Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 2

King Lainen Tarithal II sat in his throne in Eodon castle, seat of the mightiest nation in the world, the weight of a lifetime sitting upon his shoulders. Beside him stood his general, the trystborn Duke Galex Refic, and before him stood his contingent of elite knights, the Horselords of Eodon, awaiting the king’s order. It had been barely an hour since the news was delivered; King Lainen spent most of that time in quiet contemplation, pacing back and forth across the throne room.

There were many things that had been bothering the king lately. Foremost, his only son- bore to him late in his years, by a wife who died of illness shortly thereafter- was now sick himself, fallen victim to a malady unidentifiable by the greatest healers and diviners in the kingdom. With every passing day his condition worsened, and though nobody dared say it out loud, none of the physicians expected a cure to present itself. But even aside from his son, the nation faced political troubles as well. Eodon had received neither trade nor correspondence from the dwarven capital of Moroganth in over a year- while not completely unheard of, its occurrence rarely heralded a time of peace. His spymasters had uncovered some plotting among a hidden group of wizards in the great forest to the west, but without a clear idea of their goal. And despite the general populace’s love and adoration for their noble sovereign, the king feared that his reign may someday soon come to an end. But his current troubles had little to do with recent events. Rather, his current troubles shook him to the core because of his past.

Thirty years ago, King Lainen Tarithal II declared war on the orc race. Skirmishes with the brutish creatures had taken many Eodonian lives, including his father, and his father’s father. The mindless scourge turned up in every dark corner that civilization dared to brave, bringing to ruin all of the neighboring kingdoms. They had no allies, and no need for them. They lived solely for carnage and destruction. They had terrorized humanity and the freedom of every living being with every breath from their snouts. And so Lainen, King of Eodon, rallied his people to arms and destroyed them.

He led the army across the lands for years, beyond the borders of civilization and into every dank cave and atop every mountain, killing every orc that lived. Had they been intelligent enough to beg for mercy, none would have been given- but orcs were nothing but vermin, and as such only deserved extermination. King Lainen personally led the brigade into the throne room of their “king”, and landed the killing blow on the titanic creature with the sword forged by his forefathers. But he couldn’t stop there. Even after slaying their leader, the Eodon army continued their crusade, leaving no stone unturned until every single orc male, female, and offspring was dead. And when he returned to the Grey City of Eodon, the orc king’s massive head mounted on a pole, the nation rejoiced. It was how Lainen earned his birthright as king of the nation. For the last thirty years, peace has reigned and blood has been saved because of the extinction of the rc race at his hands.

And so it troubled King Lainen greatly to receive news, one hour ago, that an army of orcs had destroyed his cousin’s estate, two weeks’ ride northwest on the nation’s border.

When the news arrived, brought by a single weary servant who only survived because he had been far enough out in the fields to hide from the invasion like a coward, all of the king’s court fell silent. At least a minute passed before Duke Galex broke the silence.

“My liege,” he said, “I will take the entirety of the nation’s army, now, and march north. We will exterminate this so-called threat in an instant. I personally will snuff out the lives of each and every-“

King Lainen held up a hand to silence the duke.

“No, Galex,” replied the king. “If this invasion is truly upon us, then I fear it may signify something far greater, far more sinister. I need my army here, in our homelands, in the defense of a surprise attack from an unseen enemy.”

Sir Sealfrey the Pious, one of the bravest knights of the kingdom and personally beloved by the king, was already on bended knee before the king’s throne, his edhel head bowed. He had served the king his entire life, and nobody was more loyal to Eodon and to Lainen himself than he.

“My noble lord, I pledge my sword and my will to eliminate this threat. I will ride to meet this threat, be they orc or man, and I swear to eliminate our foe, even if it takes my very last breath.”

The king was roused from his contemplation, and smiled to himself, taking comfort in knowing that his loyal were here with him. Of course, an elite strike team of loyal and brave warriors must be sent. If the threat truly was as sinister as he suspected, then the Horselords of Eodon would uncover and put an end to it.

Within moments, two dozen of the kingdom’s finest had assembled, all rallied into a zealous fervor to defend their kingdom. They were men and women, lords, knights, priests, sages- the king’s most trusted and beloved friends. He had known most of these men and women from birth, having grown up with their fathers, and knew personally that each one of them would lay down their lives for him. His strong personal ties to each and every one of them put his mind at ease.

“Noble friends, I am pleased by your honor, but not surprised,” said the king, a smile crossing the wrinkles of his weary face. “Be careful. I cannot bring myself to believe that true orcs yet live, so I suspect some treachery at work here. Companions of the crown, may your journey be blessed by my love and faith. Heralds of the Horselords, may the gods ever smile upon you."

They mounted their mighty steeds, for which the nation was famous, and set out that very day, eager to put to rest the king’s worries and avenge the deaths of their countrymen. The king said a silent prayer to the gods, and hoped with all his heart that he had made the right choice.

Five days later, after pushing their steeds to the limit, Sir Sealfrey and the rest of the Horselords of Eodon came upon the burnt-out ruins of Kensington keep, one of the few outposts between Eodon city and the king’s cousin’s estate on the border. They dismounted after the day’s hard journey wide alert, weapons drawn and at the ready. As they walked through the broken-down doors, Sir Sealfrey led the group, his gleaming longsword held in a steady hand. The inside of the keep was in shambles- tables overturned, windows shattered, cabinets looted and debris scattered about. Room after room, Sealfrey pressed on, growing more and more concerned for king’s cousins. What worried him most was the fact that the keep was completely devoid of life. Signs of struggle, personal belongings left behind, and so on were everywhere the eye could see, but not a corpse- human or otherwise- or even a single drop of blood could be found. Just what happened here?

Keshia, Sealfrey’s oldest companion, came in from the courtyard. The small halfling’s black eyes were worried, but vigilant. She could tell his worry by the look on his pale face.

“You didn’t find anything either, did you, Sealfie?”

The edhel shook his head solemnly and glanced out the window to the southeast, his mind drifting momentarily. Keshia’s voice shook his thoughts.

“Some of the others found tracks, outside. Most of them human. Some of them look like orc, though, heading into the forest north of here…”

She caught his eye, expecting some sort of a reaction. But he looked back out the window, his expression barely betraying the worry in his heart. He dared not share his worries with the rest of the group, but he couldn’t stop the thoughts. His thoughts kept drifting sharply back to the day they left, when the news of the orc invasion first arrived. He kept picturing the red-skinned trystborn standing at the king’s side, as he often did. Duke Galex, head of House Refic and general to the king’s armies. Several years ago, King Lainen had come to Sealfrey one day as he was exiting the chapel on a day of worship. He requested Sealfrey take a walk with him, out in the countryside, later that day. When they met, the king barely spoke until they were far outside the city’s walls, far away from his personal guard.

“Sealfrey, I want you to know that I truly value your loyalty and service,” the king had said to him. “There are times when I feel like there are few I can trust, even among my closest advisors.”

Sealfrey was slightly taken aback by this. He had always seen King Lainen as a beloved sovereign- certainly like a father figure to him, and he assumed many of the court felt the same way. But he felt no small amount of pride in hearing that he held his lord’s favor.

“But, your highness,” said Sealfrey, “Truly you know that each of us Horselords would lay down our lives for you in a heartbeat, were you only to require it.”

King Lainen nodded. “Yes, I know. And I truly value that as well. But I fear that there are some- even among my court- that may be swayed, either by hopes of personal gain, or by the machinations of outside forces.”

Sealfrey simply walked along with the king, unsure of what to say.

“My point, Sealfrey, is that I require something of you.”

“Anything, my liege. My life and service are yours.”

King Lainen stopped, placing a hand on Sealfrey’s shoulder.

“I need you to be… a spy, of sorts. I need you to be my eyes and ears among my court, and I need you to uncover any treachery or disunion among them. The instant you have any sort of proof, I need you to show me. Do you understand?”

Sealfrey had agreed all too eagerly, without fully realizing the weight of the burden of proof. Over the years, he had hunches, but without proof nothing could be done. Yet one constant hunch that he had tried to quantify at every opportunity remained: Galex. Sealfrey suspected him of several plots against the throne, starting with King Lainen’s son’s mysterious illness. But without any proof, and because Galex’s position as general placed him so close to the king, Sealfrey couldn’t afford to make any accusations without proof. When the news of orcs first arrived, his first thought immediately drifted to the duke.

Except he had been a fool. Looking at the chain of events that led to his standing here, inside the burnt-out hulk of a keep with still no proof of anything, he felt unworthy of the king's favor. As soon as the news of orcs arrived, Galex’s first words threw Sealfrey off his trail momentarily- and that was all that was needed. Surely, he thought, if Galex was somehow involved in this supposed orc invasion, he wouldn’t have offered to personally lead the entire army to match the threat, would he? But of course he would. He had been giving the king tactical advice for years. He knew King Lainen would refuse to send the army to face a threat of unknown size. But by offering it so eagerly, so quickly, he threw all suspicion away from himself. And now, Sealfrey thought, I’ve led the charge here, a week’s journey from the king, and I brought all of the kingdom’s greatest warriors and sages with me.

Except even this was just a hunch. He could be wrong. They could be close behind a group of rogue orcs, somehow missed during the king’s extermination of the scourge. Nothing concrete had ever surfaced involving a plot, from Duke Galex or anyone else. He was probably overreacting.

But Sealfrey learned long ago to be decisive and go with his gut. He walked determinedly outside, where most of the Horselords were preparing to ride north into the woods. He mounted his great warhorse, and called to his companions as he readied for travel.

“Good hunting! I pray the gods guide you to the king’s relatives safely. For me, I feel I need to be near his majesty during these dark times.” He nodded to the group, quickly finishing his sentiments before any of them could stop him. “I am sure your strength will be sufficient here. I am returning to the castle. I will see you all under the king’s banner soon.”

He spurred his warhorse on, riding hard back southeast. He didn’t need to check over his shoulder to know that Keshia was close behind. The horses were tired, for they had been ridden hard already. But they were horses of Eodon, the greatest horses alive, and Sealfrey needed their stamina to hold. More than that, he needed to be wrong.

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