Soul of the Wild Wood
By Brenna Hanson
Date: September 5, 2021
Ch. 1111

Harold and I, as the oldest living children of High King Dan, stood at the head of the receiving line after the funeral. Ember stood beside me but did little to call attention to himself. Those that noticed him were wary. The ones who looked down and saw him holding my hand, his thumb tenderly stroking over mine in a gesture of affection and comfort, softened. Around us, our collection of brothers and sisters met the incoming guests as well as their youth allowed. By the end of the funeral, I found myself thinking that my father would have enjoyed the send-off given to King Fern far more. He had never been one for somber grief, choosing instead to laugh over stories of youthful folly. Still, the kingdom needed its time to grieve him in the comfort of tradition.

The next day’s ceremony for Prince Edmont and Prince Col felt a little lighter. Their friends toasted the fallen princes on their prowess with the ladies and upon the battlefield. A few tense moments came when the tales of war being told were suddenly understood to belittle the foreign king among them and me as his wife. Ember diffused the situation by having River share his admiration for the fighting skills of the kingdom’s soldiers and raising a toast of his own to my brothers who had fought so valiantly for their people.

Later, I heard how Ember had gone with Harold to sit a rather drunken vigil with those same soldiers at the monument for the two princes. River’s thoughts that soldiers had their own language proved true. By the end of the night, Ember had won them all over with his show of quiet honor to those who were once his enemy.

The next day, it was apparent that Harold and Ember had come to terms with each other. I breathed a sigh of relief and prepared for the feast to honor Queen Mara, my mother, and the other ladies who had died so needlessly during the siege. In the back of my mind, a tug of homesickness for the village surprised me as my maid finished dressing my hair.

“Your Majesty,” the steward said urgently from the door breaking my thoughts. “King Harold requires your presence in Queen Mara’s garden. It is a matter of great urgency.”

I was through the door in bare feet. Ember caught me as I crashed into him in my haste. The feel of my husband’s arms around me sent a calm, warm wave through my worry for Harold.

“High King Harold said to bring both of you,” the steward said as we hurried down the hall. “It is a matter of state. His Majesty felt that King Ember should be present as well. I hope you don’t mind that I retrieved him first. Your quarters were closer to the garden.”

“That’s fine, Saul,” I said. “Is Harold alright?”

“His Majesty is fine,” the steward said. “The Council is the problem.”

When we arrived at the gardens, the table was occupied by the slumped bodies of five of the nine Council members. A man was struggling between two guards at the head of the table. For a moment my mind flashed back to the scene of my mother’s death. I stopped short of stepping into the courtyard. Ember came to me and laid his hands on my shoulders. His look of concern reached through my shock. I centered myself and set my face in a mask of calm before walking to where Harold stood near the struggling man. I recognized him as Georges the Red, Stonewood Castle’s mage.

“Release me this instant!” the big man demanded.

“Your Majesty, we came upon this scene just as the Council members raised a toast to their own deaths. There is a note in Georges the Red’s hand with each of their signatures at the bottom declaring their guilt in the murders of Queen Mara and her ladies. Their goal was to take control of the kingdom, block the fulfillment of the prophecy that ended the war, and ultimately kill off The People of the Trees with a cursed weapon designed by the mage. The coward was either trying to back out of the pact because he was afraid to die…”

“…or I am smarter than those idiots and knew that my plan could – as a matter of fact, will – still succeed. My life is far too important to me to follow the lead of fools.”

I translated for Ember as best I could. By his deepening scowl, he caught the meaning well enough in spite of my limitations.

“What do you mean ‘will succeed’?” I asked. “The prophecy is fulfilled. The war is ended. You cannot change that.”

He laughed. “The cost of any curse worth the time to cast it is the life of a man on a righteous path. How much power do you think the lives of five such men delivered into my hands? Do you think the fragile peace you pretend to hold so firmly can survive it?”

“However much power you think you have, it is not enough to keep you alive,” Harold said. “You’ll die for the murder of my mother and the mothers of my siblings. You’ll die especially since my mother was your Queen. You’ll even die for the murder of the men who helped you.”

“Six righteous men, then,” Georges the Red said. “Your mother would thank me for saving her from seeing you curl up in the love nest of these repugnant vipers! They killed her people. They killed your own father, the High King Dan. Both of your mothers would roll in their graves if their bodies had not been turned to ash. I have saved both of them – all of them – from seeing their children destroy this kingdom. Oh, and I will save them again. No mongrel birthed by your disgraceful unions will ever sit the throne of Stonewood Castle. You mark my words. The life force of six righteous men will ensure that.”

“I’ve heard far more than enough,” Harold said. “I have no wife for you to defame in such a way. My sister has her own throne to sit. The parentage of any children in this kingdom will never be frowned upon. It is time to end your nonsense and your threats. Finish your wine, mage. It seems a fitting end for you to die as you have killed so many others.”

“Mark my words,” the mage repeated as the guards pushed him to the ground. They forced his mouth open and the captain of the guard poured the remainder of the wine down his throat.

His death was ugly but I felt it came far too quickly.

“We’ll speak of this later,” Harold said. “I will not allow the shadow of monsters to fall upon the celebration of the lives those monsters took.”

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