Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
"And I tell you this, this child shall not die, nor shall he be thrown from the Three Realms and branded as outcast. He shall be my son, and I shall be his father; it shall be my blood which courses through his veins. He shall have his chance to grow great in the eyes of man and beast and to seek salvation from the curse which lies so heavily upon him. You shall not have his blood today." Thus spoke Lyght, King of the Realm of Magic.
Twenty-seven years passed after those words were spoken. For thousands of years, the Realm of Earth had been ruled by the great dragon Norenroth, but he had been cast down and his place taken by the three most powerful wielders of magic in the Realm. Powers they were called, and, for thousands of years generations of Powers rose to rule over Lairannare, as the Realm of Earth was commonly called. Some ruled with justice, but most were overcome by the privilege of their position and plunged the land into turmoil with their quest for greater authority.
War ran rampant throughout the land, but even in the midst of darkness the kingdom of Nor was filled with joy, for the feast of Pallath-gaon was upon them. The last feast before winter‘s end, it was the greatest of all the celebrations in Nor. This year it was met with more unrestrained merrymaking than usual, for the people of Nor knew it would be the last joyful occasion for a long time. With the spring would come war.
Of all the cities of Nor, high-walled Zaren was most filled with celebration, and, of all the many places of celebration in Zaren, the palace of the king was most light-hearted. It was aglow with a thousand sparkling candles and alive with the sound of hundreds of different voices lifted up in song and cheerful conversation.
The banquet hall was packed with people. Lords, ladies, soldiers, and children crowded around long wooden tables laden with all the fruit, meat, and drink a Norian could desire, and, as they helped themselves to plate after plate of savory food, the piquant aroma of their meal wafted through the air, mixing with the smoke of the many candles.
The space not filled with the tables was taken up by couples dancing. One’s station did not matter: the kitchen maids and servant girls spun with knights and lords, and a page or a stable boy, if he were particularly polite, might win a dance with a lady. Even King Ibrahim and Queen Malcah could be seen spinning across the floor.
Everyone within the palace seemed gleeful and entertained–all save one. Orion was his name. He stood in a corner, disregarded by the others in the banquet hall, and watched all that took place before him with a solemn, somewhat mournful, expression.
Though now a common soldier, he still bore a remnant air of the savage, wandering warrior he once had been. He was not tall, but one had only to look at his arms to see he was not weak. And there was a certain hardness to him, not born of cruelty, but common to many men who had lived rough-and-ready lives of adventure.
He was handsome in his own way. His thick, auburn hair flowed freely over his shoulders and down his back. That in itself lent him a somewhat wild aspect, but his eyes were not merely untamed but inhuman–piercing and so intensely blue they defied description–like the eyes of some exotic specter looking out from beneath dark and brooding brows.
"Orion!" A cheerful voice startled the warrior from his reverie, and he straightened as he saw Prince Gideone sauntering toward him.
The prince was several inches Orion's better in height and slightly leaner also. He was a few years Orion's elder, but that meant little considering Orion had yet to reach the age of thirty. Orion was, no doubt, the better of the two when it came to brute strength, but Gideone was every bit as good a warrior.
It was rumored the blood of High Elves flowed through the prince's veins, but if those rumors were true, the High Elvish quality showed itself through no more than his black hair. His eyes were not even black but a very dark brown. He cut altogether the most dashing of figures, and his closely cut black beard did naught but add to his image. It was not for nothing that all of the women of Nor looked upon him as the most gallant and swashbuckling of heroes.
"Your Highness," Orion murmured, bowing.
Gideone laughed and said, with the most aristocratic sounding of accents–common to all well-bred Norians–"Orion, this is a night of rejoicing, but you stand here and look as cheery as someone being forced to eat his own stomach. Look at all the maidens–young and fair every one of them–and know I that certain ones would give all they posses to dance with you."
"Then they display decidedly unsound judgment, Your Highness," replied Orion. "'Tis unwise for a young maid to give all she has for a dance with any man, much less with one who would not even make a good partner at the moment."
"Nonsense! You could dance better than most even with both your legs broken and your hands tied behind your back."
The corner of Orion’s mouth turned up at the images Gideone's words brought to mind, but he replied seriously, "I will not dance...unless, of course, you command it, Your Highness."
"What good would commanding you do?" cried the prince. "You'd still not be enjoying yourself, which is the whole purpose of celebrations."
"Yes, Your Highness."
At the warrior’s reply, Gideone's hopeful features fell.
"I see that nothing I can do will make you enjoy this evening," he stated, suddenly sober. "So I can but leave you to your melancholy. But remember this, Orion: war comes swiftly. Take what joy you can now, for there will be precious little of it in the months to come."
"I would that I could, Your Highness.”
The prince turned and, leaving the warrior to his solitude, returned to the festivities, calling out to a well-bosomed girl as he did so, "Come, my lass, I have need of a partner."
Orion, for a while longer, stayed in the hall. But being surrounded by mirth, when doom he knew lurked so close, bided not well with him, and he soon slipped silently from the room.
In the gardens of the palace there was a small, secluded fountain which was frequented by few save Orion who found the quiet of the place comforting. It was a warm night, for though it was still winter, it never snowed in Nor. The soft sound of music from the hall drifted across the garden, and every now and then shouts and laughter, faint with distance, rose from the streets beyond the palace walls.
For many minutes he sat alone, wrapped in his thoughts, until, out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of movement. He turned, and for a moment search the shadows before he distinguished a figure he knew well approaching through the trees.
Princess Mystia nearly disappeared into her surroundings, for she was dressed in a flowing robe of midnight blue and her face was almost completely covered with a veil of the same color. Her long black hair tumbled down around her waist, and so little of her skin could be seen that she seemed to glide through the garden, a shadow among shadows.
"Your Highness," Orion greeted as he rose and bowed.
"Hello, Orion," she returned.
She hesitated then sat down upon the edge of the fountain and, motioning with her hand, said, "Please, sit." She was trying hard to appear nonchalant, but it was obvious she was deeply troubled. As he sank down beside her, she began to speak, staring down at her hands which were clasped in her lap.
"For two years now you’ve resided among us. Tell me, how go your days?" Her dark eyes turned up to him for a moment before dropping once more to her hands.
It was clear that was not what she had come to speak to him about, but Orion answered truthfully, "They go well, Your Highness."
"And Nightfall, how does he?"
"Nightfall," repeated Orion slowly as his thoughts turned to his griffin companion. "What Nightfall thinks I know not, Your Highness. He goes where I go and does so without complaint. Several times I’ve asked him if he truly wishes to stay with me. I doubt not that, were I to ask him again, I would receive exactly the same response as before: a tilt of the head, a blink of the eyes, a rather confused look, and 'You speak of impossibilities.' Then he would begin preening himself as if I weren’t there."
Mystia laughed, for Orion imitated Nightfall’s croaking voice well. But she became solemn again almost before the sound had left her lips.
After a slight pause, she spoke again. "As you have asked Nightfall, so now I ask you. Do you wish to stay here in the service of my family, or would you rather be free to leave and not face the coming war?"
Orion tilted his head to one side and blinked his eyes. "You speak of impossibilities, Your Highness."
"I speak not in jest." she told him sharply.
"Nor do I, Your Highness,“ he answered quickly, sorry for his turn of phrase. “But perhaps it was a poor choice of words. Forgive me."
"I‘m sorry,” she said, her gaze once more dropping. “It was I who spoke too quickly. But you cannot say it is an impossibility. Two years ago you came to this place so that you might return a helpless princess to her family. My father would have given you almost anything as a reward, but you wanted only to be a soldier and servant to the Crown. You’ve served us well; I wish not to repay you with your death."
Orion stared down at the ground and remained silent.
"War with Delovachia is inevitable," Mystia pressed when she saw he would not speak. "You cannot say you don’t fear. I–we–Nor cannot escape, but you can. Take this chance while you possess it."
"'Tis still impossibilities of which you speak, Your Highness," he answered quietly.
His answer left her not knowing how to continue, and she rose to her feet and walked a few paces away.
She glanced back at the warrior who had also risen and asked, "Do you fear?" And after a slight pause, added, "Answer me truthfully."
He considered her question, but even before he responded she could see the answer in his eyes. “Yes.”
"Then take this," she said in a halting voice.
She held out her hand and walked back to him. As she approached, he could see she clutched a golden chain from which hung a ring inlaid with a single, large stone unlike any he had ever seen before–a clear jewel filled with soft red light.
She hesitated for a moment then, taking a deep breath, reached up and hung it around his neck.
"Keep it always with you," she told him, her voice trembling, "but let no man know you possess it. Unless luck can be found in knowing you hold a ring of the most terrified creature in Lairannare, this won’t give it…but perhaps it will remind you that my prayers and hopes go with you into battle."
She bore such a troubled look and gazed so intently upon the ring now hanging from his neck that Orion was forced to say, "Forgive me, Highness, if I speak with ingratitude, but I don't think you truly wish to part with it. If that be true, then reclaim it, for I don’t want to possess anything of yours if it’s not freely given."
Mystia looked at him for a moment, then tilted her head and blinked. "You speak of impossibilities."
Orion went down upon one knee before her. "Thank you, Your Highness."
Mystia placed her hand upon his head, and, though she plainly wished to say something more, words seemed to elude her.
"Goodbye, Orion," she said simply then walked away, leaving him once more in solitude.
* * *
The people of Zaren retired in the early hours before dawn, and it was upon a relatively noiseless city that the first rays of morning light fell. Indistinct shapes began to take more definite form as the nighttime mist rose from around the city, and the guards who stood atop the main gates looked out and saw a lone horseman riding furiously down the road toward them. It was clear the matter that brought him was important indeed; and though the gates were not supposed to be unbolted for yet another half hour, the guards quickly called for them to be opened regardless.
The rider galloped through and immediately reigned his horse in. When he stopped, he looked quickly around, searching for someone in authority. He was young–twenty years of age if that. His clothes were covered with dust from his furious journey, and his long, disheveled, brown hair hung down in front of his eyes.
Several soldiers approached. As they did so, the rider said, "I bring a message f’r King Ibrahim." Perhaps it would have gone better for him had he not spoken, for the moment he opened his mouth his Delovachian accent became obvious.
"You 'ave a message for our king?" cried a soldier.
"Aye, a dagger in th' 'art," muttered another.
The rider's face clouded. "I’m as Norian as any o' ye."
His words merely succeeded in bringing a loud round of laughter from the men present. With several hearty shouts, they started pulling him from his horse. He struggled against them and began crying out who he was and why he came, but it did not keep him from being overcome and tied up.
Word was sent to King Ibrahim that a Delovachian spy and assassin had been captured while trying to gain entrance to the palace. Ibrahim had the murderous dog brought before him, but it seemed rather strange that a man who would soon be dead would show such joy when brought into the presence of the man who was to seal his execution.
"Majesty, I bring–" began the Delovachian scoundrel, but his words were cut off as he was thrown roughly to the ground. Because his hands were tied tightly behind his back, he could not stop his fall, and the loud crack of his chin hitting the floor sounded through the whole room. That effectively put an end to his attempts to speak, and he lay in stunned pain.
"You need not treat our enemies with cruelty," said the king in soft rebuke.
"Your Majesty," interrupted a man, "if I may be allowed to speak?"
Ibrahim turned to face the middle-aged man who spoke, "What is it, Stavros?"
"Vayan here is no Delovachian, Your Majesty," Stavros stated. "I’ve raised him as if he were my own son, and I'll vouch for his loyalty."
"Joretham save us," exclaimed the king. "Cut him free."
The young man was immediately released, and he rose to his knees.
"Please, forgive us," said Ibrahim. "I had no idea you were a Norian–'Vayan' was it?"
"Aye," spoke Vayan as he rubbed his chin, "'Vayan' it be. Well, I may’ve go’en ‘ere th' long way," here he cast a foul look at those who had dragged him in, "but a’ least I go’ 'ere. I come t' tell ye that Niavi has been conquered, and tha’, e’en as we speak, th' Delovachian army marches toward Zaren."
"What?" cried Ibrahim, half rising from his throne in alarm. "But winter’s still upon us. How can Kozan send his army now?"
"Quite easily it would seem," murmured Stavros.
The king forced himself to sit back down, and for a moment he was silent.
Finally, softly but with dignity, he spoke. "I see."
He turned to one of the men who stood by his throne. "General, you know what to do. 'Tis best to begin as soon as possible."
"Yes, Your Majesty," replied the general who saluted smartly then left the throne room.
"Vayan, come, sit beside me; I would speak with you," said Ibrahim. "Servants, bring food and drink, for he’s come a long way."
Vayan did as he was asked, and the servants quickly went off to do as they were ordered.
King Ibrahim leaned forward. Looking intently at Vayan, he said, "Now, tell me all you know about the army that’s approaching."
* * *
The whole of Zaren was in a flurry of excitement, as all the women and children prepared to leave. It was, however, an organized flurry. All of the preparations had already been made, and it was not many hours before the long line of carts and the men who were to accompany them were ready to move out.
Orion stood upon the wall of the city and looked down upon the long procession slowly making its way toward its destination–Nortath's Fury, high in the Mountains of Shem-Joloch. He had not seen Princess Mystia–she was never seen in public–but he knew she was among those who fled to the safety of the mountains. He could feel her ring pressing against his chest. He held his hand to it and murmured, "'Tis well you spoke not to me this day, for I would have done as you desired and not as virtue required."
* * *
The Delovachians gave little time for either planning or morbid contemplation of the future, for the day after the evacuation their army reached the city. The sound of their approach could be heard while they were yet many miles away. The tramping of their feet mixed with the steady beating of their drums, and the songs of war being played on pipes filled the air. The enemy spread out and surrounded the city. Where once a vast and open plain had lain there now stretched the huge, black mass of the enemy's camp.
The red sun hung low in the sky as Orion and his sleek, black griffin companion stood upon the high walls of Zaren. Nightfall, who stood as large as a horse, rested his forepaws on the edge of the wall as he gazed out across the Delovachian army. His great, black wings were slightly opened, and his tail flicked back and forth. He blinked his large, white eyes and said in his croaking voice, "'Twould seem the days of feasting and celebrating have come to an end."
"Aye," said Orion softly, "it would seem so indeed."