"Seeking the Kingdom"
Once upon a time, when dragons still roamed the earth and castles filled the land, and good princes and kings ruled over principalities with an iron hand, there was once a great kingdom that encompassed the land. It was ruled by a string of the bravest warrior kings, who strived to serve the kingdom. It expanded its borders to the edge of the forests, defeating the rival kingdoms. Its capital city was the ultimate city of legend. The road leading into it was said to be as wide as a galleon's length, and the halls in the palace were said to be of pure gold. It had a standing army of over a million men.
However, good things don't last forever. Less than a hundred years after the kingdom reached its peak, evil was on the rise. One day, the whole of the king's army disappeared in the forests. A massive plague broke out, killing millions. The king was dead, as well as all of the royal family, and the light of the kingdoms was quickly extinguished overnight.
MANY A YEAR LATER
"One shilling for two hen's eggs! Two shillings for this nice woven robe!"
The shouts of the town market rose above the bell of the church tolling the hour. As usual for a Sunday, the stalls were full of farmers hawking their wares.
"Care for a new iron plow, Mr. Holmes?"
"I think not, Margaret. Keep well. How is your father's hostel these days?"
"The same, more or less."
Mr. Holmes strolled the paths, gazing up at the small church of Newhampford-town. He was a mysterious man. The people who lived in town thought that they knew him, but they knew that they really didn't. He supposedly lived in a house way out in the country, but no one had ever seen it. He had lived in the town for over forty years, yet no one had ever seen any of his family come to visit.
His appearance in itself was typical, however. The townspeople could tell that he had once been a tall man, but now his tall frame had shortened, and he was stooped over a small wooden walking stick. He had a relaxed look about him, but his wild brown eyes told something else, hinting of mischievous actions during his youth.
"Good morning, Mr. Holmes."
"And to you, Reverend Franklin." Holmes nodded his head, passing by the church.
"One duck's egg for half pence!"
"Fresh cabbages! Get fresh farm-grown cabbages here!"
"Thank you, good man."
"Here you are, sir. Good day."
"And a good day to you! Keep the change."
Mr. Holmes left the market with a fresh cabbage under his arm. He had on a rumpled black cloak that seemed to swallow the rest of his body up. Clip-clopping on his feet were shined shoes hitting the cobblestones. He turned onto Gate Street.
"Good day, Mr. Holmes."
"And to you, Gatekeeper Winslow. I'll be back tomorrow at six o'clock."
And then he was out in the country, on a long weathered path, traveled only be weary merchants on their way from far-away townships, the wagon ruts almost completely gone. He turned on an odd, obscure path that headed down into a large wood. After a half hour, the wood came into a clearing with a small cottage. Mr. Holmes set down the cabbage on a crate and went in through the door.
"You must make shrubs carefully. There are different shades of green."
"Oh, papa, when might I become a master like you?"
Papa chuckled. "Someday, my lad. You must practice."
"I promise I'll practice an hour a day."
"Oh, it does not work with a set time. You just need to see if you are up for it."
The door swung open, revealing a well-dressed man in red garb.
"Oh, yes, wait a second…" Papa rushed from the living room to the front desk.
"What is the purpose of the visit?"
"A repair, sir." The man had a careful voice, as if each word was pronounced with infinite meticularity.
"Oh yes, are you the one with the Anointing of Sir Charles? A servant dropped it by just two fortnights ago. I think it is going quite splendidly, especially with the brocaded nobles."
"Quite fine, sir. I would just like it to be ready for taking tomorrow at noon."
"Perfect. Is this your first time at my office?"
"As a matter of a fact, I think so."
"Ah, yes. Take a business card. I hardly ever get new customers."
The man in red left, holding the business card. Gepetto Riscotti, Master of the Brush, it stated in large blue lettering. 1285 Goodling Avenue, All Paintings Accepted. Repair and Maintenance Appreciated.
The man in red smiled oddly. He had found his target.
The pub was a down-and-out place, filled with drunks staggering around. The only two people sober were sitting in scratched-up chairs in a shadowy corner. No one seemed to notice them, exactly why this place had been chosen.
"Sir, I did go to the shop."
The other man, completely hidden in the shadow, had a kind of grate-like voice.
"Good. I expect you to do it tomorrow."
The other man was clothed in red, sitting cross-legged in a rusted booth.
"Everything is prepared, sir. Nothing can go wrong."
The man in red allowed himself another crooked smile.
"Perfect. I knew that I could count on you."
At exactly five-thirty every morn, Mr. Holmes woke up, got dressed in his same clothes, had a simple meal of corn, oats and milk and was out of the door to town. It took him a half-hour to walk to town, and most didn't know why he just didn't move to town. What was it about that miserable cottage that made him want to stay there forever?
"Good morning, Gatekeeper Winslow."
"And a happy morn to you as well, Mr. Holmes."
Gatekeeper Winslow was perhaps the burliest man Mr. Holmes had ever seen. The muscles under his shirt were just lying in wait to tackle a criminal, but Newhampford-town was the most crime-less village in the valley. Winslow was actually one of the kindest people in town, ironically.
"Two plaid shirts just two pounds!"
"Five pence for two delicious apples!"
Soon Mr. Holmes was back in the delightful shouts and sights of the market, which spanned virtually the whole man road of the town, begging for tourists.
He turned onto Goodling Avenue, and on a whim decided to check in with the small shops. He knew almost every single person in town, having seen their kids and grandkids grow up. The first place that he stopped at was a shop painted with angels and robed figures around two huge glass-paned windows. A sign read, "Gepetto Riscotti, Master of the Brush." Holmes thought that this was weird, having not known any Gepetto in town at all. He went in, ringing a bell attached to the door.
"Yes, how can I help you?"
Holmes was greeted by a middle-aged man, Holmes guessed maybe forty. He had a neatly combed pile of hair on his head. He even had a small beard clinging to his chin. He was so busy studying this man that he forgot to answer.
"Oh, yes, well, I just came in to stop by. I've never seen this shop before."
"I just moved in a couple of weeks ago. The town has yet to know me."
"Well, my name is Holmes. I've lived here for forty years."
"My name is Gepetto. Do you have a first name?"
Holmes tensed uncomfortably, and Gepetto moved on.
"Anyways, I just moved in from Bangley-town and am looking for a new future."
"It is very nice to meet you, Gepetto. A painter is always welcome."
"Yes, indeed. Do you want to see some of my work?"
"Yes, I might-"
Just then, the door clanged open, and there stood a figure in red, along with a servant. Gepetto hurried back to the desk.
"Yes, what can I do for you?"
"I've come to retrieve my painting, sir."
Gepetto was about to go back to his workroom when, in a flash of motion, the man in red pulled out a sword and held it against Gepetto's chest.
"What? Are you robbing me? You-you…"
"Just hand me all of the money in the chest."
Gepetto reluctantly went over and opened the chest, all the while Holmes watching from the shadows of the shop. He had to do something.
At once Holmes launched himself out of the shadows, hurling his cane at the servant. Caught off guard, the servant crumpled to the floor, the cane clattering on the tiles. The man in red whirled around in surprise. Holmes tried to leap on him. The breath was knocked out of him, but he held on to the man's shoes. The man in red shook him off of his shoes and ran out of the shop with his sword.
After a few seconds, Gepetto finally moved. He ran over and helped Holmes stand up.
"Wow! That was…amazing, Mr. Holmes." Mr. Holmes shook it off.
"Just some…practice from my younger years." Gepetto felt the same kind of cold discomfort that he felt when he asked about Holmes's first name, but he ignored it.
"Anyways, I wanted to see some of your paintings, Gepetto."
"Yes, that's right." Gepetto smiled. They could tell that they would soon be fast friends.
"Heap the coals, Martha. I have to go outside."
"Why, John? Supper is almost ready."
"I think we have a visitor."
John Spencer opened the creaky door and into the clearing. They had built their house with their bare hands, and had cleared the trees from their land.
He glanced across the clearing. He thought that he had heard a noise, but everything seemed to be quiet. Then, from the north something happened that caught his breath.
A huge ball of smoke was rising from the north, enveloping the sky. John collapsed on his knees and wept uncontrollably. Martha creaked open the door.
"What is wrong? The turkey is prepared."
John managed to say something through his hands.
"The kingdom is lost."
Gepetto and Holmes walked slowly along the forest trails.
"Are you sure that this is the way to your house, Mr. Holmes?"
Holmes answered in a calm voice. "I've lived here for forty years." He cast a mild chuckle over at Gepetto. "I think I should know the way to my house."
Suddenly they entered a clearing, and there was the old cottage. Gepetto gazed in awe.
"This house is amazing. I'm surprised that you haven't had anyone over here."
"I haven't had a friend like you before." This time Gepetto grinned.
They creaked open the door and into a small front room.
"This is the front room."
It was a small room. On one side was a small counter and sink lined with smoothed wood. Above the sink was a small board with faded lettering. On the other side was a table with three chairs, and with one porcelain plate and cup.
"Very quaint furnishings," Gepetto remarked.
"It suits me just fine. I don't care for them new-fangled bigger houses."
"Why do you have three chairs?" Gepetto asked.
Holmes looked at the chairs with a mix of longing and coldness. Holmes moved along and opened a small doorway.
"Here is just a small bed room."
Inside was a small twin bed with the covers pulled messily back and a mirror above the head board. Surrounding it was a small dresser, a coat tree and a small fireplace. There was a pile of wood by it and a fire was crackling, with a few faded portraits above the mantle.
"This place really is remarkable," Gepetto said. "It is just the best little cottage I've ever seen."
"I fell in love with it when I first saw it." Holmes faced Gepetto.
"I will tell you that story another time." They walked out.
Just as John had said that, he heard a rustling in the woods. A few moments after, a figure in armor staggered out of the trees, crumpling to the ground just a few steps later. Both John and Martha rushed over and eased up the man.
"Sir! Sir! Are- are you mortally wounded?"
The soldier did not reply. He was unconscious, his head hanging low.
The soldier appeared to be about twenty, with brown tussled-up hair and an iron breastplate. His chest slowly rose up and down, so he was not dead. He had on horse-riding boots and had an empty scabbard pinned to his side. "Here, Martha. Help me carry him to the house."
They picked him up and carried him over slowly, easing him onto their bed.
"I wonder who this man is," Martha said.
"We will find out soon enough," John said. "He's waking up again."
There was a rustling of sheets, and then the man's eyes slowly opened.
"Where-where am I…"
"Don't worry, sir, you are in the cottage of John Spencer, not far from Newhampford-town."
The man groaned. He didn't say anything.
"Sir, are you terribly injured?"
"I don't think so…" Martha gazed at him.
"What exactly happened?" John questioned. "Who in the world are you?"
The man struggled to sit. He pulled off his breastplate, gazing around in wonder.
"I don't exactly know… It… I just remember slumping over in the woods, running, running…"
John and Martha gazed at each other. "We had better let you rest."
They turned to leave, but the man managed to say just one more word.
"My name is… S-s…Sherlock."
"You didn't get them!" The man hidden in the shadows roared.
"I-I just barely escaped…" The man in red said shakily, brushing off some dust off of his shirt.
"My servant is gone, presumably unconscious."
The man in the shadows growled.
"I trusted you. I knew I should have given the operation to someone else."
"Look, there was this man-he…he was old, but-"
"An old man beating up your servant? What a pathetic excuse…"
"I-It's true, I swear! He used his cane, and…"
"Wait a second," he snapped.
"Here's your two cups of mead," the waitress said sweetly.
"Thank you," the man in red said promptly. He slid one cup over to the other man, who slid it back.
"But, I still need my money."
"Leave. You'll never meet me again."
The man in red persisted.
"I still need my money. You agreed to give me more!"
The red man couldn't see his employer, but he knew that he was angry. He slowly got up and left. The other man rubbed his chin.
"Mmmm… Holmes, we meet again."
"Good morning, Gepetto."
"And to you, Holmes. How are things?"
"The same, more or less."
"Things at the painting shop are going well."
"That might be, but the town is abuzz. Have you heard of the incident this morn?"
"No, I have not." Holmes and Gepetto were walking on the path towards Holmes's house again.
"Gatekeeper Winslow found a man in red garb dead in a roadside ditch."
"Is that a fact? Isn't that the same man who robbed us?"
"Probably. A criminal's life ought to have some skullduggery. Such a sad tale."
They once again entered the clearing. Gepetto decided to get an end to this once and for all.
"Why do you not want to talk about your past, Holmes?"
Holmes shifted uncomfortably.
"Well, I came to Newhampford-town looking for a new future. I've lived here for over forty years, and I feel like I'm really a new man. I don't feel like opening the closet again."
Gepetto gazed at Holmes with a strange look.
"But, Gepetto, It's time someone else knew about me. It's just that-"
Holmes raised his hand to his eyes, rubbing them.
"It's just that I do not like telling it. It pains me so."
Holmes straggled over to the front room and grabbed a shovel.
"Take this. I'll lead you to the spot."
They came to a small spot infested with weeds. Holmes pulled them aside with his cane.
"Right here." He coughed. "X marks the spot."
Gepetto began digging.
Sherlock raised the canteen and drank a large swig, enjoying the feeling of water on his parched throat.
"Up and at 'em, soldier," an officer said. "You'll need your strength to fight the enemy."
"What enemy?" he scoffed. "I don't see anything enemy-like in this godforsaken forest."
"Don't make any trouble, Holmes." The officer glared at him. "The king himself commissioned this operation."
"Well, I can't see why the king's sickness would lead to this foray. I don't see any ghosts? Demons? Ghouls? Evil bacteria? I don't think so." His friends laughed.
The commanding officer just ignored them, saddling up his horse.
"Alright, men. Let's move out. We have a lot of ground to cover."
They silently trotted along, with the gnarly trees and branches looking like macabre fingers and hands of evil beings. They could barely see the sun, almost not able to peek through the dense mass of wood. It seems that there was no end to this forest.
"Break step. We're approaching Clever's Clearing."
The horses slowed, and they finally broke out into some open space. There was an old cottage, but all that was left was a few charred remains of some floorboards. Just looking at it made Sherlock a lot less secure. They passed the clearing, and it was forgotten.
"Aaaaahhhhhhh! Help me!"
Everyone whirled around to look at Sherlock's friend Habin.
"I'm just fine," he said, grinning.
"Habin, stop joking around!"
"Fine." Sherlock turned back around.
"Aaaaahhhhhhh! Help me!"
No one turned around. "Stop it, Habin," Sherlock said again.
But when Sherlock turned around again, Habin wasn't there.
"What is it, Holmes?"
"Habin isn't here. He just… disappeared."
Everyone looked back, and all they saw was a horse trotting along. Suddenly the captain swung into action. "Code Red! Code Red! We have a missing soldier!"
Their horses trotted back, and as they rounded a bend they saw him. He was lying on his back, blood all over his face, breathing his last.
Before anyone could make a move, something rustled in the bushes, and whispers seemed to ripple over them. Another soldier suddenly collapsed in his saddle, slit in the throat. But there was no enemy.
"Retreat!" The officer said, but before he even got two strides he fell off of his horse, rolling into a ditch.
"Go back to the castle!"
More and more soldiers crumpled, their horses whinnying and raising their hoofs. Sherlock jumped off of his horse, landing on his back. He hastily got up, leaping into the bushes. He ran and ran and ran, as fast as he could. He could sense something after him, but he ran faster. The last thing that he remembered was breaking into a clearing and collapsing, pursued by strings of red.
Gepetto began to dig, and after a few moments began to unearth something.
"I've found something!" Holmes just watched on with a deadpan look.
It was a large chest. It had once been ringed with gold, but it had rusted long ago.
"It's just a box of memories," Holmes said. "Open it."
Gepetto heaved it to the house, taking it to the front room and placing it gently on the table. His weary hands shakily opened the latch and raised the lid.
Holmes reached in and took out an object.
"My breastplate. It used to be silver, but, as you can see, it's almost orange by now."
He set that aside.
"Here is my canteen. In fact, most of this is-"
"Wait…" Gepetto was getting excited. "Were-were you part of the Imperial Army?!"
"That's incredible! Wait-how did you…"
"I'll explain everything." Holmes wearily sat down and sighed.
"Those were a mighty long time ago. Back 45 years, matter of facts."
"How did you survive the… the unspoken happenings?"
"Well, it all began when I was born 65 years ago. Yes, I was born into the Imperial Kingdom. It was already past its peak. It was a wonderful city. Except I don't remember much of it. The king was a good man. I was training for the army, and I was accepted."
"Wow, Holmes. I bet that nobody else in town lived during that time!"
"True. All my age… well, of the plague."
"Anyways, I was part of the army at twenty. I spent five good years training and fighting with some of the best men on the planet. Brigade 21 was our name. Things only became fishy when the king got sick. He thought that-" Holmes rubbed his eyes again, but this time Gepetto couldn't tell whether it was just an itch or tears. "He thought that his sickness was caused by supernatural forces. He sent the whole army into the forests to search for the answer."
"The Evil Forest," Gepetto said in sheer awe.
"That's correct. Somewhere around Clever's Clearing, I noticed that my friend had disappeared."
He told Gepetto the whole story of the incident in the forest.
"That is amazing, Holmes. Were you the only soldier of the entire army to escape?"
"Probably. But anyways, I arrived at this cottage. The Spencers carved a third chair at their table for me. I slept on a mat on the floor. That is, until the plague. My two step-parents got sick and, sadly died."
There was a silence. Now Gepetto knew why Holmes didn't want to talk. The plague and the army disappearance had cost him his kingdom, his career. His family.
"I just inherited this cottage from them, and have not even considered leaving."
They went in to the bedroom. Holmes pointed at the faded portraits.
"Those two are of John and Martha Spencer."
Gepetto studied them. "Why don't you move? This is still too close to the forest for comfort."
"I am leaving the legacy of the Spencers. But-I just can't bear to go back to the forest."
"You shouldn't, Holmes. It's too dangerous."
"You're right." They went back up to the front room. Gepetto noticed the board above the sink.
"What does that say?" Holmes went over.
"It says, 'Sherlock Holmes, Officer in Imperial Army, Brigade 21. Clever is the Key.'"
"Why is Key capitalized?" Holmes replied, "I don't know."
"Wait, are you Sherlock Holmes? I should have known!"
"My father told me before he died, "Go to Newhampford. Find Sherlock.'"
"How can that be? What a coincidence."
"Well, my father, Winston Key, was a recent refugee from the forest himself. He had wild stories of strange ghosts too, but he died before he could tell me. Some fire."
Sherlock seemed to be deep in thought.
"Let me take you someplace."
Holmes led Gepetto past the cottage, along another little-known trail to a fork.
"That road leads to Gephty-town. You take this road; you come to a dead end."
They came to a dead end, but Holmes just started through the forest. After a while, they came up to a huge river. On the other side were the ruins of two towers.
"The King's River. Those two towers were where the main gate was."
"I don't believe it! Now we can uncover our past. And nothing can stop us."