After several days following the Byric River up north while passing through countless farmlands that dotted the forested and mountainous landscapes of the kingdom, the grand towers of Alcaire Castle rose from the horizon to greet the young Hjalti and his armored escorts. The journey for the soldiers was coming to an end, but little did Hjalti know, his journey was only just beginning.
While they rode through the gates of the city walls, the tall king was standing on the balcony of his palace all the way at the other side of the city, yet still he could see the young Breton entering his town, and it put a smile on his white bearded face. There was also a sense of regret present in his eyes. As the wrinkles on his face gave away, the king had seen many years in his life, and during his time, he was the witness of countless wars. He knew what it did to men, and he wondered how it would affect this young and innocent child.
The king made his way downstairs, just in time to sit on his throne to receive Hjalti. There, he welcomed the boy with open arms, with the words: "Well, look at you! The last time I saw you, you were but a wee babe. And now here stands a tall and proud man before me. How the years have flown by!" The king exaggerated, for he was huge himself and the boy would have only reached his belly button if the king would stand up. Now that he was sitting on his throne on top of a platform, however, Hjalti's eye level met the knees of the king.
For the young Breton, this was the first time he really met his generous provider. He bowed down gracefully, for next to learning martial arts, Hjalti was also made accustomed to the courtesy of how to greet nobility and how to talk to them. So, the boy knew how to handle himself well in front of the king, to the latter's satisfaction when he noticed this after exchanging some pleasantries: "I see they have educated you well in Starfall. Excellent! I would like to introduce you to my son -my second son, as are you, correct?" the king stated before he waved at his servants to fetch him the man in question.
The prince arrived dressed in shining armor with a white cape on his back and a heroic look on his face with brown eyes. His golden, waving hairs matched the color of his breastplate of professional make. In every way he looked like what one would imagine how a prince did look like. The king introduced him as prince Parren, his twenty-one-year-old son who was just going to lead his first military campaign. And Hjalti was chosen to become his page, his companion
At first, the young man was of course very proud and honored to be granted such a title. However, it didn't take long for him to figure out there was more to the job than he first thought. Especially since the character of the prince didn't match his beautiful appearance. Before long, Hjalti found himself covered in mud while smelling like horseshit as he was taking care of the white stallion of the prince. And just a few hours ago, he was doing the laundry after he had served Parren his breakfast. Yes, the prince made no bones about it that he didn't really like Hjalti. To Parren, the boy was just as Agnorith had predicted: a servant among many others.
And it continued to go like this, day after day, until finally the first long month had passed and every preparation for the prince's campaign had been met. That was the day when they were leaving to the north, following the road to Rivenspire. At the foothills of the Wrothgarian Mountains, there was reported to be a hideout of cultists who were making travelers disappear.
"Hjalti! Come over here!" Prince Parren yelled without using his vocal cords. He was lying on his belly on a hill at the lower mountains, past the royal encampment. Next to him, there were soldiers with one looking through a spyglass to a small beam of smoke rising from the treetops, "I want you to return to camp."
"But sir! I want to fight," Hjalti whispered back, "I know I can be of help!"
"Sure you do. Now do as I say."
"Very well, as my prince commands," the boy left the hill with bowed head, but before he disappeared from sight, Parren said: "Wait, Hjalti."
"Yes?" Hjalti turned around with big, hopeful eyes.
"Prepare the soup I like -you know which one I mean- before I return. This won't take long, and fighting always makes me hungry."
"Yes, my prince," Hjalti said, trying hard to mask his disappointment, before turning around.
Back at camp, there were several other servants belonging to the different knights and soldiers, and there were a handful of guards left behind as well to protect the place. Hjalti entered the biggest and the brightest tent of encampment, and inside, he made a fire to make the water boil, before cutting some of the vegetables. Cooking was not something Hjalti learned in Starfall, but the prince made sure the boy could add that skill to his repertoire.
As he finished the soup, he waited. In the meantime, he spoke to some of the other servants who he got to know in the passing month. They were lower servants, mind, as they did not deserve the attention of the prince. When they did get the Prince's notice, it was not to their best interests though, because that would mean there was trouble followed by someone being whipped, or in another case a servant and all his family had been expelled from the kingdom.
So at least there was pride to be found in that at least for the young Hjalti, as he was above them. Most times, however, it did not feel like that, and he often envied those servants who did not have to deal with the prince directly. Luckily there were still plenty of benefits from being the personal assistant of a prince, as for now he had the whole tent and all her amenities at his disposal. And there he continued to wait. And waited. And waited even longer.
Meanwhile, he heated up the soup and reheated it again several times, until all fuel for a fire was gone and the soup could not be made warm again. Just when he rebelliously decided to spoon the cold meal for himself, a guard entered by roughly throwing the canvas door aside. It startled the boy, and he accidentally spoiled the soup over his clothes.
"The prince is not here?" the guard asked and Hjalti shook his head, "Something is awry. Come, we're going to look for him," the guard continued, and this took Hjalti by surprise: "The prince has ordered me to stay here. If I disobey him, I get into trouble!" he argued, but the guard had none of it: "If his lordship is captured -or worse- and we don't do anything, we have even bigger troubles. So come on, on your lazy feet, you!"
Hjalti did again what was commanded, and armed with a bow on his back and a dagger sheathed at his belt, he followed the guard and a handful of others to the hill where he had been before. There, the men made movements to follow their way to the hideout but were quickly brought to a halt by the words of Hjalti: "Wait! This is the road the prince and the others took the first time!" he whispered, "If we think they walked into a trap, wouldn't it be smarter if we take a different route?"
"True, but this is the only way available," the first guard responded. He was a Nord, and though he was only eighteen years old, his height and impressive beard made him look much older, "Unless you have the gear to climb a mountain?"
"No, I guess not," Hjalti mumbled while thinking aloud, "But I am small and quick on my feet. Let me scout the road ahead and when I think it's safe, I'll let you know. If you don't hear anything from me, well… then you need to take a different route."
"Ha! You are braver than you look, little one," the Nord said and nodded: "Very well, we'll be waiting here for your return. Good luck."
"Thanks," Hjalti simply said before he moved into the bushes. With his heart pounding in his throat, he made his way through the forest when he noticed the footprints of the prince and his soldiers in the mud. He looked ahead and the smoke giving away the location of the hideout had long since disappeared behind the canopy of the trees, so it was hard to guess how much distance there was between him and the cultists' layer, or when he could expect to meet the enemy. Although from the position he was in now, it felt like the enemy was already watching him and he could find an arrow piercing his chest any moment now.
With the rustling of leaves he heard behind him, it was confirmed that his suspicions turned out to be true. With one quick movement he turned around and drew his bow with one of the arrows he held in his hand. "Easy there!" the voice of the Nord sounded, as he putted his hands in the air.
"What are you doing here?!" Hjalti said elated while having trouble keeping his voice low. The guard explained how it seemed better if he shadowed him, so that if Hjalti would indeed walk into a trap, the guard could report that back. This however, did not land well with Hjalti who had not yet put down his bow: "You used me as bait?"
"Well, it was your own plan, wasn't it? I am just here as a back-up plan," the Nord explained, "Really, I didn't want to follow, but it was the only way to appease the others who worried sending you here alone would ruin our chances for a surprise attack."
Hjalti wanted to respond to that, but before he had the chance, he was jumped by the enemy he couldn't even see, as they knocked the light out of him before he could even turn around.
The next moment he opened his eyes again, he was in a damp cave with a minimum of torches illuminating the place, which were responsible for the strange shadows dancing on the uneven rocks which formed the walls around him. He had a look on his captors. They were dressed in black and dark-red robes with their faces concealed by the shadows of their cowls. They were standing in what appeared to be the center of a much larger part of the cave, where the ceiling was almost no longer visible anymore.
There, a well with inscriptions of Daedric letters was to be found, and the cultists were gathered around it, chanting in a strange language. As Hjalti witnessed, a prisoner like him was carried towards the place, a man he recognized as one of Parren's soldiers. Halti was tied up to a pole, so there was no way he could have intervened when the cultist's leader cut the throat of the poor man and dumped his body into the well. He could only gasp in fear and disgust, and wait for the sound of the corpse hitting the bottom of the pit. However, that sound never came. Strange, thought Hjalti.
Afterwards, their leader turned her attention to another prisoner who was being dragged towards her and the pit. It was the prince himself who apparently saw no shame in bagging and crying as they brought him closer: "Please! My father will reward you handsomely if you set me free! I promise! Please! Have mercy!" he could say before one of the cultists muted him by putting a clothed knot into his mouth which they tied around his face.
It didn't look very well for the Prince. But then Hjalti did something remarkable. Before he knew it himself, he had opened his mouth, speaking loud enough for the Daedra lovers to hear: "He is right, you know. If you spill his blood, yours will be the next by the wrath of the king." It worked, for the focus of their leader was now towards the boy, though if it was for the better or the worse remained yet to be seen.
With the bloody dagger in her hands, she spoke: "Cute little boy! What do I care about the anger of men when I serve the Lady of Secrets! Soon this world shall be concealed in shadow and darkness, and my Prince of the Spiral Skein shall hold the scepter of Nirn as the rightful ruler!"
"But that is where you are wrong," Hjalti continued to contradict and possibly antagonize her further with his newfound courage. The Nord and the other guards were looking genuinely surprised at the otherwise very quiet kid. Only prince Parren did not hear anything of this, for he was already passed out, "But I guess we will find out soon enough. Carry on, then, pretend I didn't say anything."
"Wait, what do you mean?" the leader asked. The trap had been set and she had walked right into it.
"Well, you are right of course about the fact a Deadric Prince is stronger than any mortal. But just checking, how mortal are you guys? Do you think your Lady can resurrect you? After… er…," Hjalti improvised. He had to come up with a plan quickly, before the cultists would lose their interest -or worse, their patience, "Yes, after the king brings this whole place down on your heads? You see, the king followed his son with an army of trebuchets and ballistas. If his son doesn't survive, he has little reason to not smash those boulders into the mountains above us. And he is setting up those siege weapons as we speak. So, whatever you decide, do it quickly."
The leader thought about it, then she said: "Very well, you will be taking the place of this prince of yours. Men, bring him to me." Luckily, Hjalti was also prepared for a scenario like this, and now he had to say something that was even more interesting: "Wait, wait! Are you just gonna let the king win, then? Even if you release the prince and bargain with his father to leave this place with his weapons, what's to stop him later?"
"What are you saying now?"
"Well, in truth, I am but a simple servant who has been treated very poorly by the prince. I bare no love for him, nor for the king or his realm," the young Hjalti stated, "Let me join you. I can be of use to you."
"Ha! You said it yourself; you are a menial. How can you be of any use to us other than feeding your blood and your very soul to the Bottomless Pit?" the leader argued while referring to the Daedric Well at the center.
"Because the king trusts me. Don't you see? If you let me help you, I can go back to the camp and request a meeting with the king. I tell him his son fought a glorious battle but got wounded, and now he has sent me to get his father to him. I lure him into this place, and after he will be easily yours, there will be no one to stop you."
The leader now came walking towards him until she was so close nearby, Hjalti could see the two red dots of the Dark elven eyes. She did not look particularly happy: "Do you take me for a fool? What's stopping you from running away once we let you go? Or perhaps you are going to warn the king instead! No. Men, take him!" she said, repeating her command from the last time. But this time another voice brought her to a halt, a high-pitched voice echoing through the caves that sounded very unnatural. All the heads, both from the cultists and from their prisoners, turned to a dark corridor of the larger cave, from which a monster of a nightmare came crawling from the shadow.
It was a creature with the upper body of a dark woman and the lower part of that of a spider with four massive legs on each side. It was a Spider Daedra, but not just any: It was an aspect of the Daedric Prince herself!
"Bring this mortal to me. His plan amuses me," the abomination said, and the Dunmer responded by kneeling down: "Lady Mephala!" she gasped and the other cultists followed her initiative, yet they were still quick to fetch Hjalti. The latter said nothing and did nothing. He even agreeingly walked towards the Webspinner. Whatever was going to happen now was in the hands of the Deadric Prince.