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Milady’s Wiles             by: Brandy Dewinter, with the invaluable assistance of P.J. Wright

 

Chapter 1 - To Arms! To Arms!

The stream of humanity flooding into the protection of the castle known as Stalwart Guard could no longer be called an army. In their own minds, they probably couldn’t even be called men. They were beaten and they knew it. My brother, Prince Bareth, the commander of Stalwart Guard would have to try and reform them into a defensive force.

An errant lock of pale gold whipped into my face from where I had tried to capture it in a twist beneath my collar. I should have grabbed a clasp on my way out, but when I heard the guard announce the flood approaching the gate I had hurried out to see what was going on. Prince Bareth would not have had that problem. He had always kept his hair cut short to fit under his helmet, but I had never followed that route.

That had been but one of many ways in which I had disappointed the king, our father. I was the youngest brother and he was long past enjoy-ment of bouncing a baby on his knee before I came along. Instead, he was usually out practicing sword whacking with my two older brothers and I had fallen much into the care of my mother, Queen Selay. She had liked my hair and had held off cutting it until I had grown to like it, too. I could not remember a time when the golden weight of it had not been part of every move I made, nor would I give up the special times we had shared when she had brushed it into shiny silk.

It didn’t help that I had taken after her physically, too. At six-teen it was clear that I would never be a well-muscled giant like my father, King Andros, and my oldest brother, Prince Tamor. Nor would I even have the wiry strength of Prince Bareth, who had speed enough to give any man a tough fight. There were not three finer fighters in our whole Kingdom of Achaiea than King Andros and his two sons. How often had I heard that? Not ‘King Andros and his two older sons,’ just ‘his two sons.’ There was a barely-concealed sneer at the King in this comment as well. Of all his sons, only I had the crystal blue eyes that Mother owned. That was a double concern for Father, not only did they set me apart from him and his older sons, giving rise to rumors about my true parentage. They also proclaimed my lineage to the queen’s whispered powers of magic; powers of persuasion beyond other women that were, in the legends, the result of those spectacular eyes.

My ruminations were interrupted when I saw an officer approach Bareth to give his report. Even without their martial respect I still deserved the outward shows of my rank, and I had a right to hear what had happened to the army the King had led into battle.

The stairs from the battlement ran inside the thick wall so I lost sight of Bareth and the officer for a few minutes as I ran down. When I came out the most important news was already apparent. The officer and all the men around him were kneeling before Bareth, not the formal bow with leg extended that we were due as princes nor the clenched fist salute due the garrison commander. They were kneeling with the obeisance given only to the King. That could, in turn, only mean that King Andros and Prince Tamor were known to be dead.

I was getting ready to kneel myself when all eyes turned to a doorway from which Queen Selay and her retinue approached. Her sharp eyes ab-sorbed the postures of the army and recognized the import as fast as my own. Her next glance though, was to me and her eyes directed me to her side before I had a chance to complete my own gesture of respect.

Instead of kneeling she gave Bareth a courtly bow of her own, the narrow ankle of one graceful leg extended forward from the gathered hem of her dress. Since she set the standard, I matched her, my own slender limb even more displayed in the tight knit leggings that were my standard informal court dress.

"What news?" she asked simply.

"Mother, the news is bad. The King and Prince Tamor have both given their lives in defense of our land, but to no avail. Kragdle and his High Canyon horde are following on the heels of these survivors of the battle."

"Can we hold?"

"With these men, once we get them reorganized, I could hold Stalwart Guard for a very long time," Bareth claimed, his tone so flat there was no hint of boasting in it. "But Kragdle knows that and there are many villagers who will not be able to reach the castle’s protection. I fear for them, my Queen."

I could see that she wanted to say something, but the words couldn’t get past the tightness in her throat and all she managed was a heart-breakingly small smile and a quick nod.

That seemed to be the cue for the priest to come running up with the anointing oil, followed by the Chamberlain with the crown. In moments it was over. Achaiea had a new king, though if Kragdle conducted his campaign with typical ruthlessness, it wouldn’t be long before there was precious little kingdom to rule. Achaiea had known generations of peace but we never realized how much that peace was due to the internal bic-kering of the High Canyon hordes who had not united in as many genera-tions. Not united until the coming of Kragdle, who now held those lands in his clutching talons and planned to extend his grasp to our own king-dom.

Queen Selay turned back to her apartments in the inner castle. I knew she needed me a lot more than Bareth did so I stayed at her side. As we left the courtyard I could hear the twang of crossbows as the guards on the wall let fly at Kragdle’s approaching vanguard. The repeti-tive clank from the drawbridge chain that had so often seemed needlessly irksome when someone wanted to pass in times of peace, now seemed little enough comfort in this suddenly too-real war.

At the door to Mother’s dayroom she waved off all the others, though her tight grip on my arm made it clear she wanted me to stay with her. Once we were inside she walked around uncertainly for a moment as though looking for something that wasn’t there, that would never be there again.

"Deacon," she said to me, "your hair has gotten tangled in the wind.

Fetch your brush."

How often when we are overwhelmed we cling to little islands of fa-miliarity in the chaos. I did as ordered of course, and as her hands gently stroked the twists from the long flow of my hair I could feel a corresponding tension flow from her stiff body.

"Your hair is quite beautiful, you know," she said, still clinging to the mundane.

"Thank you, Mother, your brushing keeps it so."

Perhaps it was the word, Mother, that triggered her loss of control. I’ll never know for sure, but after my simple response the brush thunked on the floor and her hands flew to her face. Heaving sobs wracked her slender shoulders as she hid her streaming eyes from the world that no longer included her husband and her eldest son.

I stood and walked behind her, picking up her own brush from her dressing table and began to return the favor. Her hair had been pinned up in a more formal arrangement than mine, of course, so the first thing I did was remove the pins and combs and other aids to control. It was a few moments therefore, before I was running the brush through her own golden glory, still thick and soft and without a trace of grey.

Her cat, Greyshadow, jumped into Mother’s lap and added her own com-fort to combat the Queen’s distress. As Mother stroked the soft fur the cat arched her back in pleasure, purring with a promise that their world would survive this tragedy.

My own mind churned, racing beyond the simple motions of my hands to consider . . . and reject . . . plans and strategies for defending the castle. Bareth would never ask for my help, but he had often mused aloud in my presence and listened carefully when my own musings touched on the topic he raised. It was his little make-believe to take advantage of the intelligence we both knew I possessed in greater measure than him without formally requesting advice from our father’s disappointment. I had rejected a dozen impossible schemes and was sear-ching for ever-less-likely candidates when a knock at our door had Mother quickly dabbing at her eyes and arranging her dress. At her nod I went to open the door.

Bareth was there, along with a few of his top officers plus the priest and Hugh of Sandars, the Chamberlain. Several members of the entourage looked with displeasure at the cradled gray cat. The rumors that claimed strange powers for my mother declared that the cat was some-how involved and most people were wary of the innocent animal. I had one of her kittens myself but had never seen any unusual behavior. Well, none beyond the strangeness of all cats.

Bareth began without preamble, "Queen Mother, the castle has been invested and Kragdle has announced his intentions."

She sat patiently, perhaps still not trusting her voice.

Bareth glanced at me, though not with his usual sly invitation to think on the topic for him. There was something else in his demeanor. "Kragdle intends to rule Achaiea as part of his empire. To that end, he offers terms for our surrender rather than see the lands destroyed."

In later years I would remember Bareth’s tone as he delivered that part of the message. It was calm, controlled, and gave no indication of the rest of the self-styled emperor’s intentions. I could not have matched that calm, if I had known what was to come.

"The terms?" Mother asked, a hint of hope in her eyes.

Seeing that his calmness had actually misled Mother, Bareth kneeled down before her and took her hands in his own. "Mother, the terms are hard. He demands the life of all male heirs to the throne of Achaiea. Else, he will execute a dozen peasant families every day and lay waste to their homesteads until either we consent or there is nothing left of Achaiea. Oh, Mother, he has already killed the first families! Their bodies are lifted outside the gates on wooden poles. Men, women, youths and maidens. Only the smallest children are spared."

"How far does this edict extend into the nobility of Achaiea?" I asked.

"Never fear, Prince Deacon, you’re close enough to be given the chance to do your duty," Drayson, one of Bareth’s officers, sneered at me.

Bareth was about to speak to him but I held his shoulder. In the face of the loss of our kingdom, and of my Father, and of my own life, I lost the fear of the future that had always controlled me. I felt a white-hot yet death-cold power rise up within me, driven by a fierceness I had never accepted before. Not a fierceness of violent motion, instead a fierceness of purpose that would crush all opposition before it with the grinding inevitability of a glacier. I walked over to the smug sol-dier by myself. It wouldn’t have been much of a fight, physically. He towered over me by at least six inches and probably had twice my weight. But I was a son of our father, and of our mother as well. Their strength had maintained order, even justice, in our kingdom for longer than this cretin had been alive. I just stared at him, the chips of blue ice that were my eyes drilling into his muddy brown ones with cold beyond his worst nightmares of hell. Without breaking my hold on his eyes I slowly walked up to him and drew his own dagger from his sheath and pressed it to his neck.

"Never fear, soldier-who-fled-the-battle, I will do my duty," I whispered in his face. Then, without yet looking away, I threw his dag-ger down to spike between our feet. It made him blink. Only then, with a cold neutrality replacing my intensity, did I turn back to Bareth and the Queen.

"However," now I continued on as though no fierce emotions had just been vented, "we still need to know how far the edict extends. Does it include those in Mother’s family line? What of the outlying barons? They are outside the walls already and if Kragdle expects us to gather them in, his terms are impossible and our decision is obvious."

The Chamberlain, who had never been a particular friend of mine though he had been my primary tutor, weighed in on my side for once. "Prince Deacon is correct. We should not volunteer anyone to this mad-man’s bloodthirst. We must make him give us a specific list of those to be surrendered."

"We cannot accept his terms," Mother breathed.

"We may have to," Bareth disagreed. For the first time, the royal ‘We’ was evident in his voice. "We cannot allow Our people to die need-lessly. If Kragdle does as he promises, and the precedents of his cruelty are many, there will be no kingdom to rule if We do not meet his terms."

He stood straight, his resolve firm, his bearing regal in a way that I had seldom seen even in our father, King Andros. With a brief nod in respect to the Queen, our King led his staff out of her room to continue the negotiations.

"Oh, Deacon, I can’t lose you, too!" her sobs returned even as the door closed.

I did not notice at the time that Mother’s expression of grief did not include Bareth, "We are sons of our father as well. If we turn our back on our duty, you will already have lost us."

The proper thing to have done would have been to stay with her, but faced with the prospect of my own imminent demise I found I had no comfort to spare. My apartments were not far down the hall and I reached them quickly.

What would happen to the momentos of my life? My mother’s influ-ence was clear in my room, dotted with paintings and musical instruments rather than the swords and armor I knew were in Tamor’s room. And my books! In all the kingdom, there was not a finer library of discourses on human motivation than I had accumulated. The rumors of Mother’s powers had intrigued me and I had been quietly corresponding with scholars since I learned to read, though always through my Mother. Father would not abide any reference to her gift, except from the one source he could deny nothing. And why was that? Had I just witnessed within myself an echo of that rumored power? That irresistible persuasion? Now I would never know.

My own cat, Wraith, was a few shades lighter than Mother’s Grey-shadow. Both had a smooth, uniform color that seemed to make their forms indistinct in anything other than strong light so I missed her for a mo-ment while I was considering my few treasures. When I didn’t reach to pet her as I moved near, she voiced her displeasure with a demand no less imperative for coming from a kitten barely past weaning. She subsided with no more than a brief caress, though, sensing my mood.

I spent the next hour or so quietly reminding myself of my favorite tunes on the various instruments, letting the music be a symbol of my brief and passing contribution to the world that would soon throw my books out with the other rubbish. A knock on my door interrupted me before I became excessively maudlin.

"Prince Deacon, your presence is requested in the Queen’s chambers," came the call when I stopped playing.

The resolve demonstrated by my brother the prin . . . my brother the King, set a higher standard than I had given him credit for and I tried to capture a share of that myself as I went to hear of my doom. When I got to the Queen’s chambers there was an unexpectedly high level of energy in the room. Bareth and Mother were looking together at a parchment that appeared to set out the terms of the surrender, with the other members of Bareth’s staff humming to each other in small groups.

"Deacon, your name’s not on the list!" Bareth blurted out as soon as I entered.

"What?"

"Look and see," he offered, not quite pulling the parchment from Mother’s hands as he turned it toward me.

At the head, was Tamor’s name, followed by Bareth. But where mine would be expected to be found, the name of one of Father’s brothers was listed, Alcon, then his other brother, Kestrel. The fifth and final name on the list was mother’s brother, Nyquist, who had come to Achaiea to assist us in the ill-fated war. All these relatives were elderly. Father had been proclaimed heir by his father in preference to older brothers who were considered unsuitable for some reason I never knew. As I looked at the list I wondered if their failing had been in choice of a mate, for they were similar to Father in many ways, yet none had found wives to match our mother. Father had reigned, but who had truly ruled in Achaiea? These idle thoughts were an attempt for my mind to consider small problems before attacking the large ones, but the large ones weren’t going away.

"Why is Tamor’s name on the list?" I asked while I tried to understand the significance of my name’s absence.

"They don’t know he died in the battle. We told them that we be-lieved that to be the case and Kragdle has scouts out looking for his body. I confirmed with our men, though, and Tamor definitely died in the fight.

"It’s, um, a surprisingly short list," I mused.

The briefest flicker of amusement flashed across Bareth’s eyes as he replied, "Brother, you have a gift for making a point without saying what one would expect. The absence of your name is indeed a surprise."

"Do you have an explanation?" I asked.

"No. When they gave Hugh the list, he did a masterful job of be-traying none of the surprise you mentioned and just brought it to me."

The Chamberlain, on hearing his name, turned to us. "Your Majesty, I may have an explanation. All the names on that list have participated in martial tournaments. In addition, all have been proclaimed as the King’s representatives at fairs or as envoys in negotiations or in other official capacities. And of course, Queen Selay’s only other brother now reigns in Verdantland. Since Prince Deacon has only now turned sixteen, he has had no official duties outside the castle. It appears that Kragdle’s spies are not very efficient."

"Surely his spies can’t be that bad," I disagreed.

"Your pardon, Highness, but your appearance is somewhat , um, am-biguous. It is more common to find a girl who wears leggings than a boy, uh, man with long blond hair, especially as long and . . . err . . . well tended, as yours. Those who saw you but did not know you personally might not have recognized your true . . . gender," my old tutor stammered out.

So that’s why he was never very friendly toward me. He thought I was too effeminate. Not just weak, but actually un-masculine. Well, maybe he was right, at least in how I appeared.

I didn’t voice these thoughts, but Mother’s mind was moving in a similar track and much further down the path.

"We can beat that monster!" she breathed fiercely.

"Mother?" Bareth asked in surprise.

In sharp, clipped tones that seemed brittle as glass and twice as edged, she explained her plan.

"Oh, Bareth . . . my son . . . forgive me, but I cannot find a way to save you. This is no less your duty than it would be to lead your army into battle, though the outcome is certain rather than in the hands of God. However, Achaiea can survive."

Bareth’s eyes had held hope when Queen Selay had claimed a chance to beat Kragdle, then became carefully neutral when she withdrew any personal hope for him. He nodded briefly in acceptance of her priorities. Achaiea was more important than any single life and the life of her King was al-ways hers to claim. Yet just as surely, if the kingdom were to survive, there needed to be a King.

"I don’t understand," he prodded the Queen.

Instead of responding to him directly, Mother looked at me.

"Deacon, are you ready to make a sacrifice almost as drastic as that demanded of Bareth?" she asked.

"Yes, Mother, though what can be almost that bad, yet be effective?"

"Can you not guess? You were always the smartest of my children and Hugh has already given you the answer."

Hugh has given the answer? What answer? Hugh just said that some people might have mistaken me for a . . .

It came to me with an inevitability of its own, yet I must resist.

"No. I’m sorry, but I’ll let them have my head first."

Bareth still hadn’t caught on, so the next to react was Hugh. His face took on a fierceness to match Mother’s and I remembered that this man controlled the daily management of the Kingdom, not a job for a man of weak will or small intellect.

"Yessss," he breathed. "It would work."

"What would work?" Bareth demanded. "Somebody tell me what’s going on!"

I tried to cut off any other response, "Nothing is going on. Go tell Kragdle that they made a mistake. It’s better to do it now than have him find out on his own when he occupies the castle."

Bareth was puffing up in preparation for a truly regal rage when Mother put her hands on his arm, and on my own.

She spoke to me, first, "Deacon, this is your duty to your kingdom, no less than your duty to die if required. In this case you must live in order for Achaiea to live and for Kragdle to die."

Finally, she explained to Bareth, "Deacon will have to masquerade as a woman. When the time is right, he can depose the High Canyon trash and reclaim the kingdom."

 

(continued in Part 2)

 



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Milady's Wiles 1998 by Brandy Dewinter. All Rights Reserved. These documents (including, without limitation, all articles, text, images, logos, compilation design) may printed for personal use only. No portion of these documents may be stored electronically, distributed electronically, or otherwise made available without express written consent of the copyright holder.