Those of you who read my last post, (the one about writing short stories) know I was working on something a little different than usual, for a writing contest. And those of you who follow my Facebook page know that to my delighted surprise, I actually WON that writing contest. I promised I’d share the short story with you, here on the blog. So, here it is. Enjoy!
Father was going to die defending the Valley.
…Unless Kelnor could get there first.
Mud splashed to his knees as he pounded up the soaking pathway, his breath coming in choking gasps. Raindrops stung his skin like needles. White daggers of lightening slit open the sky. The whole mountain trembled with each crash of thunder.
He’d never seen anything like it.
The last stretch of the shortcut was almost vertical. Earth slid beneath his toes as they groped for solid footing. He clawed at roots and branches, hauling himself upward, until at last he stumbled onto the main road before the Valley’s mouth. Further down, where the road vanished beneath a grey torrent of rain, something flashed scarlet.
“Father!” he burst through the door and collapsed, gulping for air. “Men from the Plain…”
Before he could finish, Byris the watchman rushed in.
“Marcon! Soldiers! In this rain, I couldn’t see them until the last bend!”
Father moved quickly, scribbling on a scrap of paper. “Give this to the runner. Then fetch the others. Go!”
Byris seized the message and disappeared.
It all happened so fast, Kelnor hadn’t even caught his breath yet. Father was reaching for his sword.
“No, wait! There’s thirty of them. All on horses!”
Strapping the sword to his waist, Father strode toward the door.
“Wait!” Kelnor scrambled to his feet. “Where are you going?”
Father’s jaw was set like stone. “To stop them.” He ducked into the storm.
No! Kelnor dashed after him. “At least listen first! They come offering peace with the Plain.”
The rain ran unheeded down Father’s chiseled face. “Peace, Kelnor? Or subjugation?”
“The whole Plain is at peace under the Dragon Prince! Why can’t we join them?”
Father’s eyes flashed like burning steel. “How came you to know so much about the Plain?”
Kelnor shrank back, choking on the answer.
Father turned and strode on in the thundering downpour.
This was madness! What could they do against thirty soldiers? That was three times the number of grown men they had in the whole Valley! If you could even call them men. What kind of men hid themselves in a hole in the mountains while the real world moved on below?
He followed, gritting his teeth. It was pure madness, all of it!
They reached the Valley’s mouth just before the soldiers did. Father planted himself in the cleft wide enough for ten men, and rested his hand on his sword.
The Duke, his scarlet cape dripping with rain, halted his soldiers and put on the charming smile Kelnor had seen so often.
“Hello there…Keeper of the Valley.” Somehow, despite the smile, he made the title sound like an insult. “Been a long time.”
Kelnor caught his breath. Did Father know the Duke?
The Duke’s eyes narrowed. “It’s Duke Rugel now, Peasant.”
“I see. The usurper gave you a title to soften your slavery?”
“Slavery?” The Duke spat the word, swinging himself off his horse. “Still as blind as ever then. Clinging to your mythical king instead of embracing reality. I’d hoped better. When I saw how reasonable Kelnor was, I thought the rest of you might be coming to your senses too, and be ready to swear allegiance to the Prince.”
Father turned to Kelnor. “Do you know this man?”
“Why yes.” The Duke laughed. “We’re quite good friends. So, you didn’t tell him about visiting the Plain, eh lad? Probably wise. He might not have…understood.” There was a bitter hiss in his voice.
Father’s face was grim. “Go back, Rugel. Tell your master his dominion ends here. We hold this valley for the King.”
As he spoke, the rest of the Valley men appeared out of the rain, following Byris. The farmers, the blacksmith, the weaver. They lined up shoulder to shoulder, blocking the mouth of the cleft, hands on swords.
Kelnor stood a little in front of them, fighting panic.
The Duke snorted. “For the king? What kind of king rules one tiny valley, and leaves it for ten men to defend against the world?”
Father’s face was like flint. “He is the true King. And THAT is what matters.”
“He’s a myth!” the Duke snapped. “A game you play, hiding in your valley, locking yourselves away from the real world. I serve a living, breathing ruler who will usher in a new era, with or without you! What can ten men do against the armies of the Plain?”
Father’s sword sliced the rain as he pulled it from its scabbard. Like a ripple the other men followed, brandishing their blades in a steely wave of defiance.
“Don’t!” Kelnor begged. They were going to get themselves killed!
“Fools!” the Duke sneered. “Why do you try to stand alone against the mightiest Prince in the world?”
“Because, Rugel!” Father’s voice thundered like iron striking iron. “He is not THE KING!”
Impossible! This cleft was the only way in or out of the valley. Where had they come from? They lined up behind the Valley men until the cleft overflowed, and still they came, rank upon rank.
The Duke fell back a step, startled. His eyes swept the grim gathering. Then he looked at Father. “I see you’ve been…multiplying. Well. Hold your valley then. For now. But I warn you, the Dragon Prince won’t let one valley defy him for long.” He looked at the mass of swordsmen. “You are all fools to follow this madman! I should know.” His eyes met Kelnor’s, and his face softened. “What about you, little brother? Do you want to stay here waiting for a fairytale king too?”
Little brother? Kelnor blinked in confusion.
The Duke’s smile was almost sad. “Ah yes. You thought you were the only son of Marcon.” He glanced at Father and raised his chin. “Well you are. Now. I no longer call that man ‘Father.’” He raised his voice. “For seventeen years I believed his fairy stories. Stayed in his valley. Waited for his…king.” He spat on the ground. “But then I discovered the real world.” He looked back at Kelnor. “Come with me! Come to the Plain and leave these fools in their valley. I’ll give you the whole world to enjoy!”
Kelnor’s mind whirled. Why had no one ever mentioned his brother? If the King was real, why did he let the Dragon Prince usurp his power until only one valley remained? Was Father believing a myth? And all those men who stood behind him…who were they?
The Duke’s voice was low and urging. “Come, brother. I will show you what real men are like.”
Real men? The words echoed in Kelnor’s mind. He looked at the soldiers in their shining armor and the red badge of the Dragon Prince. Splendid they looked. Even in the rain. But then he turned his head the other way. There were the Valley men. Not soldiers. Just simple workmen. Husbands and fathers. Men he’d always known as peaceful laborers.
Yet there they stood with swords in their hands, ready to die defending the Valley. Standing like a human wall. Standing…for the King.
He looked back at his brother.
“Thank you, Rugel. But I think…you already have.”
The Duke’s face went dark. He spun on his heel.
“Stay then!” He growled, swinging into his saddle. “Stay in your valley, son of Marcon. Wait for your fairytale king. But when my master comes to take what is his, remember. You had your chance!”
His scarlet cloak rippled behind him as he jerked his horse around.
“I thought you were like me, little brother. But you are just like your father!”
He spurred his horse and led his men off at a gallop.
The sun broke through the clouds as the Valley’s defenders began to disperse. Kelnor walked slowly to where Father stood waiting.
“So. You’ve been visiting the Plain.”
“The Valley was not big enough for you?”
He stared at the ground.
“Rugel was the same age when he began sneaking out, thirsting for the charms of the Plain.”
“Just like me.”
Something in the tone made him look up. Father was smiling.
“Not like you, my son. You…came back.” He put his hand on Kelnor’s shoulder. “Come. I want to show you something.”
Father led him toward the far side of the Valley – the direction the strange swordsmen had come from – until they reached a narrow ravine. He knew the place. It dead-ended at a waterfall churning out of the soaring rock face.
Or at least…he’d always thought it dead-ended.
But he’d never tried stepping through the waterfall before.
He found himself in a winding stone corridor that seemed to pierce straight into the mountain itself. Footsteps were the only sound as they passed silently through it and at last came to a wall of blinding daylight. Kelnor stumbled through it, blinking and shielding his eyes to see.
Then he stopped. And stared, tingling with wonder.
A vast plain stretched out beneath them. Miles upon miles of rolling landscape awash in sunshine, dotted with homes and farms, rivers and trees. Though he strained his eyes toward the distant horizon, he could not see the end of it.
“What is this place?” He whispered.
Father’s smile shone like the sunrise. “This my son…is the King’s country!”
“Only the gateway to all the rest. Entrusted to us until the King comes to reclaim what the usurper has stolen.”
Kelnor looked around him in awe. That other plain was nothing compared to the vast domain on this side of the mountains. The Prince was a petty lord, squabbling over a patch of dirt.
“Father, does Rugel know what the Valley really is?”
“No. But his master does. That’s why he wants it.”
“What if…he sends a whole army next time?”
Father only smiled. “We will stop them. We are the King’s men, Kelnor. And the King stands with us. The Dragon Prince has picked the wrong fight.”
My name is Kelnor, son of Marcon.
And I am a Keeper of the Valley.
There are many honorable posts in the King’s domain, but I chose this one. Because there is no other place where I could show my sons so well, what it means to be a man.
We plow our fields. We tend our crops. We teach our children about the King we serve.
And when the enemies of the King try to take the Valley…
“Wherefore put on the full armor of God.
That you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all,