Here begins the tale of the Ghost King.
Spies watching the castle at Murran reported this: At the second hour of the morning, the High King's cousin, Lord Arrend, rode to the rear stairs at the head of forty horsemen. He dismounted, and took down from his horse an ornately carved wooden chest. The door at the head of the stairs opened at once, as if he had been expected. He remained in the castle for the space of half an hour. Then he and his guards rode away, without the chest.
But what really happened was this: Not a word was spoken. A smile and a wink were all the greeting the king gave his cousin. The men took off their tunics and shirts and trousers. Bottles and combs were already set out on a table, and the king began combing dark dye through his blond hair and beard. Arrend used a solution that bleached his beard and hair, then another that turned them gold. They exchanged clothes, the king went down the stairs, mounted the other's horse, and rode away at the head of the guard. As for the chest, it was empty, a ruse.
As instructed, the guards called the king "m'lord Arrend". High King Bonfort, Lord of the Twelve Kingdoms, found he was enjoying himself. His mission was urgent and perhaps dangerous, but the day was fair and it was pleasant to have a good horse under him. He stepped up the pace to a trot. To ride again at the head of cavalry, it had been too long since he had done that, and he began to hum a riding tune. He wanted to sing out loud, but that would never do. Cousin Chet's singing voice was much better than his.
He turned south down the harbor road, remembering to swing wide so the column could follow gracefully. The clatter of the horses echoed thunderously among the buildings. Sailors and merchants turned to stare. Then he turned the column eastward and inland, on the King's Road. Spies watching the harbor reported, "Arrend heading for home."
The sun was setting as King Bonfort and his escorts arrived at the Arrend country estate. It felt strange, even to a king, to stride into another man's house as if he owned it, but the charade called for it. He regretted not taking the time to admire the riverside setting, with its well kept grounds, orderly hedges and trees in straight rows. As a child he had thought the place magically lovely, and had been sure there were fairies about. He was now not so sure about the fairies, but the place was beautiful still.
But a man returning home after a brief absence would hardly pause to admire the scenery. So, keeping in character, Bonfort simply walked in the door. Behind him the guards dismounted and saw to putting away the horses.
Indoors the light was dim. The windows were shuttered, but candles were lit. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. A woman was curtsying: Ali, Chet's wife. Her long auburn hair was done up elaborately with combs, and she was wearing a shimmering dress of white and gold--always the one for fine manners, and fine clothes. She had fascinated him, years ago, but his cousin had been the better catch. No one ever expected Bonfort to become High King. He smiled at her.
"You husband understands, of course, that he is not to issue any edicts?"
She laughed. "Yes, Bonbon, and he's not to sell your horses. How long are we to keep up this game of yours?"
"I should be back in ten days, I hope not so long that. It really is a bother! For all of us."
"'Born to rule, born to trouble.' Go on now, Ingdor is in the carriage porch and he acts like he's in a hurry." But she grasped his arm as he left, and held it a moment. "Be careful!"
One ought not, in proper etiquette, touch a king unasked, but he said only, "Right, see you soon. Good luck!" He gave her arm a squeeze in return.
Ingdor was tall for an elf, as tall as most men, but with the thin frame and face of his kind. "Watch," he said, and he disappeared. Then he reappeared. "This porch uses an Old Road as its foundation. That was a poor idea. But now it serves us well. I have brought these." He held out two pendants, each set with a small yellow gem. "Wear one and you are invisible while you stand upon the Old Roads."
Bonfort looked puzzled. "Take one and put it on," Ingdor said. Bonfort did.
"Everything looks the same," Bonfort said.
"And why not?" The elf looked vaguely impatient. "It is you that are changed, not anything else." He put on his own pendant. Bonfort expected him to vanish again, but he did not.
"But I can see you," Bonfort said.
The elf shrugged at that. "Yes, that's the way it works. It's...a bit involved, there. I'll explain later, if you like." There were two knapsacks laid ready. He took up one and gestured at the other, then opened the door. Staying on the white stone path that led into the woods, he set off at a brisk walk. Bonfort put on the other pack and hurried to catch up.
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