The Golden Castle

(1973)

from Roger M. Wilcox's biography



My dad liked to take us camping for two weeks every summer. Inevitably, there'd be horrible flies or even yellowjackets plaguing the campsite every day. Only after sunset was there a reprieve, where we could sit around the campfire or on our beds inside his Dodge A-100 van and listen to stories.

On one of the camping trips at either the Three Rivers or Clough Cave campground, my dad brought along a plastic kite that had a cartoon picture of an eagle on it. Some of its feathers were yellow.

One evening, as the evening campfire was being prepared, the setting sun lit up some white-barked trees up the hill from us a beautiful, brilliant golden color. We couldn't actually tell they were trees from where we were situated. All we could see were the hints of some bright, shiny, gold-hued landmark. So, my dad decreed it to be a golden castle, and on the spur of the moment made up a tale to go along with it.

The tale lasted many nights in the telling. Below is a re-creation, from my own memory, from my dad's memory, and from the distant memories of my brother and mom — along with some embellishments for readability.




Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a great kingdom rich with gold. The king commanded vast sums of gold, and used them with great ostentation. Legend had it that his entire royal castle was covered in gold — gold on its every rampart, gold on its every parapet, gold on its every balustrade, gold on every stone block making up its outer walls, gold gold gold everywhere. Not everyone believed the legend, and most who did were sure it had to be a gross exaggeration, a story that had grown more and more embellished every time it was retold.

Now out in the country of this land, there lived a peasant boy named Freddie. He was, like many peasants, the son of a farmer, and as far as anyone knew he was destined to work the land just like his father did. But Freddie didn't want the farmer's life. He wanted to be a falconer. He'd seen a demonstration of falconry years ago, and had studied the sport with voracious interest.

He'd been bitterly disappointed when he'd learned that only noblemen could be falconers. No peasant could afford the expense. But he hadn't been willing to give up. Perhaps, he'd figured, if he struck out on his own, he could find a falcon of his own to raise and train. Thus determined, he'd taken his father's biggest, toughest farming glove — to use as a perch for his future bird of prey — and with a minimal pack of survival gear, had set out into the wilderness.

Living alone had not been easy. Freddie had to scrounge up whatever wild food he could find just to survive. But he wasn't starving; he knew which nuts and berries were good to eat and which were poisonous, and he was pretty good at catching fish and cooking them over an open fire. He had little more than the clothes on his back, but he knew how to keep them stitched together. Every so often, though, he would yearn for the taste of roasted game he'd had when he was younger.

One day, when out scouting the edge of a new clearing, he finally had a stroke of luck. There, standing on the ground, was a young golden eagle, some of whose feathers were a beautifully striking yellow color. It wasn't a falcon, but it was a pretty large bird of prey, and Freddie guessed it would grow even larger as it matured. Perhaps he could capture it. He took a few bold steps closer, and noticed that the creature had injured a wing. It couldn't fly away. Freddie's heart sank; a lame, flightless bird was of no use to a would-be falconer. But something about the creature made him take pity upon it. He came right up to it, and the bird neither ran away nor threatened him. It just looked at him with a mingled curiosity and resignation. Then and there, Freddie decided he would nurse this eagle back to health.

The eagle's injuries healed surprisingly fast. Freddie fed it some of the fish he caught in a nearby brook, and soon the eagle was eating out of his hand. Freddie wouldn't have many weeks before the eagle's wing was completely healed, and he needed all that time for the eagle to bond to him, and to get used to its new role as a falconer's hunting bird. He stitched together a small black shroud in the shape of the eagle's head, and started covering the bird's eyes whenever it wasn't eating. The eagle would need to get used to the hood in a hurry. In addition to the makeshift nest he'd thrown together for the eagle, he also began to present his farming glove as a perch, so that when the time came for it to sit on his arm it would feel more at home.

He began whistling a few short notes, right before he fed it each time. It didn't take long for the bird to understand that this short whistle was Freddie's way of calling it to dinner. Soon, he was wearing the farming glove on his arm, and by whistling the bird's "name" he could get it roost on this mobile perch. He could have called it a regular name, like Steve or Georgina, but a whistle could be heard from much farther away; and that would be crucial if and when it was out on a hunt.

Finally, the eagle's wing had healed, and it was time to risk letting it out on its first flight. With the bird perched comfortably on his arm, Freddie removed his hood, pointed his arm straight out, and said "Fly!". The eagle didn't budge. He tried thrusting his arm forward in an arc, and more emphatically said "Fly!". Again, the eagle kept its talons dug into the glove and didn't so much as shrug a wing. Freddie shook his arm madly up-and-down as though he were trying to shoo the bird off it, all the while yelling "Fly! Fly! Fly!". Again, nothing.

Then, quite by chance, the eagle spotted a rabbit way off in the distance. With a shriek, it took off and zoomed toward its prey. Startled, Freddie dashed off after it. He hadn't wanted to try actual hunting yet! He whistled the bird's name, but it was no use; the eagle had its target and nothing could pry its attention loose.

The rabbit soon noticed the massive bird of prey angling toward it, and darted off. This only seemed to fuel the eagle's determination. It flapped its majestic wings furiously, slicing through the air even faster than the rabbit — or Freddie — could run.

The chase lasted several minutes. Freddie ran out of breath and had to slow his pace to a jog. In the distance ahead, he watched the eagle and the rabbit dwindle away ahead of him. Then, when the rabbit had faded into the surrounding brush and the eagle had shrunk to a tiny dot in the sky, he saw the bird dive downward. It changed shape just before it vanished into the ground; was it thrusting out its talons to make a kill? Freddie tried to run faster, but couldn't. If the bird had managed killed the rabbit, by the time he got there the rabbit would be half-eaten and worthless as a hunting trophy.

Freddie kept jogging in the direction he'd last seen the eagle fly, and whistled its name whenever he could catch his breath. Pretty soon, his efforts were rewarded, as he saw the bird take off in the distance and fly toward him — with what looked to be a rabbit in its clutches!

As the eagle approached, Freddie held out his gloved arm. Right before it landed on the familiar perch, it dropped the rabbit at his feet. The rabbit wasn't half-eaten or mangled; in fact, other than the talon marks where it had been killed and carried through the air, the rabbit was completely intact! The eagle had brought its kill home to its master, like a true hunter's bird. Smiling, Freddie put the hood back on the eagle's head and rewarded it with a bit of smoked fish jerky. Freddie could now boast to all that he was a falconer.

But when Freddie looked around, he suddenly realized that he couldn't recognize any landmarks. In chasing his bird, he'd completely lost track of where his old campsite had been. The ground was too hard and irregular to track his own footprints back the way he'd come. He could make a new campsite here, but the old one had been near a convenient brook that he could fish in and drink from. He had no idea if there was water anywhere nearby where he was. But he did know that the creek flowed east-west, so if he could figure out which way was south he could navigate his way back to it.

"I could wait until nightfall," Freddie said to his eagle and to himself. "When the stars come out, I can trace the Plough and find the North Star, then south will be behind me. Oh! I don't even have to wait that long. When the sun starts to get low, I can climb a tree, and see where the sun sets. That will be the west. Then south will be to its left at a right angle."

The sun was still pretty high in the sky. In the meantime, Freddie decided to make a hunting trophy out of his first kill. He skinned the rabbit, built a fire, and roasted it. The aroma of the cooking meat was the most delectable thing he'd smelled since he'd left home. He devoured it with great gusto, and gave a few choice pieces to the feathered companion who had made this meal possible. He scraped the underside of the furry skin clean, then set it high above the campfire to dry out. It was then he noticed that the rabbit's fur had a little yellow streak right down the middle of its back, in much the same way that the eagle had those striking yellow feathers. It was, in effect, a golden rabbit, in much the same way that his bird was a golden eagle.

Using his tiny sewing kit, he stitched the skin fur-side-out onto the back of his sturdy jacket. It would be his small way to tell the world that he was a real falconer.

Sundown approached, and — after having made another makeshift nest for his eagle — Freddie climbed a tree. He watched the setting sun from this high vantage point, and when it touched the horizon, he declared, "That's west." It wasn't actually west, of course; the sun only sets directly to the west on two days out of the year. But for Freddie, it would be good enough. Freddie turned ninety degrees to his left, and declared, "That's south." But before he climbed down the tree, he figured he should survey the land, and so turned slowly around ...

And there, to the east opposite the setting sun, a brilliant golden light caught his eye. He stared at it intently. It was some sort of gleaming golden structure. Then he recognized it. It was a castle! A golden castle! Why, this must be the fabled Golden Castle where the king lived! He'd heard so many rumors about the place, but he never thought he'd actually get to see a castle shining with a golden light like this.

He was too far away to see detail, but he marvelled at the sight while the sun sank lower and lower and finally disappeared altogether. With the sun having set, the castle no longer gleamed, and became only a barely-visible dark smudge on the horizon.

Freddie's old campsite no longer mattered to him. He knew where he would be going tomorrow.


The castle was even farther away than it had looked. Freddie figured it must be enormous. A castle that big, covered all in gold! It was more wealth than Freddie could comfortably get his mind around.

It took many days to get anywhere near the castle. Each day, he trekked through the woods toward it, and trained with his hunting eagle. Each night, he set up another camp, with another campfire, and then packed up and abandoned his camp the next day. A few days in he'd come across another brook, from which he'd caught several fish and refilled his canteen. Then he left it behind as he trekked ever onward toward the Golden Castle.

Soon after he'd lit his campfire for yet another evening, while letting his eagle circle in the air to look for game, Freddie heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats. A horse? Who would be riding a horse so far away from civilization? He was still several days' walk from the castle. Perhaps someone had seen the smoke from his campfire. The hoofbeats grew louder. Freddie suddenly feared that the approaching stranger might be a bird hunter who had seen his eagle. He whistled the eagle down onto his glove, put its hood on it, and moved it into that night's makeshift nest.

And then, out from among the trees trotted ... a knight! A knight in shining armor, riding on an armored horse! Freddie had never seen a real knight up close. The man and his beast were both marvelous and terrifying to behold.

"You there, boy!" said the knight, pointing at Freddie with a gauntleted hand. "Is this your campsite?"

Freddie swallowed hard and answered, "Yes."

"Where are your parents?" asked the knight.

"I don't have parents," Freddie replied. "I mean, I'm out here by myself."

"All alone?" the knight asked. "There's no one else with you? No adults? No friends?"

"No, sir," Freddie answered, "Just me. Uh, and my eagle." He indicated the bird of prey with the yellow plumage, sitting in its nest.

"Well, that's a relief," said the knight. "I was worried your campfire was the vanguard of an approaching army. The king has many enemies who are envious of all his gold."

"I've heard rumors about the king's golden castle," Freddie said, slowly gaining courage. "Are any of them true?"

"Oh, most of them are true, all right," the knight said. "I've been there. I've served the king himself. In fact, I'm on a scouting mission for the king right now. I am Sir Keeshan. What's your name, boy?"

"Freddie."

"So, Freddie, why are you out here all alone in the wilderness?"

"I'm ..." Freddie was not sure how much of his whole story he should tell this man. He played it safe: "I'm out here to test myself, to see how well I can survive on my own as a falconer."

"Well," Sir Keeshan said, "That is quite a remarkable raptor you've got there." He pointed at the eagle. "And from what I saw, it looks like he came when you called. I've dabbled in falconry myself, and that's rather impressive."

Freddie's eyes lit up. "Really?"

"Oh yes. It can take months for a falcon to learn such discipline. We normally use peregrines. They're smaller than a golden eagle like yours, but they also tend to be swifter and deadlier. I'm also surprised to see you out hunting with so little equipment." He pointed to Freddie's farming glove. "Are you really using that little scrap of leather for your falconer's gauntlet?"

"Yes sir," Freddie replied. "It's my father's strongest glove."

The knight scowled. "Another week or two, and your eagle will claw its way clean through it. You need a real falconer's glove." He reached into a satchel strapped to his saddle, and pulled out a fabulously ornate leather gauntlet. Freddie's eyes bulged out with wonder. This was a real nobleman's falconing glove, like the ones he'd seen at competitions! Sir Keeshan tossed it to the lad. "Here you go, keep this one. I haven't much use for it these days."

Freddie gasped. He could barely spit out the words "Thank you, sir!". Shaking, he tossed his old farming glove aside and slipped the new falconer's gauntlet over his right hand. It came all the way up to his elbow.

"It's the least I could do for an aspiring falconer," the knight replied. "Especially one who's carrying little more than the clothes on his back."

Freddie suddenly beamed. "Oh, you mean this?" He turned around, and displayed the back of his jacket for this man to admire.

Sir Keeshan suppressed a chuckle. "A rabbit! What's it doing on your jacket?"

"It's a hunting trophy," Freddie said over his shoulder. "My eagle slew this beast only a few days ago."

"Well!" Sir Keeshan said in mock admiration. "You slew a rabbit! It must have been a fierce battle against such a formidable creature."

"Oh, it was, it was!" said Freddie, not picking up on the knight's air of derision.

"Well then!" Sir Keeshan rode up next to Freddie, until from horseback he towered over the lad. "Kneel down."

Freddie knelt down on one knee. Sir Keeshan drew his broadsword. Freddie gasped, and clutched his arms to his chest. Did this knight intend to kill him here and now?! But no ... the knight deftly and gently touched the flat of his blade to Freddy's left shoulder, and then to his right. "By the power vested in me by the king, I hereby dub you ... The Rabbit Knight!"


That evening, Sir Keeshan sat drinking with his friends in their favorite inn. He regaled them with his story of the peasant boy who wanted to be a real falconer. He told them how he'd given the lad his old falconing glove, which he was about to throw away anyway. He told them how the lad had made trophy out of a rabbit pelt — a rabbit pelt! — as though killing a rabbit were some great accomplishment. "The rabbit had a little golden streak down the middle of its back," he'd said, "Just like a coward's yellow stripe." He told them how thrilled the lad was at becoming "The Rabbit Knight." All the while, his friends laughed nearly as heartily as he did.

But the patrons at the other tables overheard the story. They began to repeat it among themselves. Then when they left the inn, they told their other friends, who told their friends. And with each retelling, the story changed a little bit. By the time the rumor had passed all the way around the town, it had become the Tale of the Knight of the Golden Rabbit. The Knight of the Golden Rabbit was no peasant boy. He was a fearsome knight from a distant land, maybe even a land belonging to the king's enemies. The Coat of Arms on his shield was emblazoned with a golden hare, similar to the rabbits with the golden streaks down their backs that were known to roam near the castle — perhaps as a challenge to the Golden Castle itself. He had bested many men on the battlefield. He fought with a deadly golden eagle by his side, whom he'd trained to attack his enemies. Sir Keeshan's royal scouting party had seen the Knight of the Golden Rabbit somewhere on the king's land, and had barely escaped to tell the tale!

And worse, no one knew what he looked like. Why, when he wasn't wearing his armor and helmet, the Knight of the Golden Rabbit could be anyone!

Eventually, as the legend of the Knight of the Golden Rabbit wended its way through the ears of the people, it made it all the way to the king. The king was understandably alarmed at the thought of a rogue knight in his kingdom. This knight could not be allowed to challenge the king's supremacy. And to think, he'd used the image of a golden hare on his crest! Golden-backed rabbits could be found nowhere other than the land of the Golden Castle. It was clearly a challenge to the castle and its king. Perhaps the Knight of the Golden Rabbit intended to go even further in his affront, by hunting these unique rabbits to extinction. In disguise without his armor, he could carry out such an extermination mission in total secrecy.

Therefore, the king issued a decree throughout the land: Henceforth, the golden-backed rabbit was a protected creature, and none were to be hunted. Furthermore, if the Knight of the Golden Rabbit were brought to him alive, the king would pay a bounty of twenty golden coins.

Meanwhile, Freddie was oblivious to all of this. He'd been making his way slowly toward the Golden Castle, day by day, and was still far outside the neighboring town. Neither the rumors, nor the rumblings, nor the king's decree made their way to his ears. His days were spent training and hunting with his golden eagle, using his new falconer's glove. Some days, when he found an area with plentiful game, he didn't even move his campsite. He didn't mind the slow progress, though — his hunting skills were getting better and better, and his eagle was learning quite a few tricks. Once, he'd tied it to its perch while he went off to gather firewood, and came back to find that it had untied the knot in its rope with its own talons and flown away! Fortunately, it had been circling nearby, and Freddie was able to whistle the bird back to his arm, but the sight of the empty perch had given him quite a stir.

One day, when Freddie returned to his campsite with an armload of firewood, he found someone snooping around the place. The man was keeping his distance from the perched golden eagle, whose wings were spread menacingly in a vain attempt to warn him off. He looked up with a start when he saw Freddie coming, but breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that Freddie was only a boy. "I'm sorry, I didn't know this was your campsite, son," the man said. "I'm Joseph, I'm from town here. I saw the smoke from your campfire yesterday evening. I'd heard rumors about the Knight of the Golden Rabbit, and I was worried that this might be his campsite."

"The Knight of the Golden Rabbit?" Freddie asked. "Who's he?"

"You haven't heard? He's the most fearsome knight in all the land! He goes to war with a giant golden eagle at his side, just like your eagle there, and lays waste upon the battlefield — no mercy or quarter given!"

Freddie shuddered. "He sounds awful!"

"The king even issued an edict," Joseph went on, "Forbidding the hunting of golden-backed rabbits, all because this knight has one on his shield. But the worst thing is, no one knows what the Knight of the Golden Rabbit looks like underneath his helmet. He could be anyone!"

Freddie said, "Well, I hope I never run into this Knight of the Golden Rabbit!"

"Me neither!" said Jospeh. "But we all have to stay vigilant! If you see a knight's coat of arms with a golden hare on it, tell someone in town as soon as you get away."

"I'll remember that," Freddie said, and turned around to put his firewood down in his campfire ring.

All this time, Joseph had only seen Freddie from the front. But when Freddie turned to put down his timbers, the back of Freddie's jacket was at last visible to him. And there, stitched right across it, was the hide of a golden-backed rabbit — the very same golden-backed rabbit the king had forbidden from being hunted. Joseph froze, and his breath caught in his throat. This lad, this seemingly innocent young boy — he must be the Knight of the Golden Rabbit himself!

Joseph turned and ran without a word, and was out of sight before Freddie turned back around. Freddie wondered, briefly, why the man had fled in such haste, then shrugged and started preparing the campfire's roasting spit for this evening's catch.

Joseph bolted straight back into town. He was out of breath by the time he arrived. He began babbling incoherently to the first passerby he saw. "The Knight of the Golden Rabbit! He's here! I've seen him!"

The passerby could barely make out his words, Joseph was speaking so fast and so breathlessly. He assumed Joseph must be some ordinary madman, and continued on his way. Joseph had to force himself to calm down enough to be understood. It took a while, but he finally got the attention of a merchant who shared his concern, and the two of them went off in search of a town guardsman.

Meanwhile, Freddy had struck out from his campsite again. This time his golden eagle was perched on his falconer's glove. He'd hunted his share of rabbits and hares, but this time he intended to find trickier game to hunt, like a weasel or maybe even a fox. A good falconer always kept training his bird (and himself) to be better and better. When sufficiently deep into the woods, he sent his eagle aloft to scout ahead. Since they'd started hunting together, Freddie had discovered that this bird had developed a new personality quirk; it now circled in the sky over its prey without attacking, until Freddie got close enough to see its target. It was as though the bird were signalling Freddie to come over and watch it swoop in for the kill.

As he watched the golden eagle dwindle to a dot in the distant sky, he caught a glympse of nearby movement out of the corner of his eye. Had his bird gone off in search of distant prey, only to miss easy game close at hand? Then Freddie gasped. No — this was no game animal, these were men coming out of the woods, and closing in on him. Men with nets, and ropes, and swords! Men whose garb Freddie didn't recognize. He thought he was about to be accosted by brigands, but as they got closer he realized these men were far too well-equipped to be common robbers.

They grabbed him, then tied him hand-and-foot, all the while barking to one another in a language Freddie didn't understand. Then they carried him off into the woods like a load of lumber. He tried asking them where they were taking him, but it was clear they couldn't understand him.

Freddie's eyes bulged wide as he realized the whole magnitude of his situation. He had just stumbled into the vanguard of a foreign army.


Freddie's hands were bound tight on the other side of a tree. He couldn't budge them, couldn't hope to work his way up the tree to escape. They hadn't bothered to remove his falconer's glove, but he couldn't pull his arm loose from it. The men who'd captured him had brought him into an encampment with many, many more men like themselves. A war party. Why they'd tied him up so far from the center of their camp, he couldn't guess. He could barely make out their foreign voices in the distance as they chatted away, pointing in his direction from time to time. From the occasional throat-slicing and stabbing gestures, Freddie guessed they were discussing whether to kill him or not.

He started moving his hands back-and-forth, in hopes of loosening his bonds. He hoped he was far enough away that they wouldn't notice. It was no good, though; try as he might, he just couldn't get the ropes to slacken. There was nothing sharp sticking out of the tree that he could use to cut the ropes, either. He glanced around, but there was no sharp stone in range of his feet that he could bring closer. Exasperated and desperate, he cast his gaze skyward ... and there, circling in the distance, he could just make out the silhouette of a bird of prey.

It was his golden eagle! The bird must have been watching his whole ordeal from a distance. There was no way the eagle could take on any of these soldiers, but if he could get its attention without the war party noticing ...

As gingerly as he could, he aimed his mouth directly at the silhouette in the sky and whistled the special whistle which called his bird. He quickly glanced at his captors; thankfully, none of them had seemed to notice his whistling. Unfortunately, his eagle hadn't noticed either. He whistled again. This time, the silhouette angled straight toward him and started getting bigger. It grew larger and closer and closer and larger until he could see the golden feathers on the rear of its wings, quietly flapping to slow its descent. Just as he'd trained it, the bird swooped down beside him to perch on his gloved arm; but this time, that arm was bound tightly behind his back.

"Try to untie the rope," Freddie whispered to the eagle. Then he cursed himself. Dummy, birds don't talk!

But it didn't matter. The bird knew that the glove — its perch — wasn't sticking out at the usual horizontal angle, and decided to try and fix the problem. It caught sight of the knotted rope around its glove-perch. It remembered the knotted line that had once bound its own leg, put two and two together, and tore into the knot with its talons. Freddie hoped it wouldn't dig its talons in too deeply and injure the ungloved hand tied next to it; but even there, the bird surprised him with its deftness. It gingerly tugged at the exposed loops of rope until one of them budged, then pulled and pulled at the loose loop until finally the whole knot gave way.

Freddie was loose! He had to escape before any of his captors saw him. He ducked out to one side of the tree and managed to lose himself between rows of brush. He recalled, generally, which way they'd come when they dragged him to the camp, and set off in that direction as quickly as he could without making noise. His heart was pounding like mad in his ears. He had to keep his arm steady for his raptor's perch; a golden eagle flapping into the skies would surely get his captors' attention. Thankfully, as he held his arm up, he caught sight of the spare falconry hood he'd stuffed in one of its straps some days ago, in case he needed to hood his bird out in the field. He yanked it loose as he ran, and covered his eagle's head as best he could. Now the bird wouldn't be distracted by rabbits or squirrels.

He ran and ran, and began to tire. His pace slowed to a trot, then to a jog. And then, behind him, the sounds of a distant commotion reached his ears. His captors must have already discovered that he was missing! Curses! He was hoping he'd make it half way to the Golden Castle by the time they found him, but he was less than a mile away from their encampment. He picked up the pace as well as his fatigued legs allowed.

Freddie looked over his shoulder, and caught a distant glimpse of men running out from the trees toward him. The enemy vanguard! They surely wouldn't let him escape again if they reached him. He turned and focused his attention on the Golden Castle far in the distance ahead of him, to give himself a target to run toward. And to his growing horror, he saw that between himself and the castle, far far too close for comfort, there was another mob running toward him!

No, not a mob — there were mounted, armored knights among them, leading the charge. Another army! It was coming from the castle; was it the king's army? Oh no! They probably thought he was leading the enemy vanguard that was chasing him! And they were nearly upon him. There was no escape. He pulled off the eagle's hood, said "Save yourself!", and launched his hunting companion into the air. And then, as the galloping hooves of the charging army grew to a deafening thunder, he crouched down on the ground and covered his face with his arms.

And then . . . the army charged right past him.

The king's men thundered past Freddie on either side, as though he wasn't even there. They continued on right into the face of the enemy vanguard. The enemy soldiers caught sight of them, and panicked. It was a rout. Some of the enemy escaped, but not all.

Freddie lay there kneeling on the ground, a mixed bag of relief and exhaustion. He barely even noticed the five or six men who'd broken off from the charging army, and were now clapping him in irons to take him to the king.


The royal guards at last escorted Freddie the few remaining feet into the king's throne room. Freddie's jaw dropped open a full foot. The entire room was plated in — no, made out of — solid gold! Not a single square inch was left ungilded. And what an enormous room it was! Long and wide enough for a dance hall, with a ceiling so fantastically high it almost got lost in the distance. To a farmer's son, these dimensions seemed unthinkable — the ramshackle cabin Freddie had grown up in had been so low, his father had had to duck to avoid hitting his head on the doorways. As Freddie followed the walls down from the ceiling, he scanned rows of gold decorations lining it every ten vertical feet. They seemed to be depicting various scenes out of mythology, though most were too obscure, or too cultured, for Freddie to recognize. The throne, the centerpiece of the room, sat enshrined in the middle of the far wall, nearly twice as tall as a man, its gold surface polished to a blindingly-bright shine.

And on the throne, clad in the finest gold regalia, sat the king himself.

Behing Freddie, at the throne room's massive doorway, a crowd was beginning to gather. They were whispering and murmuring among themselves. Something very unusual must be happening. Twice, Freddie caught snatches of "Knight of the Golden Rabbit" being whispered among the still-gathering throng.

The king looked at Freddie as one might examine the fare at a second-rate marketplace, then made the tiniest of gestures with his left hand.

Freddie felt an elbow poking him in the ribs from his left. The guard standing there growled, "Approach the throne, miscreant!" Freddie shook himself back into the moment, and nervously stepped forward.

"So," said the king, "You're the one that everyone's been making such a fuss about. The Knight of the Golden Rabbit."

Freddie gasped. "Me?!"

The king glowered at the lad. "The skin of a golden-backed hare is mounted on the back of your jacket. Did you not hear my command that this creature is not to be hunted?"

Freddie gulped, hard. "Your majesty," he hoped he was using the correct form of address, "My golden eagle and I hunted this rabbit before your edict was issued! Or at least, before word of it got to me."

"And yet you continue to display it as a trophy," the king rumbled on. "You also just admitted to hunting with a golden eagle, which the Knight of the Golden Rabbit is known to do. You claim to be just a peasant boy, yet you're wearing a Royal Falconers' glove. All the evidence points to you being the Knight of the Golden Rabbit. How long have you been putting on this peasant-boy act? How many of my men have you slain in battle?"

The murmuring of the crowd behind Freddie got louder. More and more people were coming to see what all the commotion was about. Then the crowd parted, and let through a knight freshly returned from the battlefield, still clad in his armor. He stared at Freddie with a puzzled expression. It took a couple of seconds for Freddie to recognize him . . . he was Sir Keeshan!

"Freddie?" Sir Keeshan said at last. "What are you doing in the throne room?"

"Quiet, all!" the king snapped. The crowd's murmuring ceased instantly. He addressed the knight: "Approach the throne, Sir Keeshan."

"Yes, your highness," Sir Keeshan said, stepping into the room.

The king asked, "You know the Knight of the Golden Rabbit by name?"

Sir Keeshan squinted. "Knight of . . ." He looked at Freddie, then back at the king, then at Freddie again. "This peasant boy is no knight! I ran into him some time ago out in the wilderness. I pretended to knight him. He didn't even know that only royalty, such as your majesty, has the authority to bestow true knighthood. I called him the Rabbit Knight."

"THE RABBIT KNIGHT?!" The gathered crowd erupted into laughter.

"Are you saying . . ." the king began, then trailed off in thought.

"I'm saying there is no Knight of the Golden Rabbit, your highness. He was nothing but a rumor, likely concocted from my tales of the 'Rabbit Knight' you see before you."

The king frowned. "And what of his falconer's glove?"

"I gave him that glove, your majesty," answered Sir Keeshan. "When I first met him, he seemed to have good skill with that hunting eagle of his, but he only had a plain farming glove on his arm. So I gave him an old falconer's glove I'd been lugging around in my saddlebags."

The king folded his arms, and his mouth slowly broke into a wry smile. "Well, well. It seems I've misjudged you, boy. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time." He glanced over at Sir Keeshan. "Or in the right place at the right time. The rumors about you motivated my subjects to charge out after the non-existent Knight of the Golden Rabbit — and by sheer coincidence, in so doing, they rooted out the scouting party for an enemy army. You actually deserve to be rewarded for that."

Freddie's jaw dropped open again. This time, it only dropped open about six inches, but he was still just as amazed.

"As you may have heard," the king went on, "I put out a bounty for the capture of the Knight of the Golden Rabbit. I think since you've delivered this fairy-tale 'Knight' right to our doorstep, you should receive this bounty." He reached into a coin pouch and pulled out a handful of jangling metal. "So, here you are. Twenty golden coins."

As quickly as he had presented the coins, the king snatched them back. "However. You hunted a golden-backed hare. Although you hunted it back before my decree against doing so, the only place these rabbits can be found is on the land near this castle, which is all the property of the Crown. In other words, you hunted on my royal grounds without permission. I shall therefore deduct a fine of ten golden coins from your reward." Ten of the twenty coins in his hand slid back into their pouch.

"Th-thank you, sire!" Freddie managed to say.

"You've also talked about a trained hunting eagle of yours," the king said. "I'm impressed that you were able to train him on your own, without the assistance of a skilled falconer."

"Falconry is my one great passion, your highness!" Freddie said, a bit too enthusiastically.

The king smirked. "If you're as good at falconry as Sir Keeshan has hinted that you are, you should be invited to join the Royal Falconers."

Freddie's jaw once again dropped open. This time, all he could manage was three inches, though.

"Unfortunately for you," the King said, "Only the nobility are allowed into the Royal Falconers. But that's a problem I can easily remedy. Approach the throne, Freddie, and kneel before me."

Freddie stepped forward, his heart pounding like mad, and knelt before the throne.

The king drew a ceremonial sword from its sheath, and touched Freddie on both of his shoulders. "By my authority as king, I hereby grant you the rank of Squire of the Realm. Arise . . . the Rabbit Esquire!"

As Freddie got back to his feet, the throng gathered at the doorway made a cacophonous racket. Some laughed at his new title, some cheered, some merely griped, and a few hooted and hollered. But it was done. He was a nobleman now! Sure, Squire was the lowest title of nobility that existed in the kingdom, but his days as a peasant were now over.

His golden eagle, as it turned out, had been quickly secured by the Royal Falconers as soon as Freddie had been captured. It was soon released and returned to its perch on his falconing glove. In the days that followed, Freddie was treated with some derision by the falconers, but in time they — sometimes grudgingly — came to respect his technique with the bird. Soon, he and his golden eagle were winning falconry contests and bringing home more of the golden-backed hares, which were once again legal to hunt.

And Freddie lived happily ever after . . . until his next adventure.




Author's notes:


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