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Authors: McKenna Juliet E.

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C
HAPTER
O
NE

 

Ferl, Caladhria

1st of For-Autumn

In the 9th Year of Tadriol the Provident of Tormalin

 

 

H
E STOOD ALONE
in the centre of the high hammer-beamed hall. Those barons already assembled sat on tiered benches of polished oak rising up on either side.

Afternoon sunlight poured through the wide arched windows piercing the thick stone walls. Their sills were level with the heads of those later arrivals forced to take the highest, rearmost seats. Some lords leaned forward, intent on studying Corrain’s expression. Others sat back as they conferred with their neighbours. Some went so far as to shield their mouths with cautious hands.

Corrain turned around and walked back to the great double doors. ‘Fitrel, I want you making the rounds of the taverns and stable yards.’

He handed a discreet purse to the older man; a grizzled veteran already pensioned off before direst necessity had recalled him to his livery.

‘Buy a little ale to moisten some tongues. I want to know who’s turned up and their principal alliances and feuds.’

When Corrain had been a Halferan barony guard captain, he would have been out and about all night to learn such vital information before the first sitting of a quarterly parliament. He’d had no such opportunity since they’d arrived the previous evening. Besides, such behaviour was hardly fitting for a man now claiming the barony’s title for himself.

Fitrel nodded comfortably. ‘I should still have some acquaintance among their noble lordships’ households.’

Corrain thought it all too likely that Fitrel’s one-time comrades would be fishing on some distant river bank. If they hadn’t already died and been reborn, oblivious, into the Otherworld. But Corrain had precious few strings to his bow and Fitrel could surely make new friends.

There would doubtless be a good many folk hereabouts eager to learn the true story of the corsair raid that had seen the former Baron Halferan murdered, the best of his household guard slaughtered and the remnant enslaved. Until Corrain had escaped and returned to renew the fight against the corsairs this summer.

‘What do I do?’ Reven demanded.

‘You keep your voice down,’ Fitrel rebuked the youth.

Corrain held the lad’s gaze. ‘You uphold the honour of Halferan.’

He had no doubts about the boy’s loyalty but, Saedrin save them all, Reven was as unpredictable as a colt freshly broken to harness and none too skilfully broken at that.

This was no time to lament fat old Arigo’s death though. Those most eminent lords who’d sent lackeys to hold them a place on the foremost benches were arriving.

‘Yes, captain,’ the boy said hurriedly.

‘Baron Halferan,’ Fitrel barked.

Corrain heard a muffled chuckle from somewhere on the upper benches. It wasn’t an amiable sound. ‘Be off with you both.’

‘You keep your head and you’ll do right by our lady,’ Fitrel assured Corrain, ‘and for our lord’s girls.’

Corrain saw the puzzlement on a late-come baron’s face as he overheard those words. Realisation turned the man’s bemusement to contempt.

‘I will.’ Corrain clapped the old swordsman on the shoulder by way of farewell.

Guards in the Ferl barony’s blue jerkins waved Fitrel and Reven back so that the last lords could enter before ushering them out. The door wards’ polished bronze belt buckles reflected the chevrons on Baron Ferl’s standard flying high above the hall.

This town of Ferl hosted the parliament sufficiently often for the local barons to have built this hall to house it. Corrain had visited often enough in his dead lord’s service to take full advantage of festival licence at solstice or equinox.

What muddy footprints had he left here? Corrain was uneasily aware that he’d been too easily tempted into heedless follies, ever since those days when Fitrel had first ruled the barrack hall as sergeant-at-arms. He wondered what tales these assembled lords had heard. Their own faithful retainers were doubtless out gleaning gossip in the back alleys and taprooms.

He turned to face the barons. Who would prove determined to curb the unseemly ambition of an erstwhile guard captain? Who among them would believe that his first and last desire was now to serve Lady Zurenne, the Widow Halferan, and her noble daughters Ilysh and Esnina?

Since Corrain had so grievously failed his murdered lord, this was all the restitution he could make. Since his quest for revenge on the corsairs had gone so perilously awry. Not that anyone here knew that, any more than they knew the whole truth of Lord Halferan’s death. Corrain must keep all those secrets, for his own sake as much as for Zurenne’s and her daughters.

His face impassive, he took a stride towards the steps up to the rear benches.

‘A moment—’ Baron Ferl’s outrage foundered the instant he stood up. Everyone could see he didn’t know what to call this interloper.

Corrain halted and bowed to the baron.

An expectant murmur swirled around the hall.

Corrain didn’t say a word.

Settling his stance comfortably, he gazed at the great window at the far end of the long hall. Soaring stone tracery framed a multitude of diamond leaded panes. Bright heraldic hues coloured the outermost edges, casting jewelled patterns on the pale stone floor. Not that any individual lord’s blazon was honoured. Every noble had an equal voice in this parliament.

Then let one of them speak first. Corrain had been in enough sword fights to know the wisdom of letting his opponent make the first move. He had also stood sentry outside baronial halls long and often enough for him to wager good gold that he would outlast the noble lords in this particular trial. He began counting the different coloured panes of glass.

Baron Ferl took refuge in pomposity. ‘You are welcome, my lords, to our proud parliament. Thus we honour our forefathers who bequeathed us this sacred duty; to safeguard the interests of Caladhrians from the highest rank to the humblest.’

Recovering his composure, he laced his fingers across his paunch.

‘We are not subject to the whims of monarchs. We do not forget how the ancient Tormalin dominion was brought low in generations past by arrogance and fallibility on their Emperor’s throne. Nor are we ruled by greed and selfishness. Not when we see the merchants’ guilds, accountable only to their own purses, oppress the city states and fiefdoms of Ensaimin.’

No, Corrain thought bitterly as the baron droned on. Caladhria has this parliament that’s so seldom able to agree that every household would still be lit by candles if the parliament had ever been asked to debate the merits of oil lamps.

The bare minimum number of barons required to ratify a parliamentary decree could argue every facet of the simplest question for the full five days of a festival without ever coming within bowshot of a conclusion.

The Tormalin Emperor would have sent his legions if the corsairs had raided his shores. The Ensaimin guilds would have hired mercenaries to wreak their bloody vengeance. Caladhria’s barons sat on their fat arses and bickered over who should bear the cost of defending their coasts while better men like Lord Halferan died in the attempt.

But he must not betray any such anger, Corrain reminded himself. The fight with the corsairs was behind him, or so he fervently hoped. He must look to the future. To secure Lady Zurenne and her daughters’ future.

‘Though this parliament has been called out of season—’ Baron Ferl glanced at Corrain as he concluded ‘— let us conduct our debates with courtesy and reason.’

Corrain looked down at the slave shackle fastened around his off-hand wrist, a short length of broken chain dangling from it. That prompted another frisson along the baronial benches. Backs straightened, light summer cloaks rustled and booted feet shuffled on the oak planks.

He’d already heard three different versions of the oath that he had supposedly sworn and two other rumours as to why he still wore the manacle and had refused to cut his hair, even if he now wore it tamed in a tight braid hanging down his back.

Let them ask, if they dared. Corrain wouldn’t tell them. That was between him and his dead lord and no one else, not even a god.

Still no one spoke. Quelling an impulse to a humourless smile, Corrain contemplated the distant window. That didn’t stop him tallying up the headcount with discreet sideways glances.

Three hundred, give or take a handful. Definitely more than half of the five hundred or so barons required to safeguard the interests of the obedient artisans, yeomen and labourers in return for their unquestioning fealty. So any decree passed here would be binding in law.

How many might decide in his favour? Corrain knew that his noble opponents would have summoned as many inclined to oppose him as they possibly could, despatching the courier doves able to carry a message so much more quickly than a mounted man. That would have given such hostile lords more time to travel to Ferl than those summoned in the usual fashion.

On the other side of those scales, his foes had betrayed themselves with their haste to summon this parliament out of season. The decree demanding his attendance had been a disgrace; ink smudged on the parchment and half the requisite twenty-five wax seals crooked or blurred.

The decree which had arrived so late, giving him so little time to get here. Well, these noble lords might baulk at night travel under anything less than both moons at their full but no guardsman could be so timid. Corrain and his men had often ridden, as now, under the full of the Greater Moon alone.

A balding baron rose to his feet, on one of the higher benches. ‘I propose the first question for debate is whether we need to be here at all.’

An exasperated nobleman promptly stood up on the other side of the hall. ‘I support the proposal. It’s not forty days since we assembled in Kevil at summer solstice. Why are we called away from our harvests and herds at this busiest of seasons?’

That provoked a sharp riposte from a lord on the bench below. ‘Congratulations, my lord of Cathalet, on having harvests and herds to concern you. Those of us closer to the southern coasts have seen our fields go unplanted and our beasts sold or slaughtered to deny the raiders their plunder.’

Corrain was relieved to see a good number nodding their agreement with Baron Aveis.

He had hoped as much. Ferl was one of Caladhria’s more southerly towns. Those nobles living hereabouts would all have seen the suffering of commoners fleeing from those coastal baronies attacked by the corsairs from the southern islands.

He had seen the knots of men and women in the doorways of taverns and merchants’ warehouses, some avid with curiosity, some apprehensive. This was no routine parliament, conducting its business while the townsfolk went about their own concerns.

The locals couldn’t console themselves with their distance from the sea any longer. Everyone had heard how, this very For-Spring, those dread black ships had sailed up the river Dyal in Lescar. Their own Ferl River was navigable all the way to this town that shared its name.

‘The raiders have gone,’ a noble with a florid complexion said scornfully. He gestured briefly at Corrain. ‘I gather we have this man to thank. His claim to the title of Baron Halferan may hardly be seemly but he has married the rightful heiress so confirmation seems a simple enough gesture of gratitude. Let us be done with the business and go home!’

BOOK: Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis)
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