Friday, June 01, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 4

After checking in quickly at their house, the three children and the knight were off, tracing their way down the busy streets of the capital and out toward the Shepherd Gate. Joe had left a note for their uncle and aunt at the house, and Sim had arranged with the neighbors to care for the chickens during their absence. Then they were on their way, following the graying knight past the curious gazes of the city’s people.
The knight had the basic complement of any man of war—a sword, shield, and various armor-plates and sheets of chain-mail arranged about his body. He kept his sword sheathed at his side, though, and carried only a long quarterstaff in his hands. He bore himself with a calm sort of confidence, as of someone who had seen many battles and challenges and had come through them all.
The city gate was open, as was customary on all market-days, and the four travelers passed out beneath the stone archway without any of the guards taking notice of them. Whereas the city’s larger gates employed big wooden doors and drawbridges, the Shepherd Gate was managed only by a simple iron grate which could be raised or lowered as needed. On either side of the gate stood statues of two sheep, from which it derived its name. Beyond the walls, the vast green fields of the central plain stretched out toward the far horizon where, just at the edge of their line of sight, the deeper green of the forests began.
When they were out of the crowds and alone on the little westbound roadway, Joe began to question the knight.
“Do you mind if I ask your name, sir?”
“Waltram Mackrillion IV, of Haransbraum,” the knight replied with a twinkle in his eye. “But you may call me Mack.”
“Sir Mack?” Sim said incredulously. “I think I’ve heard of you!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, lad. I had my day of fame, some years ago, running after adventures in the southern provinces.”
“You were one of the great champions who defended the royal house, weren’t you?” asked Joe.
“I was, yes. And I came to the city this week as an honored guest of Prince Halbrinnon in anticipation of his crowning. But now that he’s gone, there’s no sense in my sticking around. The Steward is not overly fond of me, to put it kindly.”
Joe was about to ask another question when Mack suddenly put up a hand and halted. The children all came to a stop. Mack tilted his head, as if listening to the wind. Then he craned his neck around to look back at the city. The sunshine caught the bright flash of plate-metal armor near the mouth of the Shepherd Gate.
“I think perhaps the Steward’s underlings told him that I left with you. That would be enough to raise his suspicions, I should think. Especially if he knows that you’re right about Prince Hal.”
“Why do you think he knows?” asked Sim.
“Because we’re being followed. A small troop, five or six soldiers. We’d better pick up our pace. If we can reach the forest before them, we’ll lose them in there.”
He was about to take a step forward when suddenly he paused again, as if a new thought had struck him.
“No, wait. The Westfield River is almost at flood stage right now, isn’t it? I heard someone say that in the capital. If that’s true… Well, let’s go see.”
They began jogging briskly down the road, which turned from a cobblestone highway near the city to a rutted dirt track further away. But the children were light-footed and sure of their stride, and they made their way with ease. Sir Mack had to breathe heavily as he jogged, and his armor clicked and jangled with every step he took. Every now and then, Joe would glance back toward the city, only to see that the troop of soldiers had drawn nearer. They too had accelerated their pace now that it was clear they had been seen.
“What’s that sound?” asked Lady as they jogged along.
They listened, and what had seemed at first to be merely the quiet rustle of the wind in the grass grew ever louder. It was the thunder of a roaring cataract, the rush of cold meltwater sweeping down through the basin of the Westfield River, which cut a path through the plains just below the brow of the forest. As they drew nearer, they began to see its surging whitecaps, spilling over the banks and submerging a wide area of the surrounding fields.
“Well, this is a challenge,” Sir Mack grunted between heavy breaths. “Usually the river is so shallow that you can simply ford it without getting your knees wet. There’s not even a bridge, for that very reason.”
“Why is it so full now, then?” asked Lady.
“It must have been a heavy year for snow in the mountains,” said the knight. “And we just happen to be catching it at the wrong time. In a day or two it will be passable again.”
“I don’t think we can wait a day or two,” Joe said grimly. “Those soldiers are only a couple minutes behind us.”
They were at the edge of the water now, and Sir Mack surveyed the scene quickly.
“Now, if I remember right,” he murmured to himself, “there might just be something we can do. They used to have floodgates built in, but I don’t think they’ve used them for years and years… Ah! Yes, there they are! You see them, up there?”
The children looked where he indicated and saw, some distance upriver, two stone arms that reached out into the river from either side. A torrent of water was pouring through the space between, but there were two wide wooden doors still affixed to their places on the stone arms. All it would take was someone who could swing the doors shut against the flow.
“Come on,” said Mack, casting a quick look back at the troop of soldiers. “We’re just going to walk into the shallows of the floodplain here for a minute. There’s a little bit of a current here, but not too bad. Just join hands and hold onto each other.”
They stepped together into the ice-cold stream, but the pursuing soldiers were close enough now that they didn’t really mind the stinging numbness that crept into their feet and legs. Forward they sloshed, walking upriver across the swamped plain, stride after painful, weary stride. The soldiers behind them had stepped into the floodplain too, but they had more armor on than Mack, and it seemed to slow them down a bit once they were in the water.
After a few minutes, the four travelers reached the rim of the riverbank itself, now submerged by two feet of swirling water. Just ahead of them were the old floodgates, and as they had drawn nearer, it was clear that there was a further problem that confronted them. The gates were still there, as was the old crank-handle that would enable someone to turn them against the crushing force of the water. But the thick latch that would have secured the doors together was gone. Without the latch, the doors would simply fly back open as soon as the crank was released, and there would be no hope of forming a temporary dam that might let them ford the deeper part of the river.
“Stay here,” Mack commanded. “And here, hold my armor. I’ll make this quick. I guess I’ll have to. But keep an eye on those soldiers. If they get too close, just stay a few lengths ahead of them on the floodplain. You can move faster in this water than they can. But do not—do not, I repeat—step into the main part of the river until I can get these gates fixed.”
He slipped his plate-armor off and piled it in Joe’s arms, unstrapped his shield and gave it to Sim, and hefted his sheathed sword into Lady’s hands. Then, with only his staff in his hands, he plunged up the riverbank, fighting against the water’s vicious flow. The waves swamped up around his chest, and once came all the way up over his shoulders, but for the most part he was able to keep his footing along the furthest edge of the bank until he came to the eastern stone arm of the floodgate. There, where the water stilled a bit in the lee of the current under the arm’s wall, he climbed out along the stones until he came to the old metal crank.
Throwing all his strength against the crank, he began to turn it. The doors’ old hinges gave a piercing groan, and then they began to move. With every painful rotation of the crank, the wooden barriers inched closer and closer together. As they did, the surge of water between them became narrower, higher, and more forceful. By the end, Mack was gasping and heaving as he fought for the last bit of strength to close the gates. But the old crank worked, and the wooden doors boomed shut as they shuddered against one another’s timber. For a long moment, Mack could only stand there, holding the crank, his muscles quivering against the strain. As soon as he would let go, the force of the water would push the heavy doors open again, and every second that he waited, more and more water piled up behind the simple dam.
He glanced back to where the children stood, watching him with wide eyes. The soldiers were approaching behind them, now just twenty paces away. With the doors closed, the river on their side of the floodgates dropped away rapidly. The floodplain was clearing, and the main body of the river died away to a far gentler stream.
Mack gave one glance at the old doors, then at the vacant iron loops where the latch should have been. Water was hissing through the cracks in the doors in angry little spouts.
“All right, friends!” he shouted. “Run! Now! Across the river!”
He held the crank still against the screaming pain in his muscles as he watched Joe, Sim, and Lady slide down the muddy bank and begin to splash across the center of the river. Soon the soldiers would be at the edge of the riverbank too, and then they would follow the children down.
Mack looked at his trusty quarterstaff for a long moment, and breathed out a desperate wish.
“Hold true, old friend,” he groaned.
Then, in a single burst of action, he released the crank, grabbed his staff, and thrust it through the empty loops on the floodgate doors where the latch used to be. The crank immediately shot back through half a rotation, and then clanged to a stop again. The doors gave a stuttered burst, as if about to open, but they caught against the hard length of the quarterstaff, which held them shut through the iron loops.
Mack jumped down from the stone arm where he had been standing with the crank, splashed across the river in the children’s footsteps, and then raced back up the stone arm on the opposite side of the river. With a mighty pull, he yanked at the quarterstaff. Though the weight of the river was pressing down on it, the wood and the old iron loops were wet with water and slick with moss, and the staff slid free. As soon as it was out, the floodgates banged open, and a towering wall of water and foam shot through the gap between the stone arms.
The children were already a good ways up on the farther bank, and Mack himself was safe where he stood on the stone arm. He waved his arm to tell the children to keep running just for good measure. The wall of water tore through the riverbed with furious thunder, and the troop of soldiers, which had been picking their way along the stream below the dam, were suddenly lost from sight. The river surged over them and carried them away, far down its course toward the south.
Mack heaved a deep sigh and shook his head. After a smile and another wave to the children, he gave his quarterstaff a kiss.
“You saved us there, old friend. Thank you.”
And then Sir Mack walked down the stone arm on the western side of the river, and joined his traveling companions once again.