Wernicke felt his face twist into a grimace. “Broca, return that to me or I’ll break your arm.”
“Ah so you finally decide to show some backbone on the eve of your failure.” Sir Broca said, holding the acorn up to the light. “How endearing. But I’m afraid you are too late. You see, I have the…”
Wernicke narrowed his eyes. He had traveled three long years to obtain that acorn, and he wasn’t about to lose it to a conceited, power-hungry princeling like Broca. He lunged forward and drove a gloved fist towards Broca’s gut.
Broca blocked Wernicke’s blow and drew his sword, his other hand clenched around the acorn. It was not for his fighting that Wernicke thought Broca bad.
Before their respective soldiers could draw their weapons, a small voice stopped them.
Distracted, the two knights looked to see who was interrupting their fight. It was a serving girl wearing a stained dress and a frightened expression. Wernicke, thoroughly embarrassed by his conduct, straitened and gave the girl a nod. “Do you need something?”
"Sirs, His Majesty the King knows the acorn is here.” She said. “He’s waiting for it in the garden.”
The gardens were too close for hesitation. Before Brocacould react, Wernicke rammed his elbow into the other knight’s stomach. The girl shrieked and Broca’s sword clattered to the ground.
The acorn dropped and bounced on the floor as if it didn’t represent the future an entire kingdom. The serving girl stooped and picked it up and stared at it
"Give it to me, girl.” Broca gasped, picking up his sword. “You saw it. It was in my hand. Don’t let this sot trick you.”
Her eyes widened.
"Don’t be afraid.” Wernicke said, keeping his voice level. “I spent three years fighting for that acorn. I plucked it from the boughs of the silver tree of Alevian myself. The acorn is rightfully mine, and I won’t let this man or anyone else harm you. Please, return it to me.” He extended his hand, his honest right hand, towards her.
The girl flicked her gaze back and forth from Broca to Wernicke and looked down and ran her thumb over the smooth golden surface. Wernicke felt his heartbeat quicken. The sick and heirless king had decreed that whoever brought him back the legendary golden acorn from the Alevian tree would be named his heir. For Sir Wernicke, that meant bringing peace to a nation torn by bloodshed and weak leadership. For Broca it meant an increase of power. But this girl, who stared at the acorn in her calloused, overworked hand, saw a second chance at life. She took a few steps backwards and bolted down the hall towards the garden.
Behind him, Broca swore. “After her, you cowards!” He lunged forward, red cape streaming behind him. His met followed, a few of them drawing their swords, but the girl had already ducked into a hallway, out of sight.
"Come!” Wernicke beckoned his men in the opposite direction. They followed him, loyal and true, towards the gardens. There was no way they could catch the girl, who probably knew and polished every nook and cranny of the castle. Their best bet was to cut her off at the gardens before she presented the acorn to the king.
"Faster!” He called to his companions. The fate of the kingdom depended on it.
The squirrel ran deftly along the tree branch, swiveling her tufted ears towards a few flat-faced furless gods in the gardens below. Had she stopped she might have noticed one was old, enough to sink into the soil and give root to seedlings, but shehad better things to worry about. She was on a quest for food. Food and life. She concerned herself with little else.
She spiraled down the trunk and froze at the base. They still didn’t see her, those looming gods, with their voices louder than thunder claps. She dashed forward and into the opposite bushes where she saw a magpie stashing something that morning. It could be wire or pennies or feathers, but it could also be food. Life.
She hopped forward, her wet nose twitching. There was the metallic sharpness of nickel. There was the subtly sweet smell of a pecan.
She peered over the lip of the makeshift nest. Three pecans. She could only take one. She lunged and stuffed one between her teeth. It was big, but not too big. She leapt out of the hedge and ran along it, her red fur bright as a penny under the midday sun. Up she went, up a tall pine tree to one of her stashes, nestled in awkward crossing of braches. She shoved it inside and paused, swiveling a tufted ear. Were there any crafty magpies watching her? No. Her store was safe.
She jumped down to a lower limb and scanned the ground. The pecan wasn’t enough, and neither were the hordes of nuts she had already stored. Winter would come and winter meant hunger. Hunger meant death.
She saw no yip yap rat dogs waiting for her, or the clever cats waiting in the bushes. Then, something caught her attention.
She heard the thunderous shouting of the tall god-beasts. She perked up. They often made loud noises when they ate. She leapt down into the flower garden, ears and nose twitching in anticipation. Food. Life.
Sir Wernicke was nearly to the garden, ready to capture the kingdom that was rightfully his. No servant girl would be experienced or wise enough to be name the heir, and Sir Broca… Broca was power hungry and abusive. Wernicke tried not to think of the kingdom with him in charge.
He rounded the corner with his men only to come face to face with Broca and his guard, all recognizable from the red stripe that ran down their helmets. Broca had the serving girl by the wrist, grinning with the confidence of a man who knew he had won.
The grin melted into a grimace as he saw Wernicke cut him off. “The kingdom is mine, fool.” He hissed, holding the acorn tightly in his other hand so that Sir Wernicke could see the barest glint of gold between Broca’s gloved fingers. There would be no time for talk. Wernicke signaled for his soldiers to draw their swords and he heard the sound of metal slithering out of sheaths behind him.
Broca let go of the serving girl’s wrist and she dashed awaylooking more frightened than hurt. Soon both parties were glaring at each other with the hate only mortal enemies could know. “I’ve come too far for you to reap the benefits of my hard work.” Wernicke said, trying not to let his desperation show. “This doesn’t need to come to bloodshed.”
Broca raised his eyebrows. “Who drew their weapons first? Who threw the first punch? Quit preaching and stand aside.”
"I hunted the acorn and captured it.” Wernicke countered. “Would you really want a kingdom you didn’t earn?”
He knew there was no reasoning with a man like Broca, but it might give him some time to plan…
Broca signaled his men forward and Wernicke barely had enough time to draw his own sword and block a blade from a helmeted soldier wearing Broca’s signature red. Wernicke disarmed him and noticed Broca out of the corner of his eye; the red-caped knight was skirting around the battle towards the garden entrance. He tightened his grip on his sword. Not this time, coward.
The squirrel poked her head outside of the shrub and looked up, twitching her nose and ears al l the while. They were louder than normal, these tall ones , wearing bright plates that smelled like the coins. The squirrel never paid much attention to the activities of the tall ones, but she knew they almost never took notice of her.
"She took a few experimental steps outside of the bush and sat up on her haunches to sniff the air. She smelled metal and sweat. No food.
She froze. A couple of them were running towards her, one with a billowing red cloak, another chasing after. The squirrelkept still, impossibly still, hiding in the shadow.
The chaser caught the red one by the arm and a loud crack rang across the grass, like a tree branch breaking in a storm. The squirrel caught the acrid smell of fear in the air and she barely dared to breath. Death was here. No food, no life.
But then, something bounced towards her and a sweet smell caught her attention. She perked up. Food! It was a strange color for an acorn, but it was an acorn all the same. Without pausing to think she pounced on it, shoved it into her mouth, and dashed up the wall.
She barely registered the cries the angry gods yelled after her.
No. No no no. Wernicke shoved open the garden gate and ran, his boots crackling on the gravel pathway. The little rodent thief was running along the top of the wall, a bushy red tail streaming out behind it. He had always thought squirrels were lively little creatures, but for once in his life, he wished for the death of a fellow creature.
Broca wasn’t too far behind him, which Wernicke had to admit was impressive, especially since he was running with a freshly broken arm. Wernicke had felt a sort of sick pleasure when he heard the bone snap. He deserved it, the coward.
The squirrel took an impressive leap onto a low hanging branch of an apple tree, but some of Wernicke’s men on the other side of the wall scared it back and the chase ensued. There were few trees inside the garden walls, but the squirrel was displaying impressive amount of tenacity on a surface with relatively little ground cover.
Some of Broca’s men tried to intercept it, but it made a clever dash between their legs and veered sideways towards the wall.
Wernicke gritted his teeth and trampled through a flower bed tI intercept it, gritting his teeth. I have not spent the last three years of my life slaving away to lose the kingdom to a squirrel.
But then, time seemed to stop. Soldiers from both sides skidded to a stop and it took a moment for Wernicke to register what was going on.
The squirrel was surrounded by soldiers on all sides, and it seemed to be quivering, eyes darting around to find an escape that wasn’t there.
But most surprisingly of all, the king himself was in a circle, sitting in his wheeled chair, staring at the squirrel, withsagging, red-rimmed eyes.
The squirrel stared back at him, red and bristling, the golden acorn still wedge firmly between its teeth.
Wernicke froze and stared at the king. The king had been old and sick when Wernicke had left on his quest, but the man staring at the squirrel before him was nearly a corpse. Wernicke closed his eyes, unwilling to accept failure after three years of blood and sweat. Surely if he explained to the king how he had fought and bled for three years searching for and claiming the acorn, he would listen and confer the kingdom upon him. He had a vision, a vision of peace. Surely the king could understand that.
The old man waved a shaky hand through the air. “I said I would confer the kingdom on whoever brought me the golden acorn from the silver tree of Alevian.” He said in a throaty, vulture voice.
"Please, Sire, I…”
The king cut him off. The old man pointed a craggy finger at the squirrel who sat red and bristling before him, the golden acorn glittering in its jaws.
"I name you my heir of my crown and kingdom. May your rein be one of peace and prosperity.”
The squirrel looked up at him with glittering black eyes and flicked its bottlebrush tail against its back.
The king let out a rattling breath, slumped sideways in his chair, and died.