Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur
Haralan Tallirhan, by the Grace of God King of Baranur and Duke of Magnus, watched the column of Hussars wind its way through the Royal District as it made its way towards Northgate.
A slight breeze was blowing, bringing some relief from the stifling heat. In the city below the first wall of Crown Castle, people were going about their business almost as if the war was not merely 250 leagues from Magnus.
The thing which brought the war home to people was the striking lack of shipping alongside the city’s docks. With the main trade artery of the Laraka now denied the capital, Haralan was forced to bring in by land everything needed to keep a city of 50,000 souls functioning, a very expensive and unsatisfactory method of sustanance.
To be sure, food was not a problem – the fields of the Royal Duchy were rich enough to supply a population three or four times that which was present. The state of the city’s commerce, however, was a different matter.
Ever since the closing of the Laraka, the Merchant Houses had been clamouring for Haralan to do something, anything, to re-start the flow of trade. Prices had increased for the fifth time since Melrin. The poor were beginning to grow dissatisfied as well. Soon, the King of Baranur could be facing riot inside the walls of his own capital.
Assuming, of course, that Untar hadn’t claimed Haralan’s throne by then. Haralan’s friend and advisor Sir Edward Sothos had for days been sounding the alarm of Untar and his Fist of the Emperor’s progress.
“You may succeed on the Laraka, Connall, only to find the heart of the kingdom gutted and burned,” the king said under his breath.
The distinct sound of hard boots on stone interrupted his thoughts. Haralan turned his head in the direction of the footsteps to discover Sir Edward and Sir Edward’s aide, Commander Jan Courymwen, approaching.
“Edward!” Haralan said with a smile. “What news?”
Also watching the departure of the Hussars, but from a much different vantage point, were three men and one woman. “I would have much preferred the Knight Commander to have sent the Huscarls or Legion of Death with the Hussars,” spoke the shorter and younger of the three men.
“Are you mad?” asked the eldest. “We shall need those troops to hold off the Beinisons.”
“Phorsan makes a valid observation, Lieran,” the third and most expensively dressed commented. “When the time comes for our Lord to move, the Huscarls may prove…difficult.”
“I don’t know, Ethros,” Lieran said. “If reports can be believed, the Beinison Emperor and his troops have smashed everything we’ve thrown at them!”
“That…foreigner…doesn’t know how to handle Baranurian troops,” Phorsan said in disgust.
Lord Ethros of Northfield turned from regarding the column of horsemen. “Don’t be an idiot!” he snapped. “Sothos is a capable general. *That* is why I have been labouring for so long to have him discredited. His is the mind behind the strategy. I dare say that if he had not moved so many Regiments of the Royal Army to the Southern Marches during the winter we would be prisoners of Untar even now.”
Phorsan took the rebuke angrily, his hand flexing around his sword hilt. “You admire him!” he accused Ethros.
“I respect his abilities,” Ethros countered calmly. “As should you. With Sothos as shield, Haralan is untouchable. Once Sothos is gone…”
“This is dangerous, Ethros!” Lieran said.
“What say you, Lady?” Phorsan asked of the woman in the corner.
“The prowess of the line Sothos in combat hath long been known,” came the oddly-accented voice from the shadows. “To face on the field the Knight Commander is to court the Reaper.”
“What do you suggest?”
A black form detached itself from the wall and moved into the light, midnight black robes rustling against the stone, face hidden by the robes’ cowl. “Force the Sothos to face thee in a contest for which thee art most suited.”
“Politics?” Lieran asked.
“Politics,” Phorsan said with satisfaction.
“Politics,” spoke Ethros with decision.
“Politics,” said Celeste in a voice smooth as silk.
Haralan listened to his Knight Commander’s report on the state of the Kingdom’s army with supressed humour. The King was not a man given to flippant mannerisms. Indeed, the matters on which Sir Edward was reporting were of great import. The thing was, no matter how hard he tried, Haralan simply could not fail to find the sight of his most trusted advisor standing, literally, in the shadow of that advisor’s chief aide a cause for humour.
The two of them made an odd pair. The shorter, Edward, always in the foreground of attention while the taller, Commander Courymwen, invariably attempted to blend into the background. Much of that was due to the station each occupied, of course.
The personalities of each seemed mis-matched as well. Edward very rarely relaxed his posture in public. Even in private, among friends, he was reserved. Haralan, Edward’s closest friend, saw his friend let down his guard only occasionally. Haralan wondered at what the adopted Baranurian’s homeland was really like if it regularly turned out products such as Edward. Sir Edward displayed such an intenseness, such a resoluteness of purpose, that almost all of Haralan’s knights were in awe of the man. As for the common soldiers, well, they reacted to Sir Edward with a strange blend of fear, respect, and utter faith in their supreme commander. Whenever he walked into a room, Edward dominated most by sheer strength of persona. Talking to him, one felt as if Edward had the height advantage instead of the speaker. All in all, a surprise for those meeting the scarred Knight Commander for the first time.
That same feeling of surprise was also felt when meeting Sir Edward’s aide, Jan Courymwen. With her unusual height, six-foot four, combined with her flaming-red hair and deep emerald-green eyes, one would expect a temper and attitude of superiority to match. She possessed neither. Even the fact that she was the second-youngest woman who had gone through the Royal Military Academy to reach the rank of Commander did not give her cause to be boastful.
She was a study in contrasts. Decisive in her duties as an officer of the Royal Army, she was often shy and unsure of herself when not on duty. Much of her deference came from the circumstances of her birth. Her parents were from Port Sevlyn, poor folk making their living working for Lord Quillien Thorne along Port Sevlyn’s waterfront. She owed her position at the academy to Lord Thorne. Together, she and Edward administered the Royal Army better than it had ever been administered in its long history.
It really was quite sad, Haralan thought, that such a close friendship as she and Edward possessed must come to an end. The King sighed.
Sir Edward ceased his narrative. “Something, Sire?”
“Oh, nothing, really,” Haralan said with a dismissive wave. “I was wondering, should we not send at least part of the garrison to strengthen our forces facing the Fist of the Emperor in its advance?”
“I think not, my liege,” Sir Edward responded. “Not yet. Until conclusions on the Laraka have been reached, we dare not weaken the capital.”
“Sound advice, as always, my friend.” Seeing the Royal Magist approaching, Haralan eased himself from the battlements with a smile. “What summons you to come calling on us, my Lord Marcellon?”
“Busy, Sire?” Marcellon called out.
“The Knight Commander has just finished reporting to me on the state of the Kingdom as he sees it.”
“An exceedingly thorough and intense view it must be,” Marcellon jokingly commented as he joined the group.
“War is not a time for frivolity, Old Man,” Edward said, rising to the bait.
“With you,” the Royal Magist commented, “there is no time for frivolity.” He continued, not giving Edward a chance to speak. “Now,” he began, keeping up a running joke the two had been cultivating for weeks, “why don’t you carry on or over or whatever it is you warrior-types do and let civilized men get down to some real work?”
Sir Edward turned to the King. “If His Royal Majesty will permit, the Commander and I have work to do.”
“Certainly, Sir Edward. You have our leave to go.”
The two warriors saluted their King and strode off along the wall, making for the nearest tower. Marcellon winked at Jan as she went and received an answering smile in return.
Once they were out of ear-shot, Haralan turned to his chief advisor on things political. “Any success, Lord Marcellon?”
“Regretfully, no. I can find no hard source for the rumours about them,” he said, indicating the retreating figures of the Knight Commander and his aide. “I have suspicions, but can offer no proof.”
“Can your magic not–?”
“Haralan, magic is not the cure-all for the world’s woes. There is a limit to what I can do.”
“That is not sufficient! I am coming under increasing pressure — from within even my own House! — to remove Edward. You must give me a weapon to use!”
“I shall try, Majesty. I shall try.”
As they descended the narrow stairs of one of the great towers, Edward asked over his shoulder, “What would you say to a go on the practice field, Commander?”
“It would be a welcome break in the routine, sir. I accept.”
The two exited the tower and proceeded through Crown Castle’s many defences, arriving some half an hour later at the King’s Keep. They separated, each going to their rooms to fetch their gear.
An hour later, the sun beginning to set, Edward stood in full panoply awaiting his aide and his friend. Once done, he would still have his aide. But the friend would be gone.
It is fitting I wear the black over my shield and armour, Edward thought. For today, I shall truly feel deserving of this badge of dishonour. A figure in blue and gold came out of a small portal and walked steadily out onto the field. A crowd was starting to gather, some out of boredom, others out of curiosity to see who the Knight Commander was to fight, still others eager to pick up a trick or two from the man who directed the Royal Army. Edward waited for Jan to reach him, resigned to what he must do, shield on one arm, helm held in the other.
“Sorry I took so long, sir,” Jan said as she strode up. “My hair was not being cooperative.”
“It has now succumbed, I gather?”
She smiled. “After a fashion, sir. I had such trouble with it, I may consider getting it cut.”
“It would not suit you short so, Coury.”
“You like my hair?” she asked.
Edward thought he detected a hint of red in his friend’s cheeks, but dismissed it as an effect of the sun. “Yes. Very much. Shall we begin?”
“Uh…yes, sir.” Jan took a breath before speaking, her manner now very formal. “I greet you this day, Your Excellency, upon the field of combat. As challenged, I claim the right of selection. Do you affirm or deny my right?”
Edward responded in the same manner, a manner which, as a Knight, came to him more easily than it did his aide. “I greet thee this day, valiant warrior, upon this field of combat. I here doth affirm thy claim to the right of selection. The claim of right of selection thus affirmed, I doth now take upon my judgement the resolution. Dost thou recognize my right of resolution?”
“I do recognize your right of resolution, Your Excellency.”
“I thank thee, worthy gentle. What shalt be thy pleasure?”
“I choose sword and shield. What shall be the resolution?”
“I choose as resolution that the combat be to the death with no quarter given.”
“I accept the resolution.”
Both combatants donned their helms and settled into a fighting stance. Edward decided on a quick, violent offensive and moved in on Jan almost immediately.
Jan backed up, trying to use her longer reach and longer blade to thwart the sudden attack. Edward came right on in after her, sweeping at her legs, forcing her to use more of her shield and less of her sword.
Realizing that a defensive strategy was a course to destruction, Jan leaned in on Edward’s next stroke, using her shield as a battering ram. It worked and the Knight Commander soon found himself parrying a furious series of strokes that sent sparks and bits of wood flying in the waning sunlight.
Edward was beginning to get the worse of the situation. His aide’s longer reach made it more difficult for Edward to get in a good strike. Consequently, his shield was being quickly and methodically hacked to bits.
After what seemed hours, but in reality was only several seconds, the two separated, standing five or so yards apart while each regained some strength and re-evaluated the other’s skill.
Edward decided that he needed to be the one to go on the offensive and he clearly needed some advantage to get inside Jan’s reach. Once inside her reach, he thought he could exploit a gap or two in her guard.
He eased the remains of his battered shield off of his left arm. “Art thou ready to continue?” he asked Jan. In response, she saluted. At once, Edward flung his shield at his opponent and followed it with a charge.
Jan caught the thrown shield on her blade, sending the splintered target harmlessly to the ground. When she brought her blade back into position, she found herself facing her commander at very close range coming at her from her left, her shield-arm. She was too slow in bringing her shield around to cover and a hard thump on her ribs from the flat of Edward’s blade finished the combat.
A ragged cheer from the spectators evidenced their pleasure at the spectacle. As the crowd broke up, Edward and Jan left the field together heading for the entrance to nearer to Edward’s offices. Both walked in silence while they brought their breathing under control.
“I thought I had you,” Jan said between breaths.
“You very nearly did,” Edward responded. “It is your time fighting in line. You tend to let your guard down somewhat on your left — too much reliance on your line-mate’s sword to protect you.”
Jan shook out her hair. “I’ll work on it, sir, if you’ll instruct me.”
“It’s not as bad as all that, Coury. Just look at my shield.”
“It was a good workout,” she agreed. Just then, she noticed where they were heading and sighed.
“No, sir. Well, yes, sir. I’d hoped to turn in.”
“Let Daniel handle things?”
“A bit selfish, sir, I know, but we could both use the rest.”
“And rest we shall. I wanted to speak with you in private and my office qualifies. Besides, it’s nearer than either of our quarters.”
Jan laughed. She and Edward entered the Keep and made their way to Edward’s office. The corridors were mostly deserted, the occaisonal scribe or guard or member of the kitchen staff being encountered.
They entered Edward’s outer office, greeting Captain Daniel Moore, Edward’s other staff officer, as they did. “How fare things?” Edward asked.
“Nothing unusual, sir,” Moore replied. “No new reports from the Laraka and no change on the southern front.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.”
“So who won?” he asked, indicating what was left of Edward’s shield.
“Who do you think?” Jan said with a chuckle.
“It was a very near-run thing,” Edward chimed in. “Coury made me work for it.”
Moore smiled. “Are you two staying?”
“You can wipe that beseeching look off your face, Daniel Moore,” Jan said with relish. “Edward and I are going to have a little chat and then leave you to minding the store.”
Moore sighed a sigh that seemed to come from the depths of despair. “One could always hope.”
Edward crossed to the door to his office. “No one is to disturb us, Daniel,” he said as he and Jan entered.
Edward set his helm and what was left of his shield on the small table in the corner opposite his large desk and poured himself a cup of water from the pitcher there. Jan joined him, setting her helm and much more intact shield on the table also. This left Edward holding both the pitcher and his cup. He poured his friend a drink from the cup she had rescued and went over to his desk.
Jan pulled two chairs over from the table and let herself collapse into one of them. Edward set the pitcher down on the desk and then eased himself into the other.
“I’ve been too long away from the practice field,” he said as his rapidly stiffening muscles protested their recent abuse.
Jan let her head sink back against the chair. “Me too. Oh, that smarts.”
The two close friends just sat for a few moments, letting their muscles finish berating them before they continued. It was Jan who spoke first. “What was it you wanted to talk about, Edward?” she asked, eyes closed.
Edward carefully set his cup on the desk. “Coury,” he began hesitantly, “I think we should no longer be seen together in public. Further, I think it would be best if we kept our relationship on a more professional level than it has thus far been.”
Jan’s eyes snapped open and she sat up. “What?” she asked in confusion. “By all the gods why?”
“You know why,” he said, eyes downcast. “The rumours.”
“The rumours?” she asked incredulously. “But — you never — they haven’t mattered before,” she protested.
“They do now.” Edward ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair. “Coury, there is a danger that if the rumours continue, my ability to function as Knight Commander may be threatened. I cannot allow that.”
She sat there, unable — unwilling — to believe what she was hearing. “You…can’t…allow…that? Are you trying to tell me you care for the power and prestige of the position of Knight Commander that dearly that you would…cut off our friendship just like that?”
Now Edward looked directly at his aide. “What I am saying is that my continued friendship with you is putting in jeopardy my ability to fight this war. I cannot compromise that ability, not with the future of the kingdom at stake.”
The young woman sat back. “I thought I knew you. I thought that you were a person who above all else would stand by his friends. I thought you had more dignity and honour than this.”
“Coury, let me explain,” he pleaded.
“No, you’ve made yourself quite clear. You’re too high and mighty to have people think you could be friends with a commoner. Well, fine.” She stood, tears fighting with her anger. “I once had a friend named Edward Sothos. I don’t know who you are, but if Edward Sothos should return, he’ll know where to find me.” Without giving him a chance to respond, she turned and left, slamming the door on her way out.
No sooner had she stormed out than Daniel Moore opened the door and leaned in. “Anything wrong, sir?” he asked his superior.
“Wrong?” Edward responded as he stared out the window at the shadows full upon the castle grounds. “No, Captain.”
“But — Coury –?”
“Leave it, Captain.”
The bafflement on Moore’s face was plain. “What about her helm and shield?” he asked, noticing the articles on the table for the first time.
Edward twisted in his chair to face his officer. His gaze flicked to the items on the table and back to Moore. “Have one of the guards take them to Commander Courymwen’s quarters,” he instructed in a dead voice.
“Yes, sir.” Daniel was about to leave when Edward stayed him.
“Captain,” the Knight Commander said, “I shall be at Gortholde’s Hall should I be needed.” So saying, Sir Edward pushed past the still-bewilidered Captain Moore.
As the door closed, Daniel shook his head. “Yes, sir.”
Those few servants unfortunate enough to come upon Jan Courymwen as she went to her quarters quickly and without dignity shied away from the storm they saw in her face.
Jan wrenched open the door to her room and slammed it hard as soon as she was through. She fell back against the door, seething, letting her anger have its way. That was soon spent as it finally sank in that Edward had actually ended their friendship.
With that realization came an emptiness. Edward was more than friend to Jan Courymwen. He was a mentor, an example of how society’s ideals could work in the real world. He was also the first person to treat her as an equal as a warrior and not just as a “girl playing at swords” as she had been called in the Academy.
The war had come home to Jan in a totally unforseen way and she was unready to deal with it. When the tears came, she did not hold them back. Unlike her anger, her tears lasted a long, long time.