Sunday 10 March 2013
The castle was as foreboding on the landscape as the looming storm front was in the sky. Although both environs were vast and sweeping, the castle and the storm front were all enveloping. Thunder cracked overhead, and despite the protective stone and heavy wood of the structure, the inhabitants of the castle cowered in fear. They had not seen a storm as ferocious as the approaching front in decades. It was, surely as the Oracle had said, a once in a lifetime event, and if she were right, it would hit in a matter of hours, destroying everything in its path.
Benevolent and caring, Osgood offered the folk of the surrounding villages the option of taking shelter within the castle walls, opening the courtyard and banquet room to those who wished to seek safety from the storm. He had seen too many of his countrymen die at the hands of enemies in war, and owed a debt of gratitude to them all. They had given their lives for the protection of their king and country; they had given their lives for freedom. He was not a king who would go back on his word. The lives of his people were foremost in Osgood’s mind, for without those people he would have a vast kingdom filled with nothing. ‘A king with no subjects,’ Osgood’s father had once told him, ‘is a man with no purpose or reason. And a man with no purpose or reason is a man with no hope.’
They were words Osgood had lived by since he was a boy, and they had served him well. He was not about to give up on them because of a storm.
Osgood sent word to every village offering sanctuary, and they came in droves escorted by knights of the realm. Streams of men, women, and children believing that their king could protect them from the oncoming storm. He had ordered that the barns be opened to horses and any pets that travelled with his subjects, understanding that the children would be placated and more comfortable knowing their animal companions were just as safe from harm. Food and warm beverages were provided upon arrival because he also understood that satiated subjects were more compliant, tolerant, and helpful than empty-stomached ones. Still, he ordered his guards and the knights of the realm to be on hand and responsive to any kind of altercation or complaint. So many people in one place at one time during such a stroke of nature would surely prove to be eventful. And the Oracle had warned him to be vigilant as the storm might provide a perfect cover for an assassination attempt.
The Oracle’s warning had put Osgood a little on edge. Should any of his people attempt such a thing, they would see the other side of their king; the side reserved for war and fighting. It was that side of Osgood that saw him more feared than any other king who’d ever ruled over the kingdom. Benevolent and caring he may have appeared to those who loved him, but vicious and bloodthirsty he was to those who dared oppose him.
Thunder boomed overheard once again, as Osgood stood on the battlements and looked down upon those who had not arrived early enough to take up positions in the banquet hall. They were crowded under makeshift shelters that wouldn’t stand up to a slight breeze let alone the oncoming storm.
‘Open up the throne room and any other room large enough to take these people,’ he instructed the knight standing beside him.
‘But sire,’ the knight said, ‘the throne room is the one room in the castle that is completely fortified. What if there is an attempt on your life and you should need to seek refuge there?’
Osgood turned and faced his knight. The man was honestly concerned for the welfare of his sovereign; Osgood could see it in his eyes. Grasping the man’s shoulder, the king spoke quietly and confidently.
‘If I should need to seek refuge in my throne room, my friend, then you and your fellow knights have failed to do your duty. These people need the shelter more than I need to seek refuge, Dagmar. See to it that they are comfortable and out of the weather. We’ll deal with anything else if it arises.’
Dagmar, knight of the realm, bowed his head and strode off to instruct the servants of King Osgood’s desire. When he reached the door that led back into the castle, he turned back to his king.
‘You’re sure, sire?’ he called over the third clap of thunder.
‘I am, Dagmar,’ the king replied.
‘And what of the Oracle’s prophecy?’
Osgood considered the question for a moment, then smiled as he replied, ‘Oracles can be wrong, my friend. Let us pray that this is one of those times. Now, get those rooms opened to my people. Keep them dry and warm and out of harm’s way.’
Below the ramparts under a ratty shelter in the courtyard, Anders Fredriksson and his daughter, Ingrid, watched the king engage a knight in conversation.
‘That,’ Anders told his daughter, ‘is a good man, Ingrid, and we do what we can to serve him well. You understand?’
Ingrid Fredriksson nodded, smiling to herself as she watched the knight disappear from view and leave the king alone on the battlements.
‘A good man,’ she whispered.
And as the rain began to fall, the main doors of the castle creaked open and a smiling servant bellowed that all were welcome inside.
‘His highness respectfully requests that all weapons are left outside the castle walls,’ ordered the clean-shaven knight that Ingrid and Anders had seen moments before with King Osgood. Anders set his blade down near the shelter they had been standing under, and ushered Ingrid towards the castle’s entrance, catching a glimpse of a dagger being secreted into the boot of a man with a pronounced limp.
‘Did you see that?’ he asked his daughter.
‘See what, father?’ she replied.
When he pointed in the direction of what he had witnessed, the limping man had disappeared into the crowd, replaced by the new face of another villager seeking sanctuary with their king.
‘Nothing,’ Anders answered. ‘Let’s get inside before we get wet.’
Around them, people milled and gently pushed forward, welcomed into the building by servants of the king and the knights of the realm as the storm front surged ever closer to the castle.
. . . To be continued . . .