A full moon rose over the Sarkanian war camp, and the sun was finally gone after a long summer’s day of heat and blood. Camp followers were busying themselves preparing the camp to leave the next morning; packing away food and luggage into wagons and taking down tents that were no longer needed, while healers tended to the wounded and slow dying.
“I have the water,” Harik Wulfsurd groaned as he entered a medical tent, the water sloshing in its pale as he placed it down on a table.
“Thank you, lord,” said Erleath, a thin man who wore a plain grey robe. Erleath had been the king’s personal surgeon, but now found himself leading a co-ordinated effort to save as many of the wounded as possible. While most ‘surgeons’ were content to practice ancient, primitive and painful medicine, Erleath’s training at the Grand University left him a considerably more qualified and effective doctor. He was also one of Harik’s closest friends, and after the day that had passed, he was needed more than ever.
“There’s no need to thank me. I fought besides these men today, and the least I can do is fetch them water,” Harik said, stepping back from the bucket as Erleath dipped a lightly bloodied rag into the water and then rinsed it out with a squeeze.
Erleath turned and made his way back over to a cot, where a man whose arm and chest were bandaged lay unconscious but feverish. He leaned over him, then took a clean cloth and began to wipe away the soldier’s sweat. The tent was relatively peaceful now, but several hours ago it had been filled with the screams of men.
“Today has been a day I would not want to repeat,” said Erleath. “I know what happened, yet even so I cannot bring myself to admit it is real. I can comprehend the results of it, but the full weight has yet to settle on me.”
“Because the day is not yet done, despite the darkness,” Harik replied, then he sighed involuntarily. “I have never been so exhausted.”
“You should rest,” Erleath suggested, looking back at him.
“I cannot. And truth be told I’m afraid to. I fear I might cry, my friend, and that is not something I would want being seen,” Harik joked with solemn tone.
“There’d be no shame in it. Not after today.”
Harik’s eyes were suddenly drawn to his right hand, and he watched how it trembled despite his utmost efforts to contain it. Eventually he grew frustrated and gripped it with his left, squeezing until the spasms calmed through force. “There’ll be time for that later perhaps,” he said. “But right now, I can’t afford it. The prince needs me, whether he knows it or not, and I must be strong for his sake.”
“Where is he?” Erleath asked.
“In his father’s tent. I’d best go now, but I’ll send him to you later. He’ll need something to help him sleep.”
Erleath nodded in silence, then went back to his patient. Harik stood watching for a moment, then shook himself to action and walked out of the tent.
Outside the mood was as low as to be expected. Soldiers sat around their campfires, some eating, some sleeping, some merely staring into the flames. It was almost completely silent, where by right it should have been alive with drinking, and songs of victory. Harik saw some celebrate in their own small ways as he made his way through, but even those suffered from an understanding lack of motivation.
He could only be thankful that half the men were away on the other side of the valley, taking stock of the Lavellan camp and securing the prisoners under the duke’s command. It gave each man that little bit more space to mourn.
Eventually Harik came upon the tent of King Valen II and stepped inside without a word. The place had been cleared out, the furniture and bed pushed to the very edges, the desk and chairs piled in a corner. Two tables had been moved into the middle of it, and on each a figure lay motionless under a clean white sheet. Harik gulped and stepped closer to them, noticing how the sheet fell to the gentle shape of their bodies and not the hard armour they had both been wearing. Someone dressed them in formal clothing, though he could not imagine it had been Arian.
He saw Arian then, sat on the floor with his legs out in front of him and his back against the leg of a desk. His hands were on his lap, and in them he held a knife. Harik watched him in silence, trying to think what he could possibly say to ease his pain, but in the end he could think of nothing.
“I keep wondering if I should not just take my own life,” Arian eventually said. His voice was flat, his tone as dead as the expression on his face. He stared blankly at the other side of the tent, and his eyes were red from doing so. “I keep asking myself whether they are in the afterlife, whether they’re urging me to come and join them and I simply cannot hear.”
“Neither of them would want that,” Harik said, walking over to the tables and looking down on the forms that lay on them. “They would want you to stay here and continue what they cannot. They would want you to be the king. You are the king.”
Arian scoffed at the notion. “I’m not a king,” he said, sliding his thumb across the flat of his knife. “I have never wanted to be a king, and I cannot be one. Someone else can be king. Maybe you should take the crown, Harik, for you were like my father’s brother.”
“If you were not Valen’s son, those words would be treason,” Harik said as he turned to face him. “And I would think myself treasonous if I so much as considered them.”
Arian sniggered, then fell into silence and thought. They both did; Arian staring at a small piece of the carpet covered ground, Harik pacing slowly with his hands behind his back. This went on for almost five minutes of contemplation, with Harik trying to find the words that could somehow make the situation better, and Arian merely wanting to forget.
“How can it be that such a victory feels like such a defeat? How can the conquerors lose more than they conquered?” Arian asked, finally blinking.
Harik stopped pacing. “I have asked myself that same question many a time,” he replied. “I have been fighting wars since I was your own age, and rare it is that I have stood victorious on a battlefield and felt that it was righteous. Only this time, our losses have cut far more deeply than usual.”
“I suppose so,” Arian said, trailing off again into thought.
“But no matter how we may feel, we did win. King Armand is a prisoner, as is many of his lords and knights. We have victory over Lavell, and with their king in our care you can set any terms for peace that you wish. You could force him to hand you his crown, if you wished it.”
“His crown…” Arian pondered. “I do not even want my father’s crown, never-mind Armand’s.”
“Just… Think on it, would you? No matter how we feel, tomorrow will come all the same. As will the days that are to follow it.”
“And they could be no further from my mind.”
“That may be so, but it is the truth, and the truth cannot be changed,” Harik told him.
“Leave me now, Harik. I want to be alone.”
Harik looked down at the prince, then bowed to him in defeat. There was more he had wanted to say, but he knew that pushing him further would only worsen his condition. When his back was straight again, he turned towards the tent flap and left.
Arian remained there in silence, unmoving and in thought. He suddenly began to picture memories of times long past; when his aunt had died, and two young boys had stood in a stone hall as men carried her body out. He remembered when Caden had almost died of fever, and how the king had taken them out hunting when he recovered. He remembered how much they had all laughed when the king had slipped by the river and fell in. He remembered his twelfth birthday, when Lord Gray’s daughter quickly pecked him on the lips, and his father laughed and told him that he was now a man. He remembered when Caden first came back from war, and spent days sitting silently in the garden and trying to hide his tears.
Arian suddenly felt like crying, but the tears would not come. His mind was too numb, his eyes and body too sore, and eventually he had to close them.
“My lord prince?” Asked a feminine voice.
Arian woke. It was extremely silent now, and the fire had almost faded. How long had he been sleeping? He looked up to the source of the voice, a woman in a dark cloak with an unnatural beauty… And eyes that he was sure were gold.
“You’re the woman from the Philosopher King, aren’t you?” He asked her, only now remembering that his father had told him. He wasn’t supposed to know, but the king had warned him just in case the unthinkable happened. It had.
“I am, lord prince,” Ethelyn said, her voice as soft as her mahogany hair. She stepped into the tent near silently and approached the bodies that lay under the white sheets. “So, it Is true? I had hoped that, perhaps… You have my deepest sympathies.”
“What do you want?” Arian asked her, slightly annoyed by how she had interrupted him. “I am busy.”
“I know. You are busy grieving, lord prince…” Ethelyn said, then turned away from the sheets to look at him. “I call you by that title because they say you refuse the crown. Is this true?”
“It is. Or not… I don’t know. I do not want to be king. I am not cut out for it. But you haven’t answered my question, and I do not think the guards would let you in here if you did not have a good reason,” Arian answered.
“I wish to know what happens to Sarkana. My lord wishes to know,” Ethelyn told him.
“Without my father, without my brother, there is no Sarkana,” Arian said.
“But there must,” Ethelyn told him. “Sarkana must continue to exist, to be led by its royal sons. Many great things depend on it, my lord prince.”
Arian looked up at her, his expression scolding. “I do not care what must happen, or more likely what the Philosopher King wishes to happen. I have lost my entire family this day, Ethelyn, and I could no longer give a rat’s shit about anything. I do not want to rule, I want my brother and my father back.”
“So, you will not be king?” Ethelyn asked as she looked down on him in judgement, clearly wanting some final answer.
“No. I will not,” Arian snapped, now sick of the question. “You can have the damn crown if it means so much to you.”
“Then it must go to your brother. We must save him.”
“Do you wish to make me out to be a fool? My brother is dead. How dare yo-“
“No, he is not. Not yet.”
Arian stopped mid-word, his heart stammering. “What?”
Ethelyn didn’t immediately answer, and instead turned to the two bodies that lay there. She gently picked up the ends of the sheets, then folded them down against the shoulder blades so that the pale, dead faces of King Valen II and Prince Caden could be seen. Their eyes were closed and seeing them made Arian look away.
The mahogany-haired woman examined the two men’s faces and whispered to herself, “the king is too old. It would not work, I’m sorry…”, and then placed her hands gently on either side of Caden’s grey face.
“Prince Arian, what would you give if you could have your brother again?” Ethelyn asked without looking at him.
“Anything. I would give anything,” Arian answered desperately, pushing himself to his feet with hope rekindled in his heart. “I will give everything.”
Ethelyn looked at him then and took her hands from Caden’s face and placed them gently at the front of her dress. “Then I accept your offer, lord prince. Quickly now, as there is no time to waste, we must bring Prince Caden to somewhere quiet and private, and I must be left alone to do my work. Under no circumstances must I be disturbed, do you understand?”
Arian froze for a moment, not sure what he was hearing. She could save his brother? But he was gone! He began to think that perhaps it might be some trick, or cruel joke on some enemy’s behalf, but the longer he said nothing the more vexed her expression became and the more he realized she was being earnest. Arian took a deep breath, then finally answered her: “Yes, Lady Ethelyn. I understand.”
“Then let us save your brother.”