Caden let out a sigh, then looked up to Wulfsurd. “It is an interesting plan, but we would gamble everything on it based on a mere idea of Armand’s character,” the prince explained. He looked to the Lord Colbert then, a man he didn’t know or trust particularly well. “What if he’s not that smart, or worse, what if he’s a greater strategist than we give him credit for? Or what if one of his own lords has seen through this? We could stand here and speculate all evening but the more complicated we make this, the more we place our hopes on events that are currently completely out of our control, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. It could just as easily be that both Armand’s army and his men at Formere are marching here at speed at this very moment in order to catch us from both sides, which would make it very difficult to carry out a plan that relies on us defeating them separately. How many miles a day could they cover at speed? Twenty? Furthermore, the sky fills with clouds as we speak and if we are to be cursed with heavy rain tonight our own movement will be slowed by sodden conditions.”
Colbert had a half-smile on his face the entire time Caden spoke to him. Part of it was due to politeness, but there were small tells he was clearly nervous and Caden felt a twinge of guilt that he had to criticize the plan of the minor Lord who until recently hadn’t had his father’s attention. The men around the table all wanted to impress, to gain the ear and confidence of their king by proving themselves in this campaign.
Wulfsurd was the exception, but only because he and the king had been friends since childhood, and he looked at Caden with an expression of pleasant surprise, saying, “but then again the prince also has a point.” Wulfsurd chuckled then in his signature manner; deep, pleasant and at how he had backtracked so quickly. Wulfsurd rarely chuckled at anyone but himself, and Caden found it interesting how the man could self-deprecate so often yet remain in good cheer.
“Then what do you propose, Prince Caden?” Valen asked, eyeing Caden rather intensely.
“That we withdraw.”
Gasps, sighs and disappointed groans filled the tent. “What foolishness has taken this boy?” Lord Gray asked, and Caden shot him a glare.
“And why would we do that?” Asked Valen, at least wishing to give his son chance to explain his position.
“Because let them come. Let Armand combine his forces, let him grow stronger on the field, but let us choose that field. Armand is so desperate for confrontation that he would surely pursue us, so let us make him run a little further. Let them tire themselves out, let their supplies dwindle, and then meet us later on a battlefield of our own preparation. Or we could lie in wait and surprise them completely, taking the day without giving them a chance to fight back.”
The room went silent for a moment. A few of the lords shook their heads, but Valen simply watched Caden in silent contemplation. Wulfsurd gave Caden a pat on the back, but Caden couldn’t tell whether it was one of congratulations or comfort.
“Let us speak no more of this,” Valen eventually said. “I will let you all know of my decision later on this evening, but for now let us discuss matters more pressing.”
The talk of strategy ended. For the next hour, conversation shifted entirely to matters of logistics; food, supplies, animals, numbers of men and their organization, their morale and even marching order. Several lords spent ten minutes arguing about being given the honour of the vanguard. Another took five minutes meticulously explaining how a camp logistics officer was developing a ‘promising new system for rationing of supplies’. By that point Caden slowly began to switch out and soon the voices and passing matters became nothing but an audible blur for him. He looked across at his younger brother, who seemed equally bored, and whispered, “tedious, but necessary.”
Soon it was dusk and the mouth-watering smell of roasting meat from across the camp came wafting into the tent, causing Caden’s stomach to growl in hunger. It seemed the king too found the smell irresistible, for suddenly he put an end to the conversation.
“I think now is a good time to put a pause to these discussions,” Valen addressed them. “We should all eat to keep our strength, for I know that mine is sapped for the thought of roasted game. We will meet back here in two hours.”
The lords quietened, some sighed in relief, others were clearly still annoyed from some argument or other that hadn’t gone their way. Caden and Arian stepped back from the table, where Caden suddenly realized that his brother hadn’t said a word since the meeting began. “How are you feeling, brother?” He asked.
“Thoroughly out of place,” Arian admitted. “This will take some getting used to.”
“Worry not, young Arian,” assured Wulfsurd as the lords began to filter outside. “In another week you’ll be boring me as much as the rest of them.” The red-haired man gave the brothers a wink, then left the tent.
Caden found himself smirking at Wulfsurd, but soon sobered when he turned to look at his father. “Father-“, he began, though the king raised a hand to stop him from talking.
“I do not wish to speak to you right now, Caden. I am hungry and I am tired, but it seems once more I must put aside matters more pressing to once again deal with you,” Valen explained. “But I will not do it here. Go and eat, then come to my tent. We will talk in private there.”
“Very well, father,” Caden said, barely able to contain the twitch of anger from his eye. He felt a rage well up in him, but knew it was no good to cause an argument or lose his temper.
“Go now, I wish to speak to your brother in private,” Valen ordered.
Caden looked to Arian, then silently nodded. “I’ll see you later, brother,” Caden said before turning and swiftly marching out to the sound of Arian’s farewell before his frustration could grow any further.
Outside Caden felt relief in the fresh air. It was chilly now, but despite the overcast sky it hadn’t yet rained. He went to his tent and with the help of one of the royal attendants shed his armour, which had grown heavy from the day he had spent wearing it. He changed into a more comfortable padded jacket and kept his sword, but his chainmail shirt he left on the small, cot-like bed that had been transported for him. Then an attendant brought him food, roasted meat and parsnip, and he ate it at a small wooden desk where papers of his own writing were piled next to a pot of ink and a quill made from a swan feather. His father tried to make him work with matters of the state, writing letters and answering petitions in preparation for his own future reign, but Caden was always behind, always too pre-occupied with his own business. It was one of many causes of friction between him and the king, who felt Caden wasn’t taking his role as heir seriously enough.
Caden purposefully procrastinated in going to see his father, spending time lounging over his desk, or standing at the flap of his tent and watching camp business continue, but eventually he could no longer bring himself to ignore his father’s summons. He set off, stopping by the campfire central of the command tents for a minute to warm his hands, then walked around to the rear of the hill to find the king’s private pavilion.
Two fully armoured guards stood either side of the tent’s entrance, with spears that were a foot longer than the tallest of the pair. He knew of both men – they were in the king’s guard, wearing distinctly black armour painted with the heraldic griffin of the royal house, though it was red this time rather than black. He stopped by them and nodded, and they nodded at him in return. Then he stepped past them, into the candlelit interior of a pavilion that was far better furnished than his own.
The inside was arrayed around a central wooden pillar, with thin wooden divides separating the inside into various rooms or quarters. In one was a large wooden cot, almost a bed; in another a stick-mounted mannequin containing the king’s armour; in a third was an office desk not dissimilar to his own; the fourth was a small table set for eating and King Valen sat there eating a chicken’s leg.
“It’s getting cold outside,” Caden told him, finding a stool and seating himself there at the other end of the table.
“So it is,” Valen replied, pausing his eating to speak and putting the chicken’s leg back down on his plate.
“I guess it’s time for my reprimand?” Caden asked, looking across for his father’s reaction.
“You talk like a child,” Valen said. “You know you’ve done wrong; you know you’re in trouble for it, and yet like a teenager you don’t care. You’re simply waiting for me to chastise you, then you will leave and continue to act like you have been. Doing so would be a waste of my time.”
“Then why did you call me here?” Caden asked him.
“When you decided to disobey my command and went galivanting off on this ‘scouting adventure’ of yours, you and Sir Anselm’s men came across a Lavellan patrol, did you not?”
“We did. We engaged them, defeated them and took prisoners for questioning,” Caden explained.
“And the wounded who were unable to travel. You left them there?”
“So, you did not kill them?”
“No. It seemed… Dishonourable. They were beaten, their lives sure to end no matter what we did.”
“How noble of you, my son,” Valen said. “And thanks to you the exact location of this camp will soon be known to Armand. The entire discussion we had earlier, that entire debate, was necessary as a direct result of your antics. You completely ignored my request to stay in the camp, you took a damn good knight and his men to go run around sight-seeing, risking both their lives and yours in the process, and all you managed to do was defeat a patrol of men with no valuable information and reveal the location of our forces to the enemy.”
“Do not interrupt me. My entire original plan relied on the quick and stealthy deployment of our army. To attack them where they did not expect it, to move on the roads they did not watch. Now, as we speak, the enemy follow the tracks you left behind and send word to a king who would have already proven difficult to defeat.”
Caden closed his eyes. “If perhaps you had not removed me from your confidence, I might have known this. This could have been avoided if you had simply told me what you planned,” he argued, an anger building in him.
“Really? Should I have done so?” Valen asked, sarcastically. “When you have done nothing but criticize and argue with me for the last several months, when more and more you disobey my orders and requests and constantly call into question the validity and wisdom of my decisions? You are a spoilt brat, Caden. You do not know how to follow; this lesson I have neglected to teach you. You may be a promising commander, but if you are ever to truly lead these men, if you are to ever truly be ready to wear Sarkana’s crown, then you do not just have to know how to give orders you must know how to receive them.”
“You have given me more than enough reasons to criticize your decisions,” Caden replied, his voice a hiss with building rage. “The only reason we are here is your sense of pride, your hurt feelings. How many men will die so that you can lay to rest matters of the past? And it is not just the men who follow you, either. Your own sons…”
“My own sons?” Valen asked, interrupting the prince.
“Arian is eighteen summers!” Caden said, the volume of his voice rising. “You risk my younger brother’s life by bringing him here, just as you risked my life at his age! I almost died during the conflict with Kedora and you would risk not only my life again, but the life of one who is barely a boy, who has barely even seen blood let alone shed it!”
“It is the world in which we live,” Valen explained. The king’s voice was as calm as always and somehow this angered Caden even more. “We are in a world of war. A world of horrors and hardship. I only seek to prepare the two of you for what will inevitably come and though you may see me as a monster for it, when the time comes for you to face these things without me you will at least have experience enough to protect yourselves.”
Caden sighed at the king’s words and leaned back away from him. His anger was fading now, replaced instead with feelings of futility and disappointment. “That world only exists because kings send their sons to war,” Caden said, his eyes drifting down to the floor.
“Perhaps,” Valen replied. “But what can we do? We are not outside observers to this life, we are part of it. We have no choice but to participate.”
The conversation suddenly fell silent, both men deep in thought. Caden was beginning to feel guilty, not because of his argument with the king but because of the idea that he had derailed the entire campaign through his insolence.
After a few unbearable seconds, Caden looked up at his father again. “Have you made a decision? What will you tell the lords of our next move?”
“We will march east and challenge Armand in force,” Valen replied.
“I see. Did you find fault with my evaluation of that strategy?” Caden asked.
“No. But there’s something else that forces my hand, something I need to tell you. It’s the reason I called you here.”
“What is it?”
Valen suddenly stood from his seat and made his way around a wooden divide to a desk with a neatly stacked pile of parchment papers. Caden got up and followed him, then stood by his side as he leaned over the desk and took up a letter written in a language that Caden had never seen before.
“What does it say?” the prince asked.
“It’s an old tongue, but it’s also in code,” Valen explained. “It wasn’t easy finding out what it said, but it was addressed to me. And you, as my heir.”
“What is it, father?”
“The Philosopher King is coming.”