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 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


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.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

From the Beginning....

The third time Julien McElroy had escaped, he had used a piece of his bedframe to leverage the door of his cell off the hinges. That part was successful, but then again, the last time had cost him his left hand and gave him more reason to worry than he ever thought possible. It also, as it turns out, made him a marked man for treason.

Was there treason? In a way, yes, but when torture of the prisoners is commonplace and experiments by the "artisan" were as well,  a man arrives at new conclusions about his loyalties and given that the newest experiment had been a "shining success", according to sources he knew and trusted, he made a calculated effort to leave Raul's Honor Guard. The first time he made it as far as the castle exit, and he lost 2 fingers for his trouble. The Artisan was tedious in his work and NEVER made short in his pursuits. Julien's screams made for a delicious lullaby, he was sure; and that, assuredly, cured any sort of second thoughts he might have had in his new life's mission.

The second time had taken him on a much longer galavant than he ever intended, but the end result was the same; the castle exit, and the rest of the fingers on his left hand, leaving only the palm. The Artisan, this time though, had promised that sooner or later he would return what he had taken, undoubtedly referring to his fingers and whatever came next.

He'd been in the king's service for many years up to his first attempt at flight; more than a dozen years of service in total, but the night of Prince Eric's birth, another task was being carried out...the selection. Only rumors circulated about the process. Terrible disfigurements and mutilations...nothing that a soldier would bat an eye at, that is, if it were on the battlefield. But this was NOT the battlefield or that kind of selection; this was perverse, this was savage, this was done to create something else. No good comes from the dark places and caverns spawning the kinds of nightmares emerging from the underbelly of the castle and Julien had been none the wiser as the barracks were nowhere near such places. That had been 18 years ago.

Selection was simple. The King's Throne would pick a prisoner and would begin taking pieces of them, bending their will and contorting their thoughts until what came out could barely be recognized, at least that was the understanding from those close to the depths of the dungeons. The screams were feral, horrifying, and left anyone anyone in proximity with a feeling of dread they could not fully describe, or ever recover from. And the last time Julien escaped, the Artisan made it clear he, Julien, had been selected.

In his cell, Julien cradled his now incomplete arm and drew from all his years to try and muster a plan to make his escape stick. From pickpockets to craftsmen to fullblown master spies, every last one had been captured and made to sit in the very dungeon he now found himself in. There was never any alarms as long as he could remember or any gallows on the castle grounds, leaving many to wonder whatever became of those who didn't return from the dungeons. A kingdom without a gallows or an alarm made for an uneasy climate to even attempt an escape mentally, much less being the first success under the reign of Raul Delvyn. Four straight days of silence was a first. It gave Julien a chance to think and to wonder.

No chains this time. What could they be thinking? He'd wrestled guards to the ground, even killed one to get away after begging for all he was worth for them to let him go. He'd even picked a guard's pocket once or twice to aid in his escape. But this time? He was beginning to think they WANTED him to get out this time, just to rationalize his full blown transformation, complete with whatever accessories they wanted to meld him with. Barbarians, every last one of them. He was just about to call it a night when the dinner guard came, carrying his daily ration of a chunk of hardtack, a few scraps of fatty meat, and some red beans. The guard stood at the door briefly, looking in at Julien before setting the plate down on the built in ledge at the door.

Julien groaned in soreness as his many bruises warned him against moving too quickly and the cuts broke open once more, allowing small drops of blood to gather in the gash trenches the whips and rods left behind. His resolve was never more certain and his mind was galvanized. This time would be the last time, one way or another, he would be on the Artisan's table. As he picked up the plate, he noticed something peculiar, adding to a chilling set of coincidences. Not only had he not been outfitted with chains or any other kind of bonds, he'd also been given flatware to use for his meals, and boots had been left for his feet, but unbeknownst to him for the four days up until this moment, his cell door wasn't locked.

Logic and tactical understanding would tell a person normally to avoid an obvious trap. This much Julien knew as well, so his plan MUST contain surprises the King could not know about. However, if he was to leave this place, it must be now. He might not get another shot. Evening was beginning to break and the changing of the castle guard would be coming up very soon, meaning that his window was fast closing. The dungeon in the castle Delvyn was laid out in such a way that only three paths existed, so far as he was aware the King knew of. What Julien McElroy knew that he had kept a secret for this moment was that he had seen one final path that wasn't on any plans or prints of any kind, leading into the caverns and the underground waterway beneath. Why hadn't he tried it before?

The first time, he HAD gone in the direction of said path before having his trespass cut off by another prisoner. The second time and the third he had given up entirely on it, believing it was a dead option; irony, it seems, moves in the same circles as coincidence, for the prisoners nearby had been moved only two days earlier without his knowledge.

Whatever the case whether trap or not, his presence went unnoticed in the corridors leading into the caverns. A false wall in a darkened corner led to an unmaintained stairwell and, once the wall had been pushed back from behind back into place, the cavernous stair was virtually pitch black. With each footfall, the temperature began to fall and, in stark contrast to his cell, this place was on the verge of freezing. The bottom of the stair opened into a literal cave, which gave rise to some residual light from below as light from the outdoors was visible from above? Surely this HAD to be a mistake, right?

The cold breezes made Julien shiver and his breath was visible as he stepped close to what appeared to be a giant cylinder with grating near the base and a very small passage only barely visible beneath the rushing current of the waterway. He wondered how deep the water was as he came to the edge of the walkway leading to the cylinder and was VERY hesitant to jump in as he was absolutely certain the water was only a few degrees from freezing. So there he stood, looking in through the now visible grating of the cylinder and a set of bars on the opposite side. A thick rope and bucket were gently tapping against the bars. It was at that moment he KNEW where he was. The city square, or rather just below.

In an excited burst of desperation, he jumped into the water, after having weighed out his other options and being content that those weren't of any consequence. The chill was very nearly paralyzing and his fingers on his remaining hand began to ache almost immediately. He dove beneath and grabbed at the opening, a medium sized stone gave way, allowing him to wriggle into the cylinder and he grasped the rope and bucket. The rope held resolutely and Julien began to climb. His muscles screamed in defiance and the climb was slow, but he WAS making progress in spite of his anguish. As he neared the top, he began to hear loud voices and cheers among other various conversations. It was the evening market. But how could that be? It was done away with years ago.

Each week in the fall months, the peasants in the surrounding villages would bring their wares into the the city walls for the weekend, selling to the squires, soldiers, and fellow peasants who had jobs within the city walls. Julien was filthy, mangled, and now, very exposed to the night air. He staggered to his feet, rushing through the crowd, begging for help. A few people in the crowd looked at him and recognized his face, and one offered a cloak and rushed him off the street into a warm residence.

Three cloaked men, who had been tending to the Julien worked hard to raise his core temperature but a fourth came in from the stairs from near the door, huffing and out of breath. "Seriously, guys," he began, pulling his hood back, hand tightly gripping his sword at his side. His hair was well kept and regal and he carried himself assuredly, but he stopped in his tracks.

Nearly and hour had passed and by all accounts, Julien had resigned to the idea that, incomplete as he was, he was now free, at least for the night. He laid back and tried to relax. It was only then that he began to hear rustling at the door. When the door flew open, a massive man walked through. "There you are." He pointed at Julien. Julien reached for one of the swords in his heroes' scabbard and turned it around.

"Damn your Artisan!" he yelled as he fell on the blade.