DargonZine 19, Issue 6

The Great Houses War Part 1: Call to Arms

Vibril 15, 897 - Sy 5, 897


This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series The Great Houses War

“The king is dead!”

Caeron Tallirhan, rightful heir to the throne of Baranur, looked up with a start from the game of King’s Key he had been playing. His grandfather was dead? He hadn’t even known that the old man had been ill. He stared at the young squire panting at the door leading into Caeron’s chambers in his country manor in Dyunill. The boy, who was not much younger than Caeron, was dressed in furs to protect him from the cold and his cheeks were red.

“How did it happen?” Caeron pushed back the fine oak chair he had been sitting on and approached the messenger, who, while tall enough himself, was still almost a full hand shorter than Caeron.

“Your majesty, he fell suddenly ill with a fever after hunting on the tenth and succumbed late last night.”

“I should feel something,” Caeron thought. He was shaken by the news, but only because it was unexpected. He had hardly known the man; in fact King Stefan II had banned him from the court when he and his wife Dara had accepted Stevenism. The man had wronged him, but still he was family: Caeron’s grandfather. Caeron should have felt sorrow, sadness, or compassion. He only felt surprise and guilt for his shameful reaction.

Caeron slammed his fist into his hand and turned away from the boy. He strode toward the stone hearth that dominated the room and stared into the dancing flames, chewing on his lower lip. “What sort of grandson feels happiness at his grandsire’s death?” he admonished himself. On the other hand, there were other things to consider. What did the old king’s death mean for Baranur? Should not the last remaining Tallirhan think of such things? Caeron was vaguely aware of his wife, Dara, getting up from the King’s Key table and gliding up to his side.

“Aendasia will undoubtedly claim the throne.” Caeron shook his head. He could feel anger bubbling up inside him. He’d always had a short temper. He knew he needed to try to control it, but as he envisioned Beinisonian troops marching through the streets of Magnus, his grip on the fireplace mantel tightened. “My cousin Aendasia, the Beinisonian empress-mother, whom grandfather named heir before me. Cephas’ boot, I thought this was something we wouldn’t have to deal with for years!”

Caeron was the only surviving heir of the Tallirhan name, the family that had ruled over Baranur for nearly nine hundred years. But, when Caeron had converted to Stevenism, King Stefan II had disowned him. The only other heir was Caeron’s cousin Aendasia who had married the Beinisonian Emperor, Alejandro VII, many years before. When Alejandro died and his son ascended to the throne, Stefan had arranged a marriage for Aendasia with Valeran, the Duke of Northfield, apparently in hopes of forming some sort of alliance between Beinison and Baranur. Aendasia had borne the name Blortnikson for many years, however, and was thoroughly Beinisonian as far as Caeron was concerned. Caeron had hoped that he could eventually heal the rift with his grandfather and — once Stefan’s anger had cooled — that the lawful lineage would be restored. Now it was too late.

Dara placed a hand on his arm and rubbed it soothingly. “It is against the laws of inheritance; surely you are Tallirhan’s heir.”

“Your majesty, if I may –” the messenger tried to interject.

“Of course, but grandfather willed the crown to Aendasia, rather than allow it to ‘fall into the hands of Stevenic apostates.’” King Stefan II had been well-respected by his lords, and some scholars said that when he had disinherited Caeron that technically the Tallirhan line had ended and therefore the crown did indeed go to the next closest kin, Aendasia. Many had supported the proposal when it had been put forward in hopes that it would ensure Beinison never threatened Baranur again. “Bah! The Beinisonians would instead make us but another province in their empire.”

“My lord?” Dara said.

“I was just thinking about that tired justification: that Aendasia becoming queen could somehow protect us from Beinison,” Caeron said.

“Would it be too much to hope that your cousin would abdicate?” Dara said. “You are still young, my husband; there are many years –”

“Twenty-four years is old enough for me to know I am the rightful king! Old enough to know my people will be enslaved should Aendasia ascend to the throne.”

“Your majesty, please!” the messenger exclaimed.

Caeron stopped and took a few deep breaths. He had lost his temper, as usual. It was hardly behaviour befitting a good Stevenic. He took another breath and, satisfied he had regained his composure, turned back towards the door. “Excuse my outburst. Do you bear further news?”

“Your majesty, I also bear tidings from your half-brother, Master Priest of the High Church of Magnus. He begs you come to Magnus with all possible speed. He says that several of the Great Houses will support your claim on the throne. Lady Aendasia is in Beinison and it will be some time ere she hears the news.”

Of course, Aendasia had lived in Beinison for so many years that she considered herself Beinisonian and preferred to spend the majority of her time there, even since being named heir to the Baranurian throne. But the lords … Caeron was somewhat surprised to hear that a number of them had altered the position they had taken when Stefan II had still been king. What had his half-brother Cyrridain been up to?

Caeron took Dara’s hand and gripped it tightly. “Could it be, love, a chance for the throne to remain in the rightful hands of Tallirhan?” Caeron knew that he had to make a decision quickly. The fate of the kingdom rested on what he decided in that moment, it seemed: bow to the old king’s wishes which, though unjust, were his right to make, or seize this opportunity? It must have been a sign that things had played out in this manner, that Stefan had died while Aendasia was in Beinison. “The Stevene’s Light shines on me this day. I should have known that being the first Tallirhan to follow the Stevene’s teachings, I would be favoured … I must make haste to Magnus. Zephrym!”

“My lord?” A sturdy man with greying hair and stubble on his chin casually pushed the squire aside and strolled into the room.

“Have the house guard ready to travel; I leave for Magnus immediately. I want you to follow behind with Lady Dara and the rest of the household.”

“Should you not wait so that we can travel with you, my lord?” Zephrym, the captain of Caeron’s personal guard, asked.

“No, I must get to Magnus as quickly as possible, to solidify my claim on the crown. I will better accomplish that travelling alone.” Caeron bent down and kissed his wife on the forehead. “I must be off, my love.”

“I will see you in Magnus, my king.”

***

Caeron stood in the stirrups as the horse beneath him galloped along the windswept road leading to Magnus. On a good summer’s day a person might make forty leagues. In the winter, ice and snow on the roads forced travellers to use prudence that slowed that progress, but Caeron took no such caution with his mount. The landscape on all sides was a glittering white, snow piled smoothly across the land like a fresh table linen before a banquet. A fitting time of year, Caeron thought, for a new king to make his place in Baranur’s history.

Soon he could make out a thin strand of smoke rising from the horizon. A fresh horse would be awaiting him there. Despite the frigid air around him, Caeron was sweating heavily beneath his thick fur cloak; he had ridden hard.

As he neared the small gathering of buildings, he could see a man wearing the livery of house Tallirhan moving down the road towards him with a horse in tow.

Caeron brought his own lathered horse to halt only paces away from the man and jumped from the saddle. He winced as he hit the ground. His legs were starting to get stiff and his rear sore. He was used to long rides, but none at such a frantic pace. He took the reins from the soldier, noticing that the man bore the rank insignia of sergeant-at-arms of the city of Magnus, and swung himself up into the saddle.

“Your majesty,” the Tallirhan sergeant said. “I bring greetings from the Lady Mayor. She bade me bring tidings from the people of Magnus and surrounding towns. They say you are the rightful ruler. The people of Magnus demand you be crowned king.”

“God is with me.” Caeron nodded. “With the people’s support, Aendasia daren’t go against me.”

He urged the fresh horse forward at a canter. Magnus was but one city, true, but it was the capital of Baranur and its mayor held almost as much power as a duke. The Stevenic religion had flourished there in the short decades since the prophet’s death. If the people of Magnus supported Caeron, surely others would as well. House Tallirhan would keep the throne.

***

Caeron arrived at the gates of Magnus late in the afternoon to the thunderous cheers of thousands of loyal citizens. His tired horse slowed to a walk as they moved past the thick stone ramparts protecting the city and waded into the crowded streets. As he moved towards the castle at the centre of Magnus, a toothless chapman wearing a broad-brimmed hat reached out and touched Caeron’s leg, shouting, “Long live King Caeron!” To the other side, a sturdy matron grabbed at his tunic, weeping. Caeron heard loud clapping and looked up to see a young man leaning out of a house window pounding his calloused hands together. Next to him was a girl with wide-set eyes and brown locks who was likewise cheering him on.

He had known that the people supported him, but he had not been prepared for such a welcome. The air seemed to vibrate with the pealing of what was certainly every bell in the city. A sergeant-at-arms took up position in front of Caeron’s horse and had to force his way through the crowd. Caeron had to duck as he nearly rode into a bright red banner hanging between the windows of the upper stories of two buildings across the street from one another. A young maiden with a heavy cloak wrapped about her shoulders pushed her way forward to drape a garland over the horse’s neck. She was soon followed by another with striking red hair bearing a large fir wreath.

A slender maiden, with golden locks that shone in the sun, slipped on the ice and fell to the cobbled road. Caeron’s horse nearly trampled the girl and he had to pull the reins hard to move the creature to the side. Without thinking, Caeron dismounted and stepped cautiously towards the girl. His legs complained loudly, but he forced his body to move naturally so the peasants would not see his discomfort.

“Are you hurt, my lady?” he asked, offering a hand to the stunned girl. He pulled her to her feet so that she stood but a hand’s width away from him. She was probably older than him, but as with most people, he looked down at her.

“You are too kind, your majesty,” she whispered, her cheeks turning crimson from both the cold and embarrassment. “You should not trouble yourself over me.”

Caeron smiled. Doubtless, Sir Zephrym Vladon, the captain of his house guard, would have said the same thing, had he been present. He was always admonishing Caeron for wasting undue time on the low-born, at times going so far as to say Caeron was too soft-hearted for his own good.

“Think nothing of it,” Caeron replied. “‘As the people serve a king, so must that king be the people’s greatest servant.’ So said the Stevene.”

Caeron returned to his horse’s back and waved to the people as he continued towards Crown Castle. He was taken aback by the outpouring of emotion, but also touched that the people felt so strongly about him. He had often travelled amongst the common folk while shunned at Crown Castle and was generous with almsgiving, but he was no great hero to deserve such a welcome. Perhaps his half-brother’s priests had been stirring up support this winter while Caeron had been in Dyunill.

The sun was hanging low in the sky by the time Caeron finally made it to the castle gates. The guards posted there hurriedly ushered him through the large barbican and into the outer bailey and on past the outer curtain to the Inner Courtyard. He could make out his half-brother Cyrridain coming down the central steps of the King’s Keep towards him, clad in the Master Priest’s dark green and gold robes. A thick, matronly woman whom Caeron recognised as Contreela Sevind, the Lady Mayor of Magnus, accompanied him. There were also knights of his grandfather’s household, several barons and counts, and a number of lesser clergymen.

Again Caeron’s legs cried out as he dismounted. The ground beneath him felt unsteady. If he had not been a young man in excellent physical condition, he would have likely fallen over. As before, he commanded his body to move forward without limping to conceal any pain from those who would soon be his subjects.

As he approached, the small group bowed deeply. Cyrridain broke away from the others and clasped Caeron in a warm embrace.

“My brother, it is indeed good to see you. The Stevene’s Light shines on you.”

Caeron held his half-brother at arm’s length. “And you, brother.”

“We have much to discuss.” Cyrridain motioned for Caeron to precede him into the keep. “Word has been sent out for the dukes of all the great and minor houses to make their way to Magnus. I expect Duke Sumner Dargon to be here soonest, as his ship set sail before our grandfather was taken ill, on unrelated business. He will now pay homage to you, I suppose, but we should perhaps not wait that long to make good your claim.”

At the foot of the stairs, Caeron came face-to-face with a tall man wrapped in a plain black cloak. He had a broad brow and a smile of such kindliness that each strand of his thick brown beard seemed to curl in amiability. Caeron was used to looking down at those around him due to his height, so he was surprised to be of equal stature with this man’s deep, kindly, brown eyes.

“May I present to you, brother, Cyruz of Vidin,” Cyrridain said. “Oft called Cyruz the Bard. He is one of those few left alive who knew the Stevene himself.”

“Your majesty,” Cyruz said in a deep voice like a snowslide rumbling down the Skywall Mountains.

“Y-you knew Cephas Stevene?” Caeron stammered. He was rarely at a loss for words, but now, standing in front of a man who had known the Stevene personally, he felt in awe. Perhaps this was what peasants felt when they were addressed by a noble. He reached for Cyruz’s hand. “Is this a hand that touched the Stevene’s?”

“Your majesty, you do me far, far too much honour,” Cyruz chuckled. “I was but a young lad when I knew the Stevene. That I touched him makes me no more worthy to clasp wrists with a king.”

“I am not yet king. I ask merely to greet you as one Stevenic to another.”

With that he took Cyruz’s wrist in his hand. Despite the cold, the cleric’s arm was dry and warm. Caeron could feel a strong pulse through the tips of his fingers, like a blacksmith’s hammer moulding a new piece of metal. “This is a holy man,” Caeron thought. Men such as this had made the Stevene’s Light spread as quickly as it had. Now, nearly three generations since the great prophet’s death, much of the south of Baranur had already seen the true path. Now that God had manoeuvred Caeron into a position to be king, who knew what greatness would follow?

21 Vibril, 897

Caeron sat in a high-backed chair at the head of a large table in the great hall of the King’s Keep. Around the table sat a great assortment of lords and ladies, scribes, lawyers, and other people of influence. Caeron’s half-brother Cyrridain, clad in the majestic robes of High Priest of the Stevenics, sat to his right. A fire raged in the hearth, and pages scurried about the table pouring drinks or heating them with hot pokers out of the fire. Cresset torches lining the walls threw light upon the many tapestries and the oaken roof.

“Your majesty,” Duke Sumner Dargon, sitting half-way down the table, said. “The majority of the Great Houses will support your claim, but I fear that allowing yourself to be crowned by the Master Priest of the Stevenics would be a mistake. The Great Houses of Northfield and Redcrosse have already declared themselves for your cousin. You cannot afford any more to do so.”

As if to underscore his point, Duke Dargon tossed a parchment letter that had arrived from Valeran Northfield a few days earlier on the table. Caeron had read it with displeasure more than once. It demanded that Caeron and the other nobles recognise Aendasia as the queen. The letter was little more than a formality, for Valeran had to know that Caeron would not abdicate a throne rightfully his.

“A mistake?” Caeron shook his head. “It is thanks to the Stevene’s Light that I would be king. It is God’s will that I be crowned thus.”

“If I may be so bold, my lord,” said the High Mage Milverri Rhihosh. She spoke barely above a whisper, yet Caeron could hear her clearly from across the room. He looked over at her suspiciously. She sat in a window alcove rather than at the table, straight silver hair pouring down her shoulders and penetrating black eyes staring at him.

“I’d prefer if you weren’t,” Caeron thought. He did not trust magicians, but he knew that her kind might well have a use in the almost certain conflict to come, so he gave her permission to speak.

“I would remind you that fewer than twenty out of every hundred of your citizens belong to the Stevenic faith.”

“But most of those in Magnus are faithful,” Mayor Contreela said.

“That is certainly so,” Sumner Dargon said. “But despite this, much of the kingdom follows other religions. The king of such a diverse land should not be outwardly partial to any one faith over another.”

Caeron took a long drink from his goblet of hot cider, then set it back down on the table. He gazed around the room at the lords surrounding him and thought that perhaps he should count himself fortunate that the greatest of his worries at the moment should be the manner in which he would be crowned. A sennight ago he had been sure that he would never sit on the throne. In fact, he could scarcely believe how easily things had gone for him since King Stefan’s death. Perhaps he had been overly pessimistic about the whole situation. Of course, his brother Cyrridain would hear of nothing but a Stevenic coronation.

“He has been ordained by God; he should be crowned by his humble servant, the Master Priest of the High Church of Magnus,” Cyrridain said.

“Master Priest.” Duchess Emmeline Arval looked up from the parchment in front of her and turned tired eyes towards Cyrridain. Known for her vast knowledge of many matters, among them the Stevenic faith, Caeron listened to her intently. She was a scholarly if somewhat melancholic woman. “The Arvals are one of the Great Houses who worship the god of Stevene, but does not the command to be tolerant of other religions preclude such a coronation as you suggest?”

“Nonsense,” Cyrridain countered. “Just because a king is crowned by the Stevenic church doesn’t make him any less tolerant! Has any here heard my brother Caeron utter so much as a hint at wanting to forcibly convert any subjects not already professing the Stevenic creed?”

“Even so, I do not think there is anything in the Stevene’s teachings that spoke of divinely chosen kings. In fact, I’m quite certain there isn’t.” Duchess Arval said.

Cyrridain’s face went red and he grumbled angrily while grasping for his goblet and taking a quick drink. Caeron knew that Emmeline Arval was right: nothing in the Stevenic texts spoke of any divine right of kings.

“Be that as it may,” Caeron said, “God’s hand in this is clear. Aendasia is still in Beinison, unable to challenge me. The people have proclaimed me their rightful ruler –”

“I am willing to accept your claim on the throne, majesty,” Duke Luther Monrodya said, then paused to look about the room with small but sharp eyes. Caeron did not know the man at all, but Cyrridain had warned him that he was an opportunist of the worst kind. Short, plump, and somewhat aged, the man was no warrior but could be dangerous in his own way. Caeron waited with apprehension for the duke to finish his thought, which seemed to be taking a rather long time. “Yes, I do accept that you are still issue of the late King Stefan II notwithstanding your conversion, but I will not pledge allegiance if you are crowned by your half-brother.”

Caeron sent his goblet sailing across the room. The cup landed with a sharp clang as it struck the floor several strides away. “How can you so brazenly admit to treason to my face?”

The Duke of Monrodya did not appear the least bit perturbed by Caeron’s outburst. A refined man nearing fifty, with greying hair and goatee, he merely looked at where the drink had landed and smiled a little. That smile on his plump little face made Caeron want to hit him. “I recognise that, as the late king’s grandson, you are the rightful heir, but at the same time my lady Aendasia has a good claim and she is not likely to try thrusting her religion down the kingdom’s throat like a Melrin ham.”

Caeron could feel heat rising in his cheeks. He clenched his jaw shut and forced himself to calm down. He was determined not let his quick temper get the best of him now that he was king. He was younger than everyone in this room by at least a decade. He would not have them think him a hot-headed youth incapable of sagely ruling Baranur. He silently said a quick prayer for assistance in controlling his temper.

“If you believe that, you are a blind fool.” Cyrridain rubbed the gold pendant shaped like a hangman’s noose that hung about his neck as he spoke. “The Beinisonians execute anyone who does not worship their dark pantheon, and that includes adherents of the Olean creed.”

Caeron took a deep breath. Satisfied that he was now calm, he looked Luther Monrodya in the eyes and said, “You would have a Blortnikson sit on the throne of Baranur?”

“I am sure that my friend, the Duke of Monrodya, is saying no such thing your, majesty,” Duke Sumner Dargon said. “But he does feel uncomfortable with such a coronation. It would in effect proclaim Stevenism the official religion of the realm, which it is not.”

Caeron looked to his brother. He did not feel quite as sure as he had earlier about this decision. “The Stevene did preach tolerance …”

“Of course he did,” Cyrridain smiled. “Who said you would not be accepting of the other religions once crowned king? But enough of this; should we not be discussing instead how to defend my lord brother’s claim on the throne? The dukes of Northfield, Redcrosse, and Equiville are already marshalling their forces.”

“And you can be sure that Aendasia will react quickly once word reaches her,” Duke Sumner Dargon said, “for the Beinison Empire, unlike Baranur, is a warlike realm and keeps a standing army. Though she does not rule there, she will undoubtedly find an army willing to travel north with her.”

“Yes,” Caeron scratched his clean-shaven chin. “We must begin levying troops immediately. I can count on my dukes to supply the royal army with troops?”

Over the next bell or so, the convened lords discussed how many weapons were available, what kind of strength each duchy would be able to muster, and possible battle plans to fight the lords who supported Aendasia. When the second bell of night chimed throughout the great hall, Caeron felt that enough had been accomplished for one night and retired to the royal bedchamber.

When he entered the room, Dara was sitting on a chair near the hearth with their three year-old son, Brad. Caeron thought to himself that his son would one day be King Brad and smiled. When Dara noticed Caeron enter the room, she whispered something in Brad’s ear and the boy hopped off her lap and charged across the room. Caeron knelt and caught the child in a strong embrace.

He kissed Brad’s jet black hair, which was like his mother’s, and said, “What are you doing up so late, young one?”

“He wanted to see you, papa,” Dara said. “You’ve been away so much lately.”

“Aye, so I have.” Caeron ruffled his son’s hair. “Unfortunately things will probably be like this for a while longer, until I have full control of the crown.”

Brad did not seem to understand and looked up at his father with large, questioning eyes. Caeron squeezed him again, then picked the boy up and carried him over to the nanny who was standing nearby. “Now time for you to sleep.”

Once the nanny and Dara’s ladies-in-waiting had left the room, he strode over to his wife and gave her a lingering kiss. Then he took her into his arms and rested his chin on top of her head.

“So what do your lords say, love?” she asked.

“Duke Dargon feels that it is not wise for me to allow Cyrridain to crown me, but he will support my claim.” Caeron then related to her all his potential allies and enemies. For certes, the Great Houses Quinnat and Welspeare would support a Stevenic coronation and the king so crowned. It seemed that Monrodya and Arval would not accept it, but Caeron thought they were bluffing. Other than Dargon, none of the representatives from the other minor houses had yet arrived.

He took a step back from Dara and looked down into her clear, dark brown eyes. “You should have been there, my love, sitting at my side. I will need your assistance ruling this realm of ours. Why did you not want to attend?”

Dara’s skin was pale, so when she blushed it was very obvious. Her face turned red, and her lashes swept down, shadowing her cheeks like a raven’s feather. “I do not want to make you look like a fool in front of your lords …”

“How could having the fairest lady in all Baranur at my side make me look a fool?” Caeron pulled her close to him again.

“I don’t know anything,” Dara said. “I would do you no good, I –”

“Nonsense.” He stroked her hair, smoothing it back from her forehead. He had always known Dara to be timid around strangers, but she seemed to be scared of the dukes. “You are better in public than you think. At many a royal dinner have you charmed the guests.”

“Maybe I’m just a good actor,” she replied. “Because I ever feel so awkward.”

“You should have more faith in yourself.”

They stood like that, embracing for several moments. All was quiet in Crown Castle. Caeron looked around the royal bedchamber. Not long ago, this had been his grandfather’s. He hadn’t seen the inside of this chamber in years. He had forgotten about the brilliant tapestries depicting battles long-past, and the stained glass window that bore the Tallirhan arms. Even the items he did remember looked somewhat different than they had before. The colours were more vibrant, the textures deeper. They were now his.

Dara let out a dramatic sigh. “I’ve just realised you sent all my ladies-in-waiting away before I could prepare for bed. I’ll need someone to help me undress.”

Caeron smiled. “Well, I believe I have some skill for that. A king must be well versed in many things, you know.”

She giggled and turned around so that he could unfasten the lacings of her gown. Presently, they were both undressed and made their way hastily to the bed. Despite the warmth cast by the hearth fire, castles were forbiddingly cold places in the winter. Caeron reached up and drew the bed-hangings snug around them, so that he and Dara seemed to be the only people on Makdiar.

29 Vibril, 897

Caeron walked slowly down the centre aisle of the magnificent Cathedral of the Stevene with Dara at his side. A choir of men and women sang a solemn hymn as Caeron moved past the assembled lords, knights, and townsfolk who packed the church. Red and grey banners of house Tallirhan adorned the massive pillars and wooden pews.

He looked up at the white, vaulted ceiling high above his head and whispered a quick prayer of thanks. He was now nearing the altar, where he could see his half-brother, Master Priest of the Stevenic religion, resplendent in flowing silver robes. To his left stood the tall, thin form of Cyruz of Vidin. Several other members of the High Church of Magnus were clustered around those two central figures. Caeron squeezed Dara’s hand, which was trembling.

His heart began to beat harder and faster as he knelt before his brother. Cyrridain looked taller and larger than usual. He seemed to tower over Caeron as he took from Cyruz a piece of golden rope formed into a noose. The choir softened their singing so that Cyrridain could be heard throughout the massive chamber.

“With this holy noose, representing the manner in which the giver of the Stevene’s Light, Cephas, was killed, I bless thee,” he said, touching the rope to Caeron’s forehead.

Caeron closed his eyes and was acutely aware of the coarseness of the rope as it touched him. It felt warm despite the fact that he was sweating lightly beneath a heavy crimson cape.

“Remember thee the teachings of the Stevene,” Cyrridain said. “A monarch must wield power only for the good of the people from whom that power derives. As they serve the monarch, the monarch is their greatest servant.”

As the noose was removed, Caeron opened his eyes. The sun now shone brilliantly through the great stained glass window behind Cyrridain. Its rays glinted off the crown of Baranur as his brother took it from a nearby clergywoman. He never thought he’d be within arm’s reach of it. As he gazed upon its gilt edges, the jewels that encrusted it, he felt new emotions stirring in him. As Cyrridain approached, Caeron could feel the heat of tears welling up in his eyes.

“I anoint thee Caeron, sovereign and king of our mighty realm of Baranur,” Cyrridain said. “And charge thee to rule and protect the land, and uphold the Stevene’s Light.”

The weight of the crown settled on Caeron’s head and tears began to flow unabated down his cheeks.

“And thee Dara, I do anoint as queen and consort to the king and charge thee to assist our sovereign that he may rule wisely.”

Caeron looked over at Dara, who was also crying and blushing deeply as Cyrridain placed a slightly less ornate crown on her head. The new king then looked again at his surroundings. The church was so beautiful now, the sun casting multicoloured beams through all its windows, playing off the exquisite architecture. He was now king, ruler of Baranur, and for the first time Baranur had a Stevenic king, crowned by the High Church of Magnus.

The floor seemed to shake beneath him as the crowd erupted with thunderous applause and cheering. He stood and turned to face them. Knights held their swords in the air and cried, “Long live King Caeron!”

He scanned the front rows; Duke Sumner Dargon was present, as were the rulers of houses Welspeare, Quinnat, and Kiliaen. So was the High Mage Milverri Rhihosh. However, many of the Great Houses were conspicuously absent. Some of them, such as the Duchess of Westbrook, were not present because the coronation had been held too soon for them to travel to Magnus. Others, such as the Duke of Monrodya and Duchess of Arvalia, had joined ranks with the insurrectionists. War would ravage the land before long, he knew.

He had rushed the coronation, knowing that no time could be spared in marshalling forces. All the great and minor houses supporting Aendasia had certainly begun levying their own troops. Caeron wiped the tears from his eyes and gestured for the crowd to quiet. There was no better time than now, he thought, to rally all whom he could to his cause.

“It may seem that this is a great moment for Baranur,” he said once there was silence in the church. “But it is indeed our darkest. For even while your new king was being crowned, treacherous lords supporting the Beinisonian Empress have been plotting my downfall.

“It is because of this that I call on all loyal citizens of Baranur to stand by the side of your king in this time of tribulation. For nearly a thousand years all the houses great and minor have been subject to a Tallirhan, yet now a Blortnikson reaches for the crown with a greedy hand. House Tallirhan will not yield to these usurpers! Who among you stands with me?”

The crowd cheered even louder this time, such that the pillars holding up the great vaulted ceiling seemed like they might collapse. Caeron took his own sword from its scabbard and held it aloft.

17 Firil, 897

As King Caeron and his retinue of household knights moved along Principine Avenue two months later, throngs of poor city folk attempted to crowd close, hoping for the king’s generosity. A toothless old lady with squinting eyes reached out for a coin. A bearded, one-legged man leaning on a crutch attempted to hobble closer to the royal procession, while other mud-spattered peasants knelt. Not only people crowded about, but a skinny dog chasing a pig caused Caeron’s horse to rear back a little, although he was able to keep the animal under control.

“My lord king,” Zephrym said, “I must ask again why you insist on travelling through the Fifth Quarter. We could have easily crossed the Laraka at Kheva’s Bridge, then –”

Caeron smiled and looked at Dara who rode beside him, winking at her as he replied. “Yes, I know Zephrym; being too soft-hearted again, I suppose. But to tell the truth, I can’t think of a better way to get to know my people other than to meet them. There were many years when I could not visit even this part of Magnus, let alone the more reputable quarters.”

He threw coins into the outstretched hands surrounding him, as did Dara and a few other members of the entourage at Caeron’s urging. Zephrym still did not look pleased, but he said no more.

“Good morrow to you, sir,” Caeron greeted one of his subjects as he placed a couple of copper Royals into the man’s grubby hand.

The streets in this part of Magnus were narrow and crowded, pressed in by the tall buildings to either side. Here, unlike wealthier quarters, the buildings were almost exclusively built of timber beams with pale, dirty mortar between them. Sometimes, Caeron had to duck under the overhanging upper levels of these houses as he passed under.

That morning, Caeron had gone with Dara outside the city to observe the progress being made on the leper colony they had founded using a portion of the considerable funds inherited from King Stefan II. They had decided to name it the Cephas’ Mercy Leper Colony, and Caeron was happy to see that since the snow had melted some twenty hands of wall had been built up.

“Your majesty,” Zephrym said.

“What is it now?” Caeron asked.

“Up ahead, it looks like the crowd may be getting ugly.” Caeron followed Zephrym’s outstretched arm and could see further down Principine Avenue an even greater throng gathered, blocking the road completely. “You’d think they’d appreciate being given alms!” Zephrym said.

“Thank God that neither you nor I have had to know their desperation, Zephrym,” Caeron said, remembering the admonitions of the Stevene. “It looks like they’re fighting one another, not us. Someone probably stepped on another’s toe and that started a brawl.”

As they drew closer to the mob ahead, their shouts and cries could be heard over the sounds of the city folk that surrounded Caeron’s retinue. He could see a group of youths trying to pull one of his knights from his horse. A young man with a dirty face decided to throw some refuse from the gutter at another knight. The men-at-arms and archers on foot were having a hard time holding back the crowd; in fact, they appeared to be moving backwards.

“My lord king, it appears they are brawling with more than just each other now,” Zephrym said. He called out to some of the retinue pulling up the rear. “Get down that side street and ensure it’s clear for the king. I’ll see if I can’t clear this rabble so it’s safe.”

“Zephrym, don’t you think –?”

At that moment, the knight struggling with the youths toppled from his horse with an oath and his deep red jerkin disappeared into the browns and blacks of the townsfolk. “No, I’m afraid I don’t, your majesty; this may turn into a full riot if things aren’t taken into hand now. Stay back here while I clear things out.”

With that, the captain of the king’s guard thundered off ahead. Caeron’s horse shuffled its feet uneasily.

“Caeron, do our own people want to harm us?” Dara asked.

“It could be the opposite, even; their eagerness to see us caused a few tempers to grow short,” Caeron replied. “Most of all, they just want some bread to fill their bellies, I think.”

Most of the peasants who had surrounded the royal entourage had either fled or been cleared by the guards, and only the commotion ahead remained. Caeron could hear Zephrym giving orders, but he was far enough away that Caeron could not make out the words. Above the general din, he heard a wailing sound.

“Caeron, look,” Dara pointed to a middle-aged woman sitting on the dirty road, leaning against the wall of a house. In her arms a baby was screaming, although she did not seem to notice.

Caeron moved closer and dismounted his horse. The woman seemed to take no notice of him, so he knelt next to her and asked her what was wrong with her child. At his voice, she looked at him with eyes ringed in dark circles.

“I’ve no milk for the baby, so he cries.”

Of its own accord, Caeron’s hand went to his throat in the manner of the Stevenics. He wondered where the woman’s husband was; perhaps she never had one. He cast that thought aside. What did it matter? The poor woman hadn’t enough food in her belly even to feed her child. At that moment he could think of no more cruel fate. He wished he had some food with him. Instead, he did all he could, removing his cloak and wrapping it about the woman’s shoulders. He then pressed a few coins into her hand and stood. He looked around to ensure none of his guards had been watching and remounted the horse. Dara remained silent, though her eyes bore a look of grief.

“My lord king,” Zephrym pulled aside Caeron on his horse. “Things have settled down now.”

They returned to Crown Castle without any further incident. He was soon in his council chambers once again. Since being crowned, he had worked furiously to reform many of the laws in Baranur. One of his first acts had been to form the Court of King’s Bench as a regular court of justice with its own experts and judicial commissions. Under King Stefan II, the court of the king had been a more nebulous affair.

The chamber held the usual gathering of lords and ladies, scribes, lawyers, and Stevenic clerics. Among the clerics was Cyrridain, resplendent in his robes of office as usual. The complaints about such a strong Stevenic presence in the court had only recently died down and Caeron wished his half-brother could be a little more subtle sometimes. The number of those assembled was significantly smaller than it had been when he had first gathered his advisors around him in Vibril, two months previously. He was glad to have a few truly loyal lords rather than many ready to stab him in the back, however.

“My lord king, the final draft of the Act Concerning the Commoners of the Realm. is ready for your signature,” Cyrridain said, passing a large roll of vellum bearing the piece of law in question to Caeron.

“Excellent,” Caeron said, sitting himself in the high-backed chair at the head of the oak table that dominated the room. After his experience in the Fifth Quarter, he was motivated to sign the law he’d crafted that would impose things such as a prohibition on lords evicting serfs from their land and mandatory days of rest.

“Your majesty,” Duke Dargon said. “I must take this final opportunity to warn you against signing this bill so soon. Its economic implications are significant; the lords were disturbed enough by your new taxation law last month, to say nothing of what the merchant class will –”

“I suppose the laws are too Stevenic for your tastes, Sumner,” Katrina Welspeare broke in. She was a fellow Stevenic who, unlike Emmeline Arval, favoured the idea of a Stevenic king. She had stayed loyal and proved a worthy advocate for Caeron. “Cephas forfend that we should attempt to help the poor a little; for your Olean sympathies that’s simply too –”

“My Lady Welspeare,” Cyrridain cut in. Katrina Welspeare was a fiery woman, sometimes too fiery. “Duke Dargon has a right to raise objections. And while the lords may well be a little unhappy, that which is right is not always popular.”

“Precisely,” Caeron said. He was mildly irked by Dargon’s opposition, but carefully kept his temper in check. “Now, Sumner, I’d have thought better of you than to oppose this bill. Certainly one need not be a Stevenic to see the wisdom of it.”

“My lord king,” Sumner gestured placatingly with his hands. “My concern is just that it is too soon.”

“Dargon, you’re too diplomatic,” Duchess Annora Quinnat said, setting her goblet down after taking a quick gulp. “My king, you know I have sworn loyalty to you ’til death, which is why I need to tell you I think this act is more of a Stevenic sermon than –”

“I’m not Stevenic, and I think the law is a good one!” Duchess Kiliaen said.

“Enough of this arguing,” Duke Sebastian Pyridain said, wiping the perspiration from his perpetually sweating, bald head. “There will be Beinisonians thundering into my duchy within months. We need to focus ourselves on preparations! I doubt Aendasia and that whoreson Valeran Northfield are bickering like this!”

“They may be,” Katrina Welspeare said with a smile.

Sebastian Pyridain could only sputter while a few of those assembled chuckled at the comment. A man with taut nerves in the best of times, the prospect of impending invasion had only served to make the man more exciteable. Caeron cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.

“I appreciate the counsel of my lords, but I must do what I feel is best for the realm and so, I am signing this bill … Done. Now, on to matters that Lord Pyridain rightly points out as more important: preparations for war.”

“On that account,” Cyrridain said, “the new direct taxation laws have helped us collect funds for the king’s army. Fortunately, the treasury was kept relatively full by King Stefan as well. We’ve been able to acquire the services of Greg Jorym’s renowned Comarrian free-lance regiment.”

“Good,” Caeron said. “As we’ve discussed before, I’m expecting levies from each of my lords as well, save Pyridain and Westbrook who shall need all they have. Equiville poses a problem as it blocks us sending troops into your lands to support you. My plan is to launch my first attack on Equiville to cure that, but that means I need Welspeare and Quinnat to keep Northfield contained.”

Katrina Welspeare pushed a strand of dirty blonde hair from her face. “I’m emptying my coffers paying all the blacksmiths to forge weapons for my levies. My main fear is that Northfield has a substantially greater population than both Welspeare and Quinnat.”

“And to give Valeran some credit,” Annora Quinnat said, “he’s done a good job keeping his peasants ready for this sort of situation. Their bowmen are known across the realm for their dominance of the tournaments.”

“I recognise your concerns with Northfield,” Duke Pyridain said breathlessly, “but I need some reinforcements. We could send troops by sea from the west, because if I fall then you’ll have every barbaric Beinisonian with a sword sweeping through –”

“Keep in mind, Sebastian,” Duchess Quinnat said, “Aendasia may bear the title empress, but her son is ruler. He’ll only give her so much; word is that he has his eyes on other lands than ours. He’ll give her enough to keep her quiet.”

“Clearly, you’ll have to concentrate on a defensive approach,” Caeron said. “Retreat behind the walls of Pyridain Keep and hold them there. Surely, your brave soldiers can hold the Beinisonians long enough for us to defeat Equiville and come to your aid?”

“Of course, of course,” Sebastian said, puffing with pride.

“Good,” Caeron nodded. “Start laying provisions for a siege immediately. You should leave within the sennight to return to Pyridain and make ready. What of the Northern Marches, Sumner?”

“I remain hopeful that Asbridge will decide to stay with us, otherwise I’ll be surrounded,” Duke Dargon replied. “That said, my vassals are gathering together their levies as we speak. We have a number of strong points, such as Fennell Keep and Endeirion, that we can hold onto and delay any army moving north. I expect we can hold out a good long while, Dargon Keep being one of the most easily defended in the land.”

“Very good,” Caeron said. “If need be, field peasants with farm implements. I fear we’ll need every able-bodied soul the land has to offer.”

5 Sy, 897

The first day of the Holy Sennight that many Stevenic preachers said was the sennight Cephas Stevene had been tried and executed, King Caeron knelt in prayer in the large chapel in Crown Castle. It had previously been an ecumenical temple of sorts, not dedicated to any particular religion, but Caeron had converted it into a Stevenic place of worship. He looked about the large, silent hall, relishing the peaceful atmosphere. The midmorning sun shone through the window above the altar which showed a noose over a shining book.

Sheaves of wheat harvested from the fields around Magnus were arranged about the room, a testament of thanksgiving for a good year, while late summer flowers adorned the altar. This sennight was supposed to be a time of celebration and relaxation — Caeron had decreed as much when the Act Concerning Commoners of the Realm was proclaimed — but instead, the fear of war hung about everything like a suffocating cloak.

Caeron knelt on the cool stone floor and prayed. He needed guidance and help. Had he done right to be crowned by Cyrridain? He was sure he had, so why had so many of his subjects turned on him? Those who plotted insurrection outnumbered the loyalists. So far, neither side had taken any violent action. The demands that Caeron relinquish the crown continued, but no towns had been razed and no castles besieged. Caeron still held out hope that there would be no war, that his rule would be peacefully accepted by all, and for that reason he had made no aggressive moves of his own. He clasped his hands together and prayed intensely.

Some time later, he couldn’t be sure whether it was a few menes or a few bells, he heard light footfalls behind him. They sounded like those of a woman. He opened his eyes and out of the corner of them saw Dara kneeling beside him. He could smell the scent of jasmine on her and he smiled, always happy for her presence. He turned his head to look directly at her, and noticed that she was even more pale than normal.

“My love,” he whispered. “What’s the matter?”

She paused before speaking. When she did, her voice was unsteady. “Caeron, a messenger just arrived from Katrina Welspeare. Valeran launched a sneak attack … Fremlow City has fallen.”

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