"Please, settle in and share the warmth of my fire, for it is bitter cold out tonight and I have much to tell you. I have a story to tell. It is a story within a story, one not yet fully written, but a story all the same. It is not a story written in a book at least not yet. It is held in the memories and minds of those who tell it, like me," the old one began. He tapped his forehead with a gnarled finger as he spoke. From the corner of his eye he could just make out the reflection of flames mirrored in the gold of his ring. The ring, he knew would play a key part, a very important part in the story that had yet to unfold. He had to take a breath before going on. "First there is the story itself."
He looked into the listener's eyes ensuring her full attention. Her eyes were huge and full open. Good thing, he realized. The message he had to impart was important, but needed to be cloaked, for many secrets were contained within it. Some needed to remain secret for eternity, others must be revealed in their own appropriate time. The fate of Shadowvale, indeed the fate of all the kingdoms, depended on how well he told the tale and on how quickly it moved her. He had told her many tales in the past, granted many lessons through story, but this one was the most important of all. When she nodded ever so slightly, he knew she was listening with all of her senses, and that she would hear what was most important. He lowered his hand back onto his lap, gently stroked the ring on his finger, then went on.
"Then there is he who tells it, and she who listens, each has their own part." She nodded again. Good, she was aware then of the import of what he was about to disclose. He stroked his ring a second time, whispering an ancient incantation beneath his breath. The nearby flames gave it a warm golden cast to everything nearby. It bathed both his ring and his guest in a warm golden glow, fitting for she was important, more important than gold. There had been many lessons between them in years past, this one would prove the final, penultimate one. So he chose his words with care. He lowered his eyes and studied the dance of the flames before he went on.
"Then there is the story that will begin on account of this telling." He took a long convoluted breath. The familiar scent of wood smoke entered him, stung at his lungs, then eased. He raised his face and studied the young woman seated near him. She remained silent and attentive, sitting slightly forwards. Her eyes on his. She was aware of the moment, of its weight and importance, her posture and expression told him so.
"Mark my words Princess. Once I tell it, you will be moved and thus begin a story of your own. You well know there is magic and power in words, more so in the telling, so listen with care. There are some things that can not be told directly, they live between the lines where their very magic and power lives. Interpretation is everything, and they will come forwards in their given times. Everything has its time, even the story I am about to begin." The nearby fire flickered as if something stirred in the air, yet the room was still.
Mahrri settled back into her seat, settled like the coals beneath the wood so near him. He suspected she knew the tale would be a long and complicated one. In this she was right. But it would not be completely told, at least not yet. Some of it would unfold as the days passed, some of it would take place once certain individuals had met. Circumstances and meetings would change the direction of the tale. He had only need impart the beginning of it, fate would do the rest.
He whispered a second silent incantation hoping for her full understanding. For he was bound by an oath to keep secret key aspects, important ones. Not everything could be told or explained, at least not yet, and he knew they would reveal themselves in good time. He inhaled a sigh and began the task of imparting what could be told.
"It begins with a son, a bastard son. A son now grown, a boy once loved by his mother but disdained by his step father. A son who doesn't know who his true father is, yet that true father loves him, and knows he exists." She leaned forwards her lips trembling to speak, a question in her eyes. "Save your breath girl, I can not tell you who the father is at least not yet, not now, not until the story is full told. I must first lay my eyes upon this unrecognized son before daring to believe. He could be but a ruse, a false lead, there have been many over the years." A father had been moved to send his son away, for that son had been in peril. A father had also hidden that son, in plain sight and none knew it, not even that very son. Because of this, no one knew for sure who could be trusted and who could not. Imposters could rise to lay claim upon what so many coveted. Assassins could find the hidden one and end what had been started so many years ago. Only a handful of loyal souls knew the truth. That truth had been kept for years now. The time had come for that truth to be revealed. Something dark had begun to stir from its shadows. John shivered, and extended his palms out over the fire. The young woman across from him gazed upon his hands, her full lips went thin as she frowned.
"Then why tell the story, John Roan? How will you recognize this man, and know he is the one you seek, have you seen him before?" He smiled. Few dared ever question him as she did. He was magician to the king, a powerful man, one to be feared. Most did, but not she, no she feared nothing and no one, though she should. A flame flared in the fire, dancing brightly for an instant before receding into the coals. He waited for it to fully settle before he made his reply. He chose his words with great and deliberate care.
"I have not seen the boy since he was a babe newly born. I know his name, but his name is not enough. I will know him by his eyes, his posture, the shape of his face. I am told he favours his father." John gazed into the fire. There were countless faces, it seemed, dancing amid the flickering flames, watching him. A tingle ran through him. Magic was everywhere,some of it good, some less so.
"Why are you telling me all this?" she prompted, for his silence had grown long.
"Because Princess, this tale involves you. Because history repeats itself, and many stories are but history put into words." He had watched her grow up from child to woman. She had come to them when both her parents had been killed. Her father, King Rollart and his queen had been slain. A murder meant to take her as well, but an illness had separated the family. The babe had been feverish, a fever so high that she should have perished. However, the child had been brought to him, and his powerful magic had chased away the illness. He had announced her death even though the news was false. It was the only way he could protect her. Because of her parent's deaths, and the false news he had announced, her initial five days with him turned into more. She was of royal blood and deserved to reside in a royal household. So she was fostered to the king, his king, and became a surrogate daughter to them both. No one but they knew who she truly was.
She had joined the household as a child, a foundling among many, and was leaving it a woman who had just recently been told who she truly was. The days between child and adult moved so swiftly that he barely had time to catch his breath. He had held her as a babe, mended her wounds, both those of the flesh and of the heart, taught her all he knew, and now he was letting her go to fulfil her fate. The release brought tears to his eyes.
"Can you speak of the son, then?" Tears she did not see, for she was gazing into the fire, mesmerized by the dance of constant flame. Somewhat entranced.
He brushed his eyes with the rough of his sleeve. "I'm getting to that."
His tone was brusk enough to raise her study from the flames back to his face. "Pray, tell it then John." Her tone held no recrimination, rather a gentle scolding for him to go on. Her's was a rather impatient soul, her only flaw.
"The son goes by the name of Richard Mayers. It is not his true name mind you, but the one given him at birth by his mother. It was her maiden name. It is the only name he knows. A name he should not bear, for a burden it has been." He felt a gentle sigh temper his breath. The world of man could be a most unjust place. All men, all children should know who their true fathers are.
Her brow crumpled in though. "I know no man by that name," she announced.
"True child, you do not, but soon enough you will. At present he is deemed a man of no import, that soon may change. His life has been ordinary, each aspect unremarkable, that too is about to end. He and thee have much in common. He lives in Shadowvale. There are but a few years between you. You must find him and bring him back to me, I will then act as an intermediary between father and son, understand? Your step father has asked us to do this, as a favour. He too wants to see son reunited with father." He stroked the ring a third time then slipped it from his finger to hang on the very tip, in preparation for the question he knew was about to come. It hung suspended from his finger emitting a soft, almost not there, buzz.
"How am I to find a man I do not know, and why should I be the one to find him?" Her once smooth brow shot upwards and crumpled dramatically. He wondered if she had yet heard the sound from his ring, recognized its magic. Her eyes were focused on his face, he thought not.
"You are the only one I can trust with the quest. The only one. Your step father's men have all perished. My magic is finite. My legs old and weary. I have spoken with your step father, we have talked long and hard of this. Now that he is in exile, he must remain hidden, or our plans will fail. Besides we are both too well known. You are all we have left. No one knows you well outside these walls. No one knows you at all beyond the city gates. Your anonymity is your ally. See this ring, our man wears one just like it. His name, his face, his ring, will all mark him as the man we seek." He slid the ring completely from his little finger and held the ring up between forefinger and thumb. Light winked across it.
"But John why must I find this man?" He could see her eyes trace the light that had danced along the golden curve of the ring. Its protective magic was already beginning to cast its spell. The gentle buzz began to throb through his ears as it vibrated up from his finger and along his arm. He held his breath waiting for her to remark on it. She remained silent. He sighed, perhaps it took time for the magic to be heard. He filled the silence with his own voice.
"I can not say, but trust me, it is of great import. Go search the main city of Shadowvale, find Richard Mayers, I am told he lives there, his mother owns the tavern. It goes by the name of Mayers. Show him this ring and bring him to me. Do not disclose who you are, use your mother's maiden name. Your true identity must be kept secret from everyone, even him, for safety sake. Finding this man is the first part of the story. It can not unfold until you do so." A dim thud penetrated his skull. He knew more, but was not empowered to disclose it. He hated to deceive her, for up until now their relationship had been an honest, trustworthy one. Everything would truly begin when Mahrri met Richard Mayers. He knew that upon their predestined meeting untold aspects would begin to unfold, aspects he didn't even know himself. His throat suddenly felt raw.
"How do I compel a stranger to come with me? If I can not say who I am, or give him reason for my request, how will he trust me enough to come along? Surly he will not follow me like an eager pup," she paused, "and by bringing him here, do I not endanger us all?" He suppressed his smile. She was quick, observant and right.
"There is danger everywhere, more so should you fail. He will come when he sees this ring, I promise you that. I have no choice child, the time has come to send you out on a very important mission, one only you can achieve." John slipped the ring onto her middle finger. It fit to perfection, almost as if it were made for her. John studied the ring as she held her hand aloft.
The ring was an unusual one, a rose motif surrounded by a pair of claws. It had been given to but a handful of people, decades ago, by the king of Shadowglen as a sign of fidelity. Only a few of those selfsame rings had been infused with protective magic. A magic that was fast losing its strength. He briefly wondered if she could feel its warmth, its power. His own hand felt cool now that he had removed he ring. He rubbed at his knuckles, for they actually ached. Her eyes remained on him. She had yet to feel the magic of the ring. His shoulders slumped a bit as he realized it.
"Just show the ring to him, he will understand, and will come with you. Tell him your king asks for him, say my name if need be. Take a convoluted path to him, and an ever more complex one upon your return. Never take the ring off unless someone wearing one just like, it asks. Show it to no one unless they too wear a ring just like it. The fate of our kingdom depends upon it child. This man must be found." He shivered for without the ring he felt helpless, and the import of what he was asking lay heavy upon his skin, like a weighty winter cloak. She was young, inexperienced, untested.
"I know you should be relaxing behind the palace wall, safe and secure, but fate has dealt us another hand. I would not ask this of you if there were another way." He had sought for and considered many alternatives, and failed to find a viable one. She was his only hope.
"I'll go John, I'll not disappoint. I will do this for those I call family, for those I love. As for my being a princess, no one will notice me nor recognize me, for I look more the beggar than the princess. I have yet to recognize myself as royal. It is a status too new, and one at present without foundation. I have grown these last few years, now a woman from a child. I will go in disguise when needed. As for the ring, it stays upon my hand until I return to you and you take it off." Indeed her clothes were soil worn and tattered, her hands rough with work. The ring looked far too elegant for her hand, conspicuous. Though to any one not wearing the matching ring, it would look ordinary, unremarkable, thanks to its magic. He noted that she absently stroked the curved shank as she spoke. If she could feel the magic in it, she made no remark on its presence.
He sadly shook his head. "Yes, in these years of exile much had changed. A kingdom once though secure now belongs to another. A false king calls our palace his home. Richard Mayers could change everything for us, I can not tell you yet how, for I can not be sure until I am sure of him. Mahrri, you must bring him to me. He is my only hope."