I’m really excited about sharing this part–for reasons that I think you’ll figure out soon.
Part Fifteenth: The Story
“Excuse me, sir, are you going to stop here?”
“Yes, lad, thank you.” Sir Richard swung himself out of the saddle and handed Jael’s reins to the stable-boy. “What about my dog?” he added, noticing Cyrus hesitating between his master and the horse he had followed all day.
“You can take him in with you, if you want.” The boy shrugged despondently. “They don’t mind.”
Sir Richard whistled to Cyrus and walked inside, wondering why everyone here was so downcast.
“A sixteen-year-old girl came into the inn’s small kitchen carrying a basket of eggs. She set it down on the round table in the middle of the room, and brushed wisps of curly, chestnut hair that had escaped her bun out of her face.
“Alicia!” the cook called from the other side of the large kitchen. “Go see if the stranger-knight wants his dinner yet.”
“Yes, sir.” Alicia walked out to the larger room, where the guests ate; which, at the moment, was crowded with Shepherds and their families. She navigated the bustling people and scattered tables with ease, and stepped up to the small table where Sir Richard sat by himself, with Cyrus lying at his feet.
“Can I get you your dinner, sir?” she asked. “We have roast cooking in the kitchen, or I can send Timothy to go wring one of the chickens’ necks.”
“Don’t trouble him,” he answered with a smile. “Roast is fine. Thank you, miss.”
“My pleasure, sir.” She turned to head back to the kitchen.
“Excuse me, miss! Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, sir,” she answered, turning back.
“What is wrong with this city, miss?”
Alicia jumped. “Wr-wrong? I-I don’t know. If you’re displeased—”
“No, no,” Sir Richard interrupted her. “You have a pleasant city, and a beautiful one. And you are very generous, admitting strangers after such a tragedy as has obviously happened. That is what I meant: what happened here, miss, to make everyone so sorrowful?”
Alicia’s keen brown eyes took on a sad sheen. “It’s our Princess, sir,” she said, so low that he could barely hear her.
“What happened to her?” Sir Richard asked, feeling his heartbeat quicken suddenly.
“She was taken prisoner—by the dragon,” she answered. “He promised not to destroy our city if we surrendered a princess. Her Highness Penelope is our King’s only daughter—or was.”
“She is dead then?” he asked.
“We can only think so. She surrendered to the beast by her own free will—to save us.” The girl seemed close to tears.
Sir Richard could not help staring at her. The memory seemed so raw. Cyrus stopped licking his travel-sore paws and sat up, somehow sensing that important things were being said. “How long ago?” his master asked quietly.
“This morning,” Alicia answered. She closed her eyes suddenly, but not quite soon enough to keep a tear from trickling down her cheek.
“This morning?” Sir Richard almost shouted, shocked. Cyrus leapt to his feet, clearly alarmed by the surprise in his voice.
Alicia sniffed and wiped her eyes with her sleeve, trying to regain her composure. “L-let me b-bring you your dinner,” she mumbled and fled back to the kitchen.
Sir Richard scratched Cyrus behind the ears to calm him down. “It’s okay, we’re alright—for now.”
The Knight rushed through his dinner and then retreated to his room. Once alone with his dog, he pulled his sword out of its sheath and held it up, twisting it slightly, watching the firelight flash off the blade. Then, with an unimpressed shrug, he tossed it on the bed. Cyrus lay on the sheep-skin rug and rested his chin on his paws, watching intently as his master drew a second sword from under his cloak. For a second time the sound of metal on metal rang out, and the dancing flames reflected off of steel. Sir Richard lifted the new sword up and gazed at it. The hilt was jeweled and carved into writhing serpents; flowering vines, laden with golden fruit; milk-white swans; and glittering stars. Small, curving letters had been etched along the blade—forming words that few living creatures could still read. They were from an ancient language and a fair one, but the letters on the steel blade spelled a curse.