Book: Fortress of Dragons

Previous: CHAPTER 3
Next: CHAPTER 5

Rain and thunder above canvas brought dreams of campaigns past, recollections of mud and hard living far to the south—of days spent waiting and nights spent in far less luxury than a royal pavilion, two cots made into one, and warmth against one's side.
But that warmth gathered herself in the last hours of the rain-drenched night and stole away… and over to the baggage piled out of the rain, in a corner of the huge tent. Cefwyn paid slight attention, deciding that Ninévrisë had thought of something undone, or left, or needed, in the way one did in the middle of the night on a journey, with all one's belongings confined to chests and boxes, and had the servants remembered the new boots or packed the writing kit?
Gods knew. There were times one simply had to get up and dispose of the question, and this night of noise and fury in the heavens, with the tent blown hard by the gusts and no great likelihood the army was going to break camp in the morning—this was such a troubled night, on their slow way through the edge of Murandys and to the river camp.
But Ninévrisë, having rummaged up something, or failed to find something, was quiet for a long while after.
Too long, Cefwyn decided. He had made up his mind to sleep late, having waked several times to realize the deluge continued, and still cherished the notion of late sleep until he rolled over to see what she was doing and saw her standing distressedly in the lightning flashes, with something flat and pale pressed to her bosom.
Then he knew that what she had ferreted from the baggage, from her belongings, was a piece of paper, that paper, and at this hour.
He shoved an elbow under him, looking at her in concern until he had a glance back.
Then she came back to him, and threw herself on her knees by the bedside.
"The baby's born," she said. "Tonight, the baby's born."
It was certainly not the sort of news to cheer either of them. The letter had told them nothing more till now, until he had ceased to believe it was anything but an inert scrap of unwritten paper.
But now this news broke through the days of silence, at the lightning-shot edge of a dawn that saw the army stalled, the roads surely turned to ponds and rivers.
And now in the dark of the tent he could not judge her expression, whether she wept, or frowned, or had no expression at all.
"More news," she said, and her voice trembled, barely audible above the battering of rain on the canvas walls. "Orien's dead."
" Orien." He was taken aback, and wondered whether she had mistaken the twins and misspoken. Women died in childbirth, and should it not be Tarien who died at this birth?
"She burned to death," Ninévrisë said. "She burned in her cell."
"Good gods." His memory of a glorious, beautiful woman could not fit the image of such a death. He raked his hair back, pushed upright and hauled the blanket around him against the chill of the rain and the unhappy report. "I take it it's that letter," he said. "Is that all he says?"
"The baby's name is Elfwyn," she said. "Tarien called him Maur-ydd, after the old wizard, I think; but Tristen said he was Elfwyn, so Elfwyn he is, now."
A king's name, for a king's bastard. And not only a king's name, but the name of the last High King. That would not go unremarked among his uneasy barons. It was provocative and a trouble to the child and to him. Gods, what was Tristen thinking?
"What more?" he asked, unsettled. Tristen could be feckless at the most damnable times. "What news of Tristen?"
"He…" Ninévrisë"'s breath caught in her throat. She seemed to have caught a chill despite her robe, small wonder, at such news, and he moved quickly to gather her up and into his arms, in the warmth of an occupied bed.
The shivering kept up for a moment, and now he knew the truth, for Ninévrisë had taken the matter of Tarien's baby so entirely worldly-wise and matter-of-factly he had convinced himself she accepted it without a ripple.
Now in a stroke he doubted all his assumptions, about this, about all the other slights she took so calmly. She forgave him in the very embrace of her arms and the inclinations of her heart, but the existence of a child named as, gods help them, Tristen of all people…
had named this child… what could she think?
What could anyone think?
And what did Tristen think, giving his son that name? Not a damned thing, was the first conclusion that leapt up in him: Tristen could be the most feckless soul alive, did things because those were the thoughts he said Unfolded to him, thoughts that leapt into a head that otherwise could be utterly absorbed with a hawk's flight or the shape of a leaf.
Yet Tristen, the worst liar in all Ylesuin, was not dealing with a hawk or a leaf in this child… this was not something Tristen would treat casually or on a whim, and the other aspect of his flighty concentration was that absolute, terrifying honesty, in which he would leap in where no courtier would tread. He had met that appalling honesty when—gods! when he had left off his folly of love-making with the Aswydd women and gone downstairs to look a stranger in the eyes… and he had never after been able to avoid that stare, that truth, that honesty. Like a boulder in a brook, it had diverted all his life into a different path.
And now… now the result of that moment was a child, and Tristen named him. He was deaf to wizardry, but like a deaf man, he could feel the drumbeat in the ground under him: a moment had come back to haunt him and change his life.
Elfwyn Tristen named the boy. So, indeed, Elfwyn he was, the will and word of his unacknowledged father and his father's wife notwithstanding.
And this Elfwyn, this bastard prince, was in fact heir to nothing, since his only legitimate claim, Amefel—where a maternal lineage did have legal force—had passed to Tristen's hands. But in his Aswydd and Marhanen blood he had substantial claims to everything in reach, if he one day decided to reach for it and cause a world of trouble.
With that name, the name of the last Sihhë High King, he had claims to gods knew what more.
Is this, he asked himself, the King To Come? This child? Mine? It was not what he had thought. Tristen was what he had thought, and trusted Tristen's complete lack of ambition. But this? Did Tristen name his own heir, in this child?
"It's not all," Ninévrisë said faintly, holding to him, "it's not all.
Ryssand's with Tasmôrden."
He laughed, untimely, unseemly given the circumstances. "That's no news."
"He means to kill you."
A second time he laughed, this time because he was already set to laugh and wanted to deny all fears tonight and reassure her… but on his next breath he fully heard what she had said, and knew it was part of that letter, and felt cold through and through—not believing, far from disbelieving a warning from Tristen—and in the context of this newborn child, potential heir, potential pretender to more than two thrones.
" Here?" he asked.
"Tristen overheard some sort of plot, I don't know how, but I think the way wizards know. Tasmôrden's courting Ryssand—he's persuading Ryssand, with all sorts of promises if you should die, if we should die… that they'll make peace, for lands, all the bargain to be good no matter who makes it. Efanor would have no way to rally an army."
"Does Tristen say that?"
She hesitated. "I think it's been there a while. It doesn't feel part of the rest, but I only heard it tonight. I think it was the disturbance there. And I wasn't sure of it before, but now I know it's there… I don't think I thought it was different, thinking you by no means trust Ryssand, or Cuthan, either. But it's different now, and I know, and I don't know how I know, except it's from the letter. But Tristen doesn't know where we are, he doesn't know we've marched—"
"He's not received my message."
"Not yet. It's not yet there. But what Tristen knows, in the letter…
and what I know in my heart… I'm not sure which of us knows it, but between us, I do know, and Ryssand is coming. He'll pretend to have a change of heart. He'll count on your welcoming him. And he'll betray you, and I don't know how I know!"
"Do you know it for the truth?" he asked. "Are you absolutely sure?"
"I'm afraid," she said. "And I don't know why, except this letter."
A paper blank except for seal and signature, and no more readable for him than before… wizard-work. Magic, Emuin insisted. Perhaps it was even bound to the truth of the situation, reporting when the world grew chancy enough and the barriers that divided them from Tristen and from their enemies grew thin.
Lightning made shadow play on the canvas walls, the outline of other tents close at hand. It felt like dawn, but the clouds were so thick and the rain so intense no light reached them. Idrys, Lord Commander, but still in his intentions his bodyguard, slept, or pretended to sleep, in the other chamber of this tent, among the maps and the armor.
Waking guards sat duty there, too, out of the rain, men who had been with him even in Amefel. Close by their tent was the entire Dragon Guard, trusted men.
Could he fear for his life and hers tonight, so protected?
So too, he had claimed the mass of the Guelens and the rest of the common levy, and held a camp on its way to war. Osanan had joined them. Marisal was sending men. He had rallied more men than he had hoped.
Were there traitors already insinuated among these men?
They were bogged in a lightning-shot deluge that had followed sun and then snow. The heavens were utterly confused—and that was surely wizardry or the worst weather-luck a campaign ever had: and here they were bound for the river bridge, and as yet had seen nothing of the contingent from Murandys, when Murandys was the land through which they traveled.
Nelefreissan and Ryssand had farther to march, and it had not been certain they would come, since Ryssand's storming out of court and out of the capital, but would they now, if Ryssand meant some act against him?
There was no one else he could summon. His missives southward he had sent in a bundle, all to Tristen, to give to the lords with him, for he knew now that letters to their capitals would not find them at home, but rallied at Henas'amef, to come by the southern bridge, for the stony hills of Gerath lay between, a wedge of land that had no straight trails, and all too many blind valleys: it had swallowed armed force before now and given nothing back. Tristen could not reach him.
And was the north to betray him?
Thank the gods at least the southerly bridge, the one Tristen held, would not become the sally port for Tasmôrden to start a diversion in Amefel.
"So Ryssand will come," he mused aloud, "with nefarious intent. And dare I say his message with Cuthan passed both ways, and he passes all we do to Tasmôrden? Who knows? Tasmôrden might have such a letter as we have."
"Ryssand intends to kill you," Ninévrisë insisted, more directly, more urgently. "If he does, Tasmôrden will let the army retreat from the field, and Ryssand, and Murandys, and all of them… all under truce… they will deal with him. They will sign a peace. The army will march home, owning part of Elwynor. They'll crown Efanor."
This was no idle threat, but a well-formed plot. He found himself perversely intrigued by the mechanisms of what might be his death.
Did men often have such a vision of events to follow their impending demise? It was like a taste of wizard-sight.
"No dagger in the dark," he surmised. "Nothing so definite. That leaves witnesses and evidence. But men lose heart on a battlefield.
Ryssand takes the field, his heavy horse fails the charge—breaks and falls back. The wing they're in collapses. The enemy sweeps around.
Our army makes haste in retreat… and the rest follow. Hard for a man to stand when his neighbor's flung down his shield and bolted.
Never count the good men that will die in such a maneuver."
"Tell Idrys. Kill Ryssand before he even arrives here!"
Ah, for his gentle bride. "Not that simple."
"It is that simple. This man will kill you!"
"Out of a dream and a letter with nothing written on it? Gods, all of this is such a flight of ifs!"
"Don't make light of me!"
"I do hear you. I take it in utmost seriousness."
"Is Tarien's baby an if? Is Ryssand, then?"
"No."
"If we seem about to win, then what will Ryssand do? Someone may tell more than Ryssand dares have known if you take prisoners of Tasmôrden's side. He daren't have you win! He'll only grow more desperate to strike at you, a knife, or poison—witnesses won't matter then. He'll want to set Efanor on the throne, see him wed to Artisane, and then Efanor's gone. Look at all he's done! He's severed you from the southern army. He's dared bring Cuthan to court. He's affronted you and stormed out. If he comes to join you now, you'll know what he intends. Be rid of him! Gods, be rid of him!"
Idrys advised it. Now Ninévrisë advised him the same.
And yet—and yet he had no evidence to justify himself to the rest of the barons. He had no proof of Ryssand's actions, more than that damning letter to Parsynan Tristen had sent him, and that was old proof. A great deal of water had flowed under the bridge since then…
most significantly that he had let Efanor court Ryssand's daughter; now if he ordered Ryssand's head on a pike, would the rest of the orthodox north still take the field with good will? Would they fight to the uttermost to support a king who had just killed the foremost of them?
One thing was suddenly very clear to him.
" You, love, can't stay in their reach."
"Elwynor is no Guelen prize! My land, my crown—"
"My heir," he said in a low, determined voice, and with his arms about her. "My love. My very dear love, you're the foremost hostage they could hold… your welfare, above all heirs and all else. I love you. I honor your claim and risk all my kingdom to bring it to you.
But this warning, if I believe it, changes everything."
"I am sovereign in Elwynor! You swore—"
"I deny you nothing. I admit every claim. I make myself your debtor when I ask you—I plead with you, for my own peace of mind—to take our son and our heir out of harm's way."
"Back to Efanor, who has enough to do to defend his own interests, let alone mine!"
"Efanor has men enough and guile enough to keep you safe. I know my brother. I know my brother as he was before he took to priests, and I swear to you there's a man there. If he should take the throne, Ryssand wouldn't like it."
"I believe it all, I never doubted it, but I won't leave you."
"Nevris." He pressed her head still with his hand, hugged her tightly against him.
"I'll not go, thinking I'll never see you again!"
"I swear to you I've no intention of dying, love. I'll deal with Ryssand and Tasmôrden. But I can't take you onto the field, and most especially I can't defend myself wondering whether you're safe back in my camp, or held hostage in Ryssand's."
"I'm not a fool!"
"Nor am I! And not being one I can't divide my attention—don't argue with me, not in this. You know I'm right. If you're there I'll be thinking of you, no other thing. I know you'll be suffering all the worry I'd suffer if you were there. But that's your part to suffer, mine to ask it, or I won't have my wits about me—Hear me! I'm king, and it's my damned army! Go to Efanor!"
She said nothing. She held to him. He routinely lost arguments when she said nothing. But this time he would not yield, and he waited, and waited.
"I'll go to Amefel," she said, prying herself from his arms, and with a rustle of the paper she had abused with her holding him, spread her hand on it, smoothed it.
He had not thought at first of Amefel. But it was fortified. Its people were Bryaltines. Tristen ruled it, and had the loyalty of the people.
It was a better choice. And hardly farther away. Assurnbrook was a deep and treacherous river, once it received the flow of Arreyburn on its way north to the Lenúalim—that was one reason no bridge had ever stood in its shifting sands and soft banks, and the other the fact that Murandys had had no interest in linking itself to Amefel. But Assurnford was not that far south of their camp here, and once across that, Ninévrisë would immediately be in a Bryalt land, safe even in the countryside—not risking the mood of Guelen villages, who, no, would not be pleased that the woman for whom Guelenmen went to war was going back to safety.
He did not mention that hazard, knowing how it would sting her pride: it stung his that his own people were so inclined to hate her.
But he did know a better choice when she laid it before him: safe from the time she crossed the Assurn, not having to brazen it out with the banners and Idrys' authority or slip into Guelemara cloaked and by night, simply to reach the Guelesfort in safety.
"Idrys will see you there."
"Idrys won't," she said. "For one thing, he won't leave you."
"He'll do it if I order it," he said, "and if he wants Ryssand's head, which he does. More than that—he serves the Marhanen. And you carry the Marhanen heir." Then it crossed his mind that where he sent her, Tarien was, and she had to confront that situation. "Tarien's there."
"So is Tristen. And Emuin. Tarien doesn't frighten me. Nothing there frightens me."
"Then you'll go tonight. Now. We'll make as little fuss about this as we can." Her sickness had troubled her, at the Guelesfort and on the march, and she had endured her misery and forced down soldiers'
fare, refusing to have anything more delicate. He had lost all his arguments until now, and he took no chances. "A soldier's tent, a packhorse, Idrys and four men and their gear. Can you do it?"
The rain rushed against the walls of the tent. The river would be up, and the crossing at Assurnford itself an ice-cold flood of snowmelt.
He knew what a misery that soaking ford might be. But Idrys knew the crossing in all its treachery, and he would get them to safety.
"I've no doubt," Ninévrisë said, and Cefwyn held her tightly, wanting nothing more than to have her with him and nothing less than to see her in a town where no harm would possibly come near her.
"Before the sun's up," he said. "With no fuss, no delay. Idrys will want to come back, and I won't forbid it. I'll see you after this is over, in Ilefínian."
"In Ilefínian," she said. "Don't worry for me. Guard yourself. Do whatever you need to do. Say I've gone to the capital: there'll be less talk, and if trouble comes after us, it'll take the wrong road."
"Wise lady."
"Promise me: don't let Ryssand's men near you. Set him near any engagement: let him bear the brunt of any encounter.—And carry my banner with you."
They had planned the advance from the river through provinces that might be favorable to Ninévrisë. All those plans were cast to the winds, and her banner by all custom should not fly if she were not there: but custom be damned, he had no difficulty agreeing to it, if it saved them fighting Ninévrisë's loyal subjects and killing honest men.
"I will," he promised her. "All I do, I do in your name."
"I'll launch rumor north from Henas'amef, with Tristen."
"See you don't launch yourself," he said, for he had a sudden apprehension of her finding Elwynim forces inside Amefel, and the temptation it would be to her.
"Trust me," she said, "as I trust you to take my capital."
"I've no choice," he said. "And I swear to you that banner will fly."
They made a silent farewell then, a lovers' farewell, with the storm flickering and roaring beyond the tent walls, and the rain pouring down.
After that he waked Idrys, and Idrys listened, expressionless, to the plans they had.
"I'll be riding back," Idrys said, as he had known Idrys would say.
"There'll be no trouble tracking us," Cefwyn said in grim humor. "I trust you'll find me, crow: you never do miss trouble."
Previous: CHAPTER 3
Next: CHAPTER 5