Tarkyn threw himself to the ground and rolled beneath the red streak of light, coming up fast, close to his attacker. Before the other sorcerer could change the direction of his shaft, Tarkyn had surrounded himself in a translucent bronze shield. Gasping for breath, he stood within a foot of his opponent, hands on hips, giving what he hoped was an unnerving smile.
As soon as he had recovered, he spun himself behind Andoran, his long black hair fanning out behind him, then dropped his shield and threw a shaft of bronze power at his opponent’s back. Andoran ducked. Tarkyn’s bronze beam shot over his opponent’s head and slammed into a rickety spectator stand. A wooden upright gave way with a resounding crack.
Tarkyn watched in horror as, with ponderous grace, the makeshift stand sagged to one side. Dozens of panic-stricken spectators scrambled over each other, swarming onto the arena of the Harvest Tournament, desperate to get clear before the stand collapsed. Immediately Royal Guards surrounded the prince and his opponent to protect them from the rabble.
From within the ring of guards, Tarkyn glanced up at the strong, well-built grandstand where the nobility and the rest of the Royal Family sat, well out of reach of any stray tournament-strength shafts of power.
“I warned them that we should have stronger boundary shields,” he muttered. “It is not right to place people needlessly at risk.”
Gradually the exclamations and shouts died down as the stand stayed stoically, if drunkenly, upright.
With a show of bravura, a scruffy young lad with more courage than wisdom vaulted back onto the stand and seated himself in the front row. On hearing no creaking, a prim lady poked her beau in the ribs to push him up the steps before her. Then she gathered her skirts and calmly followed him to sit beside the scruffy youth in the best seats the stand had to offer.
Seeing that the stand still held firm, the rest of the crowd, first in dribs and drabs, then in a steady flow, remounted the structure to resume their seats. Once the last of them was re-seated, the guards returned to their positions around the stadium and the competitors squared off once more.
“Resume!” bellowed the referee.
The two sorcerers circled each other, each protected within his shield. Suddenly Tarkyn’s shield winked out and he stood exposed but safe, as long as Andoran was putting his energy into maintaining his own shield. Andoran was now a step behind in the attack. After feinting right, then left, the red-headed sorcerer threw himself to the left, winked out his shield and thrust a shaft of power at the prince. But Tarkyn anticipated him and as he sidestepped the red attack, he drove a shaft of power at Andoran that caught him cleanly in the chest.
Andoran yelped with pain, the referee blew his whistle and Tarkyn was declared the winner.
As the prince reached out to haul his opponent up and shake his hand, tumultuous applause erupted from thousands of watching sorcerers. They rushed onto the arena, young and old, rich and poor, eagerly clustering around their victorious prince, but were kept at bay by a ring of protective guards. Tarkyn grinned and waved in response, then placed his arm across his worthy opponent’s shoulder to draw him into the congratulations. Andoran mastered his disappointment enough to produce a rueful smile and wave his acknowledgement to the crowd.
Only the reaction of Tarkyn’s twin brothers marred the occasion. Even while responding to well-wishers, Tarkyn noticed the look of consternation that passed between Prince Jarand and the king. Concerned for my safety in the midst of this large milling crowd, he thought glumly. I hope Kosar is not so worried that he refuses me permission to compete again next year.
The trumpets sounded, summoning Tarkyn to stand before King Kosar to receive the Harvest Tournament trophy. Still grinning at his achievement Tarkyn strode across the arena, but as he approached the king, he sobered up and with due decorum, produced a respectful bow. When he straightened before his brother, he expected Kosar to be smiling with pride. Instead, he received only a curt nod and a smile that did not reach Kosar’s hard grey eyes.
“Congratulations, Tarkyn. Your power rivals our late father’s. Impressive.” The King’s voice was formal. As he handed his youngest brother the trophy, the crowd broke into renewed shouts of approbation. Kosar frowned. “You appear to have developed quite a following amongst the rabble.”
“Yes Sire. I believe all your subjects are enjoying the Harvest Festival. Thank you for granting me the opportunity to compete.”
Throughout the presentation, Tarkyn mulled over the significance of Kosar’s lack of enthusiasm. Kosar seemed distracted. Someone or something had upset him. Probably Jarand, thought Tarkyn. It usually is. At nineteen Tarkyn was seven years his brother’s junior and, whenever possible, avoided the constant tensions that surrounded the throne. Nevertheless, he passed his own actions under quick review, to assure himself that nothing he had done could be the cause of Kosar’s ill humour.
With the formalities over, Tarkyn withdrew to change into more formal attire; a deep blue surcoat embroidered with gold thread over a white shirt tucked into black leggings. As soon as he returned to the Royal Box to view the afternoon’s events, a blonde, purple-eyed sorcerer bounced up to him and gave a small bow.
“Ah, I am pleased to see that you managed to get away from your guard duties for a while, Lord Danton,” said Tarkyn, formal in a public forum.
“Yes, Your Highness. So am I. I didn’t want to miss your match. Well done, Sire. That was a great effort to beat Andoran. He has been practising for weeks, you know.”
Tarkyn smiled, “I wondered about that. I was sure he had improved.”
As the afternoon wore into evening, the Royal party retired to the great dining hall in the castle to preside over the Harvest Feast. The great dining hall was rarely used; only on Festival days and to entertain visiting heads of state. Its stone vaulted ceiling soared above three rows of long, heavy Oregon tables, lit by huge candelabras and three enormous chandeliers. Today, representatives of every guild, town and shire had been invited but only the highest nobility sat at the king’s table.
All evening, Kosar was unusually genial to his twin brother.
Tarkyn leaned over and murmured in Danton’s ear, “The king seems more at ease now. It is good to see my brothers getting on so well. They seem to be at loggerheads more often than not, these days.”
“Yes Sire, it is certainly more congenial when they are in harmony with each other,” said Danton carefully.
Tarkyn raised an eyebrow. “But…?”
Danton grimaced, “But someone else always suffers when they unite.”
“With justification, I presume?” A note of hauteur warned Danton to go no further.
Danton met the unwavering gaze of Tarkyn’s amber eyes and heaved a small sigh. “Just so, Sire.” A few minutes later, he stood and bowed, “If you will excuse me, Sire, I am on guard duty on the east gate of the city in two hours’ time. I will attend you tomorrow.”
Tarkyn nodded farewell and returned his attention to the steady but discreet stream of well-wishers who, throughout the evening, had been vying for a chance to offer their congratulations.
By midnight, the last guests had been finally ushered out. The rigours of the tournament, followed by an afternoon in the glare of the public eye, had taken its toll. Tarkyn took his leave of his family and fell into bed exhausted, his mind spinning with the events of the day. Gradually, the castle fell silent and Tarkyn fell asleep.
In the early hours of the morning, his quiet was shattered by someone thumping on his bedchamber door. When he dragged himself out of bed to answer the door, tousled and half asleep, Tarkyn found himself surrounded by embarrassed guardsmen who requested politely but firmly that he accompany them to the Great Hall.
The prince frowned, then nodded curtly, “Send for my man.”
When the guards hesitated, Tarkyn met the eyes of one man he had known since childhood and raised an eyebrow, “Is it so urgent? Surely you do not expect me to present myself in my night garments?”
Despite his orders, the guard bowed, “Your Highness, the king is even now awaiting your presence. But I will assist you to dress, if you will allow me.”
As the prince inclined his head graciously, no one could have known the disquiet he felt at being isolated from his servants. The guards waited awkwardly while the prince dressed, unhurriedly but not gratuitously wasting time until, with a final nod at his reflection, Tarkyn indicated that he was ready.
Under normal circumstances no guard would dare to lay hands on him, and Tarkyn was not sufficiently concerned at this point to put it to the test; instead allowing himself to be escorted to the Great Hall. For their part, the guards made no move to restrain him.
Their footsteps echoed in the quiet of the night as they strode down the polished stone corridor of the palace, past closed bedchamber doors behind which palace advisors, courtiers and their families lay sleeping. For the guardsmen, the statues and portraits that they passed represented the history of Eskuzor and the bedrock of its society, while the quiet prince they escorted was a living embodiment of that heritage. But for Tarkyn, it was more than that; he walked between ranks of his own family, stretching back over forty-eight generations of monarchs: some frowning down at him, some regarding him benignly, many of them great rulers, and others whose lives were mentioned only in hushed whispers. Their heritage demanded high expectations of him but also provided a foundation of strength and dominion stretching back over a thousand years.
They reached the top of the sweeping stone staircase. Except for the guards standing on either side of the great, carved wooden doors at the front of the palace, the entrance hall was deserted. Without a word, the soldiers marched with their charge down the stairs and out into the night.
The shuttered shops of Tormadell’s main street presented blind eyes to the procession that passed before them. If anyone watched, they did so without betraying their presence. As they passed an alley, an orange cat streaked out into the road and seeing the soldiers stopped dead, arching its back and hissing its displeasure at them. In an upstairs room, a baby started crying and a dim light was kindled but no one came to the window to witness the passage of the prince.
When they entered the Great Hall, Tarkyn saw that it had been set up as a court. At the far end, the king sat behind a huge raised wooden table with Prince Jarand by his side. Tarkyn’s stomach turned over as he wondered wildly what he had done. He realised his knees had begun to tremble and he hoped desperately that they would hold him as he walked down the length of the hall. When finally he stood before his brother, Tarkyn gave a low bow. His heart thumped slowly within his chest, beating time with a vein in his temple, as he straightened and stared up at his brother, “You sent for me, Your Majesty?”
Suddenly Tarkyn found himself plunged from lauded victor to accused felon, standing trial on a charge of damaging public property and endangering life. In a daze, he listened as his own brother passed sentence on him; that he must foreswear his magic for four years or face imprisonment. With rising panic, he knew he could not allow them to take his magic. Nor could he face imprisonment. Once he was away from public sight, he knew he would never see the light of day again. Faced with the horror of such a future, Tarkyn threw up his shield.
Kosar leaned forward and glared down at him. “Tarkyn, how dare you defy me? You will accept the judgement of this court.”
“My liege, please, I cannot.” Tarkyn went down on one knee. “Sire, I have always been your loyal subject. The public stand should have had shields to protect it from off-target shafts of power. I raised this with the organisers before the tournament, but they dismissed my concerns. Other shafts went wide. The only difference is that mine hit a stand. Please reconsider.”
But justice played no part in Tarkyn’s trial and so his plea was irrelevant.
“Even if I may have reconsidered before, the fact that you raise your shield against me shows us all too clearly the limits of your loyalty and the reason that your magic must be forfeited.” Kosar glared at him, “My judgement stands. Release your shield!”
Tarkyn’s heart hardened within him. Never again would he bend his knee in submission. He stood slowly and straightened to his full height. He glanced around the room at the closed faces of the guards. No one met his eyes. He brought his gaze back to bear on his brother and said with quiet dignity, “I am truly sorry, Your Majesty…but I will not.”
A charged silence followed. At the king’s nod, the guards closed in.
“Bring him to me when he succumbs,” ordered Kosar. With that, Jarand and he rose and passed through a private exit, leaving their younger brother to his fate.
Tarkyn stood motionless within his bronze dome, head held high, masking his desperation. For a moment, no one moved.
Then one guard, more jittery than the rest, threw a bolt of blue power at him. Tarkyn flinched. But instead of blocking the power, Tarkyn’s shield reflected it, dropping the guard like a stone.
Pandemonium broke out. Tarkyn held his focus, knowing nothing could touch him if he held firm. But now, every guard in the room attacked. Swords, arrows and beams of magic drove at the beleaguered prince from all sides. Every arrow or shaft of power that struck the bronze dome around him reflected back at a different angle, ricocheting around the Great Hall, injuring and killing guards randomly.
The air fizzed with a maze of dazzling colours as shafts of magic zig-zagged crazily around the Great Hall. All around him guards died, either killed by reflected power or arrows. The constant assault of ricocheting power pockmarked the vast cream walls of the Hall, sending chunks of plaster spraying down on the unshielded guardsmen. But still the guards kept up their attack. In the midst of it all, Tarkyn simply stood there, stunned into immobility but rigidly holding his focus as arrows, beams of magic and masonry assailed him from every side before careening off his shield to add to the bedlam.
Then cracks began to appear in the ceiling and pillars. Within moments, aggression turned to fear. Anyone left standing turned tail and ran. With the imminent collapse of the Great Hall, the guards’ desperate efforts to save themselves thrust all other considerations aside.
Dimly, Tarkyn realised that while the guards were preoccupied, he had to find a way out. Unnoticed, he crawled beneath the huge wooden table and finally released his shield. He strained his mind to remember the words of the re-summoning spell he had read, desperately hoping that he could make it work. He drew a deep breath and, focusing his will on his surcoat, muttered, “Maya Mureva Araya…” Between one breath and the next, he felt himself disintegrate into oblivion before landing nauseated but safe, at the origin of his clothing in a tailor’s shop near the edge of town.