“I watched you through the window, young one. You’ve been standing before my door for more than half an hour now. Why didn’t you knock? Come, enter, so I can close the door. The warmth escapes, and it is going to snow.
“What do they call you?”
“Mandigaill the Hunter. A strong name, a good name. Mandigaill? Ah, yes, Wolves’ Friend in Ancient Baltoc. And how old are you, Friend of Wolves?”
“Sixteen. I see. Who sent you?”
“Verial. Yes, I remember him well and with pleasure. And you want?”
“A tale. I can tell you a tale, if you can pay the price. Has Verial explained everything to you?”
“Not everything. I thought so. Which tale would you like me to tell you? Choose wisely, for I can tell you tales that carry wisdom in them, or those that will make your blood hot and make your heart beat faster.”
“Ah, you want the tale of Anaxantis. I see. Of Anaxantis of the House of Tanahkos, Prince of Ximerion. You want wisdom and hot blood all in one. You like your tales strong and bitter. You want to hear about the downfall of a prince. You want to know how royal blood came to flow so low. I can tell you that tale, but not in one evening. And every evening you must pay my price anew. I know shorter tales.”
“No? So be it. Anaxantis’s tale it is. The first part of my price. You must swear, on your life, for I have no interest in your soul, that you will tell, within the year, to someone at least two seasons younger than you, but no more than six, about the tales of Randamor the Recluse. Do you promise?”
“Good, the first part is paid. Now for the second part. You must whisper in my ear a secret that you have never told before to anyone. Take care, Mandigaill the Hunter, for I shall know if it is not a true secret.”
“As secrets go, it was not much. But it was true, and I can see why you are ashamed of it and kept it to yourself until now. The second part is paid. Has Verial told you the third one?”
“Then show me.”
“Two hares you shot yourself only this afternoon, young and tender. And strong root vegetables, and herbs, and two loaves of freshly baked bread. A bottle of strong, brown beer. Do you know how to prepare all this?”
“Your grandmother taught you to make a stew. Very well, Hunter, go and chop wood for the stove and for the fire this evening and then prepare our meal.”
“I watched you through the window, Mandigaill the Hunter. You chopped more than enough wood for tonight and even for tomorrow. That is kind, but it will not lower my price. Now, prepare your stew. There is the kitchen, and while you wash the vegetables and cut the hares, I will start the tale of Anaxantis and the Invisible Chains.”
In his private apartments, Tenaxos I, high king of Ximerion, sat by the hearth with his childhood friend and trusted general, Demrac Tarngord. Both men were in their mid-fifties. They drank warm, spiced wine. It was late March, and the evenings were still chilly. Demrac Tarngord was one of the few persons in the kingdom who could call the high king, in private, by his given name.
“I have called you here, old friend,” Tenaxos said, “because once more I need your services.”
“They’re yours for the asking, Tenax,” Demrac replied.
“Lately our spies are bringing disturbing news out of the kingdom of Lorsanthia. The new king, Vartoligor XIII, is not of the same mold as his father. He came late to the throne, and he seems to feel that if he is to make a name for himself, he must act within the next few years. His father has conquered the kingdom of Trachia, but there were rebellions during his whole reign. This was good for us, since they needed all their forces to keep their new province subdued. Covertly, we have supported a princeling of the last Trachian dynasty. Now our spies tell me that he has lost his last foothold in Trachia, and that he has fled over the border with a band of barely two hundred followers. This will soon prove to be the end of all resistance, I fear.”
“And we are the next great prize,” Demrac added.
“Precisely. If war breaks out between Ximerion and Lorsanthia, we must at all costs deliver a decisive blow to the enemy as soon as possible. We can’t hope to win a protracted conflict. Lorsanthia’s resources are far greater than ours, which means that in the long run we will lose. Therefore, I have decided to go myself to our southern border with an eighty thousand strong army. You know as well as I do that the southern border is riddled with weak points. Castles and forts are in disrepair, and the loyalty of the trader towns is doubtful at best. I hope to mend these shortcomings. At the same time, a show of strength might make Vartoligor think twice before attacking us.”
“Which army group do you wish me to command?” Demrac asked.
“Not so hasty, Dem, I need you elsewhere. Most of our other borders are safe enough and the coast is protected by our fleet. Only in the North do we have a vulnerable spot.”
“That is not exactly true,” Tenaxos thought. “We have more weak points on the eastern border and I am not all that sure that every bay and every harbor is patrolled carefully enough by the fleet.”
“The border at the Renuvian Plains,” Demrac said. “But, I thought we had a treaty with the Mukthars.”
“We have, but what is it worth? We simply cannot leave our northern border open to attack. Not while the bulk of our forces is engaged in the South.”
“You want me to go to the province of Amiratha, Tenax?”
“Yes, my friend. I am, however, not going to order you. You have more than deserved to be made Lord Governor of the Northern Marches, but I cannot give you that commission. The most I can do is appoint you commander of the Northern Army, and even that is more title than substance. I can only spare you three regiments and a cavalry unit of 250 men. That is 3,850 men in total. With only that at your disposal I need you to guard my back, Dem.”
“You know you can count on me, but why are you leaving the post of lord governor open?”
“I’m not. I’m taking my two eldest sons, Tenaxos and Portonas, with me to the South and I’m appointing my two youngest sons both as lord governor, with equal power.”
“Ehandar and Anaxantis? But they are only, what, seventeen and sixteen years old?”
“How old were we, my friend, when we fought beside my father for the crown of Ximerion?”
“Granted, we were even younger, but isn’t it a great risk to entrust our only vulnerable spot to their inexperience?”
“That’s precisely why I need you to keep an eye on them. Beside the official charter with the powers and duties of the lord governors, I will give you a secret one, that will enable you, if necessary, to take matters in hand.”
“Tenax, is it wise to appoint two lord governors? Isn’t it usually better to have one chief making decisions instead of two?”
“Yes, and as a last resort that one chief is you, my friend. If the chances of war were to turn against us, and I and my sons fall on the battlefield, Ehandar and Anaxantis would be the last hope of the House of Tanahkos. I should have been more farsighted, but the truth is that I have put all my expectations in my two eldest sons and neglected the younger ones. Now I have no idea which of them could succeed me on the throne, if it ever became necessary.”
“I would think that is a foregone conclusion. Ehandar is strong and already has a loyal following among the young nobles. Anaxantis is a sickly boy, weak and with his nose buried in ancient books.”
“That may be true, but who knows what the times will demand? A strong king or a wise one? That is why I will give them equal power. To be honest, I expect that Ehandar will take the lead, and that Anaxantis will bow to his older brother. However, you are not to intervene if there is strife between the two. Just see to it that it doesn’t harm the defenses of the province of Amiratha. I understand I am putting you in a very difficult position and that is why I don’t want to order you to take this responsibility upon you. Oh, one thing more. Ehandar will not be permitted to take his friends with him.”
“In other words you are testing them. You can count on me, Tenax, as always.”
“Thank you, my friend, I expected as much. You will leave for the Northern Marches in three weeks. I want you to write me a weekly report.”
“And you will also have your spies to keep you informed, of course.”
“Have you taken leave of your senses, Tenax?” Queen Emelasuntha roared as she entered the council room. “Are you trying to kill your own son? I demand that you retract that decree immediately.”
Tenaxos stood with his two oldest sons and four of his generals before a large table covered with maps.
“Madam, you will kindly refrain from barging into my council, yelling like a common fishwife,” he roared back.
“You know damn well that Anaxantis is too sick to undertake a journey to the Northern Marches,” Emelasuntha continued, undaunted.
Tenaxos understood that this was not going be a trifling matter to be dispensed with casually.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “it seems this meeting is over. Please retire and keep yourselves at my disposition.”
His sons and generals left the room.
“Madam, you tire my patience to the utmost. I will not tolerate this behavior any longer.”
“And I will not tolerate that you take my son from me and send him into the wilderness.”
“The province of Amiratha is hardly the wilderness, Madam. And may I remind you that it is still I who am high king of Ximerion and not you, Madam. Not you.”
“High king of Ximerion,” Emelasuntha spat in contempt. “When your forefathers were still robber barons, my forebears were kings and queens of Zyntrea.”
“That your brother Kurtigaill may still call himself king of Zyntrea, instead of being a beggar in his own capital, Madam, is thanks to the support he receives from me. You’d better remember that. You may think little of the high kings of Ximerion, but I assure you that I am still master in my own house.”
Emelasuntha was about to riposte.
“Shut your mouth, Madam, before I shut it for you. I have appointed Anaxantis lord governor of the Northern Marches, and within two weeks he will depart to take up that commission. Do I make myself clear, Madam? Furthermore, he will take with him no servants, no tutors, no doctors, nobody at all that you may choose for him. The army will provide in all his needs. The same goes for Ehandar, by the way.”
“Ehandar.” She spoke the name as if it were a curse. “You’re setting my son up by sending that presumptuous brute with him. Do you think I can’t see through your malicious little plan? By appointing both with equal power you invite discord and strife between the two of them. Besides, Anaxantis is too young.”
“Then he’d better grow up fast, madam, for go he will.”
Tenaxos went to the wall and pulled a cord twice. A few moments later a company of Royal Guards entered the room.
“Captain,” Tenaxos barked, “escort the queen to her apartments. She is not to leave them and she is not to receive visitors, other than her maids. I’ll hold you personally responsible for any breach of this order.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Emelasuntha gasped.
“Watch me, Madam, watch me.”
Tenaxos turned again to the captain.
“Off you go, Captain.”
The Royal Guards marched the queen out of the room. Tenaxos sank in the chair behind his desk.
“I’d rather fight Vartoligor than Emelasuntha,” he thought bitterly. “She will plant her spies in the Army of the North, if she hasn’t already done so. And so will Ehandar. He is young, but he is a prince of the House of Tanahkos, so it’s in his blood. Both will have their informers in the Army of the South as well. Ehandar is no problem. He will be in the Northern Marches, with scant troops and troubles of his own. But that arch intriguer, that firebrand will weave her plots here, in my own capital. Before I leave myself, I’ll have to confine her to a place far away from the center of power and see to it that she is strictly guarded.
“She’s right of course. Anaxantis is young and infirm. Maybe I must give Demrac instructions to guard his life, if nothing else. Yet, I have to know what mettle he is made of. I was born a duke’s son and created a prince when my father grasped the crown out of the unwilling hands of his predecessor. When all is said and done, he was a usurper. I, at least, inherited the crown. But my sons are the first of the House of Tanahkos who were born princes. We are too recent upon the throne to take any risks.
“I must know how they will stand up when confronted with trouble. And trouble there will be. The Mukthars have been quiet for too long, and the treaty is not worth the parchment it is written upon. Not that they are a grave danger. They are just robbers, and after sacking a city or two they will return home over the Renuvian Plains and behind the Somertian Mountains with their plunder. I have given Ehandar and Anaxantis deliberately far too few troops to resist them effectively, but out of what they will do with such meager resources, out of how they will react in such a disadvantageous position, I will learn a lot about them.
“I’d prefer for my eldest son to succeed me. That is, if there still is a Kingdom of Ximerion for him to inherit when the time comes. But the House of Tanahkos has its own rules. The crown will go to the strongest or the wisest or, most likely, the most ruthless.”
“It is no use,” Anaxantis thought, “the wagon shakes too much. I can’t read.” He laid the book aside. From where he sat he could see a part of the small army, as a ribbon before him on the meandering road. At the head of the narrow column rode his older brother Ehandar and commander Demrac Tarngord. Behind them rode three soldiers, carrying the standards of Ximerion and the two lord governors. Ximerion’s ancient flag depicted two crossed swords in gold, surmounted by a golden crown, on a red field.
The princes had been allowed to choose their personal coats of arms when they turned fifteen. Ehandar had picked an eagle, not the traditional one, but a black one, falling, claws wide open, on its prey, on a field of azure. There were also forests, mountain ranges and a sun depicted on the flag. “It looks more like a tapestry than a standard,” Anaxantis thought. His own coat of arms consisted of a black dragon on a field of gold. Nothing else.
Every day he tried to ride beside Ehandar, but he always had to give up after a few hours. He began to cough, became dizzy and had to dismount to let himself be carried along in the wagon. Just like Ehandar he had a personal guard of six soldiers. He had tried to show one of them how to make his medicinal herb tea, but after the first evening he had decided that it was more convenient to make it himself.
When his father had told them that he had appointed them both as lord governors of the Northern Marches, he had been dumbfounded at first. “Why?” he had wondered. “I am not strong like Ehandar. I don’t know how to wield a sword.” After the first shock had abated, he had begun to think what he could contribute. For three weeks before their departure he had practically lived in the library. He had read all there was to read about the province of Amiratha which, together with a few lesser territories, formed the Northern Marches. He had read about the population, the agriculture and commerce, the cities and towns, the fortifications, and, most importantly, about the main threat, the wild tribe of the Mukthars. He had studied maps of the province, the Renuvian Plains and the Somertian Mountains, behind which the land of the Mukthar lay. He had taken notes and sent his servants to the booksellers in Ormidon, the capital city, to buy history books about the Northern Marches, both after and before it was conquered by and integrated in the kingdom of Ximerion.
After a while he had looked forward to leaving for the North.
“It is an adventure of sorts, and it will be nice to see new places and meet different people. As much as I love Mother, she can be overpowering at times. Maybe it is not a bad thing to spend some time far away from her. And what do I leave behind? They will have books in the cities of Dermolhea and Ghiasht. Maybe even books that you can’t find in Ormidon. Friends I don’t have, thanks to my poor condition and Mother who keeps everybody away from me because she doesn’t trust anybody. Ehandar will come as well. He doesn’t like me very much, and who could blame him? Father has ordered him to keep me company for a few hours each day, while he’d rather be hunting or training in sword fighting with Tenaxos and Portonas. I bet he’d also rather be commander in Father’s army with our brothers, than be lord governor of the Northern Marches with me and this meager force, even if it is called the Army of the North. But he can hardly blame me for that, can he? Since we both have the same responsibilities, we will have to pass much of the time together. Maybe I can change his mind about me.”
Ehandar and Anaxantis could not have been more different. Ehandar, the older one by a year, was tall and moderately muscular. He wore his black hair long. It softened the strong, angular features of his handsome face. Anaxantis was a full head shorter and skinny, bordering on scrawny. His short, blond hair was usually tousled. His face, though attractive, was soft and childlike for his sixteen years.
The princes were half brothers. Ehandar’s mother had died, shortly after giving birth to him. Two months later Tenaxos had married her close friend, Emelasuntha, sister of the king of Zyntrea. The House of Tanahkos, only for the second generation on the throne, needed this alliance with an old and venerable, though weak, royal dynasty to enhance its legitimacy. While Tenaxos had loved Ehandar’s mother, his second wedding was more a political convenience than a union of hearts.
When he was twelve, Anaxantis had fallen sick with an ill defined ailment from which he never recovered fully and which left him weak and quickly tired. Emelasuntha had insisted on choosing her own Zyntrean doctors. She had always doted on her son, but since his sickness she had begun to spoil the boy and suffocate him with excessive motherly care. Tenaxos had watched this course of events with scarcely repressed irritation. He had tried to counter Emelasuntha’s influence by having the boys educated together and ordering Ehandar to spend time with his younger brother. He had hoped that some of Ehandar’s ruggedness and strength would rub off on Anaxantis. Ehandar always was attended by his young noble friends, while formally obeying his father’s wishes. Emelasuntha saw to it that Anaxantis was at all times surrounded by servants to watch over him, so that he didn’t exert himself, and to carry his books and medicines and the sweets she provided in large quantities.
The two brothers had barely spoken a word to each other for years, outside some empty formulas of politeness, although they were being taught together and often rode into the countryside, making frequent stops to let Anaxantis recuperate, or simply walked in the gardens of the castle. It always looked as if two distinct groups had met in the same place by accident. Tenaxos knew all this of course, but after a while had found it more rewarding to prepare his two oldest sons for their future responsibilities, and he had let the situation fester.
Anaxantis admired his older brother and had tried to befriend him in the beginning. He had met with polite but cold indifference that was more hurtful than a downright rejection would have been. He sorely lacked a friend and would have given anything to be admitted in Ehandar’s circle. But he was never invited and always ignored. Anaxantis had often cried, late in the evening in his bed and wondered why his brother would have nothing to do with him. Several nights he had awoken, feeling his body contract and semen gushing out of his member. He never could remember exactly what he had been dreaming about, but he was almost certain that every time Ehandar had been in one way or another part of it. Whenever it happened he felt ashamed and confused, certain that a brother wasn’t supposed to evoke that kind of reaction.
Eventually he had gotten used to his half brother spurning him. He had, however, never completely given up.
Ehandar looked out over the landscape that had gradually become more undulating and craggy.
“Maybe this is a good thing after all,” he thought. “The operations in the South will be led by Father with rigorous discipline and there will not be many occasions to shine. Here in the North, far away from paternal supervision, I am lord governor and as good as my own man. Not quite. Not yet. Two problems remain to be solved.
“First Demrac. Father has intended him to be the true master of the North. Thank the Gods for spies. I always knew it would be useful to have a royal scribe in my pay. Neither Father nor Demrac suspects that I am aware of the secret charter and what it stipulates, but I know exactly within what margins I can operate. The articles concerning a possible conflict with the Mukthars make it plausible that Father expects that the treaty will be broken within the year. It will not be a big battle of course, but it will be a military operation nonetheless, and I will lead the Army of the North, such as it is. I may very well be the first among my brothers to see action. Father may have meant for Demrac to be the real decision maker, but we will see about that. Demrac is a valiant warrior, and the men trust him, but he is no strategist. Let him do the hard work. I will find a way to be the commander of the commander of the Army of the North.
“Then, Anaxantis, that annoying weakling. It is good to know that the secret charter gives me leeway to do practically all that I want to remove him from power, save outright kill him. But I will find a way. Demrac is under orders not to intervene.
“The little pest has taken everything from me. There are rumors that his mother poisoned mine to supplant her in Father’s bed. I wouldn’t put it past the evil witch. Then Father has forced me to be her brood’s nanny for years. Years I could have spent with Tenaxos and Portonas, learning to fight, learning to command armies and how to rule. Instead they ignore me. They treat me as if I were a weakling myself. Father barely knows that I exist. As a final insult he made Anaxantis lord governor with equal powers to mine. The insufferable brat has cost me the respect of my whole family. As luck would have it, I know the king’s true intent, and I will give him exactly what he wants. And maybe somewhat more. It will hardly be my fault if the boy were to die from whatever sickness he has. After all, it is the way of the House of Tanahkos. Father himself got rid of his two younger brothers after he ascended the throne, or so they say. He can scarcely begrudge me one little half brother. I will begin by removing Anaxantis from the public eye. Then, when he is forgotten by everyone…
“Tomorrow we will arrive at our destination, the castle of Lorseth. Within a few days there will be but one lord governor of the Northern Marches. Me.”