Road To Royalty – The Tale of Zorah

The Tale of Zorah

The following short story of an adventure is taken from a dream that inspired many of the thoughts and events leading up to the publication of this book. It provides an allegorical understanding of the journey that I will take with God through the remainder of the book.

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The night was black. Howling wind ran up and down a long, narrow basement corridor. On the left side, it shook the frail wooden boards lining the walls in a struggle to let in the flood of rain that waited just beyond. Swirling up the little piles of dust that lay deserted on the concrete floor to the right of the hallway, the gasp of air carried them through fluttering wisps of plastic that divided the rooms of this basement. Except for these shrinking remnants of life, the entire floor to the right of the corridor was completely deserted. Abandoned in the darkness, the bare skeletons of rooms stared blankly at the outside walls where they could hear the faint spattering of raindrops.

At the other end of the basement, creaking wooden staircases led to the first floor of this building. There, one could look through an array of clouded glass windows into the stormy darkness beyond.

Scarcely 20 feet away, a massive wooden barricade blocked the view as far as one could see in both directions. The barricade had stood for years between the raging waves of a large sea and the gloomy darkness of this mid-sized, post-industrial city.

Leaving this view behind, one could exit the decrepit building at the edge of the city through a parking garage that had squeezed itself in between the building and a six-lane highway. Immediately to the south, this highway spilled over a great bridge and onto the wide-open country beyond.

In other times, this bridge would have been an impressive site. It had been constructed long ago in the days when grand structures were admired and sought. Three driving lanes ran in either direction with sidewalks bolstering the furthest edges. The white and yellow lines on the pavement were perfectly straight. In parallel, a column of lampposts rested with the stateliness of soldiers and the elegance of chandeliers. They stood erect between the lanes and the sidewalks holding four round lights that introduced a center light elevated about twelve inches above the first four. They stood silent and dark. Nobody had ever found the switch to turn them on and they remained as lightless as the day they were created. They stood guard over the roadway that passed some 10 feet above a quiet river as a silent testament to the pointless existence of the city.

The only things that seemed more out of place in this dreary landscape than the magnificent bridge were the bright red roofs and silent cement walkways of a bazaar that rested quietly on the southern edge of the country. The bazaar was several miles from the town, and nothing ever happened over there except for twice a year.

The buildings where the bazaar was held covered a space of ground that was slightly smaller than the city itself. They were solidly built, and did not seem to have suffered for spending parts of the year under water whenever the plain flooded.

Leaving the plain and bazaar behind, one could follow a highway northward as it circled through the heart of the city. It reached its end at a palace sitting atop a small, narrow hill. This hill marked the northernmost point of the city and was the only place where one could look down onto the lake from above sea level. Looking toward the north from this point, one could only see the raging waves of the sea that threatened to flood the city. Toward the south, one could see the city tumbling down the hill and onto the flat plain through which one could reach the bazaar.

If anyone had been watching on this particular evening, they might also have noticed a lonely car creeping slowly down the hill toward the southernmost tip of the city and the building where this story began.

Struggling to control the car against gusts of wind that blew across the roadway, a silent figure peered over the steering wheel into the dark entryway beside his destination. The open wooden doors of the parking garage bid a cautionary welcome to the hapless adventurer seeking shelter inside its hungry mouth.

Just beside them, the grand entrance to the building had decayed into a haunted nightmare with black strips of paint crawling up and down its greying boards. Like so many other buildings in the city, it was only a ghost of the bright red colors, busy industry, and happy days that nobody could remember.

The Beginning of the Adventure

Although it was not the first time that the driver had visited this place, he hoped it would be his last. He felt incredibly out of place driving a shiny, grey sedan into the decaying rubble of this large building. Pulling nervously at the stiff collar of his shirt, he jerked his steering wheel to the left and felt his car drive up the short ramp to the first floor of the parking garage. Weaving slowly between the shadows cast by overhead lamps, he thought that their dim light somehow made the place appear more gloomy than the stormy darkness just beyond their reach.

They did produce a faint sparkle on his black dress shoes when he stepped out of the car. This reminded Charles, the driver, of the fireplace at his house where he would much rather be resting at the moment.

Instead, his eyes were wandering to the cracked wooden walls where raindrops crept into the building and gathered in puddles beside the uneasy cement columns supporting the roof.

Standing beside the car, Charles shoved his hands into the pockets of his dress pants and gazed vacantly at the low ceiling above his head.

“Why did this have to be the night when Adam needed my help?” he thought, beginning to walk toward the nearest door.

He lazily wondered if his friend had reached the rendezvous point before he did. He still couldn’t understand why Adam had asked for his help, but he was ready to get the evening over with.

For the past two weeks, the conversation between the two men had played over and over in his mind. Adam wanted Charles to help a kidnapped princess find a way out of this dismal place and back to the country where her father ruled. Though Charles was not particularly thrilled with the idea of running away to a place that couldn’t possibly exist, he knew what usually happened to those caught trying to escape this city.

He shuddered at the thought and walked quickly toward the round brass doorknob in front of him. Turning his hand, Charles pushed the white gateway back into the shivering darkness of the building within. The shadow of light from the parking garage glowed through the maze of abandoned passageways in which most escape artists lost their magic, most philosophers their wisdom, and many people their lives.

Because of the danger involved, one would expect very few people to risk entering this building. Even so, people in the city believed the abandoned rooms inside contained the secrets of a world beyond the city. It was said that certain people had entered here and found their way to a country where the waves did not carry the threat of death, where the sun smiled through the clouds upon a thick forest of trees, where life continued like it did in this city, but where its experience was completely different. It was impossible to imagine a better life than what people could enjoy if they were fortunate enough to find this extraordinarily good place.

For the most part, though, people were too scared to risk their lives to discover if what they believed was true. Charles was one of the few who thought the reward was worth the risk. Years ago, he told a few of his friends that he was conducting a research project to find out whether this place called the King’s Country was something more than just a fairy tale. After saying goodbye, he had entered the building where rumor said a passage to this land could be found.

A careful observer and scholar, Charles explored the winding passageways that had ensnared so many before him by using what he had learned before entering the building. After searching for some time, Charles realized that every single pathway led to a dead end. Eventually, the hope of finding another place that he had carried with him into the building slowly vanished. He continued to look for some time after that just to prove that there was no possible way the rumors could actually be true. He knew that many of the people who entered before him had gone somewhere and he was disappointed that he couldn’t figure out how to get there too. The day that he left its walls became one of the worst days of his life.

In his misery, Charles began to refer to the beautiful land many called the King’s Country as ”the imaginary place.” News of his failed quest spread through the city and caused many people to reconsider their idea of leaving. This pleased the leaders of the city, who offered Charles a rewarding opportunity. He would pretend to be content with his life in the city and publicly renounce the King’s Country as childish imagination. His public image would encourage the people to be satisfied with their lives and give up their silly ideas about a perfect world. In exchange for this service, Charles was given a comfortable home in the suburbs near the palace.

Moving to the higher districts near the palace had been a life-changing experience. If there was any idea that inspired hope more than the possibility of finding the King’s Country, it was the chance to move into the higher districts. Permission to leave the low-lying areas came very seldom. But when it did, it inspired even the most discouraged to hope that someday they might leave the drumming sound of the waves and the constant threat of flooding that plagued the lower districts of the city.

Those who lived on the hill could visit the rocky precipices lining the edge of the city and look down into the foaming water below. This section of land quickly sank into a valley that was protected from the foaming, crashing waves by a massive seaboard wall. Most of the people lived in this part of the city. They suffered from perpetual fear that one day the wall would collapse and their lives would be washed away in the ensuing flood. Thus, moving to the higher districts away from the constantly pounding threats of the waves was enough hope to live for.

Even in the higher districts, though, the living conditions had grown worse for as long as anyone could remember. Nothing new was ever built. The engineers who worked in the city could scarcely figure out how to maintain the remnants of an impressive and elegant history.

In a world that was falling apart, it should not have surprised Charles that people still left the city in search of something better. He continued to lecture about the imaginary place that didn’t exist, but his conviction weakened every time another person risked a journey and never returned.

Nobody knew what it was that kept the people from coming back, but the ripples of rumors about a good place grew into waves of dissatisfaction that threatened to erode the power craved by the city leaders. If they couldn’t make the people satisfied with life in this city, they would make it more dangerous to attempt a journey to the King’s Country. In addition to making such expeditions illegal, the city authorities outlawed any discussion of the King’s Country. Because of this last rule, anytime someone disappeared, the silence surrounding their departure spoke louder than the innocent questions of children who constantly asked where they had gone.

Parents hushed their children and told them not to speak of fairy tales, but they wondered how the children seemed to know more about this place than they did. Everyone knew that as they grew older, the children would stop asking questions and resign themselves to the drudgery of city life. Perhaps, one day they would even be invited to move to the higher places of the city where nobody really bothered to find this place. So, no one spoke of the King’s Country, but everyone remembered the promise wrapped up in its name. Every time someone else disappeared, even Charles could not forget the reasons why he had once wished to find this imaginary place himself.

Troubled

Angrily, he pulled the door closed behind him and entered the building attached to where he parked. Why was he the only one who had looked for the other place and had returned without finding it? After all the time he had spent in the building, Charles knew the passageways inside and out, yet he couldn’t help wondering if he had missed something. Should he have explored that one last opening before he gave up and left the building?

“It’s stupid anyway,” he told himself, “just for kids.”

But tonight as he entered the building, something inside of him felt different. Maybe it was nerves.

He didn’t like this building at all. It reminded him of his failure and gave life to his aching dreams of a better place that he had done so well to hide.

Now he was returning to the place where his hope had died in order to use what he had learned in the process to help someone else.

Adam had given him a simple job. “Just get the princess to the other side of the bridge and I can go home and relax,” he reminded himself. “All I have to do is get her through this building, into the car, and across the river. Then it’s all over.”

He still couldn’t wait to get out of there. After navigating the maze of hallways inside the building, Charles wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but he knew it involved crossing over the massive highway bridge between the city and the plains.

Charles figured that if he could drive his friend across the bridge, the rest of the journey would be fairly easy. He knew that not even the palace guards, who would certainly be trying to find the escaped princess, would follow them over the bridge onto the open plain. They didn’t like the thought of being stuck out on a flooded plain any more than he did.

Besides, the maze of this building usually ended the thoughts of escape for most people. Nobody would expect the princess to come through this building and continue her search for the imaginary whispers of a place called the King’s Country.

The Dream of A Princess

The heavy sounds of militia boots coming from near the upper north entrance of the building hinted that the princess was still free, somewhere. If the guards were here, perhaps she was already inside the building. Because of his experience inside the building, Charles knew he could navigate the halls better than most. Now, he hoped he would also be able to outrun the palace guards who must have entered the building at some other point.

Charles walked nonchalantly down the first hallway that led away from the noise of guards. Looking around at the chaotic mess of decay that surrounded him, he wondered why a princess would risk her life in a place like this.

There were plenty of people with little significance who had nothing to lose coming into this place. She, on the other hand, had everything most girls in this city could ever dream of: the most beautiful clothes, the most delicious food, the most handsome admirers, the most extravagant parties, and the most flattering companions. Even if the man she called her father was neither a real king nor her father, he treated her well.

He was a favorite of the city leaders who treated him as if he was a king. Holding no power, his role was to provide the model lifestyle that every other person in the city would aspire to.

Though the responsibilities were minimal, the rewards of the position included the ability to never venture out of the palace buildings into the perpetual storm the hovered over the city. Also, the palace was the only building in the city not yet falling to pieces, so his family hosted every major event for the city.

In reality, life as a princess in this acting royal family was as good as it could ever be. Princess Zorah knew from certain people who snuck into the palace for shelter from the storm that the real world was much, much different than the one she knew. However, the responsibilities and luxuries of her situation kept her from wondering how she had come to bear the title of princess. Voluntarily imprisoned by that which she considered to be good, Zorah rarely caught a glimpse of the reality that surrounded the palace where she lived.

So, when people began to whisper that the princess was not completely satisfied with the best that this country could offer, Charles could not guess why. Even the girl who had been Zorah’s best friend since childhood could only guess why the princess’ smile had vanished after her nineteenth birthday or why her visits to the ballroom parties grew ever shorter. At first, Zorah herself couldn’t understand why she was no longer happy, but she knew that it had something to do with the picture that she now held in her hand.

This picture showed the rock walls of a grand, sleepy castle in the middle of a great forest. All the children in the city knew what it was…it was the castle where the King lived.

The King ruled over all of the country that they wished to live in, but he always had time to see anybody who came to his castle – especially kids. As a child, Princess Zorah had drawn this picture for her best friend, who had shared the common dream of finding the King’s Country.

When they were children, Zorah and her best friend knew that one day they would find the King’s Country. They had been so incredibly excited about their expedition that even the distance from the higher districts to the plain beyond the bridge seemed easy. If they had reached the plains, neither one of them would have known which way to go. However, they were never permitted to venture out of the palace, so the trip ended at the palace gates where the highway began.

As the public duties of the young princess consumed more and more of her time, Zorah had not remembered to think on the stories she loved as a child. The years passed by in a whirlwind of entertainment. There was no time to stop and ask questions of the lonely individuals who passed through the palace with their fake smiles and extravagant clothing. Sometimes she wondered if the stories she believed as a child were actually true, but there was no one to talk about them with, so even this notion quickly died. Only two things remained: the rock walls of the King’s fortress that stood guard over every dream that Zorah could remember, and the sketch she had drawn.

This year, on her nineteenth birthday, Zorah had opened a present from her best friend. It was the picture she had drawn so long ago. The old pencil sketch suddenly reminded her of the childhood mystery of the King’s Country that had inspired the drawing. For some reason, this old picture rekindled a fire that had died somewhere along the way. She didn’t know why, but Zorah resolved to never let it out of her sight again.

A few months later, she understood why. Early one morning, a palace worker had called her over to meet a stranger that was passing through the city. His name was Adam, and Zorah had to meet him.

As Zorah walked over to where the man was standing she realized she was afraid to look at him. He was not like anyone she had seen before. Most people would either hang their heads in despair over the dreary world they knew or strut past pretending as if their lives were somehow better than hers. Adam simply looked directly into her eyes and asked a question that made her fingertips tingle: “Princess, have you heard of the King’s Country?”

Zorah looked at him surprised for a moment. She had not heard anyone speak directly of this since her childhood. It was not just against the law; it was punishable by death. The fairy tales she had heard were gathered piece by piece through the gossip of little children who were too young to realize the weight of what they were talking about and whose knowledge was so incomplete that no one thought it was harmful. However, these children had grown up with Zorah years ago and she had heard nothing of the King’s Country since then.

Staring at a picture that Adam held in front of him, she noticed the castle in the forest that had stood guard over her dreams and tempted her waking hours since her birthday. When she looked at the picture and then back at the man who was holding it, Zorah was speechless. It matched perfectly with the one she had drawn as a child. Through the haze of delight and curiosity, she remembered little of the conversation that followed.

When Adam left the quiet corner where they had finished their conversation, he promised to return in one month. Zorah had that long to prepare to travel with him to the King’s Country – if that was what she wanted.

Trying to maintain some sense of normal life, Zorah could not conceal her excitement and frustration as she worked through her decision. She even dared to ask the man she knew as her father if he had ever considered leaving the city.

“Why would you give up everything you have going for you?” he had replied.

After spending his whole life in the city, he knew the benefits of serving as the royal family. Nothing could have persuaded him to leave his kingly position.

Almost oblivious to the passing of time, Zorah struggled with the decision she knew she had already made. She somehow knew that there had to be more to life than what she enjoyed in the city palace. However, she was afraid to take the risk of finding out if what she believed about the King’s Country was actually real.

All of her thoughts muddled together in her mind and by the time Adam returned, Zorah was not prepared to leave. But her mind was made up with one glance at the kind face before her. When Adam looked at her and repeated his offer, she knew she had to try. It was her only chance to find out if there was something more, if she would actually see the castle in the forest, if she would find out what it meant to be a real princess. Her dreams could come true. But she was not ready to go.

Except for the picture, and the clothes she was wearing, Zorah did not have time to take any part of her old life in the palace with her. She shrugged into the huge raincoat that Adam had brought to shield her from the storm outside, and the two of them quickly left the safety of the palace.

Now they lay crouched beside the entrance of a building where the journey ended for many people. The raindrops pelted against her head and Zorah pulled her dark hood a little closer trying to catch her breath. She had been running all day, and just now began to notice that she was hungry. Running had been exciting, but waiting in a shower of rain for who-knows-what was becoming very dull.

To distract herself, Zorah glanced over her shoulder at the walls of the dike that produced such fear in the hearts of residents. Shuddering under every blow from the waves, the barricade seemed incredibly thin. She understood why people would want to leave this place to find the King’s Country.

A thrill shot through her body as she remembered the stories she had heard of a country where the sun was always shining and the waves from the lake made one perfectly happy. Since she was a little girl, she had imagined what it would be like to run through the trees and up the mountains where the birds never stopped singing. Something about these stories had always made Zorah want to cry with joy.

If she had been a little braver she would have tried to find her way by herself. Yet now, away from the safety of the palace, she was very happy to be traveling with the rugged stranger watching faithfully beside her.

Adam’s dark curls barely showed in the dim light, but the streaks of water running down his face showed the countenance of confident determination that had initially won her trust. He was well built, if not stocky. Though he never smiled, his eyes were so deeply direct and his manner so gentle that she would gladly trust him with her life. If anyone could help her find the King’s Country, it was Adam.

A tug on her elbow brought Zorah rushing back to the present. It was almost time to enter the building. Like everyone else, she knew the stories of what happened in there and would have been ready to turn back if Adam had not taken her hand. In her mind, it was an impossible journey. But with him, anything seemed possible.

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That was exactly how Charles had felt when Adam first asked him to help the princess escape. Charles knew about the King’s Country, but did not have the incentive or the time to try going there himself. As far as he was concerned, it was too uncomfortable and dangerous to try again. In fact, he had no clue why he had agreed to help a man who had been labeled a criminal by the city leaders and carried the threat of being shot on sight.

It was also incredibly risky to help a person as important as Zorah who had been shielded her whole life from the reality around her. She had been under the watchful protection of the palace guards since she was a child and they would not let her go easily. Charles had not wanted to participate in the outrageous plot Adam had suggested, but he couldn’t stand by and let the princess be captured. So he had offered to drive the group of runaways across the highway bridge if they could make it as far as the building where he had once searched for the King’s Country.

What Charles didn’t realize was that Adam intended for him to finally leave the city where he was becoming so comfortable. The request for help was really a request for him to stop delaying his visit and finally go to this place he thought he knew so much about.

The Escape

Through the rushing noise of the wind, Charles thought he heard the sound of gunfire from the other end of the building. Carefully, he moved in that direction to see if Adam had arrived. He didn’t recognize the woman who had started a gunfight with the city guards at the main entrance, but he didn’t really care. He started to walk away when she noticed him and seemed to signal him to go back up the stairs.

Playing along, he slipped smoothly toward the staircase he had just descended and flinched as he rounded the corner to face the raised weapon of a palace guardsman. A quick scuffle initiated a desperate chase through the labyrinth of fading colors and falling boards. As he ran through the haze, Charles suddenly realized that he was not crucial to this operation.

He wondered why Adam had invited him to come. Even if he could get the runaways to his car, it would be no use to them. His car was not strong enough to break through the wooden gates that protected the exits of the parking ramp. Because the palace guards were already here, that meant the gates would be closed, blocking in his car and covering the exits. The whole building was now a trap.

Using the only advantage he had left, Charles left the confused guard fumbling about on the lower levels while he followed his knowledge back to the upper floors. There, he saw Adam and a figure covered in a large raincoat running toward the exit where his car was parked. The sound of gunfire echoed on their footsteps and Charles realized that the woman he had seen earlier was trying to buy a few minutes of time for the other two to escape.

Barely ahead of the pair, Charles weaved through the cement columns of the parking garage to the doors and began to frantically pull on the wooden beams blocking their exit. He urgently wanted to get out of there. Not even thinking about what would happen to the runaways if they were caught, Charles simply wanted to avoid capture himself. If he could not escape from the building, he would be arrested as an accomplice and face the end of his relatively easy life.

Led By A Child

“I can help,” a small voice shattered the silent panic of his thoughts.

Startled, Charles looked up to see a little boy walking toward him from the upper level of the parking garage. Steadily but timidly, the boy approached the single ticket meter, the guide-bars, and the helpless grownups who were flailing at the wooden doors.

“I can help,” he said again.

Charles looked down at the small boy between 8 and 10 years old with disbelief. If his age did not discredit his claim, his unusually grubby clothing made him appear completely unreliable. He was dressed in a T-shirt that looked older than the rubble the parking garage was made of.

“I can help, but you have to take me with you,” pleaded the boy, whose name was Austin.

He looked up at Charles again and said, “please!

There was no time for arguing. The little child was the only way out of this building. Charles nodded and followed Austin toward a part of the wall almost directly opposite where his car was parked. A gush of water greeted his face as the boy pulled open what appeared to be part of the wall. Here three of the boards were loosely dangling from the ceiling. Pushing them to one side created an opening just large enough for a man to duck through.

Within seconds of climbing through the hole in the wall, Charles’ hair was completely drenched. While the others came through the narrow opening, Charles took a moment to look around. Standing with his back to the gunfire in the parking garage, he could look far off into the distance on his right and just make out the shape of the palace where the adventure had begun for Princess Zorah.

The gates of the palace encompassed the beginnings of a road that wound through the city growing ever larger until it passed right by the place Charles stood as a six-lane, paved highway. Across from him there was a seventh lane, which most people considered to be a separate road. Some time ago, people had used this as a place to park their cars when they visited the stores lining that side of the road. Today, there were scarcely any vehicles to be seen, and those that were present did not seem to be ready for driving.

Directly across from the emerging runaways, a large black pick-up truck dominated the scene. A street vendor had thrown up a tarp at the back of the truck and was using it to hawk his unwholesome items to whatever passerby dared to venture out in the rain to look at what was there.

A plywood board rested against the far side of the truck, which was parked almost parallel to the highway, but with the front slightly further away from the road. A few days earlier, that board had covered the box of the truck. Now it was tossed aside by the shop owner who would have appeared more in place selling steaks at a butcher shop than here selling tiny trinkets wrapped in little plastic bags.

Nobody knew how the truck had appeared or why its owner had abandoned it. Those who wished to find out could have discovered that it belonged to a person named Adam and was parked there by a friend of his just two days earlier. Because nobody really cared, certain people had decided to use it as a trinket shop. They had done the same thing with a limo that was parked just a few yards up the street while its owner remained unknown.

Charles thought it would be a fine story if the group could somehow commandeer the limo for the remainder of their journey. Adam, however, led in another direction. The woman Charles had seen in the basement of the building pulled her rifle through the wall and joined the group of four as they splashed through the currents of rain on the empty roadway and rushed up to the black pickup truck. Adam immediately claimed the driver’s seat while Charles and Austin threw the board over the makeshift store and jumped in the other side with the woman and the princess.

As the truck rumbled to life, the rest of the group noticed the limousine, but Charles shouted, “We should stick with this old tank of a pick up with huge wheels and a coughing motor because the way ahead will be rough.”

He was actually quite scared that the vehicle would die on the way and didn’t know why he said this. But as it turned out, the highway was incredibly smooth after the initial jump over the curb onto the highway. Their only problem now was that their escape was completely out in the open.

The highway was perfectly flat as it ran across the river at the edge of the city right next to where they started. While they crossed the massive bridge to the flat grassy plains beyond, there would be no place to hide. Everyone would know that these five people were trying to escape from the city.

The woman Charles had met in the building forced her weapon through the cracked window of the back seat and Charles noticed the steam building up on the glass of the crowded cab. This truck was made to seat two comfortably, but Charles was smashed behind the passenger seat with three other people. He tried to force an automatic rifle out the window to fight off the guards that were running out of the parking garage firing their weapons. Between Charles and the woman, Austin sat silently.

As the truck bounced over the curb onto the highway, Charles jumped into the driver’s seat and expertly guided the vehicle down the roadway while Adam and the woman used their weapons to encourage their pursuers to wait for cars on the other side of the bridge. Charles worried that perhaps he would not have enough time to drop his cargo and return to his home in the city before the guards continued the chase on the other side of the bridge. He still intended to leave the runaways as soon as it was safe. Meanwhile, he loved to drive, so he would enjoy this part of the adventure.

Stranger Places

All too soon, the red roofs of the merchant stands at the bazaar took up their massive forms and brought the road to its end in a series of smaller pathways. When the truck slowed to a crawl, Adam rushed from the cab with the two girls leaving Austin with Charles.

Though the road ended here, Charles knew that for the others, the journey had just begun. He looked around at the narrow alleys sneaking through the wooden sheds that were locked tight and remembered the last time he had seen them. Not long ago, so many people had choked up the arteries that ran between the buildings that he thought they would explode from excitement. On that day the sun had almost broken through the clouds to highlight the banners that flapped excitedly in the smoky breeze. The acrid dampness of the concrete sidewalks reminded him of the smells of baked goods, roasted meat, fresh fruit, and open fires that dominated the atmosphere at his last visit.

Whether it was the damp chill in the air or the lonely absence of the sights, sounds, and smells that made him shiver, Charles didn’t know. He was glad that Austin was still with him and even more glad that the palace guards were probably still waiting in fear for instructions to cross the highway bridge at the far end of the plain.

For some reason, instead of turning the truck around immediately, Charles decided to explore the sterile setting. It was mostly sheltered from the rain and gave him a chance to find out if any of the rumors he had heard of this place were actually real. Some had hinted that the entrance to the King’s Country was actually hidden in the labyrinth of the bazaar instead of the building where he had looked, but nobody of any intellectual significance thought the claims were credible.

After hours of searching and discovering nothing, Charles was pretty sure that the rumors were wrong, but he wanted to make sure that Zorah and the rest of the party had made it safely to their destination.

As time passed, guards from the city began to descend on the bazaar and there was still no sign of Adam and the girls. Charles began to worry that all his work would come to nothing. If the guards had not continued their shouting, Charles would have been convinced that the other three of his party had already been captured. Meanwhile, if he had not found any rumored passageways to another country, they probably hadn’t completed their escape yet either.

Running down multiple dead ends and realizing that everything that looked like an exit led in a circle, Charles and Austin began to realize that they were lost. They rounded a corner of one of the shops, and found themselves on an iron grating that stretched across an empty space to another pathway, which looked exactly like the one they were on. In the center of the grating, a metal staircase descended into a cavern that filled the space between four buildings. In their rush to escape from the approaching footsteps, Charles and Austin failed to notice it was the first structure made of metal they had encountered since driving over the bridge with metal lampposts.

As they turned away, the two noticed a band of guards coming from the far end of the cement sidewalk. In a jolt of brilliance and terror, Charles realized that their escape lay in only one direction: down. He ran back to the feeble catwalk with Austin and stared down into the dark intersection between four buildings. It would be an excellent place to hide. The guards had not yet rounded the corner, so they would have no idea where their targets had vanished.

Stumbling down the third flight of steps, Charles noticed the singular flaw in his plan. A small sliver of light ran across the floor at one edge of the dark slab. It was just enough to show anyone walking above that there was someone trying to hide in the square cavern below.

With the timing of perfect irony, Charles glanced up to see if there was time to change course and caught the glimmer of an evil eye discovering his presence. The enforcer of the city had arrived with the guards and stood astride the catwalk where every corner of the room was within range of the machine guns she held in either hand. A rustle of sound and motion revealed the other three runaways sheltered just behind the wall at her back.

They vanished as soon as the woman appeared, but not before Charles shouted up, “I found it! It’s here!”

Because it was too late to hide anyway, he might as well do everything in his power to insure that the others would search this dark hole for a passageway to their destination.

Turning back to face his own problems, Charles wished he had gone home a long time ago. Instead of the mediocre future he had anticipated upon his return, he would soon have no future at all. His destiny lay before his eyes: a forgotten grave on a stone slab three stories beneath the ground.

A Shadow of Death

Austin began to run toward the glow of light.

Unlike the dim haze that illuminated the rest of the city, this light seemed to have a life all of its own. It cut into the darkness with a shadow of hope, but could not reach beyond a few inches into the square room with cement walls. It peaked through an opening about two feet high that stretched along the entire length of the stone floor. The tunnel it created was about two feet in length. Charles fancied he saw something like grass on the other side.

Somehow, Austin knew this was where he wanted to be and ran toward the tunnel. His steps wavered, however, as he was struck by a bullet from the woman’s gun. He cried out and fell the ground but continued to crawl toward the narrow passage until a second shot stopped him altogether. Charles watched the young boy lie crying on the floor with his hand reaching out for the light and suddenly he could not stay where he was any longer. He hated the woman who had done this to the boy that had helped him – and he was under something of a spell from the light that was slipping through the tunnel into the square space.

With only a few steps to go to the bottom of the stairs, he figured he could make it across the floor and through the tunnel before the woman could shoot him.

He was wrong. By the time he reached Austin, Charles felt the cold steel of a bullet shearing through his lungs and could scarcely draw out his chest for another gasp of air. In a last desperate struggle for meaning, Charles decided that if he were going to die now, it would be trying to reach the light with Austin.

If the woman had not been terrified of coming near the light, she would have ran down the three flights of stairs to extinguish the last flicker of life that remained. As it was, she contented herself with shooting randomly into the darkness below.

Meanwhile, Charles heard a small voice beside him. The boy was not going to leave without the man who had brought him this far. Taking courage from each other, Charles and Austin mustered their last strength and dragged their bodies inch by painful inch into the cement tunnel.

The King’s Country

Before they had reached the other end of the passageway, a fresh breeze caught their faces. Spots of sunlight danced on a grassy mound ahead of them and sang of hope and welcome for the two strangers that had just now appeared. Without effort, Charles and Austin found themselves drawn out of the ground and into the warm embrace of summer air. Thick with pleasure, the air breathed life into the lungs of the travelers and infected their minds with a haze that made them forget their life-threatening injuries.

Swaying as he walked, Charles scarcely noticed the thick carpet of grass under his feet. He caught his balance and wobbled up the hill with Austin to his right. Cresting the short mound, the two came upon a flat area where they stood for a moment trying to take in the view.

Down the hill behind them lay the two-foot high by ten-foot wide cement opening they had come through. Long blades of grass bent over the opening to hide the garbage that lay just inside. It seemed that what was up in one world, must be down in another. While Charles and Austin had been climbing down to the cement floor, they may have actually been climbing up to the foot of this small hill. The view always made sense when looking at it, but when trying to understand how the transition worked, it becomes difficult to explain. When Charles thought about it later, he realized that the two worlds were in exactly the same place but invisible to each other.

A few feet away, a lake shimmered under the calming breezes coming from the foothills of the mountains where it began. Billowing like lazy ocean waves, huge mountains of water rolled over and over themselves and onto each other without breaking. Growing smaller and smaller as they reached the shore, the waves finally gurgled into the four foot tall banks of grass as little cylinders of water.

Nearest the place where Charles and Austin stood, two large trees introduced a small wooded area. This wooded area rested between a wide dirt road on the east side and a beautiful lake on the west side. The big trees grew within three feet of the lakeshore and provided shade for two farmhouses resting beside each other.

Both houses looked similar. They appeared to be well worn, but comfortable. There were children’s toys by a closed-in glass porch beside the first house. The second house sat back a little ways and bumped into the road on its far side. Both stood two stories high and commanded incredible views of the lake, the city across the lake, and the mountains that wrapped around the west and northwest sides of the country.

The clinking of silverware and sounds of a family dinner had vanished as soon as the refugees surmounted the hill. Now, calling for Charles and Austin to follow, several children emerged from the closest house and began to run and skip along a path of dirt and stones through the thick forest. As they followed, running faster and faster, Charles and Austin almost completely forgot they were supposed to be dying of the wounds they had received in the old city.

What had been a wide road out by the houses narrowed until only three people could run abreast. Tall trees from either side of the pathway stretched their arms toward each other forming a canopy of shade over the revelers. It was cool, shady, and even fun to run through the dirt pathway under the cathedral branches. Whether it was the contagious laughter of the children or the air of the place, Charles wondered why his feet didn’t hurt from all the stones in the pathway. Just then, the group rushed down a right-hand fork in the pathway and up to a large clearing in the forest.

On the far end of this clearing, stone fortresses rose to dizzying heights where they met with the edges of massive rock walls to form a magnificent castle. Flanked by turrets on all four sides, the grey stones touched the sky with small square embellishments lacing their top edges. If Zorah had been present, she would have immediately recognized the place. It was the castle she had drawn as a little child and now carried in her pocket as the remaining three runaways entered the Kings Country together.

Bright-colored flags waved a brisk welcome to the travelers on the drawbridge and the water cascading through the castle moat cheered noisily. In spite of the breathtaking grandeur of the place, all Charles could think of was that finally he could find someone to help them. He was certain that he and Austin were about to die from wounds they had received from the city ruler. Until he could ask for help, Charles could not focus his mind on anything.

Suddenly, they were kneeling between two marble pillars at the end of a long colonnade. Just before them a set of embellished steps rose up to a throne where the lord of the castle waited intently for their request. With Austin to his left, Charles knew that his one chance for survival lay in the words that came from his mouth. He knew this was the one place he could receive help, but now that he was here, Charles was speechless. He had no idea what to ask for or even how to address the great King before him.

In desperation, he managed to stammer “make us just like we were before.”

He meant to ask the king to heal the bullet wounds so they wouldn’t die. Receiving no answer, Charles began to despair of hope. However, as the fog lifted from his mind, he began to realize that the injuries, which had almost taken his life, had been healed even as he ran toward the castle.

As the realization sank in, Charles collapsed to the floor beside Austin. Whether it was stress, excitement, exhaustion, or simply the end of his adrenaline rush, he fainted and did not remember anything else.

Celebration On The Mountain

When the world faded back into view, Charles opened his eyes to see a beautiful girl standing in front of a crowd wearing a white dress. When she was not covered with the dark hood as she had been in the city, Princess Zorah was a picture of light. Her golden hair tumbled down in curls over a long white dress that seemed almost brighter than the sunlight. The sun was shining behind Zorah as she stood to thank the people who had brought her to this country.

After acknowledging the two who had planned and begun her escape from the dark city, Zorah asked who else had been part of helping her escape. She had never actually met Austin and Charles who pointed bashfully at each other as if to pass off the credit.

They were standing with a large group of people on the plateau at the northern edge of the country. On their right, a trail led to the forest castle. Behind the crowd, another dirt trail ran through the forest back to the place where Charles and Austin had entered the country. Though Charles was propped up against something like a slide to recover his strength, he stood up for a bow while everyone continued to clap and cheer.

To his left, he noticed Adam standing in the crowd with the woman who he still hadn’t taken the time to meet. Charles was almost surprised to see them there, but he was more surprised to look over to his right and see Austin standing with some friends. He was wearing a baseball cap like the one Charles had on and appeared to be around 14 years old with the first hints of a mustache on his upper lip. He had only been 8 or 10 years old when they had picked him up at the parking garage.

After the applause, Zorah resumed her speech. She told of the terrible city that everyone present had come through.

“It is no longer the same as it was before,” she said.

The lamps along the highway bridge were lit and the pathway to the city was now obvious for anyone who wanted to follow. Now that the princess had escaped, it seemed that the legend of the King’s Country was everywhere and even the city guards who had tried to stop the trip that Charles had completed now wanted to make the journey themselves.

Charles was thrilled to have been part of this great liberation and began to walk down the dirt path toward the open area where he initially entered the country. He was thinking about what a beautiful place this was and how much he would like to stay. The ceremony had ended, but the birds were still singing and the waves were still gently rolling into the shore.

Across the lake, on the western side, the waterwheel of a brick factory turned slowly and introduced a sprawling town that worked its way up the mountainside in an orderly fashion. Most of the buildings were made of red brick and sat with their doors facing the lake and their roofs sloping down in the same direction. The factory emitted a clear kind of smoke that hinted of activity, but there were no sounds of labor – at least on this side of the lake.

A large, open, grassy field spread itself out on the end of the lake just beside the city. Unlike the thick grass along the edge of the lake, this lawn was cut short like a golf course throughout the entire southern section of the country. Near the lake, an expansive driveway with three separate lanes ran through the lawn and across the front entry to a massive house built of wheat-colored rock. The large windows of the house carefully watched the open field and the welcoming driveways, but could not see the lake. Above them, at least three gables with windows made of small squares peaked timidly over the edge of the roof.

A few smaller mansions lay scattered throughout the field behind the house, a little closer to the mountain range that tumbled out of the city to hug the southern edge of the country. The view to the east disappeared in the forest of trees that blanketed the entire edge of that place. The forest ran for miles toward the northern mountains where it thinned out at a raised plateau. From the top of the plateau, one could continue looking north until the rugged grandeur of snow capped mountains melted into the icy blue sky with a call of adventure.

Trying to soak in the beauty of this place, Charles stood beside the opening he had come through not so long ago. He let his eyes wander down to the cave he had come from and was repulsed by the garbage on the other side. It reminded him of the dying city that he had come from and the raging lake that had threatened his home.

From this place, it was hard to imagine going back there, but he knew that someday he would go. Perhaps he could help others find their way to this country.

For now, though, he wanted to enjoy this country just a little bit longer. He looked over his shoulder at the sun, which appeared to be in the east, and walked over to the two big trees by the lake. He figured there was time to get a nap before it went down, but he didn’t know which way the sun would move. This bothered him for two reasons.

First, he didn’t know how much longer he would be able to tell people in the dying city the good news that he had found the King’s Country. If the sun was just coming up, there was plenty of time. If it was going down, he needed to leave immediately.

Second, if he was going to stay and enjoy the country for a while, he needed to know which direction the sun would move. He had left his shirt in the forest where the trees overhead protected anything below from the heat of the sun. Out in the open beside the lake, he could not figure out where to rest without getting too much sun.

Because he didn’t know which way the sun would move, Charles didn’t know how to decide what to do. If he left for the dying city right away, he would miss this opportunity to enjoy the King’s Country. Now that he was here, he wanted to stay for a while. If he stayed, though, he might miss his opportunity to bring more people to this place. Furthermore, he could not figure out which one of the two trees would provide shade for more than a few minutes.

Eventually he gave up and decided to lie between the lake and the tree furthest from the tunnel to the old city. Sinking into the thick grass, he closed his eyes and waited for the droplets of sunlight to fall through the leaves overhead and dance on his skin. To his left, he heard a baby cry in one of the big farmhouses. To his right, he heard the waves of the lake rolling into the grassy banks with their song of peace.

Though he couldn’t see it, he knew that across the lake, the water wheel was still turning slowly. The houses across the lake smiled at the sunlight behind Charles who wondered faintly if the people he had seen earlier lived in them. Austin and Zorah tiptoed through his mind and were gone. Life in the King’s Country continued as before.

THE END


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Previous Section: Introduction

Next Section: The Agnostic Christian



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***Publisher’s Note: Charles Heyworth is currently seeking illustrators for the Tale of Zorah. If you would like your work to be featured on this page or in the upcoming short book, please send a sketch to charles (at) charlesheyworth (dot) com***