The road had been long, long enough for doubts to creep in about her demonic betrothed, long enough for them to give way to careless dreaming; to grow tired of her Uncle’s dour moods so juxtaposed against his manic, honeydust-addled reveries, and long enough for careful practice as to what she would say, how she would act. First, there was the journey down from Eagle’s Watch on Mount Veshka, her home. As the foothills dwindled behind them, she kept casting glances back at the lonely peak. Seeing it on the horizon was always a thrill for her as a girl, coming back from New Stetven. Now she’d be leaving it for perhaps years, for the darkness of the uncharted, white spaces on the map. Then came Silver Hall, the haunt of the Lebedas, where she called on her friend Elanna; the boat ride across the dark sapphire waters of Lake Reykal, to New Stetven, and the long journey on horseback south, over the plains of Rostland. She read his most recent letter over and over again, the one that started simply “Akilina,” and ended simply “S.”
She had met Sayd Krynn, the man she was to marry, and with whom she would preside over a backwoods kingdom of, if the stories were to be believed, fairies, werewolves, kobolds, halflings and trolls, for the rest of her life, only twice before. The first time was at a reception in Restov. Having seized control of a stretch of the Stolen Lands marked as the Narlmarches on her map, mercenary captain Sayd Krynn and his crew, the Black Cats, were poised to found a frontier settlement in the region, declaring the borders of a new country in the process. Unlike the other chartered luminaries tasked with reclaiming this expanse of the River Kingdoms for the Crown, though, Sayd Krynn was unmarried, in need of heirs, capable in the extreme, morally flexible, and impressively dangerous. Lady Vellara, the elven layabout ‘aristocrat’ and sometime counselor to the affluent, had even whispered in her father Poul’s ear that Sayd Krynn might be the most dangerous man in Brevoy—if not in current power, than at least in potential. She suspected it was just a ploy, of course, but the Orlovsky had not been slow to pick up on the opportunity: if they were to stand against the Surtovan claims to the throne, they would need the support of the Swordlords, and the Black Cats were poised to bulwark the southernmost border of Rostland. The chance at alliance was about thinking five steps ahead.
She was told she’d present herself to him, hoping for a match, at the same time as her friend Faelbrin Medyved and several others, at a party, a reception. The prince-to-be seemed apathetically unmoved by her flirtatiousness, but she caught a glimmer in his eye when she spoke of falconry and reading the stars from her high perch on the peak of Veshka. She’d never forget how he looked past her, as if she wasn’t even present, and told her father, Poul, that her would take her for his wife, or the look of subtle disappointment on the face of the Medyved contingent. She didn’t know whether to be excited, or frightened. He was enrapturingly handsome, powerful and stern, and when he turned back and told her how he’d receive her in the Stolen Lands when suitable accommodations were built, she simply nodded, demurely. There were discussions in the aftermath, but none of them questioning the decision. That was something she was left to do alone.
The second time they met was at the wedding of Nadya Surtova, when Sayd passed her at the ceremony, inclining his head with the slightest of nods. She had been told not to broach the subject of their nuptials, there—it was in bad taste to discuss such things at the Surtova ceremony, when so many ears were about. When the sky reddened and the devils of Hell were literally unleashed upon the island, she hid with Faelbrin behind her Uncle Aeden until they were separated in the pavillion. She was positive she would die, then, but there he was, striding through the door of the tent as if nothing in the world were amiss, wreathed in light from the fading sun behind him, his eyes icy with fury and disgust at the situation. From the second he walked in, Akilina could tell he was coming for her, and the relief that washed over her was something she’d never forget. Many girls dream of handsome princes coming to rescue them from the clutches of monsters, but few experience it in waking reality. He touched her, and Faelbrin, with his magick, making them vanish to the eyes of others, and ushered them out to safety. Uncle Aeden led them away, down the winding path, in haste; she did not see Sayd slay the Shadow Demon with his guile, but heard of it after, as everyone did. She didn’t get a chance to speak with him again, on the boat ride back—he was caught up somehow with Hamaria Surtova—but she told her father what he’d done, in Eagle’s Watch, on a sunny day. He was pleased.
In New Stetven, the entourage—herself, Akilina Orlovsky, her no account Uncle Mossy and his bastard sons, the twins Poe and Grey Posey, both thirteen—met with an advance party dispatched by Glamorfell. A surly half-orc, Sasha, seemed in a terrible hurry to get back to Foundling’s Reach; Elissa, wife of the Black Council member Kalkamedes, was excited to meet Akilina, and finally a charming young halfling girl named Persie Agerthorn introduced herself as Akilina’s new handmaiden, while the steely-eyed Ejir Flint would be her bodyguard.
In the weeks of overland travel following, Akilina introduced the Glamorfell natives to her Uncle, Mosbellam ‘Mossy’ Orlovsky, a fatter and more devious merchant than Oleg even, who, having worn out his welcome with his older brother, Poul, and having finally written away his inheritance and succession in exchange for covering his gambling debts, was making a new start of things in Foundling’s Reach at the Prince’s graceful invitation. His bastard sons, Poe and Grey, were both much more promising, the former with a head for figures and perhaps even arcane study, while the latter was a crack shot with a rifle and looking forward to life as a hunter.
Of her new acquaintances, it was like night and day: the stern aggressiveness of Sasha and the remote coldness of Ejir, a woman in her fifties and no stranger to the labors of a farm, counterpointed by the warm humor and liveliness of Elissa and Persie. Persie regaled her, giddily, with the story of how the Prince held a big audition for handmaid’s for his new bride, how he made them talk about court matters, morality, about fashion, about nature, how he made them dance and sing and so many other things besides, while his impassive magister, Lady Kaede, laboriously kept track of it all, and how in the end, SHE, Persie, was the one he picked. Wasn’t it just kismet? She squeezed Akilina’s hand tight, and in that moment, so many of the fears of the long journey blew away.
“Tell me about him, about the Prince, if you like…” she pressed on Persie and Elissa. The latter responded first, confiding: “When I first met him, he impressed me with his charm—he’s very charming, he can make you feel like you’re the only person in the whole world—but there was this dark side to him, as well. Callousness. I didn’t think he cared much for other people, people outside his influence—though he would do anything for a friend. He makes questionable decisions sometimes… like he sees the world as this jungle where the strong rule over the weak, and would think nothing of lying and deceiving to secure victory. He’s powerful, but treacherous, too… Since he assumed the mantle of Prince, these last two years, though, he’s been different, distant but also taking greater care in his responsibilities, as if he feels the weight of history on his shoulders… but that’s just my feeling on it. The there’s the forest, and him. He longs to be near it, always…”
Persie listened intently, adding: “I only moved to Foundling’s Reach four months ago. The tales about him in the outlying country had been impressive, like, talk of how he had demon blood, was born without parents in the deserts far to the south… he’s much, much older than he looks, they say. When I arrived in Foundling’s Reach, though, I heard much mellower accounts. They say the Prince is not to be aggrieved, like, I guess he responds to slights with undue reciprocity, like a force of nature, almost, but beyond that, he’s said to be wise, or whatever. He doesn’t sulk behind closed doors, for one, but walks among the people all day, often barefoot, I’ve seen it—and sometimes disguised as other people, or other creatures entirely. He’s a powerful sorcerer, the Prince is…. He… oh! He sings at the tavern sometimes, beautiful and sad songs…”
Elissa rolled her eyes. “He’s a passable singer. What he’s good at is making people like and trust him, want to serve him. His manners, his mystery, his exploits, it’s all part of that. He shrouds himself in myth. He draws to himself people of rare acumen, like Lady Yelenya, or Lady Kaede, General Feron, or Wally. People as strong as he is.”
Akilina blushed a little at that. “He sounds like something from a fairy tail, one with actual fairies… of which, gods, I’ve heard there are many in your land. But who are these others?”
Elissa patted down her prancer’s mane, looking out at the clarity of the sky. “Before Glamorfell and the Black Council came the Black Cats, our company. It was me, the Prince, General Feron, Lord Walorin, Ladies Kaede and Yeleyna and Josef Akulov, of Varnhold. We charted all the lands we’re riding through, all this. You’ll get a chance to meet all of them, in Foundling’s Reach. General Teret Feron is Brevic as well, from Rostland, I think. He commands Glamorfell’s military. Lyrina Varn, you know her, right? I think they’re an item, or soon will be… Wally Silverkin, he’s the Royal Enforcer, our greatest fighter, the deadliest champion of Foundling’s Reach, but he’s a real sweetheart, you’ll love him. Lady Kaede Fatebreaker is an elf from the lands far to the east, across the sea. She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met, the Magister of Glamorfell, she oversees the treasury, public works, civic policy, you name it. She’s the Prince’s chief adviser. Lady Yelenya, she’s been with the Prince far longer than the rest of us, she helped raise him, I guess. She’s part vampire, you know, a dhampir. She’s also the finest archer in the Stolen Lands, maybe in all of the River Kingdoms. She watches everything from the shadows, and, like, she’s really quiet, but if you get to know her, she’s an amazing friend. I really love her.”
Akilina nodded along, enjoying the sun on her face. “Is there a shrine to Abadar?” she asked, but Elissa shook her head. “My husband, Kalkamedes,” the oracle replied, “oversees the congress between various faiths in Glamorfell and helps offer counsel to those in need. Although the Prince is very superstitious, religious edifices haven’t been a high priority for the Magister, Lady Kaede. I can understand why. Foundling’s Reach plays home to many faiths, each with their own adherents. Sayd is a great believer in letting people find their own way, without forcing them, at least where faith is concerned. He holds a great reverence for the gods and is loath to offend them. He himself is a devout follower of Erastil.”
Akilina smiled softly, tossing her hair as she looked over at Elissa and Persie riding beside. “Yes, he’s told me,” she said, “How the Deadeye is the patron of Glamorfell. He counselled me that the petty manipulations of the nobility, the trappings of civilization are a necessary but disordered and exaggerated brokering of power via, oh gods, what did he say, something to do with transactions? It was all a little offensive. In his expositions, the family is the epicenter of mortal life, then the community, which is an extension of family. His own ideal of social transactions, he said, were those performed by the sweat of shared endeavor, the primacy of magick, the binding power of ritual. He seemed skeptical of money, not in the real sense but philosophically, he wrote that it was… a mechanism for abstracting the realities of work to divorce labor from the emotional context in which it occurs… I mean, not to joke between us, but it sounded foolishly naive, or propagandist… except that, underpinning his thoughts was a lack of idealism, as if he understands quite perfectly how the world works, understands the necessity of it all, but still has a vision for how it ought to function, which is romantic, in a way.”
Elissa glanced at Akilina, simply nodding as if she understood, while Persie giggled and tried to change the subject.
“You’re such an intelligent girl,” Elissa offered, smiling warmly. “It will be sure to please the Prince. He isn’t the most intelligent speaker I’ve ever met, nor the wisest, but he knows how to cut to the emotional heart of things. Between us, I think he has a tendency to repeat the teachings of others, maybe as they slowly bleed into his own beliefs. He’s a great believer in the wisdom of others. When I hear him speak of Erastil—mind you I don’t much favor the gods myself—he makes me want to believe, a little. He always tells us that the first gift we ever receive is our family. Maybe because he didn’t have one himself, he values it more, you know? For years he led these insular groups, the Black Cats most recently but there were others before, I hear. Being captain of mercenaries, especially alone in the wilds and for so long, that’s got to be like being a father to a family, and that’s the way he feels about Glamorfell, too, I know. You’re set to be separated from one family—” she glanced back at Mossy and the others, riding behind, “but you’ll be gaining a new one, in a way. It’s going to be a blessing, honey. Sayd’s whole life is draped in portent and prophecy. He’s a person of substance. You’ll be a part of that, now.”
Akilina, smiled and glanced down, petting at her steed, tucking a few stray locks of hair behind her ear. “I’m a little afraid,” she admitted. “Not about the Prince, he sounds wonderful, but about life out here. I’m used to magick sleeping in the land… our own peak, Mount Veshka, sits lonely on the horizon, and we see the skies clearly from Eagle’s Watch. The Orlovsky have a strong tradition of divination and prophecy, of reading the stars. But this land…” she glanced over to the edge of the forest to their west, “…this place is old and tangled in different ways. He told me that the lines of energy, the space between planes are muddied, here… that the forest is alive and can see, that he can see through it… and of course, the monsters, the kobolds, the trolls, the boggards. This is a true frontier…”
Elissa smiled quietly, guiding her horse a bit closer. She leaned in, confiding: “This land is like a well of fey enigma, treacherous power, and the Prince is a part of it. He ate the Apple of Discord. He can see things here the rest of us can’t, things the rest of us aren’t
meant to. This land is… it’s part of him, and he of it… they are married, he and it, just as you are to be married. The turning of the seasons, the growth and decay, the predators and the things they feast on, he can feel it all, pulsing in his blood. The Stolen Prince. Or… or so he has said. In this land, you’ll be under his protection. Maybe he can see us even now.”
The words were no doubt meant to be reassuring, but they awakened in Akilina only a greater fascination and anxiety, a desire to peel back the mystery surrounding the man. She was a bit surprised at Elissa’s forth-rightness, having not sensed anything zealous about her until she so spoke. This was not the first time she’d heard rumor of the Prince and his connection to the wilds, it was mentioned in his letters, and spoken of by her father’s own oracles and seers. She understood that it was significant, somehow, but not to what degree. Later on, Persie confided in her some of the less savory rumors about the Prince: that he walked the Narlmarches by night, hunting in the dark; that his own councilors sometimes found him staring into the depths of a mirror, unaware of the passage of time; that he handled the ‘interrogations’ of prisoners personally, and always learned what he wished to know. That night, by the fire, Akilina read over Sayd’s letters again. They were less than a day’s ride to Foundling’s Reach, now. Tomorrow, she would meet him, would speak the lines she’d rehearsed along the road. She’d need time to settle in, of course, before the wedding. She’d—
The loud snap of a branch was the first sign something was amiss, followed by Ejir’s shout. Akilina wheeled back from the fire, looking into the darkness beyond, but the afterimage remained, blinding her. It was only a moment later when three grotesque, monstrous forms emerged into the light: spindly-towering, gangly-limber, scaly, moss-green, all long, hooked noses and shredding claws, slouching nine feet tall. Trolls.
Elissa pulled her back sharply, sharp enough to take her breath away, the oracle’s hand like iron on her arm as she stepped in front of Akilina and spoke some words in a language she didn’t understand, the tongue of giants, maybe. The lead troll smiled wickedly with its dagger-teeth, responding in common.
“The girll princesss, we’s wants herr…” it said, pointing at Akilina. Her pulse quickened. There was no way these guards could stop three trolls—and how did they know who she was? That she’d be here…? Magic…? She recalled Elissa telling her of the troll kingdom, how they were aligned with the hags, it all had to do with that Whispering Queen she spoke of. Was it hag magic that led them here?
Elissa tilted her head to the side, considering the trolls. Sasha, the half-orc and Ejir looked to the oracle tentatively, holding their weapons at the ready. Mossy was well behind, stumbling into his tent with Poe quick behind, though she spotted Grey readying his rifle, packing it down with powder.
Elissa sniffed. Finally, she said, in a level and icy voice: “This camp is under the protection of the Prince of Glamorfell. These lands belong to the Prince of Glamorfell. Be on your way, if you wish, or be destroyed. It matters not to me.” Akilina’s heart stopped at the words. What had come over Elissa, to sound so emotionless—and what was she thinking? They’d all be killed…!
Improbably, one of the trolls balked. He glanced at the others, licking his disgusting lips tentatively, and started to stammer. The leader would have none of it. “Yesss, tha’s nut gwingg to happennn, womann—” he hissed. “If you’s is luckyyy—”
But Elissa would hear no more. Holding one fist in front of her, the other hand gripping her wrist, she chanted, a magic seal written in pale blue light encircling her forearm. Then Ejir was grabbing her from behind, dragging her off into the darkness. She cast a look back, long enough to see Elissa draw her fist back through the seal, shattering it, and for living flames to appear around her, harrying the trolls. The half orc slid in, slashing at them with her sword, but the trolls were too huge, too fast. Then she had turned and they were just running. She heard the telltale bang of gunfire.
Later, Grey would tell her what he saw, how Elissa never stopped chanting, her chestnut locks floating around her head, pulling her fist through seal after seal as she summoned more and more elemental fire between her and the trolls; how Sasha stood in the breach, her sword flashing and taking a hand here or an eye there as she improbably kept the creatures back; how, having surrounded them with walking flame, Elissa began arcing wreaths of green balefire between them, burning them alive. How in the aftermath, they heard her screams from across the field.
“Gwinggg somewhyrr?” the monstrosity breathed as it raked a savage claw across Ejir’s face. She screamed in terror and pain but managed to retreat a step, holding her blade before her. They had come to the edge of a stream, the starry midsummer night and the fulsome moon reflected in its idyllic babble.
It’s claws rained down, one after another. Her sword flashed this way and that, cutting into it—this must have been a fourth interloper, one who hung back from the rest—but it was only a matter of time. With one last savage swipe it smashed her to the side, where she crashed against a rocky edifice and sank into a mortal recumbence, holding her stomach as her breathing quickened.
“Forgive me, my Prince…” she whimpered, her whole body trembling as the ten foot tall figure of raw muscle and hunger advanced on Akilina. That’s when they heard his voice.
“There is nothing to forgive,” he said, and as the claw swiped down through the night to snare Akilina, somehow, he was there, just as he had been that day on the island. She couldn’t see him, no, but the grasping hand stopped, the troll’s eyes went wide in surprise. And then, like a candle is lit one moment and then is out the next, he was standing in front of her, holding back the claw, and the green fire that flowed from his hands into the troll lit up the lazy brook like something from a nightmare.
When the creature was dead, sunk to its knees and blister-cracked, ashen, he planted a foot on its chest and pushed it down in an irrelevant heap. He turned not to her, not yet, but to Ejir, striding across the space between them like a panther, his hair long and unbound, his shape indistinct under a moss and leaf-covered cloak. He glanced to her quickly, his eyes lit by pale green fire, and she saw the bow-and-arrow broach clasping it shut, the symbol of Erastil. Then he was kneeling by Ejir’s side.
“My Prince, please, my sons… tell them th—” she coughed, wave of dark blood rushing from her mouth in a fit. Tears streamed down Akilina’s face, but Sayd looked unconcerned, moving slowly, even as he drew a long horn from his belt, hushing her even as he un-stopped it and poured it down her throat.
“Shhh, shhhh” he soothed, gently, brushing back the gray-haired matron’s hair as she struggled in pain. “You will not die this day, little one.” She squeezed her eyes shut; Akalina did the same.
Back at the camp, Poe and Gray were burning the troll bodies under Sasah’s direction, while Mossy looked on anxiously. Sayd carried Ejir in his arms all the way back from the stream while Akilina followed beside, numbly. He passed through the night with the dignity and malice of a vampire from legend, paying her no more mind than he would a servant. He laid her in a tent, and Akilina followed, sitting by the woman’s side, taking her hand. Sayd went out, maybe to find Elissa, and did not return for an hour. When he did, Sasha came in, frazzled, herself bloodied from the fight, and looked over Ejir. Sayd looked at Akilina with his back-lit eyes and said simply, “Come.”
She followed him back to the fire. It felt terrifying to stand out in the night, again; the fire was low, the bodies gone, the warmth welcome in the mild air, but anything could be out there in the dark. She swallowed. “How did you know to find us…? Th-thank you. For saving me,” she said.
He nodded slowly, eyes sitting like pale green disks in an otherwise shadowed face. “I was here, when they attacked,” he said plainly. “I’ve been with you since New Stetven.”
She stared. Mossy emerged from his tent, bumbling over with his characteristic lisp, saying “My Printhh! Allow me to introduth mythelf—” but he held his noble hand up without even looking in the Uncle’s direction. “Not now. Back to your tent,” the Prince intoned. Something in his voice, whatever power he held in it, shut the otherwise boisterous and corpulent Orlovsky up, and he retreated to his place with an offended look cast back over one meaty shoulder.
Sayd held up one hand, his distal phalanges hyper-extending slightly, and his form changed, his clothes, his hair, his face. It was Elissa standing before her, offering a perhaps apologetic look, and then she was Sayd again, the blonde of his long cascading hair glinting in the firelight. Akilina’s face paled. “You—you were Elissa?” Her voice was incredulous, angry a little, trembling now. “I thought you were my friend—!”
“I am your friend, lady,” he answered softly, interrupting her. “I know you have been through a lot tonight, but remember to whom you are speaking. I am your Lord and the Lord of these lands.”
She looked down, then, frightened, embarrassed, before gathering herself and meeting his gaze. “Yes, my Prince. Forgive my surprise.”
“It is nothing,” he said. “You are young, you are frightened, and I deceived you.”
“But why…?” she asked.
“I deceive everyone. You will come to understand in time,” he said flatly. She shook her head, smiling a little at last. Despite his words, something in his tone was comforting. “Those trolls, I thought we were done for… we have no such creatures in Orlovsky lands. I knew you to be fierce, but…”
“They are garbage. Trash,” he said, sliding his eyes up and down her body. “They should have stayed off my land. These hills belong to me. This forest”—he gestured—“belongs to me. None my pass without my leave.”
She blushed, smiling a bit wider, weary, her teeth snow white and perfect. Raked a hand through her hair. “This feels like a dream, it’s so strange. You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met. You’re like a character from a tale I read as a child…” she said, studying him hopefully, as if looking for recognition—but she found only brutal dispassion, the faint ghost of a smirk, perhaps.
“I’m quite real, I assure you,” he said.
“But um, as Elissa, didn’t you say Prince Sayd cloaked himself in mystery, in myth…?” she asked.
“Come, it is late,” he said. He led her to her tent—Persie retreated from the flap where she’d been eavesdropping—and laid Akilina down, planting a kiss gently upon her forehead.
“What if more trolls come…?” she asked. Persie looked up at Sayd too, her eyes wide at the possibility. “Then there will be fewer to kill later,” he said seriously. He slipped out of the tent, his hand sliding down the flap as he closed it. She thought she wouldn’t fall asleep right away, but she did.
Several of the horses had been casualties of the melee, she discovered in the morning, and had to be put down. She rode into Foundling’s Reach side-saddle in his lap, leaning into his chest, huddling in his cloak. He was an able horseman. He was an able everything.
The town was much bigger than she’d thought, and all the farms and mines they’d passed, besides. These weren’t insubstantial holdings, she’d seen the maps. Maybe half the size of Orlovsky lands, and it was amazing what they’d built in just a few years. There on the tall hill, the castle was half complete. Her new home.
He left here there, in her own place with Persie, to get acclimated, in the capable hands of Lyriina Varn, to meet the council, meet the important people in town; introduced Mossy to Edgrin and Oleg and Woodrow, and then he was gone.
“It will be this way, before we’re wed and after,” he explained. “I must know every inch of this land, I demand it, I require it. There are enemies all around us, Akilina. To the west, Drelev’s own ambitions are only held at bay by the literal and figurative quagmire in which he finds himself. To the south, the trolls and the Mivonese both threaten, although in unequal measure. On our doorstep, the kobolds are allies of coincidence. Go and speak with Vellara. Speak with Woodrow. I cannot always be here, in the Reach, I’m needed out there in the wilds, to press our interests and make war on our foes. The people still need a leader they can rely on, a leader with continuity, and even more, I need my voice represented to the council, I need my eyes watching them, and you will be that voice. You will be those eyes. Do you understand?”
She nodded softly. “I do,” she said.
“I have asked Jhod to come meet you, as well. He and Woodrow are planning the wedding. Let them know your wishes and they will see it done. Between Lyriina and Persie, I’m sure you’ll be at home here soon.” He lifted her chin with a light touch. “I know it has been a long journey—with a traumatic denouement—but you’re safe now. You’re safe here with me, now. I am not blind to the ambitions of your father, and all others who refuse to bend their knee to the Surtova clan. In this forest, I am drawing to myself a power of which lesser men can’t conceive, and with it, I will bend the world to my desires.”
He looked dead serious, so serious she feared to giggle at the audacity of his ego. “Yes, my Lord,” she said, instead, lowering her gaze. That seemed to go a long way with the Prince.
“We’re ready,” Yelenya said from the door. How long had she been there…? He nodded at her, then looked back at Akilina with a smile-less wink before turning and walking out.
She stepped over to the casement and looked down at the town below. The sun was warm but the breeze was cool. Lyriina would be there soon, not a proper noble, really, but a daughter of the Aldori Swordlords. She’d have to do. After she bathed, Akilina brushed her hair, studied herself in the mirror, pictured a crown on her head. It suddenly seemed more than possible. The Prince and his Black Council, in just three years, had carved out a thriving settlement from a lawless land. What else could they do?