Once upon a time there was a boy named Jason, who grew up in a time of war.
He lived in the Ardain, a great land of rolling hills and fertile plains, and the biggest, darkest forest in the world. His home was a little town called Gath-upon-Brennes, which straddled the mighty Brennes river. It was a beautiful land.
For all his life, though, Jason had never had the freedom to explore the Ardain. It was occupied from coast to coast by cruel enemy soldiers. The Ardain made up half of what had once been the FirstKing’s mighty kingdom, but now the whole of the Ardain belonged to the enemy, except for one tiny town, that remained loyal to the king: Gath-upon-Brennes.
One day, in the summer of Jason’s eighth year, a hunting party from Gath-upon-Brennes stumbled across a weary band of the king’s scouts. The hunters were amazed to discover king’s soldiers so deep in enemy-controlled territory. The soldiers were equally surprised, to find people still loyal to the king. Enemy soldiers had chased the scouts for days, and now the king’s men gratefully took refuge in the city of Gath-upon-Brennes to rest and heal.
The enemy came for them, though, and attacked the town. The king’s scouts were impressed by the courage of the townsfolk, but they knew these farmers and merchants couldn’t stand for long against the enemy army. They decided to help, and they taught the people of Gath how to fight. They organized them, and helped them to build barricades and strong bridges, to help defend the town.
These soldiers spent more than a year in Gath, but the time came when they had to return, to report to the king on what they had found. The mayor of Gath, Jason’s father, begged the soldiers to take Jason with them. He was afraid for his son, afraid that the town of Gath could not stand forever, and he wanted his son to live to remind the world to fight. The scouts were reluctant, thinking a young boy would hinder them as they tried to escape back to safety, but they finally agreed.
The journey back to the king was a difficult one, through land firmly in the grasp of the enemy. Many times the soldiers were attacked and had to flee. More than once they were forced to stand and fight. Jason had been raised in a time of war, though, and he knew how to survive. After many weeks of hard journey, the band of scouts found their way to a port held by the king’s men, and caught a ship north, to safety.
When Jason met the king, the king was amazed by his story. Of course, the scouts had sent word ahead of what they had found, and the captain of the scouts had issued a full report concerning Gath-upon-Brennes. But the king was most impressed by little Jason’s words, as he told the simple story of his life in a lone town standing against the occupation. Listening to the boy, the king was struck with an idea.
The king sent Jason through all the lands he still ruled. He had Jason tell his story to all the lords and barons throughout the nation. Now, the enemy had owned the Ardain for many years, since before the death of the FirstKing, and many of the king’s subjects had given up hope of ever winning it back. Young Jason won the hearts of all he met, though, and his story lit a fire in their hearts. He reminded them of the courage, the sense of valor that had established the FirstKing’s mighty kingdom years before.
Jason’s message renewed the desire of the people to fight, and volunteers from all across the land came to the capitol to become soldiers. Suddenly the king had an army again, after years and years of dwindling forces. Suddenly he had the support of the nation, the will of the people to fight a war to reclaim their land. The king began making many plans for the future.
Even as the passion for war swept the nation, though, young Jason was losing his hope. In every lord he spoke with, in every baron he convinced to go to war, he saw first the desperation and the hopelessness that he had been sent to counter. When Jason met these men, they knew that the war could not be won. When they heard his story every one of them gained hope, but Jason remembered the despair in their eyes. He was just a boy, but he remembered the men he met, and the things that they had seen. He remembered their fear, and it became his own, even as he taught them courage. He couldn’t help realizing that Gath probably couldn’t stand for long – that his mother and his father were probably already captured or killed.
After two years of traveling the country, Jason was called back to the capitol. For the first time in decades the king had enough volunteers to fill his army. The whole country was behind the king, dedicated to reclaiming the Ardain. Now Jason was no longer needed, so the king called him back to the capitol to enjoy some rest. He spoke with Jason again, and saw how much the boy had changed, and it made him sad.
Now, the king had no son, and he had established his friend and councilor, Gaihran, to be his heir. When the king saw how much Jason’s message had hurt the boy, the king spoke with Gaihran and asked him to take the boy in, to take care of him and somehow teach him to be happy and hopeful once more.
Not long after that, the king went off to war, pursuing his plans. His campaign was successful, and his army took back several cities along the coast, but before they could move inland the king was taken in battle. The king’s army suffered a grave loss there, and had to fall back to the positions they had already captured.
The king’s forces tried again and again to rescue the king from enemy captivity, but it was no use. When news reached the capitol, Gaihran was greatly grieved. The council of lords insisted that the land needed a leader, so Gaihran assumed the throne with a heavy heart, for he was not a military man. He feared he could never finish the plans that the old king had set in motion. Instead he devoted himself to strengthening the land still under his control, and very much to the education of Jason.
Gaihran was not a young man, and he also had no son. He knew that the old king had intended Jason for his heir, so the new king sent Jason to the most impressive of schools in the capitol. He personally taught the boy how to read official edicts and laws, and the subtleties of politics. He brought Jason with him to banquets and state dinners, to mingle with the lords of the land. And, sometime in between the parties and the schooling and the etiquette lessons, the two found time to sit and talk for hours about the needs of the people and the role of the king.
A strange thing happened, then. Even as Jason was growing up at court, he was becoming a legend out in the world. The people of the kingdom, suddenly seized with a passion for war, had all heard the story of the boy from Gath, who brought word of resistance. Jason’s name was on everyone’s lips, and the people of the nation fell in love with his legend.
Not everyone was a fan, though. There were noblemen at court greedy for power, and they recognized Gaihran’s intent. They began to whisper among themselves that someone older, more powerful and more deserving, ought to assume the throne after Gaihran. They were afraid to make this claim openly, though, because of the boy’s popularity. Instead, they decided to use the church.
During the FirstKing’s reign, he established a single church throughout his lands. After the FirstKing’s death, the church quickly became quite powerful, for all the people of the land were faithfully devoted to the church. Many of the church’s leaders became politicians, and many noblemen sought to ally themselves to influential priests for the power that it granted.
So now, when the wicked noblemen wished to be rid of this boy who would be king, they turned to the church for help. The old king had granted the church the authority to counsel him on matters of faith concerning the nation, and Gaihran had likewise welcomed their advice. When they came to him concerning Jason, he had little choice but to listen.
Several very powerful leaders of the church met with the king and cautioned him concerning Jason. They said that he was from a peasant family, not one established in nobility, like those of the other lords. After all, hadn’t God established the ranks of nobility to demonstrate the fitness of some men to govern? Gaihran argued that Jason’s father had established himself as a lord of the land, when he became mayor of Gath-upon-Brennes, and that by all accounts he had proven himself worthy of the title.
But the priests were not satisfied. Jason had grown up in enemy-controlled territory, far from the church, and he was separate from his faith. Gaihran argued this point, too, relating how Jason’s family had sought to keep to the tenets of the church, even in the absence of ordained priests. He also reminded them that the boy had been schooled in the ways of the church since his return to the capitol, worshiping in good grace at the very cathedral of the men who were challenging him.
The men of the church would not be put off, but they also could not convince Gaihran to forsake the boy. Finally, they both agreed that Jason should have a private tutor assigned to him, a priest of the church, who could guide and advise him – and keep the church informed on the boy’s attitude and disposition.
The priest they assigned was Robert deMont, the son of a very powerful bishop. Robert had long spoken against war, preaching pacifism, and he was granted charge of Jason in order to thwart his call to war. The church and the noblemen who were against Jason hoped that they could hurt his popularity by distancing him from the war movement that had made him powerful in the first place. They could not have known that Jason himself had already lost all hope for a successful war.
Nor could they have known Robert and Jason would become such close friends. Robert was only a few years older than Jason then, and the two of them began to spend more and more time together. The two of them would go for rides in the royal parks, or sit for hours in the royal library discussing some piece of literature or history, or some philosophical idea that Jason had recently encountered. Always their discussion came back to war, and the rights and responsibilities of kings.
Life went on like this for several years, and Jason grew up. He fell in love with a girl named Myriam, and stole her away from a powerful young lord (making an enemy for life). He learned about the world from Robert, who had traveled even farther than Jason, and been at liberty the whole time. He began to enjoy the luxuries of life at court, and to some extent he forgot the horrors of his childhood.
Then one day Jason heard the news. The kingdom was rising to war again. There had been no real change in the state of things for years – ever since the day the old king was taken in battle. Now, all of a sudden, the call to war went out across the land. It caught Jason by surprise, and he went to Gaihran to protest.
Poor old King Gaihran could do nothing. He told Jason that these were ancient plans of the old king’s, set in motion long ago, and that the council of lords had decided to act on them. Public sentiment was still strong for war, and the army had been growing ever since Jason’s tour of the land many years ago. Now they had a mighty army (mightier than it had been since the Crusades, centuries ago). The noblemen cried for blood.
Jason went before the council in protest, demanding that they reconsider. He regretted the thought of the lives lost. He challenged the call to war in the central square, eloquently recalling the death of the old king, and of the FirstKing before him – great men who had died needlessly for the sake of war.
Gaihran watched this protest sadly, for he knew the young man could not win this fight. He did not try to convince Jason – he only warned him once, that the men with whom he struggled were powerful men, and when Jason would not listen, Gaihran relented. He understood the boy’s passion, and his devotion to ideals. He also understood the politics, and his heart grieved for Jason.
It was in those days, as the council prepared for war and Jason contested them, that Gaihran grew very ill. He had been sickly for years, and he’d seemed too feeble for his age ever since the old king had gone, but now his situation rapidly worsened. He had a sudden fever, and within two days he had died. Some whispered that he had been poisoned, that corrupt noblemen had conspired to kill him. Others said it must be some plot by the enemy.
Jason was crushed by the death of the king, who had been as a father to him for many years. He listened to the rumors – perhaps listened too closely, and too readily believed them – and he immediately began searching for some evidence of misdeed. What he found was far worse.
Traitors within the city were conspiring with the enemy, providing information on troop movements and plans. Even as the king’s great army sailed east, to prepare for an assault on the Ardain, the enemy soldiers were secretly amassing a force on the capitol isle itself. Jason learned too late that several towns had been captured, their citizens slain to protect the secret. The enemy knew that the army was away, knew the weakest points of the city, knew when and where and how to attack….
And Jason learned that one of his friends was among the traitors. In his search, Jason had gathered some of the king’s personal guards, and as they raided the traitors’ haunts, they came across a meeting of them, and there was a scuffle. Most of the traitors were slain, his friend Kevin threw himself at Jason’s feet, and begged for mercy. Jason ordered him imprisoned, and the young man was led away, still begging for pardon.
The traitors seemed to be dealt with, then, but the real threat remained. It was a terrible day for Jason, as he tried to prepare the city for the attack that he knew would come with nightfall. While he was trying to find soldiers to defend the town, Jason was summoned to a meeting of the council of lords. He reluctantly agreed to go, intending only to stay long enough to warn them of the attack, but at the council he learned that he had been named Gaihran’s heir, according to the will.
Immediately the wicked noblemen on the council began speeches on his inability to rule, but Jason silenced them all. In a terrible rage, he called them down for their petty politics. He told them of the threat to the city, of the attack yet to come, and of the role of the traitors in Gaihran’s death. Many among the council sat stunned, but Jason gathered the wiser and more experienced of them and took them off to prepare for the attack.
The enemy came by night, in a fight reminiscent of the defense of Gath-upon-Brennes, many years ago. Then, the king’s scouts had stood by the courageous citizens of Gath that the legend might live. Now Jason rallied the Royal Guard to the city’s defense, and he fought beside them. He protected the city he had come to love, and that night they were victorious. The enemy retreated with the coming of the dawn.
But cruel justice came on the heels of victory. The people of the city had heard of the conspiracy, and called for a judgment on the traitors. The council spoke with Jason, warning him not to upset the people, and with a heavy heart Jason pronounced Kevin guilty of treason. The king watched as his friend was hanged in the central square.
The council of lords gave him no time to grieve, not even time to think. Immediately they summoned him once more to a meeting, hoping to deliberate his fitness for rule (as he had thwarted them before with news of an attack on the city). They demanded that he meet with them and he consented, asking only that they grant him a few hours to rest. He asked time to go for a hunt with his friend Robert, and the council consented.
The two friends went to the king’s retreat, far away from inquisitive ears, and spent the whole of the day walking its fields and forests, discussing Jason’s situation. They spoke of the horrors of war, and of its inevitability. They spoke of the glorious dream of nationalism, and the ugly reality of wars of conquest. They spoke of kingship, and the responsibilities of lords. They spoke of abdication, and of usurpation. They spoke of old times, of their long years of friendship, and they laughed much, in between the serious talks.
At sunset, Jason sent word to the council that he was ready, and by the time he arrived in the city, the whole council was gathered. Those who sought to overthrow him were waiting for his claim to weakness, his insistence on peace – they intended to use his pacifism as an excuse to remove him from power.
But Jason showed no weakness. He stepped before the council of lords and told them his firm decision: for the sake of the nation, they would go to war. For the memory of the land the FirstKing had forged, they would go to war. To reclaim what was theirs, they would go to war.
King Jason’s war was glorious. He sailed east and rode with his army into battle. He led his men into the fray, calling orders and executing the old king’s clever plans, and within a year the whole of the northern coast was in the king’s possession once more. They moved inland, and sometime late in the second year of his campaign, Jason rode with a contingent of guards over the rolling hills to look down upon the little village of Gath-upon-Brennes.
The pretty hamlet was menacing now, a fearsome fortification, and Jason could see patrols roaming the walls even as the king’s army moved to surround the town, securing the land for miles in all directions. The town still stood, after all these years, and now Jason could see the FirstKing’s banner flying over the town. No secret resistance, but a true bastion of loyalty.
And Jason crossed the fortified bridges into the town, remembering their first construction in his childhood. He walked through the massive iron gates that had held enemy soldiers at bay. He walked onto the village green, where he had spent so many hours playing as a boy, and he remembered his mother and father walking across the green toward him, arms out, smiling and laughing….
And there they were, walking out to meet him. They were older – far too thin, but clearly still strong. Jason’s father shook his hand like a stranger, then knelt before him. Jason raised him up, laughing, and caught his father in an embrace. He hugged his mother tight, and he could not stop smiling. He had found his home again.