“Steady your hands, for gods’ sake!”
Harold tried to quell the shaking in his arms as he pulled the bow back a little further. He closed one eye, the better to aim. He tried to relax his heavy breathing, inhaled, and let the arrow fly. The wooden arrow soared across the training yard towards its quarry, missed the target by several feet and shattered on the rothstone wall behind.
“Well,” Jostren, his watch lieutenant, replied. “We can thank the gods you never had to defend our keep in battle, with aim like that you’d as like to hit our men as theirs.”
“I swear I was better than this.” Harold replied, frustrated. “I’ve never been very good with bows.”
“Answer my prayers and tell me you’re better with a sword?”
“Not really.” Harold admitted. “Truth be told I only became a castle guard because my father was one.”
“And yet you, of all people, have somehow convinced the Guard Commander to let you escort the Lord to Nysilla.”
“It should be safe enough.” Harold asserted.
“Don’t count on it. The road is full of bandits and thieves, not to mention the sorcerers and mages, you do know you’re almost sure to need to be able to hit something with those arrows of yours.”
“With hope I may only go as far as Morjia anyway.”
“Oh, and why’s that?”
“I’m going to visit the Temple of the Farseer.”
“About those feelings of yours?”
“I thought I might, I mean chances are we’ll stay in Morjia and hit the Godsroad to Nysilla the day after, so I’ll have time to see if I do have the sight.”
“Funny feelings don’t mean you’ve got the sight, Harold.”
“It’s not just feelings, though.” Harold said. “I mean, it started out as feelings, but I’ve been having… dreams.”
“So you believe in dreams now, do you?”
“I’ve dreamt things, before they happened.”
“You didn’t have a dream where you shot an arrow through our Lord, by any chance?”
“No! But you know when they captured those elves? I had a dream where I saw their heads but not their bodies.”
Jostren regarded his subordinate, unsure whether to believed him or not. “Well, I don’t want to hear of it.”
“And I thought, well, if the Temple of the Farseer thought I had the sight, they might take me into their Order, and if they do that they absolve any Oaths of Service you might have taken.”
“So why haven’t you been before?”
“I’m not an oath-breaker. My service has needed me here all these years, I thought if I could go and guard the Lord of the road, I could get to the Temple without deserting my duty.”
“I always said you’d do better in a temple.”
“But I do have the dreams. Not every night, but sometimes I see something and… I just know.”
“I told you I don’t want to hear of it!” Jostren snapped. “The last time you said about your funny feelings the old Guard Commander got vanished by a wizard! And be careful who you speak of it to, around here they might think you mad, or worse, a mageblood.”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I don’t want to think of it enough to decide if I believe you or not.”
“I had a dream about you.”
Jostren fixed him a look that made Harold unsure he wanted to continue.
“About the castle, and everyone in it.” He ventured, seeing Jostrens expression remain unchanged.
“I saw a shadow fall over this place, like something really bad was going to happen.”
“And that’s a prophecy, is it? Something bad is going to happen?”
“I don’t know, all I do know is that I had that dream four nights ago, and I haven’t been able to sleep a wink since.”
“Huh, well you’d be more use in a dusty hall in Morjia than firing arrows into unsuspecting guards’ shoulders here.” Jostren said after what felt like an eternity of thought. “Come on, with luck we’ll have them thinking you’re half an archer.”
It was three days ago, the day before his father had left the castle. Micharus had enjoyed this day, the castle had felt alive for the first time in his memory. People were everywhere, the forge fires deep beneath the castle had been roaring, sending torrents of boiling air through the nest of chutes and chimneys, warming the floors of the castle. Knights had ridden from across the realm, clad in shining armour and riding mighty steeds. They had looked just like the heroes from his stories when they rode to the castle from the eastern gate. The kitchens were full too, with the ocean of smells rising from them. The archers and soldiers had been training in the yards, and the stables were bursting with horses being tended to. Micharus had spent the entire day shut in one of the halls, having lessons with Maestrum Wierwood. Nothing had seemed more boring than star-charts when outside there was endless adventure to be had with men and women from across the city hard at work. Vigard had been unable to stay in his seat, much to the old apothecary’s annoyance, but Micharus had been more attentive. He was a strangely patient child compared to his brother, but then his brother believed that every day came only once.
But now the young lord had the run of the castle, because as far as he was concerned, he was where he should have been, in lessons with Maestrum. Or rather, he had been three days ago, which now was today, and he had just come from three days from now, when he had been here three days ago. Thinking about it too much made his head hurt.
He had spent the morning with Edrin the serving girl whilst she made his and his brother’s beds and scrubbed their floor. He had then run down to the kitchens to see Jarg, the baker’s son who had come up from the city to help make pies for the riding party. He was a short, round boy with a big round face. Micharus liked him because he was funny and let him taste the hot fillings before they went in the pies. He had grabbed a cooked pheasant leg on his way out of the kitchen and had sneaked into the garden to eat it for his lunch whilst he watched the archers practice. One of the archers wasn’t very good, which made him laugh.
He spent the afternoon following the maids around and chasing the numerous stray cats that scurried about the castle. He was dashing headlong around a corner when an old and wrinkled hand grabbed him and pulled him firmly to the left, through a narrow passage and into shadow. He looked into the deep green eyes of an old man, with a soft wrinkled face partially hidden behind a large grey beard with strands of white in a mess of fractal curls. He was wearing deep green robes and a deep green wide-brimmed pointed wizards’ hat. He looked to Micharus just like he imagined the wizards from the stories looked. He watched in a mixture of childish fascination and fear as the old man put his finger to his lips, silencing the scream that was welling inside him. He watched the cracked grey lips part as the wizard spoke.
“Great peril lies in past and future both, young Micharus.”
He reached into his robes with his free hand and produced a small, narrow hourglass on a silver chain. He placed it in the boy’s palm and closed his fingers around it.
“Keep this close, you will have need of it in the years to come.”
Micharus looked at the small hourglass. It had no sand in either bulb, but instead a green energy. He watched it as it shimmered and twisted, as if it were trying to unknot itself. The hand released his arm, the green glow faded, and Micharus looked up. The wizard had vanished. He looked at the the hourglass for a few minutes, put it in his pocket and ran off back through the corridor he had been in. A few minutes later, he rounded another corner and almost crashed into Sir Allian walking across his path.
“Micharus?” Sir Allian said, startled. “You should be taking lessons with the apothecary. Come.”
He lead Micharus by the hand through the castle, down the stairs and deep into the stone beast’s belly. He reached the chambers in which they took their lessons and knocked upon the door.
Micharus experienced a strange sensation, what transpired was something he both remembered, and was experiencing anew from a different perspective.
He remembered Sir Allian knocking and coming through the door during their lessons. He remembered seeing the knight look at him, sat with his brother, with surprise. He remembered the conversation that the knight and the apothecary were now having.
“Sir Allian, may I help you?” The Apothecary had said.
Sir Allian brought Micharus behind him, so that the apothecary would not notice him.
“I’m sorry, how long has Micharus been here?” The knight asked.
“He’s been taking lessons with me since breakfast.”
“Good. He definitely hasn’t left the room at all?”
“I may be old, Sir, but I am not blind. Both the boys have had my full attention all day, neither have slipped my notice.”
“Good, please continue, and forgive any interruption.”
Micharus had been confused by Sir Allian’s interruption the first time he’d observed it, but seeing it again, his hand in Sir Allian’s, made it all clear. The knight closed the door and hurried the boy up and up, being careful not to be seen, until they had both reached his mother’s chambers. She was there, being seen to by her maids.
“Sir Allian, what is the matter? Should my son not be taking lessons?”
“He is, my Lady.” He replied. She understood, and sent her maids away.
“You weren’t seen?” She asked him.
“I was not,” he replied, “but I found him running around the castle, who knows who might have seen him. If anyone else had tried to return him to the Apothecary, they would have discovered him!”
“Thank you again, for protecting him.”
“I do so as my duty dictates, my Lady, but I must again urge that you make to secure the boy safely away from here. What has been happening is surely enough to make your husband suspect him of being mageblood, even if his blood bears no magic.”
“I fear you may be right, but I cannot take such drastic action unless I am sure. Miteus rides for Nysilla on the morrow, and will be gone for at least a week. I shall keep a close eye on Micharus whilst he is gone.”
“I hope that it is close enough, I do not know how he is doing this.”
“Or if he is doing it, I must heed your warning. I must convey a message to my uncle, Wise Christen, you know him?”
“The psychic who serves your Lord father at Gania?”
“He is a Wizard of the Psychic Tower in Otzia, if anyone would know what to do, it will be him. I must ask if you would deliver this message, there is no other man or means I trust.”
“I shall go, my Lady. I can ride north with Lord Miteus, once we reach Morjiathwaine I can find a porting house and be in Gania well before the morrow’s end.”
“Good. You must see my uncle at the utmost haste.”
“I shall see it done, my Lady. I shall bring you quill and parchment.”
“There is no need. When you see my uncle, tell him and tell him true, you will need no letter from me.”
Sir Allian understood. “I must ready my horse and make preparation for the morrow, my Lady.”
“You have my leave, brave Sir.”
The knight bowed, turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. Jalice knelt down and spoke to her son.
“My little Micharus. If I asked how you could be here and at your lessons both, could you answer me?”
“Don’t worry, mother.” The boy replied. “Sir Allian will return, and he’ll bring the purple man too. I like the purple man. He said I was a wizard.”
Miteus gazed at his reflection in Silver Wind, the ancestral sword that had been passed down to him through countless generations. The dragonsteel never lost its shine, and rarely its edge. Despite his distaste for the metal, as it was steel burnished in dragonfire and in many ways considered magical in nature, the blade had served his family well, so it was tradition to make allowances for it. He sheathed the blade as his armourer finished measuring him for adjustments to the ceremonial armour. He had not worn it in years, since he had last ventured beyond the realm. He turned his gaze to the large circular table before him, in the council hall a few steps from the ruling chamber. Around him lay a handful of maps and charts, along with letters scrawled both by his Master of Scroll and the messengers who had sent them word from far afield. His Master of Scroll, an elderly scribe by the name of Revered Olgarth Tull, was transcribing his commands to paper and passing the dried messages to him to be sealed with blue wax and the mark of the family crest.
He had not been to court in many years, instead trusting matters of the Kingdom to his Appointed Seat, his youngest brother Treston. A summons by the King himself, however, could not easily be ignored, and so over the past days the castle was abuzz with the assembly of the riding party that would see him safely to the white-walled city of Nysilla.
His Commander of the Fleet, Krasten Wetherhall, entered the hall behind him.
“You summoned me, my Lord?” Krasten said.
“Uncle, you may dispense with the formalities. I am sending word to all the Lords of the realm, that I have appointed you to rule in my stead until I return from Court.”
“Nephew, I am honoured by your trust in me, but I was never born to rule. I am a man of the sword, born to be in battle. Allow me to serve you as I should, I can assemble the fleet and make sail within the day. We can navigate the river Lifa and arrive at Nysilla with ten thousand men at your command.”
“Uncle, you have been in conflict too long I fear. As much as I would love to have you at my side and our sworn swords at our back, I am making for Court, not war. I have been summoned by our King, I will brave land and road rather than answer his summons with an army at his gates.”
“You are right, nephew, I did not consider. I would make a poor Lord indeed, however I will try my best to serve you with honour until your return.”
“Of that I have no doubt.”
“But still, let me offer one ship, you can be taken safely to Nysilla without the need to brave the roads.”
“Your ships are in the midst of a much-needed repair, and your men enjoying a well-earned rest. I will not see them troubled with this.”
“My men will be drowning themselves with ale and tiring themselves with whores, they will not lament this task.”
“As kind as your offer, Uncle, I need you and the ships here.”
“As you command, my Lord.” Krasten said, bowing slightly to Miteus. The Armourer returned with Miteus’ breastplate, polished steel coloured blue with gold trim, over its centre bore the crest of House Wetherhall, a black axe-head crossed with a broken staff set against a turquoise-blue shield with two sea-serpents coiled behind. No mere sigil, the crest was an emblem signifying a Noble House with a seat at the King’s Court. Miteus held the piece of armour in his hands, it was a dreadful and heavy thing, despite it’s glamour and beauty it only reminded him of blood and the loss of old friends. He handed it back to the armourer.
“To the fire-sea with this monstrous thing, and the man who makes me wear it.” Miteus said.
“Have you had news from your brother at court?”
“I have. Treston had heard nothing of this summons.”
“That is unusual.”
“Most.” Revered Olgarth interrupted. “Apologies for my intrusion, my Lord.”
“Not at all.” Miteus replied. “Your wisdom is always welcome at this table.”
“I have consulted the historical records kept by my predecessors.” Olgarth continued. “I have seen no mention of a Lord Protector being summoned by the King without the Appointed Seat’s knowledge. It is unprecedented.”
“It does not bode well, does it, nephew?” Krasten said.
“It does not. I hope it is my counsel he seeks, but only a fool pins his plans on hopes.” Miteus replied.
“When do you leave?”
“On the morrow, with the rising of the sun.”
“Your Lady wife and children?”
“They will remain here, where it is safe. The lands beyond our borders are rife with magic and treachery.”
“They will be well protected.”
“I know they shall, uncle.”
“Do you have any other commands?”
“It should be three days’ ride to Nysilla, four at most. I do not think I should be more than two days tending to the King’s business. If I am not back by next week’s end, call the banners, ready the ships, and come to find me.”
“It shall be done.”
Alexia sat at a table in the library, a cramped hall filled floor to ceiling with books held deep within the castle walls. She didn’t much like it here, it was dusty and smelled slightly of damp. The books were tended to by both the Apothecary and the Master of Scrolls, and so the entire library was in a constant state of war between two rather incompatible systems of organisation. At present, the front-line was well in the Apothecary’s favour, but a stubborn corner of the library held shelves that still conformed to the Master of Scrolls. The battlefield, however, was now being upset by a third power, that didn’t seem to conform to any system at all.
Her teacher and minder, Madame Helga, had found four books on crests and lineages and pulled them from the maelstrom of words, dislodging piles and upsetting orders in the process. The books lay open between them, one bearing an image of a crest, a silver pickaxe above a gold-bearing ship, set against a shield of half brown and half scarlet. It was the crest of the Noble House of Signur, the Lords of Mestadathwaine. The other books were opened to lists of names, all relating to the history of the house. She had been learning the lineages, crests and sigils of all the Noble houses, along with the more important of the lesser houses, all the way back to the Founding Days after the Mage War, where King Strigarth the Unifier had sat the first court with his trusted men, and amid their toasts to victory he had raised their sigils to crests to signify their rightful place around his table. The centuries that had come after were a complex tapestry of noble sons wed to noble daughters, houses drifting towards and away from each other down the great river of time.
“I don’t see the point in learning all this.” She said after failing to memorise the marriages of the thirteenth generation after what fel like hours of staring. Madame Helga responded in her usual manner, with a tone of indignant distaste bordering on fury.
“The point, my Lady, is that one day soon you will be married to the son of another noble house, and when he becomes Lord and brings you to court you shall be expected to know the other noble houses.”
“But I’m not going to marry a noble son. I want to marry a gallant knight like Sir Allian.”
Madame Helga was not the least bit impressed. “To persist in such infantile fantasies is unbecoming of a Lady of noble blood. Whilst Sir Allian is a true knight and a fine man, he is of low birth and not fit to take your hand. You shall be married to a suitor of your fathers choosing.”
“I don’t want to marry someone because my father chose them, I want to marry someone because I chose them.”
Helga’s tone broke into a gentler one that reminded Alexia of her mother.
“My dear, true love is a child’s notion. Would that a Lady could follow her heart and marry for love, but it is not the way of our world. If you have learnt nothing from these histories then at least try to remember that the strongest bonds between houses are forged through marriage. In truth, the choice of whom you marry is as important as your brother becoming the next Lord of the Realm; and it is important that you learn what is to be expected of you by your future husband, so that he be happy with you and you with he.”
“But how do I know I’ll be happy with him? How do I know I will love him if I don’t choose him myself?”
“My dear Alexia, you will marry a fine Lord, there will be much about him to love. And you will come to love each other through your mutual love for your children.”
“I don’t think I want to have children.”
The indignant tone returned. “I swear to all the Gods, my Lady, that you were born with both your mother’s fair looks and your father’s stubborn will!”
After her lessons she had been seen to her chambers to prepare for the last meal with her father before he rode for Court. She was aided by her maids into a fine dress of sky-blue silk, accompanied by a darker blue cloak to shield her from the cold. She gazed into the mirror whilst the maid made her flowing copper-red hair into a bun. Madame Helga had the right of it, she had to admit. She had always been told she had her mother’s fair looks, ever more the past few years as she grew into her womanhood. The question of her betrothal was one that had danced across many lips, and her father had promised her time and again that he was searching for a man worthy of her hand, but had yet to find one. She was also known for being immovable once her mind was made, a trait often compared to that of her father. She was the sort of person who liked to slip into the groove of certainty, to know what lay ahead and push on towards it. Right now her future was far from certain, and she hated it. She had been told her father would likely find a suitor on his visit to the capital city of Nysilla, which only served to fill the next days with even more apprehension.