“If it please you, Your Majesty –”
King Hewart ignored the servant. He always enjoyed Mulford’s comedy, “The Invasion of the Armies: A Very Long Tail.”
Hewart had sat in this same Great Halls for half his life watching tragedies and long, drawn-out dramas for theatre, for his lord father, may he rest in peace, had always preferred them. Comedies made light of that which they held most dear, of the wars and battles that men had died to win.
Hewart appreciated that. King Starthann had known nothing but war – against Clemongard, mainly, but he had planned the larger part of the Twenty Years War, years ahead of its formal commencement. King Starthann had sat at Grandfather’s side, listening to tales of war, learning war strategy – Hewart wondered times if war had not been the first word off his father’s tongue in the cradle. King Starthann had been a very serious, stern man, and stalwart to the last, but there had been no laughter in the man, and he had rarely smiled.
But Hewart as King was made of different stuff. He honored the dead, the sacrifice of the soldiers who had died in the service of Ambsellon, the wars, the battles. He had nominated three more days throughout the calendar year as honorary veteran and military holidays.
So if he wanted to enjoy comic theatre, no complaints should be made. And really, “The Invasion of the Armies: A Very Long Tail?” The 100 Legions War had been five hundred years ago, or so he thought… his memory for history was not at its best anymore, it might be seven hundred years ago. The point of the damned thing was that it was all of the countries fighting until they ran out of men and gave up – as the dog chased its tail throughout the whole play.
“Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, it is of some import…”
Hewart cracked his neck to both sides and then looked up at the servant. “Boy. You do see that we’ve got theatre here?”
The servant looked as if he might piss himself as he nodded. Little runt. Hewart sighed. “Well, go on then, what is it?”
The audience laughed. Damn. That had been his favorite part. The runt lowered an ornate silver platter. Upon it rested a sealed note.
Hewart glared at the servant and snatched the note. He pulled the seal apart and read three neatly inked words: “News from Romeny.”
From Romeny? Hewart sat up straight in his throne. That was of note. Had it been from Ormon, he would have brushed it aside – Ormon could wait. But Romeny – he rarely received news, and certainly not correspondence from Romeny.
Hewart leaned forward and jabbed Sturgund in the shoulder. Annoyed, Sturgund turned to berated whoever had jarred his attention away from the play. Then he saw his father beckoning him with a finger and immediately leaned forward.
Hewart stood up and, with regret, left the Great Hall. His Kings Guard started to follow him, but he shook his head. “I’ll be back soon enough.” They nodded with unease, for their one calling in life was to ensure Hewart’s safety. Hewart had found the idea of a Kings Guard unnecessary at best – he was perfectly able to swing a sword.
Furthermore, a patrol of guards trailing along after him like puppies made him look weak. He could hardly tolerate it, but after the end of the Twenty Years War, death threats had been made, aye, and nearly carried out, he mused as he considered the scar on his back. And thus – he walked about with this pathetic retinue of liveried sword swingers.
As soon as Hewart closed the door to his study, his son stared at him.
“What the bloody hell –”
Just then, Hewart’s chief advisor, Levonroth, entered from the back of the study.
“Perfect timing, as always,” grumbled Hewart. How Levonroth knew when Hewart to attend him, he would never know. Hewart knew there was an answer, and whatever it was, he didn’t want to hear it.
“Always, Your Majesty.” Lord Levonroth bowed.
Lord Levonroth had served Hewart’s father before him, and therefore came with only the highest of references. Hewart had been changing his father’s household staff out for his own after his father’s passing, from Cabinet members to Gate Guards.
“And why should I keep you on?” Hewart asked.
“You shouldn’t,” replied Levonroth.
Intrigued, Hewart had asked, “Why is that?”
“Because I know far too much.”
“Your father. This kingdom.”
Hewart had frowned at him, unsettled. “Would you hire you, if you were me in this conversation?”
Levonroth, who had known Hewart for the better part of his life, raised an eyebrow and stared at Hewart. Then he had said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t be having a conversation with a servant. I’d have the balls to hire him or throw him out the gate.”
Hewart had never forgotten that conversation. Needless to say, he had hired Levonroth, but also punched him for speaking to him in such a manner. No other man had spoken to Hewart in such a manner prior to that, nor had any man henceforth.
Levonroth continued. “We have received word from Romeny.”
“And?” Hewart asked. He leaned forward upon his desk. Something about Levonroth he’d grown to hate – he really drew things out. He could just lead with the information. Times he just wanted to throttle the man. Just give him the fucking basics, man!
“It’s odd, actually.” Even Levonroth seemed puzzled, which was a rare thing. He presented two pigeon parchments and placed them, with unbroken seals, upon Hewart’s desk. Sturgund leaned forward from his leather seat in front of Hewart’s desk.
“Have we not been waiting for word from Ambsellon, rather than Romeny? Both of those are Fairview seals, Sire.”
Hewart picked up one of the rolled-up pigeon parchments and examined the seal. He looked up at Levonroth. “Have you seen this seal? It’s a Royal Seal of Romeny. From the Palace itself.”
Sturgund asked, “Is it authentic?”
Hewart had included his oldest son in much of his business over the last three years, be it simple commerce, trade, royal necessities and ceremonial events… and strategies unknown to all the rest of the land but himself. And, of course, Hewart sighed, Levonroth.
After studying the seal briefly, Hewart nodded. “Authentic. I rarely receive written communication from Fairview, but I recognize it well enough.”
Hewart glanced up at Levonroth. “What the bloody hell are they doing still in Fairview?”
Levonroth gestured with doubt.
Hewart sat down in his chair behind his desk, then popped the seal off the pigeon paper and unrolled it.
“‘Borne cub awaiting near the spring.’”
Hewart looked up at Levonroth and Sturgund. “What the bloody fuck is that supposed to mean?”
They, too, bore expressions of confusion.
“Father, read the other.”
Hewart twisted the seal off of the other pigeon parchment. This one had best make sense….
“‘Borne cub awaiting near the spring,’” he read. “Bloody hell!” Hewart tossed the parchment off his desk.
Levonroth hurried to pick it up. He examined it and then the first. Then he stared with reluctance at Hewart and shook his head slowly. “I’ve no idea.”
“What does ‘near’ the spring mean? What happened to Ambsdale? I was supposed to collect the information at Ambsdale from the two of them once they made it back over the border,” insisted Sturgund. “That doesn’t say anything about a cave at all.”
Hewart stroked his beard thoughtfully. Finally, he said, “I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. It stinks. Something about it stinks.”
Levonroth suggested, “Perhaps the initial reports of torture were worse than we heard. Whoever sent that may have had his brains too – scrambled, perhaps, to send something sensible to us.”
Hewart rose from his chair and paced around his study. No. Something was wrong.
“That Ormon bitch….” He turned around and glanced at them. “Would she have sent this?”
Both of them looked surprised.
“From Fairview Palace?” asked his son.
Slowly, Hewart nodded. “Somehow, though, somehow… she has a hand in this shit. She’s not innocent. Any bitch who plans to force her husband’s hand… that’s no one I trust, even if it benefits us in the long run….”
Hewart remembered feeling a bit of respect for the Ormon Queen – albeit reluctantly, for she was just a woman – when she had outlined her plan for Hewart to move on Fairview, on Romeny while they lay hibernating, as she called it, which had pleased Hewart, since he was the King Bear…. And then she could sweeten her husband into joining Hewart against Romeny, and then the Eastern Shield, for much of the Shield had not yet recovered from the Twenty Years War….
For all the bitch’s whisperings, Hewart did not trust her farther than he could spit.
And this… this bloody note. The men they sent off were supposed to meet in Southern Ambsellon and wait for Sturgund to meet them and report home to him with their information. Their return trip home was plotted out ahead of time, their note to be sent home pre-arranged…. What the bloody hell was this?
“Father –” Sturgund’s voice was impatient. “I know the note is not written as we arranged. But let me ride out to Ambsdale and see if either of the men are there.”
“No.” Hewart placed his hands on his hips. “We do not need this information. We have fought countless wars without information from inside spies. And won, I might add. Something about these messages stink. I trust my gut. As will you one day, for sometimes, it will be the only source of information you’ll have. No offense intended, Lord Levonroth,” Hewart nodded to his chief advisor.
Levonroth shrugged. “None taken. Sound advice, I might add. Though, I do hope, young Sturgund, that I will not need to advise you in the same capacity as I have your father and grandfather. May that day never come.” Here, he nodded in deference to both Hewart and Sturgund.
Hewart smiled tiredly, but Sturgund rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, yes, Father, may you live forever, but –”
Sturgund, who had also begun to pace with impatience about the study stopped, for Levonroth had coughed politely and Hewart had produced a loud and lengthy clearing of his throat.
This is my son, who will one day sit my throne, Hewart mused. May he mature substantially before then and now….
Sturgund suddenly looked up, at both Levonroth and Hewart, aware that what he’d said had been offensive. A round “o” suddenly overtook his features and he gaped like a fish.
“Sturgund, if you act like this in public, then I despair of you,” Hewart sighed as he looked down the bridge of his nose at his eldest son. “At least finish what you were saying.”
So chastened, Sturgund continued in a more respectful tone. “I only hoped to say, Father, that, perhaps what was expressed in those parchments was a coded clue, something the sender attempted to let us know. If we decode the message, we might know where to find our men, for obviously what the arrangements we agreed upon with them before they left for Romeny have changed.
“The word spring is still mentioned, and cub, and those both mean Ambsdale and me. Therefore, do you not think it then prudent for me to at least scout out Ambsdale? Our men may be awaiting me. Forgive me, Father, but I do not think after their sacrifice for the Crown, that it is just of us to leave them without the support we promised them.”
Hewart and Levonroth flicked a glance at each other at the close of this speech.
Ah, his son. If he could just keep his dick in his pants and those fine ideals in his head, he would make a fine king one day, a fine king….
Sturgund, swing a sword, shoot crossbolts? Oh, yes, with the best of them. Had he a brain for business, for accounting, numbers? That he did, and better than most, even if Hewart were to admit, himself. The boy’s memory, it soaked things in like sand, and it never forgot a thing. He was better at strategy than battle, but he’d not fought on a battlefield before, either, mused Hewart. Not yet. But the boy – he had too much passion – passion for women, passion for ideals, passion for justice…. And those latter two, if not all three, would get him killed.
“My son – did you not hear me when I said that something about this stinks? I trust my gut, and my gut says that something is wrong,” Hewart insisted.
“I, too, believe things are not as they seem,” protested Sturgund. “But how will we find out for sure if we sit about this desk, wandering about hemming and hawing? Are we not bears, are we not creatures of action?” demanded Sturgund.
Damn that boy of his. Damn him. Right in the balls. Too much of himself in him, grouched Hewart. He glared at Sturgund.
“Very well –”
“But – a detachment of men shall accompany you,” finished Hewart.
“What?” The despair on Sturgund’s face was tangible. “A detachment? Whatever for? I can take care of myself!”
“That I don’t doubt,” returned Hewart. He readied himself for what was going to be a number of protestations. This was woman’s work. His wife was cold and dead in the ground these five years past, bless the woman. Hewart didn’t fault the woman for taking a fever, but she would have handled this stubborn child far easily than he. Women take care of unruly children, not men. Hewart was a king, not a bitch full of milk for pups to nip at.
“A detachment will only call attention to me. Aside from making me look weak,” Sturgund glared.
Levonroth cleared his throat. Hewart and Sturgund switched their attention to the chief advisor. He was tapping his chin thoughtfully.
“Might I suggest a compromise…?” Before either Hewart or his son could reply, Levonroth continued. “Send a small detachment… but have it follow at a discreet distance behind you, a few hours, let us say.
“We, of course,” Levonroth gestured at Hewart and himself, “will choose the men ourselves.” Though this was intended as compromise, Levonroth’s sturdy delivery of the idea made it clear that that the plan was now complete and would be set in motion.
Neither Hewart nor Sturgund cared for the plan entirely but it was better than any other.
“Ride out at first light, then. And by the gods, boy, don’t take any foolish risks. There is nothing right about this.” Not a damn thing, Hewart added silently.