The king was now many days from Belvedere, climbing slowly toward the montane of the
Grassmere. The terrain was rugged and steep, rocky edifices filled with crags, caves and overhangs. The spring thaw in the high country sent torrents of water cascading down the otherwise meandering stream into the lowlands.
What a special place this is, Bewilder thought, allowing his heart to open a crack and let the heat of the morning sun warm its soft inner chamber.
Two days previous, Sir Michael had graciously provided Bewilder with food, water, fresh clothes and a deep, regenerative sleep, so the king felt sufficiently rested for the trek.
As the sun rose high in the sky, he decided that he would stop at the next pool and give Skye a well-deserved rest.
Horse and rider ascended a steep, rubble-filled section and emerged onto a wide, treed bluff, an oasis for a weary traveler with a view far down the canyon.
Bewilder picked out an encampment at the far end, nestled into a thick stand of aspens that grew heartily from an abundance of stream water. A fire sent smoke up into the leafy canopy and toward the cerulean sky.
Bewilder dismounted cautiously and slid his dagger from its sheath.
“Yo man,” a jolly rasp boomed from the woods, “have you come to unburden me of my vast fortune?”
Bemused, Bewilder sheathed his knife, grabbed his satchel and bladder and walked toward the encampment.
“I’d thought the same, stranger,” he called back. “Nay, I come in peace.”
“Then enter at your peril, friend, for I am armed with graceless humor and a lashing tongue.”
He perceived no danger in the stranger’s voice, trusting a long-honed intuition that rarely missed its mark.
He stepped between a pair of elderberry bushes and nearly tripped over an old, mangy dog that lay in his path.
“Don’t mind Agnes,” said the deeply tanned, emaciated man whose naked, ribbed back was hunched over, trying desperately to breathe life into a dying fire.
“Confounded thing,” he mumbled, turning toward Bewilder, his cobalt eyes twinkling mischievously.
The man stood and faced Bewilder. Bright white teeth emerged as a broad smile slid across his golden face.
“Diggory’s the name,” the man said, offering his hand. “At your service.”
Bewilder took in the scene. The man—ancient, brown, wrinkled, with a crop of pure white hair—was tall and lanky. His baggy britches looked to be made from a gunny sack and hung precariously across his boney hips. His hands were rough and strong, blackened from a life of work and tending the fire. He sported a long, white beard that came to a point at the center of his chest.
Bewilder took Diggory’s hand.
“Bewilder," he said, "they call me Bewilder.”
The man took Bewilder’s hand in his strong grip and looked deeply into his eyes.
“Tis a pleasure, kind sir,” Diggory said, bowing humbly, his smile gleaming in the noon sun. “Please, sit. My house is yours.”
Bewilder looked quizzically about him. This “house” to which the man referred was nothing more than a bedroll and a knapsack. A length of twine was strung across two saplings with drying clothes spread across it. A well-worn walking stick lay against an aspen tree. There was no sign of food or water. Agnes, a gold retriever, ancient as her master, with thick, matted fur and a bleached yellow snout, lay in a heap, panting furiously as a beam of sunlight bore down upon her.
“My thanks,” Bewilder returned, taking a seat beside the spiraling smoke as Diggory stooped and poked the embers with a stick.
“You’ve claimed some prime real estate here,” said Bewilder.
“Aye, rivals the finest royal quarter in the land,” Diggory snickered. “I call it home, yet I cast no claim upon it.”
Bewilder smiled, knowing that this was, in fact, his land, or at least had been in days past when he’d fashioned himself king of Belvedere. Now, he cared not about the material things to which he’d been so beholden. What, he wondered, was the point of a kingdom without peace or a castle without a queen to breathe love into it? In some strange sense, Bewilder suddenly felt free.
He marveled at this enigmatic figure, light of possessions yet inhabited with an indescribable life force. His countenance was magnificent, even otherworldly, his golden skin radiant. He seemed nearly untethered to this earth, held here by little more than the weight of his spirit, which might light into the heavens at any moment.
“And what brings you into the high country?” Diggory queried.
Bewilder paused, not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He’d always been reluctant to divulge his innermost thoughts and fears. This was his upbringing, to bottle up his private angst and show it to no one. There was great risk in sharing his true emotions, for armed with these intimacies, one might choose to abandon him, leaving him utterly alone in the wilds of his soul.
A breeze rustled the aspen leaves, leaving them shimmering in the sunlight. Diggory had evidently not expected an answer, for he sat contented, stroking Agnes’s timeworn coat.
Bewilder, broken and dispirited, felt he had nothing left to hide. He’d fought his demons and, exhausted, was ready to surrender. Diggory seemed to offer himself as a mirror for Bewilder to look upon his true self. This, he thought, is the moment I leave the darkness for the light.
“I am of single purpose, friend,” Bewilder said finally, “in search of she whose heart I have squandered. I do not know her whereabouts yet am drawn by an undeniable energy.”
Diggory sat in silence for a moment, tapping his stick against a rock that ringed the fire.
“My misdeeds are many,” Bewilder continued. “As I sit before you, my witness, I accept those parts of myself that have been weak of moral fiber, of questionable ethics, dishonest, abhorrent, selfish, and manipulative. I know that I have not been the man that I aspired to be upon my initiation into the Order of Belvedere. I know that I have betrayed the values that I was taught as a boy. As I face you today, Diggory, I beg the heavens for forgiveness for every act of cowardice, every moment of malice, every unclean thought. With nothing left but these clothes on my back, I humbly pray for the chance to redeem myself before my God and those I love and have lost.”
A tear appeared at the corner of Bewilder’s eye. He wept softly. The wind through the leaves brought little solace to his fractured spirit. Diggory, a wise old soul, seemed to envelop Bewilder in an energy of pure love, gently holding his heart as the broken king allowed the waves of emotion to crash over him.
“Follow your heart, friend,” Diggory whispered from across the fire. “Trust your intuition.”
Many moments passed as the two men, bonded by their humanity, sat together nurtured by the natural world around them. As the import of all that had existed before shook Bewilder to his core, a magic descended upon him. It was inexplicable. He slowly lifted his head, beholding the unparalleled beauty that, previously hidden from view, unfolded like a blossoming garden around him. His eyes opened to a world that he’d left behind as a boy, the simple wonders for so long dismissed or ignored. Through the dark tunnel of shame and self-hatred he came, emerging into a light so radiant, so magnificent that it burned off the chill and immediately warmed his heart. He stood, splayed open, at the alter of understanding, having dropped the false shroud that had he’d worn these many decades. As his tired bones stood before God, Bewilder could feel the forgiveness pour over him. This God that he had questioned so often was here unconditionally loving him as he had not been able to love himself. Through a lifetime in nature, this singular moment in commune with the creator eclipsed all others.
Bewilder was without words as his mind returned to his spent, shaking body. He raised his head and looked about him. He was utterly alone save for Skye grazing beside the rushing stream. Diggory, his dog, the clothes drying upon the line, the fire, the bedroll, the walking stick, all had vanished. There was no trace, no indication that they had been there.
The king stood up, feeling strangely different, as if a bolt of lightning had struck his soul. What had just happened? As he turned and took in the spectacular landscape around him, he knew that nothing would ever be the same.