Authors: P. W. Catanese
Patch closed his eyes, and his shoulders hitched. He heard another horse come near, and Mannon’s voice, shattered by grief, came to his ear. “Gosling’s life, thrown away to save a fool. I’ll get you for this, apprentice. If I see you again, I swear I will.” Patch heard Mannon’s horse move on, the others following behind.
Patch waited. When he opened his eyes again, he was alone on the road.
the thump of the hooves could no longer be heard, Patch slid off his horse and vomited in the snow. He flopped on his back and drew his sleeve across his mouth. He cried out to Gosling, “I’m sorry!”
A sound caught his ear, and he looked up to see his horse trotting away without him, following the others down the road toward Dartham, already disappearing around a far bend in the road.
Oh, Mannon would have loved that,
he thought, and the mocking voice echoed in his brain:
Perhaps you’ll remember to tether your horse next time!
He rolled over and pounded the frozen ground with his fists until it hurt too much to go on. He got to his hands and knees, then stood on wobbling legs.
he wondered. To the north were the trolls. To the south was Dartham, a shame he couldn’t bear to face, and a knight who’d sworn to murder him. Neither way would do.
I’m going home. Wish
they’d never found me. Wish I’d never left.
He walked through the trees and onto the frozen lake.
Patch trudged across a dead landscape that an artist could have rendered by mixing only black and white paints. Gauzy sheets of snow curled and swept across the surface of the lake, revealing here and there the cracked gray ice below. The sky was an ugly leaden bowl clapped down over the world, spilling tiny flakes that were just now reaching the ground. The only visible color was on the cloak that Patch wore, a beautiful garment embroidered with purple. But the purple reminded him of the king and Dartham and Gosling, and he would have thrown the cloak aside if he didn’t need it to keep him warm. The same went for the boots, the gloves, and the other fine gifts he’d received.
The town of Shorham was somewhere on the other side. From there Patch could pick up the same road they’d come down. He’d follow it all the way back, up the river, past Half, and on to Crossfield and the little tailor’s shop.
He stopped, listening to a sound that was cutting through the whining breeze. He lowered his hood to hear it better.
Patch turned to see a tall, thin figure coming toward him, lifting his knees absurdly high as he ran and waving
madly. When Patch recognized the fellow, he rolled his eyes and groaned.
“Hallooo! Oh, it’s him, it’s really him! What luck! Hoo ha!” Simon still had the troll’s rope knotted around his waist, and it trailed thirty feet behind him. When he reached Patch, he lifted him off the ground, hugging him, and began to twirl. “My hero, my prince, my savior!” He planted a wet, loud kiss on Patch’s cheek.
Patch slapped at the fool’s shoulders and snarled, “Simon—stop it! Put me down—no, we’re going to fall—” And they did fall, because the rope had wound around their legs as Simon spun.
Simon sat up, looking at the rope and scratching his head. “Where’d that come from?”
Patch kicked the loops from his legs and stood up. “The trolls tied you up, you half-wit! You dragged that rope a mile across the lake.”
Simon snapped his fingers. “I think you’re right! Wait
did you call me?”
Patch grimaced. “I’m sorry, that was an awful thing to—”
“You called me
Simon gasped and clapped his hands to his head. “The hero knows my name! How can this be?”
“I’m not a hero,” Patch said.
Simon kept his hands on his head, but his face grew serious. “Are you saying the wine
Patch winced. “No, it was poisoned all right, but—”
Simon dropped to his knees and seized Patch’s hands. “Then I would be dead if not for you.” Patch wrestled his hands out of the fool’s grip and stepped back, out of reach. Simon grinned up at him like a puppy.
“Well,” Patch said, “how’d you get away from the trolls?”
“They forgot all about me when they charged after you. What tempers they have! Why, once they—hold on! Halloooo there,
Simon jumped to his feet and waved gaily at another approaching figure, a man on a horse.
“I’m in the middle of a lake,” Patch muttered. “What is everyone doing here?” He just wanted to be left alone on his way back to Crossfield.
A soldier of Dartham approached, a thick-necked young man who peered down at Patch with a satisfied look on his face. “You’re the apprentice, aren’t you? Patch Ridling? I have orders to bring you to Dartham.”
“Sorry, that’s not me,” said Patch.
“It isn’t?” said Simon, utterly confused.
The soldier eyed Patch doubtfully. “Come on, you must be him. How’d you get that cloak then? That’s royal purple, a gift from the king. I was told you’d be wearing it.”
“Found it,” said Patch through gritted teeth.
“I never find
Simon said, with his lower lip thrust out.
The soldier looked behind Patch, toward the shore. “Looks to me like you came from the very spot where this Patch was last seen.” Patch turned and saw the incriminating tracks in the snow.
Simon put his hand to Patch’s ear and whispered, “Are you
you’re not Patch?”
Patch stared back at the soldier with red-rimmed eyes. “I’m not going back,” he said.
The soldier jumped nimbly off his horse and loomed over Patch. “Son, our orders were clear: ‘Track down the apprentice and bring him back.’ And I don’t mind saying that there’s a generous reward for the man who finds you. So you’re coming with me, even if I have to tie a rope around you and drag you through the snow.” He cracked his knuckles.
“What fun!” shouted Simon, leaping up. “Can you tow the both of us? You can use my rope!”
The soldier looked at Simon from the corner of his eye, and back at Patch. Patch shrugged. “Don’t ask,” he said.
The soldier led his horse and walked with Patch, down the lake toward Dartham. Simon skipped alongside them. He whistled and laughed and told the soldier how Patch had saved his life. “Yes, heard all about that,” the soldier said, looking at Patch and shaking his head.
Simon began to sing, loudly and badly, some nonsense song that Patch had never heard, nor wanted to hear again:
“Listen to the hound
’Cause he smells the fox’s blood
When he’s running through the mud
And he makes his happy sound
Bark, bark, bark bark bark,
Bark, bark, bark bark bark!”
As Simon’s song grew in volume and strayed further and further from any detectable melody, Patch noticed the soldier’s jaw working from side to side and a thick vein emerging on the side of his neck.
“Listen to the cat
As she prowls around the house
Till she catches master mouse
And she leaves him on the mat
Mew, mew, mew mew mew
Mew, mew, mew mew—”
Suddenly Simon snapped his mouth shut like a trap door. The soldier was holding a gloved fist an inch away from the fool’s long nose. Simon’s eyes crossed as he stared at it.
The soldier curled his lip high on one side. “Listen, friend. That’s an awful song. And nobody asked you to come along, anyway. So why don’t you just shut up and leave us alone?”
Simon threw his long arms straight up in the air. When the soldier backed away, he remained in that position, as if frozen.
The soldier and Patch walked on. The tiny flecks of snow blossomed into broad, complicated flakes, and a soft new carpet of white collected under their feet.
“Look, can’t you let me go? Why does the king want me back, anyway?” Patch said.
“The king? Who said anything about the king?”
stood in front of the gatehouse in the cold afternoon light. The outer portcullis was up, poised above them like fangs ready to strike, and the heavy doors stood open. “Found him, constable,” the soldier called up.
A man with a round red face and a mustache that drooped past his chin looked down from the parapet above the gatehouse. “Be right down.”
The constable appeared on the other side of the open gate, holding a small leather pouch and a bundle of brown material under his arm. He gave the pouch to the soldier, who shook it to hear the metallic jingle, grinned, and strode away with a happy bounce in his step.
The constable turned to Patch and unfolded the cloth. It was a hooded cape. “Put this on, young fellow. And draw the hood close around your face. Someone around here has pledged to kill you on sight.”
Patch followed the constable into the courtyard. He breathed easier when they turned right, away from the
Knights’ barracks and past the main entrance that led to the great hall. They walked around the frozen fishpond and circled a low stone building that sat next to the keep, with smoke puffing from a chimney in the tiled roof. Someone was waiting at the door. It was a small figure, also hooded, and as they drew close Patch saw the face of a girl. He turned to look at the constable, but the man was already ambling back across the courtyard to the gatehouse, looking casually to his left and right to see if he’d been watched.
“What … who …,” Patch blathered, but the girl shushed him and pulled him behind her into the building.
This was the kitchen of Dartham, as warm as a summer day and filled with smells that made Patch’s mouth water. A baker was thrusting bread into a wide-mouthed brick oven with an inferno deep inside, a cook tossed vegetables into a cauldron hanging over an open fire, and another woman was plucking the feathers off a fat headless goose. They stole a glance at Patch and the girl and quickly looked away, as if they’d been instructed not to notice any strange visitors who passed by. The girl led Patch briskly through the room. When they reached the door at the far end, she turned to give him a closer look, her eyes flickering from his face to his feet and back. Then she pushed the door open, and they were out in the cold air again, under a covered walkway that led to a door in the side of the keep. Now Patch could see why he’d been taken this way: It was the most concealed approach.