|The Rise of the Pirate King|
A gruesome scream punctuated the golden air. He turned towards the awful sound. Before his terrified eyes, he saw a narl fling itself on his mother, ripping her throat with its sharp, canine teeth. Another jumped upon his father, killing him before he could draw his knife. The boy cried out as the narls surrounded him.
Tarque drew himself from the memory. After all these years, he still envisioned the scene. His parents were dead, eaten by narls. A peaceful, happy time had ended in sorrow and death. His last memory was of a vortex of air lifting him high in the air, away from the snarling, snapping jaws. His world evaporated into darkness.
His steed cantered down the road to Vintown. As he entered the capital city of Sylvanhaven, he sensed the excitement in the air. Workers busied themselves erecting tents. Colorful banners flew from poles along the streets. Shouts filled the city as the people prepared for the festival. Aromas of pastries, sweet meats and other culinary delights filled the air. The parallel between his memory and the state of the kingdom was apt. Peace and prosperity reigned here in the most powerful of the Six Kingdoms. The people were happy and gay, unaware of the calamity that gathered beyond the horizon.
Seven days. He had seven days. He had to convince the King to change the festival. If he could not, then catastrophe would ride through the kingdom like a knight through a potter's shop.
He rode his horse along the wharf. Ships from all over the Six Kingdoms lined the docks. Dock workers loaded and unloaded cargo. The sound of prosperity rang in the air, and the people were happy. He could see the King's Docks from his vantage on an overlook along the wharves. Crews were outfitting six ships in port for their next voyage. Banners and flags flew from the newest ship, the Queen Sand. After the Festival, the ships would form a flotilla that would visit each of the capitals of the other five kingdoms. The purpose was to introduce the Crown Prince to the other kingdoms. All the other nations feared Sylvanhaven’s might.
He turned his path, following the Road of the Crystalcrest along the River Fleet, which led him to the palace of the King. As he entered the Courtyard of the Crystal, he looked with scorn on the heresy. The Fountain of Arii stood in the center of the plaza in front of the palace. Water brought by aqueduct from upstream gushed over the glistening crystal and fell in a cascade to the white basin below, forming a pool. A sparkling stream exited this pool and made its way back to the River Fleet. Workers toiled in the sun, erecting the platform from which King Bern Vin would oversee the festivities.
This was the source of the calamity. The kingdom had strayed from the Covenant upon which it rested. The Kings had become proud and shunned the old ways. As the people strayed, Arii's power waned. His protection would soon fail and the creature would escape.
He turned and looked again on the clear, cold waters of the River Fleet. The river sprang from the real Crystalcrest, the abode of Arii, near the crest of the Crystalline Mountains. The river coursed through the heart of the kingdom, blessing it with Arii's presence. This road, the Avenue of the Kings, followed the course of the river to its source on Crystalcrest. It led through many cities and hamlets that drew their strength from the traffic along the river.
In seven days the Crown Prince would turn ten, the Age of Awakening. He would be of age for the Quest of the Covenant. Dedication of the children to the service of Arii took place during the Quest on their tenth birthdays. This year it would be a special occasion because Crown Prince Bearl would take part.
In the old days, the Festival took place at the true Crystalcrest. Arii looked into the hearts of the children and saw their potential. He inscribed there their life's work, assigning it by the desires of their heart and their natural talents. Then that evil wizard wormed his way into the heart of Karo, the father of King Bern Vin, and the Quest of the Covenant ended.
Tarque recalled his last audience with Arii. He was growing weaker as the people drifted away. The strength of the creature he held captive grew stronger. If the Prince attained the Age of Awakening and did not come to Arii, then Arii's power would fail. When his power failed, then Gwaum would escape. The kingdom would fall.
Tarque turned his horse to look again at the Palace. His audience with the King would be this afternoon. He was not optimistic about his success. The king was obstinate and proud. He had warned him many times in the past. This was the last warning. If he failed, in seven days Arii would pass from this realm. The monster would awaken. The Kingdom of Sylvanhaven would fall.
What would happen to the other five kingdoms was anyone’s guess. The power of Sylvanhaven was all that kept the peace. Without that power, Tarque feared that the Six Kingdoms would descend into chaos. It would be a terrible time like that which preceded the Covenant. That was what he was working to prevent.
He wheeled his horse around, spurred him to a canter. It was time to secure his quarters, eat and prepare for his audience with the King. Tarque soon arrived at his destination, the Crystalcrest Inn. He dismounted and gave the reins to the livery boy who came out to greet him.
"I will need the horse in four hours," he instructed the lad.
At that, Tarque climbed the steps and entered the inn. People eating their noontime meal crowded the inn. Tarque caught the innkeeper's eye.
"Ah, Tarque, you have arrived. I received your yuhma bird with its message. I have readied your quarters."
"Thank you, Darel," said Tarque. "I need to prepare for my audience this afternoon. I will have a light lunch, and then retire to my room to clean up and dress."
"I will have fresh washing water in the bowl, some soap and clean linen. Do you want to eat now?"
"Yes, I will have some soup and cheese."
"You may dine in my private room. I know you will want privacy to rest after your long journey."
Tarque followed Darel through the door at the back of the room, sat down at the plain wooden table. He looked out the window. The alley that passed beneath the window appeared dark and abandoned, matching his mood.
A plump middle-aged woman soon appeared with a bowl of soup, a plate of cheese and a glass of dark ale. Tarque ate in silence and washed the meal down with the ale. He arose and climbed the stairs to his quarters. The cooing of birds met him as he opened the door. His eyes lit on his yuhma birds, which were in a cage near the window.
He walked over to the cage and said, "Ah, my little beauties. I see you are awaiting me."
He opened the cage and withdrew one of the birds. He scooped up some grain that was in a bucket near the cage. He allowed the bird to feed from his palm while he stroked its feathers. Then he walked to the window, opened it and released the bird.
"Fly away, my friend. Fly home. I will return in a couple of days to tend you and your friends."
He watched the bird fly away. Yuhma birds were one of his specialties. The great wizard Nerza first perfected the art of using the birds.. They served as messengers between him and the few remaining followers of Arii. There was always one here, with Darel. The innkeeper used it to communicate with Tarque in his faraway home on the mountain. Tarque had others around the kingdom. They helped him maintain contact with the small, and dwindling, adherents of the followers of Arii. Rockheads the people referred to them, with derision, in reference to the pendant adherents wore. A small piece of the Crystalcrest of Arii affixed to a chain worn on a necklace hid them from the King’s Crystal Eye that he used to watch the people of his kingdom. The Rockheads only wore this adornment during the Quest, but the name stuck as word of it spread.
Devised by Tarque’s predecessor, Aron, at the cost of his life, the charm’s magic was all that had kept Gwaum at bay. Even that seemed now to be failing.
Tarque removed his dusty traveling clothes. He washed himself at the washing stand and toweled himself dry. He gazed at himself in the mirror. His face was still unlined, and his black hair still jet-black, with only flecks of gray. He thought of that time in Niru, almost twenty years ago, and the girl who was with him. They had accomplished much in that silver-lined time long ago. Then he had to leave. He wondered what happened to her.
He laid down on the bed to rest. His thoughts dwelled on the state of the kingdom, and he worried about his audience with the King. The Kings of Sylvanhaven had become proud and arrogant, forgetting the source of their power. King Bern Vin was the latest, and the most arrogant of the line that dated from Bearl, the first King. It seemed fitting that the King named the Crown Prince, destined to be the last of the line, Bearl, after this first heroic King.
The sun's shadows shifted to reveal the passing of the noontime to early afternoon. Tarque arose from the bed, pulled his dress robe from the bag. He shook it, pulled it on and tied the sash. He left the room and descended to the street. The livery boy saw him come down the steps and darted out the door ahead of the old wizard. He appeared in a few moments with the horse.
Tarque placed a copper coin into his dirty hand and said, "Thank you lad. I will be returning later."
"Thank you, Sir," said the boy, with a grateful look at the copper coin in his hand, and then at the wizard who rode away.
Tarque arrived at the palace and nodded to the guards. They allowed him to enter. A page appeared.
"I am Tarque, and I have an audience scheduled with the King," Tarque said.
The page nodded, intoning, "He is expecting you, Guardian. Follow me."
Tarque followed the page down a long, curtained hall. At the end of the hall were two massive wooden doors. Elaborate candelabras stood on either side of the door, guards beside them. One of the guards inspected Tarque's face.
"Your staff, please," the guard said.
"Be careful with it. It does not like unfamiliar hands."
The guard took it, his eye catching the golden star that shone bright on the handle of Tarque’s staff. Fear flickered across his face as he placed the staff in a golden bucket near the wall. He then opened one of the doors. Tarque walked into the throne room. King Bern Vin sat on his throne and watched him approach, his face portraying the boredom he felt.
Tarque walked toward the king, stopped and bowed.
"Greetings, King Vin."
"Greetings, Tarque. What dire news do you bring me today?"
Tarque took a deep breath, looked into the eyes of the King, and said, "Again I bring you warning, King Bern Vin. The power of Arii grows weaker. The Quest of the Covenant has dwindled; those in his service are few. His ability to protect the Kingdom is flagging."
"You speak of old legends and tales, Wizard Priest. We are strong. No power can oppose us."
"There are ancient powers that dwell in this land," answered Tarque. "These powers are such that your knights cannot defeat. Arii has been holding these evil powers at bay. But his strength wanes."
"You have warned of these dangers," replied the King. "Your predecessor Aron carped about them, also. My father Karo grew weary of his maledictions, as I grow tired of yours. The dangers you speak of have never occurred."
The wizard drew himself up to his full height.
"Your son, Bearl, is ten years old next week. It is time that the Prince took the Quest of the Covenant. He is of age, Sire."
"You mean the trek to that forsaken rock on that faraway mountain?"
"Yes, Sire. The Prince must take up the old ways. It is the only way to avert disaster."
"Nonsense," said Bern. "The festivities are all planned. No child has taken that Quest in many years. His dedication will take place at the Fountain as planned."
“You went to Crystalcrest when you were ten. You felt the presence of Arii.”
The King smiled.
“Yes, I did go on that worthless trek. This Arii you speak of, he did not appear to me. That is why my father instituted this ceremony. He sensed that Arii did not touch me. Thus, his power has waned. This ceremony is closer to the capital and brings commerce to the merchants of the city.”
"Your artificial ceremony at your imitation shrine will not suffice. He must travel to the Crystalcrest of Arii at the source of the River Fleet. He must dedicate himself to Arii. This is the only way to save the Kingdom."
"No," snarled the King. "I want to hear no more of your prattle about ancient gods or nonexistent ghosts who threaten my kingdom. The time of your magic is gone, Wizard. Go back to your mountain lair and worship your god. We have our ships and knights. No one can threaten us. It is now the Age of Men. Your time has passed. There are few wizards of your kind left, and they grow fewer by the year."
Thus dismissed, Tarque left the audience with the King with a sour taste on his tongue. He knew beforehand that his plea would be in vain, but he had to try. On the way out, he saw Aeoric, the captain of the King's guard. For a brief instant, their eyes met. Aeoric guessed the turmoil in Tarque's eyes. But he said nothing as Tarque passed on his way back out to the street.
As he exited the palace, he paused to look over the square in front of the palace. It was already busy with preparations for the festival.
His eyes rested on the Fountain. King Karo Vin, the father of the current king, constructed it under the direction of that other wizard. That wizard had caused great harm before Tarque and the girl had stopped him. His eye wandered to the great tower that rose above the plaza. It was still there, inside that tower, awaiting the rise of its creator. But Tarque had greater immediate problems.
Many of the people in the outlying communities still adhered to the old ways, at great risk. The King kept a watchful eye and persecuted any he caught going to the mountain with their children. The numbers of adherents was small and getting smaller as the years passed. His predecessor Aron had managed to shepherd a small group of Sylvanhaveners into maintaining the Quest. However, the numbers were never large and not enough. Arii needed the King and all the people or his power would fail. And if Arii failed, then danger reigned.
Tarque's mind settled on the one fact uttered by the King. His kind was getting fewer. Few Wizards of the Golden Star remained. Such was the state of things. There were other, lesser wizards and witches scattered around the Six Kingdoms. His mind lit on another Order, the Order of Solaun. He had seen one of these women lurking behind the throne. So, King Bern Vin was under the influence of one of these. The Kingdom had fallen far since the days of Bearl and the first kings.
He rode back to the Crystalcrest Inn, dismounted and handed the reins to Resh, the groom. He entered the inn. It was late afternoon. The evening crowd had not started to gather, so it was easy to find a table near the back of the great room. A small fire crackled in the fireplace, providing warmth to the room.
Darel saw him enter and soon appeared with two glasses of ale. He placed one in front of Tarque and sat down. He took a drink of the frothy liquid and sat down.
"I take it that you were not successful," he noted, seeing the displeasure on Tarque's face.
Tarque picked up the glass, took a healthy pull at the amber liquid, and said, "I have failed. There is no hope."
"What will you do now?"
Tarque's eyes wandered around the great room.
"I must confer again with Arii. You must contact the Rockheads here and tell them to get ready to flee. When the storm arises, it will flood the Kingdom. There will be little time."
"Where shall we flee? The other kingdoms will not welcome the Sylvanhaveners. The will not want us."
"I do not know, Darel. Tomorrow I will arise early and hasten back to the Mountain. I will talk to Quinn at Bridgetown, and warn him of the impending disaster. I will send word to you after consulting with Arii."
"I will contact the followers," said Darel.
"You must also contact Aeoric. He must save the Prince."
"The Prince? Why must you save him? He is a spoiled brat."
"The Prince is the heir of the Covenant between Arii and the heirs of Bearl. If there is to be hope of defeating Gwaum, it lies with the boy."
"I will send word to my cousin Aeoric. He is the only Rockhead in the King's court."
"I will dine early tonight, Darel. Then I will retire to my quarters and rest. Tomorrow I will depart before the sun rises. I must get to Bridgetown by midday."
"Most of the followers are there."
"Yes, but they are few."
"And they are getting fewer."
Tarque drained the mug of ale, placed it back on the table and stood. "I will take a walk, now," he said. "When I return, I will dine. Then I will go to bed."
"I will have a plate of food ready for you."
Tarque stood up. "Thank you, Darel. You always anticipate my needs."
"We have been friends for a long time, Tarque."
Their eyes met. "We will soon be in exile, my friend. Hard times are coming."
At that, Tarque left the table and walked into the street.
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