The Lost Man
by Alasdair Fraser
Part One: Duty
The nights were cold, his dreams dark; fleeting images of a past not recalled, of a life unwillingly forgotten. The lost man felt the keen touch of loneliness, for he was truly alone. It was not the loneliness of an empty house, or of a silent night, but the purest form, that comes from a place devoid of man’s touch.
He sat awake; a familiar shiver crawled down his spine remembering their faces. The faces that haunted him sleeping, and waking. Familiar agony spiked through his broken mind, the pieces would not fit. Like a puzzle some naughty child had stolen pieces from. Emptiness and pain were his life. Who are they?
Stretching, the man sat up, the half-light of early morning pierced his crude home, another dawn in the strange and unforgiving place. He scratched another tally into the wall. Not for the first time he pondered what evil would allow him that function, his numeracy, but not his name, or those of the faces that haunted him.
His shelter was crude. No more than a shallow cave, a fire pit, and a wall of woven reeds and saplings. Filthy furs and prickly pine needles were his bed. The land was bountiful but dangerous, survival a daily struggle. Why should I wish to survive? This world is a cruel jape indeed.
He crawled pitifully from the hovel. Even the heat of the morning sun could not warm his spirits.
The sun is wrong, as are the stars. His mood was sour, and little was likely to change that. Each day toiling under an unfamiliar sun, each night under a starry sky he did not recognise. The man was fading.
“Wake up!” a feminine voice called softly.
With a groan Ruaridh rolled over, a sullen look on his face. Why? He opened his eyes and took in the lovely face he saw. Her face, his wife, was radiant.
“Morning, sleepy,” she said grinning. No hint of sleep in her eyes, nor in her voice. She slept lightly and woke early.
“Morning,” he replied, also smiling. How can a body be this happy to be up so early? Ailith never failed at making him smile. His nightmares began to fade, the cold sweat drying on his skin.
“You’ll miss your Da’s big meeting if you don’t get your worthless arse up” she said winking. “Billy the stable boy is bringing your gelding round.” She held herself in a disapproving kind of pose. He loved her for playing pretend. It somehow made it easier.
He looked outside and noticed it was well past dawn. He had overslept. Bugger! The sounds of the town at morn began to wash over him; of an anvil being struck, of women-folk chatting over walls and hedgerows, and of the beasts stirring from their rest. The sounds flowing in through the crack in the shutters did much to sooth his mood.
Sighing heavily, Ruaridh rose to the brisk cool of their new home. Their home, the thought made him happy. Despite the many years since their vows it still felt new. They had built the house together, far from court, far from his father. For five joyful summers they’d had peace, with just each other’s love and the rustic honesty of life in the glens.
The town, no more than a small trading post just beyond the old Duchy of Norestor, was near the end of the pony trail that came down from the Fjords to southern Norcroft. Quaint by all standards, Red was still proud of how far it had come since he had arrived following his wedding. While only a day’s hard ride from Tustakburgh, due to the network of support stations dotting the highland, his home was secluded enough from court that his father had not thought to call him to court until now. It suited him. His seat on the town council and work with the foresters kept him more than content.
Realising how distracted he must look he looked to his wife, who was still pretending to scowl at him. However, today the scowl was edged with sorrow. With curves to make a lad blush, hair like beaten gold and freckles to match, Ailith was the fairest lass in town by his reckoning, bugger spousal bias.
Dressing into his undergarments, he beamed. I’m a lucky bastard! The thought had no doubt put a goon-like smirk on his face. Though, the feeling could not last, for he would soon leave.
“Give me strength; I am married to a half-wit” Ailith exclaimed, catching his vacant looking smile.
Grinning to myself again, I should stop that. That only made him smile more. It hurt.
“I’m not daft,” he insisted, “just gifted with a woman far swifter of mind than I” Very diplomatic. The slap that soon followed was more playful than angry.
Staring at the floor they shared a quiet moment while he nursed his cheek, the earlier brevity gone.
“Must my father always be so cryptic?” Ruaridh asked, pulling his britches on. “The man is out to drive a body mad.” His father really pissed him off sometimes.
“Him and his damn bird,” she stressed, “they’re insufferable.”
His father’s magus the Raven was hard work, as wise as a crone, big as a boulder, and twice as stubborn as both. Were they insufferable? Aye! He nodded.
Mocking the Raven would earn the King’s ire, not that Ailith gave a damn. Having his mother, the queen’s ear earned much in the way of protection from the king’s formidable temper. Not even her husband the king dared displease Ælfwynn. Why else was Norcroft’s favoured heir married to the bailiff’s daughter, if not for the Queen’s approval. It wasn’t to say that the king didn’t like his bailiff. Just that he wasn’t like to marry his second born to the man’s daughter without a great deal of badgering.
“You might do well to respect the feathery old bastard,” he cautioned. “Father likes him.” The Raven was the king’s closest confident, party to all his thoughts and decisions. “A wad of gorse in the pants he may be, but he keeps us safe,” he said with a wry smile, “and Granda claimed Raven was a hundred years old when he was a boy.” The jokes were less forced, maybe it would be okay.
The second slap was more playful, if a clip to the ear could be considered fun. You didn’t tease Ailith. Though truth be told, no one really knew how old the Raven was.
Stepping into cold riding boots and sliding into a scratchy tunic Ruaridh considered himself in the glass on the wall. Bulky with muddy red hair, he could easily be the miller’s boy, not a likely heir to the throne. Snorting he mused, favourite son of the realm of piss, shit and ice. It said a lot that the estranged son living in a crofter’s town was favoured over Craig, the first born.
He rubbed his cheek and grabbed his leathers, pulling them on. Supple from use, they fit like a glove. Next he added his sword belt, the pommel of his blade glinted in the daylight. If he had it his way his battered old axe would have been swinging from the thong at his hip, but times were changing in the north. A prince of Norcroft had to be able to fence as well as he could heft a shield and swing an axe. He had packed it safely in his saddlebag. Finally he threw his travelling cloak across his broad shoulders and turned to look at himself once again in the mirrored glass.
“How do I look?” he asked, presenting himself.
“You look like the arse I married;” Ailith offered smiling, “only I seem to remember he didn’t have a beard or fleas, and I seem to recall he stank less.”
“Positively princely,” Ruaridh joked, performing an offended pout and half bow, before turning and walking to the door.
Ailith followed, pausing at their threshold and catching his arm. “Red, you make sure you come back,” she whispered, finally serious. It broke his heart to see her eyes well up.
“You promised me you would always come back,” she was clearly frightened, the tone of his father’s letter conveying its intent. His dalliance in the highlands was considered over, the king required his heir. Their fantasy of living the quiet life was just that, fantasy.
He stepped outside, accepting his gelding’s reins from the waiting Billy. Everything appeared to be in order, although the small boy looked anxious to get away.
“I will be back for you,” he said, a kiss and the promise given seeing him off. Sliding his hand along the saddle he vaulted up, and with a nod he dismissed the stable boy. Ailith had already moved inside and shut the door; a long goodbye was too much. Red was glad no one saw his relief, nor his tears.
What cruel father does this to his son’s wife? Seething he urged the horse into a trot, the heavens opened, and all pretences of a pleasant trip were abandoned. The rains of Norcroft drenched a man to his bones.
The Raven hated the rain. It soaked the feathers and fur of his coat, matted his locks, and made fire runes a nightmare. This squall had come down from the north-west; the sky all bruised and thundery. How was one supposed to protect their king smelling like a damp bear and unable to use magic? Not that fire runes were all he possessed; they just seemed to scare the simple northerners the most. In truth a magus of his calibre could raze the battlement he was standing on without so much as a hint of fire. Forget scaring peasants, his abilities often scared him.
Lord’s balls it’s miserable.
Raven turned to head inside when a smudge in the distance caught his attention. He opened his eyes to the Aether with a gesture and a rider bloomed into clarity, charging toward the castle on horseback. The prince approached. The boy answers summons. This would really fuck up his day, rain considered.
Pushing on the old oak door, he returned to his modest chambers atop the tower. The king liked to take audience in the main hall atop his throne, which meant the bone aching descent that left him cursing for hours. Fucking bastard! Were he not so defective he would be as spry as his first day, the magus contemplated, taking the stairs two at a time despite the pain. At least the others wouldn’t see him.
The main hall was a marvel of engineering. Illuminated by candelabrum and stained-glass covered slits high in the wall it was well-lit despite the oppressive grey stone and dreich weather. Wide enough for four men abreast the great studded door at the end opened inward to a huge 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. Dubhdin was no dandy’s palace. It was a castle— probably the strongest every built north of the Velsaph.
Along the wall hung the royal banners of Norcroft, limp and tattered but steeped with pride; the red lion of Robert’s house, rampant on an ivory-white field. Fucking pity the seamstress who thought that beast looked anything like a lion. He smirked as he remembered his time in the east. They had true lions there.
Punctual, as if by clockwork, the king strode into the hall and perched himself on his solid oaken throne upon the dais. His posture was impeccable, as was his hair, wavy red locks pulled back into a tight tail. The man is never bloody late, or sloppy. Raven bloody hated it.
The Raven took his place beside his lord just as the studded doors opened. A youth, the king’s mirror only twenty-some seasons younger and slightly taller, strode toward the dais with the grace of drunk on feast night. The boy was heavy-footed, though he made up for the lack of grace with strength and cunning. They’d be buggered otherwise.
“My son, it is good to see you grace my hall again,” the king exclaimed; his joy seemed uncharacteristically genuine. “You have been distant these seasons since your marriage, Ælfwynn and I worry.”
“At work living my life and tending my land, father,” the prince said grinning. “…And no doubt avoiding those ‘princely duties’ you love to remind me of in your letters.”
The boy’s cheek always surprised the Raven; it was both amusing and disturbing.
“Yes, no doubt,” the boy’s father answered in a dry sounding tone.
This will not end well.
“How is mother? Is she here?” the prince asked. Raven grimaced. Why’d the boy have to say that?
“She is away” the king replied, his lack of elaboration seemed frosty. A short though unbearable silence followed, neither man shifting their gaze.
“Your brother is missing,” the king offered, his fists clenched, eyes flinty. Preamble was a concept the king had long forgotten. Robert instead claimed directness was the way of a mature king. It seemed to make the boy act like a cat rubbed the wrong way.
“What was that father?” the prince asked, “It has been a long ride and I am tired.” His flat tone betrayed no mirth. While the king’s sons had been close as children, after the eldest had abdicated his responsibilities as heir, their relationship had been wintery at best. The younger Robertson held a grudge like a cow chews the cud. “Did you say Craig is ‘missing’?”
“Yes,” the king replied in a curt sort of way, the veins of his neck standing. Long years serving the man told Raven he did not appreciate the boy’s tone. The stress of being in a room with the two royals had already prompted a deep ache behind Raven’s eyes.
“Are you sure he isn’t between the thighs of some woods-witch to the north ‘spreading the seed’?” The elder prince had sired a clutch of bastard daughters across the realm on minor mages and healer women; mostly frauds, though the man was dangerously drawn to the arcane. The mother was to thank for that.
Raven massaged his temples. Fuck! His day definitely would not get better.
“Your brother’s proclivity for those touched by magic and in possession of breasts is well known,” the boys’ father retorted, his jaw clenched. “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, spittle flying. It seemed he had finally lost his temper. “You will be quiet. You will listen. We haven’t long before the council arrives.
“Your brother is gone,” the king sighed, “and I am to blame.”
Raven skulked in the corner. With the sun the king rose 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 and the air was sharp with cold. Winter approached, the council gathered, and it had all gone to shit.
Clearly sleep had eluded the king. Raven guessed troubling visions still haunted him behind lidded eyes. Cold sweats and ragged cries had long ago driven Ælfwynn from the man’s bed, but none of that compared to the fury the prince had brought him. “And now the damn council,” Robert roared, thumping the railing with his fist. The man even swore in a controlled way.
“Sire,” the Raven interrupted, “the council is gathering.”
The king’s gaze didn’t shift.
“Robert, the council,” he prodded gently.
“Who is in attendance this year?” The king could recall well enough, Raven knew, but the recital would give the monarch time to gather his emotions.
“The Chancellor, the Sheriffs of Bend and Gull, Duke Esnorterre, Governor Carr, Lord Montismar, and all the chiefs except Bjorn of the Horn.”
“What of Ælfwynn? Has she returned?” The king’s voice contained a hint of desperation Raven disliked greatly.
“Your wife sent communications from Sumorland. She intends to spend the winter at the Mage’s tower.” The king looked crestfallen. The queen had been even more distant of late, her communications kept for her favourites such as her daughter-in-law. Raven could tell the king was hurting, and his anger was poorly veiled.
“So be it,” the king said in a long exhale.
With a curt nod he returned inside. “Wait for me in the hall, and make sure they are ready for me.” Raven left his liege to strap his sword to his hip and don his circle of office. The man looked old.
As Raven spotted the king approaching the base of the stair he could hear the rabble like sound erupting from the great hall. With a gesture the monarch informed his chamberlain he was ready. Rap, rap, rap, the fat man’s knuckles hit the door. It swung open and the king entered to a list of his titles being read by a page, Raven followed. They were met with silence.
“Welcome my friends,” the king announced taking his seat. He cleared his throat, “You may sit.”
Punctuated by a wave of the king’s hand they seated themselves, with varying degrees of difficulty. Once more I have to sit and listen to him argue with these fuck-wits. Raven sighed quietly to himself. He shuffled in his seat, rustling his cloak of fur and feathers.
Glancing at the king, he followed his gaze about the room as it fell on the university chancellor, the Council’s newest member. King’s College at Tustakbugh was to be the jewel of the north, Robert’s legacy, driving the enlightenment that gripped the Spine. Patrick Aelfstone, a portly cleric of noble stock from Montismar had been elected as Chancellor. The man was a famed mathematician and all round queer fellow.
“How go things at the college?” the king asked the Chancellor.
“Very well, Your Grace.” Nodding to Ædelmær, the Duke of Esnorterre, he said “With the Duke’s help we have recruited many monks and learned men, the main building are complete, with a library, and we will be enlightening our first batch of young minds before the spring.” The king seemed to appreciate the brief summary as much as Raven. Maybe the odd pale man was growing on him.
He followed the king’s gaze once more as it landed on the duke.
“Very good, I thank you Esnorterre. It is my understanding you and the Lord Governor have been of great help. The Accords are upheld.” Robert said, with a smile that gave little away. The king loved to tell Raven how sweet the day would be when he no longer needed their gold.
“Aye, Your Grace, the Grand Duchy values your patronage of the arts and education,” the man said, in his infuriating pompous tone.
The Grand Duchy of Esnorterre was essentially an autonomous principality within the Flauvorter Empire but in an attempt to check their power, a series of accords stipulated that Esnorterre pay homage to Norcroft. Mercantile gold and artisanal produce moved across the Girdle at an incredible rate as the people of Tustakburgh sought gentrification through southern fashion.
While filling his coffers, it obviously grated on the king. The man had been a bearded savage two decades prior to the accords, so it was little surprise.
Turning again the king spoke to one of his clan chiefs.
“William, what say you?” he said 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 Raven could remember vividly witnessing him hack some Flauvorter knight in two with an axe during the war twenty summers previously. The hot gore had splashed his face. The sickening sucking noise and slick splatter would remain with him till the final day. Such was the punishment for spitting at the chief of a northern clan, apparently. Did he miss war? Raven shivered, as more memories followed. No. Maybe Robert did, but not the Raven.
The king continued, “Sheriff Robb, what of Chieftain Bjorn?”
The old administrator from Bend shifted uncomfortably in his flamboyant court clothes of brocade and fur. “Last I heard he had taken an eastern carrack with his sons to the continent. My outriders spotted Flauvorter colours on the sails.”
“Dark news indeed,” Robert said. What were those bastards up to? Raven made a mental note to ask Robert later.
Unlike their southern neighbours, Norcroft’s navy still consisted of traditional vessels. The longships, birlinns and great galleys from the wester shores were suitable for raiding the isles and rivers of the Spine. However, maritime warfare, against the east was unthinkable; their ships were perilously outmatched. To address this, the king had ordered his shipwrights to begin work on a fleet of the larger warships. That fact alone made the news doubly vexing. They had been betrayed, by one who knew just how weak they were. Their adversaries to the south and east had carried away one of Robert’s 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.” the monarch ordered, his eyes flinty. The small island’s lord nodded solemnly.
Raven watched the king shift his gaze left and right, observing the room. Following a brief pause, the king addressed the room once more. “Thank you for your wise council. While these tiding are troubling we have much else to discuss.”
“Aye, father, we do,” the prince replied. “I am sure you wish to brief them on Craig’s disappearance?” The room filled with gasps and looks of askance.
“Thank you my son,” the king responded; Raven just barely caught the sharp look Robert shot the youth. “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 in his seat. Their battle in the Blasted Lands west of the Girdle’s northern bank was legendary. Even from his grave the bastard made Raven’s skin crawl. The creature the people of the Spine called Eagle, had once been the greatest of Raven’s race. A mage of awesome power and perilous hatred, he had spent his eons on the planet wreaking havoc, always behind this or that puppet monarch. His most recent and last pet had been the late Flauvorter Emperor.
A withered shape covered in furs sat at the end of the table shifted, drawing the Raven’s attention back to the meeting. Donald, the king’s uncle and chieftain of Robert’s clan in his stead, would have his word. “I sat here as the boy threw down his birth right and spat at our feet. I stayed quiet then,” he paused. “I sat quietly again as you allowed your other son to sequester away in some backwater.” The aged form cleared his throat. “I even sat quietly when our beloved Queen sailed for Sumorland. So it is without hesitance that I say, I will not sit by again as that farce is repeated!” he bellowed with surprising power, before descending into a coughing fit.
“Esteemed Uncle I…” the king pleaded.
“Silence, pup I haven’t finished!” he bellowed. There were only two people in the known world, who could talk to Robert like that, and the queen was far away.
“I will not watch you undo all you have achieved. Your kingdom is strong, but that strength lies in your family. It is high time young Red proved himself and it is high time Ælfwynn graced these dreich and dreary 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 in the spring.” Clearly exhausted Donald sat back in his seat, eyes glassy from exertion.
Clearly taken aback, the king took pause before responding. “Thank you, uncle, you have given me much to think on.” He clasped his hands and surveyed the room.
“This council is adjourned. I thank you friends. I welcome you to the hospitalities of my home. Goodnight.” The king stood and turned to Raven, gesturing for him to follow. They had much to discuss.