A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 13

Castle Mairwyn,
City of Serabor,
Barony of Larchros,
Princedom of Corisande

Damn, it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a mountain slash lizard, Sahlahmn Traigair, the Earl of Storm Keep, thought as he climbed down from the saddle at last.

October was summer, not winter in Corisande, but no one could have proved it by the cold, icy rain pounding the streets and roofs of Serabor. The same icy mountain rain which had pounded him and his companions for the entire day just past. It wasn’t as if Storm Keep was unfamiliar with the local weather. His own earldom lay just to the northeast of Larchros, and he’d been a fairly frequent visitor here over the years. More than that, the jagged Marthak Mountains formed the border between Larchros and the Earldom of Craggy Hill. Despite the fact that the equator passed directly across the northern Marthaks, there was snow on their highest peaks almost year-round, and the Barcor Mountains, in whose foothills Serabor nestled, were even taller.

It’s not really cold enough to freeze anyone, I guess, he admitted grudgingly, reaching back to massage his posterior as the rest of their sizable party of servants, retainers, and guards dismounted around them. It sure as hell feels that way, though!

“Welcome to Castle Mairwyn, My Lord,” a voice said, and Storm Keep turned to the speaker. Rahzhyr Mairwyn, Baron Larchros, was just as wet — and looked almost as miserable — as Storm Keep felt, but he still managed a smile. “If you’re not too thoroughly frozen, I expect there’s a fire and hot chocolate – or maybe even something a bit stronger – waiting for us.”

“Now that, Rahzhyr, sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day!” Storm Keep said with a smile of his own.

“Then let’s go find both of them,” Larchros invited, and waved for Storm Keep to accompany him as efficient grooms led their mounts away.

The earl nodded, and the two of them headed out of the brick-paved stable yard, across the castle’s main courtyard, and up the steps to the massive, old-fashioned central keep. Castle Mairwyn was well over three centuries old, and despite the enlarged, many-paned windows which had replaced most of the Keep’s upper firing slits, the old fortress looked its age. Personally, Storm Keep preferred his own much newer residence in the city of Telitha, looking out over the sparkling blue waters of Telith Bay. He certainly preferred the scenery, at any rate. However picturesque they might be, Serabor’s narrow, twisting streets were a far cry from Telitha’s broad, straight avenues. But that was because Serabor was perched atop a “hill” which would probably have been called a mountain anywhere except in the Barcors. The last mile or so to the city’s gate had been a steady uphill slog which had been pure, un-distilled misery for their horses, and the castle itself crowned the solid plug of granite Serabor had been built around so long ago.

Still, Storm Keep thought, whoever picked this as the place to build a castle knew what he was doing. Just getting at it would be an unmitigated pain in the arse. And actually storming the place would be a hell of a lot worse than that!

That wasn’t a consideration he would have spent a great deal of time on as little as three months ago; at the moment, though, it loomed large in his thinking.

They reached the top of the steps and entered the keep’s main hall. Lady Larchros was waiting for them, smiling in welcome, and Storm Keep was delighted to see that she was, indeed, holding a steaming cup of hot chocolate in each hand.

“Welcome home!” Raichenda Mairwyn said, smiling at her husband, then switched her attention to Storm Keep. “And twice welcome for the visitor, My Lord! The watch warned me you were coming, and given the weather, I was sure both of you would appreciate this.”

She extended the steaming cups, and Storm Keep smiled broadly as he cupped both chilled hands around the welcome warmth.

“You are a hostess among hostesses, Lady Raichenda,” he said, then raised the cup and sipped appreciatively. The warmth seemed to flow through him, and he sighed in bliss. “Langhorne will reward you in Heaven,” he assured her.

“Perhaps so, My Lord.” Her voice and expression had both turned sober. “It’s to be hoped it will be for more than a simple cup of chocolate, though.”

“May it be so, indeed,” he murmured, meeting her eyes levelly. Apparently she was even deeper into her husband’s confidence than Storm Keep had anticipated.

Well, you’ve known for years that he dotes on her, he reminded himself. And woman or not, she’s one of the smarter people you know, for that matter. Even if he hadn’t told her a word, she’d guessed what’s toward soon enough.

“In the meantime, though,” she continued, “I’ve had hot baths drawn for both of you. Mairah” – she nodded to one of the serving women hovering in the background – “will show you to your room, My Lord. I imagine there’s a fair chance your baggage is at least a little damp, given the weather. But you and Rahzhyr are much the same size, I believe, and I’ve had a selection of his garments laid out for you. I’ll have your valet sent up to join you as soon as he comes in from the stables. For now, please – go soak the chill out of your bones!”

* * * * * * * * * *

An hour or so later, and feeling almost sinfully warmed and comfortable, Storm Keep found himself seated in a richly upholstered chair in the chamber Larchros used as an office. The baron’s clerk was nowhere in sight, but Father Airwain Yair, Larchros’ chaplain and confessor, sat in a marginally plainer chair on the far side of the fireplace. Rain pattered against the windows and gurgled musically through gutters and downspouts, a coal fire seethed quietly in a shallow grate, decorative cut crystal glittered on the marble mantle above the fire, and all three of them had snifters of brandy at their elbows. It was as peaceful and welcoming a scene as Storm Keep could have imagined, yet Yair’s expression was anxious as he looked at Larchros.

“So the traitors have truly decided to capitulate to Cayleb, My Lord?” The priest sounded as if even now he found it difficult to believe.

“In fairness, Father,” Storm Keep said before the baron could speak, “it’s not as if the Regency Council had a great deal of choice. With Prince Hektor and his son both dead, Daivyn out of the princedom, and Cayleb besieging the capital, their only real options were surrender or standing a siege which could end only one way.”

“True enough, Sahlahmn,” Larchros’ voice was considerably harsher than the earl’s had been, “but there’s a difference between a tactical decision to surrender a city and what Father Airwain has so aptly called ‘capitulating.'”

“There, I can’t argue with you,” Storm Keep conceded, his own voice bleaker. “Mind you, I do think there’s some point to Anvil Rock’s argument. With no army left in the field, with our navy sealed up in port, and with Cayleb in position to bring in still more troops whenever the urge struck him, what were we supposed to use to stop him from doing whatever he wanted? He already had thousands of men in the Princedom, and he hadn’t even begun deploying any Chisholmian troops here, so he still had every single soldier in Sharleyan’s army — a considerably larger and even more professional army than the one he’d already brought with him, I might add — in reserve. I, on the other hand, have less than eighty armsmen in my entire guard. How many do you have?”

Larchros growled, but he couldn’t dispute the earl’s point. It had taken Prince Fronz, Prince Hektor’s father, the better part of twenty years to complete the process of stripping his nobles of their feudal levies, but he’d managed it in the end. And, truth to tell, Storm Keep and most of his fellow aristocrats had seen the wisdom of his policy — after the fact, at least. After all, the Royal Army, with its core of professional, long term troops, would have made mincemeat out of any levies one of them (or even an alliance of several of them) could have put into the field against it, anyway. None of them could afford to maintain a force which could have changed that, even assuming Fronz had been willing to let them try. Which he hadn’t been. He’d made that point rather firmly, and the plain truth was that most of his magnates had been just as happy to avoid the sort of occasional fratricide which had wracked parts of Corisande with dreary predictability under Fronz’s father and grandfather. At least this way each of them was spared the expense of maintaining his own private troops while the Army saw to it that none of his fellows were in a position to threaten him.

Unfortunately, that policy of Prince Fronz’s had just come home to roost with a vengeance.

“The largest force any of us – even someone like one of the dukes – can command is barely enough to keep the peace in his own lands, and not one of us has any of the new weapons,” the earl pointed out remorselessly. “Would you like to try to stand up to a battalion or two of Charisian Marines, with their damned rifles and artillery, with that?”

There was silence for a moment, profound enough for all of them to hear the patter of the persistent rain against the chamber’s windows. Then Larchros shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Or . . . not yet, at least.”

“Exactly,” Storm Keep said very, very quietly, and he and the baron looked at one another.

It wasn’t as if they hadn’t discussed the situation at length during the endless ride from Cherayth to Serabor. They’d had to be at least a little circumspect, since there was no telling which set of ears, even among their own retainers, might be eager to curry favor with the Charisian occupiers by carrying tales. But they’d known one another for a long time. Neither of them had been left in any doubt about where the other stood. On the other hand ….

“It’s going to have to be handled carefully,” Storm Keep pointed out softly.

“Oh, I agree entirely.” Larchros grimaced. “Unless I’m mistaken, at least some of those southerners are actually willing to stand in line to lick Cayleb’s hand . . . or his arse, for that matter!” He shook his head in disgust. “And I never thought I’d say this, but I’m pretty sure Anvil Rock is, too.”

“Truly, My Lord?” Yair shook his head. “I confess, I always thought the Earl was completely loyal to Prince Hektor. Not to mention Mother Church!”

“So did I, Airwain.” Larchros shrugged. “From the way he reacted to any suggestion we play for time, though, I’m beginning to think we were both wrong about that. Either that, or the guts have gone out of him. Not to mention his damned son!”

Storm Keep considered pointing out that Sir Koryn Gahrvai, the Earl of Anvil Rock’s son, had probably done as well as anyone could have in the face of the Charisians’ crushing tactical superiority. Blaming Gahrvai for his army’s defeat, however satisfying it might be, was scarcely an exercise in fair-mindedness.

On the other hand, fair-mindedness isn’t exactly what we need just now, either, the earl reminded himself. And if being pissed at Anvil Rock and Gahrvai helps . . . motivate Rahzhyr or some of the others, then so be it.

“At any rate, Father,” he said out loud, looking at the priest, “Anvil Rock, Tartarian, and North Coast have made it clear enough they aren’t prepared to countenance any sort of armed resistance. And before he left for Chisholm, Cayleb – damn his soul! – made it even clearer than that that anyone who wasn’t prepared to swear fealty to him would be deprived of his titles and his lands.” He shrugged. “I can’t say it came as any great surprise. That was the reason he summoned us all to Manchyr in the first place, after all. And however bitter the pill may taste, he’s also the one who won the damned war, so I don’t suppose anyone should be astonished when he acts the part.”

“And this . . . abomination, My Lord? This ‘Church of Charis’ of his?”

“And he delivered the same ultimatum to the clergy, Father,” Storm Keep admitted heavily. “I’m sure you’ll be hearing from your bishop – your new bishop, I suppose I should say – to that effect soon enough.”

“Bishop Executor Thomys has accepted the schism?” Yair stared at the earl in disbelief.