The Wars of the Crowns

By Nathaniel Lainson All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Beneath the Midnight Moon

"If a dog is a man’s best friend, perhaps his worst enemy is his mirror. Well, maybe his mirror isn’t his worst enemy; it merely reflects the image of his most formidable opponent. What opponent is more dangerous than the one who knows our deepest, darkest secrets? What opponent is more lethal than the one who can probe our most vulnerable points?”

-R. C. Sproul

Chaos; that’s what tonight felt like. As the eastern wind blew with a powerful force across the land howling with the voice like that of a ravenous wolf out for blood, making the trees across the land groan and shiver with fear as darkness loomed above: an endless expanse of black cloud that blocked out all light above, enclosing the land in a near complete darkness and pouring upon the naked earth below a cold and harsh rain churning soil into mud, it seemed that chaos was king tonight in the land of Stirling; not some man with a crown. Everywhere the land was desolate, or so it seemed: no one walked the roads of the countryside and towns, the inns were silent and emitted no light from their windows.

However all life was not gone from the world of Mann. Away from the civilized world and into the heart of the wild country; in the peaks of the Avacron Mountains and the untamed forests that dotted the landscape life still remained unconquered by the wind and rain.

One such place was in the forest Wealdhaven[1]. This winters’ night 523 IV Era, the ancient forest seemed a slowly shifting silhouette of shadows, for a heavy mist had settled in amongst the old oaks as night spread its hand over the world. As a result, the world around the one lone traveler within her domain felt surreal, dreamlike. The shifting shadows and whispering noises that echoed though the forest put his senses on edge. Surrealism was not what he needed right now. Dreams were unrealistic, not something that could be relied on. What he wanted, what he needed, was something tangible, something he could hold onto as certain and make sure he was not going insane. He tried following the shadows with his storm grey eyes to understand what lurked around him. Were they assassins? Hungry wolves? The local animals moving about? The warrior couldn’t tell; they were too many, too quiet. Unable to tell if what was around, his senses and tall battle-scared body remained tense and his hand retained a tight grip on his sword at his side.

A rock protruding from the ground caught his foot and made Aed stumble. He cursed, shook himself and hurried onwards. There was something too important to be slowed by a damn rock, why couldn’t all those damned stones just vanish for a few minutes? A few seconds later another one caught his foot and this time did more than trip him. He fell over, slamming into the ground below. But this time it was weariness, not anger that came over him. Aed sighed and began to push himself back up slowly, feeling the ache of his muscles as thoughts trickled through his mind. He had been traveling for many days now. The thought struck him and he stopped halfway. Just how many days? A week, a week and a half; two? He couldn’t remember. All he could remember was where he had been, where he was going and what he must do. That was good enough for now. Focusing on the task at hand, gathering his strength, Aed finished planting his feet on the ground beneath him once more and ran his hand through his long black hair, straightened his dark green cloak and continued his stride, slower now and eyes focused on the ground to avoid the rocks further on; there were more important things right now, he could rest later.

Most nights in the castle were warm and fairly comfortable. Tonight, however, was an exception; the storm had ushered forth a front of cold air, making the old weathered stones of castle Everhearth[2] chilling to the touch. The fireplaces throughout the castle helped some, but those still awake to walk the castle’s halls wore thick fur capes, while those who slept had several layers of sheets to ward off the biting chill.

The king of Stirling paced the halls in a mixture of brooding and anxiety, many things racing through his head. War was looming ever closer each passing day from the Imperium and in the room to his right behind closed doors his wife was in labor. Despite the cold the king smiled to himself, walking out onto the balcony and looked down onto the city of Solhdúir[3]. Placing his hands upon the railing he scanned over the city that smirk of a smile still on his face; his child was being born into this world, this kingdom. A kingdom that faced war, the reality of death.

“That’s how it always is,” Gerrick thought to himself, “that the new life is born into a world where the old continues to kill each other. That innocence is washed away in blood.”

War with the Imperium[4] was not a recent thing to Gerrick. Ever since he had risen to the throne and even some years before, during his fathers’ reign, conflict had been a possibility. But with the event of Emperor Claudius III’s assassination and subsequent crowning of his young son Titus, That possibility had grown into a strong probability.

Titus even when young had been ambitious. The reports of his aggressive, authoritarian nature on the battlefield were well known. But he had also proven extremely canny in the political field. Despite him being only nineteen, he had been able to take control of the divided senate and begin the process of increasing the military readiness of the country. It was this very thing that made Gerrick anxious. Rumors of course circulated that he was behind his father’s death and that certainly meant that not every senator was committed to the emperor’s cause for war with the northern states; but their refusal of support would not be enough to stop the machine now in motion. Sooner or later that great host of soldiers would be unleashed. The only question was when.

The only chance of stopping the Imperium from succeeding was the Northern Alliance, an agreement made by the four northern kingdoms of Gael, Stirling, the Isles of Éire and Caledonia that if one was threatened the other three would send military aid. In theory it was unbeatable; the empire could not withstand a combined defense of all four. In practice however, it was nearly impossible to maintain. The alliance had held together out of respect to Gerrick’s father, Baen. King Baen had proven a shrill diplomat, cunning politician and successful general, something the elves had been able to, grudgingly, accept as leader of the pact when Baen proposed the alliance. But when Gerrick was crowned upon his father’s death at only eighteen, the Elves began to question it. They could not see an untested, inexperienced king as leader of a multi-national alliance and so for the entirety of Gerrick’s reign they had been demanding that he step down as head of the alliance in favor of the Elven high king[5]. Gerrick had not obliged and thus for the past ten years reports had been coming in that the Elves has been decreasing the number of their patrols on the Sea of Songs. Without the Elven navy to guard the eastern coastlines, Gael was vulnerable to attack. And if Gael was attacked first, the alliance would lose much of its capability to launch a counter-offensive.

“Damn those Elves” Gerrick spat with a quiet anger, slamming his palms into the railing. “Don’t they know I’m trying to keep their arrogant asses alive?”

From inside the castle the cry of a newborn baby was heard. Gerrick turned, his face contorted in mixed emotions that slowly developed into a simple, soft smile. He had dwelt enough on matters of state, right now he simply needed to be a husband and father. The matters of war could wait. Right now what mattered was being a husband and a father.

The mist did not begin to clear nor the shadows and voices dissipate and yet Aed began to feel his mind wander. Much had transpired over the past few years, the most obvious being that Aed was no longer as young as he used to be. The last time he saw himself in a mirror he remembered seeing a few grey hairs in his rich black locks. Aed smirked at this and a glint of sadness came to his eyes. All that time and he had never found someone, never settled down and had a family of his own.

The idea of having a family was not a foreign idea that had never crossed his mind before. It had in fact been crossing his mind nearly all his life. But whenever the opportunity to marry seemed more likely to happen something always came up that pushed taking vows aside: another dangerous mission, events beyond his reach that drew him away from home, personal choices about what he wanted in life and acting upon them. Now, however it was a different world he found himself in; a world where having a family was something he wanted more. And that want was growing slowly stronger, partly due to him now having just turned forty years old and partly due to his brother having one.

Gerrick and his wife Caena were expecting the birth of their second child any day now and his nephew Ewan had grown into a fine young man. Watching over them, protecting them, had been a cherished treasure. But with the coming birth of his brothers’ child and seeing the grey hairs made Aed realize just how alone he had been his whole life.

Being born a noble from the start would have had reduced the number of people he would interact with in his life enough. Being the firstborn to a king however, had limited it even more. From the time of his birth Aed had been secluded from most people for fear of assassination. Private lessons from private tutors and social events where only the immediate family and political supporters were involved were in essence the sum of his early life. Aed had always resented this. He always felt as a youth that he was a bird trapped in a cage who wanted to be able to fly.

When Gerrick was born[6] life became a little easier. As the two grew up, they confided in one another the loneliness of being a noble and developed a deep trust. But there was also a distinct division between the two from the start. Gerrick was a sickly child who preferred reading and philosophy to Aed, who whenever the chance came, was out in the field practicing his martial prowess and horsemanship. When their father passed away Gerrick was crowned king, Aed had stood behind him. And for seventeen years he had served his younger brother as bodyguard and agent.

Seventeen years. Years of being alone in a world where it seemed everyone had someone to rely on. Yes Aed had his family, but they were often miles away. He had always wanted it that way, for them to be safe behind country boundaries and stone walls while he served the crown. But now all he wanted was some rest. Some time to spend with his brother and sister-in-law and nephew. He wanted a woman of his own, wanted his own family. As he walked on the Old Road through Wealdhaven’s mist, Aed realized that he had reached the stage in life where time stopped giving and started taking. Perhaps, Aed thought, once this mission is over, once the war had been won, he could retire from the field and settle down and watch children of his own grow up as his hair grew greyer.

Pushing aside the doors Gerrick stepped inside the room where his wife was. The room itself was small, only eleven feet wide by ten feet long. A fireplace adorned the eastern part of the room, with a bed made for two resting in front of the door, making it the center of the room. To the west of the bed was a writing desk and a small window. Adornments were few: a rug beneath the bed and a few books held up by angel bookends adorning the mantle of the fireplace.

The queen lay in the bed, her beautiful face sweaty, her long red hair a tattered mess spread out, and her usually sharp green eyes heavy and misty, surrounded by some nurses who had been attending her the past few hours. Seeing him standing there her eyes went wide and she mouthed his name. The nurses looked at him in shock and began to protest his presence but Gerrick would have none of it and ordered them out of the room. After a few moments of arguing they complied and left, closing the doors behind him. As they did Gerrick stared at them with serious, threatening eyes, his arms crossing over his chest. When the doors were finally closed Gerrick lowered his arms and turned toward Caena his eyes becoming soft and kind. He walked slowly towards her as she got herself to sit up carrying a small object in her arms that was crying softly, wrapped in white cloth to keep it warm against the winter chill. Gerrick grabbed the chair by the writing desk and placed it beside the bed, sitting down beside his wife and kissed her.

“This isn’t appropriate Gerrick.”

“I don’t care,” Gerrick answered his eyes still on his new child, its eyes now focusing on him.

“They’ll never forgive you,” Caena retorted quietly turning her own eyes to the newborn.

“They’ll learn to live with it. Besides, if I did act properly and waited until tomorrow, you would never forgive me.”

Caena made a slight smirk on her lips at his comment, knowing in the end he was right, though she would never admit it. She took one of his hands and squeezed it and the newborn began to burble at them.

“By the time he grows up we’ll have grey hair and wrinkles, if we do live that long.”

“We will,” Gerrick Said smiling. “But you’ll be as beautiful as ever, I’ll simply be an old man. Not attractive at all.”

“You’ll always be handsome to me.”

The two parents kissed briefly and looked down at their newborn son; the infant boy looked back with a questioning look in his eyes but bearing a smile that spoke of innocent trust in the two people before it. For a moment the events of world powers vanished and all that existed in the minds of Gerrick and Caena was this embracing of a new child into their family, the welcoming of a beautiful baby boy.

“We’ll have to give him a name,” the queen spoke first, breaking the silence. “That we will,” replied the king. “Any ideas?” Gerrick spoke next.

“What about Baen, after your father?” Caena suggested. Gerrick looked at her with a look of sarcasm, “I was thinking Finstrel[7], after yours.” The queen looked at her husband with a similar expression, “We could name him Ewan.”

Gerrick let out a short, haughty laugh. “Two sons with the same name; what will the Holy Mother think of us let alone the nobility and citizens when we present him?”

“It would make an interesting note in the history books.”

“I’m not interested in history right now and neither should you.”

“It was a joke,” Caena replied looking at her husband straight in the eyes her sarcastic smile remaining. “I know,” replied the king, kissing her.”

Once again a few moments of silence passed and once again it was the queen who ended it. “Finstrel would be a good name.”

“He was a good man,” replied the king, “if a bit hard-headed and stubborn.”

“Aren’t all men hard-headed and stubborn?”

Gerrick did not reply save with a smile, knowing there was some truth behind the claim. “But that’s also why I admired him.”

Caena did not reply save with a smile in return. Both parents turned their faces towards the new-born prince, still alert and watching the two faces in front of him. Together, speaking softly they spoke “Finstrel,” and so the baby boy was named. In response the little boy smiled at them, enjoying the sound of the word.

Just then there was a knock at the door. The person did not wait for permission to enter and opened the doors stepping into the room. Before the king and queen was their eldest son, Ewan, crowned prince of Stirling.

Ewan was a handsome young man of seventeen with his father’s dark brown hair and his mother’s green eyes. He was already a good swordsman from training under his uncle with the strong, lean muscle to prove it. Dressed in a long tunic that flowed down to his thighs made of gold with green and red embroidery with a thick cloak of bear fur hanging from his shoulders to fight off the winter wind, with a sword at his side, a hand resting upon the hilt, he held a presence that would impress and intimidate most people around him; save his mother and father.

Ewan didn’t pause to ask for forgiveness, he simply smiled and bowed at his parents. After a short silence Caena spoke, “Ewan, come meet your new brother.” Ewan straightened and walked towards the bed, kneeling beside it so he could meet his mother and brother face to face. Finstrel looked at his brother, confused about the new person in the room. Ewan simply responded by making his smile again. After a moment Ewan turned to his father, and though he kept his smile, his tone was serious. “I wish we could linger here, but there are matters we need to discuss.”

Gerrick’s smile dimmed and his face became serious nodding in agreement with Ewan. Caena didn’t say anything but understood and called her maids to enter again. The two men walked out as her aids came in and closed the door, walking down the hall further into the castle. “What news do we have on the south?”

“From what we can gather, the senate still does not believe emperor Claudius’ death was an accident and that Titus may indeed have been the one who killed him. They are trying to take control of the empire until they can put all doubt aside.”

Gerrick breathed a sigh of relief; war would not come as soon a he had thought. For now, he could focus on being a family man. Ewan and Gerrick continued to walk up and down the hall, talking about more pleasant topics while Caena and her maids finished up with labor and attending to the young newborn prince.

By now the rain began to seep through the trees to the ground below. Over the past few minutes the dry ground had slowly turned into mud. Aed had wrapped himself up in his cloak with the hood up to fight the rain, slowing his pace to navigate the increasingly treacherous road. As he walked on his boots became heavy as the mud began to stick to his boots and water leaked into them, and now he could no longer feel his feet.

Breathing hard as he dragged his legs forward step by step, Aed knew he didn’t have much left in him. If he didn’t stop and rest, he would collapse from exhaustion. Looking at his surroundings, he found the trunk of a large oak with decently dry grass beneath it. Walking up to the tree Aed slammed his back to it and slide down until his bottom landed on the grass. He untied and pulled off his boots, flexing and warming his feet with his hands. After a couple of minutes feeling came back into his feet, hot stinging pain as the numb nerves felt the blood run past them. Aed gritted his teeth and shut his eyes tight as he felt it, but even though it hurt he smiled. It was a good thing, he would be able to continue on after a short rest, after the morning had come and the storm had passed. When the pain subsided he leaned his head back against the tree trunk and removed his sword from his belt, laying it at his side. He closed his eyes and began to drift off to sleep.

Just before he finally drifted off to sleep the snap of a twig close by startled him. Adrenaline surged into him and he opened his eyes started and fully aware. Glancing around him he immediately grabbed his sword in his hand and knelt on one of his knees and he moved his body forward, ready to pounce into action. It was very faint but he could hear them: footsteps, more than one pair to be sure. Maybe two or three, possibly four. The rain made it difficult to discern exactly where the sound was coming as he could tell the group was trying to be silent.

At this point Aed’s mind began to speak up and he knew it must be by sound, not sight, to find his prey this winter’s night. Taking a quick and decisive breath into his lungs, Aed closed his eyes and focused his energies on the sounds around him. Time slowed down as he concentrated, his ears beginning to pick up on the nuances of the universe around him in colors of silver against the background of black: the rain drops fell to the ground, their ripples and splash flowing over the stones and dirt. Over to his left was a squirrel under another tree, cracking a nut he had found against one of the rocks underneath the safety of the branches, there was a bird above him rustling it’s feathers to shake off the water on her as she sat in her nest defending her eggs. Behind him three men hooded and armed were making their way to him. A fourth, the leader, already had his hand on the tree to his back, a sword at the ready to strike. He moved his hand back, and lunged…

Aed darted a short way away from the strike and swung his sword at the assassin. As Aed had moved away from his enemy’s target, the assassin now found himself overextended and going beyond his target as there was no body to stop him. The last thing he saw was Aed’s sword, coming straight for his neck and slicking it. His world went black and red as he fell forward, his blood oozing out of his opened neck, finished and dying. Turning towards the remaining three opponents Aed stood up to his full height, raising his sword over his head into a high guard with both hands resting on the handle.

The three assassins split up, one dashing to Aed’s left, another to his right as the center one continued his advance forward, but now even more slowly as his two partners made themselves ready at their new positions. Aed switched his eyes between the three, reading their movements, analyzing them. The adrenaline was running through him full-force, but he knew he couldn’t last long, maybe three minutes at most. He had to end these men quickly; his energy was low and he would collapse soon from sheer exhaustion. Being exposed in the rain with wet clothes would be a death sentence the same as any sword thrust. What stood between him and death, was his skill and what little time his body could stand a fight.

The three assassins remaining had halted in their movement and now had him surrounded on three sides, their swords at the ready. Aed took a deep breath and closed his eyes, making time move slower once again. His three opponents charged at that moment and Aed began to lower his sword and deflect the closest strike from the three. The fight was on.

Gerrick once again opened the doors to where Caena was. Finstrel had been taken away to be cleaned and dressed for bed, and Ewan had retired to his room for the night. Now it was just the two of them together, husband and wife. As Aed sat on the bed again and looked at his queen, he let her show his real self: a tired man with the wrinkles of stress and exhaustion. But despite that, he smiled at her and took her hand in his.

“It has been quite a day hasn’t it, Caena?”

The queen smiled at her king and squeezed his hand. “It has Gerrick, but it has been a good day.”

“It doesn’t feel like a good day, war with the Imperium has been nagging my mind the entire day. Only now do I feel like I can get some relief.”

“Ewan told me the good news, tomorrow we can relax and focus on being a family.”

Gerrick breathed a heavy sigh, a few of the wrinkles fading as the stress left him. “That…that would be wonderful. Gerrick smiled and kissed Caena, then stood up holding her hand still. “I’ll join you for bed in a little while, there’s one last thing I need to do. Caena nodded, squeezed his hand one more time, and let it go, turning to her side to go to sleep. Gerrick walked out of the room and tried to shut the door as softly as he could.

Gerrick walked down the hallway towards the heart of the castle. At the end hung a standard of the Fire-Heart family: a stag’s head proudly upright and a torch floating in between his braches. Crossing his arms behind his back Gerrick looked at it for a few seconds as he took a few deep breaths as the stress continued to flow out of his muscles. A smile came to his face and he turned right, to where another double doorway stood in his way. At it’s left side stood a guard who bowed at the king and opened the door to the room beyond. Gerrick nodded in response to the guard and steeped through, the guard closing the door behind him.

Gerrick had stepped into the castle library. In his days as a youth he had escaped to this room often when on break, or escaping from, his studied from his tutor. The room was decorated with a rug across the floor with red dyed fur and a gold trim along its edge, chairs dotted across the space, and in one corner of the room a table with a statue to the Mother[8] which Gerrick himself had placed there as he spent most of his free time here rather than anywhere else in the castle; plus he preferred to worship in private or with Caena. Walking through the room slowly, his eyes looked up to a tapestry that adorned the upper walls. Across it’s façade were the faces of crowned men and women, the past rulers of Stirling[9]. As Gerrick walked down the library’s floor, looking at his forbears he thought to himself, wondering if he was a worthy successor to these great figures. Gerrick stopped in front of the second to last figure in the tapestry, his father.

It was a warm autumn day, the year was 506 IV Era. The sun was bright, but low in the sky, as it had begun to sink behind the White-Crest peaks in the west. Across the fields of Stirling a herd of wild horses rode south, seeking their homes for the coming winter season. Farmers toiled in their fields, hasting to gather their crops. The city of Solhdúir was bustling, as merchants were making their final sales in the markets, the inns and taverns coming alive as guests strode in for dinner and renting rooms.

But in the castle, things were somber and quiet. Few were in the halls, and those that were walked silently past the guards and furnishing. Baen, the great warrior-king of Stirling, lay dying in his chamber.

Once a mighty man of imposing stature he now looked frail, his head bald and wrinkled with age. But despite this, a smile was on his face. Before him were his two sons: Aed, tall, with long black hair and a sharp, handsome face, and Gerrick, shorter and slightly more stout than his brother, with brown-black hair and smoother features. Both stood before him smiling as well, but theirs were filled with a mixture of sadness and joy as they looked to their beloved father, slowly fading before their eyes. The king closed his eyes, gathering what strength was left to him and spoke “Aed, step towards me.”

Aed took a step forward and knelt before his father and king, taking his hand and grasping it firmly but gently in his own. “I am here father.”

Baen turned his head and opened his eyes, making a smile once again as he looked to his first-born, and then beyond to Gerrick, who stood upright trying to look proud and reassuring, but was betrayed by his shaking body and tears running down his face. “You are both my treasured sons, and my love for each of you is boundless. You are both great men in your own right and have bright futures ahead of you. But a kingdom needs a king, and a crown cannot be placed on two heads. Aed…” The king took another deep breath, his voice now growing weaker, “you are my first-born son, and a warrior as I was. We need a warrior once again. Throughout my life, I have taught you how to be a king, and now, this day your birthright is upon you. Stand now, and I will grant you my final blessing.”

Aed stood still in his kneel, his thoughts racing through his head. Slowly, he rose to his full height. But his expression showed no signs of pride, or acceptance, or obedience. Mixed in with his sorrow was now a face of guilt. “I have no desire to be king, father.”

The room went silent, the old king’s face now slowly twisting from joy to anger. His hand, still held by Aed, began to shake as his anger grew and he yanked it out of Aeds’ grasp, forming into a fist with an outstretch finger pointing directly into Aed’s face. “It is not a matter of want, but of duty. It is your birth-right to be king, whether you desire to be or not.”

“My duty should be to serve my country in the best way possible, father,” Aed lowered his voice to a gentle, compassionate tone to calm his father down, response, bowing his head slightly to show his loyalty. “I have never been a politician; I hate politics. I would serve best as a soldier, not a ruler.”

“Aed,” Baen’s voice had softened but was still firm, “I hate politics as well, but I did not run from my duty because of it.” Baen tried to sit up to look at his son directly but his arms failed him and he collapsed onto the bed. Both Aed and Gerrick rushed to their father’s side, Gerrick shouting

“Please father, don’t push yourself!” as he and Aed helped settle their father back into the bed, pulling the sheets over to keep him warm. “It doesn’t matter, Gerrick,” Baen replied, trying to catch his breath. “I will die today. Whether that is in a few minutes or hours, it matters not. My time is done.”

Baen placed his eyes on Gerrick and smiled, nodding. Gerrick returned with a weak smile of his own and once again stepped a foot behind Aed’s left. His strength slipping away, Baen took a breath and said weakly, “Aed, you are your own man. But if you choose to not accept the crown, neither you nor Gerrick shall have my blessing. Gerrick, you are a good man and a worthy son, but the crown is a burden you should not have to bear. A king needs to be a politician yes, but in order to bear the burdens of the realm, there must be a warrior in his heart. And you have never been that.”

The great warrior took in one last breath and passed away, the light in his face now faded. King Baen of Stirling was dead.

The two brothers turned and walked towards the door. Opening it, they spoke to the attendants waiting outside and had them walk in to prepare the king for his final public appearance and burial. As they walked past the two brothers the two men stepped outside in silence, unsure of what to say to one another. Aed closed the door behind them and paused for a moment, thinking to himself. Then, standing up straight, he folded his arms behind his back and looked to his younger brother. “Lead the way, sire.”

Gerrick looked at his brother, confused about what he should do. “Do you really intend to not take the crown, Aed?”

“I know Father believes me to be the best fit to be king, but I would be a terrible king. I’m blunt; I prefer action to talking. I am not the man Stirling needs, what this alliance needs. We need a man of words, we need you.”

Gerrick straightened himself a bit as he considered the choice before him. Aed had always been there to support him through the years, helping him as best he could through his frail health, always saying he believed in him when others of the court saw him as the lesser son. Father was gone now, and perhaps he had been wrong and a diplomat was needed, not a fighter. “If you’ll be there to support me, brother…then I will accept the crown.”

“Of course Gerrick, I will always be there for you, until my last breath.” Aed bowed before his brother, and Gerrick turned away from him, now walking to the audience hall to deliver the news to the nobility. Aed, proud of his little brother and relieved that he was free of a terrible burden, followed him as his faithful advisor and escort.

The fighting was heavy now. Both Aed and the two remaining assassins were breathing hard now, trying to keep their feet firm on the soggy ground as they attempted to kill each other. Aed had been able to kill the second assassin when he overextended himself, but the past two minutes had presented no chances like that and he could feel his strength waning fast. All he could do now was defend and pray his chance would come.

One finally did come. On his right one of the assassins swung at his leg while the other on his left thrusted towards his neck. Aed retreated his right leg to make him face his right opponent, using his own blade to parry the left man’s sword right towards his partner. The right man saw it and leaped back in time, but it gave Aed room to then swing his right leg forward in a kick, striking the left man’s stomach. As he collapsed onto the ground his breath knocked out of him Aed had to withdraw from the kill to block vicious counterattacks from the returned assassin, but eventually the assassin’s anger made him lose his focus, and he lost track of Aed’s blade, until it was lodged right in between his ribs.

The two remaining men both took heavy breaths: Aed as he pulled his sword out of the body bleeding life and trying to recover some strength; the assassin as he let air return to his body and stand up, turning to Aed.

“You are indeed one of the greatest swordsmen in the land, prince Aed. I’m impressed.”

Aed nodded his head in return to his opponent, saying nothing; only lifting his sword into a guard.

“But as much as I admire your skill, I can’t let you live.” The unknown assailant then adjusted his sword to rest close to his torso, creating a tight and cautious guard as he studied Aed. For a moment the two simply stood there, studying each other; both daring the other to make a move. Aed knew the assassin was wary of him due to his visible skill in the fight, and the assassin knew Aed in his condition could not last much longer on his feet. When the moment passed, the black hand chose to charge, not wanting Aed to recover any stamina for the fight. And for the next several seconds the two were a whirlwind of anger, strength skill, and fear as their swords stuck one another. Up, down, right, left, strike, parry, feint, dodge.

And then it happened. Aed felt the strength leave his arms and his guard dropped dangerously low. The masked killer saw his chance and stabbed Aed straight into his side. The sword was wet and cold from the rain and chill of the winter night but to Aed as the steel pierced his body and lunged into him it felt red hot, pain spreading like wildfire throughout his exhausted muscles, forcing him to break his silence and scream.

The agent of the Black Hand smiled with sinister glee as he thought his task accomplished and comrades avenged, did not press his advantage and strike Aed again, instead relishing in his triumph and keeping his sword in place. That proved to be his undoing. The pain swelling through Aeds’ body turned into a last rush of adrenaline and his screams of agony became screams of aggression as he lifted his sword and drove it right into his enemy’s eye and through the back of his skull, using his hands to wrap around the pommel and handle of his sword and use the full force of his arms.

His opponent went from utter glee to shock to dread in a matter of seconds, and then there was nothing in his remaining eye as his body went limp, his hands falling to his sides. Using the last of the adrenaline Aed kicked his opponent off him and got is sword free, then immediately reached down and yanked out the sword shoved into his own body.

As soon as he did so, blood started flowing out and with it all adrenaline and strength he had left. He tried to cover the wound with his hands as he stumbled trying to walk on further north, still dedicated to completing his mission. But instead he collapsed to his side, his life slowly draining away.

He couldn’t get up; the strength in his legs was fading by the second. In a few hours there would be nothing left of him but a lifeless, bleeding husk. The assassins had succeeded, and he had failed. He had failed his brother. Now more water trickled down his face, but these were tears as he quietly wept and hated himself. If he had moved a little faster, left a day earlier, hidden instead of choosing to fight, maybe he would not be as he was now.

The forest was eerily silent as he lay there quietly weeping at the side of the Old Road, the critters all tucked away in their burrows and hollows to escape the rain. In his final moments, Aed realized that he was truly alone. And that was the worst feeling of all; despite everything he had done for his family he would not die surrounded his brother, a wife, or any children. He would not have the rest and joy he had started to crave more often as his body had now begun to age.

And then far off in the distance Aed heard the sound of wooden wheels grinding over stone and the hooves of horses as a cart pulled its way along towards him. ’So, the Lady of Death[10] comes to take me away.’ And at that moment Aed smiled as his eyes closed, at least he wouldn’t be suffering for much longer. And that was comfort enough to him now. With that, he fell unconscious as he waited to be taken away to the world of the afterlife.

[1] The Avacron Mountains divide the continent of Mann in half into its northern and southern regions. Wealdhaven forest lies on its northern foothills.

[2] Everhearth is named for the torch that the unnamed leader of the 500 held at the turning point of Humanity’s fight to be free of slavery by the elves. It is said that even in the pouring rain the torch never burned out and it was that charge of the 500 that was the first victory Mankind had ever won against the elves. In honor of that symbol and those men, Everhearth was built and the city built around it became the capital of the first free human nation in centuries: Stirling.

[3] Solhdúir, meaning soldier in the tongues of men, is named after the 500 soldiers who followed the unnamed torchbearer. The city was built over their graves by their relatives and decedents.

[4] The Draconian Imperium dominates the entire southern region of Mann, having conquered all the other southern nations. Some resistance groups still remain but as of this point none are serious threats due to the Imperium’s strong military arm. It is the superpower nation at this period in the continent’s history.

[5] When the Elves enslaved the humans after the latter had arrived on the western shores of Mann, one of the main ideas supporting it was that humans were an inferior race. This idea has been questioned recently, but is still the majority view in Elven society, especially in the higher nobility and royal family.

[6] Gerrick was the child of Baen and his second wife, Fidelma. His first wife, Ailene, died at sea while traveling to the northern kingdom, Caledonia to conduct negotiations with the High Queen.

[7] Finstrel Gray-Wind was a high ranking nobleman in Stirling. While he and his noble house had never discarded their oaths of loyalty to the royal line, they had never been afraid of speaking out loud their disagreements on certain decrees made. He and many of his male ancestors were active in the military. Gerrick chose Caena, his second eldest daughter as his queen, out of love more than politics and Finstrel had granted permission. Over the years he and Gerrick had formed a friendship though he still criticized his royal actions from time to time. He passed away two years prior to the birth of his second grand-child.

[8] The Faith of the Mother is the dominant religion in the continent of Mann, worshiped by all the northern kingdoms save the Isles of Avalon. The Mother is depicted as a statue with three figures of women back-to-back-to-back. The Ruler, who was the creator of all things and the ultimate judge of right and wrong, morality and the balance of good and evil. The Warrior, who actively fights against evil and protects her followers, and also the voice of just and proper warfare. And the Farmer, the aspect who actively walks alongside her people in spirit, helping give them strength throughout their lives and speaking upon their behalf to the Mother as their souls stand at the gates to Paradise after their death.

[9] This tapestry is called the Arendale Chronicle. Arendale is a monastery in northwest Stirling that houses the books and tapestries that tell the history of the Fire-Heart family and the nation of Stirling. One priest from the church attends to this tapestry, maintaining and adding to it whenever a new ruler is crowned.

[10] The Lady of Death is believed by the followers of the Mother to either be an angel of the Mother or the Mother herself in the form of the Farmer. Both theories agree that the Lady of Death rides with a scythe in hand and is accompanied by a bonny driver as she travels across the world collecting the dead.

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