How to Save a Kingdom

How to Save a Kingdom
Bill Allen

February 2012 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-091-6

Book Two: The Journals Of Myrth


 
Our PriceUS$12.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Save a kingdom? Seriously? Twelve-year-old Greg Hart can barely save himself from the overgrown class bully, much less save a kingdom. And then only by running and hiding.

But six months ago, Greg played a role in an unlikely prophecy foretold on the magical world of Myrth. Against all odds he managed to survive. Now a second prophecy has been revealed, one featuring the "Hero Who Slayed Ruuan," and Greg is once again pulled into Myrth.

Only Greg and a small band of friends know Ruuan still lives and Greg is no hero. Soon hundreds of thousands of Canaraza warriors will gather outside Pendegrass Castle to settle a score with King Peter and his army. Greg will be there too. With three generals battling by his side, the "hero” is expected to fight with the strength of ten men and make a difference that will lead the king to victory.

The task seems impossible, but Greg learned from his first trip to Myrth that everyone will expect him to succeed anyway. After all, prophecies are never wrong. Until they are.

Bill Allen may be described as an unusual man who has accomplished an unusual many deeds. In fact, it has been said that if you total up all the things he claims to have done, he cannot possibly be less than seven hundred years old.

No one knows if this is true. All that is certain is that for a good many years he has been living in Melbourne, Florida with his wife, Nancy, writing software by day and, well, mostly sleeping by night. Every now and again he writes stories, too.

How To Save A Kingdom iis Book Two in the Journals of Myrth series. To find out more about Book One: How To Slay A Dragonand the upcoming Book Three: How To Stop A Witch, visit Bill at www.BillAllenBooks.com

 

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Excerpt

 

A Hart Day at School

Short of a valley full of purring shadowcats, nothing could drain away a boy’s consciousness faster than one of Mrs. Beasley’s seventh-grade algebra lectures.

"Did you not get enough sleep last night, Mr. Hart?”

"Wha-huh?” Greg’s head snapped up and tottered about in a fair imitation of a bobblehead doll. Greg had once faced an ogre in an enchanted forest, a mysterious witch in the gloom of her decrepit shack and a dragon at the center of its white-hot lair. None offered the same level of intimidation as Mrs. Beasley could muster.

Eventually, the snickering of his classmates reached Greg’s ears. He ran his fingers through his hair, but the unruly nest, now bent further back off his forehead from resting his head in his arms, refused to lie flat. "Oh, no ma’am... I mean, yes... er, I’m fine.”

Mrs. Beasley peered at him over her spectacles, her lips scrunched up smaller than a dime. Rumor was, the woman possessed no sense of humor, but before that could be proved, she would have to listen to at least one thing a student had to say. Her cold stare never wavered as she spoke, and her voice dug under Greg’s skin like a rusty knife.

"Why don’t you come to the board, Mr. Hart, show us all how to solve this equation?”

Greg’s stomach knotted even tighter than Mrs. Beasley’s lips. The laughs took up again, which was bad enough, but one booming chortle lingered long after all others died away. Greg turned to see Manny Malistino, or Manny Malice, as he was better known, sneering one row over and two seats back.

Slouched as deep in his chair as he could go, his knees propped high into the air, Manny looked as though he was trying to lie on his back and suck in his stomach so he could strap on his desk like a belt buckle. He was an anomaly, way more mass than any one boy his age ought to have, or any two grown men for that matter, and all of it seemingly bent on making each day of Greg’s life more miserable than the last.

"What are you laughing about, Mr. Malistino?” Mrs. Beasley’s shrill voice rang out. "Perhaps you’d like to demonstrate your keen wit for us instead?”

The usual murmuring ceased, as not a single boy or girl in class dared make fun of Manny Malice. Manny’s eyes darted toward Greg for an instant, but Greg wisely chose that moment to wipe up the large puddle of drool on his notes.

"I’m waiting,” said Mrs. Beasley.

"Uh, no, ma’am,” said Manny.

"I mean, I’m waiting for you to come to the board.”

Throughout the room students threw hands over their mouths or raised books in front of their noses. It was the type of silence that could make ears bleed.

With a grunt, Manny slid upright in his chair and screeched around the hardwood floor, struggling to pry himself loose from his desk. By the time he broke free, the unnatural silence had grown so thick it was a wonder Manny managed to wade through it. Greg was afraid to smile for fear Manny might somehow hear him. Still, it was all he could do not to stab out a foot as Manny passed.

Mrs. Beasley’s voice pushed past Greg’s smugness. "And you can help him, please, Mr. Hart.”

As if a floodgate had been opened, the entire class erupted. Greg winced. He glanced across the room to see if Kristin Wenslow was among those laughing. As crushes went, the one he had on Kristin could have flattened just about anything, maybe even a brute like Manny. She caught his eye and swept a strand of light brown hair from in front of her face. Greg’s breath caught in his throat.

"We don’t have all day, Mr. Hart.”

"Sure seemed like it when you were lecturing,” Greg said too softly for anyone to hear.

"What was that?” Mrs. Beasley’s voice rang out. The woman could hear a feather drop at fifty paces.

"I said, ‘I’m coming.’”

Greg glanced one last time at Kristin, climbed out of his chair with un-Manny-like grace and trudged toward the front of the room, where Manny stood staring dumbly at the whiteboard. The mutant boy’s frame rose like a mountain, growing higher and higher the nearer Greg approached, until finally Greg reached the board and Manny’s navel turned to greet him.

"I’ll get you for this, Hart.”

"Me? What did I do?”

"I don’t see anyone writing,” observed Mrs. Beasley.

Manny stared at the board as if it were covered with hieroglyphics. Greg watched him struggle a few seconds, then snatched up a marker and scribbled the answer to the problem Mrs. Beasley had posed the class.

"Not bad, Mr. Hart,” said Mrs. Beasley. It was possibly the nicest thing she’d ever said to him. She turned then and asked if everyone understood Greg’s solution. Greg suspected she was hoping they didn’t.

"You tryin’ to make me look stupid, Hart?” whispered Manny.

"No need for that.”

Manny couldn’t have possibly picked up the insult, yet his single brow bent itself into a vee. "After school,” he growled. "I’ll be waiting outside.”

Mrs. Beasley whipped around and glared over her spectacles at the two of them, her eyes wide and calculating. Greg stared back, afraid to move. Finally her frown began to straighten. Soon Greg barely recognized her.

"You may sit down,” she informed them both. She then walked to the board, scratched out another problem and directed her wrath at another student.

Greg exhaled slowly and returned to his seat, preoccupied now with the clock. Time passed so slowly, he half expected to witness the hands creeping backward, but in the end, the bell rang and Mrs. Beasley granted everyone permission to leave. Even so, Greg stayed put while the others packed up their books and spilled out of the room. Math was the last period of the day, and Manny was sure to be waiting outside.

"Aren’t you going home?”

Greg’s eyes snapped forward, where Kristin Wenslow’s freckled face hovered high above him. His heart lifted. For a second he forgot Manny was waiting to pulverize him. "Kristin?”

"The bell rang. Didn’t you hear?”

"Yeah, I... uh... just wanted to finish jotting down some notes before I left.”

"But your books are all packed up.”

"Huh? Oh, right. I’m done now.”

Kristin continued to stare down at him, the overhead lights framing her soft hair like a halo. Greg considered reaching up and touching her cheek, but stopped when he imagined her shrieking and knocking over desks trying to lurch out of his reach.

"Well?” she said.

"Well what?”

"Are you going to leave or what?”

"Oh, yeah,” said Greg. "I mean, no. I just remembered I need to jot down a few more notes first. Don’t worry. I’ll make the bus.”

Kristin bit her lip in the cutest way. "If you say so. I... um... guess I’ll see you later.” And just like that, she wriggled her shoulders to center her backpack, offered a confused smile and ambled out of the room.

Greg stared dumbfounded at the door. He’d have given anything to go with her—anything at all—but if he had to be flattened by Manny Malice, he could at least do it without Kristin watching. Again he checked the clock. Three forty. He’d need to leave soon or miss his bus and have to walk home. On the other hand, if he stayed put, at least he’d be able to walk...

Finally he arrived at a decision. He reached behind his chair for his backpack and jumped when something coarse and wet streaked across his knuckles.

"Rake. You scared me.”

Displaying the same reluctance Greg had been feeling, a small creature never before seen in Mrs. Beasley’s classroom peered out from the pack and gradually emerged to explore Greg’s fingers with its tiny pink tongue. Greg nearly smiled in spite of his impending doom.

Roughly the size of a squirrel, but with shimmering blue-black fur and a long tail that could easily wrap twice around its body, Rake was a shadowcat, the only one of its kind on Earth. More importantly, he was Greg’s closest friend. The two had spent nearly every moment together since they first met six months ago on the distant world of Myrth, a land of monsters and magic where Greg had once gone to slay a dragon.

Okay, technically Greg didn’t go to Myrth to slay a dragon. He went because he was too slow to react when the magicians there opened a rift between worlds and snatched him out of the woods behind his house. But they had done so with the intention of having him slay a dragon, so Greg felt that should count for something. If nothing else, it made for a better story—or at least it would have, if he could have ever risked telling anyone. He’d tiptoed around the subject with Kristin once, but quit when she felt his forehead and asked him to lie down until she could bring the school nurse.

Still, it was the only time she’d ever touched him, and Greg couldn’t say he hated the feeling. In fact, he’d give anything to feel it again.

Telling her more about Rake just probably wasn’t the best way to go about it.

"Come on, Rake,” Greg said with a sigh, "get in the pack. We don’t want to be late for our beating.”

The shadowcat stared at him quizzically, leaned forward and smashed a furry cheek into Greg’s hand.

"Not now. We’re going to miss our bus.”

As if understanding, Rake crawled obediently into the pack. Greg quickly cinched up the straps. If anyone were to ever see Rake... well, Greg didn’t know what he’d do. Then again, if he didn’t figure out a way to slip past Manny Malice and onto his bus, what difference would it make? Just because he was going to die didn’t mean the secret of the shadowcat had to die with him.

After a few whispered reassurances to his backpack, Greg headed for the side exit, slipped outside and scurried along the wall toward the front of the building, all the while thinking about that one miraculous day last fall when he’d fought Manny Malice and actually won. Using his skill in chikan, an ancient martial art he’d learned on Myrth, Greg had tripped Manny with a stick and sent him cartwheeling into the bushes. For months afterward, Greg had viewed that as the happiest moment of his life. Today it seemed the stupidest. Manny would be ready this time, and Greg didn’t have a stick.

At the edge of the building, he paused to peer around the corner. The first of the buses, lined up across the lawn about a hundred yards away, was already beginning to pull out from the curb. No problem. The coast was clear, and while he had never thought so at the time, Greg was lucky enough to have spent much of his life as the smallest boy in school, which meant he was far more experienced at running than most boys twice his size, a necessity, since that was normally who he was running from.

With the same determination he’d once shown when chased by a fifteen-foot-tall ogre, he abandoned the safety of the wall and darted across the lawn. Not a bad effort, really. He made it nearly halfway to the curb before Manny stepped out from behind a large tree trunk to block his way.

So, this time the ogre is ahead of me.

Greg managed to grind to a halt an instant before his face collided with Manny’s stomach, but his pack was slower in stopping. Despite a lot of frantic flailing and grabbing, Greg felt the bag fall from his shoulder, tossing a bewildered Rake onto the lawn.

"Going somewhere, Hart?”

Greg didn’t hear. His only thought was to dive on top of Rake, who let out a panicked screech not of this Earth.

"What a baby,” Manny jeered. "You scream like a girl. Get up and fight like a man.”

With Rake barely hidden beneath one shoulder, Greg didn’t dare get up. He reached blindly backward for his backpack, managed to snag one strap...

Manny casually stepped on the fabric before Greg could reel it in. "What’s the matter? Too weak to wift your wittle backpack?”

With a maniacal laugh, Manny slid his foot away, taunting Greg to try again. Greg took a deep breath, gripped Rake’s fur and squirmed to his knees, yanking on the pack as he went. This time Manny was less subtle about stomping on it.

Aw, man.

Greg stared at the enormous legs before him, fantasizing about how they’d look dangling from a dragon’s jaws. He followed them up to Manny’s even larger torso, where Manny’s giant hands were forming into fists. Before Greg could look much higher, a bright pinpoint of light suddenly split the air behind Manny with a loud sizzling zap.

Manny’s smile faded. He started to turn to see what Greg was looking at.

Greg needed only one glance. He had seen this phenomenon twice before. He had an idea Manny shouldn’t be seeing it now. Panicked, he jumped up and reached for Manny’s shoulder.

He probably should have let go of his bag first.

The backpack whirled through a wide arc that struck Manny squarely in the ear. Manny let out a yowl befitting his size and dropped to his knees, but Greg took little notice. He barely got out one hysterical screech himself before the space ahead burst wide-open, roaring louder than a dozen angry Manny Malices, and sucked him off his feet.


 

 

A Hart Act to Follow

Greg felt Rake’s rough tongue probe his ear. He opened his eyes to find himself lying on his back, staring toward a ceiling barely visible within the gloom of a cold chamber. The stone floor pressed hard against his shoulders, and shadows flickered from the fires of torches hung in sconces lining the walls.

Greg knew immediately where he was. He’d been in this room twice before—two more times than he ever wanted. Of course, the secondtime he’d come here so the magicians of Myrth could send him home, so he supposed being here only once before would have been worse. But now he was here a third time, and that thought made his stomach clench even more than the long, magic tunnel he’d traveled through moments ago.

"Hey, Greg,” a familiar voice greeted him.

Greg turned toward a boy’s face beaming beneath a shock of bright red hair. It, too, was familiar, and part of him was happy to see it, but a larger part of him knew he was only seeing it because he had literally landed in a world of trouble.

"Lucky?”

"You were expecting someone else?”

Greg shook his head. The first time he met Lucky Day, the boy had just advised the king’s magicians when to open a portal between this world and Greg’s own. Lucky had been looking for a Greghart, and out of the infinite times and places when and where the portal could have opened, by chance it miraculously picked the exact spot Greg had been standing. Now it looked as if Lucky had proved himself worthy of his nickname again.

Greg had to wonder if being lucky all the time was a good thing.

"Sorry for the small welcome,” said Lucky, "but everyone’s really busy, and we just recently found out we needed you again.”

"Needed me?” Greg asked with the same enthusiasm he’d shown over leaving Mrs. Beasley’s classroom. "For what?”

"A fight with the Army of the Crown.”

Greg felt a horror he hadn’t experienced since last leaving Myrth, except possibly for his occasional dealings with Mrs. Beasley. "I don’t want to fight the king’s army.”

Lucky laughed. "Relax. I said a fight withthem, not against them.”

"Oh.” Greg liked this idea only slightly better. "Who are we supposed to fight?”

"The spirelings.”

"What?” He would have preferred an army of Mrs. Beasleys. The spirelings were fierce warriors with razor-sharp teeth who could run much faster than a man... or more to the point, much faster than Greg. On Greg’s last visit, the entire spireling race, hundreds of thousands in all, had grouped for battle outside the dragon’s lair. Fortunately Greg had needed to fight only two of them. Even so, it was only a matter of chance that he hadn’t been killed. "Why would anyone want to fight the spirelings?” he asked with a gulp.

Lucky offered a warm smile, which, next to his bright red hair, was his most distinguishing feature. "You tell me. As I understand it, you fight ‘with the skill of ten men.’ And somehow you’re going to make the difference that leads the king’s men to victory.”

"Don’t tell me Simon screwed up and named me in another of his prophecies?”

"Well, he didn’t exactly name you outright. He just said the army would be joined by ‘the Hero who slayed Ruuan.’”

"But nobody slay—”

Lucky’s hand flew up and clamped over Greg’s mouth.

"—dwoon,” Greg finished.

Lucky glanced over his shoulder. For the first time, Greg noticed several mysterious figures in black robes lurking in the shadows, peering his way. Seeing few other options, he peered back. He couldn’t distinguish any features beneath the hoods, but he recognized these men. King Peter’s magicians. Last time he’d been dragged to Myrth, the men had clapped and cheered, amazed that Lucky had managed to kidnap his intended target. Now, having witnessed that miracle once before, they remained motionless in the gloom, saying nothing.

Lucky shot Greg a scolding look. "What do you say we go see how the preparations are coming?”

While the question was worded much like a suggestion, Lucky’s tone left no room for argument, and Greg would have found it hard to argue anyway, what with Lucky’s hand still clamped over his mouth. He barely had time to scoop up Rake before Lucky whisked him toward a heavy oak door set in one wall of the small room.

Greg cringed as Lucky grasped the handle and swung the door open. After all, the last time he’d stepped through this door, the thousand people waiting outside had cheered so loudly Greg had thought he’d be crushed by the sound.

But today the Great Hall stood empty. Not a single person had come to greet him. Not even King Peter or Queen Pauline. Sure, Greg felt relieved, but still... he’d always known he’d eventually be forgotten, even if he had fulfilled the last prophecy, but he’d thought his fame might at least last longer than six months. Wait, the magicians probably moved me through time.

"How long has it been since I left?” he asked hopefully.

"Well, let’s see,” said Lucky. "Bart went to Simon’s shortly after we returned from the Infinite Spire, and he returned directly to the castle after he learned of the next prophecy. Since then we’ve been struggling to figure out what he was trying to say, so... about two weeks.”

"Two weeks?” Greg couldn’t believe everyone had already forgotten him. He eased Rake onto his shoulders and tried not to sulk as Lucky dragged him out of the Great Hall and along passage after passage. Eventually they reached a set of huge double doors dividing a wide stone wall.

"This way,” Lucky said. He pushed open the doors and stepped outside.

Greg followed, eyes cast to the ground, but took only two steps before a thunderous clap erupted. Claws dug deep into his shoulder, and Rake rocketed into the shadows as only a shadowcat can, while Greg screamed and took in the scene, mouth agape.

"Greghart! Greghart! Greghart!”

No wonder no one was waiting inside. The Great Hall could hold only a thousand people or so, making it completely inadequate for today’s crowd. At least ten times as many people were here—possibly everyone on Myrth. They clapped and hollered and cheered Greg’s name again, and the deafening noise left Greg even more speechless than when his mouth had been clamped shut by Lucky’s hand.

"Surprise,” said Lucky.

Greg continued staring dumbly for several seconds until the cheers died away and his heart slowed to twice its normal rate.

"Say something,” Lucky whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Oh... right. Uh... hi, then.”

As one, the crowd whooped and hollered even louder. When the noise finally died away again, a beautiful girl in an elegant gown strode forward and regarded Greg with what might have been considered a smile from a greater distance. Greg observed the flowing red hair and recognized her immediately as the king’s eldest daughter, Penelope.

"Welcome back,” she told him rather flatly. Not exactly a warm welcome, but far friendlier than she’d ever offered before. Perhaps he’d stepped up a notch in her eyes when he’d rescued her sister, Priscilla, from the dragon last fall. Or, considering how the magicians had changed the time, just two weeks ago.

"Thank you, Your Highness,” Greg answered meekly.

Penelope scowled. "Father asked me to inform you that he and Mother will come as soon as they are able. Oh, and Priscilla should be around here someplace, too.”

"Er... thank you,” Greg mumbled again.

"You are quite welcome,” she replied stiffly.

With that, the princess turned and strode off through the crowd. Dozens of others rushed to take her place. Soon Greg found himself shaking hands with hundreds of men and accepting hugs from the women. He even kissed a baby or two before he learned to keep an eye out for them.

He had just paused to wipe a sticky handprint from his cheek when the noise fell to a hush. The crowd parted. Men dropped to one knee and women bowed as King Peter and Queen Pauline, both dressed in elegant magenta robes and sparkling, gem-encrusted crowns, glided up through the gap. The only one left standing was Greg. For the first time in his life, he felt uncomfortably tall. He stooped awkwardly, struggling with his head bowed to watch the king and queen approach, until King Peter, an enormous man who made even Manny Malice look small, reached him and used one hand to lift Greg’s shoulders.

"Greghart, my boy, why are you bowing? It’s just us, remember?”

"Sorry, Your Majesty,” said Greg.

"Peter,” the king reminded him.

"Greghart, my dear,” said Queen Pauline in a soft, lilting voice. "How splendid to see you again. A shame it must always be under such dire circumstances.” She smiled at him with warm blue eyes, and Greg had to admit she was pretty, even with the wisps of gray peeking through her otherwise red hair. "Did Penelope fill you in on all that is transpiring?”

"Not really. She said you’d be here soon. That was about it.”

The queen frowned. "That girl, I swear...”

"Simon’s made another prophecy,” King Peter said.

"About the spirelings,” interrupted Greg. "Lucky told me.” Just off to his left, Lucky beamed proudly.

"Then I suppose he also told you about the three generals.”

Greg shook his head.

"I didn’t have time, Your Majesty,” Lucky blurted, his cheeks reddening.

"Call me Peter, Lucky. No one around here is going to get it right until you, of all people, do.”

Queen Pauline curled an arm around Lucky’s shoulders and assured him he’d done nothing wrong, while the king turned back to Greg.

"I’m talking about Generals Hawkins, Talbout, and Bashar,” King Peter said. "They’re mentioned in the prophecy as well. All three are supposed to be fighting at your side during the upcoming battle, but that’s about as much as we know. I’ve had my best men working on it for days, but... well, they just can’t make a bit of sense out of Brandon’s handwriting. Understanding the rest of the prophecy seems a lost cause at best.”

Brandon, Greg knew, was the name of King Peter’s scribe. Greg also knew Brandon had a drinking problem, so it wasn’t surprising his handwriting might be hard to decipher, but there was one thing Greg didn’t understand. "Why can’t Brandon just tellyou what it says?”

"He’s not here,” King Peter said, frowning.

Queen Pauline rolled her eyes at her husband’s expression. "He’s gone on holiday,” she elaborated. "And he certainly deserves it. The man works so hard.”

"Yes, well, we all work hard,” said the king, "but he certainly picked a fine time to disappear, didn’t he?”

"Brandon did not just disappear. He’s been planning this trip for months. And we know where he is. He went to see his dear old mother in Pillsbury.”

Those kneeling in the crowd had waited awkwardly to this point, but now apparently decided it would be all right to stand. Some even dared to press close—so close, Greg found them impossible to ignore. Even King Peter was forced to pause long enough to smile and shake a young woman’s hand, although he did cleverly look away just as she was about to hand him her baby.

"So we know where Brandon is,” he said to his wife. "That doesn’t help us, does it? Pillsbury is over six hundred miles distant. By the time my runner gets to him and brings him home, at least five weeks will have passed. Holiday or not, I’m not sure we have that kind of time.”

"But Lucky said Bart just got back with the prophecy a few days ago,” Greg said, struggling to see past the huge baby one woman was thrusting out at him. Only on Myrth could a child be expected to grow into a head like that. "Brandon can’t have been gone long. Won’t your runner be able to overtake him sooner?”

"Ha. I’m all for taking a holiday,” said King Peter, "but not for months at a time. No, Brandon didn’t hike to Pillsbury. Mordred popped him there.”

"The magician Mordred?”

"You know another Mordred who could pop a man across a kingdom?”

Greg breathed a nervous sigh. He didn’t know many of the king’s magicians, but he had an idea even if he did, Mordred would be his least favorite. The man considered Greg an impostor who should never have been brought to Myrth to slay the dragon Ruuan. Of course he was right, but it’s not like Greg had asked for the job. And even if Mordred didn’t have it out for him, if Greg were to choose an enemy, he’d want to make sure none of King Peter’s magicians were among his choices.

"Why didn’t you just have Mordred pop your runner to Pillsbury?” Greg asked.

"I’m afraid we couldn’t do that,” King Peter said. "It seems Mordred has disappeared too.”

"Disappeared?” said Greg.

"Oh, not in the sense you’re thinking. We just don’t know where he is.”

"Then why not have one of the other magicians do it?”

King Peter’s face reddened. He lowered his voice, though with everyone crowded so close, they might have heard his thoughts before he spoke. "I’m afraid they don’t know how.”

Greg remembered his trip to the Infinite Spire last time he was here, when one of King Peter’s magicians had moved the entire Army of the Crown halfway across the kingdom. "Agni knows.”

"Agni isn’t here either. And the others claim he and Mordred are the only two who can do it.”

Only two magicians knew how to transport someone to another place? And both thought Greg was an impostor. And both were missing now, when Greg needed their help.

It had to be more than coincidence.

Greg had another thought. "Why not just have your magicians pop Brandon back here?”

Again, King Peter reddened. "I’m afraid they don’t know how to do that, either.”

"But they just brought me here,” Greg argued.

"Yes, of course, but they already knew how to set up that spell. They did it once before, remember?”

As was often the case on Myrth, Greg felt the entire task of pointing out the obvious fell on his shoulders alone. "So how is this different?”

King Peter offered him a sympathetic look. "According to Mordred, the two spells aren’t the same. The one they used for you is meant to move people here from distant worlds. To retrieve Brandon, we need something that will work on Myrth.”

"Wait a minute. Are you saying Mordred was the one who set up the first spell?”

"Of course,” said the king. "Why do you ask?”

"Because he hates me. Why would he help you bring me here?”

With a frown, King Peter placed a hand on both boys’ shoulders and announced to the crowd that they should continue to enjoy themselves while he spoke to Greghart in private. "Don’t worry,” he said in answer to the countless groans that echoed through the courtyard, "I’ll bring him back soon.”

King Peter led the two boys back inside the castle and into a secluded, torchlit room. Queen Pauline stayed behind to entertain the crowd. The last Greg saw of her, she was smiling widely and reaching out to kiss her first baby.

"Mordred doesn’t hate you,” King Peter said once they were alone. "Why would you say that?”

"Because he hates me,” said Greg.

"He does not.”

"Yeah, he does,” Lucky told the king. "He doesn’t think Greg is the right Greghart from the prophecy.”

"Nonsense. Mordred holds you in the highest regard, I can assure you. He’s been a great help to me in all matters where prophesies are concerned.”

"Yeah, well, then why isn’t he here?” Greg asked. "And you never answered my question. Why would a portal that could open up anywhere and anytime in existence not be able to open on Myrth? Doesn’t that sound suspicious?”

"Not at all,” insisted the king. "It’s hard for you and me to understand the intricacies involved in casting spells, but Mordred’s one of the most skilled magicians this kingdom has ever known. I hold the utmost trust in his advice. Now, let’s not waste time arguing. We have far bigger concerns, don’t you think?”

"Yeah, like why Mordred has conveniently disappeared right when Greg needs him the most,” mumbled Lucky.

King Peter frowned.

"And why, just before he left, he sent Brandon away so no one could ask him about the prophecy,” Greg added.

"As my wife told you before, Brandon planned his trip for months. And I’m sure Mordred had a legitimate reason for leaving when he did. I think we have more important issues to work out.”

Now it was Greg who frowned. The fact Mordred might be out to kill him seemed more important than most things he could think of.

"First off, there’s the matter of the three generals,” King Peter continued. "We know about Talbout. His troops left a couple of weeks ago to check out a disturbance near the border to the north. This morning I sent one of my runners to find him and turn him back, but the general has a good head start, and he commands nearly a thousand men. It could be months before he can bring them all back home.

"Then there’s General Hawkins. He took his men south soon after you left—”

"Hawkins?” Greg interrupted, remembering the army captain who’d escorted him halfway across the kingdom to slay the dragon Ruuan. "Any relation to Ryder?”

"Oh, right, you don’t know, do you? I promoted Captain Hawkins after his success in the recent prophecy.”

"You’re kidding?”

"No, why?”

"Oh... no reason.” Because Ryder didn’t do anything, Greg couldn’t help thinking. True, the captain and his men had gone with Greg to the Infinite Spire to battle the spirelings, but Greg and Lucky had ended up sneaking into the spire on their own. Ryder and his men never fought off anything more threatening than a sunburn.

The king smiled, and in the same tone he used whenever he boasted to others about what a great hero Greg was, he added, "I can’t think of anyone who deserved it more.”

With a jerk, the door opened, and Princess Penelope stuck her head into the room. "Oh, there you are,” she said, exasperated.

King Peter scowled. "What have I told you about knocking?”

"Sorry. Mom says everybody’s wondering why you took Greghart away—I know, I can’t see why she cares, either—but wait till you hear this. She wants you to bring him back.”

"Tell her we’ll be along in a moment,” King Peter said. "Right now we have important matters to discuss.”

Penelope crossed her arms over her chest. "What am I, a messenger?”

"Penelope.

"Yes, Father, I’m going.”

"Anyway,” King Peter said after the door closed, "Ryder and his men headed south to rout out a band of trolls reported to have been terrorizing the locals near the bridge over to the Styx.”

"Isn’t this whole area the sticks?” Greg asked.

"Heavens no,” said Princess Penelope, who had just stuck her head back into the room. "The Styx is a lovely area south of the kingdom where old people go to die.”

"What are you still doing here?” her father asked.

"You haven’t seen Prissy have you? Mom’s looking for her, too.”

"No. Now go. Please.”

"All right. You don’t have to yell.” She slipped the door closed again, and this time the king waited to make sure she was truly gone.

"Okay, back to the matter at hand. The runner I sent for Brandon is to pick up Ryder and his men, too, but they’ve been gone about two weeks. He won’t catch up before they reach the southern border and split off to the west. That means he’ll have to wait until after he finds Brandon to hunt for the army. Honestly, I don’t expect any of them back for close to two months.”

"Two months?” Greg liked the idea that Ryder would be on his way back to help, but two months seemed a long time to wait, even if the months on Myrth did last only three weeks. Greg was reluctant to ask the one question pressing heaviest on his mind, but it was a big question, and the pressure proved unbearable in the end. "When am I supposed to... meet the spireling army?”

"We don’t know exactly,” admitted King Peter, "but I’m going to have to guess it will be at least a few weeks off, since that’s the soonest all the key players could possibly get here.”

"So you do think Ryder and this General Talbout will make it back in time?”

"If we can believe the prophecy, yes.”

"If?” Greg felt sweat trickle down his back, all the way to his heels. He had been told that prophecies were fragile things, that if you stopped believing in them, even for a moment, they might not come true. Now here King Peter was, clearly having doubts, and well—even though Greg never really believed in prophecies, he’d at least feel better not believing in one that might be true rather than one guaranteed to get him killed.

"It’s General Bashar who concerns me most,” King Peter said in a somber tone.

"Why, where’s he?” Greg asked.

"We don’t know,” said the king. "Truth is, I’ve never even heard of him.”

"What?”

"Now don’t worry, we’re still working on it. As I told you before, we’re having a bit of trouble deciphering Brandon’s writing. It might not have been ‘Bashar’ at all. Maybe ‘Dasher’ or ‘Bashire’ or something. It’s hard to tell.”

"But don’t you have just one other general in your army?” asked Lucky.

King Peter frowned. "Yes, General Stefanopolis. Brandon’s writing is bad, but, well... we’re just not sure what he was trying to say.”

"So what are you going to do?” Greg asked.

"I’m already doing it. First, as I’ve told you, I sent a runner for Brandon and Ryder. Hopefully Brandon will return in time to tell us who we’re dealing with. But in the meantime I’ve sent a tracker to find Bart, the bard, as well. He delivered the prophecy to us right before Brandon left on holiday, and if we can find him first, he should be able to shed some light on the situation for us. Maybe my magicians will need to open a portal to bring this General Bashar here from another world, as we did with you. I can’t say. The real question is: Will we find out soon enough to get him and his men to the battle on time?”

"And if we don’t?” Greg asked hesitantly.

The king wiped his palms on the rich cloth of his robe. "No need to bother ourselves with what ifs. Remember, we have the prophecy to back us up on this.”

Greg caught himself rubbing his own palms on his jeans. He felt an overwhelming desire to run back to the courtyard, where he might find at least one person who had confidence he would survive the next few weeks.

As if reading Greg’s thoughts, King Peter sighed and said, "Perhaps you boys should get back to the celebration. My wife is right. A lot of people have come to support you, Greghart, and you shouldn’t disappoint them.” He guided the boys to the door and opened it for them, but then paused and regarded them with a troubled expression.

"What’s wrong?” Lucky asked.

What isn’t? Greg wondered.

"Nothing,” said the king, when he clearly meant everything. "I suggest you enjoy yourselves tonight while you can. Just put on a brave face and try not to worry too much about the prophecy. After all, there’ll be plenty of time for that in the weeks to follow.”

Greg and Lucky found Rake coweringin the courtyard, trying to protect his long tail from thousands of boots and heels. The shadowcat quickly leapt up to Greg’s shoulders and hid under Greg’s shirt. Unable to hide themselves the same way, Greg and Lucky were forced to endure nearly an hour at the celebration, dodging questions and graciously accepting praise for things they’d never done, before Princess Priscilla finally arrived to save them.

While all the ladies in attendance wore their most elegant gowns for the occasion, Priscilla wore a pair of torn pants over muddy boots. Her soiled tunic hung loosely off one shoulder, as if she’d recently survived a fight with a bobcat. Greg knew the princess well enough to know she might have done just that.

Much like her father, Priscilla held little interest in acting like royalty, but while she might not look like a princess, the others recognized her station and kept their distance.

"Are you listening to me?” she demanded.

Greg smiled. In spite of the horror of his predicament, he felt it was nearly worth the hardship of facing another prophecy to see Priscilla again. He suddenly realized he was staring. "Oh, sorry. You were saying?”

"I couldn’t find out much—Brandon’s writing is awful—but I did discover one thing.”

"I would hope so,” said Lucky. "You’ve been gone for hours.”

Priscilla frowned. She and Lucky had a habit of rubbing each other the wrong way.

"Forget him,” Greg said. "What did you find out?”

The princess glared at Lucky as she answered. "While everybody was busy struggling over this new prophecy, I got a peek at the last one.”

"You’re kidding,” said Lucky.

"Well, I had to do something in all that time.”

"I meant, why bother?”

"Come on, you guys,” said Greg. "Tell us what you learned, Prissy.”

"Priscilla,” the princess snapped.

"Sorry.”

"Oh, no, I’m sorry,” she said, taking Greg’s hand in her own. Greg had to admit, he liked her touch nearly as much as Kristin’s, back home. "I didn’t mean to snap. But this is really important. Everything Brandon wrote about Simon’s last prophecy came true—the Molten Moor, and the stampede in Fey Field and the whole trip across the Smoky Mountains—all of it.”

"Big deal,” said Lucky. "We never doubted the prophecy was true.”

"Speak for yourself,” said Greg. "Remember, it said I was going to slay Ruuan.”

"No, it didn’t,” said Priscilla. "That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It said you were going to sleigh Ruuan.”

"That’s what I said.”

"No, not slay, spelled S-L-A-Y,” she explained. "Sleigh, spelled S-L-E-I-G-H. Simon knew the whole time that you weren’t going to kill Ruuan.”

"Or maybe Brandon just doesn’t know how to spell,” Lucky said, stifling a laugh.

"Oh, like you do?” Priscilla snapped.

Greg groaned. "Would you two stop? What are you trying to say, Priscilla?”

"Don’t you see? Simon’s last prophecy was exactly right. And now that he’s made another, we should expect it will be right, too.”

"I never expected it wouldn’t be,” Lucky replied smugly.

"No, you still don’t understand,” Priscilla said, effectively wiping the grin off Lucky’s face. "It should be right, but it isn’t.”

"How’s that?” both Lucky and Greg asked in unison.

"This new prophecy is about ‘the Hero who slayed Ruuan.’ That’s slayed, S-L-A-Y-E-D, not sleighed, S-L-E-I-G-H-E-D.”

"Shouldn’t it be slew?” asked Lucky.

"But nobody slayed Ruuan,” Greg argued.

Priscilla offered him her most exasperated look. "Exactly. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Simon’s latest prophecy can’t possibly be true.”

 


 


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