Island of the Kings
Noddie was pulled from a deep sleep by somebody shaking her shoulder.
“Mesha?” Voice groggy, Noddie rubbed her eyes with the back of her fist, “It’s late. What are you doing?”
“I’m going to the Island of the Kings.” It took a moment for Noddie’s sleep fogged mind to work out what he was saying. Finally she recalled what Vince had said about the the small island off of the west coast in the Rovian Sea that served as one vast underground tomb. It is where all of the great kings and queens of Irestead are laid to rest.
“Now? In the middle of the night?”
“Yes. I cannot wait. Hemlin’s control over Gondorren palace must be tighter than assumed if Fawnton had to take such drastic measures to hide my father’s findings.Whatever is there could be the answer I have been searching for over these past years. I’m leaving now and I want you to come with me.”
Suddenly wide-awake, Noddie tried to make out his expression through the darkness.
“I thought Vince said it was forbidden for anyone but royalty to step foot there?”
“It is all right. You will be with me.” When Noddie hesitated Mesha said, “If accompanied by one of royal birth a few choice people are allowed admission to the island. You didn’t think the surviving members of the royal family would place the body of their deceased in the tomb themselves did you?”
“I suppose that makes sense,” she answered slowly.
“Will you come with me?”
Noddie had no desire to visit some distant forbidden crypt, let alone in the middle of the night. The idea sent a cold shiver up her spine, but then, Mesha had never asked her to accompany him anywhere before. She swallowed hard. “All right.”
“Many thanks. Get dressed, I will meet you outside.”
The journey to the island was long and cold. First by sleigh and then by boat. The thin layer of ice floating atop the water cracked and shattered as the bow ripped through it before hitting the frosted bank. The island was covered in towering trees. Most still held green vegetation despite the cold and they grew so close together she could not see through them except for where a slim stone path led inland.
Mesha peeled off his coat. “Leave your coat and gloves here,” He instructed. “This is a sacred place.”
Noddie reluctantly parted with her warm outer layer. The cold air stung her exposed skin, but it was bearable. Mesha climbed out of the boat and lit the torch he had brought before assisting Noddie. A part of her would much rather wait by the boat, but she had come too far for her courage to fail now. She rubbed her chest in a circular motion before stepping onto the firm forbidden ground.
The air grew warmer as the trees closed in around them, encompassing them in the bitter smell of moss and sodden foliage. There were no sounds of the birds or insects that usually inhabited the night, as though the place was devoid of any sign of life. Every so often an archway bowed across the path overhead. Each portrayed a different symbol chiseled into the stone. Noddie asked Mesha what they meant, if nothing else to quiet her unease with the sound of a human voice.
“They are from an ancient, northern language few speak these days. The symbols are seals representing peace, protection, and safekeeping. The first, that big one we walked under, bore a warning for all those who do not belong here.”
After climbing a set of steps they stood before a single black mausoleum. Vines were strangling the structure and the Irestead crest was carved into the frame above the door.
“That’s the tomb?”
“Just the entrance.”
Mesha handed the torch to Noddie and braced both hands against the door. With a strained groan the door opened stone grinding against stone. Beyond it Noddie could see nothing but worn stone steps leading down into a dark abyss. A damp, musty smell rose from within and between the fire’s hiss and the wind’s moan, it sounded as if the dead were whispering to one another below.
Mesha wiped his brow and reclaimed the torch before descending the first three steps. Then he turned to where Noddie stood frozen.
“Come on, Noddie May,” he called gently up to her. When she did not move he extended his hand for her to take. Noddie’s eyes shifted to the darkness beyond. She wanted more than anything to stay above ground. The mere thought of descending into a cursed tomb surrounded by the dead shook her to no end. She looked into Mesha’s fearless eyes. Then at his outstretched hand.
I’ll pretend I’m brave, she told herself, before extending her own. Mesha’s grip was firm but his hand was soft and warm and she gleaned courage from it as he led her down into the gloom one step at a time, the torch expelling the darkness around them.
Stepping into the eerie crypt was like walking in a dream. There was a surreal quality contrasted with the clammy air. She clutched Mesha’s arm for reassurance and walked a little closer than necessary.
Sensing her apprehension Mesha smiled, “You’ve grown, Noddie May. You would have never followed me down here a few months ago. You wouldn’t have found the courage to come at all.”
“Why did you ask me to come and not Lorance?” Noddie voiced the question that had been troubling her all night.
“Mesha averted his eyes. His cheeks flushed as he confessed, “When I see how brave you act even though I know you are afraid, it gives me strength. It is much easier to be brave for someone else than it is to be brave for yourself. Does that bother you?”
“I don’t think so, but shouldn’t Lorance have come along as well?”
“Lorance holds our heritage and our country close to his heart. He has an inborn sense of pride and duty that I was too troubled by my curse to acquire. I get the feeling the Island of the Kings, a place that represents the death of a reign and its rulers, makes him uneasy. For Lorance, the pain of father’s parting is still too fresh.”
“What about you?”
“I am sorrowful, but we saw very little of the king, honor to his memory. He was a busy man and ill besides. We were raised by servants and nursemaids. Uncle Fawn and Vince were more familiar to us than our parents.”
Noddie couldn’t help, but think of her own father, who had also been busy, working the fields all day, but always managed to spend at least a few minutes with her, whether it was talking during a meal, sitting on the front porch or reading with her on his lap. She never realized how tired he must have been or how fortunate she was to have such memories of him. It made her ache for home all over again. If she ever got home, she would tell her father how much those moments meant to her.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, they walked through the doorway into a large, circular vault with a high ceiling and an array of stone archways leading off into different directions all around them. Above each doorway there were carved numbers and symbols, which Noddie presumed to be dates.
Mesha raised the torch higher to examine their surroundings, “Let’s see. . . .” He muttered uncertainly.
“Haven’t you been here before?” Noddie asked, her voice echoing in the vast chasm.
“Once. When my mother, the Great Queen Isabel, honor to her memory, passed. But Lorance and I were barely five at the time. Her passing was quite unexpected. It had always been assumed the king would be the first to enter the Island. It was astonishing he lived as long as he had, honor to his memory.”
Mesha walked around the room reading the ancient northern symbols above the doorways. “Ah, it is this way,” he turned to Noddie with a smile and gestured to the ominous entrance behind him.
The hallway beyond had Noddie following even closer to Mesha then before, but he was not troubled by her or the grinning skulls placed in spaced indents in the wall. They entered another room with holes and shelves in the walls to accommodate long stone coffins, each bearing a carved plaque.
Mesha went over to where a coffin of white marble was slid into the wall and bowed in respect. “Mother, Great Queen Isabel. Neshma tolm.”
Noddie came to his side and bowed as well. Thinking of these people as Mesha’s family helped ease her fears somewhat. She noticed that the space beside the queen was empty. “Where is your father?”
Mesha turned completely around and gestured to the back of the crypt.
There was a dais on which rested a gray-stone tomb between two tall torch lamps. As they approached Mesha explained, “The most recent King will lie here until either Lorance or I pass on. Then our coffin will stand here while he is moved aside to lay with his late queen. Such is how it is done.”
Mesha lit the lamps on either side of the tomb and handed the torch back to Noddie so he could inspect the sepulcher. The light illuminated more of the ancient writing carved into the lid which Noddie assumed was a name and tribute to the late king.
As Mesha bent to examine the sides of the stone coffin, Noddie gripped the torch in sweaty hands. She could hear the tapping and shuffling of rats. There were so many nooks and corners to draw her attention and the dancing shadows called forth by the torch were making her jumpy. Their own shadows, which stretched and multiplied across the walls made it seem as though all the dead laid to rest inside this room were standing among them now, watching.
Mesha gave a sigh and straightened, “I was afraid of this. But it makes sense. The Great King’s achievements will be inside.”
Noddie’s eyes grew wide, “You mean, open the tomb? Jethrow says it’s bad luck to disturb the dead!”
“I think we have enough bad luck now that a little more won’t make a difference.”
“I don’t know about luck, but it’s still a bad omen.”
“We have no choice.” Mesha clasped his hands in front of his face and bowed at the stone tomb. “Meshen Hed!”
Then before he could change his mind he smashed the seal on the edge of the stone table and with one strong heave pushed the top stone away.
A putrid smell issued from inside causing Noddie to shrink back holding her nose. Mesha’s nose wrinkled, but he made no comment as he bent closer and motioned for Noddie to bring the torch nearer.
The late king lay stiff and cold before them, shroud in fine burial garments. Tucked under the cold, dry hands was a round metal object.
Noddie averted her eyes from the unearthly face, rubbing her chest once more. The sight of his father seemed to break something inside Mesha, and her friend had to close his eyes and take a few breaths to compose himself.
Then he reached into the tomb and extracted the item from the king’s hands. It was a flat circle with a ring containing five holes attached to the top in such a way that the ring was able to turn like a wheel. On the back, random shapes stuck out like chipped teeth. Wedged inside of the ring, sitting against the flat top of the circle was a tightly folded piece of parchment. Mesha turned it over a few times with a furrowed brow.
“What is it?” Noddie asked leaning in for a closer look.
“I do not know. But I am hoping that piece of paper is going to tell us.” Mesha folded the item in a violet cloth and stored it away in a protective case.
Then Noddie helped Mesha haul the heavy stone back in place over the resting king. Their task done, they both sat panting on the edge of the dais. Mesha caught his breath again, then said, “We should return. It is almost dawn, and I do not fancy seeing Mordekah’s ship first thing in the morning.”