Excerpt 6, The King Trials
Posted on May 26, 2017
In this chapter, Sara Sothron, her mother, and a friendly neighbor travel to the First King’s castle to help with preparations for a great feast. Feel free to check out the synopsis for The King Trials if you need more information.
Disclaimer: Some of this content may be NSFW. The subject matter is intended for mature audiences, as it deals with the sometimes unpleasant realities of life in the medieval ages, which helped inspire this fictional fantasy novel.
Sara’s mother shook her awake to catch the first rays of pearl light glimmering through leaves and limbs.
“There,” Rose said, pointing. “Look, Sara! The Walls!”
Sara rubbed sleep out of her eyes. They’d been traveling from Rosbury to Southpoint in a wagon reeking of onion. Still groggy, she fought for purchase with her feet in the unsteady wagonbed. The First King’s castle filled the sky like a mountain. Tall and wide loomed the famous curtain wall, lanced with six corner towers and long battlements that shimmered like the moonlit river. She was sad when the Walls slipped behind the hideous reddish-brown walls that encircled Southpoint.
“It’s Traitor’s Gate,” Caleb told her mother discreetly.
“Oh gods, gods, they’re terrible, Caleb,” Rose croaked. “We should’ve taken Chicken Gate.” She twisted around for a grave look at Sara. “Hide your eyes. Don’t look up, whatever you do. Do you understand, Sara?”
Sara nodded. She covered her face with her hands. When she caught her mother looking elsewhere, she ventured a peek through her fingers—and soon wished she hadn’t. Grisly black melon shapes decorated a row of spikes on Traitor’s Gate. The tarred heads had frightening expressions she saw again when she shut her eyes: vacant eye sockets, furrowed brows, lips twisted into snarls. Flies buzzed in dense clouds above their tousled hair. The dead men’s faces made her think of Hexaar, and that led her to dwell on her father. No, you’re alive, you’re alive, I know it, she thought. Caleb made the Gift of a hare.
Two city guards waved them to a stop outside the gate. They questioned the onion farmer about where they’d come from and what they were doing in Southpoint. To their mild unease, the guards even flipped the wool over to check their cargo. After all that, they said he had to pay to enter the city.
“Two lorens?” Caleb balked. “Wasn’t it half a loren last time, sirs?”
The jowly guard slashed his eyes. “Gate tax. You don’t pay? You don’t go in.”
“And you try to get past us—“ The skinnier guard jabbed his thumb up at the horrid decorations of Traitor’s Gate.
“Course, we’re open to . . . other ways of paying.” The fat one searched her mother up and down with hungry little eyes.
“She’s married,” Sara blurted. She drew the guard’s scowl. “To a knight of House Morley.” She was dismayed when Rose warned her with a stern look.
Caleb broke the tension with an awkward laugh. “Well! What’s a few sylvens, anyway, Rose?” He deposited the coins into the skinnier one’s grimy palm.
Snapping the reins, Caleb guided them through Traitor’s Gate. Sara glared at the fat guard as the wagon rattled past. She breathed easier when she saw the heads had slipped behind a cruck house.
Rose was beside herself over the tax. “The king must truly have need of coin for his wars if he’s raising even a gate tax like that,” she said when they were out of the guards’ earshot.
Caleb smirked. “The king has need of our coin, but I doubt even half of that will reach his coffers. Those guards will have a taste, and then the Little King will have his.”
Their conversation drifted out of Sara’s hearing as she took in Southpoint. The sights and sounds of the city swirled around them like a raging river. She had never seen so many faces! Rosbury had always seemed so vast and important with its seventy or so villagers; Southpoint had to have thousands, maybe more. Everyone seemed to be about some business or another. Guards in nasal helms and boiled leather patrolled the streets, checking faces and asking questions.
“The mayer’s men are out in force today,” Caleb noted as he tugged the reins. “Must be the Worthy Assembly’s already here.”
Their wagon slowed to a snail’s pace in the thick of busy Southpointers. Most gave way; some shouted insults at Caleb for sloshing mud, and Sara made faces at those people. Iron Street forked into Silver Street, and Silver Street fed into the congested sprawl of King’s Way.
That was where Sara realized that the Silver Walls were actually hideous. Up close, the twelve-sided curtain wall looked like a frosted cake, with a topmost layer alight with the pretty pearl colors and a bottom half freckled with rust-orange brick. Long fingers of brown crept up the Walls, as if with a desire to steal the battlements’ luster and drag it down into the murk of the gray-green moat that gestated far below.
“It’s ugly,” Sara said decisively.
Her mother chided her with a forbidding look. “Mind your tongue! This is Anjan First King’s great castle. Every one of our Lords of Loran has dwelt here. I won’t have mine own daughter saying a wrong thing about it.”
“Aye, but Sara isn’t the only one to say it,” Caleb said. “The Walls were once silver all over. It was said the light from their stone was like another moon above Southpoint for years. Now they’re more like the Red Walls, at least on the outside.”
Sara swelled with gratitude. She loved that about Caleb: how he would sometimes agree with her against her mother.
“What happened to them?” the girl asked.
“Selfishness. Greedy kings and Common thieves. Lords of Loran have always wanted Anjan’s mysterious stone for their statues in the Hall of Memory. Peasants have always peddled it for meat and wine.”
The day wore on in Southpoint, unbearably hot, humid, and pungent from the reek of fish and refuse. Sara passed the time counting the many peasants. When Rose wasn’t watching, she snuck a hand beneath her sweat-sodden wimple to relieve an annoying itch.
Caleb noticed. “Hot, isn’t it, sweet one?”
Leaning down, he retrieved a wineskin from under their seat. He uncorked it, splashed water in his mouth, and handed it to her. She tilted her head back and squeezed the leather for tepid water.
“Oh, look!” Caleb said. “They’re here.” He shifted to make room for her upfront. “A lady of your illustrious line shouldn’t miss this, Sara Sothron.”
She plopped between her mother and their neighbor, and gasped. Past carts stuffed with caskets and wheat bundles, past other Commoners and their beasts of burden, she saw a parade unlike anything she had ever seen. Beautiful stallions pulled a hundred gilded carriages from either side of the Walls, coming to a halt around the lowered drawbridge. Every horse was as elegant as her Little Lady, with lustrous manes and tails alight in the pearl shine spilling down from the Walls.
“Are they the king’s princes and princesses?” she asked.
“Well, if they were, you’d be up there with them, wouldn’t you?” Caleb said. She smiled. “Though the king is said to have as many princes and princesses,” he added with a wink for her mother. “No, no, this is the Worthy Assembly.”
Sara knew the Assembly by name but understood little and less about it, save for the fact that Free Believers and the Common folk despised it. Anytime the lords and clergy of the Assembly met, men like her father and Connor Bagman would gather in Rosbury’s Golden Dragon as if the inn were a parish. Sometimes they’d actually listen to readers over cups of mead; the roamer Firemouth had paid visits until their Lord Warden threatened to hang him.
“How many Assemblymen will we see?” she asked.
Caleb wiped his brow with a greasy forearm. “Not sure, my lovely. Maybe a hundred. But not every Assemblyman is eager to remember the Long Summer, and no one ever invites merchants, so maybe fewer.”
Sara knew enough to know the king and his Assemblymen got along as well as cats and dogs. Peasants still spoke of wars that lasted for entire summers, of smoking fields and dead men on trees. Her father had lost his father and two brothers in that terrible war, her mother a brother and five cousins. It seemed few could agree on why a Long Summer came in the first place.
Brother Elfred told his congregants that Hexar started it when he wanted a third wife; Reader Gary and Firemouth and nearly everyone else blamed Stod, Willard, and especially Priestking Parlisis. Her father said the priestking was to blame the most because he wanted their souls, and that was enough for Sara.
To pass the time, Caleb started a guessing game about which noblemen were present. She had to stand and try for a close look at their rippling banners. The thrice-crowned blue hart on white belonged to the Old Oak, Greg Klegmann, Lord of Redforge, who hobbled out of his carriage on the arms of his three identical sons, Darren, Gavin, and Luc. Portly Lord Dumas she knew from his duo of whales on blue, gold, and white. Her mother leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the dashing Lord Tomas Rexley, known for his love of the Free Beliefs; a banner displayed his griffon over triangles of orange and black.
They spotted some of the kingdom’s most important men of cloth. Exiting a gilded carriage, High Bishop Peshar Grathos walked beside a number of plump-faced boys, acolytes all. His rival, Jacob Manse, Master Reader for the Free Beliefs, trudged ahead of a retinue of boys with funny bowl haircuts.
“Will we see the king arrive, too?” Sara asked.
The onion farmer snickered. “No, my lovely, the king sits the Silver Walls. He’s separate from the Assembly, and we’re all the better for it, trust me on that.”
“Why did Hexar ever spare the Assembly?” Sara caught her mother’s look and swiftly added, “King Hexar, I mean. His majesty. After the Long Summer, I mean.” She felt stupid.
Caleb rubbed his chin. “It’s a good question, princess.” She smiled. “Hexar needs the Assembly because he needs coin.”
“But why does the Assembly need the king?”
The onion farmer and her mother seemed apprehensive. Rose circled about. “Come now, you should know better than that.”
Her mother didn’t need to remind her. Kings had ruled in Arna ever since the elves had sailed west on their ships long, long ago. Once, Anjan First King had reigned over all of Arna. Reader Gary liked to remind her and the other children that they’d still have one kingdom under one king had it not been for Casaanite witchcraft.
Caleb explained that the Worthy Assembly wasn’t one but three assemblies. The noble lords had their Wing of Lords, and priests and readers their Wing of Clergy. Beneath them was the Wing of Knights.
Sara stood on her tiptoes. “Where are all the knights?”
He giggled. “Well, the Wing of Knights doesn’t really sit knights, just fur traders, spice peddlers, and their like. Really, they ought to call themselves the Wing of Merchants.”
She puzzled her expression. “What about the Commons? Don’t they get a wing, too?”
Caleb smiled ruefully. “They—we—had one, once. Two hundred years ago. But then Commoners helped bring about the Interregnum. The lords and clergy never forgave them for helping kill King Lathros. Lord David is supposed to be a voice, but he cares about the Commons like he would fleas.”
“That’ll be enough about Fourth Wings and dead kings,” Rose broke in curtly. “We’ve come to make coin, not trouble.”
Sara would have rather liked to learn more. She could sit and listen to Caleb talk for hours. He knew a lot for a Common peasant, but that was because he hadn’t been born one. Mother once told her that Caleb had belonged to a highborn house in Westland, and that his lord father had stripped him of his title and inheritance when he refused a plain-looking wife. Father had said he was someone best left alone, but the onion farmer was all they’d had for help at market since his disappearance. Without Caleb’s stinky onions, they wouldn’t have been able to pay their taxes, and her mother would have had to remarry or give her up.
She watched as Caleb angled his head back for another drag. He handed her the wineskin. “Left a little more for you, Princess.”
She slaked her thirst as Sacreis rode his blazing sun chariot to the sky stables high above, and thought on how hideous the Walls looked.