It was dark when Bewilder turned off the main road and entered the hamlet of East Waterford. He’d been a fortnight traveling and this was the first of humanity he’d seen since his encounter with Diggory many weeks earlier. He recalled having stayed there as a young man on his travels through the kingdom, greeting the people and listening to their travails and sharing heartfelt stories of family and community. These were simple, good people, salt of the earth, hardworking and honest, in service to one another and the kingdom, seeking nothing more than a peaceful existence. So unlike many that had surrounded him in the stately halls of Belvedere.
He spotted a well-lit hostelry through the darkness ahead, the sounds of boisterous revelers piercing the quiet night. His heart swelled at the thought of making contact once again with common men. Men who saw him, not as a king but as a person like themselves, as filled with private fears, longings and losses as those they struggled with.
As Skye lumbered slowly toward the light, Bewilder finally picked out the name on the signpost: The Hawk 'n Dove. He pulled to a stop and dismounted, leaving the percheron at a dark corner of the pub as he moved, a stranger in the night, back into the messiness of humanity.
The pub shared walls with a boarding house where weary travelers slumbered, the revelry undoubtedly offering a challenge to the light sleepers. Outside stood two men, full of mead, trading opinions about the ownership of an ox that had evidently broken loose and come into the possession of one of them. Bewilder slid past as the shoving started, pushing through the heavy oak door into the pub.
“Welcome stranger!” came a jolly voice from behind the bar as he entered. “What whets your palate this evening, good sir?”
Penniless, Bewilder faltered. The look on his face betrayed his lack of funds.
“Rest easy,” the bartender said knowingly. “This one’s on me.”
He slid an immense pewter mug of grog across the bar toward Bewilder who took it gratefully.
“Where do ya hail from, might I ask?” the bartender continued, scrutinizing Bewilder’s raked body and ragged tunic. “No offense, but you look worse for wear, good fellow. Do you come from battle?”
Bewilder looked into the man’s eyes for a long moment. “In a manner of speaking, friend, yes.”
The bartender considered him reverently, sensing that Bewilder spoke truth.
“And where would that have been?” the bartender pressed. “For I know of no fighting since the good King and his Order of Belvedere set out for the north so long ago.”
“The very one,” Bewilder returned, taking a long drink of the brew and letting the deliciousness sit on his tongue, a taste nearly forgotten.
The bartender, a burly, bald man of perhaps thirty with full beard and tree limb arms, took a rag across the heavy polished oak bar.
“Legend has it that the Order sustained catastrophic losses in the battle against Darkbrow, that only a handful of souls returned.”
“There is truth to that, sir. Only thirty returned.”
The bartender stopped and took a deep breath.
“My brother, his name is Roderick. He was one o’ them who joined the Order. He’s yet to turn up,” the bartender said, a pall of sadness washing across his face. “Can you speak of his fate?”
Bewilder looked deeply into the man’s eyes, feeling the desperate hope penetrate his soul.
“I knew Roderick well, sir. He was a good man, a brave fighter.” Bewilder spoke with the compassion that could only come with the experience of knowing loss and heartbreak.
The bartender’s countenance sank with Bewilder’s words.
“Can you say how he died, brother? It would help to know so I can put his memory properly to rest and inform the grieving wife and children that he leaves behind.”
“I understand, friend,” Bewilder returned, remembering the moment all too well.
“We’d sustained heavy losses in the days before the final fight. Roderick was among those who had been wounded but could and would still press on. We’d retreated to the cover of trees the night before, the men dressing their wounds and helping those beyond help to rest in their final hours. As I walked amongst the contingent, I saw Roderick holding a man in his arms by the light of a small fire, gently stroking his hair and assuring him that the angels of mercy would soon come and deliver him from this evil to the righteous hand of God.”
Bewilder paused, allowing space for the bartender’s grief to be held in reverence.
“As dawn broke the next morning, we reconnoitered in the heavy mist at the edge of the forest, watching the flickering firelight from Darkbrow’s encampment across the plain, nearly within shouting distance. Of our ranks, at least half had not survived the night, their bodies having been moved in reverence deeper into the forest. The remainder, perhaps fifty, took time in contemplation, knowing full well that there was every possibility that they might not survive the day.
As the mist lifted, and knowing that it would be only moments before the charge order was given, we gathered together, each on one knee, in prayer to the Lord our father to give us the strength to vanquish this evil from the earth, never to inflict pain and suffering upon the good people of the Kingdom of Belvedere again.”
There was little talk among the men that morning. What could be said that hadn’t already? What love could be shared than that which came with the sacrifice of one’s own life for one’s brothers and the greater good? There we stood, brothers in arms, fear mingled with stoic pride, ready to put the values we held dear to the ultimate test.”
I remember Roderick in that moment. He was not of the tallest stature, yet his silhouette stood against a pink sky, that of a great, noble warrior. As the charge was called, Roderick thrust his sword skyward and took off in a sprint across the plain, leading with a courage that cannot be adequately expressed here. He and I ran together for a long distance, the other men closing ranks around and behind us. I remember Roderick’s long hair flowing out from his helmet, dancing like fire in the dawn light. And then we were in the battle. I lost sight of him in the melee. It was glove to glove fighting then and each man was fully engaged so unless someone was close, we had no idea how they fared.”
As the battle raged, I took an outer flank, determined to get to Darkbrow who hid like a coward behind his men. As I moved toward the rear of the enemy line, I saw Roderick out of the corner of my eye engaging with two of Darkbrow’s men, slashing fiercely with his broad sword, taking down one and then the other. As he pressed forward at my left flank, a distant archer leveled his bow at Roderick and…"
Bewilder stopped, visibly disturbed.
"...and took him down, the arrow piercing his breastplate just below his heart. He stumbled briefly as if only stunned, though most certainly mortally wounded, then got to his feet and continued running just ahead of me at my left flank, his sword held high, defying the reaper that came for him, leveling four men while making way for me to get to Darkbrow. It was there, amongst the sage and flowing grasses of that field that Roderick, an immortal hero, took his last breath. He'd given me unfettered access to my greatest nemesis.”
A tear appeared in the corner of the bartender’s eye as he took Bewilder’s words in. Gently, it dropped onto his cheek and flowed to his jaw line where it dropped and mingled with the sweat, spit and beer that for time immemorial had stained the bar top, conjoined with the salty tears of past rugged and proud men.
Bewilder put a weatherworn hand upon the bartender’s thick arm and squeezed.
“Your brother did not die in vain, friend,” he said quietly. “He died a hero among heroes, protecting all that we hold dear so that we may continue to live in peace, that other children may be spared wounds like those my own daughter suffered.”
The bartender looked up from his anguish and into Bewilder’s eyes.
“Thank you, brother, for freeing my heart from the mystery of Roderick’s fate that I may embrace my despair.”
“'Tis my honor, sir,” Bewilder said.
After a long pause, the bartender wiped his eyes and looked at Bewilder.
“You…you said that you and my brother led the charge against Darkbrow. How…how was it that you…you led the charge, sir?”
Bewilder sat in silence, gazing warmly into the bartender’s eyes as the man’s confusion dissolved into understanding.
“You…you…are… the great Bewilder!” he said softly. “My liege! They call me Gavin.”
Bewilder could have explained that he was no longer this, or any man’s king, but simply a man. Yet, deep in his blossoming heart he knew there was no need to say more, for this man already understood.