“The physic said the night’s chill would worsen my health.”
“The physic is wrong,” Harry said calmly, and added, “Your Grace,” as the room grew a touch less stifling.
“Come here, Hart,” the King murmured, and Harry stepped closer, elegant and lightfooted and quiet, just like his namesake, to the edge of the silverwood bed, its carven posts twisted through with details of the Great Hunt, with stags leaping around one post, to hunters drawing their bows on another. The tapestries that portrayed the Six Great Seasons of Stormhold in intricate brocade, that usually hung around the bed, had been unceremoniously pulled back, and the neat little ashwood side table that had once often held a book, or a carafe of firewine, was now laden with a tray of ill-smelling greenish bottles of medication.
“Your Majesty,” Harry said politely, and the King laughed again, wryly, this time. Age had been unkind to the old man; his skin was parchment pale and scrunched against his cheeks, his hair in drifting puffs over his sweat-dotted forehead, and he lay upon the rich quilts and sheets like a man pressed down by Time herself. The only reminder of the hearty, hale man whom had once named Harry to the Kingsmen were his eyes: steely and ruthless and as cold as ever.
“Any trouble with Enoch?”
“No, your Grace. Lord Enoch has conceded the matter of sovereignty with regards to the River East-Over-The-Marches, if with considerable reluctance. Bors is keeping an eye on him, just in case. It’s possible that he might decide to secede again.”
“Good. Good work. The incursion from the West Reach?”
“More of a little skirmish than an incursion,” Harry corrected, “And I have been assured that it has been dealt with. The wildlands have not encroached.”
“Now. How are my darling little children?”
“Well, your Grace.”
The King shook his head wearily. “Tell me.”
This was a game they played each time, all towards the same end. “Stormhold sits on the brink of war. Your children gather at the feet of your throne, waiting to see which of them will strike first - or last. Your Council waits in the wings, betting against one child or the other or not at all. Your Kingdom holds its breath, preparing itself for the war to come. The lands around you stay restless yet, but in wait.”
At this, the King closed his eyes. “Your counsel?”
Harry shrugged. “I am but a Kingsman, your Grace. I do not give counsel.“
“Your counsel, Hart,” the King interrupted testily, and this was new. Usually, the King would laugh, and wave Harry away, and lie in misery for a day or so more, suffering through doctors and physics and more before bidding Harry back to his side.
“Well, your Grace,” Harry said wryly, “Were there a way for you to be young again, I would say, and do so. But in lieu of the same, I would say, choose one of your children quickly, and hang the rest at the Gate and be done with it.”
“Hmm.” The King smiled at this, though he didn’t open his eyes. “Brutal and efficient to the last.”
“As you say.” Harry waited, his gloved hands folded behind his back, the leather-scaled black short coat that he wore lying supple against his breeches, pushed into riding boots. His shirt was bone white and impeccably pressed, his cravat perfectly folded, and with his pistol hidden under his coat and his longsword Advent Of Winter Passing left in his chambers, Harry looked like any gentleman courtier of the King’s Court, on first glance. He smiled, faint and polite, to complete the picture.
“Call in my children,” the King said at last. “For I would speak to them.”
Harry nodded, and stepped over to the doorway, calling over a guard. Instructions given, he walked back to the window, then over to the King’s side, when beckoned, and stood at ease when no further command was given.
The Princes and Princesses of Stormhold filed in, one by one, over the course of the next half hour. The oldest, Charles, weighed down by his splendid gold-and-maroon magisterial robes, smiled an uneasy smile when Harry glanced at him, and the youngest and most drab in her black riding gear, Roxanne, glanced around the room with quick, curious eyes.
“The Gods cursed me with eight children,” the King began without preamble, “None of whom as yet strike me as being particularly suited to rule. But we must all make do with what we have.”
Princes and Princesses both smiled fixedly back, long used to their father’s temper, though Harry noted that Roxanne was actually grinning, genuinely amused. He frowned slightly at her, and she looked away quickly. “It is time for me to choose an heir,” the King added wearily, “And as much as I would hope that all of you would support whomever it is at the end, I know that ’tis too much to expect. Hart, attend me.”
The King was clawing awkwardly at the back of his neck, and with deft fingers, Harry undid the catch of the gold chain of the Power of Stormhold, the Great Binding, the Eye of the Sun, the Trueseer’s Grace - all lofty names for the giant, fiery topaz that sat in its nest of gold and steel at its seat on the base of the heavy chain.
For a moment, the King’s hand tightened on the topaz, then, to Harry’s surprise, he threw it with surprising strength out of the window - where, instead of falling in an arc to the Grand Conclave below, it rose instead, like an arrow, arcing up towards the midnight sky. Gasps rippled through the young scions in the room as the chain winked out of sight - and then, minutes later, a star fell, an arcing comet that streaked past the horizon.
“Whomsoever finds and brings the Power of Stormhold back to the High Seat shall be known as the True King of Stormhold upon my death,” the King said heavily, with a strange sort of satisfied finality, as his children blinked at him in shock. “Now go. Go! I do not wish to spend another moment in your presence.”
The Princes and Princesses filed out, and the guards closed the great ashwood doors behind them, and Harry waited, as the King coughed, sinking back against the bed, as though the effort he had spent had cost him dearly. At long last, when the King said, “Hart,” again, it was laboured and soft.
“Aye, your Grace.”
“If I could be young again…” the King trailed off into another rheumy cough. “Aye. That was the best counsel yet.”
“We Kingsmen have been scouring the Markets of Faerie-“
“Yes, yes I know,” the King interrupted irritably. “There is only one way to steal back years from Time herself. Go forth from Stormhold, Kingsman. Find me that star.”
“The Power of Stormhold-“
“I don’t care about that bauble,” the King said flatly. “The star. Bring me the star.”
“As you wish,” Harry said, a little bemused, and wondered, not for the first time, whether age and sickness had finally ruined the mind of the King, and bowed, backing out of the room. He took in a deep, grateful breath when he had left the stench of incense and death behind him, and nearly whirled sharply on his heel when he heard someone clear her throat.
It was the Princess Roxanne, almost hidden behind a pillar, and she was wearing black today, a riding coat and breeches and boots, for all appearances like a boy, but for her rich curls over her shoulders.
“Rather too early for mourning, Princess,” Harry noted, while he would have nodded politely and left with any other Stormhold scion, and Roxanne grinned at him, amused. Harry had not been the Kingsman who had trained her, but the Princess Roxanne was just as deadly as any of her brothers and sisters, just as ruthless.
“I did not wear this with that in mind,” Roxanne said innocently.
“With prescience, then, for you have a long way to go now.”
“With prescience, I believe,” Roxanne said, and waited, and when Harry said nothing else, she added, “How is he?”
“Your Father? His sickness pains him,” Harry said, deliberately misunderstanding her query. “Is that all, Princess?”
“Charles is going to make his move soon,” Roxanne noted. “For if all of his rivals conveniently disappear on our way to the Power of Stormhold, so much the better. He won’t even have to return with that chain.”
“As you say, Princess.”
“You’re going after it too, aren’t you?” Roxanne asked, and this was why the Princess was Harry’s nominal favourite where the Princes and Princesses were concerned: she had her mother’s wit and her father’s coldly efficient mind.
“I go where the King bids me, my lady,” Harry said, and smiled inscrutably as she scowled a little at him. “Is that all?”
“Not in the least,” Roxanne said, for along with her mother’s wit she had inherited the late Queen’s stubbornness, and glowered at Harry as he bowed to her and took his leave, regardless. For as unsteady as the crown sat where it was now, Roxanne was not yet Queen - if she ever would be.
The star rubbed a hand over his eyes, then flinched and held his hand up, spreading unfamiliar fingers up against the night sky. He turned his hand this way and that, curling and uncurling fingers, then he let out a softer, yet just as vehement “fuck!” and sat up, wincing.
Groping fingers found something cold and heavy against his ankle, and so that was mortal pain, that brutal, painful throbbing up from his leg - he had not broken anything in his fall, but that blasted thing that had knocked him right out of the sky had done its damage. It was a heavy gold chain, with a yellow stone at the centre of it, and with another muttered oath, the star threw it away from him, the chain bouncing off the bark of a tree and landing somewhere in the undergrowth.
Staring up at the sky, the star muttered a final, drawn-out “ah, fuck,” as his situation finally dawned on him, and tried to get up out of the blackberry bush. He almost succeeded, up until he tried to put a little weight on his ankle, at which point the injured leg of his new body crumpled under him and left him flat on his face in the grass.
Giving up on life for the moment, the star rolled onto his flank, grit his teeth, and swallowed down angry tears. At least he had landed in Faerie, by the looks of it, and not in the Lands of Man, but it was cold, the chill seeping through even the skyweave shift on his shoulders, and the star shivered as he pushed himself gingerly up, sitting with his back against a tree.
He sat there for a time, feeling sorry for himself, until the pain seemed to ebb a little, then the star pulled himself carefully up, supporting his weight against the tree. An attempt to step forward almost ended just as precipitously at the first, but for the star’s flailing hand grabbing on to a branch, and as he stood, irritated and breathing hard, the red hart appeared.
It was huge, taller at the shoulders by a hand’s breadth than any horse, but graceful as it stepped through into the glow of the star, its branching horns brushing the low arch of the crown of a tree, and it held itself with a dignity and poise beyond its stature. In its mouth, it held a slender silver ring of a lantern handle, the lantern itself containing a small candle, one that had burned almost down to a stub, and even from where the star stood, he could smell its magic.
The red hart studied him, with a cool, professionally curious stare, then turned its head, and noted the gold chain where it lay in the grass. With a delicate lift of its head, the red hart hung the lantern on a low branch, then took another step forward; magic folded within and without, and then the red hart was man-shaped, tall and prim. Horn-rimmed spectacles sat high against the same cool, curious eyes, dark hair impeccably combed, dressed in a short, leather-scaled black coat over a white shirt and cravat. A longsword was buckled to one hip, its hilt plain and serviceable, wrapped in leather, and the shapeshifter’s only adornment were gold buttons on the cuffs of his coat, with a strange symbol, like two arcs over a horizon line.
“Who are you?” the star asked warily, all too acutely conscious that he was injured, that this could be no coincidental meeting, not with the smell of magic like this.
“Do you have a name to give?” the shapeshifter asked instead, his tone brisk, as though not particularly expecting an answer; for names had power in Faerie where they did not in the Lands of Man.
“Ain’t quite polite, innit, you asking me for a name when I asked you first,” the star shot back, cold and irritable now.
“Ah, of course.” The shapeshifter looked briefly thrown. “I am known as Harry Hart.” Harry smiled, wry and sharp, and even sketched a brief and courtly bow, but the star watched it all with a little frown, refusing to be charmed.
“I got no name,” the star admitted, “But those in the Lands of Man called me ‘Arcturus’.”
Too late, the star realized his mistake, even as Harry’s smile faded. “Then I will give you a name,” Harry said, low and earnest, “Where those beyond the Wall called you ‘Arcturus’, yours should be a name out of the Knights of their legends, a name for bravery, for worth, for sacrifice. I name you ‘Galahad’, a name that shall be your true name, and I bid you to remember-“
The star had managed to lunge forward, awkward as it was hopping on one leg and flailing against the trees, grabbing for the lantern, and even as Harry reached for his shoulder, to stop or to steady him, the lantern’s ring was in his hand, and as he took his next awkward hop, the world seemed to speed away, blurring fast-
-and this time, when the star fell flat on his face, it was right onto a rolling plain of sweet-smelling grass, a sea of it, with no apparent end within sight.
“Fuck,” the star said, indistinctly, feeling ill all over again, dropping the lantern and rolling onto his back. He had run just in time to escape the final binding, but the first threads of spellwork, as old as Faerie itself, had already caught fast. For the first time in eternity the star had a name, and as he breathed in, and out, he felt a part of his old, eternal self slough away.
The star gritted his teeth, breathing in deeply, and then Galahad breathed out, and cursed under his breath, and managed, with some awkward balancing, to get up, lantern in hand. He would keep going until the flame burned out. It had been ill magic that had knocked Galahad out of the sky, old magic that now bound him firmly to Faerie, and he wanted no further part of it.
He had to get further away. Find a place to hide.
The next hop took his bare feet out from grass to warm sand, then the next to the banks of a creek, all polished pebbles and soft grass. The candle flickered and went out, the magic seeping away, and Galahad studied the lantern for a moment with a frown, then sighed, and sat down heavily to wash his feet in the cold water, and was pleased to discover that the chilly water numbed the pain.
He was sitting on the face of a hill, the trees around him skinny and tall, with odd, orange tufted leaves, and beyond, under the night sky, tiny under the stars, was a settlement of some sorts, a township, judging from the size, sitting beside a silver band of a river. The noisy brook at Galahad’s feed crooked eventually down to join it, weaving through the low grass and shrubs and trees, forking into the silver band close to the faraway dotted lights of the township gates. Little boats sat anchored against the distant shore, dotting the river close to the township like stationary fish clustered against coral.
Galahad grimaced. The fewer mortals the better, he decided, and started to clamber laboriously if reluctantly to his feet, once the pain felt sufficiently numbed, supporting his weight against the closest tree to the brook. The air was less chilly in this part of Faerie, far more bearable, and perhaps if he found someplace to hole up and rest, the world would make more sense in the morning.
Just as Galahad managed to right himself, from behind him, there was a drawled, “Now, boys, what ‘ave we ‘ere?”
Carefully, Galahad turned, hand braced against the tree. Further down the brook there were three men, one skinny, one plump, and the one in the centre was the oldest, dressed in a tattered coat over stained overalls and a shirt open at the neck, with a ridge of pointed horns running like a crest from his forehead into his thinning hair. Under his beetled frown, small eyes were narrowed in suspicion, the man’s mouth twisted into a sharp curl of distaste.
“This be Dean’s land,” the older man said sharply, “My land. And I don’t take kindly to trespassers.”