Chapter 16: Where one journey ends, another begins
The morning sun was streaming through the tall, narrow window in hazy sheets, casting a bright, distorted impression of it on the rough floor. Tiny specks were drifting through the air, glowing softly as light touched them, then disappearing as soon as they crossed the threshold to shadow. Otherwise the antechamber seemed rather dark and cold. Perhaps because the ceiling was too tall for its size, or because the grey stone walls lacked embellishments and none of the lanterns hanging on them were alight anymore. There was a bench on one side of the room, made of solid oak, old and polished from use. Only the wall towards the prince’s suite was covered with large wool tapestries, above and on either side of the door, but even those were plain, dyed a dark green and with the royal crest woven in the middle, of a dull yellow.
The Royal Palace in Ardaena was beautiful, a true statement of the wealth and power of the king—having been improved and adorned by many generations—but the castle in Fiodhin had been built for military purposes. Even in times of peace, its practicality was favoured over fashion. Nonetheless it was the largest and most impressive building in the city, dominating it with its solid walls and tall towers. From the window Bran and Bredan could see the sea of steep roofs laying beyond the castle’s ramparts, all the way to the city walls and beyond.
The heavy door to the chambers opened and a white haired man, wearing an amiable expression on his wrinkled face, came to them. He was Prince Feolan’s personal attendant.
“His Highness is asking for you.” There was a dignified humbleness in his manner.
“Thank you,” said Bran.
The old man followed them inside.
His Highness’s study was brighter than the antechamber, though similarly restrained in style. The dark curtains framing the two large windows were made of thick velvet and, by the size of the iron rods holding them, were extremely heavy. Many lanterns hung between the windows and on the opposite wall, to their left. The latter were still burning. In front of that wall was the prince’s desk, solid and unadorned, covered in papers. The wax candles in the candelabra sitting on it were almost completely melted and the air was stale, hazy, and smelled of smoke. On the wall to the next room, between the door and the windows, was a large fireplace. Prince Feolan was leaning in a chair in front of it, staring at the fire. The breakfast placed on the table by his side was untouched.
They bowed. “Your Highness.”
“Ah, you’re here,” said the prince, turning to them without standing. He blinked as if waking up from a dream.
His face was drawn and sallow, his hair an unruly mess, but the most shocking part was the beard. He was always shaven, or, at most, had a short stubble after longer nights, but never a fully-fledged beard. It had a dramatic effect: he looked much older and almost like a different person. They could not help staring.
The prince smiled. “I thought I should try it. It seems to shock everyone who has not seen me in the last weeks.”
Bran frowned. “Your Highness, you look unwell.”
“It’s nothing,” replied the prince, with a dismissive wave of the fingers. “Just late night work. Grab some chairs and come sit near the fire… Have you had any breakfast?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
The prince’s eyes studied the food on the table without any enthusiasm. At last he decided on a grape. “Feel free to help yourself.”
Even if they had been hungry, they would not have taken him up on that invitation.
“Glanmour, bring two more cups, please!”
“Yes, Your Highness.” The old man bowed and left.
“How was your journey?” asked His Highness.
“…Interesting,” said Bran.
“You hesitated, right now.” The prince popped a fat grape in his teeth and smiled tiredly. “Tell me.”
They had reported to the castle the previous evening, as soon as they had arrived in Fiodhin, however the prince was holding a private counsel and had sent them word to return early in the morning. Now they gave him a full account of the main events of their journey: the comrades getting sick, the meeting with Val and Kiran, their joining the cavalry and the days after leaving Keln by themselves. Bran did most of the talking, with occasional help from Bredan. Prince Feolan was listening with increasing interest, nibbling on his breakfast, interrupting them here and there for more details. Absorbed in their story, he ate his food without noticing and the colour slowly returned to his face. He was no longer sagging in his chair and his eyes were sparkling with curiosity and even enjoyment.
“I was told,” he said, “that you brought some new horses with you.” He sipped from his wine. “And that some of you require a little medical attention.”
Bran had skipped every part which involved the Host. Firstly, because it was not their secret and was wholly unrelated to their mission. Had they not been attacked in Daweldwig, they would never have learned it. Moreover, Kiran had turned out to be decent person and had helped them a great deal. It would have been unfair towards him to betray his secret and, most likely, put him in danger. He trusted the prince, but loyalty, however deep and well founded, had never replaced his own judgement. In cases such as that the less people knew, the better.
Secondly, he thought they would never meet again and hoped King Arne’s movements and his pursuit of the Host were two different matters. He and his comrades had resolved to never speak to anyone about it. They owed Kiran and his father that much. But being attacked by highway robbers was not unusual, nor was it strange that the four of them would manage to subdue—not kill, for it was not advisable to mention that—said robbers and take their possessions.
“Had we not been in a hurry, we would have brought those bastards here,” said Bran, without even blinking. “But I think it will take some time before they will have the strength or nerve to do that again.”
“Ha-ha, yes. And yet, you seem unsatisfied,” noticed Prince Feolan. He was a perceptive man. “But right now we have other problems.” In the last hour since they were talking, he seemed to have conquered his fatigue. And it was not only thanks to finishing almost all the food on the table.
Glanmour had gathered the empty dishes and had taken them away, leaving the wine and the plate with what was left of the fruits. They were alone. The fire was burning; the old attendant had placed more wood in the hearth before leaving the room and the bright flames were feeding on it, giving off a comforting warmth. The prince leaned forth in his chair, resting the chin on his hands—the left cupped protectively around the right fist—and watching them as though trying to decide on something. That worried them.
“Straight to the matter, then,” he made up his mind. “You have met King Arne’s cousin, Prince Endre—his mother is the younger sister of late King Frode. On the surface, he and the king seem to have a good relationship, but in truth they don’t see eye to eye on many things, particularly the king’s latest manoeuvres. Now, Prince Endre—or his mother, for that matter—does not have much say in the king’s decisions, though with the royal offspring so young, he would be next in line to the throne. Perhaps that’s why. I think King Arne fears the Prince’s betrayal, so he made sure to limit his authority. Nonetheless, Prince Endre has his own followers, some of them fairly powerful men in the Court.
“During the last year I managed to keep contact with him, in secret, seeing as both of us share similar views regarding his sovereign. I am not very acquainted with their family affairs—nor have any intention to meddle in them—but it’s safe to say neither of us wishes a conflict. On our side, my family, Senral Keer and the person who delivered the messages are the only ones who know about this. Hopefully. And now you.” He paused, absently rubbing his forehead. “To cut a long story short, Prince Endre had plans to overthrow his cousin and take the rule, until his older nephew comes of age, should King Arne not change his mind—so far, it seems he has not. The prince and my family made an agreement to support each other and join forces.
“The problem, however, is that something has happened and I cannot get in contact with him anymore. Either our correspondence has been discovered or he changed his mind—which is unlikely, unless I’ve lost my instinct with people—but my courier has not been able to meet his in the last month. And that worries me… Have I missed something, I wonder…” He noticed Bredan’s gaze. “Yes?”
“Skip the formality.”
“Um, are you certain Prince Endre was not—pardon my impertinence—playing you?”
Prince Feolan studied him and, for a moment, Bredan regretted crossing the line. But then the prince leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes and rubbing them slowly, from the bridge of the nose out. “I was as certain as one can ever be, until now.” He looked up at them. “No, even now I am convinced it was not the case. Whatever other reasons he may have, he knows a war would not benefit Astur. He is much more sensible than his cousin in this respect. But I’m not a fool. Though I could see us becoming friends in the future, it is necessity that makes us allies. For now, we keep our secrets to ourselves.”
“Forgive me, Your Highness,” said Bredan, lowering his head. “It was not my place to ask.”
“If only you were the first. But it’s a reasonable question… At present the situation is strange. Our scouts have confirmed the king’s forces are stationary. Camped and waiting. What for? We have no idea.”
“That is strange,” said Bran. “Camping an army for a long time is a waste of resources.”
“Massive resources,” stressed Prince Feolan. “Not to mention the effect it has on people’s morale and discipline. The longer you keep your army waiting, the more you weaken its determination and cohesion. I do not believe a man like King Arne is unaware of that.” He stood and went to the window, staring outside. “This might seem to our advantage, but the same rules apply to our own army. If King Arne doesn’t make a move, we must.”
“Are you planning an attack?”
“Fates, no! We cannot be the ones to strike first, even if he is trying to provoke us. And military decisions are not my prerogative. But I want to use this opportunity to find out the reason behind Prince Endre’s silence. Whether our agreement still stands or not. Perhaps that would give us the answers we need.”
“But you said your courier has not been able to make contact with his,” said Bredan.
“You want us to go to Vres?” asked Bran.
The prince turned to face them. “I want you to accompany me to Vres.”
For a few long moments the two of them were silent, wondering if they had heard well.
“But, Your Highness—”
“We don’t have time for couriers anymore. I must try to speak with the prince in person.”
“But it’s too risky!” burst out Bran. “What if we are caught? The leverage King Arne would have if he held the Second Prince of Laeden prisoner. It would mean the end for our kingdom!”
“No, Captain. It would mean the end for me.”—Bran and Bredan were staring horrified—“And quite possibly for those joining me. I am aware of that and I am willing to take the risk.” The prince held up a hand to stop further objections. “I am not asking for counsel, I am telling you. The decision has been made. I am, first and foremost, a diplomat. It is my duty to serve my kingdom in any way I can and, right now, this is the best I can think of.”
“What about our neighbours?” tried Bran. “Therras is, perhaps, too far, but Vessar—”
“Vessar does not wish to involve itself in a conflict which doesn’t concern it. I cannot blame them, we each must look after our own. They promised to help with food and medicine, they are even willing to take in refugees, if need be, but unless it becomes obvious that we cannot deal with Astur ourselves, Vessar will not provide military assistance.”
“By then it could be too late!”
“I know, Captain, but what arguments do we have, when our own grasp of the situation is insufficient? What proof of the severity of this danger, when all Astur has done so far can be interpreted merely as an act of intimidation?” The prince shook his head, rubbing his eyes with a long, slow movement of fingers. “Peace, it seems, has made us too comfortable,” he mused. “The point is, Vessar has its own treaties with Astur. As long as this conflict does not affect them, they will not take action.”
“But it could. Who says King Arne wants to stop here?”
“Who, indeed. The way they see it, though, if Vessar were to send soldiers, Astur would see it as a declaration of war. If King Arne has any future plans with regards to our neighbours, Vessar will not give them reasons to carry them out in advance… Therras, as you said, is too far, but they will take our people in.”
Silence fell over the room.
King Evand had not wished to sow panic among his people before he understood what was happening. The two of them had known too little. They were just guards, whose foremost duty was to protect the royal family. Their acquaintance with political affairs may had been deeper than most of their comrades’, but it was still limited. And even though the Senral was Bran’s father, he seldom talked about the other aspects of his work and Bran almost never asked. Perhaps he should have been more enterprising in that respect.
Prince Feolan was the first to speak. “Going back to our topic, as I said, we are aware of the risk and willing to take it. The King has given his consent. If worst comes to the worst, his duty is also to the kingdom, not to me. This matter is settled.” He returned to his chair. “Of course, I cannot go as the Second Prince anymore. The time for official meetings and negotiations has passed. We tried that already. King Arne pretends we were the first to gather our forces and—anyway, the point is that door has closed.”
“You want to sneak in through the back door.” Bredan was impressed.
“That’s the plan.”
“Is this the reason behind the beard?”
“It was worth trying. It seems to work.”
“It might, especially on those who have only seen Your Highness a few times.”
Prince Feolan’s lips stretched into a rueful smile. “Even though this was my idea, I have no desire to die.”
“Why would King Arne leave the back door unguarded?” asked Bran.
“Good question. We don’t know that he did, we just hope so.” The prince leaned back, staring at the vaulted ceiling. “Why is he not making any move? He doesn’t want to talk, yet he halted his advance. The atmosphere around the border is tense, yet trading has not been suppressed. People are still moving across it. We don’t know what is happening, but apparently something else is holding his attention at the moment. It is what I want to take advantage of.”
“Not that I would complain about anything that gives us more time,” said Bredan, “but what could be so important as to distract him from this whole mess he has started?” And just then he realized a possible reason. By the looks of it, Bran was thinking about the same thing.
“I don’t know,” said the prince, looking back at them. “Most likely something in the palace. I just hope it’s not Prince Endre.”
Just then someone entered the room without knocking.
Bran and Bredan jumped from their seats and dropped on one knee, bowing.
“Aydan! Good morning.”
“Good morning.” The First Prince waved his sibling not to stand, taking himself a seat in one of the vacated chairs. His motions had a certain slowness. “You look terrible!”
“And how much did you sleep?” replied Prince Feolan.
“Bah! Did you tell them?”
“You may stand,” said Prince Aydan, without looking at them. “Did you explain them the details?”
“I was getting there.”
“We’ll do that later.” He paused, watching his little brother with a critical eye. “Damn, I cannot get used to that beard!”
Prince Feolan chuckled. “If it’s any consolation, neither can I.” He scratched his cheek, with a grimace of displeasure. “I don’t know how you stand this thing.”
“You… get used to it. Eventually.” Prince Aydan brushed his own short, neat beard with the tips of the fingers. It suited him better than it did his brother. “If you’re determined to do this, you’ll have to.” His expression darkened as he said so. He was unhappy with the plan.
Bran and Bredan remained standing.
The First Prince was four years older than the Second. They had seen him a few times, but had never spoken to him before. He was said to be less approachable than his brother, but it was probably because of his standing and duties as Crown Prince, rather than his character. He seemed comfortable enough being informal in front of them. Either that, or he was too tired to care.
“That aside,” said Prince Aydan, “I came because I wanted to speak with you.” He pulled out a paper from his robe and turned to the Captain. “This grants you two free access to the castle’s library. You have three days to refresh your Asturan and learn as much as possible about their customs, occupations, rules—as far as we know them—and so forth. Since you travelled there before, it should not be too hard. Ask the archivist for help.”
Bran took the paper. It was a letter bearing the First Prince’s sigil. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“We shall hold another meeting tonight, to acquaint you with the plan,” added Prince Feolan. “Everyone involved will be present. I’ll send for you when it’s time.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“I hope you understand the degree of secrecy required by this mission,” said Prince Aydan, fixing his eyes on them. They were colder than his brother’s, perhaps because of their light colour, but just as clever. “You are forbidden to speak about it with anyone, aside from us. You are forbidden to speak about it outside these rooms. Doing so will be considered an act of high treason… Do you understand that?”
High treason was punishable by death.
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“You are dismissed. Oh, and send Glanmour here.”
They spoke not a word before they were out of the castle walls. They did not stop at the library, nor at the Garrison, or the Wild Boar, or at Deep Bottoms. They needed to walk, to get rid of that anxiety and sort out their thoughts, so they wandered the busy streets, aimlessly, until they felt calm enough to talk. They made their way to the river, to one of the secondary bridges. People used them every day, but they were not for carts and horses, so they were less noisy than the main, larger ones. Back home the river Arburn was often a place to walk to when they wanted a little privacy without walls. They could see anyone coming from either way, or fishing on the river banks or in a boat.
They stopped in the middle of the bridge, waiting for a few people to cross. When they were alone, Bran finally broke the silence. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
He rested his elbows on the wooden parapet, watching the fast current flowing underneath. Erbain—a tributary to the border river Erduin—was smaller than Arburn, but his waters were clearer and faster. He noticed a few fish.
“I was expecting something audacious from him, but that… that is downright insane! If someone else said it, I would laugh at how absurdly insane it is.”
Bran turned to his friend, surprised. “Are you scared?”
Bredan was leaning with his back against the parapet, staring at the sky. “Shitless,” he answered, without looking at him. It sounded almost like a joke, if not for the restrained alarm in his voice.
The sky was clouding over. The weather was unusually fickle for that month.
“This is unlike you.” Bran had only seen him truly scared once, when Madam Rose had fallen so ill that everyone thought they would lose her, and that night, in the glade of Daweldwig. “The recklessness of this plan—”
“—Is alarming, but aren’t you the one fond of reckless deeds and getting into trouble?”
“Well, forgive me for still having some sense of self-preservation left.”
Bran’s eyes turned back to the fish in the the water. “You’ll get the chance to trick people and learn secrets for a noble purpose. It used to be your favourite diversion. I would have expected you to be more excited about it.”
Bredan sighed. “Perhaps I would be, if it weren’t for this whole mess. And His—him.”
“Why? You’ve seen enough of him to know he is no fool.”
Three man, straining to move a cart with oven—the sort used for baking pies on the street—almost toppled over, when a group of children ran past them, laughing and squealing. The men shouted after them, throwing a few curses.
More people crossed the bridge, but after a while they were alone again.
“Don’t you see, Bran? This would be like walking into Lords ’n Ladies with a pouch full of gold dangling on your belt, hoping no one will hear the coins chinking. Even I know better than that.” Lords ’n Ladies was a watering hole on one of the streets in Lower Quarters in Ardaena, a notorious meeting place for the city’s refuse, known for harbouring illegal activities. “I don’t know if he can play the part.”
“…You worry about his manner?”
“And his habits. There will be no attendants, no decorum, no comfort. I’m certain he will relinquish them, but will he be able to stay in his character?” It was a sensible argument.
Bran straightened. “Let’s see what that character is, first. I think he will not refuse any advice, should you feel he needs some.”
“Besides, if we didn’t go, we would have to stay here and fight. Either way it could end badly.”
“For some reason, fighting sounds less bad.” Bredan chuckled, although not out of amusement.
“We don’t know that.”
A child leaned on the parapet and dropped his piece of bread in the water. The fish gathered, ripping it apart with voracious appetite. The child burst into tears and his mother pulled him away, chiding him for being careless. On the river bank, a little further from the foot of the bridge, a couple of girls carrying baskets with clothes were giggling and nudging each other, throwing glances at Bran and his friend. From the street above an older woman began to scold them and the misses gathered their baskets and climbed the bank in a hurry.
The sky had turned a dull grey and the river had lost its sparkle. A few stray drops of water touched Bran’s face.
“Do you think the reason for King Arne’s distraction is Kiran?” asked Bredan.
“You thought so, too?”
“Mhm… I wonder what they are doing. I got used to their company.”
“Valan left me an address for an apothecary. He said to ask about them there, if we need to talk.”
“They are intriguing people, I like them… I like them very much, indeed.”
“Kiran, I’ve been wanting to ask this for some time, do you ever influence people’s emotions?” To be precise, the question was bothering him ever since that night, in the glade.
“Why do you ask that?”
“I know a few things about it. Bran says I like to play with people’s minds and emotions. I say I sometimes steer them in the right direction.”
“Right for you?” asked Kiran.
Bredan just smiled. “You said Eina can read and touch the hearts. You can change people’s emotions without them even knowing, am I right?”
“It is within our abilities. But we must never do that outside healing work, unless we have no choice. We can read the emotions, but it is forbidden to influence people without a good reason. It would ruin the balance.”
“So… did you influence ours?”
Kiran paused and that, in itself, was an answer. One which, to Bredan’s surprise, disappointed him a little. He liked being proven right, but not this time.
“That night I told you my story,” began Kiran, staring ahead, “during my story, I kept an eye on your hearts. I… I dampened your fear. I knew how terrified of me you were, you thought I was an abomination. Of course you wanted answers, but curiosity alone would not have made you overcome your horror and disgust. I wanted a chance to explain myself. To show you who I am.” He turned to Bredan. “At the time I wanted to believe I did that for you, but it was for me. I’m really sorry.”
In your place I never would have admitted that, thought Bredan with a sense of relief. “I thought so,” he said, smiling.
“Bredan! Are you listening?”
“Hm? Oh, I was thinking about a conversation I had with Kiran yesterday.” Bredan stretched.
“Anything worth mentioning?”
“Then let’s go back,” said Bran. “We have an assignment and not much time for it. And I want to stop by the Garrison.”
“Thanks to him, Ceri is recovering fast. The doctor thinks he is just bruised.”
“Let him think so.”
They left the bridge with a brisk step.
“Let’s grab something to eat on our way,” said Bredan, livelier than before.
“Manee? Danaa? I’m home!”
The house was empty. Everything looked the same as on the day he had left: the sitting room, the dining room, the kitchen, even the herbs bundles hanging on the walls and a bucket of milk, only no one was home. The village, too, was empty. The vegetable garden was neat and clean, as though someone had tended to it recently, but his people were gone. The whole place was unusually quiet. He saw butterflies dancing in the light streaming through the foliage, but he heard no birds.
“Omanee! Odanaa!” He received no answer. “Manee! Danaa!” His voice sounded strange in his ears, like that of a child. He looked down and realized he was small. His hands were small, his bare feet were small, his whole body was that of a child before Becoming. He was fourteen. He was Kiri.
The house was empty. Everything looked as he remembered, but the place was deserted and overgrown. Vines had crawled in through the windows and the roof in the main room, spreading throughout the house, claiming it for themselves. A young tree was growing in the middle of the hearth and its branches had almost broken through the roof. The whole village was overgrown with saplings, creepers and ferns, as if the forest were taking back its land and trying to erase all traces of his people.
A sense of irreversible loss was seeping into his heart, burdening it, sinking it.
“Manee! Danaa! Where are you? Where is everyone?”
He ran into the house, pushing his way through the intertwined vines with the frenzy of a hunted animal, urged by the dark premonition pervading his senses. But he was small and weak and the tough vines were resisting him, tripping his feet, grazing and bruising his skin until he was bleeding. When he finally reached his room, sore and shaking, a short cry escaped his chest. A man was lying in his bed. Not his father, nor his grandfather, yet that face was familiar.
His open eyes were staring at the twirling ceiling, but his chest was not moving. His cheek looked like wax.
“Val, wake up!”
Slender runners shot from the vines, engulfing the body and leafing heavily, until the bed looked like a green cocoon.
The last spark of hope died.
“No! Don’t go! Don’t leave me!” His thin voice dissolved into the air as quickly as a warm breath in the winter cold.
He was alone. He felt abandoned.
“Don’t go,” he whimpered. They left me. All of them left me.
Fear seized him. Not misery, but pure, raw fear. The air was too thin to breathe.
A hand sprung out of nowhere to grab him. It had a ring on the ring finger, made of gold: two serpents twisting around a large, red stone. He had seen that ring before. The king’s ring. Strong fingers curled around his wrist and the arm was joined by a second, grabbing his other wrist. Behind him he felt a strong body. A man. That man.
Now I’ve got you, he heard a silky whisper in his ear. I always get what I want. A low, seductive voice, but forceful and foreboding. It chilled him to the bones.
His vision blurred and, through the tears welling up, unstoppable, he saw his village in ruin and his house crumbled, a tree in the middle of it soaring to the sky. But even that was shrivelling. The forest was dying. The whole world was withering and falling apart before his eyes, and all he could do was watch, powerless, crying in the painful grip of those hands. Of that man who did not understand. Of that king who lusted for a power he was not supposed to possess.
His heart was bleeding.
What could a mere child do against him? Alone.
You are not alone. That voice was familiar, though it was more a thought than a voice. And it was not his.
“But they are gone. And… and Val is dead,” he cried. That was his voice, Kiran’s voice. He was Kiran. “He caught me. Everything is dying.”
The world was crumbling around him—the village, the forest, life—and he was trapped. He heard a mournful wail and realized it was his.
What you see is not real. It’s your fear. Don’t let it master you.
Yes. A dream. This is a dream.
Wake up, he thought. Wake up!
His eyes snapped open. He was alone. The hands holding him were gone, as if they had not been there at all. There was no one behind him. He could not see that, but he sensed it. The dying world had disappeared. It was so dark he could see nothing, but he sensed he was alone. Not abandoned. Free.
Just a dream, he thought with a sense of relief. Just my fear. That didn’t happen.
But it could, said another thought.
Kiran gasped. I’m not awake! The darkness brightened with thousands of familiar lights. Oh, I’m here.
That voice before, that was you?
It was me.
Then, my family is not gone? He was drifting with that warm river of light.
I don’t know.
He felt a pang of fear. I must go back. I must see them.
I must see that place one more time. To know it’s there… to know it’s safe.
It was just a dream. Your fear.
But we must go back, so what you saw doesn’t happen. We must go to the Blessed Grounds.
His eyes snapped open. His heart was beating too fast and he was hot and sweaty. Above him the rafters were sloping towards his feet, old, stained and full of tiny cracks in the light that washed over them. Kiran blinked, trying to remember his surroundings—this was their small room at the Silver Oak. In Fiodhin. He pushed himself up. The bells were tolling the morning hours. How late was it? The streets were astir. In front of the window someone was watching the morning bustle beneath. The rustle of the blanket drew his attention and he turned. Kiran’s heart fluttered.
“Good morning,” said Val with his usual, gentle smile. “It was about time you woke up. I’m hungry.”