The Bear and the Weed

January 11, 2013
By RonnieZ, Shoreham-by-sea, Other
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RonnieZ, Shoreham-by-sea, Other
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Author's note: Originally, I wanted to reboot the Grecian myth of Persephone and Hades, but with different characters and a slightly different storyline. I sat down, and a year later, found that the story was too flimsy, linear and quite frankly, boring. So I pulled out a notebook and began to chronicle the history of the world I have created, and found it drastically different to the Grecian one I had attempted to emulate. I created a few characters, and they stubbornly told me of the story I am now setting onto paper; the story you will hopefully read and enjoy. As most fantasy fiction, this story is a coming of age tale, rife with conflict, loss and love.

The founding of the two Kingdoms

Once the Children of the Gods began to desert their Temple, the simple folk of Heilagur began to wonder if their religion was indeed true. The Southern Reaches, having already largely forsaken the Gods, refused to listen to the Children’s counsel and demanded their own kingdom with their own council. This was refused by both the Children and the loyal Northern Reaches. Both sides retired to prepare for the imminent war they saw in each other’s eyes.

The Southern Reaches, led by Dairen of the Marble City, one of the Nine Lords chosen by the Children, welcomed the traitorous Children that fled to their land. They had the larger army, more money and the mercenaries from overseas. From Ormini, the land of no religion came ten legions, with their exotic panther-cats. Slaves of the Orminians came to fight for their masters, and there was even talk of the Nomads of the mountains fighting against their Northern oppressors.

The Northern Reaches stood alone, with only a few untrained men and women from the Middlands to fight with them. They had no exotic allies, only their vigour and their loyalty to the Temple and the Children. They were led by Wilhelm the Younger, the Ninth Lord, and Ryder, the Eighth. They counted on the help of the Gods they believed in so much, but it seemed as though they would not receive any.

In the throes of winter the Northerners made their move. Used to the cold and the snow, they made their way across their borders and into the Middlands with incredible ease. They claimed Gods City as their own, and made a new border accordingly. Dairen received word, and with the other six Lords, moved their own army to where the wind bit and the promise of snow blew. They did not dare to risk open war during the depths of winter. Instead they sent Ormini scouts, armed with bows and arrows, to pick off the sentries and send word to the Nomads to move out. They did not get far, however, before the peoples of the Northern Reaches attacked and killed the scouts.

Having heard of the scouts, Wilhelm made the attack. Many died on both sides, although the skill of the Northern Warriors could be surpassed by none. There was no clear winner even after a year of war, and Wilhelm and Dairen called a brief truce. They would meet at the Temple of the Gods to resolve their differences.

All Nine were at the parley, although Ryder was battle-worn and weary. His son, Ryder the Younger, was also present, as were three Counsellors of the Temple. A map of Heilagur was set out, and upon it new borders were drawn. The Northern Reaches were only given an extra two hundred miles, whilst the Southern Reaches were given the rest of the Middlands as well as retaining their own borders. Overseen by the remaining Child, a treaty was struck. One would not attack the other without consulting a Child first.

They returned to their homelands, each triumphant. Wilhelm was declared King by his people, and renamed Wilhelm the Warrior. He made Newford his capital. Dairen was self-proclaimed King when he returned to the Southern Reaches and remained in Marble City, building a new palace in the very centre. He renamed his kingdom Airen, and was set down as Dairen the Diplomat in history. And so the two kingdoms of Heilagur were founded, with the Temple falling into disrepair within the Airen countryside.
-A brief history of Heilagur, by Cortez.

Hundreds of silent men and women, all with blades at their hips or upon their backs, lined the wide road that lead to the southern border of the Reach. Nomads that had migrated from the mountains stood with the natives, their olive skin standing out from the tanned faces of the Northerners. Women held back their young with warning arms, and men stood with their backs straight, ice-blue eyes on the fort of Newford. It guarded the pass into the mountains like a knight, its stone walls unbreakable. A line of men astride horses rode proudly down the slick road, their dark cloaks at odds with the snow that billowed around them and piled high between the wooden houses. The horses snorted, their smoky breath rising high and trailing away with the wind, their long manes whipping with the currents. They were short and stocky, bred to withstand the harsh conditions of the Reach, their hooves picking the way with confidence. Wild men and women rode through the crowd, wearing their armour with pride. The men had dark bushy beards that concealed their lower faces, and the women had scarves wrapped around their noses to protect against the weather. In the middle of the procession rode Prince Eric, the King’s eldest son, unrecognisable from the rest of his entourage apart from his royal bearing. His beard and short-cropped hair were already streaked with grey, although his cold blue eyes remained as sharp as ever. He smiled and waved to the throng that awaited him, and a few lifted their hands in a morose farewell. Their heads turned as one as the procession rode away from the fort. They only dispersed when they could no longer see the horses amongst the white expanse before them.

The court of the Reach stood behind the windows inside the court, watching the procession ride away. The King, venerable yet still standing tall, laid a reassuring hand on the broad shoulders of his second eldest, Bjorn. On his left stood his wife, Queen Nusaybah, a Nomad, and beside her were her two children; Princess Wilhelmina and Prince Adil. Perhaps a pace behind stood a man unlike any other native; he reached nearly six feet, solidly built, with blue eyes the colour of cobalt. Silver swirled in the relentless abyss of his eyes, and an almighty axe had been slung across his shoulders. He had both hands on the shoulders of the young boy in front of him, so alike in countenance that he could only be his son. The boy stood silently, his solemn eyes fixed upon the cloudy glass of the window. The silence in the hall was thick with sadness; the King had been left bereft of his eldest son at the gain of the King of Airen. Long after the riders had disappeared from view, the King finally turned away from the window to face the meagre court that had assembled before him.
‘So, my son has left to marry Airen’s princess,’ his deep voice was powerful with loss, and his wife laid a hand on his arm, the other resting on her rounded belly. The King’s eyes moved from one person to the next, finally resting on the silver-eyed man.
‘The time will come, Ivan, my old friend, when you shall have to make your choice,’ at this, the king looked pointedly at the young boy, who switched his gaze from the window to the old man. His eyes mirrored his father’s; a deep blue streaked through with silver. The intensity of his gaze seemed to unnerve the old king, who gave a wavering smile. Ivan patted the boy on the shoulder, and began to propel him from the hall.
‘Conrad, leave with Mina and Adil. Practise your swordplay,’ the boy frowned and opened his mouth to protest, but his father determinedly shooed all the children out and shut the door firmly in their furious faces. The remaining four adults looked at each other for a moment then moved to the long table that sat on the plinth at the top of the hall. Nusaybah collapsed into her chair, her dark cheeks flushed from the exertion. Bjorn waited until his father had taken his place next to his wife before sitting on the other side of him. Ivan lifted a heavy chair with one hand and placed it so that he would be facing the three royals. He sat in his seat with dignified silence and ran his fingers through his long, wild beard. The king eyed the hair with disgust.
‘Why must you wear it in that manner?’ Ivan smiled, pulling at the beads in his beard. It had been braided when he had visited the Nomads some ten years ago, and he had never changed the style.
‘Since when is it acceptable for a man to question a God, Wilhelm?’ The old man grinned, waving the question away with his veined hand. Ivan gave a harsh bark of laughter and settled in his chair, stretching his long legs away from the table.
‘Your boy still doesn’t know he’s the son of Ivan the Warrior God, I presume?’ If the use of his full title was to abash the ageless man, it was ineffectual. Instead, his eyebrows contracted into a hawkish look, and he leant forwards, his knuckles white against the wooden table. His silvery-blue eyes did not leave the comparatively colourless ones of the king.
‘No he does not, and I would prefer it to stay that way, old friend,’ the warning words left the king pale and he looked to his son for support. Bjorn leant forwards, his youthful face somewhat marred by a snaking scar from his temple to his cheek.
‘After seven years, you would think that he would notice the reverence accorded to both you and he. I suppose his lack of observational skills is both a curse and a blessing, in this case,’ laughter followed the prince’s words, and he sat back, the wood creaking under his powerful form. Ivan joined in briefly, but his face quickly fell into its usual sombre lines. He ran his fingers over his mouth thoughtfully, as if his next words were difficult to admit to his audience.
‘It seems that the son I’m blessed with will also die if he fulfils his duty,’ he held up a tanned hand to counter the protests the three voiced. They fell silent, their eyes watchful.
‘I have read and reread the prophecy made by Eostre, and there doesn’t seem to be any other outcome. Forgive me if I sound harsh, but I would rather my son stay alive,’ he pushed the chair away from the table with his feet and made to stride out of the hall. He was stopped by the soft tones of Nusaybah.
‘You value the life of your son over the lives of your sheep, my lord?’ Her disapproving eyes seemed to touch a nerve. The God marched up to the table and slammed his hands down on it; the whole length of it trembled and a singular goblet rolled off onto the floor. The three royals seemed swept back by his fury.
‘I have lived amongst the mortals for a thousand years, travelling across the length of the world. My brothers have either betrayed me or been scattered to the four winds whilst my ‘sheep’ show no remorse for the way they have treated their creators,’ he spat the words at the queen, his eyes molten silver. Not a sliver of blue remained to withstand his fury.
‘Tell me why I should allow my son to die fighting for the interests of those that would gladly kill him. Tell me why he should return the world to the old religion when the mortals do not believe anymore. Tell me why he should be a puppet in the grand designs of my ambitious mother!’ Nusaybah alone remained indifferent, her amber eyes fixed upon the furious man in front of her. She stood up, graceful despite the heaviness of her pregnancy, and laid a gentle hand on the taught muscles of Ivan’s arm. The man seemed to relax and collapsed in his chair, his shaking hand brushing a lock of curly hair away from his sweating forehead. The queen remained standing, her eyes compelling him to look at her.
‘You are a shepherd, charged with the sacred duty of looking after your flock. When sheep stray, you are to bring them back. Is this not the reason the Children were given control of the country; to be your house on mortal ground?’ Her face softened and she sat down, shooting a reassuring look at her husband and his son. They both leant forward, fixing their gaze on Ivan.
‘You cannot know that Conrad will die in fulfilling his duty. You can only hope that he shall succeed, and when the time comes for him to travel south, he shall know enough to save both himself and the world,’ silent sobs racked the great God in front of them, and they respectfully averted their eyes.




~

‘You’re sure, quite sure, that he’s not going south?’ The relief in the man’s voice was palpable and the urgency to make sure of this news leant a hard edge to his already harsh voice. The woman nodded, her wasted frame slumped over her screeing bowl, her lank black hair touching the surface of the water. The room she was in gave the appearance of once being great; remnants of fur quilts lay on the sunken bed beside the screeing bowl, and an armchair, pitted and neglected, stood in one corner. From the groaning doorway a wide expanse of floor could be seen, made of the same white stone as the room they were in. A table, ghostly pale, loomed out of the darkness and never-ending pits of blackness came from the eyes of the sculptures standing guard over it.
‘You can always have a look, uncle dearest,’ her voice hissed from between her rotted teeth, her tongue a shock of pink when it darted out to wet her dry lips. The man stepped back hurriedly, holding out his hands in an effort to stave off the wasted form that sat before him. The woman laughed humourlessly and waved a skeletal hand over the bowl. The image of the dark-haired boy dispersed, revealing opaque water. With a shuddering sigh, the woman fell onto the stone floor, her chest moving up and down with each shallow breath. The man took a hesitant step towards her before seeming to think better of it. With a shake of his head, he turned on his heel and walked out of the rotted doorway.

The wind bit and howled at Conrad’s ears as he made his way slowly down the hill, slipping a little on the snow, his bow held aloft. His keen eyes were fixed upon the mighty paw prints that had stormed through the snow, and his nose was sniffing for the scent of the beast he was tracking. His feet gave way down a particularly steep incline, and he fell into the snow head first. The powdery snow filled his mouth and nose, and he emerged coughing and sneezing. Two low giggles made him look around, and a faint blush rose to his already reddened cheeks as he saw the young woman and the boy behind him.
‘If you think this is easy, then you take the lead,’ he grumbled, running a gloved hand through sopping hair. The woman slid gracefully to his side, laughter still playing at her lips. The boy followed, rather less gracefully, but managed to avoid falling all the same. In spite of himself, Conrad smiled and ruffled the boy’s hair. Silky and straight, it hung into his blue eyes.
‘Well, Adil. What say we find and kill this cat, and be back in time for your birthday feast?’ The boy grinned impishly and shook off Conrad’s hand. He began to move forwards, fighting against the wind.
‘With you leading us, I shan’t be twelve when we get back, I shall be twenty! Come, Mina,’ the woman laughed again and patted Conrad on his shoulder before following her younger brother. Conrad shook his head and started after the two royals.

They had been tracking the cat since early morning, following its prints in the snow. Conrad had promised to take the prince hunting when he had turned twelve, and to his displeasure, and his mother’s, the prince had remembered. Princess Mina had decided to come along to watch over her brother, and much to the youngest Princess’ disgust, Pola had been made to stay behind. So, instead of preparing for his eighteenth, Conrad had found himself trudging towards clawed death. With a deep sigh, Conrad pushed his curling hair away from his face and waded through the deep snow. The cat couldn’t be too far away; they had spotted it an hour ago, but their progress was undoubtedly slower. Within minutes, he had overtaken Adil and Mina, and within another five, he held up his hand to stop them. He pressed a finger to his lips and pointed towards the patch of snow two hundred metres in front of them. Camouflaged well, the white cat had stopped and was sniffing at the ground. It was huge; one of its paws was easily the same size as Conrad’s face. He winced as he imagined its claws raking across his cheek, but hopefully he wouldn’t have to get that close. He motioned for the two royals to stay where they were as he moved slowly closer to the cat. He stopped when he was fifty metres away; luckily he was downwind. Slowly and carefully, he knocked an arrow to the bow, praying that he wouldn’t have to face the full fury of the beast. The arrow flew, whistling against the wind, and stuck in the flank of the cat. It let out a bloodcurdling shriek and spun around, kicking up the snow around its feet as it searched for its attacker. Conrad quickly let another arrow fly, but the wind turned it away and it grazed the cat’s fur. He saw the realization in the cat’s eyes with a thrill of terror and began to try to retrace his tracks, pulling out a hunting knife as he did so. The cat started to make its way towards him, and he could see the hardened muscles rippling under the thick fur. He heard thin cries from Mina and Adil, and reasoned they were probably trying to reach him. He stopped moving and stood frozen, weighing his knife in his hand, the bow and quiver discarded on the snow beside him. The cat stopped just as suddenly and crouched, ready to pounce. Conrad scuffed the snow in front of him, his eyes never leaving the lambent ones of the beast. Its anger seemed to have gone and what was left was even more terrifying; a cold, calculating expression, with a hint of curiosity. It tensed, and Conrad readied himself. As it pounced he threw himself forward, turning to see it rolling over and crumpling a foot away. He waded through the snow and quickly slit its throat, but not before the claws ripped through the skin of his left forearm. The pain flew through him like fire, and he groaned as his blood mixed with the cats. He didn’t turn around when he heard the gasps of the two royals, instead inspecting the slash on his arm. The claws had ripped through his thick clothing, but the actual cut wasn’t too deep. Nevertheless it would scar. Breathing heavily, Conrad looked down at his conquest. In death, it seemed shrivelled and pathetic, its hard muscles giving way to an almost skeletal structure. Upon its face was a death-snarl, the jaw contorted. He glanced at his two companions and saw their faces pale, but whether it was at the expression on his face, his cut or the dead cat, he could not tell.
‘Mina, can you fetch my bow and quiver? Adil, help me drag this thing back,’ he shaded his eyes against the sun, ignoring the burning sensation in it. The sun had just reached its zenith. ‘We should be back before it gets dark,’ Mina opened her mouth, but shut it at the look on Conrad’s face. He did his best to put the pain out of his mind as he began to haul the beast back.
They reached Newford Fort by dusk and were greeted by a very worried Nusaybah. Her amber eyes wide in her face, she clasped Adil to her breast as if he had been attacked by the very creatures of hell. A small face peeped from behind the Queen, and the girl smiled when she saw her brother and sister had returned home safely. The smile turned into a gape when she caught sight of the snow cat, and her hand crept into her mother’s. Conrad let go of the cat and a paw fell heavily into the snow, creating a miniature blizzard. He braced himself for the inevitable torrent of words that the Queen would shriek at him as she turned her attention to him.
‘Why are you back so late? What if something had happened to any of you once it got dark? Do you have any idea of how worried I was?’ She took a deep breath, and in turn, Mina took the opportunity to speak.
‘He killed the cat, mama. And he injured himself doing it. I think he should see a doctor,’ the Queen’s brows contracted and she strode towards Conrad, her hand reaching for his injured arm. He placed it in her hand and she turned it over. The blood had stopped and the snow had kept it relatively clean, but the skin was raised and red around the gash.
‘Get inside. Now,’ Conrad bowed, a smirk on his lips.
‘Yes, O Illustrious Queen,’ his remark earned a giggle from Pola, still attached to her mother’s hand. He winked at the young girl and walked into the fort.

The doctor took a long, hard look at the wound in Conrad’s arm and sighed heavily through his nose. He took a length of clean bandage and began to wrap it around the wound, raising his eyebrows pointedly at the man beside him as he did so.
‘For nearly eighteen years I’ve watched your son traipse in and out of my infirmary, Ivan. The boy has had more injuries than I can remember,’ Ivan grinned, his teeth shockingly white in his wild beard. Conrad’s smile turned into a grimace as the doctor tied the bandage firmly and cut off the excess. He bowed to the two men who nodded their heads in return.
‘Thank you, Michel,’ Ivan patted the doctor on his shoulder and turned to face his son. Conrad met his father’s gaze steadily, cradling his injured arm in his right hand.
‘You could have gotten killed, Conrad,’ the disappointment in his voice was palpable, and Conrad looked away. ‘Mina and Adil could have died as well,’ Conrad swung his feet to the floor and pushed himself off the bed he had been sitting on.
‘But I didn’t, they didn’t,’ he snapped. ‘Do you really think I would have put them in any danger? Especially-’ he broke off, shaking his head. Ivan raised his eyebrows, but Conrad ignored the implied question. He flexed his left arm; it felt unbearably stiff in its dressing. With a deep sigh, Ivan crossed the room to stand before his son and rested a large hand on Conrad’s shoulder.
‘Conrad,’ something in his voice compelled him to look into his father’s eyes. They were dark blue, almost black, with streaks of silver. ‘The day will come when you will have to lead, and when you do, you cannot fight the enemy by yourself. Don’t ever fight without able companions,’ the words fell heavily on Conrad’s ears and his shoulders slumped. He looked at his father; tall, muscular and wild, a hero in the eyes of the Reach. He had lead warriors into battle countless times and had won, and was second only to the King. Any advice from him had been learned from the harsh realities of war.
‘Come, now,’ Ivan suddenly chuckled and clapped his son on the shoulder. ‘We cannot deprive the court the chance to be in awe of your success any longer.’

The great hall had two long tables complete with four low benches, each filled with men and women. The fur of the snow cat had already been stripped from the body, and it hung over the third table that crouched at the end of the hall. This table had chairs behind them, tall with no armrests. King Wilhelm sat in the middle, with his wife, Nusaybah, to his left. On his right was a space left for Ivan, and after that the chair had been occupied by the bear-like Prince Bjorn. On Nusaybah’s left sat Princess Mina, and beside her was an empty chair for Conrad. Beside Conrad was the chair left for Prince Adil, who was to attend his first adult meal in honour of his birthday. Conrad felt all eyes were on him as he took his place, glancing from the empty seat to his left to the one occupied by Mina. The woman smiled at him, concern in her tawny eyes, and her hand briefly touched his before she turned her attention to her father. The king had stood up, swathed in thick furs in an effort to keep the cold at bay. His short, white hair had been adorned with a simple gold band, and his beard had been plaited with thick yellow cords. There was immense pride on his face as he gestured at the full hall.
‘Today we celebrate Prince Adil’s twelfth year. He is fast becoming a man, and I am proud to include him in the line of succession,’ silence followed his words as the men and women looked expectantly at the door, a few fidgeting as they tried to resist the scent of fresh meat and bread that laden the tables. The king cleared his throat, and eyes flicked back towards him. Suddenly, he sat down, gathering the furs around his thin body. His skin paled and he passed a liver-spotted hand before his eyes. Murmurs of concern rippled through the crowd, and Bjorn stood up, holding his hands high.
‘My friends, it seems that my father finds himself tired,’ his grin seemed to dispel the tense atmosphere. Conrad looked at the crowned prince; he had changed little during the years. Although he was fast approaching his forty-first year, he had not taken a wife, nor had he produced any children. Not that he had had any shortages of volunteers; he was an accomplished warrior, tall and muscular, with the shock of brown hair, wild beard and icy blue eyes that were customary of Northern men. Even now, Conrad could see that many women were eyeing him with intense interest.
‘Without further ado I present my brother, Adil!’ An outbreak of cheering accompanied the opening of the doors, and many banged their fists on the table as Adil smiled widely from the doorway. He was dressed in green with a silver band in his black hair and had a fur cape fastened with a brooch in the Nomadic design; abstract silver swirls danced around the small emerald in the centre. He walked up the aisle between the two tables, his head held high, pride clear in his blue eyes. Conrad could just see Pola’s disappointed face from the hallway and waved discreetly at her before the door shut, denying her entrance to the hall. He stood up as Adil bowed at his father, and continued to clap with the others until the prince had taken his seat beside Conrad. Everyone took their seats apart from Bjorn, who swept his hands across the room.
‘And now, good and loyal gentlefolk, I bid you feast,’ he sat down heavily and began to spear the meat from the platter in front of him. The others followed suite and silence reigned for a while as everyone ate greedily.

‘Do you think I shall have to marry soon?’ Conrad spluttered, soup spraying from his mouth and landing on the table. Mina had the grace to ignore this misfortune, but he thought he heard a chuckle from the tables before him. He wiped his mouth and turned to Adil, who had paused with a piece of bread halfway to his mouth. The young prince had eaten in relative silence, barely speaking until now. Conrad glanced up the table to where Bjorn was engaging Ivan in conversation.
‘You’re brother has not married, and he is far older than you. Prince Eric did not marry until he was forty,’ he ruffled the prince’s hair and the band fell askew across his forehead. ‘You are just twelve, why worry?’ Adil scowled as he threw the bread onto his plate and rearranged the band. He crossed his arms and stared moodily above the heads of the people eating below, chewing his lips absentmindedly.
‘I am part Nomadic, Conrad. What is acceptable for Northerners is not acceptable for us,’ he glanced at Conrad and a sly smile stretched his lips. ‘Why aren’t you married yet? I heard your father bemoaning the lack of grandchildren,’ Conrad shook his head and tore some bread from the loaf. It was hard and flat, barely edible. He chewed it and swallowed with difficulty, the bread lying in his stomach like a stone.
‘I think you’re forgetting that only the royal family has to marry, Adil,’ the boy nodded, and Conrad, feeling that it was now safe to do so, returned his attention to the soup. He glanced in his father’s direction, who was now whispering urgently to the king, and frowned. Had he really wanted grandchildren? It was hard not be jealous of the king’s large family; two sons from his first marriage, and two daughters and another son from his second. And news had reached the Northern Reaches that Eric’s wife, Harriet, was pregnant and was expecting twins. Perhaps this had caused Ivan to wonder at his own small family. Conrad’s mother had moved to defend an outpost in the mountains against the Nomads after he was born, but this was not unusual; mother’s had a child with the best warrior they could find to carry on that lineage and then carried on with their lives. As far as Conrad knew, Ivan had not taken a new woman, nor had he had any more children. He slurped some more soup, earning a disapproving glare from Mina.
‘But if you were to be with Mina, you would have to marry then,’ Conrad swallowed the soup too quickly and it seared his throat. He coughed, and swallowed some water from the cup in front of him. He heard a peal of laughter coming from Mina, and valiantly tried to join in although he could feel a blush rising to his cheeks.
‘Conrad wouldn’t dare ask for my hand in marriage; he would wait for me to make my move,’ she grinned mischievously and lay a hand on Conrad’s upper arm. ‘He’s not bold enough,’ Adil raised an eyebrow.
‘But you would marry him, then?’ Mina opened her mouth to answer, but was interrupted by the doors swinging open. Wolf-whistles accompanied the sight of the women swaying down the aisle, presents cradled in their arms. Adil leant forwards, his eyes greedily drinking in the assortment of objects wrapped in soft furs.

The first woman to reach the table set her load on the floor and bowed to the prince before walking back down the aisle and disappearing through the doors. The rest of the women followed suit, and the doors closed behind them. A pile of covered objects were left in front of the table, and Adil glanced towards his father, who nodded, a smile on his face. Amidst cheers and claps, he slid from his chair and sat cross-legged on the floor, dragging the first present towards him. Conrad leant back in his chair, still able to see the top of the prince’s dark head. The present he had bought for the prince lay in his chambers upstairs; a lute painted to look gold. He had seen it in the town market square and had bought it immediately. Adil had shown an unusual affinity with musical instruments and had a fine singing voice; Conrad had listened to some songs of the prince’s own making and had been mightily impressed. Adil stood up, a handful of gems tumbling from his fingers, beaming from ear to ear. He turned to bow at the crowded room and they cheered once more, some even giving a standing ovation. The boy glanced at Conrad and grinned impishly, a flush rising to his cheeks. Conrad smiled back and stood slowly, bringing his hands together. The boy ducked his head and returned to his seat as the rest of the room imitated him. The talking subsided slowly as the king stood up, his face still worryingly pale. Conrad watched with some concern as the king trembled where he stood, pressing one veined hand to the wooden table to support his weight.
‘The first step towards becoming a man has been taken. To commemorate this unique occasion, I give Adil this dagger,’ he reached into the depths of his furs and drew out a steel knife upon which the prince’s name had been engraved. It lay flat in his palm, and hushed murmurs rippled throughout the faces below. Conrad leant across the princess to see it better; it gave off an almost iridescent glow, the yellow light form the candles concentrating into a star at the point of the dagger.
‘Adil shall carry this dagger to the end of his days, and shall be burnt with it upon his corpse, as is right,’ the king’s body shook, and Ivan reached out a mighty paw to support him, but the king waved away Ivan’s concern and turned to face Adil. His eyes were thick with cataracts, the pale blue of his irises fading away into white. He opened his colourless lips and spoke soundlessly in prayer. The blessing almost seemed to solidify over the dagger before melting into it, and silence fell. The king’s shoulders sagged and he sheathed the dagger, handing it over the heads of Mina and Conrad to give it to Adil. Conrad kept his eyes on the empty bowl in front of him, stoically ignoring the tears in the young prince’s eyes.

Excited shouting accompanied the tirade of people spilling out of the fort onto the main road, all of them pointing into the distance. Conrad thought he could see his father, standing head and shoulders above everyone else, but was swallowed up by the crowd a moment later. He was carried relentlessly down the road, past the market square and was allowed to stop beside the gatehouse. The gates themselves were being slowly opened; the hinges had stuck in the perpetual damp and the wood had swollen so that the gates scraped reluctantly across the paved road. Conrad stood on his tiptoes to see beyond the gates but could barely make out more than ten feet until the snow obscured everything. They heard it before they saw anything; hooves clip-clopping against the stone and the occasional whuff. He felt his tunic being tugged and looked down to see two, wide blue eyes staring up at him. The toddler tugged again, demanding to be picked up and Conrad relented, swinging the young boy onto his shoulders. The boy chuckled and grabbed at Conrad’s short hair, pulling some from the roots. Wincing, he tried to save his scalp from the chubby fists of the child, but only succeeded in more hair parting from his skull. Resigned to the apparently inevitable baldness the toddler seemed determined to cause, Conrad held onto the boy’s legs and focused on the ghostly apparitions of horses and riders that had appeared from the depths of the snow.

There were three horses, all pure greys, their manes flowing freely in the wind. Tall, with arched necks and slim bodies, they differed completely from the short, stocky mounts of the Reach. Whiter even than the snow around them, they picked their way distastefully around loose stones and puddles. Their riders appeared to dislike the road and weather even more than their mounts; each had wrapped themselves in furs that they had evidently bought in previous towns, their mouths and noses muffled against the mountain breeze. The crowd parted to let them through, and by chance Conrad happened to be in the row next to the road. The toddler on his shoulders mumbled something that was lost in the wind, but the intonation of awe remained. As the first horse walked past, its rider fixed Conrad with a lambent green stare and he returned it stonily until they had passed. The other two riders spared the crowd no more than a seconds glance, instead looking towards the stone fort in the distance. The crowd waited a few seconds before following the horses, the children old enough to hold their own racing forwards to touch the magnificent mounts. The toddler on his shoulder squirmed and Conrad set him down gently, watching as he tottered unsteadily in the general direction of the market. He rubbed his throbbing scalp ruefully and looked towards the fort. He frowned; for a moment it seemed as though the mountains were swallowing the stone fortress. He blinked and shook his head, banishing such thoughts from his mind. The fort had stood strong for over a thousand years, protecting the Reach from Nomadic marauders; why would it crumble now? Smiling at his stupidity, he let himself be carried towards it by the crowd.

The first floor of the fort was full of Northerners and the Nomads, Airens and Orminians that made up the rest of the population, all facing the Great Hall. The roof seemed as though it would lift with the noise they were making. The riders had disappeared through the double doors some time before and the crowd would wait for hours to catch another glimpse of the strange people. Conrad tried to part the crowd gently but got caught behind a particularly stubborn pocket of Orminians, whose dark, clever faces turned ugly when he struggled to edge through them. They closed whatever miniature gap there had been between them and one woman turned to face Conrad with a smug smile. Losing his patience, he began to push past them and was followed by obscene curses in their native tongue. He looked back and saw a man shaking his fist in Conrad’s general direction. Laughing a little, he nodded to the guards that stood in front of the doors and they bowed their heads, opening a door for him to step through.

The three riders stood near the table on the plinth, still swaddled in furs. They turned as one to face Conrad as the door slid shut behind him. The court had already seated themselves on the table with the exception of Adil; he was not yet old enough to attend matters of the state. He took his place besides Mina and thought he caught an indulgent smile shot in his direction from the princess. The king gestured towards the three persons and they stepped forward, unravelling the many furs they had covered themselves with. The rider with the green eyes was revealed to be woman, clad in the riding clothes of the north. Her disgruntled expression clearly showed that she was not used to dressing in such a manner, and Conrad distinctly heard Mina snort. The lady glowered at the princess in a momentary lapse of her dignified carriage; however she quickly regained her composure. She bowed to the king, her ghostly pale hands spread. She lifted her head and auburn locks fell into her cat-like eyes, crinkled somewhat by the smirk that twisted her lips. Bjorn leant forwards, his eyes fixed upon hers like prey is fixed by a snake.
‘Your Majesties,’ her voice was silken and compelling. Conrad barely noticed the two men that had taken their place at either side of the woman. The king nodded to the lady, seemingly unaffected by her charms.
‘Lady Anise, Lord Henry, Sir Francis,’ he nodded to each of them in turn, smiling at the man to the right. The man bowed deeply, his black hair swept to the nape of his neck and tied with an orange band. His ivory skin seemed out of place next to his raven hair; Conrad had rarely seen such a combination. His eyes flicked between the king, Ivan and Conrad, the light from the windows turning his irises from a deep hazel to a shimmering gold. Francis nodded stiffly to each and stepped back so that he was nearer to the doors than the table. He ran his hands through his shorn head, obviously uncomfortable in such a situation.
‘We bring with us greetings from your son, the newly crowned King Eric, and his wife, the Queen of Airen,’ Conrad raised his eyebrows at the lack of formality afforded to Eric. The woman turned her gaze to him and raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow as if challenging him to speak.
‘I am glad to hear from him. We receive precious little news from our neighbours,’ the king opened his mouth to speak but despite his efforts no sound other than a gargle escaped his lips. The queen lay a hand on her husband’s and looked steadily at the three dignitaries.
‘King Wilhelm’s gratitude transcends words,’ she smiled softly, and Conrad could see what had attracted the king to her when they had first met in the Nomadic court. Nusaybah had a kind of grace that couldn’t be defined. Anise nodded, the smile playing at her lips turning sly. Conrad cleared his throat and all eyes snapped towards him. He felt a blush rise to his cheeks which provoked a wider smirk from the woman in front.
‘We were told that you had an important message from the King of Airen,’ the emphasis he placed on Eric’s proper title was not lost on the court; each of them gave him a sidelong grin and Mina placed her hand over one of his. The directness of his words caused Anise’s smile to slip from her face. A pink flush spread over her cheekbones and she looked towards the floor. Henry chuckled and stepped forwards, bowing deeply to Conrad.
‘He did indeed, my lord. However we understand it is a delicate matter, perhaps one best left until tomorrow? For now, I would like to explore Newford, with your Majesties’ permission, of course,’ the king nodded, and gestured towards Conrad. Understanding his intention, Conrad stood up and bowed to the raven-haired man.
‘I can show you around, my lord,’ he caught his father’s eye, and Ivan nodded approvingly. He stepped off the plinth and let the dignitary face the crowd before him.

Conrad glanced at Henry and was pleased to see the man was taking in the sights of the blue mountains with wonder. He coughed and gestured down the main road. A crowd had already formed in front of the fort and began to follow them. Conrad stopped the dignitary when they reached the market square. The snow had turned to a brown slush, almost pooling around the foundations of the wooden stalls that enclosed the market. A wide assortment of goods lay spread across the stalls; carvings, jewellery and food had been turned to their most appealing angle. Behind the eastern stalls a permanent smithy had been built, the heat from the forge melting the snow by the doors. Opposite the blacksmith stood the town’s inn, Traveller’s Refuge, its reinforced doors forced open by the people inside, all looking towards the two men. The owners of the stalls had fixed their eyes on them as well, some curious, some distrustful. The blacksmith had even taken a moment to glance at the newcomer before turning back to his forge. Henry looked at the blacksmith with fascination as the metal sheets formed the rough shape of a sword.
‘Have you never seen a smithy at work, my lord?’ Henry shook his head, a smile hovering over his rather thin lips.
‘In Airen, all blacksmiths belong to the same guild. A guild building is not allowed in Marble City since it is our capitol. I rarely leave the city, and very rarely get to see the great work done by ordinary people,’ he gestured to the road that intersected the market and ran from west to east. ‘Where do those lead to?’ Conrad smiled and walked up the western road, careful to avoid the paving stones forced up by valiant weeds. The road twisted north soon enough, whereupon the farms could be seen. As with all Northern Reach towns, the farms were enclosed within the walls to minimise the risk of famine should siege occur. The workers straightened and shaded their eyes from the sun to look at the two men. It occurred to Conrad that they must look rather strange; some citizens had decided to follow them, the crowd trailing back towards the market square. Soon enough the road turned back on itself and they followed it southward until great stone houses could be seen, hulking stubbornly in front of the sun. The houses featured low, crumbling walls that enclosed snow with footprints leading to the reinforced doors, shut securely against the cold weather. The houses were only a storey high, the stones large and unevenly placed.
‘This is the Old Quarter, reserved for the Reach natives,’ as he spoke a small child ran out of one of the doors, her brown hair tousled by the wind, a package in one hand. She jumped over the small wall and made a passing bow to the two men before hurrying down the road. The crowd parted for her, and a second later she was followed by a boy of around the same age, following her with some determinacy. Henry followed them with his eyes, a small frown puckering the skin between his brows.
‘And the Orminians, the Nomads, the Airens; where do they live?’ Conrad pointed over his shoulder to the east.
‘They live at the other end of the road, in the New Quarter,’ Henry nodded, his eyebrows still knitted together. Conrad suddenly realised the man was shivering; he had ventured outside without the multitude of furs he had arrived in. He had stuck his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched against the wind. His black hair was being whipped around by the wind, and Conrad shook his head at the southerner’s odd way of leaving the hair long. It seemed mightily inconvenient.
‘I would like to see this New Quarter, please,’ Conrad bowed his head and gestured for Henry to walk before him. The crowd parted just as it had done for the youngsters, their eyes fixed on the young dignitary.

The New Quarter lay at the end of the road that ran directly east from the market, at the banks of the ford for which the town had been named. The houses here were of mixed styles; those that had moved from Airen had decided to build theirs with two-storied, whereas the Nomads had built low, unobtrusive huts and the Orminians had built sprawling mini-mansions. All were made of wood taken from the foots of the mountains and had very little room between them. Some of the wood had rotted; a family of Airens were attempting to repair their front door. This side of town was definitely more run-down than the west side, but this was hardly surprising. The law that allowed immigrants to build permanent houses had only been passed one hundred years ago, but the Reach had always prided themselves on having a lower percentage of poverty than the Airens. Anyone who struggled to make ends meet or found themselves homeless as the result of a raid or a terrible storm could stay in the town fort and be housed and fed until they found their feet again. Despite himself, Conrad smiled smugly but wiped it off his face as soon as Henry turned to him.
‘Shall we get back to the fort? You must be cold.’ At the dignitary’s nod, Conrad began to lead the way back to the stone fortress in the distance.

The evening came swiftly, as it always did, bringing with it a snow blizzard. Conrad had been waylaid by Ivan when he brought back the dignitary, and had been told to dress in his best clothes for the evening. Uncomfortably aware that the Reach’s idea of fine dress was no doubt regarded by the Airen’s as drab, workaday clothes, he had pulled on black leggings and a cream shirt, the sleeves billowing out slightly before fastening close around his wrists. On top of that he wore a black tunic and swung a fur-trimmed cloak over his shoulders. The pin he used to fasten the cloak bore the Reach insignia of two swords crossed diagonally. Thick socks went on before a pair of thick, leather boots, and finally he wound a belt around his waist. His sword hung, sheathed, but still evident enough to remind the dignitaries that the Reach could look after itself. He looked at himself critically in the looking-glass. His brown hair had been sheared short, but was as unruly as it was curly. Some hair had been plastered onto his tanned skin by the snow. Dark blue eyes, whirling with silver specks, were hooded beneath thick, dark eyebrows. A shadow lay on his square jaw where stubble had stubbornly begun to grow. He rubbed at it, regretful that he could not grow a beard yet. He had not yet bloodied his blade with men, and as a result had to shave each day. He grinned as he thought of the coming campaign in the summer, when he would travel to the mountain outpost Nogon, and test his blade against the Nomads that still tried to invade the Reach. His reflection stared at him, teeth blindingly white against the dark skin. He turned away from the looking-glass and tugged his clothes straight before opening the door and stepping into the stone corridor. He closed the heavy wooden door behind him and strode towards the stairs that would take him to the Great Hall.

The table that seated the royal family had been set further back, and a shorter table that seated three had been placed forward and to the right. The dignitaries had not yet appeared, although this was not unusual. Conrad was the first to enter the hall apart from the common Northerners that ambled around the two long tables near the door, not yet deciding where to sit. They called out greetings as they saw him, and he raised a hand in response, smiling at them. A man tried to draw him into a debate about the summer campaign, but Conrad waved aside his question, stepping with relief onto the plinth and behind the table. The folk that milled on the floor below could not bother him here. He waited silently behind his chair, noticing as he did so that there was no seat for Adil. He smiled slightly as he thought of the chagrin he would feel, eating with the younger children of the fort. Slowly, the court trickled in; first came Ivan, wearing his warrior clothes, a hand axe by his side. Silence spread from the door outwards as the crowd parted to let him walk up the aisle. He walked forwards with an easy lope, his blue leggings and shirt marking him as a warrior of renown. His beard had been freshly combed, the beads in the curly hair glinting green and blue. He stood behind his chair with a curt nod to his son. Next came Prince Bjorn, dressed in the same way but with the silver circlet of the Crowned Prince atop his dark hair. He was followed by Princess Mina, who had dressed herself in black leggings and a white shirt, with a cloak similar to Conrad’s around her shoulders. Her long hair, usually bound at the nape of her neck, had been decorated with several combs, and twin blades hung at her hip. Conrad felt a surge of pride as he looked at her; Reach women had no need of dresses or finery. They wore their worth with their blades. Finally, King Wilhelm and Queen Nusaybah walked up the aisle, the queen supporting her ailing husband. The king had dressed in the royal blue that only he could wear, and the Reach insignia had been embroidered on his fur cloak. His crown lay on his white hair, a sapphire twinkling in the middle. His queen had dressed in the Nomadic way; sensible, loose trousers and a close fitting tunic that bared her dark arms. Their amber colour set off the amber of her eyes, and her long, black hair fell unbound to her waist. She wore the gold circlet that proclaimed her queen, but had no other jewellery. Conrad was horrified to see how slowly the king shuffled up the aisle, and how he leaned on the queen to overcome the plinth. He was aware of the murmurs of the crowd below, and could see the worried looks on the king’s children and Ivan as he struggled to pull his chair out and sit down. Everyone had the grace to wait until the king had seated himself before following suit. They waited for the Airen’s patiently.

He had the feeling that Anise, at least, had wanted to wait until she was sure everyone’s eyes would be on her when she walked into the hall. The door swung open silently to admit her, Henry and Francis. She walked in first, a satisfied smile on her lips. Conrad wrinkled his nose at the way she was dressed. She wore a full skirt of orange, pulled up in place at the hem to reveal and underskirt of purest white. Her bodice was encrusted with amber beading and was cut low and square below her shoulders. Her long, auburn hair was loose, curling slightly at the end, and her face had been plastered in makeup. She had made her eyes smoky and her lips red. Rings adorned her fingers, and her fingernails had been tinted orange. She could not have looked more out of place amongst the sensibly dressed Northerners if she had been a goose amongst cats. She curtsied to the king, but her eyes were resting upon Bjorn. He looked enraptured by her, and Conrad made a mental note to keep a distance between the two. No good could come from flirting with one so obviously Airen as her. Henry followed her, walking too fast to be looked at, but not as fast as to be rude. He wore orange leggings and a white top, laced with more orange ribbon. His hair had been bound with an orange tie, and a scarf of terracotta had been wrapped around his white neck. He bowed to the table and took his seat at the shorter one. Finally, Francis strode up the aisle, obviously not enjoying being a spectacle. He wore the same outfit as Henry, although it had not been as well made and looked odd on his rather brutish face and shorn head. He bowed stiffly and sat on the edge of the table, furthest away from the royals. The food upon the tables was eaten quickly, the brandy chasing away the chill that swept in from the blizzard outside. Conrad kept his eyes on his food, but heard snippets of conversation from the table in front. From Anise’s short, curt tones, he gathered that her appearance had not been as well-received as she had hoped. From quick glances, he also noticed that Francis was staring at the princess far more than necessary. He took some comfort in that the princess did not return the look.

After the rather hurried dinner, Bjorn suggested that they retire to the Lesser Hall, where the court and the dignitaries could speak privately. The prince offered Anise his arm, and she took it, smiling disarmingly and peeking through her lashes at him. Conrad stared after him in disbelief before being recalled to the present by Mina.
‘Get up,’ she hissed, tugging discreetly at his cloak ‘you’re meant to be escorting me to the hall.’ Startled, he stood up swiftly, nearly upsetting his chair as he did so. He blushed as he heard the titters from below and scratched at his throat nervously. He offered Mina his arm and she rested a long-fingered hand on his sleeve. She led the way, and Conrad was only too happy to let her. Everyone stopped eating and watched the court and the Airen’s make their way through the hall and out of the doors before returning to their meal. The common folk would continue eating to repletion before making their way to their own rooms in the fort or towards the Old Quarter in town.

The Lesser Hall was smaller with only the hearth as a source of light. There were sconces on the wall, but they were rarely lit. When they were, they often guttered and spat as the draught from outside swept through the fort. Nevertheless, it was a cosy hall, with thick rugs underfoot and plenty of comfortable chairs. It was rarely used, save for meeting scholars and important visitors. Conrad had never been in here, having always excused himself from the presence of such visitors. Mina let go of his arm as soon as they entered the hall and threw herself onto a chair, grinning lazily at the boy she had just left. She stretched like a cat, the fire casting half her face into shadow. Anise had settled herself as near to the fire as she could respectfully be, her face turned upwards towards Bjorn. Her feline eyes flickered to meet Conrad’s too many times to be coincidental. He wondered briefly at what they were talking about, but was distracted by Sir Francis, who had evidently been too far in his cups that night. His pale face was mottled with red and a vein was pulsing angrily at his temple. To Conrad’s surprise, the Airen was standing almost toe to toe with Ivan, who was looking suitably unimpressed. The different mutterings stopped as everyone turned to the two men. Francis was swaying dangerously, his words slurring together.
‘You think you’re better than me... Raise your axe, and we shall see who is. Dirty Northern Devil, I’ll show you what a real man is,’ Ivan dropped into a fighter’s stance and raised his hand suddenly. The pale man startled and rocked back on his feet, almost falling over. A dry chuckle emerged from the gap between Ivan’s beard and moustache, and this seemed to cause even more offence to Francis. The man swung a fist back, but was stopped by one of Ivan’s mighty paws. Conrad could see that his father was getting ready to strike back, but was gratified to see that the man sent a glance at the king to see if he was allowed to.
‘Francis, stop.’ The command came from Henry, and the man had stood up, flatly staring down the angry drunk. The man glared blearily at the lord and muttered something under his breath. Bjorn cleared his throat loudly and the heads swivelled in his direction.
‘It would not be a fair fight, Francis. Ivan is the best warrior in the Northern Reaches, and I would wager he is the best in the world. Perhaps you would like to test his son?’ He cast an amused glance at Conrad’s suddenly aghast face. Francis turned on his heel to regard Conrad with bloodshot eyes. He felt his lip turn up into a semi-automatic snarl and the drunk visibly took a step back.
‘A devil like his father,’ King Wilhelm’s voice came out in a rasp. He sounded proud rather than fearful, which is more than can be said of the Airens. Francis made the sign to ward off demons, his face suddenly taut and white. Anise sunk back into her chair, her lambent eyes travelling from one face to the other. Conrad relaxed slightly, and found that his hand had been resting on the hilt of his sword.
‘Tomorrow, at noon, meet me by the arena.’ He did not bother phrasing it as a request. The Airen nodded tersely, still swaying slightly on his feet.

The sun was at its zenith although it could barely be seen through the sleet that fell from the grey sky. Conrad was waiting beside the arena, a wooden structure where warriors tested their mettle against each other and resolved conflicts with mock battles. The royal family had arrived just before noon, and Conrad was surprised yet pleased that Adil and the youngest, Pola, had turned up to support him. He waved to the young princess sitting in the seats around the arena, and she waved back, a smile in her plump face. Anise and Henry arrived soon after, both wearing orange neckties. Conrad was shocked that Henry sat with the royal family, and seemed intent on cheering for him rather than Francis. Ivan came last with Francis in tow, the latter with his head tucked under his cloak. Conrad greeted the two, and they walked together into the arena, albeit Francis dragged his feet. The ground had been snowed on last night, and it lay untouched, blindingly white. Conrad’s feet crunched through it and it came up to his shins. Francis, being rather shorter than his opponent, found it difficult to transverse the snow. Ivan strode through it with as little difficulty as his son, and went to stand on the raised stage to the north. Conrad took his place at the west end of the arena, and Francis stood to the east. The seats around the arena were all full; Airens, Nomads and Orminians sat with Northerners, all cheering for their chosen champion. Conrad knew that a lot of them were here for him; it heartened him greatly. Ivan lifted his hands and silence fell. He was the Champion, and it fell to him to announce lesser fights and declare the winner.
‘Today, to settle a challenge issued by Sir Francis of Airen, Conrad Iverson will do battle with him,’ a cheer swelled through the crowd, and Ivan stopped talking until it had died down. ‘Sharpened weapons will be used, and the last to surrender shall be crowned the winner.’ He gave an almost imperceptible nod to his son, who nodded gravely back. He would be defending the Reach’s honour. He could not lose. His sword hung, sheathed, at his hip, but he could not see Francis’ weapon.
‘Fight.’

A quick, fervent prayer to the Battle God, and they began to circle one another. Conrad did not draw his sword straight away, instead scuffing the snow beneath his feet to secure a better foothold. No doubt Francis had learnt to wield his weapon in the southern way, with lots of twirls and unnecessary swings. He could drive a sword between his defences and kill, if that had been his aim. Instead, Conrad had to decide how he was going to win without seriously harming his opponent. He watched as Francis struggled to move fluidly over the snow, and almost pitied him. The moment passed however, when the man lunged at Conrad with a dagger, trying to catch him off guard. Conrad dodged the attack, rolling over the snow and back to his feet amidst gasps from the crowd. He spat out some snow and drew his sword cleanly. Francis put away his dagger and drew his own sword. It was long, and curved, a scimitar. An Orminian had probably made it, perhaps one of the slaves that the Airens were so partial to. He saw it move through the air, a flash of silver, and flung up his own sword to deflect the hit. The shock ran up his shoulder, jolting his muscles, but was pleased to see that Francis had experienced the same pain. Conrad slid his sword down and slashed at Francis’ belly. The sword scored the leather that protected the man, and he jumped back, ready to try again. Francis staggered back, and a look of outrage settled on his ugly features. With less finesse, the man ran forwards, the scimitar aloft, seeming ready to bring it down on Conrad’s head. The man had left his front completely unprotected, and Conrad’s sword sliced through the leather cleanly and scratched his stomach. In his rage, Francis seemed to disregard his pain and brought the scimitar down. Realising he only had seconds, Conrad ducked and tackled the man, knocking him down to the floor. The scimitar flew out of his grip, and Conrad slammed the pommel of his own sword onto Francis’ forehead with enough force to knock him out. Breathing heavily, Conrad stood up and sheathed his sword, leaving Francis sprawled on the ground. The crowd roared, and he caught his father’s eye. Ivan nodded approvingly, and brought his mighty paws together in a single clap.

Later, much later, Conrad walked out of the infirmary. He had carried Francis up to the fort and had seen him being treated. The sword cut was just a scratch, and he had barely drawn blood. Francis was left unceremoniously on a bed once it was proclaimed he would live, and he woke a while later groggy and disorientated. Whilst he was there, Michel insisted on seeing his forearm where the snow cat had wounded him. The cut was healing well, although Michel informed Conrad that it would leave a scar. He thanked the Orminian healer, gave one last look at the groaning man and decided he would leave.

Apparently an audience with the king had been granted whilst Conrad was in the infirmary; he heard the crowd milling outside the Great Hall complain that Lady Anise and Lord Henry had been in there too long, that dinner was going to be had late. What was so important that they had to delay food? More than slightly hurt that they had not called for him, Conrad waited with the crowd.

It was some time later that the doors finally opened, the strong backs of the doormen working as they always did to drag the heavy wood against the cold stone floor. Anise was the first to walk out, dressed as resplendently as the night before, although a black temper had contorted her fine features. She looked at Conrad imperiously, and affect somewhat ruined by the fact she had to pause and tilt her head up to meet his eyes. He returned her look coolly, one eyebrow raised. She stalked away, her nose up in the air. Henry strode from the hall, the princess on his arm, and directed a brief, apologetic smile at Conrad. He felt a stirring of jealousy as he watching them walk away, Mina leaning in towards his ear to tell him the history of some tapestries they passed. He started to walk after them, but was forestalled by a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Prince Bjorn’s tanned face, ruddy with the cold wind.
‘Lad, I would have words with you,’ Conrad fell into step with the prince as they walked towards the narrow stairway that would take them to the living quarters of the fort. It was a companionable silence that lay between them as Bjorn steered them towards the easterly tower. The steps that led to the tower room were steep and winding, holding tight to the stone walls. The room itself was large and circular, with narrow windows that commanded the view of the vast snowy lands that lay between Newford and the next town. The roads had been buried in snow until only a faint trail remained, although Conrad could see men and women on horseback, valiantly trying to cross the tundra that passed for the countryside.

The chamber was sparsely furnished, as was the custom of the Reach. Two chairs lay in front of a hearth with a rickety table between them. A bottle of brandy and two glasses were on the table, the bottle unopened. Silently, he wondered at the effort some people took in making each room as hospitable as they could, regardless of whether they were used regularly or not. Bjorn gestured towards the chairs, and Conrad took his seat. Snow and cold air billowed in from the windows, whistling around the flames that leapt in the hearth. Bjorn uncorked the brandy with a fluid motion that showed his experience with such things, and quickly poured a substantial amount in each glass. Conrad waiting patiently, nursing the glass between his hands as Bjorn drank his in own gulp. Curiosity prickled at him. Whatever had been discussed in the hall obviously had some importance. The prince filled his own glass once again and sipped at the liquid. Conrad echoed him; the brandy chased away some of the chill from the wind.
‘We heard their message, finally. Lady Anise said it tartly, no doubt put out by the defeat of her comrade,’ his icy blue eyes twinkled with sudden amusement, and Conrad returned the grin. ‘My brother wishes Ivan to go to Airen and hold counsel with him. The Airen court is far larger than ours; some hundred nobles visit in the summer, I’m told. The Northern Reach is severely underrepresented. What diplomats there are, are held in such distrust and superstitious fear that their counsel is never acted upon. My brother thinks that if a distinguished and well known warrior, such as Ivan, makes an appearance, it may well solidify the supposed union of our two kingdoms,’ he peered owlishly over his glass at Conrad and ran his rough hands through his cropped hair. Strands of grey were growing amongst the dark brown. He had never spoken so informally to Conrad before, always being aware of their age difference. Conrad fidgeted slightly and took a larger swig of brandy than he had intended. It coursed through him, burning his throat, bringing tears to his eyes. Bjorn poured himself a third glass and quickly drank it all.
‘Ivan cannot go. He has too many duties here, too many important ties with the Nomads to live in Airen. Sometimes I think he is the only person that ensures this uneasy alliance with them remains intact. But even then, they still skirmish along our borders, trying to take back land given to us by the Gods and their Children.’ Conrad remained silent, all too aware of the important part his father played in uneasy politics. When he was younger, he had often thought he would visit the Nomads with his father, and that he would fight alongside him. But as he reached manhood, the expectations thrust upon him by the Reach folk meant that he doubted he would ever exceed his father in neither fame nor deed. Bjorn sighed heavily.
‘So, it seemed as though we would have to refuse the one request my brother has ever asked of us. I tell you, lad, my heart grew heavy to see my father so distressed by it all. You should have seen the look on that little spitfire’s face; her pretty cheeks pink, her green eyes fair scrunched with disappointment and fury,’ Conrad curled his lip at the mention of Anise, but his expression was thankfully ignored. ‘But, then, Lord Henry had a suggestion. In Airen, it seems they judge children on the deeds of their father. If Ivan could not go, you could, and your words would carry as much weight as if it were he speaking them.’ Conrad raised his eyebrows but did not say anything. He had the feeling Bjorn had not finished all he had to say. He clasped his hands on his lap, meeting the prince’s eyes.
‘If you do agree to go, it will have to be in high summer, when the roads to the border are easier to travel. It will also give you time to bloody your blade; I do not like the idea of sending a fresh, unbearded man to a foreign court.’ He leant back, and Conrad knew he was awaiting an answer. He chewed his lip, tasted blood, and immediately regretted it. To go to Airen was to leave behind everything he had known. He knew nothing of their customs, knew no-one except Anise, Henry and King Eric, and he had not seen the king in over ten years. His calling as a warrior would go unheeded, and he would not be able to protect the borders against the Nomads. Toying with the idea of refusing, he glanced at Prince Bjorn. The man seemed suddenly wearied, as though all the cares of the earth had fallen to him. King Wilhelm was failing, and the man knocking back brandy would be likely to assume the throne within a few years. With all the worries and responsibilities he would be facing, how could Conrad refuse without adding to them? At least if Conrad took his father’s place in the Airen court, he would be alleviating some of the worries that would soon rest on those broad shoulders. He drained the brandy that still lay at the bottom of his glass.
‘If you wish me to go, I shall, my prince.’

The dignitaries left once Sir Francis had recovered, making their excuses and leaving as quickly as was polite. Their proud horses carried them away, already buffeted by the cold winds and snow. They had politely but firmly refused King Wilhelm’s offer of staying until spring, saying that Queen Harriet wanted them in Airen as soon as possible. Privately, Conrad thought that the visit hadn’t gone as expected; Bjorn had cooled towards Anise, Sir Francis had been beaten by a Northerner seven years his junior, and Conrad would be going to Airen in Ivan’s stead.

Winter blew into spring, the snow becoming intermittent with rain. Preparations for the summer campaign was well under way, with daily weapons exercises, readying supplies and training the tough mountain ponies that would take them to Nogon.

The night before he was due to leave, Conrad was in his chamber, packing the last of his clothes into his travel bag. The singular wardrobe that stood behind the door hung open, bereft of any shirts that fit. The remaining clothes fluttered in the slight breeze forlornly. He frowned as the bag refused to close; he pushed down on the clothes inside with a grunt and managed to tie it closed. He sat on his bed beside the bag and glanced around the chamber one last time. He had been moved out of the communal chambers that belonged to children when he was twelve, and when he had first been assigned this one, he had thought it was huge. As he had grown older, the room had seemed to shrink. Now, it was cramped; there was barely enough room to move between the door to the bed, and he had to kneel on the bed to open or close the shutters at the window. His mirror was fixed to the wall opposite the bed, and a shaving blade rested on the shelf below it. With the door open, he couldn’t move unless he stepped onto the bed. Nevertheless, he would be sorry to leave the comforts of his own chamber when he left for Airen.

There was a knock on the door, and then Ivan stepped through. He filled the doorway, and Conrad did not immediately see Mina, Adil and Pola standing behind him. Ivan stood to one side with difficulty, and the two younger royals scampered past him to sit on either side of Conrad on the bed. Pola reached for his hand and he let her hold it. Her hand was sticky, and he briefly wondered where it had been. Mina edged into the room and closed the door, plunging the room into dimness.
‘I thought I’d give you something for the campaign,’ his father seemed almost embarrassed as he pulled his axe from his belt and handed it to Conrad. He accepted it wordlessly, feeling the weight of the weapon. The steel handle had the Reach insignia etched into the bottom.
‘I received it when I first went into battle. It seems only right that you have it now,’ Ivan cleared his throat, shuffled his feet and then clapped Conrad on the shoulder. He nodded his head briefly before opening the door. ‘Good luck, pup. I know you’ll do me proud.’ Before Conrad could reply, he was gone. He stared at the axe on his lap and slipped it under the bed. It was still sharp; the last thing he needed was for Pola to injure herself on the weapon.
‘You’ll come back, won’t you?’ The young princess picked at a hole in Conrad’s blanket. Adil sat silently on his other side, and Conrad knew he was worried. He glanced at Mina, who smiled softly. He picked Pola up and placed her on his lap, resting his chin on her soft hair.
‘Of course I’ll come back, and I’ll be the best Warrior the world has ever seen! You won’t recognise me,’ he hugged her to him, whispering into her ear. ‘They’ll call me Conrad the Great, and Nomads everywhere will cower at the mere mention of my name.’ She giggled and wormed out of his grasp.
‘And when you get back, will you bring me a present?’ Her amber eyes grew wide. ‘I’ll be ten by the time you come back to Newford, you know.’ Conrad laughed and ruffled her hair.
‘I’ll bring back the best present you can imagine. Now off you go.’ He propelled her towards Mina, who in turn pushed her out of the door. He watched her skip down the corridor, and then nodded to Mina to shut the door once more. Adil shifted closer to him, and his sister sat in Pola’s vacated spot. Conrad hooked his arm around Adil’s shoulder and squeezed.
‘There’s no point worrying, Adil. Your father wouldn’t have sent me if he didn’t think I could survive.’ Adil opened his mouth to argue, perhaps, but Mina pointed to the door imperiously.
‘Out, Ad. I want to talk to Conrad alone.’ She waited until her brother had disappeared before facing Conrad. She held a sad smile on her face, and she gripped his face between her hands. He felt his heart beating faster as she leant towards him, but she simply rested her brow against his.
‘Make sure you do come back. I shan’t forgive you otherwise.’

Dawn broke, shedding silver light over a grey sky. A fine drizzle coated Conrad with water as he walked towards his mountain pony. It was short and stocky with a thick, stubbly grey coat, short neck and blockish head. It had been bred for harsh conditions, and was the favoured mount of the Reach. No-one had come to say farewell, to wish him luck, but that was traditional. Besides, he did not know if he could contain his fear of dying at Nogon if someone said goodbye one more time. He strapped his travel bag to the pony and swung onto the saddle. It started to walk almost as soon as he touched the reigns, seeming to obey his thoughts rather than his touch. Slowly, he made his way around the fort, brining the pony on a narrow trail that swung around the stone building and up into the mountains. He met two armed guards at the base of the mountain and raised a hand. They saluted to him, curiosity and pride mingled on their faces. It was no small feat to be going to the campaign; this honour was dreamed about by young boys and girls all over the Northern Reaches. He kneed his pony to make it start forwards once more, and it carried him into the shadow of the mountain.
‘The other recruits made their way up late last night. If they stopped to rest, they’re probably only an hour or so ahead of you. One horse should catch up to their many in no time.’ The guard smiled sympathetically, and Conrad nodded his thanks. He flicked the reigns and the pony increased the pace. He had no desire to make his own way up the mountains.

It was indeed only an hour before he caught sight of the long train of ponies, winding far into the distance. He did not force his own pony to close the gap between them, knowing that it would do so given its own time. The guard was right on another account; it only took another hour to join onto the end of the procession, and at a nod from a grizzled man, he was accepted into the recruit train. Excitement started to flutter in his heart and his pony seemed to respond, dancing to the side and edging forwards.

It took them ten days to reach Nogon, a frighteningly short amount of time. If Conrad had been by himself, he could have reached it in a week or less. Nomad scouts with quick horses would be able to cover the distance in even less time. They passed through other outposts, some abandoned and some thriving with out of action Warriors. He did not think they would put up a sufficient fight if the Nomads came unexpectedly. He resolved to speak to King Wilhelm about it when he returned, then mentally corrected himself. He would tell Prince Bjorn. The king would not be in the right state of mind to listen to such important matters, and Bjorn would see that the outposts were rectified far quicker. Lost in thought, he almost didn’t hear a recruit’s awed whisper.
‘Look, there it is!’
Nogon was nestled at the foot of the Reach Mountain, at the very edge of the northern border. It was a large militant outpost that still bore the ghostly remains of the court that had lived there in the reign of Torgur the Brave, around a thousand years ago. Torgur had moved his wife and young son, Fridmar, to Nogon to show everyone that the northern borders had been firmly set and maintained. He had been a part of the war party that had driven the Nomads north, and had built Nogon with his own two hands. There was no love spared for the Nomads; his father, Rufus, had been one, and had tried to assassinate King Eric to hasten his own ascension to the throne. Despite all this, Rufus never ruled, but the Northerner’s hatred of the Nomads was deep set. Nogon had been originally built of wood, but some stone had fortified the main barracks when Torgur had brought his family and the court to Nogon to live. After his death, Nogon’s visits from royalty were usually in the form of battle or skirmishes. It had long been the tradition to sent green men to Nogon to have their first taste of battle, and for those lucky and skilled enough to survive, perform the ritual which would make them men in the eyes of the Reach.

Snow fell thick and fast, buffeted by icy winds. The trail that they had followed was little more than a mix of hoof prints and footprints in the deep snow. Conrad could see that this trail led all the way through Nogon, twisting and turning until it finally disappeared around the side of the mountain. The barracks hulked out of the snow, a wide, windowless stone building that kept out both wind and sound. Covered stables had been erected beside it, and Conrad could just about see some mountain ponies being coaxed into stalls. Hardly anyone was walking about; those that were had their scarves covering their lower faces, with knitted caps shielding their foreheads and head. From this distance, he could not see if they were Nomads or Northerners. This close to the border, he reasoned a moment later, their blood was probably so intermixed that there was little difference. He flicked the reigns and his pony lurched forwards, carrying him resolutely to the stables and barracks.

A few moments later, he had given the pony to a stable hand and had retreated to the welcome dryness of the barracks. The giant door shut off the sound of the blustery wind, shutting off the sound, if not the cold. Shivering slightly, he stood with the rest of the green men, awaiting instruction. He could see expressions of avid curiosity, apprehension and bloodlust on the five faces around him, and briefly wondered which showed predominantly on his.
‘You look like drowned rats,’ the low growl was laden with amusement as Sven loped towards them, his dark, swarthy face half-hidden in the shadows. Their commander had ridden ahead and had been in the barracks for far longer than they. His clothes were dry and his breath already carried with it the scent of ale. He belched, wiped his mouth on his sleeve then looked at the six men before him.
‘You’ve been assigned a room, and it’s got pellets in. They don’t see no sense in giving beds to greens; they may not come back, see?’ He leered at them horridly before belying his nonchalance by shooting a concerned look at one of the men. He had turned pale, and was unsteady on his feet. Conrad hurriedly held onto the back of the man’s cloak as he collapsed, his eyes rolling back to whites, and his head lolling on his shoulders. Sven leant forward to take a closer look at the fainted recruit. Conrad grunted with the effort involved in keeping the man from falling in a heap. Sven fixed Conrad with his dark eyes – a potent symbol of his mixed heritage.
‘You there, Ivan’s boy. He’s your partner from now on. What’s his name?’ Conrad winced at the thought of being tied to the man for the rest of the campaign even as he felt rankled at being named ‘Ivan’s boy’. He had come here to prove himself, not to be labelled as his father’s son. He glanced at the fainting man and realised he had no idea who he was. He opened his mouth to say so.
‘His name is Fjord, sir. He only came because his father told him he’d be disinherited-’ Sven cut off the man’s litany. Conrad swivelled his head to see who had spoke, but all the men were silent. His arm shook with holding Fjord up, and he wished he had just let him fall.
‘Fjord. And you’re Conrad, right?’ At his nod, Sven muttered the name to himself under his breath to commit it to his memory. ‘I’ll be watching you both, boy. I’m a hard man to impress,’ he held Conrad’s gaze for a while longer before addressing the group as a whole. ‘Your room is at the very end of the corridor. Go get settled, then the day is yours. Tomorrow I expect each and every one of you to report to me at dawn. Now, get.’ The men beside Conrad swarmed towards the door, leaving him to hoist Fjord half onto his shoulder and drag the prone man. He cursed his bad luck at being left with the dead weight, and reasoned that he would have the luck of the Twelve if he survived until high summer.

The room they had been assigned was, indeed, temporary. It had no personal effects, no tables and no chairs. Six pellets had been thrown into the middle of the room, and torches were flickering in the sconces on the walls, but that was the extent of the Nogon’s generosity. Even as Conrad hauled Fjord through the door, the others had claimed a pellet each and were dragging them off to different corners of the room. Not that the room was that large; Conrad could have walked the length and width of it in five strides. The only room left to place a pellet was in the centre of the chamber, and the pellets that remained were patched and holey. He struggled to see how he could make a pellet for both him and Fjord whilst supporting the man. He cast a look at the four men and all but one looked aside. A slight man perhaps four years older than Conrad, abruptly shook out the two pellets and arranged them in the remaining space available. He helped Conrad place Fjord on the pellet, then drew some dried meat from a pocket and shared it with him companionably. Conrad took it with a muttered word of thanks and ate it slowly. The man sat at the end of his pellet, his dark eyes fixed on Conrad. He was unusual; he seemed to be a mix of Orminian and Nomad, yet when he spoke, his voice carried the inflection of the Reach. Conrad struggled to remember his name. He thought it was something like Rufus.
‘I came here with Fjord. We both come from Port, so we have little experience of fighting. But this test of our abilities is essential if we wish to become Warriors, or even just a recognised man,’ he grinned suddenly, a flash of white against dark skin. Conrad answered the smile with one of his own. It was true; the Reach only recognised a man if he had killed in battle and only a man could assist the King in matters of state. The same was true of women; however he knew that many of the Reach of both sexes decided against bloodying themselves to live as traders, shop-keeps or even sailors. He glanced at Fjord, a frown puckering the skin between his brows. The man was traditional Northern stock; short and broad with curly brown hair, swarthy skin and ice blue eyes. However the muscles under his shirt spoke as those of a sailor rather than a warrior.
‘Of course, I wanted to come. It’s the only way I can prove my worth; prove that my parentage doesn’t mean I’m not a Northerner. But Fjord here didn’t want to come. He already had a place aboard a ship, but his father threatened to disown him if he didn’t become a man,’ Rufus shook his head woefully and stopped talking to take a bite from the meat he held. Privately, Conrad was glad that the man had stopped his nattering; he found it very wearying. He shrugged out of his cloak and hung it from one of the hooks in the wall. He doubted it would dry for tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be as sodden as before. His shirt and tunic were wet as well, but they would dry if he stood in front of a fire. He pressed himself against the wall as the three other men trooped past him, no doubt heading towards the common room. He frowned at their backs. Unhelpfulness and selfishness were not the hallmarks of a good warrior. On the other hand, he seemed to have unwillingly befriended or helped the two that would drive him to distraction. At least he was only campaigning for six weeks, although he doubted Fjord would last that long.
‘What about you, Conrad? Where do you come from?’ Conrad sighed and massaged his temples. He forced down the brusque reply that came to his lips, telling himself that he needed allies.
‘I come from Newford, from the fort. King Wilhelm himself arranged it for me to go,’ At the look of delight and curiosity on Rufus’ face, Conrad excused himself quickly and dashed out of the door, closing it firmly behind him.

He passed through the common room with barely a glance to spare. He saw a senior woman warrior admonishing a crying recruit as she cut off long, flowing locks. No warrior was permitted hair longer than two inches. He wondered briefly if the sobbing woman had come here of her own accord, or had been pushed and threatened as Fjord had, but pushed it out of his mind. Regardless if she had wanted to come or not, by the end of the campaign, she would either be a warrior or a corpse. He strode towards the giant doors and inched one of them open. The wind tore at his clothes and face, leaving his skin frozen. With some annoyance, he realised he had left his cloak in the recruit room, but he resolutely stepped out. He could not face Rufus’ curiosity or Fjord’s fainting fits. The doors closed behind him, shutting out the warmth and leaving him stranded in the cold.

The narrow trail had been made from generations of footsteps, trampling the snow into narrow channels. Conrad followed it towards the bend around the mountain, certain that he would come across people coming back and forth. In the distance, he could hear the sounds of battle, and could almost taste the blood on the wind. With sudden realisation, he saw that the trail would lead to the battle scene. A hoarse cry heralded the appearance of a group of men and women carrying a stretcher between them. Conrad stepped off the trail, granting them the quicker path. They spared no look at him, instead rushing pass, their faces harried and blood-streaked. A man lay supine on the cloth between them, groaning every now and then. With a sickened feeling, Conrad saw that blood was spilling from his side, staining the white of the cloth with a deep, scarlet red. They were soon swallowed up by the snow, but Conrad stood still, shocked. He had seen injured men and women before; he had been injured often enough to test the patience of the fort’s healer. However, he had never before grasped the futility and frailty of human life. It suddenly became real, very real, that he would be killing human beings, with family and friends, with entire lives. He swallowed and swung his eyes to the trail leading to the slaughter.

That was probably what saved him.

A wild ululation tore at his ears, and a flash of metal swung before his eyes. Instinctively, Conrad held his axe up, and a sword smashed against it uselessly. The impact rung up his arms, but Conrad gave no mind to the pain. With a roar, he lunged at the unknown attacker, pushing them away from the barracks. Suddenly, he had the advantage; he could use the axe as a two-edged weapon, whereas the sword could only be used as one. He smacked the blunt end of the axe against the attacker’s sword wrist, and he heard a satisfying snap. The sword fell, useless, to the ground. He noticed that the tip was red with blood, but did not know if it was his own. He swung the axe high over his head and clove the attacker’s head in. The axe stuck in the flesh and was ripped out of his hands as his opponent collapsed to the ground. Just like that, he had killed. Once more, he was aware of the bitter cold, the snow and the sweat that had made his shirt cling to his skin. His arms ached, but other than that, he did not think he had sustained any injuries. He blinked, the snow clinging to his lashes, and saw that a group of people had appeared from around the mountain. He panted heavily, wondering if they were friend or foe. As they walked nearer, he decided that if they had been Nomads, they would have rushed at him and tried to kill him. He knelt in the snow, already turning red with the blood of the Nomad in front of him. He saw now that it was a man, in his thirties. His olive skin had paled, his face was slack. Blood had run into the lines of his forehead and the crows’ feet beside his vacant amber eyes. No grimace of pain was on this corpse; instead his mouth hung open, his white teeth stained with blood. A crawling tattoo crept from his neck to the base of his left ear; Conrad briefly wondered what it meant, then decided it did not matter. He closed the staring eyes and stood up to reclaim his axe. It came with a squelching noise, and the blade was covered in blood and strands of black hair.

The sound of footsteps crunching on the snow made him look up from cleaning the blade. Three Warriors, two women and a man, stood before him, marked with blood and grime from the battle field. A chain hung loosely from the hands of one of the women, and it coiled briefly on the ground before becoming taut around the links attached to the collar of the man behind them. The man was obviously a Nomad; he could have been a twin of the man Conrad had just killed. He had an angular face, with a straight, thin moustache and black hair made stiff with blood. One side of his face was swollen and bloody. The same tattoo sprawled across his dark skin, and his green eyes glinted with fury. He half-stood, half-slumped in the snow, fixing Conrad with his powerful stare. He started as if to move towards the young man, but the woman holding his chain pulled it tight, and he sprawled in the snow. The other woman barked a harsh laugh and prodded the dead Nomad with her foot.
‘You a recruit, boy?’ The woman didn’t wait for his answer. Instead, she bent over the dead man and rooted through his pockets casually. There was little in them; she yielded a handful of copper coins and a silk handkerchief. She found a necklace on his neck and undid it, revealing an amulet on a silver chain. She glanced at it, seemingly appraising its value, before handing it to Conrad. He took it silently. The amulet was silver, with a topaz set in the middle. It looked like it opened, but he did not want to humiliate himself by trying and failing. He rubbed off the crusted blood from the gem before placing it in his own pocket. The chained Nomad roared.
‘You have no right! His amulet belongs to his family, not to the savage that murdered him!’ The woman yanked the chain again, and the man backhanded the prisoner, making his swollen face split.
‘You forfeited your right to speak and reason with us when you decided upon your cowardly attack,’ the man’s voice was scornful, and he kicked the prisoner when he tried to get up. ‘The amulet belongs to this man. It is proof that he is no longer a boy.’ He nodded to Conrad, but he did not speak or acknowledge the Warrior. The treatment of the Nomad had sickened him; how could they resort to such cruelty after they had beaten him in combat? He understood the necessity of prisoners of war, as did everyone. It was a way to understand the tactics of the enemy, and sometimes, if they amassed enough, could be held hostage for the end of the war. But the casual cruelty of the Nomad bespoke of a behaviour that went beyond necessity. He crossed over to the man, who lifted his head up to receive an expected blow. Conrad did not raise his hand, however, and lifted the Nomad to his feet, where he stood, swaying.
‘He has just as much right as anyone else to speak, sir. This man has fought for what he believed is his birthright, just as we defend that which we think is rightfully ours. Take him prisoner, if you must, but do not subject him to cruelty; go back far enough, and I would wager you have a common ancestor.’ He patted the Nomad on the back and turned to walk back to the barracks. After this event, even Rufus and Fjord seemed a welcome reprieve.
‘Wait!’ The woman who had pilfered the dead Nomad stood with her feet apart and her arms crossed over her chest. The wind ruffled her cropped hair, and blood ran into the lines of her face, making her appear older than she was. Conrad found he compared the Warrior to Mina, and knew which one he preferred.
‘Who are you to order us, boy?’ Conrad took a deep breath, regretting it when the cold bit into his lungs. He remembered the power and respect his father commanded, and strove to imitate him. He rested on palm on the still-bloody axe, the other hand curled in a fist by his hip. He fixed the woman’s watery blue eyes with his own, rather more impressive stare.
‘I am Conrad, sole son of Ivan of Newford.’ He let his gaze travel over the trio. Each one looked momentarily shocked, then recovered their hardened features. He bowed his head to them and strode towards the barracks.

The common room was full; armed Warriors stood in groups to relieve their comrades from the battlefield, and recruits lined up at a respectable distance to admire them. There were about fifty recruits that Conrad could count, and he quickly spotted Rufus and the newly conscious Fjord. He could not decide whether to join them or not, but was saved by someone hailing his name. He turned to find Sven beckoning him over. He was in the company of ten or so female recruits. Conrad sighed and ran his hands through his hair before remembering they were bloody, and rubbed them instead on his leggings. Sven grabbed a tankard of ale from a table and pushed it into Conrad’s hands, before introducing him to the women.
‘This, here, is Conrad. Do you know who his father is, eh?’ He nudged the nearest woman with his elbow, and she shook her head politely. Sven grinned, showing crooked teeth, and downed the rest of his ale. Conrad took a sip of his and grimaced.
‘His father is none other than Ivan. The Ivan, Warrior of Newford. And by the looks of him, Conrad seems to be following in his footsteps. Look at him! Bloodied already and he’s not been here a day,’ he paused to refill his tankard, and Conrad shuffled his feet awkwardly, wondering when he could slip away. The women were looking at him with avid curiosity, with at least one boldly letting her eyes rove over him. He felt a blush rising to his cheeks and hurriedly took an overlarge sip of ale. He spluttered, and the women tittered.
‘Who did you kill?’ The woman that spoke looked like Fjord, had he been born female. With her hair cropped, the likeness was exacerbated. Only her lips were different; they were full and alluringly red, parted slightly to show sparkling white teeth. Conrad swallowed and forced himself to meet her eyes. Her eyes glittered.
‘There was a Nomad, coming up the trail. He attacked me, and I killed him,’ he slipped a hand into his pocket and felt the heavy amulet. ‘I don’t know his name.’ The woman cocked her head, a small smile on her lips.
‘You’d look handsome with a beard. Once you grow it, perhaps I shall claim you,’ she raised an eyebrow, challenging him to refuse or accept her. Some of the women laughed, and Sven swore and clapped him on the shoulder.
‘Perhaps you shall,’ he conceded, glancing over his shoulder. ‘But no claiming shall happen when I am bloody. I take my leave of you, my lady,’ he sketched a bow and turned on his heel, feeling his cheeks burn.

The wash chamber was blessedly empty. Buckets of cold water had been left by the door, and Conrad quickly stripped to his waist and washed off the blood and dirt. The water that dripped from his hair was black, and he rubbed the water and soap in vigorously until the water ran clear. He wished he could cleanse himself more thoroughly, but did not want to risk being seen naked by anyone that chanced by the door. Most of the grime had been washed off, and he squeezed the excess water from his hair before picking up his dirty shirt and heading to the exit. He paused in front of the looking glass propped up against the wall, and tried to imagine a beard on his face. Stubble had begun to sprout on his neck, cheeks and around his mouth, and he was grateful that he wouldn’t have to shave anymore. Although the ritual to mark his journey to adulthood wouldn’t take place until he left, he was now allowed to wear his beard. He rubbed at the stubble and grinned, thinking of the woman that had so boldly lay claim on him. She was not as pretty as Mina, but the thought that women found him a worthy enough man to father children was gratifying. He could do a lot worse; he had seen women Warriors with faces as brutish as a boar, and built along the same lines. The looking glass steamed up with his breath, and he turned away to walk to his room.

Fjord and Rufus were the only ones in there when he walked in. They were conversing in low voices, and stopped when Conrad walked in. Rufus smiled at him and gestured for him to join them. Conrad drew out a clean shirt from his bag and sat on his pellet.
‘Do you have a sister here, Fjord?’ The question came out unbidden, and Fjord looked just as surprised at the question as he was at Conrad knowing his name. He nodded, rubbing at his eyes.
‘A twin sister, Fjorda. She was part of the reason I came,’ so Conrad’s suspicions had been correct. He pulled the axe from his belt and looked at the dirty shirt critically. It had been slashed by the Nomad’s sword; any patching would be too extensive. He bundled the shirt up and began to clean the blade with it. The snow outside had not completely washed away the blood. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fjord open his mouth to speak to him, but Rufus shushed him with a quick hand movement. A small smile crept onto Conrad’s face. They were learning quickly that he was not that interested in idle conversation. The two men resumed their previous conversation, and Conrad listened absently. They were worrying about the skirmish tomorrow and whether they would be alive by nightfall. Rufus was worrying that his archery skills weren’t going to be good enough to successfully slay foes, and whether he was going to accidently pierce their own people instead. Fjord was just worried that his meagre experience with a sword would be enough to survive. Conrad suspected that it wouldn’t, but he did not voice his opinion. Fjord might surprise him with his survival skills; not all battles were won by sword alone.
‘Having some skill with as sword is not as important as knowing when to duck and when to leave the opponent to someone who has the skill to kill him. You’re paired with me; whilst I attack from the front, attack them from behind. Stealth and swiftness can win battles just as well as brute strength,’ satisfied with the axe, Conrad placed it beside his pellet. His fingers halted over the crossed swords at the base of the handle, and wondered at how many men his father had killed with it. He looked up to see Fjord looking at him, a mixture of gratitude and hurt pride on his face. He offered Fjord a quick smile before turning on his back and stretching out on his pellet. His bones clicked gratefully as he closed his eyes.

It seemed barely a minute before he opened them again. A loud horn blast had broken through his sleep, jolting him awake with a muffled cry. It was pitch black in the room; he could only hear the sounds of the other five men moving around, some muttering sleepily, others clumsily putting on clothes. Conrad picked up his axe and attached it to his belt before pulling on his boots. He thanked whatever God was listening for falling asleep with his clothes on and jumped to his feet. He promptly fell over a dark shape when he took a step forward. The man he had fallen over uttered an angry curse, pushing Conrad away from him. He decided against an apology. The man could not see who had fallen over him. He struggled to his feet and opened the door, letting the flickering lights from the torches spill into the room. With a lurch of guilt, he saw he had fallen over Rufus, but he did not spare him much thought. He trooped into the common room at the head of their group, and they quickly found Sven seated at a table, eating some kind of broth. They sat around him, eating their fill. The people that filled the common room were talking with excitement, and Conrad could hear a battle of boasts commencing at the table next to them. He caught sight of Fjorda shambling into the common room, her short hair scruffy. She caught his eye and smirked at him, and he quickly dropped his eyes to the broth.
‘Today, you’re going to get your first taste of battle. You all know who you’re paired with; if your partner dies, you are held partly responsible. Leather armour is available at the end of the room. If you don’t know how to put it on, ask someone else. When the horn blasts, we’re off.’ Sven belched and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. He looked at each of the men, as if he were committing each face to memory. ‘You are my men. Sven’s recruits. Believe me, boys, I want to be proud of you. I want each and every one of you to become Warriors of renown.’ He opened his mouth as if he was going to speak, but a sigh came out instead. He shook his shaggy head and waved them off to the far end of the room, watching them go with darkly glinting eyes.

The leather armour was scarred with numerous blades. Conrad was handed his without a word, and he pulled it on quickly. It was light and soft; it would not protect him that much, but if he was lucky, it would not matter. Nogon did not waste good money on effective armour for recruits that may or may not survive. He waited until Fjord had managed to dress himself in his amour before moving to the front of the room. The recruits milled about, sharing stories and legends about battles they had heard of. He heard his father mentioned in most of them and smiled wryly. If he could be the subject of such tales, he would be happy. The expectation of doing well weighed on him suddenly. If he did not match his father’s ferocity and skill, he would always be deemed unworthy by a lot of the Reach folk. He found himself biting his lip and struggled to stop. Such habits were unbecoming of a man, much less a Warrior. He felt a rough little hand slip into his own, and he whipped his head around to see Fjorda standing beside him. She had armed herself with a bow and arrow, with a sword hanging by her hip. She grinned at him, her adrenaline rushing off her in waves. The top of her head barely reached Conrad’s shoulder. Seemingly unaware of her brother’s presence, she stood on her tiptoes and placed her hands on either side of Conrad’s face.
‘I’ve a bet that you’ll kill twenty Nomads today, warrior. Don’t disappoint me,’ she pressed her lips against his then disappeared in the crowd. Conrad stood momentarily stunned as Fjord coughed nervously. He shrugged his shoulders apologetically at him, but the horn blasted before he could say anything. The doors opened, and they filed out into the blinding whiteness of the dawn.

The fire in the common room burned brightly, and a bawdy song was being belted out by a group of drunken recruits. Yet another tankard had been pressed into Conrad’s hands, and Rufus had led him to sit with Fjord and Fjorda, as well as a group of others that he had apparently made acquaintance of. He was aware that Fjord had contrived to place himself between him and his sister, but was thwarted when Fjorda stood up to refill her tankard and then sat herself on the other side of Conrad. Rufus took her vacated seat, already in deep conversation with a woman with Orminian roots. The day had been a success; only one recruit had died, and that was of his own stupidity. He had slipped and impaled himself on a pike, and had been found half-dead by his group commander. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the barracks was undeniably cheerful, and Conrad felt warm from both the drink and the fire that burned in the hearth. Even Fjorda’s hand on his knee felt comradely.
‘So how many died by your hand?’ Her voice was a whisper in his ear. He turned to regard her, but found she was too close for him to make that much out. He shrugged, shifting a little in his chair so that he was a little further away from her.
‘I lost count after a while,’ he said honestly. He was startled to hear his voice slurring on the words, and resolved to stop drinking. He did not know how many times his tankard had been refilled.
‘I believe he killed thirty-two to my seventeen,’ Fjord said. The man had been better at killing by stealth than Conrad had expected. They had made a good team, with Fjord incapacitating enough opponents for Conrad to make a quick, clean kill.
‘Frida, you owe me two silvers!’ A woman flicked her dark hair away from her eyes and dug in her pockets. The coins were flipped towards Fjorda, who slipped them in her own purse. She patted Conrad’s knee, her hand travelling two inches higher. She leant her head on his shoulder, singing along to the drinking song being shouted by the men two tables over. Conrad looked down; her black eyelashes masked her bright eyes and her elfin chin jutted into his shoulder with every word. Her hair smelt of soap, and tickled his ear. He saw Rufus clamber to his feet and being led away by the woman he had been talking to. Fjord had refilled his tankard yet again, and the froth from the ale had settled in his stubble. With some effort, Conrad lifted his arm and placed it around Fjorda’s smaller body, his hand resting on her hip. He felt far too comfortable to move, especially when she nestled closer to him. ‘There’s a small room, unused by anyone,’ her voice was pitched low enough for only him to hear. ‘We could go there, if you want?’ He lifted one shoulder noncommittally. In his fogged mind, he could not think what she wanted with him. Her hand rose a little higher, and he firmly removed it and held it within his own hand.
‘I think it would be best if we kept our mind on our task, Fjorda,’ he muttered. At her affronted look, he squeezed her hand. ‘It’s not that I don’t find you attractive, but I’m drunk.’ It wasn’t much of an excuse, but it was the best one he could think of. As her face softened, he breathed out slowly and let go of her hand. He staggered to his feet and nodded to the company before walking towards the corridor that would lead to his blessed pellet.

Other battles were met with the same celebration; the adrenaline rush of being alive coupled with the tension of not knowing if one would return from the next battle resulted in merrymaking. Conrad learned not to drink heavily after returning. The day after the first battle had seen him moving with a black temper, his head pounding fit to burst. With each battle, one recruit was lost, either to their stupidity or misfortune. To his great surprise, Fjord fared well, although he began to grow more and more hostile towards Conrad as his sister displayed her affection for him. The frequent squalls and blizzards seeded depression and gloom amongst even the most seasoned warriors. The recruits were the ones most affected; more than once a group commander had to intervene in a suicide attempt. Recruits that resorted to such methods were promptly dispatched to their home towns.

On the eve of his departure, Conrad returned from yet another battle. As always, there were no decisive victories, no definitive line drawn between the Nomads and Nogon. As always, Conrad came back feeling more disillusioned, wearier of the lies of battle. The people he faced down, axe to sword, axe to axe, had families and lives of their own. Some had fought him armed only with their teeth and hands – those he had struck down in one, sometimes two blows. The legends he had grown up on, of the heroes who had vanquished the pillaging, evil Nomads to ensure the safety of the righteous Northerners, all fell away to reveal the brutality of reality. The Nomads bled like any other, their cries of anguish and pain sounded like the screams from his own comrades. Theirs were the faces he saw when he tried to fall asleep. Even in the stolen moments with Fjorda, he could not banish the ghostly remains of the Nomads. In time, he managed to harden himself, to ignore the pleading of the dead. Only one face remained, obstinately refusing to disappear into the very depths of his mind. The Nomad he had killed on his first day, the owner of the heavy amulet he now wore around his neck, whispered silent threats in his ear.

Even the fire in the common room could not distract Conrad from his melancholy mood. He barely glanced at the group of people gathered by the corridor leading up to the recruits’ rooms; he guessed someone had started a fight or had grown desperate at the lack of sun. He scratched at his beard, somewhat pleased at the rate the curly hair was growing, and then sipped at the ale in his tankard. He was acquiring a taste for the swill they received from the Nomad merchants. Stretching his feet towards the fire, he peered at the people seated on chairs near him. All wore the same world-weary expressions as he, and he had the grace to be chagrined. They had spent years in Nogon, whereas he had scarce been there six weeks.

A piercing scream broke through his self-pity, and he startled, slopping ale down his shirt. Cursing, he sprang to his feet and glared in the direction of the shout. The amount of people standing beside the recruit quarters, slack-jawed and motionless, suddenly annoyed him. He strode towards them, intending to move them away, but was stopped by Fjorda’s small hand gripping his forearm. He shot her a look that made her step back from him.
‘I wouldn’t go through, Conrad. Rufus, he...’ her voice thickened and she broke off, staring at her feet. A single, silvery tear ran down her cheek. Conrad looked at her in consternation before increasing his pace. Despite the man’s jabbering and unbearable jolliness, he had grown fond of him. He had broken bread with Rufus, had laughed with him at Fjord’s attempts to seduce the women in Nogon. His mind veered away from the possible implications of Fjorda’s sudden tears. He moved through the crowd with ease, the people parting with muttered condolences or averted eyes. At the end of the corridor he saw the woman with Orminian background, the one Rufus had been so taken with, collapsed on the ground, shaking with hysterical sobs. He stepped over her into his room, certain someone better equipped with soothing words than he would deal with her. A moment later, he recoiled, nearly tripping over her body.

Rufus lay in a pool of his own blood. A knife lay in his clenched hand, smeared with red. He had slit his own neck, and despite the spasms of pain that were permanently etched on his pale face, Conrad could see contentment in his dark eyes. He pressed his shirtsleeve to his mouth and nose, gagging at the odour of the man’s released bowels. With his other hand, he held onto the neck of the woman’s tunic, hauled her to her feet and dragged her away from the horrifying scene. Fjorda appeared at his shoulder and he surrendered the woman to her more capable care. He looked around the crowd that had gathered – most of the men and women had been drawn to the scene by the scream, just as he had. Not one of them had called for the healers, not one of them had taken the woman away. He nurtured the flame of rage that grew inside him. It kept the grief that threatened to overwhelm him at bay.
‘Have you not had your fill of violence? Do you yearn for blood so much that you leave a woman sobbing on the floor?’ With each word, his voice grew louder until he was roaring at them. He spied Fjord in the sea of faces and pointed at him. Despite his anger and grief, his hand held steady. ‘Fetch the healers and have them take care of his body. Then have them see to the woman – Alia.’ Fjord nodded and jumped to carry out his orders. Once more, the crowd parted to let the man through and kept the corridor free for the healers when they came. They carried stretchers and pails of water. Rufus was carried out of the room without ceremony, and Conrad found that he had to avert his eyes from the corpse on the cloth. A healer began to hum a working song, but at a glare, the man fell silent and cleaned the room without any more sound. In a surprisingly short time, the room was scrubbed clear of blood and offal, but the whisper of death still remained. He was glad that he would only be spending one more night at the barracks.

The evening was subdued, the supper silent except for the sounds of chewing and swallowing. Alia, having been quietened by Fjorda, sat by herself in a corner cradling a mug of water, her eyes red and her face pale. In the centre of the common room, the senior warriors were preparing the Ritual of the Gods, the passage from adolescence to adulthood. It seemed callow that they would continue with the ritual in the wake of a suicide, and Conrad heard mutters that it spoke of ill omen. Anyone baptised would carry with them the soul of the deceased, and Death would come to those they loved most. As one of the baptised, Conrad smiled wryly. He still had the mockery of a grin fixed upon his face when Fjorda slipped onto the bench next to him. He didn’t spare her a glance, instead draining the ale from the tankard in front of him and holding it up to be refilled. Tonight seemed like an excellent night to be drunk.
‘Alia found out she was pregnant. With Rufus’ child.’ The words fell heavily on Conrad’s ears, and he drank deeper from his tankard. He did not want to think about the man more than he had to. When he raised his head, Fjorda took a hold of his chin and wiped the froth from his beard. The gentleness with which she proceeded was as unlike her as the tears. He realised that this was her way of showing him pity, and he shrugged her off.
‘Will she keep it?’ The child of a suicide was doomed to have a cursed life. If it was a boy, everyone would believe he was destined to kill himself. If it was a girl, no-one would mate with her for fear of giving birth to a son, who would then be pre-destined to commit suicide. With one act, Rufus had condemned his offspring to a curse as old as time. Fjorda shrugged, her pale blue eyes fixed on the desolate woman.
‘I believe she will. She loved him, you know. I don’t envy the life she and her child will live, however,’ she sighed and rubbed at her temples before looking up at Conrad. ‘Promise me you won’t kill yourself. I don’t want a child to be born under a curse.’ He choked on the ale and set the tankard down too heavily on the table, causing it to spill over the top and slosh onto the wood.
‘You’re pregnant?’ He wouldn’t have much to do with the child, not unless he married her, but even so, the thought of fathering a child filled him with dread and excitement. If he had a son, he would be expected to teach him to fight, and if he had a daughter, he would be present for the milestones in her life. Suddenly, he imagined Fjord’s reaction to him getting his sister pregnant, and found he would rather wish to be impaled by a Nomad.
‘Of course not,’ she laughed easily, her hand resting on his briefly. ‘I’m simply thinking about the future.’ Patiently, he reminded her that he was going to Airen and that the chance of him fathering her child whilst he was in a different kingdom was rather slim. She chose to ignore him and he resorted to soaking up the spilled ale. She had turned her attention to the seniors that had dragged a tub filled with water to the centre of the room. A bucket of thick, dark blood stood next to it. Conrad regarded it over the brim of his tankard and his stomach suddenly turned to lead. There was something dangerous about the unknown, about shrugging off any childhood responsibilities he still had and resuming the mantle of adulthood. He was acutely aware that Fjorda had started to sweat, and he remembered she would be amongst those that were being baptised. He laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder and she enclosed it with her smaller, callused hand.

The Ritual of the Gods did not start until midnight. Conrad took his place beside the six other recruits. He stood a head taller than most of them. Sven was waiting beside the Senior Warrior, the grizzled and battle scarred man that would preside over the ceremony. The rest of the Warriors and recruits were seated on benches or chairs, all waiting for the ritual to begin. The Senior Warrior limped forwards, resting his hand against the tub full of water. His grey hair was thinning, and his beard was snowy white, but he could still wield a sword better than most, if not all the people in the barracks.
‘We are gathered here today to witness the baptism of these recruits. By the Twelve’s grace, we shall accept them into our ranks, and they shall become part of the Warriors, Protectors of the Northern Reaches.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Five recruits have been taken from this group; four in battle and one by his own hand, Gods rest his soul,’ as one, the room echoed his last words. He gestured for the first recruit to step forward and Conrad did so when it became apparent the rest would not. He wore only his shirt and leggings, as did the rest of the group. The old man took him by his shoulders and stared into his eyes.
‘By baptism of water, you shall cast off your previous transgressions, and will henceforth act in the interests of the Reach. You shall be accepted as the Twelve’s tool.’ At his nod, Conrad climbed into the tub and sat down. He started to shiver, and goose pimples raised the hairs of his arms. The Senior Warrior pressed down on his shoulders gently yet firmly until he was submerged in the water. Through the water, he could see words tumble soundlessly from the old man’s lips until the pressure on his shoulders disappeared. He emerged from the water, taking a deep breath and pushing his sopping hair from his eyes. He clambered out, dripping water onto the stone floor and waited for the old man to speak.
‘By baptism of blood, you shall become the servant of the Twelve. The Gods shall adopt you and name you anew.’ Laboriously, he bent down and filled a wooden goblet with the blood from the pail. Some trickled thickly down the side, and a single drop splattered against the floor. Wordlessly, he presented the goblet to Conrad and he placed his hands around it. The Senior Warrior still gripped the base of the goblet, and he set it against Conrad’s lips and tilted it relentlessly until the blood lapped against his teeth. With a shuddering breath, Conrad opened his mouth and allowed the man to tip the blood down his throat. It tasted coppery and he almost gagged. Stubbornly, he forced it down, knowing that if he was unable to swallow the blood, he would be deemed unworthy of the baptism. After what seemed like an age, the man drew the goblet away from his lips and set it on the floor again. Conrad felt some blood trickle from the corner of his mouth and wiped it away, smearing his hand with the sticky substance.
‘The Twelve have accepted you into their fold. I name you Conrad Ivanthrall, servant of Ivan the Second, God of War.’ Scattered applause came from the people around them, but it subsided as soon as Conrad was sent to stand beside Sven. The older man slapped him on the shoulder and shot him a quick smile before turning his attention on the young man that was standing before the Senior’s intonation.
‘I name you Fjord Yorkelthrall, servant of Yorkel the First, the Diplomat.’ Fjord joined Conrad where he stood, but avoided looking at him. He could feel the distaste rolling off Fjord like waves, and Conrad deduced that he still was not happy that his sister had chosen to care for him.
‘I name you Frida Stefanthrall, servant of Stefan the Fourth, the Trader.’ A woman that Conrad had never had much to do with joined them, a cheerful smile on her face. She offered a quick wave to someone in the room. Conrad did not see anyone respond.
‘I name you Alia Arnethrall, servant of Arne of the Sky, the Fifth God.’ Alia stood woodenly beside Frida, dark circles already underneath her black eyes. Despite her grief, she held herself with quiet pride, and Conrad found himself echoing the sentiment.
‘I name you Fjorda Eyvindrthrall, servant of Eyvindr the Seventh, God of the Sea.’ When she joined them, Fjorda slipped her hand into Conrad’s and squeezed it. He lifted a hand and wiped away a speck of blood on her chin.
‘I name you Torgur Randwulfthrall, servant of Randwulf the Ninth, the Traveller.’ A dark man, known for his ruthlessness on the battlefield, stood behind Fjord silently. A prickle of unease ran through Conrad and he shifted so that Torgur was in his sight.
‘I name you Brynja Leifthrall, servant of Leif the Eleventh, God of the Lords.’ The final person was baptised, and the Senior put down the goblet for the last time. He sighed heavily and gestured for a seat to be brought to him. A man appeared with a sturdy wooden chair, and the Senior Warrior sat down with a thump. He regarded the seven men and women in front of him, his eyes rested a fraction longer than necessary on Conrad before speaking.
‘In respect for those that are no longer with us, the Gods have decided not to assign Thralls to Rufus the Third, Olaf the Sixth, Trygger the Eighth, Gunnar the Tenth and Vermund the Twelfth. These Thrall houses must accept their lesser numbers, and fight on regardless.’ He waved for someone to take away the bath and the bucket of depleted blood.

Each Thrall was a house of sorts. It was frowned upon to mate with someone with the same Thrall name, and any crimes committed or dishonour that occurred reflected upon the Thrall house, as did any mighty deeds. It was considered the highest honour to become an Ivanthrall, as he was the God that most Warriors prayed and offered sacrifices to. Despite the apparent favour, Conrad felt rather hollow. Just like that, he had been assigned a specific God. Just like that, he was a man. Try as he might, he could not see anything particularly special about the ritual. He pressed his fingers to his forehead. Tomorrow he would leave all this behind and travel to Airen. He glanced at Fjorda and felt a twinge of regret. Had he not promised Prince Bjorn that he would go to serve King Eric, who knows what could have happened between them? Then he thought of Mina, and a different type of regret tugged at him. He would see her before he set off to Airen. He wondered what she would think of his beard.




~

The ruined room around the woman threw distorted shadows over the screeing bowl. Through it she could see a tall man, his beard and hair curling and brown, his dark, deep-set blue eyes staring off into the distance. She caressed the lines of his jaw with a spidery finger, careful not to distort the image in the bowl. She heard footsteps and quickly plunged her hand into the icy water, gasping as she did so and erasing the man’s face from the water.
‘What did you see?’ A woman’s velvety voice, dangerous as it was alluring, rebounded oddly against the stone walls. The crouching woman knew better than to turn around. She had met this one before; she did not suffer insubordinate behaviour such as looking. She had no desire to be kicked again.
‘Your nephew has been named a Thrall in the service of your brother,’ she took some satisfaction in recalling the woman’s ties to the handsome man and was rewarded by an angered hiss.
‘He is a worm, as are you. The time of the Children and the Twelve has passed; it is the time of Gaia and I, now.’ The screeing woman snorted almost inaudibly, and the stranger did not deign to notice. She felt fingers curling in her lank hair as the stranger lifted the black locks almost lovingly.
‘Keep on looking at him, Cassandra. He will soon be in my grasp, and I need to know his weaknesses.’ Cassandra felt the woman’s lips on her wasted cheek and then her presence was gone. She groaned, rocking back and forth on her heels. In the distance, she heard a horse snorting and then the sound of hoofs against a stone path. When she was sure the woman was truly gone, she waved her hand over the bowl, bringing forth Conrad’s image. He was sleeping, but fitfully; sweat beaded on his brow and his mouth twitched in its severe line underneath the bushy beard. She found herself wishing she could smooth the lines from his young face, to soothe his bad dreams, but knew she could not appear before him. As a daughter of a God, she was given limited powers, and teleporting was not one of them. She toyed with the idea of protecting this man from the forces that moved against him, but recoiled from the idea of the punishment they would exact upon her. Perhaps if he found his way to her – when ¬he found his way to her, she corrected herself – she would offer some help. Her mouth twitched in a spasm of a smile as she permitted herself to daydream of their meeting; she would greet him, resplendent in a gown, and he would be overwhelmed with her beauty, grace and power. But the dream popped like a bubble when she glanced down at her claw-like fingers, her skeletal arms. She waved aside the image of the sleeping man and stared into her reflection. Sunken, silver eyes enfolded with papery skin, a narrow nose presiding over thin lips, a skull-like face and lank black hair that barely covered her scalp. She was a wasted woman, she thought bitterly. Who would want her? Struggling to control her anger and resentment, she brought forth Conrad’s image again and contented herself with impossible dreams.

Conrad made the journey back to Newford by himself. As he had suspected, he covered the distance in five days, barely stopping to hail the bustling outposts as he passed. When he had edged his pony out of the shadow of the mountain, he had not been recognised by the two guards there. They had drawn their weapons and pointed the bare blades towards him. He was pleased that they challenged unknown visitors from the mountains in this way; despite feeling a little disappointed they did not know him. He identified himself, and they let him pass, a welcoming smile on their faces. He felt an answering grin tug at the corner of his lips. It was good to be home.

Home. The word conveyed so much in so little letters. He closed his eyes, and images of the royal family flashed past his eyes, Mina’s face staying, as it always did, at the forefront as though her countenance had been pasted onto his eyelids. His father, the market-place, the tavern and the two Quarters – even the arena and the farms were all familiar and safe to him, and in that moment, he knew he would not suffer any harm to come to them. He virtually bounced towards the door of the fort once he had given his pony to the stable-hand, and slipped through the welcoming doorway. For once, the sun shone through the narrow windows, the rays of light beaming across the reeds on the floor and making dust dance through the air. He shrugged his thick cloak off and draped it over his arms. He wondered where the court would be; it was too late for them to be having luncheon in the Great Hall. His feet carried him up the stairs and to his chamber, reasoning that if he didn’t refresh himself from the journey, he would look like a vagabond before princes.

His chamber had not changed. It smelt musty and the air inside was cold. The covers had been turned back on his bed, the wardrobe door closed and the mirror cleaned since he had used it last, but the razor blade and scissors still rested on the shelf below it. He undid his travel bag and dumped his clothes over the bed. They smelt even worse than the room – of mud, grime and blood. He piled them into the floor and pushed them under the bed. He would deal with them later. He looked into his wardrobe and was surprised that his formal dress was still in there. A bucket of water and a washcloth had been left beside it. He wondered briefly when it had been set there, but the water was not stagnant, so he closed the door, stripped and washed quickly. Pulling on clean, soft clothes, he felt more privileged than he had ever felt before. The shirt strained a little at the shoulders and fit a little snug across his chest, but he supposed that was to be expected. He had put on hard muscle since partaking in the campaign. Finally, he looked in the mirror, and was surprised at the length of his beard. His resemblance to his father was even more pronounced. He picked up the scissors and started to trim his beard to his skin. He had no desire to leave it to grow as long as his father’s. He rubbed his chin and smiled at his reflection. He cut a fine figure; there was no doubt about it. The beard made him look older, more sophisticated. He wondered what Mina would think of it. After a moment’s indecision, he decided he would try to find Prince Bjorn first. The prince would want to hear of his adventures, and he had to tell him of his concerns about the outposts. After a quick inquiry, he gathered the prince was up in his tower room, and he hurried up the steps. To his shame, he was out of breath when he reached the door, and he took a moment to compose himself before knocking on the wood. A grunt, muffled by the sturdy door, granted him entrance.

The prince was sitting on a chair in front of the hearth, staring moodily into the dancing flames. A glass of brandy lay in one hand, the brandy bottle in the other. His shoulders were slumped, accentuating the strain of his shirt against his broad back. Conrad cleared his throat and Bjorn glanced over his shoulder. His eyebrows rose in momentary surprise and he laughed.
‘By the Twelve, I thought you were Ivan. Come in, lad, warm yourself by the fire and have some brandy.’ Conrad smiled and dropped into the vacant chair. The prince rose and retrieved a glass, poured the drink into it and handed it to Conrad. He took it, sipping the brandy and relishing the taste after the swill he had drunk in Nogon. The liquid in the bottle was already more than half gone, and he wondered how much the prince had drunk.
‘I have some concerns, my prince.’ Bjorn looked at him quizzically, then gestured for him to continue. ‘The outposts I passed when I travelled to Nogon were either abandoned or sparsely guarded. And those guards are... inadequate to withstand a sneak Nomad attack.’ The prince sighed and knocked back his glass. It clinked against his teeth, the sound jarring to Conrad’s ears.
‘And if you have noticed this, others have, or will. Nomad merchants will be able to send messages to their homeland and tell them how easy it would be to invade. I know all of this, Conrad, and I have heard it before. The decision to do anything lies with my father, and he is not in a state to do anything at the moment, let alone run a kingdom.’ Conrad sat silently, running a finger around the rim of the glass. His eyes did not leave the prince’s, and it was he that first broke eye contact. He returned his gaze to the fire, running a hand through his wild beard. Conrad continued to let his eyes settle on the prince. The fire threw his face into a silhouette, his hooked nose accentuated and his heavy brows contracting to hide his eyes. He was the spitting image of his father.
‘When I am King, I shall take steps to secure the outposts. Perhaps, by the end of my reign, we shall have no need of skirmishes and campaigns.’ A crooked smile lifted his lips. ‘However, I have another favour to ask of you. My father has decided that it is time for me to marry. He wishes to renew ties to Airen, and has asked the Northerner’s there to send me portraits of those most eligible.’ He snorted and poured another measure of brandy. Abruptly, he pushed the chair back and began to pace around the room, running his fingers over a window ledge or across the top of the hearth. He stopped behind Conrad’s chair and he felt the prince’s hands on his shoulder.
‘By eligible, my father means able to bear children. He takes the absence of grandchildren as a sign of impotence.’ His voice was clipped, and Conrad winced at the words. ‘Obviously, my father has confused my discretion. I had a look at the letters he sent to Airen; he proposes they send me a mature woman, a widower perhaps, one who has been proven to be fertile. I do not want to be stuck with a dowdy maid, Conrad.’ His hands dropped from Conrad’s shoulder and he sat down in his chair once more. Conrad threw back the brandy and poured the last of the liquid into his own cup. It was true that Bjorn had not produced any recognised heirs, but he had never been short of female admirers. He remembered a time when a woman had publicly announced she was pregnant with Bjorn’s child, and he had vehemently denied it. Any other woman who had become mysteriously pregnant after a liaison with Bjorn had kept silent about the father. It was practically public knowledge that there were several of his children running around. It was a wonder that the king did not know. Conrad wondered if the man had forgotten.
‘You wish me to find a more suitable wife, my lord?’ The prince nodded. The weight of responsibility suddenly dropped onto Conrad’s shoulders. How was he supposed to find a woman to Bjorn’s tastes? When he asked him, the prince laughed harshly.
‘In an ideal world, I would take that Anise as a wife.’ He grinned lecherously, but the smile dropped from his face at Conrad’s shocked expression. He shook his head and began to tick the points off his fingers. ‘Blonde, as they all are, I suppose. Young, as well. I don’t want an old woman beside me, not whilst I’m still young enough to pursue the more choice women. Well-read, smart and graceful. She must be able to deal with life in Newford, so make sure she knows of our customs.’ Conrad drank the brandy. A monumental task lay before him, and he did not relish it. The prince reached for the bottle, saw that it was empty and placed it on the table with distaste. He strode to the door and requested another from the seemingly empty stairwell. In a surprisingly short time there was a timid knock on the door and a young boy handed a full bottle to the prince before scampering off. Bjorn uncorked it and poured some more into his glass and then offered some more to Conrad. He shook his head, teetering on voicing his concerns for the amount of drink the prince was knocking back, then decided against it. It was not his place to speak so outright; he would voice his concerns to Michel, the healer, and let the old man deal with it. The healer had a way with words that Conrad had admired. The prince belched and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘Go and see everyone, they’ll be glad to see you. Oh, and Conrad,’ Conrad stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder. The prince was leaning against the hearth, swirling the brandy in his glass. ‘Not a word of this to anyone, do you understand?’ The young man nodded and disappeared through the door.

Despite Bjorn’s orders, Conrad made his way down to the market place. He had not forgotten his promise to Pola, and intended to try to find a present for her before showing his face. He received some welcoming smiles from the stall vendors, but he passed them by. Trinkets such as those could be bought anywhere; wooden jewellery and ornaments, though beautiful, wouldn’t pique her interest. He found himself walking into an actual shop, one of the few in the market. It was owned by the only Orminian family that had managed to scrape together enough trade and money to rent a shop. Inside were items beyond belief; beautiful shawls and scarves of shimmering colours that changed when the fabric shifted, gold and silver jewellery inlaid with precious gems and glass baubles that held entire foreign cities. He picked up a red scarf and trailed it through his fingers. It shone iridescently scarlet before returning to its comparatively duller colour. He looked up at the Orminian man behind the counter, who smiled nervously. Conrad waved the scarf at him.
‘How much?’ The man wiped his brow before conferring with a woman in Orminian before turning back to him.
‘Two gold, but for you, I can do a gold and fifty silvers.’ Conrad’s eyebrows rose at the extortionate price. He suspected even that price was higher than the scarf was worth.
‘I’ll pay fifty silvers.’ And so the long process of haggling began. Having never had more than a working understanding of the process, Conrad paid a gold and ten silvers. He was sure that if he had bought Adil or Mina with him, they would have worn the shop keeper down and paid under a gold. Feeling more than slightly cheated, he tucked the scarf under his arm and set off for the fort.

He saw her long before she saw him; her long, dark hair had been piled high on top of her head, some silken strands falling from their place and trailing down her slim neck. Her amber eyes glinted with mischievous laughter as she bent her head towards her brother, her mouth curved into an indulgent smile. She was surrounded by men, as usual, looking like a queen bee amongst the workers. They strutted around her, flexing their muscles surreptitiously, one eye always looking for her reaction. She seemed to have a new favourite; a young man with a dusting of white blonde beard and flat hair, with eyes as green as grass. Most of her smiles were directed at him. Conrad leant against the doorway, suddenly nervous. Adil turned towards the door by chance, and glanced away, before looking back. Surprise widened his blue eyes and he nudged his sister in the ribs. Conrad straightened up and hitched a smile on his face before being knocked back several feet by the combined hug of the two. He grasped them around their waists, letting the scarf drop to the floor, and swung them around, hearing their sudden intakes of breath in his ears. He set them down on their feet again, grinning like a maniac. He had not realised just how much he had missed them until he had seem them again.
‘You’re back! You’ve grown a beard....wow,’ Mina ran her fingers through his thick beard, straightening the curls only to have them spring back into place. Conrad chanced a sly look at the young man Mina had abandoned, and was gratified to see the jealousy writ across his face. Adil was grinning hard, and Conrad was surprised to see the boy had grown almost three inches since the start of summer.
‘You’ve grown, lad.’ He pulled Adil into an affectionate one-armed hug, ruffling his hair with his other hand. The boy muttered angrily and wormed out of his grasp, straightening his hair self-consciously. Conrad scooped the scarf from the floor, folding the red material neatly and beating the dust from it. Mina suddenly grabbed his free hand and was dragging him away from the room, much to the disgust and jealousy of the gathered men.

She led him to the western tower, where he knew she spent most of her time. He had been allowed in the chamber only once, when they were both still children. To go there as an adult seemed daring and illicit. The chamber was the same size as the eastern one, with the singular window looking out to the road winding to the port towns and a fire burning merrily in the hearth. There, the similarities ended. Mina had hung tapestries around the walls, trapping heat into the circular room, and had ordered a large desk to be moved in. Papers and spilt inkwells were scattered across the wood, and a parchment fluttered onto the large chair as Conrad looked. A table had been set near the hearth, as had two comfy chairs, both with their backs against the fire. He stood somewhat awkwardly in the middle of the room, unsure of where to place himself. Mina lounged in one of the chairs, her thick-lashed eyes perusing his face.
‘Something has changed about you, Conrad. Not just physically,’ she added hurriedly as Conrad rubbed at his face. ‘But it’s as if your very essence has changed. No longer a boy, but a man.’ Satisfaction deepened her already throaty voice until it was a low purr. He felt heat radiate from his cheeks, and was grateful that his beard would hide most of his suddenly reddening face. For lack of anything better to do, he dropped into the chair opposite hers, knotting his fingers and staring at the wind-reddened knuckles. All of the curses and deep, harsh lines he had berated his fellow recruits with seemed out of place in this sterile, safe environment. Being a man in a town called for a different attitude than being a man on a battle field. He risked a glance to see an amused smirk on Mina’s face. He placed the scarf on the table and nodded when Mina asked to see it. Seeing the scarlet material flow through her hands, barely snagging on the skin of her palms, he almost wished he had bought it for her.
‘As talkative as ever, I see,’ the hint of laughter was in her voice, and he returned it with a small grin of his own. He stretched out his fingers and flexed them, feeling the bones crack gratefully. He cleared his throat and scratched at his beard, stopping a moment later when he realised it was becoming a habit.
‘I must admit, Mina, I don’t quite remember how to act at court. Spending six weeks with Warriors and fighting Nomads and their sympathisers isn’t exactly the most...polite way to live.’ She raised an eyebrow and inspected her immaculate nails. Conrad has always wondered exactly how she had managed to maintain their whiter-than-white colour. He glanced at his and saw grime that had stuck stubbornly to the skin under his nails. He rubbed them against his leggings in an effort to cleanse them.
‘Being a Warrior is the best way to live.’ She contradicted him with those simple words, ringing with a truth he did not expect. He acceded to her, nodding his head, and privately considered how she would fare if she partook in the campaign. Image after image of ghastly deaths flashed through is mind; Mina being impaled, Mina with an arrow through her chest, Mina decapitated... He drew his mind away from these thoughts with difficulty, immensely relieved that she would be unlikely to travel to the front lines. He resolved to see to her protection whilst he was in Newford.
‘Being a Warrior is the highest honour, but is not for everyone,” he conceded eventually, standing up to take his leave. Her eyes widened a little, her amber pupils flashing a molten gold. He bobbed his head in her direction, muttering his excuses. His tasks ran through is head; talk to the white-haired young man about watching over Mina whilst he was in Airen, see Pola with her long awaited birthday present and call on his father and the king. Guilt stabbed at him; he hadn’t thought of King Wilhelm at all until now, when he knew that his first priority should have been to see the frail old man.

The door to the king’s chambers had two guards stationed outside. They sat on two stools, a pack of playing cards spread out on the table between them. A few coppers had been stacked in piles beside their elbows, and a smattering of silvers and gold were strewn in between their intense faces. The woman guard laughed suddenly and threw down her cards, pulling the man’s out of his hands to reveal an impossible hand. The man held his hands up as the woman scooped the coins to her end of the table. Conrad grinned. It was tradition to cheat at card games, but to try to cheat with some of the guards spelt either a beating or ridicule. He announced his presence and was gratified to see a welcome smile light up both their faces. They waved him into the chambers and when he closed the door, he saw they had already set out a new game.

King Wilhelm’s chambers were the biggest and the best in the entire fort. The main chamber was furnished with tapestries along the walls and thick, fur rugs, trapping the heat from the burning fire. Easy chairs were scattered across the room, with cloaks thrown carelessly over the backs. Conrad wondered whether he should announce his presence, uncomfortable at the thought of being left in the king’s chambers alone. From the door to the right, a servant burst out, singing a marching song, laundry bundled in her arms. She stopped when she saw him, and the laundry tumbled to the floor in a sudden flash of greens and blues. He smiled nervously, but her eyes widened and her skin turned pale. She turned on her heel and almost ran into the room she came from, nearly screaming in Nomadic. Conrad stepped forward to pick up the laundry, and discovered it was mainly the dresses and clothes of Queen Nusaybah. Blushing fiercely, he dropped them onto an easy chair and rubbed his hands on his leggings. Not a moment too soon – Nusaybah walked into the main chamber, her expression serene compared to that of the serving girl behind her. She smiled at the sight of him, and opened her arms wide. Conrad accepted the hug, disconcerted at the sudden display of affection. He heard her mutter some sharp orders to the serving girl, who disappeared into the hallway. Nusaybah led him to the two chairs nearest the open window, all but forcing him into the chair before settling herself in the other. She arranged herself with care, her hands resting on her belly, which had become rounded in her middle years. Mina and Pola took after her so much; they had her amber eyes, her dark hair, even the shape and length of her hands and fingers had been passed onto her daughters. Mina, nearly a fully grown woman, reminded Conrad forcefully of the young Nusaybah he remembered, back when she had been new to the throne.
‘Did you come to see Wilhelm?’ At Conrad’s nod, she sighed and shook her hair over her shoulder, the silky strands clinging to her shoulders. ‘He is not in a position to see anyone. I shall send your greetings to him when he is next awake. Now, I’m sure you have something more important to do.’ All the while she was speaking her eyes kept darting towards the bedchamber as if she had a nervous tick. The dismissal was abrupt and vague; Conrad was unsure whether he was meant to just get up and leave, or say his goodbyes. He resorted to standing and aiming an awkward bow in her direction before walking out of the chambers, feeling slightly deflated.

The king had deteriorated far more in the last six weeks than in the half a year before. For him not to rouse himself from his bedchamber was unusual in itself; for Nusaybah to not even invite Conrad to see him was even more so. He reined his mind away from thinking about an emaciated Wilhelm, as far removed from the hardy man he remembered from his childhood. As his feet carried him back down to the ground floor, he spied a flash of curly black hair and bright red leggings and smiled, the king pushed firmly to the back of his mind. He hurried after her, finally catching up with Pola on the road down to the market place. The sun beat down with a lukewarm insistence, warming the left over ice to deep puddles. He reached out and grabbed her arm, causing her to spin and almost lose her footing, so he had to save her from falling bottom first in the water. When she saw it was Conrad, a gleeful laugh burst from her lips and she attempted to wrap her arms around his waist. He patted her on her head, unwrapped her arms and knelt down on the floor, his head at the same level as hers. He extended his arm with the scarf folded neatly in his hand. She gave a gasp of delight and grabbed it from him, the fabric unwinding and slapping against her legs.
‘Oh, Conrad, I love it! Does it look nice?’ She twisted the scarf around her neck, trailing the ends through her fingers. Conrad smiled, reaching out and tying the scarf more securely before stepping back, his hands on his hips.
‘Absolutely beautiful. You’re growing up so fast.’ He held out his hand, and was pleased when she took it. It reminded him of the days when she would accompany him and her older siblings on imaginary adventures, fighting snow cats, Nomads and Airens. She would tire quickly, and would end up trailing behind, her hand in one of theirs, more often than not bawling until Newford was in sight. She chattered to him as she led him around Newford, stopping here and there to exclaim at baubles and trinkets in shops or to admire the way the farmers worked the fields. Her hand slipped out of his when she spied some young Orminians, self-consciously flattening her hair, sleeking back the stray hairs. Conrad frowned and half-shifted to shield her from their leering glances. He turned her forcibly around and muttered that they had better head back to the fort. She glowered, but allowed him to steer her away from the dark young boys. He considered warning one of her siblings about her apparent interest in men, but Adil wouldn’t be interested, Mina would laugh and Bjorn would consider it unimportant. Perhaps the queen would be the best bet. He chewed it over, and decided that it would be more prudent to leave a message for Nusaybah. He looked down at the young girl walking by his side, yammering on about her lessons, and smiled. She was going to grow into a bright, headstrong young woman. It seemed a trait that cursed the royal family.

The rest of his brief stay was rather uneventful. He had words with the pale man, who went by the name of Richard. It turned out he was a young swordsman from Airen, who hoped to make his name and fortune by distinguishing himself in battle and, according to rumours, by marrying into the royal family. Richard had taken offence at the accusations, and had challenged Conrad to a fight to the death. Conrad had fought and beat him, but refused to kill him. The six weeks of battle had sickened him, and he had no wish to add to the blood that stained his hands. The king appeared once, on the eve of Conrad’s departure, appearing skeletal and wasted. The royal court conversed quietly above his bowed head, passing bowls over his snowy-white hair. It rankled at Conrad to see that no-one talked to him directly, leaving him to doze off, his hooked nose sometimes inches from the surface of his soup. From his position, he couldn’t talk to the old man, but was somewhat mollified by the fact that Nusaybah rested one of her hands on his wrinkled, claw-like fingers. Young Adil sat on his left, chewing his food with a determined silence, his eyes fixed on the opposite wall. The boy had grown in the six weeks Conrad had been absent, but he had become even more taciturn than ever before, spending his days as a recluse, holed up in his room, composing music on his lute. He supposed the boy’s hermitic behaviour could be due, in part, to his father’s declining health.
Yet another problem to worry about. His head was starting to hurt with it all; Pola’s growing awareness of the opposite sex, the lack of fortifications around the outposts, Adil’s withdrawnness and his private promise to protect Mina. They chased each other in circles in his head, his efforts to protect Mina seeming to stem the others. Some small, irrational part of him thought that if he could just have her for his own, the others would resolve themselves. He picked up his ale and snorted quietly into it before taking a sip. If only. He saw Mina looking at him questioningly, and shook his head. Unbidden images of her in wedding clothes flashed through his mind and he turned his attention back to his food, blushing. Perhaps going to Airen would give him time to clear his head, forget about his impossible dream. A wry smile twisted his lips as he considered how much more likely it would be for her to marry his father than he. Ivan was far more noteworthy, far more of a husband material than an untested, young man. Less than a second later, guilt stabbed at him. He was supposed to be worrying about the future of the Reach, not envying his father over some quality in a made-up situation. Not another word passed his lips that evening.

The next morning, the road leading towards the gates swelled with the townspeople, in an eerie replication of the farewell parade eleven years earlier. He had not received any visits from his father or the royal family, but he understood why. For all they knew, he would not return; he could see it in his father’s eyes: he never expected to see Conrad in the Reach ever again. Conrad hoisted his travel bag onto his back, pausing to check that the heavy amulet he had taken from the dead Nomad still hung around his neck. The familiar weight was a reassurance, and he took a deep breath, stepping out of his door and heading down to the stairs. His horse was ready and waiting, tossing its head, fretful of the silent, staring crowd. He could not see any of the court, and supposed they were watching out of the window, much as they had watched their oldest son and heir ride away. He settled himself in the saddle and resisted the urge to look into the fort windows, and instead lifted his hand to the crowd. Perhaps five people returned his farewell, and parted when he started to lead his horse down towards the gate.

He would be retracing Prince Eric’s journey; he would head south, cutting through the country as directly as possible. Supplies and rest would not be hard to come by. The people of the Reach were as hospitable as could be wished for, as long as the visitors were Northerners or had papers declaring their importance. As long as he stayed away from the Frozen Fortress, he would be at the Border Towns, four towns that stretched the length of the Airen border, within a month or two.


The Frozen Fortress had an evil reputation, one that stretched even to the far shores of Ormini. Ages past, the very first humans had built the fortress to guard their northern borders, and a vast dungeon had been built underneath the ground, where the very ground was as cold as ice. When Heilagur had been established, it remained as a prison for all the miscreants, heretics and murderers. Eventually, due to lax or bribed guards, the prisoners staged an uprising, murdering all those within a five mile radius of the fort before finally being hunted down and killed. It was said blood ran with the soil, staining it permanently, cursing the very land upon which it had been spilt. Attempts had been made to settle the area around it, but evil and bad luck had caused the settlements to fail, until finally, only abandoned villages stood like ghostly sentinels around the fortress. People muttered around fireplaces that those that visited the cursed place would die in ways unimaginable. The legend did not stop visitors; indeed it sparked a boom of tourists. News of their deaths trickled overseas and over land to smug Northerners, who prided themselves on being smart enough to leave the god-cursed place alone.

Conrad had spied the fortress at the end of his first week, stopping at the edge of a ruined village, its name lost to the eons. His horse shied away when he half-heartedly nudged it towards the general direction of the hulking structure, and he allowed the pony to carry him around it. Eventually, he let go of the reins, confident that the horse would follow the trail they were on. His fingers found his way to the amulet around his neck, and he pulled at the chain so that the heavy topaz was level with his face. He could see the catch where the locket theoretically opened, and tried to prise the two halves apart by digging his fingernails in the grooves. He hissed with pain when he felt his fingernails bending, and perused the amulet closely. There was a catch, almost imperceptible in the silver casing, but it looked stiff and rusted. He licked his finger and rubbed at it and was hardly surprised when it didn’t do much. He lifted the chain from around his neck and shook the amulet near his ear. He didn’t hear anything, and replaced it over his head, tucking it underneath his shirt. His horse was drifting off the trail; he twitched the reins and righted it so that its head was pointed firmly towards the direction of the next town. There would be time enough to worry about the necklace, and time enough to yield its secrets.

Guard’s Post was the closet town to the Airen border, and as a result, the people that lived there had as much Airen as Northern blood in their veins. Conrad reached the outskirts of the town late morning, a month after setting out from Newford. The change in temperature had become more noticeable the further south he travelled; he had been forced to take off his heavy cloak, and his shirt stuck to his skin in the summer heat. He dreaded how hot it would be in Airen, where the weather was reputably even hotter. The road had become more travelled as he had pushed further south, and he was now in the middle of townsfolk beating the trail between the Border Towns. He had his eye on a travelling minstrel group that was composed of an old man and two couples. One of the women was singing an Airen song, a lilting lullaby of a woman and her long-lost love. It was as far removed from the harsh battle songs he had grown up with as was possible, and he found himself committing the words to memory.

The road led to gates thrown wide, with two guards on either side of it, swords at their sides, leaning against the wooden posts with bored expressions. They stopped each cart that rumbled past, poking half-heartedly at the contents before waving it through, more often than not receiving a discreet pouch of coins from the driver. Conrad frowned at the thought of corrupt guards, and attempted to halt his horse to talk to them. The rush of people behind him forced his poor horse forwards, through the gates and down the main street. He gathered from the dirty looks and deep mutters that riding a horse down the streets wasn’t looked upon favourably¸ and he quickly dismounted, patting it on the nose and leading it around the edges of the streets. He led his horse to the first inn he saw, and handed it to the stable-hand waiting moodily beside the stalls, leaving with a lighter purse than he came.

The inn itself was a large wooden structure, with the doors shut tight against the swell of the townsfolk walking up and down the busy street. He stepped through the wooden door, feeling the warmth of the fire within wash over him. A group of four men sat by the fire, their faces hooded, cloaks wrapped around their burly bodies. The men turned and stared at him as he quickly walked up to the bar and rapped the surface.
“Barkeep!” He heard a scuffling sound, and a few seconds later a man appeared from a room behind the bar, holding several tankards. The man had yellow hair that looked oddly thatched against his pale face, and his eyes glinted like shards of ice underneath his dark brows. His shoulders were sloped and his mouth seemed to curve in a perpetual sneer. Conrad didn’t like the look of him, and resolved to stay in Guard’s Post as little as possible. However, he did not have enough supplies to march down to Airen, and his horse needed a rest. With no other option, Conrad sighed and weighed his purse in his hand. It was already alarmingly light.
‘I need a room for the night, good sir.’ The man grunted, and looked past Conrad to the men sitting beside the fire. They nodded almost surreptitiously, and one rested his hand on the hilt of a concealed sword. Conrad coughed nervously.
‘Aye, a lot of Northern Devils do. And how are you paying: in politeness?’ The barkeep guffawed at his own joke, but still watched Conrad with his unblinking eyes. Conrad twitched his head to keep the men by the fire in his sight, and attempted to smile disarmingly.
‘Guard’s Post is still a part of the Northern Reaches, is it not? Since when has a Reach town insulted its own?’ Conrad found the hilt of his sword, and was thankful he had decided to wear it into town than his axe. He had entrusted his horse to take care of that weapon; it was far more acceptable to carry a sword into towns than a heavy war axe. The barkeep gestured at his hair.
‘Like as not, the fair folk here are as much Airen as they are Northern. No pure breeds here and we don’t want no noble Warrior to come here, expecting kind words and free bed and food.’ He briefly wondered how the barkeep had known he was a Warrior, but pushed that thought out of his mind. Too much was at stake; he had no wish to engage in a fight with the four men, much less head to Airen with little supplies.
‘I have money, I was expecting to pay my way,’ Conrad saw that the men by the fire had moved, and with some alarm, he saw that the shortest had already drawn his sword. He turned back to the barkeep, who was weighing a knife in his hand.
‘Perhaps we don’t want a Northern Devil here, good sir,’ he sneered, pointing the knife at Conrad’s face. It was a butcher’s knife, simple, to the point. Conrad stuffed his purse into his pocket and held up his hands to pacify the man.
‘Perhaps I should take my leave, find another inn.’ The barkeep snorted and nodded at the four men. All of them now had their swords drawn, and Conrad stepped smartly to the side where he could see all five men. He drew his own sword, and caught a fleeting look of dismay on the youngest of the mercenaries. He grinned. At least one of them was inexperienced; he would be the first to fall. He dropped into the proper stance, allowing his manic grin to settle on his face, knowing it was that which unnerved the men more than anything else. One of the four leapt forwards, and Conrad silently evaded his attack and plunged his sword into the man’s chest before letting him fall to the ground in a growing pool of his own blood. His mind had switched off; they were no longer men with lives, they were The Enemy, and they deserved to be annihilated. The youngest turned pale, dropped his sword and disappeared through the front door, followed swiftly by one of his companions. Only the barkeep and the largest of the four mercenaries remained. The barkeep’s skin was a pasty white underneath his thatched hair, and he held out his hand to stop the burly man from attacking Conrad.
‘I think we acted too hastily-’ Conrad silenced him with a look, and pointed his sword towards the mercenary. The man was in his forties, with long hair bound back in a tail, his dark skin showing spidery scars. Orminian roots, he guessed, although he had some Heilagur blood in him. His face was too narrow and his nose not broad enough for him to be a pure Orminian.
‘Do you wish to avenge your comrade’s death?’ The man’s lips curved into a sneer, his arrogance unchecked by the danger Conrad posed.
‘I am not stupid enough to engage you in a swordfight, let alone paid enough,’ he looked at the dead man on the floor with some asperity before raising an eyebrow and nodding to the barkeep. He sheathed his sword and strolled through the door, letting it swing closed behind him. The barkeep gulped and held his butcher’s knife in front of him as if expecting Conrad to attack. He had no inclination of doing so however; he guessed that the guards would hear of this little adventure soon enough, and wanted to be over the border before he was apprehended. Even though he had not started the fight, he guessed that the guards would not look favourably on a perceived troublemaker from the high north. Conrad dropped to his knees and rummaged in the dead mercenary’s pockets, finding a heavy purse and a belt knife. There were some valuable items, such as the white scarf around his neck that had been ruined by his blood, and Conrad left them. He poured the contents of the man’s purse into his own and let the empty one fall onto the body. He walked calmly past the barkeep, almost expecting a knife in his back, and stepped onto the busy street outside with a sigh of relief. He looked down at his body and was pleased to see there wasn’t a drop of blood on his clothes. His smile was replaced by a grimace when he realised he wouldn’t be able to stop for supplies.

His pony was where he had left it, and he thanked the stable-hand profusely for feeding and watering the animal. The pony wasn’t pleased to be back on the road from such a short period of rest, and dragged its hooves along the main road of the town. Conrad kept his hand beside his face, and his eyes towards the floor. His suspicions that the guards were looking for the cause of the trouble in the inn were proved true when they appeared in the crowds, stopping and searching every man with brown hair. Conrad swallowed, wishing that he could blend in with the crowd. His height made him stick out like a sore thumb compared to the shorter townsfolk, and it credited a miracle that he managed to find his way to the border gate without being stopped.

The border gate was the southern gate of Guard’s Post, and it opened to a road that ran three miles before crossing to Airen. There was a steady stream of people going in and out, being checked by the two guards. They didn’t seem to be on the lookout for anyone, and Conrad dared to hope that he would be able to cross the border and be out of the guard’s reach before they realised they had let their criminal escape. His heart plummeted when he saw five more guards push their way through the people to stand at the gates, halting every Northerner as they tried to pass through. He stopped his pony and patted its nose as he considered his options. He had just decided to push forward and hope for the best when he felt a small hand on his forearm. He looked down in sudden alarm and saw an Airen woman staring up at him. She was perhaps four years older than him, and had the typical blonde hair and dark brown eyes of the Airens, with wider hips and shoulders than the Northerners. Her hair had been swept up at the nape of her neck, and glistened like gold in the midday sun. All this registered in the few seconds it took her to pull him into the shade of a doorway and whisper urgently to him.
‘I heard the guards talking about a Northern Devil that had killed a man in old Joshua’s inn,’ she had stood on her tiptoes so that her lips were brushing his ear as she spoke. He coughed nervously and tried to take a step back, but discovered there was a door behind him. ‘You’re never going to get through the gate by yourself, and certainly not with a pony. If you are indeed that Devil, you’re not going to reach Airen without my help.’ Abruptly, she let go of him and crossed her arms, waiting for his answer. Conrad blinked rapidly before his brows knitted together. He believed there were no such things as coincidences, and that the Gods provided for those who need help, but he found it slightly unbelievable that such help would come from an Airen heretic.
‘Why do you want to help me?’ He glanced out of the doorway and saw that the guards were still inspecting every Northern man, and heard the mutters of the queue that was forming because of it. The woman brushed some imaginary dust off of her red skirts, her eyes suddenly focused on the ground, a faint pink blush at her cheeks.
‘Someone paid a lot of money to have you killed. There are mercenaries in every inn, in most taverns. Everywhere you go in Guard’s Post, everyone is talking about this Northern Warrior, six feet tall with lightening eyes. They almost make you sound like a hero in a storybook,’ she glanced up shyly through her dark lashes ‘you know the ones, where the brave hero is wrongly accused of murder, or of conspiracy. It makes you interesting.’ Conrad stared at her in disbelief and ran one of his hands through his hair. Just his luck to run into an idealistic woman.
‘Real life is not a storybook,’ he said brusquely, ‘people die, people get hurt. And I still doubt you would help me just because I’m a marked man.’ At least it solved the mystery of the barkeep knowing he was a Warrior. He wondered who he could have offended so much to have caused them to try to kill him. His mind jumped to Anise and Francis, but it would have been far easier to wait until he reached Airen to murder him. He could not think of any other enemies he had made, although he briefly considered Fjord before dismissing the man. He wouldn’t have the guts or the resources to put a price on his head.
‘Of course I have a price,’ the woman snapped, bringing him smartly to the present. ‘I want to come with you. You’ve a story about you. Promise to take me with you, wherever you go, and I shall smuggle you out of Guard’s Post.’ A story about him? Conrad almost snorted before containing himself. He was tempted to say no, just to prove his independence. However, he was unlikely to find his own way out, and he had no wish to engage in battle with the guards. As inexperienced as they were, it would cause even more trouble for him and he could not afford any more black marks against his name. He sighed and scratched at his beard. Perhaps this really was the Twelve’s wish, and if it were a miracle, who was he to deny it? He held out his hand and the woman put her soft one inside his.
‘Very well, my lady. We have an accord.’

Two hours later, and the woman had sold Conrad’s pony despite his protests, and had used the money to buy some supplies from small shops. He had waited outside, turning his face from the guards that walked past, his hair hidden underneath a soft cap. All of his possessions were on his back, and he imagined he looked like a beggar. Now, he walked a pace behind the woman, moving slowly in the queue to the border gate. She had said that the guards were now looking for a man with a northern pony, as the stable-hand had run to the guards with the information, hoping to collect some money. He would be even more noticeable to the guards if he attempted to ride out of Guard’s Post.

The queue stretched along the main road, the people standing in line grumbling and jostling one another to get ahead. Three more guards had joined the seven at the gate, and they were walking up and down the queue, scanning and inspecting any Northerners with horses. Conrad kept his eyes trained on the floor when they passed, but they barely spared him a glance. Once, a guard had ‘accidently’ bumped into Conrad’s packs, staggering him into the people behind. He had kept silent with difficulty as the guard walked away guffawing.

It took them another hour to reach the border gate, and Conrad was acutely aware of his heart beating against his chest as though it were straining to fly away. The Airen woman took hold of his hand, and he bent his head towards her as if he were straining to listen to her whispers as they passed the guards. They gave a customary glance at the couple before waving them through, and Conrad fought to keep a smile off his face as they left the town.

The woman, who revealed her name to be Rose, had warned Conrad that the price upon his head was likely to still apply in Airen. She insisted that if he stayed with her, he wouldn’t be recognised. Although he was reluctant to stay in her company, he recognised the wisdom in her words. They travelled slowly, taking care to avoid the towns and villages where they could, only braving the settlements when they ran low on supplies. As they travelled further south, the countryside teemed with game, and more often than not, Conrad killed wild deer, far plumper than their northern counterparts.

They had travelled towards the ruins of Gods City, when, at Rose’s request, they had made camp by a little stream two or three miles from the ancient settlement. She had grown increasingly nervous the closer they came to the broken houses and raised paves, and despite her bravado, Conrad had noticed the faint sheen on sweat that beaded upon her brow. Even though they had stopped some miles away from the old city, Rose kept her eyes trained on it and seemed reluctant to turn away when Conrad asked for her help with the fire.

When dusk had fallen, and the first stars had made their winking way alongside the rising moon, the fire they had built burned erratically, the sparks flying onto the dry grass. Conrad had eaten to repletion; the deer he had caught had been fat, and they still had plenty to spare on the roasting spit. However, Rose had barely eaten anything, picking at her food like a bird, her watchful eyes still upon the shadowy city. The tips of the ruins could be seen against the sky; a jagged row of black against velvety blue.
‘How do you know the Twelve exist?’ The night had cast her face into a half shadow, turning the moon-touched skin into milky white, and darkening her eyes to almost pitch black. Conrad found himself comparing her body to the Northern women he had seen, and did not find her wanting. He grinned at this sudden lecherous side he had discovered and rubbed his jaw to hide the unwanted smile.
‘I grew up believing in them, and I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest they don’t exist. After all, we have the Temple of the Gods, where the Children, direct descendants of the Twelve, ruled.’ She turned to face him and her entire face was thrown into shadow. The fire spluttered, sending sparks dangerously near her face, but she didn’t flinch.
‘The Children could have been frauds. Most left when they had the chance, and Sarah, the Fifth Child, didn’t even look like her father. Yet your Northern King claims to be a direct descendant of her... It all relies on blind faith, Conrad; there is no factual basis to your religion.’ Conrad drew his brows together over his eyes and poked at the fire. Offence warred with politeness as he listened to Rose and a dreadful suspicion started to form at the back of his mind. He looked askance at her and she blushed, raising a hand to brush a wild lock of hair behind her ears. Conrad cleared his throat and stared into the flames.
‘You almost sound as though you don’t believe in the Twelve, my lady. I would hate for you to be branded a heretic.’ The word fell leadenly off his tongue and fell heavily upon his ears. Heretics were not tolerated in the Northern Reach; it was still punishable by death to be openly derisive of the Twelve and Mother Earth. He knew that in Airen, many did not believe in the Twelve, but still believed in the Mother, and that the Orminian slaves and immigrants heretic ways were just about tolerated. He had not thought that their ideas had spread to Heilagur’s own. The woman did not meet his eye, instead digging at the dry soil with her fingertips.
‘I would not say I am a heretic, my dear devil,’ she offered a shy smile with the nickname, and Conrad answered it automatically. She had attached the name to him after Guard’s Post, and the affection that crept into the word differentiated it with the insult other’s threw. ‘I would merely say that I have not been offered proof of their existence, and I am hesitant to believe what I cannot see with my own eyes.’ Not entirely appeased, Conrad toyed with the idea of pressing her further, but that came with a risk of losing her company. The six weeks in Nogon had changed him far more than he had thought; he didn’t actively seek out the company of others, but nor did he eschew it as he had done before. The thought of travelling onwards to the Marble City alone didn’t appeal to him. He glanced at her from beneath his lashes and saw that she was watching his face with acute interest. He looked away when he felt heat rise from his neck and spread across his cheeks.
‘I would be careful of what you say in the future, Rose. Not everyone would believe that you aren’t a heretic.’ A flush of relief spread across her face and she scooted closer to him until her shoulder brushed his. Semi-automatically, Conrad dropped his arm around her shoulder, for a moment tricking himself into believing she was Fjorda. But the prominence of her hips and her taller frame broke through his pretence and he let his arm fall to the floor moments later. He chewed his lip, feeling a stab of regret, certainly not for the first time, about the manner in which he had left the dark Warrior. Their friend had died, and he had ridden off the next morning with a head full of half-formed thoughts about Mina. Barely aware of the woman next to him, he stood up and paced away, making sure that he didn’t stray too far away from the campsite.

The next day they walked in silence, always keeping a distance of about two miles between their path and the abandoned and ruined city. The packs on Conrad’s back seemed to scrape unbearably against his shirt that stuck to his back with sweat. He gave in around midday and stripped to his waist, bundling his shirt into one of the bags and pretended to be unaware of Rose’s bold stare. He was displeased to see that the muscle he had gained during his stay in Nogon had largely depleted to be replaced with a leanness that he felt did not suit him. However the stares from the few people they encountered in the tiny villages seemed to show they felt differently. They soon left the ruined city far behind them, and the flat plains of the surrounding villages gave way to farms and pastures. Rose always led Conrad away from the towns they saw in the distance, refusing to stop in any nearby villages for fear of someone recognising either one of them. Privately, Conrad thought this was rather unlikely; his beard had grown into matted wilderness and he didn’t think anyone other than his family would know who he was.

There were flowers he had never seen before growing beside the narrow hunting trails they were following; yellow, blue, white and red dotted the golden landscape, clinging onto the edges of brooks and streams, winding their sinuous way through bushes and tree roots, opening their petals to embrace the rays of sunshine beating down upon them. He picked a yellow flower with funnel shaped petals in a moment of courtesy and presented it to Rose, who blushed and pinned it in her hair. The silken strands put the flower to shame, the petals pale compared to her golden hair. She returned his kindness by telling him an Airen story –written by herself, no less – about Death’s lover. Having never heard it before, Conrad listened closely as she weaved the tale in the night around them until he could almost see the broken-hearted woman and the stooped, shrouded skeleton. That night they slept side by side, her cheek pressed against his, her breath tickling his ear and his ruffling her hair.

The capitol city, the Marble City, could be seen from ten miles away. Conrad paused on the rise of a gentle hill, waiting for Rose to join him. She had fallen behind half an hour ago, her shorter legs struggling to keep up with his long stride. He felt rather than saw her as she stopped beside him, panting heavily.

The countryside flowed from the hill, the bushes and trees overshadowing patches of emerald grass, crawling ivy hugging the giants that presided over their younger plants. A road twisted and turned around farms, heavily travelled with tall, pale people closely followed by dark Orminian slaves. The road disappeared around a bend, undoubtedly leading to the white diamond that shone on the horizon. The Marble City, named for the materials with which it was built, was the embodiment of beauty. Terracotta roofs could be seen over the blindingly white walls, and at the centre, taller than the rest of the city, domed and elegant, stood the Marble Palace. Despite his trepidations, Conrad was in awe. He grinned at the slumped woman beside him and offered her his hand. She took it hesitantly and he pulled her to her feet before swinging her into his arms. Her surprised shriek delighted him and he laughed into her hair as he began to walk down the hill.
‘Soon, my lady, we’ll be in the city, and the worst part will be over.’

~

The black haired man slammed his hand into the doorway, grunting a moment later when it snapped, splintering the wood. Cassandra cowered away, afraid to look him in the eye.
‘You must have influenced that woman somehow!’ He crouched down and forced her to meet his eye. Silver looked into a bright liquid gold, blinked and glanced away.
‘She does not believe in the Twelve, sir,’ she stammered, trying in vain to twist out of his iron grip. ‘How could I have told her to help Conrad?’ The man threw her away from him in disgust, sending her sprawling across the floor. He sighed and ran his hands through his raven hair, his huge paws tugging at the ends until it stood up around his face. Cassandra crawled towards her screeing bowl, thanking whoever was listening that the man had appeared after she had cleared the image in the water. The man began to pace around the small room, his every stride seeming to shake the very foundations. He was angry.
‘Eleven years ago you told me that he wasn’t going south, that he would never go south. By the Gods, if Eostre had made that prediction, she would have made sure it came true!’ Cassandra winced at the mention of the previous Twelfth Child, her predecessor, who had been gifted with foresight.
‘Maybe your son could ensure he is...disposed of. When he reaches the Marble City.’ The man paused and rubbed at his chin thoughtfully. He swooped down on her suddenly and hauled her to her feet. Attacked with sudden vertigo, Cassandra staggered and reached for the man to steady her. He deigned to let her rest a wasted hand on his broad shoulders for a moment until she could stand.
‘There is an idea, dear niece. Perhaps you’re not as useless as you seem,’ Yorkel pulled her close to him until his nose was inches away from hers. The gold in his eyes seemed to flare with the rage that still dwelt in him. ‘Gaia cannot succeed in her plan. If the Mother succeeds, I will die, and I will make sure that you come with me, understand?’ In a blink of an eye, he disappeared, leaving Cassandra alone.

She slumped on the floor next to her screeing bowl, letting the sudden tears run down her cheeks unchecked. She waved a trembling hand over the bowl bringing forth the image of her father, Vermund the Twelfth God. With his silver eyes, black hair and strikingly good looks, he was proving to be a welcome guest in Ormini. He spared no thought for her; if he felt her spying on him, he did not show it. Bitterness welled in her heart and she shook the bowl, causing his countenance to ripple and fade away. It was replaced, unbidden, by Ivan the Second, who was in the arms of a young Northerner. Blushing, Cassandra focused on his son and was rewarded with the handsome young man striding towards the Marble City, followed by a buxom Airen. She stroked the surface of the water, a smile on her face. She had no doubt that Yorkel’s son would refuse to kill Conrad; he was safe enough in the Marble City. And as for Mother Earth succeeding in her plan – well, what was the chance in that? She tried to pretend that Conrad would never have to face the horrors laid out in Eostre’s prophecy, tried to delude herself into thinking that when all this was over, when Gaia had been vanquished, when her thrall had died, Conrad would free her from her bonds and she could live the rest of her life happily. But after over a thousand years trapped, what sort of life could she lead, even if Conrad miraculously managed to survive? She laughed bitterly, humourlessly, and plunged her hand into the ice cold water in the bowl, eradicating all existence of the young man.

Conrad stopped abruptly, causing Rose to walk into his back. He muttered a quick apology, but his hand had found its way to the axe at his belt. They seemed to have walked into a shanty town, and the men and women were eyeing him with distaste and hatred. Rose laid a hand on his shoulder, and he half turned to include her in his line of view.
‘Let’s just go, Conrad. Quickly, now.’ She began to exert some force behind her hand, but Conrad didn’t budge. He shrugged her off and stalked forward along the path, joining the edge of a train of Airen commoners, his eyes still trained on the raggedy people standing from the roadside. They stood outside makeshift houses made of cloth or scrap metal, propped up with sticks or string. Children ran around naked, and the adults were in barely better condition. He saw a child attack another over a morsel of food, and was sickened. They were only a mile away from the city, the shining capitol of Airen, the symbol of beauty in Heilagur, and this ugly blemish stained the borders. Such poverty would never have been tolerated in the Reach. With some alarm, he saw a beggar close in on another and punch him to claim a knife. No-one stopped, no-one offered help. He felt ashamed as he allowed himself to be pulled along the road towards the gates of the city, ashamed that he did not stop and break up the fight, nor offer the beggars the coins that weighed heavy in his purse.

Rose did not let go of his hand until they had almost reached the gates. She stopped and pulled him over to the side of the road and brusquely told him to put on a shirt. He did as she commanded listlessly, pulling the shirt over his head, leaving it open at his throat. He replaced his packs and rejoined the throng of people pushing towards the gates, making sure that Rose was He did as she commanded listlessly, pulling the shirt over his head, leaving it open at his throat. He replaced his packs and rejoined the throng of people pushing towards the gates, making sure that Rose was He did as she commanded listlessly, pulling the shirt over his head, leaving it open at his throat. He replaced his packs and rejoined the throng of people pushing towards the gates, making sure that Rose was still behind him.
Guards stood beside the gates, their orange uniforms bright against the white wall. The wall, not made of marble, was yellowed and cracked upon closer review. Conrad found himself pushed up against the wall by the force of the people and had to struggle to get back onto the path. By this time, he had lost sight of Rose, and the guards stopped him. Two of them pulled him over, and the steady flow of people slowed down to stare. Conrad looked down at the two guards; both were pale, clean-shaven with long blonde hair that reached their shoulders. The oldest one crossed his arms and attempted to look haughty and domineering despite his shorter stature.
‘We don’t let beggars in, boy.’ Conrad chanced a glance to see a man in travel-worn clothes flash a piece of paper to the guards and was let in. He turned back to face the two in front of him and hitched his best disarming smile on his face.
‘I’m the new ambassador for the Northern Reach, good sirs. Forgive my appearance, but it has been a long journey, and most towns weren’t very accommodating.’ The guards looked at each other and laughed. One let his hand drift casually towards the hilt of his sword. Conrad was glad that his axe was hidden under his shirt, and his sword wrapped in cloth in one of the packs. He did not want to give the guards any reason to be any more confrontational than they were.
‘And I’m the heir to the throne,’ the younger one mocked, his green eyes glinting. His friend guffawed at the witticism, and Conrad let a corner of his mouth lift. He thought he saw Rose’s face in the crowd, trying to push her way towards him, but lost sight of her a moment later.
‘If you allow me to seek an audience with King Eric and Queen Harriet, they’d tell you who I am.’ The older guard snorted, his hand visibly on the hilt of his sword.
‘And if we let you go in there, and you’re just a lowly beggar? The queen would have my head.’ He shook his hand and gestured with his hand imperiously. ‘Of you go, boy, back to your beggar town.’ Conrad opened his mouth, anger flaring up inside him, when he felt a familiar hand fall on his arm. Rose stepped in front of him, and he imagined she smiled up at the guards for their faces softened dramatically.
‘Madame Rose!’ The older guard bowed deeply, a knowing smile suddenly on his hard features. ‘This beggar one of your...heroes?’ The woman glanced at Conrad’s confused face and laughed airily, a pretty blush on her cheeks.
‘He is not a beggar, dear Joseph, but an ambassador. And I’d appreciate it if we could enter the city.’ The guards mumbled their apologies and accompanied them personally to the gates. The crowd seemed slightly disappointed there was no confrontation, and they milled about the gates some more. Conrad nodded at the guard’s ‘most sincere apology’ and took Rose’s arm, almost pulling her past the city walls.

Almost immediately, they seemed to be on the main road. Houses lined the paved white road, with green and flowering plants outside whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs. Conrad could see the palace in the distance, and reasoned that the road would take him straight to it. With that problem solved, he turned to the woman at his side and asked her how the guards knew her. She evaded the question entirely, instead calling his attention to the pink blossoms on the tree beside them, aren’t they pretty? Realising that he wasn’t going to get anywhere, he grudgingly agreed, and she smiled and held his hand. She led him up the main road, away from the Commons, as she called them, and into the Noble Quarter, where the houses were replaced with marble villas, and the road turned into an avenue. The nobles they saw were dressed in orange, and more often than not, they had Orminian slaves carrying their belongings. Finally, they reached a low marble wall with a wide entrance that led onto a garden full of trees and flowers, paths and streams, statues and fountains. Conrad could not put the images of the shanty town outside the city and the palace garden together in his mind; how could one exist with the other?

Rose stopped him before he stepped onto the palace grounds, her hands finding their way to his face. He imagined they looked pale against his bronzed skin.
‘I can’t go to the palace with you, not yet. I have things to do, people to see.’ She turned her head sideways and smiled at Conrad, looking at him through her lashes.
‘People to see?’ She giggled, and glanced at the villas behind them. From here, Conrad could see all the way down to the north gates, and from the other side of the palace, he would be able to see the south gates. It looked beautiful. Almost as beautiful as the woman in front of him.
‘Oh, you know. Got to see a man about a dog.’ She opened her mouth to say more, but Conrad stopped her with a kiss. Her lips were smooth and soft, cool despite the day’s heat. She gasped with surprise, and Conrad held her closer to him, breaking their kiss.
‘Thank you,’ he said with feeling. ‘I would never have been able to leave Guard’s Post without you.’ She smiled, not quite looking him in the eye.
‘Nonsense, dear devil. Now, if you don’t want people to talk, you’re going to have to let go of me,’ her smile turned sly and Conrad let his arms drop to his side, stepping back a pace. ‘I’ll see you around, Conrad. Count on it.’

The palace gardens encompassed a maze. Conrad looked at it in consternation. Branches stuck out of the hedges at odd angles, dry and brittle. He could see one entrance to the maze, and the hedge had been shaped into an archway. A nobleman tugged a giggling serving girl into the maze, laughter in his eyes, and Conrad averted his gaze. He walked on, following the path upwards towards the entrance to the palace, acutely aware that he had no-one to announce him and did not look like the well-groomed lad that had left Newford on a pony. Would King Eric even recognise him, after all these years? And the other ambassadors; what would they think of him? He scratched at his beard and resolved to groom the wildness out of it when he gained a room to himself. The guards barely gave him a glance when he walked past them and through the high arch of the front door of the palace, and he frowned. Surely imposters could get past the guards at the gates; the ones in front of the palace should not be so lax in their duties.

The entrance hall was long with a wide staircase leading up to the first floor. He inspected a door and found that narrow stairs led down to a bustling kitchen; he was offered a hot cupcake by a serving girl and shooed away. He munched on the sweet as he milled around the ground floor hall and once he had finished, stopped a maid to ask her where he should be. She kept her eyes on the floor as she directed him up the stairs and towards the west wing. He followed her directions closely, passing by closed doors and silent servants until he reached the west wing. He had expected the palace to be livelier, to have courtiers dancing around din their Airen clothes. He had to confess himself slightly disappointed. The west wing was no different to the rest of the palace he had seen; empty white floors, spotless marble walls. He heard voices from behind one of the doors and knocked on it. He was admitted with a quiet voice.

The room was furnished with wooden carvings of panthers, leopards, elephants and other creatures Conrad had learnt about when he was younger but had never seen, and a real, larger than life tiger was chained to the corner of a wall. It was fat, with orange and black stripes spreading even to its blockish head with white whiskers and amber eyes. It looked at Conrad disinterestedly and yawned, its pink tongue curling over fangless teeth. It licked its paws, and Conrad noticed that the claws had been pulled out in addition to its teeth. He coughed nervously, and saw that a man was sitting behind a heavy oaken desk, one of his hands rested upon the body of his tiger. The man was Orminian, older even than Michel, the healer at Newford. His curly black hair was wiry and starting to grey and his face was beginning to line. Conrad knew enough of the Orminians to see that this man was in his sixties, despite his youthful look. He bowed his head, not taking his eyes off the big cat. Despite its ambivalent appearance, he would never trust large cats. He still bore the scar on his forearm where the snow cat had fought back. The man stood up and gestured to the seat on the opposite side of the desk. If he were surprised at the sudden appearance of a dishevelled Northerner, he did not show it. A pleasant smile curved his lips as Conrad crossed the room and sat in the chair, turning his body so that he kept the cat in his sights.
‘You must be the new Northern ambassador we’ve been expecting. We were told you were young, but we didn’t realise how young. How old are you? Twenty?’ Conrad blushed and glanced down at the desk. Papers had been weighed down by a sprawled cat and a reared elephant. He marvelled silently at the trunk and tusks that graced the giant.
‘I’m eighteen, sir, nearly nineteen.’ The man’s barely-there eyebrows rose up his forehead, lining the skin. He burned to ask where the Northern ambassadors were, but was scared of being rude to this genial old man. The man sat down heavily behind his desk and shuffled some papers loose of the paper weights. A pair of glasses had been laid on the desk and he picked them up, balancing them on his wide nose. He peered at Conrad over the rim of the glasses, his dark eyes twinkling.
‘I’m Juan, an Orminian ambassador. There’s three of us; Paolo, Hernandez and me. As much as it pains me to say it, my brethren are not so concerned with the friendships of our three countries, but the advancement of slavery. I tell you this not to turn you against them,’ he added quickly as Conrad felt another burst of anger; always lying just beneath the surface, begin to bubble again, ‘but to warn you of their policies.’ Conrad looked at his interlocked fingers, struggling to regain his composure. Why was this man, this Orminian slave-pusher, pretending to help him? The tiger in the corner growled softly, and Conrad found himself moving his chair away from the big cat even further. Juan seemed to know his thoughts, and a smile lingered on his lips.
‘I see that you are against slavery, as most of your countrymen are?’ At Conrad’s nod Juan edged closer, his elbows resting on the desk. He licked his lips nervously, his tongue shockingly pink. ‘Can I count on your silence, young man, and your promise to do everything in your power to stop slavery spreading to the Northern Reaches?’ Conrad hesitated to nod, wondering what he would be committing himself to.
‘I would rather not promise myself to silence before I hear your plan, Senor Juan.’ The feeling of committing to something enormous intensified as Juan slid open a drawer and drew out a thick leaflet. He pushed it towards Conrad, who took it and stared at the cover. It was named The Wrongs of Slavery, and Juan’s name was absent from it. He understood why the manifesto was anonymous, and he flicked through the pages to see small, spidery writing accompanying illustrations of slaves being beaten, being killed and being flayed. Slightly sickened, he replaced the leaflet on the desk and looked up to find Juan staring at him.
‘I have been distributing this manifesto and campaigning anonymously for six months now, and I know that two of the six Protectors agree with the sentiment. A fresh face, a bold face, is what is needed to stop slavery spreading its poison even further than it has.’ Conrad raised his eyebrows at the bold claim of gaining the support of the Protectors. There were six of them, each of them the descendants of the previous Lords of Heilagur, chosen by the Children. King Dairen was the First Lord and once crowned, asked his six Lord supporters to become advisors to the new kingdom of Airen. The Eighth Lord, Ryder, stayed loyal to the Ninth, King Wilhelm, the first King of the Northern Reaches. From their reputation, Conrad had expected the six Protectors to be reluctant to stop slavery; most of the nobles in Airen seemed to gain their money and status off the slave trade.
‘All you’re asking is for me to campaign against slavery in the Reach?’ Conrad queried, and at Juan’s nod, sighed softly. He had even more responsibility than when he had been at Nogon, and these people weren’t the kind you could swing an axe at. He felt he understood why his father hadn’t wanted to come to Airen; politics already seemed like a nasty, underhand business. From his years of tutelage as a youngster, he knew how a bargain should be struck. He should agree to Juan’s request only if he gained something out of it. The benefits could already be seen; slavery would upset the balance of power in the Reach. It would be best for everyone if the king refused to treaty with the Orminians.
‘I’d make a lot of enemies,’ he demurred, not looking at Juan. ‘And I already have more than I can count, known and unknown.’ He boldly stared at the older man, who to his surprise bore a huge grin.
‘All the more reason why you should, my boy. If you have enemies, you’ve done something worth fighting for!’ Suddenly animated, the man leapt up from his chair and strode to the corner. His tiger watched him with bright yellow eyes and was rewarded with a slab of meat. Conrad moved his chair further away from the big cat, grateful for his weapon in case it decided to attack.
‘Besides, helping me comes with benefits,’ Juan leant against his desk, picking up the elephant paper weight and throwing it from hand to hand. His energy seemed much more suited to a younger man, but nevertheless it was infectious. ‘I am the Queen’s favourite, and your fellow Northern ambassadors...well, suffice it to say they do not help the stereotype of barbaric devils,’ he winked at Conrad, who knew he should have felt outraged at the insult. But try as he might, he could not bring himself to hate the old man.
‘So by helping you, I’d gain your influence over the Queen?’ Juan laughed and winked yet again, handing Conrad the elephant.
‘Here, it is yours. And yes, if things go well. Now, have you seen your room?’

Conrad’s new room was larger than the one he had inhabited at Newford by far. There was enough space to lie down between the door and the large bed, and three paces from the bed to the windows. A sink lay beneath the window and a full length looking glass rested against the wall beside it. He glanced at his reflection and was displeased to see the muscles he had worked so hard to attain had been replaced by leanness. His beard was as wild as a beggars and his hair straggled below his ears. It was no wonder he was denied entrance by the guards. He picked up the razor and set about taming his beard, cutting it so that it hugged his face rather than sprouted wiry hairs all over the place. He knew he should have used scissors, but they lay somewhere in the bottom of his pack and he had no wish to spill his clothes onto the floor sooner than necessary. He looked at his reflection once more and barring his shaggy hair, was more pleased. He sighed and turned to the packs that lay on the bed. He would have to cut his hair with the scissors and the sooner he found them, the better.

An hour passed and finally Conrad folded and put away the last shirt. The Airen’s didn’t have any wardrobes, it seemed, and instead preferred to use chests. He slid his under the bed, wincing at the sound it made on the tiled floors. He had found the scissors triumphantly at last, and had held them aloft whilst separating tangled clothes, but now he could not find them. He wriggled under his bed and groaned as he saw they lay underneath the chest. It scraped even louder than before when he dragged it out again, and he dropped to his knees and reached for the scissors. He heard the door open and a pair of feet pad lightly on the floor. He tried to come up from under the bed, but hit his head on the frame. With a curse, he came to his feet, rubbing at the sore spot on his head. He blushed when he saw who had walked in.

She was as beautiful as he had remembered, with cat-like eyes and thick lashes. She wore a secretive smile on her red lips and her arms were crossed beneath her chest. She was dressed in a sumptuous gown of gold, her pale arms bare apart from golden bracelets and rings adorning her slender fingers. She let her eyes rove over him and his blush deepened.
‘Hello, Conrad.’ He cleared his throat, scratched his beard and was grateful that he had managed to calm it before she had come in.
‘Lady Anise,’ he bowed, his hair flopping into his eyes. ‘It is a pleasure to see you.’ The lie slid off his tongue easily and she smiled, but the darkness that flickered through her eyes told him she knew he had not told the truth.
‘Travelling overland does not seem to suit you, ambassador. I understand you travelled by foot for most of it?’ Without waiting for his answer, she walked over and pressed down on his shoulders, causing him to slump down on the bed. He struggled upright, surprised but she set his head straight and grabbed the scissors from his hands. He froze as she picked up a lock of his hair and began to snip at the tresses.
‘I used to cut my father’s hair when he fell ill,’ she said suddenly, a note of gentleness drifting into her voice. ‘With him, I had to cut his hair short for the fever, for you because of your strange ways.’ She tittered, the sound synthetic and hollow. Unsure of what to say, Conrad stayed still. He could feel his hair falling onto his shoulders and the breeze as the scissors closed by his neck. He felt a surge of apprehension as she told him of shearing her father’s hair, and hoped that she would leave him with some hair to cover his scalp. He had no wish to be bald. She moved into his sight and he could see the bodice and neckline of her dress. He gulped and turned his gaze aside, all too aware that she knew why he did so. She tutted as she cut the hair that fell against his forehead, rubbing her fingers over his hairline.
‘You’re whiter here than anywhere else on your face. I suppose it’ll darken in time,’ she muttered, half to herself. Finally, she stopped and stepped back, a pleased smile on her face. Conrad got up slowly, running his hands over his hair. It seemed very short, unnervingly so after the weeks of ever-growing curls. He brushed the hair off his shoulders, seeing the curly brown tresses fall to the floor. The mirror showed a young man, definitely Northern; well-groomed, well-muscled and well-grown. He grinned, his teeth white against his tanned face. Anise was right; the top of his forehead and undoubtedly the back of his neck were less tanned than the rest of his skin, but it would catch up in time.
‘Thank you,’ he said quietly, still unsure of what to make of Anise’s sudden softness. She shrugged and set the scissors down on the bed.
‘I told the queen that I had recommended you. It wouldn’t reflect well on me if you met her looking like a common beggar, would it?’ She flounced to the door, the train of her dress trailing after her. She looked like a princess from a fairy book. Conrad stood there, looking at the door long after she had gone.

His shirt scratched at his skin, rubbing at his sunburnt shoulders. His boots pinched his toes and his leggings were too short. The Reach brooch looked out of place against the orange and white of the throne room. Conrad didn’t like it.

The two thrones weren’t occupied, and on each side there were three, slightly less grand thrones, which were filled. The six Protectors mumbled to one another, their wide girth no doubt making their time sat down uncomfortable; one had to keep squatting and turning in order to stop his throne cutting into his flabby sides. It seemed impossible that they had families; Conrad couldn’t imagine any woman in her right mind would have wanted to marry such unremarkable and unimpressive men. They all wore robes of orange with diamond patterns, their waists apparently cinched with a leather belt. All of them had pale fish eyes, all bulging out and staring at the young man waiting on the floor. From left to right were the Lord’s James, Harold, George, Frederic, Joseph and Isaiah. Isaiah had a reputation of being a particularly sadistic piece of work; his infamy had even spread to the Reach. Conrad had heard of him tearing newborn babies away, left to die whilst their mothers returned to work. His lip curled as he considered him. He was the only Protector that wasn’t obese; in fact, he had taken it to the other extreme. He was thin, skeletal almost, and his papery skin gathered in jowls over his pointed chin. His nose was hooked, his eyes bulging and so pale a blue they were almost colourless.

Conrad had to tear his eyes away from the Sixth Lord when the doors behind him opened. The man that entered looked so much like King Wilhelm and Prince Bjorn that he had to be Eric; he was almost fifty, the fine wrinkles at his eyes and around his mouth not subtracting from his Northern handsomeness. His eyes were a twinkling, bright blue, and his hair and beard were streaked through with brown. He wore Reach blue, and although he did not wear a weapon at his side, he would not have looked out of place in Newford. The woman beside him was Queen Harriet, and although she was not yet thirty, accompanied Eric perfectly. She deferred to him, walking a pace behind, although the crown on her head and the orange gown marked her as the Queen of Airen. Conrad stepped to the side to allow them to pass, and saw the flash of recognition in the king’s face. He kept his head bowed, his eyes on the floor, until he heard them seat themselves in their thrones.
‘Conrad Ivanthrall, ambassador of the Northern Reaches, I bid you welcome to our prosperous land,’ the queen’s voice was loud and commandeering, and Conrad took this as a sign he was allowed to lift his head. He found himself looking into deep brown eyes, and saw why Northerner’s said they lost themselves in them. Her golden hair was swept up in a bun at the nape of her neck, adorned with orange flowers. He briefly wondered if Eric had picked them for her.
‘Your Majesties,’ he murmured, bowing to them. Eric opened his mouth to say something, but the door opened once more. In ran two children, perhaps five years old; a boy and a girl. They skidded to a stop in front of the throne, panting for breath. From the way the monarch’s faces softened, Conrad gathered that these two were their children. The girl clambered up onto her father’s lap, her short yellow gown frayed and muddy, her white slippers ruined. She had brown hair like her fathers, long and curling around her waist. Her brother stood still, his face red with exertion, his blonde hair falling into his blue eyes.
‘Daddy, Alistair pushed me into the mud, and then he said that I’d be whipped!’ Crocodile tears began to form in her impossibly large brown eyes, and Eric smiled.
‘I didn’t push her, she’s lying!’ Eric looked at them both indulgently before winking almost imperceptibly at his wife. He rearranged his expression into that of a stern, displeased father.
‘Do you see that man before you, Crystal, Alistair?’ His deep voice rumbled, and the twins turned to stare at Conrad. He struggled to keep a grin off his face. They nodded, then looked back at their father.
‘Well, if either of you don’t behave, he’s going to come and...Eat you!’ He pretended to bite into his daughter’s hair and she squealed, laughing. ‘Now, off with both of you. Grandpa Juan is waiting for you, I believe he’s going to let you ride his tiger,’ at these words, the twins shot off, their squabbling echoing off the walls. The Protectors laughed quietly, and the monarchs joined in.
‘After that rather informal introduction of the prince and princess, I don’t think we need any more formalities,’ he looked at his wife for approval before addressing Conrad. ‘The rest of the Northern ambassadors are regrettably intractable and stubborn. We’re hoping you’re going to be a voice of reason, and since you’ve been brought up with Ivan, we believe that you may think like him. Do you have any news from the Reach?’ A tinge of desperation came into the king’s voice, and Conrad understood his need of news from his homeland. He paused to consider what he was going to say, all too aware that the Protectors may use his information to their advantage.
‘Wilhelmina and Adil are growing up to be fine young people, although Mina definitely has more of her father in her than mother. Pola is a remarkable young girl – her writing exceeds that of the other children her age. Bjorn is still unmarried and in good health, and the queen still enjoys her visits to the Nomads,’ he bit his lip, having finally come to the sticky part. ‘King Wilhelm has fallen ill, and Crowned Prince Bjorn has made steps to take on some of his responsibilities.’ He used their titles to invoke their power and standing, far above that of the Protectors that stood there, smiling at the news of the king’s ill health. Shock and worry passed over Eric’s face so quickly that Conrad wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t imagined it.
‘Bjorn had better hurry up and marry; women won’t wait for him forever. I’ll compose a letter tonight and send it to him. He’ll likely have more information,’ he smiled down at Conrad. ‘You really do look like your father, pup. It saddened me greatly when I had to leave for Airen without him. But you’re here now, and I think you’ll find Airen a country that rewards those who are loyal to it.’

As Conrad left the room, the last few words seemed to ring ominously in his mind.



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