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Lykourgos III: The Prelude Ends

 

The Eighth day of the Ninth moon, 872 AD.
Anaria, Western Teleytaios, Klironomea.

 

It didn't take too long for Anaria to come into view, compared to the two weeks it would have taken the full party anyway. Within three days he could see the resplendent white walls dotted with grey keeps and gatehouses, which had been built far earlier in the city's history. It looked as though the constituent parts of the defences had each been inspired by different architectural styles, creating a strange blend of rough stone, brick and carved stone. To his eyes, it spoke of style over substance, and a complacency in strength. He curled his lip at the sight in a sneer. Was it any wonder he'd had to save this city when his "oh so perfect" sister had failed to convince the southern lords of the necessity of reinstating the old bureaucracy?

He turned his head and spat at the ground, the mere sight of this damned city bringing out anger from deep within his being. I can't allow my emotions to override my mind, he chastened himself, not at a time like this, as he willed himself to remember happier times in the city. His mind brought forth images of all the times he had ridden through the Last Avenue in the summer solstice, the lowborn hailing him as "Our Prince!" as he ate and drank amongst them. Images of his trueborn brother sneaking out of the Palace to join him in revelling in the festivities, and of the florist's daughter who, at the beginning of every summer solstice as he rode down the avenue, would present him with a flower-crown made from the most beautiful violets he had seen, the lowborn crowning him the "Prince of the Violets", from which his faction at court then took the name, "Violets". He smiled. It was, for him, a simpler time, when could be certain that his father would govern, he would do what he could to assist, and his brother, no matter what, would have his back.

Things had changed since then, he mused as he rode into the city, guards dressed in green surcoats hailing him as he passed through the gates. His brother still cared for him, of that he was certain, but madness had warped it into a special kind of care, the kind of care that can drive one to unspeakable acts that alienate them from the object of their care. If his brother was having one of his good days, Lykourgos was certain that he would be able to coordinate with him effectively, provided he had not arrived too late.

Aside from his personal status and relationships, as he looked around the city he knew for a fact that nothing had changed. In all the years he had lived here, all the stench of mankind had hovered over the place. Salt and sweat and filth hovered over the city like a storm cloud, raining down a horrible smell all hours of the day. A moon or two spent in the countryside had cleared his mind of the smell of the city, and he found that it made it all the more potent when he returned.

The route to the palace was one he knew off by heart, having walked and rode it a thousand times. Ofttimes he would encounter lowborn men and women petitioning him for some blessing or other, or offering their own blessings upon him. He always found it amusing that, despite already giving so much to the realm, these people were so willing to give more to him! It was humbling to know that these people looked up to him, and regarded him as a kind and just prince. He only hoped he could do right by them, when the time came. Given the nature of his return, the prince was unable to stop to hear petitions or blessings this time around, though he did allow himself to stop just for a minute when a young girl, who looked barely a dozen winters, proffered a single large violet to him. A few minutes later, and he arrived at the palace with his head held high and a flower behind his ear.

"BROTHER!"

Lykourgos looked up from where he had just dismounted his horse. Approaching towards him, grin threatening to split his entire face, was his trueborn brother, Rhema. He was barely able to get his foot out of his stirrup before, ignoring the proffered handshake, his brother crashed into him and wrapped him in a bone-crushing hug. Lykourgos smiled despite himself. He may be mad, but in his brother's own words, "I'm your brother first and insane second!".

"Angels, I've missed you. It's been what, two years now?"

Lykourgos smiled, prising himself away from the hug.
"Indeed. I'd returned from Aenirhen for the winter solstice, and you'd managed to sneak into the city for the festival and find me, just like when we were kids."

Lykourgos caught a glimpse of sadness pass across his brother's eyes, before his typical mad energy smothered it, and just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. Rhema looked around, clearly puzzled.
"Where... where is the rest of your retinue?"

"There isn't one. It would have taken me far longer to get here if I wasn't riding alone."

His brother pulled him close again, and lowered his voice.
"You damnable fool! You know this city is crawling with our sister's creatures. How easy would it be for an 'accident' to befall you here whilst you're alone? You've handed yourself over to her on a platter you idiot!"

Lykourgos sighed, acknowledging that the words of both his brother and Ser Romanos rang true.
"True enough, but you've got men in the city, don't you? The city guard answers to you, no?"

Rhema made a noise somewhere between an exaggerated, depressed sigh and a discontented grumble.
"The loyalty of the guard varies from captain to captain, and I'm not likely to be present in the city much for the next few days. By order of the council, which conveniently now contains only those hoping for our sister's ascension, I need to go hunt down bandits patrolling the eastern approaches to the city. The fact that these bandits have been seen wearing red surcoats and wielding billhooks was not mentioned in the council, can't think why."

Lykourgos snorted, and his brother did likewise.

"She may be smart, and she may have a good head for intrigue when it comes to her own, personal touch, but as soon as she involves other people in her plots they all start to fall apart."
They smiled at each other, allowing a warm silence to fill the air for a good few minutes.

"So," Rhema started, breaking the silence, "how fares the northern lordship in these times?"

 


 

"So that's how you got here so quickly!"

Lykourgos nodded his head.
"Indeed, the building and maintaining of messenger stations along my half of the Coastroad was one of the first things I did when given lordship over the north. All I had to do was swap horses at each waystation so as not to tire them and risk an injury, stopping for a few hours of sleep at night and carrying on the next day."

Rhema nodded at their conversation. Their reunion had been pleasant so far; his brother had acted more like the curious, bright young boy he once was as opposed to the violent sadist he seemed to have grown into. Even still, eight hours into their conversation and more than once small cracks had begun to appear in his brother's demeanour, leading Lykourgos to one conclusion.
He's holding himself together for my sake. He wants to try and bond with me properly without snapping. It was a touching, and almost endearing gesture, and while Lykourgos knew it could not last, he chose to savour the return of the brother he knew for a little while longer. They would be admitted to see their father, and the Inner Council, tomorrow, which would mean confronting his sister again. He was quite content to spend a little more time with his more agreeable sibling before breaking this peaceful spell.

"You know, I've been having strange dreams of late."

"Oh?" His brother replied, a hint of something in his voice that signalled he knew more than he seemed.

"The same dream repeats night after night. I'm a bird, flying above the forest floor and being chased by a woods-cat. Another bird sits on the floor and tries to chirp out a message, and-"

"What does the warning say!" His brother cut in, his words pouring out so rapidly that it took Lykourgos a second to make sense of the jumble before speaking.

"I don't know what it says. I wake up as it opens its beak."
The bastard watched as Rhema cursed under his breath, and raised a hand to cover his mouth, before an odd thought struck him.

"Hold on, I never said it was a warning!"
He levelled an accusatory look at his brother, who held up his hands in a weak gesture of defence.

"Lucky guess?"

It came out more as a question than a statement. Lykourgos didn't stop his glaring, causing Rhema to throw his hands up in the air from where he sat.
"All right, look, I learned some stuff from various Alemans we've captured over the years and tried to send you a warning, okay? I know you're into occult stuff so I figured you wouldn't mind if I tried to send you a message about this that couldn't be intercepted, okay! Not that it worked anyway..."

He slumped down into his seat, arms crossed over his chest.
"It's a story for another time, okay?"

Lykourgos nodded, not wishing to push too far and snap his brother out of his fragile state of sanity.
"Okay. How about a new topic of conversation."

His brother nodded, visibly reinflating at his lack of pushing.
"Sure. You taken up with any cool people recently? There's this kid in my retinue we found in an abandoned chapel in the wildlands on the border. They're really loyal, but extremely strange, even compared to me!"
He broke out into laughter at the end of his sentence.

"How so, 'weird'?"

He waited for his trueborn brother to regain control over his laughing for a moment, then patiently gestured for him to continue, ignoring his brother's silent apology. He was doing well enough controlling himself at the moment, there was no need for him to chastise himself over so simple a thing as laughing.

"Ahem. Anyway, they're very strange. They often breaks out into trances and recites prophesies, omens and riddles of the past, future and present, though you need to decipher half of what they say, since otherwise it comes out as gibberish."

Lykourgos raised an eyebrow. Assuming that this was true, and he had no reason to doubt his brother in this state as far as he knew, it would seem as though he had found some form of Seer.
"That is indeed most interesting. Would I be able to meet with this seer or are they otherwise unavailable."

"No, they're still at Castelos at the moment... do you truly believe me? Without doubts on this? I understand if you don't, I know how I can-"

He cut his brother off with a kind, but firm voice.
"Peace. I believe you. I would be further set in my belief if you had proof, but I have no reason to refute your claims anyway."

Rhema smiled at him. Lykourgos knew he would regret this eventually. At some point, maybe not today, but at some point, his brother would sink back into madness, and his grief would set in again.

He shook his head and banished the wayward thoughts.
"I do have an interesting retinue member, by the way. He's a blind man, an ex-Oblate and a hardy man. Can move just as well as any other despite his disability, and can sense storms coming in hours, sometimes days before they occur. He also raised a good point to me recently; I offered to train him in the use of a sword, since it's a far knightlier weapon than his billhook, but he said, quite rightly, that if I intended to fight on the battlefield again, it would make more sense to learn to fight people wielding billhooks and spears. From what some of the Squires have told me he's no pushover either, even though his world is in perpetual darkness."

Rhema grinned.
"Okay, now that is cool. I'd like to meet him at some point, watch the two of you spar. It'll be funny to watch you get knocked out by a blind man."

He playfully punched his brother on the shoulder.
"Very funny little brother, very funny indeed."

 


 

The next day came and went with surprisingly little fanfare. The council had barely spoken a word to either of the brothers, and their sister was nowhere to be seen. Rhema had been able to scrounge up some information from a lady-in-waiting, who claimed that Roma was displeased to have both of her brothers at court together at the same time, especially with how Lykourgos seemingly rode half the country in half a week. Later that day Rhema had left on his assignment to hunt 'bandits', leaving Lykourgos to while away some time by himself in the palace. He'd planted the violet that had been given to him in the palace gardens, and then retreated to the library, away from prying eyes.

As much as he hated to admit it, both Rhema and Romanos were right; almost all of his allies and friends had slipped out of court and the city, each likely converging on the north through Master Elikoidi's "ratlines", a series of clandestine routes in and out of the major settlements of Teleytaios, and likely a few more besides. It was odd that his sister was avoiding him. She'd never particularly liked him, but that normally meant that she stood just out of reach and insulted him, not hidden herself away in seclusion.

"Far be it from me to question small mercies." he said to himself, before setting himself back onto the task at hand. He had gathered a list of father's symptoms, and was cross referencing them with Healer Minwu's Compendium of Medicinal Knowledge and Physical Maladies, Volume IV. It wasn't a particularly thrilling read, but if he could pinpoint a single malady as the cause of his Grace's symptoms, then he could help the physicians to ensure he made at least a partial recovery. He had just reached the end of a particularly lengthy segment labelled 'The Healing Effects of Cleanliness', when he was startled by the appearance of Rhema to his right.

"I'm here. Got back early with the heads of the bandits. Earlier than she wanted, but not nearly early enough."

Lykourgos blinked at him in confusion, before his youngest sibling spoke again.

"You know you're too late, right?"

That made him start.
"What? You mean father..."

He couldn't finish the sentence. The man hadn't been good to him since his trueborn siblings came along, but he'd still raised him up until that point, and that counted for something in Lykourgos' eyes.

"Nah, the old bastards still kicking, but only just. No, I mean you're too late to stop her."
He put such emphasis on the word 'her' that it was impossible for the prince to misinterpret his brother's words

"Nonsense, if father isn't dead then she can't act. No one would support her claim whilst he still lives."

His brother smirked at him. It was an unsettling, deeply unnerving thing, not at all like the true smile he had worn the day previously.
"And what," his brother asked, "is stopping her from killing you right now? You are not in your lands now, not yet. These people are not loyal to you. They still remember how you crushed them in the field at Haestinghen, old fools, and bear you no small amount of resentment for the fact that if it had not been for you, they would still have their old lands and titles. You have travelled here alone, and if you don't leave tonight, you will die here alone- no, scratch that, you'll die and I'll be made to die with you, and that’s far worse."

His brother snorted at his own jape. Lykourgos immediately looked to his brother, then his surroundings. At that moment the bells at the Westcoast Church pealed out, ringing once in a clear and loud clanging noise. Bell-Signals were simple things, though clear enough to understand. One toll rang out, then after a pause four more. Death, followed by Man. Seeing as the bells only rang for people of great import, it didn't require much guesswork to reach a conclusion. Father was dead. The King was dead. His brother clapped him on the shoulder and looked at him with a serious face, Lykourgos couldn't remember the last time his brother had looked so deathly worried.

"Good luck. You're going to need it. So much rides on you getting back north safely. When you get there, call your banners and speed south. She's acted first, and fast, but there's still a chance for you to get out of here and depose her."

He looked at his brother, seeing one last glimpse of the boy he remembered from before the madness set in.

"Brother," he started, "you can come with me. You're a damn good commander and you know how she's going to act. Come with me."

He stretched a hand out to him, and his brother looked at it with a look of resignation and sadness on his face.
"Would that I could. I have things I must do here, but I wish I could go with you. Instead, I offer you two warnings. The second will reach you as you crest the hill north of the city, but the first I give you now; the next time we meet, it may not seem like I want you to help me."

He looked at his brother, puzzled. He had no idea why he had taken to speaking in riddles, but to be honest-
"Why are you still here? Your horse has been saddled and provisions given. Don't eat them, they've been laced with some sort of sleeping agent so her men can catch you on the run. Ride hard and fast. GO!"

With that last statement from his brother the spell was broken, and he ran.

He'd reached the stables and saddled his horse with ease, then galloped through the Last Avenue to the West-Gate. The north gate was closer, true, but if his brother was telling the truth then this was the safest way; there would be too many guards on the North-Gate and the poor in this part of the city knew him, supported him, even. He suppressed the thought that he was leaving these people to suffer under his sister. His brother may have seemed insane, but his sister was ruthless, power-hungry and arrogant. Given the fact that his brother had told him she intended to capture him, which would start a civil war, that was a type of madness all unto itself. He was shaken from his thoughts as a group of people were congregating around an armsman in red liveries. Several men were shielding a woman from the armsman, who was clearly growing more and more impatient with the congregation.

"What you bear is a sign of dissent to her Grace. You will hand over the crown, and prostrate yourself before her Grace, begging her for forgiveness."

A crown? How does a lowborn gain control of a crown? He shook himself. Whatever she was holding was surely immaterial, the important thing was that he could do this one thing to help here, and somewhat assuage his rising guilt. As he dismounted his horse, he felt a growing sense of anger at this armsman, this wretched armsman, who had entered an area of the city where the people had chosen him, and sought to steal and punish them for standing up for themselves and the true heir. He stalked towards the confrontation, the woman's voice growing clearer as he approached.

"He was the one that supported us, not her! He always came through for this part of the city, without fail. He will come, you'll see."

The armsman's face grew red as he ground his teeth together, at his wits end. With anger painted across his face he raised his billhook and slammed its haft into the gut of one of the men, who collapsed winded. The prince saw red, and with less than ten meters between himself and the wretch he broke into a sprint, raised an armoured fist, and swung with all the strength he could muster. The offending armsman had hardly realised the prince was there, a shocked expression barely mustered as the blow connected with his jaw, sending him sprawling to the floor.

Lykourgos clutched his hand, feeling where a finger had broken under the force of the impact, and looked to the small gathering of lowborns. Some looked at him with reverence or awe, but most simply looked grateful. The woman stood out from the rest of them though, he knew he had seen her somewhere before, and she had a glimmer in her eyes that he could not quite place. She held out her hands towards him, and in them she held-
Oh.
The prince raised his injured fist to cover his mouth as he looked away, eyes watering. She wanted to give him this, just as he was leaving them to potentially die here?
In her hands she held a very simple flower crown, made out of beautiful dark violets.

"I cannot remain in this city."
He choked out the words barely able to force himself to look at them, these people who had trusted him to lead them, who he was leaving, who surely would-

"I know. Ride hard, your Grace, and when you return, the throne will accept you like none other."

"I will come back for you all, I promise."
His words came out as hardly a whisper. Strange, that he should feel so strongly for people he barely knew at all, and who he would likely never see again.

"We know, your Grace. You always do." Came the wheezing voice of the man who had been struck. Others joined in their affirmations, before the woman- the florist, the one whose daughter used to hand over the crown, he remembered, - gave him the crown. As he placed the crown upon his brow and saddled his horse, he spared one last look at the small crowd of lowborns behind him. The woman simply nodded once, and he took off through the still-open gate.

"I will return. I promise."

 


 

He crested the hill outside the city, and waited for the second of his brother's warnings. He allowed his horse to rest at the top of the hill whilst he looked at his provisions in his bag.
"Ah." He exclaimed as he rooted through his bag. His brother was right, his provisions had indeed been tampered with. He dumped the provisions, save his waterskin, and made a note to remind himself to wash the inside of the saddlebag in a stream tomorrow.

He waited for twenty minutes in search of a warning, watching as certain parts of the city seemed to be waking up, even in the depths of night. He could hear the commotion in the city, and a small fire seemed to have started on the Last Avenue. He winced, again suppressing the urge to ride back and try to help those that looked up to him. He would do no good there. Just as he felt as though he couldn't take anymore and made to saddle his horse, finally the warning came.

The bell on the Westcoast Church began to toll again. Once, twice, thrice, he continued to count the tolls on the bell, and his heart sank to the pit of his stomach as he realised the meaning behind his brother's last warning, As the bell struck its thirteenth toll, he closed his eyes and prayed to hear it ring at least once more.
He did not.
Thirteen tolls meant only one thing.
Murder.

That night he dreamed he was a bird. He took flight and chirped at another bird to follow, to follow to safety and to hope.
The other did not respond for what felt like hours, but eventually it did.
It chirped back that it was tired.
So tired.
So very tired.

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About the author

JackdawsAndSparrows

Bio: 19 Years Old.
Biromantic Asexual.
English.
Currently working on a low/dark fantasy piece, "An Angel Called Eternity".

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