Chapter 2
The Drunkard Prince

Near the East Gate of Stormtree, Gladius

"Even from the beginning, I could see that I had less control over my destiny than I would have liked. The harder I tried to fight it, the worse it became. I soon learned to take life as it came. It was not always the best way to handle situations, but it got me through them."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Once Mark had crossed the bridge to the city across the river, he came face to face with an unpleasant looking guard peering out a window in the gatehouse.
"'Old they, straynjah," the guard said in a particularly disinterested voice. "Wot's ye bizness 'eyah in Stohmtree?"
Mark had been taught Everardian, the tongue of Gladius, by his uncle, but he had practiced it little since the days of his youth and the guard's speech seemed quite a bit different from what his uncle had taught him. He realized that the old man who led him here had spoken in the old common tongue of Ban, so this was the first time he would actually be putting Everardian to use.
"I'm a traveler passing through," Mark said, carefully trying to rein in his Byrnan accent. "I intend to buy provisions and perhaps find lodgings for the night."
"A trav'lah, is ye? Don't see many a' thim 'round 'eyah. Any uvvah bizness Oi shudd noo 'bowt?"
"No other business," Mark said. "Just passing through."
"Kin ye pay th' toll then?" the guard asked. "It be one silvah creyon."
Mark reached into his coin purse and handed the guard a silver coin. Holding it up, the guard scowled at the unfamiliar design.
"This ain't Gladyan money, it ain't!"
"It's all I have," Mark replied. "As I said, I'm a traveler passing through."
The guard scowled again and spent a few moments examining the coin. He held it in is hand as if he were weighing it, apparently doubting its legitimacy. He then brought the coin to his mouth and bit into it. Being silver and not gold, the coin did not yield to the guard's teeth. He stared at the coin some more and then turned back to Mark.
"I'll be fifteen o' vees then," he said.
"You can't be serious!" Mark exclaimed.
"Ye want in o' not!?" the guard barked. His eyes narrowed. "Mebbe Oi shudd arrest ye fer bein' suspicious." To accentuate the threat, two more guards came into view. "It ain't normal fer for'ners ta shew ap 'round 'eyah, it ain't."
Mark did not want any trouble, so he paid what was demanded of him. His coin pouch was lightened considerably. He could not afford any more tolls that expensive. He only hoped other parts of the kingdom would be a little more hospitable.
From outward appearances, Stormtree did not seem to be a very affluent town. A few buildings were made of stone, but the majority was constructed of weather-beaten wood, the least of which were the homes of peasant families, tiny huts with thatched roofs. Only the main roads were paved with worn cobblestone, the rest nothing more than simple dirt footpaths.
As for the people themselves, Gladians did not seem to be accustomed to the presence of outsiders and foreigners could not expect a warm welcome. The people out in the streets could tell he was not one of them and kept their distance accordingly.
At first, Mark thought the guard at gatehouse might have been an exception, but from most of the shushed whispers he could pick up, it appeared that the current dialect had changed quite a bit from what his uncle knew. Mark found that with each failed attempt to communicate, his Byrnan accent came out stronger, which only complicated matters further.
"Excuse me," he asked an unwitting passerby, "where can I buy provisions?"
All he got was a strange look in reply. As the passerby hastily distanced himself from Mark, a voice rose from the distance.
"Who are you!?" the voice shouted.
Mark turned to see a tall, burly man lumbering towards him. Though the countryside had seemed to be rather peaceful, the man was geared for battle. He wore a full suit of heavy steel plate, his head the only part of him left uncovered. A short double-headed battleaxe and a flanged mace hung from his belt. He also carried a massive sword strapped to his back, a truly remarkable piece nearly as long as he was tall and about a span and a half wide. Just carrying it around, much less being able to wield it, indicated that he was a man of considerable strength.
As the man drew closer, the overwhelming stench of sour liquor fouled the air and Mark noticed the half-empty bottle clutched in his hand.
"You speak Everardian," the man mumbled, his voice betraying only the faintest signs of his inebriety, "but it sounds a bit off..." Frowning, he stared at Mark in curiosity before abruptly raising his voice. "Who are you!?"
Attributing the man's penchant for shouting as the fault of strong drink, Mark knew better than to take offense at his rudeness. He had to deal with him carefully and hope that the drunkard would lose interest and go away.
"I am Mark, son of Luther," he replied in a steady voice. "And who might you be, good sir?"
The man's eyes widened and he recoiled as if stricken, a reaction that surprised Mark to no small degree.
"No, it can't be..." he muttered to himself. Volatile as he was, he quickly became angry and roared, "Liar! The son of Luther is dead!"
Despite his previous experience with the old man, Mark did not expect to come across someone who seemed to know about him and his father. Given the influential position his family held in the kingdom, perhaps it was only natural for people to recognize his father's name, but after all the time that had passed, he did not expect to find such people so easily. R It might have been more profitable to first find out what the drunkard knew about his father, but Mark felt a twinge of anger and pride creep over him. He was not one to suffer being called a liar.
"Why would I lie?" Mark argued. "I am the son of Luther the Guardian. Though I was raised in the East, I was born in this land."
The drunkard paused, looking at him intently. "Well, you do resemble him..." he said, stroking his moustache thoughtfully. "But what proof do you have?"
Although he was within his rights to ask why he should prove his identity to this person, Mark obliged him anyway. Drawing a jeweled dagger from his boot, he showed it to the man.
"This dagger belonged to Eolande," Mark said, "daughter of Aleron, fourth in the bloodline of the Guardians."
The man looked closely at the dagger and then at Mark again. His skepticism did not seem to go away.
"It does resemble the Dagger of Eolande, but how do I know it's the real thing?"
Mark closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the dagger. The sky blue gems glowed as sparks of electricity arced from one to the other.
The man frowned and crossed his arms. "A fancy trick, but I still don't know if I believe you."
Mark sighed at the drunkard's intransigence. "How can I possibly prove my identity to you? And why should I? Who are you to demand proof of who I am?"
"Who am I!?" the man exclaimed in a mix of astonishment and offense. "Who am I!? Isn't plain to see that I am Edward, son of Edgar, Crown Prince and rightful heir to the throne of the Mountain King!?"
The tables had turned and it was now Mark's turn to be skeptical. Such an ill-mannered, ill-tempered man was hardly the picture of royalty he held in his mind. Needless to say, he was far from convinced.
"If you are truly the Crown Prince," Mark asked, "what are you doing here, alone without guard or retainer, guised like a common mercenary wandering drunk in the streets in broad daylight?"
"Don't you know anything!?" Edward growled in annoyance. "It's been twenty years since the kingdom fell. That dog Randwulf killed my father and usurped the throne."
Mark had long suspected that some evil fate befell his native country, but no news ever crossed the border. Now he finally had a chance to get some of the answers he sought.
"What happened?" Mark asked. "I was only a child when I was taken from this land. I know nothing of what happened here."
Edward sighed. Though he seemed pained by the memories, he also appeared to be compelled to share his story.
"Randwulf came with horde of barbarians from the West. We saw them coming and my father and his vassals were prepared for the invaders. The Guardian and the Defender alone could best such a rabble. That's what we thought then...
"Were it mere men we fought against, victory would've been ours, but the dog Randwulf, he made a pact with a mighty warlock. This warlock created a whole host of abominations that overran the King's men, twisted beasts that haven't seen the light of day since the Great War.
"I found my father on Death's door, mortally wounded from fighting one of those hellspawn. He bid me flee and one day retake Gladius. And I've fought against that accursed usurper ever since." As he spoke through gritted teeth, his tone grew increasingly bitter. "They could've killed me a long time ago. They keep me alive just to mock me. But they'll pay dearly for what they've done... one day..."
"My father..."
Mark hesitated. He did not want to confirm his fears, but if he allowed fear to hold him back, his return to Gladius would be meaningless. He had to ask.
"What happened to my father?"
"He died, no doubt..." Edward replied with a shrug. "He wouldn't have stopped fighting while there was still breath in him... I'm certain of that."
Mark's heart sank. All along, there was little doubt that his father had died. If not, why had he not returned for his son? Nevertheless, against all odds, Mark had hoped his father was still alive. But instead of dwelling on his sadness, a new determination sparked within him. He looked at Edward squarely in the eyes.
"I must know more," he said. "About my father, about what happened here."
Edward raised an eyebrow. "I'm not quite ready to believe you just yet, but there's someone you should meet. He'll set things straight." The supposed Prince started to walk off, motioning for Mark to follow. "This way."
Mark followed Edward as he led him through the winding alleyways of the city. He stopped at the back of a large stone building with a wooden balcony overlooking the alley. Hanging from the balcony was a battered sheet of metal. Picking up a hammer leaning on the wall, Edward banged on the metal three times. The head of a servant boy poked out through the rails of the balcony. Seeing Edward, he hastily withdrew.
Before Mark could ask what was happening, a section of the wall slid back. Edward ducked in and motioned for Mark to follow. As soon as they had cleared the entrance, the opening closed. The boy stood in front of Edward, holding a flickering candle. He guided them up a rickety stairwell and opened the door at the end. They found themselves in a handsomely furnished office. The servant boy bowed and silently left the room.
Standing before them was an older man wearing a dark green frock coat. Much like Edward, he was tall and muscular, but there did not seem to be any blood relation between them. Edward gestured to the man.
"Meet Baron Siegfried Martel," he said, "the mayor of Stormtree."
"Please do not call me by that title, my Prince," the man pleaded with a sigh. Looking at Mark curiously, he asked, "Who is this?"
"He claims to be the son of Luther," Edward replied, making no effort to hide his doubt. "He wants to know about what's happened here."
Siegfried took a moment to assess Mark before saying, "I had heard that Lord Luther took his son to Lord Tiberius in Byrn. You look about the right age. He apparently gave the boy the Dagger of Eolande to prove his legitimacy. Do you have it?"
Mark showed Siegfried the dagger. He then unhooked his sword from his belt.
Holding it up, he said, "And this is the sword that was forged for my uncle before he left for Byrn."
Siegfried looked closely at the two. Without being told, Mark created a small reaction from both and sparks surged throughout the blades. Seeing this, Siegfried nodded in approval.
"Very convincing," he said, "but bonding with False Gems can be done by anyone in the bloodline. It takes a direct descendant of the Eight Stars to control the real thing. Despite your age at the time, surely Lord Luther entrusted his heir with a signet ring as well."
"Yes, he did," Mark replied, pulling out an iron ring on a chain from under his shirt.
Siegfried took the liberty of stepping forward to inspect it more closely.
"Indeed it is the crest of House Aran," he said, "and it shows some signs of its age, so I know it is not a recent copy at least, but even this is not definitive proof. After all, third degree relations can wear the family signet. From all that you have shown me, I have no doubt that you belong to House Aran, but I am not yet certain you are the son of Lord Luther. I do not mean to insult you, but the stakes are too high to risk embracing a charlatan."
In spite of what Siegfried said, Mark did feel insulted by such persistent disbelief and could not see the reason for it.
"I never asked to be embraced by you, sir," Mark said with no faint indignation. "What is this fixation with whether I be true or false?"
"Only Lord Luther's true son and heir can succeed him as the next Guardian," Siegfried replied. "An Elemental Knight on our side would be a great boon to our cause."
His arms crossed, Edward tapped a gauntleted finger on his rerebrace in growing impatience. "That's why I say we should search for Luther's gear to see if it will accept him."
"An excellent idea, my Prince," Siegfried said. "If he truly is the son of Lord Luther, he will be a great asset to us."
"You seem to be under some misapprehension, sirs," Mark said. "I didn't come here to be an asset to you and your cause. I came here seeking answers. I just want to know what happened back then."
Siegfried grinned, seemingly amused by Mark's persistence. "I will not deny you that, even if you are not the son of Lord Luther. Twenty years, ago, I was the Captain of the Guard under King Edgar and I worked closely with your father and Lord Julian the Defender minding the defense of the realm.
"We never anticipated the warlock and his monstrosities, but perhaps the gravest blow was treachery within our ranks. After all these years, I have come to realize that we may not have won even with our forces intact, but divided we fell easily. The leader of the traitors was a patrician cavalry lieutenant named Cadmus Martial, a man who now enjoys rank and prestige among Randwulf's followers.
"After the castle fell, the remainder of the King's men skirmished with the invaders at every opportunity they could get, but they were beaten back at every turn. They were driven all the way to the Crimson Forest and crushed utterly. The scattered survivors mostly ended up in this city.
"I bear the shame of being captured in the first battle, but that was not the end of it. To spite me, Randwulf raised me to the peerage and gave me the mayorship of this city. He knew I was one of the greatest threats to him and sought to turn my comrades against me. I thought I could use this arrogance to undo him, but everything went according to his scheme. My comrades count me among the traitors and I am spurned by all of them. Prince Edward alone continues to trust in me, but I have insisted that our meetings remain secret to save him from sharing my dishonor."
"What do you know about my father?" Mark asked. "And who is Randwulf?"
Thinking on the first question, Siegfried swelled with pride at the recollection of bygone glory. "Your father was the finest warrior in the whole kingdom," he said, "and his only peer was Lord Julian. The two of them ended a long feud between the houses of the Guardian and the Defender and brought great hope to the people when they went to the front lines." His tone sharply became more sullen as he continued, "I am certain that both are dead. Otherwise, they would have continued the fight..."
The old captain paused for a moment before answering the second question. Like Edward, the very thought of the usurper filled him with a preternatural bitterness. Unlike Edward, however, he could keep a level head and a steady voice when he spoke of his hated enemy.
"As for Randwulf, he is an Elemental Knight like your father and Lord Julian. He belongs to the house of the Conqueror and invaded Gladius with a barbarian horde from the West. He is cruel and vicious, but also very cunning. My case is but one of many examples where he has manipulated our people to turn us against each other and keep us from banding together against him.
"The only real attempt at a revolution was twelve years ago. It was crushed so ruthlessly that none dare to even speak a contrary word these days. The accursed Gladian Guard infests the towns and countryside and what they do not see, the warlock most certainly will. It is indeed a sad state of affairs..."
Mark was left speechless and Edward seemed to brim with anger as the old memories resurfaced to the words of Siegfried's story. Looking out a window facing the East, Siegfried resumed the conversation.
"Something is happening at the castle, but I do not know exactly what it is. I believe Randwulf is mounting some kind of campaign beyond our borders. If this is true, he and the bulk of his forces will be absent and his Captain of the Guard will be in control of the kingdom. Now is the best time for action."
He turned to Edward. "My Prince, we must determine if this man is truly the son of Lord Luther. If he is, we can use him to launch an attack on Darkwall. Once the Gladian Guard is uprooted, it is a matter of ambushing Randwulf on his return. At long last, the opportunity we have been waiting for has finally come. We may yet see the day when the blood of our brothers is avenged."
"I did not come here for a revolution," Mark said with fresh indignation. "I came here to uncover my past, to find what's left of my kin. I will not be used as your pawn."
"Who are you to question us?" Edward growled. "This is my land and if you are a Gladian born, you belong to me!"
"I belong to no man," Mark replied firmly.
"Hold your tempers, please," Siegfried interrupted. To Edward he said, "All authority in this land belongs to you, my Prince, but you do not have it yet. Sometimes you must humble yourself before you can rise."
To Mark he said, "You speak well. I have no right to lay any claim on you. I will not ask anything of you, but I can assure you that if you follow this path, you will find the answers you seek. The headman of Rowan is a friend to our cause as is the abbot of the monastery in Cruz. See what they can offer you."
Siegfried rang a bell on the mantle and a servant entered the room.
"Fetch provisions for His Highness," Siegfried ordered. "And bring the scribe."
The servant bowed and left immediately. After several minutes passed, a bookish old man Mark took to be the scribe bearing bags on either shoulder, one with rolls of parchment sticking out the top and another that presumable held the scribes ink and quills. The scribe bowed to Edward and to Siegfried before taking his seat at a small desk near Siegfried's own.
"Take a letter," Siegfried told the scribe. "I want two copies, one for Master Ridley and one for His Grace the Abbot. Write this: 'The man bearing this letter claims to be Mark, the son of Lord Luther the Guardian. I have confirmed that he is certainly a man of House Aran at the very least. He and His Highness Prince Edward are on a quest to recover the gear of the Guardians, which will definitively prove his identity. Though he has not yet pledged himself to our cause, I believe he will prove to be a powerful ally. Give him whatever aid you can and I will personally compensate you for any losses you incur. May we see a free Gladius in our lifetime. Long live the Mountain King. Your fellow servant, Siegfried Martel, Captain of His Majesty's Royal Guard.'"
While the scribe scrawled out the words on the first, and then the second copy, Mark could not help but feel uneasy. Even though Siegfried said he was asking nothing of Mark, he spoke like it was a foregone conclusion that the swordsman would join in the revolt against Randwulf. Still, the support of people of influence in the country would surely be a great boon and so long as no one asked him to take up arms against Randwulf, what harm was there in meeting these rebel leaders? Well, Mark was not so naive to think that he would not be counted among them should Randwulf's men move in to round the rebels up, but honestly it appeared the rebels were beneath Randwulf's concern, so the risk did not seem so great.
When the scribe had finished writing the letters, he folded them neatly wrote down the name of the intended recipient on the outer flap, and sealed them with wax. Siegfried then pressed down his signet on the wax before it could dry.
"This should make things go more smoothly with the headman and the Abbot," Siegfried said.
As Siegfried handed Mark the letters, the servant from before returned carrying a large and heavy-looking traveling pack. The old captain looked to Edward.
"I have gathered the usual load, my Prince. I hope it is enough."
Edward lifted the pack with one hand and hoisted onto his back with ease. Despite the considerable weight of his arms and armor, he did not seem the least bit encumbered by the added burden.
"Yeah, it'll do," the Prince replied casually.
"In that case, I wish you a safe journey, my Prince" Siegfried said. He then looked to Mark and smiled. "Perhaps the next time we meet, I will be speaking to Mark the Guardian."
Mark nodded somewhat warily and replied, "Thank you for all your help."
As he readjusted the pack to keep it from slipping off his pauldrons, Edward took a moment to look critically at Mark.
"We'll find out soon enough if he's really the son of Luther or not. As long as we find the gear, this trip won't be a total loss."
A part of him wanted to say something, but Mark held his tongue. Edward had raised Mark's ire with his incessant badgering, but he would not let it get the better of him. It would be much more difficult to get around in Gladius on his own. For the time being at least, he would have to cooperate with the Prince.
The two were guided out by the same boy from before and soon began to work their way out of the alleys. As they were following one of the side streets to the main road, they heard the strumming of a lute. A minstrel in a gaudy particolored cloak sat by a shabby building with a bowl sitting beside him. Compelled by his sense of charity, Mark tossed a couple copper coins into the bowl.
Before the coins landed in the bowl, the minstrel sprang to his feet and rushed at the two of them. Moving faster than either of them could react, he snatched the coin pouches off Mark and Edward's belts and ran off. The minstrel was a good sprinter and Mark could tell there was little hope of overtaking him by simply following behind. He split from Edward, who was already in hot pursuit and shouting curses. While the minstrel-thief was glancing behind him to check on his pursuers, he did not notice that Mark had cut around to meet him and was waiting with sword drawn.
The minstrel whirled around, only to find himself trapped in the narrow alley between his two pursuers. Drawing a knife from the folds of his cloak, he charged at Mark, who he obviously perceived to be the lesser threat. As he intercepted the minstrel's knife, Mark could tell that he was skilled with a blade, but he was being hasty and reckless and not fighting at his full potential. As a result, Mark easily parried his attacks and the struggle gave Edward enough time to catch up. The minstrel was still caught up in the fight with Mark when the Prince's large hand wrapped around his neck and lifted him into the air. The minstrel flailed and kicked wildly, but he could not break free of the viselike grip.
"Oi! Lemme gew! Lemme gew!" he screamed in a choked voice.
"Give back what you've stolen," Mark demanded.
"Owlroi', owlroi'!" the minstrel shrieked. "Oi'll giv i' beck!"
Content with the minstrel's surrender, Mark relaxed his fighting stance and lowered his sword.
"Let him go, Edward."
"It's just as easy to get our money back from a corpse," Edward replied with a cruel grin.
There was an audible click as Edward's grip tightened. He was wearing locking gauntlets and if he did not want to let the minstrel go, there was little anyone could do to make him. Nevertheless, Mark stood his ground.
"I said let him go!"
Edward ignored him. The minstrel's eyes were bulging and his face was a deep red. A little more time and he would pass out. A little more pressure and Edward would crush his windpipe. Mark had to do something. Thinking quickly, he gave Edward's hand a sharp cuff with the flat of his sword. Fortunately, he had guessed correctly and the back of Edward's gauntlets held the release catch. The Prince's hand snapped open and the minstrel fell roughly to the ground coughing and gasping for breath. Mark knelt beside him and the minstrel tossed the coin pouches at his feet.
As Mark picked up the coin pouches, Edward dropped his pack and drew the huge sword on his back, swinging at the minstrel. Dropping the pouches, Mark threw all his weight into parrying the powerful strike. Holding his sword by the hilt and blade to block the mighty blow, Mark was forced to his knees. Struggling against Edward's great strength, Mark slowly pushed back and rose back to his feet.
"You're too damn naive," Edward growled. "You'll get us both killed."
"Let it go," Mark said coolly.
The gem on his sword began to glow and sparks crackled along the blade. The threat was enough for Edward to relent. As the Prince backed down, Mark turned to the minstrel. Surprisingly enough, he had not taken the chance to flee. Mark sheathed his sword and extended a hand to help the minstrel to his feet.
"What's your name?" the swordsman asked.
The minstrel took Mark's hand and sprang to his feet. "Oi'm Jespah," he replied, "a bi' o' a feef an' a bi' o' a minstril."
"You're free to go, Jasper," Mark said, "but I advise you to give up the thief part."
"Thah'd gew agins' moi greyn, ye see," the minstrel said with a grin. "'Ey, 'ow 'bow' Oi joyn ye? Ye di' spah moi loife, an' owl. Mebbe Oi'll retahn th' feyvah sum deh."
Edward was clearly appalled at the idea. "You can't possibly consider..."
"You're free to do as you chose," Mark said. He rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. "But don't think you can trick me."
Jasper held up his hands. "'Ey, thay's 'onah amon' feeves, ye noo. Jes' kepp an oi on thah' bi' bligh'ah, wi' ye?"
Edward gave Mark a harsh look and grumbled, "You had better pray you are who you say you are. I'll take no small pleasure in killing you if you're nothing but an impostor."
Mark chose to ignore Edward's comment. He was no longer alone in his search for the truth, but he was not yet sure the new additions would make his journey any easier. It is said that there is strength in numbers. He hoped it was true.