Book 1: Promise and Betrayal
Published by Headland Publishing LLC
Copyright 2017 Isaac Lind
Smashword Edition, License Notes
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Dedicated to Abdel Kader Haidara
To kill a squirrel, one had to sneak up on it close to fifty yards. Everyone knew that. Oakentere knew that, but the squirrels had become jumpy lately. He had to be about one hundred yards away when the squirrel froze up on its branch and looked cautiously around. He knew that if he moved any closer, it would jump off. Oakentere stopped and silently lifted his bow and bent it to the full stretch of his arrow. He had once shot a squirrel from seventy yards, but never a hundred yards. The squirrel was only half-visible, hidden behind the leaves of the tree. Oakentere knew the arrow would make a small clapping sound as it hit the leaves. Not much, but enough to warn the squirrel. He moved the aim slightly into where he expected the squirrel would jump, held his breath for a second, and the arrow was on its way. It hit the leaves, and the squirrel jumped right into the arrow’s path and fell off the branch.
He counted the steps to the tree the squirrel had been in and found it had been a hundred and two yards away. The dead squirrel was four yards from the tree. Oakentere picked it up and removed the arrow, which he put it back into his quiver. With the squirrel, the second of the day, he went back home. At first, he wanted to tell everyone how he had shot a squirrel from one hundred and two yards. Then he remembered that no one had believed him when he told them about shooting one from seventy yards. They certainly wouldn’t believe him now. Still, he had two squirrels in one morning and that in itself was impressive.
As he came out of the forest, Oakentere realized that no one would be interested in his dead squirrels. Even though he could see nothing, he could hear horses. Not one, but several. No one in the village had horses, and only an important visitor would have a horse. The regular tradesman coming up from the lowlands had mules or donkeys, but never horses.
“What’s going on, Enon?” Oakentere said as his friend passed him on the trail.
“There are knights from Berkin. They are summoning soldiers for a war party.”
“Must be a big one, then, since they’re all the way up here.”
The boys both ran down through the village to the square. A large crowd had gathered around the horsemen. Two of them had lined up all the young men and quickly separated them into groups of wanted and unwanted.
“How old are you?” one of the men asked Enon when they finally reached the end of the line.
“Good. Any weapon skills?”
“I am good with the spear and have some skills with the blade,” Enon said, and it wasn’t a lie; he was as good as any in the village, but he had never seen any real soldiers doing a sword fight.
“You’re in. Join the men on the right.”
“Thank you, sir.” Enon cheered and fisted Oakentere’s shoulder before he took off.
“And your age?” the man said, addressing Oakentere.
“I’m fifteen, sir.”
“Sorry, you’re too young and too feeble.”
“I’m not, I’m…”
“Move on, please.” The man interrupted Oakentere before he addressed the next one.
As Oakentere moved away, he saw the leader of the horsemen had drawn a little away from the others, overlooking the square. At least Oakentere was sure he had to be the leader. He had a shiny suit of armor with a red eagle painted on his chest plate and sat on top of the finest horse Oakentere had ever seen.
“Sir, I know I can serve you well. I am a good archer,” Oakentere said.
The knight looked at him briefly. “NoNo, you’re not.”
“I shot this squirrel today from a hundred yards distance.” Oakentere held up the dead squirrel.
“Hand me your bow,” the knight said and stretched his right hand towards Oakentere. Oakentere handed his bow and one arrow to the knight, who pulled the bow to the reach of the arrow but didn’t let it go.
“It’s a good bow,” he replied. “For hunting, but not for warfare.”
“War archery is about power, not precision. War bows have more than double the pull and shoot arrows over four hundred yards. I need archers that can pull that weight over and over again until the enemy is defeated, sometimes for hours.”
Oakentere looked down, realizing that he couldn’t even pull his own bow over and over again a full hour, let alone a bow with twice that pull. The knight handed the bow back but held on to the arrow and studied it.
“Do you shoot squirrels with broad heads?” he asked, laughing.
“The head balances the arrow, making it heavier up front so it can fly straight. The trees at this altitude are heavy because they grow so slowly, so the arrows need a heavier head, even though they only are meant for squirrels.”
“You sure know your stuff.”
“I make my bows and arrows all by myself,” Oakentere said.
“Even the heads?”
“Sure, I help out the blacksmith to sharpen and repair tools, and he lets me use his shop to make new arrowheads.”
“Can you sharpen swords and knives as well?” The knight handed the arrow back to Oakentere.
“Of course, sir.”
“And you are fifteen, is that so?”
“Yes, sir,” Oakentere answered, just waiting to hear once more that he was too young and too feeble.
“That means you need your parents’ consent to join us.”
“I am sure they will let me go, sir,” he said without being sure at all.
“I might find some use for you, but I need proof that you have been truthful to me. Do you see the spruce beside the large tree cabin? That must be about a hundred yards off. If you can hit it where the tree divides into two large branches, then you can go and get your parents.”
Oakentere took out an arrow, put it on the bowstring, and aimed. All the houses in the village were made of stone with only the doors and the roofs made out of wood. That was because all the trees this high up on the mountain were small and crooked and only good for firewood. Trees for building houses had to be bought in the lowlands. The richest man in the village, Mr. Aidenein, had built a house entirely in wood to show his wealth.
The spruce had been planted by Mrs. Aidento, and she insisted it should not be cut down. She would probably dislike that her tree was used for target practice as well. Oakentere adjusted for the wind and released the arrow. Oakentere didn’t wait for the knight to approve his hit; as soon as the arrow hit the spruce right where it divided into two branches, he ran up the small beaten tracks to their cabin. “Mum, Dad,” he yelled as ran.
“The carriages are waiting, my Lady.” The butler bowed deeply as he entered the queen’s private chamber.
“We will be out in a moment.”
“Thank you, my Lady.” The butler bowed even deeper before he left the room in a hurry.
“I’d so wished you could join us on this journey.”
“I would just be eager to get back. Now you can take your time visiting your father,” the king replied. “And my son, who is going to Engriole to get his name written into the Book of Rulers.” He bent down and kissed the baby boy in the queen’s arms on the cheek.
“He will, and my father will be so proud to see him.”
“Talk well of me to the King of Gardir.”
“I have only good things to say about my king.” The queen leaned into the king’s embrace.
“Now you must hasten; the safety of the journey relies on traveling in daylight.” The king loosened his embrace. “Let me hold our prince while you make yourself ready.” The maid traveling with them already had on her outer gowns, and now she helped the queen to put on her overcoat. Even though it was what she would refer to as a traveling coat, the blue velvet and silver thread embroidery made it clear that she was no common traveler. The king followed them through the marble halls of the castle. The castle was the smallest of the royal castles within the five kingdoms, but many thought of it as the fairest one, most of all due to its location on a high cliff overlooking the ocean on one side and the capital city on the other side.
“Take good care of our precious,” the king said as they reached the awaiting carriage. The queen stepped up into the carriage, and the king handed her their son.
“I will, and we’ll be back before you know it,” the queen said before the door was closed. The king looked after the carriage as it left and couldn’t help but be worried.
Lord Roden soon learned that Oakentere’s promise that his parents would let him go was highly overrated. His mother was furious.
“What do you mean coming here dragging children off to war?” She stood before him with both hands on her hips and elbows straight out to each side, eyeing him from top to toe.
“I…” was all Lord Roden managed to utter before she continued.
“I will tell you what I think of these wars of yours. This is the reason mountain people are looked upon as savages.”
By then, Oakentere’s father had caught up with her. He placed both hands on her shoulders to calm her down. “Please, dear Oakento, let the man speak. I am sorry, my Lord, but my wife has strong opinions,” he said to Lord Roden.
“I can see that. You will be glad to know this isn’t a regular plundering war party. We will be teaming up with the forces of Gardir. In fact, it’s not really a war either; it is a show of strength before some negotiations. I doubt there will be any fighting at all.”
“So what’s in it for us?”
“Recognition and access to the roads and the markets, so we can trade our own merchandise.” The lord jumped from his horse and stood right before them. “And I am not taking children on as soldiers.” Oakentere looked up in confusion. The Lord had promised him to join them. “I want your son to join as my squire.”
“What do you need a squire for if it’s not a real war?”
“Same as the soldiers; just for show. I am meeting up with all the knights from Gardir. It will look better if I have a squire.”
“And he will come back?”
“Okay, Tere, you may go,” his father said, and Oakentere jumped up into his father’s arms and thanked him.
His mother held him firmly in both arms and looked straight into his eyes. “I don’t know what you will face on this adventure, but remember, whatever you do, you got to look me in the eyes when you come back.”
Oakentere nodded but didn’t know what his mother was thinking of.
Lord Roden was back on his horse already. “We ride out first thing in the morning. Be ready then.”
“I will, sir.”
“Bring your bow, and I need you to bring a grindstone so you can sharpen my swords.”
“I will bring all three, and you will have the sharpest swords of them all.”
The library of Engriole was more than a thousand years old, it was said that a copy of every book ever written was at the library. In the great halls, the bookshelves rose more than thirty feet from the ground on every wall, and each one of them was packed with books. Most books concerned everyday life, like books on herbs and plants, ways to dry meat, or carpentry. Then there were all the legends from ancient times. No one could tell any longer which ones described real events and which of them were just plain fairytales. Everyone seemed to agree at least there was a bit of both. Queen Amrya could feel the dust tickle in her nose as they drew nearer to the older parts of the building and had to resist the urge to sneeze. The last room looked more like a vault than a library. The doors were heavy and there were no windows in the thick walls. Only a few torches lit up the room. There were a lot fewer books in this room, with two bookshelves with glass doors on either side of the room. The books were all thicker, older, and more finely made than the other books. On the far wall stood nothing but a chest. On a large table in the middle of the room lay a heavy book where every page was made of the finest leather. Beside it lay the writers’ ink and feather pens. It was the Book of Rulers. Everyone who might inherit a throne in one of the five kingdoms had to have their name written into this book.
“Anyone who is to be written into the Book of Rulers must be witnessed by members of the royal family from at least three of the five kingdoms.” The writer was an old man standing at the end of the large table. He had opened the Book of Rulers at the section for Antuk. “May the representatives present themselves.”
“I am Queen Amrya of Antuk.”
“I am King Godobar II of Eistella.” The fact that the Library of Engriole lay in Eistella made King Godobar the easiest ruler to call upon for an in-writing.
“I am King Andur of Gardir.” King Andur was also Queen Amrya’s father and had come gladly to see his grandson being written into the Book of Rulers.
“And the child?” the writer said.
“He is Prince Endir III of Antuk,” Queen Amrya said.
“Place him on the table. Has he got any known marks or distinguishing features?” The whole reason for the Book of Rulers was to recognize the ones with a claim on the throne; therefore, everything that distinguished them would be named in the book.
“He has a birthmark on his lower back.” The queen rolled up the baby’s shirt.
“Interesting. This looks like the seven-pointed star of the fire dragon. I am sure he is destined to be a great king.” The writer, who also was the head librarian, never had believed in destiny, but he felt compelled to say something nice during an in-writing. The writer wrote carefully, making sure his writing was as perfect as it could be. Little Endir grew impatient lying on a table in the cold room without his shirt on.
“May I pick him up?” Queen Amrya shot in.
“Oh dear, please do, my Lady.” The writer briefly looked up from the book. The queen dressed the boy and lifted him up. She warmed his back by gently rubbing her hand over the back, and he finally calmed down again.
“Then I need the royal seals,” the writer said at last. Each of the kings took off his signature ring, dipped it in ink, and pressed it to the bottom of the page. Queen Amrya struggled to get off her ring, holding her child at the same time. Her maid wasn’t allowed in the inner room of the library, so she had to hold the baby at the same time.
“From now on, Prince Endir is officially a royal heir of Antuk,” the writer proclaimed as soon as the queen had signed.
“Tomorrow, we will travel on to Gardir so I can show off my grandson,” King Andur told King Godobar. “We thank you so much for your hospitality and your kind help.”
The royals left the room of the ancient books and were accompanied by their servants, who waited out in the common areas of the library. The writer stayed behind, and as soon as the others left, a young girl emerged from the shadows.
“Have I got it right, my dear Intilia?”
“It reads correctly, but it isn’t as beautiful as it used to be.”
“It should be beautiful, shouldn’t it?” the writer said. “It is, after all, one of the most important books in the world.”
“Yes, it should.” Intilia took the pen and made some cosmetic changes to the writing on the page. The writer took out a key chain with a few keys on it, then he unlocked the huge chest. The inside of the chest was in red velvet.
“We must wait a minute before the ink is dry enough to close the book,” Intilia said.
“Of course,” the old man replied.
Berkin was the only city in the north highlands. In the five Kingdoms, it wasn’t even reckoned as a city. Still, the inhabitants thought of it as the capital of the highlands as if the highlands was a kingdom. Oakentere had grown up among men that always said that the Berkin lords had no say in their village. However, when the Berkin lords came rounding up soldiers for a war party, young men always volunteered, mostly for the adventure of it. This kept the wealth of the lords, and the highlands’ reputation as a land of savages. For Oakentere, only seeing Berkin, a city with more than a thousand houses, was an adventure. Apart from that, Oakentere had not yet been inside Berkin. The soldiers were placed at a hill overlooking Berkin, waiting for the lords to lead them into battle.
Lord Roden left Oakentere in the camp, where he stayed in a tent with other boys from his own village. He had left him several swords and daggers for sharpening and polishing. They had all been in a poor state, and Oakentere had been eager to prove himself as a good squire. He hardened the steel by heating it in the fire and cooling it down in cold water like the blacksmith had taught him. Then he sharpened it with three different grindstones; one was finer grained than the others, giving it a durable sharpness before he polished them until it shone like pure silver. So after three days, when Roden called for him, all the swords and daggers were perfect, but Oakentere was black with soot and dirt.
“You look terrible, my young squire.” Roden laughed.
“I have fixed all your blades,” Oakentere replied and handed a sword to Lord Roden. He pulled the sword out and examined it. He even cut himself as he tried the blade’s sharpness.
“Amazing. It’s almost as good as new.”
“No, it is as good as new.”
“But you are not, my young squire, and I need you to shine just as much as the swords. I brought you some clothes. In an hour, we’ll ride out to meet up with the knights from Gardir.”
“Sure, I’ll be quick.”
Oakentere ran into his tent and borrowed soap from Enon; his mother sent it with him, but he had no intention of using it himself.
In the spring and early summer, the rivers were full of water from melted snow from the mountains, so even though the weather was hot, the water was freezing. Oakentere knew he had no time to heat water, so he jumped right in and immediately regretted it. Still, he kept on until he was scrubbed down from top to bottom. When he finally got up from the water, his body was so chilled that the cool breeze felt warm. As soon as he dried himself, he put on the clothes Lord Roden had brought him. He felt like a lord himself in the new clothes. The fabric was so soft, just as the fancy dresses of Mrs. Aidento. It looked nothing like the clothes the lord wore, but Oakentere decided he was better off without the flashy colors of Lord Roden.
“Is this the same boy?” Lord Roden exclaimed as Oakentere returned. Oakentere just posed as he had seen the girls in the village sometimes did when they dressed up for the big celebrations.
“A squire is supposed to carry a lord’s shield and his excess arms,” he said and handed his shield to Oakentere.
“Why do you have three swords?”
“Easy; the long one I use while riding, because while on horseback, you need a longer range because you won’t get that near your opponent. On the ground, I can have shorter swords, and since they are lighter, I can wield two at the same time.”
Lord Roden took the longest of the swords and a dagger, which left Oakentere with the two shorter swords, two daggers, and the shield.
“You will always walk on my right side, okay?”
They marched out of the camp, and Oakentere quite liked all the looks he got as they walked out.
“It’s quite a stretch, so we need to pick up speed. I’ve heard you are quite some long distance runners from your side of the mountain.”
“That’s the only way to get around.”
“So you don’t mind running?”
Lord Roden put his heels into the horse and it immediately picked up speed. Oakentere broke into a slow run to keep up with the horse. They kept going for about twenty minutes, when Oakentere felt he was sweating and wondered what the whole point about washing was if he should run until he was soaked. Lord Roden had no intention of making him run all the way. As soon as they got out of eyesight from both the camp and Berkin, he stopped his horse and stretched his right hand towards Oakentere.
“Get up on the horse; you will be exhausted before we reach our destination.”
Oakentere took Lord Roden with his right hand and put his left hand on the horse’s back and jumped up. When he was seated on the back of the horse, the horse soon fell back into its stride. Oakentere had never ridden a horse before and soon wished he had stayed on the ground.
After an hour on horseback, Lord Roden stopped and Oakentere got off. Then they walked for less than half a mile before they met up with two other knights. They were standing on the edge of a large grass-covered opening in the forest. Oakentere had seen them both at the camp, so he guessed they were knights of Berkin as well, and the knights from Gardir hadn’t showed up yet.
“Who’s that you got with you, Roden?” One knight pointed at Oakentere.
“That’s my squire.”
“Your what? When did Berkin knights start to hold squires?”
“The Gardir knights will surely have them, then so will I.”
The conversation was interrupted by a horse’s snort at the other end of the field. Five knights on each of their horse appeared; each one had a youngster beside him, carrying his shield. The knight in the middle stood out by the black feathers that were standing up from his helmet, and Oakentere figured he was some kind of leader.
The five knights moved towards the center of the field, and the three knights of Berkin did the same. Oakentere carried the shield on Lord Roden’s right side just as he saw the other squires did. Halfway to the center of the field, the five knights gave a signal to their squires, and they stayed behind. Lord Roden gave the same signal to Oakentere, and Oakentere stopped. The eight knights met at the middle. Oakentere knew the reason that the squires had to stay behind was because they shouldn’t hear what the knights discussed. The only problem was that Oakentere had exceptionally good hearing and a soft breeze carried the words his way. He could not help but hear every single word. The leader of them, the one with the feathers, was greeted as General Sarim. Oakentere had heard of him. He was the leader of the armies of Gardir. He was also the easiest one to hear because he talked louder and clearer than the rest.
“I’m afraid we have to change the plan.”
“Change to what?” Roden asked.
“We need you to take a convoy leaving from Engriole in two days.”
“You told us this would be different.” Oakentere registered the anger in Lord Roden’s voice.
“What’s the problem here? Isn’t that what you do?” General Sarim ignored Lord Roden’s anger. “This is even better. You may loot it; it’s a pricey convoy.”
“Come on, Roden; we can do this,” one knight from Berkin broke in.
“What convoy are we talking about?”
“It is the King of Gardir.”
“What, is this some kind of joke?”
“Do you see anyone laughing?” General Sarim kept his calm and looked straight at Lord Roden.
“I thought we were supposed to aid the people of Gardir. How can such a thing help them?”
“In more ways than you know.” General Samir lowered his voice, and the words were barely audible to Oakentere.
“Our king is getting old, and we are afraid that he is losing his mind. We cannot kill our own king, and there is no other way of retiring him,” the general said. The rest of the conversation appeared to Oakentere as mere mumbling. He looked around the field and registered the Gardir squires still standing straight as an arrow. Oakentere straightened up as he realized he’d been slouchy.
The men kept talking for a while before they all shook hands.
“We will ride out first thing tomorrow morning, then,” Lord Roden said.
“Good. We are all counting on you,” the general said. Then the general and the other knights of Gardir turned and headed back over the field from where they came. The knights from Berkin watched them for a while before they turned and headed back towards Oakentere. On the journey back, none of the men talked, and they weren’t going faster than Oakentere could follow with a fast stride. He was happy that they were moving on, and unhappy they weren’t going to Engriole. He had so wished to see it.
Kerim, the head librarian, was walking as fast as his old legs could carry him up Herders Street in Engriole. From Engriole’s early days, they made this street wide to make room for the herds the farmers took to the market. As the city grew over the centuries, the market places moved outside the city wall, and the king built his castle opposite of the market square. The market place became the royal square. Herders Street had long been the main street in Engriole, but it always kept its name.
Intilia followed the old man with ease. What Kerim called haste these days wasn’t impressively fast. They had been summoned to the castle by King Godobar II. Engriole
hadn’t been Eistella’s capital city for two centuries, and the castle was now held by the High Knight of Engriole. Still, the west wing was still the king’s place to stay when he was in Engriole.
As they reached the royal square, Kerim paused at a stone bench to regain his breath.
“My dear Intilia,” he said, still breathing. “Every librarian has had to fight for the survival of the library and, as a consequence, our culture and history.”
“I know, master.”
“They’ve fought against war and poverty. But I must fight for the library’s survival against stupidity, and I fear I might lose.” Kerim turned towards Intilia and looked her right in her eyes. “My dear, I have to do this, but I’m afraid we both might end up losing our jobs today.”
“Master, I will be faithful to your teaching as long as I live.”
“Well.” The old man got up and faced the castle. “We can’t keep the king waiting, can we?”
“I guess not.”
“Will you please support me for the last bit?” Kerim held out his arm and Intilia leaned in and supported him. The old man, who, a minute ago, had been walking up the street, could now hardly walk on his own. They headed up to the guard and Kerim handed him the summoning letter he had received.
“This is only for you; the girl must stay behind,” the guard said and waved the letter in Kerim’s face.
“Of course, of course, but then will one of you will be so kind to help me inside? I’m an old man, you know,” Kerim said and leaned even heavier onto Intilia. The guards looked at each other and then over at the old man and the frail little girl.
“Okay, you can bring her.” The guard returned the letter to Kerim, and they trod on into the castle. Once they were inside the castle, Kerim straightened up and walked without support.
“One minute there, you leaned so heavily on me I actually hoped one of the guards would take you,” Intilia said.
“You must understand that I need you more than I need the guards today.”
“How many writings of royals have I participated in?”
Kerim and Intilia had been led in to the main hall of the castle’s west wing, where King Godobar II sat on one of the two throne chairs. Kerim was granted a chair because of his old age, but Intilia was expected to stand.
“Twenty-four, I guess it will be, not counting your own, which I doubt you could remember.”
“That sounds correct, and it must be over just as many years too.” The king put his right hand on his chin, making it look like he was thinking, which Kerim doubted. “You have become old during all those years, Master Kerim. You struggle a lot more during the writing.”
“I am older, my King; that’s true.”
“Isn’t it time you name your successor?”
“I believe I did that last year when we met.”
“Intilia may be superb, but she is a girl, and she is of no nobility. I will not have it.” The king rose from his throne and sneered at the old man. Intilia stayed put as if they were talking about someone entirely different.
“What is wrong with Eymer? He’s got a nice handwriting and can also read the old scriptures.”
“He can read them, but he cannot understand them. Words change, my King. By use and time, words will alter their meaning. If you don’t know the history and the culture in which these words were written, then you won’t understand. How can he know the value of books he doesn’t understand, and how can he protect what he doesn’t value?” Kerim spoke calmly and slowly, but with intensity in every word. “It will not be my legacy that I appointed the man that ruined the library. So if you are so desperate to please your good friend and make his son, Eymer, the head librarian, then you must set aside both law and tradition and name him without my consent.”
“I will leave tonight, but I will be back within a fortnight, and if you won’t name Eymer by then, I will do it myself, and I will banish both you and this girl of yours from Engriole.”
Kerim looked at Intilia—he was an old man and couldn’t care less if the king had sent him to the moon—but this would ruin Intilia as well. The old man looked down and figured it was time to face the defeat and let the king have his way.
“And that is all, my dear king?” Intilia stepped before Kerim before he reached to accept the king’s bidding. “If so, I will escort my master back to his quarters.”
“Yes, you may go, but remember, Kerim, two weeks.”
Intilia aided Kerim to his feet, and they sauntered out of the great hall. As the guards opened the ten-foot-high doors, they could see Eymer and his father waiting outside. Eymer had a smug smile that Intilia was pleased would be wiped from his face for at least another two weeks. They stopped slightly and exchanged a formal greeting before they continued down the hall.
“You should not have stopped me, my dear. I have no choice but to name Eymer. I can’t let the king ban you from the city. Your wellbeing means more than my reputation.”
“The outcome will be the same. I would never work under Eymer.”
“No, but there are a lot of places they could use your education within Engriole, but out on the countryside, book knowledge isn’t that sought after.”
“There is no way I can stay in Engriole and watch the library being ruined.”
Kerim chuckled. “Any wonder I love you? You should come with me to the moon, then.”
Intilia tried to make any sense of what her old master meant by the moon, but let it pass.
As the message was given that they were heading out at first light in the morning, there had been some turmoil in the camp. First, everyone needed to find their place for when they lined up in the morning. Oakentere hadn’t thought far ahead, and he really didn’t know where he should go. He couldn’t ask anyone as long as he wasn’t a part of the army. Somehow, he supposed he should be up front with Lord Roden; after all, he was his squire. Still, it sounded so farfetched that he should be up front with the knights. After they settled in their tent, they all talked about seeing Engriole. One said he spoke with someone who had been there, and they said compared to Engriole, Berkin looked like their village back home. Oakentere wanted to break in with the news they weren’t going to Engriole at all, and certainly not joining the army of Gardir. He knew it wouldn’t be welcome tidings, so he thought it would be better if it came from someone else. Besides, he wasn’t supposed to know about the change of plans. It had stuck with him in his sleep. In the morning as he made himself ready, packing the extra swords for Lord Roden and his own bow and arrows, he decided that he had to act as if he was excited to see Engriole or Lord Roden would be suspicious.
“I can’t believe I will see Engriole,” Oakentere said when he met up with Lord Roden. Roden answered with a smile.
“Someone told me it was much bigger than Berkin.”
“Oh, it is a truly magnificent city.” Lord Roden handed Oakentere his shield.
“I have called upon six hundred men and told the rest to stand by.” A young man in a full armor came riding up towards them. “We are ready to move out.”
“Good, Ayreto. Give them the signal,” Lord Roden said.
The man in the armor found a trumpet in his saddlebag and blew a signal twice, and the army moved. They kept a good pace. Still, it took almost an hour to lay Berkin behind them. As they marched on the plains south of Berkin, Oakentere turned several times and looked at the long people-made snake, and he wondered what it must look like when they moved out the entire army.
“It will be a long walk today, but tomorrow will be much shorter,” Lord Roden said as they lost sight of Berkin.
“It’s all right. I am a good walker,” Oakentere replied.
Most of Queen Amrya’s entourage had been sent back to Antuk as soon as they reached the safe walls of Engriole. On their way to Gardir, she would accompany her father, the King of Gardir, and his protection. All she had were two personal guards, Prince Endir’s nurse, and her personal maid. The wheels of their carriage made a lot of noise on the cobblestone street. As soon as they drew near King Andur’s entourage, the sound drowned in the noise of King Andur’s horses. He had two wagons with four horses pulling each, and about one hundred men on horse from his personal guard. They placed Queen Amrya’s carriage in between the two wagons. The king himself went over to the carriage from Antuk and opened the door.
“How is my grandson doing?”
“Fine,” the queen replied. “And if he understood that he was on his way to see the marvelous city of Genora, he would be thrilled.”
“I am so happy you both could come and join me to Genora. Your mother misses you so much.”
“But why so many guards? Are you at war with someone?”
“Unfortunately, the road between Engriole and Genora has been dangerous of late. The mountain savages can gather war parties two hundred men strong to plunder along the way. But do not fear, I have one hundred highly trained elite soldiers, and they can easily match two hundred savages.”
“I sure hope we don’t see anyone.”
“I’m sure we won’t.”
“The sun is up and we are all ready to go, it’s a long journey and we shouldn’t hesitate, my King.” A soldier in shiny armor approached the king.
“Let’s go, then,” King Andur said and closed the door of the carriage and returned to his own. They moved slowly through the streets of Engriole. As they left the last houses behind them, they picked up the pace. The first few hours, they were still in the plains of Eistella, and far out of harm’s way. The worrying bit lay across the border of Gardir, where the road would cut through the forest on several occasions, making it an ideal spot for an ambush.
General Sarim hastened through the halls of the Gardir parliament building towards the room of the high council.
“I need to meet with the council at once,” Sarim screamed out as he reached the guards outside the council door.
“What is the nature of your request to the council?” The guard stayed calm and quiet, not affected by either the general’s standing or his haste.
“Saving the life of our king.”
“Please wait here and I will notify them.” The guard still kept his calm. General Sarim sat down on a marble bench placed outside the door as the guard went to notify the council. Despite the urgency in his manner, he knew they would keep him waiting, if not for anything else, then for the sake of keeping him waiting. As always, they needed to show that they were higher ranking than the military leader.
“They will see you as fast as they can,” the guard said as he came back out.
“And you told them it was urgent?” He knew they would take their time, and he was glad to give them the time. The haste he showed was just a facade. Now he could come back tomorrow with a dead king and blame it on the council. With all the royal bloodline out of play, the people would seek a leader who could restore safety to the country.
General Sarim sat almost an hour, pretending to be weary, but on the contrary, he was quite smug before a servant came out and announced that the general might see the council. He went through the heavy oak doors and heard the noise as they closed behind him.
“General Sarim, what is the nature of your visit?” The leader of the council, Lord Kaene, spoke on behalf of the council.
“The king’s wellbeing, my dear sirs,” Sarim said. “I fear he will be ambushed from the savages.”
“Not likely; the king is traveling with a hundred-man-strong guard. No savage will dare to attack them, and if they do, they will be sorry for it.”
“I’m afraid I disagree with you, Sir Kaene.”
“And you do that because…”
“A scout came in. He had seen a six-hundred-strong war party armed to their teeth marching out of Berkin one day ago.”
“And this scout of yours is reliable?”
“The best I’ve got, sir.”
“And what is your suggestion?”
“I have four hundred elite soldiers waiting at their horses; let us ride out and meet the king.”
“Then you should make haste, general.”
“I will, sir.” Sarim nodded before he turned and walked out.
“That took some time, general.” A knight waited for Sarim, holding the reins of both his and the general’s horse.
“As we expected, we have to hurry up. Is everyone ready?”
“Sure; they await us outside the city.”
“Let’s not keep them waiting,” Sarim said and swung into the saddle. The streets of Genora had already filled up with people, so they were forced to ride carefully out of the city, but as soon as they joined the others, they picked up speed, riding hard through the surrounding farmlands. As long as they were in sight of people, they rode as hard as they could, but as soon as they got into the wilderness, they eased up the speed to save their horses. The general’s goal was, after all, only to make it look like he tried his best to save the king.
“I was proud of you this morning, my squire,” Lord Roden said.
“The way you kept your calm and remained loyal. You must have been just as disappointed as the rest, knowing we are not going to Engriole after all.”
“Sure I was.” It was during breakfast that the knights had told about the change of plan. Everyone had been upset, and someone had even threatened to leave. His friends from the village claimed they were recruited with a lie, and that Lord Roden had known this all along. Oakentere knew this wasn’t true, but he wasn’t supposed to know, so he couldn’t tell. Still, he felt obligated to defend Lord Roden. He had calmed down the boys from his own village and the other ones from his area. Who had calmed down the rest, he did not know, but in the end, everyone accepted their new orders. Oakentere almost revealed that he had eavesdropped by not acting surprised by the news.
“I tend to look at the bright side of things, sir,” he said. “Going all the way to Engriole would mean a long day’s march today as well. Now we can settle for a shorter walk.”
“That’s for sure; now we will soon be done walking for a while.”
Oakentere wished they would soon reach their destination. To keep out of sight from the main road, they kept to trails within the forest, and that made the journey a lot harder.
A rider came towards them and stopped by Lord Roden.
“Right ahead is the perfect spot; the forest stretches over the road but for a little opening in the middle, and we’ve got large trees we can use to block the road on each side.”
“Good; send out your scouts to look for the convoy.”
The rider nodded, and then he was off again.
They walked less than twenty minutes before they reached the opening. It was an open field stretching three hundred yards in both directions, and it declined from north to south. Looking south, Oakentere saw an ocean of trees stretching from Gardir and far into the borders of Arantaya. It was Teigldur Forest, the largest forest in the world. Oakentere had heard stories of people getting lost in that forest every year for taking the wrong turn, and that one could walk for days without seeing the sun because of the thick leaves.
Lord Roden immediately deployed someone to cut trees by the road on both sides of the field. The rest of the army were gathered in the northern end of the field.
“I need archers to split in half and cover the road on both sides of the field. That means that the archers on the east side must be invisible and soundless. The convoy is supposed to pass you, noticing nothing.”
The captain of the archers divided them in two divisions.
“The infantry stays at the north end of the field; it gives us the advantage of charging downhill.” Lord Roden had to scream from the top of his lungs to overcome the noise in the crowd. He continued laying out the whole game plan before everyone found their position.
“Come, Oakentere; I will show you your position.”
“Am I not to stay with you?”
“No, you’re too young for open war. Come on.”
Lord Roden led on and Oakentere followed him to the east side of the field, south of the archers. He could see the trees meant to block the road were cut so close to falling, they were barely balancing.
“Now, my squire, you stay here well out of sight.”
“But I want to help,” Oakentere interrupted.
“I have two tasks for you; one is if I need a new sword, then I come charging right at you, and you come out and meet me with a new sword.”
“Sure, and the other one?”
“If someone in the convoy tries to sneak out into the forest on the south side of the field, then you must use your skills with the bow and arrow to take them out.”
“I will, sir.” Oakentere was proud to be a part of the battle, and he hoped someone, maybe even someone important, would try to sneak away from the battle, and he could show off his abilities.
Lord Roden rode back up the hill, and all the soldiers disappeared into the woods and the field went silent, awaiting the convoy.
“Look; the Teigldur Forest. That means we are now in Gardir,” Queen Amrya said, admiring the massive tree line that rose before them.
“This is also where the journey can be dangerous,” the guard staying inside the carriage uttered more into the air than as a part of the conversation.
“Are there dangerous people living in the forest, Borthon?” The nurse was spooked by the guard’s comment.
“No, there’s no one living in the forest. The dangerous people are the savages that live up in the mountains, a cruel, barbaric people who use the trees as a hideout to plunder travelers on this road,” the queen said. “But have no fear; they’re also cowards, and by seeing all the soldiers accompanying us, they will surely flee back up to the mountains.”
“We hope,” Borthon, the guard, commented, but kept himself quiet enough to not be heard this time.
“There used to be people living in the forest, though. The forest is named after a forest king called Teigl; some say he even was a great wizard. But no one had heard of any forest tribes for centuries.”
“Well, I’ll be glad when we get out on the other side.”
“So do I. It’s boring to ride among the trees on both sides; so little to see.”
“How long will it take to get to the other side?” the guard broke in.
“The road was actually built on the borders of the forest, and never inside it. With time, the forest has stretched over the road in several places, sometimes even up on the mountains. So we will go in and out of the forest for hours,” the queen replied.
The convoy reached the first tree line, and the road was all of a sudden covered by large trees on both sides. The bright sunlight disappeared and all was dark green around them.
“I know what you mean, my Lady; it is so dark in here. And knowing these awful mountain men may lurk around in here is creepy,” the nurse said.
“You should get some sleep while the baby is sleeping and let me worry about the mountain men. You may worry about the prince when he wakes up,” Borthon shot in.
“You’re probably right,” she said before turning back to the queen. “If I may, my Lady?”
“Of course, get some sleep.”
“You should try to sleep yourself, my Lady. It eases the journey.”
“I know, but I can never sleep well while on journeys.”
“Someone sure can.” Borthon pointed at the nurse that had leaned up towards him and was already fast asleep.
“That’s good. Then she will be fresh and awake when my little prince wakes up,” Queen Amrya said. Borthon, knowing every woman called her son a prince, wondered if it meant the same when the queen said it or if she was referring to his actual status.
“Look there’s an opening in the trees.” Borthon’s thoughts were interrupted by the glimpse of sunlight ahead of them, and soon after, the carriage was once more bathed in the sun.
“How long do you reckon?” General Sarim asked one of his scouts. They had just made a stop by a small stone bridge running over a tiny river, letting the horses get something to drink, and themselves some food. A pair of scouts had come in from the west.
“One hour with the speed you are holding; they’ve set up a pretty clever ambush.”
“And how long for the king’s entourage to arrive?”
“Assuming they rode out at the first light, I would say about an hour as well.”
“Then we will halt for half an hour,” Sarim said. “Tell everyone to stretch their legs and rest their heads. We ride out in full armor in half an hour.”
They had made fires several places beside the road and were roasting salted meat over the flames to eat along with bread. Sarim went onto the bridge and sat down, waving his legs over the water.
Not long after, a large knight came over to Sarim, handing him a plate of food.
“Please eat, general.”
“Thanks, Brule. Please sit down with me.”
The knight sat down and they both ate their food whilst admiring the open landscapes.
“You know, Brule?” Sarim broke the silence.
“This country is so blessed, it’s got everything shy of one thing, and that is a strong leadership.”
“And this country deserves a strong leader,” Brule said and tapped the general’s shoulder with his heavy hand. “It’s time. Let’s move out.”
“Sure,” Sarim said. He turned to a young man with a trumpet hanging at his waist. “We’re moving out. Give the signal.”
The trumpet sounded, and in seconds, the whole division moved. Fires were put out, horses gathered, and in less than a minute, they were all back on their horses, galloping towards the forest.
Oakentere sat behind two large pine trees growing almost into each other, giving space enough for the bow in between, and big enough to give sufficient cover. He had checked the swords and inspected bow and arrows before rechecking the swords. Now he sat and listened, but there was nothing to listen to. It was as if all the birds and animals that lived here had sensed what was going down and had left the premises. The silence was pressing down on him and he had no idea how long he had been sitting like this.
The first sound he heard was from one of the archers, not much, but as he shifted position to get better aim, he heard the sound of horses’ hoofs beating up the ground. They were still far away, but it was like a nervous tension grew around the open field. Now he saw movements among the infantry up in the north end. He heard small branches crack as soldiers moved within the trees. The sound of the horses slowly grew in intensity, and Oakentere’s pulse rose, along with a slow beating in his temple as the blood rushed through his head. Instinctively, he put down his bow, lowered his head, and hid his face in his hands.
“Divine Lord, don’t allow me to disgrace you or my family,” he whispered.
Then he picked up his bow and withdrew an arrow from his quiver and put it on the bow string. The sound of the horses grew steadily, and Oakentere realized they couldn’t be far away now.
For the longer stretches through the forest, the convoy picked up speed, then slowed down every time they got back into the open plains. Whether it was planned or it resulted from the tension they all felt riding through the dense forest, no one could tell, except for the commander driving them forward. Now they had entered one of the longest stretches of forest road. This was also one of the large forest stretches closest to the highlands. This drove the tension up and the horses were pushed to the limits. Eyfenn pushed his horse even more and closed in on the commander. As he reached the commander, he tapped him on his shoulder.
“What is it?” The commander turned towards Eyfenn.
“Something is wrong. My horse is sensing it; he is trembling.”
“Maybe, but we are stronger than a highland war pack. Have faith, my friend.”
He saw an opening ahead. Had he been wrong? Maybe they were through the forest already. They had five hundred yards left before they were out of the forest, and both he and the horse could relax again. Then he noticed another tree line; it was the end of the forest, just an opening. This had to be it; it was the perfect place for an attack. Instinctively, he drew his horn and sounded the alarm. The soldiers reacted immediately to the horn, and everyone held up their shields as they entered the field. For a few seconds, nothing happened, and Eyfenn thought he raised the alarm needlessly. Another horn sounded, and several large trees fell over and blocked the road on the other side of the field and a hailstorm of arrows filled the air in front of them.
“Arrows,” Eyfenn screamed and raised the shield over his head.
“Defense formation,” the commander yelled out. The carriage formed a triangle, and the horses surrounded them, facing towards the woods.
Eyfenn realized there were archers on both sides and probably hundreds of them. Several of his comrades fell, unaware of the arrows ramming from behind. They could withstand two hundred archers if they didn’t have an infantry the same size. The arrows kept coming, but now they were aware of them and they did minimal damage.
“What is happening?” Queen Amrya tried to get a glimpse out of the windows.
“We’re under attack. You must stay away from the windows, my Lady.” Then it sounded like thousands of stones were being thrown on the carriage when the first arrows hit it. Borthon looked up and could see the heavy arrows darted three and four inches through the thin wood panels of the carriage.
“Come down on the floor. It is safer, my Lady,” the guard said.
The queen and her maid got down on the floor with the prince’s crib between them, but the nurse sat, still fast asleep on the couch.
“Come on; get down, miss,” the guard said and pulled her hand. It was as though she was stuck. He pulled once more, harder this time. As the nurse tilted forward, blood came flowing out of her neck, and the guard saw that an arrow pierced the carriage and straight into her neck. He placed her on the couch and closed her eyes gently before he turned to the other women who sat on the floor in a state of shock.
“It will be all right, my Lady. We have good protection with us.”
Seven times, arrows rained down on them, each time causing a little less damage. Then the trumpet sounded twice from the forest, and with a mighty roar, a horde of savages entered the field from the northern tree line. Bring on the fight, Eyfenn thought as he saw them with their swords held high. They had no organization, held no line, and probably had minimal training. The savages came on more and more like waves pounding relentlessly on the shore. Even with no training at all, the savages vastly outnumbered them. Today we die for the king, he thought as he drew his sword.
“There are none coming in from the south. What do we do, commander?” one officer on the south side of the carriages cried out.
“First line, reinforce the flanks. Second line, stay put and defend the king,” the commander cried out. “Ready to charge!”
The first of the savages were closing in, even though there were still more coming out of the forest. Eyfenn knew they needed to charge as the savages still were around one hundred yards away. Charging uphill, it would take some time for the horses to gain enough speed to cut through the lines. The last thing he wished for was to lose momentum and be trapped inside the horde of savages. This made him restless as the savages drew nearer.
“First line – charge!” their commander screamed as if he read Eyfenn’s mind. With their swords held high, the soldiers charged the savages. The ground was shaking from the horses and the running savages. The horses pierced through the ragged line of savages without sustaining much damage. The charging soldiers cut down many savages with their swords, but they were too few to cut off their lines, and most of the savages charged on towards the second line and their last defense. At the end of the field, as they had charged all the way through the savage lines, the soldiers regrouped and charged back hitting them from behind. But the crowd of savages was now so dense that they couldn’t charge through at high speed. They therefore lost one of their greatest advantages. As they charged, the savages sent out horse riders from behind them. Not many, maybe only twenty, but they still made impossible odds even worse.
Eyfenn could see that the defense line in front of the royal carriage had become thinner. He wanted to get through and support them, but the distance was too great. There were still one hundred yards to go, but he had to fight for every yard he made. Then he was attacked by a rider that had taken a killed comrade’s horse. Eyfenn had to fend him off several times before he landed a deadly blow to the neck where their armor was weak. As he saw the savage fall off his stolen horse, he felt his own horse collapse under him.
Eyfenn realized that he spent too much time fighting off the rider and had not watched his flanks, and a savage pierced a spear into the horse’s heart. Eyfenn dived forward and tumbled to the ground. He got up and swirled his sword around his head to get space around him before he landed the sword into the savage that took down his horse.
He left the sword there and drew two shorter swords, which were more convenient for ground fighting. Looking up for a split second, he realized he had almost fifty yards to reunite with the increasingly diminishing defensive hold around the king’s carriage. The task was hopeless, but instead of despair, Eyfenn was filled with a sense of determination.
“For the king!” he cried and charged forward. Swinging his two swords, one blow to fend off the opponent’s sword, then returning the sword, giving a fatal blow to the neck. Then he did the same with the other sword. To get back as soon as possible, he stepped over the bodies he had just slayed. Half of the savages were facing the other way and were rammed in the back. In seconds, he had closed the distance down to thirty feet, and he regained hope he might make it back to reinforce the line.
Oakentere watched the battle from behind his spruces. He was delighted as he saw that his side was winning, but at the same time disgusted by the cruelty of the battle. He was also impressed by the courage of the king’s guard. His job was to shoot anyone that tried to flee, but no one did. Still hopelessly outnumbered, they stayed and fought, holding their ground for as long as they could. As the horses charged through the attackers, Oakentere thought they might lose when he saw the ease with which the riders separated the crowd. Now all those horses that charged out were lost, and either overtaken or killed. Some of the horsemen still put up a fight, though Oakentere knew it was a matter of time before they would be victorious.
“What is going on out there?” Queen Amrya asked as she lay face down on the floor.
“I am afraid we are about to fall into the hands of the savages, my Lady,” Borthon replied.
“What will they do to us?” the maid whispered.
“Kill us and strip us for anything of value, I guess,” the guard said. He peeked out of the windows to check if his assessment was right. Their carriage was placed on the south side, and the majority of the battle concentrated on the north side of the field. Still, he couldn’t see enough to be certain of the outcome.
“My Lady, will you please rid yourself of your overcoat?” Borthon suddenly stripped the dead nurse for her outer garment.
“But, sir, why?”
“They will never let a queen slip away, but maybe they will not waste their time on a simple maid.”
“True…” The queen hesitated but unbuttoned her coat.
“And your shoes; these shoes are better for running.”
When the queen had removed her overcoat and shoes, the guard handed her those belonging to her nurse. While the queen put on her nurse’s clothes, the guard clothed the dead nurse in the queen’s clothes.
“I will get the soldiers on the south side to help me create a diversion while you run for the forest.” The queen nodded, and the guard looked at the maid, making sure she understood that he also meant her.
“You’ve got to run in separate directions to increase your chances.” They nodded both this time. “If the queen falls, you’ve got to retrieve the prince, okay?” The maid nodded, but Queen Amrya looked terrified as it first now dawned upon her that her and the prince’s life were in danger.
“Sooner or later, troops from Gardir will be sent out when their king doesn’t show. Stay in hiding until they arrive. I believe that’s our best chance, my Lady.”
“And you? What will become of you?” the queen asked.
“I will die today, but if my queen survives, I will die a happy man,” Borthon said with a smile. “Are you ready?”
They nodded, and Queen Amrya picked up the sleeping prince.
“Wait for my signal,” the guard said as he stepped out of the carriage. “Eithel, are you still here?” he screamed and drew both of his swords.
“I am here.” Eithel, the other guard that was following the queen from Engriole, had been on top of the carriage. He had joined the royal guard of Gardir with the defense.
“We must drive away the savages to make a way for the queen.”
“Okay, what’s the plan?”
“You take right, and I take left. Tell the other guards to follow our lead.”
On the southern side of the carriages, the guards still had control, as the highlanders had concentrated most of their efforts on breaking through to the king’s carriage. Now more and more highlanders came around to this side, and Oakentere could watch more of the actual fighting. Then a soldier in a different uniform from the others stepped out of the carriage. His chest plate was black with a red dragon on it, which set him apart from the shiny ones of the riders. Soon he was joined by another in a similar uniform. They each drew two swords, and they ran in front of the horses and attacked the highlanders that tried to break through the horse perimeter around the wagons. With tremendous rage, the soldiers in the black uniforms pushed the highlanders back to either side, with their swords moving at a speed that Oakentere could hardly notice the blade. He only saw the blood that poured out of the falling bodies. Whoever managed to escape the swords of the two swordsmen was slain by the riders following straight behind them. In the matter of a minute, the south end of the field was cleared of people. Oakentere wondered if these could push their whole army back, but he soon realized that was not their intention. The door of the carriage opened once more and two girls stepped out, looking carefully both ways. They looked like they were only maids, judging by the clothes. A bit like himself, Oakentere thought, sitting in the clothes provided him by Lord Roden.
The girls both ran towards the forest at the end of the slope, but they soon split and ran one to the right and the other to the left. Oakentere pulled an arrow out of his quiver and aimed at the one running to the left. She would be the first one out of range. The other one partly ran towards him and would stay within range much longer.
Oakentere had the girl in sight and was ready to release the arrow when he noticed a highlander on horse pursuing the girl with his sword held high. He recognized him as Ayreto, the one who blew the signal as they departed from Berkin. Oakentere lowered his bow and left her to Ayreto. He raised his bow, aiming at the other girl, having her in sight when he heard the other girl’s cry of being slain. The thin female voice cut right through the noise of the battlefield. The girl Oakentere was aiming at turned and screamed, and as she did, Oakentere saw she carried a baby. It was a mother and her child. He hoped that he could slay someone so he could come home and brag of being at war and actually did kill someone, but how could he face his mother having killed a mother and her baby child? Oakentere instinctively knew it would be better coming home without killing anyone. He saw Ayreto had taken up pursuit of the other one, and he knew if he could leave her to be killed by Ayreto, then he wouldn’t have to do it.
Ayreto closed in on the girl and the child; she almost reached the tree line, but she would fall for Ayreto’s sword. Oakentere watched, as Ayreto lifted his sword, the woman turned and stopped running as she realized it was hopeless. It was as if everything his mother taught Oakentere over the years about taking care of those who were smaller and weaker than he had all led up to this moment. He raised his bow, aimed, and the arrow flew off and plunged into Ayreto’s neck. He fell from his horse and landed right in front of the girl. She looked up and saw Oakentere, still with his bow in hand. Then she made a slight bow as if to say “thank you” before she disappeared into the forest. Ayreto’s horse also left, leaving Ayreto’s body alone on the south end of the field, pierced through the neck with Oakentere’s arrow. The offensive started by the men with the red dragon on their chests had been halted, and in a matter of minutes, the battle would be over. Then someone would find Ayreto, and someone would see that the arrow that pierced killed him was made by Oakentere.
He realized he had to remove the arrow. Though he didn’t dare cross straight over the field, he ran as fast as his legs could carry him within the tree line. Branches whipped his face as he passed between the trees, but he didn’t care. His fear drove him even faster; he had to reach it in time, or the arrow would not only kill Ayreto, but him as well.
Eyfenn was about ten feet away from his defending comrades when he realized there was no defensive hold left. No horses and no swordsmen in shining armor. Someone still fought on the flanks, but no one defended the king anymore. Having no strength left to push on, he stood still, just fencing away the savages in front of him, but with no real strength in his blows. He felt the icy pain of cold steel piercing his side just below his armored plate. He turned towards the pain and struck the man piercing him in his neck. He fell down, but the sword remained in Eyfenn’s side. Then another sword pierced him on the other side. Eyfenn reacted with a stab to his chest. The effort brought Eyfenn to his knees, and the death he had anticipated since the start of the battle was about to come. A savage in front of him raised his sword to decapitate him, and behind him, Eyfenn spotted a man climb onto the king’s carriage. He gathered the little strength left inside him, got his right foot under him, and pushed upwards. With a left-to-right upwards movement with his sword, he lashed the savage’s thorax, and then he threw the sword into the back of the savage climbing the king’s carriage. Then Eyfenn fell to the ground as the last in the King of Gardir’s lifeguard.
Queen Amrya ran into the forest but couldn’t resist turning to see what was going on. The guards still fought their best, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. She saw the savage with the bow that saved her life coming through the woods. Her first thought was that he regretted saving her and would try to kill her anyway. Or maybe he killed the other one so he could kill her himself. She had heard savages doing worse. She hid in the bushes and tried to calm down little Endir, who had woken up during their escape. The savage didn’t seem to care about her at all; he ran out to the dead savage on the field. Seconds later, he came back with the bloody arrow in his hand.
She turned towards the battle as the line broke. The savages burst through and they climbed up on the carriages. Her personal guard, Borthon, had fought all up till now, but he turned towards the forest. Then he kneeled down and put his sword on the ground. He smiled and bowed just as all knights of Antuk greet the royals. She wasn’t sure if he could actually see her or he saw she had made it over the field and expected that she could see him.
She put her hands over her chest and bowed as if to greet him back. Borthon never raised from his bow, but fell to the ground, cut down by the swords of the savages. Amrya wished he had been with her now, but she understood that it was the only way to save her.
She couldn’t see anything, but she heard the screams of people drawn out of the carriages and killed. She didn’t recognize her father’s voice, but she wasn’t expecting him to beg for mercy as he was slain. No mercy was given, Queen Amrya reckoned that the only mercy shown on this battlefield was bestowed upon her by the young archer. She looked over to where he still stood and watched the endgame.
“Who are you, child?”
The savage smiled but said nothing.
“Why did you save my life?” she asked.
“Because of my mother. I could never look her in her eyes if I had let you die.”
“Then your mother is a blessed woman.”
“Stay here; no one will care about you, and we will leave swiftly.”
Queen Amrya nodded, and the savage turned to leave. Then a sound made him stop and listen. It sounded like the distant rumble of many horses.
“They’re all dead, sir.”
“Good,” Lord Roden replied. “Pile up the bodies of our men and burn them.”
“And the men from Gardir?”
“Leave them to General Sarim.” Lord Roden looked around. The other knights were busy looting the royal carriage, but he couldn’t take his eyes off all the dead bodies. They lost so many, and all this because he had agreed to do General Sarim’s dirty work. He hoped he one day could look back on this battle and say the gains were bigger than the cost, but right now, he couldn’t.
“Lord, riders from Gardir are coming.”
Lord Roden turned and saw riders coming in from the opposite direction from what the convoy had come. The archers still within the forest made themselves ready. The riders had their face guards up, a signal that they didn’t ride into battle, and the leader, General Sarim, had great black feathers on top of his helmet. “Coming to inspect the job, are you?” Lord Roden said to himself. Then he noticed all the people reaching for their swords, and the archers making themselves ready in the forest.
“Stand down,” he commanded. “It’s okay; they’re friendly.”
The highlanders looked at Lord Roden, bewildered, but they did as he said, and put their swords back into their sheaths.
The riders came into the field at great speed, and Lord Roden expected that as soon as the horses had jumped over the barrier, they would slow down, but they didn’t. Instead, the riders lowered their face guards and drew their swords. The horses formed an attack formation, and they uttered a war cry.
“To arms!” Lord Roden screamed, but for many, it was too late. In the first wave, highlanders were cut down before they could defend themselves.
General Sarim headed straight for Lord Roden, but Roden manage to fend him off and ram his knee as he passed. Lord Roden looked at the bloody tip of his sword and smiled. Then he looked around for his horse. He ran to it, managed the reins, and placed one hand on the saddle. As he climbed his horse, he could see a Gardir soldier swinging his swords against him. With both hands on the horse, he could not defend himself. He froze as he saw the sword’s edge moving towards him. Then, inches before the sword hit him, it fell to the ground. The soldier swayed backwards in his saddle with an arrow in his neck. Lord Roden recognized the arrow as the ones made by Oakentere. He got up on his horse and he saluted towards the forest where he had placed Oakentere. Then he pulled out his sword and charged into the battle, fueled by rage over Sarim’s betrayal. He rammed one soldier in the back with his sword and recognized his coat-of-arms as a knight he had met only two days ago. He decided he should take the betrayers with him into death. Circling around the battlefield, he looked for the knights with the right marks on their shoulders. He found the second one and crossed straight towards him, having to fend off two men before he reached the knight. Lord Roden swung his long sword and beheaded the knight. Then he turned and rode away from the battle. He had to kill one soldier on his way out. Then he searched for the next one of the five.
He found number three, and was about to charge in once more, when he saw the third man fall off his horse with an arrow planted in his face. My good squire, Lord Roden thought.
He realized that time was running out for him. The battle would end soon, and all his men would be dead. Lord Roden spent the last minutes of his life on something that really mattered. He searched for the helmet with the black feathers. He spotted him in the midst of the battleground, far out of reach for Lord Roden. If I only had Oakentere’s skill with the bow, he thought. Then he raised his sword and hoped for the impossible. His horse had battled longer than the other horses, but the other horses had run all the way from Genora this very day and were fatigued when they reached the battle. Lord Roden made a circle away from the battle before he charged back at full speed. His horse plowed through the more tired horses of the Gardirians. He had almost made it, maybe less than fifteen feet away, when a lance was thrust so heavily into the side of his horse, it fell over sideways.
Lord Roden fell off and tumbled around, landing face up, and before he could react, four swords pointing at him pinned him down and made it impossible for him to get up. Lord Roden was forced to lie still and watch as the rest of his men were slaughtered.
At last, around ten men surrendered. They were brought to their knees, holding their hands up. General Sarim took off his helmet and tossed it to the ground. He went over to the first one and drove his sword through his heart. The rest of those who surrendered objected but were effectively pinned down. General Sarim killed each one of the defenseless boys with no sign of mercy.
Both Oakentere and Queen Amrya had stood and watched the battle, each hoping for their side to win. The young savage had shot two arrows, both of them as precise as the one that saved her life. Now, however, the savages were all slain, and she could be brought to the safety of Genora.
“Stop,” the savage said as she was about to step out of the forest.
“Don’t worry; I won’t give you up, but these are my people,” Queen Amrya said to calm down the savage. Even though she now was the Queen of Antuk, she had grown up as a princess in Genora, and still felt that the Gardirians were her people as well.
“If you serve the king, then these people will not do you any good,” he said.
“I am not a servant of the king. I am his daughter.”
“Even more reason for them to kill you.”
“If you didn’t notice, it was the savages who killed the king, and almost me as well. These are Gardirian soldiers and they killed the ones that killed the king.”
“But it was a trap.” The savage came towards her with his right hand flat in front of him to indicate he meant no harm. “I serve one lord of Berkin, and two days ago, we met with the leader of that group, General Sarim.”
The queen was at first impressed by the savage knowing who Sarim was, but then she reckoned his fame stretched even into the highlands, or they had spoken of whom they feared to meet during this raid. He spoke of the meeting the knights had two days ago and the deal they made with General Sarim, and how they now had been betrayed. As the queen heard him out, she shrugged. “And why should I listen to a simple savage?” Then she straightened herself up and started walking out onto the field.
“Stop.” With a lightning fast movement, he drew an arrow from his quiver and pulled the bow, pointing straight at her.
“This makes little sense, son. You wish to kill me so that I shall not be killed by them?”
“They will kill both you and your child. I will only kill you. Then I can tell my mother that at least I saved a child.”
The logic was grotesque, but probably what one could expect of a savage, and she had already seen the ease with which he had killed, and she stayed put.
“Bring the last savage over to me,” General Sarim said.
They pulled Lord Roden up from the ground and dragged him over to Sarim, bringing him down on his knees before the general.
“So, Mr. Roden.” The general paused slightly. “I know you prefer to be called Lord Roden, but you’re just a savage with more money than the average savage. That doesn’t make you a lord.”
“My family can trace lordship further back than you can and it was granted by the King of Gardir.”
“Sorry, but you will be nothing but a simple savage to me.” Sarim shrugged to show that he didn’t care what he called himself. “However, I always found you a decent chap, but when you take it upon yourself to kill our king, we have to react.”
“We had a deal; you told us to kill the king, and you would grant us access to the roads.” Lord Roden spoke out loud so that as many of Sarim’s men as possible could hear about the conspiracy.
Sarim bent down and moved his lips close to Roden’s left ear.
“I see what you are trying to achieve,” General Sarim gloated. “Let me tell you something. These are my most trusted men; they knew all about it, of course, even before you did.” Sarim laughed when he saw Roden’s baffled expression. “You can shout it out as loud as you like, because nobody that can hear you will care.” General Sarim moved theatrically around in front of Lord Roden with both arms out wide in the air. “Or better yet, let me shout it,” he said with a wry smile.
He took both hands up to his mouth and screamed as loud as his voice echoed from the mountains.
“I, General Sarim, plotted to kill the king of Gardir and, as a bonus, I made you kill the Queen and Prince of Antuk as well.”
All of his men burst out in laughter, and none showed any sign of surprise. Sarim went over to Lord Roden and bent down in front of him and whispered, “Then only one person with a birthright to the throne remains, the no good moronic son of our late king, but I have a plan to get rid of him, and the throne will be there for the taking for someone with ambitions.”
Lord Roden sighed; he was more disappointed in himself for letting a false snake like Sarim make a fool out of him.
“But before I get rid of Prince Adrian, I must kill you.” General Sarim got up and drew his sword out of his sheath. “By the way, the savages will never get access to the roads as long as I live.”
“So you’re nothing more than a simple liar.”
“I am sorry I lied to you, Mr. Roden, but there is one promise I can give you that I will keep. Whenever there is a savage down in my country, we will kill him.” Sarim turned towards his men while resting his sword onto his shoulder. “What do you say, my trusted soldiers? Will you help me keep this promise to my dying friend here?”
The crowd cheered and raised their swords high in the air.
“Enough talk. Time to kill you, Mr. Roden.” General Sarim turned towards Roden again. Roden looked up at him and agreed he would rather die with his men than live on with the likes of these. He spotted something at the south end of the field, hidden in the dark of the forest and partly hidden by leaves. He took a moment before he realized what it was, but finally, he saw Oakentere with his bow fully bent and one of his broad-head arrows pointing at them. However pleasing the thought of killing General Sarim was, he knew it would not save him and only put Oakentere in jeopardy. General Sarim isn’t worth it, Roden thought, and he shook his head, hoping Oakentere could see him before he made the shot.
“What? Do you not wish to die, Mr. Roden?” General Sarim had noticed him shaking his head. Roden continued to shake his head. “Do you want me to spare your life?” General Sarim asked.
Roden saw Oakentere lower his bow, and Roden nodded to signal that he had done the right thing.
“How sweet; the savage is pleading for his life.” General Sarim had mistaken his nodding as an answer to his question. The crowd laughed at the general’s mocking of Lord Roden.
“Please, just one second,” Lord Roden said. He realized there was one more thing he needed to do before he died. It was then he realized that his mouth had dried up so much he could hardly speak. He tried to gather as much saliva in his mouth as possible. He pushed himself up in a standing position and spit in General Sarim’s face. The general responded by swinging the sword hard towards Lord Roden’s neck, and Roden fell dead to the ground.
“Make ready the king’s carriage. We are riding back to Genora in a funeral procession.”
The Genorians moved around, clearing the carriages for savages and dead soldiers.
“What about the king’s guard?”
“We will send someone else out for the rest of the dead. We only take the royals.”
“Oh god, why did General Sarim want to kill the king?” Queen Amrya exclaimed.
“I don’t know. I have never met a king, much less thought of killing one,” Oakentere replied. Right now, his mind was occupied by his own loss, the friends from his village, and at last, Lord Roden.
“What do we do now?” Queen Amrya more stated than asked.
“Wait until they are gone, I suppose.”
“But where shall I go? I can’t go to Genora now.”
“Then go somewhere else.”
“I need to go to Engriole.”
“Can you find your own way? I need to get back to my village.”
“Sure, I just follow the road, and hopefully, I will get a lift with someone.”
“Good, then we’ll wait.”
They sat down fifty yards into the forest, well out of sight, but they could hear the voices from the soldiers in the field. They sat no more than ten minutes before a voice rang over the others.
“General, the queen is gone.”
Oakentere stood up to get a better view of what happened.
“It’s the queen’s overcoat, but that sure isn’t the queen.”
Oakentere could see the general run over to the carriage the queen and the maid had escaped from. A second later, he looked around. Oakentere knew he had spotted the dead maid and Ayreto, and had put two and two together. He realized they needed to run.
“My Lady, which direction is Engriole?”
The queen pointed to the direction where the carriage had arrived.
“Take my hand; we need to run,” he said but didn’t wait for her to take hold of his hand, rather grabbing her as he passed and pulled her along as he ran in the direction she had pointed.
“Search the forest at the south end of the field, and find and kill the queen,” Oakentere heard the general command. He sped up even faster, but the queen had trouble following him.
“I can’t run this fast carrying the child; he is too heavy.”
“Let me carry him,” Oakentere said.
“Are you sure?” The queen looked at Oakentere’s wiry figure.
“I am a good runner. I can carry the load.”
“You need to tie him to your body. It will ease the load.”
She unfolded the cloth that tied little Endir to her body and tried to tie him to Oakentere’s back as she had seen the nurse do so many times. She tied it in a knot on his front.
“How does that feel?”
“Good enough. Come; let’s go.”
Then they ran again. The part of the forest they ran through was the newer part where the forest had grown past its old boundaries. The ground was therefore much smoother than a forest normally would be, but it was also far easier for horses to get by.
“There are tracks heading eastwards,” a scout came out of the forest and reported back to General Samir.
“Pursue them, Theyrin, and don’t return before they are dead.”
“And the bodies?”
“Leave them in the forest. Now make haste; they can’t have come far.”
“Yes, sir.” Theyrin rode back into the forest and blew his horn to gather the other ones.
“Brule,” the general shouted.
“Yes, sir.” The large knight stepped out towards the general.
“I now have sent ten men to follow their tracks inside the forest, and that ought to be enough, but you know I am a man that needs to be certain.”
“I figure she will not make it all the way to Engriole going through the forest. Sooner or later, she will try to get back on the road. Take thirty men and patrol the road to Engriole.”
“Yes, sir. How far?”
“As far as it takes; she must not reach Engriole at any cost. Do you understand?”
“Trust me, my Lord, she will not.”
“I will take the king to Genora and sort out the business there. I’m leaving you in charge of finding the queen.”
“I won’t let you down, sir.”
“It’s hopeless; we can’t outrun horses.” Queen Amrya sounded desperate as they heard the horses of their pursuers behind them. Oakentere looked back without slowing down his pace. He got a glimpse of the horses about half a mile behind them and the tracks they made on the forest floor. Running like this, they could pursue them all day and far in to the night.
“We must go where the horses cannot go,” he said. Then he changed his course and headed deeper into the woods where the trees grew tighter.
“We can’t go deeper into Teigldur; we will be lost.”
“Lost is better than dead,” Oakentere replied.
“But the forest is cursed. Something evil lurks in there.”
“Something evil is on our backs as well.”
Oakentere did not try to slow down or change direction but headed straight into the forest.
“They are heading into the forest,” their pursuers called out. “Stay on them no matter what.”
Oakentere turned and saw one of them was coming close. He let go of the hand of Queen Amrya and lifted his bow in his left hand as he picked an arrow from the quiver with his right, all whilst he kept running. The soldier was about fifty yards distant when he let the arrow go. Having little time to aim, he aimed at the torso and hoped the arrow would pierce the armor plate. The blacksmith back home had always said about his arrowheads that they would fly straight through armor. Oakentere retrieved the queen’s hand before he looked back again to see the soldier falling off his horse with the arrow solidly planted in his chest.
As the forest grew thicker, the horsemen stopped gaining on them. The horses still got through the brush, but not faster than a normal walk. Oakentere kept going at almost the same speed, not minding the branches that whipped them in their faces.
“I think we are losing them. Can we slow down just a little?” the queen pleaded.
“It is so easy to run in the lowlands; it’s like I could go on forever without losing my breath.”
“But I can’t go on forever,” Queen Amrya replied.
“That’s why I’m holding your hand.”
Oakentere rushed on with a firm grip around the queen’s wrist, pulling her along with him. The ground was uneven by roots and rocks, and Queen Amrya stumbled twice before Oakentere realized he had to slow down the pace.
“Thank you,” she said, breathing heavily as Oakentere shifted from running to a fast walk. “How deep into the forest are you planning to take us?” she continued.
“My plan is that by nightfall, the distance between us and the soldiers is so big that we may risk an open fire to cook a decent meal.”
“Have you been here before?”
“By the looks of it, no one has for a very long time.”
“That’s because no one dares; people get lost in this forest every year.” She pulled Oakentere’s hand to make him stop and look at her as she talked. She needed him to realize the grave situation they were in. “How are we going to find our way out from here?”
“We are in a forest; everything here tells a story.” He realized she had not grown up reading the signs of the forest like he had. “The trees are talking to me. They always stretch their branches towards the sun. This means they grow longer and thicker towards the south, especially when we have the mountains taking away so much of the sunlight from the north.” He pointed at a tree nearby. “You told me Engriole was to the east. That means that way.” He pointed to the east. There was no way Amrya could have told. She realized she had no choice but to trust the young savage.
“But first we need to cross the river.”
“Not far,” he said.
“It’s hopeless. The forest is too thick for horses, Theyrin.”
The horses could hardly push forward, while the fugitives were out of sight.
“You are right; take four men with you and pursue them by foot, then the rest of us will bring back the horses to the easier terrain and wait for them. Sooner or later, they are bound to head back to the road.”
“They will be easy enough to follow through the shrubbery.”
Five men got off their horses. They handed their horses to the others and started slowly jogging through the forest, following the tracks of the queen and Oakentere.
“How did you know there was a river here?” Queen Amrya asked.
“When you don’t talk, I listen.” Oakentere studied the bank of the river. The river was not more than four or five yards wide and not very deep. “Lift your dress so you don’t wet your clothes,” he said as he rolled up his trousers as far as he could.
“What about my shoes and stockings?”
“Keep them on; they will dry.”
They waded out in the water. As it was late spring, and they had been running for a couple of hours, the water didn’t feel cold at all.
“Now, my Lady, you must wade down the river.”
“But isn’t that the wrong direction?”
“Yes, but first we must lose our pursuers, then we can walk towards Engriole,” Oakentere said. “No hurry.”
“What about you?”
“I will make tracks for them to follow. Be back soon.”
The queen waded down the river and Oakentere hastened through the bushes. A minute later, he jumped into the water and followed after the queen. They waded more than a quarter of a mile before he led her up on the back of the other side of the river. The first hundred yards, they walked carefully so as not to make any marks for anyone to follow.
They walked for a half an hour before Oakentere made a sign to stop. He put his index finger over his mouth to hush her. He raised his bow and pulled an arrow out of his quiver. Queen Amrya’s heart pounded within her. It had been an hour and a half, or maybe even two since she heard or saw their pursuers. She had finally felt a little safe. Then, all of a sudden, they had caught up with them, or was this a different kind of danger?
The arrow flew through the air and landed somewhere in between the trees.
“Perfect,” Oakentere rejoiced and ran toward the arrow.
“What is it?” she asked as he got back.
“Goose; great supper.” Oakentere held up the dead bird, then he used his dagger and cut out the bird’s intestines and let it bleed out before he hung it from his belt.
They arrived to Genora after the eruption of darkness. General Sarim had sent a messenger ahead of them, so when the king’s carriage was pulled slowly into the city with two hundred soldiers following in a procession after, people stood along the road with torches burning. The whole city was lit up all the way to the parade square. At the end of the parade square, the parliament and the high court buildings faced each other in a V shape. At the head of the V, between the buildings, the gates to the royal garden leading to the king’s palace stood. General Sarim rode first, in front of the carriage, along with a soldier holding the royal banner high. Trumpets sounded as they entered the square. It was the same melody just to signal the king’s entry, only this time, it was a whole octave lower and at the speed of a funeral march. All the horses marched at the same beat, so the hooves stepping on the cobblestones stayed in perfect rhythm with the trumpets. The carriage stopped at the entry of the large square, and the horses passed it, making a straight allée of horses. Each line of horses turned towards the other. Then the soldiers drew their swords and crossed them over the horse-allée. Four soldiers carried a stretcher at shoulder height. Upon the stretcher the king lay with both hands folded on his chest as they grasped his sword. The soldiers marched slowly but firmly towards the stairs of the parliament. The leader of the king’s council, the high counselor of the court, and Prince Adrian, the king’s son, waited for them on the stairs of the parliament’s building. As the four soldiers reached the stairs, they stopped. General Sarim kneeled down before them and presented his sword.
“With all the haste we could muster, still we were too late to save the king.” The general paused, making sure his words carried through the crowd. “We have failed our king and country.”
“Your apology is accepted,” the high councilor answered. Before the king’s heir could be installed as a new king, the country would be governed by the court. The leader of the court was therefore now the one who would speak on the behalf of the country.
“It’s not an apology, my dear Lords. It is an allegation.” General Sarim heard a sigh run through the crowd and carefully waited for the silence before he continued. “Someone set us up to fail, and the king and his brave guard all had to die most needlessly.”
The silence in the crowd was now lost for good as all started speculating at whom the general pointed towards. The leader of the court and Prince Adrian both stood with baffled expressions. Lord Kaene, the leader of the king’s council realized who the general was accusing and gave him a look that could freeze anyone but General Sarim to ice.
“Bring the king inside and thank you for your service, general.” The high councilor found it best to end the ceremony before a riot broke loose. The king’s body was brought inside the parliament, while General Sarim got back on his horse and rode out along with his soldiers. Torches were put out one after the other. Still the word kept spreading throughout the city; someone had plotted to kill the king.
Queen Amrya massaged her sore feet. She thought she had never walked and run so much during one day before. The young savage didn’t seem tired at all, even though he had carried the heaviest load. They had walked all day and, as the sun was setting, they had camped up on a hill on a place between some large rocks.
“When it’s dark, we can make up a fire as long as the flames are hidden by the rocks because the smoke will not be visible,” Oakentere said, then he had gone out and gathered firewood while she laid the prince to her breast. Prince Endir was now fast asleep, and the savage sat and roasted the goose over the flames.
“What is your name, young savage?” the queen tried to say as casually as she could.
“Why do you call us savages and not highlanders?”
“I don’t know…because you come down to Gardir to pillage and burn.”
“You don’t have criminals in Gardir?” Oakentere looked up at Queen Amrya. “You know, the kind that pillage and burn?”
“Sure there are, but…”
“So can I call you a savage?”
“I am sorry. I will refer to you as a highlander. You have never deserved to be labeled a savage as far as I know you,” she said, slightly embarrassed by being put right by a kid. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
“It’s Oakentere, ma’am.”
“You don’t have a surname?” She sounded surprised.
“That is my surname,” he said. “Oaken is my family name; apart from that, we only get a number given in old counting. My father is Ein, my mother is To, I am Tere, and my little sister is Fir.”
“Your first name is only a number?”
“It is not my name; it just tells me which number I am in the family. When, for instance, my father dies, my mother will be Ein and I will be To.”
“So Oakentere it is.”
“And your name; what is that?”
“Queen Amrya of Antuk at your service.” She bowed gracefully with her head.
“Antuk? I thought you were Gardirian.”
Queen Amrya told her story to him, about the in-writing, and why she was on her way to Genora.
“First time I’ve eaten with someone royal,” Oakentere said as he parted the goose and handed Queen Amrya some meat.
“The first time I have dined with a highlander, and the pleasure is all mine.” The queen smiled.
“Remember you said you wouldn’t go into this forest because it was haunted? What was that all about?”
“Just old stories and tales.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“There used to be people living in these woods, and they had a mighty king called Teigl; the forest is named after him. The forest people lived in peace with all the kingdoms. But when the people in the kingdoms built large cities, they needed a lot of timber, which they took from the forest. Teigldur urged them to stop, and when they didn’t listen, he cast a spell over the forest and cursed everyone that entered it.”
“What happened to the forest people?”
“No one knows. They just vanished. But the rumor of the curse still holds people out of the forest. We only cut down the part that overgrows the old borders of the forest.”
“So no one uses the forest anymore?”
“I have never been in such a large forest before, and the trees grow so much taller than up on the mountain,” Oakentere said. “But I know a trail when I see one, and we passed several still in use today. Somebody lives here or at least uses this forest still.”
“Are you sure?” Queen Amrya was suddenly feeling insecure again.
“Either they haven’t seen us, and then I think they probably won’t, or they have already seen us but not killed us.”
He smiled. “Get some sleep now. It’s a long journey tomorrow.”
Two servants opened each of the large double doors.
“General Sarim,” one servant announced, and the general walked into the main hall of the courthouse. It echoed in the walls as the doors closed, and the sound almost stuck in the room. Apart from that, the only sound was the general’s heels clicking on the marble floor. Halls like these were perfect to make people feel out of place and small. The size of the room and the height of the ceiling made one appear like a miniature person. The way every sound, even a footstep, was amplified by the room’s acoustics would make most people lower their voices. Whether the hall was made like this on purpose or by chance, no one could tell, but it had no such effect on General Sarim. He absolutely loved the way his voice could fill the entire room; even his footsteps could carry through the room.
“General Sarim, at your service.” He stomped his feet as a soldier halted his march and presented himself loud enough that the council awaiting him had to wait for the sound to die out before they replied.
“I guess you know why you are summoned here,” the leader of the council said.
General Sarim said nothing.
“You brought forward some serious allegations yesterday,” he continued. “We all understand that yesterday presented a tough duty for both you and your men, and if it all was just a spur of the moment, we are all willing to put this behind us.”
“I stand by my words.”
The council, consisting of five elderly men, all looked at each other in confusion. They had clearly not expected this.
“Then bring forth your allegations, general.”
The general told him how the king’s council had held him back more than an hour even though he had emphasized the urgency and haste of his errand. How he had pushed his soldiers to the limit but still arrived less than half an hour too late to save the king.
“These are serious allegations, general, and if we don’t find them to hold, it will cost you your position.” The old man looked at the general with a stern gaze.
“So be it. If the king’s council stays unaltered, then I can no longer serve as the king’s general.”
General Sarim knew he was popular among the people for his long service to keep the roads safe. He was not as popular as the old king, but as long as people viewed him as the one that tried to save the king and not the one that killed him, he would have a good standing among the people. Prince Adrian never had the strength of his father, and though everyone was ready to accept Adrian as their new king, he shouldn’t do much to lose the support of the people.
“This is a matter that needs to be resolved as soon as possible; please prepare your case and you will meet here before us tomorrow at nine together with the king’s council.”
The reason for the haste was to finish the case before the gossip circulated in the city. General Sarim knew they were already too late; the gossip had already spread throughout the city, and by tomorrow morning, everyone would talk about it.
“I will be ready.” The general saluted the council before he turned on his heels and marched out. The servants opened the doors as he approached, and he left the room. Only a few minutes later, a messenger was sent to the king’s council with a summons to meet in court the following day.
It was the single worst night of her life, without comparison. It was also the first time in her life she had slept outdoors. The first hours, she struggled to find a position to lie in that was comfortable. At last she had fallen asleep because she was so tired. At the start, the heat from the fire kept her warm, but she had woken up after the heat of the fire was all gone. In the few hours before the sun rose again, and the temperature rose, she had gotten a real chill deep in her bones. As the day grew a little warmer, she felt she could get more sleep, then Endir had woken her up. Normally, the nurse would take Endir and change his diapers, give him a bath, and dress him before she presented Endir to her so she could breastfeed him. Queen Amrya envisioned the image of her poor nurse lying dead in the carriage. She had no nurse to help her, but Endir still needed the same care. She lay Endir down on the grass, and tried to calm him down the way she had seen the nurse do, but without any luck. Undressing Endir was far from as easy as she had thought; baby clothes were different and she realized she had never dressed him before, and he had no intention of lying still.
“Oakentere, can you help me with some water?”
“Sure.” Oakentere brought over his canteen.
“And some cloths and clean towels, please?” she asked, knowing they had nothing of the sort.
“Your dress is far too long. It will be ruined by the shrubbery.”
“It already is,” the queen replied.
She cut off the dress at knee height, and Oakentere helped cut the linen into cloths and new diapers. It took almost a half an hour to clean up Endir, who wriggled and cried the whole time. When Queen Amrya could lay the child to her breast, she sighed from relief as he finally calmed down.
“Can you eat breakfast while you are feeding him; it’s a long day ahead of us and we are late enough already.”
“Sure, I have one hand available.”
Breakfast was cold leftovers from last night’s supper and tasted nowhere near as good as it had tasted at supper.
A good half an hour later, they left their camp in a state that one could hardly see any trace of a sleepover. Endir was tied tight to Oakentere’s back and was making his content, happy noises. He slept the whole night, he had eaten, and now had the view over Oakentere’s shoulder. He was far too young to know of the danger they were in, so he just enjoyed the ride. The first couple of hours, the terrain was easy, and the forest seemed quiet and peaceful.
“How about these forest people? Do you think they still exist?”
“No, they must be long gone.”
“So what kind of people could be living in these woods now?”
“If any, it must be outlaws trying to hide from the troops.”
“Just like us, then?”
“Still doesn’t mean we would like to meet them,” Queen Amrya said and realized the conversation put her more on guard.
Fifteen minutes later, it seemed as if the easy terrain gave way for a thicker part of the forest with more shrubbery on the ground. Oakentere looked like he handled the new terrain with as much ease as the other, but Queen Amrya struggled. She thought she should ask him to slow down when he suddenly turned to her with his right hand stretched towards her.
“Take my hand,” he said.
The queen grabbed hold, and the speed picked up, almost running through the thick forest. After an hour, they were up on a small hill. Oakentere stopped and ducked down. Queen Amrya followed him, and they disappeared in the bushes.
“Look,” he said and pointed downwards to where the forest opened. Queen Amrya saw three men strolling through the forest with arrows ready in their bows.
“Who are they?” Queen Amrya felt her heart pound even faster in her chest.
“They are out hunting birds, or squirrels, because their eyes are fixed up in the trees.”
“Are you sure they’re not after us?”
“Yes, because we are not up in the trees,” Oakentere said. “But I still think it’s better not to let them spot us. That’s why I pulled you north, into the wilder part of the forest.”
It was past noon when the high council came back into the courtroom with their verdict. Their long cloaks swayed as they walked through the room. They had started early this morning. The courtroom was divided in two, with General Sarim and his loyal officers and their lawyers on one side and the king’s council on the other side.
Samir laid out his allegation, first with how the council had kept him waiting, which could be proven both in the testimonies of the guards and the council’s protocols. Then he followed up by claiming someone had tipped off the savages; how else could they turn up on the very day the king passed through with a big enough army to take down the king’s guard. This, of course, he couldn’t prove, but who else knew about the king’s travels but his own council? Then the council defended themselves, and at the end, they were throwing allegations at each other until the judges decided that it was enough and retired to their own quarters to discuss. Two hours passed before they reentered the courtroom.
“Court, rise,” a clerk announced, and as General Sarim rose from his chair, he had a good feeling about the outcome.
“Please be seated,” the leader of the judges said as soon as he reached his place. “The high council has reached its verdict.”
He paused before he continued so the writers would be ready. “These are hard times for Gardir and the loss of King Andur burdens us all. The king’s council is much to blame for keeping our general waiting so long when his errand was of such urgency.”
The anger rose on the council’s side of the court, and to equal degrees, the content among the General and his men.
“However, we cannot see that was a deliberate act to hinder our general from saving our king,” the judge said to the sigh of relief from the council. “The allegation that someone should had given information to the mountain savage tribes, and that way set a trap for our king’s life is the most serious one. We cannot find proof that any such information was ever given. Until proven otherwise, we will settle for the belief that we were unfortunate, and this may be a sign that the aggression from the savages is worsening.”
For the first time, Sarim realized he could lose his position as general and leader of the armed forces. He ground his teeth and looked towards the floor and braced himself for the conclusion.
“General Sarim has served the king long and bravely. We understand his disappointment in the event leading up to our failure in rescuing the king. Even though this does not excuse allegations like this, we also acknowledge that they are not completely groundless. We continue our trust in General Sarim; he will still lead our troops. For the king’s council, we urge them to learn from their mistakes, for our kingdom cannot afford mistakes like this. And for Prince Adrian, who is set to take over the throne after his father, we have the full trust in him. Still, our people may need some time to accept Prince Adrian as their new king. We will therefore await the anointing of Prince Adrian as our new king. This will give him time to prove his valor and commitment to the throne.”
The prince rose and bowed to mark that he accepted the decision and advice of the court’s council. The leader of the king’s council sent a wry smile in General Sarim’s direction.
“Don’t worry, general. It was a half victory and we just have to find a way of making this a full victory.” They were back at the general’s quarters, discussing the somewhat disappointing verdict.
“You are right; we did postpone the installment of a new king. We now just need to make it permanent.”
“Lord Brule is here to see you, general,” a servant announced, entering the room.
“Please let him in. I need some good news now.”
A moment later, Brule entered the room.
“So the queen and the prince are finally dead?” the general said as he entered.
“I am afraid she has gotten away so far,” Brule said, looking down. “She disappeared into the denser woods where we had to abandon our horses. After some miles, they lost track of her. Theyrin is still searching for her in the woods.”
“How is this possible? Ten men can’t keep up with one woman?”
“It must be one of her guards that escaped together with her and is helping her.”
“I want her dead.”
“We are patrolling the road and have plenty of eyes on the plains leading up to Engriole. There is no way she can reach that city unnoticed.”
“There is another issue here, general,” the captain talking with the general earlier broke in. “The Teigldur forest is dangerous. Chances are, they will die there.”
“That’s a good thing, then.”
“Good, sure, but how will you know? How long will it take until you are sure she is dead? How long will you be patrolling the roads to search for her?”
“You are right.” The general sighed. “We need to find her. Brule, take more men with you to accompany Theyrin in the search through the woods.”
“Thank you, general, sir. You are most kind to us.”
Lord Brule bowed and left them.
The third day through the forest went by without seeing or hearing anything. Queen Amrya felt they had managed to put a good stretch behind them despite the hardship of walking through shrubbery. Oakentere had been even more careful as he made up fires in the night so that the flames would not be seen. Still, they needed the flames for the heat and for preparing a supper. Besides being an excellent hunter, Oakentere seemed to know everything about edible plants, berries, and roots to feed them during the journey. Getting more used to sleeping on the ground, she woke up on the fourth day more rested than on the previous days. This meant they were earlier on the move than they had been. Oakentere never said much and his answers got shorter by the days, so they ended up walking in silence. Queen Amrya grew content by walking through the woods in this fashion. She had no clue where they were but trusted her guide. At least he kept her alive. The sun was up and sparkling on the leaves, and they got up on a small hill, then found an opening where they could see out on the forest to the south where the forest stretched deep within the borders of Arantaya. Queen Amrya was about to comment on the beauty of the view, or the fact that they for once had a view, when Oakentere silenced her by putting his index finger over his lips. He looked quickly around, then he climbed a few branches of a nearby tree and gazed back in the direction they had come from.
“Soldiers are on our trail,” he whispered as he got down. “It’s only four of them, but they are moving fast.”
Then he grabbed her hand and took off even faster than earlier. The hand that wasn’t pulled along by Oakentere’s firm grip she held in front of her face to fend off all the whipping branches hitting her face.
“Don’t we make an even bigger trail to follow when we run like this?”
“It’s impossible not to make a trail through terrain like this. Speed is our best option.”
They kept going for a good hour before Oakentere stopped and listened.
“They must have picked up speed as well because we are not losing them.”
“I can’t go on like this forever, Tere,” Queen Amrya stated, breathing heavily.
“I know. I will think of something.”
Then he started off at the same speed again.
They walked for a half an hour when the forest opened. Along the open terrain, Oakentere moved even faster, but it felt little faster since the journey got easier. As they passed some great rocks, Oakentere stopped.
“You must continue. I will wait for them here,” he said as he removed his bow that hung across his back.
“Should I take Endir?”
“No, it takes too long. He’ll be just as safe with me as with you. Go now.”
“Take care.” She knew he was right, so she obeyed and continued. Oakentere waited for their pursuers to come into sight. He put four arrows on the ground beside him and kept waiting until they were as close as he dared let them. He raised the bow and aimed at the person walking behind.
The first arrow pierced the chest of the man walking at the back. The others turned to look after their comrade, and the second arrow hit the one in front in his back. The third soldier turned towards Oakentere and was hit by his third arrow. The last soldier picked up a horn and blew it as loud as he could while trying to run away from Oakentere’s arrows. Oakentere sent out the fourth arrow, but the soldier outran it. Oakentere picked another arrow from his quiver and could only see him as a shadow behind the leaves. He shot the last arrow more on chance than on aim, but the horn stopped and he heard something fall to the ground.
He put his bow over his head and onto his back, and ran to catch up with the queen.
“Was that horn from the soldiers following us?”
“It was a signal to call for aid or give up our position to others.”
“I was afraid it was something like that.”
“So what do we do now?” Queen Amrya’s voice trembled as it had done on the day of the battle.
“We keep on walking. The soldiers have to find the place the sound came from first, then they need to pick up our trail; remember, they have to walk just like us. Most likely, they will be hours behind us when they pick up our trail. In some hours, it will be dark, and they can’t keep tracking in the dark.”
“But can we walk in the dark?”
“Not really, but we must try.”
They kept to the easy terrain but slowed down to a more agreeable speed.
“Can you estimate the direction of the sound?” Theyrin said to one of his trackers as they heard the horn blow.
“Southeast, probably three or four hours away.”
“They have come a lot further than expected; we will be half a day behind when we pick up the trail.”
“By then, it’s already dark, and we can’t track in the dark.”
“Take ten men and find and follow the tracks. We now know they are heading towards Engriole. We’ll go back to the road and go by horse, and cut them off in the morning.”
“Sure, we will go straight away.”
“As soon as you spot them, sound your horns and we will know their position.”
The tracker took the most able runners among them and took off in the direction the sound came from. Theyrin took the rest of the men out towards the road where they kept their horses.
“Are you planning to go on all night?” Queen Amrya asked Oakentere. They had walked for hours without the sound of any pursuers, and the darkness was falling over the Teigldur forest.
“I guess we need to rest sooner or later, but we have to press on more.”
They walked steadily, not running or hastening like earlier, just walking.
“There is no way we can make up a fire tonight. That’s too risky, but there are some hours I cannot read direction because of the darkness, and then we can rest.”
“Okay,” she replied, not sure if she could keep going so long with no rest. “Could we sit down for a bit? I am exhausted.”
“Sure. Can we get to the top of this ridge?” he said. “It won’t be long, and it will be easier to hear if anyone comes.”
Queen Amrya didn’t respond. She hadn’t even noticed that they walked upwards. They walked on for a good twenty minutes when Oakentere stopped.
“This is a good place to rest.” He untied Prince Endir and handed him to Amrya, who sat on the grass. He turned away while she put the child to her breast. The forest was all quiet except for the content gurgles from the baby.
“My Lady,” Oakentere said. “Did the road cross many bridges?”
“Not any large ones, but I guess there are several smaller ones over passing streams.”
“I might know a way we can lose our pursuers. Would you consider walking all night and rest in the morning?”
“How can we rest during the daytime?”
“If we are far away from where they expect us to be.”
They waited a half an hour before they walked again.
“What is the plan, Tere?” she asked upon realizing he would not tell her by himself.
“There’s running water down there, and it is hard to track someone through water,” he said. “So if this is a stream that crosses the road, we could walk in it out of the forest to the other side of the road.”
“But wouldn’t they see us immediately if we are not in the forest?”
“That is why we rest in daytime and walk during the night.”
Amrya said nothing and just followed Oakentere close by.
“I know it is risky, but I fear it’s our best option,” he said.
Last time they waded through water to cover their tracks, it had been day and they were hot from all the running. This time, the water felt a lot colder.
“Do you think we have to wade for a long time?” she asked.
“For a good part of the night, I guess. Try not to make any sound just in case,” he whispered.
“Okay,” she whispered back.
“Try not to make a sound when you walk as well.”
Walking in the water without making any sound seemed impossible. She tried several ways, but none of them were particularly soundless. She tried to spot how Oakentere walked and realized that he hardly made any sound. During her upbringing, she had been taught to walk in several different ways, all after what was expected for a princess at certain ages and occasions. She remembered how she had followed after her nanny as she demonstrated the proper walk for her. Now she followed Oakentere in the same manner. The first she noticed was that he never lifted his foot out of the water, which was painful until her feet got used to the water. Then she noticed how he felt the rocks lay steady before putting his weight down. It was like she was a little princess again, concentrating hard on walking. It had to be hours gone by before she realized she no longer had to think over how she treaded.
First, they heard the voices, then they saw the fire, and at last the road. The queen got dismayed, but Oakentere walked on. She pulled him by his shirt. Can’t you see the guards, she mimed with her mouth as she pointed towards the fire. Oakentere nodded.
“We can’t turn back; we have spent too much time on this now. We’ve got to try passing them.”
He took her hand, and they waded silently together. Now her focus was back on every single step she took. They could make out the voices of two people, and they only talked about trivial matters of how cold the nights were despite the fact that it was almost summer, and how they longed for a proper bed. She pulled Oakentere by the arm and pointed up the stream.
“The horses, do you see the horses?” Her whisper was barely audible. Upstream, before the bridge where the road passed, there stood six horses. There were most likely six soldiers that had camped there for the night because they had water for the horses there. The horses were tied up by the river, three on each side. The two people that were talking by the fire were guards while the other ones slept.
“Let’s hope they’re friendly,” he said. He squeezed her hand a little harder and continued carefully.
It seemed as if the horses slept, but ten feet away, the horse closest to them turned its head and looked at them. Oakentere crouched and held his hand up in front of him as if he wanted to pat it.
“Nice horsy,” he whispered as he continued towards them. The horse growled, and the other horses came alive. One of them whinnied out loud.
“What’s with the horses now?” one man by the fireplace said.
“Probably just a fox that scared them up. Shall I take a look?”
“Sure, will you?”
One man got up on his feet, Oakentere pulled Queen Amrya along and squatted down in between the horses. This boy has valor, Queen Amrya thought as he hid behind the very horses that were giving them away. She herself was paralyzed by fear.
“I can’t see anything,” the man standing said.
“You’ve got to go and calm them so they don’t wake the others.”
“Because you’re the one that’s best with the horses.”
The man nodded and walked towards them. Queen Amrya realized that Oakentere surely never had dealt with horses before, and she was the one that was best with them. She got up and pulled the upset horse by its reins so his head came down. She patted his face. She lay her cheek towards the horse.
“Easy boy – easy,” she said with a low, almost humming voice. Oakentere saw what she did and did the same to the one that had growled. Slowly, the horses calmed down. The man approaching them was only four feet away from the horses as he stopped.
“And that’s how good I am with horses; they calm down if I only get near them,” he said with both arms up in the air in victory.
“Maybe you should just stand there, then,” the other one replied.
No, please don’t, Queen Amrya thought.
The man stood there and waited before he returned to the fire.
“Nah, they’re quiet now.”
Queen Amrya breathed out. They patted all the horses, and the horses made no sound as they waded under the bridge. The forest stretched over the other side of the road, and they did not have to wade very far before they were out of sight for the soldiers. Oakentere stopped and turned as the last remains of the soldiers’ fire disappeared.
“My Lady, you saved my life down there. I’m in forever debt to you,” he said.
Queen Amrya laughed. “I have lost count of how many times you have saved my life. The debt is mine to pay.”
“Now at least we are in a place they are not looking for us.”
They kept in the stream until they were out of the woods.
The first steps back on dry land, Queen Amrya felt numb in her feet after cooling them down for so long.
“We’ve got to run,” Oakentere said.
“Why?” She looked around to see if anyone followed them.
“Just until the heat is back in our bodies. We can’t make a fire.”
“Okay,” she replied.
He started slowly, but still she had trouble following. Her feet wouldn’t obey her. They ran for almost half an hour before Amrya stopped.
“I’m sorry; I can’t run anymore.”
“It’s okay. We will find a camp soon. The sun is soon rising.”
During their run, they had passed a spot where the forest had overgrown the road, and a mile to the south, they could see a thin line that was the road that she only a few days ago had traveled in a royal carriage the other way. Straight ahead, she saw the plains of Eistella and knew they were only a few miles away from the borders between Gardir and Eistella. That comforted her because their pursuers would follow her all the way to the gates of Engriole and the plains would be the most dangerous stretch of their journey.
“Let’s camp over by those rocks,” Oakentere said. “Then we can dry our clothes on the rocks.”
“What do you mean by our clothes?” the queen said with a stern voice as she followed him over to a small group of large rocks that lay in the field.
“We can’t sleep in wet clothes. We will freeze.” Oakentere removed the blanket that tied up the little prince and gave him to Amrya. Then he removed his bow, quiver, and his swords. “Take off your shoes and stockings.”
She did as he said but assured herself that was as far as she would go. Oakentere placed her shoes and stockings out on a rock. He removed his own and did the same.
“These are leftovers from yesterday. It is all we’ve got left, so please eat.” Oakentere sat down by her feet and gave her food. He lifted his jacket and shirt and placed her naked feet onto his warm stomach. She felt the warmth flowing to her feet and couldn’t help thinking about how uncomfortable this had to be for him.
“If we are cold, we don’t sleep very well, and we need to sleep,” Oakentere said. “My shirt and jacket are still dry, so I will take off my wet trousers and use my jacket to cover my legs. I guess Endir’s blanket is large enough to cover and keep both of you warm.”
The queen nodded but said nothing. They ate the last of their food in silence. It tasted foul but did well for a hungry and exhausted body.
After the meal, Oakentere got up. He removed his pants and placed them over a rock, then he lay down, using his jacket as blanket for the legs. Queen Amrya looked at him. She had expected him to tell her she also needed to get out of her wet garment, but he didn’t. She thought about just sleeping in her dress despite how cold she knew it would keep her. At last she placed Endir on the blanket and got up. Unused to walking barefooted outside, she tiptoed over to the nearest rock. She stripped off all her wet clothes and hung them to dry. As she got back, she curled herself and Prince Endir into the blanket. All the time she had kept her eyes on Oakentere, but not once had he turned to take a peek. The blanket did keep them warm. For the first time in many hours, she wasn’t freezing. And as the sun turned night into day, she was fast asleep.
Only two days after the court, General Sarim was back on the parade square with the same entrusted officers. This time, they didn’t enter the court, but the parliament facing it.
“And the matter of your visit?” the guard outside the king’s council asked as the general had inquired to meet with the king’s council.
“It is matters concerning the death of our king,” Sarim replied.
The guard entered and, in a matter of minutes, they were shown in.
“And what is the nature of the general’s visit to us this time around?” Kaene, the leader of the council said. He gazed at the general with hatred in his eyes, and Prince Adrian, who sat beside him, looked down into the floor.
“I am ready to admit my errors,” Sarim said as humbly as he could. The officers accompanying him all looked down.
“Your errors?” the leader of the council said, his voice still sarcastic, but his eyes showed relief, even the prince looked up.
“It was emotional for me to see our king so brutally murdered, and in my frustration, I saw that the information given the savages had to come from here, and the only logical explanation, even how far-fetched it sounded, was that you had betrayed him.” Sarim strolled in front of the council, looking at every member, and ending his gaze at the prince. “But Prince Adrian to betray his own father?”
The prince nodded; he knew by himself that he could do nothing like that.
“Then it occurred to me; what if the information came from somewhere else?”
“From where?” the leader of the council asked.
“From Engriole, of course. The leaders in the city have betrayed us and our king.”
The leader of the council was about to protest but held himself back. No matter how farfetched it was, it would get the allegations away from them.
“Who would profit from the savage attacks on the road to Engriole?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s the merchants of Engriole, for everything that the savages steal, we must go back and buy more. I believe they have supported the savage attacks for years, and our king’s hard work to secure the road threatened their business.”
“It’s true; Engriole has not done its part in securing the road.”
“We should claim a joint rule over Engriole so we can supply troops on both ends of the road and stop their contact with the savages, then the road, and the whole of our country will be safe from the savages.”
“Why do you tell us this? Until the prince is appointed king, the court’s high council rules the land. It’s their decision.”
“I know, and we will talk to the court, but here is also an opportunity for the prince to show his devotion and valor. I think he should lead the negotiations.”
“Do you think King Godobar will give up sovereignty over Engriole simply because we ask it of him?”
“Of course not. We must ride out with the full strength of our army and siege the city. Then I think he will be reasonable soon enough.”
“We need to discuss this matter in private, if you will be as kind as to wait outside. We will be quick.”
The general and his officers walked out of the large hall and waited outside. They said nothing because they didn’t trust the ears that might listen to them. They just stood outside in utter silence until the doors opened and they could step inside once more.
“We have considered your proposal and agreed that it is good. We will join you over in the court, and Prince Adrian will lead the endeavor.”
“This pleases me to hear,” General Sarim said. “I believe you will be just as great a king as your father was.”
Queen Amrya had slept well during the day. She had been exhausted after going throughout the night, but also because she kept the warmth. Oakentere had given her a good advice, and she excused his naiveté. He probably just passed on advice given to him as a child and didn’t know how inappropriate it was to offer such a suggestion to a queen. She slept so soundly that Prince Endir struggled to wake her up when he was done sleeping. He was small enough to crave a lot of sleep but had also slept through the night. In the afternoon, Oakentere had woken up and offered to look after him so she could sleep more. She woke up when it was almost dark again. Oakentere and Prince Endir were gone, but she didn’t feel worried at all. She got up and found her dress and the nurse’s overcoat. It was dirty and worn by the journey through the woods. She sighed as she examined the clothes. Still, they were dry, and that was the main issue. She was buttoning her dress as Oakentere got back.
“We found berries up the hill. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.”
“Thank you,” the queen said as she received the berries.
“Are you ready?”
“Sure, let’s go.”
It was partly cloudy and no moonlight, and it made the plains very dark. Though Amrya could do with a little light, she knew they were better off without it. Even in the darkness, walking the plains was so much easier than walking through the dense forest had been. They walked only a couple of hours before they saw the lights of Engriole in the distance.
“That’s Engriole over there,” Queen Amrya said and pointed. “But don’t get too excited; it’s further away than it seems,” she quickly added as she saw Oakentere’s excitement.
“Still, we might reach it in the morning?”
“We might. Engriole is a large city, and reaching the first houses will not do. We must reach within the walls before we are safe.”
“There are houses outside the walls?”
“The city has grown since the wall was made, but the houses outside the wall mainly belong to poor people and no one has thought of building a large wall just for poor people.”
Oakentere didn’t respond; rich people seemed to be the same everywhere, thinking they were better than the rest. Like Mrs. Aidento, who probably now was annoyed because someone had the nerve to shoot an arrow into her fine spruce. Oakentere walked a bit faster. All the way, he had fantasized about Engriole, and him going there. Now he realized that he longed more to get back to his own village than anywhere else.
“On the other hand, I think no one would build walls around a city today; after all, the five kingdoms have lived in peace for over a thousand years. Apart from the threat from the savages, it is rather peaceful.”
“The wind can carry word over a great distance in these open landscapes,” Oakentere cut her off.
“Sorry,” Queen Amrya whispered. Then they continued in silence, heading towards the distant lights of Engriole.
“You lost the trail? How could you lose a trail deep in the forest?” Brule screamed in anger.
“They have waded down in a stream, and it’s hard to track because the flowing water erases the track.”
“When did you discover this?”
“Just before noon today. We can’t trace them through the night. They must have walked all night.”
“They will be ready to cross the plains over to Engriole already, then?” Brule eased his temper.
“Their only chance is to cross during the night; in the daytime, they will be visible for several miles.”
“They will probably be out there tonight. I need all men on horses tonight,” Brule said. “Theyrin, gather your men and join me.”
“I will, sir.”
“Even the moonlight seems to betray us tonight. We can hardly see a thing.”
“We’ve got fifty men on horses. We can cover a lot more ground than two on foot.”
The night had fallen as they reached the open fields. Clouds covered the moon and only some stars that weren’t covered by clouds gave them some light.
“Theyrin, ride one hundred yards down the road. I need to know how far we can see.”
Theyrin rode out and stopped after a hundred yards.
“I can’t see any of you,” he shouted back.
“You can come back.”
Theyrin rode back to Brule.
“I could see you more than half the way. So if we spread out with a hundred yards between us, we should be able to spot everything between us,” Brule said. “You take half of the riders and search the north side and I will cover the south side of the road.”
“Do you really think they might be on the north side?”
“If you hadn’t lost the track of them, we would know for sure.”
They spread out along the way and covered the plains in two long lines, one going south and the other to the north.
The first ray of sun had yet to come over the horizon, but the sun lit up the sky even though it wasn’t visible, as two shadows reached the first houses outside the city walls of Engriole. Queen Amrya was exhausted after running the last stretch to reach cover among the houses before daylight revealed them.
“I think we made it.” Oakentere smiled, relieved.
“It is still a mile left before we’re inside the walls.”
“The city is more than a mile long?”
Queen Amrya laughed at the amazed expression on Oakentere’s face.
“Welcome to one of the world’s largest cities,” she said.
“It is also an hour until the gates open; we have to stay under cover until then.”
“Do you think they will come after us here?”
“I know they will. Luckily, we don’t stand out in the poor quarters and soon these streets will fill up with people.”
Still, they were alone and they kept under cover behind the small houses. The houses were mainly made of wood, but were no larger than those back in his village. They stayed away from the roads to keep out of sight, walking across gardens with vegetables or some goats or even a pig. Oakentere didn’t notice the city wall before the sun was above the horizon and shone directly on it. It almost sparkled in white stone.
“Almost a shame coming so close and still not reach the city,” the voice came behind them. They both turned to see two men in large overcoats and drawn swords. Amrya recognized their boots as those worn by Gardirian soldiers. The overcoat probably served the purpose of hiding their uniforms, as they had crossed the border illegally as soldiers. Oakentere realized his bow was out of reach; he hadn’t considered the danger. Queen Amrya turned towards him and her arms reached behind him. Oakentere bent down so she could have her last moment together with her son.
Amrya never reached for Prince Endir; instead, she reached for Lord Rodin’s two swords that Oakentere had carried with him all this way. They made a metallic whine as she drew them from their sheaths. Then she turned to the soldiers and swung the swords just like the soldiers with the dragon on their chests had done during the attack as the queen got away. She hit the first soldier’s sword twice, fast from the same side before the third blow cut his throat. The second one put up a bigger fight, but not long after, she stabbed a sword into his chest.
Oakentere was mesmerized by watching Queen Amrya.
“We got to move, Tere,” she cried and ran in between the houses. Oakentere got his bow out and ready and followed Amrya. The streets were filling with people as more people came out of the houses.
“The gates must be open; let’s make a run for it,” she said. Oakentere said nothing and just followed. As she ran with two swords in front of her, people willingly let her pass, and Oakentere could follow real easily. Only two hundred yards from the gate, she stopped.
Just before the gate, she saw several men in the same cloaks and the Gardirian soldiers’ boots.
“We will never make it past all those,” she said.
Oakentere looked around, bewildered. To get through the gates, it was all basically two rows of wagons for the shops inside the walls, and there were eight or ten people checking everyone passing.
“We need a lift,” he said and pointed towards a wagon covered by a large blanket. The wagon was pulled by a donkey that in turn was pulled by an old man.
Oakentere sneaked upon the wagon and under the blanket. The walls of the wagon were high enough for them to lie there without being noticed, and it was only half full of woven fabric. Queen Amrya struggled to hold a sword in each hand. She passed the sword to Oakentere, and when he had laid them aside, he gave her a hand and she got up. As she jumped up, she pulled the wagon, and the donkey stopped.
The old man pulled on the donkey, but it refused to walk. He tried to whip it without the donkey moving an inch.
“Please walk,” Amrya whispered to herself.
The old man started to sweet talk to the donkey; he even helped to pull the wagon in motion. Finally, the donkey moved the last bit towards the wall. Oakentere thought this had to be the slowest part of their journey, as the line was barely moving towards the gate. He lay on his side so as not to hurt the prince, who was tied to his back. Amrya lay facing him. She had retrieved the swords and held them up to her chest.
“Where did you learn that?” he whispered.
“The sword thing.”
“I asked my guards to teach me whenever I get bored.”
“Do you get bored a lot?”
She nodded with a shy smile. Oakentere pulled an arrow out of his quiver and put it onto his bowstring. If she was ready, he would be too.
The wagon was close to the gate. They could hear it from the surrounding talk. Amrya recognized the sound of army boots to cobblestones as they passed their pursuers, who relentlessly searched for them. She knew that very soon the sounds would change character as they entered inside the wall.
It seemed like Prince Endir had enjoyed the slowly rocking movement as he was tied up to Oakentere. A few times during the night, he had woken up. Then Oakentere had rocked him a little more as he walked and he had fallen asleep again. Now they lay all still, and Endir woke up and realized that he was hungry. As most babies do when they are hungry, he cried.
The old man did not react to the cries. He was too old to let himself be bothered with crying children, and he just pushed on. The soldiers looking for Oakentere and the queen reacted immediately. The first soldier reaching the wagon pulled away the blanket. Oakentere shot his arrow straight through his neck. Queen Amrya got up first and was off the wagon and ready as the second man charged them. Oakentere was right behind and put an arrow in the third man.
“Run and save my son!” Amrya screamed to Oakentere. “I will hold them off.”
Oakentere turned to make one last run for the gate, but it was blocked by angry merchants not willing to let sword-fighting villains into their city.
“Sorry, my Lady, but I can’t get through.”
Amrya looked, and with no hesitation, she charged them with both swords swinging. The merchants moved aside and let her through. Oakentere let go of one last arrow before he followed her. As soon as they entered the gate, they took cover behind the wall.
In a second, they were surrounded by lances pointing at them, not allowing them to move an inch. Oakentere counted eight of them. In the corner of his eye, he could see the last of the soldiers picking up their fallen comrades and get away. The swords made a clang as they fell to the ground. Amrya got up with a grace and an elegance Oakentere had not seen in her before. She held up her hand, showing a shiny ring with both red and green stones sparkling in it. Oakentere had noticed the ring earlier and thought it might be worth more than his whole village.
“I am the queen of Antuk, and I seek refuge with the High Lord of Engriole.”
“That’s an impressive army,” the leader of the court’s council said, looking out on the large army assembled on the fields in front of Genora.
“That is the whole point of it; it’s for show, not for use,” General Sarim answered with a smile.
“We hope so.”
“I will leave the soldiers and watch over the two councils.”
“Do you really think that will be necessary?”
“What I believe is not important. I am just not prepared to take any chances.”
“Well then, good luck. Take good care of the prince; we are short on heirs to the throne.”
“Trust me, sir.”
General Sarim rode towards the field, stopping on his way with one of his officers.
“The standing order for the soldiers watching the council’s member?”
“As soon as they get home, we’ll make sure they stay there.”
“Good,” General Sarim said and rode off. As he reached the front, four trumpets sounded and the large army moved towards Engriole.
“Any news from Brule?” the general inquired as the army had started its march.
“No, sir, nothing yet.”
“It doesn’t matter if the queen ever reaches Engriole. She will find that it serves as a poor refuge,” the general said.
“And what about the prince when he realizes there are no negotiations?”
“There are always casualties in war; besides, when I get hold of the book, I control the heirs.”
“Do you have a voice?” the girl asked Oakentere.
Oakentere nodded but said nothing. The queen was in an important meeting and he had to wait in the hall. Since they arrived at the castle, she had been dropping all kinds of hints, such as “Do not look impressed by everything,” as if that was even possible. At supper, she had told him to do as she did and eat in the same order as she did. She had twice wiped her chin, even though there was nothing on it because Oakentere needed to wipe his. And most important, “Don’t speak because that will give you away.”
“And you can speak?” the girl persisted. She had come with an old man attending the same meeting, but she, just as Oakentere, wasn’t allowed into the meeting.
Oakentere nodded again.
“My name is Intilia; now it’s rude if you don’t tell me yours.” She smiled as if she had placed him in checkmate.
“I am Oakentere.”
“You sure don’t sound Antukian. If I knew nothing about you, I’d guess you were a mountain savage, but that wouldn’t make any sense, would it? So I guess you are from the Gardirian countryside lying up towards the mountains.”
Oakentere took a deep breath and exhaled before he answered.
“I am a highlander, and you don’t know anything about me. I have never in my life done anything to deserve to be called a savage, but ‘highlander’ fits since I’ve been living all my life in the highlands.”
“You’re a…” She swallowed the last word before she continued. “But how come you and the queen…” She pointed back and forth between the door into the meeting and Oakentere.
“If you were entitled to know, then you would be in there now.”
Oakentere pointed at the door into the meeting. “Who is the old man you followed?”
“It’s Kerim, the head librarian in Engriole.”
“A librarian? What is a librarian doing in a meeting like this?”
“Because of the old books.”
“Who cares about old books?” Oakentere wondered.
“Anyone civilized.” Intilia snorted. “Besides, it isn’t just any old books; it’s the old books. The books hold the clues to rule all the five kingdoms.” She emphasized saying “the” before “old books.”
End note by The Author
Thank you for reading this book, and I hope you enjoyed it. If you would like to support my authorship there is two things I would appreciate a lot.
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Edited by bzhercules.com
Coveer by rebecacovers
In the five kingdoms, the whole civilazation was rooted in a deep magic within the books of power, that lay in The Library of Engriole. General Sarim plans to overthrow the magic of the book, and by that also the power structurein the five kingdoms. The outlander Oakentere, an his tribe of savages is manipulated by the General to assist him with his evil plans. What Sarim had not anticipated, was the pity shown by a savage. When young Oakentere from a savage tribe spares the life of the queen he finds himself in the middle of a race for his own life and the future of the five kingdoms. Promise and betrayal is the first book in the series of The Library of Engriole.