Lesson 2

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Benedikt awoke the next morning to a ruckus of squawking gulls outside the open window

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Benedikt awoke the next morning to a ruckus of squawking gulls outside the open window. He swung his feet down to the cold marble floor and shuffled to the window. The cool mountain air nipped at his skin. Gulls usually signaled the arrival of sea vessels.

A king of the past had carved a pair of towering stone bears into the cliffside, making them seem as though they were rising from the lake. Between those fearsome guardians, a small fleet of southern trading vessels now drifted towards the harbor. Benedikt welcomed the sight of them. They often arrived laden with colorful spices of the southern kingdoms and other culinary delicacies. Traders brought much-needed flavor to the Stalvart diet of fish and boiled vegetables (mostly cabbage).

More importantly, they would have news from the other kingdoms.

Benedikt dressed quickly, throwing on a moss-green doublet over his white shirtsleeves and brown trousers. He dipped his hands in the washbowl and raked cool, wet fingers through his hair to keep it from his face.

He entered the throne room and took his place beside his father and mother to wait for the first of the traders to arrive. When they entered the hall, many of the courtiers seemed to find old friends among the guests. Benedikt only recognized the white tunics with gold ornamentation as being Linnean. Since they were from the southernmost kingdom in the realm of Floryndal, most had large white furs over their tunics to protect their bronzed skin from the chill of the north winds.

While the men of Stalvart were often stocky brutes, Benedikt always thought he'd fit in better with the Linneans. They were mostly short in stature, sinewy swimmers built for diving to the ocean floors to pluck the treasures hidden in her depths.

"Dear friends, welcome to Stalvart." King Sander said, his arms spread wide. The traders knelt before him in reply. "What news do you have from the shores of Linnea?"

"King Sander, we bring news you will find most disconcerting," their leader replied, a man with thick black hair and a pointed goatee.

"What troubles you, Lord Elias? It's is rare for King Estathis to send one of his lords so far north."

"There is something dark brewing in the marshes of Fellheim. A foul scent is on the air from the west. It drives all sorts of hateful creatures into our lands, trolls and fellgryls in numbers we haven't seen since The Bane."

Benedikt wondered what a fellgryl was, but he was fairly sure he didn't want to come across one. He'd read many books that chronicled the days when Withering Magic ravaged the souls of men and consumed anything good. They hadn't mentioned such creatures — only the havoc reigned down on the realm by the men and women who had created them.

"This troubles me indeed," King Sander replied. He pressed a closed fist against his pursed lips. "I will send a squad of some of my best warriors with you to scout the marshlands and report back on what they find."

"King Esthathis will be pleased to have your support in Linnea," Lord Elias said.

King Sander nodded his head. "It is the least we can do for our allies. Our table is open to you, and we will feast in his honor while you are here."

Lord Elias bowed low. "Nothing would please us more."

The traders left to finish their business in the city while news traveled quickly that warriors were being sent to the lands of Fellheim. Whenever he passed the doors to the throne room, Benedikt could hear the clamorous shouts of Stalvart's heroes as each man and woman made their case to be chosen for the elite scouting party. By the time of the evening banquet, King Sander had selected his warriors for the mission and invited them to dine with the court and the traders of Linnea.

During dinner, Benedikt found himself seated between his mother and Lord Elias.

"I've heard of your quest," Lord Elias said.

Great, Benedikt though to himself.

"I have news that may interest you," Lord Elias said as he refilled Benedikt's cup as well as his own. "My traders often travel to the Kingdom of Balkor. This spring, they got lost on their way through the forest of Bleakwood and discovered a maiden sleeping in a coffin of glass."

"Would you be able to direct me to her location?" Benedikt asked.

"Unfortunately, we couldn't be certain. Bleakwood is tricky to navigate and they had wandered for two days before they found her."

Benedikt felt the prick of excitement, a budding hope of another princess who might awaken at his kiss. But the more he thought about attempting yet another quest, he felt the weight of another mark in the ledger of his failures too. Would the fifteenth failed kiss tip the scale and put him out of favor as the heir? Benedikt didn't want to know the answer.

"You must go," Queen Ylva smiled, placing a gentle hand on his arm. "She could be your True Love!"

Benedikt gave his mother a reassuring smile. He knew she meant well. It was in her nature to be unfailingly optimistic.

"I know." He turned so Lord Elias wouldn't overhear. "I just still don't understand why I must find my True Love before I start my regency." He had voiced this concern to both his parents many times before.

"Because that is our law," Queen Ylva said. She patted his hand reassuringly. "There is no surer way to know your True Love than to awaken her with True Love's Kiss." She turned to King Sander, and that was the end of the conversation, as it always was.

When dinner devolved into dancing, Benedikt pulled his father aside and told him of the cursed maiden the Linneans had discovered.

"Bleakwood?" his father exclaimed. "That's a dangerous place, and it is aptly named. Furthermore, part of it lies within the kingdom of Rosenfjell, and the land of elves is not a place for Crown Princes to venture to alone. I can't spare the soldiers to accompany you with such a threat in the marshes of Fellheim. The elves are a private people and don't take kindly to strangers. Such an undertaking would require my best fighters, who simply cannot be made available at this time."

A hunger clawed at Benedikt's insides. He felt it only in the face of danger, in the certainty of adventure. "I don't need an entire cadre, just a few good warriors."

King Sander scratched his beard as he watched the revelers. "You know, such a dangerous quest might prove your True Love for the maiden," he mused. "There must be a way..."

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