The table was littered with crumpled pieces of paper, empty or half full ink-bottles, pens and pencils in various stages of damage. In the middle of it lay an open notebook, in which careless writing could be seen. It seemed that the owner had either been in a tremendous hurry or very angry about something, if one was to judge from the almost illegible handwriting and numerous crossings and additions. Also, the writing first began in blue ink, until it changed to red in the middle of a word, and continued until the next page which was almost entirely written in pencil, except for the last three lines which were written once more in blue ink. Another notebook - closed, this time - lay on the floor, and on its front covers could be read the following:
NOTE: This notebook contains ideas on the development of my new novel Grey Skies over the Forgotten City"
The rest of the room was in the same disarray as the writing desk. The bed was not made, the coverlet was tossed aside and a pillow lay on the floor. The cupboard door was ajar, showing clothes that were carelessly piled. Other clothes were thrown on the chair, and even on the floor. Should one have seen the state of that room, one would have thought that was the scene of some terrible deed - a kidnapping, or even a murder - and the mess in the room was clear proof of the struggle that had taken place. But that assumption would have been wrong. That was the usual state of the room inhabited by Deirdre Morgan- WRITER.
In fact, there was one place in all that wreckage that was extraordinarily tidy in contrast with the rest of the room. That was a bedside table on which were neatly placed a book, a small star-shaped lamp, a flower vase and a framed picture of a young man with light brown-hair, his arms around a red-haired girl. Her age was uncertain, it could have been from nineteen to twenty-five, and there was a sort of dreamy expression in her eyes.
The door to the room opened, and in walked the girl from the photograph, carrying a cup of coffee in her hands. She was still wearing her pyjamas and her hair was tousled. This was Deirdre Morgan. She quickly sat at the table, too quickly for, in doing so, she spilled half the coffee on the open notebook.
"Damn!" she exclaimed and hastily took the notebook away, trying to wipe the coffee. Yet the stain was too large and the page was damaged beyond repair. Deirdre tore it off.
"I didn't much like that part anyway," she consoled herself.
She drummed her fingers on the table impatiently. Her new project was not going too well. She had to admit that. Not that she was stuck, no. She was rarely stuck. But there was something missing, something that did not make it quite good.
"What I need is a very powerful character," Deirdre discovered. "One that would impress and enchant other characters and readers alike, one that would be irresistible because of his complexity, one that would almost seem real. He would be present in all the victories of the Forgotten City - actually he would be the most important figure in the city. I am not saying that he would do everything, no, that would be boring, but I will certainly make him one upon which the other characters would always rely, even against their will. Yet he will not be a puppet of the others. No, he will have a will of his own, a very strong will and he will do only what he considers right."
Deirdre leaned back against the chair, her expression dreamy, her eyes glinting with excitement. Yet suddenly her expression changed as she found a flaw in her wonderful plan.
"But who will I turn into this great complex character?" she asked. "None of those that I have now seem to fit much. Let's see…The King of the Forgotten City?...No, he is old and dying, a mere shadow of what he was in his youth. I'd rather leave him with his former glory and have his subjects pity him for what he has become in his old age. His sons then? Definitely not! The eldest is obsessed with his fear of not receiving the throne and he's more attractive as a power-hungry noble than as one everyone looks up to. The youngest is too inexperienced and not even of age. Also he can be easily controlled. But what about the King's daughter? I could do that, you know."
Yet immediately after saying this Deirdre laughed at the absurdness of such an idea.
"Of course you cannot," she told herself. "Mabshenka is a smart woman and people respect her, but let's not make her too perfect, shall we? But then who else? No one seems to fit and I do not want to change any of them."
Deride sighed and took her head into her hands. Her plan was hopeless. It was better if she abandoned it, and put her brilliant character in another book. Yet she hated the thought of giving up, especially when it came to one of her writings.
Suddenly the solution came to her, and it was so simple and so obvious that she laughed at not having thought of it before.
"But of course!" she exclaimed. "I am so silly! Why give up when the only thing I have to do is introduce a new character? Of course!"
Deirdre looked at the table, searching for the notebook in which she planned the plot of her new story. Yet she could not find it anywhere. Annoyed, she made to get up and search for it elsewhere, when she saw it lying at her feet. Quickly, she picked it up and opened it. Then, she took the first pen she could find - it was a black one - and began writing furiously.
"Introduction of a new character," she muttered. "He will be arriving at the Forgotten City while the riots are going on. He will not say where he comes from - and that's why many will think he has run away from something he has done - but he will offer his services to the king. He will prove loyal and the king will grow fond of him. But he will also become very good friends with both of the king's sons. The princess will be very fascinated by him, and he will be interested in her also. Perhaps they'll even marry in the end."
Deirdre paused, uncertain, over the last sentence.
"Sounds a bit idyllic and overly-romantic, doesn't it?" she thought. "Not too mention much too predictable. No, I don't think I will use this in the end."
However, she did not cross her idea out, as she knew she would alter her plan many times until the book ended anyway. She always did that. She never was content with anything that was not perfect according to her standards. Hence the many torn pages that lay all over her table.
Deirdre finished writing. She took a sip of the remaining coffee - annoyed that it had grown cold in the meantime - and looked around her.
"Well, it's Sunday," she said aloud. "That means no college, no work and possibly no going out at all. So why not use the time I have writing?"
With that, she took the notebook where she had begun her story about the Forgotten City. Very soon, she was writing at top speed, her eyes bent on the piece of paper in front of her, her hand moving across it swiftly and tirelessly:
The rain had fallen all night and it continued for most of that day as well. As if the inhabitants of the city did not have enough trouble already! The band of rebels could not be easily subdued and there was fighting in some parts of the town. Some said the king's guards were not doing too well against them. But whether this was because the old ruler was not urging them on, or because his eldest son had paid them to perform badly - as he had only advantages from the present state of affairs - or because they were merely incompetent, the people could not say. Nor did it matter much to them as the outcome was bound to be the same. It seemed that the end of their city was finally drawing near. It had endured many years and in the days of the King's youth it had been wealthy and fair, not just a mere ruin bearing a name of doom.
It was in the afternoon of that day that the traveller arrived. The guards still stood at the gates, as they had received orders not to abandon their posts no matter what. Perhaps that was only because those high up wanted to assure the people that all was under control. The guards stood at their posts, half expecting to see the rebels come and finish them off, or, at least, for the king to order them to join the fight, when they saw a man riding through the gates. He was a young man, probably about the same age as the King's eldest son. He was tall and well-built and seemed to hold himself with some kind of dignity. His dark locks fell almost to his shoulders, and his eyes, equally dark, darted to and fro with an alert look. A long sword hung at his side. As soon as the guards saw him, they abruptly remembered their duty and challenged him:
"Who are you?" they asked sharply. "What business have you here and where do you come from?"
They felt uneasy, realising that was not the proper way to greet a visitor, especially since the stranger seemed to be of noble blood, but so many perils had come over their city that they just did not want another one. At any rate, the stranger did not seem to be too bothered about his reception. He stopped his horse in front of the guards and inclined his head.
"I am a traveller from a distant land," he answered. "My name is Edsel, if you want to know. I wish to see your king."
The guards admitted him reluctantly. They could have refused to let him in or they could have warned him of the state of the city. But they did not. Perhaps because they felt they should let him in. His commanding tone, his stern gaze, his mere presence seemed to have charmed them into obeying this unknown stranger.
Edsel bid the guards farewell and rode towards the palace. He passed through empty and silent streets although he could hear a faint uproar coming from somewhere in the city. But no sign of discord could be seen near the palace. Perhaps this was a proof that the royal soldiers were not as idle as they seemed to be, or maybe it was because the rebels - simple people, in the end - still felt some respect for their ruler and feared to physically harm him. Edsel passed through the palace gates as easily as he had entered the city. Certainly, there was something kingly about him, something that made people think it would be wrong to disobey him. Very soon, he found himself in the King's hall.
He was not the only one to be there then. The King's two sons - Adelmar, tall, dark and brooding, and Adair, extremely young and somehow fragile-looking - stood beside the throne. Behind the high seat the princess stood, wearing a long green dress and a blue veil over her dark-red locks. In one corner of the hall a small figure lurked, wearing a set of odd and very colourful clothes.
Edsel bowed low in front of the King and remained like this, waiting for the old man to address him. The monarch gazed at him curiously. Although he knelt in a picture of respect and humility, there was still something dignified in the way he held himself. And also he observed that he looked strong, as one who would do well in battles.
"Well, stranger," he said at length. "Why did you come here? Who are you and what can I do for you?"
The addressed rose from his kneeling position and spoke in a courteous, yet proud voice:
"I am called Edsel, my lord," he said. "I come from a very distant land, but there is no point in naming it, as I will never return there. I come here to offer you my service and you will see, my lord, that I will be most loyal to you and your house."
The King raised his eyebrows:
"Your service, you said?" he repeated. "But why exactly me? I am sure there are plenty of other grander kings between that very distant land that you left and my city. And who did you serve before and why did you desert him?"
Edsel's eyes seemed to darken at the mention of his former loyalties and his hands clenched. But when he spoke, his tone was calm and dispassionate:
"My lord, you are perhaps entitled to ask this," he admitted. "But I cannot answer. Yet my faithful service meant nothing to my former lord and I give my loyalty only to those who deserve it. This is all that I can say on the matter."
"Very well," the King said. "But I need time to ponder on your offer and see what lies beyond it."
"Judge carefully, majesty!" cried then the small figure from the corner. "He is a whimsical one, although fair-spoken. Who knows, maybe he will soon think that we do not deserve his loyalty either and take off."
"Foulcrow!" exclaimed the dark brooding young man then. "Enough! Insult our guests once more, and I might forget the law that says only the King can punish his jester. It is time you learned where your place is." He then turned to Edsel and said with a bow: "I regret that, my lord. I fear my father has a soft spot for yonder villain and overindulges him. No offence taken, I hope. I am Adelmar, by the way. The King's son."
"Eldest son, dear brother," put in the very young man. "You must not forget that you are not alone. I am Adair, master Edsel, the King's youngest child."
Edsel bowed to both of them, acknowledging, in the same time that he had not been bothered in the least by Foulcrow's insinuations. His gaze then turned to the woman that still stood behind the throne and that had, until then, said nothing. Meeting Edsel's look and understanding its purpose, she shook her head and said:
"It is wrong in the Forgotten City to ask the name of a woman before she decides if you are fit to know it or not. Others might have considered your look offensive and even asked for punishment. So would I, but I know that you are not accustomed to our laws. Therefore, I forgive you."
"Thank you, my lady," Edsel said, still not lowering his eyes from her. "I am grateful that you have chosen to forgive my daring, which, after all, comes only due to ignorance and an overbold curiosity."
The woman inclined her head.
"Yes," she agreed, "It would be cruel to punish strangers for not knowing our ways. And let me reward your curiosity, for you have expressed your wish to serve the King. I am princess Mabshenka, and the King is my father."
"And a grand lady she is," put in Foulcrow, seemingly oblivious of Adelmar's threat. "And you should deem yourself lucky, master Edsel, for, if what is heard in the pubs is true, then many young men have looked upon her, but did not live to tell the tale."
"Foulcrow!" exclaimed Adelmar exasperated. "Have I not told you to restrain your tongue? My lord," he added with an appealing look to the King, "You have to tell him to restrain himself! He might do us harm."
The old King cast his son a stern gaze.
"He is not the one wishing to do harm here, prince Adelmar, and you know what I mean," he said. "Now I must ponder undisturbed on master Edsel's request. Leave me a while. You, Adelmar, provide master Edsel with the comforts needed by a weary traveller. This job should please you. It would make you feel as if you were King already. Now go, all of you. Except Foulcrow. You remain by my side, lad."
Edsel, the princess and the King's two sons all left the hall. Adelmar was walking beside Edsel and he was muttering as he went:
"Foulcrow stays!" he was saying. "Foulcrow always stays! My father casts me away like a useless servant but that wretched jester remains at his side!"
"Perhaps the King kept him only to prevent him from spreading tales to the other servants," Edsel suggested mildly.
Adelmar shook his head disdainfully.
"Already loyal to him, are you now?" he asked mockingly. "How do you know that he will not dismiss you?"
"I am certain he will not," Edsel responded calmly. "He is in no position to do so."
"Then you know about the riot that has broken in the city?" Adelmar inquired, suddenly interested.
Edsel shook his head slowly.
"But I know the look of a city that is in trouble and of a king that cannot afford to refuse any kind of help he receives," Edsel told Adelmar. "So I have no doubt I will be staying. Which should comfort you, prince Adelmar."
Adelmar raised his eyebrows.
"Why should it be so?" he wanted to know.
"Because I have seen a lot of what goes on between the King and you," Edsel replied. "You would surely want me near you where you can keep an eye on me and not off to swear my loyalty to perhaps an enemy lord."
Adelmar turned to look at Edsel. His eyes were unfriendly and sharp.
"Is this what you think, master Edsel?" he said in a mocking voice. "But are you not afraid that perhaps staying will bring you death? What if I decide you know too much and order some trusted servant to poison your food?"
Adelmar looked closely at his companion, as if wanting to see any sign of fear from him. Yet Edsel remained calm and unmoved.
"True, there are many things that I would not put past you, prince Adelmar," he admitted, "But poisoning my food, well that I think not. I think it is beneath you."
Adelmar stared for a moment sternly at Edsel, but then his face broke into a smile. He laughed and patted Edsel on the shoulder.
"Do you now?" he said. "Then I am glad. It means you will not object to the comforts with which the King has asked me to provide you."
He spoke in a friendly manner that was very unlike his own. Yet he felt himself drawn to this mysterious stranger. He knew he was one that could easily be trusted with secrets. Perhaps, Adelmar thought, smiling to himself, perhaps he would even manage to win him over to his side and thus be able to attain the throne more quickly.