A courtier, pushed by a devastating loss, schemes against his king.
|The chestnut horse sweated profusely, but Laren Kellick urged it on up the pass, his personal guard struggling to keep up.
“Come, we have no time to lose!” he called over his shoulder.
The captain of the guard rode alongside.
“Excellency, we cannot keep up this pace,” he said. “We have pushed these horses for three days. They will die of fatigue!”
“Then I give you leave,” said the First Councilor. “Rest your horses if you must, but I will continue on!”
Of course the guard did not abandon their charge, but they struggled with their exhausted mounts. Kellick topped the final rise of the Heaven’s Stair, the most direct pass through the Roen Mountains passable by horse, and saw the golden fields of the Gilt Plains stretching away to the eastern horizon. Numerous streams crisscrossed the fields of the wild land of the Plains, a land that had never been tamed.
“It’s downhill from here!” called Kellick, and he began the tricky process of navigating his horse down the mountain. Behind him, the guard fell back a little bit, unwilling to risk laming their horses and being stranded on foot.
The chestnut mare was laboring now, even going downhill, and lather was dripping from her flanks. Kellick finally slowed his pace, but his eyes burned as they turned toward the golden fields and to the faint speck that was the settlement of Megasha. Was that a wisp of smoke he saw? He resisted the urge to spur his horse into a gallop.
No. It’s just a reaping fire. It’s the Season of Mirth. They will be burning chaff from their wheat harvest.
Kellick ignored the nagging thought that it was still a week early for harvesting. His thumb found the ring on his ring finger, the ring with the sigil of Kytha the Red, his birth moon. It knocked against the ring on the middle finger with the king’s sigil. Kellick’s thoughts traveled back to the throne room, where he had spoken with the king not a fortnight ago.
“Please, your grace,” said Kellick. “Surely just a platoon? The Plains grow ever more restive.”
The king frowned and shook his head.
“You know the situation in the west. Ferra contests our claim to the northern foothills, and Voenith is eyeing the mines in the southern Roen. I barely have the men to secure our borders as it is!”
“But, your grace! My sister!”
“I have ordered patrols in the Gilt Plains. I know some of the denizens grow restless, but even the Waghrendi would think twice before attacking a settlement bearing the standards of Crown of Gennash. Do not worry!”
“Your grace, if I could suggest-“
“Enough!” snapped the king. “I will hear no more about the Plains. As my First Councilor you have license to speak freely, but do not press me any further on this. My decision stands.”
It was then that the crown prince entered the study.
“Father, I’m prepared to leave. We march at dawn.”
The king grinned and grasped his son’s shoulders.
“You are my pride and my legacy. March to victory over the Ferran menace!”
“I will not disappoint you, father.”
“I know you won’t!”
Just like that, Kellick knew that his chance was gone, and the king’s mind made up. But there was one last thing he could do, though it could cost him his head, or at least his position. One last desperate thing…
And he was doing it now. It had taken a huge amount of bluster, threats and cajoling to convince the captain of the guard to do this, knowing that begging the king’s forgiveness for an unsanctioned mission would be dicey at best, but he had succeeded and was now nearing the settlement.
The wisp of smoke had grown into a column, and Kellick’s guts tightened into a metal ball as he got closer and the column separated into several plumes. There was no doubt that Megasha was burning, though he could not yet see the wooden cabins.
Eventually Kellick and his men reached the bottom of the pass and found themselves among the golden fields. Kellick spurred his horse on, and the fields swept past in a golden blur. The path had turned into a gravel-strewn dirt road with ruts telling of the wagons which brought grain from the plains to sell in Shoum. The road widened as the wind whipped by Kellick and his panting horse.
Shien was had just dipped behind the mountain putting the plains in shadow when Kellick rode into the devastation which was all that remained of Megasha. Granaries burned like giant torches, and bodies were strewn about, stripped of valuables and pierced with arrows of a kind he had never seen before. Kellick slowly dismounted and shuffled into the settlement with numb feet. Behind him, the guard had caught up and was setting up a perimeter and looking for the assailants, now long in the dusty wind.
Kellick walked slowly through the farming community, looking for what his heart kept telling him could not be true.
It couldn’t. The gods wouldn’t be so cruel. But this was Tarm, and the gods would allow anything if it suited their purposes.
Kellick saw her. Miana lay sprawled in the dirt, an arrow protruding from her back. Her eyes were open wide in a look of frozen surprise. Kellick cradled his sister in his arms and wept until his eyes could cry no more.
The sky had darkened by the time the soldier had finished clearing the village looking for the raiders. They began the laborious process of collecting the bodies for burial. The captain approached Kellick and made a motion for his attention.
“Excellency, I believe I know which way the raiders went. Should we pursue?”
“No,” said Kellick as he watched two of the guard wrap Miana in linen. “They are long gone. Our vengeance will have to be delayed.”
“I understand,” said the captain. “Do you have any further orders?”
“What is your name?”
The briefest surprise flashed across the captain’s face. He had been assigned to Kellick’s detail with little notice, but he recovered quickly.
“Viggen, sir,” he said. “Fifth Guards Regiment.”
“Captain Viggen, are you familiar with the doctrine of retirement land?”
“It’s the one where soldiers are rewarded with a plot of land as reward for a lifetime of service. It was discontinued ages ago, when Gennash ceased to expand its frontier. I hear it is still done in other nations, sir.”
Kellick fingered the ring on his middle finger, the one with the king’s sigil.
“What do you think of the land here in the plains?”
Viggen considered this for a moment.
“It is good land, excellency. It would make for fine farming, but for the bandits.”
“But a strong, experienced soldier like yourself could defend this land?”
“Possible, sir, if there were enough of us.”
“Then know this, Captain,” he said, his eyes blazing. “I will make it my duty to enact this doctrine. Serve me well, and land such as this will be yours, along with your platoon.”
Viggen looked alarmed.
“You mean, I should serve you instead of the king?”
“Of course not! Your loyalties should always be to the crown. But I am the First Councilor. All I am saying is that I can make this a reality, that is, if I have the support of fine, loyal soldiers such as yourself.”
Viggen looked as if he were weighing a sack of grain against a measure of gold.
“Think about it,” said Kellick. “You know my reputation. You know I reward those who stand with me. Have I ever steered the kingdom wrong?”
Viggen nodded, then left to see to the burial detail. Kellick tore the king’s ring from his finger from his hand and threw it into the dust. Kytha, the red moon was rising in the east, and Kellick gently caressed his sister’s ring.