The Fall of Kings - Chapter 2
DescriptionMacralor returns to Vectis
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A loud knock on Livia’s bedroom door woke her with a start. She needed a moment to rub her eyes and let out a yawn before she responded to shouts of her name with a ‘yes?’ The door opened into the large, spacious room. The Princess lay in her bed situated at the centre of the back wall, with a chest of drawers either side of it. Dark curtains blocked the early morning light from entering the room. Livia sat up in bed, squinting and blinking as she adjusted her eyes to see Castia, one of the oldest of the Royal maids, approaching her bed. ‘He’s back, my Lady,’ she said. ‘He’s been seen walking into Sirinium.’ ‘When?’ Livia demanded, jumping out of bed and opening her curtains. ‘This morning, my Lady, he’s on his way back to the palace as we speak.’ Castia helped the Princess get changed into a light blue tunic, fastened at the shoudlers with a golden clasp bearing the image of a dove. The tunic held close to her thin frame and ran down to her ankles. Livia hurried out of the room and briskly walked along the wide stone passageways of Arad Duriz, the Royal palace. She ran past portraits of the Kings and Queens of the past that adorned the walls, and elegant tapestries woven by the finest weavers that Vectis had to offer. Images of doves, depictions of bloody battles, and the faces of her ancestors passed her in a blur as she made her way to the front of the palace. She finally came to a small wooden door that led to the palace foyer. White pillars on either side of the room lifted the ceiling high. Stained glass windows beamed an array of colours into the room as the sun rose. Guards, noblemen and even servants gathered in small groups, whispering in excitement. Those whispers were silenced as members of each group turned to see Livia bounding into the foyer and making for the large doors at the front of the room. Before she could make it halfway across the room, however, the doors opened slowly to reveal Prince Macralor, with a tired look in his eye. Livia ran to her brother, who dropped a large sack on the floor before she threw her arms around him. ‘We hadn’t heard anything for a while, we were getting worried,’ Livia exclaimed as she finally released him from her tight grasp. ‘This is me you’re talking to,’ he responded with a smile. ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ ‘Well there had been talk that you would come back without your head.’ ‘Oh come on, this face is far too good-looking to be removed from the rest of me,’ Macralor grinned. ‘Well if there was half a brain inside that head, it might be worth keeping it on,’ Livia answered as they shared a laugh. Macralor picked up the large sack from the floor and walked into the foyer with Livia, the two of them heading for a set of double-doors at the back of the room. ‘And what gift have you brought me?’ Livia asked with a smile as she glanced at the sack in Macralor’s hand. ‘Honestly, I really don’t think you’d want it,’ he grinned. They reached the black doors at the back of the foyer and entered a long, narrow room with a stone floor. More portraits hung on the walls beside them as they walked. Ancient swords and shields were presented on platforms around the room; weapons belonging to the Kings of the past. Macralor spotted King Aurest sat at the back of the room on a large throne, flanked by four of his advisers, two on each side, situated in a horseshoe shape around him. The seats were raised at the top of three steps. All conversation in the room stopped as Aurest stood himself up and walked down the steps towards his children. ‘Welcome home, son,’ he proclaimed as he embraced Macralor. He wore long red robes and fine gold rings decorated his fingers. A glint in his blue eyes gave a youthful contrast to his grey hair and beard. ‘Your return took longer than I expected, the problem wasn’t as straightforward as we thought?’ ‘I made contact with the villager who sent word. It seems the situation in the village was much more serious than first thought,’ Macralor replied. ‘More livestock? How many?’ Aurest asked. ‘No, father. A villager.’ A look of concern grew on the King’s face. ‘And you found the animal?’ ‘This was no mere animal. It was a secaral,’ Macralor answered. Aurest’s advisers shot inquisitive glances at one another at the name of the beast. ‘Impossible,’ Aurest exclaimed. ‘What’s a secaral?’ Livia asked. Macralor opened the sack and dropped the severed head of the secaral onto the floor. A collective gasp from the King’s advisers echoed around the room, and Livia held her hand to her mouth and looked away. ‘How could this be?’ Aurest asked. ‘I think we need to ask King Rannus,’ Macralor said sternly. ‘We were lucky this one wasn’t fully grown, but his soldiers are supposed to be killing them before they even grow to this size.’ ‘Then there’s the question of how it escaped,’ Aurest responded. ‘And how many more thee are.’ Aurest kept his gaze fixed on the cold, dead eyes of the secaral, with a far-away look in his eyes. Macralor knew this look; the wheels in his head were turning. Livia looked to her father, then to her brother, hoping to make some sense of all of this. However, she had long given up hope that either of them would explain matters like this to her. After a long moment of contemplation, the King finally spoke again. ‘Once again, I will ask a great deal of you, son.’ ‘Anything, father,’ was Macralor’s reply. ‘I need you to go to Gryst and explain the situation to Rannus’ soldiers there. Find out as much as you can from them about recent raids on the animals there, and see if they can shed light on how one might have escaped.’ ‘Am I to take troops?’ ‘No,’ Aurest said firmly. ‘You are to take a security detail in case you come across any more of these creatures on the way there. This cannot be seen to look like a military operation against an allied nation. And if the soldiers of Alcander give you orders, they are to be obeyed. Rannus will not take kindly to his authority being undermined or his army questioned. Do you understand?’ ‘Yes, father.’ ‘Report back to me when you return, and we will arrange a meeting with Rannus. For now, though, rest and begin your journey tomorrow.’ Macralor bowed to his father and left the throne room with the secaral head stuffed back into his sack. Aurest turned back to his advisers and adjourned their meeting. The four of them stood up and, after bowing, left the room. From the balcony adjoining the palace library, Livia had the best view of the palace gardens anyone could hope to have. Since she was a child, she had spent hours on that balcony, either losing herself in a book, or letting her eyes scan the surrounding landscape filled with trees, both young and ancient The large fountain was surrounded by flowerbeds that coloured the gardens with beautiful shades of red, blue and yellow, and on the horizon lay the Vectan Sea, which was now streaked with sunlight. Livia had sat there for hours, reading in a silence that was then broken by the sound of footsteps in the library behind her. She looked around to see her father walking towards her, and taking a seat next to her as she put her book down. ‘I haven’t been entirely fair to you,’ Aurest said softly, trying to smile but a hint of guilt in his eyes gave him away. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I haven’t prepared you well enough, not like I have prepared Macralor. I always told myself that Macralor must be the one to be raised to be a leader. As the next in line, he must shoulder such responsibility. I thought that meant I could keep my little girl innocent, free from politics and conflict. I wanted a quiet life for you, but the more I see your brother take on a military role, the more I realise that if anything happens to him...’ ‘Father...’ she tried to protest at the mention of this, but Aurest raised a hand to stop her. ‘If anything happens to him after I am gone, then the burden of leadership falls on you, a burden that is heavy enough for those who are prepared for it. I have been foolish, and I am sorry. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that I have frustrated you,’ he said warmly. ‘From now on, you are to sit in with me and my advisers, as well as receive tutoring in politics. Any chance you get, I want you take as much knowledge as you can from myself and the people closest to me.’ ‘Well, you can start by telling me what on earth all that was about earlier,’ Livia replied with a smile. ‘What was that thing?’ Aurest shifted in his seat and looked away from Livia for a moment before replying. Clearly, he was going to have to get used to this. ‘You have heard, of course, about the War of the Gods?’ he said. Livia nodded, ‘I’ve heard of it, I can’t say I know about it in great detail,’ Livia answered. ‘Well, when Seradin, one of the Great Gods of Eridia, betrayed the other five, his revolt led to a devastating war. He decimated the land of Gryst, turning a once prosperous country to nothing but ash and rubble. As he did this, he unleashed a dark power onto the land, corrupting it. This power gave rise to all kinds of unnatural beasts. What you saw today was one of them. They have been birthed by this dark magic for over four thousand years. Seradin used the secaral, and many other creatures, to attempt to destroy the humanity he had helped create.’ ‘But why?’ Livia asked. ‘Early in the reign of the Gods, they were asked by humans to settle disputes and intervene in wars between the nations of the world. Because of this, Seradin came to view humans as weak, barbaric and uncivilised. He believed that humanity should be wiped out and replaced with a more advanced race. When the others uncovered his plan, war broke out in Eridia. Seradin, of course, was defeated. Some say he was destroyed altogether. Others believe he could one day return.’ ‘And what of the other Gods?’ ‘Otri was killed during the War of the Gods. The four others haven’t been seen since then. After seeing the destruction their war caused, and being unable to restore Gryst, they exiled themselves, believing humanity was better off without them, and that their power should never again be used in affairs concerning humanity. Once they left, it was decided that Alcander, which boasted the mightiest military force at the time, and the country closest to Gryst, would oversee the hunting of the creatures that remained there, killing them with ruthless efficiency before they could grow. They built walls and fortifications around the country to prevent anything escaping, and they have been successful, until now.’ ‘That is why there is such a concern about this one that Macralor killed.’ ‘Exactly,’ Aurest replied. ‘This is the first time that anything has escaped the deserts of Gryst.’ ‘What exactly is it that births them? Why can’t they stop them at the source?’ ‘It has never been discovered exactly where these animals are created, only that it is somewhere underground, seemingly hidden to all who have tried to find it. It is dark magic that breeds them, but no one has found a way to stop it in these last four thousand years.’ ‘I assume an appeal to the Gods has already been tried?’ ‘Of course, many times, and there has been no answer. They are not coming back.’ Livia pondered this for a moment. What hope was there if, for some reason, she came to rule over Vectis with these monsters running amok? She would be thrown in at the deep end, with no idea how to resurface. As grateful as she was for her father’s change of heart regarding her tutoring, she couldn’t help but feel it would be too little, too late, if anything were to happen to her brother and her father. ‘Can this be dealt with? Do we have the means to put things right again with these things in Gryst?’ she asked. ‘Much rests on Macralor’s shoulders. We will know more when he travels there,’ Aurest replied. ‘For now, I think that’s enough for your first lesson. I will leave you in peace.’ As the King rose to his feet, Livia did the same and embraced him. ‘Thank you, father,’ she said. ‘For what?’ Aurest asked. ‘For trusting me. I mean, it took you long enough,’ she said with a chuckle, ‘but I appreciate this. I won’t let you down.’ Aurest smiled back at his daughter, ‘I know.’ Macralor sat on the edge of his bed, staring intently at the sword resting in his hands, which were placed on his lap. Images and sounds in his mind began to torture him. The snarl on the face of the beast. The blood staining its teeth. That growl. What if my strike had been a second too late? I’d never have returned home, he thought. Two guards were killed. That’s two widows. Macralor caught himself. He had been through this with his father before. ‘You mustn’t beat yourself up,’ Aurest had always said. ‘Of course, things don’t always go our way. At that point, you must ask yourself, ‘can I change this?’ If you can, change it. If you can’t, all you can do is make the best of a bad situation.’ And I did make the best of it, didn’t I? If I hadn’t made the choices I made, who knows how many others that beast might have killed. He had to remind himself that, although there were deaths, his quick-thinking and decisiveness had prevented so much more misery and despair. Why do I keep doing this to myself? He was so deep in thought that the sound of a knock on his bedroom door startled him out of his trance. ‘Come in,’ he called. The face of Aldred, one of the King’s advisers, poked his head around the now open door and entered the room. He wore black robes around his tall, thin frame. He carried himself like a younger man, but his grey hair and the wrinkles just starting to appear on his face gave away his experience. He bowed as Macralor rose from his bed to greet him. ‘Aldred, I didn’t know you were still here. What can I do for you?’ ‘Well, Your Majesty, I never got a chance to congratulate you on your impressive victory,’ Aldred replied in a deep voice. ‘Hardly impressive, Aldred,’ Macralor answered with a scoff. ‘Nonsense, Aldred said. ‘It’s not every day a secaral nearing adulthood is taken down, let alone so swiftly.’ ‘And how do you know it was swift?’ Macralor asked. ‘The guards talk, Your Majesty. It seems they are just as impressed with you as your father is.’ ‘He said he was impressed?’ Macralor enquired, with a quick glance at Aldred. ‘Of course. I must say, his willingness to give you more military responsibility is telling. He believes you’re well on your way to becoming a great leader.’ ‘You think so?’ ‘Why else would he send you to Gryst? He could have gone himself,’ Aldred replied. ‘I suppose. Well, if I’m to be half the King he is, I’ll be happy,’ Macralor said as he sat back down on his bed. ‘I do feel he is misguided on one thing, though,’ Aldred said. ‘I think he is mistaken if he thinks we will not be forced to start a takeover of Gryst.’ ‘What do you mean? Rannus will not accept that.’ ‘With all due respect, Your Majesty, I fear that the King of Alcander is no longer up to the task. There have been rumours for weeks, sightings of these creatures that have not been acted upon. In my mind, that means Rannus is either in denial, or no longer capable. Let’s face it, Alcander is not the military power it once was. Rannus’ father saw to that. Vectis is much more suited to the role now, if you ask me.’ Macralor stood again and said seriously, ‘We cannot let it come to that. My father is adamant that the old alliances are kept strong. We will find a way to deal with this amicably.’ ‘Of course,’ Aldred responded. ‘Forgive me for speaking out of turn, Your Majesty, and safe travels.’ With a bow, Aldred turned and left the room, closing Macralor’s door behind him. Macralor stared out of his bedroom window. What if he’s right? Is Rannus in denial or incapable? He would have to see what his trip to Gryst revealed.