CHAPTER 4 - SMOKES AND SMITHS

Outside the walls of Castle Rondiar surrounding it was the capital city of Hylan itself. It was a wealthy city. Many noble families made Rondiar their home for it was the most guarded city in the whole of Hylan, though most would argue that the magic city of Iredis was much better defended, what with all the mages there including the White Light herself. But Iredis was a costly place to live in and the magister of the city gave priority to those gifted with magic.

Houses in Rondiar were built in levels of twos and threes and no taller, otherwise the City Watch would have their view of the city severely obstructed from the walls. Though Castle Rondiar was themed with the heavenly colour of white, the people of the city chose to be more varied. Dark coloured tiles of earthly shades made up the roofs of the houses, while more vibrant colours were used to the paint the wooden walls, lest they were made of stones or bricks. The streets were wide and wide it remained even during festivals when travelling merchants set up stalls on the sides of the streets. Trees and flower bushes grew in abundance, adding the scarlet of tulips and the red of roses to the city, with their aroma sweetening the air.

Children screamed and laughed as they chased each other down the streets. Folks haggled to save a few coppers while merchants boasted to earn a few more. The rich nobles were draped in lavish velvet cloths and fine jewelleries, while the common folk wore plain linen garments of dresses and skirts, and of tunics and trousers, with perhaps a necklace or a white hairpin with other simpler decorations. The city guards wore their armour of grey plates and dark leather. They patrolled in fours with two bearing halberds and two other wielding swords. A fifth would join every now and then and the fifth would surely be a knight. The knight would serve as commander - as a knight always did - with his white armour donned, his sword by his waist and his polished white shield strapped by his arm.

"Eat up, Whitesong, we've got a long ride ahead of us," Fayte said, dropping a sack of hay in front of his white horse.

Whitesong dug in as Fayte sprinkled herbs onto the hay. The stable housed near sixty horses and this was just one of the four stables in Rondiar. They were at Yoliander Gate situated north of the city. Brados Gate was to the west and Mastior Gate to the south-east. Each gate was named after the three master builders who conceived the plans for Rondiar City together. To each of the gate was a stable save for Yoliander Gate which had two since it was the main entrance of Rondiar.

"Come on, I command you to eat!" Wilson said, standing in front of the chestnut horse. "Eat!"

The horse just looked at him.

"Whoever said horses are clever was a fool."

"Melanie would have you dragged from here to Ironsville if she heard that." Fayte placed his hand underneath the horse's chin, tapping it gently before he reached over the animal's head and stroked it. He spoke to the horse softly and kindly, holding up a sack of hay to its mouth as he reached behind its head and combed its mane with his fingers. The horse began eating.

"You're like that woman who whispers into the ears of chickens," Wilson said, looking at Fayte like he was some oddity before a thought occurred to him. "Do chickens have ears? I mean, I've never seen their ears before."

"Why don't you ask Amelia when we get back," Fayte said, tossing Wilson a saddle for his horse.

Wilson started smiling stupidly. "Amelia…"

Fayte rolled his eyes. "You are hopeless."

"Amelia!" said Wilson, hugging himself. "Oh I can't wait to see her! Hug her! Hold her! Kiss her! My sweet, darling Amelia!"

A few of the horses started shifting about and made noises as though telling him to shut up. Wilson heard nothing. He just went on hugging himself and swaying here and there, dancing while whispering the name 'Amelia', until he accidentally stepped on Preston's tail who was sleeping by a corner. The dragon roused and proceeded to set his master afire.

Once the horses were fed and Wilson was extinguished, they tied their belongings to the saddles and mounted up. Fayte tossed a few pieces of silver coins to the stable master for Wilson's horse and the hay before they strode out. The street was crowded as it always was. Wilson noticed a group of girls draped in the white initiate robes of the Order of the White Rose. He smiled and wave at them which set the girls into a fit of giggles. But it was Preston who lifted his head from Wilson's shoulder and drew all eyes around them. Being the youngest priest in Hylan made him quite famous, but having a dragon egg hatch for him at such a young age was what made them both so special.

Few priests ever had the privilege of being companion to a white dragon. Of those who did they did only when they were in their thirties or forties. Wilson was two whole years shy of twenty. Yet Preston had hatched for him the very day he was blessed and raised to priesthood by Bishop Tydon, a day when Wilson was no older than eleven.

"Off ta' deliver them invitations, Fayte?" said a soldier with a toothless but kind grin, standing watch by Yoliander Gate.

Fayte knew most of the soldiers guarding Rondiar, being squire to the City Watch's Captain, Captain Teynier of the Jurad family.

"Yes," Fayte said atop his horse. "I'll be riding back on the day after the morrow."

"Aye, can't wait for the tourney!" the soldier said before he waved them through the gate.

Nor can I, Fayte thought, eager to test his skills against his peers.

They took off through the farming settlement just outside the castle walls. Stretches of fields surrounded them with farmers and their little houses dotting the landscape. Shaggy dogs came chasing after them, barking at their backs until they lost interest. Fayte remembered the time when he came here with Emily. It was before he lost his family… a much happier time.

They were only six and his father, friends with King Eardon since he was only a Prince, had brought his family to Castle Rondiar to visit for the first time. The Princess had often asked where the food on their tables came from. Then one day she decided that she wanted to see these farms for herself. It was the first time Fayte got to see Emily in person, and she was the most clueless girl he had ever met.

"Lady Elisen, what's that coming out of that horse's back over there?" she had asked, squinting from the glare of the sun.

The Whiteguard looked and grinned as she thought of an answer. "The same thing that which you now hold in your hands, my Princess."

Emily took another whiff at the brown slushy mass in her hands. "So this stinky stuff comes from…" Then her eyes slowly widened as she linked the vegetables she ate, to the vegetables she was planting, and the fertilizers that she was using to help them grow.

For a whole month the Princess refused to eat any vegetables.

And for a whole month after she was reminded why vegetables were important, whenever she had to use the privy. Fayte found himself laughing and told Wilson the story when he asked.

Preston took off to the sky as Wilson laughed, making towards the farmers and their animals. Common folks led simple lives, faithful to Sera, and thankful for the harmony in the kingdom. Seeing a white dragon reminded them that Sera was always with them, helping them through any difficulties that they might be facing. When they saw him, many of the farmers stopped work for a moment to close their eyes and clasp their hands together to pray.

Once Preston returned, they rode faster and broke out of Rondiar into the vast plains, following the dirt road for near an hour before they reached Frewe Forest. Thick shrubs and vegetation were all around them. Trees sheltered them from the sun with thick roots sprouted all around them, seizing the ground to claim this land their forest. The chorus of insects was upon them once they entered. They followed the dirt path for it was the only suitable way to travel by horses. If they had to break track, they were going to have to do it on foot, and face dangers within that they would otherwise have avoided.

"Do you think the Prince will return?"

Not if he values his life. "No. Not with how the King had responded."

Wilson didn't seem to agree. They had slowed their horses to a trot to give the animals a rest.

"I think the King expects him to return," Wilson said, looking towards the sky to see if Preston was still flying about. "Why else would he give a signet to the Prince?"

"The only way the Saldarians are going to give us twelve thousand heads is if it's twelve thousand of Hylanders' heads."

"Not if Emily has it her way."

Fayte glared at his friend.

"You have seen yourself how she reacted to the Prince's proposal," Wilson said. "And you know how much Emily studies these politics and treaties. She would no doubt try and persuade her father to change his mind. And I am sorry, my friend, but you cannot deny that an alliance would be for the better of both countries."

"An alliance would mean an end to the war," Fayte conceded. But is it truly an alliance that they want?

"Although… an alliance would usually come with a gift…"

At first Fayte didn't understand what Wilson was hinting at, but when he thought back to King Eardon's marriage with Queen Remilda, it was obvious.

"Emily is not going to marry a Saldarian," he said firmly. Never. "She's not. She won't. I know her. She will never accept a marriage with a Saldarian. Not even the King can force her to do that. Besides, Emily is…"

Wilson was grinning as he brought his mount closer to Fayte's. "Emily is your girl," he whispered. "It sounds more to me that you are trying to convince yourself than you are stating a fact. It sounds to me… that someone is jealous of a Prince."

Before Fayte could get his hands on Wilson, the priest rode on ahead laughing.

Most travellers would bring a Warding Lantern to keep away wild beasts, while others would hire mercenaries if they were more worried of bandits. Being a priest, Wilson had no need for either since he had Preston with him. It didn't matter if Preston was still a whelp - the scent of a dragon was enough to scare away all of the beasts that lived in the Frewe Forest - and even bandits would know better than to anger Sera by harming one of her servants.

They got out of the forest less than an hour before noon and rode on some more until their hunger made them stop. Lunch was stale herbed-bread, soft white cheese, and a flask of juice with leaves of mint. Preston came back with a dead rabbit while the horses grazed and only needed water to quench their thirst. Wilson was in a hurry to get home so they were back on the road quickly, riding fast and overtaking many of the other travellers who left the castle earlier.

Once they made a turn off the main road, they no longer came across any other travellers. Those who travelled by the main road were usually headed for the town of Oaksblade, where they would pay for a ride on the gryphons to their destinations. Wilson and Fayte were headed elsewhere to a small town a far way off from the main road.

The Green River ran along the path. Though the water may look green and dirty with moss, it was actually very clear and safe to drink. The colour came from the rocks on the riverbed. Following this river, they made haste and could see trails of smoke in the air from the distance. One would see smoke and think danger but this town was named Ironsville for its iron smiths. Smoke was a sign of work and work was a sign of life for the town of smiths.

"Home sweet home!" Wilson said, whipping his reins. "HIAH!"

He went on ahead while Fayte took his time to enjoy the scenery. The sound of the running river was relaxing and the high peaks of the Wyvern Claws mountain range to the north was an awe inspiring sight. Legend said that many centuries ago, the Chosen Herald summoned nine heroes with the aid of the Templars on one of those mountains. The Templar Order was wiped out trying to bring these heroes to Hylan. It was a worthy sacrifice for they were the ones who defeated the great evil, bringing about this harmony that he and his friends now enjoyed.

Legend or no legend, Fayte was thankful for the peace in the country. Civil war was a thing of the past and now the only threat that faced them was to the east - Saldara. Father, where do you stand in this? Fayte knew his father well. A man sworn to his duty, father will not oppose the King in this. Nor shall I oppose Emily. If it meant peace with the desert country, Fayte hoped that he would be able to let vengeance go. It would not be that simple though. Blood was shed and even if he and his father were willing to let the past stay buried, others may not… would not be as forgiving.

There are still two Kaywins walking this land. But there are no more Ioyosh, Rander, Leoya, or Temion. Fayte shut his eyes as he remembered all the adventures he shared with his friends. Together, they braved dark alleys to face shadowcats and ravenous hounds. They chased after great winged beasts across vast plains and lay siege to castles and strongholds. And together they escaped the clutches of cruel witches and evil warlords… only to return home at dawn to clean up the mess we made with the crates and mudbombs.

The wind chilled his cheeks where his tears had left damp streaks.

Prince Rinmar La'ou. A sense of unease crept into his heart as Fayte looked to the heaven. Lady Sera, are you giving me a sign?  Is this unease that I feel your way of telling me to be wary of him? It is not knightly to bear hatred for another, so it surely must be a sin to want vengeance… is it not? Death breeds death, but how can I forgive the people who took my mother and my sisters from me?

He shut his eyes and breathed deeply.

I pray for your guidance, Lady Sera… He sighed. And thank you for the heads up.

Fayte ripped out his sword and swung it behind him. The attacker met his sword with his own and pulled back for a second strike, but the first blow had startled Whitesong and the girl raced away. Fayte reined her back and slid off her side. He touch her face and calmed her before he took his shield and stepped forward to engage the attacker.

Polished steel met iron wires as the two swords clashed.

Fayte pulled back and swung again, striking the other blade made of bounded rusted wires. The attacker's face was concealed by a boiled leather cap, parrying his attack easily before he stabbed at Fayte. He blocked with his shield and struck back - fast - but the attacker dodged while bringing his blade into a swing and struck at Fayte from the left.

The blow rang against his steel shield.

The same move isn't going to work twice! Fayte lunged and shot out his sword.

The attacker side-stepped and brought the heavy two-handed sword down on Fayte's shield. There was a loud clash and the force of his blow was so immense it stopped Fayte from countering. The attacker brought his sword away immediately and kicked at his shield, knocking Fayte down before he brought his weapon down.

Fayte rolled aside just in time.

He slashed at the attacker's leg but the other man jumped, using his sword as a pivot, and landed while swinging his wires of a weapon into the air, and proceeded to slash Fayte across the neck - only he stopped at the very last moment. Fayte breathed heavily as he yielded with the side of the wire sword touching his neck.

The attacker pulled off his sooty leather cap.

"Too slow," the gauntly old man said, his head just a few white strands of hair away from baldness. "Din' train hard enough. Need to move faster with that shield." The old man poked at his shield as he panted, sweat dropping off his chin. "No point holding a shield if ye not fast enough to use it. No point holding a shield if it’s the one holding ye!"

"I understand," said Fayte, feeling the weight of his shield on his arm. "I'll work on it."

To that, the old man held his sword away and opened up his arms.

"Come 'ere, boy!" he said, laughing as he pulled Fayte into a tight, sweaty hug. "Welcome back to Ironsville!"

"It's good to be back, Lord Jacob," Fayte said, patting the old man on the back causing dirt and bits of coal to fall off. "And you are as dirty as ever."

Lord Jacob laughed loudly with his mouth wide open. "Rushed out of me smithy when our watchers sent word that ye were coming! Besides, I'm a blacksmith. 'Course I'm dirty!"

They walked towards the town where trails of smoke from smithies led to the sky. It had been a little more than a month since Fayte last came to visit. They laughed and shared stories as they walked, telling each other what they had been up to in the past few weeks. Fayte nodded at the gatekeeper as they passed the wooden structure, waving at the guards who wore thick leather over their tunics and wielded spears and swords. Grass grew untamed and stores with low roofs were erected on either sides of the wide dirt path. Further down the street were the blacksmiths with the bellowing smoke and the clanging of hammer on red hot steel. A wave of heat struck Fayte when the wind blew with the burnt scent of charcoals.

"Fayte!" a half-naked ironsmith with broad, ash-stained shoulders called. "Back for a visit?"

"Aye," Fayte yelled, waving back. "I brought invitations for the squire's tournament!"

"Ah, d'ya need a sword fer it then?" another ironsmith on the other side of the path called, hammering down on a piece of steel.

"No need, the Order will provide us with blunt tourney swords." Fayte smiled and waved in return.

Other smiths offered him shovel and axe heads, pitchforks and rakes, while another asked if he needed armour. He was no farmer and the Order of the White Shield had its own armoursmiths in Rondiar. Fayte had visited so often that the townsfolk treated him as one of their own. As they passed the smithies and entered the town's centre, they came upon a small commotion. A group of children was swarming around someone.

"Ye rarely see a priest so popular with them children," Lord Jacob said, heckling away as he gave Fayte a good smack on the shoulder. "I'll see ye tonight at me dinner table."

Fayte nodded and watched Lord Jacob leave with the wire sword in his hand. It was the strangest sword he had ever seen when he first saw it and it still was. The sword was made of old metal wires tied and twisted together with more wires, forming both the blade and the hilt, and acting as the handle was just an iron pipe. There was no cutting edge to the blade and it was very heavy, but it was a weapon that many knights would struggle to best in Lord Jacob's hands. Swordsmiths would laugh or just disregard this weapon. Even artists who could make sense and put reason into anything would say that this weapon was nothing more than a tacky piece of work.

These were blacksmiths and artists who didn't know better.

For there was a story behind this blade of wires and it was deeply entwined with the life of Lord Jacob and the people of Ironsville. This was a blunt blade and wires hardly made for a weapon. But this was a weapon stained with the blood and sweat of the Ironsville folks, and it had been swung for reasons nobler than most finely crafted swords ever would.

"And who is the greatest priest in all of Hylan?" he heard Wilson say.

"My big brother!" a little girl in his arms yelled in response.

They laughed and the children cheered as he kissed his seven year old sister on the cheek. Being a priest was hard work. There were always people to heal and most of Wilson's free time was spent either praying or studying. The one thing in his life that could truly take his mind off everything else was his precious little sister. He loved her more than he loved Sera and Fayte was sure that the dragon god knew that fact and didn't mind.

Wilson put his sister down and the local bard gave them a song, so he started dancing with her and all the children around him. It was merry and it was noisy. It was life poured into a town that could from time to time be rather dull. They had great fun and the people of Ironsville were glad to see one of their own returned home.

Whitesong turned aside.

"Hello there my beauty," the girl said with a giggle when Whitesong nuzzled her. "I'm glad to see that you're well."

"With a master as kind as me, I'm surprised you didn't expect more."

Melanie pulled off her leather glove and brushed Whitesong's mane with her fingers. The girl could easily pass off as a boy with her short amber-brown hair, wearing linen breeches and a tunic with a vest made of grey sheep wool.

"I will expect more once you have more for me to expect, squire," she said, turning away. "Come on, girl, let's get you some water."

"Not going to stay and chat for a little while?" Fayte asked.

"We have been friends for over six years, Fayte," she said, shielding her hazel eyes from the sun with her hand. "We have chatted a lot and I really am not interested in hearing about your duties in the City Watch."

"Is it just my duties or is it actually everything else in the world but animals?"

Melanie stomped her leather boot on the ground and threw a rock. It would have got in him in the head if he hadn't dodged, but Fayte was right though. She loved animals more than anything else and no one was surprised, considering that she grew up in a stable that had a farm for a neighbour. Besides, the girl was a natural with animals. She didn't even have to hold Whitesong by her rein to have her follow.

"Made her angry already?" Wilson said, stepping up beside him.

"Hi, Fayte!" the little girl with two pigtails said, standing next to her brother. Both her arms wrapped around Preston. "Say hello, Preston."

She took his little arm and waved it for him, while Preston opened his jaws wide and attempted a smile of some hideous sort. Fayte cringed and played along, waving back so the dragon would stop trying.

"Hey," Fayte said as he went down on his knee, "I heard someone passed an entrance exam."

"I did!" Amelia exclaimed proudly. "I'll be leaving for Grand-Rosia next year to join the Order of the White Rose! Then maybe I'll get my own dragon after I become a priest just like my brother!"

"Yes, just like your brother," he agreed. "But you will have to work hard you know? Your brother might make it look easy, but he works really hard when no one is looking."

"I do!" she said, nodding. "My brother's the best! He studies hard every night and practices hard too. I'm going to be just like him! You should train harder too. Wilson says you've lost two fights already since the Princess's birthday party."

Fayte held his smile as he turned to Wilson. You slanderous, priest. "Really? And which two fights are we talking about here, my dear Wilson?"

"That would be the fight against the big bird and the fight against Lord Jacob," Wilson said, nodding to himself. "You are really giving a bad first impression of yourself, Fayte."

"My brother never lost a fight," Amelia added. "Not even to you after you taught him how to use a sword."

That, Fayte refused to let slide.

"Your brother used magic during that fight!" Fayte told her. "He cheated!"

"He didn't cheat!"

"Yes he did!"

"No he didn't."

"Yes he did!"

The journey was long and tiring so after the little squabble they went straight to Wilson's house. It was a small house made of wood and stones with an iron frame to hold it up. There was a small chimney for when it was winter and a little chicken pen beside it for eggs. Wilson lost both his parents when Amelia was only a year old. His parents were both in the Order of the White Rose, and had served as healers during the War of Light and Darkness. Many lives were lost in that war. Now Amelia lived with their mother's former mentor, Silvia Greno.

Silvia Greno slapped Wilson across the head.

"Hi, Aunt Silvia," Wilson said, ignoring the slap. "Sorry I'm late."

"Very late!" the eighty-three year old woman said, haunch over with a gnarly branch that looked as old as her which she used for a walking stick. "And you didn't bring the herbs!"

"What herbs?"

She slapped him across the head again.

"Dodge," Fayte said. "It's not that difficult-"

Fayte took a hit across the head as well.

"What in the name-"

"Dodge," Wilson said, wearing the same smug look that Fayte had just seconds earlier. "It actually is quite difficult."

"The herbs for the crops!" Aunt Silvia said. "The weather has been drier than usual. Our crops are not growing well. Pah! Some not even growing at all!"

Wilson scratched his head. "I have absolutely no idea which herbs will help us with such a problem."

And he got hit again.

Aunt Silvia settled herself in front of a table by the corner of the room. Amelia had prepared a cup of tea for her before scurrying to her bed at the other side of the room. She crawled underneath her bed and pulled out a rectangular box made of lacquered wood, just twelve inches wide and half its length tall.

"We will go back with you," Aunt Silvia said, sipping the tea. "I'll get the herbs myself."

"We're sending Wilson back to Rondiar?" Amelia asked, sitting on her bed now with the box opened.

She had a small vial in her hand that contained the miniature white rose Wilson got for her. Preston was sneaking a look into the box of her miniature flower collection when Silvia nodded. Amelia cheered and grabbed Preston to hug him, squeezing him so hard that the white dragon coughed out a tiny bit of fire.

Later that evening, Fayte went over to Lord Jacob's house alone for dinner. His was the only house with stairs that led up. The others all had basements but no upper level. It was fitting for Lord Jacob as magister of Ironsville, though a town of this size, Lord Jacob wouldn't have cared if the town folks had not insisted. He was also the father of three sons and the husband of a lovely lady. Fayte closed the little iron gate behind him and went up the short path to the front door. The large brown dog laying on the side of the path looked at him, sensed no danger, and went back to sleep. As innocent as he looked now, this same dog nearly took off his face when Fayte first came to Ironsville.

Fayte knocked.

"Ah, Fayte!" said a woman with rosy cheeks, dressed in an apron over a laced gown the yellow of sunflowers. "Jacob said that you were in town. Come in, come in!"

The house, large as it was, was still as crammed as before. There were tables at every wall with all sorts of tools laying on them. Hung on the walls were all manner and types of weapons: broadswords, longswords, shortswords, greatswords, pikes, spears, halberds, lances, daggers, dirks, knives, hooks, and many that came from foreign lands. Lord Jacob and his sons were fond of collecting weapons, though they relied only on the one.

"I'd apologise for the mess," Lady Linda said, accepting the letter of invitation to the tournament. "But I am sure you have come over for dinner enough times now. This is more or less our idea of neat and tidy."

"Yes I do, Lady Linda," Fayte said, stepping through a doorway into the dining room where a small round table was waiting with cutleries and plates already laid out. "Lord Jacob."

"Fayte! At last!" the old man said, out of his leather armour and now in a shirt stained with oil and charcoal. "Come, come, sit, I've been waiting for someone te chat with me all evening."

"You only just returned home, dear," Lady Linda pointed out. "That is not all evening and please for Sera's sake, change your clothes."

Lord Jacob waved her off.

"So, what's this I heard about a Saldarian Prince crashing our little Princess's party now?" he asked, leaning in close to Fayte.

He recounted the event to Lord Jacob and told him how the Prince had left a chest full of books on Saldara's history as a gift for the Princess. The King and everyone with enough sense was wary of it, so the chest was brought away to be examined for traps and curses first, before the Princess could even step near to it. The Prince had asked and was given water and some raw meat for his mount before he made his journey back to the desert.

"A roc?" Lord Jacob said, taking a sip from the vegetable stew. "Like a rock?"

Fayte shook his head. "A roc. It is much bigger than our gryphons and I believe no less intelligent."

"Interesting…" Lord Jacob turned to his wife. "Can ye believe the High Sage din' order to have that rock seized for him to poke at?" Lord Jacob heckled, nudging his lady wife. "Poke a rock."

Lady Linda only shrugged, putting a spoonful of salad onto Fayte's plate.

"The High Sage must have had his reasons," she said.

"He probably didn't want to risk a war," Fayte said, thanking her. "The Prince is convinced that Hylan is a peaceful nation. The High Sage probably thought that we needed to maintain that impression."

"So that would mean the High Sage approves of an alliance with Saldara," Lord Jacob said, scratching his chin. "Or te' least willing te entertain that thought."

Not if you knew the boy's history. Fayte nodded and picked at his mushroom silently. Lord Jacob and Lady Linda had watched him for the past six years, long enough for them to sense when he was troubled. And it was obvious enough this time considering that the matter involved Saldara.

"I cannot help but wonder if you are more troubled that we might become allies with Saldara," Lady Linda said, "or that the Princess called him dashing."

The mushroom flew out from Fayte's plate. He glanced at them both before he excused himself to pick it up.

"I don't know," Fayte said, turning around after picking up the mushroom to see them both quirking a brow at him. There is no lying to these two. "He is not dashing."

"Surely you don't think that the Princess might fall for him?" Lady Linda said, amused that Fayte was jealous. "The boy is a Saldarian."

"And a Prince," Fayte said as he returned to his seat. "I know Emily. She is going to see this as an opportunity to bring peace to both our countries. An alliance would have need for… gifts."

"A political marriage," Lord Jacob said, remembering. "Yeh, these things happen all the time."

"Marriage is about love, Fayte," said Lady Linda, offering him a bowl of stew. "Queen Remilda married the King because of love, and not because Rondiar and Iskdor needed an exchange of gifts for the alliance. If the Queen knows of love then I assure you, she will make the Princess understand the importance of it."

Lord Jacob smirked. "Heh, then ye have to worry about her actually loving ye." When he noticed that no one found that amusing, he looked up. "What?"

Not helping, Lord Jacob…

Lady Linda shook her head in defeat. "Ignore him. You and Princess Emily are meant to be."

"And you know this…" Fayte wondered, "how?"

"Because I'm a woman," she declared proudly. "And when it comes to matters such as this, we know."

"It's that sixth sense thing," Lord Jacob whispered across the table. "Got ta' admit, if me lady says she knows, she knows."

Fayte drank a mouthful of the stew. If girls are so keen on such matter then Emily would surely know how I feel about her. He was the closest boy Emily had for a friend, Fayte was sure of that, but whether she looked to him as a potential partner or only a friend, Fayte wasn't sure at all. This is… this is too infuriating.

"Whether or not we are meant to be, marriage is not my priority right now," he said after some thought. "I need to focus on my tournament now. Then my pilgrimage."

Lady Linda paused to consider that. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. If you do not let the Princess know how you feel about her, she may end up falling for someone else. She might fall for Wilson instead."

The three of them looked at one another. And a moment later all three of them burst into laughter until someone slammed on the door.

"Lord Jacob! Lord Jacob!" The visitor continued to pound on the door as Lord Jacob's dog went into a frenzy of barking. "Lord Jacob! Lady Linda!"

"It's Martin," Lord Jacob said, getting up and hurrying to the door. "I'm coming, boy, stop ye pounding! Sera help ye if ye break me door."

He opened the door to see a man holding up a torch, draped in a thick woollen cloak, breathing hard with what seemed to be-

"Blood. Are ye hurt?" Lord Jacob said the moment he saw the messenger's hand, but Martin shook his head. "Is it Loren's then?"

Fayte heard shrieks and cries from the distance, and a wailing noise that sounded like nothing human.

"No, my lord, your other son," Martin said, falling to his knees, his face pale even under the light of the torch. "It's Jenson's!"

They pulled Martin up onto his feet.

"Jenson?" Lady Linda said as she took the torch from him. "Jenson should be at the gate. How did he--"

"--we're under attack, my lady!" Martin cried. "The town is under attack!"