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A Bloody Crown: Chapter 02

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The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown available now as an e-book.

Working cover for the novel A Bloody Crown: a castle wall in darkness

You can find Chapter 01 here.

Chapter 2: Come From Away

The Month of the Sparrow, Ferisday the Twenty-Second.

Kaessekros on the Red Isles in Kellalh

Rhona Trevean pinched the bridge of her nose. They had buried her father that day in a secret ceremony. He had long stood against Surraev, claiming to fight for a Kellei crown which no longer existed. She sat watching the Small Sea, to the west. The last rays of the sinking sun reached out, rising from the horizon, touching the sea over which lay Taulmeer and Kadetera. That was where most of the smugglers that sheltered in Kaessekros sold their goods.

The smugglers sheltered in Kaessekros because no crown could touch it. Fifteen years after the rest of Kellalh fell to it, Surraev 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. Surraev had knights and cannons, and could crush most forces on land. At sea? That, they had not mastered. Her galleys protected the Red Isles on the sea, and on land, Selcost 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 one’s cavalry or set up one’s cannons.

To the people of Selcost, even those of Kaessekros—with its all but impregnable keep—the Old Baron symbolized resistance. And while it did not conform to tradition, the Old Baron’s retainers and adherents accepted that his daughter accompanied him to all councils and that he made no decision without consulting her and her mother. He had even ensured that Rhona could read, write, and fight. Did they accept it because one accepted eccentricity in the great? And all agreed with the Old Baron’s greatness. Who but a great man could oppose Surraev with such success?

And what now, with that great man dead? With her father dead? Many of his retainers—who knew well that the Old Baron relied on his daughter and wife—helped to maintain the secret of his passing from the people of Selcost and of Kellalh more widely. With his burial, his passing would weigh on them. Who would now lead House Trevean? Who would rule the barony? Could she impose her will as the Old Baron had? Could she command the loyalty and respect he had? Their culture valued a woman only as a wife, a homemaker, and a mother.

And Maura Conavia, 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 even more so than her husband, she could be politic, she could be strategic, and she could rule. Except that she had been born a woman. The Kellei might have stories of powerful queens, great war chiefs who had faced down empires or led their people on great migrations, but what did ancient history or myth 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 Old Baron—many of them not yet knowing he had died and been buried. Whether they knew it or not, those in the hall were deciding the future of Selcost.

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, but Rhona should carry it when she met 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 Surraeveans, 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 to 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 would both 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 parents’ 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 spring 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 Selcost 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. None sat.

Then, apart from the crowd, 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.’ “One of our cousins from across the sea has come to us in the hopes of speaking 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. He might have had the shaved head and beard of a Kellei warrior, but he wore finery fit for a noble across the sea. “You have come from Taulmeer, I believe.” She approached him with a smile. “I am Rhona Trevean, daughter of Baron Argus Trevean of Selcost.”

She would call the man handsome, but not attractive. His eyes never rested, and she saw no warmth in them. Perhaps she judged him poorly because he was an outsider, a Kellei who had become—at least in part—something other. He offered her a rough bow, and she saw that as he straightened, he considered her mother, Raendulf, and only then, her.

“My name is Finnlach Bec.” He touched his chest with his fist then lowered his head. “I was sorry to hear that Baron Trevean’s ill. The stories of his defiance are popular among the Kellei in exile. He gives us hope. I come here bearing greetings from the son of an old friend, and even a letter from the King of Taulmeer.”

“From your accent, I would guess that you come from the High Moors.” Her mother spoke with smooth and comforting assurance. Her confidence filled every syllable. “From the east, perhaps? Near the Far Shores?”

Bec smiled then, and Rhona thought it sincere, no guile in his eyes or manner. “Yes. The county of Raesback.”

“Then you would be from House Cinead, yes?” Raendulf gestured to the table and an empty chair near its head.

“I thank you for your kind welcome, but I’ve more to say, beyond the letters I bring.” Bec’s voice lowered, barely above a whisper. “Can we speak privately?”

Rhona looked at the assembled retainers—some of them from the Old Baron’s warband and some of them his sworn adherents. “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 this visitor. “Speak as plain before them as you would in private with my father.”

Clearing his throat, Bec pulled at his tunic. “Very well.” He touched his jaw, and pulled at his beard. For a moment, Rhona thought of her father. He had done the same when he was lost in thought. She fought hard to keep her grief from reaching her face. She needed to be made of marble, cold and hard. Though he spoke loud enough for all in the hall to hear him, his eyes fixed on Rhona. “With the death of King Eldwin and the ascension of his heir, Erdred, now King of Surraev, there’s an opportunity. Selcost and the Red Isles defied the Surraeveans for many years, but Baron Trevean’s success has not reached beyond these lands, into the rest of Kellalh. Now is the time to take advantage of the Surraevean weakness. It’s time to rise up and drive them out. The King of Taulmeer . . .” For the moment, the muscles around Bec’s eyes tightened. He pursed his lips and cleared his throat. Closing his eyes, he went on. “The Taulmeeran king is . . . saddened by the suffering of the Kellei people, who are . . . who are brothers in holy vows and are . . . are united by the predations of Surraev. “He opened his eyes. “Taulmeer is offering aid to fight the Surraeveans.”

She had heard diplomatic language before, and it did not come naturally from Bec’s tongue. Rhona worked hard to stop from smiling. She almost felt sympathy for him, but she could guess that there was much more behind his speech than he would admit. Honey is sweet, and that makes it a wonderful trap—as her mother would say. Trust the deeds, not the words was what her father would say.

“We only just learned of King Eldwin’s death weeks ago,” Rhona said. “It amazes me that your king heard of this and could react so quickly.”

Bec frowned for a moment, and his nostrils flared. “He is not my king.” He looked down, and when he met her eyes again, the hint of anger had gone. “The King of Taulmeer is always excellently informed.”

“I have no doubt.” And she didn’t. Taulmeer’s wealth could buy many eyes. “And what can Selcost do in return?”

“There’s not . . .” Bec’s mouth hung open for a heartbeat, and then he moved on. “My lord will be sending soldiers to help. And there will be money from Taulmeer. The King of Taulmeer has had success fighting the Surraeveans on the mainland. Now that he’s secure, he’s offering help to Kellalh to repay the support of the Kellei court in exile in the fight against Surraev.”

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 Surraev 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 the King of Taulmeer. Perhaps it is incidental that focusing Surraev on a rebellion in their own neighbourhood might distract them from any plans another might have to reinforce or expand holdings along the coasts of Taulmeer. In fact, should Surraev bring enough forces into Kellalh, it might leave their occupied ports vulnerable.”

She saw just a flicker, a change around the eyes, a slight decrease in the smile, and Rhona felt certain Bec recognized a shift in the game and the rules. “I cannot say. Maybe. It would make sense. But right now, the Surraevean ports and the province of the Norelaw are too heavily fortified for the Taulmeerans to take them, and there’s a peace treaty in effect anyway. “

“It would then indeed be unfortunate if Surraev gave Taulmeer reason for just war.” Raendulf took a step to stand just behind Rhona. “All know King Denis’ admirable patience and compassion, but he is also known for his pursuit of true justice. Should Surraev 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 Surraev.”

Bec’s brow furrowed. “Yes, the King of Taulmeer would probably appreciate that. But he’s already got a good relationship with King Dunstan. When we’ve put King Dunstan on the throne here, there’ll be an alliance with Taulmeer. That’ll scare Surraev. They won’t be so ready to come after us in Kellalh, and they won’t be able to reinforce the Norelaw. “

In Selcost, they had heard of King Dunstan, the apparent last scion of a cadet branch of the Royal House of Kellalh. He might claim the crown, and the nobles that had escaped to Taulmeer might support him, but he wasn’t in Kellalh. Rhona was in Kellalh. Her father had been in Kellalh. Selcost alone among the Kellei provinces remained. Only the barony stood as a land adhering to Kellei laws.

“These soldiers that you are offering,” Raendulf held up his hand to forestall the retort Bec opened his mouth to deliver, “or that those you represent are offering. Are they Taulmeeran? Or are they retainers of the uncrowned heir apparent?”

Uncrowned heir apparent? An interesting turn of phrase, one which Rhona had not considered.

“They are Kellei.” Bec looked down. “Well, mostly Kellei. They will be led by my lord, Deshan Caerral of House Cennerid, Baron of Dennethain.”

“The son of Donhart?” Incredulity reached Rhona’s words before she could resist it. She had remembered Deshan, afraid to dirty his knees, and a poor sport in most games.

Her mother spoke quickly, her voice still smooth and warm. “We remember well, Donhart of Dennethain, and his son Deshan. It is gratifying to learn that he prospers and is ready to come and aid us in our fight against the Surraeveans.”

“Thank you, milady.” Bec offered Maura a shallow bow. “Much like Baron Trevean here, Baron Deshan has made the Surraeveans pay manyfold for their attack on—”

A thin man—all but bald yet with a full beard shot through with gray—pushed his way forward. “That’s bullshit. We have stood and fought here, in Kellalh. Dennethain and the rest, they turned and ran. They’ve been hiding ever since. Your master’s rattling an empty scabbard.”

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, do not understand politics. ” Maura beamed at Bec with a dignity that decades of suffering had not diminished. “Surely you understand. The kerns of the Far Shores were renowned for their bravery. Having given blood oaths to protect their lord and avenge him on his death, an Islander kern will give their life for vengeance when their lord falls on the battlefield. 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.”

Rhona thought she saw a change in Bec as he gazed on her mother. She could understand it. Her mother’s beauty caught the eye, but her presence could fill the heart. Bec would not be the first man smitten with her. He once again inclined his head slightly to Maura. “I understand. We may be far from our home, but in our hearts we are still Kellei.”

A ripple of amusement ran through the assembled retainers. Rhona watched as Mordwech, the kern who had railed against Bec, spoke to two of his men, kerns sworn to Selcost and not to one of her father’s thanes. Mordwech’s 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 Surraev, he led from the front and feared nothing. He had been an uncle to her—kind, gentle, with an easy and raucous laugh. Mordwech, like Raendulf, was as much her family as any uncle by blood.

“Will it be Baron Deshan’s retainers that will be joining us in our war against Surraev?” 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. “Does the young Baron of Dennethain have a large warband he will bring home with him?”

“The Baron Dennethain will be leading soldiers, but he does not have a large entourage of his own.” Bec clutched his hands together, his eyes dark. “There are few of us that have remained loyal. But he will be bringing soldiers, real soldiers, men of war who have marched against Surraev.”

“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 Surraev. Disband them on his own soil and he risked that they would turn to banditry. The Kadetrean States, north of Taulmeer, and only just recovered after a decade in which disbanded mercenary companies ran roughshod, stealing, murdering, and setting up their own petty realms. 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 Surraevean territories, disbanding them there would create a problem for the occupiers. It would not free Kellalh, but it would give Selcost breathing room.

What did that matter without her father? Who could rally the people, create a new army, prepare the lands to face another Surraevean onslaught? 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,” Bec said. “Like the rest of us, they want to come home, to a home ruled by a Kellei king. They want a chance to fight the Surraeveans, to drive them out. We get a company of experienced, professional troops and they get to come home once this war is over. Maybe even come home as heroes.”

“We know of many such men,” Raedulf said. “Young men sick of Surraevean rule, with no future but perhaps a natural aptitude for violence. They pass through Selcost 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 Taulmeeran crown hired many companies in the war against Surraev,” Bec said. “But on the continent, the Company of the Unicorn Banner is now famous for the quality of its troops and the cunning of its leader. King Denis has made him a count, Cristobel of Terenquist, and he is coming along with a second company to support King Dunstan in freeing Kellalh from Surraev.”

Another ripple swept through the retainers, but this time rather than amusement, it was discussion and some surprise. Rhona knew of the Unicorn Banner, mostly because so many of the young Kellei who travelled through Selcost found service with them, and the money that they sent home kept many a family fed. But what of that? Did it change anything? A mercenary was a mercenary. They fought for wealth and nothing more. Loyalty to Kellalh? A leaf to cover their true motivation. Perhaps they thought to come to Kellalh and create their own fiefs, ripping them out of Surraev’s hands. As long as they didn’t think they could rule Selcost as their own, what difference if mercenaries or Surraev ruled in the High Moors or the Marches? Selcost’s war would continue.

Rhona accepted it. Better swords against Surraev than nothing at all. “And these mercenaries are ready to ship to Kellalh?”

“All but ready.” Bec inhaled slowly and crossed his arms over his chest. “The Baron Dennethain’s officers are ready to embark once we are agreed. And once they are ready, we will begin ferrying over the troops, for which we would appreciate assistance. The captain-general of the host will need to speak to the Old Baron . . . ” Bec glanced at Maura, then Raendulf, and then back to Rhona. “Or maybe the three of you to plan the coming war. “

This time, Rhona didn’t think she kept her confusion from her face. Why wouldn’t Deshan of Dennethain be coming first? Why would they send the mercenary captain? Was Deshan so certain of his control over the captain? Or did he care? Were they simply moving the mercenaries to Selcost to leave them to rot? She didn’t expect she’d get answers from Bec, but hopefully her mother or Raendulf would have ideas. At the very least, they would have a plan. If Deshan of Dennethain thought he had the upper hand, he would learn how wrong he was.

Rhona closed her eyes for just a moment, feeling her heart rebel in its cage. She took a breath. “I understand. We will have ships ready to assist in moving the troops once we are clear on their numbers. And this captain-general: when shall we expect him?”

“I’m sure he will be ready to arrive momentarily.” Bec raised himself up on the balls of his feet and then rocked back. He continued to do this as he spoke. “I will return to Taulmeer and oversee it myself.”

“We have quarters prepared for you and your men for the evening.” Maura gestured to the main doors, touching Bec’s upper arm. “We will be unable to house you in Kaessekross, but we have made space in the fortress at Torclach for you and the retainers you have brought with you.”

Bec seemed surprised, and he looked back to Rhona as Maura led him out of the hall, but he did not protest. “I understand. We have baggage that must travel with us . . .”

“And all will be arranged, I assure you,” Maura said.

Rhona ignored the continued niceties, leaving those to her mother who finally escorted Bec 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 Surraev? 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.

No one questioned her right to sit in that chair.

As soon as retainers filled the seats at the table, Raendulf spoke. “The captain-general of the Unicorn Banner is a favourite of the Taulmeeran king. If he comes, then that will be a signal that this is important, that the king actually intends to provide some support, but I cannot see that continuing for long. And as to his company, many of the officers and soldiers in it passed through Selcost on their way to the mainland and continue to send money to their families through us. We have influence with them.”

“And there’s the Talons.” Mordwech stood to Rhona’s left and just behind her as Raendulf stood to her right—just as they did when her father sat. “They’re all Kellei, I’ve heard.”

“That is my understanding, yes.” Raendulf inclined slightly at the waist. That had always been a signal that he spoke mostly for the benefit of the Baron Trevean, the lord of Selcost. “This Order of Talons are an odd bunch, seemingly scouts, skirmishers, and shock troops all in one. And they are all Kellei, all bearing the markings of kerns, led by a Kellei they call Alec Ulvarsson. Many call him the Cyclops. He is said to be close to Cristobel, the captain-general of the Unicorn Banner.”

“His top lieutenant may be Kellei, and the majority of his troops may be Kellei, but does that mean this Cristobel cares a fig for Kellalh?” Rhona held her palms flat on the table, worried they would shake otherwise. “It seems all our eggs are in that basket. Is he being sent here to beat Surraev, or is he here to disband a company of mercenaries angry at not being paid?”

“Does he care a fig for Kellalh?” Raendulf threw up his hands. “I hope so, but what of it? How can we tell? From what I have heard from the mainland, he has been instrumental in finding employment for most of the men who sail from Selcost. Since he assembled his own company, he has become the largest employer of Kellei mercenaries. And he has beaten the Surraeveans. He has beaten everybody at one time or another, though he has never marched against Taulmeer or against the Eidgenosse Confederacy. He has lost battles, of course. War is never certain. But in the last handful of years, he has been instrumental in winning Taulmeer’s wars. If anyone can beat the Surraeveans here, it is him.”

“And in that handful of years, he has never lost a battle to the Surraeveans.” Glamorgall, 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 had taken a liking to him. He probably saw a younger version of himself. “Does it matter if he loves Kellei? If he is willing to fight Surraev, let him come.”

“The contract concerns me,” Rhona said. “If he is Dennethain’s animal, what happens when our purposes divide? What happens when Dennethain decides to exert control over Selcost, or the court in exile decides we are more a hindrance than a help?”

“Court in exile.” Mordwech followed the statement with a long string of expletives.

“Who are they all?” This, Rhona directed to Raendulf. “Father maintained . . . maintains so many contacts on the mainland, but he’s never mentioned Deshan of Dennethain.” 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 him.”

Raendulf grimaced and rolled his eyes to the side. “True. It’s true. The nobles with whom your father had good relations died in the war. We have very few in the Taulmeer court or among the group that calls itself the court in exile. We have contact mostly with smugglers, merchants, or minor lords. Who is to say this Deshan is in fact Donhart of Dennethain’s son? The court in exile are mostly opportunists. Plenty of those.”

Glamorgall all but growled. “So, if this mercenary does his job, if he frees some of the lands around Selcost, we’ll have a gaggle of pretend Kellei coming to claim their rights.”

“And Selcost.” 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 its time?” She swallowed down the anger. “Or don’t even bide their time.”

Mordwech had never tempered his language, and he made an oath that brought the blood to Raendulf’s face. But what followed that oath made her heart swell. “We die for Selcost, 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 Mordwech in affection. She didn’t. She wanted the tears to come, as love for him welled up in her. She couldn’t. She also couldn’t look up.

Until the sound of a chair hitting the floor seized her attention. Glamorgall stood. “Let any man here deny your right as your father’s heir, and I will see him on the field. Lanshiel for Selcost, milady. Always. Lanshiel for you, “

Around the table, the oaths came. But some of her father’s thanes and retainers did not yet know of the Old Baron’s demise. Glamorgall did. Mordwech did. They prepared the road for others to follow. Glamorgall, 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 the shouts of support, the oaths of eternal fealty to continue for a few heartbeats 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 will join The Halo’d One in the Fields of the Sun as all of us will. When this happens, we will need to make choices. For now, we must consider Taulmeer’s offer, the goals of Deshan of Dennethain, 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 coming war. She thought instead of her future without her father, about 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 and of her father’s lands.

Later, 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 Finnlach Bec had brought with it frustration. Could Kellalh 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 Surraev. Lands freed would join Selcost in the long, exhausting war. Young men would become sworn swords or venture to the East Kingdoms to fight for wealth. This Deshan of Dennethain would stay for a time, but when the war turned against Kellalh, as it would, he would be off again to the Taulmeeran court.

In the end, she would remain in Selcost with her mother. They would face Surraev and they would survive.

Her father had believed in her. He had 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 Surraev. 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.

The Cyclops Banner: A Bloody Crown Chapter 3 available here.