Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Queen on the Throne Unconquered

           Mira was a maiden of sixteen years when she ascended the throne of Ardimar.  Two generations removed from the exile of Ardim from Canimar, her rule saw the last of those who could recall life in the cradle of the Karna Geihn.  However, there was not a soul in the realm who did not know the tragedy of Ardim and the treachery of his brother Generath.  Ardim was the younger son of King Canit of Canimar, but he was a brave and brilliant warrior.  He won many a battle against overwhelming odds and it was under his command that the Half-people were finally pushed out of the cradle of the Karna Geihn entirely. 
            Ardim’s victory made him the most respected man in the land.  His return to the capital at Borrowain drew thousands of peasants into the streets.  The people clamored to see him.  Lords and common folk alike called for him to be named heir, even though Generath was the older brother.  Their calls did not go unheard.  King Canit knew that Generath would be enraged by this decision, but he also saw the great quality of his younger son Ardim.  The king’s heart was heavy, but in the end, he called his sons to him and told them that Ardim would become king when he died.  Generath was furious as his father had expected, but the king would not yield.  He informed them that he would tell the multitudes to following morning.
            None but the two brothers ever knew of his decision.  The king passed away in the middle of the night.  The kingdom fell into chaos.  Every man, woman, and child knew that some treachery was afoot, but no one was sure who was to blame.  Generath proclaimed that his brother had murdered the king in an attempt to steal the crown from its rightful heir.  Ardim claimed that the king had declared him heir.  He was backed by his army, but Generath held the city and the allegiance of many lords who saw Ardim’s rise as a threat to their traditional concepts of succession.  Battle lines were drawn and both sides vowed to fight to the last man for their chosen king.
            On the morning battle was expected to commence, however, Ardim had a change of heart.  He thought of the people in the city; his people, and the horrors of war.  Though the throne was his by decree, he could not bear the thought of inflicting such misery on the masses.  Instead, he took those who were loyal to him and moved southeast past the windy bay, over the mountains of Ghar and into the wide peninsula now known as Ardimar.  There they settled and built a kingdom to rival that of Canimar.  They built the capital city of Ardiwain on the east coast near the mouth of the river Cal and intermingled with the scattered tribes who had lived there since the Creation War.  The tribes were sparse and isolated, but the followers of Ardim affectionately called them the Caloren, which means ‘gracious hosts’ in the old tongue. 
            So it was that the realm of Ardimar came into being.  Ardim ruled for two score years before passing the crown on to his son, who shared his name.  Ardim II, took a queen on the twentieth anniversary of his birth.  Together they ruled the realm fairly and justly and the people of Ardimar loved them dearly.  Though Ardim was the ruler by blood, he saw his queen as his equal partner, for she was wise and gave great counsel.  The only duty in which they fell short was providing the realm with a future ruler.  Many years into their rule together, the king and queen had still not conceived a child.  It was not until the queen had nearly reached the end of her child bearing years when her belly finally swelled.  After nine months, she gave birth to a girl.  Many of the common folk were dismayed that they had not produced a male to inherit the throne, but Ardim and his queen were elated.  They called their daughter Mira and decreed that one day she would rule the land of Ardimar.
            “And why, pray tell, do I need a king in the first place?” Mira said sharply.  “I have reigned a year now and needed no council that my own family could not provide.”  Her aunt Lane sighed deeply and patted her on the shoulder. 
            “The people will not long stand for an heirless monarch; much less kneel for one.  The people wish to feel safe and part of that safety comes from a sure line of succession.”
            “If that is all,” she replied, “then why should I not simply name an heir?  Your daughter Arena is growing into a wise young girl.”  Lane smiled and shook her head.
            “Thank you, I am quite proud of her.  However, you are of the royal line and she is not.  Should you pass without an heir, succession would be tumultuous.  Most likely a cousin would ascend the throne, but which one?  Aunt Maura and Uncle Canit both have sons and both are ambitious.  Maura is older but Canit is a man and you are the first queen in our people’s history.  Dating back to the Northern Kingdom, a male has always ruled the Sons of Cane.”
            “Are you saying a woman cannot rule?” Mira asked, her eyes narrowing.  Lane met her stare with a loving smile.
            “Of course not, Your Grace.  I am saying an unwed monarch is a great burden on the realm.  Your father saw the value of a close partner and confidant.  He and your mother deliberated on nearly everything together.  Someday I will pass from this world; as will Canit and Maura.  You will find new councilors who may not always have your best interest in mind.  Do not underestimate the value of having a partner you trust by your side.  Your father knew this and chose his queen wisely.”  Mira nodded, though still vexed. 
            “And how will I know what man I can trust?  It seems to me that the lords of this land desire only greater power for themselves.”
            “Aye,” Lane said softly.  “High born lords and ladies are always seeking ways to climb higher.  You must look past the ambition and see the deeper intentions.  You are the ruler of this land and the man you choose should have ambitions to further your devices.  I am not asking you to hand over your kingdom, Mira; just a piece of your heart.”  Mira turned away from her aunt and examined herself in the mirror.  Her garments were red satin with a blue knit shawl hung over her shoulders.  On her head sat a heavy gold crown adorned with rubies and sapphires.  Placed prominently on the front was a curious symbol.  Enclosed in a golden oval was a silver chevron separating a yellow orb above and a red ruby below, carved in the shape of a flame.  She had been told when she was young that it was the symbol of a secret held in this land, but she did not fully understand.  When she ascended the throne, she told her Aunt Lane that she did not want the symbol on her crown, but her Aunt had insisted that lord and peasant alike would think it sacrilege.  She begrudgingly acquiesced.  Now, the symbol reminded her of her father and inspired follow boldly in his footsteps. 
            “When must I choose?” she said, her tone flat and official.  Her aunt smiled and took her hand.
            “The queen has many suitors, but I have done my best to pick out those would best suit Her Royal Highness.  You will meet with each of them in turn, but first you must hold court.”
            Of all her royal duties, Mira found holding court to be the most fulfilling.  When she was little, she would watch her father dole out the king’s justice.  From his massive bronze throne, he punished the wicked and gave recompense to the righteous.  When he gave a decree, the whole realm listened intently.  His air was ever regal and his hand of justice strong and sure.  When he sat on his throne, he had been the picture of kingly might.  Mira, on the other hand, felt dwarfed by the massive chair.  On the day she first held court, she had felt absurd scrambling onto the throne and sitting awkwardly in the middle of the wide seat.  She was a slender young girl out of place in the grand court.  She had quivered nervously on that day, but her Aunt Lane had urged her to be brave.  When she first entered the court, the room fell silent and every eye watched her closely as she walked slowly to the throne and sat.  There was a brief moment where she had thought everyone would remain deathly silent until she spoke some grand pronouncement.  She had glanced around nervously, trying to hold a serious expression as she began to sweat.  Mercifully, her Uncle Canit came to her rescue, stepping forward and proclaiming:
            “All hail Mira, Queen of Ardimar, Grand Duchess of the East Sea, Lady Protectress of the Ardimarine!”  All the court had fallen to one knee and bowed their heads low.  This had given her the confidence she needed to rise from her throne and declare her court to be in session.  Still, hers was a difficult task.  Lords and peasants alike could come and lay their grievances before her and she would try her best to satisfy all those who sought her help.  This was difficult, but nothing compared to the satisfaction of following in her father’s grand footsteps.
            Court started that day just as it always did.  Her uncle declared her presence and all those in attendance fell to one knee.  Mira noticed that the room was much more crowded than usual.  Many high-born men lined the walls to her right and left.  Some she recognized: Marlon, Duke of Frenia and keeper of the Pass, Lord Heron of Delth, and the dashing young Count Kalhn, Admiral of the Royal Navy.  There were others whose faces seemed vaguely familiar to her, but she could not place a name.  Still others she was certain she had never seen before.  She shifted nervously on the thrown when she thought of choosing one of them to be her king, but resolved to focus on the task at hand.   
            Her first audience was a familiar face; her cousin Arnaer, son of Canit.  He bowed low as he approached and kneeled at the bottom of the staircase that led to her throne.  She beckoned for him to rise and he did so with a broad, gentlemanly smile on his face.
            “My dear cousin and Queen,” he said affectionately.  “I come on business of the utmost importance for the survival of the realm.
            “Speak, cousin.”
            “As master farmer, it is my duty to find and procure new lands for our crops to meet the needs of our expanding population.  The last two seasons have seen bumper crops, but that is unsustainable.  I have found a suitable place for new farmland near where the Western Houg meets the Arda Geihn and have come to ask the throne’s permission to begin preparing the land.”  Mira listened intently to his discourse.  When he finished, she gave him a queer look.
            “The Master Farmer has standing permission to requisition any uninhabited land he desires.  There would be no need to ask.  Who lives there, Arnaer?”  Her cousin shifted his feet nervously for a moment as though he had wished she would not ask.
            “Er, it is nothing really; just a small Caloren village at the meeting of the waters.                                                                                                                                                                                                          There could be no more than twenty families…”  Mira’s expression grew stern.
            “You mean to request that we uproot the village of Salna for your farms when the Planes of Lita lay largely untouched?  My grandmother’s namesake should be made to bear fruit rather than stand a near barren expanse.”
            “But my Queen, the planes are sparsely populated.  Where would we find the people to man the fields?  The land under Salna is rich and begging to provide its fruit!”
            “The land under Salna is the property of the people of Salna,” she replied, keeping a calm appearance though her temper was rising.  “The peasants of Litawain to the north of the planes are among the poorest in the realm.  I am certain they would be happy to work in your fields for a fair wage.”  Her cousin’s face was beginning to redden.  She could tell that he too was biting back his anger.
            “But your grace, the logistics of transporting the food from the western end of your kingdom to the eastern cities would be staggering.”
            “You take food west, do you not?  If anything, new fields on the planes will ease your supply routes.”  Arnaer grew so angry that his face began to shake.
            “I did not know you held your own blood in such low regard.  Do you think that at your age you know better than the Master Farmer?  I have done this job for five years and my father held the post before me!” 
            “I did not know you held me in such low regard, to stand in my court and hurl contempt at decrees.  Do you think at your station that you know better than the queen?  It is my duty to protect the interests of my people and it is your duty to plant seeds where I bloody well tell you to.  You will find your fertile grounds in the planes of Lita.  Good day to you, Cousin.”  Arnaer’s face froze in a shocked expression.  He bowed quickly and hurried out of the court.  She sat back in her chair and looked over at her aunt Lane who nodded and smiled.  She had done the right thing, Mira was certain of this.  Though she regretted losing her temper at her cousin, she felt refreshed by the justice she had done. 
            Her next few audiences were largely uneventful.  Two brothers both laid claim to their deceased third brother’s holdings.  The lands were split evenly.  A lord accused of stealing cattle from a neighboring manor came to plead his case.  Mira stripped him of his lands, but ruled that he be made first mate of a ship built with funds seized from his former estate.  He would serve in the Royal Navy until his death and his sons would be wards to Lord Canit.  If he remained loyal and they served well, they would be made knights in the queen’s service. 
             As she was listening to the case of a pig farmer whose daughter had run off with a hedge knight, she noticed a strange looking man waiting his turn.  He was garbed in worn brown robes and leather sandals.  In his right hand he held a stunted, gnarled cane.  He struggled to stay upright as he waited his turn, and his apparent plight moved Mira.  After she ruled that the hedge knight and the pig farmer’s daughter would stay married, but that they forfeited any rights to dowry or inheritance, she pointed to the man and called out to him.
            “You there in the brown robes.  I should hate to see you suffer waiting in line any longer.  Come forward and be seated before me.”  She gestured to one of her servants who hurried over and placed a chair in the center of the court.  The man smiled gratefully and bowed as low as he could before sitting. 
            “Thank you, your grace.  You are as generous as you are lovely.”  Mira gritted her teeth at the last words, but chose to say nothing.  The man looked as though he had traveled a long, difficult way and she could forgive him the unabashed flattery.  She forced a smile and gave a shallow nod.
            “What is your name and purpose here, good sir?” she asked maintaining a courtly air. 
            “I am Shelleck,” the man replied.  “And I come with tidings from the west.”  A murmur ran through the assembly as high borns and commoners alike whispered excitedly.  Mira was shrouded her interest with a stern expression.
            “Speak then, Shelleck,” she said in an even tone.
            “Thank you, your grace,” he answered humbly.  “The realm of Canimar has been prosperous since the expulsion of your people and their army is mighty.  However, a new threat to its stability has arisen.  King Orsna, first of his name, has passed away suddenly leaving twin sons.  The son who passed out of the womb first was given his father’s namesake and so has declared himself King Orsna II.  The Gharans and many other high houses have declared fealty to him, but his brother Ortho is challenging his claim.  Ortho is well loved by the common folk as well as several of the most powerful lords in the realm.  He has declared himself king and sits for the time being in the court of Shara Kohl in Nordangola.  There they say he is consorting with witches and bandits from Lorthimar in the far west.  The kingdom of Canimar will soon fall into civil war.” 
            The murmurs grew louder as he finished.  Even some of the Queen’s advisors were beginning to whisper urgently to one another.  To her left, her Uncle Canit licked his lips hungrily.  To her right, her Aunt Lane looked deeply disturbed.  All around her, the chatter was growing to a crescendo.  Without a word, she raised her hand and the room fell silent. 
            “If what you say is true, what is that to me?” Mira replied bluntly.  Shelleck looked surprised.
            “Canimar will be in disarray no matter who wins the war.  They will be nearly defenseless.  You must prepare your armies to march if you ever wish to return home.”
            “This is my home, Master Shelleck.  Would you have me march my people north to make war and leave this land behind?  We have made a powerful and prosperous kingdom of our own here.  Why should I risk conquering those who do not desire my rule?  The people of Canimar would see our return as a foreign occupation.”  Selleck was greatly perturbed by her response, but he pressed further.
            “You could rule both kingdoms from here if you wished.  The people will welcome you as a bringer of peace.  The realm will be torn to pieces by civil war and you will put it back together.  Once again, all the descendents of Cane will live under one crown.  You have the opportunity to win justice for your ancestors.”  Mira could hear the murmurs returning amongst the crowd, but she was unmoved.
            “Half a century ago, my grandfather chose exile over war.  He too could have worn the crown of Canimar, but he refused to bring death and destruction to his own brothers and sisters.  The people of Canimar are still our brothers and sisters, even though they view us with contempt.  I will not make war on my own kin.  Their deaths would be no true justice.”  She looked over at her uncle.  He stood stiffly and she could tell he was fighting the urge to speak.  She knew what he would say and had no interest in hearing it.  Her uncle’s ambitions were well known amongst her council members.  Long had he wished to return to Canimar in force and take back his father’s rightful throne.  He had been good enough to keep his opinion inside the council chambers, but Mira knew it pained him to stay silent.  The best course of action would be to dismiss this visitor quickly and put it out of her mind and the minds of her advisors. 
            “If that is all, I would kindly ask that you leave my chambers.”  Selleck’s face grew red and he bared his teeth wickedly.
            “Stupid, stupid girl,” he hissed.  “You will regret the day you ignored my council.  Mark my words; your foolishness will be the end of your kingdom.  You and your people will be plunged into darkness.”
            “Enough of this evil council,” Mira growled.  “Be gone from my sight, you wretched creature.”  Shelleck pounded his cane on the ground and launched himself out of his chair.  Surging forward, he uttered a guttural snarl. 
            “We shall see who is wretched when your kingdom is beset on all sides by the creatures of night.  You will rue this day, filthy-” A guard stepped forward and silenced him with a sharp blow to the stomach.  He coughed and fell to his knees as another guard smacked him across the chin with the butt of his spear. 
            “Stay your spears,” Mira shouted, rising from her throne.  “This is not how we treat guests in my court; even unwanted ones.  Show him out and see that he does not return.”  The guards lifted Shelleck to his feet and dragged him towards the door. 
            “All you have is forfeit, you foolish, stupid girl,” he shouted as they carried him out.  He said no more, but his words left Mira greatly disturbed. 
            “That will be all for today,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand.  “Find sufficient quarters for those who have come from outside the city.  I will hear the rest on the morrow.”  As she turned to leave, her aunt hurried forward and grasped her shoulder.
            “My queen, the suitors…”
            “…shall wait until tomorrow as well.  I’ll hear no more today.”  With that, she departed from the court and returned to her chambers, leaving the assembly in dumbfounded silence.
            Arnaer paced the hall outside his chambers muttering furiously to himself.  He was still hot from the fight with the queen and had little interest in carrying out her decree.  The very thought of setting up a farming operation on the far side of the kingdom made him sick.  The logistics of it would be a nightmare. 
            “Why so intent on Salna, Master Farmer?”  Arnaer started and whirled around to see a worn looking man in brown robes standing behind him.  He had not heard him approach.
            “Who are you?  How long have you been standing there?” he demanded.
            “My name is Shelleck,” the man said with a smile.  “I am coming from an audience with the queen, just as you are.  I was sent out in much the same way as a matter of fact.  Curious how she treats those who offer her sound council.”  Arnaer eyed the man with suspicion, but he was glad to have a sympathetic ear. 
            “Reclaiming land on the Planes of Lita will be a long, difficult process.  The fields must be cleared and tilled.  That means moving all manner of equipment across the kingdom well past where the rivers reach.  The land under Salna is already cleared and ready to be planted.  Moving the Caloren would be difficult, yes, but nothing compared what must be done in Lita.  The Caloren can find other homes; the can even work the farms if they wish.”
            “It sounds as though you have this well thought out.  It is a shame the queen would not hear your reasoning.” 
            “The queen hears nothing but here own misguided sense of justice,” Arnaer said gruffly.  “What does she know of the inner workings of the kingdom?  She’s barely out of the nursery.” 
            “You needn’t tell me twice, my lord,” Shelleck replied glumly.  “I came offering glad tidings from the west and an opportunity to expand the glory of the realm.  What do I get for my troubles?  My words were barely considered and I was treated like a fool.  When I warned her of the dangers of inaction, she spat in my face and expelled me from her court.  Such a terrible way to treat a herald such as myself.” 
            “What tidings from the west have you brought, good sir?” Arnaer asked in an excited whisper.  Shelleck looked at him as though confused for a moment.  Arnaer feared him senile until a bright look flashed across his face as though he suddenly understood.
            “Oh yes, the tidings,” he said with a shrug.  “Just that civil war has broken out in Canimar.  The realm is in danger of tearing itself apart.”  A hungry look shot across Arnaer’s face.  Shelleck had seen the same look moments before on the face of the queen’s uncle. 
            “Why, that would be a great opportunity indeed,” Arnaer said with a far off look.  “A weakened Canimar would be ripe for the conquering.  My grandfather would finally be avenged.”
            “Aye, that was my very suggestion, but the queen would hear none of it.  Would that your father had been born first and you stood next in succession.  I sense that you are a man who is willing to do all that is necessary for the prosperity of his people and the honor of his house.  I fear that the queen cares only for her own throne and her misguided idea of justice.  Is it justice, what happened to your grandfather?”
            “Most certainly not,” Arnaer hissed.  “How can she sit in her chambers and ignore this golden opportunity?  How can she not see our revenge ripe for the taking?” 
            “Inaction is, at times, the wicked betrayal of all,” Shelleck said thoughtfully.
            “You have the right in that, master Shelleck; but how can I make her see reason?  She cannot sit back and let this moment pass.  It would border on treason to her realm.”  Shelleck frowned and turned away.  He paced for a few moments as though deep in thought.
            “It may be that she will never see reason no matter what you say,” he replied.  “But perhaps you can appeal to others on her council.  If they could see her failure in leadership, then they may be amicable to a change of royal policy.”  Shelleck fell silent, letting his words echo in Arnaer’s mind.  The Master Farmer paced uneasily as he considered the stranger’s words.
            “But how,” he muttered to himself.  “What could sway the council to defy their queen?”
            “My lord, if I may,” Shelleck said with a shallow bow.  “It is in times of crisis that leaders are either proved worthy or found wanting.  Perhaps a test of sorts will show her true character.”
            “What sort of test?” Arnaer asked with a suspicious glare. 
            “I have heard rumor that the black Goblins of Ghar grow restless.  Should they enter the Pass of Frenia, the kingdom would undoubtedly have its hands full in turning them back.”
            “You speak madness,” Arnaer hissed.  “The Goblins have never been seen south of the mountains.” 
            “Perhaps they could be persuaded to venture across your borders if they thought the throne too weak to repel them,” Shelleck retorted slyly.  Sweat broke on Arnaer’s brow as he processed the strange man’s words. 
            “This talk is treason,” he said nervously. 
            “Your cousin’s inaction is treason,” Shelleck replied.  Arnaer turned away and ran a shaky hand over his moistened brow.  His mind raced.
            “It is a difficult choice, I know, but you must think of your people.  Once the council has declared the queen unfit to rule, they will turn to you.”
            “Unfit to rule?” Arnaer muttered uneasily.  “This is dark business.  It will be a victory won by the blood of my own people.”
            “Blood is grease on the wheels of time, my friend, and time will reveal you to be the rightful ruler; not just of the children of Cane, but of the entire land of Iden.  Give me leave and I will make you the most powerful man this land has ever seen.”  He paused for a moment, before adding absentmindedly: “for the good of the people, of course.”
            Arnaer barely heard him.  His mind was racing with visions of power and glory.  He saw himself on a beautiful gilded throne, the lords of Canimar and Ardimar kneeling before him.  He saw the masses cheering his name in the streets.  The desire proved too much for him.  He turned to face the worn man in the brown robes and acquiesced with a silent nod.  A thin smile spread across Shelleck’s face and he turned away without a word.
            The following morning, the worn man’s words still clouded Mira’s thoughts, but her aunt insisted that the suitors could wait no longer.  Lane had chosen three that she thought most suitable for the queen.  Two she knew.  Duke Marlon of Frenia had been a close friend of the royal family for as long as she could remember.  As the guardian of the pass that led through the nearly impassable mountains of Ghar, his loyalty was of utmost importance to the realm.  Count Kalhn was of lower birth than the Duke, but high in the esteem of the realm.  He had earned his title and lands in battle at a young age and many saw him and his family as rising stars in Ardimar.  A union with Count Kalhn would insure the allegiance of a house growing in power.       The third man, Lord Ponas of Bour, she had only heard of through royal correspondences.  His lands lay on the southern coasts of Ardimar and he was constantly requesting the aid of the throne.  If it was not an increase of food shipments for his people, it was a demand that more troops be added to his garrison.  He was a willful man, strong of arm and fierce of spirit, but much older than the other two.  Mira admired his conviction, but found his demeanor distasteful.
            “Bour is our southernmost outpost and the most active port in the realm besides the capital,” he said, gesturing resolutely to a map he had laid out in front of her.  “There are no major fortifications between Bour and the capital, only small towns.  If Bour falls, an enemy could move freely towards Ardiwain on both land and sea.  Few strongholds can boast of greater importance to your throne.”
            “Few indeed,” Marlon interjected.  “But none can boast greater importance than Frenia.  Who knows what horrors might enter our realm were the pass unguarded.”  There was a brief pause before he added: “I do, of course, but few others.”
            “The importance of Frenia has been recognized time and again,” Ponas replied.  “Your lands are granted five times the garrison Bour has received.  The common folk of my lands doubt your resolve to protect them, my liege.” 
            “Surely you do not mean to question our fair queen’s devotion to these lands?” Marlon retorted.  Ponas’ face grew a deep red in his embarrassment.
            “Forgive me your grace,” he said, bowing furiously.  “I only meant to highlight the wisdom in uniting our houses.”  Mira had listened to the exchange with disinterest.  She found neither man terribly enticing, though her familiarity with Duke Marlon made her favor him marginally.
            “Of course, of course,” she said distantly.  “I would never suspect anything but loyalty from the Lord of Bour.  But what of you, Lord Admiral?  What have you to say in your favor?”  Count Kalhn had remained strangely quiet throughout the audience.  Mira reasoned that he may have felt out of place amongst such high born men.  To be fair, his sharp features were argument enough, but Mira was too wise to be swayed by looks alone.  The Lord Admiral smiled meekly and made a low bow.
            “My queen, I fear I have no grand statement.  All that I have I already owe the throne.  I am from no great house, nor do I hold lands key to the kingdom’s safety.  I can say only that it would be my deepest honor to wed your grace.  Since I first beheld you at your coronation, I have thought you the fairest woman to ever grace this land.”
            “Your flattery is well articulated,” Mira replied.  “Your manner is less coarse than your competitors, but I fear their arguments are strong.  I must deliberate.  Please leave my chambers; I will speak with the three of you individually at a later time.  Thank you.”  Ponas and Marlon gave each other hostile looks, but Kalhn bowed quickly and left.  The other two followed suit, though unhappily.  As the door closed behind them, Lane opened her mouth, but Mira cut her off.
            “Marlon is most likely the best choice.  We are closer in age and the Frenia is the most important fortification in the empire.  Honestly, I am surprised our houses have not already been unified.” 
            “Marlon would be a wise choice,” Aunt Lane replied.  “Ponas makes a fair point, but his age calls his ability to fulfill his duties into question and he has not always been the most loyal supporter of the throne.  He likens himself lord of his own domain.  What about young Count Kalhn?”
            “What about him?” Mira asked idly.  “His house has little to offer the throne at this time.”
            “He is handsome though,” Lane said with a sly smile.  Mira rolled her eyes.
            “What is that to me?”
            “The royal couple must make an heir, dear niece.  A fine-looking man like the Count would make that duty easier.  Besides, there is no question who rules this land.  What need does the throne have of a tactical marriage?” 
            “That is fair,” Mira said thoughtfully.  “He is a striking young man, but why waste an opportunity to ensure the loyalty of a powerful house?”
            “The Dukes of Frenia have ever been the throne’s most ardent supporters.  I do not think you need to worry about them.  The house of Kalhn, however, is new and largely unknown.  Count Kalhn is wise in the ways of war.  He would make a fine advisor when your uncle passes.”
            “That is a grim thought.”
            “But a frank one,” Lane replied.  “Marlon is a wise choice, but consider Count Kalhn.” 
            “Very well.  I shall make my decision tomorrow after my meeting with the council.”
            Mira could hear her uncle shouting from down the corridor as she approached the council chamber.  She entered, unnoticed at first, and listened intently.
            “This is outrageous!” Canit cried.  “It is impossible!”
            “I assure you it is quite possible,” Marlon replied.  “My heralds bring no lies.  I do agree, however, that it is outrageous.”
            “What is so outrageous?” Mira asked.  The room fell silent and Canit gave a quick bow.
            “A messenger from Frenia arrived this morning, your grace.  Goblins have been seen in the pass.  They attacked and plundered a small food shipment.”  Mira’s stomach turned at the words.  She crept forward uneasily and took her place around the council table.  Her advisors looked at her in silence.  Marlon tapped nervously on the table while Baris, the Lord General, ran his hands over a map of Frenia.  Her uncle began to pace anxiously and Arnaer’s face slowly turned a sickly pale.  Her aunt Lane had a blank, distant expression.  Wise as they were, they were all waiting for her to speak. 
            “How long can the fortifications at Frenia hold out?” she asked calmly.
            “That is difficult to assess,” Marlon replied.  “We have no way of knowing how many they are.  I strongly doubt that any force could overcome my garrison in less than four days.” 
            “Very good.  Lord General?”
            “Yes, your grace?” Baris looked up from his map only long enough to hear her orders.
            “You will need to bring reinforcements from your standing army to Frenia within a week’s time.”
            “Of course, your grace,” his gaze returning to his map.  “I am already planning our moves.”
            “You are dismissed then,” Mira said sternly.  “Send a member of your staff to consult in your place.  We will need to raise replacement troops for the ones you are taking north.”  Baris looked up with a look of mild shock.
            “Aye, I want your forces in Frenia in five days.  I’ll take no chances with my people’s protection.”  Baris rose uneasily and bowed before hurrying out of the chamber.  Mira watched him go and waited until the door was closed to continue.
            “Now that provisions have been made to deal with this problem, how is it we find ourselves in this situation?  I was under the impression the Goblins never left the mountains.”
            “We have run across them below Ghar from time to time,” Marlon replied.  “They always move in small raiding parties if ever.  Something has them riled up, but we have no way of knowing what it is.  The party my scouts spotted in the pass was over five hundred strong and it looked as though they were making camp.  If they’re waiting in the pass, they’re probably waiting for more.” 
            “I see.  Any indication of their motivation?” Mira asked.  Marlon shrugged.
            “The destruction of our people?  What more motivation does a goblin need?” 
            “I think it unwise to settle for so simple an answer,” Mira said sternly.  “If they attacked a food shipment perhaps they are hungry.  There is ground to grow on in the mountains and raiding to the north is perilous.”
            “Are you suggesting we feed invaders in our land?” Canit said half in horror. 
            “My hope is that if we attack the reason for their unrest, we might yet avoid bloodshed.  They were looking for food, after all.”
            “This is folly,” Canit cried, his face growing red.  “They were looking for blood, not food.  If we supply them, they’ll field an army twice as large!  We’ll…”  Canit continued, but Mira barely heard.  A strange misgiving nibbled at the back of her mind.  Something about the attack did not make sense.  She turned to Arnaer with a quizzical look.
            “What was a food caravan doing inside the pass in the first place?” she asked over the still raised voice of her uncle.  Her cousin turned to her with a startled look.
            “Eh, er…what’s that?”  Mira’s eyes narrowed.
            “I was told a food caravan was raided in the pass, but where was it headed?”  Arnaer shifted nervously in his seat.
            “Well,” he said, pausing to clear his throat.  “I would have to check my records…”
            “Then do it,” Mira said crossly.  Arnaer nodded furiously, but stayed put.  He shifted some papers around in front of him.
            “A little more quickly than that,” Mira hissed.  Arnaer hopped out of his seat and hurried towards the door.  When he had left, she turned her attention to the Duke of Frenia.
            “Marlon, I think it would be best if you returned to your lands and lead the defensive.”  Marlon nodded and rose, but paused by his chair.
            “Your grace,” he said.  “I would ask you a favor, if you would permit it.”
            “My force is strong, but I would not take chances our people’s safety.  Grant me a portion of your garrison and galleys for transport that I might reinforce my lands immediately.”
            “And weaken our defenses on both land and sea?” Canit growled.  “That is madness.”  Mira raised her hands to stay her uncle.  She did not relish the idea of weakening the city, but she saw the wisdom in sending her soldiers to the greatest threat. 
            “Very well, you may take half the garrison.”  Canit looked as though he would faint, but Mira ignored him.  “Now go, quickly.  Waste no more time.”  Marlon bowed quickly and hurried out the door, leaving only Mira and her aunt and uncle.  Canit sat down in a huff and shook his head. 
            “That was a foolish move,” he said.  “It will end poorly for us.”
            “It just may, but we have another pressing matter to attend to.  The brown clad man warned us that darkness would spill into the kingdom.”
            “You think he may have a hand in this,” Lane said.  Canit pounded a clenched fist on the table.
            “He’ll hang for this treachery!” he shouted.
            “I fear there is a greater treachery afoot,” Mira replied calmly.  Canit looked confused, but a sudden realization sprang upon Lane’s face.
            “Visitors to the court must be sponsored by a Lord in good standing with the court,” she said with a gasp. “One of our own is working with him.” 
            “I fear things will only grow worse if we do not find out who.”  Canit rose to his feet quickly.
            “Of course,” he said.  “I shall have my people investigate.”
            “Only people you trust deeply, Uncle.”  Canit bowed and left the chamber.  Mira sat back in her chair with a sigh.
            “These are dark days that I fear will only grow darker,” she whispered.  Lane placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. 
            “Fear not the darkness, Mira.  Your ancestors have always stayed strong in the face of great darkness, but we have thus far remained unconquered.”

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