Benison Ioduok could open a door and arrive anywhere on Solkin, it was true. But the magic of a Story Keeper took a toll on the body, the soul, and the universe. So when he could, the old man walked or rode from one place to the next. Unfortunately, the world needed him more urgently than ever, it seemed, and his appointments rarely allowed it these days.
In fact, as he walked through the door which took him from a northern fishing village to a cave in eastern Penscarop, the Story Keeper was already late for his next meeting. Benison shook his head and pulled out his pocket watch, which had over a dozen different faces in five different numeral systems. He found the one for this particular region and adjusted the time a half hour back. The gears creaked and resisted as he turned them, but at last they acquiesced, and Benison was on time.
He leaned a little heavier on his cane.
The old man stood just outside the mouth of the cave, which was not a particularly interesting cave, and waited. The weather was always nice in these parts. Sunny skies, gentle breeze, pleasant air. Nothing like the Frostlands to the north. “A fine place to wait,” Benison Ioudek said to no one.
Soon Benison saw a horse appear over the top of a hill. It pulled behind it a black buggy with gold trimming that caught the sunlight even from a considerable distance. Behind that was another cart. Beside that another. Soon enough, an extravagant caravan was making its way down the road towards the Story Keeper, who hobbled out in front of them.
The driver of the head cart was a dwarf clad in green clothes and hide armor. She looked annoyed with Benison’s interruption. When she halted, the rest of the caravan followed suit. “Move aside, pauper.”
“Pauper?” Benison asked. “Can a man be poor if he is healthy? If he sustains himself off the land and has no desire for the currency of what some might call proper society. If am I content, wise, and alive, how can I be poor?”
“I haven’t the time nor the interest for your amateur philosophy. Return to your cave and leave us be.” She gestured toward the carts behind her. Many of them bore the copper and emerald flag of Dol Belvargamar, flapping proudly and brilliantly, like they commanded the wind. “You’re impeding our journey.”
“My cave? Can a man really – oh, never mind. My obstruction is quite intentional, you see. I wish to no longer be where I am, and would much rather be where I’m going, which is precisely where you’re going.”
“You have no idea where we’re going,” the dwarf said. “Now please, for your own good, stand aside before my horses grow impatient.”
“Well you’re going away from here, that’s all that matters. The roads aren’t safe ‘round here, I’m certain you know. The Below and all. I can pay.”
The dwarf grew more annoyed with each syllable. “We don’t need your gold. Don’t you see our caravan? Our flags?”
“Who said anything about coin. I will pay you with a tale.”
The dwarf lifted the reins and eyed Benison sternly. The old man did not move. “At ease, Dandayla,” a voice called from further down the caravan.
Dandayla frowned and straightened up as she turned toward the speaker. A half-elf woman in a radiant yellow dress approached the two. She had brown skin and long, dark curls that framed her face with wild elegance.
“Jus’ riff raff, Lady Thalia,” Dandayla murmured.
“No riff raff here,” Benison said. “Only a traveler in need of assistance.”
“You are speaking to Thalia Douieal,” Dandayla snapped. “Show respect.”
Thalia waved dismissively. “He’s not hurting anyone, Dandayla. It’s impolite to ask the elderly to bow.”
Benison considered kneeling then, just to prove he could. “It’s also impolite to abandon a defenseless traveler so close to The Below,” he observed.
“That it is.”
“He doesn’t even have coin,” Dandayla objected. “He offered to pay with a story.”
Thalia snapped her head toward the dwarf. “Cressenda Dandayla, be silent. I did not ask for your counsel.” The dwarf’s jaw tightened. “Do you have a name, sir?”
“Ioudek,” he replied. “Benison Ioudek.”
“The road is terribly dull this far west, Mr. Ioudek. I could do with a story.”
“Splendid. I know several.”
The Lady’s carriage was grown from the famed Vyaelwood of the Dol elves, which shined like polished stone. Elven druids sing songs to the trees there, compelling them to grow with different colors and qualities and to bear ships, homes, and carriages instead of fruit. This particular gift showed impeccable care and talent on behalf of both the druids and the forest, having grown with ornate designs in the colors of Dol Belvargamar’s flag.
The carriage’s prismatic wheels, meanwhile, were of dwarven craftsmanship. The vibrant, swirling colors and floral center had been crafted with precision and artistry that could only have been the result of half a hundred hours’ work.
Benison Ioudek had seen many marvels in his life, and he could count Lady Thalia’s carriage among them.
They were largely silent for the first hour of the journey. Benison did not ask Thalia how she came to be the centerpiece of such a wondrous caravan, and Thalia did not ask Benison how he came to be the occupant of so shabby a cave. They merely watched the hills roll by, commenting on the beauty and serenity of the region, until Thalia suddenly shuddered.
“I can’t stand those walls,” she said, referring to the dome in construction over what had once been the city of Seamoore. “Whenever I make this trip I see them, and…I just wish I could help those people.”
“Let’s distract ourselves with a story, then,” Benison said. “It’s about time I earned my passage, anyhow. And you’ve given me an idea for just the right tale. The story of the Good King Dundermoat.”
Thalia tore her gaze from the window, and nodded for the Story Keeper to continue.
“The tale begins right here ‘round these parts. Back before Seamoore went up. Back before Seamoore was even Seamoore. This land was just empty hills, untamed soil, and magical minerals beneath.
“It begins with a day much like today and with a traveler much unlike ourselves. Her name was Pless. She was a plucky, mousy halfling who had worked hard to afford a worthwhile education in the city that would become Castiron. Having quickly had her fill of proper society, the young woman had set out in search of new sights and adventure.
“However, Pless was not made for travel. Or rather, she was not experienced in it. And she quickly tired of both new sights and adventure.
“On this day much like today, Pless drifted down the Crystal Tears on an impressively large and thick leaf. She was not feeling plucky at all , and was too hungry, tired, and sore to properly appreciate the day’s splendor. In fact, she was in such a foul mood that the day’s audacity to even dare be so beautiful was an affront, and her mood grew even more foul, her bones more sore, and her stomach less full.
“More frustrating still was the cheerful humming that was carried on the wind. Though with it came opportunity. The tune belonged to a strangely-dressed man just a few yards from the river, digging a small hole with what appeared to be a hand-made shovel.
“Pless trudged toward him.
“The man’s clothes were positively royal. A shimmering green cloak the color of the surrounding grass, a tunic as vast and as blue as the sky above, and trousers reminiscent of the earth below. Atop his head, a crown made from woven branches and polished stone.
“He greeted Pless with a broad smile and sparkling eyes, an expression so joyous and sincere as to be almost comical. He saw that she was weary, and he fed her a collection of nuts and berries he had grown himself. They were more fulfilling and savory than any of the noble banquets she had attended back home. After, he brought her to the charming home he had dug out of the side of a hill. His bed was made of leaves, lumber, and wool, but it was the most restful sleep the halfling could remember.
“In the morning, Pless was healthy enough to be curious. At her insistence, the man introduced himself as King Sullivan Dundermoat, the governor of these lands, which he called Eartanu. When Pless had stumbled across him, he had been digging a place for a sign that declared them as such.
“‘Who chose you?’ Pless asked, and King Dundermoat outstretched his arms toward the hilly fields. He said that a king is not chosen – a king is right. Pless said that some might disagree, but Dundermoat did not listen, only pat her on the back and said that one day she would understand. One thing Pless learned quickly about the king was that he had no taste for negativity or arguments, and sought happiness in every moment.
“Pless thought the man mad, of course, as any of us might. But he had saved her life, and she was not eager to get out on the road alone, so she stayed with him for a time. He took her on a tour of the lands that made up Eartanu. It was quite a large region, and the week-long tour took them all the way from the O’grafkala mountains to Penscarop’s western border. From the Frostlands in the north, across the Crystal Tears to the south, and all the way to what was then the territory of the Dal Elves.
“During their travels, King Dundermoat told Pless that he dreamed of a utopia. A land where the concerns of what she called society would be irrelevant. There would be rules, of course, but the world would be governed by natural law. Law which would be interpreted by himself and others who could speak to nature.
“And speak to it he did. When the king asked a tree for fruit, it leant him its branches. One rainy evening, a family of birds led them to shelter at his request. When he spoke to a creek, the water parted and let them pass dryly.
“Amazed by his gift and intrigued by the notion of a society where people did not prey upon one another, Pless looked past his foolish optimism and offered to help the king build his kingdom. Using a map she had made in her journeys, she and the king visited nearby settlements, offering a world that returned to basics and embraced unity.
“Just two years prior, the people of Grandia went to war with the minotaur over some pointless dispute over gold and gods. It was fast and it was bloody, and in its wake people saw the wisdom and allure of a life unmoored from borders and economics. One month after Pless climbed off that leaf, Eartanu had a population of one thousand people.
“The people were skilled enough and the land was bountiful enough that living off of it was no trouble at all. Farmers farmed, hunters hunted, builders built, and the land gave them whatever they needed at King Dundermoat’s request. The kingdom was so spacious that people only had neighbors if they wanted them, and everyone lived their own life under the two rules of their just and fair king: Be kind. Spread peace.
“Within a year, the kingdom grew to a respectable size. With size came conflict, but King Dundermoat always resolved it with a word. People loved and respected their king, and his charming simplicity was infectious. If someone stole from a farm, the thief would leave a less greedy man, and the farmer would leave a more giving one. Everyone benefitted from his presence.
“Almost everyone. The war left the kingdom of Grandia feeling more vulnerable than they ever had, and King Olaf III desired a westward expansion, so that his borders would surround the O’grafkala mountains. To this end he sent Edward Bottlehlem II – grandson of Sir Bottlehelm, a knight who attached straws and bottles of ale to his helm – on a quest to settle the western edge of Penscarop.
“Sir Bottlehlem II was a charming man and his request for the land nearest the mountains was presented reasonably enough. They had more than enough land and King Dundermoat could ask it to grant him all the resources they would ever need. So Eartanu shrunk. A few families were displaced, but it was a peaceful transition.
“Not six months later Sir Bottlehelm returned, this time saying that King Olaf required access to the Crystal Tears for trading purposes because his kingdom was so much larger than Eartanu. King Dundermoat, ever kind and reasonable, accepted.
“As any who knows the ways of man could tell you, Sir Bottlehelm persisted. Eartanu shrank and shrank, and no matter how much Pless insisted that Dundermoat resist Grandia’s advances, the king remained resolute that, like with the thief and the farmer, sharing the land would make King Olaf a better person in the end.
“Two years later, when Eartanu’s borders had shrunk to five square miles near the sea and civilization pressed upon them like unpaid bills, Sir Bottlehelm paid his seventh visit to the kingdom’s humble clay-and-stone castle, where he made yet another request of the king. Now, at last, King Dundermoat saw that Pless understood the ways of lords and kings better than he, and he said, for the first time: ‘No.’
“Sir Bottlehelm, typically the very image of charisma and charm, did not take kindly to this. He grew angry. Arrogant. Demanding. But the people of Eartanu stood by King Dundermoat, who only asked, never demanded. And when Sir Bottlehelm threatened that his men would apprehend Eartanu’s people, for Eartanu was not recognized as its own sovereign state, the mountains rumbled, the wind howled, and the sea thrashed menacingly about as nature, too, stood by King Dundermoat.
“Sir Bottlehelm returned to Grandia in shame, and for the next five years, Eartanu was left alone. But King Olaf had left his mark all the same, and although the kingdom was seen throughout the world as a kind of utopia, there was mounting trouble in paradise.
“As the years went on the kingdom’s population increased as its resources declined. Trading with Grandia wasn’t an option, and while the land was willing to give its people what they needed, the land only had so much to give. It was in this state, with the people at their hungriest and the land at its driest, that Sir Bottlehelm visited the kingdom an eighth time.
“The knight said he intended to improve relations between their two lands, and requested that King Dundermoat assemble a meeting outside his castle. This meeting was noticeably different than the one that came before it. Eartanu’s people were less proud and certain and the grass was less green, but, standing face-to-face with Sir Bottlehlem, with Pless by his side, the Good King Dundermoat stood no less confident.
“‘I have with me a wanted poster,’ Sir Bottlehelm began. He was joined by an envoy of over a dozen Grandian guards. One stepped forward and presented an aging scroll. ‘It’s some years old now, but I think you will all find it of interest.’
“The parchment unfurled to reveal a magically imprinted image of a bearded, mustachioed man who looked vaguely familiar to Pless, but she couldn’t quite place him. Perhaps she’d seen his posters back home, so many years ago. Or some lord she knew. Or…
“‘This is Sullivan “Sully” Dundermoat,’ Sir Bottlehelm proclaimed. ‘A homeless beggar and convicted thief and murderer, diagnosed with delusions of grandeur, governance, and paranoia. To avoid charges, he fled west of the O’grafkala Mountains during the war, knowing full well the authorities would not chase him here. The man you have all wasted seven years following is no king. He’s a deranged fool who killed a companion he couldn’t afford to pay.’
“There was a period of silence and disbelief as Eartanu’s people looked first at the wanted poster, and then to their king. Maybe it was the hunger, maybe it was Sir Bottlehelm’s charisma, or maybe King Dundermoat really did look quite foolish standing before a castle of clay, wearing a crown of sticks. Whatever it was, in that moment, King Dundermoat’s people awoke as if from a dream, as the cruelty of civilization crept back into their hearts, and they began to laugh.
“It was uproarious. It was mean. It was hysterical. Tears flooded the eyes of men, women, and children as they regarded not just the absurdity of their king, but their own absurdity at having wasted seven years of their lives on his foolishness.
“Only two among the crowd remained silent. There was King Dundermoat, who was of course highly embarrassed, and a young halfling woman who would have one day, not so long ago, been laughing along. ‘Quiet!’ she cried. ‘Quiet, quiet, quiet!’
“After a moment, it was.
“‘What does it matter if this is true?’ she asked. ‘If the king once lived a different life? See how he brings fruit from a tree with a word, and peace from a man with a look. Do you really want to return to Grandia, where your homes can be ravaged by wars over a line on a map? Where men with names like Silverplate and Bottlehelm take your land over and over again until there’s nothing left? Or do you want to stay here, and live lives free of politics and greed?’
“Not ten minutes prior, the halfling’s plea would have been met with raucous applause. The onlookers would have risen up in defense of their king, and fought for their land. But now the moment was wrong, the mood was gone, and the people left. Sir Bottlehelm smiled triumphantly as they shuffled away.
“‘Your efforts here have been admirable, Sullivan. But a field is not a kingdom because you say it is, nor is a man a king because he talks to trees. You will do well to accept reality. And, because I am a generous man, I will give you that opportunity. Now I know you could turn this land against me if you wished, but that would only delay the inevitable an shed unnecessary blood. I will be back in three hours’ time for your surrender, or for your arrest. Your choice, Mr. Dundermoat.’
“The knight and his followers left for their encampment, leaving Pless and the king alone outside his castle. The king walked into its doorless threshold, sat down, and crossed his legs. He was silent. Pless insisted that the people were just confused, they should rally them up. He was silent. Pless said that the forces of nature could overcome the forces of Grandia. He was silent. Pless said that the two of them could flee, go to the north, live among the Dolish elves. He was silent. An hour passed. He was silent.
“As Pless’s continued pleas broke upon the impassive king like waves against a cliff, something in his clay and stone castle shifted. It began to disintegrate. The clay became dirt, the stone became sand. Slowly, slowly, the modest structure fell apart around the king, despite his advisor’s desperate attempts to move him out from beneath it. Gradually it overtook him entirely, covering King Dundermoat in sediment. Pless’s attempts at digging proved fruitless, and she had no choice but to stand aside, and wait.
“At last, when Sir Bottlehelm and his men were visible in the distance, walking down the hill from their camp, something began to change. The pile of stone and clay began to sink into the ground as gradually as it fell apart a few hours prior. When it had at last returned to the earth, there was no king revealed beneath it.
“In his stead was a sapling with a brown stem to match his skin, and white leaves to match his hair. The tree-to-be spoke to Pless, wordlessly, and assured her that this was her king –”
Benison stopped abruptly as the carriage did the same. “Camping so soon?” he asked. Sol was only just beginning to set.
“No,” Thalia said. “We’re on a deadline.”
“Must be a snag.”
The caravan had come to the icy blue Crystal Tears which flowed from the east. A dozen or so guards waited at the front of the caravan. Dandayla stood at attention when she saw Thalia. “The bridge is out, Lady Douieal.”
Sure enough, where once a stone bridge had stood, there now remained two stone platforms separated by a river. Whatever had destroyed the bridge, it had been thorough.
“We could go around, find another bridge, maybe even ford the river,” the dwarf said.
“Too much time,” Thalia replied. “We will be late. I have never been late.”
“Allow me to earn my keep,” Benison suggested, stepping toward the ruined bridge. He tapped his cane against the ground, loudly, kicking up a small amount of dirt from the road. He didn’t have to, he just liked the way it felt.
Then a great number of things happened at once. A few stones beneath the water shattered, the branches were torn from the limbs of a dying tree, a rock that would have killed a daring climber in the O’grafkala Mountains instead sailed toward a broken bridge to the west. Somewhere out in the cold expanse of space, a star that had been sputtering for some time finally died, and the single microbial lifeform on a nearby rock died out, plunging a potential new ecosystem into extinction before it had a chance to begin. All of this, because Benison Ioudek willed it.
The stones and sticks traveling from near and far alike swirled around the caravan like collateral in a hurricane. And then, in all the chaos, order was found, and they slotted themselves into the bridge one after the other like an eight-million piece jigsaw puzzle.
The Story Keeper slumped against his cane.
“That should suffice,” he said dryly. “The bridge will hold. I will resume my story tomorrow, Ms. Douieal.”
Nobody knew what to say, so they didn’t. Benison hobbled back to Thalia’s carriage, and there he slept through the night.
The bridge did hold.