The trumpets cried a familiar song while the purple runner seemed to welcome him. Althalo had nearly forgotten how it felt to stand before a king. The ruler sat motionless as he approached the throne. Although his state of health was in decline his grip upon the scepter remained firm. His gnarled fingers, responsible for dispensing justice today were the very same that killed in justice’s name yesterday. Tales were many, recounting the fierceness of his sword and the loyalty with which he defended this kingdom he now ruled. A thousand times over Althalo wished it were not so, but his respect for the king had much more to do with his rise to power than the royal blood they shared.
Within the wisdom flowing from his father’s gray beard Althalo could find no cause to question the sincerity of his words. As they had always, his words struck with force. Like the magic blade of a sword, swiftly and without conscience separating dreams from obligation. The wall between father and son remained and neither could deny calloused hands from stacking stones. Althalo had discovered what moved his soul and it had nothing to do with serving and ruling a realm.
Althalo stood behind the plow as the horses lunged forward and a final chunk of sod gave way. The smell of freshly turned earth was unmistakably the aroma of independence. At that moment the sun shone brighter and the birds of the meadow sang a sweeter melody. An errant breeze rising from the stream meandered through the forest and took pity on his dusty brow, but like the death of a star the brilliance of his smile faded into darkness. As desirous a moment as it was, none of these things could displace the heaviness of his heart.
The burden stemmed from the separation of brothers. Their paths would never cross and closed eyes should not see the paths wind in opposing directions. While Valdar prepared to take their father’s position as ruler, Althalo yearned for a destiny beyond the safety of castle walls. If roles reversed for but a single day Althalo’s heart should never forgive him.
A lone raven entered the field and lit near him; the sheen of his darkness accompanied by the beating hooves of a stead. It is unclear whether the burden of great sadness was carried upon the raven’s wings or in the messenger’s words, but in the serenity of the field he learned Valdar had succumbed to a fever and the king requested his immediate presence.
Young Althalo stood before his father while he spoke knowingly of a narrow gate, one hidden among the snares and undergrowth. Although many pass by it daily to enter through that which is wide, he insisted this gate was prepared for only one. The fear in his eyes spoke loudly of the danger that lurked there. It was not the fiery breath of dragons Althalo feared, but the responsibility of a kingdom that weighed heavier than plate armor.
When allowed to speak Althalo surprised the court with his response.
“Your majesty, I do not question your words, but suspect it wise to seek counsel with Warez before embarking on a mission of such great importance.”
You must forgive my harried state, but the most troubling thoughts have been swirling in my mind. Althalo did visit me that evening. Please, set those dusty magic books aside and have a seat. Ah, this is more like it—a cup of tea and biscuit should put an end to the unseemly growling of my entrails.
Oh dear, by now you must be convinced you’ve settled among pigs—please help yourself. I am truly grateful for your unexpected visit and perhaps sharing the tale that has me so rattled should be a better use of my time than pacing these small quarters.
My name is Warez, counseling wizard to the king. I believe Althalo’s tale may be greater than any other, but today it remains incomplete. As the rain and fog have settled on this kingdom a dark cloud has settled over my home. He has yet to return from his quest and my worst fear is that he may not return at all.
Sorcery can only take a wizard so far, when the sun sets low in the sky even a wizard cannot escape sleeping with his actions. As you well see, the dark circles shadowing my eyes are the result of wrestling with demons of great decision. I’m certain you will agree Althalo must succeed, for the survival of this kingdom depends on it.
Althalo arrived here as I was about turn in for the night. In fact he sat in the very chair you now occupy. With good manners as his guide, he nibbled at a biscuit. Yet in his hesitation for food I sensed a welling of trouble in his soul. The doubts he aired continue to ring in my head with the great clarity.
“I should never wish to bring shame to my father in front of counsel, but how should I find this path? Will it recognize me or I it? How should I be certain the path is mine? In my absence what words will bring comfort to the fair maiden I am eternally bound to? Will the people of this kingdom accept me as ruler when they have forever expected Valdar?”
Wise beyond his years, Althalo showed great courage by daring to question our ruler and my vision. Regretfully I could only provide a portion of what he sought, as much as the king’s orders would allow me to reveal.
Under the cover of darkness we left the familiar and ventured forth. We approached the tree that bears no fruit, which for centuries has stood guard over and obscures the narrow gate from view. A strange wind swirled overhead and I knew those wishing harm were aware of our movement. Quickly I grabbed Althalo and we took refuge in the shadows, where the remainder of our conversation consisted of hushed voices.
I reminded him of the name Quintara, and his first order of business was to locate her and enlist her services. I gave only a vague description of the three-headed demon that guarded the exit, but emphasized his importance. By whatever means necessary Althalo must sever each of the heads before retrieving the heart. Within the heart lay the answers to all questions; those he posed this evening as well as dilemmas that thwart a king.
I thrust into his trembling hand a fine sword provided by his father, and perhaps saying too much I confided the ruler’s preference for Althalo over Valdar as his successor. As my last words were swallowed by the howling wind and roar of thunder, I opened the gate. Fear of the unknown gripped me as I watched him melt into the darkness, as if I was releasing my own child into the dangers of the world.
In the short time we were together I developed a particular fondness for Althalo. I suspect there will be no resistance once he returns and I shall have no reservation in following our new king.