The morning sun rose over a valley of open grass and shrubbery that spanned nearly a kilometre from one side to the other. With the heavy rain that had soaked the ground not two days prior and the summer light now bathing it in bright warmth, the vegetation had grown rapidly to where it reached halfway up the lower leg of the average man. It was green, too – a bright, bold green that was not just beautiful to look at but calming in how it rippled like an ocean under a gentle breeze.
It was almost enough to make Arian forget he was at war, enough to make him forget the visions and sounds and smells of events that had occurred only a little over twelve hours ago. When he closed his eyes, he was in a place of steel, blood and thundering noise, but when he watched the grass sway in the morning wind he was back in the hills of his homeland. If only there was a stream next to him, if only the sound of thousands of men preparing themselves for what was to come could be replaced with the sound of running water and the splashing of fish. He would have liked to imagine that he was fishing at the riverside and not stood there, waiting at the top of a hill that might turn red by the evening.
“Arian, we’re ready,” said a slightly older man with shoulder-length brown hair and who wore a finely embroidered brown doublet, with dark trousers and boots. It was Caden, and Arian turned to him and gave a sombre nod. Arian himself wore similar attire but his doublet was blue with white sleeves, though this didn’t prevent him from looking any less out of place than his brother. It wasn’t exactly usual to be dressed so formally in a place of war and the soldiers who meandered around them in armour of varying types found their eyes drawn to the brothers as a result.
“I’d much rather be wearing armour for this,” Arian commented.
Caden glanced at him for a moment, then gave a small shrug. “Nothing will happen to us. None of them will be wearing armour either – it’s a formality, a show of how committed we are to keeping the talks non-violent,” Caden explained.
“I know, though I notice it doesn’t stop us from wearing swords,” Arian said, pointing out how both wore blades at the hip.
“Well, it would be reckless to go completely defenceless.”
The two turned and made their way over to where a group of men stood waiting to mount their horses, all dressed in similarly formal clothing and each wearing a sword at their belts. Amongst them stood Edmund Gray, duke of the Midlands; Harik Wulfsurd, marshal of the army and most importantly King Valen II himself, who wore a pendant of silver and ruby.
When the two princes reached them and found their own horses, Valen looked to them with a nod. “Arian, are you certain you are ready to attend this conference?” He asked, examining his younger son closely. “I know how battle’s first taste can stain the mind and it is still so recent since yours.”
“Father is right,” Caden added. “As much as I loathe to be so blunt, it is the truth that our power in this coming game of minds and words will be weakened if we do not, as a whole, present a front of steady hands and steeled eyes.”
“I am ready,” Arian replied, slightly hurt that both his father and brother doubted him.
“That you are, good prince,” said Lord Gray, clapping Arian on the shoulder with an encouraging nod. “But I will look out for you if for some reason those circumstances were to change.”
“Let us go then,” the king said, and one by one the party mounted their steeds and began to ride east at a slow pace, making their way down the hill and into the valley.
The previous night Sarkana’s entire army had made camp at the top of the hill and on the wide plateau that had seen battle the previous afternoon, with hundreds of tents and banners arrayed in defensible positions. Soldiers prepared wooden stakes along the eastern and southern slopes, while lookouts and guards watched for the movement of an enemy that had yet to return in force.
Never-the-less the enemy was there, in plain view, on the other side of the valley. The Lavellan army had made their camp on that opposite hill, using the sporadic woodlands to help protect it and openly preparing themselves for the possibility of a second battle. The sworn enemies watched each other across that open plain, as two kings and their small entourage of lords and knights rode slowly to meet in the middle of it.
King Valen’s party was accompanied by a small group of kingsguard, but as they grew closer to their Lavellan counterpart Caden could not help but notice that they were outnumbered. There were ten knights with them for their protection, alongside the five agreed lords who were to negotiate, but Caden counted that the Lavellan had brought twelve. “He breaks the terms of our meeting,” Caden said to his father.
“He only wishes to show that he can,” Valen replied.
“Or to show that we are powerless to stop him,” Caden retorted, then raised his hand to rest above his eyes so that the morning sun could no longer obstruct his vision. He saw Armand, King of Lavell, riding towards them with four of his lords and officers in tow. He recognized three of them; one he had fought in Kedora, two others they had dined with, but the fourth was unknown to him. A knight, perhaps? He looked young and strong, and vaguely resembled Armand’s only son who had died in battle years ago. Caden’s eyes fell back upon the Lavellan king, whose thin, angular face reminded him of a man deathly ill from lack of eating. Yet despite that, the king’s face was full of colour and though his hair had been shaved almost bald it was still thick and surprisingly youthful.
Eventually the two parties came to a stop by a pavilion tent that had been set up in the field, with Sarkana’s banner on one side and Lavell’s on the other. Together ten men in total dismounted, then in two columns headed by their respective rulers they entered the tent in ceremony. Seats were arrayed facing one another and both kings sat opposite each other, their accompanying lords either side. Caden sat by Valen’s right side with Wulfsurd to the right of him, while Arian and Lord Gray took seats to the left.
They had barely been seated a moment when King Armand began to speak, his voice lacking the low tone and depth of his counterpart but still plentiful in sharpness. “It is good to see you again, Prince Caden,” he said, his Lavellan accent thick and high-class. Caden was taken quite by surprise by this sudden greeting, as was Wulfsurd, but neither were given time to react. “I remember when you were a boy, visiting in my court with your father. We spoke about how great a king you would make, when your time came.”
Caden looked sideways for his father’s reaction, but Valen had none. His expression was calm, not looking for even a moment away from Armand’s eyes. He did not even blink. “I remember those days,” Caden eventually replied. “You were not yet a king yourself.”
“No, but I am now. As will you, perhaps soon, seeing by the way you sit at the king’s right side,” Armand told him. He leaned back in his seat, his eyes focusing next upon Arian as an eagle’s eyes focused on prey. “Yet I notice your younger brother is not afforded that courtesy. Brave Arian, who I hear fought with valour not half a day ago, seated on the unfavourable side of his father. Do you not feel you are mistreated by him, as both father and king? Fates decreed by the order of your birth say that you will only wear a crown if you lose those you hold dearer than they you. You would think that, just for a little while, your devotion would be rewarded with equal measure of fondness.”
Arian cleared his throat, finding a little difficulty in matching Armand’s gaze. “My father and brother treat me well. Besides, I have no desire to be king,” he explained, then looked away to the other Lavellans – though only to avoid that of their king.
“I think that is enough, King Armand,” said Lord Gray. “We should speak on the matters that have gathered us here.”
“I did not speak to you, Duke Edmund Gray,” Armand snapped, eyes like flames falling on the older man.
“And I did not give you permission to speak to my sons or vassals,” Valen said then, his voice deep and fierce like a lion.
“Finally, he makes himself known,” said Armand, now looking at Valen. “But you overstep, fellow King. You do not have authority to order me, especially in my own land.”
“Do I not?” Valen asked him. “I seem to recall driving your men away from some of your land last night, fellow ‘king’. By virtue of that victory I say that piece of land is now mine, paid for with Lavellan blood, and if you do not surrender then this valley and the rest of this country will follow.”
“It is you who will be driven from this field,” said another Lavellan voice, belonging to Ghislain Souchon, Marquis of the Rougmars. “And I would happily pay for it with a few buckets of Sarkanian blood. Perhaps we could use it to water our crops, no?”