Earl Maudari, Sir Quinton woke up with a jolt. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tried to focus. Despite the pile of furs covering his body, he still shivered with the early cold of an early Jaira’s Moon.
Quinton lay back down, trying to relax. It was of no use. He was wide awake. Sighing, with a minimum of movement, he slipped out of bed. Quinton had two priorities, the chamber pot and getting the fire going again.
“Lazy servants, let the fire die down again.” He mumbled as he threw some kindling and a couple of good sized logs on the smoldering remnants of last nights’ fire. Soon enough, the room started to warm up enough to melt the ice on the bowl sitting on top of the main table in the bed chamber.
A tiny squeak announced the door opening. A castle servant holding a tray of food with a pitcher of watered wine, tip-toed inside the chamber, trying her best to not disturb the occupants. She had a wool cap covering her hair and a long serviceable long-sleeved blue gown with a brown tunic, with a thick shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She nodded to the Duke, setting the tray on the table. She hesitated when the Duke spoke.
“Jenae, please ensure Prince Arken’s chamber is warm. I don’t want the lad to get ill.”
“Aye, milord, I shall see it your wish immediately.” She left the room, leaving Quinton to ponder his young squire. Arken, the oldest son of King Hadrell and Queen Sareane; married by proxy to Princess Reidun of Opugren, and heir to the throne of Greycliff. Arken was ready to receive his spurs of knighthood at 17, younger than most squires, but he was deserving of the honor. Arken had been blooded in battle at 15, taking over a squadron of knights when the man in charge was killed during an ambush in the hills surrounding Maudari’s land. The men respected his judgment.
Yes, Quinton thought Arken is older than his years. I can’t shake the feeling Arken’s easy life is about to change…soon.
Sir Gweirvon pushed the exhausted horse to run a little further. The poor gelding wheezed as he did his best to obey, white sweat covered his flanks and chest. The fortress of Maudari appeared as he turned the corner past a meadow outlined with Oak, Larch, and Greenwood trees.
“We’re almost there, boy, keep going and you can rest and have a decent meal.” Gweirvon urged the horse.
Approaching the gatehouse, he slowed his mount. “Sir Gweirvon of Foxwarre, with a message from King Hadrell.” A guard allowed him access. Entering the inner bailey, Sir Gweirvon patted his mount’s neck. He dismounted, handing the reins to a stable boy. “This guy deserves a warm mash. I thought I might ride him to death as I did two others in the urgency to deliver the message I carry for your Lord.”
The knight marched to the entrance of the castle, announcing his reason for his visit. A servant brought Gweirvon to the Earl’s private solar, bidding him partake of the available wine, bread, fruit, and cheese on the table.
Gweirvon took advantage of the wine, clearing his throat. It felt good to be on his feet after three straight days in the saddle at a full gallop. He walked over to wait by the fireplace, letting the heat from the burning logs infiltrate through his wet clothing to slowly warm his near frozen flesh.
The door opened to admit the Earl and one of his men. “Sir Gweirvon, my full apologies for keeping you waiting. What news brings you out in this horrible weather?” Quinton already guessed the knight’s urgent business, for only a serious illness of King Hadrell, or his death, would send a knight instead of a Royal messenger out in the middle of winter.
Sir Gweirvon handed the Earl a sealed letter. “This will explain my lord.”
Queen Sareane’s seal waited for his hand. Using his belt knife, Quinton carefully opened the parchment.
Earl Maudari, my husband, your King, is dead. High Priest Nairen and High Priestess Rizena will do our best to keep his death a secret until my son, King Arken can arrive at Foxwarre. I expect you to escort my son in a manner appropriate to his ranking. I have sent a letter for my son, along with the Monarch’s Ring of Greycliff. Make haste to bring your new King safely to Foxwarre as weather allows, my lord. We can only hold off the vultures for so long.
The letter was signed ‘Sareane’
“Zabe’s blood, Hadrell’s Silver Serpent couldn’t have kept him healthy a few more months?” The Earl turned to his man. “Calburth, have someone fetch Arken.” The knight acknowledged the request with a slight nod leaving the room. “Gweirvon, I can offer you dry clothes, a hot meal, and a warm bed. The soonest we can leave is the morrow.”
Sir Gweirvon adjusted his stance slightly to allow the fire’s heat to warm his other side. “As much as I expected, my lord; I still need to hand over the package to the young King myself. Sorry, Queen Sareane orders were very specific. It is by no means any smear on your reputation, my lord. I’m sure you understand the importance of my duty.”
Quinton licked his lips, dry from the heat of the room. “Aye, I do, no offense taken.”
A slight knock followed the being door opened by Prince Arken. The young man was cautious as he stepped inside the private solar of the Earl, his emerald green eyes catching site of the strange man by the fireplace. The Prince was flanked by two knights, Sir Mark de Rhydon of the Silver Serpents and Sir Michael of the Sacred Swords. The two men gave Arken enough space to be discreet while being close enough to take action should the need arise. Both men had been with Arken since he turned ten. Sacred Swords were trained to guard their charges with their lives, and were warrior/priests endowed with special abilities by the God, Kyregat, to help perform the necessary duties. Silver Serpents were healer/priests championed by the Goddess Thaelia, also given magic to heal those under their care. Often a Sacred Sword and a Silver Serpent went out as a pair to guard a person, such as Arken, for life – or until one of them died.
“You asked for me, my lord?” Arken said curiosity in his voice. Prince Arken quickly grasped the gravity of the meeting. A Royal knight venturing out in poor weather only did so for a damn good reason.
Quinton waved the young squire over to his side. Arken still had growing to do: he was fit, the muscles sleek from daily training but his legs and arms were a little out of proportion compared to his body. That would disappear in another year or two.
“Arken, I am afraid I have some bad news for you.” Sir Gweirvon explained to the young man. “Your father, King Hadrell has died. Queen Sareane has sent a letter explaining what happened along with the Ring of Greycliff.” The knight passed the letter, with the ring tied to the paper by a red silk ribbon, to Arken.
The Prince broke the seal and read the letter from his mother. Only a tightening of his jaw betrayed his emotions. Arken put on the ring on third finger of his right hand. The band was made of dual bands of silver and gold, to honor Thaelia and Kyregat, and topped by a faceted sapphire. Smaller gemstones representing the children of Thaelia & Kyregat were set in the bands, the females in Kyregat’s and the males in Thaelia’s. “It is said that this ring was a gift to the first King of Greycliff by Thaelia Herself. My father told me the ring magically re-sizes to fit the finger of the new sovereign. I always wondered if the story was true. Tonight I know the truth: it does. The ring will only come off upon my death, and only accept the finger of the next true ruler.”
Earl Maudari and the knights each bent a knee to their new King, Sir Quinton leading the men with a “The King is dead, long live the new King!”
Swallowing his grief, he held his head proudly. “Please, good sirs, stand up.” Arken didn’t need ask if he would be leaving Maudari. That was a given. “I will be ready to leave for Foxwarre in the morning; I pray to the Gods we will have pleasant weather for our journey. Sir Quinton, I would like to thank you for the kindness and excellent training I have received at your home. I shall remember it always. I imagine this will be the last evening of peace I will have. If you don’t mind, I don’t wish anyone else to know of my change in rank until the rise of the sun.”
“Your Grace, perhaps you might wish to spend part of this night in the chapel. I was planning to elevate you to a knight at the end of the month. I think the occasion merits moving up the ceremony. You have earned the rank by deed. Let’s do the ceremony before we leave.” Sir Michael said to his charge.
Arken kept a serious face. “I defer to your wisdom, Sir Michael.” The new King grasped the letter in his hand and quietly left the room. “Tomorrow will be soon enough.” Arken said, trying to hold back his grief. “Please, Sir Rhydon, would you join me in the chapel? I could use some guidance and comfort.”
Rhydon put a friendly hand on the King’s shoulder. “Of course I will. Shall we retire? Michael will make the arrangements for tomorrow with Earl Maudari.”
A tired looking Arken walked away from Sir Michael. The King suddenly stopped and turned around. “Michael if you would, please send word to Walthen of Campo that I invite him to Foxwarre as a member of my court. It is not mandatory. He can decline if he so chooses.”
Sir Michael gave a bow, “As you wish Sire.”
Light from the Mother Moon, with her Daughter Moon in the distance, pierced the thick glass windows of Maudari’s chapel. Sir Rhydon knelt at the altar of the Great Father and consort to the Great Mother, Kyregat. His lips moved as he prayed silently. To his right, uncrowned King Arken was also on his knees in front of Thaelia, the Great Goddess and Mother to all.
Staring at a multitude of flames burning from candles atop, Arken freed his mind as Rhydon taught him. Red, orange and white danced, the colors melding together one moment and splitting apart the next. Lady Thaelia, Great Mother, I am Your servant, the defender of Your Name. I ask for Your guidance to help me be a just and strong King to my people. Let my enemies fear me. Let my men respect me. Allow my queen and me healthy sons to keep our line ruling for many generations.
The flames flared twice, four times their normal height. Arken’s body began to experience the sensation of floating, just as he had when swimming in the pond near the Earl’s keep, only his body was still. Was the feeling in his mind? He continued to watch the flames, mesmerized by the dancing colors. A face appeared inside the center, gradually taking form of a female.
Child, I have faith in your abilities, so should you. Listen to your conscience and let those who have stood with you tonight advise you in times of need. Arken, you will be a good king. Your house will rule for as long as the sun rises and sets. The flames receded back to their normal size.
The flames returned to normal. Arken rejoined his body with a jolt. He looked towards Sir Rhydon. The knight gave him a knowing glance.
“Did the Goddess answer your prayers, Your Grace?”
Arken smiled at his guardian and mentor, “Aye, Rhydon, She did. We still have time to get some sleep. It will be a long ride to Foxwarre.” He stood up, yawning. “I’ll be in my chamber.”
“Good night, Arken. Sleep well.” Rhydon watched the King leave the chapel. “Thank you Jaira, he needed the encouragement. Michael and I will watch out for Arken.”
The Great Mother-Goddess Thaelia smiled on Arken, giving him five days of storm-free travel. Passing through the city gates of Foxwarre, Arken waved to those who recognized him. News of Hadrell’s death was still a State secret thanks to the careful ministrations of Queen Sareane and her advisers.
Arken leaped off his horse, rushing through the palace. For once, he ignored all he came in contact with in his haste to find his mother. Arken stopped short of his sire’s chamber to adjust his clothing and settle his emotions. He started to knock and quickly changed his mind. Who was to deny the King entry anywhere within his kingdom?
No sooner had he opened the door and stepped past the threshold than a blast of mind-numbing cold near froze him mid-step. Icicles hung from the ceiling close to the bed and puddles of glistening ice fractured the floor bare of scattered carpets. Arken sucked in the frigid air, gathered his wits, and quickly remembered how to breathe again.
His mother, Dowager Queen Sareane sat with Rizena by the blazing fireplace; both women bundled in layers of clothing. The source of the extreme temperature was an open window; hence the near freezing temperature of the room. The covered corpse of his father was on the bed.
“Mother, I’m home.” Arken hesitated a moment, waiting for Sareane to look at him.
Sareane’s blue eyes were red from grief and her blonde hair reflected the red flames of the fire. She started to speak, “My son, my King…”
Arken ran to her side, dropping to his knees as he hugged his mother. “I’m so sorry, Mama, I should have been here,” He held Sareane while she cried, his tears mixing with hers. “I wanted to be here before father left to meet Zabe.”
“Hush, son, Hadrell wanted you with Quinton. It was more important for your training to be completed. He was proud of you, Arken.” Sareane whispered.
“Your Grace, I’m sorry to be pushy, but if I have your permission, I’d like to announce King Hadrell’s death and your ascension.” Rizena asked.
Arken took a deep breath. He kissed his mother on the cheek. Standing up, he straightened his back. Priestess Rizena, yes, please make the announcement, but first close that window before we all die of exposure in here.”
“Yes, that is a good idea. I’m supposed to have at least two grandchildren before Arken is allowed to submit to any further risky behavior. Goddess knows, he’s not even married yet!”
The three adults laughed.
“I thought we were married by proxy last year.” Arken replied,
“You were, I’d have her join you but the agreement was to wait until she is 18.”
“I’ll trust your judgment on affairs of the heart. I have the transition of father’s crown to mine to worry about. Perhaps it’s best to wait to have a wife.”
“Of course it is. I’ve played the intrigue game for my entire life, son. Listen to me and I’ll never point you in the wrong direction. Rizena and I have a full plate of activities to complete. I ordered your father’s chambers cleaned. They are yours by right; go get cleaned up. Your first duties will be to select your King’s Guard. Have your Sacred Sword and Silver Serpent help with your choices of ten to twelve men. Your brothers should be arriving soon. It’s up to you when we have your father’s funeral.”
Arken glanced towards his sire. “Let’s not wait. He’s going in the royal tomb. As soon as the family is all here, we’ll have the ceremony. We can have a public memorial in the spring when the weather is better,”
Sareane nodded, “It is as I thought. Your father was always proud of you as am I. You will be a good king, son.”
Sir Michael handed Arken a list of potential King’s Guard. “Rhydon and I went over the list and spoke with your late father’s men. Each of the knights on this list are honorable men, excellent fighters, and a few of them have received specialized training from Baron Wymerth.”
Arken wrinkled his face, “What are you talking about, Michael?”
“This goes no further, Your Grace. Baron Wymerth’s family has long performed a special service for the Crown. He trains selected knights according to their aptitudes: tracking, intelligence gathering, tactics, assassinations, torture, poisons, special weapons, even handling animals. Generally, two to three knights in the King’s Guards are knights trained by Wymerth. When unique problems arise, you only need call on a knight fitting the deed and he is obligated by oath to serve.”
“How do I know who to call on for which problem?” Arken asked.
“That is where Rhydon and I come in. We have a list, which we will show you. After you appoint a Captain of the Guards, we will put him to an oath, and he will know as well. I do warn you, only the four of us may know of this.”
“I understand, good to know Michael. Before we select the men, point out the names of the specially trained knights.”
Rhydon spoke up, “That would be Sir Alwin Smythe, Sir Douglas Stewart, and Sir Neelam Wesnes. You won’t find a better spy than Stewart, Smythe knows poisons better than anyone other than me, and Wesnes is one of the best fighters any of us have ever seen with weapons and hands.”
Arken was quick to decide on the three men. “Fine, let’s take those three plus your two of course. I’ll start out with another seven for a total of twelve. I’ll add more if the need dictates. Let’s bring in Walthen and see what he thinks.”
“Your Grace, Walthen of Campo is a Priest in training. He knows nothing of protecting a King.” Michael argued.
Arken stared at the Sacred Sword. “He is my friend, and a counselor. I would like his opinion. Get him now.”
Rhydon raised his eyebrow at Arken’s tone.
“As you wish, Sire.” Michael shrugged his shoulders, bowed and left the room to find Walthen of Campo.
The young squire, recently raised from Prince Arken to King was determined to be his own man. Michael felt good about his charge. Arken was a smart lad. Now, he and Rhydon just needed to give the King an occasional nudge to keep their plans to secure Greycliff's future. The Goddess would be pleased.