The Squire in the Steppe
“We’ll stop here for the night!”
The proclamation interrupts the quiet evening, startling the king from his peaceful slumber. He burrows himself down into the comforts of his caravan, praying for sleep to overtake him once again, but the door opens, sending a stiff breeze throughout the cabin.
“Merek, close the door. It’s freezing outside!” King Henry’s voice seethes with contempt.
“Beg pardon, sir, but we’re stopping for the evening.” Merek’s voice trembles. “We’ve come upon a small treeline where we can camp. It will block most of the wind from us.”
The king’s stare hardens. “And this news required my awakening because?”
Merek stumbles through his words. “Um, if you need to leave the cabin to, um, relieve yourself, you must do so now. Most of the camp will be asleep in mere moments.”
King Henry narrows his eyes, wanting nothing more than to clarify he can awaken the camp whenever he damn well pleases when the sudden urge to go takes over.
“I suppose you’re right, Merek.” He pulls his large coat tight around him, hauling his bulk out the door and into the cold night. Merek watches as he lumbers over to the treeline, disappearing into the dark.
Merek’s head jerks to his right at the noise, but sees nothing.
“Psst! Up here!” The squire glances up, finding a snow-white owl sitting atop the king’s carriage. His eyes widen at the sight.
“Do you wish to be rich?” the owl asks.
“You speak?” Merek asks, dumbfounded at the sight.
“That is not the answer I seek. Do you wish to be rich?” it asks again.
“Of course. What of it?” Merek glances around. This must be some trick.
“Well,” the owl goes on. “Then you must do one thing for me, and all the riches of the world will be yours.” The owl stretches its wings.
“Oh? And pray tell, what is this one thing?” Merek asks.
“Why, kill the king, of course.” The owl relaxes, tucking its wings back in.
The squire barely holds in his laughter. “Ahh, bugger off already.” He turns back around, putting the owl at his back. Whether it was a joke or a test, Merek didn’t care. He wanted no part.
“Not even for all the riches you could ever imagine?” the owl asks.
“I said bugger off!” the young squire yells, praying no one overheard the conversation.
“Interesting,” the owl whispers, disappearing over Merek’s head and into the treeline.
After a few moments, Merek takes off toward the woods in search of his king, wondering if his sudden absence has anything to do with that bloody owl.
“King Henry, my liege, are you here?” Merek whispers into the trees. As he comes out the other side, the snap of a twig sounds behind him. The blow comes fast, smashing into the back of his skull as he falls to the ground with a grunt. Lifting his head, he’s shocked to see his king standing over him, a bloodied limb hanging from his hand.
“Sorry, boy,” King Henry says. “But it said I could have all the riches in the world.” He raises the frozen limb over his head, ready to inflict the fatal blow when a blur of white flies out of the dark, crashing into the king’s face.
Merek covers his head with his hands, waiting for death. After a few moments, the air around him quiets. Finding his courage, Merek opens his eyes.
“You said no.”
A woman stands over the king’s body. She walks over to Merek, reaching out her hand. “No one has ever turned me down.” Merek accepts, pulling himself off the ground.
“Who are you?” he asks.
The woman smiles. “They call me Lady Ryia. I was cursed here over a century ago, forced to bring murder on any who passed through the treeline. You released me. It’s because of your honor that I’m free.”
Merek can only shake his head. “Lady Ryia, my king is dead. They’ll believe it was me.”
Ryia brings her hand up, caressing Merek’s face. “I am protected,” she says. Snapping her fingers, two horses appear beside them. She swings herself up, motioning for Merek to do the same. A shout sounds behind him. The king’s absence has been noted. He doesn’t hesitate. Pulling himself up on his steed, Merek and Lady Ryia disappear into the night.
© Arden Ruth