"Denver2002" by Robert Sorensen

 

Flames of Felidon
by Richard Larson

 

It was from fire that our dreams were born.  On nights such as this one, when my burdened heart is chilled by the winds of a distant storm, I remember the fire.  It was the dancing flame of sin that gave birth to our enlightenment; in Felidon, the last village of the kingdom of Sorath.

I write this by candlelight as an anonymous sage nearing the end of my lonely days, but I was once a farmboy named Thorpen, the only son of Mevrik and Sira.

My story is about the kingdom's final day of peace, before our King hanged himself and sent his subjects plunging into an oblivion of poverty, before tales were spun about a golden valley of eternal bliss and happiness. Before myth erased our history, there was a kingdom with as many faults as the next, and perhaps a few more secrets.

The autumn season had brought a poor harvest that year. Drought had sucked our fields dry, and we were all nervous about the coming winter, but there were always more pressing matters to garner our attention; specifically, the trial of a man named Vanek for the attempted murder of a royal messenger.  The boy had managed to escape the clutches of his captor and relay the details of his transgressions to King Rathnor, allowing for the villain's arrest.

The purpose of a Sorathian trial was not to determine innocence or guilt, for by standing trial one was already considered guilty and marked for death. The problem was that King Rathnor had a nasty reputation for being quick to order hangings without ample explanation or proof.  Since no respectable King wants to be remembered as an executioner, the trial procedures were introduced to put a stop to the whispers.

For the most part, this proved successful.  The people were able to see the accused stand before them while the King's Consul, the contemptible Javert, rattled off all the nasty crimes the person had supposedly committed.  The descriptions were often exaggerated in an effort to turn the audience against the criminal, but the peasants were satisfied with this and were able to sleep soundly at night, justified in leaving corpses dangling from the noose in the Village Commons until another came to take its place.

The trials were held in a grand building appropriately dubbed the Judgment Hall.  It was a huge wooden structure, sharply angled, with wide, foreboding black doors, packed with seats nearly to the roof.  Javert, the King's loyal Magistrate, was given a crude and splintered throne on a pedestal upon which to brood and scheme, while the other seats were arranged on ground level, sitting like pews in a church for a dead deity, reaching back toward the heavy doors.

The building had been constructed specifically for the trials, so there were no windows; the prisoners were not to be distracted by beautiful things like birds and blue skies as they faced their doom.  However, there were some gaping cracks near the rafters where occasional beams of light filtered through into the darkness, offering a glimmer of hope to the somber court.

The Judgment Hall was positioned at the west end of Felidon's main marketplace.  To the east, a narrow road ambled up a steep hill to where Rathnor's castle perched, keeping watch over Sorath's only remaining village; the other two had been lost in previous years to the Bagurks, a savage band of barbarians.  Felidon was only a small merchant's village before the plundering, but was now forced to support the weight of the kingdom.  It did not change much, only became more crowded and uncomfortable.

On this particular autumn day, as I mentioned before, the trial was of importance due to the involvement of a royal messenger.  That type of crime could mean many things--espionage, war with a neighboring kingdom, or possibly a rebel uprising.  All were equally interesting and had warranted the attendance of the entire village, leaving the dusty streets outside empty and vulnerable.

A greyness hung in the air, for ours was yet a world undiscovered.

This was to be my first trial, so I sat with my parents.  In those days, my father was a struggling farmer, barely earning enough each harvest to support his family. My mother always had to hurry past the elegant displays at the market, knowing she could not afford their tempting merchandise.  My respect for them ran deep.

We sat on ground level with the population of a kingdom crowded around us.  Somewhere up above sat a green-eyed girl who perhaps had more at stake than anyone else at the trial, but although I carefully scanned the crowd, I could not find her.

"Hear ye, hear ye, all in attendance please rise for the Magistrate of King Rathnor!"

The crowd quieted as those words were squeaked forth by a nervous boy who must have been some sort of royal servant. A few people stood, but most paid no heed to the request and remained seated as Javert shuffled inside and down the narrow aisle, his black robe draped loosely over his thin frame.  He ascended to his position and sat down ceremoniously before addressing the hushed crowd.

"We have gathered today in the village of Felidon to witness the trial of Vanek, an intruder to our lands who captured and nearly killed one of the King's messengers during a peaceful journey to the kingdom of Ordenne!  We will hear an account from the victim himself in order to reveal the harsh truths behind this monstrosity, for it is you who bear the burden of the dangers he brings to our kingdom!"

The door roared open as Vanek was dragged into the Hall by two of the King's soldiers.  His hands were bound by chains as he was guided past the leering faces of the peasantry and tossed into the front bench.  He looked tired, dirty, and humiliated--but not defeated.  I remembered when Vanek and his companions had arrived in Felidon only days before, brightly attired in the blue shirts and orange breeches of traveling minstrels.  Even then, his face had shone with purpose as he surveyed the village in a thorough, almost studious manner.  Even then, he had been prepared for the coming trials.

"There sits Vanek, the man who thinks he is above our royal law!" said Javert.  He waited a moment, letting his audience's anger build.  "Now here is the boy who suffered at the hands of this villain!"

The door opened once again and a young boy stepped into the Hall, flanked on both sides by soldiers who were like guardians protecting their prize, brandishing longswords against potential foes.  They walked to the head of the proceedings like actors on a stage, taking their cleverly planned positions for the next scene in their grand production.

The messenger took his seat facing the sympathetic audience.  In the flickering light of the wall torches, the wounds on his face became more evident.  His left eye was bruised and his cheeks were riddled with scabs.  Should I have been able to see through his twisted facade?  Perhaps our charades become more obvious in retrospect.

The kingdom waited as Javert prodded the boy to begin his testimony.  "Go on, tell us what happened."

The messenger glanced over at the cluster of soldiers before he spoke.  "King Rathnor sent me through the Great Forest carrying words of warning to deliver to our southern neighbors, for the Bagurk rebels have been nearing their lands.  It was in the Forest that I saw a group of sorcerers marching toward Sorath!"

The crowd gasped, for it had only been a month or so prior that King Rathnor had executed a sorcerer named Exotar.  The King wrongfully believed that Exotar had been secretly building a rebel legion, aiming to overthrow the throne with the use of magic.  Rathnor had always been afraid of magic, as simple people usually are, so he ordered the execution as a precaution.  After the assassination of their leader, Exotar's group fled to the Forest to hide from Rathnor's soldiers.  Before Exotar's death, their intentions had been to peacefully spread the influence of magic.  The King's intrusion in their affairs had significantly darkened their purpose, and the kingdom was worried about harsh retaliation.

"I ran away as quickly as possible," the messenger continued, "but they had seen me in the brush and knew that I would report their whereabouts.  So they hunted me down, beat me unconscious, and left me for dead."  He glanced again at the soldiers and absently touched his wounds.

Javert shook his head slowly.  "How terrible!"

The messenger pointed at Vanek.  "That man is their leader.  He is the one who ordered the attack on me."

I cannot remember my exact response to this accusation. So much of my recollection has been tainted with contradiction; shock has dulled, and anger has melted into understanding.  Vanek said nothing, answering the youthful accuser with a solemn tranquillity.

It was only then, after the messenger had delivered his testimony, that I noticed her.  She sat near the sloped ceiling among foreign company, a black hood pulled tightly around her head.  Wisps of dark hair framed her pale face, and her eyes sparkled.  I could have peered into those green eyes for an eternity, even though I had seen them for the first time only the day before.  She looked out of place, but perhaps that was because female youth were allowed few luxuries in Sorath and were forbidden to be present at such important proceedings.  The only women in attendance were aging, obedient wives, and the mysterious Jhessa.

She had arrived with the minstrels.  I saw her ride into Felidon and immediately thought her a whore; a beautiful young woman among a party of men was usually just that.  She had a merry laugh, a voice so smooth she surely stole it from an unsuspecting angel.  There was intelligence behind her gaze, none of the innocence I expected from a girl.  I was intimidated by her; there had to be something devilish behind that pretty face.  Alas, I had not considered magic.

Indeed, Jhessa was quite proficient in the ways of sorcery, at least by my limited standards.  I recall a particularly insightful encounter on the night before the trial.  We had met earlier in the day; she had caught me staring at her in the Village Commons and then whisked me away into her world of mystery.  We were crouched down in the hay in the stables, waiting for the Keeper to make his nightly checks so that we could explore without worry of intrusion.  She had just found out that I had never been outside Sorath, and her expression was one of pity and amazement.

"What of the Sacred Plains to the north, or the Golden Desert beyond this valley?" she said.  "These places are unknown to you?"

I was quick to defend myself.  "No, of course I know of them.  The elders speak of them often, and I have memorized all of the Holy Text."

I began to recite one of my lessons, but Jhessa stopped me.  "These things you are saying, they come from books?"  I nodded, and she continued.  "A book cannot capture the wonder of the unknown.  How can you put so much faith into your studies without questioning them?  Any scribe could scribble down lies to be read as truth.  You must learn to decipher reality from fantasy."

Her words stung, but I refused to let her see my weakness.  I suspect now that she saw more than I thought. "Let me show you something," Jhessa said.  She cleared an area on the ground in front of us, tossing aside the hay and revealing the dry dirt underneath.

"There is magic in this world, Thorpen.  Did your books tell you that?"  She extended her hand and touched the ground.  An orange glow radiated from her fingers and into the dirt, shimmering in the black night.

"Ask me a question," she said quickly.  "Anything at all."

I hesitated.  Was this mysterious girl a practicing witch preparing to turn me into some type of rodent?  I was confused, yet enthralled.

"Why have you come to Felidon?" I asked.

The beginnings of a frown creased her brow.  The glow from her fingers darkened to the color of blood.

"I seek adventure, of course," she said quickly.  Then she laughed.  Later, I would think it was this laugh that drew me to her.  "Just like any girl," she added as the red glow disappeared.

I was entranced by her magic.  Never before had the possibility of such incantations occurred to me, not even in the illusory sense.  I craved for more.

"Show me another," I said, leaning closer.

Jhessa withdrew her hand.  "Such enchantments are not to be taken lightly.  Some secrets should not be revealed." She hesitated.  "Consider this example.  Suppose you were to learn, through magic, that your King was to be assassinated. Understandably, you would set out to prevent this injustice, but to what end?  Suppose again that your King's heir, whoever that may be, is set to perform some great deed during his time in the throne.  Perhaps, once saved from the threat of murder, your King goes on to live to old age, never allowing the heir a chance to reign.  The great deed would go undone."

The wooden door to the stables creaked.  Jhessa glanced around nervously, but after seeing no trace of disturbance, she calmed once again.  "You see, it is not the purpose of magic to alter the course of destiny.  Too much knowledge can have dire consequences."

I was confused.  She spoke of destiny, of extraordinary stakes.  I was more interested in the petty things, slight matters that would surely hold no bearing on the path of fate.

"Can you predict the outcome of next season's harvest?" I asked, oblivious to her warning.

She seemed thoughtful, and once again extended her finger to the ground.  The orange glow appeared again, and I repeated the question.  The glow darkened and extinguished, and Jhessa gasped.  She stood suddenly.  "We should not think of such things."

Puzzled by her reaction, I rose with her, and it was then that I noticed the man standing in the doorway of the stables.  His eyes reflected the pale moonlight, glowing with an eerie intensity.  He stepped toward us as worry darkened his tired face.

The man I later knew as Vanek spoke gravely.  "What has gotten into you?" he said to Jhessa.  "Parading about with a farmboy!  You know the danger of trusting the villagers all too well."

"Father, he is a friend--"

"I will hear nothing more of it," Vanek interrupted. "Too much is at stake."  He grabbed her arm and dragged her out of the dirty hay and into the moonlight.  She glanced back at me and I knew I loved her.  Only later would this love prove to be nothing more than a lust for knowledge and a hidden jealousy of the life she led, but nothing is ever as it seems.

I must now bring you back to the trial, for there is much more to tell from that day.

"That is all," Javert said, dismissing the messenger. The relieved boy was allowed to leave his seat of prominence and join the attendance of the crowd.

"There is another who has worthy testimony to share with us," Javert continued.  His ancient, stony eyes met mine.  "Thorpen, son of Mevrik, farmer of the Outer Fields, please grace us with your account of these wretched deeds."

I was not surprised to have been called as a witness, and no doubt my face showed little emotion in reaction to Javert's calling me up to testify. I quickly glanced up at Jhessa.  Her brow furrowed and she seemed alarmed, but she said nothing.  I could feel Vanek's stare as I stood up shakily and walked down the aisle to the chair that awaited me.  I glanced up and squinted against a beam of light pouring into the Hall from the rafters; I was blinded for a moment, but I looked away and could see again.

Sitting down, I gazed into the group that was now mine to address, mine to command, mine to fool.  They were so anxious to condemn that they never realized they were only sealing their own fates.

"Most here know of you, young Thorpen, but they may not know that you have consorted with the likes of this villain!"  Javert pointed at Vanek and the crowd gasped. The King's reputable Magistrate spoke to them theatrically. "Indeed, this farmboy was seen in Felidon last evening by the Stable Keeper among the most shady of company--none other than Vanek, the accused!  Surely the gruesome details of the events in question were revealed to Thorpen during this encounter."

He turned to me, expecting a statement.  I offered nothing.

"What can you tell us, boy?" Javert said, annoyed. "Did you see or hear anything indicating that Vanek's comrades also share his philosophy of blood and carnage? For the good of your kingdom you must help with our plight of ending all evil!"

I knew then that the King did not plan to stop with Vanek.  He would continue to search out and destroy all who possessed even the ability to oppose him.  Why else would he seek nameless foes before any wrong had been done?

I knew what Javert wanted me to say, and he was even correct in most of his blind assumptions, but I was not about to reveal such incriminating information to the King's Magistrate.  I did not yet trust Vanek, but it would not be me who would send him to the noose.

Jhessa's voice cried out desperately in my mind.  _It is not the purpose of magic to alter the course of destiny._ Was it magic that led me to this knowledge?  If so, Jhessa had instructed me not to meddle.  And looking back, I think it was by the peculiar magic of chance that I discovered the plot to destroy the kingdom.

After Jhessa and Vanek had disappeared into the darkness, I was left alone in the stables.  The Keeper was apt to arrive at any moment, and maybe prepared for a disturbance because of the noise Vanek had made while retrieving his daughter.  My caution became increasingly appropriate as I peered through a crack in the wall and saw two shadowy figures conversing beneath a tree, behind the building and away from view of the Village Commons.  One was dressed in the formal robes of a sorcerer, and the other wore a minstrel's lavish costume.  I was terribly frightened, and could do nothing but stare.  And listen.

"How dare you desert us now!" the sorcerer whispered, his voice cold.  He gestured to the village.  "The end is coming for this herd of useless peasants.  We have come bearing lutes as though we are of bardic learning, and they accepted us.  Had they known we are more proficient in the ways of magic, would their welcome be as generous?  Most certainly not!"

The man still dressed as a minstrel said, "You judge these people by the actions of their King!  How can you justify their deaths?"

"I heard not a word of protest as they watched a great man die, and for what?  For teaching people who sought guidance?  Exotar was our herald, and this persecution is our reward for knowledge.  Vanek has taken charge as our new leader, and you should be proud to follow him into our revolution."

"But the innocents who will die in the fire know nothing of our purpose..."

"Oh, they will not die, only be forced to face their vulnerability.  Their world will be destroyed and they will lose everything they have ever known.  Such an ignorant people!  They have wandered through their lives in a dazed stupor, and they will continue to do so when their foundations cr umble."

I thought of the way the light had extinguished when I asked Jhessa about the coming harvest.  In a fit of panic, I turned around and ran out of the stables, no longer caring about the Keeper discovering my presence. My reaction was in haste, but was that not to be expected?  I was too young to know the danger of ignorance and the false shelter that Felidon provided, too young to believe in the necessity of such a harsh action, too young for such a burden.  But while running back to my father's fields, I remembered Jhessa's bewilderment when she discovered how little true knowledge I possessed.  So much of the histories I knew had been contrived to the point of fiction.  What of the lands beyond the kingdom?  Beyond the safety of my village?

These thoughts kept me awake as the sun rose that morning, and only when the bells rang from the village announcing the opening of Felidon's marketplace could I finally sleep.  From that morning came the day of the trial, where I sat under Javert's penetrating stare as he questioned me.

"No, my lord Consul," I replied, averting my eyes.  "I have nothing to add."

He glowered at me from his pedestal.  To his reasoning, I had joined the side of the enemy.  Why else would I be meeting with them late at night when I should have been at home preparing for the coming day's chores?

"You know that withholding information from a representative of King Rathnor leads to hanging, do you not?"

My mother yelped and my father's face turned white, yet still I remained silent.

"Very well," Javert said, disgusted.  "Guards, remove this ignorant boy from my sight.  There are no other witnesses to be heard, so the accused will be hanged at noontime tomorrow."

Four of the King's soldiers rushed toward me and dragged me toward the doors; not that I wouldn't have just walked out after being asked to, but I let them have their moment of importance.  The crowd talked amongst themselves as they too prepared to leave.  I met my father's eye as I neared the door, and I could tell he was not at all happy. I had not told him of my late-night excursions, and even if I had, he would not have approved.  But it was fear more than anger that shone on his face, and I know the thought of his only son hanging from a noose in the Village Commons had gone through his head at least once that day.

My father's fears ultimately proved unwarranted, because when the doors were opened by the guards intending to fling me into the streets, the sight of the village shocked them into paralysis.  Robed figures on horseback rode quickly through Felidon, waving torches high above their heads against the twilight sky.  Many of the buildings were already ablaze, the fire erasing the legacies of our ancestors.

Some people behind me had already begun yelling when one of the soldiers said, "The village is on fire."  At that somber proclamation, the rest of the peasantry joined in and contributed to the chaos.  Merchants rushed outside, hoping that their shops were not destroyed.  The villagers flooded into the streets, desperately trying to salvage the remnants of their petty existence, but everything in Felidon already seemed beyond repair.

I will never forget the look on the faces of the riders as they waved their torches; it was the maniacal glee of madmen taking revenge on invisible foes.  Yet their revenge was real, that much I knew.  Their leader had been executed only because the King feared their power and worried that they would use it against him.  Would a good King be afraid of his subjects using magic to stir a rebellion?  I think not, wizened I am by age and cynicism.  Good Kings do not fear such things.

In all the confusion, Vanek had slipped away from his captors and now hurried out of the Judgment Hall, his daughter at his side.  They found me as I watched their comrades destroy my village.

"It had to happen," Vanek said to me.  "I hope you will understand someday."  He paused.  "I am impressed by your loyalty.  I know that you overheard our plans last evening, as I was informed by the fellows you witnessed outside the stables.  Your choice of freedom was wise."

I had nothing to say to the one I blamed for this wretched destruction, yet it was to Jhessa who I owed the knowledge that such a drastic action was somehow necessary, to open our eyes to the world beyond Felidon.

She looked at me then with compassion.  "You will never again be a prisoner, Thorpen.  Your shackles are burning away to nothing, and your freedom is imminent -- a freedom you never would have had.  Don't you see?"

The crackling flames jumped from house to house, shop to shop, filling the streets with acrid smoke and dancing shadows.  The fire was a raging animal destroying my village, yet I felt nothing.

"Father, Thorpen must travel with us to Zynorah!" Jhessa said suddenly.

Vanek was startled.  "Surely he does not wish to go there.  The City of Knowledge is a place for scholars. Besides, his family would not be permitted..."

They argued on, but I had stopped listening.  Jhessa's suggestion had awakened something within me, a spark of adventure which she had introduced the night before.  I longed to see the world beyond my kingdom's valley, to hear their stories, to leave the confinement of Sorath where I was already destined to become a farmer and tend my father's lands as his father did before him.  I felt no remorse as my world went up in flames, and that alone was reason enough to flee.

My decision was already made when one of the horsemen halted in front of us.  "It is happening as you planned, sir," he said to Vanek.  He dismounted, and Jhessa quickly took his place.  Vanek followed, but not without assistance, as he was still bound by the chains that the soldiers had inflicted him with.  This small detail would be taken care of later with a hammer and some luck.

Vanek sighed and turned to me.  "Well, hurry up, lad. We have no time to waste."

I grinned in spite of the situation and climbed atop the horse.  The man who had donated his steed joined one of his fellows and we all rode away together, away from the burning village.  I left behind my family, but also turned away from a simple future.  The sun was setting, but I knew it would rise again.

Those who saw us cried out into the twilight, "The rebels have fled!  Felidon is in flames!"


* * *

In the days and years that followed, I often longed to see my parents, but I learned later that their lives did not end with my departure.  They had another son, one named Gonador, and my father opened a small shop on a road between two kingdoms, selling traveler's wares.  I visited it once, but time had changed our faces, and I was not recognized; nor did I wish to be, for I could not atone for my betrayal. He never farmed again, for on our way out of Felidon on that fateful day, we passed by his fields, and they were black and smoking.  No doubt the sorcerers had started on the outside with their fires, slowly working their way toward the building where their leader was being condemned for a crime he never committed.  Indeed, the messenger had been paid a hefty sum to say the things he did.  Brutal force cannot be used to exterminate a revolution.  People have to be tricked into believing that change is the enemy.

I have heard all the tales of what became of Sorath after the day Felidon was burned.  Rathnor hanged himself in his castle quarters, unable to face the loss of his kingdom. The peasants scattered into a daunting world, braving their uncertain futures with the cautious joy of discovery.  I returned once, long ago, but was met only by ruins.  The old castle still stands, empty and desolate, peering into the valley of its lost dynasty.

A world of fire awaits the less virtuous of us upon death, when our sins are counted.  It seems I approach that day of judgment all too quickly, and it pains me to acknowledge that my life is one easily forgotten.  I suppose I was never anything more than a spectator as my life unraveled before me, and that is my greatest regret of all.

I occasionally stumble across someone from the past who remembers everything for what it was.  We usually just sit together, perhaps sharing an ale before parting ways.  We never speak of the fire.




Story © 2002 by Richard Larson Apollo89@email.msn.com

Illustration © 2002 by Robert Sorensen quantexz@earthlink.net




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