One should never quite believe what they see.
Marlon, the court jester, danced and capered down the dark and dreary castle hall, blonde cobwebby hair flying this way and that. Giving not the appearance of knowing his whereabouts, whether coming or going, most made haste to scurry from his path. Ever at his side slunk Drago, his loyal hellhound. With hackles raised and teeth bared, Drago dared anyone to threaten or even come close to his master.
With his gaudy finery, tinkling bells and maniacal laughter, many thought Marlon mad. The king, however, enjoyed his amusing tirades with immense pleasure. Ever one for feasting, dancing, and entertainment, the king's pet would remain. Tethered to the king, as such, Marlon knew no end to his trickery, as there would be no chopping off of his head nor exile to the wastelands, no matter whom he offended; be it the king, himself.
Marlon could put toads in the princess's soup, unleash crickets in the prince's breeches, and even make a mockery of the king's speech, all without repercussions. To everyone's dismay, the king laughed off all of Marlon's shenanigans, as though they were performed for his sole amusement. Drago ever sat in quiet, concealed in the shadows, keeping his ever-watchful eye upon his master.
Hours later, and who knew how much damage inflicted upon the unwary, Marlon and Drago retired to their chamber. Filled with luxurious tapestries, a lush canopy bed, plump fur multi-colored rugs, and a blazing hearth fire kept burning all hours of the day and night, Marlon's station in the king's court was evident.
Heaving a weary sigh, while plucking off his boots, Marlon surrendered himself into the silky smooth pampering of his luxurious sheets and plump pillows. Within moments, his snoring filled the chamber, driving Drago toward his well-used rug before the fire. Eyes glowing a fearsome orange, mirroring the flames, Drago appeared to rest, but not sleep. Never closing his eyes, one would wonder if, in fact, the hellhound ever slept.
With his course black fur, powerful build, and menacing snarl, Drago was given a certain respect by all. That this respect was engendered by fear was of little concern to the beast.
On a pedestal in the center of the chamber sat a golden flower, surpassing any beauty that the imagination might conjure. It sparkled and shone with an otherworldly light, casting golden flecks upon the swirling dust motes on their lazy spiral to the chamber floor.
Though Marlon did allow servants to tidy his chamber, he allowed no one to touch this flower. When the servants were within the confines of Marlon's opulent surroundings, Drago was never far from the object of interest. Drago would often be seen, and avoided with utmost care, his hackles raised and eyes blazing, daring the stupidity of a wayward servant coming too close.
Behind closed doors and always far from the hearing of both king and jester, or so it was hoped, many a patron speculated upon the golden flower; from whence it came and why it was secluded within the chambers of the mad jester. No one, however, dared voice these concerns apart from those few whom they trusted with their lives. The last one to question the king's extravagances bestowed upon Marlon was sentenced to a week of mucking out the stables. No matter how lofty one's station was, punishment was meted out without question or delay.
Upon picking up Marlon's breakfast tray, Lilith tossed two juicy bones to Drago, making sure to avoid even the slightest impression of eye contact. How she hated her duty; not to that of her lord, simply in having to present herself to the ridiculous antics of the jester and the baleful stare of Drago. Pulling up the hem of her skirt, she swept from the chamber as quick as she could, whilst still maintaining a sliver of decorum.
Alone once more, Marlon sat before the golden flower, absently scratching Drago's ears. Two sets of eyes bored into the flower with intensity, one set, a piercing blue, and the other, a fierce, glowing red. The flower pulsed and glowed, seeming to speak to them. The two would sit thus for hours at a time, never moving away, locked in a time and place far removed from their physical surroundings.
The timid knock upon the chamber door pulled Marlon and Drago from the flower's enchantment. Rising from the floor, Marlon trailed his fingers across the flower's golden petals. With a sigh, he called for the intruder to enter. Princess Ellianna and Prince Cortland swept into the room, eyes darting here and there, expecting an attack. One never knew what Marlon might try. It was always best to be prepared.
"The king summons you at once," Cortland replied with an air of authority.
Giggling with glee and jumping up and down, Marlon plucked his hat from the bedpost. With a flourish of unnecessary noise and movement, he capered from his chamber. Ellianna and Cortland followed fast on his heels, desiring to give Drago no cause for concern.
The king sat his throne, worry creasing his brow, slumping his shoulders, a missive clutched tightly in his fist. The fool, seeming oblivious to his lord's distress, continued his mad dance round and round the throne.
"Sit, Fool," The king grumbled. “This is a serious matter at hand."
Never having heard their father raise his voice to Marlon, nor tell him to cease his antics, the prince and princess feared that calamity must be befalling their kingdom.
Pouting with dramatic flair, Marlon plopped himself down at the king's feet, glaring at Ellianna and Cortland as though his reprimand were their fault. Reaching down with idle hands, the king patted Marlon's head, as though seeking to console his distressed pet.
"This missive has just reached us, given by a page from Ebony. King Jerle intends a visit in six days’ time. The missive is left wanting, as it refuses to divulge his motive for this visit." The king;s forehead bore many wrinkles; his eyes shining bright with fear.
"He intends on bringing a retinue of knights and scribes, not to mention his high mage, Lemus. The message states only that he wishes to remain here for the span of a week, as he has a matter of some import that he wishes to discuss."
"But, sire, King Jerle has not graced our hall in ten years. What could possibly be his reason for desiring to do so now?" Prince Cortland stood with his hand upon the hilt of his sword, as though expecting a traitor's army to come crashing through the door at any moment.
"Would that I knew, son. Regardless, this is why I called you forth. I want a celebration like none he has ever seen, to herald his arrival."
Drago's ears twitched, as though bothered by a swarm of midges. His discomfort was evident to all, as was his every move. Marlon sought to comfort him, but alas, he was little more at ease than was his hound.
"What will you have done, Sire? I will set the servants to, at once!" Ellianna clasped her hands together, appearing excited about the preparations for the festivity.
“Enlist the cooks and servants to begin preparations to have the most sumptuous feast and a room laid out to rival that of the Fool."
At these words, Marlon's scowl deepened, if that were possible.
The prince frowned. "What of me, Sire? What would you have me see to?"
Cortland was given instructions on setting the stable hands and groundskeepers to work at once.
After dismissing the prince and princess, the king directed his full attention upon Marlon. "You suspect, as do I, the reason for this visit. You must guard the talisman with your very life. Allow no one from the king's retinue to enter your chamber."
Drago's eyes never left those of the king, taking in every word. Marlon stood before the throne, never before appearing so solemn. With the barest of nods, he and Drago exited the hall. Heading straight for his chamber, Marlon weighed his options. He could spirit the talisman away, taken to a land where none would ever set eyes on it again, he could spell his chamber with a multitude of nasty traps, or he could simply allow Drago to eat any intruders.
The first choice would never do, as this is where the talisman must remain for all of time. Marlon decided on a combination of the last two. He would spell his chamber, and on the rarest of possibility of King Jerle's high mage penetrating his spells, he would allow Drago to satiate his hunger upon him.
Bursting through his chamber door, Marlon was knocked off of his feet by Drago, who was sprinting straight for the flower. Cursing the beast's insensitivity, he ran to stand before the pedestal by his side. The flower pulsed with a vibrant light, giving off its golden hue. As Marlon closed his eyes, he put his hands around the flower. He began to chant, and as he did so, he began to fade, becoming as insubstantial as the morning mist, while Drago's physical presence became more powerful, if that were possible.
Arriving in the chamber so distracted, Marlon and Drago failed to notice Lilith, cowering in the shadows, a load of linen all but forgotten in her arms. Too terrified to move, lest these users of magic turn their evil eye upon her, she eased back further into the darkened corner. Though fearing Marlon's eccentric ways, as everyone else did, she never had true cause for alarm - until this very moment.
As Lilith continued to watch, Marlon shimmered and all but disappeared. She gasped, dropping her load of laundry, for when she turned her eyes to Drago, a hellhound she did not see. What stood before her was a mighty dragon, stretching to the ceiling far above, exuding such magnificent beauty and power that she thought she must have fallen into a dream.
Drago blew fire on the talisman, melting the tapestry behind it. The dragon fire engulfed the golden flower, turning it into a glowing, pulsating red ember.
In only a moment's time, Marlon reappeared and Drago became his beast of a dog once more. The two departed, leaving Lilith trembling with fear, on the verge of collapse. Gathering her linen in shaky arms, she cast a furtive look about the chamber, seeking any evidence of her presence. Finding none, she left the dragon's lair.
King Jerle and his retinue arrived with the rising of the sun. The keep lie awake and came to life at once: stable hands leading the horses away, children scampering from underfoot, shop keepers proudly displaying their wares, and young maidens blushing behind false modesty. Wearing well his air of disdain, Jerle ignored them all.
Standing upon the threshold of the castle, the king, Cortland, and Ellianna stood, awaiting their visitor, each wondering if he were friend or foe.
The king and his heirs welcomed King Jerle into the keep, all the while wearing false smiles that barely concealed their worry. King Jerle promptly demanded his chamber at once, feigning exhaustion.
The festivities that evening were grand, as promised. The feast was sumptuous, with every dish imaginable placed before the guests. The music was splendid and the entertainment, well, entertaining. Marlon had yet to let down a guest. There was music, dancing, and laughing aplenty, but very little came from King Jerle and his retinue, nor from the king and his heirs, as each one studied the other, seeking to surmise each other’s intent. Even Marlon's merriment seemed a bit strained, though this did not diminish his performances in the least.
The festivities ceased in the wee hours of dawn. Princess Ellianna had long since retired to her chambers. Prince Cortland held out awhile longer, with his hand ever resting close to the hilt of his sword. When no impending battle presented itself, he trundled off to bed as well. The servants soon followed, finishing the clean-up in short order.
King Jerle and his host were soon left alone. With phantom shadows from the hearth fire playing along the walls, the two powerful men faced each other.
King Jerle was the first to break the silence. "You know why I am here." He did not have long to wait.
"I imagine I do, just as you imagine that I will not give it up. There is no price that you could offer, no threat that you could use, that would make me even consider such a preposterous notion." All of this was stated without a trace of fear in his voice. Now that the truth lay before him, he strengthened his resolve.
"You do realize that not only have I brought several of my strongest and bravest knights, but that I have also brought High Mage Lemus? You would be worse than a fool to defy me."
"Be that as it may, I will nevertheless do so." The king sat on his throne, daring this traitor to try to attempt sway his decision.
"What cause have you to think that you, and you alone, are deserving of the powers of the talisman? Was it not in agreement that it would be shared among the realms, that all may benefit?"
The king spoke the words that Jerle feared. "How well you know the ease with which power corrupts, old man. Your line was ever born of treachery, seeking to lay claim to what you had no right to. Well - no more. I now hold sway over a power greater than yours, and will never relinquish it to you nor any other."
Glaring with defiance at the king, Jerle rose from his chair. “You shall rue this day and the calamity that will befall your kingdom through your stupidity." Jerle swept from the hall, his red cape swirling as he went.
The king slammed his mug down upon the table before him in outrage. How dare that man defy him? He, himself, was the most powerful man in the land. As long as he held the talisman, no one could touch him. He simply had to trust that the caretaker of the talisman would defend it to his death, and beyond..
Lilith eased away, her back pressed tight against the wall as King Jerle swept by her. Holding her breath, she eased around the corner and ran straight into Marlon. Giving a terrified squeak, she apologized, trying in vain to flee. Marlon held onto her elbows, pulling her, with much force, into an alcove.
"What did you overhear, wench?" Marlon's gaze was intense, boring into her very soul.
"N...nothing, I swear." Lilith stood, gasping and panting, fearing for her life.
“Liar. I saw you there, eavesdropping upon the king. How about I reveal your little secret to him - hmm?"
"Please, let me go." Lilith begged, to no effect.
Marlon proceeded to drag her to his chamber, ignoring her whimpers of fear and pain. Upon entering, he thrust her through the doorway, then barred it tight.
"What are you going to do with me?"
"Do with you, why - nothing. Aside from holding you here until you decide to tell me why you thought it prudent to spy upon your king."
"Are you going to set your dragon upon me, set fire to me as he did that talisman?"
"How do you know - ah, I see. You must have been hiding in my chamber, eavesdropping on me as well. It seems you have a heart for deceit and intrigue."
"It seems you, sir, are not who my king thinks you to be."
"And how do you know what he thinks about me or anyone else? Are you privy to the king's thoughts?"
Backing away, putting as much distance as she could between herself and this evil mage, she tripped over Drago, falling on top of him. She somehow managed to untangle herself from the beast.
"And your hellhound is no hellhound, but a dragon. How think you your king might react to this?" Lilith thought she held the upper hand, that the threat of going to the king might save her life.
Marlon began to chuckle. Even Drago's sides were heaving with laughter.
"My dear, the king knows exactly who and what I am."
"Who and what are you?" Lilith asked in fear.
"Why, I am nothing but illusion."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Look to Drago, if you will."
As Lilith turned to look, a huge shadow cast itself over her. Looking up in terror, she found herself staring into the eyes of the bemused dragon. Turning back to face Marlon, she discovered him missing.
The dragon decided to speak, just when Lilith thought that nothing more could surprise her. When the dragon spoke, it was with Marlon's voice.
"You see, my dear, Marlon never was. He existed solely within everyone's imagination; except that of the king. Have you never wondered why your king appeared so smitten with the jester?"
Lilith shook her head in denial. This cannot be happening. I have gone mad!
"You see, Lilith, there was only ever me. The fierce and powerful Drago. Marlon never existed. He was an illusion that I created so that all interest would be drawn to his eccentricities and away from the flower. I chose the guise of his hellhound, as well, my true guise would never do, you see"
Lilith was afraid that she did not understand any of this. "But, why? I do not understand."
"The talisman is of old; a magic born of another time, a time long before humans. It has ever been guarded by my kind. My mate was injured from a fall, and your king used his last reserves of water, his skill in bringing her prey, and his meager medicines to ease her journey into death. For this, I promised him the power of the talisman, to forever protect he and his people."
"But, what does it do?"
"Do, why it cloaks the king and his people with a power that can be felt by any and all who might choose to hurt them. It fills the heart with such fear and terror, that all thought of defying he who holds it, flees upon contact. It is felt by others, yet only one other knew of it. King Jerle was with your king on that fateful day. He wanted some of this power for himself. They decided amongst themselves, to share the talisman, that both kingdoms might revel in its glory."
"So, King Jerle has come to claim it for himself?"
"Aye, that he has. The king will never relinquish his power, however. Though I was a witness to their promise, I will stand by the king, as he is the one who helped my mate."
"Whatever will you do?"
"Why, child, I will do just what dragons have done throughout the ages. I will eat him and spit out his bones!"
At this, the chamber door began to tremble and bulge. Drago thrust Lilith behind him and waited with excitement on his next meal. As the door flew open, Drago released a stream of fire at Jerle and his useless mage, incinerating them both. "Alas, this is what I feared," Drago pouted. "I can never get the temperature just right. Oh well...would you find too terrible, going to fetch me some of those tasty bones you have lying about? I would appreciate it much, as I have worked up quite an appetite."