The good young queen had abdicated her throne and her betrothed has also gone missing.
|The Dread Surprise
The elders had often said that we had a moral and ethical responsibility, if not a contract, to care for the Dreads; a group of small, green-eyed, black-haired, dark-skinned people, thought to be the original inhabitants of this area. We were oft reminded to say “please” and “thank you” whenever we could, but few of us did and few of us would. We assumed we were burdened simply because we were smarter than they were and the Dread people didn’t appear to be able to take care of themselves or anyone else. It was they who should please and thank.
The Dreads never spoke and were never observed to read or write. They appeared to understand what we said and wanted, but beyond that, we really didn’t know what they knew or what they were thinking. We didn’t really ask. And generally, though we grumbled at the inconvenience, we took care of them. We made sure the servant’s entrance was always open for supplies when we needed them. We insured they always had food to eat and a place to stay to cover their heads in the rain or the blistering sun. The food may have been our leftovers and the places to stay may have been mud huts located outside the gates and beyond the Green Forest, but beggars could not be choosy. Besides, everyone knew they had to be near the farms to tend the crops and feed the animals. None of that could be done inside the iron gates where we lived and we certainly were far too busy to go out there to manage it.
Other than bringing in the harvest during the autumn and supplying us with meat for the winter, we didn’t see much of the Dreads. We didn’t look for them and they kept to themselves and were rarely observed anywhere or at any time, outside of harvest season. The winters in our realm could be cold and the winds could be harsh with mounds of snow up north making the roads impassable, and the cold sandy winds in the south making travel in that direction unsafe and unwise.
The winters were pretty much uninteresting and we would have slept them away had we the chance or the volition. Some would argue that’s what we did while shrouded in bear fur with a blazing fire and wood piled high in the hearth.
Our benign existence went fairly predictably and uneventfully until the approach of spring, when the 16 year-old Good Young Queen Isumptua of the Cold and Bitter North; where little grew but gold and jewels, suddenly abdicated her throne. She had only been crowned a year before, upon the unexpected death of her father, the Good King Presumptua, who had ruled one side of our two United Kingdoms for nearly one hundred years.
The Good Young Queen was seen fleeing north with her five barren sisters. It was never explained why, but the story was that they simply got on their golden steeds and with no food and no water, journeyed at full gallop further north than any of us knew existed. It was certainly further north than it was safe to go, for the ice and snow never melted up there and we were all told stories of creatures large and small which fed upon those who entered their lair. The sisters were never heard from again and no bones and no dresses were found, though it seemed no one really looked. Her royal knights were lost along with them, leaving none to guard the empty throne.
The elders all mumbled silently amongst themselves and said this had happened before, didn’t we know?
Upon hearing of the Good Young Queen’s departure, the Young Bastard King Adjua who ruled the Dry Far South of our United Kingdom; where nothing grew but salt upon salt immediately embarked on his own quest. It was initially thought that he would enter our realm and proceed north to find the Good Young Queen; his betrothed, as their planned betrothal sanctioned prosperity and peace. But alas, he was seen to travel south, in the opposite direction. He and his five unmarried younger brothers forever disappeared into the blizzard of sand and wind that suddenly arose on the day they departed. The sands appeared to single-mindedly pursue them into the desert as the sands were heretofore not known to do. His royal guard were lost as dust in the wind and never heard from again.
Again, the elders said, “This has happened before, didn’t we know?” They shuttered their windows and bolted their doors. They foretold dark times to come.
The plague of violence that followed the loss of our two great leaders lasted for days and into weeks. The very bread and water of civility was lost as the abandoned gentility vented their spleens and gnashed their teeth. The onslaught was sudden, as factions arose to settle old scores and old debts, in brittle bone and in dried blood.
Finally, as hell’s bells tolled for the end of us all, the factions seemed to tire of the endless battle and an unanticipated truce took hold. The embarrassed thrones would be shared by the eldest blue-eyed ones, though not of noble blood. Then the first to bear a new heir would maintain the throne over both kingdoms.
The elders all shook their heads at the announcement. None knew why any would agree to such a dastardly deed. The Elders soon made plans to depart and they did. No one knew where they went. They simply disappeared, as quickly as blustery wind and as quietly as falling snow.
It was not a silent truce in either kingdom. The struggle of the blue-eyed ones further divided our Kingdom of the Cold and Bitter Far North and the Hot and Dry Far South and we festered into splintering factions, leaving the Dreads of the Luscious Valley conspicuously and expectedly silent, bound in the center.
It was lost on no one that the Luscious Valley was necessary for any and all to survive, and both sides wanted certain survival, if not a guarantee.
The Dreads couldn’t be convinced to take a side and would only stand silent and without expression when beseeched.
Both sides feared a war fought in the Luscious Valley would be an unsustainable fruitless, self-inflicted wound. So, instead of fighting outright, each fought a silent battle of deceit and suspicion while erecting immense walls around their kingdoms with the stated purpose of protecting the citizenry, by not only keeping out all foreigners, but enclosing the Luscious Valley to the north and to the south. The only avenues of egress from the valley was to the east and west where who knew what dangers lurked.
It may not have been deliberate, but it was then that the true troubles began. Each side, in an attempt to coerce the Dreads, began to systematically discriminate against the Dreads, first by decreasing the amount of food they gave the Dreads, and later by requiring increasing amounts of food as tribute for the protection of the throne. They each felt they had already convinced the Dreads to fear the other. Little did they know how well each side had succeeded?
The escalation in cost for meager reward went on for years until each kingdom slowly became aware they could extract no more from the Dreads; they had maximized their tribute. They noted fewer open hands from the Dreads. Then the panic set in as each side began to imagine retribution at the hands of the Dreads. This fear and panic was particularly acute, as no one had ever heard of a Dread being anything but obedient and silent.
With imagined retribution firmly in mind, each side sent an emissary to forward a message to the other that something needed to be done about the problem with the Dreads. The elaborate plan was to commence following the next harvest.
The emissaries travelled unencumbered through the Luscious Valley, and by necessity, had to spend the night before journeying on, excitedly discussing their plans amongst themselves in the dense darkness of the Luscious Valley. They ventured on the next morning, as though nothing had happened. They never feared their messages had been intercepted and understood. After all, no one believed the Dreads, if bothering to be alert or coherent, could read the cryptic messages and clearly, they couldn’t know what the off-handed remarks had meant.
When the harvest season arrived, the North and the South waited anxiously anticipating their deliveries, as well as, giddily anticipating a surprise of their own. So imagine our surprise when the day came and went with no sighting of a single Dread. When a week had passed with no food in sight, each side imagined the Dreads had chosen the other to ensure a prosperous future. This degree of treachery could only be met with war and settled with blood, even if on the Luscious Valley floor. As each side knew a war could not be fought in winter and none could wait until spring, the day of battle was now.
On the morning of battle, the horns arose loudly at the break of day and the horses laden with armored soldiers for the first time for many, entered into the Luscious Valley, expecting to meet the enemy at any moment. When they finally did meet, they were surprised to find the valley empty of Dreads, as well as, empty of crops for food and animals for meat. The soil appeared barren of life, as if poisoned by the salts of the south and frozen by ice from the north.
The Dreads had simply departed, taking the harvest, the animals, and the skills of bringing forth the bounty with them. It would be a long, hard, and hungry winter without them. But where could the Dreads have gone?
Since they were not seen to enter the gated walls of the North or the South, they had only the east or the west to go, but which? The two kingdoms were panicked. They decided to travel in unison, first traveling weeks to the west and not finding the Dreads, and then weeks to the east, as the cold winds approached. By the time they returned from the east, the temperatures were dropping and snow had begun to fall, and the demise of their two kingdoms appeared assured. From that day forward, and whispered by the few who survived, the departure from the Luscious Valley became known as “The Dread Surprise.”