At last they reached the summit of Shepherd’s Watch. The chilly wind whipped their hair against their faces as looked north across Ballena Bay, north towards the mainland, and Paccara, which lay over the horizon. They looked over the little town which Luca and his Uncle Marco called home, when they were not aboard El Cisne Negro, sailing from port to port. Down there, Luca’s aunt Candela would be making the evenings meal. It would be a small one. Today was Luca’s twelfth birthday: he had come of age. Today, as far as Bortolians were concerned, he was a man. They’d been feasting since the morning, the whole town invited to the celebrations. No one would be hungry in the town of Mamola tonight.
He knew his uncle well enough that he’d had something on his mind as they’d made the ascent up this hill. They’d spent years together, working closely, aboard the ship. For over ten years he’d been sleeping in his Uncle’s cabin, running messages for him to the mates, washing his clothes or whatever other errands he’d had for him. They both had salty blood, as it was said of sailors. The sea, the unending, always moving sea, that rose and fell like the fortunes of a man’s life, was the true home of them both. Perhaps even more so for Luca, who had been only two years old when he first began to regularly travel with Marco.
But now as he stood beside him, he remained patient. There was no sense pestering him. Uncle Marco always spoke in his own time.
“You’re a man now, lad.” He laid a hand on Luca’s shoulder, the warmth passing through his glove.
“It’s time I told you something I’ve been waiting a long time to say. You may not understand it at first. Perhaps you’ll be angry with me. But understand we’ve kept this secret from you for your own good. So promise me you’ll just listen and don’t be too rash to judgement.”
“I promise, Uncle,” said Luca looking up to Marco’s eyes. He was looking out over the water, but with Luca’s eyes on him, he looked down and met his stare. A smile rippled across his face, his eyes bunched up at the edges and wrinkles appeared on his forehead. Luca watched his Uncle’s face with growing curiosity.
“We told you that my brother Roque and his wife Dana were your parents. That they’d died of the plague and you’d been sent to us. It’s true they died of the plague about the time you were born, but they were not your parents. No, lad, your mother was my sister Maria-Estrella.”
“She was a maid in the palace, the king’s palace in Sacros, the palace of thirteen stars, as they call it. She started working there when she was twelve. The same age as you are today. She was pretty even then. I did visit her from time to time when I could. But it is a long journey from the coast to Sacros.”
“I heard later that in her sixteenth year, it was like a flower blooming. Noblewomen were jealous of her beauty and she caught the king’s eye. And that’s how you came to be, Luca. The king was seeing your mother. And not long after she was with child. And that child was you. ”/campaigns/the-lands-of-yore-the-bortoli-chronicles/characters/king-ferdinand-fernandez" class=“wiki-content-link”>Ferdinand the Wise is your father. And that’s the secret I’ve kept from you these almost twelve years."
“I’m sad to say your mother died not long after you were born. Ferdinand seems to have really loved your mother. He kept her cared for, in the palace, by the court doctor, throughout the pregnancy, or as soon as he’d realised she was pregnant. But when she died, the fires of his devotion turned to a bonfire of anger.”
“Your father, the king, must have felt strongly for your mother to have been so enraged by her death. Perhaps you can take some comfort in that Luca. But he was so enraged that Soccoro, your mother’s friend, feared for your safety. Somehow he thought you had caused her death, which of course is nonsense. It was the plague that took her. So Soccoro slipped you out of the palace grounds by night… who knows how she managed to get past the palace guard.. and took you to our cousin, and your uncle, Carlos, who in turn brought you to Paccara. It was there that I met him and brought you back here to Islagaard.”
“There were fires in Paccara as we sailed away to the south. They were burning the homes of plague victims, hoping to stop the pestilence from spreading. Luddite zealots were walking the streets, preaching the plague was a judgement from their damned god Ehowa. A punishment for our lack of belief, our lack of submission to their sky fairy. And people throughout the city were converting. They’d try anything in their fear to protect themselves. Others chased the Luddites out to the city limits, or threw vegetables, and then rocks at them, or tossed them out into harbour. Some just slit their throats and let them bleed out over the cobblestones.”
When we came into harbour, my crew would not even dare leave the ship. Our cargo was left aboard. There was no one working the docks to unload it. But Carlos had been waiting with you in the city. He knew I was due to port sometime in Luna de Heno. He waited in that plague ridden city for over three weeks for El Cisne Negro to sail into the harbour. He’d paid someone to watch out for us. And so you were only two moons old when I first laid my eyes on you. You’re lucky we’d even weighed anchor. The crew had wanted to turn round as soon as they’d seen the plague flags flying, but I’d said that with the plague in town, there’d be need for the supplies on board. As it turns out they never got them. I had thought to try unloading what we could without the dock workers’ help, but when Carlos brought you to me, I relented and we left as soon we could.
Carlos would not come with us. He had his own wife and family to return to, in Sacros. He’d worked as blacksmith there. I later heard from his wife that he died from the plague a few weeks after returning to them. A brave man, a worthy cousin."
“You’re a man this day, Luca, and you deserve to know the truth. But you must keep this secret. The king’s first wife, Queen Yolanda, never bore him children, so you are his first born son. But you are a bastard, to put it plainly. If this became widely known, it’d only cause you trouble. The king has three sons and two daughters now, your half-sisters and brothers, from Queen Mirana. And Prince Alejandro will be king when Ferdinand passes.”
“You’re happy enough with this life, aren’t you lad? No good can come of it… telling others of this tale. Your mother was a dear sister. A gentle woman. If only she were here to see you today. Her son a man. She’d be proud of you I’m sure.”
“And your father? Well, who knows what thoughts weigh on a king’s mind? You could be angry at him lad, I expect you are. Go off and kick something. Get into a fight. I won’t blame you. But in the end, and though there are some who’ll call this heresy, he’s just a man. If hold a grudge against him, you’ll only be harming yourself.”
Luca looked away then. Indeed there was a rage boiling up in him. Finally he looked back to Marco, watching him with concern.
“You joke with me, Uncle.”
“Nay, it’s no joke lad. I would not joke on this.”
Luca’s eyes went back to the ocean. The surging sea churned by late winter winds.
“I should stick him like a pig! That man!”
“That’s it lad. Let it out.”
He picked up a fist sized rock from the earth and tossed it down the hill. It cracked against granite boulders jutting through the soil as it made it’s way down the slope.
“I’d be alone, Uncle.”
“It’s well, Luca, it’s well. I’ll return to your Aunt. You come home when you’re ready.”
“It’s well, Uncle. It’s well.”
He watched the figure of his uncle as it descending towards the town. The only father he’d ever known.