His sword lying on the ground beside him, Mitt Cela sat slumped on a piece of the wall in total exhaustion. He heard the sound of approaching horses but didn’t have the strength to look up. The riders stopped before him and he heard, “Are you well sir?”
Lifting his head, he saw not only Hai’asi and Umim but also King Criosd Pherein. It took his fatigue-dulled mind several moments to realize that the confident sounding voice that had asked the question belonged to the returned ruler of the land. The golden eagle of Carnelian sat tall in the saddle towering over the sitting man, sunlight reflecting off the golden plate armor he wore. Mitt Cela didn’t say a word but smiled and nodded his head. He felt new warmth in his heart. Instinctively he knew that everything would be better now.
The great hall of the castle was filled to capacity, awaiting the formal reception of the King of Carnelian who had been taking a quick tour of the city to see his people. After the enemy withdrew from sight of the capital and ensuring his wounded attended too, the king finally met Elder Samej. The high steward apprised him of the attacks by Mephistopheles’ forces, the aid of the Northern Alliance, the disposition of the Confederation and finally the treachery of Ahriman. Listening to the report Criosd Pherein could only shake his head in disbelief at what he’d allowed to happen by his absence and the selfless service of a man who had been effectively shunned by his father. Shaken to the core, he had much to consider. Then, after a few private moments with his wife and daughter the king left with his entourage to visit Ammon Ramlah before the victory celebration in the castle.
Those who awaited the arrival of Criosd Pherein in the great hall were milling about, talking and congratulating each other on the day’s victory. But as a battle stained Hai’asi strode into the room those who saw him fell into silence until not a sound could be heard.
The powerful warrior went directly to Elder Samej, eyes still flashing and came straight to the point. “I want to see the list. I’d like to know who was chosen and who wasn’t.”
“No, you may not,” Elder Samej replied not harshly but with kindness.
After making the definitive statement he walked over to a fireplace, throwing the papers in. The high steward happily watched the unsavory burden burn in the flames. All that were gathered knew the issue was closed and further discussion would be fruitless.
Hai’asi, rather than being angered by the unequivocal declaration, seemed to be relieved as he watched the sheaves of paper disintegrate, a burden lifted from him as well. Standing with shoulders slumped, he allowed Elder Samej to embrace him in a paternal way.
“Well done, faithful Hai’sai,” the elderly man whispered to him. “Be at peace.”
The general din in the room quickly resumed until a pair of richly dressed heralds entered the hall. With an air of pomp a fanfare on golden trumpets blew to signal the king’s arrival. This was the moment they had all anticipated.
Criosd Pherein, tall and well built, entered the hall stripped of his armor. In a regal, full robe of purple velvet and gold lacing he looked every bit the sovereign. Though his face seemed to have added some lines of maturity during the time away the king’s smile still revealed two boyish dimples. He was a welcome sight in the hall.
Queen Refinnej held his hand and Princess Rebekah walked gracefully at his other side. Both wore flowing gowns of silk covered in sparkling jewels with golden tiaras upon their heads. It was a welcome sight none had seen for some time. A slight gasp of awe could be heard in the hall at the regal scene. Then the assembled kneeled before the king.
Disturbed by this sight, Criosd Pherein quickened his pace until he reached the center of the room.
“No my friends please arise,” he requested hurriedly before reaching that point waving his hand in emphasis. “You who have suffered so much in defending these lands should not be bowing before me this day. Arise.”
Faces beamed on people who the day before had been heavy with sorrow. Joy had truly returned to Ammon Ramlah.
The king, with a look of tranquility on his handsome face, gazed around the room before speaking, basking in the presence of his devoted subjects. “For too long I have been absent from the lands of my people and those of the Confederation,” he confessed. “I blame myself for what has happened here and accept full responsibility.”
Shouts of protest rang out, but he silenced them by raising his hands for quiet. Fully aware of what had almost been lost he was unafraid to be accountable. He would allow no blame to be shifted from his shoulders.
“No, it was folly to journey so far from home with no purpose, but that is in the past. I have returned and I will do everything in my power to restore that which has been lost. We will return to our prior happy way of life. Peace will once more reign in this land.”
The hall erupted in applause. A cry of ‘long live the king’ echoed as other cheers of approval filled the room.
As if on cue, servants entered the hall with silver trays filled with wine. While those gathered prepared for a time of celebration, there were still several burning questions that hung over the room like a storm cloud.
Queen Refinnej finally broached the subject for all who were assembled. “Your homecoming was a timely surprise to us,” she understated. “How did you come to arrive here at the moment of our greatest need?”
The king took the hand of his beloved wife despite their strained relationship and nodded his head as if prepared to answer any questions. “Our arrival was the happiest of coincidences but you are correct,” he replied cheerfully. “I should give you a quick account of our journey. When we arrived at the mouth of the Halcyon River we found the fortresses at Temon and Chrysomas being held by our attackers and so we had some difficulty retaking them. Once accomplished we thought it best to sail straight away for the capital to find out what the situation was here. We did encounter some resistance along the way but it was of little trouble, a trifling really.” The king paused and his look clouded. “Though this did give us a better idea of the shocking events happening in the Confederation. Once we arrived at the capital and saw the situation we decided to give our unwelcome friends a reception different from what they’d expected. Our ruse of flying the black flag until the last moment seemed to do the trick.”
Again applause sprang up, but Princess Rebekah, her curiosity now raised, spoke before it died down. “But how were you able to travel here so swiftly? She pressed her father. “The courier has been gone only a matter of weeks, yet you’ve been traveling for years.”
Criosd Pherein gazed at his cherished daughter with affection. “We have been encamped for some time not far from the shore in the land on the other side of the Great Sea. Of late we’d been helping the people of that land and so only exploration parties were farther out. When the messenger arrived with the news of the danger you faced we left immediately.”
“You were that close? We didn’t know where you were,” The queen interrupted. “We…we thought you might be dead.”
The smile left Criosd Pherein’s face as he seemed to become confused by the statement. “How could that be?” the puzzled king asked. “We’ve been sending regular dispatches to you of our progress and received updates from you as well all this time.” A strange look clouded his handsome face. “We’d thought everthing peaceful here and didn’t know what was occurring until this last communication.”
“We have heard nothing from you for nearly two years,” Queen Refinnej stated matter of factly.
The king paused, a look of shock etched on his face, which changed to one of pain as the realization of what had been happening sunk in.
“Two years?” he gasped. “For two years…nothing?” The room became silent enough to hear a pin drop. Criosd Pherein sighed heavily and hung his head for a moment. Raising it after a short pause, the people could see fire in his eyes mixed with tears.
“Then who was devising these false reports from the Council and letters from my family? Who intercepted the ones I’ve regularly sent?” the king declared, his look hardening.
“It had to be Ahriman, that snake!” Queen Refinnej declared, eyes blazing. “There’s been treachery here beyond just these last few months.”
“But was he in a position to do this alone?” Elder Samej commented stepping forward. “I’m not certain. It would be a very difficult undertaking for that length of time for a single person, regardless of how highly placed. It appears your majesty that this may not be the end of the story, but only the beginning.”