He Had A Sad Carriage Ride With A Corpse
Samuel focused on the sound of the rain as it pitter-pattered against the road, the rocks, and the trees, interrupted from time to time by the distant, muffled roar of thunder. The men around him, Council workers of an assortment of races, prepared the carriage for travel. The horses whinnied in frustration as the poor halfling under tried desperately to keep their shoes clean of mud.
Neither the coffin nor the stone faced elves standing around it made a sound. These men wore long, black ponchos, unmarked and slick with rain water. They stood at perfect attention, these men in their long black coats and boots, while the rain drenched their blinkless faces. Samuel didn’t look at them, preferring to stare at the top of the carriage.
A gnomish girl, or something looking like a gnomish girl, with bright pink hair came up to Samuel.
“Your lift’s ready, King Halldhor,” she quipped, grinning widely. Samuel flinched at the name, its connotations and memories making him sick to the stomach.
“I don’t suppose some respect is too much to ask for?” spat Samuel, glaring at the girl. She shrugged, and jerked a thumb at the coffin.
“For this creep? Gee, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my dead parents if they have any to spare.” She still grinned, like it was all a joke, but her voice had an edge to it. Samuel sighed and shook his head. It wasn’t worth it, he thought. He motioned for the elves to move the coffin onto the carriage. This they did in silence. One climbed out, and opened the door to the front seat. He looked at Samuel like he was expecting something.
“No thank you,” said Samuel with a wave of his hand, “I’ll sit in the cab.” The elf nodded tersely, and disappeared into the front. Samuel climbed into the back.
As he did so, the four other elves all stood up, offering their seats for the King. Samuel chose his seat, in front of the coffin.
“Sit at ease,” he said, and they did, three on the other side of the carriage, and two next to him. The three seemed a good deal more comfortable than the two. Samuel looked from man to man, none of which met his gaze. With nowhere else to look, Samuel looked at the coffin.
It was a simple box; it had no ornaments or special design for its parcel. All it had was the Exbaltairan flag, a brown-almost-black tarp with a green fist in the middle. The minimalist design provided Samuel with some comfort. For only a moment, though, as it was replaced by dread.
Even in death, he thought, the man is Exbaltairan.
Samuel stared at the coffin for a time. The carriage was silent but for the rain on the roof
and the wheels on the ground. One of the soldiers, the one across from Samuel, sniffed loudly. Samuel looked at this one, and noticed that he too had been staring at the coffin. The other two on his side did not.
“You have a cold, soldier?” asked Samuel to the sniffer. He jumped at the question, and looked at Samuel. The edges of his eyes were reddened.
“I’m fine, King H- Samuel,” he said quickly, as if trying to quickly force the words out. His voice had a subtle, almost unnoticeable hardness to it. Too measured.
Samuel took out his water skin, and offered it to the soldier. The soldier looked dumbly at it for a moment before accepting it and taking a drink.
“What’s your name,” asked Samuel while he drank. The soldier stopped with a breath, and looked at Samuel.
“My name is, um, Ze, sir.” The boy, Ze, stared at Samuel, who took a moment to process it.
“…Your name is Z? You know that you can have a name now, right? Everyone can.” Samuel looked at the boy, bemused with the response. Ze shrugged.
“It’s what I’ve been called for so long now. It’s just…what I’m comfortable with.”
Samuel looked at Ze for a moment before cracking a smile. This smile turned into a chuckle. “Okay, Ze.” He looked at the other soldiers. “And what are your names then?” The others were much the same. Dee, Em, Arr, and Ell. At the end Samuel shook his head, chuckling sadly. “Whatever works. I just hope you’ll give your kids something a bit more imaginative.”
He looked back at Ze, who had returned to his coffin vigil. “Who was he to you,” asked Samuel. Ze looked back up at him, the deer in Calanthan Bright-Lights look back on his face.
“He was King Halldhor,” said Ze meekly, “he always was.”
Samuel smiled bitterly, and looked around at the others. “And what about you all? What was King Halldhor to you?” No one answered immediately. “Come on,” said Samuel, “I know for a fact that Exbaltairan soldiers think more than that.” Still no one answered, until Dee turned to Samuel.
“He was our father,” he said. He looked Samuel hard in the eyes. He didn’t seem as young as Ze, but it was hard to tell. They all had a grew-up-too-soon look to them. “He gave us an example to follow, and we did. We grew stronger for it.”
“He protected us,” said Ell, his eyes flashing back to Dee as he spoke, “when other races want to kill us, he was there.”
Em, nodded, not looking at Samuel. He nodded, taking it all in. Thinking about all the things Halldhor was to these boys. And all the things he himself was not. He turned to look at Arr, the only one who hadn’t given some sort of answer.
Arr glared at the side of the carriage, not making a movement. He was the oldest in the carriage by a margin. His face had a rough look to it, with scars and wrinkles crumpling his face.
“What about you, Arr? What was he to you,” asked Samuel.
Arr remained silent for a moment before opening his mouth to speak. He spoke softly, too softly to be heard over the sound of the rain. Samuel leaned closer, “what was that,” he said. Arr turned to look at him, and it was then that Samuel noticed the two streams of tears moving down his face.
“King Halldhor was a lie,” he whispered hoarsely. He pointed a finger at the coffin. “And that son of a bitch didn’t give a damn about any of us.” He looked back at the side of the carriage, glaring a hole in it while the tears ran down his face. A lie. The word settled in Samuel’s gut, making him feel nauseous. He looked back at the other four. They were all staring at the coffin. King Halldhor, the epitome of all that is Exbaltairan. A lie.
He Spoke With His Nation
From behind a curtain, Samuel peeked into the main square of Neva. It shocked him how well it had been cleaned up. It was almost like the mountains-of-corpses incident had never happened. Thinking about it made him sick, though it hadn’t been the bodies. Archeon, Arthanu’s lapdog, had been there.
Thousands of bodies were on the square, but now they were living. It seemed like everyone from the surrounding cities had come to see; the streets were packed to the brim. Samuel was almost afraid a riot would start during this. He groaned, thinking about what he would or could say.
A touch on his shoulder took him out of his thoughts. He turned and saw Dollthel, holding his crown. Samuel blinked dumbly at her.
“Thought I said you couldn’t have that,” said Samuel. Dollthel held the crown out, a blank look on her face.
“That’s why I’m giving it to you. Don’t you want it?” Dollthel pushed it toward Samuel, as if she didn’t want it near her. Samuel took the crown, dumbfounded. It was heavy in his hands, and the edges were sharp. An assortment of jewels lined it, but the crown itself was made of steel.
“I don’t think I–” but Dollthel was already gone by the time he looked back up. The director motioned him to take his place. Having nothing else to do with it, Samuel placed the crown on his head. It felt heavy on his head, and it didn’t fit. He took his place on the stage, and took a deep breath.
He walked out from behind the curtain and into silence. No one cheered or clapped as he took the podium. At least no one is actively booing, he thought. He looked around, trying to capture the feeling of the crowd. He could only focus on a few faces among the swarm, but he found surprisingly few glares. Most just stared at him, waiting.
He cleared his voice, and looked for the words.
“We are gathered today,” he said, reading the speech prepared for him, “to inter the body of the late Prince Arthanu, last heir of the Halldhor line. It is with great sorrow–” Samuel stopped, His mouth moved a little, but no words came out. He sighed, covered his face, and crumpled the speech with his free hand.
“Exbaltaira,” he said after composing himself, “I don’t know what exactly to say, but it’s not this,” he held up the ball of parchment, “because, and I doubt this is a surprise to anyone, but I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry that Arthanu is dead. But I’m not happy either. Arthanu murdered his father, and took on the name of King Halldhor, and threw this nation further into a war that it could not win. He tortured and maimed several good men, including a dear, personal friend of mine. But I don’t feel joy with his death. Because he did nothing that all of the previous Kings had not already done before. He called himself King Halldhor, but so has every King since the first Halldhor, if he ever really existed.” Samuel’s voice caught in his throat, and it took him a moment before he could continue. The crowd watched in silence.
“I do not feel joy, that this man is dead. Because, in a way, Arthanu’s death represents the death of not just King Halldhor, but the idea of King Halldhor. An idea that has been a part of this country for the past five thousand years. An idea that I was raised with, and grew stronger from. Everything about my life had been shaped and defined by the idea that King Halldhor was eternal. And now, today, I am met with proof that he is not. And that terrifies me.
“When I first defeated Arthanu in single combat, I spared his life. At the time I thought it was the noble thing to do; that I was allowing him redemption through imprisonment, that it’s what…my friends would have wanted. But now I know that I did not kill him then because I was terrified of what it meant to do so. That to kill him would be to acknowledge the lie of King Halldhor. Which would mean to acknowledge that most of my life has been a lie. When Arthanu had to be put down, that’s exactly how I felt. And since coming back, I have seen that feeling everywhere. From the soldiers to the workers, to the wives to my representatives I have seen one thing on everyone’s faces: defeat, and worry.”
Samuel leaned forward, gripping the podium. As he spoke, an intensity brewed in his voice and his eyes.
“But people of Exbaltaira, I am here to tell you that is not true! Arthanu may be dead, and the lie of King Halldhor may be exposed, but that is not who we are. Nor does it change anything we were taught. Which was that we are a powerful people, and that we deserve the respect of everyone else. We need to grow, of course me do, as individuals and as a nation. And the death of Halldhor means that we can finally do just that: grow up. We may not have so great a military as we did, but we don’t need one to be strong. We may have lost the respect of the other Council nations. That just means we need to show them what we are capable of. Respect is earned, and it’s time we started earning it again.”
Samuel caught his breath and waited. After a minute, a few elves started clapping their hands. Which spread, not into a wide applause, but into a polite recognition. Samuel looked around again, and was happy to find some more smiling face this time around.
“The same goes for me, I suppose,” he whispered to himself.
He Left To Visit a Friend, but Made a New One First
Samuel packed his belongings. He wasn’t bringing much back with him; he just had some extra health potions and a new waterskin. He threw on his jacket, a new one specially made for the higher temperatures of the new continent. He looked out the window: it was still noon, he had enough time for a walk before leaving.
He walked around Neva with his two guards. The people didn’t pay him much attention, though he didn’t know if it was from disrespect or not. He didn’t care though, it was nice moving around the city without being harassed. He stopped by a statue. “King Halldhor” it said at the bottom. The thirteenth one he had seen today.
“Nice work, isn’t it,” said a voice from behind him. Samuel turned, as did his guards with their hands on their swords. What he saw was a short elf with cropped brown hair and a strange hat. He had a notepad stuffed into his belt and a smile. Samuel motioned the guards to be at ease before responding.
“It is, a bit redundant though. I kind of wish there was more variety to the stonework.” At this the reporter nodded. Samuel looked at him suspiciously. “I guess you’re a Complainer?”
“No sir,” said the elf, shaking his head, “well, not anymore anywho. They went under after their last paper. No one was buying. Hell, I think their biggest customer the entire time was the Council, and they buy every paper. No sir, I’m Edle, lead editor of the Exbaltairan Informer.” He extended his hand, which Samuel took.
“This is strange,” said Samuel with a hint of bitter humor, “you don’t hate me, nor are you grovelling. I had almost forgotten that the citizenship could do anything but.”
Edle let out a laugh at this. “Well, you didn’t seem like the type to demand grovelling. Good to see I was right. And no one hates you. Well, at least I don’t. Say,” he pulled out his notepad, “since we’re being so pleasant, howsabout an interview? Just a quick one, I know you royal types got busy schedules.”
Samuel felt awkward about it, but he accepted. They kept near the statue and talked for the better part of an hour. This reporter, while probing, seemed less vitriolic and leading that the Complainer reporters he had met, or really any of the other reporters he had met. At the end they shook hands again and parted. Samuel returned to the palace, feeling better than when he had come out. He gathered his belongings, and walked to the teleportation room. A fizz, a zap, and a blinding light later, and he was outside, the Ryque family off in the distance.