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Aldric's Letter Brigade

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ALDRIC’S LETTER BRIGADE - The Golden Apple

ACT I - In which two university besties become professional frenemies — OR — the story of when Aldric became an outlaw and Zephaniah a sheriff.

 

 

Well, Zephaniah would hang Aldric at noon.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A series of events would lead to that day, so let us retreat a few years back to when Zephaniah of the Gallantheaen March met Aldric the Bastard.

It was at the University of Cambridge. They were both first years, and it was sometime before Christmas, somewhere on the campus green. The sky was cloudy. It threatened to snow.

Zephaniah had been watching the college’s Archery Society implode. Again. It was actually his favorite post-luncheon pastime. Although Zephaniah was only fourteen, he already had very little faith in human relationships.

Born to a handsome marquis, Zephaniah had inherited his father’s good looks; except that while the lord was reasonably fair, Zephaniah was exceptionally pale. Even his hair was snow-blond, so everyone called him ‘Ghost’ throughout childhood. When he became a young man, they noted the resemblance to the marquis and began calling him his father’s ghost. 

Naturally, that made him the marquis’ least favorite child. 

And since his father blamed his mother for birthing the Ghost of Gallanthus, that made Zephaniah her least favorite child as well.

(Don’t get me started on his brothers.)

Poor Zephaniah led a lonely life up until he enrolled in Cambridge.

Now, enter Aldric de Plaqueminais, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a smile that put the sun to shame every single day of the week. Even Zephaniah had said as much, albeit far later and far drunker: nothing was brighter than Aldric on the day they met. 

Oh, Zephaniah had heard rumors about him during fall semester: all exoticisms and whatnot. 

(I was going to list a couple of examples, but then I realized that you, dear reader, could simply imagine the most Orientalist narratives yourself, for that was basically what they were. Now, Aldric historians have consistently traced his roots to Siam, which is modern-day Thailand, though there were a few scholars in the 1800s that insisted he was Japanese. According to all accounts given, however, it’s safe to say that Aldric was mixed and most likely of Asian descent.)

Zephaniah knew three things about Aldric before they met:

First, that he and Aldric were born in the same year. 

Second, that Aldric was a bastard. 

And third, that the House of Plaqueminier, with its precious metal mines, was one of the strongest allies a lord could ask for. Zephaniah would do well not to displease even one of its bastards.

That meant the first thing Zephaniah ever said to Aldric was, “Good day to you.”

“Sir, are you a coward or a voyeur?” Aldric had replied in return. He spoke with an air of Frenchness that was not quite French, but Zephaniah recognized the accent, for he, too, hailed from Jardinia. His family’s marchdom was located more northwest, though, so his expressions were a little more English:

“I—I  beg your pardon?”

“You’re always watching the archery club from the shadows. Either you lack the courage to join them, or the rest of us are missing out on some fine, clandestine scandal.”

“Oh, a riveting one,” Zephaniah said dryly, recovering once he realized what kind of fellow he was dealing with. “I hope it ends in a fistfight. They can’t decide on a captain, so they’ve agreed to follow whoever lands a bull’s eye from forty paces…”

Aldric’s eyes lit up. “Tell me none can do it.”

“None can,” Zephaniah confirmed, and Aldric literally sprinted across the field. 

In hindsight, that was when Zephaniah found himself drawn to the unstoppable force of nature that was Aldric the Bastard.  

It was immediate. Aldric nailed the bull’s eye from fifty paces and became captain of the Cambridge Archery Society. The bickering bowmen were beside themselves, and Zephaniah almost left in better spirits after witnessing such a feat. 

Except Aldric had turned to wave Zephaniah over.

And that's how Zephaniah Gallanthus came to join the Cambridge Archery Society as well. There, he learned to shoot a bow. He never hit a mark and decided he preferred the sword. He was demoted to an honorary member.

They ended up being a close-knit group, incapable of existing without Aldric or Zephaniah. It was ironic that while both young men excelled at diffusing the Society’s conflicts, they were terrible at reconciling their own.

(It’s also worth noting that this incarnation of the school’s archery club did not last very long, nor did it impact the school’s history. On the other hand, it did boast the founding members of the Letter Brigade, so for our story, it was a most pivotal organization.)

Aldric’s Letter Brigade began as a jest of sorts, thanks to Aldric’s caprice and Zephaniah’s frown. At least, this is the legend that several historians would claim, centuries later.

You see, whenever Zephaniah received a poor mark on an exam, he’d sulk. All day, if he could. Aldric, bored by Zephaniah’s melancholia and ever his friend’s champion, would snatch the papers from his hands and run headlong into the offending professor’s office. There, he’d debate the poor scholar until Zephaniah received a higher letter. 

Aldric did this for anyone who he thought deserved better. In exchange, they had his back. During his time at Cambridge, it was common to hear his brisk footsteps swell into a dozen, just as it was an adventure to tag along and see which lecturer would become the target of his ire. Thus, the Letter Brigade was formed. 

(If we believe the 18th-century Scholar’s Theory, that is.)

It would not be long before Aldric’s Letter Brigade branched out into other misadventures, so to speak. As a student, Aldric had the legal immunity of clerics. He took advantage of that.

There are many ballads about Aldric’s university years, and they tend to follow a formula: Aldric would learn of some injustice through the campus grapevine, and he’d go off to correct it, laws be damned. Then, the Letter Brigade would involve themselves. Shenanigans ensued. The song usually ended when Zephaniah, who came from a long line of lawmen and generals, arrived to deliver some form of justice, swift and true. Ultimately, parity on campus would reign, thanks to Aldric and Zephaniah. It was as sure as the alphabet went from A to Z.

But it would only last until graduation.

Aldric wanted to continue the Letter Brigade past their university days. Zephaniah had balked at the notion. They had many fights over it in their last year at Cambridge. Both endlessly stubborn, they’d tread over the same ground, ad nauseum.

“Haven’t we outgrown these schoolboy antics?” Zephaniah would say. “If you escalate them any further past these walls, you’ll be called criminals, not heroes.”

“We don’t do these things for praise!” Aldric had exclaimed. “There are crimes committed against good people, who would never get satisfaction if not for us!”

“To live outside of the law,” Zephaniah said, definitively, “is to live the short and violent life of an outlaw.”

“You only know the law—and artlessly so—but have you ever believed in justice? Without me, you’re just another Gallantheaen sellsword,” Aldric replied, “oh, my dear and disappointing friend.”

Needless to say, they fought. 

Zephaniah was a man of iron, fists, and winters. Although he would learn the value of diplomacy in due time, he still spent most of his life with bruises on his face. He had long been his house’s greatest disappointment for other reasons, so Aldric’s tactless remark was the final nail in the coffin of their comradery. It split the Letter Brigade right down the middle. 

Half followed Aldric’s ideals and the other, Zephaniah’s career. 

Since Zephaniah’s older brothers would eventually take over the Gallantheaen March, everyone knew Zephaniah was desperate to prove himself elsewhere. Those who stayed with him were bound to get scraps of everything he claimed for himself. 

And Zephaniah was starved for more than mere scraps.

Aldric, however, didn’t care for such things. He was the kind of spirit that flew in on a summer zephyr. He came and went as he pleased, and he left Cambridge shortly after that last argument, before he and Zephaniah could make amends. 

Some accounts say that Zephaniah met his disappearance with apathy, for he’d long lost his patience with Aldric de Plaqueminais. Others say Zephaniah snapped the way an icicle would off a branch. The timorous shell from which Aldric had coaxed him out shattered, and Zephaniah wore what remained like a mantle of broken glass. 

 

-

 

“Make way for Sheriff Gallanthus. Make way, make way!”

It was easy for Zephaniah to secure the position a few years after graduation, moreso in his homeland of Jardinia. 

Zephaniah’s third cousin was the Duke of Amarante, whom he’d bribed handsomely. It was no wonder that when pricking new candidates for each shrievalty, the duke’s silver needle had landed on the name ‘Zephaniah Gallanthus.’

“You will face the King of Outlaws, the bane of all sheriffs,” the duke had said to his younger cousin. “Take care, or he will ruin you as well.”

But Zephaniah scoffed and said, “We are past such nonsense.”

Zephaniah’s parents didn’t mind that their youngest son was so far away from home, at the other end of the country, no less. He’d gained a respectable position, though not the best, and he told them he was there to court the pockmarked daughter of the Plaqueminier household—for yes, Zephaniah was a lawman for the Chelidonia Principality, which was right next to le Duché de Plaqueminais: Aldric’s family home.

To be specific, Zephaniah had been assigned to Chelidonia’s Saint-Flora.

Ah, Saint-Flora: lovely and mild in the summer, and cozy with snow in December. It was affluent and French-influenced—a southern seaside city that no longer exists on today’s maps. It boasted one prized export for which merchant ships braved the rocks of Black Thorn Bay, and that was a flower. 

This flower was never properly categorized because the breeder punched out four of Carl Linnaeus’ teeth. Some say it was a crossover strain between tulip and fairy hat. Scholars agree that it was the Dutch who introduced it to Jardinia two centuries prior. It was a beautiful shade of blue-black that has since evaded modern description. It’s likely extinct now, done in by neighboring England’s brutal industrial revolution. 

All records that remain have described it as ‘Zephaniah’s Hat,’ in reference to the dark hat Zephaniah wore to keep the sun out of his eyes. 

But this matter will be important later in the story.

It was by no accident that Zephaniah ended up in Saint-Flora. He’d been chasing Aldric. Even when Aldric left Jardinia for his own reasons, Zephaniah bided his time and awaited his return. Tales of the Letter Brigade had continued to reach Zephaniah from afar, and word of mouth would finally reunite him with Aldric in Saint-Flora.

This was not Zephaniah’s first choice of location, no, but Aldric had become the Outlaw King in their time apart, and the princess required a new sheriff to capture him. 

And since it was such a small county, Zephaniah was promoted to High Sheriff in a heartbeat—so, he picked up where he left off and continued to chase Aldric.

That brings us to one day in spring, when High Sheriff Zephaniah Gallanthus and his entourage arrived with wanted posters for Aldric the Bastard. They plastered them all over the old and faded papers in the town square:

 

PROCLAMATION BY YE PRINCESS

£1,000 REWARD FOR YE CAPTURE OF

KING OF OUTLAWS

ALDRIC YE BASTARD

 

It was mostly for show. Although Aldric’s bounty had doubled in the past year, no one could catch him. They say tourism in Saint-Flora flourished, thanks to all the bounty hunters flooding in to set up camp near Aldric’s neck of the woods. 

Zephaniah rode past on his coal-black stallion and looked down his nose upon them. 

“Fools,” he said. “Dogs outwitted by the same crafty fox.”

Naturally, they dragged him off his horse. This started a fistfight, which Zephaniah won because he was the Third Son of House Gallanthus. He was used to roughhousing with his much larger brothers, who would go on to become generals of the royal army.

Now, Zephaniah loved a good brawl, but after that one, all of his constables agreed that he should be quiet for the rest of the ride. Zephaniah did not argue, for he had a split lip and was very happy with his victory. He also knew that he would be the one to capture Aldric the Bastard. No one else.

The bounty hunters faced insurmountable odds. Aldric was impossible to track. They couldn’t count on the people’s support either, for they loved Aldric as much as Nottinghamshire loved its own Robin Hood. 

Apparently, Aldric was kind, charming, and as generous as ever. He and his crew stole from the rich to give to the poor. They acted as couriers for any messages within Saint-Flora, and that’s another theory as to how the Letter Brigade earned its name. These men, known as Aldric’s Letters, also dueled for the honor of those without champions. They even cleared litter off the streets in the dead of night. All in all, they were revoltingly honorable. Zephaniah was a little jealous.

Even the previous sheriff had cast a blind eye to the Letter Brigade’s aggressive redistribution of local wealth, which meant the aristocrats and other landowners wanted Aldric gone. They had great expectations for their newly appointed sheriff, and they made sure to tell Zephaniah this in even greater detail:

“Princess Celandine does not tolerate leniency to thieves, so Aldric must hang.”

“The former sheriff did nothing about the Letter Brigade. Look what happened to him when the princess found out!”

“Death to the Bastard! Death!”

And such suggestions and so forth.

Zephaniah lacked Aldric’s charm in making new friends, so he didn’t even try. He kicked the nobles out of his newly settled fortress and left them loitering on the lawn. He forgot about them for an hour. They finally left when he poked his head out a window and promised to bring Aldric to justice. 

It was no empty, placating promise. Zephaniah had come to town with a plan, and he would not make the same mistake as his predecessor, who was so obviously bribed by Aldric into doing nothing—and caught for it. Shameful.

And all that brings us to the day Zephaniah rode into the Enchanted Forest of Mists by himself. Surely now, you ask: what is this forest?

To reach Saint-Flora from Ivywood City in ye olde days, a traveler had to journey seventy acres south until the road led him into the lush, hazy foliage of the Enchanted Forest. 

It was a most beautiful forest.

As legends go, the fairy lords there had made an ancient pact with the Europeans of yore. They granted humans safe passage in exchange for veneration. The rules were simple:

 

No one was to harm the trees. 

None were allowed to overhunt, not even royalty.

 

As long as travelers kept respectfully to the pebbly wide road, they would reach Saint-Flora. 

Those who passed through those woods saw things they couldn’t describe leading them down directions that didn’t exist. Nearly all agreed that they’d narrowly avoided an encounter with madness. Every continent of moss on every tree shimmered with a mesmerizing dew. It was easy to get lost.

The trick was to focus on the smell of salt water until you saw the sea with your own eyes.

But Aldric’s Letter Brigade lived off the beaten path, deep in their sylvan hideout, in a great treehouse. It was affectionately dubbed the World Tree by its residents. Rumors spread that they were safe because they were already mad. 

Zephaniah had another theory: there was no such thing as fairies. Or rather, his professors had said all the pagan gods died when Christ was born, so what had he to fear of their servants anyway? 

Thus, despite warnings from the locals, Zephaniah left the main road. 

He was promptly stopped by the very man he was seeking. 

“Are you here to show me your new black eye?” said his old friend, more or less. “Or did you come to earn yourself another?”

Zephaniah looked up to discover Aldric de Plaqueminais lounging on a bough above him. He couldn't help but smile at Aldric’s familiar tunic, the color of ripe persimmons, and he said, “I see no one has tamed that unruly tongue of yours.”

Aldric laughed at that. He had a beautiful laugh; it was rumored to have parted a dragon with its hoard. 

“Don’t go into the forest,” he told Zephaniah. “I’m happy to meet you out here, my Snow Fox.”

“Don’t call me that,” said Zephaniah. “We are no longer friends.”

Aldric fished an apple from his shirt and bit into it. “Dramatic as always.”

“I simply assumed you had no use for disappointing friends.”

“Held onto that one, did you?” Aldric chuckled. “Then, have you come here not as my friend, but as my enemy, Sheriff?”

Zephaniah did not answer because Aldric already knew why he was here. Aldric knew many things because he had spies everywhere. He may have even counted fairies in his employment, depending on which version of the folklore one believed.

Zephaniah was decidedly a nonbeliever. “I’m here to offer you a deal because we were friends. Cease your criminal activities, and Celandine of Chelidonia will end the hunt for your head.”

“There’s a caveat, isn’t there? The princess was really looking forward to my demise.”

“If I catch you in town,” said Zephaniah, “I will hang you until you’re dead.”

Aldric snorted. “No longer my Snow Fox, but a dog worthy of the princess’ lap, I see. Let’s have you do some tricks, now, fetch!”

Aldric threw his apple at Zephaniah, and Zephaniah caught it before it hit him in the face.

“I see your aim has not faltered,” he said dryly. He took a bite and decided he liked the Saint-Flora variety. “By the way, tomorrow morning, there will be an archery tournament held in my honor. The grand prize is a golden apple.”

That piqued Aldric’s interest. “I do like apples.”

“If I catch you there, I will hang you until you’re dead,” Zephaniah said once more, and off he rode.

 

-

 

The next day, Aldric arrived in disguise.

Zephaniah could have laughed, for it was a terrible disguise: a cloak of leaves, a painted fox mask, and yellow straw for hair. Aldric looked like a forest child raised by a farmer and a druid. How fortunate that the princess had not deigned to grace the tournament with her presence. Aldric would’ve been struck through with arrows like St. Sebastian before the tournament had even begun.

“I am the Fairy Earl of the Forest,” Aldric declared, climbing the steps to the aristocrats’ box. “I have traveled not very far to meet Saint-Flora’s guest of honor. If I may, Lord Sheriff?”

As Aldric dropped to one knee, Zephaniah glanced to the nobles sitting beside him. He soon realized they’d all been taken by Aldric’s disguise. Exasperated, he faced Aldric and extended his hand. “Well, might as well make a day out of it.”

Aldric laughed quietly over Zephaniah’s knuckles and decided to really push his luck, “Would my lord give me a favor, so that I may be his champion in the contest?”

Much to the surprise of his peers, Zephaniah removed the white ribbon from his neck and tied it to the mysterious archer's bow. He yanked it back, with Aldric in tow, and whispered, “Champion of mine, you play a dangerous game.”

“Anything for you, pretty sheriff,” Aldric replied. He took back his bow and joined his fellow archers on the field.

“Careful, my lord,” said the Baroness of Daisies, who sat at Zephaniah’s left. “You ought to keep your guard up, for the fairy lords of Saint-Flora have been known to seduce even men.” 

“We are past such nonsense,” said Zephaniah, and he rose to give the commencement speech. It was a whole thing and a half.

With the ceremonials completed, it was time to announce the prizes. Zephaniah raised the golden plate from the high table in the aristocrats’ box. 

“I bring to Saint-Flora apples from the Great Gated City of Gaia. To the third-place winner, I shall award the bronze apple. It will cure whatever ails you.” He paused a moment for the cheers to die down. “For second place, the silver apple—it will return five years of your youth.”

Applause and whistles rose and settled again as every pair of eyes followed Zephaniah’s gloved fingers to the final prize. 

He lifted it to the air, where it glinted tantalizingly as if it were a sun all by itself, and said, “The grand prize is Gaia’s golden apple, which will cure what ails you, return five years of youth, and grant you an additional five years to come!”

The crowd roared. None had seen a golden apple since the king’s wedding, decades ago. 

(A cultural note: in Jardinia, magic apples were common prizes in tournaments. Bronze apples were usually good enough for first place, but every once in a while, a silver apple would appear. For a knight to present a silver apple to his lady at the end of the day was the epitome of courtly love in the southern tradition. Such feats were recorded as early as the 11th century by Avicenna, but the golden apple was truly legendary. 

How Zephaniah had managed to get his hands on one is still a mystery, but it was such a big deal that some ancient poems refer to him as the ‘Zephaniah, the Apple Bearer.’)

And so, the tournament began.

It was a cloudy morning. The ladies bemoaned the dim weather, but as long as it did not actually rain, this was exactly how Zephaniah preferred his days. The cool air proved good for the contestants, too, for no one fell to heatstroke before noon.

It was late in the competition when Zephaniah’s attention began to wander from Aldric to the other contestants. Aldric laughed and joked with his fellow archers in a merry display of comradery, and that annoyed Zephaniah a little. 

There had been nearly a hundred contenders in the first round, but as the day drew on, Zephaniah’s aristocratic companions could not help but vocalize that many who remained did not fit the description of the average Jardinian.

There was a large man with dark, dark skin who was particularly skilled with a longbow. There was that weedy youth whose hair was a thicket of black ringlets, and there was a tall and lanky man who looked like a Silk Road trader. 

To put it plainly, there were many more foreigners than usual in a local competition, even for a port city like Saint-Flora. If Zephaniah squinted, he could tell that they handled their bows in a manner similar to Aldric’s technique. Such a distinctively well-trained level of excellence.

Zephaniah counted twelve other men still in the running for grand prize. That was the number of students who’d left with Aldric on the day he departed from Cambridge. Those classmates had always been Aldric’s greatest supporters—like the twelve disciples of Christ, as many historians would allude. It hadn’t crossed Zephaniah’s mind that Aldric would replace his friends, so he’d neglected to look into the identities of the Letter Brigade’s current members. 

(And Zephaniah had walloped the bounty hunters so thoroughly that none would come to his aid in the matter. In fact, he’d made many enemies.)

If Aldric had truly replaced his brigade, and if these men were the new Letters, then they were the only contestants left. That posed a problem in capturing the Outlaw King, who stood on the field with his trusted Letter Brigade. 

He pondered what to do, until he realized he could capture Aldric after he won first place. Let the showoff deliver himself when he came to claim his golden apple. Zephaniah wouldn’t even need to deal with the majority of the Letters then. He would expose Aldric and take him to the fortress. 

Now, that was a good plan.

It would have remained a good plan, too, had Aldric not been knocked out of the tournament at fourth place. He waved at Zephaniah with both arms before rejoining the crowd to observe the rest of the contest. To call Zephaniah dismayed at that point would have been a severe understatement.

Fourth place held no merits for proud Aldric, but it offered safety. It seemed the braggart had learned to temper his pride in their time apart. Good for him. In fact, Zephaniah had always hoped for it, had hoped to be the recipient of Aldric’s humility, but God damn, this was an infuriating development. It was as if Aldric had claimed fourth place for that specific victory over Zephaniah’s schemes.

Yet Zephaniah knew that at least one of the final contestants was a Letter; Aldric would not give up all three magic apples so easily. Zephaniah had his options, too. He could cast himself as the fiend and arrest any one of them for no reason at all,  in an act of pure injustice to flush Aldric back out.

But the idea of it left a sour taste in Zephaniah’s mouth. It would defeat the purpose of striking out on his own so far from home. If he was to make a name for himself, one that wasn’t the fucking ‘Ghost of Gallanthus’ for once, then it would be a name that he could sleep with at night.

And yet, yet, yet, with Zephaniah as the villain, Aldric would no doubt trip over himself to play the hero. He’d always been disappointingly predictable in that regard. Count on Aldric Plaqueminier as you would the sun to rise in the east and set in the west. The guaranteed success of that plan was tantalizing, no doubt. Zephaniah could already calculate his movements.

Aldric would likely launch a daring moonlit rescue. Zephaniah could capture him in the dead of night. It could even be early morning. It didn’t matter if the rest of the Letters escaped, so long as he got Aldric in the end. 

And then, Princess Celandine would attend the hanging. 

It seemed that Aldric had wronged the princess in some grievous manner over the past few years, and she was very much looking forward to watching him swing. Everything had to be perfect and ready at her arrival, for none of the ballads extolling Celandine’s many virtues ever mentioned her patience.

Zephaniah had another problem in that the princess refused to watch night executions. She thought them too grim, apparently. No one dared question her logic, lest they earn themself an early morning beheading.

Zephaniah had quite the task ahead of him, but he was confident. He’d already lured Aldric to him. That in itself was the most difficult challenge, according to every bounty hunter in Saint-Flora—but it had been the easiest task for him. Aldric made exceptions for him. 

And Zephaniah would take advantage of that.

When the tournament ended mid-afternoon, Zephaniah put on his hat, scooped up the apples, and headed down the steps. The winners were taken aback, clearly expecting the same amount of ceremony that had begun the day, but Zephaniah merely walked by and tossed them each their respective apples.

He had a simpler plan: search the crowd to find Aldric. Zephaniah would take to confrontation, for he believed Aldric would not run from him. 

And Aldric? 

Well, Aldric ran.

As he had in college and afterward, Zephaniah pursued.

There are a few different versions of how Zephaniah cornered Aldric the Bastard. Most hold that it was shortly after the knights’ tent went up in flames, but before a sparrow flew into the Baron of Daisies’ beard. It’s agreed that Aldric found a sword sometime around then, and that he and Zephaniah had crossed blades while the fire burned around them.

(Note: I’m not going to elaborate on the fight scene because there just… wasn’t one. Aldric was perfectly adept in swordsmanship, but Zephaniah was a fucking beast. There have been entire epics about what the man could do with a blade since the early 1300s, and there was even a line in some discarded draft of Dante’s Divine Comedy that referenced Zephaniah’s three-day sword fight in London. I’m pretty sure that story is fake, but we can save it for another time.)

Aldric fought. Zephaniah won. 

The Outlaw King fell onto his back, with the sheriff’s boot on his chest and the point of his sword against his teeth.

And as the legends go—Aldric laughed.  

“Magnificent, Snow Fox. What will you do with me now?”

“I’m going to hang you until you’re dead,” said Zephaniah, “by order of the princess. In front of the princess.”

“Behind the princess, above the princess.” Aldric laughed again. “Well, I suppose that would make your lord father proud, wouldn’t it?”

“This coming from a man whose crimes forced his family to disown him, even though he was already a bastard to begin with.”

“At least my father loves me,” Aldric countered meanly, “unlike someone who received an ill-tempered horse from his father so that he might break his neck—”

“You leave Sir Truffles out of this,” said Zephaniah.

Aldric liked to aim low with remarkable precision. He glanced to the side and smiled. 

“My apologies, Sheriff,” he said. “In penitence, allow me to sweep you off your feet.”

It was a warning too late—far too late did Zephaniah hear the sound of hooves, for he was knocked down by the horseman galloping to Aldric’s rescue. Before Zephaniah could regain his bearings, the rider had circled around. 

Aldric leapt aboard. “Well done, Ciceron!”

Zephaniah rose to his feet and watched them charge back toward the Enchanted Forest. It was the greatest insult Aldric could’ve dealt to him, leaving him at such a loss. He could imagine Aldric’s wicked smirk, could see it from countless memories, and he felt like an idiot. His face burned.

“Bastard!” he shouted as lightning flashed. “I will find you again!”

Truffles came whickering as if it knew it was needed, and Zephaniah climbed on and rode after them. 

It thundered.

And then, it began to rain.