The scene spans distantly, meeting it’s calculated end on all sides.
Streams retain their clarity, returning deposits of dirt to their designated locations.
And in their disciplined freedom, trees chase the brightness of the sky.
What freedom has a wayward soul confounded to wander the muddied wilderness?
A habitat as it were, a home with a single design flaw.
Where all doors are sealed, not an open bedroom remains.
The aberrant captive.
My soul retreats into my daydream.
Then, I miss the friends I never had.
He continued down the dirt path.
A wall of trees to the left and to the right.
Why do they say if there are no people with you
that then you are alone?
Is humanity so engrossed in conceit?
That their presence is the determinant.
He gazed across the forest.
Is a tree alone when it stands in solitude?
He stared ahead.
Is the apparent path the only path?
Must a path be defined by dirt?
What more is concealed behind the trees?
It is he who stands alone in a crowd who knows no better.
But true companionship knows it’s companion even amidst the absence.
I stared across the table at the unfinished burger. There were two, maybe three bites left. He was taking his sweet time.
I looked up at him, “Will you hurry up? We’re going to be late.”
He looked back at me, “Don’t rush me. You’re not supposed to rush while eating okay.”
I was getting annoyed, “We’re going to miss the prayer.”
Taking another bite he said, “Google says it’s a five-minute walk. We have ten minutes until it starts.”
“You’re disgusting, don’t eat with your mouth full.” I responded.
Finally finishing up his food now, “Alright lets go.”
We left the building and started walking towards the mosque. I could see the sky fill with shades of orange and red as the sun began to finish its descent. I could hear my friend’s voice behind me as I began to walk faster and faster, “Wait up. Don’t walk so fast man. I just ate”. I slowed down a little allowing him to catch up.
“Have you ever been to this mosque before?”, I asked.
“Nope, In this city for the first time, same as you”, he answered.
We kept walking. While I was looking for the mosque, my eyes happened to catch the scene of a man sitting on the curb in front of an unremarkable building. As we hurried passed him, I heard his voice, “You don’t wanna go that way. That’s not the place you’re looking for.”
My friend looked at me, “That was rude. He was talking to you.”
I answered, “I don’t have time to talk to some guy on the curb. We are going to be late.”
My friend shook his head, “You need to chill.”
I saw the mosque in front of me now. It was an ordinary building with only the Arabic writing on the door to set it apart. A strange feeling came over me as we walked in. Still in a hurry though, I did not want to waste time figuring it out. I put my shoes on the shoe rack and hurried into the prayer hall. The feeling became stronger. Something really wasn’t sitting well and I felt a strong urge to leave. I could not ignore it now. Suddenly, I felt my friend’s hand on my shoulder.
I turned to him and he whispered, “Dude, why are the women in here?”
I looked around to see that he was correct; there were women everywhere. My first instinct was to think that we were in the wrong place, but I also saw men everywhere. The men’s and women’s prayer areas should have been and are normally separate.
He whispered again, “Let’s just leave.”
I nodded in agreement and we started walking out. As we approached the exist a young woman stopped us, “hey! Where are you going?”
I answered, “Oh we just had to…”
I was interrupted by a young man accompanying her, “They’re leaving. You know.”
She rolled her eyes, “Well I thought so, but I just don’t like to make assumptions. You think you’re better than us so you won’t pray with us. Is that it?”
I was never good with confrontation and I had no idea what to say. Luckily my friend answered, “If you don’t like to make assumptions then don’t. We don’t judge you. Don’t judge us. Excuse us.”
With that he grabbed my arm, and we rushed out. I stared at the floor the whole way out, still trying to shake that strange uneasy feeling.
I heard the door closing behind me followed by my friend’s voice, “I guess we can just go back to the hotel room and pray there.”
I nodded. Then, I saw him again. That same man stood up from his seat on the curb and said, “Oh, I see you guys are back. I told you not to go in there. Come on now, everybody’s waiting for you.”
My friend and I exchanged confused looks. He answered the man, “Who exactly, is waiting for us?”
The man smiled, “Everybody. I asked them all to wait to start the prayer because I knew you’d be back.”
Thoroughly confused, my friend asked, “Who are you?”
The man grinned as he motioned towards the “unremarkable” building behind him, “Asalaamuwalaikum, I am the Imam of this mosque.”
There was nothing abnormal about that night. The world had fallen into routine. Everything was tediously normal. The boy lay awake in his bed as if to protest the day ending without an unfamiliar occurrence. As the door began to inch open the boy turned his head to see a familiar face with an unfamiliar expression.
He sat up, “Donnel, what is it? What’s wrong?”
Donnel took a deep breath, “Prince Rolf, why are you awake?”
“Donnel, tell me.”
Donnel took another deep breath, “I am sorry, your grandfather [pause] has left this world. The court requests your presence.”
The next thing the prince knew, the door was shut and he was getting dressed. It all felt so repetitive. It was a similar night when Donnel had opened that same door and informed him of his parents’ demise. Every night since then, he could hear Donnel’s voice delivering that news all over again, “Prince Rolf, your father and your mother will not be returning from the war. They have given their lives for our country.”
As Prince Rolf moved towards the door, he stumbled over his wooden practice sword which he had left lying on the ground. As he picked it up, his thoughts drifted to memories of rigorous training sessions. The king would sit and watch as Prince Rolf learned the basics of swordplay from a legendary sword-master.
There was a knocking at the door. A strong and deep voice called, “Prince Rolf, your presence is needed.”
The prince set the sword down on his bed. He had never used a real sword before and he wondered if he would ever actually be able to bring himself to strike an opponent in real combat. He knew the day would come when it would be required and he dreaded the day.
The prince opened the door to find Donnel standing there with the esteemed knight-captain, Marcus. Marcus, in a full suit of armor with his sword at his side while standing straight and tall as ever, “My prince. Are you prepared to go? The court awaits you.”
“How did he die?”, asked the prince.
Donnel responded softly, “In his sleep. He had taken rest in the garden while tending to his plants and…”
Rolf interrupted, “Lets go.”
As they walked, Rolf’s thoughts consumed him. What was to happen? He was not ready to be king. Wishing he had payed closer attention, he tried to remember all the words of wisdom his grandfather had imparted to him over the years.
They entered the royal courtroom. The room was in an uproar. The prince recognized many of his uncles, cousins, and other high ranking nobles arguing and shouting.
“Quiet!” Called the prince. No one seemed to hear him. The crowd remained uncontrolled.
“Silence!” Boomed Marcus. The room fell silent almost instantly.
The court herald announced, “The prince has arrived. I will now read a portion of the king’s appointment of the next king.” He cleared his throat and continued, “Ahem, if you are reading this, then it means that I have passed on. I have pondered long and hard on my successor and it is my last instruction to you as your king. I do not believe the decision will come as a surprise to any of you. I have selected my grandson Prince Rolf son of Prince Shinon to be the next king. Prince Shinon, my eldest son, and his wife Princess Sanaki, whom I regarded as my own daughter, fought and died in the great war. Following with tradition, the right of succession moves from Prince Shinon to Prince Rolf. It has become evident to me that Prince Rolf has the makings of a great ruler. However, before Prince Rolf ascends to the throne, two conditions must be met. He must have completed his studies and he must have reached the age of 21. If both of these conditions are not met, then a steward will rule in his place until they are met. The steward will be selected by Prince Rolf himself.”
The room fell into a noisy chaos once again. Voices began shouting names of people they thought would suit the throne. That is when Prince Rolf’s eldest uncle, Prince Siegbert, made his way up to the throne. Siegbert was a burly and confident man; your cliché warrior prince. Prince Rolf stared up at the throne. He could see the look of desire in Siegbert’s eyes. This man covets the throne, my grandfather’s throne, Rolf thought to himself. He turned his gaze a little to the left to see his grandfather’s sword still leaning vertically on the armrest. It was a simple sword, well built with no extra decoration and a reddish-brown leather sheath covering the blade. The late king was not an extravagant man.
Siegbert spoke, “I will take my nephew’s place until he has grown into a proper king.” The court fell silence as to accept his proclamation.
However, the look of satisfaction on Siegbert’s face was quickly broken by a voice from the crowd, “I believe that decision has been left to Prince Rolf.” It came from the legendary sword-master himself. He was an elderly man who taught swordsmanship not only to Prince Rolf, but had also taught Siegbert and all the other royals. He had no royal blood, but through his service and skill he had gained the respect and honor of the kingdom.
He approached the throne and held his hand out towards Prince Rolf, “Right this way Prince Rolf.” Prince Rolf, Marcus, and Donnel climbed up the stairs to the throne. Rolf stared at the maroon velvet cushions and golden armrest of his grandfather’s seat.
The sword-master put his hand on Rolf’s shoulder, “I think it would be best if you sit.” He was reluctant, but he sat down. From his heightened position, Rolf could see the entire hall. The room looked entirely different from the throne. The seats on either side of the room seemed so far away that Rolf wondered if they would be able to hear him from the throne. The red carpet which often lead him from the grand doors to the throne now seemed to be the only path leading him away from his seat. Prince Rolf began to think…
A lot of work must have gone into this hall. It’s always so clean even after so many people walk in and out but I’ve never seen anyone clean it. I always knew that building and maintaining the castle was a huge task but….
His thoughts were interrupted as the sword-master leaned in, “You will have to make a selection, sooner is better than later.”
Rolf took a deep breath, “I will hear from the candidates and then I will make my choice.” The sword-master nodded in approval.
Marcus faced the crowd and announced, “Prince Rolf will hear from each interested party, following which he will make his decision.”
A handful of royals and nobles from the crowd began calling out to have their say. Prince Rolf announced, “Keeping in with tradition, since my uncle Siegbert is the oldest living heir of my grandfather, I will allow him to go first.”
Siegbert began, “An excellent decision nephew. As you all know I am the late king’s eldest living heir. I have proven myself to be loyal to this kingdom and I have proven myself an excellent commander and warrior.” It was true. Siegbert was renowned for his exploits in the great war. Rolf had heard one of the stories so many times he could picture it in his head. Siegbert had found that while he had more units than the enemy, they vastly outnumbered him in terms of horses. Siegbert managed to find and capture four wolves which he released into the enemy camp just before first light. The horses, in their resulting frenzy, created chaos in the enemy camp which was then swiftly attacked by Siegbert’s forces.
Rolf had always found this story to be surprising and it always stuck out in his mind. He had always seen his uncle as somewhat of a brute; incapable of a strategic thought.
“Who is next?” Asked Rolf.
Many of the initial volunteers were now silent, possibly intimidated by Siegbert’s grand presence. The next man to step up was well dressed in a blue and gold robe. This was the late king’s youngest child, Prince Soren. He was known to wear baggy robes that hid the fact that he was thin and unathletic. He could be identified from a distance by his long silky black hair which fell seamlessly onto his shoulders. Many of the nobles and officials would often tease him in his youth about how long and “womanly” his hair was. Over time however, Prince Soren proved himself to be a cunning and brilliant tactician for which they all began to fear him. Rumors had begun to circulate that Prince Soren was, in fact, a vengeful magician who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
The Uncle Soren that Prince Rolf knew however, was an entirely different man. Kind and caring with a wonderful sense of humor, Uncle Soren often took Prince Rolf for trips around the kingdom. Prince Rolf could recall hiding in Soren’s office on multiple occasions to escape his studies.
Prince Soren began, “Apologies older brother, but we are not looking for someone to eliminate an enemy army. We are looking for someone to keep the kingdom in order until our respected nephew is able to assume his position. In his old age, I was fathers right hand in all his affairs. I am the minister of finance as well as a judge in the high court. I am also a member of the King’s Council. I achieved these positions of my own merit. It only makes sense that I hold the position in our nephew’s place.”
Siegbert and Soren locked eyes. Prince Rolf could see the fury in Siegbert’s eyes. It was obvious he wanted to say something. Rolf glanced at Soren then back at Siegbert. Soren had a slight smile on his face; a symbol of his victory. This worried Prince Rolf. Siegbert was not a man who would be easily intimidated or silenced. Perhaps he did not know his Uncle Soren as well as he thought. Perhaps there was something very dangerous about him.
A third voice called from the crowd, “Don’t forget about me.” It was a woman’s voice this time. The late king’s daughter Princess Elincia made her way to the front of the room, “I will make a better ruler than either of my brothers.” She was an athletic, beautiful, and independent woman. The ladies of the court had a saying, “The week is not over until Princess Elincia has rejected a suitor.” She rejected any man who did not meet her standards, and although she was getting older she refused to compromise this in the slightest. She would say, “Time does not determine when I get married, I decide when I get married.”
Siegbert began laughing, “Sister, you? A ruler?!”
Elincia responded, “And why not? I have just as much a claim to the throne as you or Soren.”
Siegbert, “Ha! We need a strong king, not a weak little girl!”
Elincia, “A weak little girl? I seem to remember a grown prince hiding behind his little sister because he was afraid of a few wild dogs.”
The room burst into laughter. “She’s got you there brother!”, Soren said laughing. Prince Rolf stood up and the room slowly fell silent.
“I will hear her”, he said sitting back down. As Princess Elincia began speaking, Rolf felt himself getting more comfortable sitting on the throne. He felt his back sink into the cushion while his hand sat comfortably on the armrest, just inches away from the handle of his grandfather’s sword.
“I have proven myself to be a skilled warrior and commander. I am a judge in the high court, same as Soren. I have served as acting governor in two parts of the kingdom. And, I have just as much of a right to the throne as my brothers.”
Prince Rolf called out, “Is there anyone else?”
A man stepped forward, “I would like to request consideration Prince Rolf.” It was the late king’s adopted son, Prince Inigo. Inigo’s parents were low born merchants who passed away while Inigo was still very young. In an attempt to carry on his parents’ legacy, Inigo continued to run their shop as best he could. Impressed with his manners and resolve at such a young age, the king saw fit to adopt him. As Inigo grew up, his business flourished until he became a wealthy businessman in possession of many shops. He had earned the admiration of the people as an honest businessman. Inigo had also been appointed to serve the King’s Council. Insecure in the fact that he was not a “true prince”, Inigo always made an extra effort to appear “royal” in the presence of the court.
“You?!” called out Princess Elincia, “Our father adopted you, you are lower than a bastard!”
Elincia always felt a rivalry with Inigo. She felt his position on the King’s Council should have been her position. Inigo was also somewhat of a ladies’ man, something which Elincia did not approve of.
“I was as much a son to him as Siegbert or Soren. And I am your brother.” Responded Inigo.
Elincia answered, “That may be, but you have no claim to the throne.”
Rolf could feel the anger pulsing through his veins. They were all brothers and sisters until they wanted something, then they fought like savages. Without thinking Rolf stood up and shouted, “The decision is mine! These insults you all insist on trading serve no purpose except to defame yourselves! Prince Inigo, please make your case.”
Prince Inigo began, “Thank you Prince Rolf. You are all aware of my service on the King’s Council, my success in business, and my service during the great war. In fact, I stood with Prince Siegbert in most of his battles including the famed wolf incident. I have unquestionably proved my loyalty and devotion to the kingdom and the royal family. If selected I will not fail you Prince Rolf.”
Prince Rolf addressed the court, “Very good. Is there anyone else?” The room was silent. “Very well, then I will return to you with my decision tomorrow at sunset.”
“That is not acceptable, we need an answer now.” Shouted Seigbert from the crowd.
Intimidated by his uncle, Rolf fell silent. The sword-master answered, “If Prince Rolf says sunset then sunset it shall be. That will be all. This meeting is adjourned.”
As the room cleared out and Rolf walked away he noticed his grandfather’s sword still leaning on the throne. Marcus and the sword-master took their leave while Donnel walked Rolf back to his room. Before Donnel could leave, Rolf grabbed his arm and said, “Donnel, remind me again how my parents died.”
“They died in their camp, killed by enemy assassins.” Replied Donnel.
“Thank you Donnel, good night.” Said Rolf.
“Are you all right Prince Rolf?” Asked Donnel.
“I’m fine, I just need some sleep.” Said Rolf.
“Very well, call for me if you need me.” And with that Donnel took his leave. Rolf couldn’t sleep that night. He felt his mind crumbling under the pressure of the decision that lay before him. His grandfather decided he wasn’t old enough to be king, but he was old enough to decide who would be king? How did that make sense?
Unable to sleep, Rolf found himself wandering towards Prince Inigo’s room. As he approached the room, he saw Inigo sitting in front of his bedroom door, “Prince Rolf, you couldn’t sleep either?”
“No.” Replied Rolf. They talked and shared a few laughs. After an hour passed, Inigo turned to Rolf and said, “You should probably get some sleep. You have a big day tomorrow.”
Prince Rolf replied, “Yea, good night.”
“Good night.” Replied Inigo.
Rolf began to walk away but suddenly he turned back around and asked, “Uncle Siegbert wasn’t really with you when you set the caught the wolves was he?”
Before he could speak, Rolf added, “Don’t lie to me, I know he wasn’t there. He isn’t smart enough to come up with that sort of plan and even if he was, a man who hides behind his sister because he is afraid of wild dogs doesn’t think to use wolves in a battle strategy. What I want to know is, why did you let him take the credit.”
Inigo sighed, “The idea was mine. I told Siegbert and when Siegbert told the men, they assumed the idea was his. I did not see a point in correcting them, and I did not want to insult my brother. Prince Siegbert thought he could overcome his fear and assist me with the plan. At the last minute, however, his fear overwhelmed him and he told me he was going back to camp. When I was returning to camp with the caged wolves three days later, Prince Siegbert was waiting for me. He had hidden out in front of the woods instead of going back to camp. He wanted to avoid embarrassment. I did not want to embarrass my brother either. The credit did not matter to me. I was happy enough to be a member of the family, so I let everyone think the plan was his and that he captured the wolves with me. When the day of the battle arrived, I set the wolves loose and Siegbert lead the army into battle.”
Prince Rolf was a bit surprised. He suspected a similar story but hearing it out loud was still shook him. “You captured all the wolves on your own?” He asked.
Inigo replied, “Well yes, I had built sophisticated wolf traps. All I had to do was set them up and wait for the wolves to take the bait and be captured.”
With that, Rolf bid his uncle good night and walked away. After wandering the castle halls for some time, he found his way back to his bed and finally his exhaustion allowed him to fall asleep.
The next morning Rolf woke up to the sound of Donnel knocking at his door.
“Come in Donnel”, said Rolf. Donnel entered with a tray of food.
“I brought you your breakfast Prince Rolf.” Said Donnel.
“Donnel, who do you think I should pick to be king?” Asked Rolf.
“I beg your pardon Prince Rolf but this is decision you must make.” Replied Donnel.
Rolf sighed and looked away, “I know Donnel. Thanks anyway.”
As Donnel left the room he turned to Rolf and said, “Prince Rolf, you are not selecting a king. You are the king. You are selecting a steward.”
The words hit Rolf like a slap in the face. It was something he knew all along but when Donnel said the words, it occurred to him that this is the first decision he would be making as king. It was at that moment that he knew what he needed to do.
Rolf made his way to the throne room well before sunset. He sat on his grandfather’s throne with thoughts of how he would make his announcement repeating in his head over and over again. As sunset approached the room filled up. Marcus, Donnel, and the sword-master stood with Rolf in the same manner as the previous day. The court herald announced, “Sunset is upon us and Prince Rolf will now make his decision.”
Prince Rolf stood up, “I have considered this very carefully. My decision is my uncle Prince Inigo. I am certain he will serve the kingdom well as he has done in the past.”
Prince Siegbert shouted in a rage, “This is outrageous! The throne is mine by right! He is a child! He cannot make such a decision!”
Prince Rolf looked at Marcus, “Seize him.” Marcus motioned towards his knights. Two knights took hold of Prince Siegbert. As he struggled, one of them struck his chest causing him to fall to his knees.
“What is this! Release me!” Shouted Siegbert.
Rolf picked up his grandfather’s sword and walked down the steps until he found himself face to face with his Uncle Siegbert, “It’s over uncle. I know what you’ve done.”
Siegbert scowled, “Whatever you think you are doing, stop this at once and I will let this go on account of your stress and grief.”
Prince Rolf answered, “Do you desire the throne so much that you would kill your own brother, my father.”
The room fell silent. Siegbert was silent for a minute before he responded, “Prince Rolf, your father died at war. You are horribly mistaken.”
Prince Rolf spoke calmly, “I always thought it was strange that an enemy assassin found his way into one of our camps and killed the prince and princess. It was you. I know it was you.”
Siegbert answered, “It, it was not me. I..”
Rolf interrupted him, “Where were you when Uncle Inigo was capturing the wolves. That was around the same time my parents were killed was it not?”
Siegbert’s voice quivered, “I do not know, I did not hear of my brother’s death until after…”
Rolf interrupted him again, “Stop this act. You should know you are not smart enough to scheme something like this. Uncle Soren is the smart one. Did you really think you could deceive Uncle Soren? He has discovered undisputable proof of your guilt. You may be a strong warrior but you never could outmaneuver the mighty Prince Soren.”
Enraged, Siegbert shouted, “Soren! You treacherous snake! You always were the thorn in my side. How! How did you do it this time!”
Soren replied, “I did not. I wish I had seen this years ago, but I did not. I did not then, and I did not now. It appears the king has fooled you into a confession.”
Prince Rolf unsheathed the sword. He felt his hand tightening around the handle.
He could see Siegbert’s reflection in the steel blade, scowling at him, “What do you think you’re going to do with that, boy.”
Prince Rolf replied, “Uncle, in actuality, the throne is MINE by right.” With that, Rolf plunged the sword deep into his Uncle Siegbert’s chest with all his might. Blood began to seep out from the wound. The life faded from Siegbert’s eyes as he struggled to breathe. His body fell limp.
Rolf pulled the sword out, and without pausing he took the sword with him as he exited room.
That night Donnel knocked on King Rolf’s door.
“Come in Donnel.” Said Rolf.
Donnel asked as he entered, “Are you alright your highness?”
Rolf replied, “Just fine. Thank you.”
Donnel paused for a minute and then asked, “If I may, your uncle Inigo was an excellent choice, a very qualified man.”
Rolf looked at Donnel, “They were all qualified Donnel. I picked Inigo because he has no claim to the throne.”