"The sun is waning," Enman noted, reining his courser to a slow trot. "And our game has outrun us for the third time."
"I've never known you to give up so easily, brother," Geldall scolded playfully, pushing the salt-and-pepper hair out of his eyes. "We've had worse hunts."
The younger brother watched the shadows of the trees grow around them; great, thick-armed oaks that wilted over the lip of grey rock they had been treading for some time. "Yes, but we were much younger then, with a lot less to lose."
"What do you think, Marcus?"
The question did not come at a surprise for the young legionary captain. More oft than not the Crown-Prince had taken time out of the journey to speak with him. A common courtesy his father must have taught him, he thought, watching Geldall slow his horse to match pace with his own. Any good ruler would make sure all of his followers are well noticed and appreciated. "I do not have a say either way, My Prince," he said.
"Ah, come now Marcus! Do not be polite in the eyes of your Prince! Have courage! You must have a thought one way or another!" Geldall laughed. The old lines of his face creased naturally to his bright smile, and the twilit sun flashed over his aquamarine eyes.
They had been at it since the crack of dawn, when the rosy fingers of the sun crawled over the snow-capped and ragged peaks of the Valus Mountains. So it had been a long ride for the young legionnaire, who was dressed full in his cloud-gray platemail and spaded greathelm. "The day has been hard on me, My Prince," he admitted softly.
"Ah yes, I see, I see," Geldall said in that always-playful tone. He was a man with a boy's soul. "Why not hunt with us? Take off that armor and we'll give you a proper horse. A destrier is no good suit for the wilderness." He glanced down at the silver longsword hanging at Marcus' waist. His eyes then flicked to the darksteel buckler strapped to his other arm, and he smiled. "We'll also give you more appropriate weapons. A longsword will get you tangled in the low branches here."
"If it please you, My Prince," Marcus said ruefully, immediately wishing he had refused him.
"Of course it would please me! Come, come." He called for the Legionary forrester captain, Perrin Quinton. The seasoned hunter cantered forward on his paint-horse. Closely following behind was the royal clothier, Rayond Drismond, riding a horse that lugged a grotesque, heart-shaped wardrobe squeaking on wooden wheels. Both dismounted as Geldall reached over to hold the reins of Marcus' destrier. "Go on," The Crown-Prince urged. "I'll walk her back to the rest of your legionnaires."
Marcus slowly slid off his horse, and immediately Perrin started to undress him without a word. The Legion Forrester was tired as well, he saw. The events of the day dragged his aged face down in a glum frown. His sullen eyes were like coals; no light touched them.
First came his cuirass, which was unfastened using the two black-leather buckles on it's sides. It was pried off his chest with a firm clank. Then came his gauntlets, two layered steel gloves that were thickly padded underneath for the comfort of his hands. Then they wrestled his pauldrons off, which apparently were so heavy that both Rayond and Perrin had to work together to unfasten them, one at a time.
The Crown-Prince had returned by the time they started to remove the young captain's helm. He passed the pile of scrap Marcus' armor had been thrown into, and made a face. "I cannot imagine wearing this for more than an hour. How old are you, Marcus?"
"A month yet until twenty, My Prince."
"That young?" Geldall laughed. "Ah Divines, I wish I were that young again. It truly is a struggle to find something lively to do at fifty-six." He watched as his clothier and forrester finally pulled off Marcus' spaded helm. "Such long hair, my friend! And it looks almost silver… tell me, Marcus, do you have nordic blood in you?"
They pulled the chainmail haubergeon over his head and through his arms. It slunk to the ground with a sheer metallic sound. He thanked the merciful breeze twilight brought, now standing shirtless. Sweat glossed over his pale skin, running like oil over the contour of his muscles.
"That I do, My Prince." It was his mother's side, to be exact. He did not know much about her, other than what his father had said, long ago. "A true northern beauty." He still remembered the raspiness in his father's voice as if he told him yesterday. He had sad, twinkling eyes whenever he talked about mother. "With great blonde hair and a young, lively face."
"You must be strong, carrying all of that weight on your shoulders for so long," Geldall admired.
"Strong," Marcus admitted with a tilt of his head, "but short." He reached out his arm; a stubbly, stocky piece of flesh that bore no scars yet. "It makes me at a loss against long-reaching weapons, My Prince."
The Crown-Prince looked amused. "Humble as well. It seems my Councilmen have appointed a fine young man as legionary captain. I am looking forward to many years ahead with you at the head of the Imperial City Guard."
"Many thanks, My Prince."
They had donned a loose collared shirt over his chest by now. The wind picked up, weaving through its thin cloth and tickling him. It felt nice to be without armor.
They dressed him in an olive-green wool cloak that was pinned around his neck, two leather bracers coiled around each wrist, and a small leather doublet that he wore over his loose shirt. For comfortable riding, they gave him a choice: Soft, black leather pants, or doeskin breeches. He chose the latter.
Somewhere off in the wood a dog barked. No, not one, Marcus corrected, several. The heavy snap of their jaws and witch-like yelps grew closer, and Geldall had reined his horse forward to welcome the other hunting party.
They were four who had chosen to ride ahead to see if they could catch the hart for themselves. Marcus knew all four riders. There came Sir Hardwyn Hill, a Knight of the Thorn, at the front, his bald head as pristine as a still lake, with a longbow nearly as tall as he was slung across his back, and then behind him Ordin Indarys, Count Cheydinhal's younger brother, with his hair of golden fire and skin of sea blue, and behind him Lord Agryn, a Breton noble who looked fatter than his horse was long, and there, riding on his checkered mare, the Imperial court wizard Nevacen, who looked uncomfortable, his nervous eyes darting around violently.
The three high-born swayed on their horses, laughing drunkenly. Five hounds flanked them, two on one side and three on the other. When Geldall reached them, one dog in particular, a foxhound with a coat of pearl-white fur, leaped forward to muzzle his nose affectionately against the Crown-Prince's outreaching hand.
"We've found him, thanks to the hounds," Ordin hiccuped. "Great beast doesn't know we're here either!" He laughed merrily.
"You shoulda seen it, Geldall," the fat lord said, glazed chins shaking like jello cake, "right when we were about to turn back, your hound picked up his scent! It was as if the Divines gave us blessing for this hunt!"
Geldall laughed, but Marcus could tell this one was a bit forced. "Excellent! Let us ride then. Are you coming, brother?"
Enman had been silently striding along with his courser. There was a cold, unspeakable contempt in his eyes now, where before they looked half-bored, almost half-tired. The muscles on his face did not give way to any emotion when he said, "Yes, I think I shall."
And so they rode.
There were eight of them in total, riding in rows of two. Geldall had personally asked for Marcus to ride up front with him, where they could quietly whisper and let the wind whirl above their heads, carrying their words away in the night.
The sky was a black carpet now, emblazoned with diamonds that winked down through the trees. Dappled shadows ran over Geldall's riding jerkin of sable. Two crescent moons rose from the east. Pools of their light shimmered in patches on the forest floor. Every now and then the Crown-Prince would trot over one, and it would outline him in an elegant halo, painting his skin and cloak alike with divine fingers.
"How much further?" Enman asked when the trees fell silent over them. Marcus heard a small quiver in his voice.
"Shouldn't be too long now, my princes," Lord Agryn drunkenly assured, swaying from his horse.
"I do not like the night," Enman confessed, covering his chest with his fur cloak. "I cannot see anything."
"We have been blessed by two crescent moons, brother," Geldall pointed out. "Father has always said that the two crescents make up for more light than a half moon come the days of Last Hearth."
Enman seemed to ignore his older brother. "I wish Edel were here. His young eyes could prove to be useful. He was the best hunter of all three of us."
Geldall looked a bit irritated now, like a boy who hadn't gotten his way. The comment from his brother seemed to have wounded him. "We have young eyes," he said, somewhat icily. He turned to the young Imperial captain. "What do you see, Marcus?"
Darkness was the guess in his mind. But he was smarter than to insult the Emperor's first-born son in such a way. "Pray me a good chance to look, My Prince." He dismounted, taking Geldall's silent nod as affirmation, cloak billowing behind him like a ghost.
A cold chill swayed the trees. Somewhere, off in the distance, something gave out a deep shriek.
"What was that?" Enman asked. This time, his voice had a sudden steadfastness to it that almost made Marcus jerk around.
"Quiet," Geldall quipped. "Marcus," he called out again, several feet behind, hoping the darkness had not taken the Imperial Captain. "What do you see?"
"Nothing." It was plain and simple. Beyond the several feet of fallen leaves and twisting trees, only shadow lingered. Like perverse monsters, it danced ominously against his eyes, making it hard for him to discern his imagination from stark reality.
Again, deep into the forest, there was a deep cry.
This one was not like its sister's. This one was threaded with pain, whereas the one previous was defensive.
"That is no natural sound," Sir Hardwyn said, seemingly sobered now that the cry blew through him. He pulled out his longbow warily.
Even the dogs seemed put off. Two of them started to whimper as they circled around the knight's horse. Only Geldall's hound looked unafraid as it sniffed curiously around, padding as far out as Marcus was standing.
The captain felt suddenly naked without his armor, standing a good ways in front of the others. He reached for the short sword at his belt. It blinked ready.
They waited for what felt like hours. Silence crept around them.
And then there it was. A dark figure, bounding between the trees. Leaves crunched, and the wind whistled a high tune. Geldall's foxhound growled threateningly.
"Could it be the hart?" Ordil suggested. There was a strong quiver in his voice.
"Most likely," Perrin said from behind. His horse trotted forward. "It seems like it has been wounded, however."
"Well let's go and get to it before we lose it!" Geldall said, reining his horse forward.
"Careful, My Prince!" The old forrester cantered his courser to block Geldall's from speeding past. "We don't know what attacked it. It could be dangerous…"
The Crown-Prince laughed. "Oh, what are we, women? We are letting the night play tricks on our eyes! Come, let us go chase this hart and claim our reward! We cannot linger out here all night! I have guests expecting me in the morrow!"
Before anyone could argue, the foxhound lunged forward, barking loudly.
"See! Winter has the right idea!" Geldall said as he dug his heels into his horse, spinning away into the dark.
Immediately Perrin, Enman, and Nevacen, the court wizard, galloped after him. Shouts of "My Prince! Wait!" echoed through the forest now, loud as church bells. The other three looked confused, deciding whether or not to ride forth. Night's spell has paralyzed them, Marcus thought, saddling his horse and kicking it forward, leaving them behind.
He was not too far behind the Court wizard, he saw. He dug his heels deeper into his horse and it neighed in retaliation, but obeyed. He flew by the old man as he disappeared behind him in a blur. The wind kissed his face and played with his hair. The sweet smell of maple tickled his nose. For a while he rode, horse hooves crunching the leaves with every galloping stride, the whip-like sound his hair made clicking behind him. And the moons smiled ominously down on him, one as silver as brandished steel, the other redder than any dragon's fire.
A red circle in the distance ran over his sight and glistened like a fluorescent ruby. He could see the shadows of three men eclipsed by its blazing, hellish light. He kicked his courser harder.
When he was near enough, with the light spilling over trees and leaves, he reined her to a stop, hastily leaping off and running forward, steel bared tightly in his hand.
Before him, and the three others, hewn into the ground as if it were hammered into place, stood erect a giant portal, spouting flames as red as blood into the cold, lifeless air. Like a fiery eye, it captivated him with an iris of swirling yellows and oranges, piercing him with a darkness that chilled him to the bone. What in Oblivion is that? he pondered, taking one step back. As far as curiosity came, it left just as fast.
Geldall was close to it… too close for comfort. Enman and Perrin both shouted for him, pleading for him to come back. The body of the dead hart was lying to the side, Winter playfully nipping at its gigantic carcass. When standing on all fours it could have possibly been twice the size of Marcus.
Marcus could faintly hear the screams of the others.
"Geldall, get back!" Perrin urged.
"Brother, please! We need to leave!"
But the Crown-Prince took another step towards the portal.
Suddenly, Marcus could not hear the whisper of the leaves, or the whistle of the wind, or smell the sweet scent of maple. Like magic, the portal stopped time. The sky was no longer stippled with stars, but shattered with red lightning. Thunder roared above.
Like surfacing from water, a dark figure stepped out from within the portal. It stood in front of Geldall, towering over him. Its armor was blacker than night, with cracks and chinks in it that glowed red-hot like a volcano, pulsing like a rapid heartbeat.
Marcus stopped breathing.
Like waking from a dream, Geldall staggered back and drew his short silver blade, whipping his cloak over his shoulder. He had said something, but the portal's high pitched humming drowned out all sound for the young Imperial Captain.
He ran forward to save his Prince.
The dark figure drew its sword; a demonic, malformed black blade with edges more rugged than rocks on a fjord. A crimson hue gleaned down its surface, and for some reason Marcus knew that it was hotter than anything he would touch.
Geldall lunged forward with his short sword. It whipped at the dark shadow, the flat of the blade catching the blinding light of the portal.
Clink. Swords interlocked for just a moment. Geldall was pushed back from the recoil, but he lunged forward again, determined to uphold his honor.
Clink. He lunged with his weapon keenly weighed in front of him, his shortsword grazing against the black steel in a flurry, clink clink clink, before staggering back some more.
Clink. The third engage was met with a falter. Marcus had barely reached his Prince in time to try and block the thrust of the armored shadow.
The black steel squelched, satisfied, as it bit into the chest of the Crown-Prince. Geldall gave out a cry as he cupped the wound with his fingers. Black blood poured like a fountain into his hands, and he tumbled backwards with a half-hearted groan.
Marcus swung his blade, aiming to hack the shadow's head off. But when his steel met with the ebon steel of its armor, the sword shrieked, breaking in two.
He did not feel the sword pierce through him. He had no idea how many times it tore through his flesh, sinking into his skin in a jabbing motion, before he fell backwards as well.
The others… The ground fell up to slap his face as he tasted soot and gravel and the metal tang of blood. Reaching deep into his mind he managed to scoot himself away from the blaring red light. They must be warned.
Something hard slammed down on his chest, and he squirmed like a bug, fingers fruitlessly grabbing the soil in front of him to try and get him to slide further away. But he was anchored, chest caving under all the pressure. He heard several ribs snap below him as the force grew tenfold, and his chest completely collapsed.
His father was talking to him. He was not sad anymore, but almost giddy. She was a beauty, with beautiful locks of silver hair, he said as he tickled Marcus.
He laughed. "I'm not a girl," he said. Something thick and warm was in his mouth, and he tried to spit it out. But he only laughed harder. "Stop, it hurts," he pleaded, and laughed and laughed until he could not feel his chest any longer.