DargonZine 20, Issue 1

The Great Houses War Part 5: The Girl Who Would be Queen

Mertz 8, 900 - Mertz 21, 900


This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series The Great Houses War

“A moment, Lord Sumner?” Baron Aubrey Talador said.

Sumner, second Duke of Dargon, paused at the top of the stone stairs, his hand upon the handle of the solid wood door leading into Dargon Keep’s Grand Hall. He looked down warily at Baron Talador, a candle flickering in his left hand, the light glinting off the jewels the baron wore.

“What do you wish to speak about that can’t be said in the hall?” Sumner asked.

Talador drew a little closer and glanced down the stairs before licking his lips and continuing. “Your grace, surely you can see the loyalist cause crumbling around us. King Caeron died more than a year ago at the walls of Magnus. The southern marches are all but completely lost. Now Dargon Keep itself is besieged, with but us few lords and a child queen sheltered in the keep.”

“These are dark times for the queen, yes,” Sumner replied. He didn’t like the direction that this conversation was taking.

“Dark times indeed!” Baron Talador’s voice trembled a little. He cleared his throat and moved in even closer. “If we needed any proof that Caeron and his wife were not meant to rule, we have it. Perhaps it is time to consider other options … save what we can.”

“The queen will never surrender.”

“You, my lord Dargon, have ruled what little of the kingdom remains loyal since Caeron’s death. You’ve held the true power of our cause … Ah, but perhaps that’s just it?”

Sumner resented the insinuation that he supported Queen Dara only because he could wield power over the kingdom with her as its monarch. On the contrary, Sumner wanted nothing more than for Dara to assert her rightful authority. He took a deep breath to stop from saying any hasty words to his vassal before replying to the subtle accusation.

“Aubrey, I think this discussion ought to end now,” Sumner placed a hand on his vassal’s shoulder. “And it would be best if we forgot we ever had it. I swore a sacred oath to House Tallirhan as their vassal, and you swore your oath to me. We will not consider such things again.”

“You weren’t so insistent on sacred oaths when Baldwin Narragan turned Armand over to us, were you?” Talador said, referring to the fact that Narragan had turned on his liege-lord, the insurrectionist Duchess Arval, and joined Queen Dara.

Duke Dargon turned his back on Aubrey Talador and pushed the door open. As he stepped into the large hall, he mulled over what his vassal had said. It was true: the loyalist cause was in tatters. Most of its best troops had been wiped out at Magnus, or had disappeared, like the Comarian mercenaries who had abandoned King Caeron at that fateful battle. The southern duchies of Pyridain, Westbrook, and Welspeare lay in ruins or under the banner of the Duchess of Northfield, Aendasia Blortnikson. Only a handful of castles and cities, including Magnus, remained loyal. A combined force from Arvalia and Asbridge was currently camped in the city of Dargon, sealing off Dargon Keep from the rest of the world.

Sumner had sided with the Tallirhan cause partly because they had supported his father Anton Dargon in the creation of the Duchy of Dargon out of Asbridge’s northern baronies, but also because he had thought that it was for the good of Dargon — and for Baranur — for a Tallirhan to sit on the throne. Aendasia was not only Duchess of Northfield, the most powerful house in Baranur, but the Empress Mother of Beinison, Baranur’s warlike neighbour to the south. Sumner knew that her goal had been to subjugate Baranur to Beinison’s imperial designs when she travelled north with an army of professional Beinison troops supplied by her eldest son, the Beinisonian ruler.

Supporting King Caeron’s coronation had been the surest way to maintaining Baranur’s independence in Sumner’s view. He had thought he was acting in the best interests of his people, but now he wondered if the price was not higher than Beinisonian domination would have been. How many thousands had died? And how many thousands more would perish? Aendasia had not proven herself a merciful victor. Pyridain City had been pillaged and razed to the ground. The garrison of Quinnat Keep were hanged to a man after they surrendered …

“More ill news, brother?” Sumner was pulled from his reverie as his younger brother, Grethock Dargon, thrust a goblet brimming with posset into his hands. “You look troubled.”

“No, nothing new,” Sumner took the warm wine with herbs in it. “Thank Ol for that, Grethock. It seems every time a messenger comes to this keep he bears dire tidings.”

“Aye, that it does.” Grethock scratched his goatee-covered chin and turned towards the gathering of lords and ladies that remained loyal to Queen Dara, standing around the hearth.

The queen herself sat on a large oaken chair at the centre of the group. Sumner almost didn’t see her at first, so small and timid and unassuming was she. Dara almost disappeared into the shadows of that high-backed throne. He felt a pang of sympathy as he watched her sitting there, looking down at her hands folded daintily in her lap while lords and ladies argued all around her.

“She *is* but a girl,” Sumner thought as he patted his brother on the back and approached the assembly. Queen Dara looked even more fragile than ever now that her bodyguard, Sir Zephrym Vladon, was a captive of the insurrectionists. In fact, it was over Sir Zephrym that her barons were currently arguing.

“We can’t even consider it,” Duchess Annora Quinnat said. “Surrender Thanailde Castle to ransom a knight?”

“No mere knight, but the reason that Queen Dara is sitting here even considering the proposal!” Baroness Galina Fennell shot back.

“Then let him defend her crown again,” Baron Narragan said. “Thanailde is one of the few castles we still hold in the southern marches. We cannot afford to lose it!”

Grethock jumped right into the discussion. “There should be no discussion. Vladon’s just a knight.”

Sumner noticed Queen Dara wince at that, and he silently regretted his young brother’s blunt candour. The kindly-faced priest, Cyruz of Vidin, moved next to the queen and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. He then looked up at Sumner, his eyes smiling as they always seemed to.

“Duke Dargon,” Cyruz said. “What say you on the matter?”

Sumner found the Stevenic very agreeable, but could not tell him what Sumner knew he wanted to hear. “It is regrettable, my lady queen, but your lords are correct. We cannot give up so important a keep even for Sir Zephrym, though he be a good man.”

“I owe him a debt,” Queen Dara said, her voice hardly above a whisper. “He guided me safely from Magnus, watched over me for nigh on two months as we fled Aendasia’s armies.”

Sumner sighed. Grethock slammed his fist into an open palm. “He did his duty; now you must do yours, your majesty!”

Sumner could only think that the insurrectionists were counting on Queen Dara’s soft heart to win out in the end, and thus gain control over a stubbornly defended castle. The queen looked up at Sumner pleadingly. He could only shake his head.

“It is your decision to make, my queen. You know where I stand on the issue.”

Sumner had made too many decisions for her. He looked over at Aubrey Talador, standing behind Baldwin Narragan. Yes, if Dara were going to hold onto her crown, she had to start asserting her royal authority and show those who still remained loyal that they had chosen correctly.

10 Mertz, 900

Duke Sumner Dargon stepped out into the pebbled walkway of the garden. Situated between the three towers of Dargon Keep, near the centre of the entire complex, it was safe from the catapults and bows of the besieging army. The air was crisp but not uncomfortable, winter having left not long ago. Queen Dara was sitting at a bench playing a game of King’s Key with Cyruz, the Stevenic priest.

Sumner approached, and Queen Dara looked up at him. Her cheeks were pink from the cool air. “Good afternoon, Lord Sumner.”

The duke bowed. “Your majesty.”

Cyruz stood and clapped Sumner on the shoulder. “It is always a pleasure to see you, your grace,” he said cheerfully, “but I imagine that you and our lady queen have important matters to discuss that do not require the presence of an old priest. Besides, I promised the baroness and baron of Fennell that I’d regale them with tales of the Stevene.”

His face creased as he winked, then he strode out of the garden and into the keep. Sumner lowered himself onto the bench where Cyruz had been sitting.

“Caeron and I used to always love playing a game of King’s Key,” Queen Dara said, blinking back tears. She cleared her throat before continuing. “The last game we played was just a few days ere the battle that took his life.”

“King Caeron was a brave man.”

“He was,” the queen sighed. “Perhaps too brave. Now I must bear the weight of his crown.”

“Aye, that you must.” Sumner moved a piece on the King’s Key board, then looked up into Queen Dara’s dark brown eyes. “Have you reached a decision about Sir Zephrym? Or Master Priest Cyrridain’s offer to try brokering a truce with the Duchess of Northfield?”

“No,” she looked away.

“My lady queen, I cannot make these decisions for you any longer. It has been nearly a year since you arrived in my keep. You must prove your worth to your lords.”

“Cyruz tells me there are whisperings in the keep …”

“There are many things being said.” Sumner chuckled, recalling one particularly audacious suggestion. “One of your barons even suggested I divorce the Lady Dargon and marry you!”

Queen Dara looked up, her eyes wide and her cheeks a darker shade of pink. “They can’t have!”

Sumner could not deny the proposal tempted him, if even only a little. Queen Dara was a striking young woman, with a slim figure and beautiful raven-black hair. But again, she was nearly young enough to be his daughter, and he had no interest in being king. He realised the queen was awaiting a response, and he merely shrugged. “It is not against the Olean faith to do such a thing, but I am happy enough with my wife.”

“I don’t imagine Cyrridain would approve!” Queen Dara said, and both of them laughed for a few moments. No, Caeron’s half-brother, the Master Priest of the Stevenics, would not have liked the prospect of such a match.

“I cannot leave Sir Zephrym to languish in some dungeon,” Queen Dara said, returning to the topic at hand. “He risked himself taking me safely from Magnus, and again when he fought the rearguard action at Tench which resulted in his capture. I cannot let such selfless loyalty go unrewarded.”

“For all of Cyrridain’s pious pronouncements about the queen being her people’s greatest servant, he is not far off the mark. As queen, you must put your personal feelings aside and think of what can best benefit the kingdom. In your situation, what is most likely to lead you to victory?”

Queen Dara pondered that for a few moments, then moved a King’s Key piece. “Statecraft is no easy matter, to be sure.”

Sumner sensed a subtle change in her voice. Somehow it seemed a little stronger, surer. He could tell that there was an extraordinary woman lurking beneath her timid exterior. The determination it must have taken to weather the escape from Magnus had first convinced him of that. If only he could break through the shell so that her inner strength could be revealed.

“No it is not, least of all in the middle of a civil war,” Sumner said. “But I can sense you have the strength to lead us.”

Queen Dara’s long dark lashes swept down, shadowing her cheeks like a raven’s feather. “I don’t know, I –”

“Enough!” Sumner jumped to his feet, his raised voice echoing off the stone walls enclosing the garden. “I’ve heard more than enough of such talk. You are a beautiful and gifted woman; it is an affront to Ol that you doubt yourself like this! It is an affront to the memory of King Caeron!”

Queen Dara sprang to her feet as well. “Don’t speak of my husband!”

“Then act like a queen, instead of hiding away like some frightened child, the way you did ere Caeron died. Otherwise, mayhap we would be best off under Aendasia’s rule!”

“How dare you?” Queen Dara’s face was now red with anger as she stamped her foot on the ground. “You, the most loyal of my dukes — or so I thought! Caeron’s legacy will live on, I will rule this court with an iron fist if I have to!”

“Good!” Sumner kept his voice strong, but ensured he let no anger creep into his tone now. “Good, my queen, good. For that is exactly what we need!”

***

Unfortunately, the queen’s resolve did not last as long as Sumner had hoped. By mid-afternoon the next day, she still had not made a pronouncement on what was to be the answer to the insurrectionists’ ransom demand for Sir Zephrym. The Duke of Dargon stood on the battlements, watching the enemy soldiers across the Coldwell moving about the streets of his city. He was coming to wonder whether Talador wasn’t right, and if it wasn’t indeed time to cut his losses.

He heard Grethock cursing before he saw his younger brother exit one of the towers and approach Sumner’s position, wearing an old style kettle-shaped helmet with a large nasal bar.

“There you are!” Grethock said. “The queen’s been looking for you.”

“Has she?” Sumner said dryly. “What did she want?”

“I don’t know,” Grethock shrugged. He turned to look at the city. “Ol’s balls, it is galling to see Dargon inhabited by enemy troops! I never thought I’d see the day. I certainly never thought the attackers would be wearing the colours of Arvalia and Asbridge!”

Sumner only nodded in silence. He could feel Grethock a little closer. Sumner felt as if this were beginning to be a habit, his vassals drawing near and speaking to him in conspiratorial tones.

“I think I know what you’re thinking, brother.” Grethock said.

“Do you now?” Sumner raised an eyebrow, even though he knew Grethock could not see it beneath the helm he wore.

“This war could have ended ere now, at far less cost.”

“You’ve been speaking to Aubrey Talador,” Sumner said.

“Oh, not just Talador, but Duchess Quinnat, our Uncle Connall, the Barons Coranabo, Oleran, Shaddir, Bindrmon …”

“Does Queen Dara command *any* loyal vassals?” Sumner felt himself suddenly becoming defensive and protective of the queen.

“Come, now, Sumner,” Grethock said. “We’ve remained steadfast for over a year since King Caeron died. Most of the lords I’ve mentioned no longer hold lands, because they’ve lost them to the Duchess of Northfield. Others have relatives just barely holding out against sieges. We ourselves — we have plenty of provisions for now, but even so we can’t hold out for years as Magnus has without a city to support us.”

“Ol knows I’ve thought of it myself,” Sumner said, “but Aendasia is not merciful to those who oppose her. It wasn’t that long ago that she had Arnulf Bankroft boiled alive, or have you forgotten that already?”

Grethock held up a hand. “Perhaps there are other options. Duchess Arval allowed a message from the Master Priest Cyrridain through her lines this morning. Apparently he is offering to try negotiating a truce.”

Sumner laughed aloud at that. “The good Master Priest Cyrridain underestimates the ill will many of the insurrectionists hold towards him! After all, Monrodya and Arval only rebelled against Caeron because he gave in to his half-brother’s demands to crown him in the Stevenic Church!”

Grethock ducked as a boulder slammed into the battlement, only a few strides away, sending pieces of rock and masonry flying about. He looked back over the river and cursed. “The bastards are back at it again; I had hoped they were out of rock! Well, Sumner, shall we stand out here all day waiting for an arrow to end our troubles, or shall we see what her majesty wants?”

“Lead the way,” Sumner gestured towards the tower door whence Grethock had come.

They clambered past the heavy wooden door and down the winding steps that led into the tower proper. Sumner removed his helmet once inside and followed his brother to the Grand Hall where Queen Dara sat on her makeshift throne, surrounded by her lords. A few of them, like the Dargon brothers, were clad in chainmail and tabards, but most were dressed in their regular clothes.

“Lord Dargon,” Queen Dara called.

“Your majesty,” Sumner bowed his head curtly, wondering what the queen wanted.

She licked her lips and glanced around the room. Sumner felt his heart quicken, sensing that the queen was about say something important. “I am glad you are here, for I wish you to deliver my response to Duchess Arval’s ransom demand for Sir Zephrym Vladon. My clerk has prepared the necessary documents …”

Queen Dara’s voice grew quiet and seemed to trail off at the end of her sentence. Sumner approached her. “What is your response, my lady queen?”

“I will surrender Thanailde Castle to Duchess Northfield in return for Sir Zephrym.”

The hall erupted as all the assembled lords and knights began to shout at once. Sumner let the pandemonium rage around him for a mene as he considered what the queen had just said. It was not a sound decision, for certes, but it was a decision nevertheless. He nodded to himself; this was an important step. At the least, he was interested to hear the queen’s reasons for giving up so strategically vital a castle in return for a lone knight. He stepped closer to the queen and shouted for the lords to be silent.

“Quiet, all of you! Let the queen speak!”

“But Sumner, this is preposterous! You must speak sense to her!” Grethock shouted.

Sumner’s reply was icy enough to chill the room. “It is not my place to question the judgement of her majesty, my lord brother.”

“But without Thanailde Castle, we cannot hope to contest Aendasia’s claim on –” Duchess Quinnat started to say, before she was out-shouted by Baron Talador.

“It is too high a price to pay for any one man or woman!”

“But we owe Zephrym Vladon much!” Baroness Fennell said. “If it were not for him, Queen Dara would have been captured for certes!”

“A queen has other debts, to her supporters –”

“Enough!” Sumner threw his helm forcefully to the rush-strewn floor, making a terrible clank that once again silenced the assembled nobility. “Let the queen speak.”

He looked down into Queen Dara’s eyes, which were wide with terror. She tried to shake her head no, but Sumner glared at her until she had to look away. After another moment, she spoke in a timid voice.

“I have to do this. I cannot let Sir Zephrym barter his freedom for mine.”

“You may not keep that freedom for long, if you do this!” Baron Talador hissed.

Queen Dara bit her lip and looked over at the baron. Sumner thought he caught the beginnings of tears forming in her eyes and he feared she might begin to cry, but then she set her jaw and stood. Sumner’s heart began to race and he clenched his hands into fists in anticipation.

“My freedom, my crown … If the only way to keep these are to cast aside a trusted friend like Zephyrm, a trusted friend who risked his life for me and my husband more times than I can recall … If my reign depends on me defiling that friendship, then I don’t want the crown!” There was an audible intake of breath from all in the chamber. “Cephas’ boot! No crown is worth that! And if I give up Zephyrm, I have given up far more than a castle. A loyal friend like him is worth more than any castle.

“What are my loyal lords gathered here supporting me for? Is it castles and gold? Would you abandon me as my husband was abandoned at the walls of Magnus in order to keep what you have? Or would you, too, be willing to sacrifice some of your worldly goods for honour and love? I choose for myself the higher path, even if it costs me the crown.”

The room was silent for what seemed like many menes after that. Several of the lords and knights looked away, shamed by her words, while others stared at her. Sumner could feel his chest swelling with pride, as if Dara were his own daughter. A smile threatened to turn up a corner of his mouth.

“I will deliver your response as soon as a truce can be arranged, your majesty.”

***

The last time Sumner Dargon had seen Duchess Emmeline Arval had been in Vibril of 897, more than three years earlier. She appeared tired as she looked up from the parchment she had been studying. Her grey hair was pulled back severely as always, and she wore a simple dark brown dress. This time, the meeting was not in the great hall of Crown Castle in Magnus, but in one of the upper studies of Bellarmine Hall, home to the local Dargon lawyers’ guild.

The two-story building had a stonework main floor, with a plaster and timber upper floor. The entire place was packed with bookshelves and books. It was also known for the beautiful little courtyard that lay in the centre of the hollow-square building. It had been donated to the guild by Bernard Bellarmine, one of the lawyers who had assisted in drafting the documents that had created the Duchy of Dargon. Located on Anton Street, it was not far from Dargon Keep, but still safely out of range of any weapons housed there.

Sumner had always known his ducal neighbour to be more of a scholar than a warrior, and he suspected that she had thrown in her lot with the insurrectionists only under pressure from her brother-in-law, Luther Monrodya. She was also a Stevenic, which was why, Sumner suspected, Queen Dara had asked that he bring Cyruz of Vidin along with him to deliver the queen’s message.

“My lord Sumner.” Duchess Arval stood and pushed aside the documents before her. Various books and scrolls also adorned the table, as did an inkwell, cutting knife, grey pumice stone, and several finely honed quills.

“Lady Emmeline,” Sumner politely inclined his head slightly. “I see that you’ve chosen Bellarmine Hall as your residence during the siege. I always thought you would have made a fine scholar or lawyer.”

Duchess Arval pursed her lips. “You have come with an answer to the empress’ ransom offer?”

“I have,” Sumner said, “but first, I would like to introduce you to the Stevenic priest who has accompanied me, one Cyruz of Vidin.”

“Cyruz … the bard?” Arval stammered. “The bard who knew the Stevene?”

Cyruz chuckled, the sound reminding Sumner of an avalanche rumbling down the slopes of the Darst Range. The priest’s face creased into a smile and he bowed deeply to the duchess. “As always, your grace, I am done far too much honour for having merely met the prophet. I was but a child at the time, and I fear, too foolish to fully appreciate –”

“But you did know the Stevene, met him in the flesh?”

“Aye, I did.” Cyruz continued to smile and looked up at Emmeline Arval. “But then, all of us know him through his sacred Light, no?”

“And you serve the Queen — um — Dara Tallirhan?”

“I serve the Stevene first and foremost, but yes, I serve house Tallirhan.”

The Duchess of Arvalia stared at Cyruz for a long moment, then turned back towards Sumner. The rings around her eyes seemed even darker than before, he thought. He couldn’t help but be impressed by the impact Cyruz’s mere presence was having on the insurrectionist duchess.

Duchess Arval cleared her throat before speaking again. “Duke Sumner, what is your response to the empress’ offer? I assume that Sir Zephrym Vladon will enjoy our hospitality a while longer?” She glanced over at Cyruz, then hastily added, “I assure you he has been well treated, as the laws of war demand.”

“Of that I have little doubt,” Sumner replied. “Nevertheless, the queen’s response to your offer is one of acceptance. Thanailde Castle shall be turned over to the Duchess of Northfield’s forces as soon as her majesty’s messengers arrive there.”

Arval’s jaw dropped, but then she quickly recovered. This response ought to be considered a victory, after all, Sumner thought.

“I have the acceptance, penned in her own hand,” Sumner said as he passed a scroll sealed with the Tallirhan crest to Duchess Arval. She did not open it, but placed it on the table.

“Might I ask how her maj– how Lady Dara came to this decision?”

Sumner suppressed a smile. “In the Tallirhan camp, loyalty and friendship are valued above a great many other things.”

He felt a pang of guilt, thinking of how he had considered defecting to Aendasia’s side. King Caeron’s grandfather had bestowed the ducal title on Sumner’s family, mostly at the urging of Caeron’s father. House Tallirhan had ever supported his family. He firmly resolved never to question his faith in Queen Dara again.

Emmeline Arval was visibly shaken by Sumner’s pronouncement. “The empress does too … She promised to restore the lands of Asbridge that Anton –”

“Ah, your grace,” Cyruz sighed, “surely you do not bear ill will towards the late Anton Dargon? You were such close friends, and, as I recall, you were one of the main proponents of the creation of Duchy Dargon for the services he rendered the king.”

Sumner looked over at Cyruz in surprise, then remembered that the man had been a member of the College of Bards before he was a Stevenic priest. He had likely been privy to many of the goings-on in Crown Castle.

“No, you are correct, father.” Duchess Emmeline hung her head and stared at the floor. She then dropped into her chair, as if her bones had suddenly lost all their strength. “Cephas help me.”

“You oppose the Master Priest, Cephas Stevene’s spiritual heir on earth. You lend your sword to she who would take the crown from the first Stevenic monarchs of this realm, and who has already taken the life of Caeron. What help would you ask in return?”

Cyruz’s words were harsh, but the tone was like that of a father gently reprimanding a beloved daughter he’d caught stealing a tart from the kitchen before dinner. Emmeline’s complexion was ashen.

“By the good God, what am I to do?”

Cyruz put one hand to his throat, and extended the other towards Emmeline, slumped in her chair. “May the Stevene’s Light shine on you, child, and give you the wisdom to answer that question. And the courage to do what you decide is right.” He then looked over to Sumner. “We should leave now, your grace. Her majesty’s message has been delivered.”

“Indeed, it has.” Sumner cast one last glance towards Lady Arval, then turned and exited the chamber with Cyruz close behind.

21 Mertz, 900

“Traitors!” Duchess Quinnat hissed. “They must have slipped out the postern gate and joined the insurrectionist forces!”

“Calm yourself, Annora,” Sumner held up a placating hand. “We don’t know that for certes. After all, might they not have allowed the enemy soldiers back in through that same gate?”

“They may yet,” Galina Fennell said.

“Are you certain the Barons Talador and Coranabo are gone?” Queen Dara asked. “Could they not merely be playing a game of King’s Key in some quiet corner?”

Sir Zephrym Vladon shook his head. “Nay, my lady queen. We scoured the keep from top to bottom.”

Sumner knew that the queen’s lords were not happy with her decision to turn over the vital Thanailde Castle in return for Zephrym Vladon. Even Zephyrm himself had not shown much outward gratitude. There had been almost constant murmuring since the deal had been struck, but Sumner had not expected them to defect outright. On the other hand, perhaps the only reason other lords such as Baron Narragan and Duchess Quinnat remained loyal was because they knew Aendasia would welcome them with the boiling pot rather than open arms.

As much as he would have liked to prove the queen right, there was no trace of his two vassals nor their household knights anywhere in Dargon Keep. He looked out an arrow slit in the wall; clouds darkened the sky and a steady rain was falling. They must have used the weather as cover to steal across the bailey and make their way out the postern gate, then clamber along the banks of the Coldwell towards the enemy lines.

“May the Stevene’s Light shine on us,” Galina Fennell said, putting a hand to her throat, “for we certainly need it now.”

During the seige, she and her household knights had taken to Cyruz the bard, listening to his stories and teachings to pass the long bells. It would seem that she had gone so far as to convert to his faith.

A conversion was what the loyalist forces needed, albeit one of a slightly different manner. They needed to abandon their faith in King Caeron, who was dead, and embrace his queen. Something had to be done. He had said as much to Queen Dara earlier in the sennight, shortly after Sir Zephrym had arrived, bringing rumours of strife in the enemy camp arising out of a screaming argument between Duke Asbridge and Duchess Arval. Dara’s only response was that the time was not yet right and that she would pray. He looked over at his queen and noticed she appeared to be praying at that very mene.

“By the All-Creator!” Baldwin Narragan cursed. “What will we do now?”

“Begin saddling your horses and preparing your weapons,” Queen Dara said. “It is time to ride out and meet our enemies head-on. We cannot hope to win this war by waiting them out.”

“My lady queen,” Zephrym Vladon raised an eyebrow, but showed no other outward emotion. “We are outnumbered; is this wise?”

Sumner was glad that Sir Zephrym had said it, for he had been about to. The queen was not cowed by the remark, however, and she met Vladon’s eyes when she answered. “By my estimation, the Arvalian troops won’t have much stomach to fight by now. Besides, you yourself have said that often the best tactic is to do what is least expected. It certainly worked during our escape from Magnus.”

There was silence for a moment. Sir Zephrym looked around the room, then nodded. “I am with Queen Dara. Let us go to battle!”

Remembering the promise he had made to himself in Bellarmine Hall, Sumner stepped forward as well. “Our horses won’t saddle themselves.”

Baldwin Narragan pulled a face, then said, “Ah, what have I to lose?”

The other nobles and knights agreed one after another, then dispersed to gather their household knights, squires, and men-at-arms. Soon only Sumner, Zephrym Vladon, and the queen remained in the chamber.

“I should lead the attack,” Queen Dara said.

“No, you shouldn’t,” Sumner said. “You are too valuable to us.”

Zephyrm added, “And you don’t know how to fight well enough; not yet, at least.” When the queen was about to protest, the grizzled knight gently shook his head. “Should we carry the day, I will teach you to fight as well as Caeron ever could, your majesty, but until then, your place is here.”

“Very well. You had best be victorious, then.”

Sumner nodded, then turned and charged out of the hall, shouting for his squires and his knights. They all rushed to him, having heard the commotion of the other lords gathering their troops. His squires hastily strapped him into his chainmail gambeson, and were pulling the long surcoat bearing his personal device over his head when Grethock trudged into the room, his tabard soaked with rain but a grin on his lips.

“Sumner!” he exclaimed. “You should see what’s happening beyond our walls! It looks as if the army from Arvalia is breaking camp; I saw Emmeline Arval’s personal banner moving out of the city and across the causeway … Why are you putting on your armour?”

“You’ve not heard up on the battlements then, that we are preparing to attack!”

“Excellent!” Grethock’s grin turned malicious, then disappeared quickly. “But how did you know? This just happened in the last half bell, yet you’re all but fully garbed?”

Sumner could not suppress a smile of his own. “Of course! It must have all been part of the queen’s plan, to send that Stevenic holy man Cyruz with me to sap the Arvalian will to fight! She did say she didn’t expect the Arvalians to have much stomach for battle when she gave the order to sally forth a bell ago. She must have calculated something like this would happen. But come, since you’re ready as well, join me in the stables and we’ll ride out together!”

When the two brothers reached the outer bailey, most of the combined host of loyalists trapped inside Dargon Keep were assembled, ready for battle. The unchanging rain seemed to beat out a tune on all the metal helmets and shields. The troops shuffled about, but appeared more excited than anxious. Duchess Annora Quinnat charged up to the Dargons astride her black destrier.

“Word has already spread; the enemy camp is in disarray! Some of the archers even report that they’ve seen fighting breaking out in spots between the Arvalians and Asbridgers!”

“Let us waste no more time, then,” Sumner said, seeing one of his squires leading his great chestnut-coloured warhorse to the fore. He slipped a boot into one of the stirrups and swung himself up onto the back of the beast.

He surveyed the gathered army one last time; it was a large force, barely fitting into the confines of the bailey. Even in the gloom and rain, he could easily make out the colourful caparisons on the lords’ and knights’ horses, each adorned with its master’s personal heraldry. He could also make out foot soldiers bearing spears, swords, and maces, and up on the walls, archers with their bows and arbalests.

A squire cantered up to Sumner on his horse and handed her lord his great helm, bearing his ducal crown and the crest of a lily that he wore to denote favour with the queen. Sumner decided to forego the usual speech reviling the enemy and predicting victory. Instead, he shouted, “For the queen!” and pulled the heavy helmet down over his head. He then took a lance from the same squire and spurred his horse to a trot towards the gates. He gestured and the massive wood reinforced with steel doors parted with a rumble.

The rain pounding on his helmet blocked out almost all sound and he could not see much through the narrow eye slits. He did not feel the usual pre-battle anxiety, but instead a strange calm, as if he were in his own world inside that great helm.

At last, the great gates had been opened and the portcullis was lifted high enough for cavalry to fit under it. Sumner spurred his horse; it reared back onto its hind legs, gave forth a loud snort, then charged across through the portal. The sound of iron-shod hooves pounding on the cobbles below joined with the cacophony of the rain. The horse clattered down the massive steps that led up the cliff to Dargon Keep. The stonework staircase that accessed the castle made it nearly impregnable, as it was nearly impossible to get a battering ram up them, and it funnelled attacking enemy troops into a narrow channel. They were less helpful for a sally from the keep itself, but as Queen Dara had predicted the enemy did not seem to expect an attack. Sumner could make out the shapes of insurrectionist troops ahead, scrambling about in confusion.

Before Sumner knew it, he was upon them. At first he wasn’t sure whether the other lords and knights were with him, but then such screams and cries pierced the air that he knew he couldn’t be alone. Everything descended into a confusion of limbs, spraying blood, shouts, and howls of agony.

Finally, he couldn’t bear the weight of his great helm any more, nor its constrictive vision, and he tore the thing off his head. It was apparent that the insurrectionists had been utterly defeated. Corpses lay two, three deep in places. Some enemy soldiers were fighting desperately with horsemen circling about them. Many more could be seen in the distance, some fleeing, others making a more orderly withdrawal. Almost all of the dead enemy soldiers wore the gold field surmounted by a black chevron of Asbridge.

Across the Coldwell, Sumner knew that many more enemy soldiers were encamped. However, all of the men and women bearing weapons that he could see on the far bank were heading away from the causeway rather than towards it. It appeared that his suspicion earlier had been proved correct: that after her encounter with Cyruz, Emmeline Arval had rethought her allegiance to Aendasia and had tried to pull out. Duke Asbridge must have been furious and tried to stop her from leaving, perhaps even going so far as to forcibly prevent her departure.

It appeared that he had moved a great number of his troops across the river for this purpose, and as such, they were ill-prepared for an attack from the keep.

“Glory to God and his Stevene’s Light!” Galina Fennell shouted, riding up alongside Sumner.

“Glory to the All-Creator!” Baldwin Narragan countered.

“Glory to the queen,” Sumner said. “For without her bold plan, this victory might not have come to us.”

“Long live Queen Dara!” the assembled soldiers cried in unison.

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