The short story train is moving right along, giving me precious little time to finish up the first chapter for the final entry. But I figure if I don't light a fire under myself, no one else will.
Again, there's been very little editing and proofreading done and the title is super tentative. If you have a better one, or really any thoughts or comments, please let me know. Feedback helps me know what stories I should pursue and which ones are dead ends.
Lastly, this is part of my little content of short stories, so when it's done, let me know which one you liked best and that's the story I'll through my effort behind. Thanks!
Enrie was fractured. Pieces of a great masterpiece, now crumbling and broken. The Great War tore the kingdom into nothing more than a handful of separate, untrusting territories, all vying to hold what power they still had. The monarch left no heir, instead leaving to his people a host of lords and barons, all claiming themselves kings of their own kingdoms. Corruption from within, and to the west, the lands of Atol, now free to invade, to chip away and reclaim their ancient lands.
At the center of the fallen kingdom, in Enrias, the shining capital of the Great Kingdom, a young man stood at the top of a tower. His hair blew lightly in the breeze as he looked over the emerald landscape, yet untouched by the conflict. To look out across this verdant land, one could forget the droves of lords and barons petitioning for help, demanding the use of the Enrias army to supplement their own. One could forget these same lords' silence when the same was asked of them. One could forget that just beyond the horizon was a dark army, waiting to destroy the last vestiges of the Great Kingdom.
With a deep breath he lifted his foot from the window sill, hovering it over the nothingness in front of him. One step would end the torment, relieve the weight. The constant cries for help. The constant deafness to his words. One step would end them. Enrias, Ollen, Mya, Heroff... all the so-called kingdoms of the North would be left to fend for themselves. Councilmen, advisors, and diplomats waited below in the grand chamber, but their wait would be in vain. Today was the final day.
“Let them have it,” he spoke softly to the wind. “If I cannot repair it, I will not bear witness to its demise.”
A knock at the door.
“Sir? Are you in there?”
The Lord of Enrias remained silent.
“It... It's Kenneth. Everyone's waiting, sir.”
The door to the Pray Chamber opened.
“How did you know, Ken?” came the Lord's somber voice.
With trepidation, a young man entered, adorned in colorful clothing. “Well, you always used to hide up here when we were – My Lord?”
He stepped down from the window, gaze still locked on the world beyond.
“Do not concern yourself, Ken. I will be fine.”
Kenneth stared in concern. He knew better than to question his Lord's behavior. “They – they sent me to find you. The council is assembled and waiting.”
Even all these years later, Kenneth knew his master – his friend, too well. If only he had been just a hair slower.
“Very well, Ken. I shall be down directly.”
The servant didn't move, instead waiting dutifully at the door.
“You won't trust me to come down alone?” Kenneth remained silent. “Very well. You may accompany me.”
The pair descended the long stairwell in silence, the Lord lost in thought, recalling their shared youth. He remembered playing with him as a child while Kenneth's parents served his own. He recalled the fight he had when he demanded Kenneth become his personal assistant and entertainer. He remembered the days when Kenneth would reenact plays, sing ballads, and play merry tunes. He would devour books from across and beyond the kingdom, all to relate them back to his master... to his friend.
As they grew older, the sneers from the nobility were not lost to Kenneth. The appointment of such a commoner, his constant presence at the young lord's side, it was more than the other lords and barons could tolerate. And yet through it all, his master never wavered, insisting that Kenneth remain beside him, playing, singing, and reading.
Kenneth stepped forward, entering the council chambers ahead of his lord, introducing him with a bow and an official flourish. The Lord of Enrias entered, eyes set, barely acknowledging the congregation. Several important looking dignitaries stood, following Kenneth's suit and bowing. It was meaningless pomp, unwarranted and most certainly unwanted. He was no king.
The servant excused himself, knowing that he had no place at meetings like this. With a permissive gesture from his lord, Kenneth entered an adjoining room. His duty wasn't to listen to the pleas of dignitaries and offer wisdom. That was beyond a simple man such as himself. Taking up a large book from a shelf containing dozens more, bordered by others containing dozens each, the entertainer found his seat and began to read. His Lord would be busy for some time and when he was through Kenneth's real duty would begin, to bring some semblance of joviality back to his master's face. To lighten the hardships that his position demanded.
And so Kenneth read. He read of forbidden romances. He read of great battles and genius tacticians. He read of folk tales about monsters. He read of heroes who sacrificed all. But through all the books, all the songs, all the plays, not a one told him how to bring back his master – his friend's smile.
As the hours dragged on, he heard the clamor of dignitaries and politicians finally die down. He dared to step back into the chamber, seeing that his Lord had finally dismissed the last group of ambassadors. His face was ever stoic, but the weight on him was still visible.
“Your Lordship? Perhaps I might favor you with a new song I've learned. It comes out from the Eastern Empire.”
Before his Lord could reply a new cacophony of voices erupted at the entrance. A group of people, certainly not nobility, were attempting to barge their way in, pleading and shouting for the Lord's attention. With a sigh he dismissed his servant once more then bid them enter. Kenneth bowed his head and retreated to the previous room once more, lingering only long enough to hear their distinct Atolic accents. These people had certainly traveled far to seek the keeper of Enrias.
Kenneth heaved a heavy sigh as he shut the door behind himself. The distractions would never cease, nor would his lord ever be unburdened again. It was up to him to act. His nerves were steeled. He gathered his books. He was naught but a performer, a fool, but with faith, with heart, and with – laughter? Kenneth turned and placed his ear against the door. Yes. It was unmistakably the laughter of his master, a sound he had thought he might never hear again. With the courage of the heroes in his books, Kenneth pried the door open, peeking out.
There was his lord, a strange, twisted smile cut across his face. Before him a group of people, workers, commoners, looked crestfallen and defeated. A woman, hair tied with a dirty piece of cloth and face stained with tears, pushed past her comrades, fist balled. She cried out but before she could speak, his lord interrupted.
“Wait.” He turned. Kenneth's eyes widened. His Lord was staring straight at him. He fumbled to find the seemingly vanished door handle, but failed before he heard his name called. “Kenneth. Come here.”
Setting aside his books, the servant dutifully came forward. The crowd of Atolic paupers scanned him, seemingly interested in his clothing. He looked down. It wasn't the finery of a duke, but his Lord ensured that he dressed well. Certainly better than these people. “Yes, my Lord?”
“I have changed my mind,” he replied, turning toward the woman with the outstretched fist. “Perhaps I can help.” Her scowl turned quickly to surprised relief, a small cheer rising from the group. “This is Kenneth, my most faithful of servants. More than any general, more than any soldier, I trust him. Today, he is yours.”
“My Lord?” Kenneth questioned. He only smiled at his servant, the gaggle of petitioners celebrating. All but the woman. She stared at Kenneth in a way that unsettled the entertainer.
“And he can do this?” she questioned.
“He will not fail me. Go. I shall have him prepare and meet you for the long journey back.”
“Journey?” Kenneth asked again.
The group gave another cheer and followed the guards out, all the while the woman continued watching Kenneth until she was out of sight. The servant, nervous and confused, turned to his master.
“My Lord, I'm not sure I understand what's going on.”
“There is nothing to understand, Ken. An insignificant village from an area so remote as to be Atolic anyway has petitioned for my aid. Me. The Lord of Enrias, master of the largest army still standing.”
“And you, Ken, will assist them.”
“Have never failed me!” he replied, erupting into raucous laughter. The halls echoed with the Lord's voice, that ceaseless, terrifying laughter. “Make ready, Ken! You depart immediately!”
His master stood, swiping an arm across the table the dignitaries had sat at, sending papers and figures flying across the hall. Guards watched silently as chairs slid and tumbled across the floor and the laughing master of Enrias ascended the stairs once more.
For the first time in his life Kenneth was forbidden from seeing his lord. For the better part of an hour he fought, only to have the guards repeat his orders: return with the Atolics. Aid them as only you can. What this meant was beyond the jester's knowledge. He was neither a warrior nor a strategist. Not a doctor or an architect. What assistance could he possibly provide?
Kenneth took a deep breath. It didn't matter. His Lord had asked something of him and he would do it. From his chambers he took several small instruments; from the library, a stack of books. Maps, songs, plays, ballads, he packed them all together. He couldn't wield a sword, but with whatever talents he possessed, he would find a way to accomplish this task and, perhaps, that would remove at least a sliver of the weight from his Lord's shoulders.
It wasn't long before Kenneth found the group waiting outside the castle grounds. There were only six people, all in a state not dissimilar from the woman he had seen before. Hair caked with sweat and mud, clothes stained with earth and... what he hoped wasn't blood. There were four men and two women; the one he had seen earlier and a younger girl, perhaps her daughter. When they saw him, a small cheer rang out, but the woman from earlier quickly quieted them.
“Are you finally ready?” she asked, Kenneth having to take a moment to adjust to her Atolic accent.
“Yes. I believe so.”
She stared skeptically at the trunk he dragged behind him. “I trust that thing is full of swords? Or better yet, food?”
Kenneth hesitated. He had no clue what calamity had befallen these people, but his Lord had ordered him to solve it. He stared at the case. It was ornate, with a fine gold trim. Likely the case alone was worth more than the collective belongings of this group.
“It contains... what I need to assist you.”
At the woman's command, two men came forward and hefted the trunk into a large covered wagon. There were seemingly more patches than original cloth and the wood frame looked as if even termites had rejected it. Still, it seemed to hold up under the weight of his books and the men, and Kenneth would count every blessing from this moment forward.
“My name is Kenneth,” he said, giving a bow to the woman. Before he rose, she had already turned and moved to the front of the wagon.
“Delightful. We move out now.”
The meager looking oxen pushed forward, tugging the wagon along the road and forcing Kenneth to run to catch up. A hefty arm seized his own from the back, tugging him inside with a smile.
“Dornt min' 'er. She jist takes some gettin' used tae.”
Kenneth stared at the man for perhaps too long, forcing a smile.
“Yes, of course.”
The man laughed and clapped him on the back, sending him tumbling forward a bit. Carefully, adjusting to the pace of the wagon, he maneuvered himself to the front, poking his head out and smiling to the woman once more.
“So... as I said, I'm Kenneth.”
“I heard you the first time.”
“Good, good. So... do you have a name?”
“Of course I do, you glaikit divot!” Kenneth recoiled slightly, but pushed forward again, smiling. She sighed. “Rhona.”
Keep your eyes open for my debut novel, The Paladin.