DargonZine 19, Issue 7

The Great Houses War Part 2: The Noose and the Falcon



This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series The Great Houses War

King Caeron surveyed the meadows to the southwest from his vantage point on a tall hill. Fremlow City was just beyond the horizon, he knew, but the army of Duke Valeran Northfield was all that he saw. All the blue Northfield banners bore black falcons, however, indicating that the duke himself was not present. If he had been, there would have been a white falcon to mark his position. Caeron’s own heraldry flew on a large banner just behind him, held aloft by one of his squires.

“If we can achieve a decisive victory here, we may be able to win this war ere it begins in earnest,” Caeron said, looking over at Sir Zephrym Vladon, who sat astride his horse to Caeron’s right.

“We can only pray, my lord,” Zephrym replied.

The first blood of the so-called Great Houses War had been spilt when a Northfield army launched a surprise attack and took Fremlow City a month earlier. Duke Valeran Northfield, husband of Caeron’s rival claimant to the throne, Aendasia Blortnikson, had thus dashed Caeron’s last hopes of a diplomatic resolution to the disputed succession. Aendasia believed that she was the rightful ruler of Baranur, as King Stefan II had illegally named her his heir out of spite towards Caeron’s conversion to Stevenism. Caeron, however, was the rightful Tallirhan heir, being Stefan’s gran dson, while Aendasia was only a niece, and Caeron had been crowned ruler of Baranur earlier in the year.

After receiving word of Fremlow’s fall, Caeron had abandoned his original plan of defending his crown by invading Equiville, and had made haste into the Duchy of Welspeare, hoping to engage the Northfielders in open field. If they could be defeated, the other insurrectionist houses would be likelier to capitulate, as Aendasia was also Duchess of Northfield. This likelihood was further enhanced by the fact that earlier in the day, Caeron had received a herald from his cousin Hadrus, king-consort to the queen of Lederia, pledging his support of Caeron’s kingship, meaning more enemies for the insurrectionists.

Caeron had received reports that the treasonous Duchess of Arvalia was leading troops south to Port Sevlyn. Fortunately, the Skywall Mountains would slow more rebel troops from Monrodya long enough for Caeron to win a few quick victories and negate the numerical advantage the insurrectionists would have.

“The enemy does not seem ready for us,” Caeron said. Indeed, the Northfield troops below appeared to be in disarray, scrambling to move from a marching formation into battle lines. “We attack swiftly.”

“We won’t be able to use our archers,” Zephrym said. “They aren’t in position yet.”

“We’ll have to make do without, this time,” Caeron replied. “We can’t afford any delay. Lady Milverri, if you please.”

“Your majesty.” The High Mage drew her horse up beside the king’s. “What would you ask of me?”

“Can you use your magic to order Commander Jorym and his Comarrian mercenaries forward?” Caeron asked. Having never been in a battle before, he was unsure what the mage’s abilities were. “They are a good league to the north and it will take time to send runners …”

“I can, your majesty,” Milverri Rhihosh said. “But I must warn you, my powers are not unlimited. Even the High Mage of Baranur can cast but a handful of spells before she is spent.”

“Others with your skill are present on the battlefield, are they not?”

“They are. I will send your message, majesty.”

Caeron watched in fascination as Milverri Rhihosh began to move her hands in the air, in motions like those of some long-forgotten dance. She chanted in an unfamiliar language. Caeron looked north towards the Comarrian position, but saw nothing untoward. He saw only the branches of a few trees move in the breeze, and a dark-coloured bird fly out from a berry bush. He wasn’t sure what he expected out of the mage, but after a few moments of apparent inaction, he looked to summon one of his runners after all. It seemed that magic really was just a children’s tale.

Just as one of the squires pulled up astride his steed, Caeron heard the High Mage let out a cry. He looked back to see her slumped in her saddle, her tight pink skin shining with perspiration. Her eyes were closed and she swayed to one side. Before she could fall from the horse, one of her fellow mages reached out a steadying hand.

“We are fortunate that the enemy army has no mages of its own,” Milverri said. “Otherwise they might have countered my spell. As it is, this was among my least powerful magics, yet I am still tired.”

Caeron suppressed a laugh at that. As far as he could tell the mage hadn’t done anything. Then he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and looking to the north, he could see an armoured warrior on horseback, holding the Comarrian’s colours aloft, charging from the low ground in which the mercenaries had been waiting. Quickly behind him came a mass of horses and men. For a brief moment Caeron was stunned, but he quickly gathered himself and looked back to Milverri Rhihosh.

“I see now that I must be very scrupulous in calling on your powers, Lady Rhihosh,” Caeron said. He turned to Zephrym. “Order the advance. The Comarrians should be able to break the enemy’s north flank, but we will need to be there to make good the assault.”

“Very good, my lord,” Zephrym said.

Caeron took his helm surmounted by a gold crown from one of his squires with shaking hands. He moved his horse closer to Zephrym so that he could speak to his captain in secret. “How are you so calm, Zephrym?”

The old knight smiled, creases forming at the corners of his eyes. “I am just as scared as you, my king,” he said, “but I have many years of experience in hiding it. You are doing a fine job.”

Caeron nodded, though he was not certain he believed Zephrym could be as scared as he was. He had trained for many years for war, but this would be his first real battle. Despite the coat of plates and chain mail suit he wore, he knew from history that kings could die in war as surely as any other man could. But why should he worry? He looked up at his banner, held by a faithful squire. Emblazoned atop the traditional Tallirhan family heraldry, he’d had a noose added in honour of his devotion to the Stevene’s Light. If God wanted him to be king, surely God would not end his reign so soon. And yet, Dara had been beside herself with fear when Caeron had left Crown Castle sennights ago.

He looked to his left, where the Duchess of Kiliaen was commanding the vanguard. She waved to show she was ready. Other barons and their household knights, men-at-arms, and peasant soldiers stood at the ready.

He hefted the heavy helm onto his head. Though it bore eye slits that he could easily see through, he had waited until the last moment, as all warriors did, because it weighed nearly thirty pounds. He raised his lance in the air and swung it towards the enemy army.

As one, Caeron’s household knights and the supporting infantry moved forward, down the hill towards the meadow. Ailwyn Meadow, Caeron thought it was called. With his helm on, he could not see to the sides, but he knew that the rest of the army was moving forward as well. His horse was anxious to spring forward, but he kept it reined in at a trot so as not to outpace the infantry.

While only halfway down the hill, he heard the high-pitched war cries of the Comarr free-lances ring throughout the valley as they tore into the surprised Northfield troops. The attack worked better than Caeron had hoped and the enemy troops began to break and run.

“Charge!” Caeron cried. He was now close enough to allow his horse to break into a gallop. They reached the enemy soldiers with impossible speed, it seemed. One of the enemy soldiers screamed as Caeron’s lance impaled him. As the king stared at the soldier writhing on the ground, a horrible thought came to his mind: that was one of his subjects! It was one thing to fight a foreign invader in the defence of Baranur, but to be killing his own people? He felt bile rising up in his throat, but quickly swallowed it as he instinctively blocked an axe being swung at his shield. Then the world exploded in the cacophony of battle: swords clanged against one another, men and women screamed.

Another soldier was able to strike Caeron on the side of his helmet with a billhook. The impact made Caeron’s ears ring for a moment and his head throb in sudden pain. The pain turned to anger and he lashed out at the attacker with his shield, breaking the man’s arms at the elbows.

Caeron’s horse reared up on its haunches and lashed out with its front hoofs. Caeron pulled his sword from its scabbard and hacked down at the foot-borne enemy around him. “Where is the enemy cavalry?” he wondered.

Soon the entire enemy army was in full retreat. “Death to usurpers of the throne!” Caeron shouted. His blood was up now; he wanted to destroy these traitors. Who was the Duke of Northfield to defy Caeron’s rightful rule?

Caeron and his troops chased the enemy down, slaughtering them as they ran. Caeron rode down a peasant, wearing what must have been the same clothes he wore every day as he tended his fields. They were his people, Caeron reminded himself. He reined in his horse and found himself in a small village just beyond Ailwyn Meadow. He pulled off his heavy helm and sucked in a deep breath of air. Had he held his breath during the fighting? He couldn’t remember breathing, but looking at the sun’s position in the sky, it was over a bell since the attack had begun, so he must have.

He roared for his bugler, who was fortunately close to hand. “Halt the charge, by Cephas’ boot!” he shouted.

The trumpeter did as he was told, and soon the pursuit of the fleeing Northfield troops was halted. Then the tune for the army to reorganise on the king’s banner was sounded. The rear ranks of foot soldiers were in fact just catching up with Caeron and the faster cavalry, and were filling the village quickly. Caeron realised he was parched and reached for his wineskin.

To his left, he heard a woman scream. His head snapped in that direction to see a man wearing the livery of the loyal baron of Bindrmon forcing a peasant woman to the ground. When the soldier started to pull down his pants, Caeron realised what he was doing. Loyalist or no, the Stevene’s Third Law was clear on what punishment a rapist deserved.

“Animal!” Caeron did not even warn the man off; he did not deserve it. Instead, with one swift stroke of his sword he beheaded the Bindrmon soldier and watched the body fall to the ground.

The peasant woman pulled her skirt down so that it covered her legs and crawled backwards until she rested against what was presumably her house. Several other men and women from the royal army were now standing around, staring at the king.

Caeron wondered whether he had done the right thing. Perhaps he had allowed the violence of the day to affect him too much. No, he simply couldn’t accept such actions and he had to correct them as quickly and harshly as possible. If a rapist were brought before him in the courts for justice, he would have ordered the man be hanged in a moment. Because the culprit in this case was a soldier in the heat of battle made little difference as far as Caeron could see.

“I will not tolerate such behaviour!” he shouted. “You are fighting to free these people, not to do them harm. And if any of you tries to protest of the ‘heat of battle’, I swear by the Stevene’s sacred pizzle I’ll castrate you myself!”

“My lord, are you all right?” Caeron heard Sir Zephrym Vladon’s voice to the rear. “What is happening here?”

“Apparently I need to instruct our soldiers on how to behave,” Caeron said through a constricted throat. This was not the way wars were meant to be fought. How could soldiers fighting for a just cause do such a thing?

“Your majesty!” A squire bearing the Duchess of Kiliaen’s quartered red and yellow livery charged into view astride a lathered horse. “More Northfielders, to the south! I was barely able to escape to bring news, but their cavalry will be here in moments!”

“Cephas’ boot!” Caeron cursed. The enemy must have been right on the boy’s heels, for he could feel and hear the thunder of horse’s hoofs. He looked about frantically; he had with him most of his household knights and a couple score foot soldiers, but only God knew where the rest of his army was. “Find the Lady Milverri Rhihosh, boy! Tell her to find me!”

He pulled on his great helm and led his troops out of the village. He could now see enemy knights bearing down on him. Caeron spurred his horse. Since when the king was a little boy, Zephrym had taught him that attack was always better than defence. He slammed into the oncoming wave of enemy cavalry and was nearly knocked off his horse as a lance punctured his shield.

Caeron tossed the now useless shield to the ground and gripped his sword in both hands. His left shoulder hurt from the impact, but the lance had not penetrated his coat of plates. For the next bell he fought desperately as the enemy’s superior numbers began to tell. Eventually, Caeron found himself unhorsed and fending off two mounted opponents. One of them came too close and the king was able to slam his blade into the man’s side where the armour was weakest. As the enemy knight groaned and slid from his horse, the other one smashed his spiked mace into Caeron’s back.

Dazed, the king toppled to the ground. Unable to get any air into his lungs, he tore the great helm off his head. The knight swung again with his mace. Caeron parried the attack and impaled the man on his sword. Still trying to catch his breath, Caeron scrabbled up against a nearby tree as his latest victim flailed about on the ground, screaming. He looked to the south and could see more enemy soldiers closing in. Duchess Kiliaen must have been destroyed or withdrawn, he thought. How could he be losing this battle?

“Majesty, I am here,” a soft whisper said in Caeron’s ear.

“Lady Milverri!” Caeron gasped, shocked at the sudden appearance of the mage and finally able to take a breath. “You must work your magic, turn the tide of this battle back in our favour so I can rally the army and –”

“I have not the power to win this battle for you, majesty,” the High Mage said. “I doubt even the Beinisonian sorcerers wield such power. I can perhaps delay the enemy long enough to allow you to escape.”

“Escape? I will not!”

“There will be other battles, my lord,” Zephrym said, approaching from Caeron’s left. Even with men and women dying mere strides away, he sounded as calm as if he were enjoying fine wine in Crown Castle.

“Very well, do what you can, High Mage.” Caeron filled the title with scorn, hoping Milverri’s pride might make her bring forth powerful enough magic to win the day, as he suspected she could.

The High Mage gestured and a couple of other mages linked arms with her. Together they began chanting unfamiliar words and the ground began to shake. With a loud groan, a large piece of the earth in front of the approaching enemy reinforcements opened and a pit consumed several of those in the front rank. Others turned and fled as their horses spooked. The three mages toppled to the ground.

“Cephas’ boot!” Caeron stared down at the mages, who had rivulets of blood creeping out of their ears and noses. “Are they dead?”

“I do not know, majesty,” Zephrym said, “but we must make good our escape ere the Northfielders realise they are not badly hurt and finish us!”

With reluctance, Caeron ordered that the retreat be sounded.

5 Seber, 897

“I can’t decide whether that battle was a victory or a defeat,” Duchess Quinnat said.

Caeron stared down at the map spread out over the table in his pavilion in the camp Caeron’s army had set up in the foothills northwest of Beeikar. The map, held down at the corners by two goblets, a dagger, and a rock, showed the southwest portion of Baranur. Around him the lords and ladies of the King’s Army stood, a few of them bearing fresh wounds, as it was only three days since the battle at Ailwyn Meadow.

“Probably a bit of both,” Caeron said, looking up. “We wiped out large portions of the Northfield army in the initial charge, but after that they were nearly able to encircle me, and we lost significant portions of our own force.”

“My mercenaries are still fit to fight, milord,” Greg Jorym said in his thick Comarrian brogue.

“And our archers escaped the battle nearly untouched,” Zephrym said. “We may not have gained the resounding victory we’d hoped for, but Duke Northfield has halted his advance into Welspeare.”

“Yes, only to pull back to assist Duchess Arval’s campaign in Quinnat,” Caeron said. “Let us hope that the insurrectionists’ choice to ignore Dargon and concentrate their forces in the south will benefit us in some way. For now it means we’re outnumbered.”

Caeron traced a route on the map as he spoke. “We’ll rest another day or two here, then move north as well. If we can draw Northfield into a battle on open field, we can deal him the defeat hoped for at Ailwyn Meadow. That done, the insurrectionists will be much the weaker. Our downfall at Ailwyn was that we pressed our advantage too hard and left ourselves open to counterattack. With a little more caution and some better terrain, I am convinced we can defeat them easily.”

The lords and ladies all nodded in agreement and Caeron left the tent. Some ways down the hill from his pavilion, another large tent had been set up by the physicians and clerics that moved with the army’s baggage train. The king entered and was struck by the smell of rot and filth, masked by not quite enough incense. The wounded lay spread about on the grass of the hill. A few tables had been set up; at one of them he could see several monks trying to hold down a man as a physician sawed through the soldier’s wounded leg.

Caeron caught sight of the tall form of Cyruz of Vidin moving about the wounded, stopping to speak or pray with any that called out to him. Caeron waved to the priest whom the king considered a holy man; Cyruz had actually met Cephas Stevene himself many years ago.

Caeron knelt beside a soldier who tried to stand at sight of his king.

“Rest easy,” Caeron said, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. The wounded soldier was many years Caeron’s senior, with greying hair and a scruffy beard.

“I’m sorry, your majesty,” the man said, lowering his eyes.

“You’ve nothing to apologise for,” Caeron said. “I thank you for your loyal service to your king. I pray God will give you a quick recovery.”

Caeron wandered about the tent, exchanging words with soldiers as he passed, trying to give them what encouragement he could and thanking them for their loyalty. He eventually made his way to a separate tent just outside the one where the wounded were gathered. A young novice mage standing outside it opened the flap and allowed Caeron into the dark interior. High Mage Milverri Rhihosh lay on a straw bed within. They exchanged pleasantries, but as soon as Caeron was seated on a trunk beside her pallet, the mage got right to the point.

“I think perhaps my warnings against a Stevenic coronation have proved correct, majesty,” she said through chapped lips. The mage gave in to a long bout of coughing, after which the handkerchief she took from her mouth bore blood stains.

“Why then do you support my kingship,” Caeron asked, “and use your magic at personal expense to aid me?”

“Because I know that with a Beinisonian empress on Baranur’s throne, Baranurian mages would be no more. The Beinisonian college would overtake us. That … and I respect you. I think despite some failings, you may be a great king.”

Caeron raised an eyebrow. With the possible exception of Zephrym, no one dared such candour with the King of Baranur. He looked down at Milverri. Her eyes were surrounded by dark shadows and she was pale.

“Will you recover?”

“In time,” she replied. “The spell I cast at Ailwyn Meadow was not my most powerful. But when Empress Aendasia comes with Beinisonian sorcerers in her army, it will be even more difficult. More likely, even, the magic will be in her favour. The Beinisonians have powerful mages.”

Caeron nodded. Things were not going well. Messengers had notified him earlier that Port Sevlyn was under siege. How could this be happening? He was the anointed king of Baranur; he should be winning. Perhaps Milverri was right. Perhaps he had made a mistake.

“Your majesty!” A breathless squire burst into the tent and bowed hastily.

“What news?” Caeron asked, feeling ice form in the pit of his stomach.

“I-I bear evil news, I am afraid, your majesty,” the boy stammered. “Beinisonian troops have laid siege to Pyridain City!”

Caeron shook his head and looked down at the map so that his lords would not see the dejection on his face. For Aendasia to be at Pyridain City with Beinisonian troops so soon was evil news indeed. He was losing the war already.

27 Yule, 898

Seven months later, King Caeron sat astride his horse, surveying what would soon be yet another battlefield. The insurrectionist forces besieging Port Sevlyn had formed into battle lines about half a league away. The lands here were plains, green grass with only the occasional copse of trees adorning the countryside. For an attacker with superior numbers, it was good land.

Caeron could see the halved blue and yellow heraldry of Arvalia and the solid blue of Northfield troops. Yet again, Caeron could see, his nemesis Valeran Northfield had eluded him. It was nigh on two years now that the king had been attempting to draw him into battle but to no avail.

Sharks’ Cove had fallen to these same forces earlier in the spring, threatening to choke off the Laraka River. The river was an important link in the supply chain that fed Caeron’s armies and those subjects that remained loyal. With a victory here, he could split his army, sending a portion to retake Sharks’ Cove and reopen the supply route.

“You heard the news this morning, your majesty,” Zephrym said, atop his own horse to Caeron’s right. “Westbrook –”

“Yes, being invaded from three sides by a second Beinisonian army, and combined forces from Bivar, Redcrosse, and Othuldane,” Caeron nodded grimly. “I fear that we may not be able to include the Westbrooks among our allies much longer … and Pyridain is all but lost.”

A sennight after he had received the message of Pyridain City’s fate, Caeron’s stomach still turned. When the citadel that defended the city and held Duke Sebastian Pyridain finally fell, Aendasia had issued a most barbaric order. The city had been razed to the ground. Caeron could almost hear the screams and the crackling flames of the city as her army raped and pillaged their way through the streets.

Caeron felt suddenly very tired. Save for the winter respite, he had been at war almost continually since being crowned by his half-brother Cyrridain the Stevenic Master Priest in Vibril of 897. He’d killed more of his subjects with his own hands than he cared to count, to say nothing of the deaths his orders had brought. Looking across the field at the army before him, ready to take his crown from Caeron’s very head if they could, he knew he had no choice.

Caeron’s battle commanders looked at him expectantly. He cast one more glance at the enemy army, then addressed his lords.

“I think we can agree that morale is our biggest weakness. Therefore we need to strike quickly and keep their archers away from our infantry. On the other hand, we have discipline on our side; the King’s Army has seen more war than most. Jorym, I want your Comarrians to draw the Arvalian cavalry out; after months in a siege, they’ll be spoiling for a fight.”

Caeron outlined a plan for the rest of the commanders in the battle, having the bulk of his cavalry move up the centre of the field, supported by the infantry. The Northfield bows were of some concern, but Caeron had more bowmen and if his plan with the Comarrians worked, he would be able to take the enemy cavalry down piecemeal, paving the way for a massed assault with his own knights as had won him several battles before.

Caeron moved out in front of his army to give them his customary speech. He knew that his army was as weary of battle as he was, but trusted them to do their duty once again.

“Brave soldiers, I have called upon you time and again to serve your king, and you have done so admirably. Once more, we face the forces of those who would have a Beinisonian rule our realm, a Beinisonian who ordered the sacking of Pyridain City and the massacre of all its inhabitants. Women, children, the elderly: none were spared by the ravages of those barbarians! This is the fate that awaits all Baranur if we do not rise to do our duty. March now, into battle once again! Avenge your fellows! Defend your families! Protect Baranur!”

With the soldiers properly stirred, Caeron returned to his position in the centre, at the lead of his household knights, and ordered the advance. He kept the bulk of his forces moving at a walk towards the enemy while Greg Jorym and his men moved out ahead. The sell-sword executed his manoeuvre perfectly, and the anxious enemy knights fell for the ploy as Caeron had counted on. Soon the enemy knights were within range of the king’s archers, who loosed volley after volley, blackening the sky. The Arvalian charge died out, and soon their knights were fleeing.

By this time, arrows from the enemy bowmen were reaching Caeron’s troops. He donned his great helm and prepared to order his own troops forward. To his rear, an arrow made its way between the armoured plates of one of his household knights and the man fell from his horse screaming. To the right, the horse next to Zephrym’s was struck and crashed to the ground.

“Steady,” Caeron shouted to his men. A premature charge would be disastrous. With his helm on, he couldn’t see what was going on with the rest of the battlefield, but trusted his lords to follow the plan. Finally, they were close enough and he ordered the attack.

“Charge!”

As one, the armoured knights surged forward, leaving the infantry behind. The deep green grass parted before Caeron as he stood in the stirrups, urging his destrier ahead. The distance closed, then he was in amidst the enemy soldiers. They broke almost immediately, and Caeron ordered for the charge to be halted. Unlike at Ailwyn Meadows, his knights stopped and regrouped. Caeron guided them on a tight left wheel and charged into the next unit of enemy. Soon, the insurrectionists were fleeing in all directions and Caeron stood with his knights not far from Port Sevlyn.

He pulled the chainmail coif and padded arming cap off his head and attempted to wipe some of the sweat from his face. He could feel beneath his heavy armour that he was drenched in sweat, but for the moment the elation of victory kept exhaustion at bay. One of the knights offered him a wineskin and he drank deeply.

“Your majesty,” Duchess Quinnat hailed him as she pulled up on her horse. “A worthy victory; it’s a shame we aren’t able to deal with more of the insurrectionists in this manner, but they just have too many armies scattered about!”

“They do,” Caeron agreed, “which is why we can’t waste any time savouring this victory. We can rest here for the night, but on the morrow I want you to start your forces moving down the Laraka to Sharks’ Cove, while I take the remainder of the army back into Magnus.”

1 Deber, 899

“This new year does not bring with it good tidings, love,” Caeron said, holding his wife close to him. They were alone in the royal bedchamber of Crown Castle: the only place where he could openly show the doubt he was feeling. Nearly six months had passed since the victory at Port Sevlyn and he was now back in Magnus.

“You are the rightful king; you will triumph in the end,” Dara replied.

“I am not so sure anymore. Most of the loyal houses have fallen. The enemy is nearly at the walls of Magnus, my capital.” He kissed his wife’s hair, and breathed the sweet scent of jasmine that adorned it. “Perhaps I was not meant to be king.”

“Don’t even think that,” Dara said. “Baranur must be ruled by a Tallirhan.”

“It was proud of me to ignore Duke Dargon and allow Cyrridain to crown me.”

“Shush,” Dara said. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed Caeron on the lips. The kiss was followed by several more and soon clothing was being discarded.

As Dara pulled him down onto the royal bed, Caeron said, “I love you. I ever will.”

They made love tenderly. Caeron felt that this might be his last night with Dara. He placed kisses on every part of her, memorising every curve, the softness of her white skin. He gazed into her dark eyes, wishing he could hide inside their protective seclusion.

The next morning, news reached him that armies from Northfield and Monrodya were approaching the city, and would be at Magnus’ mighty walls by midday. Aendasia’s Beinisonian army was known to be close to the south as well. Few commanders would be willing to wage a winter campaign like this, Caeron knew, but he imagined that the insurrectionists could smell victory and thought they could end the war soon. Perhaps they were right.

Caeron knew that he had to make a stand at Magnus. He would not hide behind its walls and hope he could outlast the insurrectionists. It was time for him to discover whether he was truly intended to be king or not. He would take his army outside the city walls and confront the traitors as sovereign. He would not allow his family to take the same risk, however. While preparations for the battle were being made, he took Zephrym aside.

“Zephrym, you have been ever loyal to me,” he said. “You taught me as a boy how to use a sword and ride a horse. As I grew to manhood, you have protected my household. I count you among my best friends, which is why I ask of you this most important task.”

“I will do whatever you ask, my lord,” Zephrym said.

“You must leave Magnus immediately, and take my family to safety. Dargon is probably the safest place, since the southern marches are all but lost to us.”

Zephrym’s eyes widened. It was the most emotion Caeron had seen from him in twenty-five years. “My lord, I can’t do that; I have to fight by your side. I can’t allow you to fight this battle without me.”

Caeron put his hands on the older knight’s shoulders. “If I should fall, Dara must be queen. You are the only one I can trust to guide her safely away from here.”

Tears were welling up in Zephrym’s large, grey eyes. His lower lip began to tremble and he bit down hard on it. He shook his head slowly. “My lord, I … I won’t leave you. I’ve never –”

“Zephrym, the best service you can do me is to protect Dara and Brad. They are more precious to me than any crown could ever be. If you are truly my friend, you will do this for me.”

Zephrym squeezed his eyes shut and lowered his head. Caeron stepped forward and wrapped his arms around the big knight and squeezed him as hard as he could. Zephrym in turn hugged Caeron.

“I will protect the queen, my lord.”

3 Deber, 899

The following morning, a frosty wind screeched across the open plains surrounding Magnus as King Caeron surveyed the battlefield. He had positioned himself on the south-western edge of the city so that he could confront the Duke of Northfield himself. To the north, Baron Baldwin Narragan commanded the contingent from Quinnat and Kiliaen. To the east, a huge mob of citizens of Magnus were commanded by their own mayor, Contreela Sevind.

The people of Magnus were for the most part armed only with butcher knives, billhooks, pitchforks, and other non-military weapons. Caeron expected them to break and flee into the city without much prodding, but he appreciated their loyalty and conviction in standing out on the frigid field with him.

He examined the forces arrayed against him. Row upon row of foot soldiers dressed in the blue of Northfield stood across the smooth white plain, their helmets and lance tips glinting brightly in the mid-morning sun. There were also large numbers of cavalry, each adorned in their own unique heraldry.

His breath escaped in an icy mist as he called to his trumpeters. “Sound the advance.”

The snow crunched under his horse’s hoofs as it lurched forward. The snow was deep, coming up to the knees of the foot soldiers wrapped in blankets and furs against the cold. Their progress was slow, but so was the enemy’s. Caeron could see that they, too, were moving towards his position.

Thunder rumbled in the sky. Caeron looked back to where the Baranurian mages were standing in a circle around the High Mage on a small hill to his rear. Arrows blackened the sky as archers from both sides loosed volley after volley upon their enemy. Several arrows fell amongst the knights riding with Caeron. An arrow found its way just below the helmet of a knight beside him, and she fell from her horse and thrashed in the snow. Caeron squeezed his horse’s flanks a little and quickened the pace.

He could make out features on the enemy’s faces before he decided his troops were close enough that he could risk a charge without tiring half way to the enemy and bogging down. It was now time to discover the worth of his kingship.

“Charge!” he screamed. “For Baranur! For the Stevene!”

Loyally, his troops’ voices rose in a war cry and they surged forward. Duke Northfield, only a few strides to the left of Caeron’s position, gave a similar order and his army began to run through the deep snow.

It seemed to take bells for the two forces to collide, but when they did the same familiar sounds of battle rang out. Enemy and friend alike swirled around Caeron. His household knights were with Zephrym, but he still fought alongside several of his barons and their own knights. They acquitted themselves well, but as the battle wore on, they were forced back towards the castle gates.

At one point in the battle, Caeron was able to break free of the melee and survey the situation. As he suspected, a charge by knights from Equiville had broken the Magnus peasants and they were fleeing. What he had not expected was to see the banner of Greg Jorym flapping in the distance as he and his Comarrian mercenaries fled the field.

Caeron’s jaw dropped. How could Jorym’s troops have broken so easily? They were his most elite cavalry, as they were all hardened free-lances. He clamped his jaw shut and narrowed his eyes.

“That worthless cur!” he shouted. Jorym must have decided that this was a lost cause and fled to save his own neck. Such was the danger of allying oneself with a person whose loyalty was purchased with gold and silver. Perhaps Aendasia had offered him a better sum of money, even?

With the Comarrians out of the fight, the situation looked grim indeed. Caeron ordered his troops to withdraw back to the hill where High Mage Milverri Rhihosh and her mages were gathered.

“You should retreat behind the safety of the walls, your majesty,” Milverri said. “This battle is lost.”

“It is too late for that,” Caeron said. “The gatehouses have all been sealed. I will make my stand here and prove my worth as king!”

Milverri nodded. Caeron dismounted his horse and waded into battle, shoulder to shoulder with barons, knights, and foot soldiers. Blood sprayed onto the pristine snow and seemed to shine like fire. A knight wearing heraldry Caeron did not know thrust with his sword. The blow sundered links of chain mail and Caeron’s ribs burst into waves of pain. He could see his own blood splatter onto the snow. His entire left side went suddenly numb and he nearly toppled over.

He parried the knight’s next attack, then slashed across his enemy’s throat, silencing him. Caeron backed off a little as he felt the warmth of blood soaking the padded gambeson beneath his armour. Suddenly, two of the mages burst into flames and flailed about screaming.

“Stevene!” Caeron cried, looking back at the two human forms, engulfed in sickly green flames that licked at them like the tongue of a flanduil.

“The Beinisonian Empress has arrived with her sorcerers!” Milverri cried. For the first time ever, Caeron could sense fear in the High Mage’s voice. “Their High Mage Mon-Orthanier is with them!”

More of the mages dropped to the ground, these without a sound. Milverri seemed to be fighting an invisible opponent, as she thrashed about in the snow, eyes wide with terror. Caeron swallowed hard and looked towards the fighting only a few paces away. Few loyal troops remained. A fortress of dead bodies surrounded him.

Caeron realised that his reign was at an end. There was no escape, but he would die with glory and make Dara proud of him, and perhaps earn a place with the Stevene in the afterlife. He had been a proud fool to be crowned by his half-brother, Cyrridain. He understood that now. God had shown him his error, but had given him a way to yet save the kingdom.

“Dara!” he screamed and charged into the approaching knights with renewed vigour. He hacked at them with strength not his own, cleaving through one knight’s helm and splattering his fellows with bits of brain and bone. Caeron staggered to his knees as a blow sailed over his head. He then disembowelled the attacker. The enemy soldiers hesitated and drew back a little. Caeron regained his feet and was assailed by an ear shattering scream.

He nearly fell over again, so powerful was the noise. He looked back to see Milverri hovering a few hands off the ground, her mouth open impossibly wide, her eyes squeezed shut. The wailing intensified and several of the Northfield troops dropped their weapons and clutched at their ears. A pink mist began to form around the High Mage, then it solidified into the form of a woman and soared up into the sky. The High Mage’s body dropped lifelessly to the ground.

“This parting gift I give to you, King Caeron.” He could hear Milverri’s voice as if she were whispering in his ear. “I will destroy the Beinisonian sorcerers so that your wife may have a chance to rule. Long live Queen Dara.”

Far off to the south, Caeron heard a roar like a thousand landslides all at once. A bright lance of pink light flashed in the south, then a wave of howling wind and tormented voices swept over the battlefield. He looked back at the Northfielders who were now staring to the south with wide eyes. Several of them turned and ran.

The pain in his side returned, and he fell to a knee. One of his lords — he wasn’t sure who — suggested surrender as an option; perhaps Caeron could later be ransomed? The king shook his head. No, Aendasia would not ever ransom him; he would languish in a Beinisonian dungeon until he rotted.

A pair of enemy knights regained their courage and charged in. Caeron was able to deflect their blows weakly. Using the momentum from a block he hamstrung one of his opponents. Then a blow from behind knocked his helm off. He watched as it fell to the snow in front of him. The snow had been packed hard and was now a mix of brown and red rather than the pristine white it had been before. Caeron spat some of his own blood out onto the ground.

With the last of his strength, he lifted his sword and slammed it down on his helm, breaking the crown in half. He would not give Aendasia the satisfaction of wearing it.

A booted foot hit him on the shoulder and he sprawled onto his back. His entire body was awash in pain and he could not move. He only stared up at the armoured form standing above him. The knight’s surcoat bore a white falcon on a blue background. He faced Duke Northfield at last. The man removed his helmet to reveal a handsome face. Copper locks stuck out from the chain coif he wore.

“You’ve lost, Caeron,” Valeran Northfield sneered. “The crown you stole will soon be on the head of its rightful owner.”

“One cannot steal something that already belongs to him,” Caeron said. His vision was beginning to dim and he felt incredibly tired. He had to finish what he was saying before he let death pull him into its peaceful embrace. He coughed up more blood before he could continue. “The crown belongs to house Tallirhan. I was too proud to deserve it, but I have atoned, and Dara will wear it now. House Tallirhan will rule Baranur …”

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