Original Work The Ancient Lie (The Unwritten Words II)

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Sep 24, 2019.


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  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Hi, everyone

    The Ancient Lie is Book II of The Unwritten Words, a direct sequel to The Promised Lie, which itself was the start of a new trilogy set in the years after the Bookworm series concluded. I really intended to start work on it a lot earlier - last year - but, as you know, I ended up in hospital instead.

    If you haven’t read that book, and you’re interested (and willing to comment on this book), let me know and I’ll forward you a copy.

    The story so far ...

    Five years after the Empire collapsed, the formerly-united continent is dominated by kings and princes (who are enjoying real power for the first time in decades). Wars are breaking out everywhere. Elaine and the other heroes of Bookworm have effectively gone into exile. The handful of remaining sorcerers are practically trapped in the Golden City, unable to wield the power and influence they once did.

    Crown Prince Reginald of Andalusia, one of the major successor states, leads an invasion of the Summer Isle on the grounds that it’s recently-dead king promised his crown to Andalusia and it’s his by right (instead of the new monarch, a usurper who crowned himself at once). In building the army, he recruited Isabella - a sorceress who became a mercenary (after fleeing from her family in the Golden City, which meant she survived the massacre). Crossing to the Summer Isle, Reginald and his army defeated the usurper ... only to discover a far greater threat. Sinister powers and strange magics, godly magics, had infested the island, threatening to spread to Andalusia and beyond. Discovering, in the nick of time, that cold iron impeded the ‘gods,’ Reginald and Isabella were able to defeat one of them and save the Summer Isle ... unaware that the ‘gods’ and their heralds have already spread to Andalusia. By the time the prince can get home, things might already have changed ...

    The Promised Lie - The Chrishanger

    Bookworm - The Chrishanger

    All comments are welcome; spelling, grammar, continuity problems, moments of dunderheadedness, etc.

    I’ve just discovered that the cancer hasn’t completely gone away and I need another biopsy (and possibly more chemo) so there may be delays.

    If you’re interested in following my writing and hearing news of new releases (and a ton of other goodies), please follow my blog (The Chrishanger) or my mailing list (http://orion.crucis.net/mailman/listinfo/chrishanger-list). My Facebook fan page is also online - Christopher G. Nuttall - but Facebook has been playing silly buggers recently, so you’re better to follow either of the first two options (or both <grin>).

    Thank you very much for your time.

    Chris
     
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  2. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue I

    It was bitterly - bitterly - cold.

    Alden Majuro, Patriarch of House Majuro, pulled his fur-lined coat tightly around him as he started the ascent to Ida. Five years ago, the trip would have taken only a few hours - a day at most - and would have been accomplished in relative comfort. His wealth, power and magic would have ensured a private coach on an iron dragon. But now, it had taken nearly two weeks to make the trip, travelling over shattered roads and passing through burned-out villages, towns and cities fighting desperately to keep their independence from warring kings and princes. It felt as if the Empire had never existed at all. It felt ...

    Wrong, he thought. It feels wrong.

    It had been an interesting trip, for all the wrong reasons. He hadn’t seen anything himself, but there had been stories ... always stories. Tales of miracles, of things beyond the limits of any known magic; tales of ghosts and resurrections and hundreds of other deeds he would have sworn blind were impossible. The stories were spreading, radiating out from the forbidden zones. It wouldn’t be long before they were everywhere. He wondered, morbidly, if they’d already reached Ida.

    Dark clouds, forebodingly pregnant with snow, hovered around the peaks as he made his way up the slippery road. Ida had always been isolated, even though it had been part of the Empire. The population had kept itself apart, relying on their mountains to protect them from their larger and more powerful neighbours. Now ... the weather was growing even worse, freezing bandit gangs and invading armies with a dispassion Alden could only admire. It was possible to believe, as he reached the top and walked towards the gates, that Ida would remain civilised even as the rest of the world plunged into chaos. The mountain folk knew better than to throw away everything they’d built at the behest of a king or rogue sorcerer.

    The guards eyed him narrowly, then nodded. “Her Majesty has sent for you,” the leader said, stiffly. “Come with me.”

    Alden nodded and followed the guard through winding streets, towards a palace that looked to have been hewn out of the mountain rock itself. Snow started to fall, covering the dark buildings in a wintery haze. The handful of people on the streets hurriedly sought shelter, suggesting there was worse to come. Alden didn’t relax until they were inside the palace, where it was mercifully warm. He stripped off his coat and changed into dry clothes with a sense of relief. His outfit was so sodden that the washerwomen would have to use powerful spells to dry it.

    He stepped into the next room and frowned. A young woman was standing by the window, studying him. She was ... small, almost mousy. Her dress was practically colourless. She was the sort of woman he would have ignored, back at the Peerless School. And yet ... his eyes narrowed as he realised who she was. Elaine, First of Her Name; Elaine, the Last Empress of the Golden Empire; Elaine ...

    Alden swallowed, suddenly unsure of himself. He’d sent a message before he’d left, naturally, but there had been no time to wait for a reply. Who knew how the Empress would react, when she laid eyes on him? She’d refused to stay in the Golden City and rule, even though it was her birthright. And they told strange tales about her ... Alden knew, if she chose to be displeased at his intrusion, it might be the end of his lifeline. She was the Empress! If she wanted to kill him, she could.

    He bowed, stiffly. “Your Majesty.”

    “I gave up the title.” Elaine’s voice was soft, but there was a quiet strength in her tone that warned him not to underestimate her. “It’s just Elaine, if you please.”

    “As you please,” Alden said. “I ... I need to consult with you.”

    “I read your letter.” Elaine gave no hint of her feelings. “You left out the specifics.”

    Alden nodded. Reaching into his pouch, he produced the letters from Isabella. “We received these tidings from the Summer Isle,” he said. It occurred to him, too late, that Elaine and Isabella - his estranged sister - were practically contemporaries. “There are strange ... things on the island. Or there were.”

    Elaine took the letters and read them, quickly. “Gods. Entities.”

    “Yes.” Alden met her eyes. “Very strange entities.”

    “Yes.” Elaine read the letters twice, skimming over the text to reread the important points. “And clearly not part of the former canon.”

    Alden’s eyes narrowed. “They say you know everything,” he said. “Do you know them?”

    Elaine looked back at him, evenly. “Do you know what happened to me?”

    Alden shook his head. There had been rumours, of course, but none of them had ever been substantiated. And then the families had had worse problems to worry about. Elaine ... had been allowed to slip into obscurity. If Alden were honest, at least with himself, he would have to concede that the families hadn’t wanted her to stick around. The last thing they wanted was a ruler who had the power and will to make them behave.

    Not that it matters, he thought, with a hint of the old bitterness. Once, our word was law from one side of the continent to the other. Now ... we barely command one city.

    “I absorbed all the knowledge in the Great Library,” Elaine said, slowly. “Everything, from the mundane to the forbidden. It’s all in here.”

    She tapped the side of her head. Alden stared, torn between astonishment and fear. The Great Library had been sealed for the past five years, the wards denying entry to each and every person who tried to visit. And the woman in front of him knew everything in the library? Elaine was formidable, perhaps more formidable than she knew. There was more than just books of magic in the library. There were history books that had been banned and removed from circulation long ago.

    “There are ... hints ... of something, right from the Dark Ages before the first Grand Sorcerer,” Elaine said. “Stories of ... things. Of entities with striking power. Of ... the Empire, as it was in those days, practically devising a religion. Of cutting and pasting elements into a single consistent theology ...”

    “Blasphemy,” Alden said.

    “Is it?” Elaine shrugged. “It’s hard to tell these days, isn’t it?”

    “Yes.” Alden conceded the point without rancour. He’d studied history in school. There was very little on the era before the Empire, very little that could be substantiated. His tutors had liked to pretend the Empire had always existed. “And they’re seemingly linked to the forbidden zones.”

    He sighed. “What else can you tell me?”

    “Very little.” Elaine turned to peer out the window. Snow brushed against the glass, dropping down to the streets below. “Whatever truths there were, in the old texts, were removed long ago. There were ... just a list of warnings and instructions of what not to do.”

    Alden stepped up beside her, watching the clouds growing darker. “And you think those instructions were connected to the ... gods?”

    “Call them entities,” Elaine said, sharply. “Once you start accepting them as gods, you will start worshipping them.”

    “We do worship the gods,” Alden said. “Don’t we?”

    Elaine shrugged. “How many of those gods were actually real?”

    Her voice hardened. “How many people liked the idea of an Emperor or an Empress until one actually turned up?”

    “Touché.” Alden shook his head. “If these ... entities ... are real ...”

    “Then we may have a problem,” Elaine said. “And there may not be much I can do to help you.”

    Alden glanced at her, surprised. “But you know everything!”

    “I know the words written,” Elaine said. “But the words unwritten? Those, I don’t know.”

    She shrugged. “You may have had a wasted journey,” she cautioned. “But stay a while. Her Majesty wishes to speak with you. And we may find something you can use, given time.”

    “I hope you’re right.” Alden looked back out the window. He’d hoped Elaine would have answers for him. Instead ... she seemed to be as ignorant as himself. “And if you’re not ...?”

    “Then we may find ourselves in the grip of greater powers,” Elaine said. “And that never works out well for anyone.”
     
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  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Prologue II

    “I can’t help him, Goodwoman,” the Hedge Witch said. “He’s dying.”

    Goodwoman Charlotte barely heard his words as her son started to cough, again. She had no idea what was wrong with him, but ... he’d been coughing and vomiting for weeks, steadily growing weaker and weaker until he was on the verge of death. Golan was five, the age where he should be starting in the fields with his father or learning a trade with his uncles. Instead ... she glared at the Hedge Witch, cursing the bastard under her breath. He’d taken every last coin she’d been able to scrap up, from her extended family, but what had he done? Nothing, damn him. Her son was dying ...

    Golan coughed, harder this time. There were flecks of blood on his lips. Charlotte reached for him, drawing him into her arms as the coughing intensified. Golan was dying ... he’d only been hers for five years and he was dying. Charlotte was a farmwife, from a farming community. She knew death came early and often, to young babes only a few weeks and months old, but ... she’d thought Golan had survived the most dangerous part of his childhood. She’d dared to love him. She’d told herself he was the most handsome boy in the world, a boy who would grow into a man who’d make her proud. Instead ...

    The Hedge Witch was talking, but Charlotte barely heard him as her son coughed his life away. Golan felt cold, too cold ... she shuddered, helplessly, as he coughed one final time and fell still. She didn’t need the Hedge Witch’s worthless spells and poultices to know her son was dead. The man was babbling away about something, probably something to do with his payment ... Charlotte barely cared. Her son was dead. Her son was dead ... she knew she should send to the fields, to summon her husband for the funeral rites, but ... it was hard, so hard, to care. She wanted to die herself, if it meant her son came back to life.

    Strong arms touched her, held her. Others took the body from her arms, taking him to be washed before he was placed on the pyre. Charlotte knew she should be the one to wash him - she’d brought Golan into the world, it was her duty to see him out - but she couldn’t bring herself to insist on her rights. It would have been an admission, to herself if no one else, that it was hopeless, that her son was dead. Golan had been so alive, his face practically glowing with life. Everyone had loved him. How could he be dead?

    She was barely aware of anything until she stood in front of the funeral pyre, staring at what remained of her son. Golan had been stripped, washed and dressed in a simple white shift, then placed on top of the wood. Her husband stood next to her, holding her gently. She wondered if his family had already started asking him to cast Charlotte aside, to find another wife ... someone who might be more fertile, who might bear a healthy child. There was no room for sentiment on the farm, no room for anything ... she cursed them all, glaring past the pyre to the tiny shine beyond. Golan had been a good boy. What good were the gods, if they couldn’t save one child?

    The priest started to talk, his words blurring together into a meaningless babble. Golan was gone, yet ... Charlotte refused to believe. Her son couldn’t be dead. She wanted to attack the priest, to tear him limb from limb for daring to suggest there might be something good in her son’s death. How dare he? The smiling, warmly dressed man ... the man who collected tithes that went ... where? What good did he do? Hatred washed through her breast, demanding release. She wanted to strangle him with her bare hands.

    “Hold.”

    She looked up, astonished. No one would interrupt a funeral, yet ... someone had. A tall man, wrapped in a ragged grey cloak that brushed against the ground. Charlotte swallowed, hard. A wandering preacher ... they went from village, seeking alms and converts. She’d been warned not to have anything to do with them, ever. The priest had made it clear that the wanderers were not true preachers, yet ... there was something about the man in front of her that drew her to him. He felt more ... real, as though he was larger than life. She could feel his presence even when she kept her eyes decently lowered.

    His voice throbbed with power. It seemed to be for her and her alone. “He is not dead. His story is not yet told. He can come back, if you believe.”

    Charlotte stared at him, heedless of the gathered crowd. “Bring him back!”

    The priest took a step forward, raising his cane. “Begone!”

    “No.” The preacher’s voice grew darker. No, the world was getting darker. “You begone.”

    Lightning stabbed down, from a darkening sky. The priest’s body lit up, then disintergrated in a flash of tearing white light. Charlotte was rooted to the spot, unable to move. The rest of the crowd scattered, strong men and women running in all directions, as if they were scared out of their minds. They were brave, faced with something they understood, but this ... Charlotte didn’t blame them for running. The unknown was always terrifying.

    “I can bring him back, if you embrace my lord,” the preacher said. “Do you vow to devote yourself to him?”

    “Yes.” Charlotte didn’t have to think about it. “Yes, yes, yes!”

    The preacher placed his hand on Golan’s chest. Charlotte watched, feeling something new blossom to life within her heart and soul. She had never truly believed in the gods, not when they seemed to turn their backs on their people. But now ... hope became faith, became belief ... she felt something surrounding her, blessing her. Golan’s body twitched, his eyes opening ...

    “Mama?”

    Charlotte reached for him, yanking him off the pyre. He was alive! Her son was alive!

    “Embrace my lord,” the preacher said. “And serve him for the rest of your days.”

    “I will,” Charlotte promised. Tears streamed down her face, No price was too high, for the return of her son. The villagers were already returning, drawn by the miracle in her arms. “I will.”

    And she knew, whatever happened, that she would keep her promise.
     
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  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter One

    The tiny hut was empty, save for a single fire in the exact centre of the room. It burned with an eerie flame, as if it were more magic than mundane. Shadows flickered around the chamber, growing and lengthening as the flames threatened to die down. It was easy to believe that something lurked within the shadows, that they were gateways to realms that existed beyond the reach of human perception. There was a sense that anyone who walked into the shadows wouldn’t come out again.

    Isabella, formerly of House Majuro, knelt on one side of the fire, staring into the flickering light. She’d spent the last few months studying the old magics - if indeed they were magics - and yet they kept scaring her, as if they were something greater than she could comprehend. She was a trained sorceress, yet ... there was something about the old magics that worried her more than she dared admit. Magic, her magic, was hers. The old magics were something from before the dawn of recorded time, something ... something borrowed. She couldn’t escape the feeling that, one day, she’d have to pay a terrible price for what she’d learnt.

    And my family may condemn me to death, if they find out, Isabella thought. It was impossible to deny, even to herself, that she was studying forbidden rites. She’d been taught what to watch for, back when she’d graduated from school. They’ll say I’ve crossed a line.

    She sighed, inwardly. She wasn’t the person she’d been, for sure. The powerful sorceress who’d deliberately broken the rules, ensuring she’d be kicked out of training and be disowned by her family, was gone. So was the mercenary, who’d fought for Prince Reginald in his bid to lay claim to the Summer Isle. It was hard to be sure, but ... was she the sole survivor of Lord Robin’s Free Company? So many were dead or missing, their fates unknown ... it was possible. And ... she wondered, sometimes, if she’d recognise herself in the mirror. If she looked. She’d never been particularly vain - mercenaries couldn’t afford it - but she knew she was growing older. Her dark hair was already tinged with white.

    A wisp of wind crossed her face. She looked up. Mother Lembu knelt on the far side of the fire ... she hadn’t been there a second ago. Isabella was no longer surprised by such things, but ... she shook her head. Mother Lembu, Patron of Women, was something very inhuman, whatever aspect she wore. The rules didn’t apply to her. Isabella was still trying to work out what rules did.

    She forced herself to look the entity in the face. Mother Lembu was wearing her motherly aspect, a warm friendly appearance that reminded Isabella of her mother. And yet, there was something about her appearance that was impossible to pin down. It wasn’t that it was constantly shifting, although it never seemed to be quite constant. It was that ... she shook her head, slowly. She rather suspected that, if someone else saw the entity, she would look like their mother, as if the entity was trying - deliberately or not - to manipulate their perceptions and feelings.. It made her wonder what lay behind the entity’s smile.

    “Daughter.” Mother Lembu’s voice was motherly too, just like Isabella’s mother. It grated on Isabella’s very soul. “You have studied well.”

    “Thank you.” Isabella knew it was true, even though there was something curiously slapdash about the rites and rituals she’d been taught. The potions and poultices she’d made, at Mother Lembu’s direction, had nothing in common with the art she’d been taught at the Peerless School. “You’re a good teacher.”

    Mother Lembu looked charmed, as if she accepted it as her due. Isabella wondered if she’d noticed the sarcasm and chosen to ignore it or, perhaps, missed it altogether. It was hard to tell. Mother Lembu didn’t seem to have the emotional range of a human, let alone the tutors who’d drilled brewing into her head. They would have noticed the flattery instantly and given her detention. Mother Lembu ... wasn’t human. Isabella reminded herself, again, that her tutor had little in common with her.

    And she isn’t teaching me out of the goodness of her heart, she thought. She’ll want something in return, sooner or later.

    She settled back on her haunches, calming herself. They were effectively trapped on the Summer Isle, at least until spring came. Isabella had seen the towering waves, pounding the coastline and destroying any boat foolish enough to set sail. Havant and the Red Monks had done something, something that ensured the storms were stronger and nastier than any in recorded history. The cynical part of her mind noted they hadn’t had to work very hard. The Summer Isle had always been isolated from the mainland. Crossing safely was never easy, even during the summer months.

    “There is symbolism in all things,” Mother Lembu said, once again. “You must be aware of it at all times.”

    Isabella nodded. She’d heard it before, time and time again. And yet, it was hard to believe. She’d been taught rational magic, magic that worked the same way for everyone. It was hard to wrap her head around spells that called on entities and petitioned them to do the work ... and that the spells might not work, if the entity in question was having a bad day. She knew spells - rituals, really - that could only be carried out under a full moon, or after a week of careful purification, or ... she tried, hard, to keep her face under tight control. She’d been warned about spells that required such odd precision. They were almost always dangerous beyond belief.

    And not without reason, she told herself. The more she knew, the more she worried about what was happening on the mainland. She wasn’t even sure her letter to Alden had reached its destination. The effects are either very small, and thus hard to detect and counter, or terrifyingly big.

    She listened, silently. She’d commit everything to paper, once the lecture was over. Mother Lembu hadn’t raised any objections to Isabella writing everything down, even though she had to know the notebooks would get Isabella into real trouble if the Inquisition - or what was left of it - ever found them. Isabella suspected Mother Lembu expected the notebooks to go wandering, sooner or later, and fall into the hands of someone who’d try the rites without any real awareness of the dangers. And if they did ... there were times when Isabella seriously considered destroying the notebooks herself. The spells she’d been taught took years to master. The rites and rituals could be carried out by anyone.

    Which is why they’re regarded with such horror, she thought, cynically. The Grand Sorcerers didn’t want everyone practicing magic.

    Mother Lembu caught her eye. For a moment, she seemed to have three shadows.

    “Are we paying attention?”

    Isabella nodded, quickly. Mother Lembu had three aspects: a maiden, a mother and a crone. Isabella had never seen the crone, but ... she’d heard stories. She knew she never wanted to come face-to-face with the crone. If the stories were true ...

    “You were explaining how certain rites call on different entities,” she said. Thankfully, she’d long since mastered the art of mentally recording everything she was told for later consideration, even if she wasn’t paying precise attention. It had come in handy at school ... and, also, when her father had started yet another lecture on The Proper Duties to One’s Family. “And how they must all be bribed for the ritual to go ahead.”

    “Placated, dear,” Mother Lembu said. She gave Isabella a warm smile. “The gods are not bribed.”

    If you say so, Isabella thought. They were bribed, as far as she could tell. Some entities wanted specific offerings, others seemed to be happy with whatever they were given. And they bestowed their blessings in response. Who is actually in charge?

    She considered the question as Mother Lembu resumed her lecture, outlining the precise gifts that must be offered to certain entities and the meaning behind them. Who had the power? The shopkeeper, who had the food someone wanted to buy, or the customer, who had the money the shopkeeper wanted? Or was it a mutually beneficial relationship? She understood why someone might want to curry favour with the gods ... entities, she corrected herself sharply. But what did the entities get out of it? How did they benefit? Or were they just slaves to the handful who knew how to call on them?

    “So,” Mother Lembu said. She clapped her hands, as if she knew Isabella’s conscious mind hadn’t been paying attention. “Have we studied enough?”

    “Yes, Mother,” Isabella said. She hastily reviewed what she’d been told, in case Mother Lembu wanted to quiz her. “I think that’s enough for the day.”

    “You need some rest,” Mother Lembu agreed. Her voice dropped. She gave Isabella a sly wink. “And your young man in your bed.”

    Isabella blushed, furiously. Reginald - Crown Prince Reginald of Andalusia - had asked her to marry him, after the final battle with Havant and the entity behind him. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She liked him - she loved him, in some ways - but she didn’t think she wanted to live the life of a queen. Queen Carline, Reginald’s mother, had died giving birth; Queen Emetine, wife and murderer of King Edwin of the Summer Isle, had gone mad. The entities probably hadn’t helped, Isabella was sure. She’d heard enough of the queen’s ranting to know she’d been sold a bill of goods.

    “He’s gone to Racal’s Bay,” she said, stiffly. She didn’t want to have that conversation, not with an entity who reminded her so strongly of her mother. Her mother ... these days, her mother would probably approve of Reginald as a prospective husband. It wasn’t as if there were many sorcerers left. “And we haven’t decided yet ...”

    “Remember what I taught you,” Mother Lembu said. “You can use him to perform rites.”

    “I know.” Isabella felt her blush deepen. “But I won’t ask him to do it.”

    “You should.” Mother Lembu shrugged. “You’ll need it.”

    Isabella looked up, into the entity’s eyes. “Is that true?”

    “Yes,” Mother Lembu said.

    “Oh.” Isabella wasn’t sure what to make of it. Predicting the future was yet another sign of forbidden arts ... although, her tutors had admitted dryly, most people ran into trouble because they predicted the future unsuccessfully. And yet ... nothing she’d been taught, in the Peerless School, had offered any real hope of predicting the future. Sure, she could say that someone would be hexed in the very near future - and then hex him herself - but it wasn’t real. “How do you know?”

    Mother Lembu gave her an enigmatic smile. “There are layers you have yet to reach, my dear.”

    I’m sure there are, Isabella thought. Her lessons had been detailed, but ... she was starting to think that she was gaining a generalist education. There were tricks that were well beyond her, hints of rituals that Mother Lembu had never taught her to perform. And just what are you keeping from me?

    “I look forward to reaching them,” she said, out loud. She wasn’t sure that was true. “Can you teach me how to predict the future?”

    “Maybe.” Mother Lembu’s smile deepened, until it became the expression one might expect to see on a prowling tiger. It was hard to look into her face without feeling cold. “When you’re ready.”

    “Ready to learn?” Isabella asked. “Or ready to pay the price?”

    Mother Lembu merely smiled. “You don’t have to leave now. Why don’t you ask for something from me?”

    Isabella frowned, aware that - once again - the rules had changed. Mother Lembu wanted something, but what? Permission to do something? Or ... just a test, to see what Isabella would do? What she’d ask for, given the chance? Or ... or what? Isabella gritted her teeth in frustration. She knew how to play the game, back home. She knew the rules and the price for breaking them. Here ... she wasn’t so sure. The slightest mistake could condemn her to an eternity of suffering.

    She looked back into the fire. The flames seemed to reach towards her. “What should I ask for?”

    “What should you ask for?” Mother Lembu seemed amused. “Nothing may be known until it is spoken.”

    Isabella lifted her eyes. “You keep saying that.”

    “And it’s always true,” Mother Lembu said.

    For you, Isabella thought. But for me?

    She took a breath. “Answer me a question,” she said, with scant hope the question would be answered. “Where do you come from? All of you.”

    Mother Lembu looked displeased. It was ... it was a very motherly kind of displeasure, the kind of displeasure that suggested one had disappointed one’s parents beyond all hope of redemption. Isabella felt a pang - a sense of dismay, an urge to throw herself on her knees and beg forgiveness - that nearly overwhelmed her. If she hadn’t been so familiar with parental disappointment, if she hadn’t been so used to coping with her father’s anger and her mother’s tears, it would have overwhelmed her. Even so, it was a near-run thing.

    “I would ask you to ask a different question,” Mother Lembu said. Her voice was so even Isabella knew she was angry. “But I know you will not.”

    Because you’ve seen the future, Isabella asked herself, or because you know me?

    She frowned, reminding herself - once again - that overestimating someone’s powers and abilities could be as dangerous as underestimating them. It was easy to work oneself into a paralysis born of self-doubt, of fear that one’s opponent was simply too powerful and too capable to stop. She’d learnt the hard way that - sometimes - those who were too impressed with their own abilities had feet of clay, that they could be brought down through a careful use of magic and skill. And that others, boastful braggarts who got on her nerves, had a great deal to boast about.

    “We were born in the light, children of the Great Old Ones and Sons and Daughters of Mankind,” Mother Lembu said. “They were the raging storm. We were the passion and the glory and the everything. We were born of their desire to be something more, shaped by their determination to remain unchanged for an endless eternity. And we came to take their place. We caged them, imprisoned them, and ruled for eternity.

    “And then eternity came to an end.”

    “Eternity doesn’t end, by definition,” Isabella said, tartly. She suspected Mother Lembu had to tell the truth, but ... there was nothing stopping her from telling the truth in a manner that made it impossible to understand. Or simply mislead her. “What happened?”

    Mother Lembu waved her hand. The fire died. The chamber was plunged into darkness. Isabella sensed ... things, crawling closer and closer until they were practically breathing down the back of her neck. She clenched her fists, ready to lash out. The sense of something behind her, not quite touching her, was overwhelming. The only thing that kept her from throwing a punch was the grim certainty that it might be the last thing she ever did.

    “The Great Old Ones were big.” Mother Lembu’s voice echoed in the darkness. “This world is a fragile structure. It was never meant to bear their presence. Mankind was never designed to see them. Madness always followed in their wake. And then we were born, children of the Great Old Ones and Mankind alike. We fought the Great Old Ones. We caged them. We banished them. And then we were banished too.”

    Her voice rose. “We were betrayed.”

    Thunder cracked. The air seemed to grow very hot, just for a second. Isabella felt something all around her, pressing down on her. She heard a creaking sound, then ... the air cleared. She opened her eyes, without ever being quite sure when she’d closed them. The door was open. Light was streaming though. And Mother Lembu was gone.

    She sat there for a long moment, gathering herself. She’d been in hundreds of fights, physical and magical, but ... this was different. She had never felt so vulnerable, not even when she’d picked a fight with an older student at school. There, at least, there had been limits. She could lose, but she couldn’t die. Here ... she knew she was confronting powers that were older than her entire family, powers that played by rules she didn’t even begin to understand. Her training insisted there would be an underlying logic, somewhere. She just had to find it. But everything she’d seen in the last few months suggested there was no underlying logic.

    Perhaps the lack of logic is, in itself, a form of logic, she thought, as she staggered to her feet and brushed down her trousers. The system is logically illogical.

    She snorted at the thought, then took one last look around the chamber and walked out the door. The building was a tiny stone shack, a short distance outside the city’s walls. Mother Lembu had insisted on holding their lessons there, even though she would have been welcome in Allenstown itself. Isabella had no idea why, but she suspected it was something to do with territory. She and Reginald had killed the entity who’d nearly destroyed the city, yet ... Isabella shrugged. She had a feeling she should be relieved. Mother Lembu was not human. Better to keep her at a distance.

    But that might not be possible, she mused. The cold air brushed against her skin as she headed back to the gates. The world isn’t what it was. And the entities may be here to stay.
     
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Sorry - i started work, then got sick and the biopsy is tomorrow. Normal service will (hopefully) resume on friday.


    Chris
     
  6. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    Take care, Chris. We have patience.
     
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two

    The waves were towering over the land.

    Crown Prince Reginald of Andalusia, Lord of the Summer Isle, stood on the shore and watched the waves roaring in the distance. Racal’s Bay itself was relatively smooth - he could see a handful of fishermen braving the waters to catch the fish that had taken shelter from the storm - but beyond the bay there was nothing but darkness and thunder. Gloomy clouds hung low over the sea, towering waves reaching up to kiss them before falling back to the waters below. It seemed impossible that anything could survive on the open sea.

    Reginald shivered, despite the warm winter clothes he’d donned before leaving the tower and heading down to the shoreline. Cold droplets of water hung in the air, splashing against his face, soaking his clothes ... it was meant to be spring, but he’d seen precious little sign of it since he’d left Allenstown. The snow had melted as he’d travelled east, the primitive roads steadily turning to muddy nightmares as the water swelled out of the ditches, yet ... it still felt cold. And yet, it wasn’t the cold that made him shiver. It was the sheer titanic power of the waves breaking against the distant cliffs, mocking him. He knew, with a certainty that could not be denied, that Racal’s Bay and all the other works of humanity would be destroyed in a heartbeat, if the waves came crashing into the bay.

    The cold seemed to grow worse as the wind picked up, great gusts of watery air brushing against his bare skin. Reginald knew, without false modesty, that he was a brave man. He’d been raised to be a warrior, even though - back then - everyone had thought he’d find himself restricted to the training ground and jousting field. On land, he was a brave man. He knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt. But on the waters, he was a coward. He would never admit it, not when leadership often depended on making a show of bravery, but ... the waters scared him. You couldn’t fight a storm. You could merely endure and hope it chose to let you live.

    He lifted his gaze until he was staring directly at the gloomy clouds, pulsing with anger. It was still possible to see hints of faces within the clouds, as if there was something behind them ... he knew there was something behind them, directing them. Reginald had seen the entity Lord Havant the Usurper had summoned, watched in horror as it blossomed into the world and nearly destroyed Allenstown before it was stopped. Magic he understood, but this was different. The rules were different. The entities ... he shivered, again. It was hard to believe that such creatures were not gods. If he hadn’t seen men and women working miracles, back when the Grand Sorcerers had ruled the world, he might have believed in their divinity himself.

    It was not a reassuring thought. He’d never really taken religion seriously, even though - as the Crown Prince - he would one day become the country’s religious leader. His father had agreed, pointing out - in the lessons he’d given his heir and no others - that it didn’t matter what the commoners chose to believe, as long as they were loyal and obedient. The gods might or might not exist, but they had no influence over human affairs. And they could hardly be bought by donations from needy humans. Why would they be?

    But he’d seen things, on the Summer Isle, that had shaken him to the core.

    Reginald took a long breath, calming himself. He wasn’t used to sitting around doing nothing, even though there was no choice. The Summer Isle practically shut down for the winter as travel became difficult, if not impossible. Reginald had had to work hard merely to get from Allenstown to Racal’s Bay, even though it was a relatively short journey. Riding up to the narrows, and the kingdom beyond, was unthinkable. He hadn’t wasted the winter - if nothing else, he’d been able to recruit new armsmen as the core of a local military garrison - but it felt as if he could have done more. And the lack of word from his homeland bothered him. There had been no reply to his messages. His father hadn’t even written a note of congratulations before the seas became impassable.

    He shook his head, slowly. He knew, better than most, just how badly communications had fallen apart in the last few years. His father’s messenger could be sitting on the other side of the channel, waiting impatiently for the storms to clear, or he could have drowned in a desperate attempt to cross the waters. Reginald gritted his teeth at the thought, reminding himself - sharply - that there was nothing to be gained by penalising someone for being unable to do the impossible. His father had drilled that lesson into him, time and time again. A prince could not afford to seem unjust, for fear of his supporters growing to fear him and - eventually - turning on him. And yet ... he wanted to know what was happening on the other side of the waters. He’d been gone for months. Anything could have happened.

    Father will handle it, he thought. His father was an old man, but he wasn’t that old. He’d given the nobles enough drubbings over the last few years to keep them from doing anything stupid, even if the Crown Prince was on the other side of the channel. And when I get back ...

    He frowned, feeling ... he wasn’t sure how he felt. He’d wanted more power and responsibility, even though he’d known there were limits to what his father could reasonably give him. It had hurt to know that many of his former classmates were wielding real power now, while he remained under his father’s tutelage. Reginald was proud enough to find that maddening despite the awareness that, one day, he would have it all. He’d pushed for the invasion, at least in part, because it would give him lands of his own. It would hurt to give it up and go back to being the Crown Prince again.

    Something cleared their throat, behind him.

    Reginald turned, slowly. A messenger stood there, eyes flickering from side to side as he took in the mounted armsmen. Reginald wondered, idly, if the messenger had expected him to be alone. The bodyguards were part of the background, but they were always there. It only took one lone madman to cause chaos, by killing - or threatening to kill - the heir to the throne. The man hesitated, then went down on his knees. A merchant, then. No one else would have hesitated before dropping in submission.

    “Rise,” Reginald said. “What news do you have for me?”

    “A ship has been sighted from the tower, Your Highness,” the messenger said. He stumbled over the honorific. Technically, Reginald was both a king - by right of conquest - and a prince. The locals seemed to find the duality a little confusing. “It’s coming into the bay.”

    Reginald blinked, turning to look back over the waters. The waves hadn’t abated. If anything, they were growing stronger. The fishermen were hauling in their nets and hurrying back to the docks, hoping to get through the mouse hole and find safety before it was too late. It was so overcast that it felt as if night were falling, even though it was early afternoon. There was no sign of a ship coming into the bay. And yet, he didn’t doubt the man. No one would tell a lie like that and expect it to be believed.

    “I see.” Reginald whistled. His bodyguard came forward, escorting his horse. “We’ll go back to the tower.”

    The horse whinnied uncomfortably as Reginald mounted it, slipping into the saddle with the ease of long practice. Reginald stroked its fur, silently grateful that he’d had the foresight to bring dozens of the beasts with him when he’d led his fleet across the waters. The locals didn’t train their horses properly, not by his standards. He supposed he should be grateful. If they’d deployed better cavalry, Lord Havant the Usurper might have won the war and taken control of the island. And killed or captured Reginald. The thought was unthinkable.

    Reginald moved the horse into a trot, ignoring the merchant as he scurried alongside. The commoners weren’t allowed to ride horses, not on the Summer Isle. Only aristocrats were allowed to own horses, let alone ride them. Few merchants could have afforded to buy horses ... he sighed, inwardly. Things were different on the mainland. But not that different.

    He settled back in the saddle as Racal’s Bay came into view. It was the second-largest city on the Summer Isle, but - by Reginald’s standards - it was really nothing more than a large town. A cluster of stone buildings, carefully designed to withstand the worst of the winter storms ... it was drab, almost colourless, and yet ... there was a certain charm around it. He wasn’t sure what it was. The streets were practically empty, only a handful of men - and no women - within eyesight. Reginald felt a pang of regret. The locals still didn’t trust him to guarantee their safety, even after he’d hung a dozen men for rape. He supposed he couldn’t really blame them. They didn’t know him.

    The wind shifted, blowing the stench of rotting fish into his nostrils. Reginald almost smiled. It wasn’t pleasant, not by any reasonable standard, but it beat a battlefield. Besides, it was a sign the locals were starting to accept his rule. They wouldn’t be cutting up the fish in the open if they feared his men would march down and help themselves. Reginald had issued strong orders against looting, with floggings for the first offense and hanging for repeat offenders, but he’d been a campaigner long enough to know that orders meant nothing when the men were on the verge of starvation. The nobles in his company might bitch and moan about having fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the enlisted men knew better. They preferred eating a monotonous diet to starving.

    Although I would kill for fresh meat, he thought, dryly. The stockpiles of salted beef, pork and venison were starting to run dry. The Summer Isle had never supported vast herds of farm animals, let alone wild animals. It wasn’t really surprising. The aristocracy had made it impossible for the commoners to raise herds and then professed themselves bemused by the constant series of famines. Idiots.

    He kept his face impassive as he reached the tower and dismounted, passing the horse to one of his horsemen. The Summer Isle had potential, if it wound up with a good lord and an aristocracy with the common sense of the average squirrel. Reginald was determined to be that lord, even if he had to accidentally-on-purpose provoke a handful of aristocrats into rebelling so he could kill them, exile their extended families and distribute their lands to his supporters. There was nothing wrong with the land, not really. Just letting peasant farmers keep half their crops would do wonders for production. The fact it would also make him popular was just the icing on the cake.

    The tower warden bowed as he approached. “Your Highness. We have sighted a ship ...”

    “So I’ve been told,” Reginald said. “Show me.”

    He followed the warden up the cramped stairs, cursing the tower’s designer under his breath. He’d never liked confined spaces, even though he understood the military logic. And yet ... it was clear the designer had never been in a real battle. If the attacking force got into the tower, the defenders were screwed. Reginald had proved that himself, when he’d attacked the building. He could still see signs of the brief, but savage engagement everywhere he looked.

    It was colder, somehow, at the top of the tower. It was the highest building in the city, even though it wasn’t that high compared to some of the castles and palaces in Andalusia. The wind blew against him, forcing him to grab hold of the railing to keep from being pushed towards and over the battlements. It was hard to escape the impression that, one day, the entire tower would simply be blown over. Reginald took the offered beltline, snapped it onto his belt and inched forward until he was peering over the city, the bay and the churning waves beyond. The wind blew so hard that his eyes started to fill with tears.

    He wiped them away, impatiently, as he peered into the distance. Mist hung over the water, bringing back memories of the enchanted haze they’d encountered during the march to Allenstown. He shivered, protecting his eyes with one hand as the warden pointed into the waves. It was hard to be sure, but there was something there. A rock? The waters surrounding the bay were dangerous, even in summertime. He’d seen the charts. The Summer Isle had been, technically, part of the Empire, but it had never been fully integrated into the continental system. It was simply too difficult to travel routinely between the island and the mainland. He supposed it might have worked in the islanders’ favour. The Empire had collapsed and they’d barely noticed.

    A frisson of excitement shot down his spine as he saw the boat. No, a ship. It was a midsized two-master, a warship ... it had to come from Andalusia. Where else could it come from? Now, of all times, there would be no contact between the Summer Isle and any of Andalusia’s mainland rivals. The Summer Isle was surprisingly insular. There had never been any hint, even the slightest rumour, of Havant or his followers trying to find allies on the mainland. It wouldn’t have made any difference, Reginald was sure, but they hadn’t even tried.

    His eyes narrowed as the ship glided into the bay. He was no sailor, but ... there was something wrong. The ship seemed to be travelling too smoothly, as if the wind and the waves weren’t quite touching it. Magic? It seemed unlikely. The great magicians were either dead or hundreds of miles to the east. Isabella - he felt a pang as he remembered her - was the most powerful magician on the island. There weren’t many more back on Andalusia.

    “She’s heading for the mouse hole,” the warden said. “Should we try to warn her off?”

    Reginald frowned. No sailor worthy of the name would wish to drop anchor in the bay when he could pass through the mouse hole and enter the docks. The bay was untrustworthy. The locals didn’t trust the bay and they lived right next to it. But ... his instants were sounding the alarm. Something wasn’t right. He peered at the boat, gliding forward like something out of a supernatural fantasy. The flag at the top of the mast was his father’s pennant ...

    “Yes.” He couldn’t refuse his father’s messenger, whatever else he did. “And send two detachments of troops to meet her. No one is to get off that boat until I say so.”

    “Yes, Your Highness.”

    Reginald turned and hurried down the stairs, resisting the urge to return to his quarters and have a hot bath ... or, at least, change into something warm and dry. Technically, protocol stated that his father’s messenger should come to him, but ... his instincts insisted that letting the man run free was a very bad idea. Reginald was the Crown Prince, yet his aristocratic followers owed allegiance - first and foremost - to his father, the king. A messenger could cause a great deal of trouble for him, as long as he enjoyed the support of his patron. It was no surprise that a number of royal messengers tended to end up dead. But if Reginald killed his father’s messenger ...

    He checked his sword, then walked into the courtyard and mounted a fresh horse. His bodyguard fell in around him as he cantered out the gates and down the cobbled road to the docks. The ship was already docking, sailors tossing lines to the shore to ensure the ship was pulled into the right place. Up close, the ship appeared almost ... normal. Reginald wondered, sourly, if he was making a fool of himself. And yet, something prickled at the back of his mind. He touched his sword, reminding himself that he’d made sure to issue iron blades to his men. If they were about to confront another entity, they would be prepared.

    The gangplank fell into place. Reginald stayed on his horse, watching as a pair of heralds appeared at the top of the gangplank and made their way onto dry land. The messenger was either a low-ranking aristocrat or a common-born social climber. No one born to high rank needed heralds to signal their importance. His lips twitched in disdain as an overweight men appeared, inching down the gangplank. Reginald recognised him, instantly. Sir Handel had been his father’s messenger since time out of mind, a jumped-up commoner who could be discarded instantly if he became a liability. And would be, when Reginald took the throne.

    Sir Handel bowed deeply as he saw Reginald. “Your Highness. I bring word from your father, the King.”

    Reginald frowned. He detested Sir Handel, but ... there was something wrong. He wasn’t sure what, yet ... it was there. He could practically smell it. His skin crawled. He knew he wouldn’t be turning his back on the older man in a hurry.

    “You are ordered to return to Andalusia at once,” Sir Handel continued, stiffly. That was a surprise. Protocol dictated that the message was to be given in private, not in front of a growing audience of guardsmen, sailors and commoners. Sir Handel wouldn’t break protocol, not unless something was very wrong. “Immediately.”
     
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  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three

    Isabella checked the clock, then sat down at the wooden table and went to work.

    It had taken her weeks to gather the ingredients, even though all of them were - alarmingly - common. The recipe hadn’t called for dragon’s blood, phoenix features or basilisk eyes, nothing that required a brave man with a death wish to venture into a monster’s cave to collect ingredients that even her family, at the height of its power, had found cripplingly expensive. The herbs in front of her hand all been plucked from the ground, from flower gardens and hedgerows ... half of them had a multitude of uses that had nothing to do with magic. Isabella found it alarming, even though she knew there weren’t many people who understood how the herbs could be used for ritual magic. Anyone could do it if they knew the recipe.

    She frowned, her old training insisting - once again - that she was making a mistake, that she was opening a box that was best left closed. Half the really dangerous spells and potions on the banned list weren’t unknown, merely impossible to actually do without rare and dangerous ingredients that the average dark sorcerer wouldn’t be able to find. Anyone with the wealth and power needed to obtain them wouldn’t want them. They’d certainly be able to accomplish their aims without dark sorcery. But the recipe in front of her was different. A skilled housewife could brew the potion without difficulty.

    Her eyes narrowed as she started to place the herbs and spices in the pot, allowing her instincts to guide her as much as possible. It wasn’t easy. She’d grown up in a world where precision was important, where an extra milligram of something could be the difference between a successful potion and a colossal explosion. Her tutors had rapped her knuckles for making mistakes, cautioning her that the consequences would have been far worse if they’d allowed her to go ahead. But now ... Mother Lembu had taught her to let her feelings guide her. There could be no worse sin, at the Peerless School. Everyone knew that feelings led straight to dark sorcery.

    Or ritual magic, she thought, as she ground the herbs into a squashy mess. What were they trying to keep from us?

    She lit the fire in the stove, then poured water into the pot and placed it on top of the heat. Mother Lembu had advised her to make everything herself, right down to the cooking pot and stove, but Isabella simply hadn’t had the time. Besides, she was no blacksmith. She supposed it explained why so many covens had operated in the countryside, with open fires and rituals. They’d needed to do everything themselves, even if they hadn’t understood why. Isabella thought she knew why. The ritual didn’t begin when the potion was ready. It began when the brewer started to work. It was as much about preparing the brewer as it was about preparing the brew.

    Which makes one wonder if you can’t make potions for anyone but yourself, she mused, thoughtfully. Much of the herblore she’d learnt in the last few months seemed to have little real magic, as far as she could tell, but she’d also learnt not to take anything for granted. If I asked someone else to drink, what would he see?

    The mixture began to bubble. A faint smell of herbs - and something else, something that made her head swim - hung in the air. Isabella reached for the wooden spoon - it struck her, suddenly, that Mother Lembu had cautioned her to stay away from iron without ever quite saying it openly - and stirred, resisting the urge to count the strokes. She didn’t have to, she thought. There was no need to be precise, not with ritual magic. She just had to stir until the potion felt ready.

    She let out a heavy sigh as the mixture thickened. It was ready, she thought. She lifted the pot off the stove and poured a healthy dollop of the brew into a pewter mug, giving it a moment to cool. She’d been cautioned never to use pewter in brewing, but - as with so much else - her tutors had never bothered to explain why. Mother Lembu, on the other hand, had expected her merely to avoid iron. Isabella shrugged, putting the rest of the mixture to one side. If it worked, she would need it again. She just wondered how long it would be before the mixture lost its potency.

    Pacing over to the door, she checked the lock. It was firmly shut. She’d told the guards - and Reginald’s administrators - that the door was heavily warded, with any intruders certain to meet a horrible fate, but that was a lie. Mother Lembu had warned her not to use magic anywhere near the shack. Reginald knew, but she hadn’t risked telling anyone else. Who knew what they’d do if they thought she was defenceless? She was the sole sorcerer in the garrison. Anyone who wanted to kill Reginald would have to go through her first.

    And if they realise what I’m training to do, she thought morbidly, they might try to kill me anyway.

    Isabella undressed quickly, removing her leathers, trousers and underclothes until she was completely naked. The cold air bit at her skin, a mocking reminder that - if she went outside - she’d freeze to death in seconds. It was supposed to be spring, but there were still snow on the ground. She would have preferred to be dressed for the ritual, yet ... Mother Lembu had insisted Isabella had to be naked. It made Isabella feel defenceless. She had a nasty feeling that was the point. Naked, vulnerable ... who knew what might come crawling into her mind?

    She picked up the mug and sat down, arranging herself as comfortably as possible. The cold faded from her awareness as she clasped the mug in her hands, bracing herself to drink. It smelt funny, both attractive and repulsive at the same time. She gritted her teeth, remembering the healing potions that had been forced down her throat when she’d caught something really nasty as a child. Then, she’d been allowed to swallow them bit by bit until she drained the mug. Now, she had to drink the whole brew in one gulp. She couldn’t stop.

    Funny, she thought. It shouldn’t make any difference. But it does.

    She lifted the mug to her lips and drank. The potion tasted awful, in a manner she knew she couldn’t put into words. She had to fight to keep from spitting, to keep her gorge from rising and vomiting the entire mess over the earthen floor. It settled uncomfortably in her stomach, a dead weight that seemed to bind her to the ground ... she wondered, just for a second, if she’d made a terrible mistake. There was nothing poisonous in the ingredients, but ... if they worked together, could they kill her? Her skin prickled, as if she was no longer alone ...

    ... And then the world seemed to open up around her.

    She was dimly aware, on some level, that she was still teathered to her body, but it was difficult to believe. The world was growing larger, as if her perceptions had been limited ... as if she’d opened her eyes after a lifetime of being blind. Shadowy things surrounded her, giant veins twitching in the air ... she felt as if she was exploring a body, a giant pulsing mass of life, from the start. The world was so much bigger than she’d realised.

    Her awareness kept expanding, reaching out to the world beyond the walls. She could sense the two guardsmen waiting for her, their thoughts calm and placid despite the cold. One of them was thinking of the girl he’d left back home, waiting for him; the other was contemplating the prostitutes he’d fucked the previous night. The contrast between them was so striking that she couldn’t understand why she hadn’t seen it at once, why she hadn’t realised they were so different. She supposed it didn’t really matter. Her friends were dead, her family a lost cause. She’d fallen out of the habit of allowing herself to grow closer to people. Reginald was the only person she’d allowed to get close to her since they’d come to the Summer Isle ...

    Her thoughts slid though the outer world. A young girl was lying in bed, her thoughts of her approaching marriage caught between anticipation of finally becoming a woman and fear of what bedding a man would actually be like. Beyond her, a young boy was driven by anger and bitterness and a strange kind of surliness that felt utterly alien to Isabella. He wanted and resented not having ... she shuddered, looking away. Another woman loomed up in her mind, a merchant’s wife plotting marriages for her children. She was the sort of person Isabella would have detested, as a young girl, but now ... now she saw the woman from the inside out. She was desperate to arrange good matches because they were the only hope for the family’s future. Who knew? She might have been right.

    A wave of ... something ... caught her mental presence, tossing her up and away as if she were a leaf caught in a storm. Her mind swam, the tether back to her body weakening just enough to make her panic. Isabella reached out desperately and felt ... Reginald, back at Racal’s Bay. She had the oddest sense he’d seen her, just for a second. And yet ... he was overshadowed by something worse, something darker. Her vision started to blur. She struggled to hang on to the last traces of insight before it faded away. Something bad had come to the Summer Isle ...

    The thought drove her upwards, up so high she could see the circumference of the entire world. It was a globe, a sphere hanging in the inky blackness of space. It was ... her mind reached out to Andalusia and recoiled in horror. A shadow was clearly visible on the land. The country was falling into darkness. She felt her entire body shudder, twitching in disbelief. She’d seen ... things in Andalusia, back when they’d been harassing villagers into paying their taxes. It looked as if things had gotten worse.

    And then something looked back at her.

    Isabella froze, horrified. She couldn’t move. She knew, with utter certainty, that the thing hadn’t brought its full awareness to bear on her. She knew, somehow, that the moment it did, she would evaporate under its gaze. Her thoughts started to come apart, fracturing as the thing turned towards her. Death turned towards her. Sheer terror gibbered at the back of her mind, a terror that was almost completely overwhelming. It shocked her out of her paralysis. She grabbed for the tether, yanking herself back to her own mind ... something brushed against her, a slight touch that made her scream and ...

    ... She felt back into her body, the force of the impact almost a physical blow. She convulsed, throwing up so violently that she felt as if she was throwing up food she’d eaten weeks or months ago. Her chest hurt, badly. For a moment, she was convinced she was surrounded by men intent on beating her into a bloody mass. It took her long minutes to remember that she was alone, that the door was shut and locked. She swallowed hard, tasting the remnants of the potion in her mouth. The world felt fragile. She was a woman of iron in a world of fragile glass. The slightest mistake could break everything.

    “... Crap.” Isabella’s voice sounded funny, even to her. “What happened?”

    She stumbled to her feet, ignoring the mess. She’d been in worse places. She stumbled over to the table and grabbed for a pencil, hastily scribbling down everything she’d seen. It wasn’t easy to put her feelings into words. Something was deeply wrong in Andalusia, something so wrong that ... she couldn’t quite remember what she’d seen, as if the memory was deliberately hiding itself from her, but something was wrong. She felt queasy every time she tried to think about it, as if pushing too hard would make her retch. The remaining potion sat on the table, mocking her. The mere thought of picking it up and drinking it was unthinkable.

    Reginald will have to be warned, she thought, although she was grimly certain Reginald was already in trouble. She hoped he could get out of it. He was no sorcerer, but he was a decent warrior and a brilliant leader. And yet ... she could stop him in his tracks with a single spell. She dared not assume that she was the only magic-user on the island. The gods alone knew how many other ritual magicians might be out there. The thought made her smile, humourlessly. The gods do indeed know.

    She picked up the cauldron of water and placed it over the flame, then started to clean herself up. There was no way she was going outside looking like she’d been kicked out of a tavern, not when it wouldn’t take much to get rumours started. Everyone knew Reginald had asked her to marry him, damn them. The local aristocracy had not been happy, even though common sense should have told them to be relieved. If one of their daughters had married the Crown Prince of Andalusia, it would have really upset the local balance of power. And landed Reginald with in-laws he might not be able to control.

    The water started to bubble. She washed herself, dried herself and hastily scrambled back into her clothes. The cold was starting to bite, now the ritual was over. She took a swig of local rotgut from her flask - it tasted vile, but at least it was warming - and glanced back over her notes. They were imprecise - her tutors would have given her a week’s detention if she’d handed them in - but they conveyed the gist of what she’d seen. She had to contact Reginald as quickly as possible.

    Which won’t be that quick, she thought. The last report had suggested the eastern road had become even more impassable over the last week or two. Even if I go myself, it will still take days to reach the city.

    She pulled her cloak over her clothes, then unlocked the door and ventured out of the shack. It was early afternoon, but the skies were so dark it was easy to convince herself that it was near midnight. Wisps of snow drifted from the heavens, mocking the humans who dared think it was spring. Isabella understood, suddenly, why the Summer Isles had never really been united until now. No one, not even the titular king, could put together an army and conquer the entire island in a single campaigning season. The poor roads and bad terrain were only the half of it. The king might crush one foe, only to have the rest of his enemies unite against him. Reginald was the first man in hundreds of years to wield power all over the island and it wouldn’t last. Isabella was morbidly sure of it.

    Her two guards straightened up as they saw her, snapping to attention. Isabella nodded curtly to them, wondering which one had a girl back home and which one liked the prostitutes a little too much. She wasn’t sure why it bothered her. Camp followers had been a part of war - and jousting - since time out of mind. The poor women on the streets had the choice of selling themselves or starving to death ... she scowled. It did bother her, for all sorts of reasons. The fact that women appeared to be better at ritual magic was just the icing on the cake.

    She glanced at one of the guards, keeping her expression under tight control. “Have we heard anything from the prince?”

    “No, My Lady.” The guard sounded, like so many others, as if he didn’t know what to make of her. She was a sorceress who was also an aristocrat who might be marrying his liege lord ... it was a mess. She simply didn’t fit into a single category. “We haven’t had any messengers from Racal’s Bay or up north.”

    Where anything could be happening, Isabella thought. Earls Goldenrod and Hereford were dead, but the mischief they’d wrought remained. Reginald’s men may not have been able to keep themselves in power.

    “Have a rider prepared as soon as we reach the castle,” she ordered, stiffly. “I want him to take a message to the prince.”

    “Yes, My Lady.” Isabella had spent enough time around servants to know the guard thought she was making a mistake, even though he wasn’t fool enough to say it out loud. “I’ll see to it at once.”

    Isabella nodded, stiffly. It wasn’t much, but ... she couldn’t do nothing. She was tempted to set out herself, perhaps with a couple of guards, even though Reginald had told her to remain in the city. He didn’t own her, damn it. But ... she knew the occupation force could easily lose control if its leadership pulled out. She might not be the administer - she’d told Reginald she had to concentrate on her studies, not rule the city - but she was the face of the occupation. She couldn’t leave unless someone took her place.

    And that someone will have to be someone very high-ranking indeed, she thought, as they walked through the icy streets. Anyone lesser will have real problems taking control.

    A shaft of sunlight broke through the dark clouds. She frowned, sensing that the storm was coming to an end. Only a few snowflakes hung in the air ...

    It should have reassured her. But she felt, deep inside, that the worst was yet to come.
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Four

    The sense of wrongness grew stronger as Sir Handel was escorted through the streets to the tower, Reginald lingering behind to collect the reports from the men who’d searched Sir Handel’s ship. They hadn’t found anything, they’d said, but ... the sailors had been odd. Brave men, who’d taken their ship through the worst storm on record, yet ... jumping and starting at shadows. Reginald had seen men who’d been through hell - and their first taste of combat, their first awareness that they might actually die - who’d come out of it better. It was definitely odd.

    “Get them something to drink, then see what they say,” he ordered. Normally, he frowned on drunkenness - his father had beaten him for drinking games when he’d been younger, pointing out the dangers of losing control - but he would make an exception. “And record everything for me.”

    He ordered Sir Handel to the throne room, then took a moment to order extra guards before entering the room himself and taking the throne. Sir Handel wouldn’t have dared challenge him, not openly, but he should have shown some reaction to Reginald aping his father’s prerogatives. No one sat on a throne, save for the king himself. And Reginald was not - yet - king.

    “Your Highness,” Sir Handel began. “Lord of the Summer Isle, Prince of the Marches ...”

    Reginald waved his hand, impatiently. “I know my titles. What’s the message?”

    Sir Handel still showed no real reaction. He merely smiled lazily, as if he wasn’t quite used to smiling. Reginald leaned forward, one hand dropping to his sword. The man looked insolent, as if he was practically begging for a lesson in respect, yet ... somehow, Reginald was sure he was looking at something far darker. Sir Handel moved as if the force behind him wasn’t quite sure how to control his body. And pass for human ... the thought jumped out of the back of Reginald’s mind, but once it was there, it refused to go away. He was tempted to stab Sir Handel with an iron blade. It would be interesting to see what happened.

    “Most beloved son,” Sir Handel recited. “Child of my ...”

    “The message,” Reginald snapped, allowing his voice to harden. He didn’t have time for flowery language, not now. “What is the message?”

    “He wants you back home. Now.” Sir Handel’s smile didn’t change. “You are to take ship with me and return home.”

    “I see.” Reginald kept his voice carefully flat. “And is there any reason?”

    For the first time, Sir Handel looked unsure of himself. “Those are your orders, My Prince,” he said. “I was not given any reason.”

    Reginald thought, fast. Logically, his father wouldn’t have recalled him unless the situation was truly urgent. His father had been a king long enough to understand that an occupation needed time to turn into a permanent conquest. Nothing short of a major rising, or foreign invasion, or ... his father on the verge of death would have sufficed. And yet, if any of those things had happened, Sir Handel would have told him. There was nothing to be gained by keeping him in the dark. Sir Handel wasn’t that stupid.

    “No reason,” Reginald said. “And what was happening when you left?”

    Sir Handel looked, just for a second, utterly perplexed, as if he couldn’t believe Reginald was asking. Reginald couldn’t believe that anyone could be surprised by the question. What did he expect to hear? Even if Reginald braved the seas and set out at once, it would take at least a week to reach Andalusia. And that was being optimistic, perhaps foolishly optimistic. He’d heard stories of sailors being driven back to land, their ships dashed against rocks or forced to take shelter in harbour until the storms finally abated. He wasn’t remotely keen on crossing the waters until the weather improved.

    “I ask again,” Reginald said. “What was happening when you left?”

    “I was told to give you the message,” Sir Handel said. “And I did.”

    I could put you to the question, you limp-wristed asshole, Reginald thought, with a vindictiveness that surprised him. He’d never liked Sir Handel, but he’d always known the jumped-up commoner was his father’s mouthpiece. And yet, I have the feeling you wouldn’t be able to tell us anything no matter how badly we tortured you.

    He summoned his guards. “Escort Sir Handel to the ironhold cell,” he ordered. “He is not to leave without permission from me specifically. His meals are to be delivered under armed guard. You have full authority to use whatever measures are necessary to keep him under control, up to and including the use of lethal force. Take him away.”

    The guards saluted. “Yes, sir!”

    Sir Handel still showed no reaction, clear proof - if any were needed - that he was no longer the man he’d been. No one clung to power and position like someone who had climbed out of the gutter, someone who had to cling desperately to what little they had for fear of losing it. Sir Handel should have been protesting, loudly, at the mere thought of being locked away, or manhandled by lowborn guards. They rarely had a chance to push their social superiors around and tended to make the most of it, when they had an opportunity. And even if Sir Handel hadn’t objected to how he was treated, he should have objected to the insult delivered to the king’s messenger. Instead, he’d just taken it.

    “Odd,” Reginald mused. He wondered, grimly, if something was merely wearing Sir Handel’s face. “What are you?”

    He stood and headed to the door. His personal guard fell in around him as he made his way down the corridor to his quarters, to the rooms prepared for the island’s former king on the rare occasions he visited the tower. The warden hadn’t dared move into them ... Reginald snorted at the conceit, although he knew it made a certain kind of sense. It was better to have a set of rooms for the king rather than displacing everyone when the king made one of his rare visits. He nodded to his bodyguards, telling them to remain outside and stepped into the room itself. It was oddly bare, for a kingly suite. The king probably hadn’t spent more than a few days in the tower, if at all. Reginald didn’t care. He’d been on campaign. The tower was practically luxury itself, compared to a camp bed or sleeping under the stars.

    The windows were reinforced glass, hundreds of tiny planes secured by iron framework and - beyond them - iron bars. Reginald stood by the window and peered out, his gaze drifting over the drab city and the towering waves beyond. Sir Handel shouldn’t have been able to get to them, not in that sort of weather ... surely. Had he had a little help? And, if so, what was happening in Andalusia? He felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. He’d sent reports home, but ... it was possible they hadn’t been taken seriously.

    Or they arrived too late, he thought. There hadn’t been any sign of the Red Monks over the past few months. He’d liked to think the entire group had been wiped out, but he didn’t believe it. The infection might already have reached Havelock.

    He forced himself to think. Sir Handel - damn the man, damn whatever was wearing his face - had given the gist of his message in public. He’d tried to keep it quiet, which meant the entire island would know in a few days. And then ... he’d chosen his supporters for loyalty to him, rather than the king, but ... they’d think they had to obey the king anyway. They could hardly be blamed for that, whatever happened. Going against the king meant risking everything, for what?

    I should have asked Isabella to come with me, he thought. Isabella never swore an oath to the king.

    It was maddening, all the more so because he didn’t know what to do. If he went back, as ordered, he suspected he’d regret it. And if he didn’t go back ... he might face a mutiny. Or worse. And yet ... if something was wrong in Andalusia, it was his duty to do something about it. Lord Havant had been able to do a hell of a lot of damage in the Summer Isle. He dreaded to think how much damage someone else, someone like him, would be able to do in Andalusia. The fact they’d already subverted a king’s messenger boded ill for the future.

    There was a sharp knock at the door. Reginald tensed, one hand dropping to his sword. He’d given strict orders that he was not to be disturbed, in his quarters, for anything other than a full-scale emergency. He had so little time to himself that he valued what free moments he could snatch from a busy schedule. And privacy ... he’d rarely been alone, even as a teenager. He’d always been surrounded by friends, servants and his father’s mouthpieces, by prying eyes and listening ears ... Isabella had offered, once, to give him a permanent privacy ward. He’d been very tempted to take her up on it.

    “Come,” he barked.

    The door opened, revealing a pale young girl in a drab black dress who looked utterly terrified. Reginald blinked, then guessed she’d probably been sent as a messenger. It didn’t bode well. Normally, a girl so lowly wouldn’t be allowed to so much as meet his eyes. Whoever had sent her feared his reaction, then. Better to put the girl in harm’s way than put himself in danger. Reginald scowled as the girl stumbled through a curtsy, nearly tripping over herself and winding up on the floor. The stone would hurt, but the embarrassment would be far worse.

    “Your Majesty,” the girl stammered. “I ...”

    “Take a deep breath,” Reginald advised. Kindness cost nothing. Besides, his father had pointed out, more than once, that loyalty was worth any price. A king who was kind to his servants could expect loyalty in return. “And then give me your message.”

    The girl glanced up, remembered herself and looked down, hastily. Reginald concealed his amusement with an effort. If the poor girl, barely into her teens, thought he was laughing at her ...

    “Your Majesty, another ship is approaching,” the girl said. “She made it into the bay and headed to the dock.”

    Reginald turned and peered back out the window. There was another ship in the bay, but this one ... his heart clenched as he took in the sight before him. The ship had been battered savagely. The sails were a tattered mess, the mainmast mask shattered beyond repair ... it had been sheer luck, he guessed, that the foremast had lasted long enough for the ship to get into the bay. Even so ... the sailors were tiny, from the tower, but it still looked as though they’d been through hell.

    “Have her crew held, for the moment,” he ordered. The girl wouldn’t do it herself, of course. She’d take his orders to her superior. “And if there’s another messenger onboard, have him brought here under guard.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.” The girl bowed so low her head practically touched the floor. “I’ll see to it at once, Your Majesty.”

    She turned and scurried out the room. Reginald sighed, then headed to the door himself. He’d have to meet the newcomer, whoever it was, in the throne room ... his life really wasn’t his own. He wondered, as his bodyguard fell in around him, what would have happened if the Empire hadn’t fallen. Would he have been happy, playacting at being a king while the real power rested with the Court Wizard? Or would he have deserted his post and headed somewhere uncivilised? He would have been very tempted.

    And I’ll have to find out who sent that poor girl to me, he thought. The man needs a lesson in manners. And reassured that I don’t kill messengers.

    He took his seat and waited, calming himself as best as he could. Messengers popped in and out, keeping him updated. Reginald listened, without comment. The newcomer was being escorted to the tower ... it was a breach of protocol to have him searched without good reason, but he was being searched anyway. That didn’t sound good. Reginald kept one hand on his sword as the newcomer was finally shown into the chamber. He was a very familiar face.

    Reginald leaned forward. “Lord Greely?”

    Greely had been a young, dapper man when they’d first met. He’d been one of the noblemen who’d been raised with Reginald, both so the future king would know his future aristocracy and to serve as hostage for his father’s good behaviour. He’d never been one of Reginald’s closest friends, but they’d known each other. It was lucky, in a way. The idiot had made advances to Princess Sofia, Reginald’s sister, and only his family’s importance had kept him from being executed. Reginald had no idea what he would have done if one of his closest friends had made advances.

    And even if Sofia had been happy, he thought, she doesn’t get to choose who she marries.

    “Your Highness.” Lord Greely giggled, as if he’d just survived utter hell itself. Reginald clearly held no terrors for him. “You’re alive. They said you were dead.”

    He giggled, again. Reginald frowned, unable to reconcile the playboy of his memories with the half-mad person in front of him. Greely looked as if he’d forgotten how to wash himself, let alone how to dress. His swashbuckler’s outfit had been fashionable, once upon a time, but now ... it looked as if he’d been wearing it for days, if not weeks. And he stank of piss and shit and fear, naked fear. Reginald felt a flicker of sympathy. Greely had crossed the waves during a terrifying storm. He deserved a certain amount of respect.

    “Who said I was dead?” Reginald met Greely’s eyes. “What happened?”

    “I should have gone with you.” Greely chuckled. It was a deeply disturbing sound. “I was too much of a coward.”

    And I might not have been allowed to take you, Reginald added, silently. Father would have sent you into exile, or to the block, if you hadn’t had such a powerful family.

    “I should have gone further,” Greely said. “Your father’s gone mad.”

    Reginald straightened up. “What happened?”

    “I don’t know where to start,” Greely said. “I ...”

    “Start at the beginning.” Reginald remembered precisely why Greely and he had never been particularly close. The man had never been practical. And cowardly, too. He’d been useless on the battlefield. “And go on to the end, and stop.”

    “You set sail,” Greely said. “I suppose I was the lucky one, at first. I wasn’t welcome in court, so I bummed around the estate. Did a lot of drinking, as you can imagine. Deflowered a lot of lassies. You know how it is.”

    “Get to the point,” Reginald growled. He didn’t care what Greely had been doing during his exile. “Or I’ll have you put to the question.”

    The threat made Greely giggle. “A couple of months after you left, something happened. I’m not sure what. My old man was at court when ... it happened. He never came back. I ... I heard your father had gone mad, that Princess Sofia had assumed the regency. And ... and that you were dead. They said you’d died on this shithole of an island.”

    “Really,” Reginald said. It was easy to come up with a short list of people who gained from spreading rumours the Crown Prince was dead. Without Reginald ... he wasn’t sure who would have the best claim to the throne. It wasn’t as if he had a little brother. “Do continue.”

    “The princess moved quickly,” Greely continued. “A bunch of lords got killed, really - like really - quickly. Their ladies were taken hostage. A boatload of other ladies were taken hostage too, even though ... ah, ladies are less useful as hostages. And then she put a bunch of troops on the streets. They marched up and down, smashing old temples and building new ones. She even sent troops to my estate. I thought she hated me.”

    “She does,” Reginald confirmed, absently.

    “And so I fled to the docks,” Greely said. “I couldn’t believe you were dead. And I ...”

    Reginald lifted an eyebrow, a mannerism he’d copied from his father. “And ...?”

    Greely paled. “I thought ... I thought that enough of your army might have survived to give us a chance to retake the kingdom, even if you were dead. And I thought ...”

    “I’m surprised you thought at all,” Reginald said, dryly. Greely had just confessed to de jure treason. “Or were you planning to liberate my father from captivity?”

    “Yes, Your Highness.” Greely snatched at the lifeline with a desperation born of fear he might just have crossed a line. “He is the monarch. We are sworn to him ...”

    “Well, quite,” Reginald said. He knew from bitter experience that sworn oaths could be violated easily, unless they were reinforced by magic. The aristocracy were past masters at evading the spirit, if not the letter, of their oaths. “Who else is coming?”

    “There were nine ships,” Greely said. “And ... am I the only one?”

    “So far,” Reginald said. He had a feeling that Sir Handel wasn’t involved with Greely and his ... conspiracy. “The others may not have made it.”

    “You have to go back,” Greely said. His voice became pleading. “I don’t know what’s happened to your father, Your Highness, but your sister ... she can’t stay on the throne.”

    Not given that I’m the heir, Reginald thought, coldly. And if she’s holding Father prisoner ...

    He didn’t want to think about it. But there was no choice.
     
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  10. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    knelt, otherwise why tell him to rise in the next paragraph?

    Where did he come from, or did you mean "messenger"?

    grooms?

    instincts
     
  11. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    the a needs to be in the bay. (Sorry 'bout dat -- .)

    delete
     
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five

    “I’m sure there was supposed to be a road under here, Your Highness,” Sergeant Ruthven said. He’d taken over command of Reginald’s personal guard. “It appears to have vanished.”

    Reginald had to smile. “Either that or we’re dreadfully lost,” he said. “Did you get promoted to lieutenant when I wasn’t looking?”

    “I failed the exam to become an officer,” Sergeant Ruthven said. “I managed to read a map properly.”

    “A terrible failure,” Reginald agreed, dryly. He’d seen enough poorly-drawn maps, in the years since the entire world had fallen apart, to know that map-reading wasn’t always a useful skill. “I think the road is buried under the mud.”

    He sighed as he surveyed the countryside. He’d already started laying down plans for a better road network - he’d need them, when the time came to move troops around the island - but nothing had been done when winter rolled in and put a stop to almost everything. The primitive road was lost beneath a sea of mud and water, the latter filling the ditches and flooding what remained of the fields. He didn’t want to think about how much damage it was doing to the local farms, even though the locals were presumably used to it. A proper drainage system was also a must, clearly. He made a mental note to see to it as soon as possible.

    The horse picked up speed as they headed west, the bodyguards fanning out around him in fear they might be attacked at any moment. Reginald thought they were worried over nothing, but he knew better than to reject their protection. There was no shortage of people on the Summer Isle who wanted to kill him, either because they wanted power for themselves or simple revenge for his invasion. They didn’t recognise his kingdom’s rightful claim to the Summer Isle. The local aristocracy, those who’d survived, had pledged their loyalty, but Reginald didn’t trust them any further than he could throw them. The island had been a snake pit for centuries. It had even claimed the life of both of its former monarchs.

    They cantered past a thicket of trees, looking weak and pathetic in the sea of mud. It looked as if someone had been harvesting them for firewood, but the wood was so stained by water that he doubted the branches would burn well unless they were dried thoroughly first. He peered around, but saw no sign of any locals. They were probably hiding in the hills and forrests to the north or south, keeping their distance from strange men on horseback. Reginald didn’t really blame them. The locals had good reason to fear. His army was merely one of an endless series of invaders who killed men, raped women and devastated the surrounding fields. It would be different this time, Reginald was sure, but the locals wouldn’t believe it. Not at first. Perhaps not ever.

    “Your Highness!” Lord Greely sounded as if he was having the worst time of his life. “I thought you said this island had potential.”

    “It does,” Reginald growled. He’d spent two days trying to drag more out of Lord Greely, only to discover that the idiot hadn’t been paying attention to courtly politics until it was far too late to learn anything useful. His mother or grandmother would have been far more informative. Reginald had hated the elder women around court, but he couldn’t deny their skill at keeping abreast of what was actually going on. “Just you wait until we have time to do some proper work.”

    A lump of ice formed in his chest as he contemplated the future. He’d assumed he’d have at least five years on the Summer Isle, long enough to teach the aristocracy the perils of defying him and convince the peasants that he had their best interests in mind. It wouldn’t be that difficult. Cutting taxes and tithes in half alone would do wonders for public opinion, insofar as it mattered. But now ... he gritted his teeth as the wind picked up, blowing cold droplets of water into his face. He was going to have to leave someone behind to rule the island, someone who wouldn’t have the prestige of being Crown Prince. That person wasn’t going to have an easy time of it even if he didn’t try to build a power base of his own.

    He felt his head start to pound in frustration. No wonder his father had always looked like an angry bear with a toothache, even when he wasn’t responding to Reginald’s childish misdeeds. It wouldn’t be easy to pick someone to serve as de facto regent, let alone entrust them with the power to keep the aristocracy in line. Anyone with the rank and title to do it would have ambitions of his own. It was human nature to want power. And to look down on someone who tried to wield power without rank and title.

    The sergeant would make an excellent regent, he thought, sourly. But everyone would be too busy defying him to actually do as they were told.

    The landscape changed slowly as they continued their ride west. The giant lakes of slushy water and mud gave way to sodden fields, half-covered in snow and ice. Winter might be losing its grip on the countryside, but it wasn’t going without a fight. The hell of it was that he might have preferred to travel in the dead of winter, despite the cold. Muddy fields, impassable roads and invisible ditches, lying in wait for a careless rider, would pose all sorts of problems if he had to move the army east. He didn’t dare ride too fast for fear of being thrown from the horse.

    “So, what are you going to do?” Lord Greely rode up next to him, as if they were friends. “Your father ...”

    “I know,” Reginald growled. Perhaps he should have left Lord Greely behind. But there was no way he could be trusted, not in Racal’s Bay. He would have been, technically, the senior nobleman. He could have caused all sorts of problems if he’d tried to assume command of the garrison. Reginald would have broken his nose, if not his neck, but by then the damage would have been done. “I’m still thinking about it.”

    He turned his gaze to the horizon, his eyes passing over a handful of burned-out shacks and barns. It looked as if they’d been destroyed during the invasion, although it was hard to tell. The local commoners built well - he’d give them that much - even though most of their farmhouses looked as if one gust of wind would blow them over. They probably didn’t want to look too prosperous. A show of wealth attracted parasites - taxmen - like shit attracted flies. He hoped the owners were safe, wherever they were. Too many people had fled to the forest during the invasion and insurgency. It wouldn’t be long before they took to banditry.

    Not that there’s much to steal, he thought, as they passed through the remains of what might have been a farm. It was hard to tell. The hints of seed corn - dead now - amongst the mud weren’t enough to make him sure. There’s nothing worth taking for miles around.

    The weather grew worse as they kept moving, the wind growing colder despite his heavy clothing. He rubbed the horse’s fur, hoping the beast would hold out until they reached the inn. The skies were growing darker, the gloomy clouds pregnant with snow. It was hard to believe, deep inside, that winter was truly gone. He wondered, as Sergeant Ruthven took them off the road, if they were going to die in the countryside. The cold was bleeding into his body and soul. It was hard to feel concerned about the prospect of freezing to death.

    “There’s a farm over there, Your Highness,” Sergeant Ruthven said. “I think we’ll have to stop there for the night.”

    “Yeah.” Reginald ignored Lord Greely’s snort of protest. Snow was already starting to fall lightly, drifting down from high above. It would get worse very quickly. “Take us there.”

    The farm looked surprisingly prosperous, he noted, as they cantered up to the small cluster of buildings. A single large farmhouse, surrounded by banked earth; a handful of barns, half-hidden within a thicket of trees. The fields themselves were covered by snow, but he could make out the boundary markers easily. He was surprised the farm had survived the warring armies of the last few years. They weren’t that far from the road. Maybe they’d just been lucky.

    Sure, his thoughts mocked him. Or maybe there’s something else at work.

    A man emerged from the farmhouse, wrapped in so many layers of clothes that - for a moment - Reginald honestly couldn’t tell if he was male or female. It wasn’t until he saw the beard that he was sure. He looked like most peasants, his face pockmarked by disease and deprivation. He blanched, then bowed low as he spotted the horsemen. Reginald was sure he wanted to tell the womenfolk to run and hide, if they hadn’t set off already. The poor bastard had no way to know - and no reason to believe - that they came in peace.

    “We beg shelter for the night,” Sergeant Ruthven said. “A barn would ...”

    “A barn?” Lord Greely sounded astonished. “A barn? We’re ...”

    “Be quiet,” Reginald snapped.

    Sergeant Ruthven talked briefly to the farmer, who - reluctantly - pointed the small party to the nearest barn. A handful of pigs sat inside, sleeping on straw or wallowing in mud. The stench made Reginald recoil - behind him, he heard Lord Greely choking - but he knew damn well they should be grateful for any shelter. Besides, he didn’t want to force their way into the farmhouse itself. They were alone, miles from any support. The gods alone knew what might happen if they pressed the locals too far.

    The gods alone, his thoughts mocked him. That means something different now, doesn’t it?

    “Tell them not to worry about feeding us,” Reginald ordered, as he dismounted and marched the horse into the barn. “We have food with us for a few days.”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Sergeant Ruthven said.

    “We could kill one of the pigs,” Lord Greely said. “I fancy roast pork ...”

    “No,” Reginald said. “And I mean it.”

    He told himself, again, that he’d slept in worse places as he found a comfortable position on the straw. There was no point in being prideful, not now. The barn was reassuringly solid, but he could hear the howling gale outside as they lit a fire to warm themselves. He wondered, again, just how the farm had managed to survive for so long. It didn’t look like something that had been put together in a few months of backbreaking labour. It looked and felt like a farm that had been in the family for generations.

    The door opened, slowly. A young girl entered, carrying a large bucket of water. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, wearing a headscarf and a dress so old and shapeless that it had probably been passed down from her grandmother. Her face was absolutely terrified. It struck Reginald that she might be the sacrifice, sent to the soldiers to serve them in the hopes they’d leave her younger siblings and cousins alone. He felt his stomach heave in disgust. He wanted to throw up. No one should have to do that, not even when law and order had broken down. Things would be different, when he was firmly in control. A naked virgin with a bag of corn in one hand and a bag of gold in the other would be able to walk from one end of the island to the other without being molested.

    “Leave the water, then return to your father,” he ordered, shortly. “You have nothing to fear.”

    The girl didn’t look as though she believed him. She didn’t look as though she recognised him either. Reginald knew he had an ego, but ... why would a random girl from the Summer Isle recognise her rightful prince? She’d probably never seen a picture of King Edwin or King Rufus, let alone Reginald himself. It struck him she’d probably never seen a picture of anyone. Her entire world was the farm and the surrounding fields. She’d probably never even been to the nearest town.

    He frowned as the girl left, feeling an odd little prickle running down her spine. Something wasn’t quite right. He rested a hand on the pommel of his sword as he looked around, trying to spot ... he wasn’t sure what he was looking for. There didn’t seem to be anything out of place, as far as he could tell. And yet ... the wind howled louder, gusts striking the wooden barn and shaking the building to its foundations. It felt as if someone was smashing the walls with a hammer. He glanced at Sergeant Ruthven, who looked as spooked as Reginald himself. There was no visible danger, but it was impossible to relax.

    “Stay here,” Reginald muttered.

    He crossed to the door and peered outside. The blizzard was stronger, yet ... his eyes narrowed as he realised he could see all the way to the farmhouse and, beyond, the edge of the forest. Night was falling rapidly. In the semi-darkness, the forest looked alien, something utterly inhuman. The branches seemed to be moving of their own accord. He tensed, remembering what he’d seen during the war. Was the entire forest alive? Or was it being animated by one of the entities?

    A flicker of movement caught his eye. The girl - he thought it was the girl - was standing by the edge of the trees, her back to him. She was kneeling, holding up her arms in supplication. The trees seemed to bend towards her, the branches brushing the top of her head. She’d lost her headscarf somewhere, her hair blowing loosely in the wind. It crossed his mind that that was odd, amongst the peasants. A woman with uncovered hair was a noblewoman or a whore. But the girl seemed unbothered by something her male relatives would probably have regarded as nakedness. The sight chilled Reginald to the bone.

    Lord Greely appeared beside him. “What’s she doing?”

    “I don’t know,” Reginald lied. He had a feeling he did know. The farm was under the protection of something far greater than a noble lord. He could see hints of things within the growing darkness. “But I think we should leave as soon as possible.”

    The girl rose, turning to look towards him. Reginald froze, torn between the desire to run and the urge to fight. An entity couldn’t be good news, not here. But ... the girl merely nodded to him, as if they were equals, as she made her slow way back to the farmhouse. It wasn’t just her, Reginald realised, numbly. The entire family paid homage to the entities. Or at least one entity. He glanced back at the forest, grimly aware they were being watched. It wasn’t remotely safe. And yet ... he shook his head as he led the way back into the barn and closed the door. They were probably safe, as long as they left the family alone.

    “I want two men on watch at all times, with cold iron in their hands,” he ordered, shortly. It was hard to hide his nerves from experienced men. He had the feeling they saw right through his poise. “And everyone is to stay in the barn until we actually leave. No going out and chasing the local girls.”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Sergeant Ruthven said.

    Reginald lay on the straw, trying to ignore the smell. He was going to stink tomorrow, but ... he was used to that. No one would notice, not while they were on the road. And ... he felt his thoughts start to wander as he closed his eyes. The entity outside seemed ... maybe not friendly, not towards him, but not particularly hostile either. He wasn’t sure what made him feel that way. The entity itself, perhaps. And ...

    He jumped as Lord Greely nudged him. “What are we going to do?”

    “Get some sleep,” Reginald snapped. It wasn’t the answer his former friend wanted, but it would have to do. He wasn’t going to pick a fight with an entity of unknown power if it could be avoided. Live and let live was the order of the day. It was simple prudence, driven by fear of the unknown. “We have a long ride tomorrow morning.”

    He frowned, inwardly. Who really ruled the island? Him? Or the entities? If the farmers were trading worship for protection ... who really ruled? Would the entity protect the farm when the taxmen came calling? It probably had protected the farm, since well before King Edwin’s death. The farm shouldn’t have survived, not so close to the road. Something had definitely protected it from taxmen and other parasites. The poor farmers should never have survived the wars.

    And if they are protected by the entity, he asked himself, who’s really in charge?

    It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Peasants - and serfs - weren’t allowed to leave their farms. They did, of course. They wanted to serve masters who actually let them keep something for themselves, masters who treated them with a little dollop of human kindness ... Reginald shivered, remembering just how vile most of the island’s lords had been. They’d treated runaways worse than murderers and rapists, because runaways struck at the very heart of their economy. No wonder the serfs were turning to the entities. Who knew what might be brewing under his feet, now Lord Havant and his followers were gone?

    And who, he asked himself, could blame them?

    He closed his eyes, but it was a long time before he got any sleep.
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six

    “The prince,” someone called, as the small cluster of horsemen came into view. “The prince!”

    Isabella stood on the battlements and watched the horsemen canter towards the city, one of them unfurling a large banner to show that it was indeed Prince Reginald, Lord of the Summer Isle, returning to his city. The handful of people on the streets cheered loudly, although she rather suspected that most of the population had remained indoors. There were more guards and soldiers on the streets than civilians. She smiled to herself, then headed down to the courtyard as Reginald galloped through the streets and led his men through the castle gates. She owed it to him to be there when he arrived.

    Particularly as few others will come onto the streets to greet him, she thought, making her way down the stairs. The locals aren’t convinced he’ll stay in power.

    It wasn’t a groundless concern, she knew. She’d spent some time over the last few months studying the island’s history. The Summer Isle had had hundreds of kings, including a number who’d only reigned for a handful of days or weeks before being overthrown and replaced by successors who hadn’t lasted much longer. Allenstown itself had changed hands so many times that the newcomers hadn’t even managed to stamp their personalities on the city before being booted out by their replacements. Isabella knew Reginald was different, that he had a loyal army and a shortage of significant enemies, but still ... she didn’t blame the locals for being wary. Anyone who cheered too loudly might find himself bisected when the next monarch took power. It was a minor miracle that anyone was left alive in Allenstown.

    Reginald had already cantered into the courtyard when she reached the bottom of the stairs, sliding off his horse and dropping to the ground. Isabella surprised herself by giving him a hug, despite the watching crowd. Reginald smelt terrible, but that was common. A man who’d spent three days on horseback could hardly be expected to smell sweet. She would have been surprised if he didn’t stink.

    “It’s good to see you again,” she said, feeling her heart sink. “We have to talk.”

    “We all have to talk,” Reginald said. He glanced at Captain-General Gars. “We’re having a meeting in two hours. Tell everyone.”

    “Yes, Your Highness.” Captain-General Gars slammed a fist into his chest in salute. “It will be done.”

    Reginald looked ... awkward. “Lady Sorceress, this is Lord Greely, a ... friend of mine from home.”

    Isabella glanced at Lord Greely, decided she didn’t like him on sight, then looked at Reginald. “From home?”

    “I sailed the channel to bring you word,” Lord Greely said. “All is not well ...”

    “You can tell your story at the meeting,” Reginald said, cutting him off. “Until then, my people will show you to your suite. Have a wash and wait.”

    Lord Greely looked as if he wanted to object, but didn’t quite dare in front of a growing audience. Reginald didn’t give him time to muster his courage. He took Isabella’s hand and led her back up the stairs, back to his quarters. Isabella was torn between amusement and irritation. She could look after herself, and she had no intention of becoming a pretty bauble on his arm, but part of her enjoyed the attention. She knew it wasn’t going to last. The looming shadow she’d seen over Andalusia boded ill.

    A maid met them at the door. “Your Highness,” she said, dropping a deep curtsy. “Do you wish a bath ...?”

    “I do,” Reginald said, gravely. “Just fill the tub with cold water.”

    Isabella felt a flicker of pity, mingled with grim amusement at the island’s backwardness. Hot and cold running water was common on the mainland, but here ... the poor maid and her comrades would have to carry the water from the well to the prince’s quarters. They were lucky they didn’t have to heat the water first. She’d see to that, with a simple spell. She watched the maid scurry away, then followed Reginald into his chambers. The rooms were smaller than he might have expected, but she’d never heard him complain. There were worse places to be.

    And he was nearly killed here, she reminded herself. He knows better than to be completely alone.

    “There have been developments,” she said, perching on the bed and trying not to watch as he undressed. His tunic was so thoroughly stained with mud that she doubted it could be cleaned magically, let alone washed without magic. “I saw a shadow hanging over Andalusia.”

    She outlined what had happened, as carefully as possible. Reginald listened, asking a handful of questions when she’d finished. He was good at teasing out information, at making her realise she knew more than she’d thought. Her memories had faded, but ... she allowed herself a moment of relief that she’d written everything down as quickly as possible. She didn’t want to forgot what she’d seen.

    “And two ships made it through the storms,” Reginald mused, when she’d finished. “One ship, with a messenger summoning me home; another ship, with an old acquaintance who warned me about trouble back home. And both of them want me to go home.”

    “I imagine one of them wants you to bring an army,” Isabella said. A line of maids started coming in and out of the rooms, carrying buckets of cold water. “What do you intend to do?”

    “If my father is in danger ...” Reginald swallowed, hard. “I can’t leave him in danger.”

    Isabella kept her face carefully blank. Her father had been a nightmare, an abusive monster who’d seen his children - male and female alike - as nothing more than tools. He’d tried to steer her life, with everything from threats and beatings when she refused to obey, to the point where she’d had to cause a major scandal just to escape his plans for her life. She found it hard to understand Reginald’s obvious love for his father ... she felt a twinge of guilt at wondering, deep inside, if part of him might be relieved if his father passed on. Reginald had spent his entire life training for a job, but it was a job he couldn’t hold as long as his father remained alive.

    And his father wasn’t a monster, she reminded herself, sharply. Just because your father was a bastard doesn’t mean that all fathers are bastards.

    “And Sofia too,” Reginald added. “I can’t leave her in danger.”

    Isabella stood and paced into the bathroom as the last of the maids departed. The bath looked silly - a wrought-iron tub, rather than the china baths she remembered from home - but it was large enough for two. She dipped her fingers in the icy water, muttering a spell she’d mastered when she was a little girl. The water grew warmer, steadily growing hotter and hotter until she yanked her fingers out. She was tempted, very tempted, to join him in the bath, but common decency forbade it. Someone would notice, damn it. Someone would notice and talk and it would cause problems ...

    “The water’s warm,” she said, sitting down just outside the bathroom. “If your sister is the regent ...”

    “She shouldn’t be the regent.” Reginald paced past her and clambered into the bathtub. She heard water splashing to the floor as he settled in the tub. “She’s a girl.”

    Isabella scowled. “What does that have to do with it?”

    “She can’t wield power, not as regent or queen,” Reginald said. “Her husband - when she gets married - will wield power in her name.”

    “Really, now.” Isabella wasn’t impressed. Maybe Reginald’s father was a bastard after all. Her father had been a bastard to his sons, as well as his daughters. The thought there might be worse bastards out there was horrific. “I’m sure she’s smart enough to run a kingdom.”

    “Not if people refuse to listen to her,” Reginald said. “And a weakling on the throne is asking for civil war.”

    “Maybe she got married,” Isabella said. “And her husband is the regent.”

    “I don’t think so,” Reginald said. She could hear splashing as he spoke. “Her husband would automatically become the third man in the kingdom - the second, after I became king. Father always said that I would have a say in who my sister married, as he would be either a close ally or a deadly threat. She wouldn’t have been married without my consent.”

    Isabella rolled her eyes. “Because the gods forbid she might have opinions of her own.”

    Reginald said nothing for a long moment. “What she wants doesn’t matter. What I want doesn’t matter. We both have to get married for the good of the realm, not for personal feelings.”

    “And there I was, thinking you were in love with me,” Isabella said, more tartly than she’d intended. “Or were we lucky enough to have both a love match and a ... good of the realm match?”

    “Yes.” Reginald sounded confident. “You have many advantages as well as my heart.”

    Isabella snorted, then changed the subject. “The entities have reached Andalusia.”

    “It looks that way,” Reginald said. “Some things are different, but ... it sounds very much like what happened here. Temples being smashed, newer ones being built ... people ordered to worship ... Isabella, Sofia was a religious fanatic before. What is she like now?”

    Isabella remembered Queen Emetine and shuddered. “It certainly sounds as though your sister had cause to be resentful,” she said. Queen Emetine had resented her position too, from what she’d said when she’d been a prisoner. She’d been easy prey for the entities when they’d manifested on the Summer Isle. “And now she has power.”

    “At a price,” Reginald said. “She could tear the kingdom apart.”

    “Or unite it under her banner.” Isabella smiled as she heard him squawk in protest. “I’m just pointing it out.”

    “Hah.” Reginald didn’t sound pleased. “You know as well as I do that she’s not just a fanatic, not if the entities are involved. She’s a fanatic with real power.”

    “And one with a cause,” Isabella reminded him. “And she’ll have no trouble finding supporters.”

    “I doubt it,” Reginald said. “Half the lords in the kingdom will be pissed she didn’t marry one of them. The rest will be plotting rebellion because they won’t think she has the fire to keep them in line.”

    Isabella lifted her eyebrows, although she knew he couldn’t see her. “They couldn’t all marry her.”

    “No, but each and every one of them thought they could marry the king’s daughter,” Reginald said, sourly. “As long as Sofia remained unmarried, there was always a prospect the king might toss her to one of his lords in exchange for ... something. It’s hard to think of anything that might be worth the reward, but ... I’m sure they could think of something. And now ... whoever marries her will be regent.”

    Isabella frowned. Reginald, like most men, seemed to underestimate women. It had never been a problem in the Golden City, where sorcerers and sorceresses had ruled their families with rods of iron, but outside ... she’d had to fight, literally, to earn respect when she’d become a mercenary. Reginald, on the other hand, had grown up in a world where princesses were nothing more than bargaining chips, every important decision in their lives made for them by their male relatives. And lower-ranking women? Who cared what they thought, about anything? She was sure it was something that would come back to bite him, hard, if it hadn’t already. It certainly had bitten King Edwin. His wife had effectively murdered him.

    “If she has an entity behind her, she’s going to be more than any mere lord could handle,” Isabella thought. They’d learnt enough to make life difficult for the entities, but they were still awesomely dangerous. The aristocrats on the mainland would be fighting blind. “And even without an entity, she might be able to take control of the king’s armies.”

    “How?” Reginald clambered out the tub. “She can’t give orders to the men.”

    “She can find someone else to give orders in her name,” Isabella said. Sir Robin, her former commander, had planned to marry a wealthy heiress, once upon a time. He would have commanded her guards and protected her ... she shook her head. The world had been much simpler before the entities had started manifesting. “A mercenary, perhaps. Someone who would be loyal to her, if only because he’d have nothing else.”

    “She wouldn’t lower herself,” Reginald said. “She wouldn’t marry anyone less than a ...”

    “Maybe she wants someone who will do as he’s told,” Isabella said, dryly. “Or someone who has to stay with her, because without her he’s nothing.”

    Reginald stalked back into the chamber, a towel wrapped around his waist. Isabella looked, despite herself. Reginald was fit and healthy, as far as she could tell, but his back was covered in scars. She felt a sudden urge to stand and trace them with her fingers, to enjoy the proof that he was more than just a glorified pretty boy. No one could deny that Reginald had nerve, not when he constantly put himself in the midst of battle. She’d met plenty of noblemen who were cowards. Reginald wasn’t one of them.

    “I have to do everything in my power to save my sister,” Reginald said. He dropped the towel on the floor and hastily donned a set of underclothes, followed by trousers and a shirt. “And if that means heading back home with an army ...”

    “If you go without an army, you’ll be killed in a heartbeat.” Isabella had no doubt of it. If the legitimate heir returned home, the usurper would have to kill him or risk civil war. The hell of it was that the nobility might prefer Sofia as their ruler, if they saw her as weak and foolish. A strong king was one who could keep the nobility in line. “I’m sure your father will understand.”

    Reginald shot her a sidelong glance. “What if he’s dead?”

    “You have to hope for the best,” Isabella said. She felt her heart clench. Ritual magic was all about symbolism. If someone could craft wonders, or nightmares, with virgin’s blood ... what could one do with a king’s blood? “As long as the king is alive, or believed to be alive, the nobility won’t be sure what to do. They certainly won’t be sure who’s in charge.”

    “I suppose.” Reginald didn’t sound convinced. “Sofia will need time to build a power base ...”

    His voice trailed off. Isabella understood. Reginald didn’t really believe that his sister could have taken power, not in her own right. And he might be right, if the entities were involved. Sofia might be a puppet, her strings pulled by something lurking in the godly realm. And yet ... it was going to cripple him, if he couldn’t wrap his head around the fact his sister might be his enemy. He’d hesitate, when the time came to strike the killing blow. Isabella felt a flicker of pity, mingled with the grim awareness that hesitation might be fatal. The entities were just too powerful to be taken lightly.

    And they can do things no sorcerer can do, she mused. Sofia wasn’t a sorceress, but ... the entities could have given her power. A few thunderbolts and the new regime will be accepted without resistance.

    She gritted her teeth. “What were you planning to tell them about me?”

    Reginald blinked, taken aback by the sudden change in subject. “What do you mean?”

    “When you told the aristocracy you were going to marry me,” Isabella said. “What were you going to tell them?”

    “The truth,” Reginald said. “That you’re highly qualified to be queen. That you have strong blood ties to the Golden City. That you don’t have blood ties to the aristocracy here, which means that no one has been spited ... well, that they’ve all been spited, but spited equally. None of them would become my father-in-law, so ...”

    “I get the point,” Isabella said. “It won’t change the balance of power.”

    “Not really.” Reginald shrugged as he buckled his sword to his belt. “I wish things were different ...”

    Isabella snorted. “You wish you were a commoner, rather than a prince?”

    Reginald had the grace to look embarrassed. “Father told me that being king was like being in prison, only with better food. I thought he was talking nonsense. But ... if you’re king and you want to actually stay on the throne ... yes, you are a prisoner. And the only person who can make you do your chores” - he smiled, rather wanly - “is yourself. You don’t get the prison guards unless you get booted off the throne and straight to the executioner’s block.”

    “True, I suppose.” Isabella stood, brushing down her trousers. “How do you intend to cross the channel?”

    “I don’t know,” Reginald said. “That’s something we’re going to have to discuss.”

    And hope we can come up with an answer, Isabella said.

    There was a knock on the door. “Your Highness?”

    Reginald opened the door. “Yes?”

    “Your officers are waiting for you,” a messenger said. “I ...”

    “Good.” Reginald cut him off, effortlessly. “I’m on my way.”

    He glanced at Isabella. “Are you coming?”

    “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Isabella said. She held out her arm. “Shall we go?”

    Reginald gave her a quick kiss. Isabella felt her body respond, reminding her that it had been too long. The cold days and colder nights had made her want someone in her bed ... she kissed him back, just long enough to promise the world when they had time and privacy. He met her eyes, returning the promise. His hands twitched towards her, then stopped. He didn’t have time for anything, save for his duty. And he was a dutiful man.

    His voice was thick, as if he didn’t believe what he was saying. “Yes. I think we should.”
     
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Seven

    Reginald had rebelled against protocol as a young man, although - as he’d grown older - he’d come to appreciate protocol’s role in keeping everyone in their place. His father had made it clear that he was the second man in the kingdom - and he would be the first, when he took the throne. There was no one, not even his wife, who would ever be his equal ... and he would only ever have one superior, as long as his father was alive. He understood the value of protocol and yet ... he also understood its limits. The socially inferior would hesitate to question their superiors even when their superiors were clearly in the wrong.

    He stepped into the room, Isabella on his arm. The meeting room wasn’t much - a long wooden table, a cluster of wooden chairs, a roaring fire in the grate - but it was usable, big enough to accommodate his closest friends, supporters and allies without being dauntingly large. Or, for that matter, large enough to force him to invite others who might not be as supportive as he wished. His father had warned him, more than once, that he would spend most of his life surrounded by people who wanted to use him, from social climbers to fairweather friends and knock-kneed allies who’d turn their coat at the merest hint of weakness. Here, at least, he knew most of his allies intimately. Earl Oxley and Isabella herself were the only ones he hadn’t known for years.

    “Be seated,” he ordered, as they rose. “We have much to cover.”

    He showed Isabella to her seat, then took the throne-line chair at the end of the table. He’d never met anyone quite like her before, someone he could trust to tell him the truth - as she saw it - rather than a flattering lie. And she had good connections as well as a ... he pushed the thought aside, sharply. He didn’t dare show weakness, not here. Earl Oxley was a potential enemy, if he thought he saw weakness. The man had to have realised, by now, that he would never enjoy the freedoms he’d had under King Edwin unless something happened to Reginald. Reginald would be surprised if the man wasn’t plotting. He was the kind of person to whom plots came as easily as breathing.

    “I received two messengers from home four days ago,” he said, once everyone had returned to their seats. He ran through a brief outline of what had happened. “Things are not well in Andalusia.”

    And Sir Handel was clearly touched by the entities, he added, silently. The entire kingdom is in serious danger.

    “My father is apparently being held prisoner,” he continued. “And the entities appear to be ... influencing ... my sister.”

    He nodded to Lord Greely. “If you would tell them what you told me ...?”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Lord Greely said. “I was in my estate, minding my own business, when ...”

    Reginald listened with half an ear, preferring to watch his followers and assess their reactions to Lord Greely’s story. They’d all seen the entities and their twisted servants, directly or indirectly; they’d all watched, helplessly, as men had been killed by forces beyond their comprehension. A story that would have been fantastical only a year ago was now all too easy to believe. Andalusia was falling into darkness. They believed him. The only question was what they should - or could - do about it.

    “And so we tried to come here, to you,” Lord Greely finished. “I appear to have been the only one who made it.”

    “That’s not surprising.” Admiral Tanoan looked grim. “The channel isn’t an easy crossing at the best of times. Crossing in the midst of a storm ...”

    Reginald nodded, feeling a twinge of disquiet. “We count ourselves lucky that you reached us,” he said, sincerely. Lord Greely was an ass, but he might have saved Reginald’s life. “If the others should happen to make it, we will - of course - welcome them too.”

    Lord Greely bowed. “Of course, Your Highness.”

    “But you have orders to return home,” Academic Milhous said. “Should you not obey?”

    Reginald allowed himself a moment of relief. Someone had been practically certain to ask that question ... and, thankfully, it had been a man with little support and no real power base. It would have been a great deal harder to circumvent objections from the Captain-Generals or the Admiral. The question was a reasonable one - he admitted that, at least to himself - and a harder one to answer than he would have wished ...

    “Sir Handel is not in his right mind,” Reginald said, simply. “And I have grave reasons to doubt that my father sent the message. Amongst other things” - he shot Academic Milhous a look that killed a renewed objection before it could be born - “the text lacked certain codewords we use to confirm both the sender and the validity of the message. I am certain” - he allowed his voice to harden - “that my father did not send the message.”

    He paused. “Should I be in error, the mistake will be mine and mine alone.”

    There was a long pause. No one spoke.

    Reginald relaxed, slightly. He’d feared more objections. Going back with an army at their back could easily be defined as treason, particularly if they lost. King Romulus would not be happy, even if they discovered the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake and disbanded the army as soon as they arrived. And there were limits to how much punishment the king could pour on his only son. Reginald wasn’t a child any longer. Humiliating him would only make it harder for him to take the throne without a fight.

    And so my followers would serve as my whipping boys, he thought, grimly. And if that happens ...

    He dismissed the thought and leaned forward. “Captain-General Gars. How many men can we muster in a hurry?”

    Captain-General Gars didn’t need to think before answering. “We can muster upwards of six thousand men within a week, Your Highness, if we muster them at Allenstown. There’s another five hundred at Racal’s Bay. The remainder were parcelled out to garrison various points of interest - gathering them will take around three weeks to a month.”

    “And then we’ll be leaving large parts of the island without a garrison,” Isabella said, quietly.

    “The islanders are loyal,” Earl Oxley insisted. “They welcomed their rightful king.”

    Kindly remove your tongue from my ass, Reginald thought, coldly. He was pretty sure Earl Oxley was flattering him, presumably hoping that Reginald would leave him as regent or pull out the entire army. And if I leave you at my back, you’ll stick a knife in me.

    “We came with a much larger army,” Admiral Tanoan protested. “Where did they go?”

    “Some are dead,” Gars countered. “Some claimed their packets of land as they left the army. And some just chose to desert.”

    “We are training new recruits,” Captain-General Stuart said. The Master of Horse looked cross. He hadn’t really wanted the job. “If we speed up their training, Your Highness, we might be able to muster another two to three thousand men.”

    “All of whom will be chopped to ribbons by the Royal Army,” Gars objected. “They’re nowhere near ready to depart.”

    “And not all of them will want to leave the island,” Earl Oxley said. “King Edwin had the greatest difficulty in convincing his soldiers to serve outside their homelands, let alone the island itself.”

    Reginald nodded, slowly. King Edwin had been a weak king, lacking the stomach to bang heads together until his noblemen accepted his rule, but ... he hadn’t had the resources Reginald and his father took for granted. An army that wouldn’t leave its barracks was useless, in the long run; a king who couldn’t overawe his nobility was a king who had no power, outside his city. And perhaps none inside it too. An army was a double-edged sword. A king who lost control could easily lose his head.

    “Gars, assemble five thousand men,” he said. It would pose a logistics challenge, but - thankfully - their supplies should hold out till spring. “Stuart, ask for volunteers amongst the new recruits. Offer extra bounties and suchlike to men who cross the channel with us. The remainder of the force will be folded into the island garrison. They can hold the line here while we’re gone.”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Gars said.

    “I can raise additional troops,” Earl Oxley offered. “And reinforce the garrisons ...”

    “Perhaps you could,” Reginald said. It was hard to hide his irritation. On the surface, the offer looked very reasonable. But it would put too much power into the earl’s hands. “You will, of course, remain here. My regent will need your advice.”

    A flash of anger, quickly hidden, crossed Earl Oxley’s face. He couldn’t refuse, not when Reginald had made a very reasonable request ... a request he knew came with a sting in the tail. The earl couldn’t cause trouble if he was right under the regent’s nose, a hostage for his family’s good behaviour ... Reginald made a mental note to ensure his commanders had clear orders detailing what they were to do when - if - the earl rebelled. Devastating his lands from one end to the other would be harsh, but it would keep him from causing trouble in the long run.

    He turned his gaze to Admiral Tanoan. “How many ships can you put to sea?”

    Admiral Tanoan looked deeply worried. “Your Highness ... we have around four hundred ships in various protected anchorages,” he said. “The remainder of the fleet was sent him once we had a secure lodgement. However, getting them concentrated at one point will be difficult and ... and I cannot guarantee crossing the channel safely. We might lose the entire fleet to the storm.”

    Reginald gritted his teeth. The admiral was right. There was no way he could guarantee a safe crossing. Hell, there was no way he could guarantee that Reginald himself would survive the crossing. And if he died ...

    We could lose everything on a single throw of the dice, he thought, sourly. And there would be a mutiny if I tried to force soldiers onto the ships and sailors to sea.

    “We could wait for spring,” Lord Greely suggested.

    “It is spring,” Gars growled.

    “Crossing the channel has never been safe,” Stuart pointed out. “We can do it. We did it once already ...”

    “Yes, during summer,” Admiral Tanoan insisted. “Realistically, we should wait at least two months for the storm to die down.”

    Which it might not, Reginald thought. He’d seen the faces in the storm. There was nothing natural about it. Lord Havant had done something - Reginald dreaded to think what - and the effects had lingered, even after the man’s death. And if we wait two months, what will happen to the kingdom?

    He kept his face under tight control. It was hard to believe that Sofia had really taken the regency. His little sister was ... well, his little sister. It was far more likely that something else had happened, from her being married without his consent to Lord Greely simply being mistaken. And yet, he knew his sister had been deeply religious. What would she have done if she’d encountered the entities? And ...

    Reginald looked down at his hands. He’d been a prisoner of his rank and station for his entire life, but ... he’d been free, compared to his sisters. They’d been prisoners too, without the rewards he’d enjoyed. Their lives had been so tightly constrained that ... he felt his heart twist at the thought. He’d never really realised that they might have resented their treatment, that ... they might have sought a way to rebel. And the entities had provided it.

    I’m sorry, he thought. Things will be better ...

    He looked up. “Prepare your plans, Admiral,” he ordered. “We’ll cross the channel when we come to it.”

    “Yes, Your Highness.” Admiral Tanoan really didn’t sound pleased. “I’d suggest that we refrain from concentrating the ships at Racal’s Bay. It will limit the time they spend on the open waters.”

    “I trust your judgement,” William said.

    “Magic,” Gars said, suddenly. He looked at Isabella. “Can you cast a spell to get us across the waters?”

    “No,” Isabella said. “Not in the sense you mean, at least. The waves are just too strong.”

    And in what sense do you mean? Reginald wanted to ask, but he knew it would have to wait until they were alone. Do you have something up your sleeve?

    He looked around the table, silently assessing his followers. It wasn’t easy to choose a regent. Isabella, Gars and Stuart needed to accompany him ... Sergeant Ruthven would have been ideal, but without a title he would be easily outshone by the aristocrats. Earl Oxley would have been perfect if Reginald dared trust him. It was almost a shame he couldn’t leave Isabella behind. Her magic would have made her the equal of any aristocrat.

    “Captain-General Jones, you will serve as my regent,” Reginald said. The Master of Food was probably the best choice, although he wasn’t the best soldier. Given a skilled subordinate, he could keep the aristocracy in line until Reginald returned. “We’ll discuss specific orders later, but your priority will be keeping the island under control, building better roads and generally relaxing the laws on land ownership.”

    He could practically feel Earl Oxley’s displeasure, but ignored it. “In the long run, I hope to return and resume developing the island into a modern nation. The Summer Isle has great potential. We can and we will work to develop it.”

    And if we slaughter the aristocrats, he added in the privacy of his own mind, it will be a very good start.

    Captain-General Jones looked astonished. “Your Highness ...”

    “It isn’t a job for a soldier,” Reginald assured him. “It requires an expert in logistics.”

    “Thank you, Your Highness.” Captain-General Jones managed to bow, even though he was sitting down. “I won’t fail you.”

    Reginald nodded. Jones was clever enough to avoid the obvious mistakes, high-ranking enough to keep his subordinates from objecting to serving under him and calculating enough to refrain from starting a war if he felt insulted. Not perfect, but ... there was no such thing as a perfect choice for anything. Reginald would have preferred to remain himself, learning the ropes for the day he succeeded his father. But that was no longer an option.

    “Earl Oxley will advise you,” Reginald said. “I’ll assign the rest of your subordinates later.”

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Jones said.

    Reginald allowed himself a tight smile, then looked around the table. “We all saw the entities,” he said. “We know just how dangerous they can be. And we know they’re still out there, waiting. We don’t know what they want, but ... we know they want it.

    “And now they’ve infested our homeland.”

    He paused, allowing his words to sink in. “I would like to believe that this is all nothing, a case of hysterical overreaction. I would like to believe that our messenger” - he nodded to Lord Greely - “was mistaken. But I cannot. Our homeland is facing the gravest challenge since the Empire collapsed, a few short years ago. And here we are, stuck on the far side of the channel, the most dangerous body of water for hundreds of miles around. They think there’s nothing we can do.

    “But they’re wrong. We may be the only people who can save our homeworld.

    “We’re going to do it. We’re going to find a way to cross the channel. We’re going to get our army back home and we’re going to drive out those monsters, free my father and reset the world. This is our test. We’re going to do it. I expect each and every one of you - and each and every one of your subordinates - to do everything in your power to make it work. Our kingdom is at risk. Our parents, our wives, our children ... if we fail, they will become nothing more than pawns in the hands of horrific monsters. We must not fail.

    “We will not fail.”

    He lowered his voice. “You have your orders. Dismissed.”

    The room emptied rapidly, men heading for the doors as quickly as they could without running. Reginald allowed himself a tight smile, grimly aware that they were driven more by his plans for the regency than his inspirational speechmaking. He’d never been that good at speaking to a crowd, even though he was the Crown Prince. His father had ordered him to have his speeches written by professional writers ...

    “Your Highness.” Lord Greely had remained seated. So had Isabella. “I would like to request permission to remain behind.”

    “Oh, you would, would you?” Reginald’s voice was almost a snarl. “And you think I’d let you remain behind?”

    He calmed himself with an effort. He really didn’t want Lord Greely remaining behind. The man was foolish enough to try to subvert Captain-General Jones, which meant he’d either take the regency for himself or start a minor civil war. And then Earl Oxley would swoop in and pick up the pieces ... Oxley was probably planning it already. Greely wore his weaknesses on his sleeve. A man like Oxley would have no trouble taking advantage of him.

    “I crossed the waters once already,” Lord Greely protested. “I ...”

    “But I need you,” Reginald said. It wasn’t - quite - a lie. Greely presumably had contacts on the mainland, people who’d been preparing to resist the coup. “And without you, the invasion might fail.”

    He clapped Lord Greely on his shoulder. “You did it once already,” he said. “I’m sure it holds no terrors for you.”

    And that, he knew, was a flat-out lie.
     
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  15. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    his

    home
     
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight

    Isabella had been told, back when her father had been trying to convince some poor family to arrange a match between her and their son, who had no idea what he was getting into, that it was a bad idea to contradict one’s partner in public. It was important to show a united front to the world, rather than suggesting weakness by disagreeing openly. And yet, she’d never really bought into it until she’d become a mercenary. It was terrifyingly easy for someone to exploit weaknesses, even if expressing disagreement openly didn’t lead to someone being summarily fired. It grated on her, but she knew she couldn’t disagree with Reginald in public. She had to wait until they returned to the prince’s quarters to discuss her concerns with him.

    “It isn’t going to be easy to get across the waters,” she said, once they were alone. Someone would probably talk, but ... she found it hard to care. She had more important concerns right now. “If we set sail now ...”

    “I know.” Reginald took off his sword and placed it beside the bed. “But we can’t give the entities time to get settled. If they take over the entire kingdom, there might be no stopping them.”

    Isabella nodded, stiffly. The Empire was gone. There was no one else who could challenge the entities, not now. The neighbouring kingdoms might not realise that something had gone badly wrong in Andalusia, something far worse than a simple coup or transfer of power, until it was far too late. She’d sent a message to her brother, in the Golden City, but she had no way to know if he’d received it. And even if he had, what could he do? The days when the Golden City commanded and everyone else obeyed were long gone.

    Reginald sat down on the bed, his eyes hard. “The Admiral was fairly clear on the dangers,” he said, dryly. “Is there anything you can do about it?”

    “There are limits to the number of protective wards I can cast,” Isabella said. In the old days, there had been a handful of charmed ships that had sailed in all weathers. Now ... she had no idea what had happened to the ships or their crews. “And even if I did, they wouldn’t last ...”

    “I didn’t mean with your magic ... your normal magic,” Reginald said. “I meant with the rituals you’re learning.”

    Isabella felt cold, her stomach turning to ice. She should have expected it. Reginald was a practical man - and he wasn’t a magician. He had no true concept of how dangerous normal magic could be, not in any real sense. Sure, a man could be turned into a slug and squashed beneath her heel ... but that was the least of it. There were dangers that no one outside the senior magicians realised, let alone comprehended. And ritual magic - godly magic - might well be worse. The more she studied it, the more she feared she would never truly understand it.

    “I don’t know,” she temporised. It was possible, perhaps. And, once she’d had the thought, she found it impossible to let it go. “I’d have to consult with her.”

    She remembered the shadow she’d seen looming over Andalusia and shivered. She had never been an Inquisitor - she’d managed to escape before taking her final oaths - but she knew her duty. In truth, she’d never objected to the duty. If something was rotten in the kingdom, it had to be rooted out before it could spread. Havant had caused a lot of damage to the Summer Isle. She dreaded to think what another entity could do in Andalusia. The mainland kingdom was far wealthier than the Summer Isle.

    “Do it.” Reginald spoke like a man who expected to be obeyed. “Whatever the risk, we will bear it.”

    “Really?” Isabella met his gaze, evenly. “Do you have any awareness of the risk?”

    A chain of odd emotions crossed his face, coming and going too quickly for her to recognise them. She hid her amusement with an effort. She was no courtly lady, willing to bend the knee to her husband in exchange for rank and title, she was no slattern willing to sleep with him in exchange for a handful of coins. If they were going to have a genuine marriage, he was going to have to get used to her arguing with him. He wasn’t a fool. He should be smart enough to realise that having someone willing to give him unvarnished opinions would work out well for him, in the long run. But some men were prideful asses.

    Reginald smiled, grimly. “Do you have any awareness of the dangers of leaving the entities unmolested?”

    Isabella conceded the point with a nod. “You’re worried about your sister?”

    “And everyone else,” Reginald said. “My father ... if he’s truly being held prisoner, he could be killed at any moment. And then ... I’m not sure what will happen then.”

    “Things have changed,” Isabella agreed. “What do you think will happen?”

    Reginald looked down at his hands, scarred from years of hard fighting. “I don’t know. Legally, I would become king the moment my father died. But if everything thinks I’m dead, that the entire army was wiped out ... I don’t know. Sofia and my younger sisters weren’t in the line of succession. I’ve got a couple of cousins, male cousins, who have equal claims to the throne. Ten years ago, the Golden City would have ruled on just who took the throne. Now ... they’d probably try to settle the issue through civil war. Or try to marry one of my sisters through force.”

    He shook his head. “But if the entities are in power instead, I don’t know what will happen. Sofia has no legal grounds to power, no legitimate claim to the throne, but if she has an army and the entities are backing her ...”

    “Then she can do whatever she likes.” Isabella felt a twinge of pity for the princess, as pampered as she would probably have been before the entities arrived. “As long as she keeps them happy ...”

    “Perhaps.” Reginald shivered. “I never liked Sir Handel. He was one of my father’s gobshites, one of the wretched little lickspittles I intended to banish from court when I took the throne. And yet ... whatever they did to him, he isn’t completely himself any longer. I think something was wearing his face.”

    Isabella tensed. “What did you do with him?”

    “I put him in the ironhold,” Reginald said. “It should hold him ...”

    Isabella nodded. One thing they’d learnt about the entities was that they had an aversion to cold iron. It seemed to impede them. It was pretty much the only thing that could kill them - and the creatures they’d brought in their wake. She didn’t know why - Mother Lembu had refused to discuss it - but she’d made sure everyone knew how to use it. She’d even gone to the trouble of charming a dozen blades in the hopes of sneaking one close enough to the entities to use it.

    “I’ll have a look at him, when we get to Racal’s Bay.” Isabella took a breath. “If you want me to call her, and ask her, I will.”

    “I can ask her too, as king and prince,” Reginald said. “I just ...”

    He looked up at her, his eyes pleading. “If they keep my father alive, everyone outside their circle won’t know what’s really going on. They’ll be reluctant to commit themselves for fear of striking against their lawful monarch. But ... sooner or later, they’ll have to remove him anyway. They can’t take the risk of him slipping out of their control.”

    “And raising an army to take back his kingdom,” Isabella finished. She had no doubt of it. If one struck at a king, one must make certain to kill him. And yet ... she sighed. These days, what was legitimate authority? It was hard to say. “We’ll get there in time.”

    She frowned as a thought struck her. Mother Lembu had taught her, time and time again, that symbolism mattered to ritual magic. And if that was true, what could one do with the blood of a king? A real king? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. She’d certainly never been taught anything about it when she’d been at school, when blood-based potions had been discussed. Hell, they’d been discouraged from studying such potions unless they intended to become druids.

    “I can ask her too,” Reginald repeated. “Do you think she’d listen to me?”

    “Let me ask first,” Isabella said. She knew enough to be cautious. “I’m neither king nor prince. I can’t bind you or anyone else to anything.”

    Reginald lifted his eyebrows. “And you think I can?”

    “You’re the prince, and you will be king,” Isabella pointed out. “Are you not allowed to make deals on behalf of your kingdom?”

    “True.” Reginald looked pensive. “What do you think she might want? From me?”

    “It would probably not be a good idea to ask,” Isabella said. If Reginald bargained with the entities, would they hold his whole kingdom to account? It seemed impossible, but they’d already done far too many impossible things. “You could accidentally give them everything.”

    She sat down facing him, remembering the stories she’d heard from her tutors. Most of them had focused around foolish wizards who’d tried to use magic to solve all their problems, casting spells that would grant their every wish. She’d always thought the tales were nothing more than stories - they talked about magics that simply didn’t exist - but now, in hindsight, she wondered if there was a grain of truth behind the lies. A wizard foolish enough to cast such spells might get what he wanted, yet ... it might not make him happy. The dangers were simply too great.

    “We have to be careful,” she said, warningly. “And we dare not make mistakes.”

    “No.” Reginald rubbed his hands together. “We don’t even know the rules. Not here.”

    “The rules have been in flux ever since the Golden City fell.” Isabella felt an odd little pang. She hadn’t liked the Golden City, and she’d been happy to leave, but ... it had been her home, once upon a time. Would it have been different, she asked herself, if she’d been there? If she’d added her weight to the defenders? Or would she have simply added another name to the casualty lists? “Things aren’t what they used to be.”

    “Better or worse?” Reginald smiled, humourlessly. “I wouldn’t have met you if the Golden City hadn’t fallen.”

    Isabella chuckled. “You never know.”

    “I know,” Reginald said. “I wouldn’t have been able to raise an army five years ago. Now ... I am more than just a figurehead on a gold-coloured throne.”

    “Yeah.” Isabella affected a manner she knew would infuriate her father. “And, in the meantime, millions upon millions of people are suffering.”

    Reginald didn’t look infuriated. “We can make things better for them ...”

    “Hah.” Isabella felt a wave of despondency, mixed with bitter helplessness. “There’s no way to repair the damage to society.”

    She looked down at her hands, feeling guilty. Five years ago, she’d been a wandering mercenary and he’d been a figurehead prince, biding his time until he could succeed his father as figurehead king. He would have had no real authority, no power to do anything with his life but look good on the throne ... instead, the Golden City had fallen and chaos had broken loose everywhere. Reginald’s father had established himself as a local monarch, wielding real power for the first time in his life, but it had come at a price. The continent had been devastated. Millions of people had been killed, or raped, or enslaved, or ... everything they’d known, everything they’d taken for granted, had been shattered overnight. She remembered riding through burned-out villages and shuddered. It didn’t matter who’d killed the villagers and burned their homes: invading armies, retreating armies, tax farmers, bandits ... or whatever. All that mattered was that they’d been killed.

    And the people who killed them probably didn’t even know their names, Isabella thought, grimly. She’d been on campaign. She’d seen hundreds of civilians caught in the gears and ground to bloody dust. They were just in the way.

    Reginald reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder. “We may not be able to rebuild the empire,” he said. “But we can build something new in its place.”

    Isabella nodded, shortly. “Yeah ...”

    She found it hard to maintain any sense of optimism. The world had changed. Reginald and his father meant well, but ... their people had already paid a high price for their empire-building. It would get worse, as the successor states shook themselves down and launched wars in hopes of reuniting the empire under their rule. Or when the aristocrats started fighting amongst themselves, battling to bring down the monarchs or secure their positions against the peasants. She’d never really understood how much the Golden City had done to keep the peace until it was gone. Now ...

    “We’ll get over the channel and save the day,” Reginald said. He shot her a boyish smile that made him look a decade younger. “And then we can unite the Summer Isle with Andalusia.”

    Isabella cleared her throat, putting her doubts aside. “Is it wise to leave Oxley here?”

    Reginald didn’t scold her for not saying the earl’s title. Instead, he looked pensive. She knew him well enough to know that meant he had doubts of his own. Earl Oxley couldn’t be trusted, if Reginald turned his back. He wasn’t loyal to Reginald personally. And, now the other two earls and the king himself were gone, he was the most powerful aristocrat on the Summer Isle. Sure, there were others. But none of them enjoyed his power or prestige.

    “It’s a calculated risk,” Reginald said. There was little real conviction in his tone. “I need someone here who knows the island, someone who can guide Jones through the snake pit ... someone who is dependent on me for power.”

    “That’s not Oxley,” Isabella pointed out. “His power comes from his lands and lords, not you.”

    “Unfortunately true.” Reginald smiled, humourlessly. “And there aren’t many women I can trust to advise him.”

    Isabella shot him a sharp look, but she took his point. Queen Emetine, King Edwin’s murderous wife, was missing. Isabella was sure she wasn’t dead. Earl Oxley’s daughters - the bastard had tried to offer one or both of them to Reginald - couldn’t be trusted. The other high-ranking women on the island were either too young, married already or simply untrustworthy. Reginald might have planned to give his followers heiresses who’d bring lands and power with their names, but ... he had a shortage of candidates. There simply weren’t any who could be safely married to Jones.

    “You could look at Oxley’s daughters,” she mused. “If I rebelled against my father ...”

    “You had magic,” Reginald pointed out. “And who would trust a daughter who rebelled against her father?”

    Isabella bit off the obvious rejoinder. “You know what I mean,” she said. “One or both of his daughters might prefer to give her loyalty to a half-decent husband than a bastard father.”

    “Perhaps,” Reginald said. If he spotted the irony, he didn’t show it. “But can I take the chance?”

    “Probably not,” Isabella conceded. “Have you thought of looking amongst the merchant class?”

    Reginald snorted. “Do you think Jones would be happy?”

    Isabella gave him a sharp look, but she took his point. Aristocrats only married other aristocrats. It was stupid - everyone knew that mixing bloodlines produced stronger magicians - but they did it anyway. Jones wanted - needed - a wife who was, at the very least, his social equal. There wasn’t enough money on the Summer Isle to make up for a wife whose family had crawled out of the gutter only a generation or two ago. It was stupid - Isabella knew up and coming merchants were often smarter than aristocrats - but it was the way of things. Jones would be offended beyond words if Reginald insulted him with anything less than a high-born lady.

    And then he’d start plotting trouble too, Isabella thought. And that’s the last thing we need.

    “I think we should take Oxley with us, perhaps as titular commander of the islander contingent,” she said. It was something she definitely couldn’t have said in public. “He can’t cause trouble on the mainland.”

    “I admire your optimism,” Reginald said. There was no real heat in his voice. “I’m sure he can make things really difficult for me.”

    “He’ll be a long way from his power base,” Isabella countered. It was easy to tell that he wasn’t pleased with his decision either. “And whoever rules his lands won’t be able to cause trouble here.”

    “I really admire your optimism.” Reginald grinned. “We’ll take him with us. You want to give him the bad news?”

    “No.” Isabella stood. “I have to start figuring out how to approach her.”

    Reginald lifted an eyebrow. “You don’t want to stay the night?”

    “Not yet.” Isabella felt her cheeks heat. She was tempted, but ... “People will talk.”

    She sighed, inwardly. Double standards. Double standards, everywhere. Five years ago, she could have taken whoever she liked to her bed and ... she shook her head. She’d spent most of her adult life choosing partners she knew would horrify her father, even though the bastard had died long before the Golden City. Now ... now she had to be a little more careful. It wasn’t just her at stake any longer.

    The whole kingdom is at stake, she thought, as she headed for the door. No, the whole world is at stake. And a single mistake could tear everything down.
     
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  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Nine

    Well, Isabella thought. Here goes nothing.

    She stood in the centre of the shack, trying not to feel as if she were about to humiliate herself. She hadn’t felt so ... ashamed of herself since she’d been forced to beg her father for a simple favour, a simple favour he refused to grant until she shaped up and became, at least for a few moments, his ideal daughter. It had felt, back then, as though he’d forced her to grovel in the mud. She felt the same way now.

    Isabella took a long breath, then closed her eyes and centred her thoughts as best as she could. Mother Lembu’s face drifted in front of her mind’s eye. It was hard to keep focused on the entity’s apperence as she opened her eyes, walked four paces to the table and poured two mugs of fresh water, but somehow she managed it. Turning, she walked back to the door and held it open for ten heartbeats. There was no sense of anything, as far as she could tell, but when she turned around Mother Lembu was standing behind her. Isabella nearly jumped out of her skin. The entity was just ... there.

    She was the maiden this time, a young lady permanently poised between girlhood and womanhood. Isabella felt a surge of protectiveness, mingled with a hint of jealousy. She wasn’t sure where that had come from, but it was there. The maiden was innocent, so innocent that it was hard to see her as anything other than a carefree young girl. She had nothing to fear, nothing to suggest that her life might be marred by the slightest trouble. And yet, the more Isabella looked, the stranger the maiden appeared. There was something about her appearance that was impossible to pin down. Her hair, her clothes ... even her face were indistinct.

    “I bid thee welcome,” Isabella managed. “Eat and drink, in my house.”

    “I thank you.” The maiden giggled. “It has been a long time since you summoned me.”

    “I was expecting the mother,” Isabella said. She walked to the table, picked up one of the mugs and sipped. The water tasted pure, rather than flat. “You ...”

    The maiden giggled again. “Would you have preferred the crone?”

    “No.” Isabella sat down, carefully. “Why did you come?”

    “You called. I came.” The maiden sat down, smoothing her translucent dress. “What can I do for you?”

    Isabella lifted her eyes. “Don’t you already know?”

    The maiden smiled. “Nothing may be known ...”

    “Until it is spoken,” Isabella finished. “I need to cross the channel to the mainland and ...”

    “Oh! The maiden threw up her hands in mock shock. “I know what you could do. You could walk through the Godly Realm.”

    Isabella blinked. “I thought that isn’t safe.”

    “Oh, it isn’t.” The maiden winked at her. It was oddly disconcerting. “But we’re hoping to please a man, aren’t we? Nothing impresses men like stupid risk-taking.”

    “Really.” Isabella was certain she was being mocked. “What happened to the Red Monks when they passed through the Godly Realm?”

    “That has been spoken,” the maiden said. “And you already know the answer.”

    They made themselves vulnerable to the entities, Isabella thought. They walked in as regular humans and they walked out monsters.

    “Yeah.” Isabella let out a long breath. “Are there any other options?”

    “Oh sure, sure,” the maiden said. “But I should teach you how to enter the Godly Realm.”

    Isabella frowned. The maiden was too enthusiastic for her peace of mind. “Can you teach me how to cross it safely?”

    “Of course.” The maiden clapped her hands. “Shall we begin?”

    “Not yet.” Isabella felt guilty for even saying it. The maiden looked like a kicked puppy. Isabella knew the entity was manipulating her emotions, that the maiden was trying to push Isabella in a certain direction ... that it was, in some sense, a reflection of what the entities truly were. It didn’t make her disappointment any easier to handle. “Are there other ways to cross the waters?”

    The maiden frowned. “Do you understand what Havant did?”

    Isabella remembered the faces within the storm and shuddered. “He summoned one of you and asked him to raise a storm?”

    “Quite.” The maiden looked displeased. It wasn’t directed at her, but Isabella still felt an overwhelming urge to cringe. “The elementals are still there, within the storm. You will need to placate them if you wish to travel safely.”

    Lord Greely passed safely, Isabella thought, curtly. Sir Handel had also passed safely, she supposed, but he wasn’t human any longer. Why did the elementals let him go?

    “I see,” she said. She supposed it made a certain kind of sense, once one accepted the existence of elemental entities. “How do I placate them?”

    The maiden smiled, as if they were two girlfriends whispering secrets. “You offer them a bribe.”

    Isabella resisted the urge to snap at the young-seeming entity. The guilt would have crushed her. “And what sort of bribe do I offer them?”

    “Something of value to you,” the maiden said. “Something that means something to you, something you’re prepared to give up. Something ...”

    “I understand,” Isabella said. She forced herself to think. She didn’t have much with her, not really. She’d learnt the value of travelling light when she’d fled the Golden City. “I’ll think about it.”

    “Something meaningful,” the maiden said. “You don’t want to anger them.”

    “Because they’ll kill me?” Isabella felt her stomach clench. Sailing was fun, sometimes, but being caught in a storm was utterly terrifying. “Or worse?”

    “They can’t kill you,” the maiden said. “They can just make things bad for you.”

    Isabella gritted her teeth. It made sense, she supposed. The elementals couldn’t kill someone directly, but they could do things that would cost someone their life. She recalled a murderer she’d met, once, who’d claimed it wasn’t his fault that he’d frightened someone into falling off a cliff. Perhaps the elementals believed it was the waves that killed people, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were causing the waves. She’d met quite a few humans, coming to think of it, who blithely condemned their fellows without ever bothering to consider their own role in affairs.

    Perhaps Greely survived because he’s too stupid to be scared, she thought. And the sailors died because they were smart enough to realise the danger ...

    It sounded contradictory. But so did the entities themselves.

    The maiden smiled, warmly. “Does that answer your question?”

    “I think so.” Isabella knew she had other questions, but she didn’t want to ask them until she had a chance to think. “I thank you.”

    “Thank me by listening.” The maiden met her eyes. Isabella shivered, suddenly very aware - again - that the maiden was far from human. She felt tears pricking at the corner of her eyes as she looked away. “I’m going to teach you how to enter the Godly Realm.”

    She jumped up and knelt down on the earthen floor. “Sit. Listen.”

    Isabella knelt, facing her. “I’m ready.”

    The maiden smiled, challengingly. “We shall see.”

    “I’m listening.” Isabella tried to keep the irritation out of her voice. “Carry on.”

    “The Godly Realm is everywhere and nowhere,” the maiden said. She sounded like a young girl trying to sound portentous and failing. “It is infinitely small and infinitively big. And it is everything and nothing.”

    “Clear as mud,” Isabella said, dryly.

    “It is our place of power,” the maiden said. “But it can also be yours. When you perform a ritual, you call upon the Godly Realm and its inhabitants.”

    So it isn’t really my power, Isabella thought. She knew her magic intimately. She knew its strengths and weaknesses. It was hers. But the Godly Realm was something else altogether. How could one rely on anything that depended on something else - someone else - to work? And why are you telling me this?

    “You can take a shortcut through the Godly Realm, if you are prepared, protected and willing to pay the price,” the maiden said. “And you can take others with you, if they are properly prepared.”

    And if they’re not properly prepared - and protected - they open themselves up to the entities, Isabella thought. And that’s what happened to the Red Monks.

    She resisted the urge to reach for her notebook as the maiden discussed the various ways to enter the Godly Realm. Some of them were surprisingly simple, although ... she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk them. Others ... were a great deal more complex, relying on her to gather the supplies - the bribes - and deploy them at the right moments. And there were rules ... stay on the road, be polite to everyone you meet, don’t eat or drink or take anything you might happen to encounter and, above all, don’t look back.

    “Stay on the road,” the maiden repeated. “If you wander off the path, you will never get back.”

    Isabella nodded, slowly. The maiden seemed to believe that one could take an entire army through the Godly Realm, travelling from Allenstown to Havelock in the blink of an eye. She found it astonishing ... and terrifying. The idea of jumping a whole army from the Summer Isle to Andalusia, without having to cross the channel ... she knew kings and generals who’d leap at the chance to strike their enemies without having to cross the border and fight their way to the enemy’s capital. And they would, given the chance. They wouldn’t care about the dangers as long as someone else paid the price.

    And when they make a mistake, Isabella thought coldly, who knows what will emerge at the far end.

    She frowned, knowing it wasn’t an option. Not for them, not now. They couldn’t take cold iron into the Godly Realm, which meant they would be defenceless when they reached Andalusia. Reginald might be able to source iron weapons, but ... she shook her head. Most swords weren’t iron. She rather suspected the real rulers of Andalusia had banned iron swords by now. The Red Monks certainly had, where they’d ruled. They’d understood the dangers. Their enemies had not until it was too late.

    “You’re a good student,” the maiden said. “Do you want to try? You could come to my home.”

    “No, thank you,” Isabella said. “I have to go soon.”

    “We could spend a lifetime there and return in the blink of an eye,” the maiden said. “It will broaden your mind.”

    “No, thank you,” Isabella repeated. The sense of kicking a helpless puppy grew stronger, gnawing at her resolution. “I don’t have time.”

    She looked down at her hands. The maiden had spoken in riddles, seemingly dancing around the truth, but some things were clear. The Godly Realm operated on different rules. If she ate something, it could cost her ... even if she had permission to eat it. And if she spent a lifetime in the Godly Realm, she might crumble to dust the moment she emerged. She wondered, sourly, what Reginald would think if she didn’t come home. Would he break his word and go to the shack? What would he think when he saw the pile of dust? Would he realised it had once been her?

    “Sad,” the maiden said. “You’re thinking about him.”

    Isabella looked up, sharply. “Stay out of my head!”

    “I’m not in your head.” The maiden smiled, warmly. It would have been more reassuring if there hadn’t been a toothy edge to her smile. “You’re just emoting openly. You’ve become a lot more open when you started studying with me.”

    “Thank you,” Isabella said. She didn’t mistake the kind words for a compliment. “It’s been very interesting indeed.”

    “Quite.” The maiden stood, brushing down her dress. “And now we have to talk about something more serious.”

    Isabella felt ice trickling down her back. “We do?”

    “Yes.” The maiden looked down at her. “We do.”

    Isabella rose. She’d never liked people peering down at her. “What do we have to talk about?”

    The maiden said nothing for a long moment. When she spoke, her voice was very calm. “I have been giving you lessons for the last while,” she said. “And I have not demanded a price.”

    “No,” Isabella said, carefully. Five months of lessons ... Mother Lembu, whatever aspect she wore, had never mentioned a price. Isabella was damned, probably literally, if she allowed the entity to retroactively set a price. “You never mentioned a price.”

    “Indeed?” The maiden smiled. “Did I not?”

    “Nothing may be known until it is spoken,” Isabella recited. “As you well know.”

    The maiden’s good humour vanished. Isabella felt her temper lashing out, brushing against Isabella with almost physical force. Her legs buckled. It was all she could do to keep from dropping to her knees. The maiden’s face was so angry ... Isabella blinked. The maiden was no longer angry. She looked ... calm, placid. Isabella felt her head spin. It made no sense, none at all. The entity just wasn’t human.

    “Quite.” The maiden’s voice was flat. “Today, you called on me. I did not choose to come.”

    Isabella said nothing, although she thought fast. She’d assumed Mother Lembu would decide, when she heard the call, if she would come. But ... if she hadn’t chosen to come, did that mean Isabella had summoned her against her will? And did that mean ... for a second, she was sure she was on the brink of a great insight into the entities. Who was really in charge? The entities themselves ... or the humans they patronised?

    “There will be a price for your next set of lessons,” the maiden said. “And you will have no choice but to pay it.”

    “What if I don’t want the lessons?” Isabella forced herself to look into the heartbreakingly beautiful face. Heartbreakingly beautiful ... and yet, more a mask than anything real. The more she looked, the less real it seemed. “I could decide to end it now.”

    “You won’t.” The maiden spoke with total confidence. “When the time comes, you will call on me. And then you will pay the price.”

    “Really.” Isabella looked away as the maiden’s smile grew brighter. “And ...”

    She looked back. The maiden was gone. She felt a wisp of cold air brushing against her back and turned, just in time to see the door swinging on its hinges. A shiver ran down her spine as she stepped forward and closed the door. Who knew who - human or otherwise - would take the open door as an invitation? And who knew who might be watching her from the Godly Realm?

    “Damn it,” she muttered. The mug of water she’d poured for the entity was empty, although Isabella hadn’t seen the maiden drink. “What will you want from me?”

    She tensed, half-expecting to hear an answer echoing on the air, but there was nothing. She picked up her mug and drained it dry, trying to focus her mind. Her emotions were spinning out of control, leaving her convinced she was on the verge of tears - or a tantrum. She had to bite her lip to keep from breaking down and sobbing like a little girl. The maiden had affected her at a level so deep she didn’t want to admit it existed. She wasn’t even sure why.

    Perhaps because she represented something I could never have, Isabella thought. It had been a long time since she’d been a maiden in any real sense of the word. And longer still, she conceded, since she’d been innocent. She’d known from a revoltingly early age that she could either accept her place in the family or rebel constantly, to the point she did something that would get her exiled for life. A concept of innocence rather than reality.

    She sat down and ruthlessly centred herself. The maiden had been right about one thing, at least. She’d become a great deal more emotional lately. The Peerless School had taught her to control her emotions, pointing out the dangers of spellcasting when she was in a vile mood or bent on revenge rather than punishment, but ... ritual magic seemed to require a degree of emotional commitment. She could - she should - let her emotions and feelings guide her, even though it felt fundamentally wrong. She could wish for anything - perhaps literally - but that wouldn’t make it real. Or would it? These days, it was hard to tell.

    There was a knock at the door. Isabella stood, brushing down her trousers. “Come.”

    The door opened. A messenger stood there. “My Lady, His Highness commands me to inform you that he will be departing to Racal’s Bay this afternoon. He wishes to know if you will attend on him first.”

    If I will attend on him first, Isabella thought, crossly. It was the formal phrasing, but it had never ceased to grate. We’ll see.

    She gathered herself. The messenger looked terrified, as if he expected to be turned into a frog or struck by lightning or ... simply whipped to within an inch of his life. Isabella felt a flicker of pity. Reginald had told her that messengers were irritating, even when they brought good news, but that was hardly their fault. There was nothing to be gained by flogging the messenger. Even her father had known that.

    “Inform His Highness that I will be with him in an hour,” she said, curtly. It should be long enough for her to clean the shack, pick up her supplies and walk to the castle. “And then I’ll accompany him to Racal’s Bay.”

    The messenger bowed. “Yes, My Lady.”

    Isabella sighed, inwardly, as the man turned and hurried away. She had the sense she shouldn’t stay behind, not this time. She wasn’t sure where it had come from, but it was there. And if the maiden had been right, they might be able to cross the channel fairly quickly. They could get an army across before Sofia - and whatever lurked behind her - could reasonably expect it to arrive.

    Sure, her own thoughts mocked her, as she started to pack up. And what are you going to use as a bribe?
     
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  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Ten

    “Your Highness.” Captain-General Gars bowed as Reginald rode up to him. “Your army awaits.”

    Reginald nodded, looking down over the sodden field. Hundreds of men were within eyeshot, their sergeants and lieutenants barking orders as they marched up and down, shaking off the effects of garrison life and - slowly - becoming soldiers again. Reginald allowed his gaze to drift over the nearest men, wondering how many resented him for summoning them back to Racal’s Bay. He would have been surprised if they hadn’t found sweethearts - or wives - on the island. They’d done their best to help the communities they’d garrisoned, endearing both themselves and their master to their unwilling hosts. He liked to think it was a step towards a unified culture.

    He smiled, grimly, as he looked from man to man. They looked ready for action, although it would be a week or two before they could be marched onto the boats. Desertion was going to be a problem. The men might have been commoners, often criminals who’d been given a choice between enlisting or execution, but they weren’t stupid. Anyone could climb one of the nearby hills and peer over the bay, to the raging seas beyond. And ... he didn’t want to think about how many men might prefer to go back to their new sweethearts. They wouldn’t want to return to the mainland to fight for him ...

    The horse whinnied, uncomfortably, as a gust of cold wind lashed across the land. Reginald felt flecks of ice brushing against his bare face. He sighed, inwardly, as he dismounted the horse, trying not to land in a muddy puddle. The weather had been improving over the last few days, apparently. Reginald found it hard to believe. It was still cold, it was still wet and the mud was everywhere. His men looked as if they’d been rolling in the mud.

    “The tents didn’t survive the first night,” Captain-General Gars said, as they walked around the campsite. “The winds blew them down, no matter how strongly they were anchored. I ended up parcelling out the troops to homes within the city and the surrounding villages. It was a mess, but ...”

    His voice trailed off. Reginald nodded in understanding. “As long as the troops behave themselves,” he said. No one would like being forced to billet troops on their property, but it would be a great deal worse if the troops really didn’t behave themselves. “And don’t loot the city.”

    “I had two men flogged for looting,” Gars assured him. “After that, there was no trouble.”

    “That will change,” Reginald said. He glanced towards the city - and the bay beyond. “How’s morale?”

    “They’re about ready to kill someone, so we’d better make sure they’re pointed in the right direction,” Gars assured him. “Really, I don’t expect serious trouble for at least a couple of weeks. We’re working them hard on the training field, then giving them only a few short hours of rest before we start working them hard again. They got a bit soft over the winter, so it’s good for them. And I have their lieutenants working with them too.”

    “Good,” Reginald said. He had no patience for men who bought their commissions and seemed to think that excused them from their duties. They could work or get out, as far as he was concerned. His father had backed him up, the one and only time someone had dared complain. “How are they doing?”

    “They still can’t read maps to save their lives, but ... otherwise, they’re not doing that badly,” Gars said. He smirked, unpleasantly. “The really dumb ones got killed during the earlier fighting, so ... the remainder at least know to go before they don armour.”

    Reginald laughed at a joke that had been old when his grandfather had been a child. “And they’re leading the men?”

    “They know the ropes,” Gars said. “I’ve been sure to pair weak officers with good sergeants, men who’ll keep them on the straight and narrow. It helps there’s nowhere to go here.”

    “I suppose,” Reginald said. Racal’s Bay was barren, compared to Havelock. There were only a handful of bars, all closed and bolted while the army was in town. The aristocrats had nowhere to socialise outside camp, save perhaps for the castle. “As long as they’re focusing on their duties ...”

    He let out a long breath as he spotted a sergeant urging a tired-looking solider to finish the run. It was never easy to tell which aristocrats would become good officers and bad ones sometimes remained undetected until they found themselves plunged into battle. And even the good ones sometimes lacked any awareness of their men as more than pieces on their personal chess boards. He would have preferred to promote sergeants to officer ranks, but ... it wasn’t allowed. That would have to change, he told himself. He’d see to it when he became king. A bad officer in the worst possible place could do a great deal of damage before he was forcibly removed from power.

    Or gets himself and everyone else killed, he thought, grimly. The sooner we put a stop to it, the better.

    He listened, carefully, as Gars led him through the muddy camp. The ground was practically churning underneath him, churned up time and time again by soldiers as they marched up and down the field. Dozens of archers stood in another field, practicing drawing and firing their bows at scarecrows. They weren’t very accurate, Reginald recalled, but it didn’t matter. Their role was to put as many arrows in the air as possible. It didn’t matter which arrow hit the target as long as one of them did. He’d seen cavalry charges disintegrated by archers, the horses and riders sent tumbling to the ground. It wasn’t a sight to gladden the aristrocratic heart. Reginald had a private theory that the kingdom would have banned the longbow altogether if it hadn’t meant they’d be at a severe disadvantage if - when - they went to war against their neighbours.

    “We should be ready to depart, as planned,” Gars finished. “The only problem is getting across the channel.”

    “We have it in hand,” Reginald said. He’d listened, very carefully, to Isabella’s report. “The real question is ... where do we land?”

    Gars frowned. “The closer we land to Havelock, the quicker they will respond.”

    Reginald nodded. He’d considered all the possibilities, but none of them were very good. If they landed further away, they’d be able to disembark without interference ... at the price of giving whoever was in charge of Havelock ample time to prepare their defences. And, perhaps, making themselves pawns in an ongoing power struggle. But if they landed too close, they might be caught on the beaches and torn to ribbons. It wasn’t going to be easy to choose a landing site.

    The weather might make the choice for us, he mused. The winds were always nasty, with or without the elementals. Going north would be tricky, particularly with an entire fleet. Going south would be easier, but they’d run the risk of being blown far off course. We might have to place our faith in the gods.

    The irony gnawed at his mind as he walked away from the camp, towards the other training ground. His bodyguards fell in around him, watching suspiciously as the camp came into view. Earl Oxley - or, more accurately, the commanding officers under Oxley’s nominal command - had taken over a small hamlet, driving the locals out and installing their own people. Reginald saw a handful of tents, flaps twisting and buckling in the winds. It looked as if Oxley had no concern for his own people, even his personal armsmen. Gars must have told him that the tents wouldn’t last a day.

    Earl Oxley looked supremely displeased when he saw Reginald. He certainly didn’t want to stand and salute. Reginald wished, just for a moment, that he’d thought to bring Isabella with him. Her magic might have been enough of a deterrent to keep the earl from trying to kill him - or having him assassinated. Gars would have killed the bastard, naturally, and laid waste to the Oxley Lands ... but there was no way he could prevent a civil war. And the entities, on the other side of the channel, would eventually take the entire world.

    Chin up, Reginald told himself. Oxley wasn’t stupid. Reginald had nothing to fear as long as he didn’t show fear. And remember for next time.

    “Your Highness,” Earl Oxley said. “The men are ready to go to war.”

    Reginald looked past him, studying the islander troops as they marched up and down. They looked tough, but utterly unprepared for war. Their sergeants shouted and raged, bullying and striking men who threatened to fall out of line. Their uniforms were tattered, their weapons rusty ... he hated to think what they might be eating. They looked beaten down, ready to turn and run - or turn on their masters - at the slightest provocation. He rather suspected they would be worse than useless on the battlefield.

    “Your men need more training,” he said, stiffly. Sergeants were harsh - that was the way of things - but they weren’t meant to be bullies. Bullying for the sake of bullying led to hatred, hatred led to violence ... he wouldn’t have cared to turn his back on an armed man who had every reason to bury a knife in him. “And they need better food.”

    Earl Oxley sniffed. “They’re commoners.”

    “Yes. And they’re under your command,” Reginald told him. He’d been on campaigns where men had begged for food from neighbouring units, after their commanders either sold off the food or simply didn’t bother to buy it in the first place. “And that makes you responsible for them.”

    The earl didn’t look pleased. No doubt he’d been anticipating the chance to make a bid for power, when Reginald returned to the mainland. And he couldn’t get his relatives to make a bid for power without running the risk of one or more of them sticking a knife in his back at the same time. The Summer Isle really was a snake pit, Reginald thought. There were times when he wondered if it would be better to simply execute all the nobles and promote his followers into their places.

    “Yes, Your Highness,” Earl Oxley grunted, finally. “I’ll see to it personally.”

    “See that you do,” Reginald said. He was tempted to apply the stick, but he knew it would be better to apply the carrot. This time. “These men will win you an estate on the mainland, if you treat them right.”

    The earl looked up. “An estate on the mainland?”

    “Yes.” Reginald had no illusions and he suspected Earl Oxley didn’t either. An estate on the mainland wouldn’t be worth that much, in terms of power, but it would give him influence that he might be able to translate into something useful. “Once the war is over, you will have your pick of estates.”

    And a number of others will be booted off their lands to make way for my supporters, he thought, grimly. He had a little list of noblemen who wouldn’t be missed, men who’d tried to pressure his father or sent their sons to pressure him. Attainting them for treason, on the grounds they’d done nothing to save their monarch, would avoid any pesky questions about the legality of depriving them of their lands. And once I get rid of them, I can start thinking about a little further expansion.

    He watched the soldiers for a minute longer, then remounted his horse and rode back towards the city. Racal’s Bay seemed more lively than ever, now the streets were clear of water and ice. There were still few women on the streets - and those he saw were either prostitutes or escorted by grim-faced men - but the shops were largely open and the merchants were doing a roaring trade. He’d even heard from a handful of merchants who wanted to expand over the channel, although he’d had to turn them down for the moment. There was no way to know what would happen when they reached the mainland.

    His mood soured as he looked over the bay and saw the raging storms behind. The faces in the clouds were more visible now, although he wasn’t sure if they were coming closer or if he was simply more aware of their presence. He hoped Isabella was right, when she said the elementals could be bribed into allowing their passage. If she was wrong ... it was hard to believe the elementals couldn’t kill them directly. It was easy to see how even experienced sailors might make fatal mistakes, mistakes that killed them. Or maybe the elementals, like humans, were good at lying to themselves. They might not want to believe they’d committed murder.

    Admiral Tanoan had taken over a suite of rooms to serve as an office, his staffers coming and going at all hours of the day. He jumped to his feet and saluted, the moment he saw Reginald. Reginald waved him back to his chair, then sat down himself. It wasn’t quite protocol - and his father would have said sharp things about it, once upon a time - but Reginald couldn’t bring himself to care. He wanted to be doing something, not sitting around waiting and worrying. And if his father was truly dead ...

    He shivered. The throne was a prison as much as anything else. His father was, to all intents and purposes, draped with so many chains he could barely walk. He was certainly not allowed to lead his troops on the battlefield, not any longer. Reginald knew that he wouldn’t be on the battlefield, not once he was king. He needed to sire a heir, a young boy who would need at least fourteen years to grow into a man. And then ... if something happened to his son, Reginald would be back at square one.

    “Your Highness.” Admiral Tanoan sounded calm, thankfully. “Two-thirds of the fleet are ready to depart, when the storms abate. The remainder is in no condition to sail.”

    “I wish I was surprised,” Reginald said. The ships hadn’t been built for local winters. They might sink if someone took them onto a calm sea, let alone the raging storms outside. “When can we start loading?”

    “I’d prefer to wait until everything else was in place,” Admiral Tanoan told him. “Once the stores are ready, we can board the army in a couple of days and set sail.”

    Reginald nodded, feeling a flicker of nausea. Two days in the dark, dank holds would not please the soldiers ... and that would be before they set sail. There’d be at least five days on the water, assuming they survived the trip. The channel had never been easy to sail ... he shook his head, trying not to think about it. There would be time enough for seasickness once they got underway.

    “We should be ready to leave as planned, then,” he said. “Have you considered possible landing sites?”

    Admiral Tanoan gave him a sharp look. He’d served Reginald long enough to know that it wasn’t a casual question. Reginald had considered his options, but ... he wanted the admiral’s uninfluenced opinion. Once Reginald gave his opinion, even the freest of free thinkers would hesitate to contradict him.

    “I’d suggest aiming for Humber, rather than Havelock,” Admiral Tanoan said. He pointed to the table. Someone had placed a map on the table and weighed it down with a collection of beer mugs. “We have to disembark the men and horses as quickly as possible. Humber has docks and ... everything else we need. There’s even walls, just in case they respond quicker than we expect.”

    Reginald nodded, slowly. He’d served his father on the battlefield long enough to know it always took a long time to mobilise troops and dispatch them to their targets. Normally, he’d expect his father to need at least two to three weeks to get reinforcements to Humber. But now ... if the country was on the verge of civil war, the forces in Havelock might be ready to march at once. The more he thought about it, the more he feared it might be so. And if he was caught on the beaches, he was in deep shit.

    “It’ll take them some time to notify Havelock that we’ve landed,” he said, although he wasn’t sure that was true. The old sorcerous communications network was gone, but it was quite possible that the entities and their servants could use the Godly Realm to communicate. If they could travel hundreds of miles in the blink of an eye, surely they could send messages too. “Even if they set out at once, and march like the wind, it will still take them hours to reach us.”

    Unless they use the Godly Realm, he reminded himself. Or unless they have some other tricks up their sleeves.

    He scowled as he studied the map. He knew, without false modesty, that he was a brave man. He had no qualms about risking his life on the battlefield, even if his death meant utter disaster. But he was scared of the unknown. He understood Isabella’s magic, even though he couldn’t use it. Ritual magic, on the other hand, was disturbingly unpredictable. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to its workings. Someone could be using it against him, right now, and he wouldn’t have the slightest idea ...

    His eyes traced out Andalusia on the map. The country had always been large, even before his father had bumped off a pair of neighbouring kings and claimed their lands for his own. Reginald had resolved that he would leave his son an even bigger kingdom. But now ... the sheer size of his homeland worked against him. It was already taking far too long to get home.

    And what, he asked himself, will I find when I get there?
     
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  19. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    Everyone? Or are the "entities" included?
     
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Comments?

    Chapter Eleven

    Her room was starting to feel like a prison.

    Princess Silverdale stood in front of the door and pressed her ear against the wood, trying to determine if there was a guard outside. She’d been allowed to roam the upper levels of the palace freely, when she’d been younger, but now ...she’d been warned to stay in her rooms unless she was specifically summoned by her oldest sister. Silverdale had never really liked her sister - Sofia was four years older than her, a gulf that no amount of family feeling could surmount - but she’d never hated her. Now ...

    She listened as carefully as she could, hearing nothing. Was there a guard outside? She couldn’t tell. There shouldn’t have been, not here. The rules governing royal princesses were strict. Men who weren’t related to them were not to be close to them, unless they were heavily chaperoned or ... she wasn’t quite sure of the details, but apparently there was a shortage of volunteers for a procedure that made them safe. There really shouldn’t have been a guard outside.

    The knob turned in her hand, but the door refused to open. Silverdale gasped, honestly shocked. The door was ... locked? There was no keyhole. Had someone put a bolt on the far side of the door? Or ... or what? She was locked in her room? By whose authority? She threw discretion to the winds and banged on the door, trying to open it by force, but the wood refused to give way. The handful of spells at her disposal, the magic she’d been told never to used, failed to budge the door.

    She stumbled backwards, reeling in shock. She was locked in. Locked up, like a common prisoner. She was ... she opened her mouth to throw a tantrum, then thought better of it. She was a big girl now. She couldn’t shout and scream, particularly when there wasn’t an audience. Her governess was nowhere to be seen. Silverdale told herself, firmly, that she should be relieved. The wretched woman was full of proper ideas of how a little princess should behave and her father supported her completely.

    Silverdale turned slowly, surveying her room. It was, as befitted her character as the king’s youngest daughter, smaller than her older sister’s room ... but it was still large, crammed with luxuries - she’d been told - beyond compare. She often thought her father still considered her a little girl, given how much of the room was crammed with toys and games she’d outgrown long ago. The golden rocking horse had been fun, when she was five. Now, she couldn’t even sit on it without her feet touching the floor. She sighed as she paced towards the window and peered outside. The guards were patrolling the battlements, as always. There seemed to be more of them and they looked jumpy. Very jumpy.

    She glanced at the portrait hanging from the wall and sighed, again. She’d never really known her mother. Queen Carline had died giving birth to her, according to her older siblings. Her father rarely talked about her. He’d certainly never taken another wife. And yet ... Silverdale couldn’t help thinking that her mother and her had, once upon a time, looked very alike. Her dark hair and pale face, pretty rather than beautiful, looked just like a younger version of her mother. The queen had been beautiful. Everyone said so.

    “I wish you were here,” Silverdale said. She’d fallen into the habit of talking to the portrait a long time ago, although the portrait had never replied. “Or Reginald was here. I don’t know what to do.”

    She sat back on the bed, wondering if she should go back to sleep. Her brother had left six months ago, leaving her behind. Silverdale had pleaded with him to be allowed to go, even though she was a child. She’d wanted to see something of the world besides the castle and the royal estates, before she grew up and entered the marriage market. Her father had never tried to hide it from her. Instead, he’d made it clear that it was her duty to marry for the sake of the family. Silverdale wasn’t clear on all the details - her governess had slapped her when she’d asked too many questions - but she understood duty. She just wished she had a chance to live a little first.

    And things had changed. Silverdale didn’t know what - no one had talked to her - but it was clear that something had changed. Her father was ill, her sister - of all people - seemed to be in charge and ... and what? It was hard to escape the feeling, sometimes, that she was being watched, even though there was no one there. The shadows in the corners seemed to move when she wasn’t looking, as if there was a whole other world lurking in the darkness. She’d insisted on keeping the lanterns lit, even in the middle of the day. She just hadn’t been able to sleep without them.

    The door rattled. Silverdale glanced up, hearing the unmistakable sound of a bolt being drawn back. Someone was outside ... she tensed, wondering if she should try to hide. But there was nowhere to hide. There was no other way out of the room, unless she tried to open and climb out of the window. And she had a nasty feeling she’d plunge to her death if she tried. She stood as the door opened, reminding herself that she was the trueborn daughter of a king. Whatever was coming, she’d face it with dignity.

    “Your Highness.” Her governess - a sour-faced woman who looked as if she was permanently sucking on a lemon - stepped into the room. “You are summoned to court.”

    Silverdale blinked. She was too young to be summoned to court. It wasn’t fair - Reginald had been attending court since he’d been old enough to string two words together - but it was the way of things. Her father rarely permitted her to attend court - or do anything, beyond the occasional presentation to foreign guests. She was simply too young. Sofia had taken over a number of their mother’s duties, now she was a grown woman, but Silverdale? She had no role at court.

    “I’m coming,” Silverdale said. The governess might treat her with respect, but she had the power and she’d never let her young charge forget it. “Let me get dressed first ...”

    “Come as you are,” her governess said. “Now.”

    Silverdale looked down at herself - her green dress was decent, but it was hardly courtly wear - then shrugged. The governess would be the one in trouble, if the king - or his regent - objected to Silverdale’s dress. It would do the older woman good to be on the receiving end of the king’s temper for once. Or Sofia’s, if she was really in charge. Maybe that was why the governess was so cranky. She’d been Sofia’s governess, once upon a time. Now ... her former charge could take revenge for everything the governess had done.

    She picked up her tiara, a present from her brother, and placed it firmly on her head. The governess would normally be fussing around her, trying to remove non-existent dust from her clothes and pin her hair into whatever style was fashionable these days, but now ... she just stood there, as if she was distracted by a far weightier matter. Silverdale found it a little worrying, if she were honest. The governess was acting out of character. Very out of character.

    “This way,” the governess snapped. “Now.”

    Maybe not that out of character, Silverdale thought, as she followed the older woman out the door. There were no guards outside, but someone had fixed a bolt to the door. She wondered, morbidly, what she was supposed to do if there was a fire. Jump out the window? Try to break down the door? What does she want me to do?

    Her forebodings grew stronger as they made their way down the royal family’s private staircase. The castle felt wrong, as if it wasn’t truly her castle any longer. Perhaps it wasn’t even her home. She thought she saw things out of the corner of her eye, glimpses of things her mind refused to grasp, but when she turned to look there was nothing there. There were hints of corridors and passageways that led in direction she couldn’t comprehend ... she rubbed her eyes and they were gone, reality snapping back into place effortlessly. Her entire body felt drained, as she reached the bottom of the stairs. And yet, she knew she’d eaten a good breakfast. The governess had stood over her as she’d eaten it.

    Silverdale shivered as they approached the audience chamber, even though the air was decently warm. She was tempted to turn and run, to rely on her speed to outrun the governess ... the old hag would catch up with her eventually, she knew from experience, but she would have a few glorious hours of freedom. And she had the feeling that, whatever was behind that door, she didn’t want to see it. Once, she would have liked to attend court. It would have been a sign of her father’s trust. Now ...

    The governess placed a bony arm on her shoulder, holding her firmly in place as she opened the door. Silverdale glanced up resentfully and froze as she met the governess’s eyes. The older woman was scared. Silverdale couldn’t believe it. The governess had snapped and snarled at noblemen who’d got in her way, even though they outranked her socially. She’d even whipped the princesses when they’d disobeyed her. And yet, she was scared? Utterly terrified? Silverdale couldn’t imagine anything scaring the governess. But she was scared, too scared to disobey.

    She braced herself as she was half-pushed into the courtroom. It had changed, since her father had fallen unwell. The portraits on the walls, paintings of kings who had ruled in name only since time out of mind, were gone. Instead, there were strange signs and sigals on the walls. Silverdale looked at them, then looked away as her head started to spin. The governess pointed her towards the dais, where her sisters were waiting for her. Sofia sat on her father’s throne, looking every bit the ice princess; Ruby stood next to her, her face schooled into a mask that suggested she was as terrified as Silverdale herself. And, on the other side ...

    Silverdale stopped, dead. No one, but royalty was allowed to stand on the dais. It elevated them above the crowd. But now, there was a tall thin woman standing next to Sofia. She shouldn’t have been there. Silverdale felt her mouth drop open with outrage. Who was this woman? Why was Sofia treating her as a near-equal ...?

    She met her sister’s eyes and swallowed the protest before it was fully formed. Sofia had always been cold and calculating, but now ... she looked as though she had been carved from a block of ice. Sofia wore a long white dress, as if she were attending her own wedding, but there was nothing vulnerable about her. Not now. Her blue eyes glinted with a power - and a malice - that chilled her younger sister to the bone. Silverdale had no doubt that Sofia would squash her like a bug, if she disobeyed. She felt her legs wobble as she took her place on the dais, too close to her elder sister for comfort. Something tickled the back of her neck - it felt as if someone was standing far too close to her - but when she looked no one was there.

    Sofia made a sign to the guards, who opened the far doors. A crowd of courtiers - mostly men - poured into the room. The lords and ladies led the way, decked out in their finery; they were followed by minor nobility, a handful of magicians and, right at the back, a tiny number of merchants and traders who’d earned a place at court. Their faces were stony masks, but it was easy to tell they were displeased. Hardly anyone seemed pleased, she thought. Some of them were just better at hiding it than others.

    The crowd seemed to waver as it realised that Sofia was on the throne, then bent the knee as one. Silverdale hesitated, then went down too. Sofia was standing ... Silverdale blinked, unsure when her elder sister had stood. Her presence was almost overpowering. Silverdale’s father had had presence, when he’d sat on the throne, but his daughter outshone him. And yet ... Silverdale felt another chill. Something was wrong. She could barely force herself to look at her sister. It was like staring into a cold sun.

    Sofia sat, with no discernable motion. “We greet you,” she said. Her voice was cold and hard, effortlessly echoing through the chamber. “We welcome you to our court. You may rise.”

    Silverdale stood, brushing down her dress. The lords and ladies looked relieved as they stumbled to their feet. They weren’t accustomed to bending the knee to anyone, save for their royal master. Silverdale wondered, idly, how long it would take for one or more of them to question Sofia’s right to the regency. She’d had the laws drilled into her almost as soon as she’d learnt to read. A woman couldn’t be regent. The position normally went to the king’s brothers or cousins.

    “My royal father is unwell.” Sofia’s voice grew stronger, carrying so much conviction that it was hard to doubt her. “He was struck down for failure, for failure to carry out the will of the gods. It nearly killed him.”

    Silverdale gasped. She wasn’t alone. Sofia had always been deeply religious, perhaps the most religious person in the family, but ... hardly anyone spoke of the gods like that. No one really believed, did they? She glanced from face to face, wondering who would be the first to challenge the regent. Sofia’s mere presence made it hard to formulate a response. Silverdale had to look away just to keep herself from accepting her sister’s words without question. Her thoughts threatened to break up every time her sister spoke.

    “He will recover, in time.” Sofia’s voice echoed around the chamber. “Or do you doubt it?”

    There was a long chilling pause. And then someone stepped forward. Silverdale’s eyes narrowed. The man was a junior lord, so junior she honestly couldn’t remember his name ... if she’d ever known it in the first place. They probably hadn’t been introduced. He was way too junior to be a prospective husband for either of her sisters. Silverdale was surprised he hadn’t gone with the army. Reginald would have found a use for him.

    Sure, her thoughts whispered. Arrow fodder.

    The nobleman went to his knees, dramatically. “Your Highness,” he said. “There is deep concern over your program ...”

    Silverdale felt a flash of contempt, mingled with a fear she didn’t quite understand. The nobleman was ... weak, she thought. He spoke as if the slightest disagreement would be enough to shut his mouth. And yet ... it wasn’t right. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but it was there. He ... was behaving strangely. He ...

    Sofia spoke with icy calm. “Do you dare to defy the will of the gods?”

    The nobleman seemed to cringe, then - as the rest of the crowd backed away - rallied. “Your Highness, you are destroying temples that have stood since time out of mind. You are killing priests who refuse your commands. You are forcing people to pray in manners they don’t understand. You are ...”

    “I am obeying the will of the gods.” Sofia didn’t sound angry. That was scarier, somehow, than anything else. Silverdale would almost have preferred a fit of rage. Her father was always at his worst when he was coldly angry, rather than shouting loudly. “And are you doubting their will?”

    “Your Highness.” The nobleman started to stammer. Tears glittered in his eyes. “I ...”

    He stumbled, then fell to the floor. Silverdale started, watching in horror as blood flowed from his mouth. She’d never seen anything like it. She ... she turned and glanced at her sister, then looked away hastily. Sofia seemed so much bigger that ...

    “You will have your chance to recant,” Sofia said. She clicked her fingers. A pair of guards picked up the nobleman and carried him off. “And I trust there will be no one else who will question the will of the gods.”

    She stood, again. “The kingdom will be put on the right path,” she said. “Whatever it takes, I will put the kingdom on the right path. And those who stand in our way will not stand for long.”

    Silverdale gritted her teeth. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. She glanced past Sofia, at the woman standing next to her, and shuddered. The woman hadn’t said a word, but ... there was something about her that put Silverdale’s teeth on edge. It was hard to put into words. Her body looked ... odd, as if it wasn’t quite right. As if ... she couldn’t put it into words. Her instincts told her to run.

    She met her other sister’s eyes. Ruby looked as scared as Silverdale herself, her hands clasped tightly behind her back to keep them from shaking. Silverdale wondered just what had happened to Ruby, over the last few days. Had she been locked in her room too? Or ... Ruby was four years older. Surely, she would have been allowed to assist her older sister ...

    “Come,” Sofia said. Her voice was tinged with confidence, as if there wasn’t the slightest doubt in her mind that she was in charge. “Let us pray.”

    And the crowd offered no resistance at all.
     
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