The Raven's Shadow Falls
In the south-eastern part of Ealond lay the duchy of Belvoir along the border to Korndale. It was situated where several tributaries converged upon the river Sureste, making the lands fertile and lush. Along with this came the rich trade with Tricaster across the border, making Belvoir a prosperous fief and its master one of the most powerful noblemen in Ealond. His fortress reflected this with many towers, high walls, and a large garrison; the nearby castle town had many stately houses built by wealthy merchants, its markets and workshops bustled with activity, and it had over time reached a size and acquired its own fortifications to merit being called a city instead.
Riding through it on a magnificent steed, Duke Gaspard was followed by a grand retinue of kinsmen and other noblemen. They were returning from the hunt in the nearby forests that teemed with game, reflected by the many pheasants and even a large deer that their servants were bringing back. The townspeople hurried to stand aside for this splendid procession, but many of them cried out to the duke, wishing the gods’ blessing upon him. He waved in return on occasion, exchanging jests and laughter with his companions meanwhile.
The hunting party went down the main street of the city, eventually reaching its temple. Unlike its domed counterpart in Middanhal, it had a tall spire and a stained glass window above its great door that formed the shape of a raven. A novice in her brown robe was sweeping the stairs by the entrance when she looked up to see the duke and his followers approach. Dropping the broom, she hurried inside and called for her sisters.
The high priestess of the temple was soon outside with the other ordained members of her order, bowing low as the duke reached them. “The Raven Days are over!” Gaspard declared. He was a handsome man with a groomed beard, as brown in colour as his cheeks were red. His fur-lined cloak and wealthy attire made an impression upon the commoners as well; a crowd was already gathering to gawp at the richly dressed riders and hear their lord’s words. “Those days of hardship always take their toll, and food becomes scarce in many a home.” Concern lay upon his countenance. “As the new year arrives, it brings an end to hardship for now. I bring this gift to the temple,” he announced, motioning to his servants that were holding the deer upon a stick, “that our revered sibyls may use it to feed those who cannot feed themselves.” His men walked forward to place the carcass upon the steps of the temple while the onlookers cheered.
“You have our thanks, Your Highness,” the eldest of the norns replied. “May the goddess bless you as you have blessed us with this gift.” She gestured to some of her sisters, who grabbed the legs of the deer and began hauling it inside.
“May the new year bring you all gifts,” the duke declared loudly, and his people roared enthusiastically. Waving to them, the duke turned his horse and began a slow trot, giving his people time to greet him and be greeted in return.
“That was kind of you, Father,” remarked the young man who rode next to Gaspard; he had the same ruddy cheeks and clear blue eyes, though his hair was blonder and his beard thinner.
“I prefer the pheasants anyway,” the duke remarked with mirth in his eyes, winking to his son before sending further smiles to the adoring crowd.
The land was nearly flat, but where it sloped slightly upwards stood Castle Belvoir. It towered over its surroundings, including the town, and dominated the landscape. The nearby river had been partly diverted to serve as a moat, increasing its defences greatly. As the hunting party approached the fortress, the call went up from the guards, and the drawbridge was lowered in response. Numerous servants hurried into the courtyard to receive the duke and his retinue; stable hands received the horses, kitchen servants took the dead fowls to prepare or cure the meat, and personal attendants brought wine and other refreshments to drink.
“Welcome home, milord,” declared the steward.
“All has been well in my absence, I trust?” asked the duke.
“Yes, milord. I was told to relay that your wife has gone through the books for the last year, and she wishes to discuss them with you.”
“Tell her we may do so tonight,” Gaspard commanded.
“Yes, milord. Also,” the servant continued hesitantly, “Master Guilbert returned yesterday.”
The duke was quiet for a moment. “Send for him in my study immediately.”
The duke turned around. “Alois,” he called out.
His son walked over to him. “Yes, Father?”
“Meet your mother and me tonight in my study. We will be examining the duchy’s books.”
“Of course, Father.”
“Let us attend to our horses,” Gaspard continued. Father and son went over to where their steeds stood waiting. The stable boys had removed the saddles already and handed brushes to the noblemen to let them groom the horses themselves. Idle conversation ensued, mostly about their luck on the hunt, until the beasts had been properly tended to; only then did the duke allow his men to enter the castle and relax after their expedition.
While his companions rested, changed clothes, or saw to other needs, the duke marched straight to his study. The figure inside had been sitting down, waiting, but leapt up as his lord thrust the door open and strode inside. “My lord,” Guilbert greeted him, bowing low.
“Guilbert,” the duke responded with a nod. He moved to pour a cup of ale from a pitcher on a small table. “How was your sojourn to Middanhal?”
“It was a success, my lord,” the envoy reported with satisfaction. He grabbed a leather cylinder that had been leaning against his chair and opened it on the duke’s desk, letting a rolled up document slide out.
Gaspard seized the parchment eagerly and unfurled it, letting his eyes glance over it. At the bottom, it carried the signature and seal of the jarl of Vale. “Excellent. This should silence the other lords. You have done well, Guilbert.”
“I live to serve,” he replied with a bow.
“What is your impression of the jarl?”
“I never met with him,” Guilbert admitted. “Only his brother, the dragonlord.”
“What would you say of him?”
“A clever man, clear-sighted and willing to act as necessary,” Guilbert described. “Yet under strain from the civil war and liable to make mistakes if pressured sufficiently.”
“I see. Once we intervene, the war should come to an end,” the duke declared. He sat down by his desk, continuing to examine the treaty in his hands. “Did you learn anything else of note?”
“The prince seems charming. Seems, that is. I did not witness anything to the contrary, but his cordial manner felt like a mask upon his face, and I did not feel at ease when I glimpsed behind the mask.”
“Is that so,” Gaspard considered, stroking his chin. “That will be a headache for the drakonians, not us. Once we finish this war that threatens his future rule, he should at any rate be amenably disposed towards us.”
“Indeed, my lord.”
“You have done well securing this, Guilbert,” the duke reiterated, rolling the document together. “Thanks to this, my plans may proceed.”
“It was an honour. May I enquire as to when you depart for Fontaine?”
“In a week or two, I estimate. Why?”
“I was wondering,” Guilbert spoke cautiously, “if I would be accompanying his lordship to the capital. I believe I may be of great service at the court.”
Regret appeared on the duke’s face. “I fear that would be unseemly. I will face opposition as it is, trying to legitimise myself at court. Legitimacy, unfortunately, is your weakness.”
If being reminded of his bastard background upset Guilbert, he did not show it. “As you say, Your Highness,” he assented with a servile demeanour.
“You will do important work for me here at Belvoir,” the duke maintained. “Far more important than at Fontaine.”
“Of course, Your Highness. Was there anything else you required of me?”
“No, you are dismissed,” Gaspard told him. Turning around, Guilbert left the study with his countenance devoid of emotion.
The duke took dinner with his family and court afterwards, being served pheasants. After the winter, it was the first fresh meat anyone in the castle had eaten in months, and to augment the good mood, the wine was less diluted than normal. As the duke’s cheeks were already red in colour, the effect of the drink was not visible on his appearance; he laughed a great deal, yet that was also commonplace. His wife was quieter in comparison, retaining a dignified disposition and only occasionally adding a remark to her husband’s jests. Their eldest son, mixing their blood and temper, was somewhere in between; laughing more often than his mother but with less intensity than his father.
In any case, the successful hunt and the return of the lord of the castle, with delicious food and wine to follow, meant for a merry meal. The harshness of winter lay behind them, and while other lands might be ravaged by war, those seemed like distant realms; nothing threatened the prosperity of Belvoir.
When all were satiated, the duke withdrew to his study, followed by his wife and Alois. The accounts of the duchy had already been brought there by command of the lady, and she wasted no time in opening the ledgers at specific pages.
“Look here,” she told her husband. “These are our expenses for linen and cloth for the last year, and these are sums paid.”
“They match, so why the dissatisfaction?” asked Gaspard.
“I enquired with the merchants and weavers and tallied every sum. There is a discrepancy of fifty silver,” she declared triumphantly. “Your steward has written higher figures in these books than he actually paid out, keeping the difference.”
The duke laughed. “My dear Claudette, you acted like a wolf with the scent of a wounded hart. Fifty silver is all?”
“It is not the amount of coins, it is the principle,” the lady replied offended. “I told you that daleman was not to be trusted, and I was right!”
“So you went to all this trouble, tracking down every merchant and craftsman, just to prove you were right?” Gaspard’s voice danced with amusement.
“It is the principle,” she reiterated fiercely. “He is cheating us!” While the duke appeared calm in the face of the duchess’ outburst, their son kept his distance.
“Darling, in the course of examining the books, do you have an estimate of how much coin we have saved since Master Livius became steward?”
“I would not know,” she sniffed. “I did not compare with the previous year’s books.”
“But you must have an idea,” Gaspard pressed her.
She stared at her husband. “Three crowns and seventy-two silver, or thereabouts,” she admitted sourly. “But what he stole has to be subtracted from that!”
“Thereabouts,” the duke smiled amused. “My arithmetic is inferior to yours, my dear, but that should leave us three crowns and twenty-two silver richer.”
“It is the principle,” she repeated.
“Alois,” the duke called out, looking at his son. “What would you suggest is done?”
The young man frowned. “A servant who cheats his master is an offence to our honour. Furthermore, if it became known we have done nothing to discourage this, all our servants would be emboldened to steal from us.”
“Very true. But Master Livius is the most capable steward I have had in many years. Is it worth losing his skill in running my estate to set an example?” asked Gaspard.
Alois scratched the thin beard on his chin. “I would call Master Livius to my study tomorrow and tell him that starting this year, his wages will be increased with fifty pieces of silver.”
“Are you mad?” came an outburst from his mother.
“I would also inform him,” the young nobleman continued, “that I have decided not to suffer any kind of thievery or dishonesty among my servants henceforth. He is to crack down on any such behaviour harshly, and you expect that the coming year’s books will be balanced perfectly with not a copper petty out of place.”
“You are soft-hearted like a wench,” his mother grumbled.
Gaspard smiled broadly. “You are wise beyond your years, my son. Come now, Claudette, be thankful that our son has inherited your mind and my good looks. Imagine the disaster if it had been reverse,” he grinned.
“How dare you!” Claudette exclaimed, though her outrage seemed disingenuous. “Tonight when you come knocking at my chamber door, home for the first time in many nights, I shall remember your words and make you bitterly regret them.”
“Lock your door all you want, dear wife. I have a copy of the key,” he informed her with a wink to his son, who seemed slightly nauseated at the conversation.
“I expected nothing less from a rake like you,” she huffed. “Alois, do not stay up late. There is a chill in the air tonight, and I do not want you to get sick.”
“Mother, I just spent a week in the coldness of the forest,” he tried to protest, but she was already leaving.
“That was a clever decision, my son, concerning Master Livius. You will make a great duke some day. Maybe more,” his father predicted with gleaming eyes.
“You have not changed your mind, then?” Alois asked apprehensively.
“I considered your objections as promised. I am still determined this is the best course of action,” his father declared.
“The decision is yours to make,” the son assented. “I should be by your side - that should be my decision to make.”
The duke shook his head. “There will be plenty for you to do in my absence. Once matters in Fontaine are decided, we march to war in Adalrik. I want you to make those preparations.”
The youth considered this briefly. “As you say, Father. I shall make you proud.”
“You already have, my boy. Now, let us have a glass of this brandy to chase away that night chill your mother mentioned,” Gaspard suggested with smiling eyes, pouring two glasses.
About a week later, Gaspard of Belvoir was in the saddle once more. Along with his usual retinue, many hundred soldiers stood ready in the courtyard; on their march, their number would increase to the double, and it would still only be a small portion of Belvoir’s full strength. Although the duke had been summoned by King Rainier to march all his soldiers to Fontaine, equipping all his levies and keeping them fed was very costly, and Gaspard was only bringing the number he felt necessary. To the inhabitants of the castle, unused to seeing armies of any size, it was an impressive sight regardless.
As the columns made ready for departure, a norn entered through the gate and approached the duke. Seeing her, he dismounted again, allowing her to address him with more ease. “My lord,” she greeted him while inclining her head.
“I come to wish the Raven Lady’s blessings upon your venture,” she explained. She lowered her voice as she continued to speak. “I have received word from the Veiled. She awaits your arrival.”
“Very well,” the duke simply replied. His gaze fell upon one of the windows above where his wife and children were watching him, including his eldest son. “You were present when Alois was born, were you not?”
“I was the sibyl for all your children, Your Highness.”
“Do you remember his birth words?” the duke asked, waving and smiling to his family.
“Of course,” the norn claimed.
“Raven’s shadow falls, fountain overflows, the river shall be his,” Gaspard quoted from memory. “In that moment, I knew he was destined for this.”
“There can be no other interpretation, Your Highness.”
“My son,” he added to himself, smiling again. “Thank you, Sister,” he added, taking to the saddle again. “Gods go with you,” he told her in farewell. “Move out!” he shouted to the procession of men behind him while his personal guards fell into place by his side. With a gentle push of the spurs into his horse, the duke began the journey towards Fontaine.