“Your grace,” Halstan bowed before her. They were just filing out of the small chapel in the courtyard after the morning prayers. “We must speak. It is urgent.”
“What is it, Bel Halstan?” Innogne asked.
“I’ve just received an urgent message from Lord Belotas. The town of Capsus has been razed, the fields around it burned.”
“I do not think so, your grace.”
Innogen nodded and pursed her lips. “Let us continue this talk indoors.”
Innogen dismissed her ladies-in-waiting. She did not really understand their purpose in her life anyway. A constant retinue of giggling geese, why? To make her seem well loved? They certainly hadn’t the minds to perform any important tasks. Innogen hardly trusted Halstan, let alone any one of those women, spawn of the nobles that, may they be discreet or open about it, vied for her position. Only one may wear the Hawk’s crown. She found her hands drifting up to touch the cold circlet upon her head and discreetly brought them back to her sides. She stood beside a table in a small chamber off the great hall. Halstan unrolled a map upon it. It was just the two of them, but still Halstan lowered his voice.
“There were few witnesses to the razing itself. There was a merchant caravan headed to Capsus, they saw the fires and sent a rider to Leon to alert the Lord, and then attempted to help with the running of water. Some say they saw a group of men escaping into the foothills south.”
“South?” Innogen examined the map. “There’s no way through the Rykstene Mountains south of Vaillant.”
“None that we know of.”
Innogen traced the road along the map. It went through Vaillant and then east into Erina before finally turning south through Ciden. That was the only path south across those mountains. What lay on the other side? Besides Ciden and Thracale, it was desert and Thrain, of course, the supposed stronghold of the Mornwor.
“Lord Belotas has requested a regimen of soldiers to guard his borders.”
“And Lady Lentinan requires men to guard her shipments of wood,” Innogen sighed. “Lady Polozellus is demanding a regimen to insure taxation rights on the goods that Lady Lentinan is shipping through Yasuda. Lord Muscyra is asking for higher prices on the produce and goods that we require of him and therefore he needs soldiers to act as guard to said wares. Meanwhile, I’ve got to think on these damned rebellious Thrainishmen and when and where they may strike again.”
“We should grant Lord Belotas’ request, your grace.”
“As you say, Halstan,” Innogen nodded. “What of our security here?”
Halstan shook his head. “Your grace, Captain Iridian has made a bloody mess of the guard. We require a complete overhaul of all the ranking officers. I am searching for a suitable replacement, his second in command is illiterate, underhanded and unfit for duty, let alone command. Most of the ranking officers are much the same. Wretches and wastrels.” He lowered his voice further. “I suspect there may be some few men who are less than loyal to your grace.”
“Dark times,” Innogen muttered. “My realm crumbles around me, my own hold sways under my feet.” She tightened her grip upon the sceptre. “But there has never been an Ur who went down without a fight. I will claw my way out of this any way I can, damn the consequences and damn the rest.” She shared a look with Halstan and knew of all the fools around her, Halstan at least, had the spirit of Ur within him, if not the blood.
“I have a new Captain for you,” she said. “But first he must be pardoned.”
His stomach grumbled. He had gathered up the straw and replaced it upon the bed, where he sat now, back to the wall, blanket upon his shoulders, arms crossed. The shutters rattled, he could hear the flags on the top of the towers flutter and snap in the wind, and the cool early winter sun shone upon the wall at his back and made its mark upon the cell floor, stripes of bright golden light. His head felt clearer than it had in a good long time, he could feel the moments passing, could feel it in his empty belly. He scratched at the beard that had returned to his face. In a moment he would hear the sounds of the servant that came to deliver the guards’ meal.
There it was, footsteps, idle chatter. Then a sound he did not expect. The iron key turned in the lock and the door swung open. A pair of guards stood before him.
“You,” said one. “Get up.”
This was it then. He was going to his death. He would take it like any good man should. He stood. They clapped a pair of manacles upon his wrists and drove him out of the cell.
His knees hit the threadbare carpet before the throne and he felt every one of his near to forty years in the cold stone floor. He hid his wince in a graceless bow. The queen sat her throne before him. She no longer wore the hideous face paint and death black gown of mourning. Her hair was wrapped in a net of fine gold mesh, studded with little jewels. Her gown was the finest sky blue silk, and made her eyes practically leap out of her face. Round her waist was wrapped the red-gold sash of Ur. In one hand she held the sceptre. The fingers of her other hand rapped out a rhythm upon the arm of the throne.
“Cabriabanus Atholine,” she uttered in her most regal of tones. “Son of Tanis Atholine. Charged with crimes against his kingdom...”
This was the end, then. He wondered briefly why she had held him for so long before this moment. Why torture him with dream-tea madness only to lop off his head? These and more questions that flowed through his mind would now never be answered. His heart constricted in his chest and he took a deep breath to try to relax. The end had come for him, as it must eventually come for all. Darkness. The last nightfall. He could almost see the dark eyes of the Lady Bella staring into his, he could hear her sharpening the needle that would sew his lips shut. The lady’s realm was silence. There would be no begging for rebirth.
“....below his station. By royal decree, the charges are dismissed.”
His heart skipped a beat. He realized he was sweating. The guards stepped forward and undid the manacles.
“Rise, Atholine,” the queen intoned. He did so, rubbing at his wrists where the iron had chafed.
“Cab,” she said in a soft voice. He looked up sharply, all of his body’s warning signals blaring. When did she ever use a short name on him?
“Come closer,” she said. Only when she wanted something. He walked closer, until he stood at the base of the dais. He was grubby from too many days in a cell. His once beautiful surcoat stank, stained with sweat from his tormented dreams. His face was covered in a lengthening stubble, which he scratched at.
“The city is in danger,” she said. She was not the queen now, though she still looked the part, and remained seated upon the throne. She spoke to him now as Innogen, as the one friend he had.
“Do not think me a fool,” he said. “Speak the truth.”
“You are a fool,” she snapped. “What do you want from me? Do you want me to tell you that I am in danger, that my children are in danger, that they are all I really care about, is that it? You want me to tell you that the city could burn for all I care, so long as my boys live?” She lowered her voice until it was just above a whisper. “What mother would not give the world to protect her children?” She raised her voice again.
“Andrese is in danger. More so than it ever has been. There have been attacks throughout Loranya. The village of Capsus, in Vaillant, has recently been razed. The entire village burned. They did not take slaves, they did not take stores. They simply came from the shadows burned the place to the ground and disappeared into the shadows once more. The reports say they came from the south, from the mountains.”
“Bandits?” Cab asked, unable to control his curiosity.
“Bandits steal. And the Tunji are not wont to burn and kill indiscriminately.”
“Who then?” he asked.
“I have sent a force of men to find out,” she said. “Though I suspect I already know the answer.”
She was thinking Mornwor, though she would not say the name. The very fact that she was willing to hint about it was more acknowledgement to the issue than she had ever given before. Mornwor sneaking through the mountains? Had they discovered another way? As far as all men knew, the only way through those mountains was the road through Ciden, and surely Lord Sarcos would have sent word had he any unusually large groups of armed men travelling through his hold?
“But that is not why I’ve brought you here,” she sighed. “You must pledge yourself to me.”
He tried not to let the shock show. It was more than a promise to do as she said. She meant him to take a sacred oath. To swear before all the gods, the court, the city. To swear upon all he held dear, in this life and the next. To swear with his own blood upon the sceptre.
To do so would bind him so tightly that he would not physically be able to perform an action she had specifically spoken against. And depending upon the words of the pledge, it could last until long after her death. To be her minion for the rest of his days, to follow her command, to obey her every word? He could hardly think of what to say. Through and through he felt the wrongness of it and could not help but shake his head.
“There is no use denying it,” she said. “Consider it payment for your pardon.”
“I-,” he began, but found he could not finish. It had been this way, for centuries, that the family of Ur had maintained such a hold upon the country and its people. In times long past the King of Ur would have all of his vassal lords pledge themselves, body and soul, upon their own blood, to Ur. It was what kept the stability, it was how the smallest hold of Loranya had managed to remain the seat of power. The vassal lords had been more than willing to pledge themselves to the Ur, but theirs had not been a choice. It was join Ur, pledge your blood or die. Watch your hold wither, your crops fail, your people become sick, and the headsman’s axe fall upon your neck. Or worse, to become enslaved and watch your hold taken by one who was faster to please his lord.
“If you refuse,” she said. “Consider this your last moment in sunlight. I will not hesitate to toss you in a black cell and leave you there to go mad. Do not think that my love will save you. Think instead on the tortures you suffered under the hand of Cantan and know that they will pale in comparison to what you will receive from me if you refuse.”
He felt sick. There really was no way out.
“All you need do,” she said, standing and stepping forward. “Is vow to obey my command. To protect me and my children. I will not ask you to murder the gods or to seek impossible treasures. All I want is your vow to protect, to keep us safe and do no harm to us.”
She stood there looking down on him, watching the shadows of his struggle flickering across his face. Her blue eyes were like steel, he could find no softness within her. A vow to protect her, and these children he had yet to meet or even catch a bare glimpse of. Could it be so terrible? Could it be worse than death and torture? He didn’t want to think so, though he knew the realm was in greater trouble than she let on, else-wise why would she need him for protection? Why?
“I can see this is a difficult choice for you,” she said, returning to the throne. There was a bit of a pout to her words. She did not think that it would have been so difficult a choice for him. There had been a time when he would have pledged to her willingly. But long years had passed. He still could not forgive her, though in her mind she had caused him no grief.
“Go,” she said, forcing boredom into her voice. “Speak to Halstan. I will hear your decision afterwards.”
The boy pulled the bow string taught, aimed, let the arrow loose. It zipped through the air, struck the target just to the left of centre. His brother laughed, as he set his face in anger. He pulled another arrow from the quiver at his side and despite his desire to aim at his brother, aimed once more at the target. He wanted to imagine his brother’s face at the centre, but their face’s were the same and he did not want to shoot himself. So he thought about his father, the promises he had made before his death, promises he would now never be able to keep, and his blood filled with bitter anger He aimed and loosed the arrow. It struck the centre circle, but not perfectly. His brother was silent, though he still wore a grin.
“Well done,” Cairbre said, jumping off the low wall. “My turn.”
Blood still churning with anger, Ethamyn pulled another arrow and aimed at his brother.
“No,” Ethamyn said. “It’s still my turn.”
Cairbre leaped upon him, struck his brother’s hand with a wooden sword so that the arrow was loosed into the ground. Ethamyn’s hand blazed, but he used the bow to block the next swipe from his brother’s play-sword.
“It’s my turn, you bloody bastard,” Cairbre cried, flowing in and out of the movements they had been taught by the sword-master.
“I’m no more bastard than you,” Ethamyn cried, nearly all his anger gone, a grin splitting his face as he blocked and blocked, using the bow for a staff. But one swipe slipped past his guard and struck his elbow hard enough that he cried out and dropped the bow. He fell down hard, clutching his elbow, hot tears in his eyes.
“Ow!” he whined. “You really hurt me, Cair.”
“I’m sorry,” Cairbre said, sword arm slack beside him, a worried expression upon his face. Ethamyn grabbed at the dropped bow and struck his brother’s calf. But the boy’s tall boots took most the blow and he merely repeated his apology. Ethamyn sat angrily rubbing his elbow and blinking away tears while Cairbre stood nearby and watched.
“I win, though,” Cairbre said after a moment. Ethamyn gave him a dirty look.
Halstan waited patiently at the door for Cab. He allowed himself a final glance back at the queen as she lounged upon the throne. She posed just so, it was all a show for him of her apparent nonchalance. She was queen and he was too far below her to cause any worry, though he knew it was all a ruse, knew that she shook inside with fear and worry.
“What exactly is causing her to behave this way?” Cab asked quietly as the Steward led him down the halls. “What is going on, Halstan?”
The man nodded but said nothing until they had entered a small chamber. This one bore a single window that faced onto the ocean. The sun shone bright this morning and there was no wind. It was enough to lull him into thinking that perhaps it was not coming on winter after all.
Halstan’s map of Loranya still lay upon the table, the corners pinned to the wood. How far should he trust this man? How much had he changed in his ten year absence? The queen wanted to trust him, but felt she could not really until he had sworn not to harm her or the children. She knew him best of all of them, or had, for she admitted now the love that they had shared in secret in their youth. She knew his temper. She knew how he held grudges. Halstan turned to the other man.
“Why did you return?” he asked. For any other he would not have asked, knowing with a certainty that another man would give him only lies. But this man had once been truthful to a fault and Halstan was relying on the knowledge that people change little over time. They stood there facing each other for a long moment, one old soldier and one of middle years, trying to read each others thoughts through their eyes. Cab was the first to look away.
“I did not mean to return,” he said, his voice full of gravel.
“Is that so?” Halstan insisted. Until he heard the truth from the man’s lips he could not trust him. With his face turned to the ground, Cab closed his eyes for a moment. He seemed to Halstan to age many years in the span of a few breaths. Finally, he looked up, looked Halstan in the eye.
“You think perhaps I returned for revenge,” he said, his voice hard. “The truth is that I thought I’d had it. Turns out I failed at that just as abysmally as anything else.” Long moments passed as they stared at each other.
“I did not come to kill Innogen. I am not one of those. I don’t think that I could kill her if all the world depended upon it.” He sighed and looked away.
“Of that I am glad,” Halstan said gently. He put a hand on Cab’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
“For speaking the truth,” Halstan admitted. “If you had lied,” he turned toward the map. “I would have had to kill you.” He smiled and Cab returned it with one of his own.
“Business,” Halstan said. “Though we do not care to admit it, I believe that the raids upon the lands to the East have been perpetrated by Mornwor.” He pointed to the edge of the Rykstene mountains, to the Southern most points of the holds of Vaillant and Erina.
“Most recently the razing of Capsus. But there have been raids as far East as Widowain, as well, Lord Hericium has lost more than the usual head of horse to bandits this year, which I attribute to Mornwor as well.”
“They are moving through Ciden?” Cab asked. “Have messengers been sent to Sarcos?”
“The Lady Sarcos claims her husband has gone mad. Messengers have been sent, but as yet none have returned.”
“Then he has turned coat? Is he aiding the enemy?”
“I suspected such,” Halstan said. “Until I discovered a passage in an old text that spoke of a road leading south and west from the Long Lake.”
“A road from Capsus through the Rykstene mountains,” Cab muttered, tracing a finger along the map. If such a road existed it would lead directly to the city of Thrain, the Mornwor stronghold, on the edge of the Tunji desert.
“Supplement the garrisons at Capsus,” Cab said.
“It is done,” Halstan said. “We ordered troops from Lords Hericium and Belotas.”
“Then there is something else?”
“Yes. The queen has fears of attack from within. And just recently we’ve lost our Captain of the Guard.”
“Yes.” Halstan sighed. “The queen sent him to Speaker’s Tor.”
Cab wanted to laugh. Speaker’s Tor was a barren rock on the far eastern shores of Loranya. A practically abandoned watch tower where men were sent when they had displeased the queen.
“We are without a Captain of the Guard.”
It took Cab a moment to realize the implications of this statement.
“Me?” he asked. Halstan nodded.
“Which is why the queen requires your pledge. She will not have you going about behind her back as Cantan did. We need a leader here, to clean up the mess Cantan made. She has chosen you.”
“Me,” he repeated. “And if I refuse? What then?”
Halstan looked him over carefully and then smiled and said, “I do not think you will refuse.”
Cab licked his lips, glanced out the window and then looked back at the map.
“What about Sarcos?” he asked. “Can we be certain he is not aiding the enemy? The Lady says he is mad?”
“Yes,” Halstan nodded. “I suppose you won’t have heard. It was perhaps five or six years ago now that she and her household fled from him. The Lady Yffa laid the most outrageous claims against her husband. She has taken up residence in the noble quarter of the city.”
“What sort of claims?” Cab asked.
“I could hardly tell you,” Halstan admitted. “She was more than a little drunk during the audience and of the words that slipped from her lips nothing was close to treason. Marital treachery and licentiousness, I believe.”
“It bears looking into, does it not?”
Halstan smiled. “Indeed,” he said. “Perhaps our new Captain can see to it.”
Cab grumbled. “What will she ask of me?” he said.
“The Lady Sarcos?” Halstan asked.
“No,” Cab cried. “You know I speak of Inn– of the queen.”
“She will have you vow to do no harm unto her or her children, direct or indirect, through action or inaction. To protect her and her children with your life, until such time as she or one of the children releases you from the vow, or death, whichever comes quicker.”
“I feel it shall be death,” Cab muttered. “And what does the Knife-Steward have to say of this?”
“It will be good to have another man around whom I can trust. At least a little.”