This was my first foray back into the SFFWorld flash fiction contests after a lengthy absence. So there was a bit of working myself back into fighting trim. But the idea came to me pretty fully formed; all that remained was to built up the story around it. I didn’t win — nor did I expect to — but I got a good handful of votes, so I feel like it was a good welcome back.
They came on great sleds of feolorn wood, each pulled by teams of bellowing torsks that dug deep furrows with their hooves as they strained with the effort. The entire Aeltan court rode ahead of them, the Keth himself atop a majestic stag at the fore. On bear and deer and wolf the rest of his nobles came, scabbards and quivers empty as per the terms. The heralds played no fanfare, for it was not custom to announce the arrival of the vanquished. And so the only sounds of the Aeltan surrender were the flapping of banners in the breeze, the thud and moan of the torsks, and the groan of the wooden sleds as they bore the weight of the new gates of Mangerholm.
The men and women of the city jammed themselves atop its walls to watch as the procession neared. And, high above where the Aeltan host had breached Mangerholm’s defenses and very nearly won the war, King Rheochar stood, his armor shimmering in the morning sun. His captains and ministers flanked him, architects of the battle that had saved his kingdom and of the peace that would preserve it.
The Keth called a halt before the gap through which he’d sent his warriors not so long ago. He gestured with the same oaken branch with which he’d waved his orders in battle. And in response, the same lumbering contingent of stone trolls who’d torn the old gates from their hinges muscled the new ones into place.
Aeltan craftsmen had labored for months with sweat and magic on the massive figures carved into both sides of each gate. On the left gate was the victorious Rheochar, the point of his sword raised high. Next to him Captain Ballas broke the charge of the wolfen cavalry at Denbrook’s Glenn, a great wolf throwing itself against his shield. On the other side of the king High Minister Joddrick, a single ray of sun shining down upon him, held the treaty that had ended the war.
The right gate showed the Keth, proud but subdued, worn yet regal, kneeling and placing his spear on the ground. Flanking him were Ulfbar Traudauer and the Whispering Dark, Aeltan heroes both feared and respected by their foes, heads bowed in surrender. And behind them the Aeltan host melted back into the sheltering eaves of the forest, just as they had when Prince Salderas had arrived with his ships to claim the final victory for the king.
Even the most bitter among those who’d fought and won that war swelled with pride as the new gates were hung on their hinges. The Keth spoke words of contrition, and the king spoke words of healing, and while old wounds would take time to heal, the hearts of Mangerholm grew light with the promise of peace. As the last Aeltan stepped into the shadows of the Gralen Wood, the Keth stopped and turned. And then, with a wave of his branch, he too slipped away.
Celebration erupted like a held breath throughout Mangerholm. Song soared and drink flowed, and many a reveler saw both the setting and the rising of the sun. As that dawn broke though, panicked cries came from castle and barrack and embassy. Bells began to toll, running footsteps echoed, and those who had drifted off to sleep woke to chaos and confusion.
At Swordhold, sentries came across Captain Ballas’ beloved sword Brightblade cast upon the ground, when he’d never let it from his sight since it had been forged. In the Ministry Resplendent, Minister Joddrick’s study stood open and unlocked, a breach of protocol the very particular minister would never have allowed himself. And in the Seven Spires, the chamberlain found the king’s bed empty, though clearly slept in, the outer guards having seen no sign of his leaving. The Watch flooded the streets, lanterns held to ward away the last of evening’s shadows, straining for any sign of distress or escape.
Then shouts of, “The gates! The gates!” began to echo through Mangerholm. Before long a restless crowd gathered. The Watch Captain shouldered his way to the front and held his lantern high. Its light cast stark shadows on the figures on the gate as all looked up in shock and horror.
For now the carved figure of the Keth stood tall and terrifying, his blood-tipped spear held aloft above a cowering Rheochar. Ulfbar rent Ballas’s shield and sank his teeth into the captain’s neck. And the Whispering Dark enveloped Minister Joddrick in a shadow no ray of light could pierce. All around them, the Aeltan danced and frollicked, and in the distance, Mangerholm burned.
Then they heard the cries. Low keening voices, the voices of the king, the captain, and the minister, coming from the gate. From their figures, from mouths locked forever in horrified screams.
In the distance, the sound of horns rose over a steady rumble. And those who survived that morning swore to their dying day that the gates of Mangerholm had opened as if of their own will, and that it seemed all of Gralen Wood had come alive, and marched with the Keth and his horde to deliver the true gift of the Aeltan.