Late in life, Gortah van Murkar frequently reflected that the beginning of obsession was often triggered by the most innocuous of things.
On his fourteenth birthday, his grandmother Queen Anika came to his daychamber in the castle at Zwaarstad before dawn.
The sixty-year-old had a glint in her eye, and she carried an odd bundle of clothing. Gortah was already out of bed, sitting on the stone sill staring out of the window towards the south.
She handed him a cloak. He sniffed it warily. It reeked of the stables.
She gestured to him to put it on, and he threw the cloak around his shoulders. It dwarfed him, and the hood more than covered his face.
Anika straightened its fold and nodded at Gortah approvingly. She threw another cloak around her shoulders and draped a silk veil over her face.
“No one will take you for a prince today.”
Gortah followed his grandmother along the corridors of the castle. They didn’t encounter a single servant until they came out into the courtyard and found Anika’s trusted guardsman holding Gortah’s lithe, grey mare and Anika’s strapping chestnut.
The pair rode across the drawbridge and set off through the dense forest. Ravens flew out of the trees, cawing as they wheeled away into the dull, wintry sky.
Anika took them down a little-known path that skirted past the village. The forest quickly closed in around them, and Gortah found himself in almost total darkness.
His surefooted young mare picked her way carefully along the sodden path.
Gortah pulled his cloak around him and shivered. Raindrops dripped off the trees.
As they pushed into the forest, the horses caught branches in passing. Gortah was soon soaked up to his waist from the damp undergrowth and low twigs swishing against his legs.
“Where are you taking me?” he grumbled.
Anika pointed eastwards. A wisp of smoke rose out of the trees about a mile further on.
They came out into a small clearing. A tiny hovel, built from stone with a grassy roof, squatted in the middle.
She rode over to it, leant over in her saddle and banged on the door with the handle of her whip.
She gestured for Gortah to dismount, and he slid from his horse and handed her the reins.
As he looked up at her and she caught his gaze, his chubby face reddened. He wanted to ask what was inside but, as they often did during his youth, words failed him.
Gortah pushed the squeaky door open and stepped into the smoky gloom. A young woman sat at the back of the hovel at a rough, wooden table.
She wore a voluminous, black, silky cloak. This single garment was wrapped around her head and body.
Only her beautiful face and delicate hands were visible. The rest of her was simply shrouded in the thin material.
As Gortah shuffled forward, the woman smiled and beckoned to him. He glanced over his shoulder. The door remained ajar, and he could hear the horses stamping their hooves and jingling their bits. The floor was little more than rough earth. The fire was just a pile of smouldering sticks, just a hole in the roof serving as a chimney.
Gortah crossed the room and stood over the woman. She smiled again and swept her left hand across the table. He pulled up a chair and sat down.
She was stunningly beautiful. She was easily the most alluring woman Gortah had ever seen, and he found himself drowning in the black pools of her eyes. Her olive skin was rich and luscious. He tried not to think about how silky smooth it would feel to his touch or how lovely she would smell after a long soak in a bath of lavender water. A curl of black hair stuck out from her cloak. When she saw him staring, she tucked it back in and pulled her cloak tighter around her face.
Gortah’s thoughts were full of princesses for months after any foreign royal visit to Zwaarstad. He’d spent almost a year trying to rid his thoughts of his eldest brother’s fiancée, Giulia.
After Marten’s death, Giulia had been betrothed to Gortah’s second brother, Arjan. Arjan had always been Gortah’s protector, and it was perhaps his passing, when Gortah was twelve, which affected him the most.
After Arjan’s death, Giulia’s father had taken her home to Logor, muttering about the threat of invasion being too high. A few months after her departure, Gortah had heard that she’d been betrothed to the youngest son of the king of Reliatra.
He’d been trying unsuccessfully to forget her ever since.
The young woman rested her slender hands, palm upwards, on the table. Gortah placed his sweaty hands in her cool palms. She closed her eyes and squeezed his hands. He stared unashamedly into her beautiful visage, hoping to commit as much of her beauty to memory as possible. She mumbled in a foreign tongue, rocking backwards and forwards. Finally, she opened her eyes and pulled away.
The image of a pale-blue book, four inches thick and with a worn, crackly spine, formed between them. Its edges were gold, clamped onto the cover, protecting it from damage. Gortah longed to reach out and stroke it, to gingerly open its cover and read what lay within.
“The Annals of the South. This book will rule your life. Your destiny is contained in its pages. You will search for it for decades. Despair will envelop you many times before you hold a copy in your hands,” the woman told him.
The tome rippled as Gortah’s hand passed right through it.
“You will be king before the year’s end,” she added.
A lump formed in his throat at her words. Four brothers dead in battle. There would be only one brother, Diederik, left between Gortah and the throne when their ailing father died. Day and night, he willed the Gods to keep Diederik safe. Now, even the consolation of prayer had been ripped from him.
He stumbled to his feet and backed away from the young woman, shaking his head. Blundering through the narrow doorway, he backed out into the clearing.
His grandmother was waiting, holding the reins of his horse. In silence, he mounted and rode away. When he glanced over his shoulder at the clearing, the hovel had already disappeared into the thin air.
She urged her chestnut on, trotting through the trees after him. She caught up as they passed back round by the village, forcing her horse alongside his mare and grabbing the bridle to stop them in their tracks.
“What did she tell you?”
Gortah couldn’t bear to break it to his grandmother that a fifth grandson would die. He’d seen her bereft at too many gravesides already, for his four oldest brothers and his mother.
A chill fell over him as he wondered how long before the next death would come. He tried and failed to imagine standing in front of the court, wearing a crown, with everyone staring at him, waiting for him to rule the Murkan people. It seemed impossible to Gortah that he would be able to do so.
“Where does she come from, Granny?”
A smile spread across Anika’s face as she guessed the nature of the fourteen-year-old’s interest in the exotic young woman.
“There’s no point thinking of her, my boy. If your father lives, he will betroth you as he sees fit. If not, your brother will be king, and he will decide which alliance best serves Murkar. Logor, I’d say, is most likely.”
Gortah stared miserably at his reins.
“If you are king, you’ll have even less choice,” she added.
They clattered over the wooden bridge. The portcullis rumbled upwards, and Gortah pulled up in the courtyard and flung himself off his mount. He helped his grandmother dismount and watched the stableboy lead both horses away.
Gortah ran straight to the library as soon as he was alone. It was a little-used room next to his mother’s daychamber. She had died the year before, worn out from weeping at the loss of four of her six sons before she was fifty. He was pushing at the door when his brother Diederik came round the corner.
Diederik grinned, pushing his floppy, brown hair out of his face. He was short and stocky, with very square shoulders. When he saw Gortah pushing at the library door a look of bemusement spread across the sixteen-year-old’s placid face.
“Odd way to spend your birthday, little imp. We’ll do something more exciting next year.”
Gortah felt his heart break. He longed to warn his brother to be careful, but it was impossible to find the words.
“I don’t think you should go in there. Father doesn’t like it,” Diederik said.
He watched Diederik walk away, nonchalantly leaning against the wall and chewing his thumbnail as he did so. Diederik turned and winked at Gortah as he turned the corner and disappeared from sight.
Gortah kicked open the swollen wooden door and peered around the room. The bookcases were crammed full. A cloud of dust rose and filled his lungs as he stumbled across the room. Tugging book after book from the shelves, he tossed them onto the carpet after he’d examined their spines.
Soon a pile of books lay at his feet. He stared at them in bitterness. They were splayed open, their handwritten pages torn and crumpled. He kicked them viciously, sending five volumes flying.
He rooted through the rest of the pile, checking that he hadn’t missed the Annals of the South the first time around. His eyes alighted on a pale-blue volume exactly like the one the young soothsayer had showed him.
He grabbed it, pulling it open and scrabbling for the title page. It was entitled Household Hints for Wives and Mothers. The book was inscribed with a sweet dedication from his grandmother to his mother, in the year she’d come to Murkar from Logor and married his father, about the happy times that lay ahead.
Gortah up on the woven carpet and sobbed. His tears fell down onto its woollen strands. Sitting up, he stroked the carpet thoughtfully. He wiped the tears away from his pale cheeks.
Gortah gazed at the pattern of the carpet. It was a map! He’d never noticed that before. His mother had spent many happy hours in the library, but he had only occasionally visited her there. The dust of ages had long obscured the details on the carpet; but, now that he’d seen it, he couldn’t believe that he hadn’t realised all along.
The map showed the familiar outline of Murkar. Over the Silent Sea lay the enemy, Eira. And north of there, across the Great Land Bridge, was Aspatria. To the east of Murkar was Reliatra, safe in its cocoon of mountains. South of Reliatra lay Logor, a loose confederation of small kingdoms. The only other country Gortah knew anything about was Albina, famed for invading its neighbours and snatching people to make into slaves.
What was south of Logor? He scuffed the carpet with his foot. He could just make out some letters, and a yellow territory quite different to the green and brown of the countries in the known world. There were no mountains or rivers, no hills or valleys. Just a flat expanse of yellow.
Gortah knelt and stroked the letters.
“So that is where my destiny lies,” he murmured.
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