Monday, 16 May 2016

Watcher of the West - Part 1 of 3

Watcher of the West will be released in three parts over the next week. In the first installment, prepare to meet a ten-year-old boy on the biggest day of his life so far. This is a big moment for me. Never before have I shared anything I've ever written like this in any sort of public sphere. I wish you all the best of luck with it, and assure you that part two will be posted on Thursday 19th May, and part three a few days after that. Happy reading!

Westwarden Castle was enormous, and anyone who so much as half-knew the layout of the huge fortification knew at least a dozen hiding-places. On this occasion, they had been useful for a time, and the young boy had hidden from the utterly mesmerising sheen of the day. That was until his mother found him and made him take part. For hours, his life had whizzed by in an endless blur of shimmering steel and vibrant dyes: capes, banners, drapery, tapestries. For the men there were fine doublets, slashed silk sleeves and pristine white undershirts. For the ladies were tall hats of vivid pinks and greens, sapphire blues and ruby reds to match their dresses and jewels.  Gifts had changed hands, and sweet words had left tongues. A million words had been spoken, but the boy had heard none of them, though they were all here because of him.
            He looked up, startled. The boy had barely realised, but for almost half an hour he had been alone, standing by the keep walls and staring at one of the great table of fine fruits, meats and cakes that had been set out against one of the walls of Westwarden Castle for the hundreds of guests.
            ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people here,’ he said quietly to the tall, fine man that stood over him with his neat red hair and a handsome, pale, well-chiselled face. He wore a set of fine, blackened steel armour trimmed with golden paint and emblazoned with the phoenix crest on its wide chestplate. A heavy sword hung across the tall man’s back, safe in its fine, dark leather scabbard. It was too large to be a longsword, yet not large enough to be a broadsword. Bastard blade, the boy thought. He despised the name of the thing. The boy raised his own eyes to meet the genuine, deep blue gaze that reached out to him from the pale face of the tall man beside him. ‘When will it be done, Captain Aethlar?’
            Aethlar, the tall, ginger captain of the guard at Westwarden Castle, crossed his arms and scratched his chin with his gauntleted hand, where a few reddish bristles grew about his face. ‘Your father wants to wait for his brother,’ he said with a shrug of one of his broad shoulders, the heavy black pauldrons that rested there clanked as he did so. ‘You know as well as I that your uncle, Lord Aesinger, likes to make an entrance. I shan’t imagine he’ll want to be too much longer, though.’
            The boy swallowed and rubbed his hands together, glancing around the great courtyard in which he stood. The light of the bright summer’s day shone down upon the nobles below, who formed a great mass of vibrant rainbow of colours. In the warm air, the words of the assembled folk and the songs of the minstrels playing near the eastern wall danced in a constant bubbling crescendo. The day was fine, and since that morning, Detmoald, Westwarden Castle’s very own Priest of the Divine Empress, had been singing the praises of the Divine Empress for sending such a good omen on such an important day. ‘T’is a sign!’ he had cried at the perfect golden sunrise that morning, as he raised his hands to the sun. The tears on his cheeks sparkled like tiny diamonds in the glimmer of the dawn light as he sang. ‘T’is a sign of the great day we approach! She is watching us, my friends! Praise be She who, with her great fiery eye, watches over us! Praises be to the Divine Empress, the First and Only, the Great Vidoria, who leads us all with her most holy light!’
Hours had passed since, and the afternoon was drawing to its apex as the boy stood beside Captain Aethlar and tried to stop his hands shaking. He had counted some three-hundred different figures in the courtyard: noblemen and women, their sons and daughters, their knights, servants, household retinues, and soldiers of the Vidorian Empire. Amongst them all seamlessly wove the men and women of the Fortescue household; the knights offered handshakes and words of greeting, the serving staff carried glasses and great pitchers of fine reddened wine imported from Eagle Island, far to the west. They are all here for me, he thought to himself with an uneasy shudder. They all expect me to be like my father, they all want me to be a great man like he is, they all want-…
            ‘Here.’ Suddenly Captain Aethlar was standing in front of him, one of his gauntlets pulled off. ‘You’ve a stray bit of dirt on your doublet,’ he said with a frown. Reaching down with his now uncovered hand, Captain Aethlar quickly brushed a spot on the shoulder of the pristine white doublet that the young boy wore. ‘Your mother spent a fortune on this ceremonial thing, let’s see that it isn’t completely filthy before the ceremony. You look rather strapping in all this white, and those black boots suit you brilliantly.’
            The young boy looked over his clothing. Part of him had hoped it would be uncomfortable or that it would not fit. That way, he would have had an excuse to ask to wear his regular battered old dark grey leather tunic and trousers. The white formalwear he had been forced into late that morning was infuriatingly comfortable, and shone like a lit beacon in the bright light of the summer’s day, which made him stand out like fresh-fallen snow on the rolling dark green hills that surrounded Westwarden Castle.
            As he pondered just how much he stuck out from absolutely everyone else present, fear suddenly gripped the boy, ‘Captain Aethlar I don’t know if I-…’
            The tall ginger soldier laughed and stood straight again, his pale face wide in a grin. ‘Can’t what, my boy? You are Hugh Fortescue, son of the one and only Earl Jacob Fortescue and Lady Isabella Beshing – two of the finest and best-loved noblefolk in the Imperial Heartlands, nay, the whole of the Vidorian Empire!’
            ‘Exactly!’ the young Hugh cried. ‘How am I ever to live up to my father? All these people have already decided their opinions of me, I’m a-…’
            ‘Hush,’ Captain Aethlar said gently, his grin softening to a comforting smile. ‘No-one cares anymore about that archaic old law. So what if you wear a bastard’s name? So what if you were born a few weeks before your mother and father could be married? Most of the nobles here look at the happiness your mother and father have and find their hearts melting with joy for them; take Baron Rosmir and his wife, Lady Lian, there,’ Captain Aethlar said, dropping his voice to a whisper and pointing to a young man with fine dark brown locks of hair and with a thin and thoroughly miserable-looking young woman on his arm. They stood apart from everyone, doing everything they could not to look at one-another, whilst the great whirling storm of nobility and servitude continued its strange dance of society before them. ‘They’ve been married for two years and detest one-another.’
            ‘Really?’ Hugh said in a whisper. ‘Why?’
            Captain Aethlar shrugged his shoulders, the heavy metal plates he wore upon them clanking and rattling again as he did. ‘They don’t like each other,’ he said. ‘He’s a bit of a lustful ne’er-do-well, and she’s devoted to the service of the Divine Empress, praises be to Her name. They cannot stand one another, yet are married because their parents wanted political leverage against another house – such is forbidden in the Empire, as well. It detracts from our unity, our working as the sword and shield of Vidoria upon the face of The World.’
            ‘Oh,’ the young Hugh said. He peered at the young couple for a few moments. ‘Do they have any bastard-children?’
            Captain Aethlar sighed and rolled his blue eyes. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But that’s not the point, my boy,’ he said. ‘The point is, people can see that your mother and father are strong and happy together in marriage. Most of them look past the circumstances of your birth. Your parents would have wedded sooner if you father had not been required to campaign for a year.’
            Hugh rolled his eyes. ‘So I keep being told,’ he said.
            With another sigh, Captain Aethlar gently tousled Hugh’s short, jet black hair. ‘I have to go and check on the walls. Try not to look so sad, my lad,’ he said with a wink, taking a few steps away from Hugh. ‘Besides, I’m sure you’ll get to spar with some of the other boys after the ceremony. You can show them how good you are with that sword of yours; I’m sure wiping the smirk off your cousin Darry’s face is something you can look forward to.’
            Hugh watched Captain Aethlar walk away, his heavy plate armour dully shining in the summer sun. He was unable to stop a small smile from creasing his gaunt, pale face at the comment about his cousin. At eleven years old, Darry Fortescue, the son of Hugh’s uncle, Lord Aesinger, was only a year older than Hugh. Hugh, however, had been thrice the swordsman last time they met, and had relished beating his rude and unkind cousin with a wooden training-sword. He had been told that his ability with his blade was well beyond his years, and he had once almost beaten his father, Earl Jacob, in a duel – almost.
            Father will be cross if he hears that I’ve not made any effort to talk to anyone, Hugh thought with an uneasy chew of his thin lips. He had no desire to speak to anyone, though, and the hordes of men and women around him who he neither knew nor recognised made him feel uneasy. Look for their house arms, just like Detmoald says, Hugh told himself. In truth, he was unsure if he could trust his tongue with anyone he did not already know, for he was petrified about what he was expected to do that day.
            But then he had no choice but to use it. ‘Young Hugh!’ a colossal voice rocked the walls of the castle. Hugh started and spun around. His gaze, having left the food table he had squatted beside for a moment, had allowed for a large, heftily-proportioned gentleman in blue and yellow finery and wearing a large floppy black cap with a feather in to slip by him unnoticed. The skeletal wife on his arm, her chestnut brown hair greying at the temples, looked miniscule beside her hulking husband.
            ‘Good day, Duke Berehad,’Hugh said dutifully. At least I know this man.
            Berehad looked over his round stomach, straining the small golden buttons on his doublet, and into Hugh’s grey eyes with his own dark brown gaze. He scratched his wrinkling, ruddy cheeks with his dirty fingers and grinned. ‘Today’s a big day, my boy!’ he said aloud, picking up a huge lump of cheese from the table and taking a bite out of it.
            ‘It is, indeed,’ Hugh said nervously, ‘but, with all due respect, Duke Berehad, that cheese is for cutting-…’
            Oblivious to Hugh’s words, the duke continued speaking over the young man. ‘How is your father? We in the Southern Heartlands have heard little from him recently and I’ve yet to catch him today. I suppose he’s still basking in the glory showered upon him during his time crushing those Maedarians to the west five years ago. That was a marvellous campaign, was it not, my dear?’
            The small women on the duke’s arm opened her mouth to speak, but she did not find any words quick enough. ‘Where is Lord Hordun?’ Duke Berehad continued. Hugh was unsure if the duke was addressing him, his wife, or just about anyone else in the courtyard given the booming echo the duke’s voice sent reverberating off the walls. ‘I heard the old sod had his leg wounded in a skirmish with some insurgents whilst out gallivanting around that new territory of his in Maedar – territory he won thanks to your father, Hugh, no doubt! Well, where is he? I wish to laugh at him.’
            ‘I believe he’s-…’ Hugh began.
            Before Hugh could finish, though, Duke Berehad let out a cry: ‘Ah! More wine!’ he said loudly and tottered off back into the crowd, his poor wife dragging behind him on his broad, strong arm. Shaking his head, Hugh watched the two disappear before he left the table of food by which he had been cowering, hoping to avoid attention.
            He skirted around the nobles and servants filling Westwarden Castle’s huge courtyard and quickly made his way towards the high stone walls. Swiftly, he dodged around the small ornamental gardens that peppered the courtyard’s wide space: carefully curated pockets of green grass and small trees installed by Earl Jacob to bring some life to the courtyard and the request of his wife, Lady Isabella.
            As Hugh turned and nimbly dodged through one such garden, trying to avoid one of the serving staff carrying a silver tray laden with many goblets, he suddenly found his way blocked by a young man he did not recognise. Both looked at each other for a few moments, startled, as Hugh tried to find something on the young man’s completely black finery to place him. There was no insignia though, and his pale, drawn face and callous, empty eyes quickly changed their expression from surprise to disgust. In a display of much-strained formality, the young man joined his hands behind his back and allowed his thin cheeks to be stretched in an utterly tired, fake smile.
            ‘Excuse me,’ Hugh quickly said in a nervous stutter, ‘I did not see you there.’
            ‘Indeed,’ the young man said in a tone that contained barely hidden annoyance. ‘I am terribly sorry. Allow me to move aside.’
            ‘Thank-you, sir,’ Hugh said with an uneasy smile. There was something about the young man he did not like. He neither knew him nor trusted the cold demeanour with which he carried himself. It was a little too self-assured for the young Hugh’s liking. ‘I don’t believe I know your name,’ he said quickly.
            ‘You don’t,’ the young man said, laboriously stepping to the side to allow Hugh to pass. ‘I am Sir Hubert Visidor. We have never met. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and speak to Duke Adalus of the Eastern Heartlands before he drinks himself into a coma,’ the young knight said and swept away from Hugh as soon as he was past. ‘I see that I am too late to speak to that fat fool, Berehad,’ Hugh heard the young knight mutter to himself as he marched away through the crowd of nobles.
            With no further interruptions, young Hugh managed to creep away from the oppressive horde of partying nobles and to the bottom of the wide, tall walls that ran around Westwarden Castle. Quickly, hoping not to be noticed in his blazing white finery, he ascended the steps to the battlements as fast as he could. The black-armoured soldier he passed on his way nodded and smiled at him, though said nothing. A little peace, Hugh thought. Just a little peace away from all these old politicians.
            The sound of the revelry below seemed to dull upon the walls. It was a faint, far-off rumble of good-humoured conversation, interspaced with the strum of a harp or thud of a drum from atop the high ramparts of the castle. Hugh quickly looked around, making sure that none of the armed and armoured men marching up and down the wall were Captain Aethlar. All soldiers of the Vidorian Empire wore a simple suit of black-steel armour or mail, but only officers of rank had theirs trimmed with gold. To his vision, Hugh could see no flash of red hair in the afternoon sun, nor the glitter of light upon a golden trim, so he turned to lean on the battlements and gaze out over the countryside.
            Westwarden Castle was a glittering spire of grey-white stone, standing tall and proud like an artisan-crafted statue amongst the western hills of the Imperial Heartlands. The landscape was beautiful in high summer: the rich green hills rolled away in every direction like an emerald sea, peppered with a spray of white daisies here and there. Far away to the north, the hills slowly rose until they became tall, sharp mountains topped with untrodden snow. About as far to the south, the rolling green gently began to level and lower, eventually coming to the high, dark cliffs that overlooked the endless South Seas. Hugh knew, nestled in those cliffs, lay the port town of Dorestadt. His father had taken him there once to show him the many ships and boats that poured into the Imperial Heartland’s only port. Hugh remembered being overawed by the hundreds of bright sails and snapping flags, by the burly men carrying great boxes of silverware and spices, by the sound of the screaming gulls that wheeled above him.
            Everything in the Western Heartlands was tranquil, though. For a few moments, as he leaned on the closest merlon, Hugh forgot about the whirling dervish of politics taking place below him, and he lost himself in the golden light of the beautiful day. He stared westwards, imagining the sun dancing on the crystal-clear waters of the River Sayn, the natural border between the Imperial Heartlands and the province of Westmoor. He remembered the tales his father had told him, of how he would ride out to the river when he was Hugh’s age, and would try and fish for the salmon leaping in the fast-flowing waters. Hugh wished he could do that himself. I don’t want to do today, he thought nervously, drumming his fingers on the stone of the merlon beside him. I don’t want to be here. I wish I could just run away.
            No-one would stop him. He was, after all, the son of the earl of the Western Heartlands. He could walk to the stables, take a horse, and be gone before anyone even noticed. He could lose himself in the hills and the streams, the quiet places away from the hubbub of the court that had invaded his home. He need not worry for bandits either, for the Vidorian Empire was at its apex. Governor Lysandrus, who had led the rebellion in Maedar five years ago, was long dead and buried. His replacement, Governor Aelfurd, was a just and strong man, who admirably kept the peace of the province. Westmoor, the province that lay between Maedar and the Imperial Heartlands, was still under the rule of a collection of generals and councillors, but there were no problems there to Hugh’s knowledge. The Heartlands were bereft of banditry, and there had been neither plague nor pestilence in the region for decades.
            ‘We’ll need you soon.’
            Hugh jumped backwards, startled by the voice that suddenly sounded beside him. He spun about and found himself face-to-face with a man of middling height yet impressive stature. His chest was broad and swollen with dignity and honour, and his lined, weathered face was studded with two glinting green eyes. Tousled black curls fell to his shoulders, and he had a jaw that could have been sculpted by an artist. He wore a deep blue doublet with golden trim, and a matching cape over his shoulder on which was printed a white stag’s head wreathed with holly leaves.
            ‘Sorry, father,’ Hugh said quietly, his eyes falling to the floor. ‘I just wanted to-…’ he cut himself off and swallowed.
            Earl Jacob Fortescue smiled at his son and leaned upon the battlements beside him. ‘It’s fine,’ he said in a deep, gentle voice. ‘Your mother was wondering where you were, that was all. You glitter like a star up here in that ridiculous finery.’
            Hugh blushed a deep red. ‘I hate it.’
            ‘So do I, but it’s a tradition.’
            ‘Just because something has been done for a few years doesn’t mean it’s not a bad idea,’ Hugh muttered. ‘Why does it have to be white?’
            Earl Jacob took a long, slow intake of breath. ‘The practice is hardly a few years old, son of mine,’ the earl said with a small chuckle. ‘It is said that Vidoria wore white on the day that she acclaimed herself empress. Now, it is a formality that when men of noble houses are uplifted to knightly status, that they too wear white.’
Hugh scowled. ‘I still don’t like it,’ he said.
‘You’re ten years of age now, Hugh,’ his father said. ‘You’re a man. You’ve many more years ahead of you which, I can assure you, will be filled full of things that you don’t want to do, yet must.’ The earl glanced down at his son and quirked a brow. ‘Especially so if you one day end up taking my place as the earl of the Western Imperial Heartlands. You do want that, don’t you?’
Hugh gasped. ‘Of course I do!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ve always wanted to do good by your name!’
Earl Jacob shrugged and curled a lip. ‘I don’t know. Darry is a year older than you, after all. I could always pass the office to him, should the emperor allow it. If my brother is still alive, I could give it to him as well.’
Hugh’s mouth fell open. ‘You wouldn’t!’ he cried. ‘It’s our home! You can’t! You-…’
Earl Jacob broke into a gentle laugh. ‘I never would,’ he said, stepping away from the battlements and standing close to his son peering down his nose at him with his brow raised. ‘But if you ever wish to become Earl, you must first become a knight. And in order to become a knight, you must first be knighted. If you keep on hiding up here, that will never happen, will it?’ he finished, dropping his voice to a near-disciplinary whisper.
‘Sorry,’ Hugh said quietly, looking at the black boots covering his toes and feeling stupid. ‘You don’t think I’m a coward for running away from the nobles, do you?’
Earl Jacob placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘Of course not,’ he said with a grin. ‘I was quite glad to see you had slipped away. It gave me a few moments reprieve from these painted and pompous pansies in their silly hats and cloaks.’ The earl lowered his face until his and Hugh’s were only a few inches apart. ‘Doesn’t Duke Berehad look like he would make a fine jester in his floppy hat and all that blue and yellow?’
Hugh could not fight the laugh that shot from his mouth. As he did, the sound of a horn split the summer afternoon air. A single, long, deep note from the gatehouse drew Earl Jacob and Hugh’s eyes back over the wall. There, to the south, a large party mounted on horseback and accompanied with an entourage of carts, were making their way up the dusty road that ran between the hills to the gates of Westwarden Castle. There must have been some hundred or so men in the retinue, many of whom were armed and armoured as soldiers of the Vidorian Empire.
‘Lord Aesinger is here!’ a voice cried from the battlements.
‘Open the gates!’ Earl Jacob roared in reply before turning to Hugh. ‘Come on, son,’ he said gently. ‘Now your uncle is here, we can get on with the ceremony.’ Earl Jacob placed a hand on his son’s shoulder and led him away from the walls, back towards the steps down to the courtyards. ‘For the record,’ he said quietly, one he was well out of earshot of the guards, ‘I would never give the earldom to your uncle, nor to that weevil of a cousin of yours.’
Hugh raised his eyes to meet the gaze of his father. The earl smiled at him and clapped him on the back. ‘You can do this,’ he said. ‘I believe in you.’

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