The young King Harlan walked alone through the fortress to speak with his uncle again. He remembered one of his first fights with his older cousin Amira.
Harlan was about Amira’s size by the time he was ten or eleven, and she hit him without notice; she pummeled him as hard as she could when they practiced fencing or quarter-staffs; she tried to lose him and his sister, Princess Calandra — Calley — on the few occasions when they went on excursions together out in the Larkhall countryside.
When Harlan turned twelve he received a gift from the Queen of Serennia, the realm to their south. It came in a crate carried in a wagon – a crate with holes in it. He was already quite absorbed into maintaining the dignity of his post as Crown Prince, and he tried to catch himself when he acted too “boyish,” as he put it; but he could barely contain himself while this gift was unloaded. His father and mother were there beside him when the wagon rolled into the fortress, and they called a soldier to help them open the crate. Afton and Rowena smiled along with their son, a bit bewildered; they had no idea what sort of animal Serennia had sent. Relations with that realm were stable, but not warm. Afton and Rowena knew it was possible their neighbors had sent along something wild, something dangerous for a twelve-year-old. The crate was almost as tall as Harlan himself.
The soldier who came to open the gift was Ingraham, not yet a captain in those days; he was picked because of his experience handling horses, bulls, dogs, and any number of other animals. He came along with six other soldiers – at his own suggestion – and a rope.
“Big old crate, eh?” he had said. “Whatever’s inside doesn’t rumble around too much, though. Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
With a long crowbar Ingraham loosened one end of the crate while the soldiers and Harlan stood in a tight circle around it, and Afton and Rowena backed up a step. Ingraham cracked open the side panel. Nails groaned. Before he had it all the way to the ground what looked to Harlan like a hog-sized possum – in a shell – came trundling out.
“Ah, an armorback,” Ingraham said, nodding. “A giant. Ever seen one, sir?”
“No,” Harlan said.
“That’s what it is. We’ll just need this rope around the neck; it won’t go anywhere. They’re almost as docile as rabbits. Not much for them to worry about, with that shell.” He looped his rope around the neck of the animal easily and tapped the plates on its back with the flat of his sword.
Harlan stared. The animal stood nearly four feet high at its shoulder, which was actually a bit higher than its head. It was brown, with a long and narrow head in front, a thin tail in back, and nothing but armor plates between. The armorback’s head had a long snout, beady black eyes up top, and small ears that stuck out horizontally. Harlan saw a space between its shoulders that allowed it to pull its head back nearly all the way into its armor.
“You’ve never even seen a small one?” Ingraham asked.
“They live in the south. In southern Serennia, I’m sure. Well, there you are.” He handed Harlan the rope.
“What do they eat?”
“Grass, grain – same as horses, I believe.”
“Does this thing – lay eggs?”
“No, no, warm-blooded,” Ingraham said. “Has its young in a nest, they’re tiny and pink. I’m not going to tell you if it’s male or female, sir, that will have to be up to you. Maybe it’s a pregnant sow – even more of a gift, then.”
Ingraham and the other soldiers walked away. Harlan was left with his parents and the big animal.
“I’ll make a pen for it, I suppose,” he said. “May I keep it in the fortress?”
“Certainly,” King Afton said.
* * *
The armorback did not seem to be a very intelligent pet, and it never appeared to recognize Harlan, and it did nothing physically remarkable, no running or leaping. But the sheer size and the oddity of the animal made it a grand gift, as far as Harlan was concerned. He showed it off to his friends. They touched the armor; the plates were leathery on the surface and seemed quite hard beneath. His great-uncle Orovein came by and, of course, knew all about the species; he advised him what to feed it, and to provide it shade against the summer sun. Calley would bring it carrots sometimes in the afternoons, and it would eat them out of her hand.
Amira was not impressed when she met the armorback.
“What is it, a rat?”
“It’s an armorback. From the south,” Harlan told her.
“And this thing is your birthday gift?”
Harlan didn’t answer. They stood next to the animal, inside its pen. Amira looked it over, briefly.
“What does it do?”
“Just eats and sleeps. It’s friendly,” Harlan said.
“Useless. Do they eat these things, in Serennia?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe they make use of the shell, down there.”
“It’s very hard,” Harlan said.
Amira pulled her sword and plunged it into the shell of the animal just behind its left front leg. She pulled it out and blood spurted. The armorback shuddered and fell down.
“The shell isn’t as hard as you said,” she said. “I guess that was its heart.”
Harlan fell to his knees.
“This sword is what my father gave me for my birthday,” Amira said.
—From The Pennants of Larkhall; available on Amazon.