Duke Valeran Northfield was thoroughly soaked with rain water by the time he reached the sheltered confines of his pavilion. Despite the downpour, he had wanted to ensure that the sentries were posted and his army’s encampment safe. He had been satisfied with the results of his inspection, and thought that, with any luck, the enemy did not know that he was here. If things stayed that way until dawn, he calculated that he could launch a devastating surprise attack and win an important city for his wife Aendasia’s cause to rescue the crown from the usurper Dara, her late cousin Caeron’s wife.
It was still quite warm, as the rain had only begun while the army was setting up camp. He did not mind a summer soaking too much after a long, hot, dusty day of marching. He threw his drenched cloak aside and stood over the map laid out on a table in one corner. After the disaster the previous summer at Dargon Keep, where Emmeline Arval had withdrawn her army and Duke Asbridge had been soundly defeated by Duke Sumner Dargon in the ensuing confusion, things had looked troublesome for those loyal to the as yet uncrowned but true Queen of Baranur. Duchess Arval now campaigned on the side of the pretender queen, Dara, and had completely removed loyalist forces from the northern marches, which was why Valeran now had to move north away from Magnus.
Valeran had been enraged at the insult of insurrection that had been hurled at his beautiful wife Aendasia. Before marrying him, she had been wife to the Beinisonian Emperor Alejandro VII, and still bore the name Blortnikson. Partly because of this, and partly because Caeron Tallirhan was a clever bastard, several of the Great Houses had rejected Aendasia as their queen, despite the fact that King Stefan II had named her his sole heir. Instead, the dead king’s grandson, Caeron, had taken power. Even when he was killed at Magnus, nigh on three years ago, his wife, Dara, would not relinquish power. The common peasants derided their true queen, Aendasia, when she conquered their towns.
But in the spring of 901, thanks to Emmeline Arval’s treachery, Valeran had left his wife, who was now besieging Magnus once again, to put paid to Queen Dara’s last strongholds in the northern marches. In the past months, he had liberated what little remained traitorous of Quinnat and most of Arvalia. He had but one task left before he turned his eyes to the final prize in his campaign.
“So, you plan to assault Armand at first light, milord?” The soft, dulcet tones of Lady Charissa Ethros broke his line of thought.
Valeran turned to address his vassal who must have just entered the tent. “Indeed, I do. Ever since I received word that troops from Lederia, under Caeron’s uncle Hadrus, had moved into Othuldane this spring, I’ve known that we must end this war as quickly as possible, ere the tide that has carried us since Magnus is turned against us.”
Charissa Ethros merely nodded and moved further into the tent, letting the flap close behind her. She removed her cloak, tossed it onto a nearby chest, and ran her fingers through her long, silky hair that was a charming auburn only a few shades darker than Valeran’s own copper locks. Valeran’s heartbeat quickened as his vassal looked at him with her large, blue eyes. By Shilsara, she was a fantastically beautiful woman, even more so than Aendasia … but of course, Valeran had been away from the marriage bed for some months now, and it seemed to take less and less with every passing sennight to make his blood run like molten metal through his veins.
The corner of Lady Ethros’ perfect mouth crept up into a smile, or was it a smirk? She cast a quick glance back at the tent flap, but said no more.
Images flashed through Valeran’s mind of grasping her in a passionate embrace, tumbling to the floor and — No, as tempting as the image was, Valeran knew his wife was not a woman to be trifled with. He bit his lip. Aendasia would cut his cod off with her own knife, no doubt. Then she’d boil him in one of those dreadful cauldrons she’d brought from Beinison, one of the same cauldrons Sir Arnulf Bankroft had perished in after he had surrendered Narragan Keep to Aendasia. On top of it all he’d spend more years in Gil-Pa’en being feasted upon by Prince Rise’er than any woman was worth.
Valeran cleared his throat, which was now dry, and reached for cups and a pitcher of wine that had been set up on another of the chests by one of his squires. “Charissa, can I offer you a drink?”
“Of course, your grace.” She took a few graceful steps forward and reached for the brimming cup that Valeran poured.
The Duke of Northfield took a deep drink from his own cup. He cursed having to leave Aendasia for so long. When they were together, they could set their bed sheets afire with their passion, but when apart for months, he felt like a man starving to death while sitting in the centre of a banquet.
“Well, I’d best start to sum, er, things up to show the lords what I …” Valeran could feel the tension in the tent as if it were a palpable thing, and could take it no more.
He let his voice trail off. Ol’s blood, he sounded like a stammering youth. For Shilsara’s sake! He had bedded his first maiden when he was but fifteen, nearly twenty years earlier. He’d known many women in his time, but thanks to the forced abstinence, an overbearing wife, and a distance of many leagues, he was reduced to this.
Mercifully, a small group of his barons and knights barged their way into the tent much sooner than he had expected. He cast a dark look at the lady Ethros. Had her plan been to seduce him, so that he could be caught red-handed by his barons? Had Aendasia perhaps ordered the dazzling young noble to test his resolve?
“Right.” Anarr, one of Valeran’s most seasoned battle-captains, wasted no time on pleasantries. “What is your plan, your grace?”
By now most of the lords, ladies, and knights that had accompanied his army north were assembled. Using a stick, Valeran traced a rough map of Armand on the ground. “As you all know, Armand sits on the delta of the Grenweir River, which is what makes it such a busy and profitable port of trade. This also makes it a well-defended place, as it has tributaries of the river protecting it on all sides. There are four main gates, all of them stone, plus two motte-and-bailey keeps behind timber palisades; one defends the ocean approach, the other the land approach.”
“A formidable undertaking,” Sir Lucien Enion said.
“But with the element of surprise, we have a definite advantage,” Anarr said, nodding his head. “Port Sevlyn was better defended, and we took that, albeit with the help of magic. Would that we still had some sorcerers with us. But at least the traitors don’t have any, either.”
Yes, the loss of Isidoro Mon-Orthanier, Beinison’s most powerful sorcerer, was a blow. He had disappeared after casting a cataclysmic spell that had helped to make a breach in the walls of Quinnat Keep and started a fire that set much of Port Sevlyn ablaze. Even so, Valeran felt that Anarr overstated the loss. In the overall view of things, magic played a marginal role in battles. Far more important were things such as morale, manpower, and bread.
“Take it we shall,” Valeran said, daring any of those assembled to contradict him. “I intend to make Baron Narragan pay for his treachery, for defying his own liege-lady and joining with the traitors. What better way to repay him than to take his baronial seat?”
Valeran especially wanted to punish the recalcitrant baron because Aendasia had not allowed Valeran to attack Hawksbridge and attempt to capture Duchess Arval. She had said she still counted the duchess among her allies, as she did not wage open war upon Aendasia’s forces. Withdrawing her armies from the war seemed treasonous enough, Valeran thought, but perhaps the outcry over the boiling of Bankroft and the hanging of his garrison had forced Aendasia into a more merciful mindset. Valeran was convinced, however, that the only way to make Baranur finally swear fealty to their true queen was to crush all of his wife’s opponents with as much brutality as possible.
“And what of the people of Armand?” Charissa Ethros said, arching a perfect eyebrow at Valeran.
“Malicious wanton!” he thought. Even so, he couldn’t help a cursory glance up and down her lithe body. He grit his teeth and warned himself not to even begin down that path.
“The citizens of Armand,” he sighed, “are almost as loyal to Dara as the stubborn rabble of Magnus are.”
Anarr and Lucien Enion nodded grimly, as did the others.
“Why on ‘diar are people so loyal to a pretender?” a young knight, Adele Bastonne, blurted out.
“Dara, and her husband Caeron before her, have always enjoyed the support of the towns, even ere they were crowned,” Anarr said. “I’d say it’s mostly because they think she favours trade; Caeron was generous in granting them charters, and Dara has continued to court the guilds without shame.”
“Mostly at the behest of Duke Dargon, I’d warrant,” Enion added. “Word has it that he’s been making the real decisions in her court.”
Anarr shrugged. “I have heard the opposite said as well, that it was Dara who masterminded the defection of Arval and the sally from Dargon Keep that sent Duke Asbridge running with his tail between his legs. Regardless, Armand has prospered since their lord, Baldwin Narragan, switched sides. Thanks to his timing, the city has been spared much of the destruction of the southern marches. Armand has seen little war.”
“Moreover,” Valeran said. “They’ve always been generous with boons to the cities. If I remember correctly, when the hospital of Holy John of Pyridain burned down in ’94, Caeron and Dara paid to have it rebuilt with their own money. Not long after Caeron’s so-called ‘coronation’, they founded that Cephas’ Mercy Leper Colony, not far outside Magnus’ walls. Ha! Caeron certainly didn’t lose an opportunity to proselytise while he was at it, did he?”
“Mayhap the people of Baranur are more easily won over by kindness than by butchery?” Charissa asked.
Again, Valeran looked at the seductive noble darkly. “Empress Aendasia has been more than generous to those who are loyal. Betrayal does not deserve any mercy. The empress doesn’t confuse religion with politics and you’d do well to remember that.”
“So, will we give Sir Thomas Pyenson, the castellan of Armand, even the chance to surrender?” Anarr asked, tactfully changing the subject.
Valeran looked at his old ally appreciatively, “I think not. The hills surrounding Armand will allow us to get quite close to the city ere we are noticed. With a little luck, and some guidance from Nehru, we can storm across the bridges and take the city before the defenders have time to organise. Warning Pyenson by offering our terms will only keep the city in traitorous hands longer.”
Yuli 24, 901
When morning came, the rain had stopped, though the ground was still soft and moist from the previous evening’s deluge. Astride his destrier, which pawed the ground impatiently, Valeran gave the final orders to his battle captains and household knights. Today’s battle would be won through speed and cunning, rather than bravery, so he declined to give to his soldiers the usual rousing speeches that reviled the enemy and predicted victory.
The army was arrayed in an unconventional manner, with all of the cavalry at the fore and the infantry behind them, all in a narrow formation that looked better suited to marching than fighting, but it would provide him with the speed he needed. His scouts had confirmed that Armand showed no signs that anyone was aware of the Duke of Northfield’s presence, nor that of his army.
“Straight, lads,” Valeran said. “The moment we crest the hill, it will be a full gallop towards the closest gatehouse crossing the Grenweir. Push your steeds as hard as you can; our success depends on the cavalry making it into those gatehouses so we can keep the drawbridges down for the infantry to cross.”
His knights nodded and mumbled assent; everyone had been ordered to keep as quiet as possible lest their presence be detected. Valeran then looked to Anarr. “Ready, my friend?”
“Always, your grace,” Anarr said without a trace of fear in his voice.
“We move,” Valeran said.
“Your grace?” One of his squires pulled up alongside the duke on his horse, bearing Valeran’s great helm which was surmounted by his ducal crown and the Northfield white falcon crest. “Your helm?”
“Put it away, lad,” Valeran said. He couldn’t be encumbered any more than need be, and on the mad gallop to the gates he’d need all of his vision. With the gods’ grace, his chainmail coif would be enough to protect him.
He spurred his horse to a trot and moved along the road towards the crest of the hill. As he neared the top, he could see the keep of the motte-and-bailey castle that defended the land approach to Armand. Then he could see the wooden palisade surrounding it, then the gatehouse that was his target.
“For Northfield! For the empress!” he shouted, and dug the spurs on his boots deep into his mount’s sides, sending the creature forward into a gallop. Valeran stood in the stirrups and guided the horse towards the gatehouse. The thunder of hooves filled his ears as the knights following him joined in the charge. A cool wind washed over Valeran’s face at the speed with which the horse charged onwards. His heart began to pound in his chest as he drew nearer and nearer to Armand.
Peasants working the fields around the city looked up at the rolling thunder created by hundreds of pounding hooves. A farmer directly ahead of Valeran dropped his hoe and turned to flee towards the city. Others scattered in all directions, trying desperately to escape the charging army. Valeran saw a plump young farming girl fall; she then disappeared below the closely-pressed bodies of horses.
Valeran’s steed was strong, the best warhorse that one of Baranur’s most powerful dukes could procure. He started to pull away from his knights, but he dared not slow his pace any. He was but a hundred strides away from the gatehouse before he heard the clanging of bells over the din of the charging horses. The drawbridge leading into the gatehouse jerked and began to move upwards.
Valeran urged his horse onward, with both spurs and words. He shouted a wild battle cry as the beast leapt up over the lip of the partially raised drawbridge. Next, the clatter of iron-shod hooves on wood reached Valeran’s ears as his horse and several others charged down into the belly of the gatehouse. Soldiers dressed in the white and blue colours of Baron Narragan lunged at him from both sides.
Valeran dispatched the closest with a quick thrust of his sword to the throat. The man fell backwards gurgling, a splash of bright red blood making macabre artwork on the stone wall. Another soldier grabbed for the reins of Valeran’s horse, only to have his skull caved in by the flailing hooves of the frantic destrier.
He looked about him and counted that only about a dozen of his knights had made it into the gatehouse. Expecting that Armand’s gatehouse was designed in the same fashion as most, he ordered a contingent of his men to one of the gate mechanisms while he found his way towards the other. He had to duck as his horse carried him down a side corridor. The soldiers manning the drawbridge were still turning the cogwheel that raised the bridge. Valeran slashed, breaking the arms of one soldier below the elbows, then cracked the other one’s pate with the backswing. The man-at-arms who’d had his arms wrecked thrashed about on the ground, screaming.
“Traitors deserve no better,” Valeran thought. He hopped off his horse and released the winch that sent the drawbridge thundering to the ground again. Shouts and the clamour of booted feet charging down the corridor reached his ears. A few enemy must have made it past his knights. His horse whinnied and lashed out with its hind hooves to the accompaniment of screams of a different timbre.
Valeran swung about to face his opponents. He removed his shield from the horse’s saddle and moved in. His mount continued to kick backwards with something approaching panic as it was cornered. Two more of the Narragan soldiers were knocked down by the blows, leaving only one, whom Valeran knocked unconscious with a whack from his shield.
He could hear the clatter of hooves and the shouts of more of his own troops as they entered the gatehouse. Then the grinding of the drawbridge on the other side of the gatehouse being lowered reached his ears.
He guided his horse backwards down the hallway, then remounted in the main part of the small keep. He cheered his knights on as they rushed past him into the city. Anarr pulled up next to him.
“Excellent work, your grace!”
“Mayhap we don’t need magic after all!” Valeran shouted back. “Ensure those battering rams get through here quickly; I want the wooden palisade of the first keep breached ere we lose the surprise.”
Before long, the duke’s battering ram was rumbling along the drawbridge and into the city. Valeran had taken up a position at the top of the gatehouse that he’d captured. From that vantage point, he could see one of his knights chasing down a group of three Narragan men-at-arms. They fled between the buildings that had grown beyond the protection of the bailey that defended the city. One of Valeran’s own men-at-arms kicked in the door of a shop and charged inside, while others lit torches and hurled them at the palisade and onto thatch roofs. Next to one plaster and timber house, a skilled Northfield archer dressed in blue livery took aim and loosed his arrow, dropping a defending bowman on the wooden palisade. His place was taken by another Narragan archer who fired a crossbow bolt back at the attackers. Flames erupted on the wooden palisade that protected the keep not far away as flaming arrows struck it.
Once the battering ram made it to the gate, Valeran knew that the motte-and-bailey castle would not stand for long. He returned to the ground floor, where a squire was holding his horse. Mounting it, he charged across the bridge and rejoined the fray. The battering ram smashed through the palisade gates and his troops surged into the bailey.
The rest of the battle from that point forwards was a confusion of blood, flames, and screams. The defenders of the stone keep had sold their lives dearly, and Valeran and his men had had to fight from room to room before the enemy finally succumbed. At one point he remembered seeing Anarr cradling the wounded Lucien Enion in his arms. He wasn’t sure where or when he saw that, but he did remember thinking about how Anarr and Enion were good friends who had grown up together, serving Valeran’s father before him.
He recalled the horrid stench of burning flesh as the defenders of the second keep dumped boiling oil on his troops, mere paces away from where Anarr fought with a knight wearing a tabard with a white field parted per tierce with a blue bar.
The final memory he kept from that long day of battle was that of Adele Bastonne standing atop the last gatehouse to fall, bearing aloft the banner of Aendasia.
“Now all that lies between Aendasia — and me, for that matter — and the crown, is Dargon,” Valeran said, placing a foot on a piece of rubble and casting his gaze over Armand’s harbour, now under his command.
“Bah,” Anarr spat, then thrust his sword into the ground. “What does it matter, in the end? It’s all death and destruction anyway.”
Valeran was surprised to hear such a thing from his old comrade. “Come now, Anarr, what kind of talk is that?”
Anarr looked up at him. “We’ve left bodies strewn across Baranur; the stench of stiffening corpses has thickened the air for five years now. It will continue for who knows how long … I grow weary of it all.”
The Duke of Northfield had never seen such behaviour from his vassal. Perhaps the war was getting long; Valeran knew he hated having to live as a celibate for eight months out of every year while being on campaign. “All the more reason to end it quickly.”
“Perhaps if we still had magic –”
“Ah, you’re not still on about that, are you, Anarr?”
“Fark!” Anarr stood and pulled his sword violently from the ground. “Are we going to put this town to the torch, or shall we coddle this particular band of traitors instead?”
“Anarr,” Valeran put a hand on the battle captain’s shoulder. “I have never seen you thus before. Has the loss of Lucien wounded you that deeply?”
Anarr would not meet Valeran’s eyes. “Even a good shield will crack after many blows of a heavy mace.”
“That may be true, but I know you are made of stronger metal than that. Think you that I’ve made no sacrifices in this war? And I will make more still ere this war ends, but Aendasia will wear the crown, as is her right.”
Anarr merely grunted in response, and it was close to a mene before he spoke again. “Well, are we going to put this town to the torch, or no?”
Valeran cast a long glance over the tiled roofs of wealthy merchants who had grown fat from the war; the gilt temples and churches; the crates of goods and casks of fine Lederian red wine and Sarna’s Blood from Beinison piled high at the harbour. Yes, this city had prospered from Baron Narragan’s treachery. He clenched his fists in remembrance of the citizens of Magnus, safe behind their walls, cursing Aendasia for a queenie and a Beinisonian whore. He had little doubt the people of Armand would have done the same if walls like those around Magnus shielded them. Even so, they were only civilians. Most of them were just following their lord. And what fate might meet Valeran in Gil-Pa’en if he gave the order that was politically most expedient?
“I don’t know, Anarr. Personally, I’m opposed to killing any civilians, and yet we can’t let rebellion go unpunished.”
“Don’t make Caeron’s mistake of being led around by the soft-hearted sympathies of religion,” Anarr said. “Politics and religion don’t mix. Caeron learned that the hard way at Magnus.”
“You’re right,” Valeran said. In a war, one had to do what would lead to victory, even if it wasn’t always right. “Raze it to the ground.”
“I’ll do it,” Anarr said. “My knights and I will stay behind while you move the rest of the army out. Mightn’t hurt to set them to a bit of plundering first. That is, after all, the reason a lot of them follow you into battle.”
Valeran was about to rebuke Anarr and the grizzled warrior’s newfound cynicism, but knew that he was likely correct. “So be it. Then on to Dargon.”
Over the next two months, Valeran’s army moved northeast through the foothills dividing Narragan and Dargon, then into the lands of the last of his enemies. Endeirion fell quickly to him. He razed the town and scattered its inhabitants. When word reached him that Connall Dargon was near Winthrop with an army, he veered off his course that would have led through the Barony of Fennell and headed towards the Darst Range. He was unable to draw Connall into a pitched battle, however, despite chasing him for a fortnight.
Tired of the enemy’s constant withdrawals, Valeran laid a short siege on Winthrop Keep. This ended when Dyann Winthrop surrendered after realising that Connall Dargon was not willing to engage the Northfield forces and no other army could give him aid. Baron Talador moved north from his lands with a modest force that he offered to Valeran. The Duke of Northfield did not particularly trust the man, but accepted the fresh troops willingly, for it gave him more than a large enough force to move on the city of Dargon itself.
The east bank of the Coldwell River fell easily enough, as it was not fortified, but even the Old City seemed within his grasp within a sennight. Perhaps even Dargon Keep would fall soon, he thought.
Ober 30, 901
Indeed, the old part of the city of Dargon, the only portion of the place that was fortified, save the keep, fell quickly to Valeran Northfield’s forces as he had expected. He now stood atop the battlements of those very fortifications, looking up at Dargon Keep, his battle commanders gathered behind him.
“How long will the second seige of Dargon Keep last, I wonder?” The soft tones of Charissa Ethros’ voice tickled Valeran’s ears.
“Were we to storm the keep tomorrow morning, it would not be soon enough,” Valeran said darkly. He wanted the war and the killing over with. He felt a pain deep in his stomach over what he’d done to Armand and Endeirion. It was the right decision for bringing Aendasia the crown, he was convinced, but he didn’t feel justified.
“It is no small obstacle, to be sure,” Anarr said. “Each of the three main towers could withstand any assault our army could muster.”
Valeran sighed, too quietly for his battle captain to hear, or so he hoped. It would not do to show any lack of resolve. He turned his back to the imposing castle and faced the assembled lords, ladies, and knights. As ever, Charissa Ethros was at the forefront. Even in her chainmail gambeson, he could make out the delicious curve of her hips and long shapely legs. Swallowing, Valeran cast his glance over the others assembled and returned his mind to the matter at hand.
“Nevertheless, this keep shall fall. We shall starve them out, for they have nowhere to go. Connall Dargon does not yet have the forces to lift this seige, and the Lady Dara is quickly running out of supporters. Indeed, this is her last stronghold; she has nowhere to flee to.”
“But as you say,” Charissa said, “Connall Dargon does not yet have a large enough force. He is likely calling out every last vassal House Tallirhan has to call upon to lift this seige.”
“That is of little concern,” Valeran said, “for Baron Bastonne is, as we speak, gathering my vassals and will be here before the next Melrin festival, I trust. No doubt the empress will send a contingent of her Beinisonians north with him, as we have the viper trapped in its nest now.”
“So, all that is left of this war is waiting, then?” Dame Adele Bastonne said.
“The southern marches, save Magnus, are ours. All of Dargon, save Dargon Keep itself and a few scattered baronies, is ours. Baroness Fennell is trapped in her barony, unable to join with Connall Dargon. Yes, it is but a matter of waiting.”
Valeran purposely did not mention the Lederian forces that had moved into Othuldane and now Redcrosse. On the twentieth of Ober, he had received word that those forces had crossed the Winink River into Redcrosse. As such, he and Aendasia could count on little support from Monrodya or any of the other northern duchies allied with the royalist cause. On the other hand, it would take a long time for King Hadrus to fight his way west to Dargon, certainly much longer than it would take Baron Bastonne to arrive.
His eyes fell upon Charissa Ethros; she was smiling at him. Perhaps it was a knowing smile; she knew about the Lederians, as well. Or perhaps she knew how she could bewitch men, Valeran not least of them.
“Your grace, look!” Valeran looked to the knight who had spoken and followed the man’s outstretched arm back to Dargon Keep. A man-at-arms was waving a white flag from one of the battlements, signalling that someone from within the keep wished to come out to negotiate. Perhaps Dara had finally realised that it was pointless to fight any longer and she sought to surrender?
“Anarr, take some of your knights and escort whichever worthy comes to speak with us to my headquarters.”
For the first time in five years, since before the war started, Valeran Northfield was face-to-face with Sumner Dargon, Duke of Dargon. He was as Valeran remembered him: quite unremarkable. He was of about average height, with brown hair giving way to grey, and a placid face. It seemed ironic that the most influential lord in the usurper’s court would be so average.
“My good Lord Sumner,” Valeran did not rise from his seat behind the desk in the commandeered merchant’s home. “I would greet you as a friend, save that you have betrayed your queen.”
“I have not betrayed House Tallirhan, the rightful rulers of this land,” Dargon replied.
That reply made Valeran’s blood boil, but he maintained an outwardly calm mask. “Come now, the last rightful Tallirhan ruler, King Stefan II, explicitly made Aendasia his heir.”
“We both know that no vassal is required to obey an unjust order. King Stefan, may God assoil him, was half-made ere he died, and vindictive towards his grandson and his heirs because they were — are — Stevenics.”
Valeran chuckled. “‘May God assoil him’ — you are starting to sound like a Stevenic, yourself! Could it be you have apostatised yourself from the Olean faith as Caeron did?”
“I am true to Ol and the whole pantheon,” Dargon countered, “and I find it highly ironic that I am defending my faith to a man who has burned and pillaged his way through Narragan and Dargon.”
“Come now, Sumner,” Valeran replied. “I keep my faith and my politics separate, which is why I am on the side near victory. You can save the high-and-mighty attitude; Oleanism has no place in running a country.”
Despite his outward bombast, Valeran felt that his adversary had scored a hit there and it irked him all the more. Valeran remembered the crackle of the flames over Armand and the scream of women as they fled his troops. Was he any better than Rise’er the butcher king who now ruled over the Olean underworld? He took several deep breaths before continuing; he would not let Sumner Dargon get the better of him in this exchange. Dargon, only a second generation duke, compared to Valeran who was the forty-third duke of Northfield. This traitor who lectured him on morals!
“Enough.” Valeran waved a dismissive hand. “What is it you’re here for, Lord Dargon? To finally surrender to the rightful queen and end this bloody war?”
Dargon pulled a face of mock surprise. “Why, my lord Northfield, I had not expected you to give in so easily. But if you wish to surrender to the rightful ruler, Queen Dara, then –”
“Don’t play games with me, Sumner!” Valeran suddenly exploded. He grit his teeth and clutched the arms of his chair. When he had seen that his enemy’s most trusted advisor had come to negotiate, he’d had hopes that he might see his wife by year’s end. How he longed for her! But Duke Dargon’s insults did not bode well. “It is Lady Dara’s surrender to me that we are here to discuss!”
“If not, then what have you come here for?”
Duke Dargon cleared his throat. “I have been ordered by Queen Dara to offer you a last chance to swear fealty to her. She has ordered that if you repudiate allegiance to the Duchess of Northfield, she will overlook your past transgressions and –”
“Now you really are joking, Dargon!” Valeran shot to his feet. “Has Dara gone completely mad, or have you?”
“It is not madness,” Duke Dargon replied. “We will win this war, eventually. The queen is being most … benevolent … and offering you this final chance.”
“Let us be realistic, Dargon,” Valeran said. “We both know that you are on the brink of defeat. You are in no position to offer me terms of surrender. Surely you can do better than that.”
“We have both seen many campaigns,” Dargon said, his tone becoming more deferential. “Certainly we can reach some compromise.”
“I can hardly think of anything I would accept short of your surrender.”
“Let Queen Dara leave Dargon Keep peacefully, and allow her safe conduct to the lands held by King Hadrus of Lederia, and I will surrender Dargon Keep to you.” Duke Dargon had a pained look on his face as he spoke the words, such that Valeran believed he spoke truth this time.
“What manner of fool do you take me for?” he said, filling his voice with venom. “The war is this close to being won. Why should I allow Dara to escape my grasp?”
“What harm can it do you?”
“Allow her to prance about pretending she’s queen a while longer? Perhaps give her a chance to find some more allies? No, as unlikely as I think there is any chance of that, I will not allow her to leave.”
“Then I suppose we have nothing more to discuss,” Duke Dargon said.
“Wait!” Valeran shouted. “You said something of compromise. I will not allow Dara to roam free, but what if I were to promise that she would not be harmed upon surrendering the crown, and could live under house arrest in Crown Castle?”
He wondered whether Aendasia would honour such a deal. He didn’t have the authority to make such an offer, but he was willing to take the risk if it meant getting home this year. He’d had enough of campaigning, enough of being away from the marriage bed, especially with that wanton Charissa Ethros lurking about like a hunting cat. Thinking of her made his hands tremble as he clutched the table. No, Aendasia certainly would not accept that! He’d spend the rest of his days as a eunuch, or worse.
“No, she is the true queen; she cannot surrender the crown,” Duke Dargon said simply, then strode out of the room before Valeran could say any more.
“Ol’s balls!” he cursed. Dargon had gotten the better of him; he had gotten under Valeran’s skin. Worst of all, Valeran had shown to his enemy his weakness: that he wanted the war over. Dargon’s resolve had seemed like that of a stone. Valeran would have to starve Dara out of that keep. Part of him wanted to vent his fury by ordering an assault on the castle walls, but he remembered the result when his wife Aendasia had done just that at Magnus.
“I take it the negotiations did not go as you had planned, your grace?”
The seductive female voice was sweet to his ears as a good goblet of claret was to the tongue. He didn’t need to look up to know that the lithe form of Charissa Ethros was gliding towards him through the doorway. The scent of fresh jasmine reached his nostrils and he could feel his chest tighten.
She slid onto the table, sitting on it, stretching one long leg luxuriously along the far edge of it. She had changed from her chainmail and tabard into a silky-soft green dress. Her auburn hair hung down to rest on the table.
Now Valeran did raise his eyes to look at her. Her large, blue eyes locked with his. His mouth and throat were suddenly very dry. Ol’s balls, why did she have to come here now? He swallowed with effort and asked, “What do you desire of me, Lady Ethros?”
She leaned in a little closer and whispered, “All of you, your grace.”
By Shilsara! He felt flames leap into his loins. A battle raged within him. Part of him wanted desperately to bed the beautiful and wholly desirable woman before him. The other part of him had a sense of what would be the end result should he give into the first part. On the other hand, what did it matter? He’d set his army loose to commit what amounted to brigandage all across the northern marches. Perhaps what mattered was that it would be just as politically unwise as morally to have anything to do with Charissa Ethros. “I am a married man, as you well know, my lady. Married to your queen and empress!”
She did not say anything for a few moments; instead the smile, the smirk he had seen before on her, crept onto those perfect lips. “Ah well, perhaps you are right. Mayhap it would be better for you to wait another six months before you make use of your manhood again.”
“Shilsara’s Bed!” Valeran cursed. “What is wrong with you? What do you want? You could have any man in the camp!”
“I suppose that, milord, is the problem.”
She moved off the table, but arched her back as she did so in such a way that the shape of her wonderfully firm buttocks was made quite apparent through the dress she wore. Valeran could take no more; he no longer cared about consequences! He’d been seduced by this woman long enough, fought the urge despite being away from Aendasia nigh on eight months. He had done his duty; he owed Aendasia no more. It was her fault anyway for ordering him to this faraway duchy while she remained in the southern marches. He’d already given up every moral he’d held and ordered the murder of countless innocents for Aendasia’s crown.
He raced around the table, past Charissa Ethros, and slammed the door shut. She let out a soft gasp, but as he turned to face her he could see from the inviting smile that this was exactly in her plan. He didn’t care. May he burn in Gil-Pa’en for a thousand years, he didn’t care.
When it was all over, and Valeran’s ravenous hunger finally sated, he realised what he had done. The warm afterglow of the act receded in an instant and he was left feeling both guilty and terrified. He’d done exactly what he’d been so desperately trying to avoid: he’d mixed religion with politics, allowing his Olean guilt to lead him into this disastrous liaison.