Rowan decided against staying in his father’s quarters in the castle after the coronation, and had instead gone to his grandfather’s tavern in the village. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Winston, was a scholarly gentleman and a successful businessman. At one time, he had owned nearly half of the merchant stands and apothecaries of Junacave, becoming one of the most well-known traders of the realm. But once Rowan’s grandmother had died, his grandfather had become quite sullen. He began selling off his assets one by one until the only thing he still owned was the old tavern in the center of the village. Thankfully, the tavern had a steady income of customers who enjoyed a pint of ale and occasional fine wine or rum, when they were in stock.
Winston was always glad to let Rowan to stay and help tend the bar, occasionally. And Rowan used this to his advantage, as people do tend to talk openly and honestly when they have had too much drink, spilling all sorts of scandalous secrets and information. This was especially true during the king’s funeral, as many of his supporters had chosen to drink in memory of the king with dozens of villagers filling the tavern each night. Just today, he had learned that the old wizard, Elric, was dying. This didn’t surprise him, seeing as Elric was 120 years old now. He also learned that the tailor’s wife had been having an illicit affair with her own brother (that one he found hard to believe).
After securing shelter at the tavern, Rowan had needed a change of clothes as his usual dark attire would draw curious eyes, so he snuck upstairs to rummage through his grandfather’s wardrobe. He chose a simple green tunic, brown trousers, and a matching vest. While this clothing was more restricting than his typical ensemble, in which he wore at least ten different weapons at a time, he did still have a few of the necessities tucked away. But to a stranger, Rowan didn’t look any more dangerous than the drunken weasel at the end of the bar. Few people knew of his current occupation, and he preferred to keep it that way. He was quite enjoying himself until the tavern door swung open and Rowan looked up to find his father, Sir Nicholas, standing in the doorway.
What a vision his father was, dressed fully in his ceremonial armor and standing nearly six and a half feet tall, easily towering over every other man in the tavern, including Rowan. Though age was beginning to show a bit of silver in his brown beard, his father was still considered among the village women to be a very handsome and sought after man for marriage, leaving ladies falling over themselves to gain his attention. After Rowan’s mother had died, some fifteen years ago, Nick refused to take another wife since, and had devoted himself entirely to protecting the king. However, that certainly did not prevent Nick from being desired, as evidenced by the two women sitting in the corner, gawking at him.
“Rowan,” he said, nodding to his son as he walked up and sat down on a stool by the bar, “I must have missed you when you left the castle after the coronation. I wish you would have told me you had planned to stay as I could have made better provisions in the castle for you than… this.” He accepted the pint of ale that his son sat before him.
Rowan decided to wait to reply until they had moved into one of the empty storage rooms upstairs, for a bit of privacy, locking the door behind them as they entered. Since Rowan never knew where their conversations would take them, he did know that even innocent information in the wrong hands could be dangerous. He sat his mug down on a crate nearby.
“I appreciate the concern, but I’m alright here. And I don’t think staying in the castle would be a good idea at this moment. Besides, I am not a highly regarded knight, such as yourself,” he said, grinning at his father.
Nick cleared his throat, “Well, maybe not yet, but you could become one… a knight, I mean.” He took another swig and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “It is your birthright, after all.”
Fairly certain that his father’s memory must be failing him, Rowan reminded Nick that he couldn’t become eligible for knighthood, per the king’s orders. It was one of the conditions the king had given when he found out about Bree and Rowan.
“Ah, yes,” Nick replied, “but the king is the king no longer. And I have on good word from the late king, himself, that Junacave would be lucky to have you in its guard and that he wished it were so. He confided in me just before his death.”
While Rowan wanted to laugh at the suggestion of becoming a royal knight, he decided against it, so as not to offend his father who had devoted his life to the guard. It wasn’t long ago that Rowan was on his way to knighthood himself and very sure he would get there, but fate being as it was, his destiny had changed.
“I appreciate the thought, father, but I’m not sure that I would be a good fit for the guard.” He paused to think of how to word his next reply. “And I am absolutely certain that the queen wouldn’t appreciate having me around. Especially after her reaction at the coronation. She didn’t seem pleased to see me. Perhaps it was just terrible timing on my part, showing up unannounced…”
“Well, I’m not so sure about that myself,” Nick said, “but if you would just consider it?”
Nick decided to change the subject of conversation before Rowan could outright refuse.
“So, tell me about your recent travels. See anything interesting?” his father said with a wink. Rowan simply grinned and began his tale.
He agreed to consider his father’s offer, but shoved the thought aside a few moments after he left. No, Rowan was sure that once he received his new assignment, he would be far away from the kingdom, and even further away from becoming a knight.
Elric had taken the queen aside during the third day of her father’s funeral to offer both his condolences and his loyalty, but Bree could tell that there was something else bothering him. So she offered to speak with him, privately after the funeral had passed. And while she was certain that her first day of being Queen would be a most tiring day, Bree still found the time to visit Elric in his wizard’s tower shortly before supper, which was housed in a tall tower on the southwest corner of the castle.
The room smelled of old leather books, dust, and dirt. Bree stood for a moment, looking around the octagonal room, no larger than ten feet from one side to the other. The walls were completely covered from the stone floor to the ceiling with shelves of books, bottles, and boxes, in complete disarray. There seemed to be no organization at all. Even the large wooden table in the center of the room was covered with books, stacked so high that Bree could barely see Elric on the other side of the table.
Seeing that her presence had gone unnoticed, she lightly cleared her throat. Elric gave a quick yelp, then hurried around the table to greet her, bowing and placing a gentle kiss on her hand.
“Your majesty, my queen. I am most delighted that you were willing to speak with me. I promise to keep our conversation brief. Would you please follow me up” he pointed to the floor above and gestured to the stone stairs to her left, “as I am afraid this room does not provide adequate comfort for you, m’ lady.”
Elric led Bree up the round stairs and into the room above. This room was entirely different than the first. Though the size was the same, it was polished clean and organized to perfection, with large soft chairs and hundreds of bottles, potions, and ingredients, lining the wall shelves above. Elric motioned her to a chair and took another across from her. Bree sat down, gracefully, straightening the skirts of her gown.
“I will have to beg your majesty’s forgiveness, in my poor demeanor of late.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “I am afraid that my many years of casting has begun to weaken me, physically and magically. I may not be of very much use to you before long.” He paused, sighing heavily. Bree could see poor Elric’s hands were shaking. He continued, “I asked you to come here today so I could recommend, privately, that your majesty would consider implementing my replacement.”
It was hard for Bree to tell exactly how old Elric actually was, because in all the years she had known him, his face had been wrinkled and his hair and long beard had been silver and gray. She did, however, notice his posture had changed in recent years. The Elder Mage, who had once walked tall and proud, with his robes swaying majestically, had now come to walk with his back bent slightly and his robes trailing the ground. While Elric didn’t appear to be ill, Bree could see the man before her looked very tired and drained of light. Perhaps aging was different for wizards, she thought. And she hated to see him feel so disheartened.
“Now, Elric,” Bree began, speaking pleasantly so as not to upset him further, “you have been my father’s most trusted and loyal friend for most of his life. We consider you to be family. The people of Junacave, myself included, owe their livelihood and survival to you. I can most assure you that we appreciate any service you can provide to us, even if it is only as council.” Bree smiled at Elric, then decided to add, “However if it is your wish, I will consider a replacement, though I hardly think we will need one. Junacave has been at peace for many years, and hopefully will continue to be for many years to come.”
“Yes, perhaps,” Elric replied, then quickly glancing over to his scrying mirror, murmured, “Perhaps, not.”
Bree soon found out what Elric had been referring to, when just after supper, a guard came rushing into the castle, panting and yelling.
“A head. There’s a head!” The poor man looked as if he were about to faint.
Sir Nicholas flew in front of the queen, sword unsheathed and armor clanking. Bree stood quickly as Nick motioned the two guards behind her to help subdue the panicked guard. Once he was calm enough to speak, Nick questioned him
“What head? Where do you speak of?”
The guard simply pointed towards the door in which he came.
“In the noble courtyard! Someone has defiled the king’s grave with a head!”
Before Nick could even turn around to stop her, Bree had rushed past him and out of the hall, followed by several guards. Cicilly, having just entered the hall from a doorway on the side, looked startled by the commotion and yelling coming from Nick.
“What is the matter?” she asked him, but he breezed past her. So she followed.
Bree froze at the corner of the noble courtyard, staring at what most certainly was a severed head, that of Sir Colbert, a knight of Junacave. Bree had been at odds for many years with Sir Colbert’s daughter, Penelope. However, Sir Colbert had been nothing but kind to Bree. Now the knight’s head, still dripping with bright red blood, was sitting on top of a stake outside her father’s tomb. His body was nowhere in sight.
Cicilly gasped at the sight and Sir Nick tried to cover her eyes by pulling her into his chest. He could feel her body shaking, and ordered a guard to take her from the courtyard and find Princess Sarita. When he turned to take Bree’s arm, she pulled away, rooted where she was.
“Sir Nicholas, do not attempt to remove me,” she said, firmly. Bree could smell the blood, which was beginning to make her queasy.
One of the guards stepped forward to examine the head and noticed a piece of parchment, rolled up and sticking out of the mouth. Slowly he pulled it out and opened it up. It read: “I am the rightful heir of Junacave, and I will have it. ~ King Silas”
How incredibly barbaric of a king to send a message in this fashion, Bree thought. What kind of monster is he?
Apparently there was some concern from her uncle Silas, after all. Bree turned to the guard who had reported finding the head and questioned him.
“When did you last patrol this courtyard? How long has the head been there?”
“I did a sweep of the grounds just before supper, your majesty,” he replied, “and there was nothing and no one here.”
“Then it has happened recently,” Nick said, “and the conspirator could very well still be about the grounds. Your majesty, please allow me to escort you to safety, until the castle and grounds can be cleared of danger.”
Bree allowed the guards to escort her back to the castle while Nick shouted orders to find Sir Raymun, sweep the area, and report back immediately. Bree was led to a room in the knight’s wing of the castle, where she found her mother and Sarita already waiting by the fire, puzzled looks on their faces.
“It will be alright,” Bree tried to assure Sarita, who was looking rather pale.
It had now grown dark outside and Bree was becoming quite frustrated at being locked in the room for so long, with no word of the progress. Just then, Sir Nicholas opened the large wooden door and stuck his head inside.
“Please come with me, your majesty. The council awaits,” he said. Then turned to Cicilly and Sarita. “Queen Mother and Princess, the guards outside will escort you back to the hall, or to your chambers, if you wish.”
“No,” Cicilly replied, “I would like to sit in the council meeting if it is permitted?”
Sir Nicholas began to tell her that it was not permitted, but stopped short of speaking as he remembered that it was the queen’s decision of who may attend council. Even though King Frederick had not allowed Cicilly to be involved in these matters, it was no longer his decision.
“That would be the choice of the queen, m’ lady,” he said.
Bree glanced back at her mother, unsure as to why she would want to attend, but unwilling to waste time she turned back to Nick.
“I will permit her to attend. Please escort Princess Sarita to her chambers and send the maids to fetch her a warm bath. This could take a while.”
The council was waiting for the queen in a room on the second floor of the guard house. Bree knew that this room was used for planning military strategies, voting on legislation, and other private matters, but she had never actually been inside the room, itself. The council must have arrived recently as the air in the room was still cold despite a fire burning on the far end of the room. The walls were covered in shields and pennants of past kings and queens of Junacave. In the center of the room stood a very long table, with four seats on each side and one at the head of the table, which she was led to. She knew that the council would always consist of eight council members plus the king or queen, making a total of nine members present to vote. This was purposely done, so that in the event of an equal number of votes on a matter, the king or queen would be the deciding vote.
Looking around the table, Bree recognized each individual present. To Bree’s right was Elric, the Royal Mage, followed by Fortin, the kingdom Chancellor, who handled the administrative duties. Beside him was Arthur, the kingdom financier, and then there was Marshal Garret, who was in charge of the stables and horses of the cavalry. Sir Nicholas the First Knight was to her immediate left, and Sir Raymun, Head of the Castle Guard beside him, followed by Sir Ainsley and Sir Luthias, both high-ranking military officials. The last seat beside them was empty. Sir Nicholas had mentioned it briefly while escorting Bree into the guard house. The empty seat had belonged to Sir Colbert, who was in charge of the kingdom’s archers.
“I assume that Sir Colbert’s family has been informed of his passing? And proper arrangements are being made for a full military funeral and just compensation to the widow?” Bree asked, frowning.
“Yes, your majesty,” Nicholas replied.
“I should like to give his family my condolences in person. Please make arrangements for me to do so, immediately following our meeting,” she added.
Just then, the door across the room opened slightly and a dark cladded figure stepped in. It only took Bree a moment to recognize that it was Rowan who entered the room. Bree stiffened at the sight of him, tilting her head slightly, wondering why he was here.
Sensing the queen’s confusion, Sir Nicholas quickly interjected, “My apologies, your majesty. I have asked my son, Rowan, to join our meeting as we are short one council member. With Rowan’s position in our military, I thought his knowledge would be most beneficial.”
Bree hadn’t taken her eyes off of Rowan, their gazes locked. For the second time in one week, Bree found herself face to face with the one person she had been longing to see. And again, his presence made her feel weak at a time when she needed to appear strong. If only she could feel anything other than pure aggravation at his constant interrupting, she may actually be glad to see him.
“Forgive me, Sir Nicholas,” Bree said, “for I am not yet familiar with the procedures of a missing council member.”
“The procedure is to appoint a temporary member, at your approval, until one can be voted in officially, your majesty,” Nick replied, trying to hide his pleasure at seeing that his son had actually come. Nick was fairly sure that Rowan would refuse the invitation.
Bree broke their stare and nodded slightly, “Very well.”
Rowan crossed the room and took the empty seat at the table. For the first time, Bree noticed her mother sitting in a chair on the far side of the room, eyeing Rowan intently, and looking very confused. It seemed her mother wasn’t aware of Rowan’s current profession. Perhaps, that was for the best.
The council meeting had not been as productive as Breestlin would have liked it to be. Sir Colbert had been escorting guests out of the kingdom to the north and had been nowhere near the south, where the kingdom of Sire was located. There was no word yet, from our scouts in the south, as to any unusual activity around Sire, or if any of Sire’s soldiers had been in the north recently. All of this came as news to Bree, who was unaware the Junacave had even been watching Sire.
The message from Silas, short as it may have been, was very clear of his intentions. Junacave could simply ignore the threat, but that certainly wouldn’t stop Silas from attacking if he chose to. Bree had also considered a suggestion to invite Silas to discuss conditions of a possible treaty. Surely there was something she could offer Silas to make amends, for what, she wasn’t sure. Another option was to retaliate in a strike against Sire, but being unaware of his capabilities made most of the council members leery of this strategy. And Elric, in his aging condition, would be of no help in penetrating the magical boundaries surrounding Sire, for Larkin, Silas’ royal mage, was very powerful.
Elric did offer a small flicker of hope, however. He suggested that the council locate his grandson, Dagan, whom he may be able to convince to assist them. Bree was not aware that Elric even had a child, let alone a grandson and was surprised to learn that Dagan had lived in Junacave for a short time, when he was a young boy, but had chosen to leave with his mother one day and never returned. Elric had visited his daughter-in-law and grandson, teaching Dagan to develop his magic over the years, but when Dagan was twenty-one years old, his mother was murdered. In his grief, Dagan had preferred a life of solitude ever since. Nine years had passed since Elric had last seen Dagan, the day of his mother’s funeral.
Unfortunately, Elric had little insight as to Dagan’s whereabouts at the moment. The council learned that Dagan preferred to live alone, in areas that were hard to reach, thus guaranteeing his privacy. Elric did mention that Dagan was a lover of women, but would commit to none. Therefore, it may be possible to track him by the numbers of scorned women he left behind. Bree decided not to press for details.
Sir Nicholas recommended the queen send someone to track down Dagan’s location. Bree asked Rowan to do so, and he quickly accepted, happy to finally have a reason to leave Junacave. As daunting of a task that it may be, if anyone would be able to find him, it would be Rowan, Nick had advised. And besides, Bree thought to herself, at least this would put some separation between them and allow her to gather her thoughts. Perhaps, given some time, she may be able to formulate a strategy for dealing with Rowan without feeling like a foolish little girl.