It was a perfect day. Peaceful. Relaxing. The weather was agreeable in every particular, from the cheerful brightness of the sunshine to the mild cool of the breeze that wafted over the mirror bright surface of the lake. The food spread out on the small picnic table was varied and yet uniformly delightful. Graven Pious Rex could have stayed in this perfect milieu forever except that something wouldn’t let him. It nipped at the ends of his fingers and the tips of his toes. It wasn’t anger, or pain, or anything that he’d known as a motivation before.
He resisted the strange urge on principal. He was the master of his own destiny. Or perhaps he had been. He wasn’t certain any longer. Since he had arrived on the broad green plains he had struggled to remember who or what had brought him to such a place.
It couldn’t have been an enemy. There wasn’t a gilded prison for royalty anywhere in the world that could match the simple abode he found himself in. What’s more, his prison, if that’s what it was at all, held no walls, no chains and no locks. As far as he could see, there were no barriers to his departing from the lake shore and making off to wherever he wished.
Food of the most delectable varieties was provided whenever he wished, almost certainly by magic. That wasn’t what kept him by the lakeshore though. He stayed not because he felt imprisoned but rather because he felt free. Free of the anger that had always simmered in him and burst out uncontrollably on so many occasions that he had lost count.
As a child he’d apologized for his outbursts. He’d tried to make it up to the servants who had been injured in his tantrums. As a King, there could be no apologies. It hadn’t been hard to stop offering them. A few words at the right time, and he’d seen how the problems lay not within himself but rather stemmed from the failures of those around him.
On the shores of the lake though there hadn’t been anyone to fail him. Or anyone for him to fail. He was free of the burdens that came with the crown he wore. More than that though, he was free to feel a peace that he’d never experience before.
It wasn’t that peace was inflicted on him though. He could still feel anger when he chose to. He’d managed to work himself up into a frenzy after the first day for example. He’d pitched a fit of frustration at his captors for not revealing themselves. It had been short and loud and had left him feeling spent and foolish.
That had surprised him. He’d never found an end to his anger before. Getting angry had only left him angrier. It was a cycle that he’d harnessed and used to push him forward, leading to more anger and more momentum. His unquenchable drive to conquer had come from greed and pride in part but the lion’s share had been an undefinable anger at the world.
Without his anger, he understood his earlier actions only by the rationalizations he’d invented to support them. Sacking a peasant village? They were wasting limited resources better administered by his meisters. Betraying House Valewen? They were weak and ripe for the taking, if he hadn’t done so, someone else would have gained their lands instead. Diverting a demon army to the Priory of the Green Glen? It forced the Elves to sacrifice a regiment in its defense, and left them open to the raid from his troops that toppled their government in one stroke.
At the time those had all seemed like logical moves, and yet at each turn the world had shrunk around him. The fighting left the peasant village razed and unable to support a population for at least two years. It had vanished from the map. With House Valewen’s regiments losses in the field against Graven’s forces, the Keep of the Northern Star had fallen and allowed the demon armies to gain control of the entire peninsula south of Graven’s lands. The Priory had been the worst though. Though few in number, Graven’s nightmares since that time had largely centered around the things that had emerged from the ruin of the Priory.
That was the other reason he stayed by the lakeshore. No dark dreams found him there. By all his measures, the abode by the lakeshore was heaven. Or it would have been if not for the restlessness that wormed its way into his soul.
He struggled against it, at turns ignoring it, then crying against it, then trying to distract himself. He took up rock climbing and swimming and carving. All things he had wished to do in his youth but which had been left behind when he shouldered the mantle of kingship. The activities provided him with struggle and challenge and, for a time, diminished the restless longing that he felt. The better he got at them though, the more he felt his soul being nibbled away.
It wasn’t until a morning meal where he found two place settings on the dining table that Graven was able to connect his restlessness with what he was missing.
“I am alone.” he said in wonderment.
He had no sense of how long he had been by the lakeshore, and in all that time he somehow hadn’t noticed that there was no one with him. It should have been a dream come true, but for Graven it only exposed an emptiness that terrified him.
He ran from the lakeshore. He railed and screamed and made every determination to escape the prison he was so clearly bound in. Nothing stopped him. Nothing barred his path or hindered his progress.
Only time and the emptiness that he couldn’t escape.
One by one they melted his determinations and quieted his cries. Whatever he had been, king or fool, Graven knew he was no more. There was no one to strike out at and no anger within him to strike out with. After running as far as he could, he found that in addition to being empty he was tired. Terribly tired in body and spirit.
It was the second place setting that drew him back to the lakeshore. It was the one sign he’d seen of there being someone else present. When he returned though, his abode and the lakeshore were as empty as when he’d left them.
Except for one thing.
There were footprints in the sand leading to the water’s edge. Footprints that were far too small to have been his own.
Graven followed the footprints into the water, trudging out to waist deep before diving under the surface. He wasn’t able to follow the footprints far, his breath gave out too quickly. Their presence goaded him onwards though. He practiced his swimming, practiced diving and holding his breath. He waited at each meal, hoping that the mysterious visitor would return. He even began making small carved gifts and leaving them by the water’s edge.
The gifts were never taken though and the mysterious visitor didn’t return. That left only Graven’s training. He learned to hold his breath for a minute and then two. He constructed breathing tubes and explored to the limits of how far the light would show the steps in the lake bed. When the steps passed into darkness, he mined the hills for glowstones and constructed lights to illuminate his path. When he reached the limits of what his lungs could endure, he harvested airgrass to let him breathe underwater for short periods of time.
In this way he found the people of his past.
The footsteps lead him to a submerged peasant village. Despite being deep underwater, people moved around the village going about ordinary lives. Graven was there as his own troops road in. He watched the slaughter and wondered again at its purpose. He’d ordered it, he’d been sure of its purpose and necessity, but he could no longer say why.
He swam back to the lakeshore sickened. By the slaughter and by his reactions to it. He knew witchery when he encountered it and swore he would have no more to do with the strange village below the waves.
The next day though he was back. He left the lakeshore earlier and was able to find the village again easily. It showed no signs of damage or alarm. People tended to their tasks, some lazily, some with diligence and most with the kind of casual fortitude that comes from performing required work day in and day out. Late in the day the soldiers came again and again the slaughter commenced.
Graven was able to keep himself away from the village for the next two days. On the third day though he found an excuse to return. He hadn’t seen the commander’s face. He felt he should know the man who had bungled the job in case he was still alive and in Graven’s service. When the soldiers came through, they all bore Graven’s face.
The shock sent Graven back to the surface, but also drew him back the following day. He couldn’t understand it and that frustrated him and annoyed him. So he blamed the townsfolk.
He tried fighting with his army, joining the slaughter to expunge his frustration or at least make it stop sooner.
That didn’t work. He was left feeling even emptier than he had been. It took dozens of visits and battles before he was able to stop blaming the townspeople.
Then he blamed the army.
He took up arms against his own troops and fell in battle only to awaken tired and confused on the edge of the lakeshore. The defeat burned in him. The next day he pitched himself into battle again, to the same result. And the next day. And the one after that. However hard he fought, however he tried to prepare, he couldn’t change the ruination of the village.
The sweetness of the lakeshore abode was a salve to his wounds but it could do nothing to draw out the sense of nameless need that drew him back to the village. Over and over he returned to it, trying to find something he could do, someway to take control of the situation. Each day the village was restored though and each afternoon it was destroyed.
Despair drowned Graven as the water had been unable to. He ceased returning to the village for a time. Ceased carving gifts for people who could never receive the,. Ceased even eating. Part of him wanted to wither away, to be no more.
Anger had driven him out of such moods in the past, but he was broken and spent and had no anger left. He lay on the beach believing that until even his despair faded. He had nothing left, but laying on the ground was serving no purpose, so he rose.
Food waited for him. Food and two place settings. He had no stomach for food, so he did the only thing that he felt drawn to do. He swam back to the village.
It was well before the attack was scheduled to begin and for the first time, Graven sat down and watched the people. Not as “the villagers”, but as “the young mother with the child on her back and two more dancing around her skirts” and “the old coppersmith who was clanging away at her anvil” and “the well toned man catching a nap behind a stack of hay”.
He left before the attack came, but returned the next day. Little by little, day after day, in the silent world underneath the lake, he got to know them. He didn’t know their names so he gave one to them. Jali, the young mother. Bertude, the coppersmith. Wastrel, the napping man.
He couldn’t stop the attack, but he found he could do small things. When Jali’s second youngest darted away after a ball, he could step in and coral the youngster before she fell and gashed her lip open. Distracting Betrude at the right moment meant that she would lose focus on the piece she was working on intently and remember to take another piece out of the kiln at the proper time. As for Wastrel, Graven experimented with letting him nap or rousing him to avoid a beating from the Helgrid, the Inne Keeper’s wife. He wasn’t sure which was better though.
It was while he was exploring the hidden corners of the town that he found the body. The attack wasn’t due for hours, so stumbling on the still body of a boy no older than ten surprised the king.
He returned earlier the next day and discovered the boy cold and still then as well. He tried earlier again and still the boy was lost. He searched the town for a family with a missing son but couldn’t find any. No matter how early he awoke, he couldn’t reach the town in time to see how the boy had died.
He didn’t have to know. It wasn’t curiosity, or a sense of justice, or even anger against the cruelty of fate that drove Graven onwards. He didn’t have a name for the feeling that left him wanting to understand what had happened to the boy but that was because kindness was an almost foreign concept to him.
In the end, he stayed through one more battle. He waited in the ruin of the town, waited with the haunting spirits of its ghosts until the town was restored anew and then made his way to where he’d found the boy.
The child was alive, barely, when Graven found him this time. Looking at the boy, curled up in pain, Graven knew it hadn’t been violence that had ended the young life. The little one before him had starved. Slowly and inexorably, until thirst and hunger had left him too weak to live.
At his feet was the thing he had hated most all of his life, weakness too pathetic to survive, and yet the king stooped down and picked the boy up. He didn’t know why or what he was going to do with the young child. He only knew he had to do carry him away from this fate. It was no external mandate, no dictate of destiny. Graven knew that he couldn’t change anything for the boy, but at the same time, he couldn’t leave him there to starve. Not again.
The second place setting appeared in Graven’s mind and took his breath away. With the strokes of a long practiced swimmer, Graven sped back to the lakeshore with the boy in tow.
The child was on the verge of collapse, so Graven seated him carefully and spooned little drops of water into the boy’s mouth followed by crumbs of food. One after the other, with astounding speed, the boy drank the water and consumed the food. First crumbs, then tiny nibbles, then great big bites.
“Thank you.” the boy said after downing a plate full of food and several glasses of fresh water.
“I think the others are hungry too.” he added, and then faded away into a shower of silver sparks that fluttering up to the star washed heavens.
Graven felt hot tears rolling down his cheeks but couldn’t understand why. That night he slept soundly, as he hadn’t for a long while.
In the morning when he awoke, he saw that dozens of place settings were available on dozens of tables, and he understood. The boy was gone. Truly gone. His body would not be there in the village when Graven returned.
Graven knew the tables spoke to more than that though. As the boy had been freed, so too could the village be. He could bring them back. He could send them on, free them from the cycle they were trapped in. If he brought them into his house, he could give them what they needed.
But he would be alone once more.
The King turned from the lake and tried to walk away from the choice before him but he didn’t get far. The townspeople were weak. They weren’t even his subjects. It didn’t benefit him at all to free them.
And that was why he had too.
Whoever he was, Graven knew that he was no longer “Pious Rex”. The man he’d been hadn’t disappeared, he’d burned out and from his ashes, someone new had arisen. Graven wasn’t sure who that man was, but he did know who he didn’t want him to be. He knew the costs he didn’t want to pay, he knew the compromises he never wanted to make. Not again.
And so he swam for the last time to the village under the mirror bright surface of the lake and in doing so finally awoke from his long dream, in the bed of King Graven once more.
“There’s not much left of this world. Do you really think he’s going to be able to fix things?” Jin asked Pen as they gazed across the Dreamlit barrier to the real world world.
“It’s possible. He’s still the same guy underneath. Still as smart, still as driven, still as charismatic. All I did was correct a bit of poor brain chemistry that he’d inherited and gave him the chance to unlearn some of the problematic behaviors that he’d developed in response to his condition.” Pan said.
“Why though? I mean, couldn’t we have fixed things a lot better if we changed a few more things?” Jin asked.
“Like the rest of the leaders? Or maybe everyone else in the world too?” Pen asked.
“Even just the worst ones out there.” Jin suggested.
“We did fix the worst one out there. Or at least the worst one that I knew how to fix.” Pen said. “Sometimes though, it’s not about fixing things. Sometimes it’s about helping people fix things for themselves.”