Movements in Shadow and Light
The morning after their wedding, Theodora woke to find Leander already awake as he lay by her side. He was staring at the ceiling, but she managed to catch his attention. “Good morning,” she said, quietly but smiling.
“And a very good morning to you,” he replied in the same fashion.
“You seem pensive?” she commented.
“These last few days have given me much to consider,” he responded. “When do you intend to announce that our sleeping habits have changed?”
She giggled at his expression before managing to stifle her laughter. “Today, as soon as I can summon the court. I kept our wedding secret to ensure nobody could interfere, but Irene will still be planning a trip to the salt mines for you. Not to mention all the rumours there must be flying around regarding the other night with the whiterobes.”
“Indeed,” Leander remarked. “There was something I wanted to do first. If I return around noon, afternoon, maybe you could announce it to the court then?”
“What are you intending?” Theodora asked.
“I have been thinking. While your arguments last night were compelling, I think many will still doubt you. Doubt your choice in me, I mean. They will not agree that I am suitable for the honour you have shown me.”
Theodora had been resting her head by his shoulder, but now she jerked away to look into his face. “You are not having doubts, are you?” Theodora asked.
“Not at all,” Leander hastened to reassure her. “No, you are my heart, Theodora. You always have been.”
“Good,” she said more quietly, leaning back into bed again.
“But I was thinking that before people know, I should go down to the battlements. Inspect the outer walls.”
“Leander, the enemy is not there yet,” Theodora said in a teasing tone.
“I know, I know,” he chuckled. “But they will be soon. I should familiarise myself with our defences, let the men see me.”
“While I have my doubts about my father, he did do some things right,” Leander began to explain. “His bravery might have killed him, but he was admired by all. He was the very image of what a king should be. If people are to respect me, I must do likewise. The people must see me on the walls, ready to defend the city. Both now and once the siege begins.”
“Might have killed him,” Theodora repeated. “Do not overlook that. I absolutely forbid you from being killed.”
“I have no such intentions,” Leander could not help but laugh. “I will not be charging the enemy on my own. But I must be seen. If people are to respect me as a king, I must act as one.”
“I suppose I see your reasoning,” Theodora said reluctantly. “Why begin today though? As I said, the enemy has not even been sighted near the city yet.”
“I thought I should start in good time. Our soldiers will already be making preparations,” Leander argued. “And I wanted to do it before you announce my new status. At least once before people know you have made me your king.”
“Why is that important to you?” Theodora asked with a frown.
“Because in this moment, I think people will severely question your judgement in this matter. My reputation is hardly impressive.”
“I have heard a ballad called ‘The Swordsman and the Queen’ that would beg to differ,” Theodora said with a wry smile.
“That thing will haunt me to my grave,” Leander groaned. “But I have seen people’s reactions to it, and many people find it comedic, not dramatic. Which I cannot fault them for.”
“You think you can change their minds?”
“It is a small thing to do,” Leander admitted. “But I wish to do just one thing as Leander, the royal bastard, before I become Leander, the king. One thing that might make your choice seem a little more reasonable once you tell people about us. Does that make sense?”
“A little, I suppose,” Theodora admitted. “Besides, if this is what my dear husband wants,” she added and gave him a kiss. “Take some of the Blades with you, just in case.”
“I would not dream otherwise,” Leander smiled.
“Very well,” Theodora consented. “Go, act kingly before the people, and we will let the court receive its shock later today.”
Although first bell had rung to announce sunrise, the court seer was still sleeping in his bed. Once more he was rudely awakened, this time by a hand giving him a slap across the cheek. With a snort, the priest’s eyes flung open, and he found the shape of a man dressed haggardly bent over his bed. “Do not hurt me,” Dominic winced. “I am under the queen’s protection, she will not allow me to be hurt.”
“That will not save you from me if I wished otherwise,” Godfrey said with a smile showing his teeth. “Fortunately for you, I am only here to deliver a warning.”
“You can tell the lady Irene I am not afraid of her,” Dominic croaked without sounding convincing.
“I am not here for your petty squabbles,” Godfrey uttered with contempt.
“Wait, I remember you. You brought me the message from the Archon,” Dominic frowned. “How did you get past the guards?”
“They are more occupied with protecting the royal wing,” Godfrey smiled sardonically.
“But how did you get past the gate?” asked the court seer.
“This palace was built directly into the mountainside,” Godfrey began to explain. “What labours that must have required,” he considered. “In addition to making the plateau, they excavated tunnels going below the palace or into the mountain.”
“They are very old,” Godfrey nodded. “Few who know of them, but extremely useful to move around unseen,” he added with another unsettling smile. “I tell you this so that you will understand the veracity of what I say next. No matter where, I can find you and reach you. You will never be safe anywhere in this city if you displease me again.”
“But I do not even know who you are!” Dominic cried out exasperated. “What have I done wrong?”
“You have allowed this city to fall into decay,” Godfrey roared. “Have you not seen the poverty that plagues the streets? People thirsting for water, unable to do anything but pray for rain that will refill the cisterns. It is the responsibility of the priesthoods to service the poor, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide comfort and healing to the sick. But what have you done?” Godfrey asked with thunder in his eyes. “You and the other priests have engaged in your petty schemes, collecting offerings and spent them to build temples, making idols of your own vanity! And in your neglect, evil has crept onto the streets of Tothmor. Not three nights ago they nearly struck a blow that would have left the city crippled, ripe for the taking!”
“What, the whiterobes?” Dominic asked confused.
“No,” Godfrey reproached him, lowering his voice. “They were merely pawns in a greater ploy. I speak of a new faith, recruiting among those in Tothmor that have been forsaken by your clergy. Go to the lower circle, for I presume you have not set foot there in years. Listen to the prophets in the gutter. Few may pay them any heed, but it takes only one man to be convinced. One man in the wrong place and disaster will follow.”
“I know nothing of this,” Dominic defended himself. He tried to sit up in his bed, but Godfrey placed his index finger on the court seer’s chest and pressed him back.
“Clearly. But this city has hardships ahead,” Godfrey warned him. “You would do well to consider all I have said. Go to the lower districts, see the truth. Gods help you if I return and find you have done nothing, though I can tell you now they will not.”
Before Dominic could muster further response, Godfrey turned and disappeared out of the chamber. For a moment, the court seer lay in bed motionless and speechless; then he moved his hand over to his bedside table and grabbed the talisman of Rihimil he typically wore under his robe, clutching it tightly.
Leander had an armour rack in his room. The steel was rather matte and could do with a thorough polishing, but it was otherwise serviceable. Forgoing the full outfit, Leander restrained himself to only the mail shirt and not the plated parts that completed it or the bracers and greaves. He did add the surcoat with Hæthiod’s emblem upon it, a singular bluebell. Lastly, he tied his sword belt around him, shifting the weight of the mail shirt from his shoulders to his waist as the belt tightened. He held the helmet briefly but decided against it and simply ran his hand through his golden locks a few times.
Stepping outside, he found not only two Blades standing guard as expected but also the count of Esmarch. “Lord Hubert,” Leander greeted him.
“My lord Leander,” Hubert replied with a barely hidden grin. “The queen has commanded I escort you on your inspection of the fortifications.”
“I already have two guards with me,” Leander pointed out, glancing at the intimidating soldiers by his side. “Might seem a tad excessive.”
“I think the queen had other concerns, so to say,” Hubert tried to explain. “What do you know of sieges? City walls, siege machinery, and such?”
“Nothing,” Leander shrugged.
“Precisely,” Hubert said. “Somebody by your side to aid your understanding was deemed desirable by Her Majesty. To put it in other words, I am here to protect your pride, not your body.”
“Right,” Leander mumbled with a wry expression. “I think my pride was just wounded beyond saving, but I cannot find fault in her thinking. Let us go,” he commanded and began walking, followed by his protectors.
They walked down the main road, attracting some stares. While most people did not pay them much attention, some did recognise that the guards and Hubert wore surcoats with the emblem of the Blades upon them, surcoats that had not been seen in more than a decade. As for Leander, while they might cross paths with any who knew his face, few of those would have recognised him in his current garbs and appearance. They reached the fifth district and moved away from the street and up on the battlements. Below them, there was a steady procession of people leaving the city before the impending siege.
“So many people fleeing,” Leander contemplated.
“Better that way, my lord,” Hubert claimed. “Less people to feed once the siege starts.”
“I suppose. What preparations are being made?” Leander asked.
“All the snow gatherers have been sent up the mountain to fill their barrels. Drinking water will be sparse,” Hubert said with gloom. “Not much else. We are waiting for the return of Sir Leonard. As marshal, he has command of the defence.”
“I see,” Leander nodded.
They moved to the top of the gatehouse, glancing over the stonework and the contraptions placed upon it. Two enormous cauldrons had been placed on feet with room to build a fire underneath them. Furthermore, the cauldrons were supported by a frame that allowed them to be tipped and returned to their position. On the floor were carved grooves so that once tipped, the cauldron’s content would flow along these paths and down in front of the gate.
“For oil,” Hubert explained, gesturing towards the cauldrons and showing how they functioned. “Well, a mixture of that and other materials. It is heated up, and the cauldron is pushed over. It flows through the deepening here and onto anybody attacking the gate. Fire is added, and it all ignites.”
“Barbaric,” Leander shuddered, “but I see its use. Are we well stocked on oil?”
“Lord Leander asked you a question,” Hubert barked at one of the city guards keeping watch on the gatehouse.
The guard turned around with a dazed look but did not question being questioned by a nobleman. “There are several barrels below, milord. Enough to last many assaults before we must procure more.”
“Very well,” Leander nodded to him, showing no sign that the answer held meaning to him. “To your post.”
“Yes, milord,” the guard answered bewildered and ended up giving a short bow before turning back around. Done with this part, the group left the gatehouse and moved down the wall; the Blades kept sharp watch while Hubert explained the details and purposes of the fortifications.
“How will they attack us? What siege machines, I mean,” Leander asked.
“Truth be told, one month ago I did not even think outlanders knew what a siege was,” Hubert admitted with a shrug. “I half expect them to charge us and build a ramp up to the walls from the bodies of their fallen brethren.”
“Now there is an image,” Leander muttered. “What problems will we encounter? As the siege drags on.”
“Well,” Hubert scratched his beard. “We will need to guard the storehouses heavily. Probably punish theft by death. Hungry people are desperate people.”
“Right, starvation,” Leander remarked. “I cannot even imagine.”
“If the siege is fierce, we will have a lot of wounded. There will be infection and disease spreading,” the count continued.
“How many sibyls are in the city?” came the next question.
“I would not know right now. Maybe twenty? Or thirty,” Hubert guessed. “Probably double that amount of lay brothers.”
“They should train more,” Leander contemplated. “More lay brothers. I want the sibyls to instruct the other priesthoods in the basic task of treating the wounded. At least all these damn robes will be useful for something other than treason.”
“Very well, my lord,” Hubert smiled.
“The servants too. A lot of those in the palace might as well be instructed also.”
“I will convey your instructions to the steward, my lord,” Hubert promised.
“Good, good,” Leander said absentmindedly. He turned to stare south, beyond the wall and onto the surrounding heath. “Let us return,” he commanded, and they left the walls.
Moving back towards the main street, Leander recognised a feathered, red cap and its owner. The bard was walking with another man, who suddenly pointed in excitement. “I told you!” he exclaimed. With a chagrined expression, Troy dug into his pockets and found some silver coins, slamming them into the other man’s waiting palm.
“You cost me five silver,” Troy complained as he approached Leander. “What is with the guards?”
“How about you explain first,” Leander frowned.
“Some fellow came into the tavern, claimed that the king’s bastard was inspecting the city defences. I told him that I never knew the king had two sons, for the only bastard I know would not even be out of bed at this hour.”
“I am charmed by your high opinion of me,” Leander snorted.
“Being in disagreement, we settled it like real men with a wager. And that’s the story of how you owe me five eagles.”
“You will be waiting until Hel is in heaven for that,” Leander mocked. “But come along, instead you can accompany us to the palace,” he suggested, and they began walking again up towards the inner circle.
“Quite the chaos on the street,” Troy remarked as he navigated through the many people moving in every direction. “Of course, not that such would bother you,” he added as he saw the crowd part before Leander and his guards.
“Get out your instrument and start singing,” Leander suggested, “that should quickly cause people to give you quite the wide berth.”
“I hope you realise I only suffer your poor attempts of making jests because you buy me wine,” Troy retorted.
“As long as you are drinking, you are not singing,” Leander pointed out.
“Why are you out here, though? And with guards, one of whom I recognise,” Troy side-eyed Hubert. “I tried to see you yesterday, but I was told you were imprisoned in your quarters. And now I find you strutting around in armour like a free man.”
“Much more than a free man,” Leander could not help but smile. “But you will be informed at the same time as the court once we return.”
“Is this something worth stringing my lute for?” Troy asked.
“Nothing could ever warrant that,” Leander replied serenely.
“One day,” Troy swore, “I will compose an epos and make you the wart-ridden villain.”
In Guy’s tavern, Godfrey was packing a satchel of provisions. “Are you sure you do not need more?” the tavern owner said sceptically, scrutinising what little Godfrey had taken. “I have some dried meat. And cheese.”
“With the siege coming, you will need it more,” Godfrey cautioned him. “Keep it. But under lock. Soon, people will despair.”
“I have an axe,” Guy nodded. “Geoffrey, should I have fled west? Taken my son and run?”
“I cannot predict,” his companion admitted. “But it is too late now. Many of those fleeing will be caught by the outlanders, I estimate, and suffer a worse fate. Stay, barricade your doors.”
“What of you?” the tavern keeper asked frowning.
“I know how to stay safe,” Godfrey assured him with a smile.
“I would feel better if you stayed,” Guy told him.
“I cannot,” Godfrey shook his head. “War has finally come, and the realms are not prepared. I must buy time, buy it with blood, I fear. I must go, I must go,” he repeated and then quietly one last time. “I must go.”
Moving along with the stream of people, Godfrey left the city. However, whereas all others followed the Kingsroad west towards the province of Ingmond in Adalrik, Godfrey pulled his cloak around him and turned east. He walked for miles in arid surroundings with Tothmor dwindling in size behind him.
Finally, he reached a rock formation that broke the monotony of the heath; the only sign of life was a sparrow, singing heartily. As he approached it, Godfrey spotted a hint of movement and it made him stop. Gazing intently towards the formation, a brief while passed where Godfrey remained motionless. Then he heard a faint sound behind him and quickly turned.
Appearing between the rocks a shape came, seemingly melting out of the shadows. The figure wore dark fur and leather from his hood to his black boots. Various short daggers and blades were strapped to his body along with a quiver of arrows; in his hands, he held a short bow. His eyes were dark as was his hair, and while such traits were common among the people of Hæthiod, his garments and gear declared him an outlander; he was a member of that band which the Hæthians dreaded and had dubbed blackboots.
Lowering his bow, the outlander broke out a smile. “Javed,” he called out in greeting; both men stepped towards each other and embraced like brothers. “Javed, my heart soars to see you again,” said the blackboot.
“And mine, Kamran, upon seeing you well,” Godfrey replied. “Were you in the battle?”
The scout shook his head. “We are too valuable to be used in such a manner.”
“But did you observe it? What happened?”
“The drylanders’ infantry broke,” Kamran explained. “They were too ill-disciplined, and their riders were lured forward, became entangled, and could not use their momentum. Jenaab Sikandar is no fool at strategy.”
“Indeed. I am surprised to find you here though. Have you waited long?”
Kamran shook his head. “Since yesterday only. We have taken turns waiting since your signal.”
“I take it things are amiss since you did not merely leave me a message?” Godfrey continued his questions.
Kamran shook his head again. “Too much to tell. You have been gone long, Javed. Things are ill at home.”
“You can tell me on the way,” Godfrey replied.
“As you say,” the outlander conceded. “I can only follow you for a day or so, however, or I will be missed. You will have to cross the mountains alone. But I have brought extra food you can take with you.”
“Very well,” Godfrey reassured him. “It is no matter, I know the paths. Come, let us make haste,” he told the other man, and together the vagrant and the blackboot set off on a north-eastern course.
Late afternoon, the court of Hæthiod had been summoned to the throne room. The waiting courtiers were gathered in their usual small groups and factions, busily discussing the suspected reasons for the summoning. It was not the typical hour for audiences to be given, nor were there extraordinary reasons such as when the Order knights had arrived. Most assumptions centred on the events of some nights ago that was still shrouded in the unknown.
The fact that yesterday, Leander had been incarcerated in his chambers but now stood in the throne hall was further fuel for rumours, though none knew if the two Blades flanking him were his protectors or his jailers. Nothing was more eagerly pointed out, however, that while they were still waiting for the queen to arrive, Irene was already present along with the other courtiers. This indicated that the gathering was not of her choosing, and speculations were running rampant.
Finally, silence fell as the doors were opened and the queen entered, accompanied by her mother, the court seer, and the count of Esmarch. All heads bowed as she progressed into the room and took her seat upon the throne. “No doubt rumours have blossomed concerning all that has happened of late,” Theodora began to speak. “I am here to enlighten you all of what has transpired.”
“Without consulting me?” Irene said in a low voice as she approached the throne so few others could hear.
“In due time, dear aunt,” Theodora smiled and continued speaking more loudly. “Two nights ago, it was brought to my attention that a conspiracy had formed in this city. Seeking to supplant me and aided by people within this palace,” she spoke while letting her gaze sweep over the assembled crowd, “the priests of Hamaring prepared an assault. Thankfully, there are still men of honour in our capital. Acting on my authority, the count of Esmarch gathered these men and put an end to the conspiracy.”
“By killing priests?” exclaimed one elderly nobleman, whose age had excused him from riding into battle. His voice was slightly condescending, and his words received murmurs of agreement.
“By killing traitors, Count Lykia,” Theodora said in a harsh tone. “Traitors working with people living within these halls,” the queen specified and let her eyes glance over the courtiers again. “You will notice that most of the guards have been replaced. It will be a short while until they are at full strength, but I assure you their vigilance does not suffer. And now there is no doubt that the guards are fully loyal to me.”
“What ploy is this,” Irene muttered, but Theodora ignored her.
“Lord Hubert has formed the Queen’s Blades and will ensure such a threat never arises again. He will also root out any remaining enemies of the Crown,” Theodora said pointedly while staring at the count of Lykia, who did not speak again. “He is to be considered an extension of my will and obeyed in all things.”
“What of your cousin?” Irene spoke up, forcing a confrontation. “We are all given to understand that he was deeply involved in this aforementioned plot.”
“I am glad you mention it,” Theodora smiled. “What you say is true. My dear cousin Leander was instrumental in unmasking the perpetrators who would have unseated me from my rightful place. It is for this reason,” she said while extending a hand towards Leander, who stepped closer to take hold of it, “that I decided to reward him with my hand in marriage.”
Clamour swept through the room upon this announcement. “You must be mad,” Irene hissed through her teeth. “You think I will allow you to marry this brainless, usurping upstart?”
“Silence,” roared Hubert, which calmed some of the noise.
“Due to the uncertain times this realm has found itself in,” Theodora continued undisturbed, “we decided not to delay. Last night, Leander and I were wed before the altar and under the eyes of the gods.” Waves of sound came with renewed force, and suddenly all eyes turned towards Leander in realisation that he had formally, if not publicly, been king of Hæthiod since yesterday.
“Preposterous,” Irene exclaimed and spoke again in a stronger voice. “That cannot be legitimate. You are not old enough to marry.”
Theodora’s only response was turning to look at the court seer, who cleared his throat. “In preparation for Her Majesty’s ascension to the throne, our revered queen was declared of age many years ago. I have seen the documents declaring this with my own eyes, which allowed me to not only crown the queen full with legality but also officiate her wedding,” Dominic said, licking his lips and trying to avoid Irene’s gaze.
“As witnesses that the ritual was performed and that we have the blessings of the gods, Lady Beatrice and Lord Hubert were both present,” Theodora added. Irene turned partly in the direction of her own chambers, but she was halted by Theodora’s next words, spoken softly. “There is no need, Aunt Irene. My guards were in your room just now. They have retrieved the document, and it will be placed under lock and key.”
Defeated, Irene turned to stare at the court seer with unfiltered hatred. “You betrayed me,” she hissed.
“Hail to the king!” yelled Count Larisa, who was swift in adopting a servile expression.
The courtiers quickly repeated this shout. “Hail to the king! Hail to the king! Hail to the king!”
“That will be all,” Theodora announced as the salutations ended. Still holding Leander’s hand, she stood up, and together they walked out of the room followed by their guards, the count Esmarch, the queen’s mother, and an anxious-looking court seer.
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