If only I could calm the sea. To stretch out my hand and command the waters to lay still. If they were to listen . . . what power would that be! By Mar himself, nothing less than godly.
Alas, I am no god. I am only a king.
One thought overlapped another, suppressing Audemar’s best judgment and wearing his patience thin. As another wave broke against the hull of their flyboat, he shuffled backward, bracing himself against the mast.
“Damn it!” he yelled, loud enough for his voice to cut through the wind and rain to reach the oarsmen. The twelve exchanged nervous glances with each other but dared not to make eye contact with their sovereign.
The First Mate also avoided staring at the king, choosing instead to focus on the tiller. However, he had little recourse when Audemar turned and stepped up to him.
“This boat is barely fit to sail a canal, let alone survive a squall.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” was the Mate’s only reply.
Audemar ground his teeth. He looked past the First Mate, catching sight of the silhouette of Battlewhale against a lightning-streaked sky.
The flagship listed to its left. It’s taking on more water, Audemar realized. To think this was my best option.
Audemar whipped around to once again lay eyes on the turbulent waters. He felt in no mood to face any of his men as his anger seethed. He had hoped the Battlewhale and the small entourage that accompanied the flagship would have made it back to Arcporte unseen by the enemy. In fact, it nearly had – more than three quarters of the voyage – before a small flotilla chanced upon them. Sporting the head and tail of the fox, Kin Foleppi, the ships descended on Audemar’s modest force with speed and accuracy. The results of the surprise attack were devastating: two of the four galleons sunk, as did four of the six galleys and seven of the ten flyboats, not to mention the considerable damage the Battlewhale sustained. Kin Foleppi suffered heavy losses as well, losing more than half their fighting force before withdrawing. However, their boats were little more than skiffs, outfitted with all manner of incendiary devices and designed to wreak havoc rather than survive.
The flags of Kin Foleppi remained etched in Audemar’s mind. He shut his eyes, a vain effort to discourage himself from remembering all the ways the rulers of Tosily had devastated his rule and bloodline. By Mar, he told himself, I must stay strong. For I am a monarch. I am a Saliswater.
Is that enough? Audemar asked himself, his doubt raising its voice.
“It must be.”
Audemar contracted his lips. He caught the furtive glances of the First Mate and the two oarsmen closest to him. He pulled the collar of his coat tightly around his neck, all the while trying to convince himself his words had not reached their ears.
Knowing his anger did not serve him, nor his doubt, he closed his eyes. He dug deep within his soul, searching for that elusive shred of hope.
Please, Mar, he prayed. May my feet touch Marlish soil once more. May I walk the parapet of my home. Embrace my wife. And hold my . . .
“The light! The light!”
Audemar opened his eyes to find the First Mate standing tall, pointing to the distance beyond the bow. Audemar stood in unison, ignoring the threat of falling overboard. He scanned the unmarked horizon, finding only darkness.
Suddenly, it flashed. Bright it was, before being extinguished by an unknown. But it was there.
The lighthouse beacon.
Audemar breathed deeply, his anxiety subsiding. The oarsmen, also spotting the brilliance, cheered.
Thank you, Audemar prayed. Thank you.
Their flyboat lurched forward in spurts. The sea continued to beat the hull without mercy. Yet the Marlish sailors, with the end in sight, powered through the turbulence, their renewed will finding its way.
The beacon flashed once more. This time, it stayed lit, as the wavering flames endured lick after lick from the storm winds.
Audemar marched up to the mast, grabbing ahold of it for support. He pointed to the light. “There it is, men. The Lighthouse of Arcporte. Our home! We are so close. Row, as though your lives depended on it. Row, against the storm and every enemy that would wish us sunk and drowned. Row, for Mar and all of Marland!”
The men cheered as the waves clapped against each other. Audemar could hardly tell one noise from another. Not that it mattered. For the silhouettes of the capital were now in view. The Lighthouse. The Curved Wharf. And the fortress that oversaw them all – Arcporte Castle.
Though the castle stood as little more than a dark outline against a blackened sky, Audemar knew that for all the months he had spent away, no sight as of late could match its beauty. The vertical lines of its towers and walls bent not to the wind nor the rain. Rather, they remained defiant, strong. For all the castle’s qualities, though, Audemar admired it not for what it was, but for the people it housed and protected.
Audemar turned his sights back to the waters before him. They sped closer, more of the city coming into view. From the wharf, wooden fingers extended into the harbor. The docks of Arcporte had crept into the harbor over hundreds of years, many built in spurts and sudden bouts of construction. At times, the sea reclaimed the harbor, splintering the massive planks and posts of wood. This was one of those moments. For as Audemar saw, the might of the storm had ripped apart planks from their pilings. Several floated out to meet them, much like ice floes, so that the First Mate was forced to stand and keep watch for them as he navigated the tiller, all the while shouting commands to the oarsmen.
Upon one of the steadiest docks, nearly twice as wide as the others, Audemar found a host of royal attendants. They paced on the planks, careful to shield themselves from the waves that sometimes crested the wooden walkway. Closer to the wharf, more servants waited alongside saddled horses, which bristled each time a surge splashed the dock.
I cannot wait any longer, Audemar told himself. He made his way to the bow, stepping over the oarsmen and their benches along the way. Upon reaching the bowsprit, he extended one foot onto it, unsteady though it was.
“Your Majesty!” cried the First Mate.
“You just attend to that tiller!” Audemar commanded. “Faster, men! Put the sum of your strength into your oars and each of you will have a satchel of gold.”
That seemed to do it. The oarsmen heaved all of their weight into rowing, their momentum synchronizing. The flyboat, having found its rhythm in turn, seemed to glide over the roughest patches of the harbor.
The figures of the attendants on the dock became clearer. As did their garb. The details of their faces. Closer still Audemar came. He perched both of his feet on the bowsprit, balancing his weight, careful not to fall overboard.
The servants on the docks responded in kind. They leaned over, extending their hands and the staffs of their halberds. Audemar, growing ever more confident, let go of the bowsprit to reach out to them.
A sudden wave broke upon the stern, rocking the flyboat. Audemar, losing his footing, flailed forward.
His hand, though wet, wrapped around a staff. The other gripped the hand of another as his feet skimmed the water.
Then he found himself on solid ground as attendants swirled around him. One draped him in a long coat of mink and sable, while another offered him a skin of hot wine. Audemar, noticing the absence of rain upon his face, glanced up to find three parasols sprouted above him.
Audemar brushed past them all, ignoring their pleas and inquiries. His wobbly sea legs carried him toward the wharf. As he neared the retinue or servants and horses, he pointed to the largest – and most anxious – mount.
“Give me that stallion!” he commanded, his voice bellowing over the cracking thunder and crashing sea.
All the attendants parted and bowed. The royal equestrian handed the reins of his stallion to Audemar, who mounted it unassisted. With a clip of his heels and a snap of his reins, Audemar sped off on the steed, leaving the servants to scramble after him.
Rain and wind battered his face as he raced through the cobblestones streets of the capital. Little stood in his way, as the merchants had cleared their carts from the street and only a few commoners walked about, braving the weather. Not that their presence mattered, for all around Audemar blurred. He made no distinction to any person or object, save the solid structure that grew before him: Arcporte Castle.
The walls of the barbican and battlements rose before him. But as he closed in on his home, he found no raised portcullis to greet him. Nor drawbridge. Both remained secured, no doubt in answer to the raging storm.
Lightning streaked over the castle as thunder clapped. Audemar tightened his grip on the reins as his stallion, ever the spirited one, rose on its hindquarters and whinnied.
“Up high! Open the gate!”
No answer followed.
Audemar patted the beast, turning its sudden burst of energy to pacing the width of the barbican. Through the arrow slips and windows, Audemar spotted the light of burning braziers.
They are inside, he assured himself. But they cannot hear me.
Audemar cleared his throat. He stood up in his stirrups. “Open this gate! For your sovereign!”
“Damn it all to hell,” he cursed. His horse shook its head in response. Audemar patted it. “What do we do now?” he asked facetiously.
Though the horse did not answer him, a sheep did. The bleat forced Audemar to turn in his saddle. Behind him, he found a flock being ushered through the street by two sheepdogs and a shepherd.
“Evening,” the shepherd offered.
“What in Mar’s name are you doing?” Audemar asked, bewildered. “What shepherd leads his flock in a storm?”
“A poor one, my Liege,” answered the shepherd. “And desperate. There’s a wolf outside the city walls that has been stalking my flock. A bold one, that is, one that trailed us all through the Porte-to-Land. I thought to make camp outside the city, thinking the storm would drive it off. It didn’t. Took three good sheep before the guard at the gate allowed me in.”
“Imagine that,” Audemar said, feigning interest. He shifted in his saddle, about to lead his horse away, when the sight of something beneath the shepherd’s cloak caught his attention. “That around your neck. What is that?”
“’Twas my father’s. A hunter’s horn.”
Audemar perked. “May I?”
The shepherd unclasped the horn from the lanyard on his neck. “Careful,” he pleaded. “’Tis ancient.”
It felt as such too, Audemar thought, as he weighed the hunter’s horn in his hand. The polished ram’s horn was banded by two solid brass rings, with a tin mouthpiece at its tip. Audemar inhaled, raised it to his lips and blew.
A long, deep blast bellowed from the horn, sending the sheep scattering and his horse on its hindquarters once more. Yet it did the trick, as Audemar spotted shadows in the barbican windows.
The shepherd extended his hands to his fleeing sheep. “My sheep!”
The chains of the drawbridge clanked as it lowered. Audemar whistled to the shepherd, who raised his head. He tossed the horn to the man, along with the mink and sable coat from his shoulders.
“For your trouble,” Audemar said. “Thank you.”
As he had down at the docks, Audemar brushed through the royal servants once the portcullis opened. He dismounted, handing the reigns over, before marching through the guardhouse and bailey, past sentries and attendants. All lowered their eyes and bowed, but Audemar paused for none of them. For he knew he had no time for formalities.
Audemar hurried from the bailey up the stairs to the covered parapet on the second floor. Upon reaching the top of staircase, a servant girl nearly ran into him. She averted his stare, muttered an apology and hurried on her way. Audemar paused, not to reprimand her, but because the blood-stained linens she carried garnered his attention.
His mind racing with the worst of possibilities, he marched down the parapet, his wet boots striking the tiles, their sound echoing through the hall. The noise quickened, as did his legs. Audemar found himself breaking into a trot. Then a run. The stone hall reverberated his panic, shouting back with the sounds of clapping hard leather against stone.
He took the stairs of the corner tower two at a time. Servant girls parted as he rushed past. He nearly plowed one back up the stairs when two strong arms finally caught him.
Audemar stopped. He stared up at his father, who stood on the step above, looking down at him. Angst washed over his face, robbing his typically bright disposition of color. Many more lines had formed in the creases of his face, particularly around his eyes, even though only four months had passed since his father visited him on the front.
“Father,” Audemar said, before looking past him, to the heavy oaken door only steps away. “Let me pass. I have to see her.”
“She has lost much blood,” Artus warned, his voice cracking. His hands held Audemar by the shoulders, unsure of whether to ease their grip to allow him to pass or to tighten so as to comfort.
“The mage . . .”
“Comforts her as we speak.”
“And the child?”
Artus lowered his shoulders, the same ones that for years had remained high and strong under mail and armor. “The child . . . struggles. It is still within her.”
A cry rang from beyond the door out into the hall. Those servant girls waiting outside placed their index and middles finger of their right hands to their foreheads before bowing to pray.
Audemar laid his hands on his father’s shoulders. Artus, knowing he could do nothing more to prepare his son for what laid beyond, released him.
Audemar made his way to the door. Each step seemed heavier than the one before, as though he were plodding through a bog. By the time he reached the door– his strength had drained. As had most of his resolve to enter, for fear of what awaited him on the other side.
Then his wife screamed.
The door parted. The floor contracted, so that Audemar had but to step and find himself past the mage, at his wife’s side. His hand caressed her temple, then her hair, all of which laid drenched in sweat.
“My love,” she whispered.
“Ellenora,” Audemar replied, as all other words vanished from his mind.
He extended his hand around her, to cradle her head. Never before had it felt so light, so absent of vigor, of life.
Audemar looked over his shoulder to the mage, a man of noble birth who had not yet seen his thirtieth year.
“Which one are you?” Audemar asked incredulously.
“Wystan, from Har-Kin Danverrs.”
“Very well, Danverrs. Leave us and fetch the Royal Mage. Your services are no longer needed.”
“But . . .”
“Are you blind?! How dare you allow her to lose so much blood!”
Wystan retreated from the bed as Artus returned to the chamber.
“My son,” Artus said. “The Royal Mage died in his sleep three nights ago.”
“Mage Searle was well along in years. His time had come. We sent couriers to every manor in the kingdom, pleading for their best mages to make haste to the castle to help with the birth. Mage Wystan here was the first to answer the call, and the one most versed in healing.”
“He stopped the bleeding,” Ellenora added. “More than a few times. At least, those I recall.”
“Forgive me, my Lord,” Audemar begged humbly, bowing his head. “I am in your debt.”
“There is no apology needed, my King.”
Ellenora gripped her swollen stomach and screamed. The sheets before her open legs, recently changed, turned red as they soaked up her blood.
“Mage!” Audemar yelled.
“Maidens!” Wystan commanded to those outside. At once, a retinue of maidens entered the quarters with clean sheets and pitchers in their hands. Wystan urged them to his side. Audemar, his arms supporting Ellenora, could only watch as Wystan washed his hands and changed the sheets, all the while barking orders.
“I will need . . . you. Yes. You, girl. Take this cloth and apply pressure there. Then you, fetch that saltwater root oil I showed you earlier. And the birthing serum. Yes, those vials over there!”
A girl grabbed the vial rack from the corner table and swung around, only to have it slip from her hands. The momentum sent the vials flying out of the rack, all of which shattered on the floor.
“You stupid wench!” Wystan screamed. “Go! Out of here!” He pointed to another maiden. “You! Yes, you!”
“Mage,” Audemar urged. “There is no more time.”
Wystan and Audemar looked upon Ellenora’s face, which contorted in agony. Through her pain, though, she nodded. “Now,” she whispered. “Now.”
Wystan rolled up his sleeves higher than necessary as he edged toward Ellenora’s open legs. He glanced at the king for approval before venturing to reach out and touch the queen. Audemar, in return, nodded.
“My Queen,” Wystan said. “You will need to push.”
Ellenora stared at the mage and blinked once. She took a deep breath. Audemar, with his hand outstretched, felt his wife’s fingers wrap and tighten within his. With his other hand, he touched her swollen stomach.
She pushed. Then she screamed.
Audemar would scarcely go on to remember what happened after. He knew it involved more anguish on the part of his wife, along with more worry on his. The only part that remained imprinted in his memory was a single sound.
The cry of a newborn.
The maidens handed Mage Wystan linen after linen, allowing him to wipe off the fluid and blood from the babe. Then they offered the mage cloths soaked with warm water, so as to wash the prince clean. After that, a maiden gave the mage a length of velvet cloth, which the mage used to wrap and swaddle the lad.
“Your Majesty,” Wystan announced, beaming, “I present to you your child. A son. The Prince of Marland.”
Audemar extended his arms as the mage placed his kin before him. The child neither squirmed nor cried as he looked up and focused. The babe lifted his arm, his miniature fingers picking at the stubble on Audemar’s chin.
Audemar, ablaze in jubilation, pivoted to turn to his wife.
Wystan caught the king by the arm.
“My King . . .” he whispered.
Audemar paused. The mage, stricken with concern, gazed from the king to the queen.“What?” Audemar asked, his voice tinged with anxiety. “What is it?”