A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Three)

King MacGil, stout, barrel chested, with a beard too thick with gray, long hair to match, and a broad forehead lined with too many battles, stood on the upper ramparts of his castle, his queen beside him, and overlooked the day's burgeoning festivities. His royal grounds sprawled out beneath him in all their glory, stretching as far as the eye could see, a thriving city walled in by ancient stone fortifications. King's Court. Interconnected by a maze of winding streets sat stone buildings of every shape and size – for the warriors, the caretakers, the horses, the Silver, the Legion, the guards, the barracks, the weapons house, the armory – and among these, hundreds of dwellings for the multitude of his people who chose to live within the city walls. Between these spanned acres of grass, royal gardens, stone-lined plazas, overflowing fountains. King's Court had been improved upon for centuries, by his father, and his father before him – and it sat now at the peak of its glory. Without doubt, it was now the safest stronghold within the Western Kingdom of the Ring.

MacGil was blessed with the finest and most loyal warriors any king had ever known, and in his lifetime, no one had dared attack. The seventh MacGil to hold the throne, he had held it well for his thirty two years of rule, had been a good and wise king. The land had prospered greatly in his reign, he had doubled his army's size, expanded his cities, brought his people bounty, and not a single complaint could be found among his people. He was known as the generous king, and there had never been such a period of bounty and peace since he took the throne.

Which, paradoxically, was precisely what kept MacGil up at night. For MacGil knew his history: in all the ages, there had never been as long a stretch without a war. He no longer wondered if there would be an attack – but when. And from whom.

The greatest threat, of course, was from beyond the Ring, from the empire of savages that ruled the outlying Wilds, which had subjugated all the peoples outside the Ring, beyond the Canyon. For MacGil, and the seven generations before him, the Wilds had never posed a direct threat: because of his kingdom's unique geography, shaped in a perfect circle, in a ring, and separated from the rest of the world by a deep canyon a mile wide, and protected by an energy shield within it that had been active since a MacGil first ruled, they had little to fear of the Wilds. The savages had tried many times to attack, to penetrate the shield, to cross the canyon; not once had they been successful. As long as he and his people stayed within the Ring, there was no outside threat.

That did not mean, though, that there was no threat from inside. And that was what had kept MacGil up at night lately. That, indeed, was the purpose of the day's festivities: the marriage of his eldest daughter. A marriage arranged specifically to appease his enemies, to maintain the fragile peace within the Eastern and Western Kingdoms of the Ring.

While the Ring spanned a good five hundred miles in each direction, it was divided down the middle by a mountain range. The Highlands. On the other side of the Highlands sat the Eastern Kingdom, ruling the other half of the Ring. And this kingdom, ruled for centuries by their rivals, the McClouds, had always tried to shatter its fragile truce with the MacGils. The McClouds were malcontents, unhappy with their lot, convinced their side of the kingdom sat on ground less fertile. They contested the Highlands, too, insisting the entire mountain range was theirs, when at least half of it was the MacGil's. There were perpetual border skirmishes, and perpetual threats of invasion.

As MacGil pondered it all, he was annoyed. The McClouds should be happy: they were safe inside the Ring, protected by the Canyon, they sat on choice land, and had nothing to fear. They should just be content with their own half of the Ring. It was only because MacGil had grown his army so strong that, for the first time in history, the McClouds had dared not attack. But MacGil, the wise king he was, sensed something on the horizon; he knew this peace could not last. Thus he had arranged this marriage of his eldest daughter to the eldest prince of the McClouds. And now the day had arrived.

As he looked down, he saw stretched below him thousands of minions, dressed in brightly colored tunics, filtering in from every corner of the kingdom, from both sides of the Highlands. Nearly the entire Ring, all pouring into his fortifications. His people had prepared for months, commanded to make everything look prosperous, strong. This was not just a day for marriage: it was a day to send a message to the McClouds.

MacGil surveyed his hundreds of soldiers, lined up strategically along the ramparts, in the streets, along the walls, more soldiers than he could ever need – and felt satisfied. It was the show of strength he wanted. But he also felt on edge: the environment was charged, ripe for a skirmish. He hoped no hotheads, inflamed with drink, rose up on either side. He scanned the jousting fields, the playing fields, and thought of the day to come, filled with games and jousts and all sorts of festivities. They would be charged. The McClouds would surely show up with their own small army, and every joust, every wrestle, every competition, would take on meaning. If one went awry, it could evolve into a battle.

"My king?"

He felt a soft hand on his, and turned and saw his queen, Krea, still the most beautiful woman he'd ever known. Happily married his entire reign, she had borne him five children, three of them boys, and had not complained once. Moreover, she had become his most trusted counselor. As the years had passed, he had come to learn that she was wiser than all of his men. Indeed, wiser than he.

"It is a political day," she said. "But also our daughter's wedding. Try to enjoy. It won't happen twice."

"I worried less when I had nothing," he answered. "Now that we have it all, everything worries me. We are safe. But I don't feel safe."

She looked back at him with compassionate eyes, large and hazel; they looked as if they held the wisdom of the world. Her eyelids drooped, as they always had, looking just a bit sleepy, and were framed by her beautiful, straight brown hair, which fell on both sides of her face, tinged with gray. She had a few more lines, but she hadn't changed a bit.

"That's because you're not safe," she said. "No king is safe. There are more spies in our court than you'll ever care to know. And that is the way of things."

She leaned in and kissed him, and smiled.

"Try to enjoy it," she said. "It is a wedding after all."

With that, she turned and walked off the ramparts.

He watched her go, then turned and looked back out over his court. She was right; she was always right. He did want to enjoy it. He loved his eldest daughter, and it was a wedding after all. It was the most beautiful day of the most beautiful time of year, spring at its height, and summer dawning, the two suns perfect in the sky, and the slightest of breezes astir. Everything was in full bloom, trees everywhere awash in a broad palette of pinks and purples and oranges and white. There was nothing he'd like more than to go down and sit with his men, watch his daughter get married, and drink pints of ale until he could drink no more.

But he could not. He had a long course of duties before he could even step out of his castle. After all, the day of a daughter's wedding meant obligation for a king: he had to meet with his council; with his children; and with a long a line of supplicants who had a right to see the king on this day. He would be lucky if he left his castle in time for the sunset ceremony.

MacGil, dressed in his finest royal garb, velvet black pants, a golden belt, a royal robe made of the finest purple and gold silk, donning his white mantle, shiny leather boots up to his calves, and wearing his crown – an ornate gold band with a large ruby set in its center – strutted down the castle halls, flanked by attendants. He strode through room after room, descending the steps from the parapet, cutting through his royal chambers, through the great arched hall, with its soaring ceiling and rows of stained glass. Finally, he reached an ancient oak door, thick as a tree trunk, and his attendants opened it and stepped aside. The Throne Room.

His advisers stood at attention as MacGil entered, the door slammed shut behind him.

"Be seated," he said, more abrupt than usual. He was tired, on this day especially, of the endless formalities of ruling the kingdom, and wanted to get them over with.

He strode across the Throne Room, which never ceased to impress him, its ceilings soaring fifty feet, one entire wall a panel of stained glass, floors and walls made of stone a foot thick. The room could easily hold a hundred dignitaries. But on days like this, when his council convened, it was just him and his handful of advisers in the cavernous setting. The room was dominated by a vast table, shaped in a semi-circle, behind which his advisors stood.

He strutted through the opening, right down the middle, to his throne. He ascended the stone steps, passed the carved golden lions, then sank into the red velvet cushion lining his throne, carved from a single block of gold. His father had sat on this throne, as had his father, and all the MacGils before him. When he sat, MacGil felt the weight of his ancestors, of all the generations, with him.

He surveyed the advisors in attendance. There was Brom, his greatest general, and advisor on military affairs; Kolk, the general of the boys' Legion; Aberthol, the oldest of the bunch, a scholar and historian, mentor of kings for three generations; Firth, his advisor on internal affairs of the court, a skinny man with short, gray hair and hollowed out eyes that never sat still. He was not a man that MacGil had ever trusted, and he never even understood his title. But his father, and his before him, kept an advisor for court affairs, and so he kept it out of respect for them. There was Owen, his treasurer; Bradaigh, his advisor on external affairs; Earnan, his tax collector; Duwayne, his advisor on the masses; and Kelvin, the representative of the nobles.

Of course, the King had absolute authority. But his kingdom was a liberal one, and his fathers had always taken pride in allowing the nobles a voice in all matters, channeled through their representative. It was historically an uneasy power balance between the kingship and the nobles. Now there was harmony, but during other times there had been uprisings, power struggles, between the nobles and royalty. It was a fine balance.

As MacGil surveyed the room he noticed one person missing: the very man he wanted to speak with most. Argon. As usual, when and where he showed up was unpredictable. It infuriated MacGil to no end, but he had no choice but to accept it. The way of druids was inscrutable to him. Without him present, MacGil felt even more haste. He wanted to get through this, get to the thousand other things that awaited him before the wedding.

The group of advisers sat, facing him around the semi-circular table, spread out every ten feet, each sitting in a chair of ancient oak with elaborate carved wooden handles.

"My liege, if I may begin," Owen called out.

"You may. And keep it short. My time is tight today."

"Your daughter will receive a great many gift today, which we all hope will fill her coffers. The thousands of people paying tribute, presenting gifts to you personally, and filling our brothels and taverns, will help fill the coffers, too. And yet the preparation for today's festivities will also deplete a good portion of the royal treasury. I recommend an increase of tax on the people, and on the nobles. A one-time tax, to alleviate the pressures of this great event."

MacGil saw the concern on his treasurer's face, and his stomach sank at the thought of the treasury's depletion. Yet he would not raise taxes again.

"Better to have a poor treasury and loyal subjects," MacGil answered. "Our riches come in the happiness of our subjects. We shall not impose more."

"But my liege, if we do not – "

"I have decided. What else?"

Owen sank back, crestfallen.

"My king," Brom said, in his deep voice. "At your command, we have stationed the bulk of our forces in court for today's event. The show of power will be impressive. But we are stretched thin. If there should be an attack elsewhere in the kingdom, we will be vulnerable."

MacGil nodded, thinking it through.

"Our enemies will not attack us while we are feeding them."

The men laughed.

"And what news from the Highlands?"

"There has been no reported activity for weeks. It seems their troops have drawn down in preparation for the wedding. Maybe they are ready to make peace."

MacGil was not so sure.

"That either means the arranged wedding has worked, or they wait to attack us at another time. And which do you think it is, old man?" MacGil asked, turning to Aberthol.

Aberthol cleared his throat, his voice raspy as it came out: "My liege, your father and his father before him never trusted the McClouds. Just because they lie sleeping, does not mean they will not wake."

MacGil nodded, appreciating the sentiment.

"And what of the Legion?" he asked, turning to Kolk.

"Today we welcomed the new recruits," Kolk answered, with a quick nod.

"My son among them?" MacGil asked.

"He stands proudly with them all, and a fine boy he is."

MacGil nodded, then turned to Bradaigh.

"And what word from beyond the Canyon?"

"My liege, our patrols have seen more attempts to bridge the Canyon in recent weeks. There may be signs that the Wilds are mobilizing for an attack."

A hushed whisper spread amongst the men. MacGil felt his stomach tighten at the thought. The energy shield was invincible; still, it did not bode well.

"And what if there should be a full-scale attack?" he asked.

"As long as the shield is active, we have nothing to fear. The Wilds have not succeeded in breaching the Canyon for centuries. There is no reason to think otherwise."

MacGil was not so certain. An attack from outside was long overdue, and he could not help but wonder when it might be.

"My liege," Firth said in his nasally voice, "I feel obliged to add that today our court is filled with many dignitaries from the McCloud kingdom. It would be considered an insult for you not to entertain them, rivals or not. I would advise that you use your afternoon hours to greet each one. They have brought a large entourage, many gifts – and, word is, many spies."

"Who is to say the spies are not already here?" MacGil asked back, looking carefully at Firth as he did – and wondering, as always, if he might be one himself.

Firth opened his mouth to answer, but MacGil sighed and held up a palm, having had enough. "If that is all, I will leave now, to join my daughter's wedding."

"My liege," Kelvin said, clearing his throat, "of course, there is one more thing. The tradition, on the day of your eldest's wedding. Every MacGil has named a successor. The people shall expect you to do the same. They have been buzzing about. It would not be advisable to let them down. Especially with the Dynasty Sword still immobile."

"Would you have me name an heir while I am still in my prime?" MacGil asked.

"My liege, I mean no offense," Kelvin stumbled, looking concerned.

MacGil held up a hand. "I know the tradition. And indeed, I shall name one today."

"Might you inform us as to who?" Firth asked.

MacGil stared him down, annoyed. He was a gossip, and he did not trust this man.

"You will learn of the news when the time is right."

MacGil stood, and the others rose, too. They bowed, turned, and hurried from the room.

MacGil stood there, thinking, for he did not know how long. It was on days like this that he wished he was not king.

MacGil stepped down from his throne, boots echoing in the silence, and crossed the room. He opened the ancient oak door himself, yanking the iron handle, and entered a side chamber.

He enjoyed the peace and solitude of this cozy room, as he always had, its walls hardly twenty paces in either direction yet with a soaring, arched ceiling. The room was made entirely of stone, with a small, round piece of stained glass on one wall. Light poured in through its yellows and reds, lighting up a single object in the otherwise bare room.

The Dynasty Sword.

There it sat, in the center of the chamber, lying horizontal, on iron prongs, like a temptress. As he had since he was a boy, MacGil walked close to it, circled it, examined it. The Dynasty Sword. The sword of legend, the source of strength and power of his entire kingdom, from one generation to the next. Whoever had the strength to hoist it would be the Chosen One, the one destined to rule the kingdom for life, to free the kingdom from all threats, in and outside the Ring. It had been a beautiful legend to grow up with, and as soon as he was anointed king, MacGil had tried to hoist it himself, as only MacGil kings were even allowed to try. The kings before him, all of them, had failed. He was sure he would be different. He was sure he would be The One.

But he was wrong. As were all the other MacGil kings before him. And his failure had tainted his kingship ever since.

As he stared at it now, he examined its long blade, made of a mysterious metal no one had ever deciphered. The sword's origin was even more obscure, rumored to have risen from the earth in the midst of a quake.

Examining it, he once again felt the sting of failure. He might be a good king; but he was not The One. His people knew it. His enemies knew it. He might be a good king, but no matter what he did, he would never be The One.

If he had been, he suspected there would be less unrest amongst his court, less plotting. His own people would trust him more and his enemies would not even consider attack. A part of him wished the sword would just disappear, and the legend with it. But he knew it would not. That was the curse – and the power – of a legend. Stronger, even, than an army.

As he stared at it for the thousandth time, MacGil couldn't help but wonder once again who it would be. Who of his bloodline would be destined to wield it? As he thought of what lay before him, his task of naming an heir, he wondered who, if any, would be destined to hoist it.

"The weight of the blade is heavy," came a voice.

MacGil spun, surprised to have company in the small room.

There, standing in the door, was Argon. MacGil recognized the voice before he saw him and was both irritated for his not showing up sooner and pleased to have him here now.

"You're late," MacGil said.

"Your sense of time does not apply to me," Argon answered.

MacGil turned back to the sword.

"Did you ever think I would be able to hoist it?" he asked reflectively. "That day I became king?"

"No," Argon answered flatly.

MacGil turned and stared at him.

"You knew I would not be able to. You saw it, didn't you?"

"Yes."

MacGil pondered this.

"It scares me when you answer directly. That is unlike you."

Argon stayed silent, and finally MacGil realized he wouldn't say anymore.

"I name my successor today," MacGil said. "It feels futile, to name an heir on this day. It strips a king's joy from his child's wedding."

"Maybe such joy is meant to be tempered."

"But I have so many years left to reign," MacGil pleaded.

"Perhaps not as many as you think," Argon answered.

MacGil narrowed his eyes at Argon, wondering. Was it a message?

But Argon added nothing more.

"Six children. Which should I pick?" MacGil asked.

"Why ask me? You have already chosen."

MacGil looked at him. "You see much. Yes, I have. But I still want to know what you think."

"I think you made a wise choice," Argon said. "But remember: a king cannot rule from beyond the grave. Regardless of who you think you choose, fate has a way of choosing for itself."

"Will I live, Argon?" MacGil asked earnestly, asking the question he had wanted to know since he had awakened the night before from a horrific nightmare.

"I dreamt last night of a crow," he added. "It came and stole my crown. Then another carried me away. As it did, I saw my kingdom spread beneath me. It turned black as I went. Barren. A wasteland."

He looked up at Argon, his eyes watery.

"Was it a dream? Or something more?"

"Dreams are always something more, aren't they?" Argon asked.

MacGil was struck by a sinking feeling.

"Where is the danger? Just tell me this much."

Argon stepped close and stared into his eyes, with such an intensity that MacGil felt as if he were staring into another realm itself.

Argon leaned forward, whispered:

"Always closer than you think."