Chapter 1: An Unexpected Arrival
The sound of laughter reverberated throughout the hall, in that cackling and raucous manner which always accompanies merrymaking. The hour was late, so that the torches aligning the far walls were lit. As the fires raged, statues commemorating forefathers and heroes of old cast shadows that morphed and swirled grotesquely; as though the torchlight revealed in them some sinister aspect.
In the center of the hall was a large rectangular table, with impressively carved serpentine patterns coiling around its legs. Arranged neatly atop a thick, bloody-brown tablecloth was an assortment of plates, cutlery, and goblets that glistened in the torchlight so as to denote their quality.
Those seated at the table wore clothing of fine make: the men were clothed in regal-looking robes, the women veiled in elegant dresses—all colored a deep shade of crimson. Towards the head of the table sat a select few individuals whose robes and dresses were further decorated with silver trim. Upon their heads rested silver circlets, each with a single ruby embedded in the center. But even these paled in comparison to Letharian, the man who sat at the head of the table.
Letharian’s robes, trimmed with gold, hid a frame shriveled by age; his greying hair stood out against a golden crown housing no less than three rubies, the centermost of which dwarfed its fellows. Even his chair was regally ordained: two gold-engraved serpents twisted their bodies into twin arches around the rather tall backrest, giving way to an even larger snake’s mouth clutching a solid-gold orb. Next to this was a chair of similar design, but gilded with silver and lacking the serpent’s head. The chair’s emptiness showcased its magenta-colored cushioning.
The laughter continued, accompanied by lighthearted chatter as Letharian tossed back his third goblet of wine. The old, and particularly merry monarch wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and announced his pleasure with one last round of deep laughter. He then waved his hand in a sharp gesture. In an instant, the room fell silent. A young man dressed in the dull garments of a servant appeared seemingly from thin air, and promptly refilled the old King’s goblet.
“Ah, now that I have your attention, I would like to thank you all for coming to this little gathering.” Letharian’s voice boomed, filling the entire hall with its resonance. His rosy and vacant face sharpened as he glared pointedly at the servant. The boy winced, bowed, and backed away from the table without turning his back. Meanwhile, the dinner guests remained silent, as though the very breath from their lungs had been stolen.
“Dinner is but a short while away, and I do not wish to spoil such merry spirits,” Letharian continued, resting his hands calmly in front of him. The old man’s voice lost its rough edge, in its place an air of weariness. “However, my years weigh heavily upon me, and the hour is yet upon us when—”
“Finally admitting it, eh?” spoke Lord Letholdus, laughing in a harsh, morbidly delighted manner. This was a man with thinning hair and baggy, wrinkled features, accompanied by a gut that stuck through his robes. His words caused quite the stirring amongst the other guests; none of it playful. Letholdus may have been the King’s brother but not even he, belligerent as he was, had ever dared interrupt Letharian. All eyes anxiously turned to the head of the table.
“—when I will be forced to name a successor.” Perhaps it was the ever-flowing wine, but Letharian did little more than glance in his sibling’s general direction. Letholdus smiled wickedly.
“At loooong last!” The king’s brother brimmed with confidence, raising his goblet in celebration before draining the sweetened contents. The king had lost much of his vigor as of late, granting a select few brave, or foolish souls free reign of their tongues. Thus, Lord Letholdus spoke carelessly and often. Again, Letharian ignored Letholdus’s outburst, looking forward to address the entire table.
“Yes, yes, my time is nearly over. That is why I have called you all together, in full view of our fathers.” The old king made a sweeping gesture towards the adjacent statues, whose shadows loomed ever more ominously as the night wore on.
Letholdus’s grin grew even wider. He was certain Letharian, his loins more barren than the wastes of Moro’kineh, had no choice but to name Tybalt, Letholdus’s own son, as his heir. He could almost picture the coronation: Letharian would, quite publicly, pass the Royal Scepter to Tybalt, ending his legacy with his own hands.
“My liege, if I may speak,” rose another, stiffer voice. This belonged to Carleon, a man crowned with a ruby-less circlet. His face wore the lines of many sleepless nights, eclipsed by a diagonal scar.
Letharian nodded his approval, prompting Carleon to stand at attention. His muscled physique, though befitting the grizzled Commander’s position, barely fit into his black-trimmed robes.
“Thank you, Majesty. I would like to remind those present that, in addition to our Lord’s matter of succession, the Festival of Lords fast approaches. Though preparations are nearly complete, His Majesty has yet to name a Champion. I propose such be discussed before we adjourn.” His stiff address complete, Carleon bowed and regained his spot at the table.
Though hushed, fearful murmuring arose amongst the guests, Letharian grinned at Carleon’s reminder; Letholdus blubbered and flushed with rage.
“Bah! Let those wretches hold their own blasted games!” he exclaimed.
Carleon could not hide an agitated grimace. The upcoming Festival, already of crucial importance, was supposed to commemorate the two-hundredth year of the Divine Triumvirate! To postpone the naming of a Champion any longer would not only continue to rob the Commander of badly-needed rest, but it would throw the entire Festival, and thus the future of their kingdom, into ambiguity!
“All respect, Lord Letholdus, but the Festival has always been—”
“Speak not to me of what has ‘always been’. The Festival be damned! Our kingdom shall rule, Champion or no, as it always has: undisputed!” No one, not even the Commander, had the right to spoil Letholdus’s moment. Thus, Carleon sunk low into his seat, his head down. The entire hall fell silent as Letholdus downed another goblet of wine, and plopped down in his oversized chair.
Laughter, small and muffled, arose from across the table. Letholdus’s head snapped towards the visage of Lady Mirabeth, who covered her mouth to stifle the signs of her amusement.
“What’s this? Have anything to say, wench?” roared Letholdus.
“Me? Why no dear brother, I am simply reminded of our youth. You were always such a spirited boy.” Lady Mirabeth’s voice was soft and pleasant compared to her brothers’ harsh tones. She sported a face nearly devoid of wrinkles, along with flowing brown hair with but a single streak of grey. Such a radiant appearance denoted a life accustomed to no end of luxuries, while the slight rigidness of her brow implied a fierce spirit. Every bit of the Mirabeth’s countenance was worthy of the respect and power she wielded as the King’s eldest sister. That is to say, she was no slouch when it came to verbal posturing; a fact Letholdus recalled with great disdain. The rotund lord could only disfigure his face in a scowl, and sink low into his chair.
Meanwhile, the servant-boy had returned, and presently whispered something into Letharian’s ear. Something that made the old king smile a ghastly smile. There was a wildness in Letharian’s eyes, a depraved glee which hadn’t danced on his features in years. Judging by the silence that again befell the hall, the guests noticed this change with great dread.
“Now, my friends, has the time come to announce my successor,” the old king bellowed. “And the Champion that shall represent us in the Festival of Lords.” Letharian raised his hands from their resting place, and the doors to the hall were thrown open. Standing in the hall’s large doorway was a young man who, given the cacophony of gasps and shouts, was unknown by the entire table. He wore the familiar crimson robes, but instead of the usual silver they were trimmed with gold, and upon his head rested a golden circlet with tworubies set in the center.
The king’s smile widened at the disbelief and hatred coursing through many of the Highborns’ faces, so much that he seemed fiendish in the fading torchlight. Letharian waved his hand behind him, and immediately the Crowned Prince strode forward. The torchlight shone on his near-feminine features, revealing stark white hair styled in a long braid. His jaw was set in a grim expression, while his eyes shone with a piercing orange—making his entire visage seem fierce.
The young man stalked into the hall, pausing his stride only when he stood directly at Letharian’s right hand. He then bowed and placed his hand on his chest in a salute.
“I am Ephraim, firstborn of Letharian: Sovereign Lord of Tannym, and High King of Elinwynn.” There was probably more to the youth’s address. Nevertheless, his rather benign voice was lost in an angry, confused tempest of others, making it impossible for him to finish.
“Sun-God be praised!”
“He has the eyes of a fiend!”
“He is but a boy!”
“What miracle is this?”
“The kingdom is fallen!”
“We are saved!”
“What is the meaning of this, brother?” Letholdus roared.
“Be silent, you fat fool!” cried Mirabeth.
“Who is this sniveling whelp?”
“Speak not to your King as he were your tavern-mate!” Letharian’s voice carried over all the others, bringing the entire spectacle to an abrupt halt. Letholdus grew pale and nearly fell out of his chair. The other guests responded similarly, with several of them nearly fainting at the shock.
Lady Mirabeth’s face had lost every trace of amusement, for even she had barely kept herself from shuddering. She’d tried to warn Letholdus to no avail. For, the King had regained the infamously cruel demeanor that earned him the title “Mad Conqueror”. No, perhaps he’d never lost it, but had chosen to play the withering fool. In whatever case, the various freedoms his rivals had enjoyed were now at an end.
Meanwhile, Ephraim kept a straight face, never mind his own feelings on the subject. This was not how he had pictured his first outing; instead of warm smiles and shouts of mirth, he’d been met with sneers, panic, and no end of tears—most of which were bitter. Not the way he’d wanted to meet his people. But Father had always warned him of the trials ahead, so Ephraim held his head high and did all he could to maintain a neutral expression.
After another painfully silent moment, which seemed in no short supply this night, Carleon cleared his throat audibly. He then stood at attention once more and made his salute to the king.
“Majesty, I am aware that it is not my place,” the Commander began, his voice stiff as ever. “But I would like to ask, on behalf of us all I’d venture, as to how this came to be?”
“You are aware of how Elinwynn lost its Queen?” Letharian spoke with a ghastly intonation as he gestured to the empty chair beside him. Gasps erupted from the mouths of all, including Mirabeth and even the stoic Carleon. Not even Letholdus dared speak of the King’s late wife, but all knew of her demise nearly two decades prior.
Queen Shikal glimmered with a near-divine beauty, which shone down upon her subjects like the Bright Star she was. Her death struck the whole of Elinwynn as if the very Sun had fallen from the Heavens: it inspired songs only of despair and wretchedness; it moved artisans to craft statues and weave tapestries, all failing to capture the Queen’s majesty; and, perhaps most importantly, it marked the end of the Mad Conqueror—or so everyone thought.
Carleon nodded in solemn agreement.
“Good, then this shall be quick. It was not illness that overtook the Queen. Rather…she perished, in the effort to bring forth Ephraim’s life…” Letharian let out a deep sigh. “I trust you all understand why this was hidden. Especially you, brother.”
It was over in an instant. The King’s eyes took on an orange glow, followed by a bright flash and the smell of sulfur. The next anyone knew, the charred mass that had once been Lord Letholdus smoldered and crumbled to ash.
Ephraim looked on dispassionately as an aged woman wailed uncontrollably over the pile of ashes next to her.
This must be Aunt Ayleth, Uncle Letholdus’s wife’, he mused. The prince bowed his head in respect. Though he’d just met his uncle, who seemed little more than a vulgar braggart, he was still family—a concept he still struggled to grasp. But just as Ephraim began to pity his aunt, the torches flickered and flared chaotically, then sputtered into nothing.
The poor dinner guests could scarcely contain themselves any longer. Their shocked screams irritated the prince; the sudden smells of sweat and unsheathed steel made him realize why he’d been told to carry a shortsword to dinner.
“Assassins!” was the single word Ephraim managed to shout, before parrying a blow that would’ve taken his neck.
Sounds of combat filled the hall; metal clanged as swords clashed, wood splintered as a chair was thrown or smashed, blood spurt as flesh was breached. After but a moment further, the horrid sounds died down, save a muffled groan. The torches relit themselves as if on cue, illuminating the once sacred hall in their dim light.
The light revealed three corpses shrouded in black cloaks—one sprawled carelessly on the table, another hunched against a pillar, while the last was firmly secured in Carleon’s lethal grip. King Letharian still sat at the head of the table, with Carleon standing guard at his left side. The Commander’s arm, had it not still housed a knife, would’ve bled profusely.
“Majesty, are you unharmed?” Carleon asked.
“Yes, Commander. You have done well. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten.” The wildness of the King’s eyes had not faded; rather, it seemed tempered, refined to a sharpened edge. Carleon found himself unable to match such a gaze, so he turned his attentions to the dinner guests. Though one lord clutched his bloodied nose, the scuffle seemed to have left the other dinner guests unhurt. The new prince, however, stood motionlessly off to the side. The shortsword in his right hand was coated in blood.
“Young Lord, are you injured?” the Commander exclaimed. Ephraim remained silent, staring at the corpse that lay against the pillar. Carleon’s eyes scanned the prince’s form; the left sleeve of the prince’s robes was torn almost completely off, with his left arm missing.
Acting on instinct, Carleon dropped the corpse, ripped off a piece of his own robes, and bounded towards Ephraim’s position with a mind to stop his bleeding. Only, there was no bleeding. Carleon paused briefly, then immediately knelt as he grasped the situation.
“Forgive me, Young Lord. I was unaware—”
“It’s quite alright, Commander” Ephraim said. “Take this, please.” The prince handed off his sullied sword, then turned to walk towards his father’s side. He seemed to ignore the tide of guards pouring into the hall from entrances previously unnoticed--even as they escorted him out of the hall to tend to his soiled clothing. If one had looked closely enough, he could swear Ephraim’s eyes twitched with restrained emotion.
The Commander conferred with another man in black-trimmed robes, before bowing and stalking away with an escort of three armor-clad guards. The rest of the guards set about removing the black-cloaked corpses, while a group of servants emerged from the hall’s large doors. In a matter of minutes they’d set the table anew, followed by the entrance of another group of servants toting row upon row of serving platters.
Letharian shot a glance to one of the remaining servants, who disappeared through one of the side doors. He quickly returned with a group of three others, and together they took up the Queen’s seat; right as a different group entered with a similarly adorned chair, but with gold instead of silver. Ephraim returned shortly with a new set of robes, taking his spot next to the King without a single word.
“Now then, I believe dinner is served,” Letharian said.
Given the vast array of choice meats, fresh produce, and an endless stream of the finest wine, dinner should have been delightful. However, the evening wore on far too long, the atmosphere much too somber for even the most carefree lords’ taste. The dinner guests, most assuming yet refusing to acknowledge the assassins’ connection to Lord Letholdus, dined in total silence—elevating Lady Ayleth’s sobs from pitiful, to eerily chilling. Everyone eyed everyone else suspiciously, as if waiting for some next move.
‘What will happen to Lord Letholdus’s Household?’
’Will my Household survive, should there be another attempt on the King’s life?’
‘Will there be a move to claim the Branch-Family’s assets?’
‘Will this supposed heir continue this mockery of a Court?’
‘Will the King announce his intentions plainly, if at all?’
Through it all, Ephraim refused to allow any careless movements or expressions. His manners were the picture of elegance, befitting his title of Crowned Prince. And that was just as well, for beneath Lady Mirabeth’s elegant veneer she’d eyed him closely the entire evening--reading even his lack of emotion as a purposeful, measured action. Her gaze wandered to the prince’s armless left side.
‘What can Lethie hope for with a Champion, let alone an heir, that is missing an arm?’ she thought. It was a wonder the boy wasn’t put to death immediately; such was the common practice stretching back to their forefathers. But if the King deemed the law void, then void it was. Mirabeth raised her goblet to her lips and sipped the contents in a graceful fashion. Perhaps the Mad Conqueror had softened, if only in regard to this mystery child.
Deformity aside, Mirabeth wondered what sort of a man this Ephraim was. Having been raised in secret by her cruel brother, he’d most likely be a monster of similar savagery. That thought alone put the Lady off her food, and soon she found herself glaring furiously at the prince. She could not abide another fiery fool running her kingdom; nay, she would not! Yet, as Mirabeth stared into Ephraim’s eyes, she found they lacked Letharian’s wild passions. Rather, his entire being exuded a sense of calm, and felt to her eerily familiar yet oddly incomprehensible.
Though she knew it was probably an act, Mirabeth could not help but think of her father, King Lotheldin The Wise. She recalled with bitter clarity the look his eyes held as he lay on his deathbed, and his final words:
From our house shall arise a ruler worthy of Shinkitu’s name, I am sure of it! His eyes shall be twin flames, lighting all of Elinwynn to make clear its path!
She’d long thought this to mean Letharian, with his wild gaze and even wilder passions. But all he’d managed to do was wage war after bloody war in an effort to expand Elinwynn’s already massive wealth. And wars such as theirs—unwarranted and terrible slaughter—did everything except brighten Elinwynn’s future. Perhaps the “twin flames” referred not to raging infernos that burn and destroy, but to smoldering pyres that warm and illuminate.
Mirabeth let a mixture of fear and curiosity work upon her features in a half-smile. No matter what happened—whether the child proved the ruler from her father’s prophecy, or doomed them all in another fruitless campaign of blood and ruin—it would make for an interesting turn of events indeed.
With but a flick of the King’s wrist, the servants returned and took up the empty plates that now occupied the table. Lady Ayleth’s were the only ones taken off with their contents fully intact. Commander Carleon returned soon after with a new set of robes, still trailed by an escort of armed guards. He waved them away, bowed to the King, and took his seat at the table.
“Now then,” began Letharian. “Let us resume our, discussion. As I have said, Ephraim is my son, and shall be my heir.”
“So say we all, Majesty,” said Carleon. The rest of the guests echoed these words, some with clenched fists and furious brows.
“I have also said that he will serve as Elinwynn’s Champion in the Festival of Lords.” Though there was spiteful murmuring, a resounding “May it be so” filled the Hall nonetheless.
One of the guests, attired in a trim-less set of robes and a pair of large spectacles, stood up and made a hurried bow to the King.
“Very good, my lord. The scribes shall be notified at once. As for the heralds, I shall see to it myself they—”
“Who might you be?” Letharian asked.
“I-I am merely the C-Chronicler, my Lord” said the man in spectacles. “In charge of the kingdom’s records, as well as those who record, compile…” The King gave a measured frown, then made an expression dull with disinterest.
“Very well. You may proceed, but only as far as notifying the scribes.”
“That is all. You may go.”
The Chronicler paled, and for a brief moment truly considered asking His Majesty if he were jesting. Nevertheless he made another hasty bow, followed by a swift exit through the Hall’s wide doors.
Ephraim let a look of disdain fall briefly on his features before catching himself. If the heralds weren’t to be prepared, it could only mean Father had a more extravagant announcement planned. The prince couldn’t help but wonder what sort of tiresome ceremony it would be, but refrained from expressing his distaste any further.
It was then that Letharian stood from his great gilded chair, raised his goblet above his head, and gestured for the rest of the table to follow suit—which they did with haste.
“Thank you all for joining me on this most wonderful of evenings,” he said.
“Long live the King,” the guests bellowed. “And may his Majesty’s heir, Prince Ephraim, find much favor with Gods, Men, and Otherwise.