A Broken Crown

Image de Josiah Mork

Josiah Mork

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The plain was a barren wasteland. A former thriving kingdom, the grassland was a malicious ruin. Dark mountains rose in the distance like teeth slowly devouring the landscape from north to south, looming menacingly over the forsaken ground.
The watchful eyes of ravens circling the grey skies, if looking, may have spotted a lone figured stumbling among the stiff reeds of the desolate plain. His clothes were torn, blustering about him in the vicious wind along with a great wispy beard. His snow white hair flowed like a second cloak around his frail, bony frame.
But any man, woman, or child foolish enough to have stayed in that wild grassland would have seen more than the scrawny wreck of a man stumbling through the grass toward the lone sign that it had once been anything else. This was a single grey pillar that jutted from the ground as a solitary frame of an ancient tower. Short stacks of rubble surrounded the obelisk, but were lost under the growth of the wild. Not so were the legs of the wanderer. Thin and torn as he was, the man carried himself purposefully with nobility as a king of old.
Should the Fates have seen through the man's eyes, they would have not seen that dismal sight of a lone ruin. No, a grand sight was beheld to him alone. Towers like solid stone spires strew the landscape amid a thriving labyrinth of city walls, houses, and guard-towers that graced the plain in a majestic fortress and bustled with the sounds of a lively kingdom. Huge banners wavered in the peaceful breeze hundreds of feet above over the sprawling bastille where a mighty army kept watch over the lands beyond.
It did not take long for him to be taken back into those days, the days when the kingdom stood strong, and specifically that fateful day when he had entered the King's presence. Like it was yesterday the memories unfolded in his mind.

With a thunderous boom the Throne Room's massive door swung open at the hand of a powerful, young arm. Its solid oak frame set the stone walls shaking, but went unnoticed in the shadowy darkness of the voluminous chamber.
Two lone torches were the only sources of light in the cold room, flickering in their stanchions from the back wall. Between them sat a withered old man in flowing robes of once-fine purple. His beard was long and rich, but wispy and frail as though it had been left untrimmed for many years. His clothes were worn and faded, studded in tarnished silver chains that matched the ruined metal that covered his throne. Beneath this dull, broken display was a pair of fierce blue eyes, deep with the chronicles of wisdom that could only be learned in the tutelage of time . Their weary light glowed peacefully under the weight of a furrowed brow. Atop his wispy head was a huge crown sparkling eerily in the torchlight.
Confident steps fell on the cobblestones, breaking the stagnant silence.
"Father, must you still sit in the dark?"
"It helps me think," the man murmured in a surprisingly strong voice. "Must you always enter with such self-importance?" His face remained stoic, but the tone betrayed a hint of humor.
The young man offered a grin as he drew the dusty drapes from the windows until streams of light imposed into the shadowy room.
"One of us must. You are the king, after all, father, and since you also dwell in this den all the time, I must set a precedent."
The archaic lord wheezed a sigh. "Must you?"
The young prince crossed his arms defensively. "Perhaps not. Unfortunately, there is an impending matter that truly must be addressed."
"Lord Charon." The king answered heavily.
"Yes. His rebel armies have taken most of the southern plains. They advance almost five miles a day and have claimed almost all of the cities and villages from Bethel to Nistroth. Until now he goes unopposed." These last words were spoken with a shred of malice, perhaps revealing a poorly-concealed frustration.
"And you would have me ride out against them. No. So they come; let them, there is no fruit from the flames of war."
Prince Ebereth's eyebrows drew together angrily. "Father, listen to yourself! Perhaps nothing will be gained in war, but at least we shall prevent your kingdom from being lost. I have already rallied our forces; they have orders to march at dawn."
The king's eyes turned their power to meet his son's challenging gaze. "By whose order have they assembled and on whose word do they march?"
Ebereth cleared his throat. "I ordered it, father." He stepped closer and knelt to look the king square in the eye. "For two weeks I have warned you of this. With Charon invading unopposed, the Lords begin to question you. Word even comes from Henthcliff that Seager will join the rebellion if Charon makes it to the Pass of Vendor unchallenged.
"It breaks my heart just as much as yours that such treachery should happen within these boarders, but ignoring the problem will not solve it. With every day the rebellion's confidence grows. They must be crushed. I have ordered five-thousand able-bodied men armed with the finest steel. Cavalry units are assembled with fresh horses from the southern plains and archers are armed with bows carved of branches from the Northern Woods. The rebels number only two thousand, if that, and they are as of yet cowering in the valleys. We could have crushed them days ago, but you have been silent. For this lords are calling you..."
"What do they call me?"
The prince bowed his head. "Some call you King. Others Conquerer or Lord. But most whisper that you grow weak. They call you the 'Broken One' or the 'Clouded King'."
His head nodded weakly. "And what do you call me?"
"You are my father."
The king's withered mouth turned in a frown. "But can you still call me your king?"
Ebereth slowly shook his head, the weight of hesitation staying its confidence. "You are many things to me, father, but I cannot find it in me to count king as one of them."
"It is as I feared then," the old man murmured. Silence blanketed the room even thicker than the dust that had settled their as Ebereth sought words to answer with, but none came. His father finally continued. "So you would march to war against Charon?"
"And you would not?"
At last the weathered old man sat back against his throne, letting his beard drape around him as he lowered his chin. "As you know, this kingdom was forged in fire between the steel blades of your uncle's sword and mine. Together we united what used to be a dozen lordships into the power of a single nation. For nearly a decade we lead the armies of the West against anyone and everyone who opposed us. The campaign came at the cost of my brother's life, but I was left to rule the largest kingdom in the annals of history."
"Yes, father and in your wake you leave a legacy that will last in the stars!" The prince stood emphatically, waving his arms in emphasis. "Is it so wrong that we seek to preserve it? Why should you sit here in the dark while villains conquer our lands?!"
The king's eyes followed his son's. "I am too old. I have seen it all. War. Death. Murder. Some things never change...." Again he sat in silence before continuing. "What has Charon done that he should deserve the degradation of being called a villain by my own son's lips?"
For a moment Ebereth appeared confused. "Father, he conquers your land. He takes what is ours. Is that not villainous enough?"
The monarch's head shook. "No, that is not enough. Fate knits a cruel cloth in which we are all villains in the eyes of someone. It is only how you read the tapestry that changes the role of justice and the judged. What does he truly do? Does he so fiercely rape the land that it is blackened beyond salvation? Does he murder the women and children? Does he burn the villages to the ground or sow salt in the fields?"
It was Ebereth's turn to shake his head. "No."
"And you would still judge him with the sword?" The king murmured.
"Only when that sword is held by the hand of justice."
"Hm." The weary eyes of the king narrowed. "And if it is the hand that deals justice, who then is the judge to determine it? Surely you do not count yourself to this position or you are no more than a common killer." The prince was silent.
The king sighed. "I have seen many wars, Ebereth, each more gruesome than the last. At my father's order I dominated our lands with an iron fist. When it was my turn to rule I did so with such vicious pride that my very bones quake to think of it. Your uncle and I were the swords that met no shield too strong to break. We shattered every kingdom before us until his life was claimed at the tip of an arrow.
"But when the conquering was over I finally looked back and saw such a trail of destruction in my wake that I prayed a similar fate might take me. How the Halls of the Dead must have grown by my hand! I killed them, Ebereth. Everyone, no matter who they were, for to me they were the villains who resisted my will. But now, in these final days, I read the tapestry much different than I once did. They were the innocents who defended their homes from an abominable enemy.
"This is my yoke to bear, Ebereth, and I forged it with every swing of my sword. At the end of my conquests I found that though I was a ruler, I was no king. I was a general, a warrior whose flag was left so soaked in blood he could hardly carry it any farther. I knew nothing of the arts of ruling and judgment. This same blood runs in your veins, my dear son, and I know how it threatens to consume you with every messenger who comes with word of the rebellion.
"However, I caution you: do not be so anxious to strengthen your pride through conquest, for if there is any part of a man's spirit that should be broken, it is his pride. Humility. Kindness. If you let these take the place of your sword and shield you will be a greater king than I ever was. Justice will come to them if not by your hand; it always comes through one man or another. Charon is a fine man and a prosperous ruler. Would is reign be so detestable?
"I cannot make you listen to these words," the king continued with a note of finality, "but I pray you will consider them. Should you embark on such a campaign as you propose, I fear I will not live to gaze upon your face again, but remember what I have said and hold these words in your heart. Go. Do what you see fit."

The prince nodded solemnly to his father and wordlessly left the chamber. Never again would his eyes gazed upon the parapets of that citadel or beheld the loving eyes of his father.

It was not long before these thoughts were stripped away by the brutal wind. The old man stood before and stared wordlessly at the forsaken column, a solitary reminder of the days that had once been.
Much had happened since those words were uttered in the castle; much that he would have undone if he carried the Fates' weaving rod and more still that he would have spoken to his father before turning to gruesomely judge an unforgiving world. But that was the past and it does not do to dwell on memories.

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