It was the end of September, but the weather was still relatively mild. For about a month Anaxantis, Hemarchidas and two others had gathered in the clearing in the woods. The day after they first met, Hemarchidas had brought his friend Lethoras, a Cheridonian champion sword fighter. He was a quiet, self-assured, lanky guy who looked with detachment at the world through his dark green eyes. Three days later an infantry soldier called Bortram, who had a certain reputation in close combat, became a regular. He was less heavyset than one would expect for a wrestler, with short brown hair and a pale face that easily reddened. Though not a Cheridonian, he was an acquaintance of Lethoras. Anaxantis reveled in the company of his newfound friends, although the exercising proved rather humiliating. At horse riding he was clearly inferior to Hemarchidas, and Lethoras could knock his sword out of his hand with one blow. Bortram wrestled him to the ground in less than a minute. But Anaxantis kept at it tenaciously.
“You’re improving, Anack,” Bortram had said after a few weeks.
“You knocked me down exactly as fast as the other day,” Anaxantis had replied sourly.
“Ah, yes, but today I almost had to make an effort to do it,” Bortram had smiled.
“Almost. Why, thank you very much indeed,” Anaxantis had exclaimed, exasperated.
“No, seriously,” Bortram had winked, “tomorrow I’ll teach you some tricks that should enable you to hold your own against much stronger opponents. I think you’re ready. They won’t work on me, though.”
Anaxantis always brought the wine and food, mostly bread, butter and cold cuts, of which he himself ate very sparingly. After a week Hemarchidas had complained.
“It’s always you who brings the refreshments. Meats, butter, bread, cheese, wine… it must cost you a fortune.”
“Oh, let me do this,” Anaxantis had replied. “Lethoras and you are not being paid, you’re here because the Cheridoni are obliged under treaty to send troops. Bortram has a service pay, but he sends most of it home so his parents can keep the farm. I on the other hand can not only keep my pay, but my father sends me a generous supplemental allowance, and I have nothing to spend it on. You give your time for free to train a runt. Believe me, it is more than fair.”
“I’m not complaining,” Bortram said while chewing on a chicken leg. “The food in the barracks is not bad, but not nearly as good as this stuff.”
“Neither am I,” Lethoras had chimed in. “I’m sick of patriph, national dish or not. Every freaking morning, midday and evening porridge with slivers of dried goat meat. No, thank you. You’re outvoted, Hem.”
“I still think it isn’t fair,” Hemarchidas had grumbled, but, when Anaxantis had laid his hand on his shoulder, he hadn’t insisted.
Ehandar had said nothing to discourage Anaxantis, although sometimes the words burned on his lips. He had listened to Anaxantis’s excited stories of how he had mastered a new sword technique, or when for the first time he had won a race from Hemarchidas.
“He has a healthy color. All that exercising must do him good and he seems to enjoy the time with his friends. He is more lively. I just hope that he doesn’t become overconfident. We still don’t know what caused his spells and if they’re truly gone for good.”
One afternoon Lethoras demonstrated how one man defends himself against multiple opponents. It was impressive. He had asked the other three to attack him simultaneously, and in less than five minutes he had disarmed them one by one. To Anaxantis’s relief, Bortram was even worse with a sword than he. Lethoras explained the different moves and techniques he had used to simultaneously keep two attackers fully occupied while disarming a third.
“Now you,” he said to Anaxantis. “Don’t try to do what I did. Just defend yourself. If you manage to keep us at bay for a few minutes that would be a very good beginning. Don’t try anything fancy, just concentrate on deflecting our attacks.”
There was only one thing Anaxantis could do and that was retreat while fending off their blows. Very soon they threatened to surround him, so he maneuvered around, in an attempt to prevent being encircled, until he stood with his back against a tree. He couldn’t retreat any further, and he knew that whatever he did, it would be over in a matter of minutes.
Suddenly the four friends heard a cry and saw about a dozen soldiers on horseback storming at them, swords drawn. They had not the faintest idea what was happening.
“Stop, stop, it’s only an exercise. They’re my friends. I’m not in danger. Stop. Stop,” Anaxantis yelled at the top of his lungs.
The soldiers came to a halt, only inches away from the four friends. The captain of the squad dismounted.
“Are you all right, My Lord?” he inquired.
“Yes, yes, we were only practicing. My friends were teaching me to defend myself against a multiple attack.”
The captain looked at the other three, still with a hint of suspicion in his eyes.
“How is it you find yourself in this part of the woods?” Anaxantis asked. “I’ve never before seen soldiers here.”
“Your brother, Lord Ehandar, gave us specific instructions to keep an eye on suspicious movements in this sector of the forest, My Lord.”
“And he didn’t mention that I was here with friends?”
“Yes, he did, My Lord, only, what I saw didn’t look very friendly. For all I knew you were under attack by robbers, and your friends could be lying dead somewhere.”
“I see,” Anaxantis said.
“I’m sorry, My Lord, if I disturbed you.”
“No, no, Captain, you weren’t to know. On the contrary, you did your duty and you did it admirably. You are to be commended. Had I been in any real danger, you would have saved me. Thank you. I shall make sure to tell my brother that you executed his orders with diligence.”
Inwardly, the captain sighed with relief. He wouldn’t have been the first officer to be reprimanded for just doing his duty with an undesired result because his instructions had been incomplete. Blame tended to seek out the lower ranks, he knew. At least the young lord was fair in his assessment of what had happened.
“Thank you, My Lord,” he replied. “With your permission we will leave you to it. I will patrol the perimeter of this section and not disturb you anymore.”
When the soldiers had left, an uneasy silence descended upon the little group. Hemarchidas went to his horse, untied it and mounted.
“Your Lordship,” he said tersely, “I bid you a good day.”
“Hemarchidas, wait,” Anaxantis said, desolately. “Let me at least explain.”
“No need to explain, Your Highness,” Hemarchidas replied, every word dripped in acid. “Just find yourself some new toys to play with.”
With that he gave his horse the spurs and galloped off. Lethoras who was mounting his own chestnut, yelled after him, “Wait for me, Hemarchidas, damn it, wait for me.”
Once mounted he turned to Anaxantis and said in a sorrowful tone, “Sorry, Ana… sorry, he’s my friend.”
Anaxantis followed them with his eyes until they disappeared behind the trees. He turned to Bortram, who had all this time looked on without saying a word.
“Well, why are you still here?” Anaxantis asked roughly. “Aren’t you mad at me too?”
“I am not mad at you,” Bortram said calmly.
“Why not? They are.”
“Because I knew from the first moment I saw you who you were.”
“I saw you riding by one day with your brother.” Bortram grinned. “Not ten feet away from me. You, of course, saw nobody.”
“Oh, no need to apologize,” Bortram interrupted him. “It’s perfectly normal. There are hundreds of us simple soldiers and only two lord governors.”
“And you decided to say nothing to the others?”
“Yep. I was curious, to tell the truth. And hey, when was I ever going to get another chance to smack a prince down on his princely butt? To be honest, I was much harder on you than I would have been on any other beginner.”
“Me and my butt thank you,” Anaxantis sneered.
“Well, I wanted to know how long you would keep up the charade. After each time I threw you down, I expected you to say something like ‘Don’t you know who I am, peasant?’ and become all highty-mighty on me. But, no, you didn’t.”
“So, you stayed just to have the pleasure of pummeling me into the ground?”
“Of course not. There was also the food. How often do you think a simple peasant’s son has the occasion to sink his teeth into a chicken prepared for the lord governor? By the Gods, I get hungry just speaking about it. You wouldn’t happen to have some with you, would you?”
Anaxantis looked at him flabbergasted.
“Are you serious? Oh, in my saddlebag… Go and serve yourself.”
Bortram went over to Anaxantis’s horse and opened one of the pouches.
“The other,” Anaxantis shouted after him.
But it was too late. Bortram had found his yellow tunic with the dragon crest.
“Ha,” he said.
“Yes, I take it off as soon as I reach the forest,” Anaxantis admitted.
After replacing the tunic, Bortram retrieved an enormous turkey leg out of the other saddlebag.
“Happy now?” Anaxantis asked.
“Delicious. You’ll never know just how delicious until you have lived a few weeks on bread, water and gruel.”
“Try three months,” Anaxantis thought, “but you would never believe me.”
“And you’re sure I haven’t?” he said. “At least, you’re honest,” he added in a dejected tone.
“Oh, there was something else. I never would have thought so, but I found you surprisingly fun to be around. You’re good company, eh… yeah, what shall I call you?”
“You know my name. Obviously. But you can keep calling me Anack, if you like,” Anaxantis shrugged.
“I’ll go with Anaxantis then,” Bortram replied, gulping down a piece of turkey meat. “It’s a nice compromise between Your Divine Highty-Mightyness and Your Shrimpness, don’t you think? Damn, this is good. I could use a swig of wine, though.”
“Saddlebag,” Anaxantis said morosely. “So, we’re good, then?” he added while Bortram was rummaging around for the wine flask.
“Sure, why not? I still won’t let you win, though,” Bortram replied, pointing the turkey leg at him.
“I do hope so,” Anaxantis said, “but one day I am going to smack you down so hard that your ass will hurt for a month.”
“Yeah, dream on, shrimp. Never going to happen.”
“Why can’t Hemarchidas see it like you do,” Anaxantis complained.
“Because he thought you were friends,” Bortram replied, picking his teeth.
“We are friends,” Anaxantis said.
“Friends usually don’t lie to each other.”
“I didn’t lie. I… adjusted the truth somewhat.”
Bortram burst out in laughter.
“Really, all the important stuff I told you was true. Only some details were… less true,” Anaxantis tried to convince himself.
“Yes, like the detail that you are not a rich farmer’s son, barely a minor noble, but a prince of the realm. A detail, if ever there was one.”
“I meant to tell you, honestly. I was just waiting for the right moment.”
“You lied, Anack… santis, and Hemarchidas is hurt.”
“There must be something I can do to make it up to him.” Anaxantis almost cried.
“Well, in my experience saying you’re sorry goes a long way to setting things right,” Bortram said. “By now he will have calmed down a bit. Why don’t we go look for him? I know where the barracks of the Cheridoni are. Tell him you were afraid he would have treated you differently if he had known who you really were. Tell him you were afraid you would never have become friends in the first place.”
“How did you know that? That’s exactly what I thought.”
“He will never forgive me,” Anaxantis said, drooping his shoulders.
“Of course he will. He likes you too much not to.”
The calm, self-assured demeanor of Bortram gave Anaxantis some hope and they set out for the barracks of the Cheridoni.
When they neared the barracks of Hemarchidas’s tribe their noses were molested by a penetrating smell.
“By the Gods, what is that awful stink?” Anaxantis gasped.
“I reckon that’s patriph, you know, their national staple,” Bortram said, disgusted. “Lucky for me you brought the food and not them.”
The fourth barrack they knocked on was the one where Hemarchidas and Lethoras were lodged.
“Hem, visitors for you,” the young tribesman who had opened the door yelled to someone inside.
Hemarchidas appeared in the door opening, took one look at Anaxantis and Bortram and started walking briskly down the path between the barracks without uttering a sound.
“Come on,” Bortram said, giving Anaxantis a push in the back, “after him, and make it sound good. I’ll have a word with Lethoras.”
Anaxantis went after Hemarchidas. For every step the young Cheridonian took, he had to take two.
“Hemarchidas, wait, let me explain, wait…” he shouted after him, without result.
After a few minutes they were out of the encampment and Hemarchidas walked down a small path that led through the fields, with Anaxantis, almost out of breath, trying to catch up.
“Hemarchidas, damn you, slow down, I can’t keep up,” he yelled nearly in tears. “You’re the first friend I ever had and I don’t want to lose you.”
The Cheridonian stopped in his tracks and turned around.
“Oh, come on, you must have dozens of friends. Noble friends. Real friends.”
“No, you don’t know what it was like. I had servants, tutors, doctors… but never a friend. Never someone who liked me for who I was. Never someone like you.”
He had caught up with Hemarchidas, but was still breathing heavily.
“I wanted to tell you, honestly, I just didn’t know how. I was afraid you would treat me differently.”
“So, you didn’t trust me?” Hemarchidas asked coldly.
“No, that’s not true. Not exactly. I knew you liked Anack, but I wasn’t sure if you would like Anaxantis.”
“How can he trust, where would he have learned it?” Hemarchidas thought, while he looked at the blond boy who now was really on the verge of tears. “If only half of what they say about the royal family is true, it’s no wonder that he has trust issues. He seemed to enjoy our time together, and he wouldn’t have wanted to jeopardize that. Maybe he’s right. Would I have treated him the same if I had known who he really was?”
“You’re the first friend I ever had and I don’t want to lose you,” Anaxantis repeated and now the tears flowed down his cheeks.
All resentment, all anger, all hurt that Hemarchidas had felt dissipated as he looked at the crying boy.
“Oh, come here, you little fool,” he said and hugged him. “You’re not going to lose me. You can’t lose me, even if you tried. I’ll stick to you like a bad smell.”
“Like patriph?” Anaxantis smiled through his tears.
“The Gods forbid.” Hemarchidas laughed.
“You’re not angry anymore?”
“No, I think I understand. A little anyway. I was only angry, and mostly hurt, just because you are my friend. If you hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have cared.”
When they turned around to return to the barracks, they saw Bortram and Lethoras coming in their direction at a leisurely pace.
“Friends again?” asked Bortram cheerfully.
“We never stopped being friends,” Hemarchidas replied. “Even friends have a disagreement sometimes.”
“Yeah, I can vouch for that,” Lethoras grinned at Anaxantis. “The man can be impossible sometimes. But not a bad bone in his body.”
On the way back, Anaxantis took Bortram aside and said softly, “Thank you, Bortram.”
“For what? I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Bah, just looking out for my next meal, kiddo… I mean Anaxantis. Oh boy, this is going to take some getting used to.”
“Unbelievable. The impertinence,” Ehandar fumed, waving a parchment in Anaxantis’s face.
“What is it?” Anaxantis asked while he took off his mantle.
“He simply refuses to come, the insolent rogue. He has the temerity to say he hasn’t got the time.”
“Calm down. Whoever are you talking about?”
“Murno Tollbir, that doctor I mentioned. I summoned him to come here to examine you, and he just won’t do it. He flatly refuses to obey an order of the lord governor. He has too many patients depending upon him, he writes. He can’t spare the time for a journey to Lorseth Castle. But he graciously permits you to visit him in his practice, and he specifies, next Wednesday when he will make some time to see you. Have you ever heard of such insulting behavior? Well, I’ll teach him a few basic truths. I’ll have him arrested and dragged here in chains and let him rot for a week in the dungeons. Then I’ll ask him if he has time to see you or if he prefers to be left alone for another month.”
“Or… I could simply go. I’ve wanted to visit Dermolhea for some time now. This seems the ideal excuse to do so.”
“Anaxantis, we can’t let an insult like this pass without taking some action.”
“Maybe it is true what he writes. I would hate it if people would suffer or even die because he had to take a few weeks off, just to examine me for half an hour. Besides, he will have all his instruments there.”
“You’re much too soft,” Ehandar grumbled.
“Oh, come on, don’t be such a grouch. I’m sure he meant no disrespect, and my dignity will survive, you know,” Anaxantis pleaded with a smile. “I’d love to go on a trip.”
“All right then,” Ehandar caved in, “but you’re taking your guard and fifty cavalry men with you. And don’t you dare contradict me on this.”
“Okay, I won’t,” Anaxantis said meekly.
“And I’ll take the guys with me. Oh, this is going to be fun.”
Preceded by his guard, surrounded by his friends and followed by a fifty-man strong cavalry detachment, Anaxantis rode to Dermolhea. He had never felt more alive, breathing the crisp early October air, as the small column made its way on the road that led past villages, fields and through forests. After having asked his friends if they would like to accompany him on his trip and having received a unanimous positive response, he had first sought out the general of the Cheridoni cavalry unit. He had explained what services Hemarchidas and Lethoras had rendered him personally, and how he would appreciate it if they could be permitted to go with him. He had taken care to weave the general’s rank into his request as often as he could. Duly impressed by the courteous behavior of the young lord governor and the recognition of his importance, the general had been all too glad to grant the permission to his two fellow tribesmen.
“He even admonished us to behave,” said a laughing Lethoras when they were on the road. “He said that we were to remember always that we represented the honor and the good name of the whole tribe in the company of a member of the royal family.”
“He even said that he was proud of us,” Hemarchidas grinned.
“But that he would flay us alive if we brought shame upon the Cheridoni tribe,” Lethoras added.
“For a moment I thought he was going to cry,” Hemarchidas shook his head.
Getting permission for Bortram had been an even simpler affair. In fact, he could have asked Commander-General Tarngord to detach him to his personal guard and that would have been that. But Anaxantis had made the extra effort to go personally to the general of the second regiment to ask permission himself. General Ternengu couldn’t acquiesce fast enough, impressed as he was by the visit of a prince of the royal House of Tanahkos. A polite Tanahkos at that.
Ehandar had personally arranged for the cavalry unit and had impressed upon General Busskal that he was to handpick his best men for this assignment. Iftang Busskal who hated life in the barracks, had assured him that he would do so and more, that he would personally take command of the unit. This had seemed to please Lord Governor Ehandar, and Busskal had congratulated himself silently on a masterstroke, by both pleasing his superior, while at the same time escaping the boring routine of camp life.
They had set out very early and, riding at a trot, expected to reach the city in three days. In a last ditch effort, Ehandar had fussed again that the spells might return. In reality he hadn’t been all too happy about the long separation, but Anaxantis had adroitly neutralized any objection he could think of, and eventually Ehandar had given in, albeit doubtfully.
“At the least sign that the sickness returns, you stop and come back in small and easy stages, you hear,” he had said. “I’ll yet drag that old fool of a doctor here, and he’ll regret it if it so happens that his refusal results in you being sick again,” he had grumbled. “Promise me you won’t overdo it, out of stupid pride or something like that.”
Anaxantis had docilely promised and Ehandar, although still somewhat worried, had smiled indulgently, shaking his head. He had ordered the staff to see to the preparations and to arrange for lodgings on the way and in Dermolhea. The minor lords who were asked to accommodate the prince were grateful for the honor, and a rich merchant in Dermolhea was equally flattered.
During the stops and the evenings there was not much else to do other than talk. Anaxantis and his friends did just that. They exchanged their life stories. Anaxantis was as truthful as he could be, though he chose to omit certain details. He also clung to the official version of his illness during the first months after his arrival at Lorseth. It felt uneasy, because it was a blatant lie, but after due consideration he came to the conclusion that everybody had the right to keep some things to himself. He was certain that the others also had chosen not to mention certain facts that were just too intimate or painful to share.
“Friends respect each other’s privacy,” he thought. “You not only keep the secrets they entrust you with, but also let them have their secrets from you, and trust that they will tell you all you need to know.”
“Well, you have us now,” Lethoras said, after he had told them of his long, lonely years. “Granted, we’re not exactly barons, or counts or dukes, but at least you have some friends to talk to.”
“Although the Gods know what good it will do you, hearing the opinion of a peasant’s son,” Bortram added. “And I’m afraid hear it you will. Never knew when to keep my trap shut. Just ignore me.”
“I will do nothing of the sort,” Anaxantis said. “I value your opinion just because you have a sober farmer’s mind. When I’ve really had enough, I’ll put a chicken leg in your mouth.”
“Ah, that would do the trick.” Bortram grinned.
“So you really think your father set you up, you and your brother? That he wants to test you?” Hemarchidas inquired, frowning.
“The Gods may know what he really thinks. But one thing is certain: Father could have given us adequate troops to meet the challenge of a Mukthar attack.” Anaxantis shrugged. “He must have known how precarious our situation would be. It is exactly like Ehandar said. Nobody owes us loyalty and our authority depends upon the high king’s good graces. Which he can withdraw at any moment.”
“What you need is your own circle of dependable men, your own power base,” Hemarchidas mused.
“And look around you,” Bortram quipped, “you already have this sorry lot. Count your blessings.”
“Oh, but I do,” Anaxantis said, sincerely, “you guys are more than friends. Not exactly family… believe me, knowing my family as I do, that is a compliment. More like a tribe… a clan.
“Anaxantis’s Clan,” Lethoras said dryly. “It has a certain ring to it.”
“Clansmen of Anaxantis, why not?” Bortram added. “I wouldn’t mind being called that.”
“We’re an awfully small clan,” Hemarchidas remarked thoughtfully. “Maybe we should look out for some new recruits. Organize things a little. Enlist new talent.”
“Although my first instinct would be to keep our clan as small, as exclusive as possible,” Hemarchidas thought. “But what’s the use? If it is to be, you will see that even when I’m surrounded by a hundred men. If it isn’t, you won’t notice me, even among just the three of us. And, with a father and brothers like yours, you need a strong clan, loyal to you and to you alone.”
“I know a few men we could use,” Lethoras said. “When we return to Lorseth I could sound them out discreetly. If they should fit the bill, could you see to it that they are detached to your personal service, Anaxantis?”
“Probably. I see no reason why not.”
“But you three will always remain the first,” Anaxantis thought. “Nothing can change that anymore.”
Alone in the big bed, for the first time in a long time, Ehandar couldn’t sleep. The lack of a warm, breathing body beside him felt unfamiliar. Disturbing thoughts that had hidden in dark corners reemerged. He was worried about Anaxantis and wondered how he was.
“It has only been a few weeks and already I miss him from the first night he isn’t here. I should have gone with him. Damn the Marches and their unending administrative demands. It could all have waited a week or so. For that matter, damn them for good. Why can’t we just leave? We could go to the city state of Soranza. They’re strictly neutral and have a long tradition of granting asylum to all kinds of exiles. We would just be two princelings in a long line of fallen dictators, chased despots, dethroned kings, failed rebel leaders and refugee corrupt dignitaries. We could buy a small villa in the countryside. They say it is beautiful there. We could hire a few laborers and maybe grow some fruits or vegetables. Let the Gods create the days, and just live through them. Let the wolves fight over the Devil’s Crown, while we live quietly in the soft glowing hills around Soranza. Free from fears and worries. We could be happy there. I’m certain I could make him happy… No, I should never have let him go alone with just his friends.”
It was no use denying it any longer.
Ehandar knew he was jealous.