Wednesday, 13 March 2013
The Lonely King
Howell Bridgeman had heard such legends before, as he was no stranger to history and certainly no stranger to grave robbing. He had left the town just as the last light was extinguished to be sure that no one interfered with his plans. He had wandered all the way up the crumbled stone steps carrying a large pack and a shovel. The moonlight shone bright over the ruins, illuminating the jagged remnants of walls, paths and hallways, as well as the fruitful displays of crawling vines and plant life which had claimed the castle over the years. But all of this ancient beauty was lost to Howell, whose eyes were blind to anything but the promised treasure of King Duran.
When he came to the heart of the fallen fortress, Howell found a large and obvious doorway which was once locked and bolted with a heavy door, but had crumbled from the elements and now was so weak that it became a pile of deadwood and rusted metal with a single strike from Howell’s shovel.
Luckily, Howell had no need for his lantern, as the moon shone clearly down the revealed stairway. As he entered the underground chamber Howell grew increasingly uneasy. He had violated many ancient reliquaries and had never before been afraid, yet he was struck with a deep sense of violation within these walls. But the prospect of the treasure just a little further beyond was so great his pace did not even slow, though his stomach felt a great deal more knotted.
Almost tripping on the sudden final step, Howell had to stop and wait for his eyes to adjust. What he saw he could not believe and he stood for a minute more to be sure his eyes where adequately focussed. The entire room was covered with years of dust, and filled with enough treasure to supply dozens of museums. Howell was awestruck as he navigated through the rudimentary paths between treasure piles. The light was dim, but it could not hide the gold, the silver and all manner of expensive artefacts. There were vases, portraits, intricately carved furniture. Howell had not expected such a great bounty, and accepted that he could not take it all, (he was not that greedy). To attempt to haul it all would be a fool’s errand. With a wisdom that came from many years robbing graves, he decided that he would only take the best of the treasures, with careful selection he may get the greatest amount for the least strain on his back. So wandering with a careful and keen eye, Howell then began to patrol amidst the treasure, picking up small treasures which he deemed the greatest quality.
However, with each step he took, Howell began to feel the knot in his stomach grow tighter and he had the distinct feeling that he was being watched. The closer he came to the far wall, the less light there was and he was having trouble focussing. When his eye unexpectedly came upon something which made him stop so abruptly he dropped his shovel.
A figure near the rear wall, sitting perfectly still. Watching him. Howell tried to stand as still as stone, but his old, tired legs couldn’t help but shake nervously. He tried to focus, but it was too dark to see, so Howell continued to stare, unsure how to act.
After nearly a minute, Howell realized that the figure was not moving, and relaxed just enough to edge closer, trying to identify the person. As he stood just five steps from the man, the darkness began to accommodate his vision, and Howell recognised the figure sitting on an old, stone chair. It was the king. Long dead, he was nothing but bones, though he still wore the beautiful rings on his knobbed, claw-like fingers; a long flowing robe, though it was now much emptier and a great crown sat atop the skull.
It was extraordinary. Howell wondered whether he had died sitting there; how he had managed to remain so upright in his chair after that many years. With his eyes adjusted to the pitch black, it was hard to look back into the dim room behind him, but it seemed as though the king kept a keen vigil on the stairway at the opposite end of the room. But what truly captured Howell’s attention was the crown on the king’s head. It was a marvellous piece. The jewel-encrusted crown of a king was bound to be worth a great deal more than a pretty chair or a painted vase.
Howell took a step forward, but couldn’t move much closer. To steal ancient treasure was one thing, but to physically remove something which the king was wearing . . .
Suddenly, The king leaned forward. Howell quickly backed away a dozen paces as the king seemed to shrug sharply and a cloud of dust expelled outward.
As Howell stared fearfully, he covered his mouth to ensure he didn’t breathe the dust, which in all likelihood had once been a part of King Duran.
The skeleton, once again still, no longer sat up straight in his chair. With a slight slouch, his head was cocked to the side and his arm seemed to have twisted out of position.
Howell assured himself that it must have been rapid degradation caused by a draft he let in when he entered the underground chamber. Of course, there was a reasonable explanation. But Howell couldn’t help but notice that the right arm, the one that seemed twisted, was now pointing a finger. He could not recall whether the fingers had lain over the arm of the throne, but now they seemed to point off into the room.
With a superstitious curiosity, Howell looked where the finger directed. He moved near the edge of the treasure pile where the finger lead him, and saw a dark picture frame.
Perhaps it was some strange coincidence, the finger could have accidently pointed at any other treasure, but Howell couldn’t help but pick up the frame, wipe off the dust and let his eyes focus on the painting. It was the portrait of a beautiful woman, with pale skin; blue eyes and long, flowing brown hair. An engraving on the lower part of the frame read: Lady Janelle Hartwood
Howell was by no means a historian, but only the deaf could avoid hearing the story of Lady Janelle. Lady Janelle was one of few famous women in ancient history. She helped found the town by the mountain and she ventured alongside men on historical voyages, some say she fought in the war. But her history was so immersed with legend that nothing about her life is certain, the most controversial story being that of her death. She was aboard the great ship Gallantry when it sank 600 metres from port. However, some say that she somehow swam to shore, and with her last breath she fell upon the beach sands Howell looked back over to the king. From where Howell stood, the king’s head was tilted at an odd angle. It looked as though the king were peering over at him expectantly. Howell was deeply unsettled to have death give him such a piercing stare. The deafening silence was too much to bare as the empty eyes glared at him through the darkness.
“She’s Dead.” said Howell. The words seemed to loosen the knot in his stomach, so he continued speaking, “For centuries, she’s been dead, like you. She . . . she died at sea.”
However his thoughts were interrupted as the skeleton seemed to move again.
At first, it seemed like the king was bowing his head in mourning, and the crown began to slip off of his smooth skull. But then the shoulders shrugged so heavily that they collapsed in on themselves and the entire thing fell out of the chair with a great crash. Bones shattered in an ungraceful, decayed heap and as dust bloomed from out of the crumpled robe the rings skittled off into the pile of the treasures. Whilst the dust settled, the crown rolled away and danced around its rim just like a spun coin. Howell looked down as the crown came to a rest at his feet. He slowly bent down and picked it up, dusting off the remains of the king as he looked it over.
“Uh . . . you’re welcome, I guess . . .” he muttered to the pile of bones as he put the crown into his pack. Feeling as though he’d done enough damage, Howell turned to leave, the apprehension now gone. But before he took his first steps toward the stairs, he turned back for a last glance at the remains of King Duran Archaviere.
“You’re a man more patient than me,” said Howell, “. . . I hope it was worth the wait.”