Dream of Embers Book 1

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In Days to Come

Chapter 1

In Days to Come

In a different time and place Shala walked along a dirt road, wandering blissfully in a memory of her youth. In the blessed forests of Norwain a tall man walked at her side. His face had the look of wisdom, but didn’t tell of age, with longish hair that made curls and extraordinary green eyes visible below the hood of his cloak. His kind dressed like rangers or hunters out on the road, fading along with the browns and greens and greys of the wood, a longbow slung over the shoulder at all times. The outfit was very humble, except for a small marvellous stone worked into the palm of a thick leather glove on his right hand. By now Shala knew the crystalline stone had nothing to do with vanity.

The man’s name was Metrus and he called himself one of the Druids of the Grove. He was a close friend to the Kingdom, and an even closer friend to the ruling House of Evrelyn. In all ways he was a tutor to Shala, teaching her of the world and of dreams, and at this time point in time, of woodcraft and trailblazing.

‘Do not stray from the path Shala,’ he said to a Princess that struggled to keep close at hand. He called her by name here in Norwain, the sacred grove not partial to titles of men.

‘But how will I pick up the trail if I don’t go searching?’ she said, looking through the wildflowers in her hands which she had stooped to poach.

’The land takes a quick plunge not far from here, and you’ll not see your own tumble until it is too late because of the undergrowth. Besides, you won’t find trails looking for flowers - unless they are trampled by a hoof, which these certainly are not,’ said Metrus with a smile.

Shala blushed guiltily, her mind far from stalking any prey today. Metrus took a step closer to her and put his fingers lightly on the flowers in her hand. He mumbled, and there was the slightest hint of light from his bejewelled glove. Taking his hand away Shala looked on eagerly as the stringy stems of the flowers curled and twisted, forming around her wrists like bracelets. The petals themselves came into fullness if not already so, and their colour became as bright as they could ever be, their scent wafting pleasantly. ’There, in all ways, a true blossoming,’ said Metrus.

Shala smiled, both at the flowers and his observation.

‘How is your magic so different from my own? You seem to own all the tricks I could hope to have.’ And this was the least Shala had seen the man accomplish. At times he would sing, in a fair voice much different from his usually husky tone and in response all the flowers would turn to him like he was sunshine itself, winds whirling low and gentle to distribute unspent pollen, and everything would bloom and grow.

’You belong to a different domain child. You do not dwell in dreams as we Druids often do, but still you touch it, still you are at least familiar with the dream of Evrelyn, the kingly house of healing.’

Shala frowned.

‘It is the dream of the old keep, its foundation bridged over a great waterfall in the mountain - you’ve seen this before?’

‘Yes!’ said Shala, having had this dream upon many nights. ’How could you know?

‘It is a dream well-known and shared by all your ancestry, and when your spirit is welcome in that place, you may draw into this world the power of your House, the healing hands as it is.’

‘Can I visit this dream at will? So that I may walk the paths and see what lies beyond those gates and all?’ asked Shala.

‘No child, and do not attempt it! Dreaming like that where you wander the places of your ancestors is akin to standing with one foot in life and the other in death, and you are much too young for that. The strongest of magi are all but dead, their eyes glazed over and their ears deaf to the nonsense of men, doing their wonders in this world, but their minds already abiding in another.’

Shala took stock of what the Druid said. She saw a pair of butterflies orbiting one another as they flew past and a question formed in her mind.

‘So the caterpillar dreams also?’ asked Shala, hoping to test the Druid.

Metrus smiled as if he knew what the Princess was trying to do. ‘In a way, but their dream is elementary and inevitable, and its blossoming is a constant of nature. If it does not blossom and become a butterfly, then something is wrong. Blossoming for mankind is something else entirely, for the old blood has grown thin, and we are too in love with our world to spend too much time dreaming.’

‘Scholar Naceus says you can shape into an eagle, and I’d not believe it, save that you often arrive far faster than a horse can run. Is that blossoming?’

‘Scholar Naceus tells you too much,’ said Metrus with a laugh, ’but while it is among friends, yes; I blossom at times to become an eagle, and soar above all that is part of Attoras.’

Shala smiled broadly at the idea. ‘Will I blossom to become something one day?’

‘Most assuredly Highness, and it is no secret, you will blossom into an even more beautiful woman, and in time become a beloved Queen of the Kingdom.’

Shala blushed. ‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘What is it that Scholar Naceus told you again?’ said Metrus knowingly, so very familiar with the answer.

‘Life is all about asking the right questions…’ she repeated dully, as though the old Scholar had drilled it into her. ‘I don’t understand it though, it doesn’t sound that important. A question is a question, isn’t it?’

’One day you will understand it; you will learn that every belief, every dream, every action and everything we covet is come about by asking questions of this world and of ourselves. The kind of question is what gives direction. Remember this well, because the mind forgets quickly, and sometimes the right question can soon remind us of truths, both those within us and those others try to hide.’

A seventeen year old Shala did not always understand what Metrus was getting at. ’Father taught me that as long as I’m true to myself I’ll be able to dream of the waterfall, the Icy Falls as they call it.’

‘That is true and like your ancestry it’ll give you strength all of your life. Like the Grove provides for me as long as I represent its collective will.’

‘And yet others dream of many different things, and only my kin is allowed to dream of the old Keep and the waterfall. Is every dream like a world then?’ asked Shala abruptly.

’Yes, and no, somehow they are of the same substance, the same thread that runs through your dream runs through the dream of the Archendal, or of the Dey’illumra for that matter.’

’But they are… evil...’ said Shala, not sure if anything Metrus said could be false, but in this she felt he was in the wrong.

’And the world and the echelons above us do not differ on whether man is good or evil, it takes and gives to all kinds. Very few royal Houses still have powerful blood, you must cherish yours. Because our world one day might very well be without the gifts given by the Benevolence, as they certainly return to the source.’

‘The source?’

‘To the great Dream itself, to our best estimation, the south of the land, Nem Nemuris they call it, maybe the only bastion of it known to us.’

‘And gifts are gone from Angaria by the means of death?’

’Yes, and for those of you who are mortal, your tenures of power will make of you targets for those who extinguish light for the most fleeting greed. And the men and women who escape the pursuits of kingslayers often look south and decide to make the journey - so that death can mean something more.

It is life itself that is so very fragile. It all hangs like a droplet of water from the edge of a cold blade, there but for a moment, threatening to fall and end it all. Everything like a dream, just on the verge of waking up...’

II

Shala woke abruptly, her head rising from the pages of a book on the table surface. Taking a moment, she was glad to realize that she was still alone in the library, where sleep had clearly overtaken her fascination for the book she had been reading.

She’d been dreaming, and thinking hard, she gathered her wits and tried to pin down the dream before it could slip from her recollection.

It had been vivid, a memory in fact, where she had spent one summer two years ago on the borders of Norwain forest, learning the craft of the wild from Metrus the Druid.

On that day their discussion had turned to the nature of her dreams, and where the power of Evrelyn came from. Of course all of Attoras knew of the healing hands of the King and his House, more life-giving and generous than any other with gifts of healing. But even men and women close to dreams of power were not always certain on how they worked.

She could not imagine why this memory bothered her now, not when so many other matters were troubling her. Maybe her mind sought gentler times?

She looked at the pages of the book before her, a slight fold set in the paper where her head had rested on her arms. The story was good and she enjoyed it, but it ended every affair with celebration and love found, in essence heart-warming and predictable. Yes, I am looking for gentler times, she thought, not having slept well in many days.

With the library being in the east wing, the morning daylight sprawled into windows many men tall, crystal clear so that all might enjoy inside what was outside. This was her spot, in daylight, away from candles or lamps, often pacing with a book she read, up and down, to the dismay of the librarians. They called her restless, but how could she read her favourite parts sitting still?

A distant shout shook her from her musings. Many noises came from the town below, but above all else she heard the voice of the marshal, a strict man named Gibbon, and by his booming commands knew the soldiers of her household guard were in training, and that they were so tired by now that only a man with a tongue like a whip kept them going.

She stood up curiously to the window sill to have a look at the courtyard below. In a square of sand, mostly apart from the mill of civilians, were her soldiers arranged in pairs, at a duel with one another. As they were Shala could not recognize them individually, yet being bare-chested and armed with wooden quarterstaves she could see welts and bruises on their bodies already showing by this hour.

The strokes were awfully hard and fast, not at all like the duels they had in acts and plays. There was no exaggeration in their movements and the rounds of their bouts often lasted but seconds before one man struck down another, the loser usually at the receiving end of Gibbon’s harshest insult. Conversely, the winner got his fair share of critique as was the marshal’s way. Shala remained watching, as the sun glistened from the sweat of their bodies, muscles showing in their strain, as skill and temperament were revealed in mock combat.

Nowadays Shala felt that she could take such a man, maybe a captain or so, and before he could humbly protest stick him in front of the altar and be wed to him. And even if he became King, Shala would still rule, for he would only bear the crown by her grace. He need not talk much, as long as he’d listen, and for all his strength of being a soldier he would be gentle with her, because she would choose the man from the look in his eyes.

But that would never happen, she reminded herself. That was left for one of the books she had just read, where the Princess marries a Knight by some obscure logic found only in stories. Shala laughed a bit at the thought. Her own Knights were men with strange and lonely minds, loyal to the death and abroad most of the time, as they were now. The Knights were almost celibate in their isolation, although Shala could see them taking a willing stranger for a night in a far off land. Even with their duties and sacrifice Shala envied their freedom. She wanted roads before her, and mountains to climb, and to pass no great tree twice until she had passed them all.

“With title and privilege a web is spun, where choices are few, and decisions made for the Kingdom are more important than those made for the person,” Scholar Naceus had explained to her once. I should know that by now.

And she could live by that until recently, when, by the Council’s behest, came forward a man from the noble House of Sannil, named Patrick, who the Council deemed Shala should be married to for the good of the Kingdom, “for the good of Attoras,” they all said.

Nothing could repulse her more. Shala held no respect for the man, and much less love. He was a young puppet with illusions of power, unable to see the strings of his benefactors above his own head, and personally Shala had only found malice in his eyes. He wasn’t a strong man and he would be a cruel king, this much Shala knew. These thoughts of injustice carried her away and left on her own she stooped to a brooding mood.

A set of footsteps pierced the obstinate silence of the library and told her that she was about to have company. She hoped it wasn’t one of the snooty librarians who would certainly lecture her on the trail of books she left from place to place, not attending to them until she was well and done finished reading. Cursorily she closed many of the books around her, in order to lessen any impending outrage.

But by appearing in a white apron over a striped shirt she knew this man was no librarian: Kaell already carried a familiar smile on his face as he came down the stairs to the very first landing of the library, holding a tray of pastries in his hands. He was a young cook in the legendary Master Jalson’s kitchen, who was famous for his food and famous for his temper. Kaell had everything of his Master’s talent, but was otherwise as docile as a lamb.

Shala often thought that Kaell had a handsome face, and for the year and a half that she’d come to know him he always carried that kind smile and the eagerness to keep her company. He had the habit of showing up wherever the Princess might be and an even stranger ability of always knowing her whereabouts.

But she did not mind, because there was no threat or unkind intention, and though he was skinny and weak, he looked out for her like he was part of the household guard. Wondering about people as she often did Shala feared for his part that he would grow old to become soft and fat like Dieral, the Master of Ceremonies, mostly because Kaell enjoyed his own cooking and treats just as much as everyone else, and had all access to his own talent.

For all his respect of books Kaell did not heed any library etiquette parading with food here, but the Princess was the last person to make a fuss about it, as she was often the beneficiary of Kaell’s work.

At a distance she already got the scent of his finest baking efforts, her stirred appetite waking more cheerful thoughts in her.

’Fresh from the oven Highness, although while searching for you they have cooled down nicely. I’d like your Highness to try it if you will; I think I am getting close to perfecting the recipe.’

Taking one with a smile, she said, ‘Hmm, this is good, I miss the cinnamon however,’ she said taking another bite, ‘Do you intend for me to end up looking like Master Dieral?’

’No Highness, you will never have to bear the title of Master, and never bear the weight of one... neither will you eat as much as one mentioned. The keeper of Ceremonies dreams heartily of food all day long, and he enjoys the many passages into a kitchen where even Master Jalson cannot chase him from. He speaks of merely tasting to ensure the food remains of high quality, but his apparent nibbles take their toll on our supplies.’

Shala laughed. ’An odd thing to dream about; food! Hmm, dreams... do you dream interesting things Kaell?’

’No Highness, but I often dream I’m waking up from a nap sitting against a tree in the garden below, the old elm tree, and you approach to where I still sit, with greatscorn on your face.’

‘Have I ever scorned you?’ asked Shala with a smile.

‘Yes on the occasion Highness, which is why I rarely approach without pastries and cakes anymore.’

Shala scoffed indignantly. ‘You know I can give you trouble for bringing food to the library.’

Kaell laughed and dismissed her warning, which he knew didn’t carry substance. ‘Still at it I see Highness, are you intent on working your way through the entire library?’

‘All this,’ she said, pointing to shelves, ‘is as close as a person like me will come to seeing the world, experiencing it in different eras, exploring things that have happened, will happen, and things we wish would happen. Maybe I’ll teach you to read and write as well. Then you’ll know what I mean.’

’I can do both Highness; Master Jalson would not allow an illiterate cook running around in his kitchens.’

Shala tasted one of the other pastries, smiling at the flavour. ‘Take these away from me now.’

‘I take it for a success then?’ said Kaell hopefully, putting the tray aside.

Shala nodded, swallowing her last bite. ‘But don’t stop working at it, there is only one Master of the kitchen and he is chosen on merit, not friendship.’

‘Alas, all my effort to impress spent in vain,’ said Kaell in mock.

Shala crossed her arms. ‘I should have known you had an agenda, tell me this; is it painful to pretend to be a friend to one such as I?’

Kaell laughed. ‘Admittedly there is no pretence Highness, and I find it hard to play at a charade where I could have a hidden motive. I’d rather spend my days with you than managing kitchens anyway,’ he said, his infatuation sometimes shameless.

She smiled with a faraway look. Kaell knew that any mirth touching her face was a brief distraction from current affairs. ’Many shadows have been tailing me lately, mean-spirited ones, I am glad at least one of them is you Kaell. Although that you find so much time on your hands is troubling,’ she added teasingly.

The cook was about to rush to his own defence with a wisecrack, but Shala held up her hand to gesture silence.

Another pair of footsteps approached and Shala motioned desperately for Kaell to try and hide the tray of pastries, and he was at a loss of finding a solution that didn’t involve him ducking in under the table with the tray. Before he could do such a thing however, Shala grabbed him by the elbow - it was only deBella.

With her hair in a bun she came down the stairs, her hands entwined in front of her, and she let not anything pass her mouth until she was next to the Princess. Her grave face already made Shala rise, towering above the short and aging handmaiden.

‘Dear, it’s your father. I can’t know how long he will last, but his time will be soon. You must come while you still can.’

Shala’s breath shuddered where she stood and her face fell to despair, already resigned to what she must face today.

‘Go on, Highness, I will take care of the books,’ said Kaell softly, setting the tray on the table, its presence trivialised now.

Shala was off without a word, the handmaiden following her out. Kaell set about gathering all the books the Princess had removed from their shelves, and for all its sunlight the library was morbid now. On the upper levels, where the wooden walkways spanned tightly against the highest of shelves, a tall figure stood hooded in a black robe and looked down on the cook. Unawares that he was being watched, a chill ran down Kaell’s spine, ‘Evil has made its way into the castle, I can feel it,’ he said to himself.

Shala walked the passages of the castle solemnly, her heart filled with dread, her paces quickening to satisfy her mind from the fear of arriving too late.

All the castle staff gave her but a glance, as if already knowing, as if already looking at her as the Queen. Ascendency would take a heavy price.

Before the west wing two lines of the household guard stood solemn watch, backs to the wall, armoured from head to toe, their presence restricting all at this point but Shala and the disciples of Evrelyn. Captain Merohan, the foremost of the household guard escorted her into the infirmary, beckoning her through the doors with a quiet, ’Your Highness.’

Inside many people lay bedridden, most taken by the same disease as her father. Such a ravaging thing it was, called Pilgrim’s Malice, and true to the name it was a foreign traveller that first brought it to Attoras where the people had no resistance to it. It took its time, but untreated it decayed a person until and onto death.Only her father’s case had progressed so suddenly, resulting in a freakish onset of symptoms and a dire prognosis.

At the first signs of sickness her father was merely confined to his room, but was soon taken to the infirmary as he worsened, where the disciples could watch over him at all times.

The infirmary was the pride of the House of Evrelyn, home of the Kingly hands of healing. The folk of the land knew that if they could make it into the infirmary they could be saved from many a malady, or wounds or aches if that was their predicament.

Here the King or his daughter, or some of their disciples who shared in the power, were ready to attend to the tragedies befalling the people. Many who would be shunned as plague carriers were welcomed here, and here they had a fighting chance - yet there was no saving the King and Shala was left to wonder on the misfortune of a man falling sick by his own good-heartedness.

The infirmary was spread in many different rooms, but the hacking cough of the disease permeated through the halls. The lights were dimmed and the windows covered, because the disease made eyes sensitive. It brought darkness in all ways.

There was not even one patient she recognized since her last visit she realized despondently, they change that swiftly, and not necessarily because they are cured...All except for this one man that lay next to her father’s room, a large man they brought in many days ago from the town streets, fighting for his life, his sun-touched skin covered with feverish sweat at the best of times. He held better than most, but by the look of him Shala was not hopeful for him.

She entered her father’s room, finding Joshua, a leading disciple, at his bedside. In the gloom he nodded once at the Princess, and then left. The King, with all his power and familiar to the dreams of healing like no other among the living, could not tend to himself, lest he create a corruption within his own body.

Shala was powerful in her own right and with the help of their disciples they snatched many back from death’s door. Regardless, her father was beyond their ability, the disease having taken to him like no other before.

Shala dealt with the mystery in suspicion and confusion, for the disease could not touch her. She wandered these halls daily; held their hands and comforted the dying, and even got a spatter of blood-cough on her. Never did she show symptoms and not once did she feel weak or sick, save for the effect of the misery of this place. Not once since its dawn had the infirmary struggled with a single disease as it did now. It left them rather answerless.

She sat down where Joshua had sat, pulling the chair slightly closer to the bed.

‘I am here Father,’ she announced quietly to the man lying there, deep in sleep, teetering on the edge of death, his wheezing breath the only sign of life. All the parts of her that had prepared to simply accept this moment failed and the many things she wanted to tell him simply fell away. She pushed the chair out from underneath her and went on her knees, folding her hands upright on the edge of the bed, and closed her eyes.

She prayed to the Benevolence:

’O Blessed Father, hear now my prayer, soft and whispering. To you to Whom all burdens can be proffered, I beg of great favour. From the Crimson City and the realm of dreams, there where you rest eternally. Stretch out your blessed hand, far across the land; over mountain and river and manmade nuisance, and heal where I cannot. I petition on behalf of this man…’

She sobbed.

’… my father, the King. Her voice became lost and she had to stop until she could speak again. She breathed and swallowed. ’A greater man there is not, and he is not old enough to depart. Spare him, for there is no better warrior, no braver heart and no kinder touch. He is a leader of men, whose crown and sceptre keeps the people honourable and steadfast. Do not let his Kingdom fall so easily! He cannot depart when so many are in need of him, but above all - Please, please, do not take him away from me!’

She opened her eyes, and a moment later wetted her hands in the bowl next to her father’s bed, a bowl filled with the Seluin waters of the mountain. Knowing it was vain she cast her magic on him again, the waters providing the substance of the spell, in a last effort to defeat the disease. There came no change. Dreading that this may be her last gestures, she checked his pillow, and threw another blanket over his legs. Rummaging through the bedside dresser, she sought the little book that would have one healer know to another what medications or herbs have been administered to the King recently. She had one quick glance at the latest entry to know there was nothing she could improve on.

As she slid the booklet back into the drawer she spotted a curious piece of torn parchment revealed in the mess of the other items. She would not have given it a second glance had she not seen her father’s script on it, his hasty handwriting still inclined to tall and elegant strokes:

And the dragon said to me, ‘I have written the truth upon your mind and in your heart.’

Those who walk the mountain walk with us no more...I should’ve seen it back

then... To them who listen, I admit, Evrelyn is spent.

Here, I sign the death of my House, but not yet the end of all things.

Yet even then and now there will be no rest for the tears I must cry for the fate of my lineage.

That was all of it. Nothing more. Nothing the two of them had ever discussed, and it was written in a defeated tenor she did not associate with her father. It was to her almost as cryptic as it would be to the next person. She could not, and would not, pay much attention to it now. She could not even begin to guess to what purpose her father had written this note, and wondered if he had at all intended for Shala to find it. He predicts me to fail? Has it to do with his request? She let the thought falter.

For a long while she simply sat at his side, the waiting taking its toll on her.

She could not say how much time passed. She heard his breath become still and then she did what she had to do, what her father had asked her to do but a few days ago.

‘I will die,’ he had said then, still able to speak coherently at the time, ’and you must preserve what is left of me for the Dream of Embers.’

If Shala hadn’t sat right next to him, there would be no chance of her hearing his rasping voice, strained and hoarse.

’You will not die and I will not put a spell on you that will seal your death so that there is no return!’ Shala spoke harshly.

‘You must!’ he said, and then coughed painfully in his excitement. ’If the spell is not wrought in time my soul will be gone from this world and then one day you must go to Nem Nemuris and strengthen the Dream. No my child, I can still do it, rather let it be me. I would ask one of the disciples and leave you out of this deed, but you are the only one powerful enough to do it, and worthy besides, my own blood!

Shala would have protested still had her father but the strength to continue in debate, but there was already little left of him. Now at death she had nothing else to do than honour his wish. Again she dipped her hands in the bowl of water.

With resignation and great pain she held her hands out over her father’s body, shutting her eyes, and then cast the spell. A web of light spun from her hands, branching quickly as light would if caught suddenly by a dozen different mirrors. Slowly then it flowed and eased onto her father, soaking into his skin. She looked down on him.

He looked better, his skin more pearly now than pale, the mottled areas gone and the wrinkles of his face fading miraculously. But he was completely quiet now, the low breathing gone, his chest still. It was done. ‘I love you Father.’ She kissed him on the brow, the skin already cold.

And Shala let fall her head on the bed, covering her face with her arms, and she cried inconsolably.

III

The King was dead. By nightfall the entire town knew and by morning many messengers would ride out to carry the word. In the castle thousands of candles were lit, and they gave a scent reminiscent of rainwater on dust, a fragrance that lingered in the mind just like the man they honoured. Under the pale light of Mallova, the white moon, men gathered at night in homes and taverns, and soberly, they toasted to the name of Ankareus, or simply Anka as he was fondly known, “to the King!” they whispered, putting their mugs together.

Shala did not remember much of the next two days, save that the town was utterly distraught and that the castle was as grave as never before. Once this same King had stood almost invincible against a host of dragon invaders, doing battle in the very halls of the castle. To those old enough to remember those days the King’s departure was received in disbelieve.

deBella almost never left Shala’s side and despite her lack of appetite Kaell the cook kept bringing her food and tea. She would sip at the tea, but to appease Kaell’s worry she gave the food to her father’s hounds behind his back, which were glad to unburden her of it. She was sure that Kaell had noticed what she was doing with the food, because her tea got all the more sweeter, and she knew he was adding honey to it to keep her strength up.

In her wandering the halls she ruminated profusely on her father, and strangely, came to think a lot about her mother, the sombre castle now reminiscent of her childhood.

For more than ten years Attoras has stood vacant of a Queen. The Highlady Salstasha died in childbirth and the boy-heir that would have been Shala’s baby brother not long after, having come into this world with a weak constitution. Little as she was she grieved then, for grief was infectious in a place where a beloved was lost. In all ways deBella the handmaiden had made a great stand-in mother; tutoring, comforting and loving - but at the same time, came short in all ways of being Shala’s true mother.

King Ankareus never remarried, always saying he had his reasons, despite the admonishments of the Council and his advisors. When Shala had asked her father on it, he said that no other heir from another woman would have such blood as Shala carried within her, that he did not need sons to leave his House strong. Others did not believe that.

Her father’s concern in this matter became plain to her as she’d grown older; a son from another woman would become King, but might not have the healings hands as Shala did, the ancestral gift that King Anka would protect at all costs.

But for all it’s worth the hands of healing did not raise the dead and neither could it stem the grimmest of fates. After having heard of her father struggling gallantly to save his wife, her mother, Shala also became obsessed with matters of medicine and the gift of her ancestry. “Fortunately” as her father had remarked, “you have the talent, and stronger than I’ve yet seen among healers.”

Remembering many words between her and her father her mind sadly conjured images of the man in every hallway, his commanding voice echoing from the walls, always the centre of attention, a King owning the hearts of the people.

In the west wing of the castle following the immediate split of stairs in the entrance hall was a grand portrait of the late King, a fabled artistic work of a painter, friend to the King, and immensely skilled. Shala avoided the corridor altogether, not wanting to see her father so clearly and be reminded so vividly. In his living days he himself had found the portrait very amusing, throwing his head back and laughing at how handsome the brush of a painter could make him look.

On the third day after her father’s passing, Shala alone went to the throne room, sitting deep in the castle and called the heart of the cold northlands. Scholar Naceus had taught Shala that when a ruler sits there, she must think kindly of her people even on days where they seem like snowflakes soon to be melted, or pine needles of which the north had more than enough to spare. “And ask the right questions!” He would always add.

The throne room had become an empty place since her father’s death, where once the place was alive with the voice of the King. It was however its reawakening Shala dreaded. She knew the nature of this room. In the peaceful hours Shala as a girl would play at the foot of the throne, while the more sensible petitioners made their plea to the King. Come the ramblings of the Council, deBella or one of the household guard ferried Shala away, leaving King Anka to deal with their squabbles.

Shala looked around the deserted hall solemnly, studying the place where she would defend her family’s right to keep the throne. Tall pillars kept up the gallery where the council would sit when in audience with the King. From each of the pillars hung masterful tapestries many men tall, each portraying the insignia of a royal House and family that had ruled Attoras in the past. Shala always thought it was strange that the Council sat higher than the King, them being seated in the gallery, but she knew now it mattered little where her father sat; he was commanding no matter the circumstance. Now that lion of a man is dead and the scavengers of kingdoms will emerge, their hour has come.

In the domed roof of the throne room was an oculus right at the top, a gaping round hole showing the sky as it were. Men and women who petitioned before the King were only allowed at noon, when the sun could shine straight onto them and illuminate the truth of the claims or accusations they brought before the King. The measured oculus provided only a determined circle of sunlight on the patterned granite floor and Shala could imagine how daunting a commoner would find that spot. If that were only true I would have Chancellor Swarztial stand there for a day, and he’d be left confessing to a lifetime of scheming.

Other than that it brought in a cool breeze that had the stone hall chilly at the best of times. Shala was momentarily amused, remembering her father telling her that the oculus at the very least gave a ruler an excuse to not see petitioners the whole day long.

The throne itself stood on a dais at the far end of the chamber, golden and tall, and from its backrest sprouted golden ornate wings on each side, three on the left and three on the right, and right down the middle peaked the hilt of a sword, the blade set within a cavity inside the backrest itself, a sword to be drawn by none other than the King himself; the blade called Erenciel.

The Kingdom was begun and crafted with that sword, and whoever be the ruling House claimed ownership of it. Even with the sword belonging to the Kingdom and not the man, Ankareus still had a way of carrying it like it would know no other ruler.

It was a mighty thing, made for two hands and even then some men could not wield it in combat. Her father at a younger stage was tall and broad in the shoulder and he would sometimes take the sword and practice with it, much to the dismay of the Council members who said it should only be unfastened from its rest at times of war or great need. But her father cared not for their objections and he took the sword to the yard in town, and he would spar against one of his Captains or Knights, and all the people of the town would be allowed to gather around and watch.

The hilt was wrapped in rare dragonhide in his hands, the hide as bleached as his favourite pair of gloves.

When Shala asked her father where the dragonhide came from he would smile wryly and tell her stories of Knights and Wolves and Dragons. “Spoils of war little Shala, we took these mountains from the Dragons and they came to reclaim it, both them and their worshippers. It was their mistake to try conquering us during my reign.”

That memory tentatively had Shala thinking of her father’s note. That a dragon had spoken to him sounded like the worst of his delirium. Although maybe he was making sense of the dragons’ invasion twenty years ago? She did not know.

Turning her thoughts back to the sword she moved in behind the throne. Just to see it Shala drew the sword two inches from the rest; more than that she could not manage.

The ancient blade had a colour that was fallow gold like winter fields, and was seemingly steel but for the edge, where the sharpening process had revealed it was crafted from no normal iron-ore. Around the edge, the blade was white, not like snow, but rather like a polished ivory, and no weapon had ever looked as glorious as Erenciel - or so Shala decided. For all its use it did not break, it did not blunt and it did not fail, speaking as much of the hands that held it as it did of the sword.

I cannot even lift the thing from its rest, what still about wielding it? So she would let it be, and at least ensure that the next time it was drawn it would not be by an unfit King. A son of mine maybe, she thought hopefully.

She sat on the throne, the soft cushion giving no indication that her back was laid against a sword. It was dark, for the doors were shut and the lights unlit, and in the morning only a little sun made it through the high windows above the gallery and through the oculus.

Now I’m alone in rule. The burden of a crown is now mine. And for that she did not mind, the thought of duty and honour gave her purpose enough to see past grief and every task she would lay down would be for the House of Evrelyn. She would hold everything together. She must.

Then again her place as Queen was far from assured, and she wondered in fact if ever a Queen’s place in this castle was ever more precarious. These were stark days – because the King was dead and because the House of Council were filled with vile men. They controlled which House took the throne and they made the rules by which families came to power. When they deemed a House was weak, or leaderless – or manless, they would place a moratorium on rule and elect a new House to take the throne.

If it were but the right thing Shala would step aside, for the good of Attoras she would gracefully bow out and serve her nation in some other way. Perhaps simply as a healer.

But the glorious history of royal houses (encapsulated in books Shala dare not lift without help) and meeting the men of these Houses had taught Shala contrasting truths. Maybe their ancestors were noble, but some of their offspring were certainly not.

The aforementioned Patrick of Sannil was a danger, a danger to Shala because she would have to marry him if she was to remain in rule, and a danger to the Kingdom because he was no wiser than a beanstalk mistaking candlelight for sunlight, growing toward its own doom. He would be played the puppet and the council would rule with sublime immunity, the fool King taking blame for their indiscretions.

Of the foremost of these Councilmen was Chancellor Swarztial, and was maybe the only person Shala ever felt she truly hated. Even in her father’s days he schemed, and by now his mind would be rife with plots. She looked again at her father’s note, having kept it tucked in whatever piece of clothing she wore on the day. It sounded so bleak, and predicted that Shala would not remain in rule, or maybe a crueller fate than that was coming? She would carry herself with dignity until then and fight for Evrelyn for its worth, but somehow she did not expect to end up Queen.

Her train of thoughts came to a sudden halt as someone disturbed her peace. Her heart sank lower if that were at all possible. He approached like a shadow, edging closer. Swarztial always seemed tall in his dress of black, dark sashes clasped to each shoulder, but he was thin and wiry underneath all the excess cloth, a long slender neck evidence of that. Shala thought he looked fittingly like a vulture. A fine-trimmed beard and moustache lined his mouth, being well-groomed and meticulous to a fault his efforts at disguising an otherwise vile person. On most days like today he preferred to wear a feathered beret on his bald head.

The Princess and Metrus the Druid had discussed the nature of the soul in one of her visits to Norwain, and there the Druid had remarked that eyes were the window to a man’s soul. Shala would believe it, because Metrus’ flare of green eyes told much of how close a bond the man had with nature. The man in front of her however had eyes as black as night, and from underneath prominent eyebrows they seemed only to search for weakness he could exploit, in the manner the craven always do. Keeping her silence she allowed him to explain his presence.

‘My dear Princess, I am exceedingly sorry about your father. His death fell hard on us all, and we’ll be poorer for having lost the strength of his rule,’ said Swarztial in a tone that was practiced with false grief.

Shala swallowed and said politely, ‘I thank you member Swarztial, I have had a hard time dealing with it. It seems the only thing that stifles my bereavement is the prospect of doing my father proud, and rule his realm like he would have.’

Swarztial opened his mouth and closed it again, and Shala knew he was acting contrite and cautious with his words. ‘Your Highness,’ started Swarztial slowly.

‘Yes?’ said Shala, fearing that saying anymore may betray her anger.

‘I’m sure that you know better than anyone that even your father’s passing has not ground the wheels of the realm to a halt. In days to come the most difficult of times will wait for us who wish to govern a kingdom.’ Swarztial paced, an unnerving trait of his Shala had seen a hundred times, his clicking shoes taking over where his voice left off. ‘Our task is exasperated by uncertainties of course. In and outside the council chambers, from here to the Estermarsh, people are doubtful as to our prospects as a kingdom. I am... forbidden to share this with you, but many of the council chambers are thinking on deposing the rule of Evrelyn, and after many generations bringing a new House to the throne.’

Shala was hardly surprised. He fails to mention he is leading this vendetta.

‘Then so be it. If there are any that wish to rashly give the reins over to another, let them try the process. I have no trouble with it as long as bribery and conniving are not part of it. It is the same process that anointed my great grandfather’s father, although I’d imagine he had won some confidence from the people by the time he ascended and was not as untested as others in our day might be.’

’Yes, Evrelyn has had some fine men, and I loathe to say this Highness, but you are a woman, and it is expected of you to marry. We’ve been down this road before I know... but I must insist on it. For your own sake and for the sake of keeping Evrelyn close to the throne, why not consider lord Patrick of Sannil’s proposal? With the King and Queen each from the two strongest houses none will have lost anything. It will be the perfect compromise.’

‘And yet my authority will be lessened as Queen if there is a King,’ said Shala.

‘Yes Highness, but you could have nothing at all, and a Queen is not really a Queen until she is-’

’I can be instated as Queen without a husband, let’s not pretend you are not aware of that fact. I can rule on my own.’

‘But the people want a united state of affairs, they want marriage-’

‘They want bread and wine, and a sound ruler, and they trust Evrelyn, why not leave it at that?’ said Shala.

‘If you marry Highness, it will please the people,’ emphasised Swarztial, ‘it is a smart show to give them, to bind them with a spectacle, it will give them the rebirth of Attoras after your father’s passing.’

‘I don’t believe I can carry on this discussion Swarztial, my mood will turn sour.’

Swarztial stepped back in a slight bow and said, ‘Then I will let you be, mourn Princess, as we all do.’

Shala got rid of him faster than she had expected and yet she still felt ill at ease. It had taken him only a short while to make her feel unwelcome on the throne she sat upon. And the worst was still to come, this she knew about Swarztial.

And the next day it started. Swarztial kept himself innocent by having lackeys hound Shala. There was no short supply of those that followed the Chancellor’s ways and they came to her in petty guises, petitioning to her for matters that went unattended during her father’s illness. Shala listened to them, often in the throne room, but all she could see was Swarztial’s efforts to overwhelm her.

At least out of chambers and council meetings captain Merohan made it his mission to follow in her wake and ward off the most aggravating petitioners, who could not even wait their turn to be judged fairly under the oculus. Beggars all of them, Swarztial has incited the most wretched to believe that I’m much more giving than my father, or much more naive than him for that matter. Even the Captain, though, could not bar royalty. A steady stream of other Houses, large and small, were already flocking to Attoras for visitation and Shala had a weary time keeping pleasantries with them. They seemed to beg most of all.

Shala found it easier to skip the lunch she didn’t eat anyway and serve out the rest of her day in the infirmary, escaping her dreary company. No one could fault her for attending her duties as a healer, and no one followed her there, except of course Kaell the cook, who worriedly stalked her after realizing she had not eaten the meal he had set out for her. ‘You can’t keep coming here Kaell, you will become deathly sick!’ she warned him. By the time Shala turned in for the night she was spent.

It was early autumn at the time, and before the start of each day deBella fastened Shadow to the Princess’s collar. It was a cloak woven for her, the dark material so smooth one could pinch the fabric and then drag the entire thing through the width of a ring. The fur that lined around the neck and hood were of a silver fox, the silver strands edged with black, upright and spiky. Since she had first donned the cloak two years ago deBella had come to name the garment Shadow, for it flowed out and followed the Princess in the winter.

‘Put on your Shadow,’ she’d say on the coldest of days. When Shala sat down to read or study she would throw and wrap the cloth around her shoulders, and keep out a cold that would creep on her whilst lost in the pages of a book.

With her at all times Shala also carried the ceremonial urn of House Evrelyn, of fire-hardened clay, polished, and depicted on it the praying hands wrapped in chains and the candle that the hands held in the blackest ink. It was an insignia admitting that there was no carrying the light without being bound in duty.

Despite its appearance it never was, and never would be, a thing of death.

Inside the urn itself was kept the Seluin waters, taken from the pool as it came down the mountain, a practical counterpart to the amphora kept in the enclave. The lid on the urn was tiny, sliding open just to her touch and her touch alone, and the width just wide enough for her to slide inside a petite hand.

Hence came the healing hands of the king, the blessed waters of the mountain giving power others could not. The urn had small little arms like loops, to which were attached brittle copper chains so that she could slip the thing over her left shoulder and carry it on her right hip, usually hidden behind her cloak, Shadow. The chains were linked by tough yet supple buckskin, where it would rest over her shoulder.

deBella insisted on carrying the urn for her at times, which Shala did not mind. It became a heavy thing by noon, and she refused to leave it behind anywhere. She wanted the strength of the mountain close to her. But that alone only tempted her toward the ritual.

‘deBella, I feel the need to wade into the waters,’ said Shala to the handmaiden, breaking a long silence between the two of them.

‘Are you certain dear? The cold can kill you, and your mind is fragile now.’

‘I am sure,’ said Shala softly, ‘I feel shadows stalking me, let us at least see if they can follow me into frigid water.’

‘These are things of the mind, child, Swarztial has that effect on all of us.’

‘Then it is my mind that must be tested. Father said the Wolves are only loyal to those who are tested by the mountain.’

‘Now your reasons turn to folly child! There are none who call themselves Wolves anymore, not even as a boast. What do you hope to gain? That ghosts might rise and miraculously unburden you from crisis?’

’Assurance handmaiden! That is what I need. Let the cold claim me then if I am unfit, let the mountain decide me dead if my rule will be weak, but if I walk through those waters and come out alive I will sit in that throne stubborn as stone and Swarztial will find it hopeless to try and wrest me from it!’

‘Very well then Princess, I will come for you tomorrow. It has been long since you’ve last embraced the cold, prepare yourself well.’ She did not see deBella again till the ritual.

A harsh wind came down the mountain that night, hurtling through the passes. It reminded Shala of who once walked the mountain. Every so often she would hear a wolf of the wild howl, and she wondered whether it meant the old order would still have some strength even today. The wind worried her, as in these parts it could strip what little warmth the day could muster. She did not sleep soundly until the wind abated at midnight.

The next morning she fastened the cloak by herself and there were thoughts of having breakfast by the dining room hearth when deBella interrupted such ideas. She did warn me, thought Shala sullenly.

At the pool she laid aside the cloak and her garments, releasing the brooch and slipping out of her dress. Now she would don the cold willingly. Already the chill of the day kissed her exposure, her skin pulling taut, her hands feeling stony to each other where she twined her fingers.

In the enclave she had no shame. It was secluded and safe, only her handmaiden could watch. deBella waited at the other side of the pool, patient as the Princess stepped slowly forward, dipping her toe into the icy touch of the water. Never losing her grace she almost glided into the pool, her mind and heart overwhelmed with single-minded purpose, the cold her cloak of clarity and strength.

Whispers of the mountain came to her, the ones that came to persons straying into dreams of the keep high in Dunnoom, and when her mind was rid of all else, they said with the grim voice of the Wolves: “We are but ghosts.”

Before the weight of many duties caught up to Shala she oversaw her father’s removal from the infirmary, the body to be taken to his chambers for the time being. If he were to be delivered to Nem Nemuris she would hastily have to assemble an entourage to carry out such a mission. Waiting for the orderlies to prepare to move her father out she had a swift look through the infirmary, as she did most days.

The reigning disease was still rampant and the only patient that seemed to show a fighting chance was the large man near her father’s room. Even then Shala saw he was so in the throes of the disease that he could just as easily die as recover. She would return later to do for him what she possibly could, she promised silently.

Waiting outside the infirmary, members of the guard boxed around their procession as they moved the King to the upper levels, the rest of the castle standing solemnly aside at realizing what was happening. The King was laid on his bed and if Shala could exercise the influence she would hope to, he would be away within the week.

For that she was sure to speak with Scholar Naceus. Attoras was often considered isolated and its people largely ignorant of the world outside its borders. The good old Scholar on the other hand knew more about the outside world than anyone, if there was a good argument to be made about how and why King Anka should journey then Naceus could do it. As her father was now he would not decay or wither, the body would remain intact, but only for a set amount of time, his soul confined to his remains. With the orderlies shuffling out Shala did not wish to be alone here, and so did not linger, but two steps outside she wished she had stayed a while after all.

It was inevitable Shala knew, and she had hoped against hope to avoid this encounter, but her own portrayal of Swarztial the vulture was never more apt as he approached, as though getting whiff of the dead being moved. She had been keen on keeping him out of this.

And he brought company; next to his cut of stark black was a man drabbed in the finest crimson robe, long and embossed with golden thread along the sleeves and collar. Following in their wake was the hardly noticeable young Squire, Rolf of House Orette. Shala spared him no thought, because the supposed vassal to Shala spent much of his time in Swarztial’s company.

The man in red however inspired some reverence if not for the man he arrived with and it brought a sinking feeling to her stomach. She had forgotten an envoy of the Crimson City would arrive, and now that he did the timing could not be worse.

Swarztial started off in a soft tone, ‘Princess, I introduce you to Father Jaegosh, Bishop of Allandiel, and formal ambassador to Attoras.’

The red robed man walked forward. ‘Your Highness, I had heard on the road that your father was ill, but not for a moment did I think he would succumb. We grieve with you Princess, I assure you his loss resonates much farther than just Attoras,’ said Jaegosh.

‘I thank you Father, and I welcome you to our houses and homes. Consider the city yours as well. Your presence is greatly appreciated, particularly now, we will need guidance in due time.’

The Bishop nodded sagely, ‘It shows us, I guess, that we are all here but for the Grace of His Benevolence. Yet with the passing of one comes the rise of another, and I’ve already prayed that your rule be blessed, and a light shine upon your path.’

‘Thank you Father, and know that if I appear curt or at unease, it is only the product of my grief,’ she apologized in advance, knowing that in Swarztial’s company she was inclined to be short-tempered.

‘To be understood child, to be understood. I hope to stay long enough for your father’s burial and if at all possible oversee the coronation as a representative of Allandiel.’

Shala was hesitant to say it, but she thought it better that the Bishop hear from her, before it could be put in a bad light. ‘Father, you must know that for my own father there will be no burial, only a funeral ceremony. I have sealed him with magic, to comply with his final wishes.’

Jaegosh lifted an eyebrow.

‘It is for the Dream of Embers you must understand. Nem Nemuris stands empty of a pilgrim from Evrelyn and had my father not been laid low by the disease he would have set out to fulfil what he considered to be duty.’

‘Noble considerations of course, but I must warn Your Highness, foul things follow in the wake of souls that fail to depart.’

‘I assure you Father that I would undo my work if I felt it posed any threat.’

‘I am certain that your Grace would, we know your House to be one of conscious and act according to your reputation,’ said Jaegosh.

Swarztial saw it fit to interject. ‘Dear Father, I’ll have my aid tour you through the castle, it is humbly small to what you are accustomed to, but the sights are grand and rich with history. I myself have one or two matters to discuss with the Princess, and I’m doubly sure the subjects would bore you…’ said Swarztial.

‘Of course, I’ll let you at it and meet with you later. With your leave Your Highness,’ said Bishop Jaegosh bowing, and Shala acknowledged the man’s departure with a slight nod. She did not relish being alone with Swarztial.

‘Should we take a walk Highness?’ asked Swarztial, gesturing toward the stairwell that ran down toward the colonnade.

‘That would be best,’ said Shala, taking the lead.

’As your Highness might know I often receive word from the Sannils. In light of your father’s passing they of course forward their condolences. They however also expressed concern, for they have high expectations of young Lord Patrick, and suddenly they fear that you might ascend to the throne alone. This morning in writing my reply I could not assuage their fears, knowing your Highness plans to act exactly so. I have not sent out a letter yet in hopes that we can avoid letting this come to a ballot. I fear for you Highness, Evrelyn might find itself far removed from the throne if you do not consider Lord Patrick’s proposal.’

’But my dear Swarztial, Patrick is a puppet, vulnerable to manipulation, and surely you do not want a spineless man on the throne?’ she asked sarcastically, knowing that was exactly what he wanted.

He was taken aback. ‘Your Highness, it is ill-advised to speak in that manner of one who might be King – and possibly your husband!’

‘I am in mourning Swarztial, I do not even have the courage to speak of marriage, especially the arranged kind, what chance is there that I might even think of participating in such an ordeal?’

‘Hardly an ordeal, my Lady, Patrick is a fine and noble –’

Oh but it is an ordeal. You say you fear for me, but I fear for myself! I have heard of Patrick and his ways with women. I will not be the first one he takes to bed. Apparently he silences anyone with a tongue sharper than his! And will he force me like he forces others? Hold me down and strangle my throat!?

’And then in the morning with a wrung neck and swollen eyes my household guard must stand and watch me breakfast, not batting an eye because they know my injuries come from the Lord of the Realm? What honour will be left in this castle then? When the hearts of soldiers want only to defend their Queen, but cannot do so against their very own King? For the crimes he has committed, were he not at the head of House Sannil, he would have hung already, or to my liking, drawn and quartered, torn apart by horses and ropes!’

Swarztial narrowed his eyes by the sudden outburst and said quietly, ‘Far be it from me to question the effects of grief, I must insist that Your Highness reflect on herself; you already appear clouded and volatile to others of the Council. Do not give them cause to doubt you more than they already do.’

‘You are a scheming miscreant Swarztial. Do not pretend to pity me. I know you vouch only for Sannil. If I have any will left then I will resist marriage till I am chained before an altar.’

‘It would not go that far Highness, if you do not obey the wishes of the Council then you will be dispatched from the royalty here and another House will take to the throne. Already men line behind my vote and those who favour Evrelyn’s waning power are few and doubtful. Do let this come to a ballot your Grace, you will go the same way as Evrelyn’s precious Wolves, you will lose everything.’

‘Surely you do not wish to threaten me Swarztial, it might put you in the sights of an angry queen should your plan fail,’ said Shala fiercely.

’I bear no plan Highness, my role is only justice, and I fear justice will give you a cold hand for the good of Attoras. When I bring matters of the realm before you in the throne room, do not expect me to speak kindly. You wish to stand alone so be it, hope that I expose your unworthiness to yourself then, before you embattle the realm with pointless rivalries. I will be sending my reply to the Sannils. Should you change your mind you need consult with them before the ballot, I wash my hands of this matter. By your leave, Highness,’ he said, turned and left, without ever waiting for her to reply.

Shala could not help but feel she had made some dreadful mistake. No, sowing seeds of doubt is what Swarztial does best. But even knowing this the encounter clung to her throughout the day.

IV

For Shala, dealing with her father’s passing and avoiding Swarztial’s hounding efforts became missions she accomplished by the same means. She prepared the basket herself, going to the kitchens, which she rarely did, and snatched Kaell away for a moment, steeped in his work and sweating over the cooking pots, the thick white powder on his arms up to his elbows telling Shala he was busy with baking endeavours as well.

‘The food will burn and ruin your Highness!’ said Kaell in dismay.

‘You are only preparing a meal for council members already fat, and they can afford to miss the best of your efforts.’

‘But I am more worried about the wrath of Master Jalson than the bellies and appetites of said council members.’

’I will only steal you briefly. Besides, Jalson is in my service as much as you are in his.’

Not for the first time Shala intruded into the kitchen storages with Kaell’s help, not that she was in any way disallowed here, but her presence was unorthodox.Unlike Dieral the ceremonies Master, her exploits here had nothing to do with servicing her own appetites. Kaell showed her to the fresh supply of fruits, and she had her pick of what she could put in the basket, the variety she chose probed by her to be fresh and firm.

’Highness, do you need to take the newest fruits?’ asked Kaell uncertainly.

‘Since you’ve already admitted to preparing a meal for the council members I’ve decided to leave them the bruised ones, a courtesy they can think on.’

Kaell glanced sidelong toward the kitchen nervously and twiddled his fingers.

Shala sighed. ‘Be gone with you, I can show myself out from here,’ said Shala.

Kaell departed with gestures of relief and apology. After helping herself to more fruit than she truly needed she left the same way through the kitchen, soon regretting her fervour as the basket proved itself uncomfortably heavy. She would have asked a member of the guard to carry it for her, but today she wanted to be alone with no threat of anyone tattling on her whereabouts. Shala groaned as she realized the trip to the tower would have her at odds with stairs. Many, many stairs.

The tight stairwell of the tower had Shala wondering how the Knights marched here with broad shoulders and large booted feet. The climb always felt exceedingly long, even though it only covered five stories. From a heavy trapdoor she happily breached into the aviary, the top level of the tower holding stalls and boasting wide open orifices into the open air. Hay and feathers covered the floor and large mangers filled with seeds were placed here and there for feeding. Each of the stalls could easily have held three horses. For now, thanks to Swarztial, the tower was mostly empty save for one lone creature that slept out of sight, the Princess already hearing the deep breathing that permeated through the yellow brick interior. Shala peered into each of the cabinets until she found the griffin.

Across the western realm the Knights ruled the skies, from atop the creatures that conquered an ancient rule of dragons before man could build wide open cities, fearing fire from the sky. As though feeling Shala’s gaze the griffin came awake, finding its feet frighteningly fast, suddenly standing taller than the Princess, the eagle eyes fiercely focused. It marched straight out, Shala retreating before the path of the riled creature.

Outside the stall and with space above its head, the griffin reared on its hind legs, standing tall and spreading its wings threateningly, tip-toeing to keep its balance, looming over the Princess, chest puffed and claws flexing, beady eyes looking down on her.

’Enough of that Sunset, save it for a stranger, we go through this ritual every time, you’ll not frighten me away with your pose. The griffin relented in its display, coming down to all fours and continued to stare at Shala with a keen gaze of bold expectations.

‘Yes, yes, I brought you fruits,’ said Shala laying open the basket, and setting it out at the creature’s talons, knowing by now that the immense beak was likely to ruin the basket with little effort. At least it waits with as much patience as it could muster, thought Shala.

They were marvellously intelligent creatures, lacking only the vocal abilities of a parrot. But then with voices they would altogether get too wise for their own good, thought Shala. Griffins like Sunset here all had names contrived from meteorological or astrological nature, names like Strongwind, Comet and Thunder.

Sunset had worked his way through half of the basket’s treats when Shala heard footsteps on the stairwell. Her stomach made a knot as it often did these days. She had come here because she enjoyed it, but also because she wanted privacy and this was one of the last places Swarztial’s lackeys would hound her. She was sure of it, until now.

Maybe it is deBella, thought Shala hopefully, although she didn’t want any kind of company except the bird’s at the moment. She grew quietly angry at Kaell for betraying her location.

The trapdoor flung open with a heavy push, and an old hand caught the stone rim to lift himself out of the hole. Of all the people Shala had expected to see, Gremhalden was the last of them, not because he didn’t belong here, but because the man was practically crippled down the left side of his body. The old man, former Knight, was as tough as oak Shala knew, but then she had not imagined he would pain himself by daring onto the stairs, and she realized he too must come here often.

Sunset had been his griffin after all; before Gremhalden’s great fall that is. Since then the Knight had never flown again. To this day Gremhalden kept his bastard sword at his side, as though a reminder to all of what he once was. Shala wondered if he could still even use the heavy blade. She knew him to use the weapon as a cane at times, when his crippled leg was particularly weak or painful. He however would never admit to needing a cane.

Gremhalden noticed Shala where she sat in the hay and she managed to get a surprised look from his old face before he composed himself. Clearly he had not been looking for her.

‘Highness,’ he greeted gruffly.

In her short life Shala had never met a man who talked as little as Gremhalden. At the best of times he seemed irritated, and even when he went through the pleasantries of conversation he would come off as rude. He kept his beard neat as there was no hair on his head, and his one ear always seemed larger than the other.

Shala stood up, quickly dusting the hay from her clothes, questioning her own wisdom of donning a woollen dress today. Gremhalden held up his hand as he came to a sit, breathing relieved as he recovered from what must’ve been a stiff expedition to the tower top.

‘Please Highness, I did not wish to intrude, be at ease, the griffin-beast enjoys the company of many; unlike me he craves lavish attention.’

‘I’m afraid I’m the one who feels the intruder,’ said Shala.

Gremhalden gave a hoarse chuckle. ‘Intruder in your own castle your Highness?’

‘You would not think it sir Knight, but there are many who enjoy seeing me as unwelcome here as I feel at times.’

Gremhalden’s face turned serious. ’I know, blasted connivers and schemers. The castle is full of them of late, and with your father’s passing they will swoop in on every scrap of the kingdom like the vultures they are.

And yes Highness, everyone by now calls Swarztial the Vulture behind his back. Anyone with sense that is. Unfortunately it’s a worse time to be a young ruler, and a woman at that,’ said Gremhalden.

Shala frowned at the last remark, although suspecting the Knight was being straightforward rather than insulting.

‘Attoras has seen better days. I remember when the Wolves kept this place in your father’s service even the shadows on the walls feared trespass.’

‘At least we have you Master Gremhalden, Captain Merohan always says your presence stifles wrongdoers.’

Gremhalden grunted. ’He means I scare layabouts, kitchen boys and members of the guard who can’t tell which end of their swords to use. The Wolves were a different breed entirely Your Highness. Had I been born in Attoras I would have preferred to have risen in their ranks. I would have served you and your father right from the start, and no one else! I would have liked that. Born in the wrong city I guess...ʼ

‘But then you would never have gotten the chance to fly,’ pressed Shala, looking at Sunset as though he too should be upset by this.

‘Aye, that is true, and I so sorely miss flying, but what I mean to say is that there is a price to be paid in Knighthood.’

‘You don’t get to take a wife?’ suggested Shala.

‘Bah, why would I bind myself to one woman?’ said Gremhalden.

Shala was taken aback by the answer. Why wouldn’t someone want to marry if they could do so for love? She wondered. At this stage in her life she didn’t understand it and Gremhalden decided not to pursue an answer to her frown.

‘No Highness, I mean the duties within the Knighthood, they make a man weary. As long as the Knights depart from here they would call you Commander, but they will answer to an entirely different power should the call come.’

‘Yes, the Crimson City. And that is not all that bad, better than Swarztial commanding them anyhow. I don’t mind losing their service to Allandiel when the need is great.’

Aha, but Swarztial commands them exactly because he is so snug with the Crimson City, especially this Bishop who visits us, Father Jaegosh I heard them call him.’

Shala’s face darkened. ‘Yes, Swarztial worms his way into anything. It makes me sick to the stomach to think he may manipulate those close to the Benevolence,’ said Shala irritably. ‘At least I know the Knights keep peace in the Western realm, peace we have to be thankful for, not even Swarztial will change that.’

‘But you see Your Highness, the Knights and their griffins are a contract between nations. They will not easily spark war, but they maintain a peace that is as enforced as it is agreed upon.’

‘I don’t follow all that well Gremhalden,’ said Shala.

’You will as you come to know the world. Suffice it to say that as Knights we were often forced to do things that collided with our principles. The burden of having so many affiliates I guess. With Knights it is never simple, never. Our way of keeping the peace always profited one nation at the expense of another. Between the complexities of what we deem moral I’m not sure we were ever loyal to anyone; not really. That is where I’m envious of the Wolves; their charge was a simple one.’

Shala feared that the man would smear his old life without cease and bring onto himself a sour mood. She would rather change the subject.

‘What can you tell me of the Wolves, Gremhalden?’ asked Shala. This was one of her favourite subjects after all.

Gremhalden lifted a querying eyebrow. He would oblige, but not really know the point of it.

Shala caught his questioning expression and said, ’I have read all the scripts of the Order of Severance that could be found in our records, but they tell little of what they really were. Honestly, it is sometimes hard to believe that they existed at all, and weren’t some fabrication to scare off our enemies. Of course I do believe what Naceus told me, and deBella...well, they were not warriors, and did not fight alongside Wolves as you have.’

Gremhalden took a moment. ’Highness, I don’t think I can tell you anything that you haven’t already heard. But what I can say, out of personal experience, is that they truly did live up to their reputation and I assure you, they were no fabrication. Oh and by the way Highness, you should know that we as Knights were as often at odds with the Wolves as we were their allies. Although sometimes you understand something better as an enemy I always say.’

Laying out his weak and atrophied leg before him, Gremhalden started, ’They were men from the Black Mountain, living by choice in an old keep high up from here to serve your great grandfather who was King at the time. There in the cold they became strong, shaped their discipline and nothing could dampen their conviction. They protected not only the King and his house, but the realm was rid of many beasts and bandits because of them. They were the envy of other nations.

’Their swordplay was their trademark, called the Savage Art of the Wolf, for you see Highness, most lads the Wolves accepted into their ranks were ambidextrous, and were thus taught to fight with two swords at a time, one in each hand.’

‘I’ve heard of this, and it made them the great fighting force they were, no?’ said Shala.

‘Yes,’ said Gremhalden, ‘Quick, merciless, overwhelming... it was remarkable to behold. Cunning and brave I’d add to that, and foregoing heavy armour just so that they can kill you faster. The rare ones like Taggandus were acrobats and he in particular instilled a terror and darkness upon the minds of his enemies wherever he went. Then, by the time you spotted one of them you could stake your life on it that the pack was already breathing down your back. Half-part of me says it’s a shame that none now practice the Savage Art. The other half says it’s too dangerous having such men around.’ Gremhalden shrugged at the thought. Then he laughed. ’Personally I didn’t think much of them when I first came here. Didn’t like them.’

Shala wondered in amusement if the Knight liked anybody.

’But when smoke and dragon-fire fell on Attoras they fought alongside us, and their skill and fearlessness turned away the best the Dragons could bring. One Wolf could be troublesome to a dozen men, and a pack of Wolves was all that was needed to defend a mountain pass against a force fifty times their own size, and that is not an exaggeration, Highness. Those dragon worshippers that came from the north of Cerron found their extinction confronting the overwhelming might of the Wolves at the peak of their powers.’

‘I wish we still had men like that, I do not wish to question the Crimson City, but I often do wonder why they scorned the Wolves and ordered them disbanded.’

Ha! Best we do not get into that my Lady. There are some debates that are as dangerous as they are convoluted, and we’ll never know what faceless cog made such a decision on behalf of His Benevolence.’

‘Agreed,’ said Shala. On that note a slight silence ensued between them, Sunset pawing the rest of the basket hopefully and Shala pushing the giant bird away from its contents.

‘Well then, I must be off,’ said Gremhalden. ‘If I’m not a frightening presence roaming the halls then the youngsters of the guard become careless - real lazy bunch Gibbon has been accepting lately.’ He made an attempt to stand up, but his bad leg caved in and he sat down again. Shala pretended not to notice and Gremhalden quickly said something, as though he had decided to sit back down because he had something on his mind.

’You know Highness, it’s your father the King that saved me.’

Shala looked at the man questioningly, while he stretched out his leg again.

’On a day half a lifetime ago I fell from Sunset and onto the mountainside, engaged in battle and struck by a lucky projectile. I’m sure your Highness is familiar with my history. We were flying in a phalanx, chasing down a wounded dragon. No dragon can outrace a griffin in a dive, because they can’t tuck their wings as well. I could already feel myself opening the lizard’s great belly with a flash of my sword, but I was so focussed that I didn’t realize how close we were to the mountain. One of those accursed dragon worshippers flung a javelin as we passed. It pierced my armour without wounding me, yet it lodged me out of the saddle. I fell. Rolling down the slope and the mounds of snow were the only reason I survived.

’Given the nature of my injuries I should have died anyway, but your father took me to his infirmary, regardless of some differences between the Knights and Attoras at the time. Your father gave the best of himself and spent days wielding his healing hands. I remember the King at times looming over me, looking worse than I felt. Afterwards I was too crippled to fly.

’I lost much, but I didn’t lose life and I owe your father a debt that cannot be repaid. I stayed on here as part of his guard because of that. And if only I was still a proper warrior I could have put myself between him and his enemies and died a warrior’s death. But as this world has it I’m all but crippled and his enemy was a malicious disease that no sword could stop. There is no justice.’

‘My father very much appreciated your service. I hope to keep a kingdom that will earn your allegiance once again,’ said Shala.

Gremhalden sighed. ‘I know you will. Farewell Highness, keep strong in the face of Swarztial, I’ll go now before I sit here cursing spineless politicians – it always happens when I talk too much.’ Labouredly he stood up, this time managing it. Shala had a hard time not jumping up and helping him; his pride wouldn’t allow it.Gremhalden made a quick show of ruffling the short feathers on Sunset’s head, as affectionate as anyone had ever seen the man with another living creature, and then he left.

Shala had some tears in her eyes, which she had kept well hidden until Gremhalden was out of sight. Some of them were for the tragedy of this man and his crippled body, but most were for her father, and the man he was. Attoras would never be the same, it had lost its heart.

The griffin, intuitive to her distress, or maybe simply craving attention, nudged her in the back with a giant beak as hard as rock and as smooth as ivory. Shala turned, wiping the tears away. ‘It’s alright Sunset,’ she said bringing her hands up and stroking the bird behind the upright ears, the one odd-piece of the otherwise bird-head.

Shala laughed with a thick voice. ’Body of a lion, wings and head and talons of an eagle, and... ears of a Wolf?’ She said. ‘By what design were you made?’

Sunset made a screeching sound that blasted throughout, loud enough for the men below in the castle yard to have heard, and had Shala’s ears ringing.

‘Easy there, I didn’t mean to judge, I think you are wonderful master of the skies. Had I but the knowledge of flight I would take you and pretend to fly far away and then return just as everyone starts worrying. But I guess I shouldn’t impede on the alone-right of the Knights as I’m already accused of traipsing naked in the halls.’

Apparently Swarztial talked venomously behind her back of the indecency of the Princess going naked into the Seluin waters of the Mountain. This she had heard from her chambermaid, Erika. Anything to discredit her, she realized.

Her thoughts returned to her father and how Swarztial had taken over this castle since his death. ‘In time he’ll probably find some vendetta against you griffins as well.’

The griffin cawed in a manner as though sharing Shala’s concern.

‘But don’t worry, I won’t let him, I’ll be the heart of the castle, like my father was, and when I’m Queen, men like Swarztial will cower away from Attoras just like they should.’

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