Arthur had just received news about Yrien's host marching on Portstown: the swords could be hours away, according to a horseman from the road watch. Lord Rysor's men from Breninwall had arrived late the previous evening, and were now safe behind the walls of Portstown, adding another eighty men to two hundred city soldiers.
Arthur had fallen asleep late after spending half his night on the drum tower, hoping to see Merlin somewhere among the stars. When he stopped trying to deceive himself and accepted that Merlin would not just fall into his arms out of the black summer night, Arthur surrendered to sleep. However, he had scarcely been in dream for a couple of hours when the horseman from the road watch delivered the news to the bridge. Arthur summoned what appeared to be his first council, although there was little time to think of who'd serve as who, and Arthur couldn't care less. Yrien's army is coming. This is not about bloody seats.
Everybody was as sleepy and shaggy as Arthur, except for Lord Rysor, whose baldness was shimmering in candle light like a gull's egg. Owaine was nervously breaking quills, Lord Sei of Portstown was a thin stooped figure who'd not be able to actually sit down, for it was his town threatened by Yrien, and the excitement kept him on the knees. Arthur had also invited Princess Mithian, who looked most comely of them all, covering her sleeping gown with a thin blue cloak, and called for castellan of Gedref, Lord and the librarian, Lord.
“Three hundred men,” Lord Sei repeated for what appeared to be a dozenth time. “What can she hope to achieve by bringing three hundred men to my walls? I can give them an open battle, I myself have two hundred and eighty…”
“The ones she brings are seasoned,” Arthur’s normally calm attitude turned irritated and impatient that morning. “They had been gathered in Howden, trained for two weeks and seen some fighting in Brechfa. Feigned, but still fighting. Our soldiers have scarcely been training for a week. An open battle is too risky.”
Lord Rysor pretended to be deaf to Arthur’s warnings:
“It can weaken her host greatly, your grace.”
“At the expense of my own men dying,” Arthur added. “I will not see them bleed for me so purposelessly.”
“Purposelessly? If we cut have her host…”
“Another one is likely to arrive from the castle of Chemary! And Portstown will have no soldiers to defend its walls. Open battle is folly, at least for now,” Arthur was pointing at the map so enthusiastically his fingers were threatening to tear it apart. “Doomspath and Burnwood didn’t have enough time to gather and send their soldiers, and now they are cut from us. Two hundred and eighty men in Portstown is all we have.”
“Unless Modron brings his father’s bannermen from Nemeton,” Owaine breathed out a faint hope.
“Indeed,” the king nodded. “Yet how far mus…”
“Forgive me my lords, but who is this Modron I keep hearing about?” Mithian, the ever gracious princess with an ever look, asked.
“The heir of Nemeton.”
“Of Nemeton? That’s interesting. I used to hunt in the forests of Nemeton when I was a child.”
“That is very good to hear, princess,” Lord Sei rose after an unsuccessful attempt to keep himself seated for at least a couple of minutes. “But the events unfolding before our eyes are more interesting!”
“Of course, forgive me, Lord Sei. As for these events… Well, I have already written to my father, urging him to support Arthur’s cause. I can pen another letter, to whoever commands Yrien host.”
“What purpose will it serve?” Lord Cynric, who had been stroking his chin for most of the meeting, broke silence for the first time.
“They will hesitate to storm Portstown if they know princess of Nemeth is behind its walls,” Mithian assumed a bit too eagerly.
“That… is true. But we might use it differently,” Cynric cleared his throat and his eyes gleamed with the beauty of the new scheme. “Princess Mithian, do write this letter to whoever commands Yrien’s host, and tell them that you are our noble guests. Tell them that attacking Portstown now will mean an act of war on Nemeth. That will make them think twice.”
“You can’t believe Yrien means to storm the town!” Lord Sei’s exclamation screamed for justification. “How will she do it? With three hundred men?”
“There must be a reason,” anger was brewing within Arthur’s mind. “This Yrien host can neither storm the walls nor lay a proper siege. Why would she bloody bring it, then?!”
“As your grace has rightly observed, Doomspath and Burnwood are now cut from Portstown and the castle of Gedref. Even if they wanted to join you, they’d have to fight their way through Yrien’s host. The purpose of this army she sends, thus, is to prevent more forces from joining you in Portstown,” Cynric explanation was the most convincing one. “Yrien doesn’t underestimate Portstown, she knows it has thick walls and is immune to siege. She doesn’t want more Gedref soldiers to get behind the walls before another host comes, a host big enough to storm Portstown.”
One. Two. Three. Arthur was counting his inhales. Could it be true? Does Yrien intend to tear the walls down? Will my reign be over before it even began?
“Where will she get that many men? She’ll need no less than fifteen hundred soldiers to storm the town,” Lord Sei was peering at the window, as though Lord of Portstown was afraid to spot an army of fifteen hundred men in the sea.
Something hit Arthur on a spine. Is it possible?
“Father’s aunt,” the king mumbled. “Why… would she? Would she?”
“Your grace forgets that Gingawaines remain recognized as rulers in most of Camelot territories,” truth was parading through Cynric’s voice, the ugly and proud truth. “Balor, Ascetir, Brechfa, the castle of Camelot, Daobeth, Denaria, Asgorath and Landshire have all sworn fealty to King Rion. Your father ordered…”
“Two thousand swords to be raised in the west after he got news of Cenred’s invasion,” Arthur remembered.
“Correctly,” Cynric nodded. “Now… Well, Brechfa is problematic. Lord Gingawaine brought a lot of soldiers to Camelot upon your father’s first call. Then many more arrived to replace your father’s guards and knights in the castle. It would seem the castle of Chemary is the closest and the largest resource of armed men of house Gingawaine now. They can gather three hundred men in due time, but that still would not do if Yrien intended to storm the walls. Raising more men in Brechfa would affect the household. Villages will be short of workers. Whole industries may suffer in towns. That’s too costly, so why not ask your father’s aunt for help and make her send two thousand swords to shut your rebellion once and for all? That is how she must think, your grace.”
“If everything is as Lord Cynric says… If it is true about 2,000 swords from the west… If they join forces with Yrien’s hosts, your grace, we’ll have 2,700 men storming Portstown and only 280 men defending the walls. The city will fall.”
“Not unless we shall make it seem the war will be too costly for the west. We shall draw powerful allies to our side. Preferably neighbors.”
“We border on Deorham on the eastern side of the Merchant’s Bay. He’s hardly powerful. And on Gawant on the western side of the bay.”
“Gawant. Forgive me, your grace, but aren’t you… formally betrothed to Princess Elena of Gawant?”
“I think I am still believed to be dead in Gawant.”
“If it is announced that you are not, King Godwin might…”
“That would not serve. I can’t marry princess Elena.”
“Your grace, you are at war where you risk to be outnumbered ten to one. A marriage with Princess Elena can be of great importance.”
“I shall not marry princess Elena. I shall repeat it no more.”
“Doesn’t mean an alliance can’t be formed.”
“Why don’t we use the same trick? We have Princess of Nemeth who can write a letter to King Godwin. Let her say Nemeth supports Arthur and she has arrived as an envoy of Nemeth crown. Let her offer King Godwin to support King Arthur as well. Ask him to send letters to Asgorath and the castle of Wheelskirt. Asgorath is the richest territory in the west. If they find out their biggest trade partner Gawant is supporting Arthur, they may reconsider following Yrien’s orders and switch to your side.”
“Will you deliver the letter for to King Gawant, Lord Cynric?”
“I shall do as your grace commands. I have known Gawant during the years I served as Councilor of Trade.”
The small ship sailed from Dragon's Jaws together with first light. The sky was dressed in a cloak of rainclouds, grey to the east and inky to the west. The rowers from the cavern town made sure King Arthur Pendragon would spend no more than two hours sailing to Portstown.
He was accompanied by Owaine and Lord Sei. Before departing, Arthur had ordered the bridge to be raised, cutting the castle of Gedref off mainland and of all the foes who meant to seize it. At the same time, it meant less and less chances for Merlin to get to Gedref. Once Yrien hosts comes, it will be an enemy infested land, save for Portstown, the castle of Gedref and Breninwall. Merlin, you knew it all, didn't you? You had some plan.
"What of your mother, Owaine?" Arthur asked Lord of Gedref as they watched the outlines of Portstown grow clearer and bigger as the ship was flying west.
"Rumours. All rumours, and more rumours. Some say she is imprisoned, others say she is confined to her chambers in the castle of Camelot," Owaine tried to exercise the calmest tone, but Arthur had no doubts he wanted to lynch Yrien.
"We will get her back, I promise. Ryence, too, thought he'd seen the last of me, he, too, seemed victorious. Yrien's downfall may be upon her sooner than she expects," Arthur hoped his words had magic power to make things true. "She will face trial and punishment, if found guilty."
"I can believe she was acting on her brother's accords. But now that Ryence is dead, what is she supposed to do? To hand the crown back to me? That would cast a shadow over her future, and the future of her son."
"Rion seemed a good lad," Owaine remembered. "A bit... on his own, refused to go to the Summer Feast with us."
"I fought wooden swords with him once," Arthur smiled.
"Let's hope you'll not fight real ones."
Arthur could not understand how the news of his arrival could have reached Portstown before him, but in the harbor, people were gathering to behold their new king and Lord Gedref together for the first time. His arrival at such an early hour turned the streets raucous and noisy well before the schedule, and when Arthur got out of the ship and walked the long quay, he was afraid of his new crown for the first time. People seemed all around, fighting for the better spot to glimpse at their young king in black ringmail and red cloak, with a gold band of a crown ornamented with seven shining gems.
Arthur was studying their faces, each face, so childishly hopeful Merlin would stage a surprise and meet him in the harbor of Portstown. When he realized Merlin was not among the crowd that was expected the king to say something, Arthur sighed heavily and talked to his people.
He told them that an enemy host was moving towards Portstown, that the same people who had attempted to murder Sir Owaine Gedref in the forest of Brechfa last month are coming to finish their scheme, but urged people not to worry.
"Leave worries to the warriors!" he shouted, repeating the words he had so often heard from his father. "Our walls are thick, our archer's nests are plenty, and Lord Rysor brought another eighty men to strengthen our defenses! We have enough soldiers to defend the walls if our foes are stupid enough to try and storm us, and our granaries are full! Lead your lives, people of Gedref, and I shall protect you as I've sworn I would."
After the cheers in the crowd faded, Arthur was introduced to Lord Sei's nephew, a ginger-bearded young man who'd shave his head bald intentionally. His name was Darmund, and he was in charge of the city's defenses.
"It's an honor, your grace," he said, kneeling before Arthur.
"Arise, sir," Arthur put a hand on Darmund's shoulder. He's twice as big as me, bloody hell, he's a giant. "And let us begin."
The castle of Gedref was seen from every teeming street in Portstown, a magic creature nesting on a rock in the western sky, shining white despite the brooding sky. Arthur knew he had a long day ahead of him: there was a meeting with blacksmiths, who demanded their wages to be raised due to working so much in the wake of recent events; merchants were expecting Arthur, too, hurrying to have a royal decree that would state that import duties and taxes in Gedref can be lowered; soldiers were expecting him as well. However, Arthur first chose to visit the archer’s nests, for they were of strategic importance. If Yrien’s army tries to storm the gates, we shall rain arrows on them.
Queen Regent and King Rion’s army appeared by midday. Footmen, only footmen, Arthur thought as he stood on the wall, his heart beating in an ecstasy. No cavalry. No spearmen. It was a sea of yellow cloaks, marching in carefully maintained legions, each composed of sixty-four men. Arthur counted seven legions, and saw knights compose the first row in every formation. Fifty-six knights. Four hundred and forty-eight men altogether.
With cavalry or without, this was an impressive host anyway, and Arthur saw Owaine swallow nervously as they were watching the enemy march closer. The gates had been closer for hours, and bowmen were in the nests, ready to fire at the intruders if the command were given.
“What’s to happen now?” Owaine asked, his weak voice betraying a lad of eighteen years.
“Under ordinary circumstances, the town would be cut off supplies. Markets would be empty of farmers selling food, but full of people trying to sell their household goods for any coin. Starvation would ensue, and whatever food left would be priced five times as costly as during peace. People would start fighting for food soon, the streets would reek of danger, and once all the rats were eaten, there would appear a group of people willing to open the gates to the enemy in exchange for food and their life,” Arthur said indifferently. “However, we are not under ordinary circumstances. Portstown can’t be cut off supplies, for we have a harbor, and Yrien has no fleet. Hence the ordinary life can go on in town for everybody save soldiers and guards. We must watch the wall day and night while we wait for Modron to bring his father’s army from Nemeton.”
“You’re sure it will happen?”
“I am most certain,” Arthur lied. Without Merlin, he wasn’t certain of anything. “Oh, Owaine, look at them. They have no trebuchets, no siege towers, no ladders. They don’t mean to storm the walls. I’m sure, tomorrow they will demand hostages swap and negotiations. Fire the arrow of honor!”
Darmund Sei obeyed the order a bit too eagerly. The flaming arrow was shot, rising high in the sky before it thudded into the ground some hundreds of feet away from the wall.
“What’s that?” Owaine asked.
“A warning. If they approach closer than this arrow, we’ll open fire.”
King Arthur chose to spend the first night of the siege in Portstown, so that the town folk would see that there was no immediate danger posed by Yrien’s army and city walls were safe enough for the king’s sleep.
However, sleep was an overstatement. Lights were put out early in Lord Sei’s towerhouse, for Darmund himself had volunteered to participate in the hostage exchange on the morrow and wanted to make sure he’d be at full strength.
Arthur couldn’t keep his eyes closed for longer than a couple of minutes, and his breath was growing unsteady whenever he imagined Merlin crossing the fields patrolled by Yrien’s host. There were nearly six hundred men separating Portstown and the castle of Gedref from the rest of the kingdom, and Merlin, with all his magic, seemed such a tender creature Arthur didn’t want to imagine him fighting through the mass of yellow Gingawaine cloaks.
If I knew where you are, I’d lead any host I have to be with you. But how am I supposed to know? Merlin, I swear, once you get to Gedref I shall lock you in my arms and not let you be farther than a step away from me.
He had to do something, there had to be a way, a spell, a word, a whisper, something that would make Merlin come, Arthur was sure. But what? His decision came as though by itself, but despite all the suddenness, Arthur knew it was a fruit that had long been ripening in his heart.
On the morrow, Arthur was woken by the polite knock on the door. He had fallen asleep, after all, and sprang to his feet, his black ringmail clangor filling the room.
“Are we under attack?” Arthur gasped.
“No, no, your grace,” Darmund looked as though he had been on his feet for some time. “Your grace, there are matters awaiting your governors. Yrien’s army has a horseman carrying peace banner. He insists on negotiations and hostage swap.”
“What is his name?”
“Sir Leon,” Darmund responded. “Former Commander of the Knights.”
Arthur grinned. Half the knights in the field are the ones I trained with. Some of them may be the ones I trained. Leon. He was so loyal. Might be he’ll still be, once he knows I am who I am, and not some wraith. He’s too… mature to believe in such nonsense.
“Good. We shall begin negotiations shortly. However, there’s one matter to be settled before them. Summon your uncle to the council room.”
“Will your grace break fast?”
“Bread will suffice,” Arthur responded, happy to see the new morning was smiling with sunshine.
In the small council room of Lord Sei’s towerhouse they could hear each other’s breathing.
“Your grace,” Lord Sei rose as Arthur entered the room, accompanied by Sir Darmund.
“Good morning, my lords,” Arthur nodded at Lord Sei and his secretary. “Where’s Owaine?”
“In the harbor, your grace. Merchants were demanding to see him. They are drafting the new decree on duties and import taxes, and Owaine hopes to win their agreement to freeze food prices for the time the siege lasts.”
“Does he understand anything about duties and taxes?” Arthur frowned.
“Young Lord Gedref is eighteen. He went to Camelot to train for his knighthood after completing his course of studies. Of course he’s far from wisdom, your grace, as far as anybody aged eighteen, but he is smart, learns fast, and has no lack of good counsel. Besides, I shall inspect the draft of new duties decree as soon as your grace bids me leave.”
“Then we shall not hesitate,” Arthur’s voice was as iron as his will. “Lord Sei, I want to issue my first decree.”
“A decree? Of course, your grace. What shall it be?”
“Will you please write it?” Arthur nodded at the secretary. “I, Arthur of House Pendragon, King of Camelot and all her territories hereby declare that I lift the ban on magic established by late King Uther. Practicing magic is no longer punishable by death, and I welcome all the witches, warlocks and druids to join the realm where I shall govern them according to our laws and customs, exercising justice and mercy in my judgements. All the witches and warlocks who wish to help us defend our walls from the Gingawaine’s army are welcome to seek my personal audience in the castle of Gedref, where I solemnly swear to offer them safe conduct.”
Secretary’s quill was not traveling the parchment back and forth: the man was staring at Lord Sei with his mouth wide open.
“Forgive me, your grace, but lift the ban?!” Lord Sei gasped, fear and disbelief equaling in his look.
The nephew of Lord of Portstown didn’t share his uncle’s concerns. His face became a grimace, and after some moments of brooding silence he uttered:
Because of Merlin. Because I know that’s what he’d want, and moreover, that’s what is right.
“When I kneeled beside the throne and had this crown put on my had, I swore a holy oath,” Arthur meant to attack with his voice, if need be, but for now, it remained a shield of confidence. “I swore to govern the People of Camelot according to their respective laws and customs. There are some peoples in Camelot, and I can’t disregard their existence in my kingdom.”
“But your father!” Lord Sei looked as though he had taken leave of his senses. “Your father! He…”
“…made a great deal of mistakes, Lord Seit,” Arthur pressed the attack. “I am not my father. I will not sign my name under some horrible things he did, and I mean to reject the horrible things I have done, and to be forgiven for my own crimes, if possible. Father wronged warlocks and witches. Father wronged Portstown. You all wanted me to change the crown’s attitude towards Gedref, yet can’t understand the change of other attitudes as well?”
“There were witches, griffins, priestesses and dragons attacking the castle of Camelot!” Lord Sei’s helpless gazing was now directed at everybody in the room, and it appeared the Lord of Portstown would have been glad to bit the sense into the king himself. “They all attacked Camelot! And your father!”
“Would you not seek revenge for the Great Purge if you were one of their kind? Lord Sei, forgive me, but let it be heard loud and clear. This is a royal decree. I want it signed, and I want it to be read loud and clear at the markets and squares. If anybody wants to oppose this decree, I am always open to single combat. It’s been too long since I fought.”
Lord Sei swallowed whatever remnants of calculations and reasons he’d just meant to voice, and turned as red as a crab thrown onto the shore. Good. The silence in the room remained heavy as everybody was watching the secretary’s quill travel the parchment, his hand shaking as an autumn leaf. Changes are never easy, but they seldom come otherwise. Merlin, this is for the realm and for you. Please, here me, here people talk about a sad king who accepts magic and looks for one particular sorcerer.
Owaine’s kick on the door seemed a little like misbehavior when he appeared, smiling and chewing a green apple freshly offloaded in port.
“Where the bloody hell have you been?” Arthur exclaimed. I’m making history here. “I had great need of you!”
“Forgive me, my lord,” Owaine bent down which made Arthur raise his eyebrow. Is he drunk? “My journey to Lord Sei’s towerhouse has been delayed… by a filthy unshaved Nemetian.”
“What??” Arthur frowned, before he saw someone walk from behind Owaine’s back.
For a moment Arthur hands got week, for all he could see was a pale and dark-haired boy entering the room. His desire to see Merlin come back to him was so strong he could see Merlin in every shadow and every bypasser, but this boy had a lot in common with Merlin… Yet it was Modron, not Merlin. It appeared summer hadn’t spent a single day on his pale skin, yet it was Modron anyway, heir to Nemeton and the man that could put an end to Yrien’s farce of a siege.
That stopped Arthur and made him forget the most important decree of his reign was being written at the moment. How has Modron got to Portstown? The gates are blocked by… Oh. He must have come by the sea.
“Modron!” Arthur shouted and rushed to whirl the lad in the air. “Modron, you sly hunting hound, you’ve made it, made it, made it!”
“I knew he would,” Owaine’s smile could dim the sunlight. “He’s a tough character.”
“Lord Sei,” Arthur turned back to the members of his morning council. “Allow me to introduce Sir Modron of House Pellionore, son of Ragnell Pellionore, heir to the lordship of Nemeton.”
“How old are you?” Darmund eyed him suspiciously. “How happens you’re a knight already?”
“He has been knighted for his deeds in the forests of Brechfa, when he saved mine and Arthur’s lives,” Owaine explained.
“King Arthur’s,” Lord Sei reminded. “Heir of Nemeton, you say? Goddess be good, Portstown and the castle of Gedref have more heirs than I can count. Princess of Nemeth, heir of Nemeton, and if Lord Cynric is luck, Princess Elena… Is it a war or a bloody marriage pact market, I ask you? How many soldiers have you brought to strengthen my walls?”
Modron’s eyes were angry and… He’s ashamed. Bloody hell, it didn’t work.
“My father has decided to stay out of Arthur’s… quest of his rightful throne.”
“And you disobeyed your father?” Darmund asked.
“I… I did what I thought was right. I told my father such behavior was not worthy of the Lord of Nemeton. I urged him to tell the truth to his court. Lords of Nemeton have never tried to present cowardice for politics. He called us green boys who don’t understand the woes we might inflict upon the realm, and I… I…”
“And you ran away, you sly hunting Nemetian boy,” Darmund laughed. “You’re bloody smart! Now your mother will skin your father if he doesn’t raise banners. She will not stand losing your for the second time. Well played!”
“This wasn’t a game,” Modron cheeks were cherry-red. “I meant every word I said!”
“Owaine, Modron,” Arthur called them. “You will accompany me to the talks with Sir Leon. Now.”
Modron brought no men. We have two-hundred and eighty soldiers to protect the walls, while Yrien may have seven hundred by evenfall, and auntie Vyda may send another two-thousand. How far is doom?