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20th May 2022

Free Short Story

An Answer in the Smoke

This is a short story set way back in the history of Askuria, thousands of years before the events of The Seventh Colour. It was first broadcast as part of an episode of The Word Count podcast, hosted by R B Wood.

They were not yet half way up the mountain, when the wheels came off.

Aranelle stood for several moments watching the futile efforts of the soldiers to repair the damaged carriage, overcome by the childish desire simply to turn around and go home. Such thoughts were hopeless. There had been a time, even as recently as his grandfather’s reign, when a king might have ordered his soldiers to massacre all dissenters and march him back off the mountain, and he would have been obeyed without hesitation. King Aranelle suspected that he could not order lunch without the approval of the counsellors who now stood with him, their finery being whipped by high winds that carried the first faint traces of rain.

Looking round at their faces, he found himself hearing echoes of the previous day’s fateful council meeting.

“Your majesty, there must be war! The whole realm knows it! Surely you can see it!”

That had been Lord Rogard: young, hot-headed. His outburst had scarcely been unprecedented, although the king might have anticipated some objection to his punctuating the speech by hammering on the council table.

Lord Perpengat’s interjection had been more unexpected. He had to date been a vocal supporter of those seeking a diplomatic solution.

“Lord Rogard’s lands may have been the site of the most recent atrocity, your Majesty, but he is scarcely alone. Each of us with lands along the Dragonsback border have heard such tales of villages raided or workers abducted or massacred. How much more provocation is the realm expected to endure?”

There had been a murmur of support, which took several moments longer than usual to subside when the king lifted his hand for silence. He had been expecting this – it had only been a matter of time before the bellicose spirit of the realm infected his closest advisers. He had hoped that his failing strength might have kept them in check a little longer. Now he would have to risk speaking the truth.

Turning his attention from Rogard to Perpengat, the king had gathered his arguments carefully before responding.

“Atrocities there may well have been, but scarcely unprovoked. As I recall, this began with the looting of Emblian trading posts after the last bad harvest, no?”

Several of the lords had shifted uncomfortably – their own mismanagement had been at the root of the people’s dissatisfaction, and it had been convenient for them to fan old bigotries rather than accepting their responsibilities. They had not appreciated the reminder, however, and the rest of what King Aranelle had to say would be even more unpalatable. A tremor in his hands might have betrayed his uncertainty at how his words would be received, but he had rested them on the table and drawn a careful breath.

“There are those, some of you among them, whose interests would be served by a war. Your populations grow restive. Some of you have had glittering rewards dangled in front of your eyes by those who profess to be our advisers…”

He had not been allowed to continue. Amidst a general outcry Lord Rogard had risen to his feet, his young face reddened and contorted.

“Do not dare! Do not dare to seek to rehearse those paranoid evasions in this council! Such cynicism is for the weak-minded and ignorant. We are motivated by the good of the realm, by the security of our nation.”

He had paused to draw breath, as approving heads nodded around him. The king had slumped back, stunned in his seat. Emboldened by the lack of royal response, Lord Rogard had continued.

“The elves want to be our allies. They have assured us that if we take justified action to safeguard our borders, they will provide us with any support we need.”

Stood on the mountain-side, gazing up at the cloud-shrouded peak, all of the questions that the king might have asked poured through his head. Why would the elves care about this domestic disagreement? What prizes did they, and his advisers, hope to gain from a territorial battle over a disputed border? Why the unseemly rush to war before all other options had been exhausted? But back in the council chamber he had known only shock and anger, and had sat dumbfounded as counsellor after counsellor had added the weight of their arguments to Lord Rogard’s position.

In the end, there could only be one outcome. The vote had been unanimous, but without the king’s assent, the deadlock still needed to be broken. Fittingly, it had been Lord Perpengat who spoke the fateful words.

“Well, your majesty? Will you put it to the Oracle?”

And King Aranelle had had to agree.

Now the mountain loomed before them. It had broken the king’s carriage and the way ahead looked equally inhospitable to vehicles. The king looked around at his counsellors.

“Gentlemen, shall we walk?”

It was several hours before their unceremonious arrival at the high temple where the Oracle was housed. By that time gilded robes had been discarded on the stony paths, replaced by cloaks whose lightweight warmth more than made up for their lack of finery. As they reached the bottom step of the inner sanctum, the council members halted, respecting the tradition that only the king could speak with the voice of the gods.

For all the height that he had already climbed, King Aranelle found these last lonely dozen steps the hardest. Pillars rose on either side of him, smoke curled around him, and as he reached the top he peered through a darkened doorway, straining to see what lay within. There were no words of invitation, no acolyte to guide him onwards. He shuffled forwards into the gloom.

He saw the pit first. A hole, carved into the temple floor, through which hot smoke issued directly from the heart of the mountain. On the far side of the smoke…

“King Aranelle,” the old man’s voice wavered, his watery smile and his tone both tinged with apprehension, “I have been expecting you.”

The king drew breath, ready to make his case, but the Oracle raised a shaking hand.

“There is no need to speak. I know what you would ask, even as you already know the answer I shall give.”

He reached within the folds of his robes and drew out a scroll, bound with a ribbon which, even through the gloom and smoke the king could see was blood red. With rather more dexterity than might have been expected, the Oracle threw the scroll through the smoke to drop at the king’s feet.

“Take that back to your counsellors, your majesty. And prepare for war.”

* * * * *

Night fell. The Oracle sat in silence, his head bowed. Eventually his senses, augmented by the sulphurous breath of the gods, told him that it was time. He spoke without looking up.

“Ah, Lord Rogard. I have been waiting for you.”

This time, his smile was entirely genuine.