Caden suddenly remembered Lord Colbert – the wiry, bald count who he realized had been absent from the war council despite his keen tactical mind and talent for military command. Anselm too, the old knight and warrior who Caden had befriended, had been missing from camp – though Caden had supposed he was busy overseeing some matter.
“It is,” Valen explained. “I had them take a small force and go northwest. We have been avoiding the roads to try and stay hidden as much as possible, but Armand cares far more about the speed at which his reinforcements can arrive and, simultaneously, almost certainly believes we don’t know of their coming. They will take the road here, where Lord Colbert and Sir Anselm will meet them in ambush.”
“Father, why did you not tell the Lords of this in council?” Arian asked.
Valen narrowed his eyes ever-so-slightly, uttering, “because Armand is as crafty as a fox. I do not say with any measure of certainty that one of them speaks to him, but just in case I would err on the side of secrecy and caution.”
As the king finished speaking, bells began to ring from outside the tent. Not the frantic bells of alarm, but a rhythmic call to tell the soldiers that it was time for most of them to eat. At the mere thought of food Wulfsurd’s stomach grumbled loudly and the serious contemplation of strategy gave way to light-hearted laughter.
“Perhaps, sires, it is time to eat,” Wulfsurd suggested when the laughter died. “We will need the strength when tomorrow comes, unless there is something more to say?”
“I think all that needs to be said has been said,” the king replied with a slight groan in his voice, but rather than moving towards the tent’s exit he instead returned to his chair and sat down as though he was weary. “The three of you will go now; eat and rest. I wish to be left alone with my thoughts.”
“Are you well, father?” Arian asked him.
“I’m fine, though I have many things yet to contemplate. Go. I will join when I am done.”
Arian gave his father a slight nod, then together the three men left him to his empty pavilion of war. They went out into the bright sun to eat and joke with the soldiers who followed them, while inside their king sat alone and in silence.
Around the camp preparations continued in full swing. The outer perimeter of sharpened stakes was finished, water was stockpiled in great barrels for drinking and cleaning wounds and as the sun set over the valley soldiers cleaned their weapons and armour around hundreds of lit campfires. On the opposite side of the valley the men of Lavell did the same and perimeter guards watched them closely, looking for any sign of unusual activity.
There were no clouds in the sky that night; only stars and an almost full moon that bathed the Sarkanian host in light. They all knew what was going to happen the following day, what great confrontation awaited them, and they were unusually silent as a result. The calm before the storm, broken only by occasional laughter as groups of companions ate roasting meat and drank their allotted ale.
Caden had spent much of the late afternoon in his personal tent, lying on his cot-like bed and still in the same formal doublet he wore when attending the false negotiations that morning. It was unusually comfortable, and with the relative quiet of camp he found the peace of a clear mind despite what awaited him. It was nice, he thought, that he was not plagued by anxiety or restlessness and he listened to the warm crackling of his fire, and though he did not sleep he closed his eyes so that his suit of armour could not taunt him.
“Sire, the king wishes to see you,” a man said, who had poked his head through Caden’s tent. Caden opened his eyes and looked to find a young face, recognizing him as a page to the royal chamberlain, though he did not know his name.
“I see,” Caden replied as he sat up on the edge of his cot, his senses coming back to him as the comfort left.
With a slight sigh, he stood and approached the tent opening and the page bowed, then turned and led him without a word towards the large personal tent of the king. When they reached it they stepped inside and the page bowed towards Valen, who sat behind a desk in one of the tent’s quarters. “Prince Caden, sire,” the page said. Valen looked up to them and nodded, then the page turned and left.
“You wished to see me?” Caden asked, and Valen nodded.
“Caden, this is Ethelyn,” the king told him, gesturing towards an area beside him that candlelight did not fully illuminate.
Caden turned to it, confused, and suddenly realized a woman was standing there. He blinked to clear his eyes, wondering how he had missed her when he had entered the tent, but sure enough there she stood. She was partially obscured in the shadow, wearing a maroon dress with a bodice laced over a dark, feminine tunic.
“My lord prince,” the woman said, curtseying forward until her features passed into light. She was of fair complexion, her skin free of marks or blemishes, and despite her hair being textured with slight waves it still fell past her shoulders. The colour of her hair was warped in the evening candlelight, mahogany, but her eyes could be mistaken for nothing else than what they were. They were unusual, to the point that Caden had to wonder if they were unnatural – white-gold hues that seemed to defy everything when he looked into them.
“My lady,” Caden eventually greeted her with a slight bow. “May I ask why you are here? This is a place of war, suitable for none but the soldiers who fight it.”
“Ethelyn serves the Philosopher King,” Valen explained, his finger tapping slowly against his desk.
“It is true,” Ethelyn replied, though there was no smile or comforting presence in her expression. She was solemn, dignified, otherworldly. “I have been sent in advance to prepare for his arrival.”
“He really is coming?” Caden asked, looking from his father to Ethelyn, then back again. “What business could he possibly have in these southlands? We are so far from the heart of his influence; there is nothing here.”
“I have not been told, lord prince,” Ethelyn said. Caden suddenly recognized the maturity in her tone, how her voice was just deep enough to betray she was older than him despite the youthfulness of it. “The Philosopher King tells us only what we need to know. I cannot understand his wisdom, but I can comprehend it. I do not question him.”
“It must be because of this war,” Caden considered. “Though I do not know how it could possibly interest him. He wishes it to end, perhaps?”
“It is possible, lord prince,” Ethelyn agreed. “Though I could not say for certain. I have been ordered only to remain a guest of your father and inform you of his coming.”
Caden watched her carefully. He did not trust her, and despite her beauty he could not bring himself to like her. It felt… Off around her, as though the air itself was somehow tainted or changed in her presence. Was she a magic user, he wondered? Was she a witch, a sorceress? He had never known one before, had never encountered the supernatural, yet when she stood close he felt a feeling akin to a faint creeping, as though he could not quite comprehend she was actually there.
“I believe he will try to enforce peace between me and Armand,” Valen said. “Which makes our timely victory far more pressing.”
“If that is true, is it wise to go against his wishes? Even if the command has not been given directly, there could still be an argument that we went against it,” Caden said. “Lady Ethelyn, does Armand know of this? Does the Philosopher King intend to visit him also; has he sent another envoy to the Lavellan camp?”
“I am aware of no such envoy being sent, lord prince,” Ethelyn replied.
Caden turned away from the woman and took a step towards his father, rubbing the back of his head in slight distress. “But why? Why now?” Caden asked, trying to think of the answer for himself but not wanting to imagine it would be as simple as control.
“He has no direct command in these lands, but hundreds of years ago oaths were made to him. Since then his power has waned, but it is likely he seeks to re-establish it. What better time to do so in these lands than now, when we are torn apart by war?” Asked Valen.
“Oaths? No man alive today gave their oath to him,” Caden replied.
“No, but he could claim quite convincingly that we are vassals to his empire by the laws that even kings follow. If we disregard that claim, he would have the backing of those who serve him should he wish to invade.”
“And you think he would?” Asked the prince.
“We should prepare for the worst. Lavell would sooner join him than us. As for Kedora? Who could tell? From where I sit it seems we only have one path left open to us: we must win tomorrow, then we must force a personal union between the crowns and bring Lavell under our control.”
“And you think that Lavell’s knights would follow us?” Caden asked, acutely aware that the Philosopher King’s servant was standing there and listening to their entire conversation. Somehow, he did not feel threatened by her; he did not trust her, but he felt he had no reason to hide their plans.
“They would follow their monarch, yes,” Valen surmised. “If we were to make Armand declare his daughter heir to his kingdom, as opposed to one of his cousins, would you be opposed to marrying her? She would become queen of Lavell on her father’s passing, then when the crown of Sarkana passes to you, you would be king of both.”
Caden stopped for a moment. He had known marriage would be an unavoidable arrangement eventually, but he had not expected to discuss it on the eve of battle. “I suppose I would not be opposed. However, if it was to happen, she would become queen of Sarkana and though I would want Arian to have the crown If something happened to me, we would not by law be able to strip her of her title. I would be in a precarious situation, and the weight of my responsibility would be greater still, for if I were to fail then we would lose everything to them.”
“I understand,” Valen replied, somehow not concerned about the presence of Ethelyn. “But Arian has no desire for the throne and I see no alternative. Once you have a son of your own victory will be ensured for both; it is only the lack of a further heir that makes this plan so dangerous, and that can be remedied.”
Caden sighed then and looked back towards Ethelyn, who stood politely and in silence as they spoke. “But first, we have to win tomorrow. I have to win tomorrow,” he said.
“You will,” the king assured him. “You will.”