DargonZine 20, Issue 4

The Great Houses War Part 8: The Turning of the Tide

Naia 12, 902 - Janis 6, 904


This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series The Great Houses War

Queen Dara stood at the back of the Olean shrine in Dargon Keep, near the entrance, while a priestess devoted to Ol and a few robed acolytes conducted an unfamiliar ritual in the centre of the small room. They were placing stalks of meilore on a stone slab and kissing each other in ritualistic fashion. Observing the sensual performance, she was mindful of many of the reasons she had converted to Stevenism after meeting Caeron. On the other hand, she also recalled what the Stevene had taught: “Judge not the pagan, for he might still have good in him.” It was with that teaching of tolerance in mind that she tried to show the openness of Stevenism by attending the religious celebrations of all her subjects when invited, not just the Stevenics.

Her beloved Caeron, now dead for the better part of four years, had in part precipitated the civil war that ravaged Baranur — called by many the Great Houses War — by allowing his half-brother, Cyrridain the Master Priest of the Stevenic High Church in Magnus, to crown him. However, few of his subjects outside Magnus were loyal to the Stevenic creed, and many took that crowning as a move to subjugate their faiths. Dara knew that her husband had never had any such intent and she had agreed that allowing Cyrridain to crown him was the right thing to do. God had clearly paved the way for Caeron’s coronation despite the pitfalls left by his grandfather, King Stefan II. Stefan had left the crown to his favourite niece, Aendasia Blortnikson, because Caeron and Dara were Stevenics. As well as being Duchess of Northfield, Aendasia was also the Empress Mother of Beinison and so the people and many of the dukes had sided with Caeron as the rightful successor.

Many had not, which was, in a roundabout way, why Dara and all those in the shrine were standing. They had been under siege, trapped inside Dargon Keep, the last castle under her command, for more than half a year. Over the winter they had been forced to use a good portion of the furniture in the keep for firewood. The long pine benches in the shrine had been among the first to go. She remembered Duke Sumner Dargon saying something about it being proper for Oleans to stand while they worshipped anyway.

Her only child, the crown prince Brad, fidgeted next to her and tugged at her elbow. He was nine years old now; Dara could hardly fathom where the years had gone. At once it seemed like a lifetime ago and like only a few sennights since Brad and been an infant and Caeron was still alive. Dara still felt as if a cold, empty pit dwelt in her heart with her husband gone from this world. She had worn mourning blue since the day he died and would probably wear it the rest of her life. While most people who had not yet reached thirty took joy from their youth, Dara wished she had fewer lonely years ahead of her. Her son, on the other hand, hardly remembered his father and, blessedly, bore far less pain than she. Brad had been five when his father had been killed outside the walls of Magnus, while he and his mother were being spirited to safety by the brave Sir Zephrym Vladon. Even then, he hardly knew the man, as Caeron had been fighting to keep his crown for the last two years before he died.

Dara shushed her son and made it clear he could expect a lot more than that if he continued. He was getting old enough, in her estimation, that he could stand through this celebration without any complaint. He was well into his training as a page by now, and was already an accomplished rider and bowman. He was much like his father, strong, brave, and energetic, but he also tended towards a bit of Caeron’s impatience. As far as Dara was concerned, standing through unfamiliar religious ceremonies was part of his training towards one day being king. Baranur was a diverse land of many creeds, and he couldn’t afford to be as single-mindedly Stevenic as Caeron and Dara had been, no matter what Cyrridain might say.

The Olean ritual came to an end and the two dozen people began to disperse. Most of them were soldiers or knights, but a few nobles of higher rank had attended, among them Duke Sumner Dargon. He approached Dara.

“Your majesty,” he said, “I am glad you accepted my invitation. I admit I hadn’t expected to see you here.”

“The Stevene’s Light teaches us to tolerate all faiths,” Dara said. “Though his Light contain the fullness of truth, there is much verity in others. Stevenics are still but a small portion of the kingdom, so I must embrace this teaching as much as any other, lest I alienate my own people as the Beinisonian Aendasia has.”

Sumner nodded and Dara caught a glint in his eye and an upturning of his mouth through his beard, the sort of look a proud father might give his daughter. He did add to what Dara had said, though. “That is true for the time being, your majesty, but I daresay if your Cyruz the bard has his way, we will all be Stevenics soon!”

It was now Dara’s turn to smile at the thought of the kindly Stevenic priest, renowned for having met Cephas Stevene himself once, as a boy. Cyruz had been a trusted advisor and friend of both Dara and Caeron from the time they had met him, when they had first arrived in Magnus after King Stefan’s death. She couldn’t think of him without a touch of sadness as well, however, for she had heard nothing of him since he and Baroness Fennell had been separated from Connall Dargon’s army following a skirmish with Baron Coranabo nearly a sennight ago.

Duke Dargon had turned his attention to Prince Brad. “And good day to you, my prince.”

“Good day, Duke Dargon,” Brad responded respectfully, as Dara had taught him. “Your Olean liturgy was interesting, but I will continue to pray that you’ll accept the Stevene’s Light.”

Sumner Dargon smiled and ruffled the prince’s hair. “Mayhap, lad, but not today.”

Dara smiled. Despite her annoyance with Brad a little earlier, he was a good son and would one day make a good king, she was sure. “Today,” she said, “the Lord Dargon must meet with me and the rest of my council to plan our next move in the war. And you, I believe, have your letters to practice with Brother Tomek.”

“But mama, couldn’t I go to your war council?” Brad asked. “I’ve been doing well with my letters, and I also need to learn how to fight wars.”

“Let us pray that as king you shall never have to,” Dara replied. Her son was a smart one, all right, and he was probably correct. Dara had known nothing of any martial matters when she had become ruler of Baranur at Caeron’s death. She had learned slowly and painfully over the years, confiding often in Duke Dargon. As a dutiful teacher, he had forced her to make her own decisions, after offering his advice. That had been the most painful lesson of all, but in the end the most important.

Her nobles had disagreed vehemently with her decision to ransom Thanailde Castle in return for the faithful Sir Zephrym Vladon’s release from insurrectionist captivity. But since she had made it, they had respected her more due to her show of strength. It also helped that her forces had won a decisive victory shortly after that when she had ordered them to sally forth from the castle and attack their besiegers. She has calculated the effect that sending Cyruz to speak with Duchess Arval might have, but to this day she was not certain how she had known the precise moment when to attack, save that the Stevene’s Light had shone on her that moment. Too soon and Arval’s troops would still have been ready to fight; too late and the Asbridgers would have reorganised to cover the gaps left by Arval. Nevertheless, her order had proved perfectly timed such that her army had caught the insurrectionists in the midst of the confusion caused by Duchess Arval’s sudden decision to withdraw from the siege and eventually swear fealty to Dara.

“Mama, does that mean I can go to the council or no?” Brad asked, once again bringing Dara out of her reverie. She realised that her tendency to drift into deep thought and remembrance was a weakness she had to battle against if she were to be even half the ruler her husband would have been had he survived the war.

“Yes, very well, you may come,” she said, “but you must go and tell Brother Tomek first.”

“Yes mama!” Brad exclaimed and dashed off down the corridor to find his teacher.

***

Dara sat in one of the few remaining chairs in the great hall. Her war council was significantly smaller than it had been in times past. Galina Fennell was dead, Barons Talador and Coranabo had defected to the insurrectionist side, and Connall Dargon was still moving about Dargon. Duchess Arval now fought on behalf of the loyalists in Asbridge. Dara did still have by her side Duchess Annora Quinnat, Grethock Dargon, barons Oleran, Shaddir, Bindrmon, and Baldwin Narragan, and of course, Sir Zephrym Vladon and Duke Sumner Dargon, her two most trusted vassals.

A series of maps and letters were laid out on the table in front of her, one of the few that remained intact in the keep after a long siege. The assembled lords discussed the situation loudly. Most of them stood, though there were still a few chairs left, including her own: a high-backed, dark-stained oak chair which had served as a makeshift throne since her arrival at Dargon Keep in the spring of 899. Brad stood at her side, watching what was going on with interest.

Dara remained quiet for the most part, though not as much as she had in the early days. It was not that she felt that much more confident, but more that she understood better the duties of a queen and had to force herself to assert authority. As she did several times a day, she cast her eyes up towards the timbered ceiling of the great hall and silently asked her God why he had taken Caeron and left her to rule the kingdom.

“Now that we’ve run out of those carrier pigeons that Duke Dargon’s servants kept,” Annora Quinnat said, “we’ve no way of knowing what is going on beyond these walls, save the odd ship that makes it close enough to fire a message to us by arrow. Who knows who still stands for us?”

“Well, let us go over what we had last we knew, for Prince Brad’s edification,” Grethock Dargon said, winking at the young prince. “Much of Dargon, Quinnat, and Arvalia had been laid to waste, though Fennell Keep and Barel still stood. Magnus still held out, and I think we can expect it still does; even if the duchess of Northfield made it through the city walls, Crown Castle could hold out ’til the gate to Kisil-Doon is found.”

“King Hadrus of Lederia has made significant advances in the east, and we know that Duchess Welspeare is still about somewhere,” Baron Shaddir added. “Not all of her lands had fallen, last we heard, and her army was still afield. It seems that the Duchess of Northfield has concentrated all her energies on keeping Magnus under siege and conquering the northern marches.”

“We can count on Aunt Katrina,” Brad said. The comment was intended for Dara, but the other lords appeared to have heard, for they now looked to the queen.

She forced a bit of a smile and said, “Yes, my sister, Duchess Welspeare, is a great warrior. It would be folly to count her out of this war.”

“Aye,” Grethock said, “but who knows where she is? And the southern marches are a long ways off. Have we accounted for all that remains loyal to the queen? Magnus, Dargon, a few castles and cities here and there? While that Beinisonian … woman … rules the rest?” Grethock would have undoubtedly used harsher language had he not caught himself. It did not do for one to swear in front of his queen and liege-lady after all.

“And what of the morale of our troops?” Baldwin Narragan said. “We still cling to life by but a thread.”

“Our soldiers’ morale does not trouble me overmuch,” Dara said. She could feel heat creeping into her face as the assembled lords once again looked at her and silence descended. She swallowed and searched her mind for the sort of thing Caeron might have said. “As long as their queen holds, they will, and as long as we keep faith, God will deliver us.”

That didn’t seem to convince them as well as she’d hoped. She had to remind herself that Stevenism had not made its way up to the northern marches before she and Cyruz had arrived here, and most of the lords here assembled ruled northern lands. She felt her confidence flagging, but looked at Duke Dargon who had fixed her with that strong gaze of his. She had seen the look before, when he expected her to stand up and prove herself the queen he thought she could be. She still remembered the shouting argument she’d had with him in the garden two years before. She looked at her son, Brad, who was looking at her with expectant eyes. If she couldn’t do what needed doing for herself, at least for him she could. Mustering what strength she had, she rose from her chair and spoke with strength she did not know she had.

“We will not fail, I promise you that. A Beinisonian empress will never rule this land! Whatever it takes, we shall win this war and Prince Brad will one day be your king!”

“And we shall follow you to whatever end, your majesty,” Duke Dargon said. “Long may House Tallirhan rule over us!”

16 Naia, 902

“With respect, your majesty,” Sir Zephrym Vladon said, holding a wooden shield and sword in his hands as if they smelled badly, “I should have never started to train you how to fight.”

“You promised me you would if we won the battle against the Asbridgers,” Dara said, calling to mind the attack that had lifted the first siege of Dargon. Indeed, Sir Zephrym had made that promise to keep Dara from leading the sally herself. At that point she had been totally untrained. “And win the battle we did. So, now you must continue my training, lest I be unable to defend myself.”

Sir Zephrym’s face rarely showed any emotion, but Dara could read his eyes after knowing him for many years as the captain of Caeron’s — now her — household knights. She could see worry in them, like that a father might have for his child. “Your majesty, I swore to protect you, not bludgeon you!”

“How else am I supposed to learn, unless you spar with me in earnest?” Dara, too, held a wooden shield and sword. The two of them stood in the sandy arena in Dargon Keep’s inner bailey that the squires used for their weapons training.

“Your majesty, we both know you are small and thin; you don’t have a warrior’s build. That is precisely why you did not become a page when you were seven, but instead –”

“Well, now I’m queen — queen in a time of war who must lead her subjects into battle as every monarch before me.”

Dara was not as quiet and subdued with Sir Zephrym as she was with the less familiar nobles who served her. He knew it, and knew that she would press the point until he gave in. So, like any commander who knows when surrender is the best tactical option, he shrugged and repositioned the weapon and shield in a proper manner for combat.

Dara copied him as she had been taught. At first they circled each other, kicking up small clouds of sand with their feet. Dara’s heart pounded in her chest and she had a hard time gripping the wooden sword hilt as her hands grew slippery with sweat. She fought to keep her body from quivering with fright. As much as she wanted to learn how to fight, she didn’t relish the idea of being thrashed by the wily old knight.

She took a half-hearted swipe with her sword and it was roughly knocked away by Sir Zephrym. “Come now, majesty, you must strike me harder than that!”

As if to underscore the point, he lunged and struck her shield with such force that it sent Dara scrambling backwards. She nearly fell, but at the last moment regained her footing. She saw Sir Zephrym was standing more erect and lowering his weapons.

“I’m sorry ma–”

Dara charged him before he could say any more. She did not want him to go easy on her, for her enemies certainly wouldn’t. After a few more slashes and parries were traded, Zephrym got under her guard and dropped Dara to her knees with a blow to the midsection. She crumpled up as the air escaped her body with a wheezing hiss. For a few terrible moments, she feared that she might never breathe again. When breath finally did return, she gulped it greedily and nearly swallowed a mouthful of sand in the process.

“Your majesty, I’m terribly sorry!” Sir Zephrym cried. He knelt next to her.

Dara managed a weak smile. “Don’t apologise; this is what I need to learn to be a proper warrior.”

“My lady queen!” A squire dashed from one of the towers and onto the training ground. “My lady queen, you must come quickly!”

“What is it?” Dara asked, getting to her feet while brushing away Sir Zephrym’s attempt to help her up.

“Your majesty, sails have been spotted to the west!”

Dara felt as if a ball of ice had formed in her stomach. Her first reaction was to fear the worst; more Northfield vassals had been rumoured to be moving north to reinforce Valeran Northfield’s siege force. Perhaps it could even be Monrodyans who had broken off from the siege of Magnus? Beinisonians were even possible if Crown Castle had fallen. She dropped her sword and shield and hurried towards the squire, her aches from the training forgotten.

“Where are they from?”

“We haven’t been able to see their colours yet, your majesty.”

“Very well, let’s get to the battlements then!”

Dara rushed into the tower and climbed the stairs as quickly as she could. Once there, she could see Duke Dargon, his brother Grethock, and a couple other knights peering off into the distance. Dara reached them and scanned the deep blue horizon. Sumner Dargon pointed and she was able to make out the white rectangles of sails approaching. She clutched the rough stone battlement in anticipation.

“If those are Beinisonian warships …” Grethock sounded less than optimistic.

“Shush!” Sumner Dargon said.

Dara could hardly blame him for feeling the way she had scant moments earlier. She bit her lip as the menes slowly crept by. She looked away from the horizon only when Zephrym approached and cleared his throat.

“Your majesty, I have another surprise for you.”

“A surprise?” Dara turned, wondering what on ‘diar could happen next. She was startled to see a boy not much older than Brad, with wet, straw-like hair, standing a few steps behind Zephrym, wearing muddy but clearly blue livery of one of the Duke of Northfield’s vassals. “What’s this? Is Duke Northfield offering new terms?”

“No, your majesty,” Zephrym said. “He claims to serve Baron Bastonne, who is not among the Northfield lords taking part in the siege.”

“May I approach, your majesty?” the youth asked breathlessly.

Your majesty? “Of course.”

He moved swiftly and knelt before Dara. “My lord, Baron Bastonne, commanded me to tell you that he has forsworn fealty to the Empress Aendasia and wishes to be accepted as your vassal. He waits with Lord Dargon –”

“My vassal? What in the name of –?” Dara was stumbling over her words. She forced herself to stop and speak calmly. “But how did you get through the Northfield camp and into the keep?”

The boy cast a glance down at his blue livery. “I bear the colours of a lord whom Duke Northfield still believes to support the insurrectionist cause, your majesty.”

“Your majesty, the ships …” Grethock directed Dara’s attention back to the Valenfaer Ocean. The ships were closer now, such that she could make out pennants on the tops of the ships’ masts. They appeared mostly red, but it was hard to tell from this distance. Insurrectionist Monrodyans? Did she dare believe that they were anyone else?

“Squire, you said that Connall Dargon and your lord are not far away?”

“Aye, your majesty.”

“Then make your way back to them with all haste, if you can. Tell them to prepare to attack at once, and that we shall sally forth from this castle. We shall meet them on the field!”

The squire turned and ran obediently, disappearing down the stairwell.

“Your majesty,” Duke Dargon said, “perhaps we should plan –”

“No, there isn’t time! If the ships bear enemies, our only hope is to break the Northfield army ere they land, lest we be set upon by an even larger force. With Connall and now Bastonne, we have the best chance. If they’re friendly, then they’ll have to fight their way ashore. So quickly, we must arm ourselves!”

She dashed towards the door that led to the stairwell. She could hear Sumner, Grethock, and Zephrym’s feet scurrying over the stone floor behind her. “Majesty!”

As she nearly tumbled down the stairs in her haste, Dara realised that in all the excitement she’d forgotten her usual reserve around her lords. It felt good not to feel a fear of speaking around them for a time. She felt confidence flow through her, and it was a heady feeling, like drinking too much wine too quickly. She called out for her squires and knights as she dashed down the stairs. She burst into the great hall, where she found most of her lords, whiling away the long bells of siege. Annora Quinnat was sitting in a window seat reading a book from the castle’s library. Baldwin Narragan looked up from a King’s Key board as she charged in.

“Hurry my lords!” Dara exclaimed. “To arms! We must get to battle quickly!”

As she hurried past, she could hear Baron Shaddir exclaim in surprise. She rushed through another door that took her to the ducal bedchamber, which had been hers since she had arrived in the keep years ago. Then Baron Narragan shouted, “Duke Dargon, what’s happened? What’s going on?”

Dara didn’t hear the response, for she was already on the stairwell and soon in her room. There, her squires and other household staff scrambled to get her dressed in her armour. Sir Zephrym burst into the room.

“Your majesty, you aren’t going into battle, are you? You’re not ready!”

“I am,” Dara answered to both charges. “So don’t bother trying to stop me. I know this is right.”

“Surely yes,” Sir Zephrym said, “but … Ah, we’ve trusted you this far, we ought to trust you now!”

With that, he dashed off, his shouts for the household knights and their squires to rouse themselves echoing off the walls of the winding stairwell. Before long, Dara was in the outer bailey atop the white steed that had been selected for her. The chainmail gambeson she wore weighed heavily on her shoulders. She felt as if she could barely move beneath the weight of the many chain links and the hardened leather and padding beneath. She was shaking as if it were the middle of winter, though fortunately it could not possibly show through the thick armour she wore. Indeed, she felt nearly twice her normal size with the cumbersome armour on.

“My lady queen!” A man in a white habit — Brother Tomek, Prince Brad’s tutor — shouted from a window. “The ships, they bear not the heraldry of Monrodya!”

“Who then?”

“It’s Aunt Katrina, mama!” Brad’s head appeared in front of Brother Tomek, showing just above the bottom of the window sill. “A gold ducal crown and a black unicorn on a red field!”

“Thank God, those ships are from Welspeare!”

Around her, the lords loyal to House Tallirhan, their knights, and what foot soldiers had not accompanied Connall Dargon, cheered at the news. Dara’s elation gave way to fear and doubt however, and she shivered anew as she remembered that she must still lead her supporters forth from the keep. No, she could not falter now. She set her jaw, and with effort, lifted her arm to signal for a squire to give her the great helm she would wear into battle. The crown of Baranur did not surmount it, as it had Caeron’s helm, but Duke Dargon had given her his ducal crown, and Cyruz had fashioned for her a crest of a woman in a long blue dress bearing sword and shield before he had left with Galina Fennell.

Before donning the heavy helmet, Dara gave a last word of encouragement to those around her. “For Baranur; let a Beinisonian empress never rule her!” To her own ears, Dara’s voice sounded shaky and weak, but the soldiers around her raised up a cheer.

Shouts of “Long live Queen Dara!” were added to her own pronouncement. With quaking hands, Dara hefted the helmet and lowered it down over her head. The weight of it felt as if it were cutting into her shoulders, and her neck and head began to throb dully. It was dark inside the helmet, as Dara only had two small slits through which she could see. She depended more on her sense of hearing — which was also impaired due to the cloth arming cap, chainmail coif, and steel of the helmet — than on her sense of sight to know that the drawbridge was lowering. She felt someone press a sword into one hand and a shield into the other.

The portcullis reached the top of the gate mechanism with a loud thump and, without thinking, Dara dug the spurs on her boots into the side of the stallion beneath her. The beast lept forward with such force that Dara nearly fell off the horse. She was a good horsewoman, however, and despite the bulky armour she was able to stay on and keep the horse moving forward. Then she heard shouts and, tilting her head down, realised she was among the houses of the Old City already, and the enemy soldiers who were sheltered among them. She swung her sword at man with a flat-topped kettle helm and felt the blade connect, though she couldn’t be sure what damage she did with it as she had to parry a billhook swinging towards her face. A horse hemmed her in on either side and she was swept along the street by their impetus and the small world she could see through the narrow slits dissolved into a blur. Next she knew she was outside the town walls, for she could see the green fields that surrounded the city of Dargon.

It was very difficult to concentrate on what was going on outside her helmet, for as soon as she focussed on one attacker through that tiny field of view, she felt a strike on her shield and whipped her head over to see another soldier pulling his axe away for another swipe. She stunned the stubble-chinned culprit with the flat of her sword and directed her horse with her knees to move away from an approaching knight bearing heraldry she hadn’t time to examine. She wondered how seasoned warriors were able to grow used to this. She looked down and could see blue-clad soldiers on all sides. Her horse surprised her as it reared up to lash out with its hooves, sending a pair of men-at-arms to the ground. Again and again Dara swung her sword at the blue-clad men and women running about her. Every so often she would glimpse the heraldic colours of Sir Zephrym Vladon and Duke Sumner Dargon, reassuring her that they stayed near.

Pain exploded on her side as she felt something sharp hit her very hard. She couldn’t see where the spear had struck, but saw the shaft and the man who wielded it. She swung her sword down and cracked his head open. Blood spurted out and Dara had to fight to keep from vomiting inside her helmet. A cacophony of sounds tormented her ears, but she heard voices yelling, “The pretender! Capture Dara Tallirhan!”

Greedy hands grabbed at her tabard and her arms and her legs, attempting to drag her from the horse. She fought to stay on and forgot the horror of smashing that one soldier’s skull as she thrashed about with wild terror. Other shapes flashed around her and she could hear the clash of blades; her household knights were defending her desperately from enemy knights. She didn’t know heraldry as well as someone who’d been raised for knighthood since childhood, but she was certain that was what was happening.

The hands were no longer grasping at her and Dara was able to break free from the melee. She heard Duke Dargon shouting, “To the south — there’s Lord Connall, lads!”

“And Bastonne!” Dara added, as she could see a banner to the south, bearing the same device as the squire that had approached her on the battlements.

Everything after that was a wash of blood, both the sight and the smell of it; intense pain in not just Dara’s head, neck, and side, but many other places; clashing swords and screaming men and women; and above all, confusion.

Finally, after Dara knew not how long, it all stopped, and she could feel the horse steady beneath her. A strong pair of hands lifted the helm from her head, and it felt as if she would float up into the clouds without that terrible weight on her. Around her were Sir Zephrym, Duke Dargon, Katrina Welspeare, and many other dirty, bloody, but grinning faces.

“We’ve won the day, your majesty!” Duchess Welspeare cried.

“Th-thank the Stevene,” Dara managed through chapped lips and a mouth as dry as any desert.

A young man that Dara did not recognise, with short dark hair, strong, angular features, and wearing a dirty surcoat that identified him as Baron Bastonne, approached. He dismounted his horse and knelt with his leg resting on a dead body wearing Northfield livery.

“My lady queen.” He bowed his head and did not raise it as he spoke. “I beg your forgiveness for my treasonous allegiance to Valeran, Duke of Northfield. I renounce my fealty to him and pledge my sword to your cause.”

“But why –?” Dara cut herself off. As rightful queen, she should not ask such a question.

Baron Bastonne looked up and met her gaze with pure, green eyes. “A sennight ago, my army faced the courageous Baroness Fennell and her knights at Balkura. There were but three dozen of them, yet they charged my army of over a thousand souls … Their courage, their total devotion to you … The empress does not command such as these. Every one of them lost their life, but they sold their lives dearly indeed!”

For close to a mene, Dara did not speak. She offered her sword to Baron Bastonne to kiss. Licking her lips, she spoke with a tight throat. “I accept your pledge of fidelity. Lord Bastonne. Rise, and tell me if there was a Stevenic priest among –”

“Cyruz the bard!” Bastonne exclaimed. “He was among them indeed, and rides with my baggage train.”

Dara’s hand went to her throat and she whispered thanks to her God. “This has truly been a day of good tidings.”

“Here, drink this, your majesty,” Sir Zephrym handed her a wineskin. She drank from it greedily, then collapsed with exhaustion into his arms.

***

In the time it took Dara to recover from the injuries she received at Dargon Keep’s walls, Valeran Northfield moved with what few troops he had, and headed south towards Magnus. He did not bother to try garrisoning himself in any of the castles still under his control, knowing that he hadn’t the strength to stop the advance of an army that had now been bolstered by the unexpected arrival of Duchess Welspeare. So sure had Aendasia been that the duchess would come from the north, based on the sorceror Draken Mon-Orthanier’s scrying, that she had neglected the duchess’ troop concentrations and ship-building to the south. Valeran only realised this afterwards, and this was how her ships had been allowed to set sail and arrive in Dargon. Mon-Orthanier’s prophecies had been proven true after all.

Baron Narragan insisted on freeing Armand, the capital city of his barony, and Queen Dara could hardly refuse him. Among her nobles, he had perhaps sacrificed the most by turning on his liege, the Duchess of Arvalia, who had sided with the insurrectionists. The defences at Armand had not been fully rebuilt after the destruction Duke Northfield had visited upon them a year earlier, and the town was quickly taken. However, as it was far out of the way, the furthest Dara’s army could make it south before winter set in was Wachock.

6 Janis, 903

Cold winter winds howled beyond the shuttered windows of the great hall in the castle that rested just outside of Wachock. It was one of many castles that had sprouted up all over the Baranurian landscape during the war. Dara’s army had gone as far south as Arvalia before the winter snows had forced them to stop the campaign. When spring came, they would have to take Irskin Castle before they could move on to Magnus and lift the siege there. Dara expected that what had come to be called the Great Houses War would finally be decided there.

Now, however, she had a more immediate matter to attend to. She sat uneasily in the great chair in what had served her as a court this winter. Beneath the flowing blue dress she wore, ugly brown and yellow bruises that still hadn’t faded and fresh pink scars marked much of her body. She felt as though the muscles in her shoulders and neck were one massive knot that would never untie itself if she lived another hundred years. If it hadn’t been for all the armour she had worn into battle, one of those bruises or scars would have been a death-blow, but all the same she had never been so miserable in her life. Even the unending ride to Port Sevlyn during her flight from Magnus after Caeron’s death with Sir Zephrym Vladon had been easier on her than leading armies into battle had.

After all the victories that had come in the past year, many barons and knights had shuffled into the great hall, shame-faced and downcast, begging for her forgiveness and swearing undying devotion to her from that day forward. She didn’t really believe them, but she had to accept their apologies unless she wanted the war to last forever. Not too long ago, she had hosted the Duke of Asbridge, thus securing her claim on the northern marches.

Today, the dirty and haggard man who knelt before her was no lord, but the mercenary captain of a company of Comarian freelances who had sold their services to her husband Caeron at the outset of the war. Dara felt like spitting merely at the thought of the man’s name: Greg Jorym. At Magnus, when Caeron had made his last stand, Jorym and his Comarians had fled the field of battle without so much as clashing swords with a soldier under Aendasia’s command. She was convinced beyond a doubt that this cowardly act had cost Caeron his life, and she hated Greg Jorym with every bit of her soul for it. When he had been brought into the room, her first instinct had been to spring from the throne, grab a sword from one of her guards, and run the Comarian through with it.

She came close, but slaughtering or imprisoning this man who had come to her under a banner of truce would make her no better than him. “You dare to show your face after what you did!” she could hear the anger in her own voice. Where had the meek young queen who had shied away from Caeron’s councils gone, she wondered? “My husband trusted you and you betrayed him! Now he’s dead!”

“I know,” the mercenary hung his head.

“How could you abandon him like that? Even if your sword was bought, you served with him in many battles and he saved your life more than once! How could you? You owed him better than that!”

“I know,” Jorym repeated. “That is why I have come to make amends.”

“It is too late for that,” Dara hissed. She leaned forward in her chair and pain shot down her back. She fought to keep a grimace off her face. “Why are you really here?”

The mercenary looked up, and shuffled towards her on his knees a few paces. “I told you, I am here to make amends, my lady queen. I did your husband … I did *you* a grave wrong, and I want to make up for that, if it is at all possible.”

Dara chewed her lip. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. Where had this scoundrel been hiding all these years? “I don’t believe you. If you indeed did have a conscience as you claim now to have, you’ve kept it well hidden the past six years.”

“Please, I beg you,” Jorym shuffled a little closer and reached for her hand. Dara retracted it. Jorym looked up at her with sorrowful eyes and swallowed. “If I were not sincere in my wish, why would I not have sold my sword to the highest bidder, the Empress Aendasia, ere now? She certainly has the deepest coffers. Or why wouldn’t I have remained in Comarr?”

“I was sure that was what you *had* done,” Dara replied. She could feel the anger slowly seeping out of her veins. Could it be that he was telling the truth? “If you are sincere as you claim, why did you desert Caeron in the first place?”

“I am ashamed to say it, but I thought for certes the battle lost ere it even began … and I had not taken full measure of the man, not until it was too late, when I heard months later how he refused to either retreat or yield and fought to the death. With our crime weighing heavily upon us, we waited for an opportunity to return and snuck back into Baranur from Comarr last spring. Since then, my men and I have hidden ourselves in the swamps of Equiville, waiting for a chance to redeem ourselves. And now, now I pray you, my queen, let us have the chance to do that.”

“Why did my husband have to buy your loyalty with his blood? My husband was a good and honest man before he died outside Magnus.”

“Please, my lady queen.” Jorym began to cry. The tears creeping down his cheeks made Dara’s eyes grow wide with surprise. He tugged at the hem of her gown and sobbed. “I was blind, horribly blind. I beg your forgiveness. I cannot undo what was done, but I can at least set it right. Let me fight for you against Aendasia.”

Dara was touched by the mercenary’s display of humility and anguish. She reached out a hand over his head. She was about to utter words of forgiveness, but then she caught a glimpse of her son, Brad, standing off to one side. Her son who would never see his father again. Her son who looked so much like Caeron. She squeezed her eyes shut and she could see Caeron, looking down on her with loving eyes, planting a kiss on her forehead as he often did. She remembered their last night together before he had fought his last battle. Never again would she feel his warm caress. Ever would she bear that terrible emptiness inside of her. She felt hot tears sear her eyes and creep out the sides of her tightly closed lids. She closed her hand and withdrew it to her lap.

“No, I can never forgive you,” she said unsteadily. She swallowed and continued with a slightly stronger voice. “I can never forgive you, but I will grant you your life though I would gladly throw you in a dungeon there ever to stay. I will grant you your life and allow you to fight for us, then return safely to Comarr, where I hope you will stay the rest of your days.”

“Thank you, my queen!” Jorym cried. She felt him grab her hand and press his lips against it.

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