Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 03

King Tyalon rested his elbows on the great table, his hands still over his face.  He hadn’t shaven in days, and the coarse stubble on his cheeks was uncomfortable.  The cold steel and gold of his crown seemed to press upon his temples, his head throbbing with his pulse.  And with the crown at his brow came a responsibility that had settled about his shoulders like the yoke on a mule.  The words of his father returned to him, from more than a decade before; “The crown is a heavy thing in any kingdom, and will make a slave out of most.”

He remembered his father’s face- the angular cheekbones, the short, grey beard, the ice-blue eyes.  What he remembered most was the voice – strong, deep, and carrying a power other men could not match. People would instinctively obey.  His face could change its shape so quickly; old King Tyaris could look upon his son with such warmth, affection, and pride, and then not a minute later could glare with rage at one of his commanders and sentence his death.

It was situations like these, Tyalon thought, that made a king able to change so drastically.  His father had faced daily trials, many of which had seemed like an impossible puzzle.  The Old King had found his way through many of them, and Tyalon had stood beside him for every one.  A lesson had accompanied each trial, for both the king and his prince.  Tyalon disagreed with several of his father’s decisions, but had never said so. He had been patient, waiting for his day to come.  When it had, many things changed.

The great, oval-shaped, walnut table was polished to almost a mirror-shine under all the parchment from the reports coming in.  As he moved his eyes between the reports, he could see the faces of his advisors reflected in the polished tabletop.  But for the moment he closed his eyes, going over in his mind all the things that were pouring in on him at once.

The spring thaw had been followed by the driest summer he could remember.  Early crops were failing. Fruit trees weren’t blossoming for lack of water. The corn and wheat crops necessary to sustain his people through the winter were stunted, sometimes dried up completely.  Rivers and streams were disappearing.  And now the animals were showing signs – cows weren’t producing as much milk, fowl weren’t laying eggs, and in some places, the animals were already starting to die.

It wouldn’t be long before the people began to starve – or riot. Neither one was acceptable to the young king.  There were several possible solutions, but each one came with its own potential problems. It was a matter of deciding which course would be the least harmful to his country.

Loratta, whose home city of Nynad was in the center of the plains, looked the most harried of his counselors.  It was her neighbors that were in the most danger, and most of the reports on the table had been brought to her office.  She, too, had held her face in her hands for much of the meeting, her blond hair showing grey through her long fingers.  When she did look up, her eyes had dark circles below them.  Tyalon could tell she’d lost weight since their last meeting – she had been sharing the food of her own household.

The king’s eye shifted to Syrax, the only non-human on his council.  The dark elf looked grim.  His ice-white hair gave a shocking accent to the blue-black color of his skin.  For these meetings, he wore clothing cut for a merchant, not a fighter – he had very deliberately projected the air of a businessman rather than a warrior, showing his city’s devotion to peaceful commerce since the end of the long wars.  His violet eyes shifted between the other counselors, just as Tyalon’s did.  His reports had been the only good news in the room that day, and had encouraged them all, despite the bad news they felt they were drowning in.  His home, the underground city of Zhan’tiol, was near the mountains, where the rains had been enough to keep fruit crops and game animals alive.  His hunters had already been ordered to bring in more meat, and he was more than willing to share.

“Thank you for your offer, Syrax,” the king said, quietly.  “We are most grateful.  The best way to transport it will be the cavalry in Trenridor.  If they ride out tomorrow morning, they can be in Zhan’tiol by night, and be rested and organized for the trip the following morning.  Can your people have a food shipment prepared by then?”

Syrax nodded.  “If a wizard could get word to them by tonight, they would be ready in two days.” His voice was soft, but retained an intense tone, almost an edge.

Tyalon turned his face back to Loratta.  “The cavalry would be in Nynad four days later.  That will have to be the primary distribution point.  You’ll have to organize to distribute the food yourself, I’m afraid.  The cavalry will have to drop the food at your doorstep, then return to Trenridor at a gallop.  I don’t want that city being without its cavalry a day longer than it has to.”

The counselor from Trenridor spoke out of turn.  “A pardon, my king, but I don’t like it at all.”  Cadjial leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and his folded hands on the black leather gloves he’d taken off upon arriving.  Trenridor wasn’t the city he had grown up in, but he’d adopted it as his home just as the long wars were ending, and he still remembered how badly the city had been hurt.  The scars of war still marred the land, and in some places, the city itself.  His amber eyes dropped to the table for a moment, then rose again to meet the king’s gaze.  “Without the cavalry, our city would be without half its soldiers – the stronger, better-trained half – and with King Adnesar already preparing Trislanys for war, it may prove to be too tempting a prize to resist.”  He looked to Loratta.  “We can organize another means of transport and protection within a week.  They would arrive in Zhan’tiol in ten days, and have food in Loratta’s hands in fourteen.”

Loratta’s face darkened, but Tyalon spoke for her.  “True, but in two weeks, people will be dying, and those still alive will be rioting.  We can’t afford to wait any longer.  Besides, if you put together a militia to move that food, they’d be met by bandits on the road at some point.  Using the cavalry will discourage any brigands desperate enough to try to ambush the caravan.”

“And I guarantee you, it is on the minds of everyone across the plains,” Loratta said.  “They’re desperate enough – we can’t afford to tempt them.”

Tyalon nodded still looking at Cadjial.  “I’ll send you home with a grant from the royal treasury, to train and outfit a larger militia.  They will protect you until the cavalry returns, and afterward, they can be tasked to transport food shipments – I’m sure this will not be the last one we organize.”

Cadjial took a deep breath.  “My king, with only our infantry, it doesn’t matter how many militia we train.  They wouldn’t do much more than slow down an invading army.  Without the cavalry, we can’t prevent a siege.”  His voice hardened as he spoke.  The last siege of the long wars had been at Trenridor, and Cadjial had endured it with his people.

Loratta spoke again.  “We have no proof that Adnesar is preparing for war.”

The next to speak was Fardalin, the counselor from Marialis.  His city was less than a day’s ride from the border with the country of Tradsina, far removed from their other neighbor of Trislanys.  Fardalin, however, had been a counselor to the Old King for many years, and still held onto Tyaris’ ideals.  Even now, in time of peace, he chose to wear heavy armor to formal events and to the King’s councils, displaying his thoughts and counsel openly.  “The signs are all there,” he said, looking at Loratta with a hint of challenge in his grey eyes.  “Iron City has reduced its export sales three times this year alone – and every time, it was by royal decree, not by shortage.  Meanwhile, the mines and bloomeries are working day and night.  Where is all that steel going?”

Cadjial nodded, then answered the question.  “It’s being made into weapons and armor.  Almost every smith in Trislanys is busy making swords, every one of them paid directly out of the royal treasury.”

“There’s more,” Fardalin said, his voice lowering.  “I’ve heard reports of the training of new soldiers – in Trislanys city, Garabala, and Lizia.  And worse – if my spies are correct, and I believe them…” his voice trailed off.

Tyalon cocked his head.  Fardalin rarely hesitated to bring news of this sort.  “What is it?”

Fardalin sighed.  “My king, they believe the people training the new soldiers are Shadowknights.”

The king’s jaw dropped.  Loratta’s hands left her face, dropping onto the table with a loud slap.  Syrax’s eyes widened.

“And just when were you planning to tell me this?” Tyalon demanded.

Fardalin looked across the oval table toward the king’s military commander, an old bear of a man named Wythax.  As fitted his office, the head of the Asharidan army wore grey and blue plate armor from dawn to dusk.  He was easily twice the size of everyone else at the table.  His bald head was the only part not protected by steel plate.  “My king,” Wythax said, “Fardalin has brought this to my attention, and asked me to confirm it through my own informants. I have not yet been able to.  We decided to wait for confirmation to bring it to your attention.”

Once again, Tyalon’s eyes wandered to Dralysa.  Only a few years older than him, she had been one of her father’s most accomplished battlefield commanders, and had met the Shadowknights several times.  Since the end of the wars, she had shifted her role easily to become an administrator, but still wore light combat armor to formal meetings and events.  Her green eyes met his, and again his attention was drawn to the long scar on the left side of her head.  Strangely, he thought it enhanced her beauty, instead of marring it.  He admired her beauty and strength, but more than anything admired the combination.  Once again, he found himself thinking that she would make an exceptional queen.

“If he’s forged an alliance with the Shadowknights, they will most likely be leading his men into battle- am I right?”

Dralysa nodded, her gaze not leaving his.  She knew better than any of them, with the exception of Wythax, what it would mean for them to see Shadowknights in the field again.  During the long wars, King Tyaris had forged an alliance with the order of Shadowknights, giving them freedom to operate within his kingdom and sanctuary in their hidden mountain fortress.  In return, the Shadowknights had fought beside the Asharidan army, training the elite soldiers and leading them into battle.  More importantly, Tyalon had learned upon assuming the throne, Tyaris had thought this alliance to be the only way to keep these cruel and twisted warriors from turning their strength upon the people of Asharida.  One of the first conditions of the long peace that had been so prosperous for the three neighboring nations was the hunting and destruction of the Shadowknights, and Tyalon had not hesitated.  If they now allied themselves with Trislanys, they would be eager to join the fight against their former hosts.

Cadjial nodded.  “My king… you’ve repeatedly ordered us to speak our minds, even when we disagree with your own opinion.  Again, I must tell you that the best course of action is clear to me.”  He paused for breath.  “We must invade Iron City.”

The other advisors were silent.  Loratta’s eyes narrowed – she thought of any action besides moving food to the hungry as a waste of precious time and resources.  Syrax lowered his head.  Fardalin nodded at his fellow counselor, then looked at the king.  Wythax was perfectly still, as if nothing had been said.  This conversation had been held in private before, they all knew.  But addressing it openly before the court was new, and bold.  They all knew how the Old King would react, but not his son.

Tyalon sighed, an impatient look crossing his eyes.  “Cadjial, our solution to this situation cannot be to simply mount an attack our neighbors.”

“It’s only two days ride from the city of Trenridor.  There are enough soldiers stationed in and around there that we wouldn’t need to wait for more to arrive and organize.  The cavalry has been drilling continuously.  If we captured Iron City, we could interrupt Adnesar’s plans to equip his army-”

“Yes, but it would turn the attention of his entire military on us.  Just because we could do it, that doesn’t mean we should,”  Tyalon replied.  “What do you think would happen then?  Do you think that Adnesar would just let that city go? The most profitable city on the continent?  And what of our other neighbors in Tradsina?  Do you think they would just stand back and watch?”

After a moment of silence, Fardalin spoke.  “Cadjial, I agree with you, but if we are to attack another nation for strategic gain, our goal for now should be food, not steel.”

Tyalon looked to Fardalin quickly.  “No.  We are not going to steal food from our neighbors, either.  I believe our military to be strong enough to repel an invasion from either side,” he nodded to Wythax, who nodded back, “but if we invade either Tradsina or Trislanys, we invite counter-attack by both of them.  No, we need to send a messenger to King Jriemas and ask him to sell us some of his surplus food.”

Most of his advisors were shocked.  The Old King would never have chosen this route.  Dralysa’s face was unchanged.  Loratta alone nodded her assent.  “I agree, my king,” she said without hesitation.  “We have the money from our industry in Nynad to afford to purchase enough food to get us by, even without help from the royal treasury.”

Wythax spoke immediately after.  “Please, my king, no.  That would be a grave mistake.  If we show the other nations that we are weakened by this drought, they will CERTAINLY attack us.”

Cadjial agreed.  “We need to show strength now, not compromise.  We need to prove that we are a powerful enough nation to handle this situation.  We need to project that power.”

Dralysa finally spoke. Her voice was soft, but the others quieted for her.  “Not every crisis will have a military solution, Cadjial.  Even Wythax has learned that since King Tyaris’ time.  If King Adsenar is truly preparing Trislanys for war, then attacking either them or Tradsina will play right into his hands; he’d send emissaries to King Jriemas, asking him to ally against us in the interests of peace.  The two nations together would crush us, drought or not.”  She paused, then looked to her king.  “But offering to buy the supplies we need telegraphs weakness, I agree, and in the face of a neighbor preparing for war, we cannot afford even to appear weakened.  My king, if we are truly to buy supplies from Tradsina, we need to do it quietly.  We can send small groups of merchants, or soldiers in disguise as merchants, whoever is available, across the border to buy food from the local villages on the edge of Tradsina.  No one needs to ride out from Nynad in a large group.  If we spread out the purchases of food well enough, it shouldn’t be too obvious where the food is going.  And even if someone does put the pieces together, and recognizes what is happening, it will look as if our individual cities and villages are doing this of their own initiative, not all acting in concert.”

Tyalon nodded.  He looked to Loratta.  “Can you arrange this on your own?”

“Yes, my king.”  She seemed relieved.

“Then do so, and report to me with how much gold you will need to spend.  The kingdom treasury will support you if your own revenue falls short.  Just feed my people.”  He turned his attention to Cadjial.  “My order for the cavalry to move to Zhan’tiol will be sent immediately.  The game and fruit from there will ease the pressure until more can be bought and brought back.”  His eyes turned again, to Syrax, sending a silent thanks.  “Once the people of Nynad hear that food is on the way, they should be more motivated to organize the distribution, and less likely to riot in the meantime – as long as they have hope.”  He looked around, then stood.  “That’s all for now.  Thank you again, everyone.”

His eyes met with Dralysa’s, and she understood the silent message.  Everyone rose, and moved toward the room’s exits.  Dralysa lingered behind, and as Tyalon wandered toward the large windows looking out over the city of Ashari, she moved toward him.

The view was breathtaking, even though she had seen it hundreds of times.  The rooftops of the homes, workshops, stables and kitchens below seemed like mosaic tiles, radiating out from the castle that stood overlooking them.  The day was beautiful, the sky clear; but even this weather worked against their kingdom, she thought- what they needed most now was rain.  Most of the crops were dead, and many of the herd animals as well.  Almost all of the minor streams and rivers had dried to dust, and the major rivers had been reduced to a fraction of their flow.  In the plains surrounding Nynad, many of the people were going hungry; some deaths from starvation were being reported, and many more were imminent.  Tyalon had enjoyed the peace he’d forged since his father’s death, and saw it as far more prosperous than war… but there were still challenges.  This was wearing on him.  He looked tired, a little older, even in just a few months.  His black hair was showing a few strands of grey now.  His eyes still held their youthful energy, but it was tempered by the strain of carrying the crown.

“Thank you for staying, and thanks for your support and advice earlier.” he said, as she drew near.

“Of course, my king.”

“Sometimes it seems to me that half my council wants to ride to war for no reason.  They’re still used to my father’s ways.  I can’t believe they miss the long wars, but at times it’s hard to tell.”

She chuckled, softly.  “They don’t miss riding out to battle so much as they fear our neighbors bringing the battle to us.”

“I suppose so,” he replied.  “It seems like such a foolish thing to do, to start a war because you’re afraid your neighbor is going to.  My father started wars to make his kingdom larger and wealthier.  I don’t know which reason is worse, fear or greed.”  He sighed.  “Do you believe Adnesar plans to attack?”

“To attack?  Yes,” she said, simply.  “I wish I knew who he was planning to attack, but he is certainly mounting an army.  And if the Shadowknights are working with him, they will not hesitate if he sends them toward us.”

Tyalon nodded.  “King Jriemas has had the Paladins beside him in every conflict for decades.  They wouldn’t ally themselves with a ruler who would order them to attack a neighbor.  I don’t think we have anything to fear from Tradsina.”

“I agree, but be cautious nonetheless,” she said, taking another step closer.  “If Jriemas thinks we are desperate enough to attack, he may order a counter-offensive.  The Paladins are not his only warriors.”

“Dralysa,” he turned to her suddenly.  “I confess, I continue to be drawn to you.  I’ve tried to redirect my thought.”

“You’ve become better at hiding it from the others, my king, but I do still notice your attentions,” she said.  “I hold great affection for you, Tyalon, but I continue to believe that a romance between us will be seen as a threat to the other advisors.  If we are to let ourselves into such a relationship, we will need to do so properly, to observe the proper custom.”

He sighed, deeply.  “A king’s choice of spouse affects the entire kingdom, not just his own house,” he quoted her.

She smiled at him, warmly, and nodded.  “Especially during times like these.  You have enough troubles to deal with, you don’t need me creating more for you.”

“I can’t help but think that the other troubles our kingdom faces would be easier to meet.  It weighs on my heart, not being able to express myself to you.  And I can’t seem to master it.”

She put her hands on his shoulders, and her touch warmed him.  “When the time comes, we will see how you and I match as people instead of king and advisor to the court.  Be patient, my king, and when the time is right it will be so much easier than it would be now.”

She let her hands slide down to his, holding them for just a moment then turned and strode toward the door.  He returned his gaze to the windows, looking out over his people.  It felt wrong to him, to be so absorbed in his attraction to her when his people were in crisis.  He took a deep breath, then turned toward the door leading to his own chambers.

*****

A meeting of two advisors to the royal court was not unusual.  They often met in pairs or trios after being dismissed by their king, even just for cordial visits.  They visited each other’s cities, often traveling with merchant caravans, bringing official and unofficial news with them.  The king encouraged these meetings, both inside and outside his own capital, believing it could strengthen their ties as a nation.

What made this particular meeting unusual was its location.  The royal armory was one of the noisiest places in Ashari.  From dawn to dusk, hammers fell upon unfinished swords and sheet steel for armor.  There were no walls, inside or out, to deflect or block the sound.  The space was defined by the thick wood columns that held up a checkerboard pattern of clay tile roof panels over work areas and tool racks. Light was one of an armorer’s most important tools, and the sunlight would stream down between these roofs to illuminate every anvil and forge.  Red dust from the iron and steel lay upon everything here, choking out the grass even beyond the outer perimeter of roof columns.

Most of the royal armory was currently unused. The building was large enough to outfit and support an army at war.  Only a fraction of the space would be needed when the army was at peace.  Regular training still took its toll on the armor and weapons, and new recruits still needed outfitting, but this was very different from what the armory had seen during the long wars.

The odd combination of loud noise and near desertion suited the two counselors.  They moved through the unused stations, passing silent anvils, forgotten hammers, and cold forges.  They spoke just loud enough for the other to hear.

“Buying food from our neighbors,” one said, grumpily.  “We’ve become a nation of merchants.”

The other nodded.  “It is a costly thing to go to war. As many people would die in conquest as they would from the drought.”

“Perhaps, but at least we would have something to show for it.”

“Yes, something our neighbors would certainly try to take back.  We can’t afford to hold an enemy city, and simply sending our troops out to sack and steal won’t be forgiven.”

“So what do we do? Let everyone know how badly this drought has weakened us?”

“You’ve spent much time with the old king.  The thought of military action has always been the thought of conquest.  That’s what needs to change.”

The other counselor looked confused, then curious.  “You’ve already got an idea.  Just share it.”

His companion nodded.  “I do.  And orders for the actions will need to go through your own city, but not your office.  The actions need to be organized on the level of small units.  The king will be angry when he learns of this, but by that point the food will be distributed, and the people brought back from the brink.  The soldiers themselves won’t be punished for following orders, as long as they conduct themselves properly.”

“Conduct themselves properly?  In battle?”

“If we time things properly, and if the soldiers do their job properly, there won’t be a need for a battle.  Here’s what I have in mind…”

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