Logan's Ford, Southern March
Rickard Malcolm smiled as his mount splashed across the narrow ford in the Trebecan River, several thousand eadrom riding behind him. Home at last. To hearth and home-at last! To Meghan as well, and the girls. Well, that wasn't entirely true. He still had these mysterious raiders to mop up, as per Lord Owain's orders. He wasn't entirely sure why he was really needed, on that note. He'd only left the realm with four thousand men, leaving Owain with still over 30,000, which was a considerable host. Malcolm had a difficult time believing that Owain had been unable to catch what sounded like a couple thousand disorganized pirates simply because most of the light cavalry had departed the realm.
As his horse found solid ground and climbed to the northern bank, the marshal was presented with a very strange sight indeed.
The northern bank at all the various crossing points were fortified with newly-constructed forts with turf ramparts, placed across the road, meaning no army could possibly continue north from the fords unless they went through narrow gateways cut into the turf walls. The black stag-on-gold banners of House Eriadunn fluttered from each fort. As soon as the men manning the ramparts sighted Malcolm and his army, they let loose with a resounding cheer. "Hurray! Malcolm returns! Malcolm returns! Hail the king! The King in the Mountain!"
Rickard gaped. He retained the presence of mind to kick his horse into a canter and direct it towards the gate of the fort most immediately in his path. The normally stoic general was at a loss for words. "W-ha-who . .."
One of the archers laughed. "Surprised, Marshal?"
"Welcome back!" Another cried. "King Owain right fooled you, he did. You're returning a kingdom! While you were away, old Erlend was murdered, by his son Duncan no less. Owain offed his head and his lords proclaimed him king, the first in four hundred years! Shall I fetch mead, Marshal? Ya look right green!"
Rickard indeed looked quite green. "You lads look as if you're fighting a war."
"We are!" The archers chorused. "We're here to give a spanking to any hostile army that wants to cross. Realm's at war with the whole damn Empire, just about. Rumor is Augrilac will soon land a force on the coast, and Duke Beitean has moved to meet them." A guard pulled open the gate as Malcolm's army pulled to a halt behind him, trying to make sense of all this.
Not quite yet, Meghan. A cruel twist of fate has got me 'round the neck.
Hafancaer, Eriadha-Four days later
"We simply must start drawing men from the fords of the Trebecan, Your Majesty. Duke Beitean's army will not be strong enough to take on the Augrilac invasion force by itself." Count Duncan Kerr stroked his beard as he looked at a map of southern Eriadha.
"I've always thought 6,000 men on the fords was a little much," intoned Duke Willem Dunaid. "Two thousand could hold the river against five times as many."
Owain shook his head. "The gateway to the realm is something I will not trivialize. If I could afford to place ten thousand men on it, I would. But your point is taken, sers. Malcolm has just returned, as we were all informed this morning. Therefore bring his entire army up, along with five hundred pikemen and five hundred longbowmen from the fords. That brings five thousand to assist Beitean and keeps five thousand at the fords, which puts my mind at ease a great deal."
Dunaid seemed moderately satisfied with the answer, but the count beside him was already jumping to a new topic. "Your Majesty, have you considered attempting to negotiate with the Augrilac fleet?"
"Negotiate with the fleet bearing the army trying to conquer my realm? They will land, if our navy fails to stop them. And we will sweep them aside."
"It might be prudent to at least make an attempt, Your Majesty. This fleet is fifty ships strong, by our last report. The key here is that while we've seceded, the admiral in charge of that fleet doesn't know it. If we inform him, and if he's an enterprising man, he'll realize that seceding realms weaken the Empire as a whole and therefore weaken the overall target that he's after. He might be of the opinion that Ragnar will come back and conquer us later, but we can let him believe that. We can put some coins in his hands, appeal to his likely arrogance, grant him an empty lordship on the Mereldar Marches, and send him on his way to raid loyalist coasts, since he likely won't be able to link up with the main fleet in Titus Bay before the incoming battle there. Mayhaps even take Roken's northern fleet in the rear."
"The fleet is only fifty ships, Count Duncan." Owain still didn't look convinced, but his eyes told the count he was very seriously considering the proposal.
"That might be best. A bloated invasion force might never get where we want to send it. Vallorion is the quickest way from Horker Bay to the Heartlands, but the last thing we want to do is anger Saerondr. A lighter, faster, raiding force enables them to strike towns quickly and pull back, causing misery untold for the Empire. If nothing else, we lose little if this does not succeed."
A moment of intense silence, while thoughts whirled through Owain's brain. "Do it. Bring the entire fleet out of Alt Dheas, but keep them near the city. Send out an expendable ship, with expendable people on board. Lots of coin, too. If he isn't won over, we destroy him."
The count nodded his assent. "Of course, Your Majesty."
Eriadha's young king pinched the bridge of his nose, clearly tired of the council meetings that had taken up nearly his entire day. "It's nearly supper, my lords. Let us remove ourselves to the great hall and continue after dinner."
A chorus of ayes greeted that proposal. Food was always a guarantor of cooperation, Erlend had said.
Owain filed out of Castle Murray's council chambers, followed by nearly two score lords and advisers. Over a week ago, he had decided to uproot himself from Aileach and travel to Hafancaer, which would be closer to both potential fronts-The fords of the Trebecan and the western coast-and thus serve as a more effective headquarters, though his court remained at the former, traditional capital of Aileach. A lesser motive for the move had been that the young king simply felt that his people needed to see him moving and active while he ruled. If he remained cooped up in Aileach for the whole of the war, his subjects might grow doubtful.
Though the Murrays had been willing to accommodate their king, Owain held an extreme private dislike of the castle. Though huge, it was an ugly, squatting affair, such that the garrison often referred to it as the 'Squat Wench.' The castle seemed to hug the rock it stood on rather than challenge the clouds for height like Aileach did. It was said the Murrays had spent the revenue of three generations and plunged their county into poverty for nearly sixty years in order to build the castle in less than twenty. To their credit, they'd gotten the job done on schedule, and the Squat Wench's impressive record of having endured five sieges over the centuries without having fallen certainly spoke for its capabilities if not it's looks. After all, it did sit atop the heights that commanded the port of Hafancaer.
Despite all those virtues, the Murrays had made no attempt to make the interior any better than the outside. Cold, bleak, and grey was how Owain privately described the place. Not that Aileach wasn't, only that castle managed beauty on the outside, not to mention an equally impressive siege record.
As usual, Owain was placed at the head of the long "Lord's Table" that stood in the middle of a succession of tables of either side of it. As per old Eriadunnii custom, dias tables standing above the rest did not exist. When at court, a king would dine among his subjects or be seen as lacking humility, and possessing an over-abundance of arrogance.
As much of the day had been spent reviewing the affairs of the realm, the dinner talk was boisterous and merry. Whether genuine or a desperate attempt to distract from the looming war, Owain could not tell. Probably a mix of both.
He engaged in small talk with various nobles, but soon grew rather bored. He was not a man for feasts or parties. To make matters worse, Bronn the story teller had not accompanied him to Hafancaer, a reality that Owain deeply regretted. If had meant dragging the old man by his mailed fist, he would have done so. Both he and Fergus and Iona had grown up with the Bronn's stories, and the old man was without a doubt the most entertaining individual Owain had ever met.
Glancing around in boredom, he chanced upon Count Angor Murray and a younger woman entering the dining hall. The middle-aged Count looked no different from when Owain had arrived two days ago, but the woman . . .
By Rhys, she's beautiful.
He yanked the sleeve of a passing knight. "Ser, who is that woman?"
The white-haired knight grinned, clearly aware why his king was curious. "Why Your Majesty, that'd be young Anwyn Murray, middle daughter o' the Count." He winked and strode off, as if to encourage his young monarch.
Owain took another look at this woman, Anwyn. Dark blonde, flowing hair that reached down to the small of her back. Full breasts. A narrow waist preceded the rest of a rather tight-fitting dress that hinted at curves in the legs, especially the thighs.
Across the hall, she turned from conversation with her father to gaze across the scene of feasting merriment. Within a few seconds she noticed him, but he was to enraptured to look away, or even to feel embarrassment at all.
She flashed a suggestively long smile before turning back to her father. Shortly she had redirected him from the empty table they were about to claim to another located much closer to Owain.
Astounding beauty. Like a falling leaf setting on the ground, she slid gracefully into her seat, throwing Owain another smile that was far too long to be simply friendly, like one last autumn breeze before she turned away to winter.
Well, that's it. Owain stood, a little shaky from the wine. Bad idea. He strode over to the Count, barely maintaining his composure. He caught sight of her breasts again. No no, a simply excellent notion. Probably the best you've had in awhile.
The internal conflict within him nearly compelled him to return to his seat, but before he could turn around words were spewing from his mouth, and he was patting Count Angor on the back. "I cannot express my thanks for your hospitality, Count Angor."
The count turned, somehow unaware that his king's eyes were roving hungrily between the breasts and eyes of his daughter. "No thanks are required, my king. Tis only my duty."
Courtly etiquette enabled Owain to smile against his will. He gestured to Anwyn. "Forgive me, but I don't believe I've met-."
"Ah yes!" Angor shot to his feet, taking his daughter's hand. "King Owain, my middle daughter Anwyn. Anwyn, your king, Owain Eriadunn."
"My lady," Owain bowed to her, much lower than his position as king indicated was appropriate.
Anwyn stood, curtsying much less than was appropriate and flashing him another one of those immaculate smiles. "Your Majesty."
Yep. Right damned decision. "I trust my arrival has not upset the quiet at Hafancaer too much?"
Anwyn shook her head, hair splaying out like some kind of divine fountain. "It certainly did, but I enjoy the noise."
Angor interjected. "Forgive me, Your Majesty. My Master at Arms has new information on a dangerous murderer and I must meet with him, if only briefly. Owain nodded unconsciously, and the Count scurried off.
Oh, so he's that kind of father. Thank the gods.
His gaze returned to Anwyn who was also acutely aware of the absence of her father's burly Master at Arms.
"So, the bedchamber?"
Owain almost gaped. "I-i'm sorry?"
"The bedchamber. How do you like it?"
Oh, not that other way. The king was relieved this new woman wasn't as scandalous as she was beautiful. Rather empty, since I met you. Owain barely managed to avoid voicing that particular thought and simply stuck with; "Quite nice, if a tad empty."
Only too late did he realize the door he'd left open.
"Oh? No fair lady to fill it?"
"Uh, well no. Actually . . no. Not . .no."
"Mhmm, right. And the oil?"
"The oil? On the walls? To repel attackers? Surely you've seen fit to stock it?"
"Y-yes, t-that too."
"Ah." Anwyn paused, glanced around, and seized hold of his manhood, giving it a brief tug.
Shocked, Owain suppressed both a sigh of pleasure and a bellow of distress, stepping out of her reach. "That was not proper, my lady."
"Was it not pleasurable, Your Majesty? If not, I will cease." Anwyn winked and stood, striding after her father.
Dazed, Owain returned to his seat, relieved no one had noticed. For several minutes he sat silently, consumed with thoughts of Anwyn Murray. No tale nor drunken fight from the boisterous feast shook his trance, only a voice in his ear.
"Forgive me sire, but I return with a letter from Saerondr."
Owain looked up, at once remembering the same messenger he'd sent out to Saerondr two weeks ago and rather important affairs known as matters of state.
He took the offered letter, glancing at the seal of House Tarembor on the envelope and on the two elves who stood behind the messenger. His stomach roiled with dread.
Finding a quiet place to process the ill news was no longer an option, as over half the feast had taken note of the messenger and yet more were turning their gazes on the king.
Sighing, Owain pried open the envelope, unfolded the letter and began reading.
The sounds of the feast had died, leaving a deathly silence. By the sigils on their surcoats, all could planely see that the letter came from Saerondr.
The reading done, Owain folded the letter and stood before his subjects. "Relief is coming, soon. In the meantime, affairs in Vallorion dictate that we must assist House Tarembor." He sat and said no more, leaving the hall confused.
Inside, he wanted to leap with joy. But news like this had to be closely guarded, at least until Saerondr made his move. Ah, but the kingdom! What joyous news, if only all of them could know.
Some hours later
Owain called a closed war council that night, which meant the only ones in attendance were his three dukes, Count Roideach his spymaster, and of course himself.
"This is excellent news!" Exclaimed Callaghan.
"Aye, but war in Vallorion leaves us temporarily overextended. Not really at all if we move men off the fords, but I'm averse to doing so. We'll bring the entire army encamped at Aileach south into Vallorion, nine thousand men. Though it pains me, we'll remove four thousand men from the fords and have them watch the center of the realm."
"And who will command this southern army, sire?" The dukes looked apprehensively at their king, each silently jostling for command.
"Marshal Rickard Malcolm. Pull him off the static west coast and put him on a mobile front where he'll come into his own. I need to oversee the potential fighting here in the realm, and the men need to see that I won't vest more in a foreign front than here at home. But make no mistake, we must aide the Eldalie. If we do not, Saerondr might not trust another word of mine again, which could jeopardize an independent Vallorion."
Roideach looked skeptical, as always. "Sire, should we not attempt to make the necro-priests see sense before we remove nearly a quarter of our strength to deal with them?"
"Tell them to butt out, you mean? They sent troops into Vallorion to reclaim Blacktear Forest, which is supposedly sacred to them. Why would they see sense now, if it's evaded them since the Caer Aard?"
"It might be prudent to simply guarantee that we can kill one another at a later date. Strategically invading Vallorion was exceedingly stupid of them. It cuts off a fair bit of their strength from their homeland, which leaves them less able to resist the imperial army barreling up their passes. The army in Vallorion is fairly small and isn't in a position to do much. Convince them to withdraw their forces from Vallorion and the strategic importance of unifying their strength. Show them our common foe, and how fighting one another will doom all three independent realms."
Owain harumphed. "Why are we fighting so much of the war with messengers?"
At that, all five men shared a chuckle.
Horker Bay, Two days' sail from Alt Dheas
The trading cog Rhosyn approached the Augrilacan fleet, a white banner of truce fluttering from it's mast. Ballistas were placed on either side of the ship. A dozen men-at-arms and twice as many archers were placed on the deck, nervous but ready and willing to defend the vessel should the hostile fleet neglect diplomacy.
Rickard Malcolm sighed as he finished reading his new orders. Not home for much longer.
Around him, the late-summer birches and oaks were whistling in the wind, as if a little despondent they would only enjoy their green color for a few more weeks. He stood on a time-worn dirt path that snaked through his wheat fields back to the farmhouse constructed of cedar logs, the home his father had largely built with his own hands and the abode where his wife and three daughters lived. The general had spent a blessed two days in their company, after first being ordered to Alt Dheas and then given leave to see his family, in this tranquil village just a few leagues north of Dunharrow.
However, the arrival of this accursed letter meant that he wouldn't have more than three or four days more with Meghan after having been away for over two months. This time he was riding to a real war, not a phony venture designed to hoodwink the Magistratum. The army encamped at Aileach was already moving south, and Dunharrow would be the obvious staging point for this force of 9,000 men that he was to command.
Sighing, Rickard glanced up at the gathering clouds that rumbled like a wroth dragon above his head. Oh. How bloody apt.