Thursday, August 19, 2010

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-12

The Pebbles Vote Before the Avalanche Hits

The Privy Council of the Solar Nation met behind closed doors in the royal palace of Solland. Their enemies, lead by Lord Acton, met clandestinely in the home of Lord Acton in the city below the palace, well-guarded and well-hidden. Both groups met because of the same incident, the same event, meant that the long-abated conflict over the Solar Nation’s direction will hold no longer. A civil war, one precipitated when Zebulon assumed the throne a generation ago, is now finally come- and many within the Solar Nation see it coming.

Within the Privy Council, Zebulon and Keela again meet with their council of advisers and key officials around a circular table in a room decorated with maps. Their enemies meet in a room just like it. Both tables are covered with written reports, lists of things and more lists of other things, covered by mugs of this or that stuff of choice. Junior members come into and out of this room with more reports coming in and more orders going out.

“Zacharion is now out of our sphere of influence.” Zebulon said to his fellows, “I am certain that, whatever else he is to do, he is not served by insisting—by word or deed—on his involvement anymore. This is a matter for our nation, not for the last living legacy of Holy Ilker.”

Down in the city, Lord Action said “The princess has returned from her excursion, and she is now notably changed. Though yet a child, she already has steel in her spine- steel of a higher grade now than formerly the case, due to this incredible boy that passed through our realm. The boy’s existence poses a long-term threat, as he certain intends to continue the direction that the Usurper began. We know it, so I say that we must assume that they do also- and will move to protect him.”

The junior members of these two factions slip away, talking to their families and friends, and under the influence of drink and fatigue they let the essence of that position come forth. Word spreads and becomes rampant rumor-mongering, and the many smaller factions and common people then act in accord with what they hear- for all by now know of Ilker’s death and the boy’s passing through court and out into the countryside. Stronger wills amongst them move faster and gather about them sympathetic minds of lesser quality, forming bands and gangs, and those groups decide that they—not the king nor the Acton faction—will make this happen as they would like.

In the cities and towns, within days and weeks, extant factions take up affiliations for one or the other of their own accord and use this to bring into the streets issues and disputes long confined behind closed doors and shrouded alleys. Brawls turned to riots, riots to street-fights and soon sections burned as one side escalated faster than the other could react.

In the countryside, villages quickly conformed to one banner or the other in the manner of their town-dwelling brethren and began raiding each others' farms and stealing or burning each other crops; within a month, a civil war that once could’ve been contained within formalized warfare and political maneuvering broke free into a general uprising and burgeoning chaos as men great and small took this opportunity to settle old accounts and advance ambitions long suppressed.

Neither the loyalists in the palace nor the rebels of Action’s salon took anything but revulsion over the catastrophe; once they learned how it got started both sides swiftly struck to make firm and full examples of their errant juniors. Acton’s erring agents became grisly dawn-hour discoveries, swinging from tree limbs and towers across the land by their own superiors. The king, citing ancient and justified law from before the Azure Flames, publicly executed them by his own hand.

Zebulon, sensing Acton’s mind, cornered him in court and—at sword-point—ordered him to cooperate to put down the general chaos. When Acton, spitefully, did not immediately comply the king declared Acton a traitor and revealed his knowledge—all accurate—regarding Acton’s past and present treachery. Acton’s house and allies also became outlaws on the spot, and those present in court that day joined their leader in a most ignoble death. The rest fled to redoubts believed unknown and far from prying eyes, gathering to them those very petty partisans affiliating themselves with Acton and in a short time the many gangs became an irregular—but organized—army, one that Zebulon could handle.

“Order out of Chaos.” Keela said as her husband ordered the muster for war, “A scheme that’s as old as Man, and reliable as the dawn.”

“Indeed.” Zebulon said, “Now, before this disorder gets again out of hand, let’s end this one and see to it that it does not spread. For the sake of the future."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-11

The Mission Urges Ever Onward

Zacharion and Sihaya awoke late in the morning, after the other guests left to resume their journey, and found waiting for them quite the meal- and their hosts. The entire family sat around one of the tables in the common room—husband, wife, four sons and two daughters—waiting for them; two of the boys got up and, in a show of courtesy that both found pleasant (if more appropriate for the court than a roadside inn), seated them. Then came a brief prayer of thanks and blessing, in Ilker’s name.

“We are pleased to have the last apprentice of Holy Ilker and the Princess Royal as our guests.” the husband said, “Even if we must enjoy your company in a manner more like that of a cherished secret than a joyful birth.”

The wife then followed with “As soon as you two retired, we sent word to the palace of your presence here. I would expect that a rider or two left the palace to come for you two as soon as our message arrived.”

The eldest son then spoke, excited at the idea; “Mother, what else are we going to do? It is clear that the realm will soon sunder into civil war. Lord Acton’s ambitions will not let him sit quietly, not when things are so chaotic.”

Sihaya sat amazed at this youth’s erudition, betraying a training far beyond what would be expected of a common-born boy, but when she looked at Zacharion she saw in his eyes the fullness of explanation: as her father once served Holy Ilker, so did their host- and like her father, he passed on all of his wisdom to his children. Class, she slowly realized, did not determine one’s quality of character- only the means to realize it.

“That we shall know when the rider from the palace arrives.”

Time passed in quiet eating, enjoying the meal, when a pair of men entered the common room from the roadside door. Armed they were, and wearing the colors of the Lord Marshal of the palace, as one ought to expect from dispatch riders in the Solar Nation. The husband excused himself, meeting the men while the wife subtly signaled her sons to be ready to assist their father. The wife then took up her daughters and, with Sihaya, cleared the table before retreating into the kitchen.

Zacharion saw this clearly as the couple not taking at face value what they saw, and then acting as if those men were a threat. The husband, wary and showing the wisdom gained by age, approached the men saying “Welcome, riders. You come from the palace?”

One of them, the older of the two, grasped the husband’s outstretched hand and grasped it in a manner that—though strange—pleased the husband.

“His Majesty wishes you well. You shelter the last one?”

“I wish His Majesty well, and I do. His Majesty’s daughter also rests here. Come, quickly, sit and give us the word from the palace.”

Satisfied that they are genuine the couple moved into action. The women returned to the table the meal and fixings while one of the sons rushed out to stable the riders’ horses and the husband put the riders at the table. Sihaya, at her hostess’s unspoken insistence, also sat at the table.

“Please, be seated.” Sihaya said as she entered the room and again took a seat at the table, “You rode long and hard. My father would understand if you forgo the pleasantries.”

They thanked her kindness with a silent nod and a quickly-consumed meal. When they finished, so did everyone else, and while the daughters and younger sons cleared the table and began cleaning in the kitchen the four guests talked with their hosts and the elder sons.

“First, Your Highness, your royal parents are alive and well.” the elder rider said, “The truth of how the attack occurred has been revealed, and your parents believe that your safety again resides in the palace. They bid you to return as soon as possible.”

Without missing a beat, Zacharion broke in: “Then I am the target. Very well, I shall take my leave and resume my journey.”

Sihaya grabbed his hand. “Alone? I forbid it. Whatever ability you possess, you cannot prevail against the forces arrayed against you by yourself.”

The husband and wife smiled, knowingly, at each other. The daughters giggled from their spot at the kitchen doorway, for they also noticed.

“Princess, you need not worry. Go back to the palace, and leave the boy’s safety to us. We will ensure that, as far as we can, we will see him through safely. “ The husband then turned to Zacharion. “Where do you go next?”

“I seek the Witch of the Wildlands.”

The others gasped, save for the husband, who still cocked a disbelieving eye his way.

“She certainly lived up to her legend.” The husband said, “Yet she was Holy Ilker’s peer. I am uncertain that she yet lives, my boy.”

Zacharion, with sternness beyond his years, did not turn away. “She lives. I have proof of it. If you intend to aid me, then show me the best route from here to there.”

“That crone sees no man, and has not since King Zebulon ascended the throne after the Wars ended.” The wife said, “Why would she see you, even if you were Holy Ilker’s last apprentice?”

“She will see me gladly because I bear the very things that Ilker held for her for so long, things that she would want returned- and other gifts that he intended for her beyond those things.”

Zacharion showed the same pouch that he used to prove himself when he arrived in court, and in it he drew another icon- a small, palm-sized medallion bearing the sigil of the Witch, one that pulsed with life as it was made of wood and inked in blood, wood and blood that yet lived by means unknown.

“She lives.” Zacharion said, “This is the proof. That it does not sear my flesh proves that she is aware, and approves of my intention. Now, no more talk of what I will or will not do- only how to see it done.”

The couple looked at their eldest son, who spoke thus: “From here, the Wildlands are a long ride by horse along the road to the point where you turn off to approach. It takes about a month of all-day riding to do this. It takes about as long to ride to the river crossing, and then come to the border by raft or boat, due to the winding route and slow pace. Going through the fields and forests slows the pace, but avoids the visibility of the roads as well as the vulnerability of the river.”

“No, I know another way.” Zacharion said, looking at the eldest son, “Go forth and bring down a bird of prey this day.” Turning to the wife, he said “When your sons bring you this bird, clean and dress it as you would a hen, duck or pheasant. Bring me the two largest feathers and a dram of its blood, and then leave me be. I shall tell you presently what shall be done.”

The words hit with a sacred authority, and none questioned him despite his boyish age and appearance. While the sons went hunting and the rest of the family tended to the house, and the other road-guests that arrived over the day, Zacharion saw off Sihaya.

“I love you, and this worries me. I am far, far too young for this.” She said to him, “My father may be cross with you.”

“No,” he said, “he will not. However, because of this you may soon find yourself with a new sibling- and your mother will make it so. Be well, princess of the Solar Nation, for soon you shall be Queen and the nation will need its Mother Protector.”

Zacharion nodded, and the riders escorted her away before she could protest. Just then, the husband stepped outside.

I heard you just now. Not yet a man in any way, yet you speak as if you’ve lived many times before- and lives not yet come to pass.”

“It’s strange.” The boy said, “I see more than what eyes reveal. I have for as long as I remember, and that is what Ilker struggled with me to master. Time and space are neither straight nor narrow, and for this reason I have quite the mission.”

“To do what? Visit all of Holy Ilker’s peers and students?”

The boy shook his head. “To finish his work.”

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Legacy of the Hero: The Last Meets the First-10

Loyal Hermits

Sihaya and Zacharion rode through the woods and away from the roads all through the night, reaching the fields of a household that held a royal license to operate one of the many way-stations that mark the sides of road and waterways in the Solar Nation. Walled compounds, self-sufficient farmland and room for horses marked these institutions—ancient when the Solar Nation was young, a holdover from a time before the Azure Flames—these places safeguarded the commerce of the people, great and small.

“Hold.” Sihaya said, “We cannot approach yet.”

“I know of these places.” Zacharion said, “Master used the ancient term for them, a loanword from tongues long-dead: caravanserai.”

“My father granted this one to an old friend of my parents, one of their companions.”

“Then we are soon amongst friends?”

“I hope so.” Sihaya said, “They haven’t talked since before I was born. I do hope that there is no animosity.”

“So, why do we hold here? Would it not be enough for you to demand entry on your own authority?”

“It would,” yet the pause betrayed her continued concern, “but travelers room here, and it is they—not the master, not his wife—that worry me. However, I know how to call to them without any fear of discovery- but first I need to see a sign of their wakeful presence.”

“Ah, you intend to signal them?”

Sihaya nodded affirmatively. “It is quite late now, the deepest part of the night. If their habits are as my father once said of them, soon the wife will come forth from the house to dispose of waste from the pot and add it to their pile for feeding the seeds in the spring.”

Zacharion smiled, and then his ears perked up- he heard a distant door creak open. They hushed, listening for a woman’s voice- one they heard cursing a cat as she carried a pail of waste from the interior out to the compost pile. Sihaya hurriedly rummaged through a bag to find a crystal, and she affixed it to the shaft of the spear she previously acquired. Handing it to Zacharion, he understood her desire and whispered a word to the crystal; it exploded with the light of the sun. He handed it back.

“Fix in your mind your name as you signal her.” Zacharion said, “It will eliminate doubt in her mind that it is you.”

Sihaya nodded her understanding, and she waived her light to the distant house. The woman did see it.

“She’s called us forward.” Zacharion said, “Let’s hurry.”

They did, riding across the fields quickly, and soon approached the aged woman, who bowed as courtesy demands.

“Your Highness,” she said, “come inside quickly. Ill words fly swiftly.”

The two dismounted, and Zacharion took the horses to the attached enclosure for stabling. Once all were inside, the three stood in the kitchen- and the light on the spear dissipated.

“I am glad to see you alive.” the old woman said, “My husband and I may have our disputes with your parents, but we remain loyal to them, to the Solar Nation and to Holy Ilker.”

She then looked at the boy. “You must be Ilker’s final apprentice.”

Zacharion nodded.

“Go wake my husband. He’ll not complain if he sees you first.” she said, and he did so.

“You two we can conceal for a few days.” the old woman said to Sihaya, “That we can do, which is enough to supply you properly and get you fresh horses, as well as inform the palace that you two got here and left here safely. After that, we can do no more without risking reprisals from our enemies in common.”

“May I inquire?”

The old woman knew the question before the girl asked. “You just did. Your father and my husband disagreed on your father’s assumption of the throne. It was a heated argument, one that led to a Trial By Combat to settle it, which your father one- barely. My husband, as honorable as any of Ilker’s companions, accepted the result. However, rather than demand loyalty as subject, your father offered my husband retirement as the master of a Royal Waystop; as this was at the end of the Wars, and my husband had long grown weary of war, he accepted. Our marriage was the last time that we saw your parents, yet your mother and I maintain contact by letter.”

“I do not regret either the argument or its consequences.” the old man said, coming into the room with Zacharion behind him, “Your father and I remain true to Holy Ilker’s vision, and differ only in how to achieve it. To his credit, and your mother’s as well, they have done well as the sovereigns of Solland and leaders of the Solar Nation. So long as they remember that vision, we are loyal to them- despite our hermit-like existence.”

Just then, two of their sons entered the kitchen. “Father, Mother- we’ve finished our turn about the perimeter.”