Chapter 23: Call to Arms
King Eli needed to build an army, but convincing people to fight could prove difficult. Having lived under King Greedy’s rule, they were already subject to horrific circumstances. This changed them. They became desperate, paranoid, and there was a loss of empathy towards outsiders. Too many people were too far gone from human decency, but King Eli knew they were still worth saving.
By defeating the witch, they did not allow darkness to overcome; light remained. There was still hope. Mere words would not be enough to completely convince the people to fight. King Eli anticipated this and knew he must show them.
Eli, Miriam, and Elise were accompanied by a group of Hope’s creatures. Their plan was simple: stay hidden. As advised by the rabbit, they needed to stay within the edge of the forest line as they traveled to avoid the dead army picking up on the scent of a firstborn, the Princess. Staying out of sight would allow them to travel far away from the castle, and somewhere along the way find a remote village guarded by only one dead soldier. King Eli would need to kill it in front of an audience to prove to the people it could be done. The killing needed to be swift and without detection to avoid the Dead communicating with each other about an uprising. This approach required a clever and careful plan.
After a four-day journey, they found a small village, but it was not the kind of place they anticipated it to be. It was located near the mouth of a river running far throughout all of the lands. Many skilled fishermen lived there and shared their daily catch with the community, and they were not lacking in food. The expression of the faces of the people did not seem distraught, but content. This place was almost a sanctuary, if not for the corpse walking and watching among them.
It was midday and everyone in the village had their chores keeping them busy outside. The dead soldier stood in the center of it all, ready to attack at a moment’s notice; shield and sword firmly held. King Eli and his group scouted until Eli finally stepped out of the forest for the first time in eight years. The sun hit his face completely, blinding him for a moment, but it felt good. He took a little time to appreciate it before making his way to the dead soldier.
He almost went without being noticed by the villagers, a few caught a glimpse of the stranger and looked on as he picked up his pace, rapidly moving towards the guard whose back was turned. To their surprise, the man they watched drew his sword. One of the villagers understood what was about to happen.
“No!” the villager cried out.
His shout caught the attention of the others still doing their chores, even the dead soldier, but before it could see what the commotion was King Eli pierced it through the back. The guard immediately collapsed by the blow, falling face down. The King stood over it, and cut off its head. He now had everyone’s attention.
He could see the expressions on their faces. There was a mixture of confusion, amazement, and fear.
“Brothers and sisters,” the King began as he stood over the corpse, “today is a new day. I have just proven to you we can now fight back. The magic in these lands have gone, you do not have to be afraid anymore.”
A man stepped forward from the crowd, a blacksmith. His face was scarred and he wore an eye patch over his left eye.
“And how has this come to pass?” the blacksmith asked. “What do you know of such things? Who are you?”
“Before this madness plagued our lands, I was your King. I am King Eli, the Common.”
Immediately, murmurs began with some gasps of disbelief.
“Greedy Fool,” the King started again, “made a deal with the witch of the forest. It was her magic that gave him his dead army. I stand here telling you it is over. I have faced the witch, and with the help of my family and Hope, she has been defeated.”
The people’s expressions remained unchanged. Nobody was rejoicing as the King had anticipated. He was confused by the villager’s apathy.
“Maybe you have,” said the blacksmith, “but I’ve faced them myself. I barely survived; one of the one hundred spared to send a message to the rest of the Kingdom, to the world. I should have died amongst the thousands that fell at that Great War. Instead, I came here to help build what we now have. There are no firstborns among us, no fear of killing one of our own. We will live out our days as a community until we are no more. We have water, plenty of fish, and our land has improved tenfold for crop and farming. We’ve made a real life here under the circumstances. We should continue to lay low, keep to ourselves, and die in peace.”
The people around him started shouting in agreement.
“But now you have brought trouble on us all!” the blacksmith shouted.
The crowd suddenly grew angry with the King. Some started calling out to have him tied up so they could hand him over to King Greedy, in hopes it might spare them his wrath.
Sensing the tension, Hope’s creatures stepped out of the forest and made their way between the assemblage to stand by the King. All were now silent and many were amazed to see a little girl and a woman riding on top of a brown bear. King Eli used this opportunity to speak.
“There is Hope yet,” he said with a smile, “before you, is proof of this. You say you are at peace, yet, war is at hand. Do not shut your eyes and pretend it will go away. You have been living in fear, but you do not have to be afraid anymore. Brothers, you are not alone in this fight, we are not alone. Your swords will reveal the truth, just as mine has.”
The King bent over to pick up the severed head, lifting it high for all to see, but there were no loud cheers, just silence. Some of the people had sad or horrific looks on their faces. Once again, the King was confused. Slowly, the crowd parted down the middle ending with an old man having fallen on his knees, hands covering his face, crying.
“It isn’t as simple as you think,” the blacksmith said somberly, “I do not know where you have been, but we do not see the dead as you do. You addressed us as brothers and sisters; these are our brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, mothers and fathers. What you ask now is impossible. These aren’t monsters to us, corpses with rotted flesh and bone like Greedy’s first army. Those that have faced them, fallen in battle, have resurrected to serve King Greedy and he has them placed around their own communities for us to see, a reminder of what and who we’ve lost. Their appearance is like ours, save for their mortal scars and grey skin.”
A few men approached King Eli slowly, one with a satchel, to retrieve the head. Two other men quietly carried the corpse away to be buried. Once again, the King lost his audience. The village was divided. Some wanted to fight and argued they should honor their dead and release them from their dark forms. Some believed their dead relatives still felt pain and didn’t want to harm them. Finally, others were afraid the souls of the Dead were trapped inside the corpses, having no control of their bodies. This meant they could see the horrors they inflicted on others; on those they loved and cared for.
During this debate, Elise slid off the bear and approached the old man on his knees, who was still mourning the loss of his son. The Princess walked through the chaos around her and calmly sat down next to him. She picked up a stick nearby and started drawing in the dirt.
The old man noticed her there and looked to see what she was drawing. He recognized the picture, something from long ago, from his son. He didn’t question how she knew of it, he just accepted it. After she finished, she turned to him and gently leaned in to whisper. She didn’t say a whole lot, but just enough; what he needed to hear.
Meanwhile, the King was trying to regain the attention of the crowd and they were now growing hostile towards him, again. He looked at Hope’s creatures for answers, but there was no chance to communicate with them because they were also being threatened.
The mob, now picking up stones, started making their way toward the King until, suddenly, someone shouted from within their group.
It was the old man, now standing, fighting to get their attention. The crowd parted once more and gave him the floor to speak.
“Before my son went off to face King Greedy’s army,” the old man said addressing everyone, “I pleaded with him not to go. You see…my son could be stubborn,” he said with a smile, “a bit like me. So, to convince me, to justify himself…he reminded me of the way things were before. When he was a little lad, we would play a game we called ‘King’s army.’ He, of course, was always the King. He looked up to you,” he said now addressing King Eli, “admired you...he would recite the songs, tell and retell your victories in battle and the peace you brought to the land. But what he was most keen on was your title, ’King Eli, the Common.’ You were like us once, you suffered loss, but you didn’t just stand by and shout curses to the wind, or feel sorry for yourself. You made a difference, and my son believed he could do the same. He died years ago, an honorable death. It is fitting that you were the one to let him finally rest in peace. It would have been his honor. He gave his life, inspired by your example. Today, I will not stay idle, I will do the same.”
Now addressing the crowd, the old man raised his hands and shouted, “Have you not seen with your own eyes and listened to the truth? Hope is still in these lands. Our brothers, our sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters will not have died in vain. If you face them, it will not be as though you hate them, but, out of love, you will give them peace by sending them to the grave. It is not their bodies we are trying to preserve, but their souls.”
At this, the crowd cheered and chanted, “We have Hope! We have Hope! We have Hope!”
The old man approached King Eli, placed his hand on his shoulder and said, “I will follow you to the ends of the earth.”
“Thank you. We will win these lands back and restore humanity.”
The old man turned to look at the Princess as she celebrated with the other people.
“She is special, isn’t she…your daughter?” he asked the King.
“Yes. How did you know she was my daughter?”
“She has your eyes,” he said with a chuckle. “Should I live long enough to see it, I look forward to the day the Kingdom is under her care and guidance.”
Eli smiled and stared at her in awe, cherishing the moment and the light within her.