The city of Artella was hidden from the rays of the rising sun by the great drum of the castle that towered over it, and the city walls that ran away from it on either side. The first rays of the sun were hitting the ramparts atop the mighty harbour walls, three hundred feet above the water. The walls were built thick and strong, every block placed by hand and carved from rothstone. The walls had stood for over a millennium, raised after the first walls fell during the Mage War, defying the fury of nature and the will of armadas. It was said that the legendary Tychos the Bloodied, the last Pirate King of the Wild Isles, had sailed his fleet of ten thousand war galleys against Artella, only to be destroyed without scratching the harbour walls. Although they boasted the best defences in the Kingdom of Asamor, from within the city the only defences that could be seen were the Brothers; two mighty stone and steel trebuchets that sat at the end of each wall. Behind them, extending down the wall, were the cranes, winch-lifted boxes that could lift boulders to the top of the wall for the Brothers to fire at attacking ships.
The great walls overlapped in the middle of the bay, forming a narrow entrance between them called the Channel. It was nearly fifteen hundred feet long, and wide enough for two fishing boats to pass, or one larger merchant ship to navigate with oars either side, for the winds could never be trusted within it. Navigating the Channel was something local fishers and merchants learned with practice, and those without experience or invaders often misjudged. It was not uncommon for ships to wreck between the walls.
The larger fishing ships had made sail at the first light of dawn, passing through the Channel and out to the open sea, making for the distant water to fish for Singing Trout and other larger fish in the deep water. The smaller trawlers were sitting in the bay, the eyes of their captains fixed on the signal tower, its burning red pyre telling them it was not safe to pass. From the Channel, two great chains ran taught across the water to the winching house, nestled against the wall. Within, sixteen wheels manned by prisoners and slaves powered the winch that pulled on the chain. At the other end of the chain, a Longship, too wide to navigate the Channel with oars, was pulled slowly into harbour. Above the winching house, four greatbolts, immense mounted steel crossbows, tensioned and ready to fire their trunk-sized bolts, pointed down the Channel. If any attacking vessel made it into the Channel, the narrow corridor made them a sitting target for a greatbolt, where a single steel or fire-tipped bolt could shatter the hull and send it down beneath the waves.
The Longships were known as the warriors of the sea. They sailed in great numbers and carried armies in their bellies in times of war, and hunted smugglers and pirates from the Wild Isles in times of peace. It was not often that the Longships made the treacherous journey through the Channel, only when their hulls and masts needed mending and their men needed rest. One Longship had already moored in the docks, a second was being guided into a neighbouring dock with oars and ropes. Around the harbour the commoners gathered to see the flagship of Artella’s fleet, Sea Dragon, emerge from the channel.
The first part of the ship to emerge was the great Dragon’s Head, the shaped iron ram onto which the heavy chains had been locked. Above the head, mounted on the prow were the twin greatbolts, smaller than their land-mounted counterparts but fearsome nonetheless. Behind them, the mass of the Sea Dragon drifted slowly from the Channel, a great ship said to be able to carry four thousand strong men. Three thick and short masts sprouted along her length, amidst them scores of men worked with ropes and wooden poles, keeping her from venturing too close to the walls. When she was clear of the Channel, along her length on each side a hundred and fifty oars extended from port holes in her sides. The oars moved in perfect unison, manoeuvring the massive vessel into harbour. It was just as well, as she was certainly built too large to navigate the harbour with any less than precision rowing.
As the Sea Dragon was being secured to the dock with rope and chain, the procession of the Castle Guard made its way towards it. At its heart, Lord Miteus and his Lady Jalice Wetherhall walked, accompanied by Sir Allian and Hesker Tallmast, the pot-bellied Harbour Master.
Two sailors wheeled out the first gangway, and along it marched the Commander of the fleet. Commander Krasten Wetherhall, his body and heart strong and hard as the sea. He wore no armour, for plate and chain was ill-suited for fighting upon the ocean. He wore patches of leather kept together by wool, all coloured dark grey and black. Upon his chest was a simply woven sigil of a longsword bearing a sail, the symbol he had taken when he became a brother of the water, forsaking the Wetherhall family crest. His face was hard like salt and scarred with age. His one good eye was cold blue, his other hidden behind a simple black patch. His hair was long, unkempt and brown fading to deep grey, and his chin was hidden behind a beard of similar fashion and colour.
“Permission to enter the Realm, my Lord?” He cried in a hoarse voice.
“As always, dear uncle.” Miteus called back.
The Commander stepped onto the dock and knelt before Miteus. The Lord gestured him to his feet, and they stood facing each other. Krasten was the youngest of his father’s brothers, but there was scarcely ten years between them.
“Always good to see you, my Lord.” Krasten said as he got to his feet. “My Lady.”
Lady Jalice repaid him with a courtesy.
“It is always good to have our Longships back in harbour. How are the seas?” Miteus asked.
“The summer brings us calm waters and bountiful harvests, but no shortage of privateers who sail beneath the blood-dipped banner.”
“A successful campaign though, I trust.”
“Indeed.” Krasten turned to his crew and cried. “First!”
“Yes, Captain!” One of the men replied.
“Bring the bounties for presentation!”
Krasten turned back to Miteus. “We made for harbour in order to unload cargo and make repairs, two of our greatbolts are damaged beyond function.”
“Your ships shall be repaired and improved to the limit of our men’s ability, you can be assured.”
The sailors began to drag a group of fourteen men, dressed in soiled rags and clad in chains, to the dock. Each of them was malnourished and many in need of a wash and clean clothes, and every one of them had a stump wrapped in blood-soaked rags in place of one of their hands. Krasten was handed a scroll of parchment from which he began to read.
“I present to you, Lord Miteus, Protector of the Realm of Artellathwaine, fourteen captured men who sail under the blood-dipped banner and call themselves Captain. Their crews have been put to the sword, their vessels sent to the deep and where able their plunders confiscated.
Captain Stark of the Craken’s Breath, Captain Reacher of the Bloodied Jewel, Captain Karth of the Fallen Eagle, Captain Harmel of the Smoking Whale, Captain Allen of the Lark’s Tooth, Captain Fawkes of the Iron Hand, Captain Robert of the Nine Nails, Captain Skarl of the Laster, Captain Fortrel of the Grey Fin, Captain Thorsten of the Rising Night, Captain Wilhelm of the Night’s Sail, Captain Jerome of the Mockingbird, Captain Hurst of the Black Dragon and Captain Norst of the Heart’s Lament.”
Two sailors had carried and placed a locked chest in front of the captured pirates, and another chained man was being forced in chains down the gangplank. He was dressed in what once was finer linens and silks, but now were as soiled and torn as the rest. His face bore a festering gash across it, partially hidden behind a filth-soaked beard. He had both of his hands removed, and looked barely able to stand.
“Also presenting the Dread-Captain Kava Sunh, commander of twelve known pirate captains, three captured, seven killed, two escaped and still at large. Self-proclaimed Lord of the Wild Isles and Prince of the Thieves Beneath the Sail. These men are presented into your custody to await your Lords’ Justice in exchange for the agreed bounties.”
Krasten rolled the scroll on as a second chest was laid down before the captured men.
“Also presenting three hundred seventy three sword-hands taken from men caught in the act of wilful piracy, sixty-seven chests, ninety-five barrels and two-hundred-and-four sacks of recovered plunder and confiscated contraband, to be exchanged into the custody of the Noble Lord of the Realm for agreed bounties and customs.”
“Your men have been busy, uncle.” Miteus said after hearing the lengthy inventory.
“We have had to be, my Lord.” Krasten replied. “As trade grows, so too do the opportunities for piracy, and in their bold ways the scoundrel captains sail their vessels closer and closer to Asamor.”
“Beyond the Blessed Isles?”
“Indeed, my Lord. The Blessed Isles do not offer the protection they once did, I fear.”
“Then you need more ships, and good men to sail them.”
“As always, my Lord.”
Miteus stepped towards the Dread-Captain and looked the old man in the eyes.
“Kava Sunh.” He said. “You’ve evaded the King’s Justice for far too long. Now you shall take your rightful place in the dungeons of Artella.”
The old man spat at him.
“Be careful with this one, Nephew.” Krasten said. “He is deft with a sword in either hand, so we took both. He was Dread-Captain for a reason, it seems. The Guild Masters of Sau offered a hefty prize for his head.”
“Then you and your men shall be rewarded for your loyalty. Have them escort your haul and these prisoners to the castle, my Master of Coin will see to your customs and bounties, I will see to it that the Dread-Captain’s bounty is doubled.”
“Great thanks, my Lord.”
Miteus turned to his Harbour Master. “See to it that these men have their needs and wants seen to, they are heroes and should be treated as such. Also ensure that whatever my uncle needs done to his fleet that it is done with all haste.”
He turned to one of his guards. “Make haste to the castle, inform the kitchens to put fire to the ovens, the Commander of the Fleet and his men are to be feasted this night.”
The Lord, his Lady and his Commander began to walk towards the castle amid their host. Out in the harbour, the next Longship had been pulled through on the great chains, and the oars had reached into the water from a long gash in the side of the ship, the wood around it charred to a crisp. The foremast had been seared off to a stump and burned. As the damaged ship cleared the Channel, the sound of signalling bells could be heard echoing around the enclosed bay. Atop the signalling tower, the Signal Master rang his bell in reply, climbed down from his perch and grabbed the horizontal bar that jutted out from below the fire. With a great effort he pushed on the bar, turning the blackened iron cover around to obscure the signal fire from the ships waiting in the bay. One by one, the fishing boats began to turn into the Channel and head past the waiting Longships beyond the walls, carrying on out into the open sea.
Micharus opened his mouth and did as he was told. He sat on the cold stone table in the healing chambers as the Apothecary, Maestrum Wierwood, took the glass stick from the bowl of ice-water and placed the bead under his tongue. The old man closed his mouth in a demonstration and Micharus closed his in return. The glass device in his mouth was cold.
Maestrum peeled a patch of dried mud from his arm and examined it, thumbing through the pages of a book that was much older than he was. He ran his tongue around his remaining teeth inside his closed mouth as he looked up at the numerous jars, bottles and clay pots that sat on shelves and hung around the long room. He turned to Lady Jalice, who was standing in the doorway.
“Are you sure there were no symptoms, my Lady?” He asked.
“None that I can tell.”
“For an ailment to present with no symptoms is rare indeed. For one to come to me with such an ailment, even rarer. I dare say I may cause offence if I suggest that this is merely a case of an over cautious mother?”
“You do cause offence, Revered Wierwood. I would not bring him down here if he was not afflicted.”
“Please, my Lady, Maestrum will suffice. I am by no means Revered. And my apologies for insulting your intelligence.”
“Can’t you just check him for everything?”
“Ha!” Maestrum coughed. “There are innumerable ailments, diseases and conditions with which the body or mind of a man may become afflicted, and those are just the natural ones, not to mention the affects and curses of a magical nature. Indeed, if I were to test your son even for the ones I know and that are described somewhere in these works, I would be long in my grave before my task was done!”
“Can’t you test him for magical afflictions?”
“My Lady, I admit I am merely a student of the natural arts, I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to perform a magical diagnosis. If it is a magical explanation you want, seek a wizard!”
“There are no wizards in Artellathwaine.”
“And whose fault is that, I wonder!”
“You would do well to learn to hold your tongue.”
“A learned man must never hold his tongue if the truth is on his lips.” Maestrum replied. Jalice did not look impressed.
“If it brings you any comfort, my Lady, as far as I can tell your son is a perfectly healthy boy in his ninth year of age. You have to understand, of course, that all children have bumps and scrapes and come down with illness from time to time. Mostly there is nothing to worry about, especially not at this time of night!”
“I’m sorry I disturbed you, but I felt it was urgent.”
“No apology necessary, my Lady, just that an old man does need his rest. I am here to serve both you and your Lord Husband, whenever you require it.”
“So there is nothing wrong with him?”
“Nothing at all. Just a mother’s worry, and the best cure for that is my assurance that, as far as I can see, your son is in no immediate danger.”
“Thank you, Maestrum. May I ask you one more thing?”
“Of course, my Lady.”
“Please tell no-one of this visit.”
“What is to tell? You came to me with a worry of your son, your son is healthy. That is the end of it.”
“You have my oath that no word of this shall pass my lips.”
“Thank you.” Jalice said, as she walked over to lead her son away. Maestrum turned to the boy.
“I’ll see you on the morrow, young Master, we mustn’t forget our lessons!”
Micharus waved in his tired state as his mother lead him out of the healing chambers.
Sir Allian was waiting outside to escort them back to their chambers. As they climbed the deserted corridors they spoke, becoming quiet when they passed the occasional patrolling guard.
“What did the Apothecary say?”
“He could see nothing wrong with him.” Jalice said.
“No effect of magic.”
“He couldn’t be sure.”
“Then we cannot discount the possibility that the boy is mageblood.”
“You are right. My uncle was born mageblood, as was one of my cousins. It is likely that magic runs in our family.”
“My Lady, if he is mageblood he cannot remain here. If he is discovered…”
“My Husband will likely kill him.”
“You’re certain that he would kill his own son?”
“I know how deep his hatred of magic flows, I cannot say for sure if his love for his first-born would stay his hand.”
“Then I beg you, permit me to see the boy away from here. I can take a fast horse and be beyond the borders and into Morjiathwaine by daybreak, there I can find a porting house and have him safely in Gania by the morrow’s end.”
“You are gallant and brave, Sir…”
“Or I can find a fast ship, stow away until she is clear of the channel and sail for Methda.”
“I cannot take my husband’s son from him, not until I am sure he is in danger.”
“While you delay someone could see him, someone who is more loyal to your husband in this matter.”
“I will not have it, Sir.”
“Very well, my lady. Then I shall stay and protect you both with my life.”
“You are every word of your oath and more, brave Sir.”
They reached a fork in the corridor.
“See my son safely to his bed, I must go to my husband. Maybe I can calm his wrath enough that we need not take such drastic measures.”
“As you command, my Lady.” Sir Allian said as he took her son and the torch down the corridor and around the side of the castle, out of sight. She continued up towards her husband’s bed chamber.
She climbed the stairs in the dark, unguided by torchlight. She knew the steps so well she did not need to see them. When she finally reached the chamber at the top of the castle, she saw her husband stood near the window with a candle lit and placed upon a wooden desk beside it. He was reading a piece of parchment, and on the window ledge sat a dragon the size of a small hound. It perched on the window ledge, its wings folded and its tail slowly turning in the moonlight. It had scales of bright red, with patches and patterns of white and gold and a pair of glowing green eyes that swivelled in its head as they turned to observe her. The creature was unmistakable, and the message it had carried could only have one source.
“My love, what is it?”
Lord Miteus turned to her, holding the note.
“It is written in the King’s own hand. I have been summoned to Court.”