THE COURT OF AERONBED
“Have you seen Lord Temorwig this morning?” the King of Aeronbed asked of his chamberlain, and not for the first time that day.
“No, I have not, Your Majesty,” the ever-patient retainer replied.
“You’re sure about that, Aedelbur?” Albiorix persisted.
“Let me assure you, Majesty, I have not seen him. However, that doesn’t mean his lordship is not about. It’s still early and many have not yet returned from their sport. I can, of course, have someone summon him. That is, if you deem the matter pressing.”
“Please do so, and send him in as soon as he arrives.”
Aedelbur nodded and turned to go. The elderly lion hobbled out, limping painfully.
The king sat back on his ornate wooden chair and watched the old retainer tottering away. “Poor fellow,” the King sighed. “He’s not long for it.”
King Albiorix was enjoying a hearty late breakfast. The lion was dining alone in his private chambers on the topmost floor of a rather austere but substantial and well-fortified castle. The stronghold had been completed many years ago by His Majesty’s predecessors, using a combination of massive logs and roughly hewn stone blocks.
At one point in its venerable life the castle had been large enough to hold all the inhabitants of Manaris, Aeronbed’s capital. Then it had stood alone, high on a promontory, overlooking the great sea beyond. However, the kingdom’s continued growth and prosperity over several generations had meant that the huge castle was no longer able to hold the city’s burgeoning population. The residents of Manaris, their sense of security and ambition increasing, began to spill out from the castle’s confines into the surrounding countryside. Neighboring trees were cut down, creating new farmland; existing farms became residential areas; modest homes grew larger and grander; crude stalls and shacks were transformed into rows of shops.
Ultimately a crowded, busy harbor town took shape, although in a most haphazard manner, defying any attempt at planning. The castle’s sturdy walls were extended in an attempt to encompass the farthest reaches of the town, which now stretched down to the very edge of the sea, in order to ensure that every inhabitant remained safe from outside attack. Only the harbor gates and docks remained open to the possible dangers lurking in the mysterious waters beyond the horizon.
High, rounded turrets stood at the four corners of the castle. Each was placed to provide an unrestricted view of the adjacent ocean, for if any villains were to attack the capital, they would surely not come by land. Indeed, the capital of Aeronbed was protected from an assault by land, on one side by its splendid natural setting of sheer cliffs and rocky outcroppings and on the other by its impressive walls and fortifications. This excellent defensive position was due to Albiorix’s forebears having chosen the site exceedingly well.
As a consequence, the eyes of the capital’s defenders were always directed outward, to the sea, keeping watch for marauding pirates and enemy ships. Despite (or perhaps because of) all this protection, neither pirate nor pillager had ever dared to trouble Manaris, at least in living memory. The inhabitants went about their daily lives untroubled and confident about what the future held in store for them.
Even in this time of war, the King’s thoughts were not of strategic maneuvers or high (or even low) politics. They were taken up with the sheer pleasure he experienced when looking out upon the magnificent view. The lion purred with delight, as he always did when he looked out at the vista. The calm azure sea and the cloudless aquamarine sky met in a thin line far, far away — so far that no one had ever travelled to that distant uncharted point.
When Albiorix’s imagination took hold on these occasions, his mind wandered to those unfamiliar lands he was certain lay just beyond his sight. What kinds of creatures were to be found there? What discoveries, what riches, what surprises lay in store for the daring explorer? But although the King had often thought he might be the one to visit the unknown places beyond the ken of the inhabitants of Aeronbed, he knew his destiny lay on land, not on the water. And as the years had surreptitiously crept up on the old lion, Albiorix had been forced to accept the truth of his situation: he no longer had the stamina for the travel he imagined. He’d never find out the answers to those questions, at least, not in this lifetime.
With a deep sigh, the King left his chair and strolled over to the balcony, his eyes fixed on the ever-pleasing scene. The early morning sun warmed his back and the fragrant breezes wafting up from below seemed to Albiorix an omen of a good year to come. It was still early in the spring, to his mind far too soon for such benevolence from the spirits.
At this time of day the town below matched the sea’s tranquility. Albiorix leaned over the parapet to peer at the narrow, winding streets and haphazard laneways. Although few of Manaris’s inhabitants were about, the absence of activity did not trouble the king. It was not market day and most of the young and able had left for the front lines. However, the fighting season would begin only when winter had finally given way to spring.
Albiorix, not sparing his subjects or the war a second thought, retreated into the room and turned his comfortable chair to face the seascape. He sat there pondering recent events while he waited for Temorwig’s arrival. Despite the cool shade of the castle walls, the warmth of the day overcame him, and it wasn’t long before the lion had fallen asleep.
He awoke with a start. Aedelbur had entered and was already announcing Temorwig.
Albiorix jumped out of the chair and enthusiastically embraced the other lion. Dispensing with formalities, he asked, “My dear friend, how are you keeping? What news do you bring us?”
“Your Grace, I am keeping well. Well enough, that is, for an old soldier like me. The aging joints, you know — they throb mightily in the winter season.”
“Say no more, Temorwig. You are speaking to the oldest one around here. No one knows aches and pains more than my old bones.”
“Aye, sire. Our fighting days are far behind us now. We happily let others go to battle in our stead.”
“True enough. Still, someone must provide wise counsel and give the orders of the day. That’s why the young ones are content to keep us around and leave us in peace.”
They both laughed, for they knew that picture was far from the truth. The King may have slowed down with age, but his wisdom and instincts had suffered little. His authority was as great as when he was young and spry.
“And young Temorwig?” Albiorix asked. He pulled up a second chair alongside and gestured to his friend to sit. “How is the cub?”
“No longer a cub, sire, that’s for sure,” Temorwig replied as he sat down. “I miss him dearly, although that’s neither here nor there. As to how he is, I cannot say. News of our troops’ movements in the south reaches Manaris slowly. As for the latest skirmishes — nothing at all.”
“Wasn’t he on his way to the southern lands when those accursed wolves showed up last year?”
“Indeed he was. He was ordered to change course and lead some of our local troops against those fiends. Temorwig saw a few battles, but — the spirits be praised — he came out unscathed. Since the close of autumn, it’s been quieter than a dead hyena. Temorwig was stationed in the mountains around Heimborn over most of the winter, but his company has already moved on south. I expect he’ll see action as soon as the fighting picks up again.”
“Well, that’s all to the good. He should have an easier time down there. Tell me, how did his first command go? Those wolves are tough customers — it couldn’t have been easy.”
“You know how these young ones are, Majesty. Temorwig’s told me very little about the fighting. Doubtless he doesn’t wish to worry me. For my part, I certainly don’t wish to pester him. He’s grown up now, far too old for my counsel.”
“One is never too old to receive — and accept — good advice.”
“True enough, my lord. But our offspring are quick to close their ears to direction from their elders.”
“Ha ha!” laughed Albiorix. “Wasn’t it the same with us when we were young?” The two lions had been comrades for many years, and the memories of the mistakes of that era still resonated.
“So young Temorwig is off to join up with our southern allies,” Albiorix continued.
“Yes, sire. Astakume and company needed some toughening up. Odd allies if you ask me. Hardly trustworthy. I’ve seen more backbone in a dead fish.”
“We can’t get to choose all our friends. Some of these alliances have long antecedents. Surely you’ve not forgotten that it was a falling out between the donkeys and the antelopes that precipitated the war between Vigmar and Aeronbed.”
“Ancient history, Albiorix.” Temorwig sniffed. “I’ve no mind for it.”
“Well, get a mind for it, old friend. We may well need the antelope to legitimize our claim over Vigmar — that is, once this wretched war is finally over.”
Temorwig growled. “I suppose the antelopes are better than some of the villainous rogues we come across in life.”
“There’s a long list.” Albiorix sighed. “And by my reckoning, every day I come across another I’d happily add to that dung heap.”
“Couldn’t agree more. Just imagine sharing power with the donkeys!” They both laughed at such an absurd thought.
“You pass on my regards to your son the next time you’re in contact with him,” the King said, changing the subject. “He’ll do you proud, I know it.”
“Thank you, Majesty. I will.”
“I hold you both close to my heart. I remember him as a young ’un, running and tumbling about underfoot. Full of good spirits he was.”
“And still is, sire. He’ll make great sport of the campaign, whatever comes about. And, if I may ask, what of your son?”
“You may, Temorwig, and of my daughter as well. Both are in excellent health. As we speak, they are on their way to take up their positions on the front lines. I saw them recently. It was a brief visit, too brief for my liking. Naturally they were in a hurry to return to their commands. What can I say? Their home is not with me anymore but with their troops. That’s where their hearts and minds lie now. So be it. It’s the way of life.”
He had spoken with more than a trace of regret. Now Albiorix’s tone changed abruptly as he turned to yet another subject. “What news do you hear about Heimborn, as those creatures like to call the place?”
“The bears’ homeland?” the other lion replied, his eyes widening in surprise. “Why, nothing much. Although I must confess I don’t follow developments there on a regular basis.”
“Really?” Albiorix countered. “What I’m picking up is completely different. There’s even talk of rebellion. Well, at least some sort of trouble.”
“I doubt that. Things have been peaceful in Heimborn for as far back as I can remember. I understand the panthers keep a tight enough rein on the situation. Hah! So tight we lions don’t even have to think about the bears anymore. Haven’t I always said, Albiorix, those creatures are a spent force and a dissolute species. They’ve neither the will nor the means to stand up to the worst of our troops. It’s been like that for years.”
“Still, if the bears ever sought an opportunity to test us, it’s right now, when we’re preoccupied with Vigmar. Aeronbed can ill afford an internal struggle at the same time as open combat with the enemy.”
“True enough, sire. Honestly, I don’t understand this latest attack. What’s given Don Grimezel the hope he might gain a foothold now, when every previous effort on his part produced nothing but wrack and ruin? All those years of war and so little to show for it — the whole thing beats me.”
“Don Grimezel, that fool! He gets to call himself an emperor just because he rules two kingdoms,” the King growled with contempt. He leapt out of his chair and began to stalk back and forth. “Hah! Aeronbed is larger — and wealthier — than the two of them put together. Perhaps I should divide our dear country in half and create a brand new title. That’d teach him!”
“No one’s fooled by his pretensions. Well, at least no one in Aeronbed.”
“I remember Dona Morana’s grandfather,” Albiorix carried on. “The old donkey wasn’t so bad for a hoofed creature. A credit to his species, even. At least he showed a bit of gumption. And he certainly had brains. A tough old bird when it came down to negotiations, but at least he and I could carry on a civil conversation ... now and then. As for Don Grimezel, hah! That donkey is just an ass! And don’t get me started on the Empress.” Albiorix laughed out loud.
“You heard about Grimezel’s son, no doubt,” Temorwig interjected, ignoring the joke.
“I have indeed. I’m very well informed on these matters, you know,” the King replied as he sat down again. “It’s a shame. Despite everything, I feel for Grimezel. No offspring — pup, cub or foal — should die before his parent. But such is war, and the donkey did bring it upon himself. Now that the Empire has no true heir, the cat will be among the pigeons, so to speak.”
Temorwig said nothing, having no head for such matters.
“I digress,” Albiorix continued. “We were speaking of the bears.”
“Trust me, Your Majesty. As I said earlier, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“I do trust you. But experience tells me I’d prefer proof.”
“I can have a closer look, if you wish. I’m sure you know Rithild and I are traveling toward that region later today. I’ll push him on the matter. You’ll have his reply faster than a cat can pounce on her prey.”
“Excellent. I appreciate your personal attention to this matter. You are my oldest and dearest friend, and I rely on you for unvarnished counsel — both that which I want to hear and that which I don’t. Although it may be nothing at all, I need to know what’s going on. I’ve not forgotten that prophecy.”
“Bah! Give it no heed, Majesty. That story is nothing more than an old cat’s tale, or, worse yet, an old bear’s mad ravings.”
“Still — ”
“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: don’t give it any more thought. In my view, the story lives only through your thinking about it.”
“And yet, and yet ... I tell you, Temorwig, my whiskers are all on edge.”
At that very moment, old Aedelbur knocked on the door. The chamberlain limped slowly into the room.
“Your Maj— ” Aedelbur began, in a vain attempt to indicate the arrival of a visitor.
An attractive young lioness, pale blond in color, rushed into the room, brushing him aside. “Father!” the lioness cried out. She ignored the aged retainer and hurried forward to embrace the King.
“Olwen! Daughter! My treasure and delight!” Albiorix responded. “I thought you’d left for the north.”
They hugged each other while the chamberlain shuffled off, muttering about the terrible manners of the young.
“Perhaps my mind is failing me,” Albiorix continued. “Did I not bid you farewell mere days ago? If so, what brings you back so soon, and unannounced? Has anything gone wrong? Does Vigmar’s advance already threaten us, so early in the season?”
The lioness, out of breath from her hurried return, struggled to regain her poise.
“I know my return comes as a great surprise, Father,” Olwen said at last. “And no, we’ve not caught sight of the enemy’s forces. The point is, I hardly know where to begin. Please, do sit down. This strange tale may take a while to tell.”