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A Great Journey ~ Book One of Brother Betrayed

 

 

A GREAT JOURNEY

 

BOOK ONE OF

BROTHER BETRAYED

 

PREQUEL TO THE FLIGHT MOON SERIES

 

D. M. RAVER

 

SECOND EDITION

© D. M. Raver 2015

 

ISBN-13: 978-1522949015

ISBN-10: 1522949011

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or distributed without written consent from the author.

 

Brother Betrayed is original published work by D. M. Raver.

 

First edition printed in 2011

 

Front cover is original, commissioned artwork by Walt Barna

© D. M. Raver 2011

 

Includes preview of Fire Born by D. M. Raver

© D. M. Raver 2014

 

FOR MY SIBLINGS

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YOU MADE ME BELIEVE IN MYSELF

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PROLOGUE

 

 

Well, I’ve committed. I’ve stained the first words onto these bound pages. What was empty possibility is now destined to fulfill a purpose my pen has decided. The words are permanent records of consciousness transcending through time and changing histories.

What confession would be worth the space these words now inhabit? What variance of sounds and letters would justify the effort to write, read, and remember them? What could I possibly write, other than that which occupies my heart?

I am here in the eastern tower, on the stairs overlooking the city. The smokes of Anteria’s hearths rise into the dusk. No one will come up here this week. They are all too occupied with planning Mother’s birth celebration. For a quiet interval I am allowed some time alone.

Fasime is still chasing a rumor. Some wild stallion was spotted in the northern forests. He’s been gone for half a moon.

With Fasime missing it has been difficult to plan our journey. Oman and I have been mapping our route, but we may never be allowed to leave the capital if Fasime returns injured.

It was Oman’s idea to explore the kingdom that will be ours. Of course our parents would never let the three of us travel alone. They will believe escorts accompany us. With how often my brothers have been leaving the castle, the king and queen have grown accustomed to Oman and Fasime arranging accompaniment for their ventures.

Oman said we should wander and see where the roads take us, but I told him that could be dangerous. We could end up anywhere – lost in the elven woods, in the cave of a giant, or trespassing in the Black Mountains. I told him I would plan the journey. He will see the White Cane does have some useful things to teach us.

It will all be for naught if Fasime doesn’t return soon.

I hear the trumpets calling. I must continue this later.

 

For the three brothers,

Syah, Prince of Arnith

 

 

 

Syah strolled the outer walls of the capital city, keeping vigil of the fields and forests surrounding Anteria. His thin, humble form was a familiar sight on the city’s walls, but the soldiers on watch still bowed to him. He passed with a nod and continued his leisured pace.

Farmers had begun preparing the soil for spring planting. The brisk breeze brought up sounds from the city, creaking carts transporting goods, city dwellers waking and conducting their business.

Syah spotted a cluster of riders crossing the freshly tilled field to the north. He leaned on the parapets and watched them approach. He found his brother close to the front of the group, his long wavy black hair set wild by what must have been a difficult journey.

The reason for the group’s labored approach was apparent. A flash of black erupted amongst the gathered riders, tousling them. It was a captive horse, with a coat that gleamed like crow’s feathers. Syah knew it was not a steed of Anteria.

“Guards!” the prince called as he hurried for the stairs. “Send for Oman. Prince Fasime has returned.”

 

Oman examined the rows of weapons positioned precisely upon the tables, his tall, muscular form commanding the room. Each blade and handle shone without blemish in the morning light.

“These represent the work of the finest craftsmen in Arnith,” a late-aged adviser told him. He was one of three advisers in the room, along with two squires who had arranged the display. The prince smiled inwardly, knowing none of them had ever truly wielded a weapon.

Oman found a two-handed sword with a thick guard and a grooved, hexagonal pommel. The fuller was simple and extended almost the length of the blade. Its leather and metal bore no intricate designs, as the other swords did. The prince traced the grooves of the pommel thoughtfully.

“Who made this sword?”

“I believe it was Reddock of Anteria, the same smith who constructed your current sword, sire.”

“Tell us the design you desire,” another adviser added, “and we will start him working on it right away.”

Oman turned to a call from the hallway. “Prince Oman!” It was repeated closer. A servant entered and bowed, catching his breath. “Prince Fasime has returned.”

Oman’s gaze went to the window, though it only offered a view of the empty courtyard before the castle.

“So, we will see if the rumors of a wild stallion roaming the Arnithian countryside were true,” he chuckled and lifted the heavy blade.

“Sire, do you wish Reddock to create your new sword?” the adviser asked in a hurried tone, seeing Oman start to leave.

“This one will do,” Oman stated and left, heading towards the back entrance of the castle.

 

The rope dug into Fasime’s sweaty palms, but he tightened his fists. The closer they drew to the city the more agitated the stallion became. Five other riders surrounded the beast with ropes lashed around its neck, struggling to keep it subdued. “Perhaps he remembers this place,” Fasime mused.

Without warning the stallion reared up, striking out with its hooves. The ropes stretched taut, ripping through the other riders’ hands. The bindings gave way and the steed broke from its bonds. The heavy beast bucked and then slammed against Fasime, nearly knocking him off his mount. The ropes were jerked back before the stallion could rear up again.

“Sir, are you alright?” a soldier inquired.

Fasime ran his hand down his leg, feeling it ache from the impact. He checked the restrained, rasping stallion. The black beast neighed with fury, stomping its hooves in the ground as the tight ropes pulled him forward again. The stallion turned its eye towards him with purpose. Fasime wrapped the rope around his hand a second time.

“Let’s get him to the paddock before he tries that again.”

 

The riders escorted the stallion into the fenced area outside the city’s outer wall. They were relieved by soldiers on the ground. The steed still tried the ropes, wrenching its head and body with such force it lifted some of its captors off the ground.

Fasime dismounted unsteadily. He noticed Oman and Syah observing the scene from outside the fence.

“Fasime, you fool!” Oman called as their usually agile brother limped towards them.

Fasime leaned on the wooden fence and drank from a canteen. He turned around to gaze at the stallion, snorting and shaking its head.

“It’s true, Oman, he is the colt we lost three summers ago.”

“How do you know that?” Syah asked.

Fasime brushed his curly black hair out of his face. “Most horses become used to their fences within a moon. He has never known one.”

The soldiers shouted as the stallion reared up, knocking several of them onto the ground. They scattered to avoid the steed’s pummeling hooves. When their ropes had it subdued, one of them approached the princes.

“Was anyone injured?” Oman asked.

“No, my lords,” the soldier answered then turned to Fasime. “Perhaps we should put the beast down, sir. He is untamable.”

Fasime considered, watching a dozen soldiers try to subdue the nervous animal. “I did not track the stallion for half a moon to have him be slaughtered as cattle are for their skin.”

“Fasime, the horse is mad. There is no use trying to tame it,” Oman told him.

“Just look at him. His coat matches father’s stallion. He belongs to Anteria. He is destined to be a horse of kings.”

A grim expression darkened Syah’s face. “The colt you speak of lost its mother during a storm. If this stallion was that colt, it is not just wild, it is insane. He will break your bones!”

“And that will be a worthy end, a prince struck down by such a noble steed.”

Fasime pushed himself off the support of the fence, but Oman grabbed his arm. “It’s not worth it, Brother.”

“I can tame him.”

“And what will we tell Mother and Father if he kills you?”

Fasmine’s clean-shaven face regarded Oman with amusement. “Tell them I gave my life with pride. Don’t punish him if he kills me. Release him back into the wild, and my spirit will ride him into the mist.”

With a twist of his arm, Fasime broke free from his brother.

“Fasime!” Oman cried.

Syah tried to stall him with his words. “Death and fear drove this horse into the forest. You should not have brought him back.”

“You had better stand back from the fence, little brother,” Fasime replied, turning his back to them and facing the struggling steed.

“Let us quarter the steed in the stables,” a soldier urged when they noticed Fasime returning, “until it calms.”

“He has sensed our fear,” Fasime spoke in even tones, approaching the steed straight on. The stallion’s labored breaths matched his measured footsteps.

“My fear equals his own.”

The prince reached out his hand.

“Caution, Prince,” a soldier warned, not raising his voice for fear of spooking the steed.

When Fasime was close, the stallion snorted and tossed its head. Though Fasime winced, he forced himself not to withdraw. “You know I am afraid,” he told the beast. The horse gnashed its teeth and pawed at the ground. Fasime stood his ground. “For three cycles you have wandered Arnith’s forests, free from any enclosure or binding, but you will remember what you are.” Fasime reached out and grabbed the ropes an arm’s length from the stallion’s head. “Release the ropes on my command,” the prince stated to the surrounding soldiers. “Release him and remove yourselves from the paddock.”

“You don’t mean to ride the steed bareback!” Oman shouted.

“It is not the saddle that will tame him.”

Before the soldiers or the stallion knew what he was doing, Fasime ducked below the ropes. He grabbed the coil of ropes around the horse’s neck and used it to propel himself onto its back. The stallion’s muscles rippled beneath him. “Release him!”

“Prince Fasime, no! It’s too dangerous!”

All the soldiers tightened their holds as the stallion shook its head and tried to back out of the ropes.

The prince tightened his grip on the knots and drew his sword.

“Fasime, don’t!” Oman cried.

Fasime swung his blade, severing several of the ropes. The stallion trampled the ground, almost able to break free.

“You had all better run!” Fasime yelled. Amidst cries on all sides, he aimed his sword for the ropes on his right. Though only two ropes snapped at the impact, the remaining ropes were unable to contain the stallion’s force. It pushed four sturdy legs into the earth, and its gallop was instantaneous. It tore around the paddock, narrowly missing soldiers as they fled the flying hooves. Fasime dropped his sword and gripped the ropes with both hands to avoid being thrown. The stallion seemed to sense him, but focused on speed rather than bucking him off. It galloped for the fence, leaping it with ease, barely jolting Fasime as it hit the ground, and maintained its momentum as it entered the field.

Fasime’s brothers watched him lean forward, grasping the fugitive steed with all his strength.

“Without a bridle Fasime will be unable to steer him,” Syah remarked.

Oman shook his head. “The beast won’t slow until it has tossed him onto the forest floor, and the stubborn fool won’t let go while he still draws breath.”

Soldiers mounted in an attempt to follow, but the stallion and crouching prince disappeared into the forest before they could set off in pursuit.

CHAPTER ONE

CELEBRATIONS

 

 

Ignoring the summons to join the celebrations in the great hall, Syah decided to take advantage of the solitude the empty castle provided. The hallways and rooms were void of guards and servants. He made his way to the library and found it lit with the setting sun’s final glow. The four walls of the library were lined floor to ceiling with thick volumes, most of which contained Arnith’s history and economical logs.

Syah approached the shelf near the windows that housed a disheveled collection of scrolls. He rarely perused this section while the White Cane tutored him. The scrolls and the seclusion of the library enticed the young prince and he ran his fingers over the wrapped parchment. Pulling one free, he saw the parchment was dirtied with age and neglect.

Syah sat on the windowsill and unrolled the scroll. He had the feeling that the last time the scroll had been opened was when it was written. The author was ambiguous, but the text was a plainspoken account of a scout’s patrol of the eastern border. Syah wondered why this account had been chronicled, until he removed the front parchment. The scout had visited the Dikartian tribe before they had become aggressive with Arnith.

Syah leaned forward, lifting the scroll to read it in the final ambiance of sunlight. Syah’s gaze flitted over tedious facts, such as the typical rates of trade and the common wares the Dikartians offered. He squinted, trying to read the scroll in the failing light. The next page was a large sketch of a road and trees, but he was unable to make out the inscription at the bottom.

A column of moonlight emerged from the corner of the window and cast upon the picture, revealing a grizzly depiction of a creature in the thick forest. A face materialized from the shaded branches. A gaping mouth and two solid eyes turned towards the prince. The mouth opened…

Syah dropped the scroll and backed away. He clenched his fists to keep his hands from shaking, and stared at the mess of parchment on the floor.

“Don’t be foolish… there was nothing on the page.”

Syah knelt by the rolls of parchment and found the sketch. Examining it in the moonlight, Syah realized the trees and branches had evoked the impression of a creature. He read the writing at the bottom explaining that this was a common meeting place for the Dikartians. He checked the spot where the apparition had appeared. Though there was no trace of a creature, the feeling still lingered.

The surrounding silence lost its comfort and intrigue. He replaced the scroll and turned for the door.

 

Syah touched the handle, feeling music vibrate through the door to the great hall. He hesitated, knowing noise would inundate him if he entered. He imagined the guests awaiting him inside and wondered what the consequences would be if he ignored the summons to join the celebration.

Oman will discuss our plans tonight.

The lure of adventure doused his fear. He turned the handle and entered the hall.

Syah held his breath as the torrent of greetings, music, and commotion flooded him. The visitors respectfully let him pass through the fervor. His calm demeanor showed through his actions, his hand he respectfully offered to others, and his bow he returned to a few.

The commotion eased as he made his way to a less crowded corner near one of the casements. He sat at a table and gazed across the immense room, crowded with nobles, soldiers, and the royal court. The guests gave him little heed now, as if he were one of the noble stone statues that lined the perimeter of the hall. They were decorations too, he realized, necessary but overlooked guests.

The music lured his attention with its melody and rhythm. The piping and strumming notes swayed his thoughts. He imagined the music was a warm aroma, a smoke filling and intoxicating the hall. His mind saw the fumes enticing subjects of his kingdom to cross legs, turn arms, and change direction as the smoke shifted.

A single amused breath shook Syah’s form, proving his body had more life than the stone carvings. The dancers moved as if the fingers of the musicians strummed them flesh to flesh. The melody penetrated deeper into the prince’s mind as he watched them, seeing the guests as actors in a grand charade.

Syah imagined a tall man growing sleek, long hair down his back. His brown hat became a jeweled crown and his garment transformed into intricate cloth. Slightly bending his form to greet the interesting but barbaric humans around him.

A group of children, laughing with locked arms twirling in a circle, grew limbs that hardened, darkened into living branches, their hair full of leaves and flowers. Their voices were the playful wind through a meadow, the chirping of birds, and the chatter of mice and squirrels.

The laughter of a group of men at the other end of the hall became the deep laughter of mountain voices. They slammed their mugs heartily upon the table and their drinks splashed on their beards.

Then a young man emerged through the smoke. Syah knew who he was, but imagined him as someone else. He became a knight clad in armor, with an elaborate helm and a sword at his waist. The figure moved closer, his armor glinting link by link in the glowing light. The crowd parted as if he were the ghost of one of Arnith’s fallen kings.

“Fasime!” Syah cried, shaking the illusion from his sight. Fasime smiled, joining Syah at the table. “How did you make it back so quickly? I thought it would take you another half moon to walk back to the castle.” Syah examined Fasime’s neatly drawn black hair, his clean clothing. “And I see you had time to change.”

“I didn’t walk,” Fasime responded with laughter.

“Hitch a ride with a traveling merchant?” was asked from behind him. Oman approached the table and placed his hand on Fasime’s shoulder.

“No,” the middle brother answered.

“You don’t appear to be injured, how in the skies did you get back to Anteria?” Oman asked.

“The stallion, of course.”

“Come,” Oman said with laughter, “this is a story Mother and Father will want to hear.”

 

Fasime stood before the court. The king and queen were seated upon the throne. King Algoth laughed as Fasime retold the story of the wild stallion stealing him away from the capital. The queen’s face and curly brown hair glowed from the torchlight.

Fasime paced before them, commanding the attention of the multitude.

“The stallion and I struggled as he galloped relentlessly deeper into the woods. I knew he would eventually become tired, but I swear I’ve never seen a horse ride so long without rest. He bucked and reared to drop me, but I held fast, wrapping the ropes around my arms. We galloped for so long, his pace never slackening, until the forest was a whirlwind of trees. As the night fell upon us, I felt myself slipping. The strain of the ride wore on me, though I refused to let the beast win.

“Then a thought occurred to me. The stallion was afraid, though he had no reason to fear men. He had lived most of his life without the company of man or horse. He was afraid because he did not understand what had happened to him. I knew he could remember his purpose. Together, we would face his fear.

“The night air renewed me. I leaned forward and took fistfuls of mane in my hands. Balancing myself on his middle, I pressed my heels on his abdomen. I called out to him, urging him onward. He snorted, but started to obey me. We galloped through the night. I embraced his freedom, his sheer strength. I began to lean, not as a command, but as a suggestion. The stallion began to turn. I spoke to him, telling him of great purebreds of Anteria, of a horse’s duty to its master, of the king’s horse and his bloodline.

“My being was stripped away by the cold night wind. The stallion could not rid himself of me, so he accepted me. We became one, racing through the dark forest lit only by the stars’ glow. I knew then he trusted me, and I allowed him to slow.

“He soon collapsed, with me still atop him. We landed in the brush on the forest floor. With my remaining strength I pulled myself out from under him, but fell into darkness before I could free my arms from the ropes.

“When we woke, the stallion was calm. I untied the ropes from round his neck and he rose. I told him he was free, that if he wanted to return to the forest he may. He came forward and nudged my hand. He allowed me to remount and he carried me south until we found a merchant’s road. I followed it to Anteria.”

“What did you do with him?” the queen asked.

“He is in the stables, for now,” Fasime answered.

Syah, listening from the edge of the crowd, bowed his head. Cheers and congratulations were offered for Fasime, and the musicians resumed their interlude. Syah retreated to avoid the dancers spreading across the hall.

 

Fasime and Oman found their younger brother brooding at his private table.

“Celebrations are underway and you behave like a shadow of the silent walls. Syah, why do you sit here alone?” Fasime asked as they sat before him.

Syah didn’t answer, watching his two older brothers stare at him. Oman, with is regal expression and diligent eyes, and Fasime with his boastful, charismatic look.

“There’s more to celebrations than just sitting here watching them,” Fasime pressed.

Syah shook his head, knowing what was coming. “Fasime, no.”

“I’ll show you the steps. It’s not difficult once you get started.”

Syah glanced at Oman, but the older brother leaned back and crossed his arms with a smile.

“I can’t believe our most studious brother would pass an opportunity to learn something he didn’t yet know.” Fasime punched Syah’s arm. “Dancing is much like swordplay. Would you let the rest of us become proficient in this skill and you not?”

“Prancing and twirling hold no interest for me,” Syah responded.

Fasime turned to Oman. “We can’t just allow him to sit in the corner all evening. He needs to join the festivities and stop behaving like an outsider.”

“Don’t we have more important things to discuss?” Syah stated, his face reddening.

“Alright, Fasime, let’s leave him alone.”

Fasime grunted. “Standing up for him again, are you, Oman?”

Oman’s eyes flashed a warning, but he knew Fasime meant nothing by it. Fasime was mostly jesting, they all were. Fasime’s posture loosened as Oman kept his commanding gaze on him, and then so did Syah’s.

“The king and queen were wondering about you,” Oman told Syah.

“Because you were hiding in the shadows,” Fasime added.

Syah ignored the jest. “Tell us about your plan, Oman.”

Oman glanced behind to gauge if any of the guests could hear. Turning back, he lowered his tone, “I am planning on asking Father to consider the military training tonight.”

“Of course,” Syah said musingly. “He won’t want to bother Mother with it during the celebration.”

“How will you bring it up to him?” Fasime asked. “He has been protective since the Marrians raided Bafonville.”

Oman huffed. “He has to start treating me like a man someday.”

“Getting them to allow Syah to leave with me is another matter,” Fasime stated.

At his mention the eldest focused on Syah. Oman’s countenance darkened, as if he imagined his youngest brother struggle, hurt, alone, and afraid. Syah’s limbs began to shake by the way his brother looked at him. Oman seemed to be witnessing some ill fate meet Syah, though he sat safe before him.

Syah clenched his fists when Oman began to speak. Although terrible things were reflected in his eyes, Oman’s voice was level. “Are you sure you want to come with us?”

Syah knew Oman’s thoughts. Oman didn’t see him as an able-bodied young man. He saw the sickly child fighting to live. Bedridden and crippled by mysterious ailments, it had taken Syah many cycles to have the strength to participate with his brothers.

“I am,” Syah answered, locking Oman’s gaze with his. He hoped he could bring Oman back to the present, away from images of the past and fears of the future.

Oman paused a breath, then submitted with a nod.

“And how will we get out of the city?” Fasime asked.

Syah motioned for silence when a soldier approached their table. “The feast will begin soon,” the soldier informed them and bowed.

“Very well,” Oman stated, nodding.

Watching him leave, the princes leaned closer.

“We disguise ourselves,” Syah answered.

“But they will recognize us. I think we should try to sneak through the guard at night,” Fasime stated.

“If they are not looking for us, we can misdirect them, make them see three common boys instead of three princes.”

“That will take gathering disguises, and coordinating our departures so that the guards believe we have left with escorts,” Oman pointed out.

“I’ve already acquired commoner clothing.”

Fasime chuckled but held another rebuke.

“Then we need supplies,” Oman said to Fasime. “You will gather them for your hunting trip.”

“I will start tomorrow. You will ask Father during the feast?” Fasime asked and rose.

Oman nodded, but his air of confidence waned with the thought of deceiving their father. He stood and looked to Syah. “Celebrations won’t be so tedious if you allow yourself a little more enjoyment from them.”

Syah could only nod, though it wasn’t acquiescing to a dance.

Fasime pushed Syah’s shoulder as they turned to leave. “I’ll save you a seat.”

Syah felt a sense of loss as his brothers left him, but watched the knight’s armor cover Fasime’s shoulders again. His gaze shifting to his eldest brother, he saw Oman as he always did, a young but powerful king.

 

Syah pulled in his chair beside Fasime. The guests were taking their seats at the mighty table. They had settled, the music had faded, and they were all awaiting the coming feast. Syah was aware of the buzz of noise and conversation around him, but heeding none of their words. He traced the stem of his cup, feeling the cool condensation collect on his fingers.

Syah’s eyes were transfixed on the table until the king’s voice caught his attention. His father was just speaking to those around him, but the table seemed to quiet at the powerful sound. Syah felt humility as he looked upon the king’s face, his broad and strong shoulders, and his vigilant eyes. The king turned to the queen, sitting poised beside him. They were discussing some small thing, laughing about it, and Syah wondered what it was. They were clearly finding a private enjoyment in it.

Servants stepped next to Syah and disrupted his thoughts. They began to set flames to candles placed on the table. Syah was distracted by the colorful, bountiful food and drink before him. He placed some on his plate, not knowing if he could eat it. But he pretended he could, idly cutting it into small pieces. The chatter dwindled as the guests began to eat, their conversation interrupted by juicy meat, sweet fruit, and warm bread.

Fasime elbowed his arm, and Syah lifted his gaze to the king. Oman was seated beside him, discussing something. Oman appeared half-interested in the conversation, but the king was growing more and more intent on him. Neither Syah nor Fasime could hear their words, but they could see the king asked Oman something, and Oman responded casually.

“Do you think he’ll reject it?” Syah whispered.

“I don’t know yet,” Fasime answered and resumed his meal.

The king was nodding, and Oman seemed to be ending the conversation. Syah set down his glass, trying to hide his smile.

 

Syah found himself standing and with cold apprehension he realized he had finished his meal and drink, the candles had melted to a soft glow, and he hadn’t been aware of it. He tried to think back, but time was lost to his memory.

He had been thinking about their journey. He had imagined leaving the great hall, going down the stairs and out the door of the castle, through the streets of the city and far away, to unknown places of the world. He felt chilled, finding he had still gone on with the motions of living, even though his mind had left him completely.

He let the feeling subside when the guests took to the dance floor again. There were gifts to be given, and more dancing, and more food, Syah knew, but his sentence had been served. He had been a silent statue of the great hall long enough. He turned and started for the door.

As Syah passed the open doorway of the hall, something grabbed his arm. Oman and Fasime were waiting for him.

“Well?” Syah asked.

“Father will approve the military training,” Oman answered.

“And the hunting trip has already been planned, so all that’s left is to let them know I intend to go with Fasime,” Syah stated.

“It is time you start joining us on our excursions anyway,” Fasime said.

Syah heard movement behind him, and assumed, correctly, it was someone searching for them. He stepped aside and let the children to Oman and Fasime, who laughed as they grabbed his brothers’ arms, begging for them to return to the dance. Fasime and Oman met Syah’s complacent smile as they turned to follow the children back to the festivities.

Syah sensed the quiet of the hallway, again, and released a breath he’d been holding since he had entered the great hall. The silence was like a cool, cleansing breeze through his body and mind. He started down the hallway, back towards his books.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

PREPARATIONS

 

 

Syah closed the book on his lap when he heard the door open.

“Syah?” the queen asked when she noticed him. “What is it, my son?”

The queen was distracted by what Syah held. He lifted the piece of polished, twisted wood layered with finely strung metal.

“What is this?”

“A gift for you.”

She touched the fine, smooth wood and pressed the tight metal strings.

“Fasime charmed it from a tribesman’s daughter from near the elven forest,” Syah told her.

“It’s wonderful, but I don’t know what I’d do with it.”

Syah acknowledged her confusion with a nod. “It is not truly your gift. I am to play a song for you.”

The queen’s face softened. “A song from you would be a very fine gift.”

Syah motioned to the empty seat beside him. He placed the end of the instrument on his shoulder and lifted his hands to the strings. His fingers found their places but paused, his mind listening to how the melody would play. Then his hands obeyed and a strange, lingering, deep sound drifted from them. The song was slow, each note a cautious footstep towards a great precipice that was never reached.

Syah closed his eyes. The song didn’t quicken, the notes stayed meticulous, but the melody intensified. The emotions and loss strengthened. Syah imagined himself seated on the edge of a cliff side with great winds rushing by him, preludes to the onset of a storm.

As the storm was about to engulf him, his fingers rested, the song fading. The last notes hummed around them a moment, then were silent.

Syah heard a quick intake of breath from beside him. The queen’s eyes were wet. Syah lowered the instrument.

“Mother, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

The queen shook her head, wiping away the tears. “No, my son.”

“Your mood was so joyful,” Syah lamented, “I should have played something more appropriate.”

“No,” she said more firmly and placed her hand on his arm. “It was magnificent.” She smiled. “It was a wonderful gift.”

Syah grasped her hand and watched her calming eyes.

 

It was early the next morning when Syah entered the library. He searched the room by the sunlight shining through the windows. He had come early and was pleased that he was the first to arrive. The room was his.

He went to a table bathed in the light from the window, set down his paper and ink and began to look through the books along the walls. Pulling out several of them, he took them to the table and sat down, finding the pages easily and starting to write notes as he read. Histories, places and people, names. He wondered if the current histories of Miscia would ever be read later on. Somehow he was protecting the future by absorbing the knowledge from the dusty pages of the past.

He was deep inside a history of Arnith’s military when the door opened. It was their teacher. The others would be late, as usual. Gray eyes beneath the thick white eyebrows didn’t look up, but Syah knew his tutor had seen him. The old man entered the room, leaning on a gnarly white cane, his namesake.

Syah continued reading. His tutor gave a thoughtful mumble as he selected a book from the shelf. Placing it on the table, he began to read aloud. The planting of crops, the distribution of resources to civilians, taxation to replenish the treasury: all these subjects spun together in one intricate narrative describing how to establish a community. Syah paused at his teacher’s voice, as it made him think of a dying man’s last gasp. But somehow the old man continued, taking deep breaths at odd places through his reading.

Syah’s pen stopped when he heard loud talking in the hallway. The old man used that moment to take another deep breath. The door opened and Fasime came in with Oman behind him. Their entrance seemed to bring disturbing noises, even though they had stopped talking. The old man started reading again before they were seated. They glanced at each other, then at Syah, who shook his head at them.

“A community is a collective of men of minds, and men of work. The men with access have more influence. Access to history, access to records, and the ability to interpret them.” The mentor breathed again, his eyes straying off the paper, gazing down, but truly seeing his pupils in the room above. “We are fire begot from sky. Lightning begets fire, fire begets smoke, and smoke joins the clouds and rain to quell the fire. One single action leads to creation and destruction.” Their mentor paused at his last word before continuing to read aloud from the text.

Syah looked up at the White Cane, then cast an accusing glance towards his brothers, who shrugged innocently. The youngest pushed his chair back as he stood. Stepping up to the library and briefly searching, he found one book and then another. With the same ease, he opened and set them before his brothers.

Oman’s book was turned to the first page of a history of a military expedition, detailing the planning of supplies and men. And for Fasime: a description of caring for beasts when traveling. The three, amused, looked up to the White Cane, who continued to read aloud and seemed to pay no attention whatsoever to them. Syah sat and resumed his work with a chuckle.

 

Syah stared at the numerous weapons across the table in the sparing room. He found his short sword and his hands tightened around the leather grip. He felt no strength from it, as he had anticipated, but a flush of dread. What would he need it for, anyway? He would have no reason to use a sword. The hunting would be with arrows, and cleaning the meat with a knife. He would only need a sword for… he stopped his mind from the thought. Solemnly, he fastened the sword to his waist.

“What are you doing here?” a rough voice startled Syah. His insides cramped, but he realized whom it was before his body or lungs could react. He forced himself to straighten as he turned around.

“Oh, Prince Syah,” the voice said, but in the same tone. The prince recognized the large, thickly bearded man approaching him from a dark corner of the room. It was their weapons master, Malgar. He had been there when Syah had entered, and had been watching him the entire time.

“I was just getting my sword,” Syah answered finally, motioning to the table where numerous other swords and weapons still lay.

Malgar stopped before Syah. “You have been practicing a little,” he said, “but are you ready to carry it?”

“I don’t know. I’m considering going on a hunting trip with Fasime. I thought it would be wise to bring it with me.” Syah heard his voice shaking and cursed his nervousness.

“If you carry a sword, you need to know how to wield it properly,” the weapon’s master said. Moving to the window, he opened the shutters and let more light into the large room. “Let’s practice another time before you leave.”

Syah wanted to refuse, but before he could his mind brought up the moves he had learned, the defenses, the strategies. His fist tightened, and he nodded.

The burly man stepped back, drawing his sword. “You strike first,” Malgar said, as usual, “gradually to start.”

Syah drew his sword. His mind moved ahead of his actions, calculating the trainer’s moves, his vulnerabilities with a larger, slower sword. Syah moved towards him, swinging down and stepping to the side.

Malgar parried. “Good, and again.”

Syah turned and swung at him from the other side. The trainer parried and the prince tried at him from a different angle.

“Now faster,” Malgar ordered, stepping back to avoid the prince’s novice blade.

Syah’s breathing grew shallow and his pulse quickened. He felt a rush of energy, his mind clear, thinking ahead of his strikes, evaluating and executing.

“Good,” Malgar said, “now defend.”

Syah changed his stance to block the trainer’s sword. He watched the man’s direction, the position of his sword, predicting his actions. Syah was able to block each of Malgar’s attacks.

“Very nice, you defend well,” the trainer praised. “You know the moves. Now we’ll increase the speed.”

Syah shifted his sword as Malgar came towards him. The prince held his ground a moment, but stepped back after blocking several quick attacks. Malgar advanced. The trainer’s eyes were resolute, angry. Syah tightened his hands on the hilt, positioning his sword to prevent Malgar’s attacks from following through.

The weapons master pushed forward, but Syah was close to the wall and had no room to maneuver. The man’s flashing sword came at him faster. Although Syah was able to block it, it was more difficult. Syah tried to move to an open position away from the wall, but his adversary’s sword prevented him.

Malgar emitted a low, furious battle cry and Syah shuddered. Their swords locked and the prince saw his eyes again, staring hotly into his own. Syah couldn’t decide if he was in danger as Malgar pulled his sword away and swung at him again. Syah’s body shook as he struggled to block the attack, and then another. The attacker’s sword slid around his and Syah realized his mistake as soon as it started. It was a simple move that caused the prince’s sword to slip from his grasp and clatter to the floor out of his sight.

Malgar’s blade was at Syah’s throat. Accusations filled Syah’s head, but his clenched jaw wouldn’t allow him to speak them.

“You fought well,” Malgar said, the ferocity on his face subsiding. He withdrew the sword from Syah’s throat and replaced it casually on his belt, but did not move away from him. “If you mastered the techniques you now know, you could defeat any foe in battle, regardless of his strength,” Malgar explained. Syah raised his head. The trainer glanced down at Syah’s sword on the floor beside him and then met the young prince’s eyes again.

“Remember, Syah, half of sword-fighting is valor. You cannot let your enemy intimidate you, or he will overpower you.”

Malgar placed his large hand on Syah’s shoulder and the prince let out a slow breath, the tightness easing inside him.

“Be careful,” the weapons master said and released him.

 

It is only for one season, you will barely miss me.” Oman set his hand on the table. He leaned towards his father, standing by the hearth.

The king did not turn towards him, speaking instead to the flames, “It is a dangerous time to be traveling. Any of the tribes would be pleased to have a young prince to ransom.”

Oman waited, lowering his head as if he was considering his father’s words. “You’re right, Father, but I won’t be alone. These dangerous times require preparation, and this training will ready me for trials to come. You’ve said so more than once since I started the lessons three cycles ago.” The king lifted his head, then turned to face his son. The prince straightened.

“Very well,” the king said, holding Oman’s eyes with his own. “If you stay with the camp you should be safe.”

Oman forced a steady nod. “Yes Father.”

“I would like to speak to the soldiers before you go.”

The prince shifted his gaze. “I could fetch them for you, but Father… they are the same soldiers who taught me in cycles past.”

The king let out a long breath. “You know your brothers are leaving as well?”

The prince stiffened, but then nodded. His father turned towards the fire. “It will be a barren and forlorn castle until you return.”

Oman realized the king had nothing more to say. He turned to leave, seeing only his father’s shadow was moved by the shifting flames.

 

The three brothers gathered in Oman’s room, gazing at a large map stretched across a table. Rivers, roads, forests, and towns of Miscia were labeled in detail throughout Arnith. Slightly farther the lines of the mapmaker faded beyond the known world.

“So after Shal we will start for the south. How far is it to the southern mountains?” Fasime asked.

“About a day’s ride,” Syah answered, his finger tracing the road from Anteria to the small villages east of the capital.

“We will need to stay off the roads,” Oman stated. “We would meet too many travelers, increasing the risk of our journey.”

Syah nodded. “I agree. We can map out a journey through the southern forest. Then after we reach the Plains of Trebec we can turn north through Keslewood Forest, towards the Black Mountains.”

“We will need to stop at settlements to restock supplies,” Fasime added.

“Won’t we be able to pack enough supplies for the entire journey?” Syah asked.

Fasime shook his head at him. “Not for everything, Syah. We can hunt to replenish some of our rations, but we will have to trade for other food.”

“Alright,” Oman said with irritation, “what about the horses? We can plan to meet in the city somewhere before leaving together under our disguises.”

“I have been practicing Lightning with the saddle, I think he will be ready by…”

“What?” Oman interrupted him. “Lighting, you don’t mean the wild stallion do you?”

Fasime chuckled. “Of course I do, what other steed would be as fit for such a journey?”

“But he will be so easily recognized!” Oman said, hitting the table.

“And what about your horse, mighty as he is, or Syah’s mare, they are just as well known. But I have a plan. We will cover them with undecorated trappers, as merchants’ mounts. Fitted with worn saddles and bridles, they won’t be recognized.”

“It’s not just that, what if the stallion tries to escape again, and with you atop it?” Syah interjected.

“He won’t. I wouldn’t bring him if I didn’t think he was ready. I trust him more than any other steed.”

Syah shrugged. “If you think bringing an untrained horse is worth the risk.”

Fasime glared and lifted a threatening hand, but Oman intervened. “Fine, if you want to bring him. I don’t doubt his stamina.” Oman and Syah laughed. Fasime crossed his arms, but amusement hinted beside his eyes.

“So we are drawing closer,” Syah stated, moving his gaze across the eastern border of Arnith.

“We will trust our route to the dreamer,” Oman said. He and Fasime left their younger brother absorbed in planning their journey.

 

Mother,” Syah called out, joining her on the staircase.

“What is it, my son?” Her hair was braided and she wore a long satin gown. Even on a casual day, she dressed with elegance.

Syah took her hand and motioned for her to continue down the hallway with him.

“I have come to wish you farewell,” he answered in a lighthearted tone.

“Farewell?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Father is always telling me… I should see the forest.”

She stopped, turned to him, and he moved to stand beside her in the light of the window. “What do you mean?”

“Fasime is going on another hunting trip.” Syah kept her eyes. “This time I have decided to go with him.”

Her face paled. She leaned forward, placing her hand on his arm. “One of his long hunting trips?”

Syah nodded. He could see the concern and conflict on his mother’s face, and he wondered if he could sway the decision. “Do you not want me to go?” he asked.

“I am just afraid, Syah, that something could happen.”

Syah paused a moment. “I don’t have to go, if you don’t think it’s safe. I was beginning to reconsider. It would probably be dull and tedious, anyway, going with Fasime and his escorts.”

His mother’s brows knit together. “No,” she said, “you should go, if you want to. Fasime will look after you.”

“Alright,” he said and the cheerfulness was on him again. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek, seeing her slight movement as he started to leave her.

“Wait,” she said. He turned back, having anticipated it. “Here,” she said and her hands moved behind her neck. The facade tore away when Syah realized what she was doing.

“No, Mother!”

“Yes, here.” She withdrew the strings and pulled a small charm from around her neck.

“No, I can’t…”

“It will keep you safe,” she told him. She reached for his arm, then turned his hand so she could place the charm in his open palm. Its subtle touch on his skin caused waves of guilt for his deception to her. He looked down. At the end of the chain, a delicate winged creature wrapped around a white stone, protecting it. He remembered when he was younger, tracing over and over the outline of the beast that always hung from his mother’s neck.

He looked up at her with his breath caught in his chest. “I can’t take this!” The words were forced from his throat.

She closed his fingers around it and held her hand tightly over his. “You know the story of it. I wore it as I carried you, and placed it round your neck when you were ill as an infant, so frail…” He breathed uneasily as she held his fist in her hands, pressing against his chest. “But look at you now… a strong young man of sixteen cycles.”

Pain filled his chest, but he no longer protested.

“Take it with you.”

 

Hands trembled with anticipation. They grabbed the leather and tightly pulled it. Fasime reached for another pack and fastened it securely to the saddle. The large black eyes of the stallion looked towards him, curious. “You are not a horse of burden, but these supplies will not hamper you.”

The muscles twitched beneath the skin of the steed and its rear hoof pawed at the dirt. Fasime lifted his hand, no longer shaking, and set it on the stallion’s shoulder.

“Are you ready to use those legs, Lightning?” the prince questioned the beast, smoothing its fine ebony coat. The horse turned its head towards him as he extracted a biscuit from his pocket. The stallion’s large mouth lifted it from Fasime’s hand, and he patted its shoulder. Fasime took another pack from the pile and secured it to his brother’s horse, which moved its head, expectantly, for a treat.

The door to the stables opened. Syah entered the stables and approached his brother. Fasime reached for another pack. Syah did the same, and helped to tie them to the horses. Blankets, maps, provisions, weapons, Fasime’s hand ran over them as he checked them. “Well,” he said, “that’s everything. We are ready.”

A wave of inaction swept over Fasime. Syah nodded affirmatively. Fasime forced strength into his limbs. He raised his head to the challenge of committing to their adventure.

The stallion grunted a hot breath. They both took their horses’ reins, leading them out of the stables.

Fasime raised a hand in salute to the soldiers near the entrance to the stables. They bowed in return. The brothers lowered their heads, hoping the guards didn’t notice the tattered fittings on the steeds. They led their horses away from the castle, into the main street of the city. Servants going to the castle smiled and bowed to them. Fasime motioned to one of the streets branching off the central avenue, leading to the servant district. Turning to the new street, they quickened their pace, watching people of the city acknowledge them as they passed. It wasn’t uncommon to see the princes passing through streets of the city, but the men and women still bowed and curtsied to them, and children ran along behind them, giggling.

Fasime and Syah turned again to a smaller passageway, less crowded. The men and women coming in and out of brick houses stopped to watch them. They led their horses aside to another lane, narrower, empty. They walked quickly now, not wanting to be seen by any other civilians.

“Fasime.” They heard the voice of their older brother at the turn of a narrow alley. Fasime let out a sigh of relief when he spotted Oman, standing beside his horse waiting for them. “I am glad you made it,” Oman said with a smile. Fasime and Syah led their horses next to his. “Any trouble leaving?” They shook their heads. “Are we ready, then?” Oman gazed for a long interval into his brothers’ eyes.

“It’s time.” Syah reached for the fastening of his riding coat. His brothers did the same. Luxurious dyed cloth was replaced by plain, worn clothing. They removed the saddles from their steeds and covered them with the tan trappers. Oman and Syah’s horses responded calmly to the covering, but the stallion protested. Fasime soothed him while he replaced the saddle and bridle.

The brothers gazed at themselves, and at each other, observing the transformation that had overcome them with such a simple change as their clothing. Privileged, deserving, and protected became common and valueless. But this transformation pleased them. They packed the fine cloth into one of their sacks, then stood staring at it.

“We leave all titles behind us from his point onward,” the eldest declared. He took the dark cloak Fasime handed him and tied it around his shoulders. They mounted, pulling hoods over their heads, completing the disguise.

Oman started his horse down the alley and the others followed. As they turned into another street, they all held their breath, anticipating their journey might come to an abrupt halt when someone recognized them. But as they passed the workers and merchants, no one bowed or curtsied to them, no one noticed them except to move out of the way of their horses.

They kept their heads lowered through the streets of the city. Then they came in view of the city gates, unavoidable, imposing between them and the forest, their freedom. Their eyes went to the soldiers standing on either side of the gate and guards upon the wall. They tightened their grips upon the reins and commenced the journey.

 

CHAPTER THREE

THE ESCAPE

 

 

We are out! We are out! We have traveled out of the sight of the city walls, and no alarm has been raised, no horde of soldiers has followed us through the gates. Our plan worked. They didn’t even question us. We would have been ready if they had.

It feels, I imagine, like how a freed prisoner would feel after cycles in a dank dungeon. The road is calling to me… to us. The moment we paused for a noon meal we felt as though we should be mounted and riding again. The food tasted richer, our water sweeter, and they nourished us as if we had been starved all of our lives. It is curious, this feeling. The first embarkation on a journey – I will not soon forget it.

The future calls us. I cannot further delay it.

 

For the three brothers, and the wilderness,

Syah, Prince of Arnith

 

 

 

The horses’ leisurely steps carried them over the soft pine needles and twig-covered earth along the forest path. Their manes shifted rhythmically with their hooves, their large eyes barely noticing their trail, trusting the route to their reins, their riders.

The holds on the reins were slack. The path pulled the brothers towards a destined location. The attraction of the unknown strengthened their senses and nourished their bodies with excitement. Their conversations had ceased. Each young rider, alone with his thoughts, experienced the overwhelming scenery of the wilderness they passed. The trees, stone, earth, and light of the forest changed around them. Minds attempted to hold onto each moment, though they were lost again as new scenes replaced them.

Though Syah had exerted himself more in the last few days than he had ever done in all his life, he felt refreshed and strengthened. He would probably be able to ride late into the night. Oman, however, signaled them to slow their horses as they neared a clearing. It would be good to rest, he knew, to be ready for another long day of riding on the morrow. The enticement of the adventure still pulled him, though the light of the sun was waning.

They dismounted in the middle of the narrow clearing, searching for a place with soft earth where they could easily start a fire.

“Must we stop?” Syah asked as he stroked the face of his mare and tied the reins to a branch.

“Guess we know who’s taking first watch,” Oman remarked.

Syah lowered his head as his brothers chuckled. “I imagine the horses are pleased to stop.”

“Lightning could ride another day or so.” Fasime laughed, patting the stallion’s back.

“Lightning could ride to the southern border without rest,” Syah amended.

Fasime took the saddle off the muscular black steed. It was probably true. He constantly had to pull the stallion back as they were riding, knowing its desire to lose the others and steal away through the forest.

“Isn’t it conspicuous, building a fire and sleeping out here in the open?” Syah asked.

“We are conspicuous as it is,” Oman answered, beginning to set up camp. “At least, to anything that would be in these woods. Only creatures of the forest and wanderers would pass this way. No matter where we sleep, we will catch their attention.”

“Hopefully we don’t meet many ‘wanderers’,” Syah responded wryly, but Oman just shook his head.

Syah helped Oman start a fire while Fasime unpacked the horses.

“I will go hunting tomorrow,” Fasime stated as he joined them. He inspected his knife, gingerly testing the sharpness of the blade against his thumb.

“We haven’t seen much game since the castle,” Syah said, his attention on the flames, competing with the growing unfriendliness of night.

“The animals have been avoiding us,” Fasime explained and replaced his knife. “Creatures of the forest typically do not wish to be seen by humans.”

Oman sighed audibly and stood. “Syah, are you taking the first watch?”

“Yes,” Syah answered, “it is the easiest. I won’t have to wake up in the middle of the night and come to my senses enough to keep myself awake.”

Oman nodded. “Fasime, we had better start our slumber. It will be a long day tomorrow. Syah, wake me soon. I will be the one coming to my senses in the middle of the night. And wake me if you…”

“If I hear anything, if I see anything suspicious, or smell something odd that could be likened to ogre’s toenails. Yes, yes, I know,” Syah mimicked Oman’s tone. “Now get some sleep.”

“Hear anything,” Oman started the teasing again.

“Just go!”

Oman and Fasime, chuckling, laid on blankets near the fire.

“Good night,” Syah told them.

Gradually, dusk darkened to deep night. Syah watched his brothers over the low, hot fire. Their eyes closed and their bodies seemed to merge with the earth below them. Soon Syah was sure they slept, seeing their chests rise and fall with a calm breath.

The burden of keeping the watch was heavy upon the Syah. His sleeping brothers trusted him, but did they know?

He would give anything, everything to protect them.

 

Shivering hands stretch wearily towards the fire. Night and the need for rest replace the desperate hunger.

“Stop thinking about it.” Fasime briskly shook his head, trying to drive out the images impeding his concentration. His eyes refocused on the forest, his hands tightened around the wood of the bow. We are still a day and a half’s ride to Romain. The three of us could ration the rest of the food until then.

Fasime forced his eyes to close and lowered his head, scolding himself. Images came to his mind, memories. His breathing slowed and his body relaxed. He recalled his first hunt, his aim, and his triumph over doubt. Images of subsequent hunts took turns steadying him, dousing the fears for his brothers, fears of failure. He opened his eyes, lifted the bow, and grasped the leathery string, waiting.

The day faded beyond the horizon and a soft chill tinged the air. Oman and Syah will begin to worry about you. The thought was only a wisp through his concentration, attentive to the coming shadows of the forest and the noises on the soft wind.

Then, movement. Fasime’s attention was on it immediately, followed by the aim of the bow. His eyes, glinting like the tip of the sharp arrow, watched the visitor pause and then timidly step forward towards the water’s edge. Its shadow was taking form in the coming night. Graceful, silent strides moved the creature over the water. Fasime could see its delicate head and majestic antlers silhouetted against the light of the stream. He thought to pull back the string, but stayed his hand, hesitating. He sat soundless, breathing the same air as the beast, feeling the same coolness off the wild water. Then, when he pulled back the string, he saw the beast lift its head, as if it sensed the waiting danger but was unafraid. The deer did not move. It stood with its front legs in the running water, its head raised nobly as Fasime steadied the bow.

Fasime released the arrow, feeling the surge of power leave him. The animal’s body jerked and its hooves clamored on the stones of the riverbed as it turned. Fasime heard the sturdy beast fall, and then he heard nothing but the river. He stood and approached it, hearing no movement, no labored breathing. He couldn’t see it in the thickening darkness, but he knew blood now streamed from the arrow’s opening and mingled with the clear water of the stream.

“You were a strong, mighty deer,” Fasime told it as he pulled the body out of the water. He lifted the deer and carried it further from the river. He would clean it here, sparing Syah that, at least. He set the deer down on the stones of the riverbed and took out his knife. “Thank you,” he told it. But his words drifted over the chilling body of the beast across the water and darkness, unheard.

 

Oman and Syah stood when they saw Fasime emerge from the darkness of the forest with bundles over his shoulders.

“We were worried about you,” said Syah. He and Oman helped pull the wrapped meat off Fasime’s shoulders and set it beside the fire.

Fasime didn’t respond, opening his hands to the light and heat of the fire.

“There was no need to worry, Syah,” Oman answered for Fasime, opening up the deer hide.

“It has gotten dark. One of us should have gone with you.”

“I can hunt better alone,” Fasime answered.

Syah shook his head and reached for a package of meat.

“It will take all night to cook it all,” Oman said. He placed the stakes and cuts of meat he had prepared in the smoke of the fire.

“This should last us until we reach Keslewood, then Fasime can foolishly go off hunting alone again,” Syah joked.

Fasime glanced over his shoulder at him, his brows drawn in irritation. “Fine, I’ll take you with me next time, since you insist on going.”

“I didn’t…”

You can be responsible for feeding us,” Fasime said angrily, grabbing up several of the bundles and opening them.

Syah didn’t respond, watching Fasime cut up and separate the meat, scowling all the while. Syah looked at Oman, who shook his head with a smile and continued to work. Syah threaded some chunks of meat on the sharpened end of a stick and let out a thoughtful breath.

“You did a fine job, Fasime,” Syah told him.

Fasime stiffened. “What?” he demanded, his brows tightening.

“I am very proud of you,” the youngest said sincerely.

Fasime let out a disgusted grunt and threw the pile of sticks at his younger brother. Syah braced, but the sticks bounced off harmlessly. He lowered his arms and laughed. Fasime’s jaw tightened when Oman joined in Syah’s amusement. He growled under his breath, forcing himself to concentrate on the meat. Oman and Syah’s laughter calmed as they worked.

“At least he knows how to take a compliment about his fabulous work,” Syah said casually to Oman. Fasime raised his head. He gave out a warning grunt and set down the meat. “No one else but you, Fasime, could have brought back this exquisite meal.”

“That’s it!” Fasime cried, getting to his feet and throwing himself upon Syah. The youngest tossed aside the knife as Fasime grabbed him. Although his brother was by far the stronger, Syah wouldn’t use the blade to ward him off. Fasime pounced on him and pinned him to the ground. Syah cried out in pain, but couldn’t help laughing further at Fasime’s anger.

“You know, he’s right,” Oman said. Fasime paused, looking up at him. “No one deserves recognition as much as you do.”

Syah felt Fasime let him go. The middle brother cried out angrily and jumped for Oman. But Oman was ready for him. He caught Fasime, letting his brother’s force pull him to the ground. Syah twisted himself around, chuckling at them as he stood. His gaze fell away from them, towards the menacing, forgotten darkness beyond the light of the fire. His chest tightened.

“Oman!” Syah cried. His tone was so fearful that Oman and Fasime stopped their tussling immediately and turned towards him. Syah’s eyes were locked on something in the darkness of the woods. His brothers followed his gaze and then straightened, drawing their swords. Shining from the darkness were two watchful, menacing eyes surrounded by a shadowy, crouching form. The eyes lowered closer to the ground, but didn’t blink, glowing eerily like the moon on a clear night.

“What is it?” Syah whispered.

“A wolf, or a wild dog,” Fasime answered. “He smells the meat.”

“It won’t come near the fire,” Oman said and reached to help Syah up.

“Let’s finish cooking it before we attract more creatures of the wild,” Fasime said and stepped back to his spot by the fire. Oman turned to join him. But they looked back at Syah, who hadn’t moved, still gazing at the foreboding eyes in the darkness.

Syah felt a strange flush of danger and ferocity from the beast. He turned from it finally, towards the fire.

“It is a reminder, we are not alone,” Fasime said as Syah knelt by the fire. Syah snatched a half-burning branch from the flames. Before they could speak to him, Syah turned back towards the forest and hurled the burning branch towards the two glowing eyes. The figure disappeared almost as soon as the fire was in the air and the branch landed very close to where the beast had been. Syah stared at the quiet darkness of the forest.

“Good aim,” Fasime said with compassion. “Now come back and sit. He’s gone.”

Syah turned back and sat with his brothers as they continued to work. His began to fix the stakes that had fallen during their scuffle. He clenched his unsteady hands after he replaced the sticks over the fire.

“Don’t worry about it, nothing will approach the fire. That’s why we have been taking watches through the night,” Oman assured him.

Syah grunted, struggling to conceal his unease. “I know,” he said stiffly, swallowing the anger in his throat.

“It’s just the unknown.” Fasime’s clear voice made Syah look up with surprise. His brother gave him a knowing smile. “The uncontrollable, the unpredictable,” Fasime continued, “can be unsettling. But it is part of the excitement of the wild.” Fasime pushed his brother’s shoulder. “You’ll grow to enjoy it.”

Syah lowered his gaze. He turned and finished setting the rest of the meat over the fire.

 

Between the lines of fog and fate,

Women dance and men can wait,

Syah sang to himself, tying packs to the horses.

Ask the stone how it knows,

How from mountains snows blow;

Journey down the path of the stream,

Until on the great waters they gleam.”

He reached for the straps to his mare’s saddle and tightened them.

Nowhere on the shores of fate,

Shall the woman meet her mate.”

He took the other packs and approached the stallion. Syah hesitated a moment when the stallion turned towards him.

“Easy, boy,” Syah told it. He stepped up to its side, watching the stallion’s large head and muscular legs closely. He pulled the leather to tighten the packs. The stallion looked back as the saddle shifted. Syah stood still, but then sighed, relaxing. He moved carefully towards the stallion’s shoulders, patting the fine black hair on its legs and back. “You’re not so bad.”

The steed shook its head and then lean towards him as he scratched its neck. The horse shook its head again, letting Syah scratch beneath its ear.

Then the steed tensed and Syah’s eyes widened. Lightning let out a rumbling snort. The immense power of the stallion erupted. His neigh likened to a scream. He jerked, knocking Syah back, almost striking the prince with his powerful front legs as he reared up. Syah staggered and nearly fell, but caught his balance a few steps from the wild horse. He stood horrified as the horse pounded back to the dirt.

“What’s wrong?” Syah cried to the rampant stallion, cringing away from its hooves.

“Careful!” Fasime yelled, running towards them.

“I don’t know what I did,” Syah said, shaking, watching the horse angrily pull at the rope.

“It’s alright,” said Fasime, putting his hand on Syah’s shoulder, seeing he needed to steady his brother before he did his horse.

“He just went crazy! I must have…”

“It wasn’t you,” Fasime said. Syah met his gaze. “Come here.” Fasime put his arm around Syah’s back.

“No!” Syah cried, trying to pull away.

“It’s alright, I’ll show you,” Fasime insisted, edging Syah forward. He took Syah’s hand and held it cupped in his own. They approached the stallion, whose head was lowered now as it whinnied and snorted.

“No, he wants to kill me,” Syah urged. They were close enough to feel the horse’s hot breath.

“It’s not you,” Fasime said. He pulled Syah’s hand forward and held it before the face of the stallion. Syah stiffened as the horse raised its head. The hot gush of air came from the steed’s nostrils. It jerked and neighed, but with less agitation.

“He smelled the blood,” Fasime explained. He let go of Syah’s hand, and Syah gazed at it. Fasime released his brother’s shoulders and approached the stallion, speaking soothingly to it as he patted its shoulder and moved its head with the reins. “He was probably more afraid of you than you were of him,” Fasime explained.

The young prince sensed the stallion had calmed and he warily moved away.

“If he didn’t like you, he would have trampled you just now,” Fasime said with a smile.

Syah didn’t feel that was much of a comfort.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

THE INN

 

 

As they traveled the princes focused on the task that lay before them. They thought of the citizens of Arnith who had never seen or known them, whom they would pass by unnoticed. They imagined returning to the lands of men, strangely finding these more hazardous than the wild.

Oman knew they were still far from the town. He decided to start the discussion now, to ensure that each knew the precautions to take. “I think we should stick together,” Oman said. Syah and Fasime readied themselves for the lecture that would ensue.

“It’s a small town,” Fasime objected. “There will be no danger if we separate. And besides, we would be less noticeable if we conduct our business alone.”

Oman paused in thought.

“I could take the horses to the stables, and you and Syah could buy our supplies. And then you could find us an inn, if there is one suitable.”

“So you do want to stay at an inn, then?” Oman asked.

Syah shook his head and was about to answer, but Fasime spoke before him.

“It will be nice not to sleep on the ground one night, to have a warm bath,” Fasime said. The youngest pressed his lips together and kept his arguments to himself.

“Very well, I will find an inn.” He paused, trying to decide how to speak his thoughts. “We must be careful what we say to the townspeople. If they ask us anything, we must remember to…”

“Stick to the story,” Syah interrupted, trying to remind Oman that they had had this conversation several times before.

“Stick to the story,” Oman repeated and nodded. “Syah, we’ll put you in charge of nourishments and supplies. And Fasime,” Oman continued in a tone that made Fasime watch him warily, “don’t get into any trouble.”

Fasime pushed Oman’s shoulder and let loose the eldest’s laughter, interrupting the tension around them.

“I’ll just stay in the stables,” Fasime said, only realizing the humor in his words after he spoke them. Syah and Oman chuckled, but Fasime didn’t mind their amusement if it meant it stopped Oman’s lecturing.

 

They came in view of the town, seeing the smoke of chimneys rise into the clear sky. Riding towards it at a casual trot, the brothers noticed the strange glow of the trees and the calm of the forest as they crossed the threshold back to the human world. They passed abandoned buildings on the boundary of the town. Soon they came across a man, simply dressed and deep in his work, and another the same. The brothers attempted to appear uninterested, but they were met with even less attention from the villagers. The villagers ignored them, sparing their passing only a half glance. The princes were curiously pleased with this, because the more unnoticed, the easier their passage would be.

The town was small. When they reached the main street, it was plain to see the opposite edge of the human buildings, their escape. The mellow workings of the town were peaceful enough to draw their gaze from the onward journey and towards their tasks. The buildings weren’t as sturdy as those from the capital, half stone, half wood, but their make was familiar.

The market was located in the middle of town. Syah sighed as he looked it over, seeing it was offering grains and tools. His brothers dismounted. Their jobs would be much easier. The small stables and single inn with lazy smoke drifting from its chimney were easy to spot along the main street.

Fasime’s expression said to find him if he needed him, and Oman’s cautioned again about saying anything, and all the dozen other warnings he had given before.

“Don’t worry,” Syah answered, “I’ll meet you at the inn.”

Syah started towards the carts and buildings of the market, his thoughts focusing on his task. He found a building, its wide windows filled with dusty brown items, blocking the view into the shop. Syah entered, finding a stout, white-haired merchant sitting behind a counter.

“Good day, young traveler, how can I help you?”

“I need some traveling supplies and dried produce, if you have them,” Syah answered.

“Yes, help yourself. There are some dried fruits on the table there…” His last words trailed off as his eyes shifted to something behind Syah.

Syah gasped when he felt a hand grab his shoulder.

Fasime.

Syah turned around with irritation, seeing his brother grinning with the pleasure of sneaking up on him. Syah glanced at the door, which he realized he had left open.

“Couldn’t stand it, could you? Had to come and oversee my shopping.”

Fasime checked the man behind the counter, but saw he was smiling.

“On a long journey, are you?” the merchant asked them.

“We are heading towards Shal,” Fasime answered. The brothers began to pick out packs of dried food. There wasn’t much of a selection, and Syah and Fasime took almost all of them.

“There is a good road from here to Shal,” the merchant told them. “Is this all you needed?”

“How much for…” Syah’s attention was drawn to something on the table. Syah found small and oddly shaped stones, black as a starless night but shining like metal. “What are these?” Syah asked, reaching for one as if it were a strange feather that the wind might steal away. As he lifted it up and inspected it, he noticed the edges were sharp, but the surfaces were smooth as glass.

“Ah, yes,” the man said, in a different, softer tone. “Those come from Gorusk. They are firestones.”

“They’re beautiful,” Syah said, studying them.

Fasime wanted to interject, but he held back, observing his brother’s fascination.

“You’ve been to Gorusk?” Syah asked.

The merchant shook his head with a frown. “No, there’s another trader who goes there for furs. He brought these back. Enchanting, aren’t they?”

“How much do you want for them?”

“Two arsents apiece,” the merchant answered quietly, not wanting to interrupt the boy’s own thoughts. “I’ll give you it all for fifteen arsents.” He glanced at Fasime. Fasime exhaled loudly to show his exasperation, but handed the man the coins.

“Come on, Syah.” Fasime picked up the goods they had bought. The youngest turned to follow him, still gazing at the stones in his hand.

 

Oman set his mug on the oak table. “No, we plan to be out of Keslewood Forest before the spring storms.”

“It would be dangerous to be trapped against the northern mountains when the next winds come.” The inn keeper leaned his thick body forward.

“No, we won’t be,” Oman replied. He did not bend under the man’s demonstration of the spring storm’s voracity.

Seeing he wasn’t going to affect the young man, the bartender straightened. “And be sure to be careful of those Dikartians,” he threw over his shoulder as he turned back to his work. That got Oman’s attention.

“Has Shal had any word of them?”

The bartender glanced back. “None to speak of lately, but with the raids to the north and west, we always need to be wary of those barbarians.”

Oman forgot the question he was about to ask. He stared at the hunching old man, realizing his intention. The Dikartian name wasn’t one to be used so carelessly in the presence of the king’s son. His lips tightened, so subtly the bartender wouldn’t have noticed. Oman turned his head away to the nearly-empty room, lifting his mug and sipping the mild ale.

The door to the inn opened. The look of intrigue that slipped across the bartender’s face hinted to Oman who entered. He turned around to Syah and Fasime standing in the open doorway. They spotted him at the table near the fireplace. Oman was about to question them on their findings, but the bartender returned to the table.

“What could I bring for you, young sirs?” the bartender asked, clasping his hands together and eyeing the newcomers.

“They’ll have water,” Oman answered for them. “And we’ll order something to eat, if you have it.”

“Roast poultry, tonight,” the man said, placing his hand on the back of Oman’s chair and studying the two younger boys. “Will that do for you?”

“That will be fine,” Oman answered. The man turned and left them. Oman’s eyes followed him back through the door to the kitchen.

“What’s wrong with you?” Fasime asked.

“Nosey bartender,” Oman replied, leaning back. “Syah, were you able to find everything we needed?”

Syah didn’t answer immediately. He was looking at the roughly-dressed travelers sitting at the bar. His brows narrowed. “Yes, mostly,” Syah answered, giving half attention to his words. One of the men returned Syah’s gaze with a callous scowl.

“We need to be sure to have plenty of food for the journey to the northern border,” Oman insisted.

“There are some towns north of here.”

“We have enough dried food for a couple of weeks,” Fasime answered for him.

Oman placed his hand on the table when he noticed the bartender returning. The man set two glasses before Fasime and Syah, then remained a moment, turning to the youngest. “So,” he said with smooth intrigue, “is this your first time traveling to the northern forests?”

Syah looked up at bartender without emotion.

“From this direction.” Fasime answered, but the message in them was clear. The man nodded and withdrew.

“We will only go to those towns if necessary,” Oman said when he was gone. “It will save time if we take a straight route north.”

“In a hurry to return?” Fasime asked, his dark brows lowering.

The eldest paused at his question. “The sooner we return…”

“The less likely our plot will be discovered,” Fasime finished for him.

“Yes,” Oman said steadily, “so we won’t be discovered.”

Fasime shook his head at him. “You shouldn’t worry about that. They won’t be expecting us back until the end of the season.”

Oman leaned back with a pensive, distant look. “You’re right, we have plenty of time.”

“Time is only as long as its use,” Syah told them, his gaze not lifting from the table.

Oman grunted. “Didn’t know we were bringing the White Cane along, did you, Fasime?” He gave Syah’s shoulder a playful shove. Oman and Fasime chuckled.

Syah, pleased by their amusement, thought of another of their tutor’s axioms. But he saved it, the keeper coming into the bar with plates of food.

“Hope you enjoy it, boys.” He set the plates of browned meat, tubers, and steaming bread before them. He stood triumphantly over them, watching them stare at the plates as if they had never had a decent meal before. “Will you be needing anything else?”

“No, this is plenty. We thank you,” Oman said, kinder. The man bowed in thanks and left them to check on the men at the bar.

Oman and Fasime took up their cutlery and began to eat. Syah hesitated at first, catching an odd smell from his plate. He placed the piece of soft meat into his mouth and suddenly felt sick. He looked at his brothers, busily devouring their meals. Syah pressed his eyes closed a moment and forced himself to chew. The sauce was very thick and strong, and tasted to Syah as if had been bubbling in a cauldron for half a moon. He managed to swallow, but the taste remained. He had a queer feeling inside as the bite of food sank to his stomach. He glanced at the fire, feeling its heat making him sweat. He broke off a piece of the bread, to absorb the taste, but when he placed it in his mouth it tasted incredibly dry and stale and he almost spit it out. What was wrong with him? The bread seemed freshly baked and warm, but as he chewed it felt like dust in his mouth. His brothers noticed his sullenness but were still eating the food without any problem.

Syah raised his glass to wash down the dry taste, but the water, too, tasted stale. It tasted as if it had collected dust for a cycle. He swallowed it before it made him gag. Setting his glass down, he had to grip the table to hold down the little food he had just eaten.

“What’s wrong?” Oman asked him.

The water seemed to have made it worse. The aroma of the food reminded him of the churning in his stomach. He didn’t want to inhale, choking on the stifling smoke from the fire and the pipes they were smoking at the bar. He wanted to get out of the inn. His body longed for the fresh, clean air of the forest. His sweating skin wished for a long, cold downpour of rain. He closed his eyes and tried to set his mind free, riding his horse briskly through the dark, clear wood.

“I’m not hungry,” he answered, sinking back in his chair.

Oman and Fasime watched him for a moment, but didn’t question him. After a while they took his food and finished it themselves.

 

Syah felt a tap on his shoulder and opened his eyes, realizing he had almost fallen asleep.

“Time to go,” Fasime told him. Syah tried to stretch the pain out of his muscles as he stood. He looked at the rough-faced men still sitting at the bar, seeing the keeper wasn’t in the room.

“Come on,” Fasime urged with a nudge. They followed Oman down the narrow hallway, past several closed doors. Oman opened one and went in to light the candles, the fire already burning in the hearth. Syah shut the door. At least they were alone in here. And some of his hunger had returned. That was clean, at least.

“Must we stay here?” he asked, stepping into the middle of the small room.

“We are all tired,” Oman stressed each word. “Let’s just get some rest.”

“It doesn’t feel right here,” Syah protested, inspecting the room.

Oman looked at him with irritation. “We are only staying for one night.”

“Are you… sure it’s safe?” Syah continued, his voice still strained.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Fasime asked, matching Oman’s annoyance.

Syah turned and faced them with earnest. “The men at the bar were watching us the entire time. And that bartender was so inquisitive. Are you sure they don’t…”

“Syah,” Fasime interrupted, stepping up to him, “there’s nothing to worry about. You’re just tired.”

“We should at least take watches, in case…”

“Watches?” Fasime said with amusement and went to the door. “The lock will take the watch for us.”

The click of the lock shuddered through Syah. It seemed to be locking him in, more than locking others out. The sick feeling returned to his stomach. He started to the door.

“You two can stay here tonight if you want to. I’d rather take my chances with the wolves.”

“Syah!” Oman yelled.

Syah stopped. His older brother was sitting on the bed, but poised, threatening to stand. Fasime laid his hand heavily on the door. Syah stood in indecision a moment.

“Sit down,” Oman ordered in a fierce tone, his body seeming to grow larger and stronger, his eyes locked on Syah’s.

Syah withdrew his arm. He walked stiffly away from the door and stood at the edge of the bed, but didn’t sit down.

Oman spoke, the anger in his voice only slightly calmed. “It would be much more dangerous for you to go out into the woods alone than for you to stay here, with us.” Oman sighed audibly in frustration.

“It has been a long day,” Fasime coaxed, putting a hand on Syah’s shoulder. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”

“Sleep?” Syah mocked him, staring at Fasime with hot eyes. “I couldn’t possibly sleep here!”

“Lie down Syah,” Oman told him.

Syah shook his head. “That wouldn’t do any good, I…”

“That wasn’t a request,” Oman’s stern voice interrupted him.

Shocked, Syah tried to recall his words, and though he couldn’t, he knew. Oman’s demanding expression and posture told him. Syah’s arms began to shake.

“Go,” Oman’s voice was calmer now, but still commanding. There was no hint of jest in his words. Syah started to feel smaller, younger, and his brother a giant. He tried to surmise what Oman might do if he didn’t comply, but that thought itself began to crush him.

As he turned towards the bed, Syah could feel his brother’s powerful eyes still on him. He fought to hold in his breath as he lowered himself. Lying on his side, he pulled his knees up to his stomach and clenched his arms around his chest.

He could feel the tenseness leaving the room, but it all came to him, filling his chest as he struggled not to let it loose. Shaky, quick gasps came through his teeth as he listened to his brothers’ voices on the other side of the room.

It was useless to make him lie down. He wasn’t going to sleep with his anger about to burst from him. Oman didn’t have to speak to him that way.

A surge of anger directed at his brother’s voices had no target, as they seemed farther away and he couldn’t understand them. Syah blinked mutinous tears from his eyes and tightened his jaw, fighting back another surge. His head began to swim, remembering the men at the counter, feeling his horse ride through the forest, hearing the click of the lock, feeling the pressing walls of the small room. He was about to lose the struggle against the storm inside him. His body and arms were weakening, but the anger weakened as well. His shaking breaths grew steadier, and his heart no longer pounded frantically in his chest. But before he could decide to sit up, exhaustion overtook him and he closed his eyes again.

 

Syah woke to the warm sunlit room. There was something he had forgotten. Though he still resented being forced to stay, his unease and anger had seeped away in his sleep. Now he felt ready for the new day, and its opportunities.

He heard his brothers moving in the room and sat up, feeling strangely renewed. He stretched and let his lungs fill.

“Morning, Syah.”

Syah began to speak, but threw his arms up reflexively when Fasime tossed something at him. Syah caught it with a jerk before it hit him in the face, finding it to be a set of clean clothes. “We’ll be leaving soon. Get ready.” Syah set the clothes on the bed, stifling the urge to throw a pillow at Fasime’s head as he turned and left the room with most of their packs.

The youngest looked over to Oman, who was sorting out supplies on the bed and repacking them. Syah felt a whisper of distrust towards his elder brother, remembering his voice and his threatening eyes the night before. But the feeling eased. Syah saw that the angry, powerful beast had vanished.

“There’s some breakfast for you,” Oman said, gesturing to the nightstand. Syah’s stomach turned, but he sighed when he saw the food. It was some of the dried fruit he had bought yesterday, and some of the jerky they had eaten in the forest. How did they know? Syah gathered the fruit and jerky into one hand and ate it as he dressed. Then he helped his brothers carry the rest of their things to their horses.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAINS

 

 

The wind. A blessing of coolness and fresh freedom, at first. Then it bites, stings, begins to rattle every part, down to the bones. The horses bowed their heads to it. Even Lightning, regal as he was, succumbed to its power. It blew like an eternal force from the looming mountains, stripping the empty plains.

The rolling plains offered no protection since the brothers had passed the boundary of the forest, where the trees parted and then retreated altogether. Brave, thin grasses were the only life visible, and the horses didn’t bother trying to eat them. The princes allowed the horses to slow their advance, sensing their destination was near.

“This is the farthest south we have ever been,” Syah stated, his thoughtful tones barely audible over the gusting wind.

“Why does Arnith claim these plains?” Fasime questioned as he gazed at the sloping hills they were approaching. “There are no habitations south of here.”

“That we know of,” Syah amended, grinning at Fasime’s scowl. “The southern mountains create a definite border,” Syah explained, though his brothers already understood it. “Just as the Black Mountains do in the north.”

“And the elven forest in the west,” Oman added shortly, to stop their geography lesson.

“Actually,” Fasime began, “the elves only provide a partial boundary. The Dugshi forests to the far west can still be claimed by Arnith.”

“But then we would have to deal with the Rognoth and Marrians.”

“Father has already begun the campaign to conquer them, Syah,” Oman told him. The youngest nodded. Their conversation was distracting them from the significance of their southern trek.

“It’s too bad we won’t be able to tell Father…” Syah stopped mid-sentence, realizing his words but bound to finish them, “about what we’ve seen here.”

Fasime and Oman didn’t respond, trying to dismiss the thoughts the statement created.

“If we climb one of these hills, we should be able to see the mountains from there.”

As they approached the summit of one of the large hills, the roar increased like the building of a distant storm. They were about to achieve the vantage point when a powerful gust of wind attacked them. The horses protested and turned, forcing them to dismount.

They hobbled the horses and tied the reins to some bushes gripping the slope of the hill. Fasime took Lightning’s head in his hands and spoke seriously to the stallion. “Stay here, my friend, and keep the others with you. We’ll return before long, and go back to better weather.” With a final pat to the shining black shoulder, he turned to his brothers. They continued the final trek on foot, covering their faces with their cloaks.

The wind calmed as they stepped forward upon the crest of the hill. They lowered their cloaks and revealed the cause of the sound: immense mountains, distant and massive. Their peaks were steep, unimaginably high. The princes felt weak in the legs at the thought of trying to climb them. The peaks were so high that the wind blew snow off the tops of them, forming clouds high above the princes’ heads. The roar was the wind between the peaks, coming from back, back, where there were only more layers upon layers of monstrous mountains rising from the icy fog. The three brothers stepped forward, standing tall with clenched fists, as if it were difficult to look upon such an incredible sight.

Syah gazed at the mountains with wonder. The wind seemed to be calling to him. He imagined that if he spread his arms, he could drift above the hills and then soar into the frozen mountains.

“Dragons…” he whispered to the wind.

“What?” Oman caught the edge of Syah’s rumination.

Syah remembered, and his hand lifted to the charm strung from his neck. His fingers traced its form. “The constant wind from the southern mountains is said to be the breath of the dragons that sleep there,” Syah explained. His brothers marked his voice, speaking more like a bard than a scholar.

“Dragons are children’s stories,” Oman told him derisively, disliking the mystified look in Syah’s eyes.

Syah ignored him, watching the shifting snow glide between the mountains. But he had heard what Oman said. Children’s stories… perhaps. But what if they were true?

Looking down, they found a stretch of a low, flat valley between them and the wall of mountains. Their eyes followed it in either direction, but noticed a blurry darkness to the east. The end of the great valley darkened and became stony, and the valley crashed upon smaller, gray and jagged mountains.

“What is that?” Fasime asked.

Oman came beside him. They both looked at the dark patch of earth and the gray mountains beyond it.

“That is the Black Waste, Gorusk, a land less fertile than these empty hills,” Oman answered in a longing, yet fearful voice. “There barbaric tribes constantly war over worthless lands and little game.”

“Why does anyone live there at all?” Fasime asked the mountain air, knowing Oman didn’t have the answer. They stared at the waste a long while, the wind whipping at them as they imagined life beyond the dark mountains.

“They aren’t worth trying to subjugate,” Oman concluded. His voice had grown stern, as if he spoke to his own army. “Father shouldn’t bother with them.”

“Shouldn’t they be part of Arnith?”

“Not if they aren’t truly human. Barbarians, worn by wind, carved by stone. What force could conquer them?”

“They could,” Syah said as he stared out into the vastness of the unknown. Fasime and Oman shook their heads at him, but turned back to gaze with him at the mysterious mountains sleeping before them.

“We should return. The horses won’t linger here long,” Fasime warned. They turned away regretfully and started back down the way they had come. The wind took its toll for their trespass, rushing past them as they descended the hill.

Finally they reached the base. They mounted the nervous horses and turned gratefully away from the hungry wind, back towards the north, the forest.

 

 

 

We are safe. We have stopped at a crossroads before a forest that we will soon explore. It is the last obstacle before the eastern border of Arnith. This will be the second border of the kingdom we reach. The next should be more interesting. The terrain will grow mountainous as we travel towards the dwarves. But we will not cross the natural border at the base of the Black Mountains, as it has been since the beginning.

Fasime would say I am rambling. Does it make any difference that I write this down? Or are these words merely scratches on a page? I will continue my rambling. I do not claim this to be some writing of great importance… just the tale of three brothers traveling the roads of Miscia. When our journey ends, perhaps I will scribe the events in the life of King Algoth, and then King Oman, and his two brothers who stood with him as the humans of Miscia were united under one ruler.

For now, we are travelers in a forest. The trees, the fields, the towns, all appear the same to us as they do to the merchant, farmer, or soldier of Arnith. This journey has already taught me much, and we aren’t yet halfway through. It won’t be the same when I return to the walls of the castle. Perhaps when I am older, I will plan another exploration. Perhaps Miscia will be peaceful by then.

I sense a change in the air, but perhaps it is a change in myself that I feel. While writing, I have found my eyes repeatedly lift to the path before us. The leaves are glowing in the light of the filtering sun. In this moment, though brief, I found a peace, a strength.

More rambling. I suppose the moment is over. They seem ready to mount.

 

For the three brothers,

Syah, Prince of Arnith

 

CHAPTER SIX

AMBUSH

 

 

The forest was calm. Boulders and chunks of rock were becoming more numerous and made their path winding and unpredictable. Their direction was easy to follow, still. They kept the sinking sun to their left. Soon they would find a clearing and rest for the night.

Days had passed and they had spoken very little, no directions to be given or questions to be asked. The journey was their entertainment. Watchful glances, moving their horses beside the others, passing food and drink between them were their conversations. Each of them was in a state of peace as they moved their horses at a medium pace through the forest.

They were coming upon an area with large boulders, some the size of hills, with immense trees scattered here and there. As they passed into the shadow of one of these strange stones, the horses breathed nervously. The sun’s light crowned the top of the boulders, but didn’t reach where they now traveled. The forest quieted, and their horses’ hoof beats across the damp brush echoed off the mossy stones.

The three brothers drew back their reins with a start. The horses neighed, startled and agitated. A rider on a black horse suddenly appeared in their path. The rider tugged the reins of his shifting horse and gazed at them from beneath a helmet that shadowed his eyes.

“Young travelers, a word,” he said.

The brothers were uneasy, but stayed their hands, held over their swords. Their shock left them and they examined the rider. He was lightly armored in chain, a blue tunic and cape draped over his sturdy shoulders and down the sides of his steed. Intricately tooled leather, they noticed, held a sword at his waist. The same leather decorated the girdle of his horse, now pumping its head and snorting at them. They moved their horses back a few steps, close to each other.

“He is a soldier of Arnith,” Fasime whispered.

“How did he find us?” Oman asked with a shake of his head.

Fasime glared at the rider. “We should order him back.”

“No, then he would know who we are,” Syah warned. “There might be more of them.”

The rider’s horse shifted but he held him back. “I need to speak with you.” The soldier’s voice was tactful, compelling.

“Why have you tried to ambush us?” Oman demanded.

“You should not be here,” the stranger answered. “I am a knight of Arnith. You three need to come with me.”

“It’s not worth trying to speak with him,” Fasime interrupted Oman from responding. “He stopped us for a reason – probably thought we were trespassing. He will try to figure out who we are.” Fasime turned his horse, blocking the stranger’s view. “We can lose him in the forest, out ride him and forget him.”

Oman stared into the man’s shaded eyes a long moment, growing angrier that he stood in their path.

“Dismount and let us talk,” the stranger appealed to them.

“And Syah?” queried Oman, ignoring him.

Fasime glanced at the stranger. “I will hang back and make the soldier follow me. When you two are safely away, Lightning and I can lose him.”

“We can meet at the crossroad we passed at midday,” Syah suggested.

“Can you make it alone?” Oman asked his younger brother. Syah nodded. “Fine, then. Syah, you go first.”

“Wait!” the rider cried as they turned their horses.

Fasime turned his horse just in time, the stranger close enough to touch him. The stallion jumped. It desired to lean its head down and dig into the forest floor with its hooves, but Fasime pulled back a little. He saw Oman and Syah in the woods ahead of him and looked back. The stranger was further behind, but following him. He pressed his heels in Lightning’s sides, feeling the stallion’s eagerness as they sped into the forest.

Trees and brush flashed by them. Fasime gradually began to turn, seeing Oman and Syah were further ahead. He looked back to the stranger turning his horse. Fasime smiled and refocused on the forest. He lowered himself in the saddle, trusting their footing to the stallion as the trees and stones rushed by. Around the next bend, he would push Lightning just a bit more and lose him easily. He turned to check the stranger’s distance, but slackened his hold.

The rider was gone.

 

Syah tried to calm his heaving chest as he urged his horse and himself faster through the forest. He was pleased in spite of the tenseness of his body. He was already halfway back to the crossroads. He hoped Oman and Fasime would be there when he arrived – if they hadn’t gotten lost.

He had to relax his legs a little and his horse slowed some. He wondered if Fasime was still luring the stranger or if he had lost him by now. Gingerly he shifted his legs, feeling their soreness.

Syah jerked, sensing movement in the forest behind him. He tried to see if it was Oman or Fasime, but the horse jolted him and he couldn’t turn. He pulled back the reins. The mare stopped and turned as Syah searched the trees. He saw nothing, but he heard…

A horse. It wasn’t Oman or Fasime’s horse. Then he focused on the rider… The stranger? He chose Syah, he singled him out! The soldier’s clothing was only a ruse. He must be a spy, an assassin!

Syah stared at the rider, who slowed his horse and was approaching at a trot. Anger tingled awake inside Syah and he thought about his sword. No, a murderer would have more skill than him. Fear came as he realized he was alone. He looked beyond the rider, scanning the forest for his brothers.

“Please, young prince, a word,” the stranger said, lifting his hand.

Syah caught his breath. He knows who we are. Yes, of course he knows. That is his intent. Now run! Run!

Syah backed up his horse, watching the man.

“Don’t run, Syah. I mean you no harm.”

Syah’s face tightened. He whipped the reins to turn his mount, and dug his heels into the horse. He raced away from the stalker. Glancing over his shoulder, Syah saw the stranger’s horse leap to a start and the man leaning forward in his saddle.

A surge of power went through him, then through his horse. He cried to the mare over and over, not trying to see how closely the rider followed. Just make it to the fork, he begged the mare silently. Oman will be there. Oh, Fasime – what if he’s already killed him? Syah swallowed. His vision blurred and he clenched his fists on the reins. Just make it to the fork.

The muscles in his legs began to ache. His chest burned more with every breath he took. He clenched his jaw at the pant of another horse. The black horse was gaining on him. Syah looked forward and tried to make his horse go faster.

The black horse was beside him. The rider’s gaze stayed on him a moment then shifted forward, expertly maneuvering his horse through the brush.

Syah shouted and jerked the reins to the left. His horse staggered a little, but began to turn. Syah gasped as the rider’s horse jostled his own. Syah’s horse jumped away, then turned back towards his pursuer’s steed. He tried to steer his horse away, but the other horse shoved against him again and brought the horses even once more.

Syah’s eyes grew wide. Should he stop? They were closer to the fork now. But he was leading the assassin to them!

Before Syah could react, the rider’s hand reached for the mare’s reins. In one quick movement he had them. Syah gasped and tried to pull free, but the killer held them fast. Syah reached for his sword. The stranger jerked the reins, and Syah lost his grip. He tried to grasp the saddle, but the speed at which they galloped and the suddenness of his horse’s jolting stop threw him out of his seat. The ground came at him very fast and he braced. His arm hit first – but then it was every limb, muscle, and bone in his body that was pounded by dirt and wood as he rolled to a stop.

Syah closed his eyes. He couldn’t feel the pain yet, but he knew it was soon to come. Where was the rider? Syah tried to lift his head. All he saw was a blurry, spinning mass of branches and trees. He heard the horses, but couldn’t tell what direction their whickers and shuffling came from.

“Are you alright?” a voice asked. Syah saw the two horses, and the indistinct image of a man coming towards him. He tried to lift himself up, but his shaking arm wouldn’t support him. He reached for his sword.

“You chose the weakest rider,” Syah panted, “and you may have chosen the weakest swordsman, but you won’t take me without a fight.” He finished drawing his sword and struggled to hold it straight in front of him.

The man stopped and stood over him. Soon it became difficult to hold the sword. Syah blinked. Although he was becoming dizzy, he fought to keep his eyes on the stranger’s face.

The man knelt down beside him. He was so close that Syah could have cut him, if he’d had the strength.

“It’s alright, Syah. Be easy, now,” the man said. Abruptly his hand had Syah’s wrist. Syah tried to jerk his arm free, but before he could do so, the stranger pulled the sword from his grasp.

Syah tried to back away, but fell back with a wave of pain.

“Young prince, don’t fear me. I mean you no harm,” the man said in a quiet tone.

Syah’s voice was strained. “Then why did you make my horse throw me?”

The stranger sighed. “That was an accident. But I had to take the risk that you may be injured, to protect you.” The man noticed the prince wasn’t using his left arm. “I knew I would lose my life if I let a son of the king be maimed…” The stranger brushed a hand down his arm. Syah flinched, but didn’t cry out. “But the skies themselves would have cursed my name forever if I had let your brother Oman, heir to the throne of Arnith, be taken by the enemy.” The man looked intently at Syah and said, “Forgive me.”

Syah had to close his eyes a moment. When they opened, his vision only became more unfocused and his thoughts more confused. “What… what do you want?”

“I want the three of you to return to the castle.”

Syah leaned back, but flinched when he felt a sharp pain on the side of his head. The soldier turned his head and the pain came again. This time it rippled down his neck and across his shoulders.

“You’re bleeding,” said a voice that sounded further and further away. “Syah?” The soldier grabbed his shoulders. “Syah, you are slipping. You have to tell me where your brothers are.”

“No,” he managed to voice.

“Syah, listen to me. They are in danger. There could be Dikartian soldiers in these forests. Tell me where you were going to meet them.”

“Danger?”

“Syah, tell me.”

His fading voice whispered, “Do you think I would lead them to danger?”

“Lead them? What? Syah? Syah…”

 

Oman slowed his horse. He was close. Though he couldn’t see beyond the trees, he sensed there was no one at the road ahead. He had expected he’d be the first to return. Syah was a slower rider, and Fasime would be busy leading the stranger.

Oman turned back to the woods. It was silent; not even a wind stirred the branches of the tall trees. Was something wrong? He dismounted, then turned back again. He stood quiet, petting the face of his large brown steed as he searched through the trees.

“They’ll be here soon, he told himself as he took his horse’s reins and started for the road.

 

Fasime whispered for Lightning to go faster. He was afraid, but he didn’t let himself think what he felt in his heart.

Oman, Syah, I’m coming. Lightning felt Fasime’s legs tighten around him and obeyed.

 

Something moved ahead. He drew his sword and approached the road cautiously. Around a barrier of branches, Fasime found it was Oman, and sighed as he lowered his sword. But then his grip tightened. “Where’s Syah?”

“Fasime! I am glad you got here safely. Syah hasn’t returned yet.” Oman took in Fasime’s pale face and anxious, distracted expression. “What’s the matter?”

“He could still be behind us…”

“He is the slowest rider. It hasn’t been long since we left him.” Oman’s brows lowered when he noticed Fasime wasn’t listening to him. “He’ll be…”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to make it here so fast. I could have cut across, doubled back.”

“What?” Oman watched two beads of sweat streak down his brother’s face. He placed a hand on Fasime’s shoulder and hardened his tone. “Fasime, what’s wrong?”

The dark-haired brother jumped at the touch. He grabbed Oman’s arms, as if the elder had the cure for the weakening feeling inside him. “Oman!” he cried. “The soldier didn’t follow me!”

“What?” Oman’s concern for his brother’s demeanor vanished. He turned to the forest.

“Not far from where we split up, I turned around and he was just… gone. At first I thought he had given up trying to catch me, but I realized he could have…”

Oman turned back to him. “That soldier has him.”

“He could still be…”

“It’s getting dark. We can’t leave him out there.”

“We should wait here. He could be on his way.”

“No, you were right. Syah should have been here by now. That rider could have been a Dikartian… could have stolen the garb off a fallen Arnith soldier.” Fasime released him. “Remount! We have to find him.”

“But how? He could have gone off course.” Fasime was still pale, almost shaking.

“Let’s hope he thought about us and didn’t,” Oman said grimly, and untied and mounted his horse.

 

Syah felt himself falling, sinking, spinning… flowing around through the darkness. He felt warmth as he spun deeper, slower, closer. Sleep… Death…

Syah gasped awake. An enormous fire was before him and his chest tightened. He was engulfed by a strong herbal odor. He cringed, trying to bring his arm up to cover his face, but it didn’t stir from under the blankets that covered him. He bit his lip, trying to look around. The uneasy silence made him realize music had been playing.

The rider. Syah stiffened as the memory flooded back. Someone approached him. He tried to move again, but couldn’t.

The rider appeared above him. Syah met the gaze of the stranger kneeling beside him. His head pressed down into the cloth beneath him, the muscles in his legs and arms tightened, but his limbs wouldn’t obey him.

“So, the spell has passed,” the soldier said, studying Syah’s apprehensive expression.

“Release me,” Syah demanded when he could speak.

“I have not bound you.” The soldier spoke calmly as he moved his hands underneath Syah.

“I can’t move,” Syah said with frustration. The man raised him to a sitting position.

“Your entire body is bruised.” The soldier moved packs and blankets behind the boy to make him comfortable. “Be still and let it rest.”

Syah looked at the large blazing fire. The strong smell made him cringe. “What is that?”

“I’m burning fensien weed. It puts off a strong odor.”

“That smell… the fire… your music…” Syah gasped. “You are leading them here!”

“Yes, it will be easier for your brothers to find you.”

“A trap!” Syah clenched his fists and tried to force his limbs to move.

“What?” The soldier grabbed the boy’s shoulders. “Syah, no. There is no trap.”

With a muster of energy, Syah was able to force the stranger away. But a sleeping ache awoke in his limbs and chest as he struggled to sit up. He fought not to cry out as it intensified.

“Don’t struggle, you’ll make it worse.”

Syah stared at the man’s dark face. “Murderer!” Syah forced from his throat. The man’s eyes widened. Before he could speak, Syah concentrated his anger, using its force to clench his fist around the man’s throat. His body resisted, but he tried to deny the pain its hold on his limbs. Too late, he realized this was the arm that had taken the impact of his fall. Pure will kept the pain from breaking his grip.

“I won’t let you hurt them!”

The soldier met his gaze. Syah could barely draw breath, but commanded his fist to hold tighter. Still, the man was motionless. Why wasn’t he resisting?

His adversary blinked and reached stealthily around Syah’s torso. The prince gasped. He felt it – but it was too late. The soldier found the points on his back. His fingers tensed as he pressed the nerve points and held them.

Syah cried out as a brief, sharp jolt of pain snapped down his back and through his body. His cry ceased as his breath was caught in his chest. His body went limp, his limbs sank helplessly around him. The man lowered him down. The strange sensation still pulsed through his back, paralyzing him. His head sank down into something soft. The soldier released his grip.

Syah tilted his head, more interested in what the man had done to him than angered at his sudden weakness.

“Murderer?” The man sighed and turned towards the fire.

Syah wanted to speak, but found he couldn’t interrupt his smooth cycle of breathing.

“You think I am…” He met the prince’s eyes. “I am sorry. I thought you ran from me to avoid some punishment from the king.” The stranger’s gaze was frank and open. “I underestimated you, I apologize.” The man paused, straightening. “I am not an enemy. My name is Denire Sharlane. I am a Knight of Arnith, soldier to your father, King Algoth. You and your brothers are safe. My only intention is to return you all to the city.”

Syah tried to say something. Denire nodded.

“Perhaps I should have come to you sooner. I was content following you… until you strayed closer to the Dikartian border.”

“You’ve been…” Syah whispered.

The man heard him. “Yes. I have been following you. I kept my distance, but now I regret letting you pass through the gates of the city.” The soldier waited as Syah contemplated his words.

“You knew… How did you recognize us?”

“Yes,” the soldier said, pulling at the prince’s brown shirt, “you were disguised.” Denire smiled. “Your horses. Princely horses, almost kingly horses – with three peasant boys leading them. I recognized you immediately.”

Syah looked up at the light blue sky beyond the canopy of trees.

“And so could an enemy of Arnith. It’s not safe for you to travel alone. Your kingdom is at war. Any travel should be restricted to errands of the utmost importance. And here are Algoth’s only sons, traveling alone, a day’s ride from enemy lands!”

“The Dikartians are not here this time of year.”

“What?”

“It’s their harvesting season. Most of them are in the eastern part of their lands, gathering maize.”

The soldier raised an eyebrow. “You have studied the enemy. Even so, there’s still a chance they could spot you. We are at war.”

“It is a slim chance. They are still occupied with Forest’s Edge. What would their soldiers be doing here?”

Again Denire waited a moment before replying. “A slim chance… but it increases the closer you get to their lands.”

Syah looked back at the sky.

“Why were you going to Dikartia?”

“We weren’t.”

“Then what…”

“Surveying the kingdom,” the prince explained.

“Surveying…?”

“We are traveling the kingdom we will one day govern. You can’t expect us to understand something when we only have seen it on maps and ledgers. You say we are in danger of being recognized and taken… but you are the only one who saw us for what we are. The only one in the capital city, and among all the villages and travelers we passed.”

“Even so, there are thieves, and other dangers. There’s always the chance someone may recognize you.”

“Isn’t every venture in life accompanied by some danger? Don’t we fall more than walk as we take our first steps?” Syah saw Denire was about to protest and continued, “Did the danger of battle prevent you from defending your kingdom?”

“No,” said Denire, agitated. “But the fate of a country does not rest on a soldier. You are more valuable than you realize. You are the only heirs to a kingdom with an aged king. Our history cannot trace your ancestors to the original leaders of our lands. An Arnithian knight’s primary oath is to preserve the Arnith line. How could I allow you to travel into danger, just to satisfy your boyhood wanderlust? No matter what your plans were, one way or another, you and your brothers are returning with me to the capital city.”

Syah’s brows lowered as he studied the soldier’s face. He moved his arm, the limber one, and placed it on Denire’s hand. “My brothers and I set out from Anteria on a quest,” Syah declared. “No matter the obstacle, we will finish it.”

The soldier relaxed. “Your brothers will be here soon.” Denire leaned forward. Syah saw the soldier’s hand move towards him with purpose. Syah tried to deflect him, but it was too late. He found his target on Syah’s neck.

“Rest,” he said. There was a strange pressure through his chest. And then… darkness.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

A BROTHER’S LIFE

 

 

There was the music again. It seemed part of the sounds of the forests. But, no, he knew. It was a flute, a wooden whisperer. Yes, whispering… smooth yet melancholy. Filtering through the trees. Drifting beyond the light of the fire, like a woodland creature, dreaming… calling…

The music stopped. Syah’s eyes opened. This time, he remembered where he was. He listened for the soldier, Denire. He tested his limbs and flinched, they were more painful than before. He decided to lie still, but in a moment the soldier was beside him.

“You’re awake.” Denire laid his hand on Syah’s shoulder. “Your brothers are near.” Startled, Syah looked to the forest, but he saw nothing between the trees. “I have to move you.” Denire removed the blankets that covered the young man. Still looking to the forest, Syah tried to sit up.

When the soldier lifted him, he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out. He felt a rush of pain, but his eyes only left the forest for a moment. Denire carried him around the fire. As the soldier set him down, Syah found them, two riders in the distance, pale in the morning’s foredawn. He attempted to stand, but when he shifted his weight, he realized he was being held.

His insides turned. The soldier was behind, holding Syah in front. Syah’s heart lurched in his chest. He was being used as a shield. He found the quickly approaching riders. What was about to happen?

“You said earlier,” Denire began, close to him, “that you thought I chose you because you were the weakest rider. You were right. I did choose you – because I knew I could catch you.”

Syah breathed in and out, feeling a spasm in his gut. Had he really been so foolish?

He saw the riders more clearly now. They were slowing down, probably seeing his small silhouette in front of the fire. Syah knew the soldier’s eyes were on them as well.

“…But it is not because you lack the strength.”

The horses were approaching faster. Syah could discern Oman and Fasime.

“You pushed your horse too much in the beginning, so she didn’t have anything to give when you really needed her.”

The prince blinked, distracted by a dizzying flush. That was not what he expected to hear.

He heard the neigh of a horse. His eyes focused. The stallion. His brothers’ concerned faces came into his view.

“Be calm,” said a stranger’s voice. The grip on his arms tightened. “I won’t hurt you if you cooperate.”

Fear pulsed in his body. Reason pressed him to assess the situation, but his thoughts couldn’t keep up.

“Syah!” Fasime cried, not slowing his pace though he was close.

Syah gasped. He should warn them!

“No,” the soldier said in a firm tone and laid a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Be still.”

Fasime jerked his horse to a stop and dismounted. He drew his sword, hot and angry. “Let him go, villain!”

“Release him or die,” the eldest brother warned in a low tone. He remained mounted, but his hand was on his sword. The middle brother still stalked towards them.

“You use Malgar’s tactics well,” the soldier stated and Fasime stopped instantly, “sizing up your enemy before you attack.”

Oman halted his horse. “Malgar!”

Denire nodded. “Yes. I am a soldier of Arnith.”

“What?” Fasime gasped. “Then why did you chase us? Why have you harmed a…”

“Fasime!” Oman warned. He looked at Syah, holding his gaze, then returned his attention to the stranger. “You know who we are?”

“Yes.”

Oman straightened in his saddle. “Then, soldier of Arnith, I command you to release him.”

The stranger nodded once, in acknowledgment of the command, but otherwise didn’t move. “I cannot.”

Oman’s face hardened and he shifted his horse. “Then you disobey an order from the king?”

“No,” the soldier retorted. “I disobey an order from a young prince who stole away from his castle dressed as a peasant, and placed himself and his brothers in danger.”

Oman’s eyes widened with shock. “You followed us?”

The soldier took note of the middle brother, who had stopped a little ways in front of them. “Yes,” he replied. “I am here to return you to Anteria.”

“You followed us from the castle, and you wait until now to confront us?”

“You were heading towards…”

“You waited until now,” Oman interrupted him, “when we are days from any town, where no travelers could aid us…” He drew his sword and dismounted.

“Oman, I am not your enemy,” Denire said, his voice deepening. “I mean none of you harm.”

“You have already harmed one of us!” Fasime spoke in anger.

“No, Fasime,” Syah said, and they both looked down at him. “I fell from my horse.”

The soldier’s grip on his arm loosened.

“What?” Fasime exclaimed. He grasped his sword with a shaking arm.

“Oman, listen to me. I am an Arnithian Knight. It is my sworn duty to protect you. I am sorry that I surprised you.”

“No, I don’t trust you.”

“You must return to the castle with me, for your safety.”

“What we do is our own affair. Your conduct has not been that of a knight, therefore I do not believe your claim. Now, you will release our brother or suffer the consequences.” Holding his sword in both hands, Oman took a step forward. Fasime mimicked him.

“Whether you believe me or not doesn’t matter,” Denire said. He removed his hand from Syah’s shoulder. “I cannot allow you to continue this journey.”

Fasime and Oman stiffened. Syah looked down and felt chilled. The soldier held a long, very sharp sword across his chest. It pressed against him and the grip on his arm tightened again.

“Traitor!” Fasime cried, ready to charge him.

“Stop! If you care about the welfare of your brother, you will do as I say.”

Syah forced himself to breathe. He looked up at Oman, who hadn’t moved. Dark fear clouded his face.

“I will do what I must to protect you,” the soldier said firmly. “Step back, both of you.” The young men stood with their swords drawn and but not daring to move. “Do as I say,” the soldier warned. They watched him press the sword harder against Syah’s chest. Syah straightened with a rigid movement. The brothers moved back a few paces.

Syah fought to quench the fear inside him. Oman and Fasime had moved away from him, but he hardened his resolve.

“Now lay your swords on the ground,” Denire told them. They started to comply.

“Wait,” Syah said with force. The soldier went taut behind him. He met Oman’s eyes. “He’s bluffing.” Before the soldier could stop him, he had both hands around the blade on his chest.

“What are you doing?” Denire demanded as Syah pushed the sword up. He let go of Syah’s arm and caught the outer end of the blade, holding both ends to stop him. Syah took in a quick breath, and blood streamed from his palms. He was still pushing up.

“Syah, stop!” the soldier exclaimed. He had no choice but to let the prince push the sword up, or else the blade would cut him deeper.

Syah stifled the urge to cry out and forced from between his teeth, “He won’t hurt me.”

The sword was close to his throat.

“Stop!” Fasime cried.

Syah continued to lift it higher.

“Syah, no!” Denire yelled. “Stop!”

The blade touched his skin. He held his breath.

Denire stopped the sword. Syah kept pushing, flinching when the blade cut into his hands again. The prince’s body shook with pain.

“Alright! Enough!” the soldier cried.

Syah opened his eyes and smiled.

“Alright, Syah, let it go.”

The prince sighed. He loosened his fingers from the blade and lowered his hands, trying to ignore the sting in his bleeding fingers and palms. The soldier removed the sword from his throat.

Fasime and Oman lowered their swords in relief. The knight exhaled heavily. Denire stood away from Syah, and his brothers’ eyes locked on his movements.

The soldier looked down at the crimson blood dripping down his sword. “It seems I must disarm you myself,” he said to the two older princes. “If need be, I will bind you and drag you all the way back to the capital, kicking and screaming.”

“You’ll hang for it,” Fasime said hotly.

“Then so be it.”

Oman and Fasime regained their stands as the soldier raised his sword and started for them.

“Yes.” All three of them froze at Syah’s tone. “Attack them.” Denire looked back at him, incredulous. “You will probably win – but not until they, and you, suffer many wounds.”

The soldier and the two princes eyed each other.

“And can you guarantee you wouldn’t seriously hurt one of them?” Syah went on. “We are far from any aid. Are you willing to risk killing one of us?”

Denire was still, studying Oman and Fasime. The soldier’s hands tightened and loosened, undecided, on the hilt of his sword.

“Fine,” Denire said at last. He lowered his sword and stuck its point in the ground. Oman and Fasime didn’t react. The soldier looked at them once more. “I will disarm you by hand.” He advanced and they raised their swords to counter.

“Of course,” the youngest began again. “You must try to disarm them empty-handed. But they are both trained swordsmen. Chances are they will incapacitate, even kill you, before you can stop them.”

“It doesn’t matter. I have to…”

“And then where will we be?” Syah interrupted him. “With your murder hanging over us? After all, you’re only trying to help us. What could we do then? Guilty and afraid, we will delve, deeper into unknown lands. Then where will you have gone? For what purpose will you have wasted your life?”

The soldier turned and faced him. He didn’t reply for a moment, looking at the boy’s calm posture and focused expression. The soldier sighed. “I have no other choice. Unless you stop this obstinacy, and agree to return with me to the castle.”

“Yes.” Syah’s composed acceptance was unexpected by all.

“Syah! We can’t trust him!” Fasime exclaimed.

Syah caught his eyes and then looked back at the soldier. “You were right, we were drawing too near enemy lands. I was careless. We will change our course.”

“You mean, head back to the city.”

“No, not yet.”

“No, Syah, you three have been missing long enough.”

“They do not know we are gone.”

Denire shook his head. “I cannot allow it.”

“We will go north towards the dwarves, stay clear of their border.”

“No!”

“Then west towards the elves.”

“That will take you past the outcasts!”

Syah regarded the soldier with his calculating eyes. “The threat would be less if you accompanied us.”

“Syah, No!” Oman cried, stepping towards them. “He threatens us.”

“Do you really want to kill a knight of Arnith this day?” Syah demanded.

“He’s no knight,” Fasime muttered under his breath, looking back at the stranger.

“I will not agree! It would be encouraging your rash actions.”

“We are going to complete our journey, with or without you.” The youngest’s voice was still calm.

“Why? Why now, when your kingdom is at war and it is especially dangerous for you?”

“These wars will not be ending soon,” Syah stated, shaking his head. “If we are to do this, the opportunity exists only now.”

“Syah,” Oman said, drawing nearer. “What if he is an assassin?”

“Then we would already be dead. Oman, he is a knight, however abrasive. He did this because he thought it was his only option, when we didn’t give him any others. Look at him. He’s willing to risk his life, his integrity, his title, for our safety.” Syah decided not to continue, seeing Oman studying the knight. The soldier met his appraisal, clear-eyed.

“You are a knight of my father’s?”

“Yes.”

Oman straightened. “What is your name?”

“Denire Sharlane.”

Oman turned his head, as if listening to conversations of past cycles. “I have heard of you. You fought with my father at…”

“The Forest’s Edge and Parmin’s fields,” Denire finished for him.

Oman stepped closer to him. “Swear to me that you mean us no harm, that you won’t again attempt to hold us against our will. Swear it by your oath as a knight.”

“I…” the soldier started to argue.

“It’s your choice,” the youngest said. “Fight us and we will continue on, hurt and alone. Or yield, and you can be there to protect us.”

The soldier turned around and reached for his sword. Oman, Fasime, and Syah were stiff, watching him pull his sword from the ground and then turn back to the eldest.

Oman thought about raising his sword, but held, ready. The soldier stood there, looking at Fasime and then back at Oman. Something on his face changed and he shifted his weapon, but instead of attacking them, he bowed his head.

Oman felt a flush. The soldier held his sword to the side and bowed deeply on one knee.

“I swear, on my honor as a knight of Arnith, I will protect you on your journey through Miscia, and I will do all in my power to ensure you return to Anteria safely.”

Oman watched the dark haired soldier kneeling before him. “We accept,” he said at last. Denire rose and met Oman’s gaze.

“For disrespecting you earlier, I apologize,” the soldier said, offering Oman his hand.

Oman hesitated, regarding the soldier a long moment. Finally, he accepted the gesture. “It seems we have recruited you. There is a long road to travel today. We should leave here soon.”

“No,” Denire stated. “Your brother isn’t well enough to ride.”

Oman looked at his youngest brother. Syah was still sitting a little ways behind them, leaning heavily on his right arm. Oman released the knight’s hand and went to him.

Denire heard the middle brother behind him. He turned around to see Fasime intent on him.

“Drop your sword,” Fasime growled, low and forceful. His hand was on the hilt of his sword, sheathed but threatening.

“Young prince…”

“Do it!” he cried, stepping closer. Oman and Syah looked up at them.

The soldier nodded. “As you request,” he said, turning his sword in his hands. “As a sign of good faith,” he said, offering its hilt to the prince. Fasime’s hand wrapped around it and the soldier let it go, not blinking as he watched the young man’s every move.

Fasime jerked the sword. Denire jolted back to avoid it, but Fasime wasn’t coming at him. Instead, he threw the sword aside. As the soldier turned to see his sword tumbling over rocks and dirt, he looked back at the prince, realizing, too late, his intent. Fasime used all his strength and smacked his fist onto the soldier’s face.

Fasime knew it would put the soldier on the ground, and it did. Denire caught himself, but he had to take a moment to recover. When he found his breath, he looked up at the enraged prince above him.

“A son of Algoth doesn’t idly fall from his horse,” Fasime said with tense words, glaring down at him.

Denire nodded. Fasime raised his fist for another strike.

“Fasime…” Syah’s voice lured his attention from the knight.

Syah met his brother’s eyes, steadily. “I’m alright.”

Fasime relaxed. He walked past Denire, who was getting to his feet. He knelt beside Oman and Syah. When Fasime embraced him, Syah tried to stifle a quick breath, but they saw pain on his face.

“Where have you been?” Syah spoke before they could.

“Looking for you,” Oman answered.

“Where are you hurt?” Fasime asked him.

Syah sighed. “I’m fine.” Syah looked past him. “Fasime, watch out for the horses.” They turned to see the horses grazing, moving away from them at a lazy pace.

Fasime turned back to Syah. “They won’t go far. You aren’t going to distract us from you. Can you stand?”

Syah nodded. Oman and Fasime took his arms and helped him up. Syah tried not to flinch. The older brothers exchanged a glance. They sensed Syah’s weakness and moved to support him better as they walked at a careful pace back to the fire.

Oman and Fasime stiffened, halting. The soldier was getting something out of his saddlebag. “You can lay him here.” He motioned to a pallet of blankets next to the fading fire, searching through a pack in his hands.

“We can tend to him ourselves,” Oman stated. His hand tightened on Syah’s arm.

“Malgar probably taught you battle medicine, but you can use my help. I have tended to many wounded comrades after battle.”

“It’s just bruises,” Syah argued, shaking his head.

Oman sighed and then gave an affirming gesture to Fasime. They grasped Syah’s arms and walked him towards the fire again.

“He’s right, young brother,” said Oman. “You are not well enough to ride.” Oman helped Syah sit near the fire, as comfortably as he could.

“I’m sore from the fall. Just let me rest one night and it’ll pass.” Syah settled on the blankets.

Denire knelt with them. The brothers tensed at his nearness, but did not withdraw. The knight looked into the young boy’s eyes.

“Syah, your hands.”

They saw he was clenching a bundle of cloth in each fist. The soldier took his wrist and lifted his hand. He pulled back Syah’s fingers, exposing the cloth, red with blood. He regarded Syah a moment. “You didn’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I did.”

“You should lie back,” Denire instructed. “It will help stop the bleeding.”

Syah hesitated, looking down at his hand.

“He’s right, we need to dress it,” Oman agreed.

Syah complied and looked up at the trees, but then Fasime’s face was over him.

“This is going to hurt,” Fasime told him. “We should have never split up and left you alone.”

Syah rolled his eyes. “It has worked out, hasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Fasime returned, smirking at him. “You’re so bruised you can’t ride. And even if you could, you cut your hands so you can’t grasp the reins.”

Syah gasped and his face set with pain. Oman and the soldier removed the cloths from his hands. The cuts were deep on both hands and still bleeding. Syah paled.

“You surprise me sometimes,” Fasime said, placing his hand on Syah’s forehead. Syah met his gaze. “Well, now you are a seasoned warrior. You are the first of us to be cut by a knight’s blade.”

“Hardly seasoned,” Syah returned.

“What’s that you’re using?” Oman asked.

“Falas reed. It will sting for a moment,” the soldier answered.

Something pressed on his hands and Syah closed his eyes.

“Syah, listen to me,” the soldier went on. “I can give you something to numb the pain.”

“No, it’s fine,” Syah muttered.

“And the soreness in your limbs.” Both of Syah’s hands stung as if the sword were cutting him again. He fought not to cry out. “You will be able to ride.” The pain sharpened. Syah wanted to speak, but couldn’t unclench his chest and throat.

“We are close to the Dikartian border. The fire to guide your brothers could have led someone else to our position. We shouldn’t linger here. But unless you take this medicine, we will have to wait days to move you.” Syah gasped, unable to hold his breath any longer. The soldier moved closer. “Will you let your pride put you and your brothers in danger?”

“No,” he answered between gasps. The cloth was removed from his hands.

“The sting will subside in a moment,” Denire spoke softer.

Fasime helped Syah sit up. The soldier uncorked a black bottle and held it to Syah’s mouth. “Tilt your head back and hold your breath, it has a putrid taste.”

Syah saw something in the soldier’s face and felt a pang of nervousness.

“It will help you,” said Denire. He put his hand on the side of Syah’s face and tilted his head back. “Now take a deep breath – hold it.” The soldier lifted the bottle and poured its contents into Syah’s mouth. His throat rejected the sour sting, but he was forced to swallow because more was poured into his mouth.

“Alright,” Denire said. The bottle was gone. Syah tried to breathe, but some liquid was still in his throat. He coughed and stiffened in pain.

“What’s wrong?” Oman demanded. Syah wrenched, struggling to pull his wrists free of his brother’s grip, but Oman tightened his hold.

The soldier’s brows lowered. Syah resumed fast and shallow breaths. Then he coughed again, reluctantly, tensed and cried out. The soldier looked down to his chest.

“Lay him back,” he ordered and lifted up the young prince’s shirt.

“What is it?” Fasime demanded.

Syah blinked. He felt a sickening flush in his neck and shoulders.

“Syah, tell us what pains you,” Oman said, shaking him. Syah didn’t respond. “What’s wrong with him?”

The boy’s breathing was slowing. His eyes were open but vacant.

“It’s the falas,” the soldier explained. “It is relaxing him.” He pressed his fingers across the prince’s chest with care. Syah jerked and cried out. Denire’s expression relented. “His ribs are broken.” He pressed his fingers around the spot and Syah lay still. “There is little we can do to help it heal.”

“It will be difficult for him to travel,” Oman stated.

“We are not going back,” Syah said half-awake. Oman and Fasime couldn’t help chuckling.

“Let’s finish wrapping his hands. The falas reed will help as it takes effect.”

Syah closed his eyes, relieved the sharp pains in his hands and chest softened. He let his breathing deepen. They closed the cuts on his hands, but it was easy to ignore. Something was pulling him away from consciousness. The flush spread down his arms and chest, and up his neck. He felt his head sway…

Syah gasped and opened his eyes. “Fasime!” he cried, but didn’t see him. He tried to force his limbs awake.

“It’s alright, Syah,” Fasime answered, close to him. “I am here.” Fasime’s face appeared above him.

“Fasime! Help me!”

“Easy,” Fasime responded calmly to his hysteria, “it’s alright now.”

“No!” Syah insisted, shaking his head. “He drugged me!”

“Yes, I know.”

“No, I’m…”

“Easy, Syah, I know.”

Syah struggled to pull his hands free from Oman and the soldier.

“Rest easy. How else would you be able to travel? Nothing he could have given you would have made you able to ride.”

“But…”

“All is well, Syah. Don’t fight it.” Fasime moved his hand over his brother’s eyes. Syah’s face was taut beneath his palm. “Your brothers will take care of you. Rest now. Trust us…”

After a few breaths, Syah’s muscles loosened. His head swayed under Fasime’s hand.

Fasime leaned forward and whispered, “You sleep in the king’s hall tonight.”

Syah slipped deeper into the dizziness… but something else held him. Warmth, comfort, trust…

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

SICKNESS

 

 

Fasime’s mind wandered. Part of him paid attention to the horse, the trail, and holding up Syah in the saddle. But he was also thinking of the woods, of traveling, of going into enemy lines, of a hasty retreat through the forest. Oman and the soldier were ahead of him, Oman leading Syah’s horse. They were drawing nearer the mountains. He imagined leading his horse to the top of a mountain and gazing down at what the dwarven lands would look like.

Fasime felt Syah stir. He collected his thoughts, looking down at his brother. Though Syah slept, he was still restless.

Fasime leaned down and whispered, “Is this how you always are, living out everything within your own mind?”

His attention returned to their path.

“I couldn’t do this for long, little brother.”

 

An uncomfortable rocking made Syah’s drowsy mind uneasy. A churning in his gut warned of something being wrong. Still more in a dream, but knowing he wasn’t, a voice inside him shouted something urgent that he couldn’t quite understand…

Syah opened his eyes. For a moment, startled at waking on a horse in an unfamiliar forest, he stiffened. But then he recognized the stallion, and he felt Fasime steady him.

“Are you alright?” Fasime asked.

Syah saw Oman and Denire riding a little ways in front of them. “What happened?” Syah asked, sensing the weakness of his body.

“You’ve been asleep.”

Syah’s body shook beyond his control. “Where are we?”

“We have been riding north. We’re past the Dikartian border.”

“Past Dikartia? But that would have taken…”

“Two days,” Fasime answered.

“How could…”

“Easy!” Fasime warned as Syah shifted his weight, struggling to sit upright, and Lightning jerked back.

Syah forced himself to relax. “How could you do this?” Syah demanded when Fasime had the horse back to a steady pace.

“You are injured. It was the only way we could ride.”

Syah raised his hand to his head.

“I probably wouldn’t like it if it happened to me. But it’s over, so…”

“Stop the horse,” Syah demanded.

“Why? What’s wrong?” Fasime asked, tightening his arm around Syah, careful to avoid his lower chest where the fractures were.

“Let me off.”

“Syah, what is it?”

“I can ride on my own. Give me my horse and I will ride!”

A smile softened Fasime’s face, in appreciation of his brother’s independent spirit. Fasime shook his head. “Of course you will.”

“Fasime!” Syah cried. Oman and Denire stopped their horses and turned around.

“Alright, alright,” Fasime said in a soothing tone, watching Oman and the soldier approaching. “Cool your temper.”

“He’s awake,” Oman observed.

Syah huffed in irritation. “Yes, he’s awake,” Syah said, meeting the eldest’s eyes. Fasime pulled Lightning to a halt.

“I’m sorry, Syah,” Oman returned, moving his horse next to them and setting his hand on Syah’s shoulder. “Are you well?”

An angry response came to Syah’s lips, but he held it. He lowered his gaze. “It has eased.”

Oman waited, watching him. “Good,” he said when Syah looked up at him again. “Denire says we are near a mountain river. It would be a good place to rest for the night. Can you ride a little longer?”

Syah glanced at Denire, but the soldier said nothing. Syah wondered how the rouge knight had been getting along with his brothers. “Yes, I can ride,” Syah answered.

Oman nodded, but his expression was concerned. “Syah, you still seem…”

Syah raised his hand. “I will ride with Fasime.” Oman and Fasime exchanged glances.

“Alright, let’s go. It’s getting closer to night break,” Oman said and turned his horse. They started off at a medium pace through the forest.

“Fasime,” Syah said after they had been riding a while.

“Yes?”

Syah paused, watching Denire and Oman in front of them. “Did he make me drink any more of that liquid?”

Fasime sighed, putting his hand on Syah’s shoulder. “No,” he answered, “just once.” Syah wearily rubbed his face. “Do you still feel its effects?”

“Yes,” Syah answered.

Fasime nodded. “It will wear off soon.”

“Not again. I will not take it again.”

“We know. You will be in pain when riding, but if you can tolerate it…”

“I can.”

“Alright. Just… tell us if you need to rest.”

Syah shrugged. “I don’t know why I would become tired, sitting in the saddle.”

“We’ll see,” Fasime responded.

Syah watched the forest ahead of them. Fasime thought he should say something more, but Syah was quiet, so he decided to let it be. Fasime’s attention stayed on him. Syah’s body was affected more and more by the horse’s movements. With care, Fasime positioned his arm to encircle Syah’s body. Syah didn’t react. Soon Syah’s head swayed, but Fasime’s grip had him as his body went limp.

Fasime’s eyes went to the forest. It is good that he sleeps.

 

The aroma of cooking meat pulled Syah from a deep rest. His first thought as he opened his eyes was of how hungry he was, not how he came to rest under blankets on the forest floor. As he pulled himself up to a sitting position, he saw Oman and Fasime at a fire. They looked over to him.

Oman smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t stay asleep long with a stew on the fire. Do you feel better?”

“Yes, I do. Where are we?”

“We’ve reached the river north of Parmin,” Fasime answered, motioning behind him. Syah noticed the sound of water and turned around. He saw the soldier kneeling by a clear, wide river that cut through the forest.

“I need my map,” Syah said.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” Oman said. He dished out some of what was in the pot by the fire. “Just eat,” he said, handing Syah the bowl. “You’re probably starved.”

Syah took it, and was too occupied to argue.

Fasime watched him spoon the stew into his mouth. “Your appetite is a good sign,” Fasime remarked and Syah met his gaze. “We’ve been thinking about changing course and heading west,” Fasime said with hesitation. “There are no towns or settlements north of here. It would…”

“Cut our journey short,” Syah interrupted him.

“No, it would be easier than traveling unnecessarily through more hilly terrain,” Oman explained.

“Unnecessarily?” Syah said, setting down the bowl. “How is it unnecessary to reach the northern border of our kingdom, to reach every border, as we set out to do?”

“It’s not about that. It’s about making the journey easier for all of us,” Fasime argued.

“No, it’s about returning to the castle sooner. It’s about me.”

“Syah…”

“No, Oman, don’t try to play it false. I vowed as we took our first steps through the city gates that I would not hold us back.”

“Wait a moment, Syah. If it were Oman or I who was injured…”

“We would push you to continue. Because that’s what a prince of Arnith does. He survives. He doesn’t give up. He ignores the pain.” Oman and Fasime said nothing as Syah regarded them. “Is anything less expected of me?”

“No,” they answered together.

“You’re right,” Oman said. He placed his hand on Syah’s shoulder.

“I want to see the forbidden border of our kingdom,” Syah said in a low tone, listening to the soldier’s approach. “And I want to stand below the Black Mountains and gaze up to their magnificence. Don’t you want to see it?”

They nodded.

“Then we will continue north, through the hills,” Syah said.

“It has grown dark, sirs. You should get some sleep.” Denire lowered his gaze in respect.

Syah waited to be sure there were no further arguments about their next destination. “I will take the first watch,” he said.

Oman shook his head. “No, Syah, you should rest.”

“I have been asleep all day. You have been riding. I’m not yet tired. I will wake you when I am.”

“I will stay up with you,” Denire spoke with firmness. “Two of us should stay awake, being this close to the river.”

Syah sighed and nodded, knowing his true reasons.

“Agreed,” said Fasime. “Wake us when you are ready. But Syah, don’t let the night pass without you finding sleep. You’ll need your strength tomorrow.”

“I’ll never get over being the youngest, will I?”

“No,” Oman concurred, with a smile. He and Fasime situated themselves and stretched out on the blankets they had laid. “You will never escape it.”

 

Syah woke to morning sun glowing in the horizon beyond the trees. Angry with himself, he remembered talking with Denire as the night sky filled with a canopy of white stars. He must have fallen asleep. Syah pushed it from his mind. It was over. Today I would not slow them down. He certainly had his rest.

He listened a moment for his brothers. He heard them, or the soldier, nearby but not speaking. It was time he got up and ready to leave. Syah paused to enjoy the comfort of his rest. He thought it would be nice to be able to lie there a while longer, letting his sore limbs soak up the warmth of his covers, but he shook the thought from his mind. He’d stayed there long enough. He turned his gaze, seeing a forest of grass and shrubs stretched out before him, and reached for his pack beside him.

 

 

 

It is an amazing thing, the birth of a seed. To watch something as lifeless as stone or dirt, buried safe and unseen, suddenly spring forth with life and purpose is humbling. This small green growth will feed and strengthen, grow and mature, and will be a tree one day, as tall and formidable as the rest of the trees in the forest. What a curious thing that it should start off as something so fragile and hidden.

It took a great deal of effort to write those few words down. Just an observation, though I thought it noteworthy. We are another day’s ride from the dwarven border, though it may take us longer than that. I fear I am hindering our progress. I hope this ailment will pass quickly.

That is all for now. I will continue this at another resting place where we stop for the night.

 

For the three brothers,

Syah, Prince of Arnith

 

 

Syah set down his journal. As he pushed the blankets off and sat up with care, the breeze chilled his clothes and skin damp with sweat. His brows lowered, feeling a strange weakness holding him, one that came from within. He looked to his brothers sitting by the fire.

“Are you ready to continue our journey?” he asked.

“Once you eat some breakfast,” Fasime answered. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes. And you?”

They both nodded.

“Here, let me help you,” Oman said and took the blankets from him. Syah watched him roll them up, worried Oman would sense something was wrong. Syah tried to disguise his shivering by rubbing his arms and went to sit next to Fasime. Though he wasn’t hungry, he took the bowl Fasime handed him and began to eat. He looked around for the knight.

“He’s scouting the woods,” Fasime answered his unspoken question.

“I think we have determined what river this is,” Oman said, after he had tied Syah’s blankets to his horse. Syah met Oman’s gaze as he handed him his maps.

“Good,” Syah answered, “show me.”

“Here, coming from the dwarven kingdom. It extends past Dikartia,” Oman explained, pointing out a small river along the border of Arnith.

“Interested in maps, now, are you?” Syah asked him.

“I always have been. Just not in the same way you were.”

Syah tilted his head back, studying him. Oman touched his shoulder. “Finish eating. We’ll be leaving soon,” he said and stood.

Oman and Fasime packed up camp, leaving a low fire burning until they saw Denire returning through the trees. Syah gritted his teeth as he rose, warning his protesting body not to defy him.

 

CHAPTER NINE

FEVER

 

 

You’ve come this far. You can go just a little farther. Denire and his brothers were moving farther and farther away of him. He tightened his fists and pushed his horse, but somehow the mare’s sluggishness had developed to match the prince’s weakening condition. Syah’s concern for his brothers’ drifting farther ahead of him diminished. He imagined himself under thick blankets beside a low burning fire…

As if a bolt of lightning had just struck in his sight, Syah’s mind snapped awake and his eyes widened on the knight’s face, turned towards him. Concern darkened Denire’s face, affirming the knight had seen him drifting. The prince found the strength to straighten in the saddle and push himself to match the others’ pace.

Beads of sweat snaked down Syah’s face. Agitated, he smeared them away. The prince knew the soldier still watched. A twinge clenched Syah’s gut when the knight stopped and turned his horse towards him. Syah held his head, trying to wipe away the wrenching frustration igniting inside him. Syah grabbed the reins and focused on pushing his horse faster in order to avoid the soldier. Denire, however, rode next to him with ease. The anger inside the prince sharpened. He tried to ignore Denire, who studied him with care.

“Syah?” the knight asked. Denire glanced towards Oman and Fasime, who continued to ride a little distance ahead of them. Denire continued, “We have traveled far this day.”

Syah’s face tightened, but he did not look at the knight. He raised his voice to reply, but couldn’t help but choke on the words. “And what of it? It is just past midday. We have much light left to…”

Syah turned his head away. The prince’s body shook though he tried to contain it.

“We…” the knight began but paused, seeing his words inflicting a physical blows on the young prince. Denire gripped his reins tighter and continued, “We all could use a rest. It is…”

“I said I’m fine!” Syah returned. Denire’s eyes narrowed. After a moment, the soldier nodded and looked away. Syah breathed easier when he realized the knight was leaving him. What business was it of his anyway? Syah slackened his pace, aware that he was falling further back, but unconcerned.

His drifting thoughts were snared back by the sight of Denire riding up to his eldest brother, leaning over speaking with him. Syah could have screamed as Oman stopped and turned sharply around, his surprised eyes falling on Syah. Syah wanted to turn his horse and plunge alone into the unknown forests.

Oman and Fasime approached Syah. Out of habit, Syah’s horse turned back towards the others after a few paces. Syah’s insides were swimming in frustration and fatigue. This was foolish. They were wasting valuable daylight.

“Syah,” Oman said, coming up beside him. Syah avoided the eldest’s gaze, trying to control the quivering through his body.

“Don’t be so stupid,” was Syah’s reply.

Oman took a moment, glancing at Fasime. They both led their horses closer to Syah, one on either side of him. “Does something ail you, brother?” Fasime asked in a calmer tone. Oman drew closer.

“You delay us. We must be on,” Syah said in short gasps, one hand moving to his chest.

“You obviously are in pain and are having trouble riding. Dismount, and let’s stop and rest a while,” Fasime urged.

Syah leaned forward and gave out a frustrated cry. “We do not need to stop!” Syah shouted, and turned on him. Syah met Fasime’s eyes, but didn’t seem to see him.

“Syah…”

“Go your own path, you fools!” Syah screamed. He whipped the reins and dug his heels as hard as he could into his horse. The mare kicked and then was galloping away from the others, into the forest.

Syah wished he hadn’t done it. The force of the ride jolted his tired body and he struggled to hold on. He couldn’t slow. He had to keep ahead of them to prevent them from stopping. Syah’s grip started to weaken, intentionally perhaps, to stop the horse from rocking and pulling him. His brothers watched in horror as he fell off the back of his galloping horse and hit the ground.

Oman pulled back the reins and was off his horse before it completely stopped. Syah was awake, his body rigid. Oman knelt next to him, realizing Syah wasn’t breathing. He grabbed Syah and lifted him up. Fasime raced past them to recover Syah’s straying horse.

Syah took in a swift, sharp gasp as Oman sat him up. “Breathe in,” Oman said, leaning his brother’s shaking body forward. Syah shook, his chest so tight he couldn’t let in air.

“We are fire begot from sky. Lightning begets fire, fire begets smoke.”

Syah relaxed, surprised Oman remembered it.

“Smoke rises from the fire and joins the clouds in the sky,” Oman continued with deliberate words, as Syah took a shallow, labored breath in, crying out as it left him. “Then rain comes from the clouds, and quells the fire.” Syah closed his eyes, agitation surging through him. “Thus we know all things are connected. One thing’s end is another’s creation.”

“Here.” Oman looked up to find Denire standing beside them, holding out a damp cloth. Syah gasped in again and Oman took the cloth from Denire. Syah jerked and tried to pull away as Oman covered his face with it, but Oman held him and said, “It’s only water.” After a moment, Syah loosened his grip and closed his eyes. Fasime returned and dismounted. They sat listening to Syah’s gasps weaken and his breath return to him.

With a jerk, Syah grabbed his brother’s arm. Oman lowered his hand from Syah’s face. “That’s enough, Oman,” Syah said in a shaky voice. Syah leaned forward, attempting to stand erect.

Fasime lowered his head and rubbed his face. “How could you pull a stunt like that?” Fasime demanded, but Syah didn’t react. “You could have been seriously hurt, riding like a madman through the forest!”

“I’m just tired,” Syah said with dry words. Oman and Fasime both stood as Syah turned and started for the horses.

“Wait,” Denire said to the elder brothers. He let Syah walk past him. Syah went to his horse but stopped, putting both hands on the saddle.

“Syah.” Oman paused and started more carefully. “You need rest before you can ride again.”

“We can travel a little further this day,” the youngest replied.

“There is no reason. We will stop here and rest.”

Syah did not respond. Syah put one hand on his packs, but then stood still again. Oman realized why Denire had stopped them. Syah didn’t have the strength to lift himself to the saddle. Oman tightened his fists waited. Syah’s head leaned down to the saddle in defeat.

Denire stepped up to him.

“We are close to the river,” said Denire. Syah lifted his head and turned to face him. The knight saw his eyes were murky, as his thoughts seemed to be. Before Syah had a warning, Denire leaned down and put his shoulder into Syah’s stomach, stood and lifted the prince up. “I will carry you.”

Denire began to walk, and Syah held his breath, knowing the pain was coming. Denire was walking with care, not straining his injured chest.

Oman and Fasime took the horses’ reins and walked behind. Denire carried Syah to the river and held him, as Oman and Fasime took blankets from the packs. As Denire started to lower Syah, he found the boy’s body was limp. Syah had fallen asleep.

Oman and Fasime sat down beside him, not speaking. Then Denire said, “It’s the fever. He is fighting something inside him.” Denire lifted up Syah’s shirt. Syah’s chest was red and swollen where his ribs were broken. The knight swallowed, moving his hand to the spot. He ran his fingers over the boy’s skin, feeling the strong heat of it. Denire sighed and stayed silent a while, but Fasime and Oman already knew that, whatever he said, Syah was very ill.

 

Shadows. Fire. He opened his eyes. He was still dreaming, his world red, blistering, blurry. He turned and forced himself up.

Oman watched Syah stand, but waited, seeing the empty expression on his face.

The world was ablaze. Fire rose and licked his skin. His blood seemed to boil. Shadows materialized, surrounding him with an impenetrable wall of flame.

Oman stood when fear come over his brother’s face. “Syah, what’s wrong?” he demanded.

The youngest brother didn’t hear him, looking madly around. He stepped next to Fasime, sleeping beside him. Syah leaned down and lifted Fasime’s sword.

“Syah!” Oman cried.

Fasime and Denire woke but were still, seeing Syah stand above them with a naked sword in his grasp.

Syah raised the sword. The light of the flames reflected on the silver blade and his face shining with sweat. He moved away from Fasime and the knight, towards the flames of their campfire.

Fasime rose and started towards Syah, but Denire stopped him. “Wait!” the knight commanded. Syah turned around. He avoided their eyes. He seemed to look at their shadows.

“You will not stop me!” Syah said in a crazed voice.

“Syah, put down the sword!” Oman cried, circling the fire. Oman saw fire dancing in his eyes. Oman walked towards him, saying sternly, “Syah, put down the sword.”

Syah watched him, lowering his head a little, tilting it the sword, changing his stance.

“Don’t look at me that way!” Oman yelled. His brother’s eyes flashed.

“Syah, please,” Oman spoke easier, clenching his fist, “please listen to me. Give me the sword.” Oman took a step forward. Syah didn’t move. Oman raised his hand.

Syah screamed and slashed out with the sword. Oman jumped back in surprise. “What are you doing!” In that moment, Fasime and Denire grabbed Syah’s arms. Syah screamed again, trying to slash at them with the sword, but Fasime had his wrist. Oman grabbed Syah’s hand. Together they pulled the sword from their brother’s clenched fist. His screams filled the night again, angry, desperate. They held him as he twisted and wrenched his body.

Syah’s screams stopped. He stiffened in their arms, holding his breath. Then they saw the whites of his eyes and he fell limp.

“Curse the skies, what happened to him?” Oman cried. He placed his hand on Syah’s unresponsive face. His skin felt as if it had been cooking over the fire.

“Lay him down,” Denire instructed. “He needs to rest.”

His brothers laid Syah down and covered him again with several blankets. Fasime clenched his fists and then hit the ground.

“We should never have left,” Fasime said. “We were only risking his life. He is not well enough. He is not strong enough. We should never have come here. It was folly!”

Oman sighed and answered Fasime’s anger with solace, “He would never have let us stay because of him, and he would never have let us leave him behind.”

“But now look what it has gotten him,” Fasime continued. “The fever has him. He is going to die out here!”

“He’s strong enough to fight it,” Oman argued.

“No, Oman. We are killing him!”

Oman was silenced, swallowing. The eldest looked hesitantly back down at Syah, who lay as still as death.

 

The folds of the tent flapped in a gust of wind. Oman placed the dampened cloth back on Syah’s forehead.

“Rest, my brother,” Oman told him. Syah’s face and hair were wet. His skin was hot and pale. Oman brushed back his hair and adjusted the blankets. Syah didn’t respond or react. Oman sighed and returned to Fasime and Denire by the fire.

“There is Parmin, we could be there in two days,” Fasime suggested.

Oman shook his head. “The ride would wear on him, and he is already weak. Trying to move him that far now could kill him.”

“So we wait here? What if… one of us went back?”

“No,” the knight interrupted.

“I could ride to the castle and bring back a carriage and a healer.”

“It would take half a moon. By then, the outcome of his sickness would be decided.”

“It is better than doing nothing.”

“No, you need to stay together,” Denire insisted.

“Lightning and I could out ride any of your dangers,” Fasime replied.

“Fasime, it is not worth the risk.”

“Are you worried that our lie might be discovered, Oman? Are you afraid of the repercussions, when Father realizes we ran away?”

“No, Fasime.”

Fasime put his hand on the eldest’s arm. “I am worried about that myself,” he said, before Oman could argue further. “But it is not worth risking Syah’s life.”

“That’s not the point. Even if you sent for aid from Shal, it couldn’t get here in time.”

The three of them breathed out simultaneously, strained by their arguing.

Fasime’s brows lowered. “What other option is there? I couldn’t stand this wait much longer. I can’t stand sitting here watching Syah become weaker every moment.”

Fasime glanced at the tent. Some movement there caught his attention. With a sinking feeling, he realized something was wrong. He leaped to his feet and started for the tent, Denire and Oman close behind him.

Fasime gasped as he laid eyes on Syah, seeing the whites of his eyes and his body jerking.

“No!” Fasime cried, kneeling beside him, grabbing his arms. Syah’s body was limp in his arms, but he could barely keep hold against his spasming muscles. “No! Syah!” he exclaimed, shaking him. Fasime looked up to Oman with desperation, but Oman’s face was as pale as Syah’s. His terrified eyes stared down at his brother’s frenzied body.

“Syah!” Fasime screamed, digging his fingers into Syah’s arms and trying to lift him up.

“That won’t help him,” Denire said with a level tone. He knelt on the other side of Syah and pulled Fasime’s grip off Syah’s arms. “Move,” the soldier ordered. Fasime and Oman complied, watching him lift Syah’s shuddering body in his arms.

Somehow Denire was able to keep hold of Syah and walk, carrying him through their camp towards the river. Oman and Fasime collected themselves and followed him. Denire stepped into the river, feeling the iciness take his feet and ankles, then his legs. He waded out deeper, but then stopped, looking back at Oman and Fasime. “Come help me hold him,” he called, standing still as he watched them come into the river. They clenched their jaws as its cold pierced them, but they met Denire where the water reached their waists.

He nodded to them and moved a little deeper. Fasime grabbed Syah’s legs and Oman held Syah’s arm and back. Their bodies numbing with the cold, they lowered the young prince into the water. His body did not respond, its shaking neither pausing nor intensifying, as they struggled to hold him in the flowing dark water. As they lowered his entire body into the mountain water, Denire shifted his hold and leaned down. He put his hand under Syah’s head and then placed his other hand over Syah’s face.

“What are you doing?” Oman demanded as Denire lowered his brother’s head into the water. Oman wanted to push the soldier away from him, or pull Syah up, but he could do neither, struggling to hold on to his flailing body. Oman and Fasime saw Syah’s distorted face under the water, with Denire’s hand still over his nose and mouth.

“Stop it, he’ll drown!” Fasime pleaded.

“That’s enough!” Oman cried. Denire nodded and lifted Syah’s head back up. After the water fell away from it he removed his hand. Though Syah didn’t seem to be breathing, Denire held his head above the water for a few moments. Then the soldier covered Syah’s face again with his hand. Oman and Fasime had no time to argue, as he dunked Syah’s head beneath the water again. Syah’s body was still shaking, but they felt it quieting.

Syah’s eyes opened wide under the water’s surface. His body became frigid. Denire lifted his head out of the water. As his face was coming out of the river, his body fought back again – but this time with purpose, trying to pull his arms and legs free from their grasp.

At last, Syah stopped struggling and was still, gasping. He saw indistinct figures standing over him, holding him in the freezing water. He was trying to speak, but hadn’t the strength to push the words out.

“You are alright,” Denire told him, leaning down, trying to get Syah to focus on his face. Denire put his hand on Syah’s forehead. Although the water felt like ice, Syah’s skin was still hot to the touch, as if he had been burned. Denire sighed and met Syah’s gaze. “Take a deep breath in,” Denire said. Syah’s eyes widened. He started to protest and tried to pull away from his brothers, but Denire was lowering him again. He held his breath. Denire placed his hand over Syah’s face and the freezing pain come over him again. He struggled, feeling pain on every point, in every part of his body. After a moment, Syah found he could bear the icy chill. He stopped fighting and let his limbs relax. His thoughts, churning painfully, settled a little. He heard the roar of the river against him, and yet it calmed him. Finally Denire lifted him. As he left the water, the grip on his face was released and he was able to breathe.

“Alright, that’s enough,” Oman said with a sharp tone. Syah’s body was limp as rags, lifeless, but his eyes were open, questioning and confused. A swell of heat and coldness came over him as they laid him down on the ground.

“What happened?” he asked. They removed the wet clothes clinging to his body.

“You have… been asleep,” Oman replied.

Syah took a few cautious breaths. “I don’t remember.”

Oman sighed. “We will dry you off, and then you should rest.”

Syah didn’t say anything more. His eyes were growing heavy, and he was glad when they moved him to a mat of blankets close to the fire. With his eyes closed, he remembered being under the water, and he clenched his fists. Cold blackness he thought was death, rolling over him, taking him away. He shuddered at the feeling, but it was warmed and faded…

Oman, Fasime, and Denire sat down by the fire, warming their dampened clothes, skin, and spirits. “I don’t think the fever is gone,” Denire said, staring into the fire. “If it gets any worse, he won’t survive it.”

“And all we can do is sit here and wait?” Oman asked and turned to Denire with a sullen expression.

“We have to take him back to the city, get him out of the wilderness,” Fasime pressed again.

“It would kill him if we forced him to ride now,” Oman countered.

The crackle of the fire was the only consolation to the thick silence.

“There is something else we can do,” Denire said, “instead of sitting here and waiting.” He looked at both of the brothers, but they were still and listening. “In the mountains there are hot springs of mineral water. I have seen them heal wounded soldiers.”

Oman almost choked. “In the mountains? The Black Mountains?”

“If we follow the river, I think we could find one of those springs. We wouldn’t have to go far into their lands.”

“It is not safe to pass into such a dangerous land,” Oman countered.

“We wouldn’t go deep into the mountains. I could go up alone and scout to see if I could find one of these healing springs, and make sure it is safe before we take him there.”

“Hot springs won’t heal his ribs,” Fasime argued.

“After fighting by the forest’s edge over the winter, many of the soldiers fell ill from dysentery. A stream in the dwarven hills cured them. I believe it is worth the risk, if it can help him overcome his fever.”

“If we allow you to go scout the mountains, what if you don’t return?” Oman questioned, catching Denire’s eyes.

“Then you know not to follow me,” was Denire’s reply.

 

CHAPTER TEN

THE BLACK MOUNTAINS

 

 

They knew they were in a new territory, though such a realization wasn’t told by a change in the land, other than a few more boulders and a steeper incline. The air, the wind were the same. The trees were the same. The birds and other creatures of the forest and their noises were the same. Still, the brothers were leery, eyeing every shadow, watching every movement of animal, but they were alone. They followed the river deeper into the mountains.

“It is not far now,” Denire told them. It was one of the few things he had said since they had left their camp. Denire glanced back at Syah, who was asleep on Fasime’s horse.

The eldest was leading his horse beside Syah, and was also keeping an eye on the boy. The soldier turned to continue leading them to the hot springs, a little away from the river beneath a cliff, a safe spot.

They heard it before they came within sight of it: a light, constant splashing and moving of water. They saw a small stream running down a cliff and several clear pools beneath it, the water lightly flowing through them, then out and following another small stream towards the river. The sun shone through the trees, lighting the pools.

Oman and Fasime were relieved. Fasime pulled Syah from the saddle. He was unresponsive. He carried him towards the pools while Oman took the horses and tied them. Denire knelt beside the largest pool and put his hand in, feeling the water. It was as warm as Syah’s touch. Fasime breathed in the strange smell of the water, gazing at the large green and white chalky rocks around the edge of the pools and the steam rising off the water’s surface. They undressed Syah. Fasime stepped into the pool and helped lower Syah’s body. His eyes fluttered open.

“You’re awake,” Fasime said, touching his brother’s face. Syah looked around with a shaken, blank expression, but he did not meet Fasime’s gaze. Fasime held him and lowered him, all but his head, into the water.

Oman and Denire began to make a fire nearby. Fasime watched Syah’s breathing slow and his eyes close again. His own body warmed from the water, getting used to its strange smell. He turned Syah around, one arm around his body, while Fasime half stood in the water. Comfortable, he watched Oman and Denire set up their camp.

Oman stiffened, his hand on a branch he was placing on the clearing for their fire. He was still, his eyes moving up to the trees around them. Denire noticed Oman’s apprehension and followed his gaze to the trees, afraid the prince had seen something. He startled at a snap of branches behind him. He turned around and gasped.

Several angry, worn, dark faces of dwarves appeared through the trees. They moved with purpose, lifting maces and axes. Denire and Oman stood rigidly, finding more armed dwarves coming through the forest. Their angry eyes were set on the travelers as they surrounded them, blocking them against the cliff. Fasime’s grip grew very tight around Syah, but he was still asleep. Fasime was about to stand and Oman’s hand was going for his sword, but Denire ordered quickly, “Hold.”

The dwarves moved in closer. There were at least ten of them. Their shorter stature was compensated with their girth and sheer strength. One of them, older than the rest, stepped inside the semi-circle, holding out his axe. This dwarf said something in the grinding dwarven tongue and the others around them tightened their stances.

“Now, trespassers,” the dwarf said in common tongue, though his accent was thick and grueling, “prepare to die for your foolish entry into our lands.”

Oman’s hand was on his sword. As he began to draw it the dwarf’s hot eyes snapped to him.

“No, Oman, hold,” Denire urged. Oman said nothing, but held still. Denire turned back to the leader. “We meant no harm.”

“Hold your tongue,” the dwarf warned, moving closer with his lifted axe. “We will not hear your blubbering. You are spies for King Algoth. You have come now for the foolish king to see if you cannot only take over the lands of men, but the lands of magic as well.”

“No,” Denire protested. “I’m…”

“You are a soldier of Algoth, do not deny it!” the dwarf growled, planting his foot on the ground and violently motioning his ax towards Denire.

Denire sighed. “Yes, I am. But my intention in coming here was not for war. I am traveling with my sons.” Oman and Fasime looked at him sharply. “And one of them fell ill,” Denire explained, but not motioning down to Syah. “We came for the healing waters. We will collect our things and leave.”

The dwarf kept his thoughts to himself, eyeing Denire and then Oman. Then he looked at Fasime and his eyes fell on the boy, asleep in Fasime’s arms. Fasime’s eyes widened and he put his arms protectively over Syah, seeing something dangerous in the dwarf’s expression.

The dwarf slackened his hold on his ax. “These are your sons?” he said at last, looking back up to Denire.

The knight swallowed. “Yes.”

“And what were you doing traveling so close to the dwarven border?”

He stalled a moment. “Surveying the Dikartians.”

The dwarf was silent again.

“We will leave immediately,” Denire said. “We will not return. We are sorry that we have trespassed into the Black Mountains. We meant no harm towards you.”

“Yes,” the dwarf answered. “And your… sons.” He started towards the pool. Oman stepped forward but Denire held his arm out and caught him. The dwarf came towards Fasime, who watched the dwarf with wide eyes and a sweat-streaked brow. “Your son, who you claim is sick.” The leader knelt down beside the pool. Fasime drew back away from him, but couldn’t avoid him. Fasime was tense, but fought the urge to strike dwarf as he knelt down and put his hand on Syah’s face. The dwarf’s eyes narrowed. Syah was motionless under his touch. The dwarf’s hand moved down to the boy’s neck and Fasime saw his hand tighten and he jerked, but held, feeling Syah breathe easily, still unawakened. The dwarf raised his head and then moved his hand to the boy’s forehead, lifting up his eyelids. The dwarf stared into Syah’s drugged and silent eyes.

The dwarf then said something in his secret, rough language. The dwarves around them muttered replies that neither the knight nor the princes understood. They allowed their holds on their weapons to loosen. The leader raised his gaze back to the soldier and said in a grave tone, “He is near death.”

Denire swallowed, but didn’t give a response. The dwarf stood and moved closer to him. “Your blood isn’t worth spilling on dwarven lands. I think we should kill you all,” he said in a low tone, “but since your child is weak, we will take him to our village, and out of the wilderness.”

“No, that…” Denire began.

The dwarf interrupted him, “If that is truly why you dared to venture into our territory, your concern for him must be enough to allow us to take him.”

“No, we can’t!” Oman said.

Denire closed his lips, shutting his eyes a moment. The dwarf tilted his head. “So your concern for him is really so little,” he said, warning in his voice. He didn’t wait for a response, but turned to several of his fighters, motioning to them, and giving out commands in the dwarven tongue. He looked back at the knight. “We will let you keep your weapons. You will lead your horses, you will not ride. You will not stray or resist us, or our hospitality will run out very quickly.”

“No!” Oman started to argue.

“We must,” Denire replied.

Several dwarves came up to the pool where Syah was lying. They knelt down, seizing his arms. Fasime held his brother tighter, wordless and angry.

Denire’s gaze shifted to him. “Let him go, Fasime.”

Fasime heaved, but unclasped his arms from around the boy’s chest. The dwarves lifted up Syah’s sleeping body. His brothers and the knight watched as they wrapped him in several blankets then started to carry him away.

“I will get the horses,” Denire said. Oman helped Fasime out of the pool and they gathered their things. Others of the angry fighters stayed behind, watching them closely and waiting for them to leave.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

THE HEALING

 

 

Syah’s mind woke before his body did. He smiled as he realized it all had been a dream. He was thankful he was back in his room, that it was over, that he was back in his bed. He felt no emptiness and vastness of the open air. He heard a fire. The cushion of the bed and the warmth of the blankets were comforting and familiar. He was thinking about getting up, getting dressed, wondering what the lesson would be this morning, what he would be having for breakfast.

But his mind snared him, made him realize he was still dreaming. There was a strange smell, something hard, wild, and a touch – something rough and foreign against his skin. He opened his eyes. His mind spinning and confused, he gradually realized he was not at home after all. He did not recognize his surroundings, faintly lit with firelight, the blankets, the stone walls of the room, the bed. The touch on his back had ceased, but the tinge of it was still across his skin. It wasn’t a dream.

He caught his breath. This was more real than the feeling of being home, in his own bed. He was dressed in loose clothes, covered by thick blankets, but nothing he recognized. His breathing quickened. Where was he? He felt the touch again, this time on his arm. Then a strange hand held him and began to turn him over.

His eyes widened with horror at the figure above him. It was rusty and crisp, with thick hair all around its face and clear eyes set on him. Then Syah realized what the figure was. More than a sketching on a scroll, more than a paragraph in a text, this was a real, living, sentient dwarf, and Syah was completely defenseless against it. The dwarf raised its head, staring at him without emotion. Syah drew away, but realized his weakness. And the pain in his chest was still there, familiar.

Sinking in despair, Syah heard a voice that said his name. Fasime came to him. He turned to his brother with desperation, but all he could say was, “Fasime!”

“Don’t be frightened, Syah.” Fasime put his hand on Syah’s face and pushed the hair away from his forehead, turning his eyes away from the dwarf.

“Dreams… Have I gone mad?” Syah demanded, clutching Fasime’s arms.

“No, of course not,” Fasime answered. He shook Syah a little, bringing the frightened gaze back to his face. “They have been caring for you.”

“How did we get here?”

Fasime didn’t answer, seeing the dwarf motion to him. The dwarf nodded and turned to leave. Fasime exhaled and then looked back at Syah. The younger’s eyes were wide, his body was rigid, as if someone were holding him at the edge of a cliff, and he was clinging to land with one hand. “It’s alright, Syah, we’re safe. We came to their lands when you were sick with fever. They have been healing you.”

Syah’s face tightened, but he was silent in thought. His head, his mind couldn’t find any explanation, only a growing ache, for not knowing, not remembering.

Fasime saw the look come over his face. “Don’t worry over it, Brother. We will be leaving here soon. Your fever has loosened its grip on you.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Syah said with desperation, his eyes going back to Fasime. He tried to push himself up, but he was only able to lift his head. Fasime watched his struggling, and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Not now, wait. You still need rest. Oman and Denire are out hunting for us. They will return soon. And perhaps by tomorrow you will be able to ride.”

“Tomorrow?” Syah cried, the ache in his head sharpening.

“Don’t worry now, Syah. I think we’re alright.”

“We can’t stay here,” Syah said.

“For now, we don’t have a choice.” Fasime watched Syah settle back a little. “Besides, I thought you would be interested in learning more about another race, excited to be around them in person.”

Syah shuddered. “They are safe in books.”

Fasime smiled and leaned forward. “Get some rest. No harm will come to you while I’m here.” Syah closed his eyes as Fasime ruffled his hair. Fasime sat down in the chair by the door.

“I don’t remember coming here,” Syah whispered after Fasime closed his eyes.

“Don’t think about it.” Fasime shifted in the chair.

“I don’t remember anything,” the youngest confessed gravely.

“Don’t think about it any more,” Fasime repeated in a firm tone. There was a moment of silence. Syah tried to blink the dizziness from his sight.

“I don’t want them to come back,” Syah murmured, on the edge of sleep. “They are not safe, not for us.”

Fasime waited, thinking Syah would say something more, but he stilled on the bed. The room was silent, and the two princes slept.

 

There was a sound of footsteps, drawing Syah back to the strange room, the bed, and the unease. He knew where he was as he opened his eyes. But it was different now: warm light shone on the stone walls through the window and the open door. Syah stopped looking around the room as he saw someone coming in through the door. The shadow of the figure made his heart pound. It wasn’t human.

Syah stifled his fear as he realized Fasime was waking in the chair beside the door. His brother stood. The figure in the doorway moved to Fasime, joined by another similar figure. “What’s wrong?” Fasime asked them, his voice faltering a little. Syah clenched the blankets in his hands.

“Sir Fasime,” one of the dwarves said cordially, bowing his head, “you are to come with us.”

Fasime looked from one of the dwarves to the other. A movement at the door proved to be three more dwarves, entering and stepping up to either side of Syah’s bed. Syah’s eyes snapped back to his brother. One of the dwarves beside Fasime put his hand on the prince’s arm, then the other did the same.

“Come,” one of them said.

Fasime’s gaze met Syah’s. He was still, his face blank, not angry or afraid as Syah felt. The dwarves beckoned him with a pull of his arms.

“Come,” one urged.

Fasime took in a shaky breath and then nodded, letting them lead him to the door. He did not break his gaze with Syah until they turned him and went out the door.

A sickening clutched in his gut and up his throat as more dwarves came in the door. His brother did not return. He realized that he was alone. His body grew tense as he looked at one of the dwarves by his bed. The dwarf’s face was calm, his eyes were attentive, but not threatening. Syah looked at another and saw he was the same. Although they showed no anger or hostility, Syah felt fear pulse through him.

He swallowed. From the doorway came a clear, hard sound that lured his attention away from the wall of dwarves around him. Syah squinted his eyes against the sunlight, and saw that a staff had made the thud. He heard another thud; the staff’s holder was approaching. The dwarves beside his bed moved so that the figure in the doorway could step between them.

Syah was fascinated by his face. It was covered with thick hair, like the rest. This one’s hair, however, was gray and long, tamed and braided, strung randomly with colored beads. His skin was ancient, like a weathered statue, and just as firm. He was covered with cloth and leather, trinkets and beads. When Syah looked into the aged dwarf’s eyes, he felt a strange twinge of apprehension. The dwarf’s gaze was sharp and yet elusive, as if it penetrated Syah’s thoughts, but shadowed his own intentions. The dwarf stepped closer, not looking away from Syah as his staff thudded one more time, powerfully. Syah shuddered. The aged dwarf’s eyes stayed on him, unblinking. Syah’s hands tightened, but he didn’t draw away from him.

After a moment the dwarf’s expression seemed to soften. The dwarf looked away from Syah’s face, down to his limp body beneath the covers. He studied Syah, as if he were reading a book. Syah clenched his jaw as the younger dwarves around him studied him as well. Syah felt a growing unease as he looked back to the eldest. The ancient eyes met his again.

The dwarf leaned his staff on the bed and then moved his hands towards the prince. Syah drew back. The touch moved beneath his neck, but he was not afraid. Its roughness was like the touch of a stone, but warmly alive. Syah’s brows lowered as he watched the old man pull the covers off his chest. His eyes followed the dwarf’s to his lower chest, to where the pain was. His chest was distorted, the skin over his ribs was red and swollen, and on one side, the upper abdomen was larger than it should have been. Syah’s body pressed down into the bed as if he could get away from the sight of it, and the excruciating pain that swelled near his waist. His eyes went sharply back to the dwarf beside him, to the other dwarves around him, suspicious of their intent.

The elder dwarf spoke then, his voice like the melodious grinding of stone, his dwarven words spoken smoothly, “He is very ill.” Syah clenched his jaw, keeping his eyes on him. “We will have to cut him open,” the dwarf continued. Syah’s eyes opened even wider. He tried to draw back, but the dwarves did not move to stop him.

The aged dwarf’s gaze returned to him. He seemed to smile, and he said in his own rough tongue, “You speak Dwarven.” Syah was motionless, confused, but then shook his head as he looked away from him, trying to make himself understand what was happening. He had been tricked. Syah looked back up to him. “Yes, you do. And what human child would learn our language?” Syah was very still, like a rabbit caught in a trap. “What human child, unless a prince?”

Fear and surprise overwhelmed Syah. He returned the old dwarf’s stare, trying to decipher what his reaction should be. “Fear not, young prince. We will not harm you, based upon you being a son of the human king.”

Syah believed him, but he still blinked with confusion.

“We are here to help you,” the old man said. “Sickness.” He nodded to Syah’s chest. “Sickness is deep in you. You will be in discomfort, pain, but it will be brief.”

Syah tilted his head, his brows lowering again. “Who are you?” Syah asked, doing his best to use the little Dwarven he knew – even though it sounded childish to him.

The dwarf did smile then. “An enemy of sickness,” was his answer. “Now, young prince, lie still.” The dwarf’s hands came towards Syah again. This time one hand stayed on his chest, then moved down to the sore area, the red intrusive swelling. Syah braced. He clenched his teeth as the dwarf’s rough touch sent ripples of sharp pain through his body. Finally, when his teeth ached from holding it back, he let out a brief cry.

 

Fasime turned swiftly around, ready in an instant to push past the dwarves and barge through the door. But they grabbed his arms.

“No!” Fasime cursed himself, trying to wrestle free.

“You should not enter,” one of them said hurriedly. “They are healing him.”

“You are hurting him! I will not let you!”

“No,” the other said as they pulled the struggling prince back, “they are helping him. We should not stay here.”

“Let me go!” Fasime cried. Their grips grew stronger on his arms.

“We will walk away from here. Let your mind ease.”

“No harm will come to him,” the other dwarf assured him. They started to drag Fasime away from the house. Fasime strove against them, kicking and trying to pull his arms free from their grips.

After they were a few houses down the road, Fasime stopped fighting them. He sagged in their hands. “Alright, alright! Let me go.”

 

Syah opened his eyes and relaxed his jaw a little. “Yes,” the aged dwarf’s rumbling voice came to his ears, “it is very deep.” The prince did not look at him, trying to stop his body from shaking. “It is very deep, but we can still draw it out.” Syah’s face paled and his eyes met the old man’s. “Prepare yourself,” the dwarf said, raising his head. “The pain will be strong.” The dwarf placed his hand over Syah’s head.

“What are you going to do?” Syah demanded, though a stronger fear was held back somehow by the dwarf’s rough hand. The other dwarves grasped his arms and legs, lifting them. Syah was about to try to fight them off, but something about the hand on his forehead calmed the impulse. A tingling sensation eased his thoughts, moved him further away from the fear. The grips on his limbs steadied. Then there was another tingling rush through his head. Syah was frightened, but the hand shifted and elicited a wave of weariness. His eyes closed a long moment, then he opened them again, but only partially. His breath was deep. His fear was being pushed away.

“Prepare yourself.” The dwarven words rolled over him. He saw the faces of the dwarves around him, staring down at him intently. The old dwarf was looking away, but his hand still stayed on his head. He reached for something, but Syah sensed no danger from it. As the dwarf focused again on Syah’s chest, the dwarves around him started to… sing. Syah realized it was singing after a moment. It was some ancient song that his teachings didn’t allow him to understand completely. It told about battle, though, about bravery.

Syah’s eyes sharpened as he saw what was in the dwarf’s hand. It was a talon, dangerously sharp, curved, black and long. The dwarf was moving it over the swollen area. At the same moment, the grips on him shifted. He found he couldn’t move his arms or legs at all, he couldn’t even tighten them. Syah’s eyes widened.

The hand on his forehead pressed down, strengthening the tingling sensation. Even as he did, he saw the tip of the talon on his skin, he felt it being pushed in. Nothing could stop the pain – tearing, shrieking pain cutting through him. Syah couldn’t help but scream, as if it would alleviate the terrifying feeling inside him. The talon sliced deep through skin, through flesh, and now the very bone was being crushed. He screamed. He screamed through every part of his body, though he couldn’t fight it.

 

Fasime heard his brother’s cries. This time, he didn’t let his inaction best him. He turned around and started back towards the house, back towards Syah. But the dwarves stood in his way. Fasime moved to go around them, but they stepped in his path. He stopped, hearing the screams sharpen, growing more desperate.

“Syah!” he called, looking past the dwarves. They came towards him again and he grabbed his sword. The dwarves changed their stances, but they did not draw their weapons. Fasime had no intention of cutting them. He thought the sword would scare them out of his path, but it did not. “You’ll let me go or I’ll run you through!” Fasime warned.

Moving faster than he thought them capable of, a dwarf took hold of his arm and twisted it, folding Fasime’s body so that he lost control of his stance. Another seized his other arm, and somehow he lost hold of his sword. Fasime yelled, trying to fight them off, but they dropped him. He found his body on the ground and his arms pincered behind him. His body settled as he realized he couldn’t move, he couldn’t break their grip. “Syah!” he said with what force he could, because his chest was pushed against the ground.

“Don’t fear, young man,” said one of the dwarves. “He is in pain, but they are helping him. He is safe.”

“No, I have to stop it!” Fasime attempted to free himself again, but he could only move his legs and head a little, and they never left the dust of the road.

 

Tears flooded Syah’s eyes. The pain was easing a little, but the shocks of it still rolled through his body. His chest ached, not just from the wound but also from the screaming. He tried to breathe, though his breath was shallow. He blinked the tears from his eyes. The dwarves around him still held him immobile. He tried to see a clear image of the aged dwarf, but something was wrong with his vision. The old dwarf’s face seemed to be glowing, his eyes were cloudy gray.

Syah blinked, it wasn’t his vision. The other dwarves were looking at his wound. He saw their faces clearly. Had the pain driven him mad? He looked at the aged dwarf again. He could see a strange light, a glow from the dwarf’s hand as it moved over the wound.

Syah had forgotten the hand on his forehead until it shifted. A soft tingle of energy returned, but his eyes were able to stay on his chest. He lay there, unblinking. He saw the hole the talon had made, just below the ribs. A strange bright mist was streaming out of it, towards the dwarf’s hand over his wound. Syah’s mind tried to comprehend what his eyes witnessed. He could feel it happening, something inside the wound was leaving him, drawing out with a tangible force, and disappearing as it reached the hand of the old dwarf. It was as if every hardship and every ounce of pain he had endured since his fall were being not just submerged, but released completely. His body relaxed, so much that he couldn’t help but close his eyes and rest.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

DREAMS

 

 

Fasime lay breathing heavily. Since Syah’s cries had eased, he had stopped struggling. The holds on his arms had softened. He felt weak, being held face down on the ground. His eyes closed, though he stayed awake, not attempting to argue any more with the two dwarves.

After a period of silence, the dwarves’ grasp on him changed and he heard footsteps approaching. The dwarves pulled him up till he was kneeling, coughing and shaking the dust from his face. But Fasime stopped when a figure leaned before him, its eyes studying his own face. He tried to draw back, but realized they still tightly held his arms. He focused on the figure. The old dwarf’s skin was ancient and his eyes were piercing…

The dwarf said something to the others in the strange secret language, and Fasime’s brows lowered. The old dwarf lifted his hand towards Fasime’s face. The prince tried in vain to pull away. His chest tightened as the lucid eyes focused on him, and the ancient dwarf’s rough thumb pressed for a moment on Fasime’s forehead. Without reason, Fasime lost control of his neck and his head fell forward.

When he gasped and opened his eyes, he found that his body was stiff. His eyes, instead of falling on the terrible gaze of the aged dwarf, saw the colorful patterns of blankets atop him where he sat in the chair, against the wall, in the same dark room he had slept in last night. He lifted his hands, shaking.

“Just a moment ago…”

He shook his head. Had he dreamed it? Fasime looked around the room, trying to remember, trying to be sure. Then his gaze fell to the bed.

“Syah!” he cried and stood, throwing the blankets off. He found Syah lying safely, opening his eyes. “Are you alright?” Fasime demanded, seizing his brother’s shoulders. Syah nodded, but Fasime’s face twitched as his eyes swiftly searched the room, looking for a means of escape. “We have to get out of here!”

A touch, firm, demanding, brought Fasime’s attention back to his younger brother. Syah’s eyes were resolute, aware, and calm. “You don’t have to be afraid,” Syah said, in a voice that somehow restrained Fasime’s panic. Syah’s hand tightened on Fasime’s arm, pulling him to sit on the bed beside him. The older brother’s fear aside, he remembered his confusion. He glanced down at his chest, expecting to see it smudged with dirt and dust. Inexplicably, it was clean. Blinking as if to clear away the dream still hindering his vision, he lifted his gaze back to the room.

“What happened?” he whispered. Somehow he knew he could trust Syah for the answer to the uncertainty inside him.

Syah waited, watching Fasime with steady eyes. “We were dreaming,” he finally answered. Fasime tilted his head and bit his lip, not knowing if he wanted to speak the concerns gnawing his mind, realizing they could be likened to madness. Could that be all it was?

“You seem better,” Fasime said, to distract the disturbing thoughts. He placed his hand on the side of Syah’s face, and a smile calmed Fasime’s tenseness. He gazed at Syah’s skin, his eyes, examining their color and life. His thoughts reassumed their guardian mindset, and he remembered the infected area above Syah’s ribs. Fasime removed the blankets to reveal his brother’s bare chest. Both of them were silent, amazed at the skin above his ribs – clean, bare, and healthy.

“It has healed!” Fasime’s voice was soft and bewildered. He let his fingers glide over the spot where the swelling had been. He glanced at Syah’s face, seeing that some of his confidence had faded to amazement as well. Fasime’s shoulders sank weakly. He touched the spot again, then let his fingers press into the skin to feel the bone. Syah sucked in breath between his teeth and flinched away from his fingers.

“Your ribs are still broken,” Fasime said, slower, but then shook his head. “Of course they are still broken,” he chastised himself with a nervous snicker. “It will take weeks… for…” His voice trailed off again as he looked back to Syah and felt the unknown madness again.

“Yes,” Syah said as he shook off the pain and sat himself up. “It will take a while for it to heal.”

Fasime’s brows lowered and he looked at Syah with seriousness. “Syah… did…” Fasime tried to steady himself and took Syah’s arm. “Did something happen? I mean – did they do something to you?”

The younger brother paused, staring into Fasime’s face as if two unknown paths were forking before him. For a moment Syah gazed without blinking at him, trying to see…

Then his face changed, softened. He took Fasime’s hand in his own reassuringly. “No,” Syah answered. Fasime sighed in relief, and yet…

The door to the small house opened. Fasime and Syah’s thoughts stopped as they turned to the door, sensing familiarity before they saw who it was. Oman entered, dropping his bundles upon seeing them. “Syah!” he cried, almost chastising him. He grabbed Syah’s arm and examined him. “You’re healed. We were so worried about you!” Oman was about to say more, but then changed his mind. “Are you still in any pain?” Oman sat next to him.

“Not really,” Syah answered.

Denire entered the room. Syah tried to change the subject. “Have you replenished our stores of meat for the final border?”

Oman paused, contemplating several things before replying.

“Are you well enough to ride?” the knight interrupted from the edge of the bed. They all looked at Syah.

“Yes, but in the morning. We shouldn’t start off through the mountains at nightfall.”

Fasime grunted. “Have you decided you want to stay?” His voice held both jest and concern. Then Fasime’s attention moved to Oman. The eldest brother was staring at him wonderingly, seeming only now to see him.

“What’s wrong?” Oman asked.

Fasime blinked at him. Wondering if he was really that transparent, and wondering if he should include his stronger brother in his worries, he answered simply, “I had a bad dream.”

 

The crisp, clear night refreshed him. He felt safe and strangely welcome in this night world, though he was unfamiliar with the street or buildings. Dwarves were awake everywhere. They must not sleep much, Syah realized, as he watched them at work in the buildings and crossing the street with no flame to aid them. The dwarves he passed stopped and nodded to him, seeming to smile in the darkness, most beneath thick beards. Syah nodded back and continued, not sure where he was going, but unhesitating in his direction and purpose.

He found what he sought, a low-lying stone building, almost like a cave. Eccentric objects, plants, and stones circled its base and windows. He went to the wooden door to knock. As he drew near, the door opened as if by itself. An aged dwarven woman stood on the threshold. Syah studied her a moment. Her hair was curly, gray, and long, and her eyes were kind and knowing. Before Syah could decide what to say to her, she nodded, and disappeared into the darkness of the small house.

Then, silently, a new form emerged. The same careful eyes watched the young prince as he stepped out into the street with his braided hair glowing in the moonlight, but there was something new on his face, like an artist gazing at his work.

Syah wet his lips, attempting to give the most eloquent Dwarven greeting he could. “Good evening, Healer.”

“Good evening,” the dwarf answered in a deep and meaningful tone.

“I…” Syah swallowed at his nervousness, but tried to show it as respect. “I wish to thank you.” Syah bowed his head and the dwarf was silent. “You had no reason to wish to save me, a son of the human king.” Syah stared into the dwarf’s penetrating eyes steadily. “I am grateful.”

Syah lifted his hands to unclasp the chain around his neck. Syah took the chain in one hand, the small carved stone dangling as he held it out. The wrinkled hand lifted under the carving, cupping it, echoing its shape, but not touching the stone. Syah lowered the chain, resting the stone in the dwarf’s hand, then let it go. The dwarf brought the carving closer, inspecting it with his other hand, touching the carved wings and long neck of the depicted creature. He gave out a long, thoughtful sound that was like a memory, good and strong. Syah knew it, it was special.

A shout from behind interrupted Syah’s thoughts. He turned to see Denire running towards him down the street. “Syah!” Denire shouted as he came up to him. “We haven’t wandered…” His words faltered as he saw the dwarf, and his eyes widened at the dwarf’s ancient skin and wise, powerful gaze. “Let’s go back to the house,” the knight whispered, watching the old dwarf with distrust.

Syah knew he had to leave. He looked back at the mysterious dwarf briefly. The moment he held the dwarf’s knowing gaze seemed to last much longer than it truly did. Syah straightened, then bowed his head again to the healer, hoping he understood the honesty of his gratitude.

“Safe travels, young prince,” the archaic Dwarven words came to him. Syah took in a deep, accepting breath. But an apprehensive sting was in his palm. He lifted his hand and gasped when he opened it. Inside his shaking hand rested the carving, his carving, the chain wrapped neatly around it. Syah’s gaze jerked up to the healer with astonishment, but the dwarf returned his gaze without response. The prince felt a pulse of fear and a strange quivering through him. How had it returned to his hand?

“Come on,” said the knight. He put his arm over Syah’s shoulders. With amazed, wide eyes, the prince saw the aged dwarf bow his head deeply and then lift it, watching him with a serene and knowing expression. As Denire turned him, Syah clasped his hand around the carved dragon and bowed his head shakily in return.

 

 

 

 

 

I must confess it. I must write it down. I am not mad, not influenced… well, yes, I am. I have been. I believe. I would never before have thought it was true, I would have thought it was some children’s story or pauper’s myth. It is not. This is the truth, confessed by a prince…

 

Magic is real.

 

Now you understand my premise. But it is true. I have felt it. I have seen it. Magic exists in the world, and it has awakened such a feeling in me that I can barely contain it. So I confess it here, and I will forever uphold it.

I don’t think I could possibly describe it. I feel that it is beyond me to explain. Perhaps that is the point. It has no explanation. It has no reasons. It has no proof. Just the feelings it left, just the memory…

So what does this mean? Shall I spend the rest of my life driven by curiosity, thirsty for another drink of its mystery? If a miracle is possible, what else is? Could a man hold this power over his environment? Can magic be obtained? If this is real, could there be some truth in the myths and legends of ancient stories?

My mind spins with renewing possibilities. I hunger for confirmation, for understanding. Even if magic is not possible for me, is it for some? I feel that I would give anything to feel… to witness it again…

 

For the three brothers,

For the Magic,

Syah, Prince of Arnith

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

THE FINAL BORDER

 

 

Oman opened his eyes to Syah shaking his shoulder. He saw his brother standing over him, the clearing they camped in, and the woods around them lit up with the white light of the moon. He breathed the crisp night air as he sat up, sensing a change in it. A song of wind was whispering through the branches above them.

“Perhaps we should redirect our course, take a shorter route back to the capital,” Syah said in soft tones.

Oman looked at Syah with surprise but held his thoughts.

“These woods are untamed,” Syah said after Oman made no response. “They will only grow wilder the farther west we travel.”

“Yes, the elven woods are forbidding,” Oman answered, remembering their dark, immense forms.

Syah said in a casual tone, “I can see why the thieves are drawn to it.” Oman studied his brother’s face, but Syah’s expression was as calm as his words.

“Sometimes I think you live in books,” Oman scolded. Syah’s expression of wonder changed only slightly. “Get some sleep, Syah. We will talk more on this in the morning.”

Syah laughed, lying down on Oman’s blankets. “Keep watch for Northern Giants.”

Oman’s brows lowered and he stared at Syah with suspicion.

“Something I read in a book,” Syah explained, closing his eyes. Oman pushed his leg and he laughed again, his smile fading as he fell asleep.

 

Syah paid little heed to his horse’s meanderings. His attention was on the scene around them. He had been granted a new vision, a new perception as he gazed upon the wilderness. Questions and realizations entertained him as he examined the trees and wildlife they passed.

How did a tree know to raise its branches? Were the branches whispering something as the breeze moved through them, only in a language he couldn’t understand?

The prince witnessed a group of birds, startled by their approach, jolt into flight from the forest floor. He watched them turn, in unison, and fly together through the trees, turning again and flying out of sight. How could they coordinate so precisely? How could they move together without some superior power directing them?

And could he harness it?

He looked at his brothers. If a creature as simple as a bird could have such a strong connection with its fellows as to move, think, simultaneously with them – couldn’t he and his brothers do the same?

Something caught his attention in the sky above them. It was a bird of prey, a hawk or small eagle, too high up to distinguish. It floated, magnificent, high above the treetops. Some magic had to guide it, cause it to play in its flight, to wander, to explore rather than to merely hunt and sleep. The young prince wanted this power, or at least to understand it, and then it would be his.

 

Fasime led his horse beside the others, watching the trees of the forest become stranger – more gnarled and twisting towards the ground – the farther they pressed. The trees seemed to whisper from behind them, beckoning them back. The woods before them were silent. It was as if the wind was retreating to the familiar lands, while the brothers wandered further away from them.

“I think we should turn back,” Fasime said.

As if he had been having the same argument in his head, Syah responded instantly, “We have not yet reached the final border.”

“I haven’t heard of trees like this in Arnith,” Fasime argued.

Oman examined the view. “We are entering lands adjacent to the outcasts.”

Silenced, they moved their gazes across the view of twisting trees and dark brush before them, but saw nothing threatening aside from the forest’s strangeness.

“What border are we heading for?” Fasime demanded. “How will we know we have passed the boundaries of Algoth’s rule? Must we wait until we see the smoke of the thieves’ camps in a valley below us?” He stopped Lightning with a tug.

Oman released an agitated breath and studied his brother. “So you want to turn back when we are this close to the northern border?” Oman’s voice, flat, pressed Fasime.

“Do you smell that?” Denire’s warning tone startled them. The brothers realized they had forgotten him, following behind them. They wondered at his absence of warnings to this point. He drew level with them, his eyes set on the overgrowth of forest before them. The knight breathed in through his nose, lifting his head. “It’s smoke,” he declared.

Turning, the brothers found it: a faint thread of burning wood through the thick forest air. It signaled habitation, somewhere in the woods ahead of them. Their voices were softer when they spoke again.

“Perhaps it is outcasts, camping in Arnith before returning with the loot they stole from Arnith citizens.” Fasime’s words surrounded them, and the princes’ bodies stiffened.

“No,” said Denire with force. They looked at him, wondering about his reasons.

Oman led his horse forward. “Or it could be members of a western tribe. These lands are unclaimed. They could be trying…”

“No,” the knight said, more loudly still. He moved his horse into their path.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to dwell at Arnith’s northern border,” Fasime added, as if he hadn’t heard Denire.

“You should let it be,” Denire ordered.

“It couldn’t be many of them,” Oman mused, glancing at Fasime.

“No, it would not be safe.”

“We could scout ahead and see how many of them there are.”

“Young sirs,” the knight continued with more strength, looking at each of them in turn, “you have reached your final destination. You have finished your quest as you set out to do.” His eyes stayed on Syah a moment. “Continuing on is both foolish and unnecessary.”

“We should just see, to make sure they are not a threat,” Oman returned.

“It is our duty,” Fasime followed.

“Then we will start back home. This will be the final boundary.”

The knight let out a slow, solemn breath.

“The longer we argue,” the youngest’s voice mixed with his thoughts, “the longer we have to stay in these strange woods.”

“Alright. But you don’t attack them,” Denire said in a firm tone, “no matter what they are. We will simply observe. I will relay the information to the capital when we return. Soldiers of Arnith will deal with them if they are trespassers.”

“Agreed,” Oman replied, the mention of their return stirring the nagging dread within him again.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

THE RIDDLER

 

 

Denire made a movement to turn his horse, but hesitated. His gaze went lax and his breath shallow. Something caught his sight through the trees, though nothing was there.

Oman could guess the knight’s thoughts from the harried streak that flashed in his eyes. The knight glanced at his brothers, then to him. Was he thinking of how he could subdue them, bind and drag them back to the city as he threatened before? Oman straightened in the saddle and stared, unflinching back. Do he really think they would endanger themselves? Oman felt a momentary pang of concern, and his confidence split. Were they truly that reckless? He sensed a cold, growing doubt whispering from the unknown beyond them. Then with rebellious, brash assertion, Oman buried the concern. Nothing would happen. His face hardened.

Don’t try it, his eyes told the knight. It’s not worth breaking your oath now. We haven’t even seen a threat, yet.

Denire’s eyes narrowed, deciding. He regarded Oman a long moment, many words unspoken behind his eyes. “I will lead. Keep an eye on our flanks,” he directed, turning away from the silent princes.

They led their horses with careful steps deeper into the mysterious woods. The horses stepped through ever-thicker brambles. The air, too, seemed thicker. Its staleness made the princes uneasy breathing it. The hint of smoke floating on the air grew stronger as they ventured further, but the princes were distracted from it. The twisting, choking trees reached out to them and caught their legs, the folds of their riding capes. They reached to free themselves from the gray wood’s grasp, wondering if the trees were somehow aware. Their charge of guarding their sides from an ambush was forgotten, their thoughts consumed by the hazard ahead of them and the almost treacherous growth surrounding them.

Denire stopped them with one movement, focused on something ahead. “There,” the knight whispered, pointing to a white stream of smoke rising through the canopy of branches to the gray sky.

The princes advanced beside him. They followed the smoke down, but they could see no blaze of fire that produced it. The smoke seemed to appear from halfway up the trees. They blinked, wondering if their eyes deceived them. Denire dismounted, his eyes locked on the spot where the smoke originated. Like a deer approaching an open glade, he moved towards it with caution. The princes dismounted and led their horses without sound behind him.

The knight’s eyes widened. The curves of the trees took shape – they were the edges and supports, the angles and coverings of a small house, and the smoke was rising from the chimney on the roof. What should have been logs or bricks was an assortment of branches and leaves packed with mud and straw, with wood thatched across the roof. Some of the sticks and logs might not even have been cut down, they realized, tracing the erratic lines of wood and thick, wild vines across the sides of the house. If not for the smoke, they might never have noticed it.

“A dwelling,” Fasime whispered to the thick, smoky air around them.

“Which means it’s not a camp, it’s not thieves,” Oman said.

“Possibly,” muttered Denire, studying the makeshift dwelling.

“Who lives there?” Syah asked. The space in which the house stood wasn’t even really a clearing. There was simply an absence of the twisting trees that were used to shape the house.

“Are they of Arnith?” Oman asked, though nothing of the empty trees around it or the strange making of the structure could tell them.

“Why would they be out here if they were?” Fasime asked.

“People hide for many reasons,” the knight answered.

“Perhaps they live out here to be alone,” Syah suggested.

Fasime gestured North. “But on the way to the outcasts?”

“If they live inside Arnith, they can’t think they will avoid us forever,” Oman said with firmness. “They are a part of Arnith, still.”

“Is it your position to remind them?” Denire demanded of Oman.

“We are…”

“No,” the knight said, with precise emphasis. “You are just three travelers exploring Arnith. You have no authority to disturb them.”

“Unless they are outcasts.” Again it was Fasime who argued.

“Then it is best you leave them alone, for the time being.”

“But how does someone live, out here on the edge of nowhere? They couldn’t possibly trade. What food could they grow or gather? What game is there to be had?” Syah voiced some of the many questions going through his mind.

“And perhaps they are in need of goods,” Fasime suggested.

“We have little enough to last us back to the capital,” Denire warned, agitated. “Besides, it could be a trap.”

All three brothers stared at him. They were already decided.

“What trap would be set out here, in nowhere?” Oman voiced what they were all thinking. He shook his head at the knight, and turned back to the forest house. “Let’s go see if anyone is home.”

Distressed, Denire paused, but only for a moment. He moved in front of the three princes leading their horses to the strange dwelling in the overgrown woods.

What might have been a garden caught their attention as they stepped out of the trees. Half-wild flowers, herbs, mushrooms and mosses grew haphazardly around the vine-covered house, and it was impossible to avoid them. The brothers didn’t recognize any fruits, vegetables or grains among them. Then their attention went to the dwelling. Smoke still rose out of the small chimney above them. They could see crooked windows, but nothing inside them. No sound could be heard from beyond the mud walls. The windows were black with dust or soot and hid what life, if any, was inside.

They tied their horses to one of the twisting branches of the forest, listening for sounds of life or ambush from inside the dwelling. The knight moved to the door, but didn’t open it. He stepped to the side, giving Oman and Fasime a silent, disapproving shake of his head.

They continued to the entrance. Fasime’s hand reached for the handle. Then he lifted his hand in a fist and pounded on the door instead.

There were noises inside the house then. Movement, but not frantic, and perhaps speaking. Then there was a sound from just behind the door, and the princes stepped back. The handle clicked and the door creaked open hesitantly.

Messy yellow hair. A young girl stood in the open doorway. Faint dirt was dried across her thin face and hands, her dress an unknown color, looking as if she might just have emerged out of the dirt of the garden. Except for her eyes: stark gray-blue eyes stared at them. The eyes sharpened, and the skin above them tightened in confusion. Denire’s hand, ready on his sword, loosed from the hilt. The princes, surprised and unprepared for such a sight, could say nothing as she glared at them. Her dirty hand tightened on the handle and she opened her mouth, apparently to demand their immediate disappearance.

“Girl,” a woman’s voice said from deeper into the room. At first it seemed the voice had come from the child – an unsettling thought – but she closed her mouth. “Let them come in.” The tenseness on the girl’s face subsided, replaced by confused curiosity and lack of hospitality as she stepped back inside.

The princes stood at the threshold, contemplating entering. The young girl didn’t linger for them by the door. She retreated into the darkness of the hut. They saw her outline and her tangled yellow hair as she sat on the wooden floor, then her eyes, glowing like a wild creature’s. Oman and Fasime glanced at each other to see if fear rested on the other’s face, as if it would reflect their own.

“Please come in,” the woman’s voice, smooth, beckoned from the shadows. “Travelers are welcome here, though few they may be.”

Fasime and Oman glanced at Denire, to see if he had a warning for them now. He stood there stolidly, without blinking, till they turned their gazes back. Oman stepped inside, then Fasime, welcomed by the agonizing creak of the floorboard.

They stepped away from the doorway, into the smoky darkness, hearing two more creaks behind them. Their eyes went to a low fire burning beneath a cauldron in the hearth that lit the darkness little. But their sight adjusted to it, and they noticed another figure beside the young girl, seated on a chair by the fire. They first noticed her hands, small and aged, training a thread through a cloth and then out again. Then her garments, a tapestry of different faded colors all around her. Then her face, with thin, white hair trailing down her back.

“Please, sit with us by the fire,” she said and looked up at them. Their breath stopped at her eyes, the color of fog at dusk, seeming to glow in the faint light of the fire. Even the pupils, which should have been black and deep, were a film of gray, and the brothers wondered how well she could see them.

They were able to discern some of the inside of the hut now. Dust and soot darkened everything, as if from disuse, as if no one truly lived there. The inside walls were much like the outside, held together with mud and small trees, with little care to cut them. The hearth was made of small stones. For furnishings, there were two straw mats in the corners, a small table without chairs, and some jars and cups on a rough shelf along one wall.

Encouraged, yet embarrassed, the brothers glanced at each other. They moved to sit before the woman, whose eyes followed them. Now they could study her face. The bones of it were meagerly covered with thin, aged skin, like a snake that should have shed cycles ago. Her face was human, they noted, but somehow she still seemed a trespasser. Her lips moved a little as if she were speaking, but she was silent. Looking down, they saw her hands kept moving restlessly on her lap, even after she stopped threading the needle through the pieces of cloth.

“Have you traveled far? And where are you going?” the old woman asked, and they realized her voice was out of place. They expected a crackle, like the last fire in a forgotten room of the castle, or a whisper, like a wild river flowing through the forest, but her voice was neither. It was strong and pleasant, hinting at cordiality and intelligence. They were so interested in it that they forgot she had questioned them, until Denire answered from behind them.

“We have traveled for half a season, and are about to return home.” The foggy eyes lifted to him, standing above the young men.

“I hope you are not far from home now,” she said and the edges of her lips lifted slightly. She didn’t look directly at him. “Girl, serve them some stew from the pot.” The woman’s voice changed to a simple, unremarkable order, and the yellow-haired girl rose and walked to the end of the hut. “I expect you are hungry and weary from your journey. Please share our meal with us, though we cannot offer much.” Her voice hinted some sorrow, and her eyes shifted to the young girl as she passed with cups in her hands.

“Do you live here alone?” Syah asked her, surprised at the raucous sound of his own voice.

“Yes,” she answered, as if to herself. Her eyes moved to the youngest traveler and she seemed about to speak, but her lips moved slightly and she was silent. Risking rudeness, Syah lifted his gaze again to her eyes, staring and wondering. His brothers shifted in the comfortable silence. Syah thought, for a moment, he saw a darkness of color amid the pale shades of her eyes, like the flipping of a coin. He blinked and lowered his gaze. It was a play of light.

“Here,” the girl said in a brash tone, handing them each a steaming something in hand-molded cups. Unfamiliar smells wafted from the cups, their scent diverting the travelers’ attention from the strange woman. Oman and Fasime lifted the mugs to test their contents when they heard a soft sound, like a grunt, from behind them. They lowered their cups and looked at the woman and girl, trying to ignore the knight.

“We have jerky we can share,” Oman said to distract them from the knight’s discourtesy.

Denire smelled the cup and then sipped it, letting the liquid play across his tongue as they spoke.

The woman’s eyes moved to the eldest. “No, traveler, that is much too difficult for me. But perhaps for the child.” Her voice was whispering elegance and mystery again. She looked over to Fasime as he shifted, taking something out from his shirt. The young girl stopped before him warily.

“It’s venison, half a moon made, but it’s still good,” he told her and held it out. She paused, looking away from his face, and then reached for a piece of it. Fasime noticed how thin her arm and her fingers were. He thought of asking her name, but realized no introductions had been given. It was better that way, so they didn’t have to lie. She grasped a piece and then looked up at him, for as long as a fish jumps out of water for a fly. She turned, with the jerky in hand, and seated herself beside the old woman’s chair again. She clutched the wood, chewing the piece of jerky and watching the strangers seated before her.

Denire swallowed and then exhaled audibly. They didn’t chance affirming glances to each other, or an accusing glance to the knight. They lifted their mugs and tasted the woman’s stew.

They feared for a moment they might offend their host. The stew wasn’t rancid or tart; it was its unfamiliarity and texture that struck them. They tasted a spoonful of herbs and possibly mushrooms, no meat or vegetables for flavor or sustenance. But they managed to swallow it without a grimace. They looked at the woman in perplexity that she had any flesh on her at all. Denire set down his cup casually on a ledge, as if he were finished with it, and didn’t lift it again.

“It is nice to have company. We get so few visitors,” the woman commented. She glanced down at the girl, and the brothers realized she had been waiting on them to eat till she spoke.

“Why do you stay so far away from any city?” Syah asked her. After a moment, when she didn’t respond, he added, “If you were closer to a northern village, people would know of you and visit you more often.”

She let out a long breath that couldn’t have been a sigh of her lungs, but of her bones. “I belong out here. If people want to see me, they will have to come live here.”

“Are you of Arnith?” Fasime asked her.

“Ah,” she sighed, and her gaze slid over him. “How can we belong to a name? I am of lands with gray skies and twisting trees. I am of the forests that have no name.”

“But you are aware you dwell in Arnith?” Oman questioned.

“Yes,” she answered, lingering her ‘s’ like a snake’s hissing. “Arnith is an ancient kingdom, older than most of my trees.”

“Then why doesn’t it know of you? If you live within Arnith’s borders, then you need to claim your rights and your responsibilities.”

Her eyes drifted away from Oman’s face and stared off beside him, as if she thought she looked into his eyes.

“What would Arnith have of us? We care not for concerns of leadership, and leadership has no concerns for us. We need no currency, and we have none to pay as tribute.”

“If you care not for your kingdom, then you should not dwell there.” Oman’s tone was severe, and Fasime and Syah reproved him with a glance. He leaned back as he realized his rudeness.

The woman paused, leaning back a little as well. “Do you think I am trespassing?” she asked him in a calm voice.

Oman waited, feeling his brothers shift uneasily beside him. “I don’t know,” he answered at last.

“Well, perhaps I don’t know either,” she said with a small smile, making Oman relax a little. “But if a trespasser I am, what does that mean for you?” One of her hands motioned to the soldier behind them, but she didn’t look at him.

“As a servant of Arnith, I would require you to claim your loyalties. Or,” the knight paused with a glance at the princes, “I would be forced to relocate you.”

“Well, then,” she said immediately, with no nervousness or malice in her words, “I should prove my loyalties, shouldn’t I?” Her face turned to them, her expression both playful and challenging.

The soldier didn’t answer. He became more stern and suspicious.

“How will you do that?” Syah asked. She set the thread and cloth down and rested her hands on top of it.

“I know some things of Arnith you might not ever have heard. Ancient things that shape history, or just simply exist. If I could tell you such a story of Arnith, would it prove I belong here?”

“Perhaps,” Denire answered after a silence, his tone softening as he watched the strange woman closely.

“I can tell you a story forgotten by Arnith’s historians. Vines now grow on the vaults that keep this story from degrading.” She paused, seeming to study them with her lifeless eyes. “Are you sure you will trust me with your story? A story can change a person, stay with them, follow them through life.”

“Stories can only take you where you wish to go,” Syah answered her. Fasime and Oman glanced at him. It was one of the White Cane’s antics.

“Very well,” her lips pressed together, still a moment.

“There once was a man

Wisdom in his eyes

Strength in his arms

He drained his blood

To feed his land

And it became prosperous.”

The old woman’s voice changed, became taut, disturbed, tentative.

“There once was a man

Three sons were his

Enough to inherit his legacy

But they couldn’t keep it

Promises that can’t be kept

Wash blood from their hands.”

The princes stopped eating. The comfort from the warm fire and the strange house vanished.

“The man loved each of them

The man wanted to give them all

To pass his life to their future

Three sons each with strength

And possession

Wash blood from their hands.”

More light seemed to come from the fire, though it hadn’t been stoked. They could see her entire form clearly, seated motionless in the chair. Except for her hands, moving meaninglessly before her, and her colorless eyes, shifting from one to the other of them.

“The man loved each of them

They owned their destiny

But the story is wrought with loss

The father will fall

And his heir will follow

And the next, again and again.”

The old woman looked at Oman.

“Their love betrayed them

Promises that couldn’t be kept

Wash blood from their hands

They will fall

Until the man’s lineage is finally broken

And the next, again and again.”

Fasime’s jaw tightened when her eyes went to him.

“Ruin and anger appall the skies

Like a desert void of life

The sun is ready to warm

But nothing is there

Nothing reaches towards its rays

In darkness, it has all been slain –

For one brother will betray the others with such treachery that it will change the destiny of Miscia forever.”

The gray eyes turned towards Syah, sadness somehow in their wrinkled outlines, and anger like unseen light within them. There was a long moment of silence as she stared into Syah’s face again, this time suggestions of emotion playing across the thin skin of her face.

“Who was the wise man?” Syah asked her in little more than a whisper.

“Well,” she answered, disappointed yet threatening, “he was a king. Three kings born from one.”

Hot stew fell and splashed across the floor. Legs forced shocked bodies to stand and swords were drawn without thought.

“What do you mean by this?” Oman’s shaken voice demanded, too stunned to shout.

“It is a story,” the old woman told him.

“How could you say such things?” Fasime yelled. The woman didn’t acknowledge him, her eyes on Syah. Anger surged through him and his hand tightened on his sword. “One motion and it will be over, woman.”

Fasime’s eyes and aim flicked to the girl, not considering her a target, but surprised by her lack of response to their threatening swords above her. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t leaned back away from the brothers’ angry glares and shouting. Perhaps her hand gripped the wood of the chair tighter, but her face was calm as she met Fasime’s eyes. This time it was Fasime who tore his gaze away, back to the old woman unarmed and vulnerable beside her fire. Then Fasime noticed with disquieting unease she was threading the needle through the cloth on her lap again. Enraged, Fasime raised his arm for the strike.

“No, Fasime!” It was Syah. He clung to Fasime’s arm so he couldn’t complete the swing.

“Syah!” he cried, frenzy streaking through his eyes.

“It’s a lie, Fasime. There’s no such story.”

Was the wood floor unsteady beneath them? The last lingering taste of the strange stew returned, souring. Syah’s hand loosed from Fasime’s shoulder.

“She has no right to speak such words!” Oman shouted.

“No, leave it be!” Denire tried to block the brothers.

The old woman’s eyes left Syah, but her thoughts were still bent towards him, penetrating him. He felt a pulse of apprehension, as if he was alone in a dark room and heard a footstep near him or felt a queer brush against his skin.

“Get out of my way, knight!” Fasime’s voice betrayed his rage.

“Don’t! We’re getting out of here, now!

Syah was transfixed. He was still partially aware that he stood in the hut beside his brothers, aware they were threatening the woman, arguing with Denire, but his mind was being pulled away.

“Let me go! I’ll see her blood before I leave!”

“No! Get out!”

He was drifting back into darkness and fear. His eyes, wide and unblinking, focused on nothing. He was about to look upon the answer, or his own death.

“Syah!” Denire’s hand grasped his arm and the young prince blinked. Syah found he hadn’t been gazing towards the dark wall of the hut, but into the gray eyes of the old woman. A shock went through the prince’s body. He saw into the woman’s eyes – a living darkness that matched the despair and fear into which he felt himself sinking. He was a fly, hopelessly trapped by the intent, black stare of the spider. Denire’s grip tightened, wrapping the boy’s body with both arms. But it wasn’t Denire turning him that made Syah lose the sight of the riddler. His closing eyes and collapsing head concealed the terrible vision.

He saw a blurry view of Oman and Fasime outside as Denire pulled him through the door. Oman looked as if he had just risen from being tossed on the ground, his face red with anger. Fasime stood blocking his way, but seemed he was about to turn and storm back into the house himself.

Denire and Syah took a few steps outside. Syah’s stomach lurched and he pulled away from the knight. His legs grew weak and he fell to his knees, then leaned forward and disgorged his stomach’s contents. Denire knelt beside him, placing a hand on his back.

“Are you alright?” Denire asked when Syah’s vomiting calmed. The prince didn’t answer, but weakly pushed himself to his feet. Oman and Fasime came to them, their anger replaced by concern, allowing a moment before Denire had to deal with them.

“What happened to you?” Fasime asked, touching the frozen pallor of Syah’s face. He handed Syah a canteen and let him rinse his mouth.

“Help Syah mount,” Denire ordered, pushing the youngest toward his brothers. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

The elder brothers took Syah between them and started for the horses.

Oman turned and saw Denire wasn’t following them. “What are you doing?”

“Just go,” the knight commanded. Denire stood firm with one hand on his sword, blocking the path back to the old woman’s home. Oman and Fasime, princes though they were, didn’t disobey.

Denire approached the house warily. One ear listened behind him to hear if the princes would follow, the other listened for any signs of movement from within the small hut. He forced open the door without warning, stepped inside to the dim interior and shut the door behind him.

It was almost utterly dark. The fire in the hearth had mostly gone out. He might have missed the light from the door, except that he knew where his target was. She was still seated in the chair by the fireplace. Although she did not watch him enter, he sensed she was aware of his every movement. He saw the yellow hair of the girl beside her. The girl was harmless. His gaze returned to the dark outline of the woman in the chair.

“You shouldn’t have spoken those words. They were a threat towards the king,” the knight said in a measured voice. He paused, giving her a chance to speak. She said nothing at first, and Denire thought for a moment that she would ignore him.

“It is a history, not a threat,” she finally answered, her brief words looming through the darkness like cobwebs.

The knight’s anger heightened. “What other king of Arnith has had three sons? You dishonor the Anterian bloodline by suggesting treachery in their house, and by claiming you are a citizen of Arnith!” The knight stepped forward, the hut shifting under his weight.

“It is you who questioned my presence and demanded I prove my loyalties.”

“Your loyalties certainly don’t lie in Arnith,” he returned.

“So,” her words like a thread, snagged out to him, “what is the penalty for words in your kingdom?”

He paused. “It depends,” he answered, loosening his tight grip on the hilt, “on their purpose. Since yours is unknown, I will spare you, for now. But you have been warned – you are not welcome in Arnith, and if Arnithian soldiers pass this way, your punishment will be served.”

The knight shuddered as he stood there, and his brows lowered at the silence in the small house. He imagined the princes outside, startled by a terrible cry of death from the old woman. With effort, he loosened his hands off the hilt. He turned and moved back towards the door, his steps creaking the floorboards.

“It seems,” the woman’s words enveloped him as he reached for the handle, “that we all may receive our punishment, one day.”

His hand shook on the handle as he pulled the door open, then he stepped through and slammed it behind him.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CONSEQUENCES

 

 

Oman and Fasime were standing by their horses when Denire found them. They were watching him, concern and confusion on their faces. They were standing beside Syah, mounted but leaning forward in the saddle – probably the only reason they didn’t return to the darkness of the woman’s hut. Denire went to them with haste.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said and untied his horse. He mounted and looked back to the princes, who stood unmoving, their faces questioning. But he didn’t speak to them, and they turned and mounted. In silence, thoughtful, they left the yard of the stick-and-mud hut and started the trek back through the twisting woods.

 

Syah rode, following, dazed and dizzy. All the dark trees seemed exactly the same. He was grateful the knight and his brothers seemed confident of the direction that would lead them out of the strange woods. They had spoken little since they had started back, aside from a stray comment on the old woman’s meddling. Syah felt her eyes could still be on him, but his strength was returning the farther south they rode.

“She probably recognized us and decided to frighten us with that story,” commented Fasime for the dozenth time.

“We should have made her pay when we had the chance.” Oman glared at the knight, who didn’t acknowledge him.

“She told us the story right after we accused her of being a trespasser. She probably said it to distract us.”

“You’re right, she didn’t like being confronted.”

Gray eyes with sudden black pupils of depth and warning… Syah tried to close his eyes to the memory of them.

Their ravings calmed for a while, their minds drifting to the forest and the memory of unspeakable thoughts.

 

We should rest,” Fasime stated. They realized they had ridden almost the length of the nameless woods without a break.

“A short one,” Oman amended, and dismounted. Brush-covered ground became their seat, as they quenched their thirst and hunger. Fasime remembered the jerky he had given the girl and only ate a bite of it.

“What drove that woman to say those things?” Fasime demanded yet again of the stark silence.

“There was no sense in her words. Her story could have never happened, and is impossible,” Syah added. He was answered with surprised looks from Fasime and Denire, for it was the first time he had spoken since they’d left the woman’s house. There was no response, so Syah thought he might have ended the discussion. But he caught a strange look from his oldest brother. Syah’s brows lowered, though he didn’t realize why at first, seeing something dark brewing in his brother’s mind. What bleak concern will he worry over now?

But there was something else. Syah realized Oman wasn’t reliving his childhood sicknesses, nor anticipating his problems to come. He was gazing at Syah, here and now, seeming to question him. Oman frowned then too, tensing. What was wrong? Oman didn’t look away, didn’t falter as his scrutiny of Syah intensified.

“What is it?” Syah asked without force.

Oman’s eyes gave his only answer. They grew harsh and liquid, and his face tightened with accusation. Syah glanced at Fasime for explanation, but his dark-haired brother refused to meet his eyes.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Syah insisted, with heightening agitation and desperation. But he stopped, his mind answering his question within. His eyes widened with astonished realization.

It was the old woman.

They think… “And his heir will fall, and the next, again and again.” Syah’s chest sucked in a horrified breath. “Washing blood from their hands.” Syah’s body jerked up, tottering a moment on sick legs.

Oman followed him, his hot eyes still set on his brother’s face. “And one brother will betray the others with such treachery…” But they couldn’t think… Oman stepped closer to Syah. “Three kings born from one.”

Syah cried out, and his hands flew to his head. The story was about him! They couldn’t possibly think he would… Syah glanced at Oman, whose face was still suspicious. He looked as if he was about to expend all his power to defend the throne of Arnith from treachery.

Anger flashed through Syah, quick as his shock, as powerful as his feeling of disgust. It was her fault! Her wicked words pointed to him, accused him, the youngest and furthest from the throne! Rage and fire were on his face as he drew his sword, calculating the distance back to her hut, the force needed to end her life.

“She’ll pay for her words!” Syah vowed to the emerging shadows of dusk as he turned towards his horse. He vaguely heard the knight cautioning him, then trying to restrain him. Syah pushed him away and started back for his horse. “I’ll make her regret her lies!” Syah cried.

Then Oman was before him. Syah saw a streak of the lines on his angry face and then the colors of his fist before it slammed into his cheek. Then all he saw was red.

Denire reached them as Syah’s body fell to the ground. The knight stared at Oman without words. Then Syah groaned. He was trying to push himself up, but his arm faltered and he caught himself on his elbows with a gasp. Denire knelt down and grabbed his arm, half keeping him where he was, and half preventing him from collapsing into the dirt. Then his attention returned to the eldest, and glared all the thoughts he would not speak – disbelief and anger.

Oman’s lips tightened. “We are not going back there,” he said by way of apology, and turned away from them. Denire sighed in relief and pulled Syah to his feet.

Syah still held his face and was barely aware of being moved. Denire pulled him to the mare with a rough grip. The boy’s eyes opened as the knight hoisted him up to the saddle. Denire moved the mare’s reins as Syah lowered his hands to balance himself with the saddle’s horn.

Syah felt Denire leave him. He thought about reaching for the reins and pushing the mare back to the old woman’s house, but Denire returned before his body could catch up to his mind. The knight reached for Syah’s hands, not meeting his eyes. Denire’s grasp tightened on his wrists, and then a length of rope. Syah tried to pull his hands free but was snagged.

“Denire!” he cried. He struggled, but watched in vain as his wrists were wrapped with the rope, which was then looped around the horn. Syah turned his head, wanting to call on his brothers for aid, but the ache in his jaw prevented him. “No, Denire, don’t!” he ordered, trying to find a loose strand around his wrists.

“It’s only until we leave this forest,” Fasime’s voice said from behind him, sympathetic but stern. Syah turned his head, wincing with pain as he moved, seeing Fasime ride his horse into sight and then stop beside him.

Fasime’s face was kinder now. The anger clouding Syah’s mind dispersed, replaced by a cold, frightened feeling.

“Why did…” Syah didn’t finish, realizing he didn’t want the answer.

Pain was in Syah’s eyes, but not the pain of flesh and muscle. This was deeper.

“We couldn’t let you return to the woman’s house, however much she deserved your wrath.” Syah shut his eyes tightly and lowered his head, release audible in his sigh. Then Syah’s face grew rigid.

“But, Fasime… You seemed to… Oman thought that I…” He could barely utter the words without his lips trembling and his eyes filling.

“No, Syah,” Fasime interrupted with sternness. “We knew you hadn’t yet realized what that cursed woman meant, and we had to deal with your reaction.”

“You don’t think that…” Syah hesitantly kept Fasime’s gaze.

“No,” Fasime answered in a firm voice. “Of course not.” He grasped Syah’s arm a moment, staring earnestly into his eyes.

Syah nodded, much of the darkness leaving his thoughts. “Fasime,” he said, after his brother released him, “untie me.”

“Not until we are out of this forest,” Fasime answered, reaching for the mare’s reins.

“Please, Fasime!” Syah’s voice was shaky and resentful.

“No.” Fasime pulled the reins over the mare’s head and gave them a soft tug to let her know he would lead her.

“But, Fasime…” Syah persisted as he watched his brother start his horse and lead the mare behind him. Fasime did not answer him and did not turn around again. Syah looked down and tried to pull his hands from the ropes.

“Don’t,” Denire said from his flank, “or I’ll tie them tighter.”

With a low groan, Syah faced their forward journey. He heard Oman’s horse behind them and remembered his accusing eyes. He hoped Fasime was right. Despite the pain in his cheek, he reminded himself that Oman always had a strange way of trying to protect him.

 

Daylight escaped beyond the horizon by the time they passed out of the strange forest. They continued in darkness, not wanting to camp near the dark forest’s eerie silence. The faint light from the half moon and distant stars faded, and the sky was shrouded by an unknown blackness. But they recognized where they were now, and stopped to rest for the night under tall trees with a thick canopy of branches over them.

Syah lifted his head and watched as Fasime and Denire dismounted, probably waiting for them to untie him. Syah looked at Oman with a defensive expression when he nudged his horse beside him. Oman lowered himself from the saddle and turned to his brother. Syah’s chest and face tightened in fearful anticipation. Oman realized Syah felt vulnerable, afraid he would be struck again. Syah startled, but settled again when the eldest laid his hands on his wrists. Oman’s hands felt the knots and followed the ropes around his brother’s hands. As he loosened them he met Syah’s gaze. The younger seemed teetering somewhere between sadness and anger, but mostly was weary. He lifted his wrists and rubbed them thankfully after Oman had freed them.

Syah hesitated when Oman held out his hand, then took it and let Oman help him down. Oman led him away from the horses. Fasime took them to be tied for the night.

Oman stopped and faced Syah. He did not draw away, his weariness now winning over his other emotions. The eldest lifted a hand to his brother’s bruised cheek, flushed and darkened now. Oman brushed his thumb under Syah’s eye and down his cheek. Syah only tensed a moment as Oman traced his bruise. It wasn’t done as a test, but as an acknowledgment, and then Oman moved his hand to Syah’s shoulder. He watched Syah frown and close his eyes, as if he were blinking away his pain.

“You didn’t have to hit me,” Syah spoke in a tentative tone.

Oman smiled a little, squeezing his neck. “Yes, I did. You were about to gallop alone into dangerous lands. You would have gotten yourself lost, captured, or killed.”

Syah sighed. He made as if to draw away but Oman didn’t release him. “You were angry with her, too.”

Oman nodded. “But you shouldn’t have been,” Oman said, forcing Syah to meet his gaze, seeing his confused face. “My brother the thinker,” Oman said with pride, not scorn, laying his hand lightly on Syah’s head, “letting her false words affect you, letting your anger control you.” Oman’s voice became more serious. “You shouldn’t have let her, or us, make you lose your head. Your reason is your greatest strength.” Oman paused a moment, watching Syah’s face calm. He waited until Syah nodded, halfheartedly, and then added, “From now on, you need to use your wits to keep us all in check.”

Syah bowed his head in thought. He wouldn’t look at Oman as he asked it. “So you don’t believe the woman’s words?” Oman’s eyes widened and his hand loosened on his neck. Whether he paused out of shock and distress from the question or to quench an uncertainty of the answer, Syah couldn’t tell. Oman only left himself a moment.

“No,” Oman answered. “Don’t ever think that.” He swallowed, glancing down a moment, troubled. “Our brother the thinker,” he said, his voice regaining its strength and reassuming his grip. “You know her words were lies.” He leaned forward, pain in his eyes until Syah nodded, then he nodded as well. They lowered their heads, resting their foreheads against each other and realizing the hardship they had caused each other that day. They both breathed deeply and Syah blinked stray tears blink from his eyes. Oman released him before he lost to the tears himself.

“Come on,” Oman said. He put an arm around Syah’s shoulder. “Help me build a fire.”

 

 

 

There they are, the words I wrote so plainly on the page. Magic is real, Magic is real, Magic is real! I desire to rip out the paper from its binding, strip the confession from existence.

But I will not. The feeling is still hot in my memory, and even though I now dread it, I will not deny it. I wish I had never seen it.

It doesn’t matter. Just one thing… The riddler lies. She had to have been… But…

I don’t know what to write, or what not to. I will not empower it by giving it words on this page. I will not. I will strike it from my mind.

If I can…

 

I would never… no. I will not speak of it. They know my heart, my mind…

 

For the three brothers,

Syah, Prince of Arnith

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

THE RETURN

 

 

The rain was their welcome back to familiar lands. It poured down in sheets with the wind, as if it was determined to wash all the filth of travel off the princes before they returned home from their journey. But the cleansing quality of the rain quickly changed. It gusted at them and, despite their hoods, riding cloaks and clothes, it wasn’t long before the chill saturated them.

Strikes of lightning from the storm became closer and louder, startling the horses, especially the stallion. Though they were riding through the drenched forest with care, a clap of thunder would cause Lightning to bolt into the trees, and several times to rear up in fear. Fasime looked very weary by the time they stopped to rest in the partial dryness by the trunk of a large tree.

“It will be nice to be inside again, to sleep in our own beds,” Oman said, shivering. He sat against the tree, his hands too numb to remove his soaked cloak.

“And not to have to worry about the perils of the wilderness,” Syah added. He sat down beside the eldest, not removing his cloak either.

They opened their eyes at the sound of the knight groaning over his efforts to light a fire. They watched him toss pieces of wood after failing to ignite the spark of fire over it. “It’s all soaked,” he grieved, dropping down next to Fasime. Staring off through the trees into the sheets of rain, the knight slumped in defeated against the tree.

Too miserable, too cold for sleep, they watched the relentless rain trap the forest under its spell. The trees and plants on the forest floor seemed to be rejoicing. The thunder subsided. They could now hear a chorus of unseen birds applauding the clouds for their good aim. Though they couldn’t shake the cold, they found comfort in witnessing their lands teem with life under the spring rains.

“Well, we’ll have no warm food tonight,” Fasime told them drearily. With clumsy hands he took out food and the canister of water. “It’s cold, like everything tonight.” He passed the food and their chilled bodies stubbornly ate it. “I hope this rain doesn’t continue into the morrow,” he said, giving up on the fruit and meat and placing it into a pocket. “I can’t stand much more of this.”

“We’ll be back at the castle soon, nonetheless,” Denire told him, looking at him with tired eyes.

Syah cleared his throat. “The bad weather is slowing us down,” he informed them, and took a drink of the water.

“We won’t see the elven forests,” Fasime commented, closing his eyes, all the places they had seen revisited in his mind.

Syah grunted, caught his breath. “You have already seen them,” he retorted, but his words were strained and he coughed to clear his lungs. But the cough persisted, became deeper, and he received stark looks from three sets of worried eyes. The coughing calmed and he shook his head, but his face was pained and they saw both his arms were wrapped around his chest.

“Syah,” Oman said, as if he had done something wrong.

“I’m alright,” Syah snapped, frustrated with himself. He tried to hide his discomfort and sit up. Watching him, they realized they had forgotten his fractured ribs, and they pushed him to ride although it pained him. Still, he hadn’t complained, or given any hint of discomfort, easing their impression of his recovery.

“You aren’t feeling the chills, are you, Syah?” Fasime questioned and gave him a serious look.

“Oh, Fasime, of course he is!” Oman cried, and pushed himself off the tree. “With this blasted rain soaking us, we are all chilled to the bone!” Oman threw aside a pile of damp brush and found dry earth. Denire and Fasime joined him, feeling along the ground for twigs and sticks. Syah closed his eyes a long moment and then pushed himself up to help them.

“No, Syah, we’ll start it, sit and rest,” Oman admonished him, struggling to strike a spark from his flint and light a pile of brush. Syah grumbled something in a language they didn’t understand and opened his pack. They stopped, watching him with questioning expressions a moment as he took out his journal. They watched him gaze at a page a breath and then turn to the back, only to tear out several of its blank pages.

Sensing them staring at him, wordless, he took the flint from Oman. With one flick of it, Syah set his pages burning. He laid the paper under the twigs and brush, then watched them catch fire. As he reached to arrange sticks over it, he looked up at Oman, then at Fasime. They had no words to thank him, they just opened their hands to the warmth of his fire’s blaze.

 

The brothers’ hearts leapt. They saw places they could name and things that held memory. The weather had improved. Now it held them as periodic fog and constant chill wind from the south, as winter’s last sigh before it faded into slumber. Still, they hastened their pace towards it, sensing home was closer and closer, and knowing soon they would look upon it again.

“We are near the capital,” Denire said, in a voice that made them turn to him. His eyes were focused on the forest beyond. “There are soldiers patrolling,” he explained, gesturing towards the south.

The princes turned to see mounted men, barely discernible through the trees. But they could see the deep blue of their kingdom in their livery, they could tell by the confident movement of the horses that they were Anteria’s guards. The patrol drew nearer and the brothers’ shoulders and arms went lax. It was as though some tension raking them was released at the sight of their kingdom’s soldiers.

“They’ve spotted us,” Fasime said with joy, watching the soldiers turn their horses.

“Oh, no!” Syah voiced his thoughts aloud. “We were supposed to return separately!”

“Wait!” Oman cried, watching the riders increase their speed as they galloped towards them. “Those soldiers were looking for us.”

“It’s them!” one of the soldiers cried. “They’re alive! They’re alive!”

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

DISGRACE

 

 

The guards took the princes and the knight quickly through the castle. A growing unease pulsed inside Syah, seeing the castle workers stop and stare as they passed. The guards seemed to be rushing them. A few maids gave out cries of joy after seeing the princes pass, and Syah looked back at them. That confirmed it. It had been discovered they were missing, and many people must have worried, all the days and nights since then.

Syah turned and took a deep breath, preparing himself for what he knew was about to happen. Soon they were passing through the doors of the throne room. In spite of his nervousness, Syah felt relief for finishing the journey and setting eyes on his parents. But his father’s face, his mother’s… they were full of sorrow and disbelief. For a moment the great hall was silent.

“My sons!” the king exclaimed, rising to his feet. The brothers stopped before them, now fully realizing the consequences of their escape.

“They are alive!” the queen choked, as if she didn’t trust herself to speak the words aloud.

Syah felt the king’s gaze fall on him. His father’s eyes seemed to penetrate deep into his. Syah’s face fell in guilt, and he found it difficult to look his father in the eye. Syah tensed and hung his head. The king stood rigid by the throne, the obligations of father and king frozen by surprise and emotion.

The queen approached Fasime, closest to her. She moved as if trying to handle some wild beast that would flee at any movement. Her breath was shaky and shallow, but he made no movement to reassure her. Her desperate eyes pleaded for an answer. She touched his arm, then held his face. “Fasime!” She laughed and cried as she wrapped her arms around him.

The queen didn’t notice Fasime not returning her embrace. She released him and went to her first-born son. “Oman!” she sobbed, tears falling down her face now. She embraced him closely. Oman’s body shrank and weakened in her shaking hold. He nearly fell forward when she let him go, his breath stolen from him.

Then she went to Syah, caught his shoulders. “Oh, Syah!” she cried, and took him in her arms. The young prince was unable to keep his body from shaking. Her weeping ceased and she drew away from him

“My sons,” she said as she lifted his gaze up to her own. Syah looked up at her, but how could he hide his thoughts? Her joy faded, her face questioning, anxious.

His mother’s growing confusion twisted Syah’s insides. He wished he hadn’t returned, or that he could just go to his room and be forgotten. He lowered his head. She looked away from him, to Oman, then to Fasime. Her hands dropped away from Syah and she moved back.

“Where have you been?” she asked in a hushed tone.

“Fenar, notify the city the princes have returned,” the king said to one of the guards.

“Your majesty,” the guard said, bowing, “they already know. Can you hear the bells?”

The king turned to the window. They all fell silent, listening to the mix of chiming bells coming from the city. The king nodded and looked back to his sons.

The queen tried to find the answer on their faces.

“Were… were you captured by the enemy?” Syah couldn’t answer her. He sank, lowering himself until he knelt before her. Oman and Fasime hid their faces from her, kneeling on the floor of the throne room beside their younger brother. She gazed at them, afraid, half wishing to embrace them, half driven to withdrawing.

“Serigonia,” Algoth called her. His voice summoned her from a dizzying confusion. His face was strong and sad as he held his hand out to her. Without looking back at her sons she returned to him. He held her hand briefly and then motioned her to sit next to him.

The king’s attention returned to his sons. They had not moved, kneeling with their eyes on the floor. Algoth paused a moment, studying them. “It has been forty nights since the princes of Anteria disappeared. Soldiers and servants have searched for you in the city, forest, camps, and towns of Arnith. They all returned without word of you. We feared you were dead or captured. But now you have returned. You come before us and you seem unharmed. Oman, rise and address me. Where have you been?”

Oman felt a chill but he forced himself to stand. He tried to remain steady, feeling he was more a servant than a son of the king. “We were not captured,” Oman responded in forced words. The king raised his head. “We left of our own free will.”

The king closed his eyes briefly. “Why?” he demanded. “Where did you go?”

Oman tried to suppress a shudder. Answers were caught in his throat and he had to lower his gaze. “We stayed in Arnith,” he said, choking on the words. “It was my idea, to explore the kingdom.”

The king didn’t reply at first, rubbing his face. “So the military training, the hunting trip…”

“We fabricated them so that no one would realize we were missing. We… we never meant to make you worry.” Murmurs arose from the servants and guards in the hall. Oman saw the pain on his mother’s face.

“The kingdom feared its heirs had suffered a terrible fate… and you tell us that you planned it? Oman, I am disappointed in you! A leader has more responsibility to his subjects. The skies have had mercy on Anteria by returning you home safe, but how could you put yourself and your brothers in danger? How could you leave the castle alone in a time of war?”

Oman looked as though he had been struck. Algoth could see him quivering. The king was about to press him, when someone from behind his sons interrupted him…

“Your majesty.” A roughly dressed soldier stepped forward.

“Why do you address me now?” Algoth said in a fierce tone.

“King Algoth,” the solider said, bowing, “your sons were not alone.”

“What?”

“Your sons have been under my watch.”

“Who are you?” Algoth demanded.

“I am Denire Sharlane. I am a knight of Arnith. I was with your sons on their journey.”

The king stood up. “A knight of Arnith? You… helped them plan this?”

Syah looked up sharply.

“I was their guide,” was Denire’s answer.

Syah focused on the knight. He began to stand, but something held him. “Wait,” Fasime whispered from beside him.

“You allowed our kingdom’s heirs to go into danger?”

“Yes,” Denire answered.

Syah gasped, but Fasime held him again. “Stop, Syah. This was his choice.”

“And you helped them leave the city?” the king demanded.

“No, your majesty, I joined them afterward.”

“Why did you let them do this? You vowed to protect them!”

“I couldn’t return to warn you without losing them. I stayed with them to ensure their safety.”

“Unacceptable! Every step they took farther from the capital, the more endangered they were. What motivation did you have to lead them through danger? Did you hope for a confrontation to prove your valor? You have broken your oath as a knight. You are a traitor to Arnith!”

“No!” Syah cried, and before Fasime could stop him, he was moving toward the king. “He did it to protect us.”

The king turned to him. “Syah, this is no longer your affair. Step back!” he ordered. Syah stopped when Oman came up beside him and grabbed his shoulder. “It is one thing for my sons, young men, boys, to recklessly delve into danger,” the king said, eyeing each of them. “It is quite another for one of my own knights to betray me.”

Syah’s eyes were growing wide, sensing what his father was about to say. Oman must have seen Syah’s thoughts on his face. He forced Syah to meet his gaze. “Say nothing!” Oman whispered, his grip tightening on his brother’s shoulder. “He knew this would happen.”

“Denying your duties could have led to the death of Arnith’s only heirs,” the king continued, glaring at Denire.

“But he is taking the blame for our actions,” Syah whispered back.

“Let it be, Syah, you’ll just upset Father further,” Oman said, loosening his grip.

“So because of your actions, Arnith will hold you to face punishment for your treason.” Algoth’s voice, ever stern, rose in volume as he passed judgment on the knight.

“Father!” Syah cried. This time, the king ignored him.

Oman turned on Syah, grabbed both his shoulders and shook him. “Don’t get involved!” Oman warned, more than a whisper now. “You’ll only make it worse!”

“Denire Sharlane, you are hereby stripped of your title as a knight!”

Syah’s desperate eyes met Oman’s. “We can’t let this happen,” Syah whispered.

“There’s nothing we can do for him,” Oman stated.

Syah looked at Denire. He was standing still and calm, his eyes not leaving the king.

“And for your crimes against Arnith, you are sentenced to death.”

“What?” Syah cried, and though Oman’s grip left him, he was still held where he stood. Oman turned around to his father, feeling a chill as he looked upon him.

“Seize him,” the king ordered the guards in a low, disdainful tone. The guards, already on alert, surrounded the knight. Denire let them take him.

“Father!” Syah cried when the shock left him and he realized what was about to happen. Syah’s voice made Oman jerk back towards him. Syah didn’t notice him until Oman grabbed him again. “Oman! We have to help him. Tell Father that he’s wrong!”

“Syah,” said the eldest, “it is the king’s command. We can’t interfere.”

“Take him to the dungeons. By nightfall his body will return to Arnith’s soil,” the king ordered. The guards began to take him away.

Oman tightened his grip on his youngest brother as Syah’s angry, resolute gaze struck him. “Don’t do anything,” Oman whispered.

“How can you say that!” Syah cried. Mustering his strength, he pushed Oman away and started for the king.

Syah stopped. A tense, sharp pain caught his breath. “Your majesty, I beg you!” Syah’s low bow concealed the fact his arm was tightly gripping his chest. “Hear me before you have them carry out your order.”

Oman and Fasime started for him, but stopped when the king raised his hand to them and looked at Syah.

“I plead for the soldier’s life. He does not deserve death.”

“I have given my order. He is a traitor to Arnith.”

“No, Father, I vouch for his innocence. A lesser knight would have returned to Anteria to report us, and then you would have lost our trail. He had no other choice than to stay with us. He knew the consequences, but he remained, so he could be there to protect us.”

“Now he must face those consequences.”

“If he hadn’t stayed, we might not have ever returned. Father, he saved our lives.”

“And he put you in danger by allowing you to continue.”

“It was our choice to continue. We insisted—we gave him no other option than to come with us.”

“That’s enough, Syah! Do not defy me further. He should have done everything in his power to return you to the city. Take him away,” Algoth ordered the guards holding the knight.

“Stop!” Syah cried.

“Guards, escort my sons to their quarters.”

“King Algoth!” Syah’s voice thundered, and the hall was silenced in surprise. They saw he was gripping his chest tightly, but he stood, formidable, before the king. “On my honor as a son of the king, a prince of Arnith, I swear that Denire, Knight of Arnith, never fell from his duty. I pledge my life that if he is to be found guilty, then so must I.” There were gasps throughout the hall. “I beg for a lesser sentence, if he must be punished for dissatisfying the king. To protect his honor, I swear to face the same punishment he will.”

A great commotion spread through the hall as the guards and servants reacted to Syah’s declaration. “Silence!” the king’s voice echoed over them and the noise quieted. The king’s eyes returned to Syah, and he watched him without faltering. Algoth took in a long breath. “So be it,” he said at last, “Denire Sharlane and Prince Syah shall face the same sentence.”

“No!” the queen cried.

The king hardened his tone. “They will each face twenty lashes for endangering the throne, after which they will be released and return to duty. Escort them to the dungeon.”

Syah gave a sigh of relief and turned around, trying to find the knight. Denire was shaking off the guards, then he turned and met Syah’s gaze. He bowed deeply and then turned to leave with the soldiers.

Guards came up to Syah. He nodded and started to leave with them.

“Wait!” Oman cried. “You can’t!”

“Oman!” the king said sternly.

“Father, stop them!” Fasime said.

“Oman, Fasime, I have had enough disobedience for one day, now…”

“No, Father,” Fasime interrupted him, “please… Syah is not well. Twenty lashes could kill him.”

The king looked down at his youngest son. The boy lowered his gaze. His father watched him and realized Syah was in pain.

“Very well,” the king struggled to say, feeling a growing dread inside him. His words were caught in him a moment as the image of a frail, crying babe filled his thoughts. The ache inside him only sharpened when he said the words, “Then the sentence will be carried out after he has healed. Guards, escort the princes to their rooms. Make sure they are fed, groomed, and rested. And… send a healer for Syah.”

The guards bowed and turned to leave, the princes following them. At the entrance, Syah and his brothers turned back to the throne. Their mother was crying and their father, the king, was leaning his head on hers.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

PRISONERS

 

 

His hands turned the small wooden figure colored by faint and flaking paint, a habitual movement. But the meaning was different, now. His finger touched the faded blue paint of the armor, traced the raised leg of the steed in eternal pace. He recalled how he used to think of the figures: they were servants, fighters, defenders, but he never wondered about the real people they signified, and the lives they might have led.

Now it was a burden. They were a reminder of the knight they had sacrificed for their release, and the citizens of Arnith they had betrayed by deserting their duties. He replaced the wooden knight on the shelf and respectfully turned him to ride towards the center of the room.

Syah paced his room, his eyes scanning over his figures, weapons, scrolls and books. They were blurs in his thoughts, somehow meaningless, insignificant. His mind spun, surrounded by petty items he once treasured, now feeling they were weighing him down. He wanted to leave, but he knew the guard was still outside the door. Frustration returned as he remembered the guards, how they had prevented him from leaving the night before, forcing him to stay when he had thought of the knight in the dungeon and had tried to go to him. They would probably let him out, he realized, but they would escort him to… he didn’t know where he would go, anyway. He didn’t want to be seen by anyone, to be around anyone, even the guards who had already expressed their shock at his and his brothers’ return. He didn’t want to see their faces, the thoughts in their eyes… Where have they been? Were they hurt? Why did they leave?

The prince cried out involuntarily. He pushed a pile of books off the shelf before he could prevent himself. He stared transfixed at the effect of his actions. Syah glanced at the door, worried the noise might have alerted the guards. But the door to his room remained motionless and quiet, still locking the young prince in and the castle out.

Syah’s frustration returned, maddening. He wondered what he could do to settle his mind now to quiet the feelings of blame and guilt.

The forest.

In his mind he saw the trees, open yet surrounding. He heard the breeze through the branches, he felt it on his skin. With a sigh, his body released the tension he had built in himself. He wearily accepted his deeds, right or wrong, and gave up the struggle and went to his bed. He lay on the covers, staring at the ceiling and waiting.

Oman sat, leaning forward towards the heat of his father’s fireplace. The flames danced in the rhythm of an unseen wind. He wished the fire could burn away his thoughts, his shame, as it did the wood it ravenously consumed.

“I don’t want to believe you would do this,” his father said, pacing the room away from him. The king turned to check Oman’s response. His anger ebbed a moment as he studied the young man. Oman’s face was wearier than he had ever seen it, flushed, troubled. But there was more. Algoth realized he looked older, as if he had faced hardships and the responsibility remained on his skin. There was wisdom in his son’s face as well, even though the anger the king felt towards him for his foolishness was terrible. The king understood his son’s actions, he forgave him, but he would not let him know.

“Look me in the eyes when I speak to you!” the king demanded. Oman turned his head to him like a servant, not obeying for fear of being beaten, but from sheer weariness. His eyes were rimmed with pain and fatigue. Algoth realized his son had not slept since they had returned.

“How could you be so foolish as to leave the castle alone?” The king’s voice was just as harsh as before. “What could have made you think it was safe, or justified?”

“I was wrong,” Oman responded in a muted voice. The king paused, gazing at him with scorn.

“As a leader, you cannot follow each of your whims and fancies. You have a responsibility to your people to be reliable, capable, and strong, or they will lose faith in you.” Oman lowered his head at these last words, as the shame took him again. The king paused a long moment, watching Oman, guessing his thoughts. “Oman, raise your head.”

Something in his father’s tone penetrated Oman’s thick, heavy grief. A little of his strength returned. Perhaps he might be able to bear looking upon the world again. He raised his head with a little courage and looked at Algoth.

“Oman,” said his father, “you have done an unwise thing, but it is over. You are the heir to the throne of Anteria. One day, you will be king and rule all of Arnith, a domain greater than I, my father, or any of the great kings of the past ever held. You must let go your guilt. You must be a pillar of strength and conscience. Let this mistake stay with you to remind you that a king must always put his people first. He must sacrifice everything to protect his kingdom… even his freedom.”

Tension rippled out of Oman’s brows as he breathed in his father’s words. Then he nodded, with pain yet acceptance. The king motioned for Oman to stand. He placed a hand on the prince’s shoulder. Oman swayed as he stood before him.

“My son,” Algoth said, leading him to the door, “you are still young.” He released Oman’s shoulder, his face softening. “But your responsibilities will hasten your maturity. Get some rest, Oman. You must regain your strength to face what your destiny will deliver to you.”

 

He was not the heir of Arnith. Why do they care what happens to him? Fasime leaned his head on the glass windowpane and stared down into the city. His eyes traced the streets, identifying familiar buildings and wondering who would be found in them.

The voices of the men down the hall made his thoughts return. They would still not allow him to enter the city. How long were they going to keep watch on him, anyway? He wondered if they were following orders, or guarding him in recompense for being unable to protect and prevent him earlier. He turned his head and found them behind him, casually standing by a wall and talking. But they were keeping an eye on him. One turned his gaze full towards the prince. Then the other turned to him as well. They were observing, not threatening, but Fasime felt they knew his desires as they stared at him a long moment. Let them try to prevent him. He was not a prisoner here!

The guards turned away and resumed their conversation. His body tensed, prepared for action. He imagined a furious chase through the halls to the great castle doors… guarded. No, he wouldn’t run from them, but perhaps… Fasime lifted himself away from the windowpane, seeing the guards shift as he turned away from them. He chastised himself as he started too quickly down the hallway. His feet carried him before he knew where to go, and already he could hear the echo of his steps that was the two guards following him.

He turned off the hallway and up a stone staircase. He had to slow his legs, forcing himself to take each step deliberately. Halfway up, he heard the guards’ feet on the steps. Their pace was calm but steady, matching Fasime’s own pace to the upper floors of the castle. The prince reached the top of the stairs and turned into the larger corridor. He slowed, almost paused before he continued, letting the guards see him when they reached the top of the stairs. He moved towards a door along the hall and opened it, hearing the men pause at the head of the stairway. He stepped inside and shut the door without looking back at them.

The room was empty. His eyes scanned the sunlit wooden chairs and tables as his thoughts fled the room, far from the guards. And if they opened the door to check him? His legs carried him over to the wall, and his eyes stared unseeingly at the rows of books. He thought of the hours of boredom he had endured in this room. Was this where he would have to spend the rest of his captive days, decaying like these books? As his thoughts fumed, a presence arrived and then grew in apprehension behind him. Finally, it seized his thoughts from his plight of confinement. The servants’ door. He spun around so quickly that he almost lost his balance. Bracing against the bookshelf, he saw the door at the other end of the room. Of course, that was his way out of here! He wasn’t surprised at the door. Some part of his mind had planned on it. That was why he chose this room, this hall. He was just surprised at himself, that he hadn’t realized the door’s potential until now.

But the guards… He turned around to look at the door by which he had entered the library, guessing what the guards’ reaction would be if he tried to escape. They must not have thought of the opposite door to the library. Fasime’s breathing quieted, almost stopped completely, and he stood in silence, watching the door with increasing unease. They hadn’t opened the door to check on him, but what if they began to suspect? What if they remembered the alternate exit to the room and barged in before he had a chance to decide his next action? Perhaps he should stay awhile before trying to leave, and then their suspicion would be eased. He realized his hand was resting near a pile of books. His gaze reluctantly left the door and settled on the volumes. He saw himself sitting at a table and forcing his interest into their pages. Maybe he shouldn’t go. They’ll stop following him soon. He could just deal with confinement for now. He turned to the servants’ door, seeing beyond it to where that path might lead. He could regain their trust.

But… they won’t know he left. He would only be gone a little while, even if they discover he was not in the room. It would teach them… He would go as he pleased, but he would return. This was his home, after all. Still, he hadn’t started towards his diversion.

“You don’t have to be afraid of them,” he told himself. “Don’t consider their reactions—they have no hold over you. You are a son of the king! Why do they think they can keep you here? They have no entitlement!”

That started him for the door. He opened it and stepped through before he thought of doing it slowly to avoid any noise. It creaked and he jumped at the sound. He didn’t try to avoid the noise as he shut it, starting down the narrow passageway. A few steps into the hall, he heard the faint sound of the door to the library opening.

He couldn’t run through the servants’ part of the castle, alerting them to see the fugitive prince frantically passing them. But he might not have to. He could lose his pursuers in the maze of passages and rooms of the working arm of the castle. He turned into a different narrow passage and then another, listening for a scurry of following footfalls, but hearing none.

He slowed a little. The servants going to and from the kitchens, laundries, and storage rooms mostly ignored him. Before their journey, he had frequently used these forgotten passages as a way into the city, preferring them to the front gates. There were several servant doors that would take him into the city from the sides of the castle, and the guards neglected them.

After traveling quickly through empty passages and down narrow staircases, he reached the door leading to the outside street next to the pantries. But as he stopped before it, he didn’t open it. What if the guards anticipated his plan and already made it to the street outside the servants’ doors? They would be able to see him exit, there was no way to avoid them.

“So they might catch me. They already know I’m trying to leave, there’s no point in going back now.”

He grabbed the handle to the door and thrust it open, stepping out and searching immediately down both sides of the castle. He saw no guards waiting for him. His feet carried him into the empty street before he had to convince himself to commence. He was alone, and he decided to run until he got past the castle and into the streets of the city.

He was free. He glanced back towards the castle to reassure himself that he had lost his pursuers. Feeling a flush of relief, of normalcy, he started into the city. He still kept to the secluded streets and alleys, having chosen his destination before leaving the castle. The freedom, release, and comfort he felt from the dark, familiar streets and buildings perplexed the prince, as he continued deeper into the retiring businesses and neighborhoods. Shouldn’t these have been feelings for his return to the castle? Why was he feeling them now?

A couple of men coming out of a small house stopped and stared at him with blanched faces. Their glances turned his thoughts. He passed them with a half nod and continued, chastising himself to be more careful to avoid encounters, feeling their eyes stay on him till he took a corner out of their sight.

Soon he arrived at his destination. The tavern was noisy and crowded that evening, he noticed, stepping into the welcoming light that poured from its windows onto the street. Fasime felt he was a boy again, carefree and adventurous. The worries of the guards, the castle, and his brothers were forgotten. He approached the door with a swell of self-gratification, hearing the loud, indistinguishable voices from the tavern. He pulled the heavy wooden door open, smelling the familiar mixture of burning wood and ale. The season that had passed was one night of fretful sleep, and now he was waking from it. He stepped inside the pleasant memory of belonging and entertainment, then shut the door to the night.

Strangers. All of them. But it was alright. New customers would come, new regulars, he had seen it happen in the few cycles that he had been one here himself. Fasime left them to their conversations and walked past the working men sitting around the tables, searching for an empty seat.

Then he saw a familiar face. Youthful skin, but strong and tempered, and bold but plain features gleamed with a smile as he lifted his cup and drank. And the others? Fasime moved closer and found more faces he recognized, sitting around a table near the bar. He went to them, hearing the echo of them all laughing and talking late into many evenings past.

“Fasime!” the one with the bold face shouted when he noticed the prince approaching. Fasime watched his three old comrades stand with a jerk, but then stop and stiffen, hesitating with their next actions or words. Fasime chose for them, heartily wrapping his arms around each of them with a laugh.

“Murtain, Tenn, Perdeg, it is good to see you!” Fasime told them, releasing their dazed forms. He went to an empty chair beside them and sat, smiling with contentment.

“Fasime…” Perdeg, the thin, dusty-haired young man said with surprise. He and the others sat back down, staring at their visitor with wonder. “We were worried about you.”

Fasime blinked some of the memory from his eyes. “Well, I’m back now, so…” Fasime shifted in the chair, trying to find a comfortable position. When his gaze returned to them, the smile left his face. Something had changed…

“You were missing so long,” Tenn stated. Fasime met his dry-grass eyes, then looked at his thick, short hair and sun-worn skin, seeing the age that had settled there.

“Have you done nothing but work and sit in here since I’ve left?” Fasime jested with a forced breath of laughter. Tenn flushed a little, lowering his eyes.

“We are glad you are back safe,” Murtain then said, kinder, nervously looking at Fasime. But then he turned to the bartender coming to their table.

“Prince Fasime,” the thin gray-haired man said, hushed, and Fasime flinched at his tone. The title, which they used to use in jest and teasing, now carried seriousness and concern. The man swallowed, then bowed his head. “You have returned,” the bartender said, and Fasime marked the notes of both welcome and fear in his voice.

“I’ll take a cup of your brew, keeper, if you’ll serve me.” Fasime knew his voice showed his disappointment and agitation.

The man staggered in response, but got out, “Ye… yes, sir.” He cut himself off from saying more and left them. Fasime realized the others were staring at him.

“Nothing really has changed, then? The keeper is still nervous, and you three are prepared only for the expected,” Fasime chastised in a low voice, shifting again. The three of them lowered their heads, blinking without response. Why wouldn’t they just forgive his absence?

“So, anything new going on?” But the question was wrong, not leisurely and casual as it once might have been put. The words were tense. Fasime did not care for their response, even as he asked it. The question only stirred their discomfort, each unwilling to turn the conversation towards themselves with a personal narrative.

“Have you stolen the hearts of any ladies from the city?” Fasime asked next, attempting again to awaken the old conversations. The city boys moved a little, relaxed.

“Murtain has wed,” Perdeg said. He smiled at the thicker one, but the pleasure on his face retreated when he looked back at Fasime.

“Wed! To whom?” Fasime demanded, leaning towards him.

“Wisa,” Murtain answered awkwardly.

“Wisa, General Movac’s daughter?”

“Yes.”

“When did this happen?”

“A moon after the fields sprouted,” Tenn answered for him, “and she is expecting.”

“Well!” Fasime reflected. “What else have I missed?”

“A lot has happened since you left, Fasime,” Perdeg advised him in a brusque tone. But when the prince glanced sharply at him in surprise, his face blanched and he clenched his teeth, regretting his tone.

Fasime observed his expression, adverse and distrustful. As the thin, light-haired youth lowered his gaze, the prince felt anger swell in him. He propped his elbows on the table and sank his head into his hands. Why wasn’t he welcomed here anymore? Couldn’t it be like before, when this was a refuge from his concerns and duty?

“Where…” Fasime looked up to Murtain’s hesitant words, seriousness replacing his embarrassment, “where did you go?” The prince watched three citizens of Arnith sit across from him nervously, their expressions reminiscent of disused friendships, actors in a rehearsed scene, more strangers in the crowded inn. Fasime straightened, glaring at them as if for cowardice.

“Out of this rotting city,” he answered with disdain. The impostors’ faces tightened in confusion. Fasime leaned on the arm of the chair. At least they were better than the palace guards.

“You…” one of them started, but didn’t have any words to finish. They were interrupted by the bartender’s return. Fasime looked at him with a sour expression and placed the full mug on the table.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” the tender asked without meeting the prince’s scrutinizing gaze.

“No,” Fasime answered and shifted to reach inside his pocket. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing, nothing, sir,” the man stammered.

“Nothing?” Fasime demanded, turning on him with confusion and anger in his eyes.

“I… we… we are happy for the prince’s safe return. There is no charge,” the bartender insisted.

Fasime’s face tightened and the man recoiled, thinking the prince was about to reach for his sword. But Fasime merely took out his coins and laid them on the table.

“No, Fasime, we’ll pay for it,” said Tenn.

For a moment he thought he recognized his old friend, Fasime realized the young man was only trying to be generous to the king’s son.

“I probably shouldn’t let you,” Fasime said in a mocking tone and took out several more coins from his pocket. He pushed back his chair and stood. “You are, after all, poor farmers and soldier’s sons.” He laid a few more coins on the table with a clang. “I am the one with access to riches, now that I am a prince.”

They gave no word or motion to call him back as he turned and left the bar. They glanced nervously at the coins left on the table, as if they were blood money from a ransom.

“Ignorant fools!” Fasime muttered and yanked open the door with a burst. He stepped out into the streets of Anteria and slammed the door behind him.

He stopped with a gasp. The closing door revealed two guards, the castle guards, the same who had held sentry over him that day. They were standing at the edge of the inn in the street, turning towards him.

For a moment Fasime was paralyzed, anticipating they would rush forward and try to apprehend him. His body, repulsed by the sight of the guards, stepped back. But the soldiers didn’t start for him. They stood casually, watching him, waiting. Fasime mastered his fleeing breath and tense limbs enough to speak.

“How did you know I was here?”

They still did not move towards him. One of them answered with even tones, “We checked the stables first.”

His breath left him, but with it there was a new feeling. They will have him return to the castle. But look what life would be for him now. It didn’t have to be this way. A strange option realized in his mind and body and made him quake with indecision. He didn’t have to return. Sure, they would try to make him, but he could leave. Just as he buried his blood title on the journey with his brothers, he could do it again and start anew. He could flee the capital, become someone else, somewhere else, where there was no more tension, distrust, and uncertainty. He could outrun the soldiers, lose them in the city. He could be free… his muscles shivered with the possibility of his crime.

“It is late,” the other soldier said flatly. If they noticed the prince’s tense muscles shimmering with sweat or the rebellious thoughts flashing in his eyes, they didn’t reveal it. “Let us return.”

The soldiers turned away from Fasime a little, ready to start back to the castle. The excitement in his limbs turned to fear. He knew he could escape but… what then? Thinking of returning with the soldiers made the sting of fear ease a little, replaced by a weight of duty, of guilt. He thought of his mother, his father, Syah, and Oman. But it wasn’t thoughts of them that lured his mind back from the prospect of flight. He knew he could have run and made it out of the city, but Fasime, the prince, couldn’t leave here. Clenching down a sickness in his gut, he forced himself forward, already feeling the world was becoming smaller around him.

The guards glanced back at the prince and began to lead him back to the castle.

 

He knocked again at the door, and again there was no answer. He reached for the handle and turned it. His eyes scanned the dimly lit room and then found him. Exhaling, he stepped inside and shut the door. He approached the bed, seeing no movement from under the blankets.

“Syah,” he said and touched the outline of a form under the covers. He pulled down the blankets. The youngest brother stiffened, opened his eyes, and turned towards him. But then Syah relaxed, seeing it was his co-conspirator, not another scrutinous guardian.

“What, Oman?” Syah asked.

Oman sighed, realizing he had left his brother too long. “It’s almost midday,” Oman answered, pulling the covers off him completely. “You should get up.”

The youngest groaned and sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Towards the end of our journey, I longed for a soft bed, a warm, private room.” Oman stood, helping Syah to his feet. “But now I feel as if I will rot in here.” The elder stopped, transfixed a moment by his words.

“That’s why you’re getting out,” Oman responded, taking Syah’s arm and leading him away from the bed.

“Where, Oman?” Syah asked apprehensively when Oman released him and went to the door. His brother didn’t answer, but stepped into the hallway and stopped a servant. Oman came back to him, leaving the door open.

“To dinner,” Oman explained.

“Dinner? With the king and queen?”

“Yes.”

Syah shook his head, withdrew from him. “No, I don’t think I can.”

“It’s alright, Syah,” Oman said, kind but firm. “They want to see us. It is time to return to our normal routines. Have you been to the White Cane?”

Syah’s attention left him, his mind going somewhere else. “I had forgotten.”

A servant came in the door, summoned by Oman. “Well, we’ll get you dressed, then we’ll go to our lessons together. Then it will be time for dinner.”

Syah stood tautly when the servant stepped up to him. Then he nodded, almost unwillingly, and complied.

 

The brothers conversed softly as they walked together through the hallway. Although they kept to themselves, the soft resonance of their voices was a reassurance to the servants and citizens they passed. The princes really had come home, and now everything would return to normal.

Oman and Syah stopped when they noticed Fasime brooding against the wall near their door, the fall of his dark hair obscuring his face. He stood there alone, apparently trying to master his thoughts before entering the door that was the destination of all three. Oman and Syah glanced at each other and then started for him. The dark-haired prince looked up as he heard them, and relief came over his face.

“I wasn’t sure if you were here yet,” said Fasime, and he pushed himself from the support of the wall.

“No, we are only now arriving,” Oman explained, stopping before him.

He nodded. “It is better that we do this together.”

“Have you seen them since we returned?”

Fasime frowned and shook his head.

“Well, then,” Oman said, scanning the faces of his brothers, “it is time.”

They entered together, anticipating the deluge. They searched for their parents, seeing nobles and advisers sitting solemnly around the table. But their father was easy to find, sitting unspeaking at the end of the table, looking over to them as they entered. The guests paused in their conversation and turned to them as well. Though questioning, their faces were respectful and accepting, making the brothers grateful for their title for the first time since they returned to the city. They could still feel the tension they created in the room, however, and alone it might have overwhelmed and stalled any of them. But they were stronger together, and with a steadying breath they started for the table. The king’s face remained stern, but his eyes were kind and pleased, welcoming them as they sat around him. Soft conversations resumed among the guests when the princes settled in their seats.

“I am pleased you have joined us,” the king told them, with no hint of sarcasm or accusation.

“Where is Mother?” Oman asked.

Their father, seeming disappointed himself, glanced at her empty seat. “The dinner table has wanted her presence of late,” the king answered, and their brows lowered at his tone.

“Is she well?” Fasime questioned hesitantly. The king stared at him a tense moment, his face unreadable.

“As well as can be expected,” he answered. His face was watchful and calm again, as if nothing had been spoken. But the brothers still sensed the truth. Had their disappearance caused her to fall ill?

Hunger distracted them when servants placed plates and bowls of stew, bread, and fruit before them. Oman felt a strange comfort as a servant placed a dish before him. It was a weight, but it was safety. He realized what it was: his father was in control. Oman didn’t have to worry over their next meal. It would be taken care of. Anything they needed would be provided for them. The wild night was no longer a concern. They would have nothing to fear or want in the king’s presence. Oman submitted to the authority of his parent and began to eat. Safety, protection, and relief overtook him and he bowed his head, listening to his brothers and the king as he ate.

“Have the Marians or Rognoth submitted yet?” Fasime asked. The king set down his knife and paused a long moment before answering.

“The majority of their fighters still avoid us. We have rescued outlying villages and hamlets, but insurgents continue to cause problems.”

“Are we planning to mount an offensive?” Oman questioned, after the king had taken a drink from his goblet.

“Commander Lenpece will be leading a squadron there in the next few days,” Algoth explained, looking past his sons to the officer sitting near them. The thick set, bearded man came to attention with the mention of his name, and nodded in affirmation.

There was an uneasy silence as the king and general resumed their meals and the princes sat in wavering uncertainty. What should they discuss? Possible conversations came to their minds, but they dismissed them, fearing they would bring up their journey, their absence. Their father, too, appeared to be considering something to say, but apparently thought better of it. He seemed comfortable with just the presence of his sons beside him, and didn’t ask them to speak of their travels as they finished their meal together.

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

FORTUNE

 

 

Syah’s eyes protested with a blur, but he blinked and found the words again. Resource materials concerning general services have been established in short supply. His body sighed in protest, vexing him as he tried to stifle and ignore it. The principal source of labor is noted to be separately designated community centers including seven hundred workmen providing… This was pointless… structural support, three hundred specialists operating under… His neck fell back, complaining. His jaw tightened. Operating under, operating under… the analysis of existing features determined the out structuring of further additions. Frustrated, Syah closed the book and pressed his fingers against his eyes. Some castle built from the ground had crumbled back to it cycles before his birth. What did it matter how it was done? The prince let out an irritated breath and sat back, trying to alleviate the ache of distress and annoyance in his head.

Syah pushed the heavy, discolored book away from him. It slid across the table, and he felt better, as if its closeness was what upset him. He glanced at the White Cane seated at the far end of the table. The old man gave no heed to the prince’s outburst, but remained engrossed in his book, and the notes he made at intervals on his papers. Syah was somehow calmed by the realization that his tutor was deep in the dust of the past, and was content. He felt a sense of kinship with the scholar, as if this might be his own future as well…

“What are you researching?” Syah interrupted his thoughts, and the tutor’s reading. The White Cane looked up.

“The lineage of Anteria’s dynasty,” he answered.

Syah pushed himself from the table, turning towards the shelves. “Have you ever researched ancient archives of the dwarves?” Syah asked. He ran his hand over the books and his mind opened them: histories, economics, governing.

“And what purpose would they serve you?” the White Cane asked, as his student knelt to retrieve several heavy books from the library and set them on the table.

“And what about… devices of the elves?” Syah asked, hearing the tutor’s question but choosing not to respond.

“History is not…”

“Has it been recorded how the fable races separated themselves from the humans?” the prince interrupted.

“History cannot be conserved before the pen knows how to write it,” was the White Cane’s answer.

“And the southern mountains? Has an exploration ever been recorded from them?” Syah asked and opened the book, turning to the first page. The White Cane didn’t answer, realizing the prince wouldn’t have heard him. Syah pulled the book closer and sat back, ignoring his pen and notes. The thick white eyebrows above the tutor’s eyes lowered and his aged eyes remained on the young, engrossed prince for as long as they ever had.

 

With a spark and a clang, the swords clashed above their heads. Neither retreated, their faces taut. Each fought to hold his sword engaged against the other’s. Their eyes met and locked, as steadfast as their swords. But their arms shook and their eyes flashed at the same moment, and with a jerk they both withdrew and stepped back.

“Seems you need some more practice handling your sword.” Fasime smirked and found his stance.

Oman’s eyes narrowed but he smiled and advanced. “You’re the one who is out of practice,” Oman amended, and then swung at his brother to prove it. Their swords hit, each striking and defending, but each attempt was incomplete.

“You need to pay attention to your flank,” Fasime warned. Oman barely blocked Fasime’s swing to his side.

“Or did I play you to make you extend yourself?” Oman’s arm hit his face, but not hard, and Fasime glared as he turned his head back to him.

“Being on the trail must have taught you to take cheap shots,” Fasime said. He regained his sword, starting for Oman again. Oman stepped to meet him.

“You’re one to complain, decking a knight while his head was turned!”

Fasime paused. Oman held his sword to his side and circled him. He saw the jest on his brother’s face but he felt the amusement inside him leave.

“At least I did something to avenge Syah’s injury,” Fasime accused. He swung at Oman again.

Oman blocked him. His eyes narrowed. “What, would you have wanted me to attack him?”

“It would have been better than standing around doing nothing,” Fasime pressed, lunging forward and trying Oman from the side. His brother dodged it, then stopped, blinking.

“Wait,” Oman said in a firm tone, studying his brother’s hot face. “What are you angry about?”

Fasime didn’t pause to respond, coming at Oman again. “You know what you did,” Fasime barked. He swiftly moved his sword to Oman’s front, but he gave time for his brother to block it, seeing him faltering.

“Stop, Fasime,” Oman ordered. He blocked Fasime’s sword and pushed it away from him.

“What?” Fasime mocked. He stepped around Oman and thrust his sword down again. “Can’t stand the pressure?”

“Fasime!” Oman protested, turning to meet him. He was cut short, having to parry his brother’s next move. His face tightened in frustration and resolve. “I said stop!” he cried, returning Fasime’s advance, trying to force his cooperation with a barrage of attacks.

“You can’t take the responsibility, can you, Oman?” Fasime continued. His breath came short as he parried each of his brother’s quick attacks.

“My responsibility?” Oman demanded, slacking off slightly but still attacking, to keep Fasime on the defensive. “Is this about Syah?”

“You should have done something…” Oman eased off some so Fasime could speak. “Syah shouldn’t be punished for us!”

“What would you have had me do? Take the punishment myself? It was Syah’s choice to defend him.”

“It was your idea we go in the first place,” the younger accused, sidestepping and swinging to Oman’s unguarded flank.

The elder turned quickly and blocked, forcing both of their swords down and holding them pointed towards the floor. “And I didn’t order you to come along! You had as much an opportunity as I did to take Syah’s place!”

Fasime yanked his sword free, stepping back from his brother’s sword and hot gaze. “You should have done something, Oman.”

“Speak for yourself, brother! I did what I…”

“Didn’t want to stain your reputation with Father, did you?” Fasime demanded. He circled his brother, Oman countering him.

“That’s enough, Fasime,” the elder ordered, striking up at him.

“Why didn’t you stand up for him?” the younger returned and blocked him.

“And why is that just my charge? He is your brother, too.”

“I’m the only one who’s acting like it!” Fasime yelled as he repeatedly swung at his brother.

“That’s insane!” Oman cried. He quickly parried.

“Why did you strike him?” the younger demanded with a violent swing, but Oman didn’t block. He sidestepped, causing Fasime to overextend his sword and hit the ground. “Do you want him to be hurt?” Fasime pressed, lifting his sword.

“I said, that’s enough!” Oman shouted. He sent his sword slashing down over his head. As his body followed through with the strike, Oman realized Fasime wasn’t recovering his sword fast enough to block it. The anger surging up his arms shuddered and jerked into fear. He realized it might be delivered upon his younger brother, vulnerable before him. Oman’s eyes met Fasime’s, seeing him, in that brief moment, begin to realize his position. It was a blink of time, a flash, but Oman sensed it lasting. He gazed into his brother’s eyes. He couldn’t stop the swing. Fasime couldn’t defend himself. Oman recognized his eyes, connected with them, seeing everything he and his brother had experienced together, seeing how they had striven, and laughed, and lived up to that moment. The light- brown eyes gazed into his with sudden fear and understanding. They had to stop it. They had to work together. Oman heaved and forced his sword to the side, and Fasime moved, barely stepping aside it. Oman’s sword thwacked heavily onto the floor and the older brother let out a gasp.

They both straightened, staring at each other in bewilderment. Oman felt Fasime’s sword on his shoulder, but he didn’t mind it, laughed a half breath and nodded. He glanced down as he pulled his sword free from the floor. A tan streak marked where the blade had struck the wood beneath them. The elder took in a shuddering breath and looked back at Fasime. He held his sword half-heartedly, more resting it on Oman’s shoulder than aiming it there.

“I guess you win,” Oman said with shuddering words. Fasime gave a weak motion of his head and removed his sword. He took a step back, but he didn’t sheath it. “Are you alright?” the elder questioned. Fasime nodded. With no more conversation, the solemn princes turned to leave. The empty room still echoed their argument as they closed the door behind them.

 

They’ll ask why I started it. Will they think it was foolish? Has the prince completely lost reality, does he wander in madness? Syah smiled at himself. They will see, when all is proven true. But they cannot know. Not yet, anyway. We will have to keep it to ourselves. The prince stopped before bumping into workers carrying crates of grain. They wouldn’t understand. Perhaps it is madness. What will it harm, to find out for sure?

The prince found the door to the building in the busy, sunlit street. They won’t know it today. He grasped the handle and opened it. A strong smell of ink welcomed him into the warm, well-lit building. His eyes scanned the small tables, each populated by a crouching, laboring worker over paper, books, and ink. An elder, clean-cut man noticed Syah and moved away from leaning over a squire.

“Ah, Prince Syah, good day,” the man said. He bowed to the boy, causing stirs of motion from the workers in the room. Syah noted the ones that turned to him in surprise, letting their pens drip a small puddle of ink onto their pages, and the few that finished their words and then returned their pen to the ink before turning to him.

“These are the scribes, Sir Shard?” the prince asked the guild master.

“Yes, sir,” the master answered, turning back to the silenced, curious workers.

Syah nodded. He studied all their faces. “I have come to recruit apprentice scribes for the castle,” the prince explained. The workers glanced at each other. “A few applicants will be chosen, based on strict qualifications. Every fourth day they will conduct research in the castle’s library. They will be paid, of course. Any applicant must be studious and professional, and must be proficient in ancient languages.”

The scribes murmured.

“Sir, our scribes are trained in at least one alternate language,” the master explained.

Syah nodded in agreement. “If any of you are interested, meet me in the council chambers of the castle tomorrow to determine if your skills will suffice.” Syah nodded to them and they bowed, as did the guild master.

“We are grateful that you considered us,” the guild master said. “We hope our scribes will work well for you.”

“So do I,” Syah replied. He nodded once more to the master and turned to leave.

 

It is as if you are letting them inside your own wonderings and fears. And what if they discover the abyss that has opened inside you? Will they draw back in fear, or will fascination lure them to the edge? What truth hides in the darkness, anyway? Just an emptiness of possibility. Perhaps they wouldn’t think it so strange if they knew the extent of my deviation. Perhaps each of them has his own doubts and questions as well. Could their thoughts be, could anyone’s be… so deep?

Syah was harshly stopped and held by his own conscience. Her eyes were on him. It was his mother, passing him the opposite way in the hallway. The prince’s thoughts stalled, unsure, meeting her watchful gaze. She must have noticed him coming down the hallway, for her face was not surprised but hesitant. Should he stop? What would he say? Would she speak with him?

Her uninterrupted pace suggested she wouldn’t. Syah’s brows tightened, his breath was stolen from him. As the queen drew abreast of her son, then passed him, he realized she had turned no more than her eyes towards him. His body tightened, collapsing, but he continued on, listening to his mother’s soft steps echoed by his own as they parted.

 

The voices in the room hushed upon Oman’s entering, and he immediately regretted coming. They turned to him with questions and surprise apparent but unspoken on their faces. They seemed unsure how to react to his presence. He himself was hesitating with his next action, but he forced himself to step into the room.

“Oman,” his father said from behind the officers. Algoth approached his son. His face was questioning, somewhere between cautiousness and concern. “What is it, Oman?” the king asked.

“I heard there was news of Dikartians along the eastern border,” the prince explained. He came beside them to gaze at the maps stretched out on the table. “Are they planning to attack?”

The faces of the officials and king changed when Oman looked back up at them. They were less apprehensive, welcoming, as if the prince had been there all along. “Reports have come in of Dikartian soldiers gathered here,” a general explained. The prince examined the place he pointed to on the map.

“Have they crossed our border?”

“No,” the king answered, “they have probably just gathered there in an attempt to block the next advance of Arnith forces.”

The prince looked closely at the map, recognizing the areas that Dikartians were marked upon it. “Will we send more reinforcements here?” Oman asked, pointing to several Arnithian villages close to the eastern border.

“We could move some troops from the north, to Baloff village,” another general observed. The king watched his son focus thoughtfully on the map, his generals gathered around him, all of them participating in solving a problem together. A smile hinted across his face, and he nodded.

 

The young prince entered the library, feeling strangely content. He realized this was the first time others were in the library who weren’t there to teach him, to watch him. He would determine the day’s purpose. The four scribes from the city looked up respectfully as he shut the door behind him, curiosity and nervousness on each of their faces.

“You have been chosen,” Syah stated, “for this rare and important task.” He moved to their table, studying their faces. He noticed that more age was on all of their faces than on his, but still the prince felt their superior. “You each possess great skill as a scribe, and that will be useful as one of the talents required for your assignments.”

Syah met the eyes of each man, in turn. He could guess their questions, worries, and feelings. They watched his movements as if observing the passing of a strange wild bird. The prince breathed the close air of the library deeply, and a warm feeling eased the shallow tension of his muscles. They seemed trustworthy. Their passion for the craft, for the knowledge, perhaps, would drive them.

“The castle library is well equipped,” Syah continued. A sweep of his arm indicated the walls of books around them. “You will not, however, be provided with all that you need to complete your assignments.”

Concern now mingled with their curiosity. “I will send you on many missions throughout the city, and some beyond, in pursuit of texts and records to supplement research done here.” Acceptance replaced the concern. “You will be compiling the various resources into specific texts for me.” The scribes nodded as one, their expressions showing interest in his words.

“What will we be researching?” one of them asked.

Syah smiled. He moved to the shelves and pulled out books, setting them on the table beside the readied paper and quills. “I am interested in histories of civilizations outside of Arnith,” Syah explained.

He searched for more texts. “Also devices they have used for battle and defense. Their weapons and tactics will be important. You will also research practices employed to improve their quality of life, beliefs, legends, and…”

Syah turned back to them, resting his hand atop the pile of books. He gazed at each of them with excitement visible on his face. “And mysteries.”

They gasped and glanced at each other, confused, then back at the young prince. But excitement lit their faces, too, after a moment, and Syah smiled at them. “Do you think you have the minds to participate in such a task?”

Each nodded once, as if committing to an unexpected adventure.

 

No book was in his hands, but they didn’t want for one, lying relaxed across his lap. His mind was calm, emptied, as he stared into the flames of the large hearth. His face and arms felt the heat of the fire as it seeped into his skin, but still there was something that it did not reach. It was a thought, hidden and chilled, that neither the glow nor heat of the fire could penetrate. Aware of a touch of unrest in his heart, he remained, pensive, sitting in the large chair and comfortable before the fire.

Syah heard the door to the study opening, but he did not turn around, listening. As the prince recognized the stride of his visitor, he sighed.

“I thought you might be in here,” the visitor said softly. Syah looked over at his brother taking a seat next to him.

“Evening, Fasime.” Syah greeted his brother, studying him.

Fasime watched the fire, comforted by the flames but not gripped by them. Then he let out a groan of release and sat back heavily in the chair.

Syah smiled. “Hard day?”

“I’ve been training some new horses,” Fasime answered. He shook his head. “I don’t think it used to be this tiring.”

Syah didn’t voice his response. They both sat quietly a moment, gazing at the dancing fire.

“What about you? You haven’t been sitting in that chair all day, have you?” Fasime asked.

“No,” Syah answered, “but I might as well have been. I’m not accomplishing much behind the walls of this place.”

“Have you spoken to Mother?”

Syah glanced at him, his brows lowering. How did he know? “I…” Syah began but caught his breath, turned away. His lips pressed together, and after a moment he shook his head. Fasime started to respond, but stopped, waiting for Syah to calm. They sat in silence, aside from the crackle of burning wood and snap of flames.

Syah closed his eyes, leaning forward. “I just wish everything would go back to normal. That… that this could be easy,” Syah said shakily, his hands covering his face.

“I’m sure she wants to talk to you. Maybe you should…” He stopped when Syah shook his head, and his eyes reddening.

Fasime refrained from saying more. Syah turned away from him. Words wouldn’t mend anything now.

Heat flowed over them in the quiet room, surrounded by the tranquil peace of night in the castle. After a time, the fire softened its glow. Fasime shifted, breaking free of the trance. He sighed audibly, then rose and moved to his younger brother’s side. He grabbed Syah’s hand and squeezed it as he said, “It’s going to be alright.” Then he turned to leave.

 

Three taps on the heavy wooden door and a woman’s voice answered from within, “Come in.” Fasime twisted the handle and entered with a blithe step, causing the woman to hesitate. She gathered her thoughts, then asked coolly, “What is it, Fasime?”

The prince bowed. “Would you join me for a noonday meal?” he asked as he rose, offering her his arm.

She seemed about to accept it, and a smile tempted her lips for a moment. Then dark thoughts caused her eyes to well with tears. Instead of putting her arm through his, she grasped his forearm and stood before him.

Taking in a swift breath, the queen raised her head. “Leave me!” she demanded between her teeth, loosening her grip on his arm.

Fasime stood still as his mother battled her emotion. She struck him on the chest with a fist, then began to cry.

Why?” the queen cried, her voice full of pain. Her hands found the face of her son. “How could you leave me?” Her knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor.

Fasime followed, kneeling before her, his head lowered.

“How could you?” she gasped in sorrow and loss, her hands still angrily gripping him.

“I’m sorry,” Fasime whispered, and laid his head on her shoulder as she wept.

 

They were accepted, if not comfortable, Syah decided. He looked at his brother, speaking casually with their father. Oman seemed to have returned to his place. His life would be simple now; predetermined paths were already guiding his choices, his actions. Still, Syah was eased by it. His brother finding pardon and rejoining the rulership of the castle meant that, in some way, Syah was pardoned as well. The young prince lowered his head a little and listened, no longer anxious for inclusion in the conversation as he sat across from them.

The door to the dining room opened. Syah saw his mother. He felt his heart cower. But she was with Fasime. He didn’t turn away from her, as part of him desired to do, but watched her walk to the table. He stood when she came next to him. His body performed the ritual of pulling out her chair and waiting for her to sit down.

They both took their seats and her face turned towards him. Her eyes were still cautious, but more kind and familiar. Syah nodded and started to smile at her, but it was forced, faltering as he realized there was no real reason for it. Her eyes remained on him, and gazing into them, he remembered their warmth. The smile returned to his face, honest, subtly easing the tension of his jaw and brow. And as he watched his mother’s tentative face, his smile was returned.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

THE PUNISHMENT

 

 

It has been over a season since our return. Things have mostly returned to normal. It has been so like the norm that I have found little reason to write to you. The day is slow and the White Cane has let me retire early, so I suppose that is why you have found me.

Though the pace of life seems as casual and normal as before, I sense a change. It is not just in the guards and the servants, but between us. There is something…

I have thought much on it. I have thought I could describe it as a seed, a seed that was planted in our trust, our brotherhood, a seed planted by the riddler. But the more I have thought about it, the more I see that it wasn’t a seed. A seed is a capsule of life and purpose, a catalyst of good and growth. This doesn’t describe the witch’s false words. I have, however, realized what does.

A spore. A spore of mold attached to defenseless bread. That was the doubt she created. And now, I am afraid, it is spreading, eating, and festering away at us. It is a doubt in ourselves, a doubt in each other.

None of us has spoken of it. In our words and conversation it never happened. But in a touch, a glance… it is here. It is devouring.

How shall I purge it from my soul?

 

Well, look where my rambling has taken me. Never mind my thoughts, I write just to ease my…

That is all for now.

 

For the three brothers,

Syah, Prince of Arnith

 

 

 

Your majesty.” A voice startled the king from his thoughts.

“Yes,” the king said without looking up, continuing to write on the paper before him.

“The prince, to see you.”

The king looked up. It must be Oman, about a fighting competition. He nodded to the guard and then stood as he watched him leave. Or Fasime, about a hunting party or a young damsel from the city.

It was neither of them.

“Syah!” Algoth’s eyes caught on the young man’s set face. “Why are you here?”

Syah said nothing, only raised his head, a signal of dignity.

Algoth felt his insides turn as he realized why his son had come. “No!” the king cried, stepping forward.

“Yes Father, it is time.”

The king’s chest swelled with a shout, but he bit his lip and held it. He forced his pulse to calm from its abruptly pounding beat. The young prince stared coolly at him from his doorway. “Sit down, Syah,” he finally said. The prince complied.

“I know you, and everyone else, has tried to forget about it,” the prince began.

“Syah…”

“But it has been over a cycle.”

“Son…”

“All my wounds have long since healed.”

“Now, listen to me,” Algoth said and sat down. “Syah, seasons have passed since then. I… I admire you for bringing it to me, but the reason for the punishment has passed. I want you to…”

“No,” Syah interrupted him. “I expected you would suggest it, but we cannot revoke the sentence. You commanded it.”

The king sighed, watching Syah closely. “Syah… what I did, what I commanded… I did out of anger. But the time for it is gone. Now, I am just happy to have you all here and safe. You have learned your lesson.”

“And Denire Sharlane? He has already suffered this punishment,” Syah said, his voice stiffening.

“As well he should. He broke the knight’s oath, allowing you to be in danger.”

“And I must face the same consequences, because I led them to it.”

“No, Syah, it was all of you. You’re not responsible.”

“But I am! I convinced the knight to…”

“Yes,” Algoth interrupted him, lifting his hand, “I’ve heard the story. But it is not your fault, what happened.”

“It was mine more than the knight’s, and you commanded they take his life.” The king almost flinched. He lowered his gaze.

“He was spared,” the king said, anticipating.

“Yes, because I pledged for him.”

“It doesn’t matter!” the king burst out. “It is over…” He forced himself to take a breath. “You were right, he didn’t deserve death.” Syah sat silently in thought. As the boy seemed about to argue, Algoth stood. “No,” he said forcefully and Syah stopped. “I will not let my son be hurt and tortured like some criminal! It is a dishonor.”

“But…” Syah began.

“No!” the king cried, slamming his fist on the table. Syah straightened as Algoth leaned forward, locking the prince’s eyes with his angry gaze. His voice had lowered, but it was still as stern as his face. “I forbid you ever speak of this again.” The prince was still. “Son, you have already faced your punishment. Now, I am issuing a new command. Let it be.”

Syah stood. “Your majesty…” He closed his eyes as he bowed briefly before him. “I am sorry that this pains you,” the prince said as he straightened. The king was about to interject, but the look in the boy’s eyes held him. “I understand. You do not wish to see the youngest of your sons hurt or in pain. Especially since he is weak.”

“Enough!” the king shouted, standing.

“And why should you expect him to hold up his word? He will never be a leader. So of course it is acceptable to darken his honor.”

“You should not speak this way.”

“You grow angry because you know it’s the truth!” Syah countered. “I will not let you revoke your sentence.”

The king came around the table and stood next to his son. His face had softened. “Syah… You don’t have to do this to prove yourself. I don’t think of you that way, and you know it.”

“That’s not what this is about. I accepted this punishment for a reason. Denire was able to keep his life.”

“He won’t lose it if you don’t receive that punishment.”

“But he will lose his honor. My pledge allowed him to keep his title and rank, but if I don’t fulfill it, then his pardon is artificial.”

“Syah, no one remembers.”

“They do. The knights, the guards, they all remember. They called me brave when I stood up for him, but what do you think they would call me now, if it was an empty promise? Worse than a coward, Father.”

“Son…”

“And the real dishonor for this family wouldn’t be having your son face physical punishment. It would be to let the kingdom see that we think that the royal family doesn’t have to face consequences for their actions. That they are not bound by verdict of the king. I am prepared to face this consequence, Father. And I do it for much more than proving my bravery.”

Syah looked hard at the pained, stricken expression on his father’s face. The king didn’t move or speak. Syah raised his hand and placed it firmly on his father’s shoulder. The king made no further move to dissuade him.

The prince turned to leave. His hand was on the door when he heard Algoth’s voice. “Syah.” He turned around. The king’s face had hardened. He kept Syah’s eyes a moment, and then bowed his head to him. The prince nodded, unsteadily, and opened the door.

 

Syah let out a long, shaky breath. The front of his body tingled with apprehension. A tangible dread came from the direction of the dungeons. He felt the pressure on his feet as he walked, the shift and pull of muscles in his legs, a churning unease in his gut, his nervous hands and arms, not knowing where to be or what to do, awkwardly shifting beside him. His head felt full of smoke, fogging his thoughts and senses. And yet, as if in a fog, everything was distorted and amplified. He felt as if a mere pinprick would have echoed swift, sharp pain through his whole body. How could he withstand twenty lashes?

Don’t think about it, he told himself as he followed the guards down the hallway. Don’t think about it, just do it. It will be over quickly. Syah straightened. You will not show any sign of cowardice to them. You will not. His words flushed through his whole person, but the weak, sick feeling was still there, waiting…

Syah caught his breath. Oman appeared out of nowhere. He grabbed Syah’s shoulder tightly. “What are you doing?” Oman’s words pounded him. Syah tried to back away from his angry face. “Answer me!” Oman cried, shaking him. The guards stood nervously by.

“Stand aside, Brother,” Syah said, trying to keep his voice firm.

Oman’s eyes widened and his face tensed. He grabbed a fistful of Syah’s shirt, forcing him against the wall. Syah didn’t try to break free, but readying to argue with Oman he found he couldn’t speak.

The guards stepped to either side of them.

“Prince Oman,” the guard said, coming closer, “you must release him.”

Oman ignored them and pushed Syah harder against the wall. “I won’t let you do this!” Oman yelled.

Syah tried to swallow down his quivering gut. His gaze slid across his brother’s hot, tense skin.

“Prince Oman,” the guard said, “he must be taken to the dungeon, by order of the king.”

“That’s a lie!” Oman cried.

“Brother…” Syah was able to say, but Oman paid no heed to him.

“Prince,” the guard said, carefully pulling out a rolled piece of parchment, “these are his signed orders. They state that…”

“I don’t care what they say!” Oman interrupted him, and his hand tightened on Syah’s shirt. “You are not taking my brother anywhere near the dungeon!”

“Prince Oman,” said the other guard, “the orders cannot be overturned by anyone less than the king. We must take him.”

“You will not touch him!” Oman warned. He released Syah, his hand going for his sword. The guards began to react, but hesitated. Syah grabbed Oman’s arms. His brother’s hot, angry eyes jerked back to him, but Syah saw something else below his rage.

Oman knew that look. Syah was studying him. He was about to start with one of his cool, calm arguments. Oman started to pull away from him, remembering the soldiers, but Syah grabbed him by his wrist, tightly, and pulled him back.

“Syah…” Oman said in a low, warning tone. Syah said nothing, but he forced Oman’s arm lower. Oman’s free arm grabbed Syah’s and tried to stop him, not knowing what he was doing but uneasy about losing control to him. But Syah’s grip held him fast.

“Stop it,” Oman commanded angrily, but surprise shook away his anger as he realized what Syah was doing. Syah pressed Oman’s hand against his injured chest. Oman’s free arm moved to the wall to push himself away, but still Syah forced his hand harder against his lower ribs.

“Syah!” Oman cried. Syah looked calmly back at him as he forced Oman’s arm closer. Oman could feel the bones in Syah’s chest give a little beneath his hand. He stopped struggling, gazing silently into Syah’s unblinking eyes.

“It has healed,” Syah said. Oman pressed his hand around the area, feeling Syah’s steady breathing.

“So it has,” Oman said.

Syah released him and Oman took a step back. The younger placed his hand on Oman’s shoulder. “Have no fear for me,” Syah said. Oman’s jaw tightened. “I must do this,” Syah continued resolutely. “It is not your place to try to prevent me.”

“No, I must…”

“Stop,” Syah said firmly. Oman held his words. “I am not weak. I have made my decision. Now, stand aside.”

Oman paused a breath. Something changed in his face. He grabbed Syah’s arm strongly, but this time not hurting him. He stepped closer, lowering his voice. His eyes pierced his brother’s, but Syah did not look away. “Each slash will rip your skin and you will bleed. You will be humiliated.” Syah was silent, but his eyes flashed with arguments. “You cannot do this.”

Syah almost smiled. “I am going to be alright, Brother. By the end of the day it will be over. But, Oman, my oath binds me to do this. I know that you are concerned for me, but you must let me go.”

Oman relented. He stood rigidly, but he let Syah step away from him. His eyes didn’t follow Syah. He stood facing the wall, listening to the guards and his brother start down the hallway. Anger returned in him, anger with himself, and it was about to explode from him. He had failed… The image of Syah’s contorted face flooded his mind. His bitterness swelled in him and he focused it on the wall with his fist. His chest tightened as if his lungs had become leather. He had failed.

 

Syah stepped inside. The large room was quiet as he entered. His eyes scanned the darkly dressed prison keepers at the base of the circular room. Then he saw the table in the center. His insides cringed as he focused on the bindings, the stains that tainted the table and floor beneath it with anguish of the past. Syah forced himself to look away. Don’t think about it. It will be over quickly. But there was no burying the feeling now. He took in a deep breath and held it as he started down the steps. He tried not to let show what he felt in his heart. It’s too late to leave now.

“Syah,” a voice said from beside him. He felt a hand on his arm and turned.

“Denire,” Syah said, at first not realizing why he was there. The guards stepped up beside them and Syah’s eyes focused on the knight. Sorrow and concern shadowed his face.

“Prince,” Denire said as Syah turned towards him.

Syah strained to keep down a cry. He had hoped this wouldn’t happen. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” Syah said through clenched teeth.

The knight took a moment. “No, Prince Syah, it’s you who shouldn’t be here.”

“Denire…” Syah paused. “I know what you have come to say, but you will not dissuade me from this. I have made my decision. It must be done.”

The knight raised his head and took a wider stance. His voice and face were firm. “I cannot, on my honor as a knight, as a servant of Arnith, allow a prince of my kingdom to suffer torture to remedy a mistake that I made.”

“You made no mistake,” Syah quickly returned.

“Forgive me, your highness, I did. I allowed the heirs of the throne to leave the protection of the city without raising the alarm.”

“It was our choice to leave,” Syah said.

“I cannot allow you to suffer a single slash. You do not deserve this.”

“I must do it, to protect you.”

“Even if you leave here, if you never face this punishment, I will not lose my life. The king has lessened the sentence.”

“But you will lose your honor, your knighthood,” Syah protested hotly.

“Those are the consequences I am ready to face.”

Syah’s face became grim. “I will not be responsible for Arnith losing your service,” he said. “You are too valuable to the kingdom. It is up to me to save a great knight from being shamed.”

Denire stared at Syah. The boy’s words resounded in his thoughts. He took a step closer to the young prince in front of him. “I will not allow you to do this in my name. If the son of the king were to be harmed under my protection, my title being returned to me would not matter. I would have disgraced my Arnithian bloodline, and I would banish myself from this kingdom forever in shame. You sacrificing your comfort would have no purpose.”

Syah stood still. His eyes were fixed on Denire’s face. He thought of the prison keepers standing at the base of the steps. Then he turned to the soldiers who had escorted him there. They were visibly agitated, but stood silent, waiting. As he turned back to Denire the knight straightened.

Syah nodded and raised his voice, “Well, as you can see, it’s too late to stop it now. I cannot and will not walk out of this room with the shame of cowering away from pain.”

“There is no…”

“How could I face my father or brothers again?” Syah continued, more forcefully. “How will the soldiers, servants, and people of Arnith think of me? As a coward! I would never have their respect. What would my place in this kingdom be then?”

“You are a prince of Arnith, a son of the king!”

“No!” Syah cried. “I am nothing! Anything that I am I must earn. My actions, my choices today will determine if I deserve to be a leader of Arnith. You have no right to force me into a path of darkness and shame! If you consider me too weak to face this that I have promised, that is your own impasse. I will not suffer because you do not consider me worthy of bravery.” Denire’s face darkened. “Now, stand aside. You will not interfere. I will face this punishment. Whether you stay or leave afterwards is your choice.”

Syah swiftly turned away from the knight. He met the eyes of the prison keepers at the foot of the stairs and started towards them again.

Denire grasped the prince’s shoulder. He glanced quickly at the knight. He was startled at Denire’s earnest expression. The knight stepped closer, holding Syah’s eyes. His voice was low, yet it echoed through the young prince like thunder, “Syah, I know the true reason.”

Syah pulled angrily away from him, but as he stepped back his gaze was caught on Denire’s face. He felt a wave of gratitude towards the knight, of companionship. He nodded slightly to him. Denire stiffened as the prince turned away.

Syah started back towards the threatening table at the center of the room. The prince approached the guards, and one came forward to meet him.

“We’ll not have any trouble from you, boy,” the guard said in a cruel voice. He was so close that Syah smelled his stale breath.

Syah stopped and locked the guard’s eyes with his unblinking gaze. “Do not presume,” the prince said after a moment, “that you have any authority over me. I am here for a simple purpose. You and your men are still servants of Arnith.”

The man’s face lost expression. Syah turned away from him and continued towards the table. Before he could visualize its danger, he turned to another prison keeper. “You will bring me a gag,” Syah ordered.

A look of disgust came over the guard’s face, as if sensing vulnerability in the boy. His tone was equally disdainful as he replied, “We do not let prisoners…”

He stopped. The boy’s sharp gaze was like a knife at his throat. The boy’s expression hardened, all his thoughts and commands visible on his face. The guard may have looked on the king himself. He quickly lowered his gaze, nodded slightly, then turned and left them.

Syah closed his eyes a moment and turned back to the table. He swallowed and reached for the bottom of his shirt. As he pulled it over his head his skin shivered. He tried to occupy his mind, but his gut roiled painfully. Turning to face the soldiers and the guards, his heart pounded harder in his chest. The men around him were silent, staring at him as if they were unable to move. His youth was more visible to them now as they gazed at his bare chest, his thin arms. They saw his young skin, tender, unscarred, untainted. Syah studied their expressions and knew.

He raised his gaze past them till he found the knight’s face. Denire stood, his stance showing the conflict inside him.

Syah tightened his jaw and raised his head. “It is time,” he said.

Turning back to the table, Syah stood quietly beside it. In a moment, hard hands gripped him and lifted him up. They laid him on his stomach on the table and pulled his arms above his head. They bound his arms and legs tightly to the wood beneath him. Someone moved so that Syah could see the twisted piece of cloth before him. Syah nodded and lifted his head. He looked up at the man above him, who avoided the boy’s eyes as he placed the cloth inside Syah’s mouth and tied it behind his head. A brief tingle of panic quickened his breath, but he closed his eyes and tried to stifle the feeling. The man left him. Syah laid his head back down on the wood.

They left him and then the room was quiet. His thoughts flew desperately, far away from that place… beyond the room, the dungeon, the castle… to stories, to legends, people, things from books. Theories, maps, equations… but his mind kept returning. His body started to shake, hearing the large room’s strange silence.

There was the crisp sound of paper unfolding. The echo of a voice flooded him, “According to verdict of the king, Syah, Prince of Arnith, is sentenced to twenty lashes to be inflicted by the dungeon keepers of Anteria. This punishment is issued as reparation for deliberate endangerment to the future throne of Anteria and disobedience to King Algoth. Upon delivery of this punishment, Prince Syah shall be pardoned of all misdeeds and will return to normal duties.”

You see, twenty lashes. It will be over quickly. The thud of footsteps approached and then stopped beside him. There’s nothing you can do about it now. Pain exists only in the present. Rise above the fear. Soon this will be a faint memory. He let his body settle as he felt a swell of acceptance, still tinged with fear. He heard the shift of the prison keeper and braced. There was a startling crack of the whip and Syah flinched. But he felt nothing. The whip hadn’t touched him.

Denire’s fists clenched, remembering when the same had been done to him. He watched the prince, seeing him shift and brace again.

The torturer struck. All Syah felt was burning, searing pain. The knight jerked at the sound, feeling a quick, forgotten sting across his own back. The slash was brief, but the pain intensified, spreading across Syah’s back. Choking with pain, he tried to draw breath, but it was forced out as a muffled scream. He tried to see the bindings through his tears and pulled frantically on them, feeling that they were worsening the pain.

The agony sharpened. Part of him fought to hold down this pain, but the other fought to breathe. A force inside him struggled to sustain his life. Though now it was an existence of deep suffering, this drive fought to continue it, forcing him to fill and release his lungs.

Denire saw Syah struggling with the pain. The knight’s eyes went to the burning red streak that now lay across the boy’s back. Denire felt a weakening flush. He felt an ache on his back, along the scars. Scars of a criminal. And now the boy was scarred the same. The sight of the wound locked his gaze. The knight stood rigid, his gaze fastened on the prince, shaking.

Syah’s breathing slowed. The pain had eased, a little. His body trembling, he remembered the whip master. He found him, standing within his sight, waiting. The whip was in his hand.

The prince looked back up at the torturer. A pleased expression came over the guard’s face. The same drive that was striving to keep life pumping through him now pressed him to give in. Tell him, beg him, plead with him… stop this. Syah looked at the man with desperate eyes. End it. The man smiled.

No. His vision became unfocused. A voice inside him strove to be heard over the pulses of pain and the shiverings of fear. The pain overtook him as he turned away. Choking on his resolve, he made himself forget about the prison keeper. Biting down on the cloth, he braced himself and closed his eyes.

The guard’s eyes narrowed. His hand gripped the whip tighter.

Syah felt a force of hot air in his chest and throat. The burning riddled across his back again. He imagined thorns cutting in and dragging across his skin. His hands ground on the wood of the table. He cringed, pulling at the bindings.

Just as he thought he could stand it, another tearing slash ripped across his skin. His arms, face and torso pressed so hard against the wood he could feel each grain of it pinching his skin. But he pressed against it harder. This was a new pain, his pain, and he tried to use it to keep himself from panic.

Then the burning spread deep across his shoulders and he lost his control again. His neck and arms twisted in agony. His head flushed with hot fear and his gut wrenched as if a giant had grabbed his insides and squeezed them. The fresh wound burned and all of the previous cuts hummed with it. He could feel beads of sweat or blood form on his skin and trace down his sides, his shoulders, his arms, like fingertips inciting sensation and pain in their wake. He imagined the cuts were so deep they had shredded his muscles to expose his bones.

He turned his head, scraping his face against the wood. His forehead pressed hard into the table as he released a shuddering breath through the cloth. The whip struck him again. For a moment he thought he could stand it. The pain was wicked but he was still able to breathe. But the torturer must have realized the last strike’s lack of potency for he only paused a moment before releasing another slash overlaying the last one. The shock of pain was so intense that the thoughts wisped from Syah’s mind, taken over by a dark, unbearable agony.

With fear yet hope Syah realized the torturer, who he had forced himself to forget. He tried to turn his head. He would ask, beg for mercy now, but he couldn’t move. A recent strike had claimed his shoulders and movement tripled his awareness of it.

The pain was about to return. He sensed the torturer was ready, probably drawing back his whip that moment, and there was nothing he could to stop him. All of the fear Syah had ever known, of eyes in the forest, of strangers, of capture, of exposure, of his father’s anger or his brother’s distrust, of the unknown or unexplained, all of it was trumped by the fear he now felt for the next strike. Courage did not matter. Duty did not matter. He turned his head, despite the pain it caused him, and screamed, though muffled by the gag tight across his face. He was unable to see the soldier and guards, though he knew they were there. He would have pleaded, begged for release, for them to end it, to kill him, but he couldn’t. Instead he cried through the gag, desperate, pleading.

The whip cracked across his back, sending his body twisting against the bindings and wood. And then the whip struck again, and again until he was clutching to the pain of the wood again. It will go on forever. His mind somehow cleared beneath the flood of fire and pain. He wished he would die, that his mind did not exist, that his consciousness would not continue. What had he done to deserve this? If he had enough strength he would have lifted his head and smashed it down on the table, to try to snuff out his thought forever.

But then his thoughts disevolved, returning to despair and torment. He heard, despite the pounding of blood in his ears, the shift of the torturer. Despite his panicked breath, he could hear the whistle of leather as it glided through the air towards him. He clenched every muscle and limb and buried his head in wood, trying to hold himself against the coming pain.

The prison keeper didn’t make it to twenty lashes, though Syah never knew. At the twelfth lash the torturer noticed that the prince’s screaming was silenced. As his arm drew back for the next strike, he held. The boy still had not breathed. The guard’s eyes stayed on him, something working inside him beyond his thoughts.

Syah’s body fell limp, his head and limbs settling on the harsh wood. The guard’s insides wrenched, but he didn’t heed them. His focus was on the boy, on his torn back red with welts and blood. The room was deathly quiet as the soldiers and guards observed the wounded prince. Then the boy’s body moved, subtly, barely lifting and falling with a shallow breath.

All eyes went to the prison keeper. The man’s face paled and the whip hung awkward in his hand. He hesitated, his eyes growing wider as he stepped shakily backward from the boy’s body. A look of horror came over his face, as if the next slash to be dealt would cut himself. Then his hand weakened…

As the whip hit the floor, Denire started down the steps. He reached the prince’s body with the other soldiers. They paused a moment, seeing the blood stream down his sides onto the table and then across it onto the floor. Denire closed his eyes a moment, then reached to remove the binding on Syah’s wrists. The guards and soldiers untied the other straps holding him down, while Denire untied and removed the cloth from his mouth.

Syah still hadn’t moved. Denire stood over him, watching his torn, wreaked body. “You were very brave,” the knight said softly. Denire took off his cloak and folded it over Syah’s tattered skin. The other guards stepped back as Denire turned Syah’s body and lifted it over his shoulder. The knight turned and nodded to them and they obeyed, standing still and afraid as they watched the knight carry their young prince back up the stairs.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

SCARRED

 

 

A group of maids stopped in the corridor, the color draining from their faces as Denire walked towards them, carrying the bloody prince over his shoulder. He stopped and they stepped back. “Fetch me some clean linens and hot water,” he said.

They hesitated a moment, then one of them said, “Yes, sir.” She touched the shoulders of the other two and they turned back down the hallway.

Denire could feel Syah’s shallow pulse as he paused there a moment. He started towards his quarters, down the hall. He carefully laid Syah’s unresponsive body face down on his bed. The servants came in with a pot of steaming water and white, folded cloths. “Bandages,” Denire said to them, “and ale.”

Denire turned back to the prince. He tried to steady himself. As he reached for the cloak covering the prince’s back, his fingers felt it was damp with blood. He pulled it away slowly, revealing once more the deep bleeding gashes. He dipped the linen in the steaming water and held it over the bloody stripes. “Don’t wake now,” the knight said above him, beginning to clean the boy’s wounds with the cloth.

 

Denire’s hands paused as the door to his room was thrown open. A cry came from the doorway, but he didn’t look over. His hand started moving the thread again, stitching up one of the last deep gashes on Syah’s lower back.

What happened?” the voice from the door demanded.

Denire held his gaze without reaction. “Keep your voice down, or you will wake him,” Denire said in a smooth tone.

Fasime approached the bed. He gazed down angrily at Syah. His hand shook as it lifted to touch some of the pale skin left on his brother’s back. His anger was still great, but he spoke quietly. “Who let this happen? Why didn’t someone tell me?” Fasime searched the knight’s face.

Denire said nothing. He continued stitching the cut and tied off the string. Fasime’s breath caught in his throat and he gagged, his hand clenching into a fist. “Syah, you stubborn fool!” Fasime said, shaking his head. “How could you let this happen?” Fasime demanded, his eyes now not accusing, but sorrowful.

Denire sighed and looked down at Syah. “He is stubborn,” was Denire’s answer.

Fasime paused a moment, shaking his head, filled with memories of Syah, his determination to complete his agenda. “Has he woke yet?” Fasime asked, placing his hand lightly on Syah’s head.

“No,” Denire answered. “We may hope he will sleep through the worst of it.”

 

Fasime woke to the door opening. His eyes opened to his mother’s shocked face. She stood in the doorway, a statue staring down with dread on Syah’s limp body on the bed. Her hands lifted in front of her as if they could push away the nightmare vision that flooded her eyes. Then her gaze went to the bandages, some of them red with blood, completely covering his back, neck, and shoulders. His body lay limp and lifeless…

“Mother!” Fasime’s voice startled her. She was able to relax at the sight of her middle son, alive and well before her. Fasime stood and went to her. As he came close, she murmured something unintelligible. “You shouldn’t be here,” Fasime said, placing his hand on her arm.

“Stop,” she said in a startlingly stern voice. She raised her hand for him to hold. She took in and let out a shaky breath, moving away from Fasime, towards her youngest son. She stopped a few steps away from the bed, her eyes unblinking. “Does…” her voice faltered a moment, “does he yet live?”

The sound of the words sent chills through Fasime. He choked on the response, but said quickly, “Yes, Mother, he lives.”

The queen’s eyes closed as he said it. She lowered her head and placed her fingers over her eyes, feeling them quake.

“Come, Mother, we will tend to him,” Fasime assured her, taking her arm again.

She shook her head and moved to the side of the bed, steadying herself as she gazed with horror at the full extent of Syah’s wounds.

“Your majesty.” The voice startled her. She turned and saw a knight.

“You!” Her voice shook with anger, its tone accusing.

He bowed deeply and replied as he rose, “He will heal.”

“And it is your fault this happened to him!” the queen raged at him. She wished the anger twisting inside her could take form, overwhelm and swallow him.

The knight nodded, eyes closed.

The queen’s anger was hers to keep. Her eyes finally moved from Denire, back to her son’s bandaged wounds. There were deep lines of pain on his face, though he was asleep. It was her son’s face, still, but it had changed. The pain had darkened it. She knelt unsteadily before him. Her hand lifted to touch him, paused in the air, hesitating above his head.

“My son!” she whispered. “How could this happen to you?” she demanded, blinking away her tears. Her mind saw his little head again, his soft hair as a boy, sleeping and peaceful, so many cycles before. The warm memory only pained her, his tormented body now before her. She buried her head in the bed beside him, her hand resting atop his heatless skin as she wept.

After a while she began to calm, though her pain and anger were still great. She thought about Fasime and the knight, but as her eyes started to search for them, they returned to Syah’s face. Her hand had felt Syah take in a sudden breath. His eyes were still closed but she sensed he was coming to consciousness.

“Oh, no,” the queen said stiffly. “Sleep now, my son.”

Syah’s eyes were opening. The tightness in his face eased a little and he blinked.

“It’s alright now, Syah,” she told him as she ran her hand through his hair.

The young prince caught his chest, then took another quick breath, gasping. His face changed, showing his desperate struggle against coming pain.

“No,” she pleaded with him, shaking her head. “Sleep.”

“Your majesty.” It was the knight. “You should not be here at this time. We will tend to him.”

The queen knew that Syah recognized her. For a moment his eyes were questioning, but they became more desperate, pleading, begging for relief. “No, Syah,” the queen said sternly. He forced out unintelligible words from between his clenched teeth. “Get some brandy,” she ordered. The knight moved away from them.

The queen’s gaze quickly returned to Syah. His eyes were closed now as he pushed his face down into the pillow, not breathing. They watched his body cringe and jerk, as if it was trying to get away from something.

Seeing the knight return, Fasime took his mother’s hand, grasping it tightly and making her meet his gaze. She finally nodded and stood, letting Fasime and the knight turn Syah over. He cried out, then screamed as they lifted his shoulder off the bed.

“Drink,” Denire told Syah when he quieted. He lifted the bottle to Syah’s lips. Syah shook his head.

“My son,” the queen gasped, grabbing his arm. “You do not have to endure this. You have lived through the torture once. You must not live it again.”

Syah’s gaze shifted to her. He was still choking. Denire lifted the bottle and poured a small amount of the brandy in Syah’s mouth. The prince struggled to swallow it. They made him drink, until his eyelids fluttered and his breath softened.

“We are going to lay you down again,” said Denire softly. Syah wasn’t afraid of them, but as they moved him, the intense pain clenched his body again. He cried out as he settled on the bed, trying to catch his breath.

“Be still,” said his mother. “Rest.” She closed his eyelids, gently smoothing her palm over his face. Each breath in then was slower, easier. Finally it was deep and slow, and the queen stood away from him.

“It will take time for his wounds to heal,” she said, turning to the knight. “I will send for servants. We will move him to…”

“Your majesty,” Denire interrupted firmly but bowed in apology. “To move him now would cause him a great deal of pain.” The queen stopped, her eyes staying on the knight a moment. Then she turned and looked down at Syah. His body had settled on the bed, the lines of pain on his face had softened.

Her thoughts relaxed a little. As she stood there watching the boy, she remembered that the knight had shared her son’s pain. The queen spoke to Denire. “You will care for him to the best of your skill.”

The knight’s head lifted, sensing more in the queen’s words. He finally nodded. “I will, your majesty.”

 

Syah’s hands fisted on the blankets around him. Then his eyes opened. He realized that he was on the bed, not at first understanding the sting on his back, but feeling his hands tightening on their own and his body tensing. Then it hit him… he remembered… but the pain was different. It no longer reminded him of the blows dealt by the torturer. It was a burn, a low ache, but it was bearable. He clenched his teeth, feeling pressure and moisture on one part of his back again. The sting intensified and drew nearer the pain he had felt when he last woke. He buried his head to stifle a cry.

“I am sorry you are awake,” said Denire’s voice. “I am almost finished.”

Syah relaxed, feeling the pain become less intense. Then he felt the pressure being lifted, and the sharp sting returned for a moment. Water splashed nearby. He turned his head and saw Denire lifting a cloth from a basin, blood streaming back as he twisted it.

“Your wounds are healing,” the knight said. Syah felt the cloth on his back again. The pain made his muscles contract involuntarily.

“How…” Syah tried to speak, but his throat was parched. He tried to swallow. “How long have I been asleep?”

“A few days,” Denire told him, wringing the cloth. “The cuts on your back have mostly healed.” When the sharp pain had again subsided into a muted ache all over his back, Syah relaxed and let go of his grip on the bed. He thought about trying to stand, but realized he wouldn’t be able to avoid the pain. He wasn’t even sure he had the strength to try. So he lay still instead, turning his head to Denire again.

The knight replaced the cloth in the water and rinsed off his hands, then sat on a chair near the bed.

“How much longer?” Syah asked.

“You should be able to move in a couple of days.”

“Where am I?” Syah asked, looking around.

“In my quarters,” Denire replied. “Your brothers and your mother have come to visit you.”

Syah’s eyes closed a long moment. “Yes, I remember.”

“Your strength will return to you soon,” Denire said, placing a hand on his arm. “I’ll go and get you some food.” He stood for the door.

“Denire.”

He stopped when he heard Syah’s voice. “Can I…” Syah began. His eyes left Denire’s face, shifting unfocused to the room. Denire saw something… dark… in the prince’s eyes. Syah’s voice, soft, quiet, finally asked, “Can I see your scars?”

Denire let out a sorrowful, troubled breath, knowing why he asked, feeling a cursed fellowship with the young man before him. He was scarred the same. He gave Syah a reluctant, shaky nod and reached for the bottom of his shirt. He pulled it up towards his arms and turned around. He heard Syah’s quick intake of breath and shut his eyes tightly. He knew the prince now gazed upon the disfigured skin across his back, covered with white, thick streaks like a tangled web, their pain silent now. Denire’s hands began to shake as he stood there a moment. Finally, he pulled down his shirt, but he did not turn around. He couldn’t bear to see the horrible realization on the young face.

Quietly, Denire left the room.

 

Taking in a deep breath as he stood in the hallway, Syah could feel the subtle stretch of the wounds across his back. But they were mostly healed, and their discomfort was constant but dismissible.

He breathed in the warm, stale air of the castle’s peaceful afternoon, gazing down the quiet hallway as he contemplated returning to his quarters. Some whisper was calling to him, though, and he turned back. After a moment of analyzing his thoughts, he sighed to himself and left his post between the crossing hallways. He walked with a casual step, passing doors on either side of him, till he came to a larger metal one, the soldiers’ common room.

Several men glanced up as he opened the door. Realizing whom it was, they straightened in their seats, about to stand, but Syah’s manner prevented them. He stepped inside, looking down at the game of cards and sticks spread out on the table between them.

“Good afternoon, Prince Syah,” one of them greeted him. “Can we do something for you?”

The young prince approached the table and studied their game, some chance, some strategy. When he looked up, they were gazing steadily at him. Syah saw they were somewhat nervous, but ready to serve him.

“May I join you?” the prince asked them. The soldiers blinked a moment, then nodded, smiling, and brought him up a chair.

 

THE END

 

 

THE END OF

 

A GREAT JOURNEY

 

BROTHER BETRAYED: BOOK ONE

 

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN

 

THE WARS OF ARNITH

 

BROTHER BETRAYED: BOOK TWO

FROM THE AUTHOR

 

BROTHER BETRAYED is part of a life-long project to write and publish the story of Miscia. For many years I carried the stories of Oman, Fasime, and Syah, to complete their book in 2011.

The story of the three brothers is just the beginning. This book sets up the political climate for the Flight Moon Series.

The next book in the series is titled FIRE BORN. A century after the kingdom of Arnith is divided, a child is born who will either help repair the damage of the past, or rip the kingdoms apart.

If you liked this book, please check out my short stories, THE ENCHANTRESS, DYING TO LIVE AGAIN, and CITY OF SILVER.

 

Support independent authors and please leave a review. Thank you!

 

 

 

 


A Great Journey ~ Book One of Brother Betrayed

Three princes steal from their castle and begin a quest to explore the kingdom they will one day govern. Long from home, a shady rider approaches them. More mystery and danger lurks in the forests of Arnith that will test the bond of their brotherhood. Book One of Brother Betrayed, best selling fantasy by D. M. Raver. Book Two: The Wars of Arnith Prequel to the Flight Moon Series: Fire Born (now available) Fate of Fire (2017) Converging Flames and Wild Fire

  • Author: D. M. Raver
  • Published: 2016-12-29 05:20:24
  • Words: 62982
A Great Journey ~ Book One of Brother Betrayed A Great Journey ~ Book One of Brother Betrayed