By Ronnell Kay Gibson
Cool water rushed down Prince Edward Mackivoy’s throat, instantly reviving his parched mouth and spirits. It had taken him a week to cross the desert, and he had run out of water two days ago.
Grit still clung to the roof of his mouth, so Edward stuck his face back in the meadow stream and took another long gulp. Then another, this time letting the icy liquid swirl around his mouth. The taste of crisp morning air.
Next to him, Bengali, Edward’s horse, finished his long drink and waded into the water.
“Good idea.” The prince removed his boots and threadbare socks and stuck his feet in the brook.
“Ben, how much farther till we get to the Seer?”
The horse responded with a shake of the head and a wet snort.
“Ha. Every day for more than three months, I’ve asked you that. Through the forest, mountains, desert, and every day you tell me you don’t know.” He splashed water on his face. “I’m beginning to think Father has me on a fool’s quest.”
Bengali nudged the top of Edward’s head, his snout blowing the prince’s hair into his eyes.
“I know. If I want to succeed my father as king, I must finish my journey. Find the Seer, get the key to the kingdom. I’m so close I can almost taste the throne.” Bengali nudged him again. “Right, enough musing. On we go.”
As they traveled north, the small stream turned into a mighty river. Here the land was lush with greenery.
The prince popped a berry into his mouth. The sweet juice exploded on his tongue, brightening his taste buds. The flavor mirrored the fragrant, silky wine he ceaselessly indulged in back at the palace, yet, instead of leaving his mind in a foggy haze, he was now refreshed and alert.
The handful of fruit carried his appetite till dusk when they stopped for the night.
With his provisions long gone, the prince spent much of the last few months learning how to harvest what he needed from the land. Including trapping small game.
It had been a challenge at first, discovering each animal required different snares and different bait. But with every failure, Edward learned what not to do, until he developed the perfect set of traps.
He tackled each new issue the same way. Which plants were edible. Where to find water. How to make a shade shelter.
Tonight, the prince used his new-found skills to capture a rabbit. He then collected piles of branches, careful to pick out the driest pieces. Pulling the tinderbox from his pack, he went to work building a fire.
Edward wrapped the meat in fresh purslane leaves and roasted it on sticks. His mouth watered as the smell of the fat drizzled into the flames.
He nibbled at his dinner, slowly savoring the earthy flavor. He tossed Bengali a handful of fruit and nuts. “Remember how I complained about not having my princely feasts?”
The horse brayed. Twice.
“Now, I don’t even miss it.” He sifted through his current cravings, but they were gone. As were his longings for the rich delicacies he would gorge himself on after every meal. The thought of indulging in an endless array of rich puddings, pies, and cakes now sickened his stomach.
The night was clear. As the prince rested staring up at the stars, he wondered, as he did every night, about the key and what made it so special. Did it possess magical properties? Was the key an ancient prophecy he had to unravel? What if the key was a person? Like a beautiful enchantress he’d been betrothed to at birth. That possibility was the prince’s favorite.
And as they did every night, the nocturnal creatures sang Edward to sleep.
The next day, the prince rode for several hours before coming to a clearing. In the center stood a wooden temple, with dozens of steps and two large golden columns.
“Ben, could it be?”
Bengali charged ahead, racing up the steps till he reached the door of the structure. The prince dismounted.
His body tingled as he entered the sacred shrine. “Hello?”
An elderly man dressed in a cream-colored robe and brown sash stepped from the shadow into the daylight. “Good afternoon, Prince Mackivoy. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Are you the Seer?”
“And you know why I was sent here?”
“Yes. You’ve come to get the key to your kingdom.”
Edward’s stomach somersaulted. In just a few moments, his quest would finally be complete. “Where is it?”
The Seer took a step forward and shook his head. “I’m sorry, my prince. I do not have the key which you seek.”
Heat raced up Edward’s spine settling into his cheeks. “My father sent me to find you. Said to travel north until I found the temple. Till I found you. For three months I’ve journeyed through mountains, forests, deserts… and now that I’ve finally located you, you tell me you have nothing for me?”
“Your father knew if you were to take the throne as you were, you would’ve never been able to fully serve the kingdom as they deserve.”
The prince squeezed his hands into fists, trying to contain his anger. “How dare you! I love my people.”
“But you were selfish, gluttonous, and perfectly content to let others handle difficult situations, never getting your hands dirty.”
Edward reached for his sword, but the Seer grasped his shoulder.
“Wait,” the Seer ordered. “I cannot give you the key you seek, because you already possess it. Open your hand.”
The prince obeyed.
“See, there is your key.”
“You’re crazy, old man. All I see are callouses and dirty fingernails.”
“I see a man who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. To learn new things. To understand the land and the creatures in it.” The old Seer smiled. “That is the key to your kingdom.”
Bengali brayed in agreement.