The End of All Things
(An experiment in narrative framing)
Paul G Day
Note: A surprise ending to reflect on. Feel free to comment.
The King rose up and stood upon Skull Hill, arms outstretched and waited for the din to recede. It had been such a long time since he addressed the people. They had come to him, beseeching him to hear their demands, but rather than give them an answer right away, he left them without saying a single word and turned his back on them to make his way up the hill, where he had sat all night until dawn. Doing so had only made the people angry. However, they begrudgingly waited by the stream below, their torch lights flickering in the dark appearing as faint stars from his position on the hill.
So, at the rising of the sun, when the voices of the people had at last fallen quiet he went to speak. He took his time. He always did. Even though the Elders expected it, they too were becoming impatient. He cast his bloodshot eyes down and searched the faces of his people. Each still held a torch in their hand, some of which had only a hint of flame left, having almost been extinguished from spent fuel.
They looked up towards the man who once held all their hopes in the palm of his hand. The eldest of all Elders, their once-great hero, their Chief, their King. He had ruled the kingdom far longer than any ruler before him. For most of his reign he was considered the greatest of all Chiefs. His name was synonymous with peace, with plenty. Now though, he was much less their hero and much more the reason for their anger. Despite all his graces, all his prophecies, all his legendary exploits, one thing and one thing only had brought about his demise. Marriage. Not just any marriage, but that of his grace with the sister of the King of Doomsdore.
Why he had chosen to wed such a one as she had never been fully explained. But because of his betrothal to her, the King of Doomsdore had held them all to ransom, having bought up or acquired huge parcels of land in the Northern realms and spread his influence surreptitiously throughout. Of course their King had his reasons for marrying the princess, he always had his reasons. They were perfectly reasonable too, as attested by the Elders themselves. But the result, whether his fault or not, led to their kingdom being split, making them vulnerable to the Kings further West and East.
“My people,” he began in his careful manner, “My dear people. You know me not to be a rash or brash man. I have always acted in accordance with the laws laid down by our fathers. Every decision I have made I have done so after careful consideration of the facts. I neither asked for, nor sort special treatment because of my exploits as commander of the armies when I was still in my prime. But because of those exploits I ask you to hear me now.”
There was a murmur of disquiet beneath him, but it was soon silenced by the Elders, who, stationed at the front, raised their staffs to hold back the crowd. They were former men of greatness, the strongest and bravest of all men, both experienced and wise. Despite their own misgivings about the Chief, they held the crowd at bay, their staffs sparkling with a menacing magic which warned of swift punishment should any man or woman dare attempt to break the deadlock.
“For marrying the Princess, the sister of the King of Doomsdore, I do not apologize.” Again there was a rumbling of disquiet at his words. He waited for the crowd again to settle. “I am the King of the North, the Chief of Elders and ruler of all Northaven. So long as I am ruler I will act in the best interest of all the peoples north of Riversbreath. Hear me and hear me good.” He waited with a pause designed to let his words assure them he meant business and was not about to be overthrown on a whim. “I brought peace to these lands many years ago. It was a hard won peace which has lasted since your fathers were boys and your mothers were still young maidens. I have the sword of Edensong and the crown of Elderidge. I sit on the throne of Jade and have occupied my trusted position without once failing my office.”
It was all true, every word of it. No one could argue he had been a great ruler. But even great men can come undone with seeming innocuity. His pending marriage had brought protests from some quarters, not enough to cause a coup, but enough to guarantee some, even some of the Elders, would question his state of mind.
“I have never wavered, nor am I ashamed of anything I have done, be it small choice or large decision. Yet, here we all are, standing here as if one man’s marriage to one woman makes all the difference in the world. I do concede that it has caused a level of frustration and for that I do take blame. But my marriage to Lady Saline was both a timely and proper choice, as will be played out in time.”
There was a growing rumble behind the staffs of the Elders, which now hissed their disapproval at an increasingly restless crowd, who were starting to push forwards. The Elders still held their positions, all twenty four of them affronting a crowd of several thousand men and women. Despite the magic power contained in their staffs, the Elders knew that should the crowd surge forward en masse, they would be powerless to stop them, save the first two or three ranks.
But just as the crowd began to push forwards, a booming voice like that of thunder filled the air above them and a burst of light, short lived, though brighter than the rising sun, thrust a ring of energy outwards in all directions, its force causing some in the crowd to lose their balance and fall backwards. The crowd desisted as they stared, mouths gaping, eyes wild with fright at the man on the hill who now resembled a god and not merely a king.
“DESIST FROM YOUR RECKLESS MALECONTENT AT ONCE!” their king bellowed. His voice echoed off the distant hills and rebounded with almost as much ferocity as the source. There was silence for a moment as the air went still and calm once more. “Do you think me unwise? Do you take me for a fool? I was born in a time of famine. My mother had barely the milk to fill my belly when I was but an infant. My father tilled a land as dry as the summer days are long. He bled for this land, fought for it, DIED FOR IT!…as I did many of your fathers and grandfathers before them. Do you think I would let go easily the lands they so desperately fought for? Do you think I would be so careless as to let a marriage be the end of all things? You think you are wise. You think you understand the times? You think your inferior knowledge somehow worth more than a King’s? FOOLS!”
Some of the Elders stood shaking beneath him, though they kept their stance and fixed their eyes on the crowd, searching for any troublemakers brave or stupid enough to ignore the power in the voice of their King. One man stepped forward and positioned himself between the crowd, who now stood several paces back and the Elders, who were watching his every move. One of the Elders held up his staff as if to strike, but the man made a gesture of peace. He looked up at the King and calmly spoke.
“My King, our lord and hero, who can argue with such words in these times of upheaval. Nobody doubts your word or the history of your benevolent rule. You are our King, a position you won by right through your many acts of bravery. You have proven yourself to be a wise ruler, unequalled in all four kingdoms.” The man was no statesmen, not an Elder or even a minister. He was a simple farmer from the wetlands bordering the mountains that formed a natural boundary of their Kingdom. But he spoke as one who was learned and because of this the King listened. “I beseech you not as one who wants to overthrow your rule, but as one who by necessity needs to know what it our King is doing and why our gracious Lord and ruler chose of all the Ladies in the four kingdoms, to marry the sister of our oldest enemy?”
It was a reasonable question and one which, had it been delivered in any other manner, might well have incurred the wrath of the King. But, spoken as it were both eloquently and logically, it caused the King to pause a moment before answering. The man, unmoved, stood bravely awaiting whatever response would come from his King.
“Indeed, an answer and not just any answer but one which makes sense. Well then, at the risk of giving away strategy, an answer you shall have. Very well then, since it took a humble farmer to phrase the question so many of you have failed to adequately put to your king, I will honor it with an answer. But before I do, I make this declaration. The answer I now give is dangerous. The enemy of our forefathers has many ears in the land. They find form in hermits and squatters and travelers from afar. They mingle here and there, their ears twitching for anything that might give away a hint of dissention or a secret piece of knowledge. Some of these ears may well be present here on this morning. Who’s to tell? Do you, the people I preside over agree to accept the consequences of knowing the answer to this question?”
The King waited as he watched many in the crowd begin to nod their consent and then speak with one voice. “We so accept and acknowledge we have been warned.”
“I married the King’s sister not out of a misplaced sense of duty, nor because she is particularly beautiful, nor did I marry her to gain the trust of our enemy, the King of Doomsdore. I married her not for any reason other than this. She is not the sister of the said King.”
Their King let that first part of his answer filter down and fill the empty part of their brains that so craved to be filled. There were some audible gasps from the throng. Many had believed the King had married to bring order or perhaps to prevent war or even just to share the two Kingdoms. The King of Doomsdore had seven sisters and as far as anyone understood they were all legitimate children. Marrying so many sisters off to suitable princess proved to be difficult enough, but gaining the trust of the King of the North would have been a serious personal victory for the King of the South and one of which he was clearly proud. But nobody trusted the son of their enemy who had caused the great wars which tore the world apart an age ago. But their King had not finished.
“No, she is not his sister. It is information only a few people in the world have knowledge of and now so do you. She is not his sister, she is not even his cousin, neither is she related by blood at all. She is in fact, not even their kin.” Once more the King let this fact flow down into their minds. Again there was disquiet as each one spoke to their neighbor. He let them settle. “She is a trophy, the only child of a man said to be a Mage who himself has passed away. But nobody was certain if she was in fact the Mage’s daughter. She was captured and sold into slavery when she was still too young to remember it. Not even her own sisters know who she really is and, at least for the present, neither does the King of Doomsdore. Only in recent times did the whole truth of who she is dawn on your King.”
There was a long and troubling silence as the crowd absorbed the words of their King. The farmer wore an anxious expression, like he did not want to know the answer to a question he nonetheless now felt compelled to ask. “Then, my Lord, ruler of the North and greatest of Kings, who is she?”
A difficult enough question to answer given what the King knew, but one which he was now forced to give. Like a gambler who had placed his last bag of silver on the table, he was all in. There was nothing to stop the inevitable consequences of the truth, which no doubt would find its way to the ears of an old enemy made angry by the discovery of it. It would spell certain war, of that there would be little doubt. A part of him wanted to keep the secret and prolong the agony. Indeed, had the King any credence left with his own people, he would certainly not have divulged the information to his most trusted servants, let alone a farmer and commoners. But it appeared he now had little choice. Despite his obvious power and the reluctant loyalty of the Elders, war seemed inevitable, for it was only a matter of when and not if that the King of Doomsdore would find out, though he still had him at a slight disadvantage.
“Bring forth Lady Saline,” commanded the King and his wife was ushered forward and stood not far from the Farmer. She was accompanied by servants and her ladies in waiting. She stood slender and beautiful at the head of the crowd, with her silk dress sweeping the raw earth as she stepped forward a little more. She bowed dutifully before her husband, but raised not an eyebrow, neither did she smile or show any emotion on her stunning face as she rose again. “Here before you is my dear wife, the Lady Saline, to whom I owe my life and for whom I would defend this kingdom.”
The farmer was struck by her manner and the way she framed herself against the grassy backdrop of the hill, upon which her husband still stood, one hand outstretched towards her. He had rarely seen a woman with such unique and yet pure features, enough to make most men gaze in stunned silence whenever she happened by. Her paler complexion always looked slightly out of place compared to the darker skinned natives of her brother’s land. She was much more at home in the north, where the color of her skin matched more the snows of the mountains than the sands of deserts. He was struck also by how her featured mirrored at least in part the features of their King. Such a seeming perfect match there never was. While he paused to consider all this the truth dawned on him even before the King gave one last piece of vital information that would rock their world and plunge the kingdoms into another age of war.
“No, she is not the sister of our enemy, the King of Doomsdore, but she is a sister.” The King paused for a moment and then closed his eyes as he spoke the words he knew would be their doom. “She is the daughter of my father and my own dear lost sister. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood and the mother of my future heir.”
Copyright@2015 Paul G Day