The Forgotten King – The Last Chapter
October 30, 2018
Neil stared down at Ian, but he didn’t actually see the body in front of him. For a long time he couldn’t move. He didn’t want to. His mind wouldn’t comprehend what he was seeing or what had happened. It crossed his mind that death was playing a strange trick, or that this was what death was really like—jumbled moments of confusion. The sound of Helen moving behind him helped him to shake this thought and see reality. Slowly she walked to him, her eyes fixed on the body, twisted unnaturally on the ground. Finally, Neil stood and looked down at his sword. He was surprised to see that it was still clean. Ian’s sword, in contrast, was stained with blood—Ian’s own blood. The sight made Neil feel sick. He sheathed his own sword, then took Ian’s and wiped it on the grass.
Beginning from where they were, Larisa was calming down. The rain and wind stopped abruptly, and the clouds in the sky were parted with the brightness of afternoon sunlight. Everything glowed with intensity and vibrancy, from the grass and the trees to the dirt and stones—just as they had when Neil first saw Larisa.
A noise came from the trees, but the sound didn’t frightened Helen and Neil now. They looked up and saw Zaric coming towards them, followed closely by Theren, then a small band of men. The two leaders held their swords defensively, but only Theren showed surprise at seeing Ian lying on the ground. Zaric’s face showed a pity that Helen and Neil hadn’t expected.
At the sight of Zaric, Helen found it impossible to hold back her tears. The mixed feelings of relieved fear and unpredicted sympathy overwhelmed her. Neil stepped next to her and place his arm across her shoulders, pressing her gently, while Zaric looked at her solidly. Neil opened his mouth to say something, but Helen turned at that moment, as if she sensed his intention, and shook her head. Slipping out of his grasp, she smiled weakly at Neil, then turned the smile towards Zaric, who comprehendingly nodded and smiled back. Heavily, she walked out of the clearing and disappeared into the trees.
Neil started to follow, but Zaric stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “Will you take care of Ian, please?” he asked Theren. Theren stooped down without hesitating and picked Ian up, then left in the same direction Helen had gone, followed by the band of men. Neil and Zaric followed, though they walked much more slowly.
“Will Helen be all right?” Neil asked.
“Helen is much stronger than she thinks,” Zaric replied, “but this isn’t the sort of thing anyone wants to see. Are you all right, Neil?”
Hesitantly, Neil answered, “I don’t know.”
“If you think you can,” Zaric went on after a brief silence, “I’d like for you to tell me what happened.”
* * *
Zaric found Helen standing at the top of the tallest tower of the palace, looking over the city and the land beyond it. She knew it hadn’t taken him long to realize where to find her. Zaric often found Helen in this same place.
The streets were filled with Larisa’s citizens, coming back from the afternoon’s expedition and talking about what had happened. Their voices drifted like stimulated music, filled with varying degrees of emotion but without discord. The late afternoon sun shone warmly, calmly, hanging reassuringly in the sky—or at least that was how Helen wished it to make her feel. A few light orange clouds drifted lazily over the land, and some dipped below the horizon, hinting at something farther on that couldn’t be seen. Normally, this view lifted Helen’s spirits, but right now there was a dullness inside of her that nothing seemed to shake. In his familiar way, Zaric stood wordlessly beside her for a few minutes.
“Why do you never just start talking?” Helen asked, feigning annoyance.
“If we could see just a little bit farther,” he stated, instead of answering the question, “we could see the sea.”
“I’ve never seen the sea. With all of the traveling I’ve done in my life, that’s one thing I’ve never seen.”
Zaric turned his eyes to Helen and cocked his head slightly. “Are you sorry Ian is dead, Helen?” he asked gently.
“Yes,” she replied, after a short pause. “I know it’s strange, because he wanted to kill me, but I still hated to see it. No one should have to die that way. It’s odd that anyone can die that way. I never wanted any of this to happen. But I suppose no one does. I didn’t really want to leave my home, to come all this way—to know that I would still have to go so much farther.”
“Do you know why you were chosen for this task, Helen? You care deeply about people. Probably more deeply than they care about themselves, in most cases. I admire that in you. You’re right. No one should have to die that way, but how many more people would die if Ian wasn’t stopped? In the end, he destroyed himself. He wanted power, while Neil wanted to protect the people of Larisa. Neil’s choice was more powerful than Ian’s desire. But I never want you to stop caring about the people you meet, good or evil.”
Helen thought for a minute before asking, “Will that require seeing more of what I saw today?”
“It’s hard to know exactly what we will see, but I’m afraid our situation won’t get better. There is a probability you will see more death—sometimes the deaths of those you love the most and sometimes the deaths of those who fight against you. But if we’re afraid of what we might see, how can we ever make this land better?”
Helen nodded, but couldn’t prevent the tears from stinging her eyes and escaping down her cheeks. Zaric wrapped an arm around her shoulders and held her tightly. For a few long minutes Helen rested her face against his shoulder, glad that he was there.
“I have a proposal for you,” Zaric said when Helen finally pulled back a little.
“Next week, I will do what we discussed with the council and send out small groups of men and women to assess the damage Mered has done in the kingdom, to hopefully see what he is planning to do, and to gather as many supporters as we can. I’m afraid we have wasted some valuable time already. I have a feeling that things are much worse than any of us have realized. I have chosen a special task for myself, Helen, and I would like you to come with me.”
Helen’s heart and breath seemed to stop and she couldn’t think of how to reply. The request wasn’t unanticipated, but after weeks of wandering, she was tired. Larisa was a quiet place and she didn’t feel she had to worry about anything here. Without realizing it, she had allowed herself to get used to the quiet pace of life in this city. Yet, as Zaric had said, she couldn’t help thinking about all of the people. Many of them had no idea of the danger they were in. Having seen even just a small glimpse of what Mered was capable of made Helen feel an obligation towards those who had not.
“We will be going farther than you’ve ever been before,” Zaric went on. “We’ll even see the sea.”
Helen looked out at the horizon, at the clouds that went just beyond reach. She wanted very much to see where they led and who they led to.
“And what about my father?” she asked.
“We will try to find out where he’s been taken and how to bring him back with us. It’s already part of the plan and I promise to do everything I can to accomplish it.”
She reflected for a little bit longer, although this promise was enough to make up her mind. “Yes, then,” Helen said, nodding. “I will go with you.”
The council once again sat around the table in the council room, with Zaric standing at its head. The excitement of the day before was still winding its way through the city, going back and forth over and over again, causing mixed sensations of hopeful anticipation and fearful anxiety. The people knew that something was beginning. The council felt the same emotions, but experience had taught them to control these feelings. They had the advantage of knowing Zaric better than the other citizens of Larisa. Helen wondered how many of them knew as much as she did. This was also the first time Helen had seen Neil since the day before. After speaking to Zaric on the tower she had gone straight to her room and ignored every knock that came to her door. She didn’t know if Neil had been invited by Zaric to make this new journey as well. Nothing he had said so far gave her any clue.
“Thank you all for coming here so willingly,” Zaric said, casting his eyes over the curious faces before him, “and so soon. I know we have met much more often lately than we are used to, but it might be some time before we are all able to meet again. The events of yesterday only prove just how vital it is that we put a halt to Mered’s movements before he makes his way to Larisa himself. Our forces alone won’t do much to stop him. It is now time for us to implement the plan we decided upon before and go out into the kingdom to find those who are willing to support us. I have selected a small number of people to join me in the search. I hope that, even with what we have seen in the past two days, you will be willing to help me. We don’t know how far Mered has reached or where he might have planted his spies. As we gain support, our new supporters will spread the word themselves. And I intend for us to find Meira and Stephen.”
The faces around the table brightened at this statement, as though the very mention of these two names had shined a light in their minds, lessening their fear.
“I have spoken with Helen already,” Zaric continued, “and she has agreed to go. Genevieve, Phyllida, Trevelyan, Arron, and Flecher, I would like for you to consider taking on this task as well. We will invite a few others from the city. Do you accept this proposal?”
He looked at each council member in turn, and each member answered—despite a slight hesitation—with a “yes.”
“What about the people of Larisa?” Gowon asked. “What will they do while you’re gone?”
“I’ve already thought of them,” Zaric said, “but, thank you, Gowon. Last night I asked Neil if he will act as governor in my absence and he has agreed. He has proven himself and I can’t think of anyone better suited for the job.”
The men and women around the table fixed their eyes on Neil, but said nothing. Helen sat very still, not really sure what to think. Part of her had assumed Neil would be going with them—she felt that she wanted him to go with them. She didn’t know if she could be comfortable traveling without him. But another part of her thought of the man she had approached just a few weeks before, the farmer who was satisfied with his life and unwilling to change it, unwilling to admit there was anything wrong in the world, unwilling to help Helen find Zaric. That man was not the man sitting next to her, who had agreed to govern a city he had once doubted the existence of. Now the farmer had become a governor, and the governor’s daughter had become—something she couldn’t describe.
“But we will need all of you to support this plan if it’s going to work,” Zaric continued. “Neil will need the support of this entire council, even those who will be leaving Larisa with me. Those of you who remain will still be responsible to help the people of Larisa prepare for an invasion, and lead them if one occurs before we return. We also need you to prepare for the men and women we bring back with us and those who may choose to come on their own. This task will be much larger than any we have ever undertaken before, but I am confident we will succeed if we all support each other.
“Tonight, I will make the announcement and send out a proclamation after dinner. Those I have asked to go out will leave one week from today. We can waste no more time and I am anxious to get started. Are we all in agreement?”
He again looked at each member of the council, and they each agreed in turn. No one said more than they were expected to. Instead, they looked at each other in nervous speechlessness. It was strange that, even though they knew this day would come, the anticipation of it differed so greatly from the reality. They were visibly beginning to doubt their own preparations for these tasks.
“Now,” said Zaric, sitting in his chair, “let’s discuss the details.”
The horizon promised to produce another beautiful sunrise as Helen left the walls of the city behind and started across the fields. A few more days needed to pass before she left with Zaric, but her restlessness had caused her to spend much of the previous evening trying to figure out how to fit as much as possible into her bag, without taking too much or too little. More than once she had placed the necessary things into her bag, taken them out again, and then tried to pack them once more. It was hard to tell if the awkwardness she felt was due to her bag or the general feeling of not knowing what lay ahead. Her nervousness, mingled with her jumbled thoughts, made it hard to sleep. Wanting to relieve some of her anxiety, she had decided to take this early morning walk. She also wanted to see a familiar face and knew that she would find the one she was looking for in the fields.
Neil sat with his back to Helen on a low stone wall that separated two fields, facing the imminent sunrise. He didn’t move and she wondered if she was walking too quietly to be heard or if he was too lost in thought to notice her, but, without turning around, he said, “I’m not really sure what Zaric’s thinking.” It was then that he turned his face towards her, wearing a broad smile unlike any smile he had ever shown her before. “But I think he chose the wrong man.”
“Zaric doesn’t make mistakes,” Helen stated, sitting down and pivoting her legs to face the east. “He trusts you. And so do I.”
“I wish I could go with you.”
“I wish you could, too. That’s the one thing that scares me the most. I went all that way to convince you to come with me, and now I feel like I’m abandoning you. You’re the person I trust the most to protect me. But they need you here.”
“Why do they need me? There are men and women on the council who are being left behind—and they would be much more capable than I am to govern this city. I know hardly anything about Larisa.”
“You don’t feel ready,” Helen stated.
“No,” Neil answered honestly, without hesitation.
“Good. I can’t stand a governor who isn’t willing to admit his weaknesses. I’ve met too many of those. Perhaps you’re the one with the most to learn. You don’t want to go home, do you?”
Neil considered the question, then shook his head. “No,” he answered. “There’s nothing there for me now. This is where I belong. Anyway, I’ve done too much to run away now. Knowing what I know, how could I ever go back to that life? I would feel too guilty.”
“Are you scared?” Helen asked quietly.
“I don’t envy you. I hate to be leaving so soon, but I don’t think I could take charge of an entire city.”
“And this is coming from the daughter of a governor,” Neil teased. “They’re famous for being bred to please, marry governors, and influence their husbands quietly. The foreign ambassadors must have been disappointed by you.” He chuckled to himself, then they sat without words for a few minutes before Neil continued on a serious thread. “You will be careful, won’t you?”
“I’ve nearly died once. I don’t plan to do that again anytime soon.”
Neil laughed. “Yes, but you didn’t intend for it to happen before. At least I trust Zaric to take care of you. There is comfort in that.”
Another lapse followed, but it was a comfortable lapse. Helen wondered at what point in the journey to Larisa she had stopped feeling apprehensive about the times when they had nothing to say. She didn’t feel the need to talk. They simply watched together as the colors of the sky and landscape became richer. In the distant trees birds were singing, leaves were gently swishing, and Helen was able to pick out the sound of running water that she had never heard before. She had explored so little of Larisa and craved the chance to explore it more.
“What will happen afterwards, Helen?” Neil asked. “When the supporters are gathered and you come back and we defeat Mered—what happens then?”
“It’s probably best to take the future one step at a time,” Helen stated. “Too many things right now are uncertain. I don’t want to think about what will happen then when I don’t know what I will have.”
“I don’t think you understand. You’re all I have left in this world. No matter what happens, promise me you’ll do everything you can to come back.”
Helen looked down to where Neil’s hand rested on the wall and placed her own on top of it. “You mean a great deal to me, Neil. I wouldn’t be able to bear the thought of never seeing you again.”
Neil smiled at her, and the smile soon broke into a hearty, relaxed laugh. Helen laughed, too, and rested her head on Neil’s shoulder. The sun rose amid a mass of golden-rimmed clouds, its light spreading in colorful vitality over the ground. Taking a deep breath, Helen breathed this vitality in.