The Forgotten King – Chapter 7, Part 2
February 5, 2019
Time was moving faster than Helen liked. Many times, she reached out her hand to pick a flower, then pulled it back, not sure if she was acting out of a desire to move on or because she really thought it was the right flower. Occasionally, she looked across the flowerbeds to where Neil was standing—his hair rumpled from repeatedly running his hands through it in frustration—as he stared at another cluster, then she turned and went in the opposite direction. Frustrated as well, Helen looked down at the ground. She took a deep breath and picked a small blue flower hopefully before she could think twice, only to watch its cluster and the yellow cluster next to it wither before her eyes. She had thought this would be easier, that she would see one flower among the rest that would be obviously different and that she would know without a doubt that it was the right one.
“It’s no good,” Neil called from a few yards away. “It wouldn’t be so hard if only the ones we pick die, instead of all those around it. We just can’t know for sure which one it is without picking every flower here, and then we might lose it. And we still don’t know what we’re looking for.”
Helen tried not to believe that he was right, but she couldn’t see any other way herself. None of these flowers looked special in any way. They were simply ordinary, everyday flowers, like those she could see anywhere in the land at any time, only they all existed at once in the same place.
“We need to look deeper,” Helen said in return, trying not to sound discouraged. “Please, Neil, just try a little harder.”
“A little harder!” he exclaimed bitterly. “Helen, this is impossible. It’s like trying to find one special grain of sand on a beach, and I’m not going to look anymore. Not until I’ve had half an hour to close my eyes and pretend someone isn’t trying to kill me and someone else doesn’t want me to walk to a place I can’t even be sure exists!”
With that, Neil sat down heavily on the ground and looked at Helen like a defiant child. Stunned, Helen could only stand with her mouth half open and her eyes wide. She dropped the withered flower she still held in her hand and walked to Neil, not bothering to stay on the path. Carefully, she stepped over the flowerbeds that separated them.
“You’re impossible, Neil,” she said emphatically, though she knew it sounded weak. “You want everything to be easy, and when it’s not, all you do is complain. I have to do a lot of hard things, too, and I think you forget that I was alone for three weeks before I came to you. I’m not doing this because I want to or because I enjoy it, but because thousands of people don’t know that their lives are slowly being taken away and we’re the only ones with the knowledge that can save them. If I have to look at every single flower in the garden to do it, even if it takes a month, I will. You don’t have to help, but you do have to shut up and stop criticizing me.”
Neil flinched, and looked down at his hands. “You baited me,” he said.
Helen didn’t reply, but sat down on the ground next to Neil.
“If this is a sanctuary,” Neil went on a little more calmly, “I want to let it be one, just for a little while. I don’t want to worry about finding the key, or running from a small army. I wasn’t made for this kind of life.”
Helen sat quietly, growing embarrassed for allowing herself to snap at Neil. “No one else would have come with me,” she said, taking off her shoes and letting her feet rest on the soft grass. “It’s hard to convince people that Zaric can help them when he isn’t even a legend anymore. He’s only the smallest whisper and there’s too much noise in the world for anyone to hear.”
Neil rested on his heels, rocking slightly, then stood and began to walk around the garden again. Helen watched him for a minute, then closed her eyes, though she didn’t try to clear her mind. There was one flower in this garden that was different from the rest. It would have to be the sort of flower Zaric would choose to place his key in. Not a flower set on a pedestal or in the most visible spot of land, but one that would be growing among other flowers, the last one anyone would really think to look at. It wouldn’t be as grand as a rose or plain as a poppy. Something different.
Taking a deep breath, Helen opened her eyes again. This time, she looked at the garden and not the flowers or trees or bushes inside it. Her eyes swept over all of them, taking in the peace and serenity of the place. The morning sunlight poured in brightly, making the colors around her more brilliant and vivid. A few yards across the pond of flowers and plants, Helen’s gaze was attracted by the glint of something in the light.
Without hesitation, she got to her feet. She moved to a flowerbed near the base of a flowering apple tree, where the flowers were spaced out evenly, a palette of cream, white, yellow, blue, and violet. It was the tallest of the violet flowers—an iris—that seemed to glimmer. Helen bent her head closer to it. Something about this flower was familiar to her. On the most inside part of one of the petals was a simple drop of dew.
“Only one flower in this garden has dew on it,” she observed out loud. Neil turned towards her, then crossed the garden to where she was kneeling. Her nerves and hands shaking, Helen reached out, hesitated for a moment, then took the stem in her hand and picked the flower.
She looked at it so intently, wondering if something fantastic would happen to it, she didn’t at first notice that none of the flowers around it withered. When she did notice, she smiled. Helen held out her hand and tilted the flower over it. At first, nothing happened. The dew drop clung stubbornly to the petal. But it soon began to roll towards the outer edge, where it hung for a moment, then fell into Helen’s hand. She looked at her cupped palm and found that she wasn’t holding a drop of dew, but a perfectly round amethyst. Her smile broadened as she stood up straight and held her hand out to Neil.
* * *
Neil looked down at the two stones sitting side by side in his palm. He ran his finger across their smooth surfaces. “Keys,” he said. “They’re so small.”
Helen only nodded as she methodically gathered up their bags. Finding another key was exhilarating and her mind was anxious to find the next two. A task that before seemed daunting, even after one key was found, now seemed possible, almost easy. With a sense of purpose, she was able to keep off the constant and draining weariness and insecurity that threatened to overtake her.
Yet she was fighting a different threat now. The peace she had felt when they first entered the garden had grown almost tangible, surrounding her like a fog she couldn’t see. It would be easy to stay here, where it was safe, and stop moving. She held out the small drawstring bag for Neil to drop the keys in, but he only stood still, staring at her.
“It really is quiet here,” Neil said. “Would it hurt us to stay a little longer?”
“Yes,” Helen replied, masking her emotions, not wanting to admit her own similar thoughts.
“It’s not like we’re in a rush, though, is it?”
“Well, there’s no point in staying here. And we don’t know where Ian is. Even if he can’t come in, he can wait outside.”
“But if he can’t see this place—”
“I don’t want to take a risk.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t hard to imagine Ian standing outside the sanctuary, staring at what he couldn’t see and waiting until they needed to come out. Neil seemed unwilling to relent, but Helen didn’t want to, either, so she stood as resolutely as she could.
“If we don’t move at a steady pace,” she said, “we might find it’s hard to move at all.”
Neil continued to look determined, but soon nodded his acquiescence. He let the keys roll out of his palm and into the bag. Helen closed it and placed it in her larger one. Neil took his own things and walked after Helen to the eastern archway of the garden. When she was sure Neil wasn’t watching her, Helen glanced back through the archway at the beauty they were leaving. She wondered if they would ever be able to come back, or if Zaric had built any other sanctuaries for the worn travelers trying to find Larisa.
“When my parents were ill,” Neil said after half an hour of silent walking, “I didn’t believe they would die. A boy of sixteen doesn’t want to believe that it’s possible to lose everything. I understood that my grandfather was old when he died and had lived a full life—even if I was reluctant to accept it—but my parents were too young. So I waited for Zaric. They trusted him so much, I was sure he would come to heal them. Grandfather always told me that Zaric could heal the people. I hoped and waited… and they died. I stopped hoping after that.”
Helen opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again. Throughout her life, she had heard the same things about Zaric, from her own parents and Neil’s grandfather. As an adult, she understood what it meant. She wanted to point out the fact that Zaric had lived much longer than them and he was so much wiser. But she had her own growing doubts—not about Zaric’s abilities, but about her own. Her words didn’t seem to make any impact on Neil and if she didn’t have his complete support, nothing else she accomplished would really matter.