Chapter 55: A Lost King, Found and Lost Again
A child plays by the river,
Upon a boulder in the sun.
Years pass, the child grows.
The trees shade the boulder,
Moss covers it.
The man forgets and loses the boulder.
His children play nearby,
Unconscious of their father's former playground.
Then, the typhoon.
The river overflows its banks,
Crops are washed away,
A year later, after all has returned to normal,
The children return to their play.
But look! The trees have been swept away.
The moss has been washed away.
And a boulder stands by the river,
Waiting for children to play on it again.
~ Miyara Miwa
Res Li methodically touched his dagger to all the defeated ghouls, disintegrating them. All but the ghoul-faerie. Alets removed his helmet, knelt at the ghoul's side, and prayed over it. Ravena began healing me. I watched Alets, and his praying removed the curse: the ghoul was no longer a ghoul but the freshly-dead body of the former king Gadurik. We had watched him give his life for his son's only last summer, although it happened in truth some twenty years ago. Alets removed the axe from his belt and tossed it to the ground. As if a cue, the clatter drew everyone's attention, and we all gaped at the dead king. Kyosuke said quietly, "All is clear now. Gadurik sold his soul to chaos to save his son Menduri." Then he confirmed my fears, becoming violently ill. Ravena rushed to his side, and I hoped she could save him. Telling his father my uncle that Kyosuke had fallen bravely in battle was entirely different than telling him I had to kill Kyosuke myself because I allowed him to become a ghoul.
Alets declared formally, "My name is Alets. I am a servant of his lordship king Menduri of the Faeries of the Black Mountains. Menduri sends you his compliments, thanks you from the bottom of his heart for previous services rendered, and I beg you render him one more service for the good of his father, himself, and the faeries of this world."
And thus the other axe fell. With dread, I composed myself to answer him as formally as he addressed us. "What is this one more service which he requires of us?"
"As I think is clear to you, this is Gadurik, Menduri's father, who has been for the past 23 years the victim of the chaos gods. It would be disastrous for Gadurik's name and Menduri's reign, and indeed, the whole of faeriedom, if it were known that Gadurik was the victim of chaos. What Menduri asks of you is that you allow Gadurik's body to be discovered, allow it to be known that you were his killers, and never tell anyone of his chaos affliction. Menduri would be forever in your debt. This is a great favor to ask, as it will ruin your reputations and send all faeries in the world after you to kill you, but my lord would not ask if it were not of the utmost importance."
So that was his game. I stalled. "Why is it important that we be his killers, rather than anyone else?"
"It would be difficult to accept that Gadurik would be the victim of a small group of ghouls."
True. And I understood his request, but my answer was obvious. "I cannot agree to such a stain on my family's honor. There must be others at whose feet to lay blame for his death." We had not truly killed the king; we had merely destroyed the shell that was left after he willingly gave himself to chaos. Chaos had destroyed his true being long before we had vanquished the ghoul that animated his body.
Kyosuke asked, and I passed on his question as one of interest to us all, "Tell me, how did Gadurik restore Menduri to life?"
Alets answered simply, "He traded his life for Menduri's. I understand your reluctance."
I wondered, "Surely the faeries have an enemy that could be rumoured to have killed King Gadurik?" Rumor is a useful tool.
"Perhaps. Menduri is camped a few miles back. He has come to negotiate with the faeries who have claimed this ancient hole. The negotiations will be tense and possibly violent."
So, Alets had lied earlier, when he said he did not know exactly how far away Menduri was. "Negotiations frequently become violent." Violence is an important part of negotiation, after all. The carrot and the stick, as they say here in the west.
"But Menduri hopes to solve this peacefully, if it is possible. If you wish, you can accompany me back to Menduri's camp. Once negotiations are completed, you can explore this ancient hold under more peaceful circumstances, and with Menduri's help and blessing."
And many probing queries about our business here, too, no doubt. I replied, "The tunnels should be cleared of ghouls and whatever else is hiding in this desolate hole in the ground. Menduri and his men should negotiate and enter from the front, and we will ensure the back tunnels are clear so they are not attacked by ghouls from the depths of the cave."
Alets seemed a little taken aback by my answer, but ceased arguing. He wished us good luck and gathered his things. I sent well wishes through him to King Menduri, and he left, leaving Gadurik's body behind, with us. I looked at it with disfavor. A dead body we were now responsible for, and which any faction of the faeries could and would use to prove us their enemies.
Gadurik's body showed no signs of corruption, and it is clear he died in a recent battle. Kyosuke and I agreed that Alets was returning to blame us for Gadurik's death. Either way, we are in for it, but having gone back with Alets would have ensured our imprisonment. At least now we are free.
The White Faerie said that Alets was trying to express his own, and perhaps Menduri's, desperation. Essentially, he was throwing himself on our mercy. Kyosuke wondered if Menduri has also embraced chaos, but the White Faerie did not agree. He was not sure he actually likes Menduri, but learning that Menduri had not killed Gadurik, he revised his original assessment of Menduri.
He explained to us that Menduri is in a struggle to hold on to his kingdom. The principle group of faeries resisting him is called, more or less, the Royalists, and they would like to see Menduri replaced with one of their own. It's the royalists who are upstairs right now. Since this is the long-lost resting place of a great Faerie hero, it is important to both sides.
I said, "According to Faerie laws, Menduri is the rightful king of the faeries. His father gave his life to pass on the crown to his son. If Menduri does not frame us for Gadurik's murder, then I would like to try to find a way to help him fix this mess. If he does blame us for Gadurik's death, then the Miyaras have to go to war against him." Kyosuke nodded emphatically. "Although the faeries will believe we killed Gadurik, I believe he truly died when he voluntarily gave himself to Chaos and the crown to Menduri."
I finished with, "We must keep control of Gadurik's body to safeguard ourselves against slander. It is a shame that we cannot take it to the tower in the valley for safekeeping."
Kyosuke said, "We are to be involved in a faerie civil war, then, on one side or another."
I corrected him, telling him that we are always on our own side: the side of the Miyaras.
He nodded agreement, then said, "If we could drive the Royalists out of here and block the way we came in, we could hold this place against the faeries until our honor is restored.
That was not a realistic goal, and I said, "I am not sure that would accomplish anything. We would be trapped within the Faerie cave, and their numbers outside could only grow." I prefer not to start a war with any faction of the Faeries. The Miyaras would finish it, but I would rather not get us involved in something that is none of our business. Whatever is to happen here, we must take care of it ourselves and not bring trouble back home.
The tunnel was solid rock. We would have to use the Stone of Stones to make a temporary crypt for Gadurik's body, and the White Faerie said he was not comfortable with doing so. There was rubbish and rubble around, but that would be disrespectful and we need to keep control of it anyway. The White Faerie said he would just as soon carry it.
Meanwhile, Ravena had returned to her healing endeavours. She carefully inspected Kyosuke, but said he appeared to be fine other than his wounds: she saw no signs of chaos about him. Once finished with him, she healed my minor wounds. Kyosuke said although he had felt awful, he felt fine now. I am never certain if he truly means that or if he is concealing his hurts. As long as he can conceal them, of course, it is as good as if he were truly fine, so it does not really matter.
The White Faerie carefully wrapped up Gadurik's body and carried it himself. He did not want to be on the front line carrying the king's body and the chest, so I re-ordered us to continue through the 3-5 foot wide tunnel: Kyosuke, Res Li, Ashe, Hosei, Caramela, Ravena, Sun, Baku, The White Faerie, and I took rear guard.
Shortly, the passage split. To our right was a very steep slope up that requires careful climbing. To the left was a fairly level tunnel that quickly curved out of sight. Res Li could not see further down either tunnel.
I suggested we try left, since that would be easier and hence faster to explore. The passage curved right, widened a bit, then narrowed again. As we walked, Res Li looked ahead and around us on all sides as well as up and down. He said, there were rooms and passages above us, but no way to get there yet. There was a lot of stuff up there, so it was hard for him to see clearly what anything really was.
We eventually reached the end: a room whose only significant feature was a shaft in the ceiling that ended about 20 feet above us. The room was square and clearly cut that way. The shaft was also square. Suddenly the steep tunnel seemed the better bet, after all, and we returned to the fork.
Kyosuke can climb very well, so I delegated him to climb up and carry one end of a rope, to make it easier for everyone else to follow. As he clambered up easily, he said there were lots of loose rocks and occasionally holes that look like postholes. He even saw the burnt stump of a post once in a while. At one point, there was obviously a ladder or stairway built to make this climb easier, meaning it was a more regular route that it appears now. At the top, there was a large pile of hand-sized stones, ready to throw at people, he thought.
Res Li climbed up next. He slipped and fell back, but he landed well suffered no damage. His second attempt, he made. Ashe was next and he climbed up easily, as did Hosei and Caramela. Ravena tried, but failed, although she turned her fall into a controlled dive and landed on her feet. She stood back and gestured for the others to go up first. Sun, Baku, and the White Faerie all climbed up, leaving her and me. She said she did not think she could climb up, but that if I did so, she would just tie the end of the rope around her, and she could just be pulled up. I assented to that.
At the top, the room contained the partially rotted remains of tools. Kyosuke and I recognized them. This was once a torture chamber. Kyosuke and I looked at each and said, "Barbarians".
The room itself had one exit, a tunnel filled in with rubble. Res Li looked through the pile of rubble, and reported that it ended about 15 feet ahead. It was solid: a cave-in. I asked the White Faerie how long he thought it might take us to clear out a path large enough for us to get through. To my disappointment, he said between two and four days.
The rest of the room contained rusted and broken weapons and armor, bones and skulls.
So the shaft was the only way to continue, after all. We retraced our way back to the room with the shaft. Res Li fell on the way down the slope, and Ravena healed his wrenched ankle. The rest made it down safely.