Albert and I walked along for a while, chatting like that, but it was getting late. We might have been able to make it if we trudged a few hours in the dark, but it was safer to just set up camp for the night. I sat outside Albert’s tent and pulled out my ax. I really appreciated having it back. I grabbed a few fallen branches and began peeling back layers of them for kindling. Albert watched, noting my fine skill as I set the pile of shavings on fire.
“Is it not good when something misplaced is returned to where it belongs?” he joked as he handed me some bread. “Not that change is not necessary every once in a while, but the security of the normal, of everything in the right place, that is when the heart hums a calming tune.”
“Yeah, I am glad to have it back,” I said. I grabbed a stick, and I was poking the growing flames. “I was beginning to feel just like this ax here- lost, abandoned, just all out of sorts. I mean, it is ridiculous! Why should I give that woman even a half a thought? We barely know each other, and, like you said, she is a complete troublemaker! First, running off with me, then running off with him- what kind of a life could someone like that give you?
“Meanwhile, I can’t even stand the sight of my own friends, if you could call them that. You know, I doubt they even noticed that I am gone. Could you believe that? Those self-centered fools! They’re probably sitting in Loina’s house right now, listening to those little flute things and eating my half of the dinner! ‘Give me that extra bit! This is great that that guy is gone! What was his name?’
“Not that I am not grateful for the bit you gave me. I mean, I didn’t pack nearly enough food or water. I didn’t remember the trip up the mountain being so long. I was sort of distracted by Baruka, I guess, and wondering where we were going. I never dreamed I would be involved in such crazy things at my age. No, I think another year, and I would have had my mother trying to marry me off. Lovely woman, she is, but she would be like, ‘Jack, you need to get yourself a wife and move on! Go on now!’ Maybe it’s good I don’t go back. She’d have some choice words for me if I weren’t dead and just run off like I did.
“I have to live my own life, though, right? I have to be free! No one to tie me down! Is that selfish of me? Does that make me a totally self-absorbed, fully full? Albert? Albert? Are you even listening?”
Albert was hunched over with his eyes closed. He’d fallen asleep! I was so annoyed I gave him a good punch in the arm, and he fell right over without making a sound. My jaw hit my chest, you know. I jumped up, afraid I’d hurt him, but he wasn’t hurt, he was dead! I started shaking him, and the others that were around came over to check on him. Sure enough, he was gone, just passed away while I was trying to talk to him. I tell you, that’s too good a listener! Too good, fully!
The men start freaking out. That is when I realized Albert wasn’t just any Elder. He was the Eldest Elder! What are we going to do? Albert was supposed to okay the marriage between Baruka and Ramoth. No Albert, no marriage, no deal. This was turning into an international incident!
But then I had an idea. His robe… those bushy eyebrows…
“One way to fighting the current secular culture is with content of our own.”
That is the message I have heard from several different sources these last few years. In that spirit, I have written The Myth of Arden Series in a way that I hope will bring honor to God. I avoid using bad language, graphic images, and social themes that are currently popular. Instead, I focus on themes that emphasize Christian values. With that comes much prayer that whatever the outcome is, that God would be glorified.
To that end, I would covet your prayers as I launch the second book in the series. I pray that this work would be edifying to those who read it, and that God may use it in whatever way He sees fit to expand His kingdom.
If you click on the “FREE PREVIEW” button you can see the first chapter right now! Warning though, this is the second book in the series, and as such contains spoilers from the first book! Enjoy!
It was definitely a low point in my esteemed career, trudging about a mountain trying to figure out where my father’s ax had gone. I hadn’t packed enough water either. I figured it would be downhill, and I’d be done in no time, but there I was still limping along, and it looked like the sun was going to be hitting the tops of the trees soon. That’s the signal to find shelter, you know, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I located that one thing.
That’s how it is in life sometimes. You can get so focused on one small stupid thing because it’s easier to deal with than the thing you really ought to be dealing with! You know what I mean? I filled my mind with images of my father yelling at me because I’d lost that stupid ax. He was so upset about it, and him yelling at me was simpler than thinking about Baruka back there all alone.
Not that she hadn’t chosen her path. No, that was what she wanted, and there wasn’t anything that I could do about that! I just knew the type of person Captain was. I don’t know how to say it. It was like he couldn’t feel things the same way other people did. He could feel his own feelings, but I don’t think what Baruka would be feeling even crossed his mind. Why should it? He had a job to do, and he was going to do it. It wasn’t anything personal. He had a profession that was a little more unusual than what other people have if that makes sense at all. I mean, starting wars and ending them, who does that? That takes a special kind of fully individual.
I was about to call it quits for the day when I noticed a group of people were approaching. They had lamps, and donkeys, and a lot of nice things. I figured them to be more Dione tradesmen. They acknowledge me in a pleasant, passing way, nodding at me as I stepped off the trail so that they could pass. The very last man riding on this impressive donkey stopped when he saw me.
“Well, now, who are you?” he grumbled at me. He was an older man, frail and bent over from many years in this world. I didn’t think men as old as him traveled very much. He had a large nose and bushy eyebrows that giggled up and down when he talked. He was always smiling and said everything with a chuckle.
“Just passing thought,” I said, but as I went to leave, he stopped me.
“No, wait, young man!” he called out. “You are clearly not from around here. Let me guess: Arden?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. I figured the old man was guessing based on my clothes, but then he pulled something out of a bag slung on the donkey. “This yours?” It was my father’s ax!
“Now, where did you get that?” I asked as he handed it to me. It felt good to have it back. You know, like my belt felt properly weighted again.
The man motioned for me to follow along with him as we were holding up the caravan. So, I began to walk along with them. “It just fell from the sky,” he laughed. We were moving along when one of the men stopped and held out his hand. He said, is it raining or something? So we all looked up to see if there were any clouds when this ax came falling down from the cliffs above. It was a good thing we’d stopped to look because otherwise, it might have struck one of us right in the head! What were you doing, young man, that it fell?”
I remembered the events of that morning with a blush to my cheeks. “There was this venomous snake,” I began, “and I just sort of panicked and tried to hit it.” My mumbling explanation did not impress him.
“You don’t say? Well, now that is both unfortunate and fortunate! Unfortunate that you came across such peril, but fortunate that we were nearby. Now you can return to La Keytan with us.”
“La Keytan? Do you not know the name of the village you have been staying at with Baruka?”
Now my ears perked up, you know. “Baruka?” I replied, dumbfounded.
Raising those bushy eyebrows, the man chuckled, “You do know her, yes? I mean, you are one of Ramoth’s men come to scout us out? I won’t mention this little incident with the ax to your superior when we meet tomorrow. It will be tomorrow, I think. We’ll arrive too late at night to meet with him today, I think.”
“You guys must be the ones Baruka is waiting for then!” I exclaimed, finally realizing what was going on. “What did she call you again?”
“I am sure she has many names for me!” the man laughed jovially. “I have known that girl since she was just this big,” he said as he held his hands about a foot apart in front of himself. “She is a bit of trouble, I tell you, getting all of us Elders together in a hurry. You young people, always in a hurry! You can mark my words; if it is a good idea to marry today, it will still be a good idea tomorrow! No reason to rush such things, and for what? Since when has there been any sort of animus between Diona and Arden?”
“I do not think Dione is what Captain is after,” I let slip, but I immediately regretted it.
“Exactly,” the man agreed, “so what is this Ramoth up to? I’ll tell you it isn’t Dione, and it likely isn’t even Pacia. Not that Pacia is not a problem, but you know the biggest threat to Arden? It is Mesu. She has the superior ports and the superior location as far as weather and the seasons. No, I think Dione is just in the way. That is fine by me. Go ahead and let Baruka fall on this sword if that is what she wants. The wedding would be just ceremonial anyway. So long as Ramoth stays out of our business, I don’t care one tiny but what that girl gets herself into.”
“Aren’t you worried about retaliation from Mesu?” I asked, but as soon as I did, I realized this man assumed I was loyal to Arden. Why wouldn’t I be? As far as he knew, I didn’t even know Baruka. I realized then I ought to have kept my mouth shut.
The man was kind enough to reinforce this idea. “You had better keep thoughts such as those to yourself, young man if you want to become an old man like Albert,” he said as he pounded his chest. “I have seen many things, and the key to success in life is knowing just when to keep your mouth shut.
I hope you missed me, Anny! Areal misses you! That guy asked me how you were so many times. He wants me to tell you that Julia is doing well. She starts her studies soon, you know. We keep finding her hiding in the bookshelves. Yes, we do! She pulls the books out and climbs behind them somehow, that little imp! She might be more like you than we care to admit! I found her in a tree the other day. I still don’t know how she got up there!
Ha! You don’t have to remind me; I know where I left off. Of course, I do! It was a crucial moment in my young life! You know what it is like to be rejected by your first love? No, no, no! Don’t start getting all weepy. This is about me, not you!
Okay, so as I recall, I had been fighting it, pushing, but at that point, I was done. I had been learning to fight for Baruka’s sake. Fully, I was ready to kill Captain if it came to that for her! I was forcing one foot in front of the other, trying to make something work, all for her. But if Baruka did not care anymore, then neither did I!
I still recall how frightened I was when I went to Loina’s house that someone would see me: that someone would try to stop me! Fully all of them! That was how I felt! Fully Petton and Baruka. Fully Captain and that guy with the short arms (I forget his name)! Fully the fully lot of them, I was done!
What? Didn’t I tell you about that guy? The one with the short arms? I didn’t? Well, then, when I was practicing my ax skills with the guys, there was one who I swear his arms were too short for his body. No, really! They were like this when they should have been more like this. You get me? He was a cocky fellow for someone with limited reach! He only used a spear. You can imagine why.
He had a face; you might know the type. You see it, and you intuitively knew you hated this person. They hadn’t said anything or done anything, but there is this churning in your gut that just screams, “I hate this guy!” And I did! I hated him instantly!
Anyway, I stuffed the few things I had into my bag, stole some food, and checked to make sure I had my father’s ax about a dozen times. I checked, then I checked again, then I looked around Loina’s place, making certain I had everything. I was not coming back! Satisfied, I recalled that Baruka’s dagger was still in my boot. I pulled it out, and I wondered if I ought to leave it behind or try to return it. Fully her! I stuffed it back into my boot!
Then I marched out the front gate and down the path, we had taken to get there in the first place. I felt this hotness in my cheeks, waiting for the inevitable conflict of someone asking me where I was going or what I was doing. The thing was, it never came. I walked right out of that place, and nobody tried to stop me or ask me if I was okay. Nobody seemed to care if I was there or not. Nobody.
The path meandered through the pine woods headed back towards the cliffs we had traveled up to get there. Once I had gotten far enough away that it was obvious I was free, I felt more confined than ever. I followed the path for an hour, just slowly shuffling along, looking back on occasion to see if anyone was coming. Nobody.
I felt my stomach drop to my feet. I thought, “I don’t belong here. I never did, and even if I vanish, nobody will notice.” I had nothing to go back to. Nothing to go forward to either. Where was I going anyway? I hadn’t fit in back home. I didn’t here. Where else was there? The idea came that I could just live on the side of the mountain: alone forever! I clung to that idea, parading through the mountain like I owned it!
I noticed a clearing in the trees up ahead. There was an outcropping where you could scuttle out to the edge of this enormous rock. I made my way over and could see over the trees and down into the valley stretched out below. Like I said, no one was around, so I relieved myself over the edge. That was a freeing experience! I guess you can’t relate. Anyway, then I sat down, taking a drink from my canteen. It was almost empty. I pulled out my father’s ax because it was hitting my leg. He probably missed this piece of wood and metal more than me! I was considering launching the fully thing over the edge of the cliff when I dropped it! Slipped right through my sweaty fingers! It bounced over the edge of the cliff, and I could hear it, PLINK, PLINK, PLUNK! Well, shoot. I couldn’t go home without it. Not that I had made my mind up about that just yet, but a man likes to have options!
I surveyed the landscape, and it seemed like the path would take me close to where it must have landed. I certainly wasn’t going over the edge myself! So I began down the trail once more, trying to keep track of the place where the ax might have landed.
I’m not sure how many days I was hanging out with those guys, but eventually, Loina tracked me down and dragged me back to her home. She was acting weird! I mean, she’s clutching my arm, looking at me with those big eyes of hers. I thought this might be my chance to make a move. I was expecting her to propose to me, but instead, she tells me that Baruka wants to meet with me! I was thrilled! Unfortunately, we couldn’t just meet out in the open, so Loina tells me to go to the bathhouse, you know that place where they dump the water over your head, in about an hour.
I think I got there way too early. In the mornings, the women are mostly there. That was how it was done- the women and children in the morning and the men in the evening. So me loitering there brought a lot of dirty looks from the women entering the place.
Finally, after what felt like a fully hour, Baruka shows up with a gang of other women. She saw me standing there in that little robe and rolled her eyes. She pulled off her own cloak and threw it over my head. “Do you want to be seen?” she scolded me. The women surrounded me and snuck me into the bathing area.
Baruka took me off to the side, but I could feel the others’ eyes burning into the back of my head. I offered to return Baruka’s cloak to her, but she insisted I keep it on. “I cannot look at you in Loina’s robe!” she insisted. I did not realize until that very moment that the little blue robe belonged to anyone, let alone Loina! That sure explained a lot!
Anyway, I asked Baruka if she was okay and if Captain was taking good care of her. By then, I had heard so many rumors!
“I am fine,” she insisted. “Please, do not worry yourself. Captain explained the situation to me. If I did not agree…”
“What did he tell you?” I interrupted.
Baruka looked surprised. She hesitated, looking over her shoulder at the other women before explaining in a hushed tone, “I know Captain is not Ramoth, but he has explained that if I do not play along, my people will be in great danger. Our land connects to so many others. We survive off of the trade that affords, but those same routes could be used for other things.”
“Like a war?” I offered. Baruka nodded. “That is what he has promised, not to bring Arden’s armies here?” Baruka again nodded, but I knew Arden did not have a large military. We were mostly farmers, but if Pacia joined us, then Dione would be in trouble. I hesitated to say anything, but as I did, Baruka grabbed my arm.
“Could Captain really convince Ramoth to leave us alone? If we promised to remain neutral, would he protect us?” Baruka whispered all at once. Her nails were digging into my arm as her grip tightened.
“Sure?” I blurted out, mostly to get her to let go of my arm. My answer had satisfied her, and she did just that. I was relieved that she seemed to know who Captain really was, but I still had so many questions, but I never got the chance to ask.
Regaining her composure, Baruka continued, “Then do nothing to jeopardize my people! The Elders will arrive in a short time. They will agree to the peace treaty, and then I will likely never see any of you again.”
“You mean you are staying here?” I asked, but Baruka did not reply. She grabbed her cloak off my shoulders and walked back to her friends. I wanted to go after her, but seeing the looks I was getting, I decided I had better leave. I returned to Loina’s house to pack up my things and head for the town’s gate. I was done with all of them. Baruka might have been okay with living a lie, but I was not. Not anymore.
The throne room itself was open to the central courtyard, which allowed billows of starlight to streak the floor. These also found their way into the side chamber, equally unbarred unless heavy doors blocked three separate archways. One of these doors was open, allowing a stream of lamplight to spill across the sections of starlight. Ramoth entered the throne room to find the king standing in his private chamber talking to the general who controlled his army.
“But my lord, I do not understand the urgency in your request. To have a thousand horses by sunrise is impossible. The most I could offer would be fifty,” the general explained.
“Fifty? That is not enough!” the king insisted, slamming his hand onto a table.
“Then bend to my expertise and allow me to know where it is we are to attack,” the general pled. He waited as the king took a drink.
“Faverly!” the king said as he wiped a drop of wine from his lips, his cup landing with a heavy thud.
“Yes, I know, but I have never heard of this town,” the general said impatiently.
“It is not a town!” the king scoffed. “It is a fortress, an old castle built into the southern edge of a craggy mountain. On the east is a field, but on the north side is the steep mountain, which is too sheer to climb down. We will have to guard the door until they starve and let us in.”
“How many people are we talking about?” the general inquired.
“There are about fifteen inhabitants there that must be killed as soon as possible,” the king explained.
The general thought about it for a moment then asked, “Fifty warriors?”
The king rolled his eyes impatiently. “No, fifteen! Fifteen servants,” he carefully enunciated.
Ignoring the insult the general continued, “Then ten horsemen should be more than adequate with five-foot soldiers to be safe. If they are servants, they will open the doors to you.”
“But what if they do not?” the king speculated. “We will need force!”
Ramoth paused, waiting for the right moment to interrupt the conversation. He stood patiently as the king rolled around in circles confusing his general with his rambling words and roughly drawn sketches. After much time had passed, he could hold back no more and entered the chamber. The king turned to him for but a moment before returning his attention to his general.
“If we fail it could be the end of Arden,” he continued in a foreboding tone. “I will not see one of them escape.”
“But my king,” interrupted Ramoth, “is it necessary to kill all who are at Faverly? Why kill the servants?”
“I would think it would be quite obvious,” the king retorted sharply. “We cannot risk even one of them telling what we did.”
“And what exactly is that?” Ramoth accused. “If you are ashamed we might seek alternatives.”
“Remember yourself Ramoth,” the king warned. “Your tone does not sit well with me. I understood you would be against me going to the fortress to take care of those Sisters as you always have, but the time has now come. I can no longer put my throne in jeopardy over a handful of little girls. We leave tomorrow with or without you. You had your fun and spared them these past years, but the end is now! I can no longer hold my judgment on them. Even you must agree that it is better to kill them than to risk another war with Pacia. Though we would most certainly win, the amount of bloodshed would be great on both sides and for what? A thousand soldiers for seven little brats?”
“My lord, I do not see the threat they present. They are just children! Have you lost your mind that you, the great conqueror of nations, is afraid of a few girls?” Ramoth asked as he paced about the room.
“Silence! I suggest that if you wish to keep your life, you help me find my way to Faverly. Once the girls are disposed of I will decide about the servants, but no promises. Understood?” the king asked. He was glaring at Ramoth with glassy eyes.
Ramoth stopped pacing and looked over to his king. “Your wish is my own, my king. As you command, so shall I obey,” he assured him.
“Good. Then get ready,” the king said as he motioned for both men to go.
Ramoth turned to leave almost running into a male servant with sweat pouring down his ghost white face.
“My king, forgive my intrusion,” the servant begged between heavy breaths, “but there is terrible news from the west quarters!”
“Well speak fool!” the king demanded.
“Your queen: she has been found in a most unpleasant state!” the servant blurted out. Ramoth’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“What are you speaking of?” the king demanded.
“I know not the details, my king. I was only told to summon you to her quarters immediately! Please forgive me!” the servant said as he began to back out of the room.
Before the servant could finish, the king had pushed him to the ground and was storming off to the west wing of the castle where his wife’s bedroom was located.
Ramoth and the king arrived at the queen’s room to find it well lit by the fireplace on the far wall to the doorway. In the corner to the left of this place was a vanity. It had a sizeable silver-backed glass knocked from its brackets and shattered into a thousand pieces across the floor. Each piece sparkled as it caught the light of the fire from the air. On the wall to the right of the fireplace was the queen’s bed. Their attention now turned to it, and they could hear the queen’s maid weeping.
The king stormed towards her, stopping suddenly only a foot from her realizing the queen was laying in the bed with her head resting on the maid’s lap. She seemed sleeping except for many deep scratches on the palms of her hands and feet. The maid was stroking the queen’s hair, the tears running down her face.
“What has happened here?” the king shouted. The maid let out a deep wail. “You dog, tell me what has happened to my wife!” he rumbled.
The maid, now frightened, turned her head to him and said, “My king, she came to my room but a few moments ago in a lowly mood. She said she feared to be alone. I brought her back here, and when I saw the mirror smashed, I asked what had come of it. She said she wished to die and had pulled it down to cut herself with it, but it had smashed into fine pieces. It was then I saw all of the small cuts on her hands and feet.
“And did she say what was troubling her?” Ramoth asked.
“No,” the maid stumbled, “just that she was very sad. I put her to bed and thought she had fallen asleep. So I went back to my room. However, when I arrived I realized a small vile I keep in my pocket was missing. She had taken it. I ran back here, but she had swallowed the whole thing before I arrived.”
“And what was in the vile?” Ramoth asked, now growing more outwardly panicked.
“Te Berry Elixir: I use it to help me sleep. A drop in a pitcher of water is enough for a week, but she drank the entire contents.” Again her tears overcame her. “I know for this I must die. Please do not take me to trial!”
She wept now so great that she hardly could take a breath. Ramoth stood in disbelief, his hands numb and his face cold. The king walked to the bed, lifted his wife from the maid’s arms and shook her. She was limp, and not a sign of life was still with her.
The king stood still for a moment, looking at her still face in the fire’s light. She seemed but asleep, but then he looked at her chest and saw it was still and she drew no breath. He continued to watch while waiting for it to rise, but it did not. He then dropped her to the ground with the care given to a discarded shoe.
“She is dead,” he thought to himself before he spoke, “Old woman, you are hardly worth the rope I would need to hang you.”
The servant looked up to him with the faintest of hope at his last words as the king left. Ramoth looked at the servant, but she seemed lost in her own world. He decided to take the risk, his last chance, and walked over to the queen. He laid her out on her back and stroked her hair as the old woman had been doing.
“This is my fault,” he said to her under his breath. Then to himself, he thought, “I killed her because I would not stay. What is so great about me?” He then fell over her, his head resting on her chest as he cried.
Some guards entered, saying nothing as they came to take the dead queen’s body and her maid away. Ramoth did not even hear the maid’s cries as she was carried away to her death. He felt too alone.
Now it was customary in those days of Arden that at the death of a family member one did not travel abroad for the sake of morning and remembrance for a certain length of time. Ramoth was overcome but gathered the strength to convince the king he ought not to go so soon to Faverly as it would sully his reputation.
So one more month passed as Ramoth mourned and the king sought comfort where he had always been able to find it, but the king’s women were only able to soothe him for those few weeks. Soon he was once again compelled to go, and so Ramoth went with him.
Another month passed as Ramoth tried to find his way back to Faverly. He claimed that his memories of the convoluted forest trails that led there had faded, and it was slow moving with the twenty horsemen and ten foot soldiers the king and his general finally decided upon. There were also the three carriages needed for the king: one for him and two as decoys with five personal guards to the king surrounding each one. Carts, food, and blankets had to be carried, and the slowness of the travel compounded by multiple wrong turns and detours to get more supplies.
However, they did finally arrive, and to the general’s relief, the gates were opened to them. They filed into the courtyard and there set up camp inside the fortified walls of Faverly.
None of the guards knew the point of the journey and considered this place just another stop on the way. None could fathom this barely inhabited fortress was their intended target. They remained camped there for the night, resting from the hard journey and leaching off of the fortress’s resources…
● ● ● ● ● ● ●
“And how do you know all that?” Marcus taunted. “It is as if you were there.”
“Well, maybe I was! Goodness, you are cynical for such a young man,” Anny admonished him.
Marcus was about to comment to the fact that had she been there she should be dead right now. Instead, he decided to give her a break. “Come now, do guess my age. You’ll never be able to!” he suddenly quipped.
Taken aback Anny said, “What would be the point?”
“Just do it!” Marcus egged her on.
“Fine, you are,” she paused, trying to think it through, “thirty-eight.”
“Ha! Thirty-three,” Marcus boasted. “No one ever gets it right. And how old did you say you were?”
“Seventeen, I think. Maybe eighteen,” Anny said after thinking it over for a minute.
“A good age to be! I miss those days,” Marcus said gleefully. “Well, actually I do not. I was nineteen when my father finally tracked me down and dragged me back home from my joyous travels.”
“Yes, you never fail an opportunity in bringing it up,” Anny muttered to herself.
“Well it always bothers me most when I am traveling,” Marcus explained. “Take this caravan for example. Ten horsemen are surrounding this one little cart and for what? It just says, ‘please, try and attack me!’ I would have been better off if they let me go by myself, but my poor father is wary of losing yet another son, and so I must go his way. I could have been to Pent yesterday if I had gone myself. You see there are just as many horsemen as would be needed to storm a fortress!”
The young girl did not so much as crack a smile at his last comment. “And why are you in such a rush? None of your companions seem to know,” she said.
“Why should I tell you?” Marcus asked.
“You wish me to trust you? How can you expect that if you are not honest with me?” Anny countered back.
“Please, you could care less what I think of you. You are just curious,” Marcus surmised.
“So what if I am?” Anny said with a grin. “If you did not have something to hide you would just tell me.”
Marcus rolled his eyes and said, “Fine, I have some unfinished business to attend to.”
“Like what?” Anny asked innocently.
Marcus went to say something but stopped himself and said instead, “Oh, border disputes mostly, but now I must be sure to ask him if he has any idea what Te Berry Elixir is. I for one have never heard of it.”
“It is the honey of the lower class. You probably have much too refined a taste for it,” Anny mused as she wondered who the man was that Marcus was referring to.
“But what if the queen was faking her death? What if it had been a clever plot to make the king think she was dead? Then she and your Ramoth could run off together!” Marcus conjectured happily.
“I am afraid that is not what happened though. If that were true that is what I would have said, but the queen is indeed dead,” Anny lamented.
“All the more to give credence to your words should they follow some fact I suppose, but you are wrong about her death for it is just as the king said it was. She died from vanity!” Marcus said as he smiled broadly.
Anny shook her head from side to side as she rolled her eyes. Marcus only laughed, though inside one half of him scolded the other half for being so heartless.
● ● ● ● ● ● ●
Just ten or so miles away from Marcus’s carriage in the sprawling city of Pent the king of Arden rolled over for the last time in his burdened sleep. The king, like most of the inhabitants of Pent, had a light tan complexion. His eyes were small and brown, topped by bushy, thick eyebrows. After so many years of decadence, his belly had grown large and round. Unlike others in his court, he liked to have an unkempt beard which was perhaps why he looked much older than he truly was. He rubbed his face, scratching at the hairs as his door opened and Cailar, his chief advisor, arrived with news of the day.
Cailar was, by comparison, much thinner and somewhat gangly in appearance. Though his complexion was like that of the King’s his small, squinty eyes were bright blue. He kept a clean-shaven face and was in every other way neatly coiffed with his short hair beginning to grey.
The king tended to sleep very late into the day as matters needing his attention did not usually come to light until noon had shone its course. This was convenient, however, as the king tended to stay up very late. Once asleep, he was known to awaken many times from nightmares and remembrances.
He was presently neither awake nor asleep, but rather somewhere between wandering through dreams as he came to realize Cailar’s looming arrival. He groaned inside at the thought and lay for another moment desperately trying to remember what had occupied his mind just the moment before. He heard his door creak open and familiar footsteps made their way into the room. With the window curtains drawn, the footsteps approached the bed.
“Arise, dearest king! The day has come,” Cailar said. He seemed uncharacteristically cheerful. Behind him, as there always seemed to be a procession of servants following his command, marched several men ready to prepare the king for his day.
“Another day, how I loathe it,” the king replied. “Again I am right back to where I started. What some find comfort in I find only despair. The sun will rise only to set. The stars shine only to fade again. The trees bud and bloom only to return to their frail skeletons once more, devoid of life and color. Again I rise. Again I dress. Again shall I eat, yet again shall I hunger. Again I lie down. Again I rest. Again I tire. What is the point if life is just a constant cycle of birth and death? A play, a dance that is continuous in length, yet seems to double back on itself. If there is a word for life, then it is ‘again’.”
“We speak of this every morning my king. Have you found no answer that pleases you?” Cailar said as the servants began to ready the room for the king.
“None. What have you to offer today as a possibility?” Ramoth said as he began to pull at his blankets.
“The court jester has said, ‘the meaning of life is to laugh,'” Cailar offered.
“And I should take his advice?” Ramoth chuckled half-heartedly.
“Do cheer yourself, my lord,” Cailar said. “Marcus shall be here soon.”
For the first time, Ramoth’s eyes lit up as he said, “My dear friend! How I have awaited his return.” The king finally sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes. The servants descended upon him hoping to finish their work before he was fully awake.
“A messenger appeared just a short while ago announcing his imminent arrival,” Cailar assured him.
“Good, good,” Ramoth said as a servant struggled to comb Ramoth’s hair, “and what other news of the country have you brought me?
“None else sir. Nothing new has developed in the last night that concerns the country,” Cailar said. Then after hesitating a moment, he continued, “There is one of personal concern that has presented itself.”
“And what might that be?” Ramoth asked disinterestedly.
“There is a particular maid who works in the kitchen much as her mother did. She is young and somewhat fair,” Cailar began.
“Fair?” Ramoth interrupted.
“Well, she is not as fair as your ladies, but as she belongs to you I would like your blessing to marry her,” Cailar said. “You know I am growing in years and she is young.”
King Ramoth smirked to himself. “Growing in years indeed!” he thought. The fact that the two were close in age never crossed his mind. Aloud he merely commented, “Tell me, what is her name?”
“Sonia, my lord,” Cailar quickly replied.
Ramoth made a face and said, “Sonia? I have never heard of her, but I am sure you two will be happy anyway.”
“Thank you, my king!” Cailar said with a bow. “May this gracious act bring many blessings upon your kingdom.”
“Now be gone with you. I need to be alone, and you need to be ready for Marcus’s arrival,” Ramoth gruffly said as he shooed the servants away.
Cailar bowed again and exited. The king by now was dressed and his servants gone. The king left for his breakfast and to handle the affairs of the evening, his mood slightly cheered by the thought that his friend would soon arrive.
You can find the rest of The Myth of Arden on Amazon!
I slept really well that night. When the early morning light hit my face, I had sort of forgotten about the day before. I had forgotten about Captain, forgotten about Baruka…
I breathed in the fresh mountain air and listened to the sound of the birds singing in the forest around us. I was at peace for the first time in a long time, but then I remembered. As soon as I opened my eyes, I remembered because my eye was sore and swollen still. I pit formed in my stomach, but I had no idea how I was supposed to get to Baruka without Captain finding out.
Loina was sitting there, watching me. What did she want? She looked concerned, but I was not sure why. She fed me and then took me outside the village wall- out the back gate where they kept livestock in a clearing surrounded by fences.
There was a group of men there: more Baruk look-alikes. They were tall, muscular guys with those same mustaches! Loina introduced us, then asked one of them if I could stay to train with them.
“Train with us? This little guy?” they mocked. They weren’t wrong! Compared to them, I looked like I might snap if the breeze was strong enough! Loina insisted, suggesting that if they did not help her out, she could make life very unpleasant for them.
“Why should she care?” I wondered, but the first thing their leader did was to grab my ax and chuckle.
“What is this? Are you going to gather some wood for us?” they all laughed.
“It was my father’s,” I explained, but he had already given it back. Then he noticed the dagger in my boot. This intrigued him.
“Where did you get that?”
“Baruka gave it to me,” I explained. The men then looked at each other like I had said something important.
“Well, then, let’s teach you how to use it,” he said. “I’m Henry, and this is Osten. Let’s get you a real ax and see what you can do!”
It turned out I could do very little, but that was okay. An ax isn’t that complicated to use. You just jab at the person. Jab! Jab! Jab! Yes, like… well, now, what are you doing under the table? Get back up! Okay, then, where was I? Oh, yeah! JAB! JAB! JAB!
You have to control it, not pull it back too far, or you’ll leave yourself open. So that is what I did all that day. I jabbed. Then I jabbed. Then I jabbed even more until my arm was about to fall off! I was invited to Osten’s for dinner, and we had a blast. I woke up on his floor the next day, and we just went back to it: JAB!
When I needed a break, they showed me some of their own weapons. Then talk of Baruk’s sword came up. How had Captain gotten it? I knew, but I did not know what they knew if you know
what I mean! I said I wasn’t sure, but then they suggested that Baruk had given it to Captain as a sign of his engagement to Baruka as it was a family heirloom! Who knew that was a thing? It was like a dowry or something to them, and it meant that, at least as far as they knew, that Baruk must have given his blessing for the union to proceed.
I wondered that night if that was Baruk’s intention when he told me to bring the weapon here. It was odd to recall that little tent I had met him in and to try to imagine him now in the village laughing with his family. He wasn’t anyone important, as far as I knew, so what was I missing? Did he mean that Baruka and I ought to marry? What had I done in giving that sword to Captain?
“Are you hungry?” Marcus interrupted as he removed a small basket from a compartment under his chair. “There is not much, just some leftover fruit and cheese, but the castle is only a few more hours from here so it will go to waste if we do not eat it now.” He reached into the parcel and removed an apple. “Here, this is still good.” He said as he stood up in the carriage and sat next to the girl. He leaned in close to her with the fruit in front of him. She instinctively leaned away, and for a second, he paused staring into her eyes before smiling jokingly. They both laughed as she took the fruit.
“Thank you. You are most kind,” the young girl said before she took a bite.
“It is nothing. At the start of the trip, I had all sorts of wonders. All that is left is this.” He trailed off, realizing his subject choice was a little poor. “Well, food is food!” he said chuckling as he took a bite of his apple. “What did you say your name was again?”
“You never asked,” the girl pointed out.
“How rude of me, please tell it to me, then,” Marcus said between bites.
“Everyone calls me Anny. It is short for Antoinette,” the girl explained.
“How wise of you to shorten it!” Marcus teased.
Anny smiled and said, “You know you do surprise me, Marcus. They say you are a great prince…”
“But I don’t act like one,” Marcus interrupted her. “True, true, it is all my brothers’ fault. I was the middle of three brothers. My elder brother was to assume the throne, but he died of a strange illness. My remaining brother was then to assume the throne, but he also fell to an untimely death.”
Anny gasped horrified.
Marcus chuckled, reassuringly clarifying, “the death I speak of is a spiritual one! The poor fool lives on, but only for himself. He has taken the luxury to go traipsing off looking for some deep spiritual meaning to life where there isn’t any. The older one I mean. No, just the older one. The younger he is dead: yes, dead as dead can be.
“They were so concerned with the crown when they were young, but I wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, since I was ten, I’ve been wandering these roads in search of real wisdom and adventure!”
“And did you find it?” Anny asked when he had finally stopped.
“Well, a little I suppose before these damn guards tracked me down and brought me back home,” Marcus said as he made a rude gesture out the window. “Actually, it was on one of my last trips that I heard this story you speak now, but it has to be years since those times, fifteen maybe twenty.”
“You mean you have heard this story before?” Anny said surprised.
Marcus chuckled. “Well of course! Who has not heard the famed story ‘The Myth of Arden’! Though no one tells it quite as well as you do. Tell me again where you first heard it.”
“My mother told it to me. She was the head cook in a great house,” Anny said as she gazed out the window.
“Ah, and whose house was that?” Marcus asked. He had finished his apple and threw the core out the window in front of Anny’s gaze.
Anny looked back at him disgruntled and said, “Well it was a great house in the small town near where you found me. I would not be surprised if you had never heard of it.”
“I have been from one coast to the other of this silly country. I bet I have heard of the place and probably dined there too,” Marcus assured her.
“Well, the village nearby is called Fay Hill,” Anny said hesitantly.
“Ah, good old Fay Hill! That is just outside of Reed? Am I remembering correctly?” Marcus asked jovially.
“You could not have possibly heard of it!” Anny insisted.
“And why not?” Marcus quipped.
“Because it is so small!” the girl replied while crossing her arms.
“Why I was there just three years ago sighing a peace treaty with those fine people, though I do not remember you being there. It is nearer to the border of Paultry in Arden right?” Marcus said with a triumphant smile.
“Yes. I guess it is,” Anny conceded.
“See, but what I do not quite understand is why a young and pretty girl such as yourself would be traveling alone from there. Come now, you can tell me,” the man said with a wink.
Anny’s shoulders slumped, and she went on to explain, “Well, suffice to say all of my family is dead and so I am seeking refuge at the nearest castle. I hear there are jobs available that will provide food and shelter.”
“But that is no good,” Marcus said firmly. “You would be stuck there the rest of your life! Why not stay at the estate and indenture yourself there? They would treat you much better.”
“I have no skills,” she said with a sigh as she held out her hands as if to prove that they were worthless.
“But you grew up in a great house. You must have learned something,” Marcus pointed out.
“I am sorry I did not,” Anny said. “I must be a slow learner.”
Marcus slapped his hands together and said, “Well in the least you can tell stories.”
“That is the only story I know,” Anny confessed sadly.
“But you tell it so well!” Marcus assured her. “Tell you what, you go ahead and take a position at the castle in Pent, which is where we are going. If by the time I must leave the castle for my own, you are not happy I will pay your fees and take you as my own. Once at my castle, you would be treated with the best of care, and I will make certain of it.”
Anny looked at him skeptically. She was sure she knew exactly why he would make such an offer, and it had nothing to do with chivalry. “But why would you do that?” she finally mustered the courage to ask.
Marcus turned to her, and for a brief moment as he spoke she felt like a mask had slipped from his face. “Because I know you are lying to me about certain things, and I hope that by being nice you may open up a little to me,” he said softly.
“But I am not lying!” she blurted out, her face turning all shades of red.
“If you say so,” Marcus said.
“Well, why should I tell you anything anyway?” Anny said, flustered.
Marcus shrugged his shoulders and said, “You are right. You are under no compulsion, but I wish you would trust me a little.”
They sat for a moment, the both of them, with arms crossed staring out opposite windows of the carriage.
“He is mocking me,” the young girl thought to herself. “Tell me, how famous is this story I tell you?” Anny said, finally breaking the silence.
“I would guess everyone alive knows it or at least everyone who has a common border with Arden, which is everyone,” Marcus informed her.
“And who told it to you?” Anny asked.
“I have just heard it my whole life,” Marcus said dismissively. “Except, I should say that if you wish to tell it to anyone else, then you ought to get the names right.”
“What do you mean?” Anny asked.
“Well it is the king who is called Ramoth,” Marcus began. “Ramoth means ‘great leader’, so you can see it is more of a title than a name. But you do have the queen’s name right, which is quite impressive. As for this strange man who you call Ramoth, perhaps he was Cailar as he seems to have the position of head advisor. You know: one who holds no words in the king’s presence.”
“Well then, shall I finish this great story or would you have me stop seeing as you know it already?” Anny asked dejectedly.
“No, no, go on!” Marcus insisted. “I do wish to see how it ends according to you though you do realize that the king you speak of is one of my best friends but forget that now as this story is entirely fiction.”
Anny nodded and agreed, “Yes, it is.”
“Then continue, and I will try not to let the name’s scrambling get in the way of the story,” Marcus said as he leaned back into his seat.
“Well, I left off when Ramoth had gone to see the king then?” Anny tried to recall.
When I woke up in the morning, it was to the sound of several hushed giggles. I sat up, startled by the change in surroundings, having forgotten where I’d been. There, outside the door of the house, were a group of girls, and again they were pointing and laughing at me. Loina brought me my clothes, and I was happy to have them back, I tell you! Not that I had anything to be ashamed of! It was for their sake!
Petton had already gone out, so I wandered around the town looking for him. I ran into Captain instead. I was in no mood to deal with him. Just seeing his face, well, you know what it is like when you are angry with someone. I had heard rumors that he was not treating Baruka well, but she was nowhere to be seen. Captain saw me, smiled, and waved. Can you believe that fool? I went right up to him and gave him a piece of my mind! I told him that he had better not lay a finger on Baruka if he knew what was good for him! That is about all I can remember because when I came too, I was back at Loina’s house!
Petton was there, holding a wet cloth over my left eye that smelled sweet. “Just stay still!” he hollered at me when I tried to get up. “You fully fool; you are lucky to be alive!”
“What happened?” I asked, but I sort of knew already. Petton then went on to explain that after running my mouth off, I challenged Captain to a fight. Then I just stood there like a fully full while he sucker-punched me in the face! You would think you’d see it coming, but no. It was like, POW! That is good technique! No grand movements; just strike! BAM! Then I hit the ground, and Petton had to drag my fully self back home.
Thanks to whatever that medicine was, my eye did not swell shut, but it hurt like nothing I had felt before. I was ready then to just go home. What was the point in staying? I mean, really? I had been pretending to be a mercenary this whole time, but all it had gotten me was a sore eye and humiliation. That’s the thing about it; I was a fake, and I knew it. When you are faking your life, it is exhausting. You wake up, and it is another day of pretending you know what you are doing, pretending you are confident, pretending that you fit in. My swollen eye was proof enough that I didn’t. I didn’t fit in. I was a fully loser, and I was ready to just start my trek back down the mountain alone. It didn’t even matter one way or the other if I made it or if I fell to my death; Made no difference at this point because I was done!
You would think Petton would have tried to stop me, but he didn’t! Some friend! He just told me that if I wanted to quit, I ought to get moving right away before Captain finished me off for good. Then he left without another word, and it was just Loina and me. She took that sweet smelling rag from me and dipped it in a bowl. Then she handed it back to me and said, “It was nice of you to try to help Baruka like that. You know, Captain has been telling everyone that they are married, but the way Baruka acts, I wonder if it is true.”
I was about to confirm that it was indeed false, but thinking better of it, I just muttered, “I wouldn’t know.”
“In a few days, the Elders will arrive from the other towns. They have been summoned to confirm the marriage and to place Captain in his rightful place among them. He speaks of a peace treaty between our people. If the Elders sense that he is lying, there could be many unpleasantries.”
“That is an understatement!” I thought to myself, but I just kept quiet because I did not want to get Captain in trouble.
“Tell me the truth, Jack,” she whispered. “Is Captain really who he says that he is? Is he truly Ramoth?”
I just about passed out again. “Ramoth?” I asked.
“Yes, he has dropped hints that he is Ramoth and that the peace treaty would spare us all!”
Now I knew that Ramoth was all the way back in Pent, probably having a nice drink in front of his fireplace, but I could not tell her that. I might have been mad at Captain, but I didn’t want to get my friends killed either. They must have misunderstood, so I said, “Well, Captain has the authority of Ramoth.”
Loina seemed pleased with that. She pushed me back down onto the mat I was lying on and begged, “Do not go! Stay here with me! Our people will be as one soon!”
I was not sure what to do, so I pretended to pass out, and I stayed like that until the morning!