Chapter 1: A waking dream
“He’s dying Cildrin, the physician doesn’t expect him to last the night.”
Two men were standing in front of a door at the end of a dark hallway.
Cildrin looked up, but his chest felt like a dead weight had settled on it, and the words refused to pass his throat. He straightened his back and coughed, lifted his chin and managed to look directly at the other man.
“What-” he croaked. Try as he might the rest would not come out.
The other man took his meaning though, and answered.
“He suffers from a severe fever. Insects carry such diseases, we think it most likely he was bitten.”
That made no sense to Cildrin, and the man looked uncertain of himself, as if he too was not sure of the answer he had given.
“Strange that he should get sick so suddenly, he is a strong man, and healthy, and insects that could do this are rare in these parts.”
“Even the strongest can be brought low by disease” the man answered, actually looking away now and shuffling his feet.
“But you found no evidence of a bite?”
“That does not prove anything.” More shuffling. There was no hiding his discomfort. He knew where the conversation was going but saw no way to avoid it. “There is no evidence of poison, if that’s what you’re thinking” he said. He looked up, but seeing Cildrin's eyes quickly looked away again.
“There are enough ways to poison a man without leaving evidence.” Cildrin replied, glowering. “As you well know.”
The man stayed silent, unable to meet his gaze.
“What do you think? Was he poisoned?” Cildrin insisted.
“There’s no way –”
“But what do you suspect? Give me an honest answer man! Do you think it’s poison or not?”
Taking a deep breath, the man seemed to steel himself, and looked Cildrin in the eyes, his discomfort gone. “I have never seen a fever take hold so quickly or so fiercely, without the slightest warning beforehand. He never complained of an itch, he never said he felt unwell, and it was only after he returned here that he fell ill. I think it likely you are correct.” Cildrin opened his mouth, but the man continued right over him, raising his hands to emphasize his point. “However. We have no evidence that would incriminate anyone. If you begin accusing people, you would be risking your life, and the future of many more besides!”
Furious, Cildrin tried not to shout at the man. He knew Cildrin was right! He had known it all along! And he was going to do nothing.
“I can’t let him get away with this.” Cildrin spat, pronouncing each word deliberately.
The other man met him stare for stare. “You have no choice. One day he will pay for his actions, and when he does the world will be all the better for it. But not now, not like this. You would be playing right into his hands. He would brush you aside with hardly a thought, and it would not be so quietly as your father.” He took a breath, steadying himself for more protest. But Cildrin remained silent. The fury he had felt a moment ago had vanished, replaced by hopelessness and sorrow. His father was going to die. And there was nothing he could do about it.
“Go in there” the other man said, gently placing a hand on Cildrin’s shoulder, but not lessening his gaze nor the tone of his voice. “Be with him. Hear his final words. Thoughts of revenge are best left for the future.” With that turned and he walked away, leaving Cildrin standing alone.
After a moment Cildrin straitened again. He had not even realized he’d slumped against the wall of the narrow corridor. Then, steeling himself, he opened the door and went inside. The room that greeted him was large, with a tall ceiling twice as high again as Cildrin. The north wall of the room was lined with windows. Presently however, the shutters were closed to protect against the rain and wind outside. A storm had been raging for three days. Several fires had already been started by lightning or collapsed buildings. In response, Cildrin had ordered that the castle’s lower levels be opened to the population in an attempt to prevent more deaths, and the city guard was assigned to managing the fires, much to their dissatisfaction. The shutter on one of the windows banged open, causing the occupants of the room to jump and look around to the source of the sound. Wind whipped though the room tossing around covers and bringing an icy rain in with it. Quickly Cildrin walked over and closed the wooden panels again, ensuring the bar which kept them from swinging on their hinges was fastened properly this time. The city below had been dark. Visible only as a shadow through the rain. In addition to the guards all torches and candles in the city had been ordered put out, rendering it completely dark at night, save one window at the top of the keep where Cildrin now stood.
It seemed fitting somehow, that the weather should share his anguish. He turned back, and took hold of his surroundings. The flickering light from the torches on the walls lit the richly decorated room, casting long shadows in it’s wake. Besides himself there were three others present: his father, laying in bed. The physician, kneeling beside him. And a witness, standing in a corner on the far side of the room trying to look inconspicuous. The latter was there for legal matters, to ensure no foul play took place during his father’s final moments.
Buried under the furs of several species of animals, his father managed a groan, and raised his hand, beckoning his son to come closer. The physician stood, making to bend over the dying man. Looking at Cildrin though he thought better of it, and stepped back to join the witness hurriedly.
As soon as he was close enough his father reached up and grabbed his arm. Cildrin fought his emotions. The hand holding him was nothing like the one he remembered, it’s strength a shadow of what it had once been.
Leaning down, he only just managed to hear his father’s last words. Words he would not forget until his dying day.
“You must keep the peace… The East… Dragons hold the key.”
Their eyes locked, and he could see every detail of his father’s face, the matted hair, the sweat running down his forehead stinging his eyes, eyes that were burning into him with a desperate look. Despite the circumstances and the fact that the words made no sense whatsoever, Cildrin was convinced his father was completely aware of what he was saying. This was not the look of a man who was delirious.
“Promise me!” his father said, then sank back down. All the feeble strength that was left seeping from his body.
Cildrin tried to speak, to promise he would obey his father’s final wish, but no sound came out. He found his throat once again blocked. It was all he could do not to show tears. He would never forgive himself for not answering his father’s final command.
The figure in the bed. Nothing like the man Cildrin had argued with only a few days before, so strong and confident then, laid there a little longer, his eyes glazed and his ragged breathing growing slowly weaker. His eyes traveled the room wildly, finally meeting his son’s, and holding their gaze. The moment seemed to stretch on forever, the sound of the man’s breathing becoming ever fainter.
Then the door opened, slamming into the stone wall behind with a loud bang, shattering the silence. Cildrin looked up, startled, and broke the gaze. A tall weather-beaten man stepped into the room, dressed in a large black traveling cloak. He looked around, resting his eyes on the figure in the bed. He moved forward hesitantly, uncaring of the fact he was dripping water on the priceless carpets beneath his muddy boots. When Cildrin looked back at his father, the breathing had already stopped. He had not even been able to see his father die, or hold his gaze. Somehow that saddened Cildrin beyond even failing to reply to his father’s last command.
The physician stepped forward, and held two fingers to his father’s throat. With the other hand he held a mirror above his father’s mouth, and finally opened one of his father’s eyes.
After a while he turned away, and facing the newcomer, he knelt.
“The King is dead” he proclaimed. “ Long live the King.”
* * *
Cildrin bolted upright in his bed, a cold sweat clung to his body, and he found himself shaking despite the covers. Slowly the whirlwind of memories and emotions dissipated, and he shook his head to clear his thoughts.
The sun’s first rays shone through the east window, heralding the beginning of a new day for all to see. It was spring, and the rain from the night before had left the air smelling clean and fresh. Below, the noises of a city were clearly audible, somewhere above him a bell announced the changing of the hour.
“Sir?” a voice came from the doorway. “The king has requested your presence at breakfast in an hour.”
“Thank you” he said, still breathing hard.
When the door had closed again he sank back into bed, and tried to relax.
A dream, he thought, nothing more than a nightmare.
Nonetheless it thoroughly unsettled him. He had been thinking of his father’s death more often of late, and this dream had been especially vivid. The old king’s last words were as much a puzzle now as they had been then. Dragons were a myth, the supposed creators of the earth. Some men worshipped them here and there, but these were widely regarded as mad, and shunned, even hunted by the rest of the population. To the East there lay only a desert, with nothing but another ocean bordering on its far side, if the men who claimed they had crossed it were to be believed. If there was anything in the desert other than sand and nomads, Cildrin had yet to hear of it. Certainly nothing that required a key. The physician had written it off as delirium, the product of the fever that had killed him. But to Cildrin his father had not seemed delirious, and he had been prepared to swear the look his father gave him had been one of complete awareness.
It had been almost three years since his father’s death, but the pain the memory brought back was still sorely felt.
He got up and put on his robe. Walking into the adjacent bathroom he found his servants had already filled his bath, cool but not cold. He gave them his thanks and they left, leaving him to wash in peace. Submerging his head he cleared the last bits of fogginess from his mind, and set his thoughts on his meeting with the king. His uncle, Bryne, was merely fulfilling the role until he came of age and into his inheritance. Cildrin was the rightful heir, but as he had only been seventeen at the time of his father’s death, and wouldn’t come of age until twenty-one, his father’s brother had taken the throne in his stead. He had found early on that his uncle preferred to keep him out of the matters of state. He grew annoyed and even angry when Cildrin tried to engage himself in any important conversation or decision. Quite the contrary to his father, who had always encouraged him to take part in the ruling of the kingdom. Therefore the invitation to breakfast in the hall puzzled him. There was not much love lost between them, so it was unlikely his uncle merely wanted to wish him a good morning, which he never did to anyone in any case.
He concluded something important must have happened, and his uncle felt it was his duty to inform the heir of events. There was, after all, only one year left before Cildrin took the throne for himself.
He stood up, and regarded himself in the mirror above the water basin.
His hair was dark, and never seemed to sit right no matter what he did. He was strongly built though, and handled himself well in a fight. Shrugging he stooped and scraped the stubble off his cheeks with a specially sharpened knife.
After he was done he dried off, and went to his wardrobe.
Although protocol suggested he should dress formally for an audience with the king it was warm outside and Cildrin wanted to be able to concentrate, something he found was impossible when he was sweltering from the heat. He dressed comfortably, and put on the dagger he carried with him while in the castle.
He made his way down corridors and staircases to the hall on the main floor, and entered. Immediately he knew he had made the wrong decision.
He’d expected he would be eating alone with his uncle, but when he arrived he found the greater part of the War Council already present.
The War Council was a gathering of the king’s most trusted advisers. There were twelve of them, and each had his own specialty. It was their job to prepare for war in every detail. Their responsibilities were vast, and ranged from the recruiting and training of men and the gathering of provisions, to the prediction of the enemy’s moves, and the execution of a battle. They were the most powerful men in the kingdom, and of all of them, only Feraden was loyal to Cildrin. The rest of the council had agreed with Bryne, and opposed the old king’s ideas of peace. They had been friends their entire lives, and when Feraden’s father had died, Feraden had taken his place on the council.
A year later Cildrin’s own father had passed away.
He walked the length of the hall. It was lit by large windows facing south and east and light from the morning sun streamed through the east windows, falling on a table set on an elevated platform at the end of the room. The Council was seated around it talking in quiet tones and occasionally looking up at the huge map which filled the West wall of the room. The map was very old, it’s edges frayed and torn, but the ink had not faded. The city of Athalor stood to the north, next to the sea which shared it’s name. From there a river flowed down, and far to the south it joined two others in a lake next to the Ruins of Ithel. The lake sat at the joining of three great rivers. Each river held the name of the city it passed. The River of Athalor ran north. To the South of the lake began the River of Sithris, which continued down and finally opened up in a delta which flowed into the ocean. In the middle of this delta stood the abandoned city of Ortha. To the west of the lake began the River of Armanis. It ran straight through the Forest, into the mountains and past the Valley. From there it split north and west at the city of Armanis. The north river ran past Líðwyrt, while the west river ran past Iamnis.
Cildrin reached his chair, which stood to the right of the throne, and waited behind it. The king was required to acknowledge all that came to his table before they were permitted to take their seats.
His uncle raised an eyebrow at his attire but made no comment.
“Welcome Cildrin” He said. “There have been some interesting developments in the west. I thought you should be made aware of them.”
So he had been right. Cildrin wondered what could have happened there though. There were few towns in that region, and none that had been plagued by hunger or outlaws recently as far as Cildrin knew.
He nodded his thanks and took his seat. In front of him the usual breakfast had been prepared: bread with ham, cheese, some fruit and an egg.
The rest of the council joined them shortly, all dressed formally.
After the last person had been greeted and thus permitted to sit, they began to eat.
He broke a piece of bread from the loaf and dipped it in olive oil before concentrating on a smaller map that his uncle had unfurled and was now hanging on the east wall of the chamber.
His eye fell on the highlighted area, and his bread stuck in his throat causing him to cough violently.
His uncle glanced at him, and noted his reaction. “You guess correctly. The matter for which I have called you here today concerns the city of Ortha”
The council members shifted uneasily in their seats.
Ortha was an uncomfortable subject, and one of which Cildrin and the king had a very different opinion. He put down the bread he was holding, and pushed away his plate, no longer feeling hungry. His uncle stepped forward, and stood facing the council directly.
“As you all know, three years ago the Adhene sent scouts into the city, violating the peace agreement we have with them. When I became King, I demanded they leave, and they did, though not without protest.”
Cildrin felt his temper rising, Sithris had no legitimate claim on Ortha, and his father had agreed on that, yet his uncle refused to back down on the matter, insisting it was part of the kingdom.
“After they left I put the city under constant surveillance, suspecting they might one day return.” The king continued.
Cildrin’s heart dropped. If the Adhene had returned to Ortha, it was up to him to make sure his uncle did nothing rash. They had left in peace once, he did not think they would do it again. Ortha was in neutral territory, and Sithris had no right to send military forces to guard it.
“A party of Adhene exited the Great Forest four weeks ago, heading for the city.”
“You must not deny them access, we have no claim to the city.” He said immediately, fighting to keep the desperation out of his voice. If he didn’t control his temper here, he would be removed from the discussion. Yet if he failed to convince his uncle of the foolishness of such actions, the consequences would be disastrous.
The king sighed. “I know your opinion on the matter Cildrin, however until you are crowned king it is my opinion that matters.”
“Why should we care if they enter the city, they are no danger to us.” Cildrin retorted. They had argued about this so often over the last three years he felt as if he was reciting a script. The council members shared his feeling it seemed, weary looks greeted him as he glanced around at them for support.
“If the Adhene are allowed to settle Ortha they could use it as a staging area for an attack on Sithris. They have no right to be there.” Came the expected reply. Cildrin swung his gaze back to his uncle and stood.
“The Adhene are fallen angels, cast from Heaven for envying the mortal life of the Ahièrdan. They despise war, and will do anything to avoid it. The Ahièrdan themselves, if anything, are even more afraid of war. It was war that cost them their civilization, and reduced them to what they are today! These are the races you accuse of wanting toinvadeus? I need hardly remind you they gave us this land! Humans only came to the West recently, if anyone does not have the right to be here, it’s us!”
“Sit.” His uncle said, voice as cold and hard as ice. Reluctantly Cildrin sat back, breathing heavily. He knew he shouldn’t have defied his uncle so openly, in front the entire war council no less! But his uncle’s view that Sithris was all important and all powerful was maddening.
“Ortha lies outside of the Great Forest, therefore it is part of the Sithrian kingdom.” The king spoke quietly, but Cildrin could hear the anger in his voice. The words carried more weight somehow, delivered in a tone that all but required the listener to all but strain to hear it. Cildrin tried to use it himself, but found himself talking loudly instead.
“The territory covered by the Forest belongs to the Elder races, but that does not make everything outside it ours, you might as well lay claim to Athalor itself!”
The king’s face turned a nasty shade of red. Bringing Athalor into the argument had been a mistake. Cildrin had known it would be, but he couldn’t help himself. His uncle was a man of the old beliefs, and refused to let them go, but what had they ever yielded? War and famine and misery for thousands of people, nothing more.
“By all rights Athalor should not exist!” the king spat. His own soft tone from a moment before gone as well. “It is a city of rebels which we should have destroyed long ago!”
“Athalor has stood forfifteen hundredyears. Most of that time we have been at war with them! When are we finally going to accept they are here to stay!”
Elfred, the oldest of the council members coughed loudly, drawing a furious glare from the king and Cildrin both.
“My lords, if I may. We are straying from the subject at hand.” he turned to face the king expectantly. “Adhene were sighted exiting the Forest?” he asked.
“Yes.” The king replied. His icy tone was back, if somewhat louder than before, making what he said clearly audible. He turned back to the map.
“They exited the forest and made straight for the city of Ortha. My scouts intercepted the party, and are bringing one of them here for questioning.” He looked back at Cildrin. Stunned, Cildrin gaped at his uncle, his king. He had thought he’d had time, but it seemed Bryne had acted without alerting the council. There was no going back now, but perhaps he could limit the damage, if he ensured the Adhene was released once he or she arrived in Sithris.
“What of the others?” Feraden asked suddenly. “What happened to the ones you didn’t bring back?”
“They resisted arrest, and were killed, in accordance with our laws.” The king said.
Cildrin felt as if his hart had stopped. The Adhene could hardly be expected to pass this by. They would demand that those responsible be handed over to them, to face justice. The king, of course, would refuse.
Feraden look at him. Together, their fathers had forged an agreement which had ended a nine hundred and eighty-nine year old conflict.
Now, at the whim of a madman who shouldn’t even be on the throne, their fathers’ legacy was about to be destroyed, a little over forty years after it had started.
“Do you realize what you have done?” Cildrin thought his voice sounded hollow.
A dangerous look crossed his uncle’s face. “Do not forget to whom you speak, boy.” The king said, the cold fury in his voice was back. “I will not suffer such insolence in my presence.”
“I speak to the regent of my kingdom, who has just jeopardized it’s very existence!” Cildrin replied, just as angrily. “If the Adhene declare war, the Ahièrdan will join them. You can’t expect Athalor to sit by quietly. They will finally have the chance they have waited so long for, the chance to go to war against us with the Elder Races at their backs! We cannot hope to stand against such a host!”
“Nor will we have to.” His uncle replied. “Do not take me for a fool Cildrin, prince of Sithris. Plans have been in motion for decades, plans even your father was unaware of. When I am finished Athalor will be too busy burying their dead to think of war.”
“Nothing can breach their walls.” Cildrin told him. “Not even you.”
“Once, you may have been correct, but not today. For all his faults, your father’s plan for peace did open up an extraordinary opportunity. Tomorrow I’m sending a party of the royal regiment north under the pretense of peace talks, carrying with them a plague that can decimate a city within weeks. They have orders to hand it over to our spies inside Athalor, who will release it in shortly after. When the city is in chaos our agents will enter the keep, and steal the Stone of Athalor, rendering them at our mercy. With two Stones at our disposal we will have the power to destroy the Elder host, who will have left the protection of their walls to attack us.”
A stunned silence followed his words, but after a moment Cildrin was astonished to see many of the council members nodding in agreement. Couldn’t they see this was folly? The use of two Stones by one faction was forbidden. Nobody knew the consequences of drawing that much magical power at once, but it was certain they were catastrophic.
“You’re mad” he started, “the warnings are clear –”.
A triumphant sneer broke out on his uncles face, and stopped Cildrin’s words mid sentence.
“Warnings?” the king mocked. “And who gave us those warnings? Do you remember that, prince?”
Cildrin’s stomach dropped. He had walked straight into his uncle’s trap. He berated himself for losing his temper. The answer would condemn him, but what choice did he have?
“The Adhene.” he answered quietly.
“Adhene, exactly. With two Stones we are a threat to them. They fabricated these myths to scare us off. It’s propaganda, nothing more.”
Cildrin surveyed the room. The council members were nodding more confidently now, every one of them convinced by his uncle’s mad plan. Even Feraden was nodding, though his face was inscrutable. That was worst of all. His best friend, who had supported him all his life, was nodding to this plan which would destroy all their fathers had worked for, and surely doom the kingdom.
Slowly Cildrin stood up, and looked back at his uncle.
“I won’t let you do this.” He said quietly. “I will not let you destroy the peace.”
“You can’t stop me.” The king answered smoothly. A mad glint entered his eye, and his voice took on a preaching tone, as if speaking of a vision long foretold. “I will set us above the rest Cildrin. I will lay them at our feet. And after the dust has settled, after all our threats have been eliminated. After we stand victorious over the ashes of our enemies, then you can have your precious peace.” With that he dismissed them, and walked out.
* * *
Outside, Cildrin found Feraden waiting for him. They moved away from the main hall, and found a unoccupied room where they could talk without being overheard. They walked inside, and closed the door. Cildrin went over to the window.Earlier he had appreciated how fresh the air had smelled, how brightly the sun had shone. Now he felt empty, as if the events of the morning had left a hole in him which sucked all the joy from life. Just yesterday he had been happy, having finally defeated Feraden in a duel. Now it all seemed so stupid, so insignificant, compared to the doom that hung over their heads.
“You support him?” He asked quietly.
“I think your uncle’s a fool. He’s growing old. He wants his reign to be remembered as more than merely occupying the throne until you are ready to take it.”
Relief rolled over Cildrin, and scorn at not having seen Feraden's nodding for what it was, a ruse. Feraden had always been the more politically capable between them.
“If he goes through with his plans, there might not be a throne left to take.” Cildrin said somberly. With that the relief was gone. Feraden may have been lying, but the rest of the council supported his uncle in earnest.
“You think really means to do it then?” Feraden asked.
“He just revealed his intent to the entire council, if he backs down now he’ll lose face, and he’s far too proud for that.” Cildrin said bitterly.
They sat there in silence for a while. The atmosphere was unbearable. Cildrin wanted to run away and leave it all behind. He couldn’t though. His place was here, and no matter where he hid, he could never be happy knowing he had abandoned his duty.
“The problem is, it’s believable.” Feraden said, standing up from the chair he’d been occupying. “To the uneducated masses this will sound like a glorious plan, worth fighting for. Even the Council was easily swayed, and they’re supposed to be the wisest men in the land on these matters.”
“Well that’s what makes it so dangerous. People will hear what they want to hear, and they want to hear that Sithris can stand against anything, and emerge victorious.” Cildrin said, growing frustrated. He didn’t see how this was helping. He knew the problem, it was a solution they needed.
“Exactly. We can’t stop him by appealing to the people, they will stand behind him.”
“Most common people care little for the wars of their kings. They want to grow crops, harvest, and live in comfort as best they can. Peace is the easiest way to do that, but if they’re convinced their families and property are threatened by a foreign enemy, they will fight to defend it. My uncle is good at convincing people they are threatened.” He looked at Feraden, and crossed his arms. “I know the problem, but what can we do?” His frustration at their helplessness was starting to boil over. The whole kingdom was about to come crashing down, and here they sat. Feraden didn’t even look worried! Talking about how difficult their situation was was not going to get them out of it.
“So.” Feraden continued unabashed. “We cannot stop him by appealing to the masses. He has far more experience in dealing with them than we do. Also, we’re young, especially you. We’ll look like cowards, born and bred in peace, compared to the old and proven War Council that has led them for so many years.”
”The Council may hold the answer then . I believe there are still some who will listen to reason. Elfred is old enough to have seen what war did to this kingdom, and to appreciate the value of peace.” Cildrin said. It was a long shot, but it was definitely better than sitting here.
“That might have worked, but your temper has turned them against us. The council likes do debate, to talk about things, and to listen to each side in turn. Admirable, certainly, but it makes them vulnerable and easy to manipulate by the king. Your outburst today convinced them you are short tempered and stubborn. Unwilling to hear anything but your own opinion.”
Cildrin had heard enough. Feraden didn’t have the answer, he was just stating their problems! “This is ridiculous!” he cried angrily.
“You see?” Feraden broke in, throwing up his hands. “You need to control your temper. Hide your emotions, and defeat your enemies with reason and good sense. Shouting your view blindly will only serve to alienate the Council further. As it is, I’m afraid they won’t listen to you now.”
“What about you?” Cildrin forced his anger down. “You are good at this sort of thing. During the meeting you sat stone faced, and didn’t utter a word in anger. Maybe they’ll listen to you?”
“They also value experience, and I’m by far the most junior member. The youngest ever to serve on the Council. Many think I was only appointed because of our fathers’ friendship.”
“That’s not true and you know it.” Cildrin said. “You were appointed because you were the best man for the job.”
Feraden smiled. “Thank you, but I’m afraid it does little to help our case.”
It was an effort for Cildrin not to roll his eyes.
“We need to stop him, no matter the cost.”
“Do you mean that?” Feraden asked, fixing Cildrin with a stare. “The cost may very well be more than you can imagine.”
“I mean it.” He answered, somewhat taken aback. “You do have a plan then?”
“I do, but it’s not to be considered lightly, and holds many dangers, both to ourselves and the lives of others.” Feraden steadied himself, then took a deep breath.
Cildrin waited for him to continue, but before he could, footsteps sounded in the hallway. They froze, listening intently. Slowly the footsteps became louder until finally they stopped right outside their door. After a brief pause, the footsteps continued, fading into the distance as the guard turned a corner. They waited until he had passed beyond earshot, then looked up, breathing freely again.
“I’ll meet you in your room in an hour, we’ll discuss it there.” Feraden whispered. He opened the door and slipped out. Five minutes later Cildrin left, and made his way quickly to the tower which housed his chambers.
* * *
Half an hour later there was a knock on the door.
“Enter” Cildrin said.
“You're early.” He started, then noticed it was not Feraden standing in front of him.
“Expecting someone?” The king asked with a smile.
“It doesn’t matter.” Bryne started pacing the room, stopping at the bedpost. “I’ve come to apologize.” He said finally. Cildrin was lost for words, of all the things he’d expected his uncle to say, that was the last.
When he didn’t answer, his uncle looked away, and continued.
“I shouldn’t have told you like that, with the whole council present. The truth is though, I have reasons for doing this. Tomorrow I will explain them to you, and you will understand.”
“What reasons could you possibly have for war?” Cildrin asked. “What have the others done to us, that justifies the killing ofthousands?”
“I understand your reservations, but you don’t have all the facts.”
“Then explain them to me.”
“I will, in good time… all I ask is that before then, you do nothing rash.”
“Like what?” Cildrin asked defiantly. Fear clenched his hart. If Bryne knew what they were planning... His stomach churned, and it was an effort to keep his face composed.
“Like secretly trying to set up the council against me, behind my back. Or worse, appealing to the masses. Because you were right, I do have far more experience in dealing with them.” He smiled at Cildrin’s astonished expression. “This is my castle Cildrin, don’t think I don’t know what goes on around here.”
Cildrin kept his mouth shut. When his uncle didn’t go on, he felt he had to say something. “I’m sorry I lost my temper.”
“That’s quite understandable, though you friend Feraden was right. You’d make a far better point if you learned to keep your head cool. As you saw however, short tempers run in the family. Poor Elfred was the only one brave enough to put us down, else we’d still be there.”
Cildrin couldn’t help but smile.
“But really Cildrin, all will be explained tomorrow.”
“What did they do? Tell me now, so I don’t forget myself in front of the council again.”
His uncle hesitated. “They lied.” He said finally.
“About what?” Cildrin asked, exasperation tinging his voice.
“About everything. As I said before, tomorrow all will be explained. Now it’s time for sleep.”
“I’m hardly of an age where you need to put me to bed.”
“No I suppose not.” The king replied, the hint of a smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “Though I do remember when you were, so long ago. Life was simpler back then. More honest. Or at least it seemed to be.” He frowned, his gaze focusing on something outside the window, beyond the castle walls.
“Was it really so much better?” Cildrin asked. “What’s changed?”
“The enemy was clear, the kingdom united. Your father was strong, your mother_” He broke off, fixing his eyes on Cildrin again.
“My mother?” Cildrin encouraged, meeting his uncle’s stare.
“The world is a darker place without her Cildrin. I wish you could have met her. I wish I could see her again.” His voice wavered, and he looked away.
“I have business to attend to.” He said, making his way to the door. “Tomorrow we’ll talk.”
“Did you kill my father?” Cildrin blurted out. He didn’t know what possessed him to ask, but he wanted to know.
His uncle stopped midstride, and turned around slowly.
“Is that what you think?” He asked quietly, his voice thick with emotion.
Cildrin said nothing, absurdly ashamed for making such an abrupt end to what had been their first real conversation in years. He could feel the king’s eyes burning into him.
“And if I said I hadn’t, would it change your mind?” Bryne asked.
“No.” Cildrin admitted. He couldn’t bring himself to meet his uncle’s gaze.
“I thought not.” The king’s voice was as cold as ice. He turned on his heel and walked out, leaving Cildrin behind with a thousand questions. What lies did the king believe had been told? Why did the memory of Cildrin’s mother move his uncle to tears? And most importantly of all, had his uncle really killed his father. For years he had been completely convinced of the king’s guilt. Now though he wasn’t so sure. His uncle had seemed so sad, so disappointed Cildrin would think him guilty. He stood up, and walked over to the window. Outside, the sun was shining brightly, and had almost risen to its highest point.
The door opened behind him. This time it was Feraden who entered, looking excited.
“You have a plan then?” Cildrin asked quietly, after the door was closed.
“I do, but it’s only a last resort, after all other options have been exhausted.”
Cildrin gestured for him to speak more softly.
“We’re not at war yet. We have some time still, maybe something will present itself tomorrow.”
“Time?” Feraden asked surprised. “What time do you think we have? Your uncle dispatches riders to Athalor tomorrow, under the guise of peace talks. If that plague is unleashed Athalor will never forgive us.”
“My uncle was just here. He said tomorrow he would explain everything.”
Feraden looked skeptical. “What could possibly justify his actions that we don’t know about?”
“That’s what I asked.”
“What did he say?”
“That they lied.”
“The Athalorians. At least I think that was who he meant.” His uncle had never actually said. Before he could dwell on it, Feraden jumped up and ran to the door. Peering outside quickly, he quietly closed it again. Walking over to him, he lowered his voice to a bare whisper.
“Well we can’t afford to wait until tomorrow. If we act, we do so now.”
“What do you suggest?” Cildrin asked.
“First of all we need to get you away from here, out of the city.”
That was unexpected. “Why? What good can I do if I’m not here?”
“You don’t seriously think the king is going to fight this war, gain all this power, just so he can hand the throne over to you in the end? No, he wants it for himself, and he will do anything to keep it.”
This is my castle, don’t think I don’t know what goes on around here.
If his uncle was listening now, they were dead men.
“I’m the heir, the throne is mine by birthright.”
“Don’t be so naïve. He will kill you, Cildrin, just like he did your father. Maybe that’s why he came here. Maybe he just wants to make sure you to stay tonight. While you live you are a threat to him, and all the more so for opposing his plans.”
“You think I should leave then? You think I should save my own skin, and watch him destroy the kingdom while I live in exile?”
“Of course not. Things are not as hopeless as they seem. If we leave tonight, we can reach Athalor before your uncle’s men. We can warn them of the plague, and without that he will have to abandon his plans. Afterwards Athalor can force him to abdicate, under threat of war. The Elder races will back them up, they have to, after what Bryne did to the Adhene in Ortha. Then you can take the throne. Athalor will be grateful to you for warning them of the threat. War will be avoided, and you will be king. ”
Cildrin sat down.His uncle’s words echoed in his ears. Do nothing rash.What if Feraden was right though? What if his uncle was only trying to keep him here. He’d never shown Cildrin the kind of sympathy he’d expressed tonight before…And lies seemed a poor reason to make war on someone, no matter how severe. Cildrin stood again, and began pacing about the room. “We will need provisions, and a map. And someone who knows how to hunt and navigate the wild. It won't be easy, getting away from the city.”
“I know some people. Bryne killed their families, they’ll want revenge.” Feraden offered, relieved Cildrin was taking his advice.
“There is one other problem though.” He said tentatively.
“What?” Cildrin asked. He shouldn't have been surprised. There was always a problem, especially today.
“The Adhene your father captured, if we could free her our chances would be greatly improved. She could help us convince the Athalorians we’re not just spies hoping to deceive them. Without her it will be far more difficult to get them on our side.”
“How do you plan to get to her?” he asked. “She’s not even in the city yet.”
“No, and that’s our one stroke of luck in all this. If she were locked up in the castle, we’d never get her out. As it is she’s being escorted down the main road from Ortha, no more than half a day’s ride, and she’s lightly guarded.”
Now it was Cildrin’s turn to look skeptical. “What makes you say that?” he asked.
“Most of the scouts who captured her were killed in fight.” Feraden grinned. “I overhead Bryne telling one of the council members after we left that little room.”
And Bryne overheard us. The castle is full of ears. He glanced at the door, and lowered his voice even further.
“Alright then. If we leave tonight, we can reach her in the early hours of the morning, and be on the road to Athalor by midday tomorrow. With a little luck they won’t notice I’m missing before then.”
“I think we’ve deserved some luck. We do need to hurry though, I’ll meet you outside the city walls in two hours. Don’t bring too much, I’ll pack most of the provisions. If you’re seen carrying a tent, the guards will ask questions.”
Cildrin laughed at that. The idea of him leaving the castle carrying a huge pack and waving goodbye was too absurd. A thought struck him then. A memory from childhood, yet it could make all the difference here.
“We can avoid the guards all together.” Feraden looked surprised, so he continued. “ We can take the boat under the city."
When they were young, Feraden and he had spent considerable time getting out of their duties, and hiding from the castle guard as their father’s searched for them. After one particularly boring lesson from their old tutor, they had slipped away from him as he cleaned up a fallen inkpot. It had been the second time they’d escaped that day, and Cildrin’s father had grown so angry, they had decided to hide down in the cellar. Somewhere they normally never went because it was said to be haunted by ghosts. In reality though, all that haunted the place were hundreds of barrels of wine and beer, covered in cobwebs. They had made their way along the ancient stones until they reached a dead end. Scared of turning back, and facing the pursuing guards, they had tried to squeeze behind one of the barrels. They’d pushed so hard they had accidently knocked it over. By some twist of fate it had rolled sideways into one of the hundreds of ropes securing the racks of barrels. To their astonishment the wall in front of them had moved slightly inward, revealing a space where the barrel had stood before. Behind it they found a small tunnel, just high enough for one man if he stooped, or a child if he stood. They had squeezed through, and ended up in a dark cave. Inside had been a boat, old but still floating. The cave opened up onto the river, which flowed along the back of the castle, and all along the city. From outside though it was impossible to see, and they had kept the cave a secret ever since.
They had supposed the cave had been built long ago as a secret way of escaping in times of siege. Under cover of darkness a person could easily row out onto the river without anyone seeing them from the castle walls. During the daytime however, the guards on the castle ramparts would have a clear view of the rock, and would spot the boat appearing seemingly out of thin air in an instant.
“I had hoped to use that way at first, but if we are to rescue the Adhene, we cannot afford to wait until nightfall. I’m afraid the only way is through the front gate, right past the guards. There’s a feast tonight in the Great Hall though, there should be plenty of servants bustling about. I should think that if you dress as one of them, with a large cloak to hide your face, you would be able to get through without a problem.”
“What if the guards stop me, and ask me to take off my cloak. They would almost certainly recognize me.” Cildrin was unsure of this plan. Most of the guards knew him by sight, and would not hesitate to tell the king if they saw him leaving under suspicious circumstances.
“There will be many people using the gates, they can’t stop everyone. You’ll be just another servant passing by. The guards have no reason to be suspicious of you.” He paused, then said “There are risks wherever we go, I believe this path is the lesser evil.”
Cildrin hesitated. He saw the sense in what Feraden was saying, but nonetheless the risks seemed awfully high.
You’re fleeing your kingdom, he thought, of course the risks are high, else you wouldn’t be running away.
He had no choice, it was this or nothing.
“I’ll bring what I can then.” He said finally.
Feraden looked pleased. “Good luck” He said, then he turned around, and walked out of the room.
Cildrin sat down on the bed, and held his head in his hands. How had this happened? That he was fleeing his own castle to avert a war. It was madness, but maybe that was what made it so real. He had often heard that reality was almost always more complicated and more tragic than the stories, but he had never really understood what it meant to be in such a situation. One step at a time, he told himself. And don't look at the desperateness of it all. If they could reach Athalor, everything might yet be saved, and if not... That would be a problem for another day.
One step at a time.
He looked up, and saw the sun had passed its apex. Midday had come and gone, around this time tomorrow they would realize he was missing. The realization was strangely calming.
The pieces were in place, the decisions had been made. They were fleeing the city.
Tomorrow, Cildrin would be seen as a traitor to his own kingdom.