There is never enough time.
“Brother,” Osgar urged, staring at the mound of scrolls on Audemar’s table, “whatever else you have to do, it can wait.”
Audemar considered the contents of his curled parchments. Most had a cadence to their composition which he had committed to memory. Off-white vellum stemmed from his homeland, with their musky quality having been imbued during voyages from Marlish ports. The bleached parchments reflected the shorter journey from Colinnese mapmakers, along with the sharpness of hues and the trademark loops of their calligraphy. Many and more drawings told tales of origin, whether stemming from the style of their lettering or the composition of their materials.
Stories. Histories. Remnants of the past spread before Audemar, all of which laid bare details he had to consider to orchestrate his next move, one which would advance their cause or result in a loss, or worse, a series of events he could not foresee.
Maps. Accounts. They only tell me so much. Something is missing.
The King looked up. Osgar held the top of his new axehead between his hands, the butt of the shaft between the space of his feet. His narrowed eyes held concern, not unlike what he would show in the moments before an uphill battle or advancing upon a more sizeable force. Concern for a possible loss, anxiety over experiences to come, pain to endure.
Only no battlefield lay before him, nor an enemy line.
“’Tis night. Well into darkness.”
“Every general and captain in camp knows I’m always at the ready, long after dusk.”
Osgar nodded to the nearly-spent candles flickering their last. “Even a greenhorn knows not to bother us when our candlelight has faded, save for an emergency. They’ll extinguish soon, as anyone who looks upon this tent can tell. You’re expected to sleep like the rest of us.”
“You came here to remind me to rest?”
Audemar leaned on the table. “Why are you here?”
Osgar hoisted the shaft of his axe onto his shoulder. “I need you to follow me.”
He turned to exit the tent. No room for questions or protest. He and Osgar had had these kind of exchanges since youth. His burly sibling would always prompt him to follow, never offering a clear set of details as to why. If he refused, Osgar would return, repeat his directive and leave again until his brother obliged.
The same pattern of behavior, unfolded like all others before. And still, something rang different this time.
Audemar’s swordbelt and blade hung on the knob of the tall chair beside him. With haste, he grabbed his sidearm to follow Osgar into the night.
The sudden chill reminded Audemar how quickly the climate shifted in the Colinnese foothills. In the light of day, the knolls and rises retained the warmth of the sun, becoming hearths of their own. When darkness fell, their heat evaporated, turning cold with no memory of the comfort from mere moments before. At least in the Highmorr Peaks – or really, all of Marland – the weather stayed consistent from hour to hour, days on end.
Yes, another sign. Something is different here.
Audemar gave no voice to his thoughts as Osgar pressed ahead. His brother, a hunkering beast in any other situation, exercised stealth. He stepped gingerly over every moss-covered log, each blade of grass. The absence of sound from his sibling made Audemar himself more acutely aware of his own follies, so that he noticed the crunch of pine needles or the snap of twigs under his boots.
“Osgar,” Audemar called, “there is no need for such caution here. The front lines are scores of miles away. The nearest town has their reserves on night patrol.”
His brother’s shoulder rose. He pivoted, so as to show Audemar his index finger before his lips. “They prefer the quiet. Come.” He resumed his trek, leaving no opportunity for Audemar to ponder or ask.
The cracks and snaps of foliage beneath Audemar’s feet turned to sloshing as the wooded earth became marshland. Soon the moisture soaked through the thickest sections of his boots, allowing the cold to seep in and remind him of the chill which had caught him unawares earlier. Even Osgar took to rubbing his arms every now and again, though he never let his gestures delay his pace.
This better bloody well be worth it.
In time, Osgar slowed as they came to a clearing, which consisted of an elevated patch of dry grass. He stepped onto its edge, scanning the knee-high verdure for something missing.
Audemar joined is brother at his side. His eyes pointed forward. A foot soldier would have pegged His Majesty as only being able to see what laid before him, a fatal error in judgment. For the trueborne warrior within had stirred. The skills and experience of years on the front had awakened much in the King, including the full extent of his vision, the periphery of which came into his consciousness, even in the pitch of night. The soggy marsh from whence he stepped. The parched vegetation. The woodland guards – towering trees, squat bushes, fallen logs – which ringed their position. He took in nearly the whole of its expanse in one view and merely had to twist his head right or left to witness all the rest.
“How many?” Audemar asked. His palm over the hilt of his sword, ready to unsheathe his blade at a moment’s notice.
“A few, I suspect,” Osgar replied.
“You should have advised me properly for – whatever this is. Spies? Defectors?”
Osgar glanced to his side, his gaze escaping his brother’s. “If I had told you in full what we were doing, who we were meeting, you wouldn’t have come.”
At that, Audemar drew his sword. “We leave. Now.”
Snapping around to leave, he plodded his foot back into the muck.
Dear Mar –
How had I missed them?
He glared into the darkness – where he had intended to retreat – to meet a pair of eyes, level with his, unflinching.
Audemar had scanned the same area only a moment before. No nemesis had met him then. Nor did he have any reason to suspect one would. The air held no scent save the petrichor from the recent rain; nor had the woodland creatures changed their songs of night. It was as if somehow, someway, those eyes – each with an ebony center, encircled by indigo, then the brightest of ivory – had appeared undetected by all else.
Except by Audemar, in that moment.
“You see them too?”
Audemar fought the urge to turn to his brother, for he did not want to break his focus. “I suspect there are others.”
“Aye,” Osgar confirmed.
“You spot them?”
Audemar gripped his sword with renewed determination. “Keep low. We’ll head south, for as long as –”
The steel glinted in the moonlight. It spun before him before stopping with a thud in the muck.
Osgar stepped away from his brother, his hands raised in a show of peace.
The pair of eyes before them blinked. Then they opened, as did three other pair, all of the same hues. They emerged from the pitch of the forest, exposing themselves.
Dear Mar, indeed.
He had never relinquished his sword. Nor had they asked him to do so.
Now as he stood before them, having heard their piece, he spun around in disgust to sheathe his weapon.
“Aude, please –”
“Bah!” Audemar raised a hand to dismiss his brother. The gesture gave Osgar pause. He glanced at their hosts, who offered no response of voice or movement. They merely stared back at him, waiting.
“Consider what we can gain,” Osgar begged.
“We?” Audemar asked, incredulous. “We?!”
“If we refuse their offer . . . The kingdom is at stake.”
“We’ve endangered Marland just by listening to them. Why to entertain such a notion is, is –”
What? Blasphemy? Heresy?
Audemar shook his head. He paced, wanting nothing more to leave. His hosts, however, waited before the only opening of the cave. He had half a mind to blow right on past them.
While the other half yearned to hear more.
He battled with himself, torn between what he knew to be right and what he wanted to believe.
Is it even possible? This promise they have told?
Every mage from their country and those they had bribed from Greater Afari had examined Ellenora to come to the same conclusion: she was barren. ’Twas not a question. It stood as fact. Following each conclusion, Audemar had insisted every mage drink their share of fading potion, so that none would be able to recount the news they had bared and thus endanger Marland – or to be true, the reign of Kin Saliswater. Any hint of a thought that the King could not produce a rightful heir would threaten the position his family held, which remained in a state of precarious balance between complacency with the status quo and impending civil war.
Audemar paused. He studied his hosts from afar, his penchant for trust strained, his skepticism peaked.
Seven in all stared back at him. The indigo of their irises had softened now that they had emerged from their pitch and carried lit torches. Some bore hues of blue while other had eyes of hazel, one with what appeared to be flecks of gold. No matter their true color, the lot of them no doubt carried the same family of features, from their blond to light brown hair, to their angular frames, and of course, their skin the complexion of cream.
Sybils. Every single one of them.
I should slit their throats right now.
Nay, too many to battle, along with too many unknowns. Though no arms hung from their waistbands or across their backs, Audemar had heard the rumors of many a witch concealing more fatal means of demise up their sleeves or within their coats. Though he spotted no bulge or protrusion – say of a satchel, vile, or other item they had hidden – as he scanned their garb, he could not discount the idea they could overtake him and his brother at any time.
Very well, let me try a more diplomatic approach.
“Let us leave,” he blurted.
Subtle, very subtle, he cursed to himself.
To his astonishment, the sybils parted, with their leader – whose name Audemar failed to remember – motioning to the exit.
Osgar rushed to his side. “Brother!”
“I’ve heard all I can from you.”
“Will you not even consider –”
“No. This was a waste of my time. You should know better.”
Osgar dug his fingers into Audemar’s arm. “You have no right.”
Audemar shook himself free. “I am still king.”
“For how long?”
“Your secret – hell, Ellenora’s condition – cannot stay hidden fovever.”
“Thanks to you it won’t.” Audemar eyed the sybils. They know. Along with how many others?
Osgar’s voice sank low. “People already suspect something amiss. Pavisers trade rumors. The commoners of the wagon trains share stories. None have credit – for the time being. But the longer you go without an heir, well, that can soon change.”
’Twas a reality Audemar had learned. Though the Court, along with his most trusted advisers, had tried in earnest to shield him from such whispers, bits had reached his ears: the doubts about his continued lineage, the questioning of his leadership, and the gossip . . . that Kin Saliswater had been cursed. The collection proved too traitorous and consistent to ignore. He discovered it all. He knew.
The hearsay and lies, be it whole or in fragments, had done much to unsettle even his most ardent supporters. How much more so would what he feared most – the truth – be to his claim to the Seat of Marland?
“Aude,” Osgar continued, “it took a great deal to convince this lot to meet us here tonight. They are a squeamish sort, preferring not to travel too far from the sea. If you walk away tonight, I cannot guarantee they will be so available should you change your mind.”
“There is no danger of that, Brother.”
“Will you not listen to reason?”
“I’ve heard all I can.”
Osgar relented. His shoulders slumped while his head hung. His eyes, desperate and begging, peeked from beneath his brow, marking an apprehension Audemar had never seen.
Not wanting to be pressed further, Audemar departed from his brother’s side. With hand over hilt, he waded through the sybils, none of whom moved to stop him.
“Then perhaps you will listen to me.”
Neither yelled nor cried, the voice nonetheless bellowed deep throughout the cave, echoing off stone and flesh alike. The words dug deep, seeping through to Audemar’s bones. The quality and tone made clear the orator:
Artus emerged from behind a row of stalagmites. The last few months had been kind to him, though to Audemar it seemed a lifetime ago. He had put on a healthy amount of weight, having returned to the island and removed himself from the daily toll of marching. His shoulders and arms had thickened, while his gut remained trim as always. His mane and beard, both hallmarks of his façade, had seen razor and oil as of late. For all the care and comfort he had received, one trait remained a constant: his eyes. Forever oracles, they sought truth amongst a sea of lies.
If he is here, what does that say of this charade? Audemar mused, searching first his father’s face, then his brother’s, for any hint of an answer. Both their faces – as cryptic and stoic as ever – held promise of revelation . . . a reality they had so far hidden, kept secret for who knew how long.
The crowd of sybils stayed apart to allow Artus to approach his son. He did so with no weapon at his side, his arms spread before him as if to welcome Audemar in an embrace.
Audemar never lifted his hand from his hilt.
Noting this, Artus gestured to the mouth of the cave. “A word?”
Audemar grunted. The two retreated to the entrance.
“What is the meaning of this?” Audemar asked.
“Now son –”
“This stunt Osgar pulled has the potential, why, if any in the camp heard word of any –”
“And you. You arrive without so much as a letter. No notice. No warning. Those foxes –”
“Our enemies have no reach in this area, I assure you. The sybils did their part to sweep the countryside free of any adversary.”
“You speak boldly. Like they,” Audemar shot a look at the sybils, “the Marless, are now our allies.”
“They mean us no harm. Their offer is honest.”
“They are heretics,” Audemar whispered through clenched teeth. “To be hunted not trusted.”
“You have the right of it. On occasion, we have detained and persecuted a random convict from their lot, usually a feral lunatic or criminal amongst their kind not even they could tolerate.” Artus leaned in, his voice deepening. “In matters of this sort, we have used their services before.”
A chill ran down Audemar’s spine. “You daresay . . . Was I of their conjuring?”
“You? No.” Artus glanced back into the cave, past the sybils who watched on, to Osgar.
Good Mar. Him?
“And others,” Artus said, answering the next question Audemar had yet to pose.
“We are cursed.”
“Far from it. Our arrangement with the Boreal sybils has safeguarded our dynasty for generations, extending far beyond any of Kin Saliwater I can remember.”
“Be that as it may,” Artus considered, “they proposed treating Ellenora.”
“To help her, and you, bear an heir.”
“Their kind would need to inspect her, touch her.”
Artus sighed. The fullness of his son’s apprehension had settled on him. “To better know her, my son. Only the women among the ranks would serve her, no different than any midwife sent by the Maidens of Mar.”
“Except that the Maidens serve our one true god. Not their false idols.”
“You betray nothing by partnering with them, Son.”
“Then why this secret meeting?”
“Our people’s ignorance is a potential liability, I’ll grant you that. We can continue to command them, give them orders, have them sing our songs. They’ll buy into it, believe you me, for a while. But tales alone do not last. At any point, should they suspect more than they know, the whole of the country can rise against us. Which is why our subjects need more than words and prayers. They require proof that everything we’ve done – the years at Court, the decades of war – will manifest itself, to last the ages. Without that, nothing can save us. Neither our god nor any of theirs.”
“Right,” Audemar conceded.
“This is a battle in its own right, Audemar. When we fight, we care not about the prayers, our creed, our training, nor our rank. We cast all prejudices and thoughts aside to do one thing: survive. This matter is no different. Put away your beliefs, whatever you’ve heard about the sybils, however you wanted to sire a child. Do everything to give Marland the heir it needs.”