“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away—”
“Please do not regale me with any more childish tales,” Oliver interrupted before Moore was able to finish. “This trip has been quite painful enough without your extraneous verbal contributions.”
“We have nothing else to do,” Moore reminded him. His horse whinnied and tossed his head in agreement.
Oliver rolled his eyes and shook his head, choosing not to grace Moore with another word. The stifling silence would do more to annoy Moore than another verbal thrust and parry anyway.
The prince of de Rode and his companion rode together along the narrow dirt lane, the click-clack of their horses’ hooves and the dripping rain through the treetops the only sounds when Moore decided to hold his tongue. There was a thick cloud of drizzle around them, managing to permeate their heavy cloaks to their very bones. Oliver’s fine linen shirt stuck to him like wet parchment, and he shivered almost imperceptibly. Their horses plodded on, oblivious to the mud and muck of the ancient wagon ruts.
In another league they would reach the western edge of the forest, where they were to find the marker that signified the end of the King of de Rode’s realm, and then their journey would truly begin. Beyond that marker were the No Name Mountains, their snow-capped peaks hidden behind swirling gray clouds. Oliver and Moore had been able to see the peaks for the past two days of travel, when the cover of the forest opened up and allowed it. No man had ever climbed to the summit of the No Name peaks and lived to tell the tale. Survivors of the attempts said their breath gave out before they reached the top, chests crushed by the unseen hands of giants.
The tales of these dark, rugged lands ranged far and wide throughout the inner kingdom. Black forests full of primeval trees and malevolent witches. Old stone ruins built by an ancient race of djinn, abandoned and falling apart. Giant complexes of caves that were home to trolls and ogres and dragons. Oliver hoped to see some of these wonders, if only to dispel his fears about them. There were no such things as giants, dragons, witches, or genies. He’d often wondered if some clue to the real builders of those ruins could be found by someone who didn’t believe in the old tales.
He had never been this far west, nor had Moore or anyone else they’d ever met. Soldiers of the Third Wars were all feeble old men now, their stories ruined by years of embellishment and ale. Pilgrims who traveled through the lands of the west did so with all speed, fearing the ghosts of the Dark Forest. Even the patrols meant to guard the safety of the western realm didn’t set foot in the forests after dark. There were vast tracts of land on de Rode’s western border left for the taking, if any invading army were brave enough to try it.
In the past four centuries many had tried, but only three attempts had been even remotely successful.
Oliver and Moore had discussed all these things when they camped the previous night. Neither man had been too ashamed to admit to some trepidation when they entered the woods a week ago. Now, they could only stare in wonder at the hulking mountains rising out of the gloom.
“You suppose what they say about these mountains is true?” Moore asked out of the side of his mouth, as if he didn’t want the mountains to hear him.
Oliver shook his head, glancing at his companion and rolling his eyes. “You believe dragons fly in those clouds and magical creatures hide amidst the rocks?”
Moore shrugged and pursed his lips, looking at the mountains in the distance with clear apprehension. “I suppose not. But I could be persuaded if we get much closer.”
Oliver laughed softly and clucked his tongue at his mount, urging the horse onward. “Take heart in that we must only travel to the base of the mountains and not into them.”
“I would still feel more confident if your father had sent a patrol with us,” Moore muttered as he put his horse into a canter to come abreast of Oliver’s once more.
“I’m certain Father knows what he’s doing.” Oliver nodded to accentuate how certain he was. He couldn’t help but silently wish the same, however. Their mysterious task would not seem so daunting with ten additional armed, competent men behind them.
“Of course, your Highness,” Moore agreed with a wry twist to the words. They had been companions since before they could walk, Moore’s mother acting as Oliver’s wet nurse when he was born. They were brothers in every way save the blood flowing through them. When Moore called Oliver by any of his titles, there was always an ironic tilt to the words.
“You are a rake, Moore. I hope you are aware.”
“Mercifully, you don’t care, or I would have been thrown in your father’s dungeon years ago,” Moore replied with a smug smile as they rode on through the misty rain.
“Keep that in mind before you try to tell me another fanciful story,” Oliver threatened lightly.
The trees began to thin out, the land becoming more of a meadow than forest. They had reached the western edge of the Black Forest. They continued on, more alert, seeking some sign of what they might be searching for as the land opened up around them.
And then suddenly they were upon it.
Oliver was surprised to find it was an actual, physical marker. He dismounted as Moore held his horse for him.
“It is a signpost,” Moore said incredulously.
It was indeed. A massive stone pillar stood as tall as Oliver, and embedded in the stone was a simple piece of wood. The wooden plank had been worn by wind and rain, and the words that had once been carved into it were no longer legible. Oliver ran his palm over the smooth wood.
“Does it read ‘Aldric was here’?” Moore asked wryly.
Oliver bit back his smile and turned to look at his companion disapprovingly. His father, King Aldric IV, was known for sweeping gestures of grandeur. If he had ever physically been here, the sign would have been slightly more impressive. There would have been a glistening white castle, or a cathedral lined with flying buttresses of gold, or a stairway to the afterlife with beautiful maidens guarding the silvery gates. Not a mere wooden signpost worn with age.
“Why would anyone carve a wooden sign when stone was sure to last longer?” Oliver murmured aloud.
He looked out across several leagues of open, barren field and up at the rise of the distant mountains. The peaks disappeared into the clouds before the mountains even seemed to narrow. He couldn’t imagine being the first person to stumble across these behemoths, much less trying to lead an army through their passes.
The wind swept down the slopes toward them, bringing with it the cold and the smell of ice from the peaks. Oliver would have sworn he heard the distant, mournful clamor of an approaching army, doomed to lose every last man in a vain attempt at invading the most powerful kingdom in the land.
The mountains were the true western border of de Rode. The rest of the kingdom was surrounded by a dark and dangerous sea.
He looked back at the signpost in consternation.
“What shall we do now, Red Prince?” Moore queried in interest.
Oliver pursed his lips and reached up to run his palm across the growth of reddish blond hair at his chin. His strawberry blond hair had grown long and unruly on their trek, and his once cleanly shaven face was now graced by a beard with hints of red and auburn amidst the blond hairs. Moore, who was his exact opposite with his dark hair and wiry frame, had been calling him the Red Prince for days. Oliver was going to knock him off his horse the next time he did it. That was the sort of moniker that would stick once they got home.
“I suppose… we wait,” Oliver finally answered helplessly.
“Wait? For what?”
Oliver shrugged in frustration. “This is the westernmost marker. This was where my father ordered us to go.”
“Yes, but… but there is nothing here!”
“Do you suppose I have gone blind from staring at your ugly face all these weeks? I can see there is nothing here!”
“Well, how long do we plan to wait? And for what, exactly, are we waiting?”
“Until we find whatever it is father sent us here to get. Or we freeze. Run out of food. Encounter draught. Are attacked by invading—”
“Enough, thank you,” Moore snapped. He groaned and slowly dismounted. “You do not suppose your father merely sent us here to get you out of the way for a fortnight or two, do you? Until the Council of War is over?”
“More likely it is an attempt to spare your life from an angry betrothed after finding you in the quarters of that chambermaid.”
“Bah,” Moore muttered as he waved Oliver off and led the horses from the trail. Oliver smirked as he watched him go, and then his eyes turned back to the dark trail behind them. Why had his father sent them here? The old poem said little of what the traveler was supposed to do once here.