DargonZine 19, Issue 8

The Great Houses War Part 3: The Stealthy Guardians

Deber 4, 899 - Janis 8, 899


This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series The Great Houses War

Sir Zephrym Vladon, captain of the king’s guard, clutched Crown Prince Brad tightly to him as he rode through the Wherwell Forest, ten leagues west of Magnus. A light snow was falling, but did little to obscure vision. Zephrym wished that he had the blossoms of spring filling out the forest rather than the dark skeletons of winter, so that they could be shielded from view. He knew that insurrectionist soldiers — those who sought to uncrown King Caeron and replace him with the Beinisonian Empress Aendasia Blortnikson — would be looking for them and could not be far away.

The boy prince, a mere six years of age, clutched at Zephrym’s surcoat with hands wrapped in warm mittens. Even through the thick wool gambeson and chain mail hauberk, Zephrym could feel the warmth of Brad’s body pressing against him. Thank the All-Creator the child had stopped crying for his father, the king, as it had torn at Zephrym’s heart to hear it.

A frigid breeze swept over him. It carried with it chilling voices that whispered in a strange language. A grey mist moved with the voices, dancing amidst Zephrym’s knights then darting away. Zephrym reined his in horse so that Queen Dara could catch up to him. She was not a skilled rider; she and her ladies-in-waiting had slowed the escape from Magnus considerably.

Zephrym’s chest tightened as he remembered King Caeron ordering him to abandon Magnus and take the royal family with him. Zephrym had been a knight in the Tallirhan household for decades. He had taught Caeron how to ride a horse and wield a sword. The king was his friend. Zephrym had begged to stay with him in Magnus, but Caeron had needed someone he could trust to protect the royal family and get them to safety.

“My lady.” Zephrym’s voice came out as a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. “My lady queen, stay close by my side. This is an evil wind that blows. I fear it carries word to the enemy; it is the eyes of Beinisonian sorcerers.”

“Truly, you think so?” The queen’s voice was a mere whisper, almost the timbre of a young child’s.

“I fear so.” Zephrym nodded. He had heard many tales of the power that Beinisonian mages could wield. Seeking out their enemies with magical mists was among the least of their spells. “But do not trouble yourself; we will protect you. With our lives if need be.”

He looked around at the household knights of Caeron Tallirhan. He was sure that they were the best knights in the land, each having been hand-picked and trained by himself. They were all completely loyal to the king, as well.

The crack of a dry twig breaking sounded to Zephrym’s left and his head snapped over to look in that direction. Through the sparse, barren trees, he could make out several horses and riders. He narrowed his eyes, trying to discern their heraldry. Were they friend, or foe? Before Zephrym had left Magnus, the king had received word that a loyal army from Welspeare was moving north to try to lift the siege on Irskin Castle. However, he also knew that the insurrectionist houses had armies in the same region and would undoubtedly have scouts looking for the precious treasure Zephrym escorted.

He carefully reached into a pouch that hung from his belt and pulled out a small acorn that he had carried for years. The mage who had given it to him long ago had claimed that it could be used once to determine if enemy or friend was nearby. If they were friends, it would turn into a robin; if enemies, a crow. There was no better time to use such an object, he decided, for when else would he be charged with protecting the Queen of Baranur? He held the acorn to his lips and whispered, “Friend or foe, who are they?”

He threw the acorn towards the riders ahead but it simply fell to the ground and disappeared in the snow. Zephrym silently chided himself for so foolishly trusting such a bauble. He had his own instincts that he could rely on, and those told him that these were soldiers of the insurrectionist camp.

“To arms!” Zephrym shouted, pulling his sword free of its sheath.

One of the ladies-in-waiting to his rear screamed as more brittle branches cracked. He turned his mount to see another group of knights plunging through the forest towards them. “A clever trap,” he thought.

The high-pitched clang of weapons striking each other rang through the forest as the attackers reached his knights. Holding Prince Brad carefully with his left arm, Zephrym charged to intercept a knight moving towards Queen Dara.

“Mama!” the prince cried. “What’s happening?”

“Brad!” Queen Dara screamed back. Her horse spooked and skittered out of Zephrym’s line of sight.

With a powerful swing of his sword, he caught the knight on the side of his helm and knocked him from his horse. Now Brad was wailing at the top of his lungs. Zephrym’s horse reared up and danced to the side as more enemy knights darted around him. He knew the heraldries of all the house guard well and so could easily identify his enemies.

He wheeled about and charged to Queen Dara’s side just in time to knock aside the hand of a knight reaching for her horse’s reins. The man’s chainmail saved him from losing the hand altogether, but he bellowed in pain all the same. Two more knights charged up and attacked Zephrym from both sides. He deftly knocked their blows aside, but he was beginning to tire.

Out of fatigue, he left an opening in his guard. He watched his opponent’s sword swing slowly towards Brad’s head. Zephrym swung his arm down to protect the child and the blade sliced into his chainmail sleeve. Flames seared where he was hit. His sword dropped silently to the ground, snow softening its fall.

His horse reared up in a defensive posture, allowing Zephrym to wrap Prince Brad with his wounded right arm and reach down to his boot with the other. He pulled a long-bladed dagger from it and, as his horse dropped its front hoofs back to the ground, rammed the blade up into his attacker’s throat. With a gurgling sound the knight dropped his own sword and slumped in his saddle.

Another knight wearing an old-style kettle helm charged in and swung with her flail. Zephrym was barely able to duck the blow. He urged his horse closer and, as his opponent wound up for another attack, he threw his dagger. The blade caught her in the mouth and she toppled backwards off her horse with a gurgled scream.

Zephrym looked around. The skirmish was over, bodies scattered about between trees with pools of brilliant red seeping into the snow around them. A handful of the enemy were fleeing, but most were dead. Only a few of the king’s knights had been laid low. Given a few moments to gather himself, he was able to have a proper look at the heraldry of the felled knights. They all appeared to be Northfielders, given the prevalence of blue. Duke Northfield was Aendasia’s husband, so Zephrym was hardly surprised.

“Please, give me my son,” Queen Dara said.

Zephrym realised that Prince Brad was still bawling in his arms and wriggling to get free. Zephrym moved his horse close to the queen and with his good arm took the boy by the back of his fur cloak and handed him over. Queen Dara looked down at Zephrym’s arm and gasped.

“You are wounded, Sir Zephrym.”

“I am only a little weak,” he replied. “Please, my lady queen, we must continue on. These were but a small scouting party; I’m certain there are more of them nearby.”

“Surely by now my husband has defeated them at Magnus,” she said.

Zephrym nodded silently. He hoped that she was right, but he could hear the lack of conviction in her voice, and felt it within his own heart. By the All-Creator, this was one time he should have disobeyed his liege and stayed at Magnus to fight by his side.

He swallowed hard and dismounted to pick up his sword that still lay in the snow. He wiped it off on the surcoat of one of the dead enemy and sheathed it. He noticed a dark brown horse out of the corner of his eye. He looked up to see Cyruz of Vidin, a Stevenic priest who had insisted on accompanying the queen north.

“Lord Vladon,” the priest said in a deep, rumbling voice like thunder echoing in the mountains. “Perhaps it might be prudent for us to travel only at night now that the enemy knows we are near.”

Zephrym grunted. “I appreciate the advice, but we need to make good speed if we are to find friendly forces before this entire region is covered in Northfield troops. However, what we should do is divide our contingent. The ladies in waiting slow us down too much, and frankly, I hardly see the purpose in having them with us. They will make a good decoy if dispatched in another direction with a few good knights.”

The plan formulated in his mind, Zephrym gathered together two dozen of his company and ordered them to take the ladies in waiting due north. As that group departed, he stalked over to where the queen was now sitting on a log, drying her son’s tears. “My lady queen, we must leave now.”

“Must we, right now?” she whispered. “Couldn’t we rest at least a few menes?”

“No, it must be now; it’s too dangerous to stay.” Zephrym grit his teeth at the weakness of the queen. One more breath of cold wind and she might shatter like a piece of fine pottery. J’mirg’s Bones, why was he stuck out here with this little girl while King Caeron fought at Magnus? He prayed that King Caeron was safe, that the realm would not be saddled with this limpid child.

6 Deber, 899

“Your king is dead, Vladon!” shouted the young lord from fifty yards across the field. Behind the lad stood a sizeable army flying the green and red colours of the Great House Monrodya. They stood on a small hill in a clearing of the Wherwell Forest, milling about in a sloppy formation twenty deep.

Zephrym stood up in his stirrups as rage surged inside of him. He had always been able to control his emotions, but at this rebuke he suddenly felt heat rise and every muscle in his body begin to quiver.

“Silence, you young codswallop! By the Red Garter of Randiriel, I’ll not listen to your lies!”

“I do not lie, sir,” the Monrodyan answered. “Your king was slain at the walls of Magnus on the third. I received word –”

“You can receive my cod in your mouth, you lying son of a whore!”

Zephrym sat back down in his saddle, winded after that last eruption. He took a deep breath and regained his usual composure. It must have been the pain of the three-day old arm wound that made him lose control like that, or maybe having to cart around a whelp of a queen. He felt sudden guilt at that thought. What would Caeron say if he knew Zephrym thought such things? He turned and looked at the queen. “Please forgive my outburst, my lady queen.”

“What are we to do, Lord Vladon?” Cyruz of Vidin asked. “There is an army arrayed against us, and we with but a few score knights.”

“The queen will not fall into their hands,” Zephrym said. “You may be sure of that.” He paused in thought for several moments before speaking again. “In a situation like this, often the best thing to do is to attack. The enemy will certainly not expect it and we hardly have anything to lose; they have us where they want us. However, if we can get through their lines, the snow and the trees should slow them down enough to prevent them encircling us. The terrain, at least, is on our side.”

“I know little of matters martial,” Cyruz said, “but is this not a very dangerous proposal?”

“It is,” Zephrym said. “But it is precisely because it is such an unexpected tactic, and because the Monrodyans are rightly confident of capturing us, that it could work. Look at the young lord Monrodya’s army: they are not prepared to fight at all. His men are leaning on their spears, stamping their feet to keep warm … Yes, the time to attack is now. Please, take the queen and prince into the centre of our formation, priest.”

When Zephrym drew his sword, the other knights did so as well, sensing what was to come.

“Don’t engage the enemy, just keep moving!” He pointed his sword towards the young Monrodyan noble, whose eyes were now large with surprise, and the knights surged forward. The snow proved to be light and fluffy on this particular bit of ground and they closed the distance more quickly than he had hoped.

They were on the Monrodyan soldiers and the sounds of battle echoed off the trees once again. Zephrym urged his horse forward, its bulk knocking aside the surprised enemy soldiers. It didn’t take long for them to overcome their surprise and fight back, however. The knight to Zephrym’s left was dragged from his horse. Zephrym knocked a spear thrust aside and shouted instructions to his men.

“Keep the queen in the centre! Keep moving!”

More enemy soldiers, clad in furs and red-and-green livery, were piling in now, threatening to halt the charge. Zephrym spurred his mount and fought to keep it moving forward. Several spears lodged in the horse’s barding and snapped as it plunged forward through the massed infantry.

Zephrym could see that only a few soldiers lay between him and open space. His mount reared up and lashed out with its hoofs, sending several of the men sprawling, then charged ahead onto open ground. To his left and right he saw enemy soldiers running through the snow, trying to block off his escape. If they could just make it to the trees, they’d be safe, Zephrym thought. He urged his knights onward with shouts and curses and they sped to the gallop once more. He saw cavalry passing the enemy troops, but the trees were very close now.

They entered the forest and continued on despite the branches that clawed at their cloaks. Zephrym risked a look back and could see that a good number of his knights were with him, and, most importantly, so was the queen. He returned his attention to the front and had to duck a low, thick branch as his horse barrelled ahead. The crash of swords meeting sounded behind him once again. He knew that the Monrodyan cavalry must have caught his rear ranks. There was nothing for it but to press on as fast as he could, lest more of the enemy catch up.

The sounds of battle grew less as they continued. When Zephrym could hear them no more, he signalled to slow the pace and moved to the rear to see how they had been able to disengage. He discovered that most of the rear guard had stopped to delay the pursuing enemy, sacrificing themselves to allow the rest to escape. Zephrym knew that they would all be lost; he could only hope that many of them would be captured and held for ransom rather than killed outright. How many friends’ lives would the queen cost him ere they reached safety?

After a few bells of travel, the Stevenic priest Cyruz of Vidin pulled his horse alongside Zephrym’s.

“Lord Vladon,” he said, “we cannot keep this pace up; we must rest. The queen is nearly asleep in the saddle and I must confess I myself am about to fall from my mount.”

Zephrym shook his head. “No, we cannot stop. Our best chance is to travel on through night and gain some distance between that army and ourselves. We can rest when morning comes.”

He knew he was pushing everyone hard but there was nothing for it. He tried to think of a way to encourage his charges to greater endurance than they could normally muster. Queen Dara and many of the household knights were Stevenics. He had never converted to the religion himself, reasoning that something younger than he was had not yet proved its worth, but he had heard whisperings in the royal castle that this Cyruz was regarded as some kind of holy man. Perhaps he could do something to assist their cause.

Zephrym turned to look at the priest. “Cyruz, it has been said that you are oft called ‘the bard’. Certainly then, you can sing prayers for us, to lift our spirits and call on your god to help.”

Cyruz nodded wearily. “It’s true that I was a member of the Bardic College ere I devoted myself to spreading the Stevene’s Light, but I don’t know that I have it in me to ride and sing at this point.”

Zephrym reached over and stopped the man from falling off his horse. Cyruz’s eyes were surrounded by dark circles and his pallor seemed incredibly pale.

“Here, have some wine,” Zephrym said, offering his wineskin. “That should liven you a little. Now sit up straight, by Kurin’s beard. Your ‘Stevene’s Light’ will have to shine on us this night if we are to make it through. Be a man and give us some encouragement with your song.”

Zephrym knew he was being harsh; even the Tallirhan household knights, hardened by nearly two years of marching and fighting, were showing signs of exhaustion. Zephrym himself felt his legs tremble with fatique in the stirrups, but he had to get everyone to keep moving somehow.

Cyruz did what he could. He sang ballads telling of Cephas Stevene’s life and exhorted the Stevenics of the company to join him in prayer. He began very quietly and slowly, but seemed to gain a little strength as he got into the rhythm.

As they moved through the deep snow, Zephrym lost all concept of time. He was certain that the sun would crest the horizon at any moment, yet league after league it remained hidden. Several times the queen almost fell out of her saddle. Zephrym took Prince Brad into his arms once again and the boy seemed to catch small bits of sleep as they rode. They moved out of the forest and continued along over open plains for many bells. Zephrym kept as sharp an eye out as he could but saw no movement on the horizon. As the night wore on, Cyruz’s singing began to trail off into a monotonous mumble. At one point he fell from his horse and didn’t wake up until hitting the ground. He was slow getting up, and required the assistance of two knights. Zephrym realised that everyone had reached their limit.

He guided the bedraggled group into a piece of low ground surrounded by pine trees. It would provide cover from the wind and from enemy scouts. They could not risk setting up tents or pavilions, so Zephrym ordered everyone to sleep close together so that their shared body warmth would ward off the cold. The knights tied all of the horses up to trees before settling down close to one another. Under normal circumstances, all involved would have been most embarrassed, Zephrym was sure. As it was, they were too exhausted to care and within menes were fast asleep, all except the queen.

Zephrym sat down wearily next to her. She was sitting cross-legged on her fur cloak, cradling her son in her arms. The prince was in a deep slumber. Queen Dara was even more pale than she usually was, and there were dark circles like bruises around her eyes.

“Get some sleep,” Zephrym whispered.

She shook her head. “I cannot. At least not right away.” There was a long pause before she spoke again. “I think that the Monrodyan was telling the truth, that my husband is dead.”

She stared down at the ground and bit a trembling lip. Hearing that Caeron was dead from the king’s own wife tempted Zephrym towards sorrow, but instead he became angry. He didn’t want to give Dara the right to pronounce the king dead. If it weren’t for her, Zephrym would have been able to stand at the walls of Magnus with his king, and perhaps a different result could have been reached. “King Caeron was a mighty warrior; he would not have easily been vanquished.”

“In my heart, I know it,” she said, either not noticing or choosing to ignore the bitterness that Zephrym knew his voice held. “I knew our last night together that it would be our last. I can feel that he is no longer with us.”

She took a deep, uneven breath. Zephrym studied her. Even in this drained state, there was no questioning that she was a very beautiful woman. It was a tender beauty, a kind that struck Zephrym as almost pathetic. And yet, she was not wailing and moaning as many a wife — or even husband — would when contemplating the death of their spouse. He grudgingly admitted that there might have been an inner strength in her that he had never seen before.

“You will be queen and sovereign of Baranur,” he said in a low voice. “And continue the Tallirhan line.”

The queen only nodded. Zephrym got to his feet and walked away from the makeshift camp into the forest. When he was far enough away that he was sure no one could see or hear him, he drew his sword and drove it into the ground. He then sank to his knees before it. King Caeron was dead. Queen Dara had convinced him of that. He did not know how, but she knew. Perhaps Caeron’s spirit, as it left his body, had stopped to say goodbye to his wife before going to meet the All-Creator.

“Oh, my king,” he muttered. “I should have been with you …”

If he and the other household knights had been with Caeron at that battle, surely the king would have lived. Caeron was like a son to Zephrym. In the years Zephrym was married, his wife had never been able to bear them children. When she died of the Red Plague along with Caeron’s parents, Caeron had become even more like a son.

Tears burned in his eyes, then forced their way out and onto his cheeks. He clenched his eyes shut. He felt conflicted emotions: sorrow at the loss of his son, rage towards Dara, guilt for hating Caeron’s beloved, and more anger towards her for making him feel guilty! He didn’t want Queen Dara; he wanted King Caeron! It seemed a very poor trade to him, even if the girl had shown a little backbone earlier. Finally, he could hold it in no more and the tears flowed unabated. He fell to the ground, his body wracked by pain. He had failed to protect the king. His only chance to redeem himself was to protect the king’s wife, his queen. But he didn’t want the queen, he wanted Caeron back! Why couldn’t she have died rather than him?

He remembered Caeron’s last words to him. “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.” He nodded his head. If Queen Dara and Prince Brad were that precious to Caeron, Zephrym would serve the king by saving them. He buried the bitterness in his heart and resolved not to be jealous of Queen Dara’s being alive ever again.

***

For the next twenty-seven days and nights, the royal family, under Sir Zephrym Vladon and the Tallirhan household knights’ protection, fled the pursuing Monrodyan army. The deep snow and the treacherous darkness of night slowed their progress. Only once did Zephrym risk going near a town. When he did, he ordered the house knights and royal family to hide while he crept into the town to determine where exactly they were and to hear news.

The news was not good. Magnus was under siege, held only by the townsfolk, as the king’s army had been destroyed. The Comarrian mercenaries had betrayed King Caeron at Magnus and had fled into the hills near Beeikar. King Caeron had died defending the walls of Magnus, abandoned by his friends.

2 Janis, 899

The company bearing Queen Dara to safety had just finished crossing the ice-bound Laraka when Zephrym spotted banners moving along the eastern horizon. In almost a month they had travelled roughly one hundred and fifty leagues west northwest and were now in the centre of Duchy Quinnat. Sharks’ Cove had fallen months ago to insurrectionist troops from Arvalia, so certainly it could not be an army loyal to the Duchess of Quinnat, or Dara for that matter, that was approaching.

Zephrym cast about for a place to hide. It was habit now, for they’d been scurrying into bits of low ground and copses of trees at the sight of any approaching people since fleeing Magnus. He quickly spotted a suitable dip in the ground and directed the group there.

Once everyone was in the low ground, Zephrym ordered his knights to spread the bolts of white cloth he had acquired in a town along the way and disguise themselves as part of the landscape. It was far from a perfect masque; anyone approaching within a few strides would easily recognise the deception. They could only pray that no one approached them.

Zephrym himself crept through the snow and hid behind a small copse of pine trees. The approaching army was using the frozen Laraka as a road, as its banks provided protection from the wind. The snow was not as deep on the river as elsewhere, much of it having been absorbed while the river was still flowing.

As they drew near, Zephrym was able to make out the banners that fluttered in the wind at the head of the column. The largest was a red field with a white bar cutting it in half diagonally. Those were the colours of house Welspeare, one of the few Great Houses loyal to the king that had not been conquered by the insurrectionists. As the army drew nearer, he could make out the personal device of Duchess Katrina Welspeare herself, that of a gold ducal crown and black unicorn.

He remained hidden, however, for he would not ignore the possibility that one of the insurrectionist houses had captured the Duchess Welspeare’s colours and were flying them in hopes of drawing the queen and her protectors out into the open. If they were willing to betray a king and wage open war with him, they were certainly capable of other treachery.

He was shivering with cold by the time the head of the column was within a few strides of his position. He peered carefully between the branches of the trees at the lords leading the army. In the centre, there was one person wearing a surcoat that bore the duchess’ arms. Zephrym looked up at the woman’s face and recognised Katrina Welspeare. She bore an angry red wound on her left cheek, but the pretty, round face and large brown eyes were certainly hers. Straight dirty-blonde hair framed the face. Zephrym was impressed at how, even in the midst of a war, Duchess Welspeare could remain looking bright and cheerful. He stepped out from behind the tree and shuffled down the river bank.

“My lady!” shouted one of the barons riding alongside the duchess. “An assassin!”

The metal-on-metal whine of swords being drawn from scabbards and the rustling of dozens of arrows being nocked echoed off the embankments as the lords and men-at-arms prepared to attack. Zephrym merely slowed his pace to a casual stroll and continued toward the duchess.

“Wait.” She held up a calming hand before her escort could charge Zephrym. Then she burst out into loud, yet melodious laughter, clapping her hands together with glee. “Sir Zephrym Vladon, I would recognise that careless swagger anywhere! Is her majesty the queen with you?”

“She is, your grace,” Zephrym said.

Duchess Welspeare beamed at him, a beautiful smile threatening to overtake her entire face. “Praise God, the Stevene’s Light yet shines on us!”

“We have ridden long and hard, your grace. May I ask how you come to be here in Quinnat, many leagues from Welspeare?”

“I took what forces I could gather north to retake Sharks’ Cove. We were successful in that task and now move to lift the siege on Port Sevlyn. My brother defends Fremlow City.” The duchess scanned the horizon. “But tell me, where is the queen?”

“She is hiding with the remainder of the Tallirhan house guard,” Zephrym responded. He turned and started to trudge up the embankment. The duchess ordered the rest of her troops to wait on the river while she and her barons and household knights followed Zephrym.

“The queen is like a beacon that mariners steer their ships by,” he thought, for even now, he was being followed for harbouring the most sacred prize in Baranur. He stopped at that thought and turned to Duchess Welspeare.

“Your grace, I have an idea of how we might strike a heavy blow against both the Arvalians besieging Port Sevlyn and the Monrodyans pursuing us from the south.”

8 Janis, 898

“My lady queen,” Zephrym pleaded, “you should not be with me; you should stay back with the duchess’ baggage train, away from the battle.”

He looked nervously to the east, where he knew Port Sevlyn lay just over the next rise. Between the city and him, on this snow-covered plain, an entire army of Arvalians was encamped, though he could not see them. The risk of death was severe even for armoured knights, let alone the queen.

Fear was etched on Queen Dara’s face, yet she kept her voice steady as she answered. “The trap might fail if the insurrectionists realise that I am not with you, Sir Zephrym. Besides, how can you protect me if I am with the baggage train?”

“If I had known you would insist on being at the centre of the battle, I would not have even considered this plan.”

“But it is a good plan,” she persisted. He noticed her eyes turn watery and when she spoke again her voice was no longer steady. “And if I die, then I shall be quickly reunited with my husband.”

If the plan worked, then the queen would not have to fear death again for some time. Duchess Welspeare had hidden her forces behind a ridge just south of Port Sevlyn. Scouts had reported that the Monrodyan army pursuing them from the south was near. The house guard was to ride close to the city, making it look as if they had thought they might enter, then veer towards the Welspeare army. Hopefully, both insurrectionist forces would be drawn over that ridge, where they would be ambushed by the duchess’ well-laid trap.

“Very well, then,” he said, “but stay close to me, my queen, so that I can, as you say, best protect you.”

She nodded in assent and Zephrym squeezed his horse with his knees to get the creature moving. They ploughed through the thigh-deep snow at the trot, and were quickly within view of Port Sevlyn.

The city’s walls were pocked with small craters made by the catapults that even now fired salvos of rocks at the defences. Since the Laraka had been frozen, the army had been able to completely surround it. Mangonels hurled piles of smaller rocks over the walls, hoping to kill a few of the garrison inside. Smoke stretched up into the sky from a building near the city walls, likely set afire by burning arrows. Even so, the blue and green banners of Quinnat still flew from the city’s ramparts.

Much of the besieging army was sheltering from the elements inside pavilions or gathered around large fires. Zephrym, the queen, and the king’s knights rode quite close to the army encircling Port Sevlyn before they were noticed. When they were, a cry rose up through the camp and soldiers tumbled out of tents as quickly as they could. Zephrym made sure to take his force as close to the sentries as possible so that they would spot the queen. When cries of her presence went up, he knew he had completed his task.

He directed their path due south, where he knew the Monrodyans would be. Presently, the green and red banner of Duke Monrodya could be seen on the horizon. Zephrym pressed forward until he could see the face of that young whelp who had told him of the king’s death. The boy was likely Duke Luther Monrodya’s eldest son. Perhaps Zephrym would teach the traitorous duke what Queen Dara’s pain was at losing a loved one.

When the Monrodya army started to charge, he veered sharply to the left and headed for the rise over which the Duchess Welspeare laid in wait. Some of the horses stumbled and fell in the deep snow, or perhaps over rocks and small shrubs that lurked under its calm white surface, but he could not afford to slow. The enemy soldiers shouted a battle cry as they ran behind. He looked over at Queen Dara. Of necessity, she had become a much better rider over the past month, but was now clinging to the neck of her horse.

“We are almost there,” he shouted to her.

The horses staggered over the top of the hill, then thundered down the rear slope. Zephrym chanced a glance backwards and could see that the two enemy armies were no longer in any semblance of formation, so eager were they to capture the queen. Their ranks had merged together, so that one army could not be told from the other.

A high-pitched cry rose from Zephrym’s left. He looked over just in time to see Duchess Katrina Welspeare charge past him towards the enemy army. Her eyes were wide and, as she let loose her cheerful battle cry, a smile played across her lips.

The insurrectionist soldiers yelped in surprise and tried to stop and face the enemy, but they were too late. The forces of house Welspeare descended on them from two sides, as unstoppable as tidal waters. The Arvalian and Monrodyan soldiers were in such disarray that they stood no chance. In less than half a bell, the ground was littered with dead bodies. The few survivors of the ambush fled to the south, but even they were doomed, for without their army’s baggage train to supply them, they would soon starve or freeze to death on these barren winter plains.

Duchess Welspeare let out a joyous shout and leaned over to wrap Queen Dara in a strong embrace. “That will teach those traitorous codswallops, will it not, my queen?”

She laughed loudly, but Queen Dara remained sombre. Zephrym rode up to them. “With two large armies defeated, the Duchess of Northfield will see the folly of continuing this winter campaign, for certes. We should be able to stay at Port Sevlyn until the Laraka flows again, then on to Dargon, where we can regroup. I fear that Port Sevlyn will be in danger again soon.”

Queen Dara merely nodded. As Duchess Welspeare released her grip, the queen’s shoulders began to heave as tears poured down her face. “I just wish it could end! I wish I could have Caeron back!”

Yes, Zephrym had kept her safe physically, but no one could protect her from the anguish of a shattered heart. Zephrym could only pray to the All-Creator that her wounds would heal over the winter, for the realm needed a queen. A Tallirhan queen, not the Blortnikson Aendasia.

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