The morning shone with beauty and light as the street markets opened their windows and doors to the people of Feathered City. Market days were usually busy and bustling days, full of diverse types of chickens from the Feathered Kingdom. There were the heavy breeds, who always had an enormous assortment of items in their carts, for they were very large and needed the sustenance; the sleek sporting chickens, who often frequented the fighting pits in the city’s underground; and the tiny bantams with their flamboyant plumage. (They were not liked in the market because more often than not they had a rather high opinion of themselves and therefore strutted about with their tiny beaks turned up in haughty pride.)
Today boded no different than any other day. A young mother bantam stalked down the paved street holding tightly to the hand of a young chick, her face tight with rage. “I knew your father should have come with us. His commanding presence would have put that young rooster in his place immediately.”
“But, mother, the fellow only asked us if we needed any assistance,” the young chick peeped, his innocent face red with embarrassment.
The hen only huffed louder. “And now my own children turn against me!”
Suddenly a voice sounded from the dark alleyway next to them as they hurried past. “Your husband really shouldn’t let you out. You are far too exquisite to be out with the common people.”
The young hen quivered with indignation. “How dare you speak to me in that manner, sir!”
A very large striped feline stepped out of the shadows, his sharp teeth glittering in the sun. “Oh, I dare.” And with that he reached out and snatched the little family into the darkness, causing chaos to ensue in the marketplace as feathers flew and terrified screams filled the air.
The young cat chuckled as the hen wiggled and screamed at his side. “You will not escape so you may as well stop fighting me.”
The young mother’s face was red with exertions as she spat out, “With my dying breath I will fight you, despicable fiend.”
A lofty voice spoke behind them. “Your bravery speaks well of you, young hen. Would you care for some assistance?”
The cat jerked roughly around and glared at the intruder, but before either of the combatants had spoken, a muffled young voice cheeped, “Yes, please, Mr. Wing.”
The striped cat dropped his feathered loads and pulled out his sword in one fluid movement. “So you are the mighty Wing. I’ve been looking forward to this moment.” He lunged swiftly forward, only to find his sword blocked.
“Really? Amazingly enough I haven’t given you one thought.” With these words the sword fight commenced with a vengeance. Both fighters having a similar aptitude for swordplay, the fight required extreme physical and mental effort for both rooster and feline.
The cat fought with the natural agility and quick reflexes of his kind, in addition to a confident familiarity with swordplay and danger. To him, killing was a thing to be studied, practiced, and skillfully carried out.
The Wing, on the other hand, wielded the sword with a perfected efficiency and economy of movement. His fighting style could almost be considered matter-of-fact if the danger and brutality of a real fight did not prevent such a description. When fighting a skilled opponent, however, he had one particular gift which he had learned to highly value.
Glimpsing a weakness in the cat’s guard, Wing leaped forward, slicing the arm of his opponent. The cat fell back, hissing in pain, but, being a cautious individual, he did not jump back into the fight. He instead jumped onto a wooden ladder leading to the roof. “Until we meet again, Wing! And we will, for I intend to receive the reward for your death.”
“Why wait?” Wing taunted.
“I’m not without patience and wisdom. I will have the upper hand soon and only then will I chance my life,” the cat sneered, and with those words he disappeared.
As the Wing was leaving the hen and her chick at their spacious home, he realized that his opponent had been missing something very important. It could be a clue in guessing his antagonist’s identity.
* * *
The chaotic sound of many raised voices echoed behind the hard wooden door of the King’s throne room. John hesitated as he reached for the handle, an uneasy feeling in his stomach. Instinct warned him that this was going to be a very difficult hour of his life. I will have to face the lions soon enough, he thought grimly. He pulled the door open, silently letting himself into the room.
“After all the years of peace, we shouldn’t let one disturbance cause a war between us and the cats.” John recognised the weary voice of his father’s old friend, Sir Rudolf.
“Disturbance? Our people were attacked! We must retaliate with force, to show them that we will not succumb to their terror!” One of the newest to join the court, a young bantam rooster, spoke with passionate anger. He was encouraged by clucks of agreement by his fellows and continued his loud tirade. “Furthermore, I believe we are sorely in need of a new leader in our ranks. A fellow who will take charge and lead the way to freedom from the murderous oppression of Catsville.”
Still unnoticed by the crowd, John finally spoke. “Am I to assume that you are speaking of yourself, young squire?”
The young rooster flushed when he heard John’s cool voice but turned confidently to face him, saying with an arrogant lift of his beak, “I am, sir.”
John strolled over to stand in front of the rooster, towering over the tiny bantam. “I find it highly ironic that you are now ready to massacre a generally peaceful city over one incident where no one was injured, but when the opossum army decimated entire villages of our countrymen you were strangely silent.” The squire’s face drained of color as the words left John’s mouth and suddenly there was an uncharacteristic silence that fell across the room. John’s voice was filled with disgust. “Where were your flowery words then? Where was your righteous anger then?” He glanced around at the other white-faced individuals. “All of you were silent.”
Sir Rudolf quickly intervened. “Gentlemen, please. We must unite for the good of our fair country.” As he passed John he sent him a grin. “Bravo, my boy.” His quietly spoken words, mingled with joy and pride, caused the anger to evaporate from John’s heart. He watched his mentor address the group once again. “Let me remind you that John is the military advisor to the king and has also served in the Feathered Fleet, received honor for numerous heroic deeds done during his service for our country,” John’s grin deepened as the young bantam rooster’s face flushed, “and comes from a long line of military men serving the King. His father and grandfather before him served in this very room and also served in our military.
“I dare say he is more than equipped to inform us on what he believes should be our next action in this matter.” And with that he turned to John, inviting him to speak.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, I believe the real and very present danger is Van Winkel’s opossum army that is marching closer and closer to our very capital. As for the Cat situation, I think we need to, of course, protect our citizens. I do not see any need to attack Catsville.” He passed bound sheets of paper to Sir Rudolf. “I have written a report for the council members of what I think should be done about the protection of Feathered City.” There were murmurs as the papers were passed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, time is a very precious commodity and I will not waste it by staying to argue with you fine gentlemen. I will return when the King calls for me.”
He turned and swiftly left the room without another word.
He was followed out by Sir Rudolf, who clapped him on the back good-naturedly. “Don’t let that pack of turkeys anger you so easily, John. Most of them come from noble families that are very wealthy and would never dream of giving the common folk even an hour of their time. You know that I would not even be numbered among them if it had not been for your father and our great King before,” his voice became filled with the anguish of loss when he spoke of his King and best friend, “for I am neither noble nor rich.”
John once again felt anger sweep over him. “You are more honorable, more noble, than all of those roosters! I cannot for the life of me understand why our King would choose such spineless, ignorant individuals to give him counsel, when he has older, far more experienced roosters to guide him with wisdom.”
Rudolf’s old eyes regarded him with severity. “John, you must learn to bridle your tongue. These are perilous times, my young friend, and I would not like to see you beheaded for treason.” His voice lowered as he gave this warning. “It is rumored that you have been conspiring against the King.”
John’s eyes quickly scanned the area where they were traveling. “I am a loyal servant to our King.” There was no alarm in his voice, but steely resolve. “But I will always be true to the promise that I made to my father at his death. I will always, to the best of my abilities, care for and protect my people.” He sent a humorless grin to Sir Rudolf. “My oath to the kingdom and my oath to my father often engage in bitter battles with one another.”
Rudolf was not amused. “If you wish to live through this war they must agree on a truce. The threat on your life is very real and I believe the rumors are being spread by your bantam rival.”
“Interesting,” John acknowledged. “I did notice that the young squire had a new coat and gold necklace, which is curious, considering that his family has come upon hard times.”
Rudolf nodded. “I noticed also. Who do you believe is padding his pockets?”
John’s mind raced with possibilities. “This calls for some investigating,” he said with another grin, this time genuine pleasure written across his face. “Since I know my ideas will most likely be rejected, I will have a generous amount of time on my hands, and will have ample opportunity to search for the culprit.”
“Please, be careful,” Rudolf warned. “You know that I regard you as my own son, and would die for you if it would preserve your life.”
John took his wing warmly. “You have been a second father to me since my own father passed, and I do not take your warning lightly.”
“See that you don’t,” Rudolf admonished. His eyes suddenly twinkled merrily. “A certain young lady has been very interested in your whereabouts.” John’s eyes sparked with interest as he continued. “Not an hour goes by when she is not roaming the halls in search of you.”
“Then I should not disappoint her,” John said, his voice serious as he bowed and quickly took his leave.
Rudolf chuckled as he watched the swiftly retreating back. “No, you should not.”
* * *
Faith felt her maids approach before she heard the soft voice.
“My lady, Sir John has returned to the palace. I have heard that he has already made an appearance with the nobles about the disaster in the city.”
Faith felt her stomach clench as her mind dwelt on the feline villain that had attacked her people. The feeling of helplessness that had fallen over her as she thought of the terror that must have overcome the young mother and her child threatened to once again overwhelm her with it’s ferocity. She pushed those feelings immediately aside.
“I must speak with him.”
The young maid nodded. “I know, my lady. Perhaps he wishes to speak with you also.” And with those words she passed the princess a hastily written yet precise and legible note.
I have heard you have been looking for me. I will be in the garden awaiting your arrival.
“Not exactly a love note, but it will do, I suppose,” Faith muttered under her breath. She turned to her maid. “Stay here until I return. I will be back shortly.” Without waiting for an answer she hastily rushed out her door.
It did not take her long to reach the garden, but she was disappointed.
“Where is he?” she growled in frustration when she could not find him.
“Are you looking for someone, Princess?”
Faith felt her spine stiffen in alarm as she recognised the voice. “Sir Oscar, how nice to see you again,” she said, turning to give him a winning smile.
“Yes, it certainly is.” The mallard’s green feathers shined brightly in the late afternoon sun as he stood regarding her with suspicious eyes. “What a pity that we will all be robbed of your presence very soon.”
“Not very soon, Sir Oscar,” Faith corrected, anger sparking in her eyes at the very thought of her coming departure. She suddenly realized that this alarming stranger knew far more about her personal life than she was comfortable with. “May I ask how you have come to know this?”
“You may, your highness.” He smiled smugly at her. “The King has decided that I will be the one to escort you on your long, tedious journey.” Seeing the panic rise in Faith’s face he quickly reassured her. “You mustn’t worry about anything, Princess. I am more than qualified to lead and guide your party.”
Before Faith could reply, John’s voice spoke for her. “I will be the judge of who is qualified and who is not.” He walked over to stand by Faith’s side, silently reassuring her rapidly beating heart. “And since I have only just heard the news of your arrival, ambassador, you are absolutely not qualified to take the Princess anywhere.”
A dangerous light lit the small eyes of the duck. He smiled unpleasantly at John. “Unfortunately for you, Sir John, you have no say in the matter. The King has already decided and we shall leave within the week.” He bowed deeply to Faith. “Have a pleasant afternoon, Princess.”
After he had vanished, Faith asked, “Ambassador? He introduced himself to me as Sir Oscar just yesterday.” Seeing the apprehension on John’s face, she said sadly, “Has my dear brother-in-law yet again done something detrimental to the continued prosperity of our realm?”
“It has yet to be seen,” John murmured, quietly guiding her to a more private area of the garden. “I have learned that Sir Oscar has been placed by the King as our ambassador from the Land of Flight.”
“Everyone knows you cannot trust them!” Faith cried mournfully.
John bade her to silence. “He has made this decision without any word of counsel from me or anyone else. Things seem to be quickly becoming dangerous for the Kingdom.”
They both knew how treacherous the birds from the Land of Flight were from the stories their fathers had told them—stories full of lies and double crosses—which was the reason no bird of Flight had ever been allowed as an ambassador to the courts. The very thought of one in close confidence with the King filled both of them with dread.
“What should we do?” Faith asked, her voice now quietly sorrowful.
“The Queen must know, but I cannot be seen with her at this time.” John began leading Faith out of the garden, still speaking quietly. “It seems that I’ve become a target for treason, and I’m afraid I will bring more suspicion upon her if we are seen together.”
Faith turned her sad eyes back to him. “I’m afraid you are too late, John. My sister believes she is already under suspicion by the King and this is her reason for expediting my trip south.” She grabbed his wing fiercely. “How can she even think that I could leave her and my Kingdom, when we’re fighting a war within and without?”
“Your sister and your Kingdom need you protected,” John answered kindly, as Faith let go of his wing and tears pooled in her eyes. “She is right to send you where you will be safe from the coming storm.”
“I won’t be safe with Sir Oscar escorting me, of that I am sure,” Faith said, her voice fighting tears. She then recounted her first episode with the mallard to John, who’s face remained expressionless.
“Inform your sister of the new ambassadorial appointment,” John instructed, his voice calm, even as a feeling of doom began to settle over him. “And tell her she mustn’t do anything. I’ll try and reason with the King and make him see the folly in trusting this duck. If the Queen is already under suspicion then I don’t want to endanger her further.”
“You cannot do this alone, John!” Faith argued vehemently.
John gave her a characteristic grin. “And what makes you think I shall be alone?” he asked in his most charming voice. “I have allies that I am recruiting with all haste.”
“Surely you cannot mean the cats?” Faith whispered, shock reverberating in her voice. “Weren’t we just attacked by a feline scoundrel?”
“Yes, we were… and I do not believe it was a coincidence that the attack was made mere days after my proposal was made to King.”
Fury arose in Faith’s chest as she considered the hidden meaning in John’s words. “Do you believe the King capable of such evil? To sacrifice his own people to fulfill his selfish agenda?”
John didn’t answer immediately, but carefully chose his next words. “I will believe my King to be honorable, until he proves otherwise.” He took Faith’s wing and bowed smoothly. “I must say goodbye now, Princess.”
Faith once again fought the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “Goodbye, my dear friend,” were her whispered words in parting.
John watched her leave, his own heart heavy with grief.
* * *
Neither of them could know that hidden behind some vibrant bushes was someone that burned with jealous anger over every touch, every kind look, and every word that was shared. He glared at John with small eyes gleaming with hatred as John exited the garden, and under his breath he promised revenge to the one that threatened to crush his happiness as the future husband to the damsel of his heart: Faith.