The bright, burning sun sank below the hilly horizon line, tinting the sky with the color of citrus fruits. The forest outskirts of Lemmingland, lined with dark green trees and chartreuse bushes, were dappled in red-orange sunlight. In the horizon line was a distant silhouette of the Cromwell family’s ivory castle, its flags waving in the gentle breeze. A stream smoothly flowed parallel to the pathway, the crystal-clear water magnifying the pebbles of varying colors and sizes at the bottom of the rivulet. The gentle forest’s slumber was interrupted as the shadowy silhouette of Algernon whooshed by, rustling the foliage and pounding the dirt into mush. He wheezed as he pushed himself up against the back of a thick-trunked tree, the tips of his fingers lightly scratched by the rugged texture of the tree. His short, frisky, bright green hair was sticking out in all directions, obscuring his vision. In the moment where he ceased running, he felt the weight of his decision slip him onto his knees in exhaustion.
On the other end, another lemming, whose gait was frantically elegant, made little to no sound as he ran on his toes, afraid to be seen by even the very trees that gently observe whatever living creature passes by. Looking downward as he ran, completely unaware of his surroundings, the discombobulated lemming tripped over the crouching knight, fumbling onto the dirt and patches of grass. He darted up with little to no regard of his purple gown and red cape being covered in brown dust, nor the rocks he collided with causing holes in his beige tights, leaving sore and red scrapes in the open air. Relatively unscathed, Algernon raised his tired head to the flummoxed individual. His hands climbed up the jagged tree as he propped himself up.
While the first thing he saw of the stranger was his curly, emerald green hair that flowed down to his back, the other individual in the forest took immediate notice of Algernon’s brooch on atop his indigo blouse.
“Oh my God…” the long-haired fellow gasped, slowly approaching the knight. “So you’re the one who—” Algernon pulled the passerby by the collar of his purple gown and lifted his arm to cup his mouth shut, his heart pounding at the sudden awareness of how tall and lean the opposing lemming was, a huge contrast to his short and stocky self.
“Quiet, you! You’re gonna get us caught!” Algernon hissed. A pit fell in his stomach knowing that news of his desertion from the Cromwells spread like wildfire. The individual lightly shoved the exponentially shorter Algernon off of him.
“You better stay away from me,” the long-haired young adult warned sternly, a hint of nervousness in his voice. “because I don’t trust anyone loyal to the crooked king.” He slowly moved his left arm behind his back, cautiously and hesitantly reaching for an object. Algernon observed quietly, his pupils contracting as he realized Lomax was reaching for a sword, kept shut in its scabbard.
“I–issat a threat?” Algernon stammered, his anger and intimidation bubbling. A crumb of shame weighed his heart, for the walker in the forest was reasonable to assume he was still affiliated with the Cromwells. A feeling of malaise plagued him as well, because even though he left with no intention of returning to the Cromwells, he couldn’t bring himself to dispose of the brooch. It was all Algernon had left of who he was, and despite the pain inflicted upon him as a Cromwell knight, he didn’t want to let that go. He was convinced he was nothing outside of being a knight; the unknown of freeing himself from something so familiar, yet so unhealthy, terrified him to no end.
With a staggering hand, he reached down the leg of his worn-out leather boots and pulled out a pocket knife. The dull, tarnished blade was unsheathed at the flick of his wrist. “When I was a squire I was trained by th’ toughest knights under th’ Cromwells’ belt,” His right arm evidently trembled as he pointed the blade directly to his opponent, oblivious that the blade was about to slip out of his sweaty palms. “so…”
His train of thought came to a standstill.
Algernon’s eyes darted in every direction except any place where direct contact with his combatant could be. The taller man remained where he was, perplexed by Algernon’s mannerisms.
“So it…” he repeated, sweat pooling attop his brow. “It–itsa boutta get—” Algernon’s voice trailed off as he relented, peering into the lemming’s olive green eyes. It was at this point in which Algernon took notice of how fatigued and puffy his lower eyelids were; his eyes glassy and caught in a stupor of indescribable grief. The short lemming took a large step back and gingerly moved the knife’s blade down to its compartment. The newcomer, whose hand clasped the handle of the sword still preserved in its scabbard, attentively observed Algernon placing the knife back into his shoe, lifting his arms up to reveal he had no other weapons on him.
“I-I don’t want any trouble.” Algernon insisted. The stranger blinked, loosening his grip on the sword. He repositioned his left arm back to his side for a split second before using his left hand to timorously stroke his right arm. He nodded his head in agreement, albeit appearing restrained to speak. Algernon, touched by the lemming’s chivalry and virtuousness, bowed before him.
“Name’s Algernon,” He introduced himself, his eyes to the floor as he shyly rubbed his foot in the dirt. “And yours is…?” He extended the ending of his sentence, his eyes quickly shooting up to meet the taller lemming’s in hopes of getting a name out of him.
“Lomax,” He introduced himself briefly. Like clockwork, his panic-stricken mindset resumed as he speedwalked further away from Algernon.
“Wait a sec!” Algernon exclaimed, afraid he did something wrong. He reached out his arm desperately. “Where the hell’re ya goin’?”
“Where I’m going has something to do with the establishment you swore allegiance to.” Lomax’s head turned to the side, looking at the bewildered Algernon. “The Cromwells are murderers. Have you not seen the news reports of lemmings dropping like flies?”
Algernon, instead of feeling anger toward the inflammatory remarks Lomax made towards the royal family, felt immense validation. Another lemming, more specifically a civilian of Lemmingland distrusted the Cromwells, too. The stories of him begging the young Prince Alistair, who was sworn in after the unexpected death of his father (former king Elias) to do something, coupled with the insults and shoddy jobs the royal guards subjected him to, slipped out of his mind as he desperately tried to vocalize his anger.
“I’m aware a’ that!” Algernon’s voice cracked as he sputtered the only comprehensible thing on his mind, his lower lip quivering. Lomax slowly trotted back to where Algernon was.
“Well, if you’re aware, then why are you here?” Lomax demanded, his arms rising up from his sides. “Why did you leave now of all times?”
A cold, dreadful silence fell across the forest, the sound of crickets and the gentle breeze of leaves shifting to a halt. The flowing stream became still as ice.
“Since I was a boy, I heard broken promises day after goddamn day from King Elias. That he would get to the bottom of it, that research would be about the deaths, that certain foods would be recalled as they grasped at thin and brittle straws searching for a damn scapegoat, when it was the Cromwells’s doing the whole time.” Lomax continued, his voice warbling.
“In the eighteen years I have been alive, the only major discovery was that the cause of death was from a flower not indigenous to the area. Now they’ve got King Alistair, following the footsteps of his father as he continues to feed deceptive words of honor to the people.”
Completely tongue-tied, all Algernon could do was bob his head to reaffirm Lomax’s allegations. Lomax momentarily closed his eyes as he recalled holding his sickly mother’s hand, feeling the warmth and comfort slip into the frigid air.
“Not even four hours ago, I had to bury my mom in the backyard of the house I grew up in,” Lomax revealed, tightening his fists bitterly while a tear flowed down his cheek. “and after being deathly afraid to even step out of my house for nine grueling years, I felt like I needed to take this into my own hands.” Algernon covered his gaping maw with a clammy hand, devastated by the revelations he heard. Lomax sniffled as he wiped his tears with a quick swipe of his fist. He bent his knees to kneel on the ground, his fingers digging into the fertile soil.
“Algernon.” he queried fervently, his eyes low. Ignoring the dirt on his hands, he prodded the flabbergasted lemming’s chest with his finger, moving in closer as he continued his lament. “After being surrounded by death your whole life and losing someone who meant everything to you, you’d figure out why it had to be them, right?” His mourning eyes met with Algernon’s in an unbreakable thousand-yard stare. Hearing the pain in Lomax’s cries left Algernon with a sickly feeling rising in his throat.
“Lomax,” Algernon placed a careful hand onto the civilian’s shoulder. “I think th’ Cromwells are responsible, too.” the pint-sized lemming murmured after composing himself. “I can explain why I defected from th’ Cromwells, as well as give my reasons for my suspicion.” The deserter declared with confidence. The crestfallen lemming’s eyes lit up in optimism, waiting with bated breath to hear him say more. “... and I want ya to also know that I had absolutely nothin’ to do with the Cromwells’ crimes. I’m only a witness to th’ details that led me to th’ conclusion that they’re a couple a’ wackjobs.” He sucked in a deep breath, clinging onto the scraps of faith that Lomax wouldn’t leave without him.
Giving his head a quick shake, Lomax let his finger off Algernon’s now dirtier shirt as he elevated himself off the ground, observing the pathway and turning himself around with buzzing energy. The tangerine glow of the burning, setting sun illuminated his long mane, the slight brush of wind waving the wanderer’s wine red cape behind him.
“Come with me, Algernon,” Lomax began earnestly, trotting a few steps, anticipating the deserter to follow suit. Standing in the middle of the earthy path, Algernon’s mouth slightly agape, his head askew in adoration. He was captivated by the traveler’s ethereal presence and felt the energy of a thousand suns well up within him, to run miles and miles to wherever the wind carried him. But when his mouth opened to reply, nothing was heard. The wind turned cold and threatening as it rolled along Algernon’s back, a bottomless pit gnawing away at his conscience.
The phantom scent of bubbly champagne flooded his nostrils as he nervously touched his chest, grappling for the familiar and absent dampness of his royal blue blouse, shutting his eyes like a frightened child, helpless at the mental hollerings of his former acquaintances.
You’re useless, Algernon. Even the things you do to be nice, you bounteously squander it, a voice cried from the inner machinations of his psyche. All he wanted to do that forsaken night was treat his comrades to some champagne. The tall trees around him projected an illusion of stoic knights looking down upon him, enrobing Algernon in a circle of ridicule. He shrank into the caterwauls of torment, almost dropping to the ground in defeat. Still grasping his clothing, his hands fumbled their way onto the gold brooch. The cold metal sent a shudder down his body and occupied his heart with guilt and frustration. Like porcelain falling from the highest shelf, his spiralling shattered as Lomax powerfully, yet softly bellowed.
“only if you want to seek the truth.” The words repeated Algernon’s emptied mind in a reverb. Upon hearing his call to justice, Algernon’s eyes stemmed open as the weight of his shame was undraped from his spirit. Without a second thought, he effortlessly unpinned the brooch from his top. His eyes stemmed open while gripping the symbol of his loyalty, observing the Cromwell emblem in all its infamy.
Partially concealed by his fingers, the gold badge depicted a lemming, in a traditional cerulean robe, holding a pickaxe, confined in borders of vines and flowers. The sound of water smoothly flowing over stones captivated him with the sound of freedom, his grip on the brooch loosening ever so slightly. Algernon’s arm gracefully soared into the air as he permanently let go of his allegiance to the Cromwells, sinking into the water with a heavy drop, left to corrode and wither away in the winding stream. Panting mildly, a contagious, jovial grin overtook his face.
With nothing but his wits and his experiences as a knight, he enthusiastically followed his newfound ally, ready to make an identity of his own.