Coluim was calculating wheat tonnage when he noticed the walls breathing, a soft rise and fall in sync with his own breath. He wasn't sure that he had actually seen it, until the surface of the table began undulating like the sea. He brought his hand up in front of his face and watched as a shadow hand followed it up from the table and joined it. Coluim realized he didn't know how long he had been staring at his hand. Was Eadwulf watching him?
"I believe you may be feeling the effects of the potion, sire."
"Yes, most...curious. Curious. Hm. Yes."
Eadwulf leaned forward and gathered the scrolls they had been looking over. "I believe the farm reports can wait, then. Please, relax into the chair." Coluim sank back slowly, relishing the sensation. "I will stay in the room, but I will not disturb you. I have work to tend to. Remember, this will end. And remember, you will be in no true danger. Now, let the potion take you where it will."
Danger. Work. Tend where it will. Coluim closed his eyes as the words echoed through his skull. He still felt the breathing sensation of all the surfaces around him, but a leaden ball of foreboding began growing deep in his belly. Just as he was about to speak his misgivings, he felt motion, as if he were riding on the back of a bird. He smelled earth, felt sunlight on his face, and saw its glow through his closed eyelids. He opened them onto a patchy, uneven field. He recognized the eastern hills, though little else seemed familiar. There was no castle to speak of, but a large wooden hall. What few other shelters he could see were crude huts, not the sturdier houses that populated Anglia now. The Bloody Plain. But is this before or after it earned the name? There were several men spread across the field, fighting to tame it into something that would yield sustenance. They looked as ill-natured and tough as the soil they were working. The man nearest Coluim saw him and straightened up. He remained motionless, neither beckoning to Coluim nor moving towards him. He just waited.
Coluim looked around once more, and could see no one else who had noticed him. What's a king without his castle? I suppose I'll humor the man. He began walking towards the farmer. He was dressed, like his fellow laborers, in colorless roughspun fabric stained with sweat. Coluim stopped in front of him. The farmer appeared to be several years older than Coluim. His features were familiar, yet Coluim was certain he had never seen his face. The man began speaking in a thick, strange tongue. Coluim understood several words, but the inflection was odd enough to distort the farmer's speech beyond comprehension. Just as the king was about to interrupt, the man's language resolved into words he could understand.
"—to meet you. I've been waiting."
"Waiting. For me? Have we met before? Who told you to expect me? Eadwulf?"
"I do not know this Eadwulf. We have not met, though your bones may know mine. I am Aethelmere. You, Coluim, are of my line. I am the last of your forefathers to submit to another man, and the first to lead them."
"Aethelmere? Yes, my father told me of you. You led your men in battle against the merchant lord Doromon and installed yourself as regent in his place. But why then do you work the fields in such crude clothing?"
"That battle will not take place for another two years."
"Then how did you know it will happen?"
"This is a place of no time. But you are not here to learn of what lies beyond the plane of the normal, or to learn history. You are here for perspective, yes?"
"Yes. Eadwulf seems to think that will cure me of this unnameable compulsion."
"Tell me, my son, how did you become king?"
"My father...died. And I rode out and avenged his death."
"The vengeance made you king? Or were you king before you rode?"
"I became king as soon as my father's final breath left his body. I was his only child and rightful heir. Do you question my legitimacy?"
"No, Coluim. I created your legitimacy. I simply want you to examine how you received it. You know the facts of my rise to rule. You obviously know the facts of your own. But facts are one thing. Their causes and effects are something else. You have not known the struggle for survival, the need to justify your own humanity. Your battle was with an army, for revenge. My battle will be with these crude farmers, so we may feed our families."
Coluim looked around and saw that the other laborers had stopped working, and stood in their places watching the parley unfold. Aethelmere continued.
"You are an admirable king. You rule by justice, not force, which is what I set out to do myself. I am proud of my line, and you have done much to ensure that you will be proud of yours. But remember the generations of men who gave you this gift. Remember me, and this talk. Remember your father."
"Not a day passes that I do not think of my father."
"But how? How do you think of him?"
"As a smiling man." Blood. "I sit at his knee in council." Screams. "He teaches me with a wooden sword." Hideous wings.
Aethelmere smiled sadly. "You cannot lie to someone who knows you so well. Go then, for your lies. Go, and see your father as you truly remember him."
Coluim's chest constricted with dread. Suddenly he was surrounded by the farmers in a tight circle. Expressionless, they grabbed him at fifty different points with fingers that dug into his flesh like iron. They flung him upward with rough hands. He once more felt the sensation of flight, but this time it was the cold wind of a night sixteen years prior on his face. He smelled Anglia burning, heard the hoarse cries of the invaders outside the castle wall. He opened his eyes. His father stood in front of him, armored, sword in hand.
"You'll be safe in the castle, Coluim. These barbarians will never get near the gate. My men and I will see to that."
Eadwulf spoke from behind Coluim, spoke words Coluim knew by heart. "Your majesty, I beg you, let me ride with you. You do not know the savagery that these men—"
"Enough, man. There's no need for your fireworks tonight. I will speak to these beasts in the only language they know. I will speak to them in steel." The king had always trusted Eadwulf's advice, but not his powers.
The king put his mailed hand on Coluim's shoulder and looked at him as if about to speak. He paused, smiled, and strode out of the room. Coluim tried screaming out, but the sound caught and died in his throat.
To Be Continued.