Eismark, the Northern Kingdoms.
Graham reached Whitespire on the saddest day anyone could remember. It was the day of Queen Solvig’s funeral, and the castle and the surrounding city was shrouded in gloom. Even the magnificent white tower that had given the place its name, looked grey and dull where it rose above the castle in the centre of the city. The black mourning banners hung limp and damp in a hopeless drizzle that drenched everything and turned the streets into rivers of mud. To the good people of Whitespire it seemed as if the gods themselves were weeping for their young queen.
Graham urged the horses on and they had slowly made their way through the city. The covered cart rattled as the mud was replaced with cobblestones when they entered the merchants district. With the market-square in the middle of a network of streets lined with shops and stores that stretched all the way to the port, it was the largest district in the city.
Located next to a natural harbour on the banks of the River Sórnan, which curved its way from the hills in the lowlands all the way up to the Frostridge Mountains before it reached the icy sea at Isenheim, Whitespire was one of the largest cities in the North. Its port was normally a bustling hive of activity, but today it seemed deserted. The only people he saw was the sailors readying the ships to accompany the young queen to her final rest on Mourn Isle, hoisting black sail and banners bearing the blue dragon seal of the royal house.
From the cart came a small whimper and he glanced over his shoulder at the bundle that lay nestled between the bags and crates that hold all his worldly goods. When the whimper stopped, Graham pulled his damp cloak around himself and continued up towards the castle.
AN HOUR LATER HE was being lead through the dark halls of the castle by the chamberlain himself who was wearing a sombre black tunic over his blue jacket.
“The king has locked himself in the royal bed chamber”, the elderly man said. “He’s refused to see the medicus. He won’t even accept the Reverend Sister’s blessing!”
“He will see me”, Graham replied calmly. They came to the closed doors of the king’s rooms. Like the white tower, these doors’ origin predated the castle and the city, and the wood was so old it looked almost black. Inlaid in silver was the fearsome dragon that had become the High-Kings and Queens’ crest.
The latest man to take the silver dragon as his, was wailing so loudly not even the heavy doors could do more than muffle the sound slightly.
“Announce me”, Graham said.
“But, Messere…” The man looked ready to bolt.
“Announce me”, Graham repeated sternly.
The old man visibly gulped then knocked on the door. It was answered with a crash followed by a roar.
“I told you to leave me the fuck alone!” The voice barely sounded human.
“I did warn you, Messere”, the chamberlain stammered. “Perhaps we best do as his majesty orders.”
“How long has he been like this?” Graham asked, ignoring the man’s suggestion.
“Ah, since the day Queen Solvig died a week ago.”
Graham’s grey eyebrows crawled up towards his thinning hairline. “The Queen died a week ago and you are just now seeing to her funeral?”
“Forgive me, Messere, but his majesty didn’t allow for the priestesses to take the Queen to the Hall of the Dead. Ser Vidar had to order the knights to forcibly hold the king down while the body was removed. After that, he locked himself in and has refused all food and drink, save for strong mead. The medicus fears he intends to starve himself to death.”
Graham pressed his lips into a thin line. “Well, that ends now. King Arn has a duty to fulfil.” He raised his hand and placed it on the wooden door. “Go to the kitchen and have them prepare a meal. Chicken broth, bread and tea sweetened with a full teaspoon of honey. Nothing else. Hurry up, man!” He barked and the chamberlain scurried off to find someone he could yell at.
Graham waited until the man was out of eyesight, then he raised a gnarled finger and drew a series of interlocked runes on the door. He mumbled a word under his breath and a deep metallic clang sounded as the heavy bolt was pushed back. The door slid open and Graham stepped into a room that looked like it had been ransacked by bears and then trampled by a horde of wild boars.
A strangled sob came from a pile of wood, fabric and stuffing that had been a dainty sofa and a pair of Azerian silk curtains. Graham crossed the large chamber, ignoring the crack of broken glass under his boots, and the stench of urine and vomit that filled the air.
“Enough of this now, Arn.”
“Gray?” The voice was hoarse.
“Aye, it’s me. Come out so I can take a look at you.”
The huddled figure that emerged from the pile bore only a small resemblance to the young man he had come to know when he, together with a small group of loyal friends/allies, ten years ago, had helped Arn win the throne and crown from his older brother who had betrayed Eismark and allowed the Eastern Empire take control of the kingdom. The face was haggard, the eyes blood-shot from mead and sorrow. Just thirty years old, Arn was a man broken by grief.
Graham had watched him grow up into a good man, and then become a fair king, and his heart broke for him. But he reigned in his compassion and gave the younger man a stern glare. “Look at the state of this room! It’s a disgrace! I’ve been in pig sties that smelt better than this! We better deal with this mess, don’t we?”
Arn nodded numbly, looking around as if he saw the mess for the first time. When Graham righted a chair and then a small table, he simply followed his example and started listlessly to pick among the debris, putting the few unbroken items on the empty shelves.
It took them almost three hours to clear out and clean the room. When the Chamberlain had returned with the a tray of food and found the High-King on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor he had nearly fainted. Graham had simply waved him and his horrified protests away and ordered the man to bring up buckets of clean water and bundles of fresh herbs so they could get rid the chamber of the foul smell.
WHEN THE CHAMBERLAIN RETURNED half an hour later, he had an entire battalion of maids and servants in tow. One of them was leading a small brown-haired boy by the hand. The boy had been crying but was now greedily sucking on a piece of boiled candy. His face lit up when he spotted Graham.
“Gragra?” Arn asked, heavily sitting down on a chair. He still looked about twenty years older, but some of the terrible grief seemed to have relented.
“The boy’s only four”, Graham gave a little shrug. “My name is a bit of a mouthful for him. He’ll learn to pronounce it soon enough.”
“The stable boys found him in your wagon, Messere.” The chamberlain had manage to regain some of his equilibrium, and quite a lot of his haughtiness. “I assume that he belongs to you.”
“He is my charge, yes”, Graham replied but offered nothing else in the way of explanation. Let the man wonder, he thought to himself. Better he is believed to be my bastard than anyone knowing his true identity.
The boy had managed to wrestle himself free from the young maid and was now running towards Graham. He clasped his small arms around the man’s legs, giving him a hug before he started tugging on the robes with his sticky fingers. “Pick me up pick me up pick me up!”
“You are much too heavy for Ol’ Gragra”, Graham said. “Be a good boy now and go and sit by the fire and eat your candy and I’ll tell you a story later.”
Obediently, the boy did so, flopping down on the now cleaned and aired bearskin-rug with the stick of candy in his mouth.
“I want a bath”, Arn suddenly said.
“One is being prepared for you as we speak, your majesty.” The thin chamberlain looked like he could hardly contain his joy. “And then, if you please, there are several treaties you need to read and sign, as well as go over the taxes for the harvest. The Royal Treasurer is waiting for you in-”
“The king will sign nothing and meet with no one until he’s seen his wife off to her final rest”, Graham said in a voice that dared the chamberlain to argue. “Leave us. All of you.”
“Yes”, Arn echoed. “Please, I just need a few moments…”
The man pursed his lips but ushered out the servants and the maids before closing the doors behind him.
Once alone, Arn sank back on the chair. “I-I can’t…” he mumbled, burying his face in his hands. “I can’t do this, Graham. I can’t take her to that awful island and then just leave her there and never see her again.”
“She will be seated on a throne”, Graham said. “And one day when your time on this side of the Veil is over and the Sisters of Fate cut your thread, you will be seated beside her.”
“Is that why you are here?” Arn asked. “Because of… of…” He couldn’t even get the words out.
“No”, Graham replied gently. “I didn’t know your Solvig had died until I saw the black banners.”
“It happened so fast…” Arn mumbled. “She had been coughing a bit during the winter but it didn’t seem like it was anything serious. The Medicus suggested that she drink a cup of mulled wine with honey before bed. She was on the mend when she suddenly developed a fever.
Nothing the Medicus did could bring the fever down.” In the words an accusation hid, and Graham clasped a gnarled hand on the man’s shoulder.
“There was nothing anyone could have done. I am so sorry, my boy.”
Arn looked up, meeting his gaze. “You knew this would happen?”
Graham nodded. “I did. I didn’t know how or when, but I knew Solvig’s lifethread was short.”
Arn shook himself free. “You should have told me!”
“And sully your happiness and the love you shared? No”, Graham said softly. “I couldn’t do that.” He watched as the king struggled to accept this, and wished, not for the first time in his long life, that he had the power to change the Weave. But all he could do was to see the way threads crossed and knotted, and sometimes broke.
“Why have you come?” Arn finally asked.
“The Age of the Prophecy has come”, Graham replied, and somehow he seemed to grow taller, larger, ageless and powerful, his voice taking on unearthly tones. “The old dance has begun a new.”
“All-Father preserve us”, Arn mumbled, touching two fingers to his heart in the sign of warding of evil. He bowed deeply as if Graham was the king and not he. “You have my shield and a my sword, Master Graham.”
“And perhaps it will come a day when they are needed, but for now, all I need is a place to raise the child.” Graham was just Graham again: an old man with creases in the corner of his eyes, a wrinkled brow and thinning, grey hair.
Arn turned his blood-shot eyes to the little boy who had promptly fallen a sleep on the bearskin-rug, the candy still jutting out of his mouth. “Who is he?”
“A piece of the puzzle”, Graham replied. “A very important piece.”
“Still enjoy being cryptic I see.” Arn’s tone of voice was dry.
A quick smile lit up the old man’s face. “It is one of the few pleasures of my life.”
Arn snorted. “Alright, keep your secrets then, old man. Of course you and the boy are welcome to stay.”
And so it was that when the fleet of ships sailed out of the harbour to make their way to Mourn Island, Graham stood beside the High-King of the North on the deck of the large dragon ship, looking even more ominous than usual with its black sails and the dragon head on the stem draped with a mourning shroud.
As the last rays of the sun set the sky ablaze in hues of gold and purple, the ships reached the island, and Queen Solvig was carried to her final rest to the sound of the priestess’ singing and the shrill call of the gulls. When the solemn group left the island after having placed the Queen on the throne where she would sit for an eternity, Arn turned to Graham.
“What happens now?”
The old man pulled his cloak around himself to stifle off the cold wind. “We wait until the enemy makes the first draw”, he said. “And we pray that when the time comes, the gods themselves will be on our side.”
And so ten years passed…