Anaxantis was still asleep when Ehandar woke. Instinctively he remained as still as possible, so as not to disturb the peaceful rest of the boy. He enjoyed the unfamiliar feeling of waking up with a warm, breathing body tucked beside him. He had never felt like this before. It was as if for the first time he had something worthwhile to cherish, to protect. Strangely enough, it made all his problems more easy to bear and more urgent at the same time.
He almost startled when something suddenly occurred to him. He got up as quietly as he could and dressed. Cautiously he opened the door of their room and once outside ran down the stairs. On the courtyard, he looked up. Above the gate flew the battle standard of Ximerion and his own eagle flag. About two months ago he had given the order to not raise the dragon anymore. He now countermanded this and waited until a nervous sentinel had raised Anaxantis’s standard. He had also commandeered his brother’s six soldiers. He went to the lodgings of his personal guard.
He barged into the room where two captains, both wearing his crest, were breakfasting.
“My brother has recovered,” he said to one of them without any greeting or introduction, “and he may need his guard. From now on you are to wear the yellow tunics with the dragon crest again. See to it.”
The captains looked stupefied at each other.
“Immediately, My Lord,” the one he had addressed replied.
That taken care of, Ehandar relaxed and returned to their room.
He found Anaxantis, who in the meantime had woken and dressed, sitting quietly in his spot next to the fireplace.
“What are you doing there?” he asked, truly not understanding what he saw.
“I thought you wanted me here,” Anaxantis replied. “I didn’t want to presume—”
“No, no, no,” Ehandar interrupted him while he crouched beside him, “I want us to make a fresh start. I’ve handled this the wrong way from the beginning. It’s not the only thing I’ve managed to botch up. A lot has happened and there is so much to tell.”
He stood up and extended both his hands to help Anaxantis rise.
“I promise, it will all be different from now on.” He smiled. “Believe me.”
He hugged the boy and pressed him against his body.
“I believe you,” Anaxantis replied softly.
“Just like that… and it’s over,” Anaxantis thought, amazed. “He is in love. He is in love with me. Who would have thought it possible? Yes, it will all be different from now on.”
“First we will inform General Tarngord of your recovery, and this afternoon we will take a ride in the country. I will fill you in about everything that has happened. That is, if you feel up for a ride. I know you get dizzy spells.”
“Somehow I think they won’t bother me anymore,” Anaxantis said.
“I should have listened to you. I know that now.”
“Yes, you should have, on more than one occasion,” Anaxantis thought.
He made a slight deprecating gesture with his hand and smiled weakly.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. You’re right. Let’s make a fresh start of it.”
It was exactly what Ehandar wanted to hear. He fetched Anaxantis’s yellow tunic, his sword and his boots and helped him put them on.
“You don’t have to help me like that, I can do it myself,” Anaxantis said, while his brother was fastening the heavy clasps of the boots.
Ehandar looked up from his crouched position and grinned.
“I don’t mind. I want to.”
While Ehandar girded his sword on, Anaxantis looked out of one of the windows that overlooked the courtyard. He saw the three flags fluttering above the gates.
“And so the dragon flies again,” he thought, satisfied.
Commander-General Demrac Tarngord was the first of the higher officers to know. A servant had just put on his right boot when he heard a knock on the door of his private quarters. After being given permission his aide-de-camp entered.
“General,” he said, out of breath, “I thought you would want to know. The dragon flag has been raised above the castle gate this morning.”
“What? Are you sure?”
Brushing the servant aside the commander hobbled on one booted and one bare foot to the porch in front of his barrack. Indeed, there on the rock, above the castle gate flew the Ximerionian standard, flanked by the flags of both lord governors.
“What the fuck? How is that possible? That means not only that the little brat is still alive, but also that they have made their peace. I must find out as soon as possible what happened. Tenax needs to know.”
When he entered the war room Demrac saw both brothers bent over maps and reports.
“My Lord, it’s nice to see you so fit,” he said, without being able to completely suppress a faint hint of suspicion in his voice.
“Thank you, General.” Anaxantis said, and he smiled. “My brother took good care of me. All I needed was some quiet and rest it seems.”
“Are you going to resume your intended exploration of the Renuvian plains?”
“First of all, I’m going to acquaint myself with all that has happened in the time I was incapacitated, but eventually, yes, I would think so.”
“He seems healthy enough. A little pale maybe, but that is undoubtedly the result of being cooped up inside all the time. And what’s with the other one? Ehandar seems… lighter somehow. Less tense, less stressed. They must have come to some kind of understanding. But how? And why? And what exactly have they agreed upon?”
In the afternoon the brothers rode out into the countryside. Ehandar set an unhurried pace and headed for the little hill with the tree where they dismounted.
“Are you alright? No nausea?” Ehandar asked with a slight hint of concern.
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t that long of a ride anyway, but even so, I feel perfectly all right.”
Ehandar secured the horses to some nearby bushes, and Anaxantis took some maps, parchments and charcoal sticks out of his saddlebags. They sat down beneath the tree, and Ehandar began to tell everything he had learned in the last three months, frequently interrupted by Anaxantis who asked for some clarification or other.
“That’s quite some predicament we’re in. I’m so sorry that you had to carry this burden alone for so long,” Anaxantis said, when finally he had finished.
“Nah. Don’t be sorry,” Ehandar said, embarrassed. “It was my own fault. Anyhow, there we are. At least some of the auxiliary troops are worth something. Most aren’t though. If the Mukthars attack one of these weeks, I don’t know how we are going to resist them.”
“They won’t attack any time soon,” Anaxantis replied. “I can’t be totally sure, of course, but the last four raids were all in mid to late spring. I don’t think that’s just a coincidence. Maybe there is some cultural or religious reason. It could be a matter of tradition. Maybe some of them are farmers and they can’t mount an attack in sowing and harvest seasons. Difficult to say. As usual we know far too little. Anyway, chances are we have till next spring to prepare.”
“At one fell swoop he appeased one of my most important fears,” Ehandar thought. “By the Gods, it is good to be able to share all this with someone who understands.”
“But we should use the time wisely,” Anaxantis continued while he unfolded a map of the northern border and the Renuvian plains. He took a charcoal stick. “First, the Urdam-Dek pass near the sea. It’s difficult to see why they would take that route as it is an enormous detour. It is equally difficult to see why they would cross the Mirax at Renuvia. What I have called the Westwood Forest, for lack of a real name, would act as a wall to an army. At the very least it would make their advance very cumbersome. Again, why would they take the trouble? Nevertheless, just to play safe, we should post a reconnaissance patrol of, let’s say, fifty men to observe the pass. The ruins of Renuvia seem ideal as a base.
“They most likely will use the Queneq Pass. I suppose they could turn around the Eastwood Forest, but again the question is, why would they? It is somewhat more likely than the Urdam-Dek route, but not much. Again, to cover all possibilities, we should post a sentinel unit on the outskirts of the Eastwood Forest.
“The most likely route is for them to cross the Mirax between the Westwood Forest and the Middlewood Forest or between the Eastwood Forest and the Middlewood Forest. In both cases we can use the woods and the river to constrain them and block their passage temporarily with a vanguard. Our main force we keep in the back until we know which route exactly they’re taking. A sentinel post hidden at the edge of the Middlewood Forest should give us an early indication of their intentions.
“Of course, the best alternative for us is that they should choose a third route and decide to cross the Mirax in the bight closest to our border. In that case our main force is ready to meet them, and both of our vanguards are at their back. With any luck we could encircle them and that would neutralize their numerical superiority.”
Ehandar was speechless. He had followed Anaxantis’s explanation and saw him draw lines on the map with growing wonder and admiration.
“He must have thought about this while I had him chained up like an animal. While I was running from here to there in a ridiculously ineffectual search for more troops. What would I even have done with more soldiers on the off chance I had gotten them?” he thought depressed.
Anaxantis saw the sad look in his brother’s eyes.
“Hey, don’t beat yourself up. Neither of us has had it easy growing up in a family such as ours. We were bound to be screwed up to some degree,” he said softly.
He threw his arms round Ehandar’s neck and kissed him lightly on the lips.
“We were going to make a fresh start of it, remember?” he added.
“Is it really that simple? Just forget it and move on? By the Gods, I hope so,” Ehandar thought.
He smiled at Anaxantis.
“You’re right. I only wish I had seen it earlier. That I hadn’t ignored you all those years. I’ll make it up to you somehow, I swear.”
“I know you will,” Anaxantis said.
“That is a strange development, to say the least,” Tenaxos thought, holding the small piece of parchment.
He squinted to read the text, written in very small letters, again.
“Anaxantis has reappeared out of the tower this morning. According to both of them he has indeed been sick, needing rest and quiet. Not only does he seem recovered, but he looks fitter than before, apart from a marked paleness. The brothers seem to have reached some understanding and all animosity, as far as I can tell, is gone. On the contrary, there is an air of conspiratorial unity between them. It is as if they have been best friends for years. This afternoon they rode out together, without retinue, and they were gone for hours, without telling anyone where they went.
“Tenax, I don’t like this at all, though I’m glad of course that Anaxantis is alive and well. But they’re planning something, and they’re keeping their own counsel. Dem.”
“So, they seem to have taken the least likely way. Instead of trying to eliminate each other, they’ve formed a pact. I should be proud of them, I suppose. Ehandar has understood that force is not the only factor, especially when you don’t have enough of it. And he has also understood that it is not the measure of all things. It takes a lot of self-mastery to admit that you need help and advice, when your first reflex would be to rely on sheer might. Even more so in the case of a proud young man who has always looked down on the one he seeks advice from as his inferior. From Anaxantis it was to be expected that he would understand that it is not enough to have a keen brain but that you also need a strong arm. I must admit they’ve done better than I expected, though I would like to know just how they managed to overcome their differences.
“Ehandar… Portonas has cut off his sources of information here and dispersed what allies he had in the Southern Army. Right after that he forms a new alliance. Interesting.”
Most of the time Emelasuntha was worried to death, and when she was not worried to death she was bored to tears. It was not that she was treated badly. She had servants, none of which she had ever seen before, and everybody treated her with respect. But she realized all too well that when it came down to it, she was queen of one room. Out of the two windows she saw a dreary landscape of forests as far as the eye could see. She could also deduce that the castle where she was kept was fairly high up on a mountain. That gave her a vague idea where she was. Few people knew that the dukes of Tanahkos had also been lords of a small fief that consisted of a mountain and a small stretch of land around it. In fact it was where the noble House of Tanahkos had originated. Of course, the robber-barons, and you could as well leave the label ‘barons’ out of that sobriquet, didn’t want people to remember their origin, once they had acquired the duchy of Tanahkos. This they had accomplished through a combination of intrigues and strong-arming an old duke into giving his only daughter and heir in marriage to the chieftain of a band of thieves and cutthroats who had murdered his only son.
She was fairly sure she was in the eagle’s nest of Taranaq Mountain.
“Why has the Mekthona Tribe done nothing yet?” she wondered. “Surely, they are looking for me. Sobrathi must have had time to warn them. I hope she has kept contact with my informers. She has my ring, so she has access to the emergency funds I set aside at my bankers’. The Sisterhood must be looking too. And Anaxantis? It is maddening. All kinds of terrible things could have happened by now. That savage, Ehandar, may have murdered him and Tenax, that swine, probably wouldn’t take the trouble to inform me of his death. His medicines must be running out as well and he’ll be missing his sweets, if nothing else.”
Hemarchidas liked to walk in the woods near the barracks on the afternoons he was free from duty. Which was almost every afternoon. His unit practiced in the morning, groomed the horses and cleaned the barracks. There was just so much practicing, grooming and cleaning one could do, and so he had a lot of spare time on his hands.
Instinctively he walked with the almost soundless steps of a hunter. When the little path took a turn he was greeted by a strange sight. In a clearing, a young, slender boy was hacking with a longsword at a tree. He had removed his shirt and his upper body glistened with sweat. Hemarchidas didn’t want to startle him and waited till, out of breath, he paused and then deliberately stepped on some dry twigs. The boy turned around and looked at him, not really afraid but nevertheless cautious, while brushing a lock of wavy, blond hair with his hand from before his eyes. Then he smiled. Hemarchidas would later remember this exact moment as the one he fell in love.
“Hi there,” he said, “I am Hemarchidas.”
“Glad to meet you, Hemarchidas.” Anaxantis grinned. “My name is… Anack.”
“You can call me Hem, if you like. Most people do.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. I like long names and how they roll off the tongue. I was about to take a pause. Would you like some watered down wine? You’ll have to share my drinking flask, though.”
Only then did Hemarchidas see that a beautiful horse was fastened to a nearby tree. The boy retrieved a flask out of a saddlebag, sat down and motioned Hemarchidas to join him.
“That’s a beautiful horse you have there,” Hemarchidas said admiringly.
“Yes, a gray Zyntrean Warmblood, I’m told.”
Hemarchidas whistled approvingly.
“One of the best breeds. Your family must be rich. Are you in the army?”
“Cavalry,” Anaxantis lied.
“That’s strange. I’m in the auxiliary army myself and we had a few joint exercises, but I don’t remember seeing you.”
“I fell sick, a few days after we got here. I’ve just recovered a week ago, so I’ve missed all the fun.”
“Don’t be offended but aren’t you a bit small and young to be in the cavalry?”
“Hey, I am almost seventeen,” Anaxantis said, mock-insulted, “and Father has, eh, some influence.”
“At least that is not a lie,” he thought.
“You’re nobility,” Hemarchidas said, suddenly less at ease.
“Oh please, barely. Go a few generations back…” Anaxantis let the sentence die out.
“Probably rich farmers who have recently been ennobled,” Hemarchidas speculated silently. “He doesn’t seem to have the haughtiness of the ancient nobility.”
“And you?” Anaxantis inquired.
“As I said, I’m with the auxiliaries. Cavalry to be precise. I’m from the Cheridoni tribe. You wouldn’t know us.”
“Let’s see,” Anaxantis said, pensively. “The Cheridoni crossed the Ximerionian border in 1034 or 1036, I’m not sure, fleeing an enemy that outnumbered them tenfold. You sought asylum and were given a small valley at the border on condition that you would guard its pass. You’re horse breeders and have a reputation as fierce warriors. A well-trained Cheridonian Fourblood could outrun my Zyntrean Warmblood any day of the week. How am I doing so far?”
Hemarchidas was astounded. He was used to people being totally ignorant of his tribe.
“How come you know all this?” he asked.
“I was in poor health when I was younger. You’ve got a lot of time to read when you’re sick.” Anaxantis grinned. “Eventually some things are bound to stick.”
Hemarchidas mulled this over.
“Don’t you think an ax would be more efficient for felling a tree, Anack?” he asked after a while.
“Oh,” Anaxantis replied, “I’m not so much trying to fell a tree as trying to exercise. You see, being in poor health most of the time, I haven’t had many opportunities to train my muscles.”
“Hm. There is an exercise ground near the barracks, just for that purpose.”
“If I go there, I’ll be the laughing stock of all the other soldiers, and I doubt if I would get much training done. No, I’d rather exercise on my own.”
“The problem is,” Hemarchidas said, “that you are doing it wrong.”
Anaxantis passed the wine flask.
“Could you show me?”
Hemarchidas took a swig and stood up.
“Come,” he said, “take your sword.”
When Anaxantis had done so, Hemarchidas stood behind him, took his hands and positioned them on the hilt.
“First, place your right hand as close to the hilt as you can, like this, and use your left hand to stabilize your weapon. When you deliver the blow, don’t just use the muscles of your arm, as you were doing, but put your shoulders and your back into it.”
Anaxantis followed the Cheridonian’s instructions and hacked into the tree.
“See,” Hemarchidas said, satisfied, “that’s a lot better. Training your muscles is good, but you also have to know how to handle your sword, where to strike… a lot of things really.”
“Could you teach me?” Anaxantis asked.
“To tell the truth, I am not that good myself, but a friend of mine is. I could ask him. We’ve got nothing much to do in the afternoons, and he is bored. I think he might welcome the distraction. Are you here every afternoon? Tomorrow?”
Hemarchidas hoped he didn’t sound too eager. After he had confirmed that he would be there the next day, Anaxantis resumed his exercises while Hemarchidas looked on.
“You can tell he hasn’t had much training, but you have to admire his determination to improve,” Hemarchidas thought. “What a strange boy. Cavalry. I would have thought he was more of a page or a varlet to some higher officer. His father bought his commission probably. The first of the family to see military service most likely. He’s fine boned, but he seems tough. And he is absolutely gorgeous.”
After half an hour Anaxantis sank down beneath the tree, breathing heavily and sweating.
“By the Gods,” Hemarchidas laughed, “you smell like ass.”
Anaxantis sniffed under his arms and grinned.
“Yes, I do, don’t I? Not used to all this exertion, I’m afraid. Of course, you, having sat on your backside all the time, smell like roses.”
“You impertinent little devil.” Hemarchidas smiled and wrestled him down.
Anaxantis was no match for the well-trained Cheridonian.
“We should find you someone who can teach you a few hand-to-hand combat techniques,” Hemarchidas said. “A ten-year-old Mukthar could take you.”
The banter and teasing went on for a while. Anaxantis had the time of his life. Never before had he been able to hang around so freely with someone of his own age who treated him as just another guy.
“I think I made my first friend,” he reflected happily. “So that’s what I’ve been missing all these years.”
He looked at Hemarchidas. Somewhat taller than himself, black, half-long hair and a light olive colored skin, with long, supple legs and strong arms. A pleasant face with an easy smile. Hemarchidas felt him stare.
“What?” he asked, smiling timidly.
“I wish I had your muscles,” Anaxantis said, and he sighed.
“A few weeks of hard training and you should be all right, little one. Of course, you will never have my muscles,” he mocked.
“Just wait and see,” Anaxantis said in the same vein, “the day will come that I throw you to the ground without having to think twice about it.”
“Ha, I’d like to see that. You and what army?”
“Yes,” Anaxantis thought, “a very good question. Me and what army?”
“Don’t come too near,” Anaxantis said with a smirk at Ehandar when he entered their room. “I smell like ass.”
“In what gutter have you picked up that charming barracks’ expression?” Ehandar smiled.
“Someone I met in the woods today used it,” Anaxantis replied while he took off his mantle, tunic and sword.
He went to the bathroom, but left the door open. Ehandar took this as an open invitation to follow him inside.
“You had your guard with you, I hope,” he said, concerned.
“No, as a matter of fact, I needed some time on my own,” Anaxantis answered while undressing.
He put a wooden plug in the opening in the bottom of the stone bath and pulled another plug out of the wall. Immediately fresh water from a bifurcation of the aqueduct began to stream into the tub, and he stepped into it. While he washed up he told Ehandar, who stood leaning against the doorpost, what had happened that afternoon.
“That’s dangerous, Anaxantis,” Ehandar said, in a worried voice. “That Cheridonian could have been anybody. I told you why we have to be cautious. He could very well be an agent of Portonas.”
“Oh, I swear, Ehandar, you’re worse than Mother.” Anaxantis smiled. “Not everybody is out to get us.”
“Still… I don’t like it very much. And if you needed practice in sword fighting, why didn’t you ask me? I’m considered to be rather good, you know,” Ehandar said with an undertone of hurt in his voice.
Anaxantis looked up and studied his face. Then he laughed.
“Ehandar, by the Gods, you’re jealous,” he chuckled.
“Am not. I just want you to be safe.”
“Oh, come here and help me dry off. You’ve nothing to be jealous about. It’s just that I never had friends, and it was fun to forget for a while that I am a prince and a governor and what-not.”
“Yes, I can understand that,” Ehandar thought as he dried Anaxantis off. “The poor guy was always surrounded by people who were paid to keep him company and I haven’t been a big help either. Maybe it’s a good thing for him to get some friends his own age. Let’s just hope that’s all they’ll turn out to be. Friends.”
“All right,” he said indulgently, “have your little band of friends, but see to it that you don’t overdo it. The dizzy spells may have stayed away for a while now, but we don’t know if you’re really cured. There is a famous doctor in Dermolhea. I’m going to summon him here and let him examine you. If you don’t mind.”
Anaxantis put his arms around him and pressed his naked body against Ehandar.
“No, I don’t mind,” he said. “In fact I think it is a good idea. And it is rather cute that you’re so worried. Just like it is cute that you are jealous.”
With a squeaky laughter he ran into the room to the bed, followed by Ehandar.
“I am not jealous. I am not, you hear me? I am not.”
A while later they lay, both naked, on the bed. Anaxantis started to turn on his belly, but Ehandar stopped him.
“No,” he whispered self-consciously, “you take me.”
“Ehandar, you’re not used to it,” Anaxantis said concernedly.
“Neither were you,” Ehandar replied while he turned around. “Go ahead, it’ll be alright.”
Anaxantis used a liberal amount of scented oil to rub on his member and in Ehandar’s entrance before he inserted himself as gently as he could. Nevertheless, the pain was excruciating, like nothing Ehandar had felt before.
“By the Gods, this hurts,” he thought while biting his arm, “and I wanted this and, he is being so careful, so considerate. This feeling, having someone inside you, is so intimate. It makes you feel so vulnerable. There’s not much more you can give of yourself. And I have inflicted this callously upon him against his will. I have taken with violence what should be offered freely.”
“Oh, I am sorry, I’ve been too forceful. Now I’ve hurt you and made you cry,” Anaxantis said.
But that was not why Ehandar was crying.