The young soldier sat alone at a table in the tavern. He filled his cup with wine from the jug he had ordered and reflected sullenly on his future, which at the moment didn’t look all too bright. The previous night they had found the eviscerated body of his friend on the wall walk and discovered that their one and only prisoner was gone. The captain had immediately ordered a search of the castle, and, when after a few hours it became clear that the queen was no longer their guest, he had sent soldiers in pursuit in all directions. Of course they didn’t find her, so the captain had to report her escape to the king. Three courier pigeons, all with the same message, had been let loose, with the fort of Nira as destination. Chances were all soldiers would be severely punished. Understandably. More than fifty of them to guard one woman and they managed to let her slip away. No, the future didn’t bode well at all.
A beautiful young girl caught his eye. She was smiling at him, and he motioned her to sit with him at his table. He ordered another jug of wine and an extra cup. She seemed to like him and didn’t mind that he took some liberties. Just when he was thinking feverishly where he could take her, she proposed that they go to a place she knew where they wouldn’t be disturbed. He gladly followed her into the night.
When he regained consciousness he had a splitting headache and he discovered that he was naked, somewhere in the woods, and couldn’t move. His ankles and wrists were each bound to a separate tree, so that he was spread-eagled between them. To his embarrassment the lovely girl looked down upon him, still smiling. Beside her stood another girl, slightly older, about his age, with short hair. It was obvious that she was in charge.
“Soldier,” Martillia said, “there is but one way you are going to live and that is to answer my questions promptly, completely and truthfully.”
She crouched down between his legs and let the point of her dagger rest in his bush. The panicking young man tugged desperately, but in vain, at the ropes.
“There have been much comings and goings today from and to the castle on Taranaq Mountain. Is Queen Emelasuntha there?”
The soldier didn’t respond immediately and Martillia grabbed the base of his shaft with her left hand and held her dagger underneath, threatening to cut off his manhood.
“Yes, yes,” he yelled, terrified, “but she has escaped.”
Martillia loosened her grip and removed the dagger.
“See,” she said, “that wasn’t difficult, was it? Now, tell me everything.”
The young soldier spilled all he knew in hurried, earnest-sounding sentences. When he had finished Martillia asked him some questions that he answered as quickly as he could. Then she looked at the young girl.
“How old are you, Dirina?”
“And you’re a disciple of the seventh outer circle?”
“Good,” Martillia said, handing her the dagger. “Kill him.”
The girl knelt down on the soldier’s chest, ignoring his desperate whimpering and pleas for mercy.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said softly. “I send you to the Great Mother.”
With one swift movement she slit his throat. She handed the dagger back.
“Quick, we have to leave,” Martillia said, wiping her dagger on the dry leaves on the ground. “By the way, you are now a disciple of the first inner circle.”
Dirina looked at Martillia with eyes running over with gratitude and adoration.
“So you have no idea where your mother could be?” Hemarchidas asked.
“Not in the least,” Anaxantis answered. “All I know is what Ehandar told me. She was moved to a secret and secure place for her own safety. Or so the official explanation goes. Since his friends were discovered spying on Portonas and had to flee the Army of the South, Ehandar has no information anymore on what is happening there, let alone in Fort Nira where Father has made his headquarters. He still has some informers in Ormidon, but nobody dependable to control them. So, by now they could all have been turned and it is difficult to estimate whether they are an asset or a liability. And of course it is downright impossible to know if the information they’re giving is correct, which renders it as good as useless.”
They were sitting under a tree while watching how Lethoras taught Bortram some intricate sword moves. It wasn’t going well. Bortram repeatedly dropped his weapon and cursed loudly.
“What confuses me,” Anaxantis continued, “is the whole medicine business. Didn’t Mother know that they were making me sick? Sometimes, I wonder. Maybe she did know and she just wanted me to stay weak and helpless to keep me near her.”
“Poor guy,” Hemarchidas thought, “what a perfectly horrid family. His father sends him into danger without adequate protection and there’s a good chance his mother deliberately poisoned him to keep him dependent upon her. His brothers, with the exception of Ehandar maybe, would kill him without a second thought if they suspected he stood between them and the Devil’s Crown. And I, with my stupid pride, could only think of how he had slighted me by not trusting me completely from the first minute he had laid eyes upon me. He should have been mad at me and not the other way around. Oh, well, just look how he has blossomed these last weeks. He’s got some color now, and he is getting stronger by the day. And he laughs more often. By the Gods, what a beautiful laugh he has… Stop dreaming, Hemarchidas, stop dreaming.”
Lethoras and Bortram had stopped practicing.
“You guys up for a bite to eat?” Bortram shouted.
After a double ‘yes,’ he and Lethoras went over to Anaxantis’s horse and got the food and utensils out of the saddlebag.
“So, I have given it some thought. I think the first one we must ask is Marak Theroghall. He’s a young archer with the Dermolhea Militia,” Lethoras said, while they were eating,
“The Dermolhea Drunkards?” Bortram asked.
“Yes, but he is one of the few, one of the very few Dermolheans who takes this militia thing seriously. You should hear him fume about his fellow citizens. He’s a keen shot. Overall a nice guy, but he has a bit of a temper and he stands upon his dignity. Not that he is nobility, in fact he hates them. He’s the son of a rich merchant.”
“Ask him to come along,” Anaxantis said, while sparsely nibbling on a piece of black bread. “I’d like to meet him.”
As of late Ehandar found it difficult to concentrate on the business at hand. He tried to get all the requests, reports, arbitrations and several other messages that required an answer out of the way by midday. Anaxantis had offered a few times to help him, to share the workload, but he had always declined. His younger brother tagged along to glance through the parchments though, but was happy to leave the actual handling to Ehandar. Anaxantis preferred rummaging through the dusty archives. The day to day business that Ehandar took care of was mostly boring stuff, like the parchment he was holding now. A report from the Royal Farms of the Northern Marches. The Royal Farms were managed by officials, while the work was done by criminals and other undesirables, who worked the land in chain gangs. The produce and meat fed the garrison at Lorseth. The surplus was sold. Of course, now, with the Army of the North to feed, the Royal Farms yielded not nearly enough and a lot had to be bought. Ehandar looked at the numbers of the harvest and compared them with what had been delivered at Lorseth. As far as he could tell all seemed to be in order. Not that he cared that much. His attention wandered constantly.
“I’m not cut out for this. How am I supposed to assess if these numbers are correct? They barely mean anything to me. I bet Father has to deal with ten or even hundred times as many of these reports. How does he do it? How does he cope with the constant worrying, the never relenting pressure? And above all, how does he hold on to the crown? For that I’m certainly not cut out. I wonder what I am doing here. If it were a simple matter of fighting, that would be another matter. Give me an army and fair odds, and I’ll do my part. But I can’t do what grandfather could. Totally crush an enemy three times as strong. I doubt Portonas could, or Tenaxos. Well, Tenaxos maybe. And Anaxantis. I wouldn’t be surprised. There is a core, harder than steel in him that few suspect under that handsome, boyish exterior. A tenacity, a stubbornness… You can throw him down, but he will always stand up. You can defeat him and he will learn from it and come back at you. It’s frightening really.”
His mind wandered off to lush, sun-drenched fields and long rides on horseback trough the countryside of Soranza and the both of them eating beside the road.
“We could go to the theatrical festival of Soranza and, who knows, make some mutual friends.”
“Am I jealous of his friends? No. Not really. Though I wish we could have made them together. So, yes. Maybe. And yet, he gives me more than he gives them. But whatever the case may be, I cannot, I will not try to come between them. I will only accept what he gives of his own free will and I, for my part, will give him everything he wants. I can’t do anything else. Not anymore. I couldn’t bear going back to the days of feeling lonely surrounded by people. Of gnawing uncertainty. Of fear. Of emptiness. For better or for worse I’m bound to him.”
“Anaxantis, this is Marak Theroghall, master archer and scion of one of Dermolhea’s most prominent families,” Lethoras said.
Anaxantis looked inquisitively at the lanky, dark-haired young man with the dour expression. He wore the rather ornate uniform of the Dermolhea Militia. It must have been made by an excellent tailor of cloth of the highest quality, fitting perfectly and spotless. The Theroghalls must be quite rich.
“Pleased to meet you, Master Theroghall,” Anaxantis greeted him cordially.
“Your Lordship,” was the curt, formal response.
“Come, walk with me. I’d like to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind.”
“Certainly, if I can be of service…”
Anaxantis began walking into the forest with an uneasy Marak beside him.
“At least he doesn’t make it too obvious that he looks down upon me, like most nobles do. That can only mean one thing. He needs something, and he thinks I can provide it. Lethoras called him by his given name, and he seemed used to it. Isn’t he a prince of the royal blood? Very strange behavior. Better be careful, Marak. It is the seemingly innocent ones that are the most dangerous.”
After a few minutes Anaxantis broke the silence.
“Lethoras tells me you are not too happy with your colleagues of the Dermolhea Militia.”
“That’s putting it mildly, My Lord. The Dermolhea Militia is a shambles. It’s a disgrace really. To think that once the Dermolhea Militia could defend the city against any enemy. Of course that was ages ago, before we became part of the kingdom of Ximerion. But even so, look at us now. Barely two hundred men strong and maybe ten out of that are a decent shot.”
“But you’re one of those ten?”
“I like to think so, My Lord.”
“Do the Theroghalls belong to the so-called Forty Founder Families?”
Marak stopped in his tracks. Anaxantis looked up at him with an amused expression.
“Surprised I know about them? Don’t be. I visited the city last week and I bought some books, among which two histories of Dermolhea. Very instructive. I’ve only glanced through them, but I read enough to know that your fair city has a long and proud history as a bastion against the oppressive nobles of Amiratha. They never could take the city.”
“Not for lack of trying, though. The Forty could withstand anything they threw against us. That’s what makes it all the more exasperating. It makes me so furious to think that this sad collection of incompetent drunkards is all that remains from a proud tradition. I’m sorry, My Lord, I tend to get carried away.”
“No, not at all, Master Theroghall, please, continue.”
“To answer your question, yes, my family is one of the Forty.”
“You probably can trace your lineage back further than most Amirathan petty nobles, and you’re richer to boot. Yet, they look down on you. They would never let you marry one of their daughters, would they?”
“No, My Lord, they most certainly wouldn’t.” Marak looked with surprise at Anaxantis. “Not that I would wish to,” he added, disgruntled.
“Yes. No wonder you hate nobles. We’re not all the same though, you know?”
“Am I that transparent? He has apparently gone to the trouble of actually looking up some facts about Dermolhea, and he is far less obnoxious than most nobles. No wonder Lethoras smiled when he answered that I would just have to find out for myself when I asked him what kind of person the young lord governor was.”
They had arrived at a little river that marked the border of the forest. Anaxantis sat down on a rock on the bank of the stream and motioned Marak to do likewise.
“Maybe you could help me understand something that’s been puzzling me for a while now. Twelve years ago the Mukthars came at us with eight thousand men. The army came too late to prevent the sack of Dermolhea. More than fifteen thousand of your fellow citizens’ lives were lost.” He looked up at Marak and continued almost whispering. “The Forty had left Dermolhea a few days earlier.”
“How did you know that?”
“I didn’t. Not for certain, that is. But now I do. I suspected it from some old reports I found in the archives of the castle.”
Marak had become red and shifted uneasily.
“That as well is an embarrassment and a disgrace. And it wasn’t the first time it happened either. The Forty have, let’s say, their contacts on the Renuvian plains. So we knew the Mukthars were coming, more than a week beforehand. Nothing was prepared. Father, who, then as now, sat on the City Council, saw to it that Lorseth Castle was duly informed. The army should have been there in time. Some of the Forty didn’t wait and fled to their country estates. When the army didn’t turn up and the Mukthars were only a day’s march away, Father took our family and followed in their footsteps. What else could he do? Of course, by then the information had leaked out. Some of the citizens fled as well, but most took their chances and stayed, hoping that the army would yet come to the rescue. It must have been complete chaos. Nobody knew what to do and the city government was in total disarray. The Militia disintegrated as it was mostly composed of sons of the richer families. They left the city together. The common people were abandoned by their leaders and by the army that should have defended them. They were left to fend for themselves. Dermolhea, the city that once was impregnable, fell in less than a day.”
Marak bowed his head under the stare of the gray-blue eyes.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Anaxantis said softly. “You were — what? — six at the time?”
“No, it wasn’t my fault, but still…” Marak looked up at Anaxantis. “But let’s not forget, Your Lordship, that the Ximerionian army was at least as guilty as the leadership of the city.”
“Don’t look at me, I’m even younger than you.” Anaxantis smiled. “It almost seems as if there was a conspiracy going on at the time,“ he added, the smile vanishing from his lips. “Both the army and the city government giving up like that. The Mukthars were given free rein. I promise you, this time the Ximerionian army will do its duty. I swear it, Master Theroghall, I will do everything in my power to prevent this from happening again.”
“Strangely enough, I believe him,” Marak thought. “At least, I believe he believes it himself. Whether he can deliver is another matter.”
“The problem is,” Anaxantis continued, “that the Ximerionian army alone will not suffice to stop the Mukthars. We have three regiments of twelve hundred men and a cavalry unit of two hundred and fifty. The auxiliary troops amount to some eleven hundred men. The units are widely diverging in quality. From the excellent Cheridoni cavalry to, I’m sorry to say, the Dermolhea militia. Even so, all that amounts to a grand total of just shy of five thousand against their presumed eight thousand. Unbloodied troops against what are in all probability seasoned warriors. I could use some help, Master Theroghall.”
“Did he just ask for my help? Father will never believe me. A prince of the realm asking me, me, for help? It’s literally unheard of. The most minor noble, barely a peasant with a sword, a barn with a moat, and a title, wouldn’t lower himself to this.”
Marak Theroghall looked at Anaxantis as if to measure him. The gray-blue eyes looked back at him impassively, patiently waiting for a reaction.
“If you think I could be of any use,” he finally said, “I will gladly render whatever service I can, My Lord. What exactly is it you need?”
“I hope to reorganize the auxiliary troops, that is, those who can be improved at all, and I want a sizable company of competent archers. You will have to work with what is at hand, I’m afraid. Second, I hope to recruit additional forces who undoubtedly will need training. Third, I hope to form an elite group, under my command, that can serve as storm troops. I want to be able to force the situation on the battlefield personally whenever and wherever the enemy gives us an opening. Fourth, through circumstances beyond my control, I haven’t been able to train myself in the use of arms as I would have liked to. I could use someone to teach me how to handle a bow and arrow.”
Anaxantis smiled, almost shyly.
“Is he serious? Since when are princes of the royal blood prepared to risk themselves in battle instead of giving orders from behind the lines? And look at him. With his pretty face and long blond hair he looks for all the world like the favorite of some effeminate lord. Is he our hope in times of trouble?” Marak thought.
“Very well, My Lord, whatever service I can render, I’m your man. The Dermolhea Militia will hardly miss me, I suppose. If I can in any way help blot out the memory of the scandalous behavior of the Dermolhean leadership, I suppose I should be grateful for the opportunity.”
“Thank you, Master Theroghall. I can use all the help I can get, but most of all, I could use another friend.”
“He clearly wants to flatter me for some reason. Obviously, it’s just something nice to say. Even so. No Amirathan noble would ever think of saying something remotely similar to a Dermolhean.”
“I’m honored, My lord.”
“The honor is mine. And my friends call me Anaxantis, Marak.”
When he returned to the castle, the guards at the gates informed him that Ehandar was waiting for him in the war room.
“Ha, there you are,” his older brother said. “Something strange has happened. Your mother sent you a new batch of medicines and sweets.”
“Mother? But I thought she was under arrest.”
“Apparently not anymore. She even sent a woman to prepare the tea for you, and, if you ask me, to make certain that you take your medicines regularly.”
“Isn’t it remarkable?” Ehandar continued. “The doctor gave you a clear bill of health, and, lo and behold, barely ten days later your mother sends you medicines. It stinks to high heaven.”
“Where is that woman? I’d like to ask her some questions.”
“I thought so. I had her and the medicines secured in the guardhouse. Under the supervision of your personal guard, which, I might add, you once again left here. Anaxantis, would it kill you to take them with you? Let me answer that. No, it wouldn’t. Quite the opposite in fact.”
“I know, I know,” Anaxantis said with a disarming smile. “Let’s first go and see what we can find out from her.”
The woman sat on a bench in the guard house. She was thickset, with a homely, friendly face. She was the perfect embodiment of a nanny. In the middle of the room stood a big wooden crate. At the door two guards with the dragon crest kept watch. When Anaxantis and Ehandar entered the room the woman rose and bowed.
“You were sent by the queen?” Anaxantis asked.
“Not by Her Majesty in person, My Lord,” the woman answered. “I was sent by Birnac Maelar, the doctor who prepares your medicines. But he acted under instructions from the queen. She even gave him a letter for you. It is in the crate.”
A sickening, sweet smell pervaded the room immediately as Anaxantis ordered one of the guards to open the crate. It was filled with little sacks with herbs and pills and small boxes with sweets. On top lay a sealed parchment. Anaxantis took it and looked at the wax seal before he broke it.
“Hm. That seems to be Mother’s seal, all right. And this appears to be her handwriting.”
While he read the letter it all came back to him, and after all these years he understood.
From the time when he barely could read, Emelasuntha had played a little game with him. She used to give him about ten little pieces of parchment.
“I have hidden three cookies for you, my darling. Where they are is written down on the parchments. But only one of them is really from Mummy. When Mummy writes to her little Anaxantis she mentions his name twice. She also will write something about the weather, and under one of the letters a in your name will be a little smudge, a barely visible dot. All three signs must be there, or the message is not from mummy. If you pick the wrong message, there will be no cookies and you get only one chance.”
He had read all the parchments and had soon found the right one.
From Mummy to her little sunshine Anaxantis. Three cookies lie under Anaxantis’s pillow on his bed.
His name had been mentioned twice, and under the second letter a from the first instance had been a little dot. The note mentioned sunshine. Squealing he had run to his bedroom and looked under the pillow. Happily munching he had come back to Emelasuntha, who smiled contentedly. She had made him promise, repeatedly, to never, ever share their little secret with anybody. They had played the game numerous times. When he got older they played it only once every few months, but the prizes were bigger. An expensive book. A nice scarf. The last time they had played it was on his sixteenth birthday when she had hidden his present.
He remembered being annoyed at the time.
“Take that woman and lock her up in the dungeons. She’s an impostor,” he said, turning to his guards.
“What?” Ehandar cried out. “How can you tell?”
“I’ll explain immediately, when we’re alone. First I want to see that woman behind bars and I want her guarded by two men at all times.”
“But, My Lord,” the woman wailed, “I assure you I was sent by the great Doctor Maelar.”
“Maybe and maybe not,” Ehandar barked at her. “We will know soon enough.”
He turned to the guards.
“Tell the executioner to show her the instruments of, ah, persuasion so that she knows what awaits her if she proves to be unforthcoming, and let her sleep a night on it. Tomorrow I will interrogate her myself. Send your four colleagues in.”
When the two guards had marched the woman, who was still protesting her innocence, out of the room, Anaxantis explained.
“Mother taught me to watch for certain signs in her letters. None, not one of the signs is present in this one. That can only mean one thing. It’s a forgery. It follows that those so-called medicines were not ordered by Mother. The question is, who sent them to me? And why? The letter said that the woman was indeed, like you guessed, to prepare the tea and make sure I drank it regularly. Someone seems to be desperate to see me sick again.”
Four guards entered the little room.
“Take that crate and throw it into the sea with all it contains,” Anaxantis ordered. “Be careful, it is poison. Don’t try out the sweets. They may be poisoned too.”
With a deep furrow on his brow he left the room. Ehandar took a little sack with pills, one with herbs and a box with sweets out of the crate.
“You heard your master,” he said to the guards. “Replace the lid and into the sea with it. And for your own sakes, don’t touch the contents.”
When Ehandar came into their room, Anaxantis sat in the big chair by the fireplace, lost in thought.
“What a remarkable woman she is, Mother. Even then she must have foreseen that the time would come that a secret system to authenticate letters could become useful. She didn’t send the medicines. That also means that it is anybody’s guess whether she is free, or still a prisoner. Damn it. To what end would somebody want to incapacitate but not kill me? Surely, I’m not that important.”
Ehandar had taken off his mantle and tunic and gently nudged his brother to make room in the chair for him. Without looking at him Anaxantis obliged.
“Don’t worry,” Ehandar said softly while putting an arm around him. “At least now we know for certain that somebody tried to intentionally harm you and that this someone is not your mother. That’s something, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so. I’ve taken these damn things since I was twelve. I could have had a normal youth, you know? I could have trained in arms. I wouldn’t have been such a burden to you.”
“Shht, it was not your fault and I wasn’t much help. You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could—”
Anaxantis laid a finger upon his lips.
“Anyway,” he continued, the finger still on his mouth, “tomorrow I will personally interrogate that hag, and I promise you, one way or another we will find out who did this to you. You’re not alone in this. Not anymore. You have me to protect you now.”
He kissed the finger lightly.
“I love you,” he whispered.
Anaxantis sighed and laid his head against Ehandar’s shoulder.
The next morning, when the dungeon guard went to check on her, he found the woman who had brought the medicines dead in her cell, her face a blackish blue color. The hastily summoned army physician could do nothing more than confirm that death was caused by poisoning.
The soldiers searched the cell and in the straw on the floor they found a small vial.
Ehandar was furious, but ultimately powerless.
The woman had escaped him, and with her death the only opportunity to find out who had sent her had gone up in smoke.