AN UNLIKELY KNIGHT
The day that was to ruin Roderick’s life actually began quite well. The sun was shining, the air was crisp and Roderick was happily gardening, carefully planting a row of seedlings along a trench he had just dug, completely unaware that a rabbit stew his sister had eaten the previous evening had already set in motion a series of events that would ruin everything.
‘Roderick!’ It was his mother, Gwenda, shouting up the hill from the back door of their cottage. ‘Sonya’s sick. She just vomited on my shoe. You’ll have to come to the city with me.’
Roderick’s heart sank. He hated Palandan and found its busy sights, smells and sounds overwhelming. The market was always packed full of hundreds of stalls and there were people everywhere, all shouting about how wonderful their carrots, or their chickens, or their massages, or their tiny carvings of fruit were.
He quickly cut some lavoria leaves and a sprig of dristlegum, took them down to his workshop, added some cardinia tree bark and mixed it all into a stomach-calming potion for his sister. Then he helped his mother load the cart, and reluctantly climbed up beside her and sat sulking as Archie pulled them down the narrow, bumpy dirt track. They clopped past farmland where cows, goats and sheep grazed and crops grew and then through several villages, all just a few minutes’ ride from each other, unless you happened to be riding a tortoise in which case they’d be a few hours’ ride from each other. Soon they approached the river, past which stood the city’s great wooden walls. There they joined a line of people, carts and horses, all heading towards the stone bridge and up the hill to the city gates.
The cart slowed to a crawl as the traffic squeezed from the road onto the narrower bridge. Roderick’s mother took off her hat and wiped her brow, then turned to him. ‘I know you don’t like the selling, but look, listen and learn today. Sonya is getting the hang of it.’
Roderick sighed. ‘I just don’t think I’m . . .’
Gwenda held up her hand. ‘Enough! If you think like that, you’ve lost before you start. You’re fourteen. You’re old enough. You just need energy and enthusiasm. The potions you make help people. They deserve to be sold.’
Gwenda thrived at the market. She was all bustle and friendliness, and Roderick marvelled at how she effortlessly persuaded customers to buy. A few minutes of his mother’s friendly chatter and suddenly someone who had been casually wandering past would be pulling out their money bag to buy a potion to keep colds away, an ointment to remove spots or a bag of sweet-smelling herbs to freshen their underwear drawer.
‘Make way for the Queen! Make way for the Queen!’ a deep voice thundered. Approaching the bridge from the city gates were six knights on huge horses riding two abreast, dressed in chain mail underneath sleeveless sky-blue tunics. In the middle of them, Roderick caught glimpses of the Queen, also wearing chain mail but underneath a red tunic covered in silver stars. Her long wave of golden hair shone behind her.
Although Queen Emily had ruled Baronia since Roderick was a baby, he had seen her only a few times, on various ceremonial days when he and thousands of others had crammed into the city square to try to catch a glimpse of her high above on the castle balcony. Now she was about to pass right by him!
As the Queen’s party trotted onto the already crowded bridge, carts pulled over and stopped. The Queen smiled warmly, reaching out to press outstretched hands. The only way Queen Emily could have been any more popular with her people was if she had been coated in chocolate. When she had fallen ill the previous year, the entire kingdom had held its breath, and her recovery had been greeted with great relief, much joy and the consumption of many cakes. As she got closer, Roderick could see her long straight nose, full lips and strong jawline. And her eyes! Blue and bright and so alive! She looked in Roderick’s direction, and then directly at him. Roderick felt the blood rush to his face. The Queen’s eyes gleamed.
Then suddenly they filled with terror.
The Queen screamed, grabbed at the back of her neck and collapsed off her horse onto the stone bridge, just a few steps in front of Roderick. She screamed again and again, each one louder and more pain-filled than the last. They were the sort of screams you make when a stone falls on your toe, and then immediately another stone falls on the same toe.
The screams were contagious. Everyone on the bridge joined in. The knights pulled up their horses. Some dismounted and rushed to her while others looked wildly around to try and see what had happened. One lifted the Queen’s head, allowing Roderick to glimpse a dart, no longer than his finger, poking from the back of her neck, just above her chain mail. Past her, directly in Roderick’s line of sight down by the riverbank, he saw a cloaked and hooded figure holding something. The figure turned and dashed away into the trees.
‘Over there!’ Roderick shouted, pointing, but no one seemed to hear him over the commotion. One knight held the Queen steady while another slowly eased out the dart. A third leapt onto his horse and tried to force his way back the way they had come.
The Queen started to convulse, feet and arms thrashing. She looked as if she was straining to say something, but no sound came, and her eyes bulged as if trying to leap out of her head.
The knights tending her backed away. Like most, they feared powerful magic like this. Roderick hoped someone would do something, but no one did. The Queen’s fit continued, becoming more violent. Her arms jerked up and down, smashing her bare knuckles into the stone.
‘Do you know what poison this is, Roderick?’ his mother asked urgently.
Roderick tried to think. Intense pain. Thrashing about. Screams then silence. All within seconds of the dart. It had to be larabeen juice.
‘I think so,’ he replied.
‘Will it kill her?’ asked Gwenda.
‘If it’s what I think it is, yes. And soon.’
His mother grabbed his shoulders. ‘Can you make something to save her Roderick? Can you save the Queen?’
Roderick swallowed. ‘Maybe.’
Gwenda leapt down from the cart, pulling him after her. ‘Come on, boy, get what you need!’
Roderick ran to the back of the cart and rummaged through his bags of herbs until he had handfuls of rubblestein, zinnyweed and ecolia. He grabbed his crushing handle, mixing bowl and a jug of water then dashed to the front of the cart where his mother was waiting. They moved towards the Queen, but before they had gone two paces, three knights turned on them and drew their swords.
‘Hold!’ said the middle one, a tall, dark-bearded warrior with a scar that ran across his long nose. ‘Did you do this, boy?’ he roared.
Roderick jumped back in fright. His mother stepped in front of him. ‘Of course he didn’t, you horseshoe. He’d be running away if he had.’
‘Stay away from the Queen. Both of you,’ snarled the scar-nosed knight.
‘He can save her,’ said Gwenda. ‘She’s been poisoned!’
‘How can a boy save her?’ demanded Scar Nose suspiciously.
‘We are herbalists,’ said Gwenda. ‘He knows everything about herbs. Tell them, Roderick.’
The three knights stared at Roderick. So did everyone else on the bridge. Roderick swallowed. ‘The dart must have had poison on it,’ he muttered.
‘Speak up, boy,’ said Sir Scar Nose. ‘Have you no voice?’ ‘Yeah. We can’t hear a word back here,’ said a scruffy-looking man from a cart along the bridge.
Roderick tried again. ‘It is poison causing her fit. I think it’s larabeen juice.’
The Queen was still thrashing crazily, and now her mouth was foaming. Two knights were tentatively trying to restrain her arms and legs but they seemed reluctant to grab her too roughly.
‘It . . . it has to be,’ continued Roderick. ‘Nothing else could cause this type of fit so quickly. If I’m right, in a few moments her movements will slow. When that happens she will be near death. Once she stops completely . . . she will die.’
‘How long?’ whispered Sir Scar Nose, glancing back anxiously towards the city. ‘Sir Dale has gone for the doctor.’
‘Larabeen juice works fast,’ said Roderick. ‘Once her movements start to slow, the end will be only minutes away. All that can save her is a mixture of these three herbs. They will fight the poison. There!’ He pointed to the Queen. Fifty heads turned with his hand. Whereas moments ago she had been a whirl of agitated motion, now she looked as if she was trying to push an invisible blanket off herself in slow motion.
Roderick looked at Scar Nose. ‘If I don’t make the potion now it will be too late.’
The knight seemed unsure. ‘You’re just a boy.’
‘Why would he lie?’ demanded Gwenda angrily. ‘Ask yourself that.’
‘The Queen’s doctor will soon be here,’ said Scar Nose, looking up the hill towards the city.
‘And if he is too late?’ asked Gwenda. ‘Everyone here has seen and heard my son. If it turns out you refused the Queen treatment that could have saved her life . . . what then?’
Scar Nose hesitated. He looked at the Queen, and then turned back to Roderick. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Quick, boy, make your potion.’
Roderick knelt on the ground with his ingredients. Into his mixing bowl he put a stem of purple rubblestein, a few tufts of yellow zinnyweed and a pinch of the red, grasslike ecolia. With the crushing handle he ground them into tiny particles, slowly adding trickles of water. He glanced at the Queen. Her movements were even more lethargic.
When the herbs had dissolved, he picked up the bowl. ‘It’s ready.’
Scar Nose cast his eyes again towards the city gates. A horse galloped furiously towards them. On it sat a knight with another man behind him. ‘The doctor,’ said Scar Nose.
Gwenda pointed at the Queen. ‘Look at her. She’s hardly moving. If you wait for the doctor, it may be too late. My son has the only thing that will save her. What if the doctor doesn’t know about these herbs? We’ll argue with him about what to do, and while that’s happening, the
Queen will die. For goodness’ sake, man, save the Queen’s life and make yourself a hero!’
Scar Nose stared at the approaching horse, still a few minutes away, then looked back to Gwenda, and finally to Roderick. He nodded. ‘Do it.’
Roderick knelt beside the Queen and the knights tending her. One of them had made a pillow for her out of his cloak. Both eyed him suspiciously, but after a glance at Scar Nose, moved back. The Queen was doing slow motion backstroke. She didn’t resist when Roderick put a hand behind her neck, lifted her head and brought the bowl to her lips.
‘Hold her neck. I need two hands,’ Roderick said to one of the knights.
With his left hand Roderick prised the Queen’s mouth open, and with his other he poured the liquid in. He pushed her jaws together and held them closed. The Queen twisted and turned, trying to open her mouth. Everyone in the crowd stared. No one had ever heard of a Queen being force-fed.
Roderick saw her neck muscles working, and relaxed his grip to allow her mouth to open a little. Seeing the liquid was gone, he let her jaws go completely, and laid her head gently back on the cloak.
Nothing happened. No one moved. Everyone stared at the Queen. Even the horses.
‘Get some water,’ Roderick said over his shoulder.
‘She’ll need it.’ His heart pounded. He wanted the Queen to recover because he wanted the Queen to recover, but he also wanted her to recover because if she didn’t, he would be in big, big trouble.
Still nothing happened. Often when nothing is happening it’s boring, but no one was bored now.
Scar Nose crouched over the Queen, watching anxiously. Word must have reached the town as a snake of people was racing down the hill. The horse carrying the doctor had worked its way through the crowd. The doctor, wearing a top hat and a long waxed moustache, leapt down to the Queen.
As he did, she opened her eyes.
‘She lives,’ whispered Scar Nose.
‘Don’t move her,’ snapped the doctor.
‘Actually,’ said the Queen, softly but clearly. ‘I would like to move. Please, help me sit up.’
The crowd gasped. Scar Nose helped her sit upright and offered her a flask. ‘Water, Your Majesty?’
She waved it away, rubbed her eyes and then looked about, blinking. ‘What happened?’
Scar Nose explained.
‘Goodness,’ said the Queen when he had finished. ‘The assassin?’
‘Not yet found, Majesty. We are searching both sides of the river.’
The Queen shook her head, as if trying to clear it, and then said to Scar Nose, ‘Help me up, Drayshus.’
‘Are you sure you feel well enough, Majesty? Will you drink first?’ he asked.
‘No, I feel fine,’ replied the Queen. Drayshus helped her to her feet. She managed a smile, and then looked intently at Roderick. ‘And what shall we do with you? Saving the Queen’s life deserves a reward.’
Roderick felt a warm glow inside. He had done it! He wondered what his reward would be. Silver? Gold? Perhaps it would be enough so he could expand the herb garden, and put in irrigation channels from the river.
Then came the words that ruined everything.
‘You have done me a great service. In return, I will try to repay you. No longer need you be a peasant. From this day, to thank you for your clear thinking and skilful action in saving my life, I have decided to give you a great opportunity. You will become . . .’ she paused for effect, aware that the hundreds who had crowded towards the bridge were straining to hear every word, ‘. . . a knight!’
The crowd cheered.
Roderick stood in complete shock, eyes and mouth wide open.
Shock can be good or bad. If your Uncle Wilbur turned up on your doorstep one morning and handed you a huge jar of lollies and a new puppy, you would be shocked in a good way, especially if you didn’t even know you had an Uncle Wilbur. However, if you woke up one morning to find that your right arm had vanished, you would be shocked in a bad way. The confusing thing is that both types of shock look the same. So when Roderick looked shocked, everyone assumed it was good shock. Why wouldn’t it be? Knights ranked just below the Queen in importance. They were rich and powerful, and had great lives whizzing around having adventures, rescuing princesses and going to banquets. And not only did they get excellent food, comfy lodgings and a free horse, there hadn’t actually been any wars for ages, so being a knight wasn’t even that dangerous anymore. In fact, the most common cause of death for knights recently had been from heart attacks caused by all the steak and cheesecake they ate.
Knights had it so good that if any Baronian peasant had had the good fortune to be suddenly made into one by the Queen, they would have thought they were the luckiest person in the world.
Any Baronian peasant, that is, except the one that it had actually happened to.
Roderick wasn’t thinking about how lucky he was. He was thinking this: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH HHHH!!!!!!!!!!!! NO! NO! NO! I CAN’T BE A KNIGHT! I DON’T WANT TO FIGHT! I CAN’T FIGHT! I’LL GET HURT! I’LL GET KILLED! WAIT. KILLED?! AAAAAAHHHH!!! AND EVEN IF I DON’T GET KILLED I’LL HAVE TO GO AND LIVE IN THE CASTLE AND I HATE CASTLES AND I
LIKE LIVING AT HOME AND WHAT ABOUT MY HERB GARDEN AND WHAT WILL MUM AND SONYA DO WITHOUT ME THERE TO GROW THE HERBS? I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE THEM! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!
As the cheers died down, the Queen smiled again at Roderick. ‘When you woke up this morning, Roderick, did you imagine that before lunchtime you would have saved the Queen’s life and become a knight?’ There were more cheers.
What Roderick wanted to do was to thank the Queen for her generous offer and politely decline, but that was impossible because the Queen’s offer was not actually an offer. Queens don’t make offers. They make pronouncements. The politest invitation from a Queen was as impossible to refuse as a direct command. Any sign that he was unhappy would have been unthinkably disrespectful and quite possibly treasonous. Roderick may have saved her life, but the Queen was still the Queen.
As Roderick stood in silence, the Queen continued, her voice loud enough to be heard by everyone on the bridge. ‘My people, to celebrate the fact that I have survived, there will be a great feast for all in the town square tonight.’
Everyone went berserk. The Queen knew how to please a crowd. She also knew that once you had them cheering, it was time to go. She remounted, gathered her knights (except for one who stayed behind to tell Roderick when to turn up at the castle, what to bring, and ask if he had any special dietary requirements), then gave one more grand wave and rode off into the distance, leaving Roderick with a new life that he did not want.
It was only just after breakfast, but it was already the second-worst day of his life.
Excerpted from The Adventures of Sir Roderick, The Not-Very Brave by James O’Loghlin. Copyright © 2014 by James O’Loghlin.
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