He saw it then, rising tall in the distance. It was impossible to miss; a magnificent castle walling off the far horizon, its stones glowing ruby in the setting light. Stately towers seemed to uphold the sky itself. As he got closer he noticed the kingdom's emblem flying from a dozen different pennants: a key and sword crossed over the sun.
There were two guards stationed in front of the gates, which hung open, as Sir Ephraim had promised. Two surprising things caught Cornelius' attention as he drew nearer. The first was a disorderly heap of baskets piled just to the left of the gate. They were accompanied by other baubles of varying worth, all discarded. This curiosity barely had time to register before he noticed the next: his horse was standing on the palace lawn, grazing contentedly. He called out to her and she trotted over, nickering softly in recognition. "Hey there girl, what are you doing here?" he asked as he patted her nose. "It looks like our farmer friend must have showed up after all, huh? I hope the girl and old man did too." She nuzzled him in the chest, making him giggle. Then one of the guards called out, "You'd better hurry up lad! The King's patience won't last forever!"
Cornelius said farewell to his horse and crossed the distance to the gates. The soldiers nodded wordlessly at him as he strode past. The second he was through the archway a well-dressed servant appeared at his elbow.
"Ah, Master Cornelius, how good of you to come. Please follow me, the dining hall is right this way." Cornelius was led through an interior courtyard to a large set of double doors recessed in one wall. The servant pulled them open and gestured Cornelius inside, saying "Welcome, young lord, to the banquet feast of the King." Cornelius held his breath as he went in.
The hall was expansive, filled with seemingly endless rows of tables, each piled high with more food than Cornelius had ever seen. The two distant side walls were as finely decorated as the one he entered through, boasting ornate tapestries and ceiling high windows of purest glass. A fireplace five times the size of a normal one blazed against the far wall. In front of it, at the head of the largest table, sat what could only be the King's throne. It was crafted of crystal-silver into the shape of a flowering tree. The chair, however, stood empty.
All of this Cornelius took in at a glance. He was less concerned about the food and decorum than he was about the faces of those who filled the room. The array was colorful, for people had come from far and wide across the land. He searched through the teaming throng but could not find anyone who looked like a king. What he did notice however was that the vast majority of the people in the room were children. There were youth of all ages seated at every table. Though present, adults were harder to find within the mix. The glint of steel scattered about revealed a number of knights in attendance as well.
He scanned the mass of faces for any familiar ones. To his relief, he recognized a number of people he had invited. There, at the foot of a nearby table, sat the blacksmith and the basket weaver, both looking rather abashed. Of the old man, blind girl, or farmer he'd met on the road there was no trace. Ephraim and Errin were likewise absent, though he thought it must be that he simply couldn't find them in the crowd.
It also occurred to him that nobody was eating, assumedly because they were waiting for the King. Still standing in the doorway at the base of the hall, he began to feel uncomfortable. Where were his friends? He wasn't sure at all where he should sit. Were they assigned a position, or could he sit wherever he liked? He began to debate if he should join the blacksmith or not. That's when he heard a voice behind him.
"There sure are a lot of them, aren't there?"
Cornelius turned around to face a young man with shoulder-length golden hair and dancing blue eyes. The thought flashed through his mind that he hadn't been the last guest to arrive after all. Aloud he said, "I'm sorry friend, I hadn't noticed you standing there. Yes, there certainly are lots of people here. I can't help but notice that most of them are children."
"Hmmm... that's to be expected I suppose. Are you looking for someone in particular?" The youth asked.
"Well, right now everyone's waiting for the King to arrive. At the moment I'm looking for my friends Errin and Ephraim, but they don't seem to be around."
I may not have to eat alone after all, Cornelius thought as he went on. "If you don't know anyone here either, we could sit together." He offered his hand and the other shook it warmly.
"My name is Cornelius. What's yours?"
The boy didn't say anything at first, he just gave Cornelius a look that was both puzzled and amused at the same time. "You mean you don't recognize me?"
It occurred to Cornelius then that as the two of them were talking he had been dimly aware of a hush falling over the room. He realized with measured uneasiness that the hall behind him was now deadly silent. Spinning around to see what the matter was, he discovered that all heads were turned towards the back of the room. Towards himself. Or...
He looked back then, into the shining blue eyes of the youth with the golden hair. The young man facing him smiled broadly. Suddenly Cornelius knew who it was he had been addressing.
Immediately falling to one knee, he bowed his head. "My Lord." he said solemnly.
Cornelius felt a hand rest upon his brow. "Rise, Cornelius, loyal subject and truest of friends." Feeling dizzy, he stood up. "Your majesty, forgive me for not knowing it was you. I did not expect... I mean, I had thought that..." He trailed off miserably.
The King laughed. "You'd thought I would be older, you mean? Most people expect that. I'm not sure how old I am, exactly. Age is of such little consequence to the deeper workings of the world, as evidenced by this fine company here." He indicated the crowd that filled the hall.
Cornelius was speechless for a moment, not entirely sure what to say. The warmth, joy, and enthusiasm emanating from the golden haired youth was intoxicating. He wondered how he could possibly have misunderstood the boy's identity. It was so unmistakable now. This was the same King who kept his people's well being foremost in his mind. The same King who had spent a year inviting people to a banquet for the sole purpose of sharing in the joy of fellowship with them. This was the very author of the scroll that Cornelius had spent so long studying. In that sense he felt completely familiar with the King's presence, even though they had just met in person.
It was an odd contrast. The King radiated passion and excitement, yet kept himself poised and controlled so you felt as if at any moment he might burn up in his own energy. The balance was delicate, but he managed it perfectly.
He was dressed very humbly for a King as well. Not covered in royal robes or paraphernalia, he was instead clad in a simple pair of breeches and loose fitting, billowy white shirt. The only jewelry adorning him was a silver ring on one finger. Cornelius recalled that when he bowed he'd noticed the young man was barefoot.
It was impossible to determine the King's age. He had the appearance and demeanor of a young man, but Cornelius had a feeling that he was much older than he seemed. It was something in his eyes, mostly. They had the look of worn stone walls, as if they had seen the passing of centuries. What secrets were locked behind them?
Somehow, the King was entirely other than what Cornelius had been expecting, and yet he was entirely who he ought to be; could not possibly be anything else.
"So tell me, how did you meet my friend Errin?" The King asked, breaking in on his rumination.
"Um, I just found her randomly in the market today." he replied, "But she was very helpful in showing me around the city. I don't see her anywhere though. I hope she's here."
"Oh, she is alright. Showed up not long before you did, actually. She's a pretty lass. Do you care for her?"
The abrupt question caught Cornelius off guard. "Pardon, your majesty? I just met her. I mean I hardly know who she is! I mean..."
"That is still no answer to the question though, is it?"
In truth, Cornelius really had no idea what he felt about Errin. She was only an acquaintance, and he hadn't begun to think of her as anything more.
The gathering had been watching their exchange since the King's arrival, and Cornelius was unsure how in the world to respond. Could Errin hear them?
He was saved further embarrassment by the arrival of Sir Ephraim. The man came in from the courtyard to stand next to the King.
"It is time, your Honor." he said.
"Time indeed." the King responded. "Time for me to do the one thing I have never done in all the years I have ruled this land. Time to shut the gates." He took a deep breath. "Go ahead Captain Ephraim, do it now. Let no one else in."
The King noticed the surprised look on Cornelius' face and asked, "What is it? Is something wrong?"
"You called him Captain. You mean Sir Ephraim is..."
"Captain of the palace guard, of course. You never told him, Ephraim?"
The knight smiled sheepishly. "Well, I never was one to boast about rank, sir."
"Ah, fierce as a lion but humble as a fawn, that's Ephraim for you. Quite an unstoppable combination of character qualities."
"Please your Majesty..." Ephraim deflected the praise, but Cornelius could tell he enjoyed it.
The King clapped once. "Yes, of course, the gates. Please see to it Captain." The knight left to do as he was bidden.
The King turned now and addressed the hall. Holding his hands out to them, his wide shirt sleeves fell back around his shoulders. "My friends and dearly beloved subjects, I thank you all for attending my banquet. I have been looking forward to this evening for a long, long time. Twelve months ago the invitations were sent out. The whole country was told of this meeting, and all those who were willing to come are here. I am pleased to see that every seat has been filled. Now, our year of waiting is finally up!"
There were cheers and applause at this. The King waited patiently till it quieted down again.
"I must tell you that I appreciate the presence of each and every one of you. You have proven your allegiance to me and to this kingdom by coming here tonight. Most of all however, I appreciate what you have given me. For while I have provided you merely with food and merriment, you have provided me with something far greater: your friendship, loyalty, and love. For this I am eternally grateful. Know that as your King I have pledged to give my all in leading, supporting, and protecting my people."
This time, the cheering did not stop, and Cornelius strained to hear the speech’s conclusion. "We will now partake of this bountiful feast. But first, a toast. To friendship!"
A servant appeared and offered both the King and Cornelius silver chalices. Cornelius took his and raised it as everyone in the room did the same. "To friendship!" the people echoed, and drained their cups.
Then they paused, uncertain if they should wait for the King to be seated before eating . He waved at them impatiently. "Go on, go on! Go ahead and eat!" They fell to with fervor.
The King turned to Cornelius. "Now then, would it please you to–"
He was interrupted by a clamorous banging coming across the courtyard from the castle gates. A strange look crossed his face. "Hold on, I'd better see what that racket is. If you'll kindly pardon me." He said, turning to go. Cornelius chose to follow, trotting to keep up with the youth's long strides. As they crossed the inner court they met Ephraim coming the other way. "I'm sorry Highness, they refused to go away without speaking to you. I thought that under the circumstances..."
"It's quite alright Ephraim." The King said. "I'll see what it is they want. You may go and eat. Don't worry, we will not be harmed." The knight bowed and left them.
They walked up to the large wooden doors, which quaked with deep booms from the force of those knocking. Passing the main gate, the King stopped at a small guard house first and raised the heavy bar holding the gate shut. Then he swung one great door open just wide enough to allow him to peek out. Cornelius did his best to see past the King's shoulder.
There was a large group of people standing outside the gate. They bore flickering torches to illuminate the night. Among them Cornelius recognized the cloth merchant and richly dressed men he had seen arguing in the park.
The King surveyed the crowd blankly, his face a mask of unrecognition. There was an uncomfortable silence. Then he gave a nervous chuckle. “Who are you?”
"Don't you know us Lord?" One of the men in the front spoke. "We were all invited to your feast, remember? Please let us in!" The King's eyes were hard as he answered them. "You read the invitation and you knew the rules, yet you refused to follow them. They were simple enough, but you would not obey." The leader begged now. "Forgive us! We wanted to come, but we had important matters to take care of beforehand. Yet here we are now, ready to come in and eat with you. Don't you understand?"
"Yes, I understand. I understand that you refused to come because you remain loyal only to yourselves. I offered you the free gift of my friendship but you discarded it for the chance to please your own selfish desires. You are no friends of mine, and I am no longer your king."
Placing his hands on the door, the King pushed it shut. As it swung to, those on the other side continued to cry out in protest. Then it closed. The lock fell into place with a resounding crash. The night became silent and still.
Holding the gate with both hands, the King rested his forehead against the wood, eyes squeezed tight. "The fools..." he whispered harshly, "They knew the truth better than anyone. But in the end, they did not know the one thing worth knowing." Cornelius thought he saw tears running down the King's face, though in the darkness he couldn't be sure.
"I'm sorry, your Highness." Cornelius managed to keep his voice from trembling. Looking up now, the King turned to him and gave a wan smile. "It's okay. I had known this would happen." He ran a sleeve across his eyes. "There is no need to remain here any longer. Come, let us return to the banquet."
Back inside, Cornelius was once again confronted with the dilemma of where to sit. He began to gravitate towards the foot of the nearest table, where the blacksmith and basket weaver were looking more comfortable with food in their bellies.
The King placed a hand on Cornelius' shoulder. "Where are you going, friend? Will you not sit with me?"
"Your Majesty, I couldn't possibly be worthy of such an honor."
"Nonsense! When I arrived you were fully willing to have me eat with you. Allow me the chance to extend the same grace. I insist."
In a daze, Cornelius followed his King down the length of the banquet hall to the table crowned by a crystal-silver throne. Sir Ephraim was seated on the chair's right, and the boy noticed with consternation that the only empty place at the table was opposite the knight, on the King's left. The King placed a hand on this back, gently guiding him to the empty chair. Cornelius was about to protest when someone bounded out of the seat next to his.
"Whopper! I thought you'd never show up!" Errin sprang up with her arms open wide. He flinched, ready to be tackled in an embrace, but she flew past him.
"Little Errin! It's good to see you too! How have you been?" The King laughed, hugging her tightly in return.
"Missin' you like mad, though somewhat better with the feast an' all." she said. The King held her at arm’s length, looking her up and down. "Why, you haven't grown an inch since I saw you last!" he jested.
"An' I see you 'aven't took my advice to try wearin' shoes once in a while." she returned. He pretended to look insulted. "That's no fair Errin, as a king I have such large shoes to fill! You've no idea what it's like!" They laughed together at this. Their obvious delight in one another was so touching that Cornelius felt his eyes sting. He hoped to know the King so well one day.
"Just look at me, I'm forgetting my guest of honor." The King reprimanded himself. He turned to Cornelius, one hand on Errin's back. "If you would please be seated, sir." He nodded towards the empty seat by the throne. In deference to his master's wishes, Cornelius sat down as the other two returned to their places, Errin on his left and the King on his right.
Still embarrassed by the adulations, he said "My Lord, I wish you wouldn't. I've done nothing in my life worthy of recognition." The King picked up a spoon and looked at his reflection absentmindedly. "You know, Cornelius, such claims are hardly appropriate for someone who displays your heartfelt compassion. After all, did you not prove your honor to me on three separate occasions?" Cornelius was unsure of what the other was talking about. "Three occasions? But I've never seen you before tonight! I'm afraid I don't understand what you're saying."
The golden haired youth put down the spoon. "You don't? How about now?" He took the cloth napkin from his lap and twisted it into a band across his eyes.
A light dawned in Cornelius' mind. He gasped. "So it was you! The blind girl on the road, the farmer and the old man, they were all you, weren't they?" The King dropped the napkin, nodding happily. "I happen to be a master of disguises." He said. "Each time you showed kindness to a stranger, every act of charity, it was me you were serving. I admit I was testing you, though it was for good reason. I needed to be sure of your character. After our first encounter I was certain enough that I sent Ephraim to visit you as well. Neither of us were disappointed."
Errin, who had been listening to the exchange wordlessly, became animated now. "Ya mean you're gonna give 'im the opportunity? That's wonderful!" She clapped Cornelius heartily on the back.
"What's this about?" he asked. The King grinned and exchanged a look with Ephraim. Taking the hint, the knight spoke up. "Cornelius, His Majesty and I have been seeking to add to the ranks of the palace guard. How would you like to train under me and become a knight of the realm?"
Cornelius felt as if his chair had flown through the ceiling. "Do you really mean it? That would be the greatest honor I could ever receive! I don't know how to express my gratitude Your Highness."
"Ya could start by sayin' thank you." Errin elbowed him in the ribs.
"Yes, thank you! I thank you both, a thousand times over."
The captain of the guard smiled. "Alright then, that settles it. We'll begin your training in a week. That should give you time to make any necessary preparations"
Then Errin spoke up again. "Pardon my sayin' this, but are any of you gonna actually eat anything? This is the King's banquet ya know!"
The three men looked down at their plates of food sitting untouched and laughed. "Yes Little Errin," the King said, "I suppose we'd best hurry up before you finish everything for us!"
They feasted then, and it was a meal unlike anything Cornelius had ever experienced. The food never ran out as servants brought in dish after delectable dish. As a farm boy, he didn't recognize half of what he was eating, but he enjoyed every morsel of it. The hall was filled with a near tangible joy, everyone gratefully partaking of food and friendship. Both were available in plenty.
The King had a difficult time of it though. Not long after the conversation ended, several small children appeared around his throne. They poked and prodded the glassy silver experimentally. One girl bravely climbed into his lap and tried feeding him by spoon. Encouraged by her actions, the others began clambering up the finely carved chair and hanging off its sides. At first Sir Ephraim tried to stop the children, but the King seemed to appreciate their attention. It was not long till he was dragged from his seat to tussle about on the floor with them. Nearby adults looked on, smiling.
From where they sat finishing their meal, Errin and Cornelius watched the show as well. It was a most entertaining sight. "Hmm..." the girl considered. "Perhaps it's a good thing 'e don't wear shoes. They'd of pulled 'em off to use as helmets by now."
"Just look at this place." Cornelius said. "Everyone is so happy. It's magical. I wish it would never end."
Reaching across, Errin took a bread roll from the King's unattended plate and bit into it. "Who says it 'as to? The people here, they love him with everything in 'em. And he cares every bit as much for them. That's what has made this banquet amazing."
Cornelius thought of his family then. They had been entirely absent from his mind the past few days, so excited was he for the feast. But their faces flashed before him now: father, mother, sister; the dearest loved ones he had. He felt ashamed of his forgetfulness. "I wish they could see this." He sighed. "I wish they had come." Errin overheard him. "What're you mutterin' about, Corny? Why look so glum?"
"It's my family. I wanted them to be here, but they refused. Just like so many others. I just wish they knew what they were missing. I want them to meet the King too, but now it's too late. What about you? Do you have anyone back home?"
A distant look passed over her young face. Her eyes clouded. "Naw, I'm a orphan. Dintcha know that?" She nodded to the ongoing wrestling match. "Most ah these kids are. That's why come we love the King so much. He treats us like we were 'is own kin. Not many kings I know who'll go that far for their subjects."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. Still, you couldn't ask for a better step-father, could you?" She brightened at this. "Dead straight! Ye'd haffa be an oaf not to want a father like this'n! An'–"
"Don't you forget it!" He finished for her, tonking her on the head with a spoon. She froze for a moment, a startled look on her face. Then she broke into laughter. "Haha, mebbe you're not such a young pup after all!"
Cornelius remembered something and frowned. "Errin, do you think we should ask the King now?"
"Hm? About what?"
"About what we were talking about today?"
She stared at him.
He tried again. "You know, I mean everything concerning the city, and those who don't want a real king. Remember?" She put a hand wearily to her forehead. "Oh right, that. I dunno... Seems that would kinda ruin the mood, ya know?" Cornelius knew. He also understood the importance of the matter, and wanted to hear the truth. If he was to become a knight, it would be necessary to discuss such things.
The opportunity was lost however, because now the King was standing up on his throne, arms outstretched for attention. The noise of the crowd died down. When he had their ears at last, he dropped his hands. Then he addressed them.
"Dearest friends, I would like to thank you once again for your presence tonight. Look around you a moment. Those gathered here are the truest and kindest souls this land has known. Now they are your brothers and sisters, tied together by bonds surer than blood itself.
But not all is well in our kingdom. As you know, there are those beyond these walls who are unloyal to me. They resist my reign, even while claiming allegiance to my name. Yet in their hearts they would see me dead.
As long as this country remains divided, it cannot know peace. Therefore, it would seem necessary to rout out the resistance, establish my rule once and for all. That would require a war however, and I am unwilling that I should lose even one soul that remains faithful to me. That is why I have devised a much different solution.
Many of you have suspected that there was more to this banquet than mere fellowship. You are correct. While I have cherished this evening's every moment, there is another reason I have gathered you here. It is to tell you this: I am leaving."
Before he could go on, there were cries of protest and outrage from all across the hall. Cornelius' brain buzzed with the noise of the commotion. He understood though. They felt hurt, confused, maybe even betrayed. While he trusted the King completely, he could not deny some of these feelings swelled within his own chest. What was the Lord thinking?
Captain Ephraim took his shield from where it hung on the back of his chair. Banging his sword hilt upon it, he called for order. Eventually he gained a measure of peace and gestured to the King. "Please continue, Your Majesty."
Thanking him, the golden haired youth raised his voice. "Please let me finish! I'm sorry this news upsets so many of you, but allow me to explain myself. I am not abandoning you. I have been and will always be your King. Nor am I retreating, though at first it may seem so. Rather, this is an act of mercy.
You see, I have decided to make a fresh start of things. A new beginning. In a far off country, the land of my birth, I will begin construction of a new kingdom. I must depart for that place now in order to make it ready for your arrival.
That's right, I want each and every one of you to join me there. In fact, whoever wishes to may leave on the journey with me."
A large number of hands shot up around the room. The King smiled at this before continuing.
"For those of you who remain, you will not be alone. I am leaving Sir Ephraim in charge of this castle and all the surrounding lands. As my chosen steward, he will continue to protect and uphold you. He will do so until the day of my return, when I come to guide those who remain into the final kingdom."
Heavy silence filled the hall. Everyone was considering the gravity of the King's words. Which decision should they make? Eventually one man toward the back called out, "Here, what're we supposed to do iffens we stay behind?"
The King addressed him. "This feast was only a taste of the things to come. One day you will all join me in my coming kingdom, where we will be united again. It will be the responsibility of those who remain to bring as many souls as they can along with them. Many beyond these walls denied joining me tonight, but it may be that some of them will reconsider. There will always be those who rail against me. They will think I am running away, but I will be giving them a second chance. It is for their sake that I leave a remnant of you here."
He ordered the company into the courtyard then. It took everyone a while to file out, but the grassy space was more than large enough to hold them all. Stepping out, they saw that the sky was pink with the nearing of dawn. The air was crisp and charged with anticipation.
The King had them divide themselves into two groups. Those who would be leaving lined up beside the gates. Those who chose to remain stayed back near the dining hall's entrance.
Off in one corner, Errin and Cornelius spoke in hushed whispers. "What are you going to do?" Cornelius asked her.
"I'm goin' with my King, of course! He's the only family I've got. There's nothin' left for me if I stay behind. What about you?"
He bit his lip. "Well, there's my knighthood training with Ephraim coming up, not to mention..."
"You want a chance to bring your family along next time. I know."
He gave her a grateful look. "Thanks for understanding, Errin. And thanks for everything else today also. It was a pleasure to meet you."
"Yeah, well... it's not like we'll never see each other again. Still, it was good gettin' ta know you."
They stood still for a moment, unsure of what to do next. Then Cornelius threw his arms around her. "I'll miss you, Errin! Be sure to take care of the King for me!"
"I'll miss ya too," she coughed, "And I'll keep 'im safe alright! Now leggo, I can't breathe!" Even as she said it she hugged him back though.
After that she crossed the courtyard to stand in line with those following the King. Errin and the other orphans were going, along with about one third of the adults who had filled the dining hall. The force of knights had divided roughly in half. It was no wonder they would need more recruits, Cornelius thought.
The people watched and waited patiently as the King embraced his subjects who had chosen to stay behind. As he passed each one, he spoke words of encouragement for only them to hear. When he reached Sir Ephraim he whispered in low tones, assumedly offering final instructions.
Eventually he came to Cornelius. They smiled at one another. The youth's blue eyes still danced, but now it was a slow, somber waltz. He said, "Cornelius, I'm so proud of you. I could not have chosen a better addition to the guard. You'll do fabulously under Ephraim.
I realize it's hard saying goodbye; we've only just met. Still, I'm sure that..." Then his voice broke. Unable to speak further, he hugged Cornelius tight and wept. Cornelius was crying as well now, but managed to choke out, "Thank you so, so much. I'll never forget you, Lord. Come back quickly. We'll be waiting."
"I know." The other whispered back, "I'll always be with you, my friend."
They held each other a few moments more, and then the King stepped back. He let in a long breath. "It's time to be leaving then."
He strode over to the large wooden gates and faced those coming with him. One of the soldiers drew back the heavy bar that locked the doors shut. "Is everything in order? Are you all ready to make the journey?" He asked.
Errin spoke up, "Ready as ever Your Honor! Only, I'm confused. We don't 'ave any supplies yet. Just 'ow long'll this trip take us?" The King grinned, rubbing his hands together briskly. "Oh, I don't know, Errin. Perhaps it will take us a thousand years. Or perhaps we are already there."
With a great heave he shoved the doors open. They swung apart, not to reveal a view of the city, but of a sweeping, gorgeous countryside. Lush forests, stalwart mountains, and broad meadows flooded their sight and drowned their senses. The sky, which should have been the hazy gray of autumn was an endless depth of summer blue. Everyone gave a collective gasp of wonder.
"Do you like it?" the King smiled. "Welcome home." He stood to one side as the line of people filed past. As she was leaving, Errin turned and glanced back at Cornelius. In another time and place, she thought, things might have been different. Then she passed through the doors and into the world beyond.
The King was the last to go through. He looked back from the other side, smiling and waving at those he was leaving behind. "Be strong!" he called. "Wait for me, I'll come back for you! I'll come back, I promise!"
Then the archway was filled with a brilliant flash of light. Cornelius shielded his eyes. When he looked again, the magnificent vision was gone. The gateway stood empty, and beyond was the familiar sight of the city. There, just beside the door, his horse stood next to a discarded heap of baskets. The busy noise of a town waking up floated on the morning air.
The boy stood rooted in place, staring in disbelief. Had that just happened? "They're... gone." he stammered. Ephraim came over and put a hand on his shoulder. "Aye, for now. But we'll see them again. Let’s not waste time staring into the sky! I'm going within to make some necessary arrangements. Come see me when you are ready. We need to send your family word of your new employment." He turned and left. The remaining guards followed their leader into the keep. What was left of the company dispersed, going about whatever duties fell to them.
Suddenly Cornelius became aware of something in his hand. What's this? He thought, bringing it up to see. It was a scroll, still bound with the King's seal. He broke the wax and unrolled it, eyes scanning the words. He grinned. It was a second invitation, a new banquet. The scroll held all the depth of personality the first had, but contained something more as well: a deeper hope, a greater promise, and an unmistakable degree of finality.
When he reached the end, a small scrap of paper fluttered to the ground. He retrieved it and read the words:
Cornelius, I knew I could entrust this to you. As you can see, this scroll contains instructions for those seeking to attend the second feast. Right now it is the only copy, so you'd better tell the scribes to get busy! I would love to meet your family, and anyone else you are able to bring along. There are still those who need to hear! You know what to do. I am currently unable to reveal the time of my return, but be ready, I'm coming back soon!
Beneath the signature there was a post script:
Thank you for the use of your horse. You may have her back now. Also, I seem to have accidentally left a spare knight's crest in one of her saddlebags, along with several pouches of gold and a loaf of bread. I hope you find these items beneficial. Till we meet again, friend.
"Till we meet again, Lord." He whispered. "That day can't come soon enough."
Closing his eyes, Cornelius inhaled deeply of the fragrant autumn air. It might have been his imagination, but he thought for a moment it was tinged with just the hint of summer.