Authors: Ronald Coleborn
Tags: #Bisac Code 1: FIC009020, #Bisac Code 1: FIC009050, #Bisac Code 1: FIC009520
igh Vassor Prichard Hennis had not moved from his position at the council table in the great hall of High Court Castle since Nerus Vayjun had paid him a visit and told him that the men of the plain had not only marshaled but also were expected to reach the gates of the castle by the next morning. That alarming news had followed the equally shocking report of the disaster at Aklon, brought by the court's senior scout, Kastor Monsig.
“The men of the plain, marshalling,” Prichard Hennis murmured to himself as he rubbed his chin. “Unthinkable. At our gates on the morrow.” It was all he had thought about since he'd been told, but questions gnawed at the edges of his mind. Much of what he'd been told didn't make sense. He tried to fit the pieces together, but it was like trying to fit pieces from five different puzzles all jumbled together. It was a muddle, and his spinning mind wasn't yet up to the task. His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. “Come,” he said, and watched as the castle steward reentered the room.
“Your wife, Lady Vyla Hennis, to see you, my lord,” said the steward with a studied delivery that oozed like honey dripping from a spoon.
“Show her in, Kennison.”
“Directly, my lord,” Kennison said with a bow so deep it threatened the man's forehead.
Lady Vyla Hennis soon graced the doorway with her exquisite presence, her head shrouded by an elegant black veil that covered a red taffeta dress with intricate lacing along the bust. “My darling Prichard, what has kept you?” she said upon entering.
Prichard stood to his feet and stepped around the table while holding out a hand. Vyla met him where he stood, took his hand in hers, and kissed him full on the lips. Prichard pressed his hands into the small of her back and moved his lips to her ear. “Good of you to come, Vyla.”
“We missed you at the royal garden.”
“It completely slipped me. I know the queen's sister had been planning this for some time, but pressing matters have surfaced. Matters that demand my full attention.”
Vyla's hand found its way to his crotch, and his member soon swelled in her grasp. “If memory serves, only I can demand your full attention, love.”
Prichard grabbed her hand and gently removed it. “Vyla, please. Not now. You must understand.”
She furrowed her brow and gave him a questioning look. “What's troubling you?”
Prichard took her arm and led her to a chair at the council table. “Please, sit.”
She sat, and he took his chair at the head of the table.
“Tell me all,” she said.
As the high vassor recounted all he had been told, Lady Vyla's expression changed from curiosity to worry to outright fear. By the time her husband had finished, her face had turned pale. “Can it be so?” she asked in a trembling voice.
“We know not all as of yet,” Prichard said. “The scout's report seems authentic enough, and he would have no reason to lie. None that I know of, anyway. And while Vayjun is as slippery as a river snake, I don't doubt his news. How far I can trust him is another matter.”
“You have to bring this to the king,” Vyla said.
“He is not well, Vyla. The last thing I want to do is trouble him further with news of usurpation.”
Vyla reached out a hand to the high vassor. When he took it in his, she said, “My darling, you can't afford not to.”
Prichard sighed as he considered his wife's counsel. “It will take me an hour at the least to reach him on a courser. Two hours on anything less.”
“Then you'd better get moving. Shall I give orders to the horse marshal to prepare one of them?”
Prichard waved her off. “That isn't something you should be seen attending to, Vyla. I'll have Kennison see to it. But know that your words have taken deep root in me.” He smiled as she took his head in her hands and kissed him once more.
“I'll see you when you get back, at which time we can discuss my commanding your full attention.” She fixed him with a coquettish look as she spoke and was rewarded by a broad smile.
The king lay dying. A gaunt, hollow-faced figure, he had lain in his bedchamber as the weeks and months melted away, along with his will to live. The Ancients were preparing to usher him into the realm of sleeplessness, where pain could not enter. Death would be a welcome mercy, bringing an end to the torment that stabbed through his body like knives made of molten iron. Only the sapientsâkeepers of the sacred teachings, and the realm's long-established spirit healersâoffered any relief, permitting him to drink tea prepared from the leaves of the poisonous desidum flower. The sapients alone knew how much poison could be administered to the king to ward off the far more terrible disease eating away at him from within. Only members of their order, inheriting the task by right of succession, were trusted to treat him.
The sapients who surrounded him now were the latest in a long line of spirit healers and teachers of the sacred books. Unlike their sister order in the West, they were no longer permitted to practice dark sorcery in Glyssia. Though they held to this new custom, the commonborn still loathed the order and called the body of ancient spirit healers
, so named for the way they chanted to the Ancients during their meditations.
When the primus, or head, of the Valiant Order of Glyssian Sapients entered the room, all eyes turned to him. Primus Nerus Vayjun was a tall, vigorous man with a stately bearing. As a man of noble birth, he always made it a point to sweep into a room with an air of majesty, aiming to draw the eyes of everyone present. He did so now, making his way to the king's bedside with an air of refinement and nobility. He knelt down and bowed his head in a studied but graceful manner.
The primus took the king's hand in his and gently squeezed it. “Our prayers, your honorable grace, are with you this day. And know that we do all that is in our power to relieve you of your suffering and repair the damage inflicted upon you by your illness.”
The silence in the room was palpable. After a brief moment, the king drew a deep breath that erupted into a fit of coughing. Finally, he rasped, “See to it”âhe suffered another series of coughsâ“that my daughters are well looked after.”
The primus raised his head and nodded his agreement.
“The youngest must complete her education,” said the king. “I want you to see to it personally, Vayjun.”
“Consider it done, your grace.”
“And the high vassor must see to my official affairs. The queen will see to my personal ones.”
“Yes, your grace,” said Vayjun.
The king swept his eyes around the room and squinted in an attempt to mark the faces of those gathered. “As to that, where
“She has taken your place in Council, your grace,” Vayjun said.
“The Council of Elders has convened? Why wasn't I consulted?”
Vayjun furrowed his brow as a sad expression settled on his face. “You were unwell and not in your best mind, your grace. But please, let all blame rest at my feet. The Council has gathered to decide on urgent matters of the realm. I believe the main point of discussion will be who will sit the throne once you â¦” The primus trailed off, his face a grim mask of emotion.
The king struggled to sit up but could not. Two women who stood beside himâsapient-appointed nurses bothâplaced gentle hands against him, both uttering tender words to calm his nerves. The king settled himself and looked up at his primus, his eyes still squinting to capture the sapient's features. “What is there to discuss?” said the king. “The law is well set concerning the matter. Upon my death, the throne will fall to my wife, until she is physically or mentally unfit to sit the accursed thing.”
Vayjun frowned and squeezed the king's hand once more. “The Council is bringing into question the abilities and soundness of the queen, your grace. They believe, as I hear it, that she is unfit to rule, to say nothing of your daughters. I made it a point to inform you as soon as I could.”
“This is an outrage!” the king said in a whispered shout as he pulled his hand away from Nerus Vayjun.
“I agree wholeheartedly, your grace,” said Vayjun. “But they are moving to bend the law as we speak and appoint another successor to the throne.”
“Who has been feeding you this nonsense?” demanded the king, his voice a raspy whisper now.
“Men loyal to me, your grace, and to you.”
“I will have a word with the Council,” said the king. “Arrange it at once, Vayjun.”
“Please permit me, your grace, but it is a closed session. They will not break from discussion to come to your chambers.”
“For the love of the Ancients, then take me to them,” the king demanded.
“As you will, your grace,” said Vayjun, with a deep bow of his head. He stood to his feet and turned to the three other sapients in the room. “See to it that the king is dressed immediately. Then wheel his grace to the Council hall.”
The three sapients nodded, and one of them ordered the nurses to tend to the king's clothes, while another fetched a wooden chair that was pegged to two spoked wooden wheels on either side, below a pair of armrests. Vayjun bowed gracefully to the king once more and backed out of the room, never taking his eyes from Hertrigan Vame, as was the custom.
Prichard Hennis dismounted from his courser as a farrier, who had been working in the stables, ran out to take the reins. “Good night, milord,” said the young stable hand, as he led the beast away. “He'll be ready for your return.”
“Is the king still in residence?” Prichard asked the lad.
“Yes, milord. Doubtful he'll be going anywhere for a long time.”
“Mind your mouth, lad. All you have said beyond âlord' was beyond your bounds.”
“Aye, milord,” said the youth, with his eyes to the ground.
Prichard Hennis kept his silence as he walked the castle grounds toward the King's Keep. Lamplight spilled from windows around the bailey, and he saw storm clouds drawing near to Glyssia, lightning bolts flashing from their swollen underbelly. He heard the furious thunderclaps that followed, splitting the air with the sound of coarse fabric suddenly ripped. The farmlands and woodland areas in the upper part of Glyssia were in sore need of rain, having gone three months without so much as a drizzle. This was unusual for the realm, whose people were accustomed to seeing downpours nearly every week, no matter the season. For more than two months, it had been necessary to bring goods to court from the southerly farms.
Prichard Hennis ascended the winding stone steps of the King's Keep. Servants hugged the walls to give him as wide a berth as possible, nodding but not looking him in the eye, which was the realm's custom concerning proper relations between the commonborn and the highborn. When he reached the landing of the king's chambers, two chambermaids met him there, linens in hand.
“Good night, milord,” they said, bowing and curtsying in turn.
“And to you,” said Prichard. “Where is the king?”
“He was taken to the Council hall, milord,” one chambermaid said.
“They're in session, and the queen is also in attendance,” added the other.
Prichard tried to cover his surprise. If the king had been taken to the Council meeting, the matter under discussion must be urgent. He thanked the two women and rushed down the steps to the courtyard. He crossed to another broad tower that served as the Chamber of Council, where Council members spent their leisure time and also discussed matters of the realm. Five knights of the Inner Guard were stationed at the entrance, upright lances in their right hands. While Prichard enjoyed direct command of the realm's Outer Guard, the king and queen commanded the Inner Guard, and Prichard realized now that he would have to answer for the loss of nearly three thousand men.
As the high vassor approached, the five knights lifted their right arms and slammed the butts of their lances against the stone floor and scissored their legs together. The high vassor acknowledged their salute with a nod as he passed between them. He heard loud voices coming from the Council hall above. As he approached the landing, the voices grew more distinct, and he was able to make sense of what was being said.