'Mimi, he's coming!'

“Mimi, he’s coming!” Vash squealed. “I see his horse!”

Even before the words had left his mouth, the horse’s head burst out of the weeds and flew off down the hill-​​slope on whirring wings. It had only been a pheasant.

Kok-​​kok-​​kok-​​kok!” Shosudin laughed, mocking him and the pheasant alike.


“How do you expect to see anything down there?” Tashnu asked. “I’m the tallest–I shall see him long before you two ever do.”

“But he is coming,” Vash pouted.

He most certainly was: the distant drumbeat of trotting hooves had long since given way to the ponderous thump-​​thump thump-​​thump of a horse climbing a forested hill.

Vash’s fox-​​like little ears could already hear the crisp cracks of the twigs it trod, the rustle of bracken fronds stroking its flanks, and a jingling and clanking of mysterious metallic things that might well have been deliberately fashioned to intrigue little boys.

They might well have been deliberately fashioned to intrigue little boys.

As the horse came still closer Vash heard the scuffle and snap of trailing vines snagging and breaking across pasterns, the wet rip of roots being torn free of the earth, and finally the horse itself snorting and huffing in annoyance.

Then Vash heard a new sound – a soft clicking like a distant heron clacking its beak, but this sound was coming from very near. The horse grunted as it heaved itself up a steep slope that had balked it. Jangly things jangled, creaky things creaked, and a light breeze lifted the densely sweet odor of the earth it churned beneath its scrabbling hooves.

Tashnu gasped, “Oh!” – Shosudin said, “I see him!” – and then Vash did too.

The horse’s big brown head broke free of the weeds, followed by a big brown neck and a big brown body, and no flapping wings.

'Mimi, he's here!'

“Mimi, he’s here!” Vash said. In his excitement his voice was no more than a squeak.

“I see, Vash,” his mother said in her dear, soft voice.

The horse rose up above their height, and at last Vash had his first glimpse of a man.

At last Vash had his first glimpse of a man.

After so many hours of anticipation, the sight was something of a disappointment. The man was not the twisted little troll-​​like creature that “small and ugly” had always meant to Vash. He was in fact rather ordinary-​​looking, straight-​​limbed, and easily as tall as an elf. His long, tangled hair hid the rounded ears that Vash had longed to see. He had a black beard that made his face look sad.

“Who is he mourning, Mimi?” Vash asked.

'Who is he mourning, Mimi?'

“His king is dead,” his mother said. “Now he must be king.”

The thought made Vash feel very quiet inside, like a lake after the plip of a dropped pebble.

The horse tramped blithely past the three boys, seeming too dumb to sense the terrible weight of a king on its back. It chomped on a piece of metal it held between its teeth, and swished its long black tail.

The horse tramped blithely past the three boys.

“Come see, Lira,” Vash’s mother coaxed.

“I do not wish to see him,” Lira said hoarsely. “I wished the boys to see. Not I.”

“It may not be his son,” his mother said in a quieter voice.

'It may not be his son.'

“It is no matter,” Lira whispered. “By my mother, I pray I may not live to look into the face of a man.”

Tashnu looked at Shosudin, and Shosudin looked at Tashnu, and Vash looked at everyone, but no one looked at Vash.

The man clucked like a heron’s beak again, and the horse snorted and humphed and at last grudgingly stepped through the crumbling arch. Immediately the thump-​​thump of its feet on the turf was transformed into an astounding clang-​​clang, and Vash forgot to wonder what his mother and Lira were talking about.

“Mimi, may we go see?” Vash cried.

“Go softly,” his mother warned.

By the time she pronounced the word “Go”, Shosudin had already leapt up over the brush and gone thumping across the clearing on his grungy white feet. Vash had stiff shoes and fancy pants and short legs to hinder him, but he was still second to reach the gate. Though the tallest and oldest, Tashnu was also the most timid, and he came up last, whimpering, “Wait!”


Vash and his friends had already climbed all over the ruined tower of the men – even pulled down sagging wooden walls to make bridges; even dropped great chunks of flag stones into the depths of the weed-​​fringed well to hear the splash. There was nothing left of the place but a crumbling foundation, furred with moss and bristling with bracken, and the one defiant arch of a bluestone gate that long predated the wooden palisade walls.

But the man rode his horse into the decaying court as though it were a grand marble hall or pillared temple. His straight back and high head bespoke such majesty that even the boys began to see what he saw: the keep, magnificent as it had been in the time of men – or as it would be again.

Even the boys began to see what he saw.

The horse went once around the court, from gate to leaning wall to grassy berm to gate again. With every step the strips of metal beneath its hooves made pale patches on the flag stones, scraping up the lichen and moss of a century. The echoes of its tread clanged up into the hills, and when the man finally halted it with a tug on the reins, the space of several breaths passed before the sound had faded. The breeze rustled the leaves and blew Vash’s hair before his eye.

The man cried, “I am King Sigefrith of Lothere!”

'I am King Sigefrith of Lothere!'

His deep voice boomed like iron striking stone. Somewhere far off a pheasant – perhaps the same – took flight and kok-​​kok-​​kokked its way to safety, but all the other birds and chittering animals of the forest went silent. The man’s horse bobbed its head and sighed, as though well-​​accustomed to bearing the terrible weight of a king on its back.

Only when the echoes had quieted and the leaves had settled did the man cry out again: “Who challenges my right to rule?”

'What does challenges mean?'

The words came dense and square and heavy from his throat, and made the tedious lessons of Vash’s English tutor sound like the twittering of excitable birds. Nevertheless Vash was glad he had learned.

“What does challenges mean?” Shosudin whispered.

“He means: who says he may not rule.”

'He means: who says he may not rule.'

Shosudin scratched his chin but said no more.

The echoes died a third time, and Tashnu asked, “Who does he think is going to answer him?”

“Nobody,” Shosudin shrugged.

Little Vash thought both the question and answer odd. He wondered what man would dare.

Little Vash thought both the question and answer odd.