The uproar rose, exponentially.
From the trees, birds shot into the air, startled by the growing clamor. The sun, as if in approval, appeared to shine brighter. The wind shifted, rustling branch and brush, almost mimicking the excitement that stirred from his men.
Then, the crackle of fire claiming wood. Consuming. Blackening. Bursting.
Suddenly, a boom erupted from the deck. The main mast buckled. The sail whipped in the air, as flames conquered its red-fanged serpent.
The chants from the men rose. Higher. Louder.
The deck cracked once more. The mast tilted. The sail swayed. The tongues of fire swirled.
All before mast and sail tumbled into the Chesa, to extinguish the last longship on the beachhead.
A final shout erupted from his men. Symon swung his horse around, grinning. He allowed his men their moment. Even those in the vanguard, with Sir Everitt, loosened for a time to pause their march and join the cries with brusque calls of their own.
The captives, seeing their last chance of escape engulfed in flames, looked on quietly. A few dropped their shoulders. All shared in their collective disappointment. Save one.
He laid on his back, chained to a travois Symon’s men had fashioned from birch. Clad in unwashed skins and furs, what part of him that was not clothed was caked in dirt and blood, both his and that of others. His face fared far worse, for in addition to being sullied, scratches and cuts scattered it. Such marks kept the swollen, bulbous mound on his face that was his nose good company. Considering Konradt’s disheveled traits, any man, even a seasoned hunter, could have mistaken him for a fallen animal. That is, of course, if it were not for his eyes. For as wild as they were, there was no mistaking them for anything but the eyes of a man. A proud man. An enraged man.
Despite the anger coursing through his veins, Konradt remained silent. His chest heaved up and down like the bellows of a blacksmith yet the breath he inhaled and emitted made no noise. His lips moved, mouthing unheard words, creating no sound.
Symon’s men resumed their trek with renewed vigor, as the soldiers turned from the burning wreckage, eager to return home victorious to grateful wives and proud children. The two horses pulling Konradt’s travois started their trot once more, giving the wooden frame a hefty jolt.
Konradt, for his part, continued to prattle on quietly. Symon, with eyes on his prized captive, sauntered up to him.
“You! Lewmarian! Speak up if you have something to say.”
Konradt’s lips went on.
“Pardon me, my Warlord. I dare say that I cannot hear you.”
Those within earshot of Symon chuckled. Symon himself grinned as Everitt came up beside him.
“Your Highness,” Everitt said as he handed over a kerchief. Symon stared at it and then Everitt, unsure of his intent until he motioned to his left cheek.
Symon tapped his left cheekbone with his fingertips. He pulled them away, covered in blood. He accepted Everitt’s cloth with a nod before dabbing his face.
“Perhaps let him be,” Everitt offered once Symon had cleaned himself.
Symon replied to Everitt’s comment with an inquisitive look. “Sympathizing with the enemy, are we Sir Everitt?”
“No, never, my Prince. I only meant to—
“What could this stinking bear be muttering so feverishly? And why make no sound?”
“I suspect he’s praying, Your Highness.”
“Hmmm.” The thought intrigued Symon. He nudged the travois with his boot. “Is that right, Warlord? Do you pray? Let me recall the dapper gods of the Lewmarians. There is Bladorn, your master of war. Quite a bit of good he did you. Then Krafer, god of ships. Much like the ones we burned.” Symon paused his mocking as his men responded with hoots and hollers, save Everitt, who chose to remain respectfully quiet. Yet Symon continued, saving this moment, the one his victory allowed. “Then there is Skitra, that devious siren of the depths, the one you pray to for safe passage over troubled waters. As though she or any one of your gods could match the power of Mar!”
With that last declaration, a shot went up from his men. Among them, one started the chorus, “Men of Mar! Land of Mar! Marland! Marland!” On and on they went, their chants building among them and rising like the sudden onset of the tide.
Then their words turned, taking on a stronger, deeper tone as they called out Symon’s family name. “Saliswater! Saliswater! Saliswater!”
Symon’s grin widened into a smile. He surveyed his soldiers, proud of all who had survived, grateful for their service and more thankful for their loyalty. He then glanced at his captive, hoping to see some reaction to the jests and cheers.
Konradt surely reacted. Just not in the way Symon expected. There was no glare, no mark of anger. Nor were there tears, or hint of defeat or sadness.
Instead, the warlord rolled his eyes, revealing orbs of white as he went on, lips moving.
Prayers. Gods. Curses. What did it matter? Symon thought. He nudged the travois again.
“Keep praying to your gods,” Symon told him. “Perhaps one will answer.”
Kept on he did, as the army line went on through the countryside. For three days, Symon’s forces traveled the southbound road through hamlet and village, past township and burg. Throngs of onlookers met them at every turn, with more than a few recognizing the royal standard of Kin Saliswater and its unmistakable four-pointed compass. All waved and cheered, notably when the soldiers urged them on and shouted back. Some gifted the soldiers with warm loaves of bread or links of sausages, which the men eagerly accepted. One even gave away a jug of ale, a present they nearly dropped and squandered it was so popular.
The true celebration, though, took place when they turned left at the fork in the road on the Porte-to-Land Highway. Steering off the country’s main thoroughfare brought them to the harbor towns of Lamlok, Diselle and Burg-On-Bay. Each community they passed proved larger than the last, with inhabitants more raucous and enthusiastic at the soldiers’ presence. Many even waved their own handmade versions of the Saliswater flag. Finally, Symon thought upon spotting the first homage to his kin. True Marlish men and women. My citizens. I’m nearing home.
And with that realization, like a gem rising from the depths of a mountain, the topmost part of his home appeared. First among the components Symon admired was the mighty square keep, its granite blocks and slate tiles blending in with the greystone-colored sky. Then the tips of the corner towers accompanied its prominence, followed by the crenellations of the barbican, the flanking towers, the wall-mounted turrets and the rest of the battlements. As they traversed further and the towns gave way to the city, the sheer size of Arcporte Castle made itself known, as the homes, shops and stables below provided contrast, like ants of wood and straw before a stone giant.
With the spikes of the raised portcullis coming into view, Symon noted that the mob of commoners had grown almost impassable. Hundreds flocked into the street and surrounding alleyways, all clamoring for a glimpse of their prince and savior. The Marlish soldiers reacted in kind, collecting around Symon and the prisoners to form a barrier between city residents and the fighters. Despite their best efforts, however, the quarters remained tight.
Sir Everitt, his horse brushing alongside Symon’s, leaned over for a word. “My Liege . . .” he began.
“I know,” Symon replied. He drew his sword. Not in a show of aggression, but one meant to command respect.
And command respect it did. The polished blade managed to glint, even though the overcast weather hindered the sunlight. The spectators, their mouths suddenly agape, gazed upon the royal weapon in admiration and wonder.
Symon clipped his heels into the sides of his horse, urging him forward. The stallion trotted forward, unafraid of the mass. In response, the audience parted.
The prince had only ridden a few steps into the throng when the hornblowers emerged between the castle crenellations and blared.
“Make way, you fools! Make way!”
“Good Mar,” Symon groaned. Here he comes. Late as always.
A red-capped man, smaller than most, pushed his way through the audience. When those before him refused to budge, he nestled right up against them, burrowing through until a path opened.
Symon sheathed his sword and looked over his shoulder to Everitt. The knight, a man known for being steadfast in his manners, bowed his head in a faint attempt to hide his grin.
“Your Highness!” exclaimed the red-capped little fellow as he broke free from the mob.
“Master Reysen, to what do I owe the honor?” Symon asked.
“A thousand apologies, my esteemed Prince. Your return comes at an unprecedented hour.”
“Noon? I thought there was a noon to every day of the week. Is there not, Sir Everitt?”
“Indeed, there is,” Sir Everitt responded, his answer wafting through not-so-hushed laughter of soldier and citizen alike.
“Of course,” Reysen said as he stepped back and bowed at the waist. “Forgive me for misspeaking, Your Highness.”
“You need never be sorry for good and honest conversation,” Symon assured the town crier. “Speaking of which, put that clear voice of yours to its best use, would you?”
“At once, Your Highness.” Reysen smoothed the lines of his smock as he held his head high. “Make way, for his royal highness,” he said as he addressed the onlookers, his confidence restored, the strength of his voice growing. “The heir to Kin Saliswater, Prince Jameson.”
Both manners and admiration returned to the crowd. They erupted into cheers while simultaneously stepping back to allow the prince and his entourage to pass. Symon, grateful for his progression home to continue, rode ahead, waving at intervals. His glances and gestures stirred his subjects. They craned their necks, waving frantically and shouting words of allegiance in return.
“Hail, Prince Jameson! Hail, Kin Saliswater! Blessed be his name! Blessed be his name!”
The chants grew as Symon continued on to the castle, with the foot bridge and barbican now mere steps away. The proximity to the castle seemed to have emboldened the town crier too, for with each step his voice boomed louder, his arms sweeping in arcs to his sides, as though the power of his gestures were guiding the crowd further back.
“Make way! Make way!”
The sentries on the footbridge - eight abreast, nearly the width of the wooden span – budged not as Reysen approached. The crier, a full head shorter than the smallest of them, proved undeterred by the guards.
“Go on, now! In the name of Prince Jameson, I command you to part and make way!”
The edict did little to spark motion from the sentries, save the sharp looks that formed on their faces. It was not until the bulk of them glanced at the prince for approval, which he confirmed with a nod, that the men stepped aside to allow the crier to pass.
Reysen raised his head high as he marched on, his legs stretching farther than needed as he continued his proclamations.
“That made his week,” Everitt said.
“Perhaps his month,” Symon retorted in good fun.
As the shadow of the barbican overtook them, Reysen’s commands echoed through the stone. In the Name of Mar, his voice is even more nasal when contorted, Symon thought. Nonetheless, he allowed the little man his moment, knowing that few others in the castle gave him a second glance, let alone admit him into the royal quarters.
When sunlight met them on the other side, on the drawbridge, Symon noticed a welcome sight: a wild boar, having been basted and roasted over an open fire, strapped to a pole carried by two porters. It crossed the bailey, followed by one servant carrying a tray of baked pheasant and another with a platter of smoked fish. Though he was too far to take in the aroma, the very thought of a banquet of meat and mead was enough to make Symon’s mouth water.
“Make way! Make way!” continued Reysen.
“That’s enough of that nonsense!”
Reysen, his rhythm disrupted, halted. He straightened, his face reddening at having been interrupted. He turned to the man in the shadows, one of an imposing, powerful build. He huffed a bit, ready to spew, when Symon rode to his side.
Immediately, the crier’s knees buckled and he prostrated himself before his king.
From the dimness of the guardhouse passage emerged Audemar. He stepped onto the drawbridge to meet his son, who dismounted.
Behind Symon, Everitt raised his hand to halt the procession. He too came off his mount. He genuflected, as did the soldiers to his rear.
Audemar extended his hands to grip Symon by the shoulders. “Son.”
Symon returned the gesture, looking past his father as he did so. The King’s Right Captain, Sir Lijart, remained in the shadow of the guardhouse, as did the rest of the retinue. That they blended so well into the dim light gave Symon a moment of consideration, that is, before his father patted his left cheek.
“What happened here?” Audemar asked.
Symon, returning his attention to him, glanced over his shoulder. He stared past Everitt and his men, each still to one knee but alert as ever, to find Konradt.
“He did,” Symon answered. He turned back to his father. “It is a mere scratch. Nothing more.”
“Indeed, the mark of a warrior. I had a dozen by the time I was your age. Of course, the war of my day made such scars frequent, upon both soldiers and victims. By the grace of Mar, those days are past us.” Audemar turned his head to the guard tower. “Sir Lijart.”
The knight stepped into the light. Gray painted his temples and lines creased the rims of his eyes, yet somehow the Right Captain to the King had escaped most of the visages of the middle-aged. Symon had seen the man train in the bailey hundreds of times. Each time, he expected to see a misstep or slowing in Lijart’s motions and instincts. Yet in every instance, Symon’s anticipation was unmet, as the knight proved himself over and again.
“Your Majesty,” answered Sir Lijart.
“My son brought guests,” Audemar said, grinning. “See that proper quarters are secured for them.”
“As you command.” With a short bow, Lijart went on to do his work. He withdrew to the guardhouse, to shout at those within, before marching forward with tens hurrying forward to do the King’s bidding. As men in armor and mail went about, Audemar put his arm around Symon, leading him into the castle.
The moment his boot stepped off the drawbridge to hit the first cobblestone of the castle, Symon’s mind was put at ease. The soldier within him - ever present though it was – became eclipsed by the royal he had been raised to be. A thousand small thoughts of castle life, both past and present, filled his head. He contemplated how he and the other boys of the court would race up and down the length of the bailey through the guard house to the drawbridge until an adult of royal standing appeared to chastise them. He remembered listening to the tutors and mages of his youth teach him the range of subjects he was supposed to know, from castle architecture to scripture to dining etiquette. Then there was the bailey. The years of training in its yard with sword, bow and arrow, shield and many other arms beyond count. Most of all, there were those rare moments when his father would part from his duties and affairs to join him, times such as the one they shared now.
Symon broke from his trance. Brief though it was, he knew he missed something his father said. “My apologies, Father.”
Audemar did not grin. He smiled. “No need to be sorry, my boy. Your journey has been long, your work trying. Wash and rest for the afternoon. I will see you at the banquet tonight. Many barons will be there, to offer you congratulations and words of praise.”
Symon nodded. Perhaps a fresh soak and shave would do him good. All the more so considering he had to face so many bottom feeders in a matter of hours.
He turned to leave. He managed only a few steps before his father called out to him.
Symon stopped. He faced his father.“Welcome home.”