“And…” This was far, far worse than she had dreamed. This. This was a nightmare. No.
“Your Majesty?” Durain wasn’t sure what to say.
“This is all – reliable?”
“Our source nearly died getting this information through.” Durain’s voice was quiet.
The Gods hated her. They must, Selby knew. Bad enough she was now an orphan, running a country alone.
Storden, centuries-old neutral country to her immediate South was building both an Army and a Navy.
It was thought, though not verified, that the new S’hendalow King was building a new Navy.
The Ormish Queen, widely believed to have killed her son and husband in order to take power, was planning to launch her four hundred warships within months and building one hundred more. She was amassing troops as Selby stood here.
And Ambsellon, as always, would add its might to Ormon, which would mean at least seven hundred warships were headed to Clemongard in just months. That was just Navy. And Selby had no timetable for a meager Navy of scanty means.
Selby had no knowledge of war. Her father had exceled at war strategy, tactics…. Her father had also been trained for this office. She leaned her arms on the balcony guard rail and hid her head inside them. Why? Why not some other ruler? Why not some other country?
“I need men,” she said aloud. “I have no hope to retaliate in war against battle troops in that amount. I only now have Crown Guards up to capacity from the Twenty Years War.” She shook her head.
“You have Ericorian, Your Majesty.”
Selby stood up and looked up Durain. “How many Ericorian does Clemongard have?” She needed to distinguish between her and Clemongard, for Ericorian fought for Clemongard, not just for her. They were not her personal guards.
“Sixty thousand the last I knew.”
Selby stared at Durain. “Did you say sixteen or sixty thousand?” Undoubtedly, she had heard him wrong.
“The latter, Your Majesty.”
She leaned against the balcony, facing him. “Well, that helps quite a bit. Quite a lot, I should say. I thought it was far less, something like fifteen or twenty thousand.”
Durain said, “We purposely mislead people for circumstances just such as these. We always have men in training.”
She was silent for a few moments.
“Well, I am afraid that Clemongard may soon have need of her Ericorian.”
Selby looked at every one of her Council Members as they sat at her wooden Council Table. Today would be an historic day, she knew. And not one she wanted. At least her Coronation was over, so she was truly and fully Queen.
She took in a deep breath. “My lords. Today will be a long Assembly, I fear. I have had refreshment brought in for you to avail yourselves of. Cold chicken, grapes, other assorted fruits, cheeses, and bread of course….”
They would wait until she ate before they chose something to eat, but now they were all curious, she saw.
“I know you all have propositions and other such parchments of interest that you would like for me to see, and ultimately, that you wanted this Council to consider, but I will go over those at my own leisure. Send them down to me now.” Selby rose and gestured for her Council Members to slide their parchments to her down the table.
Immediately some of them became defensive and others irritable, but, as it was ultimately her vote that cast the approval, it really did not matter whether they turned it about endlessly in Assembly or not. A few of them sent their proposals down with a sullen glare and others sat back in their seats with curiosity.
Selby stacked her carefully inked proposals and set them on the side table.
Then she stood. “This Council Meeting is now in adjournment. I now call to order our first War Council.”
Selby looked down and watched the expressions on each Councilor’s face register shock. For a few instants, only silence hung in the air.
Once the clamoring began, Selby tuned them out and waited until there was silence again.
“A War Council?” huffed Lord Wharfstead to her right. Selby had often found him her adversary during Council Meetings. “We haven’t had a War Council in nearly twenty years, Your Majesty.”
“Nor have we needed to, Lord Wharfstead,” Selby answered smoothly, “as we haven’t had any wars.” She locked eyes with him until he frowned and looked away.
“If I may, Your Majesty?”
Lord Barstann now took the place of the previous Council Member who had refused to put bridges up where she had asked him to.
Selby held a hand out to acknowledge him.
“While we’re all aware we’ve not had a war in nearly twenty years, is there a war that is bringing us to this council together now?”
“Excellent question, Lord Barstann.” This was the reason she had appointed him. “And the answer to your question is… yes.”
And Selby took her seat amidst yet another chorus of clamoring.
Once it was silent again, Selby steepled her hands on the elaborate wooden table. “It may surprise you to learn a few things. For example, Lady Ormon – which I think we all know is a kind expression for her – has four hundred warships that she’s planning on launching within just months. Another one hundred warships should be ready in about six more months. And her troops, I’m told, which are four to our one, have amassed.
“Naturally, Ambsellon usually joins its Navy to Ormon’s and so, at the least, we can expect… 700 warships sailing toward Clemongard within the next six months. I don’t have a current number on King Hewart’s troops, but in the last war, they were three to our one.
“Of most interest, and possibly even more concern, is Storden. Hundreds of years neutral – they have been our neighbor, and upon occasion, an ally of sorts. Storden now has a full Navy and a full Army. Other than that which they keep to protect itself. I’m told a guess at their troops might be two to our one, though their troops are on the move, and we know not where.
“I even have a report, more of a candid sighting and not something too much of concern just yet, that the new King of S’hendalow has built more warships.
“Frankly, my lords, this reeks of havoc,” Selby finished.
Again, the room was silent.
Lord Garrath finally asked, “And these reports of yours, Your Majesty, are they from credible sources?”
She nodded. “The most. In fact, one nearly died getting some of this information to me.”
It was too quiet. Well, who knew what they were thinking. She herself had been repeatedly shocked with each report, but to get all of that bad news in one sitting….
She pulled the board of cold chicken closer to her and selected a few grapes. Still nothing. Selby popped a grape in her mouth.
“Come, my lords, I have never known you to not have an opinion.”
She popped another grape in her mouth.
“How do we know that Ormon is even headed toward us?”
“How do we know Ambsellon is going to join them?”
“How do you know Ormon is leaving any time soon?”
Selby started to slice a piece of cold chicken but stopped.
Just as she took in a breath to answer some of her Councilors’ questions, Lord Wharfstead at her side laughed heartily. He said, “So you’ve had reports of a wolf. You only know there’s a wolf. You don’t know anything about the wolf, only that there is a wolf. And now you want to call a War Council?”
Selby kept her temper in check. The pompous bastard. “I’d rather take care of the wolf before it attacks me. As long as I know there is a wolf, I’m going to do something about it, not sit around and hope it doesn’t head my way. Wolves do hunt in packs, after all. Where there’s one wolf, there’s sure to be another.”
Lord Wharfstead snorted and shook his head. “I don’t know, Your Majesty. There may be no need for this War Council. Rhetoric in the Council Chamber is one thing –”
That was it.
Selby took hold of the cleaver she’d been cutting with, hurled it upward, and slammed it down into the Council Chamber table, just inches from Lord Wharfstead’s fingers.
It had sunk into the wood, and his eyes popped out at just how close the blade had come to missing his fingertips.
“Lord Wharfstead, you have disrespected your country and its Queen for the last time. You will either stay in this War Council and offer advice worthy of a Council Member and Lord of standing, or you will go home to your estates, hereby thus removed of all titles and entitlements, including your lordship. All income will be revoked, you and your families’ estates will be hereby denied you and taken back by the Crown, and you shall be banished from Clemongard. Permanently. If you cannot protect the country you sit here in Council for, you will be banished.”
Selby’s face was stern and her arms crossed.
“That is also offered to the rest of you who sit at my Council Table.”
Every eye was on her.
Except Lord Wharfstead, who stared still at the cleaver. “By the gods,” he breathed. “You have your father in you. You have your grandfather in you, Your Majesty.” He swallowed and looked around the table. “Do any of you recall what her grandfather was called?”
Many of them smiled, albeit nervously.
“The Cleaver King.”
“We have a Cleaver Queen,” roared Lord Wharfstead. “By the gods, we have a War Council. Let’s get down to it!”
Selby knew what they were calling her. “The Cleaver Queen.” After her grandfather, King Rorbann. They started calling him that during the Ambsellon/Ormon Clemongard skirmishes, for his favorite weapon of choice became the cleaver, when soldiers set upon his camp unexpectedly while they’d taken time to eat. Reports listed Grandfather as having killed eight enemy soldiers with his cleaver alone in camp, and so he considered the cleaver as his good luck weapon from that point on, carrying one at his belt everywhere he went. Of course, he also swung a broadsword as well, but he became known by all of Clemongard as the Cleaver King.
And now, Selby knew that everywhere her Councilors went, they would be spreading the word, particularly Lord Wharfstead, that they now had a Cleaver Queen. She supposed it could be worse. Lord Wharfstead, formerly her long-term adversary, was now her fiercest advocate and loyal subject.
Selby was certainly glad of it, for he held Clemongard’s southernmost ports and even a number of ships there.
Lord Barstann, she was pleased with. Articulate and intelligent, he was a fierce advocate of the Riverlands, both the Roarnebourke and the Trellis, where his predecessor had only known the Roarnebourke. Selby’s bridges were already standing, in fact. Barstann, when approached, offered insight and ideas, but had not wanted to leave his post as Riverlands Administrator. Why had he not been approached before for his expertise, and indeed, this post altogether, Selby wondered.
In fact, he hadn’t wanted to leave “his rivers.” It was then that Selby appointed him as Council Member. Lord Barstann only agreed if he could still approve how “his rivers” were being overseen in his absence. Selby had been impressed at the man’s insistence, for most men would have jumped at the chance to become a Clemongard Council Member. She had found herself negotiating and agreed to allow him a certain amount of time per month to travel to the Riverlands to see that they were being maintained properly by a deputy administrator of his choice in his absence.
So Lord Barstann also had balls as well, for he stood up to not only Her Majesty of Clemongard, but Lord Wharfstead, and Selby wasn’t sure which a man should be more intimidated of. However, the two worked well together, which at this point in time would be crucial.
In fact, during Assembly, Lord Barstann offered an excellent point.
“If I may, Your Majesty –”
Selby acknowledged him with an outstretched arm.
“It may be that my predecessor did not want bridges to be erected because he knew that soldiers would be traveling east, or perhaps west, upon the rivers. May I suggest then, that Crown Guards be posted at each bridge, along with perhaps, an honorable Ericorian, to discourage – ahem – well, any unsavory activity?”
Selby recognized to what Lord Barstann referred – bribery of the Guards, or even the killing of them and taking over of their uniforms. Ericorian present would certainly discourage such behavior. “Absolutely. Have the bridges modified with gates so that no one can come or go without approval, and I want two Ericorian present, one on each side. Get started immediately.”
“Also, Your Majesty, something I considered –” began Lord Barstann.
“By all means, please continue.” Selby wanted to smirk at this point, for her new bridges were going to anger a lot of people… she only wished she knew who.
“This idea is only a notion, not necessarily something at all possible. I –” and he looked to Lord Wharfstead, who suddenly looked interested, “realized that our rivers have no bridges of consequence where the sea enters them, merely ports and ferries. Would it not behoove us, particularly with such Naval activity as we are like to see soon, to build some very impressive bridges at the mouths of both the Trellis and Roarnebourke? To discourage incoming soldiers from the sea, of course? This would be a project Lord Wharfstead and I would work on easily,” and he turned to Lord Wharfstead briefly.
Selby smiled slyly, for she loved the idea. “How many men will you need to accomplish this within the month? I will supply you with whatever coin is required, and you will, of course, send me ongoing reports of your progress. Guards and Ericorian both will accompany you.”
She had downplayed the amount of the Ericorian by half, just a precaution, for she had had a spy at her very own Council Table once before feeding information to the enemy, and she would not risk sending out such specifics again.
Her former Councilor now sat in a Treason Cell below the Palace in the Royal Dungeon. If he died of poor conditions down there, Selby wouldn’t care a spit. Since her first impulse had been to draw and quarter him, then her second to crush him into a small enough ball and toss him from a trebuchet over to King Hewart, Selby believed the bastard was making out quite well, as he had a roof, four walls, and regular meals. And if there were rats down there, then he could rejoice in spending time with those of his own kind.
As for those to whom he reported, they all smiled a new smile, a red one, and laid deep down in the earth where no one would ever tell them secrets again.
The problem, she explained to her Assembly, was that they had to act on the belief that they would be attacked from both east and west, and possibly even the south now.
Which meant that they had to divide their forces to the east and west. What Navy Clemongard had could not hope to withstand such an attack as what might be leveled against them.
Her Council agreed that they had to operate with the worst scenario in place, but consider other scenarios as well. Selby instructed them to reach out to strategists whom they trusted, both Naval and Army, and war in general.
Selby told them outright, “My lords, you and I both know that I have no knowledge in the art of war, though I would not call it an art but the atrocity of war, for that is what it is. Name it as it is. While soldiers fight soldiers, the people of our towns, villages, and cities are killed, their livelihoods destroyed, sickness and plague run rampant as bodies pile up, and men, women and children all over the country starve. While soldiers consider war an art, I as Clemongard’s Queen consider it an atrocity.
“And make no mistake, I, as Clemongard’s Queen, will fight this war as an atrocity, not an art, for it is my duty to consider all of my people, not just my soldiers in battle. See that, in the coming months, when we strategize and plan tactics, you keep that in mind.
“I shall also fight this war to win, for it matters not that I am young, Queen, inexperienced, or naïve to war tactics. Clemongard will never fall while I have breath in my body.
“Because of this, and because we are desperately out-numbered, I have already sent word to Romeny, asking for an alliance request. Obviously, I could have simply sent my congratulations on their new daughter – however, our need is more dire.
“We have allied with the Eastern Alliance in wars past, though not recently. I hope they will consider that. I know, my lords, how proud we in Clemongard are, but there is a difference between being proud and being smart.
“The Eastern Alliance is accustomed to fighting Ormon and Ambsellon, as are we. We can share information, such as what we know of Storden, what we know of Ormon and Ambsellon, should they not already know it, that is. Such an alliance would only prove fruitful for both of us. I am waiting, as we speak, for a return answer.”
Not a sound. Her Council Room was silent as they stared at her. It was a lot to take in, Selby admitted. She actually had not sent word to Romeny yet, for she wanted Durain’s informants – her spies now, she supposed, to follow whoever panicked and immediately ran to some unknown source with this information, or any of it. She hoped none of them would, but if so, well, certainly there were more empty Treason Cells in the Royal Dungeon….
After the Assembly was over, Selby looked down at the cleaver stuck in her Council Table. She nodded to herself. Cleaver Queen. She sniffed and shrugged. Why not? Selby took hold of the cleaver handle and pulled.
Well, it had certainly gone in much easier than it was coming out. She rolled her eyes, wondering if the Ericorian behind her were holding back laughter. She drew in a breath, then heaved the damn thing out of the table, where a deep wedge was left behind. Selby turned the blade over. Bits of wood clung to it. Cleaver Queen. Very well. She’d have a thong made and have it hung at her side as Grandfather had worn his. That should make for interesting portraits….
Selby wanted to go up to her chambers, dismiss all her maids, ladies-in-waiting, Ericorian, and just cry. Just fall on her bed, and cry into her pillows. She wasn’t even eighteen, and she had no family, she was running a country, and now she was going to be fighting a war…. Alone, with no guidance at all.
Other rulers, of course, took over thrones amidst or at the start of wars, Selby knew. But they had wives, or even Regents if necessary, and they had been trained their whole lives for such a thing, tactics, politics, strategy…. Selby didn’t even own a suit of armor.
She dismissed all her servants and her Ericorian, who looked skeptical. Selby finally told them, “Then – go down to the ends of the corridor – I want total privacy!”
They immediately bowed and obeyed.
Selby stood and looked about her personal chamber, warmed by a quiet, crackling fire. Her father had been an excellent tactician – he should be doing this, not her.
She stared at her bed, where the plump pillows lay, inviting her.
Selby grabbed an ivory bust next to her and hurled it at the stone wall, where it exploded into chunks and pieces – screaming as loud as she could.