For a midwinter’s evening, the night was unusually warm.
Anderson put it down to the northerly wind. Members of the mage community often stated the wind from the north carried warmth with it, not that Anderson could see; but then the mages often knew more about these matters than he did. He had a different focus; running his kingdom, and bringing it out of the dark days in which it found itself.
He ran a hand through his brown hair as he reflected. The years had not been kind to the kingdom of Relghem. The poor harvests of the past couple of years had left the realm low on cash, with freeholders and the king’s farms alike being unable to pay their taxes. Relghem had been greatly reliant on trade with their neighbours, Albernor and Tyrenia, to avoid running out of money in the royal coffers, and Anderson knew they needed many good farming years to bring the kingdom back on track.
But he had more immediate problems; peasants in the south were taking up arms again, angry at the poor harvests and heavy taxes levied by the barons. Anderson knew the region also held separatists, fighters who wished to carve their own kingdom out of the heart of southern Relghem, and he knew he could not allow that to happen.
An arriving messenger bought the king out of his contemplation. Accepting the message with a nod, Anderson unfurled the parchment and quickly scanned it.
It was a report of another speech by Lord Roydon against his enemies in the Council of Nobles. Anderson knew the Lord had a number of bitter rivals in the council, but had somehow gained access to information of many of them which was potentially compromising; at least, that was how his spymaster had described it. Anderson quickly grew weary of such speeches and seldom listened to them, instead preferring the solitude of his royal study when dealing with matters of state.
The king had reigned for only five years. Upon the death of his father Brend, Anderson had ascended the throne at the age of thirty-six; older than many kings at their coronation, but with the benefit of many years of study at his father’s side before having to take the reins himself. Unfortunately, although his father had been very popular with many of the nobles of the kingdom, Anderson himself was not, and his support in the council was thin. Anderson knew he had to bring fortune back to the kingdom again, and soon, or his relationship with many of the nobles may not be repairable.
He sighed, crumpled the parchment, and tossed it aside.
Lord Roydon was becoming a threat; with both his natural popularity among the other nobles and the notable defeats of his rivals in council, he was effectively the most powerful lord in the kingdom after the king himself. Anderson would have to find some way to undercut his power base, or bind his loyalty to the throne; otherwise, Roydon might get serious ideas about taking the throne for himself.
Civil war had occurred in the past; Relghem itself has been born out of rebellion, and dukes and earls had fought each other when a royal bloodline had died with no heir, but a noble-backed rebellion against an incumbent king was very uncommon.
Anderson realised had not heard the messenger leave. He was still in the room.
“What else is there?” he asked, turning, and froze, as he saw the young blond-haired messenger in the process of quietly drawing a dagger from his belt.
With a snarl, the messenger lunged at the king, who threw himself to the side. Landing sprawled on the floor, the king struggled to his feet, as the messenger lunged at him again.
Anderson had no weapon, but had been trained in unarmed combat, and dodged to his left as the assassin swung at him. The king, only dressed in his nightclothes, saw his chance and struck swiftly under the messenger’s jaw. The assassin collapsed unconscious, and Anderson took a moment to appraise his attacker.
Bertie was the man’s name; a young lad and squire to the king’s court. Anderson had known him for many years, ever since he was a small boy on his first visit to the castle. He struggled to understand how someone like Bertie could have attempted to take his life.
Bending down to examine the dagger in Bertie’s hand, Anderson felt a chill go down his spine as he recognised the coat of arms set into the hilt. It was the four unicorn crest of the current Earl of the Southlands, the very man who Anderson had just been musing over; Lord Roydon.
“Guards! Guards!” he yelled, knowing his personal guards were only an instant away and yet had failed to prevent this assassin from entering his presence.
A moment later, the two black-haired guardsmen entered the room. Picked from the best of the noble retainers of the kingdom, they were tall, muscular men, heavily armed in steel breastplates and carrying wicked-looking halberds. They stopped at the sight of the unconscious messenger on the floor of the king’s study.
“Remove him from this room and lock him in the dungeon,” ordered Anderson. “And be sure to thoroughly search any more messengers! I will get to the bottom of this attack.”
But the guards did not move. They simply looked at each other. One of them, who the king knew as Sir Gerald, spoke up first.
“I told you it was a mistake. He was just a boy!”
“It would have made our job easier,” spoke the other, whom the king did not recognise. Sir Gerald turned to the king and spoke again.
“I am afraid, my lord, that you will be coming with us. Please come quietly, otherwise this may get… messy.”
Evil grins spread over the faces of both of the guards, and a final, almighty chill ran up the king’s spine. The assassin was not the only danger now.
The two guards were taller than he and better armed, so defending himself was out of the question here. Anderson attempted to dash past them to the door, but the other guard grabbed his arm.
Sir Gerald struck the king in the face with a mailed fist, and he slumped to the floor.
Anderson heard Sir Gerald’s voice cry “The king is overcome! Make way for the king!” and he felt himself being picked up and carried out of the room, as blackness took him.
Grey disliked books.
His father insisted on him reading lots of books. Books contained wisdom, he frequently said. Books contain the words of those who have come before, who have experienced great wonders and terrible tragedies. Books are the surest way to understanding how the world works.
Sometimes Grey believed his father could not think of anything else but books.
The only books Grey was interested in were the epic sagas. The tales of great heroes and vicious villains, of epic quests and intense battles, of champions who saved the day and defeated whatever great evil threatened the world; they were Grey’s favourites. Sometimes he could imagine himself as Lord Varic, defeating the great black wyrm Skorngar in the Greymurk swamp, or one of the Champions of Relghem as they vanquished the mighty Shadow and turned back his hobgoblin hordes. They had experienced adventure after adventure, whereas Grey could only look at the same four walls of his bedroom. And read books.
Raven-haired and blue-eyed, like his mother, Grey had had a craving for adventure since he was very young, but being the king’s fourteen-year-old son and heir to the throne gave him responsibilities he did not want. Often he wished for a chance to get outside the walls of the castle to explore the world, and regularly practiced his swordplay just in case that chance came along. But it never did; just more and more of those infernal books.
He raised his head as he heard a crash outside, and shouting voices.
Grey put his book down and was about to head to the door, when it burst open and in came one of the king’s personal guard, sword drawn. Seeing Grey, the black-haired guard moved and grabbed the young prince by the arm.
“You are coming with me, boy. Now!” he said.
Grey had the feeling that something was not right and struggled, but the guard’s grip was like iron, and he found himself hauled into the corridor outside. He could hear more shouts echoing through the castle, and the clatter of clashing swords. The guard dragged him down the stairs into the deeper levels, and Grey realised where they were going; the dungeon. He fought harder against the guard, but the guard put his sword against the boy’s neck.
“Stop struggling now or you’ll lose your head. Got it?”
Grey stopped struggling, and the guard bought him down to the cells.
He had never been in this part of the castle before, but he knew this was where father had imprisoned those who had committed crimes of sorts, very serious ones. Dug partly out of the bedrock, it resembled a cave more than a dungeon. It smelt awful and Grey could hear water dripping somewhere.
They came to a series of cells, small rooms with rough wooden doors inset with barred windows. The guard bought Grey to one of the rooms and fumbled at his belt for what sounded like keys.
Grey saw his chance. He smacked the guard as hard as he could in the face.
Distracted with unlocking the door, the guard caught the blow on the side of his head. Staggering with the blow he let go of Grey, who dashed off into the tunnels as fast as he could go.
He could hear the guard sprinting after him, swearing loudly and yelling at him to stop, but Grey would not stop. He knew that once he was in that cell he had no hope. He had to find his father and find out what was going on.
Fear driving him on, Grey ran through the tunnels of the dungeon for several minutes, before having to stop to catch his breath. Hearing nothing behind him, he realised he had lost the guard, but looking around at the maze of tunnels, he could not remember the route he had taken to get here.
His father had not mentioned all the tunnels that were down here. Nobody had, he thought sadly. He may have escaped the guard’s clutches only to get lost down here.
Grey shook himself and gathered his resolve to find his way out. Trying to get his bearings, he attempted to retrace his steps in the near darkness. Irregular torches along the walls gave a poor light to the tunnels, and many times he stumbled as he felt his way.
Turning a corner, Grey saw a light and heard voices from up ahead. He recognised one of the voices as the guard who had pursued him.
“Nah, the runt got away,” he was saying. “But these tunnels are extensive apparently; chances are he’ll get lost in there and never come out”.
“But you can’t be sure of that,” said the other man in a raspy voice. “He will ruin my plans if he survives to escape. Make sure he is dead, and do not return without his head.”
Grey heard heavy footsteps moving away as the guard cursed under his breath.
“Come out you runt! Before I get really angry and drag you out of there!” the guard called loudly, his angry voice echoing through the tunnels as he began his hunt.
Grey jumped as a groan from nearby broke the eerie silence. Had it come from a nearby tunnel?
He reached an intersection and looked left and right to see where it had come from. Down the tunnel to his right a torch illuminated a cell door.
The groan came again; Grey could tell it came from the cell. He knew he had to escape while he could, but a part of him wanted to know who else was down here, and he set off down the corridor towards the cell. Grabbing the torch off the wall and looking in through the bars, Grey gasped aloud as he saw the occupant of the cell, shackled to the wall with iron chains.
It was his father.
The man’s brown hair was dishevelled and his face was bloody, but he still wore the robes of the king of Relghem. Grey could not believe his father was chained here in this cell. What was happening above them?
He intended to find out. Grey tried the door, but it was locked. And he had an idea who had the key.
The guard’s voice was still echoing through the tunnels. Grey needed a plan to take him down and get the key, but the guard had his sword and the young prince was unarmed. He would need to come up with something crafty, and he had thought of something that just might work.
The guard continued to hunt through the tunnels.
“I know you’re here, runt! Come out now and I won’t kill you!”
He heard the scuff of a boot from nearby. As he came to an intersection, the guard was sure it had come from the left-hand tunnel.
But when he turned down the tunnel, there was nothing there. The flickering torch light didn’t help, he thought.
He heard someone clear their throat loudly behind him. He whirled around, raising his sword.
Grey thrust the lit torch through the guard’s open faceguard.
“Argh!” cried the guard, clutching at his face. His sword clattered at it hit the stone floor.
As quick as he could, Grey grabbed the sword and smashed its hilt into the guard’s jaw. His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell backwards on the floor with a thud.
Grey took a few seconds to compose himself. His pulse was racing and his breath came in gasps. This isn’t as easy as it is in the stories, he thought. But his plan had worked, at least. He searched the guard for his keys and found them, unlatching them from his belt. Carrying the sword in his other hand, he returned to his father’s cell.
There were a lot of keys on the key ring. Grey had to try a few in the lock before one managed to fit. The door opened noisily. His father stirred at the sound, groaning.
“Father, it’s me, Grey,” he said on entering the cell. One of the keys had to fit the shackles.
“Grey?” his father asked, groggily. “Grey, is that you?”
“It’s me, father,” he replied. “I’m here to get you out of this cell.”
“Oh, my head hurts. What’s happening?”
Grey found a key which fit the shackles. Unlocking them, he took them off his father before examining him. Grey found a large lump on his head, probably the blow of a gauntlet or sword hilt. He hoped his father would be okay, but he might have to help him out of here.
“It’s time to get out of here, father,” he said. “Something’s happening up in the castle above us. The guards are after us.”
“Guards…” mumbled Anderson. “Working for… Lord Roydon…”
As Grey helped his father out of the cell, he felt a chill go up his spine. He remembered his father telling him about Lord Roydon’s recent rise to influence of the Council of Nobles. Was Roydon behind this? Was he trying to seize the throne so openly?
“Easy, father,” he reassured him. “We’ll get out of here soon enough.”
“Where are we?” asked his father. He was starting to sound a bit more lucid.
“The dungeon, I think,” supplied Grey.
Anderson grunted as Grey helped him through the tunnels.
“Grey, I don’t think we can go back through the castle,” his father said after a while. “I believe Roydon has changed all my guards for his men by now. Going back through the castle itself is too dangerous.”
“But it’s our only way out of here!” replied Grey. “We can’t stay down here forever, and Roydon knows that!”
His father smiled in response. “Ah, but it’s not the only way out of here.”
“I-it isn’t?” said Grey, surprised.
“No. One of your ancestors dug a tunnel from here out beneath the castle into the city,” Anderson explained. “It was intended to be an escape tunnel in case the castle was besieged. It’s probably a hundred years old now, and it’s never been used.”
Grey was elated. They had a way out after all! If they could find it.
“Do you know where it is?” he asked his father.
“I do. Just let me get my bearings for a second. It should be… just down here.”
They turned down a tunnel. It was a dead end.
“Are you sure this is the way, father?” asked Grey. “It’s just an empty corridor.”
“See that empty torch bracket there?” replied his father, pointing to a bracket about halfway down the corridor. “It should have a mark inscribed above it.”
They approached the bracket. Sure enough, etched into the rock just above it was the symbol of a lion. The animal on Relghem’s coat of arms.
“Now, I should be able to twist it, like so,” Anderson said, reaching out to the bracket. He turned it ninety degrees to the right, and pulled down.
With a dull click, and loud screech of rusted hinges, part of the wall swung open. Behind it was a rough rocky corridor. It smelled musty and damp.
His father was standing on his own now. He looked unsteady, but he was managing at least to stand himself.
“Here we are,” he said. “Let’s go. We must be quick, before they come back down here.”
“Wait a second,” said Grey. “We can’t leave yet. What about mother? And the girls?”
His father’s face hardened. “We must go, son. While we can. We cannot go back for them.”
Grey couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Are you mad, father? We can’t just leave them behind!”
“Listen to me very carefully, my son,” Anderson said sternly. “I am the rightful king of this realm. You are my son and heir to the throne. Our lives are far more valuable than theirs right now. We can escape through here and head north to lords loyal to us. With them, we can raise an army and return here to retake the castle. People will flock to us once they hear of the usurper Roydon. But if we are dead, if we don’t make it out of here alive, that leadership dies with us. Lord Roydon will have the crown. This tunnel is our only chance.”
“But… but we can’t just leave them!” said Grey, feeling tears well in his eyes. “They are our family!”
“I know that, son,” replied his father. Grey could hear the sadness in his voice. “I would do anything to rescue your mother and my daughters. But we cannot help them now. Sometimes we have to make decisions where even the best choice is a losing one. Right now, the kingdom depends on us keeping our lives.”
Grey could not accept the cold logic of his father’s argument. He would not let his mother and sisters be trapped here in this prison of a castle. No matter how important his future was, he wouldn’t leave them here.
“I’m going back for them, father,” Grey said. “I will not leave them behind. I have made up my mind.”
His father let out a deep sigh.
“Go quickly then, Grey. I shall wait here for you. But be quick! And careful!”
Grey nodded and returned to the maze of tunnels, looking for the route to the stairs.
Grey hid in the shadow of the doorway as the two guards went past.
They were openly wearing tabards with Roydon’s coat of arms on them. Grey felt anger build inside him at the sight. Acting as if Roydon was already king!
Perhaps he was. Grey accepted the castle was lost, but still, he wouldn’t leave yet.
He had left the torch behind after he returned to the corridors of the castle. His mother and sisters had their rooms just across the corridor from here, but there were so many guards about!
Grey had to be patient. He just needed a moment to get to the door. He watched the two guards as they continued their patrol down the corridor, turning a corner out of sight.
Quickly he leapt to the door. The handle turned. He darted through the doorway, quickly closing it behind him.
“Ahh! They’re back, mama!” screamed a girl’s voice.
“Go away! Stop scaring us! We won’t give you want you want!” added a woman’s voice.
“It’s ok, mother,” called Grey. “It’s me, Grey.”
He was in a corridor leading to their sitting room. Grey heard movement coming from there, footsteps approaching. The woman appeared in the hallway.
“Grey? Oh, Grey, it is you!” his mother exclaimed, moving to him. “I’m so glad you’re alright!”
“Grey!” exclaimed his young sisters, also greeting him.
“Are you hurt?” asked Grey, hugging his mother.
“No,” she replied. “They promised we wouldn’t get hurt if we stayed in here. Roydon was with them. Oh Grey, is your father alright? Have you seen him?”
“Yes” said Grey. “He’s down by the secret tunnel in the dungeon. He’s waiting for us. We’d better get out of here quickly before Roydon comes back.”
His mother nodded, and told the girls they needed to be very quiet until she said otherwise. The brown-haired girls, still terrified, simply nodded.
Grey moved to open the door, when he heard voices just outside.
“Be on the lookout for the boy,” one was saying. “Sir Patrick lost him down in the dungeon. He could be anywhere in the castle by now.”
The voices faded. They must have been moving down the corridor.
Grey opened the door slowly and quietly. He put his head out into the corridor, looking in both directions. The coast was clear.
“Quick, before they come back,” he said, ushering them out the door.
They crossed the corridor, moving into the room Grey had come from originally. He closed the door behind him, just as he heard the voices approaching again.
“Mother,” he asked. “Why was Roydon here? What did he want?”
His mother shuddered as she answered.
“He asked for my hand. He spoke of how my husband had been imprisoned and how I had to become his wife in exchange for Anderson’s freedom. The bastard. But he said he would be back, that he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“Let’s make sure he never gets to ask that again,” said Grey. “This way. We need to get to the stairs to the dungeon.”
The castle was crawling with Roydon’s men. Somehow Grey managed to get his family down into the dungeon without being seen. But there had been plenty of close calls. If even one guard had seen him, the alarm would have been sounded. They must still think he was loose somewhere else in the castle.
His father was still waiting down by the escape tunnel.
“Anderson!” said Grey’s mother, embracing her husband. “I was so worried! Are you injured?”
“A bump on the head is all,” replied his father. “But we need to move quickly, before we’re discovered.”
None of them needed to think any more about that prospect. They dashed into the passage, Grey’s father leading the way, followed by his mother and two sisters, with Grey bringing up the rear.
Anderson had shown him a catch on the other side of the secret door which could close it from that side. Pulling it, he watched it close with a screech and a thud.
He was struck by the finality of the door closing. It was like a door was closing on his old life. All he knew had been behind that door, and now it was sealed to him.
“Grey, come on,” urged his father. “We must hurry!”
Grey complied, leaving his old life behind. He was not the only one to give the door a second glance as they hurried through the rough-hewn tunnel.
The tunnel led to the basement of a house in the city. Grey’s father told him it was a derelict building, an old uninhabited structure no one would give a second glance to. The perfect place to slip out of the castle unnoticed, Grey presumed.
At the end of the tunnel a wooden trapdoor blocked the way forward. Anderson poked at it carefully.
“There should be a gap here to open the latch from this side… there it is!”
There was a click from above. His father pushed the trapdoor open with little effort. That’s when Grey noticed how the trapdoor seemed in surprisingly good condition, for such an old escape tunnel.
His father seemed to guess his thoughts. “We had it replaced last year when we found out about the tunnel,” he supplied. “Just in case.”
“It was a good decision, sire,” a voice called from the room above.
They froze. This place wasn’t so uninhabited after all.
“Who’s there?” Grey shouted.
A blond man with a thick beard came into view above them, wearing heavy armour and carrying a battleaxe. His father recognised the crest on his armour.
“Lord Rowberry! I thought I recognised your voice. But what are you doing here?”
Rowberry smiled and offered an arm to the king, who gratefully accepted. They climbed out of the escape tunnel.
Grey examined his surroundings. Nobody had obviously lived here for many years. There was dust everywhere, and that musty smell still lingered.
“I knew what had happened in the castle, sire,” explained Rowberry. “Once I overheard the guards mention Grey here might be loose, I figured you might try to escape through the tunnel, so I came here.”
“What’s the situation?” asked Grey’s father. Rowberry grimaced ruefully.
“Not good, your majesty,” he said. “Roydon has taken the castle. He had somehow slipped in his own men past your guards and overpowered them. He’s holding many of the lords as hostages in the council chamber.”
“He has the lords of the council as well?” Anderson asked, alarmed.
“I’m afraid so, your majesty. He’s given them an ultimatum to accept him as king or be executed. I was lucky I managed to slip away before his men seized the council chamber.”
Anderson frowned. Grey knew his father had been counting on the support of those lords.
“You know what we must do now, my king,” said Rowberry.
“Is there truly nothing we can do?” asked Anderson. Rowberry shook his head.
“All the lords present had only bodyguards, as dictated by custom, whereas Roydon has a significant force here. The day is his, your majesty. Lord Roydon’s takeover is complete and comprehensive.”
Grey’s father looked downcast.
“So, what do we do now?” Grey asked Rowberry.
“We survive,” supplied his father. “We shall have to leave here at once. I have a cousin in Tyrenia who I can trust. We must go there.”
Grey was shocked. Leave the kingdom? Was his father mad?
“Why Tyrenia?” he asked. “Why can’t we stay in Relghem?”
“Roydon is effectively king now, Grey,” his mother said patiently. “He will coerce the lords into ratifying him, and then this country will no longer be safe for us. We must find asylum across the border.”
Grey was stunned. He felt so powerless. He wanted to fight back, to defeat Roydon and reclaim the castle and the kingdom for his father and family. For him to simply do nothing and leave it all behind…
“We must pick our battles, son,” his father said quietly. “And we cannot do that if we die in a pointless blaze of glory.”
Rowberry nodded. “It is the most prudent course of action from here, sire. I am with you.”
Grey smiled at that. Rowberry was a talented swordsman and tactician. Having him along would be a significant asset.
“We had better hurry, your majesty,” urged Rowberry. “The more we delay, the more chance Roydon will search the city for you.”
“Then let’s go,” replied Anderson.
It took them nearly three long weeks of cautious travel to finally reach the border. They had avoided the main garrisons along the trade routes to the north, instead travelling through the foothills along the border until they had crossed into the plains of southern Tyrenia.
Grey’s anger had settled into a seething hatred. He could not let the insult to his family go. Roydon’s ambition had cost Grey his future and his family’s future.
Taking one look back at the lands of Relghem behind him, the only place he had known in his fourteen years, Grey resolved to return. One day he would come back to the land of his birth and claim the throne that belonged to him and his family.
One day, he would recover his birthright.