“It doesn’t seem right.” Ely shook his head.
“Justice must be had,” Symon insisted.
“I’m not saying we spare him. Far from it. What is in store for him is too lenient, is all I’m saying.”
“Must we all watch?” Gerry asked.
“Aye,” Dawkin confirmed. “All of us.”
“He’s the one who insisted on the time and place.”
Ely considered. The time? The dead of night. Away from the prying eyes of those servants or peasants who may chance upon the makeshift gallows by the lakeside. Not that many uninvited would even know of the location. The place? The smallest of the lakes belonging to the summer residence of Kin Saliswater on the Ridge of Tarns.
Ely shot a look at his brothers as they rode beside him. Symon, always the soldier, sat in his saddle looking straight ahead. Though to a novice it would appear he was lost in thought, Ely knew better. Every clop of hoof, every noise, and even the stretches of silence was being processed by that militaristic mind of his. The recent battle on the ford had only deepened his resolve to be aware of his environment.
Between Symon and Dawkin rode Gerry. Ordinarily, a night ride such as the one they were having would have stressed his little brother, putting him in a sense of unease. While not the most comfortable, Gerry had shown some strength in his resolve to control his sensitivity. His fits of anxiety had lessened in the days since the assault on the castle, though he still carried his sword unnecessarily. At present, he did touch the pommel of his sword, as if to remind himself that it was still there.
Dawkin appeared the most unfettered by the events of days passed. His recount of the Battle of the Riverford was scholarly to put it mildly. Even in his truth session of the skirmish, his lack of emotion was astounding, as he remembered the engagement while exhibiting little agitation or excitability.
Ely reflected on his own actions. After finding their way back from the tunnels, he was overwhelmed by the urge to hack the enemy to snippets. He wanted to unleash his mania, to possibly wreak havoc on all those in his path. For once, it was Gerry who managed to rise to the occasion as the mature and logical one. His little brother had proposed wearing Ely’s disguises – so as to appear as castle guards – before they rejoined the fight to win back the castle. Ely had conceded, though by the time they united with the fray, they found the major assault by the Lewmarians had been quelled, leaving only pockets of enemies to vanquish.
One of those pockets involved Sir Ernald, whom the Voiceless and Realeza had cornered in the lower bailey. With a traitorous knight on each side of him, Sir Ernald and his two cohorts chose to fight their way through rather than surrender. They paid dearly for their hubris, with the two knights falling in battle while Ernald suffered a near-fatal wound to his abdomen.
Baron Tristan, meanwhile, had exhibited less valor. The Realeza had chased him through the galleries and halls until he finally came to the grain room, where he proceeded to barricade himself for the rest of the day. Once the Voiceless learned of how the baron had entrenched himself, they responded with a two-handed iron battering ram, which easily broke down the door to reveal a quavering lord on the other side.
Artus had both Marlish traitors brought into the Throne Room, where he promptly displayed them before King Felix to assure him that his son’s assassins had been apprehended. Once Felix was satisfied that neither he nor his kin were in any further danger, Artus paraded the two to the dungeon. From there, the Voiceless placed wool hoods over their heads and escorted them to Terran, so as to allow the four brothers their chance to interrogate the conspirators.
One by one, the Fourpointe brothers appeared to Ernald and Tristan, with the Voiceless on guard to administer truth serum. Symon went first, his questions focused more on what the siblings of Har-Kin Boivin had revealed to the Lewmarians than anything else. His examination revealed that the Boivin brothers had provided maps and details of the hamlets and villages that dotted the northeastern Marlish coast in exchange for the raiding party that Ernald and Tristan needed to overtake Arcporte Castle.
Dawkin went next, with his queries directed at extracting any information the Boivins had on other traitors within their midst. Ernald gave up the names of a few Har-Kins, while Tristan identified a handful of others. From there, Dawkin went on to what he and his brothers really wanted to know: had any foreigners, beside the Lewmarians, assisted them? The foxes of Kin Foleppi? Were any left in Marland? Or the Volkmar? Had they facilitated the correspondences between the Boivins and the Lewmarians? And what of the Ibians? Had any of Kin Garsea had a hand in the murder of their father?
On and on Dawkin went. His questions had no end. As thorough as he was though, the Boivins gave up little, in spite of the truth serum they had consumed.
Then it was Gerry’s turn, who surprised all of his brothers by being meticulous in his own right. He repeated many of the questions Symon and Dawkin had asked, lest the Boivins omitted any details from the first two sessions. Then he broke from the pack to make inquisitions all his own. Much of his session targeted what Har-Kin Boivin knew of the Garseas, particularly when it came to the night that their Armada was burned. That discussion divulged that every traitorous Har-Kin aligned with the Boivins at that point were prompted to prove their commitment to overtaking the Crown by setting afire the fleet of the foreign devils. Gerry, satisfied with what he uncovered, turned the proceedings over to Ely.
And his examination ran the gamut of his madness.
Ely started with a degree of sensitivity, given that he had never encountered two individuals in a truth session at the same time, let alone kin. He first prodded the knight and the lord on their full family history, which included many joyful accounts of the two brothers in their youth in the Upper East Waterlands. The session continued with recollections of the losses they suffered during the Century War, which prompted Ely to retire for a spell as he sought to control himself.
Upon his return, the conversation shifted to the plot to overthrow the Crown and end the reign of Kin Saliswater. And that stirred the mania within. With each detail of their treachery, Ely stewed, his rage constrained only by the need to know more. He pressed each one for every intricate detail, even those that seemed mundane or trivial. All the while he drank far too much memory tea, so as to become intent on remembering all that transpired, which only heightened his madness. When the effects of the truth serum for the two began to wane, he administered a triple dosage of the potion, sending both Ernald and Tristan into shock.
Ely, in the trance of his mind, snapped his head. Dawkin stared at him, cocking his head forward. “We’re here,” he said.
The sheen of the moonlit surface of the lake shimmered, disturbed by a breeze. The trees crowded the shoreline, their roots often stretched from earth to water. Most were stout compared to those of the low-lying Marlish forests, standing only twice or three times taller than a man. Save one. A giant alpine oak with white bark and leaves that shone golden even in the night. From its thick trunk spread strong boughs, beneath one of which stood the gallows.
“The Voiceless put that up in a hurry,” Symon commented.
Indeed, Ely knew. For it was his idea. When the Boivin brothers had somehow avoided uncovering their foreign conspirators despite four separate truth sessions, Artus had urged his grandsons to execute them. A public trial and hanging would prove too risky, for none could be certain of other foxes committed to seeing the brothers free. Even keeping them in the dungeon was deemed unwise, considering Konradt’s inexplicable escape. So Ely and his brothers concluded that Terranese law, not Marlish, would take precedent.
Dawkin proposed that the hanging take place in Terran itself, so as to save them from ascending unnecessarily. Symon wanted the punishment to happen on the Chesa, the sight of the two battles attributed to the Boivins’ treachery. Gerry, not sure how he would process such a public display, was fine to let the Voiceless do the deed and be done with it. Artus had then interjected by suggesting a family property, as the crimes in question required Saliswater justice. With all in agreement, the choice for the deed was narrowed to the Ridge of Tarns.
Such a setting offered privacy and solace. The Boivins could be set atop horses, nooses tied to a branch and the hanging done with little preparation. A quick pat on the rear of each horse would send the mounts off and their riders left to dangle.
Yet something had inspired Ely to recommend a tad more effort. Some theatrics.
He advised that the Boivins should be offered one final chance to open up about any remaining foxes in their land. Truth serum before the hanging would certainly loosen their tongues. As would the sight of a proper, if not hastily-built, set of gallows with nooses and all, rather than their horses simply riding out beneath them. Yes, Ely argued, that would do the trick.
His brothers had thought it a good idea. His grandfather believed it lent an air of legitimacy to their clandestine punishment.
Seeing the gallows, though, silhouetted by the reflection of the lake, left Ely feeling hollow.
“Will it hold?” Dawkin inquired.
“The Voiceless butchered some wild hogs, tied two to each noose, as a test,” Symon replied. “It will hold.”
“Perhaps we should reconsider?” Ely offered.
“It was your idea.”
“Only the gallows.”
“Really?” Dawkin said. “This coming from the one who nearly poisoned our captives with truth serum? Who voted with us on this very execution at the Fourpointe Table? Who, only moments ago, said we were too ‘lenient’?”
“Calm down,” Ely said.
Dawkin looked over his shoulder. Behind them rode a column of Voiceless. In the center of that line was their grandfather, too far back to hear their bickering. Trailing him, bound and hooded, were the Boivins.
“We must remain united on this,” Dawkin urged, his tone tense. “Grandfather has been through enough. He must see justice for our father, his son.” He pointed at Ely. “Do not play Prince Fool, today. I mean it.”
Considering his bouts of madness, and the rage they caused, Ely shuddered. Why must my emotions control me so? Why? “I promise. I will do as we planned.”
Symon leaned in. “If you want another to –”
“No.” Ely held out his hand. “I will do it.” I will pull the lever.
He had asked to. There was no denying it. After all, the gallows - with their stairs, nooses and doors beneath each prisoner – were his construct, the product of his mind. His responsibility alone. He had to be the one to finalize the execution. There was no other way.
As the trail ended before the edge of the tarn, the four dismounted and pulled their horses aside. The Voiceless came to their sides, taking the reins from them as those in the back stalled to allow the princes time to approach their grandfather and wait for him to descend. He did so gingerly, not due to age but because the sight of such long-awaited justice weighed on him, like a burden he would have seen cast off ages ago. Once the regal lord steadied himself, the five stood aside to let the rest of the retinue through.
“Take off their hoods,” Artus commanded.
Those Voiceless still on horseback reached over to remove the black wool covers. Ernald and Tristan shook their heads as the night air met their faces. They blinked, their eyesight adjusting, before staring ahead.
“Oh, Mar . . . No!” Sir Ernald said.
“What, what is the meaning of this?” Tristan demanded.
“Pull them from their horses,” Dawkin commanded.
The Voiceless did so. Ernald, quivering slightly, allowed the silent knights to guide him from his saddle to the ground. Tristan struggled against his bindings, less eager to dismount.
“This is disgraceful. Unlawful. I demand a fair trial. For me. For my brother. I am a lord of Marland, with titles and lands. It is my right!”
Symon stepped forward. “By Marland’s Law, you forfeited all rights when you committed treason. According to the Statutes of King Aethelrik, ratified by the Conclave of Barons in the fourth year of his reign, any Marlish citizen found in the open act of treason may be subject to the swift and decisive judgment of the monarch or royal at hand.”
“An imbecile’s decree if ever there was one.” Tristan spat on the ground, his discharge narrowly missing Symon’s boot.
“Brother, please,” Ernald begged.
Tristan looked to Artus. “Is this how you allow your kin to rule? By allowing him to carry out this illegal judgment? Not before the Court but in front of his mute hoodlums and his imposters?”
“We are not imposters,” Dawkin replied. “We are all Princes. Sons of the late, great King Audemar. The sovereign you conspired against, who died by your treachery.”
“What? Wait, I don’t understand. Which one of you is Prince Jameson?”
“We all are,” Gerry said, his boldness breaking through his reserved demeanor.
The Voiceless pushed the Boivin brothers toward the gallows. Both resisted. Ernald had to be carried by a Voiceless at each limb as he flailed and wept. Tristan, on the other hand, became dead weight, shouting as the Voiceless dragged him through the dirt.
“You won’t get away with this. I am a baron! My Har-Kin will answer for my disappearance. They will revolt. They will rise against you.”
Artus parted from his grandsons and his guards to stand before the gallows as the Boivins were carried to their nooses.
“Lord Tristan, Sir Ernald,” he began. “Know this: no one will reply to your hanging. For no one will know of it. This location is secure. This act of justice, clandestine. What conspirators may remain on the island have no way of knowing of this event. Your joint execution will proceed in secret. And once the life has passed from your bodies, they will be unceremoniously removed from these gallows and burned, so that no man nor woman may bury you nor ever visit your grave.
“As for the name of your Har-Kin, it is no more. A decree has been issued to all manors announcing your status as traitors. Your titles and lands have been stripped from you, your manor and homesteads cleared of all inhabitants, including the servants you once thought loyal to you. Your castle, your fortunes, and your land will be distributed evenly between Kin Saliswater and two other manors loyal to the Crown: Har-Kin Furde and Har-Kin Giscard. Your name will be annulled from all records and writings of this nation and the manors therein. As though you never existed.”
The Boivins listened to the final words whilst standing on the gallows, the nooses having been secured. Ernald – whatever regal air he once had now gone – shook. Streams of piss ran the length of his trousers.
“Tristan, do something . . .”
Artus moved before Tristan to stare up at him. “Your father kept you from conscription during the waning years of the Century War, claiming you suffered from fevers. I allowed it, believing your condition to be valid. I showed you mercy. When you entered adulthood and came before the Court, you spoke words of dedication to my kin. You kneeled before me when I reigned. You did the same before my son. Yet all of it meant nothing. You have no honor, baron. You never did. Now, your death will reflect the life you lived, the sins you committed.”
The Baron lowered his head, his eyes avoiding Artus’.
“Still, for all the ways in which you have wronged me, it will not be I who condemns you. For above all else, you stole a father away from four of his sons.” Artus turned around to face the four. “Are you ready?”
The other three looked to Ely.
Artus placed a hand on his shoulder. “Then do what must be done.”
Ely parted from his kin to take to the gallows. He climbed the steps. Six in all. The distance was short. The span, long. His feet, shoulders, head, all of him felt weighted.
Why does this bother me so?
He glanced at the two convicts. Ernald pursed his lips, a vain attempt to compose himself. Tristan continued to stare down at his feet. Whether in shame or in defiance of what was to come, Ely could not confirm.
Ely moved to the lever, which would release the square doors that laid beneath them. He set his palm on the handle.
One more chance.
He broke from his position. He stepped up to the brothers, stopping between them.
“You can still redeem yourselves. You can die with honor. Tell us who conspired with you. We know you could not have coordinated with the Lewmarians alone. You had to have had help. From a power beyond the sea. Tell us. We can remove your bodies once it’s done. Keep them from burning. Grant you a burial. All you have to do is give us a name.”
“He knows! He knows!” Ernald offered, desperate. “Tristan planned it all. I only joined him once it all was in place. He hired the mage who altered my face to look like you. He sent the letters and maps to the barbarians. He set in motion their raid in Arcporte. He knows. Tell them, brother, please. Do not let our name end like this.”
Tristan raised his head. He was crying. He breathed deeply. Then sighed. Composure sank in as he turned to Ely.
“My father was Baron Oweyn.” He offered an eye toward Artus. “You knew him.”
“He fought in the Century War, as you call it. The Slaughter is what we knew it as. Har-Kin Boivin sent many a good lad to Afari, to fight for your cause. Your great honor. Under the command of Kin Saliswater nearly every Boivin who saw a battlefield fell. My father lost his four brothers, three in-laws, two uncles and scores of cousins. Over the course of his five years of fighting, my father became a different man. He returned home changed.
“Ernald was too young to remember, having been born after my father left. But I saw it. He would wander the bailey of the castle at night, even when not drunk, which wasn’t often. He would talk to the walls, the stables, the horses. Claimed it were the ghosts. No one ever heard them beside him though. Soon talk spread throughout the castle and to neighboring manors of his madness. We were shunned.” Tristan stared deep into Ely’s eyes. “We were not Princes, mind you. We could not suffer the moniker of ‘Prince Fool’ and hope for our honor to survive. Soon after, other barons refused to trade with us. Then the merchants. We would trek all over Marland to sell our goods at market – golden grain, ripe fruits and fine wool – only to watch as others avoided our stands and refused to deal with us. So our coffers, already suffering from the costs borne sending men to die overseas, shrank. Yes, your kin granted us a bit of land for the sacrifices we endured. But what good was more land without men to work it, without the means to reap our harvests?
“So I watched as my Har-Kin was laughed at, humiliated. I witnessed my father change into a shell of his former self. And I was the one to discover his corpse, slumped in one of the stalls of our stables, after he had slit his throat.
“The foreign hands that helped our cause do no matter. What counts is that we wounded Kin Saliswater. We caused the great king to suffer and bleed. Now you know our anguish. I can die with honor. Regardless of what you claim to have done to our name.”
Baron Tristan lifted his head further. Never had Ely seen one so at peace.
Ely marched to the lever. He pulled it. The doors beneath the two opened and through the hatches the feet of the Boivins fell, halted and dangled.
Ernald wretched violently at first before his face turned violet, then blue. He defecated as he body lurched a few more times before slacking still.
Tristan struggled not. The force of the fall was such that his neck snapped. His eyes, though bulging, somehow retained their sense of tranquility.
Ely left the gallows, his eyes never leaving the two men. He fell in beside his brothers and his grandfather, who also stared on in silence, along with the Voiceless.
Gerry, first to break his transfixed gaze, sighed. “Let’s go home.”
“Aye, lad, let us go.” Artus motioned to the horses tied to a nearby stand of small firs. He leaned in toward a Voiceless. “Take them down. Break the gallows and use the wood for their pyres. Then discard their ashes in a stream.” Artus moved to his horse. “They are Mar’s worry now,” he said more to himself than anybody else.
Their descent from the ridge went quietly, with the occasional rock upturned under hoof to roll downhill providing the sole disturbances in the silence. The grade of their path was slight yet windy, so that by the time they arrived at the base of the foothills, the horizon was giving way to dawn.
“Cowls up,” Artus finally said, shattering the hush. “We will be passing by farms and hamlets soon.”
Ely complied along with the others. “Should we split now?”
“Nay, we can afford a while longer before that,” Dawkin said.
“When you do separate, make certain you are paired with a Voiceless,” Artus added. “The first should speed ahead a half mile or so, before the next follows, and so on and so forth. Each of you should enter Terran via a different route, so that if followed, none will compromise the entry of the others.”
“We know, Grandfather,” Symon assured him. “You needn’t worry.”
“I always must worry,” Artus replied. “Your interregnum should be coming to an end. King Felix has been so kind as to stay to see you coronated and we must try not to test his patience more than we already have. I will send word to the Conclave of when the ceremony is to take place. They will listen.” Artus, taking a moment, paused. “I am so sorry for the state you find yourselves in.”
The brothers exchanged looks of concern before Gerry spoke. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Your continued secrecy. This lie you must live. Yes, it saved you from the fate of your father. And it will continue to do so. But in turn, you are not free to live as you see fit. Our decision so long ago – your father’s and mine – to hide the nature of your birth, to show you to the world not as four but as one, will stay with you for the rest of your lives.”
Ely considered his grandfather’s solemn exchange. He had lived his entirety as a prince, with all the luxuries of a royal and to date only a scattering of the responsibilities. Yes, he had been trained along with his brothers to one day bear the Crown. Such a role had always seemed so far off, though. So distant. Upon being set up on the throne, all that would change. He and his brothers would have the final say on all ranges of matters, while also being confined to the lofty traditions of Court, always in the debt of both barons and bishops, even knights and commoners.
“Heavy is the head . . .” he whispered to himself. Their father had frequently uttered such words in their youth. As they aged, he said such phrases less often. Yet the burden of the Crown had worn on him. Did he not want to worry his children? Embitter his sons before they even had a chance to ascend to their lifelong calling?
“May I offer an opinion, Grandfather?”
Ely and the others turned to Gerry, who rode behind them all. He clipped his heels into his horse, sending it into a trot as he came beside Artus.
“Of course, my son.”
“I know of my . . . traits . . .”
“Nonsense,” Artus interrupted, knowing where Gerry was headed. “You are a Saliswater.”
“A lesser one,” Gerry insisted. “No use denying it. I know my place. Everything you said is true. Yet I, for one, do not consider our present state of secrecy a burden.”
“Why is that?” Symon asked, her curiosity piqued.
“Because for all the disadvantages that Grandfather noted, we have so many benefits that no other sovereign can have.”
Even Dawkin perked. “Go on.”
“Think of the possibilities. As the King, the burden of rule can be distributed, not heaped upon one poor, unfortunate soul. That is always what strained Father, carrying the weight of the island on his shoulders. I for one could never imagine being King without the support of you three.”
“If the situation was, say, normal,” Ely said. “With you being the firstborn and us as the younger siblings, you must know that we would be by your side.”
“Yes, but as princes. Lower in rank, able to ascend only if I died and bore no heirs. With the four of us as one, we can all take our turns with the Crown.”
Dawkin smirked. “This has been our station our entire lives. Yet only now do you seem to appreciate it. Why?”
Gerry leaned back in his saddle, relaxing his shoulders a bit. “Father’s absence has left a gap. One none of us could ever possibly hope to fill. We did not choose this fate, yet here we are. We’ve been tried, and in our own ways, have been found wanting. Perhaps we’ll never be whole, the monarchs we need to be. Still, together, we have to rule as he would have. Or like Grandfather did. We have the Mar-given duty to do all we can, for our peoples, for Marland. As one, we can save the Crown.”
Struck by the resolution and boldness of Gerry’s words, the five continued on quietly. The road rose and fell steadily, each hillock like a wave gliding over the ocean. The fog of morning faded, the mist peeled back to allow the rays to bathe the countryside in gold. The trees overhead and the shrubs alongside the path opened their flowers to the light while well-tended fields of wheat and barley came into view. When the first farmhouse appeared after they crested another rise, past a fork in the road, Artus addressed his grandsons.
“We part here.”
“Are you not coming with one of us?” Gerry asked.
“Should the Conclave need a nudge concerning your coronation, it is best I do it in person. Manor Saliswater is closer to Highmoorr Castle than Arcporte should I need to call the barons to meet, although I remain hopeful that will not be the case.”
“Very well, Grandfather,” Symon replied. He turned to his brothers. “Which of us will ride ahead first?”
After some pause, Dawkin reared his horse front and center. “Ah, hell! Come now, brothers. It is as Gerry braved to say. We are to be kings. We should act like them!”
Without bothering for any hint of permission, Dawkin clapped his heels into his mount and broke into a gallop. The silent knight closest to him sped off after his trail, leaving the rest in the lurch.
“That was certainly entertaining,” Artus quipped. “With that, I’ll take my leave. I’ll see you soon.”
Artus, with all but three of the Voiceless, rode off toward the northernmost fork of the road.
“Who’s next?” Symon offered.
“The poet,” Ely suggested, nodding to Gerry. “Go on, little brother.”
“The name is Geremias, Prince Fool.” Gerry snapped the reins of his mount. Together with a Voiceless by his side he sped towards the southern route that Dawkin had taken.
“You won’t mind if I go last, will you?” Ely inquired of Symon.
“You are the better rider. I would prefer to take my time without you at my heels.”
The reason seemed to satisfy Symon. “As you wish.”
“See you underground.”
With that farewell, Symon and his guard left.
Ely shifted in his saddle. Though the explanation for him being the vanguard to their small retinue had been partially true, in all honesty he found himself suddenly nostalgic, wanting to relish in the simple joy of a lone ride, even if he wasn’t truly by himself.
“I would like to think. Try to keep the banter to a minimum.” Ely offered a grin to his riding companion. The Voiceless nodded out of obligation, his demeanor not cracking.
They continued on after his brothers, their pace casual. The rolling hillocks encountered at the start of their journey gave way to sprawling stretches of grain. The slightest gust rippled their topmost surface, their resulting pattering a slow, continuous chord to the percussion of their horse hooves.
The cropland and pastures, dotted by farmhouses, were soon joined by hamlets that Ely and his guard approached and passed, one by one. After the fourth village, another stretch of forest met them, accompanying the two right up to the hill-strewn coast that housed the passages leading to Terran.
The prospect of entering one of the secret passages stirred Ely to his center. He was neither afraid nor brazen, nor midstream in his emotions. He felt no danger of his mania nor his melancholy returning. What he felt was something unknown, a different sentiment altogether.
Ely turned his focus to the Voiceless beside him. “What is–”
No, wait. Speak his language.
Gathering the reins in his left hand, he raised his right. “What is your name?” he asked, his fingers translating his spoken question.
The knight straightened, thrown off by Ely’s interest. He paused, as if considering a proper response.
“I am Keris, Sire,” his right hand answered. “Your ardent servant.”Ely smiled. “I am honored to know your name.”