He was still taking it all in. For two days, they’d been riding due east in a sea of glittering armor and waving banners. He was outfitted in perfectly fitted Western-style ringmail and armor, and were it not for the constant breeze from the ocean, Keldrick would be sweating like a pig. The more he saw of this land, the more he loved it. A constant breeze, but not humid and sticky, like the RiverLands, nor muggy and mosquito-ridden as the swampy WetLands, nor hot and sweltering as the Coastals. Romeny was landbound, and only warm in the spring and summer. Queen Selby’s Ambassador told Keldrick and Ronan that often the autumn here was seasonably warm as well.
Suddenly, they came to a stop. They had arrived at the tiny town of Thistlegood, where they would rest the horses. Infantry all around Keldrick took small sips of water. Ronan flashed him a look. Ronan was furious, there was no other way to describe it. But Keldrick’s mind was made up.
Ronan swung off his horse, his cloak flapping behind him. Tiredly, Keldrick dismounted, awaiting what he knew would be another of Ronan’s tirades.
Once he stood immediately before Keldrick, Ronan stared at him with furious green eyes. “Are you mad!” he hissed.
“No, and keep your bloody voice down,” Keldrick shot back in a whisper, for directly before them, the Queen rode, and she had just swung out of her saddle and onto the grass.
“He’s right, you know,” said the Queen quietly as she tossed her long, blonde braid over her shoulder. “You needn’t stay. It’s going to be a bloodbath.”
Ronan turned about and had the grace to look ashamed.
“Oh, you needn’t apologize. You need to know, I cannot protect you if you do stay. I am grateful for every last man who will fight on this field. But I cannot protect you, who are the son of the Eastern Shield. I need every man on this field to fight for Clemongard, not to protect the son of the Eastern Shield. Know that, should you choose to stay.” A small, wry smile crossed the Queen’s face briefly and was gone.
“I serve as the Eastern Alliance War Time Ambassador to Clemongard. In what way would I be performing my duty if I turned tail and ran home once the war began?” Keldrick asked quietly.
Ronan turned and walked away, his hands laced behind his head.
Queen Selby let out a long breath she must have been holding. She nodded shortly. “Thank you. A direct communication with the Eastern Alliance will be most welcome.” Her blue eyes looked afar to where Ronan had stridden. “Your friend does not approve.”
“No, he will not understand. We are cousins, and he will worry. No more so than I about him when the war starts in the East,” Keldrick returned.
The Queen nodded. “To worry about one country will be hard enough; to worry about five, and now my own – a lot of pressure to add to your plate, Ambassador Keldrick.”
Prickles raised upon Keldrick’s arm. That was the first time she had ever called him that.
The Queen turned and ventured forth to speak to a Colonel. It was time to move out.
Ronan stepped up to him. “Please, Kel – tell me you’ll change your mind.”
Keldrick shook his head slowly. “No, Ronan. We talked about this last night.”
They had near come to blows over it last night. But Keldrick was positive. Ronan had jabbed him by saying, “And what if she was a man? Or an asshole? Or a total bitch? Or an ugly shrew? Would you want to do this then?” Which was when Keldrick nearly punched him. Ronan caught his punch and they struggled to keep from hitting each other, and the truth became quite evident, but Keldrick had growled, “Yes!”
If Keldrick was entirely honest with himself, chances were, not so much. But there was still a country that was part of the Eastern Alliance, and he was his father’s son. Kendrick was the Crown Prince, and he had a lot of responsibility so far as becoming the next Eastern Shield. However, Keldrick had a responsibility as well, as the son of the Eastern Shield during a war… and he took it seriously. And Ronan simply did not understand it. Keldrick had not recognized it until they’d arrived here and the woman had nearly fallen apart before them. That was when he recognized that he had a duty to fulfill. After the war, then he could return home. Unless his father called him home before then.
“Still – you can still come back with me.” Ronan sounded hopeful.
Keldrick shook his head.
The Queen approached. “Your Highness,” and she bowed her head with deference to Ronan. “It is time for you to leave if you still plan to leave. I’ve supplied a retinue protection unit of twenty guards to take you to the Romeny border back through the Free Lands.” Her voice was gentle but firm.
Ronan was nothing if not proper. “Your Majesty, it was an honor to serve you. I thank you for the protection unit.” He bowed deeply before her.
“The honor was entirely mine,” Queen Selby returned.
Ronan turned to Keldrick. They embraced each other tightly and clapped each other on the back, their ringmail rattling with each pat.
Keldrick grasped Ronan by the shoulders. “Good will go with you.”
“And good fortune with you,” Ronan responded seriously.
Ronan swung up into his saddle. Then he looked down at Keldrick. “Stay alive, cousin.” He stared at him for a moment longer, then kneed his horse south. His Clemongard protection unit followed him and they raced away from the Clemongard Royal Army. Keldrick prayed they would see each other again soon.
Finally, they arrived at Rockdale Pass. The rest of the Clemongard Royal Army stationed there had tents and command posts already set up.
A mobile War Council had been held en route just an hour ago, when one of the scouts met them. A Command Station had been set up for the Queen and was awaiting her. Half the ten thousand men who had been stationed upon the southern border were now stationed at Cliff Watch Central, spread out between the Trellis and the Roarnebourke Rivers, as ordered. The Queen and the War Councilors who were present were pleased. Keldrick was still getting a feel for the geography of Clemongard but he thought moving the men to Cliff Watch Central was a sound idea.
Many of the men posted at Rockdale looked at Keldrick curiously, until he was introduced as the War Time Eastern Alliance Ambassador. Many of the men did not even know they had allied with the East, and so he was welcomed openly by the new additions to the War Council. A hastened Council was called, if only to familiarize the Queen with the new members of the Rockdale Pass War Council and her own from FalconRise.
Keldrick recalled all of Ronan’s lessons in how to blend in with commoners and infantry, and instantly saw the soldiers there had relaxed once they noted that he curried his own horse, for they had expected that they would have to protect a spoiled lordling, as Ronan had referred to it. He also fetched his own meal, though he might have asked the guard detail outside his tent to bring him one. He needed no steward, though the services of one were offered.
Keldrick recalled, too, the Queen’s words: “I need every man on this field to fight for Clemongard, not to protect the son of the Eastern Shield.” He would not have expected preferential treatment out on a battlefield, in the midst of a sea of armored men, himself included. And so, he acted as any other man-at-arms would. He almost felt guilty for the placement of his tent, which, due to his position as Ambassador, was next to the Queen’s.
But during the War Council, when Queen Selby introduced him, he knew he had made the right decision. Information such as “thousands of men on the other side of the pass” and “marching toward the Blood Fort even as we speak” and “sailing toward Cliff Watch North” had all but washed over Keldrick until he had addressed them. He’d looked at each of the men in there, mostly field Captains, Lieutenants, scouts. And then he’d told them, “I’ve come to coordinate your efforts with the forty thousand troops who are on their way as we speak from the Eastern Alliance. Communicate through me to the East.”
The entire War Tent had been silent, for jaws had dropped. And he had seen hope wash over their faces. To have brought hope to an entire country…. Keldrick knew he had made the right decision.
Such strength she had! His mother was strong in a different way, Keldrick thought as he stared at the hypnotizing flames of the dying campfire. Mother would sweep into a room, her gown aswirl around her, and everyone took notice. Mother was a very powerful woman in her own right, married to the most powerful man in all the Land, and women flocked to be near her, men bowed deeply before her, and she was gracious, kind, tactful, and generous. Yet she had a steady gaze that could become dangerous should she become angry, which was rare, and men turned from it, even Father himself shrank before it. Keldrick and Kendrick had provoked it many times. Mother ran that entire Palace. She set the fashion standard for the entire East, coordinated entertainment, supported literature, arts, and music, donated to charities and hospices all over the East, and assisted the poor and poverty-stricken. Mother was a force of nature.
But the woman – Selby – she had insisted on Keldrick calling her, though it felt far too unseemly, even for him – was a force of nature all in her own right. And of an age with him, as well, which he could not help but like.
In the twilight, Keldrick stole a glance at her as she sat across from him in the grass and immediately froze, for she took that moment to bite into an apple she’d brought out of her tent. Her clear blue eyes met his over the fire and held his gaze for a moment. Selby said nothing but sighed instead and returned her gaze to the fire.
Selby had lost her mother some years ago to fever, he knew. But Keldrick wondered what it was like to lose all her remaining family all at once, leaving her a ruler and worse, having to take her country to war, with so little knowledge and training. He could not fathom losing Father and Merridon and Kendrick and Mother in just six weeks’ time. And Mirelle. To leave him King of Romeny, and Eastern Shield, and in charge of the war….
Keldrick remembered meeting Selby years ago… they had been perhaps thirteen. Keldrick hardly remembered her, and only recalled her because the Clemongard Royal Family had made the trip for a Spring Seasonal. Keldrick and all the boys were more interested in tourneys and jousting, and the entertainment that year than they had been the young girls, but he did remember Selby as a lighthearted and laughing young girl, the center of attention as a Western visitor.
This woman sitting across from him, crunching into an apple, staring into the fire, there was neither lightheartedness nor laughter to her. She was tough and hammered, strong as the steel that encompassed her, as the cleaver she wore by her side. There was only wariness and distrust, and what Keldrick deemed exhaustion. Stray wisps of hair had escaped her braid and the plait that bound it. He wondered if she would sleep at all tonight.
Just then, a horse cantered up into the Queen’s camp. Two QueensGuard moved to hold the horse’s reins while the rider threw himself over the saddle.
Both Keldrick and Queen Selby stood up.
The rider eyed Keldrick suspiciously. “Your Majesty,” he said, and bowed.
“Have you a message?” asked Selby.
“It is – for Your Majesty, with all pardons,” and the rider bowed with respect to Keldrick.
Selby replied, “He is my Ambassador from the Eastern Alliance. Whatever you have to tell me, he may hear as well.”
“As you please it, Your Majesty,” and the rider bowed again. He took a breath and then the words spilled out. “Cliff Watch North is under attack from Ambsellon! We’ve lost three ships, but taken two of theirs and boarded two. They’ve boarded two of ours as well. I was told to tell you, Your Majesty, by the Cliff Watch Tower, that we are holding our own and keeping to the plans we put in place. No ships have made it to land. That was the message as of my leaving three hours ago to give you this message.”
Queen Selby nodded throughout this. “Thank you for getting here so quickly, Sergeant.” She waved at a soldier. “See that his horse is seen to immediately and that the Sergeant is brought to the War Tent. Bring him some nourishment as well.” She waved at another soldier. “Call the War Council to the War Tent.”
Queen Selby looked across the fire at Keldrick. She drew in a deep sigh.
“And so it has begun.”