The Four Bridges
The Grey Plains. She had heard the legends and read the tales, but finally, Princess Auriel saw them for herself. Her brother, Bjourn, had spoken of them to her but his words failed to envision the serenity of the valley.
Auriel’s mind had before created images of a dying landscape, wilted, bleak and dull, suffocated by a thick and heavy mist – as the old tales would describe them. Yet here in the valley, the skies had never been bluer. The tall grass swayed in the breeze like an emerald ocean, uninterrupted by even a single stone or flower.
Hills rolling as far as she could see surrounded her father’s escort party, a royal company of five adorned in shining armor and blue mantels - the colors of Auriel’s father’s kingdom, Granadov.
Duirman’s posture was rigid, atop his mighty black horse. The king exuded an air of absolute majesty; the crown of his kingdom sat on his head of long tawny hair that rested on his broad shoulders. His steely blue eyes gazed out as if into the future, lines of concern upon his stern face, partially concealed by a well-groomed beard. Deep in thought, Duirman seemed to hum to himself.
Kicking into her horse, Auriel pulled up to his side, her head barely reaching the height of his shoulders as he sat on his steed.
“It is beautiful, is it not?” he remarked as an appreciative grin crept on his face. “Almost impossible to believe the history books once you’ve seen this valley with your own eyes.”
She took in a deep draft of the fresh air. “It is,” she replied. “It is almost magical and nothing like the legends at all.” Her imagination mutated the peaceful sea of green grassland to a sprawling landscape of mud and snow. The gradual roll of the hills was broken into violent cliff faces with developments of rock to break the surface. She frowned at the vision as she returned to reality. “I do not understand, why was it so coveted?”
Duirman sighed as he gazed over the brilliant green lands. “A mystery lost in time that is not likely to discovered ever again.”
“But the Firn’rass Veer was only two-hundred years ago, surely the land could not have changed so drastically in such time.”
“You forget the history, it was a parting gift of the Solomuirians. As is written, the land was a wound to be healed, reborn to new beauty and purpose.” His smile returned as he looked down at her. “Even so, my dear daughter, the land itself is only the beginning.” With a gentle gaze on his stern face, he looked at her then indictated to look out ahead.
Their tired horses crested the hilltop. The valley gradually dipped into a grand lake that shimmered in the afternoon sun set high in the cloudless sky. Standing in the heart of the lake was a single towering spire. Sunlight reflected with dazzling colors like a jewel in the crystal-stained glass dome capping the temple. Even from a distance, Auriel could spot the deep blue banners of Granadov hung along the west face of the temple. Though she couldn’t see them, she knew that identical banners hung facing the other three directions. The vivid scarlet banners of Furivaer hung on the northern face of the tower as did the forest green of Klymiross facing the east and the heavy purple of Acrion faced the vast deserts of the south.
The sight intrigued her, the colors and emblems of the four kingdoms being shared together on a single tower, a place that she had endeavored to read about as much as she could.
Artemor Temple was a symbol to the four domains of Man. Set in the midst of the lake, which was in the heart of the Grey Plains, it was the very center of all of the land, a neutral point protected and left untouched by the four kingdoms. It was a symbol of their unity and the peace that the Council of Kings swore to uphold. A heavy wave of reverence fell over Duirman as he gazed upon the temple.
“How long has it been since the last council?” Auriel inquired.
“Almost three years now.”
“Do you know why you have been summoned?”
Duirman opened his mouth to respond but was cut off by a strong voice calling back from the head of the company.
“My King, our scout reports that the eastern bridge is lowered.”
“Then this must be Lyson’s council,” Duirman said to himself. “Captain, you will stay on the shore. My daughter will accompany me across the water.” Before Captain Bahlmur bowed from atop his horse, Auriel caught his bagged eyes focus on her. She knew he would never question her father openly. But his skepticism was obvious. Had her brother have accompanied them instead, Bahlmur would have little to question, Bjourn was the proven warrior. She was not.
The captain turned about and took point once again in the company as they approached the western shore. Auriel followed her father’s lead in dismounting her horse, her own sharp blue eyes still fixed on the temple, mesmerized by its majesty as she handed off the reins of her horse to the second soldier.
Standing beside her father, Auriel’s age of seventeen was easily mistaken for that of just a child. Duirman was a sturdily built man, making his daughter’s already small frame appear even smaller. She adjusted the clasp of the blue mantel around her neck, like the one worn by her father. She brushed out the folds of her light, mint green dress and reassured herself of the silver circlet that sat atop her long, waving auburn hair – braided and pulled away from her round, youthful face. A gentle breeze brushed against her prominent cheeks, reddened by the exposure of the last ten days of riding in the sun and wind.
Moored to a strong stone jetty was a solidly built wooden boat. Auriel took her father’s strong hand as he assisted her aboard. With a seized breath, she slowly lowered herself onto the wooden bench of the boat. Offering a final word of reassurance, Captain Bahlmur knelt down and released the boat’s mooring to the jetty. Duirman sat facing her and grasped the oars. He gave her a warm wink as he proceeded to row. He had easily read the dazed expression on her face. She failed to hide her surprise in seeing her father, the King of Granadov, row himself across the lake. It brought a peculiar sense of loneliness to her, crossing the water with no more than just the two of them when her father’s escorts and counselors were seldom not in the same room as he within the walls of his own palace. She focused on this thought, allowing it to distract her as the boat glided over open water.
“Dear daughter, be not afraid, we will find no danger within the temple.”
“I do not worry, Father.” Auriel’s fingers turned white as she gripped the wooden bench on which she sat, her grip growing tighter with each rock of the boat as Duirman rowed. She had seldom gone out on the open water, the first time when she was no older than six years old. Her brother had taken her out on the lake outside of their home. She had been nervous yet exhilarated all at once but it soon all fell away into terror as the boat flipped over. The image of the shimmering surface of the water overhead slowly fading away from her reach was one of her early memories that had lasted vividly as her years continued.
She forced the image aside from her mind, letting her eyes follow the height of the tower as the boat drifted closer to it. “What is inside?”
“You will soon see. And I will show and tell you all that you wish to know.” Duirman flashed a knowing smile. “I want you to pay close attention today. You may learn something that will bless the kingdom in time to come.” The boat drifted alongside the stone dock built in the middle of the water, one of the four orbiting the temple. With a nod, the king motioned for his daughter to cast the rope in the boat to moor them to the dock. With a heave, Auriel tossed the rope, undershooting the post. Her nose scrunched as she frowned.
Duirman gave her an encouraging smile. Auriel drew the rope back, with her small hands before casting it once again, careful to aim the eye of the loop around the post. The loop fit with room to spare as it slapped the stone dock. “Well done, my dear.”
Auriel smiled briskly at her father as she pulled them in. She eagerly crawled off the boat, before Duirman even stood to step off. Even still surrounded by the water of the lake, the small stone island’s stability was an immediate comfort to her.
Looming over them, the temple stretched high over the stone dock set five meters away from the western wall of the temple. The two hanging banners of Granadov, swayed lightly in the breeze higher up the tower, the field of royal blue and the black and white emblem of the Rashkin coiled around a parapeted tower with flailed wings: in one taloned claw, a broad bladed sword and in the other an orb. Between the banners, a strong wooden bridge was drawn upright to the temple.
For most of the last ten days on horseback, Auriel had asked her father questions about Artemor Temple. He had mused her curiosities as he always had when he explained how they would reach a tower that stood in the midst of a lake.
A complicated mechanism was built in the center of the dock where a chain ran under the water and corresponded to the western drawbridge of the temple, all controlled by a single lever.
Auriel watched as her father approached the lever and with both hands pulled it back, leaning his weight into the effort. With a loud rumble and creak, the hefty wooden bridge lowered itself to the dock, closing the gap to the temple and revealing an arched entry of rich wood. With the bridge set in place, Duirman beaconed for his daughter.
Her mouth hung open with an enchanted smile as she slowly walked beside him, eyes wide as she gazed about. Her father paused before crossing the final step inside the walls of the temple. The archway of wood was carved as a portal to the entry. Directly overhead, a pair of vacant hooks were set into the wooden archway just below carved ornate lettering.
Auriel watched as her father threw back his mantel, uncovering the scabbard worn on his hip. Duirman grasped the golden hilt of his sword and drew it, its majestic blade shimmered like fire in the western sun as he held it poised momentarily before gingerly setting it on the hooks. “Let the only sword drawn here be that of the tongue,” he said as Auriel read the words herself. “Words spoken by the kings at the dawn of our age, your great-grandfather’s grandfather was one of them. And as part of his line, I have sworn to uphold such ideals for the generations to come.”
Auriel nodded. These names were not without face to her. Among much of her studies was that of the histories of the Line of Kurridan. Auriel’s traveling gaze stole away from her father’s wise face and observed over the council chamber of the temple. Each of the four walls had an identical entry blocked by draw bridges facing the north, east and south. Directly across from them, the bridge was lowered providing a view of the eastern hills in the near distance. Two stone staircases to their left and to their right rose to the floor above where banners identical to those on the outside of the tower hung in the center of the chamber from the large opening in the second landing.
Underneath the colored banners, designating the kingdoms according to their respective directions was a large, carved wooden table with eight sides all bordered in gold. Four matching chairs were set across from each other at the table. Already set out at each place were the golden goblets. Auriel marveled at the clean craftsmanship and the brightness of the walls and stones. They were much younger than she was accustomed to compared with the ancient halls of her home.
Standing at the opening of the eastward bridge was a man looking out over the eastern hills. Even from behind, his pristine posture was regal. Long pure white hair hung neatly down the back of his forest green robes. Smooth hands were clasped gently from behind. He was slow to face the new arrivals, looking to have been roused from intense thought. Auriel was fascinated by the smooth features of his face. His white hair was deceiving of his relatively young age - only made all the more obvious by his bare, hairless face where a solemn expression remained.
“King Lyson,” Duirman greeted, welcoming him with outstretched hands. Lyson accepted the gesture with grace. The two men enveloped eachothers’ hands in a firm grip.
“King Duirman,” he said with a rich voice.
“How fare things for Klymiross?”
“We are well. The forest remains strong, and the game is good. The kingdom has handled the transition from my father’s passing,” Lyson added as he lowered his gaze, the solemn expression returning.
Duirman’s expression matched that of the young king. “I do miss your father. He was a good man. And I do apologize once again for missing your crowning ceremony. My wife’s health, is not what it used to be.”
“Your apology is not necessary. You should bring her to us. Ours are the finest healers of the land.”
Duirman gave a gracious smile as he squeezed Lysons’ hands one final time before releasing.
As Auriel looked up into her father’s face, she noticed a sparkle in his steely blue eyes, a spectacle she always noticed whenever he spoke of her mother.
“As a matter of fact, I intended to bring this to the council, following your business, of course.”
Lyson frowned, briefly forming creases in his smooth face. “I have no business for this council,” he said with a shake of his head. Duirman frowned as well.
“Then you did not call it?”
“I know not who called it.”
For a moment, Auriel watched the two kings exchange a puzzled look with each other, understanding the confusion. Customs and courtesies of the Council of Kings was that the hosting ruler arrive early to set out the goblets for the wine.
As if suddenly aware once again, Duirman’s gaze drifted down to his daughter.
“Forgive me, Lyson, this is my daughter, Auriel.”
King Lyson acknowledged her for the first time. “An honor to have you, Princess,” he greeted with a small smile, his tone feeling a little obligatory.
“My lord.” Auriel placed a practiced smile on her own face as she bowed her head respectfully.
To the left, the dark wooden bridge lowered from the temple wall with a resonating screech that made Auriel wince. They all watched as the bridge slowly descended, stalling for a moment or two then continued to lower, finally reaching the stone dock where two figures stood.
One was far larger than the other. The build of the first was over-accentuated by a heavy mantel of fur draped over his massive shoulders. A crimson red tunic was barely visible beneath his bushy beard of greying tawny with a mane of hair to match.
“Its high time that bloody bridge was fixed!” he bellowed brusquely.
A genuine smile crept onto Duirman’s face. “Ah Heroth arrives at last.”
The King of the North paused at the temple’s entrance and with a grunt, drew his sword from the scabbard that hung heavily from his waist. The weapon, though smithed from the same golden ore as Duirman’s was nowhere near as sleek and elegant. Grasped firmly in the paws of King Heroth, the broad blade, wide ornate cross guard and hefty pommel of his sword seemed fitting for a man of his stature; the stature of many of the men of the northern kingdom of Furivaer.
King Heroth raised his sword over his head, setting it horizontally in place at the wooden archway of his entrance. It was a sword not unlike a few that she recognized were hung as ornamentation on the walls of her father’s palace.
With a deep raspy sigh, he stepped inside and smiled broadly with the other, far younger man from the platform following behind him.
“Duirman!” he bellowed and heartily laughed as Duirman approached him with open arms.
“Heroth, my good friend.” The two slapped each other in an embrace.
“Does the wind blow fare for you in Granadov, old man?” Auriel couldn’t help but frown at such a foreign phrase. She seldom met any from the other three kingdoms as they rarely ever crossed Granadov’s borders. In her few travels about the kingdom with her father, her only interactions had been among the soldiers and some of their people. Before departing for this journey, ten days ago, she never left her father’s realm. It was exciting to her, seeing these new faces and realizing for herself, that the world she had read about and studied truly did exist, and it was much grander than she could imagine.
Her father nodded with a pleasant smile. “We are very well. My poor queen has fallen ill but we are blessed none the less. Our walls still stand and even with aggressions on our southern border.”
Heroth raised an eyebrow. “The southern border, eh?”
Duirman leveled a knowing gaze about the King’s suspicion. “Against the Shriekry,” he clarified.
“Aye, the swarms are persistent,” Heroth spat. “How do you fare against the beasts?”
“Bjourn is tired but his troop continues to hold the line. A fresh batch from an outlying camp.”
“Is that where he is?” inquired the younger man behind King Heroth. Auriel barely noticed him till that very moment. So intrigued by the large and loud King of the North, the other man fell out of view for her. No one had to tell her that he was King Heroth’s son. His broad physique was like that of the King of the North’s. His jaw was squared and bare of any facial hair. His own blonde, shoulder length hair was neatly brushed, keeping its locks from of his youthful, yet strong face.
Duirman regarded him with a kind look. “I’m afraid so. I will send your regards to him. In the meantime,” he added. “This is my daughter, Princess-”
“Auriel,” the prince finished for him as his eyes set on her. “I have heard much from Bjourn about you.” He offered her his hand. “Arom,” he introduced himself as he carried her hand to his lips.
She felt warmth flood to her face, both filled with dread and relief that she could not see how brightly red her prominent cheeks had turned. As soon as she could, she took her hand back. “A pleasure to finally put a face to your name,” she forced a smile. She wanted to hide her face from everyone in the chamber but knew she couldn’t. It annoyed her more than it should have.
Another interruption of creaking wood and rattle of chain echoed within the chamber.
All eyes turned to the southern bridge as it lowered, offering little more natural light inside the chamber. Three men stood on the dock. A man adorned in deep purple robes was flanked on either side by soldiers clad in dark armor armed with sharp, serrated spears. Alone, the man in the purple robes strode across the wooden bridge. As he approached the entry, Auriel could determine the man’s sharp features. His rigid jaw was bordered by a thick black goatee, accentuating his hollow cheeks. His dark, half-lidded eyes sat deep beneath his heavy brow line. Atop his long, straight black hair pulled back into a bun was a simple crown with thorn like spines that appeared almost menacing.
“Excellent, we are all present,” he sneered as he drew his similarly crafted, golden sword and placed it on the hooks of the wooden archway. “Now we may proceed.”
“Varrom, nice of you to show,” Lyson offered.
As he stepped into the chamber with his hands clasped behind his back, King Varrom nodded briskly to the young King of the East.
“I trust your ride was pleasant?” Duirman offered cordially.
King Varrom paused, standing adjacent from him merely a few feet away. His expression seemed almost bored. “It was. Only one small band of Shriekry in the night. They simply do not provide the sport that they once did.”
Duirman searched the King of the South with a sharp gaze. Try as he would there was just something that he could not understand about him, nor was he convinced that he truly wanted to.
“Now, someone pour the wine and let us proceed.”
“Then this is your council?” Heroth stated gruffly with a furrowed brow.
“This is not my doing,” Varrom refuted.
“Then who called for us here?” Lyson inquired. The four kings exchanged suspicious looks with each other.