Lykourgos II: The Riverroad
The Fifth day of the Ninth moon, 872 AD.
The Riverroad, Northern Teleytaios, Klironomea.
It took a moment for him to orient himself. The world was so much larger than before, and he wasn't used to the how fast his wings were beating, leading to him veering left, then right, until he was able to hover in a position that could charitably be called 'stable'.
He looked around for the woods-cat that had been chasing him and his brother, and, sensing no trace of the predator, looked to his brother standing on the forest floor. His brother looked panicked, opening his beak to chirp out a-
The prince woke with a start, the sleeping forms of a few of the men visible in the blackness of the night. He turned to stare at the sky, his vision of the stars obstructed by the thick forest canopy and clouds above them. Rising from his rest and, ignoring his body's ache of protest, he carefully started to walk towards the Riverroad and the campfire they had left there before moving into the woods to sleep. Perhaps he would be able to gleam a few insights and ponder some of the questions that had recently been raised, after all, it was hardly as though he had been given nothing to think about.
How had the young man, entombed in coarse stonework as he had been, remained alive? What was the significance of the contents of the box? And for that matter, the men under his command had taken the discovery of an undying man with very little confusion or dissent. But then, Lykourgos thought to himself, so have I.
It had been a week since the prince's company had set out from the Horndaal, and despite initial difficulties involving a wooden bridge, a storm, and a remarkably stubborn pack-mule they had made good progress on the journey back to Anaria. The journey, though initially tough thanks to the severe lack of local infrastructure, had become remarkably easy-going once they reached the Riverroad.
Let it not be said, however, that easy-going translated to enjoyable; less than a day after they left the Horndaal a downpour had begun, and it had yet to let up. Indeed, as they moved closer to the sea the rain only seemed to pick up, with the men having to dismount their horses for fear of one of them stumbling and throwing a rider, the threat of such a fate present even as dirt trails and cobbled paths gave way to paved roads and civilisation. The body of the young man had been kept in a cart, with a blanket hastily thrown over the top of him to keep him warm without covering the face.
Lykourgos wasn't sure exactly how warm the blanket could be keeping him now, what with it being completely soaked in the downpour, but it wasn't as if the unconscious man was going to care much. As his thoughts turned to the strange man they had found, he noticed movement by the campfire. He reached for his longseaxe, only to realise that he had left it where he had been sleeping. He cursed himself for his thoughtlessness, and instead pulled a dirk from one of his boots.
He crept closer to the figure resting at the campsite, and as a beam of moonlight lit the figure, he realised it was only Dreamwulf. Indeed, the blind man seemed to be leaning back, sitting atop one of the logs that had acted as benches when they had made camp for the night. Moving to sit next on the log next to the Oblate, he marvelled that he had yet to be heard by his companion. He coughed twice to grab his attention.
Dreamwulf grabbed his billhook and brandished it at the area where the prince was sat. Lykourgos caught a hastily concealed spark of panic on the lowborn's face as he spoke.
"It's only me, friend. I don't think I've ever been able to catch you off-guard before."
The blind man leant against the wooden shaft of his billhook, breathing heavily.
"By the 'ngels, frightened me 'alfway to death yer 'ighness."
He smiled fondly at his servant.
"You don't need to use High-Klironomoi when it's just us, Oblate. The old tongue serves just as well outside of court."
"Are we alone, yer Grace?"
The Prince blinked twice at this question. Of course they were alone, and Dreamwulf would surely know this, after all, even without his sight he could tell a person by their footsteps twenty paces away. Surely, he could hear or feel the presence of-
Ah. The prince realised. Of course. The rain must be throwing off his other senses. That explains why he insists on holding onto Nasos' cloak as we walk; it's so he doesn't lose the group.
He shook his head and answered the question.
"Yes, we are. I would have you speak freely and truly to me when we're alone; you've never failed in your judgements so far anyways."
The Oblate smiled kindly at him, with a hint of mischief in his face.
"True enough I s'pose. After all, one of us knew there was a summer storm coming, and it wasn't you, was it?"
The Prince gawped.
"How did you know I thought there wouldn't be a storm? Can you read minds?"
The farmer's son chuckled heartily.
"No, yer Grace. But you were bein' all confident, like there weren't a thing that could go wrong in yer plans. That's how I knew you didn't think there'd be a storm."
Despite his annoyance, the prince chuckled. It'd do no good to mope like some pampered princeling just because he couldn't master a skill in a moon that had taken someone their whole life to develop.
"Why didn't you warn me?"
"Well, how 're you s'posed to learn if I tell you when'ere you're wrong?"
Lykourgos feigned a sighed in resignation. Dreamwulf was not only a valuable member of his expedition, but also someone with which to have an enjoyable conversation at the end of the day without him constantly worrying about the stifling propriety of 'proper' courtly conversations. It couldn't hurt to float the question of service now, could it?
"I'd like for you to join my retinue. Nasos too."
In an instant, Dreamwulf's face changed. His brow creased in thought as he brought his fist to his mouth, obviously pondering what to say.
"I can't speak for Nasos, yer Grace, but I'd be honoured to continue to serve. I... I'd ask a condition of you though, if that sits all well and good with you?"
The Prince nodded once, and waited for Dreamwulf to state his condition. When no response was forthcoming, Lykourgos slapped his hand to his forehead and repeated his affirmations aloud.
"Sorry, I meant to ask you to name your condition but I... well I forgot that you can't..."
"See? It's no problem yer Grace. I only ask that you 'elp me pen a letter to the monastery that I'll be leaving, and give them a donation for my absence."
The Prince, about to nod again, shook his head vigorously in order to keep himself thinking straight.
"Certainly. I shall see to helping you with the penning of the letter, and the donation, once we arrive at Aenirhen. Shouldn't be much more than a day now, then we can get started. I am glad to have you with me, though there is one more line of thought I'd like to speak of with you."
The man nodded.
"Of course, yer Grace."
"Your Billhook. Can you use it in combat? I only ask because of your eyes. Apologies if this topic is sore or comes across crass, I do not intend to offend, I only ask out of genuine curiosity."
Dreamwulf raised his hands in a gesture of supplication.
"Peace, yer Grace. I am adept at using this weapon, though only so long as I can 'ear or sense my opponent. In weather like this-" he gestured around at the sodden earth before continuing "then I will admit I am of less use."
The Prince pondered this.
"Would you care to learn to fight with a sword? Surely a more knightly weapon would befit one with royal favour?"
Dreamwulf chuckled again.
"Yer Grace, 'spectfully, I was a farmer before I found faith and learned t' fight. This Bill is just a longer version of what I used to 'arvest grain, but trust me yer grace, this thing 'as reaped far more than hay in my 'ands."
Seeing how solemnly he had stared at his weapon, and how sombre his voice had become, the prince was inclined to believe him. He moved to stand by the Oblate, and patted him on the shoulder.
"I would very much like to train with you soon. Go, head back to the camp. It's late enough for you to have been up. I'll take the next watch."
Dreamwulf rose to his feet, supporting himself with his billhook as he slipped on the rain-slicked ground.
"Thank you, yer Grace. I would be honoured to train with you as well."
Truth be told, the prince didn't intend to be awake for long. He knew they'd be relatively safe here, after all, he'd seen to the eradication of most of the bandit plague in his lands himself. He just wanted to take one more look at the young man in the cart before heading back to sleep. Approaching the cart, he hoisted himself up and sat on one of the cart's low wooden walls, looking down upon the sleeping figure.
The man looked young, perhaps the same age as the prince himself. He could see his hair was black and his figure slender, but that was almost all he could make out in the dark. He was lying perfectly straight, with his hands resting atop his chest as if he was a statue to some long-dead King, holding a sword against his body to shield him in the journey from this life to the next. His expression had changed gradually over the journey to one that looked markedly more peaceful than before, and his breathing seemed to have deepened over the course of the last few days.
Lykourgos found himself both looking forwards to and dreading the moment he awoke. It would be both a great learning experience and a moment of surreal discomfort, as this clearly strange figure had already caused some discontent in his camp. Two squires had to be constantly monitored now, as they had loudly proclaimed this figure a symbol of sin for his unnatural life and attempted to slit the sleeping figure's throat. Lykourgos wasn't about to let some over-zealous noble children ruin what he had found, at the very least not before he was able to glean every last morsel of information from the figure.
He moved to walk back towards the camp, stealing one last look at the peacefully sleeping figure in the cart before he reached the treeline. It would be an early start tomorrow, and so it would be best for him to get some rest while he had the chance.
The prince scowled as he awoke the next morning. Once again, he had had the same dream, and once again he had been awakened at the same point. Dreams had meaning, anyone who studied theology knew that, but it seemed to end every time he was about to learn of the message. As he all but stomped his way to the Riverroad, he found his vision drifting back to the cart. Was the sleeping man something to do with this, or was it something else? His dreams had always been vivid, but he usually found himself unable to remember them afterwards. It seemed that, in travelling to the Horndaal to find answers, he had only brought himself more questions. As much as he relished the thought of tracking down further mysteries and myths, it was nonetheless frustrating to find that his efforts never seemed to bring him any closer to enlightenment, only highlighting how little humanity knew.
He rubbed his eyes as he moved to rouse the others. He'd been the first to awake again, and had only really gotten a few short hours of sleep, though years of constant awakenings and well-placed paranoia had ensured that he could go about his day like this with relative comfort.
It didn't take long to get the rest of the entourage ready and moving; say what you will about the lowborn servants accompanying them, but their loyalty and desire to please outweighed any fatigue they may have been facing after days of nonstop walking. He briefly saw Nasos scolding Ilias for complaining about the early start again, whilst simultaneously stopping the young boy from slipping and falling into the mire that the fields around the road had become. He watched as the young cupbearer flared his nostrils and pursed his lips, steadying himself and walking to the road in measured, careful steps. The prince chuckled somewhat, allowing his men a last minute of rest before continuing forwards.
As they stopped for lunch on the Riverroad, Eros pointed to a rider on a hill further down the path. Lykourgos raised his sword in greeting, though not knowing who it was that was hailing him. The mounted figure raised his own sword, and promptly turned and rode away.
It didn't take long before more riders appeared. Just as the expedition had moved onwards to the very same hill the last rider had been seen on, a group of mounted Knights hailed them. Each wore steel plate and a cloak of violet, and around each waist was strapped a longsword. Each one of them held the reigns of five horses, including their own. The Knights dismounted and knelt as they approached the prince, their leader speaking all the while.
"Your Highness, the Grandmaster awaits you in Aenirhen. He says he needs to speak with you at the first possible moment. We have brought spare horses to ensure you can travel to him with utmost haste. Follow, if it please you."
The Prince furrowed his brows in confusion. Romanos was one of his longest and most respected friends. When the Prince had asked to be left alone while on this expedition, he would have respected that desire, not sent an escort to get him back to Aenirhen.
Not unless something was very, very wrong.
"Stand. Myself and those capable in combat will ride to Aenirhen on the fresh horses. The others will oversee the cart and our cargo. Is there a second party coming along the road soon?"
The Knight smiled and nodded.
"When our scout reported the cart, Grandmaster Romanos knew you would loathe to leave it unprotected. A second party, shielded and without spare mounts, rides towards us as we speak."
The Prince hummed to himself happily. Romanos knew him well, that was for sure.
"Right." He turned back to the party, and raised his voice to give orders, "Eros, get yourself and the rest of the Squires mounted. Dreamwulf, can you ride?"
"Aye yer 'Ighness, -" came the response, "-with the rain gone I should be fine to keep up."
The Prince nodded to him tersely, hoping the slight grunt of affirmation carried the message across well.
"Mount one of the fresh horses. Ilias, you'll be riding with Dreamwulf."
The young cupbearer looked at Lykourgos, obviously perplexed.
"I still need a cupbearer." Lykourgos didn't elaborate further, simply mounting up on a fresh horse, a black destrier with a clearly well-groomed mane.
"Thank you for the extra escort and horses, Ser..."
"Aethel, your Highness."
"Ser Aethel. Thank you."
Looking at the surcoat of the man in front of him, Lykourgos could clearly see the badge displaying a red cross on a white field above a single red bar, marking him to be a Knight-Lieutenant of the Order. Aethel. He must have been newly raised to his rank, the prince reasoned, after all, Romanos would only send those loyal to the violets to escort him, even if the prince had never met them before. He nodded tersely again, and without another word, the prince set off down the Riverroad at full gallop.
With fresh horses and good conditions, they made it to Aenirhen in less than three hours. The large settlement was situated at what had once been an extremely profitable crossroads, binding east with west and north with south. Alas, the old settlement had fallen far since the ancient days of the Old-Kingdom. The Riverroad, running all the way from Aenirhen in the west to Sygomidopolis in the east had seen rejuvenation in the last decade under the stewardship of the prince, or at least the stretch under his control had, making up somewhere around a quarter of the road. Still, the prince reasoned, it was a vast improvement upon how it had been before, and besides, it was in far better shape than the Coastroad.
The Coastroad ran from north to south, all the way from Aenirhen down to Castelos guarding the southern border of the Heptarchy against the Al-Alema. Despite the entire modern road being rejuvenated, which was one of the few plans his entire family agreed upon, you only needed to look north to see that the road had once gone much further than Aenirhen. The Coastroad had once continued far to the north, with a mighty bridge across the river Aenir. This bridge once linked the lands of the Old-Kingdom with that of its northern tributaries, and was once one of the great wonders of the world, though both the bridge and the stretch of road leading to it had long since fallen into disrepair.
Even though the prince would have loved to restore the bridge and road to their former glories, he knew it was but a pipe dream. The ability to effectively project power north of the river would be invaluable in preventing Scelopyrene raids, at least along the coast of the river itself, but Lykourgos knew he was allowing himself to be influenced by his pride. Even if Teleytaios had the military strength to cow the barbarians into submission, he knew that the effort of rebuilding the bridge would bankrupt the Kingdom in its current state. Even if the Heptarchy were united into a new Kingdom of Klironomea, it would likely be decades before the new Kingdom was rich enough, powerful enough and most importantly stable enough to warrant repairing. No, the Great Bridge would remain a prestige project to be undertaken in the far future, if at all.
He was shaken from his musings by Ilias. At the cupbearer's request, Dreamwulf had pulled his horse alongside the prince's, allowing the young boy to speak with him.
"Your Highness, if I may, why have you not given this place a city charter yet?"
The Prince blinked at him twice, wondering how a child who had, as of slightly over a month ago, never left the capital, even heard of a city charter, let alone know that this place didn't have one. Dreamwulf, somehow as observant to the situation as ever, filled in the blanks for the prince.
"I was telling 'im 'bout this place as we rode, m'Prince. He asked me about this city and then I told him it wasn't one. He asked me why, I said I didn't know, and now we're here."
The blind farmer smiled gently at Ilias, ruffling his hair with a free hand. Ilias scrunched his face up and swatted at his hands, drawing a good-natured chuckle from both the blind man and the prince.
"It is a good question, my Cupbearer. The answer lies in the fact that only my father can hand out city charters, and though I have requested it on three separate occasions, my sister is able to convince my father to deny it. There are very few things he will deny her, just ask my brother."
There was a moment of silence as they continued through the streets, each one of them knowing what had happened to the prince's brother. After the bureaucracy had been re-established in Teleytaios and the rebel Lords defeated, despite having been expecting a full third of the Kingdom's lands to be leased to him as was planned to have happened, their sister, the golden child, had been able to convince their father that she deserved the lion's share of the lands promised to their brother, and with a few honeyed words had reduced the King's only trueborn son to ruling a few scant counties on the southern fringes of the Kingdom, his every attention on preventing raiding parties from the Al-Alema from ravaging the countryside.
"So why doesn't her Highness wish for this place to receive a city charter?"
"Because cities are, by design, extremely powerful in terms of trade and commerce, especially one poised as well as this is at an intersection in two major roads."
The Cupbearer nodded, the information seeming to slot into place for him.
"And if you had a city, it would make you more powerful, which her Highness wishes to prevent."
Lykourgos smiled at the young Cupbearer. He caught on quickly.
"Exactly. Now, if I-"
He was interrupted by the clacking of hooves along the cobbled roads. Looking to the source of the noise, he was met by none other than his childhood friend and confidant, Ser Romanos, the Knight of Violets and Grandmaster of the Order of the Violets.
He dismounted his horse as his friend did the same, clasping each other's forearm in a soldier's handshake.
"You wanted to speak with me Ser. Would privacy be better?"
His friend shook his head.
"In all honesty, yes, but I know you won't want to waste the time when you learn of the news."
His friend looked away, an expression somewhere between mental preparation and pity on his face. He took a deep breath, looked the prince in the eyes, and delivered the news.
"Your father has been taken ill. Deathly ill. Many of your supporters in the last few weeks have slipped out of court, and for all I disagree with the man, I must say I was gladdened to learn that Master Elikoidi had been able to slip away from the capital. Your sister is already moving, and your brother has returned to Anaria. I suggest you take an entourage of men and get there as fast as you can yourself."
He took all of this information in, fully trusting in his lifelong friend about the news. He would never lie about this to him. He resaddled his horse having only just gotten off, much to the destriers chagrin, and listened as Eros spoke.
"Myself and the others can be ready to leave in half an hour, my Prince. We can reach the capital in two weeks at a steady pace, a few days less if we risk tiring the horses."
He shook his head at the Squire.
"There's no time. I can reach there far faster by myself if I travel light. Are the waystations still in place across the northern stretch of the Coastroad?"
His friend nodded, but looked apprehensive.
"My Prince, I must protest, if you travel alone, you will be easy pickings for your sister's supporters. Even if she doesn't command it, it only takes one man with a crossbow looking for royal favour to end you."
He ignored his friends protests, instead barking out his own orders.
"Eros, Ser Aethel, I want that cart and its contents guarded without tampering day and night until I get back. If I find that anything has been damaged, I will be very unhappy."
There was a slight edge to that last part that his brother had once called his 'Sergeant voice', but he pushed that memory down. Any memory of his brother before the madness took hold over him was too painful to remember at a time when grieving was a luxury he could ill afford.
The game had changed; the board had been rearranged whilst he had been away, and he had to be absolutely concentrated on this if he wanted to succeed here.
"Ser Romanos, call our banners. I want the levies and Armsmen drilled and your Knights to converge on the north, post-haste. Understood?"
His friend clapped an armoured fist over his heart.
"It will be as you command. Ser Aethel, see that yourself, your brothers, and those escorting the cart the prince speaks of guard it vigilantly in the western Chapterhouse. The rest of you, with me."
He spared one last look at the prince before he set off on the long road to Anaria.
"Good luck, my Prince. May the Angels protect you."
The Prince nodded back at him, and sped off at full gallop through the southern gate.
Im going to need it. He thought to himself, as the frantic chirping of a bird rang through his head.