Prologue - The Storyteller
The sun has been gone for while and you know what that means: it is time for our story!
Which one would you like to hear tonight? I requested for some books to be brought from the library, and I presume... Well, this is a rather tedious lot! I'll have to notify that silly maid that Geography of the Mainland does not exactly go well for a bedtime story! Have we devoured every work fiction on those shelves? Well, that, that's a frightening thought!
We'll have to come up with one of our own, it seems...
Any suggestions, darling?
Oh, it just won't do for you to keep staring blindly at that bare wall! I reckon it is a lovely wallpaper, I chose it myself, though it must get awfully boring after a while. Come on, the doctor said you could still hear us, so please don't be rude and acknowledge my presence. It is terribly foolish to be talking to an empty room!
Oh, you don't like it when I call it empty, do you? Well, then act like you are here. Because you still are, you hear me? I have yet to dismiss you! There is one last story that needs to be told first...
I got you now, haven't I? Well, you were never one to resist a good story. So listen well, because after this you are doomed to dictionaries, encyclopedias and whatever cold-hard-fact-filled book they manage to dig out!
Here we go...
Once upon a time there was a small principality; a strange gift produced by a stranger friendship. It was an homage never seen before, where master arose slave to an almost equal footing. And you must guess already what a particularly mighty kingdom the generous sovereign ruled, being able to give pieces of his land like that, to servants with whom he had developed a particularly strong bond! Though perhaps he was just kind... Or maybe it was the vassal who proved himself to be quite extraordinary. In truth, it was due to all of the above.
And so it goes, by order of His Majesty the King, that said servant - now a proud Prince - and his newly wed Princess, were now the rightful rulers of a nation of their own.
The over-ecstatic pair moved promptly to their landlocked domain, a green valley divided in half by a glacier-fed river and surrounded by huge white-peaked mountains. It was paradise. Oh my, it had been splendorous indeed: never powerful, never large, but a beacon for civilization in its humble wealth and unwavering peace.
And it did not waver, for a very long time; but it is hard to keep things steady when the tremors from the battling giants around you bring everything to ruins. We can say that the tiny realm, tentatively neutral as it was, got irremediably caught in the crossfire. For the Prince was a servant - now grander than before but a servant nonetheless - if only bound by his loyalty to the former master and friend. Thus, when the mighty kingdom entered the war, the mountain lands were dragged into it as well.
Off went the Noble Prince with the sword in one hand and the olive branch in the other. The latter must not have been sufficiently visible in the chaos of the battlefield, for soon enough the notice came for the weeping wife that her beloved husband had been declared ‘missing in action, with a fatal wound reported by a surviving official’. The weeping only increased after that…
If it served as any consolation – strangely, it did not – after the due time a seed left behind was born, in the form of a beautiful baby girl. Slowly, the Princess's heart found a new object of affections. To make matters better, by some mysterious miracle, the meek realm was suddenly left unperturbed, amidst its surrounding mountains, with the loss of their authority as the only apparent damage. Then, people started questioning the workings of the world as the strange law-defying force continued operating, and one rainy day, a couple of years later, a dark-skinned vagabond who looked an awfully lot like their adored – and deceased – ruler knocked on the castle's gates. That same November, the castle halls were filled with high-pitched shrieks once again.
Oh, the Princess – practically bursting with joy – couldn’t believe her luck, and slowly, life on the now smaller and poorer realm tentatively tried to right itself…
It plays out that the fortune-weaver was in fact a perversely cruel being, with a knack for morbid-humor and a certain dramatic flair. So he chose this seemingly happy family who ruled a seemingly happy land, and unleashed over them what many call a twist of fate.
In the span of a few months the youngest princess had mysteriously disappeared, the beloved Prince's life rapidly dimmed out of existence - old wounds and heartbreak, they say - and the Princess, suddenly finding herself with her beloved ones so brusquely ripped out from her, was just as dead inside... Truly alone was left the eldest child, who even though grew among all the luxury could provide, was as miserable as her people.
Once upon a time there was a small principality, robbed in such a way from its former splendor that it wasn't even quite a principality anymore. But whatever external influence there was, it was practiced more subtly than any officially conquered land would receive, and so a proud monarchy it remained. Well, minus the proud part…
The land, now under the ruthless rule of the United Empire, was squeezed out of the few remaining riches; sucked to the very marrow, until the last drop.
In a place such as this, with no pride and no hope, the desperation starts getting a grip on its people's hearts. It changes them...
And it is at such an inglorious time that our story begins. But it shouldn't really come as a surprise, for what better cradle for extraordinary individuals than a reality who needs them? Is it not from among the chaos that rise the ones willed enough to change it?Some do it for the best, some in the end only make it worst. Which ones were the protagonists of this story, I'll leave it to you to decide. But the fact that they have, indeed, risen - that brave, or as some would say inevitable, decision - that, no one can take from them.
It starts, not on the reeking streets of the decrepit capital, but rather on the surrounding forest. One would hope being able to find solace in the quiet of the woods, though I'm afraid the human misery reached even there... It lurked in the shadows overlooking the forest roads, awaiting the unwary traveler.
That night, the victim was no more no less than the tax-collecting carriage. Robbing the robbers one might say! It seems that the appointed delegate, eager to secure every ones due contribution to the Empire, chose - not wisely at all - to take the shortcut through the recently unimpeded mountain route. What would happen next was stupidly unavoidable...
There he went, the snoozing tax collector, in peace enough with himself to be lulled by the creaking sound of a carriage loaded with stolen dreams; and not a mile had the group wandered into the darkness of the woods when suddenly the entire escort halts. And it isn't the abrupt stop nor the clear sound of battle going on outside his carriage that wakes the man from his sound sleep. Rather, what finally erupts his peaceful world is the sudden hand grabbing his pressed garment and hauling him right into the night.
He lands with all the grace you might expect from someone of his status, yelled curses and all.
"What is this? How dare you to assault an envoy from the Royal Empire?"
"Silence, you fool!"
The tall figure suddenly looming over him made him pause in his indignant spitting. But maybe the blade to the throat played a part in that as well.
"Hurry up, lads!" the gang's head barked in hushed tones to his fellows, head darting towards the surrounding trees as if the shadows were about to come out and swallow them hole.
And maybe it was the sound of all those twinkling coins that brought the taxman out of his stupor, because before you know it, he was back on his knees, furiously struggling with his bound writs and wanting every one to know it.
"Now listen here, you vermin! You will-"
"Quiet, I said!" and the back of one's ruff and had already violently met the other's flabby cheek. "Or it'll hear us!"
No sooner had those words left his mouth, than the sweet melody of a flute echoed from among the trees, circling the dignitary in a momentary state of wonder. Or in the case of the bandits, a growing sense of terror.
"No, not again!" the tax collector heard the thug grumble, and despite all his cries to keep together, the crew disbanded in panic: some tried escaping with what they could, some didn't bother to take nothing at all; but inevitably, all who ran released a sudden yelp of pain a dropped down like dead some feet ahead.
The taxman, who had until then had seen the turn of events as some kind of miracle, felt a sudden chill curse through his spine. The head raider, on the other hand, had been with the same chill lodged in his back all night, and so he struggled to secure what little control he could get.
Brusquely pulling the emissary to his feet, he immediately pressed the blade of the dagger to the other man's bobbing throat.
At that, from the trees comes only a light, jovial laugh, and for a moment the taxman is shocked beyond any dread he might have been experiencing at having his life at the hand of another like that: for that, that was the laugh of a mere child. Well, maybe not a child exactly, but from the airiness in the tone it could easily be mistaken as such.
It is then that, from behind a tall trunk, as if steeping out of the wood itself, a lean figure appears. Long pale flute twirling fluidly in long pale fingers, he pauses, just out of reach of the moonlight. And even tough his face remains hidden in the darkness his deep hood provides, the collector can distinguish the smallest curl of bluish lips.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you..." he says, briefly pointing the instrument in their general direction. And he tells it in a manner that sounds not as much as a threat, but as if he was giving genuine advice. Apparently, the gang's leader does not see it in such a way, for he tightens his hold on the dagger almost instantly.
"Me and my men are done dealing with you! So get out of the way and let us go on with our business!"
"That's curious..." mused the boy, cocking his head.
And maybe the anger finally subsided the panic, because just as fast came the other's bitten reply.
"Your memory, Bernd... Never thought it could be so short." And probably the pressure on his wind pipe was taking a toll, for he could swear that at the stranger's calm statement, the grown men behind him had gulped. "For it must be some strange case of memory loss, since I remember well that at our last encounter, you promised never to pull a stunt such as this again!"
And then, more quietly - disbelievingly, almost - with his head tilting to the other side.
"Are... are you a liar, Bernhard?"
From the moment the word left his lips, even the taxman knew it had been a mistake.
"Again! Don't you know when to stop?"
And he sounded pained, revolted, utterly disappointed. In his outburst he had stepped into the light, but still his eyes remained hidden, cast towards the ground. A big breath was taken.
"Well, no trust no deal I guess..."
The whistle of something cutting through the air, a cry of pain, and suddenly the pressure on his neck was no more. The tax collector fell to his knees with relieved sobs, clutching the thin crimson line that was the sole trace of his abuse. The howls next to him, however, quickly bring his eyes back to his former captor - and consequently, the long arrow sticking out from his shoulder.
It hadn’t been the stranger. No, that one was presently walking towards him, soundlessly, as if not touching the ground at all.
The other man attempted to come to his feet, but the wobbly members simply would let him. He settled for a gasped praise.
"Thank you, my good sir! Your help to the Empire will be rewarded!"
The hooded figure crouched to one knee before him. It was only then that the taxman was able to distinguish the boy’s features; and the almost translucent whiteness and hazy blue irises all but made him yelp in surprise.
"I'm glad you say that..." And the fingers gently tracing from the chin to cup his jaw - practically gleaming in the moonlight - made the other wonder if said digits were even corporeal at all. The stranger proceeded then, with a widening smile. "We're about to take care of that part ourselves!"
Sudden as lightening, the touch became a vice like grip. The collector still struggled, too late I fear, with the cloth being pressed to his mouth and nose, and in that moments of new found panic, any ideas about the boy being a ghost flew out the window. Well, that an his conscience.
But before the void had truly engulfed him, his eyes landed on something else. Maybe it had been by chance, they had simply fell there amidst the chaos of those last seconds; maybe it had been their intensity that called him. Whatever it was one thing was certain: from among the foliage, a pair of eyes twinkled in the darkness.