The next morning, Nick spread out all the papers Ralph had brought on the biggest table in the main hall and started extrapolating whatever data he could from Sothalia's previous tax payments, import and export fees, land grant deed copies, and anything else he could find.
Ralph joined him. "There is assistance coming in Arthur's train to take care of this."
"Good," Nick replied, "But I want to look at it myself, too. That's why you gave it to me yesterday, isn't it?"
"Indeed," Ralph replied, sighed, and joined the duke in sorting and taking notes. After a couple of hours they started hearing a low, distant rumble, and knew Prince Arthur was coming. So did everyone else and their small staff all wandered into the main hall to be on hand when the Warlord arrived. Elizabeth sent Harry out to keep watch so he could give them notice when Arthur approached the gate and they could officially greet him properly.
Harry had been watching atop the wall next to the gate, and ran to notify them as soon as Prince Arthur's banners came around the last turn in the road before the gate.
Arriving out of breath, their young guard panted out, "Your Highnesses, there are soldiers and wagons as far as I can see! There must be at least a thousand soldiers and I don't know how many wagons."
Princess Elizabeth just nodded and said, "Thank you Harry, you can wait here in the main hall now." Harry bowed a little and joined his brother and the rest of the castle residents gathered anxiously, not sure what the Warlord would do when he arrived in spite of the reassuring letter he had sent.
The duke and duchess went out to stand at the top of the stairs to the castle, Sir Ralph slightly behind them. They heard the coming riders before they saw them. First scouts, then a long train of soldiers, and finally flag bearers appeared, followed by Prince Arthur, with more soldiers stopping behind him when Arthur reined in at the stairs.
The Warlord was dressed in full armor, and it gleamed like new in the morning light. His sword, Arbitra, hung by his side as usual. He dismounted directly onto the stairs and clanked up to his brother and did a half hug, half hand shake. He was still a little taller than Nick and quite a bit broader with a great deal of muscle under his armor.
Arthur spoke first in response to their bow and curtsy before they could say their formal greetings. "Nicky, it's good to see you. You're looking rather thin, you should eat more. Princess Elizabeth, good morning," he added with a little bow to them both.
Before Elizabeth could say anything, Nick asked, "Arthur, what is all this? I'm told you brought half of Londinum with you."
Arthur laughed. "You're nearly right. Sir Ralph told us the condition of your castle, so I've brought craftsmen, artisans, and workmen to rebuild it, as well as some suitable furnishings, and so forth. Ah, but first things first. This is for you, little brother."
He handed Nick an official scroll. It was sealed and Elizabeth read over Nick's shoulder when he broke the seal and unrolled it.
"What?" Nick said. "I can't . . . how am I supposed to do this?"
"Magic, I presume," Arthur replied blandly.
The duke summarized for Ralph and all his people listening in the main hall. Ralph had left the door slightly ajar so they could. "Uncontrolled witchcraft is still banned in Anglia, but an exception is made for the 'Royal Coven' that I'm supposed to be in charge of, and somehow I have to train them and ensure the loyalty of the witches in the coven." Nick turned to Sir Ralph. "Was this your idea?"
Ralph sidestepped the question. "It was formally proposed by Duke Winslow. Everyone is still somewhat frightened by witches, but you proved how useful a loyal witch could be in battle, so the law was changed to reflect that."
"Uh huh, and who whispered it in the duke's ear?"
With a blank face, Ralph said, "I have no official knowledge of that, Your Highness." Nick and Elizabeth both knew that meant unofficially the former valet was still looking out for his young prince.
"Right. Where am I supposed to find these witches for the coven and where would I even put them? Anglia seems to be pretty much out of people with magic," Nick said. Ralph had done him a huge service by coming up with a compromise the Anglian Council could approve, but it still potentially left him with a knotty problem.
Arthur replied, "That has been taken care of. Sir Ralph can explain the details."
Elizabeth asked her brother-in-law, "Arthur, do you need anything from us right away? You have sufficient provisions?"
"Yes. But a list of whatever you need done would be helpful. I have some idea, but your input is imperative. We'll be camped outside the walls and begin hauling out the rubble in the morning. Would you dine with me tonight? I have both venison and goose, and we must talk. I may be able to alleviate any shortages you have as well."
She replied with a smile, "Thank you, but we're fine. We would be pleased to dine with you, although our stock of presentable formal clothing is somewhat limited at the moment."
Arthur waved that away. "Casual dress is fine; I'm in the field you know. Shall I send transportation or just a messenger?"
Nick replied, "Send a carriage if you have it, we only have wagons."
"There are several carriages in my train; I can borrow one for you, permanently if you like. I will see you later then. I need to ensure my camp is properly set up." Arthur remounted from the stairs, and he headed off with his entourage back toward the outer gate.
As soon as Prince Arthur was on his way, Nick turned to Elizabeth and said, "Well, at least we don't have to flee for our lives."
"It is a relief to know you're not going to be burned at the stake." She noticed Ralph was no longer standing behind them. "Let's go corner your former valet and find out what's going on in the world, since he seems to be heavily involved in all this."
Winkershime was at the table and had a handful of papers. He nodded to them and said, " I have extracted copies of all the references to ownership within Sothalia that we had in Londinum as a starting point and there is a wagonload of clerks with Prince Arthur to draw a city map and track down who owns or leases what."
"That's surely not the most urgent thing, is it?" Elizabeth asked.
"The Warlord will need to know what land is owned by the duchy within the city so he can house his architects and construction supervisors and plan construction. His people will be clearing rubble and starting on the castle first, so we have a little time to get it ready. But he thinks you already have it done since you were here all winter."
"We spent our time trying to keep everyone alive through the cold and snow," snapped Nick, nettled that Ralph and his older brother might think he wasn't up to the job of being a duke.
Elizabeth added in a more soothing tone, "Honestly, we never even thought of that. We expected to have to do the rebuilding ourselves which would take a long time so it wasn't something we would need to have right away. This has been sprung on us with no warning."
Ralph said, "Of course, I understand, but you know Arthur, he just expects everyone to do what he would have done under whatever he imagines the circumstances to be. The wagonload of clerks will assist in administrative matters, and there are a few of your Commerce people with me as well. They will take care of extrapolating Duke Hubert's tax structure from the records of his payments to the Crown, unless you would prefer to continue working on this yourself?"
Nick grinned. He had missed Winkershime taking care of him, even when he didn't need the help. "Thanks, Ralph, they can have the job. I'm going to be busy enough without handling all the paperwork personally."
Sir Ralph looked up from his papers and smiled back. He had expected an argument, but apparently the young prince had learned a thing or two being on his own. "Perhaps we should go to your tower to continue this discussion; it would certainly be more comfortable than standing here in the hall."
"And more private," Nick thought, realizing his old mentor probably had things to say that were not for the ears of the servants. When they were comfortably ensconced in the tower sitting room, Ralph handed them both rolled up copies of a large sign that he had brought with him. They unrolled and read as he explained.
"These are already going up here in your city, and will be posted by heralds all over Sothalia and Anglia as quickly as possible. As you can see, it is a call for all loyal Anglian witches to identify themselves without fear of punishment by midsummer. After that, being identified as a witch will once again result in burning under the assumption that any witch still hiding is up to no good. There is also a provision for young people who discover they have that talent to identify themselves to their local lord within thirty days of that discovery without punishment as well."
"And then what?" Elizabeth asked. "I suppose they will be sent here to Nick, but what are we supposed to do with them?"
"That's one of the things Arthur needs from you, Nick," Ralph replied. "He's planning some sort of dormitory for them, but he has to know what sort of facility you want for a training area."
"I used a cave, but that's not practical for a lot of people, if there are a lot, and I don't know of any caves around here anyway. There may not be any other witches left in Anglia, you know."
Ralph smiled a little. "Yes, I figured out the cave eventually. We had a nest of traitorous magicians among the nobility in the north; I expect there are more in the general population there and possibly elsewhere. I was thinking we could just copy one of the Franckish training facilities if that would do."
"Sure, they know more about magical training than I do."
Elizabeth broke in. "I don't think a dormitory will be appropriate for housing though."
Both men turned to her with perplexed faces. She continued, "If magic runs in families, we may get whole families, especially if at least one of the parents and one of the children have magical talent. They'll want to stay together and include the non-witch members of their family too. And I don't believe it's wise to mix children and adults in a dormitory, the children might have a difficult time. I expect anyone who has survived to adulthood in Anglia with magic is likely to have some buried anger that could come out in unpleasant ways."
She immediately regretted her last sentence at the look on Nick's face. Trainees who had suffered years of fear and resentment were one more thing he would have to deal with and she knew he wasn't prepared for it. Still, perhaps it was better he had time to think about how to handle it rather than be surprised.
Ralph was nodding and taking notes. "Rooms of various sizes for one or two people would be better, possibly detached housing for families and something separate for children on their own. I'll pass that on to the architects, and ask Anne and Richard to have their people acquire a number of sketches of magic training facilities from Franck, Ibarra, and wherever else they exist."
"I think that would work well," Elizabeth commented.
"So what is going on in Franck these days?" Nick asked the former valet and spy.
"Our envoys are still negotiating a peace settlement with Franck. King Louis isn't being very cooperative and I doubt we'll get any reparations for the damages his army inflicted, but we may get a ten year peace agreement. Unfortunately, we can't really force anything from him without another war. Oh, and he's up to eight sorcerers now."
"Eight? But we killed two, and he only had five before!" Nick protested.
"He's lowered the standard to qualify and has Lord Richemont trying to increase the power of his new ones and give them a short intensive course on battle magic. Lady Grande has passed on, but her grandson Alberet seems to be competent although inexperienced. Besides those two and Lord Coppere, the five new ones are all weaker and untrained, so the feeling in our diplomatic community is that Franck just isn't going to be attacking anyone for a few years."
"And therefore willing to agree to a long peace treaty," Nick concluded.
"That's a relief," said Elizabeth. "What about Ibarra or anyone else attacking?"
"Not likely." Ralph sat thoughtfully and then added, "Incelia is stirring though. With none of our people inside their walls, it's anyone's guess as to what is going on. There has been a significant increase in their activities, more Incelian ships moving, more of their people in their open port area for foreigners, and their embassy has doubled their staff. Any ideas, Nick?"
Being half Incelian, the prince had spent time in their embassy when he was growing up improving his ability to speak his mother's language.
He shrugged. "It's a big island; maybe they're having a food shortage or something."
"That's a possibility we've thought about, "Ralph said, "But they haven't increased their usual grain orders, at least not from us, and our spies tell us not from Ibarra, Franck, or Drusia."
"Then I have no idea. You know they never accepted me as an Incelian. I don't even know why they were willing to marry my mother off to King William."
They fell silent for a while then Nick asked, "How is Richard doing?"
Ralph replied, "Reasonably well. I told you he can't walk, but as the previous Warlord he's spent time with Prince Arthur trying to teach him strategy and tactics. I think a little of it has sunk in, but Arthur still tends to rely on his 'magic' sword far too much, in my opinion, and won't consider anything that hints at deception which he considers dishonorable. Anne is doing well under his tutelage as Spymaster, but she isn't nearly as good as you are at picking pockets."
Nick laughed. "And she never will be since I cheated and used my magic instead of my fingers."
Sir Ralph continued, "The king is doing better. Physician Fenton has him on a strict diet and his stomach has settled and he's gained back a little weight. Queen Isabella is . . . well, still Queen Isabella."
"And Giselle?" asked Elizabeth, wondering how Richard's wife had made it through his period of despondency after his crippling. The Franckish princess had had a very difficult time during the war between her nation of birth and the country where she now lived, on top of the severe injury of her adored husband.
Ralph smiled. "She is well, and believes she is pregnant, although it hasn't been announced yet."
Nick and Elizabeth glanced at each other in surprise. "But Richard . . ." Nick started to say.
"Is unable to walk, but apparently still retains other capabilities, since he seems pleased about it. Oh, and Princess Eugenie is quite large, Fenton is predicting twins and an early birth. Crown Prince Edward is still quite pleased with himself, but I think he's getting a bit nervous about the actual delivery. He has retained many of the duties that the king passed to him during his illness, so there are continuing rumors about the king's health although your father seems to be fine now. That's all I know about the royal family," Ralph concluded.
"And my family?" Elizabeth asked. "Have you had any word about them?"
"No, but if anything had happened to Baron Stratton and your brothers I'm sure I would have, so I think all is well. Now I suspect lunch is ready."
After lunch Winkershime went out to the Warlord's camp to check on the clerks and get them working on the paperwork that needed doing. He joined the duke and duchess when they arrived in their borrowed carriage for dinner, and they all entered the Warlord's large tent together.
The tent was partitioned so they walked into an area that was heavily carpeted with a table and chairs set up in the middle, but with no evidence of Arthur's bed or personal items. A candelabra on the table and another on a sideboard provided ample illumination, and a wonderful aroma emanated from covered dishes on the sideboard. Several soldiers in scrupulously clean pressed uniforms stood at attention out of the way, ready to serve.
Arthur welcomed them and then said, "And may I present General Smith. You may remember him from our meeting with the Anglian traitors and the subsequent battle."
General Smith was a lean, middle-aged man. Elizabeth noticed he had a scar on his cheek that hadn't been there before the war with Franck, but he seemed healthy and strong. The general bowed and said, "It's a great pleasure to see you again, Your Highnesses."
Nick responded, "And I am pleased to see you survived the war, General, and to meet you again under far better circumstances."
Their eyes met for a moment, and Smith nodded and smiled just a little. Nick understood it was a thank you for saving both their lives when Arthur had wanted to attack a much larger force with just a few people, believing Arbitra would protect them with magic. The prince had gotten them out of it by exaggerating his difficulty with an opponent's spell. They would never speak a word about the incident in public, not wanting to embarrass the Warlord or get into a discussion about the sword to which he attributed so many wondrous qualities.
They sat down, Sir Ralph being polite and assisting Elizabeth. Wine and appetizers were served, and Arthur opened the discussion.
"Now, I'm sure you are curious as to why I have such a large force with me. I am going to scour Sothalia for Francks and then move up the coast as well."
General Smith reassured them by saying, "We don't expect to encounter any large groups, but we'll need men to guard and escort prisoners back to Londinum."
"Indeed," Prince Arthur concurred. "Then I will proceed to Denland, Montexter and Ulle, and ensure our newly promoted earl and dukes are firmly in control there, and lend a hand if there are any problems."
Knowing the duke and duchess were likely burning with curiosity, Ralph expanded on Arthur's statement. "The earldom was offered to Duke Maximilian, but he turned it down as did Duke Winslow. Duke Norbert of Haas was glad to take it, and is now officially Earl Norbert of Ulle. Barons Wilfred Canton, Roger Emerson, and Leonard Stoddard have become dukes of Haas, Denland, and Montexter, respectively."
"I'm glad for Duke Wilfred, he always impressed me as having a good head on his shoulders, but I don't know the others," Nick commented. "It appears you have a long journey ahead of you, Arthur, how long will you be staying here?"
"Not long, I believe two weeks should be sufficient to get everything started. Of course the rebuilding of Sothalia will take many months, possibly years, but I shall leave you the artisans and workers under the direction of the architects, and Smith will stay to direct and train your troops."
The main course was served, both goose and venison as promised. Elizabeth said, "Arthur, we have only two mostly untrained young men for guards, we don't have any troops."
"My dear, Sothalia is our fortress against invasion on this part of the coast, so you now have three hundred foot soldiers, a hundred horse, and fifty archers. They will be in Anglian livery until you have your own. There are quite a few displaced persons at the moment, so once barracks are built an active recruitment campaign will swell those ranks."
Hearing this, Nick was concerned and said, "Four hundred and fifty armed men and horses . . ."
Arthur waved his worry away. "They are on your side, Nicky, and they have their own provender and will remain camped until permanent quarters are available."
Nick's doubts still showed on his face, and General Smith jumped in, realizing that the prince wasn't concerned about food and hay. "Actually nearly half are from Sothalia, men who managed to escape the battlefield here when it was obvious it had turned into a slaughter. They've fought bravely since then, so they're not cowards and they want to serve their own duke. The rest are volunteers who saw you fight; I think some actually escorted you here. You needn't worry about their loyalty, and I assure you I will see that your men become a crack fighting force. Once your castle is rebuilt, I'll split the best of them off into a palace guard for you."
Nick was reassured and went back to eating. Elizabeth said softy, "It seems everything is being done for us."
"Well, of course," Arthur said heartily. "You are royalty; there is no reason for you to be involved in these chores other than to make your wishes known."
"Actually, there is something vital they need to do that no one can do for them," said Ralph, aware that Elizabeth and Nick were used to doing things for themselves. "They haven't had a chance to see their duchy and discover what is needed beyond their city."
He turned to the duke and duchess. "This would be an excellent time for a tour. Escape the construction and confusion for a few weeks, see your duchy and make whatever plans are necessary to assist or rebuild."
Nick nodded and Elizabeth looked thoughtful. It was something they both wanted to do, but had believed it would be a long time before they had the opportunity. The main course ended and sweets, fruit and cheese was brought in and sweeter wines offered.
When everyone had selected their desserts, Nick said, "I was supposed to sit judgment on a group of bandits that tried to raid Sothalia. My vassals and I took care of it easily enough, but I've had to postpone sentencing due to your arrival, Arthur. General Smith, could your men handle a group of thirty or so if I punished them with hard labor?"
The general replied, "Of course."
Nick continued, "Then I'll sentence them to ninety days clearing rubble, hauling stones, bricks, timbers, whatever is needed. At the end of that time, they can stay and work for wages, learn a building trade if any wish it, or be escorted individually off of my lands. I won't send a gang of them to make trouble for my neighbors, but one at a time they should present no problem."
Arthur frowned. "That seems a bit light for bandits."
Elizabeth spoke up. "They don't appear to be hardened criminals, just men who have lost their homes and livelihoods. They banded together and started taking what they needed, then whatever they wanted. As far as we can tell they haven't murdered anyone, just committed theft and vandalism, and struck out at anyone trying to stop them. Given an opportunity to earn their bread, I expect most will be glad of it."
Nick added, "Your timing is excellent, Arthur, since I wouldn't have been able to control so many myself and would have had to do something else with them. Sothalia is rather underpopulated right now, so turning at least some of them into useful citizens is to my advantage."
Arthur waved his hand and said, "As you wish. During your absence you will need an administrator, I would suggest General Smith."
Elizabeth and Nick looked at each other. She said to him, "I think Ralph is right, this would be a good time for us to see the port, towns, and everything we can. The city will be well protected, and there are capable people to look after it while we're gone."
"Yes, but my vassals here don't know the general, and my acquaintance with him is slight. No offence, Smith, but I would rather appoint Sir Ralph with an advisory body of locals--Baronets Trimble and Fordham, Lord Hamilton, Sir Paul, and Sir Roderick, I think. Elizabeth?"
"I would trust Ralph more than anyone besides you, my dear. If we include Lord Hamilton we should probably include Lords Percy and Gerard as well. That would make seven, is that too many?"
They looked at Ralph. He said, "I would be pleased to administer what will likely be a very large mess for quite a while with whomever you want for advisors. Seven should be manageable and the odd number will always provide a majority. I'm sure I won't be bored."
"Then it's settled," Nick said. "We'll stay a few days. I need to finish cleaning out the wells, set up a monument to those Sothalians killed in the war, and go over your plans with you, Arthur. Then Elizabeth and I will go take a look at our duchy."
She nodded agreement. "I have to dispose of the rest of the dried fish and potatoes; there's no point in holding on to them now with the fresher food we have. Arthur, do you have physicians with you?"
"Of course, is someone injured?"
"No, our cleaning maid is pregnant and I'm the nearest thing to a birthing woman we have, and I've been providing medicines to the poor people who have nowhere else to go."
The Warlord chuckled. "Well, it's a bit different from their usual line of amputating limbs and sewing up wounds, but I'm sure my doctors are capable of general medicine too. They will take care of whatever medical requirements arise while you're gone, my dear, have no fear. If you're not back when I leave, I'll assign one here until you return, and he can catch up with me later. Anything else?"
Nick said, "When we figure out who will be in our party, we will undoubtedly need to borrow carriages and wagons."
"And possibly tents, camping equipment and . . . well, I'm not sure yet," Elizabeth added.
"You can have whatever you see in my camp, aside from personal property," Arthur assured them, "as well as whatever equipment or supplies you need, and guards of course. Anything else? Then let us all get a good night's sleep, tomorrow will be a busy day."