There were clouds in the sky. Destin grinned up at them. “I see you.” He whispered. “I see you.”
Gunnar had also noticed the clouds streaking the south-west horizon. The giant war-wolf bristled at the thin wisps of white in the pale blue sky.
“Cut it out, Gunnar.” Destin grumbled. “You’ve got at least a couple more days to satisfy your blood lust before the first rain.”
Gunnar clawed the ground and snarled. The wolf was well suited to his rider, Destin’s oldest brother Jastin, dubbed The Bloody One.
“Let me finish brushing you. Jastin won’t be pleased if you’re not armored and ready.” Destin ran the brush down the war-wolf’s back, soothing the animal gently.
Gunnar was vicious on the battle field, but he had a gentle side as well, something Destin had never seen in Jastin. Destin had been on the receiving end of his brother’s anger plenty of times, rarely through any fault of his own. Jastin was famous for his angry outbursts, impatience, and violence both on and off the battlefield.
Destin brushed the dust and matted hair from the wolf’s thick golden fur. “You’re lucky, you know. You love this life. They’re going to make me a knight soon, and expect me to fight and kill. I don’t know what I’ll do then.”
“You’ll fight and kill, Destin.” A gruff voice answered. “You’ll ride into battle, and you’ll kill those thrice-cursed witches. Because if you don’t, they’ll kill you and everyone you care about.”
Destin turned to face Mishin, his next-oldest brother. Unlike Jastin, Mishin empathized with his younger brother’s distaste for killing. Mishin had been knighted just under a year ago on the first rain. This year it was Destin’s turn, and he had mixed feelings about it.
Mishin walked over to his own wolf, Creaver, and began brushing him. “You don’t have to enjoy it the way Jastin does.” Mishin sighed. “It’s ugly, brutal on the field. But it’s necessary. Those damn witches would kill or enslave you, me, and everyone back home if we let them.”
“They’re really that bad?” Destin asked.
“That bad and worse, little brother.” Mishin grumbled. “They’re like monsters in their shadow armor, not even their eyes exposed. If we didn’t have the Light, we’d be no match for them. We’d be their slaves – or worse.”
The two young men brushed the wolves in silence for a few minutes.
“The rain is coming.” Mishin finally broke the silence. “Are you ready for it?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Destin sighed. “You promise it doesn’t hurt?”
Mishin laughed. “The Light? No, it won’t hurt a bit. You’ll like that part. The piercings sting a bit, but that’s the worst of it.”
Destin fingered his earlobe thoughtfully. Mishin’s earlobes were each pierced by a steel spike, the mark of a knight. “Light strengthens metal.” He intoned.
“It gives us strength to stand against the Shadows.” Mishin recited the next line of the Song of Light.
“All done, Gunnar.” Destin scratched the wolf behind the ear as he tossed the brush aside. “Armor time.”
Destin opened the massive wood box at the side of the stall and pulled out the green and black felt saddle blanket. In the corner was the embroidered symbol of their father’s house, a leaping ram in yellow thread. As younger sons of a minor wife, neither Destin nor Mishin would ever belong to that symbol. Like his brother, Destin would wear a single grey chevron unless he managed to impress a lord with his valor and courage.
Destin placed the blanket on Gunnar’s back, then pulled out the steel-and-leather war saddle and hoisted it onto the wolf’s back.
Mishin whistled. “I still can’t believe you can lift that thing on your own. You’re a bear, not a man.”
Destin laughed. “You just don’t drink enough goat milk.”
The brothers shared a laugh at the well-worn joke. Destin was one of the largest, strongest men in the camp, and the only one able to heft a full knight’s saddle on his own. He strapped the saddle in place, adjusting the metal plates that protected Gunnar’s torso.
“There. How’s that feel, furball?”
Gunnar uttered a guttural growl that indicated approval.
“Good. Let’s get the rest of this stuff on you then, so you can get out there and kill people in style.”
Destin pulled out the foreleg guards, neck guard, and head guard and strapped them in place. Fully armored, the wolf looked twice as vicious as it did alone.
Destin scratched Gunnar behind the ear again. “You’re a fierce beast. Those witch kitties must scatter in fear when they see you.”
“Some of those witch kitties are bigger than him, and covered every inch in shadow armor.” Mishin said gruffly. “They’re not afraid of anything.”
Destin looked over at his brother thoughtfully. “You’re afraid of them?”
“I’d be a fool not to be.” Mishin nodded. “The cats are fierce and loyal. Kill a witch, and her cat will defend her corpse. It’s said the witches bind their soul to the cat using shadow magic.”
Destin walked around into his brother’s stall, patting Creaver on the head. “I hear lots of stories about Shadow Witches. I’m not sure I believe half of them.”
Mishin shrugged. “I’m sure some are pure fancy, but after you face one on the field of battle, you’ll never doubt the danger they pose. Remember what Gerrin looked like when we brought him back? The bloody witch laughed while her cat ate his bowels.”
Destin paused at the memory of his brother’s corpse, but he’d seen Gunnar after battle, his claws and jaw soaked with blood. He was haunted by the smirk and the gleam in Jastin’s eyes when he came home covered in blood and gore. The witches weren’t the only ones who took pleasure in bloodshed and violence.
“Hurry up.” Destin sighed. “Jastin’s going to get impatient if I don’t return before he finishes eating.”
“He never finishes eating.” Mishin laughed. “He’ll still be shoving toast in his mouth as we ride to battle.”
Destin snickered. “Only if it has strawberry jam on it. He can’t stand dry toast. It’s utterly without flavor.”
The brothers shared a laugh at Destin’s exaggerated impersonation.
“Fine then,” Mishin sighed, tossing his brush aside. “You’re as good looking as you’ll ever be, Creaver. Let’s get you dressed.”
Creaver’s armor was nowhere near as fancy or heavy as Gunnar’s. Still, Baron Melkin of Drusdale knew the value of a knight and his war-wolf. Even his younger sons got full armor for themselves and their wolves. Mishin’s even had some real steel plates.
Destin helped his brother place the armored saddle on Creaver’s back before he headed back to Jastin’s tent to help his oldest brother into his armor. They would come home bloody today; there were clouds in the sky.
Heavy grey clouds hung low in the sky, hiding the peaks to the south. Three days. That’s how long the final battle had lasted; three bloody, violent days.
On the third night, the witches had vanished like ghosts, leaving the battle plain silent. Jastin and Mishin had been sent with fifty knights to ensure the witches had left the plain.
They returned in the evening with heavy grey clouds on their heels. It would rain tonight, and Destin would become a knight.
“Stop fidgeting, boy.” Jastin chastised.
“I could, if your damn chiton wasn’t so itchy.” Destin retorted testily. Just being around Jastin made him anxious enough, tonight was even worse.
“That garment is a family heirloom. Treat it with respect.” Jastin snapped.
Destin looked down at the black and green fabric embroidered with the brass ram of his father’s house. The wool felt was stiff and worn, the brass thread tarnished and dim. Jastin, their father, and several long-dead Barons of Drusdale had been knighted in the same chiton.
He would never be a baron, but he was about to be knighted by the Prince Regent. It was a rare honor, and would distinguish him as a knight from the beginning. Not that it had anything to do with him. The prince was really honoring his father.
“This is also a family heirloom, older even than the war chiton. Some say it belonged to the very first Baron of Drusdale.” Jastin spoke somberly. “Treat it with the utmost respect.”
Jastin hefted the heavy brass sword from the felt-lined box and knelt to buckle it around Destin’s waist. It was an odd feeling to see Jastin doing for him what he’d done for his brother so many times.
Nearby, Baron Melkin of Drusdale and his six other sons stood in their finest battle chitons, swords on their hips. Destin was the youngest, the last to be knighted.
“Make me proud, Son.” His father said. “There is no greater honor in the realm.”
“I will, Father.”
Destin knew that this moment wasn’t his own. This was the product of years – decades – of effort by his father and brothers. Three of his brothers had given their lives for the cause.
“Let’s go then. The rain will fall soon.”
Destin followed his father and brothers towards the Prince’s pavilion as the sun crept to the horizon. First Rain always chased the sunset winds across the Battle Plain.
A large platform had been built for the Seven Princes, the Prince Regent’s massive golden throne in the center with three smaller thrones on each side. A page ushered Destin from his family and guided him over to where six other young men waited in their family’s finest war chitons.
They eyed him warily, judging him. Their chitons were all nicer than his, newer and crusted with metal and jewels. One young man stood out, his chiton blue and gold with hawk emblazoned in blood-red jewels. He wore gold arm-bands as well, marking him as an heir to a prince; Destin didn’t know which one.
He sneered at Destin, who returned a toothy smile. The boy may be a prince’s heir, but he was also small and weak. Silent fear haunted the boy’s steel-grey eyes. Destin couldn’t be intimidated by the likes of him.
They waited in silence as darkness grew around them. Heavy black rainclouds filling the sky as the sun dipped below the western peaks.
As he waited, Destin looked around him. He was surrounded by the war camps. To the north-east, the Sentinel Spire rose from the lake at the center of the plain. All around, a ring of mountains encircled the plain. In the stormy dusk, it all seemed eerily unnatural.
The winds came as the sun set. At first, it was just a warm breeze from the south-west. Soon it became a gale, whipping the tents and flags into a cacophony of flapping canvas.
A new sound came, drumming like the thunder of galloping wolves; rain. Warm, heavy drops of water fell from the sky and pounded the earth. It drenched his heavy felt chiton and soaked his skin. The hard dirt at his feet turned to soft, slippery mud.
Darkness chased the rain. It descended on them like a cloak that hid the world around them. Destin could barely see his own hand an inch from his face.
A ray of icy white light cut through the darkness. It radiated from the palm of the Prince Regent’s right hand, raised high against the darkness. Six more beams of light drove back the darkness as the other princes lifted their right hands to join him. The darkness vanished as more men, lords and knights, raised their hands. The clearing shined with white light, illuminating everything nearby.
Above the drumming of rain, the voices of men rose up, deep, resonant voices booming in unison:
Light is the gift of the Sun God.
It gives us power to drive back the night.
Light strengthens metal.
It gives us strength to stand against the Shadows.
Light strengthens men.
It gives us courage to repel the darkness.
According to the legend, the Song of Light was first sung by the Sun God himself when he infused the first princes centuries ago. There was a haunting magic to the song that appealed to Destin in a disquieting way.
He looked at the prince’s heir, about to be knighted. His eyes gleamed – all fear forgotten – greedy for the power the Light would grant him. The other boys waiting to be knighted shared the same greedy expression. It was a familiar expression, one he’d seen often on the faces of his Father and Jastin. Deep in his heart, Destin worried that his people had lost their way.
He didn’t have time to worry about it right now. The signal had been given, and he took his place in the middle of the line and marched with the others towards the platform where the seven princes sat on their thrones.
Destin stood before the Prince Regent and drew his sword. It was obviously a ceremonial sword, with a solid brass blade, the Song of Light engraved on the flat. He held the sword in his hands and knelt down, presenting the hilt to the prince.
“Light is the gift of the Sun God to his faithful servants.” The Prince Regent intoned in a loud voice. “Only those men found worthy by Him may possess the Light.”
Destin felt the large hands of the prince press down on his head. It comforted him to feel callouses in those hands. He closed his eyes.
He felt the Light enter through his skull, infusing his entire body with a warm glow as it filled him. The glow grew, saturating him with its heat. Every tissue in his body burned; not with the pain of injury, but with a healing, cleansing fire.
He still burned when the voice of the Prince Regent boomed again. “The Sun God favors this knight. Never have I felt such power in an infusion. Note him, people! I dub him The Light!”
The Prince’s words pierced him with disquiet and confusion. Voices around him muttered expressions of dismay. Knights weren’t dubbed at their infusion; it took years of dedicated service and exceptional feats to earn such an honor. Of his brothers only Jastin was dubbed, and that only recently.
Enmity radiated from the young prince-to-be off to his left. Destin sensed the emotions of others too; pride from the Prince Regent, curiosity from the six other princes. Awe, enmity, fear, pride, curiosity, and a flood of other emotions mixed in the gathered men behind him.
The Prince Regent leaned down and whispered in Destin’s ear. “I have a granddaughter who will be of age next year. I think she’d make a good wife for a man of your distinction.”
Destin felt his face flush. Thinking about marriage and the expectations associated with it made him uncomfortable. It was a political institution, arranged by lords to formalize alliances and trade agreements.
His own parents could hardly stand one another; they wouldn’t even spend time in the same room unless necessity demanded it. Their marriage had been about breeding bigger, fiercer wolves. Destin couldn’t even guess what a marriage to the Prince Regent’s granddaughter was about. No doubt his father and Jastin would know.
The ceremony continued around Destin’s racing thoughts. The six other young men who came to the pavilion with him were infused at the same time. Next, dozens of others were infused by father, brother, or grandfather.
At the end of the ceremony, Destin descended from the platform, his mind still clouded from the experience. Many hands slapped his shoulders, random voices offering congratulations. Destin waded through the sea of men, seeking the familiarity of his family.
“The Light.” Mishin’s voice penetrated the haze in Destin’s mind. He gravitated towards it.
“He’s still glowing.” Jastin muttered to their father.
Destin looked down at himself. He was glowing, a pale white gleam emanating from his exposed skin.
His father pulled Destin close. “What did the Prince say to you?”
Destin looked at his father, the Baron of Drusdale. “He said something about marrying his granddaughter.”
Both his father and Jastin smiled, that familiar greedy gleam in their eyes.
“It can only be the heir’s daughter, Amaya.” Jastin laughed.
“That’s excellent, boy!” His father smacked his shoulder with obvious pride.
Destin cringed. He’d never met the girl, but he’d seen her father, the Prince Regent’s heir. He was a hard, cruel man who abused his wolf, an animal Destin had helped raise from a pup.
“He’s not a boy anymore, Father.” Jastin’s grin was disquieting. “He’s a dubbed knight, and he’ll be well married within a year.”
Destin’s father smiled. “You’ll need new armor, son. The stuff we had for you isn’t appropriate for a knight of distinction. I’ll have a new set made. You’ll wear the family colors. You’re now second, Destin, after Jastin.”
Jastin’s smile grew bigger, a truly frightening expression. “Father, he needs an office worthy of his position, and you still need a warden.”
“Of course. Destin, I’m naming you Warden of the Sentinel Spire. You’ll stay here and oversee the work. I’ll be leaving Davin with thirty footmen for you. Trust him; he knows what needs to be done.”
Destin’s mind was spinning. Nothing was going the way he’d expected. He didn’t want this, none of it. He couldn’t refuse it either.
“Lucky Brat.” Mishin teased.
“Not luck.” Their father said with unexpected soberness. “Destiny.”