The great keep of Arrens, with the citadel rising in its center, dominated their view as they walked through the gates. They walked single file—Joe, Sim, and Lady—beneath the great gray stones of the archway and on into the grassy courtyard beyond. The guards didn’t even see them come in; every eye was watching some kind of commotion at the far end of the courtyard. The children stopped, unsure what to do: a great crowd was gathered there, surging up against the inner gates of the keep, shouting and waving banners. And all along the edge of the crowd were soldiers, using the long sides of their spears to push and harass the commoners gathered there.
“Is that where Uncle and Auntie were going?” asked Sim, wide-eyed with concern.
Joe didn’t even know what to say. They just kept watching as, little by little, the soldiers corralled the shouting crowd away from the inner gates and out of the courtyard by a small, iron-wrought door. Soon there was no one left. Joe thought he had caught a glimpse of his uncle’s head in the middle of the crowd, but he couldn’t be sure.
He grabbed the arm of a young servant who was jogging past, and pointed to where the crowd had vanished.
“Excuse me, friend, can you tell me where the soldiers just took all those people?”
The servant nodded. “Yes, lad. Those folks were protesting against the Steward. He ordered to have them all locked away into the prison-house.”
“What?” Lady whispered hoarsely, her eyes suddenly bright with tears. “They sent them off to jail? Just for that?”
The servant nodded again, then turned to go back to his errand. Sim put an arm around Lady to console her, but he was frightened too.
“Who’s going to take care of us now?” he asked softly. “What should we do?”
Joe fought to clear his mind of what he had just seen, to try to figure out the next step.
“We have to keep going,” he said. “All of this is just one big mistake. Prince Hal is alive, and once we get that message to the leaders, then the Steward won’t be able to take over after all. Uncle and Auntie will be released. We just have to do what we came here to do.”
He led them across the courtyard, up to the locked inner gates where the crowd had been protesting just a few moments before. He rattled the bars and called out for a guard to open the doors. The face of a middle-aged soldier appeared in the window-gap.
“Go away, kids,” he growled. “This isn’t a safe place today.”
“But we have a message that the First Consul needs to hear.”
“I’m sure you do, son. Why don’t you go home and write him a letter? He’s a very busy man, and he can’t entertain visitors right now.”
Joe wasn’t intending to give away too much of their shocking news to the guard, but Sim had no similar restraints.
“But Prince Hal is alive! My brother saw him leaving the city last night; he talked to him! The Consul needs to know!”
The guard raised a skeptical eyebrow, but it was clear from the look in his eyes that they had seized his attention.
“All right, then.” The metal pins of the lock clicked as he turned the key, then he swung the door open. “Come on in. Just sit right there, yes, over on that bench next to the wall. I’ll have to go talk to a few people. Don’t move; just stay there. I’ll be back soon to tell you if someone can speak with you.”
They obediently went over to a low bench in the shadow of the great wall, and there they sat down. Sharing their bench, on the far end, was an old knight. His armor was dull and rusty in places, and there were wrinkles around his eyes and a field of salt-and-pepper stubble across his jaw. He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, so the children didn’t bother him.
They sat there for what felt like a very long time, but Joe told himself that it was probably only a few minutes. Their minds raced with the images they had seen out in the courtyard, of the crowd being shoved down through the prison door. What would they do for food now, if their uncle and aunt were locked in jail? The chickens would only last them so long, and no one but Uncle had a job that brought in any money.
Joe was jolted out of these thoughts by the sight of two men walking stiffly across the yard toward them. Each one had a majestic, dignified bearing. One was dressed in rich robes of flowing green cloth, and the other in a dark cloak fringed in gold. These were not guards or soldiers or servants; they were clearly dignitaries.
“Are you the children who spoke to the guard?” asked the dark-cloaked man in a stern voice.
“Yes,” Joe said quietly.
The man regarded him with a look of arch suspicion, then squared back his shoulders and cleared his throat.
“I am Presten, the reigning Steward of Arrens, and this is First Consul Dama. I heard that you thought you saw Prince Halbrinnon leaving the city last night. Rest assured, children, that it could not have been him. It’s important that you understand that, because if you were to go about spreading the story of what you thought you saw, it might cause a great deal of unnecessary trouble in the city. You wouldn’t want people getting hurt because of a mistake you had made, would you?”
“No,” Joe answered meekly. “But I’m pretty sure—”
“Stop,” the Steward said firmly. “Stop it right now. I know for a fact that you didn’t see him. Why? Because I saw him with my own eyes just a few hours ago—dead, lying in his bed exactly where he had lain down last night. So you’re wrong, children. Do you understand?”
All three nodded, though none of them believed him. There was an edge of angry desperation in his voice, the sort of dark bluster that children are keen at picking up on, and it made them mistrust him instantly. But there was power and danger in his voice, and they dared not contradict him.
“You will not repeat this story to anyone else, now,” the Steward continued, “or I will have to send some of my guards after you. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes,” said Joe again.
“Good.” The Steward turned to the Consul. “Have them sent away.”
Dama nodded, his face expressionless. “I’ll see to it right now.”
The Steward was evidently satisfied with this, and he turned on his heel and stalked back into the keep. When he had disappeared around the corner, the Consul met Joe’s gaze.
“I’m afraid he’s right, son. If you spread this story around, it would cause a lot of unnecessary trouble and pain. Best to just go along with what’s happened. I know it’s a sad thing to lose the Prince, but sometimes all we can do is make the best of the tragedy that’s happened to us. We can’t really change it, after all.”
Joe nodded glumly. “I really did see him, though,” he muttered.
Sim seized on his brother’s quiet defiance and took it as an invitation to confront the Consul directly.
“Did you actually see the prince’s body, Mister Dama?” he asked. “Or did Steward Presten just tell you his story about finding it?”
Dama’s brow darkened. “The body’s gone, I’m afraid. The steward’s men have already cremated it in preparation for a royal burial.”
“But did you see it with your own eyes?” Sim pressed. “Do you know it was him?”
Dama clenched his jaw and then leaned down so as to be eye-level with the children. “The Steward was right. Pursue this no further, or else he will have to send the guards after you. Understood?”
Sim gave a reluctant frown and nodded. Then Dama gave them one last glare, which had a show of sternness about it. But it overlay an unmistakable expression of fear and confusion that flashed across his face. It was nevertheless clear that, whatever his doubts, he was committed to carrying out the Steward’s orders. As he walked away, the three children stood up from the bench.
“I guess that’s the end of it, then,” said Joe in a resigned voice. “Let’s go back home.”
“But Uncle and Auntie were just thrown in jail,” Lady whimpered. “We don’t have anyone to go back to.”
“Where else can we go?” said Sim. “It’s the only place we have.”
They had just started walking back toward the inner set of gates when they heard a voice call out.
“He was leaving the city, did you say?”
Joe turned and looked at the old knight on the end of the bench. The man’s grizzled face was alight with keen interest now.
“The Prince,” the knight prodded. “You said he was leaving the city?”
“Yes,” said Joe. “I’m sure of it.”
“You saw his face? You recognized it?”
“Where was he going?”
“I don’t know. He said he was leaving by way of the Shepherd’s Gate. He didn’t want to make a disturbance.”
“The Shepherd’s Gate. That runs out to the western road.”
The children looked at the old knight for a long moment, waiting for him to speak again. Instead he stood up, checked the edge on his sword-blade, and hefted his shield.
“Well?” he asked them with an inquiring glance.
“Well what?” said Joe.
“Are you coming with me?”
“Where are you going?” asked Sim.
“To find the Prince, of course!” the knight gave them a bold, reckless smile. “I don’t trust that old Steward any more than you do. And you just said you’ve got no one waiting for you at home. So let’s go find our Prince! It’s better than staying here.”
Joe looked at Sim, and Sim looked back at him wordlessly for a long moment. Then both boys looked at Lady, and saw the fire of adventure burning in her bright blue eyes. With a slow smile, Joe looked back up at the old knight.
“Lead the way. We’re with you.”