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Falling Leaves

The whole castle was a hive of activity, every single servant was rushing around trying to get everything prepared for the Autumn Court’s announcement and the following feast. Even Lycia had taken time out of admiring herself in the mirror to bark orders at the poor people responsible for decorating the great hall. Aryian had felt pretty useless all afternoon. He had no clue how to organise a feast or decorate a hall so Lycia had shooed him away several times already. After wandering around trying to help and getting politely told to go away several times, Aryian had decided it was best just to keep out of the way and let everyone do their job. He changed into his finest clothes, which took less time than he thought, and then went in search of his father. He found the king in the throne room, sat on his throne with a goblet of wine in his hand. Aryian bowed but the king did not seem to notice.

“Father?” he called. Arryn beckoned him forwards without looking up. Aryian went to his side and knelt before him.

“Sit down, Aryian,” said Arryn, gesturing to the empty throne beside him where Aryian’s mother had once sat. Aryian hesitated but then did as he was told. The queen’s throne had remained empty since the day she died. It felt strange to sit in it now. Instead of sitting back properly, he perched on the edge. The king still did not look at him, preferring instead to stare into the scarlet liquid in his goblet as if it held all the answers he was seeking.

“Father?” he asked again, not sure what he would say but just wanting his father to look at him. The king sighed heavily.

“Aryian, one day you may be sat in this throne whilst creatures with powers beyond your imagination sit in your castle and judge your legacy. And if that day comes, I hope you are more prepared than I.” With that the king drank the last of his wine and dragged himself out of his throne. Aryian watched him leave, wondering if his father was so unprepared because he felt he had nothing to be proud of. Before he could continue his thoughts, a guard appeared at the door.

“Sire, the Autumn Court are ready to give their decision.”

Lycia had done a brilliant job of decorating the great hall. All the finest decorations had been pulled out of the depths of storage, buffed until they shined, and placed strategically on the walls and along the tables. Deep red banners proudly displaying the Sarelian silver roaring lion cascaded down the walls alongside the twisting gold and green banners of the Autumn Court. Even the statues of the prancing lions had been cleaned so vigorously they were almost like mirrors dancing in the centre of the hall. Aryian hardly recognised the place. So much food covered the tables that they were almost groaning under the weight of it all. The room was filled with nobles, elves and people Aryian had never seen before. He walked down the centre of the hall with his sister on his arm and their father walking in front. At the end of the hall, the leader of the Autumn Court envoy stood waiting in front of the top table. He had changed into silk robes of deep crimson, like he was soaked in blood. The king took his place with the elf on his right. Aryian stood at his father’s left side with his sister beside him. He looked out at the two rows of tables before them where a mixture of elves and nobles sat waiting for the Autumn Court’s decision. A brown haired girl was fiddling with a green bow in her hair and it caught Aryian’s attention. His eyes slid past her. He shook his head and tried to look at her again but it was like she wasn’t there at all, even though he knew she was. Aryian rubbed his eyes. He was clearly more tired than he’d thought. Once everyone had settled, the elf began to speak.

“Beloved citizens of Sarelia,” he began, his voice dripping with sickly sweetness. It made Aryian’s teeth itch. Everyone else seemed under the elf’s charming spell.

“Long have we deliberated over our decision, for a leader of men must be many things. They must be strong; to face off any foe. They must be wise; to lead their kingdom through the harshest winter. They must be just; to keep order and peace in the land. They must be….”

He continued in this fashion for some time, enjoying the sound of his own voice more than anyone else was. Most of the crowd were transfixed, following his every word, but the brown haired girl and the man she sat next to seemed just as fidgety as Aryian. He glanced sideways at his sister. She stared directly ahead with an expression of fake interest. When she saw Aryian looking at her she winked at him before going back to whatever she was daydreaming about. Aryian returned his attention to the elf.

“… not one of these traits is more important than the other and a true leader knows the value of each one. King Arryn has imparted these virtues as best he could upon his children but now their future is in our hands. One child of the king has all of these necessary qualities and will bring Sarelia into a bright new age of peace and prosperity. People of Sarelia, we give to you your new sovereign. Prince Aryian!”

Every one turned to face the prince. Aryian’s breath caught in his chest and he stared out at the crowd like a startled deer. There was a split second of silence as the news settled and then the hall erupted into applause. People cheered and stamped their feet, making as much noise as they could. It felt like a dream. The elves had chosen him. They’d chosen him to be king. Something inside his mind or his heart and told them that he could lead the people of Sarelia into a new age. He wasn’t sure yet what kind of king he would be, but he had a sense of the kind of kingdom he wished for. Where everyone was safe and had enough food to feed their families, not left to starve through the winter whilst the nobles got fatter. He did not think his father had been a bad king, but he would be a different king. Eventually the applause died away and everyone looked at him expectantly. Aryian held his head high and said the words which would bind him to the elves decision.

“I accept the judgement and wisdom of the Autumn Court.” His voice echoed through the hall and the elves twisted their hands over their hearts, accepting his answer. A beautiful elf lady with auburn hair stepped out of the shadows at the end of the hall. As she walked between the tables, a glittering golden crown appeared in her hands. It was the Autumn Crown, made of twisted, golden vines and silver leaves. Aryain stepped forwards and the elf lady stopped beside him so they were stood side on to the crowd. He knelt at her feet and she held the crown over his head.

“Do you, Prince Aryian of Sarelia, swear loyalty to the Autumn Court and to the people of Sarelia?” she asked, her voice resonating with ancient magic.

“I, Prince Aryian of Sarelia, do so swear loyalty to the Autumn Court and to the people of Sarelia.” Aryian could feel the magic in the words he spoke.

“Then by the ancient power of the Autumn Court, you shall be crown Prince of Sarelia.” The elf placed the crown upon Aryian’s golden head and the room erupted into celebration. He felt the ancient binding magic of the crown flow through him as he stood up. It filled him with warmth and as he turned to face his people, his heart swelled with pride. They were cheering for him. He turned to his father and was rewarded with a heartfelt smile. His sister, however, was not smiling. But nothing could bother him now. He was crown prince of Sarelia and this would be a day to remember.

As the evening went on, the wine flowed generously, the laughter got louder and the conversation got looser. Even the elves lost their serious outer shells and partied harder than the rest. The king laughed heartily at something the elf leader had said and knocked over his wine.

“Oh gracious me,” he said, laughing so hard he hiccoughed. Aryian beckoned a serving girl to refil the goblet and Arryn clapped his son on the back.

“Stop trying to get your father drunk, Aryian,” he slurred before taking another gulp of wine. Aryian laughed.

“I’m crown prince now, father,” he teased. “Maybe if I get you drunk enough you’ll fall down the stairs and I’ll be king sooner.” They burst into raucous laughter together and the king held up his goblet, nearly throwing the rest of its contents over the elf.

“A toast!” he yelled over the noise of the celebration. “To my son and heir. Son, may your goblet always be full and your belly fuller! To Aryian!” Everyone in the hall raised their glasses and repeated the toast. The king drained his goblet in a single gulp before slamming it down on the table. Aryian turned to his sister but she was not there. He looked across the room for her but she was nowhere to be seen. He shrugged and went back to drinking and enjoying his feast. The elves had abandoned all airs and graces and were now dancing upon the tables, much to the delight of the rest of the other guests. Soon, they began pulling other people onto the tables to dance with them, kicking off the empty food platters to make room. Aryian was vaguely aware of the ginger haired elf who’d crowned him pulling the brown haired girl onto the table to dance with her. The music the band was playing got louder in the spirit of the elves. Aryian was transfixed by the elves dancing on the tables. The way they moved, so flexibly, it was an impossibility. Like they were made entirely of water. Soon, everyone was dancing drunkenly down the hall. Aryian clapped along to the music until his hand was suddenly pulled by Lycia who appeared beside him.

“Come on, brother, let’s dance!” she said, her blue eyes twinkling wickedly. Aryian allowed her to drag him away from the table and into the crowd. Aryian wasn’t entirely aware of what his body was doing, it seemed to move of its own accord to the music. Lycia moved almost as fluidly as the elves and soon had a ring of men watching her every move. When the song came to an end, everyone erupted into applause for each other and Aryian crashed down into the nearest chair. His vision blurred and his face felt entirely numb. His stomach hurt from laughing so hard.

“Who wants to dance with the future king?” yelled Lycia, pulling Aryian to his feet. Almost every female clamoured to be chosen for the dance, but Lycia being who she was chose one of the few girls who showed no interest. The brown haired girl who had been fussing with her bow earlier was dragged forwards by the princess and pushed towards Aryian. The band started up again and the girl awkwardly curtseyed to her crown prince. Aryian clumsily put one hand on her waist and took her hand with the other.

“I don’t really dance,” said the girl, her voice slightly slurred. Aryian smiled.

“I’m not so sure I can dance at the moment so I wouldn’t worry,” he said, trying to concentrate on where he put his feet so he didn’t step on her. She giggled and let him lead her. She was quite pretty, he thought, now he could see her face. She had huge brown eyes and several freckles dotted across her face. Her pink lips were curved into a cat-like grin as Aryian almost tripped over an invisible obstacle. Though she was pretty, there was something off about her face. Her cheekbones were too high and her eyes were too wide and when she turned her head to laugh at something someone said, her ears seemed a little too pointed. Aryian shook his head. He’d clearly drunk more than he’d thought. Keeping track of where his feet were was taking up so much of his concentration that he hardly noticed that the girl was leading him in the dance.

“What’s your name?” he asked, forgetting how to properly enquire as to a lady’s name. The girl smiled at his drunkenness.

“Ariella,” she said. Her eyes were glistening from the wine and she bit her lip. Her plump, rosy lip. Aryian’s drunk addled brain was forgetting how to behave. He found he was clinging on to Ariella for support now as his legs decided they no longer wanted to hold him up. Thankfully, the music came to an end and Aryian staggered away.

“The beautiful Ariella,” he slurred, gesturing to the poor girl. Everyone clapped for her as she bowed her head briefly, more concerned about the prince’s balance than her applause.

“Sire?” she asked, half holding her arms out ready to catch him. Lycia laughed and pushed Aryian hard enough to make him fall over. He crashed to the floor and the whole room erupted into laughter. The force of hitting the floor made his vision blur and his head spin. The blurry outline of Ariella crouched down in front of him.

“Are you okay?” she asked as the rest of the guests continued to laugh. Aryian waved her away and pulled himself to his feet. The guests cheered and went back to their dancing. Aryian staggered back to his seat beside his father whose face was bright red from the effort of laughing so hard at his son. Lycia did not return to her seat. Aryian reached for his wine and watched the nobles and elves dance. Eventually the dancing ceased and people began to retire to their rooms for the night. King Arryn lifted himself from his chair and bade goodnight to the elf.

“I’m afraid it’s time for me to retire,” he said. “Come, Aryian, help an old man up the stairs.” Aryian wasn’t entirely sure he could make it up the stairs himself but all the same he stood up and helped his father through the hall. They staggered together through the castle to the king’s chambers, still laughing, still drunk. Aryian pushed open the door to his father’s chambers and helped him into the armchair by the fire.

“Ah, there. Thank you, my boy. Fetch me some water will you?” he asked. Aryian walked clumsily to the table and poured a goblet of water from the jug on the table. Most of the water missed the goblet and spilled out onto the table but enough of it went in the goblet for Aryian to count it as a success. He handed the goblet to his father before collapsing in a chair beside the door. He felt so warm and content. His eyelids grew heavy and he allowed them to close.

Aryian woke with a start. A masked figure stood behind his father’s chair. He saw the glint of a dagger in the figure’s hand.

“Guards!” He tried to yell but his throat was thick with sleep and alcohol. The masked figure turned and struck at him with the blade. Aryian kicked him away and rolled off his chair. He pulled his sword from his belt and got clumsily to his feet. The room span. He raised his sword just in time to deflect a blow from the masked assailant. Somehow instinct took over and he parried next attack but the force of it knocked him backwards. His head collided with the desk and his vision went blurry. His father had woken and had drawn his own sword.

“It would take better than you to kill my son,” he said, his words slurring still. The masked figure hissed.

“I was not sent to kill your son. I am here to kill you!” he drew his own sword and struck at the king. Arryn deflected it weakly, almost dropping his sword. Aryian’s eyes slipped in and out of focus. He fought to keep consciousness as his father tried to fend off the assassin. The king was old and tired and his strength began to fail him as he struggled to keep the assassin at bay. Aryian pushed himself to his feet and his head swam, almost making him throw up. He picked up his sword and staggered towards the assassin. But the man saw him coming and knocked over a candle bracket in Aryian’s way. He had the king pinned against the wall, their swords crossed between them.

“Guards!” Aryian gasped again, falling over the candle bracket. He reached out with his foot and kicked the back of the man’s knee, causing him to falter. The king shoved him away and thrust his sword forwards. The man knocked it away and punched him in the chest. As he pulled his fist away, Aryian’s blurred eyes saw the shine of the dagger between the man’s fingers. His blood ran cold. The king looked down. Darkness seeped through his tunic, staining the silver fabric red. Aryian pushed himself to his knees and caught his father in his arms as he fell.

“No,” he said, his head swimming. He ripped the fabric away to see the wound. It was deep and bleeding fast. He tried to stop the bleeding with his shaking hand but there was just so much of it. He didn’t know how to stop it, how to fix it.

“I’ll get help,” he said, trying to get up but the king grabbed his jacket. Aryain looked down at his pale blue eyes. The king looked so tired.

“Stay with me,” he whispered. Aryain held him tighter.

“I’m right here, father,” he said, his bottom lip beginning to tremble. He couldn’t lose his father now. Not like this. Not now.

“Guards!” he cried again. “Someone! Anyone! I need help. I need… I need….” His voice trembled. No one was coming. He was alone. The king touched Aryian’s face.

“It’s my time,” he said. “Sarelia looks to you now. I know you will make me proud.” Aryain shook his head and clung to his father’s hand.

“I need you, you can’t leave me. I’m not ready,” he said, tears filling up his eyes. His father smiled at him.

“You’ve always been ready, Aryian. I know I’ve not been a good father to you and I know I put my duties as king before you and your sister but…”

“No, don’t say that,” choked Aryain. Arryn had been a great father to him. He had helped Aryian become the man he was. It was because of him that the elves had chosen Aryian to become king. A hard lump formed in his throat and a tear fell down his cheek. His father wiped it away with his thumb, as he had always done.

“I have always loved you, Aryian,” he said. A painful sob racked through Aryian’s body as his father smiled at him for the last time.

“I love you too, father,” he said, tears streaming down his face. The light in the king’s eyes faded and his eyelids drifted closed. Aryian whimpered, his lip trembling.

“Father?” he asked, but there was no reply. The man who had protected Aryian from the world was gone. He shook with grief and he screamed in his despair. Wrapping his arms tightly around his father’s body, he buried his face in his blood-stained clothes. The room felt so cold. There was no warmth or comfort left in the fire still crackling in the fireplace. Aryian’s whole body shook as he cried so hard. It hurt. It hurt so very much. His throat felt raw and his eyes stung but that was nothing compared to the sudden emptiness in his heart. The door to the chambers clicked open but Aryian did not lift his head from his father’s unmoving chest. Someone lifted the king’s wrist for a few moments before letting it drop again.

“He’s gone, Aryian,” said Lycia. But she didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was cold. Aryian shook his head.

“No,” he mumbled, still weeping.

“You’ve killed your father.”

Aryian looked up at her as if she were crazy.

“What did you say?” he asked, thinking his ears had deceived him. Lycia looked down at him, her lips curled into an unkind smirk.

“The king is dead in your arms. You’ve murdered your father,” she said again, her eyes sparking wickedly.

“No, I didn’t. It wasn’t… there was this man. This masked man who…” Aryian stared around the room but there was no sign of the man who they’d fought. The man who killed his father. There was no one there. He looked back at Lycia.

“He must’ve run off. Call the guards, we have to catch him. We have to…” but Lycia was still smiling that unkind smile.

“Oh the guards have been called,” she said. “You said yourself, Aryian. All you had to do was kill your father then you’d be king.” Her voice felt like ice. Aryian couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Lycia? How could you say that? I’d never hurt father… I never killed him it wasn’t me you have to believe me!” he was becoming hysterical. Why wasn’t Lycia crying? Why wasn’t she embracing him and weeping for their father? Why was she stood there so cold and unfeeling? Like it meant nothing. Just then, Ewain burst through the door with his men, all swords drawn. Lycia ran to him and fell into his arms.

“Oh captain, the king has been murdered,” she wailed.

“Who was it, my lady?” the captain asked. Lycia pointed straight to Aryain.

“He did it. He murdered our father,” she said, as cold as ice. Aryian’s heart dropped. The guards looked at each other, conflicted. Lyica frowned.

“Arrest him you fools! He murdered your king!” she ordered. The guards sheathed their swords and advanced on Aryian.

“No! No it wasn’t me! You’ve got it all wrong Listen to me!” cried Aryian as the guards surged forwards and dragged him away from his father’s body. “No, no let me go! No please, don’t just leave him there. Let me go!” They dragged him kicking and screaming from the room and the last think he saw was Lycia’s perfectly curved smirk before something hit the back of his head and everything went dark.

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