The days following Lysandra's arrival and sudden news passed in a blur of meetings, decisions and books. Santhor hardly saw the outside of his chambers other than through his windows. Nicolar and Valmyr came several times a day to discuss what needed to be done and how they could achieve it quickly. Each new chapter the prince read from Nicolar's treasure chest of books gave him new ideas and inspiration to push on despite the adversity.
"Every book I have read points to this crucial factor," he shared his thoughts with his two councillors one late night after a particularly deep studying session. "Food. I need to know exactly what we have in store, what our lords can provide, how much we can harvest before true winter and how much we will need for our troops and our people."
"Excellent idea, my prince," Nicolar nodded along, scribbling notes in a weary-looking leather journal. "I will have men make inventories of everything you need. Messengers will be sent to the estates and the port. Jarl, you know the vaeringar better than anyone. Can you give us an estimate of the provisions they will need to last through winter and a war? Consider the worst possible scenarios. Siege, embargo, a long winter... Anything. We need numbers."
"I want everything reported to me," Santhor ordered, leaning forward to make himself clear. He had let his beard grow out in the Galesan fashion and was looking more and more like a true lord. He could see it in his subjects' eyes, the way they looked at him had changed almost overnight. "Numbers, facts, reports from the mountains. Valmyr, how are the passes?"
"Snowfall is merely weeks away," the jarl growled. "My men have set up watches on the four passes, day and night. The walls are being restored. Boulders are poised to crash into place and close the roads at any moment. There are sentries along the roads and great horns ready to sound the alarm. No one enters Gales without you hearing word of it first."
"Perfect. I want the fortress to be prepared for the worst. Every single inhabitant must be able to retreat to Eldynvagar if the enemy breaks our first defenses. Is it possible?" Santhor often marveled at the dizzying size of the fortress, but he had no idea how big it truly was nor if it could harbor all the women and children of Gales.
"If we clear out the halls, the dungeons, the unused chambers and crowd people, we might just. We have to consider food, fuel, weapons, horses... I will see what we can do." Nicolar said, his pen scratching away without stopping. "As long as the vaeringar stay in their camp, which we could also enlarge, it should be feasible. It has never been done, not even during the rebellion."
"Many things have never been done until they absolutely have to be," Santhor persisted, recalling to memory the exploits of the rulers in his books. Alexander and Gengis, Emperor Rhade, the black armies of Xinth, his own father King Oden. The examples were countless. Even tiny Gales had resisted the old empire when all the other provinces fell like wheat to a scythe.
"You are right, my prince," the orator agreed. "It will be done. Anything else today?"
"Yes, one last thing," Santhor had reflected for many hours on this subject. The little he knew about his warriors the vaeringar, was impressive. They descended from the men who had fought the imperial legions. Every one of them was vicious, intelligent, deadly, loyal and skilled with their weapons. All they lacked were numbers. Two thousand was tremendous for a province such as Gales. The royal army itself counted near to ten thousand. Yet the realm could muster troops from every province and every province could provide entire hosts. Untrained peasants and fat men of the city watches, but men nonetheless. "We must conscript. Every victorious commander in the books you gave me was forced to enlist unwilling men into his army. Every pair of arms counts. Every shield strengthens our line. Every additional arrow loosed is a soldier less to worry about in the enemy's force."
"I must warn you, the Galesans do not take well to being forced into things," Nicolar winced and Valmyr sat back, crossing his enormous arms.
"Do not tell me they will not fight for their own home," Santhor raised an eyebrow. "Not the honorable, rebellious, independent Galesans I keep hearing about."
"Perhaps, but you will have to speak to the conscripts yourself. When they are summoned to take up the arms, they will want to know why they are fighting and who they are fighting for..."
"That will not be a problem," the prince rose, stretching his back. The moon, for once, shone in the dark sky. "It is late. We will speak more soon. There is already much to do. You are excused."
Santhor let his councillors bow their heads and walk out of his chambers, their notes tucked beneath their arms. He was beginning to feel comfortable in his princely role. War made men out of boys, he knew. And he was a boy who had started a war. Alone in his room, he lay down in his bed, lit a candle and tried to finish a book about the naval warfare and the wars against raiders of the northern isles. He fell asleep to vivid images of a pirate captain leading his band of outlaws against a royal fleet, the ocean a vat of boiling blood, the odor of fire and death in the air, the screams of men and gulls...
A loud creak and a dim shape startled Santhor awake. Without thinking he reached beneath his pillow, curled his fingers around a dagger and stabbed upwards. The attacker easily blocked the prince's wrist, twisted it and with a strangled scream, Santhor dropped his only means of defense. Terrifying images of his struggle with the assassin came surging back, but the man standing above him did nothing but release a rumbling laugh. Suddenly, the dawn-waves burst to life and the fortress shook. In the pale light of daybreak and through the haze of sleep, Santhor recognized the jarl.
"What are you doing? Have you gone insane?" He shot up and pushed Valmyr away, his heart pounding and his anger rising.
"Quiet down, princeling," the jarl's brutish face showed no remorse. "I am not here to kill you."
"If you ever enter my chambers like this again, I swear I will have you—"
"Have me what? I said, quiet!" Valmyr became stern. "Get dressed and follow me."
"I have no orders to take from you!" Santhor's anger increased tenfold. He was the prince!
"Princeling, I am very tired. You have declared a war and I am here to help you win it. Now follow me quietly and you will see why I had to wake you this way. Hurry now, the fortress will be waking soon."
Santhor stared at the giant man, bewildered by his behavior.
"Are you going to spend all day frowning at me?" The jarl continued in his insolent manner.
As curious as he was angry, the prince begrudgingly got out of his bed and dressed, grumbling and cursing beneath his breath. When he was ready, the jarl led him out of the chambers, into the hall and up the nearest stairwell. They navigated the labyrinthine corridors of Eldynvagar, always climbing upwards when new stairs appeared until the air grew glacial and the prince's breath grew ragged. Finally, Valmyr shoved open an old, dusty door with his shoulder and a gust and a deafening roar struck them with their full force. Santhor squinted through the wind and stepped out onto a small, enclosed terrace that overlooked the grey ocean. Every direction he looked in, grey. Sky and clouds and cliffs and ocean. No sign of life but the eternal birds circling rocky inlets. Behind him rose the last spires of the fortress, blocking any sight of land.
"Where are we?" Santhor wondered, his curiosity gaining on his fury now. He had to shout over the wind and waves.
"In the only place where no one can see or hear us," Valmyr answered, not seeming to speak any louder than usual yet his voice broke through the noise. He strode to a corner and picked up two blunt swords and old wooden shields that were lying there. He tossed Santhor one of each.
Fear crept into the prince's heart again. If there was one place an assassin would be able to kill him without being caught, it was here. Was Valmyr a traitor working for the enemy? Had he been turned by Oryp? Dozens of questions rang in Santhor's mind as he backed away from the massive jarl. If Valmyr was indeed here to kill him, he would have no chance. But why would he have given him weapons? What was this?
"Nicolar wants me to train you," Valmyr finally broke the tension. "From what he tells me, you are useless with steel, have never fought nor wielded a weapon, have never drawn blood... From this day until the day you die, we will meet here as often as possible. You are no longer my prince on this terrace. You are a child. A useless, idiotic, weak, defenseless girl."
Santhor's eyes widened as the stream of insults reached his ears. Almost nobody had ever spoken to him that way in his life. He was a prince, but somehow, the jarl facing him managed to make him feel as if every single one of those insults were true. Santhor suddenly became a boy being chided by his father. A bear of a father wielding a wicked-looking blade that, although blunt, looked like it would leave agonizing bruises. The prince backed away again, until his legs hit the stone wall that stood between him and a hundred-foot fall.
"Lift your sword and your shield," Valmyr grunted. "And do not let yourself be knocked over that wall!"
Santhor looked over his shoulder down at the plummeting fall that awaited him on the other side of the parapet, a long, lonely plunge into the ocean. No one would even hear him scream. He turned back to the jarl and barely saw the flash of steel swinging towards his face. He instinctively raised his shield to block the blow but Valmyr was strong, too strong. The blade struck wood and sent the rim of the shield crashing into his cheek and nose. Santhor crumbled to the cold, stone floor and let darkness wash over him.
"Wake up!" The jarl's words were a distant echo, carried by whirling winds. Freezing cobbles pressed against the prince's skin, his body was an impossible weight. Two great arms lifted him off the ground and set him on his feet. A hand the size of his face slapped him gently until his vision cleared and Valmyr came into focus. "I told you to raise your shield."
Santhor nodded, his jaw throbbing and several teeth feeling loose in his mouth. He coughed blobs of blood and touched his cheek to feel a huge welt growing.
"You will just have to tell everyone that you fell down the stairs," Valmyr shrugged, then contorted his face into a warrior's grimace. "Lift your sword! Defend yourself!"
The giant came again, his blade a singing flurry. Santhor deflected one blow that would have shattered his jaw again, then parried a strike that aimed for his groin. Valmyr feigned a third attack with his sword and instead brought his shield around and smashed it in the prince's side. Santhor fell to his knees, his barely healed ribs screaming with agony inside his body. He hung his head, tears dropping freely to the floor.
"Again," Valmyr ordered calmly, ignoring the prince's injuries and weeping.
Santhor groaned with pain as he tried to stand, but his limbs hung heavily, inexorably drawn to the ground. There was no strength left in his body. "I cannot."
The jarl spat in front of Santhor. "If you are to be my prince. If you are to lead me to war, then stand up and fight again."
"No," the prince clutched his ribs, wincing each time the wind blasted into him.
Valmyr looked down at him with disgust and turned on his heels. He was about to leave the terrace and return to the relative warmth of the halls when he growled. "Your father was right. You are worthless. There is no hope for Gales."
Santhor knew the jarl was using those words to sting his pride and he should have been smarter than him, but his pride, which had already been pummeled, took the blow. He got on his feet and charged at Valmyr's back, confident that he was making a terrible mistake. He was right. The jarl ducked the prince's swing, spun and kicked out with a trunk-sized leg. Santhor hit the ground with his back, his head cracking against the stone.
He took another breath and scrambled to his feet once more, only to spend the entire morning being battered by the jarl.
The baying hounds leaped ahead of the hunting party, brown streaks flitting between the grey trunks and dark bushes. Santhor winced each time his horse jerked too abruptly, bolts of pain jarring his body. He had spent over a week sparring with the jarl every morning, although sparring would mean that he had fought on equal terms with the man. By the second day, he could hardly move his arms, his chest throbbed with bruises and his face was a bloody mess. At the end of the third morning of training, he secretly wished that another assassin would come and take his life. Valmyr rode at his side as they cantered into the woods. The jarl's face seemed to have lost its hard lines, growing brighter and more jovial with time, as if the impending war and the daily beatings he admonished were making him young again. The prince scowled.
Three men accompanied Santhor and Valmyr, all three thanes of the vaeringar and men as hard and silent as their jarl. They led the party, deftly picking their way through the thickening forest and following the chilling howls of their hounds. Nicolar had remained in Eldynvagar to continue counting people, crops and weapons. The lords were in the process of answering the orator's requests with their own estimates. Matters were moving faster than anyone had anticipated.
Santhor let his mind wander ahead, since no one offered conversation in their grim troop. He remembered Nicolar's advice on their first hunting trip, and tried discovering his land through a commander's eyes. The entire forest of Gales was a compact host of towering pines, close-knit glades, dipping dells and sudden hills. No foreign army could cross these lands swiftly or unharmed. As he finished new books, Santhor repeatedly used them as inspiration to summon forth ideas. Several days ago, he and the jarl had established a new force of warriors, the sentinels.
Nearly a hundred vaeringar had been hand-picked by Valmyr to become the first regiment of sentinels in Gales. They were to explore the forest, live in it, know it better than the foxes who lurked in it, and when the enemy arrived, harry them from the shelter of the trees. The prince had them clad in grey furs and green clothes, equipped with short bows and short swords, to wander the forests ceaselessly. The thanes who accompanied him were to be the commanders of the sentinels, trustworthy men who would make the forest their stronghold, impenetrable and deadly.
Even the jarl had thought it was a brilliant proposal.
"The mountains are ours, the ocean is ours," he had said when Santhor offered the idea, "and now the forests will be ours. I have just the men for you."
Thanes Tamraq, Markel and Ullen were the three chosen men, each of them leading a force of thirty warriors. The Eagles, the Wolves and the Bears. One purpose for every company. Tamraq and his Eagles would be the primary force of harrying, with a majority of soldiers proficient with the bow. Markel and his pack of Wolves were meant to stalk the enemy in the darkness, launch swift strikes and lurk in the shadows. Ullen's company had chosen their name wisely. Like their chief, every single one of the men was a brutal mass of muscle and ferocity. They were the final blow, the hammering charge once the other companies had weakened the enemy. All of them wielded axes. Santhor had never thought to see a man who could dwarf Valmyr so flagrantly. In his heart, he was glad that Ullen would be living in the forest from now on.
This hunting trip, like the last, was more about strategy and scouting than actual hunting. Tamraq did manage to feather a pheasant, unslinging, arming and loosing with incredible speed. By the time the other men had spotted the bird, it already lay lifeless in the dirt. They glimpsed a magnificent stag atop a hill, its majestic figure outlined against the morning sun, gold-limned antlers crowning its head. Ullen the bear grunted when he noticed heavy boar dung in the brush and tusk marks against the nearby tree trunks, but no one had brought boar spears.
"An axe and my arms are all I need," the huge thane grunted and Santhor believed him.
Around midday, the party reached the top of a steep hill that gave them a sweeping view of the forest and the rest of the province. Almost invisible in the distance, a white line snaked along the green fields, lounging the coast and ending at the gates of the fortress. In that moment, Santhor was glad that the sentinels would come into their new functions in the following days. From his vantage point, he realized just how small Gales truly was; nothing but an emerald sward trapped between thick forests and plummeting cliffs. Less than two miles separated the borders of the woods and the ocean, and every inch of that land was crowded with the lords' estates, fields, a bustling port and Eldynvagar, the whole linked by that single road. Only Lord Gragg's lands were out of sight, lurking behind a stretch of hills in the southernmost part of the province.
"The smallest wavelet can grind a million pebbles into sand," Valmyr broke in, reading Santhor's thoughts. "It is a saying here."
"It is not a very good one," the prince felt obliged to say.
"You cannot know yet, but you will," the jarl pursued. "Ask these thanes. Their fathers' fathers were warriors, as was mine. When the imperial legions marched through the mountains and into Gales, their commanders laughed. The emperor on his throne laughed. The entire empire, who had submitted, laughed and pitied us. We have another saying. A single gust can blow the needles off a thousand pines."
"Let us hope that you are more skillful warriors than you are wordsmiths," Santhor chuckled, patting the jarl on the shoulder. Still, he understood what Valmyr meant.
"You will see."
"There is less than half-a-day's march from the mountain passes to the fortress..." The prince voiced his concern. "The instant the enemy breaches our defenses, they will be in our lands, attacking our people. Time is not on our side. Nor are the numbers. Do we even stand a chance?"
"How many times will I be forced to make allusions to our victory against the empire? Our ancestors told us the stories countless times; the legions came in their thousands, tens of thousands! We fought them like the wolf defends its cubs, weathered their assaults like the cliffs weather the storm, struck back with hammer and blade. They may have outnumbered us, but this is not their home. When they camped by the mountains, we made the mountains crash down on them. By the ocean, the dawn-waves and the tempests battered them. In the forest," the jarl waved a hand, "they lost themselves, starved and froze. Now, we also have the sentinels. Come, I want to show you something."
The hunters mounted their horses after their short pause atop the hill and Valmyr led the way down into the forest and then back up the rugged slopes that announced the feet of the mountains. Instead of climbing up, the jarl struck east across the thinning woods until they emerged onto a dead stretch of rock and boulders and pebbles. The Galesan horses kept their footing on the treacherous terrain, and they soon crossed the hard grey field and returned onto the road. Looking over his shoulder, Santhor realized that they had left the road near the fortress, cut through forests and hills and met the road where it began. They were nearing the looming mountain passes where, many weeks ago, the prince had caught his first sight of Gales.
Once out from beneath the shelter of the woods, the cold increased tenfold. Every breath sent spikes of ice into his throat and chest, and a plume of mist into the air. He wrapped his furs around his shoulders, rubbed his bare hands and ears and hoped that the winds would lessen. It was a vain hope this high in the mountains. Here, the gusts coming in from the wide ocean rose and swirled and froze, trapped in sharp stony vales and glacial abysses. They rushed up to the mountain peaks and descended laden with pellets of ice and flurries of snow. Although snow was not yet falling in the passes and down in Gales, the peaks were already white crowns.
"It's freezing!" The prince shouted over the wind, but the party carried on, along the slender mountain road.
Soon, on either side of them, the mountains rose to impossible heights, lost in a deep mist. The road climbed higher and higher, before finally leveling out in a narrow canyon. The first of the mountain passes. Four men abreast could hardly walk the road without bumping into each other and the party had to ride in a single file line. Santhor rode behind Valmyr, who was in his true element.
"Gales, if we will it, is impenetrable, my prince," the jarl arched his neck back and stared up at the clouded heavens. He was right; properly defended, this pass could be held by a hundred men against an army. And before this pass lay another three. Four canyons to enter Gales, four deadly traps an army would have to survive before even setting foot in the province. "This pass will be closed last, but come, we must see the others."
"Is there any way out?"
"Not really," Valmyr answered. "A few hunting tracks that plunge deep into the mountains. Even a single man would have to be careful treading those. The passes can be opened, in case we must make a sortie or our first defenses are breached and we must retreat behind another wall, but other than that, Gales is sealed tight."
For two more hours, the hunters trotted along the freezing mountain road and Santhor marveled at the impressive natural defenses Gales possessed. The third and second passes were busy with men hauling boulders and carving giant poles from felled trees, but still open. The workers bowed their head to their prince and jarl, although Santhor doubted they even knew who he was and had certainly only recognized Valmyr. It was of no importance today, all that mattered was the strength of the mountain passes. Finally they reached the primary defense of the province, and then the prince understood.
Before him stood a wall, built from boulders, rubble and dirt. Huge trunks held the structure aloft, but Santhor had no doubt that the wall could hold on its own. It seemed as if only a tremendous earthquake would be able to bring the barrier down. High above the canyon, on either side of him, men were nested in small caves, and patrolled along narrow ledges. More boulders were poised, ready to tumble down and smash the enemy to pieces. The prince leapt down from his horse and strode to the wall. He put a hand on the cold stone and looked up at the immense structure. It was high as ten men and seemed thick as twenty. A great smile crossed his face and for a long moment, he forgot the physical pain that Valmyr had caused him. He spun slowly, taking in every inch of the great defense.
All the strange sayings suddenly made sense and in his heart, the prince knew that Gales could not fall.