At the opposite end of the city, Caitlin was in her room, looking out into the night. The rest of her family ate dinner hours ago, but the Queen sent her to bed without supper as punishment for running off with the King’s Medallion earlier that morning. She was reading by candlelight, wrapped in two layers of plush, blue velvet to protect her from the cold. Her training regimen necessitated a substantial amount of food to keep her energy up, but Caitlin felt this would be a good test of her fortitude. Warriors needed to be ready to survive in all conditions, no matter how hostile.
“I take it things went well.”
Caitlin turned to find that Lilith had decided to enter without knocking. She took a seat at the desk adjacent to the bed, her chin resting on her hand. “I thought Mother was going to have you executed.”
She rolled her eyes but didn’t look up from her book, Ancient Wisdom and Warfare . “You know her, she overreacts to everything.”
“Based on what she said, it involved you stealing a King’s Medallion she was going to give to Carter Atkinson for being such a great friend to the family.”
“We have far more than we’ll ever need, so I decided it should go to a far more deserving candidate,” She flipped a page. “A nice boy gave me the most delicious pastry I ever-” As she realized what she just said, Caitlin’s eyes went wide and she felt a powerful desire to smack herself in the face.
“Ahhhh,” Lilith’s grin only made things worse. “A nice boy gave Caitlin a pastry?”
“I misspoke,” Caitlin responded. “I asked for a pastry and I paid him with a King’s Medallion because quality service deserved a reward.”
“Mmmhmm. If you say so. Might I inquire as to where this nice boy is located? I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear my sister enjoyed his work to such an extent.”
Caitlin slammed the book shut, blew out the candle, and wrapped herself in the quilt. “Good night, Lilith.”
She slipped off the chair and made her way out, only stopping at the door. “Telling Mother about this nice young boy might assuage her anger,” Lilith said. “Just a thought.”
Caitlin could feel the anger building inside her but refrained from giving Lilith any satisfaction. Her mother and sister’s constant need to discuss the opposite sex with her was infuriating. The Princess wasn’t opposed to the idea of a romantic partner, but the implication that she should give up following her dream to spend the rest of time sipping tea and giggling for some empty headed prince was infuriating. The cold of the fall night gently howled outside the window, so Caitlin gripped the covers and pulled them closer to her body.
She never understood how her mother could turn her back on knighthood. Knights were the most noble warriors in any land. How could anyone, especially her mother, forgo such a sacred duty for a life of trying on dresses and attending parties hosted by vacuous idiots? Of course, Caitlin’s mother and sister were individuals with their own will and desires. If they felt that was a worthy use of their lives, that was their prerogative, but that path held no value in Caitlin’s eyes. Her path led to the battlefield. Even if her mother would never allow her to become a Knight, Caitlin, like her parents, was born to protect the innocent from the wicked.
Still, there was no denying the boy at the bakery was charming. He was kind and clumsy in a way that was genuine. Most people she knew had a blatantly obvious ulterior motive, be it status or money, but he seemed pleased to see her. He possessed a simplistic sweetness Caitlin found refreshing. He also had a nice face.
Nice in the pleasant way that a puppy was nice, she quickly added. Not in the manner her mother and sister would imply.
It was a ridiculous idea, but Caitlin was grateful the two were unable to intrude on her private thoughts. They’d leap to the conclusion she had a crush on the young man.
The food was also spectacular, she quickly reminded herself. The dessert they cooked for her was delicious, easily on par with what the chefs in the castle made. Maybe stopping by again wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Tasty food and pleasant company were an enticing combination, and the endearing nature of the staff improved the deal. Or was that part of the act? Maybe he wasn’t even related to the owners and they just used him for his stammering charm.
“I’m clearly letting my mind run wild. It must be my empty stomach.” Caitlin thought to herself. Maybe forgoing dinner was a worthy test of her skill, but Caitlin wanted to get back at her mother. Seeing as she couldn’t trek back to the bakery at this hour, the best thing to do was to sneak into the kitchen. The guards would report the betrayal of the Queen’s orders, but not if they didn’t see her.
Quiet as a mouse and swift as a stream, Caitlin made her way through the halls of the Castle and slipped undetected into the kitchen. Ancient tools stood dormant upon rows and rows of tables and stations in the still darkness, the familiar aromas causing memories to flood into her mind. When she was younger, far less skilled but still fueled by the same sweet tooth and desire to train her skills, the Queen constantly chastised her for swiping slices of cake or stealing kitchen knives to test her throwing accuracy.
She didn’t have the energy or patience to whip up an elaborate meal right now, and wasting time meant potentially alerting the Queen. What about the cookies with the strawberry filling? She made a quick hop onto a table bolted to the wall and opened a pair of pantry doors. After rearranging jars and bowls, she happened upon her target: a silver, metallic jar that required a bit of twisting to pry open. The Princess suspected the Queen ordered the staff to hide these cookies under the mistaken belief Caitlin’s height would be enough to deter her.
She ate one cookie, then took another for the trip back. Satisfied with her act of rebellion, she dismounted with a backflip and moved towards the exit, only for the sound of familiar voices to halt her. Cloaked in shadow, she peeked around the corner and saw her mother and father talking with each other in the hallway just outside the dining hall.
“I still think you’re being too hard on her. It was a harmless joke, and a pretty funny one, at that.” Caitlin’s father said.
“And you’re being far too easy on her, indulging her with all those training sessions and tutors, filling her head with all your tales of our heroism and glory,” Caitlin’s mother said. “Apparently, I’m the only one capable of recognizing this for the poisonous dream it is. Our daughters have the freedom to do what so many couldn’t, what we never could, and she chooses to turn the castle into a barbarian’s training ground.”
“Were we any different when we were her age?”
“There’s a difference. We had no choice. And isn’t that why we fought? To end the fight? So our children didn’t have to pick up our swords?”
“Kids all go through phases. This one’s just a bit prolonged because Caitlin is headstrong and rebellious,” King Benjamin said as his lips quirked into a smirk. “Much like her mother.”
Queen Mary found little humor in the observation. “And her grandfather.” She said before turning and making her way up an adjacent staircase. The King watched her depart, letting out a heavy sigh. Caitlin waited a few moments to see where her father would go next.
“You can come out now, Caitlin, she’s gone.”
A freezing cold dug its tendrils into Caitlin’s body. How had he discovered her presence? Had she made a noise or left a trail, like some big, stupid bear? Regardless, she was ready to face her punishment with dignity. The Princess abandoned the cover of the pillar and made her way to her father.
“I thought your mother ordered you to go to bed without supper.”
Caitlin did her best to try and look appalled by the accusation. “And, of course, I complied!”
“You should be a little easier on her. She only wants to help.” Her father said.
The Princess rolled her eyes and sighed. “I don’t need her help.”
“You know she loves you, Caitlin. You and Lilith are her top priorities, and you always will be.”
“I know,” She said. “I only wish she didn’t try to be so controlling all the time.”
The King lovingly tussled her hair. “You’ll both feel better after a good night’s rest. I only ask that you don’t let anyone see you return to your room with whatever you’ve stolen. Unless you want her to be even more furious at us than she is currently.”
When Jamie woke up the following morning, he could see through his window that the sun was already high in the sky. He shifted his body so it wasn’t blaring in his eyes and pulled the blankets closer to his body. After such an emotionally draining day, he deserved a few more hours rest.
“No,” He said out loud, bringing his head up from the pillow. “Not today.” He stood and marched outside his room into the kitchen to find his mother and father sitting at the table.
“Morning, Jamie.” His father said.
“Someone’s up early,” His mother commented. “Any special reason?”
A pang of doubt jumped to the forefront of Jamie’s mind. His parents weren’t likely to feel shame or anger if he backed out on his vow to become a knight, but his pride would never recover from a blow like that. “Mother, Father,” He inhaled deeply, centering himself in the moment, and planted his feet firm as a stone statue. “I want to train to become a knight.”
Silence followed, during which Jamie wondered if they were going to burst out laughing again.
“Alright, then,” His father said at last, moving to the front door. “Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to train.” He said before leaving.
“You two have fun.” Jamie heard his mother say.
As he sprinted down the path past the trees, Jamie already had ten thousand questions. Where were they going? What were they going to do? Were they going to Skystead where all the other knights trained? When he finally caught up to his father, he decided with a long held desire:
“Can I hold your sword?”
“No.” His father responded plainly.
“Can I hold your shield?”
“Are we going to get me a set of armor?”
“You’re a ways off from armor, Jamie.” Father clearly wasn’t interested in the line of questioning, but Jamie didn’t see what was so wrong with asking.
"But don’t you need weapons to be a knight?”
At that, his father broke his long, powerful stride. He extracted his sword and dropped to one knee, presenting the blade to Jamie. The pure silver fuller and emerald gem encased in the pommel glistened in the morning sunlight. “This is the sword my father was given when he became a knight, and it became mine after he passed. One day, it will become yours,” Father said. “But this is not what gives a knight strength. A knight’s strength comes from here,” He placed his forefinger on Jamie’s heart. “From courage, from honor, from will. From a disciplined mind and a selfless spirit, not a sword. Do you understand?”
Father’s solemn words quickly grounded Jamie’s fantasies of glory and heroism. In that moment, the enormity of the responsibility washed over him. He didn’t know for certain if he could rise to the challenge, but he had to try, for his family and himself. “Yes,” Jamie nodded. “Yes, Father, I understand.”
“Good,” Father smiled and stood. “Let’s keep moving, your mother will probably kill me if I keep you out past sunset.”
It was around mid-day when Jamie concluded he was going to collapse.
His legs started aching and his breathing became more strained an hour ago, but now he was certain he was going to pass out. Falling asleep on one’s face in the middle of the forest wasn’t a mark of pride, but it was a welcome treat compared to his father’s training. His body begged him to stop, but knights never gave into pain. They always stood up, no matter what.
But Jamie wasn’t a knight yet, so sitting down for a moment was hopefully acceptable. He took a seat on top of a pile of damp leaves, planting his hands on the ground to hold himself up. A few seconds later, his father doubled back and took a seat beside him.
“I just need a minute to catch my breath.” He said, panting.
His father was looking at him with an expression somewhere between confusion and pity, and Jamie looked away, his already wounded pride dissolving. Only a few hours into his journey to become a knight, he was already breaking.
“I-I don’t know if I can do this,” Jamie admitted with a pitiful whisper. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”
The look on his father’s face told him everything: “This was a mistake. How could I expect my pathetic failure of a son to become a knight?” They should both just go home and forget about this whole day. Jamie wasn’t his father, and he never would be, no matter how fiercely the desire burned.
“I was terrified when I first saw your mother.”
That was unexpected. Jamie considered his father the bravest person in the world. The idea of him being afraid of anything was strange, but it made sense they were bound by similar fears. “Really?”
He nodded. “I met her when she was working in the shop, and I could not get a word out. There was a voice in my mind that said to me, ‘don’t talk to her, Raymond, you’ll only embarrass yourself. Someone that beautiful wants nothing to do with you’. I went back five times before I worked up the courage to ask her on a date,” He said quietly. “No matter what, you can’t let fear control you. It’s normal to be afraid, but if you let your fear control you, you’ll never get what you want.”
If nothing else, knowing he held the same anxieties as his father did all those years ago was comforting. One might argue present circumstances were slightly different, given that Caitlin Faraday was a Princess from a long line of nobility, but the point remained.
“Maybe I’ll be more confident when I’m older.” Jamie suggested
“Of course. These things take time, Jamie. You can’t expect to make the change overnight,” His father said. “And whenever you’re ready, we’ll start again.”
Long after sunset, Jamie and his father returned from training.
Rather, Jamie’s father walked while the knight in training limped inside their house.
“Hey, you two,” His mother greeted them. “Long day?”
“Very.” Jamie said.
“I’d consider giving my squire the day off tomorrow. Make that the next two or three days...”
Whatever they were saying didn’t matter to Jamie as he limped to his room. He almost fell into bed, but managed to pull the quilt over his body with one last surge of energy. If this was where he was going to die of exhaustion, at least he could be comfortable.
The first day of training had gone...well. Not as nightmarishly difficult as Jamie first thought, but a trial worth conquering. All the running, jumping, and swimming was almost too much to bear, but he soldiered on through the exhaustion. He even managed to pull himself up over a tree branch! Only once, but once was probably enough for a trainee.
Another thing of note was that Jamie felt slightly more confident in himself. If he could marshal past one of his father’s training sessions without passing out, perhaps there were other seemingly impossible goals he could surpass. Perhaps his self-doubt was unjustified. Maybe this was his destiny.
It was a tangential benefit, but Jamie could now at least envision himself speaking to Caitlin Faraday. He couldn’t picture engaging her in witty conversation, but he at least felt worthy enough of looking her in the eye and bowing. Prior, he imagined that if they were to encounter each other again, he’d freeze up and stare at her, and his only hope would be her sense of pity and mercy.
All in good time. It was as father said: these things took time. If they ever met again, Jamie would be ready. Because a knight’s strength came from the heart.