Here is my chapter four to the ongoing collaborative story project I am working on with my son, Alexander, who blogs over at Riding into the Sunrise.
Our tentative title for this project is Machinations of War. We’ll see how the story grows, and at the end, revisit whether or not this title still seems appropriate. :)
If you’ve missed the introduction to this project, or Chapters 1-3, and wish to read the story in its entirety please visit here.
Hope everyone enjoys this week’s installment.
by Kimberley Thomas
Villarreal Kingdom, Southlands of Terra, 535 AC
The raucous clamor of the revelers spilled outward from the tavern and into the streets. As the men guzzled ever-increasing amounts of ale, squeals of both delight and disdain issued forth from the young bar maidens, which were answered at once with rounds of hearty, boisterous laughter. The King and his men were celebrating. Celebrating the young Lord of Villarreal’s decision to leave the farmlands of the South, to march northward on the Capitol City. Moreover, the men were commemorating their Lord’s decision to lead them out from beneath the iron fist of tyranny. Lord Villarreal willingly agreed to his people’s desire for him to accept his rightful title of King, and as King, his first major pronouncement was to expose the deceptions of the Creator. He then planned to unseat his father as King of the Twelve Kingdoms.
While his men drank and sang bawdy songs, King Alexander Suhn sat engaged in solemn talks with his most trusted advisor and closest ally, Sir Rafe Skerrett. Rafe had served Alexander honorably, as had Rafe’s father before him served Alexander’s grandfather, Lord Diogo Villarreal. As had generations of Skerretts preceding them, each faithfully serving in the name of House Villarreal.
“… and when you reach the Capital City, you must be convincing in your account of the story. Tomas assures me that if the High Priesthood believes you to be a spy, you will be executed within hours as a traitor. I’m quite sure that you would prefer to keep your head attached to your neck, am I right?”
“Yes, milord. Rafe’s face immediately reddened as he floundered with Alexander’s newest title, “Um, forgive me! I mean, Your Grace.”
With a roguish grin, King Suhn quipped, “Don’t call me that, I’m anything but graceful.”
Smiling embarrassedly, Rafe responded jokingly, “I deeply apologize, Your Majesty.”
With sudden candor, the King replied, “Soon, Rafe. Very soon. We will expose the Creator for the cruel oppressor he is, and then, winning the hearts and minds of the people, we will easily unseat my duplicitous father and take his crown. For now though, Your Highness will do.”
Respectfully, Rafe bowed before his King, “It is my greatest honor to do your will, Your Highness.”
“Good! I suppose this is goodbye then, Sir Skerrett.” Grabbing Rafe’s hand in farewell, Alexander drew his second-in-command in close to him, “Be safe in your journey, my friend. Be smart, and above all else,” the King’s voice suddenly dropped to a near whisper, “Please, save my sister. Convince Aislyn that I am not a monster seeking revenge on our father. Persuade her to join our cause, Rafe. If anyone is able to plead our cause to her, it will be you.”
“I will, Your Highness,” and with that, Rafe took his leave.
Rafe was grateful to finally have a mission. Before heading north, he decided to return to the small adobe dwelling he had once shared with his wife, the charismatic Lady Gabriella. He had loved Gabby more than life itself and losing her, and his newborn son, during childbirth, had served a devastating blow to him. Even with the best of care, maternal deaths were a common tragedy for women of childbearing age in the lower Kingdoms. It seemed the further a Kingdom was located from the Capitol City, the least likely it was to receive the Creator’s blessings. Routinely, inhabitants of the southern Kingdoms suffered and died from far less than the populace of the Northern reaches. He felt compelled to have one last look, before setting out on what he assumed would be a one-way journey.
Rafe hastily surveyed the dusty quarters. It had been many months since he had last returned to their cottage, choosing instead to reside in the barracks located on the grounds of his Lord’s hacienda. He had returned for a single item, the silver necklace that hung sorrowfully over a pinch pot of dried flowers, remnants of his wife and son’s joint funeral march. He had buried them together, with their son cradled safely in his wife’s arms. He hadn’t been able to make himself part with her necklace. He knew it had been a selfish act; he should have placed Gabby’s most treasured earthly possession around her thin delicate neck, burying her with it. A treasured heirloom of her family, it had not been his to keep. Nonetheless, it was all he had to remember her by in the lonely days that he knew would follow. He couldn’t bring himself to let it go then, and here he was once again, mesmerized by the shining, silver trinket. He hurriedly grabbed the necklace, carelessly causing a cascade of dead petals to descend to the floor. It didn’t matter, he was sure he would never again set eyes on his land of birth. Meticulously he wound the chain around its small medallion, tucking it into a ragged square of cloth and stowing it into a small leather pouch. Nothing else remained for him here and he found himself relieved to finally have the excuse he needed to leave it all behind.
Checking his gear and bags once more and satisfied that everything was in good order, Rafe mounted his horse and headed out. Not once did he glance backward. He made sure of that. His was one of the most crucial roles in the looming war. He had to be convincing in his role as a disillusioned turncoat of King Alexander’s inner council. Throughout the long journey northward, in his mind, Rafe rehearsed his character over and again. Everything hinged on his ability to persuade the Northern leaders of his enmity for Tomas, and his disloyalty to the Heretic King.
The journey to the Capitol City had lasted nearly two months. Once he arrived, Rafe recited the fabricated narrative, which had been meticulous crafted for him by Tomas and his King; first to the Keeper of the Scepter, Lord Preston; then to King Abraham Suhn himself. He executed his performance flawlessly. Both, the aged High Priest and the elder King Suhn deemed his story truthful and granted him asylum in the Capitol City.
Rafe was quite pleased with himself for having been able to deceive both Lord Preston and King Suhn so easily. However, truth be told, above all else, he was thankful to still be in possession of his head. Now the real work would begin. He had to find a way to convince the Northern King, and his council of High Priests, that he was indeed an invaluable asset, one who was worthy of their complete trust. Moreover, after residing in the Capitol City for less than a month, Rafe learned that the only way he would ever be able to approach Princess Aislyn, would be to secure a position within the inner council of her father’s regime. The Princess, it seemed, was held a virtual prisoner in her father’s citadel. Aislyn was never allowed out of the stronghold’s confines, for fear of her abduction. Tomas and King Alexander had made it clear that gaining the traveling seer’s confidence, and winning her to their cause, was critical to their success.
Over time, Rafe fashioned himself as a crucial source of insider information against the Heretic and his followers. Through various agents of the South, who had been posted about the Capitol City; a baker here; a fish monger there; the blacksmith who tended to Rafe’s horse; all passed on to him useful battle information, courtesy of Tomas, which he himself then passed on to the those seated on the King’s council. Within a relatively short period, he had received his fist invitation into the King’s council chambers.
The morning of his first meeting with the council, he pulled out Gabriella’s silver necklace. His wife had believed her pendent was a talisman imbued with magical powers capable of protecting those who wore it. “It hadn’t done much good for her or our son,” he thought dejectedly. Nevertheless, Rafe removed the pendent from its delicate silver chain and threaded it on to a rough string of leather. Tying the two ends of the cord together, he placed the now crude looking adornment around his own neck. “Gabby, I’m going to need all the protection your amulet can muster,” he thought.
As Rafe walked into the chambers, he laid eyes on the Princess for the first time. He felt his breath catch in his throat. Her frail beauty had taken him completely by surprise. Aislyn possessed an aura of kindness; her pale skin giving off an ethereal glow; and the profound sadness he observed in her eyes, immediately made him want to rescue her. As he bowed deeply in formal greeting, Aislyn and Rafe’s eyes locked in a long and inappropriate gaze. Fortunately, for Rafe, it went unnoticed by the King and the assembled High Priests. He became acutely aware that this woman would be his undoing. He confidently walked to his seat at the table, yet all the while contradicting his bold manner, by absently fingering the pendent hanging around his neck.
Silently he implored, “If this charm ever indeed worked, let it aid me now, in my most desperate hour of need!”