“The king is dead, Your Grace.” The words of monk Traipers fell like a shovel of dirt on a casket.
Queen Evelon squeezed her husband’s hand. Its usually tautness, strength, and responses had ceased. Warmth still clung to it like forgotten bath water, and like the water it felt stale.
“Your Grace?” High Councilor Seifous approached with head hanging down. “We should alert the rest castle and the high lords at once.” He paused, waiting for her to respond.
Her eyes remained frozen on her husband, ignoring the question. Peaked skin replaced the healthy tone it was just a few short days ago. Dried blood coated his beard and streaked his white tunic. Thoughts stampeded through her mind like mustangs. What was right? Whom should they tell? Would it honor the good king? All she could do was think and stare as he laid lifeless in their bed. Countless bottles from the apothecary lining the end tables, all thought to have the cure for his ails. None worked of course. Rarely did anyone survive anything close to what he suffered. A part of her considered herself lucky that he lasted as long as he did, giving them time to grieve together over the life they would no longer share.
“Don’t burden yourself, Your Grace. I’ll see to it.” Seifous broke the silence.
Her head felt like a rusted anchor as it turned up. “High Councilor … we will not utter a word of how my husband passed.”
His dark eyebrows furrowed. “We cannot withhold this information. That would be tantamount to treason.”
She kissed her former lover’s hand while gently laying it by his side and walked to the High Councilor. “You must. I will not have his honor besmudged.”
Seifous rustled what was left of his gray hair. “You mustn’t stoke the curiosity of the high lords with being vague on his cause of death. Men of power love to scheme.”
Before she could respond monk Traipers stepped toward them both. “I must agree with Seifous, Your Grace. Given nothing to go on, they will cook up whatever story fits their agendas. With an unoccupied throne they may even come after you.”
“Then let them!” Her outburst caused the two men to take a step back. “Apologies, my lords, but my husband honored me above all things and I cannot do him any less in his death.”
“I understand.” Seifous came closer, his High Councilor necklace, made of purified gold, gleamed in the sun coming through the large window behind the king’s bed. “None of us want to diminish his memory, but the law is your throne can be challenged because he—.”
“I don’t care about my throne!” Evelon cut him off without apologies. “No matter what we do, a woman’s rule without birthright, will always be challenged. I’ve made my decision and that is to tell them that he died of fever. That is final! Can you do this for me, Seifous?”
His look was serious, without anger, but stern like a judge ruminating over what actions to take. Monk Traipers gave a short nod and turned to the High Councilor. “I can, Your Grace,” he responded without a hint of mistrust, yet one of caution on the road this may lead them.
A pang of guilt slithered up Evelon’s chest as the men left her chambers. They were loyal and did not deserve her curtness, such time called for clear direction though. Her steps echoed in the cavernous room as she returned to her husband’s side. Both sound and light played off the priceless trinkets that covered every square-inch of their abode; the pearls, the paintings, the golden flatware, the food that had gone cold, the vases, the jewel covered weapons—all of it meant nothing now—because soon the wolves would be sniffing at her gates.
It took minutes, not hours, for the king to look dead. An essence had left him, one that could not be explained, he merely seemed like an imposter of his former self. Tears muddled her picture of him. She had wanted to cry so many times during his last days, now she could. The act had always come easy to her, even though she rarely had reason to, being the daughter of a high lord meant many luxuries.
She ran a shaking hand across her stomach. “I’m …” A spell of weeping threatened to overtake her, she needed all her strength to quell it. “I’m sorry, my love … I’m sorry I lost him.” Tears rolled off her chin and created spots on the dead king’s tunic. She put both hands on her stomach. “He would have been great like you.” A leeching guilt sucked her dry of resolve as her entire body trembled. “What a life we had planned. What a life we could have lived together … if only. It’s over now. Like a woman’s virtue, once it is taken, there is no getting it back.”
The light shining through the great stained glass window behind their bed darkened as a sheet of clouds blanketed the sun. The reflected colors turned pale, like the king. She panned down at their hands embracing, a sickly yellow from the window shone upon them.
“At least you died like a true Shimeran … embracing a loved one. I will find you in the afterlife. Even if I remarry, even if it takes a hundred years, I will seek you and only you. I owe you that …”
The following four days were a blur to Evelon. Rain buckets full of tears and pain plagued her waking hours—which weren’t many. She tried to sleep through to the day of his funeral; boredom and rampant thoughts kept her from doing so. Monk Traipers and High Councilor Seifous, along with her chamber maids checked in frequently while they made all the funeral arrangements. Hundreds were expected inside the King’s Hall, and thousands were expected to line the streets. The sheer size of it all, the fact she would have to face everyone threw her thoughts into an even deeper chasm of despair. Seifous reassured her that very little would be expected. “A lot of bowing and head-nodding along with the occasional gesture of gratitude should suffice,” was the way he put it. She hoped he was right.
She took in a deep breath as Essa, one of her chambermaids, pulled back on her corset. Lacing it with a little bit of room, she still could hardly breath. Another maid pulled her hair up and finished setting into a very royal looking style. She looked at herself in the mirror, all black, even her hair, except for the violet vail. In Shimeran culture it was meant to signify growth from death. The men would wear a tunic or armor that was dyed violet on the collar or their helm. Evelon’s heart was far too battered to appreciate the symbolism.
The autumn chill clung to the stone of the King’s Hall as the castle guards let the highborn into the ceremony. The sky outside was as gray as Evelon felt. Line after line of black and violet wearing lords and their families filed into an ordered mass, steps from the king’s casket. Perfumes of a hundred different scents mingled in the air. Every man, woman, and child looked their finest on the dreary occasion. Sniffles and subtle moans started softly like a forest’s fauna before sunrise. A thimble of gratitude dropped into the queen’s mire, for she knew most of these people only by name, and even fewer by reputation, but they made the journey to celebrate her former husband, whom they both loved.
Where is father? Evelon wondered. What could possibly be keeping him. All the other high lords are here with all their family members by their sides. How could he miss this day? Of all days.
Monk Traipers waited a few minutes for any final guests to arrive before commencing the eulogy. The guards by the door had not admitted anyone for quite some time now. The murmurs and wails of the citizens lining the streets outside the castle grew louder. He really didn’t come. Now … when I need him more than ever … he abandons me. Evelon gave a reluctant nod to the guards to close the doors.
“Wait!” A thunderous voice commanded.
Evelon peaked up, expecting to see her father’s face.
A man, a head taller than the guards, pushed open the door with a steel-clad hand. He wore a full suit of armor, minus a helm, of pure violet. Whispers and gasps came from the guests inside as they all backed up, making a path for the man and his trailing band. Only one man commanded such respect in all of Shimera. Evelon did not have to guess, for even the children were saying his name, “Devero.”
His head turned back and forth at the crowd as he made his way to the front. A thick black beard darkened his scowl and his silver eyes pointed like swords. Evelon’s insides jutted at the presence of such a man. His ferocity and acumen in battle preceded him. Her late husband and many others took great care to recount every detail when describing his victories.
One of their favorites to tell and Evelon’s to listen to was the Carving Of The Cazrians. As a whole the Cazrians of Conge were the greatest conquerors amongst men. Their leathered skin made them difficult to injure, their strength and skill at warfare was amplified by their ferocity. So it is written that they had nearly captured the world when leading the charge for the Immortal One, over seven thousand years ago. They drove the Brafans to extinction and pushed the dwarves and elves back to their homes. When they came thundering through Shimeran borders six years ago, they never made it past the outer defenses. It was all due to Devero. He and his two thousand men held off double that of the Cazrians. It was said that a Cazrian man has never shown fear … until they saw the Claymore of Devero. All manner of monikers were bestowed upon him that day: Rampart, Baron of the Border, Shimeran Slicer, and many more, but the king and Evelon’s favorite was—the Cazrian Conqueror.
Even though Devero wasn’t even a lord he commanded the room like a king. No matter which man stood in his path, they all scurried out of the way. His massive claymore, hanging from his hip trailed, coming within inches of scuffing the stone floor. Evelon turned to monk Traipers with a look of question. He returned in kind, clearly this was not normal. She thought to stand up and welcome him, but instinct kept her seated as the great knight passed the final guests.
His troupe held at the front as Devero continued to the king’s casket. Even the two guards posted at both ends took a step back. He slowed to a cautious walk and knelt before his king with his right hand gripping the edge of the coffer. Evelon could hear Devero muttering something, his deep voice even in whisper carried, but she couldn’t make out the words. He stood up abruptly and unsheathed his sword—the steel rasped against the scabbard, piercing the silence of the great room. Moving gently, he lifted the king’s hands and placed the mighty claymore under them.
Evelon shuddered at the powerful gesture, one of such love and respect. She went to thank him when his silver eyes lashed toward her. The gaze seemed to pin her back to the chair. His face hardened into a scowl pointed only at Evelon. Her breathing grew heavy. Tears built up and threatened to rain down, but she held them back. The giant knight fumed with anger, not blinking once. Perhaps Evelon did not know this man from all the tales. He looked as though he would strike her down for some crime he imagined she committed. She held his gaze out of fear of angering him further.
His armor scrapped the stone as Devero rose as quickly as he had drawn his sword. Without a word, he strode through the pathway with his men following. He threw open the heavy doors and let them slam behind them. Evelon finally blinked and could only manage short quick breaths as relieve rolled over her.
It took several minutes for the people to close the pathway and return their gazes to the front of the King’s Hall.
Monk Traipers stepped up to quell any further uncomfortableness. “Let us bow our heads and think of the man we honor this day.”
Evelon didn’t realize the ceremony had ended until Monk Traipers came over and started to lead her to the dining hall.
He asked her how he did and she tried to recall a single word he had said. Her thoughts laid on her father not attending for a little while, but then returned to Devero. The encounter continued to haunt her. The man’s loving action to give up his sword and then seconds later focus those piercing eyes on her with a look that could only be described as one of hatred. She racked her mind as to why he felt this way about her. Did it have something to do with her father? Did he wish she had died in the king’s place? Then to leave without a chance for a conversation to take place, a way to clear the air as it were. It was all too much for her now. Given a clear head, Evelon could read most situations and people, though with the death of her husband and her father absent, it was impossible at this time.
The encounter with Devero, not her father, hung over her the entire wake. It interrupted her enjoyment of the decadent feast and the dozens of sentimental toasts given in her late husband’s honor. Every time she embraced the laughter or tears of others during their stories involving the king, her thoughts would drift back to Devero, ruining the moment, making any chance for grieving futile.
By the end of the evening her hand acquired a rough patch in the shape of lips from all the kisses it had received. All of the high lords, their wives, their children, their grandchildren, their cousins, anyone who attended, felt it necessary come to the head table and offer condolences with a respectful peck. The most powerful of the high lords: Mavorn Trevel, Driger Marxe, and Pael Fredes all made sure they were the first to do so. She appreciated the show of support and respect, but in her mind it was all unnecessary.
As soon as the dessert was served, she thanked their guests and made for her chambers. She gave approval for the oldest wine to be brought up from the cellar. It was as good of time as any to enjoy it and she knew she would never touch it, for it was the king’s favorite. The gesture earned a hearty cheer and even a few that had instruments started to play as the servants rolled out the barrels.
She locked her chamber door and didn’t bother removing her gown before crawling beneath the covers. Her mind and heart felt like a shot horse. The full moon’s light created streaks on the duvet and it reminded Evelon of her husband. He commonly said to her on evenings such as this one, “I treasure the nights when the moon is bright. It turns your blue eyes to silver water and your white skin to virgin snow …” The pleasant memories worked like warm milk and sent her into a dreamless sleep.
A knock came at the door at the usual time she would have been ready, but hours after she woke this day. The grief roused her at least an hour before dawn and never could settle again. She had dressed without her maids and started reading a book by candlelight about the scale types of dragons, interesting to some, yet dull to her. However, it kept her mind occupied.
“Your Grace? May I enter?” High Councilor Seifous asked, the door muddled his voice.
“Yes, I’m decent.”
He rushed inside, his eyes fierce and face agitated. “Your Grace, we have a problem.”
“What is the matter?” She asked calmly, closing the tome.
“Best you hear it from the source. Come with me to the council chambers.”
She followed Seifous through a labyrinth of corridors and stairs, some of which she had yet to explore. Paintings and tapestries of profound Shimeran historical events, starting from their meager beginnings to Devero’s conquest of the Cazrians aligned in chronological order, covered the walls. Passing the final one, it struck her heart like a stake. Still wet, it was of her holding the former king in her arms as he died. She turned away, refusing to study it now. Seifous made a left at a T in the corridor and they arrived at a dark green door—the council chambers.
“What is going on, Seifous?”
“Please, Your Grace. Everything will be answered inside.” He opened the door for her.
The six other councilors and one of their servants from the kitchen stood around a mahogany table that looked heavier than a Hereford. Gandry, Evelon recalled the servant’s name. All of them bowed in unison, “Your Grace,” they said softly.
Seifous directed Evelon to the head of the table as all the others, except the servant, sat. The king’s chair, her chair, had a golden crown embossed into the back of it. It had a fresh coat applied to it as well. Then she remembered that this was tradition. Whenever a new ruler came to pass it was considered a fresh start, calling for a fresh coat.
She settled and looked at each of the councilors. Four men, three women, all but one over the age of forty, and all dressed in their councilors distinguished pine green robes.
“Your Grace, we are all truly sorry for your loss.” The snow haired man sitting next to Seifous said. “Your husband, our king, was a steady hand that no doubt would have lead this country to greater prosperity.” All the councilors nodded, while the servant averted his eyes.
“Thank you, my lord. I agree.”
Seifous cleared his throat and looked directly at her. “Your Grace, some very troubling news has come to us. We are not entirely sure of its validity or full intentions. However, we never take threats lightly.”
“Threat?” Evelon interrupted, truly caught off guard.
“I’m afraid there is no better way to put it. It may turn out to be idle, but precautions must be taken.”
Evelon took a deep breath that failed to soothe her. “Please go on.”
Seifous and the others turned to the servant boy, their chairs creaking. The boy looked up to Evelon and then quickly back down.
“It’s alright, Gandry,” said Seifous. “Tell the queen what you heard.”
The boy, no more than thirteen, looked up at Evelon with bloodshot eyes. “I work in the kitchen,” he started. “Sometimes I’m the last to leave, on account I’m the youngest and they stick with me with the dish washing. Last night was one of those nights.” The boy sniffled and wiped his nose. “I had just come in with two fresh buckets of water when I heard a noise. It was a woman. She was … moaning.” Gandry stopped and looked uncomfortable.
“Please, son, continue.” Seifous said, nodding to the boy.
“I didn’t know what was happening and thought maybe it was a couple of the cooks just messing with me. So I crept around to the corner and saw that it wasn’t any cooks or any servants for that matter. It was high lord Trevol and lady Marxe, not lady Trevol, half-naked, caressing each other.”
All the councilors shook their heads as Evelon needed to hear more.
“I kept out of sight.” Gandry continued. “I’d seen this sort of thing before when we’ve had visitors to the castle. Folks need a secret place to spoil their vows and what not. I thought nothing of it. That is until they started talking. It wasn’t lovers talk at all. Lord Trevol mostly listened while lady Marxe spoke. She asked for his loyalty. He pledged it. She asked for his unity. He pledged it. She asked for his army. He pledged it. She asked for her husband’s head. He pledged it. She asked to be the queen when he became king … he pledged it.”
Everyone gasped and shook their heads while Evelon sat frozen, vision blurring and her throat tightening to the point she couldn’t speak if she wanted to.
“Do you think it’s a serious threat?” Councilor Vaidra, the youngest woman, whose long hair was only peppered and not fully gray.
“It couldn’t be. Just empty threats from an empty-headed woman.” Councilor Yed, the oldest of the council. “Trevol is a fool too. Letting his under carriage do the steering in that instance.”
Most gave uneasy nods and muttered to their neighbor, unclear how many believed that or wanted to believe it. Gandry remained standing with his eyes locked on the table. It looked as though he might have regretted saying anything at all. Evelon remained catatonic as thoughts and feelings waged war inside her.
“It’s possible this is a farce.” Seifious spoke, causing Evelon to turn up and look at the High Councilor. “It’s possible that this was only pillow talk meant to ensure consummation of whatever sordid game they are playing.” He stood and panned at all of them, stopping at Evelon. “It’s also possible this is legitimate.”
Too much had happened in the past week. She could hardly face his stone glare, although it meant no harm, serious though it was.
“It’s true that the Trevols, the Marxe’s and one other, the Yueler’s, left the castle before sun’s first light while the others had left after breakfast. It is true that lord Trevol commands more banner men than we have castle knights. It’s true that if he and lady Marxe share an allegiance, they will more than double our defenses. And it’s true that there are some that would not see a woman hold the throne for long, especially if doubt is cast upon the manner in which the king had perished.” The words sucked the wind and strength from the entire council and whatever resolve Evelon had left.
She did her best to hide this by sitting straight and hands folded over one another as if she listened to a crop report or details of castle repairs. A decaying lighthouse in gale force winds stood a better chance of remaining strong than she did.
“Your Grace, have you anything to say on the matter.” Seifious asked, voice full of guilt for having to ask this in her fragile state.
All eyes fell on her, even Gandry looked up. She had no answer, so she simply spoke.
“I have only met lord Trevol and Lady Marxe twice.” She felt better by talking, it made it impossible to brood at the same time. “We only exchanged pleasantries and didn’t talk of anything worthwhile. If they are capable of such a coup, I wouldn’t know it.”
“In my opinion these two are capable of more than they let on.” Seifious spoke out, the others seemed to agree.
Evelon took a deep breath to settle her nerves and somehow accept the worst-case scenario of this. “If that is true then contact my father to call his bannermen here and ready the castle. Make sure the women and children are safe and any able bodied men are properly armed.”
Seifious nodded sternly. “You all know what to do. Now get to it.” The others rushed off through the door, surprising Evelon how fast they could still move.
Gandry made his way for the door after the others had exited, his head slung down.
“Gandry.” Evelon called. The boy turned to her, his face full of shame. “Thank you.”
A haphazard smile crept up as he bowed and showed himself out.
Evelon turned to Seifious, now the only two in the room. “Will we have enough to fend off three lordships with the castle guards and my father’s banners?”
Seifious sighed and looked down. “We have the wall and are positioned on high ground, which will challenge any assault. However, they know this castle and will have wall-breakers well positioned to hit its weakest points.” He shook his head and scoffed. “Fighting friends and family are always the worst.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they always know your weaknesses better than your enemies.”
The night was cruel to Evelon. Every sound of the wind gusting or shadow of clouds crossing the moon roused her. A half dozen times she clutched her hands in prayer and begged the gods to help her sleep or for the dawn to come early. Neither happened. The sun and stars do not heed the trivial demands of mortals. She gave in again and read from the dragon tome, occupying her mind while waiting for sun’s first light.
Breakfast was a pleasant affair. Everything from porridge to bacon dipped in maple syrup was served. With all the castle guests gone, she dined with her handmaidens and the usual staff attending. She mostly listened to their stories of the guests they had hosted two days prior. Giggles and glances erupted when any of the girls talked about one of the lords’ sons. Oh to be young again, she thought. She grimaced at the truth that she was not much older than them. A few short years ago she began her courtship with the king. Her and her younger sisters suffered from the very same spats of giggles when discussing his majesty. She remembered the overpowering yearning for a future with him; one veiled in blooming roses, the scent of lavender, and an interminable embrace. Her chest tightened as the familiar tears beckoned.
She stood up from the table in the midst of another innocent story. “Excuse me, ladies,” she said as she hastily made her way out of the dining hall.
One of the castle guards in his green tinted armor opened the door just before she barged into it. The outside air felt crisp and soothed her chest just enough. The perfumes of summer had died and the brittleness of fall had taken its place. The garden, one of her favorite places, had no power to cheer her up this day. Its greens, purples, reds, violets and dozen other colors had dissipated into shades of brown and nothingness. Still she continued along the stone path, appreciating that no one else could be seen or heard.
The sound of falling water drew her. The fountain at the fair end of the gardens still ran. It would be another month before the water would freeze. Built a century ago it took three years to finish it was so large; precisely seventy-five feet in diameter and height. It depicted all of the Shimeran gods bursting out of the Old Sun and descending upon Prima Earth. All manner of precious metals and were used to depict the immortals. Each one had its own that made up the entire bust. The most powerful, Barnasis The Breaker, whom legend told was the one who broke the sun, enabling them to escape, was made of the rarest of jewels—platanium. Even on the clear day it did not comfort her.
Evelon sat on the edge and stared at the gods. Their purity was too much for her to take so she turned to the water. Coins from people all over Shimera laid at the bottom. Pangs of guilt strapped her chest and constricted. The people. Oh how I have let you down.
“Excuse me, Your Grace,” a young man dressed in a servant’s tunic startled her. “I apologize whole heartedly for sneaking up on you. I just come to see if you were alright?”
She hid her anguish. “Yes … I’m fine.”
“I could bring you some wine if you’d like.”
“No that won’t be necessary.”
He smiled. His teeth were a perfect shade of white “Something to curb your appetite then? Crackers and jam or cheese?”
She raised her hand politely. “No. I don’t require anything at this time.”
“Oh come now, Your Grace, there must be something I can get for you.” The young man sat beside her, leaving only a few inches between their legs.
She furrowed her brow. “You’re awfully forward for a servant. I’ve been polite, but if you persist I will lose my courtesy.” She scooted away from him.
He laughed to himself and nodded. “You’ll lose more than that, black widow!” He yanked her hair and thrust her head down into the fountain.
The cold stung her face as she screamed, water muffling the sound. She pushed back but couldn’t budge the man’s hand as it locked onto her hair. Her arms flailed back, trying to gouge his eyes, but she only managed to scratch his tunic. Her lungs convulsed as they begged for air. Instinctively they took in a breath and she swallowed metallic tasting water. Every muscle and vein in her neck bulged as she tried to gouge him with her nails. He thrust her head down in a sudden movement, her face slamming into the coins at the bottom. The water turned murky as all the man’s weight came down on her. Another set of hands grabbed her waist and heaved back, pulling her out of the fountain. She coughed up a gulp of water and gasped, trying to regain her breath.
“Your Grace, are you unharmed?” The man yelled.
She turned, confused why he pulled her out. The man looking down on her with face aghast was not the servant, but it was one of her guards. Blood and water dripped from his armor-clad arms. She turned back toward the fountain and saw the servant floating with a spear in his back.
“Here, my queen.” The guard ripped off his cape and wrapped it around her. Fear and the cold caused her to shiver, making it impossible to control. “Come with me now. We must get you inside before you catch a cold or worse.”
He wrapped his arms around her and hurried them back into the dining hall. “Bring blankets for the queen!” the young knight commanded before anyone could react to the scene. “Fetch monk Traipers! She might be injured.” Her handmaidens rushed off in two different directions while several servants followed them.
“Your Grace?” A familiar voice called out. “Are you hurt?” Seifious asked as he rushed into the hall with three other council members.
She couldn’t manage a response, only shiver in the young guard’s arms as he tried to warm her.
“What happened?” Seifious directed the question to the guard.
“Some servant tried to drown the queen in the Gods Fountain.”
Two of Evelon’s handmaidens clamored toward them and wrapped a pair of blankets around her.
“Retrieve the body.” Seifious ordered a pair of guards. “We must find out who this assailant was and who he worked for.”
Monk Traipers came to the queen’s side. “Your Grace, I must look at you immediately.”
“You three.” Seifious barked. “Escort the queen and her savior to her quarters. You’re not to allow anyone but Traipers or myself admittance.”
The young guard picked up the queen and carried her all the way to the top of the castle. The three others stood guard outside the door as he set her in her bed. Monk Traipers immediately started to inspect for injuries. The young guard went to join the other three.
“Please.” The queen called out in a weak voice. “What is your name?”
He turned at the door. “Simen, my queen.” He answered with a bow.
Her body still shivered, more out of shock than the cold. “Thank you, Simen.”
He gave a respectful nod. “No thanks required. You’re our queen.”
As he opened the door, High Councilor Seifious stood there. He closed the chamber as he made his way in. His face looked even more grim than when he first saw her. She took notice. “What has happened now?”
“Nothing good, I’m afraid.”
Monk Traipers finished his inspection, nodded to her and sighed. “Just a few bruises, my queen. You should be fine in a couple days.”
Seifious poured himself a glass of wine from the serving table and finished it in one gulp. “We have heard nothing from your father since before the king died. We sent out word again after we found out about the coup … and still nothing.”
Not only did she have to worry about her own life, she had to worry about his now … “Any word from the other lords?”
“I’m afraid not.” Seifious poured another glass and swirled it as he paced. “No word. No indication which side they’re on. A bunch a cowards you ask me.”
“Perhaps they are waiting to see who comes out on top.” Traipers chimed in. “It might be the best play in their minds. Remain neutral so no matter who wins, they will see no retribution.”
“Like I said, a bunch of cowards. They should support the crown!”
Evelon’s body had stopped shaking and warmth had returned. She shed one of the blankets and looked to both men. “Do we have any allies that will lend aid?”
The monk and the High Councilor turned to each other and back to Evelon. “If the other high lords stay out of the fight, that only leaves the small towns and any knights they might have in their commons.” Seifious took a swig of the wine and slammed the glass down. “It would take a hundred messengers by bird and horse to reach them. Even then it might be too late … and too little.”
“Our enemies will not stay quiet for long now that their assassin is dead. Not when they think me some black widow.” Evelon replied.
“Black widow?” Seifious asked.
“That is what the assassin called me. They must think I murdered my husband and hence why they want the crown.”
Seifious scoffed. Traipers responded. “That might be their justification, but I doubt they actually believe it. They see a weakness to exploit. The king is dead, as is the royal bloodline, so they want a claim.”
There were a million trains of thought Evelon wanted to pursue, especially ones to defy the usurpers claims, but she stayed on course. “What options do we have?”
The men went silent for several minutes. Her smartest advisors had nothing between them. They had been through hard times before and always had answers, what was so different now? Evelon wanted to curse out loud, but held in her frustration.
“There is only one I can think of.” Traipers finally spoke up. He took in a deep breath and scratched his bald head. “Devero … might be our only chance.”
Seifious pounded the table making his wine glass jump. “Are you serious? Did you not see how he looked at the queen at the funeral? If he was water he would have been boiling!”
Evelon’s insides quivered, but whether fear or something deeper she could not determine.
“Who else commands as many banners as Devero? Who else could come to our aid in haste and lead our defenses?” Traipers spoke in his usual calm tone.
“None of that matters if he is on the side of those that will take the throne. He loved our former king like they shared blood. If he thinks our queen to be some black widow, he would lead the charge against us.”
“We have no choice.” The words slipped out of Evelon’s mouth. She had no intention of saying anything. It was prompted by something deep inside that which she had no understanding. Seifious turned to her aghast. She ignored his outrage and went with her gut. “He is our only chance … like it or not.”
“Your Grace I strongly—.”
“What other choice do we have? Either he’s against us, tears up the letter and charges on the castle, or, he’s with us and leads our ranks.”
“Or he remains neutral like the highborns and stays out of the fight.”
“Devero has always been a man of action. I believe he will fight for one side … or the right one.” Traipers said definitely. “It won’t make matters worse. It will merely confirm where his loyalty lies.”
Seifious walked to the stained glass window behind Evelon’s bed. Taking in a deep breath he leaned with an arm against it. “If my queen commands, it will be done.”
Evelon closed her eyes and pictured Devero in her mind like the last time she’d seen him. A glare that was as vicious as his sword. She knew one way or the other, fair or foul, he would breach the castle walls. Her heart jumped as she knew they had to try. “Call on Devero”
It would take all of day for the messenger birds to reach Devero at one hundred and twenty miles away and slightly less time to reach her father—considering good weather, minimal wind, and no arrows found them. Assuming he responded in haste it would take another day for a return journey—considering of course—if he wished to send a message back. That and all other possible scenarios plagued Evelon’s mind as they waited. Each day she checked with the bird keepers for news.
Day four—nothing. High Councilor Seifious lost hope and insisted Evelon do the same.
Day five—nothing. Monk Traipers followed Seifious and begged Evelon to start the planning without Devero.
Day six, seven, eight, and nine—nothing still. Finally, Evelon resigned that the great warrior either didn’t care, or worse, schemed with the usurpers.
A dour cloud hung over the entire council, Evelon, and everyone else in the throne room as they ate. Even though the spread was impressive, even for a royal banquet, nobody laughed and very few even spoke. Over forty guards were posted around the room with four next to Evelon at all times, including recently appointed Simen. Deep down she had a slight mistrust of everyone inside the castle—even High Councilor Seifious and monk Traipers, although very small. However, Simen, she trusted whole heartedly.
“Your Grace.” Seifious pushed away a full plate as he turned to Evelon. “We must put together a defense plan. It has been over a fortnight, which is long enough for our enemies to assemble and start marching toward us.” The other council members listened in and halted their eating, waiting for her response.
She looked down at the tender cuts of beef with mushroom truffles surrounding them on her plate. It was her favorite meal, but she could only manage two bites before losing her appetite. It had a perfect pink hue gliding down each slice, just the way she preferred. Food is no miracle worker though. At times like these it could not solve problems, change fortunes, all it did was conflict with depression situation—which only made it feel worse.
“Honestly, I haven’t a clue of where to start,” she said, turning to Seifious. “You and the guards know this castle best. What would you recommend?”
“There is a modem operandum for such times when the castle is threatened, however, I don’t know if that will be enough.”
“These are not our typical enemies. They have been here countless times and know how the keep has been defended in the past.”
Evelon sighed and nodded. “We sit on a hill with over fifty foot walls. Is that not defense enough?”
“It would seem so, yet we have been breached in the past.”
“Then perhaps hitting them before they can get close to the walls is the key.” Evelon surprised Seifious and even herself with the insight.
“I think that’s wi—.” A boom, making the walls and chandeliers shake caused everyone to jump.
Evelon crouched in her chair as most others did the same. Seifious and her made eye contact as another boom came from the west side of the castle.
Seifious stood up. “You five there!” he yelled to the guards closest to the main door. “See what’s happening!”
They sprinted out the door as five guards replaced them and closed one of the large entrance doors to the throne room.
“Form lines in front of the door! Block anything that comes through!” Lafell, the Captain of the guards, barked.
Evelon’s four guards moved in front of her with swords drawn to form a wall. She watched as her handmaidens and the other councilors besides Seifious panicked. She held steady in her chair and tried to listen for anything. The clamoring of the guards and crying of the others made it too loud. Another boom came—from the west side again.
One of the five guards they sent returned out of breath and pale faced. “An army is here, my lords,” he yelled loud enough that everyone could hear him. “They’ve breached!”
Evelon looked to Seifious and saw all the blood drain from his face as her handmaidens screamed again.
“All guards outside. We must prevent any who tries to enter the throne room.” All, except Evelon’s four personal guards, sprinted outside the two massive doors, their armor clanking together. It took six to close the doors. Slamming shut, they mimicked the boom of whatever siege engines hit outside.
“Don’t fret, Your Grace, we will not let them harm you.” Simen said as he pulled over his helm shield.
The booming clapped in sequence four times a minute, each one shaking more dust from the ancient walls. Evelon knew the danger, she knew her life would end this day if they entered the throne room, but her heart beat like normal and her hands remained strong on the gilded rests.
A gut wrenching scream burst from just outside the door. Evelon launched to her feet as the others shook and wept in their chairs. Swords and hollers clashed. She could faintly hear the captain yell for the men to stand their ground. Howls of death pitched every few seconds. It was impossible to tell who succeeded and who perished. She tried to discern their voices, but it did no good.
Another boom rang out, but this time it was at the throne room doors. Evelon was the only one who didn’t jump. Men grunted as the door slammed back, bending the metal latches and causing the old oak façade to creak. Evelon balled her fists and took in a deep breath while remaining standing behind her personal guards. They slammed into the door and the lock burst off and clanged to the floor. The men on the other side groaned as they pushed open the massive doors and swung them open.
Evelon knew by their looks that these were not hers. The sobbing continued on both sides of her while Seifious and Traipers made their way to her. “We will die before they touch you, Your Grace,” the monk whispered.
The knights marched in with snarling smiles as they scanned the inhabitants of the throne room.
“The commander is coming!” yelled a soldier out of sight.
The knights spread out to both sides, allowing a path. Evelon’s blood went cold when she saw the commander enter. He wore the deep green of Shimera, but it had a family crest of four swords etched in gold, pointing the cardinal directions. He wiped the blood off his breast plate as he strode toward the dais. He stopped just before the steps. Removing his helm, the others gasped as Evelon winced.
“Good evening, Your Grace. A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m Devero … and this is my castle now.”