The wind danced through the trees, sunlight dappling down through the verdant leaves. Birds sang and danced through the canopy overhead, their sweet voices mingling with the creak of leather, the plod of hooves and rattle of wheels on packed dirt, the jangling of the bit as horses shook their heads, and the ebb and flow of voices. Two parties mingled on the road, walking together under two banners – one a bright eagle on a russet field, the other a black wolf on icy blue.
At the front of the double procession were two men, each astride a pair of handsome horses. The pair conversed with the ease of long standing friendship.
“I haven’t been to Grismere in quite a few years,” one said. “Not since the Tournament of the Swans, nearly five years now.”
“Wasn’t that the tournament you became known as Sir Kadir the Bold at?” the other asked.
Kadir laughed, his teeth bright against his tawny brown skin. “That it was! So named for my comeback in the sword fight, or so I was told. I still insist I was only high on adrenaline.”
“Sir Kadir the Bold is a reasonable choice for a princess’s husband,” his friend said on a sigh. “You are the reigning champion of Malkasar years over. I do not see why I was invited.”
“Have a little faith, Lucien,” Kadir protested. “What you do not have in the matter of high ranks you make up for in your heart. That is far more important than titles.”
Lucien sighed, pushing back strands of brown hair from his face. “But does the king or princess agree that a couple of glorified knights will belong among princes and dukes and such? This will likely be a waste of time.”
“An adventure is never a waste of time.”
“But dancing through politics can be.”
Kadir let out another bright laugh; it belonged among the birdsong and sunlight. Lucien could not help but smile at the infectious charm of it. “Indeed!” his friend agreed. “And for us glorified knights, politics are quite a bore. Give me an armored opponent any day over that.”
Lucien hummed in agreement. “Tell me about Grismere? I trust your opinion over anything I’ve heard among courtiers.”
As the reigning champion knight of Malkasar, Kadir had travelled far and wide across the continent of Vlidious, riding and fighting in tournaments to bring glory to his kingdom. His many travels had given him a wide array of knowledge, and Lucien, a fellow tournament competitor, had grown to admire and trust the knight. Kadir’s opinion of a place or person often proved true.
“Grismere is much like what we ride through now,” Kadir offered. “But these are no ordinary forests. There are many creatures in these woods – and I do not mean mere deer and fox and bear.”
Lucien’s blue eyes sparkled as he sat up straighter in his saddle. “So I’ve heard.”
“And I’m sure you’re aware that Grismere is a sort of haven for fae creatures and users of magic, much like your home.”
“Theoria and Grismere are already allies because of that,” the younger man replied. “And we’ve both earned the ire of certain kings for it.”
“A sad truth,” Kadir agreed. “There are those whose closed minds will always think that the fae and magic are unnatural, when by all evidence it would seem they are older than our way of life. But I digress. Grismere will remind you of home, I think. Humans coexist with the world of magic here. Witch hunts do not occur, dragons are not hunted for sport, werewolves hunt deer under the full moon. They say the king’s family has magic in their blood, even.”
Lucien considered the implications of such. It would explain why the kingdoms of Kaithis and Henesta, both staunchly against magic, hated King Renard Bornesher so adamantly, where they were somewhat more tolerant to his own Theoria.
“Perhaps most interesting are the Star Children, though,” Kadir continued. “A unique race of humans, though they are not entirely human. Legend says they are descended from a fallen star, with whom a king fell in love with. Their children were powerful in the ways of magic. They are nomads who live in the woods, who live by their own rules. They are peaceful, but they are not to be crossed, either.”
“And what of King Renard?” Lucien asked. “Is he a good king?”
Kadir considered briefly before nodding. “I would say so. He is fair and wise. I met him only briefly after the Tournament of the Swans, but he seemed kind and just. The people of Grismere we have seen so far seem content, and I think that says more than my opinion ever will.”
“And the princess? Did you meet her?”
“Only saw her. She was only sixteen, then, but I remember she was very beautiful. She had the same kind eyes as her father.”
Lucien could not deny some disappointment. Princess Esmeralda was the eldest of two daughters and heir to the throne. Now a woman grown, it was decided she would rise to be queen. But first she was to marry. King Renard had sent out invitations across Vlidious, and perhaps even across the sea, inviting his fellow kings to choose a noble to compete for Esmeralda’s hand in marriage. Lucien had hoped his friend would be able to tell him more about the woman in question than that her eyes were kind and she was pretty to gaze at.
He would learn more about her in good time. As soon as they reached the city of Ivermon.
The ride from Theoria to Grismere had been long. Meeting Kadir on the way had been a godsend; the elder knight’s company and conversation had helped the final leg of the journey to pass more quickly. And finally, as the sun hung high above them that afternoon, they reached their destination: the city of Ivermon.
Once Ivermon had been no more than a manor and estate, with farmers working the rich soil in the heart of Grismere. The central location and fertile soil were a boon to the small village snuggled in the collection of crossroads; the excess food they grew could be transported throughout the kingdom. Ivermon grew swiftly to a town of high trade, and from there to one of the most important cities of the kingdom. But it was not until the Bornesher dynasty first took the throne of Lord Edgall’s ancient manor and expanded it to the grand Bornesher Castle that Ivermon became the capitol.
The affluent city was brimming with nobility, traders, merchants, and artisans alike. From under the palace’s protective shadow, art, weapons, crops, and coin were all crafted and cultivated and sent out to the rest of the kingdom.
Bornesher Castle itself looked little different from any other that either Kadir or Lucien had seen in their travels of grandeur and tournaments. It stood upon a hill in the heart of the city, a great dragon curled restive and ready to protect its treasures. Four walls created an irregular square shape, and at each corner rose great towers, topped with red spire roofs. Pennants flew from the top of the keep, snapping royal blue and snowy white. The castle was part fortress, part elegant palace, a sprawling structure dominating the city, visible far before the rest of Ivermon.
At first, Kadir and Lucien’s party passed only farmsteads. The men and women working the land paused as the pair rode past, leaning against their tools to watch them and note the mens’ family crests and the pennants of their kingdoms.
They were stopped briefly at the city gates, but a quick show of their invitations – marked with the king’s wax seal, a swan – soon saw them into the city. They rode through cobbled streets, the pedestrians ducking with nimble and familiar ease around the horses and carts as they bustled about to shops and market stalls. Even many days from home, city life did not change.
Young children began to prace after the retinue, laughing and waving pennants in welcome. Lucien found himself thoroughly enchanted by their golden peals, and he waved to the youngsters that came close. The children accompanied them all the way to the road that led up the hill to the palace.
Lucien and Kadir urged their steady horses into a brisk walk that soon brought them up to the barbican. The pair stopped there before an armored man. He held a crested helmet under one arm, and royal blue cape fell from his shoulders. His steel-gray hair fell loose down to his shoulders. He raised his fist up to his brow in salute; both riders returned the gesture.
“Welcome to Ivermon,” the cloaked man said. “I am Michael, captain of the knights and head of the royal guard. Sir Kadir the Bold and young Lord Alane; we’ve been expecting you. Though I must still see your invitations.”
Both men produced their respective letters from their packs. Both papers were battered and dirtied from the journey, but the words were still legible and the king’s seal remained. Michael scanned each before nodding in satisfaction and returning the letters. “We’ll put your horses to rest in the stables.” With that, the captain turned about and walked through the gatehouse. The joint parties followed through and across the drawbridge to the large, open courtyard.
In a rush of activity, Kadir and Lucien dismounted, the horses were led to the stables, and their carts unpacked. Each were shown into the palace and taken to the well where both men began to wash the dirt from their faces and necks. Lucien knew what came next: an audience with the king. This meeting would determine the king’s opinion of them, and as the host of the contest, his opinion was one of the most important.
Nerves began to settle in him, and the young lord hurried back out to Michael. The captain stood still and stoic as he waited for them. Lucien stopped by him, but found himself unable to wait for Kadir to finish in silence. “Are the other competitors here already?”
“Not all,” Michael replied. “Most, yes, but the Bosnas prince has not arrived yet. He is expected tonight, however, and then all shall be present.”
“The Bosnas prince?” Lucien echoed. A feeling that was both dread and relief swept through him. The Bosnas Empire was one of the strongest political powers in the world. The empire’s seat of Otreau lay across the Beartin Sea. Conquest and conquest had seen the empire grow over decades to the vast sprawl it was today. Bosnan knights were legendary in their speed, strength, and skill. Their war cry was known to strike terror in the hearts of even the bravest men.
As far as a political marriage, the Bosnas prince could provide everything: a powerful military, an even greater navy, strong trade connections, an array of other alliances. Ties to the Bosnas Empire could protect Grismere in its tentative position by word alone. No one dared to cross swords with them.
“It was a surprise to us all when he accepted the invitation,” Michael said. “We are a small kingdom; what interest are we to them? But it will be a great honor to house the prince.”
Their conversation faltered then, and Lucien was glad when Kadir returned. Michael urged them both to follow as he led them into Bornesher Castle.
The immediate entry to the castle stole Lucien’s breath. The room they stood in was impossibly high. Towering windows let in ample sunlight. A large fountain dominated the room, depicting a swan with its wings outstretched. The water cascaded endlessly from the tiers it rested upon. Lush tapestries hung on the walls, and lush ferns overflowed from stone planters. Across the wide room were three sets of wooden doors, each flanked by a pair of armed guards. The splendor of the room was only outdone by its size; a fair party could easily be hosted.
Michael skirted around the fountain, and Lucien and Kadir followed at a slower pace to admire the room. Lucien found himself in deep awe at the finery. His family’s estate was small and modest, and the colder climate of his kingdom made castles prone to seeking comfort over finery.
The knight captain paused at the largest set of doors directly opposite the entrance. One of the guards rapped on the door which soon swung open. Michael stepped forward, cape rippling as he moved. Kadir and Lucien followed side by side into the throne room.
The throne room, equally vast as the entrance hall, stretched before them. Pillars supported the vaulted ceiling, and between them stretched a long carpet of royal blue trimmed with white. The carpet led the way to the throne, and guards in chain mail and the royal colors stood along the way. As the men walked down the carpet, the figure upon the throne became clear.
King Renard Bornesher sat tall and regal. Though an aging man, he retained a sense of power about him. Gray streaked through his long hair and thick beard, his face lined from smiles and laughter. He wore a heavy cloak of blue, trimmed in ermine, and a white tunic trimmed with silver. His right hand was bejeweled in many rings, and he wore his crown. Behind him hung a large blue field with the symbol of the Bornesher house: a swan with a crown about its neck.
Captain Michael stopped before the throne, pressing a fist to his chest as he bowed deep. “My liege, I present the suitors from Malkasar and Theoria.”
Lucien and Kadir each took a knee. With a low rustle of fabric, King Renard rose from his throne and descended to them.
“Rise, Sir Kadir the Bold,” the king spoke. He put his ringed hand on the knight’s shoulder as he rose. “I remember you from my tournament years back. None fought with such daring, or such chivalry. It is an honor to have you joining us.”
“You honor me, sire,” Kadir replied. “I am grateful to represent my kingdom.”
“And you shall do so with great honor.” King Renard turned to Lucien. “Rise, young Lord Alane of Theoria.” Lucien did so, meeting the king’s storm-gray eyes. They seemed to pierce into his heart. “A youth from a small house. I’m sure you’re wondering what made Valtair choose you to represent his kingdom.”
Lucien averted his eyes, unsettled by how easily the king had pulled free his thoughts. “I confess the thought has crossed my mind.”
“I see a youth of great honor and strength. You are a finer choice than any of your power-hungry superiors. You will do well in this contest. But for now, I insist you both rest. You shall meet your fellow competitors, and my dear daughter, at tonight’s dinner. My servants shall escort you.”
Both men bowed a final time before being led out of the throne room again. As he made his way down the carpet again, Lucien felt the prickling of eyes on his back. He ignored the sensation until he was exiting the throne room. Only then did he glance back – long enough to see the shape of a girl, her body twisting away from him, before the door closed off his view.