Chapter 4: The Month of the Mouse, Moransday the Thirteenth.
Torclach in the Barony of Selcost, Kellalh
Rhona walked with her back straight, her eyes forward, her face studiously neutral. She wore clothing originally made for her father, now tailored for her. She had his sword on her hip and wore his robe and the circlet of a Baron of the Community. Her riding boots clicked against the stones of the floor, punctuating her approach.
The Temple of the Martyr Rood in Torclach could not compare with the great churches and cathedrals elsewhere. Old, the rulers of the local lands had worshipped at it for hundreds of years. Only in the last ten could the local clergy afford to glaze the windows, and then it was with irregular panes of coloured glass cast off from other projects further away. Since that time, her father had refused to attend the Rood.
Nobles from Surraev had paid for the glass.
She intended for her presence to show her willingness to compromise, to show she could be reasonable. Raendolf had liked that. He had trained for the clergy, so he knew them rather well. He argued that she had to begin with humility and deference so that she could switch to anger or impatience as needed. Let the clergy feel superior. It could lead them into mistakes.
Mordwech had wanted to start with accusations and demands, a desire which echoed the fire in Rhona’s heart, but which she knew would serve no purpose.
Though she sought to approach with humility, she also did so with caution. She did not know who may have learned she would come to Torclach, and though her father had always considered the town safe, it was not Kaessekros. She would never feel completely safe anywhere else.
Mordwech walked at her back, her chief retainer. Age had not diminished his strength or his determination. And her household kerns remained nearby, ready to give their lives should she encounter any threat. They all knew that their baron had passed and not a one of them hesitated to acknowledge her as his rightful and lawful heir—and their oath-holder.
If she died that day, she would die knowing that she truly led House Trevean. That everyone who mattered accepted her. That there had been no hesitation, only expectancy. The rest of the world did not matter.
Around the altar at the head of the temple stood two older men, similar in age to her late father. Both wore the white, be-jewelled vestments of senior clergy. That day, though, neither had the head-dress nor the chest-piece of a praelatus. A message? If so, what could it be?
Her father had respected these men and conferred with them. Perhaps she should not have been so suspicious, but they had bowed to the Surraevean crown. Her father had said that they had accepted Surraev overlordship because the Patriarch had issued a ruling that they should, all the while supporting him as best they could.
They had supported her father, yes, but they also knew Baron Trevean had died.
Usually, laypeople did not ascend the dais on which the altar sat. Had they chosen the position as a show of superiority? To maintain physical height above her? Yes, she would be respectful and humble, but she could not help being her father’s daughter.
She strode up the stairs to stand at the altar with the two of them. Neither reacted.
“Milady, let me offer you my deepest condolences.” That was Keid Wysheart, Prelate of Cathures. Thin, leaning on his staff of office, he had only wisps of hair left on his head. His bright eyes watched her under hooded lids, as though a snake pretending to sleep while watching its prey.
Raendulf had told Rhona that Prelate Wysheart was the illegitimate son and last vestige of a far-off cadet branch of the royal family, who rose in the Church through his ability as much as through royal patronage. He had risked his life sheltering many noble families who later escaped to Taulmeer. He knew the current Patriarch well, and the Patriarch was said to have a strong feeling of attachment to him.
“Yes, we were devastated to hear the news.” Vilaume Somerdwyl, Prelate of Pitcath—the most ancient of the Church provinces in Kellalh—appeared both well-fed and alert. He had a round, open face, and while it was difficult to discern under his robes, Rhona remembered him as a powerfully built man, looking more like a warrior than a priest.
Somerdwyl—according to Raendolf—was the third son of minor gentry, whose rise was wholly based on his ability. He had spent much of his time with the Church at the Patriarch’s court in Calledos, but he had never forgotten his home and returned soon after the Surraev invasion. The Church remained the wealthiest landholder in the Kellalh, but Prelate Somerdwyl had used much of his own wealth to help the most destitute in his province.
Rhona inclined her head to the exact same degree as Prelate Wysheart. “I thank you both for your kind words.” She once again stood straight, considering them in turn. “I was surprised to receive your invitation to speak so soon after my father’s passing.”
Prelate Wysheart cleared his throat and looked to Somerdwyl. For a moment, Somerdwyl looked down at his hands, and Rhona easily guessed what would come next. Raendulf and her mother had warned her about this. She did not give them the chance. “But I have spoken with my mother and conferred with my retainers and I will not be seeking a husband at this time.”
Neither prelate could hide their shock. Their eyes widened and eyebrows rose. Wysheart’s mouth hung open.
“There is no other noble house which has stood against Surraev, and therefore none worthy to marry into Selcost.” She crossed her arms across her chest. Yes, lead with humility, but not on this. She was not a carrot to be dangled before a donkey. “And I will not offer the seat of Selcost to a foreigner.”
“Milady, your father’s great enterprise is over.” Somerdwyl clutched his hands, squeezing one in the other as he spoke. “It died with him. For now, we must accept the suffering that The Halo’d One and His Blessed Wife have placed on us. We must endure until we find a way to overcome.”
Rhona bowed her head once again. She worked hard to remove emotion from her voice, to deliver the words calmly. “I appreciate your wise and judicious council, but I am not ready to abandon my father’s dying wish. And I will never marry a man who takes a knee to the king of Surraev. I would murder him in the bridal bed rather than give myself to him.”
Somerdwyl’s hand went to his mouth. Wysheart, though, smiled. He nodded. “Your father often told me that you were his daughter, through and through. And your mother—she was like you in her youth. She would marry no man save he who would respect her. I cannot tell you how jealous the great houses were when she married into Selcost. Your mother brought much wealth and prestige to Selcost in the union, but I knew your father’s mind. He married for love and admiration. It was a union not unlike the Blessed Ones. I do not doubt that were it in her power, she would travel to the underworld to bring her beloved back.”
Tears welled in Rhona’s eyes. She could not help it. The prelate spoke the thoughts she had in her heart. Here was someone who knew her father, who knew her mother, and therefore could guess at her.
“But please, hear us out.” Wysheart’s smile faded. “We have had news from our fellows in the Surraevean capital that the young king wants to prove himself, to compete with the memory of the dead. He seeks to march against Selcost in force, and he is seeking terms with Taulmeer so that he can do so without fear for his lands in the Norelaw. The late king never bothered to truly test Selcost. He focused his efforts on the mainland. This new king may not be much of a general, but it will not matter with fifty-thousand troops at his back.”
“Fifty thousand?” Raendulf stood on the top step along with Mordwech, not on the dais but not at its base. “They could never assemble such a host. Maybe half that, if their barons hold to their oaths. And it would take them months to assemble. Even if word goes out now, how many of young Erdred’s nobles will rush to fulfill his summons? How many mercenaries can he afford with the coffers drained by Eldwin’s wars? We too have sources in Surraev, and they tell us there is no love for the new king. There was perhaps no love for Eldwin, but there was fear and respect. There is neither for Erdred.”
“I do not doubt the king of Surraev wishes to crush us here in Selcost.” Mordwech’s words, as always, came as a gravelly growl. “I think he will find that is no easy task. Let him come.”
Somerdwyl leaned forward, hands on the altar. “Do not wish for the suffering of war to reach Kellalh again. Yes, the army will march for Selcost, but all the land will suffer. Eldwin’s officers were never kind, they were always cruel, but as time passed, they forgot why they hated us so much. This will remind them, and all the land will suffer for it.”
“Fight on your feet or die on your knees?” Mordwech offered a joyless chuckle. “I know which I shall choose. And blame me not if there isn’t a kern left in the rest of the land. You two and your kith are the ones demanding peace and tolerance.”
“And what of the women? What of the children?” Wysheart frowned, a scowl that could whither a flower. “They will die all the same, though they cannot fight on their feet. When all the Kellei are dead, what then of Kellalh? What will you have saved?”
“And how will my marriage save anyone?” Rhona asked. “How will it stop Surraev from marching north?”
Somerdwyl put up both hands, palms facing Rhona. “There is an answer. Brude Tarransson, the heir of Caernwald, has sworn fealty to Erdred, as has his father, Tarran Brudesson. When the old king lived, they swore fealty to Eldwin and even attended him in Surraev’s capital twice for The Rising celebrations. Brude is young and unmarried.”
Wysheart interrupted Somerdwyl, speaking as though a wolf chased his words. “Brude adding Selcost to House Brechwyne would place it under the king’s protection. There would be no legal rebellion, no reason for Surraev to march north. Your retainer is correct that there is no love for the new king, and if there is no rebellion in the north, who among his nobles would rally to his banner?”
“Brude of Caernwald’s a son of the hills, and heir to a High Moor fief,” Raendulf said. Rhona glanced at him, and his eyes were narrow, his hand on his chin, the other held across his chest. “Even were this a possibility, that wouldn’t sit well in Selcost.”
Wysheart’s brow furrowed and “Islander, Borderer, Hillman—Kellalh is so busy fighting itself it is no wonder it cannot truly fight Surraev. This marriage could give us some breathing space, give Kellalh some peace.”
“Peace? You ask us to surrender.” Rhona knew Mordwech well enough to read the barely restrained anger in his voice. “You ask us to abandon the cause of our lord. You ask me to die in bed, knowing I’m a coward.”
“Brude is not loyal to the Surraevean crown.” Somerdwyl spoke with more calm deliberation than Wysheart, but there was an ever so slight falter in his voice as he faced Mordwech. “There are others ready to rally to the Kellei crown when it rises. We must wait for an opportune time.”
Rhona raised her hand to forestall the retorts she could hear Raendolf and Mordwech readying to deliver. “You have waited fifteen years. Fifteen years in which the rest of the land bent a knee to Surraev. Fifteen years in which Selcost was constantly harried, constantly a target for aggression, constantly choked. Our people suffered. Our people died. Our people kept the Kellei crown alive. If we do this, that crown is gone. If you have not found an opportune time in the fifteen years my father gave you, you will not find it in the years I have left in this world.”
Wysheart shook his head and looked down. “You have doomed the realm to war. To suffering.”
“Don’t blame those who love Kellalh for the actions of the king of Surraev,” Raendulf said. “Blame Surraev. Blame the Surraevean prelates who preach war. Blame the Patriarch for turning a blind eye to our suffering.”
Somerdwyl’s finger stabbed at Raendulf. “You will watch your tongue. You speak sacrilege. The word of the Patriarch is the divine will of the Consorts, and they are infallible. If they decide to bring suffering to Kellalh, we will accept it with gladness in our hearts that we can thus prove our devotion.”
Mordwech scoffed at that. “Make up your minds. Either you welcome the suffering or you fear it. Either it comes from the Consorts or it’s the fault of Selcost.”
“Nothing is so simple,” Wyseheart said.
“Yes, it is.” Now Rhona leaned on the altar, angling toward the two prelates. “This is simple. I. Will. Not. Marry. Not today. Not tomorrow. When there is a Kellei crown, when we have true peace not subjugation, then we can talk of my marriage. I will be my father’s daughter until his great enterprise is fulfilled. I will be a warrior while this land needs one. Then I will think of marriage.”
Somerdwyl took a step back. “Then you will die a maiden and your lands will die with you. I loved your father, as did we all, but what hope is there? What hope has there even been?”
Mordwech laughed. “Spill enough blood, and they’ll scurry home. We just need enough blades to do it.”
“My father loved you both, and trusted you both.” Rhona held Wyseheart’s eyes with her own, studying him. “I will not lie to you, an army comes. It comes from across the sea. The Cyclops Banner will soon be raised in Selcost and then in the rest of Kellalh. We will soon have enough blades to spill a torrent of blood, and we will then see how much young Erdred wishes to keep Kellalh.”
“The Cyclops Banner? Alec Rathwig?” Did a real smile touch Wyseheart’s face? It touched his eyes. Rhona was certain she saw some surprise, if not some joy. “He is said to be Kellei.”
“He is,” Raendulf said. “As are his officers.”
“How many?” Somerdwyl moved around the altar to stand facing Raendulf. “How many soldiers?”
“Then no more talk of marriage?” Rhona stepped back from the altar, so she stood just forward to the top stair of the dais, in line with Somerdwyl.
“How many soldiers?” Wyseheart now watched her with the same intensity she had watched him.
Rhona crossed her arms and frowned. No answer to her on the marriage. “He comes with one thousand of his best. He plans to train more here.”
“One thousand?” Wyseheart waved that off. “We face fifty thousand, if not more.
Raendulf cut the air with his hand. “Less. Much less. No matter Taulmeer’s promise, if it senses weakness, it will strike. Three ports and their precincts—that is the totality of what remains of the Norelaw, of King Erdred’s lands in Taulmeer. Fifty thousand troops will leave nothing in reserve should Taulmeer seek to take one of those ports. How long to assemble the men on the mainland and sail them to the peninsula? A year, at their best. Most likely longer.” Raendulf pointed west, to the mainland. “So, we face only what Surraev can raise here on the Fist. Maybe half that and likely less. And then, when Taulmeer threatens the Norelaw, what will the young king do? He’ll turn and rush to protect his holdings on the mainland. That will be no easy task, especially if it is in the South Counties in Surraev or the Borders in Kellalh. That’s rough country. Slow going.” A quick bark of laughter came from him. “Let them come. Let him even gather his fifty thousand and come to Selcost. As soon as Taulmeeran lands are threatened, he will need to abandon the campaign.”
Rhona nodded. “It will take him months to raise a host, no matter its size. By next summer, they can field no more than twenty-five thousand. And then the march—it will be slow because the young king will bring Surraev’s glorious artillery. Maybe more months to reach even the Borders. He will rest in Bereburh. Most of the Border Lords will welcome him—almost to a man, they are Surraevean now. When he leaves Bereburh, his real march begins. How many weeks until he reaches even the High Moors? And what can we do with the time offered us?” She gestured to Wyseheart. “You say Brude of Caernwald would fight Surraev. Are there others? Will they rise? Captain Rathwig claims to be ready to train all who are ready to fight, train them to beat the armies of Surraev. He’s done it on the mainland. Why not here?”
“There are many who would fight,” Wyseheart said. “But not fifty thousand. Probably not even ten.”
“Are you sure?” Raendulf asked. “The captain brings one thousand, and each of them goes to their home—their villages or their shires. Each of them brings back with them fifteen men ready to fight. That’s fifteen thousand right there. Are you saying a veteran soldier with the mystique of beating Surraev and becoming rich can’t find more than fifteen young men ready to become heroes?”
“There’ll be a hundred or more,” Mordwech said. “The kerns will rise. Give them a reason, give them a chance, and they will rise. I don’t know about the Borderers, but even I’ll admit the Hillmen give a good fight. Tell me that won’t be enough.”
Somerdwyl shrugged. “I would tend to agree with you, but Surraev have knights, they have cannon, what have we?”
“We have the man who beat them on the mainland, who beat their knights and their cannons.” Rhona felt more hopeful than she had for many years. “And we’ll have a king.”