Hal rested by the singed shell of a house. His hands hurt. He had been chopping wood, fulfilling his promise to feed the pitiful blaze that was the only comfort to the old man and little Ann. The girl had brought out a hatchet from beneath the straw she slept on. The axe seemed to shrink as it passed from her tiny, twig-like fingers into his grasp. Her big eyes never rose to meet his. She would not look at him.
Outside the wet snow had stopped and though it was cold it was bright and clear. Hal lifted soaked rafters until he uncovered dry timber. Now cut wood was stacked beside him. He leaned against the one remaining wall and set down the small hatchet. He stretched his fingers.
His knuckles were sore and knobby. The skin on the back of his hands was tanned and weathered, like a man who labored in the fields. He turned his hands over and noticed welts along the ridges of his palms.
Ravens cawing overhead pulled his eyes skyward. He reached for his bow and nocked an arrow. A lump of black feathers fell to the ground. He shot a second bird and then a third, leaving no more targets to hit.
He bound the ravens by their feet and slung the bundle over his shoulder; then he gathered up wood and walked back to the house. Ann opened the door. Hal unloaded the logs by the fire and laid the dead birds in the little girl's arms. A cry slipped from her throat. She looked up and Hal saw a smile light her eyes and then bloom upon her face.
While Hal stoked the flames, Ann plucked the ravens. Soon the fire was roaring. The old man's cheeks grew ruddy and sweat beads sprouted on his brow.
"We feasting on pheasant?" asked the old man. "Sounds like Ann is fixing us a bird or two."
"Raven meat, not pheasant," answered Hal.
In a short while the soup was boiling. Ann offered the first bowl to Hal.
He held up his hand. "Child, you and your grandfather have your fill first."
"Why will you not eat? Is it cursed? Did you bring us food of the spirits?" asked the old man. A drop of sweat fell from his chin. "Is it our souls you wish to feast on?"
"The meat is raven flesh. It is meager and tough. But it is not cursed." Hal's words were firm.
"Then why not eat with us?"
"You and the girl are starved. Hunger cannot kill me. I am not like other men."
"You cannot be like other men if your father was old King Harold. If you were, you'd be long under the ground feasting in the halls of the Lord of the Dead. You gave us your name, Harold, son of Harold the King. Are you a man? Or are you spirit?"
"I ate of the heart of a dragon and its immortal fire burns within me. But I am not a spirit and I do not feast on souls. I breathe, I feel the cold, I grow weary, as all men do."
"Then you must eat, as all men do," said the old man. "You claim to be our lord. If you are, you must do us honor and sup with us."
"I will sup." Hal sat down on a log and took the bowl from Ann. The steam warmed his nose. "But first, grant me the honor of knowing the name of my host, grandfather of Ann."
"My name is Hamon. I am… I was the elderman of this village. My father was before me. My grandfather 'fore him, going back to the time of your father, Good King Harold. Now, my lord, eat."
The soup was hot and Hal was hungry. He couldn't remember the last time he felt hunger. He drank deep and had finished before he knew how it tasted. He returned the bowl to Ann. "Thank you." She nodded. Then she ladled out a portion for Hamon and placed it in his shaky hold before getting a bowl for herself.
Hamon gulped his soup. Then he turned to Hal. "So, the Lost Prince has been alive these many long years. Why did you not come sooner? Where have you been all this time?"
"Far away to the East. I left these lands in search of the palace of the Queen of the Dawn."
"So the stories are true. Just like the Red Prince. 'Tis said once a man has a vision of Aurora he will journey to the end of the earth to be with her. No man can resist her pull upon his soul. Did you find it? The palace of the Dawn?"
"I found it. Or she found me..." Hal's eyes drifted to the hole in the corner of the thatch roof. The clouds beyond were changing color from bluish gray to brownish purple as the dirty sky darkened. "The citadel is so beautiful, the most wondrous sight… I lived within those golden walls for days and nights, weeks, years… Until the spirits of the Isles sent a messenger to me." Hal lowered his gaze from the patch of sky to Hamon and Ann. "The messenger told me my people were suffering. He told me my kingdom was bleeding."
"Old King Harold sent knights to every port and town on the continent, from the castles to the farmhouses, and he promised a fortune to any man who could tell him what happened t' you, my lord. My grandfather said Harold's heart grew weaker day by day until it stopped."
"I did not know so much time had passed," said Hal, in little more than a whisper. "The hours flow slowly in the city of the Dawn, like ripples on a still lake, while here, in the realm of men, time runs fast, like a rushing river after a storm."
"The storm blows hard. The common folk are nothin' more than dead leaves clinging to dead trees in a whirlwind." Hamon reached for Ann, who was now seated beside him, heating her fingers by the fire. "Thousands would've been spared, if you'd come back before…" Hamon's words shrank as a sob left his lips. He gave Ann his bowl and went on, "If you'd come 'fore the Old Dragon came, before the kingdom split apart, one brother fighting for the stag and t'other for the bear, 'fore the last Lord of Emerald Stars…"
"Who was the last Lord of Emerald Stars?" asked Hal.
"Edmund, son of Edgar, Lord of the West Isle?" A windy spring day came to Hal's mind. He and Stephen were trying to train their younger cousin in archery. Hal saw Edmund's face, red with anger, his yellow hair flying in his eyes, as the boy failed again and again to hit a dead rabbit nailed to a tree.
"'Edmund the Green' they called him at first, for he was just twenty when he was crowned, after his father King Edgar died," said Hamon.
"Edgar, my uncle… My father said Edgar spent too much time hunting and not enough ruling the West Isle."
"King Edgar spent his last day hunting. He was gored by a stag in one of the wild forests that long ago covered the West Isle. Or perhaps, it wasn't an animal, but a band of rebels, sons of the ol' chieftains, hidden in the woods wearing antlers and buckskin."
"I remember my father telling my uncle never to trust the rebels. He said they had put down their clubs and spears but would pick them up the moment Edgar turned away. My father was a wise man." Hal looked upwards again. Blackness had smothered the sky. "But I refused to hear him." The wind wailed outside and whistled as it funneled through the hole in the roof. The only light came from the fire. Hal shoved more wood into the blaze. "How do you know all this history? You are not a cleric. You are a commoner." Hal had always assumed the peasants and village folk of his kingdom knew little more than when the sun should rise and set and which face the moon was showing.
"When I was little, no older than this one here," Hamon stroked Ann's hair and his voice grew strong, "my grandfather told me how things came to be the way they are. An' now, I tell my dear Ann and she hears me." Ann nodded. "An' if she lives to have children and learns to speak again, she will tell a grandson or granddaughter some day, and my wife and I an' all our people will hear it and rise from our beds in the Realm of the Dead and know we are not forgotten."
Hal moved back from the fire and sat again upon the log. "So, Hamon, please tell me of Edmund. You say he was called 'Edmund the Green'?"
"At first, or 'Edmund the Fair'. Yet, after a time, they called him 'Edmund the Simple' and then 'Edmund the Fool.'"
Edmund had never struck Hal as particularly clever, but he would never have named him a fool. "Why was he called 'Edmund the Fool'?" he asked.
"Edmund married the eldest daughter of the Lord of the Midlands. It was said her mother, the Lady of the Midlands, boasted that just as the Spirit of the Harvest blessed their lands, her daughter's womb would be blessed, and she would bear the kingdom a crop of royal sons."
"I knew the maiden, her name was Rowynna. I remember her mother too. The Lady of the Midlands had many children. She birthed seven sons before she had Rowynna. Edmund was fond of the girl. We all were. She was… bountiful, beautiful. Did she give him sons?"
"Not a one. After many years of marriage, her belly bore little fruit, only two wispy girls." Hamon's voice deepened and hummed like split reeds bound by rushes. "Some said the spirits punished her for her mother's pride but wiser folk knew the truth. Like his father, Edmund loved to hunt the wild forests of the West Isle, and not long after he said his vows to the daughter of the Midlands, he met a black-haired beauty deep in those woods. Thereafter he spent most of his days and nights far from the royal castle. The Dark Lady kept his bed in an ancient keep in the West Isle."
Hal heard a snap and turned to see one of the logs had cracked in the fire. He looked back at Hamon. "Who was this Dark Lady?"
The shadows on the wall behind the old man's head leapt. "She was the daughter of a rebel chieftain and, some claimed, the Queen of the Night."
"Edmund was a fool," said Hal.
"With the King gone, his ministers fought among themselves and evil took root in the court. Then there was one bad harvest after another and every little lord hoarded what he could and the common folk starved. Some turned to banditry and roamed the roads in gangs, attacking anyone and everyone for a crumb of barley bread..."
"If only my uncle Malcolm had been borne before my uncle Edgar. Then my cousin Stephen would have been King."
"The sons of the Great Bear in the North Isle thought Lord Stephen should have been crowned as well. Their growls were heard throughout the Isles and a good number of the Southern nobles growled with them. It was not long before half the lords of the kingdom stopped paying tribute to the crown. And when Edmund's ministers ordered them to court, they refused the call."
"They readied for war."
"They did, my lord. But war did not happen. Not then. King Edmund left the West Isle and the Dark Lady and again took his place on the throne. He sought peace with Lord Stephen and gave his first daughter to Stephen's eldest son."
Hal imagined the young couple – a tall knight with Stephen's broad nose and a pretty maiden with Edmund's fair hair and freckled skin. "The marriage didn't stop the war?"
"It might have done," answered Hamon, "if Edmund's other daughter had not fallen into misfortune."
"What happened to the second girl?"
"She was sent across the sea to marry the Prince of Mortain. But a terrible storm blew her ship off course and it went aground on the Red Coast." Hamon lifted his blinded eyes towards Ann as she shook out a rough-spun blanket and draped it over his bony shoulders. "The maid was captured by the warlord Rogvald. He was known as Rogvald the Bastard, and 'the Bastard Dragon'."
"Like William the Dragon?" asked Hal.
"The Bastard Dragon was William's father. He forced King Edmund's daughter to marry him and neither the Prince of Mortain nor her father, the King of the Green Isles, summoned a single knight to free her."
"Was this warlord Rogvald so terrifying that not one knight would go on his own?"
"People said he was a monster, a giant man with flaming red hair, the son of a great fiery dragon. He slaughtered one lord after another, then set fire to the lord's keep and built a stronger fortress in its place." One of Hamon's gray teeth glinted in the firelight. "Each kill made the Bastard Dragon hungrier for more blood."
"No one could defeat him?" Hal's voice tightened.
"No one ever did, far as I know."
"I hope Edmund tried to comfort Queen Rowynna."
"Perhaps he did try to help the Queen. Yet the lady was overcome with sorrow. She could not live knowing her young daughter was being ravaged by a monster and her husband the King was too cowardly or too heartless to do anything to save her," said Hamon as the flames died down. Ann sniffled and pulled her arms inside her ragged clothes. "Late one night the Queen stole Edmund's sword and tied up stones in her robes and jumped into the moat."
"She drowned herself…"
"One of the watchmen heard the splash from the battlements but when he got down to the moat the waters had already covered her. The King ordered the castle guard to drain it the following day and they dragged out her corpse, but they never found Edmund's sword."
Hal glanced over at his own sword leaning against the wall. "Did Edmund the Fool ever use his sword?"
"I can't say, my lord. Perhaps in a tournament. But, as I know the histories, he never fought in a battle."
"Then it didn't matter that his sword was lost in the moat. He never fought, he had no sons to leave it to–"
"Oh, but he did have sons, sons he claimed at least. Three of them," said Hamon. "They were full grown when the Queen died, all with black hair like their mother, the Dark Lady of the West Isle. Edmund brought them all to the royal castle after the Midlands daughter sank into the Realm of the Dead. He married the Dark Lady and made her his new Queen. Then he pronounced their bastard sons lords and made the eldest, Eoghan, his heir."
"Edmund made his bastard Crown Prince? That would have started a war." Hal leaned back and felt the cold wall through his tunic and the links of his mail.
"War broke out soon after, the day Edmund died."
"How did Edmund die?"
"A sudden sickness struck him," answered Hamon, "Some said it was poison. The Dark Lady barely waited for the last breath to leave his body 'fore she had him buried. The grave was filled in early in the mornin' and by noon she had crowned her son Eoghan King. Then she ordered a new banner to be raised o'er the castle. It had the white stag of the old rebel chiefs charging into Edmund's three green stars. When the news reached the West Isle the people danced and drank for seven days, singin' the Stag King comes again!"
"While the bears in the North gathered for war."
"Lord Stephen's son Duncan and his men sailed from the North Isle and marched south to defend his wife's claim to the throne, joined by the Midlands and half the lords of the East. While the other half of the kingdom were loyal to Eoghan–" Hamon's words were cut off by a cough, yet he quickly recovered. "Houses split, brother against brother, father against son. War blazed everywhere and it has never ceased…"
Hal looked over at Ann. The rims of her eyes were red from staring into the fire. He recalled how red his father's eyes would get from the sooty hearth in the royal bedchamber. For a moment Hal was back there. He heard Harold's voice and saw his red-rimmed eyes. "He disappeared and left no son, no heir! Our kingdom suffered civil war for a hundred years!"
© 2013–2014 m. b. whitlock a.k.a. Claremonty
All Rights Reserved