“Here they come,” Ely said, just before he tipped a glass of sherry into his gullet. “The suckling pigs.”
“Where is he?” Symon inquired. He peered out the window of the bartizan, eying the first carriages of the caravan. Guards lined the bridge stretching over the brackish water of the moat. The forward barbican had fallen into ruins many years before, its moss-covered stones a testament to the mighty blocks which once composed its heights. Likewise, the drawbridge had disappeared, replaced by the recent addition of sturdy planks to accommodate the carriages and horses of the day’s Conclave gathering. Neither banded by iron nor secured to chains and windlass, the makeshift bridge could not be withdrawn, leaving only the wide doors of the gatehouse – with possessed no portcullis – as the only barrier to the threats outside.
Ely smirked. The defenses must be driving Symon mad.
“He’s in the carriage house, inspecting the chests and such,” Gerry answered. “Said he might have forgotten something.”
“Good,” Symon uttered. “Let him search til the end of the Conclave. Will be better for him.”
“For us,” Ely added, pouring himself another glass. “We haven’t time for your antics.”
“No, we haven’t. With a castle as poor as this, we haven’t the luxury of anything, especially security. Damn it, Dawkin! What on earth was he thinking, choosing this place?”
Ely shared a look with Gerry. Never did he imagine the two of them would ever have to take on the anger of their bigger brother to protect their smartest one. Having done it once already in Terran, when Symon first awoke from being drugged, resulted in a monumental effort Ely did not ever want to attempt again.
“I believe,” Gerry started, albeit squeaking like a mouse, “there is working more toward our advantage than against it.”
“You mean the valley? The gap we all had to pass through? Pfft,” Symon scoffed. “The surrounding rangelands aren’t so high as to stop the most determined. I venture there are dozens of paths crossing these ridges for shepherds and their flocks.”
“True,” Ely admitted, emptying his glass. “Yet that can be said of any mountain hideaway or highland fortress.” Ely strolled up to Symon, calm as a babe approaching a wet nurse. “Brother, whatever your feelings toward Dawkin, his efforts in our absence unveiled the treachery of the Lost Souls. His truth session told all about their plot. With their plans to blow up Highmoorr Castle, we had no choice other than to find an appropriate alternative.”
“Appropriate?” Symon jabbed his finger through the window. “We have no barbican! We have no drawbridge!”
“We also have no dungeon. No vault. No underground tunnels or lairs to speak of. So we run no risk of the Lost Souls having stocked their explosives in alternative locations, as Dawkin learned during his . . . questioning of them.” Ely shuddered at the idea of his brother torturing prisoners. In truth, for all his nights drinking and carousing, not once had Ely lost so much sense so as to consider tormenting another. The entirety of the concept – the screams, the sweating, the blood – upended his stomach.
“Are you well?” Gerry asked of Ely, noting his suddenly pale façade.
“Quite so,” Ely insisted. “Just need more drink, ‘tis all.”
“Explosives can be hidden,” Symon persisted. “Holes dug and covered. This fortress is of earth and timber. It wouldn’t be hard.”
“True,” Ely relented. “This castle, like any other, could burst. Combust. Yet you forget Dawkin consulted the mage before issuing an edict about his decision. That old chap Wystan conferred with our brother, advising such incendiary devices would, um, how did he say?”
Ely shot a cursory glance at Gerry, who pivoted to his brother. “Blow up, the mage said,” Gerry added. “The liquid the Lost Souls brought expands rapidly. It climbs for air like a hungry fire, which is why placing it underground bears so much of a threat. The underground passages of this ancient fortress filled with mud and debris centuries ago, becoming like mortar, as Mage Wystan concluded.”
“Precisely, little brother.” Ely clapped Gerry on the back, nearly knocking him forward. “So you see, Symon, even if the Lost Souls found some miraculous way to hide their explosive in some nook, when set off the main force of the blast would shoot into the air. Like an arrow having lost its way.”
“Towers can still fall. And walls.” Symon crossed his arms, clearly not buying into the rationale.
“Yes, but the foundations would hold, the integrity of the fortress would not be compromised. In the case of an explosion, only those within the immediate vicinity of the blast would be harmed, the rest of us spared.”
“Mage Wystan compared such a scenario to a mine collapsing within, versus a rockslide on the side of a mountain,” Gerry stated.
“Precisely!” Ely exclaimed.
“I still don’t like it,” Symon insisted. “The Conclave being held here and all. ‘Tis not right.”
“Good Mar! There’s no pleasing you.” Ely downed another glass of sherry before motioning to Gerry. “You deal with the sour louse. I’m going downstairs to find –”
“Grandfather!” Gerry exclaimed.
“– I was going to say another bottle.”
“No, you fool.” Gerry looked to the road below. “Grandfather, he came after all.”
“He’s right. ‘Tis his bannerman at the front,” Symon added.
Ely furrowed his brow. “Dawkin advised him to stay at Arcporte Castle, on account of his . . .” Ely struggled for the phrase so often applied to himself. Mania? Incident? Episode? His voice failed him. His mind, suddenly anxious, hung in the balance.
Symon glanced at Ely. Gerry, too intent on meeting their grandfather, hurriedly passed the helms to his brothers.
“Come!” Gerry said. “Let’s see him greeted properly.” Without waiting for either of them, he made for the stairwell.
“I’m sure Grandfather’s fine,” Symon noted.
“How can you be certain?” Ely asked.
“A Saliswater knows.” Symon patted his shoulder before following Gerry.
Then perhaps I am no Saliswater, Ely mused as he trailed after his brothers.
The central yard bustled with activity. Though as large as any, the stables and carriage house – recent additions to the ancient structure – could only accommodate a handful of carts and a dozen mounts. Such confines meant the arrivals, who couldn’t be bothered with walking, had to be dropped off within the yard before their carriages were led to the grounds outside to park. Such a circular parade made for a ringlet of frustration amid chaos, one Gerry navigated with enthusiasm as he strode to the rear of the line, where Artus waited.
Everitt, speaking with his men, fell in beside Gerry.
“James,” he called. Gerry slowed, allowing Ely to catch up and linger behind them.
“Everitt. How goes the inspection of the grounds.”
“There is much here to be desired, Your Majesty.”
“The ramparts are low, barely a story and a half in some parts. The quarters are dank and dark in most places, with only the hall without leaks, as of now anyhow. Not to mention . . .”
“Everitt, is it secure?”
“Yes. All in all, it’s safe, James.”
“I still don’t like it.”143Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡF6hQwce8Gx
Gerry glanced back at Symon, who, like Ely, wore a full visor and helm. Ely – not needing to care who saw him – turned in full to his brother.
“What?” Symon asked of Ely in a whisper.
“You’ve poisoned our Right Captain’s thoughts against the lot of us,” Ely snickered, also low.
“The man has a right to his opinion.”
Symon and Ely fell silent as Gerry took Everitt away by the shoulder.
“I know you’re concerned,” Gerry said to him. “And I appreciate your candor.”
“Don’t patronize me, James.”
“Truly, I’m not.” Gerry paused. “What more would calm you?”
Everitt considered. “The woods near the south have been cleared from the fortress’ edge, for the most part, yet remain thick in many areas. I would prefer more scouts assigned to patrol them. And more sentries on this joke of a parapet overlooking them.”
“Can you spare the men?”
“Aye. The yard is too cramped for the castle patrol anyway. I can use them.”
“See to it.”
Everitt nodded to Gerry before marching back to whence they came. Symon and Ely parted to allow him to pass. Gerry, grinning, went on ahead to the rear of the line, where their grandfather’s carriage lay in sight.
“He’s getting good at this,” Symon stated, beaming.
Well, best it not go to his head, Ely thought, a tad envious.
Ahead, their brother broke into a trot. “You arrived!” Gerry shouted.
Artus swung open the door to his carriage. A servant swooped in with a stepstool, one which the patriarch quickly waved away. Stepping straight into the mud, Artus extended his hand to Gerry even as his grandson leaned in for an embrace.
“How did you fare on the ride?” Gerry asked. He looked to Symon coming up on his right, who now sported his helm, its visor closed. Ely, who also approached in the guise of a knight, escaped Gerry’s gaze. Unlike Symon, he held back a tad while remaining within earshot.
“I would have been better off riding,” Artus replied. “Good Mar, how does anyone stand a coach? I felt every stone, dip, and twig in the road, I did.”
“‘Tis easier on your bones than atop a horse,” Symon uttered through his visor.
“You only say that because you think I’d fall.”
“I’d never think that, Grandfather,” Gerry pledged. “Honest.”
“Your word is never anything but truth.” Artus clapped Gerry on the back. He scanned the yard. A smirk took form on his face. “What a bloody mess.”
“At Court, the barons insisted on being let off in the yard, just as they would have in Highmoorr Castle.”
“Highmoorr has a lane for such deliveries. Along with two gatehouses, to ensure such congestion doesn’t occur.”
“Aye, Grandfather. We made this known to our lords. Still, they insisted.”
Artus squinted. Darkness overtook him. Ely inched closer.
“The barons,” Artus seethed through clenched teeth. “They expect too much.”
“Yes, Sire,” Gerry said, his shoulders foretelling his move to step away.
“Such entitlement will need to be addressed. Not today, I suppose.” Artus removed a scroll from the pocket inside his long coat. Though rolled, the seal had been broken. “This came to the castle after you left, just as I was readying to leave. Pardon my curiosity. I thought it better to open and read it, should the news prove worthy to wait.” He extended the scroll to Gerry, but before releasing it, nodded to the gatehouse. “Perhaps some privacy?”
Gerry nodded. He, Artus, and Symon retreated to the alcove of the gatehouse, which sat unoccupied save for the flickering light from a sconce. Ely went after them. He paused just within the entrance of the passageway, where the three stood in his sights. He turned away slightly, acting as a sentry on guard, though he perked his ears more than any soldier would.
Symon, in the safety of shadows, removed his helm. Gerry unfurled the parchment as Artus glanced to Symon. Then Ely.
“What’s it say?” Symon asked. “Spare the details. Give us the basics.”
“Word from across the channel, from Vloma, by way of Port San-Mont. By the hand of High Bishop Jaquot of Har-Kin Senddula . . .”
Gerry paused. Symon crept closer. Like Gerry, he peered over his shoulder to ensure none other than their brother stood in the corridor. Ely moved in too yet maintained a respectable distance, keeping up his ruse as a guard.
“It reads, in parts: Word of our violation of the sacred covenant of sanctuary has reached the Continent . . . The Conclave of High Bishops, along with Kin di Valia, have heard of these crimes against the Church . . . they are displeased by these reported sins . . . A tribunal will be initiated to investigate . . . We demand the clergy have a seat at your next Conclave of Barons to discuss . . .”
Gerry’s words trailed off even as he kept reading. He lowered the scroll to look to his brothers and grandfather.
“You know what this means?” Artus asked ominously.
“What?” Symon asked. “A few strong words from a High Bishop across the Channel? Hardly a –”
“Brother,” Gerry started, “have you forgotten your history?”
“No,” Symon answered, even as his tone spoke to his uncertainty.
“Port San-Mont is the unofficial seat of Belgarda’s military power in northern Afari, the ancestral home of Kin di Valia. During the Century War, a scroll issued from their mist-shrouded isle meant only one thing: a declaration of war.”
“Bah!” Symon glanced away, then faced off with Gerry. “An old legend, ‘tis all. That isle has sat quietly for over two decades. Why I’ve never even heard of a threat or an opposition coming out of this so-called island fortress. Could be abandoned for all we know.”
“The stronghold you dismiss so easily is as mighty as ever,” Artus insisted. “Do not disrespect that which you do not know.”
Taken aback by his grandfather’s admonishment, Symon stuttered. “Grandfather, I meant no contempt. I merely . . . I value the sacrifices you and your generation made to thwart our enemies . . . The Century War produced many a worthy adversary . . .”
Artus raised his hand to stop his grandson. “Put your tongue and mind, at ease. Your attitude is not unlike that of the barons in my day. Myself included. We, too, thought less of the northern stronghold of Kin di Valia. Those who did not live through those days can easily breeze over the absence of the Devout State of Belgarda from our history texts. And who can blame you? Officially, Belgarda never aligned with any power in all the years of the Century War. Even in the years of their False King, the Devout State managed its neutrality. To the deception of us all.
“Yet make no error, the rare times when Port San-Mont issued a decree . . .” Artus touched the top edge of the parchment. “. . . something would happen. The tides would retreat from the channel standing between the isle and the mainland. The monks would traverse the momentary peninsula. Days or weeks later, carnage would ensue, with one sides’ army obliterated. By whom exactly, ‘twas never announced. Still, always afterwards, the monastic force would be spotted returning to their stronghold, nearly in full force, to lay dormant once more until another edict by their High Bishop was issued.”
Artus paused, his face bearing the weight of a heavy truth, both grave and unrelenting. Symon, looking to the parchment in Gerry’s hands, tugged it from his brother. He held it to the flame of the sconce until it caught, the threat it held consumed by fire.
“What do we do?” Gerry asked.
“What we must,” Artus replied. “His Reverance, Perceval, is due at the Conclave, is he not?”
Gerry looked hesitantly to Symon, who shared his sentiment. “His brother, Baron Dederic, did insist on his brother joining him at the Conclave. So out of respect for his Har-Kin, we did extend an invitation. That was before . . . Dawkin broke sanctuary.”
Artus threw his arms into the air. “That boy! He took too much liberty with my name. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought to keep a watchful eye on that one.” Instinctively, his eyes glanced in Ely’s direction, who at once knew the implication.
Yes, Grandfather. I am the one they call King Fool. You never believed one of your other beloved grandsons could earn the moniker, could you? For once, Ely was thankful for the visor across his eyes, lest his grandfather or his brothers read the scorn his face no doubt carried.
“He is nonetheless expected to attend,” Gerry continued, albeit without haste. “Our men spotted the High Bishop and his clerical retinue on the Amberglen Highway. On foot, no less, to make amends to Mar for the sins we in Marland have committed.”
“Hmm, that would explain why I didn’t pass him on my way here.” Artus scratched the stubble of his chin. “And his journey here speaks volumes about his willingness – mayhaps that of the Devout State – to come to an agreement.”
“And put this whole business with the Church behind us,” Symon added.
“What say you . . .” Artus pondered, “to us sending a royal escort to His Reverence? Say your carriage? And wagons for his retinue? That would speed his progress here, and reflect his prestige, his coming as a guest of honor.”
Ah, hell. Enough of my ruse! Ely abandoned his pretend post at the mouth of the corridor. “The barons will be outraged!” Ely exclaimed, removing his helm. “You give favor to any one of those elitists in attendance, and the whole of them will protest. And to a clergyman no less. Plus, the son of a har-kin?! The higher ranking kins will erupt with outcries.”
Gerry stepped up to him. “Is that such a bad thing?” He turned to his grandfather. “The barons will be displeased, yes. But given the news from Afari – which will eventually reach their ears – they will come to understand our offering. Plus, Perceval will be flattered by our show of respect, which will make waves across the continent back to Vloma, and the ears of his leader, the Supreme Devout.”
“No member of the clergy can resist such puffery,” Artus mused.
“Nonsense! The lot of them will see through the move.” By Mar, am I the only one not gone mad?
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Ely may be right,” Symon admitted. “Then again, so may you two.”
“We can’t not make a royal offering to Perceval,” Gerry said. “Any statement or move by us might be misconstrued. I know the risk. Yet the longer we wait to make amends, the worse the consequences be against us.”
The four considered Gerry’s words, in earnest. Ely snarled. Damn the little bugger. He’s right.
“Well, then,” Artus nodded to Gerry, “have your carriage readied for the jaunt to Amberglen. The High Bishop will be saved the humility of arriving on mudfoot, somewhat to his chagrin. Though I wager our kin he will accept our mode of transport with some hidden sense of relief.”
Gerry, beaming from his grandfather’s encouragement, smiled. “I’ll give the order, Grandfather. I will.” With haste, he marched from the gatehouse.
“Best I keep an eye on that one.” Symon strapped on his helm. “He’s become too emboldened as of late.”
Well, he took Taresa to bed, what were we to expect? “Me too, I suppose.” Ely made a move to put on his helm.
“Ely, before you do, a word,” Artus insisted.
Ely paused. Symon, giving him a look, shrugged before lowering his visor and following after Gerry.
“What troubles you so, Grandfather, that you need a solitary audience?” Ely inquired.
“You, you were put in a rather peculiar position back at the castle, were you not?”
Ely cocked his brow. He suspected he knew what his grandfather was referring to, but would not venture to guess. “Meaning?”
“Gerry left without you three. A rare move, given how you and your brothers have staged your ascensions – and subsequent guardianships – since the first day of your kinghood. Do not bother to deny it. In princehood, your father insisted on only one of you, whether in disguise or not, being ascended while the rest were confined to Terran. He and I managed to keep you four committed to such a regimen in your younger days.
“Alas, as you matured, you desired to escape in not-so-secret ways. To explore Arcporte and beyond. He and I permitted such slights.
“Now, as men, the laws of we set forth in Terran bear you no consequences. As monarchs, you must bend or discard restrictions at will, either for your personal wellness or the greater good. Such moves have seen your rule consistent, the eternal bond between you forged. Until recent days . . .”
Artus looked away. First, to the noises from the yard, which echoed through the stones of the gatehouse. Then to the flickering light of the sconce, which captured his attention too long. Lastly, he peered into the shadows, the darkness of no particular interest.
“You left with Symon, while Dawkin came much later afterward. But not before you made inquiries while the Voiceless held Symon in his confines.” Artus finally turned to Ely. “You must have spoken to every single Voiceless about what transpired while you were away. Did you not? A hard endeavor, considering the years you have mocked our mute guards.”
Ely held his tongue, wanting to answer with a humorous quip. “Aye,” he said instead. “I made inquiries.”
“You asked not only about Dawkin . . . You asked about me.”
“Aye,” he replied again.
“Why?” Artus asked. His eyes narrowed in admittance to the fact he already knew the answer.
“Dawkin, during his truth session, he, he recalled moments of concern.” Ely wavered. Eyes, light brown with flecks of gold, burrowed into his soul, searching for answers. The Gauntlet lives. Making this all the more difficult.
“Moments?” Artus prodded.
“You, at times, seemed to lose your wits.”
“Your nerve faltered.”
“Fear,” Ely blurted. “Dawkin, he kept referring to your fainthearted behavior. Your frail demeanor. He saw you afraid. A . . . fool.”
Artus lowered his brow as his nose crinkled. Ely expected a tongue-lashing. Instead, he faced the backside of a silver mane as his grandfather snapped away. The old man stretched out his hand to the stone wall, in as much to steady his body as well as his anger.143Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ5v1AXtTGD3
“Does the kingdom see me this way?” he finally inquired. “The peoples. Our subjects.”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“My entire reign was marred by war. When peace finally came during Audemar’s time, I thought my legacy – our legacy – was secure. A father having endured the brunt of the fight, one who passed a kingdom on to his son, who then quelled the remnants of our chaos.” Artus glanced back to Ely. “I hope you never know what I have. A father, losing a son.”
No waterfall of tears followed his sentiment. Not one droplet. The veil of the Gauntlet held firm.
“How do you do it?” Ely asked, at a loss. “Lead? Represent the Throne? Knowing that every moment of weakness – no matter how strong you try to be – becomes an arsenal against you, one our enemies and our very own barons keep in their pockets, to use at their leisure? Honestly, when I falter and then return to my senses, I see the looks of those who witnessed my mania, my outbursts . . . their smug faces, and I, I . . .”
I turn into the Fool. Again. My anger seethes. I want to beat those dastardly subjects, with their treasonous thoughts behind polite smiles. Lock them in chains. Throttle them by the noose!
Ely had glanced aside of Artus’ stare. Recovering his wits, he lifted his eyes to catch sight of Artus watching him, the pendulum of concern having shifted from grandson to grandfather.
Artus hesitated, his mouth agape. Both a moment and an eternity passed before an interruption bellowed through the corridor.
“Grandfather?!” Symon shouted from beyond. “Brother?!”
“We’re here,” Artus answered.
“Perceval has arrived by coach.”
“So soon? Gerry only issued the order –”
“Not ours. Another baron picked him up along the way, besting our efforts. The yard is astir. We should begin. Shortly.”
“Aye. We come.” Artus went on after his Symon’s voice, but not before lingering by Ely. “You’ve spent a lifetime trying to rein in King Fool, keeping that part of yourself confidential, along with the other workings you and your brothers have experienced.” Artus leaned in as if others stood closely within earshot. “Our secrets have done much to save us. Now, they do us harm.”
“One day – soon – I will need to tell you four. Altogether. Of a hidden chapter of the Century War. One I had put out of memory, buried deep, only to see it rise again.”
Dear Mar, has he truly gone mad? “When?”
With that, the old man – perhaps giving way to the Gauntlet within once more – hastened away, his legs somehow gaining the speed and strength of a fresh squire. Ely scarcely had a chance to raise a hand and a word to stop him before his grandfather turned the corner to leave him in the shadows.
Secrets? More? Ely plodded to the mouth of the corridor. He peered from the dimness as he fastened the strap of his helm under his chin.
In the yard, High Bishop Perceval stepped from a carriage bearing the crest of five spades of Kin Hamistale. His feet planted themselves on the mat an attendant had laid before him, a vain effort to protect his mud-caked bare feet from further grime. Another servant wrapped a red sable cape over Perceval’s shoulders while a third presented him with a platter bearing him a cup of steaming hot tea along with an assortment of dried fruits and nuts. Outside the circlet of doting attendants, nobles of every har-kin and kin waited for their chance to greet His Eminence.
Perceval, basking in the attention, tilted his head toward the sun as he spat out a prayer of thanks.
“What a whore,” Ely whispered to himself. He lowered the visor to his helm. May Mar strike me down if ever I desire so much flattery, he thought, before remembering so many similar actions of his. Wait, don’t.
Circumventing the crowd gravitating toward the carriage, Ely tromped to the Great Hall of Glic Anglisk where – eventually – the lot of barons and bishops would find their way for the Conclave.143Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ4gPXm7OMaO