The Forgotten King – Chapter 13, Part 1
November 16, 2018
Neil’s body ached by the time he reached the outskirts of the city, but he knew it wasn’t simply physical fatigue. His legs and arms grew more and more weak and all he wanted was to rest, to sleep for a very long time, until nothing he felt mattered anymore. But he forced himself to continue walking. His mind held tightly to the hope he felt of finally seeing Zaric. Without that hope, he was afraid the city might disappear again.
As he reached the fields bordering the city, he noticed for the first time people working, plowing and preparing the soil. They noticed him at the same time, stopping to watch him as he walked by, some coming up to the low hedge that separated the road from the fields and glancing at the bundle he held in his arms, but none tried to speak to him. Neil tried not to show his discomfort at being watched. The looks of curiosity and confusion on the people’s faces made him wish he had the energy to move faster. As tired as he was, he couldn’t help thinking of the people who stared in his own village, making him feel like an unwanted spectacle. It was only after a few minutes that he realized he was the first stranger they had ever seen.
The road soon passed through an open gate between the low walls of the city and Neil found himself on a narrow street lined with light-colored stone buildings and houses. People moved busily around him and he was forced to slow down. They were unaware of him at first, speaking pleasantly and animatedly, laughing and talking, just as Neil would expect them to in any city in the land. Everything gradually fell silent, though, as he began to walk among them. The people turned to watch this man who seemed out of place, and they wore the same expression as the people in the field. Neil wanted even more desperately to be inside the castle, which rose in the center of the city ahead of him, but from this point he couldn’t see how to reach it. Coming to a halt and taking a slow breath, he turned his head and locked his eyes on the first person he saw—an elderly man who had just come out of a house. “Excuse me,” he said, surprised at how scratchy and weak his voice sounded. He swallowed a few times before going on. “Can you take me to the castle?”
The man nodded, then stepped forward to lead Neil. “Come this way,” he said quietly, kindly.
The man seemed unsure of how fast he should walk, going first at a solemn pace, then speeding up as though he felt they were wasting precious time. Then, he looked down at Helen’s face and slackened his pace again. Neil saw the man’s glance and tried to shield Helen’s face a little more. “Is she still alive?” the man finally asked in a subdued tone.
“Yes,” Neil replied. “If only just barely.” He wanted to say more, but the words he wanted to use wouldn’t come out of his mouth. At least the man took this as a sign to walk faster. Confused and curious, Neil asked, “Do you know who we are?”
“Of course,” the man answered with wide eyes, as though this was something Neil should already know. “We all do. Everyone in Larisa knows about Helen and Neil.”
Neil looked differently at the people who lined the streets, wondering at the same time exactly what they were thinking as they looked at him. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” he asked.
They had reached the walls of the castle, which looked much like all of the other buildings in the city. No guards stood outside the door and no one stopped them as they climbed the steps leading to it. The man walked in an unconcerned way, as though he was walking to his own home. The doors of the castle stood wide open before them, but they hadn’t reached them yet when a man ran through the doors and down the steps. The sight of him stopped both Neil and the old man. He had the kindest face Neil had ever seen—more kind than his father, or even his grandfather—roughened and tanned from exposure to the sun, yet he appeared to be ageless. His deep blue eyes shone brightly, emitting comfort like warmth from the sun, although his mouth was set in a serious line. Relief filled Neil as he realized that this was King Zaric. He felt as though his soul was lightening. The stories had been true—everything Helen believed and said was real. Neil’s emotions settled thickly in his throat.
Zaric didn’t say anything as he approached Neil, but held his arms out to take Helen. Neil opened his mouth, yet a few seconds went by before he could speak. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his eyes filling with tears. He swallowed a few times before going on. “I didn’t mean to let this happen. I didn’t know.”
With his arms still outstretched, Zaric patiently and empathetically looked Neil in the eye. “You need to trust me, Neil,” he said.
Neil nodded. He placed Helen gently in Zaric’s arms, then stood still as the king turned back to the castle. Neil stared after him without really seeing and continued to stare long after he disappeared through the doors.