Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 12
Next: CHAPTER 1

The drifts were melting, under a clear blue sky and a blazing bright sun, the wondrous change in the weather that had come the very day Cefwyn left his prayers. Some more hopeful and pious folk called it a miracle.
The soldiers at the rear of the column, less reverent, cursed the mud.
And in the matter of miracles, particularly those of his own invocation, Cefwyn was dubious, but he gladly took the good fortune he had, praised the gods in solemn thanksgiving before the whole court, as the people praised their lately pious king.
For himself, he wondered whether Emuin and Tristen had had a hand in the weather, and whether the change indeed presaged a turn in his luck from a completely different source.
Whatever the source and whatever the meaning some might find in it, sunshine was certainly better than gray skies for an omen of setting-forth: the road, which progressively turned from white to brown under the feet of men and horses, still was frozen hard enough to prevent the cart wheels from bogging down. That was miracle enough to encourage any soldier's hope of success in the enterprise.
Cefwyn rode his warhorse, Kanwy, whose big feet made his own way, no matter the weather, and Ninévrisë rode a gray mare likewise of the heavy horse breed, whose sure back and steady disposition made her safer for a lady in her delicate condition, in Cefwyn's estimation.
Behind them came the muster of the Guelens, and those of the Dragon Guard unit which had served the city. Part of the Prince's Guard had come as well, men who had accompanied him to Amefel in the summer, and who were now lent by his brother Efanor, along with their commander, Gwywyn, lately commander of the Dragons under their father. The rest of Panys had marched, no doubt there.
Young Rusyn brought the rest of their muster to join his father, Lord Maudyn, and his elder brother. Marisal was coming: Cefwyn had their lord's word. And likewise Sulriggan's province of Llymaryn would come, so he had Sulriggan's early and extravagant promise.
It was less than the army he had envisioned, but not the calamity he had envisioned, either. Move they did, and now all the other lords, from Marisal to Isin, had to reconsider their positions: stand aside in avowed cowardice or in support of Ryssand, or take to the roads and go to the riverside. Tardiness would not serve. Llymaryn had used up that excuse in the last war.
Gods bless the mayor of Guelemara, too, who had sent his house guard, all five of them, but it was symbolic. Guelemara's various lords had sent the rest, and so Efanor stood vindicated in fact and not only in name. Gods bless Panys, never slow to answer the call to arms, and gods bless Marisal, a man of honor, who had stood by his king at an hour when the list of loyal names had been far shorter than it had grown to be.
So the army was on the road, not, again, as Cefwyn had envisioned, as a tide of men marching down a green-sided road, but still with a warm sun beating down and heating armor despite the lingering chill from the snow around them, a sun melting snowbanks and filling the smallest depressions with foot-dampening snowmelt.
It had not been practical to delay to bring Marisal up to the capital before going on to the riverside. It was not practical for any of the rest to muster there and then march west, when the road directly from the provinces was shorter, and he refused to ask it merely for show.
At a certain point pageantry was very well for confidence, but practicality said that they should save their wagon axles the added stress and save their marching strength for speed through enemy land.
So in this somewhat gradual gathering of force, let the other duchies ask themselves whether their neighbors might by now have joined the army, and ask themselves was the list of abstainers and the tardy growing shorter by the day, leaving them conspicuously exposed to blame?
He had waited for no debate in council, only declared what conclusion he had reached after his fasting and prayer: he would march at once and asked for the lords to move as quickly to honor their oaths and come with him.
Rusyn had not hesitated a heartbeat. Hard behind him came Marisal and Llymaryn, and after that the timid and the traitorous had toed the ground and said, well, of course, and yes, they understood the gods' leading, but it was difficult to muster on such short notice, and they were not at all glad of a war or sanguine of the outcome…
But dared they let the king go to certain death and the kingdom then go to ruin? Dared they be the laggards, when others were going?
Ryssand had not even gotten his chance to speak—had protested and tried to outshout his king, regarding dire news from the south, by no means his wisest course, for he had lost dignity by it, and moreover, the new Patriarch was on his king's side. Jormys in his new robes of office had come to the dais to declare a holy mission against a sorcerous usurper, a defiler of his oaths of fealty and a despiser of the gods.
The accusations against Tasmôrden were all true, Cefwyn was sure.
But the refusal of his king to hear his case sent Ryssand from the hall in blackest fury, and without consulting Efanor he snatched his daughter Artisane up and left the capital without informing his king whether he would march.
He left rumors behind him of sorcerous alliances, a royal bastard among the Aswydds under the malevolent influence of the lord of Amefel, who held court swathed in ill-omened black, kept a familiar about him in the shape of an owl, and had reestablished Althalen as his capital.
It was, perhaps, too much for the populace to hear at once. They were celebrating the rumor of Her Grace bringing forth an heir… a rumor that had had days to run before Ryssand blurted out wild charges of bastardy in the south. The Aswydds were no part of the people's experience or recollection. The people had the evidence of a child within the bounds of marriage, a king who had fasted and prayed and emerged blessed by the Quinalt, with all pomp and pageantry and calling for holy war against a godless enemy. The people heard the blare of trumpets, saw the muster of troops and colors, and Ryssand's departure went all but unremarked, except as one more movement of lord and guards in a town that saw many lords and many companies.
If he had failed to rally the entire army, so had Ryssand failed to draw his supporters after him… for they were caught in confu-sion and doubted where their best advantage might be. The rumor of Tarien's child was unleashed, and far from shocking: it was over the horizon, beyond the border, far away, and young princes committed indiscretions, but the king had married and gotten at least the whisper of an heir. Her Grace riding through the streets found cheers, now, and doubtless scrutiny to see whether she showed signs of her condition, which meant prosperity to a year, to crops, to flocks, to gold and fortune. If there was disapproval of her now, it was that she rode… la! she rode astride. It was not appropriate. The king should put his foot down and protect the people's heir, and by no means take Her Grace near a battlefield…
Yet she was the Lady Regent, and noble, and noblewomen did such inexplicable things, being made of other stuff than the commons: she rode with authority, and gained cheers as they passed out of the town, and childless women ran up to touch her skirts, which attested how the people believed, both in her condition, and in her royalty, gods-sanctioned to spread blessings.
Ryssand had never counted on the Royal Consort's being with child, never counted on a potential heir between Efanor, Artisane's ambition, and the throne—never counted on the Quinalt-sanctioned potency of a king's turn to piety and fatherhood. And he had lost his bearings, lost his opening, lost all momentum, and found himself in possession of two houseguests, his chief witnesses, Cuthan and Parsynan, both now linked to Tasmôrden, Amefel, and sorcery.
"How do you fare?" Cefwyn asked, glancing at Ninévrisë, who sat bundled in furs on the mare's broad back. He thought he detected discomfort in her shifting about. At the last rest the party had taken she had moved stiffly, and if there was one thing not to his satisfaction in the whole business it was exactly what the people found not to their satisfaction: Ninévrisë"'s insistence on riding with him. "We can rest again if you like."
"No," she said.
She had ridden with him to the battle against Aséyneddin. She had shown sober good sense in the councils of his officers, where her opinion was worth hearing, and she had taken command of the camp without a demur, keeping that in order and keeping herself out of unwarranted danger. In that sense, riding with him to war was safer than staying in the capital without him.
But the conditions were not the same. Her condition was not the same.
"You're frowning," he said.
"It's the months of sitting that's the matter. It's four months stitching silly little flowers."
"All the same…"
"I hate little flowers! I don't want them on my gowns!"
"Four months sitting in a chair," he said, and felt sympathy for the discomfort of the saddle. He had his own share of it. "Sitting and signing and sealing and signing and sealing. I have forests I've never seen. Lands I've never ridden."
"You could have taken time."
"And left you to Artisane?" That conjured too grim thoughts: Brugan dying at the foot of the Guelesfort stairs, and he chased off to other subjects. "No. The dog-boys have the hounds to run: I've even given them a pony, to exercise the dogs at the chase and keep up… gods know, maybe this summer we'll hunt…" But that was wrong, too.
Ninévrisë would not share the sport. She would miss all the summer, and stitch little flowers amid the likes of Artisane and Luriel… while he…
He grieved at the thought, he discovered. He was appalled to know he was jealous of the child—but he had wished a little time to themselves. He had imagined a year, two, perhaps, for the two of them to be lovers, before the dynastic ambitions of their two nations invaded their bed. Everyone in the kingdom wanted to know the particulars of his wife's condition, and all his courtiers looked at her for every sign of increased girth.
Now they rode out: they leapt from war to war and not a summer to themselves, not even the leisure to grow a child in peace.
But today she had the kiss of the sun on her face, and managed the gray mare with a fine hand, no matter the discomfort of the ride.
There was a liveliness in her this morning that he never wanted quenched, no matter the demands others set on them—and he had not seen that fire burn again in her until she was on horseback and under the open sky.
Perhaps she saw the same change in him, mirror into mirror. In the still-snowy land, in the muster of the forces, he found this was a moment to catch, one of those jewel moments of a lifetime to store away against the ravages of enemies and the chances of war.
Wrong to risk coming with him? Wrong not to stay in Guelemara, when her own people's welfare was at risk, in all of this, and Elwynim who thought there was no choice might yet rally to her banner if they saw it?
They were riding out in hope of everything. They might gain. They might lose. Not being sure of either, they were free as birds… and he might have won his struggle. He might finally have won… for Ryssand had gone and no one had followed: he had boldly set Ryssand the challenge the recalcitrants never once seemed to have expected of a son of his father: march with the army, obey now or be forsworn.
And now did Ryssand's neighbor Isin have second thoughts in his support of Ryssand, and did Nelefreissan, and did the others of the north? They were the martial barons, the warlike, hard north, and had Ryssand miscalculated? No, of course the king was not supposed to have done what he had done. The king was supposed to act modestly and responsibly and take no such risks with his life and the succession—in short, the king should play their game with their dice, by the rules Ryssand dictated moment by moment. His father had.
Would not he?
The king's consort, moreover, surely would stay in the hands of women of the baronial households, in reach of retribution, and needed their support to have any comfort at all—therefore, the king would be cautious.
She had certainly thrown that to the winds—and now lords who had been entirely unwilling to place Ninévrisë's future children in the line of succession now complained she was endangering a king's child with her riding.
The petticoats had never concerned the lords; this did.
Her Grace must take care, old Isin had been bold enough to say, frowning as he saw Ninévrisë ahorse at their riding out. Surely, if nothing else, a carriage…
"Thank you, sir," Ninévrisë had returned gaily, riposte and straight to the heart of northern pride, "but I rode to Lewen field with the king and will not desert my husband now."
Ah, such a look as Isin had had when she said those words about deserting.
And the army such as the town contained had stood gathered in the square before the great Quinaltine, with the bright brave show of banners, and the sound of bells ringing, and the trumpets blaring—with all that in the air, could hearts a little less selfish than Ryssand's not be moved?
At the very last moment before they rode out, the lord of Osanan had come to him, afoot like some peasant farmer, pushing his way through the line of Dragon Guard as he sat Kanwy back and the martial trumpets shivered the air in the Quinaltine square.
"Gods for Ylesuin!" the Duke of Osanan had shouted from among the last screen of guardsmen, the old battle cry. "Osanan will be there, Your Majesty!"
Cefwyn believed it, and indeed, before they had cleared the town gates, Osanan's standard-bearer had come, in earnest of his lord.
Osanan had a far ride home and the mustering of his men, in order to recover his standard, but that pebble was suddenly in motion.
Ryssand's edifice of pride had crumbled that little bit more, at the stirring of an old warhorse's heart.
Cefwyn gazed ahead of him now, with the heavy flap and snap of the royal banners in his ears, his, and Ninévrisë's colors flying before them. It was his order to display those banners all the way to the river and beyond, to show them in every village as they gathered that ragtag of peasantry that would come to their sovereign's call along the way.
They moved up the long road that passed ultimately through Murandys itself, bound for the bridge that would take them across the Lenúalim and commit them once and for all to keeping his promise to his bride. And the sun shone down on them as they began.
But toward noon, the east shadowed horizon to horizon with cloud, and by midafternoon it was clear that weather-luck was only for their setting-forth.
Soldiers grumbled, seeing rain in the offing.
But the wind that blasted down as the cloud came was bitter cold, buffeting the standards and making it clear that rain was not the threat.
"So, well," Ninévrisë said cheerfully, bringing up her hood. The first snowflakes stood unmelted in her dark hair, and her face bore a wind-stung blush. "It will be better than mud, will it not?"
"So much for weather-luck and fasting," Cefwyn said, so only she heard.
And in very little time winter enfolded them: the sky grew leaden and the air turned gray with flying snow.
"If Tristen managed this," Cefwyn said across the voice of the wind,
"could he not have managed to hold the sunshine just until we crossed the river?"
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Next: CHAPTER 1