In a far country, the King lay dying.
News had spread throughout the region. For a long time he had grown steadily weaker. Even the peasants in the fields and shopkeepers in the town below Castle Hill knew that the end was near.
As the King lingered on the edge of death, the courtiers, servants, nieces and nephews who normally surrounded him were all shut out by Croayl, the priest. Croayl and the King had spent their lives together, yet no two men were more different. The King was a man of passions, fiercely held and freely stated. Croayl was all inward. Throughout his lifetime, the King’s court had been open; now at the end of his life, Croayl closed off access to him. It was an ill omen.
We came down out of the hills in the afternoon. The promise of rain had not been fulfilled and a west wind was driving the clouds away before it. Boiling over our heads, they changed from gray to white as the sunlight increased. The hills around us were covered with low, brown grasses. Higher up, hidden by the convolutions of the foothills, snow had begun falling on the steeper slopes, sifting down among the pines, gentle, quiet, and deadly.
I gave thanks to be out of it. The passes we had crossed would be closed for days, and that too was a comfort, for we had been pursued.
It was often that way in the service of the Prince of Exile.
We were weary of riding, all but the Prince, as we made our way downslope in a silent file. There were seven of us in all. People are always joining the Prince’s retinue, following a while for reasons of their own, then wandering off to find their own destiny. But it seemed to me that in the last few years, more had come than had left, and I was uncomfortable traveling with so many.
Now we were making our way down out of the mountains toward the warmth of the valley and, hopefully, toward the comforts of an inn I knew. I could have asked the Prince if this was indeed Gleian Ellerick, but he has a disconcerting way of turning even a simple question into an exercise in metaphysics. It did not matter to me what its ontological status was, as long as my bed was warm.
The Prince was willing to let me remain incurious as long as I did not ask questions that he could misconstrue as philosophical. It was one of the reasons I still followed him after all these years.
How many years? Sorry, that’s one of those questions. You’ll understand what I mean as we move along. more tomorrow