The gentle wind made the carrack wobble as it sailed north for the third consecutive day. Though he had spent his entire life in a Skandivian town by the sea, this was his longest voyage ever. But who might judge him? After all, he was raised by Bermanian parents. The only Skandivian part of him was his name. The name that couldn’t protect him from his inevitable fate.
Though there were a bunch of Koyans and two Murasen girls on board the Bermanian vessel, Halgrim felt he was the only outsider here. Those people around him were not his. Their country had always been a place he only heard about from Frankil—his mother usually hated to talk about it.
Even the lords he had fought alongside on a battlefield (the rebels as Her Grace Queen Rona referred to them); he was nothing to them but a pawn in their game. He had been aware of this the day he had joined their rebellion, but he had been so foolish he believed he could handle them on his own. Coming to Bermania was a mistake from the beginning, he thought. Staying in Bermania instead of catching up with his fleeing family in the far north was another mistake. Abandoning his real father in his last fight was a third one. A grave one that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He should have insisted on staying by his side, the way Ben had done. Shame Halgrim chose to live like a coward rather than die like a man.
Masolon, the father Halgrim had spent seventeen years without, was cruelly taken one day after their first encounter. But that was something Halgrim could not fix. What he could do for the time being was join his family on their journey to the northernmost borders of Rusakia. However, with the pace this carrack was moving, he would probably reach Barlus by the time they arrived in the Frozen Forest.
Unless he could teleport, like that young Murasen sorceress standing at the bow of the ship.
An idea crossed his mind. He would need her help, but for some reason, he was hesitant about approaching her. Maybe he was afraid his idea might sound stupid—because if it was possible to teleport to their destination, why was she here on this ship until this moment?
Or maybe he still didn’t feel like talking to anybody right now. Since his conversation with that demented Murasen cleric, Halgrim hadn’t given anybody the chance to come close to him. Nardine had tried once to chatter while sharing a couple of red apples with him, but Halgrim had made it clear that day he was not in the mood for a family talk. If they would ever be a family, to begin with. The only common person between us is dead, he would tell her. And your mother will always regard me as a threat.
Back to Zahra, the pretty dark-haired sorceress. Halgrim waited until she was done talking to a Koyan mage to approach her. “Milord.” She nodded upon seeing him coming.
“I’m a lord no longer.” Halgrim was not playing the humble prince here. Seriously, he didn’t want to hear any titles before his name. Your Grace. Milord. Phrases that reminded him of his mistakes, of how foolish he had been. “Just Halgrim will do.”
“Alright, Just Halgrim,” she scoffed softly. “How can Just Zahra be of help?”
Her straightforward question took him off guard for a moment. He couldn’t help smiling nervously when he asked, “What makes you think that I’m seeking your help?”
“If you are not, then I must be concerned about the way you stare at me,” said Zahra, a blank look on her face.
I don’t stare at her. Halgrim wanted to deny his guilt. At the last second, he decided to ignore that part and get straight to the subject he wanted to discuss with her. “I need to rejoin my family as soon as possible. Would you help me do that?”
Zahra maintained her expressionless face, as if waiting for him to say more. “You don’t want to wait until we disembark at Barlus?”
“I cannot, Zahra.” It was his first time to say her name, and it felt a little bit strange. “My family could be waiting for my return until this moment. I would never forgive myself if I discovered that I was the one holding them back.”
Zahra crossed her arms, leaning her back to the taffrail. “You think Queen Rona will approve of this?”
May she be damned, Halgrim almost said. “I don’t answer to her. You do not.”
Zahra seemed to be giving it a thought before she said, “Even if I want to help you, I can’t.”
Well, he was afraid he might hear something like that. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t create portals; I open them,” she explained. “In other words, they must be existing where I am first.”
Halgrim couldn’t tell if she was speaking the truth. Maybe she was not lying, yet using the truth as an excuse. Even if I want to help you. Wasn’t that what she had just said? “Are you sure there is not a single portal you can open for me on our way to Barlus?”
Zahra heaved a sigh. “It doesn’t feel right, Halgrim. Sending you ahead sounds like betraying the rest of the group. Why should I save you and not the other five thousand men sailing with us?”
“Because I’m the only one who doesn’t belong here. The people I do belong to are far away from here.”
“You have a sister on this ship.”
“From what I see, she cares about you like a real sister.”
Halgrim wouldn’t argue about that. But would Nardine do when her mother turned on him? “Families could be more complicated than you think.”
Suddenly, Zahra’s face changed when she said, “I know. I mean I used to.”
The gloomy tone in her voice made him feel guilty. While he was complaining that he couldn’t catch up with his family fleeing north, the Murasen girl had lost all her loved ones. “I’m sorry, Zahra. I didn’t mean to…”
“You did nothing wrong.” Zahra gestured with her hand, her lips pressed together. “Now if you excuse me.”
The Murasen sorceress left Halgrim on his own at the bow of the carrack. I did many mistakes before, but not this time, he told himself. The whole matter was about me, not her.
So, Halgrim would be trapped here on this ship until it docked at Barlus. Was there anybody else who could help him? Perhaps one of those Koyans on board could? They were as powerful as Zahra; surely, they could. But would any of them want to help the former rebel king? Well, he had nothing to lose if he asked them.
Fabyan, the blue-eyed young lord Halgrim had met in Paril, was coming to him. They hadn’t had much of a conversation since their last sparring session in the royal palace…with Ben.
“Her Grace wants to meet with us in the dining hall in one hour,” Fabyan announced.
That was surprising. Nobody had seen Her Grace in the last three days. “Who do you mean by us?”
Fabyan shrugged. “You, the other lords, and the Queen’s retinue.”
A big meeting, that would be. Quite a way for Ronato show up after three days of seclusion. “What if I am not hungry in one hour?”
Fabyan peered at him. “She expects you to be there. And you above all must not test her patience.”
Halgrim knew it was an order to attend the damned meeting, not a mere invitation to have lunch with Her Grace. She just picked the biggest hall in this ship; a venue vast enough to accommodate to her audience. “You have any idea what this meeting is about?”
Fabyan shook his head. “Just be there when the time comes.”
They were in the middle of the sea. Thanks to Zahra’s reluctance to help him, Halgrim had nowhere else to go.
You above all must not test her patience. Fabyan’s warning meant nothing to Halgrim at all. Actually, it had the opposite of the desired impact. The temptation to upset Rona was hard to resist now. How worse can she harm me? he wondered. Wasn’t keeping him away from his fleeing family bad enough?
Protect Nardine and her mother. Halgrim hadn’t forgotten his father’s last order. But Nardine and her mother had an entire army to protect them. It was those miserable peasants in the far north who might need Halgrim’s help on the road to the Frozen Forest. His mother and brothers must have abandoned their home in Horstad already, hadn’t they?
The deck grew quieter by the minute, Halgrim noticed. All those who were requested to attend the meeting with the Queen were either headed to the dining hall or there already. While Fabyan’s attempt to intimidate Halgrim made the latter more determined to irk Rona, he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t curious to know why she summoned everybody to meet with her.
Curious, yes. An acceptable excuse to hurry to the dining hall.
* * *
The noisy hall was full when Halgrim entered it. As the Queen was not here yet, everybody was too busy chattering and babbling to note his arrival. Even the mages are here, Halgrim thought, staring at the Koyans at the right side of the hall. Zahra and Leila were there too. From his spot, Halgrim couldn’t hear them, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the two Murasen girls were conversing with the mages in the Koyan tongue. Both of them, especially the Crown Princess, were smarter than their age.
Standing right in front of the door, Halgrim searched for an unoccupied seat, preferably far from the tables at the front, where Rona would stand to address her audience. As he scanned the hall, Halgrim spotted most of Rona’s people. Captain Blayd, the broad-shouldered commander who used to be one of his father’s finest and most loyal soldiers. Fabyan’s aunt, the pretty Lady Ashlynn, was whispering to her husband Idwin, General Commander of the Bermanian Army. How have they ended up together? he wondered. Surely, it was not some fiery romantic story. The grim commander was two decades older than the blue-eyed lady.
“Lord Halgrim,” Yesen greeted him as he entered the hall, Oreste the Bermanian High Cleric following his Murasen counterpart.
“Masters,” Halgrim said curtly to the two clerics. All the stout Bermanian old man did in return was a quick glance at Halgrim before continuing on his way toward the front side of the hall. Does he loathe me that much?
Yesen harrumphed. “Any chance you know where Lady Nardine is, milord?”
Halgrim shook his head. “Didn’t see her today.” Obviously, she got Halgrim’s message loud and clear. Since the apples’ incident, she hadn’t come close to him.
Yesen motioned for Halgrim to come with him. “You are King Masolon’s son. Your place is not here, Prince Halgrim.”
Prince Halgrim exists no longer. He never existed in the first place. “I prefer to stay in the shadows for the time being.”
“As you wish.” Yesen acknowledged with a slight nod before he joined his bald Bermanian friend at the front. Where King Masolon’s son should be.
“Prince Halgrim.” A lad sitting at a table on his left rose to his feet. Black hair, square jaw, and thick dark eyebrows. Halgrim didn’t remember he had met that fellow before.
“No, we don’t know each other, milord. But I heard the High Cleric say your name.” The lad, who could be two or three years younger than Halgrim, approached to shake hands, a slight smile on his face. “I’m Cerjek Yavier Foubert. Our men have been telling tales about you since our unfortunate clash near Subrel.”
Yavier Foubert? The lord of Karun? Halgrim had laid waste to his men on the battlefield, and yet his son came, not just to greet his former foe, but also to refer to their previous unfortunate clash. Was Halgrim the only one here who found this a little bit awkward?
“Well met, Lord Cerjek.” Halgrim didn’t feel comfortable about having this conversation, so he decided to end it at once.
“Would you honor us by joining me and my family at our table?” Cerjek asked.
Bad idea. “Your father won’t be delighted if he sees me at his table.”
Cerjek tilted his head. “Seriously, you don’t know where he is, milord?”
The lad’s strange question made Halgrim realize he hadn’t seen Lord Yavier since they boarded the carrack. Curse me if he is dead, he thought, now aware how oblivious he looked right now.
“Forgive me, milord,” Cerjek continued. “I totally understand if you haven’t noticed. You had your own heart-wrenching problems on that disastrous day.”
Halgrim was surely not the only one who had lost a parent on that disastrous day. “What happened to your father?”
“He refused to leave his men behind him on the ground while he flees across the sea. Hopefully, he has made it to Arsdam as we speak.”
The Queen’s fleet didn’t take more than five thousand soldiers. Most of Rona’s army in addition to all of Halgrim’s forces had no choice but to escape from the demons through the Bermanian mainland. Just before this accidental encounter with Yavier’s son, Halgrim had been wondering who was leading all those troops.
“Your father is a true leader,” Halgrim said, doubting that Rona’s loyal man in Karun had done that only to make sure that the rebels still answered to the Queen of Bermania. A bold move, that was. Even reckless, Halgrim would say.
“Your father was a true leader too,” said Cerjek. “We are all alive because of his bold stand against the demonic horde. Nobody on board this ship shall forget that.”
Unfortunately, the last part was true. If there was one thing that might brighten up Halgrim’s gloomy days, it would be forgetting the night of his father’s bold stand.
“Just curious,” Halgrim believed this should put an end to this pointless conversation, “what makes you eager to meet the person who crossed swords with your father?”
“I told you; that clash was unfortunate. Besides, I do understand your situation, Prince Halgrim.” Cerjek gestured toward the two girls sitting at his table. “Have you met my elder sisters?”
Now Halgrim was getting the idea. “Your father named you his successor, didn’t he?”
Cerjek grinned. “You see? Not all the noble houses agree with the Jonsons.”
From what Halgrim had learned about Bermanian noble houses, the Jonsons had to choose one of the nine daughters of the late Duke Jonson to lead them. Wait. This is not about the Jonsons at all, Halgrim thought. Is this lad trying to tell me that he is on my side? “I’m done with Bermania’s noble houses,” said Halgrim. “After all of this is over, I will spend the rest of my life with my family away from that cursed kingdom.”
Cerjek jerked his head backward. The astonished lad was about to say something, but a guard announced the arrival of Her Grace Queen Rona Charlwood.
The first to enter was Payton, the High Advisor and Commander of the Black Guard, and according to Halgrim’s father, one of the finest Bermanian soldiers ever seen. Rona was right behind him sauntering in an embroidered blue dress, a golden diadem adorning her braided blonde hair. A bunch of lords pushed to their feet and approached her, but Payton firmly instructed them to stay away from their queen. Nardine was following her mother, her tousled dark hair flowing down past her shoulders, a long crimson tunic over her dark breeches. Does she ever wear dresses? Halgrim wondered. His half-sister always seemed to be more comfortable in armors.
While Nardine and her mother were advancing to the front, Payton returned, and to Halgrim’s surprise, he came to him. “Follow me, milord.” Payton nodded his chin toward the tables at the front. “Your seat is waiting for you there.”
“I’m fine here, Commander,” Halgrim curtly said.
When Payton peered at Cerjek, the lad stepped back. “I insist you rise to the occasion, Masolon’s son,” the High Advisor whispered into Halgrim’s ear. “Later, we shall have another talk; You and I.”
Halgrim had to admit that Payton’s tone had taken him off guard. Not ready to make a scene in front of everybody here, he reluctantly followed the High Advisor as the latter ushered him to his chair at the middle table at the frontmost row, right in front of Rona. On the seat next to him was Nardine, but his half-sister, who didn’t even look at him, was unusually quiet at the moment. The one who paid him heed was General Idwin. Inclining his head, the grim man acknowledged Halgrim’s presence.
Everybody in the dining hall was seated except for Rona and Payton. When the place grew hushed, Halgrim’s stepmother greeted her audience in a steady voice and began, “First of all, I want to apologize to all who tried to reach me to express their condolences. I needed to be on my own for a while, but you all have my gratitude nonetheless.”
“We totally understand what you have been through, Your Grace,” provided Lord Thetcher whose table was the one on Halgrim’s left. Next to the Master of Coin sat Lady Janet, the late Duke Jonson’s eldest daughter and the ruler of Ramos. The ashes of Ramos. “May the Lord of Sky and Earth bless you with patience and strength.”
“We will have time to mourn all the dear ones we lost,” said Rona. “What we should do now is reflect and decide on our next move.
“This ship is taking us to Barlus, and from there, we will march north through Rusakian mainland until we reach the Frozen Forest, hopefully before the Cursed catch up with us. That was the original plan. But I have been thinking in the last three days; is that the best option for us? I mean, suppose we all make it safe and sound to Karun’s Cave. Then what? Hide there until we run out of food while the demons turn our lands into another Great Desert they can inhabit?”
Rona’s question was not rhetorical, Halgrim believed, yet nobody had the courage to answer. After a moment of eerie silence, the gray-haired Lord Garet, Ashlynn’s father and the former ruler of Subrel, tried his luck. “Do you believe we can still fight the Cursed, Your Grace?”
Direct and to the point, Halgrim thought, admiring the veteran lord’s ability to see where Rona was steering the discussion.
“We can defeat them, milord.” Rona didn’t flinch. “But before we discuss how we can do that, I need to make sure that you all see the absurdity of our escape to Karun’s Cave.”
“Fighting the demons is as absurd as our escape to Karun’s Cave,” stated a mustached lord Halgrim didn’t recognize. “The only difference between the two options is that one of them is a faster and surer way to die than the other.”
Payton who was still standing beside his queen folded his arms. “If you are dead either way, don’t you want to die fighting, milord?”
“I’m not a coward, Commander,” the mustached lord snapped.
“Neither of us is.” Infuriated, Lady Janet pushed to her feet. “But we will not die in vain, Commander Payton.” She turned to Rona. “Seeking shelter in Karun’s Cave might give us the time we need to plan for our fight with the demons.”
Rona feigned a smile. “The plan is ready, Lady Janet. What we need to do is use the time we have at the moment to act.”
“What plan, Your Grace?” Idwin asked, a scowl on his face. Obviously, the Queen had only chosen Payton to share her plan with.
“The Shunri blend, General,” Rona replied casually, not paying heed to Idwin’s frown. “We all saw how a hundred mutants fared against fifty thousand cursed soldiers. Imagine if we had a thousand mutants. Imagine if we had ten thousand. What do you think? Would we have a chance against the Army of the Cursed?”
Halgrim could sense the restlessness in the hall after hearing Rona’s wild idea. A larger army of mutants. Not bad at all, Your Grace. No wonder his father had fallen for this fearless, gorgeous woman.
“Ten thousand mutants!” Lord Thetcher exclaimed. “I presume this means lots of red mercury and other material we don’t have right now.”
Rona sighed, her grin wider now. “Back in the early days of my reign, Masolon brought me a Rusakian cannon maker. We dedicated a separate building for him and his apprentices with all the resources they needed. But an accidental explosion destroyed the whole building with every person inside it. Because of that horrendous accident, we haven’t been able to build new cannons for decades. And that was the lesson I learned; never put all your eggs in one basket.”
“You say we have red mercury somewhere else other than Subrel?” Garet asked his queen in anticipation.
“We used to import red mercury from Rusakia and nobrisi from Mankola,” said Rona. “That made the fortress of Karun an ideal place to keep our reserves.”
“Karun?” Idwin echoed in astonishment. “Most probably, it’s under the Rusakians’ control as we speak.” He glanced at Halgrim as he continued, “Lord Yavier had to leave it with most of its garrison to aid us against the rebels.”
“It doesn’t matter who rules it now,” Rona said hurriedly. “If it’s in the Rusakians’ hands, then we will recapture it from them.”
“Your Grace.” Janet smiled nervously. “You are talking about a big battle before the great battle we should prepare for.”
“If the Icemen have a little bit of common sense, they will cede the fortress and fight alongside us against our common enemy,” Payton remarked.
“If the Icemen have a little bit of common sense, they should be on their way to the Frozen Forest as we speak,” Janet countered. The blue-eyed fortyish lady was not less resolute than Rona, and right now, it seemed that she was not just speaking on behalf of House Jonson. She was representing all who would opt for fleeing to the Frozen Forest. With a quick look over his shoulder, Halgrim caught a glimpse of a few approving faces.
“Perhaps we should vote, Your Grace,” suggested the bald Master Oreste. Most of the audience was in favor of the High Cleric’s idea. They want the cave, not the fortress.
“It won’t work like this,” Rona firmly stated. “I don’t want the majority to vote for making a stand against the demons. We all need to share the same belief before we can go together for the upcoming crucial battle. One wavering heart might end us all.”
“You seek unanimity, Your Grace.” Thetcher looked warily around him, his hands clasped in front of his chest. “I’m afraid many of us here need more time to grasp your perspective.”
“We don’t have much time.” Rona gnashed her teeth. “We are less than one day far from Ralgens. Either we sail east and disembark at Kalensi, or we head north-west and turn around the Skandivian coast to reach Barlus.”
For once Halgrim sided with Rona. Disembarking at Kalensi would bring him closer to Gatengard. There he could surely find a small fishing boat to cross the Northern Sea and reach Barlus. Why don’t you just give them the damned order, Your Grace? Halgrim wanted to ask her so badly. Those lordly bastards would ruin this golden opportunity unless he did something.
“May I speak?” Halgrim raised his hand, the astonishment clear on the faces of both Rona and Nardine. As the hall grew quieter, he could feel the weight of the stares on him.
“Please,” Rona cautiously said.
The whispers in the hall didn’t stop as Halgrim stood and faced the audience. “From what I’ve heard so far, I don’t see the point of arguing. Milords and miladies, this subject is settled already.”
The humming was gone now. And suddenly, a random thought crossed his mind: Though he used to be a ‘king’ for a couple of weeks, he had never been allowed to talk to an audience this big in a meeting. Curse you, Raynalds, wherever you are.
Collecting his thoughts, Halgrim’s eyes sought a friendly face he could feel comfortable to talk to. But he was not in his camp any longer—his vassals there would, at least, pretend they were paying attention to his nonsense. Even Zahra and Leila. They might seem more amiable than Rona and her people, but still, they were two strangers he had just met a few days ago. Like everybody else in this hall.
She cares about you like a real sister. Recalling Zahra’s statement, Halgrim glanced at Nardine who sat right in front of him. Silently and with the slightest of nods, she urged him to continue.
“What we fought at the walls of Paril was half of the Army of the Cursed,” Halgrim went on, addressing his audience. “The other half was already marching to Rusakia while our capital was under attack. You know what that means? By the time we reach Barlus, the demons will be ahead of us. So, unlike what some of you might think, heading to the Frozen Forest won’t spare you the fight you are trying to avoid. That fight is inevitable, milords and miladies; better we prepare for it.”
Halgrim glimpsed a brief smile of approval on Nardine’s face. While his crowd was murmuring, a delicate hand held his shoulder gently. “Well done,” Rona said in a low voice as she stood next to him. If only she knew why her stepson did what he did.
“You think they are convinced?” Halgrim couldn’t believe this, but he was finally talking to Rona Charlwood, the woman who had stolen his father from his first family. The root of all the fear his mother had been living in.
“They are, thanks to you.” With a nudge, Rona motioned for him to return to his seat. “Now let me finish what you have started.”