Nearly a week. All five of them were exhausted. He’d never seen Driscoll this… relaxed. Usually he was stiff and stern. Now, his surcoat was loosened and he should have shaved this morning.
Gerard, of course, was never stiff and stern, the exact opposite of Driscoll. Gerard was always merry and lively, but after these last few days, he was grumpy and had drunk more than normal, Rhutgard suspected. Understandable, of course, for sending any of his troops to Clemongard depleted him should Ormon cast its attention his way. Driscoll would be watching over South East Ghiverny, and Rhutgard knew, if the others did not, how much that rankled Gerard.
Shaw had far too few troops to send, and so his task was merely to guard the Riverlands – as it always had.
Hardewold was the biggest country in the East per mile, bordered by the EverWinters, Delsynth, Shaw, and even a portion of Romeny, with the Singing and Rosh Rivers to the West, the WetLands, and a massive amount of coastal waters. Reaghann’s Southern Shield Castle had never been breached, the very entry to Hardewold that wasn’t a part of another country, but the Free Lands instead.
Reaghann could supply troops to Clemongard and probably not even miss them, Rhutgard mused. Reaghann was mainly vulnerable from the coast, and rarely did anyone have a Navy of note large enough to mount an attack on Reaghann’s Naval fleets.
He’d sent the Clemongard Queen an Alliance Acceptance from Romeny and also sent an offer of Alliance from the Eastern Shield – they were only waiting to receive her reply now.
It was an historical event for Fairview, hosting all of the Eastern Alliance at the same time, and for this long. Principea wished a portrait could be painted – ah, she did love portraits. Once Rhutgard thought of it, he thought it an outstanding idea, but certainly not under the circumstances. Furthermore, not a one of them would ever be able to remain still for so long. And Gerard would make them laugh constantly… Rhutgard could imagine it now, the artist would be driven mad.
No one knew of the real purpose of the Alliance’s assembly, save their sons. And how enamored they’d been with the idea at first. Rhutgard snorted. Not so enamored now. He had set the four of them to studying books of war tactics and strategy in the library. Which was more he had ever had, he mused. At noon and at the close of the day, they reported what they learned to the Alliance and offered their thoughts.
Much of what they were studying was quite old and but had been tried and used successfully in battle in war after war, from the Battle of the Banners straight up to The Twenty Years War. Rhutgard had them studying Naval Stratagems as well. They were now officially allied with Clemongard and at minimum, Queen Selby had four hundred war ships sailing her way. Furthermore, if Queen Selby elected to accept the Eastern Alliance’s offer, then Reaghann might well be sending some of his own warships west, and that meant the boys needed to familiarize themselves with the seas and the oceans as well as naval attack strategies.
It was not humorous at all, but Rhutgard found some small humor in how tired the boys looked at the end of each day. No more did war hold such appeal. Even less appealing would war be the day the first sword swung.
Rhutgard’s Study was now a makeshift headquarters, where military maps, maps of each country, both wide and detailed, and lists of information from resources were pinned to his walls. They were referring to his Study as the War Room now.
Lord Stanyard walked in with two pigeon parchments. Stanyard had been ensuring that no one overheard what was spoken of in the Study, the way the lads had. Guards were stationed farther down the hall, and they made use of the old bell system – just a simple ringing of a regular bell, to let food in and out, messages for the King, and people approved to be let in, such as Principea and the lads.
Rhutgard unrolled one of the pigeon parchments – it was on fine parchment and he knew it was from Clemongard before he even saw the wax seal.
To: King Rhutgard Anghus Firthing, First of His Name
Eastern Shield of the Eastern Shield Alliance
Clemongard accepts your gracious offer of an Alliance with the Eastern Alliance.
I await any Correspondence, as requested.
Her Royal Majesty, Selby Cylysse Stevanrhut, First of Her Name
Queen of Clemongard
“Ah,” Rhutgard nodded as he held the parchment up for all to see. “She accepts.”
Around the War Room, sounds of acknowledgement resulted from his announcement.
And then the bell rang out in the foyer. Stanyard stepped outside briefly but walked in with several steaming trays of dinner. Was it evening already? Just as well, for Rhutgard was famished.
Now that Clemongard had officially allied with the Eastern Alliance, even if for what might turn out to be nothing at all, an exchange of information would prove very fruitful….
“Your Majesty, the other message…?” Stanyard pointed to the parchment Rhutgard was still holding in his palm.
“Where is it from, do you know?” He looked the parchment over, for it was dusty. “What does… ‘PSt’ mean?” he questioned Stanyard.
Stanyard shrugged. “Never heard of it, Sire,” he replied.
Rhutgard shrugged. “Might be it got lost and came here by mistake.” He popped the mysterious seal open.
To: King Firthing of Rhutgard
I write to inform you that Port Stanton, Ferrisport, and Chesterport, all on the North Hardewold coastline, have been shut down by incoming soldiers. They are dressed in common clothing but all know they are soldiers. They arrive in large ships each week and then travel north by land, and no one knows where. No one is allowed to leave from ports, only soldiers are allowed in. No one knows what country these soldiers come from and their ships are unmarked. King Reaghann may not know of this so I write to you as birds to HarCourt may not fly. – Anonymous
Rhutgard stared at the page. “…What? No.” He read it again and then took in an enormous breath. PSt. Of course. Port Stanton. Bloody hell. Troops, through Hardewold, each week, from three different ports. Bloody hell….
“Reaghann.” He said it quietly. Reaghann was the youngest of them all, had the least of time as a King, but times were, Rhutgard thought him the cleverest of all of them.
Reaghann was just laughing at a joke with Gerard and Rickstan.
“Reaghann.” He tried not to sound angry, but did add a tone of insistence to his voice.
Reaghann heard him this time and approached. “Rhutgard?”
Rhutgard reminded himself that Reaghann was both young and had been on the throne what, five, six years? Nevertheless…
Rhutgard placed a hand on Reaghann’s back and steered him toward the Information board, where they had put up all their resources, discovered from informants, learned on their own, and pooled together.
“Reaghann, what is the state of your Navy at present?”
“Near capacity. Two ships were lost in a storm, but shipwrights are rebuilding.” Reaghann did not inquire as to the nature of the inquiry but lifted his eyebrows, clearly curious.
“When was the last time you visited a Naval Port?”
Reaghann rubbed at his chin as he thought. “Five months ago, I’d say. All was well, nothing out of the ordinary. I run Naval Port visits quarterly, to see for myself the state of my fleets, my Naval Yards, my men.” Reaghann crossed his arms and looked directly at Rhutgard. He was clearly annoyed at what seemed like a questioning of his capabilities but refused to show it, out of respect for Rhutgard’s office as the Eastern Shield.
And quarterly visits were an excellent practice, Rhutgard believed.
“How often do you receive reports?”
“Twice monthly from each port. Forgive me, Rhutgard, and accept my pardons, but is there a point to this interrogation?”
Rhutgard frowned. Bi-weekly, and nothing mentioning incoming soldiers. Perhaps this was a ruse.
“Rickstan,” he called.
Rickstan hastened to join Rhutgard at the Information Board.
“Did the two of you not share an informant who went by the name of Anonymous?” asked Rhutgard quietly.
He watched the two of them flick a glance at each other. Now his temper was starting to fray. This was like trying to drag information out of Kendrick and Keldrick. Neither wanted to admit anything for which both were complicit.
“Obviously, both of you know more than you have shared with me, and that we will address shortly. First, there is the matter of this informant with whom you have both worked. Do you both trust this… Anonymous?” And Rhutgard pointed to the Rickstan’s pigeon parchment and Reaghann’s list of lords, both from Anonymous, both written in the same hand.
Immediately, both Kings nodded emphatically.
“And neither of you have any reason to doubt this informant?”
“None whatsoever,” said Reaghann.
“That informant has my complete trust,” added Rickstan.
Rhutgard’s eyes narrowed. He’d heard more convincing lies from Keldrick and Kendrick. Something was not right. If one of them said, “Honest, Father, I promise,” next, Rhutgard would not find it at all amiss.
“And we have established that both parchments are of the same handwriting.” Rhutgard did not wait for them to comment.
“Since that is, indeed, the case, then I think we will establish that this – informant – of yours, whom, by your own words, you trust completely, you have no reason whatever to distrust – has also written this. I’m sure you will agree that the handwriting is the same.
“But first,” and Rhutgard pinned it the wall next to the others, “I want you to read it.” His dangerously low tone was warranted, Rhutgard thought.
He watched Reaghann’s jaw drop open. He watched Rickstan close his eyes and sigh.
“I think that you two and I have a few things to discuss. Starting with whatever you haven’t told me. Outside. Now.”
“I would crack your skulls together if I thought that might make a difference,” growled Rhutgard.
“I beg your –”
“No, my lords, you will, both of you, remain silent.” Rhutgard held up a single finger and stuck it in both their faces.
“If either of you had bothered to open your stubborn mouths back when this had occurred, we might be a little better off than we are now. A little. You – masquerading as a mad man after he had you thrown into a prison under your dungeon. It reads like a tale. What both of you failed to do was report this to me. It is my responsibility to find out why these things happened. Why an assassin on your Council assisted your brother to imprison you. And now that your lives have returned to a semblance of normality, have either of you attempted to find the men responsible? Surely your brother was not working alone.
“Now, explain how I am to go in there and explain that my lord of Hardewold has had hundreds of soldiers sneaking into his country under his very nose for months now? More to the point, where are they going? Are they stationed in Hardewold? Have they gone to Delsynth? Do they plan to attack Ghiverny? Romeny? Join the Ormon forces? Hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, Reaghann. Fifty men per ship, each week, at three ports for four months – Nearly five thousand men have made it through the Eastern Alliance, and we don’t know where they are now, who they are, why they’re here, or what they’re going to do. And those are just the ports we know of.
“Now, you tell me how I’m to go in there and tell them that.”
Neither King said a word, though Rhutgard believed they were too shocked to say anything rather than out of his instruction to remain silent. In fact, all the blood had drained from Reaghann’s face.
“Worse, I just offered troops to a seventeen-year-old Queen so that she doesn’t lose her country. How am I to go back on that vow now I discover we need our own troops at home.
“What do I tell them in there?” He pointed emphatically toward the direction of his study.
No one said anything for a few seconds.
A light twilight breeze blew across the side garden.
Rhutgard saw Reaghann’s auburn hair riffle a bit before he said quietly, “What would you like me to do, Rhutgard? Fall on my sword? Would that make it easier? Or I could kneel and you could execute me, behead me.”
Rhutgard stared at him. The audacity!
“Why, you little –!” He punched him in the jaw.