Whenever I write a backstory, or as I call them, Untold Stories, I become just that much more invested in characters in “present day” in my stories. I have a connection to their pasts, to their sadness and to their particular brand of humor or dry wit (both of which I am a fan of.)
The Traveling King is an elf who is fully invested in his own moral righting. He feels he has committed a terrible crime and that he must put it to rights if ever he is to be at peace. Whatever lengths he went to in his own heart, his children will never know, but he was the kind to take responsibilities for his actions.
Melsa dismounted and walked shoulder-to-shoulder with his new “friends”, laughing and shouting merrily as they hiked through the rough carpeted woods. Melsa could discern no trail through the forest, but the men picked their way through the underbrush and fallen timber expertly.
The large spokesman was named David and Melsa picked up other names as they hiked deeper and deeper into the forest. What at first appeared to be a false face of humor, turned out to be sincere. The men were truly jovial and took great pleasure in Melsa’s ready wit and eloquent words. They stopped him at the mouth of a cave, obscured by hanging vines and moss. The smallest outlaw, a blond man of less than thirty years, took the horse through the vine curtain. As the large brown rump disappeared into the greenery, David followed and Melsa was pushed in close behind.
The cave was illuminated by three torches behind the curtain and revealed several sharp turns in the rock. The chasm descended six feet into a relatively level room which widened to about thirty feet in some places. On the opposite side of a jutting spur of rock was a fire pit, complete with well crafted, albeit unmatched, tending tools.
A seventh man knelt near the pit, roasting a full quarter of a sizable deer. The bones from the previous meal and the antlers from the beast lay in a heap on the dirt floor. Melsa’s turkeys were given to the cook, and with a jolly oath he commanded the young, blond man to clean and dress them.
The elfin king was guided to sit on a large round log; two stumps were set up between two rows of upright rounds, balanced in various states of nearly tipping. A plank was laid over the two stumps and formed a crude, unsteady table.
“Sit ye down, stranger, and give us a little news of the outside world,” David bellowed, much like the bull his shoulders resembled.
“Wind came blowing bad tidings lately. Unrest in the greater kingdoms as usual.”
“Them preenin’ peacocks ‘ave got more than enough time t’ tear each other t’ bits,” the younger one commented. He seemed to be trying hard to convince his companions of his unity with them, imitating them and their blustery attitude.
“Blast you, boy. There was a king I dearly loved once. He banished me but I still loved him. Sent tax for as long as I was able,” the cook swore. Passion burned on his face as he turned to Melsa. “Does the old Arvadian king live still?”
“John Golden Hand died a few years ago. His grandson now reigns.”
“What became of Shawn, his son?”
“The peaks of the Mischief mountains hold many treacheries and now the body of Shawn. His youngest boy ran off into those mountains looking for the outlaw who killed his one older brother and Shawn went after him on horseback to bring him back. The boy returned on Shawn’s horse, wearing his father’s blood stained cloak. Apparently, the boy had gotten into a tangle with some mountain cat and his father saved him in the nick of time. Shawn didn’t make it, but the boy did.” Melsa caught a sad sparkle in Cook’s eyes and realized it was tears. “Surely he did love his king,” Melsa thought in the privacy of his own mind.
“Ack, enough of this,” David sputtered uncomfortable with the serious topic. “Keden,” he said to the young man, “go fetch us some fresh spring water.”
Melsa stood up and walked over to his horse where she calmly sniffed and nibbled at a flake of wild grass, dried and baled, then lifted something out of his saddle bag. Dangling from his fingers by a short rope around the narrow neck, was a stone bottle. It was a plain amphora, with a net attached to the rope and closely knit around the jug. “A little wine would suit us better.”
The men were even more pleased with their dinner partner all the evening. They didn’t look at him suspiciously throughout the meal and treated him as one of their own. Afterward they taught the elf a game with cards. Melsa was careful not to win often.
It was a curious dance to see if the newcomer was a worthy friend. Travelers often objected to being robbed and forced to dine with the outlaws, but Melsa didn’t seem to care and that made him a worthy companion and future friend if he came through again. His generosity would not be forgotten.
The moon was in the middle of the sky when the eight of them went to bed. Mostly comfortable with the men, Melsa dropped off laying on his side, back to the cave wall.
Melsa woke to breath on his cheek and his head being moved off of his carry case. No one else was stirring besides the thief.
The young man didn’t anticipate the blow he received, much less the power thereof. His lack of care indicated he had never been around elves and was unaccustomed to their quick ears and sturdy build. The hilt of Melsa’s sword crushed into his chest and sent him sprawling over the still warm coals of the fire; scattering the spit as he went. He yelped when the seat of his pants touched the hot coals and he jumped up. Before he could get all the way off of the ground, all he could see was the face of Melsa coming toward him.
It took Keden a moment to realize it should be too dark to see until he realized that Melsa was glowing full of his own light. His countenance and drawn sword flashed like the dark clouds of a lightening storm. Keden cried out and shrank back to the stone wall of the cave. Melsa tucked the flaming sword under the chin of the would-be-robber.
“Awake, now!” Melsa roared and brandished his small, curved dagger in his other hand.
A great scrambling, was heard as the other men struggled to light a lamp, in hopes it would dull the strange gray fire of the sword. It didn’t work, the sword still flashed and glowed, but the men could now see the ring on Melsa’s hand and how the vines of around the grey gem twisted, alive with fire.
David was angry. “What do you want from us?” he roared, reaching for his own sword until the elf raised his flickering dagger in a threatening gesture. It was not in David’s nature to contend with a magical creature. He had heard of the elves’ magic and had chosen to ignore Melsa’s obvious heritage in favor of a good meal, seeing the elf had not been inclined to use magic against them.
“To not be robbed in my sleep by a half grown night-walker.” Melsa was only half as loud as his host.
“Keden?” David asked the youth.
“I thought you couldn’t make it home without money,” Keden sputtered, then gained hope in his own words. “You need t’ pay yor taxes.”
“That is true, my young friend. And while I may not have as confining a sense of etiquette as others, I won’t rob a man who has shared freely with us his meat and wine,” he looked Melsa squarely in the eye, “no matter my personal whims.”
“Take his life if you must,” said the bent cook, “but mine could be just as satisfactory to you.”
“Old man, you are not to blame for Keden’s crimes,” Melsa contradicted.
“He is young,” replied the cook. “I am old, the years left of my life are few, whereas his are many. He can learn much.”
The fire of Melsa’s sword vanished and he sheathed it, but put the curving dagger in its place at Keden’s throat. David relaxed somewhat but still stood at the ready should Melsa choose to drive the blade home. In another instant Melsa put the smaller blade away as well.
Holding onto the young man’s coat, Melsa lifted him up above the ground and set him on his feet. Releasing the coat, he gripped his shoulders. Melsa locked gazes with the man and stood there until David thought he was feeding his anger and the cook thought he was going to strike their young friend. Melsa’s eyes flashed with the same gray fire and his hands were hot and heavy on Keden’s arms. “I am not a vengeful person,” Melsa said, at last releasing Keden, “but to assault a king, ah, that is a crime not easily brushed aside.”
“We knew nothing of your status,” David cried. “It was a traveler, a nomad perhaps, the boy attempted to rob, not a king.”
Melsa turned his penetrating gaze away from the youngest man and stepped away from what had been the cook fire. He faced David squarely. “Where are you from?”
David answered without hesitation, “Korak. I have been living as close as I dared. I cannot go home because I cheated my land baron and he had me banished.”
Melsa shook his regal head sadly and sighed. “The Korakans no longer exist as a ruled people, they have been lost at sea. You are a just man and I will consider your debt paid if you assist me.”
David appeared surprisingly uneager. “I do not like this way of doing things. I haven’t been pardoned and you cannot prove you are who you say you are.”
“I can’t prove anything,” Melsa admitted. “I have offered you something, accept it or not, you must do what you wish and I must leave your company with the understanding that I am not welcome back.”
“You may understand that quite clearly. We cannot accept you back; you have threatened to kill one of our own, even if he is impulsive and foolish.”
Melsa gathered his things and mounted his horse, leaving what was left of the wine sitting on the makeshift table. He had mounted and very nearly spurred the horse on, when he noticed David standing outside the cave, about twenty feet away. Melsa dismounted and walked over to him extending his hand. “I am sorry we cannot be friends. You are someone worth knowing.”
David shook his hand slowly and glanced toward the cave. “I raised him as my own, but Keden has a mind of his own. Light fingers are his choice.”
“You knew I was no mere traveler?” Melsa pressed.
“I’ve keener eyes than most. My mother was half nishe. The blood of wizards runs in my blood. Tis a pity I have none of their power or good fortune. There was a part of a feather in those turkeys. Eastern stork it was. The wine was from rare berries found only in the plains east of Javelin Mountains. And that ring on your hand is the gem of a king.”
“I have much to learn about spying in another land.”
David smiled and ducked back into the cave.
Several weeks later, David and his small band stopped a small handful of horsemen. There were about ten of them in all, all hard, dirty, and unwelcoming sort of men who would just as soon kill a man as look at him. Their leader had the dark complexion of a Korakan and his black eyes were terrifyingly keen.
“What is the meaning of this?” the keen eyed man asked when David grabbed his horse. Keden, behind the last horsemen, had not yet been seen and was rifling the saddlebags of the horse, first one side and then the other, without alerting the rider to his presence.
David noticed Melsa’s ring on the leader’s finger. The potency of that gem had not lost its effect on David and he knew enough to realize it should not belong to anyone besides Melsa. The keen eyed man was dangerous and David heartily wished he had seen it before he stepped out of the woods. “Well…” David began, “we were just about to sit down to sup, and we were suddenly struck by how lonely we were. So we stand up and vow not to sit back down until we found ourselves some company.”
The keen eyed man seemed to be enjoying this bit of sport. “How long ago was this?”
David could see the man was dangerous and knew that the little gray ring on that thief’s finger was deadly. “Ah, dear me, the joy and urgency of the search has driven the number from my mind.”
The man grinned broadly. “I’m sure your stomach has reminded you of its days.”
It wasn’t the implied threat behind the words, or the fact that David saw young Keden with a blade at his throat at the back of the procession, but it was the look of joviality and mirth on the leader’s face that smote David to the core; it was not a pleasant smile, or even the smile of a hardened outlaw. He backed away with a graceful bow and laughed much more boldly than he felt. “I think the number is no longer relevant. Besides, a blood price is too high for a well companied meal.”
The man glanced back at Keden and shrugged. He then reached to his belt and drew out a bag of money. “I am sorry you changed your mind.” He tossed it to David. “I was rather enjoying your impudent game.”
Cook bellowed like an aging bull when they told him about what happened. “Son of a cur! What did you do to him?” Cook looked squarely at Keden.
“I didn’t think the dog would see me. I just poked in his saddle bag is all. Then he just ups and slaps his thrice cursed blade to my neck…” Keden opened his coat to reveal his prize. “Look at this thing here.”
It was a small dagger with a delicate vines inlayed on the green hilt and a double curve in the blade. “Now where have I seen that before?” Cook mumbled.
“Belonged to the elf king we saw a few weeks ago.”
“What do you suppose happened to him?” one of the other men asked.
David sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I suppose… he’s dead.”