Beleran shifted in his saddle. A biting wind was pulling at the corners of the map in his hands. He would let the wind take it, all the same. He had long passed out of the king’s land. What remained of the road was a rough trail in the dirt. Only gravel and tuffs of dead grass lay beyond. The knight cleared his throat and spat as he looked at the land ahead of him. Dropping down from a cliff, were endless rows of gray hills. At the very end of his vision, he made out a sea of black trees and the faint hint of mountains.
“Oi.” He patted his horse. “How does this look to you, Atlas?”
The beast snorted and pawed the ground.
“I know,” Beleran said, patting the horse’s side. “I’d rather not be here. This land… it’s no friend to us. I cannot see a single dwelling. Not even a dirt hut.”
Atlas let out a low neigh. Beleran gave him a nudge and they descended the cliff. Great whisps of fog floated from the beast’s nostrils. Rain began to fall. The icy drops cut at Beleran’s. He pulled his hood tighter as they explored the hills. They reminded him of rising waves of water. He had only been out at sea once and it had been unwelcoming. In that moment, though, Beleran would have preferred it to the wilderness.
He cut through the tall grass, making a path toward the forest. Turning a large hill, he stopped short. Something was blocking the crossable space between the hill and a steep wall of earth. Beleran pulled back on Atlas’s reins and considered turning around. In front of them was something that resembled a human. Its form was hidden in a ragged cloak, gray like the world around it. The thing leaned on a tall, knobby staff, and on its head, masking much of its face, was a rusted helmet. Beleran noticed thick, scaly protrusions running down the stranger’s neck. It looked up at the horseman with suspicious, yellow eyes.
“What you be?”
Beleran straightened up in his saddle. “I am Sir Beleran, of the Shoreland. I travel in the name of King Marcelle, who rules one of the eight realms of Aleus.”
“Oh.” The sound was like a grunt. “You are a human, then? What are you doing out here?”
“My king has sent me on an urgent errand,” he said. “I am in search of the King Whose Name No Man Knows.”
“Ha. You are in trouble,” the creature said. “If you wish to find the secret king, you must travel into yonder woods. Few ever enter them and come out.”
“Why, pray tell, is that?”
“I thought that was obvious. It is cursed. Within those ancient woods still walk the fay. They were banished from the land, imprisoned, never to see the day again. You won’t find warm welcome.”
“Nevertheless, to the woods I must go, else I fail my mission,” Beleran said.
“Mayhap I have another solution for the wandering knight? One that would not prove so perilous. I can give it, for a price.”
“I am not interested in bargaining with you, wastrel,” he said. “I have tarried too long.”
“Is that how you would speak to a wild folk? Proud man. You will find no help here.”
“I grow tired of your bile,” Beleran said. “Move aside or I will run you down.”
“Aleus does not belong to you. You will not long survive in the wilderness.”
Atlas jumped back as the strange creature swung at him. Long appendages swept out from under its cloak. They thrashed the air, menacing man and horse. Beleran drew his sword.
“What devilry is this?”
The stranger held up its staff with both hands. “I curse you in the name of the ancient power. May the Headless God take you into darkness.”
“I will send him to you first.”
Beleran’s sword came down on the staff. He broke it, his downward stroke cracking the old helmet in two. The blade continued to slice open the creature. Its body collapsed in two heaps on the ground. A confused mass of writhing vines, covered in inky sap, spilled out. Beleran almost retched. He spat at the abomination. Spurring his horse, he leaped over the remains and left the ravine.
He kept his eyes alert as he moved through the hill country. The wind died down. It seemed the land had grown quiet. Beleran did not even hear the sound of birds when they reached the wall of trees. Their trunks were black with mold. Branches intertwined like crooked weeds. Atlas snorted and pawed at the ground. He took a tentative step back.
“Woah, Atlas,” Beleran said, gently tugging the reins. “We’ve come too far. This is not the time to shirk back. We must see our mission through, to the end.”
The knight had to bend low, his face almost touching the horse’s mane, to pass under the branches. He picked out a path across the forest, although it was difficult. Only traces of daylight came through the canopy of dark, green leaves. Beleran removed a torch from his pack. The fire was dim against the forest. It sputtered as Beleran held it aloft as if he was warding away the darkness.
Beleran frequently scanned the corners of his eyes. The ancient forest was chokingly silent. But there was movement, just beyond his sight. Atlas sounded and jumped to the right. Beleran was nearly thrown. He dropped the torch and pulled at his reins. Atlas calmed, only after the knight chided him. Beleran scanned the ground ahead to see what terrified the animal. Reluctantly, a ball of roots was retracting. They had snapped together without warning, like the jaws of a mouth. Only Atlas’s reflexes had spared them both.
He led the horse away from the thickest trees, to softer ground. They reached a clearing, the canopy overhead slightly open, revealing more light. The path seemed to split. To his right, the ground rose into a smooth, wide path. It led from the forest, into a meadow bathed in golden sunlight. To the left, the land dropped into a passage so dark, it looked like the mouth of a cave.
Beleran felt Atlas move toward the righthand fork.
“No, boy. I do not trust that way. It looks fair and welcoming. But we did not expect a welcoming road on this journey. We must take the path that leads deeper into the woods if we are to find the hidden king.”
Beleran could feel the horse’s discomfort. But Atlas obeyed as the knight led them to the fork on the left. The path was narrow. Tree limbs crowded on either side, like dead hands clawing at them. All light went out and the air was heavy. Beleran saw nothing but murky darkness. He felt a vapory mist sweeping over his face. Beleran struggled to breathe. A weight, like the world itself, was pressing on him. He gripped his reins. He felt a cry of terror rising up his throat.
He almost turned around, when they broke through the tunnel. The gloomy woods were gone. Beleran entered an enormous valley, surrounded on all sides by cliffs of umber stone. Far above them were the forest trees. Their dark leaves now shone like emeralds. Streams of crystal water fell from crevasses all around them, splashing down into channels and flowing out of the valley. Atlas crossed an ancient yet beautiful bridge.
As he crossed beneath an intricately carved arc, Beleran almost lost his breath again.
It was a city, but like none he had ever seen. Vaulted spires rose from the ground to form one palatial castle. The walls gleamed with silver and green glass. Through open windows, he saw people moving about. They walked slowly as if they floated over the ground. Beleran followed a road up through the city, until he reached a tall flight of steps. A small crowd had gathered around them. One of them, a woman, approached him. Her skin was white as ivory, with hair the color of wine. She wore a magnificently blue dress that reminded him of the sky. She gestured for him to get off his horse.
“Welcome to Val’eon, wanderer. Let me take the reigns of your beast. I promise he will find rest and nourishment.”
Her eyes sparkled like gemstones. Beleran noticed her delicately pointed ears.
“You were expecting me?” he asked as he dismounted his horse.
Another one approached, a man with long, yellow hair and a silver sword at his belt. “Our elder saw your coming from a long way off. He is eager to meet you and know your errand.”
Beleran followed the group up the stairs and through proud, crystalline doors. The hall he entered was alive with movement. The blissful strangers were in the middle of a feast. Groups of them were gathered in corners of the hall. Some were dancing. Others were drinking from bowls of a silky-looking liquid. Their attention was stolen by Beleran as he walked past.
The beings watched the knight with eyes that glistened like tiny stars. He passed the center of the room, where a massive bonfire burned green and yellow. On the other side was a large, tiered platform. Chairs were on each tier, each one more elaborate than the last. Men and women dressed in gold and white filled the thrones. They stared at Beleran. Some of their eyes were hard.
“Greetings, traveler.” The one at the top of the platform stood and descended. His hair was black as night. He wore a green robe, embroidered with twigs and leaves. Across his brow was a delicate band of gold.
“Are you the King Whose Name No Man Knows?” Beleran said.
“I am,” he said as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “But for your bravery, you may know it. I am A’atan. But my people know me not as king, but as elder. And what is your name, o’ man who walks among the ancient fay?”
“I am Sir Beleran. I serve King Marcelle, of the eight realms of Aleus. I have been sent on a desperate mission seeking your aid.”
“He seeks our aid?” A woman stood up from a throne and approached A’atan. “After he trampled our cities, burned our gods, and stole our home?”
“I have done none of these things,” Beleran said.
“Your people have,” she said.
“We tamed a wild and violent land,” the knight said. “My people labored and died to save Aleus. I will not hear slander against us.”
“You dare speak back in our court?” she said.
“I’ll speak back against lies. I’ve come for help, but I will not grovel.”
“Enough,” another elder rose from his throne and stood beside A’atan. “Sister Faleia, you cannot level the sins of all humans on our guest. He has braved our woods to seek aid. We must hear him.”
“I agree, Brother Kulen.” A’atan said. “Speak on, sir knight.”
Beleran bowed his head, giving him a moment to swallow his anger.
“Warships are sail from Krakia. In less than six days, they will cross the Inland Sea, reaching our shores.”
“Why should this worry us?” Faleia said.
“My country does not have the men to repel the invaders,” Beleran said. “Our soldiers are in the East, defending the border against Uglun. They have been summoned, but will not arrive in time. His Majesty sent me to you, our closest neighbors, in the hope you will help us defeat the barbarians.”
“We should help you in war?” Faleia said, her beautiful face crinkling in disgust. “Where was your kind when the fay warred against the Creeping Horde? Where were you when we took our last stand at the Well of Oblivion? Where were the kings of Aleus when the Faceless Gods crushed us and drove us away from the face of the sky?”
“I do not know this history, fair lady,” Beleran said. “We were not in this land, so long ago. Humanity is not your enemy, ancient fay. We do not wish you evil.”
“Yet you gladly cut down a stranger while you traveled the wilderness?” she said.
“That vile creature meant me harm,” Beleran said. “The world is better for its passing.”
“Would you do the same to one of us?” Faleia said.
“You make me out to be a villain,” Beleran said.
“Proud man,” Faleia said. “And foolish. Does it sting you that you cannot defeat this invasion alone? You cannot even protect your homeland. What a pity. Return to your hovel and let the Krakians take you.”
“Be still,” A’atan said. “You will not continue this maltreatment at my court.”
Kulen spoke. “You know full well, sister, that Beleran did not drive us from Aleus. Nor did any man. It was by our own folly.”
“However, are we so lost that we no longer care for this land?” A’atan said.
“We are safe in our valley,” Faleia said. “Why risk our people, for their sake?”
“The Krakians will not be satisfied with our blood only,” Beleran said. “If they succeed, they will cover every corner of this land. Our kingdoms have not disturbed your valley. The Krakians will not be so kind.”
“You speak the truth, young one,” A’atan said. “But our kind has never joined forces with humans. Although long-lived, we too can perish.”
“Would it not be a worthy sacrifice to protect the land you love?” Beleran said.
“You speak like a true knight,” the elder said. “I would be persuaded to aid you. Alas, there is something that hinders us.”
“We will gladly share the spoils,” Beleran said. “You may take as much as you want from the enemy, when they are vanquished.”
A’atan nodded. “There is something else. An evil power imprisons us. When the rest of the fay were driven from Aleus, we were allowed to remain in this valley. But we cannot leave it of our own volition. If you can destroy this power, the curse shall be lifted. And the spears of Val’eon will destroy the Krakians.”
“Where is this evil?” Beleran asked. “That I may vanquish it?”
“It sits atop the Frozen Chair,” Kulen said. “Beyond our wood to the North, on the Ivory Mountains. Through a cleft in the rock wall, you will find it.”
“The road will be dangerous,” A’atan said. “We cannot aid your journey beyond what we can give you.”
“I will do this if it means your help,” Beleran said.
“Do not be so quick to assume you will prevail,” Faleia said.
“How far is the Frozen Chair?” he asked.
“Not far,” A’atan said. “Less than a day’s journey. Rest now. You can be away by morning and reach it in time. If you succeed, we will make for your kingdom with all haste.”
Beleran was invited to feast with A’atan’s people. When night closed in, he was given a room with a warm bed. By morning, he felt as if he had slept for a hundred days. Atlas was waiting for him saddled. Even the beast looked miraculously refreshed. The fay gave him supplies for the journey. A’atan gave Beleran a silver sword. Kulen gave him a shirt of mail. A host escorted Beleran from the city to the edge of the valley.
“Follow the path before you,” A’atan said. “It leads into the mountains. Do not stray. Be wary of perils.”
Beleran patted Atlas as they climbed out of the valley. The path took them up a sloping series of steps, bordered on either side by cascading water. Soon the eerie light of Val’eon receded. Beleran found himself climbing a narrow cleft between sheer rock walls. Eventually, the land to his right dropped away and he could see the world beyond.
Far below him was the dark green sea of the old forest. Somewhere, hidden among the forbidding branches laid the fay city. The rolling hills surrounding it were bleak and gray. Beleran could only imagine what creatures lurched in that wilderness. Just visible on the horizon, was a smear of blue and green. The edge of Marcelian, his home.
A frigid wind swept over the mountain path. Beleran urged Atlas upward, drawing a fur cloak from his pack. He wrapped it tight around himself, though not removing the hauberk the fay lord had given him. Oddly, the metal shirt did not grow cold, even as the first flakes began to fall.
Soon, Beleran was pushing through drifts of snow. Atlas snorted and strained to keep his footing. The snow grew higher and higher and the horse grunted as he stomped through it. A sound mingled with the whistle of the storm. Beleran tried to study the mountain slopes that rose over his head to the left. Something was moving in the wind.
He drew his sword but did not see the enemy. A hard cackle floated over his head. A small, shriveled thing dropped down from the cliff. Beleran wrapped his arms over his face as it crashed into him. Sweeping out his right arm, he batted the creature away. Its cry echoed up at him as it fell down the slopes.
“What on earth was that?” Beleran said, looking back up. Atlas stomped the ground in anger.
More cackles filled the storm. Beleran stirred up Atlas. The horse tried to gallop through the thick drifts. Another creature jumped at Beleran. He stabbed it with his sword. Impaling the thing, he pulled it close to get a look. A round, ugly face spat at him as the creature died. Beleran shook it off his blade.
“A cave imp,” he said. “Blast me, I didn’t know they’d come up so high.”
The air was ringing with the irritating laughter. Beleran swung his sword at the imps that jumped from the heights above. There seemed to be no end of them. Atlas screamed as some landed on the road and attacked him. Their sharp claws and teeth dug into the horse’s flesh. Beleran cursed and cut away as many as he could. But more were pouring from cracks in the mountain. The knight shouted to his horse to move, as blood streamed through the air.
But there were too many. The beast was wild with fear as the monsters crawled over him. Beleran slashed like a madman, throwing the demons off the side of the mountain with both hands. He pulled at the reins to keep control of the raving horse. Atlas reared up on his hind legs as the ground in front of them was blocked by imps. They crushed man and beast. The tangled horde fell over the side of the mountain, into the darkness below.
Beleran did not remember the fall. He awoke, lying on a thick mound of snow. Looking around, he discovered he had fallen to a ledge below the mountain path. The snow was as high as his waist. It must have softened his fall. He checked his arms and legs. They were sore but unbroken. Beleran ran a hand over the mysterious mail shirt. He was convinced it had saved him.
He caught his breath when he saw the large, dark stain on the snow several yards away.
It was impossible that the horse had survived the fall. But there was no sign of his body. The blood stain was smeared, with a line of red extended away from the ledge toward shadows. Beleran dropped to his knees. Some of those horrible creatures must have survived the fall. Or more might have appeared. They had dragged away the body of his friend. They left Beleran, content with the meat the horse would provide.
“They made off with you, Atlas. And for that, I live,” he said.
Cast to the side were the saddle bags and other supplies. Beleran salvaged what he could and slung the bags over his shoulders. Sticking out of the snow, like a fallen star, was the silver sword A’atan had given him. Beleran recovered the weapon. It was not cold, despite the freezing temperature. Returning it to his belt he approached the cliff.
“I have lost too much time,” he said. “And there is only one way to the Frozen Chair. Heavens above help me.”
Beleran began to scale the cliff. The rock was icy and slick, but there were enough crags for him to grasp. His thick, leather gloves protected his hands from the cold, but they made climbing treacherous. His breaths were labored, and his limbs burned. Sweat poured down his back. It was ice cold by the time it reached his legs. Errant howls swept over the mountain, forcing him to stop frequently. The sight of shadows, moving through the clouds, only made him angry.
“I will not be stopped again,” he said through gritted teeth. “If the messengers of the sky should try to stop me, I will only sprout wings to fight them.”
He did not know whether it was day or night when he reached the top of the cliff. An ever-present glow was on the mountain, and the veil of snow refused to part. Beleran threw himself over the edge of the cliff, landing face-first in the snow. Standing up, he found the wall of the mountain and allowed himself a rest. He soon resumed the path, on foot, to its very end.
A door was cut into the side of the mountain. It arched up to a point, like the entrance of a temple tomb. Beleran went inside, grateful to get away from the storm. He crossed into a cavern, glittering with ice. The walls and floor were coated in shining frost. Cold stalactites reached down like frozen fangs. Great mounds of ice dotted the floors. They reminded Beleran of subjects cowering before a king. Only when he got close to one, did he realize they had once been living creatures.
The object of their adulations stood at the back of the cave. An opening in the cavern roof let in a trickle of light. It illuminated a chair of blue ice. A series of steps rose from the floor to reach it. Seated on the throne was a corpse. Its skin was as white and translucent. A ring of diamonds crowned its forehead. From the dead face grew a beard, which reached down to its waist.
“This is the great Frozen Chair, that holds the fay captive?” Beleran asked. “Where is the evil that haunts this mountain? I have faced pain and death to come here. To bring justice for Val’eon.”
No answer came. Beleran climbed the steps and stood before the throne. The corpse did not respond when the knight approached it, but Beleran felt its eyes fall upon him. He drew the silver sword and held it out.
“The curse you placed on them imprisons you as well,” Beleran said to the dead king. “Let the prick of this blade end your suffering, as it ends the suffering of the hidden folk.”
With one thrust, he plunged the silver sword into the corpse’s chest. It was thick, like ice. Beleran put his weight against the sword. Slowly, it sunk into the dead torso. A blast of heat swept over him. The corpse wailed as it melted like snow in spring. The arms and legs evaporated and the torse faded into milky water. As its head slumped over, the lips turned pink and uttered their final words.
“Beware, o’ knight. If you lift the curse. The ancient fay will walk the world again. Care you bear their doom?”
An oddly-shaped orb emerged from the melting chest. It clung to the blade as the rest of the corpse vanished, falling to the chair. Beleran picked up the crimson, crystal-like object. It was larger than the palm of his hand and shimmered like fractured ruby. Within it pulsed a warm light.
“What must I do with this?” Beleran said aloud.
It seemed as if the crystal answered him. A picture formed in his mind. He saw the fay emerging from their valley. He closed his eyes and pressed on the image. Set Val’eon free, he said to the crystal. A rush of heat washed over Beleran. Quickly, he wrapped the orb in a scrap of cloth and hid it in his bag.
He descended the throne to find the mounds of icing melting into puddles. The sound of galloping horses swept over the mountain. Beleran slipped over the rising pool as he reached the exit. Standing on the mountain path was the fay elder and his retinue. A’atan’s face was beaming like the Sun. He was looking up at the sky. The clouds had parted and he took in a deep breath.
“Hail, good Beleran. You have lifted the curse and ended our eons of misery. As we have agreed, we make for your realm.”
“We must move quickly,” Beleran said. “I fear the Krakians have already landed.”
“Never fear, good knight,” Kulen said. “We will make quick work of reaching your homeland. Behold.”
The fay stepped aside so Beleran could see the wilderness below and the forest of Val’eon. The trees spread apart as a great host of riders rose out from the valley. Fay warriors rode atop dazzling horses that galloped over land and air. The cavalry flew over the open wilderness and was already reaching the king’s land.
“Take up one of our steeds, Sir Beleran,” A’atan said. “Ride with us as we crush our foes.”
The mountain exploded beneath Beleran. He rode on a horse that was lightning itself. It raced down the slopes close behind A’atan and his escort. The air was filled with thunder and shouts. Beleran felt a thrill as the ageless horses roared, finally free to fly after ages in confinement.
Beleran and the fay lords swept over the wilderness. In a breath, he was back in his own country. He did not need to tell A’atan’s forces where to go. The riders automatically turned South. They rode over villages and sprawling farms. Women and children ducked under wagons or rushed into their houses. Soon the fay host was gone, flying over the next homestead.
The land dropped in successive cliffs as they reach the Southern border of Aleus and King Marcelle’s territory. A foaming green bay lapped at rock-strewn shores. A small band of the king’s army gathered on the grass before the beach. Seven tall black ships moored in the shallows. Rowboats had been drugged up onto the land. Krakians encamped along the beach, spreading out from East to West like a cancer. Their ranks were thick as they marched up to meet the Aleusan force.
Death was all but guaranteed for the king’s men. But their commander lifted his sword, prepared to give the charge. The battlefield erupted with the shouts of the Val’eon. The flying host crashed against the shore, pouring like churning waters over the Krakians. Beleran was with them, letting his sword sing. The ancient warriors fought like madmen. Their spears skewered two men at a time. They seemed to revel in cutting down the invaders, whose ranks broke and scattered. Before the Sun set, there was no Krakian left alive. A’atan gave the order and fiery bolts sent their ships into the foaming waters.
“Never again will such a horde cross into the motherland,” A’atan said.
“We have won the day,” Beleran said, almost too amazed to believe it. He swept an arm over the Krakians’ now abandoned camps. “The spoils of our victory. As I promised, you may take what you wish.”
The elder looked over the tents that spread out across the shoreline. “Nay.”
He nodded at his commander and another volley of bolts set the camps ablaze. The Krakian plunder–supplies, animals, weapons, and all–was incinerated.
“I don’t understand,” the knight said. “You wish no reward for your labors?”
“The children of the gods have no use for the baubles of vermin,” A’atan said. “We will claim as our reward the land that was taken from us.”
“What do you mean?” Beleran asked.
The elder raised his spear. His warriors surrounded the king’s army, weapons drawn.
“You cannot do this,” Beleran said. “We made an alliance.”
“An alliance, with you? Are humans stupid as well as weak?”
“You would still be imprisoned if I had not delivered you,” he said.
“Fitting payment for robbing us of our home,” A’atan said. “Now free, we will rid it of your infestation.”
Beleran watched as his brothers drew close together to ward the attack. A’atan gave the word and they fell on them like lightning. The knight watched as his brothers died at the hands of the creatures he freed. From within his bag, he found the red, beating crystal he received from the Frozen Chair. It was flaring now, like the Sun at midday. Beleran clasped the rock and gave it another command.
A howl rose among the fay. They dropped their weapons and fell off their horses. An invisible, untraceable wind seemed to strike the warriors. Their bodies broke apart, swept away by the torrent. A’atan shouted, aiming his spear at Beleran. He never threw it. The elder, his horse, and his weapon turned into dust and were carried away. In seconds, the field of battle was clear of both enemies.
Beleran held the orb in his hand. Those soldiers who had survived the betrayal stood around him. Lifting the rock, he smashed it against a boulder. Somewhere, across the wilderness, he thought he heard the crashing of many falling trees. He paid it no mind as he turned and tended the wounded.