Winter had come to Gales, crashing over it like a silent white wave. In the weeks after his trip to the mountain passes, Santhor had settled into a princely routine. His mornings were dedicated to getting himself thrashed by the jarl on the freezing terrace. The rest of the time was spent reading, discussing with Nicolar, hosting grand councils which the more important lords attended and learning as much about Gales as he could.
His hunting trips into the forests and mountains became a weekly habit. He journeyed into the heart of the woods and met with the commanders of the sentinels, who had permanently established their stronghold amongst the trees. Three of the four mountain passes were now closed and manned, ready for any assault.
As he discovered his forests and mountains, Nicolar insisted that he also explore Gales' most vital feature, the ocean. Lysandra had even agreed to taking him aboard on several scouting expeditions, although the captain still mourned the loss of her ship and crew. She was a morose companion, easily irritated by his questions and often insolent with her prince. He soon learned to stay away from her as much as he could. In Eldynvagar, vast as it was, avoiding her was no difficult task. On their sailing trips, he sat at the prow while she navigated from the stern. Sometimes, the two never shared a single word.
Still, thanks to her naval prowess, he was able to see Gales from an altogether novel perspective. From the deck of a ship, the province offered a beautiful and awe-inspiring landscape. The cliffs rose far higher than Santhor could ever have imagined, even when he stood looking down from their heads. From below, one could truly comprehend their sheer power and monumental presence on the coasts of Gales. Over them rose the great fortress, which seemed to grow as soon as he gawked up at it from below. And as Lysandra sailed further out, the sight widened and the prince admired the seemingly endless swathes of woodland and the tremendously high mountains. The natural forces of the world had constructed a fortress out of this land. Santhor sometimes wondered if Gales could defend itself even without its warriors.
The sailing trips became rare when the harsher winds and weather of winter appeared. Each day brought the distant menace of black storms on the horizon and when night fell, the storms unleashed their fury. As soon as the tempests died down, the dawn-waves would rise and the tumultuous din would begin again. Gales was a province to make a man deaf, and during the long stormy nights and the bitterly cold days, the prince longed for the sunny bay of An Asrai.
As time passed, war approached and became a reality for the people of the province. Everything was done to prepare for an invasion, from farming to fishing to forging. After agreeing with the council of lords, Santhor ordered the first conscriptions that Gales had ever seen. Boys over fourteen and peasants fit for battle were summoned to the fortress to be trained for war. In the camp of the vaeringar, which had become a bustling town of its own, Valmyr had established training fields and dispatched entire regiments dedicated to training recruits. The first month after the conscriptions, the army of Gales had swollen to almost four thousand, with over two thousand untrained farmers in their ranks. The jarl hoped that three months would suffice to make adequate soldiers of them all.
In the final days before true winter, Santhor had allowed the conscripts and even the willing vaeringar to participate in the year's last harvests. The prince and Nicolar had ridden up and down the main road of the province, overseeing the work and the transport of crops back to the fortress. The people were glad to see their new prince amongst them and happy to have a few normal days before becoming soldiers. For many, this could be the last harvest.
"I am worried about food, my prince," Nicolar declared at one of the councils following the harvest. "Despite my best estimations and considering rations and a year-long war... I fear we may run out of food long before we hoped so. If we do not plant again in the spring, the province will go hungry. We will have to resort to hunting, gathering, fishing. We cannot plan until we know how the war will go."
"Then we must ration the food for those who cannot fight as soon as possible," the prince decided after thinking carefully. "And keep our troops well fed. If they maintain their full strength, we will win this war faster and can then replant our fields and restore our provisions."
"Are you sure? You would let the people hunger?" Earl Reynar asked. Some of the older lords shared concerned looks. Most would certainly not be fighting and they were beginning to wonder if their own food would be rationed.
"There is no other way," Santhor held his position. "I have read about too many armies starving to death. Would you rather eat less for a few months or be slaughtered in your sleep because the men defending your homes are fighting on empty stomachs?" That seemed to decide them and they unanimously agreed to begin rationing as soon as the granaries and storehouses were full and completely accounted for.
Gales was in wintry turmoil, but at its head, the prince and his councillors kept the province steady, determined, proud. The constant war preparations alongside daily training with Valmyr as well as hunting and sailing trips were beginning to take their toll on Santhor. His mind and body wearied a little more each day, he saw wrinkles beginning to appear on his young face and a shadow lurking in his clear eyes. This was what his father had wanted. This was what it meant to be a prince. The fate of an entire population resting on his shoulders, on his decisions, on his mistakes. And with those thoughts, he never stopped learning.
Until one night came, two months into the deepening winter, where he learned his first lesson of war.
The day had been like so many others; cold and dark and grim. The latest snow storm had left a sheet of white in the courtyards of the fortress and over the dead fields. In the forests, the pines were laden with snow, the ground was a wet blend of ice and mud and the air burned any patch of skin that was not covered. The passes were all finally closed and under watch. The ships slept in the port until spring would come again. Santhor stalked the gloomy halls of his fortress, rarely leaving the comforting warmth of his fireplace. Even inside, everyone wore thick sealskins and bristling furs. Gales hibernated as the elements lashed at it from sky and ocean.
Nicolar shook the prince awake, panic filling his voice. "My prince! Wake up, now! The enemy is here! The enemy has come!"
Santhor had been ready for this day for several weeks now. All his pieces were in place, in his mind he was prepared for war, his body had grown strong and hard from training with Valmyr. He woke immediately, rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he dressed warmly, but for battle. He rushed down the stairs, surprised at the silence in Eldynvagar.
"Why is everyone still asleep?"
"We did not think it wise to startle the people," Nicolar explained. "You will soon see why."
Dozens of scenarios sped through his mind as he emerged into the frozen courtyards of the fortress. A biting gust coursed along the walls, the snow eddied in dark corners. Valmyr waited for him, mounted on his usual horse, with the prince's saddled mare at his side.
"Hurry," the jarl urged. "We have a cold ride ahead."
Santhor leapt onto his mount and shivered as he grew accustomed to the outside air. The dawn-waves had not yet crashed into the earth, which meant the hour was still early.
"Let us hope the horns of war are not yet upon us," Nicolar said solemnly and in a puff of snow, the riders galloped out of the fortress.
Valmyr leaned forward on his steed and made straight for the camp of the vaeringar. As soon as they reached the outskirts of the makeshift town of tents and huts, Santhor could distinguish a small regiment of riders. Without needing orders, they spurred their beasts into motion and soon the prince and his warriors were storming down the road, silent ghosts on a ground of soft snow. He urged his horse forward, ever faster, and behind followed Valmyr and almost two hundred warriors. The wind lashed at their hair and banners, tugging at their cloaks and whistling in their ears. The jarl chose the traditional road this time, a swifter path up to the mountains.
Long before they reached the great walls of the passes, Santhor sensed that something was amiss. Distant torches flickered in the dark, high on the ledges of the mountains. Men were shouting and somewhere, horns were blaring. There were no sounds of fighting yet, but the prince knew full well that they still had a few miles left before they knew for certain.
When the road reached the canyon and flattened out, Valmyr reined his horse to a halt and called the captain of the defense. In the night, Santhor and the other riders were slowing their mounts as well, massing in front of the wall. The prince's heart was beating before the captain even spoke, his voice carrying on the wind.
"They are here my lord," the stout, gruff captain said, his beady eyes constantly flicking back to the wall as if enemies would come suddenly pouring over it. "The first watchers spotted lights in the distance, a host marching up the plains. Foolish of them really, but the cold is gripping and the darkness dangerous."
"How many?" Valmyr asked the crucial question.
"More than a thousand, we reckon. Less than two."
"The battalion that Lysandra warned us about," Santhor said immediately. Valmyr nodded.
"They must have waited to strike in the deep of winter and night, catch us by surprise," the jarl thought out loud before turning back to the captain. "Where are they now?"
"At the pace they are going, they will be on the wall within the hour," the captain did not seem frightened by the prospect. Neither did Valmyr and the vaeringar. Santhor hoped that his growing apprehension was concealed by the darkness and flurrying snows. Terror grabbed hold of his body rather than the cold now. He fingered the hilt of his sword, thinking back to the hours spent being beaten into a whimpering coward by the jarl. How would he fare against a real enemy? How could he possibly survive a battle, let alone a war?
"My prince," Valmyr spurred his horse closer to Santhor, so that the two could discuss alone. "What would you have me do?"
"There is nothing to do from here," Santhor managed, despite the cold and terror, to make his mind function. He fumbled about for all the military accounts he had read, all the stories and all the commanders that inspired him. This was the moment he could show that he was a true prince. He needed to wield not only his sword, but also his mind. "We go to the first defense."
The captain and his men set to the grueling labor of freeing enough stones so that a rider could pass through the wall, but quite rapidly they managed to create a passage. Santhor led his company beneath the thick defense and out onto the other side. The stretch of canyon between each wall was less than a mile, but it was narrow and difficult to navigate. Above, the prince could sense the presence of watchful warriors and the looming threat of boulders ready to fall. Once more he thought confidently that no army could breach these defenses. At each wall, the designated captain gave them more news about the approaching enemy and let them through into the next part of the gorge.
Finally they reached the last wall and there, for the first time, Santhor heard the true sounds of war.
From over the wall came the regular blasts of trumpets and horns, the beating drums that gave rhythm to a marching army and the war chants of men who came to kill. On their side of the wall, the defending warriors stood with solemn looks etched on their stone faces. Their weapons were drawn, their quivers full, their helms glinting in the torchlight. On the ledges above, the watchers had their gazes set off into the distance.
Valmyr gestured for the prince to dismount and the two climbed up a series of sharp and abrupt steps that had been carved into the mountain. They reached a slender shelf of stone that led into a small cavern. A dozen soldiers were huddled around a crackling fire, warming their hands and whetting their blades. Others were preparing baskets of large, jagged rocks to throw. All of them were silent, nodding respectfully at their superiors.
The jarl led Santhor away from the cave and further along the shelf until they had rounded a face of the mountain and were overlooking the plains of the neighboring province, Andelas. Santhor remembered the road he had taken to reach Gales, meandering through hundreds of leagues of tall grass, lush glades and broad rivers. Compared to Gales, most of the provinces of the realm were extensive lands of rolling fields and hills. And down in the distance, marching up the road and out of the plains was the first enemy battalion.
The captains had been correct, the battalion was small given the size of the royal army. No more than two thousand men formed the advancing ranks. In the faraway torchlight, the prince could make out banners and spears, but no horses save the scant few reserved to commanders. This was a precursory strike, a warning to him that the realm could easily muster and lose two thousand soldiers. They had come to harry their defenses, weary his men and weaken the province before the true army arrived.
"What do you make of this?" Santhor asked his jarl.
"I... I am not certain," Valmyr stumbled and the prince realized something he had not realized before. The jarl, like himself, had never fought a true war, had probably never killed a man. He, as a vaeringar, was trained in the arts of battle, the ways of weapons, but Gales had not seen bloodshed in centuries.
"Then we wait," Santhor did not know what else to do. Most commanders feared making the first move unless they knew absolutely everything there was to know about the day's adversary. And the prince knew nothing about the battalion marching towards his province. The numbers were guesses, their purpose was vague and their strength unknown. "They cannot harm us from out there. Keep the men prepared."
Valmyr hesitated, then when he realized that he had no alternative, nodded. "Of course, my prince. What about you?"
"I will stay here for now," Santhor kept his eyes on the approaching glimmers. "I will come down when the time comes."
The wait was interminable, but the prince stayed stoic in the cold winds, always watching the enemy or studying his own troops preparing behind their defenses. The vaeringar were brave, fierce and trained, but he was beginning to fear that they would not be enough against blooded soldiers. And he was not enough of a warrior to lead them into battle, like a prince should. Still, he would have to. The thought circled in his mind incessantly, growing darker and more petrifying as the enemy battalion came into view.
Santhor's gaze slipped away from the marching soldiers for what seemed like an instant, and when he looked back, they were a hundred feet from the wall. Rank after rank of unmoving soldiers, stern faces glowing in the torchlight, banners floating in the wind. Not a single one of them twitched, their rigid spears dug into the earth with their boots firmly planted and their helmed heads facing forward. The mounted officers discussed among themselves, regularly glancing in direction of the wall they faced. From his vantage point, the prince could almost see the entirety of the battalion. He quickly counted approximately fifteen hundred men, a few ranks of spearmen, the rest with sheathed swords, but in the darkness he was unable to make out any bows.
The officers, four in all, spurred their horses closer to the wall, raising their hands up in a gesture of peace. Santhor glimpsed some of his men lurking in the shadows and stalking the mountain ledges, arrows nocked. At his or Valmyr's signal, they could loose a deadly volley. Santhor looked down at the jarl, whose view was blocked by the wall, and motioned for him to wait, but keep the vaeringar at the ready.
"Question them," the prince turned to one of the captains in the cave behind him. He did not yet want to be seen by the enemy nor did he want them to know that he had two hundred mounted warriors waiting to charge.
The captain rose to take up his duty and advanced as far as he could onto the jutting ledge. Santhor waited in retreat, where he could see without being seen.
"Halt!" The captain shouted and broke the tense silence. "You may go no further. The province is closed at the prince's command."
"Good man," the royal officer sneered and shouted back up. "It is by royal decree that we are here, sent to retrieve the prince and escort him safely back to his throne. Send word to him and we will wait."
The captain looked back at Santhor, unsure as to what to say next. The prince whispered and let the captain speak for him.
"The prince is content in Gales and he has no desire to return, with or without an escort. You are not welcome here. Turn back now and we will forget this affront."
"Our superiors warned us that this request would be refused. Let the prince know that his unfortunate words with the emissaries can still be forgiven. He is the rightful heir. All we wish is for our realm to have a king."
The captain waited for Santhor to murmur the answer. "The prince knows exactly who you superiors are. The royal army is not meant to follow orders from anyone but the king. This is a second warning, turn back now and return to your masters."
"Why is the prince cowering behind his men? Tell him to come out and speak to us himself. I know he is here."
Santhor bit his lip, not knowing whether he should reveal himself yet. Below, behind the wall, the vaeringar were growing restless, their horses stamping and the men waiting only to be freed. Perhaps they were bloodthirsty and vengeful enough to defeat royal soldiers. They had been shackled for decades, waiting for the day when a man would come free their province. Santhor stepped forward onto the ledge and into the light, drawing a satisfied smile from the officers.
"My prince," the man bowed his head. "I prefer discussing directly with you. Your men are unreasonable. Gales is a land of savages. Come down and we will see you safely back to An Asrai, your home."
"Tell me one thing before I agree, officer," the prince shouted, blood bubbling in his veins. "How did my father die?"
The officer appeared puzzled by the question, but answered rapidly and naturally. "In his bed, from an attack of the heart. The entire realm knows it."
"Liars," Santhor muttered beneath his breath. He looked for his soldiers stalking the ledges, at the mounted warriors behind the wall and the dozens of other defenders. Subtly, he gave Valmyr a signal and sensed that his orders were being heeded. Then he spoke forcefully one last time. "Leave this province and run back to your masters. This a final warning. Gales wants no quarrel with the realm."
"No quarrel?" The officer snorted. "My prince, you are on the verge of a war. Your actions are reckless and foolish. We have given you enough chances. Our orders are clear."
Santhor raised his hand and dropped it. War it would be. From the shadows, dozens of bows were drawn and the sound of strings being released echoed on the mountains. An invisible volley of arrows soared into the night sky and death fell blindly in the enemy battalion. The tension snapped as the first screams of the wounding and dying rang in the province of Gales.
"Again!" The prince shouted. His bowmen took aim and another flurry of shafts sang in the darkness. The royal officers below began screaming orders as their battalion scattered and cowered behind their shields. In the torchlight, Santhor spotted the limp bodies of fallen soldiers and his stomach churned. Disgusted, he turned away and began his climb down from the mountain shelf. Agonizing howls pierced the air each time a bowman found his mark, but the noises of battle were soon drowned out by the tremendous blare of a warhorn. The enemy was rallying.
The prince weaved through the crowded space behind the wall, pushing past horses and busied soldiers. He found Valmyr at the front, holding the reins to Santhor's empty horse. Despite the sickness in his gut, the prince calmly mounted his horse and turned to face his warriors. Two hundred dark faces stared at him, fear beginning to seep into their eyes.
"Have the men manning the wall be prepared to open it," Santhor said to the jarl, who looked at him with wide eyes.
"Are... are you certain, my prince?"
"Just in case. For now, let them fall beneath our arrows and—"
The prince was interrupted by the sudden shattering of glass and then something deflagrated above his head and the world exploded. Those nearest to the blast were thrown from their horses, furs and hair flaming, their screams strident. Santhor, luckily, was sheltered by the wall and the men huddled around him. The blazing heat of the flames still licked his face and a burning wind roared in his ears. Beside him, Valmyr was holding his head between his hands. Several bloodied bodies were strewn across the rocky floor.
"What happened?" He screamed, but his ears were ringing and he heard no answer to his question. The horses stomped in panic, some of them rearing to buck their riders off. Within seconds, the canyon had become a fiery trap. Above, the bowmen were continuing to shoot over the wall and, Santhor hoped, striking their targets. That would buy them several seconds. He had to rally his men, prepare them for battle. Waiting behind this wall, they were as vulnerable to fire as the enemy was to arrows. In the hazy confusion he sought his standard-bearers, struggling to keep their horses still. He reached out for them, digging his heels into his mount's sides and inching closer. His fingers fumbled at one of their waists, the warrior looking at him perplexed. Santhor ignored him and unbuckled the man's horn, tearing it from his belt and bringing it to his own lips. With a single breath he blew into the horn and the mountains seemed to tremble. The world silenced and his men calmed down, all their eyes turning to him.
"Open the wall!" He shouted as loudly as he could. "Open the gate! We ride! We charge! To me, vaeringar!" And he sounded the horn again, drawing his glimmering sword as he did. Soon, all the warriors who had horns of their own were echoing his blast.
Men who had heard his orders were sweating and heaving against enormous boulders, struggling to make a passage through the wall. Meanwhile, the mounted warriors gathered behind their prince, swords drawn, axes hefted and spears held high. The standard-bearers continued blowing their horns and a second flaming explosion rocked the face of the mountains, but Santhor and his vaeringar paid it no heed. Bowmen tumbled down from their ledge, propelled to their death by the strange fiery projectiles. The prince's mind was a swirl of fire, death and fury, and he ignored the pang of sadness as his men died around him.
A breach in the wall appeared and he screamed and galloped out of the canyon. Hundreds of hooves pounded the earth at his back as the vaeringar streamed forth, banners flapping, horns sounding and cries of war thunderous in the night. The prince emerged onto the old road and facing him stood a battalion of royal soldiers preparing for the charge. Bodies littered the ground at their feet, riddled with arrows. The officers were shouting orders.
Santhor forgot his fear, or else he let it drive him, sending him in a furious gallop at the tip of the wedge. He sensed the warmth and strength of the two hundred warriors around him. The road sloped downwards and his company gained speed, thundering towards waiting spears. Arrows whizzed over his head and landed in the enemy's ranks. He saw the panic in their eyes. The distance grew shorter and shorter and then the collision between the two armies caused an ear-splitting sound that seemed to shatter the world.
The prince and his riders broke the first rank like a wave smashes a ship against rocks. Swords hacking left and right, the vaeringar plunged deep into their foe's ranks, slashing and hewing and leaving a bloody gaping hole in their formation. At his side, Santhor glimpsed Valmyr being sprayed with red as his blade bit into a man's neck. Everywhere around him, warriors were reaping death and the enemy fell back, crushed beneath their hooves. Men were torn from their horses and continued fighting on foot, others were skewered by spears and their steeds wandered aimlessly, neighing in panic. In the darkness, everything was chaos. As Santhor's forces advanced, torches were snuffed and the night grew deeper. He swung his sword like the jarl had taught him, but this time he was fighting shadows and the shadows meant to kill him. The smell of gore caused him to gag but he pushed on, supported by his riders.
From one moment to the next, the prince found himself without another foe to slay, only corpses lay before him. His riders were scattered in bands, clashing swords with small groups of the enemy. The officers were nowhere to be seen. Most of the torches had ceased flickering and the world was shrouded in impenetrable dark. Only the sounds of death being dealt oriented the prince as he spurred his horse blindly into new clusters of soldiers. Horns were sounding again, but they seemed distant and frantic. He heard men screaming to retreat but he had no idea whether they were his own or the enemy's. Suddenly, he was alone in the dark, hundreds of feet from the wall. Instinct told him to ride back to the safety of the mountains and get off the road. He could not tell how many of his men were left or if the battalion had been defeated.
Blind, dazed, terrified, he rode back up the road, sensing the soft bodies beneath his horse's hooves. He noticed other riders around him, also picking their way through the carnage and back to the light. Someone had lit torches on the wall and fires still glimmered above in the mountain's caves. A ragged and stunned band of vaeringar regrouped at the wall, passing solemnly through it and back into the canyon. Santhor was among the last to enter, and one last look over his shoulder let him see that the road was drenched in blood and piled high with corpses. He rode beneath the wall and soon after, men were shoving stones and boulders and rubble back into place.
The battle was over. From the grim faces around him, staring absently into nothingness, Santhor could not tell if they had won. A quick glance let him know that over a hundred riders had returned, but many other men were now on foot. Almost all were blood-soaked.
"My prince!" Valmyr appeared, his horse nowhere to be seen. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
"No... I am fine," Santhor croaked. His jarl had a deep cut above his left eye and blood was running down his face, but he seemed otherwise unhurt. "How many men did we lose?"
"I cannot be sure," Valmyr's eyes were darting in every direction. "The enemy fell back, they ran home with their tails between their legs. We won, Santhor! We defeated them! Two hundred against a thousand, at the least! The vaeringar are victorious! Santhor! Santhor!" The jarl began shouting and the solemn men joined in the chants of triumph.
The prince struggled to bask in the glory, his hands were still sticky with blood and his fingers gripped the hilt of his blade, refusing to release it.
"Have the men clean this up and bury the bodies," he mumbled to Valmyr. "Strengthen the wall and keep a watch. We ride back to Eldynvagar now."
His orders were heeded and silently, the host of vaeringar marched back down the canyon, through the three walls of defense under the cheers of the men. Santhor was unable to enjoy the moment of glory, but his warriors who were still under the enchantment of battle sung deep chants of victory in their rough tongue. Many had lost their horses and marched alongside those who had not, so the going was slow. It was dawn when they reached the final wall and far away, the dawn-waves boomed. Finally they left the mountains and headed down the road that followed the borders of the forest. The smell of smoke reached their nostrils as they crested a ridge and came into view of the province on the ocean's edge.
Santhor stopped his company with a raised fist and the chants ceased immediately. In the distance beneath them, Gales was burning.