“Listen, Abigail. I have a story to tell. It is about the King, about his Enemy, and about the roses that mark his love.” Ilifted his voice in a chanting rhythm. “This is the Lay of Acai, one of the best-loved songs among the Roni’im. Though there are many versions of Acai’s story, the oldest say she was orphaned by a fire when only eleven years old. She left her home and wandered through villages, ignored by many and teased by some. One day as she was traveling, she met a stranger at the well. His travel cloak was crusted with many days’ worth of dust, bugs, and leaves, but he smiled at her. ‘Are you thirsty, Acai?’
“‘How do you know my name?’
“’We’ve met before,’ the man began pulling the bucket up. ‘Give me your cup and I’ll fill it.’
“Acai reached into her pack for her clay mug. The man finished pulling up the bucket and poured water into her mug. Acai drank deeply, ignoring the droplets trailing down her chin like rainbow gems in the sunlight. The stranger drank from his cupped hands, letting the rest slip through his fingers. ‘Are you hungry?’ he asked.
“’All I had today was a crust of bread.’ Acai looked at the stranger. ‘And I don’t think you’d have anything better.’
“The man laughed. ‘Come with me; there is a feast waiting for you.’ Acai shrugged and followed him up the hill to a long, low house. When he opened the front door, she gasped at the sight. Wooden platters of vegetables surrounded fish fillets and dripping roasts. Baskets of warm bread and juicy fruit completed the display, with pitchers of creamy milk, fresh juice, and cool water sitting on the side. The man pulled back a chair. ‘Sit down, don’t be shy. There is more than enough. Don’t worry about saving any for tomorrow; you can stay as long as you want.’
“Acai did not need a second invitation. She dipped her hands in a basin of water that was to the left of her setting before drying them on a nearby towel. She filled her plate with steamed beans, half a chicken breast, and a loaf of strawberry bread. ‘It’s good,’ she commented. ‘Just like my mother…’ Her face crumpled. ‘Like my mother made.’
“The man knelt by her chair and laid his hand on her shoulder. ‘What happened, Acai?’
“’There was a fire in the barn. Father was trapped…we heard him screaming. Mother tried to save him, but it spread to the house. My sister couldn’t get out.’ She buried her head in the man’s cloak. ‘Ma’or… I couldn’t stay. But I didn’t have anywhere to go.’
“The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Acai took it and dabbed her eyes. ‘Thank you.’ She looked up at him. ‘You look familiar. What’s your name?’
“’I never said, but I think you can guess.’ He loosened his cloak, revealing a design of three crimson roses on the hem of his white tunic. ‘I am the King.’ He pressed a three-budded rose lay into her palm.
“Acai stared for a moment. Then she flung herself into his arms, weeping with joy and pain. No one knows how long she wept, for the King’s embrace is outside time and without parallel, and neither words nor music may describe it.
“‘My family,’ she whispered. ‘Where are they?’
“ ‘In my garden. Oh, it is beautiful beyond imagination. The Melody whispers in every wind and the colors are greater than mortal eyes may see.’”
Tears trailed down Abigail's cheeks. The story soothed some unknown wound deep in her soul, a healing balm for an ancient ache. I took a cloth from my sleeve and wiped my eyes. I didn’t say anything, but merely waited.
“Is there more?” Abigail asked.
“Yes. At that moment, the door slammed open. Remember that I said the King has an enemy? This enemy, called Deathroot, burned with hatred as he saw the King embraced Acai, and was determined to destroy her. When he entered the house, his steps sounded like thunder. ‘Well, well, what a pretty sight.’ But the King did not answer.
“’Leave my daughter alone,’ the King replied.
“Deathroot snatched the rose, drawing thin lines of blood down Acai’s palm. ‘This is what I think of your precious daughter.’ He dropped the blossom and ground it beneath his heel.
“The King sprang to his feet. ‘You have no power here. Leave us!’
“ ‘Why would you want such a scrawny waif?’ Deathroot blasted a discordant phrase that shook Acai like a leaf. The King sang a simple tune, a child’s chant that took Deathroot’s strongest notes and wove them into its own melody. Melodies clashed like oil and water or fire and ice.
The King’s song filled the room like rain filling the desert. Finally, Deathroot fled. The King touched Acai’s cheek.
“ ‘Are you hurt?’ He plucked the trampled rose from the floor.
“ ‘Not much.’ Acai gazed into the King’s eyes. ‘Who was that man?’
“’He is not a man, but Deathroot, my greatest enemy. He knows I am stronger than he is, so he attempts to hurt me by wounding my beloved children.’ The King held Acai tightly. ‘But nothing can change my love.’
“Here the oldest of the lays end, and the others splinter into different legends. Some say that Acai’s rose was darkened by blood, and is the origin of the King’s Emblem, but the Emblem is older than the Lay. Others claim that the King took Acai to his garden forever, while some say she had a brief visit before she found a new family. A few wild tales say that she still wanders the world, waiting for a time known as the Mem, but those are dismissed by most as inventions of eager storytellers. ”
“And Deathroot?” Abigail swallowed uneasily.
“He is still active.” I answered grimly.