The prince’s cries of pain could be heard throughout the fortress of Demor.
Caldor made his way down the hall as fast as he could. His feet scuffled over the wooden boards as he passed sky blue tapestries with the noble gryphon embroidered in silver. The cool breeze funneled through the hallway from the window behind him, tangling his thin pepper hair with his waist length beard.
A crowd of Sisters hurried past him in the same direction, their poufy cowls bouncing with their long strides.
Shuffling past a Sister holding open the oak door, Caldor went to the bed to assess the situation. The smell of camphor bombarded his senses, making his eyes water and nose burn. Before he could complain, one Sister hurried to open the balcony doors. He turned his attention back to the prince once the scent dissipated enough for him to breathe without the burning in his sinuses.
Cáel lay on his back, nestled into the soft feathered mattress. The cluster of pillows took up more space than the boy; Cáel barely took a corner of the king sized bed. His bony fingers gripped tightly to the cotton sheets, turning his knuckles white.
“Cáel, what hurts?” Caldor asked, placing a hand to the prince’s forehead. Cáel’s skin was damp to the touch. Beads of sweat gathered between the creases of the sage’s fingers, straightening the boy’s ginger curls. “Washcloth and cool water, Sister.”
One of the younger women hurried out of the room, clutching the empty metal basin. Caldor continued his assessment. There was no blood, no swelling. He pressed on the boy’s abdomen. It wasn’t hard or distended.
“Cáel! I cannot help you unless you tell me what hurts!” Caldor shouted louder this time, placing his hands on both sides of the prince’s face. This had been his third fit since Caldor’s arrival two days prior, and it was the same every time.
Caldor took a tight hold of the prince’s damp cotton collar, and shook him roughly. The prince’s head jolted back and forth.
The room fell silent.
Cáel opened his eyes; emerald green just like his father. They stared at Caldor, glazed over from tears, his brow wincing, crinkling the pale freckled skin of his forehead.
“M…m…my…” Cáel forced out, “mm…mmmy…my…”
“My, what? Your what?” this was the closest the boy had come to saying anything since these fits began. “Tell me, Cáel!”
“Mmmy… my… my leg-gah!”
The boy’s pitch increased, making the sage recoil for a moment from the horrific sound that tore at his eardrums. The sage tore away the sheets to see his legs. They were thin; just bone wrapped with skin. Caldor had seen mummies from the southern deserts with more muscle. The skin was normal: no blisters, cuts, or oozing pustules.
“Sister, roll him,” Caldor ordered.
With his small stature and age, it was best to leave the heavier lifting to someone stronger. If he attempted to move the boy, Caldor feared he would injure himself, or worse, the prince.
One of the older Sisters took charge and rolled the boy. She was the largest of the bunch, although not the gentlest. The Sister dropped the prince on his stomach. Cáel gave out a muffled groan when his face landed between two pillows.
Caldor examined the prince’s feet. They weren’t swollen, red, or blistered. They were boney like the rest of his joints but normal. The ankles were the same, as were the backs of his knees. Nothing appeared out of place, felt broken, or oozed pus as it would if it were infected. Aside from atrophy, his legs were fine.
Maybe the pain was internal? The sage wouldn’t open Cáel up to investigate that theory, but perhaps he could still find the source of the pain. In theory, the boy would scream more if the pain increased.
He could check with the king regarding the test, but the boy would be hoarse by the time they would have an answer.
Caldor rubbed his temple, closing his eyes for a moment to try to numb the pain that began thumping behind his eyes. His head had been fine until the impromptu screech, but now the noises the boy was making were like nails driving into the old sage’s temple. Enough was enough. Caldor had to find the cause to get a moment’s rest.
Taking the boy’s right foot in his hands, Caldor pushed his thumbs up and down and side-to-side along the sole. The screams didn’t increase. Caldor did the same with the left foot, and then both ankles. The boy continued screaming, but there had been no change in pitch.
With a heavy sigh, Caldor rubbed the bridge of his nose before straightening back up. There had to be something he was missing that would give him the answer to the problem but the screams made it damn near impossible to think.
“Bloody hell boy, breathe!” Caldor shouted, hoping that would bring another moment of silence, but he was ignored.
Caldor turned back to running his fingers over the boy’s shins and calves. Cáel had not been in this state when Caldor had left.
The boy had been happy and painless three months prior. He read books and played his lute while admiring the garden from the balcony of his room. Although Cáel was confined to his bed or chair, he had been in good spirits.
Examining the knees and thighs, Caldor couldn’t find anything wrong. In his professional opinion, the prince shouldn’t have been screaming. The boy shouldn’t have been in pain.
Maybe the inevitable was happening? Maybe after fifteen years the prince’s body was giving up?
The king wouldn’t hear that, but Caldor couldn’t think of anything else he could do. The last time he had said that, Charn had ordered him to find a better healer. That’s why he had gone to La’reen. The sage had spent the past three months reviewing the books he studied as a student and discussed the situation of the prince’s health with his colleagues, but time hadn’t been on his side.
With no answers to bring with him, Caldor was forced to return to Demor when the prince’s health suddenly declined. Nothing and no one appeared to have the answers the king wanted.
Except one, though the chances she had a cure were slim.
The Master Healer of the western state of Morza was a relatively private person. Caldor had had the pleasure of meeting her fifteen years prior during a political gathering between Morza and the neutral state of La’reen to the south. They had been discussing trade negotiations. La’reen had building supplies the remote community of Morza could use, while Morza had rare herbs and dragons to supply the South.
The Healer took a liking to Caldor’s blunt nature and spent the remainder of the negotiations with him. They spoke about their different lands, finding familiar understanding in their common task as healers. Caldor liked the old woman and knew that if he asked, Naygu would help him if she could.
Although, Caldor would have to wait until the Morzi celebrations ended before he could head west.
Caldor shuffled over to the large, dark mahogany cabinet on the far side of the room to inspect the collection of medications. Inside were glass jars and vials filled with elixirs, bitters, and vinegars. There were copper canisters filled with teas, ointments, and salves. Every plant known to the North and East hid somewhere in that cabinet.
Naygu’s knowledge remained untested, and even then, Caldor doubted the chances of the woman having the cure. He hoped the old woman knew something his forty years of research hadn’t uncovered, but that was a small chance.
Caldor didn’t want to give up, and he wouldn’t until he had spoken with the Master Healer of the West.
Taking a canister of golden brown powder out of the cabinet, Caldor turned to get the attention of the Sister who had rolled the prince.
“This, dear, is red kratom. Make it into a tea for the boy and make sure he drinks it. This should calm him and help with his pain. If I am needed again, you will find me in the garden,” the sage instructed, tapping on the lid. He handed the woman the canister and she nodded. He made his way out the door leading to the hall.
The Sisters of Mercy could tend to the boy. There was nothing else he could do for now.
The stone walls amplified the prince’s screams. The high archways and open atrium worked just like the great theaters in Easterly, allowing for sound to travel throughout the castle, leaving no place inside to escape. Even the small sparrows that clamored about the rafters were gone, leaving their straw nests bare.
Passing under an archway into the upper walkway of the atrium, Caldor admired the colourful windows above the main entrance. The orange light basked the stone innards of the half-moon shaped room as he made his way across the walkway towards a large oak door studded with iron bolts. The door protected the castle from the elements and, thankfully, was thick enough to block out a majority of the screams.
The smell of rosemary that filled the hallways was replaced with the sweet scent of damp leaves when he entered into the courtyard. Servants worked away at the gardens: watering and weeding, making sure everything looked perfect for those visiting.
Caldor didn’t mind weeds. Most were helpful plants, like goldenrod with its many medicinal qualities, or caper spurge for its use as an antiseptic. If he had been given a choice, he would have left whatever helpful plants that grew around the garden, alone.
Looking towards the sky, it pleased him to see it clear. Not a single wispy cloud in sight. Maybe he would be able to see the lights after all.
“Bird watchin’, are yah?”
A loud gruff voice blasted from behind, bringing the jabbing pain in his head back momentarily. Caldor grimaced, glancing over his shoulder to see the blond haired Steward of Derm. Most Dermite were big and boisterous; Foe was no exception to that rule.
The Northerners were a unique people. They were the tallest of the three races. It was their height that gave birth to rumours connecting their lineage to the giants, which clearly wasn’t true; they were mortals like the other peoples of Gaitan.
The Dermite were traditionalists, holding honour and family in great regard. Unfortunately, the Sydi held a different perspective. Where the Dermite were relatively peaceful people, the Southerners were not. For centuries, those of the South had wished to expand their lands, giving little choice to those standing in their way. Derm had been the first and only nation to defy Sydrin, and their conflicts continued on and off for centuries.
Caldor had come from the neutral nation of Easterly, populated by smaller folk like himself, far to the East. They were welcomed by the Dermite, as they shared similar ideals with the tall folk of the mountains. Some of the Chijin - the name for his people - found Derm to be their second home.
For Caldor, home was wherever a bed was. He didn’t like staying in one place. The whole point of becoming a Master Healer was so he could travel.
“No birds. I have come here to get away from that boy’s blasted screams,” the sage grumbled, changing his attention back to the landscape.
The northern land of Demor was filled with pine, cedar, and spruce. The elevation allowed for him to see over the tree line and into the western valley.
The valley was covered with ancient oaks beyond Bay’s Lake. The thick seventy-five meter high trees were said to be as old as Gaitan, according to those specializing in dendrology at the Glass Tower in La’reen.
Bay’s Lake shimmered between the pines, catching his attention. The fishermen there were heading back to the shore to finish the day by drying their catch on the racks or packing them in salt barrels for transport to the capital city of Derlin. Bay’s Lake happened to be one of the busier trading posts near Derm and received many visitors from the valley, as well as rare merchants from the west from time to time.
Caldor had spent time in the town there, studying the plants commonly found by the roadside. Bay’s Lake had been where he had completed his final dissertation on northern flora for the Glass Tower before being granted the title of Master Healer.
“Well, whatever yah did has shut him up for now,” Foe sighed, resting his callused fingers along the slate railing. “Those fits only started about a week ago. Do yah know the cause?”
“No,” the old sage shook his head, “I wish I knew… then I could fix it.”
“What about that old woman?”
“Naygu? I have not gone to see her yet. For the next few days, an outsider like myself would not be allowed within the gates of Morza. Not with the festivities regarding this evening’s special moon,” Caldor took a deep breath. Pine filled his lungs and tickled his long pointed nose, “I am sure if I were to ask her, she would laugh at me for trying so hard. Morza is not such a blessed place as Derm, you know. If the prince had been born in Morza he would have likely been fed to dragons, or left to the elements. The only reason Cáel is still alive is because he is Dermite and the prince.”
“He’s also the only heir,” Foe added stiffly, balling his right hand into a tight fist.
If only that were true. There were other options, none of which the king was pleased about. Charn could nominate a successor from someone in the court in case Cáel died. Otherwise, the position of king would fall to Foe.
“Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do for the prince but make sure he is not in pain until I speak with Naygu. If she has no answers, then my job will be to make the boy comfortable until he joins his mother in the Eternal,” Caldor removed his glasses, giving them a rub with the sleeve of his ash-grey woolen robe. They were old, with several chips in the glass from falling off his nose and onto the floor. The thin brass band that hooked over his left ear didn’t sit right, leaving them at a constant angle.
“Spendin’ time in the Snakes’ nest was a bloody waste,” Foe growled.
Foe pushed off the railing, folding his arms, and crumpling his padded leather vest. The Steward had been there when the queen had died, and had supported Charn when they discovered the prince’s sickness.
Caldor had called the prince a floppy baby, which Charn had taken as an insult at first. The truth was, Cáel couldn’t hold up his head or arms on his own. It wasn’t until he was older, with help from his special chair, that he could sit up by himself. Fifteen years the boy had been suffering, and all those years Foe had watched the King hope for a miracle.
“I did not go there because I like La’reen. Yes, the gardens take your breath away, and it is called the Oasis of the South for many reasons, and the wine…” his mouth watered remembering the sweet selections he had been offered, “I went there because they have a larger collection of medical texts, along with the university. The Glass Tower is not just for show you know.”
“I like my stone walls and mountains, thank yah. I’d prefer not to drink with a woman who sleeps with the enemy,” Foe’s lip curled.
“Mardina is not just any woman. She is the only Empress in a world ruled by men and cousin of the Southern King,” Caldor stated.
“That may be so, but that ain’t gonna change the fact I don’ like her,” Foe’s teeth ground together and his fingers turned white from tightening his grip.
The South was a sensitive topic for those in the North. It made sense, since the Northern kingdom constantly dealt with raids from the South trying to push the lines. Sydrin could have taken the valley, which for centuries allowed for a nice buffer between the two warring nations, but the South wouldn’t settle. They had the desert and most of the west. Sydrin wouldn’t be happy until they had the North and East, by the looks of it.
“If yah think seein’ the old woman is gonna be a waste of time - why the hell yah goin’ then?” Foe asked.
“Curiosity, mainly,” Caldor replied, “Naygu wishes me to see Morza from a local perspective, not just from a map. She also wishes me to tutor her granddaughter in Chiji, as the girl - according to Naygu’s letters - has an affinity for languages and cultures: a natural ambassador, just like her mother.”
“Yah’re gonna cook in those mountains with those prims,” Foe spat.
“It is actually comfortably cool there, similar to summer in Demor. They are not as primitive as some would believe,” Caldor retorted. Foe rolled his eyes.
The Steward wouldn’t understand when his only concerns were for Derm. Caldor had travelled to most places in the known lands of Gaitan. The West was the last place he had any interest in seeing.
Many thought those of the west were savages because they chose such a simple lifestyle. They relied on one another to survive and were happier than many he had met in his travels. The children were healthier and understanding of the issues in the world.
Though Morza wasn’t directly in the war between Derm and Sydrin, they understood the tension between the nations. Most of their support went to the South - making relations with the North rocky.
“Name one thin’ they’re better at than us.”
“Medical knowledge and dragon husbandry,” Caldor retorted, stumping his friend.
Foe grumbled as Caldor leaned over the railing to try and spot the location of the western city. The sun sat above the mountains, making it hard for him to focus.
“What in seven hells are yah tryin’ to see?” Foe finally asked.
Caldor knew he must have looked strange, standing on the tips of his toes to see over the railing. The idea of climbing on the Steward’s shoulders did come to mind, but his desperation didn’t replace his dignity.
“I am trying to see the Western mountains. They are having their festival tonight,” Caldor tried jumping to get a better view, but ended up having to pull himself onto his tiptoes once more to see over the rail.
“Do yah want me to pick yah up?” Foe smirked.
“No, I am not a child. I will figure something out,” Caldor retorted, stepping back.
“Yah know, Morza’s miles away. It takes six hours by gryphon to get there,” Foe stated, resting his hands on his hips. “The chance of yah seein’ those sparkles ain’t very likely.”
“Firstly, they are not sparkles. They are ten foot high pyres. Secondly, it is actually eight hours by gryphon, but with the elevation of Demor, I thought it might have been possible to see the first three lights at least, since I can see the mountains in the distance,” Caldor clarified, knowing too well that Foe was teasing him when he called them sparkles.
“Yah can see those mountains from Calin in the East. Those westy peaks are rumored to almost touch the sky,” Foe said.
“Almost?” Caldor felt like his friend had some proof to say otherwise.
“Well, I’m not sayin’ I believe it, but the story goes Har - one of the first Gryphon Guardians of Derm - flew over those peaks to see what was on the other side.”
“And?” Caldor hadn’t heard that story, although most Dermite tales were more bragging than actual historical truths.
“And nothin’. He said he did it, but nothin’ more was said,” Foe shrugged.
“Fascinating, really. That story truly was life changing,” the sage droned, looking back at the western peaks. They shimmered like polished steel in the dimming sunlight as they reached through the mist.
There was no chance of seeing the lights from Demor. He knew he would see the moon. That was the important part, but it was the lights he had heard so much about.
Pyres were to be lit throughout Morza from the Mia River in the valley all the way to the Dragon Cliffs, showing the path for the Gods to take. This celebration was the Morzi New Year, but the 200 Year Moon made it special.
The moon would be a sight in itself. It was said that it would fill the whole sky for one evening. The closest the moon had ever come to Gaitan for two centuries.
There had to be another way. Even being a couple of miles closer would make some difference in what he would be able to see.
“Ah ha!” Caldor shouted.
“Ah ha?” Foe repeated.
“Take me up on that bird-lion of yours. We can get a better vantage,” Caldor didn’t like the idea of heights but wanted to get out of the stone fortress to see the beautiful festive display.
“Gryphon. Yah want me to take yah on a gryphon, so yah can see some stupid lights?”
“They are not just stupid lights. They are celebratory lights. Now, are you going to take me up or will I need to find someone else?” the sage persisted, stamping his foot on the ground.
“Fine,” Foe sighed, scratching his beard before lumbering off towards the stairwell leading to the gryphon roost. “Come along then…”