The Forgotten King – Chapter 4, Part 1
January 17, 2019
Neil pulled the stone out of his pocket and turned it over in his palm a few times. “Is this what you mean?” he asked, holding it out to Helen. As she took it and held it up between her thumb and forefinger, the weak candlelight danced through its translucent green body. As a governor’s daughter, Helen had seen many exquisite and beautiful jewels around the necks, on the fingers and wrists, and in the hair of many exquisite, beautiful, and very important women, but she had never seen a gem so perfectly round and smooth, beautiful in its simplicity. The wonder of it transfixed her. She wanted to study and learn this stone, playing with it in the light. With a sigh, she allowed the stone to slide into her palm and made a fist around it. It was unlike any key she would have imagined, and she wondered how it could ever possibly open a door, or a gateway. She handed it back to Neil, and he again put it in his pocket.
“Are you all right?” he asked, gazing intently at Helen. She was relieved to hear the concern in his voice. “You look pale.”
“How can you tell?” she answered, trying to make her voice as light as possible. “It’s so dark in here. What happened to all of the lights? And it’s cold. Do you think we can build a fire?”
“If we can find some wood, we can build a fire.”
Helen nodded and stood, while Neil continued to stare. She knew that he wanted a better answer than the one he had been given, but Helen wasn’t sure how to give him one. Her head felt numb and muddled, like she had fallen down a long flight of stairs. She had no idea how to describe where she had been and she didn’t want to think about what had happened when she stepped into the room. She didn’t understand it. As her heart began to swell and race, cutting short her breath, she turned her face away.
They took the candle and went through a door near the fireplace, hoping they would find their way back to this room once they left it. A little more light was coming through the windows than before, but many of the rooms they went into didn’t have windows at all. The manor was almost completely empty. Only a few scattered pieces of furniture remained. Although it had been abandoned, its former inhabitants had had the time to take their possessions with them.
“They didn’t seem to leave in a hurry,” Helen stated as they searched a
windowless room that must have been used for storage.
“They probably weren’t forced to leave,” Neil said, “so they took the time to gather what they wanted. From the way the valley looked when we came down, I think the land died. Things can still grow, but not as plentifully as the people needed in order to survive. They moved on to more fertile ground. Or maybe they felt too isolated here. Who knows how far it is to the nearest village?”
“Perhaps that’s good for us. But no one should have to leave their home.”
“Yes, but we both know that sometimes you don’t have a choice. Sometimes nature turns you out, and sometimes man does.”
“I wonder who they were—or are. Maybe they’re still alive somewhere, or perhaps their children are. Do you think we might run into them?”
“I really hope we don’t run into anyone, Helen. These people might not be on our side.”
They found the kitchen, which contained nothing but a large fireplace—like the one in the main hall—set into one wall, hooks where pots and pans had once hung, and a small pile of wood stacked in a corner, thankfully forgotten by those who had left. Neil and Helen took as much wood as they could carry and made their way back to the hall.
“Do you know about the keys, Neil?” Helen asked, once the fire had begun to burn and they sat eating bread and fruit.
“I know that they’re part of the story,” he stated. “And I believe they’re a myth.”
“But you do know about them. You have one in your pocket.”
“I have a small gemstone in my pocket. I wouldn’t call it a key. Where did you hear about the keys, anyway, Helen?”
Helen considered her answer for a few seconds before she said anything. She was afraid that if she mentioned the stories again, he would dismiss anything else she had to say. Still, she wanted him to trust her, and the truth wouldn’t change, no matter what he believed.
“I read about them last night, in your grandfather’s book,” she told him.
The smirk Helen was expecting didn’t appear on Neil’s face. He stared at her
with thought glittering his eyes. Briefly she wondered what he had experienced
when she disappeared. With a relief of her tension, she went on. “He didn’t
speak about them very much, so I didn’t even remember the stories he told us
about them, only that they exist. They seem to be the last things he wrote
about and all of his information is disjointed. I’m not asking you to believe
the stories, Neil, but if you remember them, I would like you to tell me what
you know. The keys might change everything.”
Another minute went by. Neil alternated his gaze between Helen, the fire, and the empty room. “How long do you think it’s been since anyone looked at that book?” he asked.
“Years, probably,” she replied. She wanted to guess that Neil’s father or mother was the last to read it, but stopped herself.
“I know almost every word of that book, Helen,” Neil finally said with carefully measured emotion. “Every word that hasn’t been made illegible by the years. I know all of the stories about Zaric and Mered, and I know about the keys. I could probably recite every story without lifting the cover. Those stories were the work of my grandfather’s life. I think he lived a lot of them himself, or made himself believe he had. You never knew him the way I did. When you and your parents were visiting and he happened to be at our cottage, you heard his stories, but I was there when he came back from his travels. He told me every story before he recorded it in his book. After he was gone, I read the book every day, even when I stopped believing it. It helped me feel close to him.”
“So you knew before we left your cottage that we wouldn’t simply be walking to Larisa,” Helen said quietly.
“The stories aren’t necessarily real,” Neil argued, his voice rising. “They’re fairy tales. We don’t have to do everything they tell us to do. Even if we tried, how much of it would even be possible? I knew about the keys, but they might have been added to make the whole thing seem more interesting. His mind wasn’t exactly sound when he wrote that part.”
“You think that anything that doesn’t fit your definition of logic—”
“—can’t possibly be true. Exactly.”
“You only believe in what you can see.”
“While you only believe in what you can’t see. They’re probably both very impractical views, but there you have it. I’ll tell you what I remember about the keys, but don’t ask me to believe it.”
Helen stared at Neil, realizing how little she understood him. The hardness in his voice was underlayed with something she couldn’t recognize—something that hung on the edge of her mind. Curious despite her nervousness about what Neil would say, she nodded her assent.
“When he relocated himself and all of those who wanted to follow him, Zaric devised a way to protect his people. They moved to Larisa, and he set up a barrier around it, which can only be opened when the keys are taken to the gateway. To ensure that no ordinary person would find the keys and open the barrier, Zaric—and, if you believe the stories, my grandfather, too—scattered the keys and left cryptic clues to find them. I think they ended up more cryptic than they planned, since by the time my grandfather wrote them down, he was too sick and weak to make much sense. The end of the book is smudged and illegible, as you’ve seen.”
“But it seems like a very plausible plan,” Helen said with a light chuckle.
“The keys are named Happiness, Sincerity, Wisdom, and Hope. None of those things are tangible.”
“Yet you have a very unusual stone in your pocket.” Neil pursed his lips as though he was trying to think of a smart reply, but instead stated simply, “Yes.”