A Kingdom Come Short Story
By Jim Doran
Once upon a time, there was a magical city named Exile with a magical border and magical residents most of which were criminals. In the fantasy world of Kingdom, the rulers deemed it unwise to sentence felons to dungeons near the nobility. The king himself sent men and women who had committed murder, plunder, forbidden magic, and crimes against the crown, away to Exile, far from his castles. The lawbreakers, free to roam the city but not to leave it, established their lives and businesses within its borders.
An innocent resident of Exile, a young girl, moved down a thoroughfare passing a milliner’s, a pawnbroker’s, and a grocer’s store—each building pressed against each other like fish packed together for sale. She passed stairs leading to a number of establishments on the second floor of the buildings around her. The street meandered in a circuitous route like every other lane in this town; there was no room for any quiet place of solitude.
The girl waved to the barber sharpening his razors. He killed a number of elves in cold blood but his haircuts were the best in Exile. Next door, Ms. Willbell, who ran a fruit store, smiled and waved. There were stories she worked in the king’s castle and “knew too much.” The girl hadn’t passed someone her age during her entire walk. The only children were those who had to accompany their parents to serve out their sentence. There were others like her in the city, but not many. Innocents didn’t last long here.
The girl staked out her corner outside of the haymarket. Her thin eleven-year-old frame fits snugly between barrels that acted like tables and a storefront. Her father had sent her out at the start of every day to collect firewood to sell—their primary income. Every morning, she awoke before the sun rose. She never ate breakfast. Instead, she walked slightly beyond the border of Exile, gathered wood others could not reach, and carried it back. Being free of blame, she passed outside of Exile’s boundaries without consequence, giving her an advantage when collecting her wares. She lugged the wood to the center of the square nearest her father’s residence and sold it all day, hoping to make enough money to buy her and her father a meal. And so it went, day after day, the gathering, the selling, and, if she was lucky, the dining.
As she hurried toward her spot, arms full of wood, an older boy rounded a corner in front of her. He appeared so suddenly she dropped some of her wood. Instead of helping her, the boy leaned against a brick wall and crossed his arms. “I have seen you before. You are the young wood peddler.”
Eyes glued to him in case he made a sudden move, the girl bent her knees. “How gentlemanly of you not to help.”
“In a city full of criminals, to help someone pick up their belongings is viewed with suspicion. Many pickpockets roam these streets.”
The girl scooped up a heavy branch and put it on her pile. “And are you a pickpocket?”
He ignored her question. “I have observed you hawking your wares. You will never sell wood that way.”
She frowned, a gesture that hid her freckles. “I suppose you know a better way?”
She retrieved the last of the wood. “And you will not share it? Customary in this town, I suppose.”
The boy said, “My name is Aeron. Yours?”
She was cautious. Not many in town were kind and she preferred her obscurity. “Valencia.”
He bowed slightly. “If you say, ‘Wood for sale,’ they will not listen. You have to tell them why they want the wood. Remind them they need light, or they need to cook their meals. Predict a storm, tell them they require the wood or they shall find themselves chilled to the bone.”
“But there is no storm coming.”
Aeron scanned the sky, looking from one direction to the other, revealing a teardrop-shaped birthmark under his chin. “They do not know that.”
“’Tis wicked to lie.”
“It is also wicked to let us starve, but many would do so. It is not as if the wood will not be used. And it may be that your prognostics are true. Exile sees its share of winter.”
Valencia thought about the boy’s counsel and considered his arete. The nights grew longer at this time of the year. People would need the wood for light and heat to cook their meals, and the snows would come soon enough. She was not a liar, though. She knew if she tried, she would be horrible at it.
Aeron stepped forward. “How about this? Allow me to do the selling and leave you to collect the money. At the end of the day, we will share it. For every three coins, you shall receive one.”
“’Tis hardly a fair bargain. How about we trade off each coin, and if there is an odd amount, you may keep it?”
Aeron extended his hand. “’Tis an honorable pact.”
Valencia, her arms full of wood, brushed the edge of his fingers with her own.
The rest of the day Aeron pitched the merits of firewood as if it was a gift from God, and Valencia passed cords to eagerly awaiting customers. Noticing the bundle dwindle to nearly nothing, Aeron sent Valencia to gather more as he sold the last of their stock. Valencia counted the remaining logs, and when she returned, they were all gone, but not Aeron. She handed her wares to customers awaiting their goods.
After they depleted their inventory a second time, Aeron held high the pouch containing the day’s profits and shook it. It made the metallic, hollow sound that would set rapacious moneylenders salivating. Valencia silently cursed herself. Why did she trust him with the money? She should’ve demanded it as she passed out the wood. Now he would take it all for himself.
“A good day’s work. Do you wish to count the profits to ensure I did not cheat you?”
Valencia held out her thin hand and he placed it in her long fingers. Slowly, she counted the coins twice and kept half. “It has been a good day.”
“I think fortune favors us. Shall we meet here tomorrow?”
Valencia jingled the coins in her apron pocket. “I thank you for your advice and assistance today.”
“We make good confederates,” he said.
“You are an innocent, are you not? Why do you need me? You could collect the wood yourself.”
He shrugged. “And now, observing me, you could sell the wood yourself. Yet you know good wood from bad; many have commented on the quality of our stock. I do not believe I would fare as well.”
“And I could copy your methods, but it does not suit me.”
Aeron put his hand out. “Colleagues?”
Valencia shook it. “D’accord!”
When Valencia brought her coins home to her father, she thought he would be pleased with the windfall of money jangling in her small pocket. They would be able to eat tonight, possibly something better than stew made from the discarded bones of small game birds. Valencia’s father accepted the coins with both hands and counted it. She beamed at him as he placed the metal pieces in small piles on their lopsided table.
Her father’s wiry frame shifted uncomfortably. “Did you steal it?”
“No! I would never steal.”
“You are an urchin. Stealing is your way of life.”
Her father said, “Precisely why we starve. What did you do today to get this money? You did not do something else you ought not?”
Valencia didn’t know what he meant. “I met a boy. He helped sell my wood.”
Her father’s eyes narrowed. “Who is this boy?”
“His name is Aeron.”
“The fourteen-year-old hoodlum with the straight teeth? You are a fool. Do you not know anything?”
“His father is a murderer and his mother is a thief. Coming from those two, he will be nothing but trouble. Stay away from him!”
“But father, we have so much money.”
The instant she said it, she regretted it. She had broken one of her father’s cardinal rules—never disagree with him. His jaw set, and she anticipated his next move.
She put her hands on the table. Her father’s arm darted out, his arm cuff glinting in the candlelight, and grabbed a switch on a windowsill. He used it on her hands twice. It stung, but Valencia had been through this many times before. Two swats were light punishment to her now.
Her father set the switch back on the windowsill. “I will not have you associating with that boy.”
Valencia believed her father invented rules she didn’t understand to protect her. Slight for her age, she trusted her father only wanted the best for her. He tried to protect her in this dangerous town, the only one who would, and she was stupid to disobey. Therefore, when he said he used the switch to remind her, she believed him without question.
She ran to the butcher’s and bought two pigeons, and her father cooked them a chunky soup. She went to bed with a stomach full of the bird instead of the discomfort of hunger. Before she climbed into her pile of straw with the tattered cloth she used as a blanket, she knelt down to pray.
“I am sorry I worked with Aeron today. Like father said, I should know better. Sometimes I listen to my common sense when I should not. Born of two terrible people, he must be a terrible person himself. Please protect me, your loving little child. Amen.”
The next day, Valencia returned to her location and, with a trembling heart, began to expound the virtues of the wood, trying to mimic Aeron. Most of the people rushed past her without noticing her weak voice and unengaging style. When Aeron appeared, he greeted her with a sly grin. “Early start? We shall run out of wood again with such a little pile.”
Valencia ignored him and presented a stick of wood to Mr. Marnes, the landlord who had set his neighbor’s house on fire.
“Valencia? Do you hear me? Did a witch cast an invisible spell on me?”
“I am not allowed to talk to you.”
Aeron stuck out his lower lip in mock hurt. “What happened?”
“My father said your father is a murderer and your mother is a thief.”
“True. They are other things as well.”
“Then you are no good.”
Aeron leaned against the wall. “Because of my parents?”
Valencia nodded and called out to a passerby, pointing at her wood.
“Do you believe I am a bad person?”
“It does not matter what I believe. It only matters what my father believes. He looks out for me.”
Aeron grunted. “I had higher hopes for you, Valencia. I have been watching you. One day, we shall escape Exile together. You are clever and pure-hearted, qualities Exile cannot contain in its boundaries.”
“Do not trick me into partnering with you again.”
“Trick? Not a trick. You and I are not so different. We help each other to sell wood today, but one day, we shall partner and leave this accursed neighborhood.”
Valencia had never thought of leaving Exile without her father, and she had little hope he would ever reform. The only way to escape this town was if her father demonstrated a selfless deed. If he did, his arm bracelet would fall off and the two of them would be free to leave—an unlikely event. Running away with this boy excited her. Against a little voice in her head that sounded like her father, she turned the idea over slowly and carefully, like a shoat skewered on a spit. The image of her stepping outside of the boundaries of Exile with Aeron filled her heart with hope.
Aeron scratched his head. “Not today, but one day when we are both older. We will escape together. And once we are in the wide world, we shall clasp hands and dissolve the partnership. We shall live as neighbors, perhaps in Tusk or Bremen.”
Valencia wanted more than ever to relinquish and sell wood with this boy. He raised his eyebrows at her. “I am not my parents, Valencia, any more than you are your father.”
“You are a rogue.”
“I do not deny it.”
“And a charlatan.”
“And a bad person.”
“You cut me to the quick.” Light and sarcastic, his tone endeared her to him. He turned away and started to pitch the value of the wood again.
And again the two of them sold a pile of wood though Valencia acted as if they weren’t associated. At the end of the day, he hovered near as she counted their pile of coins.
“And now,” he said, “give me a majority of the money.”
“Because you need to take home a little more but not too much. If you bring home what you have in your hands, your father will suspect you.”
“We are not confederates. This was my wood.”
He shrugged. “Then take the entire profit home. But if you listen to me, tomorrow you can take one more coin home. And the following week, one more still until, one day, you will bring home a pile of money and eat roasted chicken instead of gruel.”
Valencia closed her eyes and breathed deeply. He was right of course. His strategy would allow her to avoid the switch.
Aeron held out his hand and Valencia gave him a majority of the coins. Aeron walked away but flipped a coin back to her. She placed the coin in her sock, the rest in her apron, and skipped home happily.
The days passed and Valencia and Aeron’s un-partnership flourished. She improved her ability to sell her wares, but she wouldn’t think of turning out Aeron. She also learned another advantage of her not-so-silent partner. One particular day Aeron offered to collect more wood and left an improved Valencia to hawk their stock. As she called to pedestrians to inspect her inventory, she gained the attention of two older boys, and they surrounded Valencia and threatened her for the day’s profits. They stole the coins from her and ran away. Aeron returned to find his partner trembling and disturbed. He put his arms around her, and she cried on his shoulder.
They talked about Exile, and Aeron taught her many things. He told her about King Shade and said his parents liked him, a sure sign the monarch was trouble. When the church bells chimed a certain rhythm, he explained they signified the death of an Exile resident. It rang once for each letter in the person’s name, and if all bells tolled at the end, it meant the person repented before death. He talked about the how convicts tried to tunnel out under Exile’s boundaries but encountered an invisible wall.
One autumn day, he examined the sky. “When we leave Exile, we will be free to go anywhere in Kingdom.”
“Where would we go? And how would we eat?”
Aeron smiled. “Why do you think we are selling wood? We shall learn here and then venture forth, selling items we gather from nature.”
It thrilled Valencia when he expounded on escaping, but she never seriously thought of leaving Exile. She feared to abandon her father. When it came time to go, she would help Aeron but not leave herself. She liked Aeron, but she could endure her life here.
They worked together through the winter. Aeron bought Valencia a new woolen shirt with the money he had saved. It sheltered her from the cold winds. When the Reckoning came, the time of the year when the dead rose from their graves, Aeron walked her home. People joked the two loved each other, but they knew they were friends not sweetmates.
Their arrangement continued into summer of the next year when one day Aeron didn’t show up to work. Concerned but not overly worried, Valencia had developed her skills at hawking her items, which now included oil and matches in addition to wood. The two of them had learned to trade some of their excess profits for other goods in Exile.
The next day Aeron appeared at noon, and Valencia noticed a faraway look in his eyes. He approached their barrels and stopped, staring forward as if lost. Valencia bit her lower lip. “Where have you been?”
Aeron turned his head and squinted as if trying to remember her. His lapse of memory lasted only for a moment, and then he smiled broadly. “I have found the girl of my dreams. She is gorgeous.”
Valencia grabbed his arms. “How wonderful! Is she a child trapped here too?”
His brow knitted. “I did not think to ask. It does not matter. She has lush, thick brown hair that extends to her waist. It is curly and tangled and it flies around her head when the wind blows. The ends of her hair are black as night. She is funny and demure and kind and interesting.”
Valencia regarded him patiently. “All that at once? You spent the day yesterday with her?”
“I was on my way and she needed help carrying…something. I do not remember exactly what. Her arms are fragile. She and I walked around Exile all day, talking and staring into each other’s eyes.”
“I never thought of you as a romantic. This girl must be special.”
“You do not know how much,” said Aeron. “And here is the best part. We are going to leave Exile together. We shall find a small cottage, she calls it a little love nest, and live off of the produce of the land. I will become a farmer.”
“A farmer? I thought you wanted to be a merchant.”
“A merchant? That was before. I will be a farmer and provide for her. We shall be the happiest of people.”
With his response, Valencia had one of her flashes of insight. There were times when she sensed a good or bad outcome before making a decision. She had talked to Aeron about it once and he had taught her the concept of intuition, but this was different. Intuition protected her in times of trouble, but the sensation of something being right or wrong before danger appeared came rarely. She worried about Aeron’s infatuation, but Valencia didn’t say anything—not this time.
Aeron sold the wood but his usual energy lagged. Valencia did a better job of attracting customers. At the end of the day, Aeron took stock of the leftover inventory as he passed their earnings to Valencia. “It seems I did not do well.”
“You are distracted.”
He didn’t respond. His attention focused on the end of the street.
Valencia examined their meager profit. “You were thinking of her, were you not?”
He crossed his arms. “Perhaps. ’Tis not a crime. Lovers often think of each other.”
Again, the overwhelming sentiment of the situation being off-kilter surfaced. She debated whether to confront him but refrained. “What are you waiting for? Go to her, you fool.”
Aeron laughed and ran away. He didn’t say good-bye or look back as if, once she dismissed him, she no longer existed. She sighed and lowered her shoulders for her journey to her father.
After working the next day alone, Valencia dragged herself home. Her profits were light and dinner would be scarce, but at least there would be dinner. Midsummer approached and she longed for a taste of fresh fruit. As she entered her house, she halted before her father who stood in the middle of the room, switch in hand.
Valencia had never told her father about her arrangement with Aeron after the first day. Most of their neighbors, no matter what they did in the past, favored her and kept her secret. They despised the man who lived off his daughter’s labors.
“What is wrong, Father?”
“Are you with the boy I told you to stay away from?”
Valencia closed her eyes. For a long time, she hadn’t thought about his threat concerning Aeron, but now caught in her deception, she knew she would have to pay for it. “He is not a criminal.”
“You admit it?”
Her father’s face hardened. “I did not know whether to believe the girl with long hair or not. I have never seen her before. I wanted to believe you.”
Valencia’s jaw set. “Was her hair brown with dark ends?”
“You have made an enemy, Valencia, but it is no matter. We need to take care of this business of disobedience.”
Valencia turned toward the wall, awaiting her punishment.
With the sting of her wounds still hurting the next day, it took a while for Valencia to collect wood and straw. When she arrived at her corner, she was surprised to find Aeron near the barrels. He stood like a statue, looking off into space, arms listlessly at his side. She called to him, but he didn’t acknowledge her until she touched his shoulder, nearly shouting his name. “What is the matter with you?” she asked.
“Nothing. I have had many thoughts, Valencia. I used to think small, little thoughts. Remember those? A merchant in Tusk? Bah! Now I look forward to my twenty-acre farm and our cottage of love. And…Valencia does something trouble you?”
Valencia wanted to cry. “My father punished me last night for associating with you.”
For a moment, Aeron’s eyes focused, and his face softened. “After all this time and the money you and I have made, it still matters?”
“All that matters is I disobeyed him. But there is more I need to tell you.”
Aeron gave her his attention.
“I think your sweetmate told him about us.”
Aeron snorted dismissively. “She would not have revealed our secret. I have talked to her about you, but I am sure she would love you if she knew you. Why would she tell?”
“I do not know. What do you know about her? Why is she here? Have you met her family?”
“What does it matter? My parents are criminals.”
Valencia eyed him reluctantly. “Do you not want to know about her?”
“Of course, but I know the best parts.”
Valencia said, “I wonder…”
“You wonder what? I hate it when you say that.”
Valencia stuck out her chin. “You never used to. You used to say it was how you knew I had a great idea.”
Aeron crossed his arms. His eyes narrowed at her. “What is your great idea this time?”
“Aeron, bring her here to meet me. Bring…what is her name?”
Valencia’s eyes widened. “You do not know it?”
“I have never thought to ask. Her name is of no consequence.”
“Aeron, be careful. I do not trust her. Please, as a friend, I beg you to listen to me.”
“You are jealous.”
“I am not,” said Valencia. “You are my friend, but my friend only.”
“You have secretly hoped to become my sweetmate. Is it not so?”
Valencia closed her eyes and paused for a moment. “You know it is not true. We are confederates, but more importantly, we are friends.”
“You are not my friend any longer. You are a jealous little girl with small dreams. Stay away from me, and stay away from her.”
Valencia’s mouth dropped open. “I have done nothing to hurt her. She is the one—”
Valencia called after him but he ignored her, disappearing into the crowd.
The drenching rain appeared an hour later, and when it let up, a light mist hung in the air all day. She found it difficult to keep the wood dry, but Valencia managed to borrow a cloth from the barber. She didn’t sell many of her wares in the morning as the suffocating humidity soured people from purchasing moist wood. As she stood on the corner, begging people to buy straw, a scene unfolded before her, interrupting her in mid-sentence.
Aeron strolled arm-in-arm with a girl across the center square. His companion had flowing brown locks, a hawkish nose, and nearly nonexistent lips. They walked with their heads high as if they were the king and queen leading a parade. They strolled in a straight line, unwavering, steps evenly measured. Neither acknowledged the wood peddler but moved slowly as she stared at them, mouth agape. After they disappeared into the mist, Valencia reflected on the scene and realized it was a show for her benefit, likely the woman’s idea. She wanted to run after them and shake Aeron out of his stupor.
They appeared again a few hours later. For a second time, they marched in the other direction, huddled together. Aeron’s eyes never wavered but remained locked straight ahead, not acknowledging anyone, nearly running into people. The woman walked alongside him, guiding him, then turned and glanced at her. Her piercing, beady eyes winked at her.
Valencia nearly abandoned her post. She thought about her father and the punishment she had received last night. She must leave Aeron alone. He didn’t want her anyway and had left in a huff, but his behavior bothered her. None of this made sense and Aeron acted like a different person. It was like…but nothing like that ever happened in Exile.
They appeared an hour before her normal time to pack up and go home. Again, they paraded through the street in front of her. Aeron moved like her puppet, becoming less aware of his surroundings each time they passed. If she hadn’t known him, she would have sworn he was blind. His partner guided his every step. As the couple passed, the girl whispered to him. He shook his head in response as they moved on. Aeron’s sweetmate turned toward Valencia and grinned wickedly, and the mist swallowed them again. This time, however, Valencia decided to follow.
She packed her straw, her wood, her small pieces of parchment, her matches, and her twine into a bundle and started off through the mist after the couple. At first, she thought she lost them but then arrived at an intersection leading off in three directions. Quietly, she closed her eyes.
She had to trust something, and she decided to trust her special feeling, hoping it would come to her. She had never called it to her service before, and when it responded, it surprised her. It pointed her to the middle lane, and she followed it implicitly. She ran past people, pushing them aside. Her heart beat fast; the presentiment had intensified. It showed her the way and urged her onward. She worried not about herself but Aeron. Something was amiss, and tonight, he was in danger.
She ran to a dark alleyway and halted, certain they had entered it. Residents had littered the passage, a typical twisting and narrow alley, with trash and potentially dangerous detritus. She hesitated, wondering what waited at the end of it. Convinced Aeron’s girlfriend practiced sorcery, she, a lone waif, possessed no defense against evil magic. As she hesitated, a cry cut across the night.
It was Aeron. She sprinted down the alleyway and left whatever light from the street behind. As she hurried, she wrapped a paper around the stick and fumbled with a match. Before she lit it, a woman’s voice, not a girl’s, rasped a warning. “No farther!”
Valencia let her eyes adjust to the darkness and gasped at the scene in front of her. Aeron knelt, hunched over, clearly wounded. His companion stood before him, but she was no longer a girl. Her hair had expanded and become large wings with downy plumage on the front. Her head had turned into a bird’s, razor-sharp beak and pointed face. She only retained the beady eyes.
The bird spoke. “You dare to interrupt my supper?”
“Let him go!”
The creature’s head moved quickly in the spasmodic fashion typical of birds. It turned its attention to Aeron and then at Valencia. The way it moved made her skin crawl.
“If he wishes it…”
Aeron lifted his head, the light of reason restored to his eyes. Surely, he had only to run to her and they could escape. Valencia gestured to him. “Come to me!”
He moved to rise but the girl sang, and Valencia stiffened at the tune. She emitted a haunting bird call and Valencia had an overwhelming desire to walk to the creature herself. It wanted only love and acceptance, nothing more. It wanted someone to be with, to give it protection. It was a defenseless little bird and its needs were small.
Valencia shut her eyes and cleared her head. Aeron, under the influence longer, found it harder to resist. He couldn’t fight it, his eyes clouded, and he drooped his head.
The bird’s head jerked toward Valencia. “You see? He is mine!”
Valencia struck the match, but the monstrosity moved quickly. It reared back and screeched, and Valencia’s breath caught in her chest. Being nearer to the creature and weakened, Aeron suffered the most.
Valencia fumbled with the matches to light the stick. Aeron cried out, a plea of helplessness, and his eyes rolled upwards. The supernatural wail had drained him, and the bird puffed itself up as Aeron withered before her.
Valencia lit the paper and it caught on the stick, providing light. She saw, to her dismay, she was too late. Aeron, depleted of energy, fell ungracefully forward onto the lane.
The bird creature screeched a wail of triumph. It spread its wings to their full length, the tips of them touching the walls. It started running toward Valencia on its human legs ready to ascend. It jumped and caught the air above her, and Valencia ducked to avoid the fowl’s pummeling charge. She realized, at that moment, she couldn’t save Aeron, but she could honor their friendship and stop this monster from harming others.
She thrust her makeshift torch upwards as the siren passed overhead. The fire caught on one of the wings as it flew over her. It emitted an astonished cry. The bird veered, hit a wall hard, and attempted to put out the fire with its other wing. It hit the ground on her shoulder. Valencia ran toward it, baring her torch. It had nearly extinguished the fire when she thrust the flame at it again, catching the other wing on fire.
It screamed at her and tried to scramble away, but it was too late. The fire had caught and spread. The peddler girl knew it would try to make it to the sea on the south side of town as it took off once again. She watched it, shrieking as it flew in the sky. It lost its direction and spiraled to the ground as a crowd gathered around it.
She turned and ran back to Aeron. She sat down next to him, cuddling his head and crying. His normally ruddy countenance was pale, his cheeks hollow, and his breath still.
When she emerged from the alley, everyone noticed the torch in her hand and surmised she had played a role in the siren’s demise. Astonished a young girl had defeated such a powerful creature, they remained still, awaiting an explanation. She shook her head and pointed down the alley. “There lies Aeron, son of a murderer and a thief. He killed the creature with this torch before it murdered him.”
The crowd immediately accepted the answer, and a few people raced down to retrieve Aeron’s body. Valencia slipped away as the crowd started to fashion their own story of what had happened.
Valencia stood and sold her wares at the corner again the next day. The rain had returned and soaked her ragged clothes, her hair, and her wares. Her unfocused eyes did not take in the crowd shuffling before her, and she didn’t care if people bought from her or not. She reflected briefly how brave she had been yesterday, nearly heroic, but none of it had saved Aeron. She had failed him and deserved, like the rest of them, her Exile home.
The church bells broke her out of her reverie. There were five rings, one for each letter of Aeron’s name. She tilted her head to listen to them as the raindrops mixed with her tears. At the end of their tolling, the bells rang merrily, indicating another soul had escaped Exile.