My father was a scribe, and his father before him, all the way back to the days before the Dark Lord. When our grim master came, he forced our letters and our learning underground; this was literally, as his spies patrolled the air and land. I learned how to read and write in a damp crevice my father carved out with his own hands, after a hard day of farm labor.
We were all farmers then, and fools or ignorant on top of that. That was the Dark Lord’s doing, to keep us subject to him. I worked as hard to hide my learning as I did to acquire it. All the same, it was hard for a bright boy to cover his light with a basket. There was a close encounter once when I called the bullheaded miller’s son on his “obstinate insolence.” I barely covered with “Aw shucks, thimblehead.”
Not even my wife knew of my birthright, nor the secret history I kept in a cave. I would teach my son of his legacy, however, my wife’s womb was as barren as our hopes. I was convinced the small rebellion of keeping a secret history would die with me.
Oh, but then! What hope springs into a heart, even a bludgeoned one, at those words!
The Dark Lord was overthrown in the year 423 AA (After Assumption). Everyone in the kingdom celebrated for weeks on end. It’s possible I neglected my duties as scribe due to the first hard drink I’d had since I was a boy. I don’t judge myself too harshly for this, given the circumstances - for the first time since my grandfather's grandfather's generation, we were free.
Until that happy day, we had been oppressed by the heavy, mailed fist of our terrible Lord. He made us bear high taxes, corrupt officials, and terrible penalties for disobedience. The skies were darkened. Vicious carrion crows always watched us from on high, reporting our misdeeds. Their caws sounded like laughter, and more than one farmer had been executed for attempting to assault a bird.
Things changed when the Dark Lord fell. We enjoyed bountiful harvests that filled our own tables, instead of his; we could hunt in the woods near our villages, without fear of the dark beasts that served our former Lord. Symian the Miller, a competent woodsman as well as a shrewd man (if not ignorant in the ways of vocabulary), felled three boars in the first week. After a lifetime of porridge and peas, pork was a treat that set my mouth watering. The prices for meat rose after that first week, but Symian kept it reasonable.
And the women! The women were finally safe. Before his fall, any family who bore a girl of even modest beauty was forced to send her to the Dark Lord when she came of age. This tribute of the daughters was our heaviest burden. We never heard from our children again, victims of the Dark Lord’s hideous appetites. I've always held that we were good folk in a bad place, but this strained us hard. Some men weren't above their daughters having "accidents" that left them less pretty than before; nothing too nasty, just a crooked nose, or a new scar on their soft faces. No more!
In place of the Dark Lord, we had First King Egreias, the man who led the force that finally toppled the Underthrone. There was some disagreement about who would rule, as it was actually Phineas the Brave that broke the Oblivion Crystal. Oh, that dark talisman! It held our former master to this world, binding his soul with magicks both eldritch and evil. Some say it ate a thousand souls a week. Phineas suffered in his quest, and his companion Falam was lost to death. However, it was determined that Egreias had noble blood running back before the Assumption. We demanded he take the throne!
After the weeks of celebration, we set about building a free world, a world ruled by men, not enthroned specters. The final reminders of the Dark Lord were torn down, the obligations, the statutes, and the roosts for the carrion crows we were required to maintain. That always wore at my spirit, working to take care of the enemy's spies. It's hard on a man to be a traitor in his body, but not in his mind. The others at least had the comfort of knowing their vile deeds would be forgotten; not I.
This process was quick in the villages and towns; in the cities, it took months to be rid of the grim presence. Then there was the matter of the First King's castle. When the Dark Lord fell, so too did his Underthrone, and the fortress with it. What was once the bleak center of our realm was now a wasteland, and a wasteland cluttered with shattered black masonry at that.
It was decided that Egreias the Bold, as he was now called when it wasn't "my liege", would rule from the city of Frelion. The mayor of Frelion refused. His family had held on to the city for a hundred years, even through the Dark Lord's reign. Egreias and his court countered by saying they had done so by collaborating with evil. This was common in the early days of the Free Kingdom, when the easiest way to ruin a man was to accuse him of consorting with malevolent forces. The mayor resigned his office, and both he and his family were in the poor house before long.
The castle rose over the city, but slowly. The initial plan for it was redrawn, to be bigger. Then bigger still. There was to be a courtyard, featuring a statue of Egreias standing over the Dark Lord. Our new king’s face was to glow in triumph. However, there weren't many sculptors, stone masons, or craftsmen left to us; we were a people poor in skill, for the Dark Lord had kept us as farmers, ignorant in craft of hand or mind. The only ones with any talent were the calendar guild, an odd lot.
By 428 AA – which was properly 5 VF (Villain's Fall) – the castle was complete, sans any glowing statuary. Egreias the Exalted ruled by the Golden Standard, so stated, "If it's gold, it belongs to the king." In the villages we had no use for gold, so that was no problem, at first.
In the cities, the mayors took it out on the merchants, who took it out on the suppliers. Symian the Miller charged enough for his boars to clothe himself in silver, and none of us could afford one. Everyone wanted more for less, and barter was one sided. An acre of produce went for less than half its value, and then they had the gall to tack delivery on top. I couldn't blame them on that last part, though.
Everyone's carts were hard pressed to make it over what we called the Dark Lord’s highways, as the work on the castle had taken away from maintaining the roads. There were ruts and rivets, and due to the poverty created by the Golden Standard, no small amount of bandits. In fact, my cousin's boy became a bandit. He looked good in the scarlet sashes they'd wear. We kept it secret - I had a grim chuckle at the secrets that multiplied in those days! - but they were heroes to us all. Local boys looking after their own as best they could.
However, all these troubles got to the king. He started hiring more soldiers. He stopped leaving the castle. The rest of us felt rebellion in our hearts, hard fought freedom all but vanished. We were hopeless again.
It was in the depths of our despair that Phineas the Brave returned. Great cheers went up from all! He was immediately made an enemy of the crown, and was hunted. We hid him, and when the time came, we followed him in arms and blood.
Egreias fell, and Phineas replaced him as our sovereign.
In 8 VF - 3 HR (Hero's Return) - things were no better. The Golden Standard had been abolished, but the sudden reappearance of gold shifted everything. No one knew what the price of a thing was. The bandits were the king's legitimate men now, since many of Phineas's former quest companions had gone rogue to survive. The Black Market became just the Market, and that staved off the pains. The roads were still ruined, and there had been disagreements over where a man's land began and where his neighbor's ended. Sometimes these disagreements turned violent. Symian took to hiring a man with a cudgel.
One day, Phineas addressed the nation. Rather than calling us all together, he used magic. One of the old wizards who had been imprisoned so long he had forgotten his own name volunteered. It was complicated mind magic, but it would allow our leader to broadcast his words to all of us at once. At the appointed time, the wizard worked his craft.
In the middle of our toil, the voice of Phineas echoed in our heads, like our own thoughts.
"Hello! Can you hear me?"
There was an unearthly screech, like a wyvern.
"Sorry, sorry, I was standing too close to the wizard. Hear me, goodly people of the realm! I am Phineas, your King! I am he who led the Bright Companions in deeds both daring and brave! I am he who shattered the Oblivion Crystal, he who uprooted the Dark Lord from his power! I address you now because of the peril we face, and a decision we must make.
"In times of old, we labored under that vicious power, which demanded everything - our goods, our land, even ourselves. This power was dark, but was this power good at getting things done? Were not the roads safe to travel on? Did the crows not keep order? Was there not enough food for all, such as it was?"
There was silence, as he let all of us ponder his words. We heard a quieter, reedy voice, say "Yea, so's there was, but what about our daughters? My Milna, she's gone!"
"The daughters! Yes! I forgot that part. Goodly people, your daughters are fine!"
To a man, the entire kingdom gasped. Our daughters, alive? How could this be? There was chatter, like the rustle of leaves.
"Please don't do that!" Phineas shouted. "The wizard is very old and this is hard enough without everyone being shocked at once." We settled down into silence. "I've got to fix the feedback catalyst on this medallion," he muttered to himself.
"Now, as I was saying, your daughters are fine. Better than fine, even. Beneath the lands of the Underthrone, we found tunnels and chambers. A whole Undercity! Down there we found the daughters of our land, whole generations living in sisterhood. They have had schooling, learning to read and play instruments. Each glows with health and happiness, sustained bodily by the lingering magic of the Dark Lord."
The current of minds surged again. "Release them to us!"
"Now he’s on the ground, clutching his head. Really, just let me finish before we kill the poor man. I would happily release your daughters, but they do not wish this."
Silence, and a soft thought like, "Eh, wot?"
"For years, the Dark Lord claimed the best and most beautiful. Those who were left behind often bore the scars and blows designed to protect them. In light of this, the daughters would like to stay where they are, for the time being. Maybe they will visit for a time, and then return to the chambers. Which, they told me to say, are still guarded by fierce magic."
The confusion was almost a real thing, dizziness to the point of nausea. It was like being on a ship while a storm raged, tossed about. I had to sit down, and I noticed many in my village doing the same.
"The wizard has been sick in his beard. I'm not sure that's ever coming out. To be blunt, the daughters are worried about what would happen to them. For centuries, the only women you've seen have been...homely, let's say, and mostly disfigured. If several very attractive women were to be released…"
Phineas paused, feeling the outrage of a kingdom's worth of women hitting him like a whip made of fire. He didn’t feel this in a magic way – that was all absorbed by the poor wizard – but rather in the way men normally feel the displeasure of women. We heard Phineas start a few sentences with hesitancy, but finally surged forward. "Aha! I know what this is. It's like the gold. First you had gold, and then you didn't. Then, when you had gold again, no one knew what to do with it. Is it worth a pig? Is it worth a field? Who knows?"
In no way were the women mollified by his analogy, and some thought he had called them pigs. He continued undaunted. "Goodly, mostly okay in the right light subjects, worry yourselves no more! I have found a way to set our lands right again, to once again bring prosperity and peace to our realm! We're going to bring the Dark Lord back!"
There was no outrage, no outcry. Phineas probably thought himself a revolutionary, but many of us had the same idea. That same idea had come up at dinner tables across the realm, which were back to serving porridge and peas. Most of us had realized we liked porridge and peas, we just wanted as much as we used to have. Maybe a little more, but not a lot.
As a collective, we mulled the idea over. After over four hundred years of the Dark Lord's reign, the notion of him being in charge again had a certain solid feeling to it. Without saying as much, we had agreed to the idea.
"Yes? That's a yes then? The wizard hasn't moved in a while. Since we can still hear one another, I'm assuming he's still alive. Or at least something like it."
At that point, the only obstacle was how. However, in this Phineas did surprise us. When he shattered the Oblivion Crystal, it left an imprint on him. He explained that it was like a magical scar, but with memories. From these memories, he had learned how to rejoin the fragments of the crystal. As the crystal was reformed, the spirit of the Dark Lord would slowly be called forth whence it had fled.
"But what about the darkness?" came a man’s reedy voice.
"Yeah,” shouted another, “and the crows! They took my brother to the stocks because of them!"
Our king had another surprise up his regal sleeves, although it sounded more like he was making it up as he went along. We trusted him to be a better schemer than a sovereign, and waited to see what would come next.
This was how, in the year 4 HR - 432 AAA (After After Assumption) - almost ten years after he had fallen, the Dark Lord returned to the land. He was full of fierce anger, and the land itself trembled with the fury of his displeasure. There was fire from the earth, our waters boiled, and the skies were blacker than a moonless night. This lasted about a day, and then abruptly ceased.
Our clever, clever king.
When Phineas reformed the Oblivion Crystal, he did so around the wizard’s malfunctioning medallion. By this clever device, we could communicate with the Dark Lord directly! Even more, he had to feel what we felt. Powerful though the Dark Lord was, there were too many of us to ignore. Phineas explained that it was like a "magical suggestion box."
The one casualty in all this was the wizard. He never recovered from the strain of holding a thousand thousand minds - and worse, a thousand thousand hearts - in his own. We had to trim his beard down to the stubble, and some of the Daughters had taken to feeding him his porridge and peas. In fact, he was the only man allowed in their chambers unguarded. For that privilege alone, many men would have traded their wits.
Things got back on course, with some small changes. The roads were repaired by the Dark Lord's armies of goblins and grendels; taxes were lower than they were during Egreias's terrible reign, and as the Dark Lord coveted all metals equally, trade was restored to normalcy. Even the skies were brighter, and many found that working under light cloud cover was pleasant.
The Dark Lord refused to relinquish his legions of crows, however. Only after insistent pleading did he concede that they would be mostly silent. Now, when we heard the crows, we knew something truly wrong was happening. Crime in the bigger cities became almost nonexistent, and so did the hanging of traitors. The mayor of Frelion was even reinstated after we learned that he and his family had indeed been collaborating with dark forces. However, now we all collaborated, so that wasn’t a problem. The parade for his return was very nice.
Lastly, he allowed us to see our daughters, always in small groups, and always under heavy guard. He still took girl children to his newly constructed Underchasm, but most families were now pleased. They looked at it as a form of higher education. The random maimings stopped, except for the times when the Dark Lord's guards gave a lovesick farm boy a hard swat for touching a graduate of the Daughters of Darkness Academy.
For my part, I shared my histories with the Daughters. My legacy was vouchsafed, and the record of the years would continue. After decades of conversations about the consistency of various animals’ bowel movements, it was a pleasure to speak to someone else with erudition. They tried to give me some name like “Chronicler”, but I refused it. I was a farmer, whatever else was also true about me.
We were the better for Egreias's Rebellion, which was what we called it. Our Dark Lord had become more of a Grey Lord, and everyone knew their voice was heard. Phineas became an adventurer again, albeit a state sponsored one, seeking out and destroying lesser evils. Many a clutch of vampires or cabal of liches met their end at his hands. He eventually married one of the Daughters, which opened the door for the rest of us.
In the end, we had learned our lesson. Everything was back to normal, with the possible exception of Symian; we village folk can forgive and forget anything, except for price gouging on pork. We drove him out of the realm, and the Dark Lord agreed to let us hunt wild pigs in his forests.
It’s the little things - like bacon - that make a happily ever after.