“In the year 314 of the Midnight Kingdom, sometime in Spring, hearts bled and tears were shed on the King’s Isle, for one of his most trusted vassals, the then-Count Bearnwil of Delran, decided to seditiously abandon his lands and went to the ruinous and barren Old Realm, where his surfeit of the vice the Forefathers called ‘hubris’ sought for him and his band of adventurers (among whom, we are sorry to record, some from the best families followed this fool’s errand) lands, status and riches. Through a strange fate, some of them gained what they had coveted, while most died of disease or through enemy hands, so that, when Bearnwil had claimed Kingship over this so-called ‘New Realm’, it was both farcical and cruel to those he had betrayed. Despite the pleas of the King, he did not recant his folly, and thus, in the year following the desertion, his lands in the Isles were declared forfeit, also because he rejected swearing fealty for them to the King.” – The Chronicle of the Midnight Isles begun by Malamar the Learned in the Reign of King Otho II. “In the year 314 after the Great Flight, which is the year before the Beginning of the New Realm, twenty days after Spring began, upon the Feast of Malehwâz, our Lord King, the Count Bearnwil of Delran, sailed forth from his port with six ships, laden with goods, but (which was of far more import!) also with the best folk of the Midnight Isles of all stations, lords, knights, learned, burghers, freeholders and villeins all. The Sea and Sky were most favorable to him, and thus he reached the shore of the Old Realm on the seventh day. He immediately disembarked all he had brought and began the great works of home and field we shall herein describe. Not only was he then beset with hardship in these works, but also his towns and villages, castles and lands and all the rights and titles resting on the same were taken away cruelly and through greed by the King of the Midnight Isles, who denied even King Bearnwil’s wife, the noble Edina, her inheritance, namely the County of Ghenarburg, with no compensation…” – The True and Righteous Account of Bearnwil’s Conquest and the New Realm --- Five young men entered the easternmost gate of Bannarth in the late afternoon, riding hard, their horses sweating and frothing, their long hair flowing under their fine leather riding caps. “By mighty Winter, you did that boar like I do my whores!” roared one, thrashing another’s shoulder hard enough that, had they not been laughing together, one might have taken for assault what was just comradery. “Our Prince stuck it like he’s going to stick that Islander girl!” a third added to another raucous round of laughter despite giving the same coarse joke a new form. The one whom the first had struck frowned despite a wide grin at that comment. The sun stood low; with yesterday’s offshore winds, everyone had been sure she would not arrive today. They had not heard from the ships bringing her since a fast messenger boat had arrived three days ago, bringing the news that the convoy had left the Islands for good. “If you do it right, though, my Prince, she will like it much better than the boar!” said another of the hunters, Londar by name. “Vigor is all, my friends, vigor is all!” chimed in the first. The Prince chuckled, but he was preoccupied; with his wedding imminent, he was more aware of the fact that all his friends’ talk of whoring was largely empty. Personally, he wasn’t inept at dealing with women, but he hadn’t ‘stuck’ his way through the New Realm, either. In fact, he was rather innocent. So far, he had been much more interested in the knightly arts than in the gifts of Feyna, the goddess so many young people in the city of Bannarth now worshipped. “If vigor is all, then that girl had better get ready for one fiery ride,” Londar laughed, clapping Prince Aonmar’s shoulder once more. Aonmar tolerated Londar in his circle of young knights more than that he had actually accepted him to it. His father was one of his own father’s original followers, a very rich and powerful man, so the Prince had to put up with the eponymic Duke’s son and his slightly fawning, awkward manner. “Shut up, Londar. You haven’t ridden anything,” said the first and loudest of the group, a short, barrel-chested knight who was a favorite of the Prince. “It would be for the best if we spoke of other things,” said the fifth of the group, a pale fellow with an especially long sword, quietly. “After all, the Princess Marlis will be Queen one day; it does not behoove to speak of her thus.” As usual, everyone listened to Borrim, the son of the Lord Herald and the one with the best knightly manners, as even Aonmar had to admit. He was slightly embarrassed that it had not occurred to him that his friends were toying with his future wife’s honor, even if had just been words. He would soon swear to defend that as well as her person by ‘word and sword’ as the formula went. Aonmar grimaced. The wedding didn’t fit his plans at all. He had fully expected to get his own border castle soon – where he wanted to teach the barbarians from the South or the Ephelar from the West a few nasty lessons. He knew both Vallan Kings, his father and the King of the Midnight Isles, had been planning this marriage for years, but it had been put off a few times. First, his bride had not been considered fully grown. Then a fever had closed the Isles to ships for a season. Finally, the Ephelar had started an attempt to win back some of the Western Marches, which had dragged on for over a year (it had ended just this winter). Now, it was finally to happen. Might as well get over it, Aonmar thought as they turned into the street leading up to the castle, rejuvenated ruins and new buildings lining their way along with the city-dwellers dodging the horses’ hooves. No sooner had they passed the Outer Gate than a thin, balding man in the robes of the learned came running towards him, gesturing wildly. “Where in the name of all that is holy have you been, my young Prince?!” he snapped accusingly. “Oh go catch a fever, Demold,” Aonmar growled back. He hated his tutor, but so far, the King had kept the man for his younger children. Aonmar remembered all the punishments he had received from this pathetic bookworm – but the only lesson he had learned from them was that Demold was a pretentious, useless, self-righteous whoreson. Not that Aonmar minded a good, honest thrashing on the tourney ground – but being chased around the chambers by a glorified scribe with a rod was just undignified. Well, I’d like to see him try that these days, Aonmar thought with an inward grunt. “Where! Were! You!” Demold repeated, never one to shy away from a spat with the Prince. Aonmar gritted his teeth, trying to contain his rage, and raised his hunting spear. “I was staking for Gold in the fucking river, you ink-sodden bastard,” he bellowed. Why did folk have to get on his nerves like that and spoil a perfectly good day of hunting with his knights? “What’s the damned problem with hunting, now? Some new-fangled god wants us to let the boar ruin the harvest? And why is it any of your damn business, scribe?” Aonmar was just about to add to his tirade when Demold answered: “Their Majesties sent for you!” It sounded like that explained everything. “I got no message. What do they want?” “Your bride has unexpectedly arrived early and they wish you, my Prince, to… but it is to late for that, there they come,” the tutor said in such a gloating tone that Aonmar simply could not take it any longer. He jumped from his horse, paying no attention to the entourage approaching the Outer gate; Demold’s comment hadn’t even fully registered. Aonmar was now chest to chest with his old tutor. He would settle this business with Demold once and for all. All the needless thrashings, all the snide remarks, the gratuitous taking away of things he liked. “I am the Prince, you little piece of ditch scum!” he snarled right into Demold’s face. “The days where you could push me around because you taught me the letters are over!” The Prince was not of exceptional height, but with his broad shoulders and the lean, taut limbs befitting a young knight, he seemed to dwarf the learned man. Fair hair gained a red tinge in the slowly sinking sun as Aonmar drove Demold back by the sheer intensity of his outbreak. Demold didn’t react, and the Prince knew that was bad. He usually hated it when the rage rode him and tried his best to wrest control from it, but not after a day of much-needed freedom that had nevertheless been strenuous, and certainly not with this nasty cockroach of a self-styled teacher. The way Demold backed down confirmed all the Prince had known about him for years. Aonmar had been taught fighting from an early age. He thought he could smell the fear like a dog and he pounced on it. “You fatherless bastard! You think you can treat the future King of the Vallan like an apprentice scribe?” His voice grew louder and louder. He knew he wouldn’t stop without outside interference, and for once, he was glad for it. “I will tell you this, scribbler,” he yelled in the clear diction that was of the King’s Isle even though he had never lived there, “if you don’t learn to take a proper tone with me, by all Gods, I shall throw you into my dog kennel and watch the bear-baiters bite your tiny little balls clean off! If you so much as look at me the wrong way, I will thrash you with my belt until I can sell your stinking remains as swine-food! It won’t get me much silver, but it’ll be enough to buy that whore you call a wife! Go on! Raise your hand against me! Make this day the best I’ve had ever since I left your useless lessons behind! Do it, and I will break your scrawny little neck over my fucking knee and throw you down the cliff from my chambers! And if you so much as talk of the rod to my brother again, I will let him decide if we drown you like a rat or burn you like a pest-fly!” He could remember well the day when King and Queen had been away, and Demold had had nothing better to do than to use his privileges to amuse himself by beating Aonmar’s younger brother, named Bearnwil for their royal father, for some probably invented transgression. Their sister Adeline had called Aonmar to help, and the crown prince had found the tutor with a madly glowing expression on his face and his soft, friendly brother, then just eight, howling in pain and fear. Then, Aonmar had stopped him, too shocked and still too young to dare do anything more – when his father returned weeks later, the matter was considered long over. The Prince was getting even today; he was beside himself with a rage that had been built up over many, many years. Demold ran, because none of the guards or the Prince’s young knights made any gesture on his behalf. Aonmar screamed after him at the top of his lungs: “This is the last damned time! Set one fucking toe wrong and I will rip your throat out!” Aonmar turned away, shaking uncontrollably with rage, his hair matted with sweat from his fit of rage and the day’s hunting, his hunting cap askew, his face a pale, slightly unhinged mask of pure hatred. His heart almost stopped when he saw something in the corner of the eye. He had assumed, insofar he had thought of it at all, that Demold had spotted the royal procession with his mother, father and the Princess of the Midnight Isles from far away – but they were holding at the gate in petrified silence.