Quara was so shocked by her introduction that she sat for a moment with her mouth slightly agape, frozen in place. Ausfela had indicated that they were some sort of royalty, but hearing the introduction from Henel made her head spin. In what world could these insane claims that they belonged to some sort of hidden royal family really be true? Quara suppressed the sudden impulse to jump up and run from the room, to find Ausfela and demand answers from the dragon, who she now realized she had come to trust. Unfortunately her feet made any movement an impossibility and so she mustered all of her courage and closed her mouth, forcing the corners up into a smile.
One by one the members of the council filed into the room. First there was a tall, broad shouldered man with tan skin and silver hair. He wore practical brown breeches and a brown leather vest, and his muted green shirt was the only flash of color that he allowed. He bowed deeply as Henel announced that he was Unilar, the leader of the Southern Za’Reekan contingent within the city.
The next person who came through the door was a slight woman with light blue hair streaked with lavender, that fell in a cascade to her waist. She moved with the smoothly gliding gate that Quara had come to realize was typical of the naiads, and was announced as Silvalin, of the Naiads of the Crater.
Maliam, a tall, thin naiad man, with sharp features and piercing green eyes who followed Silvlin, was announced as the representative of the River Naiads. Another male naiad, Huniar, was introduced as the envoy from the lake naiads, followed by an elderly man named Nanmar, who dropped to one knee before Quara and kissed her hand. Last came Ashren, a slight woman with dark brown hair and a deeply tanned complexion, who was introduced as the envoy from the Crater Mermaids, although she would be representing all the mermaids in the realm as none of the others could be convinced to transform themselves and put on two legs when dragons had been seen in the skies overhead. She wore a pale blue dress uncomfortably, but her movements were surprisingly graceful for someone who was not accustomed to walking about on human legs.
Last to come into the room was Tallinia, the purple haired elderly woman that Quara had seen outside teaching the children. She dipped her head in greeting as the others took their seats around the room on various couches and cushions, and the conversation that had begun to fill the silence faded away as the slight woman took stepped into the middle of the room.
“Many times has the story been told of how our world came to this moment, how we came to be balanced, upon the edge of a blade, surrounded by peril on all sides, forced to struggle to survive as a great darkness presses down our land. I will tell now how it is that we came to be here, as the tale has been passed down to us through three thousand years of darkness.”
“The Halanta dynasty had ruled the country of Hlant, in the south of what is now Charcha, for fifty-nine peaceful generations. Well, perhaps we should not say that they were entirely peaceful, for even in good times life seldom is, but the troubles they faced and wars that they fought seem light when compared with the years of darkness that followed and so it shall suffice to say that in those days things were good and the leaders, for the most part, were fair. If leaders who passed by had shortcomings it was largely made up for by the great plenty that some believed was the happy fate of the land.”
“King Hortrobe the seventeenth was a young man when he assumed the throne. His father had died quite unexpectedly and the boy did not quite seem to understand what was expected of him. It had been known by almost everyone in the land that he would marry the princess of a small realm on the north eastern border of the kingdom, but the young king delayed meetings with the princess’ representatives time and time again. His advisors pressured him to do what they believed was right for the kingdom and to begin to arrange the wedding immediately. Paintings brought from the northern kingdom again and again showed that the girl was exceedingly beautiful, with golden curls and skin like alabaster.”
“Yet the young king refused. It was later said that he was in love with a kitchen maid, but records kept, in the private journal of the Za’Reekean envoy who was at court at the time, show that this was not true. Lady Amerela, had only just come of age, and ruled over her small region of Hlant, with grace and kindness. Her own parents had died when she was very young and she had been raised by an aunt, but had recently returned to take over the running and managing of her own small part of the kingdom soon after her sixteenth birthday.”
“It was written by the Za’Reekean envoy that the king loved her from the moment that he saw her when she was presented at court. A whirlwind courtship followed. The pressure from the royal council, who had been formed to advise the king, was intense, but he resisted, and in a quiet, secret ceremony, he married her. The Lords were powerful though, and the young king was not quite as firmly upon his throne as he wished. And so he did not immediately announce the engagement to the world, a mistake that those close to him said that he regretted until the day that he died. Although truly he could never know how much he should have regretted it, for all that followed after came from the choices he made during this twilight of happiness in the realm, but he did not live to see the worst of it.
If he had announced the marriage publicly, it wouldn’t have been so easy for the lords of the kingdom to undo. The people would have loved a Queen from their own land, even if it wouldn’t have been as beneficial for the kingdom. But he hesitated, in the face of intense pressure. He began to realize that there were those with great power and influence in the aristocracy who would have liked to see a change in dynasties and who thought their own families might stand a chance of rising to the pinnacle of power in the kingdom if the little kinglet was knocked from his throne.
The king did not know that Amerela had been sent away until she was already gone. It was only much, much later, long after he had taken the bargain to save her life by marrying the foreign princess, an alliance which richly lined the pockets of those who arranged it, that he found out the truth. Lady Amerela was with child. And somehow that child survived.
It’s been said by many that this is where the story of the kitchen maid comes in. In a small, drafty castle, in a corner of the world where the woman who would have been queen was more or less a prisoner, the child was born. It is said that the Lady Amerela had been locked in a tower and only her lady was allowed in and out, and so it was easy enough for her to hide her expanding waistline. And her maid was loyal to her to the end.
She was the one who managed to smuggle the boy out when he was quite small. Still she knew that if she kept him herself too many suspicions would be aroused and so child was smuggled to the family of the cook in the land that Amerela had grown up in, for the fair queen had been quite close to the cook when she was a child and knew that she would care for the boy as her own.
The king was married and the boy grew and in time the Lady Amerela married a minor lord. For many years she refused the offers for her hand, but with the king remarried she realized that the only way she would ever be allowed out of the tower was if she conceded to the repeated demands that she marry one of the suitors that those who held her captive felt was appropriate for a lady in her position, in other words, as a lady who would need to be carefully guarded all her days.
The boy was seven years old when his mother married, although she was never allowed to return to court. He, however, was secured a position at the castle. It is quite certain that however this feat was managed, those involved, beyond Amerela, her lady in waiting, and the cook who raised the boy, likely didn’t know the boy’s paternity. The Za’Reekean envoy’s journal, from which so much valuable information has been obtained, suggests that Lady Amerela’s new husband secured the position as a favor to a woman that he believed had been kind to his wife during her long years away from polite society.
The king had long since married the princess who he had been pressured to marry from the start and a son had been born a short time later who was now next in line to the throne. Impartial writings from the time tell us that the boy was average in his studies, but at times showed worrying flashes of cruelty when he didn’t get his way. Still, for the most part his father kept him well controlled.
It is suspected that about a year after his oldest son’s arrival at the castle, the king learned his identity and summoned him from the kitchens, declaring that the boy, who had been given the name Hobnar, was the perfect playmate for the young prince, although it is quite certain that the older boy did not know that he was being introduced to his younger half-brother. If there were those at court who thought that it was odd that the king had plucked a boy from the kitchen to be his son’s playmate, they said nothing. By that time the King had made a point to solidly cement his position and many of those who had been key players in the kidnapping of the Lady Amerela had either disappeared amidst unusual circumstances, or had given up their titles and fled the country altogether. The king was now certain that no one would criticize a single decision that he made, at least not publicly.
The years passed and the boys grew into young men. They were rather close, although the older boy excelled in many areas that his younger brother did not, and so the young prince often tried to lessen the disparity that he felt was between them by being cruel to his friend, who he well knew had no choice other than to be his playmate. After all, what could young Hobnar do? Would he return to his job in the kitchen after being the young prince’s playmate for years? Would there even be a job for him there? He was really entirely without advocates, and the young prince was always careful in the presence of adults.
As has already happened once in our tale, the real trouble began, with the introduction of a new face at court. This time it was a princess who appeared upon the scene. In those days, it was the custom of many royal courts to send their younger children abroad to be fostered, in hopes that they might someday marry into a royal family in the country they had been sent to, cementing alliances and perhaps improving the position that they would have had at home. This was also meant to deter younger siblings from setting their eyes on the prize of the crown that would one day be atop their older brother or sister’s head.
The Princess Zanara was eight when she arrived at court, and she immediately became a part of the prince’s circle of friends. She almost seemed like one of the boys during those early years, riding horses and playing at sword fights in the palace gardens. In letters written home to her parent’s the Za’Reekean envoy begged her mother to tell the girl that it isn’t lady like to climb trees, even if she can climb faster and higher than any of the boys who lived at the palace.
By the time that they were teenagers the princess and Hobnar were close friends. Then she was recalled to Za’Reek when her oldest sister was married and there she stayed for several years, much longer than anyone had expected. During those years, she and the boy who had once worked in the kitchen wrote each other letters. Yet young Hobnar must have known that he had no real chance of marrying the beautiful young princess, when he had no title of his own and was only a boy selected as a playmate for the prince.
Things might have gone on as they were if Zanara had stayed in Za’Reek. Some thought that when she was called away from her foster home for so long because her father had found another suitable match for her and had changed his mind about the alliance that he must have considered proposing with the southern kingdom when he sent his daughter there. But one day news arrived that she was preparing to travel south again and the older boy eagerly awaited his friend’s return.
The girl that had left Hlant had been pretty but had not yet lost the gangly awkwardness that is so often a characteristic of youngsters who have begun to think that they’re grown. When she returned she was absolutely stunning. The Za’Reekean ambassador wrote that the King of Hlant requested that she return, and suggested that it was because he knew that his time on earth was coming to an end and he was hoping to see his son settled before he passed from this life. Some have questioned which son she was brought back for however, for unbeknownst to the young prince the King called Hobnar before him two days before he died and told him the truth of his paternity and begged for his forgiveness.
The king was alive when the princess boarded her carriage and headed south out of Za’Reek, but he was cold and still in his grave by the time she arrived in the little kingdom. She was given a place of honor at the new King’s coronation, and the engagement was sealed quickly, although the envoy noted that the princess played no part in the negotiations and was not asked her opinion on the matter.
It seems that at this point the man who would have been king, had fate not been rather unkind to his mother, had not told a single soul what his father had told him as he lay dying. If he had taken that secret with him to his grave we likely would not be in the mess that we are today and King Hortrobe the eighteenth would simply be a mediocre ruler that was hardly remembered outside of the history books a few short generations after his death.
Instead one night after the engagement was announced, Hobnar, filled with despair and cheap ale and in the company of a number of the young men that he had grown up beside, tearfully repeated his father’s words and lamented that his younger half-brother would not only take the crown that might have been his, but would take the girl that he had loved for half of his life as well. And while the young man loved his brother, he knew that he had a quick temper and loved himself above all else, and Hobnar doubted that the newly minted king would make a particularly caring husband.
The young lords who he had thought of as his friends saw their chance and seized it. Hortrobe the seventeenth had taken much from the nobles in the years that followed the loss of his first wife, and these boys who were barely men had been raised on stories of all the power and riches that their family had lost as a result of the monarch. Hortrobe was his father’s son, and would never be their puppet, but perhaps his brother would be easier to control, especially if they set him upon the throne. Besides, the rules of royal succession were clearly defined and he truly should have been the king.
In the days that followed the young lords used a series of half-truths and outright lies to convince Hobnar that the King was already dismissive and abusive in his encounters with the princess. They convinced him that a coup was both honorable and just, for he was the rightful King. They reminded him of this frequently, showing him deference in all things while steadily leading him towards the idea that he must unseat his brother and seize the throne.
It was clear early on that Hobnar would never concede to his brother’s death, but he finally agreed to an armed revolt that would be carried out within the palace walls, at the great banquet that would be held when the princess’ family arrived from the north. There would only be a small number of guards, who could be ensured to be on the young lords’ side of things, and the young men would far outnumber the King’s supporters.
That was the plan as it was explained to Hobnar, a young man who had not been raised up to be a king and who, despite his time in the palace, had somehow remained both naïve and entirely too trusting. They would take the King prisoner and announce to him that he had an older brother and force him to admit that his brother was the true ruler of the country. He would then be tucked away somewhere far from the palace and watched closely so he couldn’t cause any trouble for the new ruler.
Hobnar agreed, reluctantly at first, and then with greater enthusiasm as he began to think of the life he might have. After all Princess Zanara’s parents had been willing to let her marry one king, they’d likely consent to her marrying another, especially as the coup would take place before the engagement could be made official.
Hobnar was excited and nervous that night and he allowed himself to be distracted from his task of guarding the king’s cup, the position that his younger brother had granted him after their father’s death, by his fellow conspirators. He had tasted the wine already and while two of his friends managed to distract him, a third slipped a small vile into the goblet. The guilt of what happened next and of those careless, trusting moments, would haunt him for the rest of his days.
He realized as the King took the cup that something was not right. He caught the eye of the young lord across from him and in his expectant, jubilant smile Hobnar suddenly knew with a fierce certainty that something was amiss. Then the princess took the goblet and drank before he could utter a word. He stood frozen. He willed reality to shift to stay on the track of what had been planned, wishing with all his might that he had misread his friend’s expression, that he was wrong.
The princess crumbled to the floor and died not long after. Fighting broke out. The King was not taken as easily as they had imagined, and fought his way from the room. Other guards, loyal to the king, came running when he made it into the outer hall and the two sides were joined in battle. Despite losses on both sides, both claimants to the throne lived to fight another day.
Hobnar was absolutely and completely beside himself. The girl, who was the reason that he had sought to claim the throne that the law of the land said was rightfully his, was gone and he had played a role in her death. Little did he know that the events that followed that night would cause the kingdom that he was born to lead to need him more than ever.
His brother’s wrath was unquenchable. Hobnar’s allies had whisked him far from the underground capital city, while he protested that he didn’t deserve to go on and should return to face any justice his brother thought appropriate. The young lords stopped him, holding him hostage for a time in the same tower that he had been born in, as they became more convinced as each day passed that the kingdom truly did need him to survive and lead it.
The King now saw enemies everywhere. The aristocracy, most of whom were innocent, were the first to fall to his wrath, whether through executions or being locked away in dungeons. Few aristocrats in the capital city survived the days and weeks that followed. They were found guilty by virtue of their blood, from the very young all the way up to the very old. Those who weren’t enemies were potential enemies who could one day rise up and threaten his crown. Those further afield, outside of the capital, made their way into other kingdoms, not realizing that the King would stop at nothing in his quest for vengeance.
After exhausting the supply of nobles in Hlant, he turned his gaze outside his borders, to those who had fled. By now Hobnar had been taken to Za’Reek, more or less voluntarily, although his friends still watched him closely, since he did not seem to be entirely convinced that his brother’s wrath would continue if he turned himself in. Those who had seen the King, however, had no doubt.
With no enemies in sight within his borders he invaded a small kingdom to the east, purging it of both the nobles who had fled there and the country’s own royal family and aristocracy. And so it continued, time and time again as invasion followed invasion, until Za’Reek was the only country that remained free in the entire known world, protected by its border wall and fiercely fighting warriors of a number of different species.
It was around this time, after many years had passed, that those who remained near the King began to notice that he had stopped aging. It is said that he made a deal with the powers of evil and darkness in this world that would let him seek this vengeance, which was too great to be quenched in one lifetime after he had fed it so steady diet of rage and blood. Some say that he sold his very soul for the curse of immortality, for surely it must be a curse for one who is filled with such a torrent of anger and hatred that never seemed to run dry. By now he was calling himself the Emperor, for his lands were great.
Hobnar, had married in Za’Reek, and had two children, a son and a daughter, who carried within them the royal blood of both Za’Reek and Hlant. Still, despite the joy that they brought him, he retired from the world into a life of silence and penance, unable to forgive himself for the evil that his actions had set loose on the world and the many lives that had been lost as a result of that initial attempt at a coup, but most especially unable to let go of the knowledge that he had held the cup that led to the loss of the life of one of his closest friends, the girl that he had loved.
His son went south with an army to attempt to free the world from the Emperor and he was cut down. Reports from the few who survived say that he was killed by the Emperor himself, riding on an enormous red dragon. So Hobnar’s daughter remained, and a prophecy was spoken that someday, after much heartbreak and bloodshed, there would come from her line a generation that would save the world from the man who had killed so many.
News of the prophecy spread like wildfire, giving people across the world hope, and so the Emperor continued his hunt for those who would end his reign, destroying cities when he thought he had trapped members of the family in the net that he had flung, far and wide. Even Za’Reek was not entirely safe, and after a few assassinations of members of the family within the country’s borders, the family went into hiding. They moved constantly, and ultimately went south again, hoping perhaps, that the Emperor would not suspect their presence right under his own nose.
On the thousand year anniversary of his coronation another prophecy was spoken, and told of two girls coming forth from the belly of the land on the back of a dragon. Their arrival in Za’Reek would signal the beginning of the end of the Emperor’s time on his throne. If they could be stopped, the warning went on, from reaching that northern haven, the king would reign for another three thousand years before a worthy adversary would rise again to challenge him.
And so, while there are many stories that I can tell you of the brave men and women who have lived and died battling for the freedom of the kingdom and of the people who look to your line for hope, I will end here tonight, lest we sit here for months as the stories unfold. You Quara, and your sister Lina, are of the line of Hobnar, of the true royal family according to the ancient laws of Hlant, which is now called Charcha, which say that the oldest living child of the king must inherit the throne.
Your family fled the plains when the Emperor’s spies tracked them there and now you have emerged from hiding, from the depths of the earth if the prophecy is true, to return our land to its former glory and bring peace to a people long tired of fighting. And that it why all of us here are at your service and will do all that we can do to aid you on your journey north. Even if it costs us our lives.”