After fainting at the village gate, Princess Jenniah is taken to the Great Hall of Morak.
My personal search into the past was not to discover the basic events leading to The Great Tragedy, but to understand how they occurred. I believe that the most important part of comprehending history is to understand the people that are involved. One must spend time studying them and getting to know them as you would dear friends. Only in that manner can you truly see how they came by the choices and actions that affected the world and its history on such a grand scale.
Golden light streamed through the clouds. The gate to Nygaard remained open. Merchants and servants passed through unhindered. The cart slowly jostled them toward the Mordlok village. The gate's open maw beckoned her to enter, as if mocking her, but was still a good distance away. Morak was refusing to receive her properly, even though she had taken care of her people as Daren had instructed. Three days... It has been three days and Morak has yet to invite me to his hall. Royalty had very little in the way of patience, and hers had already run out. Each moment she spent outside of the city's wall was increasing her fear of failure. It drove her to take matters into her own hands. She only hoped that Morak would respect her boldness instead of offended by it.
Nervously, Jenniah glanced over at Breann sitting beside her. Then she turned her attention to herself and the expensive cloak with gold and silver embroidery that draped around her shoulders. She looked over at Breann once more, suddenly jealous of her simple grey servants' attire. For a moment, Jenniah wished she could switch places with Breann. She forced herself to look away again and studied her hands instead.
"My Lady, it's not too late if you wish to turn back." There was a wavering tone of uncertainty in Breann's voice. Jenniah stubbornly shook her head and motioned to continue toward the gate.
As they got closer, she could start making out the fur-trimmed leather armor and plain linen of the guard. It was strange to her that they were not ornamented in any manner besides their weapons. The city guard of her people had standard-issue scale mail, red cloaks with a clasp designating their rank, and a red sash about their waists. In comparison, the Mordloks seemed so rustic and disheveled.
The animal carvings that adorned the archway became discernable as their cart drew closer. At the very top were two bears leaping to attack the other. Mordloks believed the strength of the animals went into the wood, making it stronger than stone, or so Daren told her. Such thoughts seemed trivial at this moment, when it felt as though the animals might leap off the archway and consume her.
The shadow of the wall woke her from her reverie. Her heart lurched when she realized they were directly before the gate. The two guards met in the center of the gate, arms out. Her heart pounded in her ears as Breann drew up on the reins and stopped the cart. The guards began to look at them strangely, as both she and Breann sat there silently. After she took a deep breath, she dismounted and approached. One guard stepped forward.
"What do you want, Princess Jenniah?" he said in his own language.
"I am making a formal request to speak with Morak." She said as kindly as possible, making sure that her lowered eyes did not meet his. The guards eased up on their weapons.
"We cannot let you pass. We have not had instruction from Morak to allow you to enter."
"I need to see him!" the words exploded from her lips. She knew her voice had become irate, but her frustration had peaked, and she couldn't contain it any longer. "If I do not see him, then this whole trip was a failure and a waste of valuable time! Why does he not send for me?"
"That is not for me to tell. I cannot let you pass." The guard's voice was stern.
"And I can't wait another day." With lips pursed, head held high, and shoulders squared, Jenniah tried to walk around him. One step, two steps, her heartbeat pounded in her chest. Suddenly everything stopped, including her, as the quiet guard grabbed her arm. She stopped short, shocked that he would dare touch her. He squeezed her arm tightly, and for a moment she was amazed at the strength in such a short man's grip as pain shot through her arm.
"I can't just let you wander through the streets getting lost and spying." His voice was hoarse and grating. He smiled when he saw the shock on her face. "Morak will send for you when he is ready." He released her arm, but it still ached where he had grabbed her.
She couldn't go back to her tent and still hold her head proudly, but Morak's Great Hall felt as far away as ever. But, what if Morak never sends for me? How could I return home without even seeing him? Thoughts of failure and her mother's disapproving face filled her mind. Panic gripped her. It tightened her chest and made it difficult to breath. Time slowed as her emotions crashed in on her and she started hyperventilating. Her legs weakened and could not hold her any longer. There was a vague sound of the Mordlok guards talking to her, but she couldn't understand them. The two guards and the world surrounding them went black as she collapsed.
The pungent smells of rose oil and lavender from her smelling salts woke her abruptly. When she suddenly remembered the confrontation with the guards, her eyes flew open. Standing directly above her was Breann with the vial in her hand and a worried look on her face. One guard had a panicked expression, while the other continued cold and expressionless. Breann slowly helped Jenniah to her feet and dusted her off while the two guards spoke with each other.
"Jaax, what do you think we should do?" the concerned guard asked the quiet one.
"Send her back home," Jaax spoke hoarsely. "Her people can take care of her." Breann and the concerned guard helped her stay upright because she still felt faint.
"But Morak didn't want her to become ill on his account. Perhaps we should have the healer examine her."
"Please," Breann pleaded the same sentiment. Jaax stared fiercely at Jenniah, who tried to look as unsteady and weak as she could. Finally, Jaax nodded.
"Put her in one of the side rooms. Guard her door. I do not want her to be wandering about the hall. If she is not sick, then send her back to her people until Morak sends for her."
The other guard took her arm gently in his. With Breann on the other side they helped walk her back to the cart that Breann abandoned the in the middle of the road. By now several Faynecians and Mordloks had gathered to watch in curiosity and concern. The guard took hold of the horse's harness and slowly guided them through the parting crowd while Jaax returned to his post beside the gate. She shivered as she felt his cold, suspicious eyes study her as they plodded past.
As they traveled, she couldn't help but take note of her surroundings. A few curious people watched silently, moving off the small road that was barely wider than her cart. Even though the village streets were hard-packed dirt and not cobblestone, she was surprised at their excellent condition and cleanliness. They lacked the refuse and stench that she had expected from a barbaric culture. She also appreciated the beautiful carvings on the houses. Even though some homes were smaller than others, none looked any richer or poorer than the rest.
The cool morning breeze was refreshing. Slowly her nerves calmed, and her heart rate went back to normal. I panicked. That's the only reason I passed out. I have no reason to see a healer. Besides, if I need to I could just have the doctor that came with us examine me. The guard kept glancing back with a comforting smile, barely visible beneath his beard, which sent pangs of guilt in her heart. I don't want to use trickery to get into the Great Hall. Jenniah wanted to tell them that she was fine, that there was no reason to fuss any longer, but some reason her tongue didn't want to loosen from her lips.
Rounding the last turn of the gently winding road, they finally came to the Great Hall. It was not as large as many houses of Fayneland nobility and could not even compare to her cast home in Kingsbury, but it's rustic beauty still rendered Jenniah breathless. Just like the houses, the walls were stone halfway up, surrendering to carved wood. Breann shook her head gently as if to clear her thoughts and gently guided Jenniah off the cart, who continued to stare in awe. The guard guided them through the large entryway. Giant, solid wood pillars holding up the roof were intricately carved, along with the rafters and walls.
He hurried her out of the expansive main hall to a much smaller hallway. Sheets of linen were used like doors, providing a margin of privacy for the few smaller rooms attached to the hallway. The room he led them larger than she expected. A narrow gap between the wall and the roof, for the rafters to pass through, allowed light into the room like high-set windows. She was surprised to see, instead of a fireplace, a small fire pit by the outer wall. Set lower than the stone floor, past fires had left black soot stains climbing up the stone wall to the narrow windows above.
"Here," the guard said as he guided her to a cot. "Here, sit. I will find Rhoda to care for you." He turned to leave but hesitated at the door. "Please, stay here." His kind voice had a gentle, pleading undertone. After he left, Breann continued to watch her anxiously for several minutes until Jenniah couldn't take it any longer.
"Really, I'm fine. I am feeling much better now."
"I worry for you, my Lady." Breann said both politely and stubbornly.
"Alright. I've been thinking, now that I've calmed down again, we shouldn't be here yet. I should return to my tent and wait for Morak to invite me." Jenniah sighed in frustration, "I don't want to insult the generosity of the guards though, so as soon as their healer comes and finds that there is nothing wrong with me we shall leave."
"How are you sure there is nothing wrong?" Breann's concern brought a smile to Jenniah's face. "It may be common for other ladies, but in the many years I have served you this is the first time I have ever seen you faint."
"I assure you," Jenniah sighed, "I just started to panic when I thought I might fail and disappoint my mother." They remained quiet until the guard returned with a young woman, bones and brass beads braided into her long black hair. This is their healer? She thought nervously What barbaric things will she do to me? I shouldn't have agreed to this but it's too late to refuse.
"This is Princess," he motioned to Jenniah, using her title like as one would use a name. "An outlander, but an honored one. She collapsed at the gate and I am worried she might be ill. And this outlander," he motioned to Breann, "serves her." He looked over at Jenniah, "This is Rhoda, one of our village healers. She will care for you. I will be right outside the door if you need anything." He left without waiting for a reply.
"Breann, wait with him." Jenniah ordered after Rhoda didn't move. Breann gave Jenniah a nervous look but obeyed silently.
Rhoda finally walked closer and stood with one hand on her hip, long braids dangling. Satchels and pouches hung from her wide leather belt. Instead of a skirt or dress she wore men's leather pants cut short at her shins, showing bare ankles and feet. She stood silently for several, nerve-wracking moments, studying Jenniah's body without ever making eye contact. She started smelling the air around Jenniah. What is she doing?
"Tell me what you felt when you collapsed." Rhoda finally said. The healer's accent was thick and difficult to understand. Then she clapped her hands twice, startling Jenniah. She repeated herself, this time slower. With attentive listening, Jenniah was able to understand her. As uncomfortable as Jenniah felt, she knew it would be bad to refuse the healer's help, and so related what she could of the event. Rhoda listened silently, nodding in thought when Jenniah finally finished. She walked to the door, said something to the guard, and came back in and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her.
The odd woman produced a small bowl from somewhere on her person. She chanted something Jenniah couldn't understand while she mixed herbs from a couple of different pouches. Eventually the woman grew quiet and meditative. Jenniah was curious about what was happening but couldn't bring herself to break the silence. Before long the guard returned with a cup of steaming water. Rhoda wasted no time. She quickly poured the herb mixture into it and said another short chant under her breath while she stirred it.
"You need to rest and relax. Drink this." Rhoda ordered as she handed the cup of odd smelling tea, leaves and powdered herbs still floating inside. Jenniah flinched as the liquid scalded her tongue, which she was grateful for, otherwise the taste would have made her gag. The world spun for a moment before she felt Rhoda's hands gently guide her falling body onto the cot. The world went dark.
"Oh, you're awake." Rhoda said with a smile when Jenniah opened her eyes. "Are you feeling better? Are you hungry?" Jenniah's empty stomach rumbled as if on cue. After she sat up Rhoda handed her slab of flatbread with toasted cheese and jerky.
"Yes, I am a little hungry," she replied, embarrassed that her stomach gave her away. How long was I passed out? Was that what the tea was supposed to do? Jenniah thought as she bit ravenously into the food. The cheese was very fragrant and had a stronger taste than the cheese she was accustomed to, but she didn't complain. All too soon the food was gone. A pleasant smile spread on Rhoda's face, apparently happy that Jenniah had enjoyed it.
The room was insufferably quiet and her anxiousness returned. Here I am, in his Great Hall, and I still hear no word from him. Does he hate me? Does he believe that I will return to Fayneland if he ignores me long enough? Rhoda's gentle hand on her shoulder made her jump.
"Sorry," Rhoda spoke slowly and gently, "I did not mean to startle you. Are you all right? You looked lost."
"I am lost. As I already told you, I need to speak with the Warlord Morak and no one will let me." Frustration caused tears to well up. I mustn't cry. I can't show them any weakness, she thought while trying to hold back the tears. "I am failing my first real responsibility as the daughter of King Adrian."
"You do know that it is impossible to speak with Morak. Morak isn't here." Rhoda's blunt words were only tempered by a smile and kindness in her eyes.
"What?" Jenniah asked in shock and confusion. "What do you mean 'Morak isn't here'? Where is he?" Her head began to spin again with thoughts of uncertainty. He knew I was coming. Daren sent a herald when we were a day out. Did Morak leave after the herald arrived just to avoid me?
"He's hunting with his son." Rhoda's answered.
Hunting? I waited for three days and he's hunting? Not a single Mordlok guard or merchant had told any of my people, especially me, that Morak was out hunting. I could have easily forgiven him for being gone on matters of state or war ...but hunting? Does he even take me seriously? Does anyone?
"You see," Rhoda continued after sitting cross-legged onto the floor, "you could not speak with him, because he is not here to speak. I'm sure he will send for you as soon as he arrives. You have not failed, you just need to be wait for him." Rhoda's comforting words did little to improve her mood.
Jenniah hung her head, now regretting her prideful behavior. I was certain Morak was either ignoring me or laughing at me. Daren advised me to wait. Instead of listening, my impatience drove me to act dishonorably. How can I go home, bearing so much shame? She sulked, thinking about how she could have handled everything differently. She finally woke from her depressive thoughts when the sound of footstep echoed into the room. She looked up to see Daren rush into the room and Breann peak in from the doorway behind him. He looked curiously at Rhoda meditating on the floor before turning his attention to her. She had imagined anger to flash in those beautiful green eyes of his but saw worry and pain instead.
"Princess," he said with barely a whisper. The concern in his voiced forced her to look away. Ashamed, tears started to well up again.
"Please, don't lecture me," she pleaded. "I know I shouldn't be here. Trying to force my way to see Morak was wrong. I'll be return to my tent as soon as they let me."
"I wasn't..." He started to say something but cut himself short. "My Lady, I was worried about you. When I couldn't find you in the camp..." Daren's voice cracked from worry. Guilt stabbed her heart more than any ridicule would have done. "Breann came and told me what happened." She refused to look up at him, so that she wouldn't burst into tears. "I'll be waiting here until they allow you to leave, then I will return to camp with you." With a hurt expression he turned and walked out, nearly colliding with a Mordlok guard walking in.
The guard glanced at Jenniah and then walked straight over to Rhoda, still meditating quietly on the floor. He gently touched Rhoda's shoulder, pulling her out of her meditation. Jenniah watched him and wondered why he looked familiar. Suddenly she remembered the scene she made at the gate. He's the other guard. What was his name? Jaax?
"She was over anxious and needed rest. I told her," Rhoda whispered, "what Morak has been doing." He nodded before turning his eyes to Jenniah.
"Well, Princess," he said, "I have good news. Morak has finally returned." Jaax smiled, suddenly transforming his face into a kind man. "He brought back a white stag! It is a great omen. Morak has sent for you to dine with him tonight. I am here to bring you to him."
With a deep breath, Jenniah stood and tried to prepare herself emotionally and mentally for the task before her. After smoothing out her dress, she gave a nod and followed him out of the room. She motioned for Daren and Breann to follow them down the small hallway to the large hall room. Fragrant Mordlok cooking permeated the air. The animals carved in the rafters above seemed to glare at her menacingly, as if they would leap down and devour her.
There was a large fire pit in the center of the room with a deer sizzling on a large spit. She assumed it was the white stage killed earlier that day. Three large tables had been set out in a U shape full of a feast of flatbreads, cheeses, vegetables, and strong Mordlok mead. Most of the seats were already full, although there were a few open near the center. The chatter that filled the room quickly hushed as they all looked at her. In the very central chair sat an aging man she assumed was Morak, though no crown adorned his brow. His dark, wrinkled face was framed by a well-grayed beard that sported braids and large brass beads. He wore a brightly beaded tunic beneath a splint mail vest that had been so well polished so that it shone with the light of the fire. Sitting beside him was a younger man with long braids in his hair and a short black beard on his square chin. She guessed that to be Morak's son, Avron. Even though everyone in the hall was staring at her, she felt the piercing gaze of those two men the most. Morak's face might have appeared jovial but there was a sinister look sparkling in his eyes.
"I have a story to tell. I received word of your approach from your herald." Morak spoke with a heavy accent. "So, I asked my gods for an omen or vision to show their wishes and opinion upon our meeting. I was given a vision of a white stag wandering through the wood on Broken Ridge just to the west. I assembled a hunting party immediately because such a creature is a great omen. Three days after I have the vision, my son brings it down cleanly with one arrow to the heart, truly a great blessing. Three is a good number, a number from the spirits.
"After I returned," Morak continued, "I hear from one of my best men that you, Princess Jenniah, is missing from her people. Instead, you are here, in my home. Somehow, you manipulated events to get what you wanted, instead of being patient. I find this very insulting. Now you stand before me. How should I end this story?"
Morak finally waited for her to speak. Centering herself, she stood as proudly as she could. Feeling the eyes of everyone on her she tried to focus on Morak and Avron sitting before her.
"Lord Morak, I stand before you a very humbled Princess. I cannot tell you how to finish your story because it is only yours to tell. I can, however, tell you my story and ask only for your forgiveness in hopes for it to end well." She waited for his reply. Avron appeared interested while Morak himself looked mildly amused.
"Carry on with your story then."
"Thank you." Gratefully bowing her head, she began, "During my travels here I studied your language and speech as best as I could, but I had been arrogant and unconcerned with your culture. When I finally arrived, I discovered a very proud people that expected me to treat them with more respect than I was accustomed to giving my own people. Every time I learned something new about your people I became frustrated with myself for not having known any of it before coming here." Jenniah continued describing how frustration had turned her desperate and how that desperation fueled the events that had brought her unbidden to his hall. She did not blame Jaax or the other guards for not telling her about the hunt. Instead, she blamed herself.
"What do you think we should do with you?" Morak asked when she finished. Mordloks began whispering and Avron moved uneasily in his seat, which made the beads in his braided hair jingle. She could feel Daren staring at her back. Her heart ached with guilt.
"I cannot answer for your gods and the great omen they have given you. I leave that up to you and your people. As far as what to do with me, you have two choices: forgive me and allow me to speak for my father and mother, King Adrian and Queen Rheanna, or you can send me home and refuse to speak of an alliance."
"What about the choice to kill you?" Morak had a twinkle in his eyes she couldn't read. Thrown off by the question she took a little while to consider a response. She picked her words carefully.
"I know that as a Warlord you live by the sword and battle runs through your veins. Killing me would bring war to your people. However, there are countless more of my people in our armies than there are warriors in all your villages. By numbers alone your people could be destroyed. Are my pretentious actions, which I do regret, worth the deaths of your people and mine? Is it worth the pain of all those widowed wives and children to grow up without fathers? I was told you respect all of your people equally, so I ask you to think not only of your pride but of your people also."
"Spoken like a real leader!" Large hearty laughs exploded from Morak's girth, "But those widows would be proud of their lost men, and the children would grow to become men and women that knew their fathers died supporting honor and decency." His laughter seemed contagious amongst his people and the mood lightened as they began to smile and chuckle as well. With a gesture of his hand, Jenniah was dismissed. "I will hear you speak, but not tonight. Tonight, we feast!" With a large clap of his rough hands above his head music began to play, everyone stopped staring at her and began enjoying themselves.
Jenniah felt lost and confused. Just a moment ago, she was defending her life and now she didn't know what to do. A hand grabbed the top of her shoulder, startling her. Turning she found Daren and his bright green eyes staring into hers. He gave her an encouraging smile. She turned away from him before he could speak, remembering the pain in his voice she had caused earlier. She walked over to Breann who was shyly accepting a plate of food from a short young man.
"I want to thank you for your help today and to apologize for everything I put you through." Jenniah said feeling truly concerned for someone that had been the closest she ever had to a friend.
"You are my Princess," Breann responded quietly, "it is my responsibility. Also, you certainly know how to keep things interesting." Jenniah smiled at the comforting words.
As Jaax guided the three of them to the empty seats at Morak's table new thoughts of responsibility continued to whirl through Jenniah's mind. Even while eating her thoughts dwelled on the long lectures that her old tutor, Borus, had tried to drill into her. He had done his best to drive a higher set of morals into the heart of a pampered princess years ago. She remembered well her insolence that day and wondered abstractly how morals had managed to weasel into her heart anyway. Jenniah was startled from her deep thoughts by a soft giggle that came from Breann.
"I think you have an admirer." Breann said with a chuckle. Following Breann's gaze, she quickly met Avron's eyes watching her from his seat. Chills ran down her spine as Jenniah observed the hungry twinkly in his eyes. Smiling he whispered quietly in his father's ear. She wished desperately to know what he said. Morak looked over to her and gave a nod to Avron who stood and walked over to her. Without a word, he offered her his hand for a dance.