Title: The Bondsman Part 3
Deinsted was no home, it was a fort. Captured twenty years ago when this land lay directly on our border and was a strategic stronghold, commanding the river and a clear view for miles in several directions. It had been taken in a massacre and I never forgot that whenever I entered its walls.
There was no way to enter the keep unobserved and I didn’t expect to. Rhyl drew his horse back as we approached, scanning the battlements through slitted eyes.
“Sloppy bastards haven’t even posted guards.”
“I don’t expect to find many here.” I said quietly. He glanced at me, wary and hating this. He never liked doing anything without a clear battle plan. It was partly why he and Bran got along so well: whenever anything became unpredictable he and Bran could always be found together, complaining about it with that look of grim suspicion.
“Who are you expecting?”
I ignored that. Rhyl swore quietly and extensively behind me, but didn’t ask again. When we reached arrow range of the fort, he signalled the young knights forward and nudged his own horse in front of mine, one hand ready to grab my rein. Irritably I jerked the animal’s head around and ducked away.
“If they were going to fight we’d know about it by now.”
“You’ll get behind me your majesty, and you’ll do as I damn well say.” Rhyl snapped. He said nothing else with the youngsters listening, but I was well aware of what he left unsaid. Muttering, I pulled my horse back behind his and focused instead on the keep.
The bailey was still half derelict and completely deserted. I swung down onto the steps and drew my sword. Rhyl nodded to one of the boys to tie the horses and stood behind me, hands loose, following me into the great hall. Still deserted. One of the youngsters felt the ashes in the hearth and shrugged at me. Rhyl didn’t move, turning slowly to look at the dark doorways leading off to each side. I waited several minutes until we were sure there were no sounds, no movements to betray another presence apart from ours. Then I signalled to the four lads.
“Search the place. See what’s here.”
“The stables are empty Sire. There’s no sign of horses here for months.”
“I think we’re ahead of the company I’m expecting.” I laid my sword on the table, thick with dust. “We’ll stay here the night and wait for Bran.”
The boys split up and went into the maze of stairwells and halls. Rhyl and I both stood listening, braced for the sudden clash of steel or a shout. As soon as they were out of earshot, Rhyl grabbed my shoulder and pulled me round.
“What the hell are we doing here?”
Rhyl growled but didn’t argue. “You take a step out of my sight and I’ll brain you.”
I hooked an arm around his neck and he unbent enough to give me a rough, bruising kiss, but his eyes were everywhere and his hands were ready and waiting to fight. I let him wander and put my hands flat on the table, either side of the sword.
I hated this fort because of my gifts. There was a place memory here that I could feel with all my shields raised. I lived in fear that one day the power would leap from me and force me to see the massacre in far more detail than I wanted. I shut my eyes and tried to focus beyond the fort. Not inside the walls but on the river beyond.
Rhyl leaned over, gently detatched my hand and brought me to my feet. There was a silence that seemed to last for an hour, then men in the chamber around me began to sink to their knees and the chant began in our old tongue. The King is dead. God save the King. Rhyl knelt before me, his scarred forearm raised before his face. My bondsman, thinking as I could not. His voice was strident, deep and demanding: it was he who had begun the chant, but his eyes were fixed on mine and they showed me what I was too numbed to feel. In the bed behind me lay the body of my father, twisted with the pain he had died in. He was then only thirty six years old.
I stumbled through the hours that followed, of ceremony – hard, desperate and belligerent ceremony that must rock the world around us and impress power and control over the kingdom before it could react to my father’s hold being so abruptly cut off.
The fealty oaths began within the hour. Arrests. Depositions. In between, with a voice that didn’t belong to me, I gave the order to gather troops in the area. The summer was over. We were about to begin a campaign that would have to sweep the length and breadth of the kingdom. My father’s first campaign had lasted three years.
At some point in the dark, surrounded by harried army camps and worried officials, I put the torch to the funeral pyre hastily built on Coven hill, and watched the flames leap against the midnight blue sky, throwing shadows over the fortress which was no longer my home. Somewhere on that hill I recognised the warmth against my back. Rhyl. I realised then how deeply Rhyl had carved his niche for this day. No one questioned him now. He was so familiar at my heels that he was no longer noticed, no matter where we were or what we did. The only other thought I had to spare for him was when the word was brought shortly after dawn, that Rainalt’s body had been found beside the funeral pyre, his wrists slashed to the bone. I was faintly surprised by the drama of the gesture.
And now the orders came from me. Such is the way of kings and phoenixes. They are born from the ashes of their predecessor, their life comes only from death.
For fifty hours I set in motion the machine my father and I had begun to prepare five years before. Each facet worked as he had told me it would. Perhaps he had known that his training and that rehearsed, endlessly studied plan would be the greatest comfort I could have.
Eventually, in the dead of night, with nothing else to do until sufficient light came up to ride out with the first columns, I stumbled over my bedchamber and found Rhyl waiting there in front of a fire that pages must have kept burning since the death. I slumped into a chair without speaking to him and stared at the fire. Flames leaped, cracking too fast for my eyes to follow. Rhyl put food in my hands and I ate mechanically: another trick he had trained me to for this day. We had spent our two years of apprenticeship in hard preparation it seemed. I wondered how much of it we had done consciously. The silence between us was soothing after so many hours of negotiation and chaos. I stood where he drew me and let him strip me of clothes damp from the drizzle in the keep and the smoke of the soldiers’ fires. Hundreds of men prepared in the darkness tonight, waiting to follow me in the morning. Rhyl released me and I drifted across to the window. Too cold to feel cold, I leaned on the stone and breathed the harsh air.
“One o clock and all’s well.” The night guard shouted from a long way off, the far side of the keep. “The King is dead. God save King Jaris.”
I jumped as I heard it. All my life, every day of my life I had heard the watchmen cry, knew the words in my sleep. God save King Charren.
I knew then I would never hear it again.
Rhyl was there before I knew I had reached for him. I buried my face in his neck like a boy, not a king, and felt him breathe as though I’d punched him in the gut, his arms clenching around me. “Jai.”
In his voice, that was a sound of love. I heard it over and over again, no entry to conceal pain, just a sound that told me he was here and he knew the enormity of it. The chasm at my feet.
We went to bed when I began to cry. Whether he meant to distract or to remind me we were still together, he used his body to comfort me as he had never done in two years of us sharing a bed, and we coupled so naturally I could never afterwards think of that as being the first time.
It was approaching twilight when they entered the keep.
Rhyl scrambled to his feet in the hall and jogged after me, swearing as he saw the armsmen march in. Fifty men. Roth’s private guard. Our four young knights were waiting patiently, swords drawn and keeping their mouths firmly shut on their obvious shock. I flung my cloak back over my shoulders to show the glitter of gold across my chest and strode ahead of my small band of escorts to the head of the steps. The armsmen froze at the sight of us. As I descended the steps they fell back like water streaming off a duck wing and belatedly heads began to bow, silence replacing their murmurs of dismay. We strode in a tight group across the bailey and I stood on the dark grass, watching the horses ride in through the gate house. There were five of them: five lords, followed by another private guard in Lord Carrel’s livery. Roth’s hands must have tightened: his horse reared as he saw me. Rhyl said something sharp to our youngsters about covering the gate, but Roth’s own guardsmen were no fools. They cut off his escape and two of them moved to take the horses as my youngsters made the arrests. Roth shouted to me. I saw his face as he was dragged past, but kept my mouth tightly closed. The senior of Roth’s armsmen came to me and dropped to one knee, offering his sword. I took several deep breaths before I spoke, looking around the filthy, ruined keep.
“Stable the horses and see if the barracks are fit to inhabit. When you’ve posted guards, come to me. Have you food enough for your men?”
Rule one of warfare. What ever else you risk, never let your troops go bored or hungry. The man looked openly relieved. “No Sire. We marched all this day.”
“Send out a hunting party.”
He bowed and rose. I spoke after him, very quietly, “And I shall have a guard of my own on the gate. Warn your men to take care.”
Rhyl snorted softly behind me. The loyalty of these men was the least of my troubles. They’d just seen their lords arrested for treason and they knew they were lucky I hadn’t wreaked vengeance on any of them. Yet.
Roth’s saddle bags were searched. I sat in the dusty Great Hall and sorted through the scrolls and parchments. Maps and paylists. Rhyl knew what it meant as well as I did, but it angered him far more.
“You knew what was there.” He said eventually. “You were expecting this.”
“I knew he was coming this way.”
“You knew he betrayed us.” Rhyl said bleakly. I didn’t answer that. His hand cupped the bare skin at the junction of my shoulder and neck.
“Jai don’t. Not tonight.”
“I couldn’t do it in cold blood. And it must be done.”
He didn’t argue. I picked up another scroll.
“We’ll have to arm this keep, Rhyl. A full guard through the winter. Patrols. The river and both passes.”
Noises out in the bailey made Rhyl pull away from me, hands on his sword belt. I didn’t look up from the table. Brandor and his guard had arrived in the keep with at least twice as many men as I’d ordered him to bring. He appeared in the hall a moment later, nodded to Rhyl and came to me with his usual rigid bow. From the controlled light in his eyes, he had heard the news.
“Prisoners in the guard room, Sire. The watch fires are being lit.”
I straightened, rolling the last of the parchments slowly between my hands.
“Execute Roth, Bernstan and Carrel.”
It was what he expected: this was a formality. Ceremony. Bran bent his head.
“Don’t watch.” Rhyl muttered. I put his hands gently off my shoulders and followed Bran into the cold and dark.
The knock interrupted Roth’s head tumbling forever in slow motion over cobbles already slimy with blood. Roth, who had stood on the field at Lucret as my friend. Who had been there since the beginning.
“Send him to Bran,” Rhyl’s voice muttered at the doorway, “There’s nothing he can do tonight.”
Roth, his eyes on me, still not believing in the cold and rain of the courtyard.
Rhyl’s mouth over mine stopped the moans. It was only then I became aware of making them. The candles were still burning, we were still dressed beneath the heavy covers. I could hear heavy boots and armour on the stairs.
“Bendrig?” I demanded. Rhyl held on.
“Yes. Let Bran deal with him.”
“I ought to talk to him.”
“He can wait until morning. You wait. Half the bloody army are going to slope off through the forest and cut back here to see what you’re doing.”
“I warned you,” I told him, “years ago, you’d come to hate my very name. But for me you could be seducing Bran in a field of clover.”
He swatted me, hard and all too accurately. “Move over.”
“You can’t talk to me like that.” I said, moving. “I keep telling you, I’m your king.”
“Move over your majesty.”
I looked up into his face and saw a flash of the smile, the rare smile I remember from the time before my father died. The smile of the boy. He was aging better than I was: time had squared his shoulders and jaw and added a lot of veneer to his nature. I had heard him called brusque. Reserved. Gruff. It was no more than defence against this ridiculous life I made him lead.
I looked at him with love and knew I only had a few days left, and so very little time in those days to give to him. Unlike him, I knew this would be my last campaign.
Since the earliest days, Rhyl has sat in on every meeting, every court and council session. Mostly as a silent witness, claiming that he likes to know what I’m thinking about. Within a few years of our accession he was accepted as being one of the best tacticians we had. Rainalt was a diplomat. Rhyl is a born general.
He watched me sharply through the impromptu council of war we held in the morning. He was right: Bendrig had brought his own guard with him. Lord Justus had arrived shortly before dawn with another eighty men wearing his livery. They and Bran were reading through Roth’s paylists. I barely heard the arguments they were having. There was still blood staining the cobbles outside. I stood at the window and watched two of Roth’s armsmen sluice the yard down. It was taking all the skill of the guard captains to prevent their men from murdering Roth’s and Carrel’s. No one had yet broken it to me me how many brawls had taken place over night.
“- Jai, do you agree?” Bran’s voice hung on in the silence as if he’d been waiting some time for an answer. I turned away from the window and looked at him blankly.
“Yes. Yes of course.”
Rhyl’s hand touched my shoulder with deceptive deference.
“A word, your majesty?”
In his voice, that title is as much an insult as my name is a sign of affection. I pulled myself together, fast.
“You appear to have plenty of time to spare NOW.” Rhyl said courteously.
Oh God. This was one of his standard manoevers. He’d yanked me out of a council last winter for losing my temper with a particularly hen witted Earl.
We walked with dignity and regal bearing out of the hall and across the bailey. The keep was being set up rapidly and effectively to resemble any other castle in domestic harmony. It was little short of ridiculous. Rhyl led the way into the stairwell beside the gatehouse and bowed me ahead of him up the stairs to what would have been at one time, the private chambers. Here we were well out of earshot. Rhyl shut the door and turned on me, taking full advantage of the seclusion.
“Either you tell me what you’re up to, NOW, or I see to it you’ll not sit on a horse or a throne this side of the Solstice! We’re in the middle of nowhere, Jai, surrounded by traitors you knew about and could have taken safely at the valley camp with eight hundred men at your back, and from those bloody scrolls-“
“We’re surrounded by rebel sympathisers. I know.”
“Take that look off your face, now.” Rhyl ordered. “You’ve been staring into the distance for days. You’ve just stood in the middle of a council to try and get us out of here alive, and not listened to a single word said!”
“Bran and Bendrig know what they’re doing.”
“And what are you doing?” Rhyl said flatly. “You’re not setting foot from this room until you tell me, Jai. You led us here, you knew who to expect. Now you tell me what we’re doing here and what you expect Bran to do about it. They need more than a king lost in his own thoughts and lacking the manners to pay them attention!”
This room was stripped bare of furniture. Only an armour chest and rotten kindling was left to show it had ever been occupied before. I briefly wondered who had lived in these chambers when the massacre took place. It would be easy to See. I shuddered at the thought and the temptation. Rhyl’s grip on the scruff of my neck made me jump. He shook me like a terrier with a rat and I realised abruptly that he wasn’t just indulging his usual crotchets. He was downright furious. He let me go with enough force that I nearly fell over, and with more menace than I care to think about, began to unbuckle his belt.
“I swear I’ll wake you out of this and make you listen if I have to skin you to do it! Strip.”
“This is not the time nor the-“ I began, stirred enough to be indignant. Rhyl’s bellow drowned me out. “I said strip!”
This is not how they tell you kingship ought to be.
I shut my mouth and fumbled, red faced and clumsy at my belt, instantly sixteen again. The ruins, the castle, the men in the bailey, even the villages full of sympathisers surrounding us, faded into insignificance beside Rhyl with that look on his face, swinging a leather belt in his hand. Somehow I unfastened and untied, let my hose fall and stood like a child in front of him, bare and trembling without any thought for anything save my backside.
He sat on the edge of the armour chest and grabbed my wrist without ceremony, his face grim. I was jerked down across his knee, felt the clamp of his arm around my waist and knew I was in serious trouble.
“You owe duty to Brandor and the others, they are here for you-“
The belt swiped down across my bare and helpless backside, infusing it with a sting that made me twist across his lap. “Rhyl!”
“You will NOT ignore them when they’re trying to counsel you, I will NOT give orders for you, you will NOT evade any damn responsibility you have!”
The belt fell rhythmically in time with his words, finding every sensitive spot I had, no matter how I wriggled.
“I warn you now, I’ll thrash you every time I catch that damned look on your face.
Whatever you’re thinking of Jai, you’d better put it out of your mind, or tell me about it: one or the other!”
I squirmed, too shaken to yell. It was very very rarely I made him angry enough to strap me like this and in my right mind I would have done a great deal more to ensure I didn’t push him this far. His right arm was still perfectly fresh.
“And what ever purpose you have in mind for us being here, you’d better be ready to go back to that hall and explain it to Brandor. Do you understand me!”
Perfectly. With crystal clarity. I explained so to Rhyl and to my utter relief felt his grip release from around my waist. I staggered to my feet and tenderly covered my assaulted rump with my hands. Rhyl had let the belt fall but his eyes were still fixed on me, grim and piercing.
“Now you tell me what in hell is going on.”
“We’re not surrounded.” I gulped and swallowed until my voice cleared a little. “And we’re in no hurry. We have a day or two.”
“How do you know?” Rhyl demanded. I looked at him and he nodded slightly. “I see. So what’s coming?”
I shook my head. He reached and gripped my wrists, yanking my hands away from my bottom. “You’ve Seen the end, haven’t you? Who dies here?”
“Do you think I would bring any men here to die if I’d Seen it?” I snapped. Rhyl eyed me narrowly.
“You would if it meant sparing the thousand who would have fought in the valley yesterday.”
“There’s no doom here.” I said quietly. “I expect an attack- not for a day or two. We have enough men to hold it off, we can hold the castle against them. There will not be another massacre.”
It was part truth, part lies. There would be only one death here, but he didn’t need to know that. Rhyl leaned his elbows on his knees, letting his hands fall between them.
“And then what?”
It was not the way I would have chosen by any means, but he was right: my head had cleared from the strapping and coherent thought was falling into place.
“Almeda. A winter. Another campaign plan to keep hold of this weak patch on the border. A sherriff to hold it.”
I met his eyes with all the courage I had. I loved him and it wasn’t hard to show him what he needed to see. I turned my back on him and started to rearrange my clothing. His hand on my wrist interrupted me.
“I wouldn’t do that just yet.”
I looked around at him, forgetting honour and misery for outright apprehension. He had a far more familiar look now: not anger, more caustic determination.
“I said I wanted your attention. Now I’ve got it, we can discuss your lack of interest in a council meeting.”
“Not now!” I said without real hope and with unconvincing authority. “This can wait until we’re at Almeda with nothing better to do all day-“
“I’ll deal with you any time you give me cause, my lad.” Rhyl said dryly. “Apart from basic good manners, there’s a matter of duty and responsibility. Two words which seem to escape your attention when the mood strikes you!”
“I have other things on my mind!”
“You have no single excuse you can make.” Rhyl said flatly. “What would you say to any man who sat in the council with his head in the clouds?”
I looked at him, speechless with exasperation, not a little shame and the inescapable knowledge that I had no way of evading this. I walked back to him and swearing under my breath, lay back down across his knees. His hand ran over my still-blazing cheeks, making me realise although I was hot and sore, I couldn’t be that badly welted. Even furious, Rhyl was nothing more than appallingly and unnecessarily efficient.
His left arm lay across my back and his hand gripped my hipbone firmly. I wriggled, but half-heartedly. His hand pressed against my bare backside, making me quiver. It was warm, strong, and he clearly meant business: it just pressed to get the distance, left me, and then his strong palm slapped down hard, right across both cheeks. It always hurts more than I remember: over the top of a thorough strapping it was far worse. I wriggled in earnest, yelping as he slapped again and again, sharply, first left and then right, moving from the middle of my rump down towards the junction of buttock and thigh where a spanking hurts the most. I gripped his legs, forcing myself to remember I deserved this.
His hand whacked down in a noisy, steady rhythm, and each stinging smack built on the previous smart until my entire backside was blazing and wincing, and I was past any form of dignity. Quite unroyally, I was crying. I was lying limply across his knee, still clinging to his legs as he stopped. His hand stroked my glowing bottom, lightly over it’s tenderness and heat. I let him lift me down to the floor and crumpled to my knees, getting one hand back to rub where I was sorest. He pushed my hair out of my eyes, sparing me the lecture this time.
“You’d better wash your face and get back to the council. Bran will need to prepare for this attack.”
I’d do it if it made him feel any better. I knew it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to the outcome.