Thursday, March 22, 2018

Caia....

Thaddeus and Nathaniel were perplexed at finding an empty cloak outside the hall. After all, they were discreet in their tactics, but was it possible they missed something? It hadn't been even 10 seconds from the time Thaddeus had run around the back and Nathaniel hadn't taken an eye off the figure and yet, here was the cloak and the figure was gone in a blink of an eye with only a faint scent of the perfume on the cloak and a slight scent at the door to even prove he or she was ever there in the first place. The only thing left to do was to be more vigilant in the time remaining in the evening and tell the princes in the morning, allowing them to still enjoy themselves.

As Thaddeus took his seat next to Eric, he found that the elder prince was engaged in a conversation with a lovely young lady whose face was vibrant and lively and yet took on a mature note, as if her travels had taken her beyond where she ever intended and often tragically so. Her figure was pleasant and almost catlike in her grace, curving like blown glass. Eric noticed that Thaddeus had sat and introduced his conversation partner.
"Oh, there you are Thad, I was wondering where you'd gone. This is Caia, she's an explorer of sorts and she and I were talking about her exploits...absolutely fascinating."

The woman extended her hand and, almost instinctively, Thaddeus took her hand and kissed it briefly, taking note of her scent in the moments her wrist was close. No luck. A very different scent from that of their watcher. He sat, satisfied he'd done his due diligence. Eric, however, looked a bit annoyed at what he viewed as an attempt at to sabotage his conversation, but under the circumstances, he allowed the gesture to fall by the wayside as Thaddeus excused himself. Undeterred, Eric and Caia continued their conversation while Andrew was otherwise occupied with Romi, Sara, and Martha on the other side of the table with Nathaniel.

Hours passed and villagers began to funnel towards the exits, bound for their warm beds and deep slumber. The conversations held the princes both until deep into the evening as Matthew was preparing to close the main hall for the night. Eric said his good byes and Caia went out one door while the princes' party went out the other. The peculiarities of the night weighed on the two men charged with keeping the princes safe and on the way back to their home away from home, it became clear that all was not well in what was supposed to be paradise as the conversation on the cart revolved around nothing else, but the princes could not know the details of the night just yet, not until tomorrow when the festivities had been mulled over and processed. So with the princes trying like crazy to hear any detail, the guards kept to themselves.

As the group arrived, the princes insisted.

"What happened tonight, Nathaniel?" Andrew asked, putting an arm on Nathaniel's shoulder. Nathaniel kept silent. Eric dismounted the cart and approached the two while Thaddeus trailed behind, carrying the cloak concealed within his own.
"Come on, Nate. Let's have it." Andrew persisted. Again, Nathaniel was silent, this time looking at Thaddeus, who spoke up this time.
"Let's go inside, we can talk there once the girls have gone to bed. This isn't for outdoor conversation." His eyes were brooding and serious and the princes became sober instantly despite their enjoyment of the merriment of the night.

The ladies had arrived a few minutes prior to the princes' party and had already begun turning down beds and the like for the evening. Once the men had entered the main room, Martha and the women greeted them briefly and excused themselves to bed for the night. Thaddeus took off his cloak, setting it across the conversation table along with the second cloak and sat in the chair it was closest to. As Nathaniel came into the room, he sat in the remaining chair.
"Please, sires, take a seat." Eric and Andrew pulled two chairs from near the fireplace and sat with their cohorts at the table. Thaddeus began recounting the events of the evening from the time they arrived at the gathering at the main hall, leaving nothing out as he could recall. Nathaniel added in what details were missing from the time Thaddeus had left the room. All the while, the princes were silent.
"When I rounded the final corner and reached the back exit," Thaddeus explained. "There was no one and I found this." He reached beneath his cloak and took out the one he'd found.
"There is a fragrance I cannot identify on the collar, but if you take a moment to assess, you'll find it quite feminine. I am sorry for lingering so upon kissing the lady Caia's hand, but I had to be sure."
Eric nodded, understanding finally what had been so irritating at the event.
"I had hoped to find further reason to give chase in any direction, but there was none, so I came inside, where the fragrance was still lingering a bit at the door. I thought it might be possible the watcher had only left the cloak behind to throw me off the trail in spite of my attempts at secrecy, which would have been seen by anyone else as completely normal. It was as if whoever it was heard me somehow, but my voice was only but a whisper at the time." Thaddeus was perplexed once more.
"Well," Eric began. "It seems clear we're not alone here, but we're not exactly here for vacation, but rather to make plans. We need to know what's going on here, but without any idea of what we're looking for, I think it's best to simply be on our guard at all times. We may be able to rule out a person or two, but fact is, we have no proof yet. So we need everyone to keep our wits sharp and quick."
"One other thing, though," Andrew added. "It's clear to me that our observer is an adept tactician and that fact alone should mean we must do any kinds of planning behind closed doors or in the confines of controlled spaces. We could do that in the girls' quarters when they go to run their errands. If we do that, however, we need to make sure that there is always a pair of ears on the other side of the door to keep secret every detail of our plans. Above everything, we must control the room."
"Agreed," the rest echoed.

Morning came and went the men slept long and deeply, their slumber moving into the afternoon when Eric arose first and went into the dining room, where the ladies had already sat and were eating lunch, chatting among themselves.
"Good morning, ladies," Eric greeted.
"Afternoon, you mean," Martha corrected.
"Oh my! I must have had an even better time than I originally thought."
"We could hear you all snoring from our rooms," Sara interjected, smiling and giggling. Martha tried stifling a laugh, but failed spectacularly, causing Romi and Sara to join in. Eric held together longer than the rest, but his resolve wore down and suddenly he was overwhelmed and the laughter took him over to such a degree that his face flushed red and tears flowed freely down his cheeks. All the laughter brought the rest of the party from the main room and into the dining room, wondering what had brought it all on, but Eric and the women were laughing too hard to answer in complete sentences before they fell apart once more.

A knock came at the door as the company struggled to regain their composure. Caia stood outside and was greeted by Eric.
"Hi," Eric started awkwardly.
"Hi," Caia responded in kind, but then continued. "I was just in the area walking and was curious if you'd want to get out and see a bit more of town?"
"Uh, sure. Sounds great, actually. Let me grab something to put over my shoulders." He went to the chair and grabbed his cloak and belted his sword as Caia crossed the threshold to wait for a moment inside. "Don't worry guys, I won't be gone too long." And with that, the two closed the door behind them.

Thaddeus had stood when Caia had come inside the cottage and took a few steps toward the door to be more welcoming. As the door closed behind the couple, he returned to his seat and, looking at the tabletop, his heart began to beat in his ears and his stomach was in his throat. Goosebumps and the hairs on his neck stood at full attention. What began as a lesson in tactics had now shifted into a very real understanding that their visit had taken a very dark turn. As he sat, he looked over to find that the cloak he'd found the night before was now missing.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Time....

Morning came and the men were up early. As was the case most mornings, Eric and Thaddeus would take a hike into the hills not far from the cottage and spar, taking care to pull their blows a bit and using fallen branches roughly carved into their chosen implements to avoid doing irreparable harm by equipping what gear they brought with them. Equally the case was that someone would end up with more bruises than the other. This day was Eric's turn to wear the bruises, but either one could have passed for it as their shirts covered the damage and both wore their battle wounds on their faces and postures. They waddled into the house, clutching their arms and sat heavily in the main room, crumpling into a heap.

Andrew, while not especially interested in warfare from a physical standpoint, would talk strategy and philosophy with Nathaniel; walking with the other two and then breaking off when the battlements began. Nathaniel, who had been tutoring alongside the younger prince for a reasonable while before Julien went missing, had a keen mind and often kept Andrew guessing, approaching each challenge with sound logic and well thought out arguments, often playing devil's advocate just to sharpen Andrew's defenses. Not entirely unlike his older brother and his sparring partner, Andrew and his verbal sparring partner came into the cottage exhausted, having put their best challenges to one another and now had headaches at least as large as the welts dealt at the hands of their more physical counterparts.

When their appetites had been sated and the cider had been drunk, they took wonderful and deep rest, allowing Andrew to slip away and take a walk with Romi, who was very curious about the city as she would often be left to care for the house while Martha and Sara would take the trips for important matters whether to the village or the city. And so the questions began and there were many, from the castle's chef to how the stablehands cared for their stock; Romi was a wealth of curiosity, but truth be told, more often than not the questions were to make Andrew scramble to find ways to answer her on the fly. His voice was smooth and his presence made her feel safer than she had since her father had passed. So Andrew talked and helped Romi tend to the gardens and, before either of them knew it, the sun was beginning to set.

Andrew sent Romi ahead into the house while he finished the last little bit of the chore they had been working on together. When he was done, he followed. Eric and the others were readying themselves for the evening.
"What's going on here?" Andrew asked, having not been made aware anything was planned.
"Well, brother, we've been invited by the village to a dinner gathering in the main hall at town center and you need to get yourself made to look presentable. Blisters from gardening tools don't match the look we're going for." He smiled and gave Andrew a playful punch in the arm, catching just the right place making his arm go numb for a minute or two.
"No problem," Andrew replied, holding his arm and rushing into a side room with his clothes and returned looking just as his brother and the other two, adorned well for a proper night out.

And so the party left the house, saddled the free horses and mounted the cart. Once all were set, they took the through road to the town square. From inside the house, however, something was stirring; someone was stirring. Inside the main room, from behind the conversation table near the wall, a panel slid back into place, where there had only been a tapestry hanging in place. There, in the darkness, a small bench rested and a platform encapsulated in the space a closet might have occupied. Beside those, a ladder that led into an underground workspace about triple the size; enough room for a built in table, a small shelving unit and a humble amount of walk space. The room was meant to be enough for a full day's worth of occupancy but leaving no space to lay one's head. A lone figure sat at the table, which was covered with small parchments and scrolls ranging from historical documents to ceremonial rites. By candlelight, those eyes glinted and danced as the figure began to write. Once done, the chair was pushed in, candle was extinguished and enough time was elapsed for the smoke to dissipate. The ladder was ascended and latched dispatched and from the darkened room, the figure emerged, letter in hand and out the door towards the village. After all, the gathering might, in fact, garner valuable intelligence and even the darkest gods knew the value of intelligence.

The village had all turned up in force for the wonderful event and, it seemed, no expense was given to the lavish spread with plenty of fresh produce, baked goods, and meats prepared to perfection lining all but the last foot's worth of space around the periphery. Eric, Andrew and their company entered the hall with mouths very much agape. The village leader was an aged man by the name of Matthew and wife, son, and daughter had come out for the event. When the crowd had all found themselves in the hall, he stood from his chair at the head of the table, quieting the masses.

"Alright, everyone find a spot and have a seat," he began. "We are honored to welcome the princes and their caretakers to town this evening and we have come together to give them thanks for re-establishing the markets in the city. As you all know, there were tough times when the markets were put off for harvest hardship, but we thank the princes for keeping us in their thoughts and having the influence to bring us all together once again. Thanks to those who put together this event and those who helped in preparing all of this food both for yourselves as well as for others who cannot afford to do the same. That is the true meaning of community. Long live the princes! Let us fill our plates and glasses in honor of these guests."

The applause moved both princes to the verge of tears. In truth, their reasons for bringing back the markets had less to do with uniting the villages and more to do with paying tribute to Julien, but the byproduct did more to bolster the people's spirits than either one could ever have guessed. Thaddeus, who had been enjoying the revelry, caught sight of a suspicious pair of eyes as he was panning the crowd, but had no intention of alerting his observer, so he tapped Nathaniel and as he whispered into his ear, he pointed in another direction and laughed.
"Near the back exit. We're being watched. Give a passing glance and laugh. We don't want them to know we see them." His voice never carried and Nathaniel gave no indication that anything was wrong to anyone else. Rather than that, he pointed to the punch table and Thaddeus smiled and nodded. Nathaniel stood and walked to the punch table, filling a couple of glasses to near the top and giving the cloaked figure a veiled glance before walking back, handing Thaddeus his cup and whispering in response.
"I don't think we're looking at a man, but I have no real way of knowing unless I want to find myself on the wrong side of a mob beating. Any ideas about how to draw them out?"
Nathaniel let out a massive belly laugh as if Thaddeus had been telling the best story he'd ever heard
at a dinner party.

The cloaked figure remained partially obscured as Nathaniel leaned over Thaddeus in their conversation and, though the cat and mouse routine was entirely seen by only two parties as the princes were otherwise occupied with various conversations with the villagers around the table. Both Thaddeus and Nathaniel wished to put any sort of possible confrontation behind them before the evening wore on. Thaddeus, being the more hearty fighter, leaned back and whispered for Nathaniel to take his seat while he exited the front door, breaking into a full sprint around the backside of the hall. At the back door, a dark cloak bearing a hearthy, fragrance; undoubtedly feminine, but there was no trace as to which direction the owner of said cloak might have gone. He carried the cloak back to their table, placing it on his chair before sitting atop. He needed evidence, after all, and this was, above all else, evidence....they were being watched.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Mares....

"The finest tools power can buy," he said in a tone that might have been intoxicating had the circumstances been different. "And they even sing in a chorus of agony that courts the soul with a delight that can only be matched by the stories they tell." He ran his hand over the tools at his fingertips, allowing their shine to dance off the fire glint. His scar ran in a wave down his face and never seemed to find an end past his chin, but in spite of his ghastly appearance, his smile was that of a child who never tired of sadistic play and behind him, a man whose eyes studied his teacher's joy and candor.

Julien laid on the table, held fast by the shackles and tears running down his face; his lungs and throat aching from the screams. Just one finger left on his hand and the others kept preserved in the clay pot with brine that now sat on a ledge a few feet away. The sweat poured out as the constant heat lapped at every droplet, never sated and never ending and in one final blow, the last finger fell to a shapely blade and once again, a feral and desperate scream escaped as his body was determined to follow in hot pursuit, but the scream itself was captured by the ears of his captors, a rapturous melody they relished with a divine vigor. He, in this moment, was theirs.....

Andrew shot from sleep, throwing a defiant fist in front of him. It was caught by Eric, who was sitting at Andrew's side.
"How long was I out?" Andrew asked, wiping his eyes slugishly.
"About two or three hours, give or take," Eric replied.
The mostly silent early morning had been broken up from that time until Andrew became restless in his place. Eric had been sleeping quite soundly when Nathaniel roused him to sit up and care for his brother. The air was cool and crisp, with gales coming in short gusts; like the perfect spring rain, neither chilled nor warm, but the delicious place in between that came in the early summer months.

"Was it Julien?" Eric asked. Andrew nodded slowly.
"They're beginning to fade, but they're never gone. I see both men, Eric." Andrew answered, sitting upright in the cart.
"Both?"
"Yeah. You remember when he told us there was a man who watched the whole thing? I saw him, standing behind the Artisan."
"Wait, who's that? You've mentioned him once before, but I've only heard the name once or twice from father's mouth."
"He's a terrible man, brother. Only terrible men keep one like him around. He takes and takes and takes from people; pieces and parts you can see and some you can't. He's a monster, but he's also something else."
"What?" Eric prodded as Andrew fell silent.
"I wish I knew."
Eric leaned against the cartback, a sudden tinge of dread sweeping over him. Even in voluntary exile, it seemed, there would be only a slight reprieve. Nevertheless, it was more important to revel in the time away as much as humanly possible than to dwell in the toxicity of the city they left behind.

As the cart meandered down the lightly traveled road, the bumps became less an issue. It was clear most would have turned back by now, but with the village in sight and the stone cottage just before it, the bumps would just have to be endured. A few minutes later, the cart pulled to the house, where the housekeeper was waiting with her two daughters, ready to serve in whatever way they could. The older of the two, Sara, took one small bag of supplies and made haste into the house, where she placed it in the kitchen near a small closet. The younger, Romi, took a sack of fresh produce into the house, also placing it in the kitchen, but near the rest of the foodstuffs. The princes carried their own satchels of clothes inside, feeling no compulsion to try and find quarters in the cottage. They, instead, set things down in the main room, near the fireplace, giving Martha, the housekeeper pause.
"I can have the girls sleep at the inn in town, sires."
"Nonsense, Martha." Eric stopped her. "We're not here to put any of you out. This is a large enough house, true, but we are perfectly content to rest by the fire. Besides, during our time, we have much to work through and we can't do that if we're separated by walls. You ladies enjoy the quarters as you have. We'll be fine here."
Martha, stunned and wanting to protest, resigned her will, bowed low in gratitude, and went into the kitchen around the corner.

4 Hours Earlier....
The cloaked man, took the letter from the king, listening closely to the instructions. Once given, he ran to the stables across the plaza, packed his steed, and set off. Hard and fast he rode as the midday's light penetrated every dark crevice of the countryside. The road wound and weaved around trees and bushes and over hills and the horsemen eventually came to the cottage. He dismounted, walked to the door, and knocked. Martha opened the door with a start as normal company would not require such subterfuge. The man handed her the letter, which she, in turn, took, looking it over.
"Without removing the seal, do you recognize the name on the back?" He asked.
"Yes, sir. I do." She answered.
"This letter needs to be taken to this man tonight. I cannot do so and risk being seen by the villagers, which would upset the king's plans."
"I understand. I will get this to him this evening."
"This cannot be told to the princes, the king was very insistent upon this."
"I'll take care. You have my word." Martha was curious, but not enough to risk the full weight of the king's attention for failing to follow such simple instructions. With that, the rider remounted his horse, going back to the city by another way.

Present...
As the men prepared their sleeping arrangements, Martha and her daughters worked on the evening meal; clearing tables of the clutter that had accompanied their seasonal cleaning and pulling the more formal dining set out of storage to use that night. As the preparations were being made, Martha caught Romi stealing glances into the room where the princes and guards were, particularly when Andrew would be speaking. She smiled knowingly; she remembered those days well. Naturally, it was before the confusion in the Divide, where her husband and their father had passed, but even now, her memory of those early days were vivid and clear.
"Rom," she cautioned. "These aren't just any other boys to fawn over. These are princes and ones whose futures are spoken for. Guard yourself, that you may not be hurt needlessly." Romi gathered herself and, for the most part, took heed, but only just, stealing in a few more glances before all was cooked and put onto the table.

After the meal, Eric and the rest took their conversations into the main room near the fireplace. On a normal evening, Martha wouldn't have considered allowing dessert outside of the dining room, but tonight lent itself to it naturally, so the exception was made. As the men sat, exchanging stories and quips back and forth, Martha broke up the mood ever so briefly.
"Sorry to interrupt, boys, but I need to take a short trip into the village for a few supplies. I meant to get them earlier, but with making the house ready and such, time just got away from me. Is there anything I can pick up on the way home?"
Eric thought for a moment, reached into his pouch and pulled out a few gold coins and handed them to her.
"I could use some more of the cider I had a few days back and some sweet rolls for tomorrow morning. Please keep whatever is left for yourself and your girls. There should be plenty."
Martha was moved by the generosity of the prince. "I will see to it," she answered. "I'm also taking Sara along for the ride, so if you need anything at all, Romi can see to things while I'm away." And with that, they took their leave.

Andrew gathered up plates and took them into the kitchen, where Romi was wiping down the table and flatware.
"Do you mind if I help?" He asked.
"Oh...th-thank you," Romi answered shyly, pushing her hair from her face and tucking it behind her ear. Andrew had never been the shy type in the past, but here and now his nerves began to coil and flail wildly like a young pup in the throes of play. Romi was lovely, only a year older, and, if he was to be honest with himself, those stolen glances were returned in kind.

From around the corner, Nathaniel watched, chuckling a bit to himself. Eric, not following the line of thought, had to ask.
"What?"
"Oh, nothing. Andrew is just making friends in a matter of speaking. We should all be so lucky one day."
Thaddeus got up to round the corner but Nathaniel sidestepped, cutting off the attempt.
"Nah, just let them be. It's his first pursuit and he's doing quite well. Let's give them a bit of privacy, we can always tease him a bit later." And so the conversation began to die down near the fire while Andrew and Romi tidied up in the kitchen, parting ways to their separate sleeping places.

Meanwhile, Martha steered the cart through the village to the far end where one final house stood at the outskirts. She brought the cart to a stop, got down and motioned for Sara to stay in the cart.
"This should only take a moment, " she said calmly as turned back toward the house, making her way to the door. Upon knocking, an old man came to the door. They exchanged a few words, he nodded and took the letter, thanked her and closed the door behind him. Martha turned back to the cart and climbed back into the seat.
"What was that, mother?" Sara asked.
"Oh, it's nothing. Just a favor for a friend."
Having satisfied her daughter's curiosity, she returned her attentions back to the road as she maneuvered back toward the village to gather her list's worth.

As the cart left view, a pair of eyes glinted from the roof. It had been too long since their services had been put into play and now that the time had come, the figure salivated at the prospect coming. Upon breaking the seal on the letter, the watcher read the instructions and had there been anyone else in the house, they might have heard a word in the breeze.
"Good..."

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Buried Treasures....

Eric sat on his bed, pondering about the key and what secrets and treasures it may hold. It had been three days since the key had come from his lapel pocket and the questions contained within this little thing had multiplied in his mind, twisting him into knots. Had Julien truly escaped, would this key ever have been used or might he have simply vanished into the wind, only making contact when the king was sure he would not return? Were these "borrowed" effects of intrinsic value, invaluable to some greater mystery? Could the kingdom afford to live without these trinkets and, if not, why had there not been a more obvious search conducted for them when Julien was claimed missing by the king? Judging by the mess of bruises and gashes broken while they tended to him, Eric guessed at the last question, at least in part. The questions swam around in his head, mixing in an overwhelming current, but the biggest question, at least in his mind, was if Julien had undergone such horrendous torture at the hands of the Throne, what's to stop HIM from such a fate should he be caught with the chest's contents?

The most pressing question hinged on a couple of factors that he surmised from his years of being a watchful observer, studying his surroundings and whoever might cross them. In days long ahead of his time, psychology and game theory would be the closest approximation of such a study. In a roundabout way of saying it, his curiosity centered around whether or not the king would post a guard or an observer at the door to Julien's quarters now that he was dead. If so, it would indicate that he absolutely expected someone to retrieve what he had never returned. If not, there were more clandestine ways to ascertain as to whether or not a person or persons had entered the quarters. In truth, Julien was no different from the princes in that their quarters consisted of such vast space and multiple rooms to explore that, as Julien told them in the inn, one would have no way of finding this chest or anything else hidden unless they knew exactly where to look and the king now had reason to bide his time. Eric had no doubt the quarters would be watched, but no one would look twice at a close student simply wandering the room in the process of their grief.

As he got up, Eric grabbed a light robe, as the the day had grown a bit cool and reached for the door; on the other side was Andrew, hand raised to knock. Startled, Eric jumped a bit and then sidestepped, motioning for his brother to enter.

"I've been worried about you, brother. Are you alright?"

Andrew walked past, almost as emotionless as he'd been a few days before. He made his way towards the desk near the window, pulled out the chair, and sat facing the middle of the room. Eric closed the distance, sitting on the foot chest in front of his bed, which was near enough to make conversation easy to mitigate without having to raise a voice to be heard. Patience would pay off here, Eric was convinced as the last time he had paid the visit to Andrew, not even an acknowledgement had been made his way. Andrew waited a long while, taking great pains in being clear before he said anything at all. When he was sure he had the right way to begin, he spoke.

"What does mother know about that night?" Andrew asked Eric.
"What do you mean? If you're referring to the event itself, I told her what happened in the room, but no details about our conversation for that time, per se. Why do you ask?"
"Because I had been having nightmares for weeks before all of this happened; real ones, with the kind of details you could only know if you were there. I know all of it, Eric; I know how he got out. I knew about the hand and fingers- all of it before he said anything." Andrew looked terrified.
"Wait...you're saying you knew he would be there?!" Eric grabbed another chair and put it almost face to face so as to not to raise his voice, fearing prying ears.
"Are you serious?" Andrew nodded.
"Okay. Can I ask a couple of questions? If you knew he would be there that day, is that why you had the room waiting at the inn and why you suggested having Nathaniel and Thaddeus come along with us?" Again, Andrew nodded.
"And you knew he'd talk about the key and the chest and his torture?" Once more, this time with hesitation, Andrew nodded.

Eric stood up, pacing, visibly shaken at the knowledge. This changed his view of the events and he was relieved he only knew this on the other side, fearing what he might have allowed to slip from his mouth when he told Raul of the events of that night. Now, he was absolutely sure that not only was Julien's quarters a rigged explosive, metaphorically speaking, but it might be possible, even likely that Raul would have agents recording their days' events from the time Eric made his proclamation to the king forward. It was that fact which was more chilling as it meant that whatever treasures may be inside answer far more questions that he'd been pondering than he ever thought possible, but further, that those answers may be out of reach, at least for the time being.

"Oh boy, you have no idea what you stopped by coming here, Andrew."
"Yes I do, Eric." Andrew looked up at his brother and, without any hesitation, Eric was certain he did at that.
"So what do we do? Do we just forget about it? Leave it all buried? There are answers in there, Andrew!"
"I know, Eric, but what's more valuable, answers or keeping your hands and feet? Whatever our next move, it can't be from here. You know this." He did, but even so, what kind of move would they be making from so far? It was then that he considered mother's house in the village. They could make for there, using Andrew's "survival guilt" as an excuse to leave the castle for a time. Long enough, perhaps, to give the hotbed a while to cool.

"Moving into the village?" Raul asked the following morning. "Why? Surely there must be another way to move this grief along here in the city."
Celeste leaned over to Raul, whispering into his ear, most likely an admonition to let the boys go under a condition. Eric was more certain after Raul took a moment or two to reflect on the words before responding.
"I will allow this request on two conditions. First, I will send along a message to the housekeeper, sealed with my signet that will be untampered and carried by my courier ahead of you. And second, you will take Thaddeus and Nathaniel along to guard you. I don't trust the roads into and out of the village there, no matter how well traveled or steadfast your mother claims the residents are. You have until the end of the summer. By then, let's put this grievance behind us, shall we?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you." Andrew had held a single knee for the better part of an hour and he never thought it possible for a single part of his body to hurt so much without the process of losing it, but wonders never cease as the king was allowing them to leave. He turned to do just that when he was stopped by his father.

"Wait, son." Raul had risen from his throne and made his way to his son's side. "I'm sorry about all of this, Andrew. I know about the sword, son. It's a terrible thing what happened. I've seen it a number of times and it sticks with you. The event, I mean. I assure you, though as I did your brother that the mercenary who took him away under my nose will be brought to justice. In the meantime, though, please stay until the burial tomorrow, it would be a shame to miss out on the ceremony your brother and mother have planned out in your absence." Andrew nodded and Raul gave him an embrace which was more cold than he might have otherwise expected, especially since his dreams painted a very different picture of the man he called 'father'.




Sunday, February 11, 2018

Broken Puzzle.....

It was a long night and no one slept. Not for a single moment. Each time thoughts towards sleep came to one of the four, another would have a question, most of which could not be answered, at least not in any fashion that either made sense or connected any dots in a meaningful way. Dawn had crested in the streets and one question DID loom above any others to that point. Why had no one heard anything that had happened the night before or seen the "man who watched it all"? Nathaniel had gone to bring back something for the morning meal from the merchants and had asked the innkeeper about any sort of disturbance or large figure of any kind, man or otherwise who swore there had been no one who came in from the front or the rear of the building after the man from the well, whom they did remember, but only vaguely. No raised voices, no final declaration of defiance, nothing.

There was the matter of Julien's body, which both boys were determined to see buried properly, but how could their presence in all of this be understood, let alone explained? Eric, who was very often the type of man to be counted on to tell the truth and accept whatever consequences came along with it, was unusually quiet that morning, but eventually determined that something had to be done. He sent Thaddeus to the guardhouse at the gates, who, in turn, sent a small group of soldiers to aid in taking Julien's body for preparation. All of this left one last detail to contend with; confronting the king.

Andrew, being inconsolable after Julien took his sword, HIS sword, to put himself to death with, left shortly before everyone else, bound for his quarters, where he would stay for the next couple of days, neither eating nor taking visitors. He toggled between anger, sadness, bitterness, and above all else solitude.

Eric, while disturbed that Julien had put himself to the blade, understood what would drive a man so desperate to avoid such a fate as he saw coming. Even so, however, he paced a while in the room where Julien's body had once lain, composing his thoughts before making his way toward the throne room, where his father would no doubt be by this time. The castle guards, while surprised to see the prince outside the castle at all, let him in without question. As he approached the oversized double doors leading into the massive throne room, the guards there stood aside as well, allowing Eric to pass by.

Both king and queen sat in their respective thrones, discussing with the head merchants the plans for the opening ceremony that night, when Raul caught sight of his son. His face darkened as Eric closed the distance, his countenance downward.

"Thank you all for coming, I will attend to you all in a couple of hours, but there is a matter that simply can't be put off. Guard, please show the men to the dining hall, and have the cooks put out a spread for them while my son and I talk a while." The guards bowed and the kings' guests took their leave. When the doors had been closed, Raul stood, his gaze fixed and fiery. Celeste, seeing his fury, stood as well, putting a hand in his shoulder. At the touch of his wife, Raul's demeanor calmed, though only slightly.

"What in the world were you thinking?! I told you to stay in your quarters and you went into town? What kind of son does that? You deliberately disobeyed me and disrespected me TO MY FACE! You swore to me you would abide by decision!"

Eric's face remained downcast and he stood silent, waiting for his father to allow an answer.

"And to top it all off, you managed to become entangled in this business with Julien?! This is beyond my understanding, boy. You have made this VERY complicated. There will be consequences, rest assured of that. Have you anything to say?"

Clearing his throat, Eric's mouth defied him, leaving him standing to endure the rest of Raul's words. As Raul paced in front of him, Eric's face remained down, knowing something had to be done, but having no earthly idea what that might be.

Raul sized up his son, careful not to give any indications of either how he knew of the events of the previous evening nor what had come leading up to those events inside the castle. When he was content he could glean nothing more from the surface, his fiery gaze softened a bit to what might have appeared to be a kind of concern. He put his hand on his son's shoulder, leading him back to his throne and positioning his son down to one knee.

"Tell me what happened."

Believing that his answer could mean everything to what happened next, Eric once again cleared his throat and he told of he and Andrew's plan to help with setting up for the opening ceremonies and how he had no intention of being out on the street during the procession, which he wasn't, but also how he was convinced that that condition would meet his instructions for that reason. Raul wasn't convinced.

"While I can appreciate your creative approach to my request, you did NOT follow it. My request was that you would be in your quarters for the procession because I purposefully did NOT tell you when that would take place just to make sure you wouldn't be anywhere near there during that time in case of something going wrong."

"Like one of them escaping? Like Julien? Because you had him in your dungeon and you didn't want us to find out?" Eric's eyes began to tear up. Raul, knowing where this might lead, mockingly recoiled in shock, though not so much it would appear fake.

"I don't know what you THINK you know, but I had no idea Julien was ever IN my dungeon in the first place. The day he went missing, I hired a single mercenary who my Artisan trusted and he found Julien without my knowledge, bringing him back and HIDING him there without consulting anyone and, if THAT weren't enough, he remained even after the contract had been fulfilled to see to Julien's food and clothing. Once in for the first week, one of the guards was instructed that the orders to do so had come from me and so Julien was processed like any other traitor in that wing and no one ever let me in on that process. However, this event with him turning up the way he did has made me look like I'm to blame, at least in part, where I am not. THAT shall not stand. I will talk with the Artisan and his mercenary will be dealt with, I assure you. In the meantime, I want you to go with your mother so that the both of you can try and bring Andrew out of his quarters. Then, in a day or two, we will see to a proper burial, after all, he was one of my best. There is no need to treat him as a traitor for responding to bad information. I might have done the same in his place. I hope you will have some ideas about how to honor your teacher, sparing no expense from me."

Eric looked stunned. Raul, seeing the astonishment, addressed it immediately.

"Yes, I know about how Julien died at the blade from his scabbard. That kind of thing does terrible damage to a mind if one is left to their own devices. I can't imagine what he must be going through right now. And yes, son, I did say he was one of my best. Did he ever tell you he was with me when my battalion returned with only a handful in its ranks? The story he told you about that day was from a soldier whose brother was killed beside him and he was only barely able to make it out alive. This man had been sent home to try and work out his feelings and such beside his family, but he was more broken than you know. He should never have been to see him, in spite of his curiosities to that effect. What happened that day was the destruction of form and there was no reasonable explanation for it except for that wizard, who will simply remain in his domain and leave me to mine. Now, if we've covered all of your concerns here, I am needed by the shopkeepers and merchants."

Eric shook his head, in spite of his misgivings, and looked to Celeste, who put a hand on his shoulder, leading him out of the room. When they were in the corridors and the doors had shut behind, the Artisan came from a shadowy place behind the throne.

"Are you convinced now, sire? If he should learn anything else, he may rebel, which would put you in an unenviable position. Even worse if the two princes are in this together."

Raul shifted in place, his hand on his chin, thumbing his well trimmed beard and considering his options. After a few moments, he took a breath of concession.

"Watch them both, but do not confront either one of them. If they should suspect you, they will tie you around my neck and that noose will be impossible to remove without taking you out of the equation and you know what that means."

The Artisan bowed. "I shall see to the task myself."

Outside the doors in the corridor, Celeste took Eric a longer path towards Andrew's quarters. When she was content of no prying ears, she spoke.

"Eric, I am so sorry for what you both saw. It was something I had absolutely no idea would happen as I thought the guards might have killed him outside the castle and left him in the woods. When his quarters came up empty, I was fooled. I should have known it couldn't have been so simple. He told you I asked for his research?"

He nodded. Celeste turned again in the corridor, taking another path.

"And he told you about my part in his letter? He told me through a source that a letter was written for you and that if he were taken away for this, that letter would find you. I did my best to protect you, my boy." She leaned in and kissed his forehead. I'm so sorry you had to be there for the end." Tears rushed out as she embraced Eric, who had only rarely felt such vulnerability in his mother. He returned the embrace and let the tears come.

After a few minutes, Celeste was able to collect herself and the two continued their walk. As they began to draw near to Andrew's quarters, Eric had one final question.

"What was going on during the whole mountain thing? Julien told us that your most painful day was during that time."

Celeste stopped suddenly with deadly seriousness. "Julien knew nothing of that time because I never told him and, honestly, I'm still not in a place where I can talk about it. When that day came, I have not experienced a thing as painful in the moment or agonizing in the days that have come since. One day I will tell you, Eric, but that day isn't today, nor will it be tomorrow."

Eric nodded in understanding and the two came to Andrew's door. Eric went in first, followed by Celeste. Andrew sat at the windowsill, his tear-soaked shirt hanging loosely and swaying in the afternoon breezes. Eric put a hand on his shoulder. Andrew said nothing nor moved in any way, neither positive nor negative. Celeste hugged him from behind, kissing his cheek as she did so, allowing her tears to mix with his.

"I'm so sorry, my beautiful boy. I wish I could have stopped this from happening,"  she whispered into his ear.

"Brother...please don't stay here by yourself too long. I beg of you. This kind of thing will destroy you and I can't have that in my life. Andrew..." When no answer came and his demeanor didn't change after an hour, Eric and Celeste left the way they had come, separating to go their own ways at the corridor leading back to the throne room and Eric to his quarters.

On the way, Wallace, the kings cook was heading towards the queens chambers with food and he tripped up the stairs, spilling the tray in spectacular fashion. The guards pacing the hall rushed to his aid, but Eric was closer, reaching him first. Wallace had always been kind and especially thoughtful on birthdays or other holidays and took care to make something special for the two brothers on such occasions, which was never lost on the brothers and each went out of their way to greet the man if they ever came near the kitchens. When he grabbed his ankle, Eric knew he had turned it and helped him back to his feet. He then instructed the guards to have some of the kitchen staff deal with the plates and such while he took Wallace to the infirmary to have his ankle treated.

After successfully leaving the cook with the good doctor, he made his way back to his quarters, wanting nothing more to do with the rest of the day, only to turn in and hope tomorrow would be better. As he reached his door, he opened the knob, walking in heavily and, once in, turned, heaving himself at the door with a great sigh to close it again. As he sighed, however, a slight ping came through his shirt pocket. Eric looked down, and there, nestled neatly inside his breast pocket, was a brass key.

Friday, February 9, 2018

One Hour Till Midnight....

Julien was quickly becoming calm in spite of his escape and the impending doom he was sure wasn't far behind. The tears and embraces had been exchanged and there was a lull in the room. Eric, who had been closer to their teacher in the year or two before his forced exile underground, spoke first after a time.

"Where in the name of all things holy have you been? We mourned your loss, even in spite of father refusing any details about your leaving. What happened?"

Julien stared into the fire, seeming taken by it's glow. He searched longingly for how to begin for a minute or two before answering.

"I had been doing some research as a member of the Honor Guard concerning the wizard of the divide. I'm sure you've heard the stories. While I won't go into the details about what I found just yet, I will tell you that everything you think you know is a lie about him and your father has been guarding the truth like a hawk. Now, I asked around, through what I thought were discreet channels about the incident in the Divide and I discovered that everything lines up to the day when your mother went to her village just about 4 or 5 years before you were born, Eric. I don't know the reason for the visit. It could have been to keep her safe from what your father considered a dangerous situation that awaited the soldiers in those mountains. It could have been a lot of reasons, but your father was away for the better part of a year."

"Who told you to ask questions? How did you get dragged into this whole thing? And you were gone two whole years. Why did you leave us?" Andrew asked meekly.

Julien was visibly shaken at the time he'd been away and turned his eyes back to the fire, his eyes beginning to well up with tears once more. Had it really been so long? Had he really escaped four times in such a span? It seemed like an eternity beneath the castle walls with no windows, no sunlight, and no actual contact with a friendly face of any kind. The nights when the only thing keeping him going was surviving the night's despair that he'd been given a healthy dose of after the beatings and between each meal rushed back into his memory and it made him doubly thankful for such a time as this, in the company of what royalty could be if given the proper chance to thrive. And so he pulled his thoughts together once more and continued.

"Your mother was the one who commissioned me for the task of gathering this information as she had tried and tried to find out what had driven your father into the darkness he now rests in. She told me that the most painful day of her life came that year. She never told me what that might have been, but I have to believe it was something Raul made happen. Celeste is a good woman and she was always kind to me and treated our company well and, even though she allow her maids and even myself to look after you, she has always had your best interests at heart. In fact, she may have saved my life and, in turn, yours as well."

The boys and their guards adjusted in their seats to hear the rest of Julien's tale.

"I'll be honest, I had no idea it had been as long as you told me it had been. In that dungeon-"

"Wait, you said in the dungeon?!" Andrew interjected.

"Yes, Andrew. I was in the dungeon nearly all of that time, save for the day or two waiting for your father in my quarters. You boys need to understand a couple of things. First, that day turned your father, who I had always known to be reasonable into a very guarded and untrusting man. When he found out I had gone into the treasury and borrowed a couple of effects for my research, he was furious. He demanded answers from me and after I went over everything with him, he stood and asked me to go to my quarters after returning the things I had gathered and wait. If you could have seen his face as I did...it was like nothing I had ever seen. I went back to my quarters straightaway instead of returning the effects I took, though I had every intention of putting everything back."

Nathaniel and Thaddeus had listened the entire time, marveling at the spectacle of the tale they were hearing. Nathaniel, in particular, was greatly bothered and he clutched his hands to his face in disbelief before speaking.

"Captain, I'm sorry to speak out of turn, sir, but you said the queen may have saved our lives-"

Julien paused to take a swig or two from his cup, all the while glancing about the men gathered there. When he was satisfied his words were being taken in, he continued.

"I began to write a letter to you both, seeing as I had been teaching you all I knew for nearly eight years of my life. You both are like my own blood and I didn't want what I had done to come to you nor could I bear the thought of you believing I had abandoned you both. I finished it and put my seal on the page, hiding it in a chest and all the contents I had gathered within at the lead rafter of my quarters. I fashioned a box and fastened it at the peak. If you didn't know what to look for, you would never find it. I kept only my key and even that I was able to give to a man I trusted and it should find its way to you in the next few days. I told him to wait until I was either dead or gone longer than two years. If your father told you I had fled, that falls in line with my wishes and the key will arrive rather shortly. Had your mother not gone to the king and asked for my life to be spared, I doubt I would have had the time to pen the letter, which will, I promise, serve you well."

"So what about this?!" Eric pointed at his missing hand.

"This..." Julien paused for a long while, trying to unlive the agonizing moments all over in the telling of the events surrounding his loss.

"This was punishment for attempting to escape. It's only now that I have been able to see or hear another voice in my head aside from the man who watched in the shadows and his wretched Artisan who took all of this as a part of my 'selection'. I was picked to become the newest success. His greatest achievement, as if any of what he did deserved any kind of honor or recognition."

"This is attempt number four...and now I'm out. I will never go back. Ever. I promise you that." Jullian stood and beckoned the princes to himself.

"I love you boys. I appreciate everything you've done here tonight, but don't think you guys are going to do anything else here to help. I won't have that on my conscience with everything I know. Remember all of our lessons, Eric...Andrew. Guard them carefully and use everything I have taught you to succeed where I could not. You all know I can't stay here safely."

"Yeah, we know," Andrew said, wiping his eyes the tears that had begun to well up.

As Julien turned towards the door to grab a coat from the closet near the door, the room began to dim, in spite of the lanterns and the fire in the chimney. It came upon the room so suddenly that, at first, they all thought they might have imagined it, but then a plume of black smoke began to billow from beneath the door. In no longer than a handful of seconds, the plume retreated from whence it came, making Julien uncomfortable. His breath began to catch and he was terrified.

The knock came almost immediately after the plume had retreated and a hulking figure stepped through the door, filling the threshold with nary a gap at the frame. It was the man who watched the whole thing, the taking of his freedom, his fingers, his hand, his firm grasp on sanity. The man who watched absorbed the plume and pointed at Julien. With a bestial and thirsty voice, he growled in satisfaction.

"There you are..."

Julien knew there was no running now. In a lightning fast motion, he whipped around, grabbing the blade from Andrew's scabbard. With one final cry of defiance he shouted in the beast's face.

"DAMN YOUR ARTISAN!" And just as quick as his motion was to grab the sword, it entered his body.

A loud growl emerged from the hulking figure as the plume returned, darkening the room for a final time and with the vision of all completely obscured, he was gone and the plume vanished with only a slight scent of sulfur to even confirm anything at all had ever been there. Julien fell to the floor, his life blood rushing onto the floor.

The princes held their teacher in his last moments, weeping bitter tears and knowing that their childhood was now over. This was loss, their first and most personal to that point. And so Julien died that night, fulfilling his promise that he would not be taken again.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Curiousities....

Prince Eric wasn't born in the castle. In fact, neither of the Delvyn boys were. To elaborate, King Raul and his Queen Celeste had taken a short trip to a village near the coastline, to the ancestral home of the Melases, Celeste's family. The land was fertile and her family had owned a very prosperous farm and owned much of the land in the village as well. It was one of the nicer plots of land in the kingdom of Delvyn, or any other part of Onyx for that matter.

Onyx was just another island in the world. Nothing terribly special, though a bit bigger than most in the region. There was just enough distance from any sort of mainland to separate it from the rest of the world but just enough to make a journey across the ocean to whatever mainland the journey entailed possible, though few ever came to Onyx on purpose. To further segment the island, a small mountain range called The Great Divide extended diagonally from nearly 5 miles away from coasts to the north and double to the south with a pass down the center built by person or peoples unknown., but both lost to the passing of time.There were no ports and the island held no interest in trade or exploring what may lie outside their oasis.

All of this to say that vacationing was something taken within the confines of the island. Still, the Melas family farm was large and it provided some of the very best fruits and vegetables ever to enter a king's court, which is how Celeste came to meet Raul in the first place. The two were arranged to be married very early on and that was truly the end of it. Both accepted the engagement and the marriage wasn't ever put into question. Celeste did grow to love Raul and Raul, in return, was kind to her, believing her to be of great value as a future mother and confidant.

Once Eric was conceived, preparations were made to make a single trip to the Melas family estate for Celeste to feel comfortable in her home to give birth to her first and, a couple of years later, a second to bring their newest and last child, Andrew, into the world. Both boys grew up quickly and were catered to by the finest of nannies and wet nurses the kingdom had to offer. Celeste, as it turned out, wasn't quite as interested in their upbringing as many other mothers in the kingdom might have been in her place. Raul was similarly inclined to allow others to foster and raise Princes Eric and Andrew. One might believe that this was heartless, but neither boy felt slighted by the fact that their parents would forfeit their role as guardians to indoctrinate or otherwise lead their minds or hearts in any particular direction.

So the boys grew into young men in the passing of time that comes when few things of any consequence happens, save for one thing...the loss of their favorite teacher and protector. The man had been a marvelous swordsmen and taught them often, taking great care to keep both boys close and guiding their minds as they reached their 16th and 14th year respectively. As a high ranking member of a group of elites, this man knew well what kinds of things would matter to those who would follow orders of this future king and his brother and he poured into them great lessons about character, compassion, esteem, and confidence. The studies were grueling, but the boys loved every moment as their teacher was engaging and had a keen grasp of most of the finer workings of strategy and philosophy.

Eric was developing a keen interest in the rule of law and the governance of a nation that was surely destined to be his birthright. This pleased the king and queen and they encouraged his education in that regard, allowing their teacher more frequent visits and giving him more access to the castle library and scribes to answer the millions of regular questions Eric would bring to the table.

Andrew's pursuits were more ethereal, even religious and it was that fact that worried brought Raul and Celeste down on him on occasion since their devotion to their own order was absolute and no heir of theirs would have anything to do with another, not while they shared space. So Andrew would often keep his thoughts to himself or journal in a leather bound tome he kept well hidden. His talent with the written word was nigh unrivaled and even his greatest teachers began to call him among their contemporaries even at his young age.

The brothers were very close and they shared most things in common. Even the most delicate things in Prince Andrew's journal weren't kept from his brother, who often asked his opinions and reasonings on many things all the while keeping both in complete confidence.

It was a misty, dreary day when the news came, a mere month of days from the first Evening Market in the better part of ten years; when citizens and traveling dealers of all kinds set up shop in the city streets from gate into the city all the way to the city square. This day was special for many reasons, but the news came from a special carrier, who came to Prince Eric's quarters first, in the middle of his lesson for the day no less. There was a firm knock at the door and Eric, who was sitting at a desk near his window overlooking market preparations, motioned for his instructor to pause his lesson and in tandem, stood, waiting for another knock, which came in short order. Eric walked to the door, cracking it first and then opening it wide in astonishment.

"Father! This is an unexpected surprise. Is everything-"
"May I come in?" Raul interrupted. Eric stepped aside and Raul crossed the threshold, giving his son an embrace.
"Is everything alright?" Eric asked again.
Raul paused, taking great care in choosing his words precisely.
"It's about your last teacher. He's missing. "
"Seriously?! What's happened to-"
Again, Raul interrupted. "We don't know. Your mother and I have been asking around, but he up and vanished in the night two nights back. No clues, no notes, nothing. We're looking into this thing as deeply as possible and have even employed our Throne members to aid in the search, but it appears he's fled the kingdom."
Eric's face flushed and his mouth stood agape. Tears began to well and his heart sank into a pool in his chest. A mugging in the street would have been preferable to this news as Eric slunk onto his bed heavily.
Raul walked to his son, and put his arms around him, pulling his son into his chest. And as Eric sobbed angry, bitter tears into his father's shirt, Raul's mouth rose into a terrible, dark, knowing smile.

No longer than an hour later, King Raul left his son and went back to his throne room, covering the distance much slower than he otherwise might have. Waiting to the left of his throne, a slight man in a dark hood stood, motioning for him to sit.
"Sire," the man said with a low voice, slow in meter, and an ever so slight gravel that may have indicated age, if his hood was all a person could judge by.
Raul sat resolutely, knowing full well why the Artisan was here.
"How did the boy take the news?"
"As well as could be expected. He loved his teacher dearly. I admit, his break with my service was off putting, but it may well do our cause more the better in your care."
"I see. Shall I send an emissary to tail the boy? The last thing we need is for him to develop a sense of curiosity."
Raul raised his hand. "No. Leave him be. I have no doubt he'll stay in his quarters a day or two before telling Andrew and they both will mourn for a bit. There's no need to kick my children while their hearts are broken."

Eric fell asleep in his exhaustion, having cried long into the night, his mournful sobs lasting until the early morning. He awoke in the afternoon and set aside his studies for the day in favor of a walk with Andrew. His attendant was happy to call for Andrew and they met within the hour in the castle courtyard.

"Brother, I heard you needed a word." Andrew said.
Eric put a hand on Andrew's shoulder as he relayed all that their father had said the night before. The two brothers shared a sorrowful walk that day, talking for very little of it in favor of tears and the occasional question and answer. By the end of the day, the two were far better for it and began to discuss ways to move on, finally arriving at the annual weekend evening markets. Before those words were exchanged, however, they had to make at least mention of the Throne agents their father had recruited for aid in bringing back the renegade instructor to stand trial for desertion.

The King's Throne was only a whisper in the dark for most and a grisly ghost story for the rest. Raul only referred to them as his agents, but it was rumored that these were the king's secret service, responsible for conducting clandestine official government business in ways a person doesn't want to learn. Tales of disappearances and torture were the kinds of things parents would tell their children when they acted up in the market or when there was a chance of going to the various festivals and such that came about each year. Plenty of speculation to be had, but very little of it confirmed and even less from someone who had survived.

Many tears were shed. Many stories told. And, as was often the case on those evening walks, the brothers two passed from street to street until they found themselves at the castle gate. It was at that moment on that day, Andrew had an idea.
"We should see about bringing back the Evening Markets, brother," he started, looking about at the closed shops and noticeable gaps in the amount of traffic moving through the streets.
"Remember a few years back when Angela would bring us to the market and we'd get the most amazing treats and meet with the people from mother's village?" All the while, Eric was salivating and nodding.
"Roast turkey legs and corn and such sweets! I would probably need a crowd to carry me home if we brought it back now, but I heartily agree. I'll have a talk with father first thing tomorrow and see what he says. In the meantime, I ought to get some rest, I've got weaponry training with the quartermaster and a very difficult exam to work through in the afternoon tomorrow. Let's head back." And the brothers walked back reminiscing about very good days past.

In the morning, Eric, true to form, brought his request to Raul, who was in a jovial mood and, astonishingly, agreed that the Evening Markets should return and so he gave Eric the charge to take his brother and their guards, Nathaniel and Thaddeus to spread the word to the surrounding villages concerning the return of the markets. The markets took place each weekend and brought goodwill and much needed extra revenue to the villages and towns surrounding the city of Delvyn. Raul rarely gave way to the ideas of his boys, but perhaps it was a pang of compassion or maybe even pity, but whatever the case, this time the request was met with gusto and affirmation.

Gathering their supplies and packing their saddlebags, the party set out; Eric headed north with Nathaniel and Andrew to the south with Thaddeus. The process took little time as there were only a handful of villages in any direction leading to The Great Divide, which served as a natural boundary for the kingdom.

The mountains were lovely and just high enough to contain a healthy amount of trees and vegetation, while still being cold enough at the summits to give parties wanting to make those mountains a home pause to reconsider. Why is this important? Because any kingdom or clan wanting to make their way to the other side of the island has to contend with said mountains on some level. Whether they trek through a natural pass at the midriff, which closes routinely during the winter months with avalanches - or at either end, where the ridges were more like a rolling hills. Either way, the lakes and rivers into which they fed provided more than enough liquid sustenance to not concern any kingdom with conquest or invasion without cause.


The brothers were given instructions not to venture to close to the Divide, lest they find themselves face to face with the Wizard of the Divide. Sparing details, Raul told of a time before either were born when his conquest travels led him into the Divide with a battalion of troops. Three days into their campaign, he sent his battalion ahead to scout and capture any ground they could. Half returned and of those, only a few would tell what they saw. Each described an event where a brilliant light blinded the men ahead of them, terrifying them and causing confusion to sweep through. Those same troops began swinging their weapons, often killing those in their ranks. Neither Eric nor Andrew wanted any part of that kind of repeat experience and so both took care to leave the Divide to its own devices, so to speak. 

And so the Evening Markets came to be once more. The first year was a tremendous success and both Eric and Andrew served as Grand Marshals for the event that year. It was the only year they would view the event with joy, however.

Andrew awoke in panic. Sweat and blood mixed on his forehead as the intensity of his nightmare gave rise to a muffled shriek into his pillow. It was but a single day until the second Evening Market and it had been planned out to the last detail. Once again, they had intended to be the marshaling the event and even had plans on a parade to kick off the opening ceremony, but this nightmare was chilling, even to the point where he couldn't shake the notion that something terrible was happening beneath their feet and without their knowledge. 

"Can I talk to you about something?" Andrew asked at Eric's bedroom door that night.
"Come in, please. Absolutely."
Andrew came inside and paced restlessly as he looked for a place to sit that he was confident would be comfortable for a while. When he was satisfied with the chair next to Eric's bed, he began.

Eric listened as Andrew recounted details of his nightmare; gruesome images of implements of torture being put to use- pieces being taken and the smile of the man who watched, if it could even be called a smile. Lidless eyes in the veiled room, fiery resolve and a kind of bliss that delighted in the carrying out of such agony shone through, penetrating his sanity with a precision he couldn't fully explain. It was at the edge of that sanity that the torture stopped and he saw a withered man, unrecognizeable atop the table, unshackled and holding a stump, where a hand had once been. Then running and a splash of cold and wet followed by voices and-

"And what?" Eric said as Andrew paused. "What else?"
"You were there," he answered.
"Me?! What do you mean-"

A knock came at the door, startling each of them. Eric shushed his brother as he went to answer the door. Raul stood, waiting patiently to be asked to join in. Eric motioned him in.

"I'm glad to see you both here, it saves me the time I might have needed to find you both separately. I have decided that I would rather you both stay in your quarters this year for setting up the opening ceremonies of the Evening Markets. We have been holding some very dangerous prisoners and I have a procession scheduled just before festivities, but in the spirit of keeping you and the rest of the city safe, I have spoken with the shopkeepers and the various merchants and we have come to an agreement to postpone things for a couple of days. I hope there isn't any problem with my decision." Raul looked expectantly at the boys, who, in turn nodded. The king, satisfied with the agreement, took his leave.

"Eric, I still want to oversee things and help, if I can. I can book us a room at the inn in the square, that way we'll still be honoring our father's orders by not being in the streets for the procession."
"Okay, see to it. I'll get Nathaniel and Thaddeus and we'll come when we can."

The procession left around midday and, true to form as well as promise, the streets were empty down to the last peasant. Once the procession had passed, on the other hand and the new Honor Guard Captain motioned for the shopkeepers that all was clear, the streets began to flood with people, each man and woman teeming with purpose and each with their role to play. The brothers and their guards were no different, aiding the various shopkeepers and merchants in unloading their wares or, in some cases, sampling a few.

That evening, Andrew grew restless indoors and motioned for Nathaniel to walk with him. The two had become quick friends on the ride to assemble the villagers the previous year and became training partners in their lessons with the quartermaster the spring following. The two, determined to not be recognized by the guards from the castle, wore cloaks and helped in the earlier hours in the shops just a few doors from the inn and only paces from the well that kept cool water for drinking and the like for the city.

Suddenly, in the midst of all the preparations and gladmaking, a man climbed out from the well, clutching his arm and covered in cuts, bruises, and sores. He was freezing and stumbled towards the inn. Andrew spotted him first and grabbed Nathaniel, who yanked off his cloak and put it over the man, quickly squirreling him inside. It was as Andrew drew closer, however, that his mouth became slack and astonishment, joy, anger, and fear washed over him like a tsunami, carrying his outside thoughts away, leaving him helplessly in the moment.

"ERIC! GET IN HERE!" Andrew screamed as the men burst into the younger brother's room from the backside of the building. Eric ran upstairs, having dropped his drink in the process. Pulling his hood down and with one hand on his sword, he reached the door. Eric instantly knew this man and as he drew nearer, his knees became weak and tears flooded his eyes. He knew this man. Both brothers did. And there, in front of the fire- a man they thought they would never see again- was Julien, their teacher.