The Forgotten King – Chapter 12, Part 1
November 27, 2018
She lowered the telescope, wishing she could see more, but the trees grew so densely, only that one part was visible. After a pause, she lifted the telescope again, almost unwilling to believe what she saw. Elation began to rise inside of her at the realization that this was actually the gateway, though she did all she could to not be too overcome. Nothing covered the columns, and they appeared worn and deteriorated. They weren’t evenly spaced, making it evident that some columns had fallen or crumbled. Others leaned visibly. She wouldn’t allow herself to become too excited until she knew for sure that nothing was wrong with the gateway itself. Helen studied the trees beneath the columns, trying to see a path. But, there didn’t seem to be any route at all. The forest was packed thickly and wildly.
“How do you think it works?” Neil asked in a soft tone, as though he was afraid of his own voice. Helen replied with a shrug. “We probably shouldn’t stand around and wait,” he went on. “It might take us a while to get through those trees.”
They started to walk forward, but had only taken a few steps when the faint sound of a horse’s hooves stopped them abruptly. Knowing what she would see, Helen’s heart began to pound as she turned it to see a horse and rider coming over the distant southern hill, riding faster than either of them had ever seen anyone ride.
“Is it too much to hope that it’s just another traveler,” Neil said, “who happens to be going in the same direction we are?”
“No one ever comes this far north,” Helen replied, trying not to let her voice tremble. “We should run.”
“He’s coming too fast,” he said distractedly, shaking his head as he visibly thought. Neil spoke with authority and commanded, “Take the keys to the gateway, Helen. I’ll hold him back.”
“No, Neil, I can’t go alone,” Helen argued, not trying to disguise her panic. “We don’t know what could be in those trees. Alan told us to stay together, anyway.”
“If Ian happens to know an easy way to the gateway, it would be better for me to keep him occupied down here. We have to at least try. Alan doesn’t know Ian, or at least his plans. I’ll find you after you open the gateway. Now, go, Helen.”
“What if something bad happens, Neil? Have you ever really used a sword before?”
Neil hesitated for a moment, watching the rider approach. The fact that it was Ian was unmistakable and in another moment he would be dangerously close to them. “Minor detail,” Neil finally answered. “Go, Helen.”
Reluctant to argue anymore, Helen hesitated only a few more seconds before deciding to obey. She turned from Neil and broke into a run, trying not to stumble over the rough ground under the long and wild grass. Her greatest worry, though, was that the anxiety in her chest would compress her lungs. She made her way to the foot of the hill, directly below the point where the gateway stood. The trees on the edge of the woods weren’t difficult to pass through, but they thickened as she moved deeper, now walking instead of running and taking shallow breaths. She pushed her way past sharp, prickly limbs and twigs. The large trunks grew too closely together for her to walk in a straight line. The ground was littered with fallen logs, roots, and rocks as well, and the shadows made it hard for her to see where she was stepping. She cried out as her foot caught something and she fell roughly to the ground. Standing again carefully, she placed her hand against the trunk of the nearest tree and took a deep breath before walking again. For the first time, she didn’t try to hold back the tears of fear and frustration. Looking up, though, she saw that the trees were gradually starting to thin out. Helen sighed with relief, then strained her ears, hoping to hear sounds from the valley below, but she could only hear her own heartbeat and footsteps, and the occasional breeze through the trees. With caution, she looked forward and slackened her pace. There was a clearing a few yards ahead and Helen could just make out the shape of the columns between the trees.
She reached the edge of the clearing and stopped. Her apprehension growing, she peered around, scanning the trees and land surrounding her. Her eyes found nothing, but she was frightened, doubting herself. Something strange was in the air, a feeling very much like the one she had felt when she first saw Ian. This place was too quiet, yet restless. Helen felt a heavy discomfort knowing that Neil was so far away. The precarious white columns, resting on a white stone platform, stood a few more yards ahead. She wanted to believe that she would be safe as soon as she reached them, but instead she had the urge to run back to the valley. Yet running back might be just as dangerous as running forward and the gateway needed to be opened. She pushed her fears deeper inside her mind and ran to the pavilion.
The gateway had evidently once been an impressive and beautiful place, but the platform was now littered with bits of crumbling marble and large stone slabs from the fallen roof and columns, creating a labyrinthine path across the weathered floor. A small table stood in the middle of the platform, miraculously untouched by the collapsed grandeur surrounding it. Helen made her way to it. She brushed the debris and dust off of its surface, hoping to find an inscription, but was disappointed to find only five small indentations, arranged in a circle. Her eyes narrowed in confusion. She counted them over and over again, placing her finger in each small hole, too weary to believe she had counted incorrectly. She took the small pouch out of her bag, opened it, and looked down at the four keys inside. One by one, she took them from the bag in the order she and Neil had found them and set them in the circle, beginning at the top. Tapping her fingers on the table, she stared at the empty depression.
Everything inside of her seemed to fall like the columns around her. Her thoughts whirled disjointedly, trying to understand where she had been mistaken. The book had told them to find four keys. Or at least that was what she thought she had read. The path they had taken led them to four keys. Tears rose to Helen’s eyes as she tried to make sense of this new puzzle. They had believed they were done, that they had reached the end of the journey. Even Alan had believed it. But, he had never asked to see the keys. Perhaps he had assumed that they had found all five, not just four. They would have to go back and try to find the last key. She only hoped she wouldn’t reach the valley and find Neil dead. Helen didn’t know how she would stop Ian, but she had done it before and would find a way again.
As she was about to gather the keys and turn away from the table, an idea began to form. She put her hand to her throat and felt the small necklace Alan had given her. Unclasping the chain around her neck, Helen held the necklace in the palm of her hand, hoping her idea wasn’t wrong, but not wanting to take the time to argue with herself. She wrapped her fingers around the tear-shaped locket and squeezed it tightly. The delicate silver shattered easily, stinging her palm and fingers as it broke. Helen opened her hand and saw a white pearl resting among the broken pieces of silver.
A twig snapped at the opposite edge of the pavilion. Helen realized that she had allowed her attention to falter. She looked up and saw Siri standing a few yards ahead of her, gingerly holding a long reed to her lips. Helen didn’t have time to react before feeling the pinch as a small dart penetrated her neck. The sudden, sharp pain made her cry out. She looked at Siri, feeling a pity that surprised herself, disappointed that her doubts were true. But instead of the expression of triumph Helen expected Siri to wear, she looked afraid herself. Numb weakness trickled through Helen’s arms. She grasped the edges of the table to keep from falling as the sensation spread throughout her body. Unsteadily, she slid the pearl across the table and set it into the last empty place.
A ripple of pale blue light spread out from the table, washing over Helen like warm, refreshing water, invigorating her limbs for a brief moment. It moved out in every direction, through the clearing and then the trees, sweeping down the hill, accompanied by a soft ringing sound that crescendoed as it moved. Everything around Helen started to blur. She closed her eyes and crumbled to the floor.