The stench of baking blood and evaporating sweat thickened the air, muffling the moans of the dying. A hot, dry wind moved sluggishly through the yellow grass, swirling the tattered red flag held up on a pole by a pale, sharp man dressed in a tunic coloured to match his banner. The flagbearer was leading a column of well-armoured soldiers up a hill, towards the thick, dark fringes of the Dothow Forest.
Two steps behind the flagbearer strode a fearsome giant of a man carrying a sword with three red gems in its hilt and countless red stains on its blade. The man’s cheeks and lips were coated with dozens of small, smooth gems of many colours, like a glistening beard. More outlined his eyes and circled his bald scalp. When he turned his head, the sunlight shimmered across his features like a wave of fire.
The soldiers marching behind the man bore decorations of their own. Similar gems glimmered beneath their eyes and on their chins, though in every case there were far fewer than those that shone on the face of their leader. As they marched, the soldiers leered at two prisoners walking in their midst, baring their teeth and turning their faces to display their accoutrements, pointing especially to the blue stones that matched their prisoners’ clothing. The elder of the two prisoners, a regal figure with a thin white beard and numerous gemstones of his own, held his gaze aloft, fixing his eyes defiantly on the tree line. A round purple gem glowed between his eyes. The younger, a man with a smooth, uncreased face and a far-off, empty expression, stared down at his feet. Only two gemstones marked his skin: one on his chin was small, bright, and red, and another, slightly larger stone between his eyes was a faint, soft purple, like a shadow of the one that adorned the figure beside him.
The purple gems marked the prisoners as King and Prince. Here, on the fields that bordered their ancestral kingdom, they had assembled their army, confronted the invaders, and been defeated.
“Stop here,” the leader of the invading army grunted as the column reached the top of the hill. His voice was guttural, almost animal-like. The man had the flagbearer plant his banner in the ground at the edge of the forest, then gripped the king by his neck and propelled him forward to stand beneath it.
King Vinick looked up at his conqueror, eyes filled with both pity and disdain, and although he was a full head shorter than the man who had overpowered him, those who were watching thought he somehow seemed the larger of the two. “Our people will never serve you, Carrow,” said the king.
“Nor would I expect them to,” replied Carrow, smiling humourlessly. “They may do as they wish, and die in whatever way seems best to them. Your people mean nothing to me. Your land means nothing to me. I care for one thing, Vinick. I desire only one thing as the spoils of my conquest.” He reached up with one finger and tapped the purple gem between the king’s eyes, then ran his finger along the vertical line of four purple gems that began between his own eyes and ran up onto his forehead. “Today, I will add another royal stone to my collection.”
The king’s face hardened. “You are little more than a beast. You line your nest with baubles, strutting and preening like a vain bird. I name you Crow, the most shameful of all the animals.”
“As defiant speeches go,” said Carrow, laughing, “I must say that yours has been my favourite so far. It’s a pity that it serves no purpose.” He lifted his sword and, before the king could react, drove it through his heart.
As the life drained from King Vinick’s eyes, he looked towards his son, Prince Filip. The king tried to wrap his lips around some final word, but it escaped him. Carrow lifted his foot and kicked the corpse off of his sword.
Tears sprang into Filip’s eyes. He twisted his arm loose of the soldier’s grip and ran to kneel at his father’s side. A few of the soldiers started forward to retrieve him, but Carrow motioned them back with his sword, smirking.
Filip’s tears showered the king’s face as he cradled his father’s head in his arms. “Why did we not run?” he choked. “Father, Father, we might yet have lived…”
“Run?” said Carrow, barking the word like a hyena. “Yes, you should have run. Then I would have had more sport!” He laughed, and his men joined in. “But it makes no difference,” he continued. “Either way, I will receive my prize.”
As he spoke, Filip looked down to the purple gem between his father’s eyes. It had begun to fade and recede into the skin. Soon nothing remained but a dark spot, like a scab.
Carrow shook his sword, spraying droplets of blood across Filip’s face. “Another day, another crown for the killer of kings,” said Carrow. “But the prize is not yet mine. One other thing stands in my way.
“With your father dead, boy, what do you suppose you have become? Come, see your reflection in my sword. See the deepening of the colour in your own royal gem. You are the king of your subjects now.”
Filip slowly rose to his feet, wiping away his tears, and felt the familiar gem between his eyes, as much an extension of him as his ears or nose. It was warm to the touch.
“What an honour for you, at such a young age. May your reign be blessed,” mocked Carrow, bowing from the waist. “How unfortunate that you are to be the end of your line. But do not fear: I will gladly bear your birthright after you have met your demise.” He lifted his sword to strike a second killing blow.
Recoiling backwards, Filip tripped over a tree root and fell. Carrow laughed and loomed over him.
“Take it!” cried Filip. “Take it, and spare my life!” He grasped at his gem and pulled on it. To his surprise, it resisted briefly, then came loose in his hand, leaving a raw hollow in his skin. Acting instinctively, Filip flung the gem at his executioner’s face, scrambled to his feet, and fled into Dothow.
Filip didn’t know he was going: he simply ran. Tears of sorrow, shame, fear, and pain flooded his eyes, blinding him. Tree roots seemed to spring up out of the soil, grasping at his feet to trip him, and branches reached for him, tearing at his clothes and skin. The hollow between his eyes burned, as if reproaching him for his act of cowardice.
As he ran, the sky grew darker, though he was not sure whether that was because of the passage of time or the deepening of the forest. He put such questions aside, channelling all of his thoughts into blinking away his tears and moving his legs. I am alive, he told himself. I am alive, and I must keep running.
At last, he couldn’t run any further. His legs gave way beneath him and he tumbled down a soft embankment, rolling partially into a shallow pool of water in a basin between several tall, gnarled trees. He breathed, and breathed, and waited to die.
Time passed, and Filip did not die, though he thought that the burning between his eyes might consume him. When at last he blinked his eyes open, he found himself in a quiet glade, lying beneath a tightly woven ceiling of branches that allowed almost no light to pass through. He rolled onto his back and sat up carefully. Countless tiny pains made themselves known in his muscles and skin. He was aware of every cut, bruise, stiffness, and strain, but they were all overwhelmed by the pain where his gem had once been. The cool water of the pool felt refreshing on his legs, so he scooped up a handful of water and splashed it onto his forehead. It dripped down between his eyes, stinging at first but then soothing the pain.
When he wiped away the water from his eyes he saw his reflection in the pool, and his breath caught in his throat. There was a new stone where his royal gem had been. He reached up and touched it. It felt familiar, but different: some subtle element of its shape was unusual to him, perhaps the curve of it, or the texture. The dim, grey light that barely illuminated the pool made it difficult to see the colour of the gem. Filip leaned closer to the water and gasped. The gem was a sheer, translucent white.
Filip knew that the colour of every gem had a meaning, based on how it was acquired. Gems won by slaying an opponent in battle bore the colour of the opponent’s banner, and appeared on the chin and cheeks. A murderer would find himself revealed by the black gem that sprang up on the ridge of his nose. Purple gems, the most desired of all, marked royalty, whether through birth or conquest.
But white was the colour of the dead.
The small red gem on Filip’s chin had appeared earlier that day, during the battle, when he had taken the life of his first enemy, a man who had been felled by an axe blow from one of Filip’s soldiers but was not yet dead. Filip had stepped down from his chariot and used a short sword to bring a swift resolution to the man’s slow descent into death. He had found the act gruesome and unsettling.
But where had this white stone come from, with its symbolism of death? A white gem would never be won through battle, because no army would dress itself in white: it would be a prophecy of defeat. Could the white gem mean that Filip, himself, was dead? Perhaps he was a ghost.
Drops of water were running down Filip’s face and into his open mouth, and he realized how dry his tongue was. He plunged his head into the pool and gulped down mouthfuls of water. Did ghosts feel thirst? No, he did not think he was a ghost.
The slaking of his thirst quickly awakened Filip’s hunger. How long had he run, and how deep into the forest had he come? The dimness of the light offered little insight into the position of the sun (or was it the moon?). The air in the glade was dead, heavy, and cool. The stillness and quiet seemed immutable. As Filip gazed around at the water and the trees, he began to feel that he was unwelcome, that his presence had disturbed the peace of this hollow among the trees. He forced his aching legs to stand, turned from the pool, and limped stiffly up the embankment and out of that tranquil grove.
Almost as soon as he had pressed his way between the trees, Filip found that the foliage had thinned enough to let rays of sunlight through to the forest floor. He heard birdsong and the chattering of squirrels. By the warmth and the angle of the sun, Filip judged it to be late morning. He stretched gingerly, took a deep breath, and was surprised when the smell of cooked meat floated into his nostrils. Only a few feet away he saw the remnants of a large campfire, ringed in stones, with a picked-over roasted chicken carcass laid out beside it. He pounced eagerly on the scraps and began to tear off whatever meagre bits of meat he could find, then cracked open the bones and sucked out the marrow.
Only when he had finished his meal did Filip take the time to wonder how the chicken and the fire had come to be there, and why he had not been aware of their presence while he had laid beside the pool so close by. He saw, now, that a wide area around the fire had been trampled down by several sets of feet, and there were signs that multiple people had eaten and slept here. Could this have been a tracking party sent to pursue him? How fortunate that he had lain mere footsteps away and gone unnoticed. Filip placed a hand near the coals of the fire. They were still warm. Whoever had camped here had likely not departed too long ago.
Filip considered his situation. Where should he go from here? If his father were here, he would know what to do. With this thought, the memory of King Vinick’s death came rushing back to Filip like a flash flood. He sank down beside a tree and spent several minutes overwhelmed by his grief, pouring it out in heaving sobs. He drained himself completely of tears, and when these were gone he fought to still his ragged breathing. When he rose, he felt that a change had taken place in his heart. He vowed that these would be the last tears he had cried. His sorrow had been purged, and something harder and more determined was taking its place.
As he stood there, clenching his fists, stoking the candle flame of vengeance that was growing inside him, Filip heard voices approaching. He knelt behind a thick bush on the edge of the clearing and waited. Soon three men wearing red tunics and carrying swords at their sides came into view. Blue gems studded their faces, representing those whom they had killed among Filip’s father’s army—no, it was his army now, what was left of it. They were making little effort to go quietly, and appeared to be arguing.
“Here we are, back at the camp again,” said one. “I told you we were going the wrong direction.”
“This never would have happened if you hadn’t suggested that we make camp for the night,” said another.
“No, Kyrus,” said the accused, “I only suggested that we stop for a meal. You were the one who first slept.”
The first soldier defended himself: “I must have been poisoned by one of the enemy’s weapons, or struck by a spell. I had only sat down for a moment when I awoke again, with the sun already risen.”
Poison or a spell? Filip knew that no member of his army dealt in poisons or magic.
Kyrus went on: “Regardless, Pirrin, you could have woken me.”
The third soldier spoke up. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” he said. “We all made camp, we all fell asleep for far too long, we all made another meal when we woke up, and we all set out in the wrong direction together. We can argue all the way back to the battlefield, but it won’t make any difference to how we’re received when we return.”
This silenced his two companions for the moment, as they entered the clearing and approached the place where Filip was hiding. Then one of them, Kyrus, pointed in the way they had just come from and said, “Well, this way, then?”
“No, that’s where we’ve just been,” said Pirrin.
“Are you certain?” said Kyrus.
The third soldier turned and sighed. “Look at the sun,” he said. “This forest was to the west of the battlefield, so we want to go east. That will bring us back.”
“I thought the forest was to the east of the battlefield,” said Kyrus.
“I think he might be right, Syle,” said Pirrin.
Syle rubbed his face. “No, it was definitely west. You are both confusing yourselves.” He sniffed the air. “There is something strange about this forest,” he said. “Something on the wind, fogging our minds.”
As Filip listened, he looked down and saw a fallen branch of about the right length and weight to act as a club. Something boiled up inside him, and almost without knowing what he was doing he reached for the branch and leapt out from behind the bush.
The soldiers whirled around, startled, and reached for their swords. They all stopped, swords half-drawn and mouths hanging open, as they stared at the white gem between Filip’s eyes.
“Wh-what…” stammered Kyrus.
“It’s white!” gasped Pirrin.
Filip lifted his makeshift club and swung it at the side of Syle’s head. The soldier made little effort to dodge, and was knocked to the ground. Instantly the other two soldiers let their swords fall back into their scabbards, turned heel, and ran off into the trees, shouting.
Syle scrabbled away from Filip, mumbling, “Dead! The Dead!” Filip raised the club again, and Syle bounded to his feet, chasing after his companions at top speed.
Filip rubbed the white gem between his eyes. Its effect had been much greater than he would have expected. Did that have something to do with this forest, as Syle had said?
Resting the branch on his shoulder, in case he came across any more of his enemies, Filip set out west, away from the battlefield and Carrow’s army. As he walked, he took fresh stock of his situation. He had no food or water, but it would be foolish to remain where he was. New search parties could be seeking him out even now, and they might not all be intimidated so easily by the colour of the gem on his brow. He had to find some place of shelter. Perhaps one of the villages on the forest’s edge would take him in. That would be far preferable to remaining in Dothow. The air did, indeed, feel and smell somehow enchanted. Even if the forest had so far sheltered and protected him, the one thing Filip know for sure about magic was that it was capricious, fickle, and untrustworthy. No, he did not wish to remain here any longer than was necessary.
Before leaving the forest, though, Filip knew it would be best to put more distance between himself and his pursuers. There was a river that ran through Dothow. It would not be far west of here. He decided to find the river, and then follow it south until he reached some town or village.
Filip made slow progress for several hours, until the sun was falling low in the sky ahead of him. Once or twice he thought he heard voices and hoof beats and ducked into the nearest hiding place, but the sounds soon faded away, and he saw no one. Assuring himself that he would soon reach the river, and driven forward by a growing thirst, he pressed on through dusk.
As twilight fell, the singing of birds gave way to the chirping of crickets, the hunting calls of owls, and, eventually, the rolling babble of moving water. The sound only heightened the dryness of Filip’s tongue. He strained his eyes in the descending gloom, attempting to see some thinning in the trees that might indicate how far away he was from the river.
Ahead, not far off, he thought he saw a flicker of yellow light, but it was quickly gone again. Had he imagined it? Filip stood motionless for a long minute. There, again: the shadows had moved. Had he come across another encampment of soldiers?
Creeping forward slowly, Filip attempted to find a gap in the trees through which he could see the source of the light. It was not jumping and flashing, like the flames of a campfire, and there were no sounds of burning wood. The light was softer, more consistent.
Then Filip saw the one-room cabin standing under the shadow of the trees in a small, tidy clearing. Through its open window Filip could see an oil lamp on a table. As he watched, wondering whether to approach, he saw a thin, hunched figure pass across the window, momentarily blocking the light. Beyond the cabin, perhaps a hundred metres further through the trees, Filip saw the glint of moonlight on the dark water of the river.
Filip wondered whose cabin this was. Should he approach it and learn who lived here? What if soldiers had arrived before him and were waiting to catch him in ambush? Perhaps he could find a better view of the window and gather more information.
While Filip was considering these things, the river was calling out to his parched tongue. Surely he had time to slake his thirst before satisfying his curiosity. He skirted the clearing quietly, counting on the noise of the river to hide the sounds of his movement. As he went, he watched the figure in the cabin pace rhythmically back and forth across the window.
The riverbank was a gentle slope of smooth stones and gritty sand. He worked his way to the river’s edge, put down his tree branch club, dipped his hands into the water, and lifted them to his mouth to drink.
A voice behind him said, “You lack wisdom, O King.”
Filip leapt to his feet, taking up his club, and spun towards the voice. A wizened old woman stood before him, her face deeply lined and pitted and her long, thin, tangled grey hair falling down over her shoulders to her waist. She seemed to be always in motion, whether through the movement of her hands, the twisting of her head and neck, the roaming of her watery grey eyes, or the flowing of her hair and cloak around her, even in the absence of wind. By her posture, Filip recognized her as the figure he had seen in the cabin window.
“If you had come first to my cabin,” the woman continued, “I would have given peace to your troubled mind and rest to your weary bones. All would have been restored to you. But instead of following the course of prudence you pursued the desires of your tongue. You have again chosen to obey your lesser desires instead of acting rightly.”
Filip raised his club cautiously. “Who are you?”
The woman looked at the club in Filip’s hand, and he found himself lowering it and dropping it to the ground. “You wish to know who I am,” she said slowly, “and yet you do not even know who you are.”
“I know who I am,” said Filip. “I am the only son of King Vinick, who has been slain.”
“If he is dead,” said the woman, running a bony finger through her writhing hair, “then are you not king in his stead? But I see that you do not wear the Gem of Kings.”
Filip reached up and touched the white gem between his eyes. “I… am not king.”
“For what reason?” said the woman, coyly.
“I surrendered my gem freely, in order to save my own life.” The white gem began to burn again, as it had in the quiet grove.
“Yes, you cast away your birthright,” said the woman, stepping closer and raising her bony arm. “You gave up your identity. That is why you bear the sign of the dead.” She touched the gem on Filip’s face. “Does it burn you, un-King? What will you do with your shame?”
Gritting his teeth against the intensifying pain between his eyes, Filip said, “I will kill the man who took my father’s life, and reclaim my honour.”
“Undoubtedly you seek vengeance, naturally you desire it, but to what end?” The woman covered Filip’s face with both hands and whispered something softly in a language Filip had never heard. The burning in the gem passed, and she lowered her hands. “Beware the blackness,” said the woman. “It creeps into your thoughts and taints the white symbol you now wear. Revenge cannot be its own purpose, un-King. If you wish to regain your honour and the birthright that you have cast away, you must examine the intentions within your heart.”
“I want justice,” said Filip. “Is that not the purest of motives?”
“Justice is desirable,” said the woman, “but that is not what you are seeking. The death gem on your brow is already a symbol of justice. It is the deserved reward of a coward.”
Filip cast down his eyes. “Tell me, then, how I can redeem myself. What must I do?”
“Because your understanding is not yet complete, your path will be a long and arduous one.” The woman drew a crude wooden bowl from under her cloak and bent to fill it from the river. She handed the bowl to Filip and lifted it to his lips. “This is now your kingdom,” she said as he drank. “Reclaim it. Redeem it. Do this not with a dagger in the night, but with a banner in the sun. Remember: a man is not King because of a gemstone, but because of a people and a land. Yours await you.” Then she turned back towards her cabin among the trees and left Filip where he stood.
Almost immediately, an orange tinge came into the eastern sky. “Is it already morning?” Filip asked himself. “But only an hour ago, night was falling.” He had not slept, and he had not eaten, but he felt refreshed, as though from a hearty feast and a deep slumber. He bent to the river, dipped the woman’s bowl in again, and sipped the water. It was clear, sweet, and light, but as he tasted it he knew that he needed no more. He had already been filled.
Filip gazed into the trees, now lit by the low-angled rays of the rising sun, and searched for the cabin, but it was nowhere to be seen. Either thirst had twisted his mind in upon itself, or he had been in the presence of powerful magic this night. Filip left the branch, his only weapon, where it lay, and took his first step southwards, along the banks of the river, towards whatever destiny the waters held for him. An hour or two passed, the river growing ever wider and deeper as he went. Every tributary creek Filip crossed fed new strength and purpose not only into the river, it seemed, but also into his heart.
A stone bridge rose into view, spanning the river in a tall, graceful arch. At its peak Filip saw five men, three dressed in the silver armour and red cloth of Carrow’s army and two in simple, faded brown. As Filip approached, he saw the soldiers draw their swords.
“What is your quarrel, sirs?” called Filip from the riverside.
The soldiers looked down on him and brandished their weapons. “What concern is it of yours?” they replied.
“All that takes place within my borders concerns me,” said Filip.
“What borders are those?” sneered the soldiers. “This land now lies under the domain of the Emperor Carrow, for he has vanquished its king and taken the royal gem to himself.”
Filip stepped up onto the bridge. “Indeed, he has,” he said, “and I bore witness. But this river has given itself to me. Between its banks, I am King.” He looked into the eyes of the two unarmed men in brown. “Now I am calling new subjects to my banner.”
The soldiers laughed to one another. “A pretty speech. Where is your banner, then, o ‘King’?”
Filip raised his finger to his gem.
The soldiers lowered their weapons and their mouths fell open. “White,” they gasped. “He wears white between his eyes. Who is this?”
As the soldiers gazed on Filip in awe, the men in brown sprang on them from behind, seizing their swords and tossing two of them over the walls of the bridge into the water below before the third could react. A red gem broke forth on the chin of each man, sparkling in the sunlight.
“Return to your ‘Emperor,’ the lowly Crow,” Filip said to the remaining soldier. “Tell him that the one he is searching for has established a new kingdom, and is jealous to expand it.”
The soldier ran, and did not look back.
Filip turned to the men in brown, who were watching him and gripping their new swords warily. “You have fought well,” he said. “Will you fight for me again?”
“Your pardon, lord,” said one of the two, “but how can we fight on your behalf if we do not know who you are?”
Then Filip declared, “I am Filip, son of Vinick. My father, once king, is dead. In a moment of cowardice I surrendered my heritage and flung it away. This gem of death was my reward, for I feared to meet my death, to my shame, but this land has not forgotten me. The river has declared itself mine, and from its banks I will go forth against the one who slew my father. I will restore my father’s kingdom under a new banner, a banner of white, a banner of redemption.”
The men said, “We will serve you, O King, for we would rather wear white than red.”
Filip saw that he was still holding the wooden bowl that the witch had given to him, so he led the men down to the river’s edge and gave them each water to drink. As they drank, the new red gems on their chins transformed into pure and shining white.
“From today forward,” said Filip, “we are a nation.”