Earth Chapter 5: Consequence
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Earth’s kebab went cold in his hand. Synu, also awestruck, did not neglect to finish her peapods. Guardsmen, moments before lounging in corners, a witbeer in hand and a pretty girl on the arm, rushed to the fore of the crowd with salutes of attention, making way for fully outfitted men-at-arms to break a path through the crowd. Vested in the platesmelt that only came from the royal forges of Ambra, black armors that glistened with the subtle blue-red tint, the grim-eyed and cool soldiers pushed through the murmuring crowd, opening the way for the line of mounted knights to ride in behind them. Each chest alike bore the crest of the Shadowsun in filigree, a dark starburst of gold over black, the same emblem emblazoned on the tunics of three heralds on foot, brandishing strange, rounded horns and marching in locked step.
The vanguard took up stations about the dais, a square phalanx armored black surrounded by flowers upon flowers of gold. The murmuring of the crowd roiled a low-boiling cauldron but then died away. A still settled over all else while a solitary knight on a midnight steed made way along the widened path his army cut for him through the crowd. His cape gleamed that much finer. His mount was that much haughtier. Even with his face hidden, his helm left little doubt who this legendary figure was.
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The men-at-arms all wore barbutes, conical helms with t-shaped openings through which their hardened faces could be seen grimacing. Each mounted knight donned a black armet, platesmelt, with trap-door-like masks hewn as warriors mid battle cry. But he far surpassed them all, a single, mystery within a solid platesmelt great helm worn over shimmering coife, the bascinet worked with exquisite detail to appear the soft face of a young child, crowned with a haloed starburst of solid gold, its spiked rays glorifying all the more the hidden colors of the otherwise gleaming black metal.
Here, before Earth, rode the ruler of all the land. Passing the knights stationed at the base of the dais, the men-at-arms standing at attention on each step, the Shadowsun mastered his mount up to the center of the stage with calm precision. The charger turned this way, then that, energetic and powerful, but never out of control. All the while, the Bastardking of Ambra sat it like a living throne.
Then, when all was still and hidden, he reached a gauntleted hand up to remove the bascinet. The audible breath of the crowd rushed in. But then, to the side, there was a sudden commotion. A heavy-set man was struggling to press his way pass the pikemen and into the fore.
The lawyer who called himself Mayor of Elusa was not a wicked man. Some might whisper, “Fool!” fearlessly as he passed by on any given day, but his adept skills with a quill and parchment earned him plenty of influence on the projects of the town, such as the building of walls and the organization of festivals. Fool still he proved in his bustled haste to fulfill his own imagined self-importance, so that Dormin of Ahrventon entangled himself with his own hired guardsmen as they tried to pull him back from the wall of knights. The black and stern soldiers remained cold and audacious, holy is their armor, frightfully powerful as majestic beings descended from the heavens.
The King lowered his hands from his helm to rest in his lap. Perhaps by sheer ability to out-bungle his men, Dormin stumbled away from their minor row in victory. Wiping his hands on his leggings, he looked about as if for the first time realizing he had no plan at all as to what he intended to do. The omnipresent silence of the packed square pressed down on them all, until his soft and slightly sagging was heard to swallow quite audibly. Yet, against everyone elses’ better judgment, he nonetheless opened his mouth to speak.
“I greet you, Sovereign visitor, to this, our fair Festival of the Cor Blossoms!”
Nothing. Then more of it. Not a muscle moved in the entire square but the wringing of poor Dormin’s hands.
“Ahem, yes,” he then stammered, as much to himself as to anyone else. “I say, ‘You are a most welcome sight!’ The House of Ambra sheds gracious light upon our humble township.” He then stooped low in something effecting a bow.
Mute, dumb, deadening silence, innocent platesmelt and vigilant eyes.
Bowing beneath those eyes Dormin remained for so long, no doubt expecting some response. That he started to struggle, his stooping, top-heavy frame burdened all the more by the frigid air of condescension that held about the square like a thick mist. At last, the laxity of his will folded, for better that than his back! Shaking with the effort of having waited entirely too long, the torment drove him to an upright position, whereat he clapped his arms firm to his sides and, to the wide chagrin of all, opened his mouth to address the masked Lord. Yet, to the pleasant surprise that twists on the plot might bring, he only stood agape for a long second. He then closed his mouth. Opened it again. Closed it once more. Opened it with shift of the head and a hand in the air. Then, still pointing to heaven, but shaking his head as he eyed the street, he made off in earnest jostling and displacing of the near crowd in pursuit of the anonymity he so willingly sacrificed.
“My people!” The Shadowsun of Ambra declared. Every eye shot from the commotion of Dormin to the visage of the Bastardking, visage of crowned-innocence now settled to rest on the pommel of his destrier.
The features of the Shadowsun struck with pristine clarity - his skin was smooth and his beard barely visible, his eyes gleaming with a peculiar mix of white and green, his hair an interweaving of fiery red and black, bound tightly in a knot behind his head. The hushed gasp of the onlookers was palpable. Goosebumps crept over Earth's skin when he first laid eyes upon his King's face. It was widely acknowledged that the Shadowsun could be no more than twenty-three years of age, yet the man who sat before them appeared scarcely old enough to have reached the Eve of Aging.
“It is him,” the whispers began to spread about the square again.
“Does it matter?”
As the cheering intensified, the once separate shouts merged into a single, exuberant shout of the crowd. The pebbles had become waves, and the pool had transformed into a sea of celebration. The air filled with laughter, and tears emotion mingled the sense of power and unity. It was as if all the barriers that had once separated them had been washed away, leaving only elation and hope. Nothing else mattered but the pleasure of living in such relief.
“All hail the Shadowsun!” echoed over the deafening roar. People were beside themselves. Unbridled in their rush, they tore down the Cor Blossom strands here and there and tossed them about the sky. The mood was infectious. Vibrant yellow stars shot down from darkness at the speed of snow with the entire assembly in revelry. Some danced. Others wept while embracing strangers with kisses and hugs. Young and old men alike took up the Ballad of the Dark Walls as the cavalcade gallanted about the motionless ebony vanguard for whom they sang.
The King's conquest of his people was not acknowledged with even a flicker of emotion. Instead, he surveyed the tumultuous crowd, searching intently until, to Earth’s startlement, the Shadowsun’s gaze locked with Earth’s. He felt a stunned clown. The moment was so surreal that he had forgotten to cheer. Now, he stood quite transfixed, pierced by the soul of this otherworldly prince, a moment so holy, extreme, so terrifying that whatever strange pull toward this enigmatic lord had stirred this crowd now exerted an irresistible pull on Earth. It was as if the King knew him. But how could that be?
Earth lowered his head in reverence.
When he raised it, the King again scanned the crowd, his great air of command for whatever reasons of his own unwilling to end the celebration yet unable to accept it. Did the great lord sigh? But then a lift of his right hand in the sign of blessing used by the priests of the Forgotten who dwell in the caves upon his lonely mountain and instantly the clamor subsided. The last petals fell several moments later, well after the King began to speak.
"Listen well, friends! For I bear ill tidings. A tragedy descends upon Ambra.”
Fragile joy shattered into a million primal fears. A woman cried out. The King's voice grew somber as he spoke.
“As the only living son of a shattered lineage, of old given reign in the Ambra Coast to be protector against the wild lands to the North. But we have failed you.
“In the great library kept within the City of Dark Walls, in my father’s fathers’ city, for the sake of whose stewardship I have been forbidden to ride out all these many years, in that great library upon the annals of the Shadowsun are chronicled the ancient Cullings of the Madgyi. There are passages in those tomes which are written in scripts that even our wisest cannot read. But what can be read tells us much.”
A few murmurs rippled through the crowd, but the King continued his conviction evident.
“In the days of our forefathers, the Madgyi descended on our lands. With their metallic monsters and sorcerous weapons cutting a swath of destruction wherever they went, their Culling methodically exterminated our people and left behind only barren wastes. Our ancestors fought bravely, but nothing stopped them. They were relentless.
“The first Shadowsun to take the throne did so before the last Culling ended. But we know little of value beyond this. Whatever arcane mysteries or secret knowledge was at play in those battles, we do not know. It is only written that at last the Madgyi retreated beyond the Foer Drihm Wall, where they remained until this day.”
The King paused, his eyes scanning the crowd. He sighed and went on, his voice low and ominous. “Or they were.”
It wasn’t a surprise. He’d prepared them for this blow. Nobody moved or spoke. Determination rippled through the throng. They would take heart. They would stay true. But what the King said next tickled the ears of them all.
“Now, the Madgyi stir once more because of the folly of my father. They have massed their forces and crossed the Foer Drihm Wall. A new Culling is already here, more wild than ever. We were not ready. But we shall face them all the same. For I have not come here to speak to you of the past, nor to seek your pity or your forgiveness. I seek to fulfill my destiny, to settle the cost of my father’s wrongs.”
He allowed a moment of silence to pass, trembling under the weight of his words. None in the crowd dared break the spell.
“I seek to lead you,” he said. "Doubt may cloud your mind. Perhaps you question my right to rule? But there is no time. The wicked forsake fidelity, but those who take heed fight back! Our enemy is strong, and we must at least meet strength with wit. See past my birth. Judge me for who I am. Join me! Stand with me! The Madgyi have their dark wonders? What of it? Their Culling? We still are alive and we still are men! The right measure of the draw, the right eye to the target, the symmetry in formation, and our battle shall be righteousness no matter its end. Our sacrifice shall then be the aroma of glory before the Throne of the Forgotten!”
Another cry pierced the air, followed by a new, pulsing silence that beat against the ears. Every heart trembled. Every hand felt insecure. Frustration etched itself onto his face, and he looked down at the Cor Blossoms nestled in his horse's mane. He shook his head.
“I do not know the conflict that once ignited that foul northern people descending from above upon to wreak havoc our ancestors. But the reports from our frontier leave nothing in doubt. Entire farmsteads laid waste, and whole families taken. Crops burned, and the land itself scarred with salt and sulfur. The annals of old speak clearly. The Culling of the Madgyi has returned, and it is my father's folly, that has brought this ancient threat down upon us all.”
The assembly was thrown into dismay as panic seized hold. People shouted out and women snatched up their children, while merchants scrambled to stuff their wares into bags. But the heralds stemmed the madness with the piercing sound of trumpets' song cutting chaos like a knife.
"Would you weep, my people?" the Shadowsun thundered, “would you scatter and run like cowards and fools? Would you hide? I ask you, to whom shall you go? To the caves to eat twigs? Will the Culling not find you even there, once it has desecrated your brethren to the north and laid waste to your abandoned homes?"
His commanding presence guided his steed about the dais, dark cloak fluttering in the torchlight, his armor gleaming with a sharp sheen, fixing each citizen with his gaze, one by one, as he spoke. “I speake as your King,” he declared. "I have come to wake you from slumber. Your kin are ravaged, their crops razed, their children stolen, their bodies brutalized. Destruction and decay are left behind. The ancient foe has awoken, and I have come to call you to action."
“Join me," he urged them. "Let us stop this vile infection. Ride with my insignia on your shoulder, and let us be a wall of fire and bone. Though the heavens fall from the sky, though the abyss roar and foam, though I be untimely born and my father the maddest of men, I am yet the Shadowsun. Bastard? Half-blood? I am of Ambra!
“Just like you,” he said in a hushed tone, and his eyes suddenly watching as if very far away. “They will say of me, ‘This one was born there, on the Ambra Coast, where the Cor Blossoms grow,’ and then they will sweep me away like ash as I stand there alone, a King who found only cowards in his land when the day of reckoning dawned.”
The entire crowd remained in awe, the retinue recessing to the rustle of armor and occasional snort of a horse. Flower garlands still hung from the rafters, and soft golden petals littered the ground all about, but the Festival of Cor Blossoms left with their King.
The story of Earth continues…
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