The High King
The air above the Island at the Edge of the World echoed with the sound of a hundred thunderclaps as the great beasts dropped out of the sky.
Three dragons, elders by appearance and manner, came swiftly to rest in front of the stone circle, where they bowed in deference before Artus.
“I think they want instructions,” John whispered.
Artus looked at the magnificent creatures before him, then turned and pointed at the battlefield.
“Help them. Help my friends.”
It was apparently instruction enough. The dragons bowed their heads a second time, then stroked their wings and rose into the air.
Directly to the east, the Troll and Goblin armies had just marched back onto the battlefield at the center of the small valley and were expecting to participate in the wholesale slaughter accorded to overwhelmingly victorious armies. Thus, they were surprised to suddenly be themselves overwhelmed by a larger, stronger army of dragons.
Uruk Ko, whether through wisdom or cowardice, immediately signaled for his troops to lower their weapons and their banners. As many kings retained their thrones through diplomacy as through conquest, and it made more sense to acquiesce than to go through what would be a pointless loss of soldiers in the name of pride.
The commanders of the trolls did not engage in a similar burst of reasoning, and instead opted to fight the incoming dragons.
The conflict lasted all of three minutes, and that was only because the dragons kept having to move out of one another’s way as they proceeded to incinerate, chew up, or step on the soldiers of the Troll army.
The Shadow-Born would not fall so quickly, or easily.
Tummeler was very disappointed.
“Cheer up, old sock,” Charles said as they entered the tent of the Winter King. “I couldn’t have done it with a dozen cannonballs, let alone three blueberry muffins.”
“It would’ve been just th’ two,” Tummeler complained, “if that first Wendigo hadn’t turned ’is head just as I conked ’im.”
“Still,” said Charles, “when you got him with the third muffin, he was at a dead run—and that made for a much more impressive display of sportsmanship.”
“Really?” Tummeler said, brightening. “Thanks, Master Charles.”
Inside the tent, Charles lit the torchieres on either side of the door, and what their light revealed was unmistakable.
It was in the center of the tent, on a simple wooden platform that had leather handles for easier transport. As they’d expected, it was an iron kettle about three feet high and slightly less in circumference, giving it a somewhat elongated appearance. The exterior was decorated with bronze platings of cuneiform writings and stylized images of ravens.
They had found Pandora’s Box.
There was no cover or lid, just the remnants of wax around the edges.
“So,” said Tummeler, “what’s y’r grand idea?”
“We can’t look into it,” said Charles, “so transport is going to be a problem. So we have to go with our original plan and close it—and I think that Samaranth knew more than he was telling us. That’s why he gave you the shield.”
“Let me do it,” said Tummeler. “I can’t see into it at all—it’s an insufficiency of height, as my friend Falladay Finn would say.”
“Go ahead,” said Charles, handing him the shield.
With considerable effort, Tummeler hefted the heavy piece of bronze above his head and approached the open kettle. In one fluid motion, he slid the shield off his head and onto the top of the iron container—where it clicked into the raised lip, fitting perfectly.
Before Tummeler could move or speak, the kettle they called Pandora’s Box began to glow with an unearthly light.
“That’s either really good, or really bad,” said Charles. “But I expect we’re going to be finding out which sooner than we realize.”
When the dragons arrived, the Winter King had been facing the leaders of the bruised and battered allies, appraising them. Charys and Eledir were prepared to fight to the death—but Aven and Bert had all but given up hope. The death of Nemo had been a great blow, and the apparent loss of Jack an even greater one. Thus, the Winter King was expecting a complete submission when, in a few moments, his world turned upside down.
At first he attributed the dragons’ sudden appearance to his summoning, figuring the delay was due to the rotation of the Earth, or dragon inefficiency, or something he could get angry about, being that he now commanded them. It wasn’t until they started squashing trolls that he realized they weren’t there in service to him.
A shout of triumph rose from the ragged allies, which brought a snarl to his lips.
The Winter King spun about. “Cheer all you like,” he said bitterly. “You won’t be alive long enough to savor your victory—not while I still command the Shadow-Born!”
The timing could not have been better to render the Winter King utterly speechless—for as he spoke, the thousand-strong Shadow-Born wavered, and vanished.
“Well,” said Charys, stamping his hind legs and shifting his grip on the massive pike he held, “I would like to announce that the school of ‘Beating the Tar out of Wendigo’ is once more in session.”
Once more, the battlefield was a frenzy of activity, lit brightly by the flames of the dragons. The elves, dwarves, and centaurs formed a blockade around the Dragonships and their injured comrades and kept the Wendigo in a thick cluster with a flurry of arrows.
Staying together in a pack made sense when in combat against fauns; against dragons, not so much.
In the chaos of the fighting, the Winter King slipped away. Aven was making her way back into the valley to look for Jack, when she saw the Winter King scaling the embankment to the west. She paused for a second, uncertain of what to do, then turned and began to follow him.
The rest of the fray lasted only minutes, as the dragons were pretty much impossible to defend against, much less attack with any success. With the battlefield clear of combatants, the allies were free to return and tend to their fallen comrades, where they made a startling discovery.
All the soldiers who’d been struck down were still alive.
The opposing army had lost many of their soldiers. But it was the plan of the Winter King to harvest the stolen shadows of the fallen warriors to create still more Shadow-Born. So while there was damage, and blood loss, and the occasional missing limb, the bodies of the elves, dwarves, and mythbeasts were otherwise unharmed.
It was not a total victory: Most of the fallen had lost their shadows to the now-vanished Shadow-Born and were little more than rag dolls. But they still lived. And where there was life, there was hope.
“Extraordinary,” said Eledir. “The Winter King’s own greed gave us more than a victory—we’d have lost more if he’d simply planned for slaughter, rather than angling to use our fallen as his servants.” He shook his head in wonder. “When I saw the dragons arrive, I was hopeful of a victory, but to have no casualties…”
“You’re wrong,” Bert said sadly. “There were casualties—one dead, and one that may wish he had died.”
Charys had returned to the campfires with two bodies slung across his massive back. One, the fallen captain of the former Yellow Dragon, who had been the most valiant of them all; the other, the young man who wanted more than anything to go to war, to be in battle, and show the world his worth and mettle. The eyes of both were closed—but only one would ever open them again.
In the circle of stones, John and Artus watched with amazement as the dragons utterly transformed the shape, scope, and outcome of the battle that had been raging below.
“It’s no wonder that everyone swore oaths of fealty to Arthur,” said Artus, “if this was what happened when someone ticked him off.”
“I doubt he called on the dragons for every little dispute,” said John, “but the possibility would certainly have been an effective deterrent.”
“It was,” said a cold voice, approaching from below. “Why else would the other races have been held in check on merely the possibility of a human king who could summon them?”
It was the Winter King. He stepped inside the circle of stones, sword drawn and at the ready.
“That was very impressive, the way you switched the books,” he said. “I’d been torturing my chief navigator for nearly an hour before I realized why all of his incomprehensible coordinates involved mentions of blueberries.”
“Thanks,” said John. “I didn’t expect it to work myself.”
“Of course, you should have kept a better eye on it later,” said the Winter King, noticing the just-stirring Steward of Paralon lying some distance away, “or else that imbecile wouldn’t have been able to take it away from you.”
“True,” John admitted. “Still it seems to have worked out for the best—for everyone but you, anyway.”
The Winter King’s eyes blazed. “You think so? You’ve lost more than you know, boy—and I still intend to have my victory here and now.”
“Artus summoned the dragons when you could not,” said John. “If you’d had a better translator than that fool Steward, you might have too. But what victory can you have now? The ring you wear is meaningless, and even the Geographica won’t do you any good now.”
Hearing them talking about him, Magwich came fully awake. “Master!” he screamed. “Master, help me! That one, there—he hit me! On the head!”
The Winter King barely bothered to glance back at his hapless servant. “I told Magwich to burn it,” he said, giving the Steward a withering glare, “but it seems he’s unable to do even the simplest of tasks. But I don’t need the book or the ring to become the High King.”
“They will fight you,” said John. “All the races of the Archipelago will fight you. They’ll never let you take the Silver Throne—not while a true heir still lives.”
A wicked smile spread across the Winter King’s face, and John realized with horror that that was precisely what he had in mind.
Protectively, he moved in front of Artus, placing himself between the two kings.
“You can try to kill him,” John said, “but that still will not make you king—not of a throne that has been passed along the only bloodline to have the mandate of the Parliament.”
“But I do have the mandate,” said the Winter King. “The blood that flows through his veins flows though my own.”
“You’re a member of the royal line?” John said in astonishment. “I don’t believe you! It’s a lie!”
The Winter King chuckled. “No, it isn’t.” He paced slowly in front of John and Artus, taking great pleasure in the effects of his revelations. “Do you think the Parliament would spend decades locked in debate, or even entertain the notion of a usurper taking the throne, if I didn’t have a legitimate claim?
“No,” he continued, “they have been unable to choose a new High King precisely because there was one of royal blood who could block all comers—myself—but whom they in their foolishness could not bear to appoint.”
“How could you be an heir?” asked Artus. “All of the king’s family—my family—were killed.”
The Winter King laughed. “Boy, I am much older than you give me credit for—in fact, I am almost as old as that fool shipbuilder Thoth, or Deucalion, or whatever it is he calls himself now.
“I am even older than the Silver Throne itself,” he continued, “and I swore to your grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather that his heirs would one day kneel before me. And here you are.”
Suddenly, the Winter King struck out with his sword, creating a deep, brutal gash across John’s chest. The Caretaker screamed and dropped to his knees, trying futilely to draw his own sword. The Winter King kicked it away, then gestured for the approaching Magwich to take it up and hold the sword over John.
Artus managed to get his own short sword free of the sheath, but he was no match for the Winter King’s prowess. In seconds the heir to the Silver Throne was weaponless and helpless before his attacker.
“It’s ironic,” said the Winter King, “that I should be holding a blade to your throat twenty years after I held it at the throat of your grandfather, and your father before him.”
Artus looked up. “You killed my family?”
The Winter King nodded. “That’s what I find ironic—the entire Archipelago believed your grandfather to be an evil man, when he was actually one of the greatest kings ever to rule here. His only mistake was in placing too high a value on protecting his family.”
“What do you mean?” said John, who was still breathing hard, although the bleeding from his wound had slowed. “Archibald killed his family.”
“So the story goes,” said the Winter King. “But in truth, all he ever did wrong was overstep his bounds, when he asked that idiot to steal Pandora’s Box. That was a forbidden magic—and its use brought with it a mandatory expulsion from the Archipelago.”
“Then why did he risk using it?” said Artus. “What was so terrible that he would risk losing even the support of the dragons?”
The Winter King grinned. “That would be me. I had been in exile myself for many years in his world,” he said, flicking his hook at John, “and had only recently returned after discovering the secret of passage to the Archipelago. I built the Black Dragon and went to Paralon to demand that Archibald relinquish the throne.
“He equivocated and stalled long enough to find a greater magic with which he could defeat me—Pandora’s Box. And when he opened it, he lost the mandate of the dragons, and that fool Samaranth took his ring, when he should have taken the box instead.”
“Why didn’t Samaranth just let him use the box?” said Artus.
“Because,” John cut in, spitting flecks of blood as he spoke, “even the king has to abide by the rules—and using evil to fight evil was not the way of the Silver Throne.”
“Well put, if misguided,” said the Winter King. “Archibald had lost the ability to summon the dragons—but would not name me his successor. So I killed his family, one by one, and then the king himself. I thought I’d gotten them all,” he said to Artus, “but it seems I was mistaken.
“And now I will offer you one small, final mercy. The same one I offered your grandfather, which he refused.”
He sheathed his sword and stepped closer to Artus, extending his hand, palm down. “Kneel before me, boy. Swear fealty to me. Make me the rightful heir. And I will give you a quick and painless death. Refuse, and your agonies shall be unending.
“Kneel and swear fealty to your ancestor….
“Kneel, and swear by my true name—Mordred.”
“Mordred!” John said, eyes blazing. “I don’t believe it!”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” said Mordred. “All I need is his oath—and then I shall be king of your world, too.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Aven stood just outside the circle of stones. She was holding two swords—one pointed at Magwich, and one pointed at Mordred.
“Ah—the Pirate Queen,” Mordred said, redrawing his sword. “If you don’t mind, we’re dealing with men’s business here, and we’d like our privacy.”
“Not going to happen,” Aven said again. “Everyone in the Archipelago will know what you’ve done, and there’s no way in hell you’ll ever sit on the Silver Throne.”
“There are two of us, and one of you,” Mordred said.
“Two of us, and one of you,” Magwich repeated with shaky bravado.
“How can you get to me before I cut the young king’s throat?”
“You won’t cut his throat,” said Aven, “because you need him to swear the oath to you—and he won’t.”
“He will,” said Mordred, “if I order Magwich to kill his friend the Caretaker.”
Aven looked at Magwich. “Listen to me, Steward. Whatever else happens here, I will kill you. Whether or not John dies, or Artus dies, or I die—I will kill you with the last of my strength, no matter what.”
Magwich screamed and dropped John’s sword, then ran down the hill, shrieking and madly waving his arms.
“Well?” said Aven, turning back to Mordred, as John scrambled to his feet and retrieved his sword. “Two against one, in our favor this time.”
“But my sword is at the boy king’s throat,” said Mordred, “so it seems we have a stalemate.”
“Actually,” a deep voice rumbled from above, “this is what’s called a ‘checkmate.’”
Samaranth dropped out of the sky, and with one swift motion disarmed Mordred and carried him back into the air, clutching the Winter King in a great gnarled claw. He stroked the air with ancient wings, and they hovered almost motionless high over the edge of the waterfall.
“You were a terrible student,” said Samaranth, shaking his head. “I understand your ambition, and your desire for greatness, but you’ve handled things so poorly these last twenty years since your return, that I think it’s time for you to step offstage, so to speak, and let others direct the course of affairs in the Archipelago.”
“You don’t have the right to command who rules in the Archipelago,” said Mordred.
“Neither do you—but Archibald deserved better than to die. And you’ll die yourself long before you ever have a chance to sit on the Silver Throne.”
“I’ll live to suck the marrow from your bones, you old fool,” Mordred spat. With a sudden motion, he drew a wicked-looking dagger from one of his boots and stabbed it into the great dragon’s claw. The dagger broke off at the hilt.
“It’s not that I dislike you, Mordred,” the dragon said, “because I do like you, a great deal. But at heart, you really are a stupid little man.”
Samaranth opened his claw.
Mordred—the Winter King—fell soundlessly into the void and disappeared into the darkness.