The Month of the Serpent, Ferisday the Twenty-Sixth.
Kaessekros on the Red Isles in Kellaldh
She sat watching the sea. The sun set somewhere at her back, out of her view. The window of her room looked out over the Great Sea, to the east. Somewhere beyond the horizon lay the Frisian Republics. That was where most of the smugglers that sheltered in Kassekros sold their goods. Strong Kellei spirits, wool, dried kelp, all of these without the tariffs placed on them by the Jutes. Cheaper than anything the Jute merchants could offer, whether they stole it from the Kellei or from their own people.
Rhona Trevean pinched the bridge of her nose. They had buried her father that day, the ceremony secret. He had long stood against the Jutes, claiming to fight for a Kellei crown which no longer existed. Fifteen years after the rest of Kellaldh fell to them, the Jutes still could not conquer the barony.
In her heart she knew that was because they had not tried. Not really. The Old Baron, her father—Argus Trevean—had a fleet of fast ships manned by fearless crews who knew how to fight on the water. The Jutes had knights and cannons, and could crush most forces on land. At sea? That they had not mastered. And Sercourt nestled in the Shieldlands—rocky hills and mountains cut through with rivers and glens but no real roads or open fields on which to array ones cavalry or set up ones cannons.
To the people of Sercourt, even those of Kaessekros where he had hid in the all but impregnable keep, the Old Baron symbolized resistance. It didn’t matter that his daughter accompanied him to all councils, that he made no decision without consulting her and her mother, or that he had ensured Rhona could read, write, and fight. This made no impression on most of the Old Baron’s retainers and adherents. Eccentricity was accepted in the great, and who but a great man could oppose the Jutes with such success?
Hyperbole, perhaps. Many of his retainers knew well that the Old Baron relied on his daughter and wife. They had helped maintain the secret of his passing from the people of Sercourt and of Kellaldh more widely. But what would happen when her mother made a decision with which they disagreed? Could she impose her will on them as the Old Baron had? Could she command the loyalty and respect he had? Their culture valued a woman as a wife, a homemaker, and a mother.
And Maura Cornavia, Rhona’s mother, was all those things. She had been a good wife to Baron Trevean. She had made a fine home for their family. She had raised Rhona. These were all admirable things. But like her husband, she could be politic, she could be strategic, and she could rule. What of the stories of the queens among the Kellei, great warriors who had faced down empires or led their people on great migrations? Ancient history or myth, what did it matter now?
Rhona rose from the window and straightened her tunic. Melancholy? Self-pity? Is this what her father would want? Is this what he had taught her? Decisions were being made in the hall right then. The retainers would be drinking the family’s best spirits, toasting the memory of the Old Baron, and deciding on the future of Sercourt.
Her future. Her mother’s future.
She took her sword in its scabbard down from the wall. She slipped on the baldric from which it hung. She wondered about her father’s sceptre—a small wand topped with a black pearl he bore as a loyal vassal of the Kellei crown. Her mother would have it. She should carry it when she met with the lairds and thanes.
For a moment, Rhona froze. How could she face them, the men who had followed her father for so long? What would they think of her? Since the coming of the Jutes, her father’s warriors had given her respect and deference. They followed her father’s cues just as they had followed his orders. She had honestly thought herself free. Thought herself independent. Did it all rely on her father? Without him, would his retainers expect her mother to remarry—perhaps one of them—and that Rhona find herself a husband?
They could demand what they liked. They could not enforce it. She would leave. She and her mother both would find their own way. Her father had valued them because of their intelligence and their will. Her parents had taught her well, and she would find her fortune wherever she could. She would not bow to another’s demands, not while she could still stand.
She exhaled, long and slow. She took her dirk from her desk and slid it into her boot. Bedecked as a warrior, she tied back her hair. Let them sneer now. She was her father’s daughter. She was her mother’s daughter. She would not betray their teachings or their examples.
Her door opened onto the circular stairs that ran through the centre of the keep. In the cool evening air of the early autumn the stones retained some vestige of the day’s warmth. In the morning, she would avoid even brushing against them if she could. In the evening, she rested her cheek against the wall. She inhaled the scent of the fires and roasting foods below her in the hall. She listened to the subdued cacophony of the assembled guests and residents. It offered her some comfort in its familiarity.
As she descended, her heart pounded. She knew them all, had argued with them, colluded with them, and even commanded them. Her father interred, his presence now gone from the hall, from the keep, from the citadel, she faced them truly alone.
A table that ran almost the length of the hall dominated it. A great chair—empty—stood at its head. On the walls flanking the table, two great hearths provided heat and light. They had cunning chimneys, but still their smoke hung in the air. Tapestries of the history of the Treveans and Sercourt covered the walls, dulled by age. A score of men—no women—stood around the table, some conversing, some debating, and some silent and lost. Servants filled their vessels with ale and wine.
Then she saw her mother. Grief had not bent Maura, nor had it dulled her bright green eyes—eyes which she had bestowed on her daughter—or drawn the colour from her sun-kissed skin. She spoke with Raendolf. Almost a decade younger than Rhona, Raendolf had the eyes of an ancient and the insight to match it. Her father’s factor—representative, clerk, diplomat, and master of business—did not have the beef or muscles of the other men in the room, but all deferred to him. He had an easy manner that belied his shrewd cunning. Her father had valued his intelligence most, but he had relied upon his loyalty.
He saw her first as she stood on the stairs, not yet in the hall. He smiled. Thin and with little happiness or mirth, it did put her at ease. He directed her mother, whose eyes met hers. Another smile and another slight pinch of warmth for Rhona. Maura raised her hand. She held the Old Baron’s sceptre of office. Raendolf gestured for Rhona to come down.
The room went quiet as she entered. They watched her with sympathy and with compassion. Some eyed her with uncertainty, but she expected that. Raendolf moved to intercept her.
“Milady, I am pleased you were able to join us.” The tight muscles around his eyes spoke to her more than the ease in his voice. He never called her ‘milady.’ “A visitor has come to us from across the sea who had hoped to speak to your father, but I explained to him the Baron Trevean was unwell, and that you would speak for him.”
“Of course.” She risked a glance around the room. She easily spotted the visitor, in his finery with his oiled hair. “A visitor from Taulmeer, is it.” She approached him with a smile. “I am Rhona Trevean, daughter of Baron Argus Trevean of Sercourt.”
She would call the man handsome, but not attractive. He looked all but dead to her. She saw no exuberance, no passion. His smile seemed insipid, his motions cloying. He offered her a perfect bow, but she never liked perfect bows. People who spent so much time perfecting bows generally ignored issues of more import.
“I am Justyl, Marquis of Tramecelle.” He reached for her hand and lightly grazed it with his lips when offered. “I am saddened to hear of the great Baron’s illness. His courage and valour are known even in the court of Taulmeer, and my king sent me here to tender his greetings.”
“I thank you for your kind words and will pass along your king’s greetings.” Of course there was more, but this courtier did not know how to proceed. In the middle of a clutch of barbarians he treated with a woman. Did she pity him? No, not much. “And please pass along my father’s respect and consideration to your master, the king.”
Justyl nodded a curt bow in response. He leaned close. “I have more to say, if we could speak privately.”
“Every man here has sworn his blood and his honour to my family.” She had thought to say father, but decided she could send a message to the retainers as well as to the Taulmeeran noble. “Speak as plain before them as you would in private with my father.”
Clearing his throat, Justyl pulled at his tunic. “I will do so.” He touched his jaw, and Rhona realized she didn’t trust him in part because of he lacked a beard. Every retainer, even Raendolf, had a beard. She did not know of any man save the clerics of the Church who lacked beards. “With the death of King Eadwine and the ascension of his heir, Eadelred, now King of the Jutemark, my king sees an opportunity for your people. Your noble father has led the battle against the Jutes in Kellaldh for many years. Perhaps now is the time for your father and his allies to rise up and drive out the Jutes. My king, saddened by the suffering of the Kellei people, brothers in holy vows and united by the predations of the Jutes, wishes to offer his aid in freeing your people from Jute tyranny.”
She had heard diplomatic language before, but Rhona worked hard to stop from smiling. It wasn’t that this amused her so much, but she felt all her emotions much closer to the surface. Her melancholy had choked her, and now hilarity boiled up almost too fast for her to push it back down.
“We only just learned of King Eadwine’s death weeks ago,” Rhona said. “It amazes me that your king heard of this and could react so quickly.”
“The King of Taulmeer is always excellently informed.” Now the smile became humble, and from that humility shone forth pride.
“I have no doubt.” And she didn’t. Taulmeer’s wealth could buy many eyes. “And what can Sercourt do in return?”
“You misunderstand . . .” Justyl opened his mouth to add more, then paused. It only lasted a heartbeat, and then he moved on. “Taulmeer expects nothing from Sercourt and Kellaldh. My king has watched the Jute campaign against your indomitable province and sympathizes. After securing our own lands against Jute predations, my king has decided that he will now reach out to those who have suffered and provide them succor.”
Rhona worked hard not to laugh. Her mother was much better at diplomacy. She could swallow these silly statements with a smile and say what needed to be said. Her father, though, had never learned this talent. It had not endeared him to the Kellei crown, though that did not matter after the Jutes had buried it.
Rather than a laugh, Rhona nodded and crossed her arms, attempting to provide a model of interest and slight deference. “That is very kind of him. Perhaps it is incidental that focusing the Jutes on a rebellion in their own neighbourhood might distract them from any plans to reinforce or expand their own holdings on the borders of Taulmeer. In fact, should the Jutes bring enough forces into Kellaldh, it might leave their ports on the mainland vulnerable.”
She saw just a flicker, a change around the eyes, a slight decrease in the smile, and Rhona felt certain this Taulmeeran diplomat recognized a shift in the game and the rules. “This is possible, but my king is not a rapacious beast such as King Eadwine embodied. Those ports and the province of the Norelaw are, indeed, properly Taulmeeran, but who would wish to reignite a war that would harm the innocent people of those lands?”
“It would then indeed be unfortunate if the Jutemark gave Taulmeer reason for just war.” Raendulf took a step to stand just behind Rhona. “Knowing the admirable patience and compassion of your king, he is also known for his pursuit of true justice. Should the Jutes give cause, your king will have little choice but to drive them from his lands. And in this, it would be beneficial for him to have an ally always ready to support him in his rightful and just pursuits, especially an ally on the border with the Jutemark.”
“Yes, this would be beneficial.” Justyl clutched at the gloves he held in one hand with his other. “When Kellaldh has a king secure in his crown, he would be welcome to approach my king as a younger cousin, seeking the wise counsel and protection of an elder.”
“But for now, what aid does your king offer?” Raendulf asked that which had racked Rhona through the exchange. “Other than his kind consideration, for which those who stand for the Kellei crown duly thank him.”
Stand for the Kellei crown? An interesting turn of phrase, one which Rhona had not considered. Yes, Sercourt alone among the royal demesnes remained. Only the barony stood as a land adhering to Kellei laws.
Justyl grimaced. He pulled at his gloves, but his eyes remained hard. “While no one would argue that the Baron Sercourt is the last bulwark of the Kellei crown in Kellaldh, the Kellei court in exile sits in my king’s court in Aneros. They stand for the Kellei crown, just as they stood with the Kellei crown in its final days.”
A thin man, all but bald but with a full beard shot through with gray, pushed his way forward. “That’s bullshit. We stood and fought. They turned and ran. We lost the crown because of their cowardice. They stand for nothing.”
Maura stepped forward and put her hand on the man’s shoulder. His face, red and taut making the scars upon it unmistakable, slackened and his bulging eyes looked away. Maura spoke some words quietly in his ear and he bowed, stepping back into the crowd.
“My husband’s captains, his sworn kerns, warriors who have given blood oaths to protect him and avenge him on his death, they do not understand politics.” Maura beamed at the Taulmeeran representative with a dignity that decades of suffering had not diminished. “To a Hillman kern, when your lord falls, you give your life for vengeance. A kern does not surrender and does not retreat if his lord dies on the battlefield. They do not understand that for the crown to survive, the nobility must also survive.”
Justyl inclined his head slightly to Maura. “I understand. Our knights are much the same.”
A ripple of amusement ran through the assembled retainers. Rhona watched as Murdoch, the kern who has railed against the Taulmeeran representative, spoke to two of his men, kerns sworn to Sercourt and not to one of her father’s thanes. His outburst had not surprised Rhona, nor had his obedience to the quiet words of her mother, whatever those might have been. In the fight against the Jutes, he led from the front and feared nothing. He had been an uncle to her—kind, gentle, with an easy and raucous laugh. Murdoch, like Raendulf, were as much her family as was her own mother.
“Will your king be sending these knights to support our war against the Jutes?” Raendulf spoke as though he had not registered the small outburst, other than to use it as a convenient segue to the information he sought.
“Knights?” Justyl’s eyes widened and his smile showed actual amusement. Rhona thought he revealed real emotion or was perhaps the finest actor she had ever seen. “No, our knights would be ill-suited to fight in Sercourt and most of the High Moors. But my king can offer men, men of war who have marched against the Jutes.”
“These would be mercenaries.” Rhona did not want her disappointment to reach her voice. Of course the Taulmeeran king wanted to rid himself of the mercenary armies who had defeated the Jutes. Disband them on his own soil and he risked that they would turn to banditry. The Kadetrean States, south of Taulmeer, and only just recovered after a decade in which disbanded mercenary companies ran roughshod, stealing, murdering, and setting up their own petty states. Taulmeer would see that and look for another avenue.
And while it might not offer the best solution, if the king would finance them until they could march into the Jutemark, disbanding them there, within enemy territory, would create a problem for the Jutes. It would not free Kellaldh, but it would give Sercourt breathing room.
What did that matter without her father? Who could rally the people, create a new army, prepare the lands to face another Jute army? He had taught her much, and she had rode with him in the field, but would even his most trusted kerns and thanes follow her?
“They are mercenaries, yes, but most of them are Kellei,” Justyl said. “They seek to return, but they wish to return to a Kellaldh ruled by a Kellei king, free from the Jute yoke. My king sees benefits for both you and them. You have a seasoned company of soldiers, accustomed to following orders and loyal to Kellaldh, while they may return home and perhaps gain themselves the gratitude of a new Kellei king. At the least, they may retire to their home when your war is over, to live how they wish.”
“Kellei mercenaries?” Rhona looked to Raendulf, who grinned.
“We know of many such men,” Raedulf said. “Young men sick of Jute rule, with no future but perhaps a natural aptitude for violence. They pass through Sercourt on their way to the mainland. Some have stayed to become kerns, but most travel over the sea, to seek fortune and glory. You are saying that you have assembled an army of them? One that you will provide to the baron?”
“The crown hired many companies in our war against the Jutes,” Justyl said. “Two of these free companies are led by men who claim to be Kellei: the Company of the Unicorn and the Company of the Cyclops Banner. My king had such esteem for the captain-general of the Company of the Unicorn, he has made him a marquis, and now the two armies march under the Cyclops Banner.”
Another ripple swept through the retainers, but this time rather than amusement, it was discussion and some surprise. Rhona knew of the two companies, and she had known that their leaders both claimed birth in Kellaldh. Did it change anything? A mercenary was a mercenary. They fought for wealth and nothing more. Loyalty to Kellaldh? A leaf to cover their true motivation. Perhaps they thought to come to Kellaldh and create their own fiefs, ripping them out of Jute hands. As long as they didn’t think they could rule Sercourt as their own, what difference if mercenaries or the Jutes ruled the High Moors and the Marches? Sercourt’s war would continue.
Rhona accepted it. Better swords against the Jutes than nothing at all. “And these companies are ready to ship to Kellaldh?”
“At this time, the Marquis de Terenquist, who had once led the Company of the Unicorn, has advised my king that subterfuge is best.” Justyl now had his arms behind his back, and leaned forward slightly. “As such, my king would like to send a representative of the Cyclops Banner to meet with the baron . . .” Justyl glanced at Maura, then Raendulf, and then back to Rhona. “Or perhaps representatives of the baron to discuss the contract. The terms would be your own, but payment would come from Taulmeer.”
This time, Rhona didn’t think she kept her confusion from her face. Why would Taulmeer suggest such terms? Why would they relinquish control of this weapon? It could not have come from them. The Kellei court in exile? Why would they allow the Old Baron to make his own terms, which would undoubtedly cut them out? No, this had to be either the marquis who had been a captain or the current leader of the mercenaries. Did this soldier expect he could get better terms from the Old Baron? Well, whomever he was, he had not met Raendulf.
Rhona closed her eyes for just a moment, feeling her heart rebel in its cage. She took a breath. “I understand. When should we expect this representative?”
“He is ready to sail as soon as I return.” Justyl raised himself up on his heels and then rocked back. He continued to do this as he spoke. “He presently consults with the Marquis de Terenquist and some other of his own captains and retainers. You should expect him in the weeks after I depart.”
“And you will stay to enjoy our hospitality for a space?” Maura couldn’t have meant it, but Rhona knew her mother would not ignore diplomacy for expediency, not when this man offered them an army.
“Sadly, I must depart immediately.” No sadness touched Justyl’s words. “My king has much work for me. I hope you can understand and accept this.”
“We understand completely.” Rhona’s reply may have come too quickly. She didn’t care. “We thank you for your pains and we hope you will extend our deep gratitude to your kind and just king.”
Rhona ignored the continued niceties, leaving those to her mother who finally escorted the Taulmeeran representative out of the hall. The great doors closed, and an explosion of sound filled the room. Questions, demands, fears, and recriminations all came forth, aimed everywhere and at everyone. Rhona ignored it. She staggered to the table and leaned against her father’s chair. An army. Loyal? Unlikely. Disciplined? Impossible. Ready to fight the Jutes? Oh, she certainly hoped so. She needed nothing more.
Raendulf finally calmed the room. The mob stood around her, suffused with silent anticipation. Raendulf’s eyes moved from her to the chair. He said nothing, but she saw his face tighten. She read the message and sat. She had expected some response, something voiced. Nothing came. The retainers took their seats, others who had no right to sit for deliberations crowded around.
As soon as retainers filled the seats at the table, Raendulf spoke. “The captain-general of the Free Companies of the Cyclops Banner is a man named Alec Rathwig. He did not pass through Sercourt, but we know some of his trusted captains, men who have marched with him the last decade. Three of the captains who fought with him against the Jutes in Taulmeer passed through Sercourt and continue to send money to their families through us. We have influence with them.”
“Is he Kellei?” Rhona held her palms flat on the table, worried they would shake otherwise. “Is he really Kellei? Can he beat the Jutes?”
“Is he really Kellei?” Raendulf threw up his hands. “I believe so, but what of it? How can we tell, really? From what I have heard from the mainland, he hires on most of the men who sail from Sercourt. He is the largest employer of Kellei mercenaries. And he has beaten the Jutes. Honestly, he seems to really hate them. He has taken on contracts no one else would, minor contracts from nobles or crowns that are all but buried, to face the Jutes. He has lost to them, certainly. War is never certain. But he has beat them, often.”
“More victories than losses.” Glamorgan, Thane of Lanshiel, and one of the younger retainers, sat to Rhona’s right, three seats from the head. He had the look of a kern—shaved head, scarred visage, tattooed arms—but he came from minor nobility. Her father than taken a liking to him. He likely saw a younger version of himself. “Does it matter if he is Kellei? If he is willing to fight the Jutes, let him come.”
“The contract concerns me,” Rhona said. “What happens when he rejects our control over him? What is he looking for from us that Taulmeer or this court in exile won’t give him?”
“Court in exile.” Murdoch, who stood behind Raendulf’s chair immediately to Rhona’s right, followed the statement with a long string of expletives.
“Why haven’t we heard of them before?” This, Rhona directed to Raendulf. “Father maintained . . . maintains so many contacts on the mainland, he knew everything that was happening in the Kellei community.” No one seemed to notice the inference of Rhona’s mistake, so she moved on, hoping none had time to consider her words. “No one ever spoke of this.”
Raendulf grimaced and rolled his eyes to the side. “True. It’s true. But the nobles with whom your father had good relations died in the war. The contacts on the mainland were mostly smugglers, merchants, or minor lords who maintained their ties to the Kellei community. This court in exile sounds like opportunists. Plenty of those. If they don’t talk to the Kellei, we wouldn’t hear of them.”
Glamorgan all but growled. “So if this mercenary does his job, if he frees some of the lands around Sercourt, we’ll have a gaggle of pretend Kellei coming to claim their rights.”
“And Sercourt.” The realization came to Rhona then, in the middle of the conversation, and she almost wanted to cry. “My father has no male heirs. Where do you think that gaggle will roost as it bides it’s time.” She swallowed down the anger. “Or don’t even bide their time.”
Murdoch had never tempered his language, and he made an oath that brought the blood to Raendulf’s face. What followed that oath made her heart swell. “We die for Sercourt, milady. We die for you and your mother. I’ll put my blade and my blood to that.”
She wanted to leap out of her chair and suffocate Murdoch in affection. She didn’t. She wanted the tears to come as love for him welled up. She couldn’t. She also couldn’t look up.
Until the sound of a chair hitting the floor seized her attention. Glamorgan stood. “Let any man here deny your right as your father’s heir, and I will see him on the field. Lanshiel for Sercourt, milady. Always. Lanshiel for Sercourt.”
This did not engender a flood of support for her, but many around the table did not yet know of the Old Baron’s demise. Glamorgan did. Murdoch did. They prepared the road for other to follow. Glamorgan, who had lost his wife when she tried to birth him a son, had only three daughters. Young, he could marry again, but did he see in her his own eldest daughter?
She allowed a few more retainers to shout their support, their eternal, undying support for her father’s line, before she stood, raising her arms. “Your support is appreciated, but we all know this world and what it expects. We also know that my father is a man, only a man, and he will soon join Osiris in the Fields of the Sun. When this happens, we will need to make choices. For now, we must consider Taulmeer’s offer and how we shall address this captain-general when he arrives.”
The discussion allowed Rhona to lose herself. Her mother returned, standing behind the chair, working with Raendulf to guide the assemblage, allowing Rhona the time to think, to consider.
But not about the future without her father. Not about how she would face the demands that would come for her to marry. Her age would no longer matter. Boys would be pushed forward as suitable partners, as would men older than her father. This would be about power. This would be about control—control of her as much as of her father’s lands.
Alone once again in her room, sitting on the ledge of her window long after the discussion had concluded, these thoughts came again. The hope delivered by the Taulmeeran representative had brought with it frustration. Could Kellaldh be freed? She didn’t believe so. Could she remain free? Again, she didn’t believe so.
This mercenary army would change the fight. Taulmeeran coin could help, it might even alter the balance, but Taulmeer would soon lose interest. The mercenaries would be killed or bought off by the Jutes. Lands freed would join Sercourt in the long, exhausting war. Young men would become sworn swords or venture to the mainland to fight for wealth. In the end, she would remain in Sercourt with her mother. They would face the Jutes as they faced their own people, making demands to which no one listened.
Her father had believed in her. He wanted her to be his heir. He relied on her as much as he relied on her mother, his wife. But he had died. He had died and he had gained no oaths from his retainers to support Rhona as his heir. And if he had? Oaths lasted as long as the strength to enforce them.
She would face the future just as she faced the Jutes. She would plan for the worse and hope for something better. And when the world turned to crush her, she would fight with all her strength, dying like a kern, unbent and unbroken.
She was a true daughter of Trevean.