The Raven hated the rain. It soaked the feathers and fur of his coat, matted his locks and made fire runes a nightmare. How does one protect their king smelling like a damp bear and unable to use magic? Not that fire was all he possessed; it just seemed to scare the simple northerners the most. In truth a magus of his calibre could raise the battlement he was standing on without so much as a hint of fire.
Lord’s balls it’s miserable, he thought.
Turning to head inside a smudge in the distance caught the Raven’s attention. Opening his eyes to the Ether with a gesture a rider bloomed into clarity, charging toward the castle on horseback. The prince approached. The boy answers summons, he mused.
Pushing the old oak door he returned to his modest chambers atop the tower. The Red liked to take audience in the main hall atop his throne, which meant the bone aching decent that left him cursing for hours. Were I not so defective I would be as spry as my first day, the magus contemplated taking the stairs two at a time despite the pain. At least the others won’t see me.
The main hall was a marvel. Lit by candelabrum and stained-glass covered slits high in the wall it was light despite the oppressive grey stone. Wide enough for four men abreast the great studded door at the end opened into a great expanse. A hundred paces long and half as wide with an enormous arched roof, it could fit the entire surrounding village inside with space for their flocks and fodder. Along the wall hung the royal banners of Norcroft, limp and tattered but steeped with pride; the red lion of Ruaridh’s house rampant on a field of white. Fucking pity the seamstress who thinks that’s a lion, he thought smirking remembering the east.
Punctual, as if by clockwork, the Red king strode into the hall and perched himself on his solid oaken throne upon the dais. The man is never bloody late. The Raven took his place beside his lord just as the studded doors opened. A youth, the king’s mirror only twenty seasons younger and slightly taller strode toward the dais with the grace of drunk on feast night. Lord the boy is heavy afoot; at least he’s clever, or we’d be buggered.
“My son, it is good to see you grace my hall again,” the king exclaimed with uncharacteristically genuine joy. “You have been distant these few months since your marriage, Ælfwynn and I worry.”
“At work building a home father,” a grin, “and avoiding those princely duties you love to remind me of in your letters no doubt,” the prince replied. The cheek of this pup, he thought.
“Yes, no doubt,” the boy’s father answered dryly, already vexed by his son’s easy manner, in spite his initial delight. This will not end well.
“How is mother? Is she here?” the prince asked casually.
“She is away” the king replied, his lack of elaboration frosty. A short though unbearable silence followed, neither man shifting their gaze.
“Your brother is missing,” the king offered. Preamble a concept lost in his past. Directness, he claimed, was the way of a mature king. The boy hated it.
“What was that father? It has been a long ride,” he said without a hint of mirth. The king’s sons had been close as children but after the eldest had abandoned his responsibilities as heir to his younger brother their relationship had been wintery at best. “Did you say Craig is missing?”
“Yes,” the king replied curtly. Raven could tell he did not appreciate the boy’s tone.
“Are you sure he isn’t between the thighs of some woods-witch to the north ‘spreading the seed’?” The prince’s brother had sired a clutch of bastard daughters across the realm on minor mages and healer women; he was dangerously drawn to the arcane.
The Raven massages his temples. Fuck.
“Your brother’s proclivity for those touched by magic and in possession of breasts is well known,” he retorted, seething. “Despite himself, it was not his latest witch that caused this!” he followed, gripping the arms of his throne.
“Well that’s a relie…” the youth began.
“Silence,” the old king howled, losing his temper. “You will listen! We haven’t long before the council arrives”
“Your brother is gone,” the king sighed sadly, “and it is my fault.”
The king rose with the sun and dressed. Garbed in ornate leathers studded with gleaming steel and lush furs he approached the tower’s balcony. The previous night’s rain had turned to snow, the air sharp with cold. Winter approached, and the council gathered. Damn the boy!
Sleep had eluded the king, troubling visions greeting him behind lidded eyes. Cold sweats and ragged cries had long ago driven his wife from his bed, but none of that compared to the fury his son brought him. “And now the fucking council,” he roared, thumping the railing with his fist.
“Sire,” the Raven interrupted, “the council is gathering.”
“Who is in attendance this year?” He knew well enough but the recital would give him time to gather his emotions.
“The chancellor of Tustakburgh University, the Mayor of Bend and Gullton, the Duke of Esnorterre, the Governor of Newton-upon- Girdle, Lord Montismar, all the chiefs except Bjorn of the Horn, and of course your son, Prince Ruaridh.”
“What of Ælfwynn? Has she returned?”
“Your wife sent communications from Sumorland. She intends to spend the winter season at the Mage’s tower.” The queen, his wife, had been even more distant of late, her communications kept for her favourites such as their daughter-in-law. He understood from the Raven’s eyes that his anger was poorly veiled in his eyes.
“So be it,” the king sighed out.
With a curt nod the king returned inside. “Wait for me in the hall, and make sure they are ready for me.” Strapping his sword to his hip and donning his circle of office, the king considered himself in the glass on the wall before following his Magus. I look old enough to match how I feel now, he thought grimly.
As the king approached the base of the stair he could hear the rabble like sound erupting from the great hall. You must, he told himself as doubt crept from the back of his mind. With a gesture he informed the chamberlain he was ready. Rap, rap, rap, the fat man’s knuckles hit the door. The king entered to a list of his titles being read by a boy. Silence followed.
“Welcome my friends,” the king announced taking his seat, “you may sit.”
With a wave of his hand they seat themselves, with varying degrees of difficulty. Once more to argue with a room full of sycophants, buggers and grizzled old men.
Looking about the room the king’s gaze fell on the University chancellor, the council’s newest addition. “How goes my project in the town?” the king asked.
“Very well Your Grace, with the Duke’s help we have recruited many monks, the main building is complete, with a library and our first class of students will start in the spring time.” Appreciating the brief summary the king shifted his gaze.
“Very good, thank you Esnorterre, I understand you and the Lord Governor have been a great help. The accords are upheld.” One day I will not have to bow and scrape for that whore-son’s coin.
“Aye, Your Grace, Duchy Esnorterre values your patronage of the arts and education.”
Grand Duchy Esnorterre was essentially an autonomous principality within the Flauvorter Empire but in an attempt to check their power the accords stipulated that Esnorterre pay homage to Norcroft. Mercantile gold and artisanal product moved across the Girdle at an incredible rate as the people of Tustakburgh sought gentrification through southern fashion. While filling his coffers it grated the king.
Turning again the king spoke to one of his clan chiefs.
“William, what say you?” staring at the bear of a man sitting across from him.
“A good harvest and the fjords look to be bountiful again my king.” The man seemed odd talking about farming, considering Ruaridh could remember vividly how he’d hacked some Flauvorter knight in two with an axe twenty years prior. The heat of the gore splashing his face and the sickening sucking noise would remain with him till his final day. Such was the punishment for spitting at the chief of a Norcroft clan. Do I miss war, he thought to himself, shivering as more memories followed.
“Good…” the king replied “and Mayor Robert, what of Chieftain Bjorn?”
Bend’s old Mayor shifted uncomfortably in his flamboyant court clothes. “Last I heard he had taken an eastern carrack with his sons to the continent. My outriders spotted Flauvorter colours on the sail.”
“Dark news indeed,” What is that bastard up to? A new kingdom Norcroft’s navy still consisted of traditional vessels, the longships, birlinns and great galleys from the wester shores, though the king had ordered his shipwrights to begin work on a fleet of the larger warships. That fact alone made the news doubly vexing, he had been betrayed. His adversaries to the east had carried away one of his most loyal lieutenants.
“Montismar, I would ask that you watch your waters and quays for this ship…I would very much like to speak with Bjorn” he said.
Shifting his gaze left and right the king addressed the room. “While these tiding are troubling we have much else to discuss.”
“Aye, father, we do,” his son Red the Younger replied. “I am sure you wish to brief them on Craig’s disappearance?” Many shocked looks passed around the gathered faces.
“Thank you my son,” the king responded, shooting a fiercely sharp look at the boy. “Prince Craig has gone missing while on tour north of the Blasted Lands. He was last spotted near the Eagle’s grave.”
At the mention of his fellow magus the Raven shuffled, their battle in the blasted lands west of the Girdle’s northern bank was legendary.
A withered shape covered in furs sat at the end of the table shifted. Donald, the king’s uncle and chieftain of Ruaridh’s clan would have his word. “I sat here as the boy threw down his birth right and spat at our feet. I stay quiet then,” he paused. “I sat quietly again as you allowed your other son a season with his new wife. I even sat quietly when our beloved Queen sailed for Sumorland but I will not sit by again as this farce is repeated!” he roared with surprising power, before descending into a coughing fit.
“Esteemed Uncle I…” the king attempted.
“Silence pup I haven’t finished!” he bellowed. There were few people in the known world who could talk to the Red like that.
“I will not watch you undo all you have achieved. Your kingdom is strong, but that strength rests on your family. It is high time young Red proved himself and it is high time Ælfwynn graced these dreich halls once more. Send the boy to fetch his mother, he may consult the mages in their tower and then return to seek out Prince Craig.” Exhausted Donald sat back in his seat, eyes glassy from exertion.
“Thank you uncle, you have given me much to think on. This council is adjourned, thank you friends.” The king turned to his Raven and gestured for him to follow. They had much to discuss.