The hall was only recently finished, built hastily yet solidly from wood and thatch. It was the first room in what would be a complex, but for now all those who had to live there slept on makeshift pallets on the floor, which was of dirt strewn with reeds. The furniture was mismatched and, occasionally, broken. There was an unfinished air to the place, a feeling of expectation.
Scarcely the abode of a High King, Gelar thought bitterly. But despite its shortcomings, the hall was still the only building of its kind between the seas. The only palace, for the only king.
It had been a long, hard struggle. The thousands of tribes and mini-kingdoms that had sprung up after the wars had been so numerous that almost every fence or hedge marked a national border, and every one had different laws and hated outsiders. In this chaos, after years of struggle, Gelar's father had formed a successful raiding band, land-pirates to attack, loot and pillage anyone too weak to fight back. Gelar had grown up a fighting nomad, a thief-child, and he loved the bandit life. Yet as he grew, a new ambition grew in him. He wanted to steal more than jewels and finery. He wanted to steal the greatest prize of all.
And he had. Only a small one, but he had killed their leader and become ruler himself, and after that there was no stopping him. Gelar had annexed the smaller kingdoms, one by one at first, until he was the strongest power in all the land and able to proclaim himself High King. Then things had changed.
His new citizens were demanding more of him than food and shelter. They wanted civilisation. Gelar had realised that he had to satisfy this need, or he would face a revolution. So it was that after much thought he finally announced that from that day on, any tribe or nation they annexed would become a slave nation, servants to his own. On the backs of these people, he declared, they would build a city greater than any other, with a palace that was a wonder to behold. They would create the seat of a new nation, a great nation. His nation.
It had worked. Hearing these plans gave his soldiers new purpose, his workers more motivation. Soon the victories, and the slaves, were pouring in. Gelar had given orders to have the new palace and city built beside the river Leort, in order to make it a centre of trade and commerce, before leaving on yet more conquering missions.
And now it was over. Every nation that remained had been conquered, every last person enslaved. Almost.
Gelar scowled as he remembered why he was sitting on the blocky wooden chair that had laughably been designated "the throne". He was here to receive a diplomat, a man who fought with words rather than swords and spears. He was here to meet with the leader of the Sadria, last of the free nations.
The door opened, breaking into the High King's thoughts, and a man walked in, surrounded by Gelar's guards. It was quite a contrast. The guards were all tall and bulky, wearing polished steel armour with tabards showing the new royal symbol, a rising sun on a red background. Gelar had chosen it to tell his people that he was the new hope, the guide into a dawning new age. He was proud of the symbolism.
Between these fine men stood another, far humbler figure. The High King was surprised, although he didn't show it. The Sadria had a reputation for being a people of strange yet strong beliefs, ruled by a well-established priesthood, and he had expected that the man he dealt with would like other such priests he had met in the past. Either a vain fat man in rich robes with no spine, or a crazed fanatic with no wits but a will as hard as iron. The leader of the Sadria, however, was a man of normal proportions, wearing ordinary peasant's garb. A rough brown cloak swathed him from head to foot, a raised hood covering his head. As Gelar watched, the man reached up and lowered the hood, revealing the kindly face of a man who had seen around thirty summers. His soft brown hair was just beginning to go grey. Then the man raised his eyes to meet those of the High King, and Gelar let out an involuntary gasp. The man may have looked like a commoner, but the light in those grey eyes was that of wisdom.
"Your Highness," the man said, in a light and calming tone. "I am Dancer Foren, of the Sadria."
Dancer? Was that his title or his name? wondered Gelar, motioning for the man to step forwards. He leaned into the light, aware of the forbidding impression lent to him by his dark hair and brooding features.
"Why do you come here, Sadrian?" he growled menacingly. "Your people will fall before me anyway. Why should I listen to what you have to say?"
Dancer Foren smiled gently, as if faced with nothing worse than an aggrieved child.
"No doubt you have heard that my people are pacifists, your Highness. And for the most part, this is true. It is a sin for us to go to war. But what you do not comprehend is that there are some things we would do anything, commit any sin to protect. It is these things I am here to defend."
Gelar laughed. "Would you have me believe that you are here for any other purpose than to save your people from slavery?"
The High King sighed, and sat back. "I have had, before now, others coming with words like yours. They asked that I spare their people so that they could hold some sacred trust or another." He leaned forwards once more. "Their pleas meant nothing to me, as will yours."
Foren shook his head. "You misunderstand, High King. I come at the request and decision of our people, not to save them but to sell them."
There was a sudden silence. Every pair of eyes and ears in the hall was fastened on the strange Sadrian man. They couldn't believe what they had just heard. What leader would sell his people so easily?
"You are jesting," said Gelar bluntly. "Your people would not sell themselves into slavery. Sadria is a proud nation, this much I know."
Dancer Foren gave a slow nod. "We are, which is why we ask this bargain. You see, we are not sold for gold, or silver, or gems. We are sold for a promise. Your promise."
"What promise," asked Gelar, fascinated despite himself.
"That as slaves, our people and all out descendents will belong to you and your descendents alone. That your family will neither mistreat us by punishment where it is not warranted, nor by the splitting of parent from child, nor by any other wanton cruelty. That we will be allowed to continue with our sacred trust which you term "religion", without interference or unasked observation.
In return, we will be the faithful servants of the crown. We will not seek to harm or deceive its wearer, nor will we run away. Should any of our people break this faith, we will punish them ourselves for the risk to our trust.
We will ask that this holds true until the Wild Magic returns and the sorcerers regain their power. And we will also ask that the crown takes a part of our trust until that time, to guard beneath the rising sun."
A wave of mutters, of whispers and gasps, spread outwards from where the Sadrian stood, his gaze firmly locked on the High King. Gelar himself was stunned by the offer. A race of willing slaves, loyal to him and his descendants alone, for the rest of eternity? For that was what it amounted to, the return of the Wild Magic. An eternity. But surely there was a catch? A flaw in the offer which seemed too perfect, far too good to be true? Then he remembered.
"What do you ask of me when you say my family should take a part of your trust?" he demanded. "What am I going to have to do to ensure this loyalty?"
Dancer Foren smiled, as if the High King had already accepted the offer. "Not much, your Highness. We ask that in every other generation, beginning with your children, the eldest son is named Foeben, and that you never, ever, change the symbol of your house. We also ask that every solstice, you light a great bonfire in the gardens of your palace."
Gelar frowned. The requests seemed ridiculous, but then religion could be that way. It seemed a small price to pay for such a high reward. But there was still one question to ask.
"If I or my descendents were to break these conditions…" he began. Dancer Foren cut him off.
"If the conditions are broken, in letter or in spirit, then my people will turn against your house with all the fervour they had in protecting it."
Gelar looked once more at the face of the man before him. He seemed to be telling the truth. Slowly, the High King nodded, a soundless acceptance of the conditions. Immediately, the man went on one knee before him, drawing something from beneath his cloak.
"Your Highness, the Sadria offer this gift to your family as a symbol of your promise. Keep it as safely as your word."
Gelar looked at the small object that Dancer Foren held up to him. Slowly, he reached out and took it. The court held its breath as the High King examined the gift, but Gelar was unaware of their regard. In his hands he held a drum, no larger than his palm, affixed to the end of a stick. When the stick was spun in the hands, two beads would swing on their threads and beat the skin in a rapid rhythm. Such drums were not unusual, especially as children's toys, but this one was of far better quality than a mere plaything. The stick and the body of the drum were made from a dark reddish wood, the rich colour accented by the gold of the beads and the pins that held the skin tight. The threads which held the beads had been dyed as dark as the wood they joined to, and the skin of the drum had also been dyed, but in the centre of each face was a pale area where the dye had been blocked. This section, which had been painted gold, was round with waving lines radiating from the centre. A shining sun.
Gelar lifted the drum between his palms, about to play it, but suddenly he paused. He turned back to the emissary, and lowered his head to the man in respect.
"Your people have offered me a great gift," he said softly. "My family will treasure it through the ages, and keep our word as long."
"Then so shall my people," Dancer Foren replied, his eyes lowered. "You have accepted our offer, and now we are your willing slaves."
The High King stood and looked at the man who knelt before him. "Then we have a bargain?" he asked, eagerly.
Dancer Foren raised his eyes to meet the King's, and Gelar shuddered at the strange joy he saw in them, the solid and implacable belief.
"Until the return of the Wild Magic," the man agreed.