On clear winter nights, I have stood on mountains just to be closer to the stars.
Some say that these shimmering lights are the souls of warriors who have died in battle, some say that at the beginning of time, Arwe himself cast an infinite number of diamonds into the sky to shine forever and defeat the darkness of night. But I believe the stars are other suns like our own. They speak along the blood in fiery whisperings of ancient dreams and promises unfulfilled. From there long ago our people came to earth bearing the cup called the Lightstone; to there we would someday return as angels holding light in our hands.
My grandfather believed this, too. It was he who taught me the stories of the Great Bear, the Dragon, the Seven Sisters and the other constellations. It was he who named me after the bright Morning Star, Valashu. He always said that we were born to shine. A Valari warrior, he once told me, should polish first his soul and then his sword. For only then can he see his fate and accept it Or fight against it if he is one of the few men marked out to make their own fate. Such a man is a glory and gift to the earth. Such a man was my grandfather. But the Ishkans killed him all the same.
Elkasar Elahad would have found it a strange fate indeed that on the same day King Kiritan's messengers came from Alonia to announce a great quest for the Lightstone, a whole company of knights and nobles from Ishka rode into my father's castle to negotiate for peace or call for war. It was the first of Ashte in the 2,812th year in that span of centuries that list historians had named the Age of the Dragon, to the warnth of one of the loveliest springs that anyone could remember, with the snows flashing from the mountains and miditowers everywhere abloom, the forest surrounding Silvassu teemed with boar and deer and other animals that might be killed for food. My father's steward, upon counting the castle's guests that day, grumbled that the kitchens would require much food if any feast were to be made. And so my brothers and I along with other knights, were called to go out and hunt for it. After all even the murderers of a king must eat.
Just after noon I rode down from the hills upon which our ancient city is built with my eldest brother, Lord Asaru. My friend, Maram, and one of my brother's squires rode with us as well. We were a small hunting party, perhaps the smallest of the many to fill the woods that day. I was glad for such company, for I cared nothing for the sport of hounds yelping and men on snorting horses running down a fear-maddened pig. As for Asaru, he was like our father, King Shamesh: stern, serious and focused on his objective with an astonishing clarity of purpose. His soul had not only been polished but sharpened until it cut like the finest Godhran steel. He had said that we would take a deer, and for that we needed small numbers and stealth. Maram, who would have preferred the pageantry of hunting with the other knights, followed him anyway.
In truth, he followed me. As he liked to say, he would never desert his best friend.
As he didn't like to say, he was a coward who had once seen what the razor-like tusks of a boar could do to a man's groin. It was much safer to hunt a deer. It was a warm day, and the air smelled of freshly turned earth and lila blossoms. Every quarter of a mile or so, a stout farmhouse stood out among fields demarcated by lines of low stone walls. There was new barley in the ground, and the golden sun in the sky. As we passed farther into the Valley of the Swans, the farmland gave out onto miles of unbroken forest. At the edge of a field, where the ancient oaks rose up like a wall of green, we drew upfcnd dismounted. Asaru handed the reins of his horse to his young squire, Joshu Kadar, who had the square face and stolid temperament of his father, Lord Kadar. Joshu didn't like being left to tend the horses, and watched impatiently as Asaru drew out his great yew bow and strung it. For a moment I was tempted to give him my bow and let him hunt the deer while I waited in the sun. I hated hunting almost as much as I did war.
And then Asaru, tall and imperious in his flowing black cloak, handed me my bow and pointed at the forest. He said, 'Why these woods, Val?'
'Why not?' I countered. Asaru, knowing how I felt about slaughtering innocent animals, had given me my choice of where to hunt that day. Although he had remained silent during our ride down from the castle, he must have known where I was leading him. 'You know why,' I said more gently, looking at him.
And he looked at me, fearless as all Valari would hope to be. His eyes Were those of the Valari kings: deep and mysterious, as black as space and as bright as stars. He had the bold face bones and long hawk's nose of our ancient line. His skin, burnt brown in the hot spring sun, was like weathered ivory, and he had a great shock of glossy black hair, long and thick and blowing wild in the wind. Although he was very much a man of blood and steel and other elements of the earth, there was something otherworldly about him, too. My father said that we looked enough alike to be twins.
But of the seven sons of Shavashar Elahad, he was the firstborn and I was the last.
And that made all the difference in the world.
He drew closer and stood silently regarding me. Where I insisted on wearing a leather hunting jacket and a homespun shirt and trousers of a deep forest green, he was resplendent in a cloak and a black tunic embroidered with the silver swan and the seven silver stars of the royal house of Mesh. He would never think to be seen in any other garments. He was the tallest of my brothers, taller than I by half an inch.
He seemed to look down at me, and his bright black eyes Ml1 like blazing suns on the scar cut into my forehead above my left eye. It was a unique scar, shaped like a lightning bolt. I think it reminded him of things that he would rather not know.
'Why do you have to be so wild?' he said in a quickly exhaled breath.
I stood beneath his gaze listening to the thunder of my heart, but said nothing.
'Here, now!' a loud voice boomed out. 'What's this? What are you talking about?'
Maram, upon seeing the silent communication flowing between us, came up clutching his bow and making nervous rumbling noises in his throat. Though not as tall as Asaru, he was a big man with a big belly that pushed out ahead of him as if to knock any obstacles or lesser men from his path.
'What should I know about these woods?' he asked me. 'They're full of deer,' I said, smiling at him.
'And other animals,' Asaru added provocatively.
'What animals?' Maram asked. He licked his thick, sensuous lips. He rubbed his thick, brown beard where it curled across his blubbery cheeks.
'The last time we entered these woods,' Asaru said, 'we could hardly move without stepping on a rabbit. And there were squirrels every-where'
'Good, good,' Maram said, 'I like squirrels.'
'So do the foxes,' Asaru said. 'So do the wolves.' Maram coughed to clear his throat, and then swallowed a couple of timges. 'In my country, I've only ever seen red foxes – they're not at all like these huge gray ones of yours that might as well be wolves. And as for our wolves, ah, well, we hunted out most of them long ago.'
Maram was not of Mesh, not even of the Nine Kingdoms of the Valari Everything about him was an affront to a Valari's sensibilities. His laree brown eyes reminded one of the sugared coffee that the Delians drink and were given to tears of rage or sentimentality as the situation might demand. He wore jeweled rings on each of the fingers of his hamlike hands; he wore the bright scarlet tunic and trousers of the Delian royalty He liked red, of course, because it was an outward manifestation of the colors of his fiery heart. And even more he liked standing out and being seen, especially in a wood full of hungry men with bows and arrows. My brothers believed that he had been sent to the Brotherhood school in the mountains above Silvassu as a punishment for his cowardly ways. But the truth was he had been banished from court due to an indiscretion with his father's favorite concubine.
'Do not,' Asaru warned him, 'hunt wolves in Mesh. It's bad luck.'
'Ah, well,' Maram said, twanging his bowstring, 'I won't hunt them if they won't hunt me.'
'Wolves don't hunt men,' Asaru assured him. 'It's the bears that you have to watch for.'
'This time of year, especially the mothers with their cubs.'
'I saw one of your bears last year,' Maram said. 'I hope I never see another.'