The procession reached the outskirts of the province around midday, but Santhor only knew that because his stomach had begun growling again. Besides that, the world gave no hints as to the time of day. The sun lurked behind a shield-wall of black storm clouds and the sky offered a feeble grey light. Looking warily out on the approaching city, the prince noticed scattered workers and farmers raising their shaggy heads from their labor, curious but prudent. Sullen sheep bleated their misery, cows grazed absentmindedly, stone walls waited for repair. The mounted company spread out in front and behind the coach, twenty to a side. Grim and formidable, they made an eerie sight astride their tall steeds, trotting through the growing mist.
As the fortress loomed ahead, Santhor's legs were taken with horrible cramps. The wine, its stores almost depleted, was clearing from the prince's vision and mind. Sweat trickled down his brow despite the cold, his heart began to knock at his ribs. He realized at that moment how far he had traveled, how far away he was from An Asrai and his golden, sunlit home. A thousand miles of empty lands and wild forests lay at his back, the homes of farmers, savage men and woodland lords. Before him waited the unrelenting ocean and the fortress that stood by it.
The gates to the city appeared, announced by a slight change in scenery. The fields faded, replaced by a scattering of wooden huts, barracks and halls, all clinging to the outer walls like mussels to a rock. The people seemed as grey as their lands, clad in heavy furs, hauling carts laden with stone, hay or barrels. They all stopped their activity as the prince rolled by, squinting at him through the thin rain.
The procession passed through the glum town, then beneath a stout stone arch kept by a handful of watchmen. Royal and provincial guards exchanged a few words and the prince was let through the first gate, a raised portcullis that gave the arch a row of jagged iron teeth. The path passed over a high stone bridge, built over a moat that seemed directly linked to the ocean. The dark waters sloshed and rocked with the same force as the waves of the deep. How these people lived with the constant drone of crashing waves, Santhor could not yet fathom.
The roar of the ocean died down as they passed through the second gate, colossal wooden doors embedded between two towering spires. It swung open, creaking and whining, to reveal a wide, uncluttered courtyard. Riders and coach entered the inner bailey, the huge gates were shut, and for the first time since cresting the mountains, the noise seemed distant and muffled. As far as the prince could tell, this was as silent as the world could be here.
The entire procession stopped in the courtyard, soldiers dismounted, stableboys appeared from nowhere and finally, Santhor Aysr descended from his coach at the foot of his new home. He stepped into the mud, disregarding his fine leather boots which would soon become useless in this weather. The rain had mercifully ceased, but the mist had thickened, coiling around his legs and drenching his clothes.
Closed doors studded the walls, certainly leading to barracks, storehouses and servants quarters. Above, rows of windows overlooked the courtyard, rising with the curtain walls all the way to the battlements, where guards leaned on their spears, staring down at their new prince. Santhor spun slowly, observing every inch of the place. Stinking stables stood at the far end of the yard, enough to house two, maybe three dozen horses. Three towers sprouted from the rocky ground, jutting high into the grey clouds. In the center of the fortress, the rectangular keep had been erected with no taste or beauty. Rugged stone steps led up to the efficient block of stone and its single black door. A slanted slate roof covered the edifice, upon which flapped two banners. The familiar blue-and-gold crown of the realm fluttered in front of the Galesan black-and-silver ship. The first a streaming triangular cloth, the second a rigid square. Solid, unbending, effective, were the only words that came to the prince's mind. He had yet to find a source of beauty in this place.
The lone black door opened suddenly, and men spilled from its maw. Most of them shared the same rough features, brawny hands and thick beards Santhor had noticed during his short trip through the town. Their furs seemed slightly finer, their boots thicker and the weapons hanging at their waists replaced the farmer's sickle or the herder's crook. One of them was little more than a boy, but his eyes were hard as ocean stones. Another bore a strange, bare robe of grey fleece and skins around his feet instead of boots. His hair and beard were trimmed, speckled with silver and framing a kinder face than those of his companions.
It was this man who spoke.
"My prince," he spoke clearly without shouting, "it is an honor to welcome you to Eldynvagar. In our tongue it means the 'city of the dawn-waves'. I hope you find it acceptable. My name is Nicolar, I was the orator of Lord Angren's court." He bowed slightly, flexing his knees. None of the other men twitched a muscle. "This is Algard, son of Angren," he motioned to the boy. Algard moved no more than the others.
Santhor shuffled his feet. He sensed the hostility of these men's gazes, the onlooking watchers on the battlements, the expectant regards of his royal guard. He was not at home here.
"Show me to my quarters," the prince said, carefully sprinkling his words with a hint of command. "It has been a long journey. Stable my men's horses and see to their needs. The rest can wait for nightfall."
Nicolar stepped back, visibly surprised by the prince's response. The gruff Galesans snorted and whispered to each other in a harsh tongue. Algard bared his teeth in a false smile and turned on his heels, disappearing into the keep.
"As you wish, my prince," said the orator, waving an arm diplomatically. "This way, if it please you."
Santhor threw his guards a poisonous look, letting them know that he was glad to finally be rid of them. They remained behind with their hands on their hilts, expressionless.
The prince had arrived safely in Gales, they had done their duty. Whatever happened to the king's son from this point on was his fault, and his fault alone.
Santhor followed his new subjects and stepped into the shadow of Eldynvagar.
The prince sulked in his quarters for the better part of the afternoon. A gloomy sky shed little light through five narrow windows embedded in a tapestry-covered stone wall. A wide, dusty bed sat alone in the corner of the main room, faced by an empty and worn wardrobe, three old chests and an eerie tableau of the previous resident. A condescending glare, slanted bushy eyebrows, a thick upturned nose, a snarl instead of a smile, Lord Angren perfectly expressed what he and the other Galesans certainly thought of Santhor. After challenging the portrait with a snort, the prince explored his quarters discovering a small parlor, a door leading to a stairwell leading up, and a vast, private bath-house.
Until the chill of dusk crept through the walls of Eldynvagar, Santhor sulked in his steaming bath.
And then a horn blared down in the courtyard, closely followed by its answer. Rising amidst a swirl of boiling vapor, Santhor stalked to a window and saw minuscule flames popping into existence here and there. Hundreds of the flickering dots made their appearance, some moving, others at a standstill. They seemed to be congregating towards the outer gates of the fortress but it was impossible to be sure from this high up and in the near-impenetrable murk of falling night. The prince cursed under his breath. What new madness was this?
The inhabitants of Gales were renowned for their ancient ways, their queer customs and the vast differences that separated them from the rest of the kingdom. Santhor's historical knowledge, mediocre as it was, was sufficient to remind him that Gales had been one of very few provinces who had resisted the emperors and their old empire. He smirked, thinking, but they bent the knee to my father's grandfather and to my father and soon to me.
The horns' ferocious howl vanished into the wind, whose howl was stronger, but a knock came at the door. Santhor's pulse quickened. The last time he had opened a door to an unexpected knock, he had been shipped off to this drab stretch of rock.
"A minute!" he barked as he dressed, not forgetting the penetrating iciness the air carried with it. A shirt, a vest, a coat and a heavy overcoat should suffice, wrapping his feet in thick wool before pulling on his boots. His growing hair and beard could do with a trim, but he sensed that fur was more common here than in An Asrai. A leather thong served to bind his streaked golden hair into a tight tail. He opened the door to find Nicolar lurking behind it.
"My prince," the orator flexed his knees without bowing completely, as was his habit. It frustrated Santhor more than it should have, he had grown accustomed to groveling weasels. This man suddenly reminded him of the five fools that held his father's court and their impudence.
"Those horns," Santhor held the man's gaze, "what were they?"
"An old tradition," Nicolar explained, "the common folk bid farewell to their previous lord and welcome to the new. It is a ceremony of blessings. Good fortune."
Santhor ignored the orator's clarification. "Are there many of these old traditions? I am unused to such... rituals."
"Well, hm, a few of course, my prince," Nicolar fumbled. "The people hold dearly to their traditions. It anchors them in the land and its history."
"Why are you here, Nicolar?"
"A feast is being held in your honor. I hope you will join us, in fact, I highly recommend it. It would give you a chance to acquaint yourself with the locals. The lords, ladies, the old families. Lord Angren often dined with his subjects."
Santhor slid his tongue against his teeth as he thought, still standing in the doorway. He saw no use in meeting these people, or sharing a meal with them. He was a prince, and they were lowly landholders of a nigh landless province. And this Nicolar presumed too much, knocking on his prince's door and recommending.
The prince, however, was hungry and thirsty for wine. He feigned a smile.
"Lead the way, orator."
The feast hall brimmed with life and warmth, a shocking contrast with the freezing, grey exterior. Half a hundred men and women of the more powerful families of Gales had flocked to Eldynvagar to meet their new liege. Santhor learned that evening what passed for power in these parts.
Earl Hemett, father to six daughters, owner of forty acres of barely fertile fields, fat as walrus and with whiskers to match. His wife had obviously carried many children, and eaten many walruses.
Earl Reynar, a bear of a man wed to a twig of a woman. His titles and estates had been passed down through several generations, his forebears playing a crucial role in fending off the imperial invasions.
Lady Darrow, widowed twice to sailor husbands, owner of three dozen fishing ships and a handful of brothels on the docks.
Master Qartam, a renowned shipwright who seemed to be extremely well-respected by his peers and esteemed for his splendid craftsmanship.
The list went on as each presented themselves and their families to an irritable prince. A few held his attention for a short moment as they spoke of their recent travels to the livelier provinces. Some proved to be cunning merchants, grown wealthy through their craft; smiths and masons, hunters and fishermen, sailors and traders mostly. If Santhor retained anything from his tedious first hour amongst the mighty of Gales, it was that without the ocean, these people were nothing.
"Has there ever been a man without a ship in this place?" Santhor asked Nicolar as the tenth wealthy overseas trader gave the new prince his blessing.
"The ocean is the living, beating heart of Gales, my prince," the orator whispered. "You can take a man's land. You can strip him of his titles. You can muster the greatest army the world has ever seen, and yet, you cannot conquer the ocean."
"You can burn a man's ship," Santhor argued indifferently but Nicolar merely chuckled and invited the next guest to come forward. The prince sighed audibly.
He endured another long bout of presentations and explanations, peppered with Nicolar's moist whispering in his ear. By the time they were done, Santhor's stomach churned violently. He ordered the orator to order the feast be served instantly. Nicolar commanded immediate obedience and respect, but already, eyes were throwing skeptical gazes at their new prince. As the first platters appeared, Santhor could not have cared less.
The fifty-nine guests sat in the grand hall around a rectangular table with a hole in the middle. A single marvelous chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling and the walls were covered with ranks of blazing torches. Santhor sat between Nicolar and Algard, who had appeared at the same time as the food. The three ate in sullen silence under the watchful gazes of the Galesans.
Another ancient tradition made itself known as the feast began. Each of the guests and their families had brought a course to the meal, reflecting their power and position in Gales. Hungry as he had been, Santhor almost retched as seal meat was carried in for the seventh time. Grilled, broiled, steamed, raw or spitted over a roaring fire, seal always tasted the same. Like chewy, bland fish. And since the other meals were either fish or crustaceans, the feast left a salty aftertaste tingling the palate.
Besides the dull men and women, other disappointments caught Santhor's eye. Wine was not served, though at his request, servants rummaged for an old cask or two and found a vile vinegar that burned his throat and stomach alike. Grapes were unable to grow this close to the ocean and its storms. Those few farmers who braved the weather were rewarded with miserable clusters of sour fruit. Most stayed true to potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions and tasteless roots. Apples and pears, surprisingly, were endless. Apple pies and pear chutney and honey-coated slices were presented as dessert. Golden cider flowed continually from casks to horns to open maws, but try as he would, the prince could not get used to the bitter-sweet taste.
Grumbling, he drank water.
The evening gradually came to an end. Santhor tapped his fingers as the fifty-nine guests went through another bout of ceremonial farewells and blessings. The last guests were escorted from the hall and finally, Santhor was alone with Nicolar again. Around them, servants swarmed to clear and clean every inch of the great chamber. Algard had left right after stuffing himself with fried chunks of apple. Throughout the meal, the lordling had been an example of diplomacy and courtly manners. He knew each and every person present for the feast, and they all knew him, respecting him despite his young age. Santhor promised himself he would keep a close watch on the boy. Blood heirs were a dangerous affair in political affairs.
"I am going to be crude, my prince," Nicolar shattered the silence that had followed the feast. "Tonight was a disaster, truly. In one, dreadful evening, you have managed to get a vast majority of your subjects to despise you."
The prince flinched but held the orator's gaze. "I listened to half a hundred preening idiots discuss their bloodlines and financial situations all night. I think I did pretty well."
"Believe me when I say: you have not made any friends."
"Are you saying I have made enemies?"
"You misunderstand me. Men who are not your friends are not necessarily your enemies. There is much you can do to win back their faith and support. An enemy, however, is lost to you forever. I would advise against making any enemies here."
"I understand you quite well Nicolar," the prince said, getting to his feet. "I understand many things. I understand that my father let old devils worm ideas into his brain. I understand that I cannot do anything but endure this... punishment, for however long it lasts. I understand that Gales is not a place for me! What I do not yet understand, is who you are and why you believe you can address me as your lesser?"
"I," Nicolar stood as well, but managed to maintain a humble stature, "am perhaps the only person you can trust in this entire realm. Your stay in Gales would be a great deal more pleasant if you heeded my advice."
"Then advise me," Santhor spat, "which is the fastest way back to my quarters?"
"You have already made many mistakes," Nicolar pushed on, "do not make one too many."
"Show me to my quarters and leave me be. The next time you speak to me unbidden, I will have your tongue and use it as bait to hunt seals!"
The orator winced, anger making his lips tremble and his wrinkles crease.
"Very well, my prince," he conceded, bowing his head. "This way."
Santhor slumped in his bed with a skin of cider in his hand.
"Vile," he mumbled to himself after taking another swig. A servant had prepared his quarters during the feast, lighting candles and the hearthfire so that the quarters crackled with heat. The prince let the beverage make its feeble effect, drinking faster and with less intervals. The conclusion was that wine tasted and worked better, but cider was all he had.
Santhor drowsed off, weaving in and out of ephemeral dreams, drinking whenever he woke and letting himself slip into a slumber as soon as his thirst was quenched. There was nothing else to do but sleep, no women, no taverns, no gatherings for the elite. His headaches began mimicking the ocean's rhythm, battering him as the waves hammered the cliffs. In his dreams he heard a pounding knock on the door. He writhed and groaned. The knock came louder. The prince jerked awake, slobber dripping from his jaw.
From the other room, the door whined as it opened. Someone had entered his chambers without his permission. Drunk and weary, Santhor struggled to grasp the situation, fumbling for an explanation. A servant, perhaps, come to replenish the dwindling fires. It had grown cold during the night as the candles lowered and most of the flames had flickered out. A gust of air swept through the room, the smell of salt and sweat hanging heavy on it. Everything stank of the ocean.
Soft footsteps made their way to Santhor's extended ears. The creaking of planks. A heavy breath. This was no servant.
The prince rose from his bed as silently as he could in his condition. The walls swam and spun, his legs were weak beneath him. He flattened himself agains the wall, in the deep shadows, and waited. The intruder peered into the bedroom. In the darkness, Santhor could make out the outline of his nose, then his forehead and beard. A specter in the night. Then the sound of scraping steel and a sharp intake of air.
Fear washed through Santhor, a sudden gripping terror that coiled around his legs and slithered towards his heart. A man was here to kill him, to slit his throat and disappear. To assassinate a prince. Nobody had ever wanted to murder him before, at least not that he knew. Now he stood three spans from death, and he was trapped in the foul cider's inebriating web. When his blood was spilled, it would reek of alcohol and that was how he would be remembered. Slain in his bed with a skin in his hand.
His fear overcame his other senses, granting him a fleeting moment's sobriety. The prince lunged just as the intruder entered the room and barreled into him with all his might. The will to live powered his every gesture as he tackled the man to the ground, wrestled the blade away and grappled for control. His fists were a flurry, his knees pinned the man's chest down and he hissed and roared as he struggled to survive.
For an instant, Santhor thought he could best the assassin, pummel him unconscious and torture him later for information, but the man quickly regained his composure. There was no match in strength; the man easily broke free from the prince's cider-fueled assault and sent a thick fist flying into his face. Santhor fell backwards, stunned, senseless and limp. A boot slammed into his ribs. He heard a crack. The room, dark the previous instant, now glimmered with the light of a thousand agonizing stars. The man fumbled in the gloom for his weapon, finding it with a triumphant grunt. He straddled Santhor, who could do nothing but wait for the metal to saw through his throat. He wriggled and writhed and spat phlegms of blood in the man's face but an elbow exploded his nose and he lost the will to fight. The terror had long since swept through him, and the prince sobbed uncontrollably, choking on blood.
Then a sword was plunged a sword through the man's back. Blood and gore spattered all over the prince and through the dark red haze all he could see was a figure in white, surrounded by a shimmering halo of light. The sword slipped out from the man's chest and he fell forward, a dead weight crushing the prince's body. It was more than Santhor could endure. He let himself plummet into darkness.
His last sight was of a blood-drenched Nicolar.