A small giggle, and the patter of quick feet were all the warning he had. The sack was wrenched from his now slack grip, and the laughing beggar child was halfway down another alley before Alec caught the little thief. He swept the child up, his ferocious face enough to still her victorious giggles, yet his hands were gentle as he removed the sack from her curious fingers. Sleep-crusted eyes in a face smeared with dirt blinked back at him fearfully.
“This is not for you, child,” he said, setting her down carefully. “This is not for anyone.” She looked at him uncertainly, then darted away again, her ragged form disappearing into yet another narrow, winding alley. Rubbing his head, Alec continued, his eyes fixed upon the mountainous horizon, his mutinous mind reliving the events that led to his precipitous departure from the city of his birth.
The simple crown, wrapped unceremoniously in the burlap sack, was the now infamous Black Crown, once regarded as the arcane guardian of Tyvalia.
A receptacle of the power formed by the four elements: fire, water, air and earth, the Crown possessed awesome power when wielded by one of Rimmault blood, gleaning excess energy from the land for the use of its wearer. For decades, the Rimmaults had ruled with grace and perspicacity. They had served the people of their Kingdom with honesty and integrity. The power of the Crown was used with these objectives in mind.
That all changed, slowly, over the course of several hundred years, as innate greed began to supersede the goodwill of the people, and their kings became more enamored with the power that encircled their brow. Still, their rule had been just, until the reign of King Jonas Rimmault, whose actions finally led to war as his Lords rose up against him, protesting his gross misuse of power.
Alec remembered sitting at his mother’s table, days before the war broke out. His mother had served soup; it was thin, watery, the pale vegetables floating forlorn in crude wood bowl.
“I’m sorry, Alec,” his mother fussed, wringing her hands in her faded apron. “But ‘tis all as was left.”
“You’ve nothing to apologize for! ‘Tis the damn king who should be apologizing! Using the Crown for his own personal gain, while his people suffer! The man needs to be stopped -- and Lord Baleigh means to do it.” His mother stared at him fearfully, but Alec refused to drop his gaze. He rarely lost his temper, and only months ago would never have spoken against his king.
Yet King Jonas Rimmault had grown greedy, his morality crumbling in the face of unfettered power. It was his greed that had stripped the land bare, his orders that threatened the wellbeing of those he was tasked to protect. The people suffered for his vices. As it always is, men will be pushed only so hard before mutinous thoughts no longer seem so mutinous, but merely reasonable, and necessary for survival.
It was that night, after he finished his paltry dinner, that Alec made up his mind. Packing his meager belongings, he bid his mother goodbye, turning before the tears began to slide down her thin cheeks, to march behind the lords and ladies that spoke out against their king.
He pledged to follow Lord Baleigh, who was joined by Lord Linden, Lord Pyalla and Lady Sollara, as they marched toward Rimmault Castle. The men and women of the land raised arms alongside them, hoisting pitchforks, knives and daggers beside the proud lances and spears of soldiers.
It was this, the mutiny of his own people that ultimately destroyed King Rimmault. Unable to believe that he was losing the war, losing his crown, King Rimmault attempted an inexcusable act.
Alec remembered it clearly; he had been some distance away, battering a dented shield back into shape. The sudden silence was staggering -- for weeks he had lived in constant noise -- the absence of sound was more terrifying than the unending furor of battle.
Atop a once-grassy knoll stood the disgraced King of Rimmault, the Black Crown held high above his head. He meant to use the considerable force of the Crown against those that defied him. For one heart-stopping moment, Alec stood still, his hammer raised above the forgotten shield. Despite the silence, he could not hear the king over the intervening distance, but he saw light spark as the king’s hand flashed outward towards Lord Baleigh, across the battle lines. It was his final act.
Those nearby said the Crown sparked, fire spitting from the circlet, igniting the very air surrounding King Rimmault. He screamed for only a moment, and then there was nothing but a column of pure white fire. When the fire dissipated, only the Crown, lying dully in a smear of greasy soot, was left. King Rimmault was dead, yet in his death, he appeared to have destroyed the power of the Crown as well.
For months after the war, the Crown rested in a room walled in steel, held aloft on a cold steel pedestal, locked behind a steel door. As it was Lord Baleigh who had led the charge against King Rimmault, it was Lord Baleigh who ultimately ordered the destruction of the Crown, fearful that the Crown merely slumbered.
“No man, no woman, no country should be dependent upon an artifact that is subject to the whim of the wearer, and more powerful than any mage born,” he proclaimed.
And so it was that Alec, a man distinguished to Lord Baleigh for his expert craftsmanship during the war, was tasked with the destruction of the Black Crown.
For all its power, the crown was surprisingly unremarkable at a distance. No more than a simple circlet of black obsidian, it was a crown in name only. Up close however, the volcanic glass shimmered darkly, light glinting off angles that appeared sharp enough to slice a man’s finger to the bone.
That morning had started off like any other beautiful spring morn -- cold was in the air yet the wind sang and trees murmured in the breeze. Bright green shoots poked up from the ground blurring the distinction from winter to spring. Already the land recovered from the grievous insults inflicted by the late King Rimmault. Softly furred clouds smeared the sky made vibrant by the fiery sunrise. A sky of deep pink, shot with streaks of orange, faded to yellow as it stretched into the still dark reaches of morning. A purple haze hung between the trees, eerily still in the face of such beauty.
Offset against the variegated colors of the sunrise, the crown was stark in its simplicity. To destroy the Crown was anathema, and yet he had seen what this elegant, unassuming circlet could do. How with just a whisper, a thought, a kingdom and her people could perish for the whim of a greedy, arrogant man.
His resolve firming, he picked up his hammer and struck, his muscles bunching as the hammer descended. Sparks showered, biting his arms and face with stinging spite, and his shoulders shuddered from the force with which he struck. And still the Crown sat demurely upon his blackened anvil, not a dent nor a scratch visible.
In disbelief, he struck again and again, but the seemingly fragile Crown would not break. Only when the hammer itself surrendered, the head of it spinning off into a darkened corner of the smithy, did the assault cease.
Even now, as he snuck through the quiet, dark city, he remembered that awful day. He had failed. If the Crown were known to still exist, those seeking dominion over others would forever desire it. In desperation, he conceived a hasty plan; one that would protect the kingdom, but if discovered, would brand him a traitor.
The light of his forge had glowed late into the night, and into the morning, the flames his only illumination in the small smithy. He drew on skills he’d not used for years, modifying the tools of his trade to shape glassy rock, not metal. The relentless work did not stop for days, when finally he stepped back and looked at what he had wrought. A second crown shone on the scarred bench, identical to the original but for a small, nearly imperceptible flake of gray obsidian to the right of the Rimmault sigil where his chisel had slipped fractionally. For the first time in days the heavy weight lifted slightly from his shoulders, although his heart still beat in triple time for fear his duplicity would be revealed.
He raised his hammer a final time, his arms heavy. Once again sparks peppered his torso, yet this time a crown lay shattered, ten pieces of night-black obsidian lying haphazardly on the counter, their dark brilliance dulled. Beside them, the true Crown gleamed softly, appearing almost smug in its survival.
Moving slowly now, exhausted by his work, he swept the sundered crown into a simple sack, ignominiously tied shut with sturdy twine. The true crown he placed in a sack twin to the first. It was the only way to protect the Kingdom.
He had presented the false pieces of the Crown to the Five -- the Lords and Ladies that had risen up against King Rimmault, now ruling jointly -- his voice had echoed thinly in the great enclosures of the hall, his lies reverberating around him. His deceit had been accepted with warm smiles and relieved hearts.
Muted chatter roused him from his reminiscences; the city was beginning to awake. He sped up, intent on gaining the East Gate before sunrise. He rounded a corner then froze, his heart leaping in his chest at the sound he had been dreading -- the sound of the King’s Guard.
Hooves rang dully against the cobbles, sweeping around the corner behind him. He shrank against the rough walls, the sack clutched in nerveless fingers. Eyes closed, he waited for the first damning blow, the proclamation of his lie.
The hooves continued past, pounding through the gate and beyond. As the last horse swept past him, he opened his eyes. The relief weakened him; it was the fire brigade. Slumped against the wall, he pressed his hand against his chest, willing his heart to slow. As he trembled, the sack still held tightly against him, the sun slowly crept above the horizon, the golden rays warming the cloudy sky.
It was the first reaches of the sun that spurred him to movement. As the sun crept across cobbles still wet with dew, he forced himself away from the wall, feeling keenly vulnerable without the sturdy support of the wall. One foot steadfastly placed in front of the other, he finally reached the East Gate as the sun fully crested the horizon.
He was certain the guards would deny him egress yet summoning a confidence he did not feel, he sadly explained that he was on his way to visit family in the nearby village of Tyrol, for the death of his mother. The lie slid easily off his tongue, and the gates opened.
The sack hung heavy, yet he compelled a nonchalant, tuneless whistle, and drifted towards the road that led to Tyrol, and, more importantly, passage through the Siena Mountains.
A man of his occupation was a welcome addition to any traveling caravan, and he was swiftly hired on a caravan traveling to the city of Eridu, in Samarra, eastern neighbor of Tyvalia. The caravan carried bolts of intricately woven cloth, shot through with threads of gold and silver.
Their travel was quiet, interrupted only by infrequent encounters with caravans traveling west, bound for the kingdom he had so recently departed.
He cast shoes for several of the horses, and when he departed, just outside of Eridu, he was well paid for his time. He chose a small bolt of cloth as payment--red and gold fabric, the gold threads glittering richly against the deep red fabric.
From Eridu, Alec struck out on his own and headed north, skirting the marshes that plagued the west coast of Samarra. He traded the bolt of cloth for a sizeable sum in one of the larger villages, using the money to secure lodging at a ramshackle inn in the village of Sylna. It was a small village, set well away from the main road. Travelers, while not uncommon, were sparse, and the inn, having fallen into great distress, saw few patrons. He was often the only boarder, and on weeknights, when the common room was empty, he sat up with the proprietress, Albeena Gray. In short time, he was hired on at the inn, content with the simple labor.
Those first few months, the Crown never left his side, and the same niggling worry plagued his mind; what to do with it? Always he pushed the thought away. He was comforted, in some small part, by the fact that the Crown was obsolete.
Before, in the presence of the Crown, plants flourished, and flowers bloomed. Now, in his hands, the Crown was lifeless. Few flowers bloomed that summer, nor the next. It was a feeble assurance, to be sure, but it helped lessen the burden.
It took two years for him to lay the Crown to rest. It had been a hard summer. Crops seemed to bake in the ground, and the rains, when they came, were fitful and never plentiful. Those late summer nights were punctuated by the sound of thunder, lightening sparking in the brittle air. Alec woke one night to smoke burning in his nostrils. The inn was on fire.
By morning, the fire had been contained, but the inn had burned nearly to the ground.
The crown, hidden in a small leather bag, swung from his belt for days as he worked tirelessly to clear the ground for the new inn. The old root cellar was ruined -- the foundation of the inn had collapsed inward. The cellar was painstakingly filled in with the rubble and waste of the fire, dirt tamped down several feet deep to fill in the ruined space. Alec was instrumental in this, his spade moving twice as fast as that of others, shoveling dirt in with vigor. Halfway through the day, Albeena noticed that the leather bag was no longer on his belt. Alec made no mention of it, and she never asked.
Several weeks later, long after the hazy dusk had passed, to be replaced with the chill nip of night warning of the fall to come, a single candle sparked in the darkness. At that hour, there were only a few tired dogs lying in the dust, their tails wagging fitfully, to see the gleam of the candle. Reminiscent of that night over two years ago, Alec once again hoisted a simple burlap sack. This time however, the sack bulged with his few possessions, light in comparison to the heavy burden he had once carried.
At the edge of the village square, he paused, looking back once more at the inn. His face firmed and he turned his back on the village, striding purposefully into the night. In his wake, the clouds shifted, allowing a shaft of hazy moonlight to illuminate the inn. There, in the loose soil, soft green tendrils were poking through the earth, twining up and around the newly constructed foundation, leaves unfurling in the light of the moon to reveal small white blossoms bobbing in the gentle wind.