Mar. At birth, I was thrust into war. My entire reign consumed by it. Yet I trusted you. I prayed. I served.
Then you allowed the foxes to take three of my children, leaving but one. I nearly forsake you. In my grief, I cursed your name. That grief ended. My last heir lived on to have sons of his own, a gift of four, to replace the children you took from me.
Finally, you took the last from me. My son. Four children I have lost over the years. And four grandsons I have gained. Even has been the count. Until now.
In this moment, Mar, forgive my transgressions. Pardon my sins. Do what you will to me. Just spare my grandson, this lad before me.
Artus finished his prayer as the screams shook every one of his bones. Each cry to the heavens rattled his frame, which had never felt more brittle. His muscles, drained of vigor, felt assaulted, as though pummeled in battle.
Artus could hardly bear it. Though as horrible as it was, he could not help but stare at the one who suffered more, who shrieked as he reached upward, toward the opening above.
“Father!” Ely screamed. “Why?! My father! My father! Nooooooooooo!”
Only an hour before had the bells of the castle jolted him from his sleep. He awoke to find that he had sweated through his night shirt. His eyes burned, as if assaulted by smoke, and his mouth had gone dry. His ears throbbed with every ring as he went on to dress, struggling through the trembling of his hands.
So wrong. Artus could not put the thought out of his mind. Something is wrong. So terribly wrong.
The decades spent training in the yard, to mold himself into a warrior-king, were for naught. His survival instincts had abandoned him. The admirable qualities his father and kinsmen had labored so hard to instill in him – tenacity, focus, courage – were but feathers in a storm, to be disappear in a gust while Artus remained helpless.
The whole of him quivered as he trudged down the gallery, then the stairs to the colonnade that connected to the King’s Chambers. Attendant and guards passed him without a second glance, impervious to the frail elder that had once ruled over their land.
They do not even see me. That can only mean the worst.
And it did. Artus arrived at his son’s quarters to find a circlet of guards pushing the castle servants and guests back from the room. He wedged through each worried soul and past the distraught until he came to the front of the crowd. The guards, recognizing their former king, parted enough to let him pass.
He stumbled through the breach, his limbs pained, though the walk from his chambers had been short. He passed through the doorway, stepping into a viscous pool of blood. Following its trail, he found the butchered corpse of Sir Lijart.
“Oh, Mar!” he gasped as he sank to his knees. He extended his hands, which quavered worse than ever, to close the knight’s eyes. The skin of his lids had already grown cold, a sign of what was to come for the rest of him.
“My King . . .”
Everitt stood by his side, offering his hand. Artus took it, knowing full well he had not the strength to rise on his own.
Then, struggling to his feet, he faced the canopied bed.
The veiled curtains that once hung from the frame had been torn off and placed over the length of his son, who laid motionless exactly as Artus had left him. Patches of a dark cardinal red had soaked through in some spots, to mark the areas beneath that had been pierced or stabbed. Upon taking in the departed figure, Artus reached out, parting from Everitt’s assistance. That is until he saw Gerry.
Never had one hurt so. For Artus had seen the casualties of battle, the dead and dying. Somehow, this was far worse. The man before him had shrank, regressing in years to resemble a boy, broken and scared. Yet, at the same time, the whole of his body had the appearance of an ancient in his dying days. He slouched against the baseboard of the bed, devoid of life. His eyes could have been carved from frosted glass were it not for the steady creeks that sprung from them, silently.
Artus could not recall how he ended up by the lad’s side. Had his own feet taken him? Or had Sir Everitt helped him along the way? He could not say. Nonetheless, he collapsed before Gerry, his arms unfolded to embrace and comfort his blood, his kin. The one who still breathed.
Time would have been inconsequential from that moment until eternity, had it not been for the castle bells. The urge to command that they be stopped had crossed Artus’ mind. He relented, though. For the effort would have been a waste. The bells had been rung. All in Arcporte had heard them, their clangs and their cries for their fallen, the King. Including the three below.
I have to be the one to tell them. The one to speak the words, to confirm their darkest fears.
Artus had never detested an idea more.
They must hear it from me. Before they send one of the Voiceless with a note to make inquiries. So that none of them may take the risk and ascend. No knight, nor servant, nor bishop should tell them.
It has to be me.
Knowing what had to be done, Artus summoned the last of his essence. He rose, lifting Gerry to his feet as he came to his own. Sir Everitt offered his cape, that they may cover their faces as they left.
Outside, Everitt order half of the guards to encircle the two, as the other half stayed to keep watch over the chambers. Mail and scales clanked, companions to the bells that rang, while Artus led Gerry back to his room, then to the privacy of his private study, where they proceeded to descend to Terran.
The underground lair, as if knowing the grief above, had grown cold and dark. The conical windows, bored into the sandstone to provide sunlight from the abutting cliffside, provided no illumination. The torches and sconces within burned with a dimness not unlike that of a church or monastery.
Even the flames mourn for their King.
Artus and Gerry reached the Fourpointe Chamber to discover the other three already there, waiting. Symon paced, for his nature as a warrior prompted him to move in moments of anxiety. Dawkin, seated at his end of the table, reclined, his fingers tapping the map before him. Though subtle, his worry was ever-present, marked by restraint that only Artus and his kin could see through.
Then there was Ely.
The most distraught of the brothers. One could not help but wonder if he too had seen his father’s butchered corpse, for his anguish was such that it seemed he had witnessed the horror firsthand. Red rivers populated his eyes so that the whites of them were but a memory, while his cheeks glistened from the tears that wetted them. His hair stood on its end, as though afraid for the news to come. His clothes had already met a similar fate, having been ripped and torn or otherwise disheveled. Lastly, his mouth – on the cusp of a cry or scream – curled unnaturally, ready to emit a plea to Mar himself.
Ely, upon seeing his brother and grandfather, was the first to address them. First with his forlorn eyes. Then with a query.
“Is it true?”
Artus found his lips dry, his throat parched. Though it mattered little. For in truth, at that exact moment he had no words of reply.
Ely stood. “The bells. They knell. Is it for him? Father? Do they ring true?” He rounded the table, his eyes searching for any hope that his suspicions may prove to be wrong. His gaze found them both, but as he was closer to Gerry, he approached him first.
“Brother. Answer me.”
Gerry responded with a deluge of tears.
“Grandfather . . .” Ely ventured to ask, his voice cracking before he could finish his thought.
Artus hung his head, the burden of it all having grown too heavy for him. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, unable to face his grandson.
“I . . . I . . . no, no.” Ely withdrew from them both. He paced through the chamber, his direction erratic. “No, not Father. Not him.”
“Ely,” Dawkin said, rising slowly from his chair.
“No. Not Father.”
“Take a seat,” Symon urged.
“I, I can’t . . . I have to, I must see him. Now. Now.”
Ely scurried around the table and past his kin into the hall. Symon chased after him, with Dawkin in tow, followed by Gerry and lastly, Artus.
“My father. Father. No, no.” Ely made a right, as if to make his way toward the castle stairs. After taking only a few steps though, he halted.
Symon, having nearly run into him, came to his side. “Ely. You mustn’t ascend.”
“Not now, brother,” Dawkin urged. “Not in your state.”
“But . . . I have . . . to see him.”
“Yes.” Ely swung around, to rush away from the castle stairs. “Now . . .”
Ely pushed past Gerry just as he exited the Fourpointe Chamber. “Where is he going?” Gerry asked.
Symon shrugged. Dawkin, however, considered. A moment passed as he gazed aside, his eyes seemingly staring at the sandstone wall, when in fact he was searching the very recesses of his soul.
Then, in an instant, it dawned on him. The reason for Ely’s departure. His intention.
“The Siren’s Cavern . . .”
Three words. They left Dawkin’s tongue like any other. Yet they stirred a premonition amongst all of them, a shared foresight.
Symon bolted down the hall, his arms and legs a blur. Dawkin, shaking off his shock, raced on as well, staying on his heels, with Gerry not far behind.
Artus, however, remained.
Why? Artus prayed silently. Why, Mar? Why?! What grievous deeds have I committed? What sins am I now paying for? Were three children not enough? Was their spilled blood not a sufficient sacrifice for the errors of my kinghood? You allowed my last child, my firstborn, to fall. Not one. Twice. Twice he was made to suffer. Now, on the same day I lose one, you mock my grief. You threaten to take another.
Then it came. That shrill. A scream beyond measure. It screeched toward him, its ear-shattering holler flooding into every doorway, hollow and crevice. The culmination of cries from a hundred-thousand soldiers, dying in the pitch of battle, could not compare. Not for Artus.
Artus found his feet possessed. They hastened beneath him, in the direction of the cavern, the source of the outcry. Another shriek consumed the corridor. The clap of boots and clatter of mail responded. A Voiceless knight streaked past Artus. Then another. A few more passed Artus, reminding the old king that he was hardly the warrior of his prime.
He pressed onward, the end of the hallway close ahead, the stalactites from the heights above within sight.
Artus burst forth into the Siren’s Cavern to find Ely near the top of the steps. He reached out, stretching the whole of his body toward the mouth of the cave, preparing to throw himself down into Mar’s vast blue kingdom below.
Symon, just beneath Ely’s feet, leapt forward. He caught his right leg in his hand, to pull him back. Ely stumbled on top of the last step. In a fury, he twisted around and kicked out with his free foot. His boot heel caught Symon on the right side of his jawbone, snapping his head up and to the left. Still, Symon kept his hold.
With Symon reeling from his blow, Dawkin swooped up to grab Ely’s free leg with both of his hands. Ely, desperately trying to flail his limbs in a vain attempt to liberate himself, wailed.
“Let me go!” he demanded. “Let me fall! I want to see him! Please!”
Gerry made his way up the stairs to wedge himself between his brothers. He clawed at Ely, curling his fingers around his belt to pull him further from the cavern’s edge.
Together, the three held on as Ely spun around, kicking all the while. He writhed onto his stomach, clamping onto the steps as one by one the Voiceless ascended to assist the three princes.
“I want to see Father! I want to see Father!”
His brothers ignored his pleas, along with the knights. Down they pulled, each step rising before Ely as he descended against his will. When they finally came to the base of the stairs, Ely responded with a deep, guttural scream, one that assaulted all of their senses and made each of them – even the most stoic of the Voiceless – scowl and grimace.
Now Artus stood, his prayers finished but his agony continuing, as he witnessed his grandson trying to end his princehood, his very being, before he even had a chance to truly live.
“Please . . . let me see him. Let me see him!”
At long last, Ely kicked free of his brothers to rise. However, with the lot of them back on even ground, his kinsmen and guards encircled him. Undeterred, Ely charged toward the staircase. Symon extended his arm first to cut off Ely, as his other brothers and the Voiceless responded in kind. Ely, his mania in full force, leapt forward, stretching to the staircase.
“No!” he cried. “Please . . . Mar . . . please!”
Mar will not answer, your prayers will go unattended, Artus thought, knowing that his musings were blasphemy. Not that it mattered at all to him. Not now.
“Mar . . .” Ely repeated.
It is useless.
“Please . . .”
Your prayers are futile.
“Mar will not answer,” Artus blurted.
No one turned in response to his declaration, for he stood behind all as Ely continued to struggle against those who choked off his ascension.
“Mar will not answer, my lad!” Artus yelled as he marched forward. This time, the Voiceless closest to him looked over their shoulders. They parted to make way for their former king, whose sights rested firmly on the one who grappled on his brothers, the boy who had not heard his cries.
“No!” Ely wailed again.
“Ely!” Artus roared.
At once, Ely paused. With the arms of his brothers still corralled about him, he turned to face his grandfather.
“He is gone. The king. Your father. He has passed, my boy.”
Ely, agape, stared back at Artus, as though the news was striking him anew.
“I’m sorry, my son. I’m sorry.”
With that, Ely fell. His brothers reached out for support but it was Artus who caught him in his arms, cushioning his fall and holding onto the one he loved.
“I’m sorry, my son,” he repeated. “I’m so sorry.”
Ely cried. He wailed. Only this time, his voice was muffled, his exclamations muted, as his head laid buried in his grandfather’s shoulder.
Artus wrapped his arms around Ely tightly as he sobbed, his embrace as much a comfort to himself as to Ely.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder. Another one cupped his other. Then a third found the space on his back beneath his neck.Four boys, Artus considered. Here and now. Fatherless. By Mar, at least they have been spared. But for how long?