Artus watched them from the perimeter of the room as he quietly took in the observations they shared and the opinions they expressed.
Four, of the same blood, sons of my son.
This mood strikes me when I visit them, Artus told himself. This sense of awe. Not every time, granted. Just at those moments when I have gone awhile in seeing them. How long has it been? Two weeks? Three, perhaps? My visit to Mallory Manor took longer than expected. As did my hunt with Baron Hewe, that swineherd old fool. But tis my duty, to keep up appearances of regality. For Kin Saliswater.
Artus shook his head slightly, catching himself babbling in his thoughts. But he could not help it. For his journey back from the countryside had filled him with anticipation, because at every watering hole, inn and tavern, he had heard tales of Symon’s conquest of the Lewmarians. The details varied depending on the source. One shepherd went on about how Prince Jameson beat back the Lewmarians to the Chesa, all single-handedly, until the enemy finally submitted. A tavern wench on the Porte-to-Land spoke of the prince setting fire to the Burnwood to oust them from the Upper East, a move that succeeded but claimed her cousin’s husband’s farm. Then an alemaster, a rotund and soft man if Artus ever saw one, told a harrowing narrative of how his mighty prince had claimed the warlord’s arm as a trophy, a move that cost him his eye.
That last yarn had alarmed Artus on the final leg of his journey. He bid his small retinue to hasten their travels, cutting out what would have been obligatory and long-winded visits to the remaining manors along the highway. The barons and their ladies may have scoffed at the slight, but the retired monarch cared not. For blood superseded all other duties, be it those of tradition, sword or coin.
It was not until Artus arrived at the castle and secured a private word with his son, King Audemar, that his fears were laid to rest. By then, Symon had been inspected by the mage and retreated to Terran to be with his brothers, a move that brought Artus further relief. For Terran had managed to remain a secret all these years, well-guarded by the Voiceless and known only to the silent knights and the royal bloodline of Kin Saliswater.
He scanned the Fourpointe Table, his gaze stopping at each grandson. My how they have grown. It amazes me that I can still tell them apart. But why shouldn’t I? Even when they are gathered together, their differences in manners and gestures are enough, even for my old eyes. Dawkin with his sweeping hands. The way he narrows his eyes when he studies and concentrates. Symon, with his shoulders slightly stronger than the others, and a gait to match. Slight though it is, tis there. Then Ely, with his biting wit, and a tongue as sharp as a broken shell. He can out talk all the rest all at once if he wanted. And Gerry, a sweet lad. Pensive. Hesitant at times. But a truer soul, a shining example of goodness, there has never been.
Artus, in a chair of dark mahogany and soft leather, leaned back and smiled to himself. He extended his arms and stretched, the weeks of riding having snuck up on him.
Dawkin, catching his grandfather’s movements out of the corner of his eye, glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, Grandfather?”
“Oh, my apologies, son. I was only stretching.”
“Perhaps that should signal our stopping point,” Ely suggested. “We’ve been at it for quite some time.”
“Oh, forget that warlord, Dawkin! By Mar, you’re starting to sound like . . .” Symon caught himself, but not before he gave a glance Gerry’s way. “Sorry . . .”
“No, no,” Gerry said, grinning. “It’s nice not being the anxious one for once.”
Artus grinned. I probably should have used my interruption as an opportunity to share what I learned above, he mused. He kept quiet though, awaiting another opportunity.
“Why so much concern, so much worry and preparation, Dawkin?” Ely asked. “Konradt and the other Lewmarians are barbarians, mere brutes. Is that not right, Grandfather?”
“There is more to it than that, my son,” Artus offered. “Those are the basics, though.”
“You see,” Ely insisted. “They are basic brutes.”
“I know I am being redundant,” Dawkin said, defensively. “But we only meet together a few times a month. Our time together is precious, our minutes with each other too few. Therefore, we must strategize and coordinate our efforts down to the most miniscule of details. This meeting is all the more important now that one of us actually saw battle, and the enemy, face-to-face.”
“I agree,” Gerry concurred. “The mood and attitudes of those above will be affected by Symon’s recent victory. All those of court, no, all in every hamlet and farm on the island will have a different view of us now.”
“Here, here,” Ely said. He strode to an end table to pour himself some wine. “So why worry so much? The hard part has been done. The enemy is in chains. For the next few months, when any one of us ascends, we will be showered with praise and song.”
“Tis not quite that easy, brother,” Symon chimed. He pointed to his fresh scar. “The people have been roused. Barons will ask questions and demand answers with regards to the protection of their estates. Their ladies and kin will want assurances of their safety. Commoners as well.”
“Please . . . spare me the pity of the poor.” Ely gulped his wine, reaching for the carafe before he had even finished. “What fear they have is unfounded, a byproduct of the Century War. We – and by we, I mean Marland – survived. This raiding party was a desperate attempt by the Lewmarians to plunder our ships. Hell, they probably had their sights on that Ibian Armada you mentioned. But did they succeed? No. Why? Because their undertaking was a mismanaged affair, and ill-timed at that. Those fools came too early. The treasure-laden ships from the Afari mainland, the Ibian peninsula, won’t even be here for a few weeks, by my calculations.”
“Actually,” Artus spoke up, seeing his chance. “That is not entirely true.”
The quadruplets turned in unison, all of their gazes falling upon the patriarch.
“The winds have been blessed by Mar,” Artus continued. “They turned, coming now from the south and the west, to guide all ships from the mainland to the northeast.”
“Right to our shores,” Dawkin said.
“Furthermore, they are not treasure-laden. Unless you count the Ibian beauties of their court. Those women aside, word is their load is light and their crew has worked day and night to afford haste to our docks.”
“Then that would mean they could come any . . .”
Artus nodded to Dawkin.
None spoke. Instead, they shot to their feet to hurry into the hall, as though they were a pack of hounds called to a hunt.
Artus grinned. He rose, straightening the lines that had folded across his trousers and doublet, before continuing on after them.
The smooth, polished tile gave way to weathered sandstone, with the carved ceiling of the hall rising suddenly to reveal the stalactites of a cavern. Artus stepped from a small depression to rise with ease, his feet having committed the uneven surface to memory. His grandsons knew the area just as well if not better, but in trying to shove past one another, they stumbled and fell. Still, in one jumbled mass they managed to proceed upward, climbing the irregular steps to the mouth of the cavern.
Ely caught Symon with an elbow to the rib. Symon, unhurt, nonetheless took a step back to allow his kin the moment.
“I win, I win,” Ely proclaimed, as he came to the opening, pausing to catch his breath.
“You swine,” Dawkin started, before Ely extended his hand to catch his attention. He tapped his brother on the chest and pointed.
Symon and Gerry stopped by their sides as Artus climbed the steps, cautious on the stone made slick by the mist and damp. He reached the top of the rise, which offered a vista to the blue beyond.
Against the backdrop of a cloudless sky, sailing on a canvas dotted by whitecaps, sailed the Ibian Armada.
Ships of a rich chestnut color rode the sea, their massive white sails made taut by the trade winds. The crew of each vessel – like ants on a giant – hurried to and fro, tending to the decks and the sails with efficiency and deftness. From their vessels and trade boats, Marlish fisherman and merchants made sure to keep their distance from the oncoming fleet, for fear of being crushed or capsized. Yet it was clear from the static positions of their ships on the harbor and the sailors in awe on their decks that they could not help but watch the floating castles travel past and marvel at their presence.
Though their passage through the harbor was gentle, the Armada nonetheless caused wakes that stirred the Marlish boats from their vantage points. The greatest of the fleet, the flagship, made waves that swept over the decks of even some distant spectator fishing vessels, causing their crews to scramble. That ship, with sails aplenty, also sported the most colossal of the Armada’s pennants, ones long and wide enough for the brothers to admire from the cavern.
The flags bore a lone cedar bordered on its sides and at its base by a golden garland.
“The king . . .” Gerry whispered, his gaze fixed on the topmost pennant as he stepped forward. “And the princess.”
Symon pulled him back. “Remain in the shadow of the cavern. Remember, the ship’s crew may have spyglasses, and the dark conceals us.”
Gerry nodded yet his eyes never left the flagship. Artus, too, found himself studying it with a sense of wonder. His eyes gleaned the deck, resting upon a slender sailor on the forecastle deck, who stood before a mounted horn pointing out to the bowsprit. Artus squinted, watching as the sailor positioned himself behind it. For a moment, he wondered what he was doing. However, what reached his ears put his curiosity to rest.
Oooo . . . Oooo . . . AaaaaOooooGaaaa . . .
The horn blast thundered throughout the harbor. Upon coming into the cavern, it rung all about, the stone walls and ceiling amplifying its boisterous sound. The boys covered their ears. Even Artus, his hearing not what it used to be, instinctively ducked his head.
Once the noise faded, the Saliswaters turned their sights once again to the Armada, their admiration not ruined but bolstered by the horn blast.
“Truly amazing,” Dawkin affirmed.
Artus stepped between them, his hand on Gerry’s shoulder.
“How are you, Grandfather?”
Artus looked upon Gerry, then the rest of his grandsons, as he considered the question.
Four sons. All alike in appearance. Born of the same woman, a queen, and the same father, the king. My son. Sons of my son.
Their future is bright. Full of hope. They will marry royalty, binding our family with Kin Garsea. They will have their own children. Saliswaters. Our kin will be replenished, leaving behind the scars of the Century War. We will flourish. Our name will live on, with the sons of my son.“I am well, my boy,” Artus assured Gerry, gripping his shoulder with affection. “Never better.”