A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Twenty-Five)

Gwendolyn walked alone through the castle, taking the spiral staircase, twisting and turning her way to the top. Her mind raced with thoughts of Thor. Of their walk. Of their kiss. And then, of that snake.

She burned with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, she had been elated to be with him; on the other, she was terror-stricken by that snake, and she knew it meant a death was coming. But she did not know for whom, and she could not get that out of her mind either. She feared it was for someone in her family. Could it be one of her brothers? Godfrey? Kendrick? Could it be her mother? Or, she shuddered to even think, her father?

The site of that snake had cast a somber shadow on their joyous day, and once their mood had been shattered, they had been unable to get it back. They had made their way back together to the court, parting ways right before they came out of the woods, so they would not be seen. The last thing she wanted was for her mother to catch them together. But Gwen would not give up Thor so easily, and she would find a way to combat her mother; she needed time to figure out her strategy.

It had been painful to part with Thor; thinking back on it, she felt badly. She had meant to ask him if he would see her again, had meant to make a plan for another day. But she had been in a daze, so distraught by the site of that snake that she had forgotten. Now she wondered if he thought she didn't care for her.

The second she had arrived at King's Court, her father's servants had summoned her. She had been ascending the steps ever since, her heart beating, wondering why he wanted to see her. Had she had been spotted with Thor? There could be no other reason her father wanted to see her so urgently. Was he, too, going to forbid her to see him? She could hardly imagine that he would. He had always taken her side.

Gwen, nearly out of breath, finally reached the top. She hurried down the corridor, passed the attendants who snapped at attention and opened the door for her to her father's chamber. Two more servants, waiting inside, bowed at her presence.

"Leave us," her father said to them.

They bowed and hurried from the room, closing the door behind them with a reverberating echo.

Her father rose from his desk, a big smile on his face, and ventured towards her across the vast chamber. She felt at ease, as she always did, at the sight of him, and felt relieved to see no anger in his expression.

"My Gwendolyn," he said.

He held out his arms and embraced her in a big hug. She embraced him back, and he directed her to two huge chairs, placed on an angle beside the roaring fire. Several large dogs, wolfhounds, most of whom she had known since childhood, got out of their way as they walked towards the fire. Two of them followed her, and rested their heads in her lap. She was glad the fire was on: it had become unusually cold for a summer day.

Her father leaned in towards the fire, staring at the flames as the fire crackled before them.

"You know why I have summoned you?" he asked.

She searched his face, but still was not sure.

"I do not, father."

He looked back in surprise.

"Our discussion the other day. With your siblings. About the kingship. That is what I wanted to discuss with you."

Gwen's heart soared with relief. This was not about Thor. It was about politics. Stupid politics, which she could care less about. She sighed in relief.

"You look relieved," he said. "What did you think we were going to discuss?"

Her father was too perceptive; he always had been. He was one of the few people who could read her like a book. She had to be careful around him.

"Nothing, father," she said quickly.

He smiled again.

"So, then tell me. What do you think of my choice?" he asked.

"Choice?" she asked.

"For my heir! To the kingdom!"

"You mean me?" she asked.

"Who else?" he laughed.

She blushed.

"Father, I was surprised, to say the least. I am not the firstborn. And I am a woman. I know nothing of politics. And care nothing for them – or for ruling a kingdom. I have no political ambition. I do not know why you chose me."

"It is precisely for those reasons," he said, his expression deadly serious. "It is because you don't aspire to the throne. You don't want the kingship. And you know nothing of politics."

He took a deep breath.

"But you know human nature. You are very perceptive. You got it from me. You have your mother's quick wit, but my skill with people. You know how to judge them; you can see right through them. And that is what a king needs. To know human nature. There is nothing more you need. All else is artifice. Know who your people are. Understand them. Trust your instincts. Be good to them. This is all."

"Surely, there must be more to ruling a kingdom than that," she said.

"Not really," he said. "It all stems from that. Decisions stem from that."

"But father, you are forgetting that, first, I have no desire to rule, and second, you're not going to die. This is all just a silly tradition, on your eldest's wedding day. Why dwell on this? I'd rather not even speak of it, or think of it. I hope the day should never come when I see you pass – so this is all irrelevant."

He cleared his throat, looking grave.

"I have spoken to Argon, and he sees a dark future for me. I have felt it myself. I must prepare," he said.

Gwen felt her stomach tighten.

"Argon is a fool. A sorcerer. Half of what he says doesn't come to pass. Ignore him. Don't give in to his silly omens. You are fine. You will live forever."

But he slowly shook his head, and she could see the sadness in his face, and she felt her stomach tighten even more.

"Gwendolyn, my daughter, I love you. I need you to be prepared. I want you to be the next ruler of the Ring. I am serious in what I say. It is not a request. It is a command."

He looked at her with such seriousness, his eyes darkening, it scared her. She had never seen that look on her father's face before.

She felt herself tearing up, and reached up and brushed back a tear.

"I am sorry to have upset you," he said.

"Then stop talking of this," she said, crying. "I don't want you to die."

"I am sorry, but I cannot. I need you to answer me."

"Father, I do not want to insult you."

"Then say yes."

"But how can I possibly rule?" she pleaded.

"It is not as hard as you think. You will be surrounded by advisors. The first rule is to trust none of them. Trust yourself. You can do this. Your lack of knowledge, your naivete – that is what will make you great. You will make genuine decisions. Promise me," he insisted.

She looked into his eyes, and saw how much this meant to him. She wanted to get off this topic, if for no other reason than to appease his morbidity and cheer him up.

"Okay, I promise you," she said in a rush. "Does that make you feel better?"

He leaned back, and she could see him greatly relieved.

"Yes," he said. "Thank you."

"Good, now can we talk of other things? Things that might actually happen?" she asked.

Her father leaned back and roared with laughter; he seemed a million pounds lighter.

"That is why I love you," he said. "Always so happy. Always able to make me laugh."

He examined her, and she could sense he was searching for something.

"You seem unusually happy yourself," he said. "Is there a boy in the picture?"

Gwen blushed. She stood up and walked to the window, turning from him.

"I'm sorry father, but that is a private affair."

"It is not private if you will be ruling my kingdom," he said. "But I won't pry. However, your mother has requested an audience with you, and I assume she will not be so lenient. I will let it go. But prepare yourself."

Her stomach tightened, and she turned away, looking out the window. She hated this place. She wished she were anywhere but here. In a simple village, on a simple farm, living a simple life with Thor. Away from all of this, from all of these forces trying to control her.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, and turned to see her father standing there, smiling down.

"Your mother can be fierce. But whatever she decides, know that I will take your side. In matters of love, one must be allowed to choose freely."

Gwen reached up and hugged her dad. At that moment, she loved him more than anything. She tried to push the omen of that snake from her mind, and prayed, with all she had, that it was not meant for her father.

Gwen twisted and turned down corridor after corridor, past rows of stained-glass, heading towards her mother's chamber. She hated being summoned by her mother, hated her controlling ways. In many ways, her mother was really the one who ruled the kingdom. She was stronger than her father in many ways, stood her ground more, gave in less easily. Of course the kingdom had no idea: he put on a strong face, seemed to be the wise one. But when he returned to the castle, behind closed doors, it was she who he turned to for advice. She was the wiser one. The colder one. The more calculating one. The tougher one. The fearless one. She was the rock. And she ruled their large family with an iron fist. When she wanted something, especially if she got it into her head that it was for the good of the family, she made sure it happened.

And now, Gwen sensed, her mother's iron will was about to be turned towards her; she was already bracing herself for the confrontation. She sensed it had something to do with her romantic life, and feared she had been spotted with Thor. But she was resolved not to back down. No matter what it took. If she had to leave this place, she would. Her mother could put her in the dungeon for all she wanted.

As Gwen approached her mother's chamber, the large oak door was opened by her servants, who stepped out of the way as she entered and closed it behind her.

Her mother's chamber was much smaller than her father's, more intimate, with large rugs, a small tea set and gaming board set up beside a roaring fire, several delicate, yellow velvet chairs beside them. Her mother sat in one of the chairs, her back to Gwen, even though she was expecting her. She faced the fire, sipped her tea, and moved one of the pieces on the game board. Behind her were two ladies in waiting, one tending her hair, and the other tightening her strings on the back of her dress.

"Come in, child," came her mother's stern voice.

Gwen hated when her mother did this – held court in front of her servants. She wished she would dismiss them, like her father did when they spoke. It was the least she could do for privacy and decency. But her mother never did. Gwen concluded it was a power-play, keeping her servants hovering around, listening, in order to keep Gwen on edge.

Gwen had no choice but to cross the room and take a seat in one of the velvet chairs opposite her mother, too close to the fire. Another one of her mother's power plays: it kept her company too warm, caught off guard by the flames.

Her mother did not look up; rather she stared down at her board game, pushing one of the ivory pieces in the complex maze.

"Your turn," her mother said.

Gwen looked down at the board; she was surprised her mother still had this game going. She recalled she had the brown pieces, but she hadn't played this game with her mother in weeks. Her mother was an expert at Pawns – but Gwen was even better. Her mother hated to lose, and she clearly had been analyzing this board for quite a while, hoping to make the perfect move. Now that Gwen was here, she moved.

But, unlike her mother, Gwen didn't need to study the board. She merely glanced at it and saw the perfect move in her head. She reached up and moved one of the brown pieces sideways, all the way across the board. It put her mother one move away from losing.

Her mother stared down, expressionless except for a flicker of her eyebrow, which Gwen knew indicated dismay. Gwen was smarter, and her mother would never accept that.

Her mother cleared her throat, studying the board, still not looking at her.

"I know all about your escapades with that common boy," she said derisively. "You defy me." Her mother looked up at her. "Why?"

Gwen took a deep breath, feeling her stomach tighten, trying to frame the best response. She would not give in. Not this time.

"My private affairs are not your business," Gwen responded.

"Aren't they? They are very much by business. Your private affairs will affect kingships. The fate of this family. Of the Ring. Your private affairs are political – as much as you would like to forget. You are not a commoner. Nothing is private in your world. And nothing is private from me."

Her mother's voice was steely and cold, and Gwen resented every moment of it. There was nothing Gwen could do but sit there and wait for her to finish. She felt trapped.

Finally, her mother cleared her throat.

"Since you refuse to listen to me, I will have to make decisions for you. You will not see that boy ever again. If you do, I will have him transferred out of the Legion, out of King's Court, and back to his village. Then I will have him put in stocks – along with his whole family. He will be cast out in disgrace. And you will never know him again."

Her mother looked at her, her lower lip trembling in rage.

"Do you understand me?"

Gwen breathed in sharply, for the first time comprehending the evil her mother was capable of. She hated her more than she could say. Gwen also caught the nervous glances of the attendants. It was humiliating.

Before she could respond, her mother continued.

"Furthermore, in order to prevent more of your reckless behavior, I have taken steps to arrange a rational union for you. You will be wed to Alton, on the first day of next month. You may begin your wedding preparations now. Prepare for life as a married woman. That is all," her mother said dismissively, turning back to the board as if she had just mentioned the most common of matters.

Gwen seethed and burn inside, and wanted to scream.

"How dare you," Gwen said back, a rage building inside. "Do you think I am some puppet on a string, to be played by you? Do you really think I will marry whomever you tell me to?"

"I don't think," her mother replied. "I know. You are my daughter, and you answer to me. And you will marry exactly who I say you will."

"No I won't!" Gwen screamed back. "And you can't make me! Father said you can't make me!"

"Arranged unions are still the right of every parent in this kingdom – and they are certainly the right of the king and queen. Your father postures, but you know as well as I do that he will always concede to my will. I have my ways."

Her mother glared at her.

"So, you see, you will do as I say. Your marriage is happening. Nothing can stop it. Prepare yourself."

"I won't do it," Gwen responded. "Never. And if you talk to me anymore of this, I will never speak to you again."

Her mother looked up and smiled at her, a cold, ugly smile.

"I don't care if you never speak to me. I'm your mother, not your friend. And I am your Queen. This may very well be our last encounter together. It does not matter. At the end of the day you will do as I say. And I will watch you from afar, as you live out the life I plan for you."

Her mother turned back to her game.

"You are dismissed," she said with a wave of her hand, as if Gwen were another servant.

Gwen so boiled over with rage, she could not take it anymore. She took three steps, marched to her mother's game board, and threw it over with both hands, sending the ivory pieces and the big ivory table crashing down and shattering in pieces.

Her mother jumped back in shock as it did.

"I hate you," Gwen hissed.

With that, Gwen turned, red-faced, and stormed from the room, brushing off the attendants' hands, determined to walk out on her own volition – and to never see her mother's face again.