Three leagues outside the city walls of Norington, Prince Stephan of the House of Norwood, and his personal guardsman stood in a clearing surrounded by slaughtered knights. Sweat covered the Prince's fair skin and dripped into a pool of blood at his feet. His cheek-length blond hair was caked with dirt, and his normally pristine red and yellow robes were torn.
His guard, looking no better, wiped splashes of blood off his large cheeks. He walked over to a horse and smacked it hard on the ass, startling it into galloping away into the forest, possibly never to be seen again. He then walked around and did the same to the other horses lingering close by.
Norwick Forest had not witnessed this much bloodshed in at least fifteen years. The last time it had tasted blood was during The Purgings when thousands of men, women, and children had been hunted like sport. It had been a gruesome time to live in, whether you were accused of sorcery or not.
The Prince's personal guardsman, Amol Giffard, had been a young man then, and was eager to fight for the Late King. However, fifteen years of war wore a man down after time, and Amol Giffard certainly bore the scars of such living.
Even now, when the weather turned cold, he could feel the bitter winds of the first long winter and would see the faces of dead children frozen to the bone because they had no time to pack warmer clothes before escaping the city. The memory made him shiver as he stared at the dead soldiers bathing in their own and comrades' blood.
"Now, we wait," said Prince Stephan, a satisfied grin on his face. "Let's go back to camp. I should wash up and change my robes."
Amol led the prince back to camp, weaving between thick brush and weeds. Several patches of flowers were just beginning to bloom, the early spring granting them more time to present their bright colours proudly.
They had been in the forest for a few days of hunting, and were planning to return tomorrow. The Master Huntsman and Falconer had accompanied them, along with a few servants to wait on the prince.
After a few minutes, they arrived at a large, impressive camp, with several small tents, a large fire in the centre, and racks of boar, deer, and the fur of three wolves sitting several feet off. Overturned logs and large rocks served as seating, while blankets and pillows were draped over and around them to provide further comfort.
Bows and arrows, spears, and swords lined the side of a red and yellow tent. A dozen hounds were tied to large tree, most of them lazing around while the others fought over scraps of meat and bone left to them so they wouldn't chew through their ropes and head to the racks. A few packhorses grazed close to the camp, paying no attention to the hounds or humans nearby.
Prince Stephan walked over to a basin of water and began washing his face and hands. He removed his soiled robe and threw it on the ground, calling to Amol to fetch him another one.
"Certainly, Your Highness," said Amol, frustration bubbling under the surface as he regretted having killed the servants.
He walked into one of the small tents and rummaged around, before emerging with a fresh robe for the prince. Handing it to him, he walked over to their packs and pulled out several pieces of boar wrapped with cloth. Just as he pulled out a knife to slice the meat, the sound of hooves racing against a muddy path sounded in the distance.
"Come, that might be him," said Prince Stephan. He raced through the forest, watching for low branches and nooks where he might catch his foot.
A man riding a large black horse charged through Norwick Forest, mud splashing about as the two made their way along the wide road. The man's short black hair stuck to his forehead, and his golden-brown skin dripped with sweat.
Prince Stephan and Amol leapt out of the forest, startling the horse and causing the rider to stop his course. Withdrawing a sword from his belt, he drew back his horse and steadied it.
"Your Highness," said Prince Stephan, beaming. He strode forward and stopped several feet short of the young man. Bowing, he continued, "I welcome you to our humble hunting party."
The rider returned his sword to his scabbard and gracefully dismounted. Breathing deeply he bowed and said, "Your Highness, Prince Tael, Son of Tamael of the House of Torim, is glad to join your party."
When he righted himself, both princes appraised one another, Stephan noting at the other's dirty and torn robes.
Stephan frowned. "But what has happened to your guard, my friend?" he said.
The skin around Prince Tael's high cheekbones tightened as he pressed his lips together. "We were attacked as soon as we entered the forest. My last guard died half a league back. I've been riding full out since then."
Stephan looked at Amol, who quickly strode over to Prince Tael's mount. He began examining the horse, his large tanned hands running the length of the creature's body to check for wounds.
"Who attacked you?"
"That's the strangest thing," he said. "Arrows suddenly rained down from nowhere."
"Nowhere?" said Stephan.
"Nowhere," said Tael.
"How do you mean?"
"We had just entered the forest when our horses became agitated. Many of them wouldn't go any farther and several threw their riders to the ground. My horse was untroubled, but the others went mad. That's when arrows began raining down from the sky."
"They must have been shooting from the trees."
"No," he said. "There was no arc to their flight. They merely fell straight down like stones from the Heavens."
"What do you think caused it?"
Prince Tael wrung his hands and murmured, "Sorcery."
Stephan shook his head. "No, I don't believe it. My grandfather banished those devils long ago. There is no possible way they could have returned to our land. We have patrols along the border."
"There is no other way I see it possible."
There was a long pause as both men stared at each other, trying to make sense of the situation. Amol, still standing by the horse, cleared his throat and spoke up.
"Perhaps we should head back to camp. If Prince Tael has been attacked, perhaps the assailants followed him here and are waiting to attack again. I think we had best have a light meal, pack up, and return to Norington."
The other men agreed with his plan and Amol led them off the main road. They wove through the dense forest, navigating themselves between trees and over fallen trunks. After a short time, they arrived at the camp, Prince Tael walking straight over to a bucket of water. He washed his hands and face, and then stripped off his purple and silver robe to check a small injury on his left rib.
Walking over to one of the logs, Prince Stephan sat down and grabbed the forgotten boar meat and knife Amol had taken out minutes earlier. He began carving small pieces from it and popped them into his mouth. He watched Amol tie Prince Tael's horse to a tree before walking around the camp to collect their supplies. He loaded several packs on one of the horses before he started towards the racks of meat.
"Leave our catch and hounds," he said. "We'll send someone back to collect them."
When Prince Tael had finished washing up, he placed himself on a log adjacent to his friend and stared at the fire. Rubbing his large hands together, he took a bracing breath.
"What troubles you, dear friend?" said Stephan.
"This sorcery business... I would hate for our kingdoms to go to war again," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I was only ten when The Purgings ended, but I still remember a great portion of it."
Stephan waved his hand, as if the motion would wave away Prince Tael's worries. "As I said, there's no possibility of them returning to the North. They're all savages, devil worshippers, and tricksters. Their so-called magic is nothing more than cheap tricks and trades with the Devil. But God is on our side and if they plan to return, I'll make sure they rue the day the Devil spat them out of Hell."
Prince Tael frowned and ceased rubbing his palms together. "Surely not all of them were guilty," he said. "Children and young mothers? I'm still not entirely convinced—"
"Not convinced?" said Stephan, sitting up straighter. "Dear brother, our kingdoms fought together to banish the beasts!" He laughed, eyes glazing over as he remembered something. "Did you ever hear that tale about Giffard the Great? One of your relatives, wasn't it, Amol?"
Amol lumbered over from the horses and said, "Aye, my father's brother."
Stephan turned to him and smiled. "You know, I heard another tale. One from the South that concerns the House of Torim."
At this, Prince Tael started and looked at Stephan. "My House?" he asked.
"Why, yes." Stephan stood and placed the remaining piece of boar into his mouth, before turning to Tael and smiling. "And what an awfully scandalous story it is."
"What do you mean?" Tael leapt to his feet. "Our House has been known for its strength honour!"
"Calm yourself, dear friend," said Stephan. "No need to trouble yourself about the rest of your House since this story's central character is you!"
Prince Tael blanched. "What do you mean? What rumours have been wafting about?"
"No rumours," said Stephan. "Merely fact. And you just confirmed it: you side with the savages, and for reasons, I suspect, very dear to your heart."
"Explain yourself!" Tael placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, his body rigid in defence.
Stephan, remaining perfectly calm during these proceedings, glanced at Amol. He walked back to the log, knife still in hand and said, "I'm tired of pretending, Tael. I grow restless, waiting for my father to die so I can storm the West and rid this world of the evil that plagues it. I care not how many men will die or villages burned. All I wish is to make my kingdom a mirror of Heaven, with me sitting on the throne and being asked for mercy like God."
Amol walked over to Stephan and said, "Your Highness, with all due respect—"
"When I require your opinion, I shall ask for it."
"Prince Stephan, what do you mean by all of this?" said Tael.
"Only this," said Stephan. He pointed his dagger at the other prince and snarled, "You are a sorcerer."
The colour in Prince Tael's face drained and his hand fell from the hilt of his sword.
"Your Highness!" said Amol, moving to Tael's side. "Your kingdoms have been joined before your births, you two are friends! How can you be sure these rumours are true?"
Prince Tael glanced around, suddenly noticing how bare the camp was. "Wait a moment, where are your guards, where is the Falconer and Master Huntsman?"
Stephan stuck out his bottom lip and sighed. "Sadly we could not risk any disturbances. It was a shame to have killed the Master Huntsman, he was quite talented." He strode forward and Prince Tael took a step back, withdrawing his sword.
Amol, now standing between the two, shook his head. "What are you playing at?" he said. "Surely this story is merely a rumour."
"If it is, our dear prince has not yet denied its validity."
Amol turned to Tael and said, "The Prince is merely teasing, I'm sure."
"I wouldn't be so sure," he said, pointing his dagger at Tael again.
Tael stepped forward, raising his sword in defence. Just as was about to take another step, he felt a sharp pain in his back. Turning his head, he met Amol's gaze, which suddenly appeared as hard as stone. He wavered and looked back at Stephan.
"Dear friend?" he said, his voice hardly louder than a whisper.
Amol pulled his sword out of Tael's back, the long silver blade glistening with blood. He pushed forward again, this time plunging it into Tael's side. The sound of blade tearing into flesh and fabric mixed with Tael's sharp cry of pain.
Tael's eyes brimmed with tears and a gurgling sound erupting from his throat just before he fell to the ground, his head glancing off a small rock.
Amol bent down and wiped the blade on the dead man's back. Righting himself, he turned to Stephan and said, "How was my acting?"
"You should entertain at Court," said Stephan. He took Amol's sword and examined it, placing a hand on the other man's shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "But you won't be returning to the castle anytime soon," he said. "I have another task for you."
"Whatever you require, Your Highness."
Stephan faced Amol and shoved the blade up through his gut, the point erupting from his collarbone and spraying the prince with blood. Amol's body shook, his brown eyes wide with shock and quickly losing their light.
Prying the blade from the man's body, Stephan stood back and threw the sword several feet away. "I need you to give a message to Prince Tael." He grinned, leaning down to look Amol in the eyes. "When you see him, tell him to enjoy his stay in Hell."