There is a kind of calmness that comes when you know there is nothing more that you can do.
My father had left this kingdom prepared and waiting for me to take it. I had no heir. I suspected that in my absence Rhyl, Brandor, Justus and Bendrig would provide a more than capable regency while they selected the nearest possible king. And God help the poor lad when they found him.
There was nothing I could do, even, that would assist them now. Everything I knew, Rhyl knew. Every loose end I knew of, Bran and Rhyl knew too and were as familiar with the strategies we used to keep hold of them.
Life in this forsaken ruin was taking on a dreamlike quality. Bran, with nothing better to do, was organising and repairing walls, gates, doors and anything else he could find. Justus and Bendrig, not to be outdone, were running enough patrols that half the kingdom must be aware of our presence here and hunting the woods bare of game. Even Rhyl, driven by sheer boredom, had organised arms practises and was outside in the bailey, drilling Roth’s unfortunate men at arms.
I sat down on the window ledge of the Great Hall and concentrated on Rhyl’s distant voice, unwillingly turning my mind inward.
The visions are strange and unreliable. This one had come to me the first night at our last camp, the camp where we were gathering troops against the border invaders.
I had recognised the terrain at once. Deinsted. The stone bridge at Deinsted that led across the shallow river into the gatehouse. I saw Roth’s standard flying over the gatehouse and Roth’s saddlebags filled with parchments nothing to do with the messages he carried for me. Roth’s armsmen marching over the bridge in their hundreds. And then a battle. A brief, and bloody battle over the water ended with a heavy swing and a man falling in a sprawl that told me his neck was broken, and men in unmarked mail snatched up the pennant marked with my crest. The man at their feet, still, white and bloodied, was me.
I went over and over it until my stomach turned, but I could gain no more detail. All I could know was that in the next day or two we would face an attack from the armsmen concealed in the local villages, and while my forces would survive- we could withstand a serious army for months within this fort- I would not.
“I told you what I’d do if I caught you with that look on your face.” Rhyl broke in on my gloom. I shook myself hurriedly out of it.
“I was wondering how secure the gatehouse was.”
“Rubbish.” Rhyl said succinctly. He was hot from the exercise outside, hair tousled, arms bare under his leather tunic. He laid his sword belt on the table, dropped a borrowed shield after it and pulled me out of the window in one clean yank.
“You heard what I said.”
“But nothing, I told you, I won’t have you drifting around this ruin daydreaming.”
“Come here young man.”
That is downright unfair, there’s barely five years between us. However, I found myself standing where his hand pointed while he unbuckled my belt. I woke up at that point and stupidly tried to push him away. It earned me a stinging smack on the hand that made me yelp.
“Stand still!” Rhyl ordered in the same voice he used to his horses and I had no choice whatsoever but to stand as he ruthlessly stripped my hose to my knees as if I were six years old.
“Rhyl for Godsakes-“
I turned around. My breath was wheezing in my chest and my eyes were tingling. A strong palm stroked across my bottom, making me jump and reminding me of a good deal more than the numerous times he has turned me across his knee. My eyes began to sting for a very different reason. He put an arm around my waist and pressed until I gave jerkily into the pressure and found myself bending down, further and further down into the familiar position where my stomach rested on his lap and my hands fell forwards to the floor.
His hand rested flat across the under swell of my nearest buttock. I felt it lift and braced myself, bottom trying to wince away, then a noisy smack flared across my cheek, making it wobble like a jelly and setting it awash with a hot smart.
Another smack landed just as firmly on the other cheek. I caught my breath and my bottom caught fire under the brisk, sharp smacks. They fell so fast, moving all over my tender bottom until the smart became unbearable. Then he spanked in earnest. I jerked and kicked helplessly, twisted and wriggled and squirmed as his hard hand went right on spanking my upturned bottom.
“Ah! Ah – ow! Ooh-“
“Painful as this is,” Rhyl said gravely, smacking with no less energy and holding me firmly in position, “And unpleasant though it may be – “
In that tone I could cheerfully have throttled him.
“Ouch! Ow ow-“
“This is entirely for your own good-“
“Ow! oh don’t- ouch!”
“And something for which you should be grateful.”
“Ow ow ow! Ahow!”
“And that will do. This time.”
Rhyl released me, gasping and squirming, and gave my scarlet bottom a solicitous rub. “I wouldn’t let me see you daydreaming again.”
“You’re a brutal, domineering swine.” I accused. He laughed.
The fort was bereft of servants and there were no witnesses to see me hurl my arms around his neck, or to see his rough kisses which tend to replace words in his vocabulary like Hello, Goodbye and Sorry, but you deserved that.
It was some time before we let go. He touched my cheek with a rough finger, his voice dropping to the gentleness I usually only heard in bed.
“Will you stop fretting? It’s worse than having a soothsayer haunt the hall.”
“I’m tired, that’s all.”
“So sleep.” He said heartlessly. “Or come outside and practise with the others.”
I slipped away from him. He sounded somewhere between wry and amused.
“Jai we’re in a bloody fort, we’ll stand anything the bastards throw at us. We’ve got fresh water, the way Justus is going we’ll have food enough to see out the century under seige, and we’ve got near two hundred experienced armsmen. If an attack comes, we’ll stand up to it. You took Lucret with less men than we have here, and we were against an organised army. This lot will be rabble. They’ve been hiding in haystacks for a week, they’ll be scattered and tired and quarrelling amongst themselves- without Roth and Carrell for support any attack is going to be token. Spite, not challenge.”
“What if Roth’s men were to turn on us?” I pointed out. Rhyl snorted.
“They’re armsmen, not landholders. They’ll follow whoever pays and feeds them, they’ve got no interest in politics. Jai I’m warning you, come out and do something useful, or sleep before I lose patience and snap you out of this mood with a belt.”
I took the hint. I couldn’t face the chatter of the armsmen. I retreated to the chamber above the Great Hall, found a jug of something fermented which Bran’s men drank and which took the edge of my churning nerves and blazing backside, and knew I wouldn’t sleep.
It was approaching twilight when I woke. The keep was so quiet I started up from the bed in alarm, but from the window I could see the watch fires and small circles of men around them, relaxed and weaponless. The Great Hall below was deserted. I wandered out into the keep. Rhyl’s arms practises had ended. The armsmen I passed nodded to me but I found no knights around the fires. The gatehouse held only the night watch. The stables held only munching horses and more armsmen. I found one of Justus’s Captains by the stableblock and waved him over.
“Is Justus still out on patrol?”
The man saluted. “He and Lord Rhyl went out an hour ago, Sire. Another hunting party.”
They clearly expected a seige. I nodded and moved on, not displeased that Rhyl had taken the chance of some sport. After days of my moods and orders he badly needed time away from me. And he enjoyed hunting as I never did. I drifted in search of Bran, but it was too dark in the keep and I suspected he had found a corner somewhere with his men to spend the night gaming. I couldn’t even track down Bendrig, who was more likely to be praying somewhere rather than gaming, but who’s company was preferable to my own.
I read through the parchments and scrolls again. Their news grew no better. I guessed at perhaps a hundred and fifty men in the area: not necessarily all soldiers, or even all armed. Roth might well have been paying villagers for surveillance, for sabotage or for the surety that his men could expect food and shelter.
It was surely much too dark to be hunting anything.
If Rhyl intended bringing bats back, it would make no difference how expertly they were shot or speared, he wasn’t going to get any admiration from me. I sat for a while, growing thoroughly morbid while I thought of him fishing at Almeda, dragging me to lie for hours beside streams to be polite about whatever poor fish he managed to extract from the depths. Driven to the edge by my mood I eventually grabbed a cloak and headed for the gatehouse.
One of the youngsters Rhyl and I had brought with us was on duty and flushed bright scarlet at the sight of me.
“What time did Justus and Rhyl set out?” I demanded. The boy cleared his throat, looking awkward.
“Shortly after noon, Sire.”
The boy looked on the brink of choking. He gathered nerve before I lost my temper.
“May I - uh – have a word, Sire?”
I followed him into the stairwell, out of earshot of the armsmen on duty with him. There he stared directly past my ear, stiffly to attention.
“Message from Lord Brandor, Sire. He, Lord Rhyl, Lord Justus and Lord Bendrig have taken a hunting party out. They expected to be out all night, Lord Justus said they were after vermin. He said you would understand what he meant.”
It took me several seconds to believe it. Then a further minute to control my fury before I frightened the boy out of his wits.
“How many men did they take?”
“Twenty.” The boy looked terrified. I dismissed him with a jerk of my head and he fled like a page. I descended the steps in to the bailey, made a maniac assessment of how many men they’d left me with standing guard and preparing for another night in the open, and slammed the door of the Great Hall where I could lose my temper in peace.
How DARE he?
How dare he trap me here, the only commander left in charge of the fort while they took God knew what risks, messing around the edge of the villages like a bunch of boys let out of school- hunting indeed!
I knew exactly who’s idea this was.
I could send no men after them: I had no one here of rank or authority to order any one of the knights home, even if they were able to track them. I could see the faces of the Captains if I ordered them to arrest Rhyl and Bran. I could not take a party out myself and leave the fort undefended. This was Rhyl’s idea to deflect the attack – a stupid and useless idea likely to get them all killed and leave me sweating blood while I waited.
I resisted a childish urge to overturn the table and limited myself to thinking of exactly what I intended to do to my four generals when I next got my hands on them.
I spent the night with the armsmen around the watch fires, hoping Roth’s sympathisers chose tonight to attack. If they came tonight, I was in the mood to decorate Bran’s newly repaired walls with the head of any man stupid enough to draw a sword within my sight.
Three villages lay around the fort that I expected to contain troops. By dawn I was visualising Rhyl dead in every ditch between here and Almeda. What was he planning? To stroll into each village with barely twenty men?
First light was grey over the gatehouse when the alarm was rung. The chill of that bell broke through my rage like a bucket of cold water. Men scrambled around me, grabbing cloaks and weapons, leaving me suddenly and deeply thankful. If it was to happen this way, there were many worse places for Rhyl to be than loose in the countryside. He and Bran were out of this attack. I drew my own sword and went to meet Bran’s Captain.
Troops were seen approaching from the west: from the direction of the nearest village. I went up to the tower and looked out over the view with the Captain. Maybe fifty men, no more than shapes in the morning mist, many carrying spears and shields rather than swords. Some of them would be peasants, not armsmen: easy prey in some ways and lethal in others. Unprofessional fighters never knew when to run, and they fought for their lives rather than their living. The Captain was waiting for his orders. For the first time in my adult life I turned to him without Rhyl’s shadow at my shoulder, his mute support behind me.
What could I do? We couldn’t shut the gates and sit here. In a few hours other troops would likely start to muster from the villages and we’d be facing men in hundreds, instead of fifty. And once those other troops started mustering, evidence of a good fight might give them pause.
Someone was bringing the horses to the gate, someone else handed me a helmet. I gave the orders to attack.
We met on the field beyond the gatehouse bridge: a hundred armsmen stood against fifty men as motley as Rhyl had predicted. Bran’s own guard remained in the fort. I trusted them to cover us, although the odds were hardly against us. None of my men troubled with the ranting and insults I’d seen on other battlefields. They seemed infected by the chilled, murky ground and the cold and they stood in silence, looking at the line of peasants and armsmen beyond us. I didn’t recognise the two men leading the little army. One of them wore armour: most likely some underling of Roth’s. The other looked to me like a mercenary.
My fifteen or twenty men on horseback rode their front line down in the first charge. It was one of the most unpleasant skirmishes I remember. Some of their side fled in the first minutes. Probably the local villagers, talked into battle with no real experience. The armsmen stood against us doggedly and more of them were left on the field than I remember. It was less than ten minutes before I pulled my horse up and watched them retreat back towards the marshes, ten or twelve men left from fifty. Seven or eight of my own men were down. As we were sure of the retreat, armsmen began to pick up the bodies, checking for signs of life. I ran an arm over my forehead, still holding my sword. The horse, spooked by the flash of the blade, turned in circles, letting me scan the field. There was enough mess here to deter the next set of attackers. With luck, the retreating armsmen would encourage them to scatter and it would take only patrols and a strong hand in this area to keep rebel pockets from springing up again.
It was a wan hope and I knew it.
It was then we heard the alarm again from the fort.
By the time I wheeled it was too late. I saw the rebel troops on the bridge, another fifty or sixty men, moving towards the gatehouse. Bran’s guard were in a quandry, uncertain whether to shut the gate on them and us as well, or to back from the gate and allow the battle to take place within the bailey. I kicked the horse into a gallop and heard other hoofbeats behind me as I charged. Armsmen gathered around me, running towards the bridge, but they were already at the gatehouse. Finally, one of Bran’s guards lost their nerve and the portcullis dropped. Hooves rang on the bridge like anvils. I reached it with five or six of the Captains after me, but the armsmen were too far behind us on the field to be of use. We were seven horses against fifty men, fifty frightened men, and the others on the field would take too long to reach us. Bran’s troops were mounting in the bailey beyond. They would come, I knew they would come, but I also knew it was too late. My last thought was to thank God that Rhyl was out of this before the horse went down under me. I rolled to my feet and got clear before he could crush me, sword ready. Several of the mounted guard were still fighting from horseback, the animals shrieking in the crush of bodies and noise. Another man had been dragged down from the saddle. I put my back to the stone wall and tried to buy some time, enough to raise the portcullis and get the second wave of guard out here, or for our own troops to reach us from the field. I didn’t see the blow coming.
It dropped me to the stone with my head ringing. I lay and saw stars for a minute, booted feet crashing around my head, and the noise redoubled round me. In my line of sight I saw my pennant snatched up from my fallen horse. I lay and waited for the final blow.
And then I was trampled from all directions as men started to run. Fresh hoofbeats struck sparks on the bridge, fresh shouts overrode the chaos. I curled up to defend myself and heard someone from the field play a ragged and breathless tattoo that I recognised. The attack.
I pulled myself up against the stone wall to see. There was no breath left in my body and I was bruised to the bone, but I saw four horses rise up from the river bank, four men with swords raised, and men at their heels in uniforms that brought my heart into my throat. The rebel armsmen had tried to run, and ran directly into our troops emerging from the field.
I could hear Justus shouting from the bridge, his horse rearing in protest. Something about prisoners. Someone else was bellowing at Bran’s guard to get the portcullis up. Bran and Rhyl rode over the bridge, the horses stepping leisurely over the cobbles.
I levelled a shaking finger at Rhyl.
“Arrest that man!”
No one moved. Bran dismounted, watched Rhyl drop to the ground and hooked an arm around his neck.
“That’s the most fun I’ve had all night.”
“Arrest them both!” I said savagely to the horses as no one else appeared to be listening. Rhyl strolled across to me, radiating self satisfaction. He and Bran together swept me a bow that made my teeth grind.
“Your Majesty.” Rhyl bent to pick my sword up and leant on it. “You look remarkably well for a dead man.”
“If I had the strength,” I told him from the ground, “I’d get up and break your jaw.”
He grinned, put a hand down and hoisted me to my feet. “Does that help?”
“Where in hell have you been!” I glared from him to Bran, not caring that most of our guard was milling around us. “If we were anywhere near civilisation I’d have you arrested and tried for treason!”
“We went hunting.” Bran stuck his gauntlets through his belt and grinned at Justus who was still rounding up prisoners. “Through the villages.”
“You just strolled into the villages with twenty men-“
“We sneaked.” Rhyl interrupted me. “Quietly and discreetly. Following your royal example, your Majesty. We trailed both troops up here overnight, we dealt with another small group in the woods at first light this morning and then got up here to assist with this bunch once we realised they were cutting around behind you. That’s it, Jai. The villages are full of terrified villagers and nothing more. They’re expecting the villages burnt for this, you’ll have no more trouble with them this winter. You can forget any ideas about heroic death here.”
I stared at him, mutely. Bran snorted with laughter and went ahead of us to tear his guard to shreds for closing the portcullis. Rhyl raised an eyebrow at me.
“Disappointed? Don’t be. When I get you back to Almeda, you are going to spend the winter sincerely wishing you had died on this bridge. I’ll teach you to keep your wretched premonitions from me.”
His smirk was more than I could stand. It was more than my life was worth, but at this moment in time I had only one campaign objective in mind.
With grace, with precision and nobility, I put a regal hand on his shoulder and pushed him over the side of the bridge into the water.