What would you do if you were king and you knew your eldest son and heir was unfit to rule after you? And what about if his two brothers were just as useless? You might devise the ‘Sovereignty Trials’…
The following story was written in response to a pictorial prompt from my writers’ club, which showed a blue, scaly egg in a decorative, leather box with a clasp. The only rules were that it should have fewer than 2,000 words.
If you have any views on the story, why not let me know? Hope you enjoy it…
The Sovereignty Trials
Word Count = 1,985
“Such a comely wench,” said Prince Jeffrit, glancing back longingly over his shoulder.
“Yes, Sire, she is indeed comely, but now, we really need to hasten. The king will be furious if we’re late.” And with that, Benjamo slapped the flanks of the prince’s horse.
“I’ll be back, my lovely,” shouted Jeffrit, “wait for me!”
Benjamo urged his horse on before the prince spotted any other ‘comely wenches’ and decided to stop. They were due at King Willial’s court in two days, ready for the Sovereignty Trials but with only a few more miles to go there was still plenty of time for Jeffrit to become distracted. Especially if the female population of Jeffrit’s principality in Northlandaria, were conspicuous during the journey. Benjamo could do nothing about random wenches but he had a plan for the next test of his ingenuity, the Bold Pig Inn.
The king demanded punctuality and Benjamo was determined the prince would arrive on time. Jeffrit’s future depended on it and so therefore, did Benjamo’s and he was determined to leave nothing to chance. His mother had arranged for him to go into service in the prince’s house and Benjamo was not going to let her down.
Benjamo arrived shortly before the prince and his retinue, by which time, he’d alerted the innkeeper that the royal company would be lodging overnight, bribed him to hide all females except his wife and also ordered roast hog with all the trimmings.
All he had to do now, was to keep Jeffrit away from the ladies and hope that by the time he’d eaten his fill and drunk the strong mead the inn offered, he’d be ready for bed – on his own.
Jeffrit, the youngest son of King Willial had come of age last month and was therefore eligible to take the crown of Northlandaria, when Willial died.
Normally, the eldest son, Prince Rodner, would be heir to the throne with Prince Timothod second in line. As the youngest, Jeffrit’s chances of ever ruling were slim. But knowing his sons well, Willial recognised that the gluttonous Rodner, the avid hunter, Timothod and the lascivious Jeffrit were completely unsuitable candidates for his throne.
He’d therefore devised a new method of selection, the Sovereignty Trials, a series of tests designed to determine the most able prince. Surely eventually, one of his sons would take the prospect of ruling seriously and demonstrate this, by passing all the tests.
But he doubted it.
And if none of the princes passed the tests before he died, then it wouldn’t be his fault if there was no heir. No, he wouldn’t go down in history as having made the decision to leave the kingdom to a fool.
King Willial sat long into the night, with his head in his hands, awaiting his sons.
Meanwhile, a mere ten miles away in the Bold Pig Inn, Jeffrit was safely tucked up in bed.
Everything had gone according to plan. The innkeeper’s wife had done a fine job of serving the meal. True, her body odour took the breath away and it rapidly became clear she was incapable of speaking without sending a fine – and sometimes not so fine – spray of saliva over the food. But she’d brought dish after dish, which for the most part was edible and despite several trips to the privy, Jeffrit was unable to find any other female company. He’d retired early and was soon snoring loudly.
To Benjamo’s relief, they arrived at the king’s palace in plenty of time. Timothod, however, almost missed the first test as he’d taken a detour to hunt a rather splendid stag.
Benjamo delivered the multiple choice test parchment to Jeffrit’s apartment, as instructed, and upturned the hourglass as soon as the prince turned the parchment over. Then he busied himself tidying the apartment.
There was a small heap of sand still waiting to trickle through the hourglass when Benjamo enquired how the sighing prince was getting on.
“I can’t answer any of these,” wailed Jeffrit, “Look, number one, what is the area of the capital of Northlandaria? How would I know?”
“Well, you’ve only got two choices, A or B,” said Benjamo, “A is about the size of a small village and B is much larger…”
“A?” suggested Jeffrit.
“Umm…” said Benjamo looking pained.
“B?” said Jeffrit doubtfully.
“Tick the box,” said Benjamo decisively before Jeffrit could get confused. “Now, what answer have you got for number two?” he asked, looking at the parchment.
“A?” asked Jeffrit.
“Tick the box,” said Benjamo.
The last grain of sand was mid air when the king’s emissary knocked for the completed test parchment.
Other tests followed. During the wrestling, the hefty Rodner’s technique of collapsing on his opponent and burying him under pounds of quivering flesh proved to be a shrewd strategy, winding Timothod and almost killing wiry Jeffrit. Despite his crushed ribs, Timothod was triumphant in the hunt while Jeffrit’s epic poem impressed all the royal advisors – although it turned out he needn’t have put so much effort into it as his brothers both failed to produce even a rhyming couplet.
After all the scores were added together, the princes were equal and the success of the Sovereignty Trials would rest on the final test the following day.
Benjamo roused Jeffrit early the next morning and escorted him to the king’s dragon house.
Willial and his dragon master were waiting, and for once, all three princes appeared on time.
“The egg, please, Master Trubshaw,” said the king.
The dragon master, wearing protective leather clothes, opened the door to the dragon house and disappeared inside. Flames shot out of the door and after a short scuffle, Master Trubshaw appeared, steaming gently and clutching a small, leather, tooled box, which he handed to the king.
Willial flipped the clasp with his thumb and opened the box, revealing a large, blue egg.
“It’s an egg! I win!” shouted Rodner.
Willial shook his head. “We all know it’s an egg…” he said witheringly “What I want to know, is what’s inside the egg. There is a riddle to help you.”
He handed each prince a parchment scroll. “You have three hours and in the meantime, just in case any of you think you might take a peek…Don’t!” He snapped the lid shut, swivelled the clasp into place and handed it back to the still-steaming Master Trubshaw, who sighed deeply and limped back into the dragon house.
Back in his quarters, Jeffrit read the parchment.
He read it again.
Unusually, bearing in mind his short attention span, he read it once more.
“Dragon,” he finally said.
“You think there’s a dragon in there?” asked Benjamo.
“Well not a full grown one, of course. Probably a baby dragon. It’s obvious. The dragon master brought it out of the dragon house and dragons lay eggs.”
“But they don’t lay them in leather boxes. And anyway, dragon’s eggs are never blue.”
“Well, it fits the clues on the parchment,” said Jeffrit defensively and handed it to Benjamo, who read,
“I will reveal the greatest threat,
This noble kingdom ‘ere has met,
Look no further than this place,
If you wish to see its face.
Princes, three, avert your eyes,
To avoid our kingdom’s sad demise.”
“See,” said Jeffrit, “’the greatest threat to the kingdom’, wild dragons are a threat. Then it says to look in the egg to see its face so it’s something that’s got a face – like a dragon. And then it says Rodner, Timothod and I have to look away to avoid the demise of the kingdom. I’m not quite sure what that’s got to do with dragons but I’m sure it must…”
“With the greatest respect, I don’t think so, Sire…”
“That Master Benjamo, is why you are a servant whereas I am a prince…”
Everybody in the palace gathered in the Great Hall to find out who, if anyone, would be named the king’s heir or if they’d all be gathering for Sovereignty Trials the following year.
Willial sat on his throne at one end of the raised dais, facing the three princes. Rodner’s royal bottom overspilled the velvet-covered chair and he mopped his sweaty brow. As the eldest, he was dreading losing to a younger brother. Fiercely competitive Timothod was also desperate to win. Jeffrit’s gaze alighted on the incomparable Lady Alizia. He blew her a kiss.
Willial stood up, the leather box in his hands.
“Prince Rodner’s answer is ‘dragon’.” Rodner bit his nail nervously. “What led you to that conclusion?” the king asked.
Taking this as a favourable sign, Rodner smiled, “Well, it was found in the dragon house…”
The king turned to Timothod
“Prince Timothod’s answer is ‘large chick’. What pray, was your reasoning?”
“It obviously wasn’t a dragon because their eggs aren’t blue…”
“What part of the riddle led you to believe it was a bird?” asked the king.
“Riddle?” asked Timothod.
The king sighed and shook his head sadly.
Finally, he turned to Jeffrit and cleared his throat to attract the prince’s attention away from Lady Alizia.
“Prince Jeffrit’s answer is…correct although it was rather hard to read.”
Jeffrit looked triumphantly at Benjamo.
“The answer is, of course, ‘a mirror’. And as Prince Jeffrit has worked out the answer, he is my heir.”
Willial opened the box, removed the blue egg and with a twist, pulled the two halves apart, revealing a small mirror.
It was hard to say if the audience appreciated the solution to the riddle and were laughing at the princes’ expense or if they were genuinely pleased Jeffrit had been selected, but in the uproar that ensued, Jeffrit’s protests that his answer hadn’t been ‘mirror’, which in his opinion, made no sense at all, went unheard.
“I give you, Prince Jeffrit, the heir to Northlandaria,” said Willial, beckoning his baffled son and embracing him, “Let the carousing begin…”
Three days later, Benjamo was summoned to the king’s chamber. Convinced the king had discovered he’d crossed out ‘dragon’ and had replaced Jeffrit’s answer with ‘mirror’, he rehearsed what he’d say to his mother when he was dishonourably discharged from the prince’s service. She’d always protected him and taken the place of the father he’d never had. But even she wouldn’t be able to get him reinstated after this. He nervously fingered the half coin she’d given him, which hung on a chain round his neck.
“And how is your mother, Master Benjamo?” asked Willial.
Was this some kind of magic? How did the king know Benjamo was thinking of his mother?
“’Tis many years since I’ve see her,” the king continued, “I trust she is well?”
Benjamo nodded, afraid to speak.
“But I didn’t summon you here to discuss your mother. I’d like to ask you whether you think Jeffrit is fit to rule the kingdom.”
Benjamo’s jaw dropped. What kind of a question was that? Not one he could truthfully answer, that was for sure.
“I can see by your hesitation you are a loyal servant, Master Benjamo, and also, one who is perceptive. I have watched you closely and I know that when Jeffrit is devoting his time to the fairer sex, as I have no doubt he will, you will be at the helm, taking care of the prince’s duties, which in time, of course, will be ruling the kingdom.”
“Your Majesty, I wouldn’t presume…”
“But you must presume, Master Benjamo. I need a son to rule my kingdom but sadly none of my three legitimate sons is suitable.”
King Willial withdrew a half coin from his doublet and held it up, allowing it to spin on the end of its chain.
Benjamo gasped. “The other half of your coin belonged to your father,” his mother had said as she’d given it to him.
Willial tucked the coin away in his pocket.
“I think we understand each other, my son,” he said.