Hold Fast the Knight
Eager to follow in his father's footsteps, Edgar sets off to join the King's Guard and work his way up to knight. Instead, he's offered an alternate route to his goal: rescue the kingdom's only prince, kidnapped by a witch five years ago.
But when Edgar arrives at the witch's secluded forest home, what he finds isn't at all what he expected...
"The King's Guard?" The bartender raised an eyebrow, though her hands never paused in their quick, efficient movements, drying each glass Edgar handed to her and setting it aside into a neat stack. "That's a bit ambitious, isn't it?"
"Is it?" Edgar frowned down at the sudsy water. When he leaned forward, it came up to his elbows, and it was hot enough to sting. "My father told me that was the best place to start, if I wanted to become a knight."
Actually, what he'd said was, "It's all a waste, but if you're going to do it, you might as well waste as little time as possible. If you want them to notice you, you go to the King's Guard. They'll pick the best and then do the worst to break you, and if you come out the other side, then you'll be a knight."
Edgar usually edited that part out when talking to other people.
The bartender, Eloise-call-me-El, snorted. "That's what you're here for?"
"Here" was Alusa, the Royal Seat of Power and capital of Farthys. The most beautiful city in the world, it called itself, and Edgar, who had been born in the countryside and was thus unused to cities, was willing to take the advertisements at their word. It had certainly looked impressive as he'd come up on the Salt Road, which had been white and shining under the afternoon sun. He'd imagined it to be a little bigger from his father's stories, but he'd still managed to get lost within half an hour, which was how he'd wound up at El's bar.
"I don't do charity," she'd told him. "But I'll give you beer and bread if you help me with the dishes."
"My father was a knight," Edgar said. He paused, half-distracted by a stubborn fragment of sauce on a plate, picking at it with his thumbnail. It was easier than looking at El's face. "He's retired now, but I grew up on his stories."
El groaned. She took the plate when Edgar finally handed it over, but the look she gave him over it was flat-eyed, pitying. The parish priest, Honored Lise, had looked at Edgar in much the same way before he'd left home. "You're one of those?"
"I don't know what you mean by that."
"One of those," she said again, and she gestured with the hand holding the towel. It flopped limply in her grasp. "Listen, kids like you come here every year. And I can't blame 'em; they make it sound like it's some big wonderful thing, you know―join the King's Guard! Prove your worth! Work your way up the ranks, and the very best of you will be knighted by King Xavier himself." She set the next cup down a little too hard, so that all the others rattled with the force of her movement. "Blah, blah, blah."
Edgar tried not to wince. "But?"
"But good luck with that." She leaned her elbow on the countertop and her weight on that, still frowning at him. In spite of himself, Edgar stood up a little straighter under the weight of her gaze. At twenty-one, he'd outgrown most, but not all, of his gawkishness; he had muscle from farmwork and height to accommodate it, but he was still not completely settled in his skin. El swept her gaze over him a few more times, then went on: "They haven't done anything like that honestly in years. It's all about whose daddy paid extra under the table, or who lifted their skirts enough to get the attention of the committee." She held out her hand, and Edgar automatically deposited a new wet glass into it. "You'd have better luck going after Prince Arthur."
"Prince Arthur?" Edgar perked up a little in spite of himself. The crown prince was only a year older than Edgar himself: Edgar's father had been in service at the time of Prince Arthur's birth, and the symmetry appealed to Edgar: just like his father had once served King Xavier, Edgar could serve King Arthur―in spite of El's obvious disapproval, he still couldn't help but like that idea. It would be even better, he knew, if he could convince the prince to sponsor him directly, whether into the King's Guard or higher. "Where would I find him?"
El stopped again. She frowned. "You don't know?"
Edgar blinked back at her. "Don't know what?"
She rolled her eyes as she looked up, her arms half-open. It was the same posture as the statue of St. Marguerite in Edgar's home parish: Lord guide me through my troubles. He thought that was a little rude, but made himself wait for El to gather herself and speak.
"You really don't know?" she said. "Really?"
Edgar did not fidget, though he considered it. His ears felt a bit warm, but he didn't want to fold under the weight of El's stare.
"I grew up in Methis," he said, and that seemed to be enough, because the light of understanding brightened El's face. Compared to Alusa, Methis was larger, but it was also mostly farmland, three day's ride away from the capital. News came to Methis slowly if―apparently―it came at all. El clucked her tongue and leaned forward, lowering her voice to the tone of a shared secret.
"Prince Arthur was kidnapped years ago," she said. "Like about five or so. A witch fell in love with him on his birthday and spirited him off to the Silver Forest. She keeps him in her castle there, and no one's been able to find them."
"Kidnapped?!" Edgar's voice rose at that, though he quailed at the look El gave him. "That's terrible! Why hasn't anyone done anything about it?"
"Well," said El, with another shrug, "you know. They have, just..." She shrugged. "Kind of hard to find a witch in her own territory. And they say that King Xavier wants Arthur to be able to rescue himself. Something about being able to prove himself a competent leader if he can take charge of a bad situation and save himself. I don't know."