The bell in the hallway rang. They stopped talking so that Stanyard could leave the room. When he returned, he looked puzzled as he stared down at a pigeon parchment.
He handed it to Rhutgard. “It’s from Clemongard, but not sealed with Her Majesty’s Royal seal.”
Rhutgard glanced around at the men in the room with whom he’d been closeted for nearly two and a half weeks now. He raised an eyebrow and slid a finger beneath the seal.
It was from Queen Selby – she was just being cautious, he decided. He had done the same more times than he could count.
What he read took his breath away.
“Kendrick! Find Mirelle and bring her here immediately. And Keldrick.”
To: King Rhutgard Anghus Firthing, First of His Name
Eastern Shield of the Eastern Shield Alliance
His Royal Majesty of Storden, Harvick Whittemore Goddard recently died under what I consider suspicious circumstances. As you know, Clemongard’s neighbor to the south, Storden, has been a neutral country for centuries.
King Harvick wrote to me not three days ago, telling me that he had disinherited and disowned his oldest son Varley, formerly Crown Prince. King Harvick and Queen Talia recently had two twin boys, and the oldest of these two will take the Stordish throne when he comes of age. His Regent is Dordonas Goddard. The two twins and the Queen are in hiding with the Regent now.
King Harvick just sent me a good will gesture of three hundred warships, all built privately by Varley. King Harvick informed me that he suspected Varley to be allied with Ormon, if not Ambsellon as well. He was unaware of Varley’s militaristic recruitment and was never involved in any part of it.
Immediately after I received this notice from King Harvick regarding the three hundred Naval forces sent to me, I also received notice that King Harvick died in his sleep. The King warned me in his letter that, after Varley finds out his Naval fleet is gone, he may well strike at Clemongard.
I know that Varley has been visiting you in Romeny and I know not what designs he may have, especially so close to the Northern Countries. You should know, however, that by his father’s own hand, Varley is not welcome in his home country of Storden.
May this information be of use to you.
From Your Ally,
Her Royal Majesty Selby Cylysse Stevanrhut, First of Her Name
Queen of Clemongard
Reaghann was the first to respond after Rhutgard finished reading the letter aloud. “So… it’s true then. It’s the Stordish who have been heading East.”
Gerard said, “I have a question. Does the little bastard know that his father is dead?”
Rhutgard rose his eyebrows. Damn good question. The whole of the War Room was silent.
“Because if he does, then he thinks right now that he’s King. And if he doesn’t, then he thinks he will be soon. And either way, he has no idea that he’s been removed from the line of succession, unless some source sent him a bird here, which is unlikely. Harvick took that secret to the grave with him, so only the Regent and the Queen know about that, I’d bet.
“So right now, he thinks he’s got an extra fifteen thousand men ready to command and that he’ll be King… and you know, him being here as long as he has, perfect alibi. She said, suspicious circumstances, didn’t she?
“So the real question is, what will he do now, whether he becomes King of Storden or not?”
Driscoll sighed, staring off. “You know, I remember Harvick’s father. Good man. Only met him twice, he let us resupply during the Twenty Years War. That was right before he died and Harvick was about twenty or so. I’ll rule for suspicious circumstances on this. Too young to die in his sleep.
“As to this Varley – what he does comes down to whether he gets into Storden at all. If he’s not welcome, then he’ll have to take it by force. Somehow, I don’t see that happening. The commoners won’t know he’s been disinherited. My guess is, he’ll find out his Navy and his troops are gone. He’ll head right into Kingston and take Pikes Keep as a show of force, to strike back. Then he’ll either head north to Clemongard and find the Stordish-Clemon border heavily fortified with the Queen’s troops, or he’ll head south to the Coastals. He is an ally of Ormon, now, so essentially the Coastals have to accept him by extension.
“I expect he’s done being told what to do by the Ice Queen, now that he’s sent her some five, maybe six thousand troops by water and land. His father moved a few pieces on the gameboard he didn’t see coming and now he has no Navy, so he’ll just strike out at random. My guess is – he’ll head around the Coastals toward our RiverLands.”
Kendrick, who had walked in with Mirelle and Keldrick during Driscoll’s proposed theories, spoke up then. “To what end? He has maybe twenty thousand troops left.”
Rhutgard had informed Kendrick and Keldrick at the same time that Merridon had abdicated the throne, which made Kendrick the Crown Prince and Eastern Shield-to-Be. He’d also informed them that the time for laughing and playing around was now over, they were to be at his side to learn all things Kingdom-related and Eastern Shield-related henceforth, Kendrick to one day replace Rhutgard, Keldrick to serve as Kendrick’s Chief Advisor if Kendrick so wished and, of course, if needed, as a possible King of Romeny and Eastern Shield himself.
Rhutgard had never seen either of them so solemn, nor so grave. Kendrick had then placed both his hands on Rhutgard’s shoulders and said quietly, “Father. Please. Live forever.”
Keldrick had also been intensely earnest when he agreed with Kendrick.
Rhutgard had waited to inform Kendrick that he was now the Crown Prince until a new signet ring had been crafted – which had been done in extreme haste, but which was nevertheless, exquisite – and he took Kendrick’s hand and put the ring into his palm.
Kendrick had moved his other signet ring to his right hand and slid the new one on. He’d stared at it for a few seconds and then breathed out. He’d glanced at Keldrick and then at Rhutgard. Then he’d taken in a deep breath. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Rhutgard had been quite pleased. Kendrick and Keldrick grew up overnight. Gone were his laughing boys suddenly, now replaced by sobered, serious young men. Rhutgard, with some sentiment, would miss those laughing young twins though….
Reaghann spoke up. “He’ll want to join the troops he sent East. I’ll need to send more men down to the Southern Shield. As will the rest of you – send men South.”
Rhutgard held his hands up. “Do not send men South just yet. First, we need to wait and see what he does once he returns to Storden. If he attacks Clemongard, then men you sent to the South was for nothing. If anything, fortify the Southern Shield, but do not brace the entire border.”
Reaghann conceded with a nod. Then he looked at Driscoll. “My lord of Delsynth. You’ve fought in more skirmishes and in the entire Twenty Years War. You have more battle experience than all of us. What do you suggest we do while we wait?”
Driscoll smiled a bit. “Son, you’re looking to the wrong man. I was a scout during the Twenty Years War. I rose up the ranks sneaking around in the grass and the woods and the hills.”
Reaghann cocked his head. “But does that not then make you the perfect man to direct our movements? You know what is like to see from all sides, both hostile and friendly territory, rather than soldiers, who – forgive me –” and he nodded toward Rhutgard and Gerard – “only fight against men while upon one field of battle.”
Rhutgard nodded. Reaghann was a young King yet, but he was clever. For all this nonsense that had just taken him by surprise, he was a clever man and would rule Hardewold well, he mused.
Driscoll was rubbing at his chin, considering.
Gerard spoke up. “He’s right, that’s sound thinking. Without scouts, soldiers are blind.”
Rhutgard couldn’t help but remember his own experience in the war. Why, it was a scout that brought Luvian to him all those years ago.
“Driscoll? What say you?”
Driscoll shrugged. “I don’t think my old uniform fits like it used to, might be a little tight about the middle,” here he looked down and patted his stomach. Rhutgard wanted to scoff, for the man was still as slender as he’d ever known him to be.
“But I’m up for it.”
“Well, then. While we wait for Varley, let’s take down these soldiers who snuck their way in. And open up those ports of yours as well, Reaghann.”