Part One - Twins
The winter sun glared down on Blackwing City. Its light glinted off the bits of dirty snow that lined the narrow streets. Merchants shouted their post-solstice sales, and the commonfolk bustled beneath the hulking shadow of Castle Feros, which sat atop the northern hill. They had long ago become accustomed to the palace’s oppressive presence; a mysterious place, quiet as hollow ruins but not quite empty. So too had they gotten used to the cries of ravens from therein. And so they went along with their short days and long nights. Yet the familiar flow of their day was interrupted that afternoon. For a raven, largest of them all, flew from the southern gates and swooped between the solstice banners that hung between the buildings.
When the raven’s call fell quiet, there was a second interruption. The gates of Castle Feros were thrown open, and a score of horsemen clad in black armour and blood red cloaks descended into the city. Their clatter rose to a great crescendo as they approached the southern gates. Sir Florian Leon, Captain of the City Guard, was at the forefront of the host. Helmless, his cropped blond hair collected snowflakes that shimmered in the sun. He halted and called up to the gatehouse as his men lined up.
The portcullis screeched as it rose. There came a steady flow of men. Some carried the Feros banner – a black raven upon a field of red – while others carried the standard of Ravenwood – a golden tree upon a field of black and green. As the people filed in, Florian recognized some of his own men and servants to the crown. All were wearied from travel. He ordered five of his men to take the lead and guide them up to the castle. He would have done so himself if the twins weren’t a part of the returning company.
A carriage of black and crimson, pulled by sable steeds, creaked through the gate. Florian dismounted as it stopped before him. The door opened, and he bowed deeply at the waist.
“Your Radiances,” he said.
A pair of feet in leather boots stepped down before him. As he expected, only one prince rode in the carriage. Florian straightened slowly. Prince Doran Feros fixed his raiment as if the captain hadn’t even spoken. When he finished adjusting his cloak of amber fur, he glanced to the captain and smiled wanly.
“Captain,” he greeted. “How fares my father?”
Florian’s long face remained grim as he spoke. “His Grace has become worse.”
Doran frowned. His voice fell to a whisper. “Tell me.”
“Each morning, as he breaks his fast, King Feros recites his plan to slaughter the shapeshifters and end their line for good.”
Doran laughed once, bitterly. “Don’t we all have such plans? What else?”
“His Grace spends the rest of his day sitting in the throne. He accepts no food or drink unless it’s insisted upon him. There he sleeps for a few hours, on and off. At sundown, he retires to his solar and remains there until dawn.”
“I expect he still fusses over his will?”
Florian shook his head. “No, Your Radiance. His Grace has put that to rest. He instead tinkers with laws. At first, he only wished to change small bylaws in Stormbrook. Now he speaks of increasing taxes on all dwarves, and razing Nymphwood so that he might tame the unruly Hashalli elves.”
After the captain mentioned laws, Doran Feros seemed disinterested. His green eyes were distant.
“Does he still name me heir?” the prince asked the second Florian finished speaking.
Florian opened his mouth to respond, but a horse’s whinny stopped him. The entire flow of returning people had halted when the carriage stopped, for it blocked the gateway. Florian smiled as the impatient man’s horse reared up.
“Easy,” the man cried, then dismounted and handed his reigns to the nearest servant. “See to it that she gets a good feed. She misses the eastern grasses.”
Florian didn’t have enough time to bow. Prince Lucius Feros grabbed the captain’s arm and yanked him into an embrace. Florian laughed at the prince’s outright affection. From the corner of his eye, he could see Doran frown disdainfully. They pulled apart in unison.
“How were your travels?” Florian asked.
Lucius unbound his long, wind-tangled hair – black as his twin’s, but longer by far – and shook it out. Snowflakes fell from him.
“Cold and wet,” he responded with a laugh. “But the solstice festival...”
“My brother made a fool of himself,” Doran interrupted. “Your drunken escapades have sullied our Bloodname.”
“It was sullied when Father hosted a hunt for Lord Wintersea’s head. I’m returning good humour to our family.” Lucius then addressed Florian, “And it’s not my fault. Under all those furs, even you couldn’t tell who’s who.”
“Let me guess; drunken affection towards the wrong person?”
Lucius laughed heartily. “I recall nothing but the stares I received.”
“That’s because you were drunk,” Doran muttered.
Lucius punched Florian’s arm playfully. “Like I said, not even the brightest could tell who was in what, not with all those layers. But I assure you, Florian: I found the maidens all the same.”
Lucius laughed even harder while Doran made a noise of disgust.
“Father’s rewritten his will,” Doran said, obviously hoping to silence his brother.
Lucius’ laughter faded into chuckles, and he said, “And what? Are you afraid you won’t sit the throne, little brother?”
Doran balled his gloved hands into fists. “I was born ten minutes before you.”
Lucius snorted. “No, you weren’t. Nobody knows who’s eldest. But since I’m taller, I must be.”
“No; you were the one who kept screaming; born second.”
“Ah, but you were the one who kept shitting himself; born second.”
Florian raised his hands. “Please, my princes.” He lowered his hands and addressed Doran: “Your Radiance is correct to worry over the will. For King Feros has made his final change.”
The princes frowned. They glanced at each other, and then back to Florian. Lucius was the first to speak. His voice was strangely serious.
“What change was this?”
“It’s not my place to say. His Grace awaits you in the throne room. He’s skipped breakfast to be sure he was ready in time.”
Doran immediately climbed into the carriage. Lucius followed him and shouted for them to make haste. They clattered off into the city before Florian could say another word. The captain mounted his horse and summoned Sir Clancy Colt to his side.
“See to it that all returning are safe and accounted for,” he ordered the dwarven guard.
With that, he dug his heels into his horse and surged north towards Castle Feros.
The throne room was silent but for the squeak of wet boots upon the marble floors. Shafts of sun from the domed skylight above the throne pierced through the darkness and formed a halo around the king. He was high above the glittering floor. His pale, stern face lifted as his sons approached. Their features were alike, and their eyes were the same fresh green as his had once been. But Lucius was tall and lanky, and his raiment as unkempt as his locks. Doran, however, was well-dressed and fitted, and more muscular by far. His sable hair hardly reached his shoulders. The king thought he glimpsed a silver hair, and his heart fell to his stomach.
The twins each got to one knee, hands over their hearts, and bowed their heads to him.
“My sons.” He sighed the words. “Where did you go to?”
Doran was the first to stand, but Lucius the first to speak.
“To the Winter Festival in the Dire Fens,” he said gently. “We must move it to a dryer area, Father. The snows there freeze into a dismal, green ice.”
King Feros waved his hand dismissively. “I have brought you here for one reason. I grow older, such is the way of mortal men. My time will soon come.”
“No, Father,” Doran said, and took a step forward. “You’ve only just turned forty-four. You have at least twenty years left in you, surely.”
“If an infant can die in its mother’s arms, and a ten thousand-year-old elf can still hold his own in a tourney, then surely my end is plausible. And so, I must name an heir.”
Lucius stepped forward so that he would stand beside his brother. “Doran and I are ready.”
“We’ll accept whatever decision you make with the humility you bequeathed to us.”
The king waved his hand again. “My conclusion doesn’t solve my problem. Yet.”
The twins glanced at one another in confusion.
“I don’t understand,” Lucius said quietly. “You haven’t chosen an heir?”
With effort, King Feros lifted himself from the throne. He gestured to a nearby servant, who skittered up the steps of the dais and offered him a scroll. The servant then vanished into a dark corner of the hall and the king unravelled the parchment and read from it.
“By my power as Alder Vowkeeper, Blood of Feros, Protector of the Three Peoples, and High King of Alaria, I decree that a tournament will be held on the first day of the New Year, fourteen-thirty-four of the Second Age. Lucius, Blood of Feros, Prince of Alaria, and Doran, Blood of Feros, Prince of Alaria shall be the sole competitors. The winner shall be named Rightful Heir to the Throne, and as such he shall come into power after my death. The details of his rulership are written in my last will and testament. As it is written, so it is decreed, and so shall it be done.”
They stood still, their mouths hanging agape. Doran had paled. Lucius’ eyes flickered around the room, as if the were snickering spectators watching the joke. But the hall was filled with nothing but silence. The king rolled the scroll back up and sat down. When he regained his voice, Lucius spoke slowly.
“Father... When you say, tournament...”
King Feros nodded once. “Three competitions. To the death.”
Doran’s eyes bulged out of his head. “To the death?”
“Or best two of three. Whichever comes first.”
Lucius scrunched his brow. “Combat?”
“The first competition will be a joust. The second, archery. The third, one-on-one melee combat.”
The word came from the doors. The twins turned to see their mother, Queen Aradwyn. She stood perfectly still, her brown face shocked. Her ruby lips formed an O-shape. Before anyone could speak, she stormed across the hall and stomped up the dais.
“The very idea is barbaric,” she cried. “Who cares if your sons can shoot a target or unhorse a man? That doesn’t mean they’re fit for rulership!”
King Feros rolled his eyes and grimaced. “Away with you, woman. You know naught of politics.”
Queen Aradwyn scoffed. “I know enough to recognize idiocy when I see it. My sons will not fight to the death.”
“It’s not necessarily to the death, Aradwyn. Didn’t you hear what I –“
”I heard enough, fool!” She stabbed her finger at his chest. “Enough to know you truly are mad as they say.”
King Feros stood up. He seemed larger now, and his shadow darkened the faces of his family.
“Out,” he bellowed in the queen’s face. “Out of this province! I banish you!”
Queen Aradwyn’s face, marred with slight wrinkles, transformed from shocked to furious in but a second.
“You cannot banish me,” she shouted. “I’m the queen!”
King Feros pointed squarely at his sons. “Your job is done, woman. If I’m in need of more sons, I’ll find a new wife. Return your crown to the vault, bid farewell to your sons, and leave this kingdom by the morrow!”
Aradwyn was the first to realize that her husband’s words were truth, and not just passionate rambling. Her hand dropped to her side. Her silver raiment glimmered in the hard, wintery light. It wasn’t beautiful, but sad. The thin, bejewelled crown in her dark curls seemed a silly thing now. Like a dress-up tiara a peasant child might wear. A mockery. The queen’s dark eyes slid over to her sons, who just now understood the magnitude of her banishment. Lucius’ eyes filled with tears, and Doran glanced worriedly between his parents.
At once, Aradwyn gathered her skirts and ran from the room. Her hair, which had been pinned and carefully set, now cascaded freely behind her. Doran turned to watch her leave, still aghast. Lucius kept his glistening eyes on his father, who sat down once more and clutched the arms of the throne. When the doors slammed shut behind her, King Feros spoke softly.
“As I said: the tournament will be held on the first day of the New Year, one week hence. You will gather in the main square at midday. If you’re not present by the last toll of the midday bells, you forfeit. Are we clear?”
“Yes, Father,” Doran said quickly.
Lucius didn’t speak. His hands were clenched into fists at his side, and he wore a hateful grimace. His tanned face was darkened. King Feros regarded him with disdain, then displeasure, and finally cold anger.
“Are we clear, Lucius?” he demanded in a hiss.
Lucius drew out the silence as long as he could before risking being reprimanded or asked again.
“Yes,” he spat the word. He spun around and strode to the doors. Doran bowed to their father and scuttled after him.
“Oh, and one more note,” King Feros called after them. Doran stopped and listened, but Lucius didn’t even slow.
“No enchantments,” the king shouted.
Right as he finished the last word, Lucius threw the doors open and stomped out. Doran bowed once more and hastened after his twin brother. King Feros slumped in his throne and shook his head.
When the doors shut behind his sons, he sighed heavily and closed his eyes. With all his consciousness, he knew it was the right action to take. The tournament was fair, and the gods could have their say. The people would be confident in their ruler’s strength. But there was a small sliver of King Feros that disagreed. To be sure, that shard wasn’t King Feros, but Alder Feros. The man before the crown. In a small voice, he screamed of Death and madness and doom. He begged himself to remove the crown and be the man he once was.
But King Feros didn’t listen. His thoughts drowned out the little voice. Thoughts of his sons hacking away at each other, arrows sailing through the sky, and the chaotic gleam in a horse’s eye. Most of all, he thought of Aradwyn’s exile. Where would he send her?
The Nightwoods, he concluded as fatigue grew into exhaustion. The shapeshifters would enjoy a woman of weak mind and heart and body to play with. Especially when she came from the very family who banished the mutants in the first place.
The king fell asleep before he gave the order. When he awoke, he had forgotten about Aradwyn.