The boy prince’s spent most of their time together, running from tutors, and playing tricks on their nurse, Janti. They had long ago discovered the secret passages within the castle and used them to spy, to escape when they caused trouble, to drive their nurse mad with trying to find them.
Ethamyn was still mad at his brother because his elbow still hurt, though less now than it had before. But he forgave him soon enough, when, as they wandered the hall toward the kitchen to make trouble and get something to eat, he spotted Janti and pulled his brother with him behind a tapestry to hide. The tapestry was an intricate design of a mighty stag and behind it was a passage that could be found when he felt with his hand for the space between the stones where cool air came out. He pushed a certain stone in, reached inside and pulled a lever so that the hidden door moved and the pair of princes easily avoided their bath and the wrath of their nurse.
It was dark in the passages, only very small amounts of light came through the chinks where other doors were hidden behind other tapestries. Cairbre put his ear to the chink in the stone and listened to Janti’s steps move off down the hall. She was not calling for them, so they could not be in too deep just yet.
The pair moved off down the dark passage, hands running along the walls, eyes wide and mostly blind. And then Cairbre tripped and fell in the dark, skinning his knee.
“Eth!” he cried.
“What?” his brother retorted.
“You tripped me,” Cairbre protested, though he knew full well the passages were full of broken stones to trip over.
“I did not,” Ethamyn said before he felt a blow to his belly. He choked on his words and kicked out wildly in the dark. His foot connected with some soft part of his brother but the boy retaliated quickly and before long they were grappling on the ground in the dark, grunting and crying out in pain, kicking and slapping and grabbing and biting.
And then a voice stopped them and they became still. Cairbre lay on his back, his knees up, hands around his brother’s throat, while Ethamyn held his brother by the hair and paused mid-prying the other boy’s hands away. They lay panting and listened.
“...my daughter,” a man’s voice rumbled.
“Your daughter is not the only concern here,” said a sharp female voice.
“There are times when one must put thoughts of the kingdom before one’s own offspring,” another female voice said, deep and rich.
“Easy enough for you to say, Edode,” said the man. “When your son has already spawned half a dozen brats.”
“I would not stoop to foul words, were I you, Dendal. Can you not see that you are outmatched by the grandmothers of those brats?”
“Great grandmother,” said the sharp female voice.
“Besides the fact that my only daughter and heir was taken from me,” the man insisted. “How am I to teach her how to rule when the child-queen fills her head with nonsense?”
“I doubt that it is the queen’s fault that your daughter’s head is full of nonsense.”
“When Nyta is queen-,”
“Nyta, queen? Ha! I would see Loranya burn before your fool child takes the throne!”
“I thought it was agreed that-”
“You will see burning, but it will be Nile that burns, when your treachery-,”
“Edode, Dendal, stop,” said the sharp female voice. “Are you brattling princes of Ur or rulers of the realm? We have all agreed that when the Hawks have been dealt with a union of our three houses will see us all free of our worries.”
The boys in the wall loosed themselves from each other to snarl and hiss like wild animals.
“And how do you propose the task at hand?” the man asked.
“Did you hear that?” Edode snapped.
“Let us speak of this another time,” the sharp lady’s voice intoned.
The boys sat silent for a long time before disentangling themselves. Cairbre rubbed the dirt off his knees as Ethamyn massaged his bruised neck.
“C’mon, Eth,” Cairbre said. “Let’s go scare Janti.”
They moved off down the passage, holding their hands out in front of them. When they came to the secret entrance to their own chambers they stepped cautiously from hiding.
“What do you think that was all about?” Ethamyn asked. But Cairbre didn’t have time to answer, for Janti burst into the room, huffing and panting, red faced and angry.
“Where have you been?” she demanded. “I’ve had half the castle on the look for you! Her Grace, your Lady Mother, Dreamer bless her, wants you bathed and dressed for a royal audience! You’ve put me in more hot water than I’m about to throw you into, so you’ll just hop on into that bath of yours and have a good scrubbing right quick, before I get my willow branch out to beat you with!”
“You can’t beat us,” Ethamyn snapped. “We’re princes.”
“Princes or no, you’ll get a good beating if you don’t do as Janti tells you! Now hop!”
Janti was a big woman, with arms at least as large as any of the soldier’s and larger than some. Cairbre had often imagined how terrifying she might be if anyone were to allow her into armour. In his imagination, Janti in armour was equivalent to a Lauklanner Blade Wife, the kind of warrior that lurked in the shadowy regions of the mind.
So it wasn’t long before the boys were cleaned and dressed in their finery; red silk coats with hawks embroidered upon the sleeves and chest, fine boots and britches and delicate golden crowns blending into their coppery hair. They were marched, with Janti and a set of guard, down the halls to the great hall. Their mother lounged upon the single throne on the dais. She had removed their father’s throne! Ethamyn could feel the heat of his anger crawling up his neck. Cairbre put a hand on his brother’s arm to try to calm him.
“Mother,” Ethamyn said coolly, with just the barest nod. He found he could hardly look at her. And the fact that his brother gave a perfect bow only made his anger hotter.
“Ethamyn,” Innogen said, was there scolding in her voice? “Cairbre. You’ve been brought here to receive a pledge of loyalty from our new Captain of the Guard.”
“Where’s Cantan?” Ethamyn asked. “What have you done to him?”
Her eyes flashed. “Captain Iridian has been assigned outside of Andrese. He-,”
“You sent him to Speakers Tor?” Ethamyn asked, outraged.
The queen did not respond right away. She took a moment to remind herself that he was her son, of course he would have the same hot passion that she was now trying to control. He was only a boy. She leaned forward.
“You sent him to Speakers Tor, your grace,” she corrected, her voice quiet yet strong.
He clamped his lips shut and gave her such a look that she thought she was fighting with herself. She glanced to her other son, his eyes wide with shock and fear. Gods, she thought, how could twins be so different? She leaned back, resuming the lazy pose she so enjoyed upon the throne, one hand tracing the contours of the hawk’s head sceptre. Ethamyn’s eyes flickered to her face, full of hot rage, and then to the sceptre, where the heat cooled noticeably. He knew the sceptre’s lore, its power, and its magic; and like most that had known its touch, he feared it. As he should. It was perhaps the only thing that could keep him in check.
“You know the words,” she said. “I expect your good behaviour.”
“Yes, My Lady,” Cairbre said and stepped up to stand upon the left side of the throne. Ethamyn said nothing, but took his place to her right. Besides the party of men that had escorted the princes’ and their nurse into the room, there was also a pair of guards at the door. Once they had taken their places beside their mother, her ladies-in-waiting were allowed into the room. They grouped themselves near to the dais and fluttered and preened as only a party of young women can. The majority of the small council entered next; Lord Dendal Muscyra, Lady Thelep Polozellus, Lady Edode Lentinan, and their attendants, as well as a representative of the Dreamer, a lady wrapped in white from head to toe. She must be a priestess proper, Cairbre thought, from the temple in the city, not the silly woman who sang their prayers for them in the courtyard chapel. Halstan entered the room last and remained beside the door. The queen sat up and banged upon the floor with the butt of her sceptre. The room fell silent.
“We have gathered you here today to receive a pledge of loyalty and to name a new Captain of the Royal Guard,” she cried, her voice ringing with regal tones. “You may step before us, pledgeling.”
Halstan opened the door for a man already dressed in the black woollens of the castle guard. He was a tall, sturdy man and walked with a calm confidence that he surely could not feel, not with all those eyes upon him and the prospect of magic before him. He stepped right up to the base of the dais, with Halstan close behind him, and fell to one knee before the royal family. Halstan stepped to one side. The man’s body and posture betrayed him as a soldier or labourer, his shoulders were certainly not those of a nobleman’s. There was something familiar to Cairbre in that hard face of his, something he knew intimately but could not quite place. Perhaps it was just that his hair was cut in the way of all soldiers, most likely he was one of the men that the boys passed every day in the castle and did not really see. They all look alike when they are dressed in the garb of the guard. That wasn’t quite right, Cairbre knew, but he could think of nothing else that would make the man familiar to him.
“Rise and state your name before the court,” Innogen said.
He moved to stand, his eyes gazing over the queen’s head, rather than modestly downcast.
“Cabriabanus Atholine.” A susurrous wave swept about the room at his name. Cairbre recognized it from the history lessons. Atholine had been the name to stand beside Ur ever since the Great Crossing and the Conquering. There had been a Cabriabanus Atholine that had been Captain of the Guard before the princes were born. He wondered if this man was one in the same. Something nagged at him about the man, but he could not quite remember the lesson about him. He had done something dreadful, if the boy recalled correctly, though what exactly it had been...
“And do you Cabriabanus Atholine vow to protect your Queen, Innogen Samestra Ur, and her children, Ethamyn Hanesca Ur and Cairbre Thaydbolde Ur, with all of your blood and spirit until such time as you are released from this bond by your own death?” As she spoke, she summoned the power of the sceptre in her hand, and all in the room could feel it rising, like the fine hairs on the back of the neck.
“I do,” he said softly.
“And do you also vow to devote your life to the protection of the family of Ur, and let no harm befall us, direct or indirect, through action or inaction?”
“And do you vow to obey the commands of your queen, unless they contradict your other vows or otherwise endanger her majesty or the prince’s of Ur.”
He hesitated a moment. He knew she would use this every chance she had to make him bend to her will, but there was nothing for it. He could not very well back out now.
“Then swear it in blood,” she commanded. “Upon the head of our sceptre.” She pressed her finger onto the hawks sharp beak, breaking the flesh and letting loose the blood, which she spread over the golden hawk head. Then the two sullen faced boys to either side of her did the same. He took the two steps up the dais and knelt there before her, hands out, palms up. She scraped the beak across his open palms and he pressed them onto the sceptre, covering the head of the hawk entirely. She held the sceptre with her two hands upon the shaft. There was a kind of electric jolt that seemed to pump through his bleeding palms and into his body, travelling through his veins like a hunting party through the forest. He found himself speaking the vows as if entranced and one look into the queens eyes above him told him that they were her words coming out of his mouth.
“Before the court of Andrese, and the eyes of all the gods, and with the blood of my body and the power of my spirit, I, Cabriabanus Atholine, do swear to protect my Queen, Innogen Samestra Ur, and her children Ethamyn Hanesca Ur and Cairbre Thaydbolde Ur, and to do no harm to them and to let no harm befall them, be it direct or indirect, through action or inaction, and I do swear to obey the commands of my queen, Innogen Samestra Ur, where they do not contradict my vows of protection, for so long as I draw breath and until the very moment of my death.” He felt as though a great tempest had risen up around him with those words, felt the winds of other places tugging at his hair and clothes, though the room was calm and silent.
“Rise then,” Innogen said. They rose together so that they stood before the throne, eye to eye. She held the sceptre still and he removed his hands from it and turned them palm up. The woman in white moved up the dais, and though her entire face was a mass of white coverings her voice rang clear in the room.
“By the breath of the Lady of Dreams,” she intoned, waving a burning stick of incense over his palms. “May this vow be as vital as the air you breathe. By the touch of the Mighty Warrior,” and she pressed the flat side of a steel blade into the blood in his palms. “May this vow be as strong as steel. By the kiss of the Lady of Death,” she wiped the bloody flat of the blade upon his lips. “May this vow be unbroken by treachery. By the sound of the Lady of Waters,” and she poured pure water upon his bloody hands, which splashed over onto the sceptre and the floor. “May this vow be felt through the veins of the lands. And by the eye of those Nameless and forgotten,” she sprinkled dry dust upon his hands now. “May this vow be solid as the earth. By all the gods may it be done.”
“By all the gods,” the entire room echoed.
Cab couldn’t help but shiver as the magic-enforced vow settled over him, picked its way through his clothes and melted over his body like a second, invisible skin. He rubbed his palms together, dirt and blood and water, and bowed as he stepped down off the dais.
“Ethamyn, Prince of Ur,” Innogen intoned. “I present your new Captain of the Guard.” Cab bowed to the boy, and the boy grudgingly returned the bow.
“Cairbre, Prince of Ur,” Innogen repeated. “I present your new Captain of the Guard.” More bowing, this boy seemed almost excited.
“Small council, I present your new Captain of the Guard.”
He bowed to the old Lord and Ladies and they graciously nodded their heads to him.
“Ur’Magur, I present your new Captain of the Guard.”
He bowed to the tittering young ladies-in-waiting and most of them curtsied in return, some dragging the other, less attentive ladies with them.
And so it was done, he belonged, not to himself, but to Ur.