The Lavellan party chuckled at the Marquis’ words, all except for Armand himself, who seemed deadly sincere. “Leave Lavell, King Valen,” Armand said. “Take your men and go home from here, and I will give you peace. We can forget this foolishness.”
Valen nodded, though only to signal that he had heard Armand’s words. “Here is my counter-proposal, Armand. Offer me your unconditional surrender, here and now. You will hand me your crown and kingdom and I will spare the lives of your vassals, your armies and your daughter. Be polite about it and I might even spare you,” the king demanded bluntly.
Armand groaned and rolled his eyes and one of the men to his side leaned closer to him suddenly and whispered. Caden leaned forward to try and hear what was said but it was fruitless, and a moment later the other Lavellan began to join in, all whispering amongst themselves. The Sarkanians sat there quietly, waiting, until eventually their opposites stopped.
“I see you are intent on foolishness,” Armand said. “So, my answer must be no.”
“Foolishness?” Asked Wulfsurd, his voice gruff and threatening a temper. “In Sarkana we would term it just recompense.”
“Do you know, Armand, what was truly foolish?” Asked Valen, one of his fists closing tightly. “Betraying your lifelong friend and ally, joining with his enemy and then attacking him. What did Kedora offer you that was so inciting, Armand? Did they offer you the border region? Everything east of the Alheller? Perhaps if you had come yourself your combined might would have overwhelmed us, but you lacked the honour to face us yourself. Instead you send your Marquis, who was as foolish as he was incompetent.”
“Do not insult my brother, King,” said the Marquis Souchon.
Wulfsurd chuckled at this, folding his arms across his middle. “Believe us, Marquis. We would not do such a thing. Your brother was not a man worth insulting,” he joked, with a sinister undertone to his voice.
“Lord Harik Wulfsurd,” the Marquis said, “by the time this is over I will let my hounds rape your severed head.”
Wulfsurd began to roar with laughter, but Valen put his hand out and he stopped. Armand similarly ordered the Marquis to be quiet and the room was suddenly unbearably silent. Even the breathing stilled, to the point that Caden could hear only the singing of birds in the morning.
When the silence was finally broken it was by Armand, who stood from his seat. “Then it seems we are unable to reach an accord,” he concluded.
“If you say so,” Valen replied.
Caden looked at his father, surprised that he would let the meeting end so abruptly. He hadn’t been entirely sure what to expect when they came to the meeting, but he had hoped his father would negotiate far more strongly for peace. It was likely Armand would have accepted a peace in which Lavell lost some of its border territory, especially after the previous day’s battle, but for Valen to demand complete and unconditional surrender? He was giving them no choice but to fight.
Armand began to walk out of the tent, but he was stopped suddenly by a young man who called out to him. “King Armand? Do you not recall what we had discussed?” The young knight asked, his gaze meeting Caden’s with a nearly unnatural pull. Caden had seen him before, had noted how he looked suspiciously like the son that Armand had lost years ago, though his eyes were different. They were pale blue like ice, or like the eyes of a snow wolf, yet they burned with a searing flame that made Caden feel completely powerless.
“Ah, yes,” Armand said, pausing and turning at the tent door and raising his hand in a gesture to proceed. “Give your challenge.”
The knight stood with his hand on the hilt of his sword, then turned his gaze away from Caden and to Arian. “My name is Alaric Laurens,” he introduced himself, “and I am a knight of Lavell. Yesterday afternoon, Prince Arian killed my brother on that hill.”
Arian suddenly looked up at Alaric, a fear spreading inside him. “I apologize,” Arian said, not sure what else he could say. “He challenged me to battle. He was... A skilled warrior.”
Lord Gray placed his hand on Arian’s shoulder, urging him to say no more with a shake of his head. Valen stood, his own hand resting on his sword hilt as he looked the knight in the eye and asked him, “what is it that you want, Alaric of Lavell?”
“I was going to challenge your son to a duel, so that I might avenge my brother,” Alaric explained. “But being here now I see that he is no danger, that his victory was no more than an accident. Yet even so, Prince Arian, you have taken away my brother and left me with the pain of that loss. I would have you know that feeling.”
“How would you do that?” Arian asked, his chest tightening.
“By taking away your own brother,” Alaric replied, his eyes once again shifting back to Caden. “Prince Caden, by the ancient laws and customs of these southern realms, we will duel here tomorrow morning.”
“Do not be preposterous, boy,” Wulfsurd suddenly said. “You cannot challenge a man who did not cause you any har-“
“I accept your challenge,” Caden suddenly replied.
“Caden?” Wulfsurd asked, clearly shocked.
“I will fight him.”
“It is settled, then. Tomorrow morning,” King Armand told them, before turning and leaving the tent. The young Alaric nodded and quickly followed his king without another word, and next the Marquis Souchon and the remaining lords stood up and followed them, the Marquis grinning nefariously.
“Valen?” Wulfsurd asked, standing to confront the King. “You say nothing to stop this?”
“It is not my decision to make, Harik,” Valen replied, his tone almost brooding.
“Brother, you do not have to do this,” Arian pleaded as he stood from his chair. “I do not wish you to risk your life because of what I have done.”
“Arian, this is war,” Caden told him. “We’re all risking our lives.”
“And I have no doubt the Lavellan is risking his more than you are, Prince Caden,” Lord Gray said, his words strangely encouraging.
Caden said nothing else and instead turned and walked from the tent. As he made his way to his horse, he was aware that his father and the others were following him, but suddenly there was a strange feeling of responsibility weighing him down from it. He became aware for the first time not just that they were walking behind him, but that he was leading them, and it made him feel… Strange.
The Sarkanian entourage rode back up the western slope of the hill to their war camp, which had taken up the entirety of the wide plateau at the hill’s highest point. Offering a nearly full view of the surrounding area and highly defensible, the victory that won them the hill the previous day had not only driven the Lavellan back but given them a significant advantage for the battles ahead. The plateau was large enough to hold the over ten thousand Sarkanian soldiers, gave them safe access to clean water, a safe place to retreat to if the unexpected happened and the ability to survey the entire valley without having to step into it. That final fact would be useful tomorrow, where the Sarkanian commanders could see the exact movement of troops over a wide area and give accurate signals that individual units could react to.
It now seemed to Caden that battle was inevitable and when they returned a war council was called that ran from the mid-morning to just after mid-day. Each lord gave an evaluation of what part of their effort he commanded, then the discussion turned to battle tactics. Caden was distant, hearing them but not listening and remaining silent where even his younger brother had something to say. His mind was on something else, a battle far more personal than the massacre of thousands – it was on the fear and intricacy found in single combat and the consequences that could follow from his victory… Or his defeat.
“So, we are decided then?”
Those words brought Caden back from the depths of his mind and he looked up, a questioning look on his face.
“Caden?” King Valen asked him. “Are we decided?”
“Decided what?” Caden asked to disappointed mutters around the room. He looked towards Wulfsurd for clarification but the bear of a man was looking down at the floor with his arms crossed, clearly embarrassed.
“Are you well, Prince Caden?” Asked Lord Gray.
Caden was about to give his assurance but the king shook his head and stood from his chair. “We shall proceed as discussed. Lords and captains of the realm go now with a singular mind and put to motion the plans that will lead us to our victory. Council dismissed; you may leave us.”
One by one the men in the tent stood, then took their turn bowing slightly and leaving until only Caden, Arian and Harik remained.
“Well that was a little awkward,” Wulfsurd said, his deep voice broken by a slight chuckle.
“Caden, what is the matter with you?” The king asked, his tone short of temper. “You embarrass both you and I in front of the lords. Tomorrow we will have battle, so I imagine you understand the importance of discussing how to win that battle, yet even so you sit there and do not even bother to listen? To offer the keen strategic mind that we both know you possess. Instead you do nothing but dream with your eyes open.”
“I have my own battle to plan, father,” Caden replied, meeting Valen’s stare. “A battle that was in your power to stop, though I notice you made no effort to do so.”
“Caden, that’s enough,” Wulfsurd said, though Valen raised a hand to stop him from speaking further.
“You are a man now. Twenty-one years of age and fully capable of making your own decisions,” Valen explained.
“Ah, such worry for your child. How saddening it is to me that I show far more affection and concern for my younger brother than you ever do for me,” Caden seethed.
Arian, who had remained silent thus far, folded his arms and looked down at the ground between his feet. “Always fighting,” he muttered just over his breath. Wulfsurd looked across at him and raised his brows, though decided not to interfere.
“Don’t insult me, boy,” Valen replied. “We have had this conversation before, and I have my reasons.”
“Oh, I understand,” said Caden. “You seek to use distance and cold demeanour to shape me into a king who is prepared for all the horrors of life and ruling, but you are so good at it that I often wonder if you aren’t just uncaring. I accepted Laurens’ challenge because I knew that if I didn’t, he would simply challenge Arian instead, and I think he has done enough fighting in this war. I stand by my decision, fully aware that tomorrow I risk my life in doing so – but I can’t help but wish you had at least tried to stop me.”
“Who said I wanted your protection, brother?” Arian asked, looking up at Caden with distaste. “I appreciate your desire to keep me safe, but you treat me like a child. It is clear to me that I do not have your confidence, that I do not have your trust, even though I have proven myself capable in battle. I did not kill Laurens’ brother while other men held him down, I defeated him alone and with valour on the field and I would have been perfectly capable of fighting the duel you accepted to shelter me like a boy.”
“Arian,” Caden began, clearly shocked by his younger brother’s tone, who had never lashed out at him before. “Of course you have my confidenc-“
“Do I?” Arian interrupted. “Our father places far more confidence in you than either of you do in me, yet even so you question and belittle him for treating you like-“
“Arian, that’s enough,” the king said suddenly and both sons fell silent, turning their heads to look at him. “Do not hate your brother for his compassion. It is true, Caden, I did not try to stop you, but you must understand why. We were in negotiations with our enemy, negotiations that neither side went into with plans of reaching an accord. Our strength, our steady demeanour in the eyes of our foe, meant everything; my own more so as king. Caden, my son, I did and do now worry about your life and the outcome of your fight tomorrow, but as king I cannot let that fear rule me. You must understand – the lives of over ten thousand fighting men could be lost tomorrow if I was to lose my courage or my composure, if my cool head was to slip into heated frenzy or concern. If we lose this upcoming battle, not only do I risk the lives of all those gathered here but the very future of our country and its people. You accuse me of not showing worry, but the life of a king is to be barraged by it from all sources and directions. A king’s strength is not that we do not fear, but that we push on and face our next task despite it.”
The two brothers went silent for several long seconds and Wulfsurd examined them with a slight grin. Valen was like his own brother, Caden and Arian like his nephews, and despite the king’s terrible talent for heart-to-hearts it was clear to him that his words had reached Caden in ways they usually didn’t.
“I see,” Caden eventually replied. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize – “
“There is no need to apologize,” Valen told him. “But yes, your brother Arian is right. I do have confidence in your ability to win, in fact I am certain that you will. What point is there for either of us to worry about it?”
Both Caden and Wulfsurd smirked at Valen’s remarks, but Arian had something else on his mind. “Father, you said neither side actually planned to reach an agreement for peace?” He asked.
Valen gave a slow nod. “The purpose was to delay. I did not wish to risk battle this day, not without sufficiently preparing our camp and developing a plan that could best Armand’s craftiness. I suspected Armand wished to delay himself, but it was not until Laurens’ gave his challenge that I became certain of it. He tried to hide it and plotted to make it seem as though he was merely doing that knight a favour, but Armand would not forget something like that. He underestimates how well I know him and because of that, tomorrow he will lose.”
“How did you suppose that?” Asked Wulfsurd, both he and the princes now eager for the king’s response.
“There can be no battle until the duel ends,” Valen replied. “Armand used that to delay our confrontation until tomorrow. That suits our needs as well, which is one reason I did not attempt to stop it… But for Armand, it was critical to his plan.”
Caden sat up then, the light in his eyes betraying epiphany. “The garrison at Formere.”
Valen nodded. “And garrisons from other towns and castles along the way.”
“The bastard plans to flank us,” Wulfsurd blurted. “Is this why Lord Colbert and Anselm were not at the council?”