by Traverse Wolverston
Sliding into a chair across from me, the detective leaned forward; his scent was stale cologne and stress-induced sweat. What sort of pieces of work had sat in this chair before me? What hooligans and deviants had he stared down just that morning?
I figured I might as well start the inevitable conversation, so I said, “You can sit me in this chair until Hell ices, but you can’t take my memory of what it was like to be a king. Now, how about me getting an attorney?”
That was a laugh. I couldn’t afford dinner, what sort of attorney was I going to get? Something washed-up and grease-slick, the sort of person who talks about being a public defender because he sees the need to help the little man. At least that’s what he says at those dinner parties with several courses and starched linen napkins so the man across from him will think he’s noble. That’s the sort of attorney I’d be getting.
“You’re not under arrest, Mr. DuRoy.” He was trying to reassure me, but I caught his fumble over “mister”. Wasn’t really my place to be bitter, I suppose. There I sat in stained pants and a faded shirt with a ragged jacket pulled around me while discussing attorneys and kings and expecting him to take me seriously.
“Then I’ve got nothing else to say. May I please leave?”
“You haven’t really answered any of the other officers’ questions,” he persisted and stood back up, his subconscious showing that we were no longer equals. I wouldn’t be Mr. DuRoy anymore, I’d be plain, ol’ Jake – just like when they brought me in.
“I’m not going to say anything about her.” That wasn’t entirely true and to prove it, I added, “She’s not a criminal. She never stole a thing.”
“There’s that horse. She stole that.”
“He has no owner.” I looked him straight in the face, his eyes against mine; his lush green and mine frost gray locking across a distance vaster than the urine-scented room. He looked away first, making a point of checking a scribble in his notebook. I smiled. Two months ago I would not have had the brass to do that, but that was before I met her.
That was before I became a king.
I had been out of a home for four months when I met Kian. I was at the point where I realized my life was spiraling somewhere from which I would never return; a tarp-draped tent near the river was my house and the soup kitchen was my fine dining establishment. Some days I entertained myself by wondering if the guy out in that unpronounceable third-world dirt heap was selling the sensitive data my former clients so blithely sent him. I might have been more expensive to employ, but at least I could be regulated.
That particular morning was not much different except I was trying to convert my former yearly salary into goats. It would certainly be more convenient and less expensive to hand over a couple goats rather than print off two weeks’ pay in Monopoly money to whomever had my old position. Political correctness is a concern for people who can buy their own dinners, I concluded.
“Don’t! Don’t touch me! Help!” That was the yelling I heard over the bleating of imaginary goats. I’d been homeless only four months, so I hadn’t really mastered some points of The Survival Code, including but not limited to: mind your own damned business. I kept a bat for those sorts of moments and while the woman kept begging and yelling, I hefted my bat and began running. That was when I heard galloping hoof beats. It’s funny, I wasn’t a country boy, but I knew that sound as it thrummed through the morning mist.
I had to scramble up an embankment, but when I got to the top, I found just about the craziest sight I’d ever seen. Cowering on the ground was a woman in torn jogging clothes and dashing off like their feet were afire and their butts were a-catching went two men in baggy jeans with crotches somewhere about the knees, causing them to adopt a leg-flailing gait as they kept a death grip on their pants. The third man had chosen to stand and fight and waved a straight-bladed knife with the exaggerated motions of somebody who has no idea what he’s doing.
He’d have done better to run. Bearing down on him was a girl on a horse. A clap-trap of metal rattled about her as she urged the horse onward. A charging horse would have been serious enough, but in contrast to the rusting hodge-podge strapped to her, she leveled a very clean sword that sparked in the sunrise.
“For honor!” she yelled and the man tried to dodge aside and slash the horse. Deftly, she swung the sword around and brought it swinging into his body. I’m no vigilante, but with one sword strike, she saved the state tens of thousands of dollars and the futures of who-knows-how-many joggers.
Then the really weird part that makes me pity the plight of psychiatrists: the would-be victim picked up a river rock and hurled it at the girl on the horse. The rider twisted away but the rock still cracked her across the jaw. The horse reared, dropping the rider to the ground and the woman ran shrieking back down the jogging trail.
Carefully, not wanting to get my throat torn open, I lowered my bat and crept past the horse to the rider. Blood oozed down the side of her face from the rock, but she was still breathing strongly. I admit I didn’t really pay all that much attention in those first aid classes in high school, so I didn’t know I shouldn’t move a person with a head injury. It just seemed to me that I ought to do something other than leave her lying alone on a usually deserted trail, so I hoisted her onto my shoulders in a fireman’s carry and got her back to the tent.
Laying her down on my sleeping bag – and feeling irrationally self-conscious that it wasn’t cleaner – I saw that the pieces of metallic junk were strategically placed. A couple hubcaps served as a kind of breastplate with one in front and one in back. Other rusting oddities covered the rest of her, including soup cans for bracers on her arms.
“You are one crazy kid,” I muttered as I removed the makeshift armor so she could rest more comfortably. In doing so, I saw that a long scar ran the length of the outside of her left arm, raised and raw against the sunburned skin. “What in the world happened to you?” I asked the unconscious form.
Finding that her head was hot with fever, I tore some scraps of cloth and dampened them in river water to put against her head. Not sure what else to do, I went outside to her horse. In the saddlebags I found a short rope. Distracted by the events of the morning, I twisted the rope into a hobble and slipped it over the horse’s hooves as if I were putting on my own shoes. The horse nudged me once and then stood calmly. It didn’t seem odd at the time, but I was vaguely aware that the closest I could remember being to horses was seeing them at the state fair. I had certainly never worked with them before. I figured it must have been all those westerns boys grow up watching.
The girl was waking up when I came back inside the tent.
I asked the requisite stupid question: “How you doing?”
She gave the requisite stupid answer: “Where am I?”
I’d had enough requisite talk so I asked, “Well, where do you want to be?”
Pause. Then she grinned wanly and said, “I want to be back home on the balcony; the one on the third floor that overlooks the forest. You know where the lake’s inlet cuts like a valley? I want to be standing there watching the hawks wheeling in the distance. I want to have apologized to you for my recklessness and have heard you forgive me. That’s where I want to be, Father.”
Oh good. Not one part of that answer made sense. Where in the hell did this kid escape from?
I freshened the cloth from a bowl of cold river water and set it back on her head.
“Yes, well,” I fumbled, “I’m afraid you’re a little ways away from the lake right now.”
“I know. But now that I’ve found you, we can go home. The curse can be broken and we can see justice served against the witch.” She continued with fierceness and I thought her eyes looked a little glassy from the fever, “They’ll be really surprised when we come back. They said I wouldn’t be able to do it, that I could never find you. But I knew that I could. I took the sword you gave me and prayed all night in the chapel before setting out, and I knew that I would find your path. Persipheus even agreed to come with me, so I saddled him up and we rode out.”
“Persipheus?” That was the part of the story I was getting hung up on?
“Yes, the Prince of the Unicorns,” she explained in a voice like maybe I was the one who had been clocked in the head with a rock. “He said that if the Warrior Princess was going on a quest to save the King from exile, then it was only fitting that the Prince of the Unicorns honor their alliance and come with us. He’s been most helpful, Father, and I’m not sure I’d have gotten this far without his help.”
I heard a lot of proper nouns in that little monologue. Great, she was going to think I had hobbled the feet of the Prince of the Unicorns.
“Um, so, out of curiosity, who do you think that I am?”
She laughed softly and with a touch of knowing before saying, “You’re my father. You’re the King of Elzina. I guess you’re still disoriented, which is to be expected, I suppose, considering how powerful the witch’s magic is. You’ll probably be a little vague about everything until we’ve returned home. I just hope everything doesn’t come back all at once because the sorceress said that you might get overwhelmed and it could bring on a physical illness.”
“On the topic of physical illness,” I said before things became more Dungeons and Dragons, “you need to rest. So just lie still and I’ll see about getting us some food.”
The last time I’d been to the soup kitchen, a church group had been giving out packages of food and I still had several cans of stew. I wasn’t supposed to start a fire along the river, but it wasn’t like I had a microwave and I was tired of eating stew with a tinny taste. Besides, I knew how to build a fire that didn’t smoke much so rangers wouldn’t be getting all into my business. I boiled some water to drink and then cooked the stew.
“Don’t eat too much,” I warned, “or you’ll get sick.”
From the face she made at her first bite, I was pretty sure eating too much was not going to be a problem.
“This is what you eat?” she asked and I reminded myself to keep my patience because she’d already done a good job demonstrating that she was several javelins short of an armory. So I just sighed and ate my meal.
We relocated camp up the river once she was well enough to move. I wasn’t sure what to do with the body of the would-be rapist, but I did know I didn’t want it festering and stinking around my camp. Not to mention I was sure it would attract some inquisitive wildlife that I would rather avoid. The girl protested the entire time.
“But Father,” she said as I handed her the sleeping bag and the tarp, “we can get on Persipheus and go home. Why do you want to stay here? Don’t you remember anything from before the curse?”
“Look, kid,” I finally said, “you’re sick and you’ve been beaned with a rock. Trust me when I say that you’re confused about who I am.”
“Father, I know -.”
“Kid,” I tried again and I admit my temper was rising despite my efforts, “what’s your name?” That should shut her up for a moment or two. What father forgets his kid’s name?
Instead, that seemed to reassure her. She smiled and said more calmly, “Father, I’m Kian, your only child. And I’m sorry that I’m pushing you, I should have remembered that tremendous magic went into this curse. It’s foolish of me to try and push you to remember things before you’re able, so I’ll stay here with you until you’re ready to face the curse.”
Wonderful. I was scrambling to feed myself, now I had a girl and a horse? But when I looked at her and saw the bruised cut on her jaw and the feverish heat in her eyes, I realized that no matter how weird her stories ran, she was still a kid and I couldn’t just abandon her to a world that would chew up and vomit out a homeless kid; I had seen those young faces in soup kitchen lines as they sized up the world with eyes past caring, past hoping. I couldn’t do that to this girl. Besides which, some really special breed of cat must have already gotten to her for her to be concocting – and believing – such wild stories.
So Kian stayed.
For the first couple days, I made Kian rest in the sleeping bag while I hiked back to civilization and continued my Sisyphean attempts at finding work. I was a bit hesitant about leaving her alone, but then I figured with that sword, woe unto anybody who crossed her. For her part, Kian seemed unsure about the attention, constantly insisting that she could stand watch or saying that I could have the sleeping bag. I’d have to reassure her that we didn’t need to keep watch and that I didn’t mind using the bedroll she had lashed to the back of the saddle.
“As your father,” I tried at last, “I insist that you use the sleeping bag.”
“Truly?” There was an unusual hesitancy there, almost like I had offered her the most wonderful gift and she wasn’t sure to reach for it.
Now more than ever I wanted to find a job. Each day I cleaned up in the river – as Kian said, even a king in exile has to maintain a certain appearance – and then went into town to try my luck at finding anything. I couldn’t get a real job without an address to put on an application, but if I could find enough odd jobs, I could get an apartment and we could move on from there. Only it seemed that all the odd jobs now required background checks and those all required addresses, too, and somehow writing “under the willow by the river” was not holding a lot of weight.
Returning from one such quest, I found Kian proudly preparing a duck. Oh hell. How was I going to explain the Migratory Bird Act to somebody who thought she was a warrior princess? Then again, duck did sound pretty appealing and what was Fish and Game going to do? Fine us?
“I know duck’s one of your favorite dishes,” Kian said as I came over. “It won’t be near as fancy as the castle cook makes, but it’s a darn sight better than all that supposed stew.”
I almost told her then that she can’t go hunting the birds, but she was watching me with a suppressed eagerness that made my chest tighten. She was just a kid who wanted to make her father proud. What sort of bastard had her real father been?
So I said with a certain amount of admiration, “Nice job with the duck, it looks like a really tasty one.”
“Thank you. I got it with a rock from my sling; took him right out of the air.” Smiling at her rare boast, I reached over and ruffled her hair. She really smiled then, not the guarded smile or the self-conscious grin of before. Let Fish and Game shoot me over one lousy duck, it would have been worth it.
After dinner she sat in the last light of day polishing the hubcaps. Other than when sleeping, she only took the armor off to wipe it down. It still looked rust-streaked and dented, but she worked on it with a near-religious devotion, so I never pointed it out. Still, it was a fine night and the weather was just a sort of comfortable cool and for a moment I could pretend that I didn’t actually live there, that I was camping and had a real home with a bright green lawn. I wanted some conversation to match the evening.
So I asked, “Where’d you get all that armor?”
“You gave it to me when I reached my sixteenth summer,” she replied and rubbed with greater vigor. That hesitancy was back and I immediately regretted my choice of questions. But she continued, “I know it looks like pieces of rubbish, but it has magic on it. Persipheus said that if we came here looking like a princess and a unicorn, we could find a lot of awkward trouble. That’s rather true, I should imagine. So, Persipheus has enchanted the armor and himself to look like what they’re not. But I promise I’ve been taking good care of the armor, Father.”
“What about the sword? It seems pretty dignified.”
“I will not have a tarnished sword,” she answered. “I would not shame you that way.”
I was par for the course on ungainly questions, so I continued right along by asking, “What’s that scar on your arm from? The long one on your left.”
She stopped rubbing the armor and looked up at me. What was that look? Relief? Sadness? Trepidation? I couldn’t tell in the light, but it was cut deeply into her frosty eyes.
“No, of course you don’t remember,” she said after a moment. “This scar is a memory of shame born from my recklessness. You gave me some troops to lead into battle. I wanted to charge, you said to hold my position. The enemy kept coming closer and closer and then it was as though they were on top of us and the arrows were thick and dark in the sky and I just couldn’t stand at the ready any longer. I panicked, I suppose, and ordered a charge. Had it not been for the skill of the commanders, my decision could have cost us the battle.
“I came to see you even before getting my arm tended because I wanted to apologize, but you said that my idiocy was a shame to the family and that you did not ever want to see me again. The next day the witch and some traitors within your ranks brought down the curse that has sent you to this exile.”
Awesome. Back in Parallel Universeland, I was a thorough jerk. But Kian still came looking for me. Or him. Or whoever.
“Well, I’m sorry for saying that,” I said. “I guess soldiers make mistakes, especially when they’re young and they want to prove something. It was not behavior befitting a father or a king to say that I did not want to see my daughter again.” A hawk called in the distance.
I came over and put my arm around her shoulders and that was when she began crying. She had too much dignity for hiccoughing sobs, but she put her face against my shirt and gripped me in her arms as though she was drowning and I was all that she could grasp.
“Please, let us go home,” she said when she was done. “I’m trying to be patient, but we cannot stay here forever. The kingdom needs you. What army can fight while the King is cursed and exiled to another world? Please, Father, we need to go home.”
Well, I couldn’t find a job, we’d eventually get caught for poaching wildlife and I was rather curious about what she considered “home”. Besides, I was out of excuses to stay. So I said, “Tomorrow. We’ll leave tomorrow morning.”
We did leave tomorrow, but it was with a police escort.
A hiker had seen Persipheus and had gone to the police with pictures to prove that he was her horse. I thought, Really? Those odds and the police are making an arrest? But they showed up the next morning before Kian had even buckled on her “armor”.
“It was an agent of the witch!” she protested as the police wrestled about trying to subdue the girl. “Persipheus doesn’t belong to anybody! You have to understand! The witch doesn’t want me to rescue my father! She doesn’t own this horse!”
“Shut up and sit down or we’re spraying you!” one officer ordered. In Kian’s world, spraying probably sounded like a silly threat, so she lashed out at the man again. Grabbing his pepper spray, he sent a stream of foam right into her face. Most people would have gone to the ground, but the pain only reaffirmed to Kian that this was a fight for her life and she redoubled her efforts.
“Hey, come on!” I yelled. “She’s a kid! Let me talk to her before you start waving about the stun guns. I can get her to calm down.”
“It’ll be all right,” I said as I knelt down next to Kian. “They just want to ask you a few questions. The police aren’t working with the witch.”
“Please don’t let Persipheus transform,” she choked and I wiped some of the burning foam from her face. “He wants to show them he’s a unicorn, but they’ll only do something worse to him. Please don’t let him.”
“I won’t let him,” I said. “But you have to calm down. The police want to help, but if you keep attacking them, they’re going to fight back.” How many cans of stew can thirty pieces of silver buy? She calmed down and let them put the handcuffs on and I had a violent urge to run over and hit a cop so that they’d take me, too. But that wouldn’t help Kian and, to be honest, I had to admit that she needed help. Maybe she would never be normal, but she certainly was not getting better if I sat there encouraging her ideas to make her feel happy. Maybe that’s really why a hiker turned her in: to save her from herself.
“We also have some questions for you, too,” an officer said as he came over. “Why don’t you come along and we’ll get you some coffee and you can meet with the detective.”
“How do you know I didn’t steal the horse?”
“We don’t. But the girl was seen riding it and she’s the one who just broke a police officer’s nose.”
And that’s how I ended up talking with a detective in a room that smelled of fear and desperation. That’s how I ended up being just a crazy vagrant who had no real idea what was going on. At least that’s what the detective decided.
“Look, Jake,” he said and was now leaning against the table with folded arms. “We just want to get this girl some help. She’s not right in the head, you must see that.”
“Mr. DuRoy,” I corrected. “I prefer to be called Mr. DuRoy.”
The detective sighed. The door opened. He stepped outside to convene with other cops. I picked apart my coffee cup. A cut on my hand still burned from wiping away the foam and that made me think of the misery Kian must be facing. I was glad I hadn’t drunk any of the coffee. They came and let me go. It was that simple. Thanked me for my time and walked me to the door. Crazy that they cared so much about a stolen horse but apparently had not found the would-be rapist Kian had fought. I didn’t volunteer any of that.
I walked back to camp. Every few minutes I hurried my steps because I remembered that Kian was waiting and was going to have some other strange and wondrous story. Then I really remembered and slowed down. I’d get my sleeping bag back and nobody would criticize the canned stew. Except me – I couldn’t stomach much more of that swill. I guessed I would move on somewhere else, maybe just break down and go find a shelter for a while. Maybe.
It was strange, I thought, as I checked through my belongings, that the police hadn’t even conducted a search. I picked up Kian’s sword and sat on a rock overlooking the river. I drew the sword partially from the scabbard. It was so shiny, so keen. Without that sword, what was her world?
What was my world, really? I tried to recall what my life had once been and found it was like scooping water in my hands; it would stream away between my fingers no matter how tightly I held. What had my job been? Something with data, but I had no idea what that data was or what I did with it. Had I been married? Craziness, I felt like I had been, I could conjure a shadow of a face, but I did not remember her name or why she was not around. So she must be dead. But how do I forget that my wife died? Where had I gone to college? What street had I grown up on? What was the name of my best friend?
So, I thought, this is what a break down is like.
Then, as on that first day, I heard the thrumming of hooves. My chest constricted and I looked up to see a horse and rider galloping out of the sunset. Easy, Jake, I told myself. A lot of people ride out here. But not a lot of people galloped.
“Kian!” I exclaimed as the rider drew near, Persipheus not even breaking a sweat as she reined him up next to me. Frosty irises poignant against the red eyes, Kian looked down at me and held out her hand.
“Come on, Father,” she ordered. “We don’t have much time. The witch is determined to stop us and we’ll have to ride hard, but Persipheus says we can make it.”
I handed her the sword and she said, “Hold onto it for me, we don’t have the time. Please, Father, this time we have to leave.”
Once I would have hesitated, now I grasped her hand and pulled myself up behind her. She had no armor, Persipheus only had his bridle and I had the sword. With a bound, we were off and galloping with a swinging stride out over the countryside.
“How did you get away?” I asked.
“The witch didn’t recognize Persipheus for what he was, she thought I had just brought a normal horse,” Kian laughed. “Bad luck for her, huh? Persipheus escaped and found me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said and this time I was not merely humoring her. “I’m sorry for all that I’ve done and I’m sorry that I let them take you. This time, the shame is mine. But I love you, Kian, and I’m proud of you.”
“I love you, too, Father.”
I looked over Kian’s head and into the dusk deepening across the rolling hills. Onward we galloped and as the first night stars speckled the sky, their twinkling glinted off of a pearlescent unicorn horn and off of the pommel of the sword I had once given to my daughter.