Winter had a way of gripping the Turon Valley, turning it into a blindingly white wasteland. Bitter, vicious cold took hold of every surface and hung on as a miser might cling to his coins, and from mid-October until early April, life ground to a halt. Everything and everyone seemed to shrink, absorbed into the darkness and silence of the season. Storms slammed into the valley throughout the winter, with drifts of snow that often covered the trees. The Turon River froze solid, so that when the storms broke, villages held Frost Fairs. But those celebrations were frequently brief, as another storm would suddenly pour into the valley and send everyone scurrying back to their hearths to wait for the sun to return.
Sounds seemed to expand, becoming louder and sharper, so that people spoke in whispers, and even the forest became eerily silent. People in the valley always tried to be as quiet as possible, fearing avalanches from the mountains. As winter finally would begin loosening her grip, the frozen river would begin to thaw, and the sound of the ice cracking would reverberate through the valley, and it was then that the avalanches did occur, with huge banks of snow roaring down the mountainsides. Villagers had learned, over time, to build sturdy, thick-walled stone houses that could withstand such force
Prince Constantine of Morvenia listened to the stillness, straining for any sound, and he thought of the cold and the sharpness of silence in winter, and he wondered if he spoke, his words would crack and shatter like thin icicles and fall to the earth. Being a boy of thirteen, he already knew that pouring water–or anything else—often resulted in it freezing before it even hit the ground, and bitter past experience had taught him to keep his clothes dry, lest ice form and the cold to seep into his skin and down to his bones.
He and several knights rode through the snow-covered valley, making their way north, where the climate was even colder and the spring thaw didn't come until the middle of May. He looked up at the white sky and knew it would snow again soon, and he hoped they would find shelter before dark and the wolves came hunting.
Not that he would ever admit to being afraid of the dark.
Even though he was.
The sound of the horses' feet stomping on the frozen ground, the clanking of metal armor and the rattle of chainmail all seemed amplified, and jarring to his ears. Aside from the sound of the column of soldiers riding through the forest of the Turon Valley, Constantine could only hear the wind and the occasional fitful cawing of crows high in the trees. He hardly felt the cold, however, as he was wearing thick padding beneath his light armor, and his hands were encased in mail-covered gauntlets. Only his cheeks were cold from the biting wind, but he made no complaint—a knight never complained.
He and the knights were on their way to the kingdom of Havor, where he was to spend the summer and fall training for his future as a knight. Constantine had just become a page, and he was looking forward to being officially knighted next spring, by King Louis of Havor. His sixteen-year old brother had remained at home, training for his own future role as King, having already earned his own spurs in battle against the Lacovians last year at Stoneleigh. Constantine was eager for the day he could ride into battle, however much Philip told him that battle was terrible and bloody and frightening. "You won't like seeing your friends being carried home on their shields," Philip had told him. "A Spartan who dies in battle is still dead, and what glory is in that?"
He shook these gloomy thoughts from his mind. He could foresee glory and honors in his future, and as much as he loved his older brother, Constantine knew he was stronger and more hardy. He would survive whatever came his way.
The young prince was under the care and guardianship of Captain Leopold DeForet, a forty-five year old nobleman of some means. The Captain would deliver the boy to the royal court at Dastur, and would remain to assist in his training and education in the art of war. Constantine already knew plenty about war, having read all the available books on the subject. He had devoured the books, reveling in the strategies of Caesar and Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, to his bewilderment, Philip enjoyed reading poetry and playing the lute, of all things.
Constantine would never learn to play something so useless as a bloody lute.
DeForet suddenly raised his fist, and all the knights reined their horses, stopping and listening warily. Constantine's own senses began prickling, his ears tuning to any sound, and he breathed in the air. The acrid smell of burning wood and something else… something unfamiliar, and extremely unpleasant, filled the air. One of the Captain's men whispered something, but Constantine did not hear. He moved forward a little, hoping to catch whatever was being discussed. That smell… he could not place it, but it made his chest tighten and his toes curl inward.
It was the smell of death.
"It's Teslo straight ahead, is it not?" DeForet asked.
"Yes, sir. A very small town," one of the younger knights informed him. "I was… I was born there." He cast his anxious gaze in the direction of the village.
DeForet frowned. "I've heard reports of Lacovians raiding the valley in the winter." He glanced back at the men, his gaze settling on the young prince. "Let's go."
The village of Teslo was advantageously placed alongside the River Turon, and was well known as for its timber mill and its iron works. The local blacksmith, a man named Reeve, was an excellent swordmaker, with armies from as far away as Havor ordering weapons from him yearly. The town, though small, was prosperous, and surrounding farms produced excellent crops of wheat, oats and hopps, and vineyards to the north of the village cultivated some of the finest wine to be found. Further north, near the larger town of Turon, were the rich lands of Count Frederick von Hesse, one of the richest and most powerful men in Livonia. His castle could be seen from Teslo, perched on the high cliff overlooking the valley, its vast turrets, battlements and fifteen-foot thick walls defying and defeating all attackers.
DeForet frowned as he led his group of knights out of the forest and into the sparsely-wooded lands west of the village, and his frown deepened as he saw smoke rising from the horizon to the east. The scent of burning wood and flesh was as nauseating as ever, and one he had never become immune to, even after years of warfare. He looked back at the young knight who had been born in the village and silently commanded him to wait behind while the rest went on.
As they rode over the ridge, the knights pulled their horses to a stop, gasping in horror at the sight before them.
"My God," DeForet whispered, removing his helmet and making the sign of the Cross.
The village lay in ruins, with even the outer walls knocked down. Every structure had been razed and burned, with even the pretty stone church near the walls charred, its roof caved in and its beautiful stained glass windows shattered. Little remained of most of the houses, save smoldering ash. DeForet kicked his horse into a fast trot, the others following close behind, and they rode through what had once been the village gates. He could only make out what had been the huge iron hinges of the gates—nothing else was left.
"Try to find survivors," DeForet ordered quickly, dismounting. The others got off their horses and began cautiously walking through the ruined streets. They began finding bodies in the snow, most preserved by the cold, and each sight was more sickening and heartbreaking than the last. Women and children had even been cut down, many of them run through with swords or shot through with tar-tipped burning arrows. DeForet was horrified when he came upon a pile of headless corpses, stacked in the village square, not far from a makeshift chopping block. He stepped back away from the pile when he found a child among the bodies.
He looked back at his young charge. Prince Constantine had a way of walking without making a sound, like a leopard, and it was unnerving to DeForet, how the boy could sneak up on him.
Frankly, he had been considering getting the boy a bell.
He had trained his older brother Philip, and that young man showed considerable talent, but even now, at just thirteen, this dark-haired, green-eyed boy had uncanny abilities. He was already fearsome with a sword and with his longbow, and could throw a dagger with remarkable accuracy. The Prince walked past DeForet, edging around the pile of bodies, and examined the axe the village's destroyers had left behind, its blade still stuck in the blood-soaked chopping block. "Lacovians. I know the pattern on the handle. See?"
"I'm hardly surprised at that," DeForet nodded. "They are indeed monsters."
"Women and children," Constantine snapped, looking around the ruined village square. "They murdered women and children. They are without conscience or honor. They should be destroyed!"
"There's time enough for that, Highness. Right now we must… we must clean up and see these people are all… buried properly." The stench was making the man gag, and he had to turn away, breathing deeply to calm his lurching stomach.
A knight strode up to them, looking furious. "They even killed the priests and nuns in the church!" he spat.
"Forbid it Almighty God!" Constantine whispered. "Blasphemy!"
DeForet remembered Constantine's mother having said something, rather absently, about the boy's devotion to God. For a young man so eager for warfare, his faith was deep and sincere.
Yet another reason to keep an eye on this one, DeForet thought as he studied the boy. A warrior who humbled himself before God was something to see.
"First things first, Constantine," he finally said, struggling to keep his composure. He gave the boy's shoulder a comforting squeeze and turned to the enraged young knight who had reported the desecration of the church. "Keep searching for survivors, Gerald, and… Highness, we ought to search the countryside, too, to see if local farms were attacked."
Training, indeed, DeForet thought as Constantine walked away. I'm training this boy in the business of death and destruction.
Constantine and DeForet searched the village for the remainder of the morning, finding not a single living soul. DeForet was not at all displeased to see the young Prince becoming more and more upset as they searched each destroyed house and building. They only found bodies—old, young, rich, poor, man, woman, child—and signs of wholesale brutality. The few remaining walls of buildings were smeared with blood and cruel, lewd graffiti that indicated that more than just murder had taken place in the village.
The captain told Constantine to search around outside the village, to see if anyone had managed to escape into the woods. Silently grateful to be spared further scenes of horror, the prince walked out of the town square and made his way to what had been the blacksmith shop of John Reeve—the man's name was even written on the lentil. He stopped at the destroyed smithy, which was next door to the house where the Reeve family had lived. Captain DeForet had mentioned that Reeve had been married with a child… a daughter, perhaps? The prince frowned—he wasn't sure he could cope with the sight of another butchered woman and child, and avoided the burned-out shell of the house entirely, walking over the stone threshold of the smithy instead.
He was not prepared to see the body of a man, lying on the floor near the anvil. Constantine guessed the man was John Reeve, but he would have been hard to identify even by his closest friends—his face was scorched and slashed, and a dagger protruded from his chest. The prince felt bile rising into his throat and turned away, but the sight that greeted him was no better—he saw a once-beautiful young woman lying on her side near the ruined forge, the front of her dress pulled up, her thighs bloody. That proved too much for the boy—he dashed out of the ravaged building and into the yard, where he almost stumbled over the gutted body of a horse. He dropped to his knees at the yard gate, retching up his breakfast and wanting so much to weep and curl up in a ball.
Wiping his mouth, he sat up, looking up at the nearly white sky. Snow was beginning to fall in large, heavy flakes. He closed his eyes, feeling the snow on his face, and prayed. "Dear God, have mercy on their souls."
He struggled back to his feet, and started to turn back, intending to begin searching elsewhere, when he noticed the footprints.
The prince frowned, puzzling as he examined the tracks. The prints were a few hours old, and clearly those of a woman—a barefoot woman. He glanced back at the destroyed blacksmiths' forge—the feet of the woman in there had been bare, and covered with mud. Behind the prints were wagon tracks—she had been pulling a small cart, and from the depth of those tracks it contained something rather heavy. Immediately, he began following the marks, using the skills DeForet had taught him, noticing occasional footmarks of the same feminine prints heading back to the village along the same path, obviously at a flat run. It wasn't long before he was in the thick woods outside the village, and he was frustrated to be delayed by the brush and debris on the forest floor, but he finally found the tracks again. Using his small sword, he cut through the low branches and shrubs, fighting his way through the thick, snow-covered brush.
Distressed, he began calling out. "Hello! Hello, is anyone here? Can you hear me?"
Nothing. Only the mournful sound of the wind, and the soft, almost imperceptible pattering sound of snow falling. Constantine pushed on, determined to find just one survivor. Just one, and it would mean the Lacovians had failed in their quest to eradicate all life from this town. He began calling again, desperately, until he caught a glimpse of color in the gray, stark woods—light blue! He rushed toward the color, frantically cutting through the branches with his sword, and finally came upon its source.
The child was enveloped in blue blankets, and he saw the wagon nearby, and in it he saw numerous fine swords and daggers. A small stack of thick books were stacked behind her as a makeshift pillow. Rushing toward her, Constantine saw she was curled up in a ball, sleeping in the tightly-wound blankets. Sleeping, in such bitter cold and snow! Forcing himself to calm down, so as not to frighten her, he dropped to his knees in front of her, and tried to speak gently—something he wasn't exactly good at, he knew.
"Child… little girl, are you all right?"
Her eyes opened, and she stared up at him, frozen with fear. Her eyes were the bluest he'd ever seen on any living being, and her hair was a raven-black mass of silky curls. He guessed she was perhaps three or four years old.
"Don't be frightened. I will not hurt you." He held out his hand to her, but she shrank away from him. She pulled her blankets around herself and shivered.
"Mama said to wait here," she told him. "She said to wait."
"Did she?" Constantine looked back at toward the village. The poor woman had at least saved her daughter's life, God bless her, he thought sadly.
"She said she would come back when the bad people left. Where is my Mama?" For one so young, she spoke with remarkable clarity, with no childish lisp. There was something very quality about her, he recognized. She was no ordinary little peasant child.
Constantine looked back toward the ruined village again, forming his words carefully. "She… she isn't here. But I've found you and you're very safe, I can… I can assure you."
"I want my Mama!" She tugged the blankets more tightly around herself and shook her head.
"I know you do. But would you come with me now? Uh… we can help you. We… uh… you look very cold, child. What is your name?"
"That's a pretty name."
Constantine jumped when he heard someone coming up behind him, and looked back to see Captain DeForet and two other knights coming. He stood up and gestured toward the little girl.
"I found her… she must be John Reeves' daughter. Eleanor."
DeForet stared down at the girl, momentarily bewildered, but he soon regained his poise.
"Eleanor Reeve," the captain said. "She looks like her mother." DeForet studied the child, then took in the swords and daggers and the stack of books. "Margaret… she was very skilled at healing, or so I always heard."
"Where is my Mama?" the little girl demanded to know. "I want my Mama!"
DeForet had no knack for softening facts, even to children. "She has gone away, child. To be with Jesus and the angels."
"No." Eleanor shook her head. "No, I want my Mama! Tell me where she is!" With that, she began to cry, tears streaming down her face, and she balled her fists and rubbed them away, sobbing until she began to hiccough. Only then did she allow Constantine to pick her up, and she promptly buried her face into his neck and cried, her wails making the other knights utterly miserable for her sake. DeForet caught Constantine's exasperated look but could think of nothing to say in his own defense. What, was he to lie to this little snow sprite?
"I'm sorry," Constantine said, finding it surprising less difficult now to speak gently to her. "Your Mama and Papa are gone now, Eleanor, but we'll take care of you. I promise. I…we won't let anyone hurt you."
The little girl pointed at the remains of the house next door to the smithy. "My house is gone. Where is my house?" She sniffed the acrid air and she looked increasingly frightened.
"Can you tell me when the bad people came here, Eleanor?" Captain DeForet asked her
"It was still dark. Mama put me in the dogcart and took me into the woods and said not to move or make a sound," she said, and resumed chewing on the edge of her blanket, indicating growing stress.
DeForet decided she had had quite enough and picked her up, plonking her rather roughly on the back of his horse. "We must take her with us. God knows if she has kin around here, but we can take her… we'll take her to Count von Hesse."
The child grabbed hold of the horse's reins without being prompted, and seemed comfortable enough. DeForet mounted quickly and gestured for his men to mount up and prepare to leave. "There is nothing else we can do here. The outlying farms were not touched—only the village was destroyed. We must be cautious as we travel—the Lacovians might still be patrolling."
"They wouldn't dare stay around very long. von Hesse has a large number of knights, and I'm sure they've been alerted to what happened," one of DeForet's lieutenants said.
"If they haven't yet, they will be soon," the captain answered, and after checking to see that the tiny child sitting on his warhorse's withers was comfortable, he urged the giant black gelding into a quick trot. DeForet glanced back at Prince Constantine, whose expression was hard—an unsettling thing to see in one so young, he thought as he turned his attention back to the child. However much the boy thought he was covering his feelings, he was a terrible actor and could not hide anything.
The young man was angry.