In Search of a King

Chapter One

Peridan looked out the window, his forehead knit in thought. His eyes never found focus on the many turrets of the castle, but instead his eyes found their focus in the future.

He saw hills crowned with flowers, wafting in the breeze. Lush green forests with game in plenty. His mind darkened and he closed his eyes when he saw the people. A black cloud seemed to hang over their treatment. They were being beaten and abused. The crack of the whip; a familiar sound in the "peaceful" air. Slave's toiling. The cries of innocent people wafting over the trees at the whip.

His shoulders sagged and he brushed back his already graying hair. I'm not young anymore. Can I protect my people? He turned from the window and sat slowly down into a chair. He stared blankly at the booked shelves.

A knock sounded on his door and then a man entered at his call.

"The messenger is arriving, sir." The servant reported. Peridan nodded and rose quickly.

"Thank you." He strode down the hall, the weariness gone from his shoulders; his eyes still holding their fatigue. He entered the courtyard as the messenger dismounted. Mud caked the horse hooves and the man's cloak was torn in several places. He had ridden hard. Peridan approached swiftly.

"My lord." The mad sank on one knee and bowed his head.

"Rise." Peridan responded. "Summon Merdim Valar." He said to a nearby soldier.

"Tell me everything, Eldres." Peridan said, once the man had sunk wearily into a chair.

"His army was already leaving when I left. By now they have crossed the Western Plains judging by their speed. He will be here in a week. If the rivers are fordable."

"Or the Ilise Pass?" Peridan murmured to himself.

"There is no way. When I crossed a huge rock slide, due to the melting snow, covered the trail. There is no way he could move the rocks with speed. It would take him a week at the least."

"And how swollen was the river?"

"It has risen six feet."

"How many legions goes with him?"

"I saw twelve flags assembled not counting the king's."

"Fifteen thousand." Peridan sat back and ran a hand through his hair. "And a week to cross the river."

Peridan turned his head and welcomed the commander.

"Merdim, sit down." He said.

"What news, sir?" Asked Merdim intently. He was a tall man with broad shoulders and brown hair. His eyes were deep set and he had a fine nose.

"He will be here in two weeks." Peridan turned to Eldres.

"Who else knows of the information that you have told me now?" Eldres looked surprised.

"No one, sir. I never relate any information to any person before conveying the message to you. And after that, never except by your leave."

"Good. Was there anyone in the throne room when you received the King Brithon's reply?"

"Yes, there was. One man over in the corner dressed in brown. Very weather beaten. He left when I did and rode to the north." Peridan nodded.

"Thank you, Eldres. That is all." Eldres bowed and was gone. Peridan stood and Merdim followed him to the corner of the courtyard out of earshot.

"I thought so." Peridan rubbed his chin.

"No one has entered the castles walls today that fits the description Eldres gave. The guards check everyone."

Servants hurried by and the sound of swords clashing came to their ears. The knights were practicing their sword play.

"Send men to burn the bridges that cross the River Elva. Then meet me at sunset on the western walls. I have some things that need attending too." Merdim nodded.

Peridan hurried away, bounding up the steps and disappearing from view.

"Watch your right! Keep your arm up! Move your feet!" Merdim encouraged as he hurried across the courtyard, ducking several strokes.

At sunset Merdim met Peridan on the wall looking to the west. Peridan leaned against the defense staring into the red waves of color descending from view. Peridan turned, at Merdim's footstep.

"Our work was not in vain then." Merdim smiled slightly remembering the preparations they had been doing in the early spring.

"Are the stores all collected?"

"The last donkeys entered the castle today."

"The tunnel?"

"It is completed." Peridan nodded, and turned again to the sunset that was no longer there.

They both then turned their heads at the sounds of two men arguing loudly above the drawbridge. They watched for a moment.

"Excuse me, sir." Merdim hurried over to the accused. Before he could reach them, one slammed his fist into the others face and jumped on him. The tumult aroused a group of soldiers and they came hurrying over. By the time Merdim reached the fight, several others were attempting to stop the brawl. Merdim ducked a swing and threw his fist into the attackers face. The man fell back and lay on the ground shaking his head. Two soldiers held the other at bay. Merdim looked from one to the other and raised his eyebrows.

"What was this about?" He commanded sternly. "Landon? Harras?" Both were silent.

Merdim turned to Harras and raised his eyebrows. "Tell me." Harras wiped a hand across his bleeding lip.

"He was on my watch. So I came over to take my place and he slugged me." Harras glared at Landon still laying on the ground.

"You men go back to your duties." He said, pointing to the small crowd gathered around Merdim and the fighters. "You two stay here." He directed a finger at the two men standing beside Harras. The soldiers disbursed; some looking over their shoulder to see if the excitement was over.

"Harras you may take your watch. Landon get off the ground." Merdim reached down and hauled him up by his tunic. Landon's lips were bleeding in two places, and his tunic was torn.

"Take him to his cell and give him thirty lashes" Merdim grabbed the front of his tunic again and brought him close. "If I find you disobeying an order again," he growled, "you will be hanged." Merdim threw him down and Landon slunk away darting vicious glances at Merdim.

He walked back over to Peridan who was half smiling.

"Trouble?" Said Peridan.

"Yes."

"Landon?"

Merdim nodded.

"It seems to give you plenty of practice, and I wonder if you rather enjoy it some." Peridan chuckled. Merdim smiled in response, but it faded quickly.

"That is the second time he has disobeyed me in an order. Two weeks ago I caught him at the same thing. Although without the fight."

"Mmm…." The quiet seeped around them. A dove cooed gently nearby and an owl hooted mysteriously. The breeze wafted past ruffling Merdim's hair; his cape billowing slightly.

"I think I will have a talk with Landon tonight." Peridan said quietly. He nodded to Merdim and passed under the doorway.

Everything was too quiet. Merdim shifted and looked around. A few men walked below and the sounds of animals mingled with theirs. Something was wrong.

Merdim walked over to where Harras was leaning against the rock. He straightened and saluted Merdim.

"At ease, Harras. Keep your post." Harras resumed and Merdim leaned against the wall. The lights of the village Ancer flickered in the distance. Thunder rolled slowly and clouds were coming up. Big black ominous clouds.

The breeze was becoming a wind. The flags flapped at their posts and the trees rustled. Both Merdim and Harras pulled up their hoods as the first pelting drops flew at them. The lights lining the wall were snuffed out quickly by the rain. Then it came.

Merdim heard the creaking of the drawbridge and then he saw. Out of the trees poured men, riding horses. Attack.

"Close the gate!" Merdim shouted and leaped down the steps calling for men. The drawbridge was down he saw; a gaping mouth in the darkness. His command came too late. The army was surging toward the castle. Merdim looked around. Where were the men? No one came to his call. Alastar ran towards him. The horses hooves hit the drawbridge and they were in.

Among the commotion, ten men surrounded and cornered them, their swords drawn and pointing toward Merdim and Alastar. One word ran through his mind. Betrayal. Where was the royal family? He reached up and jerked his sword free engaging two men from his right. One fell dead leaving nine. Thunder boomed above him and rain pelted the stones beneath their feet. They made a ring around the two as they circled. Two stepped forward quickly, testing his strength.

"The men are all dead." Alastar was able to whisper to him. Merdim jerked his head around.

"All?"

"We were betrayed."

They attacked at once. Merdim and Alastar fought back to back trading swing for swing with their opponents.

"On three, we run. Follow me. We must find the royal family!" Merdim whispered. One jabbed at Merdim's left shoulder, but he blocked it.

"1…..2…..3!" He barged through, using his shoulder as a shield. The men, thinking they were secure, were not ready for this change. They broke away as Merdim and Alastar leaped up the steps.

Ethne pushing her book away and stared out the window. The wind was coming up and dark clouds were forming high in the sky. A thrill went through her body. She loved storms. The thunder and the lightning. Thalos had told her once that she wouldn't love them as much if she was out in them instead of sitting quietly by the window watching. She supposed that was true, but the noise and wetness didn't bother her as much as some people.

The warmness next to her foot suddenly became hot and she jerked it away. The fire had scorched her shoe. A shout came from outside as the rain began pelting the window.

She stood and walked closer only to see a black mass rush toward the castles gate. Her heart stood still and her eyes got wide. She recognized Merdim Valar, captain of the guard, running across the wall and bounding down the steps toward the gatehouse. She realized then that the drawbridge was down and the gate was up. Her mouth opened slowly and she backed from the window her eyes never leaving the black mass that was almost in the castle.

Ethne nearly jumped through the ceiling when she backed into someone. She whirled around only to stare at a coil of rope in the face of her brother, Thalos. Her face held shock. He smiled slowly.

"There are never late, are they?" He said; a weird glint in his brown eyes.

"Thalos….." She started to back away from him, her eyes watching his hands. "No." Thalos started his approach again and she felt the back of the chair.

"I only have so much time. Don't make this harder than it needs to be." He murmured with a deadly edge to his voice.

"Harder?" Ethne's voice failed her and she took a breath. "Harder?! What a pathetic excuse for a brother! You expect to kill me in cold blood and you're talking about it being hard?! It should be impossible!"

"Not for me." Thalos lunged at her, but Ethne swerved around the chair, jumping toward the fireplace.

"I shouldn't have to fight my own brother!" She had backed herself into a corner and Thalos was between her and the door. He had collected himself and was standing now. His face clearly betrayed what he was thinking. Hate and bitterness. Ethne started edging towards the door. The heat of the fire behind her as she passed made her wince. She quickly stepped aside. Thalos watched her as she moved around the room. She grabbed her skirts with one hand and jumped through the open doorway. A jerk on her hair stopped her in mid leap. Thalos grabbed her wrists and tied them together amid the violent protests of his sister. He pulled out some material and Ethne screamed. Shouts were heard coming down the hall and he glanced behind him. He dropped the material and grabbed her wrists, dragging her down the hall. Ethne screamed again.

"No!"

Thalos hit her in the mouth and hissed,

"Keep quiet or I will kill you!" Ethne screamed again. Sword clashing could be heard in the Great Hall. Thalos slung his sister over his shoulders and ran down the corridor, entering the Hall. Peridan was being engaged in hardly a fair fight; one against fifteen. He glanced up as Ethne entered being dragged by Thalos. The glance costed him a stab in the shoulder. Thalos, letting Ethne down, stopped and watched the fight with a smile playing around the corner of his lips. Ethne kicked Thalos's legs out from under him, but fell forward in the process. She was pulled up by someone as Thalos hopped up.

"Where is the queen?"

"I believe she is just entering." They looked over at two men pushing the tied queen through the door. She caught sight of Ethne and gave a glad cry, springing over to her. Aeluin was jerked back by the guards and held securely.

"Mother!" Ethne murmured.

"Kill the queen. Do it outside. I prefer to not have blood on the floor." Thalos ordered an evil smile playing around his lips. Ethne began to weep. Aeluin's face was ashen.

"Thalos!" She called to him. He turned. "Kill me, but save father and mother! Please!" He thought a moment.

"Yes,….. that is wise. Take the princess with you. They will both die. No one can stand in between my plan and myself can they?" He began to laugh.

"Thalos!" She screamed at him and fought at her captor. He ignored her, composing his mirth.

Peridan's attackers had grown less and there only remained ten. Thalos leaned against a pillar and watched the fight. Peridan was being pushed into a corner and it was plain enough to see that he was getting weak.

Merdim and Alastar flew down the hall.

"We should have been ready for this!" Merdim said in anguish.

"We were deceived like the rest as they had wanted." Alastar replied. Ahead there was a fork in the hall. Right were the royal residents and left went to the Great Hall. Both friends stopped and looked at each other.

"Which…?" Merdim held up his hand quickly.

"Listen!" Simultaneously they both leaped down the corridor. An arrow bounced off the wall where they had just been standing as footsteps and shouts echoed behind them.

They entered the Great Hall together, took one look at the scene and leaped down the stairs to the ground floor. Peridan was battling seven in a corner, and Ethne was being dragged to the door. Blood ran down the kings arm, and face.

Merdim leaped past Thalos, pushing him out of the way. He barged into the circle as more troops filed into the hall. Alastar leaped over to where Ethne was being dragged away, making short work of her captor. Thalos had picked himself up and was shouting at the guard.

"You were supposed to kill them!" Merdim took a look at Peridan and knew he would never make it to the door. He was already unconscious. Alastar seeing Ethne's bonds, quickly picked her up. Merdim sheathed his sword and slung the king over his shoulders and they both dashed towards the door at the far end of the wall. Thalos turned around only to see his prisoners running toward the door.

"Shoot them! Shoot them!" He screamed. Five men leveled their crossbows and the arrows whistled across toward the targets.

"Merdim jump!" Alastar urged. They both flung themselves through the door just as the arrows nailed the wall. The soldiers were in quick pursuit.

"We seem to be destined to have major escapes today!" Alastar said, almost smiling.

"Keep the smile later, we're not out yet. " Merdim returned as they took a right and ran down the descending steps toward where the tunnel was.

"My mother!" Ethne said. Both men glanced at each other.

"Where is she?" Alastar asked.

"Outside! Thalos ordered her killed." Ethne said, trying hard to keep her voice calm.

"What?!" Merdim stopped quickly. They were given no chance for further thought. A scream penetrated the air around them as an arrow flew over Alastar's head. He whirled around the see the soldiers rounding the corner; crossbows aimed.

"Run!" They both leaped down the hall. Ethne worked at her bonds and was finally able to free herself. Alastar placed her on the ground. He grabbed her arm and guided her down the hall.

Ethne wiped at her eyes and set her jaw determinedly.

A few arrows whistled by. She glanced behind.

The tunnel began to slope downward. Less torches lined the walls and fewer doorways branched off from the passage. Alastar grabbed a torch from the wall and Ethne followed suit.

"How much farther?" She asked Alastar.

"A few more minutes."

She nodded in reply, grabbing a firmer hold on her skirts. They ran on. The sounds of their pursuers were no longer heard. Ethne thought that strange and commented on it to Alastar. He replied that they had taken a few shortcuts and maybe had lost them for the moment.

The tunnel branched in two directions ahead and they took the right one.

Darkness engulfed them. No torches lined the walls. The torches they were holding shed ghostly images on the walls as they passed giving Ethne an eerie feeling.

"There." Merdim pointed ahead. Ethne held her torch up farther. She felt a bit perplexed. What was he pointed to? Nothing showed. She didn't have time to contemplate any longer for both men stopped suddenly and faced the right wall.

Alastar handed Ethne his torch and began his search. He felt along the stones for a moment and pushed on the one he had selected. Silently the stone wall swung back revealing the gaping black hole. They stepped through and Alastar swung the wall back in place. He then took both torches from Ethne and placed them on the wall.

Merdim eased the king down, sitting him upright against the wall. Blood had stained his tunic and a deep cut was above his eyes. Ethne quickly knelt down and took her father's hand in her own. She stroked it several times before asking Merdim,

"He won't live will he?" Her voice nearly broke, but she held it in control. His brown eyes blinked several times and he shook his head. Her hand went to her mouth, suppressing a sob.

Peridan slowly opened his eyes. He looked tenderly at his daughter's tear streaked face and reached up to wipe them away. Ethne noticed his hand was shaking.

"You are alive," he murmured. "Your mother?"

She blinked and shook her head slowly. Peridan closed his eyes as if in pain, but they looked again in a moment at his daughter.

"There are many evil men in this world Ethne, but you must forgive them. Even……Thalos."

"Do you forgive him father?" She asked, reaching out a hand to push back his hair from his eyes. He thought a moment and then said slowly,

"Yes…yes, I do. I can only blame myself. I was not a true father to him."

"That is not true, my lord." Merdim said, speaking for the first time. "You were everything that he should have wanted. You are of no fault. He is."

"I wish I could believe that." His breathing was slow now.

"He..will..come..now. There..is…nothing…to…stop…him."

"We will, my king." Alastar said, his voice hoarse. Peridan smiled.

"Sirion…Enile. He…will…help…you. Search…for…him." He gripped Ethne's hand and she kissed it in return. Merdim blinked back tears. Peridan's breathing was ragged.

"Merdim,……take……my……sword." Merdim's eyes showed surprise.

"Alastar,……protect……Ethne." He reached out and Alastar caught his hand in a firm squeeze.

"I will, my king." Alastar whispered.

"Ethne,……I……love……you." He lovingly gazed at her tear streaked face. The words were barely heard by his daughter, but she treasured them to her death.

"Father!" She weeped. Peridan then closed his eyes and breathed his last.

Ethne bent forward, trying to muffle her sobs in her hands; her fathers hand still within her grasp. Merdim reached his hand over and slowly undid the kings sword.

After a moment, Ethne slowly straightened; wiping her tears onto her dress.

"We will leave him here." Merdim said quietly. Ethne nodded, stroking her father's hand once more.

Alastar then helped her to stand as the three took one last look at their king. They grabbed the torches and started off through the tunnel toward the surface. And the outside world.