“I remind you that it was the Prince himself who related this strange tale to me,” Frithil says. “Full of riddles and unanswered questions as it may be.”
“So much of what we’ve experienced is like that.” Nevynne shudders and edges closer to Stellia. “How did Thedric die, then?”
“The Emperor and his company spent much of the first morning hunting smaller game. But as noontime neared, Thedric veered away from the hunt, bidding his son follow. They rode fast, and far, and before long they were separated from the Emperor’s entourage. The Prince wondered why they were so deliberately going astray, for they were not at the time in pursuit of any beast. But the Emperor spurred on his horse as though some madness had gripped him, until they were near the tall cliffs that drop down to the waves in that region. So far had they ridden that Ansil could no longer hear the horns of the hunters, nor the trumpets of the beaters. They passed through a forest of windswept pines, and Thedric rode up to the cliff’s edge, and there took from his neck the chain he wore at all times.”
“What chain was that?” Stellia asks.
“A silver chain with a pendant made of the same metal, in which was set a crystal Shard like that worn by a Parson. It was an ancient heirloom of the House of Vulth, and none that knew the Emperor had ever seen him without it. Prince Ansil told me that even one year when his father was laid up with a summer fever that nearly killed him, and he saw him in his bed with nothing on his body but sweat-drenched sheets, the Emperor did not take off this chain, nor would he allow anyone else to do so.
“But there, on the steep cliffs above the sea, Thedric held the chain aloft, and the sunlight caught in the crystal suspended from it. Ansil had grown up believing that one day this thing was to come to him, but now Thedric, with a mighty swing of his arm, cast the heirloom down into the sea. Then he smiled at his son, and told him that he was relieved. Before Ansil could ask him why, they heard horns in the distance. The Emperor’s hunters and guards were looking for their lord, fearing he might come face to face with some ferocious beast, without assistance in case of need. Once more, Thedric spurred his horse, and together father and son rode until they no longer heard the horns, and at last they stopped and dismounted in another spot, wilder and higher still above the sea. There Thedric looked at his son in silence for a moment, and then told him that he must bid him farewell. The Prince wept, for he realized that his father had laid the oath upon him the night before with this moment in mind. Why must we part, he cried out to his father. Thedric embraced Ansil, and kissed him, and told him that it was best that he did not, nor ever would, understand. The Emperor then told him to ride south, and named a small village east of Mount Xapharon in Taronnis, where he was to meet his spymaster, whom Thedric trusted above all men and women in his service.”
“Garroth!” Stellia and Nevynne exclaim in unison.
“The same,” Frithil says. “The Emperor bade Ansil ride, ride fast and ride hard, and ever in secrecy. He told his son that he loved him, and to always remember that love, but above all, to remember the oath he swore never again to seek out the Guardian, nor to let her find him. He kissed Ansil one last time, and urged him not to tarry. Then Thedric mounted his horse, and rode toward the cliff. At the very edge of it, he dismounted. One last time he pressed his forehead to that of the beloved steed. Then he cast himself into the waves below.”
“What!?” Stellia nearly jumps to her feet. “The Emperor took his own life? Are we to believe this? It is a grievous sin!”
Nevynne, too, looks stunned. “Sin or not, why would he do such a thing? It can’t be true!”
“I felt as you do, when I first heard this,” Frithil says. “But though he had no need to do so before the humble servant that I am, the Prince swore by his life that this was the truth. Do you believe Ansil of Vulth would have lied about his father’s death?”
In response, both Stellia and Nevynne can only shake their heads.
“From one moment to the next, then,” Frithil continues, “the Emperor was gone, the beloved father lost to his son. Ansil remained frozen in place, stricken with horror and grief. Only when he again heard the hunters’ horns approaching did he remember the oath he had sworn, and rode away. For days he rode, and wept, and felt no desire to take food or water. Only exhaustion stopped him, in the pine forests somewhere north of the river Marlaig that was of old the border between Hestia and Taronnis, and there he collapsed under a tree. He wished only to die, so savage was his grief. Two days and two nights he slept as one dead, but when he awoke again, weak with hunger and thirst, he swore that he would not rest, much less die, before he learned why his father had bound him to such a terrible duty.
“And so the Prince rode on, and met up with Garroth, who had made well-laid plans for his exile in accordance with the Emperor’s wishes. There was silver and gold to sustain them, hidden in places scattered throughout the Realms, such as the cave where you met them a short while ago. But knowledge of Thedric’s reasons for bringing about his own death and imposing exile on his son, that Garroth did not possess. On the contrary, the news of his lord’s passing shook him deeply, for he had not expected it. He had only been instructed with a plan for flight, flight far to the West, into the Wooded Lands beyond the borders of Baramond.”
“That is a wild and uncharted region, filled with nothing but vast forests,” Nevynne says. “Why go there? There are no cities there, nor any civilized places. Few travelers venture into them, and fewer still return.”
“Nevertheless, it was the Emperor’s wish that the young Prince make a new fate for himself there, leaving his previous life behind.” Frithil pauses meaningfully. “And, most crucially, passing out of the Guardian’s long reach forever.”
NEXT: A Prince’s Exile