He had survived Principea’s scolding, at least her public one. She always knew what to say, and yet what not to. His head was pounding. His whole head was, to be sure, but he’d never admit that. The Healers had given them both enough dullwort last night to cut the pain a bit, and for today as well, though Rhutgard had not yet taken it, for it was to be taken with a liquid. Of course, they had absolutely laughed. In their King’s face. And a visiting King’s. What was it with Healers that made them believe themselves infallible to the law of the Land? Rhutgard, the most powerful man in the Land, had fallen asleep to the sound of Healers laughing over him. He really did hate Healers.
Finally, the boys trooped in. Well, mused Rhutgard with some satisfaction, at least he wouldn’t be the only one with a pounding head this morning. Each of the lads looked tired and as hung over as he had ever been, wincing from the sunlight, bloodshot eyes. Principea had ordered them out of bed and down here to join them in all haste, along with a breakfast for each of them as well.
Finally, tea. He surreptitiously slipped some dullwort into his tea and swirled it around before he downed it.
Across the room, he heard Reaghann wince aloud at the hot tea he’d downed. If Reaghann’s face was anything to judge by, then Rhutgard knew he looked just as awful – swollen and black-eyed, split-lipped….
Principea glided over to Reaghann. He grimaced as he held his jaw.
“Loose tooth, my lord of Hardewold?” she asked with sympathy.
He prodded about with a finger on his face and nodded slowly. “Possibly.”
Rhutgard suddenly couldn’t resist saying, “You know there’s a cure for that. Works every time….”
Reaghann’s eyes narrowed, but he waited for Rhutgard to continue.
“Pulling the fucker out.”
Reaghann glared at him across the room, while Principea, horrified, called out, “Rhutgard! Your language! What has happened to you!”
Rhutgard just could not help but grin and heard snorts of laughter from the boys in the corner, though they turned around to hide their expressions.
The other Kings in the room had far more practice schooling their demeanors but even Driscoll looked amused.
The last time someone had actually punched Rhutgard was, in fact, Luvian. At least Rhutgard had not lost a tooth this time. Rhutgard worried a bit about Luvian over the last few weeks, though there was nothing for it. But whenever Rhutgard saw his daughter, he saw her confidence, her good-natured personality, her quiet dignity, and knew he’d placed her with the right man….
He cleared his throat and called the Council to order.
“First order.” Then he paused.
Three Kings were staring at him with expectant looks on their faces, while all four lads, hung over or not, were drinking in the sight of the King of Romeny, Eastern Shield, purpled, blackened, bruised, cut, scratched up, and split-lipped.
No. That was not an item up for discussion.
“Details surrounding last night’s – boxing match – will not be disclosed.” He looked meaningfully at each person in the room, including Principea and Reaghann, to indicate that incident was sealed and thus over, closed.
Reaghann’s face was unreadable.
“Now. An item we will address is of a nature far more disturbing, to say the least. We have just received excellent information from an extremely credible source that – as many as possibly five thousand troops have entered Hardewold via its northernmost coastal ports, and have headed north on foot. According to our source, they are unmarked troops, from unmarked ships. Those three ports have been locked down for approximately three to four months.
“We do not have any information yet as to where these troops are. They may be in Hardewold. The first half may have made it into Delsynth.
“We also do not know their intentions. Are they planning a strike against the Eastern Alliance in more than one country? Just one country? Or are they traveling through to Ormon? Even Ambsellon?
“And that is a new development that we must immediately face and conquer.”
Every face was disbelieving, from his sons to Principea. Even Reaghann looked a bit sickened at the presentation.
The room remained silent for just a few seconds more. Rhutgard waited….
And then the pandemonium erupted. Many of them demanded answers from Reaghann and others babbled at each other in astonishment.
Reaghann flinched a bit but stood his ground, for he had already suffered through condemnation earlier for having unsavory characters on his Council and an assassin in his midst.
Rhutgard held his hands up high and yelled, “ENOUGH!”
All in the room stared at him.
Rhutgard walked over to Reaghann and stood beside him. He held an arm around the Hardewold King and announced, “There will be no denouncement in this room by anyone of anyone at any time.
“Reaghann has a very sound plan for checking his Naval yards and fleets, and immediately after he inspected these ports, they were shut down and troops came in. He gets bi-weekly reports from all military operations in his country. His Naval ports have all been telling him that nothing new has occurred and that all has been as usual. He has been given no reason to expect otherwise and would have left for another inspection in just three weeks.
“That is a very sound way to run a country and all of us might do well to imitate it if we haven’t already such a singular operation ourselves.
“May I remind you that Reaghann’s country is larger than any country in all this Alliance, and if people are paid to infiltrate it, it would be very difficult to discern.
“What has happened to Reaghann could easily have happened to any of us. It may actually have happened to any of us at this moment. We are appalled now because of the ramifications, and what appears to be proof. But this could have happened to any of us – getting false reports from anywhere, anyone, not so hard to imagine, is it? Therefore, be not so quick to judge.
“Reaghann has my full support, as would any of you, had this occurred to you in your countries. Hardewold is in need right now, and as an ally, and a friend, we will immediately move to strike back.
“But –” Rhutgard let his last word linger.
“We must also consider what these people might be doing. Where they are likely to be, how they are likely to get there.
“War is no longer on the horizon. We are at war.
“Until we know where these soldiers are, we don’t know how to fight them, and so we need scouts. Fast ones. Dispatch them immediately, each of you. No one leaves until we know who we’re fighting and where. No one leaves until we all have a solid battle plan.”
Rhutgard pointed at the lads against the far wall. “You four. You are now each a full part of this War Council. Mind your manners and don’t act like men, be men. The time for acting is over.
“What I want to know first – is who are these soldiers? Who are they? And why are they taking ship around the WetLands to as far as Port Stanton… rather than sailing in the opposite direction, or walking in any direction?”
Ronan interrupted him then. “If I may, Your Majesty –”
“Ronan!” Gerard cuffed him. “Manners, boy!”
“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty.”
“It’s all right, Ronan. Had you something relevant to offer on this subject?”
“You know of my previous assignment, Your Majesty. I was only to observe and report. Over the last six months, unmarked soldiers with fair complexions traveled up the Rosh River from what I believed was the west, always in groups of three and four. I occasionally heard a Western accent, but other than fair complexions, nothing gave them away.”
“Fair complexions,” mused Rhutgard. He walked over to the maps of the West.
“That could be any of the Coastals,” Driscoll observed in his dry tone.
“Why would any of the Coastals be sending troops here?” Principea chimed in.
“Not King A’dair?” wondered Rhutgard. He was just about to expound further upon S’hendalow when Ronan spoke up again.
“Your Majesty –” and Gerard cuffed him again.
“Manners, boy! This is the Eastern Shield you’re talking to!” Gerard hissed. “I apologize, Your Majesty, we did teach him manners, he’s just lost them somewhere, I’m so sorry.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Majesty.” Ronan looked down immediately.
Rhutgard sighed. He couldn’t remember what he was going to say anyway. He rubbed his forehead and gestured at Ronan. “Young Martel? If you mind your manners from henceforth, I would like to hear what you have to say.”
Ronan looked up, troubled. “I apologize, Your Majesty. Living as I did for so long, I grew accustomed to speaking out whenever I pleased. I most humbly apologize.
“I do, however, have a number of my own sources whom I made and I learned through one that the new S’hendalow king has completely changed everything there. He got rid of his Council and only has Inner Secretaries now, who report to him with information that he requires each week, and they have people who supply them with information with what they need to do their job. He refuses to have a group of old men tell him how to run his country, was what my source said when he disbanded his Council Members.
“A’dair is also betrothed and will wed soon, and is building warships of his own, but it would seem only for protection, as he is not building in large quantities. My source says A’dair also recruited new armed forces recently, but again, only to booster S’hendalow’s defensive abilities.
“So, with my humblest respects, Your Majesty, I would offer that S’hendalow is neither sending troops nor aiding in any design of conflict, present or future, though that is not for me to say.”
And with that, Ronan finished.
Rhutgard took all of this in. He nodded. Again, he was impressed with Gerard’s son. That boy would be an excellent king someday… many, many years from now be it.
The others were silent as they made sense of Ronan’s information. Rhutgard smiled inwardly as he saw Gerard place both hands on Ronan’s shoulders with pride.
“Well, then. I think it safe to rule out S’hendalow,” Rhutgard announced to the members of the War Council and gave a quick nod to Ronan. Gerard should be very proud of that young man, very proud.
“Then where does that leave us?” asked Principea. “Corstarorden? He’s a canny old man. But does he have so many ships that he could send troops to such account here?”
“I could see the old vulture resupplying them, perhaps, but where are they coming from, Ambsellon? Why would they sail this far? Why not just attack?” Driscoll ventured.
“Ronan told us they were of fair complexions, which cancels out both the Northern Countries. That leaves us only with Tortoreen. And, of course, Storden, but –” Rhutgard rolled his eyes about Storden. Everyone knew Storden was neutral.
“And Tortoreen only does anything that benefits it the most,” Gerard observed dryly.
Suddenly, Rickstan – or Rilstrom, Rhutgard thought to himself - stood up and stared at the maps. Rhutgard made nothing of it. Tortoreen was, of course, on the opposite side of Shaw, divided only by the Silver and Singing Rivers. Rickstan then glanced at Reaghann.
Reaghann raised his eyebrows. Rhutgard heard Reaghann say lowly, “That’s a bit of a leap, don’t you think?”
Rickstan shrugged. “Possibly,” he returned lowly.
Aloud, Rickstan called out, “King Harvick in Storden now has twin boys. To his Crown Prince Varley.”
Principea laughed. “Those will some very long nights for his wife.”
Ronan, Keldrick and Kendrick all stood up. “Varley is here,” they all said.
“I don’t like him.”
“Nor do I.”
“He’s a tool.”
“All right, all right, I did say to mind your manners.”
“Father, it’s a fact, the man’s an ass and he’s been all over Mirelle. He hasn’t left her alone,” Kendrick insisted.
“I’m surprised you haven’t received a betrothal request yet,” Keldrick said.
Rhutgard snorted. “Mirelle will not be marrying, nor betrothed to anyone, for some time to come. Particularly to someone you’ve described so thoroughly.”
Rickstan coughed. “He is… fair complected. As are his people. Could it be that his father doesn’t want him to sit the throne, in favor of the twins? That is what we call a – motive? Brothers in favor of other brothers. Perhaps Varley found out his father’s plans to disinherit him and is now dismantling Storden in return… and the Clemongard Queen was right after all. She is going to be assaulted on three fronts, and it is Storden soldiers who have sailed in to your ports, Reaghann…
“Moving north to Ormon as an ally?” continued Reaghann with widened eyes.
And Gerard finished by saying, “And here he is in your Court, Rhutgard, courting your only daughter.”
Principea looked over at him with fright on her face and ice ran through his veins….