by The Lemon
Heroes unite in the audience of the king. An adventure awaits.
| The sun began to crawl across the calm western sky. As the afternoon waned into dusk, the townspeople returned to their homes. Like any other day, the merchants closed down their stores and moved away their carts. Meanwhile, guards and craftsmen bustled about the front gate of the castle and made the necessary repairs to the shattered doors. Men clad in heavy armor went about patrolling the streets and kept a watchful eye out for any suspicious activity. Several soldiers stood at the front gates and up in the castle’s towers, guarded them from another potential attack.
Somewhat away from the commotion of workers and marching guards, there came a knock that shook the wooden door of a small house. After no answer, there was another knock. Still getting no answer, the knob turned, and the door opened.
“Bah, I should’ve figured he’d forget to lock the door,” Grom grumbled as he stepped inside.
He ventured into the small, dark room; the weight of each tentative step raised a moan from the rotting wooden floorboards. Against one wall stood a worn wooden desk covered in dirty dishes, bottles that reeked of alcohol, and several yellowed pieces of rolled up parchment. A few discarded articles of clothing lie strewn about the floor, which looked as though it hadn’t been swept in ages. Stepping into the next room, he saw a few cupboards along the walls; one of which was open and had nothing in it. He stopped beside an old, dirty dinner table in the middle of the room, and kicked a broken chunk of the floorboard that lay beside it. Grom wrinkled his nose as he caught the odor from a heap of plates. His sanity waning a bit from the overwhelming attack on all of his senses, he dared reach into the teetering mound and lift two plates glued together with a layer of moldy remnants of a meal. He dropped the plates back amongst the others and instead reached out toward one of the many empty bottles spread all about. Against better judgement, Grom took a brief whiff of its contents, waved the potent odor away from his face, and set it back down.
“How can someone live like this?” Grom uttered to himself.
His eyes shifted in the direction of a small tub of black water on a counter across the room, and he decided to stay clear because of its exuding stench. A stack of plates rested beside it along with a few eating utensils that were coated with food and grime.
A snore drifted through the air and into the kitchen. Grom continued on to find the “master bedroom.” The room was even smaller than the other two. In the far right corner, there sat a foul pot that emitted the overpowering stench of urine and feces. Roaches crawled in and out of the container and stirred the contents of their daily soup with their antennae like minuscule chefs. More piles of wrinkled, unwashed clothing lay strewn about the melting pot. Across the room rested a small wooden frame of a bed and a torn mattress with cotton and straw stuffing that stuck out in all directions. Sprawled out on his stomach, Isac slept atop the mattress and intertwined among the mess of piss-stained sheets. His legs bent in opposing directions, and he slept with one arm under his head and the other hung over the side of the bed.
“Hey,” Grom shouted and reached out to shake Isac.
“Oh baby, I knew you couldn’t resist . . .” Isac mumbled in his slumber.
Annoyed, Grom grabbed the back of Isac’s shirt and pulled him up. “Enough sleep for you. We’re going to the castle.”
Isac’s eyes strained to open. He let out a groan, “Huh? Ow! My head hurts.”
Grom let go of Isac and allowed him to fall back down onto his bed. Ignoring the half-elf’s hung-over groans, Grom ran a hand through his black beard and chuckled, “I think it’s because you drank too much. You need to learn how to drink like a man, or rather, more like a dwarf.”
Grom broke out into a fit of loud laughter. Isac cringed at the dwarf’s obnoxious bellowing, and he fought to turn over and sit upright. He pressed the palm of his hand against the side of his head and squinted his eyes closed tight. At length he spoke in a slow, low voice, “Keep your voice down, will ya?” He opened his eyes again and glanced up at Grom. He blinked a few times and opened his mouth as if he were trying to pull a repressed thought from his memory. “Just who the hell are you, anyway?”
The question brought out another long, hard laugh. Isac raised his brow and gave the strange intruder a confused glance. “You really were drunk, lad! Listen, I’ll explain it all on the way. So let’s go!”
“Go? Huh?” was the only response poor Isac could come up with. He gave this stranger a confused glance, but before he could say more, Grom had him by the arm and dragged him to his feet.
“I said I’ll explain on the way! King Gregory is waiting.”
“Oh, of course . . . wait, what!?”
Before Isac could argue any further, Grom dragged a wobbly Isac through the house and out the front door.
* * *
Once Grom helped Isac gather his mind and some clothing, the two arrived outside the castle as the sun crept halfway across the horizon. They stopped by the side of the road and looked at the same two assigned guards they had overheard earlier in the day standing before the lowered bridge. Grom scratched at his beard and turned to face Isac.
“Just how do you expect we get inside the castle?” Isac asked.
“Just follow my lead,” Grom said with a grin. He stood from the side of the road and walked off toward the bridge and the guards. Completely dumbfounded by his abruptness, Isac cast an apprehensive look toward Grom, but he managed to follow a few paces behind. They casually strode toward the front entrance of the castle and would have continued across the bridge, but the two soldiers blocked their way.
“Halt! Speak your business,” the first guard said, his hand still resting inexorably on the handle of his sword.
“We have business tonight with Sir Jonathan and King Gregory. We spoke with Jonathan earlier and he told us to return here,” Grom announced.
“What business are you talking about?” Isac asked, but Grom silenced his question by stomping on his toes.
“He never gave us orders to allow anyone inside, especially a dwarf and scrawny looking half-elf,” the second, stone-faced guard spoke up.
“Sir Jonathan has been rather busy, correct? I wouldn’t doubt that he would forget to tell you that we were coming. How about you let us inside the castle so that you can allow us to speak with Jonathan?” Grom asked, holding his ground.
“I don’t think so,” the second guard commanded.
“All right, I guess you’ll follow your orders. King Gregory will be very upset when he finds out that you sent away information concerning his daughter,” Grom said, turning to walk away. Isac’s face contorted with a mix of confusion and concern. Grom grabbed his arm and pulled him back around.
“Wait a moment!” the first guard called to them. Grom and Isac turned around and looked at him. “You have information concerning Princess Anne?”
A grin formed on Grom’s face; he had them in the palm of his hand. He cleared his throat and forced himself to stay serious. “We’ve come with important information. It’s like I said before, we spoke with Jonathan ourselves. If you want to deny us passage, then go right ahead! I’m sure the king won’t like it one bit.”
The two guards looked at one another, both somewhat skeptical. Grom stood steadfast, watching the two whisper a few words between one another. After a moment of discussion, the first guard turned back to them.
“Follow me into the castle. I’ll see if I can find our Captain at once,” the guard said, bowing his head and turning toward the castle doors.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Isac whispered to Grom.
“Not really, lad,” Grom whispered back.
They followed the guard across the bridge, through the set of tall wooden doors, which were outfitted with thick steel bracings, and into the castle’s main foyer. The antechamber consisted of a vast, rectangular room with a long hallway located at the far end. Two tall doors stood against the walls to either side, and above towered two levels accessible by two curved flights of stairs. Red silk covered the length of the banisters above the stairs, and a spotless white carpet covered each step. Paintings depicting different images that ranged from pastoral views of nature to glorious battle scenes lined the walls. A lifelike stone statue of a human woman stood out from everything else at the center of the room.
“I would ask that you remain here. I will go find Sir Jonathan at once,” the guard said and strode off down the long hall, leaving the two standing in the center of the great hall.
“What’s that?” Isac murmured to Grom.
Grom stepped toward the statue and glanced up at the towering visage. A woman with long hair and a flowing dress stood unmoving before him. Her face radiated with both innocence and beauty. Isac moved up beside Grom and began to stare as well. Grom whispered something under his breath, and Isac glanced over at him.
“Did you say something?”
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking is all.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be smitten with a statue, now would you?” Isac said with a slight smirk.
“What would you know?” Grom barked in response. Isac grew silent, and his gaze returned to the beautiful idol.
Their reflective stares lingered for several moments in silence. Grom’s eyes lowered to a plaque resting at its base. He knelt down beside it and ran his fingers along the lettering. The name “Princess Anne Delencor” was etched into the golden plate. Finding it very sweet and elegant, Grom recited the name over and over again in his mind.
“Oh my! More guests!” a voice echoed from down another hallway. Startled by the sudden intrusion, Grom and Isac turned to see a man wearing a white apron and a lopsided hat that fell over most of his forehead and eyes. The man’s stained apron resembled an artist’s canvas with its many different colors. He rushed toward them and bowed his head. “I apologize! I did not know King Gregory was expecting any more guests! Please, follow me at once! I’ll show you to the dining hall!”
The man moved around behind them and gave a very gentle nudge in the right direction. Grom and Isac moved toward the hallway, but Grom turned and looked back at the statue one last time. Her lifeless orbs seemed to follow his every move, and a few moments later he was beyond her watchful gaze.
Grom and Isac walked a few steps toward the man, who hurried ahead of them as they came to a set of doors. He pushed them open wide and led the way into another long hall covered in white silk draperies and framed artwork. As they moved along, a commotion of clanging metal and muffled voices filled the air. The man in the apron ushered them past an open door along the side, and as they passed it, Grom and Isac could smell the savory aroma of meats and vegetables cooking.
“Quickly, you must finish the food! The meal will be starting in only a few minutes!” the man accompanying them down the hall shouted through the doorway. Grom glanced inside to see half a dozen different men wearing similar white aprons and funny hats. Each cook rushed between counters and carried different pots, pans, and cooking utensils.
The savory aroma tickled Isac’s nose, and he realized that he had not eaten a good meal in several days.
“I know a thing or two about cooking a meal. I’d be more than happy to help out,” Isac began, licking a bit of drool that had formed on his lips. Isac took a quick stride toward the kitchen, but Grom yanked him back into the hall by the tip of his ear.
Grom dragged a whimpering Isac past the kitchen and soon stepped in front of a tall pair of ornate, wooden doors. The same insignia of the two-headed dragon found on Jonathan’s shield adorned the width of both doors. The man in the apron knocked twice and took a step back. After waiting only a few moments, the doors spread open and revealed a wide open hall. Lanterns and sconces lining the walls shed light throughout the vast dining hall. They ventured into a rectangular room with cobalt blue walls and a towering white ceiling. A table fit to serve a gathering of at least two dozen dominated the center of the room. Tall-backed chairs made from an almost black-colored wood lined each side, and a much grander seat with vermillion cushioning adorned the head of the table.
A door at the right opened suddenly, and one of the kitchen cooks stepped into the room. He balanced a platter covered by a shining silver lid and placed it in the center of the table. The guards tasked to watch the doors quickly pushed them shut as soon as Grom and Isac were through.
“Please, have a seat! The king will be here momentarily!” the chef said, motioning for everyone to take their place at the table. Grom nudged Isac lightly in the back, and they both slipped into chairs at the near end of the table. They silently watched the cooks move in and out of the room, balancing large covered platters in both hands.
It seemed like an eternity to poor Isac before the main doors opened once again. Three loud thuds banged against the door, and the guards at either side of the sealed entrance drew their swords and slammed them against their shields, sending echoes through the hall. Everyone rose at once and bowed their heads low. Grom took it as his cue to follow suit. As he bowed his head, he noticed Isac focusing his attention on the platters of food. Grom turned toward the door and purposely kicked Isac in the shin to wake him from his hunger-driven daze. Isac peered around him and stumbled up to his feet just in time.
“Presenting his royal highness, King Gregory Delencor!”
Each of the two guards drew open the doors, and a man wearing grand blue and purple robes and a lighter colored cloak entered the dining hall. The cloak reminded Isac of a color of rum he once tried many years ago. The king’s round face was stern, but Grom could see a hint of pain lingering in his hazel eyes. Brown locks shaded with the occasional gray swayed lightly from side to side. Without speaking a word, he paced around to the lavish seat at the head of the table.
Jonathan followed, keeping a few paces behind. He had traded in his usual heavy armor and shield for a more comfortable pair of black pants and a white silk shirt that fit tight to his chest. He seated himself to the left of the king, but he froze as his gaze fell to Grom and Isac.
“You two again! Guards, seize those two men! They are not invited guests!” Jonathan shouted, waving a hand to the guards at the door. The guards rushed from their positions and grabbed hold of the struggling Isac and Grom.
“Your highness, please listen to what we have to say!” Grom pleaded, searching the king’s eyes with his pleading glance. He struggled against the guards, but they held him tightly in place. The other invited guests began to murmur and look around the room nervously. They had expected dinner and some sort of entertainment, but this was going a bit too far.
“Jonathan, what is the meaning of all this? Who are these two and what are they doing here in my hall?” King Gregory asked, turning his head toward Grom.
“These men came to the castle this morning after my proclamation. They said they wanted to help in the search to find Princess Anne. Upon the honor of our great town, I turned these worthless insects away,” Jonathan explained, glaring at the two intruders.
“I understand your concern with the attack, but is that a way to treat the people of our town, Jonathan?” King Gregory asked, turning to Sir Jonathan. Jonathan’s face fell in disbelief at the king’s words, but he lowered his head out of respect to his lord. “Guards, you may return to your positions. Leave these two here for the time being.”
The two soldiers released Grom and Isac and moved back to the door. Before they could return to their positions, the doors burst open.
“Don’t start eating without us!” an unmistakable high-pitched voice rang across the room from the doorway. Grom and everyone else in the room turned to see Cloey standing there with her hands on her hips. A half-elf, wearing ragged brown leather that resembled the hide of a bear and a green wool shirt, stood beside her. His locks of dark blue hair were drawn back, tied off with a bit of vines from a plant and decorated with many brilliant feathers and beads. A sharply curved sword with a heavy wooden handle hung from a strap on his leather belt. He swept his hand along the ground in a low bow before the company, while Cloey merely pursed her lips and grunted.
“This is absolutely absurd! Did the guards let you waltz into the castle?” Sir Jonathan shouted, eyeing the halfling girl and doing his best to control his anger.
“We let ourselves in, actually,” Cloey corrected him, turning her eyes to the table and the giant platters of food. Her bright green eyes widened, and she rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “I’m starving! What’s for dinner?”
“Are these friends of yours as well?” King Gregory asked, looking toward Grom and Isac.
“What if I were to say that I never met either of them?” Isac said, twisting his face into a bitter frown.
“They are our companions, your highness,” Grom said in a much more respectful tone.
“Very good,” King Gregory said, “You are both welcome to sit at my table. I have a few things that I would like to ask you all.”
Jonathan gritted his teeth and took in a long, low breath. He refused to pry his eyes away from the little thief, who walked toward the table and made herself comfortable in a chair to the left of Isac.
An agitated Isac fell back into his chair and buried his face in his hands. Cloey jabbed him with her forefinger, digging it just under his ribs. He let loose a groan and turned away, but his attention abruptly fell upon the bowing figure.
The half-elf at the door rose and moved without a sound to sit beside Grom. Isac followed his every move, but the other half-elf seemed not to take much notice of him. Rolling his eyes, Isac folded his arms over his chest and leaned back into his seat.
“I thank you, my lord and king,” the newcomer spoke. His voice was soft like a fall breeze, cool but gentle. He then turned toward Isac, “And I apologize in advance if my brother has been any bother.”
Isac shook his head and frowned, but his brother merely smiled at him.
Before another word could be spoken, the chef that had led Grom and Isac into the dining hall entered once again and lifted the lid off the biggest platter. A buffeting current of steam rose from underneath the lid and billowed out into the air; a succulent, golden brown bird surrounded by leafy green garnish caught the attention of the assembled guests. The aroma danced in the air and tickled the noses of everyone sitting close at hand. The king nodded his head in approval, and the chef went down the line and lifted the rest of the covers. Helpings of other meats, potatoes, cooked vegetables, and breads filled the many gleaming plates. When the chef uncovered all of the platters, he stepped back, gave a slight bow to King Gregory, and exited the dining hall.
“Welcome! I thank all of my invited and uninvited guests for being here with me this evening. I hope that you all enjoy the meal my cooks have provided for you,” the king announced with a smile.
Many of the other guests nodded and mouthed their thanks. All but Jonathan seemed to be smiling; he instead kept a glowering stare on the four unexpected arrivals.
“Let us all drink to good health!” King Gregory called out, raising his glass at the head of the table. The others in the room followed his lead and lifted their own crystal glasses before tasting the wine within. The king took a long quaff from his silver chalice and turned his attention to examine his four new guests.
“You are all rather eager to help in our problem, and for that I thank you. However, I am not going to entrust the safety of my only daughter to those with no apparent skills. I need to ensure her safe return. Thus, I have given you all this opportunity to tell me why I should entrust you with the life of my only daughter,” King Gregory said. He set his cup down and folded his hands in front of him, waiting for their reply.
Grom stood from his place at the table, and he stared intently at the king, a bit reluctant to answer. Pulling up hidden courage, he cleared his throat and addressed those assembled, “My name is Grom Greystone, your highness. I come from a family of miners in the Kirthar Mountains to the southeast of Oneria. I have traveled away from my homeland and passed through this town a few days before this horrible incident occurred. I have extensive training with my trusty axe and served as a head gatekeeper to Stonehaven, my humble home. If you were to give me the chance, I shall do my best to bring the princess back alive and well.” He slunk back into his seat, unsure of what had unexpectedly come over him. A vision of stone beauty lurked still in the back of his mind, clouding his vision.
The man who had entered with Cloey now stood and bowed his head to the king. Upon raising his head, he noticed Isac making a rude face from the corner of his eye. “I am known by the name Prescott, Prescott Izula. I live to the north of Oneria and reside in The Oasis, a small temple built in tribute to the goddess Khallo. My fellow companions and I follow the edicts of nature, live among the wild, and strive to learn more about its ways. I am an expert tracker, and I will do what I can to follow the trail of this sinister man and bring your daughter back safe and sound.” He again bowed his head and returned to his seat.
The king looked over toward Isac, who stared off at the delectable, cooked bird. Cloey swung her foot and kicked him right in the knee, causing him to jolt up out of his seat in anger, “You little brat, stop touching me!”
Prescott sighed and shook his head, “Forgive him, lord. He is not used to being in the company of royalty.”
“How would you like some little kid poking and kicking you?” Isac shouted back.
“Brother, this is not the time to quarrel.”
Isac turned to his left and glared at the beaming Cloey. He then turned toward the king and bowed his head in a mocking fashion of his brother. “I am Isac Izula, brother to the man across the table. I have lived here for some time and spend most of my time in the Black Dragon Inn. I came because that dwarf over there dragged me here.” His tone sounded sour, and he glared at Grom the same as he did Cloey.
“There must be more to be told of you, Isac,” came the king’s voice, “You must have some vital set of skills, or they would not have brought you along. Is that so?”
While Isac shifted in his seat and thought of something to say, his brother spoke up, “My lord, being his brother I know that he has some skill that could be of some use to us. Although he may appear foolish, trust in my word that he shall be of good aid.”
Taken back by his brother’s kind words, Isac returned to his seat. Cloey stood up, choosing to stand on the chair so that she could be seen. Jonathan kept a free eye on her at all times to prevent her from attempting a bit of thievery in the company of the king. She smiled as her voice filled the air. “I’m Cloey,” she started, thinking it better to leave her family name out of the introduction, “and I traveled here from the city of Sagarian. If they are going to be going through any deep, dark places, they can count on me to search around without being found out.”
“Rotten thief,” Jonathan muttered underneath his breath. Luckily for him, no one seemed to notice his utterance.
Cloey hopped back into her seat, and the king nodded his head at her.
“It seems that you all have your own talents. Under normal circumstances, I would not even entertain the thought of those outside of my own guard taking part in a mission for my kingdom. However, you all saw what happened to the people of Oneria. I lost many of my own men, and I cannot afford to leave the castle vulnerable in case of another attack. Thus, if you four have the talents that you profess, then I might be an old fool not to request the help that I honestly need. If you truly wish to help, then I would ask you all to stay in my castle tonight. Eat and relax for now, and in the morning I will send you out to aid our town in finding my daughter.”
The king lifted his silver cup high into the air. Jonathan raised his cup like his king, and the four companions soon did the same. King Gregory sat down in his seat and took a long drink.
Several cooks filed into the dining hall with plates for them all. They assembled meals from the many silver platters and placed them in front of those sitting at the table. The food that they ate was most filling and tasty. Isac had never tasted such food before, having been used to meager meals of broth and bread. Cloey ate a full plate, and from time to time she would pull out a small bit of what looked like yellow fruit from a pouch at her side. Prescott ate none of the meat but made a meal from the array of fruits, vegetables, and breads. Grom did not eat much. Like his untouched plate, his mind remained occupied with his own thoughts.
He closed his eyes, and some unknown force swept him away from the talking and feasting about the table. He found himself in deep darkness. Tiny flickers of light sputtered off in the distance, and even his keen eyes couldn’t discern what surrounded him. Shattering the dead space, a horrified shriek echoed from somewhere in the distance. A soft red light grew, and he took a few brave steps toward it. As he drew near, the light suddenly burst, sending forth a wave of heat that forced him to shrink back and shade his eyes from the brightness. As he squinted into the light, he saw a massive form, many times his height and mass. Wide, spanning wings stretched from wall to wall of the now illuminated cave. Grom took a step back and started to run, but noticed what the beast held in its clawed hands–a maiden with long blonde hair that flowed wildly in the still air. Her blue eyes shot through the glowing red, and he realized then who she was.
“Grom . . . Grom, please help me!”
He knew that he stood no chance against this foul beast, but he did not care. He rushed forward, calling out to her, “Anne! Anne, I’ll rescue you!”
As he sprinted forward, he found that the beast had gone and taken Anne with him. The crackling of the flames was replaced by the chatter of familiar voices. He looked across the table at Isac, who fought with Cloey for the last leg of the now stripped bird. A hand reached out and rested upon his shoulder.
“What ails you, Grom? Is there something the matter? It is not normal for one of your kind to pass up a meal, and a good one at that.”
“I’m just thinking is all,” Grom said, shaking his head at Prescott. He turned his attention toward the king. “I believe I shall depart for the night, if that is all right with you, my lord.”
“Tonight,” King Gregory began, looking at Grom, “you shall stay in one of our rooms, as will the rest of you. If you are weary, you may retire now to the room laid out for you. I will have one of the guards see you there.”
“Thank you King Gregory for your hospitality. I only need some time to think.” Grom bowed his head and began to move to the front doors. One of the men standing guard led him through.
Another chef entered and presented the remaining guests with a thin slice of chocolate cake covered with strawberries. Cloey licked her lips and picked up a strawberry, popping it into her mouth. She giggled to herself and exclaimed, “I could get used to eating like this!”
Jonathan glared at her, but his face softened a bit as he heard the sound of the king laughing. “If you bring my daughter back alive and well, there will most certainly be a feast held in your honor.”
“My lord,” Prescott’s voice rose from across the table, “what can you tell us of tomorrow’s journey? Has there been any further leads on where the princess might be?”
“I believe that Jonathan can tell you what you need to know,” the king spoke, glancing to his side.
Jonathan nodded in return and leaned his elbows on the table, “Those men captured after last night's attack have given us no information concerning their motives or further plans. A few of our scouts have returned earlier in the evening. They have reported that the man that captured the princess looked to be heading toward the northwest, cutting through the depths of the forests. From our maps, only mountains lie that way. We believe that he may be seeking refuge there.”
“I hate to interrupt,” Prescott began, “however I do know of an small settlement that once stood in that direction. It was wiped out some time ago by a horde of goblins. The people fled and never returned, yet there still sits an old temple, one of the largest I have ever seen to this day. It is possible that he might be keeping Anne there.”
Jonathan thought a moment, then nodded his head, “Yes, I do believe that I have heard of it. I had forgotten all about it. Perhaps we shall check there first to be sure.”
“No, Jonathan. You are needed here tomorrow. I wish to continue with the repair and preparations of our town. I will expect you to remain here and overlook the progress. These four shall go about this on their own,” the king said.
Sir Jonathan opened his mouth to argue the command but fell silent.
“Good, then you shall set out in the morning for this temple. It is late and you should be rested for the road ahead. If you are finished and there are no other questions, Jonathan may lead you to your rooms,” King Gregory spoke and rose from his seat.
While dinner drew to a close for his companions, Grom stared up at the ceiling in his room. Darkness enclosed the room except for a small candle resting at the right of his bed on a small wooden stand. He did not close his eyes, for each time he did he saw a violent flash of fire.
“Anne . . .”
The minutes passed like hours, and he soon found that he could no longer stay awake. He fell into an uneasy sleep, dominated by the same dark dream.