Several years prior to the landing of Nicholas Swift on shores that were unknown to him, a young man stood in the very same place, a place he had known all his life.
He made a striking figure against the pale blue sky, just now lightening in sight of the new day. The unruly brown waves of his hair rippled in the wind behind him. The early morning chill would have made anyone retreat, but he only wrapped his cloak more tightly around him.
He could not quite say what made him get out of his warm bed before the first streak of dawn was seen outside his window. But all of a sudden he was wide awake, and knew there was no point trying to fall asleep again. He got up, full of vigorous energy and anticipation – of what, he could not quite tell if he were asked, or perhaps would not.
Today was to be the day of the annual fair. As in the beginning of each summer, a giant makeshift marketplace would be spread on the shores beside Rhasket-Tharsanae, not far from the place where he was standing now. In the quiet of the early morning, he could hear the salesmen already beginning to work, setting up trestle tables, hauling merchandise, squabbling for the best places. Some of the voices were familiar to him, others bore the accent of other parts of the country. This annual event traditionally made the people of north and south, east and west of Tilir flock to the small port town that was his home.
The voices fell in strange harmony with the stillness of the morning, interspersed by the sound of waves and the trill of birds. Thadorn – for that was the man's name – knew he ought to be heading back home, where he would be expected at breakfast. He was not usually one to wander off without explaining himself. As a rule, in his life every deed and every word had a purpose.
With a last glance towards the sea in which the sunrise was reflected pink and gold, Thadorn started in the direction of the town walls, his home, and the day which felt as though he carried some fateful purpose with it.
He loved this town. It was built in the finest Tilirian tradition, well before King Alvadon the First united the scattered clans of Tilir into a single people. The walls and streets were rounded, and so were most of the houses, at least those belonging to the more respectable town inhabitants. No harsh paints were permitted on the house walls, the doors, the shutters or the signposts; the favored colors were delicate blue and green. The overall effect was of gently rippling waves, and the smell of sea was never far. Salty and invigorating, it penetrated one's lungs in healthy sharpness. Thadorn never tired of breathing it, or of feeling sorry for the people who had to live inland.
Most of the town still slept, but here and there bakeries already began to open their doors, and the enticing smell of fresh bread drifted out onto the street. "Bread and buns," chanted a stout woman with a clear voice, "rolls and cakes, tarts and pies!"
A sudden rumble of his stomach reminded Thadorn that he has been up for a while, but did not break his fast yet. For a moment he was tempted to stop and buy himself a hot pie fresh out of the oven, but then he remembered he took no coin with him, nor anything else for that matter, when he quietly slipped out of the house. He just pulled on his boots and cloak, thinking he is going for a quick stroll. He did not expect to be gone for hours.
Without a thought on the direction in which he was going, his feet carried him in the direction of his family's house, an old, finely built manse that could accommodate many people, but was now home to only three: Andorn, leader of the Tionae, his wife Faelle, and Thadorn, their only son. There was also a maid, a young timid girl who did the washing and cleaning, but she came and went. Faelle took it with as good a grace as she could, even though her frail health would benefit from a live-in servant. She never hinted at it to her husband. The Tionae were an ancient clan, proud and esteemed and excellently connected, but their purses were never heavy.
The walk back home took a longer time than he thought it would. His mother and father were already sitting at the breakfast table when Thadorn walked in. Murmuring an indistinct greeting, he shed his cloak, wet with dew, and proceeded towards his seat.
"Great Spirit, Thadorn," his mother admonished him, "where have you gone to? We didn't know what to think." Faelle was a wispy little woman, yet she could command a stern voice.
"I fancied a walk," said Thadorn, patiently. With his mother, he was ever patient. He knew that, as the Great Spirit did not choose to bless Faelle with more than one child, he was the only outlet to her generous, protective love.
"You could have left a note," she said.
"Leave him be," intervened Andorn, who was as solid as his wife was ethereal. Not too tall and wide, but of a compact muscular build, he was strong and agile, and even though his hair was well-salted pepper, he possessed the lineless face and smooth movements of a much younger man. "Thadorn is three-and-twenty, for a long time now a man grown. He can take perfectly good care of himself, Faelle."
"I never said he cannot," his mother said defensively. "It just seems as though he hadn’t slept at all."
"Of course I have," Thadorn replied in his mildest manner, reaching for the pot of steaming hot porridge. He ladled some into his bowl and poured honey over it. "I just woke early, that's all."
"So have I," said Andorn. "And we had better not dally over this meal too long. If we want to take a stroll around the fair, it is best to do that before noon, when the crowds become insufferable."
"Some say the crowds are what makes the fair so attractive," observed Thadorn, "Everyone is going to be there."
There was no particular reason for his parents to exchange a meaningful glance, but it seemed to Thadorn they did just that. To cover up his embarrassment, he spooned some porridge and blew on it long after it cooled.
What he said was true. Upon going to the fair, you could be certain to see the whole town pouring down towards the sea… and furthermore, the air was more fraternal than at any other time throughout the year, except perhaps the Spring Equinox.
The town of Rhasket-Tharsanae was founded by three ancient seafaring clans: the Tionae, the Kamtesir and the Kotsar. At first each clan kept to itself, seeking only safety in numbers. But naturally, after a while the clans began to mingle, and there was also some intermarriage, although this did not become frequent before the Union. Prior to that, there was also strife, some of it bloody, over the position of highest power along the dwellers of the northern shore. The Kotsar were ever the rivals of the Tionae, while the Kamtesir wisely kept out of the conflict. The Union put an end to this circle of intrigue, struggle and revenge, but one cannot force love between people who have mistrusted and oftentimes feared each other for so long.
A knock sounded on the door. It was too energetic and vigorous to be the maid, a little mousey girl of fourteen. "I'll get it, Father," said Thadorn, and was at the door in three long strides. He opened it, and found himself greeted by a smiling face.
It was Rogell, his cousin and friend. The two young men were of an age, and did everything together, as far back as they could remember. The fraternity of children's play, of swinging from apple trees in the orchard, of sledding in winter and diving into the salty waves of the sea by summer, forged a bond of friendship that only increased as the years went by. Thadorn Tionae now occupied the honorable and responsible post of Commander of the Sea Guard, a fleet of swift boats that patrolled the waters around the harbor of Rhasket. Rogell was an officer under his command, and his right hand. Some evil tongues called Rogell a shadow, a sidekick, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Rogell was a man of high intelligence, but his nature was milder, softer than that of Thadorn. For the latter, Rogell was the brother he never had, and for Andorn and Faelle, almost like a second son.
"Come in, Rogell, and sit with us," Andorn called. "We're just having breakfast. How does my good-brother fare today? Does he think he might venture out to take a look at the festivities?"
Rogell was the son of Faelle's brother. The fate played a cruel jape on his parents; his father, sadly as frail and wispy as his entire family, married a good-natured, good-looking, stout girl whose ample hips made the promise of a dozen sons. But alas, she died in the very first year of their marriage, giving birth to Rogell – while the man continued to live on and on, with his weak heart and weak limbs and seasonal coughs and sniffles. Fortunately, Rogell took after his mother and, while not as tall and powerful as his cousin Thadorn, grew up to be a strong young man, and handsome besides. He had eyes the color of the sea, and hair like jet, and was quick to smile and laugh and sing. His manner was much livelier than that of Thadorn, and did much to brighten up the latter's rather stern nature.
"My thanks," said Rogell, sitting at the table. He took a slice of bread and let some honey drip on it. "Father sends his greetings, but says he isn't certain yet of whether he will be able to venture out today or not. He spent a rough night, he says. Coughed through half of it. He bid me to go forward and enjoy myself, though."
"I thought you must already be down at the fair," said Faelle, looking fondly at her nephew, who now reached for a succulent early pear and bit into it.
"We arranged to go together," explained Thadorn. "There will be so many people down there that finding each other might be a tough task."
"Too true," his mother nodded. "With all the new arrivals, the town has been buzzing like a beehive this past week. For those of us who don't sleep very soundly, the noise is a source of irritation."
"It will feel empty soon enough," promised Rogell. "After today, the visitors will be gone… and some of the residents as well," he added, with a quick sly glance in the direction of his friend.
"What do you mean?" Andorn sounded curious.
"Rohir Kotsar is taking his family to Aldon-Sur, to participate in the festivities in honor of the royal wedding," explained Rogell. "My father mentioned it to me just this morning."
Thadorn looked none too pleased. He didn't say a word, but brooded over his clay cup of herb tea, which was getting steadily cooler. No one, however, seemed to notice his darkened expression.
"Have they been invited to the king's wedding, then?" Faelle asked incredulously. "Why, it doesn't seem possible, when we ourselves – "
"I don't think so," Rogell shook his head, and Faelle visibly relaxed. To have the Kotsar leader invited to the royal wedding when she and her husband got no invitation would have been a hard blow to her pride. "But the king's bride is arriving soon, you know, and it will be a splendid sight, and there will be a great tourney and festivities all over the capital. Those who wish to show themselves in Aldon-Sur will have no better chance."
"That is just so," nodded Faelle, "there is no limit to the vanity of the Kotsar."
She seemed ready to go forward in this venue, but Andorn chilled her with a look. "What does it have to do with vanity?" he asked reasonably. "I daresay young Kohir will want to enter the lists, and I have no doubt of him doing well. Of course, you two could easily outdo him," he looked plaintively at Thadorn and Rogell, "if you decided to go."
Rogell looked tempted by the notion, but Thadorn knitted his brows together and said, "I don't think it will be possible. We can hardly be spared from the Sea Guard."
His mother's relief was visible, but he was too busy spearing a slice of goat cheese on his fork to notice. "I know I can always count on your good sense, my son," she said. "Especially now, with the roads so perilous, going on such a journey would be unwise. As a matter of fact, in the place of Rohir Kotsar, I would not dare take the children with me. Kohir and Jadine are all grown up now, to be sure, but Kelena is scarcely sixteen, and Nog just turned twelve. It would be both safer and more profitable for them to stay behind with their mother."
"Hinassi Kotsar wouldn't miss such a trip for the world," said Andorn, "but what dangers are you talking of, wife? It's high summer, and the road is full of travelers. People from all over the west and east will come to Aldon-Sur for the tourney."
"But my dear, with the south all in uproar again – "
"The riots in the south, I am sorry to say, have become a matter of course," Andorn said patiently. "It should not have an effect on the road between here and the capital, though."
"Oh, well," sighed Faelle, "what does it signify? If at least some of the Kotsar are going, and my boys are staying, I am content."
Rogell swallowed the last of his bread and honey, licked his fingers, swigged down his herb infusion, and cheerfully got up from the table. "Aunt, Uncle, we had better get going," he urged them. "The fair has already begun, I can hear it by the noise."
"You go forward, boys," Andorn urged them. "Faelle and I will never keep up with you." He, of course, could easily stride along his son and nephew, but with his wife leaning on his arm, his walk was bound to be slow. Thadorn and Rogell weren't difficult to persuade. They walked out into the brilliance of the morning, their light cloaks thrown open to the warm wafts of summer air.
Thadorn couldn't help but notice that his friend put an unusual effort into his appearance that morning. "Is that a new tunic?" he asked with a knowing look.
"Not quite," replied Rogell off-handedly, but Thadorn wasn't fooled. Sparing his friend's feelings, he suppressed a smirk.
The annual fair was a jolly event, as always. Tables, stands, tents and pavilions were erected underneath a bright blue sky, streaked with light feathery clouds. Countless merchants were calling and haggling, singing praise to their bounty and inventing bawdy mocking tunes about their rivals. Pyramids of fruit and colorful bolts of silk, fine leather sandals and cages upon cages of live fowl, dangerously glittering steel of knives, swords and armor, rows of sweets and barrels of beer and wine, fresh pastries and newly-caught fish, necklaces made of shell and coral, copper jugs and intricately woven baskets and mats – anything one wanted to buy at today's market, it was there for the taking – for those who had the coin.
Later on, there would also be games and contests, with handsome prizes for the winners. It was not the king's tourney, to be sure, but it was always fun. Mummers and singers and pipers and fiddlers came as well, to collect the coins of those more generous, and a jumble of tunes rose into the air from several corners, mingling with many excited voices.
Thadorn and Rogell were milling around, enjoying the sight of unfamiliar faces and colorful clothes, not in a particular hurry to do anything. The coolness of the early hours was dispersing rapidly, to be followed by cloying heat, and although the hour was not even close to midmorning yet, a mug of iced beer was beginning to seem very appealing. The friends were just debating which of the beer sellers they should go to, when Thadorn gave his cousin a light nudge in the ribs.
"What?" asked Rogell, looking in the direction Thadorn pointed.
"Look who's here," said Thadorn in a wholly unconvincing tone of surprise. "I had no idea Lya had already returned from the visit to her aunt."
Rogell turned faintly pink and absent-mindedly tugged at the sleeve of his new tunic, while mumbling something about not expecting Lya to be home for at least another week.
"Come on," Thadorn said decidedly, "I know she will be happy to see you." He marched ahead, and Rogell had no choice but to follow.
Lya Tionae was of their clan, therefore a relation of theirs – though in her case the kinship was so distant it could hardly be traced. Perhaps she was the daughter of a third cousin, or a niece by marriage, or something of the sort, but it didn't signify much. What mattered more was that seventeen-year-old Lya was fair of face, with shiny dark hair and big soft brown eyes, with a slim waist and a willowy grace. She was gentle-natured and kind-hearted too, and as a child was much in awe of Thadorn and Rogell, who then seemed all grown-up and terribly strong and wise to her. Much has changed in recent years, and now Rogell, as Thadorn well knew, gazed at Lya with more than abstract wistfulness.
"Good to see you, cousins," she said with a warm smile, looking from Rogell to Thadorn. "Oh, I am glad I was able to get home in time for the fair. The Pearl Islands are dull at this time of year."
Thadorn, who privately thought the Pearl Islands were dull at any time of year, came up with some sort of inconsequential reply, while Rogell shuffled his feet and looked down, seemingly at a loss for words.
"Have you put your names down for the bowmen contest?" asked Lya.
"Rogell has," said Thadorn.
"You should give it a try as well, Lya," said Rogell, finding his voice at last.
"Truly?" she sounded surprised.
"I have seen you shoot. You have a good eye and a steady hand."
"But not the strength to wield a bow like those heavy ones they keep for the competition," said Lya with a wry smile. "I prefer to watch it all from the stands. What about you, Thadorn? Surely you can outshoot them all."
"I have the strength, perhaps, but not the aim," he said. "I know my capabilities, and archer I am not. I will take part in the wrestling match, though."
"Which means that the rest of the participants won't be from around here," Rogell chimed in. "None of the locals would dare to face Thadorn."
"That is true," nodded Lya, looking swiftly and furtively at Thadorn's massive chest and muscular arms. "But the competitions don't begin until noon, do they? We have plenty of time still. Let's have a look around."