Chapter 1: Three Years later
The collection of flamboyantly dressed men laughed merrily, joking with each other and generally carrying on. They carried the distinction of forming the Royal Council of the Confederation of the Shires. The group had gathered at the royal castle in the capital of Ammon Ramlah for their fall meetings. What was to be an administrative session of the ruling body had once again turned into little more than a fraternal gathering.
Fall was upon the land. A rich color explosion with leaves and plants changing color to a breathtaking hue painted the various shires. A bountiful harvest throughout the kingdoms had begun to take place with grain bins filling. Another excellent year of mining and trade had again increased the wealth of the Confederation.
Life was good and there seemed little to be concerned about.
While another season had gone by still nothing had been heard from Criosd Pherein, king of Carnelian and head of the ruling council of the land. People it seemed had gotten used to this unusual turn of events.
When the king and his grand army representing the cream of the shires had not returned after a year there had been great concern. The array had made it across the Great Sea and discovered a wondrous new land. Initially in the first year correspondence had been regular but suddenly stopped without warning. During the ensuing two plus years nothing had been heard causing great angst at first. Prayers were lifted up. Grand plans of rescue were proposed that came to nothing. All gave way finally to a reserved acceptance that either the king and his retinue had decided to stay longer or they had been tragically lost.
During an already tense time, some whispered the king and other nobles decided to stay due to the delights of the land they discovered. The strain in relationship between King Criosd Pherein and Queen Refinnej was known by some so speculation grew that perhaps he didn’t want to come back.
Most threw up their hands, believing there was little they could do other than remember the lessons of their ruler. But even that good intention was lost in the busyness of prosperity. For the Royal Council, they continued on under the nominal headship of Alline, High Steward of Carnelian. Each though increasingly looked to their own interests.
This official session of the Royal Council turned out the same as the previous three. A time to boast of prosperity, rest on success and feed on self-congratulation.
But in the shadows of the council chamber’s empty gallery, unseen by the gathered kings and nobles, a person watched with a mixture of contempt and anticipation. Fingering a jagged dagger tucked into a secret robe pocket only the stone walls heard the definitive statement coming from now wickedly grinning lips. “Laugh while you can for it all begins soon.”
The cloaked figure slipped silently from the room walking through the brightly lit hallway to an unused part of the main floor of the castle. Looking around to ensure no one watched a hidden button opening a secret door was pushed. Down a flight of winding stairs the figure moved like a shadow to a hidden chamber in the bowels of the castle.
After lighting candles a series of strange incantations echoed softly, heard by none but the stones. In response, eerie specters and unnatural light began to fill the room as the rhythm and intensity of the magic being practiced grew in intensity.
The Royal Council spilled out of the meeting room moving to the Royal Dining Hall for their customary post-meeting feast. The laughing men moved past floor to ceiling tapestries depicting the history of the Confederation of the Shires. The expertly detailed banners had been strategically put there as silent reminders of their collective past in hopes of wisely guiding them into the future.
Unfortunately, the lessons of the past that the Guild of Scribes, who acted as their tutors, had taught were by now long forgotten by the rulers of the Confederation. Prosperity and self-indulgence were the order of the day.
In truth, only the wisest, most astute observer would have noticed the winds of change that had picked up, coming like a whisper in the noise of a party. But it had come.
The Royal Standard of the king of Carnelian, a golden eagle device on royal blue background, proudly snapped above the keep of the mighty castle at Ammon Ramlah. But of late it was the only golden eagle seen flying over this powerful kingdom. Long absent these three years was the golden sword of King Criosd Pherein, their golden eagle.
The legend of the golden eagle was ingrained in the minds of all who claimed citizenship in this prosperous kingdom. Since the beginning of recorded history it had been taught and sung about to those who lived there from the earliest age of comprehension.
It was a tale of how a land, shapeless and void, was chosen by the Mighty One. At that point his visible representative, the golden eagle, descended from the heavens to touch a spot on earth. Once chosen it sprouted like a lush garden blossoming into ‘The World as it Matters’. While the whole land grew under the watchful eye of this majestic creature the initial spot of landing was special so it became Ammon Ramlah, jewel of Carnelian, foremost in the Confederation of the Shires.
A golden eagle has flown over the capital since that time. None knew if it were symbolic or functional, only that as long as records have been kept a golden eagle has flown over Ammon Ramlah and the land prospered.
To help facilitate this, a soaring tower had been built centuries earlier in the center of the keep of the royal castle in Carnelian. Fittingly it was the tallest structure in ‘The World as it Matters’. At the top sat a large, comfortable nest for the golden eagle to preside from.
Yet no one had seen the golden eagle over the capital for several years. At first people were concerned but as prosperity grew and wealth increased they soon became comfortable with this aberration of what had always been a sign of divine favor.
No golden eagle and no golden king over the key land of the confederation. A disturbing symmetry seemed to exist but few took the time to see any connection between the two. In a land of material wealth little time existed for such nostalgic thoughts. If what once was was no more, so be it.
Yet a different wind from the one causing the standard to fly grew in intensity, though it had been missed. There was an air of dissent, hardly recognized, coming as it did almost like a gentle breeze. There were those in the land who felt it but could not articulate the feeling for none of this generation had ever experienced what was brewing.
The ancient tales had been lost and the complacency that comes with prosperity dulled the senses. So as with a wolf entering into the open and unguarded sheep pen, so it was in the lands that constituted the Confederation of the Shires. With Criosd Pherein, the powerful ruler of the Kingdom of Carnelian, the holder of the golden sword, gone and no word, this concept was moving towards reality.
Now the expedition that had been hatched by those who were restless no longer caused excitement or speculation but was rather remembered only by those who had loved ones far away. Lessons forgotten, vigilance slipping, the nations slipped as well down a barely perceivable slope.
Little did the rulers of the ‘Land as it Matters’ realize that instead of looking at threats and opportunities in the east they should have been carefully examining the embers glowing in the west rather than for imagined flames in the east.
But that was still yet to be realized.
Beyond the western boundaries of the kingdoms of Ja’Sper and S’Apphire lay the Forgotten Land. It was a land of yesterday, where great battles had been fought and forgotten, where evil had been defeated, or so those who fought them had thought at the time. For in this world evil is never truly conquored, it’s only dulled, suppressed, muted, lying dormant to rise again like a phoenix.
The flame of Mephistopheles, the evil one, had been extinguished long ago so thought finished once and for all. But that was naive optimism rather than an attitude grounded in reality. The embers lay deep in the land, buried but still hot, looking for fuel to re-ignite and sweep across the land like a wildfire once more.
Mephistopheles, not a being nor an idea but rather an entity of pure energy, was an ethereal life force which drew its power from strife and suffering. This catalyst of evil had been around almost as long as the golden eagle determined to foil all that was good. A force of darkness, it tried to squelch any light in the World as it Matters.
The epic battle between darkness and light had been the staple of ballads for decades after it had been fought. The tale of how twelve different kingdoms had joined together in unity to defeat the unrelenting armies of Mephistopheles had been toasted across the lands for years.
But that was over two centuries ago.
Now the songs were no longer sung, the toasts no longer given. Mephistopheles became something to be used as a curse word or a threat to young children rather than a respected foe.
Still, the embers lived.
All that remainded of The Final War, as it had been called, was the unity. Twelve different Kingdoms had come together to form a strong governing body. To the west were the shires of Ja’Sper and S’Apphire; to the north were Chalcedony and Emer’Ald. To the east lay the kingdoms of Sardonyx, Chrysolite and Beryl. Then to the south were To’Paz, Chrysoprase, Jacinth and Amethyst. In the center lay the greatest land of them all, one that touched the borders of each of the others. Rich in resources and wealth, renowned for its culture and humanity the Kingdom of Carnelian stood as the hub the others revolved around. It had been their king, the golden eagle, and holder of the golden sword, who had brought the others together to defeat Mephistopheles at Sheol in the last great battle.
Afterwards, the same king graciously allowed the sharing of power which led to the formation of the Confederation of the Shires. From then on the king’s of Carnelian through hereditary right had always led the group, though the power and vote was shared equally regardless of size and contribution. It became a model of efficiency, an engine of prosperity.
While the memory of the battles fought together were still fresh the group worked well. But as the years passed these reminders of the past faded. Unfortunately self-serving began to creep in filling the void while desire for power were bred in some. Externally the veneer of cohesion remained strong but in reality the house was weak, as if its beams had been eaten by termites.
Criosd Pherein, the current King of Carnelian, a wise and powerful man, loved and respected by most, feared by some and resented by a few headed this troubled group. When the finest men of the twelve kingdoms marched out with an air of anticipation and pride there were some that took a self-interested note. The embers in the Forgotten Land seemed to begin to glow brighter.
The leaves of beech and elm trees glistened in the morning dew as the sun attempted to peek through the covering of the lush forest. The tranquility of the scene was interrupted by the sound of pounding hooves. A beautiful young lady, hair flowing shimmering brown with golden streaks in the morning sun disturbed the stillness of the morning. The Princess Rebekah urged her sleek brown horse with golden tail and mane on faster as she pulled away from the party that desperately tried to keep pace. Her face flushed somewhat with the exertion but still the skin, other than possessing a small beauty mark below her left eye, remained clear though regularly possessing a rosy hue.
Men-at-arms in chain mail and armor mounted on heavy chargers labored at the pace, fine ladies in silk on horses more suited for prancing did not even attempt to keep up.
One man, a distinguished looking elderly gentleman in gray and black robes, did the best he could to keep up. “Your Highness, slow down! We cannot keep up,” he shouted while trying to maintain an air of dignity and not fall off his gray horse.
Oblivious to the shouts behind her, piercing blue eyes filled with delight. “Faster Treasure, faster,” she whispered in the horse’s ear, bending low.
The strong filly responded instantly leaving the party behind.
Once more Princess Rebekah, daughter and only child of the king of Carnelian, had allowed her impetuous nature to overcome the knowledge of what was expected of her. Despite this, the girl had many redeeming qualities. She not only showed herself to be an excellent rider but also could sing like a bird and dance with the best in the kingdom.
While some were quietly concerned that one who at times acted somewhat rash would become the future queen, the majority of those in Carnelian loved her. Today though, her impulsive actions at deserting the group she was to be hosting would require public repercussions.
When the party finally reunited and returned to the imposing white castle in Ammon Ramlah, which acted as the seat of power for the kingdom, few words were exchanged. The man whom she had ignored was not one to be trifled with. He was Simeon, Chamberlain of Carnelian. A report went immediately to the queen and Rebekah found herself summarily ordered to attend her.
The girl stood in the elegantly appointed receiving chamber of the Queen’s Suite, waiting silently for her mother to come and speak. The others around her, equally silent, were somewhat nervous as to what would happen.
Queen Refinnej, tall and statuesque, breezed into the room naturally capturing everyone’s attention.
All but Rebekah bowed in response.
A concerned look from the queen at the assembled group creased a handsome face still capable of catching the eye of many.
“What happened this time?” the dignified monarch asked simply.
“We were riding in the Royal Forest when the princess left the group,” Simeon reported immediately, still visibly steamed by the whole affair. “We tried to keep up with her but it was impossible. Nor did she respond to our cries to stop. We lost her there and were not rejoined until some time later.” The man looked sharply at the now blushing teen. “There was great concern within the party.”
The queen looked over her daughter whose face turned from a light shade of pink to red. The woman then returned her gaze to the chamberlain.
“She is one of the best and fastest riders in the kingdom Your Majesty,” the man added deferentially or perhaps in defense.
The queen, dressed in a thick, red velvet gown edged with gold lace trim, eyed the gathered crowd silently. While always proper and dignified, her luxurious brown hair, smooth and hanging below her shoulders, betrayed a certain degree of independence in the monarch. She sighed heavily. “Leave us,” she firmly stated to the group.
Those gathered required no other encouragement and scurried out.
The two women now stood alone not as rulers but as mother and daughter.
Refinnej stared for a few uncomfortable moments at her offspring then fell into her lecture. “Rebekah you know you’re not to do that,” she admonished. “We’ve been over this time and again. You must not leave your escort and travel from the castle unattended.”
The woman paused to allow the words to sink in.
“This is especially the case when you are in company,” Refinnej continued giving the teen a hard look.
Rebekah’s sky blue eyes filled with passion. “But mama, they always ride so slow and never want to do anything,” her high, defined cheekbones rose as she pleaded. “The ladies are afraid of falling off their horses and Simeon hates being outside.”
Her mother not only shared Rebekah’s sky blue eyes but also her passion, although maturity and a sense of duty kept it in check. The queen’s porcelain-smooth skin, though clear like her daughter’s, possessed an olive tint to it.
“I know it’s difficult at times for you my darling but you must remember who you are and what you represent,” Refinnej replied sympathetically.
“That’s not fair,” Rebekah declared stomping her foot in emphasis. “Besides how does it matter what I do?”
The impertinence of the statement caused the eyes to Refinnej to change from those of mother to queen. Hers flashed like lightning when she made a point.
“You have a duty,” she emphasized, ”and an obligation to the people of this kingdom as their future queen. It matters tremendously.”
Refinnej, queen of Carnelian, softened as the harshness of her words and tone caused tears to well up in her daughter’s eyes, her head dropping.
“The people love you as they love your father,” she continued, voice dropping and changing tact. “We owe them our respect and our actions show this. Sweet words and a charming smile are one thing but it’s what we do as a family towards them which truly shows how we feel.”
Rebekah looked up at her mother with glistening eyes. The queen’s beauty was as renowned in the kingdom as her daughter’s.
“I know at times it seems restrictive but think of the great gift and opportunity you’ve been given as well,” Refinnej continued taking the princess’ hands in hers. “Does that not sway the scales in favor of actions which bring credit, rather than showing displays of impertinence?” She paused having made her point and an affectionate smile grew. “No, there is strength in you, and wisdom. Learn how to find joy within whatever you have been given and you’ll be content.”
Rebekah looked up, returning her mother’s smile. Then giving her a hug she nodded in affirmation. “You’re right mama,” she responded. “I will try to remember to behave myself.” Her voice trailed off a bit. “But you won’t scold me for annoying Simeon somewhat will you?” she said with a sly grin. “I fear his sour face will break at times if he doesn’t smile so I simply must try!”
The queen shook her head in amusement then tousled the lovely girl’s hair. “What am I to do with you?” she chuckled.
The pair laughed together then hugged. The pressure of the last three years had taken its toll on them though for different reasons neither felt they could show it. Father and husband were missed but the remaining monarchs of Carnelian had done their best to hide their fears and concerns from those they served.
With a royal blue handkerchief Refinnej wiped the tears from Rebekah’s eyes. “Well,” she said to change the subject, “let’s go to the Great Hall and see what matters require our attention.”