Gerry struck the blunt edge of his sparring sword against the floor. The sandstone, though brittle in some small parts, did little to give way.
My best efforts against stone. Story of my life.
He raised the tip of the sword before his face. Caked in beige dirt, it was dull and unassuming, providing no threat of a cut, whether to another man or to the floor itself.
The ocean, with its wide expanse, laid like a welcoming blue blanket before him. On its surface, the Ibian Armada rested. Their sails, unfurled, stood in various stages of being raised. Gerry knew the drill well, for Mar’s waters between the island and the continent could be as unforgiving as their Lord, and the middle of the ocean was no place to discover a ripped canvas or unresponsive rudder. Only one other ship, a Marlish galley, sailed aside from the Armada, as it wound its way through the fleet and on to the harbor.
Gerry turned his attention to his dangling feet. Beneath them, the sea broke into whitewater, the impact sending a crash up upon his ears.
Taking one last look at his sword, Gerry tossed it into the ocean.
As useful down there as it is in my hands. Perhaps I should rid myself of all my weapons. Or . . .
Gerry scrambled to his feet. He inched to the lip of the Siren’s Cavern.
“Ely almost made it over,” he said to himself. “He wanted to go. We stopped him.”
But who is here to stop me?
Gerry glanced over his shoulder. The stone stairs. The cavern and neighboring bailey. The mouth of the hall. There were none of his brothers nor Voiceless in any of them. Not one to stop him, as they had done for his brother.
Prince Fool, they call him. He lives on. As for me . . .
Gerry leaned out, noting the anger of the sea below.
I would break every bone in my body and choke on the ocean before Mar would take me. A painful death it would be. A hard one.
Gerry, fully aware of his cowardice, backed away.
The steps struck harder than ever beneath his soles. The wind howled mightier while the chill of the air bit more than expected. Not that Gerry cared. He paused in the center of the Siren’s Cavern, the hall to his room and his brothers’ quarters within sight. On most days when the weather loomed dark and gray beyond the confines of Terran, Gerry would retreat to his bed with a lit candle, a warm mug of tea and a book from his study.
This was far from most days.
A madness overtook him. His legs, static as of stone only a blink before, now flailed beneath him. He sneered as he raced, anger seething as he bared his teeth. His footfalls clapped the stone floor furiously until he arrived at the bailey, where racks of polished weapons stood, a testament to the care the Voiceless had put into maintaining them.
Snatching a halberd, Gerry tilted the tip towards the nearest straw-and-burlap mannequin. He plunged the metal blade into the torso of the unassuming mass. Pulling the blade and noting that straw, not blood, spilled from the cut, Gerry thrust his blade again. This time, though, he put the full force of his weight into the attack. The figure, atop a post secured to a square wooden base, tilted backward and away. Gerry continued to push forward until the mannequin toppled with a thud.
Seeing it on the ground, as if a wounded assailant, Gerry tossed his halberd aside. He seized a sword - sharpened for the purpose of piercing burlap – and swung it down upon the fallen mannequin. It cut clean through the coarse fabric, leaving a thin line and pieces of straw in its wake. Enthused, Gerry thwacked the figure over and again until a gaping hole laid open before him.
Gerry shifted his sights to the other mannequins in the chamber. He narrowed his eyes as he sliced the next mannequin straight through, then another. Nearing another weapons rack, Gerry traded his sword for a javelin. He threw it across the room, admiring how it sailed in a graceful arc to rest in the pit of a mannequin, the javelin’s momentum knocking it backward.
And so it went. Gerry fought with skill and fervor unusual to him, making quick work of every mannequin in the bailey. He went through all manner of weapons available in the practice area: swords, javelins, spears, halberds, maces, morningstars and axes. Each lethal arm felt as light and natural in his hands as a knife or fork. His thrusts and strikes were precise, lacking the clumsy hesitation and awkwardness that usually befell him in training sessions.
Finally, he told himself as another inanimate figure turned victim came under his wrath. I move like my brothers. Even as Symon does! So this is what it feels like to be a Saliswater?
When the last of them fell, Gerry paused to admire the fruits of his rage. Lengths of straw lay scattered on the floor, giving the impression of a stable rather than a fighting yard. Ripped and shredded burlap atop posts and wooden bases testified to a battle they had lost, as did the handful of weapons spent in the assault. Gerry, though the victor, had not escaped unfettered. Tears and threads on his doublet and shirt spoke of blades that had torn his clothing in the heat of his fit, the result of his utter disregard for his own safety. Sweat streamed down the curve of his back, from the pits of his arms, and of course, on his cheeks and brow. His breath, spent, hurried to fill his lungs and gather the air he so desperately needed to regain his strength.
Gerry leaned over to place his hands on his knees. As he exhaled, an echo resonated through the underground bailey, alerting him to a presence.
I am not alone.
His battle nerves still on high, Gerry swooped up a sword and headed toward the source of the sound: the hall that led to his sleeping quarters. Slowing before the passageway, he leaned in and listened. Steps resonated, of one person and no others.
Gerry tiptoed to the first room, Dawkin’s. He peeked in to find it empty. The next, Symon’s, was unattended as well. Bordering it, the Fourpointe Chamber stood bare.
That left Gerry’s room as the nearest.
A creak emanating from his quarters confirmed the intruder was within. Feeling the rush of battle wane, Gerry knew he had moments before his old self returned. With the threat of returning cowardice upon him, he marched into his room, his sword at the ready.
Gerry froze. On his bed sat Artus.
“Aye. Tis me.”
“Aren’t you . . . what of King Felix?”
“He has been tended to. At least for now. Our appeal to him failed. Thankfully, by the grace of Mar, another intervened to buy us time. Not much, mind you. Just enough.”
“So, he will stay?”
“Perhaps another day. Not more. That should suffice. By then, word of your brother’s meeting at the Conclave will have reached our ears. If he was successful, there may be hope of the alliance between us and the Ibians being rekindled.”
Artus nodded to the sword in Gerry’s hand. “Practicing?”
“I . . .”
“You needn’t answer. I saw you in the bailey.”
Suddenly sheepish, Gerry laid down his sword. “Grandfather, I can explain.”
“You can, I know. You need not.”
“I wanted to go.”
“I said you need not.”
“I always need not.” Gerry kicked the sword, sending it spinning athwart the floor.
“You rise above like your brothers when it is your turn. You know that.”
“And when it isn’t my turn, or theirs, like during that meeting we just had? We put it to a decision, and every one of them knew to vote for me to stay. There was no hesitation, not a second thought for them to consider. ‘Oh, have the little one stay behind.’ Bah. I’m so tired of their patronizing ways.”
“They only seek to keep you out of harm’s way.”
“And why can’t I express that sentiment for them? I am a Saliswater. Born to rule and serve all the same as them. Don’t I have the right to resist their brotherly protection? To protest their command? To rise to the occasion and rescue them, without having to accept their unconditional pity and aid?”
Gerry stared at Artus, seeking the hint of an answer. His grandfather, the most honest man he knew, just looked back, at a loss of how to answer.
“I know we all have our place. Especially in trying times such as these.” Gerry took a seat across from Artus. “And I am sorry to have to burden you with my frustrations.”
“Tis all right, my son.”
“I only desire to do my part, as often as my brothers do theirs.”
“You will. In time.”
“In time? Yes, as every other has had their time come and go while I wait for mine. I mean, it seems like all the world carries on with their duties as I sit here in Terran. What with our Kin. Or the Ibians. Even our own sailors.”
Our sailors . . . That Marlish galley . . .
Gerry shot to his feet. Glancing to his grandfather, he motioned to the door. “I need to show you something.”
At the mouth of the Siren’s Cavern, Gerry waited for Artus to ascend the remainder of the steps.
“Grandfather, hurry! It’s nearly out of sight.”
Gerry took to the last few steps to offer a hand to his grandfather, who initially refused. A slight stumble made him reconsider.
“Bloody stairs,” he mumbled. “They nearly stole my strength. Whatever that servant girl tried to feed me earlier didn’t help either.”
“Grandfather, please,” Gerry urged.
Artus reached the edge of the cave, with Gerry by his side to provide a strong arm and prevent his momentum from getting the better of him. “What is it?” he asked.
“There!” Gerry said, pointing.
Where the sea and horizon met the vertical line of the cliff, Artus watched as the latter half of a ship disappeared behind the wind-and-sea battered sandstone wall.
“Yes?” Artus asked.
“Don’t you see?!”
“A Marlish ship, my boy. Nothing more.”
“Notice anything unusual?”
“Not particularly. ’Twas a galley, as far as I could tell. Nothing like the Ibian Armada, which stands out. Now there is . . .”
Artus’ voice trailed off as a wave struck the base of the cliffside below. The crash, punctuating the old man’s realization, resonated through the heights of the Siren’s Cavern.
“In the Name of Mar,” Artus muttered.
The words were all the confirmation Gerry required. He looked past his grandfather, to the route the Marlish galley had took to navigate between the ships of the Armada. In the presence of a foreign fleet in times of peace, it had long been a time-honored tradition for Marlish ships to remain docked or far out in sea away from travel lanes. Those vessels with fish or cargo that had to be unloaded were permitted to traverse the harbors and ports as needed, though out of respect for the seafaring custom they kept a respectable distance from any ships bearing visiting dignitaries and officials.
The galley Gerry had noticed showed no concern for the tradition. Passing by one Armada ship after another, its course could be considered brazen, even reckless. Its trajectory aside, the timing of its approach also raised Gerry’s suspicions.
Yes, he told himself. Something is not right.
“Grandfather, where is Ely now?”
“Above still, with the Voiceless. He insisted on staying near the Princess’ chambers.”
A smudge of jealousy crept up on Gerry, but pushed it aside to keep his focus. “And the King?”
“Felix? Why he went down to the Curved Wharf to personally oversee the preparations for his voyage. Though I suspect he just wanted an excuse to take a walk and consider what to do about convincing Taresa to join him on the trip home.”
Gerry, rubbed his chin, considering all that could go wrong above. Then, he dabbed the skin under his left eye, his fingertip touching his scar.
He turned. Taking the steps two at a time, he descended.
“Gerry!” Artus yelled. “What are you doing?”
“I have to go above. To warn Ely. To do something.”
“You can’t!” Artus insisted. His voice boomed through the Cavern, as could be expected of a bishop giving a fiery homily in a cathedral. Gerry, startled, paused at the base of the staircase. He looked up to find his grandfather following after him, albeit at a slower pace. “You must stay. All your brothers are above. It is your duty to remain in Terran, so that if the unthinkable should happen – as it did to your father – the bloodline of Kin Saliswater can continue.”
In any other scenario, Gerry could not imagine contradicting his grandfather. The man had been the rock of his life, the beacon to his darkness, in all the days in which he felt inadequate, less than a royal. He, not his father, had guided him through boyhood. When he had fallen ill with Silver Fever, Artus sat on his bedside every day, administering salve to his boils and sores while Audemar would hunt with the rest of his boys. It was his grandfather who checked on the work of his studies and ensured a proper education, while his own father had rolled his eyes and grunted at the mention of academics.
Artus had overseen him. Guided him. Protected him through all. Gerry had never doubted his love, nor his motivation for doing what he did for him and his brothers.
Yet now, that same affection stood in his way.
“Grandfather,” he said low, his voice respectful yet bold. “If I were not here, and any one of my brothers – Ely, Dawkin or Symon – were standing before you now, ready to ascend, would you show them the same level of concern? The worry? That fear I see in your eyes?”
Artus made an effort to speak. Then he paused. For a moment too long.
“I see.” Gerry backed away, then pivoted to march from the Cavern, sorry that of all the times he had to be right in his life, this was the one granted to him.
“I need to warn Ely. That galley . . . An enemy is upon us. It must be me that acts. My brothers, my father . . . even you . . . have taken the brunt of battle for far too long . . .”
He strode into the hall, passing room after room. He nearly cleared the entrance to the Fourpointe Chamber when he stopped and retreated to Symon’s quarters.
As his brother had left in haste, the room was unkempt. Clothes and boots lay scattered, the bed unmade. Among the mess, though, could be spotted the signature that best separated Symon’s quarters from his and his brothers:
Mounted on wall hooks and shelves, all manner of arms stood in display, a testament not only to his brother’s mastery of skill but to his eye for craftsmanship. Oiled and polished, the metal of those blades exposed glistened in low light, while those that were sheathed in hard leather hinted at the power of the weapons they protected. Gerry shot a look at each he glanced, fighting the urge to admire them one by one. No, he thought, I need not consider any aside from the single blade I came to retrieve.
Secured beneath the conical window, the arming sword laid sheathed in a scabbard of dark brown leather bejeweled by lapis lazuli and sapphires. Gerry struggled on the tips of his toes to reach it. Finding his height to be less than adequate, he relented and pulled a stool underneath to prop himself up before the weapon. He removed the sheathed sword from its brackets, amazed at how light it felt in his hands. Almost at once, the same surge of intensity he had experienced in the bailey returned to him. He stepped down from the stool, his fingers tingling with anticipation as he gripped the hilt and pulled the blade from its sheath.
Embossed on the steel was a scene of a cavalry unit in full charge. From the hooves of the mounts to the details of the reins and the intricacy of the helms, every curve and line of the design proved magnificent, a testament to skill one metalworker in ten thousand could possess. Gerry suspected it to be the product of the Great Sir Frankel of Kin Graeme, a knight who took up metallurgy and artistry in the latter years of his life. That master craftsman died the same year that they turned sixteen, a time when their father presented each of them with a gift he thought suited their talents. Ely was granted his own winepress, an antique Audemar had acquired from a respected winery in the foothills of the southwestern coast. Dawkin had received a volume of books handwritten by the monks of Oakes Abbey; he kept the collection of manuscripts in a secure location, unwilling to share them with his brothers or discuss their content. Symon, to no brother’s surprise, was given the sword Gerry now held, with the intention that he bear it during his first battle as a monarch. As for Gerry, their father presented him with a series of potions and herbs, the bulk of which were known to enhance strength and combat infirmity. Gerry, though sixteen at the time of receipt, knew the implication of the gift.
The instant of appreciation sent a shudder of power through Gerry. By wielding this weapon I am a true warrior.
With sword in hand, Gerry entered the hallway. The natural light there, more ample due to the larger conical windows cut from the rock, gleamed on the steel. The relief etched into the blade sprang to life, as the light stimulated the dies set within the patterns to blossom. Green hues burgeoned from under the hooves of the cavalry mounts, while the horses - with their bards, reins and saddles - shone in shades and pigments against the backdrop of a pale blue sky. Even the armor of the knights, which typically shared the same coloration as the steel of the sword, bore unique pigments of tinted burnt red or brown, suggesting hints of rust or other markers of age. All in all, the embossed scene on the blade was less of a relief than a perfect memory, a recollection imprinted on steel with a depth of skill and talent that could only be blessed by Mar Himself.
The intensity Gerry experienced in the bailey amplified, the glory of the sword emboldening his spirit. He strode forth beyond the hall into the narrow passages that would take him to his castle quarters. Confidence replaced apprehension, determination supplanting doubt. The persona he had held earlier faded entirely. I am not Gerry, he told himself. I am Geremias. Nay, I am Prince Jameson. Whatever lay on the surface, regardless of the threat, I will face and conquer. I will defeat. I will aid my brothers. Rescue them.I am a Saliswater. Today, I will be the hero. No matter what.