“I don’t want to see you fail, Xavier.”
Walden spoke the words, looking up slightly to make direct eye contact with Xavier. Walden’s expression was one of genuine concern. Not exactly worry, not yet, but definite concern.
Xavier nodded, looking at his mentor. He had never seen Walden this way before. Sadness, disappointment, and yes, concern, were hidden below the surface of his confident features. There was also hope there, Xavier thought. His mentor still believed in him, and so Xavier still believed in himself.
They stood in the horse stable, the one place that wasn’t burning to the ground. Figuratively speaking of course. They had just finished touring Xavier’s estate, where Walden had pointed out the crumbling mortar in the castle walls, the dust building on the table in the banquet chamber, the candles burned down to puddles of wax in the entrance hall lanterns. They had ridden across the grounds, where there were too few hens pecking in the grass, too few weapons hung outside the dormant forge, too few men working at tasks. Walden and Xavier had stopped on the gentle hilltop that looked over the swaying wheat field that should have been harvested the week before. And now here they were, back in the stable, where Walden made his first positive comment since arriving that morning.
“The stable looks great,” he said, looking around appreciatively. “Really great.”
Xavier allowed a small smile to fleet across his face for a moment. The whole estate could crumble into the earth, but the stable certainly would not. Xavier loved horses. He had idly dreamed of selling the estate, keeping only the stable, and building an attached living quarters for himself. Let someone else deal with the headaches of the estate. Just give me the horses, Xavier thought.
“But I’m not going to mince words,” Walden said, bringing Xavier out of his daydream. “I’m really concerned. I’m cutting you some slack because you’re still new to all this, but if I come back in five or six months and things haven’t improved, it’s not going to be good for you.”
Xavier had looked forward to being the lord of an estate for his entire life. In some ways, he had been preparing for it his entire life. For so long, he had eagerly anticipated the responsibility of it, the challenge of it. In his romantic mind, Xavier had visualized himself waking up each morning to sip a steaming mug of coffee as he watched the sun rise over his lands. He would have a flawless plan for each day, and he would lead his team to execute that plan perfectly. He would guide, direct, correct. And he would be right there working with his team, cutting wheat, shoveling hay, grooming horses.
That had been Xavier’s dream. And then the dream had become reality. And then life had happened. A hundred things beyond Xavier’s control had come and punched hole after hole in his dream. And Xavier’s idyllic vision of being lord of an estate began to crumble, as slowly but surely as the deteriorating mortar between the stones of the castle walls.
Lord Xavier White: failure.
At least it seemed he was in danger of acquiring that title. But there was hope yet. There was always hope.
“What do I need to do Walden? I know I’m struggling. For the first time in my life, I’m really struggling. I need help.”
“I’ve put you in many roles over the past few years, Xavier, and I’ve seen you excel in each one,” Walden said. “You’re one of the most promising lords in my tutelage. I’ve seen you produce exceptional results. I’ve seen you grow into a great leader. I mean, everyone loves you. Each of the men on these grounds would give their life for you.”
High praise, coming from Walden. Xavier said nothing, but gave a short nod of acknowledgement.
“Look, I know you’ve had some bad luck here,” Walden continued. “Other lords with more experience would have prepared differently, would have been better equipped to withstand the storms of life. Thant’s not entirely your fault. This is a learning experience for you. But I need to see forward progress. Right now, I’m seeing you regress. That’s what worries me.
“I’m here for you,” Walden went on. “That’s my job. But you have to let me know what you need from me. If you have questions, you need to send them my way.”
“Tell me what I need to do,” Xavier repeated.
Walden wasn’t presumptuous. In that way, he was somewhat of an anomaly among his peers. And that was why Xavier liked him. Walden let his words carry weight without shoving them down your throat. He demanded respect, but also gave it. He could look every bit as majestic as the king himself—well, at least he could get pretty close—but he preferred simple garb. He often showed up at the estate in well-worn, slightly faded travelling clothes. They were still more expensive than anything Xavier owned, but they showed Walden wasn’t afraid to jump in and do some dirty work.
Xavier watched Walden ride down the lane leading away from the estate. The two men had come up with a plan, shook hands, and parted ways. The plan for completely turning the estate around was a hard one. Xavier considered it as he watched Walden’s horse turn a bend and disappear. The next few weeks would be difficult, but the plan was doable.
And Walden believed in Xavier. That was perhaps the most important part of the plan. Unspoken, but perfectly clear.
Xavier turned back to his lands, and strode toward the castle. He would have the dust cleared from the banquet table, and a dinner prepared for the entire estate. There was work to be done, a lot of it, and he needed to rally his team around the goals he and his mentor had set.
Xavier rode, thoughtful and silent. Christian’s hooves beat a gentle cadence into the still autumn air, and seemed to give structure to Xavier’s thoughts. Xavier had done a lot of thinking in the week since Walden’s visit, but as he and Christian rode further from the estate, Xavier slowly let his thoughts go. These were the moments Xavier lived for: riding alone down an open road with the wind’s caress on his face and the sun’s smile on the path ahead.
Xavier leaned forward slightly so he could reach down and pat Christian at the base of his neck. In reply, Christian tossed his head and snorted mightily, and for the first time in a week, Xavier felt a true smile spreading across his face. He had owned Christian for five years, and in those five years Xavier had not only raised Christian from a foal, but formed a truly special bond with him. The king bred horses like Christian for use in an elite scouting unit. As a breed, they were fast, strong, and smart. The horses had incredible endurance and even more incredible personalities—or maybe it was just Christian that had the personality. In any case, Xavier liked to think that Christian was superior to even the king’s steeds, because Christian had been raised with all the love in the world.
After riding for close to an hour at a gentle pace, Xavier saw flames ahead of him beside the road, softly dancing upward as if to bid farewell to the slowly sinking sun. As Xavier neared the fire, Gustave rose with arms spread wide in greeting from where he had been sitting on a tree stump. For the second time that day, a genuine smile split Xavier’s face as he saw his friend.
“Gustave!” Xavier shouted from horseback as he rode up.
“Xavier, you mongrel’s son—I swear, I’ve spent half my life waiting for you! If you were any later, I would’ve started cooking without you!”
Laughing, Xavier hopped off Christian and hitched him next to Uraeus. Christian snorted a greeting and Uraeus, a massive, proud steed, neighed once in reply before plunging his head back into a trough of hay. After unsaddling Christian and dropping the saddle next to Gustave’s tack, Xavier extracted two stone flagons from a saddlebag and held them up for Gustave to see.
“The blackberry mead is finally ready. And you’d do well to get lost in the woods more often, to take some time and enjoy the ride.”
“Yeah, well, if we all got lost in the woods like you Xav, we’d be building a fire in pitch darkness. Give me that mead!”
Xavier set the flagons down beside a stone set into the fire pit that was stylistically engraved with the words here there be Wolverines, and went to grab some mugs from the saddlebag.
Xavier and Gustave met for dinner often at the camp, which was roughly halfway between their two estates. One of them would bring food, and the other would bring drink. After eating, they would sit by the fire and talk late into the night. Over the years, they had added personal touches of comfort to the camp. They had eaten their first meals sitting on the ground, leaning against their saddles, next to a simple fire pit dug into the earth. Now they sat on polished tree stump seats beside a hearth made of hewn stones. The horses had their own amenities, which had also grown more luxurious over the years.
Once, Xavier and Gustave had seen two wolverines in the nearby forest fighting a black bear. Awestruck, the two men had watched in disbelief as the wolverines viciously, tenaciously took the bear down. As far as Xavier knew, it was the only time anyone had seen two wolverines working together. It had been terrible and majestic to behold.
And so, the two friends began jokingly referring to the camp as Wolverine Waystation, and Gustave had one of his men engrave the words here there be Wolverines into one of the hearth stones.
“Walden came by last week.”
The fire had burned down after dinner and was merrily dancing over white-hot coals. The night was clear and still, and the stars formed a canopy of distant light over the camp.
Gustave leaned back in his tree stump seat, took a long draw on his pipe, and blew smoke rings before asking, “How did it go?”
“Well, not good,” was Xavier’s reply. “There are a hundred things that need doing and not enough people to do them. You know, I keep telling myself that if only I had more people, I could do this and that, and I could get caught up.”
Xavier looked at Gustave before continuing, “But I’m afraid its something more. Something deeper. I’m afraid I don’t have what it takes. I’m afraid I’m failing.”
Gustave snorted smoke from his nostrils.
“Thant’s rubbish if I ever heard it,” he said. “Xav, you’re a leader! A lord! I know it’s a steep learning curve, but you’re getting there. It just takes time. Your guys are all loyal to you, and that alone tells me you’re not failing. You are a leader, Xavier, but if you don’t believe that…” Gustave trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished.
Xavier sighed. “I know we’ll get caught up eventually. Walden helped me put together a plan that’s pretty solid. We’ve already seen progress in just the week since he came.”
“But?” Gustave prompted, knowing there was more.
Xavier drew a long breath and let it out.
“We’ll get caught up,” he said, “but then— I’m thinking about getting out of the business. Walking away.”
Gustave put his pipe down and leaned forward in his seat.
“Really,” he said. It was not so much a question as an exclamation of surprise.
Xavier nodded and took a draw on his own pipe.
“Walking away, and doing what?” Gustave asked.
Xavier let his eyes wander the dark forest around them for a moment before answering. Would Gustave think he was crazy for what he was about to say?
“I’m thinking about starting a mercenary group.”
Gustave’s eyebrows shot up and his eyes widened momentarily, but then he nodded.
“For all of our lives,” Xavier went on, “we’ve dreamt of being adventurers. As little kids, we were obsessed with horses and swords. I mean, all kids are, but most grow out of it. We never did. At university, we took all the required classes to prepare us for lordship, all the etiquette and math, but what did we always talk about? What did we look forward to? It was instruction in tracking, wilderness survival, martial arts; that’s what we lived for each week.
“And what about all those nights we spent sitting around the table with the guys?” Xavier continued. “Designing pieces of armor to protect us in different situations, and then designing weapons and tactics to defeat those pieces of armor. All that stuff collectively is what we have passion for. And we’re good at it. What if this is what we’re really meant to do with our lives?”
Gustave had been listening intently, puffing on his pipe in a way that meant he was thinking.
At last he said, “You’re using the word ‘we’ quite a lot there, Xav.”
Xavier smiled sheepishly. “Well,” he said, “you would of course be more than welcome to join me.”
Gustave’s eyes twinkled and the corners of his mouth twitched upward slightly. “What would you call this group?” he asked.
Gustave’s smile grew wider. “The mighty Wolverines,” he said, and took a drink from his mug. “You know, I bet we could put together a team that would rival any group in the Two Kingdoms.”
“Give it a few years, and I know we could,” Xavier replied.
Gustave stared pensively into his mug, as if trying to divine the secrets of life out of the amber depths of his mead. For several minutes, the only sound was the crackling of the fire. Somewhere, a lonesome avian cried into the night.
Gustave said, “I’m glad you brought up university, because I’ve been thinking about something. You’re right, we spent all our free time pretending to be adventurers; following tracks through the forest, riding our horses around the lake, and yes, designing weapons and armor. The good old days, right?
“I think about Serena and Blair sometimes, and I wonder if things could have been different with them,” Gustave continued. “If we would have been like everyone else, if we would have done the things that everyone else did, if we would have just been normal, do you think those two girls would still be in relationships with us right now? Do you think they’d be our wives?”
Xavier had wondered the same thing many times. Blair had really turned his world upside down. Her friendship had been perfect, but her romance with Xavier had been merely casual.
“Let me answer your question with another one,” Xavier said to Gustave. “If everything had worked out with Blair and Serena, would it be worth giving up all those other memories for?”
“See?” Gustave replied. “That’s my point. You could say that we failed with those girls, and failed badly. Now you’re telling me that you’re failing at being a lord. Maybe failure—perceived failure—just brings us to the next step of the journey. Maybe failure opens doors we wouldn’t even have found otherwise.”
“So, what I’m really trying to say,” Gustave went on, “is that the good old days are still ahead, my friend.”
Xavier smiled. “I’ll drink to that.”
Together, they raised their mugs and drank the last of the blackberry mead.