CHAPTER 15 - SECRET PATHS AND SHAFIS’S WISDOM
As they were about to ride through the outer gates, a waft of burning flesh filled the air. Gren halted his horse and looked in the direction of the smell and roared in anger.
“He’s sacrificing in MY gardens!” He yelled. He wished nothing more than to turn around and have his bodyguards and militia put an end to the king, but he knew he had more urgent matters to attend to. He had to be in Marpøøn Gantal before Alkan at all costs. Gritting his teeth, he spurred his horse northwards.
It was a four day’s hard ride and the company he was travelling with wasn’t exactly pleasant. The people who followed him were soldiers, not companions he could strike up a conversation with. During their breaks for food and rest, he made an effort to win the trust of the three spies - whose names were Oren, Tidus and Caden - but they weren’t in a forgiving mood. He could do nothing about that. While they were travelling, his mind was racing as to what he would say to Queen Shafis.
“I’m sorry? It was a mistake? I feared Alkan?” No! He didn’t fear Alkan and Shafis would know he would only be using his skills as a politician to persuade her he was on her side.
But that wasn’t the case. Sajanell Døørs had a strong alliance with the powerful kingdom in the north for many years. He had to prove his allegiance was true. Before they left the villa, he dispatched a sealed letter to Senator Benton, explaining he had urgent business in Marpøøn Gantal that couldn’t wait, and that Honoria and their children were to stay longer than planned. Of all the Senators, he trusted Benton above them all.
The riding was long, and the hard terrain matched his mood. He didn’t dare take the open road but rather travelled along the Dusk Plains. Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, the majestic Nøn River came into sight.
He halted the company and looked up and down for a way across. There was no bridge, at least not from the trail leading from the Dusk Plains.
To enter the kingdom, he would have to travel upstream towards the Caves Øf Lørn, where a great bridge was manned and patrolled by the king’s most trusted soldiers, hardened men who wouldn’t accept bribes and if he was seen, he’d immediately be detained for bringing a militia with him, no matter who he was. Gren couldn’t help but admire the safety measures that were put in place.
Hundreds of years ago, King Tyro Price (Gunner’s ancestor) drew his defensive inspiration from Mørd Røck, a city with only nature as its barrier. The city was protected by the never-ending Nøn River, which looped around the city while to the southwest were the Caves Øf Lørn, a majestic mountain range that would hinder any who tried to invade the city.
Marpøøn Gantal was founded on this basis; the Nøn River to the south, the Timber River to the west, and the great Free Pass Møuntains to the north. The entrance to Marpøøn Gantal could only be accessed on its eastern border. Their northern neighbours, the town of Pømel Tarq and the village of Gantell Fair, continuously complained that a pass had never been created through the mountains to have easy access in reaching the kingdom, making their travel to and from Marpøøn Gantal an extra day’s travel and difficult when using carts for trade, but this was the idea King Tyro had in mind.
If trading carts were hard to manoeuvre, then siege weapons were out of the question. Although surrounded mostly by natural defences, he made sure the kingdom’s walls were unassailable. They towered forty metres high and went a further five metres below ground level with a labyrinth of tunnels for the citizens of the kingdom to travel should a siege take place. The walls were twelve metres thick and the connecting towers had walkways where a war chariot could ride freely with much room on both sides. The walls were connected to thirteen towers in total and in front of each tower stood a thirty-five-metre tall marble and golden statue of each Evertheenian god, with Zethër and Vězra at the entrance, standing proud and intimidating for all to see who enter the kingdom.
Lost in thought, Gren didn’t hear one of Shafis’s spies trot up beside him.
“My lord,” Caden said. “You’ll never be able to reach the king and queen through the obvious route.” Gren let out a long sigh, not hiding that the obvious was irritating him.
“However,” Caden continued, “there is another way. One that only the rulers of Marpøøn Gantal know… including their most trusted spies.”
The way he said it made Gren look at him suspiciously. “You know the secret path?” he asked carefully.
“Yes. Through the Timber River and into the Timber Førest is a cave that leads underground and then resurfaces just before the Remesló Tower entrance. You would then be able to get through, along with your entire host.”
Gren considered this but couldn’t help fight the suspicion growing in his stomach.
“Why would you tell me this? A secret that would cost you your tongue. Or worse.”
“Because now, you need us.” Caden gestured to himself and the other two, who had taken their horses to get a drink from the river, while Gren’s bodyguards were eyeing Caden talking with their master. Gren turned and faced him.
“Not only will I know the secret path, but an entire militia too? Forgive me for not being the trusting sort, but I would rather face the bridge than follow you blindly through the forest!”
“Oh, you would indeed be blind,” came the reply. Caden was grinning now. “The only condition is that you and your entire host are to be bound and blindfolded.”
Gren let out a laugh. “I think not!”
Caden wasn’t deterred. “It’s either our way, or you will be detained by the patrolling guards, and believe me, they wouldn’t care who you are. Until they say ’you may pass’, you would wait for many hours and as far as I can tell, you don’t have much time.”
Gren cursed. He knew Alkan was behind him. Although not travelling at the speed he was going, if Alkan saw the Grand Ambassador detained at the entrance, suspicion of his presence in the very kingdom he was invited to would raise serious questions. He had no other alternative but to put his trust in this young man.
“Alright,” he muttered. He turned his horse and trotted towards his men, while Caden went to his comrades and relayed what was discussed. With much cursing, the men who followed Gren reluctantly agreed to go through with the plan.
The spies then turned their horses and the host followed them towards the Timber River and after riding for an hour, they found the small walkway across the slow-running river. They had to walk their horses across, one at a time, as the walkway was brittle. Each one of them had to carefully guide his horse. One false move and the bridge would crumple below them.
They then proceeded to follow the spies into the Timber Førest where, after a few minutes, they called a halt. They then proceeded to bind the hands and blindfold the militia, bodyguards, and lastly the Grand Ambassador.
The procession was slow; each rider was to hold onto a rope while being led by Tidus while Caden rode ahead to let the guards at the Remesló Tower know of what happened and to allow them through. Gren hated being dependent on someone but fought down the struggle of tearing off his blindfold.
He was the only one whose hands weren’t bound. Now and then he heard his men curse, but he hissed back at them to not make a sound. The other spy, Oren, was holding the concealed entrance open while Caden continued to ride through. Gren could now hear the splatter of hooves on muddy ground and the echoing of water trickling down the cavern walls. The damp air in the cave was stifling.
After a while, he felt they were ascending and a few minutes later, felt the sun’s warmth on his face and the breath of fresh air was welcoming. Caden led them around in circles to disorientate them before coming to a halt and told Gren he could remove his blindfold, which he did without hesitation.
Caden went to free the rest of his troops. Squinting in the sunlight, he looked up at the colossal statue of Remesló and thought it a bitter-sweet stroke of genius on King Tyro’s part that this god would be the one whose statue would guard the secret path. He then looked ahead and saw huge, iron-wooden doors open inward with infantry and cavalry marching out to meet them.
After a lengthy conversation with the captain, they were led through the great gates and rode towards the barracks, where Gren’s men were to stay behind, including his bodyguards.
“I’m here to see an ally,” he assured them. “By now the king and queen will be expecting me.”
Looking back at Caden, he gestured for him to lead the way to the palace. Without a word, Caden turned and spurred his horse towards the main road leading towards the palace, along with some of the king’s cavalry escorting him along the way.
* * * * *
The streets were wide and beautifully carved from stone and the shops, forums, and open areas were decorated with exquisite fountains. As they got to the palace gates, he saw they were already opened. No doubt the other spy went to tell the king and queen of his coming.
“What did he say to them?” he wondered. Though he had his best physicians take care of them after finding out the truth about their presence in Sajanell Døørs, there was no denying they had been through quite an ordeal. To touch a spy carefully chosen by a monarch was to touch the king himself. He shivered at the thought and they came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs.
He looked up at the palace, beautifully crafted as if designed by Remesló himself. He saw the apartments on the top floor were open and a figure stood there, looking down at them. For a moment he thought it was Queen Shafis, but then realised it was Queen Isarin. He quickly lowered his eyes and concentrated on the main doors to the palace. As the doors swung open, he walked into an open area with beautiful columns spread across the vast floors. Stunning mosaics and frescos decorated the walls, depicting images of Creation.
At the very end, he saw a high dais with ten stairs and upon the dais, were two thrones. Seated upon the thrones were the king and queen of Marpøøn Gantal. King Gunner’s face was expressionless while Queen Shafis looked at him with her piercing blue-grey eyes.
“Still beautiful,” Gren thought. For a woman her age, she was still as striking as she had been the day she met Gren so many years before. Next to her throne stood her spy Oren, who rode ahead to inform the king and queen of his arrival. His face showed nothing that could give Gren any inclination toward what he was walking into. He ascended the stairs and stood before the thrones. He bowed deeply.
“Good King Gunner. Most excellent Queen Shafis, I come on a matter of personal business.” King Gunner stood and walked towards him, extending his hand. Gren gladly shook it.
“It’s good to see you after all these years, Grand Ambassador,” said King Gunner. “I thought you weren’t able to attend my daughter’s wedding?”
Gren looked up and saw Gunner had an amusing smile on his face. He then looked at Shafis, who showed no trace of what she was thinking. Were they toying with him?
“I have come personally to right a wrong I have brought upon you and your wife,” Gren explained.
“Indeed you have,” Shafis said, rising from her throne. “Do you know how many sleepless nights I’ve endured not knowing what’s been going on in the south?” She continued, but before she could go on, her face tightened, and a pained expression came swiftly across her face.
“Your Majesty?” Gren looked concerned. King Gunner turned and reached out and took her by the arm, gently guiding his wife back to her throne.
He looked at Oren, “Get the physician!” He commanded.
“No!” came the voice of Shafis, soft, yet firm, though obviously in pain. “The Grand Ambassador and I have much to discuss.”
King Gunner looked torn. Of all the monarchs he had encountered and learned about in his lifetime, Gren had never seen a king leave so many affairs to his wife. She was able and swift, cunning yet merciful. Strong, yet compassionate. He knew Gunner had a queen worthy of her title, and so much more than that. He trusted her with every fibre of his being that he never had to be around to hear the full story. Gunner knew that with his wife, things would be well taken care of.
After taking a few, slow breaths, Shafis looked up at Gren and said, “shall we retire somewhere more private?” Gren bowed. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
Shafis got up rather slowly, accepting her husband’s hand to help her up.
What was wrong with her? Showing weakness in front of a guest?
He didn’t dare ask any questions. He was at her mercy, yet somehow, he felt safe. She leaned on her husband’s arm as he guided her down the stairs and into a small room to the left of the dais. There was a table against the wall and had wine, fruits, pastries, and other cuisines already spread across it. Shafis knew how to treat a guest.
Gren didn’t realise how hungry he was. King Gunner kissed his wife on her brow, then left the room and closed the doors softly behind him. Shafis gestured for Gren to help himself and take a seat, for which he was thankful. He was famished and tired from the journey but didn’t dare rest until he spoke with the queen.
Shafis poured him a cup of wine then poured some for herself and took her seat. Gren came and sat next to her. Shafis’s eyes were closed, but when she opened them and looked at Gren, they were soft and gentle and what he saw was pure exhaustion and worry.
“Your Majesty,” Gren began, “are you unwell?”
Shafis gave a feeble wave of her hand. “Nothing I can’t endure. My husband insists I have physicians around and I only allow it to give him peace of mind,” She gave a weary smile. She said nothing for a while and Gren didn’t know how to approach the subject. Thankfully, Shafis did.
“I hear my best spies were tortured under your watch.” Gren stiffened at the way she said it. How could she be ill and yet formidable at the same time?
“I beg a thousand apologies, Your Majesty. I have no excuse. You and I are known for being careful and always being alert at the slightest change in the wind.”
Shafis gave a nod, which gave Gren hope. “I had been so preoccupied with Alkan in our city that I trusted no one who wasn’t a familiar face to me.”
Shafis looked at him quizzically. “What makes you think Alkan would have spies in the capital?” she asked. Gren couldn’t understand why she would ask this. Her spies were everywhere in Barathorn, so why wouldn’t another king have spies of his own lurking around and bringing news back to their liege lord? Gren had his network across Barathorn.
“I suspect he wants to take the capital for his own, the same way he did with Waters Field and Støne Fønt,” Gren answered. “I have no words to offer on how I treated your spies, Queen Shafis,” Gren continued.
She took a sip, then winced. Placing the cup down and pushing it away, she let out a sigh.
“Do you always torture people, Grand Ambassador?” Shafis asked in a brisk tone. “Do the Senate of Sajanell Døørs find pleasure at the cost of someone else’s humiliation? Is that how the capital city operates?”
The taste of the wine turned sour in Gren’s mouth. He put his cup down as well, staring at the floor. At last, he lifted his head and looked at her.
“If the Senate is seen as weak, then people like Alkan will jump at any given opportunity.”
Shafis wasn’t dissuaded. “I think your cousin has a different opinion on that matter.” Gren’s eyes grew wide with surprise and Shafis couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh yes! You forget I know who your cousin is. Elarosh? If I recall? I never had the pleasure of making his acquaintance when we were young. He’s now Alkan’s advisor. My spies heard the entire conversation. One thing I do agree with your cousin is that I flatter myself with the network of spies I so carefully created. I’ve been through Innøcence Løst and back again trying to find men as loyal as they. I trust them as much as I trust my husband. The same loyalty runs through the veins of those who hold the bridge.”
Gren was quiet for a while and Shafis leaned forward, placing a gentle hand on his.
“What are you thinking?”
He looked at her. “How do you inspire such devotion, Queen Shafis?” He asked, almost as a whisper. “You’re not like King Hatmin. You don’t go looking for war, yet you achieve what many have failed to gain. True and undivided loyalty.” She took her hand from his and leaned back in her chair. For a while, she remained silent.
“It is not through fear that I inspire loyalty,” she began. “It’s because I consider every person’s problems and act upon them with as much determination as possible; from the very rich, to the poorest of folk. If you don’t have the support of the common folk, then you will always have uprisings. The nobility and rich continue to complain of lands that once belonged to them and were taken away due to a feud amongst other noble families that took place so long ago that they themselves can’t remember what sparked their initial dispute. But the common folk? They have day-to-day struggles and by showing them a little kindness makes all the difference in the world.”
Gren thought for a moment, then said, “but if you don’t have the support of the nobility, they will fight you at every given turn.”
“That’s true,” agreed Shafis. “But the world has more poor folk than rich people. It’s a sad truth. If the nobility rules them with an iron fist and shows no concern for their daily struggles, they will eventually rise as one and no one will be able to save the nobility. When they unite, they are one voice and it shouts louder than those of a Senator, and even a King. Yes, we have strict laws in Marpøøn Gantal; if a thief is caught - and depending on what he stole - the hand he writes with shall be chopped off. If a murderer is caught, then his life is forfeit. If a rapist is convicted, he shall be flogged and hanged in public for his crimes. I never liked the death penalty, but I found it was necessary to resurrect the old customs of this kingdom. It’s what made this kingdom so great under King Tyro Price. He revolutionised the laws. Over a long time, however, the laws were only seen as guidelines but once I became queen, I realised to truly bring back the essence of Marpøøn Gantal, things needed to change.”
Gren never took his eyes off her while she spoke, but now he looked away, thinking of what she said.
“So, you want me to listen more to the poor than the rich?” He asked.
Shafis gave a slight smile. “Listen to everyone, Gren, and help them where you can, so that they, in turn, will follow you to the ends of the world.” He looked up at her when she said his name.
“Everyone on Barathorn is equal in the eyes of the gods,” she continued. “Treat everyone as the gods would treat us. Be kind and not always cunning or trying to outwit your opponents.”
He looked across the room and saw a mosaic depicting the wolf howling on the Purple Møuntains. He remembered the story and thought of the simple gift Kafshëva gave to man, their best friend in animal form. The gods listened and provided.
Resolved, Gren got up and knelt before the queen. He took her hand and kissed it.
“I give you my word that I will strive to be as wise and courageous as you, most noble of queens.” She leaned forward and took his face in her hands, lifting his head to face her. She kissed him on the cheek and softly said, “Good!” She leaned back in her chair and let out a shaky breath.
Gren got up and looked at her. “I would be honoured if you would permit me to lend you my arm and help you to your chambers.”
Shafis sighed with obvious relief. “I would very much welcome your arm, Grand Ambassador.”