The Fallen King
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
- John 1:1
Arwen listened to the wind blowing through the distant trees, trying to focus on that instead of the music around her. Instead of the sounds of the people, the little children laughing, the way the adults reeked of memories, and how old buildings and their old walls whispered of their makers.
It was her turn. She smiled nervously. She felt like a pot of corn kernels over the fire, popping and churning inside, but she had to keep a steely exterior of calm.
Around her, everything spoke of joy - the band playing cheery tunes, the smell of baking pies, the children running around the bonfire, the crowds of people, and the games. It was a festival day—Samhain. The harvest had just been completed, the food was plentiful, and everyone was settling in for the darkness. A time of closed doors, fires, soups, and mittens.
At least, that was the hope.
But this was not her normal festival day; it was her sixteenth, and she had been selected as the Offering. She was proud of the selection—if a bit nervous. Some people said that the most beautiful girls were selected. Though Arwen didn’t think that was true, she did know she had a good singing voice, and though the Keepers didn’t know it, she sang to the forest.
Every girl in Lownire knew this could be their fate. They had learned the song from a young age, seen the graves of the previous Offerings, admired the beautiful white dress given to the selected girl, and once a year, watched them leave. Many girls had hoped to be chosen. To be remembered in the hearts of the village forever. It was the highest honor. All knew that. It was nobler than a soldier or even a Keeper.
But it was not honor, nor the dress, that Arwen thought of.
It was the stars. The tapestry of light that dotted the sky. They were the only thing unfettered by the Corruption of the earth. Their songs were the most distant and the most magnificent. That day, she would be joining their host.
As the music subsided, she smiled. She always liked the festivities, but all the sounds and people looking at her made her nervous and fidgety. Arwen could hear things others couldn’t, so she preferred to be alone. She was one of the few who did not live within the walls of Lownire, and she was glad of it. People were loud.
Arwen felt her insides tighten. The moment was drawing closer. She looked out at the crowd gathering in front of the stone. She had been ignoring them, but they were all there. Everyone she had ever known.
Her aunt and uncle, cousins, and grandfather. Her friends, teachers, childhood enemies, and sweethearts. She spotted Matthew, the son of Hugh. He was tall, handsome, kind, and a year older than her. He smiled at her, and she felt her heart rate increase. They had been friends since childhood, but recently he’d changed. He’d become someone who made her blush as well as laugh. She smiled nervously back at him and tried not to notice that his eyes lacked their usual mischievous spark.
She scanned the rest of the crowd. Everyone was dressed brightly, faces browned from the summer, and bellies full from the harvest. Behind them were banners and wooden booths for the village’s games. Plenty and joy were on every face, except one.
Liam, her eleven-year-old brother, was crying quietly.
He refused to be comforted. He held his wooden sword at his side so tightly that his knuckles turned white. His eyes were red and defiant. Arwen tried to smile at him encouragingly. He was the audience of her stories, the keeper of her heart, and the only one quiet enough to hear her.
Liam blinked tears from his eyes. Even though the village’s chatter was still loud, she could hear his every heartbeat. He was quiet for her, but he had the potential to be deafening.
The last time they had spoken, it had been upon the ocean cliffs they had spent much of their childhood. Their legs had been hanging off a rock as the sea below churned and crashed against the rough stones.
She had made him promise her he’d be a good Keeper. He’d been reluctant, even angry, but he’d given in to her. He always did.
She saw him steady his breathing. He swung his wooden sword and then pointed it at the distant lighthouse. His eyes were still shimmering in his eyes, but he was confirming, in his overdramatic way, that he would keep his promise. He would take care of the lighthouse and the village. Arwen smiled at him, infinitely thankful for the gesture, part of her wanted to laugh at the dramatic way he did it, but more of her wanted to join him in his tears.
Arwen tore her gaze from her brother. If anything broke her today, it would be Liam. She did this for him, but he made her feel weak in doing it. He had been motherless, so she had taken that duty. But Aunt Maria and Father would take care of him, and one must trust the stars.
The three Keepers approached in a line. Hugh, Keeper of the Water, with his sea-gnarled face, large nose, red beard, and kind eyes. Behind him was Uncle Sitric, Keeper of the Walls, with his gray beard, armor, cape, and sword. Last in the line of three was Father, Keeper of the Light. Dad had been hiding his terror ever since she’d been selected. She’d tried not to notice, but sometimes, when he thought she was asleep, he’d come and sit by her bed. There she’d see tears glistening on his cheek.
Worse yet, she could feel it. She always could. Grandpa said she was the best Listener he’d ever met.
The three stopped before the stone and dropped to their knees, heads bowed. Arwen blushed. These men ruled the village and commanded respect everywhere they went. Now, they were bowing to her.
First, Uncle Sitric stood. He stopped for a moment after standing, giving Arwen time to kneel.
She let the dress fall around her as she knelt on the hard stone. It was cold through the cloth, and she could almost feel it whispering to her.
Sitric approached, holding a wreath of white flowers. These white flowers were the only plants watered directly from the sacred well of Lastoris. They glistened and gleamed like they were made of sunlight. They were weaved and kept by Elizabeth, the wife of Hugh. Sitric placed the wreath upon her head, they were soft and almost delicate, but they rested there. Uncle Sitric stepped away, and father approached, carrying the torch that gleamed with blue flames.
He handed it to her, keeping his eyes on the stone. Arwen took the torch and felt the warmth from it. He looked up at her and smiled. He looked perfectly confident, proud, and encouraging, but internally, he shook. He did not doubt her or Astrum, but he did doubt himself.
Father stepped away, and Hough stepped forward. Hough smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. He helped her stand with his large rough hand. Once she was upright, he turned to the gathered village and flipped open a book. The whole village of Lownire stared at her, most with wonder and adoration. She had always been respected as a daughter of a Keeper, but Keepers were not royalty. Offerings, on the other hand, were. Today was like she was a queen of old.
Wearing a white silk dress lined with threads of silver that gleamed in the autumn sunlight, and her wreath of flowers was bright against her dark hair, she was not just respected, but reverenced, not just esteemed, but sacred.
She might not have been picked because she was the most beautiful girl in town, but today she was.
“With a crown of silver, cleansed by the water of the well, kept by the women of the well, adorned by the prince of the kingdom, clothed in white, and holding the power of the fire in her right hand, this Offering goes up to cleanse our village of Darkness, and to quench the wrath of The Beast,” Hugh said in his low, gravely voice. The words that had been repeated hundreds of times before, to hundreds of Offerings.
He closed the book, lifted up his hands, and began to sing. For just one moment, his rough, old sea-tinted voice sang alone, but then, the village joined him. As they sang the farewell song, they promised her their darkness, thanked her, praised the Old One, the King, and gave her Authority over them.
It was strange not to sing it with them, but she listened. The many voices repeated words they had heard since early childhood, but she had never really understood until now.
The singing ended, the last note ringing in the air after the voices had finished. Hugh helped her down from the stone, and then the Keepers turned and led her out of the village center. The crowd followed, giving her a couple paces distance and remaining silent. As they walked, her arm began to grow tired from holding the torch, but the warm light spoke calmness to her, making the torch’s burden lighter.
They arrived at the city gate. The stone walls were tall and obscured the view of the trees when close. The crowd all halted. They waited for a moment, and then the bell from the city center chimed three times, piercing the quiet. A clicking and creaking followed as the metal gate was pulled up, and then the wooden gate behind was pushed open.
Arwen glanced back at the crowd. Aunt Maria smiled encouragingly, Matthew gave her a thumbs-up, and Liam quickly wiped a tear away. Uncle Sitric placed his hand on her back comfortingly and turned her away from the village. She complied and, with the three Keepers, passed under the gate, leaving everyone else behind.
They walked through the recently harvested farmland. It smelled of hay and the sweet fragrance of autumn. These fields would be abandoned by the farmers until spring. Even with the Offering, it was too dangerous to be outside the walls in the darkness of winter.
Soon, they arrived at the treeline. A single path weaved through the forest. It was like a tunnel, walled in by trunk, branch, and bush. She’d never walked this way. This was the way to the Dark Wood. The Beast’s Dominion.
They followed the one narrow path that weaved through the tall trees, the brightness of her torch already becoming noticeable in the fading evening light. The trees that towered above had white and gray trunks, the leaves had all changed by now, and the canopy overhead was a smattering of browns, oranges, reds, and purples. The forest floor, too, was covered in this quilt of colors and the sign of autumn. Hopefully, the forest would sleep in the bed it had made for itself.
The forest was full of different sights, sounds, and smells than the village. She could hear the wind through the trees, causing the leaves to crackle and hiss against each other. It was a peaceful sound, but the birds cawing and the snapping of the men’s boots on the path reminded her this forest was not empty. They were going somewhere.
After a walk long enough that her arm began to ache from holding the torch, she saw the path widen up ahead into a clearing.
She took a deep breath as they entered the space. It smelled like fallen leaves, dirt, and the distant smoke of the village.
The clearing had short green grass. In its center, a low, moss-covered boulder protruded from the earth. A beam of light pierced the canopy and shone upon a rock in the red spotlight of sunset. She stepped up onto it shakily, noticing once again the spirals and words of the ancient tongue carved upon it. One of the two rocks put in place by The Old One.
On the opposite end of the clearing was the beginning of the dark wood. Its trees were no longer straight and royal like the woods behind but bent and covered in thorny ivy that had collected black and dead leaves. The dry vines weaved together so tightly kept the wood in an eternal night.
She stood as tall as she could and tightened her grip on the torch. She had never seen this part of the ritual, only heard of it. But just like she had been told, The Keepers each stepped forward, Sitric once again coming first. He kissed her forehead, giving her his Authority to be the Offering for the village. Hough did the same next, and then Father.
Dad took her head in both of his large hands and pressed his lips against her forehead. He held there for much longer than the others. He pulled away and studied her face for one last time. Arwen realized he was sacrificing much more than she was. She would leave, but he would have to stay. She smiled at him and grabbed his hand, which was still on her head. He smiled back, his eyes shimmering. He let his hands fall out of her grip. He turned away and followed the other two.
She watched as he walked out of the clearing, his broad shoulders getting smaller and smaller until he had disappeared from sight.
She was alone.
Alone, all but for the raven that sat upon the low branch by the path. It cawed at her rudely before ruffling its feathers. Ravens, a sign of a creature of the Darkness. Normally, children were taught to flee them, but now, she must stand her ground. Arwen tried to ignore it, holding her torch by her side and flattening out her dress with her other hand.
She took a deep breath and began to sing.
The song of the Offering. The song of the ancient tongue. The language that at one time could tell the very mountains to shake and the oceans to rise.
Two more crows landed on the tree and began to watch her quietly. The sun sank lower as she entered the first chorus, the shadows growing out and pooling.
The lullaby for the forest. Telling the Darkness to join the forest in its winter slumber. If the Darkness did not sleep, if its King, The Beast, did not sleep...
She put more of her energy into the song, and as she burst out with the second chorus, her words traveled farther through the forest than they should have been able to, stilling the trees and animals.
She and her song were the Offering for the King to accept or deny.
The sun sunk lower until the red light was almost entirely gone. The darkness of the forest spread out like an inky stain, but as she sang, she kept a sliver of light. She and the rock were not consumed by shadow. More crows landed with every creeping shard of gloom. The last of the light left, and no stars or moon came, not tonight. Not even the lighthouse shone, but she glimmered. She was an island of light.
Then, she felt It coming. The cold gathered, her breath misted the air, and her skin prickled with a shiver. The crows stopped fluttering, joining the rest of creation in its silence.
The Beast stepped out of the sea of darkness and into the clearing. Immense compared to any creature of the wood, It was almost as tall as the city walls. A hulking creature of shadow, Its legs were as thick as tree trunks, and Its arms as powerful as steel. The dark arms hung down past Its knees, the long gray claws scraping along the leaves as It slowly walked towards her. She tried to keep her eyes on Its feet as It approached. You were never supposed to look at The Beast’s face.
Its body was covered in a thick dark mat of what seemed like a mix between fur and feathers. It reminded her of the feathers of the raven.
Each step was slow and powerful but much quieter than one would expect from such a large creature. Its feet looked like the horrid mix of a bear’s padded claws and eagle talons. Many said that the bear was the queen of the creatures of the wood, but this, this was the king. The King of the Night, The King of Winter, The King of Death.
Its tribute must be paid.
As It stopped above her, she felt her song catch in her throat.
It surveyed her.
This tradition had gone on for centuries, and it was what allowed Lownire to be an island of light in the unending sea of Darkness. It was what allowed her little village to be the last citadel of the old kingdom.
She was the Offering. She kept the village safe. The lives and light of everyone she knew were balanced on her, on whether she went willingly, on whether she continued singing.
Some things are terrible without being cruel. Some things are beautiful while being painful.
She finished the last line of the song. Her voice was raw, and she was quivering from the power of it. As she finished, an intense silence settled. No wind whispered across the bows, not a single bird chirped, nor a leaf fell. There was nothing.
Everyone in the village lived for the village.
And she would die for it.
The Beast accepted the Offering.
He took her and shot back into the darkness, jumping like a lion.
As soon as she was accepted, the wind hit the trees, causing an intense creaking as they swayed, the crows exploded into cawing, and the distant bells of the Lastrios chimed.
This year they would be safe from the Darkness.
This year the forest would sleep.
1. Is the logic behind the sacrifice well explained?
2. Does the tension build well, and is The Beast (as described, not the picture) horrifying?
3. Would this prologue make you want to read more? Why, or why not?