This was his stern face. Probably he wore it quite often, but today it was sterner than usual, for it masked the enormity of his emotions – they were just a… a conglomerate, and all of them useless.
Hewart was accustomed to conspiracy. Conspiracy was part of what colored the Royal Bears’ bloodline, for hundreds of years. Networks of spies and infiltrators from generic informants to scouts to deep cover agents and even, he mused testily, double agents, had spun the wheels of war for Ambsellon for countless generations.
He’d had a whiff of this conspiracy, but only a whiff. All of it was an oddity, every single sliver of it, and so he had, against his better judgment, dismissed what his gut was insisting, demanding of him at the time.
Never, Hewart thought, never should he have let Sturgund leave.
All but three of the soldiers he had sent with Sturgund had survived, and one of them would no longer be serving, for his leg was broken and like as not, he’d walk with a limp for the rest of his years.
A knock sounded upon the door of his study. Hewart shook his head but Levonroth opened the door to admit the servant.
Hewart stared at the servant, who held up a trembling tray before him.
“Somebody had best be dead – else take that rot away!” growled Hewart.
The servant paled but continued to stand before him.
Levonroth advanced quickly to the servant and smoothly removed the parchment from the silver tray before Hewart upended it in the servant’s face.
He strode to the velvet curtained window and stared out at the gray day. Snowing.
Behind him, he heard Levonroth pop a seal open.
“Your Majesty –”
Levonroth rarely was speechless, so this must be worth listening to. Hewart unclenched his teeth and wandered to his desk. He leaned on his desk chair.
“Well, are you going to tell me or do I have to guess?” Hewart snapped.
Surprise was replaced by amusement as Levonroth looked up from the parchment. Hewart suddenly realized how rarely he had seen Levonroth smile, but right now, as he gazed at Hewart, a smile crossed over his face.
“Sire, news from Ormon. His Majesty, King Munsolrysche of Ormon, is dead. Murdered, in fact.”
Levonroth than folded his lips in to hold back a laugh.
Hewart’s eyes grew round. “Well, I’ll be. Son-of-a-bitch. I’ll be.”
He sat down in his desk chair and realized his mouth was open with astonishment. “Son-of-a-bitch.” Hewart thought of all the meetings, battles, wars, the feasts and ceremonies…. “I knew the man – what, forty years or more. And murdered?”
“Does it say how?”
“Harrumph.” Hewart crossed his hands over his chest and rocked back in his chair a few times. “Be damned,” he finally said. Then he realized something. “Shit. That means funeral services. And the swearing in of the new king – and – and – all that bloody mess.”
Ambsellon and Ormon had been allies for so long no one even counted the years anymore, except historians. Brother countries nearly, though not literally.
But, just as any other ally, as soon as the changing of the guard of a new ally took place, they immediately were at the side of the new king, to swear allegiance. More so with Ormon and Ambsellon – their Ambassadors immediately stepped up to the task of aid and support. Hewart remembered distantly the prior Ormon Ambassador, explaining much of Ormish customs, politics, and formal requirements back when he had taken the throne.
And all that bloody paperwork they’d need to sign - fortunately, his Ambassador was a canny one. Hewart forgot the Ambassador’s name most times, but Levonroth oversaw the better part of the communications from him.
The main part of this Hewart was hating more and more that he thought about it was the bloody trip to Ormon. Across the mountains, and in this weather. To that miserable ice mountain they considered a home. Ambsellon lived most months of the year in cold weather, and rarely saw grass, to be sure – but the temperature in Ormon dropped far below what Ambsellon lived in year around.
Between the trip over the mountains, and staying for who knew how long, Hewart hated the idea. And… part of it was this gout in his leg. It wasn’t gout as far as anyone else knew. He told the Healers that it wasn’t gout, so they said it wasn’t gout… but privately, Hewart knew it was the onset of gout. A lengthy trip over the mountains with a long retinue of followers would take forever, and then a prolonged stay in a miserably freezing cold country…. Such was the reason why Hewart always invited the Ormish to Ambsellon.
Not attending an Ormon Royal funeral, and an Ormon Royal changing of the guard, was out of the question. Unthinkable. Bloody hell. The next few months were going to be miserable.
Levonroth popped open the seal of the second message.
“Funeral private – please do not attend. Will send details for Changing of the Guard ceremony. All prior messages to be disregarded.” Levonroth stopped reading and then commented, “It has the Queen of Ormon’s seal.”
Hewart relaxed in his chair. “Well, some luck to come out of that. No one wants to traipse across those bloody mountains at this time of year. Or ever, frankly. Who’s the new king going to be? Can’t ever remember the boy’s name… begins with a ’b”.” He knocked his knuckles on his desk.
“Bryranth,” Levonroth supplied.
“Ah. Well, then, long live King Bryranth. Odd sort of name, isn’t it. Wonder how the old man was murdered….”
Levonroth shrugged. “I can’t imagine, but I do have a few men in the Palace over there. One has managed to station himself fairly high up. He sends a bird each week to one of my men. Mibol, Mabol, I don’t recall his name, but I’m sure we’ll find out what happened soon enough.”
“Ah. Excellent,” replied Hewart. Levonroth had a plum in every pie. It wasn’t that Munsolrysche was a friend, per se, but as long-time allies, they had planned numerous battle skirmishes, fought the Twenty Years War through, sat side by side in feasts and ceremonies, occasions of all sorts…. Yes, Hewart decided, he would raise a toast to both the man and the King tonight, and likely drink himself completely drunk.
A thought crossed his mind then. “The seal is authentic, I suppose?”
A snort of disgust came from across him. “How might we know at this point?”
Hewart’s stern face replaced his curious expression.
Never had he ever been so proud of any of his children then he had when he found out about how the bastards had ambushed Sturgund, alone in the snow, hardly anyone to assist him, yelling for the enemy attackers to charge him….
The three survivors had been too far away at the time to assist him just then, but had seen and heard everything, and reported the entire scene, word for word, blood for blood, to Hewart.
As a father, Hewart looked at his son’s body and died over and over again inside. He could remember upon an occasion or two chastising Sturgund to be more careful in his swordplay and his riding lessons, and the boy replied with that happy-go-lucky charm, “Don’t worry, Father, you still have two more sons!” Hewart had told Sturgund that he was never, ever to joke about such a thing, not ever.
As a King, Hewart had wear a brave face and allow no one, not even Levonroth, to know the kaleidoscopic emotions he felt, for he had a number of actions, ideas, he wanted to follow through on.
Sturgund, however, sitting before him, was of a single mind. Someone had been ordered to kill him. His blood had been spilt and he would not rest until he found out who.
The boy – Hewart could no longer call him a boy, not now especially – sat there, bandaged, when he should be abed. He was furious, and he wanted to find out who had tangled this mess, who had ordered his death.
Sturgund’s arm had nearly been hacked off with an axe, and the back of his head had struck a rock as he’d fallen into the snow, or such was Hewart’s report. Whatever had happened, he’d been unconscious when they’d arrived back at the castle, two of the soldiers taking turns carrying him.
Hewart had hovered about in the Healer’s wing, and they had tried to shoo him from the curtained bed but he’d refused.
So many Healers surrounded Sturgund, Hewart could hardly see his son, and Levonroth pulled outside. “Give them space to work,” he’d commanded in a whisper.
So the two of them stood just outside the curtains waiting anxiously.
At one point, Sturgund regained consciousness and started thrashing about on the bed. “What the fuck! Get off me, you bloody wench!” he’d shouted.
Hewart and Levonroth had stared in surprise at each other, for Sturgund was always so courteous and well-mannered.
“Drink it!” came the hiss of one Healer.
“Fuck that! I’m not drinking some bloody potion – let me up – get off, me, woman!” All Hewart and Levonroth had heard was the twittering of Healers about Sturgund and his thrashing about in the bed. Hewart had hated to find humor in the situation, but to hear his son screaming so had brought the smallest of smiles to his face.
Then Sturgund’s thrashing had stopped for just a few seconds. “Did you just – slap me! Do you know who I am?”
The Healer had snapped, “I don’t bloody care if you’re a Prince or the Bone Man. Now drink it down or it’s the Bone Man will be comin’ for you!”
“Here. Tastes wretched,” Sturgund had said after a few seconds.
“So sorry, Your Highness, we don’t age our life-saving potions to perfection,” the Healer had retorted with sarcasm.
Levonroth had covered a smile with a hand. Hewart had then glared at him and immediately Levonroth’s smile had disappeared.
“I – I –” and Sturgund yawned. Then a ploof! sounded against the pillows.
“Is he out?” one Healer had asked.
“Finally, thank the gods! What a mess he’s in –”
Once Hewart had been assured from the Healers that Sturgund was not going to die, he had taken the reports from the soldiers who had waited for him.
So proud Hewart was – Sturgund yelling a battle cry, expecting to die but going down fighting. He’d killed four men on his own before Hewart’s men had arrived to assist.
But men were waiting all about to ambush him, mercenaries with crossbolts and arrows… men Sturgund couldn’t have hoped to fight off. They had known he’d be there, they had bloody well known…. And according to that report, if Sturgund hadn’t rolled out of the way at the last moment, he’d have lost his head to that axe.
Between the actions of that heroic soldier pulling him out of the way in the snow, and Sturgund holding his arm up to protect his head – well, Hewart hated to think what might have happened. Someone wanted his son’s head…. And with the Ormon king’s murder….
Perhaps Hewart should look to himself now, he thought suddenly, for an attempt upon the son to rise to his throne, and possibly him next? Hewart was now very sick as he stared at his bandaged son across the desk.
Sturgund’s arm was bandaged very tightly, and he had to keep it elevated. The back of his head was also bandaged, and Hewart knew his son had taken a very hard hit on the back of a rock that might well have killed him itself. But when Sturgund showed up at Hewart’s study this morning shortly after Levonroth, Hewart considered for just one moment telling the boy to go back to his rooms to rest. Then he saw the flash of his son’s eyes and silently opened the door.
Levonroth had hinted a bit about Sturgund perhaps needing a bit more rest, but Hewart had smiled, for Sturgund had grown up overnight.
“I’ll rest after I kill those bastards.”