The night air was crisp and sharp as it invaded the carriage, forcing two boys to huddle closer to their mother. The younger of the two pulled away at the sight of the softly lit trail up the side of the mountain, like a line of fireflies, it tangled up the cliffs slowly.
The boy licked his lips as his wagon, which he sensed was older than any other he had ever ridden before, rocked and creaked behind the others.
"What a disastrous trip to the castle," his father groaned. It was a tragedy because his father did not have his ale yet, the boy smirked.
"It's a good strategy to be placed upon the mountainside where your enemies can't get to you, isn't it, father?" his brother asked.
"Of course it is," his father replied. "Your enemies would have to run up this winding path and all the while avoiding arrows, slingballs of fire, or even molten oil."
His mother sighed. "Can't you two discuss this at home? We're here as guests, not spies."
The boy ignored them all. His interest was in the ships that glided upon the seas below with sails like vast ghosts that danced on the waters. His eyes darted up to the castle battlements where soldiers stood watch over their realm.
His attention then turned to the narrower road that led out of the castle and down towards the harbor, swinging through a small fishing village, then connecting back to the main road to the castle again.
"What's this party for, father?" his brother asked.
His father grumbled, "I can't remember. Something about the end of the war or something. I think it's a celebration. Edmund is always off about details."
"There was talk at the house that other kingdoms were also in attendance," his mother whispered.
"Is that why our accommodations were at Summerhill?" his father asked.
"It's perfectly fine," his mother said.
His father scoffed. "We should have been put in Ravenshall or The Fold. That house could barely hold us."
"There is plenty of room," his mother said calmly. "And if Edmund or Yvetta asks, we will graciously thank them for their kindness."
His father grumbled and slapped him on the back. "What's so interesting out there, boy?"
"Just carriages," he said, sliding back into his seat beside his mother.
"See any dragons out there, boy?" his father asked with gritted teeth.
The boy shook his head and huddled close to his mother, who sheltered him with her arm.
"You're scaring him," his mother said.
"You're coddling him," his father replied. "He needs a good stiff smack on the head so he can plant his feet square in the ground and be a man."
"He's only twelve," his mother argued. "He's still a boy."
"I was younger than that when my father took me down to the camps were all the soldiers and guards trained. I was only five when he put a broadsword in my hands and made me try to lift it." He pointed at the other boy. "He's only a few years older than him. And he's already proficient at swords and axes. Adler says he'd make a great soldier some day… and soon a great king."
His brother sat up with his chest puffed out like a rooster. "I'll make you proud, father," he said.
"You already have, Thomas," his father said, slapping him on the knee. Then his father's light blue eyes found him and they turned dark. "Don't worry, William, you'll soon follow in your brother's footsteps."
His mother sighed and held him closer. "I'll ask you not to take away both of my boys," she said.
"I'm just preparing them for what's to come. They have to grow up sometime." His father sat back in his seat and stared at the two of them.
When the carriage finally came to a halt, it was Thomas who hopped out first to survey the castle and their surroundings.
"Those gargoyles are watching you, Will," Thomas von Schrader said to his younger brother.
William von Schrader carefully climbed down the steps and stared at the many faceless guards that stood before them as they watched the guests arrive in their fine vehicles all the while protecting the castle from intruders. His eyes wandered from one faceless helm to the next, trying to catch a hint of an eye or a nose, but they stood as still as stone.
"They don't look real to me," he said in a low voice to Thomas, who gave a quick laugh. He straightened his coat with the help of a footman as his mother and father climbed out of the wagon.
"William, darling," his mother said to him. "Leave those men alone and come along."
He trailed behind his mother, a gentle woman with golden eyes and soft, fair skin. From behind, she looked like all of the other women before him, tall and wearing a colorful dress of teal and sea green with jewels around her neck and on her wrists. Her long dark hair was held together by a jeweled hairnet.
William and his brother, Thomas, resembled their mother with their dark hair and fair skin, but their amber eyes came from their grandmother. Their father was a short man with a barrel chest and an ash blond beard.
He looked quite awkward, waddling alongside his taller wife, but he wasn't the shortest man here. William noticed the little man with the long list at the entrance to the great hall, who was much shorter than his father, but had the same demeanor. The little man, Duncan Fathorn, gave William a sneer when he caught the boy staring at him.
"Never seen a dwarf, boy?" the little man said to him, forcing William to lower his gaze with pink in his cheeks.
As he entered the castle, he noticed the grey stone walls that looked as though they had been through a battering. Cracks and fissures climbed up the walls, surrounded by ivy that clung to any free edge. The guards by the entrance had no helms on, but their expressions were stony and serious.
William stayed close to his mother as they entered through an archway into a room full of candles and color. Every imaginable color drifted before his eyes in the great hall. Pinks, blues, whites, yellows, reds, greens, and even golds fluttered before him as guests talked of politics, the recent wars, or the latest gossip.
"I suppose the king has an announcement," one of the ladies behind him commented.
Her companion whispered, "It must be some news. I hear the other kingdoms are also here."
"Really?" the lady fluttered like an excited bird.
William rolled his eyes as he followed his mother through the crowds. His eyes wandered, finding the most intriguing piece in the room, an ice sculpture of a large bird. It was the centerpiece of the party. Its wings spanned proudly as its head and beak pointed up towards a golden chandelier of intricately sculpted oil lamps. Many of the guests stopped at the unique hunk of ice to point and marvel at it. He didn't even notice the fish in its beak until he circled it a few times.
Looking for his mother, he spotted her as she spoke to a woman and her teenage children, a boy and a girl. Thomas was with them, speaking to the girl, who was about his age, fourteen or fifteen. His mother laughed freely as the woman spoke to her, a delightful and seldom sight. William could not remember the last time he had seen his mother laugh.
As he approached, he heard his brother whispering to the girl about his latest score at the hunt at home, boasting about taking down a bear singlehandedly. He rolled his eyes and bumped his brother with his shoulder as he passed, forcing him to stagger into the girl head first.
"Watch it, Will!" his brother snarled before turning beet red and apologizing profusely to the girl.
"Ah, here is my youngest," his mother said to the woman. "This is William."
The woman gave him a warm smile and a quick nod.
"The Queen of Havershed, and her children, Mellane and Torvan," his mother pointed out to him.
The Queen of Havershed was taller than any other man in the room, her head rising a good foot above the biggest man, Captain of the Royal Guard, Ian Loomis, who was by the feast table with a pheasant leg in his gloved hand. She was dressed modestly in light blue and shiny grey silks. Her long raven hair was braided behind her back and her crown was made of a thin, silvery gold metal that sat low on her head. Her children were dressed modestly in light blue dress and small crowns.
"Your Grace," William bowed to the Queen.
"Such a young gentleman," she said to his mother. "You've certainly raised such lovely children. Such handsome boys." She shot a glare at Thomas, who was still blubbering over Princess Mellane. "Where is your glorious husband this evening?"
"I'm sure he's about," his mother replied with a gentle smile, but her eyes darted around the room, furiously seeking his father's whereabouts.
William scanned the room to find his father speaking with two tall men in white suits of silk. From where he stood, his father looked almost as tall as his companions, but he was noticeably more emotional with a red face as he spoke.
"I'm telling you," one of the men said, taking a sip of wine from a glass. "You can't have magic users running about setting fire to everything in sight because they can. What we do in Tallis Falls is we take them magic users and give them a good dunking in the cold waters of the White Lake. That's how you set them straight."
William walked across the room to his father. He stood silently beside him, listening as his father argued about the use of magics in the realm, but he also heard other conversations as well.
"It's a fine party, my lord," a woman in a red dress of velvet and satin said to King Edmund of Riverswail, a tall man with no neck and a scarred face, who ignored her. He stared at the ice sculpture for a moment before leaving the woman without a word.
William turned his head slightly to see the woman huff at the tall king. She was joined by the king's wife, who placed a jeweled hand on the woman's arm.
"Did I offend him?" the woman asked.
The queen shook her head. "No, I'm afraid you didn't. It's been a while Baroness Jailene," Her eyes were fixed upon her husband as he wandered aimlessly through the crowd with a tense expression on his face. "How is your daughter?"
"My stepdaughter," the baroness corrected.
"I beg your forgiveness. Of course, your stepdaughter. Where is she this evening?"
"I wish I could say the little squirrel was hiding her nuts for winter at home," the baroness sighed. "But alas, I was forced to bring her by that brute of a husband of mine."
"I'd love to see her," the queen said with a kind smile. "I adore children."
"She's around here somewhere. No doubt getting herself into some mischief." She tossed back a full glass of wine before picking up another glass from a passing server.
The queen nodded and excused herself.
William sighed. His father's conversation bored him and soon, he found himself slipping out a side door and down a dimly lit corridor of archways that led out into a garden.
There was no moon out this evening and even with the torchlight, William found it hard to see things clearly. He wondered how the other children managed to stay awake, while he could care less about politics or gossip. His brother, Thomas, managed to find a way to occupy himself, but he was not interested in such things as girls.
He followed a path of stones through overgrown trees to a small pond. Crouching down, he saw the greyed reflection in the water and he didn't recognize himself. He saw a boy with shaggy dark hair and amber eyes with a head bigger than a large pumpkin on a skinny body. But what he saw was something different from what he felt.
His father wanted him to follow in his brother's footsteps and study to serve the kingdom. His mother wanted him to do no such thing, but stay safe. He shook his head. He wanted to please them both, but everything he did to please his father was compared to what his brother had already done. And many a time, Thomas had already done it better.
He sighed as a ring upon the surface of the water disrupted his concentration. Across from him, a girl with long, golden blond hair was taking off her shoes.
"You're not supposed to be out here," he said. His amber eyes stared at the little girl across from him.
"And who are you?" the little girl asked defiantly. She dipped her bare foot into the water, sending out more rings on the surface towards him. She was small, probably seven or eight years old, with wildly long golden hair that was barely tamed by pink ribbons.
"William," he said in a low voice. "You're going to get in trouble."
"For what?" She planted her foot before dipping the other into the waters. She wore a light pink dress, which seemed a little big for her tiny body. Instead of hugging her tightly around the bodice, it hung like a worn sack.
"You're not supposed to be out here," he repeated.
"I heard you the first time. Are you the pond guard, or something?" she snapped at him, her icy blue eyes staring through him.
"No," he said.
"Then what do you care?" she asked.
"I don't." He rose up and turned away from her. He had no time for a dumb girl. Marching away from her, he heard the first of her sobs.