A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Five)
Beside him, in stark contrast, stood his second-born son – yet his firstborn legitimate son – Gareth, twenty-three, thin, with hollow cheeks and large brown eyes which never stopped darting. His character could not be more different than his elder brother's. Gareth's nature was everything his elder brother's was not: where his brother was forthright, Gareth hid his true thoughts; where his brother was proud and noble, Gareth was dishonest and deceitful. It pained MacGil to dislike his own son, and he had tried many times to correct his nature; but after some point in his teenage years, he finally realized his nature was predestined: scheming, power-hungry, and ambitious in every wrong sense of the word. Gareth also, MacGil knew, had no love for women, and had many male lovers. Other kings would have ousted such a son, but MacGil was more open-minded, and for him, this was not a reason not to love him. He did not judge him for this. What he did judge him for was his evil, scheming nature, which was something he could not overlook.
Lined up beside Gareth stood his second-born daughter, Gwendolyn. Having just reached her sixteenth year, she was as beautiful a girl as he had ever laid eyes upon – and her nature outshone even her looks: she was kind, generous, honest – the finest young woman he had ever known. In this regard, she was similar to her eldest brother. She looked at MacGil with a daughter's love for a father, and he'd always felt her loyalty, in every glance. He was even more proud of her than of his sons.
Standing beside her was MacGil's youngest boy, Reece, a proud and spirited young lad who, at fourteen, was just becoming a man. MacGil had watched with great pleasure his initiation into the Legion, and could already see the man he was going to be. One day, he had no doubt, he would be his finest son, and a great ruler. But that day was not now. He was too young yet, and had too much to learn.
MacGil felt mixed feelings as he surveyed his four children, his three sons and daughter, standing before him, felt pride mingled with disappointment. He also felt anger and annoyance, for two of his children were missing. The eldest, his daughter Luanda, of course was preparing for her own wedding, and since she was being married off to another kingdom, she had no business being here, in this discussion of heirs. But his other son, Godfrey, the middle one, eighteen, was absent. MacGil reddened from the snub.
Ever since he was a boy, Godfrey showed such a disrespect for the kingship, it was always clear that he cared not for it, and would never rule. MacGil's greatest disappointment, Godfrey instead chose to waste away his days in ale houses, with miscreant friends, causing the royal family ever-increasing shame and dishonor. He was a slacker, sleeping most of his days, and filling the rest of them with drink. On the one hand, MacGil was relieved he wasn't here; on the other, it was an insult he could not suffer. He had, in fact, expected this, and had sent out his men early to comb the alehouses and bring him back. MacGil sat there silently, waiting, until they did.
The heavy oak door finally slammed open and in marched the royal guards, dragging Godfrey between them. They gave him a shove, and Godfrey stumbled into the room as they slammed the door behind him.
The children turned and stared. Godfrey was slovenly, reeking of ale, unshaven, and half dressed. He smiled back. Insolent. As always.
"Hello father," Godfrey said. "Did I miss all the fun?"
"You will stand with your siblings and wait for me to speak. If you don't, God help me, I'll chain you in the dungeons with the rest of the common prisoners, and you won't see food – much less ale – for three days entire."
Godfrey stood there, defiant, glaring back at his father. In that stare his father detected some deep reservoir of strength, something of himself, a spark of something that might one day serve him well. That is, if he could ever overcome his own personality.
Defiant to the end, Godfrey waited a good ten seconds before finally complying and ambling over to the others.
As they all stood there, MacGil surveyed his five children: the bastard, the deviant, the drunkard, his daughter, and his youngest. It was a strange mix, and he could hardly believe they had all sprung from him. And now, on his eldest daughter's wedding day, the task had fallen on him to choose an heir from this bunch. How was it possible?
It was all, he felt, an exercise in futility: after all, he was in his prime, and could rule for thirty more years; whatever heir he chose today might not even ascend the throne for decades. The entire tradition irked him. It may have been relevant in the times of his fathers, but it had no place now.
He cleared his throat.
"We are gathered here today at the bequest of tradition. As you know, on this day, the day of my eldest's wedding, the task has fallen upon me to name a successor. An heir to rule this kingdom. Should I die, there is no one better fit to rule than your mother. But our kingdom's laws dictate that only the issue of a king may succeed. Thus, I must choose."
MacGil caught his breath, thinking. A heavy silence hung in the air, and he could feel the weight of anticipation. He looked in their eyes, and saw different expressions in each. The bastard looked resigned, knowing he would not be picked. The deviant's eyes were aglow with ambition, as if expecting the choice to naturally fall on him. The drunkard looked out the window; he did not care. His daughter looked back with love, knowing she was not part of this discussion, but loving him nonetheless. The same with his youngest.
"Kendrik, I have always considered you a true son. But the laws of our kingdom prevent me from passing the kingship to anyone of less than true legitimacy."
Kendrik bowed. "Father, I had not expected you would do so. I'm content with my lot. Please do not let this confound you."
MacGil was pained at his response, as he felt how genuine he was and wanted to name him heir all the more.
"That leaves four of you. Reece, you're a fine young man, the finest I've ever seen. But you are too young to be part of this discussion."
"I expected as much, father," Reece responded, with a slight bow.
"Godfrey, you are one of my three legitimate sons – yet you choose to waste your days in the ale house, with the filth. You were handed every privilege in life, and have spurned every one. If I have any great disappointment in this life, it is you."
Godfrey grimaced back, shifting uncomfortably.
"Well, then, I suppose I'm done here, and shall head back to the ale house, shan't I, father?"
With a quick, disrespectful bow, Godfrey turned and strutted across the room.
"Get back here!" MacGil screamed. "NOW!"
Godfrey continued to strut, ignoring him. He crossed the room and pulled open the door. Two guards stood there.
MacGil seethed with rage as the guards looked to him questioningly.
But Godfrey did not wait; he shoved his way past them, into the open hall.
"Detain him!" MacGil yelled. "And keep him from the Queen's sight. I don't want his mother burdened by the sight of him on her daughter's wedding day."
"Yes, my liege," they said, closing the door as they hurried off after him.
MacGil sat there, breathing, red-faced, trying to calm down. For the thousandth time, he wondered what he had done to warrant such a child.
He looked back at his remaining children. The four of them stood there, waiting in the thick silence. MacGil took a deep breath, trying to focus.
"That leaves but two of you," he continued. "And from these two, I have chosen a successor."
MacGil turned to his daughter.
"Gwendolyn, that will be you."
There was a gasp in the room; his children all seemed shocked, most of all Gwendolyn.
"Did you speak accurately, father?" Gareth asked. "Did you say Gwendolyn?"
"Father, I am honored," Gwendolyn said. "But I cannot accept. I am a woman."
"True, a woman has never sat on the throne of the MacGils. But I have decided it is time to change tradition. Gwendolyn, you are of the finest mind and spirit of any young woman I've met. You are young, but God be willing, I shall not die anytime soon, and when the time comes, you will be wise enough to rule. The kingdom will be yours."
"But father!" Gareth screamed, his face ashen, "I am the eldest born legitimate son! Always, in all the history of the MacGils, kingship has gone to the eldest son!"
"I am King," MacGil answered darkly, "and I dictate tradition."
"But it's not fair!" Gareth pleaded, his voice whining. "I am supposed to be King. Not my sister. Not a woman!"
"Silence your tongue, boy!" MacGil shouted, shaking with rage. "Dare you question my judgment?"
"Am I being passed over then for a woman? Is that what you think of me?"
"I have made my decision," MacGil said. "You will respect it, and follow it obediently, as every other subject of my kingdom. Now, you may all leave me."
His children bowed their heads quickly and hurried from the room.
But Gareth stopped at the door, unable to bring himself to leave.
He turned back, and, alone, faced his father.
MacGil could see the disappointment in his face. Clearly, he had expected to be named heir today. Even more: he had wanted it. Desperately. Which did not surprise MacGil in the least – and which was the very reason he did not give it to him.
"Why do you hate me, father?" he asked.
"I don't hate you. I just don't find you fit to rule my kingdom."
"And why is that?" Gareth pressed.
"Because that is precisely the thing you seek."
Gareth's face turned a dark shade of crimson. Clearly, MacGil had given him an insight into his truest nature. MacGil watched his eyes, saw them burn with a hatred for him that he had never imagined possible.
Without another word, Gareth stormed from the room and slammed the door behind him.
In the reverberating echo, MacGil shuddered. He recalled his son's stare and sensed a hatred so deep, deeper than even than those of his enemies. In that moment, he thought of Argon, of his pronouncement, of danger being close.
Could it be as close as this?