The Forgotten King – Chapter 1, Part 1
January 2, 2019
A sudden difference shivered through the air. Something unsettled and discordant moved through it, though the wind didn’t blow. It felt like the moment between stillness and sudden activity had been frozen and extended. Helen stopped and looked around her, unsure of what she was looking for. She had the impression that someone else was in this clearing who didn’t belong there.
The wide meadow was littered with large boulders and sparse clumps of
trees. Nervousness started to rise inside of her. Anyone, large or small, could
easily hide behind any of those boulders or trees without being visible. That
possibility wasn’t completely unexpected, but she didn’t like to think she was
being watched when her own vision was limited. The hills around the meadow were
covered with aspens, their white trunks like beacons and their leaves hanging
limply from the white branches. Since leaving home, she had seen little
variation in the landscape, and it was hard to tell exactly where she was. She
could only measure the distance traveled in days since leaving her city, and in
those landmarks she could remember from traveling this way before. She hadn’t
been in this place since she was a child, and she was farther from home than
she had ever been alone. For the first time on this journey, she wished she
knew there was a farmhouse or cottage just over the next hill. The feeling
wouldn’t escape her that the threat she thought she had left behind in her city
had followed her, and was now not far away. Ahead of her, though, were the
familiar, snow enveloped mountains—one feature she remembered well—just south
of her destination. She didn’t have much farther to go.
Softly, the frigid wind began to blow, not unlike any other breeze that blew as winter was passing and spring was coming to life. Only it wasn’t quite normal. The unsettled feeling grew stronger. Helen focused her mind on listening, straining her mind to catch every sound. Her ears were now filled with the papery sound of fluttering leaves, a distant river running, birds and animals in the trees, the whistling of the wind. Nothing seemed out of place. Yet something was, only she couldn’t decipher what.
A movement and the snapping of a twig to her left startled her, and she spun to see a figure darting among a large cluster of rocks. She peered through the large gaps between the stones and slowly started to step backwards. Something was there, but it was hard to tell if it was animal or human, where it had come from, and where it had gone. The late afternoon sun was casting unusual shadows that made the rocks and trees look much larger than they actually were and almost alive. Helen started walking again, quickening her pace, while focusing her attention much more than before, listening for the slightest sound.
After a few yards, the soft sound of pebbles and cloth sliding down a rock, accompanied by the muffled crunching of dry leaves, forced her to stop again. She turned quickly to see a man standing not twenty feet away, at the edge of the clearing, his appearance contrasting sharply with the natural landscape around him. His clothes were very fine—not like those of the farmers who lived in this part of the country—but they were sullied by travel, stained by leaves and grass and dirt. He stared at Helen, smiling casually, and she wasn’t sure if she should run or smile in return.
“Where are you going?” the man asked, walking towards her.
Helen hesitated. An odd, empty feeling sprouted inside of her, like a bubble in her chest. He was a handsome man, like many other men she had seen before. Nothing about him, on the surface, was unusual or more than ordinary. It was only the dark, heavy feeling—which drifted off of him like a strange haze—that made her distrust him.
“Where are you going?” he repeated, the corners of his mouth twitching as he tried to adopt an air of friendliness.
“I’m just taking an afternoon walk,” she answered, knowing as soon as she
said it that this answer was too weak for anyone to believe. He looked her
over, and she felt horribly vulnerable.
“So far from any city or village?” he questioned.
“It’s a very long afternoon walk,” she shrugged.
He continued to stare with indifferent eyes as Helen tried to release the emptiness. “It’s not safe to go through an empty land,” he said in a cool tone. “You never know what you might meet. There’s a path not far from here. I can take you to it. It would be safer to follow the path.”
“I know where I’m going,” Helen answered. “This is the path I need to take.”
There was a pause. The man stared at Helen, and the more he stared, the more vulnerable she felt. His eyes were searching hers, and she didn’t like it. She turned away and started to walk again, still keeping her eyes and ears alert.
“Tell me,” the man called after her, “what do you expect to find out here? Why is a girl like you traveling so far on her own?”
“I’m sorry,” Helen replied over her shoulder, “but like you said, you never know who you might meet. Thank you for your offer, but I don’t need help and I’d rather not answer any more questions.”
She could hear the man running up to her, but she tried not to react perceptibly, keeping her chin up and her pace steady. Helen’s hand discreetly moved to the opening of her bag, where she could easily reach a small crossbow she had brought with her. Soon, he stood next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. A jolt ran through her entire body, as though all of the warmth and air were being sucked out of her.
“Listen,” the man said with lightness in his voice, after a lengthy
pause. “I have a house not far from here, and I have a carriage. I can take you
wherever you need to go. It would be much safer.”
Helen looked at the man, trying not to let him see how afraid she was. Over his shoulder, she saw a phantom-like movement again, in the trees. This man was not alone. Someone else was there, but she couldn’t tell for certain how many more people were lurking just beyond the clearing.
“I must seem very impolite,” the man continued. “I should have introduced myself. My name is Ian.”
She smiled with her lips only and took a step back. “Thank you, Ian, but no,” she told him, sure to put a hint of finality in her voice. It was becoming increasingly hard for her to mask her panic and think of a way to get herself out of this situation. “I know where I’m going, and I like the solitude. I feel safer on my own. Please, excuse me.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said softly. “You can trust me.”
The sound of his voice and the expression in his eyes made the empty feeling inside of Helen grow stronger. Her heart beat faster as she tried to fight it. His presence was like an intoxicating fume, a strange power that drained her of hope. She was beginning to believe that, even if she could move forward, she wouldn’t want to. When Ian looked at her, she felt that the purpose of her journey was pointless. In spite of this, she still had no desire to go with him. She only wanted to sit down where she stood, to simply not continue walking towards the hills. Desperately, a faint glimmer of light inside her mind fought this urge.
Ian let go of Helen’s shoulder and took a couple of steps backwards. Helen knew that she should try to walk away again, but she couldn’t make her feet move. All she could do was stare at Ian and fight the conflicting ideas circulating in her head.
“Come with me, Helen,” he said. “I’ll take you where you need to go.”
“I never told you my name,” she found herself saying, and the sound of
her own voice brought the warmth back into her body, and the life back into her
eyes. She cocked her head to one side and considered Ian as a thought came to
her. “Have you ever heard the name ‘Zaric’?” she asked, and Ian’s face froze.