CHAPTER 14 THE COUNCIL OF KINGS
Dougal, who was currently taking the form of a fairy, sat directly opposite the Auvergnen prince. Although he wasn’t looking at him, he could feel Gaston’s penetrating eyes as if they were daggers stabbing into his flesh. The leprechaun suppressed a shudder and begun studying the other figures at the table from his right side to his left.
Niamh, Strahan and Finn were representing the fairies, Sir John and Arthur the pixies, and King Robert and Izzy the brownies.
The esprit follet representatives were made up of the three kings and their sons: King Louis and Prince Gaston of Auvergne, King Martel and Prince Clotaire of Merovingia, and King Charles and Prince Pepin of Carolingia.
First Minister Owain and Minister of Defence Llewellyn represented Gwyllion.
Dougal looked up as King Louis began to address the fairy king. ‘King Strahan, thank you for agreeing to this council. We appreciate you have many valid reasons for refusing to meet with us.’
‘Any differences between my subjects and yours are minor and personal compared to the challenges our nations face, and are best left in the past,’ replied Strahan earnestly.
Dougal glanced over at Gaston as the fairy king finished speaking. The coldness in the follet prince’s eyes left Dougal in little doubt that their differences were far from forgotten. He almost smiled despite himself. He had to give the prince credit for not backing down, even though he now knew Dougal was a giant.
‘You are wise, King Strahan,’ said Louis. ‘I look forward to strengthening the bonds between our people in more peaceful times.’
‘As do I, but for now we must attend to more pressing matters. Have there been any more attacks?’
‘Yes, ten days ago. A Merovingian town was wiped out, and over a thousand of my subjects perished. It was more than ten miles from the coast.’
Sir John interjected. ’So, it isn’t just in Tudorland – they are getting more daring. We have had four villages destroyed in the last three weeks. A badly injured ogre was captured two weeks ago, but not even our most powerful wizards could probe its mind or make it talk.’
‘You should have let it die,’ King Robert said coldly.
Before anyone could reply to the brownie king’s words, Adam and Dylan burst into the room. ‘Sorry for the interruption, your highnesses,’ said Adam, ‘but I thought you’d like to know that Phil has returned.’
‘Who is Phil?’ asked King Charles.
‘He is the last of the fairy dragons serving the fairy realm,’ answered Finn. ‘He has been following an ogre ship. Was he successful, Adam?’
‘Where is he?’ Strahan asked.
‘Waiting in the courtyard,’ Adam replied.
’Good. Make sure the courtyard is clear and tell Phil we will meet him there as soon as we can.’ As the brothers left the room, Strahan continued. ‘We’ll wait a few minutes for them to clear the courtyard, and then we will question Phil.’
‘What are we waiting for?’ Gaston snapped, not understanding the delay.
‘I believe,’ said King Louis, a hint of disappointment directed at his son, ‘that King Strahan wisely does not want any details released to the general populace until we have decided what action we intend to take.’
For an instant, Dougal felt sorry for the prince, who was blushing so deeply his face had turned bright crimson, small beads of sweat had gathered on his brow. However, his sympathy dropped when he realised Gaston was still glowering at him.
Adam re-entered the room and bowed before the council members. ‘The courtyard is ready, My Lords.’
‘Thank you, general,’ replied Strahan, rising to his feet. ‘I think it is time for you and your brother to return to your other duties.’
‘As you wish, your highness,’ Adam replied, barely able to suppress a smile of amusement at his and Strahan’s forced formality. It was Niamh who had suggested that the fairies act in this manner, to help put the follet kings at ease, as they, like the pixies, took royalty and rank far more seriously than the fairies.
King Strahan led the delegation of nobles and royalty into the courtyard, where they saw Phil happily gnawing at a large leg of raw beef. The dragon, disappointed that his meal was interrupted, lowered the beef to the ground and licked a drop of blood from his lips.
’I am sorry to interrupt your well-deserved meal, Prince Philproinnsias,’ said Strahan.
’I understand your urgency, King Strahan. I followed the ogre ship all the way to a large harbour on the northern Mauretanian coast. There were eight such ships at anchor, and hundreds of ogres in the town. I flew along the coast and found four other ports in various stages of completion.’
While Phil spoke, Gaston whispered to Prince Clotaire, ‘Why would a prince act as a scout?’
‘Prince Gaston,’ snapped Phil, ‘I do not judge a man by his title, but by his actions.’ The dragon had excellent hearing. ‘Sometimes, it is the menial tasks we do that are the most important.’ Before Gaston could reply, Phil continued with the description of his recent discoveries. ‘There was at least one dry dock in every port, and ships were being built in each one. I think the raids have increased, because they now have more ships. I explored inland from the completed port, following what looked like a newly formed road, and passed several large groups of ogres. One group numbered well into the hundreds, and all were heading towards the coast. The road went all the way to the untamed lands.’
‘What are the untamed lands?’ asked Dougal.
’An unexplored jungle that covers most of Mauretania.’
‘Why hasn’t anyone explored it?’
‘It’s not as if they haven’t tried; it’s just that no one has ever returned, and I now think we know why. The ogres must have been hiding there since my forefathers defeated them,’ said Phil. ‘Now that they have discovered the fairy dragons have gone, they must have decided to take back what they believe is their world.’
‘We have to stand together if we have any hope of stopping them,’ stated King Louis resolutely.
‘I agree,’ King Martel and King Charles said in unison.
‘As do I,’ agreed Strahan.
‘We are a small nation,’ said Owain, ‘but will give whatever aid we can.’
‘And we will follow our fairy allies,’ added Sir John.
‘There are only five of us,’ said Dougal, ’but our swords are yours.’ He couldn’t help but look at Gaston as he said the word swords.
All eyes, except Gaston’s, which were fiercely fixed on Dougal, turned to King Robert, the only leader yet to agree.
The brownie king finally spoke. ‘There hasn’t been a raid on Caledonia for over a month, and the two we have had were minor. I see no reason to become involved in your conflict, particularly if it means fighting beside pixies.’
‘What?’ shouted Izzy. ’Are you insane?’
‘Remember who you are talking to, Isabella,’ warned Robert, a look of menace in his eyes.
Izzy was undeterred. ‘You wouldn’t be who you are today if it wasn’t for King Strahan and his fairy subjects.’
‘Without you, you mean?’ King Robert vehemently spat back at her.
Izzy could not believe what she was hearing. ’What the hell are you talking about?’
‘I know you want my throne,’ the king replied, ’and you intend to draw Caledonia into a war to increase your hold over my subjects.’
‘With deepest respect, King Robert,’ said Prince Finn, barely able to contain his growing anger, ’Princess Isabella turned down the throne, and led the search for the rightful Caledonian heir.’
The king was not convinced. ‘It’s all part of her long-term plan.’
‘You’re right, Izzy,’ said Dougal. ‘He is insane.’
King Robert ignored the leprechaun’s comment, keeping his eyes focused on Izzy. ‘Liz is right,’ he muttered.
Izzy looked at her cousin in absolute disbelief at the mention of Liz’s name. This can’t be happening, she thought.
‘Isabella Wallace, I hereby find you guilty of treason, and exile you from Caledonia. Consider the sentence a light one, as your trial was conducted in a foreign kingdom; however, if you ever try to return to Caledonia, you will be executed.’
Silence filled the air.
’How dare you,’ Izzy replied. She was livid and could hardly speak. ‘I have served Caledonia faithfully my entire life. You have no right to do this.’
‘I am your king, and I have every right. King Strahan, Sir John – Caledonia’s borders are closed to your people. Any violation of them will be viewed as an act of war.’
As the protests began, he turned and walked away.
When it was obvious that the Caledonian king wasn’t going to heed their calls, King Strahan turned to Phil. ‘As always, you have done well, my friend. I am sure you would like to finish your meal and get some sleep – so go now and do both.’
‘Thank you. I will.’ Phil, however, had no intention of doing either. As soon as the others went back inside, the dragon vanished from sight, and went after Robert.
He followed the Caledonian king to the outskirts of the town, where his guard of twenty mounted brownies were waiting. Phil scanned the faces of the soldiers until his eyes came to rest on a familiar female face.
The tall brownie still had the same spiky, unnaturally blonde hair. The fairy dragon couldn’t believe Liz had the nerve to openly walk around the outskirts of the fairy town.
His first thought was to fly over and rip her throat out, but he realised that would more than likely lead to war between the fairies and brownies, and that was the last thing his friends currently needed.
Deep down, Phil also knew he could never be responsible for the loss of the many innocent lives such a war would cause.
King Robert nearly had a heart attack when Phil landed beside him.
‘You are a fool – a fool who does not deserve his throne,’ the dragon began. ’You banish the bravest and most loyal Caledonian your country has ever known, a woman who would happily give her life for her people and expect nothing in return. Without her, Princess Amber would be married to Rupert, and both Caledonia and Sarasidhe would still be under his tyrannical rule. I believe that is exactly what your friend wanted.’ As Phil finished, he looked directly at Liz.
‘If it wasn’t for the treachery of your father and the other fairy dragons, Princess Amber would never have been kidnapped in the first place,’ scoffed Liz. ‘And with or without Izzy, I would eventually have driven the pixie scum from our kingdom.’
’You?’ growled Phil, momentarily wishing he was a fire-breathing dragon so he could roast Liz where she stood.
‘If I had not been there –’ Liz started to say but stopped when Robert raised his hand.
‘Enough,’ said the king. ‘Liz, you do not need to defend yourself to the likes of him. We know the truth, and that’s all that matters. I know the traitor left you for dead in the tunnels beneath Tantallon so she could take control of Caledonia after the pixies had finally been defeated.’
Phil was astonished by what he was hearing. ‘Izzy is better off without you.’
‘No, it is Caledonia that is better off without her,’ Robert replied self-righteously. ‘She is a reckless, power-crazy fool.’
‘Reckless with her own life, maybe, but it is adventure she craves, not power. If it weren’t for her, you would not be sitting on your throne. You may not admit it, but I know the true reason you have exiled Izzy. You fear your people will realise she would make a far better monarch than you could ever be.’
The dragon paused before giving the despicable man a word of warning. ’Before I leave, I will say one thing to you: watch your back.’
‘Is that a threat, dragon?’ snarled the king.
‘I don’t mean from me,’ replied Phil, looking at Liz. ‘If I wanted you dead, there is nothing you could do to stop it from happening. Now leave this place and never return.’
‘So, we are all in agreement,’ said King Louis. ‘We stand united against our common foe. The only question is: how do we do it?’
‘We take the fight to them,’ said Izzy.
‘The brownie is right.’
Everyone in the room was surprised to see that it was Gaston who had spoken.
‘We can’t just sit back and wait until they build a fleet large enough to launch a full-scale invasion,’ he continued.
‘Does anyone have any suggestions?’ asked King Louis.
‘I do,’ said Izzy. ‘We take our ship and raid an uncompleted port, then set up a base for our invasion of Mauretania. While we are doing this, the rest of you will mobilise your armies and commandeer every ship and fishing boat and any other vessel capable of making the journey. We can then transport our army to a prearranged location that we have cleared.’
‘There aren’t enough ships to transport an army of this size,’ King Charles hesitantly said.
‘Then we’ll make more than one trip.’
‘How can we do that without alerting the ogres?’ asked Finn. ‘Without the element of surprise, we have nothing.’
’We could march our combined armies to Agde,’ Gaston suggested. ’It’s a small port on our southern coast and provides a direct route to the Mauretanian coast. For some reason, there is yet to be an attack on the southern coast. Maybe they think we would be able to track them too easily if they use such a direct approach. Whatever the reason, it may give us a back door into Mauretania.’
Arthur thought about what the prince had proposed. ’It would take months to mobilise our armies and march all the way to Agde.’
‘We can have the first troops ready in less than a month,’ said Sir John. ’And we’ll transport the rest as they arrive in Agde.’
‘We can be ready in time,’ Finn said confidently.
‘If you can do it, I’m sure we can, too,’ said King Charles, to the agreement of the other follet kings.
Strahan considered this, and then put it to his new allies. ‘Are we sure this is the wisest course of action?’
‘No,’ said Izzy. ‘But it certainly beats sitting here waiting for them to come to us.’
‘Your mission is too dangerous for me to order anyone to go with you, Izzy,’ said the king.
‘If I had to, I would go alone, but I don’t think it will come to that.’
’It’s agreed, then. I suggest we adjourn this meeting and reconvene in Agde one month from today. I have arranged a banquet to celebrate our alliance. It will begin at dusk. I hope you can all attend tonight before your departure in the morning.’
As they left the chamber, King Louis turned to Gaston. ‘I am proud of you, my son.’
‘Thank you, father,’ Gaston replied, before casting one last hate filled look in Dougal’s direction.
Back in the privacy of her personal chambers, Izzy, who was known for her inner strength and determination, did something she had never done before. She sat on her bed, placed her head in her hands, and cried. She cried with such intensity that her whole body shook.
Izzy had known that since the day Robert had taken the Caledonian throne, he had been jealous of her popularity with his brownie subjects, but she never believed it would come to this.
She knew he had only agreed to send her to Sarasidhe as ambassador to get her out of the way, but never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined that he would go this far.
Izzy was glad she had not been armed when Robert had passed his judgement, because if she had been, she doubted whether she would have been able to stop herself from driving a dagger straight into his cold black heart.
But it was not her plight that upset her the most; it was the thought that Robert was a puppet, and that it was most probably Liz who was pulling his strings.
Maybe I heard wrongly, or maybe it’s another Liz, she told herself, but deep down she knew the evil, conniving Liz had returned.
Izzy’s first impulse was to acquire a horse and chase after Robert and Liz so that she could confront them, but she knew that would have to wait. The best way for her to serve the country that was now lost to her was to defeat the ogres before they conquered all of Connacht, including her beloved Caledonia.
‘How did she react?’ asked Cameron, tears welling in her eyes.
‘She called him insane,’ said Derry. ‘And after he left, she carried on as if nothing had happened. Perhaps you should go and see how she is.’
Cameron shook her head as she wiped a tear that escaped from her eye. ‘No. If Izzy is hurting as much as I think she is, the last thing she’ll want is anyone, even me, seeing it. Do you think she heard Robert mention Liz?’
‘I’m not sure,’ Derry replied.
‘She heard it all right,’ said Dougal. ‘Remember, we’re talking about Izzy. She misses nothing.’
‘What do we do now?’ asked Derry.
‘I could go to Tantallon,’ suggested Cameron. ‘He hasn’t exiled me, has he?’
‘No, he hasn’t, but I’m guessing the only reason he hasn’t was because you weren’t there,’ said Derry. ‘I think the chances of you leaving Tantallon in one piece would be higher if it was still under Rupert’s control.’
As the graveness of the situation sank in, Cameron’s tears started to flow freely. ‘We didn’t fight to free Caledonia to be rewarded, but I certainly never expected to be punished for it.’
Derry knelt and gently embraced Cameron, giving her friend a giant shoulder to cry on.