EDWARD’S BOOTS CLICKED AND SCRAPED across the cold stone floor. Above, heavy buttresses and support beams framed the vaulted expanse, as if to lift the sky in order to accommodate the huge rooms of the castle. His mind wandered back to days long past: days spent playing in these halls, hiding behind red velvet curtains only to be discovered as his feet peeked out from the bottom; days spent studying stealth and self-defense, policy and propriety, each test ever more difficult, until they blurred together into a shapeless cloud his mind called ‘education’. Memories of stolen pastries crept back as the smell from the kitchens wafted into the entryway. They were simpler days, easier days.
The daydream ended as the immense doors slammed shut. The guards slid the bolts into position and fitted the metal-banded crossbeam into its slots, a command which carried great consequence if overlooked.
“Master Edward, the king will see you now,” said the guard, who then dutifully led him to his father’s quarters. The need for such formality had always irritated Edward. Every step, every turn, another reminder that Codard—and only Codard—was king. The guard pulled back the expensive drapery that separated cold stone entryway from cold wood-paneled throne room.
The cloth slid back into place silently behind him. Finally alone, the two men surveyed each other. Edward, tall and strong, dark of hair, gray of eye. Codard, glowering and graying, though the tangled locks atop his head had once been as black as his son’s.
Edward bowed his head. “How may I serve you, Father?”
The king did not bow in return.
“I summoned you for one reason and one reason only. You are the only heir to my throne, and thus the only soldier trustworthy enough for this task.” Codard motioned for his son to have a seat. His eyes narrowed. “It seems only logical that the future king should retrieve what he lost in the first place!”
Edward nearly fell from the chair as a wave of new memories washed away the old.
“Take the hill!” The sergeant screamed. “They’ll never hold us now!” Edward’s strength was failing him. The hours of battle drifted in and out, both as real as the open wounds on his arms, yet somehow as illusory as a dream.
He ducked behind a tree to shield himself as another in the endless series of arrow volleys smashed against his squad. The corpses that had once been his friends and followers lay scattered across the grassy hill. Their open eyes—glazed yet watchful—pleaded for an end to the fighting. Only a dozen remained to defend the position, a third of whom were injured.
“They’re charging us! What should we do Master Edward?” called one. The young man had evaded danger for most of the battle. At this dark hour, Edward could see the boy trembling in fear.
In truth, the king’s son was out of ideas. Their attempt to breach the gates had failed miserably. The enemy was aware of their plan. After the first charge, the gates had opened, and they were overcome. A precious few managed to retreat to the hill that now, it seemed, would be their graveyard.
Far too much effort had been wasted, and for what? For Alora’s Tear. Edward laughed, a grim sound, hollow and dry. As if such a thing even existed. A real leader, a truer king, would have sent his company to fight the Norill. At this very moment Edward’s friend, Askon, would be leading a company to Austgæta, where the General was already entrenched against the threat from the north. But Edward had instead been sent on a fool’s errand, a mission to find a shortcut for his father, a quick solution to all their problems.
It made the death surrounding him all the more tragic. Edward knew that he and his men could defend the hill for some time, but they weren’t prepared for a siege. Originally, Edward had tasked a small contingent with infiltrating the castle gates while the remainder of his men would stay behind as a precautionary defense unit. However, when they arrived at the stronghold, the enemy had been ready for them. Now, with only a few soldiers remaining, Edward braced himself. “Prepare to defend yourselves,” he ordered. “Prepare for the end.”
The enemy crested the hill, their faces twisted in grimaces and open-mouthed roars, a demon-army of men. They held their weapons high and the blades gleamed, casting light into the shadowed faces. Edward and his men rushed at the opposing ranks, but just before their weapons clashed, a blinding flash of light sent both sides reeling. The light surrounded them; blade, army, grass, rock, and tree disappeared. Edward closed his eyes to protect them from the whiteness. He awoke just a few miles from home, as did the remnants of his command. But it was empty-handed and empty-hearted that they returned.
“I apologize, Father. Everything just disappeared. We gave our all, and lost most of our men doing so.” Edward swallowed hard against the anger. “How many will you send? How many will ever be enough?” A rim of water filled his eyelids. He blinked it away.
“I should send you to your death for surrendering. You expect me to believe your fairytale return?” Codard shook his head. “No. You will go, and you will bring me Alora’s Tear, or I shall find someone else to take my throne! Now get out of my sight.” Instantly, the guards reappeared and roughly led Edward back through the curtain.
Under his breath, so quietly that the swish of silk masked his words, Edward swore an oath. “One day our people will be free from your greed and cowardice.”
His childhood memories seemed to scatter as he stormed through the entryway. His bleary eyes betrayed him, and he ran abruptly into three men who were approaching the king’s quarters. They moved with urgency, nearly knocking over the prince who stood in their way.
“Move yer precious self aside there, ya li’l princeling. We’ve got business needs tending to here,” said the first. The others stood unmoved and stunned. Edward bristled.
“Take care to show some respect—” Edward cocked his head slightly, blinking. “John?”
“O’ course, you pampered couch-lounger. Who else’d have the guts to talk to you that way? Don‘t you have a festival or a ball to get to? Ya know, somethin’ important like that.” He smiled wide, showing his already decaying teeth. Still in disbelief, the two men flanking John remained silent.
Edward laughed, a heavy choking laugh that overrode his anger. His gray eyes brightened, the heavy brows lifted, and his shoulders relaxed. “Kneel now at my feet, or suffer the consequence for your transgression, peasant!”
A cool silence hung between the prince in his fine clean clothes, standing straight-backed, and the three men in their weather-stained uniforms. He lifted an arm, gesturing to reinforce the command. The two men at John’s sides bowed their heads and drew back one foot each, attempting, awkwardly, to kneel. John slapped the backs of their heads.
“Get up, ya gullible couple of—” John pulled at the shoulders of each uniform. When their eyes lifted, they found a broad smile on Edward’s face.
He laughed again. “I’m sorry; it’s a tired old joke. John and I enjoy it a bit too much, I think. There is no need for that kind of formality with me. In there, however,” and he pointed to his father’s quarters, “you’d do yourself a favor to do that and then some. King Codard loves his rules and codes and social graces.” He looked to John.
“Ah, I should introduce you proper. This,” John said, pointing to his left, “is Christopher: scout and intelligence gatherer. And this here’s Thomas.” He indicated the young, nervous looking man to his right. “All around fool and general halfwit.” Both men bowed, slightly this time.
“I am Edward, commander in the king’s army, and as you know, also his son. It is a pleasure to have met you, though your choice to follow John calls your judgment somewhat into question.”
“Oh it ain’t by choice,” John interrupted. “They’re soldiers in my company.”
“Your company?” said Edward, eyebrows arched in surprise.
“Aye. Mine now, that is. Assigned by Victor after Askon went deserter on us.”
“Hardly!” said Thomas, now looking a bit more lively. “We saw the smoke, Christopher and I. Who knows what he found there.”
“Oh shut it, Thomas,” John barked. “Askon left his command to go back to Tolarenz. That’s disobeying a direct order. Far as I’m concerned, he’s a deserter.”
Edward reached out and let his hand rest on John’s shoulder. “I’m sure Askon had a good reason to leave, John. You know him as well as I do.”
“Yeah well give his good reason to the dead men at Austgæta. An’ what if these two hadn’t made Norogæta in time? He’s craftier in the woods than ‘bout anyone we got, an’ he leaves one scout with a green first-timer, expectin’ them to carry the whole mission. It ain’t right.”
Edward tried to let his friend’s anger pass. “Well, we will know what Askon was thinking when he returns,” he said. “What is this about Austgæta and Norogæta?”
John chewed at his lower lip, obviously still irritated. He looked at Thomas. “Yer an information specialist in training. You tell him.”
The nervous young man turned to Edward. His shoulders hunched, and he ducked his head, letting it swerve left and right as though he were dodging invisible blows as he spoke. “Uh, we—we were all at Austgæta preparing for the battle to attack the Norill colony. The—the mission failed, and the General’s men were wiped out. The enemy has some sort of weapon that allows them to dispirit and debilitate our forces.” As he continued, Thomas grew more fluent and animated.
He told Edward of the battle and the overwhelming power of the Norill weapon in the underground passage. He explained the late arrival of Askon’s company and the devastation that they found. Then he addressed the splitting of the scouting group from the main company, Askon’s separation from the scouting party, Patrick’s death, and finally Christopher and Thomas’s arrival at Norogæta only hours before the Norill. When he had finished, John nodded approvingly.
“Not bad, for a first report. Might have to beat that stuttering outta ya, though.” He stepped forward, leaning in so that only Edward could hear him. “Both forts are gone. The army is headed this way, on the retreat. We left a lot of good men holding their ground so that the majority could escape. We won’t know if they got out until the enemy is right on top of us, I figure. These two and I, we rode out ahead, as fast as we could to get this information to the king. Somebody has to decide what to do. Victor’s dead; the general’s dead. Can’t say what’ll happen to the defenders on the retreat. They should arrive in a couple of days. Depending on the defenses, the enemy won’t be far behind.”
“Gods,” said Edward, blinking. “Strange things are happening all across the kingdom, my friend. This weapon, this darkness, and I at the same time in battle at one moment, a clear defeat, then miles away at the next.”
“Oh, really?” said Christopher. “Some say you turned and ran, like Askon.”
Edward scoffed at the comment. “It sounds as though that is what we all have done, Christopher. My men gave battle to the last and were then transported away. I can’t explain it, but my company suffered great loss before the event.” He turned, lifting a hand to indicate that they should pass into the king’s quarters. “I think you’d be well served to take your information to Codard before he no longer has time to organize the remaining forces.”
The three men passed by Edward. John slapped him on the back as they went. “Good to see ya,” he said. “Let’s hope this gets better, eh?”
“Let’s hope,” said Edward.
Waving a goodbye to John and the others, Edward stomped past the remainder of the castle guard and into the front courtyard. With each step, his anger toward the king returned. Green hedges filled the area between the castle and its outer wall. His father made sure that they were cut frequently and kept neatly. Edward tripped over the cobblestone walkway toward the gate, his mind wandering. Could the outposts at Austgæta and Norogæta really be gone? They had held for years against the disorganized attacks from the Norill. Perhaps the enemy had grown somehow in intellect, or adopted tactics used against them by the king’s own forces.
The black iron ring of the gate handle stung Edward’s hand. He closed his fingers tightly around the cold metal and pulled the door back. The hinges creaked. Outside, the people of King’s City bustled on obliviously, unaware of burning forts and crushing darkness and the coming threat.
The city itself formed a half-circle around the castle and its major defenses. Between the stone wall and the paneled buildings was a wide strip of garden. The shrubs and scrub plants had overgrown their appointed areas and now twisted into each other, a nest of bramble and vine. Instead of a broad lane leading directly from the gate to the city’s main street, a winding trail had been unceremoniously hacked through the brush.
Edward walked the path and laughed to himself: inside the wall, perfect tidy hedges; outside, a wild forgotten snarl of weeds. It fit his father all too well. He rounded a corner, still surrounded by brush and half-grown trees. He turned, looking back in the direction from which he had come and saw nothing, only thorns and branches and snaking vines. He scratched at his shoulder. Beneath the soft sound of fingernails on fabric came the swish of leaves. He stopped, silent; but no sound came again.
So quickly that he barely deflected it, a gleaming blade flashed toward his neck. Edward parried with an armored wrist and instinctively turned to face his assailant.
The figure moved fluidly, like a snake or an eel. In his left hand, the knife gleamed. He slashed down again. Edward sidestepped the stroke.
“I know only one left-handed swordsman,” Edward said, grinning. “It’s a disadvantage.”