123. The Three Lashes

Stellia and Nevynne huddle together for warmth.

The huge alder tree keeps most of the drizzling rain away from where they sit, but it cannot shelter them from the cold. They press more closely against one another for warmth as they nibble on the grain cakes from the shadow’s satchel. The cakes are dense and dry, and while they fill their stomachs, they do not provide much enjoyment. Still, they are barely aware of their discomfort. Brother Frithil’s voice has cast a spell that lets their attention dwell on little else but the words he speaks.

“All this began not much more than six years ago, when the Prince had turned sixteen years of age. To mark the occasion, Emperor Thedric set out to go on a hunt far to the East of Fora Tanni, in a region called the Three Lashes, after the streams that cut through it on their way to the sea there: Vilya, Stauma, and Hayr. The lands south of these rivers are mild and much farmed, but north of them lie wild forests that extend for many leagues to the great Eastern Cliffs, where the Lashes plunge into the sea far below. These woods abound with all manner of game, and have been a favored hunting ground of the Emperors of Hestia for many centuries. On this expedition, Thedric meant to teach his son how to hunt the bear. Or so he said.”

“Bears are a dangerous quarry,” Nevynne says. “My father lost more than a few beaters to the beasts in Ren Arran, over the years. The Emperor was taking no small risk.”

“You’re not the only one to have thought so,” Frithil says. “Apparently, the Guardian herself came to the palace on the eve of the King’s departure for the Lashes, to counsel him against bringing Ansil along. The Emperor chose to disregard her warnings, however, and so they set out on their journey east the next morning. Ansil was himself reluctant to go. He had been going on these hunts since he was a boy, even though by nature he was more given to poetry and books, and the suffering of animals grieved him. But he always cherished the opportunity to have his father to himself for a time, away from advisers, matters of state, and courtly duties. And although Ansil could rarely be persuaded to bring down even the smallest bit of game, Thedric nevertheless enjoyed taking his beloved son into the wild parts of his Realm to share with him in the sublime vistas and wonders of untamed nature. Yet on this occasion, Ansil was filled with trepidation, because the night before their departure, Thedric came alone to the Prince’s chambers, and made him swear a peculiar oath.

“The Emperor said that should he himself meet his death on this hunt, Ansil was to ride south at once, never to return to Fora Tanni, and to keep himself hidden from the Guardian no matter what happened. The Prince did not wish to swear such an oath. Not only would it forever bar him from his home, but also cast suspicion on him. Why would a son flee the scene of his father’s death, unless he had some guilt in it? But Thedric demanded it, and in the end, Ansil could not refuse. He begged his father to explain, but the Emperor would not, insisting that what he asked was for his son and the Empire’s good. The next day, they set out on the long ride to the eastern forests, accompanied by the Emperor’s entourage. By the time they reached their destination, Ansil had put his father’s strange request out of his mind. He told himself that it was but an old man’s morbid whim, that his father would not come to harm on this hunt, and that upon their return to the capital, the strange oath would be without meaning.”

“But the Emperor did die,” Nevynne says. “Though I hear none know for certain how it happened.”

“I heard that the Emperor was chasing after a deer,” Stellia says. “That he rode too close to the cliffs above the sea, and fell, and that his body was never found.”

Frithil nods. “I have heard those accounts as well. But it seems that the Emperor’s death was not brought about by a deer’s jink, nor was he skewered by a boar’s tusks, or mauled by a bear as others have said.”

“Then what did happen?”

“What follows will be difficult for you to believe,” Frithil says. “I for one found it so.”

NEXT: A Father’s Parting


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