A lone horseman galloped through the empty and desolate streets of the sleeping city, and all was silent but for the amplified sound of the sprinting horse's hooves as it sprinted like the gods themselves were chasing it down the stone streets. The rider would have been stopped as soon as he had entered the city, as it was well deep in the night, well past curfew, if not for the worn and slightly burnt roll of parchment he carried crumpled in his hand, with the seal of his lord. The night watch at the front entrance had spotted him, a flashing light in the distance, just as they took their shifts an hour before sunset, as the setting sun's rays reflected off of the man's sparse and unadorned armor as he and his horse scrambled down the steep and treacherous mountain pass. They had been watching as he road across the plains to the north towards the city, and then up the long and twisting path that took him gradually uphill, until he finally arrived many hours into the night at the front doorstep of the massive city. There, guards were waiting for him. He had quickly flashed them the piece of parchment, and they looked up at him inquisitively, but stepped back without a word, and allowed him passage inside. He was long gone, up the road and around the corner before the giant wooden doors could be swung shut and locked behind him. He would not slow down for anything, for he had an urgent message for the king.
The city itself, while being large and grandeur, was built with military strategy in mind. It was constructed on the side of an immense hill that seemed to rise out of nowhere, and was protected mostly by nature. A wide inlet of the sea, too shallow to cross by ship and too deep to cross on horseback protected the city on the left, a tall and unbroken chain of mountains curved from the north to the east, and the hill the city itself was built on, for it ended in a sudden shear white cliff at the back of the city, separating it from the dark waters of the ocean below, all provided extra protection against potential enemies. The city was built in levels into the side of the hill, with the castle being the highest building in the area, and the closest to the cliffs. There was not one road that lead directly from gate to castle entrance. Instead, the road wound up the hillside gently, with many switchbacks, until it ended at the castle's front gates. This, of course, was a mild annoyance and inconvenience to the rider, who was still galloping wildly up the streets, inwardly cursing at every switchback. At last, he finally reached the castle entrance, where the night watch there already knew of his coming, as the sound of his horse galloping through the streets could be heard from throughout the city.
"'Ey you, halt there! Now, tell us your business up here at the castle at this time of night, running like you've got the devil himself at your heels!" The voice came from an older man, the captain of the night guard, who stood with his arms folded across his chest, sword hanging loosely at his side, between the rider and the gate. The man on the horse didn't make any move to dismount, but held out the hand that was clenching the parchment. The old captain turned to one of the guards that were standing off to the side of the gate, and motioned for him to take the parchment. The young sentry obliged, and walked up to the rider, and reached out for the paper. The rider spoke impatiently as he handed the crumpled roll to the sentry.
"Please, I have an urgent message I must deliver to the hands of the king himself. I am already late, as the climb through the mountains slowed my journey down considerably. My lord is depending upon this message being delivered as soon as possible." The captain made no move to let the rider pass, but held out his hand as the sentry handed the parchment to him. He broke eye contact with the rider to inspect the seal. His eyebrows rose slowly at the sight of two dragons winding up around a sword, meeting with touching noses at the hilt pressed into the blue wax that sealed the roll shut. The captain looked up at the dusty and worn rider, and examined him curiously as he slowly walked towards the horse to hand the message back.
"Well bless me…a messenger from Gorothond," the old captain muttered to himself as he approached the horse. He stiffened as the messenger snatched he parchment impatiently out his hand, and then took a few steps back away from the horse, motioning for the unseen guards on top of the wall surrounding the castle to open the gate. The rider barely waited long enough for the portcullis to rise before he galloped off to the inner courtyard of the castle. The captain looked after him, longing to know what the urgent news he brought from Gorothond. Instead, he turned back to the sentries, who all seemed to be looking at him with the same questions in their eyes. The captain ignored their questions and ordered them back to their stations. He tried to shake the ominous feeling that had taken root in the bottom of his stomach as he followed his men back into the inner walls of the castle; for he knew as well as the rest of them that no news from Gorothond could be good news.
At last, after many long days of travel, the man on the horse had finally reached his destination. He quickly dismounted, not even waiting for the horse to fully stop, and half threw the reigns to the sleepy stable boy who had been tossed out of his bed to greet the rider. The tall man quickly strode up the wide stone stairs at the front of the castle, ignoring the stable boy's questions. The dark wooden doors of the castle swung inward just enough to let him in, and there he was greeted by a servant holding a light, who motioned for the messenger to follow him. The servant led him through the cavernous stone corridors, and finally through another massive set of ornately carved wooden double doors, into the throne room. There, the servant left him, after half whispering that the king was being awoken and that he would meet with the messenger shortly. Then, he was left in the throne room, alone, but for the silent guards that stood still as stone down the walls on either side of the room.
The messenger took this time to finally take in his surroundings. He wondered at the room around him as he slowly made his way towards the mighty throne. The room was long and wide, and the walls seemed to reach up forever, until they curved towards each other and formed a silver dome, with the tallest point almost a hundred feet in the air above the man. Small arched windows encircled the bottom of the dome, where during the day the suns light would be let in. A massive chandelier hung from the center of the dome, filled with hundreds of lit candles that emitted a soft light, reflecting off of the shiny dome surface to give the room a slight glow. The room itself, like the rest of the city, consisted of dull grey stone, as it was carved from the hillside as well. The path from the massive double doors to the throne, however, was polished black marble, inlaid with intricate silver designs that matched the dome and the silver tapestries that hung on the wall. Along the walls were tall alcoves that, upon further inspection, contained statues of men carved from the same black marble as the path. As the man approached the first statue, he saw that it was of a mighty man, standing tall and proud with a look of defiance. There, at the statue's feet, was an inscription on a silver plaque:
ALTHALOS, SON OF ITHALOS
FIRST KING OF MEN
The messenger then looked back up into the face of the long dead king, and he wondered idly whether or not the king he was sent to see resembled the dark statue. He wandered back toward the black marble path, and counted seven and forty statues in the alcoves along the walls. The dominion of men had been a long and enduring one, but that was soon to change.
The sound of a door scraping across the floor drew the man's attention to the throne. There, the black marble widened into long and gentle sloping stairs up to a wide platform, where a mighty metal throne, polished to a mirrored surface sat, unadorned save for the deep blue jewels that framed the top of the arched back of the chair. Behind the throne, several fully armed knights adorned in armor decorated with the king's insignia marched through the open door, and behind them, the king himself. He was tall; almost a foot and a half taller than the average man, for the royal lineage was made of different blood than normal men. The royal house all had the same features: they were all unnaturally tall for the race of men, they had fair skin, jet black hair, light eyes, and they all lived long lives, over twice that of an average man. The legend that was passed down from generation to generation of men was that the first king of men, King Althalos, took an elven princess for his queen, and so mixing mortal blood with immortal blood. Many men in the outer reaches of the kingdom had been doubtful of the existence of elves for many generations, but as the messenger looked upon the king now, he knew the legend be truth. For, although the king's once jet black hair was now dusted with silver, matching his great throne room, and his face was wrinkled with many lines of care, the messenger could see with one look into the deep emerald green eyes the secrets of the world that the king carried. In awe, the shabby, road-worn man dropped to his knees before the immense power and majesty of the king.
"Your majesty, King Doran," the messenger stammered, still in the trance of the gaze of the king, "I am Rulf, a messenger from Gorothond. I have a letter from my lord, Lord Jarin, son of Darin, Lord of the Lost Lands." Still gazing into the eyes of the now seated king, Rulf held out his arm, where the roll of parchment was clenched in his fist. Without any obvious orders, one of the knights silently approached the man, and took the parchment from his fist. The man let his arm drop back to his side, and still held eye contact with the king. The knight silently handed the message to the king, and took his place behind the throne once again, next to the rest of the guard. King Doran finally broke eye contact with the man to break the seal on the parchment, and read the message. With each passing second, the lines on the king's face deepened and grew more concerned. He re-rolled the piece of parchment back up and tucked it into the deep blue robes he was wearing, and gazed up at the chandelier, pondering something. Rulf, now freed from the spell of the king's eyes, stood back up, and awaited a response. After a few minutes, the king stood, and began pacing across the floor in front of the throne.
"Were you the first messenger to be sent to me by Lord Jarin?" King Doran questioned the messenger, not looking up from his pacing feet. Rulf's heart dropped to his stomach as he answered the king.
"No, my King. I am the sixteenth, and presumably the final messenger that Lord Jarin has sent to the capital. The others were sent throughout the past several years. I am assuming, if I may, that none of the other men have made it thus far?"
"No. You are the first person to come from Gorothond for many a year." The king stopped pacing, and settled himself back on the throne with great care, and examined the dirty man standing at the foot of his stairs. Rulf, uncomfortable under the scrutinizing gaze of the king, fidgeted with the hilt of his sword, before summoning the courage to speak again.
"My King, if I may be so bold as to speak, we have long thought in Gorothond that the capital had forsaken us, and that our errand there was forsaken. But now, I see that it was because no news came of our endeavors to your majesty, and so, I was wondering, would you help us? Our situation is most desperate." Rulf had grown increasingly brave throughout his speech, and was now looking into the eyes of the king once again, but was not held in the trance as he was before. After a few moments in silence, the king spoke again, his voice heavy with the sorrows of a hundred years.
"I feared the worst when letters ceased from Gorothond, and I forsaw that evil had befallen there. I myself have neither the knowledge nor the manforce to free Gorothond from this terror, but I know of someone who might. Go tomorrow, back to Lord Jarin, and tell him that I, King Doran of the Realm of Men will send my eldest son, Prince Borin, on a quest to lands unknown to seek for help. That, at the moment, is all the aid I can offer." King Doran leaned back into the throne, gazing once again at something unseen to Rulf. Rulf bowed slightly, acknowledging the king's decision, trying not to show his hopelessness and doubt. Try as he might, these insecurities were not hidden completely from the king.
"And why do you doubt this?" The king questioned, raising an eyebrow.
"I do not fully doubt you, my king. It's just…" Rulf paused, gathering his courage. "It's just that we have already been waiting many a year, diminishing with every day, and I do not know how much longer our people can hold out. A land unknown seems like it lies a long distance away, and I fear that we do not have that time. I also fear that if you do not even have the knowledge or power to help us, then no one can." Rulf seemed to deflate as he laid all of his worries honestly out before the king. The king smiled down at Rulf, for unknown to him, the king shared much of his worries as well.
"It is true, that your situation is dire, and it is true that I hold not the knowledge to defeat your enemy. But, you seem to forget, that I do hold knowledge such that no other man in the realm does, as is my duty, and I would hope that you hold faith in myself and my son." The king paused, and fingered a large ring on the third finger on his right hand for a moment before continuing. "I am sorry that I cannot give you a magic weapon or ride myself back to Gorothond with you to rid your people of this evil, I truly am. But please, have faith, and pray that we are not too late." With this, Rulf bowed low to the floor, eased of his worries for the moment. A servant hurried in, seemingly without a spoken or obvious command, and led Rulf away to a nearby inn to rest before he begin his journey back to Gorothond. The king sat long in his throne after Rulf left, and again, seemingly without command, one of the knights turned and disappeared beyond the door behind the throne. Within several minutes the doors at the front of the throne room swung open, and the knight walked in with a young man following close behind. The knight once again took his place behind the throne, and the man stopped in front of the king and gave a slight bow. King Doran sat in silence for a few minutes and peered down at the unnaturally tall young man with disheveled hair, black as the night sky, who stood at the foot of the steps. The man had obviously been woken up, but he stood silently and patiently with his hands behind his back, waiting to hear the reason for being brought before the king at such an early hour. Finally, the king spoke.
"I am sorry to have awoken you, my son. I am afraid that I have just received a messenger from Gorothond." At the mentioning of the name of the Lost Land, the young man's emerald eyes raised up inquisitively to meet the old man's shielded gaze.
"Gorothond…but I thought that the region had fallen, no word has come from them in over ten years?"
"So had I, until I received this." The young man climbed the gentle staircase to take the crumpled piece of parchment from King Doran's hands. The king waited in silence while the man quickly read the clumsy script that was sprawled across the paper. Slowly, the man lowered the paper and looked into the face of the king.
"This…this cannot be. Are you sure that the man was who he said he was?"
"Yes, he was a truthful soul and did not tell a lie while he was in this room." The king opened his hand to receive the parchment again from the young man, and tucked it back safely into his robes.
"Well…what shall be done? There is nothing we can do about the evil." The young man, like King Doran several hours before, had begun to pace in front of the throne. The king smiled, and stood, stopping the man's pacing. He looked up to the windows in the dome as the first rays of light from the sun shone into the dome, and sighed. The young man followed his gaze up to the windows, and then back to the king's face.
"Father? What do we do?" The young prince was slightly impatient with the silence of his father. The king slowly lowered his gaze back down from the sky to his eldest son's face.
"I am sending you on a quest of sorts, Borin. I would go myself, but I am too old, and you are too young to rule yet should evil befall me on my journey. I am sending you far to the north, beyond the reaches of our maps, to the Hidden Realm."
"The Hidden Realm? What riddles are you speaking in, father? No such place exists." At this, the king chuckled and clapped his son's shoulder.
"There is much you don't know, but here is a quick lesson. To the north, as I said, lies a hidden realm where a secretive people live. Memory of this kingdom has long since passed from the minds of men, as it has been hundreds of years since the last contact we had with them. But, they are still there, and hopefully, are able to help." The king paused, and turned away from his son, deep in thought once more.
"Secretive people...father, do you mean to say that there are still elves in this world? I thought that we were the only remnant of our people, that the first Queen was the last of her kind?" Borin could not believe it. He had spent his whole seventy years thinking that the realm of men was the only realm on the earth. He was, however, mistaken.
"I have not told you about them yet, as you were not yet old enough. My father did not tell me about them until I took place on the throne, and I would have done the same but for the evil that has befallen Gorothond. Of course the elves still exist, and I have no time to answer any of your other questions. I will give you a map to the Hidden Realm, and you must depart immediately, and tell no one of your quest." King Doran again turned back to his son, and looked upon him with loving eyes. "The fate of Gorothond rests on the fate of your quest. Here, take this ring," King Doran took the large red stone set upon a silver band off of the third finger on his right hand, and handed it to Borin, and continued, "it is the ring given to our ancestor King Althalos from the elves. Present this when you arrive, and they will know that you are an elf-friend, a descendant of Althalos, and they will let you have passage into their lands." Borin took the ring, and slid it onto the same finger that his father wore it upon.
"I will wear this ring with honor." The king laughed, and embraced his son.
"Now, go with haste, for your journey will be long and many lives depend on you. An end must be put to the siege of Gorothond. Dragons are not creatures to be trifled with, and the elves are the only people left on this earth with knowledge of the dealings of dragons. Ride now my son, Prince Borin, son of Doran, King of the realm of men! Your destiny awaits."