The World Of Khoras - Tales
Jonathan Errlain fidgeted as Morris adjusted a silk shirt across his back. Four days ago Morris was introduced to Jonathan as his personal assistant. Jonathan, the bastard son of the late Duke Alexander Errlain, never had a personal assistant before. Jonathan had also never worn silk before this morning.
Silk, Jonathan thought as Morris tugged at a hem, did not belong on his back. Silk sat oddly over knotted muscles and ugly white ridges scars. Jonathan was a soldier who fought the bandits and warriors of Duthelm. He patrolled in the bitter cold and desolate foothills around Darkhaven and western Rukemia. He was in the Rukemian military, and Rukemian soldiers did not have personal assistants. Cavalry soldiers did not wear silk.
Jonathan brushed a hand through his close-cropped brown hair. He was still young, not yet thirty, and next month he thought he would begin looking for a wife. A seamstress in Grisal seemed pretty enough, and didn’t seem to mind the scars, and Jonathan hoped to take her to dinner some night. But now, he wondered if he would ever see her again.
It was that moment, as Morris adjusted a sleeve of silk over a tender ridge of skin, the result of a Duthelm raider’s arrow, that Jonathan realized he was no longer a soldier. With a shudder he realized he might become Duke Jonathan of Errlain and War Vale.
In a few hours Jonathan would be presented to the gathered nobles of the War Vale and representatives from the Rukemian Empire. He would share a feast with them. Then he would stand on the steps of a throne and a hoary old priest of Serrath would give him a scepter and an orb or something. This is how every Errlain took the throne. A bookish scholar explained the ritual to him, marking each point of the ceremony with a wave of his ink-stained hand. Jonathan couldn’t remember what it all meant. Like the rest of the preceding week, Jonathan’s time with the scholar had become a haze of confusion and doubt.
For Jonathan, the future had become a blur of events that became more obscure and confusing the closer he came to them. As a soldier it was easy to take control of destiny by gripping a sword and killing the enemy. For a duke, Jonathan discovered, the choices were never so easy and the enemies were difficult to see. Stand before the priest and take an orb to become the head of the Errlain clan, then take a scepter and become a duke. Or flee, hide and give the vultures circling for a sign of weakness his Errlain heritage. Jonathan felt himself shaking nervously.
Morris, a kind, balding man with watery-blue eyes and cheeks that looked like they belonged to a larger man, sighed. “Quit fidgeting, sir,” he said softly.
“I’m not fidgeting,” Jonathan retorted, then paused. “I’m sorry Morris,” Jonathan continued. “It’s just…”
Bastards don’t ascend thrones. They carry the family name in defense of the Empire, bringing honor to the family without risk to a son of legitimate blood. As a soldier, Jonathan spent his time and pay was spent in the miner’s village of Grisal. He listened to stories around the campfire about Swela the three-legged whore. He shivered with his fellow soldiers as bitter winds blew from the mountains of Duthelm, and struggled to find warmth just as any other Rukemian soldier did. Now he was to be Duke Jonathan, a man he didn’t even know.
“Silk doesn’t feel quite right, Morris.” Jonathan finished.
“I know, sir,” the personal assistant said, brushing wrinkles out of the shirt. “Silk never does at first.”
It was over a month ago that the royal messenger had found Jonathan in the village of Grisal and issued summons to Battle Ford and his father.
Jonathan shared blood and a name with Duke Alexander Errlain of War Vale, but nothing else. A father had no reason to summon his bastard child.
“Your father needs you,” the messenger insisted.
A warm mug of ale and a game of bones waited for him in the common room. Duke Alexander Errlain of War Vale was just a name. Jonathan laughed and waited for the messenger to explain the prank.
But there was no joke. The next morning Jonathan was traveling to War Vale.
Morris finished stitching a sleeve on Jonathan’s silk shirt. “I never thought I would be a man to wear silk,” Jonathan muttered. “Silk. Not me. Not in my life.”
That was his life before Alexander contracted a wasting illness, and before Alexander’s eldest legitimate son Geoffrey married a daughter of Anthar and took the Anthar name to guarantee a larger dowry. The name was what made Jonathan so important to the throne.
Alexander’s only other legitimate son was ten and the Emperor of Rukemia did not think a child ruler was wise in the tumultuous War Vale, the messenger explained on the road through Rukemia. The Duke was ill, perhaps dying, and there was no one left with the Errlain name to take the throne but Jonathan. “Now I don’t know who I am,” Jonathan said.
“Not many of us do, sir,” Morris said.
On the road through Rukemia, Jonathan tried to imagine what the father he never knew would be like. Saw-Tooth Sammy, a fellow soldier, once told Jonathan his father had a face like a mule and an ass like a sow. Hobart, a bastard-son of a Councilor in Rukemia, once told him he had seen Duke Alexander and he had blue eyes and skin that never touched dirt. But Hobart and Sammy were of Darkhaven and Grisal, and their stories were the stories of soldiers, and the Empire was different than Jonathan imagined.
The Empire was paved roads and wealth. It was feather beds, ladies in finery and a warm meal every night. As Jonathan traveled those paved roads toward War Vale he began to wish he knew his father. At night he dreamed that Duke Alexander was tall, strong and wise with kind eyes. They were the romantic dreams of a bastard child in an orphanage, and not of a Darkhaven soldier.
He wasn’t prepared for the wasted husk of a dying man introduced to him as his father. His father was bedridden and surrounded by servants and sycophants that were powerless to save him. He was losing to the illness.
“Your father didn’t care for fittings either, sir,” Morris said. “He would fidget as well, until someone brought him a paper to sign or a report to read. Anything to take his mind from the silk.”
Jonathan nodded, careful not to move his arms where Morris was measuring. “I never really knew my father,” he said. “I spoke with him once before the end.”
The day Jonathan met his father; he saw blood -flecked lips when the Duke coughed. A smell of herbs, decay and death hung over the room. A doctor from the Empire tried to explain a course of treatment, but it would still, inevitably, lead to death. Alexander could no longer eat. His body rejected food. Magic could delay death, but not defeat it.
Alexander’s wife, the Duchess Catherine, cried quietly at his bedside. She was regal, noble, cultured and beautiful. Everything that Jonathan was not. When she met Jonathan, the future Duke of Errlain, she refused to look at the bastard son-interloper stealing the throne from her children. The sadness at the thought of losing her husband fought for a place on her face against the anger she felt toward Jonathan. The night Jonathan arrived, Alexander sent her from the room. At first she refused to leave, but Alexander insisted and would hear no argument, which only forced her to hate Jonathan more. She sat on a chair in the hall just outside of the Duke’s chamber.
In the morning the Duke was dead. Duchess Catherine burst from the chair and ran to Alexander’s side, tears streaming from her eyes.
This was how Jonathan imagined he should react to his father’s death, but he couldn’t. He didn’t know the man, and he felt more dazed than sad. The words the dying Duke spoke were not of reconciliation, but a confession. These are my mistakes, he told his eldest bastard son. These are my regrets, he whispered as pain made his voice weak.
Jonathan saw fear on the Duke of Errlain’s face. It was the fear of the unknown and death. It was fear of failure and helplessness that forced him to seek redemption from a bastard son, and not reconciliation or love.
On the ride to War Vale, Jonathan carefully considered every word he would say to his father. But he said nothing. He listened to a last confession and plea from a father he never knew.
“He was a friend,” Morris said. “I miss him.”
“I didn’t know him,” Jonathan said quietly. “I wish I could have. I wish…” His voice trailed off.
He wished there were another child could be the man Alexander needed. A child who was not a lost soldier pretending to be a noble. A true child of Errlain with the mind and will to carry out his dying father’s last request.
“I know. He was a hard man.” Morris stepped back to admire his work, as Jonathan fought the urge to scratch at the soft touch of silk on his shoulders. “But he had to be a hard man. This is War Vale, after all.” Morris took Jonathan’s arm and led him through the door. “Come now, sir. There is a feast and a hall full of dignitaries waiting for you.”
After the Duke’s death, riders left the castle to spread word of the tragedy.
That morning the sun peeked over the mountains and bathed the land in a pale radiance. To Jonathan it seemed as if morning shadows touched the land like dark tears. Rukemian soldiers were setting up camp outside the castle, while in the entrance hall of the castle a platoon of scribes were busy scribbling letters to dignitaries across Rukemia, War Vale and Ormek.
By afternoon the representatives from the Empire arrived. A whip-thin young man in a red cloak and close-cropped brown hair introduced himself to Jonathan as Marcus Grandon, Diplomat-General of Rukemia.
Jonathan had never heard of a Diplomat-General. It sounded silly, and brought to mind a horde of quill and ink soldiers.
“You would be Alexander’s bastard,” he said to Jonathan
“I am his son,” Jonathan answered. He had heard the mutters of bastard enough in the army, and a horde of minor War Vale nobles had already given him a nickname, “The Misplaced.” Alexander’s misplaced son.
“Good to hear that kind of fire,” Marcus said. “You’ll need that anger and strength. I’ve spoken with your commander in the army, and he speaks highly of you.”
“You’ve spoken to Jeffrey?” Jonathan could not imagine his scowling commander speaking to this Empire dandy. Nor could he see how Marcus could speak to Jeffrey and still meet Jonathan today. The whole situation smelled of magic. He paused. Jonathan understood an enemy charging him with a sword, but he knew diplomats and politicians could wield words like a weapon.
“The Empire has need of you, Jonathan Errlain,” Marcus said. He pulled Jonathan aside, away from the soldiers pounding stakes in the ground for a tent. “I’m sorry for your loss. The Duke was a good man.”
“What would you have of me?” Jonathan asked.
Marcus smiled grimly. “We will bury your father, and within a week we will make you Duke of Errlain.” With that, Marcus turned away. Within hours he took command of the castle staff and began preparations for the funeral. Just three days after his death, Alexander was buried in a marble coffin in a small plot of land that was the resting-place of past generations of Errlain.
Alexander’s sister, the Countess Irena Kesme, was a strong woman. She met Jonathan in the hall of Battle Ford castle and gripped his arm tightly as she led him to the banquet. Her grip was so tight that Jonathan was sure her fingers would crush his arm. But it was a good thing Countess Irena had a strong grip because Jonathan wanted nothing more than to flee back to the fitting room with Morris. “Stand tall,” she hissed under breath. She turned and nodded to an elderly couple standing beneath a painting of a knight. “And smile. That’s Gerald Fauntelroy and his wife, Minerva, but call her Minnie. You owe them money, boy.”
Jonathan tried to smile, but it came out wrong. He couldn’t just will a smile like the other nobles could. He didn’t know Gerald and Minnie. He didn’t know why he owed them money. He wanted to run away and hide.
Jonathan didn’t have an aunt until the day after his father’s death, when the Countess arrived at the castle with two wagons, four drivers, and four chests full of clothes and two harried handmaids who scurried at her every order. Jonathan never had a family except soldiers and warriors. The Countess Kesme was not what he expected.
She spoke loudly and quickly, and didn’t appreciate having to repeat herself. She pursed her lips and glared when things didn’t go her way. Her hands moved constantly as she spoke, punctuating each point with a stab of her finger or a roll of her wrist, and woe to anyone that stood to close. She enjoyed a glass of warm cider in the evening. Her favorite food was warm honey cakes and spiced apples. She liked horses and dogs, but hated cats, and stories of her battles with the Duchess’ cats were already causing the servants in the castle no end of amusement.
As they passed through another courtyard, Irena tugged on his arm, drawing his attention to a family of Grum sitting beside a fountain. “This is Thom Cranston and his family,” she hissed under her breath. “Say something nice, compliment his wife and try to smile.”
Irena turned to the Grum. “Thom, old friend!” she wailed, one hand waving to Thom but the other still firmly gripping Jonathan’s arm. “It has been too long. Where have you been? And your wife, Margery is it, is as lovely as the day you married.”
“Yes. Lovely,” Jonathan muttered. He tried to smile but his lips still weren’t listening.
Thom Cranston didn’t seem to care. He and Irena exchanged pleasantries, while Margery, a pale woman with graying hair and tired eyes, tried to keep control of three children splashing in the fountain and speak with Jonathan. Jonathan tried to answer and pull a child from the water, only to get his sleeve wet. Both Margery and Jonathan knew it was hopeless, so they grinned and politely ignored each other until Irena and Thom finished.
“Do I owe them money,” Jonathan asked as they left Margery and Thom with their children.
“Yes,” Irena whispered. “And Thom is a Merchant-Lord. Errlain has an agreement with Cranston to ship our goods to the Empire. It is a very good deal for you. Errlain makes money from the back of a Cranston wagon.”
“We do?” Jonathan asked, turning back to catch a glimpse of the Grum.
“But recently Thom has been seen with Gaith,” Irena explained. “The Empire is thirsty for Gaithan brandy, and the brandy night secure Thom a better position on the Merchant Council. Gaith can’t find a decent merchant to carry his brandy, and will give much to use Cranston wagons. But Margery hates Gaith, because Gaith’s wife won’t let their children play with Grum.” She glared over at Jonathan. “So it seems to me, if you want Cranston wagons on your land you had better let those children splash to their heart’s content. Still, you will have to negotiate with Gaith and Cranston soon, before you lose this agreement.”
Jonathan nodded and rubbed his temple with a tired hand. Fruit, wagons and fountains, it was all a blur. It didn’t seem real. He didn’t have land and he didn’t need wagons. They passed another couple, and Irena wailed another greeting. “Do I owe them money?” Jonathan muttered. Irena nodded “Is there anyone don’t I owe money?” he asked.
They passed through another set of doors into a hall where servants carried trays of food. At the end of the hall was the entrance to the feast. Warm light and soft music poured through the door, a riot of color and wealth and extravagance.
“Everyone here wants something from you,” Irena said. “Thom is a good man, and all he would like from the Duke of Errlain is a taste of nobility. A moment to feel as if he was something greater than a wagon driver and money changer.” They walked into the banquet hall, just as a fat man in an overcoat of gold and burgundy brushed past, chasing a lady with hair the color of night and braided with ribbons. “Others want gold, or land, or power,” she scowled at the fat man. “Or love.”
“Lady Irena and the boy Duke,” a mocking voice called out across the floor. Suddenly it seemed as if the music hit a rest and every conversation paused at the same moment. “We thought we would not see the virgin Noble tonight.”
The grip on Jonathan’s arm tightened, and she whispered, “And some want blood.” She turned back to the voice, watching as a slender blond haired man with wide blue eyes pushed his way through the crowd. “Duke Morgain, how good of you to join us.”
There were many rumors regarding Duke Alexander’s death. Jonathan first heard the rumors of the Duke’s murder on the road to War Vale. Alexander’s physician, a Corvenian mage who shambled through the Halls of Battle Ford like a ghost with gout and had a name no one could pronounce, believed the Duke’s Rukemian doctor poisoned him. The Rukemian doctor attributed the Duke’s death to the physician’s primitive chicanery, and the rest of the castle ignored them both.
In the kitchen Jonathan heard rumors about an ancient ruin in the Duke’s forest, where dark spirits prowled the nights. “Angry spirit’d do this, milord,” the cook muttered. “Or the angry man who believes the forest be his.” That was the first time Jonathan heard about the trouble with Duke Morgain of Inbador. The cook ran away on an imaginary errand before Jonathan could ask for more information.
The castle guards blamed a Duthelm assassin. The groundskeeper swore to Jonathan he had seen an elven plague just like the one that took Alexander’s life. “Me da’ knew an elf who ‘ad a friend who died jes’ as this. I dunna’ know much, but I know this,” the old man said as he gathered sticks in the courtyard. “An’ they say Inbador do got elven blood.”
“Inbador?” Jonathan asked.
The groundskeeper shrugged. “I hear whispers. I hear soldiers be talking about elven woods and Morgain be angry. An’ Sarah, she be in the kitchen, she got a boy who been shot by an Inbador arrow. Errlain took back our forest and Inbador be angry. Always be that way.”
The townsfolk whispered the name Morgain in the same breath they spoke of Alexander’s death. “Duke Morgain of Inbador,” the Master of Horses told Jonathan. “He has wanted the good Duke Alexander dead for some time. Everyone knows this.”
“Everyone does?” Jonathan asked as he saddled a horse.
“Duke Alex took the forest from Duke Morgain. It was Errlain land until Inbador squatters built hovels everywhere and began shitting on the trees, as the Inbadorians are like to do. And Duke Morgain must have pissed hisself when he saw the blue and gold of Errlain banners in the forest.”
“Duke Morgain killed my father?” Jonathan pulled the saddle straps tight.
The Master of Horse scowled. “Boy, don’t put words in me mouth. I’m just saying that while Errlain wears black and mourns good Duke Alexander, Inbador dances in the streets. You may someday be Duke, but till then watch what words you be saying! This be War Vale.”
The Master of Horse stalked off, shouting for the stable boy to clean the stalls, then he paused. “Sir,” he said in a serious tone, kept low so that only Jonathan could hear. “It might be a good idea to avoid shadows, dark places and all that.”
“What?” Jonathan asked.
“Enemies of Inbador sometimes have accidents.”
“Did Duke Morgain kill my father?” Jonathan asked.
Marcus paused. They were in the sunroom of Battle Ford castle. Evening shadows through the expensive glass were like dark fingers over the polished wood floor. Marcus told Jonathan this morning they would spend the day preparing for the feast. He locked them both in the sunroom and began unrolling scrolls and books dusty with age. The table was still scattered with papers. One pile filled with the lineage and alliances between Errlain and families of Rukemia stretching back centuries, another pile of papers filled with the stilted language of treaties and provisions from the Emperor. Still another held detailed reports of the Duchy’s finances. It was the largest pile on the table, and none of the numbers looked good. Alexander owed a fortune to the Nobles he called friends. Even this late in the day, there were still a frightening amount of books and scrolls still unopened.
A half finished pitcher of ale and a plate of bread crumbs was evidence of how long Marcus had been trying to explain Errlain’s relationship with the Empire. The names of ancestors and treaties, and the expansive details of obligation, noblesse oblige, trade agreements and “mutual benefit” made Jonathan’s head swim.
Irena would have said his question to Marcus was rude, and maybe earlier in the day Jonathan would have composed clever words and silly phrases to hide the question, but he was tired, and word came this morning that Duke Morgain would attend the feast.
Marcus sat down and shuffled a few papers. “The Empire knows nothing of this,” he said carefully.
“That’s not an answer,” Jonathan muttered angrily. “Speak plainly for once.”
With a sudden twist that made Jonathan jump, Marcus swung his feet on the table and leaned back in his chair. “Fine,” he said. “Speak plainly, as you say.”
Now Jonathan paused, narrowing his eyes. “Plainly.” Jonathan didn’t know if this was a question or a demand. Marcus knew how to play the game of words too well, so Jonathan waited.
“Plainly then,” Marcus continued, still leaning back in his chair with a smile on his face. “I have no reason to tell you what I know. None. So deal with it.”
“But I asked you!” Jonathan pleaded.
“And what would you do if I told you!” Marcus leaned forward and took the last piece of bread from the tray, leaving only crumbs. “What if Morgain had killed your father? Would you give a farmer a spear and tell him to charge into Inbador land and demand blood? Would you demand the blood of Morgain’s young daughter? Would that make things right?” Marcus took a bite of bread. “Answer me that, and I will answer you.”
The other night an old woman came to Battle Ford, asking for mercy. She told Jonathan her husband had been killed by an Inbador raider. “We are alike, milord,” she muttered. “Morgain do owe us blood, aye.”
But a Duke was not the same as the wife of a farmer, or a groundskeeper. The answer was never easy. The Duke of Errlain could not demand blood. “I don’t know,” Jonathan muttered.
“I have been sent to War Vale to make sure that someone holds the Errlain lands.” Marcus waved his hand over the table. “I am here to make sure someone in Battle Ford knows what these papers contain. And if it is not you, Jonathan, then I will find someone else.”
“But I am Alexander’s son,” Jonathan countered. “I was told I must take the throne.”
Marcus took another bite of bread. “You want truth, Jon. I don’t matter. You don’t matter. In the end, none of the foppish sycophants or scheming bastards coming to the feast tomorrow will matter. What matters to the Empire is that in the Citadel Caramus the Lady Sillar has demon children with Draxorith. What matters is that the Coalition equipped their army with a new Kalimuran crossbow that can kill a knight at 300 paces. The Bathynian Clans may have a leader itching for glory in battle, and a horde could reach Haygen Keep before the summer is over. Pirates were seen near King’s Port and a Mage in Ceranth swears Xorians are coming once the mountain ice melts.”
Jonathan let the silence fill the moment. “I don’t understand,” he whispered.
“There are enemies waiting at the door of the Empire,” Marcus said. “These enemies are searching for a sign of weakness. The death of Alexander, and a war between Errlain and Inbador, could be seen as a sign of weakness. The Emperor will not allow petty revenge and old hatred to erupt in War Vale.”
“Do you think I can fix this?” Jonathan asked.
“No one can fix War Vale.” Marcus stood up and stretched. “I was born in Hillfort, which certain Senators feel makes me uniquely suited for this task,” he laughed. Marcus had found his smile again. “I know that generations of perceived insults and righteous indignation has made the Vale a simmering kettle of anger and hatred. No one will ever ‘fix’ War Vale. Jonathan, you are seen as… the most agreeable solution.”
Jonathan stabbed a fork into the table. It seemed no one in War Vale, Marcus or his father, saw Jonathan as anything more than a timely solution. “What? I don’t understand,” Jonathan scowled.
“Precisely! You don’t understand. Every action you take in the next few months will be accepted because you aren’t War Vale and you don’t understand.”
Jonathan gritted his teeth. “I can solve your problems because I am an idiot?”
Marcus shrugged and finished his ale. “You might be an idiot, but you are a useful, agreeable idiot not tainted by War Vale’s unique madness.”
“Agreeable to who?” Jonathan asked angrily.
“Good! I think you are starting to learn the game, Jonathan. And you are not quite the idiot you once were.” Marcus picked up a book and began flipping pages. “The truth is over. Now, I want to go over corn shipments and tithe from Raven.”
Jonathan knew Duke Morgain was a master of the game.
Morgain was slender with an elegant, contemptuous face. Blond hair, blue eyes and soft skin that seemed untouched by age made him seem more a supernatural creature than human. He moved with a grace that was both beautiful and fearsome to behold.
And he smelled like cinnamon.
“Jonathan Errlain,” he said. “How is Darkhaven these days?” And then he smiled, like an ogre seeing an enemy retreat.
In the past few weeks Jonathan had heard so much about Duke Morgain, the ruler of Inbador. Some called him a demon, some a warlock. His home in Gathos was either a pit of hell or a whorehouse filled with swine, or both. Every Errlain guard knew a story of Inbador cowardice, and every servant had proof of Inbador immorality. Marcus shrugged and said Morgain could be a vicious goat. Duchess Catherine wanted his head. When Lady Irena spoke of Inbador, her face wrinkled as if she ate something distasteful.
Jonathan had come to dread this moment, his first meeting with Duke of Inbador, a man who likely killed his father because Errlain soldiers drove Inbador settlers from a stretch of forest.
“Duke Morgain!” Jonathan said, trying hard to make his voice sound as cultured and pleasant as Marcus. “It is truly an honor to meet you.” Jonathan spent hours before a mirror practicing the phrase, making sure each word was correct.
Now that the words were spoken, Jonathan wanted nothing more than to collapse in bed and wake in Grisal with a bottle of wine and a game of Bones waiting for him.
But Bones and wine would have to wait, as Duke Morgain stepped forward and took Jonathan by the arm. “The pleasure is all mine, my friend,” he said in a loud voice. “I wish, however, we could meet under better circumstances. Your father and I were…” there was a pause. “Associates,” he said finally. “And there was a bit of business to be completed between us. I believe, Jonathan, or soon-to-be-Duke Errlain, this is business that you will be more than capable of completing.”
Irena stepped forward, just beyond the crowd of Inbadorian nobles. “Duke Jonathan will listen to your complaints at a future date, Morgain. This is a day to look to the future, and not to old complaints.”
Morgain scowled and looked back at the gray-haired countess. “Is he a Duke or a child, Irena? Jonathan and I have business to attend.”
Jonathan bit his lip and shuffled his feet nervously. He could feel Irena glaring at him and the Duke was waiting, a hand on Jonathan’s arm and those perfect eyes like daggers that peeled away the layers of lies that covered Jonathan. “Well, sir,” Jonathan muttered. “I guess that would be good.”
“The truth of the matter,” Irena told Jonathan the night before his coronation. “Is that we will never know if Morgain murdered your father.” She sat in the sunny sitting room of Battle Ford she had turned into an office and sanctuary from the rest of the castle.
Tapestries hung over suits of armor and banners of ancient battles. The servants, under Irena’s direction, had cleaned the windows and polished the hardwood floor to a rich, red shine. Candles and oil lamps filled the room with a soft light. “This is War Vale,” Irena continued. “And Alex never should have marched Errlain men into those woods and stolen land from Morgain. He needed gold, and land is wealth.”
Jonathan sipped wine from a crystal goblet, just as his aunt taught him. He kept his elbows off the table, and when he finished he dabbed at his lips with a cloth napkin. “If the ruins will clear Errlain debt, then it seems taking the land was a wise move.”
Servants walked into the room to clear the table, and Irena waited silently for them to leave. “Perhaps it would have been a wise maneuver in Duthelm, but not in War Vale,” she whispered. “Listen to me closely, Jonathan. I am sure Darkhaven was a dangerous land, but War Vale can be just as cruel and vicious.”
“I have studied the defenses of Battle Ford, Countess,” Jonathan insisted. “And our guards seem very capable. Marcus has promised the Empire’s support against Morgain.”
Irena shook her head. “Marcus will seek to make Errlain a servant of the Emperor, and when Morgain seeks his revenge, Marcus will be gone, safe in the Empire. Don’t let Marcus and his sweet words fool you, Jonathan.” She took another sip of wine and set aside her goblet. “In years past the nobles of War Vale might resort to open battle. Spend enough time studying any stretch of War Vale land and you will find the bones of those who have died fighting for a nobleman’s honor. Open warfare might be less common today, but the battles are no less vicious.” She folded her hands in her lap. “We trade a legion of soldiers for an assassins dagger, and the charge of knights for a bribe. War Vale continues to fight because it is all we know. We destroy ourselves from the inside because we fear the thought of doing anything differently. In taking land from Morgain, Alexander has doomed Errlain and Inbador to generations of bitter hatred and anger.”
“Why?” Jonathan asked. “We could make peace with him.”
“Morgain will seek revenge… on you, your children, our family and the people of Errlain. A blade is too simple, Jonathan. He will exact revenge on everything we hold dear. He must seek revenge, because he is as much War Vale, and a victim of tradition as your father was.” She stood up and walked to the window. “The men of War Vale have made this land a prison.”
Morgain Inbador stalked down the ancestor hall of Battle Ford. He paused beside the bust of a deceased patriarch of Errlain. “Gwainor Errlain,” he said, reading the chiseled name on the base of the statue. “Doesn’t particularly sing on the tongue, does it?” He glanced over at Jonathan. “Did you know this one?” Jonathan shook his head. “Didn’t think so,” Morgain continued, letting his hand run along the marble cheek of the statue. “He died in abject obscurity, and there would be no reason for a Rukemian warrior to know anything about Gwainor. Square jaw and slack face. He is every ounce an Errlain, I would say. Handsome, perhaps, in a square jawed and slack faced way.”
“I suppose… or, guess I see what you mean,” Jonathan stammered. He was sweating, and the silk shirt stuck uncomfortably to his back.
Morgain turned back to Jonathan, a predatory look in his deep violet eyes. “Before I became Duke, I learned the entire lineage of Errlain and of Inbador. I know every Duke of Kerraland, Morrow and Gaith. I can recite the history of Anthar and tell you of every major decision a Cunnaway made in Thule. I was born to rule in War Vale, Jonathan. It is part of my blood. My pure blood.” He paused, the predatory look becoming a smile. “And you have not told me, Jonathan, how is life in Darkhaven?”
Jonathan narrowed his eyes and remembered everything Marcus had taught him. “I never asked for any of this,” he said softly. “I wanted to be a warrior.”
The smile became a look of triumph. “You must be scared, worried, frightened of the tremendous responsibility a Duke of War Vale must carry.”
It was just as Marcus told him. Jonathan nodded. “I would face a thousand warriors of Duthelm and the Knights of the Abyss rather than take the bloody orb and scepter!”
With obviously feigned concern, Morgain took Jonathan’s arm and led him down the hallway. “There are seven Dukes of War Vale, and it is our duty to be caretakers of this land. We are allies in caring for this land. We work together.” Jonathan let him lead him down the hall. “Which is why I am here, Jonathan. There is a matter, which, regretfully, your father left unfinished. It is a matter of some concern among the other rulers. A quite serious matter.”
“What would you suggest?” Jonathan asked nervously.
Morgain patted his arm. “There are poachers and land thieves hiding in a forested valley close to my lands. Your father sent Errlain warriors to the valley in order to keep the peace. Now I worry for your men’s safety. There are unholy ruins in that stretch of forest.” He stopped and turned Jonathan to face him. “Those ruins are a danger to those guards.”
Jonathan wrung his hands nervously and forced himself to stay calm and patient. “What would you suggest, Duke Inbador?”
“I have spoken with the other Lords of the Realm, and we believe it might be best for all of us if Errlain men stayed on Errlain land.” The predatory look was back in Morgain’s eyes.
“Only the Duke of Errlain may order warriors back to Battle Ford,” Jonathan said, keeping his voice quiet and meek.
Morgain smiled again and sidled close to Jonathan, taking his arm again and leading him to the banquet. “As I said, my friend, your fellow Duke’s would be happy to see you on the throne, and see the warriors of Errlain safe behind the walls of Battle Ford.”
Jonathan paused, stopping in the hall and carefully going over everything Marcus told him. “You would support my choice as Duke,” he whispered, going over each word as Marcus would. “If I remove the guards from the forest?”
“Of course, Jonathan! We are allies and leaders of the Vale of Tears.”
Morgain left Jonathan when they returned to the banquet hall. Jonathan was tired, and felt ill, but he found Marcus standing on the grand steps leading into the ballroom. Jonathan stood at his feet, hidden behind a crowd of Ormekian nobles in garishly colored ruffled dresses. A festive Grum song was playing, and the guests swirled across the dance floor. “Cunnaway, Kerraland, and Morgain is whispering to Morrow in the corner. He wastes no time,” Marcus said, smoothing the bold red doublet he wore. “Your brother, Geoffrey, has the ear of Anthar, as well as his name and daughter. I’m sure that will keep Morgain from speaking to Eduard. After the banquet couriers will kill many horses riding the road between Anthar and Inbador after tonight.”
“What of Gaith?” Jonathan whispered.
“Duke James swore he would piss Cunnaway stout on Eamon, in order to give Gaithan brandy some flavor. Last I saw Eamon Gaith he was kicking a page and looking for his sword.” Marcus sat down on the steps and sipped wine from a crystal goblet. “Once Eamon turns a lighter shade of red, I would guess Morgain will find a way to speak quietly with him. And in the morning, Jonathan Errlain the bastard of Darkhaven, you will be a Duke.”
Jonathan shuddered. It felt strange to lie to Marcus. “So they will support my choice as Duke?”
“As I said, if Morgain believes you are his puppet, the others will see an opportunity and gladly give you the scepter and orb.”
“What of Geoffrey?” Jonathan asked. “Will he contest the ritual?”
“He might,” Marcus admitted. “But not tonight. Geoffrey is new to the Anthar family, and Eduard has an advantage in the political intrigue of War Vale with the death of Alexander. Eduard will not risk his position by making a play for the Errlain throne. Not yet, at least, so Geoffrey will wait.”
The song ended and the guests clapped. Jonathan joined them half-heartedly. He missed the dirty limericks of the one-armed bard in Grisal. “You will send the Rukemian legion to the forest?” Jonathan asked quietly.
“And the gold I promised you will be here by morning, Jonathan.” Marcus finished his wine. “The treasure in those ruins is much too dangerous to leave in War Vale. Believe me, friend, this is for the best. Pre-sundering artifacts and weapons are dangerous, and the Grand Magus can best make sure they don’t fall in the wrong hands. Not only that, history is something of a personal hobby for the Emperor. He will be grateful for your kindness in giving him recovery rights on the ruins. And Serrax has a long memory.” He put a hand on Jonathan’s arm. “If you continue to serve the Emperor, he will be quite generous with his rewards.”
Jonathan nodded. “I have always served the Emperor as best I can.”
“I know, Jonathan Errlain,” Marcus whispered, leaning close so Jonathan could smell the cloying sweetness of perfume on the Diplomat-General. “You have won the throne and gathered the support of the Emperor and your father’s enemies. You will be a be Duke!”
“Countess?” Jonathan asked his aunt the day before the banquet. Servants scurried across the dining hall carrying plates of food: pork, chicken, heaping piles of colorful vegetables, stoneware pots of honey and still steaming pies. “I have a question.”
“Ask Jonathan,” Irena said as she went over the guest list. “Sometimes you are annoyingly polite, boy! You would think a man who fights demons would be made of sterner stuff, and not hollow niceties.”
Jonathan blushed. As far as he could tell, aunts were the family that made sure you understood your every flaw and lectured you on how best to correct them. “I want to know what it means to be a good Duke?” he asked.
She sighed and set aside the scroll and quill. “It is a fair question, I suppose, since I have met a few more Duke’s in my day than you. If I were to become a Black Sorceress, I would come to you to advice.” She gave another sigh and sent away the servants. “Listen close. I don’t have all the answers, just what I have seen. The way I see it, a Duke needs to the voice of his people. He works for his entire realm. He is the bridge between his lands and the forces of the world. He is…” she scoffed. “Tharros’ ass, boy! You have me thinking too much.”
“I cannot believe I could become a Duke to Errlain.” Jonathan said.
“Tomorrow you stand before the Priest. You accept the Orb of Errlain and become patriarch of our family, then take the scepter and sit on the throne. It is really not hard, even for a muscle-bound sword-boy like yourself.”
Jonathan shook his head. “My father told me that holding the scepter does not necessarily make you a Duke. It is a choice…”
“Your father found morals way too late in life,” she growled. “And he never did wear them well. Fine! A good Duke serves his people, they do no serve him. A good Duke has patience, wisdom and strength. A good Duke remembers his people pay taxes not for pretty toys, but because of the service he offers them. A good Duke is kind, strict, loving and stern. A good Duke has a polite word for each of his people. ” She laughed, a tired, sad sound. “Honestly, Jonathan, give me a kingdom of men, and the one who refused the throne would make the best Duke.”
Softly, so the servants would not hear him, Jonathan whispered, “Would you be Duke, Aunt?”
She laughed again, throwing her head back and shaking in her seat. “Gods no, boy! I have way too much sense for that.”
The throne room of Battle Ford sat deep in the heart of the Castle. Foundation stones, rumored to have survived from the Age of Chaos and worn smooth by the feet of countless generations, supported the wooden throne of Errlain. Stones enchanted to glow sat on brass stands around the room. Banners and standards of Errlain victories hung on the walls beside weapons carried by Jonathan’s ancestors.
Jonathan stood at the far end of the room, behind a Senator from the Empire and two nobles from Ormek. They waited for a shrill-voiced herald to announce them.
“I’ve never been to War Vale,” the Senator, a prune-faced man with beady eyes and balding hair. “It was much… quainter than I thought.”
“Cooler than Mercia,” a noble said. He brushed a finger over his oiled moustache. “And cleaner than Ormek.”
Jonathan peeked around the Senator and watched the crowd filing into the massive room. There were the nobles and royals, standing around the throne in silk and finery. They were clean, colorful, sparking with gold and precious stones in the cool magic-light. Behind them were the bodyguards and soldiers, carefully watching the crowd for any danger. Further still from the throne were the wealthy and the merchants. It was obvious they sought to emulate the nobles. With their wealth they could buy the clothes and the jewels, but they could not match the presence of the lineage of the noble, no matter how they spent their gold.
“I visited Corvenia once,” the Senator said. “Very quaint. And Bathynia, the plains, also very plain.” The Duke’s nodded.
Further still from the throne stood the commoners. They huddled against the cold stonewalls, drenched in darkness and shadow left from the light that passed the bodies before them. There was the cook, sweating and red-faced even away from his fire. The groundskeeper held his son in his arms, helping him see above the crowd. A farmer Jonathan met over a game of Bones hid beside a suit of armor as a bodyguard passed.
“Why must the commoners sit against the wall?” Jonathan asked.
The noble with the mustache peered around the Senator. “Oh… there,” he said. “Honestly, Duke Jonathan, they are your people. Where else would you have them?”
“Here, boy,” the Senator said, pushing Jonathan forward as the herald announced his name. “Go take the orb and scepter so we can go back to the banquet.”
The night he died, Duke Alexander sent his wife and servants from the room and held he hand of his bastard son. “I have many regrets,” he whispered.
Jonathan could feel the bones and skin of his hand. There was little else. “Yes,” was all he said.
“War Vale spends its time nurturing old pains…” Alexander coughed, spitting up blood on the white sheets. When the cough ended, the dying man shuddered on the bed. Jonathan waited for his father to recover. “There is something you must do,” Alexander finished. His voice was like a whisper of old cloth fluttering in a breeze.
“Yes,” Jonathan said.
“I give you the orb of Errlain,” Alexander said, taking his son’s hand again. “My first born… the family is yours, as it should...” He coughed again.
Jonathan waited quietly, still holding his hands. “Father… I,” he started.
Alexander shook his head. “Take the orb, as you are the only one who can,” the Duke said. “Then step back.”
The priest was finishing an incantation in some ancient language that the scribe promised was once spoken in War Vale. Old Thulish, he called it, or something Thule-like. The priest was an old man with thick glasses and a giant nose with brown spots across his wrinkled forehead. The symbol of Serrath was on the robe he wore, and in his trembling hand he carried a scroll.
Jonathan was not sure if he was hoary or not, but he spoke in a deep, rich voice that never wavered the entire ceremony. Even while Jonathan could feel the sweat beading across his forehead and stinging the corner of his eyes, the priest’s voice did not waver. Jonathan stood on the steps leading to the throne, while the priest stood beside the empty throne of Errlain. Morgain and the other Dukes of War Vale stood in a crowd at the base of the throne, while Marcus sipped wine and watched from the towering stone columns around the throne.
Jonathan could feel the crowd watching him, every man, woman and child in the throne room waiting to see what he would do. His stomach ached, his vision swam in his eyes, and the tension was making his head pound.
Behind him stood Irena, his aunt and the eldest matriarch of the Errlain family. Duchess Catherine stood at the bottom of the steps, her son fidgeting in her arms. Geoffrey Anthar glared at his half brother from the front of the crowd.
Just step back. The voice of dying man played over and over again in Jonathan’s mind.
The priest was speaking Rukemian again. “The elder priests of Serrath made a bond with the elders of Errlain. It was an alliance, and we were instructed to keep safe this symbol,” the old man raised the orb, “of their bond to the children of Errlain, and to release it only to the worthy patriarch of Errlain. With that, we have seen into the heart blood of Jonathan Errlain, and have seen him to be the oldest child of Alexander, the former patriarch. And so, I do hereby fulfill that task, and give to Jonathan the orb of Errlain and name him the rightful patriarch.”
And Jonathan took the orb. The priest smiled and the crowd erupted into applause. Just as Irena and Marcus instructed, Jonathan held the orb aloft and turned to face the crowd. The applause continued, and Jonathan could see Morgain smile.
Just step back, the voice whispered.
“And now, Jonathan, patriarch of Errlain, with this scepter I give you the throne and name you Duke of Errlain.”
Jonathan stepped back.
There were murmurs in the crowd and the priest smiled. “No, son. The ceremony is not over. Just take the scepter and sit on the throne.”
Jonathan stepped back again, so Irena stood nearest the throne and scepter. She turned to look at him. “Get up here and stop playing!” she hissed. “It won’t bite. At least not yet.”
Jonathan shook his head. “I, Jonathan Errlain and patriarch of the Errlain family, choose Irena Kesme to be Duke of Errlain,” he called out in a loud voice.
The crowd erupted into chaos. The nobles started arguing around Morgain, while the Duke of Inbador stayed silent as his face turned red. The commoners muttered and surged forward against the guards, while the guards pushed back and strained to see what was happening on the steps of the throne. Duchess Catherine stepped forward with the young boy, demanding he be made Duke.
The priest reached down and touched the throne. “Stop!” his voiced echoed across the chamber. Faces turned to watch him, and the room grew silent. The priest let his hand fall from the throne. “What are you trying to do?” he asked.
“It is my right, as patriarch, to choose the Duke of Errlain lands,” Jonathan answered. “And so I choose Irena.”
“You can’t do that, Jonathan!” Irena argued. “It might be a nice thought, but it cannot be. The other nobles will never accept a woman on a throne. And then there is the matter of the Empire and their interests.” She sighed and shook her head. “I know you don’t want the throne, Jonathan. But take it and save the people of Errlain.”
Jonathan ignored the crowd and turned to Irena. “Listen to me,” he whispered. “Take the scepter now! This is a chance we may never have again. Tonight, at least, Morgain and the others will accept you. Morgain believes he has beaten Errlain, and he will not risk our agreement, and his honor is at stake. The nobles follow him. The Empire will not risk creating a civil war in War Vale. And the people, our people, will accept you much more quickly than a Rukemian horseman.”
The priest stood at the front of the room, holding the golden scepter in his hand while the murmurs in the crowd grew loud again. He pushed the scepter forward. “Someone please take this,” he asked, his voice finally cracking. “I don’t understand…”
“Your father wanted you to take the throne,” Irena said.
Jonathan shook his head. “This was his idea,” he said. “Duke Alexander wanted you to become the ruler of Battle Ford.”
“Here now,” the Senator called from behind them. “What is going on?”
“I think the boy is scared to take the scepter?” another Noble shouted. “Can’t trust a bastard to get anything right.” There were more shouts from the audience.
“I am a woman,” Irena argued. “I cannot become ruler in War Vale!”
“You can!” Jonathan insisted. “I didn’t know my father, but I know the mistakes he made weighed heavy on him. War Vale is my home now. I can see the endless games and conflicts between nobles have torn this land apart. We are victims of our past, of tradition and petty disputes, and every new Duke continues the cycle! Take the throne and make it better.”
Irena scoffed. “And you think I will be different? Who will listen to me? What is to keep me from falling to the same illness as my brother?”
“What do you mean, the woman is going to take the scepter?” a voice called out from the crowd.
“You will be different,” Jonathan said. “You know how to rule War Vale, and you can break from tradition. You can change the way this game is played. And you will not do this alone. I listen to you, and I will be the patriarch of Errlain.” Jonathan smiled. “As for the illness, if I learned one thing scouting in Duthelm, it is how to survive. I doubt anyone will openly challenge us once I have a horse and a sword. And if we die, at least we will have a marble bust in that hallway,” he smiled
“But…” Irena started.
“Countess, I can give you no guarantee, but if War Vale is to survive, and if we are to best serve the people of the Vale, we must look to the future. I was a soldier, but now I am being called on to do more. Help me, Countess. Take the scepter.”
“What are we going to do!” the priest whined, holding the scepter out like a snake threatening to bite him.
“This is the last time we trust such a delicate matter to a bastard and a woman!” the duke of Anthar said.
Irena scowled and stepped forward, taking the scepter from the frightened priest. She turned to the crowd. The room grew quiet. With a slow, measured movement she lowered herself to the throne, letting the scepter sit in her lap. “This is an Errlain matter,” she said, her voice carrying across the room. “And we are Errlain.”
There was silence in the room. Jonathan stood on the step below Irena, holding the orb before him.
“Well,” the priest said finally, his voice still cracking with the strain. “May I present the Duchess Irena Kesme.”
The next morning Jonathan stood on the castle battlements and watched the sun rise above Battle Ford. It was a bright sun, bathing the land in warmth and setting the dew in the fields afire. Jonathan wanted to believe it was a new day, a new age in the War Vale. That he had done well the night before and that history would remember him for his bravery and wisdom, and not as a dusty marble bust in a forgotten hallway. But life, Jonathan decided, was rarely like the heroic tales of the one-armed bard in Grisal.
“That was very well played,” Marcus said. Even after a night of drinking, dancing and intense negotiations, the Diplomat-General of Rukemia still looked well rested and ready. “Perhaps I will have to search the Rukemian soldiers for my diplomats.”
Jonathan was rumpled, bleary-eyed and stained with sweat and food. “Will it matter,” he said wearily. “I feel like a fool.”
Marcus leaned over the battlement and sighed. “Jonathan,” he said. “You may not realize how much you have already done. You solved the Errlain debt. Gave Morgain worthless land and made him happy about it. You put a woman on the throne, took over a family and scared the piss out of your brother. Threatening to beat Geoffrey with a sword when he disobeyed your aunt, that was brilliant! I would think twice about threatening anyone with you around.”
Jonathan shrugged. “I was too tired to make up pretty words,” he said. “And we had to take Duke Gaith’s weapon before he chased Cunnaway again, so the sword was convenient. It just seemed like the best way to negotiate.”
“Your aunt is a wise woman. She made two allies tonight, if her agreement to sell both the brandy and the stout on Thom Cranston’s wagons succeeds, it will do much to secure your position. Old hatred is hard to forget, but profits and gold will certainly help.”
The courtyard was empty below them. Irena gave most of the servants the day, in order to spread word of the new ruler of Errlain and to celebrate. “But will it work?” Jonathan asked. “Have we done anything to make our home a better place, or have we just added another chapter to War Vale’s bloody history?”
“The truth?” Marcus asked.
“Will it matter?” Jonathan countered. “You will just tell me what you want me to know.”
“True. You are getting very good at the game,” Marcus said. “You have to remember, Jonathan, that War Vale has been a land filled with bitter struggles for a long time. It is a land ruled by seven petty warlords playing cruel games with each other. “ He chuckled, “suddenly mother is home and the game has changed. Everything is different now.” He stretched and yawned. “And I am tired. This is your home now, Jonathan Errlain, and for good or ill, you have agreed to take responsibility for it. What happens next is up to you.” Marcus walked back to the castle, humming a tune under his breath.
Jonathan sat on the battlements a long time, watching the villagers work below and feeling the wind against his face. Children were chasing each other in a field beside the castle, while a woman cleaned clothes in the creek nearby.
He waited for a sign from the gods, telling him what they thought of his actions the night before, but the Ether seemed silent, waiting to see what he would do next.
This page last updated Wednesday, December 24, 2008. Copyright 1990-2009 David M. Roomes.