The Era of the Khalar War
This article describes the era of the Khalar War pertaining to the History of Arangoth.
Rosebud and Aladar
There once lived a witch, a pallod-tespe, near the East Arangothian town of Tralazir. Her real name was unknown, but the local children had taken to calling her Warty-nose, and gradually the name had caught on among their parents as well. Indeed, the most notable feature about her face was an enormous wart that nearly doubled the size of her proboscis. Whenever she walked into Tralazir from her little hovel in the hills outside town, the children followed after her singing, "Warty-nose, Warty-nose, what's that on your nosey grows?" To her credit, she took these insults in stride. Unless one of them actually threw something (such as a stone, crab-apple, or kitten) at her, she saw no need to resort to the infamous "switching spell" in which she made dead twigs leap up from the ground and chase after them, beating them on their backsides all the way home. In any case, the witch believed that the townspeople expected witches to be ugly, and that her reputation made them all the more likely to seek her out to blight their neighbors' vineyards or concoct love-potions or fertility drugs. This, after all, was much of how she earned her living, although she ate mostly parsnips and radishes which she grew in her own little garden out on the hill.
One spring a daughter was born to Warty-nose. Rumor had it that the father was a wealthy and handsome entrepreneur of the town whose wife had failed to pay the witch for something or other, and that the witch had used her various love-potions and enchantments to seduce the husband out of revenge. This rumor only goes to show how amazed the townspeople were that anyone had gone near enough to Warty-nose for her to have a child at all. In any event, as the daughter grew up, she was the spitting image of her mother, except that she had two smaller warts on her nose instead of one. But the witch was proud of her daughter, who quickly learned to help seek out and pick the herbs and other ingredients used in making healing balsams and love-potions and so forth. She named the girl Rosebud.
The witch wanted her daughter to have fun and play with the other children of the town, and so she set about inventing toys and playthings for them. When winter came one year -- Rosebud was then about seven years old -- Warty-nose invented the Sled for her and had her invite all the other children of the town out to the hills to go sledding with her. This was the first sled ever built in all Arangoth. The witch smiled as she heard the children laughing and yelling outside in the snow while she sat indoors stirring at the bubbling froth in her cauldron. But when little Rosebud came home that night, she was in tears. "Whatever is wrong, my dear daughter?" the witch asked, lifting the girl up onto her lap. Rosebud cried: "The other girls and boys all said I was ugly and they wouldn't play with me any more and they took my sled away with them and won't give it back!" Warty-nose frowned. She had long ago learned to live with the shouts of "Warty-nose, Warty-nose, what's that on your nosey grows?" and so forth, but she didn't want her daughter to have to face the same thing. Nor did she understand. To her, her daughter was clever and beautiful, and she had a good heart, always trying to be helpful, never complaining about their bland meals of parsnips and radishes. She said what she could to comfort little Rosebud, but that night the witch lay awake in her straw bed, pondering what she might do to get back at the nasty children for what they had said to her little girl.
In the early hours of morning, while Rosebud was still asleep, Warty-nose went out on foot into the hills gathering leaves and roots and slugs and other items into her basket. By the time Rosebud awoke, the little hut was filled with an unusual aroma from the strange liquid bubbling away in the huge cauldron. "What's that, mother?" she asked, climbing out of her little bed. "This," said Warty-nose, "is a potion that I have never made before, but which all witches know how to make." Rosebud walked over, peered down into the cauldron and yawned: "But what is it?" Warty-nose lifted up a ladle-full and cackled: "Once we have bathed you in this, you'll never again have to face being insulted by those little brats from the town, at least not for long." Rosebud smiled and asked, "Will it make me pretty?" The witch shook her head. "Not exactly. It will make you into a sort of sponge which soaks up beauty from everyone around you. Never you mind how it works; but if you go out with some young'uns on -- say -- a walk in the woods, you'll come back shining like the sun, and they'll all look as homely as the udder of a leprous cow." Rosebud blinked and said with a grin, "So it will make me pretty!" Her mother laughed: "Only for a while, but then after a few days" -- she snapped her fingers -- "the beauty will evaporate into the air like boiled whiskey. However, the effect on the others will be permanent. However handsome or pretty they may have been before, they'll never turn another head so long as they live. That'll teach those brats." Warty-nose took the cauldron off the fire and left it to cool till that afternoon, and then she bathed her daughter in the strange-smelling broth, whistling as she ladled it over her daughter's head and rubbed it into her scalp.
It was some time before Rosebud had another chance to mingle with the other children of Tralazir, who avoided her like the plague, except of course to sing the "Warty-nose" song at her and pelt her with the occasional egg. In fact, it was not until Rosebud had reached the age of fourteen that an opportunity arose for her to join them on an outing. There was a festival being held several miles away in the town of Galanor with lots of singing and dancing and so forth, and the mayor of Tralazir had rented a big hay-cart to take all the children of the town there so that they could enjoy the festivities. Rosebud asked politely whether she might be allowed to go along. At first, the daughters of the townsfolk were inclined to refuse, but then one of them pointed out: "Rosebud is such an ugly girl that if we take her along she'll make the rest of us look all the prettier by comparison!" This seemed like sound reasoning, and so they invited Rosebud to join them. The morning of the festival, the boys and girls all gathered in the center of the town decked out in their best finery, chattering eagerly among themselves about the fun ahead and pretty much ignoring Rosebud. The journey to Galanor took roughly two hours, and by the time the cart arrived there the other youths of Tralazir had all become plain and unattractive, while Rosebud had mysteriously blossomed into a beautiful young woman. She enjoyed herself immensely all day, dancing with the dashing lads of Galanor and looking at all the marvels on display for the festival: the bear-leaders, the jugglers, the sword-swallowers. The other youths, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to hurry back home in despair, knowing only that some witchery was afoot and that they were on the wrong end of it.
As soon as the hay-cart arrived back in Tralazir late that night, Rosebud leapt out and dashed home to tell her mother about the wonderful day she had just had. Weeping, the other youths searched around frantically until they found the old sled from years before, and they carried it to the witch's hut, begging her to take it back and return to them their good looks. But Warty-nose only laughed at them: "This isn't about the sled; this is about the dark lumps of coal where your hearts should be, that you judged my daughter for her appearance only, and not for what was in her soul. Anyway, the change is irreversible. Begone with you!" So they went back to the town and accused Warty-nose of blighting that year's wheat crop, and within the week they had the satisfaction of seeing the witch burnt at the stake in the center of the market in Tralazir. They were about to burn young Rosebud too, but a courier arrived in Tralazir from Galanor just as they were tying her to a stake. Tootling on his bugle, he unrolled a scroll and shouted forth: "By the king's decree, the girl named Rosebud is to be taken to the royal court at Tagrana without delay!" The mayor objected: "She is the daughter of a witch, and her soul is tainted with witchcraft! She helped her mother blight this year's wheat crop!" The courier merely repeated his instructions and warned the mayor of the dire consequences of disobeying the orders of the King of Arangoth. And so they had no choice but to untie the terrified girl, and the courier carried her away on the back of his horse.
The next part of the story is easy enough to predict: King Aladar had finished mourning for his late wife, Queen Thrinda, and had now resolved to marry again. Rather, his chancellor Perlim Silkenvest had resolved this for him, insisting that a queen was an absolute must, both for public appearances and the running of the court. The king's couriers had been sent out throughout his dominions to gather the prettiest unmarried girls in the land, one apiece from each village and town and city. The couriers had reached Galanor first, where they had been told there was nobody in Tralazir worth their time except only that charming young creature from the festival who was known as Rosebud. There were hundreds of girls gathered together in close quarters at the court in Tagrana from which the new queen was to be chosen. By the time Rosebud reached the court with the royal courier, everything had worn off from earlier, and the poor girl looked like her old self again -- which is to say, the spitting image of her mother Warty-nose. The chancellor, who was in charge of organizing the whole affair, presumed that the town of Tralazir was making a mockery of the king by sending Rosebud to his court, and he made a note to have the town razed to the ground for daring to toy with a royal decree. But once Rosebud was admitted in amongst the other contenders for the queenship, the same transformation took place as had happened in the hay-cart. By the time the chancellor made his selection from among those gathered for the purpose (he did this, because he, and not the king, wanted it done in the first place), every ounce of physical charm had been absorbed in sponge-fashion from the lot of them by the witch's daughter from Tralazir. The wedding proceeded without delay, and the next day Queen Rosebud received the compliments of the bigwigs of the royal court.
Then, however, things began to go awry. Over the next several days following the wedding, a mysterious "ugly plague" began to afflict many persons at the royal court, whether of high rank or low. King Aladar himself had never been a terribly handsome fellow, but now he rapidly became less so. The servants who tended to the royal meals, and the maids who prepared the baths, and the manicurists and hair-stylists and in short anyone who came in close contact with Queen Rosebud soon grew terribly ugly without knowing why.
"I don't understand this," King Aladar exclaimed one morning to his chancellor, who never spent any time near the queen and had therefore kept his looks. "Suddenly the milkmaids and the local liverymen and the gongfermers have all turned into the homeliest wretches I ever did see! Luckily my darling Rosebud seems to have been unaffected by this curse, but I do wish I knew what was happening...."
"Indeed, your majesty," said Chancellor Silkenvest, "I have noticed this myself. And I can't help but notice it began right about the time of your wedding. If I might be permitted to offer a hypothesis -- ?"
"Of course!" cried King Aladar. "That's what you're chancellor for."
"Several hundred young women were here not long ago, all vying for the honor of becoming your queen -- the fairest of the fair daughters of Arangoth. All but one were sent home disappointed. Perhaps one of them has seen fit to avenge herself by afflicting your court with some sort of... er... ugliness spell, if there is such a thing," surmised the chancellor. "Go speak with your wife and see if she has any suspicions as to who might have done something of this sort. Otherwise I suppose we will have no choice but to round up all the girls again and subject them to torture until one of them confesses."
King Aladar winced. "Would that really be necessary?"
"I fear so, your majesty," replied the chancellor. "Otherwise the whole court might be forced to flee into the country, and that would be a great nuisance. Might lead to rebellions. A terrible risk. We have to nip this in the bud while it can still be nipped."
When King Aladar talked with Rosebud about this and told her what the chancellor had proposed to do, the new queen was terrified. Her conscience would not permit her to allow such a terrible thing to happen to so many poor Arangothian girls, and so she finally broke down and told the whole story of how her mother had bathed her in a strange-smelling potion, and how, willy-nilly, she now absorbed the beauty of others like a sponge. And, she confessed, the results were only temporary, so that soon she would revert to her original ugly self. While Rosebud lay weeping on the overstuffed bed in the royal sleeping chamber, King Aladar called for the chancellor again and told him what Rosebud had said.
"This is the most wretched thing I've ever heard," said the chancellor. "The whole point in finding a second queen for you was so that you might appear in public with a dazzling trophy wife on your arm, such as prominent kings have in other lands. But from what you say, nobody should be allowed near Rosebud; and in any case, she'll soon make the bulldogs in the royal kennel seem attractive."
"She has a good and pure heart," countered King Aladar. "I can tell that from looking at her."
"Yes," said the chancellor, "you can tell that, but nobody else can. This calls for drastic measures. She'll have to be killed for the good of court and kingdom -- I fear there's no way around it."
"Nobody's going to kill my Rosebud," declared King Aladar.
"Well, then," sighed the chancellor, "tell me what your alternative is."
They talked for a while, considering and dismissing various options, and finally agreeing on a solution. Rosebud would be locked away secretly in a high tower of the palace to which nobody but the king and chancellor would have access. In the meantime, the chancellor would search the countryside for someone who looked enough like Rosebud to pass as the queen. This false Rosebud would then be brought in secrecy to the palace and taught to appear in public as though she were really the queen. And so this is what was done. Queen Rosebud was taken off by King Aladar and the chancellor to the prison tower in the dead of night, weeping but without a word of protest in her defense.
Chancellor Perlim Silkenvest then scoured the provinces looking for someone who resembled Rosebud as she had appeared on the day of her wedding -- a splendid sight with hair the hue of burnished electrum, skin white as newfallen snow or perhaps milk, lips redder than cherries, neck like a swan's, etc. etc. etc. Beyond this, Rosebud luckily had no distinguishing features whatsoever, and so it was easy enough for the chancellor to find someone who could be made over into a Rosebud look-alike. He finally settled on a young woman named Tsetsa from a village in Sresar Vale -- a waitress in a rough-and-tumble alehouse who also functioned as the local prostitute. He related that the king had need of her services, but that he could not explain further until they reached the royal court at Tagrana. At first Tsetsa laughed at the chancellor, called him a liar and an impostor, and had him thrown out of the alehouse; but he returned and showed her his chancery seal and his golden chains of office, and then promised her every luxury and amenity for the rest of her life in return for obeying the king's wishes. "He's starting a harem, is he?" queried Tsetsa: "Well, that's as good a meal-ticket as any. Count me in."
When the chancellor returned to the court with Tsetsa, King Aladar had grave misgivings. As mentioned above, he had the ability to see directly into a person's innermost soul, and he did not like what he saw in Tsetsa's: to wit, that she was a self-serving opportunist with neither compassion nor a conscience. But the chancellor dismissed King Aladar's objections with a wave of his hand: "She'll do what is needed -- what more do you want? No good person would accept such a quirky role as this!" And so the whole scheme was revealed to Tsetsa, and she gleefully agreed to be a part of it. They took her up into Rosebud's tower, where a deaf-mute cosmetician labored for several hours applying make-up and re-styling hair in order to transform Tsetsa into the spitting image of Rosebud. At the same time, the chancellor was careful to keep the two women on opposite sides of the room so that Rosebud's beauty-absorbing qualities would not affect her look-alike. The chancellor also kept well away from Rosebud himself: he both despised and feared her, for he judged her to be a terrible threat to his king.
Tsetsa appeared at King Aladar's side whenever he went about in public: gorgeous, charming, shallow as a bedpan. Not a soul besides the two of them and Chancellor Silkenvest knew about the deception. Luckily, Rosebud had not been in the public eye long enough for the servants to become accustomed to her proclivities, her likes and dislikes, so it was easy enough for Tsetsa to pull the wool over their eyes. She shared the king's bed and took firm control of the royal household; she accumulated a vast and dazzling wardrobe; she filled the palace with little pug-nosed dogs, her pets; in short, she performed her role in every last particular. But King Aladar was not happy with her in the least, and his ability to read her soul at a glance became a curse. There was no love for him in her heart, but only a desire to exploit her position to gain more things -- more fine clothes, more pug-nosed dogs, more authority about the court. And they were expected to be seen together at virtually every waking hour. Nor could he speak openly of his feelings with Chancellor Silkenvest, who cared only about the good of the state -- admirable in a minister, but not in a friend. So at nights he went to visit and talk with the one person he now truly believed he could trust: Rosebud in her prison tower. Now she had indeed lost all her absorbed physical beauty, but with his inner eye King Aladar still saw her good and pure heart within, and that image was all that mattered to him. For with her honest soul she had entirely won over the king's sentiments.
To the servants, Aladar explained that he used the tower as an astronomical observatory from which to watch the stars. The food that was hauled up to the top of the tower using pulleys, and which regularly seemed to be eaten, was said to be for feeding the birds and rats that dwelt therein. At first, Tsetsa paid no heed to King Aladar's nightly absences, but gradually they began to bother her. Although she had the run and rule of the court, Tsetsa grew bored and resentful of the imprisoned Rosebud as her one true competitor in the world. She first deigned to sleep with all the domestic servants, one by one, and then the ministers of court, culminating in a torrid affair with Sir Erkintz Dollitrog, Grand Master of the Order of the Beady Eye. But King Aladar did not notice, or if he did notice, he seemed not to care.
Helehkri and the Sherkhen
Now, the seventy-years' peace treaty between Arangoth and the Khalar tribe of Sherkhen came to an end at this time, and emissaries were exchanged between the two sides in order to formalize a new treaty for another seventy years. The Arangothian ambassador sent to the lands of the Sherkhen was none other than Chancellor Perlim Silkenvest himself, and from the other side came a brother of the chief, a handsome Sherkhen horseman named Helehkri. The emissaries were exchanged in a solemn ceremony held upon the waters of Song Deep, which separates Arangoth from the Khalar lands. Both ambassadors were received with the traditional honors and feasted and entertained, and since both countries were inclined to maintain the peace between themselves, there was no difficulty in reaching an agreement. King Aladar showed Helehkri the most diligent attention during his stay, and for Chancellor Silkenvest the nomadic Sherkhen people slaughtered many a fatted ox and displayed many daring and extraordinary feats of horsemanship before him.
For her part, Tsetsa also showed Helehkri the most diligent attention during his stay. Late one evening she appeared at the door of his chamber in the spacious guest quarters at Tagrana, asking in a hushed whisper to speak with him privately. "Please," she begged as soon as she was inside and the door was shut, "take me back with you; I do not want to be part of this honorless court any longer. My husband the king plans to attack your homeland as soon as the treaty is ratified, hoping he will catch your fellow tribesmen off guard. He has allied himself with your arch-rivals, the tribesmen of Khtarpan, swearing to wipe your kindred from the face of the earth. My husband, the brute, has bragged to me about these plans of his. And I have begged him time and time again not to attack your friendly brethren, but his only response has been to beat me.... So please, I implore you, take me back with you to the mountains of Kahlahra! Let me tell you all the secrets of the Arangothian court, so that you can thwart his fork-tongued plans!"
The Sherkhen emissary Helehkri was astonished at these words from the person he took to be the queen of Arangoth. "That would be a very serious thing, carrying off someone such as yourself. Why, such a thing would be a cause for war in itself! How can I know that what you are saying is true?" he asked.
"If you do not trust me -- then ask to see the tower in which my husband keeps his royal observatory!" whispered Tsetsa, clinging alluringly to the foreign envoy. "That is where he keeps all the plans for his attack. When he refuses this simple request, you will know I speak the truth. But until then let me pledge my sincerity to you with my soul and my body."
Tsetsa had invented the entire story; King Aladar had no intention of stabbing his Sherkhen allies in the back. Bored and resentful of her position, Tsetsa had decided to cause as much mischief as she could manage. On the one hand, she had always fantasized about being abducted and spirited off to the northern mountains by a dashing Khalar horseman -- a common dream, nourished among the young girls of Arangoth by romantic tales of the heroic past in which this was a common theme. On the other hand, she hoped to prove to herself that she was prized by king and court highly enough for them to send an expedition to rescue her. Besides, she felt constrained by the walls of the court, somewhat stifling in comparison with the rough-and-tumble alehouse in Sresar Vale. She had a lust for excitement, and vast resources for causing it. And so, after sharing herself with the Sherkhen emissary, she proposed a plan by which she would travel with Helehkri's entourage back across the frontier disguised as a Khalar horsegirl (among the Khalar, horses and stables alike are tended by females, and Helehkri had brought a number of thoroughbred Khalar horses over Song Deep as a present for King Aladar).
"I would particularly like to see the tower, your royal astronomical observatory," said Helehkri the next time he was in the presence of the king, which was at breakfast the morning after Tsetsa's visit. But of course King Aladar could not let anyone into the tower in which Rosebud was kept, so he made up an excuse, saying that it was too heavily infested with rats and pigeons to allow so distinguished a guest to visit its interior. Helehkri was unable to finish his breakfast -- his appetite was entirely lost, his worst suspicions confirmed! From that moment onwards he had his hand constantly upon the hilt of his sword, lest the treacherous Arangothians should suddenly fall upon him and try to start the war then and there by massacring him and his retinue.
When it came time for the emissaries to be exchanged again, the two boats, festooned with colorful pennants, met at the center of Song Deep, one carrying Chancellor Perlim Silkenvest, and the other carrying Helehkri and his entourage, including Tsetsa incognito. As soon as the Sherkhen delegation was back on its own boat, Helehkri sternly ordered his men to set fire to the Arangothian vessel and then quickly pull away. Chancellor Silkenvest stood benumbed with astonishment as the flames engulfed his boat: "What are you doing? This will mean war!" he cried. "Death to you treacherous Arangothians!" shouted Helehkri at the top of his lungs. And, turning to Tsetsa (who now removed her disguise) he said, "May you be revered eternally among the women of my people, for by your words you have saved the Sherkhen from destruction." Tsetsa, feeling rather seasick, vomited over the side of the boat.
Of the twenty-five Arangothian noblemen who were on the ill-fated boat, twenty-two perished in the flames or the waters of Song Deep, including Chancellor Perlim Silkenvest himself. Only three men managed to save themselves by swimming the full distance back to shore, and they related what they had seen and heard: the Sherkhen emissary had set fire to their boat, and somehow he had Queen Rosebud on board with him -- she had seemed nauseous, and had perhaps been drugged. In any case, it was clearly war! -- a boat flying the royal colors burnt and sunk, a respected emissary and chancellor killed, and a queen kidnapped.
When King Aladar learned what had happened, he immediately appointed a new chancellor, Arlok Darian; and a general to command an attack upon the Sherkhen, Oryan Larkspin. Then, having placed the security of the realm in good hands, and being at last free from the influence of Perlim Silkenvest, he swore to end the charade regarding Rosebud once and for all. Releasing the poor queen from her tower, he appeared with her before the public at Tagrana and solemnly explained everything that had happened from the very beginning, begging his people for forgiveness; still, there should be no thought of calling off the war. Instead of kidnapping the queen, explained King Aladar, the Sherkhen had mistakenly kidnapped Tsetsa, his faithful servant. Now he, the king, would retire to the privacy of a country estate with his real queen, Rosebud, leaving Chancellor Arlok Darian to govern as regent until Prince Dorn (then aged four years) should come of age. He could not otherwise bear the shame he felt for having imprisoned his innocent Rosebud for so many months.
The people who heard this proclamation did not necessarily believe it. Some thought King Aladar had gone mad. Others thought he had made up the story so that the quest to rescue the queen from the Sherkhen would not take precedence over other strategic considerations. But the king and queen did indeed retire to a country estate, and for the next sixteen years Chancellor Arlok Darian acted as regent of Arangoth. King Aladar only appeared at the court in Tagrana from time to time in order to judge particularly important criminal cases, for he still had that uncanny ability to see directly into a person's innermost soul. Otherwise, he and his wife tended to their gardens and orchards and lived a peaceful, quiet life in georgic seclusion. Rosebud is said to have died some years later from the sting of a bee.
The details of the war itself are a matter for military experts, and this historian does not feel qualified to discuss them here. Arangoth did, however, win the war; and there is another story associated with the kingdom's victory. The might and right of Arangothian arms had at long last brought the wild Khalar horsemen to their knees. Five years after the haughty Helehkri had burnt the ambassadorial ship upon the waters of Song Deep and committed various other atrocities, it was time for the bitter reckoning for his crimes against humanity. King Aladar and Queen Rosebud having long since retired to their country estate as aforementioned, the kingdom was then in the able hands of Chancellor Arlok Darian and General Oryan Larkspin.
Throughout the course of the war, Chancellor Darian and General Larkspin had been on the best of terms. Chancellor Darian came from an old Arangothian family, and the bluest of the blue blood of the aristocracy flowed in his veins. He had kept order at court, which was no easy task: during the war, the old palace at Tagrana had been considered too vulnerable to attack, located as it was right across Song Deep from the territories of the Khalar foe. Therefore, the court had become a mobile operation, and the Arangothian government with all its treasures and records had been hauled about under tents in the boondocks of Sresar Vale and East Arangoth for the duration of hostilities. Chancellor Darian had made sure that there would be no interruption of justice and peace on the home front and became renowned throughout the kingdom for his impartiality and good common sense.
Meanwhile, General Larkspin had been in charge of the Arangothian forces, including the knights of the Order of the Beady Eye which had rallied behind the royal standard under their leader Sir Aritz Dollitrog, a giant of a man who had slain the notorious Helehkri in single combat during the closing days of the war. General Larkspin himself was of common birth, for his father had been a mere scribe in the royal chancery, but he had ennobled himself by his valiant deeds on the battlefield and by his cunning strategies that many said had won the war. Particularly brilliant had been his success in cutting off the retreat of the Sherkhen notables after the death of Helehkri.
During the war Chancellor Darian and General Larkspin had (as I mentioend above) remained close friends, signing their letters to one another "brother" and sending each other valuable gifts of wine, horses and opium on the appropriate Arangothian holidays. Now, however, their friendship appeared to be strained close to the snapping point.
"I should be the one to accept the surrender of the Khalar chiefs, of course," wrote Chancellor Darian, "since I'm the official representative of King Aladar, to whom he entrusted the royal seals and so forth. But of course, Oryan my friend, I'll want you to be standing at my side when this happens."
"My dear friend," responded General Larkspin in his next letter, "I do hate to bring a note of disharmony into our discussion, but it occurs to me that since I am the general who brought the Khalar to their ruin, and since it is after all the Khalar *generals* who will be surrendering, it would be only meet and proper for *me* to accept their official surrender. But you're certainly right, my dear friend, that you should be there."
With the next post-rider out to the general's camp went the following missive: "Far be it from me to question your abilities as a general, Oryan my friend, but if one must get down to the nuts and bolts of the matter it would not be quite appropriate for the son of a scribe, a commoner, to represent the whole of the noble estates of Arangoth to whom the surrender is being made. The magnates, I happen to know, would balk at the idea. Far better to step aside and not rock the boat, eh?"
General Larkspin growled as he had his secretary write in response, "My dear, dear friend, I should mention that the thousands of loyal soldiers who served loyally in my command are all very eager to hear that I, Supreme Generalissimo Extraordinaire Oryan Larkspin, have received the solemn surrender of the Khalar chiefs, and if they hear otherwise, that someone else whom they do not know has accepted the surrender instead of me, then they're likely to become disillusioned. And I needn't remind you that my soldiers are all still in arms. If they were to become disillusioned this might lead to excesses of rather an unpleasant nature."
Chancellor Darian and General Larkspin argued back and forth for quite some time over this point of etiquette until the time agreed upon for the surrender was upon them and forced a compromise. They would both stand side by side at the ceremony, and they would see to which of them the Khalar chiefs would choose, unprompted, to tender their surrender.
The Khalar Surrender
And so they gathered on their side of the border post erected upon the frontier between the Arangothian kingdom and the lands of Kahlahra with much beating of kettle-drums, blaring of martial shawms and trumpets, flying of royal pennants and whinnying of many a caparisoned and war-tested steed. Chancellor Darian wore about his neck the bejewelled golden regalia of his solemn office, while General Larkspin stood attired in his military garb, wrought with sharply-ground metal points and thick iron plates sheathed over in finest Ruthmarna goatskin. To the right of General Larkspin loomed the hulking figure of Sir Aritz Dollitrog in the habit of his knightly order, bearing in armored fist the still-bloody blade that had shorn off the head of the ignominious Helehkri a month before. The chancellor glanced over at this sword from time to time, his lip curled in disapproval at what he deemed poor taste; and besides, he thought the gory old thing might attract flies.
The Khalar came too, from their side, dismounted and leading along their horses beside them as stipulated in the terms of peace, heads bowed in abject humility as they trudged forward. The chiefs of the nine principal tribes approached Chancellor Darian and General Larkspin, the foremost of them carrying in his outstretched hands a small humpbacked wooden chest, its varnish thick and dark.
"Many times have we warred amongst ourselves, and many times have we joined in the wars of others," said the Khalar chief through an interpreter. "But never before has our entire race known such defeat as has been brought upon us by the kingdom of Arangoth."
Chancellor Darian nodded at these words; General Larkspin grinned and shot a sidelong glance at Sir Aritz Dollitrog, who swung his bloodied sword back and forth a couple times in boredom.
"And thus it is," said the interpreter, translating from the exotic and guttural Khalar tongue, "that we surrender unto our southern masters the greatest treasure of our people, which has always belonged to the strongest among us, but which now rightly falls into the hands of our conqueror. Take, therefore, the cherished... er...." The interpreter paused.
"The cherished what?" demanded General Larkspin.
"I don't believe there's a word for it in the common tongue, sir," whined the interpreter. "Now he's asking to which of you he ought to give this thing. It's in that box there, your excellency, whatever it is."
Chancellor Darian looked at General Larkspin, who in turn looked back at Chancellor Darian.
"What is it again?" inquired the chancellor.
"I don't really know, sir," replied the interpreter, on the verge of tears. "I've never heard this word before. It sounds a little like their word for a 'pigeon,' but it's not the same word. I'm so terribly sorry, your excellencies -- I studied the Khalar language for twelve years to become an interpreter, but I really have never heard this expression before. You can dismiss me if you want to."
The chancellor hemmed and hawed for a moment or two and then, with a glance at his colleague, said, "Well, I suppose it's only right that *it* be handed over to my esteemed friend, General Oryan Larkspin, for his gallant role in defeating the Khalar hordes."
The general coughed. "Mm -- yes, well -- but what *is* this thing?"
"The Khalar chief says," interjected the interpreter, "that it is the most mysterious and magical thing, the most wonderful and weird, the most singular and sinister, that has ever existed in the world, your excellencies, if that helps. Oh, and they also say -- "
"Yes?" replied the chancellor and general at the same time.
"They say that once it has been turned over to you they all want to be killed on the spot."
Sir Aritz grinned and clutched his sword a little more securely: "I think I can handle that."
General Larkspin looked nervously at the little chest. "Mysterious and magical, eh? Singular and sinister? Well, er -- shouldn't my dear brother Chancellor Arlok Darian receive the honor of taking this -- er -- thing, considering that he, you know, represents the king and queen and all?"
The interpreter listened to the Khalar chief for a moment and then translated: "He says he wishes you would end the terrible suspense and take it, if you're going to. And they do not want to live if they no longer possess it. He asks whether you're *afraid* of the... er... whatever that bloody word is."
"Get rid of this incompetent interpreter!" snapped Chancellor Darian. "Out with him, and cancel his pension, too. This is ridiculous. Are there no Khalar who speak the common language and can tell us what this blasted thing is they want to give us? And whether it's dangerous?"
A couple Arangothian guards carried the interpreter off by the scruff of his neck, and inquiries were made among the various Khalar horsemen who were gathered around, dolefully watching the surrender that seemed to be delayed somehow, and for some reason that they were unable to comprehend. Finally one young Khalar horsegirl came forth, curtsied to the chancellor and general, and said: "I speak some Common. What's the problem? Why will you not accept our surrender? Must you humiliate us even more?"
The chancellor pointed at the humpbacked wooden chest held out by the principal Khalar chief and barked, "We don't know what that thing is. They say it's magical and whatnot. What is it? Is it going to blow up or what? Are you trying to trick us?"
The horsegirl glanced at the chest and breathed in sharply. "It's no trick. It really is our most deeply cherished treasure. And it's...."
"Yes, yes, what is the wretched thing?" demanded the chancellor impatiently (his stomach was growling, because he hadn't had a chance to eat before the ceremony).
"It's wonderful," murmured the horsegirl.
Chancellor Darian and General Larkspin exchanged exasperated glances once again.
Suddenly the horsegirl leaped towards the chief who was holding the little chest and seized it in the blinking of an eye, dashing frantically back in the direction of the Khalar frontier, yelling: "We cannot surrender it! It cannot, will not, shall not --" But then the rest of the Khalar fell upon her with a sudden fury, and a moment later one of the horsemen walked back towards the Arangothian notables with the little chest in hand -- spattered now with blood; and, with a bow, he returned it to the principal Khalar chief.
"Oh, this is getting ludicrous," snarled Chancellor Darian to General Larkspin: "Why don't you just take the thing and get this over with?"
"Why don't *you*?" responded the general coolly.
"Fine," said the chancellor, and unceremoniously snatched the chest from the hands of the Khalar chief. "There. We accept your surrender. Know that all affronts upon the Kingdom of Arangoth are similarly doomed to suffer defeat, and scheme against us no longer."
As the Arangothian deputation filed away from the place of surrender, the Khalar horsemen began to weep and wail, and the nine chiefs threw themselves upon their swords and died almost instantly. With that, the five years of the Sherkhen War came to an official close.
The Siren Stone
Now, while all the royal archives and treasures were still being returned to the palace of Tagrana beside the now-calm waters of Song Deep, there was the obligatory triumphal procession through the streets of the capital. (It was not until many years later that Drache became the capital.) There was so much cheering that the distant rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning were entirely eclipsed by it. Trumpets blasted and blared until the trumpeters' lips blistered, and the commoners tossed cats and kittens onto the various bonfires in the public squares to induce their festive caterwauling. (Yes, this was a terrible thing, and happily this custom has since died out.) At the head of the procession strutted the musicians of the royal military band with their shawms and kettle-drums and shrill pipes. Then a-marching came the infantry in their bright brass-buttoned uniforms: the regiments of Transdariania, of Arania, of East Arangoth; and in their wake came afoot the tassle-laden Rondissian hussars, Arangoth's most faithful allies, their long waxed moustaches curled out to either side of their faces, bearing aloft their serrated dress-scimitars and intricately-wrought iron battle axes, and chanting in unison: "Hu, hu, hu, hu!" Next followed all the volunteers from foreign parts, some mysteriously cloaked, some well-nigh glowing with magical intensity; and overhead flapped those winged creatures which had contributed to the victory, among them not a few dragons of various hues and sizes. Then followed the carriage bearing Darian and Larkspin, and whenever it rounded a new street corner it was met anew with a thunderous cheering and applause and an avalanche of fragrant flower-petals dumped out of bushel-baskets in the rickety upper stories of buildings to either side of the thoroughfare. Behind them, but a little higher up on an elevated benchlet, sat the ten-year-old Prince Dorn of Arangoth and his sister, the thirteen-year-old Princess Esrelinde, both waving and grinning at all the finery and excitement. Next followed another carriage bearing in it the families of the chancellor, the general, and other important persons. Behind them, upon their gallant war-mounts, rode the Knights of the Beady Eye with Sir Aritz Dollitrog at their center, still holding aloft the bloody sword which had beheaded Helehkri. The regular Arangothian and Rondissian cavalry followed next, with the rear brought up by seven dozen fine Khalar horses captured from the enemy during the war and the looted standards and insignias of the various tribal military contingents.
Almost as an afterthought, the little chest had been included in the procession. It was, after all, the symbol of the surrender -- whatever it was -- and with everything else there was little time to worry about that question -- eventually it would be presented to the king and queen, perhaps. And so, for now, it had been placed inconspicuously at the back of the carriage carrying the families of the general, the chancellor, and other bigwigs. There it went almost entirely unnoticed, since eyes were instead riveted on the two caparisoned white stallions that drew the carriage along, or on the strapping sons and gorgeous daughters of the Larkspin, Darian, Dollitrog, Silkenvest, Swanneck and other ancient and noble Arangothian lineages. Rare indeed such a glimpse was, since these blue-bloods rarely emerged from their high-walled manors into the public eye. They were excited to be out, and showed it -- especially the youngest ones, punching and poking at each other relentlessly and recklessly. Little Lelmunette Darian gave little Bodo Silkenvest a shove at one point, and he nearly went tumbling off the carriage -- which would have been a serious thing, what with the hooves of the horses of the Order of the Beady Eye directly behind them. But in righting himself he managed to knock the little chest off the back of the carriage, and it hit the street with a splintering crack. The Order of the Beady Eye obliviously rode forward right over the chest, as did the Arangothian and Rondissian cavalry -- batting the fallen object back and forth like a shuttlecock in their forward trot.
The main part of the procession went on ahead, and as it began to rain in earnest those who had been marching down the street swarmed into any available inn or hall or arcade to escape the rain, as did many of the drenched spectators. Free drink for all the heroic soldiers of great Arangoth! -- whether this began as a legitimate offer or was the idea of the soldiers themselves, nobody was sure, but once the rumor was out the barkeepers could not help but go with it.
"Bodo knock chest off cart, papa," said little Lelmunette Darian to her father as he handed her a little mug of hot cider. The room smelt damp from all the claustrophobic people drying out from the sudden downpour.
"Oh?" replied the chancellor, signing his autograph for a persistent swineherd. "Oh! *That* chest! Knocked it off the back of the carriage, eh? Did anyone pick it up?"
Lelmunette shook her head and took a drink of the hot cider.
"You're sure? Is it still there?"
"I guess so," said Lelmunette. "The cider too hot."
Chancellor Darian made his way across the crowded room, carrying his daughter on his shoulders, until he found General Larkspin. "It seems that Khalar chest fell off the back of one of the carriages during the parade. You'd better send someone to go back for it, eh?"
The general shrugged. "If you want my opinion, leave it there. Nothing that comes from the Khalar can be any good. If they treasure it so, what better way to tweak their noses than to toss it aside into some squalid alleyway? Anyway, I find the whole thing a bit disturbing. If there's not a word for the thing in the Common language, then it's got to be un-Arangothian. If it's worth anything, it'd be for sale on the black market by now -- and if it's not, why worry about it?"
"Whatever's in that chest might be covered with gemstones and gold, of course."
"True -- or it might as easily be the shrunken, dried head of some ancient Khalar chieftain."
"You don't think so?" Chancellor Darian grimaced at the thought.
The general nodded. "Or a venomous snake which they're hoping will come out and bite the poor soul who first opens the box. Aye, the Khalar are a devious lot, and I wouldn't put such a ruse past them."
"I hadn't thought of that."
Laughing, the general clinked his glass of brandy against little Lelmunette's mug of hot cider. "You should think a little more, my friend. It's all for the best that neither you nor I will be the one to find out what's in that ridiculous chest. The gall of those Sherkhen for handing us such a thing....!"
As mentioned earlier, the Order of the Beady Eye and the Arangothian and Rondissian cavalry had advanced forward over the place where the enemy's treasure-box had fallen onto the cobblestones; nobody had seen it fall. When the Khalar horses had been led by, however, the chest had finally been knocked out of the roadway by a fortuitously-placed hoof. Rolling over and over, it cracked open against one of the elms lining the street -- and something shot out of it, continuing to roll and roll and roll until it came to a stop against the side of a baker's shop. The people on either side of the street had been watching all the while -- not a few of them hoping there was something valuable in the box and that they could scramble away with it in the confusion.
It was roughly a foot in diameter. It glowed, and it sparkled, and it hummed -- a single, wonderful note, neither loud nor soft nor anywhere in between. It sang, and the song it sang was vast and oceanic and prodded each emotion at its core within the soul. It emitted a palpable aura of love -- agape, philos, eros. It was all-nourishing and all-fulfilling, sirenlike in its serene splendor. In short, it was a pretty nifty little thing, and it caught everyone's attention and glommed onto it like a barnacle to a hull. The people stood entranced for a moment -- puzzled, distracted, not noticing the raindrops beginning to fall from the angry sky above. Then someone started to laugh, and it infected the entire street. Laughing breathlessly, complete delight written on every face, everyone pushed forward to get closer to the thing that had come to a stop against the side of the baker's shop. If they had to trample anyone to get there, or if they themselves were trampled by others, that was a small price to pay for the priceless. They danced, and they circled, and even as it grew dark and raindrops pelted them like gravel from heaven they celebrated the object until they collapsed out of exhaustion. As others came to see what the fuss was all about, they too succumbed to its perfect seduction, laughing until they cried -- for there is a fine line between a laugh and a scream.
The next day they were still there, packed so densely that no cart or carriage could pass. These crowds were duly reported to Chancellor Darian, who sent people to investigate several times during the morning and early afternoon. But none of them returned. Nobody who once approached close enough to learn the cause was able to escape the rapturous fishnet with its human haul, but the laughing and singing and dancing could be heard for miles. Like a lure, it enticed and snagged more people -- from the outlying parts of the city, and then from the hinterland. Nobody went to work. Nobody tended the fields. Nobody ate or drank anything, for what was food and drink next to basking in the complete perfection of the thing that had come to a stop against the side of the baker's shop?
"I don't understand it," muttered the chancellor, pacing about his reception hall. "Have I a rebellion on my hands? And so soon after our victory in the war? Has everyone in the whole city gone mad? How long can they keep this up? Send out the city guard -- I must know what's causing this terrible disruption!" The city guard did not return. Nor did the Arangothian infantry. The chancellor would have gone himself, but by now he had begun to grow deathly afraid of what might be out there -- what might make so many thousands take sudden leave of their senses. The singing and shouting kept him awake at night and kept him from concentrating on any work during the day. He summoned various wise men, priests, soothsayers, and so forth from throughout Arangoth, but nobody was able to tell him anything. Finally Gadpisi, the wizard-hermit from the Black Lagoon, arrived in Tagrana. Unlike the others, he had not been summoned. Gadpisi simply knew when he was needed and showed up -- but not very often, for he was an extraordinary recluse. Nobody liked him very much.
"I am Gadpisi," he announced himself to Chancellor Darian, causing a flash of lightning to appear several feet behind him for dramatic effect. "You are bewildered by a problem and you have no idea how you will go about solving it."
"Yes," replied the chancellor. "How did you kn--"
"I know many things," interrupted Gadpisi, "but let us not waste time with idle chatter. For the last two weeks, the people of your city have been crowding together and partying riotously. They neither eat nor drink -- nor do they sleep. Some have died from lack of water. Others have been trampled underfoot. You rightly fear this Thing that has overtaken your people, so you have summoned many lesser persons to try to solve your problem. They have all, of course, been unsuccessful."
"Why? What is it?" cried Chancellor Darian, rising to his feet.
Gadpisi closed his eyes and hummed to himself for a moment. "It is a cute little glowing ball."
The chancellor curled his lip. "A cute little glowing ball?"
"That's right," snapped Gadpisi, his eyes flashing. "A cute -- little -- glowing -- BALL! But its cuteness veils its sinister potential. Do you understand how ley lines work, and what an interdimensional portal is?"
The chancellor shook his head.
"Well, this has nothing to do with either of those things. Mmmm.... from my vast readings I know of but one object such as this, the great Khalar Siren-Stone, in the presence of which all a person's cares vanish instantly. The Khalar, they say, have learned, over generations, to live with it -- to revel in its presence, but yet retaining sufficient will-power to draw themselves away before starving to death. It is their greatest treasure, however, and they would never part with it. This must be another such piece...."
"Actually," said the chancellor, "we recently defeated the Khalar horsemen in a five-year war and received some mysterious chest as a token of surrender from them which went missing just before this crisis began."
Gadpisi paused for a moment. "Did you think I did not know of your five-year war, or of your victory? Yes, of course. It is the great Khalar Siren-Stone, and you Arangothians are too weak-willed to fend for yourselves against its overwhelming gratification. The solution is really quite simple. You'll need to put the thing back into a box of some sort. As long as it's kept enclosed, it has no power whatsoever. Shall I go and do this for you?"
"But wouldn't you be affected by this... thing?" queried Chancellor Darian.
"I beg your pardon?"
"How would you be able to get close enough to it to put it in a box?"
"I don't understand what you're getting at."
The chancellor cleared his throat. "Won't you be entrapped by this whatsis-stone too?"
"Oh, I see. No. You don't understand," said Gadpisi with a chuckle. "I am Gadpisi. I am invincible. I am immune to the effects of siren-stones. But I will need some sort of a container."
Thus it was that Gadpisi strode forth through the streets of Tagrana to the baker's shop, levitating effortlessly above the crowds where necessary. Snatching up the odd, glowing object as though it were a canteloupe, he placed it into a breadbox and closed the lid. Instantly the swarming crowds fell still, many collapsing onto the ground, all dizzy, disoriented and bewildered. Suddenly there was a mad rush towards the city's public fountains, where the poor commoners climbed all over each other to slake their thirst after long hours without drink of any kind. They left behind many thousands of dead -- starved, parched and/or trampled, festering miserably upon the cobblestones. Gadpisi, after uttering a brief magical incantation to effect a mass resurrection, turned and walked back to the court, whistling, carrying in the breadbox the most wonderful, most lethal thing the city had yet seen. He hauled it in to the audience chamber, where Chancellor Darian and General Larkspin were seated.
"Here it is, boys," said Gadpisi. "You may not like my methods, but then it's you that got yourselves into a mess from which the only way out was through employing a Gadpisi.... Now -- we'd best seal this thing up in such a way that it won't be opened again easily."
"What, are you going to place some sort of spell of sealing over it?" asked the chancellor.
Gadpisi smirked. "A hammer and nails should do. Does either of you gentlemen have a problem with termites?"
"Yes, my manor is infested with the damned things," said General Larkspin.
"I suggest," said Gadpisi as he nailed the box shut, "that you put this in your cellar. Termites will eventually eat their way into the box, see, and then they'll be so entranced by the siren-stone that they'll stay there -- neither eating nor drinking, just like your poor fellow citizens here. And they'll draw all the other termites after them. That should exterminate them -- much as *ahem* everyone in this city might well have been exterminated. Good day, gentlemen." -- Here ends the story of the Siren-Stone.
Seeds of Civil War
At that time, there was a young noblewoman at court by the name of Sarphe. She was the wife of the ostentatious Sir Aritz Dollitrog, Grand Master of the Order of the Beady Eye, whom she had married at the age of thirteen. She had borne him two sons, whose names were Tintran and Klephtan. Now, she was also incredibly charming, witty and beautiful. Sir Aritz, for his part, was popular, handsome, strong, tall (like all members of his family) and politically powerful. He could run faster than anyone else in Arangoth, and could best anyone at wrestling or drinking. He was also an accomplished lutenist and delighted in devising limericks, though never ones of an obscene nature. In any case, the court was astonished and dismayed when he turned up dead. He and Prince Dorn had been out hunting alone in East Arangoth when, as Dorn told it, a wild boar had charged the unfortunate Sir Aritz. There was nothing more to say. Sir Aritz was laid to rest with due honor, and the seventeen-year-old Prince Dorn comforted the young widow Sarphe by marrying her himself. Since his father King Aladar died the next year, they became king and queen of Arangoth -- although because King Dorn was not yet of age to rule (twenty years), his father's Chancellor Arlok Darian continued to serve as regent for another three years.
Now, it does not behoove the writer of a chronicle to include mere gossip; however, in this case the gossip may have played a part in shaping the grand scheme of Arangothian history. Some said that Prince Dorn, lusting after the gorgeous Sarphe, had himself killed Sir Aritz Dollitrog so that he could have the girl for himself. Of course, Prince Dorn was nowhere near as strong or brilliant as Sir Aritz, but the complete lack of witnesses made the thing fair game for speculation. In any event, Sir Aritz's sons Tintran and Klephtan eventually grew into men, and Klephtan was later named Grand Master of his father's guild. Klephtan -- then Sir Klephtan -- caught wind of rumors that his father had been killed by Prince Dorn -- then King Dorn. He could not believe them, but he could not shut them out of his mind entirely either. And so he developed a grudge deep within his soul against his sovereign, the King of Arangoth. He hid it well beneath his scheming smile, but it was there nevertheless. Since Sir Klephtan was later to prove himself to be an arch-traitor against the crown of Arangoth, we might seek the original motive for his treason in this deep-rooted grudge.