If anything is disruptive to the writing process, it must indeed be a three and a half week vacation trip to the United States. Traveling from New York to San Francisco to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to San Diego is tiring as well as eventful, so I have unfortunately been unable to write anything. So sorry. Anyway, a piece of good news (to myself, since I doubt it has any impact on anyone else's lives) is that I've been accepted into the university I wanted to go to, so I'm a college student now. Hurrah!
So...uh...please read and review!
The word made Khris shiver. He gripped his staff, the metal cool to the touch. True, the kingdom had always been on good terms with the men of the frozen north, and they were allies even now – supposedly. It was widely known fact that not everyone in the north agreed to what their king said and did. That had been proven many times by raiding parties who pillaged and burned their way down the mountains every now and then. But that had come to be expected by the citizens of the kingdom. Forts had been established and villagers had moved away – at least those who could. There is always that old man who insists on dying where he was born or strong lad who refuses to back down for the northern raiders.
But the king, Herger Wulf, had made a real effort in the last decade to weed out the bad seeds among his people, made an effort in making his subjects see the good in trading with the largest kingdom in the world rather than raiding and fighting against it. Khris supposed the king of the north's death had reversed all he had done.
"Surely it is just a small raiding party," Fabian snorted. "Easily broken and routed. Surely the fort at Imon's Pass will stop them?"
The messenger shook his head, still out of breath. "No, they did not come from Imon's Pass. They came from Karnar itself."
Fabian paled. "They came down from the mountain? But that's impossible, at least at this time of year, it should be all blocked with ice."
Khris knew that the phrase 'this time of year' was a hollow one. The mountain Karnar was always covered in ice and snow at any time of the year, even though it was not very tall. Apparently, according to Mefe, a magical battle between two mighty wizards had left the mountain evil and twisted and extremely unfriendly to those who try to cross it, which was why Imon's Pass had been constructed. It was, of course, not the current Imon whose name it bore, but that of one of his distant forefathers. Powerful magic had been used to blow a pass right through Karnar. A fort had been constructed at either end, both manned by men of either kingdom it connected.
"Didn't matter to them," said the messenger. "They came down from the mountain and sacked Hilm in a matter of hours."
"Hilm?" asked Glenroy. "But that's one of the strongest forts we have. Its walls are six meters thick and solid stone. Nothing can break through that!"
"Something did!" yelled the messenger, who looked to be partially in shock. "A great crackle of lightning struck somewhere outside the walls just before one of them was blown inwards. I was already on my way out of the valley when I saw it happen. I've been riding non-stop for three days, my horse was just about ready to die when I finally reached the plains, and I…I just—" He broke off, not sure what else he could say.
The king patted him on the shoulder to calm down. "Easy, son. Get some rest. You can tell us the whole story tomorrow when you've had a chance to collect your thoughts." He called a couple of guards and had them show the messenger where he could get some much needed sleep, after which he started pacing. He was mumbling.
"Father?" asked Olmen after several minutes of silence from the king.
"It doesn't make sense," said the king and turned to his sons. "Magic has been extinct for years now. No one is able to use it, not even Mefe, who was the most powerful wizard this kingdom has had when he was in his prime. The only thing powerful enough to blow in those walls is magic. And what else than an army could even dare to sack our forts? Has Edgtho broken his promise? Hm…" he trailed off and continued his pacing. This time the silence was permanent, the only thing breaking it was instructions for his sons to go back to the party and enjoy themselves. He spared them not even a glance.
The three—no, four brothers looked at each other before returning to the great hall, where the ball continued like nothing of importance had happened, the guests laughing, eating and drinking like it would never end. They would see soon enough.
"I wonder if there'll be war," said Olmen as he, Khris and Glenroy made their way up the stairs, off to their respective bedchambers.
"Probably not," said Glenroy. "It's probably just some raiding party that managed to get their hands on an enormous amount of explosives. Father may boast, but the walls of Hilm aren't that thick, and the stones are not new. Hilm is very old, and the withered stone must have given way for the explosion. Lightning flash? Probably just the flash of the flames igniting."
"What about the Karnar, then?" asked Khris. "No one can travel on that mountain. They either get blown off or they get lost. Surely the Northmen could not have found a way through to transport the amount of explosives you describe. Never mind that, where could they have gotten the explosives? Do you know of anywhere else in the world it is produced than here?"
Glenroy scratched his chin in an imitation of his father's thinking position. "Good points indeed, my new brother," he said, adding his new, favourite nickname for Khris.
Khris grimaced. "Don't call me that!" He cursed as he stumbled on a step.
Olmen whistled. "What's wrong with that? It's true, after all, new brother." He grinned devilishly as he slinked off down the corridor leading to his room. This left Glenroy and Khris alone as they walked silently down the stone corridors before reaching a crossroad. Glenroy's room was down the left corridor while Khris' was further down the hall and up another staircase.
"Listen," said Glenroy and turned to look at Khris with a guilty face. "I didn't know it'd bother you that much when he adopted you. I mean, it's a true honour and a joyous occasion when you are adopted by your king."
"I know, I know," said Khris and looked at his feet. "It's just that…it feels like I'm betraying my real parents, like I'm saying that I never needed them because I've got a new father now who just happens to be king. All their effort in trying to raise me…it's just…it doesn't feel right." He looked at his staff, glimmering in the weak light of the torches hanging on the walls. He hated the staff. He wanted to throw it away or put it in a forge and watch it melt.
Glenroy sighed. "I can't really say I understand how you feel, because I don't. I suppose I could try comparing it to the death of my mother, but having known her and then lost her is so much more than you ever had. You never even knew them." He put a hand on Khris' shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "I think you should have a talk with father in the morning when he has rested and thought over this Northmen-business properly. Tell him how you feel. Maybe you two can work something out." He yawned. "I hate to be a bad friend and brother, but the wine has spoken its need of proper sleep, so I will leave you with my recommendation." He turned and walked down the corridor, waving to Khris as he went.
"I will. Thank you, Glen," Khris called after him. He then continued to his chambers, feeling slightly better about his adoption. Maybe it won't be so bad after all…
"I have a feeling this would've gone much smoother and faster if you two had been less in girth," said Verg as he watched Phil and Yarik trying to manoeuvre their thick-muscled bodies in through the sewage hatch they had decided to come up from. He and Kolm had gone first, being able to get away faster and easier if something should happen. The assassin was checking the door to the storage room they ended up in. Maes had gone through the main gate, claiming he had forgotten something inside. The foolish guard had let him in without any questions. He was probably trying to find his way to the storeroom now.
Yarik snarled. "Shut up!"
Kolm made a hissing sound. "Will you two quiet down?" he whispered. "You're going to get us caught before we're even properly inside the castle."
"Right," said Verg and grabbed hold of Yarik's arm and heaved all he could, disentangling him from the mound that had been the two men trying to get up at the same time. "Enough of this," he told Yarik, who nodded and picked himself up from the floor. Verg turned to Kolm. "Any luck with the door?"
"As if a door like this would give me trouble," said Kolm arrogantly and shoved a long piece of metal into the large lock. He twisted and jerked it for a few seconds before the lock made a loud click. Kolm turned the handle and grinned at Verg as it swung open; revealing a confused Maes standing with a key in his hand, apparently ready to unlock the door. "Hey there, Maes," said Kolm as he put the lock-pick somewhere in his clothes. Verg couldn't begin to guess what other things he hid in the simple-looking clothes.
Maes put away the key, feeling foolish for thinking that his accomplices wouldn't find a way through a simple storage door. He cleared his throat. "Are we ready?"
Verg nodded right after Phil had gotten up from the sewer. "Yeah, we're ready. Where is the target?"
"Almost on the top floor, close to the classrooms," replied Maes. "It appears the ball is dying down. Most of the guests have left, save for a couple of noble couples having a chat with the oldest prince and the king. The others have gone to bed."
"Damnit, we should've gone during the party," mumbled Yarik.
"Actually, we shouldn't have," said Maes. "Our man's observed the target the whole evening. He's been in the ballroom most of the night, so there would've been no way we could have got to him until now. I happen to know that there are almost no guards up there right now since they're seeing the guests off at the gates. Now come on, our man's waiting upstairs."
They filed out of the storage room, Maes on point followed by Phil and Yarik and Verg and Kolm taking up the rear guard. Unable to keep his discomfort in anymore, Verg turned to Kolm and whispered. "This is going a little too well. I refuse to believe every single guard is seeing people off."
Kolm shrugged. "I don't care as long as I get paid."
Verg growled to himself and turned away. Assassin indeed.
The sudden voice made Khris jump. He whirled around, his staff ready to pummel the intruder into submission. He relaxed when he saw who had snuck up on him. "Mefe, please don't do that. You frightened me."
The old man smiled and chuckled. "I apologise. It was certainly not my intention. I could have placed my hands on your shoulders, but I feel that would have given you an even bigger fright."
Khris smiled and nodded. "That it would, that it would. Is there something you wanted?" He regretted the words right away, realising he was being rude.
Mefe must have understood, for he only smiled wider. "Yes, I was wondering if I could speak with you for a moment." He looked around. "In private?"
Khris blinked, wondering what the old man was up to now. "I suppose we could go to my chambers."
Mefe nodded. "That would be adequate."
Khris' chambers were ice-cold and dark. The servants had probably 'forgotten' to light his fireplace as they so often did. He had a feeling they weren't truthful. His dress robes were thick and kept the chill out, but Mefe shivered the moment they entered, so Khris quickly went to work with starting the fire again.
"Why do you not have the servants do it?" asked Mefe as he made himself comfortable in one of the chairs in front of the fireplace after pouring wine into a pair of glasses that stood on a table close to the window.
"Because they forget," answered Khris. He struck the flint against a piece of steel and directed the sparks to the timber. The fire quickly took to the dry wood. The fire was already heating the cold chambers as Khris lighted several candles around the room. He finally seated himself in the chair next to Mefe's and looked at the old man curiously. The fire cast flickering shadows over his teacher's face, giving him an eerie look. It didn't help when Mefe's eyes moved to meet Khris' without the head following. He didn't say anything, kept staring at the young Summoner. He handed the other glass in his hand to the Summoner wordlessly.
"What was it you wanted to speak with me about?" asked Khris, wishing Mefe would right himself from the slouch he was sitting in. It was so like, yet unlike, the way he usually sat when in front of a fire.
"You," the old man answered quietly, his lips barely moving.
"Yes, you. You have been quiet and agitated the whole evening. I've been watching you." He finally moved his eyes away from Khris and stared into the fire. "Why?"
Khris hadn't seen Mefe the entire night. Had he been spying on him? He mentally shook his head. The man was his teacher, he was just wondering if something was wrong. Khris sighed. "It's just the news of the Northmen…" He realised his mistake too late.
Mefe's eyes were back on him. "Northmen?"
Knowing it was too late now; Khris relayed everything the messenger had told him, the princes and the king. Mefe kept quiet throughout the entire story, his eyes widening when hearing about the wall exploding.
"That…is indeed troubling," said Mefe when Khris was done. "A reappearance of magic…very interesting. It is most likely a local concentration, though, for the node here does not resonate with me."
Khris nodded. "I was going to ask you about it in the morning. Can the grid really only work in some areas? I thought it distributed the power evenly."
Mefe shook his head. "Usually it did. But not always. There were some places where it seemed the grid was…closed off, or choked somehow. Like the magic could not reach the area. But if magic really was back, then the node here in the city would have come to life as well. Troubling…very troubling indeed."
"So you're saying it's possible that a node has started to resonate somewhere in the north?" asked Khris, feeling excited. If magic was returning to the world, then maybe he could finally do some good with his position. And with Mefe as his teacher and guide…
"That is a definite possibility. I have never heard about such a thing occurring, though. I shall have to consult some of my books about this. But enough about this. I can see that there is something else…something I did not see until after the king made his announcement of your adoption…"
There was no escaping the damnable eyes of the old man, Khris realised. "Yes…there is something else…but it's ridiculous."
"Nothing that can bother you so much is ridiculous, I am sure. Please, I am not only your teacher, I also consider myself to be somewhat of a confidante. Please, young prince, tell me what is wrong—"
"That!" yelled Khris. "That's exactly what's wrong. I don't like being considered part of the royal line; I don't like being considered the king's son!" He rose from the chair and paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, his staff sliding to the floor with a clang.
"Why is that? I would have thought it an honour that the king considered me family," said Mefe, raising an eyebrow. "Especially if it meant I would be in the line of succession," he added.
"Because it feels like I'm betraying my parents, like I couldn't care less about them!"
They both remained quiet, the younger of the pair breathing heavily. Silence reigned. Outside, the moon revealed itself in the sky, casting its pale light into the chambers through the window.
"Do you still think of your parents?" asked Mefe suddenly.
"Do you still consider them your parents, despite now legally being the king's son?"
"Yes," answered Khris.
"But do you love the king? Do you appreciate all he has done for you?"
"Yes, I appreciate all he's done—"
"But do you love him?" interrupted Mefe, his eyes freezing the Summoner in place.
Khris thought long and hard. This was the man who had taken him into his house when discovered in the remains of a caravan struck by bandits. This was the man who had given him the position of Summoner, one of the highest in the kingdom. This was the man who had acknowledged him as a son despite being nothing but a commoner at birth. The thought made Khris smile. "Yes, I love him."
Mefe smiled as well. "Then I see no problem. Your parents certainly would not have minded, I am sure, as it is in parents' natures to wish their children nothing but well." He raised his glass and clinked it against Khris'. "To the king, then," he said and drank. Khris, having been taught proper etiquette, drank as well, shuddering at the bitter taste of the wine. He had never been one for the alcoholic drink.
He sat down again, surprised at how easily Mefe had settled his discomfort. Now all he needed was to have that talk with his adopted father and—
A knock on the door sounded. Three hard followed by three soft. Khris didn't recognise the signal. It was none of the ones he, Olmen and Glenroy and sometimes even Fabian had used when they were younger. He was about to get up and answer the door when Mefe did it with speed that surprised the younger. Mefe exchanged some quiet words with whoever was on the other side of the door before he turned apologetically to Khris.
"I am sorry, Master Venoz, but I have not been completely truthful with you." He stepped aside to let someone in.
The person was tall and thin with a scarred face. Icy blue eyes stared at him while a smile spread on his mouth. Verg smiled. "We meet again, young Summoner."
To be continued…