Blood, Water, and Wine
The following day, a messenger from the king summoned Belvoir to be received in audience. The messenger found the camp partly deserted, as most of the soldiers had filtered into the city already, but the duke was present to receive the summons with a smile. Commanding his retinue to saddle up, Gaspard rode ahead of the column. Surrounded by his most trusted attendants, the duke led the cortege towards Fontaine.
With his banners proclaiming his identity, the guards and common folk quickly parted before Belvoir and his men; they rode through the gate of their choice and entered the city with ease. While some people watched their progression with indifference, others gawked openly, particularly those who recognised the insignia of Belvoir and wondered what the duke’s presence in Fontaine meant.
Reaching the palace, Gaspard and his men dismounted in the courtyard. “Only upon my signal,” he instructed the warriors by his side in a quiet voice. “We wait until my men are in position.” They all nodded their assent and followed the duke into the palace, eventually entering the throne room. In the far end upon the eponymous seat sat Rainier, king of Ealond. Looking pale to the point of sickly, he was a stark contrast to the duke, who confidently strode through the room while courtiers whispered and stared.
Approaching the throne, Gaspard walked just close enough that the royal guards became uneasy and shifted forward one step, ready to protect their liege. With a wry smile, the duke came to a halt and gave a deep bow before the king; his attendants, flanking him, followed suit.
“Duke Belvoir,” the king greeted him. He stroked the thin beard surrounding his lips. Despite his frail looks, his voice was strong and easily heard in the hall. “I am pleased you have come as I commanded.”
“I have, Your Majesty,” Gaspard responded. He glanced over his shoulder to look at the crowd that had gathered.
“You have brought your armies as I also commanded,” Rainier continued slowly with his gaze fixed on his vassal.
“I did. We stand ready.” In contrast to the king, the duke’s voice wavered, his attention elsewhere; while Rainier’s eyes were locked on him, Gaspard’s swept the crowd once more.
“I did not expect you would bring them into the city,” the king continued. “I would have thought they would remain outside in camp.”
Unrest took hold of the duke’s men upon hearing this, their eyes darting around the room; tension could be felt in the air by every member of the court present. “They are, Your Majesty,” Gaspard replied frowning.
“Strange. I have received reports that many of them, albeit in the guise of common folk, have been spotted throughout the city. Some by the gates, some by the Order keep, some by the bridges, and some,” the king spoke slowly, “in this very palace.”
“We’ve been betrayed,” one of Belvoir’s men muttered. Several of them reached for their sword hilts, though none drew blades just yet.
“Calm yourselves,” Gaspard hissed to them. “Your Majesty, if these men are wearing common garbs, how can they be known to be soldiers in my service?”
The king gave a superior smile. “I will grant you that, Duke Belvoir.”
“Some of my soldiers may have left camp in search of provisions or entertainment. If so, I assure you they will be punished,” the duke promised.
“That is comforting to know. However,” Rainier continued, “I require an explanation for this as well.” He gestured to his side. From the throng of courtiers, Guilbert stepped forward to stand near the throne. He held a parchment roll in his hands.
Upon seeing his envoy standing in the throne room, Gaspard paled. “What is this?” he croaked.
“Proof that you conspired against me, Duke Belvoir,” the king informed him. “Thankfully, this loyal subject warned me.”
“That is a lie!” the duke exclaimed. His soldiers all drew weapons, making the palace guards step forward with lowered spears. Quickly, the duke’s protectors were encircled by their royal counterparts.
“Lay down your weapons and surrender,” Rainier demanded, “and I will show mercy.”
“Mercy from a serpent,” one of Gaspard’s warriors spat. All of them stood ready to fight, except the duke himself. All colour had drained from his face. His eyes shifted between the king and Guilbert constantly, and he seemed paralysed.
“Milord!” one of the beleaguered soldiers called out. “Do we fight?”
Gaspard swallowed. His previous confidence had evaporated. The palace guards took another step forward, tightening their ranks; their spears left not the smallest gap. Staring down at the metal tips pointed at him only five paces away, resignation flooded the duke’s countenance. “We yield,” he mumbled. His hands unclasped his belt, letting it and the scabbard by his side fall to the ground. His men stared at him and each other in disbelief, but Gaspard’s surrender sapped any will to fight. One after the other, they threw their weapons down.
“Arrest them,” the king ordered his men. At spear point, the guards led the prisoners away. Gaspard sent a final look towards Guilbert, who returned it coldly. The court, which had been deadly silent during the confrontation, burst into chatter upon seeing the foremost nobleman in the realm brought low. Letting his gaze sweep over the men and women, the king raised his hand to command silence.
“I sit upon this throne as my father did before me,” Rainier proclaimed in a loud voice, not mentioning that his grandfather had been a lowly count. “It is mine by right. By challenging this, Duke Belvoir has committed the most egregious of crimes. Treason.” The king paused, slowly moving his gaze to make it appear as if he was staring at each of his courtiers individually. “Unlike those who would usurp my rightful crown, I am not tyrant,” he declared. “Duke Belvoir will be given a fair chance to explain his actions, and evidence will be brought that none may be in doubt of his guilt.” The king glanced to his side at Guilbert, who replied with a short bow. “I bid you all remember this day. Let it be a lesson to any who might conspire against their lawful sovereign,” Rainier concluded, standing up. As he stepped away from his throne and walked out of the room, every single man and woman in the hall bowed low before him.
At the Order keep, the mood was sombre. The man regarded by many as the premier knight of the realm had been slain in an ignominious manner by brigands and left to die in an alley. While daily activities continued as usual, talking occurred in a suppressed fashion among the remaining knights and soldiers. Even the servants felt the oppressive atmosphere that permeated the castle, behaving with less cheer than usual.
A cart carrying barrels of apples drove into the courtyard. The driver and a henchman jumped down from the cart and began to unload while the guards scarcely gave them a second glance; one of them exchanged a few words with the driver while the helper began to roll one of the barrels inside the actual keep. As soon as he was inside and away from prying eyes, he abandoned the barrel; checking his surroundings one more time, Godfrey ventured deeper into the castle.
On occasion, the faintest sound of footsteps falling, clothes wrinkling, or anything of the sort announced the approach of another. Each time, Godfrey found an alcove, a corner, or anything like that to hide in. Whether soldier or servant, none of them noticed the stealthy wanderer, regardless of how close they walked past him; each time Godfrey became aware of someone else, his own presence remained hidden.
Moving upwards, Godfrey came several floors up the main tower of the keep. The further up he came, the fewer people he encountered, making his progress faster, and he began to relax. Entering yet another corridor, he stared at the various doors ahead of him. They all looked the same, none of them giving any clue as to what lay behind. A start went through him, and he turned around to see a young servant girl holding a broom staring at him.
Returning her gaze with a perplexed expression, Godfrey gathered his wits and cleared his throat. “Pardon me, young mistress.”
“I don’t speak your silly words,” Najat replied in Suthspeech.
“Forgive me twice, in that case,” Godfrey told her, pronouncing the words in her native tongue as if he had been born and raised in Alcázar himself.
Her mouth opened in surprise. “You speak the same as me.”
“Indeed, young mistress,” Godfrey twinkled. “I am an acquaintance of Sir Martel, the marshal. Do you know of him?”
She nodded. “He’s real kind. But right now, he’s also real sad, because his brother got killed.” Sorrow overtook her own expression. “We’re all sad about that.”
Godfrey nodded a bit, crouching down to be at her eye level. “I heard about that. In a way, that is why I am here. I need to speak to Sir Martel.”
“Will you make him feel better? He needs that,” Najat told him.
Godfrey gave her a reluctant smile. “I honestly cannot say. I think right now, nothing can lift the sadness in his heart.” He carefully reached out a finger to prod Najat on the left side where her own heart lay inside. The slight tickle made her giggle despite the heavy topic of their conversation. “But one day, I hope he will look back and feel better, knowing he did the right thing on this day.”
Najat seemed to ponder his words, biting on her lip. “You went up too far. Sir Martel’s room is the floor below. First door on your dominant hand.”
“Much obliged, kind mistress,” Godfrey told her with a smile. Standing up, he gave a slight bow; a little flustered, Najat returned the gesture.
The marshal of Ealond stood by the window in his chamber, staring at Fontaine. The charge of his office was to maintain the high king’s peace throughout the realm, regardless of whether the warmonger was a simple baron rebelling against his liege or the king of the riverlands himself. Having only a few hundred men at his disposal, it did not seem like there was much Sir Martel could actually do. Behind him, hanging upon an armour rack, was a chain shirt with broken rings and bloodied metal.
There was a knock on the door. “I do not wish to be disturbed,” the marshal called out while keeping his gaze out of the window. The cracking of the door being opened could be heard. Martel swung around. “I thought I made myself clear,” he growled.
“You did, Sir Martel,” Godfrey admitted. “Alas, the Realms cannot indulge you.”
The knight narrowed his eyes, scowling at the intruder. “If you think I need to wait for the guards to throw you out of this window, you are mistaken.”
Godfrey glanced at Martel’s imposing physique. “I have no doubt of that.” From inside his coat, Godfrey pulled out a parchment scroll. “I come for another reason. The Order is leaderless and thus becoming powerless.”
“Who are you?” the marshal growled, crossing the room to stand in front of Godfrey and stare him down.
“Who I am does not matter in comparison to what I have to say,” the shorter man retorted, raising the scroll in front of himself. “Grant me a moment of your time to listen. If you disagree, you may toss me out of as many windows as you desire afterwards.”
Belvoir’s men had been distributed throughout the dungeons of the royal palace; the duke himself was chained up in a separate cell and kept apart from anyone else. He had been almost docile since his arrest and subsequent incarceration; that ended when the door to his prison was opened and Guilbert stepped inside.
“You!” Gaspard spat out.
Guilbert kept himself by the door, beyond reach of the chained prisoner. He held a handkerchief in front of his nose, shielding it from the smell and slightly muffling his speech. “I have been sent on behalf of the king to offer his mercy to you.”
“Why did you betray me?” the duke roared, struggling against his shackles.
“You betrayed the king,” Guilbert corrected him. “I am a loyal subject.”
“I showed you every kindness!” the prisoner exclaimed. “Where others would have kept you hidden or sent you away in shame, I treated you like family!”
A contemptuous smile appeared on Guilbert’s face, and he removed the handkerchief that the duke might see it. “Like family. Such choice of words. You treated me with the kindness shown to a hound expected to fetch for its master and be grateful for the privilege! I may be a bastard, Gaspard,” he sneered, “but I am no dog!”
“I let you dine at my table, I trusted you!”
“You used me when it suited you,” Guilbert retorted. “Sent on tasks for dubious goals fitting for my low birth, allowing you to cast me aside if ever needed.”
“I would never have done such a thing,” the duke protested. “I am not a miserable wretch like you!”
“You are the one in chains. Between us, I would call you the wretch,” his former servant argued.
Gaspard sent the other man a disdainful look. “If our father could see you now, it would tear him apart!”
His half-brother stared at him. “That is the first time you have ever acknowledged our kinship in words or deed.”
“And the last. If it kills me, by the Seven and Eighth I swear, I will avenge your treachery,” Gaspard declared.
“You will not. You will be dead by tomorrow,” Guilbert declared flatly.
“The king’s position is not so strong he can execute me at will,” the duke claimed.
“The treaty between you and Jarl Vale is proof of your guilt, among other things.”
“That document does not prove any intention to take the throne,” Gaspard countered. “Pledging to support Jarl Vale in ending a rebellion is not against the law.”
“Maybe not explicitly, but seeking an alliance with foreign rulers does cast suspicion upon you,” Guilbert claimed. “We will find more proof if need be, but the king is prepared to offer you terms.”
“I will not make this easy for him,” the duke stated.
“You should if you have any regard for your family.”
“Alois has done nothing!” exclaimed Gaspard.
“He is the son of a traitor. We all bear the burdens of our father’s transgressions,” Guilbert told him with a sardonic smile. “Yet if you admit your guilt publicly, Alois will be allowed to inherit your title and lands.”
“How can you do this?” The duke wrung his hands together, making the chains clank against the stone floor. “Alois is your blood!”
“It is too late to remind me of that,” Guilbert remarked. “This is the king’s offer. If you refuse to cooperate, not only will you still be executed, Alois will be made destitute.”
“You have the rest of the day to consider your answer. I shall return for it tomorrow morning.” Stashing his handkerchief, Guilbert turned and left the cell.
Every guild had a meeting hall in Fontaine. Some of the smaller or less prestigious guilds shared one; in fact, the water bearers and tallow chandlers shared their location with the fishmongers, much to their chagrin. As one of the wealthiest and most prestigious associations, the engineers’ guildhall was among the grandest in the city. Apart from large chambers to conduct meetings and hold feasts for the members, it also held living quarters for the current master of the guild.
Most apprentices only entered the building twice during their tutelage. The first time would be when they were taken on by a master, signing the papers and paying the fee associated therewith, and the second time when their apprenticeship was completed and they were acknowledged as journeymen within the trade.
As an exception to this, Armand he entered the guildhall, staring around with curious eyes. By his side was Master Lambert. “Through there,” the old engineer told his apprentice, motioning at a set of doors. “I’ll see you afterwards,” he mumbled.
“Thank you again, master,” Armand smiled, opening the doors to pass through them.
In the next chamber, he was met by a man beckoning for him to follow. “This way.” While appearing to be a house servant, he wore clothes meant for being outdoors; his grim appearance and silent behaviour did not invite any questions, and Armand followed him quietly.
Moving through the building, the dour-looking man eventually opened another door and gestured for Armand to step through. The apprentice did so, entering a study of sorts. In the middle was a table with a bundle of parchments upon it. Next to it, a man in fine clothes sat. As if his garbs did not declare his wealth, a gold chain ran across his stomach.
“Master Donatien,” Armand gasped. “I did not expect –”
“You know who I am,” the other man smiled. Behind them, the door was closed.
“I do. I mean, I recognise the chain of your office.” Armand glanced at it.
“Then it serves its purpose,” the alderman chuckled. “Please, be seated.”
Looking dumbfounded, Armand sat down. “I thought I was meeting the guild master.”
“That was the plan, but your design is of such interest to the guilds, he involved me.”
“Are you familiar with the art of engineering, master alderman?”
Donatien gave a shrug. “I have a meagre understanding of it.”
“I was hoping to discuss the model –” Armand began eagerly, but he was cut off.
“Are these numbers correct? Will your stone thrower be able to hurl boulders of this weight across such distances?”
Armand paused, looking at the parchments indicated by the alderman. “Yes, I’m certain of it. It can be proven once we build it, but the arithmetic is correct.”
“I was told your betrothed helped you in that regard.”
“She did,” Armand smiled. “She has a mind for that.”
“Was she involved in designing the weapon?”
“She helped with some details, though the design is my invention,” Armand explained.
“I see,” the alderman nodded. “May I offer you wine?”
Armand glanced around the room. “I couldn’t ask you – I mean, allow me to serve –”
“Not at all,” Donatien smiled and stood up. Turning his back to Armand, he walked over to a small drawer, upon which stood several cups and a pitcher of wine. While the apprentice looked at his sketches again, the alderman poured the wine. Picking up the goblets, he placed one in front of Armand and sat down with the other.
“Thank you,” the apprentice mumbled flustered.
“No trouble at all. Let us drink to your design, Master Armand.” The alderman raised his cup, and Armand followed suit, taking a healthy sip. He grimaced slightly at the taste of the undiluted wine, but did not remark upon it.
“Perhaps I should speak with my guild master,” Armand suggested carefully.
“Unfortunately, we are faced with a dilemma,” Donatien informed him with regret in his voice. “The situation is complicated, but I feel that I owe you an explanation.”
“Bear with me,” Donatien requested. “You could not be aware of this, but the guilds are always in an anxious relationship with the king.”
Donatien nodded. “The kings of Ealond depend on the wealth that the guilds create. Yet our king, whether the current one or his predecessors, are always greedy for more. In my time alone, both King Rainier and his father before him have attempted to raise taxes upon us several times.”
“I see,” Armand claimed, though his confused expression gainsaid his words.
“Fortunately, we always have means to prevent this. Simply put, we starve Fontaine of trade and divert it elsewhere. We direct our ships to make port in Herbergja rather than Portesur. From there, we send it north through Vidrevi to Middanhal rather than to Fontaine. In this manner, we deprive the king of other taxes until he relents.”
“That’s clever,” Armand assented.
“Of course, this requires Herbergja to be in the hands of the kings of Thusund and not Ealond. If King Rainier controlled both the major ports on the mainland, we would be at his mercy.”
“I see,” Armand reiterated, frowning.
“The main reason that the kings of Ealond have never taken Herbergja is that the city is so difficult to besiege. The river mouth makes it difficult for siege engines to approach on land, and our king does not have the fleet to attack the city on sea.”
“Forgive me, master alderman, but what does this have to do with me?”
“Our king is gathering men and provisions. He is planning a campaign,” Donatien explained. “I would not imagine he stands any chance of taking Herbergja,” the alderman considered, “until I heard about your weapon.”
“You think the king wishes to use my stone thrower?” Armand asked excitedly.
“With its range and strength, it could succeed against the walls of Herbergja where battering rams might not,” Donatien admitted. “For this reason, the guilds cannot allow your weapon to exist.”
Armand sat with an open mouth. “You’re not here to help me.”
“On the contrary.”
The apprentice gathered his wits and began doing the same to his sketches. “I’ll find someone else,” he coughed, standing up and piling the parchments together.
“You will not, Master Armand.” Regret filled the alderman’s voice, making the apprentice look at him.
“What do you mean?” he asked, followed by a coughing fit.
“The wine. I am sorry, but we cannot risk it. The king would have the guilds in a stranglehold,” Donatien explained as Armand fell to the floor, gasping for breath. “As alderman, it is my duty to protect their interests above everything else. Even one of our own members.” Armand tried to speak, but he could only manage a wheezing sound. A few moments later, the sound stopped, and the apprentice lay still. The alderman walked over to the door and knocked.
His grim servant entered, holding a linen sheet. “It’s done,” he remarked prosaically, unfolding the sheet on the floor.
“You know what to do,” Donatien remarked.
The servant nodded and rolled Armand’s corpse onto the fabric, wrapping him up. “He’ll be found in a day, maybe two. His woman?”
“Keep an eye on her for now.” The alderman collected Armand’s sketches where they had been dropped on the floor and left his servant to his task.
A peddler was leaving Fontaine, driving a cart containing his supplies and trade goods. Some of it were spices, mostly pepper, while the rest were combs, buttons, ribbons, and the like, which he might sell to the villages dotting the land beyond the city. By his side on the driver’s seat was a wanderer, who had been given a ride in exchange for a few pieces of silver and the promise of good stories.
“I know just the one to tell you,” Godfrey claimed, adjusting his hat. His walking staff lay behind him in the cart. “Have you ever been told the reason why the fountain inside the Raven Court is sacred?”
“You’ll have to do better than that,” the peddler told him in a good-humoured manner. “I have heard at least a dozen stories on that account.”
“But this one is true,” Godfrey specified, raising a finger. “Do you know of Eirik Wyrmbane?”
The driver frowned. “I can’t say that I do. Name sounds foreign.”
“He was an islander,” his companion explained. “Upon the very site where the Raven Court now lies, he did battle with a fearsome creature that would rival Hel in terror.”
The peddler grinned and nodded a few times. “Tell me more, friend.”
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; all tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.