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Saturday, May 06, 2006

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Three lunar phases passed before Triton awoke from his sleep. His head pounded, and his body ached, but he no longer felt dizzy and sick. Still, the effects of the poison induced illness had done their damage. He understood all too well the consequences this tragedy held, not only for him but also for the king and the kingdom in the eyes of Ambergale.

He fully expected an inquisition about the incident and possibly punishment for dereliction of duty after he had pleaded his case, but nothing could have prepared him for the cold reception he awoke to.

He sat up on a thin cushion filled with soft yamgon fur set upon a heavy stone base. A simple wooden nightstand held a washing bowl and rag along with a tall ceramic pitcher.

The room was a modest cube excavated from the solid rock beneath the mountain palace. A small square window tunneled through the thick wall giving a narrow view of the smooth, steeply sloped palace exterior hewn from the very side of the mountain. Other than a dirty red woven mat that lay on the floor, the room was colorless. Three wall-mounted candles supplemented what little light reflected off the exterior palace wall through the open window. The candles danced in the breeze, creating shadows that whirled and pulsed across the dips and crevasses of the roughly finished interior.

Triton recognized it to be one of the many servants’ quarters that inhabited much of the lower levels dug deep into the mountain beneath the palace.

He sat quietly making fists with his right hand, still sore from burns. He had been fitted with a loose white shirt that draped down to his knees. His leather pants hung haphazardly off the end of the bed, his dark brown boots on the floor.

Two guards stood outside the wooden door that was hanging ajar off two large hinges bolted to the stone wall.

Triton had quickly deduced that it was Avery and Rufus standing at either side of the doorway. Rufus, to the left, was a dead giveaway with his constant throat clearing that, at times, caused a short ornate metal bracelet bound tightly to his fattened forearm to jingle; a decoration, Triton knew, Rufus wore proudly in memory of his father who died defending the kingdom in a battle fought long ago against a savage thorgon army. Avery, to the right, he guessed, oddly enough, because of his silence. If not for his trademark deep breathing, drawing in air through his large nose then expelling it through his mouth in a monstrous sigh, Triton might not have even known he was there.

He had not been thrown in the dungeon, but it was obvious he had been accused of something while he was unconscious. He thought back to the ill-fated passage through the Condorion cliffs, searching for answers to the questions that raced wildly through his mind. He remembered feeling sick, very weak, and abnormally tired. He remembered the panic he felt as he failed to lead the Lord Matriarch and her entourage, and the relief he had as he saw Rittan take his . . . No, not Rittan, Prodious.

Suddenly Prodious’ mocking smile appeared in his mind.

It was Prodious. He was behind all this. He had assumed Rittan’s position along the cliff passages and knew that Triton's water had been poisoned. He had led the Lord Matriarch and her entourage down an alternate route that held demon riders who executed a well-planned ambush on the procession.

It all made sense after witnessing Prodious with the fallen demon and the things Prodious had said during the last moments before Triton had blacked out. But no one would believe that Prodious, the exalted Grand General who had defended Antheon in so many skirmishes of recent times, could possibly be responsible for such an act. Even Triton, knowing Prodious to be nothing but an admirable person, could hardly believe that he could be allied with the fabled demon creatures. But if he was, Triton was going to find convincing anyone else of this truth nearly impossible. He figured Prodious must have already conjured up a report to malign his reputation while he was unconscious. If not for the respect and admiration he had gained for his many sun cycles of service protecting the king and his family, he probably would be rotting in the dungeon now.

Surely, Triton thought, they could not have named him as the man responsible for this incident.

The clapping of boots, first shuffling down a staircase then clomping down a long arching hall, echoed through the narrow opening between the door and the wall. Triton listened carefully to the quick steady pace of each step, boot-heel then toe, slapping against the flat rock floor. It was obviously someone of importance since Rufus and Avery stiffened, shifting within their cumbersome armor to a more erect pose.

The footfalls were quick and light, broken by an occasional tapping on every second or fourth step. The tapping was a long sheath, he recognized, encasing the person’s sword. All these subtle nuances added up, in Triton’s mind, to equal that of a high-ranking female of short stature.

As the steps slowed, approaching the threshold of the nearly closed door, Triton called out to her.

“Hello Cassandra,” he said, then to test her mood, he added, “Unless you’re willing to chance the sight of a half-naked man, I should ask that you give me a zale or two to slip on my pants.”

The door swung open swiftly, revealing him to be correct. Cassandra stepped into the small room holding the door with her left hand. Her bright blonde hair, ornately braided into a crown that wrapped into a larger braid hanging from the back of her head, accentuated her small girlish face. Young and beautiful but equally strong, capable of holding her own against other soldiers who had been deceived by her looks, she was the epitome of strength and perseverance.

She glared down at him through narrowed eyes, her brow stiffened by a serious scowl. “I would ask you to save me the embarrassment, but considering the allegations placed against you, the embarrassment you’ve laid upon our kingdom far out-weighs anything I might feel at the sight of your bare legs. I might add your sorceress ability to recognize me before I enter will do you no favors to those who will be prosecuting you.”

Triton recoiled at the biting tone of her voice. “You of all people must realize I am innocent of whatever it is I am being accused.” He searched her eyes for the friendship they shared.

She stood unwavering, resting her small hand on the hilt of her sword. “My sentiments are the least of your worries. It is the king and court to whom you should prepare your plea of innocence. The king has commanded an audience with you before your arraignment. Get dressed and follow me.”

Triton began to form another plea but stopped himself. He looked away from her accusing stare.

The charges against him were obviously very serious if even Cassandra was refusing to drop official etiquette. He could only hope the king would be more understanding-for he knew what an audience with the king meant. The council must have already decided his fate. King Gabriel was giving him a last chance. If he could convince the king of his innocence, the king could overrule the council’s verdict. He would have to choose his words carefully and hope his friendship with King Gabriel would help his situation. His entire future depended on it.

He slipped on his pants, tucking his white shirt neatly into them, then slid on his boots while Cassandra quietly stood within the doorway. As he stood up, a good head taller than Cassandra, she turned and exited into the hall. Triton followed, doing his best to comb his sandy brown hair with his fingers. As he did, a sharp pain stung his forehead, forcing him to stop and sneak a glance into Rufus’ highly polished helmet. A shockingly large bruise painted his right eye with purple, red and a wash of green all the way out to his temple.

Triton fired off a whistle. “That’s a beauty.”

Rufus turned his head shooting Triton a disdainful glare. Triton raised his eyebrows then smiled, a small curl at the corner of his mouth.

“Excuse me, Rufus. I was referring to my bruise.”

When he turned to follow Cassandra, Rufus shoved his back to hurry him on.

“All right, all right I’m going,” Triton expelled.

Rufus and Avery walked side by side, holding a position to Triton’s rear while Cassandra led the way through the maze of narrow candle-lit corridors and staircases that eventually led to the grand halls of the palace above.

The dull pain that crawled around to the top and side of his skull hurt less than the quiet hatred he felt from Cassandra, Avery, and Rufus. He had been acquainted with both Avery and Rufus, enjoying their company on several occasions over a pitcher of ale, and Cassandra, he considered a good friend after having worked side by side with her on many occasions within the palace.

In the time it took to navigate the spiral staircase to the grand halls covered with colorful tapestries and ornate sculptures, around the central courtyard, then finally to the marble staircase that climbed to King Gabriel’s private chambers, Triton had grown dejected. The palace, in all its grand beauty had become his home. The guards and servants, and even some of the council administrators, when they were not performing their official duties, had become a part of his family. His mother had even been given shelter within the hallowed walls of the mountain kingdom. And King Gabriel, in all his grandeur, had become more of a father figure to him than a king. His duty as the king’s personal guardian was gratifying since he held nothing but the highest respect and admiration for him.

Now as he stood before the golden doors that opened into the king’s private chamber, he could not help but feel a hopeless sense of remorse. He had stood guard many times before these grand doors never feeling the true power and fear they instilled in those who were requested to enter. Even though he knew he was innocent of the charges that had been placed upon him, he realized that the anger and hatred directed toward him was very real to those who felt he was responsible for the Lord Matriarch’s death.

He felt dead inside as Cassandra opened the large doors. Even if he could convince the king, he knew his reputation as a guardian, with all the trust and loyalty the position held, would now be lost.

The noise of a milling crowd filled his ears as the doors crept open. It was the sound of the circular court just below the curving balcony at the far end of the king’s chamber.

Cassandra stepped to the side of the open doors with Rufus and Avery taking positions at the two marble pillars at either side of the grand staircase. Two other guards whom Triton was less familiar with stood to the sides of the doorway within the grand hall that over-looked the garden.

So many guards, Triton thought to himself. At least he had not been bound in shackles. Surely a request the king must have allowed to afford him some dignity. He just hoped that it meant the king still had faith in his innocence.

He glanced at Cassandra. Her face was like stone, cold and expressionless. Then he walked into the chamber.

Two figures, one sitting the other standing, silhouetted against the sun drenched balcony, were that of King Gabriel and his new personal guard.

Realizing that he was breaking the first rule of entering a room occupied by the king, he quickly bowed, lowering his head in submission. It was a courtesy he had been weaned of after being the king’s personal guardian for so many sun cycles. He stepped to the center of an ornate circle embellished with many different colors of shaped marble and kneeled as he had witnessed so many others do. The large doors closed behind him with a loud thud. For a long moment, only the sound of the milling crowd could be heard echoing off the highly polished walls and floor of the chamber. Then the deep resonating voice of the king broke through the low roar, his words spoken slow and deliberate with a raspy edge brought on by age.

“Triton,” he expelled, holding the last syllable with a tired disappointment that lingered into the rest of his words. “You have been my most loyal and trustworthy guardian, to which I have entrusted not only my own safety but that of the queen and my two daughters.”

Triton slowly raised his eyes to see the king’s portly bulk sitting in a tired slouch upon his throne. His white beard flowed onto his chest, twitching with each spoken word.

“Since the time I first saw you during the test of wits and bravery, when you were only but a young man, you have proven yourself worthy to hold the title of Guardian of Antheon and all the honors that it bestows. But now you stand before me disgraced by accusations of a treachery that have spread far beyond this kingdom.” He paused with a sigh as if finding his next words difficult to speak. “Aurora, the newly appointed Matriarch of Ambergale, was slaughtered in the most gruesome of attacks, and all but one of her entourage killed. Is it true, Triton, that you are responsible for this horrendous incident?”

Finally the charge with which he had been accused was revealed to him. Triton swung his vision up to the newly appointed guardian to the king as he searched for his reply.

He could not believe his eyes.

It was Prodious.

The shock nearly sent him back a step. To see the very person he knew to be responsible for what happened standing in his place to the right of the king was not what he had expected. Prodious shot him a deviously sinister smile that quickly disappeared into an expression that tightened with concern. What devilish lies he had spoken to attain a position at King Gabriel’s side, Triton could only guess, but surely none of them had been told in his favor.

“Yes,” Triton said, witnessing the surprise on Prodious’ face. “I do feel responsible for the Lord Matriarch’s death, but I will not take responsibility for leading her into an ambush.”

The king’s tone grew agitated losing its quiet gentleness. “But Triton, you were assigned to lead the Lord Matriarch and her entourage. If it was not you, who was it?”

Triton held his tongue as he looked into the king’s drooping eyes; his gray brows folded in question. Then he shot Prodious a searing glare.

“It was Prodious. Prodious led the procession,” he spoke, belting out Prodious’ name with a deafening hatred.

The king looked surprised turning his attention now to Prodious.

“I assure you it was not I your highness,” Prodious defended. “I filled in for Rittan who had been taken ill and stood my post as he had been assigned. As I have explained before, it was not until I saw the procession heading down the wrong direction that I left my post to follow. By the time I had reached them, the Lord Matriarch had been killed.”

“So you poisoned Rittan as well?” Triton shouted, his words spilling out as he thought them.

“Poison?” Prodious said in a mocking tone, almost laughing at the idea.

“Yes,” Triton shot back. “I thought I had become sick, but it was Prodious who told me that my sudden affliction was brought on by poison. Poison that Prodious was well aware of. Poison he must have added to my water as well as Rittan’s to keep Rittan from his post. You thought I was too delirious to understand or remember what you had said, or maybe you had expected the dose to kill me. Whatever it was, I remembered. You admitted to poisoning my water.”

Before the king could weigh Triton’s accusation, Prodious retorted, “I must say - you do have a vivid imagination.”

Triton turned back to the king. “Sire, he is in league with demon riders! I fear for your safety. Had I not witnessed them myself, I would not have believed it. It was demons riding black gorgonon dragons who killed the Lord Matriarch and her entourage as well as Leo and Omar.”

Prodious laughed. “Demon riders? Surely, Your Majesty, you can plainly see, these are the rantings of a desperate man.”

The king’s shoulders rose, and his body stiffened at the word "demon." He looked back up to Prodious, confused, speaking his words with an urgency Triton was not used to hearing in the king’s usual belabored discourse.

“Demon riders? You never mentioned anything about demon riders.”

Prodious hesitated, and his reply was spoken quickly. “Demon riders are nothing more than the evil incarnation of fables, brought about by fearful imaginations survived through the telling of ancient stories passed down from one generation to the next. For him to add them to his ridiculous tale will surely give the council confidence in their judgment. My earlier statement was based on a logical assumption. I had guessed the attackers to be affiliated with those who opposed the union of Antheon with Ambergale. I never saw them myself, but I still stand by my original statement.”

The king stroked his beard suddenly lost in thought, and then he returned his attention to Triton, pointing his finger toward his bruise with a wavering arm.
“How did you receive your bruise?”

“I was hit by a gorgonon as I followed the Lord Matriarch toward the upper rim of the waterfall basin. One of them struck me, knocking my shield from my grip. Even Dagger, was taken down by poisoned arrows.”

The king stood up from his throne and walked slowly to a wide nook with walls displaying many books and scrolls.

He leaned on a podium, caged his fingers, and then said, “I have made my decision.”

Prodious turned with a bow and walked over to a horn mounted to an iron pedestal near the open balcony overlooking the crowded court. He blew it, sending a deep wail across the court that quieted the anxious audience. The large golden doors opened, and Avery and Rufus quickly escorted Triton out of the chamber.

Triton was confused. The king showed little sympathy and didn't seem to come to an answer. The king appeared solemn. He had definitely taken Triton's story into consideration, but whatever he had decided wasn't obvious.

Prodious’ presence did not help either. Had he been allowed to speak with the king alone, he could have pleaded his case on a more personal level. Still, Triton had always known the king to be careful with his judgments and had faith that he would make the right decision.

Avery and Rufus escorted Triton down several unfamiliar, narrow corridors to an arched doorway entering the center of the open court. Triton could not help but become a little skeptical.

When he broke from the dark passage into the sun-drenched court, the audience jeered and chanted for his death. They wanted blood, and Triton understood full well how the courts where easily swayed into making rash decisions to appease the anger of the people. Left to them alone, he knew he would surely be sentenced to death.

He stepped up to the raised circular platform of solid rock and looked up to the king’s balcony where Prodious stood vigil. How he wished he could convince the people that it should be Prodious awaiting this sentence and not him.

The clamor of malicious chants continued to fill the air until Prodious, once again, blew the horn.

The king stepped to the balcony’s stone rail high above and greeted the crowd with two raised hands.

“People of Antheon, distinguished guests, and appointed members of the court. Never before has such a heinous act of treachery plagued our kingdom. An act of evil so diabolical that it has single-handedly marred the honorable name of the Guardians of Antheon and split the union of two great kingdoms.”

“It is Ambergale-” he bowed himself toward a small delegation from Ambergale- “who has suffered the most from this injustice. I give them my deepest sympathies for their loss as well as the families of our two exalted guardians Leo and Omar who lost their lives defending the integrity of Antheon. It is in their names that our efforts will go in vanquishing this evil. I understand the distrust and anger felt by those of Ambergale and hope they will see that we too are bound with them in this tragedy. I assure you, our efforts will be directed to finding all those who are responsible.

“In the past two lunar phases I have heard many of the stories surrounding what has happened, adding to the complexity of the incident. Too often we want the quick and easy answer-the scapegoat that will bear the blame for all that has happened. In this way we can wash our hands and feel free of the questions that curse us.

“In that light, we all look upon one man who now stands before us to be judged on assumptions and accusations as to his involvement.”

Triton swallowed hard, feeling the weight of judgment bearing down on him. Normally the audience of a court, with such a volatile arraignment, would be feverishly screaming for him to be put to death, but the king and his ability to control the masses with words had brought them to silent contemplation. The king was on his side, or at least was in doubt about the accusations directed at him. Either way, Triton understood, he would be allowed to live. But he also understood that the king would be perceived as weak and possibly considered unable to reign over Antheon with the same authority if he did not come to a decision that appeased the people and those of Ambergale. Much was riding on his judgment for both of them.

“Because many questions still linger over this tragedy, I am going to hold my judgment on Triton until more information is presented,” King Gabriel proclaimed.

A low moan of disapproval emanated from the crowd. Triton scanned down the long hanging banner from the king’s balcony down to the twelve council members seated in a long, curving niche carved out of the solid rock wall. Obvious signs of anger and disapproval were on their faces. It was a bold decision, but the king was not concerned with the council or the people. He was, as he has always been with all his decisions, concerned with finding the truth. Something he was willing to wait for, unlike the people or especially that of the twelve appointed council members whose concerns were more for holding their seats than finding the truth.

The king directed his final words at Triton. “Because questions still linger over this matter, you will be imprisoned until answers are found.”

A smattering of angry words grew into a low roar as objections to the ruling past from mouth to ear. Shouts of disapproval shot from many locations throughout the audience circling Triton.

“Death to the traitor!”

“Burn him!”

“Of demon blood he is!”

As the words became more heated, many guardians rallied around the inner circle in front of the angry mob to prevent them from jumping the wall and attacking Triton.

Avery and Rufus bolted up the steps to the top of the platform and grabbed Triton’s arms, expressing their own distaste for the king’s ruling by nearly dragging him off the platform.

Triton couldn't say he was happy with the ruling, but all things considered, he had to count himself lucky.

As he was pulled from the court to the narrow arched passage, he glanced up to the crowd. Amongst all the raised fists and angry faces one stood silent and tall with a steady posture that exuded a confidence and knowledge that rivaled that of everyone in Antheon. It was Mendar, a wizard from the distant northern mountains. He was an ambassador of sorts, bringing information and sometimes warnings obtained by the gathered knowledge of the wizard clan who lived high in the temple of Centaria at the top of mount Airabus. His appearance could not be a coincidence. He must have foreseen this incident but arrived late in warning the king. It was probably Mendar who had informed the king of the demon riders, as his mention of them seemed to spark a hidden knowledge from the king. Triton had seen Mendar secretly council the king several times before, always with important information about things going on far outside Antheon and the surrounding kingdoms.

As Rufus and Avery escorted him back through the narrow hall, the angry voices faded into the distance. The passage seemed to close in on him as he thought about his future. To be scorned by all who had once revered and honored him was difficult to accept. The thought that he might never be found innocent suddenly crossed his mind. It was very possible, because of the circumstances; he might spend the rest of his life in prison.

As he worried about the decisions and events beyond his control, he was led to the deepest dungeon reserved for the worst criminals-many of whom were scheduled for public execution.

Avery and Rufus shoved him into a cell with three other prisoners and shackled his left wrist to a chain braced to the stone floor below a scattering of hay. Then they locked the heavy iron door and departed.

Triton lay on the prickly hay, feeling the dry stems stabbing into his back. He ignored the others for a long time while he contemplated his future. But as the pungent smell of urine and waste awakened him to the confines of his cell, he lifted his head to view his cellmates.

All of them looked haggard and underfed in their loosely fitted and heavily worn gray smocks. One lay fast asleep on a raised stone outcropping with his shackled arm hanging on the hay-covered floor. Another sat huddled near the back wall, hiding himself in the shadows. Triton could see the man’s side through a wide tear in his smock where a faint strip of torchlight cut across his body. Many long pink scars, layered one over the other, discolored his tan skin.

Down here, where the light of the sun never fell and fresh-air never blew, life was measured on a phase-to-phase basis. The prison guards, often bent on inflicting their own punishment, did not respect the judgments given by the court. Instead, they took it upon themselves, and sometimes with the payment of those who had been victimized, to maim or even kill prisoners.
Triton figured he would be lucky if he lived through the night.

The third prisoner, shackled to the floor closest to him, was an old man with thin white hair and teeth that looked like loose fence posts.

“Ya ain’t gettin’ outta here alive ya know. This’s gonna be yer grave,” he said in a hoarse, wheezing voice that grew to no more than a whisper.

Triton looked into the old man’s glazed eyes. He could feel no emotion, no sense of life in him. The old man only confirmed Triton’s thinking to be true: This cell was where he would die.

The torches suddenly flared so intensely on the wall outside the cell, Triton and the other prisoners covered their eyes.

Two figures stood in the haze before the open cell, one tall and imposing, the other, short and plump.

It was King Gabriel and Mendar. The king had taken off his crown but still wore the garments he had been wearing during the ruling. Mendar stood in long green robes that flowed down to the toe of his boots. A wide-brimmed hat with a long pointed tip that drooped over to slump onto the brim hid Mendar’s eyes in shadow. His arms were folded over his long white beard and mustache.

Triton jumped to his feet and stood next to the iron bars.

“Triton, the council is resolved to blaming you for this incident,” Gabriel said. “There is a treachery at work that reaches far beyond our kingdom. I believe in your innocence, but it is the council that demands proof. Without it, even with my blessing, you will be scorned by all of Antheon and despised by Ambergale. I have done all that I can to tame the council and Ambergale’s desire for answers. But it is the council’s desire for blood to appease Ambergale that brings me here.” He paused and looked up to Mendar who gave him a nod of approval. “I fear for your life Triton. I cannot guarantee your safety here or anywhere else you might travel, but I can give you a short reprieve until a sentence has been determined. On the next phase, you will be taken to the western lowland gate where you will be given a scroll upon your release. Take it with you to Dimsbrough. It is a decree, signed by me, ordering you to work at the hatchery until more evidence is obtained in your case. Dagmar, there, may not honor it straight off now that Dimsbrough has become independent, but he has never been one to pass on free labor. Triton, I wish I could do more. You have always been a loyal guardian to me.”

Triton bowed then spoke in a soft voice. “I thank you Your Highness, I assure you your faith in me is just. I will stay at the hatchery as you have commanded.”

King Gabriel smiled with moist eyes. “Mendar has assured me your stay here will be uneventful until your release.” He patted Triton’s shoulder though the bars. “May the Gods be with you.” With that, the king and the wizard turned and left, and Triton returned to his seat of prickly hay. The old man, lying next to him, just stared in astonishment.


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