The King Makers
The search begins
There weren't always dragons in the valley, their cries piercing the silence, their shadows racing across the ground sending a thrill of fear and awe down the spine. But Hester was there the day the dragons returned.
Hester rode her horse past the late spring fields and small farming villages, back to her home after working for a group of travelling merchants who had hired her as their scout on their journey across the mountain pass. She had a pouch heavy with coins, a new bow strapped to her back, and red fletched arrows in the quiver. She rode past a farmer leading his plough horse through the field as his young daughter, riding atop the broad back of the beast, waved at Hester. Hester waved back, smiling. She used to be at her father’s heels as often as possible when she was little. She'd tramp alongside him, running to keep up with his long strides, trying to help in the stable, the orchard or in the forge.
Hester’s father was a master smith known for his superior swords and armour. Warriors, knights and courtiers travelled from distant towns to acquire one of his blades. When she was young, her job was to keep the forge’s fire tended. She’d sit curled up on a bed of soft furs, lit by the orange and blue flames of the forge,listening to the stories he told as he worked.
“Once, my girl, there were dragons. They were the colours of jewels, or smoke or flame, and they were giants…well, most of the time they were giants. They were powerful magical beings that could change shape and walk among people. They were very old, very wise, very shrewd, and if they chose, they could build kingdoms up or bring them to the ground.”
Hester would wait by the fire as he hammered, shaped and cured the metal. Then he’d sit near her and continue weaving tales as he filed and sharpened the weapons, linked the armour, then finally polished each piece of work until it gleamed.
“We were a kingdom of peace and prosperity, once. Our queen was beloved and trusted, and her court was one of justice. However, a marriage of alliance was made with a prince Ophis from the distant kingdom of Adjo. He became King consort to our queen, and though at first he seemed a worthy match to her, he changed after his father’s death, when his younger brother inherited the crown and began his rule of Adjo. Ophis fumed with jealousy and began plotting to take control of this kingdom, and his brother’s as well. He was strong in magic, and summoned a dragon to be his council. The dragon easily used Ophis, whispering treachery in his ears, and stirring his jealousy into a rage. Ophis’ ruthlessness and greed brought poverty to our kingdom of Irini, and as our queen became ill, he ruled in her name, taxing the people and using the wealth to build his army of mercenaries and criminals. Before the war had even begun, grief was thick in our kingdom, as Ophis slaughtered friends and countrymen, women and children, even our beloved queen was silenced when she tried to stop the war. Many of our village fled to join with Adjo’s new king, Maximilian. Ophis demanded his younger brother meet him on the field of battle, and when the day came, Maximilian gathered Adjo's dragons and knights, foot soldiers and peasants to march to meet Ophis’ army in the valley of giants. The battle raged, and It seemed this war would never end, and our future was turning to ashes.”
“Then, they say, the goddess Alia reached out and plucked up one of the giant mountains, for which the valley was named, and placed it over the battlefield, stopping time for those trapped beneath it. All the warriors and horses, dragons and mages are still there, frozen in place. The battle unfinished, the outcome unknown. This is why our kingdoms have remained wary with one another, and why we have had no king for the past 100 years. This is why we are governed by counsellors and advisors, and an acting regent. It leaves us a weakened land, vulnerable to any who would take the throne, and many have tried. But we must wait for the King To Be. The one that will bring nations together and finish the war. We wait for the King To Be to set things right, to take the throne and bring our kingdom back to life.”
. . . . . . . .
Hester’s body was stiff as she dismounted, but she stretched and walked her horse to her father's stable. She gave her horse grain and water, pulled off the saddle and rubbed the horse’s sweaty back with a soft cloth. “You have a good rest, Ricasso.” she said as she grabbed the saddle bags and walked toward the forge. Her father had turned to watch her, removed his gloves and apron and walked to meet her.
“You’re back early my girl!” He said as he grabbed the bags from her and began walking past the forge to the house.
“We made good time. No problems, for once.” She said, grinning at him. He turned and smiled at her. She was dark brown from the sun, her hair wild, her dark eyes bright.
“I have some stew made. Want some?” He offered. She nodded. “Be right back.” She said as she walked out to the water barrel beside the house, filled the basin and washed her face and hands. She came back in and sat at the worn table. He put a bowl of stew before her with some ale and bread, and then sat across from her.
“Before you tell me tales, you have a letter, my girl. I think it might be important. It has a fancy seal.” Hester looked up as she took a drink. “That sounds promising.”
She watched as he drew the rolled letter from a box on the table. She took it and broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. Her eyebrows raised as she read. “Will you listen to this?” She said, and then she read it aloud. “Hester of the Smith, I Halden, the acting regent, request your services as scout, to lead a group who shall be travelling at my request. Your skills are well respected and have recommended you for this task. If you agree to this journey, you must be prepared to be away for many months. As soon as you return home and receive this letter, send notice to the keep. An answer will be sent back swiftly. The party cannot leave without you.”
Hester looked up to see her father’s big grin. “Your skills are well respected!” He boomed, cuffing her arm with his rough hand.
“Well. I had no idea anyone but merchants knew me as a scout. Gone for many months? That sounds….lucrative. I’ll need fresh supplies, my travel cloak, and some new britches.” She said as she finished her meal.
“And a bath. You’ll need a bath. Soon.” He said. She tossed the bread crust across the table at him. A messenger was sent to the keep, and the messenger returned a note saying she was to present herself the following morning.
With the early morning light, scrubbed clean and feeling presentable, she rode to the keep, carrying the letter. She was met at the gate, allowed to enter, and was led up to the castle itself. Her horse was taken away and she surrendered her small sword and bow before she entered the castle for the first time in her life. She was escorted through the large entry hall, their steps echoing around the stone walls. Then down a long torch lit corridor to a carved wooden door. The door was opened by her guard escort and she entered a small warm room, and noticed 4 people sitting at a table. They all stood as she entered, and she nodded her head, completely unaccustomed to this kind of greeting. She walked to the table and stood behind a stool. “Hester of Smith, I am Halden, the acting regent. Please join us.” He sat, and all the rest sat as well. Halden then spoke quietly, as he looked at those seated about the table.
“You are all here for a very important task. You have been chosen for your skills and your character, and believe me when I say those will be tested.”
“There are people you must find, collect, and escort safely back to this keep. They must be brought back here as quickly as possible. You will speak to counsellors and advisers, bards and warriors, thieves and rogues. Among them you will find people that will support your cause. You shall be gathering the court of the King To Be. You are also looking for the king himself.”
There was a stunned silence. Hester felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle.
“The King?” Said a young man in cleric robes. “THE King?”
Halden smiled. “Yes. The king. He is alive, and he must be found and brought here safely. You must know that there are forces that will seek to kill him, and his followers…which includes you.” There was a moment of silence after this remark.
“Sir. Do you know where we must look? How will we know when we meet the right people? How will we know when we meet the king?” The broad shouldered fighter asked. Hester noticed, distractedly, that he seemed uncomfortable. He was sweating slightly, and his arms were resting heavily on the table.
“These questions have no direct answer. You must rely on each other’s talents, and their willingness to join your cause. But I must know if you agree to this task. There is no ill will if you decline. Do you accept, or decline?” He stood with his arms behind his back, looking toward the middle of the table for a moment, then at each person in turn. Every head nodded in agreement.
“Excellent. I thank you. I have some items that will assist you.” Halden stood, and the others stood as well, watching as he nodded for the guard to open the door, and as it opened two guards entered, carrying bundles wrapped in cloth.
After they had been placed on the table and the guards had left the room, Halden began to open the bundles. “Please, sit.” The group sat, all eyes on Halden. He first drew open a small pouch and said “I ask that each of you wear one of these amulets. They will give you some protection, and will serve as a symbol of your office.” When the pouch came to Hester, she drew out a long leather cord that was attached to a small round golden disc. She looked at it, finding only a small single star etched onto one side. She put it on, feeling the metal quickly warm against her skin. “Now. For you, Hugo of the hills, cleric, I give you this book of names of the families of old, which you must study, memorising as many details as possible. These names are key, and will guide you to their descendants, who must join you, if you can persuade them to do so.” Hugo took the book and looked at it in awe. “I will study well.” He said. Hester saw the gleam in his eye as he took the book, savouring the touch of it. He had beetle black eyes.
“For you, Angus of Fen, warrior, I give you this sword. Your warrior nature will make this weapon your guide to truth. Use it wisely.” A large two handed sword was placed before Angus, and Hester felt a warmth of pride as she recognized her father’s craftsmanship. Angus placed his large hand on the sword and nodded.
“For you Delin, mage, I give you this staff. When needed, it will provide you with a spell all its own.” Delin, a tall thin man with an angular face nodded his head slightly as he received the staff.
“For you, Hester of Smith, scout, I give you this dagger which will be your compass. It will work best if you trust your heart. Listen well, and it will guide you to those you seek.” “Thank you, sir.” Hester drew a small dirk from its sheath, knowing its maker without looking. But she raised an eyebrow when she saw a word etched onto the blade. The foursome looked at Halden, expectantly. “After this meeting, you will be outfitted for the journey. It will take a few days to gather provisions and rations, coins and maps, and within that time, I urge you to put your affairs in order. I have mapped out your journey, taking advantage of the seasons. You must begin in the west, in the town of Red Gate. There are people along the way who will be on the lookout for you, and aid you if you are injured or in need of supplies. One of your goals is to get an audience with the lord or lady in each holding. Hugo, Delin, I believe you are both skilled in the arts of diplomacy?” Both men agreed. “Each lord or lady will have an interest in this, and you must be ready to make an alliance, or make an exit.” Halden turned his head, a line of tension appeared along his jaw, and then softened. “Wherever you stay, you must spread the word of your search for the king and his followers. The people must hear that the king is alive.” He turned to Hester. “You sing and play, do you not? I have heard that you know the songs and stories of legend.” Hester was surprised by the question.
“Yes, I do sing and play when I travel. I’m not a bard by trade, but it passes the time.” Halden smiled at her. “From all accounts, I believe you are being modest. I ask that you share these songs and stories in each town or village. You must rekindle the desire for justice. The people need to be ready.” She smiled slightly up at Halden. “It will be my honour.”
There was a sudden crunch and the fighter Angus stood abruptly, his face beaded in sweat and red with exertion. Everyone turned toward him, and a small snicker escaped from the cleric, Hugo. “Are you injured? Did you break your stool? Do you need my assistance?” Hugo moved toward Angus, but stopped as Angus’ broad hand flattened against Hugo’s small chest. “Thank you. No.” Said Angus as Hugo’s body met the restraining arm with an audible “whoomp” of air.
Hester looked down at her hands, trying to control the laugh that was building in her chest. She raised her eyes and caught Halden’s. They both smiled, then broke with laughter, which raced around the room. Angus stood stock still, his eyes moving from one face to the next, then he too began to chuckle, finally throwing his head back with a bark of laughter. He wiped his eyes, and looked at Halden. “No offence, sir, but these seats were made for small woodland creatures! I’ve been struggling to keep my arms on the table to hold myself up!”
The rest of the day was full of being fitted for clothes, weapon checks, and pouring over maps. By early evening, as they left one another, the weight of the task seemed to be resting solidly on their shoulders.
Hester returned home and watched her father beam at her as she told him about the meeting. “The keep asked for those weapons months ago, but I had no idea one would go to you.” Hester pulled the dirk from her belt and layed it before them on the table.
“Da, I’ve never known you to etch your blades. What does this mean?” His eyes grew serious as he picked up the blade, took a drink of ale and grunted. “It is a spell, my girl. A spell that will tell you when enemies are near.” Hester leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table, astounded. “A mage came from the keep, and built the spell into the blade as I forged it. I…I didn’t like it much. I’ve never been so nervous in my life.” Hester looked down at the blade again, and opened her hand as her father handed it to her. “As I understand it, you hold it and speak the word.” “When you speak it, the blade will be yours. It will not obey any other hand. Go ahead, say it.” She held it gently in her hand and her eyes drifted to the etched word.
“Tahla” With that, the blade warmed in her hand, and it seemed to shimmer a faint blue light. Hester looked up again, and saw awe in her father’s eyes. “I didn’t know how it would work. What did it feel like?” He said as he nervously opened and closed his hands.
“It felt…warm. It feels good.” She thought for a moment, closing her eyes, sensing something new. “I think it feels….friendly.” “Huh! I’ll tell you, I don’t really ever want to work with a mage like that again, but it was satisfying to see it work”
The next week was full of planning, packing for all weathers, readying her horse’s tack and saddle, making new arrows, and spending time with her father. Hester also spent time with the members of the group, finding them an interesting collection. Hugo had been a shepherd until he was apprenticed to a local cleric. “I couldn’t wait to get away from the sheep. I still can’t stand the smell of wool.” His dislike of sheep made Hester smile. “Couldn’t wait to leave home, I take it?” He’d grinned then, and with it, his face changed completely. The two spent time reading the book of old families, and Hugo took notes of family connections and alliances. She spoke briefly with Angus and Delin, but they each studied their crafts alone; Angus in the practice yard and Delin somewhere in the keep.
When it was the day of departure, Hester’s father rode with her to the keep, and waited as the group gathered. As Hester’s belongings were added to the pack horses, she turned, taking his hands. “I’ll try to send word with merchants.” “I look forward to that. But save up your stories until you get back.” She hugged him, then mounted Ricasso. “Bye Da.” She called as the group turned their mounts and rode out of the keep and turned to the west, Hester quickly moving out in front as their scout.
When they’d ridden out of sight, her father turned to see Halden standing at his side. “We will need more of your excellent blades, master Smith.” The smithy bowed his head slightly, smiling. “I thank you, sir.” He said. “I’ll have the mage pay you a visit in a day or two.” Then Halden turned and walked away. The smith’s smile slipped until it was lopsided. “Thank you, sir.” He said, his voice barely a whisper.
When he had ridden out of the keep and was heading back to the forge, he grumbled and fumed, his hands running through his hair, making the course curls stand on end. “More magic swords!? Shit.”