In through the lands on of the east came a rider. Through the mountain passes at Darhain at midnight, she rode at full gallop swift as the wind for a day and a half, sparing little time on sleep or rest until he reached the capital city.
A distant shout warned the guards on the wall of the arrival, and the rider waved a yellow flag, a signal of an urgent message for the palace. The gates were immediately opened and she sped through up the main street and into the palace grounds.
She fell more than climbed down from her horse and stood with hands on her knees huffing nearly as much as her steed. A groom ran forward and handed her a cup of water and took the reins of the horse, leading it away to rest, feed and be brushed.
The messenger had to lope forwards on slightly bandy legs and grab the groom before he had gone too far, stopping him momentarily so that she could grab a satchel out of the saddlebags across the horses rump. Still short of breath, she waved the groom away and took in her surroundings.
This was obviously the royal palace, it being the largest building in the capital city, and the presumably this was the capital city, since it was right where she had been given directions for. It just didn’t look very grand for a royal residence. In truth it was barely double any of the houses that she had passed by on the way up the admittedly short main street.
Maybe there were more houses where she couldn’t see them. Maybe she was in completely the wrong place. Maybe the rumours she had heard about the barbarity of the Constantinians was indeed warranted and she was about to be lynched just for existing. The place certainly fitted the style of ‘barbarian chic’, it was sturdy enough and large rocks and heavy logs featuring greatly in the architecture.
A servant was watching her from the doorway, braced as he was by two armed guards. The guards were standing to attention, and seemingly ready for anything, both well armed not just with sword and shield, but pike, short sword and yes, leaning next to the wall were a pair of very heavy looking longbows.
She approached the servant, and quickly looked inside her knapsack for a reminder of the note she had made for herself. “I have here an urgent message for his royal highness King .. Gulliph, sent from His majesty Julius the fifteenth, anointed King and sovereign ruler of Fenlor. Long may he reign and long life to him and his dynasty.”
She might as well go all out on the ceremonies, it might make the backward barbarians respect the message, and maybe by inference the messenger.
“The mighty Gulliph will not be available for an audience today, he is currently away hunting. You will be delighted to find yourself in the presence of her majesty the most beautiful of the realm, the queen Catherine.”
The sideways glance informed the messenger that she would be delighted to be in the queen’s presence, or she wouldn’t be in the queen’s presence for very long. She nodded, and tried to arrange her features into something resembling grace, respect and absolute delight at the same time.
She felt she had managed something resembling constipated rage, or at least that would explain the horrified look on the face of her guide, so she just went back to a blank look and nodded briefly.
They didn’t chat beyond that.
The throneroom was large, but not spectacular, the throne itself looked as if it had been hewn directly from the largest tree they could find, and then drowned under piles of animal skins. On one side of the room was an enormous fireplace, blazing away with dozens of logs, giving the air a hot and muggy taste.
The messenger dreaded facing the queen, expecting some sort of massive valyrie, weighing as much as an ox. She probably had a beard large enough to match the one delighted to grace the chin of the king. She stifled a snort as the guide looked at her.
She stood, a dozen yards from the throne, waiting. Though she was unsure why she was waiting. Did the queen even know she was here? Was she being tested for something?
“Are you an assassin, sent to kill me?”
She looked around, and there, off to the side of the fire was a tall willowy woman, dressed in fine blue silks. The image was so unlike what she had just pictured stunned her for a moment.
“I said, are you here to kill me?”
“No, milady…. I’m here with a message”
“You know that if you do kill me, you won’t live more than a minute beyond that?”
This was quickly getting out of hand.
“No, milady. I swear I am only here with a message and nothing more. I have no intentions of killing anybody, I don’t even have any weapons”
“You say that, but any woman knows that there are many places one could hide a knife in any costume she wears. It makes facing women so interesting, don’t you find?”
“I’m not sure, milady. I’ve not had cause to consider it.”
“Then you obviously haven’t been bored enough. Well, out with it then.”
She looked around her, suddenly wondering where the conversation had gone to this time while she wasn’t paying attention.
The queen stopped poking the fire and moved across to the throne where she made herself comfortable on the furs. “You said you had a message, are you going to tell me what it is or do we play a guessing game for the afternoon?”
Stunned into action, she jumped and reached into her knapsack and fished out the scroll.
“I was supposed to deliver this to the hand of the king himself…”
“Well, you’ll be in for a long wait. His royal majesty, the great and glorious Guliph, the first of his name and leader of our grand kingdom of Constantinia is off marauding the forests and hills looking for any boars, bears and bandits he hadn’t previously eradicated. So you’d better give it to me, then.”
“Oh. Of course.” The messenger stepped faultingly towards the dais. After a couple of steps and nobody stopping her, she walked the rest of the distance and handed over the scroll to the queen.
Quickly she retreated to a safer distance and took up a pose of nervous attention.
The queen took the scroll between a single finger and thumb with a look of dismay. It was tied with a gold ribbon and sealed with a blob of red wax, imprinted with the seal of the royal house of Fenlor, neighbouring kingdom to that of the Constantinians. She looked up at her visitor.
“Do you know what is written here?”
“No milady, my job is simply to deliver it and return as soon as possible with any response your highness would have me deliver.”
The Queen broke the seal and unfurled the parchment, and took a moment to study the writings within.
The silence grew longer.
She could feel the eyes of the queen looking over the scroll, studying her. Eventually the messenger felt her duty to speak up and break the tension. “… Do you have … a response you would like me to take back with me? Or would you like some time to consider a response, milady?”
The queen took her time in talking.
“No… You may return and tell his own royal highness that you have delivered your message safe and sound. Any response we have will be sent in our own time. You can consider yourself dismissed.”
The relief on the face of messenger was palpable, and she wasted no time in bowing her way out of the door, presumably to collect her horse and ride back where she had come from.
The queen waited a good few minutes before doing anything else, leaving enough time for the messenger to be well clear before she did anything. Ten minutes was all it took for news to come through that the messenger had collected her horse and was heading for the city gates.
Her shout summoned her trusty advisor, who was only a few yards away, waiting dutifully at the back of the hall, as he was want to do. He came striding forwards, scurrying not being his style.
“Yes, Lady Catherine. How may I be of service.”
“Have you been watching the entire time?”
“Of course. But my duty is to wait for you to need me, rather than make myself unwanted.”
“Then you can tell me what I should do with this.”
She handed Torm the paper. He looked down at the esquisite writing, coiling lettering wrapping itself around the page beautifully in an elegant hand written flowing script.
“What does it say?”
Torm thought carefully before answering. “… words?”
“Exactly. What the hell are we supposed to do with a message that we can’t read? I can’t understand a bloody word of it, and obviously neither can you.”
“It could be a declaration of war! They could be marching over the passes tomorrow!”
“Or it could be a recipe for flatbread. No, your job, your ONLY job is to find someone in the city that can read and bring them back here.”
Torm fairly ran from the throne room, muttering to himself “I think it’s more likely to be war.”
“And send someone to find that useless lump of a husband of mine and bring him back. This is probably going to be important.”
In the two days it took to find the king and return him and his retinue to the city there was found precisely four people in the kingdom who claimed they could read. Two of them read and spoke Cobalt, the language of the aincient wastes north of the border. One traveller was found getting drunk in the inn nearest the gate who was fluent in Pascat, one of the seafaring languages to the west, and an old man was dug out of his hovel who claimed to understand the Oddham runes found throughout the countryside. Unfortunately none of those four could read whatever language the Fenlor scroll was written in, even though all of them were given the scroll to peruse.
When the king returned at the close of the second day, various people had given their opinions of what it could be, though Torm was nearly frantic with worry about what it could mean and the diminishing timeframe if it was indeed a declaration of war.
King Guliph was grumpy enough having had to return from his hunt earlier than he had wanted to, and the panic unsettling his palace didn’t help his mood. Worse, the citywide search was setting the common people on edge as well, rumours were abounding about who, what, where and being murdered in their beds all over this mysterious message from the east.
The only clues they had were the delicacy of the writing itself and the wrappings. It had a golden ribbon, and a red seal. By this point nothing could deter Torm from his certainty that war was upon them, and the more wine and ale that was drunk through the council meeting the more he was able to convince the others.
By the next morning the king himself was readying his horse for a sortie, and had summoned a small contingent of only a hundred of his finest warriors to head off an attack at the mountain passes. If they reached the passes first, then a hundred men would be enough to repel any force, and if they were too late then the light number of warriors meant they could turn and run for the solidity of the walls before facing any form of overmatching enemy.
As they passed various towns and hamlets on their three day march to the mountains they were able to increase their numbers to over a hundred and eighty men, nearly half of which was on horseback, though the foot troops were carrying such a varied selection of razor sharp farm implements, scythes, shears and axes that they formed a truly terrifying sight to behold all by themselves.
The mountain passes took them completely by surprise, surprising mainly because of their absolute emptiness. Not a soul, not a guard and especially not a large and well armed fighting force was waiting for them. Standing as they did on the lee of the mountains looking down onto the lush and verdant meadows and fields of Fenlor, there was not a trace of any enemy to be seen.
Obviously they had gotten ahead of any planned attack from this front, but it was too soon to relax. The Constantinian troops under the eye of their supreme commander, bedded in and set up what fortifications they could for a full week before they got restless and bored.
If they had come this far undetected, logic dictated, then they should be able to foray into Fenlor itself and find some clues as to the attack plan, pre-empting the enemy before they had chance to act first.
Boredom and ale informed this logic more than any other reasoning.
So into Fenlor they crept, as best as they could, heading south east, directly for the Fenlor capital. Nearly two hundred men is easier to hide than you might think, especially if you move at night and have plenty of forests to hide in, and as long as you care more about not being seen from the front than you are about leaving traces behind you.
It was on the fifth night did they come upon what they had been dreading the most. Surrounding the City of Fenlor, in the open meadows around the city there was a wealth of tents, hundreds of them, in all the colours of the rainbow, and further explaining why the countryside seemed so empty.
Fenlor was massing it’s men, by the hundred, by the thousand, all gathering here in the sight of the city before setting out on their massed conquest to steal the land, the liberty and the lives of all trueborn Constantinians.
And for this they would pay.
It was a brief council of war in the forest that night, overlooking the canvas city below them. One option was to travel back home and raise an even bigger army to teach them a lesson, but the much more popular option was to strike.
While the iron was hot.
While the enemy didn’t suspect a thing, in the middle of the night.
While everybody was sleeping.
The plan was quickly spread and put into action. In squads of five, they would infiltrate the tents like the lightning, setting fire to what they could and slaughtering everybody they come upon then vanishing like farts in the wind, only to reappear at another location. By dawn they would either be victorious, dead or have run back to the sanctuary of the woods.
The fires were many and various, and the chaos absolute. Screaming occurred in dozens of places but almost never where the Constantinians were, or were for much longer.
Piece by piece each warband worked their way towards the larger tents at the centre of the city, where the army leaders would obviously have gathered and plotted their own warfare. The largest tent was already burning by the time the king strode into it, sword at the ready and already having seen a score of innards by this point. His great bushy beard was charred slightly, but even that could not stop the massive grin showing through it.
Already there was one warband, looting behind the altar and grabbing all the gold they could from the massed pile. This gave Torm pause, hanging at the hip of his king, which was his place by right, and he gently placed a hand on the shoulder of his ruler.
“Erm, my lord.”
The king stopped in his revels.
“My lord. Do you see the altar? The altar before us decorated with ribbons of red and white? The altar that looks unlikely to be holding any war plans, in fact it looks more suited for ….”
The king blinked.
“… a wedding.”
“Yes, my lord. What looks to be, if I may theorise, a royal wedding.”
“Making the scroll we received probably wasn’t a declaration of war. It was more likely..”
“A Wedding Invitation.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Ah. I think we need a new plan.”
“I think that might be necessary, yes”
“A new plan, in which we … leave.”
“A grand idea my lord.”
“Spread the word. We are going home. With great speed.”
“Indeed my lord.”
“And most importantly. MOST. IMPORTANTLY.”
“Yes, my lord?”
“We were never here.”
“Yes, My Lord.”