No wine tastes better than that which is drunk on the throne of one's enemies. Though the wine itself was relatively poor - it made me laugh to think that this was the worst that could befall the decadent fools while their people starved to death - the satisfaction of knowing that there was nothing the idiot king or his litter of gibbering siblings could do to stop me drinking it turned its vinegar-laced edge to sweet ambrosia.
Around me, my brethren were laughing and drinking themselves into oblivion in celebration. Less than two days after our coup, Dur'Abarshan had settled at our feet like a beaten dog. The worst resistance we'd met had been sliding our knives between the shoulderblades of the desperate few who thought they could oust us by brandishing pitckforks. They hadn't lasted long.
I yawned and propped my feet up on the fine mahogany table, gently brushing my consciousness around the room. I permitted myself a smile - I had not felt such merriment in my people for so long. Now, their gnawing hunger sated, their patched clothes cast off - I had given them free rein to take whatever they chose from the belongings of our fallen enemies - and safe from the threats of the night-time forest, their minds glowed with a happiness I could never have dreamed of feeling until now.
"Mhm?" I half-opened my left eye, and my smile widened at the sight of Ella at my side.
"Daughter, you join us at last! Where have you been, the meal is nearly half over. You were missed."
Ella shrugged a length of long blonde hair off her left shoulder and sat down in the empty chair at my side. I proffered her a leg of chicken, but she refused to touch anything. I frowned and sat up.
"What troubles you?"
"Nothing, Father. I am just tired," she said, prodding her empty wine goblet morosely. I blew out through my teeth as I realised she was still wearing her travelling clothes. Ella had never much liked dresses, but why she remained in her filthy worn-out fighting gear was beyond me - I had liberated the best of the former King Percival's weaponary and plain clothes for myself. I saw no reason why she could not do the same.
A small commotion broke out in the crowd below, and a tall willowy girl came bouncing into the hall. She stood up on a table and gestured for quiet. Though she was trying to look impressive, I could see she was clearly holding in laughter.
"News!" The girl cried. "News, news my friends! Little King Percy is marching to us with the intention of taking back the city," she paused, her lean frame quaking harder than ever, "taking back the city with twenty knights!"
I nearly choked on my wine for laughing. Evidently one of the king's slippery little minions had got past us after all. No matter.
"Oh, the travesty!" a young man leapt to his feet and swooned across the table, his cheeks bright with drunken merriment, "How shall we ever withstand the might of twenty whole knights!"
"Indeed, woe is us!" an older woman with greying hair cackled hysterically, "We shall have to open the gates to them at once!"
"Enough, enough," I rose to my feet, grinning as I quelled the ever-rising stream of mockery and hilarity, "though we are all quaking in our boots at the news, we had best not upset our stomachs with all this rushing about. Alanna, take a flagon, but please try not to choke on it."
The girl, still laughing hysterically, bowed stupidly, "As you wish, Your Highness."
I snorted and sat back in the throne, chuckling through my teeth. Percival's father had been a fool, but evidently the son hadn't learnt from his father's mistakes. He should have known that his own capital was more than capable of smashing such a piffling force to pieces - I had inspected the drummonds and catapults myself. We had enough food to last for months, and easy means of procuring more. Not to mention our hundreds of unseen eyes watching the roads from every angle.
"Well well, Ella," I nudged her shoulder cajolingly, "it seems we'll be meeting your friend the king sooner than we expected. Perhaps I shall give you the honour of poking a few arrows into his swollen head before we take it off?" I leaned forward and pulled a face at her, "A fine moment to mark the rise of Crown Princess Ella, heir to the throne of Dur'Abarshan."
Ella smiled, but the expression was so forced I could have snapped it off in my hand. I waited for a few moments, looking at her glassy eyes quizically, but said no more of the matter. It wasn't like Ella to be so drawn and quiet, especially after such a victory. She had watched her mother and sister waste away and starve in the forest, after all. She of all people should be happy tonight.
Hmm. Perhaps I would have to keep an eye on her after all.
Ella only stayed for a few moments before heading in the direction of her rooms, and I excused myself not long after, taking a full wineskin with me up onto the castle battlements. The laughter and light of the hall still warmed my bones as I looked out over the grim expanse of forest that had once been both home and prison. The wolves were singing again, just as they had done all those nights ago when I last watched the castle fall into our hands. Small plumes of smoke were rising from a spot several leagues down the winding road, the smell of burning carrying faintly on the night breeze. Burning wood, and pine needles. And flesh.
It hadn't been easy, thinking of a way to get rid of all those bodies. Those whom we hadn't burnt we had hung along the roadside for thirty leagues as a warning to any last resistance efforts. Hopefully King Percival would appreciate the message as he lead his forlorn hope towards us.
Though, I thought, his head would make a wonderful ornament for a spike atop the castle gates.