The farmhouse door opened into the morning and from the shadows of its interior stepped Caden Sarka, wearing nothing more than a ragged shirt and trousers. The sun lit up the village in front of him, and its villagers walked about their early morning business in the presence of patrolling Sarkanian soldiers. Behind Caden followed Ethelyn, her dress green and worn from age and activity. At the end of the yard, several guards stood watch by a gate.
“Th-They’ve come out!” One of the guards said, nudging his companion so that he would turn around and look at them. “Quick, fetch the prince!”
“Your highness!” Cried another, immediately dropping to a knee and bowing his head low. “You have returned to us!”
“… Good morning,” Caden answered them, still bewildered from all that had happened. He walked slowly and somewhat clumsily towards them, then sat himself down on a bench. Ethelyn watched him do this, then silently sat herself in an old rocking chair.
One of the distant soldiers ran into a tavern that lay further up a dirt road, and Caden turned his head towards Ethelyn. “Where are we?” He asked her.
“The small village to the west of camp. I do not know the name of it, lord king,” she replied.
Caden stared at her. “You keep calling me lord king. Why? I am not king, my father is.”
“There are… Some things you do not yet know.”
Caden closed his fist, tired of the way she evaded his question. He felt himself growing frustrated and was about to raise his voice to demand she answered him, but another raised voice caught him off guard.
“Caden!” Yelled his younger brother, vaulting over the fence and running across the yard towards him. “You’ve alive!”
Caden only just managed to stand before Arian ran into him almost headfirst, his arms wrapping around him tightly. Caden grunted at the force of the impact and the pain from his chest-wound flared, though he did not complain.
“Hello, brother,” Caden greeted him. But there was no answer, and Caden looked over Arian’s shoulder as Harik Wulfsurd marched over towards them with his shirt half-buttoned.
“Arian?” Caden asked, wanting a reply from him, but none came. Caden suddenly began to realize that Arian was crying, and the novelty of Arian’s dramatic morning greeting gave way to the fact that his brother was genuinely upset. Her realized Arian had honestly believed Caden to be dead, or as close to it as one could get, and that Caden’s reappearance was an infinite and solitary relief.
“It’s fine. I’m here. I’m alive,” Caden assured, slowly pushing Arian away from him as his hold softened. As Arian finally stepped away and wiped his eyes, Wulfsurd drew a sword that hung at his hip and stabbed it down into the mud in front of him, then went down to a knee behind it with his head bowed.
“My lord Caden,” Wulfsurd said fiercely. “You have no idea the relief I feel at your good health. I pledge to you my undying, endless loyalty – I will fight for you no matter what odds I might face, I will overcome any challe-“
“Stop, Wulfsurd,” Caden interrupted him. “I don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t remember what happened. Where’s my father?”
Wulfsurd suddenly went silent, and Arian took a breath far deeper than usual. “He’s dead,” Arian said bluntly, his eyes still red from upset, and Caden’s heart stopped.
“He’s dead? What do you mean he’s dead? How can he be dead?” Caden asked.
Wulfsurd looked up at him, then slowly stood. “He fell in battle, my lord.”
“Stop calling me ‘my lord’, Wulfsurd,” Caden snapped, irritated and upset. “What do you mean he fell in battle?”
“He… Was hit by an arrow, Caden,” Wulfsurd told him, and Caden’s eyes widened and he put his hands up to his head and turned away, trying his best to process what he could not believe.
“He isn’t,” Caden protested. “He can’t be. Ethelyn, your entire reason for being here is based on my father’s meeting with the Philosopher King. This must be a jest, and I expect you now to tell me the truth of it.”
Ethelyn slowly shook her head. “I’m sorry, lord king, but that is the truth,” she told him.
Wulfsurd looked to Ethelyn then, for he did not know who she was or what she was doing there. “The Philosopher King?” He asked. “Why do you speak of the Philosopher King? What is happening here, Caden? Who is this woman?”
“She’s… An envoy,” Caden answered him, turning back around towards Wulfsurd. “But this is not the time to explain this, Harik.”
“Caden… Your eyes are a different colour,” said Arian.
Suddenly everyone went silent; Arian, Wulfsurd and the guards accompanying them; and they all looked into Caden’s eyes with an intense curiosity. Caden looked at them, then at Ethelyn, who stood and approached him and took something small, flat and square out of her dress. She held the small mirror up to him, and Caden looked into its warped reflection to find his once green eyes were now pale like snow, with the slightest hint of blue.
“It is the result of the methods used to bring him back from the brink of death,” Ethelyn told them, putting the mirror away.
“It is witchcraft,” Wulfsurd suddenly said. “You are a witch.”
“Wulfsurd, that’s enough,” Caden ordered.
“I am sorry, Caden, but it is not,” Wulfsurd answered, then focused on Ethelyn again. “What unholy magic have you used, so-called servant of the Philosopher King? What hold does his sorceress have over the son of my greatest friend?”
“There is no hold, Lord Wulfsurd,” Ethelyn replied with her expected politeness and diplomatic tone. “The lord prince was gravely wounded, and I obtained Prince Arian’s permission to heal him.”
“No. No, I do not believe it,” Wulfsurd said, looking at Caden’s unnatural eyes once more. “I am truly sorry Caden, but you were not just gravely injured. You were dead. I saw you fall in combat; I saw your body. There was a stillness in you that only death can cause, and then you disappeared into a farmer’s hut with a woman who we have no reason to trust and remained there in secret with her for over an entire day, only to emerge with eyes that do not belong to a Sarka.”
“Harik, stop this,” Arian protested. “He can’t have been dead. Look at him! He is here, alive! We have him back again!”
Caden watched Wulfsurd with a disappointed sadness but could not bring himself to speak out against him, even in his own defence.
“But the king isn’t,” argued Wulfsurd. “Why could he not be saved?”
The group fell silent then, and they each looked to each other. Wulfsurd’s suspicions were flared but neither brother answered him, and even Caden knew there was some insight to his question. Even so, he was too like an uncle to the brothers for either of them to argue back, and Caden merely looked to see Arian’s reaction as Ethelyn stood silent at his side.
After a short while, Wulfsurd spoke again. “Forgive me, my lords. I am tired and grieving, and I do not wish to make Caden’s blessed return into something sour. Caden, you are now my king, and no matter what transpires you will have my loyalty and my love, but I must beg you not to trust this woman. Prince Arian, I truly hope that in your desperation to have your brother returned you did accept a condition that you do not understand.”
Ethelyn stayed silent.
“I did not,” Arian answered.
“I am glad,” Wulfsurd said, bowing to the two brothers. “I think… I should leave now. To clear my head.” He turned, gesturing for two guards to follow him back along the road towards the tavern he came from.
Caden watched him leave, then sat back down on his bench with Ethelyn taking a seat beside him. Arian ordered the other guards around them to move back beyond the yard, where they took positions again on the roads into the village. Together the three watched as a mounted patrol rode through the fields of growing crops, and several other squads of soldiers walked the perimeter of the settlement and up and down the banks of the river to the west.
After some time, Caden spoke again. “What happened, Arian? What did I miss?”
Arian closed his eyes. “After your duel, there was a great battle in the valley. It was tough and lasted a good part of the day, but father’s plan worked, and we managed to beat them. Then… As he chased Armand from the field, he was hit by an arrow and fell.”
Caden leaned over onto his knees, then looked down at his hands. “And he couldn’t be saved?”
Ethelyn shook her head. “The methods I used are not kind, lord king. You have seen this for yourself.”
“I am not the king yet,” Caden corrected.
“But you will be soon.”
Arian let out a loud sigh then and decided to push the topic of the conversation from the past and to their next course of action. “Brother, we have captured Armand, as well as many of his knights, soldiers and nobles. We must-… You must decide what we are going to do next.”
Caden remembered the conversation he had with his father the eve before the battle, and how they had discussed strategy and the next steps to take once the fighting was won. Now they had their victory, and he noticed how Ethelyn was regarding him closely to see what he would say. She had been there for that conversation, after all.
“I want you to go to Armand, brother,” Caden told him. “I want him to think I am dead. He will hear rumours to the contrary, of course, but there will be no way for him to confirm anything while still a prisoner. Let doubt be sewn in him for a while, and let his plotting be delayed by uncertainty. Tell him we are taking him to Chaverne.”
“Chaverne?” Arian asked. “Their capital? Is this not dangerous for us?”
“With Armand our prisoner, he knows that any open move against us would lead to his death. Tell him that we will enter their city and stay at the Chateau d’Chaverne for the purpose of negotiating an end to the conflict. No doubt that those who have fled the battlefield are riding to gather another army as soon as they can, but they will not besiege their own city when their king is in it.”
“They might not attack, but will we not also be trapped there?”
“Only by appearance. It will delay further conflict long enough for us to finalize our victory.”
“But is that wise?” Arian asked, suddenly lowering his voice so others could not overhear them. “If we take too long, the Philosopher King might arrive and put an end to your plan.”
“And how might he do that while we are behind the walls of Chaverne?” Caden asked, noticing how Ethelyn seemed uncomfortable with the discussion. “He is not marching an army here, is he, Ethelyn?”
“No, lord king,” Ethelyn replied after awkwardly clearing her throat. “Only a personal guard of a hundred men.”
“Then we have nothing to fear. Even if he was to decide to attack us and join with another Lavellan army, they would not breach the walls of Chaverne until it was too late,” Caden explained, his tone almost cold in how calculating it was. But there was another reason for it – he wanted to see how much he could trust Ethelyn, he wanted to see how she reacted in the minute and unwitting ways that a man in his position had been taught to detect.
When he had spoken with his father about how best to outmanoeuvre the Philosopher King, Ethelyn had remained calm and co-ordinated. Yet now words had evolved into a plan of action to be immediately carried out, her diplomatic façade was beginning to break in the smallest, most undetectable of ways. She was growing concerned, and it reminded Caden that no matter how she had helped him, she belonged to another lord. “I would like you to remain close at my side, Ethelyn, for the foreseeable future. Until we have fully recovered, and the Philosopher King reclaims you to his service.”
“Very well, lord king,” Ethelyn answered him, smiling. Caden believed her when she had said that she did not know the Philosopher King’s true intention in visiting, and he knew because of that uncertainty she would not flee to warn him of a hostility that might never occur. But it was clear to him now that Ethelyn was not just an envoy: she was a spy, and he wanted to know how she would communicate with her master.
“I’ll go and speak to him now, brother,” said Arian. “And I will tell Wulfsurd to get the men ready to march.”
Caden nodded then and watched as Arian stood from his chair and began making his way to the farmyard gate, only to find a question suddenly enter his mind that he could not wait to have answered.
“Arian!” Caden called.
Arian paused for a moment, turning back. “What is it?”
“What happened to Alaric Laurens?”
“He got away.”