Chapter One - Tyer

In a northern region of Astonia, once known as the kingdom of Sul-Phor, the village of Glyciarune sat steady in a cold night wind. A single, hooded rogue opened the door to a thatched inn. His mask of yarn glowed as he entered the fire lit room, and he surveyed the gathering before him.

There were thirty six men, he quickly counted; talking, laughing and jeering. Only a few had noticed his entrance, but even those quickly lost interest and returned to their companions. Their clothes were ragged, the stranger thought, yet their spirits were high. The barkeep, as fat and jovial as tradition would permit, returned from a round among his patrons and paused when he noticed this new visitor. He dimly remembered the man, but could not place when they last met. As the stranger removed his hood and unwound his mask, a flood of recognition drowned the keeper, and he hurriedly wiped his hands on his apron while he hobbled over to his guest.

“You came on a good night,” the barkeeper whispered. “This is only about half of the village, but as you can see, there’s not much more that can fit in here!”

“Thank you, keeper,” said the man, who then placed a heavy purse in the keeper’s hands. “Please make the announcement and we shall begin.”

“Right you are, my lord” said the keeper, who then hobbled back behind his bar. “My dear patrons,” he boomed, raising his arms. “We have a guest of great importance here with us tonight, and he wishes to share with us a few words. If you will be so kind as to give him your full attention, you will be rewarded with as much free beer as your bellies might take!”

Surprised by this sudden generosity, the men in the tavern hushed and turned to face the mysterious figure, opening their minds and ears in curious reception. The tall man, in his turn, again looked over the room. He could not recognise any servants in his midst, so he could speak freely, he thought, about what troubled him so.

He was a handsome man, thought the crowd, possibly in his thirtieth year of life. His wide brown eyes shimmered, and his long black hair was fixed in a tail; a mark of aristocracy, perhaps, though he bore no coat of arms. Only a sabre by his side gave intention to his musings.

He walked into the centre of the room and lowered his head, drawing and exhaling a deep breath of the musty tavern air. The fire in his eyes spoke many words before his mouth could form but one.

“My righteous fellowmen,” he began. “My name is Glycius. I am of the same blood as our kingly ancestors, but I am yet to be as recognized.” He paused for a few moments to let the words settle in his fellowmen’s minds. “The thrones of these lands were taken away from my great grandfather only sixty years past, but now that times grow bleak, we must reunite our people to ensure our survival.

“Since our marriage to the new kingdom, we have been bled dry and left to rot under our own sun while an imposter of a king makes you bow in his presence. A nation, once so rich, diverse and full of life has become so downtrodden and disrespected. We are told that we are members of this faction of our own free will, but by what will do we wish to be treated like animals?”

A murmur filled the room as men turned to their companions and considered Glysius’ words. An interest was sparked in their minds, as they drained their glasses and refilled their pitchers to settle down to the tales of this new dignitary.

“Every man here, think back to what you have received for sending your strongest sons into war, to die against an unknown enemy for an unknown cause. Think back to your daughters, taken as servants and maids for the ruling classes, with pittance for pay and their spirits worn away as reward. We have been left with the old and the weak, and yet even then whatever we can still offer, and more so, is taken.

“Sul-Phor, was once a great kingdom in its own right, but from the first day our grandfathers pledged allegiance to Astonia we were imprisoned, and have been made slaves ever since.” Glycius now paused to re-gather his thoughts.

“They have given us knowledge,” said one man, over the crackling fire. “They have trained us in the ways of war, and have built great monuments and temples in our name!” His fellowmen murmured their agreement to each other.

The prince, frustrated beyond years, was calm and collected in his response. “They have trained our people only to serve themselves, my dear countrymen. We did not know war until we allied with them, and now have known nothing but since. We were a peaceful nation with little need for knowledge of swords and shields, but they have brought the blade to Sul-Phor, and we have eaten it along with every other lie they have told.”

A hum filled the tavern, which was hushed by Glycius’ raised hands. “They do not wish to advance the culture of Sul-Phor, but instead intend to destroy it with monuments and temples of their own Gods. They did not even use their own stone, or men, to make them, and have worked our people to build their fallacies.”

Again, the men murmured, and again, the men drained their tankards and refilled their pitchers. Glycius could see that he was slowly gaining his audience; sober or otherwise. He had hoped their fickle minds would not take much to align to his ideals, and his masterful plan may yet take shape.

“The false King of Astonia gives us nothing of value, but still, he claims everything we own. Most importantly of all, he takes our freedom. He gives us empty answers, and unrighteous spittle. Every good man of Sul-Phor works not for the furthering of his own family, or belly, but for the furthering of Dunos’. He gives no care for us, and so why must we care for his lies?”

A good portion of the crowd cheered him on. Many others will were still not satisfied with his reasoning; they were as yet unsure of just how their freedom was really being affected, and in fact, were wondering if they could care any less. They could still do what they chose, they thought, but this be leagued prince was telling them differently.

“As his father before him, he has promised us much, but has delivered us so little. He claims to tax us to further our name, and to fund the expansion of our lands, yet only his name is known. Even his own city of Tyer is welcome to poverty, where the people starve and he himself eats well!”

The stranger was starting to make sense, thought the crowd, and gradually, larger cheers enveloped the room. If the king’s own people were starving, they thought, what lies must he be telling them when his own feast arrives?

“There is no honour in this king,” said Glycius, “and when he does not even treat his own people well, what hope have we?”

A louder cheer enveloped the speaker, and the noise in the tavern was now reaching a feverish pitch. Men were pounding their empty tankards onto the thick wooden tables, while either cursing Astonia, or its king, Dunos. People were indeed angry with the king, just as Glycius had said, and over the hum, with raised voice Glycius delivered his fatal lines.

“My people, we cannot stand for this atrocity against ourselves any longer. I am building a rebellion to free us of these shackles! Our former greatness must be restored, so that Sul-Phor may rise again as the kingdom it once was. Any man who wishes to put food back on his table stand with me now. Any man, tired of being treated as a slave, may join me and gain his self-respect, and the respect of his brothers. Every man born under our sun, declare your love for your homeland here. Any man here who wishes to join me in our crusade against this tyranny, stand up and cheer with me now!”

The drunken tavern erupted. Men cheered and men clapped. Men raised their glasses in recognition of their prince’s fine words, drinking to the future of Sul-Phor, and the demise of Astonia. They had been waiting, without consciously knowing, for a man such as this to give them a first-rate dream to conquer. The seeds had been planted, thought Glycius, and soon he would reap the rewards of his effort.

Throughout the speech, another visitor to the inn sat deep in thought. During the commotion, she slipped away unnoticed into the night, and as her horse raced away southwards, she knew that this was what her prince feared the most…there was much to report.

Tyer, the capital in the Seat of Astonia, was the city in which all trade routes prospered. In this great city, four hundred thousand people shared an equally great identity, and on the contrary to what certain makers of trouble might have us believe, a lifestyle much to the envy of its neighbours. Its intricate architecture and advanced infrastructure made it the city of gold for any rival warlord in plotting to capture.

Prince Aram, the first of his name, walked over to the balcony in his lavishly decorated bedroom. His golden robes flowed elegantly through the cool morning air. It was springtime, and the birds had begun their annual ascent north to make their new homes in the kingdom he loved so dearly – his future Kingdom. As he looked out into Tyer, he felt his concerns tug at his consciousness. For a fleeting second, he wondered if he was capable of leading a nation so proud and devout of past, yet so increasingly lifeless on his every venture into the city.

“Is this how my father expected it to be?” he wistfully asked the air, as if it would absolve his unease.

“Expected what, Aram?” said Rae, standing attentively behind him. He had grown used to the young prince’s fervent philosophical adventures, but his elusiveness still sometimes stumped even the wisest of mentors.

“The Kingdom,” said Aram, glancing at Rae then looking back towards the city. “I look out into this world and I see the sun etching its way into the heavens. I see the trees dancing to music only they can hear. The sea, far away, glistens like it has a horde of treasures hiding just beneath its surface, but…” he paused, and the light in his eye faded.

“But what?” said Rae, noting Aram’s concern, but remaining expressionless.

Aram began pacing. He walked from one end of his gallery to the other, pausing to look out again to the city. “But the people!” he said, shaking the air. “They ache of apathy! I sense that they do not feel we are a part of them, and that they are wholesomely a part of us. They look upon this palace with distaste…and what is worse, they look upon those inside the palace with disgust!” He then turned to face Rae, sadness welling.

“Aram, why do you say such things?” said Rae, as his bushy eyebrows burrowed into each other.

“I do not know…” said Aram, looking thoughtfully away, “…there is something about the look in their faces when I am among them. There is no love there – not like what I hear of in the stories of Admon. There is a distance which reaches further than the arms length away in which we stand.”

“I think you worry too much, Aram,” said Rae after a brief pause. “The people live like they always have –stories are always exaggerated with time, so perhaps you are looking to find something wrong in something simply misunderstood…?”

“I do not misunderstand anything, Rae,” said Aram, calmly. “I think their aloofness is well deserved, considering father’s recent treatment of them.”

Rae squinted; Aram obviously had more to say of the topic than he first hinted to, he thought. “Go on, then, tell me what the naughty king has been doing now.”

Aram chuckled, and a small curl edged his lips, but he soon returned to his previous solemnity as he continued: “As much as I cannot bear to think it, I feel that father has stopped listening to, or even caring about the people. Hisae tells me that the north is beginning to splinter. There are claims that people there want independence from Astonia, and others are saying we do not heed their calls for protection…from what, I would like to know. The east is apparently under a more serious threat from Nebhutan, which I hear is building a great presence near our borders, in the mountains that divide us. Still, my father does nothing – he only spends all of his time with his fat lords drinking wine and eating spit roast.

“We have been a kingdom for only two hundred and fifty years, and already it is falling apart!”

“Ah, my dear Hisae…he tells you more than he should,” said Rae. “I have faith that the King knows what is of concern to his Kingdom. If he feels there is nothing to worry about, then I am sure that we are safe.”

Aram began pacing as he lamented. Finally he paused and turned back to the Royal Affairs Advisor.

“I suppose I see your point, Rae,” said Aram. “My mind is just uneasy, and I have trouble deciphering why…something just does not seem right with the world. I will let it go for now, I think, and perhaps just put it down to the late winter blue!”

Rae smiled at Aram, and slowly nodded. Aram then turned and stared wistfully away into the horizon, as a mild breeze caused his silken attire to lap gently about him. He welcomed it by closing his eyes, so he could feel this warmth of life without distraction. He imagined his feet leaving the ground and himself swimming and dancing in the air to the same music as the flora of Astonia heard. He felt his troubles flying away with it.

Rae stepped up beside him. His time-wearied face surveyed the palace grounds, and he settled on a group of horses he had not seen earlier. “I take it your gift has arrived,” he said.

Aram abruptly fell from the sky. “The horses? Where are they?” he said, as his eyes darted across the landscape looking for two things. Firstly, he had waited months for them to arrive, and secondly, they were meant to be a surprise for his brother. He spotted the congregation, by the stables of course, but thankfully could not see Deyas anywhere.

“Where is my brother? Have you seen him this morn?” he said.

Rae squinted to search his memory. “I believe the young prince has gone hunting with your father,” he said after deliberation. “Something about becoming a man!”

Prince Aram grinned. “He has to grow hair on his chest first!” he said, and the two men shared a laugh that helped them both put aside their prior troubles.

The horses were actually a gift from Aram to show Deyas that he recognized the younger brother’s passage into adulthood. Three years apart, Deyas looked up to him no end, and had often spoken adamantly that he will grow up to be just like his brother.

“So he’s not here…excellent. I do not want him seeing his present before I can get to it myself!”

With that Aram turned in a flurry of his robes and joined his new guests. Rae stayed behind to watch from above.

Down in the stables Aram walked among the new herd; there were ten horses to celebrate the birth of his younger brother, fifteen years ago in a few weeks time. He had sent out Naphine, his personal aide, along with two members of the Royal Personal Guard to find the finest steeds they could, and told them to search the whole world if need be. Naphine had gold to trade, and the guards were there because well, they knew horses better than Naphine. The three were absent from the stables, leaving Aram peacefully alone for the moment. He could use the time to get to know the horses before proper introductions were made.

He had never before seen such a variety, but two things he could see in common for all of the horses were the powerful legs built for speed, and the majestic manner in which they proudly and attentively stood their ground. He was an established rider himself, having been trained as a horseman before he could barely run, but the beauty of these horses left him almost speechless. He was sure his brother would be overjoyed with the gift.

He wandered among the animals, and became lost in the splendour of a filly of midnight black. He walked up to it and gently placed his hand on the horse’s neck and patted her, as a child would a new pet. “You are the most beautiful of them all,” he told it. In response, the horse turned its head to Aram and nuzzled into him. It then began to furiously lick and pet him in return. Aram grinned and he cringed as he ducked away from the horse, wiping the sticky remnants of its affection from his cheek. The horse simply looked after him and turned so she could face her new friend in more comfort.

Aram walked over to a vegetable trough meant for these very animals. Finding a turnip, he went back to the black horse and offered it. He was in wonder of how tame it was, and he was glad it should cause no trouble for his younger brother; the three had chosen well. The horse happily chomped away at the bulb, and when she was done she licked Aram's hand in search of more.

“Thankyou for that,” said Aram, looking at his dripping hand; the horse only whinnied its protest in Aram’s clear misunderstanding. Aram then looked around at the other horses. There was another of the same breed, but this time a colt. Of the eight other horses, two were a lightly speckled white, two were grey with many darker spots, and the remaining four were tanned brown, with a dorsal stripe down their backs. He also noticed that Naphine had quite interestingly chosen a mix of sexes. He counted exactly half male, and half female. He wondered how well the horses would breed; there might be some use for them after all, he thought. The current horses of the Royal Guard were local horses; strong animals, but not especially smart or fast.

The morning sun had now reached the mid-heavens, and was beginning its descent into the afternoon. Just as Aram was wondering where Naphine had vanished to, he heard a familiar voice that lifted his spirits like no other.

“Your highness!” was the cry. “I see you have found the treasures we bring back from abroad.”

Aram turned to greet his aide. “Naphine!” he said. “I was just here wondering whether you had not forgotten your hat in your last camp and run off to get it!”

Naphine smiled and bowed low to his lord, then getting up to embrace the prince. “I am sorry for my absence upon arrival, but the long road had made me long for a bath! I needed to rest, and I apologise for not meeting you first.”

“I prefer you took the rest, actually – I am sure I would not have wanted to embrace you while you smelled like, well, what I imagine to be quite an unsavoury aroma after so many months riding!” said Aram in jest.

Suitably forgiven, Naphine swept an arm across the congregation and beamed. “Do you like what your servant has brought for you?” he said.

“I am very pleased, Naphine. I could not have sent anyone more suited to fulfil this very important task. I trust you did not have too much trouble acquiring them?”

Naphine bowed before his prince once more. “My lord, trading with foreigners is always difficult when you know not what they are saying. The merchants seemed to understand me when I showed them some gold, though, and were then more than happy to show me their wares. I was lucky to have Randori and Machane with me to know whether I was getting a good horse or not, and for a good price. They seemed to know a lot about them! We spent weeks travelling from one settlement to another finding these, and have gone from a thousand leagues west to a thousand leagues north and a thousand leagues east searching! After we acquired our first few our journey was much quicker, since they were so much faster than our native horses, and sped us quickly through the lands.”

“And which horses are those of which you speak?” asked the prince, looking across the crowd.

“Ah, they would be the Tryllians; the brown ones,” said Naphine, opening his palm to them. “They are wonderful beasts, and they are bred only a hundred leagues past our south western border, in the Hladin capital. It is a wonder we have not come across them before, but I guess not much has been happening around our southern lands lately. The city of Tryllia is abounding of them, as they have been perfecting this breed for generations, they say. King Ramaan said that no horse in our kingdom could match it for speed or stamina, and we soon found out this was true. He gave us four of his finest, and he said that he knew of some other horses to the north that were also of great quality; the Oscarthans, which are the white ones.

“It took us nigh on seven weeks to travel north, going over the Blarai Sea, through Sul-Phor and over the Equaian mountains. From the northeast, we found the grey Attilas, and the two black ones we came across even further east. We came to lands with people of similar skin to us, but of a very different language. They drove a hard bargain for the black coats, since they seemed to insist they were faster than what we already had. They explained this by pointing to our new horses and hopping around slowly, and then pointing to their own and hopping around like mad! These foreigners have somewhat strange ways of persuasion. Machane mounted one and within seconds he had ridden around the whole town, so that was testament sure enough that they were speaking truth. We could only afford two more at this point, but since we already had eight and you requested ten it worked out well enough,” Naphine said as his expressions had developed along with his story; from delight, to befuddlement, and back to delight again.

“In that you are right,” said Aram. “I have already made friends with one of them, but you did not mention where exactly you got them; I take it you mean Induras? Do any of them have names as yet?”

“Oh forgive me, my lord,” said Naphine. “You are correct about their origin; they hail from Induras. None of them have names yet, though, since I expected prince Deyas would have liked to name them himself. I also made sure I got one female for every male in each breed, since I was not sure which one you would prefer.”

“That is fine, Naphine,” said Aram. “I was pleasantly surprised by your forethought. This might give us the opportunity to trial breed them ourselves, too.”

“Yes, my lord, I had thought of that also,” replied Naphine. “We could start breeding right away! It would take a little while though, I should imagine, until we have enough for any use.”

“It might take too long, actually. Do not worry though, I sent you out to get me a gift for my brother, not to build me an army of horses. If my father agrees, it might not be too long before we send out an expedition to purchase some more – enough to breed with. I am so impressed with the quality of these steeds that I think we may even have to bring the breeders in themselves to foster our development. I want to uniform our soldiers, and our guard with these horses. Every soldier should have one, but the cost if we import them all will be far too great. Breeding them here will make it somewhat more affordable, I should imagine, and it will mean we are greatly mobile.”

“If you need me to act as guide, my lord, I will do so with honour,” said Naphine. “Simply tell me when to leave!”

Aram smiled. “Not so eager, my friend. There are a few things we have to take care of here first, before we can get more. We also have to wait for the approval of Deyas!”

“Of course, my lord,” said Naphine. “How is the young master? Has he been troubling you with questions of my absence these last few months?”

“Well, yes, but I told him I had sent you on a very important diplomatic errand. He is as energetic as ever, though, but thankfully it is still a surprise. I was worried that he would see them here without me, and wonder what they are! Tell the gate-guards that I seek his audience urgently when he arrives home. He will not bother to stable his horse, and I expect he will come straight to my chambers.”

“Yes, my lord. I asked of his and your whereabouts when I returned this mid-morn, and since he was not expected back until afternoon, and you were yourself in council with Rae I decided to quickly sneak a hot bath. I did not want to disturb you unnecessarily.”

Aram gave a haughty laugh, and said: “the day that I’ve feared all my life has finally come, then! Naphine will not disturb me…alas!

“My friend, I have waited months for your arrival, and hearing your voice brings great relief to my heart. You do not ever disturb me. Come…let us go and sit in the sun and share your adventures from the last few months. I want to hear of news from the outside world.”

With that, Aram and his personal aide, Naphine, closed the stable doors and moved out into the great gardens of the palace.

The Palace of Tyer was a magnificent tribute to the land of Astonia. Aram’s great grandfather, King Nabien, had built it a mere sixty-six years ago in time for the bi-centennial celebrations of Astonia life. For twenty years he toiled his people to build a palace worthy of so great a line, and it stood proudly in testament of their will. Visitors flocked in hundreds to see its spiralling towers and rich gardens. It was built atop a knoll in the western heart of Tyer, where on every side it overlooked the city. Whether it was a boat entering the harbour from the west to trade, or an army returning from victorious battle in the north or east, they knew they were close to the Astonian throne when they saw the looming presence of the castle.

Tyer, now the largest city of Astonia, rested on relatively flat land when compared to the surrounding hills and forests. It became the capital exactly two hundred years after Admon the Great was crowned King, and when the palace was completed. It was situated on a naturally protected harbour on the Blarai Sea to the west, with the Equaian ranges to the far north and grasslands, furthered by the Bhutane ranges to the east. It had only been a modest fishing and trading town before it signed allegiance to Admon, the First, but had now grown into a thriving city. Due to the vast natural resources surrounding it, it was selected by Nabien to be the site of the new Imperial City.

The old palace was in Morn, and had since become the private home of the ruling King of Astonia. In the days of Admon, his people built it as a gift to him, in recognition of his part in bringing peace and stability to the kingdom. Even though it was a small icon when compared to the Palace of Tyer, over the decades it had been renovated into a beautiful home. Even now, the tombs beneath Morn remain the resting place for all Astonian sovereignty, and still hold the most special memory for all Astonians; the final resting place of their greatest king, Admon.

As Aram and Naphine walked through the Palace Gardens, they spoke of the world outside.

“The journey south was quite uneventful,” said Naphine. “We travelled into Hladin where we were greeted by benevolent guards at the city of Tryllia. They welcomed us as neighbours and allowed us to meet with King Ramaan, who graciously helped us in our quest. He told us of his local horses, being bred in the city itself. He said he would provide four of the finest as a gift to the young prince. We were quite taken aback by his generosity, since we were expecting him to be quite a challenge.”

“Ah,” said Aram. “Hisae says he is a hard man in war, but gracious in court. Is there any more he told you?”

“We talked not much of politics, but instead were audience to a grand symphony by his Royal Ensemble. He told us of further towns to the north where we could find different breeds, and offered to trade maps so we could benefit from each others’ explorations. I was unsure as to the political consequences this might cause back here, so I politely declined, admitting my inferiority in making such important decisions for the kingdom. He laughed and ordered a map be given to me anyway, as a gesture of goodwill, and asked that, if we so wished, we could return the gesture once men of superior decision making abilities were consulted. After which, he left it at our discretion.”

“I see,” said Aram. “When we are done, take the map to the scribes and have them add the information to our own, then give me a full copy. I wish to meet the man myself. I also hear he has many beautiful daughters.”

“As you wish, my lord,” said Naphine, smiling, “and that he does. A dozen children, no less, attended the Ensemble. It was like being surround by a living bouquet of flowers. Afterwards, we then spent a night in the palace and dined with the King himself. We were unused to such grand catering, but he did his very best to make us comfortable. I think Astonia has a friend in him, if it so wished.”

“As you say,” said Aram. “I am not sure how much father appreciates the concern of fellow Kings, but I would very much like to find out just how much of a concern we are to them. In any case, on with the story…what happened next?”

“We soon left Tryllia and headed north to the Blarai Sea,” said Naphine. “That was a quiet road, and soon we had purchased passage on a ship to Sul-Phor…things weren’t as we thought when we arrived, though.

“What happened?” asked Aram.

“Well,” said Naphine, “while in Sul-Phor, we soon learned to be careful of who we spoke our origin to. We were not welcome there as representatives of this palace, it seemed.”

“Were they aggressive towards you?” said Aram.

“Not exactly, my lord, but they did not help us much either,” said Naphine. “I think they were too afraid of harming palace officials. The inns, however, would only offer us the stables as cover and rotten food to boot. The traders were most unwilling to show us their wares, even though we showed them our coin and tried our best to persuade them.

“One evening, we were eating some stale bread and a thick soup of swampish consistency from the only house that would offer us even that, when an old man hobbled his way over to us; a stick dragged along with him as support.

“’You be watching ye’sels careful’, he said, and waved his stick at us. ‘Likes of you not be wantin’ stay here for long, I says, else your horses go back riderless.’ More intrigued than threatened by the old man, I offered him some of our food and the poor starved loner could not help himself. His ribs poked through his ragged clothes as he quickly stuffed his mouth. He even took a loaf and put it up into what was left of his shirt, so he looked like he was expecting a child any day soon.

“I asked him what he meant by his remark, and he told me: ‘You palace folks got bad names ‘ere,’ he said, ‘there’s talks of fightin’ your men, and your Dunos, so no longer pay.’”

Aram’s eyes darted to Naphine’s. “Pay for what?” he said.

“I asked him that,” said Naphine, “and ‘Tackses!’ was all the more he would say. I perceive, perhaps quite obviously, that they do not like paying taxes any more. That was all the man would tell me openly, at least. Randori became impatient when he would not answer my further questions and drew his weapon. As quick as lightning he had the old man by his throat and the point of his sword was poised and ready to pierce his age-old neck. I think enough fear took hold of him to talk, and before I let him go, he told me a few odd points of value. Apparently the townsfolk had received cloaked visitors who were going from house to house and spreading rumours of the king; among which, saying taxes raised in the name of progress were spent on frivolous gifts for himself and other lords of Astonia. They said that if the Old Towns of Sul-Phor were reunited, then any taxes taken would go straight back to the people, for their benefit. Everyone would be richer, and it looks like the people are being fooled into thinking this will actually be true.”

Aram patiently listened while his aide recounted the events. His breast tingled in anticipation of the consequences, if this really was the case. “Go on, Naphine…what followed?”

“Sire, I then sent council, twice, to the King and did not receive further instruction on either occasion,” said Naphine. “Machane himself delivered both messages and King Dunos told him to leave it for His Highness to read at leisure. Machane, on the second occasion, declared it of state importance, but was scolded by the King for disrupting a feast he was conducing. Commander Hisae was there and took the parchments, but I do not know what became of them, or of the information provided within.”

“Yes, I believe Hisae read the scrolls you sent, but has only vaguely described their content…he told me they would be handled by the Royal Guard,” said Aram. “Father has not spoken of them, either, so I don’t even know if he is aware of all this. I think we may need to send an agent, to find out exactly what is going on.” Aram paused to reflect on who he could choose for such a task. Naphine was already known to most of the kingdom, as were most of the people actually living at the palace. He would have to employ outside help, he thought, to infiltrate this little conspiracy.

“So what else, my friend,” said Aram. “I take it you made it out of Sul-Phor in one piece after all?”

“Fortunately so, my lord,” said Naphine. “We did not leave immediately after that night with the old man, as I felt it was our duty to be better informed of the situation for when we eventually returned. We spent many days scouring the inns and home of Sul-Phor, searching for any signs of these hooded rogues. No local would trust us, and we did not see that old man again after that night. After an unsuccessful time uncovering any useful information, Machane rode back that second time to relay the news. Upon his return we could do nothing more, so moved on.

“We left Sul-Phor and travelled west over the Equaian Mountains into Oscarthia, and life was a little easier. They did not seem to have the same anti-Astonian feelings the Sul-Phor province had, and we were glad so. We were given the best beds and enough food to make our bellies fat twice over!

“Nobody there had heard of these Hoods, and we ourselves were beginning to wonder if they were not simply the ramblings of an old man. It was hard to dismiss the inhospitality of the people so easily though, so perhaps there are questions to still ask yet.”

“In that you are right, my dear friend,” said Aram. “My heart tightens at the dissention presaged by this old man; if what he says is true then rebellion will be written for the first time ever in our history. I will speak to father of this, Naphine, so rid yourself of any worry, and instead continue your tale.”

“As you wish, my lord,” said Naphine, but before he could say any more, a trumpet blared.

Path upon path of man and conspirator had been culminating to this very point, as an arrow sailed with a whisper through the trees. Its mark was as well known to Astonians as the demise this splinter would bring. The assailant waited and watched…only a confirmed kill would satisfy his lord.

“There, about a hundred paces away,” whispered Deyas, crouching, as he pointed to a young deer grazing on a patch of grass. He and his company were at the northern edge of Rhadem Forest, only four leagues south of Tyer, and just over the Glamorne River. His father, King Dunos, remained on his mount and smiled at his young son’s keen sight.

“This prize is yours, my son,” said Dunos. “Go and claim it.”

Deyas looked around at his father and beamed with delight. As he was coming of age he and the king had been hunting more often, and he was beginning to feel like the prince he truly was. He was in a time where he was not quite a man, but could no longer be called a boy. His body had changed much in the last year, and was now almost as tall as his great father. His light olive skin glistened with tiny beads of sweat as his heart raced; he was exhilarated by the prospect of his first wild kill.

Deyas gave the reins of his mount to Hisae, who had also ventured with them on this hunt, and from his shoulder unbridled his shortbow.

“Show your father how much you have learnt,” Hisae winked. Deyas returned a boyish grin as he hung a quiver on his belt – one he filled earlier with the shorter arrows he had fletched for hunting. Withdrawing an arrow, he placed it on the bowstring and the shaft rested comfortably on the bow itself; he was now ready to hunt.

The deer had not yet caught wind of its tracker. It had spotted some wild grass, and in the time before the new and young plants sprouted during spring it was a tasty treat after a winters fast. Something moved. The doe froze. It waited, but it could sense nothing…perhaps it was a bird or a little animal among the brushes. There were lots of big animals just over there, but they’re just eating too, and the sound did not come from there anyway, it thought. It waited more, but nothing changed, so it continued to feast.

Deyas, who moved as stealthily as he could, halted when the deer looked up. He thought he was being heard, and the doe would flee, but it seemed to look around without seeing him, and then continued to feed. The tall pines of Rhadem were excellent shade from the early springtime sun, and the smaller conifers were an excellent cover for the prevailing hunter. Deyas, keeping close to the ground, crept up on the doe as he had seen his father do on their previous hunts.

Dunos waited and watched as his son stalked the prey. He was now beside his horse, proud of the skill his son was showing. Deyas was not as gifted a marksman as his first, Aram, but his desire to excel uplifted the king.

As he closed on the animal, Deyas gently drew back his bow in preparation. When he was within thirty steps, he knelt to observe his quarry and held his weapon in mid-rift.

The young deer was familiar to Deyas. He had seen the doe many times before, only his clumsiness had always alerted it to his presence before he could release his arrow. This time he had been especially careful, and for the moment revered in anticipation. He slowly lifted his arms as he drew the bow, and when he finished the tip of the arrow was aimed fatally at the deer. For what seemed like an eternity his whole world involved only him, the doe, and a whistle by his ear.

The doe started, and Deyas was stunned. He wondered; had something just passed him? In a split second the doe saw him and began to flee, and it once again slipped his grasp as it bounded away. Up ahead, however, he spotted something that did not look like another deer.

A grey cloak behind a bush, only fifty paces away, covered a man with a spent bow. Deyas’ mind raced with all the stranger’s reasons for being in this forest with them. Perhaps it was a fellow hunter, he thought, with bad aim.

A cry raced through the forest from behind Deyas, and he looked back on his company. Hisae and another guard were with the king on the ground, while the remaining three guards were charging into the forest, swords drawn. Deyas looked back at the mysterious figure and for a fleeting second they connected. The rogue and prince shared a brief moment of peace as each considered the situation – neither had been aware of the other’s presence until now, but it was the rogue whose wit returned first.

An eye’s twitch was all the stranger gave to Deyas before he turned to flee. With a resounding click Deyas understood what had just taken place. This was not a game hunter, he realised; the man before him had just tried to murder his father!

Rage built quickly; a hate and fear Deyas had not experienced in his young life before, and a feeling he quickly lost control under. He moved without accord, but within a second he had re-primed his loosened bow and fired after the attacker. His rash coursed the arrow wide of its mark.

Deyas stumbled to his feet and began to chase. He slung his bow over his shoulder and withdrew another arrow. He detached his quiver and it fell to the ground; running would be impossible with it unbalancing his stride.

The assassin took ground quickly; too quickly for Deyas, and had soon gained a lead through the tumultuous brush. The hampered prince, fuelled by the fire of the meeting desperately navigated the roots and ferns of the forest floor. Branches and trunks obscured his view of the assailant, but his will pushed him forward. A horse had been waiting for its master to return, and Deyas circled an oak to see the two become one and gallop away along a forest path. He loaded his last arrow and loosed it upon the rider, watching the assailant slump as it struck his left shoulder. The stranger remained on his horse, and Deyas could only collapse, panting, watching him ride away. Seconds later the cry echoed in his mind; his father was hurt. Deyas hastily made his way back to the edge of the forest, finding his father under Hisae demanding to be let up.

“Let go of me, Hisae; it is not right to be thrown to the ground like this!” said the ruffled king.

“I am sorry, my lord, but not until you are safe,” said Hisae. “When my men return with a body you may be free.”

“I am a king, not a child,” Dunos whimpered under the weight of his guard. “He missed me anyway…look!” The king pointed to the guard at his feet who had shielded him from the arrow. “Here comes Deyas…perhaps he has captured the assassin.”

Deyas heard only the last of the king’s words, and seeing no injury to his father, he found it hard to deny a small smile as Hisae, Commander of the Royal Personal Guard so easily held down the great king of Astonia. “The rogue has run away,” he accounted. “I shot him just above his left arm, but he was riding his horse before I could stop him.”

Hisae had heard Deyas emerge from the forest, of course, but was faced away, scanning the river for further possible threats. He strained to look around at Deyas. “Are you hurt? You should not have gone after him. It could have been a trap – my men would have followed him.”

“But he was already getting away…I had to do something,” said Deyas in his own defence.

This earned a stern look from Hisae. “Prince Deyas, right now you are a target for any of the scoundrel’s associates that may still be here. Get on the ground, before I have to pounce on you as well; I may not be as gentle with you as I was your gracious father.”

Dunos scoffed underneath the commander, but Deyas knew better than to push Hisae, so he promptly dived to the ground. He fell next to the other guard, who lay to the right of the king, but was mortified when he saw the man more closely. A thin arrow, with intricate markings had pierced his neck, and from the way his head was unnaturally angled to the body it looked to have snapped the bone that held the guard’s head and chest together.

Hisae had shifted so that he could look at Deyas more closely. He saw the horror in the prince’s eyes, which were fixated on the corpse, and lamented in the kingdom’s loss. “Marek had seen the arrow in flight, and lunged to protect your father,” he said. Deyas took his eyes uncomfortably away from the dead guard and into Hisae’s strong eyes. “He died to save the king, as any of us would, and he will be celebrated as a champion of the guard. There is no greater honour or sacrifice.”

Confusion clouded Deyas’ mind. He had not seen a personal guard actively fulfill their destiny this way. He had not witnessed a man’s head being dislocated from his body by an arrow. Adrenaline subsiding, he now buried his head into his arms and silently began to weep.

The three lay in modest silence as the guards continued their search. The three horses had begun wandering in search of fresher lawn, but still remained nearby, oblivious to the unfolding drama. Hisae maintained ever watchful of the lands surrounding them, but nothing else came their way. Some time later the guards reappeared.

One of the guards signalled Hisae, who then stood up and helped the king to his feet. “We are safe now,” said Hisae. “The guards are returning.”

“Ah,” said Dunos. “Let us see what is behind all of this – I do not take kindly to threats on my life.”

The guards stood at attention when they reached the king, and Hisae walked in front of them, glaring.

“Why do I not see a body dragged behind you?” asked Hisae; his deep voice boomed at the guards, who imperceptibly flinched. “I have a child here who managed to almost kill this rogue, and yet you three, with years of training, come back empty handed…can you explain this mystery to me?”

“Commander, may I speak?” asked one of the guards.

Hisae focused his stare onto him. “Tell me what went on, Heron,” he said.

“Well, I went after the rogue,” said Heron, “while Druine and Mondai searched for any of his companions. I found a very light trail of blood on the path south through the forest, and followed it until I could no longer see it. Since the ground was damp, however, there were fresh hoof prints that must have accompanied the trail. These kept down the south road, but the rider was long gone, being on foot as I was. I then returned here for my report, and to take further orders.”

“Take my horse and go follow this murderer back to his layer,” said Hisae, eyeing his fallen guard. “Do not come back until you have his slithering hide with you. I want him alive, now. Deyas hit him in the left shoulder. Go.”

“Understood, Commander,” said Heron, jumping onto his superior’s horses and darting away. Hisae then turned to the other two and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“And you two? What did you find?” he asked.

“We split up to search for others…but it looks like he was alone,” said one of the guards. “Do you want us to go with Heron to find this scum?”

“No, he is quite capable,” said Hisae. “You two will escort the king back to Tyer with me…if there are any others then you must protect him.” Hisae then turned to Dunos, who was idly lost within his own thoughts. “My lord, we must get you away from here and back to the palace. Let us go, and remain vigilant.”

Dunos and Deyas both mounted, while Hisae removed the arrow from Marek. The two guards helped their commander pick up the body and the three members of the Royal Personal Guard took to the road on foot; running as fast as they could to keep up with the canter of the king’s horse.

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