Part 1: Armand Prince of Carthia
(ref: typed from hard copy)
The prince slept, beads of sweat glistening upon his brow, the moonlight striking each one to a tiny diamond
He had tossed and turned for many a night. In the wintertime the thick cloth furnishings hardly kept the biting cold at bay, during the sultry summer however, the rooms were stifling. Armand's valet – Painton – dozed uneasily in one corner. The Heir to the Throne's insomnia, and subsequent nightmares, had disrupted the whole household.
The valet was by now a nervous wreck, existing purely on stimulants. Armand had always been a demanding master to serve, but now he was impossible.
In his sleep Armand began to dream. A myriad of emotions flickered across the princes face. He uttered a tiny noise – the prelude to an inevitable end, a blood chilling scream. The valet sat bolt upright, the barely audible groan enough to awaken the jumpy man ... He scuttled about hurriedly as the prince writhed and moaned, his nightly terrors reaching their inevitable conclusion. Of what he dreamt while tortured in his sleep no one knew. Not a single hint of his horrors did he give to anyone. The price he was paying for his silence showed all too clearly. His youthful, handsome and usually vibrant visage was now haggard and drawn. The princes face showed deep lines; even in sleep feverish circles clouded his eyes, and days of stubble showed on his chin. Even on his body the lack of rest and refusal to eat was beginning to show – he looked gaunt and haunted.
Automatically painton gathered things to assuage the prince, fresh sheets, laudanum, moist cloths, and a robe. On cue the prince sat up, screaming, a tortured soul. Painton shuddered at the inhuman noise, the hairs on his neck rising despite being almost used to the awful routine.
Armand's eyes roamed the room, savage and delirious. No sentient thought behind them, just terror obliterating reason. Slowly the blur of his mind recognised its surroundings, inch by inch he relaxed. Through giddy colours he recognised Painton's strained urgent face. Feverously he ran a clammy, trembling hand over his brow, trying to clear the sweat. Finding himself able to move – the terror usually brought a form of paralysis – he swung his legs over the side of the bed. He sat panting raggedly, still shaking and heaving.
Painton stood nervously to attention, recognising that tonight, somehow, the dream had been different. This was new, usually Armand would lie back down on the bed, irritably refusing the paltry ministrations. Tonight he took the laudanum without hesitating, his mind too absorbed to fend off Painton and his well meant remedies. He allowed the valet to robe him, then accepted a cold cloth for his face, and strode off. The valet was left, bewildered. The prince had never strode away like that, in the dead of night. Painton sighed wearily, then set about changing the sheets. He wanted to tell Alexandra, the queen, but it was not his place.
The young prince padded barefoot along the Strongholds labyrinthian corridors. His external appearance was very unlike his norm. Armand had always been fastidious about his façade, and would never venture from his apartments unless faultlessly attired. At this time of night there would be no one about to comment upon his unusual appearance. Guards would be wandering abroad the castle, their calloused feet beating a traditional route, laid down aeons ago. Any such guards would not dare challenge the distracted boy, nor would they later gossip, the guards of the Carthian Stronghold took their loyalty to Louie very seriously. Despite this Armand avoided the popular reaches of the castle, not wishing to be queried. Externally the prince seemed feverish and shaken, but inside Armand was mentally more focused than before.
Steadily he walked on, knowing not where he was headed, but certain of finding his destination – it was calling him.
The voice that tormented his sleep had made its proposals clear.
From the plush carpeted halls of the main passages, to uneven and disrepaired regions he strode on. He had long since ceased to notice the opulence surrounding him. All his life he had enjoyed only the best of Carthian goods, the wealth of Louie's kingdom exceeded any in known history. Once the exquisite tapestries, the gilded carpets and drapes, the painstakingly detailed statues and carvings had held an endless fascination for the child-prince. Now their splendour, undiminished, passed by unappreciated.
He turned a corner, a frigid draft howled towards him from some forgotten and forsaken depth. Here the torches ended, ahead lay only totalistic darkness. Without hesitating in his stride Armand took a torch from its wall holder, and continued, progressing in his own personal pool of light.
Normally, a part of him knew, he would have recoiled at the thought of what he was doing. Usually he would not venture from his apartments without several hours of meticulous grooming, and almost endless adjustments to his dress. Somewhere in his mind a part of him registered Painton's rapid deterioration over the last week – since his nightmares had begun. The effeminate man loved only clothes and make-ups. The princes cosmetic demands had been his delight. The man had not been prepared for all night vigils and abusive onslaughts. Armand's path had taken him deep into unknown areas of the fortress. The prince was not the type to wander around reeking unused portions of the castle, merely for fun – and certainly not in the dead of night.
In the small flickering light he clearly saw his breath condensing on the air, the minuscule drops of moisture billowing on the air. Despite the entirely inappropriate thin cotton robe he wore only dimly noticed the cold emanating from all around. Here there were no furnishings, no finery, no signs at all of any human visitors within living memory. Indeed, Armand's bare feet left clear footprints in the centuries old dust.
Steady dripping came from all around. Phosphorescent slimes grew from rotting crevices, where only the rotting remains of support beams remained. The stately corridors had given way to rough hewn stone shafts, deep inside the mountain. Cave-in's were inevitable with centuries of disuse, and scattered about were piles of debris, littering the floor indolently. His squalid surroundings registered only dimly in the prince's mind. For him nothing existed apart from the shadow in his mind, leading him onwards. Although he knew not these decrepit and stagnant grottoes, he strode forward unhesitantly. It was it his destination was drawing him forward.
(taken from typed insert)
Leander sat rigid in the corner, knees draw up to his chin, only his dark, intense eyes glared out at the room. Cold damp bricks pressed against his shoulder blades. He peered at the woman working in the room with him. Ragged clothes smothered her ample frame, barely disguising its lumpiness. At one time they might have been dyed a specific colour, but now they were only an indistinct grey- much the same as the surrounding brickwork, as if she were made out of the same immutable material. The grey woman was typically old, great gnarled hands, scarred and calloused from a lifetime of weaving. Leander considered his own hands, slender, but agile, still soft despite the year spent in the tailors hall. A deeply wrinkled and craggy face atop her ample frame completed the boulder like appearance of the woman, thick matted hair clung to the top of her face like bracken to a barren mountain. Leander watched her with neither love nor hate as she worked, finding her unworthy of either emotion.
His time served under that woman's gruff eye had been tedious and frustrating. He had no intention of spending the rest of his life making cloth for an ungrateful castle. He had bided his time long enough, advancement must come soon. A torch on the wall flickered for a moment before dying, bringing Leander from his reverie. Instantly he was on his feet, despite this the old hag growled "boy" she gestured to the dead taper without even glancing In his direction, her eyes glued to the growing cloth. He scowled at her hunched back before striding off with the quiet, purposeful gait peculiar to himself. the light once more restored, Leander noted the crone's spool of thread was growing low, glad for an excuse to stretch his legs, Leander headed for the stores.
His eyes dispassionately devoured all he saw, down to the shade, size and texture of every brick, the very pattern of their laying. His brain had a hunger for information of all kinds no matter how irrelevant. The corridor he entered was a long thin one, with high ceilings it stretched off into the distance, till it seemed to shrink to a pinpoint. Leander's was a slender lad, with a self-controlled manner which made it hard to discern his true intentions, and at times it made him seemingly invisible. He was not tall either, but the overall slenderness of his frame gave the impression of height. Being of a fairly fastidious nature Leander was always smartly dressed, his clothes – pilfered – were always of fine quality, jet black and always laundered. His long hair, in contrast to the scruffy youths he worked with, was always clean and tied smartly back. While absently counting his strides he considered his position. Obviously his assignment to the tailors halls had been someone's idea of a sick joke, his agile mind was capable of so much more. The other tailors boys were slow-witted dolts, content to squander their lives in those cloth filled rooms. He though itched for greater things, where though did his future lie? Time and time again he pondered advancement, the past year had been very trying, and monotonous.
On autopilot – having arrived at the storeroom – he retrieved one of the heavy spools of thread, his sparse frame coping with its weight with a surprising ease. Tutting to himself he returned to the waiting crone.
"About time, boy" Her harsh voice greeted him, arriving past rotting teeth from cavernous depths. He shuddered despite himself, while dodging a kick. With nothing else to do he sat back down against the ever clammy wall, resuming his train of thought, eyes staring out past his knees. Leander had found that whole portions of the castle lay abandoned and forgotten. Whole districts lay unused. He felt sure that he could gain some advantage from them. Over the past year he had in his spare time, explored a great deal of the ruins, his journeys taking him – unnoticed – ever closer to the inner keep of the royals.
This evening he was impatient to be away ... he had to struggle to keep his air of casualness about him when he was finally dismissed. He made his way to the Great Hall and spirited away a pocketful of cheese and ham, then left the well-worn tracks for deserted places. Corridor after hall revealed their forgotten secrets to him. Sure-footedly he moved through previously unfamiliar areas, heading unerringly for the royal levels. Corridors could, and often did appear at any level, often in the most unexpected of places. The builders of the Stronghold had, over many centuries, experimented with every type of architecture.
Eating as he walked, his mind catalogued all he encountered, he came to an oak stairway leading out on to a three doored balcony, all three doors opened out on to a long forgotten orchard, daylight where there should only have been stone – it didn't make sense. Soon the orchard lay far behind him, again dank, unimaginative stone surrounded him, suddenly he caught the sound of a voice.
Instantly Leander flattened himself against the wall, his senses fully alerted. Quickly he realised the voice was faint but strained, he relaxed being in no danger of immediate discovery. Swift and silently he headed for the sound. His quick brain realising something important was happening. Who was it wandering in His forgotten halls, more importantly how could this intrusion be used to further his own ends? A flicker of light – closer now – radiated off golden hair. Leander did not recognise the prince right away. The figure, barefooted, with torn gown, and dishevelled hair was totally at odds with Armand's normal over dressed appearance. Soon the lad realised that the distressed figure was none other than the Carthian prince himself, and gleefully trailed him onwards. The figure stumbled and lurched ahead, shouting and raving at thin air, sometimes cursing, and at other times reciting childhood poems. The prince moved steadily further and further away from the used portions of the castle, Leander was forced to keep Armand in sight, for he himself was hopelessly lost within the unfamiliar territories. The prince however strode steadily onwards, eventually, Leander hoped, he would renter inhabited parts.
(taken from typed inserts)
It was two days later when Armand resurfaced. The castle was in uproar, all around thralls, servants, freedmen, and the nobles were all doing their own personal impressions of a headless chicken. When the morning had arrived and Armand proved missing, Painton had collapsed raving insensibly, he blamed himself. The castles doctor had run out of options and patience, and had opted to strap him to a bed, finally the tortured man had slept.
Armand casually re-entered the respectable part of the castle. Guards and servants filled the corridors with cacophonous abandon. In his stained and bedraggled state no one gave him a second glance, indeed a hurrying officer ran straight into him "Get out of the bloody way, scum" he growled, roughly shoving the prince from his path. Armand made sure he would remember the officer's face, the man had already sealed his own fate – it was just a matter of time.
Amid this pandemonium Armand walked to his quarters, neglecting to mention to anyone that he was safe. Finding no one waiting for him, Armand crossly rummaged for some water, eventually he unearthed some. Petulantly the prince decided that this was the filthiest he had ever been. The once exquisite robe now torn and stained beyond redemption, he discarded. For the first in days he regarded himself in the mirror. The toll of his recent ordeals reflected starkly back. For a short moment he considered attempting to make himself up, but wisely decided not to attempt the task.
In his main room the laudanum was still upon the table. He smiled happily and drank of it. Retaining the decanter and glass he sank into his favourite chair.
Leander's clothes had been ruined when he finally found the tailors wing. It was, unusually deserted; obviously the entire Stronghold had been put on full alert, teams of search parties abroad the castle, seeking the wandering prince. Leander doubted that his own absence had even been noticed. He hid the ragged clothes and found a replacement, ensuring that the material was as good as, as if not better than his previous suit. There was something new about the boy, a hypothetical observer would have found it hard to pin point exactly what it was though. Perhaps he seemed more aware, moving with a sense of purpose, were his footsteps even lighter upon the ground? Was there a hint of hidden agenda in the young man's eyes?
Once more smartly attired Leander scrutinised his reflection in an aged, poxed mirror for a few moments, he combed, and re-tied his hair before striding smartly away from the tailors halls.
Security Leander reflected, was rather lax inside the Carthian Stronghold. Token guards trod their age-old routes, but never expected any genuine subterfuge. He felt confident that his plans would go undetected. It would be a simple thing to insinuate himself into the upper circles of castle life.
The princes illness was general knowledge in the castle, and indeed by now probably all over the kingdom. But, Leander felt certain that most were unaware of just quite how serious the heir's mental state actually was. And after all, Armand owed him Leander decided, after all he had stayed with the delirious prince during his absence, ensuing the princes safety – albeit in secret. The heir to the Carthian throne was seriously disturbed, far far more than was generally realised, one day he would be king. When that happened his mental state would mean that he would need a close servant, and rely upon the chosen person. Certainly Painton was not up to the job. Leander mildly hated the effeminate valet. A life dedicated to perfumes, powders and frilly clothes seemed almost as bad as a lifetime in the tailors halls. But, he decided, in order to get close to the vain prince he would have to learn a little of the trade. Leander had always been a quick learner, and foresaw no difficulty in accomplishing that task. Finally opportunities for his own advancement had appeared.
With a semblance of glee he made his way to the main corridors of the inner keep, near to the prince's apartments. He felt certain that if he – unobtrusively of course – loitered long enough opportunity would rear its head. Finding himself near enough to the prince's quarters, Leander settled into a shadowy corner, knees characteristically drawn up to his chin.
Time passed, though Leander barely noticed, he alternated between musing his lot and cat naps, his ears always pricked.
A shrill startled voice roused him from his drugged stupor. A serving girl, her face was flushed red with chagrin. Crossly he realised that he was still unattired, but then she should have not entered his private rooms uninvited under any circumstances.
"where's Painton?" he shouted crossly, his beautiful voice edged with a very real menace "Painton! Painton, where are you?"
The girl paled visibly and ran from the room. For the size of the castle Painton was quickly summoned – a few scant minutes later a commotion came down the hall toward Armand's rooms. In the midst of the approaching voices Armand detected Painton's
"Get your filthy hands off me you ... you brutes" the man's piqued voice rang out above the other's baritones "He asked for ME ... leave me alone!"
The huddle burst in on the princes' bedchambers. Silence abruptly descended. Embarrassed by the princes' decidedly informal appearance, the guards released Painton and swiftly backed out of the door. Only Painton could restore their prince to his usual glory.
With a strained shake in his voice Painton said "My Lord?"
Armand quietly responded, his voice tired and even hoarse "Painton"
"Yes ... my Lord?" his hands trembled still from the stresses imposed
"Attend me, for I fear I have neglected your ministrations these past few days"
relief washed over the fragile man. At last, clothes and cosmetics, this was what he understood, he trod now familiar paths – perhaps life could now return to normal. Once again in his element, he scurried about preparing a bath, laying out clothes, taking longer than usual to mix the pigments for Armand's face as his pallor had waned somewhat. Tutting he selected fine razors – it did not do to hide the princes' fine face with nasty stubble.
Mildly Armand gave himself over to Painton's expert care.
A few hours later the prince looked and felt like a new man. He studied his visage closely in the mirror, critically searching for any imperfection. The proud valet buzzing around him, also scouring for even the slightest flaw. The dashing and vibrant young man who now stared back bared only a faint trace of the man from a few hours ago. Perhaps that disheveled man was some distant cousin to the fine prince. Armand smiled, satisfied. A dashing and even gorgeous, fine young prince stared confidently from the mirror. His hair restored to its normal vibrant gold, hung once again in vibrant ringlets. Around his eyes remained no trace of the dark circles formerly so prominent as to overshadow the most captivating blue eyes Carthia had ever seen. Painton had worked unrelentingly on the scion, the Heir to the Throne. Only a slight bagginess of his clothes betrayed the anguish of the past week, Painton had begged Armand to allow him to take in the hems, but he had stalwartly refused, unwilling to be detained any longer. Satisfied he discharged Painton, who staggered gratefully away – his duty had been discharged, he now had time for his own fatigue.
(?? Insert second half of Leander sequence??)
A serving girl pattered past the waiting Leander, drawing him back to full awareness, though she noticed him not. She disappeared into Armand's territory without even knocking upon the door. Moments later she re-emerged, moving much faster than before – the princes' angry voice perusing her. Concealing a grin Leander neatly intercepted the shaken girl. She literally ran in to him, her ears still ringing from Armand's curses
"Beg 'pardon sir" She said automatically, voice trembling. Inside Leander wriggled with glee, but instead he growled at the girl
"Stupid wench, I'll fetch Painton ... and I'll deal with you later" Leander hoped his threat would keep her from later questioning him. She nodded and gave him a frightened glance before hurrying away, lest he changed his mind and decided to punish her now ... Leander however had already forgotten the girl, he was already running for the Great Hall – the most likely place to find Painton. He was not there however, the vast halls set aside for the royal servants were as deserted as the tailors Hall had been. Leander tapped his teeth thoughtfully for a moment while his brain catalogued every aspect of the hollow hall. His mind rationally deciding where to look next for Armand's valet. It was essential that he succeed in this simple task. The lad's mind worked so rapidly that he stood undecided for only a moment before speeding off to the infirmary.
He barged through the doors, they clattered horribly open and closed behind him
"Sssshhh!" the doctor irritably admonished. Leander barely gave the man a glance
"Painton is wanted" He said offhandedly, as if the doctor was of no consequence. He looked around superciliously, hoping that luck was on his side "Armand is in his quarters"
An interesting series of expressions swam over the doctors face, Leander spared no time to observe them, as amusing as it would have been, for Painton – restrained to the bed – had weakly begun calling out to him. Deftly Leander freed the prince's valet, and unnecessarily, followed him down the hall- They were closely followed by the doctor and a handful of hastily assembled guards, their voices loud and excited. Painton was becoming distraught, his irritatingly high-pitched voice ringing out over the other more manly voices, amid this melee Leander hid.
Without realising the group burst into the prince's' quarters. Leander, well aware of the group's intrusion, nearly laughed at the surprised, and disgruntled – naked – prince. The room around Leander fell deathly silent. Smiling he strode away, he had no wish to hang around long enough to answer questions. With time on his side, Leander stumbled into a disused bedroom and fell blankly asleep on its ancient bed.
An entirely new man gathered his small ceremonial crown, settled it just so, and strode towards the main halls. The well travelled smells of food guided Armand towards the Great Hall, the source of food and the centre of activity.
With feigned casualness he ambled into the Great Hall, as if disappearing for days was part of his usual routine, and headed for his place at the long table. As was normal for evening time, the tables were full of freemen and nobles seated according to class and favour, a hushed silence fell as he entered, all eyes upon him. Even the thralls paused in their drudgery. Armand waved a casual hand at the assemblage "Don't stop on my account – wouldn't want to cause a disturbance"
Someone spluttered into their wine, but managed to avoid choking on it. Armand ignored this, it mattered not what anyone thought of him – one day he would rule, and then the people who crossed him would pay with their lives.
His mother shot him a worried glance; he watched her study his face intently, searching as he himself had done, for traces of his nightly ordeal and subsequent disappearance. He gave her his most brilliant smile – she would find no cracks in his façade, he could not say the same for her though, the years had definitely begun to catch her up. That thought cheered the prince enough for him to disdainfully ignore his father without catching any of the king's surliness. Usually he playfully riled the king, and regularly indulged in laconious habits, most of which the king felt to be totally unbefitting to the heir – including his dress sense. Now though the indolence had changed, safely disguised by his innocuous habits lay something menacing and unrelenting.
Through the evening thralls hurried to and fro, bringing endless supplies of food and drink, and clearing the wreckage away. The slaves moved about virtually unnoticed their station little above that of a pig or dog, they lived their entire lives as property, and their children would also be property. Occasionally slaves would run for Surrendia, but the price – if caught on the run – was to high for most. Carthia had servants also, these were freemen, and thusly given a better standing in life, they were fed and housed, their children educated and once they reached maturity were free to do as they wished.
The prince had regained his appetite and devoured an astonishing amount of food, copious amounts of laudanum and wine went his way also, but the prince remained clear headed.
Armand enjoyed the game of court life; always he would be the centre of attention, stealing the spotlight from his earthier father on a regular basis. Now though times were different, the game was now a charade, whereas before he had been a part of the game, playing to its rhythm, now he was above it all, he could manipulate without getting involved. Externally he seemed the same, and all around him still the same immutable faces. Only inside himself was there change. The gaddish front that used to be him, was now no more than a silk thin mask - a façade to be used or cast aside at will. He played the people around him, pulled familiar strings, and delightedly watched them respond just as he knew they would. All the while behind his front he laughed.
Inside, a part of his soul – the most tender and breakable part – keened and writhed in pain, trying to escape this all pervasive and corrupting influence. Outside the prince was as dashing as he ever was. In fact, the courtly ladies whispered to each other, somehow he seemed more confident and self assured.
LOUIE KING OF CARTHIA
With news of Armand's reappearance, the king ordered castle life back to normal. Initially, Louie was determined to march up to his son's rooms and thrash an explanation from the boy. The always magnanimous Alexandra had however, cooled his fires of rage. Now, seated on his throne in the Great Hall, he felt as wise and serene as ever, content to await the prince's eventual (but also inevitable) arrival
After the daily court session – held each and every day regardless of weather there was any court business or not – all the nobles had retired the Great Hall. Here the king drowned pessimistic thoughts about the boy, attempting to regain his good humour as well as his dignity. Louie glanced at his queen, she was as radiant and resplendent as ever. The fine worry lines so recently etched upon her maturing face had all but vanished. He smiled wryly, no doubt a servant had laboured as painstakingly over the queen as Painton had over Armand.
With the immediate crisis at least over, if not yet totally explained, Louie relaxed.
Damn that son of his. He glanced at his queen. She had been passionately engaged in a discussion, but at the gentle feel of his eyes upon her, she turned immediately to him – all else forgotten. He smiled paternally, and she turned away again. The boy – Armand – was so unlike anything he had expected his child to be, as to almost cast suspicion over his wife's loyalties. Alexandra though was no ordinary wife. Had he married any other woman, Armand he would have disowned years ago. She, though could not be doubted, never in her life had she even been suspected of any wrongdoing. The woman was as humble and pure as she seemed, and so, Armand had to be his. The prince, for all his failings – and Louie found many – was still Heir to the Throne.
A hush descending over the large hall was odd enough to bring Louie back from his reverie. Armand – who else could bring a room full of gossiping nobles to a complete silence?
Louie stared incredulously. The young prince showed no sign of his recent ordeal. He sauntered across the hall, ostentatious as ever. Upon the silence the prince waved a foppish hand "Don't stop on my account" He had said. Louie shot Alexandra a fleeting look; she was intently studying Armand.
The boy smiled his best smile, perfect teeth shone whitely through falsely reddened lips, they shamefully reminded Louie of his own rotting and age-browned molars. They caused him a great deal of pain these days. With a grim satisfaction he reminded himself that one day, despite all his fastidious care, Armand too, would one day loose his stunning looks and be merely a gnarled old timer, grumpy and achy. This amused Louie so much that he did not even notice his son's supercilious attitude or blatant snubs. Alexandra seemed satisfied by Armand's manner, and so Louie relaxed, enjoying the calm, not realising it to be merely the eye of the maelstrom and not it's end.
Throughout the evening Louie found himself artfully ignored by his son, this was not unusual; in fact it was the norm, and only served to reassure the king. Today Louie took no offence, the image of his son old, ugly and infirm was too cheering to get upset. The boy though seemed well recovered – a little too well recovered. There was a tension about his frame, one of urgency and great-concealed stresses. He seemed also more affectated than ever, albeit subtle too. Usually, for instance, if when jibed by Armand, Louie took it with good humour the boy would get angry – well hidden of course, but noticeable to his parents – as if robbed of something precious and vital. Tonight though, Louie good-humoredly took the slights and insults, Armand did not care. Louie felt as if he were almost unimportant, to such an extent that he was superfluous to the proceedings, and as if Armand only jibed him out of habit rather than any real need to disrespect the king. Try as he might, the king could not fathom what had come over the boy.
Finally, early for Armand, he rose to leave. With a graceful flourish he caught the courts attention. Louie swore to himself – the lad had not needed to say a single word to captivate the entire room, and he had not had to wait. Louie himself often had to call several times to quieten the court
"Lords, ladies" He bowed respectfully to the room, and to his parents " Beloved mother, and father – our king. I most humbly-" The king snorted quietly, Armand had never been humble in his life "humbly beg your indulgence. It has been a trying time for all of us recently, I am sorry to be the cause of such disruption. The nightmares which have awoken me, screaming in the night, were not mere childish fantasies, but the result of an illness I do believe. I ask forgiveness from this court" He paused for effect "And again, your forbearance I seek, for I am most dreadfully tired, and must reluctantly retire to my rooms for some much needed rest" Again he bowed to the room, a shamefully enthusiastic applause erupted from the assembled nobles
For a fraction of a second Louie caught Armand's eye, time seemed to freeze. For an impossibly long moment they stared at each other. Louie recognised a definite change within the boy's eyes. That foppish, gad about, waste of time, energy and space he knew as his son was merely a shell. The beast lurking below his façade was unrecognisable, it was like a maddened bloodthirsty beast hungry for the taste of flesh (Louie had seen that look before, on the battlefield) this beast in his son's umbrage was also cold and calculating though, which made it all the more dangerous. It had designs and ambitions that exceeded his own.
The king tried to hide the faint look of surprise that flickered across his own eyes – but Armand, his wits undiminished caught it.
The corners of his mouth twisted into a perfect smile. There was no friendliness in it; it struck a chill into the very heart of the king. No one else noticed this silent exchange, certainly Alexandra was well pleased with the princes short but fitting speech.
Now though the boy was sauntering out the way he had come in.
ALEXANDRA CARTHIAN QUEEN
The queen had watched her son's decline with worry. As a boy he had always been happy and flamboyant. Louie had never seen the potential within his son. Armand's love of fine clothes and jewels had blinded the warrior-king to the deeper thoughtful side of his son. Alexandra, however had glimpsed the hidden part of Armand, his cunning intelligence, dry wit and capacity for almost the genius. Until now even her son had been largely unaware of his own potential, it lay dormant, untouched.
Now though, with these nightmares, she sensed a subtle difference in the boy. Why that should worry her she could say, surely it would be a good thing for Armand to wake up to the seriousness of his birthright. One day he would be king. Over these past weeks the queen had lost as much sleep as her tormented son, the worry consuming her mind. The kingdom had pottered through life in a stable uninterrupted manner for decades, once the Great War had ended both the Surrendian's and her own people had been glad of the peace. The monotonous routine of castle life now, seemed on the verge of change. surely the news of her son's illness would have reached every corner of the kingdom by now, and further even. Distant relatives, and other families claiming royal blood would, even now be heading for the keep. Their greedy tongues hanging out, salivating at the chance for advancement. The Surrendians too, would they investigate this apparent weakness in Louie's armour? Or would they bide their time, waiting until a less formidable ruler occupied the throne before striking.
All these worries and more constantly tormented the queens mind. Louie was all too easily irked by his son, any hint of Alexandra's worries would have sent Louie into a maddened rage. She, for the first time ever, was reluctant to confide in the love of her life.
All through his boyhood, Armand had always come running to her over anyone else with his troubles and tribulations. Not a word would he utter to her or anyone else about the nature of his dreams. Night after night he had awoke screaming with terror, the whole castle lay awake those nights, breathlessly awaiting the screams, audible through the solid stone of the Stronghold. After the first night she had rushed into his room, begging him to confide in her, to let her comfort him. He had at first silently ignored her, while throwing objects at the traumatised valet – how much more abuse the delicate man could endure Alexandra wondered. Later she had tried demanding an answer to her questions, trying to use her authority as both his mother and queen to find out what troubled him. Armand had ranted and raved at her, he presented a shocking picture, maniacal, almost possessed. His luscious golden curls dank and matted against his head, sweat glistening thickly off his skin. His face ashen, bloodshot eyes framed hugely dilated pupils, and blotched, awful on one normally so handsome.
In sheer frustration the queen had turned her fury on Painton, she screeched bloody murder at the helpless servant to quaff laudanum as if it were water. Alexandra blamed the narcotic drink for much of her son's problems. It was for Carthia that she worried more than for Armand. The kingdom Louie and herself had fought for, nearly died for, depended upon Armand's sanity. To her thrall and freeborn were like her children, their futures important as the royalty of the land.
Today Alexandra had retreated to her secret garden, absently she noticed signs of recent neglect. She had not felt like attending to this verdant oasis, not wished to cloud it with her dark moods. Now though she needed its solitude. The garden was inviolate, no one would enter without her permission. She lacked the energy though to tease out the intruding weeds, to trim back the topiary. She sat on the central ornate oak bench, hardly noticing the profusion of flowers all around her. The endless bounty of the colours and shapes of the blooms had all been painstakingly arranged single-handedly by the queen, its beauty hidden to all save a select few.
Still she brooded unhappily over Armand, the past week had been a literal and figurative nightmare. She was not convinced it was over though, the storm was just beginning. What was it that Armand dreamed, what had scared, even terrified him so much? Her whole being ached for an answer, the tension had begun to make her ill, though she hardly noticed. But, though, would knowing ease her soul, perhaps not, for she suspected the truth would not be (nice). For all Armand's good humour in the Great Hall the previous night something had been amiss. Despite Louie's rage he had been reluctant to question the errant prince, as of yet his absence was still unexplained. She cursed Painton, for he was far too good at his job. His skilful application of tints and powders had erased the death's-door look from her son's face, all well and good for the public eye, but meant she could gain scant information about his health. Somehow his normal indolent manner seemed to normal, almost forced. To her sharp eyes it has seemed as if the boy toyed with the assembled crowd rather than indulging them. Behind his eyes the new Armand laughed at the court-puppets. It had taken all her concentration to act casually with the prince, knowing that Louie would have erupted if she had given him any slight encouragement. She had not missed the look he and Armand had exchanged. Could it be that after all this time their son had decided to buckle down and get serious about inheriting the throne? Was that even a good thing? Armand had always had a ruthless, competitive streak that could prove dangerous.
In the bushes there was a sudden commotion, two juvenile rabbits managed to cheer despite the days of brooding. She laughed and clapped her hands, suddenly noticing the garden all around her. It was as if the rabbits had brought life to the garden, the flower suddenly had colour, and the smells were suddenly scents. Now she felt like tending to the garden, glad she came, the Carthian queen spent the remainder of the day tending her secret world.
ARMAND CARTHIAN PRINCE
Armand climbed to the highest parapet, no easy task for the Stronghold rose sky-scrapingly into the air, supported by and fashioned from, the mountain. He was sweating and weak kneed from the climb, but felt that it had been worth it. The view took in all of the Stronghold, the miles of buildings and cultivated fields lay before him like a map, so far below him it lay. At the edge of the fields was the legendary outer-wall, it was a huge structure, practically unbreachable. If necessary the outer gates could be sealed shut and the Strongholds population could survive indefinitely, all they needed lay within the massive wall. Beyond this enigma of engineering – for its origins, and creators had long since been forgotten – lay the Great Forest, over a hundred miles of rich vibrant forest, it stretched onwards towards the vanishing point on the horizon. All that Armand surveyed would one day be his. When his father died. He looked straight downwards, leaning dangerously over the balustrade, the timeless masonry dropped steeply away for hundreds of feet, where it blended with rooftops of newer construction. Here and there The granite still showed traces of the once intricate carving that once covered its surface. Idly Armand's finger traced its way along a curving line, the trail was convoluted, but still he absently followed it. Moments later his hand was back at its starting point. Surprised he tried it again from a different start point, the effect was the same. Armand had little time for enigmas and quickly grew bored of the ancient mathematical conundrum. The prince turned his gaze instead upwards to the peak of the mountain from which the Stronghold spewed. The rock above him shone purply, but as always the very top of the mountain was shrouded by the wisps of the cloud it had caught.
The air, he thought, had never smelt cleaner, or sweeter. The whole land seemed to gleam with newness, as if overnight the world had been reborn – or failing that, spring-cleaned. A primordial cry grew in his lungs, the excitement that was all the time growing in him needed expression. He roared out loud at the world, his world. In a rush of air, light and sound he was for one moment one with the universe.
Breathless, but temporarily sated, he fondly glanced back down at the kingdom. His kingdom.
LOUIE THE CARTHIAN KING
The king found Alexandra to be increasingly hard to talk to. During the day she had taken to hiding in her secret garden. He had sent several servants to fetch her, but all had felt her wrath and curses. Louie was not brave enough after that to go in person to the garden. At meal times there was never enough time to talk, people constantly vying for their attentions. Louie had always been glad that Alexandra took an active part in running the castle, and indeed the kingdom, he was not a young man any more. And, at night-time the queen had taken to using her own quarters – for safety's sake – she had said.
The king was beginning to think his queen was avoiding him.
Finding himself alone (again) he called for Sir Ethelridge, a lifetime friend and trusted knight, indeed they had fought side by side in the Great War. Together they wandered the castle, Louie setting a fast pace, unconsciously, his strides matching the speed of his thoughts. In silence Ethelridge followed, he knew Louie well enough – when he was ready the king would reveal all.
Stoically Louie tried to glean something new from the myriad of thoughts cavorting about his brain. All his instincts told him to go bursting into Armand's rooms and beat a reasonable explanation out of his son. Nothing made sense, none of it. He felt that Armand needed reevaluation, had he suddenly become an opponent? What was he thinking, Armand was his son, noble heir to a vast kingdom, his own flesh and blood, not his enemy. Louie felt like a dog chasing his own tail. He had not even felt a wash of relief when Armand had slept undisturbed through the night.
Dawn had broken crisp and clear, as it had done countless times before, and would do again. Why then did he still worry, the cold sickly feel in the pit of his belly was perhaps fear. That morning he had stood upon his balcony and watched the suns' gradual ascent, as if it were the last he would see.
Crossly Louie dispelled these damning thoughts, turned his attention instead to Ethelridge
"Good knight, I'm afraid these past few days have been rather trying – what with one thing and another. I need to unwind. What say's you to a drinking competition?" the knight bowed solemnly and replied
"I'll drink you under the table, my lord!"
Louie grinned a broad grin; this was more like it! They retired to a side hall, not the Great Hall, but still of an impressive size. Without having to be told a thrall lit a fire – this hall was rarely used, and a bone-chilling cold had begun to cling to it's stones. Very soon their drunken voices could be heard down the passage, they recanted tales from their youth, gradually getting closer and closer to what was really on the king's mind. Having summoned his knight – and friend - he was now reluctant to reveal his worries. It was not that Ethelridge was at all untrustworthy, indeed Louie trusted him second only to his ever faithful wife. It was the nature of his worries that made words hard to form. The boy worried him. He always had. As a boy Armand had never been interested in did duty, never learned swordsmanship never attended the hunts. There were hundreds of little things that the prince had never done. Louie sighed heavily.
"Sire..." Sir Ethelridge ventured, taking a bold move he added, "It's Armand, is it not?"
"Aye, is it that obvious?" He peered across the table at the knight, hoping his friend would really know what he wanted asked
"Sire, the whole castle has been holding it's breath, indeed the whole of Carthia has"
Louie snorted gruffly "Surrendia too I'll bet, the curs"
"They have been a long time quiet Louie. Do you think the prince's nightmares will trigger a ... situation?"
"Of that I have little doubt, Ethelridge. The question is when though, and will Armand be up to it, will he make a fit ruler?"
"Sire?" even as Louie's closest friend it was not his place to freely air his views about the heir to the king's face "He is the future of Carthia" Sir Ethelridge ventured after a lengthy silence
"Oh don't I know that!" by now the whole world knew of Armand's decline. It would surely be taken as a sign of weakness by his enemies, lord, if the Northern Barbarians got feisty again that could be the end of it all, if they attacked with the Surrendians, Armand end up ruler of the Stronghold only. The family line could be continually, indefinitely, preserved. But that Carthia should be reduced to that sickened the warrior and king inside himself alike.
"The castle gates have been clogged with people, my Lord"
"Aye, I'd noticed the extra dignitaries at feeding time"
"I have turned away most of the riffraff, Sire, the news has attracted peddlers and hawkers from all corners of the kingdom, all claim to have just the cure for your son, naturally I sent them packing, some needed a bit of force. It seems they have formed a shanty town outside the outer wall"
"That will do, this is the kind of thing that will always attract the dross of humanity. They all want to gawp and gossip. Curse them all!"
"I have posted extra guards on the outer gates, sire"
The king opened his mouth to reply, but his words were cut off by the reverberations of the dinner call. Its mammoth bell loud enough to be heard through the inner keep signalled the end of the working day for most of the strongholds inhabitants.
Listing, and lurching, the still drunken friends heaved themselves to their feet – despite the serious words they were both very merry. His mind still on Armand and not his lunch, Louie lowered his voice furtively " Ethelridge, we must be vigilant. I feel things are only just beginning. We could very well be up to our ears in it without warning. Watch the prince too – I don't want him 'vanishing' again. It weakens our position too much. I expect the Surrendians will be here soon, prying in our affairs"
"Aye Sire, with innocent looks on their faces no doubt. I will keep vigilant Louie, of that have no doubt"
"Lord knows I'm too old for another war" The great knight nodded, he too felt the ravages of age. He had never really felt at ease in peace times, he was a knight, not a civilian, but still the thought of starting another war was not a happy thought. Once he had been unassailable, indefatigable, but not any more. The war had been along time ago, though he was still proud of his achievements he had no real desire to repeat them. Damn Armand, why was he not more like his father?
ARMAND CARTHIAN PRINCE
Eventually the prince left the turret, but resolved to return. He liked seeing the world so tiny below him – it put things in perspective. Life felt so alive to Armand, rich and raw, his for the taking. His whole body itched for action, he found that walking took the edge off at least a little. He had enjoyed a good night's sleep – for the first time in weeks he slept uninterrupted through the night. That the whole castle had relaxed did not go unnoticed by Armand. It pleased him that they were keenly aware of his importance. For a short while he wandered the keep, but found the inconvenience of social interaction too trying. Inside himself, much of the flippant fun-loving boy had gone, yet it was still necessary to hide behind that personality. The thing which had tormented his dreams had changed him; even he was not yet fully aware of how much. Something new had grown and blossomed in the princes mind.
Lost in thought the prince stumbled, automatically he reached out, grabbing at a wooden support ancient and rotted it crumbled under his grip. His train of thought as broken now as the wood, the prince obeyed gravity and crashed to the floor. Cursing vainly he picked himself up and ineptly dusted off his knees. He looked around and realised that his surroundings were unfamiliar, that was not too unusual, he always had an escort in one form or another, so had never bothered to really learn his way around the whole keep.
The walls here were of rough hewn rock, not brick. At one time a previous occupant had attempted to hide the crude stone by lining it with a veneer of oak, but now only a few beams remained. There was a dank unused smell about the area, in more than a few places stalagmites had formed. Uncertain, after his fall, of which direction he had come from the prince just picked a direction at random. There had been little light in that abandoned area, but as he walked there was less and less. Strange slimes native to, and localised within, the Stronghold began to show themselves as the prince stumbled onwards. Disoriented and confused Armand fancied he heard footsteps trailing him. For over an hour he followed passage after passage, there seemed to be no logic to their construction, nor any apparent purpose. Not one door could he find, just endless slime-filled halls growing desperate he began to run. The glowing walls seemed to move a sense of unrealness engulfed Armand, the feeling of terror normally felt during his dreams pervaded those halls. Dizziness swam over him, and like a forgotten prayer once more recited, a door appeared. Panting from the running and gasping for his sanity he reached out to grasp the iron handle. It was very distinct in his sight, the world consisted of only the orange-rusted handle and his own hand reaching out to grasp it. For a split moment his had held the knob, then it was gone. In disbelief he withdrew his hand, the palm was stained with rust. The handle had disintegrated in his hand! Worried now he pushed the door. The hinges gave way, and with a startling crash the door fell inwards. There was a rush of air, fresh clean air. And suddenly the doorway was filled with the beating of wings and a terrible screeching. Instinctively Armand ducked to his knees, hands locked about his head for protection.
It took a few moments for the commotion to die down, the noise sped off down the passage. Slowly Armand relaxed, all had calmed down. His frayed wits had registered that his 'attacker' had not harmed him, and that it had been merely a bird. That in itself was odd enough. He had assumed that his wanderings had taken him deep into the bowels of the mountain. Almost sheepishly he picked himself up – filthy for the second time that day – and stared with disbelief into the room.
It was a fair sized hall, mostly roofless. It appeared that the open-air feature was a part of the original design as no rubble littered the floor. In the centre a huge tree grew, wind-blown dust and seeds had colonised the rest of the room. No doubt the tree had been blown in as a seed many years ago. Green vines clung to the walls, and, now they had recovered from the shock of having their sanctuary invaded, hundreds of birds sang out from their nests. Armand had little time for nature, as long as the crops came in each year he had all he needed. The grotto of birds held no fascination, yet Armand felt compelled to enter their home. A crow walked across the mosaic floor and winked at him, it cawed, in the hall its voice echoed away. As he set foot inside the birds abruptly fell silent again, every soul aware of his intrusion. He felt the multitude of eyes upon him. Armand felt strangely unnerved by their scrutiny. Humans he was used to, but these feathery brains were something entirely different. At the far end of the hall he saw movement. There was a kind of temple, or shrine. A stone altar seemed to be the central feature, but it too was smothered by the green vines, Armand could still tell though, that there was something on the table. The movement however had come from a kestrel.
Certain of its supremacy within it's own home the bird of prey screeched out a challenge to the prince, and beat its wings. Amused Armand raised an eyebrow. The bird again cried out, then leapt into the air. The instant it was airborne it wheeled masterfully round the room then dived straight for the prince, talons out stretched. Fearful but defiant, Armand stood his ground, the bird looking straight at him, each beat of it's wings bringing it closer. At the last second it wheeled, catching Armand's cheek. With annoyance he felt a thin trickle of blood roll down his face. Above, the bird soared high into the sky, still calling out defiance to the human intruder.
Intrigued Armand walked over to the altar, that he was lost among the deserted regions of the castle had long been forgotten. There was something unfamiliar lying on the greened rock, at first its nature was indecipherable. As he walked around the altar it came into focus- he Suddenly realised it was a skeleton, he had never seen one before. By the time-polished skull lay a crown, one most pleasing to Armand's eyes, and at it's feet a sword. Without hesitating, he collected the items and turned to leave. Even as he looked around for a way to climb out of the room - he had no intention of re-entering those halls – he wondered whose grave he had just desecrated. It was not in his families nature to leave bodies exposed to the air. The tree appeared to have naturalised itself, and grown to an impressive size over the years. The body could have lain there for hundreds of years. Indeed there was no record or legend known to him that would describe such a place. His hand found purchase on the creepers, and he hauled himself out of that place. With a final straining heave Armand pulled himself on to the roof. He lay there panting for a moment, his tired muscles recovering from the unusual demands.
An unfamiliar landscape sprawled out around the prince, a sea of forgotten rooftops surrounded him. He could just make out a tower that seemed vaguely familiar. It seemed very far away, easily a couple of miles. Uneasily he surveyed the route. He had never been one for outdoor sports, never climbed a tree, to some extent dangerous pursuits had not been encouraged, he was too valuable to die needlessly. The prospect of re-entering the maze was far more off-putting than the roof tops where he had more freedom of movement, and so reluctantly made his way towards the tiles. For the first mile Armand cursed himself for ever leaving his quarters that day. This life and death scramble over treacherous rooftops was not his idea of fun.
The sun had almost set when Armand finally stumbled back to his apartments. Painton was not there, of which Armand was grateful. He stripped off the ruined clothes and hid his prize – the crown and sword.
It was with a renewed sense of vigour that Leander had awoken that morning., his pilfered accommodation was far more comfortable than any he had previously. The sun was already high in the sky, it shone crisply in through the freshly cleaned window. The world seemed to be composed of heat and stillness. As if it held its breath. His legs itched, surely some advantage might be gained from the ripe day? Somewhere abroad the thriving castle, something lay waiting. Suddenly in a rush Leander dressed. Unwilling to disclose the whereabouts of his room, Leander listened carefully at the keyhole, only when he was certain the corridor outside was deserted did he emerge. The passage was indeed empty, step by step he crept to Armand's quarters. All was silent there too, he considered pushing his luck, entering the rooms. Somehow Leander felt certain that Armand was not there though. Turning smartly on his heel he wheeled and instead went to the Great Hall.
He entered unnoticed, his greedy eyes devouring the scene. He had a renewed sense of the world, of Armand's position, its strengths and potential weaknesses. This castle belonged, or at least would soon belong, to Armand. All the lives in the world, in some small way, no matter how lowly or forgotten, dependant on the heir. Like sheep the lives of the Carthian populous revolved around their royal shepherds.
In the Great Hall, the stone blocks that made up this area of the Stronghold – each weighing a clear tonne – rose vertically upwards to a five storied ceiling. Looking upwards Leander could discern traces of once great murals, now though their remnants were enjoyed only by the pigeons who lived out their lives in that lofty space. Even as his mind idly contemplated the ancient art and feral birds, his body had moved around the outskirts of the hall, requisitioning tasty morsels of food all the while. Leander was, for all his eating, a slender chap, it could have been that he was a handsome lad, but it covered so thinly the boys pride and cunning, his dangerousness visible to anyone willing to recognise its true nature.
Like a shadow cast from one of the many fires, flickering and indistinct, his dark form slipped through the multitude of people, and out towards the less frequented areas.
The prince had been absent from the Great Hall also.
Leander's ever fleet strides were strengthened by food and rest, the miles flew by. As he passed through different eras of building the style of the architecture changed, sometimes subtly, other times abruptly. In a (cold) was Leander enjoyed the irony that at one time, long, long ago a man had dreamed a dream though we would be long dead now, his dream was immortalised in timeless stone, or captured in the now gently rotting wood. That these dreams were now obscure reaches, forgotten by all amused him greatly.
As abruptly as the carved buildings had appeared, they gave way to rough hewn passages they were dank and slimy. Leander wrinkled his nose, the smell was overpowering. As he turned to go – surely there were cleaner haunts to disturb – a faint sound caught his ears. Here the passage was made of crude pillars, it continued straight for as far as the eye could see. On form once more, Leander slipped his way along the hall, hiding behind the stony outcroppings. A genuine smile crept across his face as he approached the source of the noise. Armand – again. The prince seemed much more lucid than when had last been wandering the forgotten places. For a long while Leander followed Armand, keeping as close as he dared. The prince appeared to be lost, but the territory was within Leander's knowledge. When the prince had turned down into the Labyrinth, Leander hesitated – many a time he had become hopelessly lost within its identical pathways. He was not a quitter though, and stood undecided for only a split second before following. As he quietly followed the heir it became apparent that, once again he was losing his grip. The stress of being lost out of reach of his many hangers-on, who if not actually in Armand's presence were only a stone's throw away, had begun to frighten Armand.
If it were not for an eerie sense of incompleteness, Leander would have announced his presence to calm the harried prince. It would have been simple to fabricate some excuse for being so far from the central keep.
Ahead Armand had stopped. A door. Even Leander was glad to see it, he was able to get his bearings. He too had been hopelessly lost, this maze had always unnerved him. Leander, if asked would have denied any belief in the supernatural, and ghosts, but there was definitely something about this place. A kind of chill un-presence. As if the phosphorescent slime had a kind of interconnected consciousness in these halls, that a primordial mind enclosed him. He jumped, the door had collapsed under Armand's touch. From a shadow Leander watched the frightened bird come flying out. He grinned as the startled Armand fell to the ground. The bird continued down the hall in a misguided flight for freedom. He watched it go, when he turned back, Armand had gone.
Leander sank back into the shadow, preparing to wait for Armand to reappear. His calculating eyes peered past hunched knees, as his mind schemed. His ears picked up the sounds of more birds, before a silence descended. Time passed, too much time. He gave the doorway an impatient glance before striding over. He was not surprised to see the garden, the presence of birds indicated the outdoors. He was surprised to find no trace of Armand however. Like an invading shadow Leander did a tour of the hall, pausing by the skeleton, he noted that it had been recently disturbed. Absently he picked up the skull, and absently 'played' it's ribs with a forearm bone. Bored with that game he dropped the tibia, and wandered away from the altar, still holding the skull. He did not wonder about the origins of the place, nor of the identity of the cranium before him. What had Armand found here, he felt certain that it was valuable. The prince did not seem the grave-robber type, and where had he gone? Leander glanced at the open skies. He would be very exposed on the rooftops, if the prince had gone that way Leander would be discovered if he tried to follow him. He struck a thoughtful pose, one hand with the skull held aloft, the other in a gesture of dramatic pleading, in the manner of some long-forgotten poet. He laughed and hurled the skull at the opposing wall, it exploded in a cloud of dust and disgruntled birds. Still laughing Leander turned and re-entered the living maze.
Again luck smiled on Leaner, the frightened bird, it's nose keener than any humans had flown straight for fresh air, dropping feathers along it's path. Skipping over the slime he was soon out of the maze.
(date ref: july 1st taken from spiral 1)
The queen left her secret garden when the bell sounded. She had no real wish to leave its tranquillity, but duty – as always – called. The Great Hall quietly bustled as thralls set out the meal. At a first glance the sheer volume of food might have seen lavish, but with the extra visitors, it was anything but that. Alexandra had arrived before Louie, or indeed before almost everyone, but did not have long to wait for him.
There was a drunken commotion coming towards the Hall, as it staggered in Alexandra identified Louie and Ethelridge. She sighed with relief, hopefully the king had boozed away most of his worries, and let his knight assuage the rest. Perhaps now he could deal with his errant son without breaking things. She hated avoiding him, hated sleeping alone even more, but could not face the questioned he would ask – in public he held his tongue. Wobbling as much as Louie, Sir Ethelridge helped him to his place at the table. Nearly toppling the plastered king into Alexandra's lap
"My dear ... dear ... queen" Louie was spluttering, as if he recited the greatest poetry ever. She smiled and kissed him on the cheek.
"Feeling better then?" she asked
"Indeed, I'm not sure who won what, or what they won, but we had fun trying" the king descended into drunken laughing until, at Alexandra's bidding, thralls piled food in front of him
Slightly on edge Alexandra awaited Armand's entrance. After a while it became obvious that he was not attending. When she was certain he was not just fashionably late she breathed another sigh of relief. It was easier to pretend everything was normal if she did not have to watch him in action. Peculiarly, or fortunately, Alexandra thought, only herself and Louie seemed to have noticed the boys inner change. Surely the assembled nobles, well over half of Carthia's finest had enough wit to notice Armand's changes. If they did know, they were all doing an exceptional imitation of nonchalance. It frightened her to think that the years of peace had weakened the once warrior nation. Alexandra had seen too much in the Great War to ever relax. The hundreds of maimed, dead and dying soldiers still haunted her dreams. She had, as women did, stood by Louie's side throughout the war, tending and fighting as was needed.
Bethany, Alexandra's handmaiden unobtrusively slipped over and whispered
"perhaps I could summon the entertainers? They have been idle of late, and still cost as much to feed!" A brilliant idea, the queen nodded enthusiastically, glad for the distraction. The girl ran off, and barely half an hour later had rounded up all the courts fools. Alexandra watched her organising them, pondering Bethany's motives – was she acting to cheer up her mistress, or did she think the entertainers ought to be earning their keep, the queen could not decide. Aside from the bards poets, and musicians there were dancers, jesters, leapers, jugglers and human oddities, Bethany really had rounded them all up.
Louie roused himself at the noise, the din reaching even his alcohol-soaked brain. Comically his eyes widened with surprise – surely he was seeing double, or even triple! Suddenly revived, he swept the queen up
"shall we dance?" he said. Alexandra felt a wave of joy, Louie was definitely in better spirits
"Aye my lord" she curtsied, and shrieked happily as he half led half carried her to the floor. Out of respect, the royal couple had the first dance alone, then the floor rapidly filled.
Still dancing, the queen laughed happily to herself, eyes bright and untroubled, she felt twenty years younger. Her servant had done well. The impromptu party had done the whole castle good. Certainly Louie was more relaxed than he had been in a long time. The revellers ignored the onset of evening, and enthused late into the night. Louie took Alexandra in his arms "You're not getting away from me tonight" He grinned broadly at his wife
"Why, my sire" she said with fake modesty " whatever do you mean?" for an answer he hoisted her over his shoulder, and bodily carried her off.
Someone in the Great Hall proposed a toast for their departing king "All hail the king! Long live the king!" their voices echoing down the corridor after them.
(date ref: july 4 vol 1)
The last thing he remembered was lying very contentedly in his bedchamber with his genteel wife sleepily draped over him. He had not realised just how much he had missed her company, even if she was asleep, her very company was salubrious. The day had been good. Sharing his fears with Sir Ethelridge had halved their effect. And for the first time ever he was glad that Alexandra had not been the one to share his burden. He knew she loved Armand dearly, and Louie had mixed feelings about divulging his worries about his son to her. He was concerned about distressing her, what if he had imagined the look the boy and himself had exchanged. What if Armand were up to no good, and she inadvertently warned him of Louie's concerns.
Realising he was spiralling into a black mood again, Louie pushed those thoughts away, the path they led down was fraught with mistrust and blunders. Instead he wondered where Armand had been that evening. Usually the lad could smell a party from miles away, homing in on it with unerring preciseness. The evening's entertainment had definitely qualified as a party, albeit informal, but a noisy affair none the less.
Ethelridge had spotted the boy wandering round the outer keep at one point, but he had soon vanished.
Louie could not shake the vague feeling of unease, something was a foot, and it gnawed at his consciousness. The atmosphere around the Stronghold was still charged, people – thralls and lords alike – were still pensive. Perhaps there was an intruder in the castle, as of yet undiscovered. Maybe the Surrendians were already attempting to take advantage of this show of weakness.
His frown returned, but determined to enjoy the time with his queen he settled down beside Alexandra and slept.
(date ref: july 6th spiral 1)
Armand had arrived back at his apartments breathless and wan. His expensive apparel stained and carelessly torn.
Painton was elsewhere, ordinarily the prince would have flown into a childish rage, but now it suited him to be alone. He slipped through the doors into his bedchamber, swiftly concealing the crown and sword. A noise, barely a sigh of air alerted Armand to someone's presence, he presumed it to be Painton
"In here, and hurry up about it!" the doors opened
"At once Sire"
"... ?" it was not Painton, it was a boy. Armand knew only a few peoples names – why bother, and only knew the name of his own servant. The boy now stood in front of him had to be a servant, though his clothes were of suspiciously good quality
"Sire, I saw him in the servants hall earlier – I saw you return and went to fetch him for you, but could not find him ... I brought Laudanum" the boy sounded confident, not like most of the younger servants. He spoke to the prince directly, but with the proper amount of respect, he also took Armand's scrutiny in his stride. Armand pondered the boy for a moment, obviously he was looking for advancement, and had come right to the horses mouth for it. There was nothing wrong with a little ambition he decided
"Well, what are you waiting for. Pour my laudanum – you know how to do that I assume. Or are you trained to clutter the place up?" the prince sneered while slumping into the fireside chair - there was no need to give the lad an easy ride. The lad obediently served him
"Your highness..." the boy asked cautiously, knowing he was pushing his luck "May I be permitted to serve you until Painton arrives?"
for an answer Armand said "Draw my bath"
Armand relaxed as the drugged liquid took hold of him, he felt no real intrusion having a stranger attend him. It was true that he had grown up with Painton, and the valet was skilled at his job, but this lad seemed somehow smarter, less flappable despite his youth. Painton tended to treat Armand like the child he once was. the prince imagined how the scene would have been different if Painton had received him – no doubt he would have tutted and lectured the prince, admonishing his torn clothes.
The boy stood waiting.
"Well, come on then, attend me!" still drowsy with drink Armand relaxed under the lads touch, though not as experienced as Painton the lad's agile, and surprisingly strong, hands smoothed knots of tension from Armand's muscles. The servant used a different blend of scented oils to the ones Armand was used to, but he did not disappoint. Eventually clean and dressed the prince sank back into his chair. Faint sounds straying from a cheerful party met his ears, he toyed with the idea of attending – usually he would. In the end he decided he was too drunk to attempt it.
Armand sent the servant for food then dismissed him. The prince went through the motions of eating, but did not really taste it, then he sat awaiting quietness around the castle. The party continued very late into the night, long after the rest of the castle had grown quiet. He had chosen wisely when he had decided not to attend. Arriving fashionably late was part of his accepted normal behaviour, but never leaving early. For Armand to leave before the party was well and truly dead would have been surprising, if not out-rightly suspicious.
When he was certain that he would not be disturbed Armand retrieved his hard earned treasures. The crown and sword alike were both pretentiously decorated, huge jewels glittered from both, and surely they were worth a small kingdom. It was so not like his parents to leave valuable things lying about forgotten like that. The way the lock, and also the door, had disintegrated startled him. How long would it take for iron to rust that badly? It occurred to him that perhaps its origins were older than his father, or even his father's father. Armand knew that the probability of his finding it was ludicrously small. He had never wandered off like that before, he could never find the room again – indeed he planned to never renter that foul maze again. Maybe he would even have it sealed off when he became king, the thought of that cheered him greatly.
Although they gleamed already, the prince absently polished the jewels on the crown with a corner of his robe. After a few moments the many precious stones shone with a life of their own. In Armand's eyes the crown before him was far more desirable than his fathers traditional rather plain crown. Full of wonderment he placed it on his head. A perfect fit. The king-to-be sauntered and swaggered about his chamber, indulging his vanity, childishly waving to imaginary subjects. Had there been any chance of being discovered, Armand would have never have engaged in such incongruous behaviour. Enjoying his own appearance, Armand acted out kingly gestures, and mimed important addresses. It was not until recently that Armand had begun to consider the reality of rule. People had always used his position to prevent him from doing things as a child, inadvertently ostracising him by it from his peers, saying that he could get hurt, or that he might act unbefittingly. But as he grew up the carrot (and stick) of rulership never got any closer. At one time his parents had seemed immutable, but now Armand, in the prime of his youth saw their frailties all too clearly.
An idea had lodged in the princes mind. Something exciting enough to captivate his entire attention. He was not sure weather the nightmares or the idea had come first. Did one cause the other?
It did not really matter though, Armand liked the idea.