broken in. I don’t want to be out running for a Smogpod in an uncomfortable pair of boots.” The king chuckled. “So, what brings you here if you thought I was up on the wall walk?”
“I spoke with Lady Juliane and even though she didn’t say as much, I suspect she had Rasmus hide the Smogpod eggs here in your room. Have the knights already searched in here?”
The king’s eyes narrowed in anger. “I don’t suppose they have. I wouldn’t have authorized it. I never suspected they would be in here. But why would she do such a thing?”
Jorgen shrugged, not wanting to get into everything he had just learned.
“Lady Juliane seemed to indicate that she had been planning this ever since you killed her father and left her uncle to rule in his stead.”
King Karl pursed his lips and ran his fingers through his hair nervously. “She said that, did she? Where would Lady Juliane have gotten that idea? The woman was just a baby when she arrived here. There’s no way she could remember that. I mean, if it really happened. Has the woman gone mad, Jorgen?”
The king snorted and waved his hand as if it were nothing. “Don’t mind that crazy woman, boy. Nor give ear to any foolish nonsense, she says. That daft woman is out to harm all the poor people of this town, as well as the castle where she’s hiding. So, daft that she would bite off her nose to spite her face.”
The king was muttering now as he nervously shuffled through his closet to pull out a long pair of boots. Jorgen was looking at the long black and gold cape flowing down the king’s back. He wondered if that cape really had belonged to his father.
“Well, don’t just stand there, lad. Get to searching for the Smogpod eggs if you think Lady Juliane hid them here. That crazy woman.”
Jorgen nodded and began searching the room. He had no idea how big or small the Smogpod eggs might be. He had never seen the egg of a Great Grey Hen from Oqatlaq before. Although he had seen ostrich eggs once.
He started in one corner and worked his way around the room. Jorgen wasn’t sure how the king would react to him opening his dresser drawers, but he went ahead and took the liberty, anyway. Jorgen really hoped to find something else that might prove or disprove Lady Juliane’s story. But Jorgen found nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing more than he might find in his own dresser at home.
The king poked around as if he were helping search, but Karl moved around the room randomly. Jorgen could tell that he really didn’t expect to find anything there. But that didn’t stop the squire from sweeping methodically around the room.
He went into the giant walk-in closet and went through every drawer in there as well. There were walls and walls of drawers and walls and walls of clothes on hangers. He was careful not to mess up the neatly folded clothes as he went through each drawer.
It took him a while, but he finally made it through the drawers with no sign of the Smogpod eggs.
“Are you sure Lady Juliane had them placed in here?” the king asked.
Jorgen shook his head. “She didn’t say they were here specifically, but she made it clear that she was doing this to get back at you. That’s why I thought she might have left them here.”
The king shrugged, and Jorgen knelt down to look under the bed. Still no sign of the eggs. Jorgen stood up and sighed.
“Guess not, my lord king. I do apologize for digging through your chambers,” Jorgen apologized.
He was starting to think that perhaps Lady Juliane had been pulling his leg this entire time. She could just be making up stories and sending him on wild goose chases to keep him from finding out where they really were. A secret passage, perhaps. Another idea flashed through his mind.
“My lord, where is the secret entrance to your chamber?” Jorgen asked politely.
Of course, he knew where it was. He had been past here many times before, but Jorgen didn’t want to let on to the king that he had access to that sort of information.
“Secret entrances?” the king mumbled. “I suppose the palace spies do gossip, don’t they?”
He walked over and opened it for Jorgen. The squire walked up and down the hall as he tried to imagine which direction Rasmus might have come from and where he would have gone once inside.
“Hm!” Jorgen murmured as he paced around the room.
“What is it?” King Karl asked.
“My lord, if there are secret entrances that lead into your room, then surely you must have your own secret chambers where you hide things you don’t want the spies to find.” Jorgen continued his line of thought.
The king wagged his finger in Jorgen’s direction with a sly smile. “Very sneaky, Jorgen. Trying to discover my secrets now, are you?”
“No, of course not, my lord. I’m just thinking where Lady Juliane or Rasmus may have hidden something in here where myself or the knights wouldn’t know to look. But listen, I’ll step outside so that you can check your secret hiding places yourself to make sure that they didn’t stick them in here.”
Jorgen walked toward the door, but the king called him back.
“It’s okay, lad. I trust you. Come, let us find these cursed eggs if they are here.” King Karl said as he strode into the massive closet. “There is a secret room where I may hide if the castle were ever to come under attack.”
The king opened a drawer and slid his hands inside to press something. There was a soft clicking noise as the entire panel swung away from the wall. Jorgen smiled in amazement as the king waved his hand toward the entrance.
A vast chamber spread out before them. Larger than the king’s bedroom itself. There was an entire living area off to the right side, with a large kitchen area behind it. Tot he left was a room set up with a gigantic bed. In front of that, a party where Jorgen saw food stashed away in the event of an emergency. The king could survive inside here for weeks, if not months. Hidden away safely from anyone who might be searching for him.
“You mustn’t tell anyone else about this hideaway,” King Karl said in a hushed voice as if he were afraid someone might hear him while Jorgen searched the room.
He finally found the eggs tucked away in the back corner of the pantry. Jorgen almost passed by them. But they were there inside a large basket on the bottom shelf.
“Lady Juliane must have known you would come hide here when the Smogpod attacked the castle. When it broke through and found the eggs, you would have been the closest person to them. Then the angry mother Smogpod would have blamed you for taking her baby’s eggs.”
The king was astounded. “How would she have known about this chamber? No one knows about it.”
Jorgen wanted to tell him that just about everyone who lived in the castle probably knew about the existence of the secret passageways. But he didn’t. Jorgen kept his mouth shut and suggested they hurry and run the eggs out to Mama Smogpod.
Soren and his knights were on the wall, nervously watching the giant reptilian-looking beast advancing toward them as it continued tearing the roofs off houses along the way. Jorgen thought it interesting that as they walked up to the ramparts with the basket of eggs, the horned beast lifted its head and let out a loud, long bellow. It was almost as if the monster knew she was getting closer to her offspring.
The king ordered Soren to take a small troop and deliver the eggs, but Jorgen requested permission to do the honors.
“Please, my lord king, allow me to return them to her,” Jorgen asked.
The king looked at him sternly before saying, “She could turn on you because she thinks you took them.”
Jorgen shook his head. “I don’t believe she will. Remember, she’s already seen me out there before. I think she’ll understand that I helped her find what she was looking for.”
King Karl nodded and agreed to let him go. “But keep your distance from her. Place the eggs in the open and walk away from them well before she gets close to you. The knights will ride behind you and shoot if necessary to provide cover.”
The young squire nodded and shook his arms as he prepared to run, if necessary. He bent over and grabbed his ankles for a few seconds. Then squatted and stretched his legs out in front and behind himself to work out any kinks in his muscles.
Soren looked relieved that he didn’t have to be the one to deliver the eggs to the rampaging mother. He nodded respectfully to Jorgen and indicated for the lad to take the lead with a wave of his outstretched arm.
Jorgen felt pleased to have earned the respect of the knights that he had long looked up to for inspiration.
The horse squire brought Jorgen a large, dark red stallion with saddlebags in which to place the eggs. Jorgen transferred each of the dark leathery eggs into bags. He placed one in each saddlebag, and the third he carried himself up on top of the horse.
Jorgen rode slowly and carefully toward the gate. Once he felt comfortable with his cargo, Jorgen allowed the horse to walk a bit faster. He was careful to protect the eggs but wanted to get out as fast as possible to prevent the Smogpod from destroying any more homes than necessary.
The angry mother monster wasn’t far from the castle walls. One of the better archers on the wall probably could have hit it with a good, strong bow. Jorgen looked back to see the king and his archers watching him from above. A small band of knights and archers followed him from a short distance away.
The squire made his way down the widest roads until he had a direct view of the Smogpod. It was furiously tearing the roof off another two-story building. The beast paused for a second to look at him before sticking her head inside. She shrieked with her series of chirps at the end.
Jorgen slid down from the horse and placed the bag he was carrying on the road. He kept it covered so she wouldn’t see what he had until all three were on the ground. Jorgen untied another saddlebag and placed it in the road beside its sibling egg. And then the third.
The Smogpod was already moving on to the next building when Jorgen slid the top of the bag open, revealing its contents. The mother monster paused and hissed. It let out a low motherly whine, as if recognizing its egg. Then followed up with a menacing growl as Jorgen pulled back the bags around each of the other three eggs.
She took a step forward in his direction with another menacing growl. Jorgen turned to leap onto his horse, but it was already gone. His red stallion raced off, leaving him behind. He wanted to yell after it and curse it but didn’t want to irritate the monster moving in his direction. Jorgen could have kicked himself for not having hung onto the horse’s bridle or tied it to something.
Jorgen backed away slowly and glanced over his shoulder at the knights in the distance. He wondered if she would chase him if he started running, but didn’t want to risk it. For the moment, she seemed to focus on her eggs, making sure they were okay.
The squire continued backing away with his eyes fixed on her. Ready to turn and run if she turned his focus to him. The Smogpod bent over and sniffed each of the eggs, then wrapped gently back in the bags before picking them up. She cradled them tenderly in her arms and looked over at Jorgen.
The Smogpod snorted, and Jorgen’s heart froze. For a brief second, he thought she might rush him, but she turned and moved down the road toward the east from the way she had come.
Jorgen bent over and gasped for air as the tenseness rushed from his body. His head felt light, and he fought the urge to heave. The squire kneeled down in the dirt and breathed heavily as relief flooded through his body.
After a few moments, as the monster moved away from him, he heard the hooves of horses approaching cautiously. He looked up to see a knight leading his red stallion back to him. Jorgen thanked the knight and clambered onto the horse. He wanted to kick and beat it for having run off on him, but Jorgen knew the creature had only responded out of instinct.
The king and guards and all the people were waiting for Jorgen at the gate. They cheered as he rode across the drawbridge and gathered around him. Arms pulled him off the horse as Jorgen slid down. Knights clapped him on the back. Lady Naja threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly.
King Karl gave a short, flowery speech. Jorgen’s mind was still reeling from the shock of everything he had been through. And his attention was focused on Lady Naja standing beside him with her arm around his waist as she smiled up at him.
In the end, the king said something about dubbing him a knight. The next thing he knew, Jorgen was kneeling before the king, who slapped him lightly across each cheek with the flat side of his sword.
Then he was back on his feet as the other knight picked him up in their arms and threw him in the air as the crowd cheered. He couldn’t do much as the crowd passed him around the courtyard over their heads, so he just relaxed and enjoyed the moment.
Slowly, the villagers began returning to the city from the forests and hills to where they had fled when Smogpod first attacked. They joined the celebration in the palace courtyard, and the throngs grew larger and larger until there was no more room for anyone to enter. The crowd was backed up plumb out of the castle and across the drawbridge into the road.
The king declared that there would be a sumptuous feast in honor of Jorgen’s wit and bravery in removing the Smogpod from the town. It would help provide food for those who would be busy cleaning up the mess in the city.
King Karl also promised to help restore the destroyed buildings with funds from the royal coffers, as well as authorizing the royal guards to help with the construction and building. The people clapped and cheered and celebrated a little longer before they began heading back to their homes.
Lady Naja kissed Jorgen before leaving. He was tired, but still too wound up to sleep. And he still wanted to speak with Lady Juliane before heading home. When he arrived in the dungeon, however, the guard was passed out on the floor.
Lady Juliane was not there. Her cell door was wide open. Jorgen shook the guard and helped him get up. Then sent the guard home before he broke the news to the king. Karl was furious, but there wasn’t much to be done about it then. She must have escaped in the confusion of the celebrating crowd and been long gone by then.
When Jorgen arrived home, he saw the Smogpod had torn the roof off of his home as well. His bed was situated directly under the gaping hole, so he pulled it off to the side, where it would remain dry in case it rained. Jorgen went to the kitchen for a snack and found Lady Juliane sitting at the table.
“Hello, Jorgen. You did well for yourself. Although you did mess up my plans.”
Jorgen froze, unsure of what the woman’s intentions were.
“Oh, relax, boy,” she said, pouring him a glass of milk. “I’m not going to hurt you for throwing a monkey wrench in my plans.”
“What was that all about anyway,” Jorgen asked.
“There is more coming. Bringing the Smogpod in was only the beginning. I’m going to have my revenge on King Karl one way or another.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?” Jorgen asked.
“I think you would make a wonderful ally. I’d like to have you on my side.”
“I’m not mad at the king for whatever you think he’s done to deserve this,” Jorgen replied. “In fact, I’m quite happy here.”
“Yes, yes! I know, silly boy,” Lady Juliane said with a flippant wave of her hand. “I saw he made you a knight. Big whoop. Especially, after stealing a kingdom that was rightfully yours. After stealing kingdoms from each of us wards. I think we should join together and take back what was rightfully ours.”
She wanted to talk long into the night, but Jorgen was exhausted. His eyes grew heavy, and it was all he could do to keep them open.
When he opened his eyes again, the sun was blazing high overhead. Jorgen struggled to sit up, but he was tied to a saddle.
“Help, help!” he shouted as he tried to look around.
Lady Juliane’s smiling face came into view.
“Hey, Sir Jorgen. How did you sleep?”
Jorgen spluttered and growled, demanding to know what was going on.
“Don’t worry. I left a note saying you were going after the Smogpod to return with its head while the tracks were still fresh. No one is expecting you back for a while.”
“Where are you taking me?” he demanded to know.
“I want you to go back home. Or what you call home. But not as yourself. Return as a stranger. Speak with the people of your land. Hear the stories they will tell you. Listen to their version of what really happened to your father and your family. Not the version King Karl has fed you all of these years. Allow yourself to learn the truth.”
“And then what?” he asked.
Lady Juliane shrugged and smiled. “That’s up to you, my friend. You can help me create alliances to fight for the return of your rightful kingdom. Or if you want, you can still return to Sarsuit and be a knight who defends King Karl’s claim to the throne, that’s up to you.”
“What happens if I do that?” Jorgen asked warily.
Lady Juliane cut the bonds that held him down against the horse and said, “Then I imagine we’ll end up facing each other in battle someday.”
Jorgen rubbed his chaffed wrists and thought about it. The idea of returning home to see his family was appealing. Especially as a stranger that they wouldn’t recognize. The longing to see his mother and brothers had long since grown dim, but they still strummed at as heartstrings.
“Fine, I will go with you,” he said confidently.
Her silvery laughter rang out like music over the silence of the forest.
“Oh, no. I’m headed back to my home. You’re on your own. I plan on spending three moons there. If you want to join me as an ally, you’ll find me at Nalusuaq,” she said, patting the saddlebags. “I left you plenty of provisions and a bag of coins for your journey.”
Jorgen nodded and bowed his head. “Thank you, my lady!”
He started to leave, but then turned back. “Forgive my rude manners, Lady Juliane. I should accompany you safely to your city before making my own journey.”
“No, Sir Jorgen,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ll ruin my disguise. I’m not returning as a lady. And you should do the same. It will not please your uncle to know you have returned.”
“Oh, and if you find your father’s armor, it will help you reclaim his throne,” Lady Juliane said, before digging her feet into her horse’s side.
The squire-turned knight watched her trot off into the distance. He felt butterflies in his stomach. Jorgen didn’t know why, but he felt more nervous about returning home than he had facing the Smogpod.
Jorgen looked back over his shoulder in the direction of Sarsuit, before continuing on his own journey. He would miss Lady Naja and hurry back to her. But for now, he had his own path to forge.