With their cloaks wrapped close against the brisk salt air blowing at them over the white capped waves of the Bay of Afrah, the three young men standing on the sea wall ignored the activity within the harbor behind them. Their attention was focused instead on the hazy horizon, beyond which lay the lure of legendary destinations with exotic names and colorful people with bizarre customs. But more, it promised the possibility of action and adventure, perhaps even romance - all the stuff that fired the young men’s imaginations.
Inside the breakwater, trading ships worked to side-slip their way up to the stone quays, while others already tied to the docks were overrun with stevedores loading and unloading their precious cargoes. The only ships within the harbor that could possibly draw the attention of the three young men were those with their banks of oars extended and pulling strongly into the wind as they passed the sea wall on their voyages to the ports the young men dreamed of one day seeing.
These were three men that people noticed, for all were uncommonly tall and powerfully built. More than that, however, the contrast they presented was arresting. The centermost of them had long dark hair which just missed being black, with unnaturally dark eyes under pointed eyebrows that suggested an elven heritage. To either side of him stood two identical blonde-haired bookends with eyes which, in this setting, reflected the gray sky over them.
"The ambassador’s ship isn’t due into port for almost another week, Alex," one of the two blonde giants said, "and that presumes ideal winds. The ambassador will be here soon enough."
"I wasn’t thinking of him, Harold," the dark haired one replied. "I was thinking that there is a whole world out there to be explored and I want to do it while I’m still young enough to enjoy it."
"Don’t be so impatient, Alex," said the other blonde giant. "Your father said we will sail on your trade mission as soon as the preliminary negotiations with the ambassador are completed. He is correct that you must learn to administer Confirth against the day he is no longer able; not to mention the entire principality of Gleneagle someday."
"You and my mother ever counsel patience, Mitchal," Alexander said, looking the other in the eye. "The maddening part of it is that you are both correct."
Straightening up and throwing his cloak back, he clapped the twins on their shoulders and turned toward the buildings clustered alongside the quays where travelers from near and far sought food and drink, and shelter for sleep and casual companionship.
"Drink, my friends, that’s the key," he declared as he bounded from rock to rock along the seawall in the direction of the taverns. "Tonight we drink and we wench in preparation for my twentieth birthday. I will be twenty but once and I wish to enjoy every minute of it."
The blonde twins were, of course, the eldest sons of Kemp and Peg, and would have grown up in Wrensfalls to follow their father in his trade had not Caron implored him to join her at Confirth shortly after she returned from her confrontation with Styxis on the other side of the boundary. Kemp had resisted initially, fearing being asked to mingle frequently in the world of the nobility in which Caron lived, but Caron had reassured him. "I wish only to have a smith in my castle in whom I have implicit faith," she had told him. "You and Peg will be far more comfortable here, and your children will have opportunities they would not otherwise have."
In the end, it had been Peg who convinced Kemp to move from Wrensfalls. "I am unable to separate myself from the horrors that occurred here, Kemp," she had said, "and Confirth was the first place I ever felt I belonged after Morgan took me there to serve in the scullery. To me, Confirth is home."
The very young Alexander had accompanied Caron whenever she visited the blacksmith shop, which was often when the boys were still children. During those visits, the heir apparent to the thrones of Confirth and Gleneagle would trail along after the twins, Mitchal and Harold, just more than four years his senior, and it wasn’t long before they had formed a friendship that would eventually draw Kemp’s sons away from the smithy and into Alexander’s world.
Though not a formal part of his world at first, they had watched and learned, as young people will, how to act and move in the company of nobility. Similarly, they watched and learned the arts of swordsmanship, of the bow and arrow, and of the lance which they practiced at length with Alexander until they were competent with each. However, with the exception of the war hammer, they were never the equal of the young prince to whom the skills came as if by instinct.
At first, Kemp was disturbed by their defection, but it was not long before he and Peg had yet a second set of male twins who were enough younger than Mitchal and Harold that they were never included in the older boys’ activities. These were the ones whose interest remained in their father’s shop; who hammered the hot iron for hours at a time beside Kemp just as he had done beside Bork, his own master when he was their age.
Peg had watched the boys as they teased their sister, Marlis, and she marveled as her daughter took on part of the responsibility of the new twins as if she was their mother at six years of age. She would smile as the tumult built in the front room while she cooked dinner, for she was living the life she had heard Kemp describe so many years earlier after their chance meeting at the crossroads on that first fateful trip to Wisdom. This was the life she had dreamed she might one day share with Kemp.
Alexander had fulfilled the promise that Caron had foretold to Roland half in jest before his birth. He was, indeed, a beautiful man, but in the masculine sense rather than the feminine sense that some beautiful men are. The shape of his face and hue of his skin was his father’s, his hair and eyes those of his mother, and his physique was that of his disgraced uncle, Berlayne, the former Duke of Confirth who had fallen victim to Greyleige’s influence. Like his uncle, he was a warrior of deadly skills and power. Like his father, he was a natural leader who instinctively knew the right thing to say or do whether in battle on the borders of the principality or in negotiation with his enemies following his victories. If he had inherited any small measure of his mother’s magical potential, it was that which attracted men and women to trust and follow him without question.
He was every bit the man that Caron had foreseen would establish a kingdom at some time in the future that would last more than a thousand years.
As the three companions walked briskly through the narrow streets of Afrah in the direction of their lodgings, the others in the streets unconsciously made room for them, though not because of any feeling of threat from them. It was simply their sense of energy and direction as well as their imposing size that caused those they passed to step aside. The few that recognized Alexander as the prince apparent of Gleneagle would dip their heads in acknowledgement, but Alexander himself did not dwell on such ceremony.
"Why do people do that, Mother?" he had asked when he was ten years old.
"They are acknowledging us as their rulers," she had answered. "They are acknowledging that they are our followers."
His brows had knit in thought. "I think if anyone wants to follow me," he said, "they should just get in line behind me."
Caron had laughed lightly and looked over Alexander’s head to Roland who smiled proudly and winked at her.
Turning the corner onto the street on which stood the Porter House Inn, famous for both the quality of its service and the quality of its ale, the companions were brought up short by a two-wheeled cart being pulled by a donkey which was turning from the cross street to head in the direction from which they had come. As they stepped aside to allow room for the cart to pass, Alexander looked up and found that it was being driven by a middle aged peasant woman. She smiled and bobbed her head pleasantly at him in acknowledgement of the nuisance she had created, then touched the donkey lightly with the cane she held in her right hand to urge it on its way. To her right sat a passenger heavily bundled in clean but poor quality clothing against the chill breeze blowing off the bay.
Alexander started to step away from the building against which the three of them stood when the passenger looked up briefly toward the driver of the cart, then lowered her face once again into her clothing. He stopped suddenly and watched after the cart as it moved slowly away from them.
"Come along, Alex," Harold called when the twins realized they’d gotten ahead of him. "Several pints with our names on them are calling loudly to us from within the Porter House."
Mitchal had returned the several steps to take Alexander by the arm and turn him toward the inn. Alexander turned his head to his friend. "Have you ever seen something or someone you’ve never seen before, yet which looks familiar nonetheless?" he asked.
"Of course, Alex," Mitchal replied. "It’s called ’dejà vu’; it means ’already seen’."
Alexander shook his head slightly and looked toward where the cart had disappeared when it turned another corner. "I know what it means, Mitchal," he said distractedly, ignoring the mild sarcasm of his friend’s remark.
"Are you not feeling well?" Mitchal asked.
"I just saw a vision it feels I have seen somewhere before," Alexander replied. "A vision of peaches and cream."