Riding, as any man will readily attest, is often an overtly monotonous activity, conducive to flighty thoughts and wild deviations of the imagination. With nothing but the empty road ahead, and the dense thundering of hooves ringing faithfully in one's ears, one is inevitably left to turn their attentions inward, mulling over those heavy and ponderous thoughts which our daily lives – busy and demanding, as they are – all too often sequester from our minds. As they beat their way through the bogs and forests of the countryside, Athawulfaz found himself suddenly assailed by a legion of fears and anxieties he had thought banished long ago; the fear of death, of loss – the fear of growing old and gray in bitter solitude. He was determined not to suffer it.
The average traveler, after accounting for rest, nourishment, and errands of sanitation, could have made it to the hall of the Sweboz king in a little under a week – Athawulfaz did it in just two and a half days. Such a grueling journey clearly took its toll on the prince; his face was frozen in an agonized grimace, and faint ripples of blood were seen to trickle from his bandages every now and then, pooling in long waxy tendrils along the length of his undershirt. Still, save the briefest interludes of rest, the man defiantly refused to slow or change his pace – even as his horse began to wheeze beneath him, and loyal Okaz dropped farther and farther back along the trail.
"Hurry up!" the giant barked, his voice slurred by his tightly-clenched teeth. The wind and rain stung at his face but he defied them, his ragged hair lashing like a bundle of whips about his face. For a split second the prince turned and shot a glance down the hill at his destination; in the clearing below lay the sleeping heart of the Sweboz kingdom, her halls and cottages sprawled across the breadth of the valley like a spider web. Athawulfaz turned back, the usual rage burning behind his eyes, but there was something else there now as well – fear, or perhaps despair…
Okaz panted and dug into his horse for the umpteenth time, his frame bent low in the saddle for want of shelter. He squinted and looked towards Athawulfaz, who had become little more than a grey smudge in the distance. "You must slow down!" the warrior cried, his voice wrestling to be heard over an especially vicious clap of thunder. "Your horse will drop dead at this rate – they cannot keep this up!"
"Bah!" was all that the prince deigned to say, angrily spurring his horse as he charged down the last stretch of road towards the city. Some token protestations were raised by Okaz but the nobleman blocked them out, allowing himself to go into an almost trancelike state. The pain from his wounds – seemingly reopened by exertion – was becoming almost unbearable, but Athawulfaz pushed this sensation away too. There would be all the time in the world to rest later.
The prince reached the gates of the palisade and stopped, his horse sounding as if it were prepared to keel over and die on the spot. Athawulfaz swung himself hastily from the beast, but his legs were still weak; they quickly buckled under his weight, sending the giant toppling to the ground. A terrible pain gripped the prince's torso; he weakly fought a powerful urge to vomit.
"Your lordship!" a nameless sentry cried, hustling in full array over to where Athawulfaz now rolled in agony. "Are you alright! What's going on?"
"Help me up," the giant ordered, his voice faint and devoid of its usual force. Even with the scant lighting available one could see that he was extraordinarily pale. Only his eyes still seemed to possess any life; they screamed of stony determination, and a certain grim resolve. He managed to stand, but not without trembling.
"You must open the gate," Okaz commanded, flying into the growing crowd on horseback. "This man must see the king immediately." Almost as an afterthought, the warrior grabbed the guard by the arm. "Came Hrabnaz to the city tonight?"
"Yes sir," the soldier blustered, looking utterly terrified and more than a little confused. "He arrived not more than an hour before supper. He is staying with the King at his hall for the night." He opened his mouth again but could only gape.
Athawulfaz cursed loudly, snatching a sword from a nearby guard with a bloodied hand. "We may be too late," he despaired, looking through a wall of wind and rain towards the looming shape of the king's hall at the hilltop. "Gods, please don't let it be too late..."
The sentry captain seemed to regain some of his wits, rallying his men around him as one of their number ran for support. "Wait a minute," he began hesitantly, "someone still needs to explain what's going on."
Okaz grabbed the man by the shoulder and took him aside, speaking in low, almost conspiratorial tones. "Steel yourself for the gravity of what I am about to say: Prince Hrabnaz is a traitor." He brushed aside the guard's astonished look. "He has sold his loyalties to the western king Bidajaz; it was through his machinations that our army was put to flight in the field. We fear he intends to slay honest Heruwulfaz and take the throne."
It took a fair span of time for the captain to digest this astonishing report; his eyes seemed to blink rapidly, as if he had been physically struck over the head. Several times he opened his mouth but could do nothing save exhale; his subordinates behaved similarly, looking back and forth between the two men in complete stupefaction. When he finally spoke, however, he spoke with a kind of dignified resolve and purpose that Okaz would never forgot as long as he lived.
"Lead the way, brother."
It was an excruciating and unbearable feeling, to be so close to your goal and still lack the strength to cross the finish line. Hrabnaz stood in silence, unnoticed by all save the whispery cloud of gnats buzzing by the open windowsill. His left hand hung limply at his side, twitching and jerking uncontrollably as the traitor pondered his task. In his right hand he clutched his dagger – the metal of the blade shimmering and warping beneath the refracted moonlight. Not more than five feet away from him, his target – the great King Heruwulfaz – lay in total slumber. His trusted guards had retired for the evening, his retainers were dismissed and abed – he was alone.
It should have been easy – there were no obstacles in his path. Hrabnaz was hardly a champion fighter, but he was no stranger to the blade either; a single, clean slash and Heruwulfaz would be dead – nobody would ever suspect the identity of his killer. Once he was out of the picture, the deaths of his other brothers would be trivial. The Sweboz Confederacy would splinter and break apart; the empire Heruwulfaz had wrought overnight would tumble by sunrise. The Northlands, in their chaos, would cry out for a savior; and who better to step into that role than the wise and benevolent Hrabnaz?
A muffled noise came from the sleeping king, and suddenly every muscle in Hrabnaz's body was poised to flee; he put his arms up and crouched down like a wolf, his senses becoming acute and honed. A moment later, and the prince realized his folly; Heruwulfaz turned over and was still – it had been nothing more than dream-induced mumbling. Still, the incident reminded him of his vulnerability – it was time to stop dawdling and act. Glory and honor unmeasured awaited him.
Hrabnaz hefted the dagger high into the air, and time stood still for a single moment as he looked down at his brother. A flood of memories washed over his mind, like waters bursting from a dam; he found himself remembering days long gone and past. He thought of happy, trivial things – of racing homemade rafts down the river, of days wrestling each other along a sandy beach. He thought of hunting together, of sneaking out late at night, and of the long talks they used to have out walking in the woods. Then, like a flashing ray of lightening, the memories faded – his arm unfurled and struck downward.
A thunderous crash – a blinding wave of torchlight as the door to the king's bedchambers was thrown forcibly open. Hrabnaz froze as a hulking silhouette stomped through the doorway, a party of soldiers behind him as his free hand extended an accusatory finger towards the would-be murderer. "Hold, traitor!"
With a sudden start, Heruwulfaz woke up, pulling his blanket tighter about him like a frightened child. "What is going-"he began, but all his questions ceased as his eyes fell upon the glistening dagger just above his head. His gaze trailed from the deadly blade, over to Hrabnaz's petrified face – back and forth, comprehension and horror both slowly creeping across his countenance.
Hrabnaz did as Hrabnaz was wont to do: he fled, striding the distance between himself and the window in a matter of moments. Without the slightest pause he vaulted out into the howling night storm, his body already in a running stance as he plunged the short drop to the ground. Athawulfaz ran over to the sill, a furious rage bubbling in his gut as he watched his brother mount up and take off down the road. "Run, you coward!" he bellowed with an anger that was extreme even for him. "We'll see how long you can hide!"
Another door flung open with a bang, and this time it was Ansuharjaz that entered the room, a pair of royal guards standing armed and ready at his sides. A comical look of adrenaline was plastered on the prince's face as he looked maniacally at all of his potential targets, a long wooden stirring spoon clenched in his right hand. "Royal blood shall not be spilled without a fight!" he barked madly.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Athawulfaz had to fight back a small chuckle as he pried the spoon from his brother's hands. "Save your wrath, Ansuharjaz," the giant seethed. "The culprit has already escaped."
The newcomer cursed and flopped into a chair; far from his usual cool composure, the man was clearly shaken. "How could this have happened!" the prince cried, suddenly sounding angry. "What fool let an assassin waltz into our home – do we employ guards, or children!"
"It was easy," Athawulfaz began darkly, "seeing as how the assassin is also our brother."
Not a single muscle on Ansuharjaz's body moved for the longest time; his back became rigid and erect, his eyes wide and unblinking. There was a slight twitch on his face when he finally looked up at Athawulfaz and simply asked, "What?"
"I do not know all the details," the prince conceded, at this point beginning to simply sound tired and defeated, "but I know enough. Hrabnaz is a traitor – he appears to have given his loyalties to King Bidajaz of the Heruskoz. I can't say for how long this has been going on…"
Athawulfaz turned to his eldest brother and grimaced – although perhaps this was simply on account of his running wounds. "Our army is crushed," he said curtly, "because our brother told the western tribes of our movements. We were ambushed – we fought our all, but all the odds were against us…the remnants are probably regrouped…somewhere." The prince hastily lowered himself into a chair, hissing as he mastered a fresh wave of pain. "They may still be numerous enough to fight a war, if properly led."
Heruwulfaz – who had until then sat in silence – was finally compelled to release a long and burdened sigh. His face fell into his hands – a massive ache throbbed in his temples. The volume of what he was being asked to process was astounding; it seemed like something out of a dream, or more accurately a nightmare. No words seemed adequate.
Okaz – feeling awkward and rather out of place – was the first to break the silence. "Um…my king?" he began uneasily. "Do you have orders?"
Another pause hung as Heruwulfaz stood from his bed. Step by painful step he made his way over to the window – moving as if he were sleepwalking, or entranced by some spell. For a long minute he simply gazed out across the city, closing his eyes as the spray of rain soothed his face and the crash of thunder beat in his ears. At last, all his thoughts came together with a great, emotionless shrug.
"Rally all the soldiers and fighting men of Sweboz," he commanded. "Bidajaz must fall."