Hammond huddled in the back of the wagon, a cloak wrapped tightly against his fragile frame as he attempted to hold back the waves of agony that racked his entire body.
It had been two weeks since his disastrous attempt at an ambush and he had barely escaped with his life. It was supposed to be so easy. All he had to do was to keep the warriors separated, especially the First Knight and Smith. Everything was going well. He had paid off the Royal Guard Captain to make sure it was Hammond's hired muscle in position to begin the assault and it went even smoother with the gangs under their three idiotic chiefs. They had done what was asked of them to perfection and kept the city guard under wraps until they could complete the mission.
But despite his careful planning, his years of cultivating contacts and assets across the country and beyond, it had been for nothing. All lost because of a stupid, common lout!
Hammond kicked the other side of the wagon with great force but caused little, only more suffering. The attack he had tried to use on the boy, Orin, at the end of their battle had resulted in his own power turning on him. His body burning within the cold yellow flames that he had spent years crafting. How he hated that boy. He could see him clearly even now. Smirking at him, laughing at him. Bonded for all of three seconds and already Hammond's equal. It was absurd! It was obscene!
“Fucking... peasant.” Hammond spat the words out from behind ruined lips.
The wagon jumped on a bad part of the road and Hammond hissed as it sent a shiver of pain running through his body. He had tried to not look at the damage he had suffered after the explosion had rocked the square. It was all he could do to even move let alone inspect himself. He didn't even humour the possibility of continuing the fight after that crushing defeat. The boy was stronger than any newly Bonded had any right to be. The Princess' doing, no doubt. She was a strong one, it was the reason that Mentor wanted her so badly. He had entrusted Hammond with this most sacred of tasks and he had failed miserably. Forced to flee the city through one of the secret paths his contacts in the gangs had told him about. From there it was a indignant affair of moving from one wagon to the next and even now he couldn't be sure that he wasn't being followed. He feared the First Knight and her wrath. He was right to do so. He had seen what she had done at the Queen's Inlet all those years ago. Hammond may be prideful but no one could ever call him foolish. He knew that he would be beaten even if he had been at full strength, it wouldn't have even been a contest for Lady Vera and Lady Annabelle.
But still he despised his cowardice. How did the boy continue to fight after suffering so many wounds? The scars on his body should have told Hammond all he needed to know about the young man's fortitude but he had merely dismissed them as the marks of a poor warrior. After all, what kind of swordsman allows themselves to be injured so?
The plan had been doomed from the beginning, he realised that now. It had seemed like the best way to force the Princess to accept his proposal while giving him the time to make all the necessary arrangements. If anything, he had been over prepared for this attack. But when he had retreated, he had discovered more than a few of his planted men dead, along with the city guards that had been on his personal pay roll. Their job was merely to help him leave the city in case of precisely what had happened. Without that network of helpers he had found himself alone in a city that wanted him dead. It was a miracle he had managed to escape at all.
It all came back to one thing. The other object of his hatred that matched his feelings for Orin.
It was Gustav. It must have been. He was the only person who knew about the plan to take the Princess and had an intimate knowledge of how the yellow-eyed Knight operated. Hammond had thought he could trust his oldest friend. They were as close as brothers even if they disliked each others politics. They had saved each other countless times on the field of battle so what had changed? Why had Gustav done this to him, to break the oath that they had both sworn on the blood of the fallen, on each other? It was an answer that Hammond would one day seek from his oldest friend. Gustav would die at his hands if it was the last thing he did.
Dry coughing racked Hammond's body and he raised one of his blackened and warped hands from his cloak to catch the speckles of blood before they could hit the ground. He could leave no evidence of his passing, even if it seemed innocuous. To return to the Mentor as he was now was terrible in and of itself, but to lead any enemy back to him would be the most grievous of sins. The Mentor was a man who saw all. He would see the pain-staking lengths that Hammond was going through to prevent others from chasing him and applaud him for his actions. There would be punishment, of course. He wouldn't be able to escape the chains, not this time. He would be the one at the centre of the pit while the others gathered around and laughed and taunted. But Hammond would endure it. He would endure it and be the stronger for it. He would be the strongest of the Mentor's children and stand beside him when paradise was unleashed upon this cursed world.
The coughing was replaced by rasping laughter that brought on more bouts of savage pain but Hammond didn't care. This pain was merely another test along the Path. One of many steps he had taken to become the man he was today. He had earned the power of holy fire and would use it at the whim of the Mentor. If he demanded that Hammond burn himself to a crisp he would do so in a heartbeat. He may not see the new world but he would know that his sacrifice served to make his lauded Maker greater still.
The wagon ride abruptly ended, causing the injured Hammond to wince, pulled out of his visions of a yellow fire burning Venos to ashes They must have reached their destination, finally. It had been quite a bit of effort to remain hidden from the driver but luckily there was a Gift that helped with just that. He could just kill the man, of course, but that could leave a trail which the Knights and Smiths in the capital could follow. He hoped they believed he died in the explosion that he had created but they were too intelligent for that. They could follow him, of that he had no doubt. They were most likely trying to hunt down his other connections even now. Thankfully none of the men he had with him on stage knew much of anything. Like everyone else, they didn't even know his name. The only way they could accurately identify him was his eyes and that he had little control over. His power was great but it did not extend to changing his physical appearance with the mighty power of the Gifts.
He was interrupted in his musing by a scream emerging from within his body. It sought out his ears and set them to bleeding, but it meant nothing to him in his current state. His Creature was getting a bit bold lately, no doubt sensing the weakness in Hammond's body and attempting to escape. The yellow-eyed Knight immediately clamped down on the thing inside his soul, whipping it mentally with lashes of his yellow fire. The screams reached a cacophony and Hammond felt himself become aroused by their orchestral movement of enduring suffering.
'Such beauty, such endless beauty.' Hammond observed the thing inside his soul, his thoughts insidious and half mad. Anyone who saw him at that moment would see the twisted smile of joy etched into his blackened and burned face, his eyes alight with corrupted fire.
He was pulled out of his favourite pastime by the sound of the wagon driver jumping down onto the ground and making his way to the back of the covered wagon. Hammond tutted in disappointment at having his fun cut short but immediately exerted his immense will on the thing in his soul. He demanded to be unseen and the Creature complied, making Hammond invisible just before the man peeked inside the wagon.
It wasn't true invisibility, of course. Hammond was unsure if even the Mentor himself was capable of such a feat and this Gift, no matter how powerful, would be ineffective against most Knights and Smiths who could see souls, but to fool a common farmer? Child's play for a Noble of Hammond's calibre.
Hammond's unsuspecting driver stuck his nose behind the flap of the wagon with a paranoid expression on his face. They had been on the road together for nearly four days, and this wasn't the first time that the farmer had become suspicious of what was in the back of his wagon. This was mostly a result of Hammond's suffering at the hands of Orin. The wagon was no warm and velvet lined carriage, so every bump on the road reopened his weeping, pus-filled flesh. Hammond clenched his teeth together and tried his best to still his trembling hands. To think that he would have to hide from a dirty peasant for the sake of safety. He almost killed the man right there and then for having the gall to even check the wagon in the first place. Thankfully, his common sense beat out his hatred and he settled down until the man was finished.
After a bit of grunting and scratching his head in confusion, as his kind were want to do, the farmer closed the flap and roared at someone in the distance, no doubt calling some helper to help him unload his wares.
Hammond took this opportunity to move, slipping out of the wagon with nary a sound and keeping up his aura of invisibility to avoid detection. He had finally arrived in the small town of Hisham, a mere two days from the border into Andapa. It was a collection of mud streaked houses and bitter looking residents that seemed a far cry indeed from the sights and sounds of even the common district of Myrin, but it was safe here, at least for the moment.
Hammond cursed the fact that it was taking him this long to pass through this shithole of a country, wishing he could have headed for Dunhold or even Fero to the north but he knew that the chances were high that those borders were already closed, not to mention the war that was currently raging between Dunhold and Venos at this very moment.
Another facet of his plan that would seemingly go to waste entirely.
Hammond felt the Creature begin to falter within his chest and he commanded it to release the Gift it had placed upon him and left it to recover. As much as he enjoyed torturing the little thing, it wouldn't do to have it's power falter when he needed it most. He moved from the shadow of one house to another, keeping out of sight of this town's shit-stained residents. The smell was already getting to him and he couldn't wait to be back behind the walls of his Mentor's stronghold. It would at the very least give him a chance to be clean and recover. His Healing was not enough to offset the powerful effect of his fire. He could only hope that the Mentor took pity on him and healed Hammond himself, but the chances of that were slim to none. The Mentor demanded the best from his chosen and would insist that Hammond suffer so as to reflect on his actions.
It was a sensible and effective form of discipline. For through pain, we learned respect. He had always believed that and had cheered with the rest of his brothers and sisters when the punishments were doled out against the lesser members of their order.
Hammond moved unseen out into the farmers fields, thankful that the sun had already begun to set and there were plenty of shadowy nooks to hide in. He would wait till early morning and see when the next convoy into Andapa moved out. Once he was across the border he would be able to move a bit faster and that in itself was a blessing. Being forced to move at the speed of a mortal was something that Hammond hadn't done in quite a while. Truly, being a Knight was like a drug. The power it offered not merely physical but an almost orgasmic feeling of pure, unadulterated strength. He had hated meeting Knights and Smiths during his time in the military for their arrogance and self-assurance, but he could understand their ways now. He was one of them, but so much more. The Mentor had perfected him.
He moved through the cornfield, too far away from the village for the residents to see or sense him in the dark. He only hoped that they didn't patrol the fields at night and that they didn't have dogs. Such creatures were harder to fool than humans were and could be a problem if they caught his scent, which he could only imagine was something akin to burnt meat.
“Oh, Hammond. How the mighty have fallen.”
The yellow-eyed Knight snarled in surprise and spun in place, immediately trying to summon his Weapon, the black-veined gauntlet, but failing in the attempt. A piteous cry of pain erupted from the Creature in his chest and Hammond felt fear settle in his breast as he realised that he was defenceless.
“Who goes there?!” snarled the broken man, his protesting body getting ready to flee as his twin beacons of corruption swung around and looked into the tall stalks of corn, seeking his newest enemy.
“One who wishes to undo your mistakes, little fool.” The voice came from everywhere, and nowhere. Hammond kept spinning from one spot to the other, clenching his shivering hands and preparing to fight to his last breath. How had they found him so fast? He was in so much pain that he didn't hear the words until a few seconds had already passed and he forced himself to think rationally. He knew that voice, that inflection, for he had heard it many times before. The seed of fear in his breast bloomed into full fledged terror and it was all Hammond could do not to just break down and weep at the unfairness of it all.
“Zelato,” Hammond stated the name and hid his terror behind his rage. “Why would the Mentor let his pet dog wander so far from home?”
“Tut, tut. You should be very careful, Hammond. I have you at my mercy right now. We both know you can barely stand, let alone fight. Even on your best day, you were never my equal.”
Hammond knew the truth behind those words but he ignored them anyway. To show weakness to someone like Zelato was like a newborn showing weakness before a predator, there would be no more words exchanged if that occurred.
“What are you doing here?” Hammond asked as he scanned his surroundings.
“Keeping an eye on you. Mentor had a feeling this plan of yours would fail and he is very upset. Oh, so very upset, Hammond. I'm surprised you didn't feel his anger from here. It was glorious, many of our comrades were the subject of his rage. They took your place, you should be thankful.”
Hammond was thankful but the terror didn't abate. Zelato never lied, it was a quirk of the effeminate man to tell nothing but the truth. It was one of the reasons he was among the Mentor's favourites. One of his Twelve. If Mentor wanted him dead then even considering to run wouldn't work. He might as well try to outrun an earthquake.
“It would have worked! I know it would've, I had it all worked out. I had planned for every contingency. Every problem that rose, I would have been placed to crush. It was... It was all the work of that fucking peasant!”
“Ah, yes. I saw this young man. This 'Orin'. Quite something, wouldn't you agree? Who would have thought that the Princess would Bond with such a man, and in the heat of battle no less! When I reported it to the Mentor he was very intrigued. Not enough to quell his wrath, of course, but it gave him a moment of respite.”
“So why are you here, Zelato? Has Mentor ordered my death?”
“Why?” Zelato asked curiously. “Would you try to run if that were the case?”
Hammond's answer was immediate as he drew himself up to his full height and ignored the protests of his body. “Of course not. If Mentor wishes for my death then I would go to it happily.”
Zelato laughed and it was that odd cross between feminine and masculine, a giggle that sent shivers down Hammond's spine.
“Good answer, Hammond. But Mentor is not here for you to lick his boots. He has another task for you, another test. All is not yet lost.”
“What?” Hammond asked, stunned. “But how can this be salvaged? Mentor wanted the girl and she is now joined with another. She is useless to us now.”
“Perhaps, but I had a rather inventive idea and it was due to the events that you yourself put into motion.” Zelato emerged from within the dark of the corn stalks with aplomb. He was dizzyingly tall, even when compared to those born in the Eastern Islands. He was also painfully thin, as though a stiff breeze would be able to topple the giant man, but Hammond knew that was not the case. There were few in their order that could match Zelato in combat, eleven others to be exact. He was dressed as an exaggeration of a Noble fop, with bright colours and brighter jewellery. He seemed to shine even in the fading light of day and his porcelain mask was permanently etched with a too-wide smile.
“Events I put into motion,” Hammond tapped a burnt digit against his chin and thought of what the tall man meant, while simultaneously hiding the shaking of his knees that had taken him from seeing his old foe. “You mean Dunhold? How will that help us? The King and Queen of Venos will make quick work of Felman's men.”
“You would think so, but that is not the case. It appears the King and Queen are on the back foot and in quite a spot of bother. A new general has arisen among the ranks of the Dunholdian Nobility. He is young, but a gifted strategist. A cripple, as well, if the rumours are true.”
“A crippled general? You would pin all our hopes on on a crippled general? What does this plan of yours have to do with catching the girl?”
Zelato shrugged and even that movement seemed elegant and practised. Hammond didn't know the man behind the mask but he had always assumed that Zelato was a Noble of some standing before being brought into the fold. It would explain his garish dress sense if nothing else.
“Nothing at the moment, but I have put things into motion. The Princess loves her dear parents and if she believes they are in danger, she might just decide to run to their aid, dragging along her new Knight in the process.”
Hammond began to see the merits of it, already he could see the direction that Zelato was pulling him in and he liked it. A cruel smile crossed his face as he imagined facing Orin once again and bringing the fool to heel, crushing him beneath his boot.
“I see where your mind is going, Hammond. But the plan has changed. We want the boy as well.”
“What!?” Hammond roared, heedless of who his call might draw to them. “Why would Mentor need that fucking commoner!? He is nothing more than an accident! We should kill him and forcibly end the Bond. It might injure the Princess, but we have ways to heal her if the damage is severe.”
Zelato's cold eyes found Hammond's and he froze in place. “You forget yourself, Hammond. You are not the one who dictates what happens here. Killing the boy could likely turn the Princess into a vegetable and that is not what the Mentor wants. You above all others know that there are few things in this life that are unplanned. Mentor is curious about this young mercenary, so it is our duty to deliver Orin to him.”
Hammond gnashed his teeth and seemed to vibrate in place, his rage so great that he considered, just for a moment, attacking the fop. But the need for vengeance was quashed by his need to live so he let go of his anger, for now at least.
“So be it, then. If that is what the Mentor wishes for, then it shall be done. But I want to personally watch over the boy as we return home. He and I have unfinished business.”
Zelato thought for a moment before nodding. “So be it. You can have some time to play with the mercenary, as long as you don't break his mind or kill him, it matters not to me.”
Hammond nodded, satisfied. Truthfully, this was almost as good as killing Orin, having a few weeks with the young man all to himself was something that Hammond was already looking forward too. So much so that he could barely contain his excitement and his cruel grin returned to his stricken features once more.
“So when do we begin?”
“Immediately,” Zelato said, “The Princess is the key to all of this, Hammond. Without her, we have nothing.”
Hammond nodded knowingly and fell in next to Zelato and held out his hand to the one known as Twelve of Twelve.
Hammond could almost feel Zelato's grimace behind his mask. “You truly did take some knocks didn't you, Hammond? Who would have thought that a new born commoner would be able to cause this much damage to someone like you, blessed as you are? Do you know that they call you Craven in the capital? The others and I laughed when we heard that.”
Hammond didn't respond. He would get his revenge on Orin and deal with all his other detractors at a later date. His star was on the rise, this new opportunity all but guaranteed it. He would rise to exceed even Zelato and then, and only then, would there be a reckoning.
Zelato giggled at Hammond's silence, no doubt taking it for shame rather than resolve and took the hand of the broken man. In the next second, Zelato summoned the power of his Creature and they were gone, vanishing in a flash of silver light.
* * *
Elora was stressed.
Her short holiday, if it could even be called that, was over it seemed. Vera and Annabelle had asked her to return to work, hoping that her public presence would keep the Nobility in line and reassure the common people. This had caused her to stress because it would limit her time with Orin, who had already made tremendous strides in compressing his soul over the past few days. Even if he himself didn't believe it. Unlike her, he was an attentive student, always listening to her every word and putting it into practice as best he could.
Being around him was difficult. She tried to not get involved with him too much as to make it easier when they eventually removed the Bond but she found that nearly impossible to achieve. The Bond loved it when they were together and the closer they were, the better it felt. She had spoken to Annabelle about it, afraid that Vera would judge her too harshly, and the Master Smith had merely said that it was natural, especially when considering how strong the connection between them was. But Elora didn't believe that. She was drawn to Orin as much as the Bond was and found herself spending more and more time with him as the days passed, which wasn't needed this early on in his training. Most of it was dedicated to meditative exercises as Orin worked to bring his flames under control.
She enjoyed watching him. It was a hard thing to admit to herself but she found it true regardless. She finally understood all the great things that Delithia said about her brother, he was like a beacon that drew others to him. Even Vera seemed to be inclined to spend more time around Orin than would be appropriate. That was something that Elora did not enjoy in the least. Not for any romantic reasons, of course, but he was her Knight. Surely she should have a say in who gets to spend time with him?
She crushed that thought as soon as it appeared and sighed, annoyed that she felt this way, reminding herself that the Bond could be influencing her emotions. She was annoyed about a great many things these days and found her temper short and quicker to rise. She had even snapped at one of her maids this morning because of the faffing around with her corset, which she hated wearing but needed to during events such as today, for the sake of fashion and propriety if nothing else. Luckily, it wasn't poor Beatrice. No, she had been temporarily assigned to see to Orin's needs until the time came to break the Bond. Vera and Annabelle had decided it would be easier to give him a common-born maid as to avoid unnecessary problems that could arise with of the Noble ladies. Elora had seen her around the young man and had witnessed the easy way that they exchanged words. She was a little jealous of that, she had to admit. She always found herself tripping over herself when she was around the young man, ever since the incident when she had held his hand. She had only noticed it towards the end of their conversation but he thankfully hadn't brought it up. She told herself that it was the connection between them that had caused the action but she couldn't quite convince herself of that. Especially considering she had done it again a few moments later.
She just couldn't help herself! Sometimes he looked like a lost puppy in need of comfort and she wanted him to feel as safe as possible within the walls of the palace. As a result, she had asked Vera to tell Cellus to stay as far away from Orin as possible and, so far, the Duke had followed that order to the letter. In fact, he had barely left his room in the past three days and Elora had only seen him once in the last week. Things were difficult between them right now, especially after the disaster that had taken place in the garden. She wanted to believe that Cellus wouldn't have done something he would have regretted if Vera wasn't there but she couldn't say that she was sure of that, which made her feel terrible. Cellus must feel like he's being kicked out of the only family that he had ever known.
But it didn't have to be this way. He could help her teach Orin how to better control himself, he was a prospective Knight after all. If they worked together, perhaps it would ease the tension between them. She wondered if it would be better to have Cellus present during her training sessions with Orin and almost immediately shook her head to the silent question. She didn't know how the Bond would manifest during those meetings and even something as simple as holding hands could result in Cellus giving into his anger and attacking Orin. She didn't quite know who would win that fight but if either of them were hurt she would never forgive herself.
The good thing about these training sessions was that Orin was constantly aware of the state of his soul and had made great strides in keeping it from effecting the Bond to any significant extent. Beatrice had touched Orin in her presence the other day as a test and she had found that, while she hated her touching him and the Bond went wild with jealousy, she was able to control it this time and not instantly attack the maid. They hadn't pushed it that far though, stopping after that first time. While it was nice to see what progress Orin was making, tempting fate was never a good idea.
She had also tried to get Vera to let the Sister and the kids into the palace for a visit, but the First Knight had been insistent that it wasn't the right time. Elora didn't know why she would deny a visit from a wife of the Great Spirit, but she would put her money on it having something to do with Spymaster Yale. The man was everywhere these days and Elora could hardly turn around without seeing the Spymaster running through the halls intent on some task or another. She wasn't going to make a fuss out of it, of course. The Spymaster, Vera, Annabelle, all of them were merely trying to help clean up her messes. That was another point of interest. She found herself being less and less regretful for Bonding with Orin as time went on. Again, she didn't know if it was the tether itself telling her this or she was arriving at that conclusion on her own.
She enjoyed having someone around that she could just talk to. For instance, just a few days ago Elora had been complaining to Orin about the meeting of the Royal Council that was happening today, more so about the fact that she was supposed to attend. Instead of telling her it was her duty, or insisting that she remember she is a Princess, Orin just sat there and listened. No doubt most of what she said went over his head, but he listened and nodded along regardless and reassured her when it was appropriate.
Elora had always been painfully aware of the fact that she lacked friends in the palace, time with Orin merely dragging that secret to light. Everyone had some kind of agenda, even those who cared for her personally. Having someone around that she could vent her problems to without them becoming judgemental was a boon that she was thankful for. Part of her hoped that she could keep Orin even after the Bond was broken, perhaps give him a position in her personal guard? Those places were reserved for female Nobles but Vera would make an exception for him, she was sure she would. After all, Orin had already proven himself as a protector. She may even be able to convince him, considering how well he responded to her batting her eyelashes and holding his hand.
She felt a flush run up her cheeks as she imagined what it would be like to have someone she truly trusted in her royal guard. So much so in fact that she failed to notice that Stacari and Embla had come to a stop in front of her and she had bumped into the back of her guard.
“Apologies, Highness, we are here.” Stacari said in that submissive tone that all her guards shared. So uniform was the speech, in fact, that Elora was sure they practised it when she wasn't looking.
“Thank you both. Will you wait here for my return?”
Embla nodded and took a place next to the grandiose door of the Royal Council chamber. There were other guards there as well, a couple of them for the High Chamberlain and another for the representative of the People's Collective, Lord Walden.
“Yes, Highness, we will be ready upon your return.” Stacari replied as she joined her fellow guard.
Elora nodded in a stately manner before giving a nod to the royal guards on either side of the door, causing them to slam their fists to their chests in salute before pushing the ornate doors open and allowing her entry.
The Princess found, to her chagrin, that she was the last to arrive and the other members of the Council all watched her as she joined them at the large table. She had never been a part of the Royal Council before, but Vera and Annabelle had been insistent that she join them now. While she had always enjoyed doing things that wouldn't technically be a facet of her station before the wedding, when Vera had approached her and asked her to join them in Council she had felt no small amount of trepidation. Why now? She had not been allowed to join them before so it must be for something of significance, especially since this meeting wasn't supposed to be happening for another two days.
Each member of the Council got to their feet at her approach and each bowed from the waist with the exception of Annabelle, who curtseyed.
“Princess Elora, welcome. Thank you for taking the time to join us today.” Vera said while still bowing before rising up to look her in the eye.
The First Knight seemed troubled today, as did Annabelle and the Spymaster. What had happened?
The Princess took her seat between Cellus and Vera. She tried to catch her Royal Protector's eye but he avoided it, looking anywhere else except at her. Cellus didn't look like he was doing too well. Even though it had only been a couple of weeks since the wedding, his skin looked a shade paler and his clothes, radiant though they were, seemed to be wearing him instead of the other way around. Again, Elora found herself conflicted. She loved Cellus with all her heart, that hadn't changed since Bonding with Orin, but he continued to believe the action had been a personal slight against him, despite her arguments to the contrary.
“Now that the Council is in session I must say that having the Princess here is highly unorthodox.” Lord Walden stated boldly, his left hand firmly around a cup of wine.
The Princess had never liked the old Lord. He was not a handsome man, with wispy hair and skin that was yellow, no doubt a result of his penchant for heavy drinking. Unfortunately, Elora knew Walden had a certain amount of clout with some well-connected Nobles, which meant he was a dangerous adversary in the political arena.
“Your complaint has been noted and ignored,” Vera said causally, as if she had done this a million times before and perhaps she had. Elora had heard that Lord Walden was not exactly a wanted presence on the Royal Council and had been fobbed onto them from the People's Collective, many of whom couldn't stand him.
Lord Walden snorted but said nothing further, instead taking a loud sip from his cup that grated on the Princess' nerves.
“While I do not usually agree with Lord Walden on a great many topics, I have to state my agreement with his complaint. Having the Princess here is unorthodox in the extreme. During the three hundred years since the founding our Kingdom, no female member of the Royal Household, with the exception of the Queen, has sat at Council.” The Lord High Chamberlain, Duke Brynyar, was the next to voice his disapproval. At least he had the courtesy to flash Elora an apologetic look as he did so. Lord Walden smirked as the Duke sided with him.
The Lord High Chamberlain was something of a legend among the Nobility of Venos. He was from the second oldest family in the Kingdom, only behind Elora's own in age. He was a Knight once, but his Smith passed during a battle that took place thirty years ago which had cost him his power. Elora had once asked Annabelle why he hadn't found himself a new Smith, but she had just smiled sadly and shaken her head. Though the reason still alluded her, Elora had always been impressed by the straight talking Duke. Brynyar still carried himself well despite his advanced years. He didn't look to be any weaker than he did when Elora was still a child, with his grey hair and bright, stony eyes, he seemed to exude a sense of strength that she had seen in few others excepting her mother, father, Vera and Annabelle.
It was well known that Duke Brynyar despised politics and only took the position of Lord High Chamberlain of the House of Hymns because it was asked of him by Elora's father, the King, who had become friends with him during military conquests across the continent. If not for the tragic death of his paired partner he would no doubt still be in the Venosian military.
“Again, the complaint is noted and ignored. Tradition is all well and good, Duke Brynyar, but the Princess has a right to be here and to hear what is said.”
“Apologies, First Knight. It is expected of me to remind you of tradition. The House of Hymns demands it of me.” The Duke said, lowering his head to the Steward who returned his nod knowingly.
Elora frowned, knowing full well what the Lord High Chamberlain meant. If the People's Collective was meant to protect the common folk then the House of Hymns was meant to protect the Nobility. As such, they had much more power than their lower counterpart. Tradition had always, and will always, be one of the pillars of Nobility in Venos. If Brynyar hadn't said anything about Elora's appearance and it somehow got back to the House, then his enemies would use it as leverage to get him out of office and replace him with someone else. It might seem petty or vindictive, but it was a common enough grievance among the Nobility as a whole. It was notoriously hard to gain the office of Chamberlain in the House of Hymns, but it was harder yet to keep it. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Dyke Brynyar probably had more enemies than anyone else in this room combined. Considering there was a Steward of the Crown, a Spymaster and a Princess of the realm in attendance, that was no small feat.
“Well, shall we get on with this? My back is killing me.” Lord Elgard grumbled in his corner, one hand massaging his leg under the table and wincing slightly.
Lord Elgard, hailing from the fortress city of Deast on the border with the Yelesi Republic. He was older even than Duke Brynyar and wore his years with pride with his snowy white hair and beard offset by bright and youthful eyes. He comes from one of the smaller houses in that great city, specifically House Gregoldie. They are old, but relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. After Elgard became a Knight, he gave up his position as head of his household to his sister, who still runs things to this day. He is notorious among even the Nobility for his proclivity towards violence. He is a soldier, through and through, with no ambitions to become any greater than that. It was Elora's grandfather who had seen his worth and given him command on no less than three separate campaigns. A lot of positive things could be said about Elgard, but he was never meant to be a leader. After losing his last campaign due to inefficient management her grandfather had put Elgard back to work as the soldier he so craved to be. Elora's mother had once said that Elgard was one of the greatest swordsman to ever live and would make her think twice about fighting him, even as old as he was.
As Elora looked at the man, her gaze couldn't help fall to the shadows behind him. Stuck in a corner, hidden away in darkness was the Lord Asterd, a mighty Smith and Bonded companion to Lord Elgard. Elora knew little about the Lord, not even knowing where he hailed from. She could barely even see his black hair and blacker eyes in the shade of the pillar he rested against. The only thing she did know for certain was that he was not one for words. Not unlike Annabelle in that respect, though it wasn't that he was being quiet to read other people and more the fact that he didn't care to begin with.
“I'm sorry, Lord Elgard, but this cannot wait. We have finally received word from the King and Queen.”
“Truly?” Elgard said, exchanging a curious glance with his Smith. “About damn time! Don't they know we're facing the biggest crisis of their rule?”
Elora's heart pounded in her chest when Vera said that they had received word, finally, from her mother and father. What had taken them so long, why had they not responded to messages? Elora's exultation turned to dread almost immediately, however, upon seeing that Vera and Annabelle weren't happy at the news.
“What has happened, Vera? Please, tell me!” Elora asked desperately, her eyes scanning the faces of her friends and mentors, trying to read the news before they had even said the words.
“We will now pass you over to the Spymaster Royal. He has an accurate account of what is happening and the threat we are facing.” Annabelle stated grimly.
“Threat?” Duke Brynyar growled and whipped his head around to fix the Spymaster with a withering gaze. Such a look would surely turn Elora into a puddle but Lord Yale merely grimaced and rose to his feet.
“Five days ago, a deserter arrived from the front lines. It seems there has been a problem with beating back Dunhold.”
“How is that possible?” asked Lord Walden, even a snake such as he looked shaken at the news.
“We gleaned some information from this deserter-”
“Who ran away from his posting?! He should be executed for abandoning his country.” Lord Elgard whispered under his breath.
Yale nodded. “I agree, but his arrival has given us quite a lot of information. As of this morning, I can confirm that the King and Queen are currently under siege from the Dunholdian army.”
“Not possible,” Stated Duke Brynyar. “I had correspondence with the King only a month ago saying they had just taken the city of Dunwellen over the border, with the enemy army in full retreat. How could the tide have turned so quickly?”
“I believe, Chamberlain, that it was a trap orchestrated by the enemy. They have the King and Queen surrounded on all sides by Knights and infantry. There is too many for the King and Queen to deal with effectively without leaving a gap in their defences. As such, they are at a stalemate. Felman's army is unable to attack head on, fearing the power of the Queen and the other Masters she has with her, but unfortunately that means they are unable to escape the city.”
“That's good though, right?” Elora asked weakly. “They can't attack, but they can't be attacked, isn't that a good thing?”
“No, your Highness, it is not,” The Spymaster said with a pale face. “The Dunholdian supply lines are intact while ours have been decimated. It appears that more than half of the enemy forces sailed round and into Queen's Inlet at our western border. From there, they moved through the mountains to reach Dunwellen and attacked any support that the King and Queen had in the area before cutting off the retreat of our army, forcing them behind the walls of the city. I believe that they will soon run out of food at this rate.”
“They marched across our own country!? How can that be? Passing through the White Peaks is supposed to be impossible,” Lord Walden roared, jumping to his feet, hands shaking in anger. “How did they avoid the Sea Lord?”
“I am unsure of that at this time, Lord Walden. But I assure you, I will have answers within the week.”
“So we have an enemy army that has taken advantage of our own land to launch a trap against us. How many men are with the Queen?” Elgard asked seriously.
Yale looked at the notes that were laid out in front of him. “Fifty thousand, initially. We can only assume that number has dropped significantly. I am unsure on the exact numbers that Dunhold commands, but preliminary reports from my agents in the area place their number at around one hundred thousand men.”
“By the Spirit,” Elora whispered, looking at the ground to avoid showing her emotions to those around her.
She could see her mother glaring at her through her mind's eye, telling her to be strong even when everything around her falls apart. It had been a lesson that Elora had always had trouble embodying and now it seemed harder than ever. Yale had said all he needed to say about their situation. Her mother and father were surrounded by an army that was double their size and no doubt containing many Knights. Perhaps even too many for her mother and father to be able to defeat. If that wasn't bad enough, with their supply lines ruined then they would soon run out of food. If that happened then the Dunholdian army could just walk into the city and kill the weakened Venosian military.
“Have no fear, your Highness. I know it doesn't seem so right now, but the King and Queen have gotten themselves out of worse situations. They can beat back Dunhold. I know it.” Lord Elgard said softly, leaning forwards and trying to catch her eye.
Elora looked up and gazed at the old Knight, straining to keep her face neutral. He did not believe his own words. The Princess was not good at a great many things, but reading what someone was thinking from mere facial ticks was definitely one of her strengths.
“I know, Lord Elgard. My apologies for the outburst.” Elora replied, ashamed of herself for letting her emotions get the better of her. She was the daughter of King Julian and Queen Gida, the Princess of Venos and next in line to the throne. She couldn't be seen to be weak, even if that was exactly how she felt. Her sphere of influence was politics and she had been raised in that vein since she was a young girl. Military matters made little to no sense to her and if she was being honest with herself, it had never interested her enough to explore the subject, despite knowing she would one day have to go into battle. It had always seemed so far away. Yet now reality had slapped her in the face. Her parents were in trouble and seemingly without hope. She lent her ears to the table once again. These men and women were some of the most influential in the Kingdom, they must have a solution to this problem.
“How in the Great Spirit's name was Felman able to raise an army of a hundred thousand men? His country is half the size of our own, if that.” Elgard asked curiously, leaning back in his chair and a finger pressing against his chin as he pondered the issue.
Yale's eyes narrowed. “Word has reached me that much of their number is made up of commoners with little to no training. They pose little threat to even the most junior of our soldiers.”
“I feel a 'but' coming on...” Brynyar replied.
“But their training doesn't matter. Dunhold's plan, as far as my agents understand it, was to push our army back with sheer numbers and provide a barrier of flesh and blood to prevent access to the Dunholdian Knights by our own champions,” Yale sighed and tapped the arm of his chair infuriatingly. “A tactic that has worked for them so far, it would seem. The higher ups in the Dunholdian army don't seem to care about the lives of their men and are willing to sacrifice hundreds just to delay and weaken our own Knights.”
“That's insane,” Cellus said softly, his eyes wide and unseeing. A sheen of sweat could be seen atop his brow. “How could they do such a thing.”
Yale looked at the Duke sympathetically. “They no doubt see it as a worthy sacrifice. Felman and his ilk have long since claimed that his line are the true overlords of Ouros. His soldiers are extremely loyal to him. Through fear or respect, we don't know. But I would wager on the former.”
“As would I,” Elgard said. “I met Felman once when he was a younger man. That monster is poison and if even half of the stories I've heard about Dunhold are true, then I believe whole-heartedly that his men would rather die at the hands of our soldiers than face the punishment for desertion.”
“That is the situation, my Lords,” Vera stated as she jumped to her feet. “The King and Queen are locked away in a Dunholdian city, with that Kingdom's army breathing down their necks. We have gathered you all here today to discuss what our next move is.”
“How many men can we muster, Vera, if we forced the issue?” Walden asked, his glass of wine all but forgotten.
“I'm unsure. Annabelle?”
“I believe that we could bring together at least ten thousand men, if we borrowed the personal forces of the Nobles in the city and surrounding countryside. Getting aid from others further afield could be done but it would take weeks. We don't have weeks. By the Spirit, we don't even have days.” Annabelle stated the facts and despite invoking the Spirit, her face remained untouched by emotion.
“What about mercenaries, or conscripts? We could even draft the Commons.” Elgard said.
Vera shook her head. “The only mercenary company in the city at the moment are the one's currently helping us to shore up the guard. I have no doubt they would help us, for the Princess' Knight is one of their own, but that would leave our own defences against the criminal element of our city lacklustre, to say the least. As for the draft... well, I don't think it would go over well if we started pulling sons and daughters of age from the Commons. We might even have a riot on our hands.”
Boldrin. They were talking about Boldrin. Orin had mentioned him to Elora a few times, even citing him as the reason he first managed to leave the city. The Princess did not enjoy how Vera was already thinking to take advantage of Orin's connection to Boldrin, but she couldn't fault her for thinking that way. They would need all the help they could get if they were going to save her parents. She didn't fail to notice Cellus' flinch when Vera called Orin her Knight but she ignored it. She had bigger things to worry about right now, as much as she cared for her beloved.
“Bah, the commoners will do as commanded, especially now!” Walden cried, his hand finally returning to his glass of wine which he drank in one large gulp, the last vestiges of his drink remaining on his small moustache.
“As the representative of the People's Collective, you know that isn't the case, Lord Walden,” Brynyar replied, looking more tired than Elora had ever seen him before. “We can't just force a draft on the people, it will cause an uproar. The most we can do is ask for volunteers.”
“That won't do much,” Yale said. “We may get a couple of thousand out of the Commons and villages in the area, but we won't have enough time to train them, or the coin to buy equipment on such short notice.”
“We need to do something,” Elora said, her expression tight. “The people will come if we call, they love the King and Queen.”
“I agree with the Princess, but this all becomes a question of time. How long will it take us to ready reinforcements and get underway?” Elgard asked.
“A week if we push things, then it will take another two to cross the country and reach Dunwellen.” Annabelle replied.
“Too long,” Asterd whispered quietly. Elora was not the only person shocked that the Smith had chosen that moment to speak up, his voice rich and echoing. “How long can their Majesties hold, Yale?”
The Spymaster looked at his notes once again before pursing his lips. “They have enough for a week, perhaps two if they ration and there are significant stores in Dunwellen itself. My agents have confirmed this though they haven't been able to get into the city. This information is from the Dunhold side.”
“Is it reliable?”
Yale nodded. “It is.”
Elgard smiled grimly and jumped to his feet. “Then we have a time frame to work in. We just have to pray to the Great Spirit that they can hold out for as long as it takes us to arrive.”
Elora couldn't believe what she was hearing. Her mother and father didn't have the three weeks to wait for them to arrive and even when they did get to Dunwellen they would be severely outnumbered by the enemy, what chance did they have if they committed to an all out assault against such numbers, trained or not?
“We need to do something now!” Elora shouted, jumping to her feet and slamming a hand onto the table. “If we arrive in three weeks our army will be gone and mother and father will be dead, or worse!”
The faces staring back at her looked pained, but resolved to their task. “Princess, we want to do something as much as you do, but the fact of the matter is that we just don't have the forces on hand. If the need to move wasn't so desperate, I would wait a month or more until we marched. Going with only what we have in the city would be suicide, we need at least a week to build some sort of army.” Vera said gently, trying to calm the emotional Princess.
“Then... then we do a forced march. You can do that right? Get the men there faster to help the city!”
“Not possible,” Brynyar said, shaking his head. “To do so would get us there faster, that much is true. Perhaps it would even get us to Dunwellen before their supplies run out. But if our men are exhausted and our own lines are stretched thin then it would be that much easier for the enemy to destroy us. We need to not get emotional about this, Elora. Our plan is to get there soon enough to help. Failing that, it is to stop the advance of an invading army of one hundred thousand men.”
“So we give up on the King and Queen!” Elora snapped, shouting at Duke Brynyar who stared back at her impassively.
“Still glad you allowed the Princess to take part, First Knight?” Lord Walden said, far too smugly for Elora's liking and if not for Vera's reply she was about to say something to the little shit herself.
“She deserves to know the truth, Lord Walden. Especially considering how this might end.”
“What does that mean 'how this might end'?” Elora growled, looking at each face in turn.
“In the name of the Spirit, grow up, Elora!” shouted Cellus as he too jumped to his feet, staring at his betrothed with seething anger. “They're saying that you were included because they soon suspect that you will be taking the crown!”
“W-what!? I'm not taking any crown, not while mother and father are still alive. I won't give up on them just because they're trapped!”
“Cellus, sit down,” Vera said through clenched teeth. “We are not giving up on them, Elora, but we have to face the facts. We'll never be able to get there in time. If we manage to save the King and Queen then we will, of course we will. But the chances of freeing them from that siege are small. I won't lie to you, Annabelle, Yale and I have thought about this to the exclusion of all else. We need to be prepared in case of the worst case scenario.”
“The death of your Monarchs!?” Elora roared.
That was when Duke Brynyar took to his feet. Elora had forgotten how tall he was, every inch the warrior she had known since childhood, even as she grew he seemed to get ever taller.
“Princess, I know this isn't what you want to hear. You wish we could attack a larger army with a paltry force of ten thousand men and a dozen Knights and emerge triumphant. But this isn't a story book fairy tale,” The old Duke grumbled and fixed Elora with his most intense stare. “As your Royal Council, we have to face the facts. There is a large chance that the King and Queen will perish in the siege. That is how it is and no amount of shouting or moaning will change that.”
“But... but...” Elora fell back into her chair, her blonde locks falling over to cover her face as she bit her lip hard. “There must be something we can do, anything!”
“Don't misunderstand us, Princess, we are not giving up. We are just being realistic.” Annabelle, her impassive expression finally cracking and sympathy shining through.
“Why did it take so long! We've had the deserter for days, why didn't we begin to make plans sooner!” Elora hissed at Yale, looking for someone, anyone, to blame for the heaviness in her heart.
“I couldn't take his word for it, Princess. I needed to send agents out to confirm his story. If we hadn't, then we could have been moving into a trap.”
Elora felt empty inside. The world had changed so much over the past hour and all she wanted to do was return to her room and cry. Why had this happened? First the wedding and now this? She wanted to see her father desperately, she had wanted to ask his advice on Orin, on Cellus, on everything. Going to see her mother would be a wash as she was almost as cold with her as Annabelle appeared to be. But what she would give to see her now. To know that they were both safe, happy and healthy. She would give anything to see them again, anything to tell them that she loved them.
But what could she do? She wasn't a military commander nor did she have any experience in that field. As much as she hated what the men and women around her were saying, she knew that they were right in their assessment. Even if they did get there on time, they didn't have the numbers to attack Dunhold. She hated it, but she knew it to be true. There must be something she could do, something that they haven't thought of yet. Something... something...
“I think I'm going to lie down... I need some time.” Elora stated weakly, ignoring the snort of derision from Cellus at her side and Vera's accompanying glare.
“We understand, Princess. This must be hard for you. Take all the time you need. We will make all the necessary preparations.” Annabelle said softly.
Elora nodded meekly and rose to her feet, hurrying for the door as if afraid of losing her idea before it had even begun to take form. Calling it an idea might be stretching it a bit, perhaps it would be better to call it a thought, or the beginnings of one. She didn't have any experience on military matters, but she knew someone who did and she would convince him to help her.
They said they hadn't given up on her mother and father, but their thoughts might as well be an open book to Elora. Vera and Annabelle had already resigned themselves to what they viewed as inevitable, as had Elgard, Walden and Brynyar. She would show them differently, even if it was the last thing she did.
If Vera could have seen the look of terrible resolve on the Princess' face then she would have had her locked up and hidden away to avoid causing trouble, which meant Elora had to play the part of the conflicted Princess for a while longer. It's strange really. A month ago she would have never even have considered putting herself into any sort of danger but now she felt like it was her only option.
Perhaps her new Knight was rubbing off on her.