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The Fallen King
The Fallen King
I will always remember them.
My family was a treasure I valued most dearly in this cruel merciless world. In the darkest of times, they proved to be my salvation. They were incomparable and the love I preserved for them was a love no other being on this accursed land could ever rival. They were everything to me. I lived solely for them.
My children . . .
Every night when I lay in this disease ridden cell, I see their innocent faces. A great yearning to hold them once more fills me and I lash out in sorrow. Grief overcomes me and I feel as if I’m spiraling in an everlasting abyss. Pushing away the painful thoughts of losing them became nothing more than a futile endeavor. When I slept, those tragic thoughts plagued my dreams with their nauseating imagery. I pictured their young faces twisted in agonizing pain, while their bodies writhed in insufferable torment. I sometimes even hear their blood curdling screams, a sound that would drive any sensible father to insanity. Their desperate cries were unbearable, drowning me in eternal anguish.
I quickly woke up, but the nightmare was still fresh in my mind. I breathed heavily, gasping for what little air there was. I’m afraid to go back to sleep, so I just lay in my little pile of hay and think.
Moonlight illuminated part of my cell and I saw a few bugs scatter across the stone floor. The bugs reminded me of the times my son would explore around the castle collecting whatever critters he happened to come across. Afterwards, he would even place them in glass containers and line them on his shelf. I never did truly understand his fascination with those bugs, yet I would always smile at him when his eyes beamed with proudness at the sight of his extensive collection.
I smiled at the memory and looked up at the sky through the bars on the wall. I could see the moon. A deep longing to be outside of this grimy room bloomed inside me. To feel the fresh air once more upon my skin would be a miracle from the gods. I always imagined how my freedom would be, yet in reality that prospect seemed quite dismal. My chances of absolute freedom were quite bleak.
I sighed and turned from the wall.
That’s when I noticed someone was looking at me.
I looked across my small cell where I spot the empty eyes of the individual. The moonlight illuminated across the person’s cell and I realized that it was a man.
He was old and had a large jagged scar stretched across his face. Dried blood was encrusted in the wound and his eye was monstrously bruised. Comparably to me, he is unshaven. His long beard is scruffy and his eyes are brimmed with despair. Several small fresh cuts were on his face, but he seemed to not care. Instead, he continued to stare strangely at me.
“I know you,” he said in a raspy voice. His frail body began to tremble as tears of joy streamed down his face. “You’re the king.”
I gazed uneasily at the old man, troubled by his words.
“My king,” he began, “you will save us, right?”
A deep sense of shame encompassed me as I stared sadly at the decrepit man. I was at a loss of words as I began to comprehend his remarks. I turned away from him and looked at the wall, not wanting to look at his miserable face.
“What shall you do my king?” asked the old man. A shred of excitement became evident in his voice. “You’ll stop them won’t you? Rin will be saved and everything will be fine, right?”
I say nothing.
The old man continued to speak, but I don’t listen. The trace of hope in his voice sickened me. For most people in dire situations the prospect of hope is a welcomed blessing, but here it is not. This place is the where hope goes to die. An empty worthless word that only promises pain and grief. What’s the justification in hoping when your cries for mercy will fall upon deaf ears?
Hope is never certain, I thought grimly. Only death.
It’s a while before I finally go to sleep, but eventually I do.
I dreamed of nothing.
. . .
I woke up to the sound of approaching footsteps.
A sliver of early morning light shone into my cell as I slowly sat up. Groggy, I look up to see a group of guards go to the cell where the old man was in.
The guards are broad shouldered and abnormally tall. They’re clad in long dark red cloaks with chainmail coifs upon their heads. Long sharply edged swords are attached to their hips while their hands are attired in lavish silver gauntlets.
Slowly, I stand up. From my view point I can only see their backs. Thought it becomes apparent they’re here to take the old man. One of the guards took out a key and inserted it into the door of the cell. There was an audible click and two of the guards enter the small room.
“Get your d--- hands off me!”
There was a struggle between the old man and the guards; however, the sound of the scuffle ended as quickly as it started. The other guards that stood outside the cell departed quickly from the scene. They didn't acknowledge me. Soon after, the two guards that were sent for the old man exited the cell. They dragged the unconscious old man between them. I caught a glimpse of his face and anger inflamed inside me.
His face was a grotesque mess. It was worse than it was the night before. The large cut across his forehead had reopened. Thick globs of blood gushed out freely. His head was hung low as the men carelessly hauled him off through the dark hall.
Then there was silence.
I slid down to the floor and sat in the corner of the cell. I exhaled frustratingly and placed my face in my hands.
Sometimes I wished death would just take me by the hand and lead me from this pit of desolation.
. . .
I didn't know how long I’d been here. Time was nothing more but a long void in this cell. Here, there was no purpose to live. I abhorred every moment I woke up in this dank room, knowing that the day will hold the same misery and despair as the last. The worst part, however, is the loneliness. To just sit there alone in the shadowy gloom with no one to communicate with was a punishment of the worst degree. My more pleasant thoughts would at times be my deliverance from these unfortunate moments, yet they too were outweighed by the more darker musings of my mind.
In the end, I decided it would be best if I just didn’t think. It was best if I sat there in that dark room like a half-wit. To not have to face reality as the heartless thing that it was. I’d rather sit there dazed and numbed from the cold than have to think of the past. That was more easier and I stayed in this state of deterioration in the following days after the old man was taken.
It was just . . . easier.
. . .
I was staring into nothingness when he came.
Night had befallen the cell and this particular evening was frigid. There were several leaks coming from the ceiling, wetting my haystack. It had rained earlier. My bed would be soaked so I would have to take my chances sleeping on the cold stone floor. If that was the case, then I would have to be cautious of the rats that sometimes scurried freely across the floor.
I was contemplating this dilemma when I heard a voice outside my cell.
“Good evening, Nicholas.”
At the sound of my name, I quickly got up from the floor and turned to the place where the voice came from. In the gloom of light stood a man.
He stood outside my cell with his hands clasped behind his back. He wore a long black tunic with a golden snake embroidered on it. He was bald and had scars all around his ovally shaped face. The man paralleled the likeness of a ball, due to how small and round his body was. Though what intrigued me the most was his eyes. Even in the dim lighting I could tell that his eyes were a startling green. They gleamed malevolently at me.
“Who are you,” I asked.
“I am your salvation,” said the strange man. He walked closer to my cell.
I looked at the emblem on his tunic and shook my head in disgust. “You’re a Harlington.”
“Indeed,” said the man. He stopped walking and looked around the dungeon. A look of revulsion came upon his face. “It’s a pity you have to live here.”
“What do you want?” I spat, resentful of his presence.
“Manners will take you a long way, Nicholas. I’d be careful of that nasty little attitude of yours.”
“What do you want?”
The man looked at me distastefully. “For a former king you sure have the manners of a lowly serf.”
I gritted my teeth in anger. What could this man possibly want?
“However, I’m willing to look past these transgressions,” he continued. “I’m here to offer you an opportunity.”
“I’d rather you leave me here to rot,” I said spitefully. “I don’t want anything from you savages.”
The man laughed. “On the contrary, I believe you’ll be quite interested in what I have to say.”
I don’t respond.
“As former king of Rin it must come to a shock that you’ve been cast to the bowels of your own castle,” said the man. He nodded slowly as if he understood completely. “You lost an unwinnable war and these are the consequences. Your enemies would love nothing more to have your head on a spike, but I believe we can put you to better use.”
I stared blankly at him.
“The king and his advisors wanted you dead, but I’m the one who saved you from such a fate,” resumed the man. He paused to let the sentence hang in the air as if he expected me to get on my knees and praise him.
I remained silent.
“It took a lot of persuasion on my behalf, but in the end I proved to be your salvation.” The man smiled at me. “I’ve given you the opportunity to be free.”
I let out a bark of a laugh and turned away from the man. This was nothing more than an ill attempt at a trick.
“You speak lies,” I said without looking at the man. “There is no freedom. Just leave me alone.”
“It must get really lonely in here,” spoke the man. “How long do you think you can last in these conditions? Your days are surely numbered, but I can provide you the chance to be free of these miserable conditions. Freedom is so close at hand. You’d be a fool to decline."
“Lies!” I spun around and looked viciously at the man. “The Harlingtons slaughter my family and steal my throne yet you promise me freedom?!”
“The gods must look upon you favorably,” said the man.
“The gods are cruel beings,” I said. “Monstrous beings.”
“If the gods are such monstrous beings, then why would they spare your sweet little daughter?”
Dumbfounded, I stared at the man with unmitigated surprise. “My daughter is dead.”
“Your daughter is very much alive,” responded the man. “I can guarantee you that.”
“Impossible,” I whispered. “They all died.”
“Your three sons were killed along with your wife, but your daughter was spared,” spoke the man. “The queen was quite merciful.”
“You lie,” I said in a quiet voice. “My daughter is dead along with the rest of them.”
The man shook his head. He smirked. “I came to you this evening to speak of your future,” he said. “With your child still alive and freedom waiting for you on the horizon I believe you deserve a bit of leniency during these dark times.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” I asked. “What sort of sick game is this.”
“It’s best not to question fate, Nicholas.”
“I need to see her for myself,” I said decidedly. “Show me my daughter and I will listen to whatever else lies you speak of.”
“They’re not lies, but of course,” said the man. He nodded his head at me and went down the hall. After a few moments there was only complete silence. I could feel my heart thump heavily against my chest; the anxiousness slowly eating away at me from the inside.
Was this actually happening?
Was I really going to see my daughter?
Denial and excitement had begun to fuse together in a mix of contradictory emotions. Was I really about to see her or was this indeed a ruse to torment me? In spite of the denial, eagerness subdued the more despondent thoughts. The strong burning desire to see her filled me with overwhelming anticipation and yearning. Time seemed to go at an impractical pace as I stood there waiting with high expectations.
Finally, I could hear the sound of approaching footsteps. There were voices that spoke in quiet tones. I moved closer to the front of the cell to try to get a better view of the visitors. I gripped the bars nervously.
The short man entered into view with a small child that held his hand. With him, were two guards draped in their red cloaks; their expressions grim.
I was speechless. I looked at her with disbelief apparent upon my face. None of this couldn’t possibly be real. My whole family had been killed; slaughtered like pigs. Nonetheless, here she stood. My very own flesh and blood alive and well. She was clean and seemed to be well fed. She wore a new dress and her eyes were alive with alertness.
“Annis?” I whispered. Tears had begun to flow down my face.
The man nudged her gently towards me.
“Go on, child. Your father misses you dearly.”
Annis walked slowly towards me. I could tell she was reluctant to come near me given the state of distastefulness I was currently in. I knelt down and smiled at her.
“Before you commence with this heartwarming reunion,” said the man, “I take it you are now interested in the opportunity of freedom?”
Annis was now in front of me and I took her small hand gently through the bars and held it tenderly. Her touch was soft and in that moment I wished for more than anything to hold her in my arms. My body trembled as I looked into her deep innocent eyes.
“Yes,” I said gratefully. “I’m very interested.” I stared at Annis, still shocked by her presence. I smiled at her.
“Excellent,” said the man. “Your freedom is now close at hand.”
I was no longer aware of the man’s existence, nor the guards’. This sliver of pure happiness was all I could focus on. I merely wanted to get lost in this sentiment of absolute bliss, no longer having to dwell in this incessant nightmare.
Maybe the gods were merciful after all.
. . .
The meals had become better.
In the days after seeing Annis the guards had brought me an assortment of delicious food at specific intervals in the day. Usually, they hardly fed me and I would be reduced to eating the critters that sometimes slithered in the night. On better days, they threw mush onto the stone floor of my cell where I would shamefully eat it without a moment’s hesitation. However, that was no longer true. The guards had now brought me platters full of food such as bread, cheese, and lamb. On one occasion they had even brought me a jug of wine. Certain days I would be granted the sweet taste of fruits such as oranges and apples. On other days I would be given small portions of lemon cake.
Of course in the beginning I was reluctant to eat the food, considering the implications of my current situation. Suspicion and mistrust lingered in my mind, but after months of being in that dreadful cell with no true meal I succumbed to the force of hunger. Shame was far from my mind during the moments I gorged on the food. The sole thing that mattered now was Annis. If I was going to leave this place with her I was going to need my strength. I may not have been able to save the rest of my family, but I still had a chance to protect her.
A few weeks after seeing Annis, the man with the green eyes came back. This time he was alone.
A few days before the guards had given me blankets and a few stuffed burlap sacks to sleep on. I no longer had to use the haystack, something I was most glad for. I was cleaning my makeshift bed when I heard his voice.
“Good morning, Nicholas.”
I turned around and spotted him smiling at me. He wore the same long black tunic with the snake on it. His eyes glittered devilishly.
“When can I see my daughter?” I asked.
“In due time,” said the man. He looked at me closely. “You’re looking very healthy. I take it you’re being well nourished.”
“I want to see my daughter.”
“You know, Nicholas a simple ‘thank you’ will suffice,” said the man. “I’ve fed you and provided you with better sleeping arrangements. A little gratitude would help.”
“Why must I show gratitude?” I looked at the man, appalled. “Your family is the reason I’m here.”
“Whatever misgivings you may harbor towards the Harlingtons I’d rather you didn’t direct it exclusively towards me,” said the man crisply. “I am currently the only ally you have at the moment. It’s best you speak to me with a little more esteem.”
I look at the man silently for a few moments, trying to hold back my tongue. If I was indeed going to have any chance at freedom, I had to play along. Even if it was against my better judgement.
“My apologies,” I said sincerely.
The man nodded his head in approval. “There seems to be hope for your manners after all.”
I wait for him to continue speaking.
“As you’re aware I promised you the opportunity of freedom a few weeks ago. I intend to keep that promise, but we never did discuss in depth what exactly you’d be doing for that freedom.”
“If I’m to complete this challenge I want freedom for me and my daughter and a ship with safe passage heading to the Loren islands.”
The man let out a harsh laugh. “You’re already speaking of high demands, yet you don’t know what I’m to ask of you.”
“I don’t care. That’s the deal if I’m to agree.”
“I don’t know if you’re bold or insane,” scoffed the man. “But I do admire your confidence.” He pursed his lips and looked at me intriguingly. It almost felt as if his eyes were dissecting me. Finally, he said, “you’re a great swordsman, hm?”
“I suppose.” I knew where this conversation was heading.
“You fought along The Great King Of Mearson, did you not?”
The man snapped his fingers in mock remembrance. “I knew you had to be the one! They sing of your exploits all across the kingdoms. Even across the Argon sea!”
“Who am I to fight?”
“In a rush, are we?” asked the man.
“Why prolong the inevitable?”
“Are you looking that forward to death?” he chuckled.
“The only thing I look forward to is my victory. Now who is the challenger?”
“That will be a surprise you’ll just have to wait and see.” The man began to pace slowly around the dungeon. “I told the king of your great skills and he was quite interested in seeing them for himself.” He grinned. “At first he wanted to behead you of course, due to your involvement in the war. However, I coaxed him into seeing your magnificent dexterity with a sword.”
I’m their entertainment, I thought bitterly. Just another plaything for their perverted amusement. If this is true then. . .
“What happened to the other prisoners here?” I asked. “The guards take . . .”
“Don’t be so simple minded, Nicholas,” interjected the man. He stopped pacing and looked at me with perverse delight. “They fought for their freedom. They were given the same opportunity as you, but we’re not overindulged as you were. They were the spoils of war, yet held little value.”
“So you just slaughter them,” I said cruelly. “Is that what you’re planning for me?”
“Of course not!” gasped the man, astounded. “You’re the former king of Rin! A warrior praised for his ruthlessness. I intend to see this fierceness that the kingdoms glorify. If you are indeed the masterful warrior they claim you to be then you have nothing to fear in this match.”
I didn’t know how to respond to the man’s words. The odds were obviously not in my favor, regardless, I still had Annis’ future to think about. I needed a way to extricate us from our current situation, yet I knew this challenge would probably be the only opportunity given. Her safety was my primary concern.
“I want my freedom along with my daughter’s,” I said directly. “Provide us with safe passage once I complete the fight. Is that understood?”
“Of course.” The man stopped pacing and grinned at me. “You have my word.”
“Do I really?”
“Sometimes you have to have faith, Nicholas. Even in the ones you don’t trust.”
I ignored the remark. “When do I fight this challenger.”
“Well, since you’re so eager to begin, the match is scheduled for tonight.”
“Tonight,” I said, shocked. “That’s too soon.”
“Freedom is a costly thing my friend. It must be earned.”
“This isn’t fair,” I said angrily.
“I allowed you to fill your stomach for weeks and regain your strength, Nicholas,” spoke the man sharply. “Unlike the other prisoners here, you have a chance. Don’t tell me that kingly confidence of yours is already dimming.”
“You just keep your word,” I snapped. “What of my gear?”
“The adequate fighting gear will be provided before the match begins,” said the man.
“And what of Annis?”
“The queen shall keep her safe. She stays in the grace’s chamber.”
I nodded my head. “When I survive I want to see her.”
“That can be arranged.”
I sighed and sat down upon my makeshift bed. “I have nothing else to say.”
The man smirked at me. “I wish you the best of luck then, Nicholas. May the gods be with you.” And with those final words he left.
Once again I’m alone with silence crashing down all around me. I look down at the stone floor, my thoughts racing. The possibility of freedom was so close at hand, yet the odds of death was equally intertwined with it. The likelihood of my victory was a bleak prospect. Even if I did win the match, I doubt the Harlingtons would grant me and Annis’ freedom. They would probably slaughter us either way.
But it’s a chance I must take.
I breathed deeply and closed my eyes.
Sometimes you have to have faith, Nicholas. Even in the ones you don’t trust.
. . .
They came for me in the evening.
Two guards had come to my cell with items in their hands. One of them carried my dinner while another held pairs of clothing.
I had been asleep when I heard the jangle of keys and the door to my cell swung open.
I hastily got up from the floor. Before me, stood two guards. They stared blankly at me with empty eyes. The one that held my dinner tossed the tray onto the floor and it skidded at my feet.
“You have five minutes to eat and get dressed,” he said.
The other guard flung the clothes onto the floor and it landed beside the tray.
“You’re time begins now.”
They just stood there, staring at me with those cold dead eyes. There was an ambience of abnormality every time they came here. It would always seem as if the men before me weren’t actually men, but something far more sinister.
“Do you not know what privacy is?” I asked them.
They said nothing. Only stared at me with those vacant eyes.
I shook my head in annoyance and picked up the clothes.
This was going to be a long night.
. . .
I didn’t know what to expect.
After I had ate my meal and changed into my new clothing I was taken out of my cell and escorted through a long dark corridor.
The clothing they had given me consisted of large black boots and a brown leather tunic that didn’t quite fit me too well. I was also given a brown worn out woolen cloak and a pair of breeches that turned out to be relatively tight-fitting. I noticed I was equally provided a black leather sheath which I attached to my belt. Hopefully, I would be given a knife too.
The food hadn’t been so appetizing. My mind wasn’t focused on it as I shoveled spoonfuls of cold mutton soup into my mouth. The anticipation of the match had left me nervous and even a bit excited. However, I realized there was a lot that could go wrong. After all those weeks of being in that confined cell, my body was stiff with inactivity. I was going to need to be light on my feet and swift with my strikes if I was going to survive.
As the guards led me through the gloomy corridor the torches along the walls lightened some of the more shadowy areas of the dungeon. With my hands chained tightly, I could see other people packed densely in the small cells. They looked more like feral creatures, rather than actual human beings. Some of them had blood matted in their wild tangles of hair, while others had faces that were severely battered and bruised; bloodied beyond comprehension. Most would sit there emotionless, their eyes impassive. The smell of piss and s*** was strong in the air. At one moment I felt as if I were about to regurgitate the mutton soup I had. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sorrow as I walked past these grim scenes. I had failed these people and now they had to suffer.
After a few minutes, the guards led me around a corner and down another dimly lit corridor. This corridor had no cells, but at the end of it there were two large double doors. We walked towards them and upon nearing it I could feel the same apprehension from earlier rise from inside me.
Stay calm, I thought. Annis is relying on you.
We arrived in front of the lofty doors and the guard on my left went and placed both his hands upon them. With a moment of straining, he began to push open the doors. As they slowly opened a sliver of bright light beamed upon me. I heard the man breath heavily as he continued with the strenuous task. Though finally he stopped and the other guard pushed me roughly into the bright room.
I had to squint my eyes because the room was so glaringly bright. There was harsh laughter all around me as the guard shepherded me through the strange room. The laughter seemed to have come from above me. I heard waves of boisterous voices that overlapped one another charged with excitement. As my eyes began to adjust gradually, the guard stopped shoving me and halted me in my place. He unlocked the cuffs and they clattered onto the floor.
I watched him walk back towards the double doors where the other guard was waiting. They both left from the room and retreated back into the gloom of the dungeon. They grabbed the handles on the doors and pulled them shut.
I immediately looked up to find the man with the green eyes atop a large balcony. He stood there with a peculiar smile on his face. There, I also spotted other people that watched me with amused expressions upon their faces. They sat comfortably in red velvet chairs. They held gold plated goblets in their hands which I assumed contained wine.
I slowly looked around the space and saw that there were actually several balconies which all contained people. Upon some of these balconies, I watched as servants poured drinks and passed around platters of food. The people seated watched me eagerly; thirsty for bloodshed.
I turned my attention to the man with the green eyes. “What is the meaning of this?”
There were murmurs of delight as the man laughed.
“Don’t tell me you forgot,” he laughed. “This is your chance for freedom!”
There were wild cheers from the balconies. Some of the people began to throw their scraps of food at me. Their derided voices were deafening. The expressions upon their faces were that of savages and primitive beasts.
“As you’re all aware this lowly prisoner is the former king of Rin,” spoke the green eyed man to the audience. “A known supporter of the rebels and a usurper to the throne.”
An uproar of disdain erupted from the crowd. They cursed my name and their faces twisted into absolute loathing. I paced around the large arena with an impassive look upon my face. The man was arousing a deep sensation of ferocity in these people.
“Of course this prisoner shall pay the price of his actions,” continued the man gleefully. “Unfortunately, the king couldn’t attend, but I have no doubt he’s here with us in spirit.”
I looked across the arena where there was another set of double doors. I stared at them apprehensively. That’s where my challenger would emerge. My body grew tense.
"However, I had no doubt that he would want us to enjoy this wondrous night,” resumed the man. A deviant smile came across his face. “So let us commence with the battle!”
There was a tumultuous round of applause and cheers. Some of the people leaped from their seats with eagerness. They shrieked like untamed beasts. They screamed for me to have a slow bloody death. Their voices resonated throughout the immense arena.
I looked at the green eyed man with coldness distinct in my eyes.
He winked at me and sat down.
“What of my gear!” I yelled at him.
The double doors across the room began to slowly open.
“Ah, yes!” He looked at me humorously. “How could I forget?” Without getting up, he reached under his chair and took out an object. “Here you go my warrior!” He threw the object and it landed at my feet.
I looked down at the ground.
Rage exploded inside me and I clenched my hands into fists. I started to tremble with an uncontrollable sensation of pure unadulterated fury.
This is all a depraved game. there was never any chance of freedom. I was a fool to ever think I had a chance.
Across the room the doors were now wide open and my challenger slowly stepped into the arena. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. The ear-splitting roar of the crowd became nothing but an insignificant buzz.
This isn’t real. This can’t be possible.
The beast slowly entered into the arena, amid the loud howls of laughter from the crowd.
It closely resembled a wolf, but the largeness and sheer immensity of it suggested otherwise. It bared its teeth at me, which revealed rows of long dangerously sharp incisors. The teeth were tinged with yellow, while thick globs of saliva dripped from its large gaped mouth. I looked closely at the bloodthirsty behemoth and shuddered. Its eyes were a shocking red embodied with hunger and pure malice. Its fur, black as night, bristled as it walked leisurely towards me.
Everything felt so unearthly as I bent down to pick up the wooden sword. I held it tightly. Fear and intimidation surged through my body. With my feet spread apart and the pitiful sword raised in front of me, I crouched slightly. Already, I felt beads of sweat slide down my forehead.
I thought of Annis and a pang of despair swelled inside me. Any fragment of hope that I clung on desperately for us had faded away.
Death had now become imminent.