“That was a fine meal, Friend of Wolves, whom they call the Hunter. Now let us go sit by the fireplace, me in the great chair and you on the stool in front of it.
“I can tell the rest of the story in many ways. If you want me to tell it straightforward, you will get all of the excitement and all of the wisdom, but your blood will not run so hot. In that case, simply sit down. If you want me to elaborate and tell you precisely what happened in days of violence and nights of passion, you must undress before you take your seat.”
Why? How else will I know if I tell it like it should be told? How else will I know if it makes your blood run hot and your heart beat faster, Mandigaill, if I can not see your member? The choice, as always, is yours.
“Yes, I know all the details as if I had been there myself.”
“Yes, take off everything.”
“You’ll understand one day, if and when you reach my age. There are but few joys that time, the great thief, leaves you. Telling about others’ encounters with lust and love, remembering one’s own and looking.
“Keep your legs apart.”
“Wider… Good. If you want to hear more details touch yourself. Stroke harder if you still want to hear more, but careful, if you spend yourself, I will end my tale for the evening.”
“Indeed, this was the part that Verial didn’t tell you.”
Late in the afternoon the small Army of the North reached Lorseth, by the coast.
The castle was built more than three hundred years ago, when Ximerion had conquered Amiratha. It lay on a high cliff by the sea and was surrounded by a thick stone wall. Around it were barracks that could house up to six thousand troops and quarters for the generals and captains. Lorseth Castle itself was the main keep, and lay in the northeastern corner on the highest point. Its back wall stood on the ridge of the cliff, overlooking the Bay of Lorseth. Its main building was a square tower, the residence of the lord governor. On the ground floor was the great hall, used for official functions and councils, and some smaller rooms. On the second floor were utilitarian rooms, and on the third the private apartments of the lord governor. The captain of the garrison welcomed the princes and the commander of the Northern Army. The rest of the day was taken up by the cantonment of the troops and their officers. Meanwhile Ehandar and Anaxantis inspected the castle. They lodged their personal guards in one of the smaller buildings. A small staff of a dozen or so servants took care of the maintenance of the place.
Ehandar had ordered his and Anaxantis’s personal belongings and equipment to be brought to the living quarters of the lord governor. When the servants had left he had posted two guards at the gate of the tower, with strict orders they were not to be disturbed until next morning. The third floor was divided into a landing and one big room from where four doors led to three smaller ones and a bathroom. A fifth door gave access to a wide balcony, perched spectacularly above the cliffs. The room’s great windows looked out over the sea on one side and the courtyard on the other. It also sported a monumental hearth. On the wall facing the entrance stood a magnificent, four-poster bed, an enormous wardrobe and some smaller cabinets. A curtain that ran along the full length of the living accommodations, gave a modicum of privacy to the sleeping quarters when closed. The apartment also contained a table and chairs, a work desk and a big ornate armchair by the hearth.
Ehandar took a quick look into the three smaller rooms. One of them was obviously meant for a manservant, because it contained a narrow bed and some sparse furniture.
“I will sleep in the big bed and you will sleep in that room,” he said curtly to Anaxantis.
Anaxantis sighed, but complied.
“Is this how it is going to be?” he wondered. “Better not provoke him for the moment. Maybe he’ll turn around once we have started working in earnest. He can’t possibly stay annoyed with me all of the time.”
The servants had made a fire in the hearth. Ehandar sat in the big armchair, looking into the flames, brooding.
“Tomorrow we must begin organizing the defense of the northern border. I will propose an inspection. Let’s see how Anaxantis will weather three days on horseback. He can’t do it and will have to return.”
Anaxantis sat at the table with a rare book that described the Renuvian Plains and the Somertian Mountains.
“The northern border is secured by mountain ranges,” he mused, “except for a gap of about hundred and twenty miles of relatively flat land that slopes down into the Renuvian Plains. According to the treaty with the Mukthars this is no-mans land, not to be occupied by either of us. It is sparsely populated, mainly by groups of outcasts. On the other side rise the Somertian Mountains, behind which the Mukthars live. Only two passes give access to the plains. The mountain pass of Queneq, and a small strip of land at the coast where the mountains slope down, the Urtdam-Dek Pass. The most sensible course of action would be to occupy these passes. We could easily defend them with five hundred men against a whole army. Even more so if we build fortifications there. That would be contrary to the terms of the treaty, but isn’t it just a question of time which of us violates it first?”
“Anaxantis, go to your room. I want to go to sleep,” Ehandar ordered.
“Who does he think he’s speaking to?” Anaxantis fumed inside, “I’m his brother. I am just as much lord governor as he is, and I am not his servant to be ordered around.”
For the moment, however, he thought it wise not to make waves.
“This has got to change. I will speak to him tomorrow, when we are both rested. Maybe he will be in a more receptive mood.”
“Good night then, Ehandar,” Anaxantis said.
There came no response.
“The first thing we will do,” Ehandar said, “is make an inspection tour of the border. We can look for favorable places for border patrol posts.”
“Wouldn’t it be sensible to reconnoiter the Renuvian Plains?” Anaxantis asked. “We should form advance guards that can function as an early warning system to give us time to prepare if and when the Mukthars decide to attack.”
Demrac had listened in silence. The three men had convened in a room, next to the great hall, that functioned as war room. On one wall hung a great map of the northern border region.
“The Renuvian Plains are neutral territory,” Demrac replied hesitatingly. “Sending patrols of armed soldiers there could be construed as an hostile act.”
“It has only just begun,” he observed silently, “and in true fashion of the House of Tanahkos they are already at loggerheads. It’s interesting, though. Ehandar opts for a passive, defensive strategy while Anaxantis supports a more proactive plan of action.”
“Don’t you think the Mukthars keep an eye on them?” Anaxantis asked.
“Probably, although we can’t be certain,” Demrac said.
“That is precisely what worries me,” the young prince answered. “We seem to know very little, almost nothing, once we venture a few miles across our borders. That gives the Mukthars a great advantage.”
“For the moment that’s neither here nor there,” Ehandar intervened impatiently. “First we will inspect the border.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Anaxantis thought. “If I let him walk all over me without any opposition it will only grow worse.”
“You seem to forget that I am as much lord governor as you are, brother,” he said in a measured tone. “We will of course inspect the border carefully, and we will send out covert patrols, at least as far as the river Mirax.”
“What good will that do, you fool?” Ehandar snapped.
“First of all, you ignorant oaf, I am not a fool. What good will it do? We will get to know the terrain. From that we can deduce which routes the Mukthars could use if they decide to break the treaty. That, in its turn, will enable us to put watchers in place to warn us in time, so we can fight them on the Renuvian Plains instead of on our own lands. Do you even know what happened twelve years ago? The first we knew of their attack was when they stood at the border. The army came too late to prevent the sack of Dermolhea. More than 15,000 civilian lives were lost. The king had to exempt the city from taxes for seven years to enable them to rebuild. Less revenue for the treasury meant less money to spend on the defense of the Northern Marches. Which, brother, is why now we are forced to inspect the borders, as you so tiresomely have brought to our attention.”
“The young one is no one’s fool, that is clear,” Demrac noted silently. ”His reasoning is sound and he would be right in most circumstances, but not in these. Ehandar may be the stronger, but Anaxantis is smarter. No good can come of this.”
It seemed as if Ehandar would slap Anaxantis in the face, but he withheld himself in time.
“Very well,” he conceded with ill grace, “then you organize and lead the patrols into the Renuvian Plains for all the good it will do and I will see to the border defenses.”
“A division of tasks. That’s a very good proposal, Ehandar. Thank you,” he replied. “Unless you have objections, Commander,” he added, turning to Demrac.
“No,” Demrac responded, “you are the lord governors and I see no military reason to oppose your plans. I would advise caution, though, Anaxantis. The Plains are scarcely populated but there have been reports of gangs of robbers. You will have to see to it that your information gathering stays covert and yet you’ll have to be in sufficient number to defend yourself.”
“Understood,” Anaxantis said. “I will plan a route this afternoon, and tomorrow I will meet with General Busskal of the cavalry to seek his advice and to make practical arrangements.”
The three men talked about general organizational problems for a while before they took leave of each other.
Ehandar was almost exploding with pent up anger and disgust.
“How dare the little worm,” he fumed inside. “How dare he upstage me like that and before Demrac too? I must put a stop to the interference of that insolent little imp. I can’t afford to lose face as lord governor.”
In reality Ehandar was not only angry, he was also afraid. Formally the eldest inherited everything, and for two generations ‘everything’ included the crown of Ximerion, but only if he proved to be the strongest or the smartest.
“If something were to happen to Father, Tenaxos or Portonas will succeed him. They are the older sons, and whoever of them gains the upper hand has the Army of the South to back him up. Whoever succeeds will as soon as possible remove all threats to his position and especially close family members who could compete for the throne. The only way to escape perpetual imprisonment or worse is to build my own power base. How am I supposed to do that with only three regiments and a handful of cavalry? On the other hand, I am far away in the North. They can’t possibly attack me here without weakening the southern border and they must be aware of the fact that I can’t attack them for lack of troops. What’s more, I am defending their backs. Maybe the future king will find that it is in his own interest to leave me in place. I’m relatively harmless and possibly useful.
“I can’t have Anaxantis undermine my authority, though. The Army of the North and the Northern Marches must be mine and mine alone.”
Anaxantis sat at the great table in the apartment of the lord governor. Before him lay eight books, all open, and a map of the northern border and the Renuvian Plains.
“If they won’t agree to occupy the passes, then maybe the Mirax can serve as a line of defense. Is the river deep enough? Are there bridges? And where? This map doesn’t show any, but there must be bridges somewhere. If we destroy them and post patrols at the Urtdam-Dek Pass at the coast and the Queneq Pass farther down the mountain range, we will be warned in time when the Mukthars come, and we can prevent them crossing the river. Why is Lorseth so far from the border? To be able to intercept them in time we should be garrisoned somewhere between Dermolhea and Ghiasht. Ah, but of course… Lorseth was built more than three centuries ago, not with the defense of the border in mind, but to keep Amiratha in check. Then there are the forests, four of them. Could they provide meat for advance guards? Are they inhabited?”
Meanwhile Ehandar, accompanied by his guards, went to the smithy of the barracks. The blacksmith and his five apprentices were deeply impressed by the high visitor.
“You,” he barked at the apprentices. “Out. Now.”
The helpers of the blacksmith ran outside.
“Do you have chains, shackles and locks, blacksmith?” Ehandar asked without preamble.
“Yes, My Lord, of course,” the blacksmith answered, unsettled.
“Good. You will come tomorrow to the castle, shortly before noon. Bring about ten pair of shackles and collars complete with locks, chains of different length, and the necessary tools to fasten the chains to a stone wall. Can you do this by yourself?”
“Certainly, My Lord.”
“I want this done discreetly, blacksmith, so cover up the cart and if anybody — and that includes your apprentices — asks you what your business is in the castle, you answer that there are repairs to be made. Understood?”
“Yes, My Lord,” a now trembling blacksmith replied.
“If ever I hear your tongue was loose, I will have it cut out,” he warned with an evil grin. “Make no mistake, blacksmith, I don’t make idle threats. If I am satisfied, there might be a few coins in it for you.”
Without another word, in the certainty that he would be obeyed to the letter, Ehandar turned on his heels and left the smithy.
When he returned to their room he found Anaxantis on the balcony, looking at the pounding sea.
“You’re going to catch a cold,” Ehandar greeted him. “You should wear a mantle.”
“I’m not that delicate,” Anaxantis replied, smiling, “but thank you for your concern. The view is beautiful here, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is rather.”
The sun had begun to set. The eerie, mournful yodeling call of gulls could be heard above the sound of the waves, breaking against the rock upon which Lorseth Castle stood.
“Look, there you can see the mountains and the aqueduct that brings us fresh spring water.”
Anaxantis paused, and looked at his brother.
“Ehandar, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just that I would like to feel useful for once. Thank you for agreeing to my plan to explore the Renuvian Plains.”
“If I throw him over the balcony, here and now, who is to say that he didn’t fall by himself? Even if he cries out he wouldn’t be heard above the rumbling of the sea. In fact, would his body ever be found? He would just have disappeared,” Ehandar speculated.
He felt his heart beat faster.
“Don’t worry about it. There’s enough to do for both of us, little brother,” he said, managing a thin smile.
“If you think about it, it’s perfectly true,” Ehandar thought. “In fact, by removing Anaxantis, I do part of the work of the next king. One less worry for him and more time and energy to concentrate on me. Maybe we should work together and make Amiratha into a safe haven for both of us. That’ll be the day. Two princes of our family working together? It would be contrary to the ways of the House of Tanahkos. Can I afford to trust him? What if he turns against me? No, I’ll keep to my original plan.”
“Yes, I reckon there is more than work enough.” Anaxantis smiled. “I’ll keep you informed of everything I plan to do. I know you don’t hold me in high esteem, but I hope we can somehow learn to work together.”
“He may be stubborn, but I’ll make him see that I bear him no ill will,” Anaxantis thought with hopeful resolve. “I’ll win him over yet.”
Suddenly, he broke into a coughing fit and had to keep himself upright by leaning on the balustrade.
“Go inside, Anaxantis, I told you it was too windy out here for you.”
“I think I will.”
“Was that concern I heard in his voice?” Anaxantis thought while he went inside. He smiled. “Yes, I’ll definitely win him over yet.”
A carrier pigeon landed on a window ledge of a tower of Ormidon Castle. A caretaker gently removed a small silver capsule strapped to its breast and had it delivered to the royal apartments.
When the servant had handed over the capsule he waited in the antechamber in case there was an answer.
Tenaxos read the message.
Tenax, Ehandar has ordered chains for the tower of the lord governors. It looks as if his move against Anaxantis is imminent. I fear his life is in danger. Dem.
“Already?” Tenaxos thought, amazed. “That is fast. But your assessment of the situation is not correct, old friend. If Ehandar wanted to get rid of Anaxantis why would he need restraints? He wants him out of the way, that’s for sure, but he balks at killing him outright. For the moment, at least.”
He went to a cabinet and retrieved a small piece of parchment. “Don’t interfere,” he wrote and put it in the small silver container.
Around eleven in the morning Iftang Busskal, general of the cavalry, reported to the tower of Lorseth Castle. He was a strong man in his early thirties and a noble of an ancient Ximerionian house. A sentry brought him without delay to the war room, where he was greeted by Anaxantis.
“Ah, General, thank you for coming. I hope I am not keeping you from important work?”
“No, My Lord. Besides there is no more important business than answering the call of the lord governor.”
“Better be careful,” the general thought. “He seems polite, too polite even, but he is a Tanahkos. By the Gods, he is young.”
Anaxantis explained his plan to scout the Renuvian Plains.
“I want your opinion on a few things. According to General Tarngord the undertaking is not without risk because of roaming robber gangs. How big would our party have to be, you think?”
“Hard to say, My Lord. At least thirty I would think. Fifty maybe. Can I ask why you want to inspect the Plains?”
“I am trying to find out if and how we can stop the Mukthars before they reach our frontier. I wondered if we could prevent them crossing the Mirax.”
“Well, that’s sensible. More sensible than just waiting till they stand at our border, anyway,” the general thought.
“Then we should follow the banks of the river from the sea to the desert. That is quite a distance,” Busskal put forward.
“More importantly, are you up to it? If we have to stop every few hours to let you rest, it will take forever and a day.”
“I know it will take quite some time,” Anaxantis replied. “Do we have anything better to do?”
“I suppose not. Anything is better than rotting away in the barracks,” the general thought.
“I for one would be all too glad for a chance to get out of here. If you don’t mind, My Lord, I would like to come myself. My second-in-command is more than capable enough to replace me here,” the general said eagerly.
“Why, thank you, General,” Anaxantis said, “it will be a pleasure to have you with me. I’m sure there are many things I could learn from you.”
They agreed that the scouting party would leave in two days. Anaxantis not only explained his plans in detail, he also asked the general many questions about the recruitment and the training of the cavalry.
“This is without a doubt the strangest one of the whole royal family. He has a good brain. It’s really a shame that his body can’t keep pace. And he is probably too gentle to maintain himself in that family of cutthroats. He’s likable enough, though,” the general reflected as he left the war room.
After his meeting with General Busskal, Anaxantis decided to go out for a ride. He wanted to explore the surroundings of Lorseth, and he thought the exercise would do him good. After two hours the familiar dizziness returned, and he had to be helped off his horse by the captain of his guard.
“Damn it,” he cursed silently, “me and my big plans. How am I going to lead an expedition into the Plains? I can’t remain seated on a horse for more than a few hours. And yet I am going to do this. So what if it takes a few weeks longer? Maybe I’ll get better with practice. Maybe the dizzy spells will become fewer and shorter or disappear altogether.”
When he returned dusk was already falling. The first thing he saw when he entered their room was the iron ring in the wall from which chains were hanging next to the fireplace.
“What the fuck?” he thought. “Is he planning to keep prisoners here? In our room? I wish he would consult me before making changes like this.”
He took off his mantle and his tunic and hung them on pegs in the wardrobe. Shortly thereafter Ehandar entered the room.
“I see you noticed the little modifications I made to the place,” he said.
“Yes,” Anaxantis replied, “would you be so kind as to tell me what you think you are doing?”
“It will become clear to you soon enough,” Ehandar replied while taking of his mantle and dropping it over a chair. “Have you seen your room?”
He opened the door of the little room where he had forced Anaxantis to sleep. Another chain hung fastened with an iron ring to the wall. Anaxantis, who had followed him, was astounded. Suddenly Ehandar grabbed him by an arm and forced it behind his back. Anaxantis let out a cry of pain. With his other hand he got hold of the chain, at the end of which was attached a steel collar. Anaxantis tried to struggle, but the only effect was that it made his arm hurt excruciatingly.
“Be still, you little runt,” Ehandar growled.
He opened the collar and put it around Anaxantis’s neck. After he had fastened the padlock, he let go of his brother.
“What are you doing?” Anaxantis asked in a panicking voice, while tugging futilely at the collar. “Remove that thing immediately.”
Ehandar backhanded him and Anaxantis tumbled onto the bed. His lip was bleeding and a coppery taste invaded his mouth. With difficulty he managed to restrain his tears and maintain a shred of composure.
“You will remain here for the night,” Ehandar said. “If you’re good, I will chain you in the big room during the day. The chain there is long enough to reach the bathroom. If you give me any trouble you will remain here. You will not leave this place anymore.”
Anaxantis was too stunned to respond immediately.
“Let’s see, what have we here?” Ehandar resumed as he began rummaging through Anaxantis possessions. As he opened a chest, a sweet odor pervaded the little room.
“Ah,” he said with contempt, “Emelasuntha’s famous sweets. That’s food for little girls. And sacks of herbs and pills.”
“Leave that alone,” Anaxantis cried. “Those are my medicines. I need them.”
As if he hadn’t heard his brother, Ehandar took the chest and dragged it to the balcony where he threw it over the balustrade into the sea.
“What have you done with my medicines?” Anaxantis asked anxiously when he returned.
“I threw them in the sea. Stop blubbering or you’ll go after them.”
“You can’t do this. Someone will miss me. Demrac will want to know where I am,” Anaxantis yelled in a shrill voice, betraying a mixture of fear and rage.
“You are sick and need to rest. I will tend to you myself, out of brotherly love. Demrac will do nothing, believe me. You can yell all you want. The walls are thick, and the roaring of the sea will drown out whatever sound manages to get through. You would be well advised to be civil towards me. I am the only one who can give you food and water.”
“Damn it, Ehandar, I am your brother,” Anaxantis shouted through his tears. “I am a prince of Ximerion.”
“Sleep well then, Prince of Ximerion,” Ehandar mocked as he closed the door behind him.
Utter darkness fell upon the little room.