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Paul B. Thompson

The Forest King

CHAPTER 1

Stars

Darkness, true darkness, is usually found deep underground, where layers of soil and stone block every ray of the sun. Night is only half dark. The darkest night in the world cannot compare to subterranean darkness. Absolute dark clings to the eyes and heightens the senses, for no living creature is immune to the imagined perils of the unseen.

Strange, then, that the darkest place in the world was not deep underground, but high atop a shining tower in the city of Silvanost. In that place the clear light that was music and life to the elf race was shut out by all the skill and craft of their ancient wisdom. Dark deeds are best judged in dark places, and that was the darkest spot elf artifice could create.

It was called the Night Chamber. Built at the order of the Speaker of the Stars, Silvanos Goldeneye, its exact location was hidden from the outside world. By clever use of light and shadow, the penthouse containing the Night Chamber could not be seen from outside. The tower it capped was just like so many others in the city, constructed of thousands of deeply fluted bars of rock crystal. Some of the exterior surfaces were polished like mirrors, while others were etched with acid until they resembled pure milk. It was an ordinary facade in an extraordinary city, but the veiled dome at its peak was one of the most closely guarded secrets of Silvanost. On cloudless nights the invisible penthouse could just be seen as it eclipsed stars passing behind it. In heavy rain or fog, a vague outline was discernible, though it looked more like an errant cloud than solid architecture.

The Night Chamber had a single entrance. When in use-and to date it had been used only once before-the great lords whose duty brought them there entered one by one, in order of absolute precedence. First was the Speaker of the Stars. Bearing his own luminar, a lamp lit by a cold fluorescence, Silvanos ascended to the highest seat in the domed room. Once there, the rest would follow. Lords of the houses, senior sages of the magical fraternity, and the commander of the royal army all entered alone and silently took the seats protocol assigned to them. Each bore a faint lantern, just bright enough to prevent undignified stumbling in the black hall.

Those high persons were the judges. Their task was to hear the evidence of a great crime and render an absolute verdict. From their decision there was no appeal.

Next to enter were witnesses summoned under dire oaths of secrecy. They were given no lamps, but were directed to seats by the chamber’s bailiff. Each was isolated from the other. No one was allowed to speak until bidden to do so. Last of all, the accused entered. There was no seat for him. The accused stood on the last step of the rising spiral stair. Once there, the passage they had ascended was closed.

The second trial ever in the Night Chamber began in the fifty-fifth year of the reign of Silvanos. It was high noon on the median day of summer, the longest, hottest, sunniest day of the year. The recorder of the secret transactions noted the irony in his shorthand record. Inside the Night Chamber, weather and climate were meaningless.

Preceded by bailiffs, the accused climbed the winding stairs. From below, only a black half circle revealed where they were going. With each step, the prisoner dragged his heavy shackles over the polished marble treads. The guards walked behind with drawn swords. If the accused faltered or tried to resist in any way, the warriors’ orders were to run him through.

But the chains were heavy, and though the prisoner was not trying to stall, he could not climb with any grace. Shuffle, shuffle, clank-that was his cadence. Above, the entrance of the Night Chamber looked like a pool of black water fixed impossibly to the ceiling. The prisoner reached the last step before entering the dome. His feet rested side by side for a moment.

Two lengths of glittering bronze blade lay lightly on his shoulders. The bailiffs did not speak, but their message was clear. With a heave, the accused mounted the last step.

When the guard gained the top step, he raised his sword hilt to his face, saluting the Speaker of the Stars. He could not see him, seated well up on the curved wall of the dome, but the highest lamp in the hall was his. To that pallid light the bailiff paid honor then departed down the steps. Weapons were not permitted within the chamber. As the plume on his helmet descended below the level of the floor, the passage silently flowed shut.

When the well of light from below was cut off, a brilliant beam lanced down from the dome’s peak, impaling the prisoner in its blinding glare. He threw up a manacled hand to ward off the light.

“Is that necessary?” he called loudly. There was no reply from the ranks of dim, blue lamps. “At least let me shield my eyes. Or is it your desire I be blinded?”

There was a soft chime, and the restraints on the accused’s wrists and ankles fell away. He gave them a vindictive kick, sending them skittering into the outer darkness.

“The prisoner will show proper respect during the proceedings, or his bonds will be restored,” intoned a deep, distant voice. Transfixed in the shaft of light, the accused raised the flimsy hood of his prison garb to shade his face.

“All give attention! Silence before the throne of the stars!”

The prisoner did not know which way to face, but he stood up straight.

“The Night Chamber is now in order. Sitting in judgment is His Gracious Serenity, Silvanos, called the Golden-Eyed, first Speaker of the Stars, supreme ruler of Silvanost and all those of our ancient race wherever found. Pray, give thanks for his wisdom and understanding!”

Some words came to the prisoner’s lips. Wisely he stifled them.

“I am the Advocate of the Speaker. It is my duty to conduct the case against the prisoner,” said the booming voice.

“Who are you?” asked the accused. “Where are you? I want to see your face!”

“Your requests are irrelevant. Do not speak again unless so ordered. Is that clear?”

Fuming, the prisoner folded his arms. The sight of his hands, bristling with hair, provoked a stir in the void beyond the light.

“My lords, Great Speaker, you all know the accused. You have seen the specification of his crimes. Because of the blasphemous nature of his deeds, I will not degrade our Great Speaker by speaking aloud his odious actions.”

“Are you so afraid of me, you won’t even speak my name?” called out the prisoner.

At once the cone of light around him shrank by half. The accused felt a tremendous pressure bearing on his chest, limbs, and head. Gasping, he fought for air. The light was not simply theatrical. It was a magical barrier, restraining him as thoroughly as his bronze shackles had. Speaking out of turn earned him his punishment. His available space was violently reduced by half. If he continued to defy his judges, things could become very tight for him indeed.

“Your deeds are known. What do you say to them, prisoner? Are you guilty or not?”

“How can I answer when I don’t know what I am accused of?” he replied, eyeing the cone of light. It did not shrink again.

“Guilty or not?”

“I cannot answer-”

“Guilty or not?”

Arms tight against his chest, the accused lowered his hooded head and said nothing.

“Let the record state the prisoner stands mute. We shall proceed.”

His eyes had adjusted to the glare as much as they could. Around his dazzling cell were various elves, waiting to be questioned by the tribunal. The advocate called out the name Wenthus. At the mention of his name, a second beam of light shone down, picking out a lean, rangy elf clad in green leather. Over his head he wore a

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