Renda had been a cook for five years in Lorseth Castle. She was an outgoing woman in her mid-thirties, beloved by her colleagues for her sunny, yet quiet disposition. Since the Army of the North had arrived the kitchen had been busier since they now had to prepare the food for the two lord governors and the higher officers. The kitchen staff had been enlarged with the prospect that the two princes were likely to organize dinners and banquets. Until now they had not done so, let alone on a great scale, and their own needs were modest. The chief cook had ordered that every day about double the amount of food was to be prepared than what was expected to be needed, just in case guests of the lord governors should arrive unexpectedly. Since that also didn’t happen very often, most days lots of food was left over. The kitchen staff ate very well at Lorseth Castle. But even so not everything got eaten.
Renda hated throwing away perfectly good food and she had taken to bringing what was left to the dungeon guards. They thought she was a gift sent from heaven and made it a point to always offer her a beaker of wine, which Renda gladly accepted. Soon the guards anticipated her daily visits eagerly, not only for the delicious leftovers she brought, but also for the cheerful company that broke the monotony of their long, boring days. Renda often excused herself for being such a babbler and blabbermouth, but the guards didn’t mind. Her stories were always exciting and a great diversion from their daily drudgery. Renda also made a point of asking how their day had been, which offered a welcome occasion to complain about everything, from the low pay to the dampness of the dungeon and everything they could think of really.
This day they had an exciting story of their own to tell, and tell it they did. They even reported what their colleagues of the personal guard of the lord governors had told them. Renda ooh’d and ah’d in all the right places and went away duly impressed, right to the chief cook. She asked him for three days off since her sister was sick. As she almost never took days off, and she was a good worker who never complained, her boss gladly granted her permission. If it took four or five days, that was all right by him too.
Renda’s sister lived in a village called Drogogha, fifteen miles from Lorseth. Being one of those people that are instantly perceived as likable, she had no trouble finding merchants and farmers to offer her rides. She had started out in the morning and arrived at her sisters’ in the late afternoon.
Ten minutes after Renda had arrived, her sister’s twelve-year-old daughter, Sirona, left the house and walked to the junction with the highway. There was an old stone statue of a minor god who guarded crossroads. Sirona tore a branch off a sapling and fixed it with a piece of string to the statue, as if making an offering. She returned regularly to check whether the branch was still there.
The next evening, near midnight, a man knocked softly at the door. He was quickly let in, and half an hour later left again, unseen. He walked surreptitiously to the nearby woods where a companion awaited him. Both men mounted their horses and began the long ride to Soranza.
Anaxantis frowned as he rifled through another box of parchments. It was utterly disheartening. He could reconstruct what the then lord governor, the count of Whingomar, had eaten for dinner on a given day twelve years ago, but as to the movements of the army in the crucial days before the attack of Mukthars, the archives remained mute. According to Marak, his father had sent word of the imminent attack, yet he couldn’t find a trace of such a notification. It was as if someone had taken great care to remove all documents that could give an indication as to when the warning was received. There was also nothing to be found about the subsequent army movements.
Finally after hours, he unearthed a note of the Master of Supplies and Provisions instructing some underling to lower the orders of food since the army would be leaving Lorseth that day. It was dated May 7th, 1440. Two days before the sack of Dermolhea. Anaxantis almost couldn’t believe what he’d just read. The lord governor had wasted four or five crucial days. Even had he started out upon receiving Theroghall senior’s warning, it would have been touch and go. At the very least it would have required forced marches to meet the Mukthars in time to prevent their onslaught on Dermolhea. But instead of making haste, it seemed as if his predecessor had deliberately wasted valuable time.
“So the army makes as if coming to relieve Dermolhea but at the same time someone insures that it will be late. It simply makes no sense. Equally stupefying, long before they could be sure the army wouldn’t arrive in time, the Dermolhean elite abandons the city and its inhabitants to its own devices. What the fuck was going on at the time? Did the Forty know beforehand that no aid was coming? Or at least not in time? There is only one possibility. There must have been a traitor. Someone whose task it was to ensure that the Mukthars would not meet with any resistance at all. That is the only explanation. And yet, who could ensure that the army wouldn’t march on time? And how did he or they do it? And why? Were they paid by the Mukthars? That seems so unlikely. I’m missing something here. What is it that I am not seeing?”
Without knowing it, Ehandar employed the same crude ruse as Anaxantis. A few miles outside the camp he rode into the woods and changed his tunic with the eagle crest for an equally rich but neutral one. Some five miles further, on a craggy hill, surrounded by open fields, stood the remains of an ancient watchtower. Even now, in its dilapidated state, it dominated its surroundings. Hidden in the ruins, one could see for more than two miles in every direction. It was impossible to approach the remains unseen.
When Ehandar dismounted, Gorth came out to greet him.
“Quick, lead your horse inside the ruins.”
The young men hugged. Gorth had met with no difficulties enlisting in the cavalry of the Army of the North. His explanation that Serimar Delono was the fifth son of a minor Zyntrean noble, who stood to inherit almost nothing, and was involved in a bitter quarrel with his older brothers was readily accepted. It was not even that far from the truth. Gorth of Sidullia was the third son and effectively would inherit nothing but a small sum of money, and the pious wish of his father that his eldest brother would take care of him. In return for service and obedience of course. It was one of the reasons why he had become friends with the young prince, also a third son with a bleak future. They understood each other perfectly.
Since Gorth preferred to maintain his cover, it was too dangerous to meet in the camp, or even too often outside the camp. They had decided to get together in the ruins every month on the first Sunday. Again like Anaxantis, it was Ehandar who brought the food.
They sat down on a giant stone that lay against one of the few remaining walls.
“You seem tense, Ehandar,” Gorth said, partly stating an observation, partly asking.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, Gorth. And I have made my mind up. At last.”
Gorth didn’t answer, but looked expectantly at his friend.
“I want out, Gorth,” Ehandar said looking at the ground. “I just can’t do it any longer. You’re disappointed in me, aren’t you?”
Gorth hesitated for a moment.
“I’m not overly surprised, but I can’t say I saw it coming either. I knew of course that the fierce Ehandar was mainly an act. A role you perform well, though.”
“What you don’t know is what it has cost me all these years. How suffocating it is. How afraid I am to lose myself. To become my mask. It is… it is like continuously walking around in heavy armor. In the long run it weighs you down. It chafes you.”
Ehandar’s voice broke at the unhappy association. Gorth didn’t notice.
“You must despise me,” Ehandar added unhappily.
“No, not at all. You are my friend. I didn’t expect it, that’s all. But, if this is what you want… You know, until a few months ago I really thought we had a chance, we the underdogs. I really believed that we could outwit and outmaneuver them. How naive. See how quickly and easily Portonas made us flee in all directions.”
They remained silent for a few minutes.
“What now?” Gorth asked, after a while.
“I was thinking of going to Soranza and asking asylum for Anaxantis and me.”
“Anaxantis? You’re taking him?”
“We’ve come to know each other better, these last months. We’ve grown… quiet close.”
Ehandar blushed. Gorth frowned.
“You do know what your little brother is up to, don’t you? He and his band of young bucks?”
“He never had friends. He never could train in arms. It’s all quite innocent.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that. As far as I can tell he is carving out a personal strike force. He’s plundering the army of its best elements, right under the nose of the old commander. He befriends peasants, horse breeders and merchants. He permits them to call him by his given name. The troops are starting to notice. He seems the only one who is doing something. My own general is smarting because he hasn’t been called yet since Anaxantis recovered. I tell you, Ehandar, little Anaxantis has plans of his own.”
“He’s just playing at lord governor. But deep down he knows what I know. I’m certain of it now. Father has set us up. He wants to make sure who will succeed him. And that isn’t either one of us two. He wants to prevent a battle to the death for the throne after he’s gone. It would weaken the kingdom fatally or, the Gods forbid, divide it. That’s why he took Portonas and Tenaxos with him, and why he sent Anaxantis and me here. He’s just looking on from afar in which way exactly we will destroy ourselves. Will we murder each other? Will we die in battle? Will we be ignominiously defeated by barbarians and have to flee? Whatever the outcome, we will have either eliminated or disqualified ourselves. He’s certainly not planning to let the Devil’s Crown fall into the hands of a little bastard.”
“Oh, come on, don’t tell me you haven’t heard the rumors. And besides, look at us. Father, me and my older brothers, we all have black hair and dark eyes. Anaxantis is blond with light eyes.”
“He could have those from his mother.”
“Or from his father.” Ehandar grinned sadly. “It doesn’t matter too much, I suppose. He wouldn’t be the first and he won’t be the last. That would still make him a prince. A prince of Zyntrea, that is.”
“He has been raised a Tanahkos. Maybe that matters more, in the long run.”
“You could always go alone if he refuses to come,” Gorth said after a while.
“No… No, I couldn’t. If I can’t convince him to come, I stay as well.”
Gorth looked inquisitively at his friend.
“Now why do I get the feeling that you are not telling me everything?”
Ehandar kept looking at the ground, debating with himself whether he would tell Gorth the truth, the whole truth.
“Ehandar,” Gorth said softly, “keep what’s in your heart in your heart. When you feel like sharing, I’ll be there. For now, I don’t need to know.”
He fell silent.
“Now, tell me, how are you going to proceed?” Gorth broke the uncomfortable silence in a more practical tone.
“I would like you to do me a big favor,” Ehandar replied, “I want you to go to Soranza and find out what the requirements are for asylum seekers. As far as I know, the Senate there has a special committee that grants or withholds permission. To begin with, be as discreet as possible. Just tell them that two princes and a noble friend of theirs are considering seeking their protection. If necessary give more details. I’ll also give you a letter, should they ask you for proof of who you’re speaking for.”
“A noble friend? Who are you taking with you?”
“Ah,” Ehandar smiled, “it just came to me. I’m kind of hoping that you’ll come with us. It makes perfect sense. There’s nothing here for you anymore, except maybe a military career and even then your association with me will always hinder you, no matter how far in the past or how inconsequential it is. And I hate simply abandoning you. Think about it. Almost all the city states have their own little army. I’m certain quite a few of them would be glad to have you, not as a simple cavalier, but as an officer. Who knows? You could be a general before you’re thirty. And meanwhile, I have more than enough money to provide for the three of us for a few years. And Anaxantis has money of his own too. He won’t mind.”
“You… you really would like me to go with you?” Gorth asked.
“My little brother seems to have a knack for making friends. I don’t. You’re the only friend I’ve left. Sure, I would like you to come with us.”
Gorth mulled the idea over for several minutes.
“He’s right. I can become the servant of big brother, always at his beck and call, always at the mercy of his good graces, or I could start over. I wonder what happened between him and his little brother, or rather half brother or maybe not-brother-at-all? In any other circumstances I would swear the guy is in love. Well, that’s not my business, though I’ll never understand what the attraction is. Poor Ehandar. He’s right. He’s not exactly weak, but he isn’t nearly ruthless enough to compete for the Devil’s Crown. I hope for his sake that he can convince little Anaxantis. That boy has a will all of his own.”
“I guess I’ll come then,” Gorth grinned. “What I don’t understand is the money part. Do we have to haul coffers with gold across the border? That will slow us down, you know.”
“That is one of the many things they don’t teach us because they think it is beneath us to concern ourselves with such base things as money. Until recently I as well thought that I would have to take it all with me. That I would have to go to Ormidon to my bankers and withdraw all my assets. It seemed impractical and dangerous. I even considered taking the war chest of the army. Then I noticed that many soldiers were sending a part of their salary home. You learn the strangest things when you are buried in parchments for a few hours a day. So I had the paymaster of the army explain it to me. He doesn’t send the actual money home. He sends a list with names and amounts to the bankers the army uses. The beneficiaries receive a small notice duly signed and sealed, and with it they can then withdraw the money. I will need you for this also. I dare not trust anybody else. I’ll give you a letter with instructions for my bankers. They’ll inform their colleagues in Soranza. They’ll also give you a letter for me. That letter permits me to withdraw money at the bankers in Soranza. Simple, really, if you know how. A letter is far easier to carry than actual coins.”
“That’s a relief. Should I also look out for lodgings?”
“Yes, and while you’re at it try to find out what a reasonable domain in the environs of the city would cost. I was thinking of something not too big, but comfortable. Definitely outside the city but not too far away from it, and maybe with a few depending farms. Oh, just look around and take note of the asking prices.”
“Let’s say all this works out. How are we going to make our escape?”
“Simple. The only part of the Northern Marches I haven’t visited yet is the duchy of Landemere. It’s in the southeast and lies next to the border. I will make as to inspect the duchy and when we are nearest the border, we’ll run for it. It will be only a few miles, and if we are careful they won’t know we’re missing until long after we crossed the border.”
Ehandar felt strangely relieved. For the first time he had told his plans to somebody else, and that made them somehow more real, more definite, as if there was no way back anymore.
While they were eating, the conversation drifted to happier times and laughter was a frequent part of it. Before saying their goodbyes, Ehandar gave Gorth a pouch, heavy with coins, for travel expenses.
“Just apply for three weeks of furlough. Give sick family as the reason. You can’t go wrong with the classics. Anything more than a week has to be decided and signed by one of the governors, and since Anaxantis is happy enough to leave the administrative plodding to me there will be no problem.”
While his friend rode off, Ehandar felt exhilarated. He had firmly set the first steps on the road to Soranza.
“Appointment, appointment, fiddlesticks. Who does he think he is? A doctor?”
Anaxantis startled when he heard the voice in the hallway. He had been looking listlessly at some parchments on the table, while Ehandar was reading a report, and was just about to take his leave. He ran to the door.
“It’s okay, let him through,” he said to the guard. “That’s my physician.”
Murno Tollbir blinked silently at the guard, who reluctantly let him pass. The doctor stuck his tongue out at him. He was wearing a mantle that had seen better days, and on his wind-tousled gray hair stood a bonnet that decades ago would have looked very smart. His appearance was even more disheveled than usual.
“Nice,” he said appreciatively when he entered the war room and sat down in the first chair that took his fancy.
“Hey,” Anaxantis said, “that’s my chair.”
“And a damn uncomfortable one it is, if I may say so. Will break your back if you sit in it for any length of time.”
He looked around.
“Ah, just what I need. Traveling always makes me thirsty”.
Murno Tollbir grabbed the nearest cup on the table.
“Hey, that’s mine as well,” Anaxantis protested.
The doctor drained the cup, smacked and put it back on the table.
“Oh, stop apologizing all the time. I’m not picky. I examined you myself and I doubt you have any contagious diseases. So, it’s all right.”
“That is not exactly what I meant,” Anaxantis grumbled.
“Who is this?” Ehandar asked angrily.
“That is the famous doctor you sent me to.”
“The insolent one?”
“Yes. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Now, now, boys, don’t fight,” said the source of all irritation.
He winked at Anaxantis.
“By the way, nice one with all the chickens. Threndll, my housekeeper almost fainted. Lucky for her I’m a doctor. Well, I say housekeeper, but she’s so much more. In fact, I should have married the woman decades ago. But you know how it goes. Today never works for you, and there’s always tomorrow. What was I trying to say? Oh, yes, the chickens. They like to hide in dark places a few feet off the ground, did you know that? We keep finding them everywhere. Still. Gave most of them away. You’ll be glad to know that some poor families had a decent meal thanks to you, young man. Kept ten of them though. In the garden. For the eggs. Oh, and there is this one strange boy, lives in a world of his own, doesn’t talk, who now has a pet chicken. Can’t cure him, but gave him a chicken. Who knows—”
“Is all this leading somewhere?” Ehandar interrupted him rudely.
Tollbir looked at Anaxantis.
“You seem to make it a habit to surround yourself with annoying people. Who’s this one?”
“This one,” Anaxantis replied trying not to laugh, “is my brother. The other lord governor. The one who wrote the report.”
“Really?” the physician said, turning to Ehandar. “Well, well, who’d have thought? Not I, that’s for sure. I had you pegged for one of those sword-loving types who can barely read, let alone write. That was a fine piece of medical reporting. The preciseness of observation. The sheer wealth of details. However did you think of all those little signs and from so long ago too?”
“I… I just wrote down what I remembered seeing,” Ehandar said, totally confused as to whether he should remain angry or permit himself to feel flattered.
“You’re a natural. I bet there’s not much that escapes you, is there? Your report was a great help.”
He turned back to Anaxantis, pointing to the cup.
“Give us some more wine, will you, there’s a good boy.”
Sighing, Anaxantis filled his cup.
“Not that you aren’t excellent company, but was there any purpose to your visit? Or did you just feel like pestering me again?” he asked, shoving the filled cup in the doctor’s direction.
“Oh, I was in the neighborhood. Quite by accident. Every year I leave the house for a few weeks to travel around a little. Mostly to the sea. For the air, you know. So, don’t you go imagining that I came all the way here for you. But I did examine those samples you sent me.”
“Samples?” Anaxantis asked, nonplussed.
“That was me,” Ehandar explained. “I took a sample of the herbs, the pills and the sweets before they were thrown into the sea.”
“And he sent them to me with a polite letter,” Tollbir chimed in. “You’re a civilized young man on parchment,” he added for Ehandar’s benefit.
Tollbir scratched his beard and looked scrutinizingly at him.
“Hm, those black patches under your eyes… I don’t like them. People think that’s from lack of sleep, but that’s not always the case. Could be you aren’t taking enough liquid, or eating too much meat. Could also be from excessive worrying. I really should examine you thoroughly, you know.”
“Oh yes, please, let him,” Anaxantis said not without malice. “Have no fear, I’ll stay with you to hold your hand.”
Ehandar looked from one to the other as if they spoke a secret language.
“No, thank you,” he said. “I feel perfectly fine. What did you find?”
“Ah, yes. First I examined the sweets. Nothing wrong with them. Highest quality, in fact. You didn’t hope to get the remainder back, did you? I’m afraid I ate the lot. I first gave one to Yapper. That’s Threndll’s little dog. We have three. The two big ones are no trouble, but the little one… Yap, yap, yap, all day long. Yap, yap, yap. Drives you mad. The thing stuck to his teeth. Quite a funny sight, and it stopped him yapping. Since it didn’t seem to harm him, I ate one myself. Delicious. Strange how it goes. You take another one, just to make sure, and a third one, and before you know it the box is empty.”
“I thought you said that sweets were bad for you,” Anaxantis said in a reproaching tone.
“I never said such a thing. I said that sweets were bad for you. You are young and want to lead an active and long life. Me not so much. I am almost eighty and frankly I’m getting a little bored by it all. I don’t particularly want to add many years to my existence. Besides, the sweets can’t take away what time has taken already. Then the pills. I gave a little piece of one to Yapper as well, mixed in his food. Didn’t do much, so I repeated the process a few times. Well, the next day he lay quietly in his bed. And I mean quietly. It was heaven. He reacted well enough when I petted him, but he didn’t try to bite my hand as usual. So, you’re not getting those pills back either. In fact, I want more of them. I’d make them myself, but it’s impossible to find out what’s in them. The effect is clear though. They make you calm, kind of resigned even.”
“We could have done that,” Anaxantis said to Ehandar.
“Ah, yes, but you didn’t, did you? Then I looked at the herbs. Another bummer. They were cut so fine that it was very, very difficult to see what was in the mixture. After hours of carefully looking at itty-bitty pieces I could sort some of them into eight little heaps. It was impossible to identify them by sight, so I boiled each of them in some water. From most of them I recognized the smell. Mind you, I’m not sure I’ve got them all, in fact I suspect that there were no less than fifteen ingredients. Almost impossible to say what the global effect would be, but some of them were quite poisonous, though not in those quantities. If I had to guess, I would say that the overall effect would be to slow down your body. The interaction of the different herbs can be quite astounding. I’m guessing again, but I’m almost certain that they would also work on your mind. The ingredients, the amounts, it was all very sophisticated. To me this looks like the work of someone who studied in Zyntrea. I’m afraid that is all I could discover. Well, we suspected as much, but now we are sure. They didn’t want to kill you, but they wanted you in less than full strength, both mentally and physically.”
Tollbir scratched his beard.
“So there is no way that this herb mixture was made to cure something, or that the dizzy spells and all the rest were just unfortunate side effects?” Anaxantis asked.
“No,” Tollbir replied, ogling the wine pitcher. “In fact, if I were to give this mixture a name, I would call it Weak and Meek.”
Ehandar was a bundle of nerves. It was four days now since Gorth had taken the road to Soranza, and still he hadn’t talked with Anaxantis about his plans.
“I can’t put it off much longer. Why not talk about it with Anaxantis this evening? It is a perfectly sensible plan and he will see that. I’ll make him see that. He’s bound to have objections. What with his friends? What with our responsibilities? What with his mother? I’ll have to debunk hos objections one by one. Maybe it is best to begin with showing him that we can’t win this. However the situation turns out, we will either be dead, or the scapegoats of a disaster. Any sensible man who understands this, cuts his losses. And better now than in the spring, when the Mukthars are at our borders. Now we still have time to meticulously organize everything, to make and revise plans, and to execute them without interference. But what Gorth said is also true. Anaxantis can be headstrong. I couldn’t bear leaving without him anymore. It’s just one reason more to bring it up as soon as possible. The Gods know how many hurdles I will have to take.”
At that moment Anaxantis came into the room. He seemed preoccupied and while he took off his mantle, he said:
“Ehandar, we must talk.”
Trying to repress his dark thoughts of foreboding, Ehandar smiled.
“Good, I have a few things myself I would like to discuss with you. We have the whole evening before us.”
He motioned to the rug before the hearth, but, after ungirding his sword, Anaxantis sat down at the table.
A moment later Ehandar felt as if someone had punched him in the stomach, and all air was forced out of his lungs. There was a rushing sound in his ears, and it seemed that suddenly all his muscles cramped at the same time. To prevent himself from falling, he had to lean on the big chair near the fireplace. Then the words Anaxantis had spoken finally sank in.
“Ehandar, I’m moving out by the end of the week. I can’t do this any longer.”
I know that it is an awkward place to stop, Mandigaill the Hunter, but the hour is late and you have a long way to go.
Yes, I know. You would have preferred it otherwise. I saw your reaction when I told you about their first night together. Should I have ended it there? Don’t forget that I also saw you when I told you how Ehandar took what was not his to take. And you were not indifferent.
No, Friend of Wolves, it most certainly was not just the way I told it and the fact that you are blushing and protesting bears witness to that.
Yes, that is the question, and indeed, I was deliberately ambiguous. The downfall of which prince? Remember that the story is far from finished. I didn’t invent it, I only tell it and I tell only true stories. So, when I’m finished, you be the judge.
Yes, you can return, but no sooner than in three days. You know the price.
I bid you a safe journey home and interesting dreams, Wolves’ Friend.