The Ambassadors of World's End
As Itzak crested the brow of the hill, the edge of the world dropped away. The horizon galloped off into the distance: Beyond a sloping patchwork of ploughed fields and on, past the walled city of World's End, to the sea. Itzak pulled up hard on his reins and the black mare beneath him whinnied as he brought her skittering about. Standing in his stirrups, the boy drank up his first sight of the ocean and a wild laugh escaped his lips. Still a few years from manhood, Itzak's slim brown face grinned carelessly from beneath a mop of thick, black hair. His large hazel eyes sparkled as they soaked up the view and patted gently at the neck of his horse as she stamped and snorted. His shirt was cut from fine cloth, but covered in dust and bunched loosely about his skinny frame. Baggy breeches were tethered in the middle by a wide leather belt and tucked into calfskin boots. "There now Banya! Easy now girl!" He cooed softly to the horse and wiped a muddy stripe of sweat across his brow with a skinny forearm. Far below, between the stepped pattern of cultivated land, Itzak could make out small clusters of buildings in the distance. These specks grew in number as the road continued North to the port and the boy felt a surge of excitement in anticipation of the sights that awaited him when they finally reached the coast. When they finally reached the end of the World. Wheeling about, Itzak waved back to the rest of the company as the caravan crawled up the steep concertina of the alpine trail. None acknowledged him, except for Rufus of course, who had kicked his own steed into a canter the moment Itzak had raced ahead and was soon pulling up next to the boy with an iron-shod clatter of hooves, wearing a disgruntled frown. Somewhere in his late forties, Rufus was an old man as far as Itzak was concerned and the boy aimed a merry laugh at his guardsman, half to mock him and half an attempt to placate him, for the grizzled warrior looked distinctly bad-tempered after the hard ride. Rufus wore a thick leather jerkin underneath his riding cloak and Itzak could see the sweat running down his craggy face. The warrior continued to frown at his young charge from beneath the wide brim of his riding hat. He had a long nose which pointed sharply down over a greying beard and moustaches. His dark skin was lined, both with age and a martial history of thin, white scars. A light, wooden shield and oilskin packs were slung across the hindquarters of his mount and a long sheathed blade poked from beneath his cape. "Look!" Itzak flapped wildly toward the distant coastline and wide, blue sea. "The size of it! Have you ever seen such a thing Rufus? Surely it could swallow the land! What on earth stops it?" he exclaimed, not waiting for the old warrior to answer, but hooting madly and urging his mount on once more, breaking into song as Banya broke into a gallop. "Oh! - The pa-ale King did charge among them Charge among them! Cha-arge among them! THe pa-ale King did charge among them, faithful 'til the end!" Shaking his head resignedly as the boy thundered away and, rolling his eyes heavenward in a manner that was becoming something of a habit, Rufus allowed himself a quick appraisal of the view from the head of the pass. The sparkling ocean under the noonday sun was indeed 'bloody big' and Rufus squinted mistrustfully at the distant waters for a moment, before following on. After another hour of hard riding he caught up with Itzak; the rest of the party still miles behind them in the foothills. As the road levelled out, the wild lands had given way to fields of rich, turned earth trimmed with low, stone walls and flowering hedgerows. Itzak had drawn up before a large roadside inn which sat beside a wide bridge. The boy was gawping at a group of colourfully-dressed folk who were at rest on the riverbank. Before Rufus had a chance to open his mouth. let alone scold the lad for riding so far ahead, Itzak was already gabbling enthusiastically about the strange look of the people, whether Rufus thought they might stop for some food and if Rubian wine from the North was very much stronger than the ale he supped back at home. Rufus ignored the boy's continued questions and let his gaze fall across the troupe gathered, in the shade, by the water's edge. An even mix of men and women; none were brandishing weapons with murderous intent, nor apparently armed with anything more threatening than a small harp, but Rufus rested his hand comfortably on the pommel of his sword in any case. It seemed a decent place from the outside, large and hospitable: Not the sort of dive Rufus usually frequented, at any rate. Two floors of shuttered windows lined the wall above the inn's large, scarlet sign. Rufus' lips moved silently as he made an attempt to sound out the Rubian words. His frown knitted itself a little tighter, but he allowed himself a thin smile and shrugged, after all, the painted image of the red lion told him well enough the name of the place. Two stable boys ran from an archway to the left and Rufus nodded to them before sliding from his saddle, passing over the reins and beckoning Itzak from his steed. The boy leapt down with a whoop, landing lightly and staring at Rufus with the wide eyes and expectant grin of a wolfhound pup. The warrior paused for a second and then nodded toward the open doors of the inn and Itzak punched the air and shuffled a little jig of victory in the dust, before capering under the broad porch and into the entrance hall. Stepping over the threshold, Rufus slowly pulled off his dusty leather riding cap and his brows raised in unexpected appreciation at his surroundings. He gave a low whistle as Itzak grinned back at him. The walls of the entrance hall were of panelled wood and hung with brightly woven tapestries, patterned no doubt, with the emblem of some local Rubian nobility. In tabards of red cotton, the doormen appeared far better dressed than he did and for a moment Rufus wondered if the two stewards would allow him to enter at all, let alone wearing his sword. However, the burly men did nothing more than offer Itzak a curt bow, so Rufus followed the lad through a wide archway into the feasting hall. Soft music eddied about the thick atmosphere of the room played by three minstrels, who were dressed in the same bright garb as the folk by the river. The musicians dragged bows slowly across the strings of bulbous, bowled instruments that they held clamped between their knees. The low thrum sounded strange to Itzak, who was used only to the simple pipe and tabor of his father's hall. It made him stop suddenly so that Rufus had to pat his shoulder to bring him back to himself. The hall was in soft shadow, but several openings, high up in the front wall, allowed slices of golden light to cut through a shimmering sea of sultry air. A polished bar, panelled with the same dark timber as the walls, lined one side of the hall and, behind it, serving girls laboured; sliding between hatches, through covered doorways; clearing pots and pitchers from what remained of a midday meal. The last of a roasted ox dripped from it's spit over a broad fire pit in the centre of the hall and Rufus' stomach softly growled it's emptiness, as the smell of gravy filled his nostrils. Those patrons who had not retired to their rooms to sleep through the hot afternoon remained to lounge at opposite ends of the hall in two distinct groups. Rufus stopped suddenly; giving a sort of choking sound as he looked in either direction and recognised immediately where both parties were from. "Hurry now." he muttered to Itzak and ushered the boy to one side, taking seats at a small table, in one of the many alcoves that lined the panelled walls. The boy was immediately intrigued by their fellow patrons, for the fine clothes and trappings of the men seated along the high table at one end of the hall could leave no-one in any doubt that they were in the presence of nobility. A half dozen men-at-arms, seated at the trestles beneath their liege lords, eyed Rufus and Itzak with the careful appraisal that Rufus himself was only too familiar with. Apparently, a quick glance was enough and the soldiers took no further interest in the pair; seemingly content to stare coldly at the opposing group at the far end of the hall. "Will you take a look at them Rufus!" Itzak murmured, eyes wide and sparkling. "Princes! They must be!" The old soldier did not deny it. The three noblemen seated at the table, precious gemstones set in the rings on their fingers, were dressed in loose-fitting robes all of a dazzling white. Short cloaks, which had clearly never been sullied by the dust of the road, hung from their shoulders and were fastened with brooches of polished silver. Each of them sported carefully clipped beards and near-identical expressions of haughty disdain. "Look at their hair!" Itzak hissed and clapped his hand quickly across his own mouth to muffle an explosive snort of laughter. "Their hair is in ribbons Rufus!" he whispered, barely managing to keep his hilarity contained. Then, grinning slyly at his minder; "...I expect that's just how yours looked once upon a time!" Rufus flashed the boy a darting look of disapproval, as his hand rose subconsciously to touch his thinning pate. Itzak ran his hands through his own thick black mop and mimed tieing it back with a fancy flourish, but Rufus quickly leaned toward the boy and growled in earnest; "I should not mock those men if I were you, my Lord." Itzak's mouth opened; the natural indignation of a twelve year old ready to leap from his tongue, but the worry in Rufus' eyes left his protest faltering, unsaid, as the warrior added through clenched teeth, "Nor even in your thoughts". The boy's smile slipped from his lips and he gulped air hurriedly, innumerable questions tumbling over one another in a rush to be asked. "Calm down now, calm down." Rufus eased his shoulders back against the wall and stretched out the stiffness in his legs. Confident the lad's japery had not been noticed, he raised his eyes to the bar and caught the attention of one of the serving women. 'Who needs words?' thought the grizzled veteran, signalling to the girl that he required food and drink with one simple circular wave of his hand, while raising the palm of the other up; to stem the flow of questions, before a torrent of them escaped Itzak's mouth. Rufus looked carefully from one end of the hall to the other, before speaking to his charge in a low whisper. "It seems the Fates have seen it fit to place us in the path of giants, my Lord" He held the boy's eye and Itzak remained silent, the obvious gravity of the situation had not escaped him " ... and when we find ourselves in the path of a giant, well..." his expression softened a little. "What would you counsel, my Lord?" Itzak gulped and pressed his lips together, as he always did when he knew a sensible answer was expected from him. "Probably to keep the foolishness from rushing out first", thought Rufus; his eyes flicking to the serving woman, as she knocked the tap of a great cask standing behind the bar. Ale sloshed noisily into a pitcher. When the boy spoke, it was with a sincerity the old retainer had come to enjoy. "Well, if it is a giant we face, or indeed a gang of them Rufus, I'd reckon it best to first get out from under their feet." Itzak nodded in all seriousness. He folded his arms and waited for a second for Rufus to congratulate him on his wise answer. When he did nothing but let his eyes twinkle at the boy, Itzak leaned closer in and, frowning a little, added; "...But I should say it would be a shame and a pity to miss out on what giants were up to, don't you think so Rufus? I mean, I wouldn't counsel we hide our heads in the mud as they pass now, would you?" Rufus chuckled and nodded thanks at the servant as she sat the pitcher of ale, a bowl of water and two clay cups before them. "That seems wise enough counsel, my Lord" he grinned, "assuming we avoid getting squashed, it would indeed seem a shame to run and hide from such an adventure..." he winked at the boy "...but also an insult to the Fates themselves, who threw us onto the path!" he lifted the cup and drained it in one deep swallow. "Now, the giants we are facing here... No! Don't look so plainly now! ...Are a very dangerous breed indeed". "The Princes?" Itzak whispered, eyes swivelling wildly in an attempt to stare at the nobles in white without moving his head. Chuckling quietly, Rufus gave a small nod, filling his cup once more and pouring a little for the boy. "They are Princes as you rightly guess: Seated in this humble roadside hall, are none other than three of the sons of the mighty Shah. Each one of them a prince of the Cytreen Empire!" Itzak's eyes widened even further and–taking a big swallow of ale–his mouth split a grin. "Then the giants must surely travel the same path as us Rufus! Over the sea to the coronation!" he shook his head in wonder and stole a lingering glance at the princes. "When I was small and had rare time with my father, I used to beg him to tell me of his journey into the West: To Cytreen. He'd describe the sight of the towers and the gardens, and the magnificent halls of the Shah's fortress. Well, I'd sit there, trying to make a picture in my mind of how big it must be and it used to seem like a mountain, like a whole country! I still can't really imagine the size of it! ...Hey! What those Cytreen fellows must be thinking of this place eh? Not enough room to swing a lion in here!" "I dare say they'd know" Rufus smiled. "Now then: What do you make of the other party?" Itzak turned toward the group at the other end of the long hall. They were far less extravagantly styled than the white-robed princes, but proved equally impressive to the boy. The seven men seated at a long table wore shirts of ring mail, partially covered by the black surcoats of their Order. Sure enough, Itzak could make out a white diamond patch sewn on each of their chests; marking them all as Brothers of the Faith. "Monks?" Itzak whispered and Rufus gave a grunt of confirmation. Aside from their uniforms and shaven heads however, they were none of them alike. Each apparently drafted into the Order from all the far-flung corners of Paragon's wild and shattered lands. One of the Brothers nearest to them had strikingly pale skin, long golden moustaches and a forked beard. Next to that one, the boy observed a monk with deep black skin and piercing blue eyes which sparkled as he shared a joke with his neighbour, who had light brown skin; just like Itzak. On the opposite side of the table sat two monks with curly red beards–their cheeks and noses sun-burned and peeling–and beyond them; a sallow monk with almond-shaped eyes and a swirling mass of green tattoos across his broad face, slowly picked at his teeth with the point of a bright knife. At the head of the table sat a pale-skinned man with a wispy white beard. Though dressed akin to his Brothers, the old monk also wore a silver torque about his neck and Itzak peered out further from their alcove to get a better look. "They look like hard men for sure. Even the whitebeard looks fierce! Do you know any of those monks at all?" Rufus smiled. "The song you were singing on the road earlier, remember? Just after you'd first caught sight of the sea." Itzak cocked his head to one side, frowning with concentration as he recalled his mad gallop down the trail. Suddenly his frown broke in two; split by a wide grin and he chuckled mischievously, casting his eyes back and forth between Rufus and the monks. "The Pale King!" he hissed "You're pulling my leg! They first sang that song of him more than a hundred years past ...and doesn't the Pale King die at the end of it?" he giggled "Even if the white-bearded fellow looks old enough to be the Pale King, he's surely not dead enough!" Rufus smiled too and grunted thanks to the serving woman as she returned to place round flatbread trenchers–piled with roasted ox–onto the table before them. He fished a pair of Rubian pennies from his purse for Itzak to pass on to the girl, before responding. "No fooling you m'Lord, no fooling you! Sure, the 'whitebeard' as you say, isn't the Pale King himself, no no ...but..." Rufus smiled again and relished the pause as he raised a forkful of meat to his lips "...he is the Pale King's grandson." Itzak's jaw dropped and his eyes darted back to the monks, as he began shovelling food into his mouth and trying to hiss questions at the same time. Rufus brushed flecks of meat from his jerkin and attempted to answer his young master, while picking steadily at his own meal. "Yes, yes, he shares the name and seats the black throne his father sat before him. No, you may not have more ale. Yes, the very same throne his grandfather won from the High Chief of the Zurkon. Well, go on then, but just half a cup. His name is Pavel Zurkon. Yes, they took the name when they first took the silver torque. Yes... yes... You're kidding I have no idea! Come on, let's finish this up. Your father will be along soon and though I'd wager he'll choose this inn to rest, we should be on the road in case his wish is to ride on." His attention torn between both ends of the hall, Itzak stole as many glances as he could at the Cytreen princes, then, wondering about the scattered origins of the Brothers of the Faith, squinted through the warm shadows of the hall to marvel at their scarred faces. After washing down the last of his meal with a swallow of ale, Rufus slowly rose to his feet and beckoned his charge to do the same. Itzak shook his head in wonder. "Like songs come to life" he murmured and reluctantly let Rufus drag him by the sleeve, back between the tall double doors and out, through the entrance hall into the dusty heat of the afternoon. Rufus pulled on his battered leather riding cap and shielded his eyes as he scanned the road they had ridden; back toward the foothills. "Sure enough my Lord; your father approaches." He pointed to the low cloud of dust drifting up a mile or so to the South. Itzak scuffed his heels against the grassy verge and squinted along the road. "I hope we get to stay here a while Rufus. They look like they've picked up the pace a bit eh?" "Well, your father is probably guessing that we've been waylaid by bandits" Rufus kept his gaze toward the approaching caravan. Itzak looked up at the old retainer; searching for any tell-tale sign he was joking, but Rufus' eyes were fixed firmly on the road to the South. Before long, Itzak could make out individual riders blinking in and out of the rippling heat, banners aloft. He wiped his sleeve across his forehead and looked jealously at the group sat in the shade on the riverbank. A girl about his age was standing with her back against the trunk of a spreading willow, looking at him. Itzak quickly turned back to the road as a wave of self-consciousness broke over him, leaving his cheeks flushed. Rufus continued. "Yes. You can tell by the way the dust rises just so that the caravan is in a hurry. You father must have guessed that I have been killed and you've been taken captive. He's probably wondering how much of his ready silver will be needed for your ransom." Itzak smiled and kicked dust toward Rufus. "You know father would never pay a penny, Rufus! He'd hunt the bandits down and take vengeance on them for killing you!" Itzak glanced back to the river in a manner he hoped appeared casual. The girl still watched them and the soft music of the gaily dressed troupe made his heart feel bigger in his chest. "Anyway, even I know there aren't any bandits on the King's roads. Probably not in the whole of Rubia, come to that." Rufus sucked at a gap in his teeth and then frowned at Itzak. "Joking aside, my Lord: You're right about your father, but wrong about the bandits." He spat at the dust. "There are always bandits of one sort or another. Now make ready to greet our Lord and master." The riders at the head of the caravan slowed to a trot as they approached the inn and Itzak watched his father raise a gloved hand to signal a halt. The shouting of the drivers behind them, as the procession lurched and shuddered to a standstill, broke the gentle peace of the riverside siesta like the blast of a hunting horn. Rufus strode forward and took the reins from the Duke, as Itzak trotted up to greet his father. The Duke of the Tawma Line grinned at his son, swung his boot across the dappled grey back of his mount, and landed beside him. Though his face was lined and creased when he smiled, the Duke's hair was still black. It fell to his shoulders from beneath a dark riding cap–decorated with three bright blue feathers–which he swept extravagantly from his head as he gave Itzak, and then Rufus, a mock bow. The Duke had given up his long riding cloak in concession to the heat and wore the same, simple leather jerkin and breeches as the entourage of guardsmen dismounting at the roadside. "Scouting party, I salute you!" The Duke eyed the gravy stains down the front of Itzak's waistcoat and gave an exaggerated nod of approval. "It appears you have already taken stock of the Red Lion's hospitality and I commend you for your discerning choice." He turned to Rufus, "If you'd ridden on, you'd have had to camp in a hedgerow this night - I trust the boy did not get too far ahead of you?" "No indeed, your grace," Rufus reddened slightly "...though I'd be lying if I told you I could have taken an arrow for him." The Duke smiled. His beard was cropped close and his white teeth showed as he gave an easy laugh, clapping Itzak about the shoulders as he strode toward the Red Lion's entrance hall, flanked by Rufus and four of the guardsmen. Barely able to contain himself, Itzak hopped about with eagerness to tell his father of the other guests, but the Duke held up his hand. "Calm yourself boy, you dance as though there is a squirrel in your breeches. I know very well who is here. Wasn't I summoned to this very meeting?" The walked back into the cool shade of the hallway and the stewards straightened smartly to attention. Itzak made to lead his father into the hall, but the Duke stopped him smartly, placed his hands on his son's shoulders and gave the same serious look that the boy had seen in Rufus' eyes, only an hour or so before. "I'll not hear a word out of you now lad, or you'll be in a whole new Kingdom of trouble, understand?" Itzak nodded and bit his teeth hard together in a brave attempt to trap the flurry of questions which seemed so keen to burst forth. His father held his gaze. His eyes were a light mossy green, the pupils pitch black and searching. "You'll do nothing more than give a bow when I do," his eyes sparkled as his face creased comfortably into a smile once again "...and keep your mouth shut tight unless you're spoken to, y'hear?" Itzak nodded and they turned and entered the hall. As the Tawma Line party filed in, the music of the minstrels stopped and there was a scuffle of boots and benches on stone, as the men at either end of the hall–except for the three Cytreen princes–got to their feet. A small man with the look of a frightened rabbit scuttled forward and gave the Duke a nervous bow before ushering him forward to face the princes. The man bowed once more, as close to the flagstones as his pot belly would allow, and squeaked: "Your exalted majesties, may I present his grace; Duke Denniel, worthy defender of the Tawma Line!" The man looked nervously at Denniel once more, before scurrying back behind the safety of the bar. The elder of the princes beckoned the duke forward with a lazy, two-fingered wave and Itzak hurriedly remembered to bow as his father did, before the duke approached the dais, leaving him behind. "Enough ceremony!" The prince spoke Rubian with a heavy accent as he rose slowly to his feet and spread his arms wide. "Denniel, it seems an age since last we met and I greet you now as I would a long lost brother." Rufus noted that neither of the younger princes rose with their elder brother, nor did they offer the courtesy of a nod to Denniel. The looks of disdain seemed plastered to their faces like masks. The duke stepped up onto the wooden platform and gave a polite bow before the princes. "Your exalted majesty, Prince Dharman, you do me a great honour! I have often spoken to my son of the splendour of the Cytreen court and it is my wish that he may one day experience it for himself." Prince Dharman's gaze glanced across Denniel's companions and landed apon Itzak, who found himself bowing again without meaning to. Something in the prince's eyes commanded it and Itzak raised himself slowly, strangely reluctant to look up. "Plenty of time to discuss such things Denniel, for we are to be travelling companions once more, but this evening we have other matters to discuss." Prince Dharman's words hung in the air and the moment of silence allowed Itzak's curiosity to overcome his discomfort and he returned his attention once again to the prince. Now that the prince's eyes weren't resting on him, he seemed like an ordinary man. Well, that was far from true, but the elder prince appeared human at least; and apparently good-natured for the moment. "We are here at your pleasure, majesty," Denniel spoke in his usual way: Calm and assured with nothing but a comforting smile to give any hint of the plans and schemes bubbling away, under the surface. Prince Dharman nodded. "Feel free to take your leave Denniel, or to pay your respects to the Brethren at the end of the hall, if you are so inclined. I believe Lord Geraldo is but a few short hours away. We shall reconvene in our rooms once the Emperors' brother has had time to refresh himself." "I shall eagerly await your summons, majesty." Denniel bowed once again and stepped lightly from the stage, pausing briefly by Itzak's side. "Rufus, be so kind as to escort my son to our quarters. Clovis, my good man! Show them the way." The pot-bellied host reappeared and hurried to oblige, beckoning Itzak to follow. Denniel leant in close to his son. "I must now pay my respects to the Brethren of the Faith. Go with Rufus and stay out of mischief." Itzak; turned by Rufus' heavy hand on his shoulder barely felt the stairs beneath his feet, as his imagination charged off into the night. The door of their rooms creaked and the mattress sagged as he threw himself upon it: Heart still beating to the quickened drum of the excitement of a new world. An hour slunk by and crickets chirped as the dark closed in about them. Itzak sat on the thick thatch of the roof, gazing out at the river and the sun setting coppery behind the dark rasp of the forested horizon to the west. Below the inn, down by the river, the troupe of players were gathered–ever closer as night drew in–about a fire, singing softly. Itzak watched her move among them. Faced with the unexpected difficulty of wanting to pour her every movement into his eyes, while simultaneously seeming aloof and concerned with higher matters, Itzak spent most of his time staring into the distance, but; blind to the world about him, he saw only the image of himself on the roof–or at least–how he imagined she saw him. "Tomorrow," he thought, "I shall walk among them." he smiled resolutely. "I shall ask her name."