In a far off land there was a wealthy and prosperous kingdom. The King served his people well, offering them the very best life within his walls that he could. He ensured their safety, provided food and shelter, and made laws that were fair and just. The King loved his people dearly. In return, he only asked that they befriend him, visiting his palace from time to time.
Yet this was not enough for him to get to know his subjects as well as he liked, so one day the King had brilliant idea. He would host a royal banquet and invite everyone from the city to come. Better yet, he would send out invitations with the royal couriers into all the neighboring lands, seeking to bring in as many guests as he could. In order to ensure people had time to arrive, he would wait an entire year before holding the feast. Eagerly, the King wrote out an elaborate invitation letter and had his scribes make several hundred copies of it. Even so, he took the time to sign and seal each letter individually. Then he sent the invitations out, and waited.
One day, a letter arrived on the doorstep of Cornelius, a humble farm boy who lived beyond the city walls on the farthest edge of the kingdom. His family grew wheat to sell in the market, but it was a long journey to the city, so Cornelius had only been there a few times. Imagine his surprise and delight when he recieved an invitation to the King's palace! He found the letter just as he was returning from the fields after a hard day's work. Recognizing the King's royal seal, he tore the scroll open and read the contents with growing excitement.
"Father! Mother!" he shouted, running into the house. "The King has invited us to dine with him at a royal banquet! Can you believe it? The note even bears his seal and signature. But it is only nine days away, so we have to hurry."
"I can't be bothered with that, son." His father replied. "The summer is drawing to a close and I have to finish harvesting the wheat. Go if you must, but realize that your absence will cost your family money. I'll have no choice but to hire a new hand to replace you while you're gone." Cornelius' face fell, and he turned to his mother. "Will you go with me? It says here that the King wants everyone in the kingdom to attend." She shook her head. "I can't, Cornelius. The palace is very far away, it will take over a week to get there. With your little sister to look after I'm afraid it would be best to stay here at the farm." Unwilling to give up, he pleaded with them. "But we can all go as a family, can't we? I'm sorry about the rest of the harvest, but we could at least bring the wagon to sell what crops we've already harvested." His father replied, "That won't be possible. Traveling with a wagon would slow us down too much. We'd never make it in time."
"Then let us at least travel with what little money we have!"
"No, son. My answer is no. Your mother and I must stay here. But if you desire to go that much, I won't stop you. Who am I to counteract the King? Take one of the horses, and some coins from the safe. Then be on your way."
So Cornelius set off on a long journey to the castle, with only a few coppers and a pouch of food. He knew it would take at least eight days as the crow flies, and he wouldn't be traveling that fast. His parents cautioned him to wait till the next morning to leave, considering that it was already well past noon and he would not have long before dark. He thanked them for the provisions and advice, but decided to leave immediately. Nothing in the world could keep him from meeting the King.
The boy traveled on as far as he could before the sun fell and he set up camp for the night. The horse he tied to a tree, making sure it had room to graze on the surrounding grass. After eating some of the bread and dried fruit he had brought along, he prepared for bed. He had no means of shelter, but managed to get a fire going with his tinderbox and some dry kindling. If he had to sleep under the open sky, he reasoned, at least he could stay warm.
That first night out from home he could hardly shut his eyes. Fingers laced under his head, Cornelius lay back and gazed at the stars, thoughts pinwheeling in his brain. Dining with the King, just think about it! He wanted to say it was what he'd always hoped for, but in truth he'd never even dreamed of the opportunity. In just a few more evenings he would have the privilege of feasting in the royal gallery with the greatest King the land had ever known!
It was a long time coming, but eventually slumber found him, creeping up with the subtley of a feline, and he succumbed to its blissful embrace.
The first full day on the road passed without incident. The area Cornelius traversed was familiar, fields and farms rolling past with steady, unhurried regularity. Cool and soft, the autumn winds tickled his hair and skin as he rode. Hope and anticipation burned in his heart like a flame.
The second day passed much the same as the first, with crops of various kinds bordering the way on both sides. Eventually he passed beyond the farmlands and out into the wild countryside.
As he was riding, he came upon a beggar hunched down at the base of a broad, rocky cliffside. "Please, kind sir," the beggar said, "Spare some money for a tired old man?" Cornelius brought out his coin purse and let the contents spill into his palm: eight coppers, all he had taken of his family's meager savings. He looked from the money to the shriveled form before him and back again. It was all he had to purchase food with at the city once his stores ran out. And yet, he was traveling to see the richest man in the kingdom. He hesitated a second longer, then let all eight coins drop into the beggar's outstretched hand. "Thank you ever so much." The man said. "You are certainly welcome." Cornelius replied. "But tell me, have you heard of the King's banquet? Are you planning on attending? It's not far off, you know." The beggar grinned toothlessly. "Aye, I've heard of it. You'll see me there, no doubt. Good day to ye." Cornelius considered a moment before leaving. "You are old and wizened sir. Would it please you to ride with me together on my horse? I plan to reach the palace in eight days." The vagabond shook his head. "No, no need. I'll make it there on time, and no mistake. I may look old, but there's some youth in these gnarled limbs yet." With that, the man stood and slapped Cornelius' horse on the rump, startling the beast into a gallop. There would be no chance for further argument, so Cornelius continued on.
The next day, when the sun was high and the air hottest, the boy stopped to rest his horse in the shade of a poplar tree. He sat down against the trunk and took out the royal invitation. For the hundredth time he unrolled the parchment and read over the words. The signature of the King, scribed in golden ink, glittered in the sunlight.
He was so absorbed in reading that he didn't notice when an armored man rode up and dismounted, coming to stand behind him. Careful not to let his shadow fall on the page, the stranger leaned against the tree, silently reading over Cornelius' shoulder. Eventually he spoke. "You must be someone quite important to receive an invitation from the King." Startled, Cornelius looked up. The face that met his was framed in an iron helmet, but the eyes were kind. A short mustache and trim black beard accented an honest visage. As Cornelius struggled to speak the man strode around to stand before him. "You... You're a... You must be..."
"A knight of the realm. Yes, it's true, though it's not as lofty a position as some might think." The man chuckled. "What's your name, son?"
"I'm Cornelius. I come from a farm in the border regions and I'm on my way to meet the King. Are you really a knight?"
"Well, if the armor and sword don't give it away, I have this." He pulled at a chain round his neck and brought out an amulet which had hung beneath his breastplate. It turned and sparkled in the air. The farm boy gasped. "That's a genuine knight's crest, isn't it?" The stranger smiled with his reply. "Aye, young master. And it belongs to a genuine knight. Sir Ephraim, at your service. Would you like to see it?" He pulled off the necklace and held it out. Cornelius took it reverently. Its face bore the emblem of the kingdom: a key crossed with a blade, imposed upon a radiant sun. He stared at it wide eyed until the voice of the knight regained his attention. "It was given to me by His Majesty these ten years ago. I'll never forget that day."
Cornelius handed the medallion back and asked, "You mean you know the King personally?" Sir Ephraim looked surprised by the inquiry. "Why yes, of course I do. I knew him before my knighthood even, when I worked as a squire. It wasn't difficult. The King desires to know each of his subjects as if they were his nearest kin. In fact, the gates to his palace are never closed, night or day. He keeps it this way to ensure that visitors may see him, unannounced, as often as they wish."
"I see. Is that not dangerous?"
"Hmmm... For whom? The King or his visitors?"
The question caught Cornelius off guard. "I meant for the King, leaving himself vulnerable like that. It would be easier for enemies to approach." The knight patted the pommel of his sword where it hung sheathed at his waist. "Believe me, the danger would be greatest to any would-be assassins. The King's loyal retainers would never let a hand be raised against him. We serve him as our ruler, but love him as if he were a father."
"It must be marvelous, knowing the King like that." Cornelius breathed.
"Do you want to? I could show you how. You don't have to wait until arriving at the King's city, you know."
Cornelius gave the knight a puzzled look. "I don't? But... how? How can I know him like a friend if I've never even met him?"
"As easily as what you have just now been doing when I found you! I see you've been reading over the King's invitation quite thoroughly, have you not?"
"Yes I have, sir."
"And why, pray, have you been reading it? Just to know what it is the words of the letter say?"
"Certainly not, though that is important. I've been reading to understand about the person who wrote it, I suppose."
"Fantastic! That's precisely my point, young master. Writing often reflects the soul of the author. You may have yet to meet the King face to face, but if you study carefully the letter he sent you, you'll find it contains all the depth of personality it's possible to fit on a single scroll."
The farm boy's eyes brightened with hope. "I will do as you say, Sir Knight. Thank you ever so much for your kindness!"
"You are most assuredly welcome, young Cornelius. Now if you are headed in the direction of the castle, I can accompany you for a day's ride, as it is the direction I happen to be traveling at the moment. Eventually I will have to depart to handle some petty battles taking place between nearby villages." Cornelius readily agreed.
So the two mounted their horses and rode on together for the rest of the day, and halfway into the next. They spent the night huddled near the campfire, pouring over the words of the scroll together. Sir Ephraim continued to instruct Cornelius in how to understand the words of the King. The next day, when the time for his departure was at hand, the knight halted his horse at a fork in the road.
"It appears that this is where we must part ways. I travel left, while you go right. Follow this road for the next four days or so and you'll come to the royal city. Be swift, you wouldn't want to be late!" Cornelius took the moment to express his gratitude. "Thank you Sir Ephraim, for all your help. It was a pleasure getting to know you and learn from you."
"Think nothing of it. I appreciate your company as well Cornelius, especially the eagerness with which you study the King's writing. Sir, the pleasure is mine." He concluded with a bow. Cornelius hoped the other didn't notice his cheeks flush at the compliment. "Will I ever see you again, Ephraim?" he asked. The knight winked. "Why, I should think in about four days or so." He reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a battered scroll. "After all, everyone in the Kingdom's invited!"
With that, he spurred his horse down the left pathway. Then he wheeled back around for a moment. "I have to warn you Cornelius, when you meet the King, he won't be anything quite like you imagine. A letter is useful, but it can only do so much after all. It's dining with His Majesty face to face that's the real treat!" Then he turned his horse back around and galloped off. Cornelius waved till he was out of sight.
The rest of the day passed without incident. Cornelius met few travelers on the road, which surprised him. Why were there not more people journeying to the city of the King's feast? He even met people going in the opposite direction. Stopping them each time, he urged them to turn around and accompany him to the great banquet. None of them bothered however. Some had heard of it but were too busy to attend. Others had no idea what he was talking about, but were uninterested in coming, even when he urged them to.
That night as he read the wondrous words of the scroll, he wondered why so many refused to come. Did loyalty to the King mean nothing to them? It will be different in the royal city, he promised himself. There, people live in the King's very presence. Getting to visit him as often as they wish, they must be the closet of friends with him.
Cornelius traced the golden signature with a finger. He felt so close to the King in that moment it was as if he were in the throne room itself. He thought, I imagine when I finally meet him it will feel more like a reunion than an introduction, won't it? Putting the paper carefully away, he rolled over, bid his horse goodnight, and slept.
Cornelius' fifth day from home found him traveling through a densely wooded forest. The road wound between stately trunks like a ribbon between a woman's fingers. Mercifully, the terrain was not steep, so his horse was not presented with too much difficulty.
As he made his way continuously onward, the boy heard a plea for help on the road behind him. He brought his horse up sharp, dust skidding in clouds. Then he turned the steed round and faced back the way he had come. There, just off the side of the road, crouched a small child. He wondered that he had not seen her as he passed, but brought his horse over. The girl's skin and clothes were smeared and muddy. Her stomach was swollen. Most noticeable however was the filthy twist of cloth tied about her eyes. She was blind.
Holding out a hand she whimpered, "Please mister, do you have any food that I can eat? I haven't had a crumb in four days." Cornelius looked at her and was filled with compassion. He brought out the satchel containing what was left of his food stores. In dismay he realized that he only had one loaf of bread left. All of the dried fruit had been finished the night prior when he and Ephraim shared dinner. He did some careful calculations in his head. With no money, this single loaf was all he had to eat for the next three days. And yet, he thought, I'm traveling to partake in the greatest feast in the Kingdom. He dismounted, tore the loaf of bread in two, and handed half to the starving child. Then he thought better of it and gave her the second piece as well. "Here you go, little one."
She thanked him, devouring the food in an instant. He asked, "Do you not have any family? Have you nowhere to live?" The child shook her head. "Then perhaps you would like to accompany me to the palace. I'm going to see the King, and he would most certainly give you a place to live." The blind girl cocked her head and asked guardedly, "How do you know that?"
"Well, because I know His Majesty personally! He's a friend of mine and I know he would be willing to help you. Not to mention there is a fabulous banquet coming up and he has invited everyone in the land to attend!"
"Even blind girls like me? How d'you know he'd want me to come?"
"Because he is kind and caring. He would not turn anyone away. In fact I have a feeling he would give you a place of honor by his side!" She considered his words silently for a moment before speaking. "You are very generous sir, and I thank you. But I shall remain here for the time being. Perhaps one day we will meet again."
There was no use arguing with her, so the boy mounted up and went on his way through the forest. It discouraged him that so many people were not interested in meeting the King. He knew that there could be no forcing anyone to come with him though. The letter was clear that everyone had to enter the King's presence of their own accord.
That night, Cornelius' stomach rumbled in hunger from lack of food. He tried scouring the surrounding area for anything edible, but there was nothing to be found. At the very least, a nearby stream provided a chance to water the horse and refill his flask. He encouraged himself that he was only three days from the city now, and the feast began in four. If the child had gone four days without food, surely he could do so as well, couldn't he?
Cornelius was still telling himself that two days later when he was entirely famished from lack of nutrition; worn to the bone with journeying. The road had brought him out of the forest and through a narrow mountain pass, eventually spanning a broad river with only a rickety bridge crossing it. After that, he entered the final stretch of land, a country of rolling green hills and scattered woodlands.
Despite his hunger, the boy's spirits were high, knowing that in only another day he would be riding up to the gates of the royal city. Then he would only need to wait until sunfall for the grand banquet to begin. Thinking about it made his stomach rumble louder.
As he was passing through the hills he met another stranger on the side of the road. It was an odd sight. A man sat on top of a vegetable cart, his face in his hands. The wagon was full of fresh vegetables, but why wasn't the man going anywhere? He didn't even look up as Cornelius brought his horse to a halt.
"What's wrong, my friend?" he addressed the man. A weary gaze met his own when the farmer raised his head. "I'm stuck here with no way to get out and my vegetables are going to spoil."
"What happened to put you in such a position?"
"I was on my way to the market to sell my crops when a wheel broke. I paused to fix it, but just as I finished making the repairs, my horse got free. It was a young filly, still new to my farm. The second she got a chance, she bolted off. Now I don't know what to do."
Cornelius scanned the surrounding horizon. "Have you tried looking for her?"
"Oh believe me, if it were possible to catch her I would have done so. It's been two hours since she escaped. She's long gone now."
"Well perhaps you could try pulling the cart yourself?"
"You cannot be serious! This thing is almost too much for a horse, let alone a human. I'm ruined for sure."
"Alright then, take my horse."
The man looked up sharply. "What was that?"
"I said you may have my horse. She's yours. We can't have you losing your whole crop, can we?"
"But if you don't have a horse how will you make it to the King's banquet in time?"
"I was planning on arriving a day early. Now I'll just have to go on foot and hope I still have time to make it." He paused for a moment. "Wait, how did you know I'm going to the banquet? I didn't say a thing about it." The farmer replied quickly. "Well, what else would you be doing out here? Besides, isn't that where everyone else is headed?" Cornelius sighed. "No, not everyone I'm afraid." The farmer grunted at this. Then he said, "Boy, you look hungry and tired. Tell you what, as payment for allowing me to use your horse, I'll give you a ride to the city. And on the way, you can eat as many vegetables as you like. Fair deal?" Now it was Cornelius who gave the other a sharp look. "I would most definitely agree to that! Are you sure you don't mind?" The man laughed. "Are you sure you don't mind? It is your horse after all. Besides, if it weren't for you, I'd have lost the whole crop anyway. Come on, let's go."
So Cornelius journeyed with the farmer and ate his fill of fresh produce along the way. As the two traveled, he told the man of his quest to join the royal banquet. He was sure to invite the man as well, on the King's behalf. The farmer thanked Cornelius, assuring him that he would see the boy at the King's very table. This gladdened Cornelius' heart, who had begun to worry that no one would come to the feast at all.
The man's company caused the remaining time to pass quickly. Almost before he realized it, the journey was over. They had finally arrived at their destination. As one last act of generosity, Cornelius bade the farmer keep the horse. The man thanked him tearfully. With a hearty farewell, the two travelers parted ways. Then Cornelius walked boldly through the gates and into the city of the King.