Chapter Ten

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“Forty-ninth day of Chyor? What is this nonsense?” King Orrus looked up from the report he’d been scanning, surveying the pallid, nervous man before his throne. The man’s long black archivist robes made him appear even more wan than he already was. Palace archivists were the sort to hide away in the depths of the library, far removed from any sunlight.

The archivist’s response was a quavering tumble of words. “Your Majesty, ancient Hygotians did not just believe Chyor ushered in the autumnal season. Rather, they reckoned each year by two distinct parts: when Chyor’s breath chilled the earth and when Chunvar’s footsteps warmed the earth. The forty-ninth day of Chyor would have fallen sometime in the early autumn.”

Orrus’s brows furrowed as he read further. “And what’s this about ‘Grand Lady’ Osna…? No such title exists.”

The archivist gulped. “Very astute, Sire. It’s a title that fell by the wayside more than five hundred years ago. We would have called the ‘grand lady’ a queen in our modern day, but it seems…” He quivered, and Orrus noted the shine of sweat on his upper lip. “…It seems a consort in those times could only ascend to true royalty when she bore the king a child, despite already having taken the marriage vows.”

There it was. No wonder the archivist was facing such an onslaught of nerves. Orrus’s own wife, Queen Lisia, had still not provided him a child despite their four years of marriage, and the archivist did not wish to offend. For half a second Orrus was tempted to feign anger just to see the poor archivist’s reaction, but better judgment won out.

“A primitive practice,” he said, wrinkling his nose. Internally, his thoughts lingered on the grand lady title. Orrus had enough illegitimate heirs squirreled away here and there throughout the kingdom to know the issue of conception lay not with him, but with the queen… But there was a time and a place for him to sink into those frustrations, and it was not while talking with a royal archivist about history.

The archivist nodded, clearly eager to move on to less dangerous territory. “The document is a unique, almost singular, glimpse into Hygot’s past. Based on the customs described within and the method of marking the calendar year, we believe the grand lady’s diary to be more than eight hundred years old.”

His interest piqued, Orrus skimmed further through the transcription. It was a halting account, with many incomplete sentences and scholarly footnotes discussing possible meanings and interpretations. “Why is the text so broken?”

The archivist gave an uncomfortable cough. “The circumstances of the account’s unearthing were, ah, not ideal. It was discovered by accident in the deepest level of the library behind a brick in the wall, as we were moving books to a higher level for preservation. It gets quite damp in the library’s lower reaches, so we’re lucky to have saved even this small fraction of the original document. The diary’s discoverer happened to be one of our younger, inexperienced scholars, who handled it without proper care. Some of the pages crumbled to dust immediately… Fortunately I was nearby and salvaged what I could. And the young imbecile has since been dismissed,” he said with a smug smile, before continuing.

“The prose is also quite hard to decipher. Much has changed language-wise since the time this was written. We’re left with more questions than answers, unfortunately. Yet I still have certain hypotheses regarding the diary.”

“Such as…?” Orrus was enjoying this exchange now. It made for a welcome diversion from the usual slew of audiences and council meetings.

“For instance, I would argue we must regard the document as important not only because of its age, but also because of its hiding place. For Grand Lady Osna to hide it behind a brick in the deepest depths of the library speaks of a need for secrecy—a need to hide the diary’s content from prying eyes.”

“Perhaps her ladyship merely tended towards the dramatic,” he countered.

“It’s possible, of course, Sire. Eight hundred years is too long ago to form definite conclusions, so every possibility is worth exploring. But details in the diary and other supporting evidence make me believe the grand lady had a real, true secret.” The king had the sudden, uncomfortable sensation of being a schoolboy again, staring blankly ahead as his tutor instructed him on the finer points of Hygotian history.

He shook himself from his daydream. “And have you uncovered that secret?”

“Yes, I believe so.” The archivist’s eyes shone with scholarly fervor, and the king felt like reaching out and shaking him. Was it a consequence of being a ruler that caused so many conversations to feel like waiting over a pot for water to boil? Or was this plodding manner of unmasking the heart of the matter something others had to suffer in their daily conversations as well?

“Well, let’s have it, man. What was she hiding?”

“Sire, I believe Grand Lady Osna wished to keep others from discovering the location of something magical that would save Hygot from destruction. Perhaps a weapon…” The archivist beamed with pride, rocking back and forth with excitement.

Orrus didn’t know whether to cry with laughter at the absurdity of the statement or sorrow at the man’s credulousness. Had the caliber of the royal archivists sunk so low? After a long pause, he cleared his throat and gestured for the man to go on.

“It may seem incredible, Sire—”

“It does.”

“Yes, ah, well, I don’t make such claims lightly. Let me outline the major facts I’ve gathered from the document. The first is that Hygot was about to go to war with Corim.”

The king snorted. Some things never changed.

“It’s most unfortunate that the kingdom was not only preparing for conflict, but also being plagued by illness. Her diary references some sort of pestilence, though the symptoms aren’t named. She speaks several times of being angry with her husband, King Ehrn, for not having done enough to deliver Hygot from the troubles it faced. In fact, the last page of the diary speaks of her plans to travel alone into Bleskar Bog in hopes of finding a place she called Eshkhal, seemingly to rectify the situation.”

His brows knit together. “Eshkhal? I’ve never heard of such a place.”

“Neither had I, nor any of my colleagues. The ‘esh’ prefix is unfamiliar, but the ‘khal’ root in ancient Hygotian denotes a large structure—some sort of a building. She speaks of it in mystical terms.”

King Orrus flipped the page over, scanning the transcription of the diary’s last entry. It was more individual words and nonsensical phrases than actual sentences. The part the archivist was describing was marked everywhere with scribbles, circles, and annotations. It read:

Night   I know … strange/mystical dream to me … young and old face … silent … go on to Eshkhal (Esh-place? Esh-hall?) in Bulsgar (Bleskar) … I must go alone.

“And why in the world would she think that leaving Haplyr for this ‘Eshkhal’ would stop a plague, let alone a war?”

“That is, of course, what my colleagues and I also wondered. She must have known there was something there that could deliver her kingdom from evil. Sire, can you envision anyone, let alone a young queen who hadn’t yet secured her royal station, being so bold as to steal away from her court to travel into the most dangerous, forsaken place on earth? She knew something there held the key to stopping Hygot’s troubles. It could be why she was so angry with her husband; he didn’t dare go himself.”

“Bold claims!” the king said. “I’m an educated man, but this is barely comprehensible. You’re embellishing.” A delicate pink blush stained the archivist’s cheeks. “And why would she ‘steal away,’ as you so put it? Why not take a Mirish entourage with her into Bleskar Bog for protection? Or, more sensibly, send someone in her place?”

“All valid questions, Sire,” the archivist said, swallowing. “However, we must hearken back to my first conclusion. She had some motivation in hiding the diary. We must conclude Grand Lady Osna had to depart in secrecy for some reason. Perhaps if she’d had an entourage traveling with her for protection some word would have leaked of her mission. Perhaps she was simply young and foolish and took the whole thing on by herself. Remember, there was some sort of a rift between the grand lady and the king. What king would allow his young wife to go barreling off on a dangerous quest close to enemy territory? No, our queen went alone into the bog.”

Orrus scoffed. “And then what happened? Did she survive? Bleskar’s a perilous place, even for the Mirish. The diary doesn’t mention any suicidal tendencies, does it?” He felt a stab of regret as the archivist’s blush deepened.

“N-no, Sire. But my colleagues and I have been combing the archives for any records from the same time period. Nearly nothing remains, certainly nothing relevant to the questions at hand, but we have uncovered a record from a historian writing roughly four hundred years ago, during the reign of King Juffro. The historian, a man by the name Feargus Foll, describes a ledger he discovered from the reign of King Ehrn. The original ledger in question is nowhere to be found, but his write-up of its contents is quite detailed.

“The ledger drew his attention because it included a return of funds to the royal coffers for an original order of five thousand military-grade swords and an equivalent number of bows, quivers, and arrows.” The archivist gave the king a triumphant look, and Orrus again could not shake the feeling of being a pupil squirming behind a school desk listening to a lecture, despite the fact he was staring down at the archivist from his velvet and gold throne. He made a mental note to instruct his secretary to only allow fifteen minute appointments for royal archivists in future.

“Yes, yes,” Orrus said, “very interesting. And what conclusions could one possibly draw from examining an ancient ledger?”

“Our Feargus Foll was adept enough to point out that for the crown to place such a large order for military equipment would likely indicate they were preparing for war. For them to renege on the contract—”

“—indicates the war was abruptly called off,” Orrus finished.

“Just so, Sire!” the archivist said. “Which would corroborate that Grand Lady Osna indeed found Eshkhal, and whatever was there immediately quelled any unsavory Corimian action.”

“Incredible,” Orrus breathed. Could it really be true that so many hundreds of years ago, a distressed queen had run from this very palace headlong toward disaster, all in a desperate bid to save her kingdom? And would he have dared do the same, if faced with the same situation? It would do them well in the present to take a note from the past and use whatever actions necessary to defeat the Corimian threat.

With a tinge of regret, he knew it was time to get on with the rest of the day’s agenda. His secretary was no doubt beside himself, not having thought to allot so much time for a mid-day history lesson.

He fixed the archivist with a kindly look. “Thank you for bringing such an illuminating piece of history to my attention. It heartens me that, through the dedication of our royal archivists, we are able to reconnect with a heretofore unknown piece of Hygot’s ancient past. I would greatly enjoy examining the original text, under your expert guidance, of course. I would not wish to cause even further damage to the document. Do speak with my secretary and arrange a meeting time.” Having conveyed his thanks, he waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal.

But it seemed the archivist was not ready to be dismissed. “Your Majesty!” he sputtered. “Begging your utmost pardon, but I came to you today not simply to relay a piece of history, but also to urge you to think of the implications this account could have for our own time! Grand Lady Osna and the Hygot she knew hundreds of years ago are not so far removed from our time as it might seem. We have a common enemy; let us use the lessons of the past for our own benefit!”

“And what do you suggest?” Orrus asked in a clipped voice, angry now at the archivist’s impudence.

The archivist’s eyes were wide and his forehead slick with sweat, as if he himself could not quite believe his daring, yet he answered his sovereign. “Sire, you should send someone to look for Eshkhal. There may still be something there that would cause the Corimians to abandon their warmongering.”

“That was more than eight hundred years ago! Surely you cannot be suggesting this so-called Eshkhal still exists?”

“Sire, King Ehrn and Grand Lady Osna once walked these very halls. The palace has seen many renovations and additions since those times, but the foundation remains the same. Why could Eshkhal not still exist—and whatever lay within it? It was built somewhere in Bleskar; save for the odd, errant bog runner, it will have had no human contact. What we find may be crumbling, true, but there must be something there that still survives.” His eyes were bright, almost feverish. “You could be the king to stop the Corimian spread once and for all.”

And Orrus’s mind flooded with the remembered sound of his tutor’s voice, raised in anger, and then a switch cutting through the air…

“Dannel, come here. Your prince presumes to trivialize the Corimian problem.”

Orrus leapt up from his desk, his chair clattering to the floor. “I didn’t mean it!”

“You said they will never come here.” The elderly tutor crooked a finger at the boy seated to Orrus’s right. Dannel rose from his chair, his face pale and ready. Orrus knew his friend would submit to the switch without a fuss; being the prince’s whipping boy came with a handsome monetary reward.

The tutor motioned for Dannel to come closer, then turned back to Orrus. The old man’s lips were quivering, and he spat his words. “I have been educating royals for nigh on forty years now, and even before I taught I was a schoolmate of your grandfather’s. He also underestimated the Carved Kingdom’s voracious appetite for land. Imagine his surprise when the Southern Isles fell. Then when I taught your father he had the same sentiment, presuming that the Corimians would stay satisfied, that they would have no interest in Arnyuth. And now look at Arnyuth’s current predicament. There is no satisfying the Corimians; religious zealotry knows no limits.”

Orrus could feel the truth in his tutor’s words, much though he didn’t want to. Every territory the Corimians conquered was an offering to their god, the so-called Secretkeeper, and the Corimians molded those lands to their sick aesthetic, growing stronger all the while.

Yet he still opened his mouth to argue, fear for his friend emboldening him. “But Hygot’s geography… What of Bleskar and the Gray Swamp?” Though the Corimians had their magic-craft, only the Mirish had ever been able to navigate that unknowable land, and the bogmen were firmly allied with Hygot. As for taking a circuitous route, there were the mountain ranges north of the Gray Swamp and the unpredictable tides south of Bleskar’s coast to contend with. A Corimian invasion was simply impossible.

Wasn’t it?

The tutor scoffed and leaned in, close enough that Orrus could smell his sour breath. “Never assume they can’t find a way. You will be king, princeling. You must assume the worst; that is your duty to your people.”

And then the tutor turned to Dannel and raised the switch.

The memory shot through Orrus’s mind in a second, and he suppressed a shudder. He had never forgotten his tutor’s words. When his father, Artis d’Haplyr, had died and Orrus had assumed the throne, the east had been quiet—but he could still feel the Carved Kingdom there, lurking. In his mind, the more developed Corimian magic became, the more likely that jagged peaks and crashing waves would no longer keep the two realms from warring.

As a precaution Orrus had ordered spies sent to Corim to gain some insight into magic-craft, but finding a competent spy who could pass for a Corimian, with their thick, dark hair and tanned skin, was only the first challenge. Getting said spy across Bleskar Bog and the Gray Swamp with an experienced Mirish guide was another thing altogether. The number of spies he’d sent who’d been cut to shreds by moorwisps, eaten alive by pirinh, or simply lost to the impenetrable fog of the Gray Swamp was frightening.

Now there were recent reports from the Mirish leader, Bertio Fellgate, that several of their best runners had vanished near Liacri, Corim’s most westward city on the edge of the Gray Swamp. Orrus’s advisers agreed with the Mirish that the runners had most likely been taken into custody by the Corimians. It seemed the Corimians wanted to use the bog runners for their own purposes—whether the Mirish were willing or not. No Corimians had been spotted in Hygot yet… but it was an inevitability waiting to happen.

Orrus looked down at the archivist, still awaiting his reply. He was so tired of it all, tired of the Corimian problem poking at him like a thorn he couldn’t pull out.

“You would have me chasing the footsteps of a woman who lived more than eight hundred years ago. A time when people thought the gods roamed the kingdom and interacted with mortals. All because of a moldering, barely decipherable diary.”

“Sire, it would only require sending a few men out with a Mirish guide. What have we to lose?”

What was there to lose? Just a few more lives, when their whole kingdom had a sword dangling overhead, ready to drop.

“Yes,” he found himself saying. “Yes. I will send men out to find this Eshkhal.”