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The kingdom, seemingly at peace, prepares for a grand celebration. But danger lurks within the walls of Angstel. Who are the enemies and who can be trusted?
2. By Dawn’s Early Light
One problem with gazing too frequently into the past is that we may turn around to find the future has run out on us. ~ Michael Cebenko ~
The light dawn mist was rising off the ocean, its fresh scent flowing between the gaily-decked houses and into the windows of Atlantia. Banners flew from every pole and house rooftop. They fluttered brightly in the cool morning breeze and created swirls in the gray mist. Denizens of the city scurried about, an excited air radiating throughout the town. They were readying the city for the grandest celebration in decades. Lofty booths were being set up in the great square, with an accompanying array of hammer blows and sawing. Sheets of blue, orange, and red covered the stalls. The braying and shouting of prize animals being moved into paddocks for showing and selling filled the air with raucous, yet fog muffled, noise. By the time the mist had fully dissipated, letting the orange glow of sunrise shimmer along the broad boulevards and narrow alleyways, crowds of expectant people were greeting the morning. Women were already fondling fine satins and men pinching open the mouths of highbred draft horses.
Standing in regal splendor in the morning light stood the object of pride and joy for the small coastal town: Angst, the ancient castle had withstood generations, since the first king had commissioned its massive heights. The fortress of brilliant white was situated at the top of a hill, surrounded by rolling fields of grass. At its rear was the protection of a hundred foot drop straight into the sea. Angst was almost impregnable.
Below the castle was Atlantia, the town that had grown near the castle, taking advantage of the protection it offered. It was the center of trade in Angstel, for all the richest merchants chose to barter and trade where the royal family and the nobles tended to gather. Beyond the corn and wheat fields that spread out from the active city center, there grew a deciduous forest, older than man could remember.
This particular morning, the great castle’s soft luminescence danced with the red and gold of the morning light. Those fields of bright green draped beneath it like display cloths and the perfect blue sky was the richest of backdrops. Angst was the masterpiece of an artist inspired by what were now long dead and ancient fairy tales. Indeed, with all of its delicate spires racing into the sky and its pearl-like radiance, it was the most beautiful castle of all the known kingdoms. Even the long, thin cobbled road leading up to its gates were artistically traced across the green hillside.
This morning, the beautiful castle was brimming with activity. Even the great ancient stones of the roadway were cluttered with carts of foodstuffs and deliveries of fine clothing being carried to the aristocrats within the sterling white walls. The massive oak gates were thrown wide and banners hung from every window. Doves and sparrows swooped about the parapets, disturbed from their nests by the commotion below.
Within the castle walls themselves, guards joked quietly together at their posts, sharing stories of their latest trysts with local girls. The massive inner courtyard was crowded, delivery carts moving to and fro, dropping their goods. There was little walk space remaining, and this was filled with industrious castle staff settling details for the celebration. Desperate pages scurried about, ducking beneath carts and around their elders, looking a bit harried as they sought to give messages to this lord or the other.
In the midst of this confusion, a thin, immaculately dressed aristocrat strode undisturbed through the courtyard. With agility and grace of movement as he ducked around carts and groups of stressed castle servants and directors, he made his way into the main hall. He strode purposefully down the halls and finally swung open a door. He poked his handsome strawberry blonde head into the kitchen, his gray eyes seeking out and finding the old head matron.
"When's breakfast, Vinelle?" He stepped inside, holding the door open for a girl carrying a tray loaded with fresh coffee out to the dining room. He breathed deeply of the aroma as she passed and he winked at her, causing the girl to flush and titter softly.
Vinelle graciously curtsied to the rakish looking man, the gray curls around her face bobbing. She smoothed the pink apron she wore as she met his eyes.
"Good morning, Lord Shen. Breakfast will be a bit late this morning. I'm afraid what with the preparations for the feast and all, the cereal is taking longer than normal. Be an hour, at least, till we have things ready for the breakfast room." She snapped to a girl, who brought out a bag of cereal and began pouring it into Vinelle’s pot. The cook stirred it into the boiling water with a massive wood spoon. The smell of warm gruel filled the air and Shen sniffed appreciatively.
"Well, I'll eat with his Majesty then. Send something for me on his platter, will you?" He smiled fetchingly at Vinelle and she nodded enthusiastically.
Shen looked down at a wiry teen of about nineteen years, who sat eating a bowl of wheat cereal at the small kitchen table. Shen grinned mischievously and reached over to ruffle the boy’s hair.
“You’d best be up and about, Ryan. He’ll be yelling for his boots here in oh…say….”
Before he had finished his sentence, the bustle of the hallway hushed as a loud voice rumbled from somewhere within the castle.
"Ryan!" The booming roar resounded through the halls of the fortress. "Ryan! Where are my boots? Ryan!"
Ryan, already in the process of rising to get along with his errand, nearly dropped his bowl on the floor as the deep voice echoed into the kitchen. He frantically deposited the bowl into one of the sinks. The bowl launched a wave of water into the air and onto the kitchen girl standing next to it. Ryan stuttered an apology as the irate girl swiped at the water stains on her bodice. Vinelle smiled as he dashed to the kitchen door. He darted out past Shen, and then back in to grab the freshly polished black boots that were still sitting next to the bench.
"Ryan!" Exclaimed the head cook.
Ryan paused, a panicked look in his brown eyes.
"Tell His Majesty his breakfast is on its way."
"Yes, Vinelle, I will!" He broke into a run and pelted his way back toward the door. He nearly ran into Shen, who laughed heartily at Ryan’s haste as he held the door open for him. The boy mumbled another short apology and raced down the hall. Shen turned to follow him, letting the kitchen door close itself.
As Shen disappeared, Vinelle turned to find all her cooks gawking after the young heir-apparent. Vinelle shooed them back to their work, commanding one particularly enamored young lady to stir the stew before it burned. The girl blushed harshly as her fellows began giggling, who all knew that she had been seen leaving the young councilor’s rooms late the other night. Her eyes continued to stare at the door through which Shen had disappeared, angry that he had not even looked her way and remembering the titter from the other girl, the one who was carrying the coffee. Vinelle frowned at the other girls, who promptly lost their smiles and returned to work. She tapped the distracted young lady on the shoulder and she ducked her head, her eyes filling with tears. She began stirring the stew furiously.
Ryan poured to a stop at the King's office door, which was on the third floor of the great castle. He was panting so hard he felt as though his lungs would burst because he had taken the flights of stairs two steps at a time. He cautiously opened the door and peered inside. The large oak desk and ornately etched chair held no occupant. Ryan stepped into the room, his eyes adjusting to the brightness of the sunlight streaming in from the balcony windows on either side of the desk, whose doors had been thrown open wide to welcome the brightness of the day. He walked toward the adjoining hall and nearly ran into Korwin striding hurriedly from his bedroom. The King's shocking green eyes blinked for a second, then he smiled at the boy and roughed up Ryan’s already tousled light brown hair.
"There's a good boy! I’m sorry I bellowed down the hall. The guards had no idea where you had disappeared to and ….ahhh… you know how I get on days like this. I’m sorry.” Ryan smiled at his Majesty and extended the boots out to him. “Got them all polished and ready. Thank you." His Majesty grinned and shook his head thoughtfully. “I’m having to reach to ruffle your hair these days, it seems. Gods, Ryan, how old are you this year?”
Ryan smiled shyly, knowing that His Majesty feigned ignorance.
“I’ll be nineteen in two months, sire.”
Korwin looked at him severely, his bright eyes measuring the boy.
“Nineteen, eh? You remind me nothing of that small boy I took in almost 3 years ago now.” He smiled gently at Ryan and the boy felt tears sparkle in his eyes. Korwin gruffly grasped his shoulder and shook him. “Look how you have grown!” His voice was warm and happy. “I told Petra you would catch up on your growth with the right food and the best of educations.”
Korwin took the boots from the boy's hand and strode over to his desk, plopping into his chair. Ryan missed the proud look Korwin sent his way as the page bent to pick up some scattered clothing from the floor and took them into the dressing room. Korwin shook his head in wonder as he tugged the black boots on over his resplendent velvet trousers. The young man he saw today was as different from the abused, trodden down boy he had taken in three years before as night was to day. Shaking his head, he stood. He smoothed the soft, silken material of his burgundy shirt and glanced at the long decorative mirror across the room. Ryan came up, holding his black velvet cape. His Majesty clasped it about his throat with a large broach bearing his coat of arms. He ran a swift hand through his unruly black hair and looked down at the boy with his brow quirked. Ryan stood back and smiled with delight.
"How does it look?" His Majesty asked, posing with a slightly ridiculous grin on his face.
"I think I would be safe in saying, sire, it is indeed suited for a King." Ryan choked back laughter as the King stroked his bearded chin and smoothed his mustache with a great deal of personal interest. He had only just grown the goatee and mustache these past few months. Ryan had never seen the King self conscious about anything before he grew out his facial hair. It was almost comical to watch him preen in the mirror. But, Ryan had to admit, the new look did give him a more dignified and kingly countenance.
There was a knock at the door and as the two of them turned to look, Shen peeked in around the door.
"Clear to enter, Korwin?"
"Come in, Cousin, come in," His Majesty said, his eyes gleaming with mischief.
Shen sauntered into the room, his eyes luminous as his brilliant blue clothes caught the sunlight and began to shimmer like water under a bright sun. Ryan stared in amazement at the delicate cloth, realizing that Shen had taken the time since he left to go and change. The material resembled liquid silver floating on azure water. Korwin, ever one to tease and abuse his cousin, ducked and protected his eyes with his hands.
"You'll put our eyes out for sure, you nit."
Shen grinned sarcastically and sat on one of the seats facing Korwin's desk. He shrugged his shoulders, admiring the water-like appearance of the cloth.
"Thought it was an unusual cloth. Think the ladies will like it?"
"Why shouldn't they? Not that they ever look at your clothes once they look into your lovely eyes and hear you call them sweetheart." The King’s lips twisted wryly and Ryan noticed that his eyes turned mildly serious. Ah, so he had heard of the incident involving the servant girl being sent home because she was pregnant. Shen had told the castle organizer that the girl had lied about their tryst, but apparently Korwin had his eye on him. Ryan had been told of the existence of half a dozen bastards running around Angstel, all bearing a striking resemblance to the King’s cousin.
Shen chuckled, unable to meet the seriousness in the King’s eyes. He pulled the wine flagon to him. Shen first poured himself a cup, and then gestured to another for Korwin with a raised eyebrow. Korwin shook his head and leaned back in his chair.
"Too early for me."
Shen shrugged and lifted his cup to Korwin before taking a sip.
Korwin considered his cousin carefully from between narrowed eyelids. There always seemed to be wine in abundance around Shen. However, he was the only living heir to the throne…that was, until Korwin himself, as King, found a suitable bride and produced a legitimate heir. The Council was continually after him about that. Not that there was much time left in his schedule for skirt chasing. Maybe he should just sit back and let Lady Petra set him up with a likely noble woman. She had mentioned something about his new Councilor, Lord Analstesh, having a viable young daughter. Perhaps she could make the introductions when they arrived…they were already two days late.
Korwin was worried, sincerely so. He had sent Commander Hays and his men to escort the new Council member, but no word had been sent as to their late arrival. Something was terribly wrong. He could feel it. He swiveled in his seat, his eyes taking in the pale blue sky outside the balcony window. He thought of sharing his concerns with Shen, but the nonstop chatter now issuing profusely from his younger cousin’s lips did not encourage him to do so. Perhaps Gaeron was right. Shen was wild and unstable. It amazed Korwin yet to realize they were even related. Shen’s mother had been a half sister to Korwin’s father, who had married a common man and then been dismissed from the court years ago by her own father, Korwin’s grandfather. Blood was blood, though.
But then, again, Shen was such a… Korwin gave into a mental sigh and pushed his concerns over Shen’s lack of constancy out of his mind. Perhaps Shen only needed to have more responsibility pressed onto his shoulders. He was only four and twenty years now. Korwin was a dozen years his senior. There was more than enough time for him to mature.
Shen’s babbling on about the young women he had seen flocking around the halls of the castle suddenly dropped off. Korwin turned to see him looking over at Ryan, who was sitting on his stool in the corner behind Korwin. Shen winked at the boy, then leaned toward his Lord Cousin slyly.
Ryan swallowed hard. Ryan still couldn’t handle Shen’s catty manners and had fallen prey to this prankster’s barbed jabs more than once. It was well known by the castle staff that Shen was capable of a violent temper when away from the King’s line of sight. Once, Shen had let loose even upon Ryan himself over some imagined offense, even though the page was ordered to answer to the King, and not to his heir-to-be-cousin. Ryan continued to walk on eggshells around Shen since that day. Even now, Ryan held his breath, fearful of what might come out of his sly mouth.
"Your young lad there nigh ran me over when you were shouting like a herdsman for your boots. You must have the devil fear in him to get him running like a pup with his tail between his legs to do your bidding." The gray eyes sparkled at Ryan and his lips quirked up at one corner.
“That’s not so! His Majesty is no one I am afraid of…” Ryan let the protest die on his lips and cringed, holding his breath. He prayed that he would not be lectured about his manners towards Shen in front of the erratic and ill tempered heir. Not that Korwin ever really lectured, that was more Gaeron’s office. Ryan had needed such instruction once upon a time, but…it was just like Shen to put him on the spot. Ryan tried to hold back his ire with Shen as he slowly met his King’s eyes.
He was relieved when His Majesty chuckled instead and winked reassuringly at the young man.
"He's a good lad. I think he expects me to behave as his old master did. I can't seem to get him to understand that I don't bite. Unless I'm hungry, of course. Speaking of which..." Korwin smiled up at the kitchen servant tapped on the doorframe, announcing his presence at the open doorway.
The kitchen servant stood shuffling a heavy tray of fruit, milk, and cereal in front of him. Ryan rushed to help him deposit it on the corner of the oak desktop, and then the servant left, bowing. Ryan turned to see the two men starting their breakfast. The smells reminded his stomach of its interrupted breakfast, which caused it to grumble loudly in complaint. Korwin took one look at him and tossed him a plum.
"I take it my roars interrupted more than your peace of mind. Here, pull up a chair. There is enough here for a hungry young boy and two men. If I remember correctly, I was starving all the time when I was your age."
Shen attacked his bowl of hot cereal with great appetite, throwing spoons of sugar and butter on it. Ryan sat nibbling uncertainly on the fruit. Shen eased up on the poking fun and began telling some of the dirty jokes he’d picked up from the guards during his turn at rounds last night. The juvenile jokes brought a small smile from Ryan as he forced him to take a bowl of cereal by Korwin. Ryan slowly relaxed, deciding that this was going to be a good day. Nothing should ruin this day.
Ryan was stressed enough already. He had spent the entire past two months organizing the entertainment for this evening with Petra. Shen seemed to catch his thoughts and began asking him about the arrangements for the evening.
“Well, it should be rather an interesting evening,” Ryan volunteered hesitantly. “I’ve enlisted several performers. I have hired the Singer of Emram for tonight, a couple of acrobatic acts, two small orchestras for music within the hall and in the courtyard....”
“The Singer of Emram. I’ve heard of her. I hope she is as good as they say. And as beautiful.” Shen grinned and Ryan could clearly see the lustful thoughts wriggling through his mind. Ryan felt slightly nauseous, then decided to ignore that half lidded lascivious look on the Royal Cousin’s face and continued to describe the performers to appear that night.
Korwin sat back in his chair, quietly sipping his mug of coffee, watching Ryan stumble over his words as he told them about his organization efforts. Korwin sighed, as though carrying some great weight within him. Ryan, seeing his gaze upon him, wondered if he had done something wrong. His fears lifted, however, as Korwin flashed him a bright smile. Of course, he was being foolish. Ryan knew that as long as he worked hard and applied himself to his studies in soldiery and in diplomacy, Korwin would always be pleased with him.
Thoughts of his unfortunate beginning in life brought a dark cloud to his brow, even though he was speaking quite calmly about the preparations he had helped make for the festivities. That cloud drifted across his spirit and brought with it a haunting repertoire of images he wished he could banish from his memory. He shook himself, though, and tried to concentrate on the thrill of having the honor and responsibility Korwin had given him for this special day.
"There is a party of riders approaching from the south, Lord Cousin," Shen said, interrupting Ryan’s descriptions of all his preparations. Korwin looked over his shoulder and out one balcony window. Sure enough, there was a group of horsemen, flying colors, approaching across the valley to Atlantia. He smiled as he recognized the color scheme.
"Come, Shen. We must greet our visitors."
"Who is it?" Queried Shen, rising and adjusting his glittering shirt. He eyed a stray piece of lint and picked it off with his fingernails.
"Our newest advisor is arriving. Two days late, but in plenty of time to be introduced at the festivities." Korwin stared worriedly out the window. It really was not like Analstesh to be so late. Nor was it like Hays to have forgotten to send a rider ahead with a message.
The two men headed for the door. Korwin stopped and looked back at Ryan, who was sitting with a helpless expression on his face, his spoon half raised to his lips.
"Ryan, I’m not going to interrupt your breakfast for the second time today. Finish what you can hold, then return the tray to the kitchen. After that, you'll need to put on the new clothes they just delivered for you. We’ll be waiting for you in the throne room." He glanced at Shen and waggled an eyebrow. "Let us greet our new advisor with all pomp and circumstance, eh, cousin?"
"Of course, my Lord Cousin. After you...." Shen said with a regal, but exaggerated bow. Korwin swept past him, his chin up, with a slightly exaggerated look of stern regality on his face. Shen guffawed and closed the door after them.
Ryan stared quietly at the door for a few minutes. He was always confused by the strained friendship between the King and his Royal Cousin. The King always covered over Shen’s flaws and was immensely long suffering when dealing with his mistakes. But there was something about the King’s Cousin that brought out the lighter side of the King’s serious nature. Even though Ryan could tell the King worried about his Cousin, the ribald jokes and constant ridiculousness of Shen’s off the wall experiences would crack even His Majesty’s otherwise stiff demeanor.
A soft, thoughtful smile curved his lips as Ryan gathered the bowls and picked up the lightened tray.
Walking down to the kitchen, he could not help thanking the rare coincidence that had brought him here, to Angst, to be in the service of the King himself. Why, here he had real clothes, of velvet and silk! Of course, he reminded himself sternly, he was the King's own page, so they had to dress him nicely to be seen publicly. But, then again, he was the King's own page! He felt like skipping down the hall as he recounted all the opportunities Korwin had opened up for him. Fortunately for his sense of dignity, he remembered that he was almost nineteen and well beyond such frivolity, so instead quickened his pace, letting his happiness shine on his handsome young face.
He left the tray with one of the girls, and then sprinted back to the King's apartment. He first stepped into Korwin’s room, checking it for clothing articles left laying around. He snatched up a nightshirt from the padded chest at the foot of the immense royal bed. He stroked one of the massive posts of the bed. It was draped with a wash of bright blues and silver, while about it lay carpets of the same colors, bright, yet soothing. The bed itself was almost as old as the castle, built by the artisans who designed all the original royal furniture. Three centuries of Angstel’s monarchs had slept in this awesome cherry wood bed, in this very chamber. He felt a wave of immensity and grandeur wash over him, remembering the histories Petra had taught him, all the rulers who had come and gone before.
He shook himself free of his reveries, remembering that the new advisor’s entourage would soon be escorted into the castle. He moved to shut the balcony windows. He did not wish to be chasing doves out of the massive room again. They liked the ornate wooden rafters in the ten-foot ceiling and it had taken him a week to get rid of the last ones who had roosted within the rafters. He wrinkled his nose, remembering the noisome chore of scrubbing the bird dropping from the wood floors and out of the tapestries.
After depositing the king’s shirt in the dressing room, he moved into the small hall leading back to the office and closed the inner door. Between the office and the King’s chamber was a small room that had been turned into his own private bedroom. It had two entrances, one from the hall, the second secreted behind the tapestry in the hall of connecting the King’s chambers and office. It was originally designed for the King’s personal bodyguard, but Ryan was moved in and had shared an intimate circle of trust and friendship with King Korwin since.
Inside his room were his few meager belongings, things he counted as his own. He never asked for much, and turned down offers for larger rooms, even after three years of service. Ryan only slept well when he knew he was within shouting distance of His Majesty. Although it sometimes irked him to have Shen teasing him about being the King’s “puppy-dog”, following him around everywhere, Ryan was proud that he, and he alone, had been entrusted by Korwin with his own personal care.
So what did it matter is his room had only a few small items in it? He had a decent bed, a press for his belongings, a small desk with lamp for his studies, and a few wall tapestries that helped keep out the drafts. He loved the tapestries, with their brilliant colors woven so delicately by a master's hand. All were gifts from Korwin, selected from shops during his travels around Angstel. Each contained scenes of Angstel, from the beauty of ocean that roared just a few breaths away from the castle, to another of the great plains of Anum, dripping with day lilies in full bloom. The last one reminded him of his home mountain, Apal, with its purple blue ranges and the snow fringed extremes of the mountain heights.
Ryan’s mind drew him back to those few memories he still possessed of his childhood. He had been the smallest of seven brothers and sisters, the child with years worth of hand-me-downs waiting for him. His father had been a poor shepherd and his mother had kept a small garden and a flock of laying hens. Those had been hard times, but for some reason, they glowed with energy and warmth in his memories. His mother often sent him and his older brother, Ren, out searching for eggs. The one who had found the most got a special candy made of the anise that grew wild around their home.
That was before Densher came, holding that bill in his chubby fat hands. He demanded payment of six years worth of credit he had given to his father at both his store and blacksmith shop. His father, on the threat of facing jail and leaving his family destitute, agreed to Densher’s terms. What else could he do but let Densher take Ryan for a servant as partial payment, along with seven of his best breeding ewes, every one of them pregnant with next year's lambs?
His mother had sobbed wildly as his father had pulled Ryan from her arms and taken him down the mountain to the village. Small and scared, Ryan had tried to be strong, to bear the burden so that his family might stay together. He did not cry as his father walked away, never looking back at him. Ryan still remembered biting his tongue, willing himself to ignore the terror beating in his chest and the grief that roared through his heart. He thought nothing in his life would be worse than that day.
He had been wrong.
Calling Densher an evil beast would fall far short of the reality. He set the small Ryan to work in his shop, carrying grain sacks, feeding his animals, cleaning and butchering, slaving and dredging at jobs too much for his age and size. The filthier the job, the more likely that Ryan would be assigned it. If he hesitated, if he failed, it was Densher’s fists that found his back, his head, and his face. Then, at the end of the day, he would be tossed a crust of bread and told to sleep. Sore, broken in body, Ryan would find a clean pile of straw in the barn and sleep like the dead.
The nights were the worst, by far. Densher would drink, and once having imbibed too much, would turn to his more heinous pastimes. Nights were filled with fear for Ryan, as he lay shivering in the straw. He never knew when Densher would seek him out for his demented torture sessions. Ryan could still feel the agony and anguish inflicted by that sodden old beast. Most of the physical scars had healed, but in his heart, Ryan had several lacerations to his dignity that had yet to be healed.
As he grew, Ryan realized he would never be free of Densher. When the fifth year of his internment passed, the agreed upon payment period ended, yet Densher would not release Ryan. Desperation filled Ryan as he waited for his father to appear and reclaim him. However, he did not come and Ryan began to search for his family, fearful of what he might find. Eventually he learned that his mother had died giving birth to an eighth child. His father had taken the other children and moved north to some village where Ryan’s great uncle lived and ran a blacksmith’s shop. When Densher found him gathering his few things to follow his family, he beat the then twelve year old within an inch of his life. After spitting on the almost unconscious boy, Densher told Ryan should he ever try to leave again, he would kill him.
When he could walk again, Ryan decided the only way to fight Densher would be through educating himself. If he could learn the laws of the village and land, perhaps he could find a way to win his freedom, or the proper people to approach about gaining his freedom. He began visiting the local schoolmistress. She had often talked to him, concerned that he did not attend school with the other children. During the late evenings, when Densher had already dismissed him for the night, Ryan began disappearing to her home. He would sit on her hearth and she taught him the basics he had missed: reading, math, history and, most of all, the law. Ryan soon found that when he immersed himself in books, the awfulness of his reality began to pale. He fought Densher’s hold on him by freeing his mind. His passion became books and the stories they contained. The things he read at night in the warm firelight at the teacher’s house would carry him through the long, bitter days. Densher occasionally beat him for disappearing at night, but Ryan bore up under his cruelty and continued to learn. It was his only freedom.
Maybe it was something like luck, or destiny, or just pure coincidence that brought the King’s army riding into the small village. The King had stopped at Densher’s small inn to rest and eat the noon meal while some of the horses were being re-shod next door. Ryan had been impressed by the way His Majesty’s eyes took in everything around him, his sparkling green eyes always watching and studying the people around him. Ryan could tell that Densher was quickly studied, and subsequently dismissed, as his blowhard attempts at grandiose conversation brought a wary look to the King’s face. Ryan could sense that the King detested those who fawned over him and the boy almost laughed aloud at the increasing irritation the King expressed at Densher’s attempts to impress him.
And yet…another twist of fate intervened for Ryan. When Ryan slipped and spilled the hot tea he was carrying, he knew that split instant before it happened that he would be unable to prevent the tea tray from crashing to the floor. After falling prostrate into the hot liquid, Ryan heard only Densher’s curses rising sharply above the roaring in his ears, followed soon after by fist blows to his head and back. Ryan couldn’t move. Writhing from the pain of the burns across his chest and hands, Ryan simply curled into a ball beneath Densher’s blows.
The ringing in his ears was such that he did not at first hear the King calling Densher off him. Then came a very loud, commanding roar over Densher’s cursing and shouting.
“Get the bloody hell off of him!” King Korwin’s voice was so forceful that the rafters of the Inn seemed to shake. The blows suddenly stopped and Ryan looked up slowly, blinking.
Ryan was in awe as his eyes found the King holding the massive bulk of Densher up against the wall. The King's forearm pressed crushingly in on Densher’s throat. Ryan had not realized how tall the King was until he realized Densher’s toes barely touched the floor. The beast’s pudgy cheeks were red as he struggled for breath, and his tiny black eyes glittered with fear as he stared into the King’s eyes.
“I said leave off the boy, man. It was an accident.” Ryan could see that the King was shaking with barely contained wrath as he slowly eased his forearm out of Densher’s larynx. He backed away slowly as his captains gathered around him. He turned to Ryan and knelt next to him. His large hands had been gentle as he took Ryan’s arm and tenderly applied a handkerchief to a cut at Ryan’s temple.
“Are you okay?” His eyes brimmed with concern and compassion.
“I will be, sire.” His voice had shaken so much that he could hardly get the words out.
The King had then risen and nodded to a tall, white haired man, whom Ryan later knew as His Majesty’s mentor and best friend, Gaeron.
“We’ll take our business down the street, I think. Boy,” he then said, turning to find Ryan standing up unsteadily and trying to pretend he was uninjured. “I would like you to accompany me.”
Densher had then dared to speak.
“This boy is my servant. He has not paid off his debts…”
The anger of the many years finally exploded from Ryan. His face turned bright red and he snarled as he turned to face Densher.
“My freedom was purchased four years ago, you abusive, anal retentive pedophile.” Ryan glared at the man, his eyes boring into the tiny pig eyes. Densher shuddered and cringed away from him.
“Find someone else to abuse. Better yet, hurry up and rot, you bastard. I have better things to do with my life than wait for you to try to kill me again.”
Ryan moved to stand next to the King. He had only reached Korwin's shoulder then and looked like a walking skeleton dressed in rag scraps. However, the fire in his eyes and the tilt to his chin had quieted the beast he had served so many years. Looking at Ryan with sad, gentle eyes, King Korwin had taken him by the shoulder and led him from that life.
Ryan had sworn he would never look back.
Ryan tried very hard not to revisit those nightmares often. A chill raced down Ryan's back and he wrapped his arms about himself. He should be thankful for what he had and stop dwelling on the past. The King was his life now, and he was determined to do his best in everything Korwin assigned him to do. That is why he excelled at his studies. The King should never worry about me, he thought quietly. He saved me and I have to do my best to repay that.
Ryan abruptly realized how fast time was slipping by and reached for the fine satin and velvet suit that lay on the bed. He gently caressed the soft velvet of the tunic. It was a fine tunic, with black satin sleeves and black piping along its edges. He hurriedly pulled off his brown shirt and leggings, then pulled the rich tunic over his head. He struggled to pull the dark red leggings on then looked under his bed for his boots. They weren't there! Panicking, Ryan tried to remember where he could have left them. He looked over next to the door, beneath his brown riding cloak and almost stopped breathing. He gently bent over and lifted the new, shiny black dress boots from the floor.
Stunned, he sat back on the bed. Tears threatened to fall and he dashed them away with a harsh hand. His Majesty was too kind. He always tried to help drive away those nightmares that used to wake Ryan up screaming in the middle of the night. When Ryan had first come with him to Angst, it had been expressed by coming into his little room and waking him from his terrors, then sitting up, all night if need be, talking over a cup of tea. Now, near three years later, His Majesty continued to show Ryan generosity and kindness beyond compare. Ryan became angry with himself and his giving in to those dark, brooding memories. His King’s only wish was to drive away that unhappiness of his childhood and help him face the future as a strong, optimistic man. Driven by faith in the man who had saved him, Ryan forced the black thoughts from his mind.
He heard someone enter the King's chamber. He quickly slid his feet into the soft padding of the boots. He pulled aside the door hanging and spied Gaeron, the King's oldest and wisest councilor, sitting on the edge of the desk, waiting for him.
"Are you ready, young man?" He asked in his gravely voice, his dark eyes unreadable in their usual fashion.
"Yea-yes sir." Ryan pulled his hidden door closed under the tapestry before letting the elegant tapestry flow back into place.
"Good. Korwin wanted me to make sure you found those boots. Do they fit well?"
Ryan nodded, unable to speak around the lump in his throat. He straightened his tunic and smoothed his hair. Gaeron quirked his shaggy white brows at him, stood up, and waved for the boy to accompany him. He pulled the office door closed behind them.
"The King has everyone assembled to greet the newcomers. They are at the gates and it will be few minutes before they are escorted into the throne room, so we should make it in time."
Ryan walked next to Gaeron down the hall. He kept glancing up at the older man. He was still attempting to figure out the mystery of this ancient man, who gave little or no clue as to where he came from, or, for that matter, how old he truly was. Gossip continually flew among the castle denizens concerning his origins. All of them included secrets of the dark arts, that he was a wizard or magician. Though Ryan had not seen any evidence to this fact in all this time, Gaeron certainly looked the part. His white brows blended into a wild shock of pure white hair and his face was ageless. He tended to crinkle the corners of his eyes, giving the appearance of wrinkles, and he turned down his mouth, creating downward curving lines whenever they were in public. However, Ryan noticed that in private, his clean-shaven face would relax and he appeared to be no more than Korwin’s age.
However, the old man had been in the service of the royal family for more years than Gaeron cared to admit. Ryan knew that he had served under Korwin’s grandfather. It puzzled Ryan that Gaeron seemed to promote the idea that he was a sorcerer at public appearances, by wearing dark purple and blue robes and adopting the miserable mannerism of muttering in an odd language. It was almost as though Gaeron wanted to keep people from getting too close to him. There were times when even Ryan would not have been surprised to see a thunderbolt or two flash forth from the old man’s fingers, so convincing was his demeanor and guise.
Trying to get a straight answer from Gaeron about the oddities of his existence was like pulling teeth. Gaeron was extremely intelligent and would keep Ryan guessing for hours.
“How old are you, Gaeron?” The boy had once asked.
“Old enough to know when not to answer that question,” had been the gruff reply.
“Older than the King’s father?”
“You know the answer to that already.” The old man had continued pouring his concoction into the glass vial he had before him.
“I know, you helped raise King Aiyan, my Lord’s father. But how old are you really? 100? 200?” The boy waited with bated breath to see if the old man’s gaze would give anything away. His eyes betrayed nothing and Ryan grimaced as the gray eyes turned to look at him steadily.
“How old do you think I am, really?” the councilor said with a sigh.
“I can’t tell. Give me a clue.”
Gaeron would chuckle and shake his head.
“You can tell me Gaeron! I wouldn’t breath a word!”
“Of course not. I’d set your toenails rotting in an instant if I thought you would betray any confidence I put in you.”
“So tell me, please!” Ryan would beg, even as he curled his toes within his boots.
Gaeron had then leaned over to his ear, and got very still, as though preparing to tell Ryan his secret. The boy strained to listen to his whisper, only to turn red with frustration as the words sunk in.
“I’m old enough to know that this conversation has come to an end,” and then Gaeron had walked out of the room, leaving Ryan grinding his teeth.
It had not helped the mystery any to have His Majesty explain to him privately that Gaeron was what had once been called a “scientist”. Before he had met Gaeron, he had thought that all scientists belonged to the long avoided clan, the Enlians, who continued to work with science. They were shunned by most people for fear that these demons might once more bring about the most horrendous disaster in human history: the Great Plague. Scientists were the destroyers, the evil that rotted the world, or so his older brother used to tell him late at night. The fear of Science was something that filled children’s minds with horror.
That knowledge alone filled Ryan with more questions, questions the old councilor never wanted to answer.
Time had shown Gaeron to be a gruff but extremely understanding tutor, much to Ryan’s surprise. Between Gaeron and the Lady Petra, Ryan’s education had continued, filling in the holes the schoolmistress had not had time to teach him. Interspersed with the history came the science, in small bits, to ease his “transition from the superstitions of the masses to the logic of reasoned thinking” as Gaeron liked to put it.
It still amazed Ryan that the older man was completely at ease with teaching the King’s teenaged page. His understanding of young men, so he claimed, came from raising two generations of Avras. He had seen Korwin’s father through his teen years, he had guided Korwin through his own, and so he did not see having a third teenager around as anything worrisome. As a tutor, an instructor, a historian, and as a swordmaster, Gaeron was unmatched in the area of training young men’s minds. Time had shown Ryan that Gaeron was also a great confidante and they had spent many hours discussing issues Ryan could never dare to bring to Korwin’s attention. Including the many failings of the King’s cousin, for whom they both shared a common feeling of distrust and dislike.
Gaeron and Ryan entered the great hall from the east entrance. The throne room was an elongated, whitewashed hall with a twenty-foot arched ceiling interlaced with glass and bronze. Great chandeliers hung from the cruxes between glass plates, shimmering with hundreds of oil lights. The great marble floor sported a long runner of elegant carpet of hunter green, with a border design of burgundy vines, leading to the throne. The throne sat on a raised dais at the western end. The throne itself was simple carved marble. It bore carved into its back the family crest of the Avra family: a sword, a rose, and a snake twisted into the form of an “A”.
“It’s becoming crowded in here already. We need to hurry.” He frowned at the boy as he stood half in the hall, hidden by the drapery.
“Come, boy, don’t dawdle, let’s get over to Korwin.” Ryan flushed at Gaeron’s imperious tone, but read clearly his understanding gaze. He swallowed hard and followed the old advisor as he turned to walk across the hall.
Ryan stepped up his pace, though he felt as though his knees were frozen as he moved into the crowd. He kept his head down, watching Gaeron’s purple robes swirling in front of him as he walked. He breathed a sigh of relief when he recognized the back of the throne and found his spot behind the King’s throne, trying to pretend that all eyes were not on him. He knew that wasn’t true, because everyone who was close to the King drew whispers and comments from the crowds that flocked to any royal audience. Shen was already in his place, to Korwin's left, sitting in the right hand chair to the throne. He turned his head slowly and winked back at the trembling Ryan, who returned him a polite smile.
All eyes turned toward the commotion at the opposite end of the hall. The great, ornate doors swung in and the new advisor’s entourage entered.
Commander Hays strode forward, leading the group of people, his face stern as usual. The King frowned at him and leaned forward.
“Commander Hays, you have a lot of explaining to do.” Korwin’s voice was like ice.
Hays bowed low as he reached the footstep of the dais, his eyes looking at the floor.
“Please forgive the lateness of our arrival, my Lord. Lord Analstesh became ill on our journey and it was advised that we stop and rest before going on. I would have sent a messenger, but I was forced to send half my force to investigate a situation at one of the villages along our route. I did not think it advisable after that to spare any more men. I take full responsibility for this and beg your Majesty’s humble forgiveness.”
Hays dropped to one knee before the King, his eyes focused on the floor.
From his position at Korwin’s right hand, Gaeron watched the progress of the meeting with mild eyes. Hays was such a solid, dependable soldier, it really did not make sense for him to have put aside his duty to send warning lightly. He had also been an excellent student of the sword. Gaeron still remembered the fighting spirit he had as a young man. He frowned as he remembered the time he had pitted Korwin against the grown Hays for a training session.
They had faced each other across the dusty training yard, their young faces glowing with sweat. Ephram Hays was a broad man, a rock of a man, but very friendly and gregarious. However, he took his sword play very seriously. So it surprised Gaeron as he watched the older man suffer strike after strike from the young King. Korwin had continually proved quick and caused considerable damage with his wooden sword on comrades of his own age. But on this occasion, Gaeron had replaced the wooden blades with the massively heavy steel swords they would learn to use on the battlefield. True, their blades were dulled and had no edge, but Hays had taken the brunt of several well-timed blows to his person, blows Gaeron knew, after the years he had trained Hays, could have easily been avoided.
After almost half an hour of torture to his person, Gaeron was getting frustrated and was about to call the whole charade of a session off. Hays held his own sword low, watching Korwin through half lidded eyes. Ribbons of sweat drained down his jaw and dripped to the ground in the summer heat. His stance did not waver as he waited on Korwin.
Korwin was feeling the weight of his sword, shifting it endlessly in his grasp. Gaeron watched as the young King prepared for a final strike. His energy that he had spent in his fancy footwork and quick attacks did not have as much force as he thought. Korwin let out a hellish yell, his sword rising with a trembling intensity. His young legs pelted him across the center of the yard, the sword pulling at his shoulders muscles as he hefted it for this final onslaught.
Hays had stood still, watching him come. He didn’t raise his sword. He didn’t flinch as the heavy blade flew with great force down onto his shoulder. His breath had exploded out of him and he sank to one knee, his face a frozen mask. Korwin finished his rush past him, and then turned, a look of shock on his face.
“Hays, why didn’t you block me?!” he yelled, his shoulders sagging and his green eyes wise with disbelief.
Hays pulled himself up, using his sword as a brace. He raised his eyes and Gaeron saw for the first time the intensity of the loyalty he felt toward his young King. He turned to face Korwin and he bowed low.
“Forgive me, Sire. Despite my master’s orders to fight you and train you, I could not bring myself to do so.” He hesitated and finally found the words he wanted. “My apologies, Gaeron, my Majesty. It is my deepest fear to serve a King that I have defeated.”
He bowed again to Korwin, then to Gaeron, and left the training area.
Korwin had walked slowly over to Gaeron, a frown creasing his brow. His breathing was hard and he threw down his sword in exasperation. He leaned over, placing his hands on his knees, trying to recuperate.
“Gaeron, I… don’t understand,” he said between gasps. “Why did he not train me to be better than him? Why did he just let me wail on him like that?” The boy’s eyes continued to stare in the direction that Hays had exited.
Gaeron had himself shaken his head and smiled wryly.
“Remember his loyalty to you, Korwin. He had wanted to serve you as best he could, but he could not go against his own fears and desires. You must be better than he is. You need to remember this as you continue to grow and excel. Your men will look up to you. You must be their leader. What you do, what you say…all of it will be taken in and used as someone’s version of an ideal commander. To sacrifice themselves to you in battle, your men must know that they do this to protect not just their country or their families: they must know that when they fight, you are with them in body, mind and spirit. That you are a just, wise and powerful leader.” Gaeron had watched the awareness of the importance of his actions fill Korwin’s eyes.
The young king swallowed heavily and stood up, his eyes wide with fear.
“Will I always have to live this way, Gaeron?” he had whispered softly. “Will I always have to watch what I do and say, and know that others are watching me?” He had hung his head, crossing his arms across his chest, a sense of loneliness radiating from him.
Gaeron now looked down at Hays, wondering what had been so important that he had not sent someone to notify his King, the man he had served every since with determined devotion. He sensed something wasn’t completely right about this situation, but…
An elderly gentleman hobbled slowly across the hall, supported by a feminine looking assistant in a dove gray cloak. As he drew closer, Gaeron and Ryan realized they were seeing an emaciated version of a man they had seen only a few months before. The man came to the foot of the raised dais and dropped to his knees. His voice, very weak, barely reached its intended audience above him.
"Your Majesty, I beg you forgiveness for our late arrival, but I was taken ill on our journey. I was only able to undertake travel again yesterday." His hands fluttered peculiarly in front of him, as though he were unable to control his voluntary muscles. A coughing fit shook him and his hands grasped his stomach. An attendant began to come to his aid, but he waved them back.
"No apologies necessary,” Korwin said, worry creasing his face.
Ryan remembered the man more clearly now that he was close enough to see his face. Nikel Analstesh, he remembered, had been a strong presence during the last brief war against the Dark Regions. Ryan had met him the first year he had been in Korwin’s service. They had spent some time a few months ago in his home, when the King had personally gone to invite him to the Council. This frail man before him was a shadow of that person. Whatever sickness had hit so swiftly had left him wasted and thin, not at all the robust lord he had last seen so recently.
“I had hoped we’d have time for you to prepare, but with you arriving late…” Korwin smiled tenderly. The councilor began coughing again and Korwin’s unease grew even more as he saw him crumple up a handkerchief filled with blood. “Analstesh, let us not keep you here now. Your rooms are prepared and you look as though you should rest.”
Analstesh shook his head vigorously, his fingers flashing in a nervous gesture in front of his face as he caught his breath. Korwin's eyes narrowed.
“Nay, I am truly on the mend, your Majesty. I would like to spend a few more moments in your presence. Just a brief respite.” His eyes met Korwin’s determinedly, forceful despite his evident weakness of body. The King sank back into his throne and nodded slowly.
Ryan caught a flash of red hair as someone stepped forward before anyone could say more and laid a slender hand on the ailing Nikel’s shoulder. Analstesh made a weird noise in his throat as his face froze. Ryan tried to peer through the folds of dove gray cloth. A mellow voice came from within the hood, gently insinuating its way into the room.
"Sire, if you please."
Korwin frowned at the shrouded figure.
"Yes?" His tone was angry.
The hand on Analstesh's shoulder trembled slightly. The delicacy of the hand enthralled Ryan and he wondered what sort of female lay beneath the hood.
"Sire, my lord has been gravely ill, despite his protestations. I do fear to be rude and overbearing, but I fear my father does need to rest and be seen to by his doctor immediately. I fear for his health and feel he would do much better with a day in bed directly."
Korwin's eyes narrowed at the intrusion, but his eyes fell on the nervous fluttering of Analstesh’s fingers.
"I agree, despite your father’s words as well.” He looked at the female figure with great interest. “And you are?"
The graceful fingers rose to the hood of the cloak and pulled it back, revealing an angelic face, highlighted by emerald green eyes amidst a sea of auburn red hair. The small rosebud mouth smiled softly amidst a face as soft and pale as a white rose.
"I am Lady Madison, his daughter." She dropped her eyes demurely and curtsied to the King.
Korwin stared, speechless for a moment. The green of her eyes captured him and held him. He shook his head, as though trying to shake away some pest bussing near his ear. He cleared his throat and looked at Analstesh, who had blanched an odd shade of gray-white. Korwin looked about quickly and singled out one of his captains standing near the west wing entrance.
"Bryant, will you take Councilor Analstesh and his people to their rooms? Gaeron," he added, looking up at his old friend, "Would you give Councilor Analstesh a physical examination? See if there is anything to be done to ease him and help him rest."
"Lord, that is not necessary," Lady Madison said hastily. "We have brought our own physician with us, Doctor Renier." She extended her hand to a thin, dark looking fellow to her right, who had been staring hard at Korwin the entire time. He stepped forward a pace and bowed deeply. His harsh voice crackled across the room.
"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but Lord Analstesh is currently under my care. All he needs is rest and relaxation, I assure you." His narrow eyes were flat and lifeless.
"Very well," Korwin said after faltering for a moment, taken aback by the physician’s cold stare. "You are dismissed, then." He rose and, motioning for Shen, Gaeron, and Ryan to follow, walked down the steps and out of the hall.
Once in the anteroom, Korwin walked a few steps, then turned and watched from behind the curtain as Analstesh and his people follow Bryant from the hall. A curious frown creased his face as he watched them go. Gaeron harrumphed at his side and Korwin looked back at him.
"Something is not right." Gaeron said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the wall.
"He is not what I remember him to be," Korwin said in response.
"Well, they did say he has been ill..." Shen interjected, shrugging his shoulders carelessly. Gaeron threw him a scorching look.
"That's not it, cousin. Something is terribly wrong. Did you see the gesture he kept making with his hands?" Gaeron’s eyes widened at Korwin’s question and the King and his dearest advisor shared a look of understanding.
Shen shook his head, pulling the seams of his fancy shirt straight on his shoulders. Ryan resisted the temptation to let fly a punch to the arrogant Second Councilor’s jaw, his disinterest was so clearly shown on his face.
"I'm sorry. I guess I was phasing out. What gestures?" Shen crossed his arms and leaned against one of the pillars in the anteroom. Gaeron straightened up and slowly extended his left hand and drew his right one diagonally across the palm toward his chest, his eyes filled with the fire of comprehension.
"That's the one." Korwin nodded affirmation.
Shen's face first froze, and then realization dawned in him also. All three men became abruptly quiet.
"What does it mean?" Ryan spoke out, and was immediately contrite for having interrupted their conversation.
"It's our battle code," Shen said, looking first to Korwin, then Gaeron for affirmation. "We hadn’t taught you that yet, have we?” He smiled condescendingly at Ryan, causing the boy to blush as he reminded Ryan he was still a nobody.”
“It means `danger'." Korwin said, his eyes staring out the stained glass window at the end of the anteroom. “That’s not all he said, either. He says he is a prisoner and that we should beware.” Korwin’s eyes grew hard. He slapped his thigh with his hand then headed off towards his offices. The other three hastened to catch up to him.
“Shen, have guards posted round the clock on their rooms. I want to find out who these people are before we move against them.”
|The Stars Fell From Heaven: Prologue||Legacy of Power Chapter Three|
|Legacy of Power Chapter One|