The quill scratched across the crumpled parchment inexpertly. It kept catching on the rough fibres, splattering ink up the writer’s fingers. They had already turned muddy under the colour of the dark ochre ink, but this did not seem to bother the young writer. His thoughts were entirely wrapped up in his piece of correspondence. Around him on the damp grass sat the writer’s companions. They dared not speak while their friend made battle with the feather. Occasionally they cast one another a mutual smirk accompanying the writer’s groans of frustration, but for the most part they sat and watched loyally. They would go to far greater lengths for their companion Eunus, the High Prince of Denari.
The writer rubbed furiously at his brow, leaving a trail of brown ink stained there. His task would not seem so daunting were he able to speak plainly. If circumstances were kinder on the young man, he would be able to write this letter to his brother honestly, telling him all that had transpired and what he planned to do next. This however, was not so and Eunus knew the risks he would place himself and his men in were he to forget. They had long ago crossed into uncertain territories. It was important that they tread lightly and leave no trail. There would be no success for the hapless enemy who might intercept the letter. Eunus would not give anything away.
There was a long pause, the quill hovering over the ink stained page. The men around the fire looked up and then to one another. Time crept by and yet the scratching of the quill did not return. Urgent glances passed between the writer’s companions, before finally the one sat closest to Eunus climbed gingerly to his feet. Alric was his name and he had known the prince since they were young boys, tumbling through their great city as though it were a playground.
“Can I be of any assistance friend?” he spoke softly so as not to startle the writer. Without looking up Eunus chuckled and shook his head.
“I am nearly finished,” the young man responded amusedly. “What my brother will make of it I dare not think.”
“What bothers you so, now you have come so close the end?” Alric persisted.
“It is how to finish the damned thing. How to let him know we mean to head for Khorosa.”
A windswept silence overcame the men on the hill and they all looked to their feet for a moment. Yes, Khorosa. They could hide from it no longer. For months they had stalked phantom trails in the hope that they could avoid the monstrous city, but to no avail. The answers they sought lay not in the starved desert plains of Faro. Their answers lay at its heart in the City of Gold.
“Tell him we are travelling to his city,” one of the men by the fire spoke up gruffly. Wilfrid, Alric’s older brother, was a man of few words. When he spoke it was as though he were forcing his body to act against his wishes. His face contorted and his brow lowered as the words escaped.
“Whose city?” the fourth and final member of the group now piped up. This was Faran. “Thayos’ city? Far too obvious. How about you tell your brother you mean to head to the heart of the problem?”
“That too is obvious,” Alric countered and he sat down heavily at Eunus’ side. “Tell him you seek gold…”
“No!” roared Faran and Wilfrid at once.
“Do you mean to get us captured?” Faran goaded, his rogue-like smile broad and gleaming in the flickering light of the fire. Eunus chuckled quietly to himself and rubbed the long hair on the back of his head, spreading yet more ochre.
“This is why it has taken me over an hour to write this pathetic piece of correspondence,” the prince sighed and he waved the crumpled parchment at his friends. “Gallus is always so much better at this sort of thing than I am.”
“I should hope so,” Faran spoke up cheerily. “He is the king after all. I would be mightily concerned if our lord and saviour could not even put together a simple letter.”
“And yet here you struggle at my side Faran,” Eunus laughed. “Unable to finish the wretched thing so that we might move on to the ale Wilfrid has been keeping hidden in his sleeping roll.”
“How do you know of that?” Wilfrid demanded while at his side Faran burst out into reams of rich laughter. Eunus grinned wryly at the grisly warrior.
“We have all seen you Wilfrid,” he explained fondly. “How many times does a man need to sneak off into the undergrowth to answer the call of nature in one night? We know you have kept it hidden away…”
“Only because I know the three of you would have drunk the lot before we had even left Denari. Besides, ‘tis only a small flask of firewater. Annie travelled all the way to the tavern at Westbard to get it for me.” Wilfrid seemed sheepish and his weather-beaten head hung slightly. His companions shared a smile.
“Firewater?” the prince echoed. “‘Tis better than I thought. Share with us and we shall forgive you your trespasses. I am sure your lovely wife never intended for you to keep it from us.”
With a small sigh the mighty warrior climbed to his feet and looked away towards a small hillock in the gloomy night.
“I hid it,” he revealed coyly, before he sloped off into the darkness. Silence fell on the group while the quill in Eunus’ hand was returned to the parchment once more. There it hovered, dancing up and down as thoughts passed through the Prince’s head and there it remained until heavy footsteps signalled Wilfrid’s return. His face was ashen.
“Have you mislaid the flask Wilf?” Alric chuckled upon seeing his brother’s expression.
“I think you should come and see this,” the tall graven man spoke darkly. Instantly the other three were on their feet and they followed their friend up the small hillock he had chosen as his hiding place. As they neared the top they hurried until finally they reached the brow of the hill.
“By the Graces,” Faran exclaimed in awe as he gazed out at a sight so alien it could have belonged in his nightmares. There, stretching out in the distance lay an orange fiery expanse: Khorosa. It was vast, larger than any of the men could have imagined and glowing with a burning malice. It seemed alive, fierce, cruel. They could not escape it.
For a long time the men stood watching the city, before one by one they sloped back towards the fire and retook their seats on the ground. Eunus was the last to join them and when he did he immediately took up his quill and scratched the final lines of the letter. Without a word to his companions he folded the parchment, placed it inside an envelope he had prepared earlier and stood up to lift it into the sky. The prince closed his eyes and let his mind drift to the ether plains. He could feel the pull of Denari, his home. It was like an anchor in the back of his mind, tugging him gently homewards. With every filament of his being he focused on that invisible chain, linking him to the Green Palace in the invisible ether before he let go of the letter. It leapt from his hand into the blustery night and fluttered upwards against the wind. Soon it was indistinguishable from the moody clouds that veiled the stars.
Eunus sat down heavily and carefully he packed away the bottle of ink and his quill. His friends watched him. None dared to ask how he had completed the letter.
“So then Wilfrid, this firewater you mentioned?” the prince spoke up cheerily. Across the fire the flask was immediately proffered forward. Each man took a swig before letting their gaze fall on the animal carcass roasting above the fire. They weren’t sure what it was, as they had never seen an animal such as this one before. It seemed a small deer, but yellow instead of brown with black markings down the flanks. Adorning the animal’s head had been a crown of spiralling horns. It truly was a beautiful creature and they had been saddened to kill it.
“Do you remember the time we killed a silver stag in the mountains of Egorand?” Faran spoke up quietly when the silence that had descended on the group became stifling. All around the fire smiles adorned his friends’ faces.
“We stalked it all afternoon,” Eunus remembered softly. “But then Alric nearly ruined it all with his clumsy stumbling.”
“A grave lie!” the offended warrior cried out. “We all know it to be Faran’s fault. He should have told me he was stopping. I might not have collided with him if he had.”
“You caught it in the end did you not?” Wilfrid now joined in, his stoical face hiding the mirth he felt at seeing his brother embarrassed by their friends. “Allow them to make fun of you safe in the knowledge that you were the one to release the victorious arrow.”
“My brother is right,” Alric crowed. “You two so easily forget that were it not for me then we would never have caught the damned thing in the first place and you would not now bear its antlers on your wall Faran.”
A smirk pulled at the corners of Faran’s mouth, but he nodded nonetheless.
“What were we doing in those barren mountains? I cannot now remember,” he spoke up instead, drawing the conversation away from himself. All around the fire the men frowned, casting their minds back to the many months they had spent camping out in the cold eastern mountains.
“We were on a campaign were we not?” Wilfrid suggested.
“Your point?” Faran quipped in return. “We have been on some campaign or other since leaving the camp. What I wondered was who we were fighting for on that occasion.”
All eyes turned to Eunus.
“You assume I remember every mission we have served in aid of my brother?” His three companions nodded soberly eliciting a wry smile from the prince. “Well you are in luck. I may not recall every battle we have fought in Gallus’ name, but I do remember the one you speak of. We were fighting the rebels that had brought chaos to the eastern mountain ranges and threatened the stability of Egorand.”
“Gallus only cared for those mountains as without a clear pass to the eastern coast he would soon run short of his supply of Delanovian firewater,” Alric chuckled fondly. Across the fire Eunus frowned for a moment.
“You speak more truth than you realise Alric.”
“I refuse to believe the king would send the Green Army into battle just to secure a firewater supply,” Wilfrid countered firmly. Eunus met the older warrior’s eyes and stifled his smile. There was a determined patriotism that ruled Wilfrid’s existence and he had often insulted the man by carelessly mocking his older brother in his presence.
“No,” he finally agreed when he was sure he could trust his voice. “You are right Wilf, my bother is not so self-important. He would not put his troops at risk for such trivial fancies.”
A pleasant silence enveloped the warriors once more, leaving them to stare at the slowly rotating animal carcass cooking gently over the flames. Eunus felt his heart harden as his thoughts remained with his brother. In all the time he had served his king as a member of the Guard Eunus had rarely spent so long a time away from his friend and mentor without direct contact. Nearly ten years separated the brothers and after the tragic demise of their parents when Eunus was but five years old, he had looked to Gallus instead for guidance and protection. The older boy had become a father of sorts to the younger.
Far rather would Eunus find himself home in the Green Palace, sat about a dining table with his family than here in the wilderness of enemy lands. The lights he had spied from the hill haunted him now and he wrapped his cloak more tightly about his shoulders. Would he live to see such happy days at home renewed?
“We have served together under the proud flag of the Green Throne for many years Eunus.” The men looked up to see Wilfrid was looking at Eunus with a serious expression. Though serious expressions seemed at home on his scarred face, on this occasion he seemed graver than they had seen him in a long time.
“Indeed we have Wilf,” Eunus replied uneasily. “And I have been honoured to do so.”
“I followed your banner during the long Eastern Wars,” the serious man was continuing, his face growing stonier. “I served at your side during the Tribal Wars. We have fought together in the far reaches of the Agea. I have never questioned your orders. And yet here we sit, in Faro of all places. I still follow you and feel proud to do so, but what I would like to know is why Eunus. Why are we here?”
The prince frowned and looked from Wilfrid’s earnest face to Faran and Alric’s curious ones. He had been wondering how long it would take them to question their reasons for coming. They had travelled for three months through more dangerous territories than he had ever taken them across and yet loyally they had remained unquestioning. When first they set out from Titua the prince had told his companions only that Gallus wished for them to carry out a mission of utmost importance.
The lights were clearly also on the minds of his friends and thoughts of the impending danger were haunting them in the same way they stalked the prince.
“Forgive me,” Wilfrid coughed suddenly and he rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. “’Tis not my place to question your brother’s orders Eunus. I should not have asked.”
“No,” Eunus countered firmly. “Of course you may question his orders. I have brought you to the most dangerous city in the known world. You have a right to ask me why. I cannot however, answer you. All you may know is that this mission is more important than any other to Gallus. If we fail…” The prince dropped his dark gaze to the dusty floor and shook his head firmly. “We simply cannot fail. When we succeed and return to the Green City I will tell you everything, but please, in the meantime, do not push me to tell you everything.”
The men stared at one another, unspoken questions burning their tongues. Eunus looked away from them, blocking out their tortured silence. He had made a promise to Gallus and though it pained him to keep secrets from his men, he knew he would never break his word. Not when so much was at stake.
The uncomfortable silence was broken when Wilfrid started laughing. Eunus looked up and met his gaze.
“You need not look so worried Eunus,” the grisly warrior spoke gently. “We stand proudly at your side. We know you would not lead us here if you did not have a very good reason to do so. We trust you.”
Eunus smiled back at his friend. He was about to speak when quite suddenly there was a whistling sound and Wilfrid sat up straight. His hands trembled slightly, his face was rigid. The others leaned closer, looking at the man with concern in their eyes.
“What is it friend?” Faran asked. Slowly Wilfrid reached his hand up to the folds of his cloak. When he pulled it away once more the others could see that his fingers glistened with bright red blood.
“Wilfrid!” Alric shouted and he ran forward, catching the heavy weight of his brother as he fell forwards, an arrow protruding from his back.
“Take cover!” Eunus shouted as all around them more arrows rained down. The men scurried across the hillock, scrabbling around for their weapons. White-hot pain shot up Eunus’ arm and he realised he too had been struck.
“The fire! Kick the fire out!” he bellowed at Faran. In the distance they could hear battle cries lifting up into the hot sticky sky. Eunus dragged himself towards the flames and he and Faran shovelled dirt onto the fire.
“Quickly, we must ride!” the prince ordered and he turned to see the outline of Alric in the dark, cradling his older brother, who had started shaking uncontrollably. “Alric. Alric!”
“What?” came the heated response.
“Lift your brother, we must run!”
Stumbling through the darkness Eunus, Faran and Alric scrambled down the hillock to the small patch of trees where they had left their horses. Eunus tripped over a large unmoving body.
“My horse is dead,” he exclaimed before he even managed to pick himself up. Faran, who had been helping Alric lift his brother onto another of the horses ran back to drag Eunus to his feet. The prince cried out in pain as he felt the wound in his arm tear wider. The two men mounted the remaining horses and urged them out into the storm of arrows. The sound of drums filled the air with a menacing drone while the Denarien warriors fled the raiding party that had found them.
They rode in the darkness until the drums were but a distant nightmare. The blackness surrounded and trapped them. No one spoke.
Eventually they came to a halt nearly an hour from their fire atop the hillock. In the distance they could see the outline of a ruined farmstead. Only the sound of Wilfrid’s laboured breathing filled the clammy night. Without a word to one another the men urged their frightened horses on towards the buildings.
They took shelter in a large barn that had once been used to store hay, but seemed now to have been abandoned to the wilderness. Eunus leapt from his horse and shut the doors behind them while Faran rushed to help Alric with Wilfrid. The men lowered their ailing friend onto a pile of hay.
“Eunus, we need light,” Faran called out. Within moments the prince was at their side. In his shaking hands he held a broken plank of wood. He shut his eyes and sought the calm he needed to transfer his mind to the ether plains. However, every time he came close the image of the arrow sticking out of Wilfrid’s back brought him crashing back to the present.
“Eunus he is dying!” Alric cried out hoarsely. The words twisted like a knife in the young man’s belly and within moments the plank of wood was alight. Eunus shoved the plank towards Faran.
“Hold this,” he ordered, before he turned on the ailing Wilfrid and tried to prise open the cloak from his chest. The fallen warrior groaned in agony and fiercely shoved Eunus’ hands away.
“I am trying to help you Wilfrid,” the prince exclaimed passionately. Alric reached out to hold his brother’s hands still and he nodded to his friend. Once more Eunus reached out to pull the heavy cloth away from Wilfrid’s chest. This time Alric managed to hold the dying man back.
“By the Graces,” Faran exhaled in shock. The arrowhead had struck straight through Wilfrid’s broad chest. Blood was pouring from the wound turning his olive skin crimson. A sob escaped Alric at their sides and he let go of his brother’s arms.
“Can you help him Eunus?” he demanded desperately. The prince looked from Alric’s wide angry eyes to the bloody mess upon Wilfrid’s chest.
“I…” He wiped furiously at his brow. “I do not know. I will try. Faran? You will have to pull the arrow out when I say. Do you understand?”
“’Tis the only way! I will be ready in the ether. I will try to stop the bleeding…”
“Even Selmain could not heal a wound like this quick enough Eunus,” Faran complained.
“Well what would you have me do?” Eunus countered furiously. “Shall we all sit around and watch him die Faran? We have to try! Alric? You must hold him still as best you can.”
In the dim light the grieving brother nodded numbly. With difficulty the men rolled Wilfrid onto his side. The grisly warrior lay twitching, his eyes rolling back into his head. He seemed oblivious to his friends around him. Eunus lay down at his side and pushed the palms of his hands up against the flesh around the arrowhead. He shut his eyes and forced away the sounds of Wilfrid’s laboured breathing to seek out the calmness of the ether plains. The trance caught him sooner this time and after making sure he was ready he nodded distantly.
Eunus stared down at the dried blood on his fingers. Tears welled up in his eyes. Bitterly he fought them and wiped at his face. He was alone up here on the barn roof. Down below Alric still lay clutching the body of his dead brother while Faran had gone to make sure they had not been followed. Every time he closed his eyes Eunus could still see Wilfrid’s shocked face. He could still hear the arrow piercing the air and ending his friend’s life. He could still smell the firewater that had lingered in Wilfrid’s last breath.
The young prince’s shoulders shook and he lifted both hands to the back of his head, letting them rest there while a few tears rolled over his dusty cheeks. Annie, Wilfrid’s young wife, and their children were lining up in his mind’s eye, their expressions tumultuous. He would have to tell them. He would have to break their hearts.
You tried, a voice in the back of his mind persisted. ‘Tis not your fault he is dead.
“No no no,” the young man countered angrily and he shook his head violently. “It is my fault!”
You could not have saved him, you tried.
“But it is my fault that he was here! My fault that all of them are here. They never should have come.”
And what of your brother’s request? You know the importance of this mission. It is the most important of all missions. Could you have come alone?
Eunus lifted his sore eyes to look out into the darkness; his heart was thudding angrily in his chest. No, he could not have come alone.
“Then I am a coward,” the broken man muttered into the dry wind and once more he hung his head.
Sharply the prince looked up to see Faran supporting Alric onto the roof. For a moment Eunus looked away, before he shouldered his guilt and climbed to his feet.
“No,” Faran called out. “We have come to join you. Please sit.”
Painstakingly Faran supported Alric to the spot Eunus had chosen for his morbid reverie until finally all three men were seated, a bitter silence whipping around them. There were no words that could make this right. There was nothing that could be said that would return Wilfrid to the world of the living. Time could not be turned back.
The three men could have sat in the darkness all night, not a word crossing between them, had it not been for the burning desire in Alric’s heart. It was this desire that had pulled him from his dead brother, this desire that had caused him to seek out the High Prince of Denari upon the crumbling roof of the hay barn.
“I must know Eunus,” the hardened warrior spoke. “I must know why my brother is dead. What did he die in aid of? What will I tell his wife and his children when they are grown? They must know their father died for a worthy cause. You know we owe them this much.”
In the darkness Eunus listened to Alric’s heavy words and with them his heart too grew heavy. He had made a promise to Gallus, he would not tell his men of the prophecy or the reason for their journey.
But now Wilfrid lay dead and they were still sat within reach of the great fiery city. Eunus knew he must go into the heart of that place. He knew he needed the support and help of his companions also, but he could no longer ask them to risk their lives without knowing full well why they were doing so. Not now.
“I will tell you,” the prince finally spoke, his voice laden with darkness. “I must continue to Khorosa. I would like for you both to continue the journey at my side, but I must explain to you why we have travelled here, why Wilfrid has died. If you then choose to turn back and return to Titua, I shall understand.”
Faran and Alric remained silent, their dark brooding eyes watching their friend and leader owlishly.
“The reason I have come is to find a way to try and put an end to a prophecy that haunts my brother’s house.”
The prince stopped and looked up sharply to see that neither Faran nor Alric had reacted as he had suspected. He had feared their disdain or worse, mockery, but instead they sat silently, expecting him to continue with his story. Eunus cleared his throat and rubbed at the back of his neck.
“You may know of the prophecy. Indeed, you were there when it was spoken. Nearly two decades ago, on my brother’s wedding day, a seer found her way into the temple. Ah, I see you remember Faran.”
“Alucia Dal Am?” Faran interrupted. “We were only children at the time, but I remember the words she spoke. She spoke of Queen Mai’s death and the end of civilisation did she not? But I thought she was just an old crone. She could not have spoken of a true prophecy surely?”
Eunus smiled sadly and shook his head. How he wished this were true.
“My brother thought so too Faran,” the prince sighed. “He banished her from the temple if you recall and commanded the priestess to continue with the ceremony.”
“But then the queen died.”
Both Faran and Eunus looked upon Alric’s ashen face in surprise. There had been such anger in his voice.
“Yes Alric,” Eunus sighed. “But before that something joyous occurred: the birth of my niece Thais.”
“Wait,” Faran once more interrupted and he looked up sharply. “I remember! There was more to this prophecy than the queen’s death was there not? The seer spoke of the end of the world, but she also spoke of a child…”
Eunus watched while Faran trailed off, his face paling, the true realisation of the seer’s words becoming apparent.
“Yes Faran, she did. On my brother’s wedding day the seer told him by marrying her his wife was going to die. Any child she bore him would live but half a life and on the day of its death, the world as we know it would end. This was the prophecy in its wretched entirety.”
The weight of these words brought silence on the men once more. Faran had been right when he said the men had been but children at the time of the royal wedding. Just shy of ten, Faran and Alric had been delighted to be invited. They were the dearest friends of Eunus at the time, but an invite to such a prestigious event had not seemed possible. They both remembered the moment Alucia Dal Am had shuffled into the main hall of the temple. She may as well have thundered in with a hoard of stampeding horses, such was the impact she made on the gathered dignitaries. Both men still remembered the look upon the king’s face. He had been but a very young man at the time, but his aura had screamed of a man far older and far wiser.
Somehow the image of the fury in Gallus’ face had drowned out the vile words spoken by the seer herself. Memory had dulled her words even more until eventually it all seemed a mere dream. Eunus however, had brought it all back. They could almost hear the old hag’s filthy words in their ears once more. Yet there was still one part of all this that eluded them.
“You mean to end the prophecy before your niece loses her life?” Faran asked intently. Eunus nodded darkly. “Why have you come here to do so?”
“My brother is sure the prophecy was conceived in Khorosa. He believes Thayos was responsible for Alucia Dal Am’s treachery. He believes we will find the answers we seek here in this burning desert,” the prince explained.
“He believes. What do you believe?” Faran persisted. Eunus met his friend’s concerned eyes with fire in his own. Now was not the time for questioning his orders. He could not allow himself to think that Gallus might be wrong and he had dragged his men into Faro for nothing, that Wilfrid had died for nothing.
Alric cleared his throat, drawing both Eunus and Faran’s gazes. His brow was lowered heavily over his eyes as he formulated his words.
“So,” the broken man finally spoke. “I am to tell my brother’s family that he died protecting the Princess of the Green Throne. I am to tell them he died a hero’s death, doing his duty, protecting the House of Apollo.”
Eunus closed his eyes and a small smile crossed his face.
“Yes Alric, that is what you shall tell them. The truth.”
“You are right Alric,” Faran now spoke. “He was doing his duty. We are honour bound to do all we can to protect the House of Apollo. This not only means Princess Thais, but you as well Eunus.”
“What do you mean?” the prince asked with a frown. He could see the satisfied expression upon Faran’s face.
“We cannot allow you to travel into Khorosa alone Eunus. We are duty bound to protect you, no matter the danger you place yourself in. I am coming with you.”
For a moment Eunus could not fight the smile that spread across his face, before the sobering thoughts of what had just happened forced it away. With a heavy heart the prince next looked upon Alric, who was watching him with an unreadable expression.
“Alric I will understand if you want to turn back,” he spoke gently.
“Turn back?” Alric repeated darkly. “And leave you two to flounder in Khorosa? Within moments you would be caught and my brother’s death would have been in vein. No. Faran is right. We need to protect you so that you can end the prophecy. I too will stay at your side Eunus.”
Around the men the hot dry wind picked up, buffering against the three companions sat atop the barn. Eunus looked away from the other two. Their strength of character threatened to upend him. He deserved not such friends.
In the distance the lights of Khorosa flickered.