Dusk had come on the wings of a terrible spring storm, a residue of the harsh winters of Gales. It was a storm of the ocean, a tempest of waves and winds and whipping rains. Eldynvagar trembled under the repeated assaults of the elements while outside its walls, an army massed for a siege. The enemy had given no quarter to the valorous Galesan warriors who had remained in the field. The town and plains were littered with corpses, which the rain was beginning to bury beneath the mud. Thousands of torches and fires still flickered in the deepening dusk, invulnerable to the rain.
Santhor and his counsellors had taken position within the second courtyard, where they were partially shielded by two outer walls and a slanted slate roof. From here they could direct their defenses without being targets to the enemy's catapults and ballistas. From here they could lead a last sortie if the tide turned against them.
The prince tried in vain to warm his hands by a blazing bonfire, as he ordered his officers to take up their defensive positions on the assailable walls. Eldynvagar was, fortunately, built in such a manner that two of its sides seemed to merge with abrupt cliffs that plunged directly into the ocean. Nothing but a sea gull could clamber over those walls. Thanks to the brilliant craftsmanship of ancient lords of Gales, Santhor would only need to hold the two land-side walls. Both of these walls rose over seventy feet and were originally purposed to withstand sieges. During the reign of the old empire, Eldynvagar had held seven years against the imperial sieges. It would not fall against Oryp's thousands.
"I want archers here, here and here," Santhor was pointing to spots on a detailed drawing of the fortress. Three thanes were listening intently. "Where there are no arrowslits, crouch behind the parapet. Shoot only to defend the walls. No foe will enter Eldynvagar."
The thanes grunted and jogged away into the pouring rain, shouting for their regiments to follow them. The courtyards were bustling with activity and teeming with solemn soldiers. Many were survivors of the battle in the plains, some had merely watched their brothers be slaughtered. An entire company of sentinels, the Eagles, led by their chief Tamraq, had managed to sneak past enemy lines during the battle and retreat behind the walls. The remaining sentinels were still hiding in the woods, fleeing flames and trying as best they could to harry the enemy lines. A quick count had Santhor's forces culminating to almost three thousand.
"Perhaps," the prince had answered when Nicolar pointed out that they were outnumbered five to one, "but we are behind these walls and they are beyond."
After several hours of dispatching small squadrons of defenders and archers to man the walls, Santhor was left with fifteen hundred vaeringar and conscripts. The wounded had been taken to the great hall where refugees were tending to them. Those able to fight were being gathered in both courtyards. Half were sent to reinforce the gates and protect the gates with their lives. The rest, a force built of the finest vaeringar and freshest troops, were to wait with the prince. Should the enemy break through the gates, they would be met with an oncoming wave of desperate warriors.
A terrible blast of thunder sent a shudder through the fortress and every man flinched as the very ground seemed to shake beneath their feet. Santhor glanced at the sky, a crimson and black canvas of chaos, and realized that no lightning had preceded the thunder.
"My prince!" A runner reached Santhor's quarters. "That was no thunder! The siege has begun, the catapults are aimed at our walls."
Less than half-a-day had slipped by since the great battle before the fortress walls and the enemy had already begun the siege. There would be no mercy from them, no respite and no relief. Santhor understood that no matter how long the siege lasted, his men would not spend a single hour without being under attack. Another tremendous crack of stone on stone sent jolts throughout the fortress.
"Jarl!" Santhor shouted over the drumming rain and the impacts of boulders on Eldynvagar's walls. "The gates are yours! Defend them with your life!"
Valmyr gave no response but a grave nod. He knew that the gates' defenders would be the first to fall if the enemy breached them. That was where the thick of the fighting would be, where the bloodletting would be greatest. That was where the jarl of Gales should be.
Santhor met the jarl's gaze for a flickering instant and saw nothing but pride in his dark look. Valmyr turned, rallied his men and bolted towards the gates. The prince hung his head. Around him, the quarters were slowly emptying as he deployed his officers. Soon, only Nicolar and a small squadron of guards remained.
The orator had been staring into the fire since it had been lit, his thoughts consumed by the dancing orange flames. Santhor marched over to the man who had advised him since the beginning and gazed into the flames as well. They were mesmerizing, it was true, but another rippling blast against the walls made them tear their eyes away.
"Do you remember... what I told you yesterday?" Nicolar's voice grated like steel over stone.
The words were graved in Santhor's mind, but that morning had seemed so long ago. Battles had been fought since then and thousands of men now lay lifeless in the fields of Gales. The prince had seen his army vanquish an enemy and in the same day watched it be routed like ants before a boot. A mountain had exploded and a forest had been burnt and in mere hours he had found himself trapped behind the high walls of Eldynvagar.
When all seems lost, look towards to ocean. Towards the West.
The prince glanced at Nicolar and nodded. Nicolar's eyes darted to the guards, seven in all, who were posted around the quarters. Santhor frowned. He did not recall ordering guards.
"You, soldier!" The prince called out to one of the men. "Where is your thane? I believe I sent you to the walls."
"My prince," the guard clicked his heels and nodded. "Our orders are to remain with you at all times. We are to protect you with our lives."
"And who ordered you?"
"It is the way of Gales, my prince," the guard answered automatically. "In times of war, our lord must be protected constantly."
"I can fend for myself. You are all dismissed."
"We have our orders, my prince." The guard did not budge. His colleagues remained stoic and Santhor shifted uncomfortably.
The prince looked back at Nicolar and suddenly saw signs of worry and fear that had eluded him before. The orator seemed on the verge of weeping. When the guards turned back to their positions, Nicolar mouthed a word.
"Lysandra." Santhor read the man's lips. Two boulders struck the walls at the same time and the blast echoed throughout the fortress.
What did Nicolar mean? Had Lysandra betrayed him? He thought back to the past few days and realized that he had not seen her since the enemy had appeared. One minute she had been at his side, watching the royal army march down the road and the next she had vanished. Vanished to the pyrocrats' sides?
The prince began glancing around and saw that he was encircled by guards. In the midst of battle and surrounded by so many officers, messengers and soldiers, he had not noticed. Now it was brutally clear. He was a prisoner behind his own walls. Nicolar nudged Santhor's elbow and mouthed another word.
Santhor nodded and, without signaling his guards, stepped out into the rain and began marching away.
"My prince!" A guard barked. "It is not safe out there."
"I am the prince of Gales! I will stand with my men."
"Of course," the guard suddenly backed down, but motioned to his men and they began following Santhor.
The prince said nothing and showed no signs of irritation, even though his blood was boiling. Had he been able, he would have cut down the men where they stood, but they were too many. Lysandra... That lying pirate had betrayed him. Was it for wealth? Power? Was she wallowing in luxury in the enemy camp as he thought about her? How many of his men were now turned against him? Santhor's fear grew with every step, his fingers played with the cold steel of his sword hilt. The rain lashed at his long hair and clothes, drenching him to the bone. He hoped his guards were as miserable as he was.
The sounds of siege grew louder as he strode towards the gates. Boulders pounded the walls with impressive regularity, a vibrating tremor came each time the ram slammed against the gates. Men were shouting, trumpets blaring, but the storm drowned it all out. The winds blew against Galesans and royals alike, the rain spattered over both sides and the creeping cold seeped beneath every man's armor. The night would be long for everyone, the prince's men, the pyrocrats and the traitors.
Santhor reached the gates, where hundreds of men were massed, hurrying across the yard trailing huge, felled trees. Crates and planks were nailed to the gates, men were leaning against them with their shoulders. On the walls above, archers were relentlessly loosing volleys of arrows onto the assailants. Santhor could see in his mind the enemy swarming the bridge, soldiers hiding behind shields as they manned the great ram. From time to time, one of the defenders fell screaming from the wall, an arrow in their throat or a spear through their chest. Hook lines caught on the parapets and were instantly cut loose. The clatter of ladders being raised against the walls was followed by a cry of rally as defenders flocked to the place of assault.
Behind it all, Jarl Valmyr roared.
Over the storm and the crashing stones and the pounding waves and the screams of men, a symphony of great war horns sounded in unison. They rose from behind the wall, from the enemy ranks and the deep, pure notes were carried on the wind into the very heart of Eldynvagar. Everything seemed to stop. The ram stopped beating, the rhythmic bellow of catapults died down and arrows ceased raining. Only the storm continued.
Valmyr looked around, confused. His shaggy head swiveled and finally stopped on Santhor, his prince. They met eyes and there was a flicker of puzzlement in both their looks. Other soldiers were turning their heads, wondering why the assault had suddenly relented.
And then the jarl's face contorted and his quizzical look became one of horror. Santhor frowned, squinting through the gushing sheets of rain. A long blade jutted out from Valmyr's chest, slick with blood. The jarl howled and spun to face his attacker, the sword still stuck in his back.
"No," Santhor breathed, terror coiling around his heart.
The man who had plunged his sword into the jarl's chest was just a soldier, a young nameless conscript. The prince did not understand. He started forward, ready to draw his sword and cut down the traitor himself, but his guards closed in on him.
"We are here to protect you, my prince," a guard said, his eyes hard, but sad.
Santhor watched helpless as Valmyr, grunting and clutching his gaping wound, managed to swing his sword furiously and cut the traitor from shoulder to groin. Then the jarl stumbled to his knees. Another shadow stepped up behind him.
"No!" Santhor screamed this time and heads turned towards him.
The shadow swung his sword and Valmyr's head came off in a clean sweep.
The courtyard erupted.
With no warning, men turned on their brothers and the yard became a chaotic mess of bloodied soldiers. Sword clashed against sword and men went tumbling to the ground, not knowing who had killed them or why. Where was the enemy? The random slaughter continued until men were fighting in gangs, eyes darting to see who would stab them in the back next. Santhor almost fell over as he staggered backwards. His guards formed a tight circle around him and had drawn their swords.
"What is happening?" The prince screamed but no one answered him.
The storm began to stink of blood and Santhor, his sword hanging limply in his hand, had no idea what to do, where to go. Everyone was a foe. A sudden roar came from the second courtyard and an entire regiment of men came charging through the arch, killing indiscriminately as they went. A small man came in behind them on a horse. Santhor peered through the darkening rain but was unable to make out the figure. All he knew was that he would soon be trapped.
"Open the gates!" The man on the horse shouted, his orders being relayed by his soldiers. Santhor could make out vaeringar and conscripts amongst his troops. Why were they doing this? Why were they following his orders?
There was still fighting by the gates, and it was still a indistinctive blur, but the arrival of the new forces and the mounted man seemed to clear things. Warriors flocked to his sides and those who remained by the gates became targets and victims. Only a few dozen had survived the bloody chaos and were now cowering against the gates.
"Open the gates!" The order came again but the men, knowing that death would come no matter what, refused.
Santhor could not move, his screams caught in his throat, his head throbbed. The man on the horse drew his sword and pointed it at the gates. Those men loyal to him charged and mercilessly slaughtered those who had once been their brothers.
The gates opened and the enemy poured in, like a flood freed from its dam. There was no fighting as the foes surged through the gates, but Galesans and royals kept a safe distance from each other. The courtyard was becoming crowded as hundreds of soldiers and corpses filled it.
Santhor lashed out, at the moment when his guards were focused on the oncoming royal forces, his sword catching a guard on the neck and another in the ribs. He barreled through a third and bolted, running with all the strength and energy that remained. He ran through the shadows, along the walls, as the attention was still drawn to the gates. His guards shouted and raised the alarm, but their words were lost in the chaos.
The prince's boots pounded the slick pavement and he passed through the arch almost unnoticed with the guards close on his trail. Soon, hundreds of soldiers would react and chase him through Eldynvagar. His life depended on his legs. He looked over his shoulder and saw his pursuers trying to push through the massing crowd. He was losing them.
In the stormy twilight, Santhor looked one last time at the man on the horse and instantly knew who it was. He would have screamed and spat and punched the walls but all he could do was run. Run to the halls, run to the fortress, run through the corridors and find Nicolar. Eldynvagar was lost, Gales had fallen, betrayed by its own.
Algard had opened the gates.
Santhor never slowed, even when he thought that he was no longer being chased. He crashed into the great hall where the wounded were moaning and dying. Armed men saw him and tried to follow him, but the prince had already darted away, into the dark corridors of the fortress. He raced up the stairs, avoiding any lit halls and places he knew would be guarded. Lysandra and Algard must have had the entire fortress locked down. No place would be safe. All his flight would do was delay his death.
He made for Nicolar's chambers, but realized that they would certainly be guarded as well. And then the orator's last advice to him became clear.
When all is lost, look towards the ocean. Towards the West.
There was only one place where Santhor knew he could see the ocean. His legs and lungs burned as he coursed up the stairs of Eldynvagar, winding higher and higher. He slowed when he reached his floor, and peered down the corridor. Dozens of guards were waiting for him. The prince calmed himself, breathing deeply. He would have to sneak past them and up the next flight of stairs, all the while hoping that no more guards infested his fortress. Footsteps echoed from below, rising to meet him. More guards were closing in on him. He would be caught either way.
Santhor darted out onto the corridor and started up the next stairs with panic gripping his limbs. The guards heard him and shouts broke out, boots smacked against the stone cobbles. The prince began to tire but fear fueled his legs, helping him up the stairs, faster and faster.
Finally, he pushed through a door and burst out into the storm. He was on the terrace where months ago, Valmyr had begun training him with sword and shield. The terrace was wide and empty, and seemed to be at the very heart of the storm. Santhor could almost touch the storm clouds and the rain was heavier and fiercer this high. He slammed the door behind him and barred it with his long knife, keeping his sword and shield. He edged back to the short wall that overlooked the ocean and watched the door, waiting for death or capture.
He tried looking at the ocean, churning a hundred feet beneath him, gnawing at sharp cliffs.
"So this was your last advice?" He laughed nervously to himself. "Look at the ocean before dying."
He squinted through the storm and out at the open waters, a line of war ships circled the bay, bobbing dangerously on the furious waves. Gales was lost. He had lost it in three days. He had caused thousands of deaths. He would die alone on this balcony. Someone pounded on the door and it shuddered.
The prince gripped his sword.
Another boom came this time and the door splintered, the long knife bending like clay. A white flash of lightning seared the sky and thunder rolled behind him. The door exploded into shards of wood and men poured onto the terrace. Soldiers and guards and a man in black and crimson robes and in front of them all, Algard, the traitorous heir to Gales. A battered shape was held limply between two hulking soldiers and Santhor easily recognized Nicolar's half-burned figure despite the bruises and cuts on his face.
"My prince," the pyrocrat stepped forward, bowing ridiculously low. "You remember me, I trust? Your humble servant, Jaqaro Teldur."
Santhor sneered at the emissary. This was the man who had threatened him, the man who had brought news of his father's death, the man who he had declared war against.
"Oryp's dog," the prince spat.
"Oh, you are deeply mistaken, my prince," Jaqaro smiled, the rain casting fearsome shadows on his dark face. "Oryp is as much a dog as I am. We are all servants of the flame."
Santhor ignored him and waved his sword at Algard, noticing again how young he was. "You traitorous scum... You slaughtered your own people. For the enemy?"
"Do not accuse Lord Algard for your crimes, Santhor," the emissary hissed, his falsely kind manners disappearing. "You started a war! You brought Gales to its knees! You believed your life was worth thousands of theirs. Lord Algard made the right decision."
"They are monsters, Algard! Worshippers of the flame, murderers, assassins. They killed my father, your father, they tried to kill me!"
"Do you not hear how pathetic you sound, my prince?" Jaqaro said. "As blind as your father, as blind as this... groveling worm." He pointed to Nicolar.
"I saved Gales, I saved my people," it was Algard who spoke this time. "I am a true son of Gales and its rightful heir. You were an impostor, a usurper, a failure."
"I tried to protect Gales from these invaders..."
"Why? Under their rule, Gales can thrive, Gales will live. I will be a lord, like my father, and rule my province. There is nothing wrong with kneeling to a power greater than oneself."
"You are making a mistake."
"No, a mistake was not killing me. The first thing a strong prince must do is remove any contenders. And that is a mistake I will not make. Seize him."
The guards moved forward but Santhor raised his sword. He would fight to the death. Rather dead by the blade than by the flame. If he were caught, he would be burnt before thousands of laughing men. An Aysr cannot die in that way.
"Do not be a fool, Santhor," Jaqaro warned. The emissary wiggled his fingers and flames burst from the palm of his hand, impervious to the rain. "The time for tolerance has long passed. Give in to us and Nicolar will live."
The prince backed away until his legs hit the wall. Behind him waited a long fall and a quick death in the dark waters of the ocean. Anything else would be endless, painful, humiliating. He glanced at Nicolar's beaten shape. The orator squirmed weakly and lifted his head, wincing.
He mouthed one last word.
Santhor trembled with fear and cold, but he knew there was only one solution. He gritted his teeth and threw his sword and shield to the stone ground.
"You are making the right decision, Santhor," Jaqaro grinned.
With the wind howling about his ears and the rain beating at his back, the prince turned and leapt off the balcony, plummeting to the freezing ocean below.