A tale of a noble knight who wields a brand of love deemed unfit and unclean for one so pure. Amidst the training of his squire, the harassment of a rival, a forced marriage to an innocent maiden and a mystical investigation of dark omens; he pursues the love of one who would rather silence him of all that he has seen, with a single arrow to his throat.
CHAPTER I: THE THEFT OF A SMIRK
"When secrecy and serenity bring a throne upon ancient Gyersheld's ruins to great remiss, the forsaken powers of long ago shall return the land to its former glory. In doing so, the crown will be a puppet no longer, and the sacred traditions that bind us to complacency will shatter."
-- excerpt from the holy scripture Hyiier,
First Book of Prophecies,
Verses IV through V
It was the day of rest that came on every seventh day, and a glorious one at that. Rest was valued greatly in a world that captured the light of two suns. The primary sun, Hyii, shone brilliantly from the scarcely clouded sky as the wild red giant passed behind it capriciously, giving the world a subtle, reddish glow that was barely noticeable amidst the noonlight of Hyii.
Moments such as these were magical. For in the contrast between the white full spectrum light of Hyii and the red low spectrum light of Dei, Hyii seemed more green than yellow in juxtaposition with its unworshiped sibling.
Nobody believes the scholars that claim it to be nothing more than an illusion. To most within the land, their holy sun has changed its colour for one sacred moment. The meaning of this is open to interpretation and debate. For the rogue sun, Dei, is a symbol of trickery, luck and risk. Many a historic battle was waged purposefully during such a sacred moment, and many a vile scheme was perpetrated after a dusk that sees fall a green sun.
Combat and clandestine politics had decided the fate of the land in these parts almost from the very beginning. When tools were first crafted, so too were weapons. When speech was first exchanged, so too were lies. And when the holy scriptures of Hyiier were first etched into stone, to be timelessly preserved, it was written by the chisels of men and not the quillstrokes of the Goddess. Humanity bears a fruitful dark underside even in the holiest of lands. Even the Goddess is capable of mistakes! Time has let her creations prove that again and again. And yet, even mistakes are capable of redemption...
* * *
The Royal Palace of Gyer lay upon the mountains, its foundations entrenched deep within the ruins of Old Gyersheld. It clung steadfast to the empty glory of a civilization now long faded from every facet of the surrounding territory.
Tapestries lined the inner walls of the Royal Court within. They portrayed a glamorous resettlement of the forsaken land. Fields that had once been plagued and salted by the thaumaturgy of terrible wars beyond modern reckoning, were now bearing a cornicopia of prosperity. Though exaggerated greatly, the story upon the walls remained true at its core. It was as if the land had been cleansed of impurity, and made new by time.
And then there were the more unbelievable tales, that also made their way onto the walls of the Royal Court. Their shining threads displayed seas and lakes so full of fish that no line was needed to catch them. And in the corner, there was a black tapestry portraying an old abandoned mine now laced with fresh veins of minerals and metals. And to either side of the throne, silver lines upon cloths of green portrayed the glorious first hunt in a forest unbelievably teeming with life.
To some, it was pompous myth. To others, such as the most conservative and traditional of the Noble Houses, it was art reflecting history, as they could turn the tapestries onto their backsides, where family ties were charted and threaded with intricacy and detail that told of centuries before the resettlement. These were Nobles who claimed to trace their lineage back to historical figures depicted in the Hyiier's accounts of the fall of Old Gyersheld as Holy Land. Again, something likely inaccurate to flaunt in sheer vanity.
I wish it were so that his late father could honour me this, for the boy can hardly hold the royal blade.
And on this day of rest, the closest the politics of New Gyersheld came to rest was for the halls to be ever so slightly less crowded, and for the royal court to attend to minor affairs.
The Luck of Dei will be on my side if the Crown Prince can manage to fulfill his duties without cleaving it into my neck.
A well-polished blade of ornate silver and golden jewel-encrusted hilt clinked against the swordsman's left shoulder. The sword was longer than the boy was tall. He stood at the hilt with thin, trembling arms clenched around the hilt. He was focused intently upon gathering the strength to raise the sword again, over the warrior's head and onto his right shoulder.
I dare not look up, I dare not look up, I dare not look up.
The golden circlet hung lopsidedly in the wavy black hair of the Crown Prince. And just like the kneeling man to be honoured at his feet, the Crown Prince dared not look up. He dared not see the scowls, grimaces and stares of the Lords of Gyer as he trembled, unable to lift the sword a second time.
His mother, Her Majesticality the Queen, hovered above him in an elegant black dress. She did so as both a wise and willowy parent and as an incompetent regent who knew nearly nothing of politics. And regardless of whether she felt scorned to be excluded from the awkward act due to her womanhood, it did not show upon her face. There were tears in her eyes, yes, yet they did not show. Very little made it through the translucent black veil through which she saw the world. Very little mattered, apart from her grief.
The only sound that could be heard was the steady shaking of the gaudy five-foot greatsword against the iron epaulet of the swordsman.
Time seems to stand still in all places except my mind, he thought. Only moments later, he felt his legs begin to cramp from kneeling tensely for so long.
A nobleman sneezed, springtime pollen in the air.
The swordsman lowered his head further still. And then as if struck by a seizure for but an instant, he thrust one shoulder up on an angle and immediately lowered it. A split-second later, the lengthy blade had passed onto his right shoulder.
The Crown Prince frowned, and then opened his young mouth as if to speak, but no sound came out.
A soft hand brushed across the nape of his neck to rest upon his shoulder.
With his mother's encouragement, he began to speak, "As Crown Prince of New Gyersheld, I knight thee..."
All eyes upon him, it seemed as if the young lad had forgotten the swordsman's name.
"...By the green light of Hyii and in the red haze of Dei, Sir Nolfavrael d'Inestheign, son of Wilfavrael the Second, heir apparent of House Inestheign."
By the Godess, thou hast either cursed or blessed my knighthood. I know not which! thought the swordsman, as his head rose and sharp edge of the blade shone inward to his neck. His eyes stared up in surprise at the Prince's audacity.
"Mother," he whispered, "help me."
She hung over him like a shadow cast from the light of the inscribed silver of the ornate bastard sword. Then, her hands rose above his, as if in a dance. Her hands met and clasped themselves firmly on something that was not there, in perfect imitation of what a smaller set of hands did below her.
This is no mere symbolic dance of regent and her charge, I sense magic in our midst! Nolfavrael realized as he gulped.
The arms of the Her Majesticality and the arms of the young heir rose in unison, as if they were puppets bound to one another. And so rose the sword, steady and safely, to touch the head of Nolfavrael. Beneath the tip of the sword, hairs grew in chestnut hues into tight, curly spirals that twisted down in ringlets.
Free me of servitude to that bastard, Sir Richten, and let me be on my way, Young Majesty.
"You are now a vassal of this court and of your house. And as a knight of New Gyersheld, I free you of the servitude of your training, as the trained becomes the trainer. Thus, I grant you a squire. Come forth, Fen of House Leignmark."
Leignmark is a merchant House! What value have they in placing a boy on a path to knighthood, and why was I not forewarned?
An adolescent, no more than fifteen or sixteen years of age, came to kneel at the right side of Sir Nolfavrael. He was the youngest in the room, scribes included, and bore some of the straightest and blondest hair ever seen in New Gyersheld. It was as if his head itself bore the foreign crest of House Leignmark, a golden curtain that fell from the crown to the neck.
As the Queen moved one foot forward and then the next, to climb down one step, so too did the Crown Prince, in unison. And her arms above his moved the sword to rest upon the head of the teenage boy.
The Crown Prince creased his brow, where now more than a drop of sweat lay, and struggled not to let a whimper escape his mouth. Fen did not notice, for his head was down. However, the wincing pain of the Queen's magic did not go unnoticed by Nolfavrael d'Inestheign.
"I now pledge the Squire's oath," Fen spoke in a baritone that was strong enough that his downcast head did his words no wrong. "To yearn for improvement, to learn from experience what no academy can teach, to polish and whet in loyal servitude, that I may one day serve the Royal Court of Gyer Castle more directly, with more wisdom and might than otherwise."
"Very well," said the young Prince, a delirious tone in his voice, "there is no need to recite it all."
Though the words came from the Prince's mouth, the Queen's mouth was moving in tandem.
And at that moment, many things happened. The young prince collapsed where he stood. The ceremonial sword fell to the stone steps in a clamour and clatter of rattling metal as Fen leaped out from under it, escaping but for a thin strand of blond hair that fell with the blade. Meanwhile, there were gasps and screams from the nobles in attendance.
The Queen managed to pull her weary son upright, and then passed him off to an aide who promptly put a wet cloth to the boy's forehead.
Within a brief second, the Queen ducked behind the aide as an arrow passed just above her. All too quickly, a second arrow pierced the aide. The Queen sought cover as the servant fell to the stone floor with an arrow protruding from her ribcage. Blood quickly stained the pale yellow cloth that the aide wore.
Sir Nolfavrael swerved around and looked up along the path the arrow had traversed, to catch the first sight of the archer who stood shamelessly upon the rafters of the room. The archer's face struck him harder than any arrow could. The angles of his jawline, the confident smirk, the eyes that never seemed to blink amid action...
* * *
This is indeed the same man, I do very much recall. For the festival of Winter Solstice, just last season, there were many visiting faces in these parts, and I then had no reason to suspect him of the crime perpetrated that night.
I looked down from one of the balconies in the Tavern of Swords to see him leaning over the bar's edge and exchanging a letter with the barmaid. The festive occasion must have put a stop to the closed and grieving nature that my heart had then.
Vaun had been dead for two years, I later told myself. I didn't regret moving on; not then, nor even now.
I watched him converse with the barmaid.
I was busy examining the muscles of his bare arms while she was busy examining the script upon the note. Every curve. Every scratch. Every taut line.
Seconds later, she handed him a glass vial of a viscous purple fluid. And he slipped it into his pocket. There was no payment to be seen. This was no drink. I am certain that it was a poison worse than all others ingested that evening.
In memory, I replayed every part of that night, both for answers and for my own pleasure. And never, until now, did that moment seem suspicious.
The face that turned away from her, still smiling, was far greater than any pair of sculpted arms I had ever laid eyes upon. It was a face that I could not take my eyes off, and yet could never quite see. As if always overstimulated, I spent many minutes just watching him until my mind slowed and my heart calmed enough that I could look at it and truly take in a face rather than something too complex and multifaceted to commit to awareness, let alone memory.
Wordlessly, I left my chalice of red wine two-thirds full upon Sir Richten's table, and descended from the balcony.
"I am no mercenary," he said with an amazing voice. Velvet, with a lode magnetism. I suppose I did not realize, then, that those words were directed at me. "If that is what you seek, a hired marksman, then return to your master and waste not words with me." I wondered what corner of Gyersheld had cultivated such a finely smooth enunciation of our language.
His voice drew me closer, far more alluring in nature than the pipers in the corner and the steady beating of the drum to which many danced. Before I could say anything, I found myself on the barstool beside him.
"Has Sir Richten sent you for yet another pitcher?" asked the barmaid. "Tell him that a squire is no errand boy, and tell him I say so unafraid to poison his Hyiishine blend."
In retrospect, that threat, whether serious or not, is a clue that should have registered on me months ago.
I shook my head, "No, Margot. I am here merely to ease my mind. Please, leave me be."
The barmaid walked off to contend with other customers on the other side of the bar's circular hub.
"Is it the silence of an empty bar side what will ease your mind, or did you come to make talk with a stranger?" the man in question asked me.
"The latter, if you will indulge."
"A treasure hunter and archer by trade, and I dabble in magic as best I can. Everything is an asset in the torchlit darkness of catacombs and ruins. Even love. And tell me, squire of... Inestheign, is it?"
I nodded, proud and surprised that he had identified the wine-stained crest emblazoned on my broad chest.
"What has servitude to knighthood brought you? To what do you aspire?"
I had to replay in my head what he had said again, before I could grasp the meaning and not simply the minor archaic rhythm and smooth, consonant tonality. I could feel a rush of power within me, like that which comes only in the livelihood of battle, except it was calm and slow like dripping wax around a flame.
"Am I the only young man in Gyersheld's empty shell that has any aspirations?" he asked me.
"Pardon my pensive nature, your question caught me off guard. If you must know, lest I forfeit my role as heir of my house, I have bound myself to rise ranks to Commander and then General upon my knighthood, though I care not enough for the Goddess and the magic of her devout to claim the title of Paladin or Templar."
"I care neither, for the Goddess is not what they worship and follow. Rather, they indulge the fancy of what they wish she were, to set their own values and agendas. I believe she was worshipped quite differently before we wrote our Hyiier. And what I've found in my travels assures me of this."
I have been a secular man ever since maturity struck me, but his religious views were so blasphemous that I had to frown. However, I am not sure whether I frowned out of surprise, distaste or something else that had awoken inside me. "If I may be so bold as to ask... who would pay good money for such research and treasure?"
"Well, fine swordsman, some of the very people to whom your master is a vassal. Those seeking insight, those seeking things that have been lost. There is great value hidden within the cavernous veins of these lands. However, there are some secrets best kept to one's own self," he admonished. And in that last phrase, his tone carried layers of meaning that winked at me from his left eye.
At first, I did not know what to say to it. The meaning I took from it was so private and so subtle that I was caught off guard. So I changed the subject, "The summoning is about to begin. Would you care to test your mettle against mine? Whomever slays the most wins a glass of ambrosia."
"They paid me to obtain that ambrosia. It's hardly a prize when I've had the other two thirds of what I found to fill my flask."
I snickered, "Don't think a fanciful lie will work as a bluff!"
"Hmmm... perhaps stealing the smirk from your face will be prize enough for me."
* * *
This cloaked figure was a man Sir Nolfavrael had seen only upon that winter night, months prior. However, he had also seen the man many times since, for dreams are another world entirely. In his dreams, the mysterious rogue man was but a shadow that had eclipsed the grieving winds of his past. That shadow became a man he knew he would meet.
Nolfavrael had encountered the archer on the cold evening when the king was shot to death by a single arrow. Or rather, an arrow wound that bore no arrow and no exit wounds. Never had he suspected the man until seeing him again, upon the court rafters. Furthermore, the man exuded charisma and a righteous morality that were both unmatched among all the men and women Sir Nolfavrael had ever met. And though they had spoken only briefly and he had not even a name, Sir Nolfavrael had found himself deeply attracted to the man.
He knew the way his own mind worked. And he knew it was in direct violation of the Knight Codex that applies to paladin, knight and squire alike. The brand of love that Sir Nolfavrael was subject to was tantamount to treason.
Now turned 'round, all eyes watched the archer escape through a loose panel of wood in the ceiling. And none but Nolfavrael, alone in the centre of the open court, saw the shooter's face.
Sir Richten was on his feet, "Nolf, boy, did you catch a glimpse of the attacker?"
Yes, "No," he lied. "Address me without formality again, and I will take offense."
"No need to be pretentious after a promotion, Nolf m'boy!" he said, punching a gauntlet against Nolfavrael's epaulet.
"I am not your boy anymore," Nolfavrael seethed, ignorant of the fact that Fen was now at his side. "Though you were a great teacher, I pray to the Goddess that my squire is not as bad a student as you are a person."
At that, Fen leaned in and spat upon the gleaming iron toe of Sir Richten's boot.
"I give you thirty days, you milksop!" boomed Sir Richten to Fen after a quick glance at his feet.
"Lesson one," began Sir Nolfavrael, "to spit upon the ceremonial armour of another is to challenge them to a duel."
Sir Richten exited by one hall, running, and so they took the other.
Nolfavrael admonished his squire, "You've just set yourself up to lose a small piece of your Leignmark wealth, lad."
Fen looked to his side, as he ran, smiling against full eye contact from his new master.
"He may very well kill you by accident, unless you take every opportunity to train between now and then."
Fen laughed, as if he was not taking a single word seriously.
"Don't be so smug, Fen," Nolfavrael intoned. "I was his squire just days ago, and I was not his first. He is very experienced, and taught me well. Even if I point out his flaws in technique, which I know better than anyone else, I see no chance of victory for you. And even if I wanted to, I am unable to fight in your place, as he was my master once. Come now! Are you listening to anything I'm saying?"
"Listen and silent are spelled with the same letters," Fen answered. "You assume many things, Master Nolf."
"Nobody but my mother calls me Nolf."
"That's about to change," said Fen. "I'm not some pampered, ignorant noble pup. I knew precisely what I was doing when I spat on his boot."
"This is a very foolish way to earn my respect," replied Nolfavrael, as they ran around a corner to leave their corridor for a fleet of wide stairs. "Let alone keep it."
"I read you well enough. The subtleties of your movements made it clear that you detest the man. And this archer that they think we'll find if they have knights running up each stairwell... why did your gaudy and ostentatious codpiece shift at the sight of him?"
Sir Nolfavrael just kept running, maintaining an expressionless face, which inevitably blanched, as he tried to keep pace with his squire who wore far less heavy armour.
"I suppose for a similar reason as to why I might have been staring at your codpiece," added Fen.
"You assume many things, Fen of Leignmark, about me and about yourself."
"Yes," agreed the squire. "Though unlike you, my assumptions are correct. Even if it was just light from the chandelier reflecting off the diamond that tipped me off."
"I'm sorry if my ornate piece of perverse tradition temporarily blinded you, lad. An heirloom, nothing more. I'm not a fan of pomp and ceremony, nor the idiocy of making the Crown Prince do what would better be done with the assistance of his young uncle."
"'Tis a shame no woman born is to touch the hilt or even be the mouthpiece of its use," Fen commented.
"Guh!" He very well could be referring to something else entirely. Cheeky bastard.
Then, eyes caught eyes and the stolen smirk was there below them.
* * *
The gargoyles leaped around the arena with froglike agility, their winged bodies gliding with each jump. Impish feet sprang away with eager evasion. And when they flared their fiery breath upon the field of battle, it left slippery, wet icy patches where there had once been snow.
Torches, too, lit the arena sparsely, yet reflected off sparkling snowdrifts, patches of ice and polished granite walls and platforms upon which the event was focused. All around us, snowflakes flurried about in seemingly every direction other than down. The wind was merciless.
Amidst the chaos, those seeking to drink from the golden chalice were arrayed like scattered jacks upon the arena floor. And surrounding the battlefield, in each corner, was an adept summoning wizard from the Gyer Academy. Each one had at least a dozen gargoyles under their control at once. They made sure, for the entire event, that none flew too close to the people in the stands, and that none fought any competitor to the death.
What was more peculiar was that every gargoyle looked alike in make and style, no matter who had summoned them. The only way to tell them apart was their proximity, and their choice of facial expression with which to taunt the contestants.
My knowledge of magic questioned this. No two summoners had the same mind. I still wonder, when I think of this night, how they got the gargoyles to look so similar. Perhaps it was a manner of training. Or collaboration. Or maybe, just maybe, they were sculpted...
I could not allow my imagination to distract me!
I let my winter cloak get cut nearly to shreds that night, as I chose to wear it into battle over my most agile set of armour. It was a matter of provocation and timing for me, with no ranged weaponry or magic at my disposal.
There were nine of us. Then eight. And the gargoyles... there were always too many. They liked to come at me from the air just behind me and latch onto my back, digging their claws into the fabric of my cloak, trying to tear through and find weak points in my iron armour.
There was one with enough energy to breath fire at me, while still holding on. I panicked as my cloak caught fire, and then I body slammed the gargoyle against the nearest sharp chunk of ice that I could find. Suddenly made brittle by the piercing of its chest, it cracked into pieces, into pebbles and then into dust that blew away with the chill wind like gray snow.
I remember turning once to check the scoreboards held up high at the top of the stands. I was in third place, identified only as 'Inestheign'. For all anyone knew, I could very well be a mere soldier from our house guard. I promised my father I would not risk putting us to shame.
The name in first place was even more uninformative: 'Vagrant Archer'.
I slew two more, as fast as I could, before I could taste the dust of fallen gargoyles in my mouth. It wasn't gritty, but it was salty and laced with chalky tasting minerals. I spat it out, but the flavour never left.
The next one, I stabbed in the left breast as an arrow pierced the right. The gargoyle wheezed a scream of pain and coughed soot at me. Clenching my eyes closed, I twisted the blade in the wound, pulling it downward.
I let one arm off my blade to wipe my face clean of the soot and sweat that seemed so out of place on a winter's night. And that's when an arrow pierced the top of my helmet, inches from my skull. Then, it erupted in a blast of frozen magic that stuck the sweat solid to my face and made my whole head feel frozen. My second to last act in the arena that night was to push my helmet off.
It was part of the game. He was allowed to do what he did, so long as I lived. My last sight in the arena that night was to see him bear a smirk that had once been on my own face.
I wanted it back. And I still do.
They say he stopped killing at that point, so that he and I were tied and the Priestess of Hyii who had once been in second place when last I looked at the rankings, won the first event of the night.
I missed the rest of the Winter Solstice Festival, and woke up the next day, in the palace's infirmary, to learn of the king's assassination. The wound was an arrow either from an archer or a crossbow, but it seemed neither to have gone cleanly through his body nor to have been pulled out according to the physicians at hand. And this made no sense, because there was no arrow in the wound at all. Not one fiber. One full shot of nothingness to the heart.
* * *
He was there, at the head of the stairs, waiting for an audience. Beneath a hooded cloak, quiver on his back, he waited until Sir Nolfavrael and his new squire were mere meters from him before he bolted.
His long, graceful legs took him further and faster with each step, his body not burdened by the weight of hefty metal armour.
A few turn-arounds later, all that was left was a long hall ending in a broken window. A planned exit.
Fen reached into a pocket beside his scabbard as he ran, and withdrew a handful of darts. He was far ahead of his master now, wearing a stylized studded leather cuirass that made seldom use of plated metal in its design.
The metal darts tore straight through the archer's cloak as they chased him down the hall, but he neither flinched nor cried out. Not even a single dart fell to the floor.
Bow in one hand, arrow in the other, he notched it just before jumping. However, it was not an arrow he had taken from his quiver, but one from inside his cloak. And as he shot it nearly straight up into the air, the arrow was followed by a trail of thin rope.
Outside, the arrow arched over and around a statue on the upper wall of the castle. As if it were much thicker, the archer managed to pull himself upward on the rope. In seconds, he had regained the height lost to his jump. He was high out of reach much sooner than Fen Leignmark made it to the window's edge to look up at the pristine outer wall of the Royal Palace of Gyer.
"By Hyii, damn that cunning git!" cursed Fen.
"By the time we get upstairs, he will have fled," breathed Sir Nolfavrael. "Let us report back to the court and crown."