Before the King
“Such gall, dost thou possess, to trespass on the eve of Heávath unbidden!” boomed a thunderous voice. The voice belong King Rheinarthon, ruler of Rhingelion and the Starlit Wood. “Sayest if it be so, hillman,” he demanded. “Hast thou found the splendor of my people and our merrymaking so entrancing, thou art driven mad by thy exclusion?”
The king sat leisurely upon his throne, yet his stare was cold and piercing. There were none who would contest, save the Avälie, that the splendor and majesty of his hall was ever matched by any kingdom that lays outside the wood, for the men of this realm, and its artisans, lived for many centuries. Thus, the magnitude of the king’s power was neither masked nor spared. Lining the walls of his endless hall were hundred dreadful wardens, so disciplined, they were easily mistaken as the masterwork of a dexterous sculptor. They held close to themselves great towering shields and long terrible spears. Strewn about the floor, were hundreds of tattered banners of the kingdom’s many fallen enemies. The entire scene seemed, almost as if by design, to emanate a penetrating fear and levy unmoving authority.
Arekir, however, did not stir. He dared not speak to his captors, remembering what the stranger had told him. He kept his head low and his gaze fixed on the blood pooling where his knees met the floor. His wrists were bound with thin silver cord, wrapped many times over.
“Not with wonder nor good intention hath this thrall been delivered,” said the man who stood, towering beside him. “He was found on the bank of the Galba’nin. Upon him were a great many arms, bloodied and battered. With the news thou hast heard today of thy ally, Lady Liriel of Ethél, I suspect this miscreant to be entangled.”
The king stiffened abruptly and leaned forward in his chair of gold and emerald leaves, his eyes transfixed on Arekir as he studied him. “Entangled perhaps, but guilty of such a crime, I deem him not,” King Rheinarthon concluded, sinking back into his seat as his visage softened minimally. “Dressed not is this man for bloodshed. Far more likely would he seem, to be engaged in formal matters than in savagery. Would not an aggressor ready himself for his ambuscade? I bear not thy same suspicions, Rheilen. I inquire, instead, the manner and means of his trespass. The maze of enchantments that have been woven within the Forest of Rhingelion is far too formidable a foe for the greatest of conjurers, let alone the likes of brief mortals.” The woodland-king returned his heated glare again towards Arekir. “I ask thee now, hillman. What powers hath been given unto thee, blessed or accursed, to be unswayed?”
Once more, Arekir remained still and stolid. The king and his court settled as the cavernous hall was made void of babel, and the silence that followed quickly soured. It became clear to Arekir that the king was not accustomed to his queries being left unanswered.
“Thou art before the King of Rhingelion!” bellowed Rheilen, grabbing Arekir’s collar behind the neck, compelling him to meet the king’s gaze. “Find thy words quick, nofgilen.”
When the hall descended yet again into silence, Rheilen was incited once more. He struck Arekir twice in the jaw with his gloved fist, before swinging at him powerfully with his steel vambrace. Without the support of his bound hands, Arekir’s head slammed against the stone floor. The sentries behind him forcefully pulled on his restraints to return Arekir to his original position. Save a momentary wince and a bloody gash on the bridge of his nose, Arekir’s disposition was unchanged. This only further provoked the young prince, whose face now boiled with scorching lividity. Rheilen raised his hand to strike once more, before his father intervened.
“Strike him no more, Rheilen!” his father commanded. “‘A man who lives by the fist and sword cannot be taught by them.’ Let first thy sister persuade him.” Rheilen obeyed reluctantly and stepped away.
Then the line of guardsmen parted, allowing a extravagantly dressed maiden to pass. She wore a long silken, lavender gown and a dove white wimple, held firmly upon her head with a thin circlet. The circlet was a narrow band of red vines and set within it, a single amber gemstone. Protruding from beneath the circlet was a single lock of golden hair. She glided across the chamber youthfully, standing tall and fair. If she were not one of the Blesséd, those gifted with long life, Arekir would have taken her for his own age. It was apparent, however, that she was not twenty, for children among her kindred took centuries to mature.
“Thou hast suffered much, child, by the hands of my kin and thy pursuers,” she spoke softly. “I know not whom gives thee chase, but speak truthfully and thou shalt be harbored.” Strangely, Arekir was compelled to speak despite his best judgements. He moved about restlessly as his mind fought unremittingly to suppress his yearning. “Thou need not worry any longer what stalks thee in the night, nor the evil men that hunt thee by day,” she continued reassuringly. “If I ask it of my father, to see no more harm come to thee, and for thee to be made safe, thou shalt be.”
Arekir yearned to speak, to divulge and secure his sanctuary. There was some facet of her voice, some allure and sheen, that commanded him to speak.
“Told, I have been, of thy condition when my brother intercepted thee. I take thee not a frequent traveler in the Starlit Wood. Found thou wert, dazed and disoriented. Thy mind wast certainly muddled upon entering the forest,” she paused. “Yet to have ventured so far unaided...”
She was interrupted by the sight of her brother, Rheilen, returning to her. He glared back at Arekir as he approached, before whispering in his sister’s ear.
“And thou hast found no other?” She asked, staring intently in Rheilen’s eyes. He began to whisper once more before she scorned, “Many mutter their thoughts aloud, when the sickness sets; we cannot be sure.”
Rheilen stepped back and shook his head. “There was another, I am certain.”
“If thou art indeed, we shall know soon enough,” the girl conceded. When her brother, Rhelien, departed, she returned her gaze to Arekir and her demeanor softened. She approached gracefully without concern and joined Arekir on the floor, sliding her hands down the back of her gown and smoothing the extravagant folds, so she could kneel comfortably. She pulled back her wimple, and though most her hair was tied neatly back, a few golden locks fell free, obstructing her face. She swiftly combed them back revealing two eyes of bright shimmering jade.
Arekir was immediately taken by surprise. He had never found someone to be so alluring. Indeed, he had never known anyone with similar means of extravagance, but there was much more to his fascination than her exorbitant garb and regalia. Even among the vast wonders of Creation he had seen throughout his travels, never had he witnessed beauty so sudden in its ensnarement.
The girl must have perceived Arekir’s poorly disguised and mystified expression, for she smiled and leaned closer. Her olive skin was exceptionally tan and she smelled softly of honey and wildflowers. “What is thy name child?” she asked delicately, as she studied Arekir’s eyes for some time. Receiving no name, she offered her own. “I am Rhana Sorenne of Rhingelion. My father is Rheinarthon son of Rhein, Lord of the Rhingelie, King of the Starlit Wood in the Land of Leaves. I ask thee stranger, who art thou? Why dost thou come to where thou art not welcome?”
Arekir struggled unbearably to suppress his desires. Never before had he such an urge to speak his mind, to say his name and profess his worries.
“If it is asylum or refuge thou hast sought, none can be given to those whom remain strange,” Rhana persisted. “Tell me thy name...” she pleaded, raising her hand two meet Arekir’s bruised cheek.
Arekir shrieked in great agony and recoiled suddenly, as if consumed by intense pain. It was not a corporeal or physical pain, but rather a torment of spirit, for he was overwhelmed with a rush of passion. Anger, sorrow, fear, happiness — he felt them all at once, each competing to surmount the other. “Witch!” he had screamed as lashed out with his legs, kicking Rhana backwards. She was the source of his agony, which he hastily determined, for when her hand parted from him, it ceased. “Do not touch me!” he cried.
The blow did little to hurt her. The same could not be said for Arekir, who was being beaten mercilessly in retaliation by the guards who had failed to restrain him.
“Enough,” she yelled; however, the wardens kept on. “Sesaida!" she demanded, in her native tongue. Immediately they desisted. Rhana swiftly scaled the steps leading back to her father.
“Never before hath my gift revealed one in such pain as he. A state of ineffable misery...” she turned to see Arekir rolling to his side, reaching for new breath. “Wouldst thou not foresee an Unblesséd in his place, be him a brigand or villain, to be stricken with fear and anger? Strangely, I find him conquered by immeasurable sorrow,” she reported, returning her attention to her father. “And I have come to find, those whom find themselves in such genuine agony do not readily concern themselves with deception. So it may be; not with malice nor guile doth he thwart our inquisition. Thus, I opine, he will not speak for his grief hath overcome him.”
“None among the Avälie as young as thee have such mastery of their gift,” the king commended. “However, I must arraign. Too easy, thou art, to dismiss their kinship’s nature.”
“I require not thy admonition, father,” she retorted angrily. “Wary, I am, of their nature and propensity for evil. Not have I asserted, presently or preceding, that this arbitration be presumed of all his kin.”
“And how come we to know his kinship, sister?” Rheilen challenged vociferously as he paced about the floor, spinning on his heels. “Why brand him a man? A dog, I would sooner mark him, for a he is naught but a stray, unwanted and wretched,” he smirked, as his taunt was met swiftly by unanimous laughter among the king’s soldiers. “I care not what grief thou sayest he bears, for a still tongue lies just as wickedly,” Rheilen argued as he turned to his father. “If he will not stand trial before man, then perhaps he shall before his Maker.”
“Do not be be a fool, Rheilen,” Rhana snapped. “We must discern the fount of his grief, lest we surmise the purpose of his intrusion wrongly!”
“No, my dear,” the king ruled, raising his right hand to beckon the nearest warden. The soldier left immediately and returned with a dense wooden block which had been scored many times and was in considerable disrepair. He dropped it before Arekir, and it landed with a loud and fatidic thud. “Rheilen is correct," the king continued. "His silence brands him foe. And such is the punishment of unwarranted entry.” King Rheinarthon stared fixedly at the prisoner before him, and Arekir’s gaze met his unaverted. “Grant him one last chance, before God and man, to be absolved, or death will be his choice.”
Rheilen nodded and drew his sword, returning to Arekir. The guards who had bound him now held him bent forward, exposing the back of his neck where Rheilen’s blade then rested. “Speak now, hillman, lest this be thy end,” Rheilen warned as he lifted his sword. “If not to further the plans of the Fowler, wherefore else dost thou venture so perilously to the hall of my father? Answer or be slain!”
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