The sky blackened overhead and snow swirled around them as the royal party traversed the precipitous mountain pass that was the northern most border of the Kingdom of Talvar.
Torren Marik shifted nervously in his saddle at the front of the group; he wasn't concerned about his mare, she had done this trek before and her hooves were steady on the craggy trail. He knew these mountains were home to wolves, mountain lions and other dangerous beasts, but he was not overly concerned about that. He had a bow, as did a few of the thirty-odd kings' guards that made up their party, but he doubted he would need to use it as long as they stayed on the pass. No, what bothered him was that venturing into these mountains was supposed to be forbidden, and up until a week ago he had always assumed he'd been able to conduct his illegal activity without detection. He had not come here often, and never with the intention of escaping to the Freelands; it was only on those few occasions when his situation had grown desperate and he'd had no other way of obtaining the metal he needed for his trade. It was abundantly clear now, though, that he had intentionally gone unpunished, perhaps because a one-handed blacksmith was of no use to anyone.
General Martikan had merely smirked at Torren's attempts to deny his activities when he'd shown up at the forge two weeks earlier. 'You're not being punished boy,' the general had said in his harsh rasp of a voice, 'we need to cross the outskirts, and you're going to take us.' Torren had wanted to refuse, but the king's advisor was not the sort of man one says no to. At least six and a half feet tall, with broad shoulders, close-cropped hair and a scratchy grey beard, Martikan cast an intimidating shadow over any man in his path. Coupled with his reputation as a cruel and calculating warlord, he made a formidable foe. It was widely accepted amongst the Talvari that this ruthless general was the real power behind the crown, King Goran a mere puppet.
Since that day, Torren had been racking his brain to figure out why a royal patrol would need to cross the outskirts. Both Martikan and the young Crown Prince had joined Torren and the troop of guards, so it was clearly something of great importance. And Martikan was obviously not expecting to encounter any great danger, to have allowed the heir to join them. Was it some sort of expedition?
Torren was no great fan of Prince Erik; aged fourteen, he was already too much like his father: a lazy, arrogant, weak-minded fool. There was no doubt he would rule in the same fashion as King Goran, sitting back in ignorance while Martikan – or perhaps Martikan's equally-ruthless ward, Eamon – pulled the strings. Torren had wished many times for women to be allowed to rule in Talvar; Princess Danika would make a fine queen. She was kind, intelligent and determined, and although she had garnered a reputation of being 'mad', Torren suspected this was because of her insistence on associating with the common folk, even people like him. Most importantly, she had the blood of the old kings; something her half-brother Erik did not.
As they trudged higher and higher Torren began to feel slightly dizzy. He had never been this high before, generally keeping to just above the foothills. His teeth chattered and his hands were frozen solid inside his leather gloves. He tried to pull his fur-lined cloak tighter around him as the wind howled ferociously around them, but he had little success. The snow was falling so wildly now that they could barely see more than a few feet in front of them, but, finally, they reached the peak and began their descent. Into calmer weather. Into the Freelands.
Torren held back and let Martikan take the lead. For all of his time spent in these mountains Torren knew little of what lay on the other side, only what he had learned from stories. The land beyond the mountains took its name from the great purge of a thousand years ago, before the kingdoms had existed, when Edonia was one great land stretching from the northern mountains to the sparkling sea. Legend told that hundreds of the once-mighty Fae, whose kind had ruled over Edonia for millennia, had fled over the border to escape execution following the conquest. Ironically, if the stories were to be believed, the extinction of their race – or at the very least, their magic – would come soon after they crossed the mountains. For, without the ancient magic hidden in the Edonian soil, the Fae could not survive.
It was rumoured that the Freelands were now sparsely populated by the mortal descendants of the Fae, and that these 'freefolk' were known to roam the fierce terrain like nomadic packs of wild animals. Torren was not sure how this rumour had come about, given that nobody was permitted to enter the Freelands, but it had stuck.
This side of the mountain was different to the Talvari side, which seemed to be made up of nothing but rock. As they descended, the trail began to smooth out and the ground grew softer under the blanket of freshly fallen snow. The wind died down and their vision cleared as they approached a forest of snow-capped firs. Torren hesitated as Martikan led them into the forest, but quickly remembered himself and followed on, hoping that, wherever they were going, they'd be able to avoid any wolves or mountain lions along the way.
Finally, Martikan drew his reigns and beckoned for the rest of the party to do likewise. They had approached what Torren assumed to be their destination, though he could not see why. He was looking out over a large clearing, and what seemed to be – to his surprise – a small settlement. There was a cluster of wooden huts scattered against the forest backdrop; a communal fire, casting orange light against the white snow; and in the background, a frozen lake where several figures were milling around, while another lay on his stomach on the ice. A thought struck him, are they fishing? Torren's stomach growled as he caught sight of some sort of game roasting over the fire, supervised by an older man and a young boy.
The pair at the fire rose when they saw the horses approach, and was soon joined by a small crowd of people who had emerged from inside their huts. Each one of them tall and fair-complexioned, Torren could not help but recall an illustration he had once seen of the ancient Fae king, Loriston. Perhaps the rumours were true then, or at least partly so. These people did not seem wild, as the stories had suggested. It was obvious they lived off the land, but their animal hide clothing was well-tailored, their pale skin was clean and their hair – shades of light brown, blonde and red - was well-groomed. In fact, after nearly two weeks of travel through the Talvari countryside, many of the usually impeccable kings' guard appeared more bedraggled than this lot.
'This is inconvenient,' he heard Martikan utter, before dismounting and stepping forward to address the crowd. 'Good afternoon friends,' he called to the tiny gathering, 'I am General Ran Martikan, advisor to King Goran, and with me is His Highness, Crown Prince Erik Zanarin.' His words were met with stony silence, but he pushed on. 'You have all been honoured with an opportunity to serve your king.'
'He's not our king,' a defiant voice argued from the rear of the group.
Torren searched the crowd and found the speaker, a mousy-haired boy of around eighteen or nineteen, his arms folded, hatred burning in his stormy grey eyes.
'Is that treason you speak boy?' Martikan asked gruffly.
'It's a fact,' the boy argued and pointed to the mountain behind them, 'Talvar's border is on the other side of that mountain. You're in the Freelands now.' The locals murmured in agreement, a sea of green, blue and grey eyes glaring back at the new arrivals. Torren felt self-conscious as the strangers' eyes fell on him. He pulled at the hood of his cloak to better hide the rotted flesh that consumed the entire left side of his face, where the burn he had received on his ninth birthday – ten years earlier – had never healed.
Martikan shook his head and smirked at the crowd. 'Not anymore.' He beckoned to one of the soldiers who staked the king's banner into the snow-covered ground.
Torren stared, dumbstruck, at the indigo banner with its shining silver griffin, as it fluttered in the swirling breeze. Surely they hadn't come all the way here to conquer the Freelands with only thirty men? Is there an army behind us?
'No!' the boy yelled, 'you can't do that! This is our land!'
It only took a single nod of confirmation from his general for another soldier to loose his bow. The boy's protests were silenced as he slumped backwards, blood splurting from his mouth. An arrow pierced his neck. The villagers' shocked silence was soon broken by an ear-splitting, agonizing wail.
'DARRIAN!' the girl shrieked, hunching over his body, tears streaking her pale face. 'Wake up! Wake up!'
The prince seemed to find this amusing; Torren swallowed bile as he observed Erik chuckle at the girl's hopeless attempts to revive her friend.
Between the villagers' silence and the girl's desperate shrieks, the guards had relaxed their vigilance. The settlement was theirs for the taking. And it was this arrogance and complacency that killed the prince, not the grieving girl. It took far too long for Talvar's elite soldiers to react when the girl sprung up, retrieved her bow and let loose an arrow, straight through the prince's mail and into his heart.