An excerpt from
The King's Frog Hunter

Chapter One: The Stone Truth

King Ahmbin stood on the portico to the Great Hall looking down the waterfall of stone steps at a crowd of people and a low-slung wooden cart being pushed into the plaza by several struggling workers.  Riding on the cart was the sculptor, Veracitas, his daughter Boschina, and a new statue of the king. The man-sized sculpture was covered with a tarp that shook as the wheels of the cart thumped over the cobblestones of the street.

“Help us. Help us push!” the workers called to the onlookers.

And as was tradition, commoners, courtiers, and merchants joined in the task of pushing the cart with the heavy statue forward to the base of the steps. So many people wanted to be part of the effort that they had to take turns squeezing together to press their shoulders against the wagon and grunt with all their strength.

King Ahmbin was dressed in his royal colors of maroon, gray, and blue and wore a full length cape draped over his shoulders. His Council of Learned Men in their colorful hats and robes gathered behind him, watching with worried anticipation. Among the Learned Men stood the tall and blonde Lord Baldoff with his arms folded and a smug look on his face. Off to the side, leaning on one of the massive carved columns to the Great Hall, was the magician, Metro. His black hair coiled about his face and his dark-green eyes glared down at the sculptor who was smiling with joy. The king waited anxiously with one leg forward supporting his wide girth and his hands on his hips. He scanned the throng of people, turned, searched his entourage on the large stone porch of the portico, and finally focused on his uncle and advisor, Lord Rundall, who stood a step behind him. “Where is Ekala?”

“The princess is not here, Your Majesty,” the tired-looking Lord Rundall answered. “If you remember, sire…”

“She’s gallivanting again,” Lord Baldoff said, interrupting the old advisor. “She is not dependable, sire.”

“That is not true,” Lord Rundall replied.

“No? Tell me where she is then,” Lord Baldoff snapped. “Does anyone know where she goes or what she does?”

Lord Rundall stared at Baldoff. “Where the princess goes or what she does is not your concern.”

“Stop!” the king said in an angry, high pitched, voice. He looked at the magician standing alone against the column. “Metro, can you tell me where she is?”

The magician turned to the king, his dark glare transforming into a smile. “I am afraid your daughter is a mystery, Your Majesty. All I can tell is that she chooses not to be here by your side at this moment.”

“Where could she be?” King Ahmbin muttered. He looked at Lord Rundall. “She had better not be hunting frogs with Thalmus. It is much too dangerous.”

“I’m sure she’s not,” Lord Rundall assured him.

Frustrated, the king turned back to the event taking place in the plaza. “I wish she was here,” he mumbled to himself.

Veracitas kept glancing up at the king as he steadied the statue from the bumping and surging of the pushers and the uneven cobble street. He was nervous. This was his big opportunity to finally be recognized for his skill––his art. The Stone Cutter loved to carve the stone and he had worked hard for many years. The earnings though had always been meager. He often created statues for free because he wanted to make a statement or honor someone he respected. Then, he was chosen to make a statue of the king for the new courtyard. Determined to make the most accurate depiction of the king, he studied the monarch’s physique, posture, and peculiarities.

The sculptor chose a blue gray marble to fit the king and when the drawings where approved by Lord Rundall, he worked frantically to carve the new image. Lord Rundall had ordered that no one could see the statue until it was unveiled. Veracitas worked alone, with the exception of his daughter, Boschina, who always helped him. Despite Lord Rundall’s orders, Metro would occasionally appear in the dusty shop and watch him at work. This made Veracitas quite nervous, as the magician would goad him to change the statue, to make it false––to make an untrue image of the king. “You would better serve His Majesty if you made the statue thinner and taller,” the dark voice would say. Or, “If you want to please the king, make him look younger––stronger.” Metro’s glaring eyes threatened him constantly.

When Veracitas complained to Lord Rundall, the frustrated counselor told him the king had given Metro permission to view the statue. “Ignore the magician,” the kind Rundall advised. “It is important that you create the image as you see the king. It must be accurate and truthful.”

When the procession reached the steps and came to a stop, the crowd quieted and waited for the king. Now, the sculptor’s creation would be revealed.

“Your Majesty,” Lord Rundall said quietly, encouragingly. “Your newest statue awaits your inspection.”

“Of course,” the king replied and started carefully down the steps.

Currad, the king’s honored soldier, came quickly alongside to assist him. Lord Rundall stayed just behind the king in case he needed help. The Learned Men and others followed in a semi-circle group. Reaching the fifth step above the plaza, the king stopped and put his hands on his hips. The burly Currad stopped three meters away––still close enough to protect or help his king.

“What is your name?” King Ahmbin asked the sculptor.

Both Veracitas and Boschina bowed, each kneeling on a knee. “I am Veracitas of Marballa. This is my daughter, Boschina. And this, Your Majesty,” he gestured to the covered statue, “is my homage to you.”

The king smiled. “I have been waiting anxiously to see your work and your image of me, for I have heard wonderful reports of your skill.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Your Majesty.”

“Delay no longer, please. Unveil the statue,” the king ordered, his voice pitching a little higher.

Veracitas and Boschina rose and together lifted the tarp over the statue and pulled it aside. There was a collective awe from the crowd and then the people began to applaud. Even the Learned Men joined in, nodding their heads and clapping. The statue was the exact image of the king. His long gray hair, wrinkled face, hunched shoulders, large chest and belly, thin legs with one foot forward, hands on hips: the stance that he was known for.

The polished marble gleamed in the morning sun.

Everyone was smiling and clapping except a few. Lord Baldoff smirked, shaking his head. Metro scowled with his arms crossed.

King Ahmbin looked stunned. As the people saw the king’s reaction, they stopped cheering and fell silent. Normally, the king would continue down the steps to admire the work and congratulate the artist. Instead, the king was frozen with an awful look on his face.

“That is not me,” the king said, almost to himself.

Metro moved forward.

“You are right, Your Majesty. That does not look like you.”

“That is you,” Lord Rundall said quickly, countering Metro. “The statue is your exact image.”

The king slowly shook his head.

“That cannot be me. I do not look like that, do I?”

Rundall moved closer to the king, blocking Metro.

“The image is true, Your Majesty.”

“What a mockery,” Metro bellowed. “Do you not see the insult by this…deceiver?”

Turning to Metro the king pushed Rundall aside.

“He is mocking me?”

“What would you call this shameful depiction of you, my lord?”

Veracitas was stunned. “I have only carved the truth,” he protested. “There is no false character in this stone.”

Now, Lord Baldoff pointed at Veracitas. “You’re the false character.” Still pointing at Veracitas, he turned to the king. “He’s a trickster and insulter, Your Majesty.”

“Not true,” Lord Rundall exclaimed. “He has carved the king’s image as he truthfully sees him.”

Metro sneered. “If this is how he views our king, then he truly is a counterfeit sculptor.”

King Ahmbin was confused. He looked at his faithful advisor. “That cannot be me, Rundall. I know that I am old, but I do not look like that.”

“You never have looked like that,” Metro spoke quickly before Rundall could answer. He focused his penetrating green eyes on the king’s worn face.  “And with my help, Your Majesty, you never will look like that stone because you will remain youthful and strong.”

“How can that be?” Lord Rundall questioned the magician. He turned to the king. “No one has that power. Don’t listen to…”

“This is criminal,” Baldoff exclaimed, cutting off Lord Rundall. “The Stone Cutter should be punished and the statue destroyed!”

The king looked at the statue and began shaking his head slowly. “No…no, that is not me.” He glared at Veracitas. “Yes, he has insulted me.” Turning and pulling his cape around himself, he shouted: “Cover that thing. I do not want to see it!”

Currad stepped toward the king to protest. “Your Majesty, the statue…”

“Get it away from me, Currad. Break it into pieces and throw it into Cold Canyon! The Stone Cutter too! Throw them all into the canyon!”

The King’s Guards rushed to the wagon as the people scattered out of the way. Two soldiers covered the statue while others grabbed Veracitas, yanked him to the ground, and pushed him to the steps.

“Father,” Boschina cried, jumping to help him.

The soldiers shoved her back.

Lord Rundall grasped the king’s arm. Hoping to save Veracitas, he pleaded: “Let me deal with him. I will see he suffers.”

“Take him to the cells then,” the king replied. “He can die there. The statue I want destroyed.”

“I will see to it,” Currad said, taking charge. He turned to the wagon. “Guards, push the cart to the canyon wall. Take the Stone Cutter to the cells.”

Veracitas pleaded with the king. “I’ve done nothing but carve a statue of you. Can you not see its beauty?”

“Beauty?” the magician scoffed. “You think it beautiful to insult your king? You are deranged.”

“Remove him,” the king shouted. “I do not want to see or hear of him except to be told that he no longer lives.”

The guards lifted Veracitas by his arms and dragged him from the plaza and through the streets to the north end of the walled city. Confused and surprised at what was happening to him, Veracitas struggled little against his captors. He kept trying to look back for his daughter to see that she was not injured.

Boschina trailed behind the rough guards. She was powerless to help her father, but pleaded for his safety. “Don’t hurt him. He didn’t do anything wrong. Let go of him!”

Upon reaching the lane with the row of prison cells, the guards turned on her. “Go away! Get out of here or we’ll stuff you into a cell!” When she hesitated, several of the soldiers chased her back down the street. “Run for your life, Stone Daughter,” they yelled as they threw rocks at her.

The prison cell guards swung open a heavy wood door with iron lacing and forced Veracitas into the small dark chamber. He crumpled to the ground as they slammed the thick door shut and locked the latch.

And there, in that damp, dark, filthy cell, Veracitas was kept, fed garbage, and tortured. Pots of smoldering refuse burned constantly. Guards came and went, keeping him awake by throwing cold water on him or poking and slapping him with sticks and whips. In Veracitas’ most vulnerable and confused state, Metro would appear questioning him with a slithery voice. “Do you love the king?” When he answered yes, he was beaten. When he said no to avoid the beating, he was beaten. “Do you want to make another statue?” Metro asked, his eyes glowing at him in the dark. Veracitas lifted his head and tried to focus on the magician’s face. “I’ll always carve stone no matter what you do to me.” Metro laughed and hissed. “You will never speak in stone again. You are going to rot on the rocks at the bottom of Cold Canyon.”

The continuous harassment came to a sudden stop on the seventh night when a violent thunderstorm erupted over Ambermal. Rain poured down and lightning flashed through the black clouds, striking the ground with shattering explosions and shaking the buildings. The scared guards and people of the town stayed in their rooms for protection. It was then that Veracitas’ cell door opened and a dark figure entered. He came not with a bucket of water or a stick or whip as Veracitas expected, but with open hands. The stranger helped the Stone Cutter from the floor and onto his feet.

“You must come with me,” the man said in a hurry, putting a blanket around him.

Veracitas was suspicious. “Why? Who are you?”

The man was covered with a black cape and hood. He wore gloves and a sword hung at his side. “You’re leaving this castle,” the man said, his voice rough and insistent. “Come, the guards are hunkered down, afraid to come out.”

He grasped Veracitas’ arm, placed a hat on his head, and pulled him out into the rain. Swinging the heavy door shut, his gloved hands closed the hasp and locked it. Veracitas was wobbly on his feet and confused. The man put his arm around the sculptor’s waist and hurried him away from the cell, through the deserted streets that were flooded with rain water, and splashed their way to the small West Gate of the castle wall. A saddled horse waited there––tied to anchors in the archway. Extra bags were strapped onto the horse’s flanks.

“There’s several days’ food here,” the man told him.

“You’re letting me go?” Veracitas stammered.

“You’re an innocent victim,” the man said from under the hood. “I can’t let the evil here kill you.” He tried to help Veracitas onto the horse.

Veracitas resisted. “What about my daughter?”

“There’s no time. You must get as far away as you can before the storm passes and they find you’re gone.”

“I can’t leave her here.”

“She will find you.”

“How? I don’t even know where I’m going.”

“She’ll get help,” the man insisted. “You must leave before someone sees us.”

Veracitas tried to look into the man’s hood.

“Let me see your face. I want to know who saved me.”

“No! No one must know. It is too dangerous.” He pushed Veracitas to the horse. “You must go – now!” He grabbed Veracitas leg and foot in his hands and lifted him onto the back of the horse.

Lightning suddenly flashed above them and thunder boomed.  The startled horse jerked at his tether and reared. The man reached up to grab the reins and head of the frightened animal to calm him.  Veracitas saw the up-turned face of his rescuer in that quick burst of light.

“I won’t forget you,” Veracitas said.

The man turned away, pulling at his hood. “You must go.”

He untied the leather reins from the iron ring on the wall and handed the straps to Veracitas.

“Stay away from the villages––away from people. Hide where they can’t find you.”

The hooded man pushed open one side of the heavy double doors and Veracitas rode out into the storm and away from the castle.