Long before the dawn-waves sounded, the hunting party stalked through the thick woodlands surrounding Eldynvagar and creeping up into the foothills. A heavy fog swirled about their horses' hooves, parting as the company plunged deep into the forest. The road between the fortress and the borders of the woods had been dull and uneventful, a journey in the darkness with the sounds of the ocean to their right and the silence of the mountains to their left. Santhor had been surprised to see a great number of Galesans already awake and tending to their fields or chores. Some of them had looked up and waved or nodded as they galloped past, but most ignored the prince and his retinue. It would take more than a declaration of war to win these people over.
In the purple gloom of early day, the forest had surged out of nothing, to appear as a solid wall of sleeping beech and pine and evergreen. Heavy brush grew in tangles between the close clusters of trees, making their going difficult.
"The land clears the further inland we go," Valmyr grunted when Santhor cursed for the tenth time as a thorn-bush caught on his leg.
"Listen closely, my prince," Nicolar said from behind, wrapped in several layers of furs. "The jarl knows the land better than anyone in the province. Everything you learn will be useful."
Santhor nodded, but for the moment he had difficulty seeing how traipsing through rugged terrain would help him become a prince fit to rule Gales and fight a war. He had never killed anything other than rabbits and fowl, and the woods near An Asrai were far greener and warmer than these.
"I may not be the greatest hunter," he admitted, "but I am a fair shot and I can track pheasant with my eyes closed."
Algard snorted and Valmyr chuckled. The young lordling rode at the front, at the jarl's side and the two seemed extremely close, always whispering in their own tongue.
"We do not have pheasant here," Algard called back. "You will see, the beasts are much bigger in Gales. As are their teeth."
Santhor held back his tongue, knowing that launching into an argument with the rightful heir to the province in the middle of the woods would do no good. The young man looked majestic in his furs astride a fine horse made for rough land. He bore a broad hunting blade at his waist and had a short spear tucked beneath his saddle. The prince could not help but look at Algard with slightly concealed jealousy. Nicolar caught him and rode up to his side.
"Algard was born on this land. His father took him hunting at the age of seven and he has been going ever since. You will soon learn our ways, but the purpose of this trip is not to see who can slay the most creatures. You must keep your eyes open and your mind quick."
"Yes, Nicolar," and the prince heeded his new mentor's advice.
The woods spanned endlessly in every direction save behind them where the ocean regained its rights. Few trees survived close to the salty gusts and lashing rains. The forest began its growth behind a series of stony hillocks and continued climbing up the mountains, a dark shadow against the flanks of the black-rock behemoths. Crowns of snow appeared on the tallest peaks, but for now, winter had not yet fully settled on the land.
Deeper and deeper they went into the heart of the forest and Santhor noticed the change in the land. Though he could not see further than a few dozen yards through the thicket, he sensed that the ground sloped continuously. It sometimes dipped suddenly, taking them down into dells where streams guzzled and the air was wet and heavy. Minutes later, their horses carried them up to hill-top glades where they rose over the fog and looked down on the grey-green canopy.
"Say a battalion of foot-troops were making its way down this hill," Nicolar piped up, pointing to a visible drop in the land. "Where would you ambush them?"
Santhor was caught offguard, he had not prepared for such questions. As he thought, he began to understand why he had been taken hunting.
"Behind that ridge?"
"You might, but if it were morning, you would be blinded as you attacked. In the afternoon, what little sun there is in Gales would reflect on your weapons and your enemy would know your position. Also, you would have to cross that stream and, though it is not deep, it is freezing and riddled with stones. The enemy would have time to rally and your advantage would be lost."
The prince gawked. He had not considered any of those possibilities but now that they were pointed out to him, they seemed ridiculously obvious. He was a fool. "I am fool. How did you see that?"
"Like Valmyr and Algard, I know this land better than the eagle who soars high above and sees all. It will come in due time."
"What would you have done?"
"Me?" Nicolar chuckled. "I am no commander."
"But if it were me I would have positioned my men in that glade over to the left. Despite its thickness, men can march one by one in its midst, unseen and unheard. The shadows would conceal you until the very last moment. The winds, ever eastward in these parts, would be against you, hiding your scent. If you had enough men, the enemy would be pinned against that stone shelf there. A massacre."
"Incredible," Santhor breathed.
"I was just joking," Nicolar grinned. "Had I not been orator, I could have conquered the world."
Santhor believed him. He spurred his horse forward, eager as a child.
"Show me more!" He ordered.
The sun peeked out from behind the clouds from time to time, but the day was grey and dreary. They had been riding for several hours when the hills and dells disappeared and the land turned into a single steep slope. The foot of the mountains. Here, the trees grew slanted and the shrubbery had thinned. The moist, earthy ground gave way to shelves of slick slate and loose stone. Valmyr raised a hand and dismounted.
"We leave the horses here," he said, clearly not asking for anyone's opinion.
Algard swung out of his saddle easily, freed his spear and slung over his back in a leather sheath made specifically for that purpose. Nicolar and Santhor followed the others and leapt down from their horses. The prince had a bow, a quiver and a curved hunting dagger but the orator had brought nothing but an extra coat. They led their horses to a discreet clearing on the mountainside where the little grass there was had already been grazed clean. Santhor noted dozens of tracks, of both hooves and boots.
"Is this where you always leave your horses?" He asked.
"What keen eyesight you have, my prince," Algard said mockingly, but never answered. The others were too busy unsaddling their horses and preparing for a march.
Valmyr stomped headlong into the new forest of taller pines and smoky sentinels. The sun barely pierced through the thick roof of dark needles, and only a few rays here and there lit the way. Boulders studded the earth, covered in spongy moss and gigantic mushrooms. The prince's boots sunk in a forest bed soft with dead needles. Algard plunged after the jarl, closely followed by Nicolar and the prince. They formed a loosely knitted line, marching in silence up the slope. The air grew ragged as they climbed higher up the mountain, their calves burning with the effort. For his apparent age, the orator had no trouble in keeping up with the group. Even during the climb he kept asking Santhor more questions and posing more military riddles.
"Where should you camp at night?"
"What is the quickest way to get out of the forest?"
"Which animal left those droppings?"
Santhor almost never answered correctly but each time Nicolar explained in his rational manner, the logic of it dawned on him. Over the hours his mind became slightly sharper, whetted by the orator, and soon his eyes spotted subtleties in the land that he would have been blind to hours ago.
"There is a track over there," the prince noticed and his three companions turned and smiled at him, as they would have smiled to a toddler saying his first words.
"We have been following it for the past hour," Valmyr chuckled. He pointed back down the slope and Santhor easily distinguished the snaking trail in the shrubbery. How had he missed it?
"Be tolerant," Nicolar warned the jarl and the lordling. "The track's purpose is to be invisible to the untrained eye. Very few Galesans, even hunters, would have spotted it."
Santhor had learned to ignore the others' jibes at his incompetence since embarking on this trip. "Where does it lead?"
"You will see," Valmyr said as he clambered over a massive boulder and pushed onwards into the forest. "We are almost there."
The slope was softening, but far above, Santhor could see that the flank of the mountain would soon become a sheer face of stone, impassable. They would be forced to either head north around the mountain or turn back to the lowlands. Midday had come and gone, and still they had done no hunting. If they did not begin heading back to Eldynvagar soon, they would end up at night in the woods, a thought that did not please Santhor at all. He took a deep breath of mountain air and forgot the aches in his legs as he tried to catch up to the leaders, mere shapes ahead of him. Nicolar marched by his side, quieted by the new efforts required.
As the prince had predicted, the slope leveled off, the forest all but receded and the hunting party was left facing an abrupt mountain wall, smooth and dark. There was no place left to go but around or back.
"What do we do now?" Santhor asked, taking deep breaths with his hands on his knees. He was growing frustrated with this trip, although Nicolar's trivia had entertained him for a while. "There is nothing to hunt, no game in these parts."
"There was," the orator replied, also breathing heavily." You just did not see it. No matter, we are not here to hunt. We will have time to hunt on the way back down."
"What are we here for?"
Nicolar put a finger to his lips and nodded his head towards the jarl. "Watch," he whispered.
Valmyr walked up to the great stone wall and placed his hand on it, fingers splayed. Nothing happened, nothing moved, not a sound was made save for the incessant chatter of birds in the forest. The jarl walked up and down the length of the wall, dragging his hand across the surface, as if feeling for a heartbeat. He stopped, finding what he was looking for, and looked up. Santhor followed his gaze but saw nothing other than bare stone soaring up to the mountain's clouded peaks. The jarl knocked three times on the rock, stepped back a few steps and put his fingers in his mouth before unleashing a piercing whistle so loud it echoed down into the numerous vales. The stone rumbled with life.
Stunned, the prince backed away towards the edge of the woods, but Nicolar grabbed his shoulder and held him in place.
Against the face of the mountain, dozens of holes were opening, like little windows in the stone. Rock screeched against rock as more and more of the holes appeared, riddling the wall with a giant constellation of dark points. Whistles came down from the mountain, answering Valmyr's, and without warning, rope ladders were thrown out of several holes. The ladders clattered against the wall, tumbling down and uncoiling to reach the ground. Valmyr grabbed the one closest to him and started climbing. Algard found another ladder and did the same. Santhor managed to tear his eyes from the mysterious openings just long enough to see Nicolar pick one and begin his ascent. The prince chose a ladder that hung near the orator's and, after securing his belongings, clambered up it.
The climb was simple, but the winds grew harsh as he scaled up the mountainside. Vicious gusts slammed into his sides, and he gripped the rungs until his knuckles were white. Looking over his shoulder proved to be a terrifying idea. The forests and hills and valleys and ocean were revealed to be much farther down than he would have liked. The landscape unfurled beneath his eyes, stretching out for leagues until they crumbled off tremendous cliffs into the churning ocean, abruptly disappearing. Eldynvagar itself seemed to rest on a treacherous shelf of stone, threatening to tumble into the froth at any moment. Its spires looked small from so far and so high, its outer walls looked as if a child could step over them, but the fortress lost none of its sombre magnificence.
"Never look down!" Nicolar shouted from above, his head poking out from one of the holes. He held out a hand which Santhor grasped and together they fell into a small tunnel. The prince rested in the darkness for a moment, regaining his senses and the feeling of firm ground beneath his feet. Shuffling towards the edge, he peered over it and quickly retreated upon seeing that he had climbed over fifty feet. The tunnel he was in was hardly tall enough for him to stand in, so that he was forced to crouch or risk splitting his skull on hard stone. He followed Nicolar out of the narrow passage until they emerged into a wider, but no less higher chamber.
Valmyr and Algard were waiting for them there, hunched and solemn. When the four were reunited, the jarl led the way to a crude stairwell that had been roughly carved directly out of the rock. They spiraled downwards, their boots echoing against the oppressing walls. The light, which came only from the openings, gradually faded and disappeared, leaving them in the dark. Santhor made no remarks and focused on staying afoot. He no longer bothered asking where they were headed, knowing he would soon find out and that they would not have answered him anyway.
Finally, the darkness dissipated and a dim glow announced the end of the stairwell. Gruff voices came from ahead, resonating within the mountain. There came the ring of steel and the clatter of wood, the din of a hammer striking metal and the grunts of men wrestling. The stairs ended and the four companions emerged in an enormous cavern.
Santhor strained his neck backwards to measure the height and width of the place he had just entered. To him it seemed as if a dozen of Eldynvagar's great hall could have fit with room to spare. This was the heart of the mountain or, given its vast and excavated space, the stomach of the mountain. Roaring braziers lit the cave with a bright, warm light and around each, hundreds of men busied themselves.
Many were training with blunt weapons, swinging at each other with dull swords and wooden axes. Others brawled bare-chested, throwing heavy fists and grappling to the stone ground. A select few watched the rest with crossed arms, bellowing orders and hollering insults. There were cooks and smiths and younger servant boys and even medicine men. On the far side of the cavern, a group of women were training just as violently as the men. Their screams rang through the hollow space in the mountain with a wild ferocity. Against a wall, dozens and dozens of hay targets were being used by archers and spear-throwers. One man even hurled two giant axes and hewed one of the straw dummies in three.
The prince could not believe his eyes. An entire army hidden in the center of the mountain. He turned to Nicolar with wide eyes and incomprehension marked all over his face.
"What is this?"
"This, my prince," Nicolar opened his arms wide, "is the army of Gales. And these are the vaeringar, your 'sworn-warriors'."
"This is incredible, but I thought..."
"No, we were never meant to have an army. When we rebelled against the old empire, we bled, but we won our freedom. We were a force to be feared. Your forefathers knew that as well as we did. When they overthrew the emperor and came to power, they granted us peace and independence under the condition that we disband our armies. Fearing another war, our lords agreed. Peace is far too valuable and too rare."
"You lied, then," Santhor could not decide whether to be amazed or angry. His anger quickly vanished when he realized that he would need this army now that he had started a war.
"We protected ourselves from treachery, from the fragile politics of the realm surrounding us. For decades, our armies have trained in the core of the mountains, hidden from sight. They have never been used. Today, they are ready. And they are yours."
"Mine?" The prince turned on himself, absorbing the immensity of the place and the people within it.
"In truth, they are Jarl Valmyr's," Nicolar grinned, "but under his command they will be loyal to you."
Heads were beginning to turn as the prince strolled towards the heart of the cavern. He saw men bow their heads to Algard, thump their fists to their chests when the jarl passed them and grimace with indifference as he walked by.
"Have I done something to offend them?" Santhor asked after another warrior shook his shaggy head as if in disappointment.
"You have done something to offend almost everyone in the province..." Nicolar said. "The situation is not impossible to repair, but there is much to do before winter comes."
Santhor thought about his first few weeks in the province; his pompous arrival, his rudeness during the welcome feast, his absences in court, his outbursts with the orator.
"I have nothing left to lose," he answered. "They have my father, they have my realm. I will bleed for Gales and die for it if I must."
"A valiant speech, my prince," the orator encouraged, "but you must remember, they have everything to lose. Their home will become a battlefield, armies will be sent to their front doors, in a several months war will sweep across Gales."
The enormity of his actions engulfed the prince as Nicolar kept talking about the dire consequences. To Santhor, sending the emissaries away had been a diplomatic matter, one of anger and frustration. Had he known they would take it as a declaration of war, he might have done it differently. It was too late now, his enemies were intent on destroying him and a war provided the perfect pretext to eradicating the Aysr line and subdue a dangerous province in the process.
"What have I done?" He pulled his hair back and looked around him. Everywhere, soldiers were training, working, sweating, men and women waiting to fight for him, a foreign prince.
"Come here!" Nicolar grabbed Santhor by the shoulders and pushed into a shadowed corner where they were alone. "Look me in the eyes and listen closely! Your father knew that the pyrocrats would come out of hiding at one time or the other. He had to prepare you! He sent you here, to me, for that purpose exactly. The enemy could have chosen to strike the next century or the century after that and it would not have changed a thing! It would have been another realm, another war, another prince. It is now! The war is now and this is what we have been preparing for since the dawn of time. Accept that!"
"How can I accept to fight a war against an enemy I do not know with an army that does not love me in a land that is not my own?"
"Because whether you wish it or not," Nicolar tightened his grip on Santhor's shoulders, "you are the prince of Gales and the heir to the realm! Only you can make your subjects love you, follow you blindly into war, live for you, fight for you, die for you. Only you!"
"Tell me how!" Santhor shoved Nicolar away. "How is it possible?"
"Become a prince."
"Then show them."
The two stared at each other in silence for a moment, a lingering tension hanging between them.
"How?" Santhor asked again, desperation creeping into his voice.
"Listen, watch, explore, learn. Do," Nicolar explained. "I have been showing you since you arrived. One day I will tell you of all the princes and kings I have known and advised. I cannot promise that Gales will love you nor that we will win this war. All I can do is teach you everything I know..."
Santhor knew the man was right, he knew that the orator was his only chance of survival, of assuming control of the province and becoming a prince that the people would follow. The winter months would slip past swiftly, giving way to a spring of war. He would be ready by then. He had to.
A thought occurred to him, something vague that he had read in Nicolar's book. A prince needed an army loyal to him, faithful to their country and willing to die defending it. He was fortunate enough to have that. The rest of the province needed to know it as well. They needed to see that Gales was led by a strong man with a host of strong men at his back. An uplifted population, regardless of its size, was worth a thousand armies.
"Jarl Valmyr," Santhor called out as he and Nicolar returned to the light. The jarl approached, looming over him like a giant over a toddler. "I have an idea."
The forest shook with the thunderous sounds of the marching vaeringar. Soldiers pounded on booming skin drums to a constant rhythm, each beat followed by almost two thousand footsteps thudding against the forest floor in unison. Santhor rode at the head of the force, flanked by Valmyr, Algard, Nicolar and a handful of other lesser commanders who possessed horses. They had spent the night in the cavern, and at dawn, the prince had watched his army stream out of the mountain. It was late morning now and a rare, bright sun sparkled in its usual clouded sky. The forest trembled until the host marched out from beneath its dark canopy and onto the wide road.
Proud, stern and determined, Santhor led his men at a steady pace towards Eldynvagar but once they reached the first signs of civilization, he slowed down. He meant to parade his force through Gales, impress his lords and subjects, let them bask in the glory of their army and give them cause to believe that they would win this war. The host marched in a long line, five men abroad, banners streaming depicting the wolf and the bear and the raven, all symbols for clans and battalions. When the great fortress appeared in the distance ahead, the prince ordered his men to announce their arrival with trumpets and horns.
Peasants and farmers stopped working in their fields, gaping at the impressive display of strength. Children raced after the prince, giggling with glee as the painted banners fluttered in the wind. To Santhor's surprise, some of the more powerful lords appeared on horseback at his side, followed by small forces of their personal soldiers. Everyone wanted to be a part of the column.
Nicolar smiled to himself and laughed uncontrollably the entire day. His eyes twinkled when he threw the prince proud looks.
"I could not have advised better, my prince," he grinned when the army reached the gates of Eldynvagar.
The watchmen on the walls greeted the army with a tremendous concert of horns and clanging bells. Santhor could see the surprise on their faces when they saw him leading an army through Gales. During the march, he often wondered if the mood would be as joyous when they marched the other way to face the enemy. In his mind, the faces seemed more solemn, the trumpets sad, the drums slower. The sky would be dark, rain would lash at them and somewhere, a host of foes would wait for them with evil grins on their faces.
The army set up camp on the grassy fields that broke against the walls of Eldynvagar, sheltered from the dawn-waves by its formidable walls. Valmyr spent the rest of the day delegating orders to his thanes, making preparations to erect a winter camp that would last well into spring. The vaeringar would train, eat, sleep and live in the makeshift town until war crossed their borders. The mountain stronghold was too far for the prince and Valmyr to keep watch over the army's development. A few dozen men had remained in the cavern to keep it in order and prepare it in case it was needed again. For the moment, both Nicolar and the jarl agreed with Santhor that the army should be closest to Eldynvagar.
As soon as he arrived, the prince asked Nicolar to prepare a dinner-feast for his lords, to make up for the one he had attended in body but not in spirit. He dispatched messengers throughout the province to summon the lords and their families to court. The farthest estate was half-a-day's ride away but the feasts would last for three days so Lord Gragg would join them for the second night. Santhor expressly requested that every ancient custom and tradition was to be upheld during the feasts. On the third night, the common folk were invited to the inner courtyard to partake in the festivities. The prince hoped they would remember these joyful occasions, there were not many on the horizon.
In the late afternoon, Santhor found a lull in his busy day, and was able to return to his chambers to bathe, change and stare out at the furious ocean for a little while. The orator interrupted him, but the prince was glad of the company, and he needed all the help he could find.
"Are there any other traditions I need to know about for tonight?"
"Compliment the lords on their meals, express interest in their activities, promise them something for the future and make as many toasts as you can," Nicolar smiled. "The Galesans are a simple folk. Hard, but kind. Bent, but unbroken. The ocean does that to a man."
"What of the vaeringar? Have they settled down?"
The orator shook his head. "Building a solid camp is long work. They will be sleeping around fires tonight, but their little town will sprout from the ground in a few days."
"And you think it was a good idea?"
"Brilliant, my prince."
"I was wondering," Santhor said. "You seem to know much about the realm, about what is happening there. Do you have spies? Scouts? I hate waiting in the dark like this... Who knows if a disease has ravaged the realm? If my father is dead or if a war is truly brewing..."
"I do," Nicolar bared his teeth in a mysterious smile. "You will meet her soon. She is a very special woman."
"Where is she?"
"On the ocean," Nicolar peered out the window. "And if the ocean is kind, she should be here any day."