The snows melted early that year, and had there not been an entire army camping along the walls of Eldynvagar and defenses raised in the mountain passes, it would have seemed a perfectly normal spring. After the fires and the hangings, life slowly regained its usual aspects in the province, and although war was a reality, the people of Gales could have almost forgotten. Men and women labored in fields from dawn to dusk, repaired their charred homes and when winter passed, set their ships back out on the ocean. The weather, according to those of long Galesan descent, had never been smoother and gentler than it was that spring.
The passage of winter left a helm of snow on the mountain peaks, but the rest of the land glimmered green and burst into blossom. In the pale sunlight, the forests sparkled with emerald dew and life reappeared almost from one day to the next. Except that this year, the grey-clad sentinels wandered the woods, beards long and swords sharp like the ghosts of ancient warriors. Down in the fields, peasants plowed the fields themselves, for all the horses were given to the army. On the ocean, fishermen huddled along the coasts, tossing their nets in nearby bays and inlets, for mercenaries roamed the waters bordering Gales. War did not plague the province, but it hung over it like a rain cloud, ready to burst at any moment.
Holed in hid chambers, Santhor waited for the cloud of war to drift over the sun and cast a long shadow on the world. Along with Nicolar, Valmyr and Lysandra's counsel, he had spent the short winter preparing for the onslaught. And although matters were smiling at him and the omens were good, fear trickled into his heart as the snow trickled back into gushing streams.
In three months, the vaeringar had hammered the conscripts into adequate soldiers. The jarl and his officers had hardened boys and farmers into men capable of defending their homeland. The vaeringar, almost two thousand strong, were now split into four major regiments of five hundred warriors. Each regiment also hosted three hundred conscripts. Of the eight hundred men, one-tenth was mounted, only the bravest and the best riders Gales had to offer. A quarter was armed with bows, the worst fighters of the lot who had been handpicked and forcefully trained to become somewhat acceptable shots. The rest would be part of the shield wall, a tactic Santhor had discovered in reading about mythical sea raiders. With the hundred sentinels stalking the forests, the two hundred men manning the defenses and commanders such as Jarl Valmyr and the prince, the army of Gales was becoming a formidable force. All it lacked were numbers, but behind the mountains of the province and the walls of the fortress, numbers would not matter. The enemy would be on hostile land, a land it hardly knew and a land treacherous to foreigners.
Nicolar, despite his injuries and the loss of his magnificent voice, had done wonderfully in amassing stores of food to last the entire province months. Grain, cereal and other long-lasting crops had successfully been harvested before winter and he had spent the cold months having men hunting seal and boar and salting the meat. Hundreds of massive trees had been hewed for timber, walls reinforced, ships repaired and weapons made by sturdy lumberjacks, masons, shipwrights and smiths. The women were put to use fletching arrows, fleecing wool, fabricating leather armor and anything else that helped prepare the province for an invasion.
No matter what happened or with what force the realm struck Gales, Gales would be prepared.
All that was missing was knowledge, and that irked Santhor and Lysandra more than anything. With the borders sealed tight and no man or woman left idle, there was no way of knowing what was happening beyond the mountains. Scouts patrolled the high hunting paths and followed the coastline, but the reports remained similar. Enemy forces set up camps at a safe distance from the mountains, blocking the roads and making certain that no Galesans could leave. Enemy ships began to sail the open waters freely once the winter storms had passed and prevented Galesan ships from striking out into the ocean. The province was surrounded, but there had been no attacks since the fires before winter.
It was a frightening thought to think that somewhere out in the world, tens of thousands of men were massing and marching and preparing to drive an entire nation to its knees.
All the prince could do was wait.
The wait ended unceremoniously. One dawn, under a sky of steel, Santhor stalked the forests of Gales flanked by the three chiefs of his sentinels. They had often hunted together in the frosty midst of winter, and each new journey into the woods increased the prince's familiarity with his land. A horn sounded in the distance, the lasting pure blast sending a resonating tremor through the forest. The hunters stopped simultaneously and shared an instant of immediate understanding. Without a word, they broke into a swift run, four fleeting grey shadows making for the mountains.
As the prince and his sentinels approached the entrance to the canyon, they were met with dozens of buzzing, frenzied men running to and fro. Santhor turned to Chief Markel, the leader of the Wolves. "Go find a horse and send word to Jarl Valmyr and Nicolar, now. Tell them to muster the vaeringar and wait for me at Eldynvagar," the prince glanced at the rising sun. "I will meet them by midday. Tamraq, Ullen, find your men, take up your positions in the forest. Until we know more, wait for my orders to reach you before acting. It may be that the enemy breaches our first lines of defense sooner than we hoped. In that case," he looked them all solemnly in the eyes, "protect Gales with your lives. We are counting on the sentinels."
The chiefs grunted their approval and disappeared beneath the eaves of the tall green pines. Santhor was alone as he walked up to the wall and summoned the captain. The man was red in the cheeks and panting feverishly.
"Take me to the first wall," Santhor ordered as he was admitted through the narrow passage and into the canyon. "And tell me what happened."
"The enemy is here, my prince," the officer wheezed. "We went to sleep to an empty horizon, only the usual distant camps and specks of light. At dawn, we had an army at our gates. And not like last time, no my prince, this is not like last time."
Dozens of questions coursed through the prince's mind. How many? Did they have cavalry? Siege weapons? When would they reach the walls? He asked none of them because none of the answers would matter. This was a dawn of war and by the end of the day, Gales would be drowning in blood. As hopeful as they were, Nicolar, Valmyr and Santhor all knew that the walls would only briefly hold if they faced relentless waves of soldiers meant for sieges. The prince had prepared for this day, when the realm would send their true army, and he did not need military training to foresee that the enemy would wash over their walls like a wave. At best, his four defenses and the men manning them would last late into the day. By nightfall, armies would clash.
Santhor knew that time was against him, but trusted that the jarl and the orator knew what they had to do and he was inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into the canyon. He had to see the enemy for himself, had to witness the strength of the realm and the fury that Oryp and his followers had unleashed. They wanted him dead so terribly that they were prepared to wipe an entire province out. Gales, with its troubled history of rebellion and bloodshed, had been the perfect excuse for his father's killers to seek him out and finish him.
The prince and the officer were let through another wall and another and between each, in the narrow passes, men were dressing for battle. Soldiers saluted Santhor as he sped past them, marching as fast as his boots would take him. They strapped rusty swords to their waists, counted their arrows and donned their helms. Spears were handed out to the bravest of the lot, those who would stand in the first ranks as the enemy charged towards them. The prince swallowed his guilt and sadness. He and every single one of these warriors knew that they would not survive the first assault. Two hundred men waiting for an army of thousands behind walls of stone. It would be a slaughter.
"You and your men are heroes, captain," Santhor said with a cracked voice. The man nodded but did not answer, his brown eyes gleaming in the cold sunlight.
They reached the final wall, where the defenses were almost fully prepared. Bowmen already stalked the higher ledges, with a sweeping view of the plains beneath them. Since the last attack, they had erected tall wooden panels with slits through which they could shoot and that would protect them against enemy fire. Below, in the canyon, dozens and dozens of buckets of water were aligned against the sheer face of the canyon wall. Fire had become a constant fear for the men who had weathered the last assault and seen their brothers burned alive. Captains were screaming orders and men were forming ranks behind the defensive wall.
Santhor crept around the massing soldiers and climbed the stairs chiseled out of the mountain. He reached the slender ledge and carefully made his way around the mountain, passing by caves filled with archers. He neared the shelf from which he had ordered the first volleys of this war be loosed. The memory of his riders charging into the large battalion sent shivers down his spine. They had been outnumbered then, and the enemy had still broken. Gales could do it again. He rounded the curve in the mountainside, stepped onto the shelf and was met with a glorious open view of the sunlit plains of Andelas.
Except that the plains were stained black and red.
On the road and along either side of it, sprawling out in every direction, thousands and thousands of soldiers marched in perfect formations. Entire battalions devoured the land beneath their feet, countless banners streaming above them and striping the grey sky with color. A forest of bristling spears rose to the heavens, like sharpened naked pines. At the forefront of the mass, dozens of splendid cavaliers led their army to war. Warriors on white caparisoned steeds, with colorful plumes sprouting from their helms and standard-bearers marching in their wake. Far off in the distance, looming shapes rolled over the ground, great wheels gnashing the earth into mud. Squinting, the prince distinguished rams and ballistas, a pair of siege towers and behind them, an endless caravan of wagons certainly crammed with food and weapons.
Santhor took a step back at the overwhelming sight, his back knocking into the mountain. He slid down and sat, clenching his eyes closed. This could not be. This could not be his doing. He could not have brought such might down on an innocent province. Was his one life so much more important than that of thousands? He knew that Nicolar would say that the pyrocrats were preparing to assassinate his father and crush Gales long before he declared war on the realm, but in his heart, there was nothing but guilt and terror. Before him lay no mere battalion that he could charge with two hundred riders. Trampling through ruined plain, an army stretched out to the horizon. The full might of the realm.
The prince stumbled away from the petrifying view and climbed back down into the canyon, his face blanching and his throat dry. Heads turned his way, soldiers caught sight of their frightened prince and a mutter spread through the defenders. The measly force of two hundred men. Santhor wanted to tell them all to run, to run down to their homes and families and hide in the mountains. A sudden desire to walk out of Gales and hand himself to the enemy overcame him, but he knew it was too late. With or without him, the enemy would reduce the province to a strip of blood-soaked ash.
The world spun around him, and Santhor had to lean on the wall to stop himself from falling. How would he ever be forgiven for drawing such a force to Gales? What would his warriors do when they witnessed the awe-inspiring host that marched on their home?
"My prince?" The captain appeared and put a hand on Santhor's shoulder. "My prince, are you all right?"
Santhor must have given the man a glowering look of hatred because he flinched and stepped backwards. "What do you think, captain? Have you seen what lies beyond that pile of rocks we call a wall?"
"Yes, my prince," the officer mumbled.
"Do you understand what is going to happen?" Santhor grabbed the man and shook him. More and more head were turning towards the outburst. The prince pointed towards the plains and the advancing army. "They are going to swarm over these walls and put every single one of us to the sword!" Santhor pushed the officer away and spun, now screaming at all the onlooking soldiers. "Look at you! Look at me! Nothing can stand against such power, nothing!"
The soldiers were stoic, looking at their feet, fiddling with their weapons. Over the wall, the muffled roar of the army resembled that of the ocean. A deathly silence fell in the canyon as Santhor stood alone against his men. The captain then looked up from his feet and met the prince's gaze. There was a glimmer of pride and sorrow in the man's dark eyes.
"You, prince, will never understand," he began in a soft voice. "You are not from here, were not born in the shadow of these mountains and by the din of the ocean. You have not woken to the roar of the yrin vagar every day of your life like we have! And because of this, you can never understand."
Santhor's face screwed up in shock and anger, and as he was about to answer, the captain continued, cutting him off.
"Gales is my home, it is my land and that of my fathers and that of my sons. My name is Gloryn Ferr and I will stand behind this wall until I die! I would stand alone if I had to, but I know that cannot happen. These men are my brothers, they are born from the same earth as I and only they can stand by my side!" The captain began to scream and Santhor shrunk. Soldiers were muttering their assent, pounding their fists against their chests and their spears against the stone.
Gloryn turned away from the prince and drew his sword. "I will not die for this prince who I do not know! He is right to fear the storm that is coming because only a true Galesan can survive a storm! I will die for my home and for my sons! We have spent decades training in the heart of the mountains for this day! Our fathers taught us to defend ourselves! We were never meant to bend the knee! Fight and die, stand and live my brothers! Are you with me?"
The answering roar echoed between the looming walls of the canyon. Gloryn turned back to the prince that was never his and screamed down at him.
"Run back to your fortress, prince," he spat. "Do whatever you will, but I will stand here and shed the blood of those who wish to crush me! Go now!"
Santhor watched as the hundreds of soldiers glared at him and he slunk back into the shadows, walking backwards towards the wall. The officer glowered at him until he turned around and jogged away, his heart pounding in his chest. A great cheer rose from the defenders and Gloryn continued his speech, turning to the rougher Galesan tongue.
Alone, the prince ran through the canyon. Behind him, trumpets and horns blasted in the distance and deep in the canyon, the echoing shouts of the true warriors of Gales preparing to die followed him until he emerged from the mountains.
The sun fell behind the rugged chain of mountains, shedding a reddish glow over the forest's canopy, shining with a crimson glimmer on the troubled ocean where an armada of warships bobbed peacefully, plunging the rest of the land in deep shadow and from that shadow rose the formidable shape of Eldynvagar. The sun seemed to have taken the life from Gales in its descent, leaving behind a fading memory of what the province had once been. Estates and fields lay empty along an empty road. The only sound left was that of the gusts of dusk whipping at open doors and creaking shutters.
Santhor stumbled the last miles to his fortress, after running and jogging and walking as fast as he could down from the mountains. His feet pulsed with dull aches, his head throbbing as well. At each new step he took, he twisted his neck to look over his shoulder, expecting the enemy to come pouring down the road at any moment. They never did and save distant horns sounding in the distance, he could no longer hear what was happening in the mountains. He would never know. The men of Gales had chased him from their walls, preferring to fight and die as brothers for a homeland rather than as soldiers for a prince. What would the rest of his army decide? Would they all abandon him? Chase him away and die protecting Gales?
Weak with hunger and thirst, maddened with fear and guilt, exhausted by his flight, the prince reached the fortress in a pitiful state. When the road bent around a corner and came into sight of Eldynvagar, Santhor was met by an army ready for war. Before the walls of the fortress, massed just outside the last hovels and huts sprawled around the fortress, the vaeringar were arrayed in battle formation.
Four solid regiments stood in ranks teeming with anxiety and impatience. It was just as Santhor had dreamed, just as he and Nicolar had imagined and ordered. Great battalions of vaeringar and conscripts and bowmen and riders. Hundreds and hundreds of men wielding rounded shields at the forefront, ready to form a shield wall. Behind them waited entire ranks of spears and pikes and banners. Everywhere he looked, the silver ship on a black field. The red light of dusk washed over the host, reflecting on steel and iron, casting scarlet shadows around his men.
A trumpet blared as the outriders and scouts first spotted the prince, a lone specter on the road.
"The prince! The prince!" A great cry rose. "The prince is here!"
A small group of riders broke free from the army, trailing a riderless horse. Santhor stopped stumbling, rubbed his eyes and straightened his back. No matter what had happened in the mountains, he was a prince and his army needed a leader. The true Galesans could burn for all he cared! As long as they burned defending the passes. In the growing gloom he made out Nicolar's half-pink head and Valmyr's gigantic figure. Lysandra rode at their side along with several other soldiers. They slowed to a trot and circled him, raising a cloud of dust around him.
"My prince! What happened?" Valmyr asked, worry creasing his face. Since Nicolar had lost his voice, the jarl had done most of the talking, in public and private. "Markel came... He told us you would be here by midday!" The jarl glanced at Santhor's state. "Are you all right?"
"I am fine," Santhor hissed, licking his lips. He knew that his counsellors were for nothing in what was happening, but his throat was parched and his stomach gnawing on itself. His legs were beginning to tremble. "Hungry. Thirsty. They... they are here. Take me inside."
Valmyr had to help Santhor onto his horse, grabbing him by the cuff of his shirt and hauling him up like a child. The prince slouched forward, his head spinning from the effort, but he managed to spur his horse forward and make for the fortress.
The army parted for the prince and his retinue, opening and closing as a prow splits open a wave only for it to close once it has passed. It seemed to take hours for Santhor to ride through the mulling host, as if he were stranded in the middle of a churning sea of men. All around him his army spilled over the land, espousing the flat fields and tiny hillocks, massing before the walls and sprawling towards the open ground. The riders finally emerged on the other side after crossing the entire length of the army and passed through the gates, across the bridge, until they clattered into the inner courtyard. Eldynvagar was more crowded than it had ever been.
Hundreds and hundreds of women and children and old men were packed close, swarming around the entrances to the fortress. Soldiers were shouting and directing the human flow, but a ripple of panic was beginning to spread through the mob.
"We might not have enough room for everyone, my prince," Valmyr said in a low voice so that none of the civilians would hear him. "The dungeons, cellars and crypts are crammed tight with refugees. The military camp was given over to as many people as possible once the army had moved out. I have men allocating people to vacant rooms as we speak. It has been this way since Markel reached us and I fear it will take all night."
"So be it," the prince nodded. As long as they were behind the walls, the people would be safer than out in their fields. If the enemy broke through the mountain passes, defeated Santhor's army and breached the walls of Eldynvagar, then there would be no hope left anyway. The prince grabbed Valmyr's arm and squeezed it. "Jarl, if I do not eat, drink and rest for a few hours, then I will not be able to stand. Take me to my chambers, now."
Valmyr nodded and, seeing the futility of being on horseback in the midst of a frightened crowd, dismounted. He gave Santhor and Nicolar his hand to help them down and the three shoved their way through the throng to a side entrance, where a pair of guards let them through. People begged as the doors shut behind them, pleading with their prince and the guards to grant them access to the fortress. Santhor, more tired than ever, heard only a muffled thrum of voices. He let himself be escorted through the corridors and the great halls, noting absentmindedly that at each new turn, in every room and chamber, refugees were packed tightly.
The prince reached the quiet peace of his chambers after an exhausting climb and without saying a word to his counsellors, crashed down on his bed. His legs cramped, as if he had spent days trekking through the woods. In his mind, the morning hunt had been weeks ago and his clash with the men in the mountains was already a fading memory. All of it had happened in a single day and no matter how hard he clenched his eyes shut, he knew that an army was marching into his province. With the thundering trumpets and beating drums still echoing in his head, Santhor dove into a deep sleep.
The prince woke barely refreshed to a black sky and a wailing stomach. He had forgotten to eat before sleeping. Dizzy and weak, he lurched out of bed and stumbled through his chambers. Fortune smiled on him, for someone had left a large platter filled with cold food of every sort. Apples and pears and cold strips of bacon, fried fish and buttered potatoes, a jug of fresh water and one of bubbling cider. Santhor wolfed the contents of the platter down and stopped only when he was on the verge of retching. Renewed strength coursed through his veins, his muscles, his head. The satisfaction of the morning meal was quickly replaced by a wave of panic. He ran to the door and pulled it open. Two guards looked at him with surprise. Why were there guards? There had always been only servants by his chambers.
"Where are Valmyr and Nicolar?" He asked, ignoring the change.
"The hour is late, my prince," one of the guards said. "They would be in their chambers."
"Find them and bring them here," Santhor passed a hand through his tangled mane of hair. War! After months of preparation, war was here and nobody seemed to care. Platters of food and idle guards. What had Nicolar been thinking?
The prince paced the entirety of his room, watching the horizon lighten gradually. The dawn-waves would come surging out from the deep at any moment and sound the dawn of war. His mind whirled with panic, ideas and imagined scenarios racing through his head. Had the enemy breached the walls yet? Were they marching down the road as he stood here, useless?
Nicolar knocked on the doorframe and strode in, looking awake and aware. For once, the orator had traded his long grey robes for a feeble attempt at dress of battle. Dark trousers and high leather boots, a slender leather cuirass, a long knife sheathed at his waist. This was no mail armor and sword, but at least Nicolar would be able to defend himself if things turned out for the worst.
"Will you be fighting with us?" Santhor was skeptical. Why had Nicolar dressed in this manner?
"No," the orator croaked, his voice still small and cracked. "I... am no, hhhh, soldier, but if I die... it will be fighting."
"You believe they will make it all the way into the fortress?" Santhor's eyes were white orbs of panic. He was spewing words at fearsome speeds. "You think they will breach our defenses, survive the march through the forest, defeat our vaeringar and penetrate Eldynvagar? Is our defense so weak?"
"My prince," Nicolar massaged his throat between words. "Fighting a war is not like... reading a book. Stories, hhh, always show the victor's glory. One never... sees the suffering. I... have."
"Tell me what to do Nicolar! When I started this war by refusing to give myself up, I never thought they would go through with this madness. They mean to raze Gales to the ground! For me!"
"I will not... tell you again," the orator managed to make his weak voice angry. "Only your father stood... as a shield for Gales. With or without you... the enemy would have one day, hhh, come knocking on our doors... with fire and sword."
Santhor had heard this argument so many times that only now, with an army hours away from Eldynvagar, was he beginning to believe it. His heart pounded in his chest. He had already left men to die for him in the mountains. If Gales was destined to fall, then he would die as its prince.
"Then there is nothing left to do but fight," he clenched his fists, looking out at the pale light cresting the horizon. "I will die either way."
Nicolar said nothing, but his silence spoke in his stead. The prince's fate was tied to his province's. Tied to the fate of his people.
"I will be out before the roar of the yrin vagar," Santhor announced. "The army of Gales will be led by a prince."
Nicolar nodded and bowed. Yet instead of leaving, he lingered in the doorway, as if hesitating to speak.
"Santhor," the orator finally decided. "Before it begins... you must know this. Your father... long before he lost his throne, hhhh, knew of his enemy's schemes. There was... nothing he could do to save himself. So he saved... you. Sent you to a place... of loyalty and resilience. A land sheltered by mountains and oceans and... its people. This was the last chance left... for the line of the Aysr.
Nicolar took a long pause, coughing quietly and gulping to moisten his throat.
"He may yet be alive... but you must save yourself. That is what he, hhhargh, wanted. He made you prince... of your own destiny. Gales will protect you... will protect its prince."
Santhor let tears fill his eyes, but refused to let them fall. His breathing had become regular once more and he was as determined to defend this province as he had been determined never to come to it in the first place.
"Thank you, Nicolar," he smiled at the orator.
"In time, you will... comprehend the importance of your actions," Nicolar whispered. "You are not the first prince... I have known. This is a war that echoes through the ages... fought by different actors for the same... purposes. Mankind was meant to learn from its... past. It is your turn to teach us."
"I will," Santhor bowed.
"One more thing," Nicolar wheezed. "In Gales, when the world is against us... we look towards the ocean."
"What do you mean?"
Nicolar's eyes darted to the guards posted at the door, increasing the prince's confusion at their presence.
"When all seems lost, look towards the ocean. Towards the West."
And with those words seared in the prince's mind, Nicolar stepped out of the chambers, leaving Santhor alone.
Down below the waves of dawn, like tremendous charging mountains, rose from the ocean and struck the first thunderous blow of the day.