Morning in Stronghold started early. A narrow pink stripe had scarcely flared above the horizon when the spacious courtyard began filling with the bustle of people. Two men-at-arms rode on good horses—a shift patrol was heading to the borders of the Grand Duke’s residence within Stronghold. A house-boy slipped under the weight of a big basket, a damsel with wide hips wobbled along with a bucket full of milk, and a shaggy gray cat gingerly followed her. Smoke was already rising from the kitchen, overlaying the palatable smell of freshly baked bread.
The fresh and bright May morning lured people from their beds, especially as the day coming promised to be unusually stressful. That day the Duke’s armed force would take to the battlefield. A week ago, to his own surprise, Duke Vlady had made the decision, although he did not quite understand to what it might lead. The need for that decision terribly angered the old warrior, who had spent all his youth in the saddle, defending Areya from wild southern tribes. He knew by heart the traditions and martial manners of those enemies, employed his strategies on them, and always won in the melees. Everyone knew that the wings of the wise raven of Areya’s dukes, as seen on the family coat of arms, were always spread wide to protect the people. It was painful to realize that a real war blazed again on his ancestral lands, a war that was completely incomprehensible even to the experienced commander the Grand Duke Vlady had become.
The Duke did not know whence had come the vile, murderous creatures which had fallen upon Areya at first individually and then in packs. In his early childhood he, of course, had heard many stories about how the people had won the land from its previous owners. How druids, drevalyankas, rusalkas and other inhabitants of the Eternal Forest went in search of new places for themselves, and on the free territory human settlements had grown. How many centuries of the uncompromising struggle against wicked spirits were crowned with man’s victory. Not quite exterminated, the wicked spirits lurked in the dense forest thickets, so that only occasionally had they impudently emerged and penetrated the communities of the humans living on the purified earth.
But all that history seemed to bear no relation to these monsters that were now invading the land of Areya, ever more insolent and brazen, indiscriminately destroying people, animals, and small magical beings. None of the old men had heard about such monsters in their grandfathers’ stories, and even magi only made helpless gestures over their clever books. Vlady was so disappointed in their ability to do nothing more useful that he even swore his favorite oath under his breath when thinking about it: “May a bear-crank catch them all!” because he could imagine what those mad bears who don’t hibernate over the hard winters would do—and that perfectly suited his frustration.
Without doubt, a well-armed, trained fighting-man could manage against a small pack of the monsters, and even the peasants had gradually learned to defend themselves against the sudden raids by individual monsters. However, for some time now, not only had there been a huge increase in the numbers of the long54 White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors familiar evil beings, but what was even more disturbing was that day after day new kinds of monsters were coming, monsters that were afraid of neither arrows nor fire nor sword, and were notable for their incredible force. The steppe on the borders of Areya had completely depopulated, and the news had recently come that the beasts had appeared in the forest and destroyed those living in Moose Ravine.
For this reason, the elder sons of the Duke and their fighting squad had been rushing all over the borders of Areya for several weeks, looking for the huge monsters that had decimated the settlement, and sending back disappointing news. After one recent report, the Duke gave a shudder, as if a needle had pierced his heart, and ordered the army to prepare for the campaign.
“We need to check the gates,” he had said to Baday, the Voevode, as he began formulating this campaign a week ago. “And to help the villagers in building fortifications.”
But an inexplicable anxiety had broken through the reasonable words, infecting everyone around. Even Baday—an old friend, time and again tried and tested both in battles and in the confusion of everyday life—was casting anxious glances at the Duke. The Voevode had called at the Duke’s private rooms more rarely, completely immersing himself in the affairs of the brigade, trying to soothe his depressing feelings with daily routine. Because of that, Vlady had become increasingly gloomy, and for the first time in his long life he was not sure he knew how to save his people and the land.
With unusual heaviness, the Duke now rose from his chair, where he had spent a sleepless night. Actually, if one avoided giving in to dread, there was nothing uncommon in the starting of this campaign, a simple organization of an extra defense. But despite his unswerving bravery, this time the Duke was unable to resist a sense of foreboding, perhaps because even Vlady had a tiny spark of endowment that made itself felt once in a while. Of course, the Duke was not a magus, and did not even know how to use his modest endowments, unlike his younger brother Lyubim. And in general, to be honest, he did not trust magi too much, because he could neither understand nor monitor their actions. All those who were endowed, except Lyubim and Agar, the magus who had arrived in Areya nine winters ago, aroused the Duke’s vague irritation. There was, for example, the precious only nephew Vraigo, may a bear-crank catch him, the son of the perished Lyubim… Vraigo was a self-opinionated lad, who never dropped his eyes, as though he knew something that was unknown even to the Duke himself, who had seen a great deal himself in his long lifetime.
Knitting his bushy eyebrows, Vlady left the room; the watchmen from the squad immediately jumped up, but the Duke passed by without even looking at them. No, Vraigo did not resemble his father Lyubim, who had been adored all over Areya, even to the most remote settlement, for his fun and easy temper, for his wisdom as well as his simplicity. Lyubim had treated his own gift easily, using it to arrange various amusements for the children living in Stronghold. Only once had Lyubim’s endowment been displayed in full measure; it was upon the fateful day when he had managed to call forth the magical weapon Urart.
The Duke crossed the inner hall and went deep into the uninhabited part of his residence. In addition to the various household storerooms, there were the secret strong rooms located there, in which the symbols of the Duke’s authority were kept. The Duke’s throne had been stable for several decades already, but the guardsmen regularly alternated shifts by these strong rooms. In addition to the Duke’s people, griffins guarded Vlady’s treasure. These two half-lion, half-eagle creatures, which had been brought to Stronghold when they were babies, watched over the Duke’s treasury and armory, making it impossible for either evil hands or evil thoughts to penetrate. Other great sovereigns had tried to persuade Vlady to sell them the griffins, but nothing could seduce the Duke to part with them, since he knew perfectly well how difficult it would be to obtain replacements from the depths of the Infinite Mountains and he would not allow one more man to pay with his life for purchasing them. Besides, selling the magical creatures would have benefitted no one, because adult griffins were completely unable to change masters, remaining loyal until their deaths.
A narrow staircase led to the lower level, toward the secret repositories, from one doorway of which quietly emerged the powerful figure of a griffin. Standing with his heavy legs apart, the creature waited for his master, and the Duke put his hand gently on the head with its huge beak capable of penetrating a brick wall.
“Greetings, Yas. Good service to you and your brother,” said Vlady in his usual greeting.
That day the Duke did not need the valuables guarded by Yas, and he went to the second strong room that housed the arms collection, the envy of many rulers. Swords forged in the furnaces of different tribes, steep bows and arrows with tail units of plumage from unseen birds, knives with gems of incredible value—all were reminiscent of the long campaigns of Vlady’s restless youth. There were even a few strange pieces of arms made of unknown metal that had been found by foolhardy climbers in the Infinite Mountains; one of those had recently been brought home by his unruly nephew, Vraigo. How else would you describe an adult man who refused to command a brigade or submit to the Duke’s authority, instead preferring to roam the forest with his druid friends?
“Hello, Yaf,” Vlady greeted the second griffin.
The griffin was standing watchfully near a sword and relaxed its muscles only after hearing the voice of the Duke. That very sword is what brought the leader of Areya to his repositories. Here it was, a rather plain sword of thick steel: Urart, the magic sword of the Duke’s northern ancestors, found by Lyubim shortly before his accidental death.
Almost twenty years had passed since then, but Vlady clearly remembered that day. He and his brother were both young and happy, returning home to their wives and young sons after a victory over a fierce nomadic tribe. The steppe passed under the hoofs of their horses and was about to give way to the native green fields stretching to the Eternal Forest. The flag bearing the image of the black raven they considered to be their ancestor streamed triumphantly in the wind, the raven overhanging the young dukes with his wings. And then, unexpectedly, they came upon uneven, sloping mounds rising here and there, in clusters that the valiant troops had to skirt around. Vlady even joked that he was going to reprove his teacher, who had convinced the brothers that the steppe was smooth as far as the eye could see.
With an unusually earnest look, his brother replied, “This is not a steppe at all,” said Lyubim. “We have been riding over an ancient country for several hours already, the country that disappeared into the ground. In former times, long ago, our northern ancestors’ land bordered this mysterious country.” He looked about attentively. “There was some kind of a settlement here, perhaps even a town. The same sort of town as the one that is under the snowy armor of the Frozen Sea today.”
Both of the brothers had been very fond of reading when they were boys; they could spend hours digging through the old scrolls that were piled into the depository of their father. Later, in response to Lyubim’s invitation, a learned magus had arrived in Stronghold. This magus was involved in research into the parchments, and the library steadily increased despite the indifference of the old Duke. These scrolls and books were filled with amazing stories of the history of the Earth, which Vlady did not really believe, but was delighted to hear his brother recount during any downtime between the endless military exercises of their training and later during the halts in battle. Lyubim told about a flood that had once covered the whole of the habitable land and about a handful of people who had escaped from it into the Infinite Mountains. About a tower to heaven, built by the northern ancestors in order to ascend beyond the clouds. About a terrible jolt that had torn the ground apart and taken away with it a beautiful city to the depths of the ocean. And, of course, about an indomitable ice wall, that had begun slowly and relentlessly intruding onto the great ancient country. Many years later, when the ice had moved north again, people had returned to these lands and began to find caches of weapons and other treasures left by their vanished forefathers.
“Here was a house,” continued Lyubim on that day so long ago, bypassing a long barrow. “An unusual house; you cannot find such houses in our settlements. Only Stronghold could be compared with it.”
“Well, I’ll order the men to dig it out. Let’s see what sort of a house it was!” Vlady had teased his brother.
“We cannot.” Lyubim took his older brother’s joke seriously. “Not all that the ancestors had was intended for our eyes. What they wanted to leave for us will certainly be found.”
“And what does that mound hide?” asked one of the nearby men-at-arms who had been listening with interest to the conversation of the brothers, pointing to another mound.
“There…” Lyubim hesitated for a second. “It’s unclear… That was a strange place, a place where unusual creatures were kept. We would call them dragons, but they were quite peaceful, and people were even able to fly on them.”
Vlady chuckled, while his brother, not paying attention to Vlady’s amusement, quickly galloped to the next low hill. Lyubim smiled. “And here, once upon a time, they taught the children, lots of children…”
Suddenly Lyubim froze for a moment then began spinning his horse around, pulling on the reins. The horse and its rider rushed somewhere deep into the hilly landscape. Without a word, Vlady spurred his own horse and flew after his brother, hearing the rhythmic clatter of more horses’ hoofs behind him; their men-atarms were within a horsetail behind Vlady. When they caught up, Lyubim was already standing on the ground near a low mound located in the heart of a valley. The surrounding ground there was surprisingly flat.
“What’s the matter?” shouted Vlady, jumping from his horse.
But his brother did not hear him; he only smiled and whispered, “Wow, just look at you! You waited and waited, and I found you at last. So show yourself to me.”
“Who are you talking to?” Vlady asked anxiously.
He saw only a steppe covered with dry grass, and heard only the joyful voice of his brother. Lyubim waved his hand, stopping Vlady, and continued the strange speech. “You need someone who is endowed? Yes, of course, it would be advisable to have a strong magus here, but we have no such person with us now. May I try? You want to free yourself from the sorcery that keeps you a prisoner here, don’t you?”
The fighting-men silently jumped down from their horses and quickly filled the entire plain. The army patiently looked at the dukes, ready either to die for them or share their joy. Feeling the force of his soldiers around him, Vlady calmed down and stepped back from his brother; he had never interfered in his magic experiences.
“If you have chosen me, help me,” Lyubim encouraged the invisible partner in his conversation. “I’ll do what I can.”
Slowly, Lyubim threw his arms out to each side before he brought his hands together in front of him, and then abruptly turned his palms toward the mound. The endowed duke shuddered, as though an invisible wave had struck him, and at the same moment Vlady thought he saw a clear blue stream of light embrace his brother. After passing through the duke’s body, the wave struck the ground and was deflected upwards, blowing the soil into the air. In the dust a gem flashed with a fiercely intense blue light. Only a moment later, the stunned people realized that the gem was not hovering above the earth by itself; it was fused into the hilt of a sword, and the sword was summoning the younger duke.
Satisfied, Lyubim turned toward his brother, who was gazing spellbound at this miracle. “And here is a gift from our ancestors, a very real sword. Its name is Urart. Aren’t you happy? You’ve now got one of the best swords in the world.”
“How do you know its name?” asked Vlady, bewildered. “Why do you say that this is my sword?”
“It’s endowed with magic stronger than mine and has much knowledge to give to men. That, brother, is a duke’s sword, with which a pure duke will always be able to protect his throne and rule for a very long time. Therefore, it’s yours. Take it; it should respond to you.”
Easily emerging from the ground, the sword lay down in Vlady’s hand with a pleasant weight, and the gem began glowing with a muted blue light. The young Duke was so fascinated with the sword that his brother’s response fell on deaf ears, and so he missed his brother’s refusal to become the master of the sword.
At dawn on the next morning, Vlady’s and Lyubim’s forces were caught in an ambush by sly nomads. Two dozen horsemen of the recently-annihilated hostile tribe emerged with wild whooping from behind the hills, and came down on the vanguard of the squads. Of course, they were quickly defeated, but several soldiers were killed in that brief encounter. One of the first who fell was Lyubim.
Ever since, each time he touched the seemingly ordinary handle of the sword, Urart, whether as a young man, or now as an elderly one, Vlady felt two sharp feelings: an excitement that enveloped him in its blue glow and filled him with unusual strength, and a sorrow that compelled his heart to harden.
Urart left the armory rarely, normally remaining under the supervision of faithful Yaf. The sword could show itself well in a regular battle, sharing its magic power with its master, but Vlady had discovered that the main task of the sword was the destruction of wicked spirits and monsters. Once it sensed the presence of evil, as the blue gem of Urart began pulsating, a stream of sparks rushed along the blade, and an invisible beam flowed into the ranks of the beasts, destroying them one by one.
So, starting the campaign today, the Duke ignored a growing sense of foreboding and came for his faithful support: Urart.
If the Duke’s thoughts constantly travelled away from Stronghold today, his loyal friend Baday was completely immersed in the current troubles. As if it weren’t enough that the foremen bothered him every minute, the blacksmith, who had not made time to fix a few coats of mail, snuffled guiltily; and the sergeantmajor of the string of carts was nagging him right in his ear; but a certain boy, a constant source of concern and anxiety, had disappeared somewhere again, forcing Baday to search for him around Stronghold. And this was a very strange little boy, the last prince entrusted to Baday, the youngest son of the Grand Duke: Rohan.
All of the boy’s brothers, and even his strong-willed cousin Vraigo, were excellent fighters, who had enjoyed training on the fighting ground since they learned to stand firmly on their feet. But when it was time for Rohan to learn military training, continuous torments had begun. Wearing a silly hat and the first available curtain instead of a cloak, he had run all over Stronghold, frightening the servants and forcing the guards to be constantly on the alert. Because of the mischief of the little prince, barrels of honey were rolled to the most remote corners of closed pantries, apples spilled out of bins, and knots were made in the ceremonial tablecloths. Cooks cautiously entered the cook-house, because they regularly found hedgehogs and frogs there, and one day, an angry yelping fox jumped onto squealing members of the cooking staff. It was impossible to understand how the boy, whom the guards did not let out of their sight, performed all his tricks, and it seemed equally impossible to bring Rohan to reason.
But the hat and the childish tricks disappeared when the prince learned to read, and Stronghold breathed a sigh of relief. Baday again tried to persuade Rohan to pay more attention to the battle trainings, but without any more success than before.
“I’m endowed,” the youngest prince declared. “And I want to be able not only to do small things like lure hedgehogs to Stronghold, but to be a real magus!”
Even Vlady was unable to influence his son’s interest in battle skills; after awkwardly practicing brandishing a sword when he was required to do so, Rohan would run to the library and glue his eyes to old folios. When the former curator of the scrolls became quite old and feeble, a young magus named Evstarh appeared in Stronghold, and Rohan immediately became attached to him. Together with his new friend, Rohan continued studying the ancient books, pursuing a goal that was understandable only to them.
With the demands of the problems that were continually falling on him, the Duke now paid little attention to the military preparation of his youngest son, although Rohan had seen twelve winters. Baday, however, still considered it a point of honor for himself to oversee the mandatory training of the headstrong prince. Muttering under his thick mustache, Baday wandered through the corridors questioning the guards, who, for some reason, hadn’t noticed this early morning which way Rohan had gone.
The object of Baday’s search at that time was in a small box-like room under the roof, above the bedrooms of the courtyard servants and under rustic beams, furnished with agreeably cooing pigeons. Together with Evstarh the magus, who looked not much older than his student, Rohan stood bent over an unfurled parchment and was impatiently waiting for that cherished short moment when the blazing, heavy ball of the sun would completely emerge above the misty horizon. On the meticulously swept floorboards, a handful of symbols had been diligently traced out with a piece of coal, and the prince was looking intently at the sun’s rays, which were about to touch the inscription.
“Don’t worry!” Evstarh shook the student’s shoulder. “If you get nervous, then you’re sure to go astray and it will come to nothing. You remember that spells are pronounced—”
“With the necessary tempo, rhythm and intonation,” Rohan recited together with him. “Wouldn’t it be great if it was possible to conjure without any spells?”
“In principle, it is, of course, possible,” shrugged the magus. “Spells reinforce endowments only for a moment. Magi of the highest level manage well without those; they simply take as much energy as they need from the veil, if they don’t perform anything overly complex. But you and I are not those magi, so let’s get to work.”
Shifting impatiently from one foot to the other, the boy looked at the sunbeams. For almost a year he had been preparing for this day, pushing through the jungle of the ancient language in which the scrolls were written. Certainly, without the help of Evstarh, he would never be able to understand the old scrolls, and would be stuck continuing to read more recent accounts of the achievements of the ancient magi and contenting himself with the fact that he could mentally pull a bench out from under the house-servants or compel a tub of water to tip over on someone. But all of that was boring when you knew that there were very different horizons.
Horizons? The Eye of Day was almost risen, with only tiny bits of its disk still hiding behind the distant fog line.
“May it thunder,” suddenly gasped Evstarh, knocking the prince from his lofty thoughts. “It’s incredible. We need to check on your Voevode’s endowments—instead of scouring the yard, he is trampling right under us, questioning the servants.”
“But they cannot tell him anything,” Rohan replied, casually waving off his teacher’s concern. “And you can easily divert anybody’s attention.”
At that moment, the first solar beam gently touched the coal markings scrawled upon the floor, and the boy instantly stirred himself, beginning to move his lips.
“Come on!” ordered the magus. “Fast! Look around and find the materials you need, then recite the spell, and revitalize the image in your mind!”
But the prince had already mentally rushed to meet the solar flux, and everything began spinning in front of his mind’s eye, grass, trees… “Here is what we need! A sloping riverbank, broken by spring floods, with excellent red clay.” Scooping up a big piece of clay and trying with all his endowed might to carry it to the attic room, Rohan began to intone the resonant words inscribed on the floor, words that were scattered around like pebbles.
“Hurry!” Evstarh’s voice reached him as if from far away. “We will soon have a guest!”
The prince almost shouted the last high-pitched sound of the spell and sharply brandished his arms, directing them to the center of the room. It was as if fire raced through Rohan’s veins and scorched his palms, and a dense reddish cloud began pulsing in front of his strained eyes, wrinkling and stretching under the force of the fire.
“Oh, Eye of Day,” muttered the magus standing next to the prince.
And in the doorway Voevode Baday appeared, threateningly furrowing his eyebrows. Only for a moment the prince stumbled at the sight of the severe figure, so that his outstretched arms quivered, the reddish cloud stood still, and then it exploded with a nasty squelch. The warm, wet clay from the riverbank he had visualized flew in all directions, instantly smudging Rohan and the magus, and splashing Baday’s field clothes with scenic spots.
“We-ell!” rumbled the Voevode in the instantaneous hanging silence. “Well!”
He stepped up to the prince, who was standing as still as a watchful hare, and unceremoniously caught hold of the back of the boy’s neck.
“So, this is what you teach the prince!” barked Baday to the startled magus. “To figure out such a folly as this! The idea of it!” And Baday continued to bark, this time to the prince. “As though it wasn’t enough when you put frogs in our milk. Well, all right, when the rest of us have moved out to battle, the principal guardian in Stronghold will be Rokot with his squad. I’ll make sure that he properly engages in your studying.” He shook the fluttering Rohan before dragging him away.
“You don’t understand!” Evstarh rushed after his student, who was being dragged along the corridor in spite of his desperate bucking. “It all happened by chance; the prince simply could not cope with the flow of the energy. It was simply due to his own inexperience. And the stream of magical energy was good, one might even say excellent! Rohan is strongly endowed!”
“Endowed!” raged Baday. “If there were no prying eyes, and if it were my decision, I know what I would do with this endowed prince.”
“But you yourself!” The magus kept pace with him as Baday charged onward. “If I may, I want to check on your own endowments.”
“What?” The Voevode stumbled and stood still from the shock of such boorishness, still clutching the prince by his collar.
“Why are you, Baday, roaring like a bear in the morning?” A calm, deep voice that could be heard in any battle or marked out in a noisy crowd cooled the seething Voevode as usual.
Only now did Baday notice that he was standing in the middle of a great hall with the curious servants scurrying about. The Duke himself, holding the sword Urart wrapped in thick leather, had just come to investigate the noise from the inner hall. Vlady approached the brawlers and with interest examined his stained, disheveled son and the magus, who, in the twinkling of an eye, had lost his affectation of staid reliability. The Duke poked his finger at the dirty stain on Baday’s shirt.“And what is this?”
“Oh, Duke!” hurried Evstarh. “Your son and I—” The magus’s voice went off-key under the heavy gaze of Grand Duke Vlady, but he forced himself to speak. “We passed the first round of magical theory, which means it is time to experiment. Any novice magus should be able to do such simple things, until his real talent be revealed.”
“Well, he could always do such things, couldn’t you, boy?” The Duke smiled ironically at Rohan, then turned back to Evstarh. “He need not be taught to play such pranks as those.”
“I just tried to create a pot,” murmured Rohan in a hopeless voice. “And Baday just appeared… I could never have even imagined that, if released, the energy would explode like it did!”
During his numerous battles with his father, the prince had firmly grasped that it was impossible to argue with him, and that he was extremely difficult to convince. Confirming this fact, Vlady nodded and said with a touch of irony in his voice:
“A pot is good. And we’ll have time to discuss it when I get back. Now, I’m very sorry that I have not paid enough attention to you and your education. You were completely right, my friend,” he said as he turned to Baday. “We should never deviate from the general rule in the upbringing of the heirs. Advise me. How shall we do now with the prince?”
“Let’s entrust him to Rokot in person,” sighed the Voevode. “Let him study with the squad.”
Absolutely miserable, Rohan leaned against a wall and closed his eyes. “Entrusted to Rokot—a stupid swordsman, who has a one-track mind, and who, if he thought it was necessary, would just chain me up,” the prince told himself.
“When the prince begins to make progress, one of the guards can walk him to the library.” Baday glanced at the boy’s griefstricken face. “But you…” A fat finger of the Voevode was pointed at the hanging head of the magus. “You must swear to obey and not dare to divert the squad’s attention.”
“Excellent,” the Duke agreed, approving the idea. “How is that, dear magus? I hope we are agreed?”
One after another, Rohan and Evstarh silently fell on one knee to the Duke, and their thoughts in this case were exactly the same—each wanted to blow up another piece of clay very near the ruler as payment for his “merciful” decision. And it seemed to Evstarh that a grin flashed across the Grand Duke’s imperturbable face, as if it was easy, and amusing, for Vlady to read these seditious thoughts.
Having sent the miscreants to bathe, the Duke went to his room. It was time to finish his own uncomplicated preparations for battle because the sun had risen and, therefore, the army had already begun to assemble inside the walls of Stronghold. But as he proceeded, the head of the squad that was now guarding the Duke’s house appeared.
“The son of your brother is waiting for you in the small room,” he said to Vlady, standing stretched to the extent of his giant height. “He insisted that he should talk to you before your departure.”
With a second’s hesitation, the Duke turned toward the small round hall in which he usually received unofficial visitors. Vraigo. That was the last person who Vlady expected to see today, especially considering that for the last few days his nephew, as usual, had been somewhere away from Stronghold. And now, of all things, Vraigo had come to the small hall for a conversation with his uncle, again emphasizing their formal and distant terms.
Vlady immediately remembered how Vraigo, when he was fourteen, had refused to join the army and place himself at the head of a squad, looking rebelliously at the infuriated Duke, and clarifying, “I don’t want to do that. But you can order me. I shall obey.”
Vlady had retreated, although he did not remember ever having found such a weakness in himself before. And from that point he had begun to shut his eyes to the wandering life of his nephew.
The last straw in the rejection that Vlady had felt was that Vraigo, without asking permission, changed the color of the Duke’s emblem in his own coat of arms. It had happened at a competition of the Duke’s armed forces, when Vlady, speechless with indignation, suddenly saw a white raven spreading its wings on his young nephew’s shield, not the black raven of his family. Nobody could convince Vraigo to put back the color; the stubborn prince kept saying one thing: to his father’s blazon he added the color of his teacher, Agar, who had opened the true course of the young prince’s life for him.
Not even the relentless struggle the prince led against the vile spirits and the descriptions of Vraigo’s feats that circulated from one settlement to another could soften Vlady. He would never have admitted to himself either of the reasons that held him back from inflicting the strong punishment he believed was well-deserved: not only did Vraigo look at him with the gray eyes of his beloved brother Lyubim, but Vlady had a strong regard for Vraigo’s stillbeautiful mother, Marisa, who had stayed in Stronghold after the death of her husband, and who held such warm affection for her son even as she worried about his vagabond ways.
The windows in the round hall were wide open, and Vraigo stood as if glued to one of them. He quickly turned at the sound of footsteps, but Vlady was well aware what his nephew examined there: the whooping of the men-at-arms, the neighing of the horses, and the clanging of iron could be heard outside the window.
“As you can see, we are about ready to set out now, so be brief,” ordered the Duke, not taking a seat but also coming to the window.
“I did not know that you were going to take the field.” Vraigo was perplexed.
“In order to know, you would have to at least occasionally appear in Stronghold. And what does it matter to you? Would you really have decided to go with us?”
“You know perfectly well that if it were just enemy troops you wanted to smash and drive out of Areya, I would already be in the squad, fighting like any other man-at-arms. But they told me that you are leaving to fight the vile new monsters that have recently appeared. The army does not need to go anywhere to do this. I’ve seen these things in the forest within a day’s walk from Stronghold!”
“What do you suggest? That we simply wait until they arrive here?”
“Not at all! As I told you before, it’s necessary to search not for the beasts themselves but for the answers! Even after all this time, no one knows where the monsters have come from. And recently, in the mountains, I found traces of still more horrible monsters that are much bigger, stronger, and more dangerous even than those you are preparing to fight. When these monsters attacked, even the fierce, well-armed gnomes fled from them, abandoning the stone fortifications of their town. So how can the ordinary people in our villages oppose these beasts?”
With an anxiety unleashed by the words of the prince, Vlady clenched his teeth and glanced at the sword he still carried.
“Urart?” Vraigo exclaimed as if he had caught the Duke’s thoughts. “Yes, Urart will cope with these things, but others like them will come, then more and more.”
“Enough!” roared the Duke. “We will ride across the borderlands and catch as many monsters as possible. At the outposts, I will leave squads to help build new fortifications. I don’t know what you saw there, but I believe that the wicked things may be pressed and held back. After all, our ancestors already did so once with much smaller forces. So, do you go with us?”
“No.” The prince again withdrew into himself and stepped back. “I’m not going to simply trim what must be pulled up by the roots.”
“Well, White Raven, you certainly know better than I what to do, don’t you?”
“Yes, I know better,” Vraigo dared answer cheekily.
He took another step to the side, slightly bowed his head toward the Grand Duke, and quickly left the room. The ruler’s eyes followed him with a dismal look, and then looked back out the window at the whole field filled with men-at-arms. This insolent fellow, Vraigo, had further stirred the old Duke so that all the fears of recent days flared up again, adding to the stinging fire of his uncertainty. What did this young man know, this prince who insisted he was endowed? Vlady mused on Vraigo and on all those who, like him, claimed to be endowed. What, if anything, could the so-called endowed really see in the eternal darkness outside the world? Vlady sighed and tightly grabbed the sword Urart, the only thing he knew with certainty. A good sword, a good head, and a steady hand, just like it had been many years ago, now must again serve the welfare of his native land.