A wet breeze blustered about my ankles as the last of my commanders joined me in my tent that evening. I had been waiting for them for hours, though in my impatience I hardly felt the knots and cramps that my agitated body had twisted itself into. When the last of them had filtered into the room, I straightened up.
"What news from the scouts?"
A bearded knight stepped forward and bowed his head before speaking, "Your Highness, the road to Dur'Abarshan is deserted. The interlopers appear to have left no scouts or outposts to -"
"Then they don't know we're coming!" The voice of a younger man - a former squire of my father's, I noted with surprise - cut off his companion abruptly. "If their numbers do not stretch enough to watch the roads, then they may not be able to arm the walls either."
"Or they know we're coming and aren't wasting their energy," the older knight snapped. He turned back to me, "Your Highness, forgive me for my impertinence, but I fear our chances of victory in battle are slim. Your father told me a little of these forest-dwelling folk at the end of our last conflict with them. Though they have women and children among their number, there are a large proportion of sorcerors among them, many of a dangerous strength. They have not been idle in their exile - talk of blasted trees and shattering gouges in the gorges could have been indications that they were training themselves for battle - and their feats as thieves, kidnappers and worse is well renown. Their leader ..." he stopped, and though I waited for a response, none was forthcoming.
"Irregardless," said the third of my five companions, "sorcerors or no, they cannot be a vast number. The famine has struck our own people hard enough, let alone outlaws scrounging in the woods. It has not been long since the coup, and we have found signs of resistance -"
"If you refer to those bodies, then - forgive my rudeness, Your Majesty - you may as well advise us all to run ourselves through here and now!" The voice of the Horse Master was sharper than a knife edge. "Whatever resistance there was in the capital has been strung from the trees for our pleasure, and I do not doubt that whatever dark thoughts our people may be hiding are more than outweighed by threats like those."
I nodded gravely. The outlaws' message could not have been more clear and, though I ordered the forerunners of our little army to take down and bury any corpses they found, the memory of their glazed eyes and mutilated bodies could not be hidden by mere dirt and stones.
"What chance do we stand in an open battle?" I asked. "Suppose we were to lead them out onto a battlefield - surely we could defeat them then?"
The Horse Master nodded, "Undoubtedly. Though they can pilfer what weapons they like from the armoury, very few of them will be trained soldiers. Their method of entry to the capital is proof enough of that."
"Well then," I said, "that is what we will need to do."
No one said a word, but I could feel them all thinking exactly the same thing. How.
There was a long, painful silence. I turned back to the map laid out before me, chewing my thumbnail and thinking hard. There was little open space around Dur'Abarshan itself, but about two leagues to the south - a mere half-day's ride from our current position - was a large expanse of barren farmland. The surrounding terrain was flat, and the soil was frozen hard by the long winter. It would be only too easy for a force on foot to be scattered and slaughtered by a wedge of knights. The only problem was that they knew that too.
"Leave me," I said, "I wish to think on this further. Thank you for your counsel, my lords."
I heard the squeak of armour and clattering scabbards as my companios bowed in turn and left, only raising their voices once they were several paces from the outside of my tent. However, to my surprise, one - the bearded knight who had spoken first - lingered before the tent opening.
"Your Highness," he said to me, very quietly, "I did not wish to say this before the others, but there was something else your father told me. It regards the rebel leader."
"You mentioned him before," I said, still not turning around, "please, speak."
The knight paused and creaked awkwardly in his armour for a moment. "His name ... I mean not to mock, sire, but I believe you were acquainted with Lady Ella Vadrini, who was visiting us?"
"What of her?" The mention of Ella stung, and I spoke more harshly than I had intended, but the knight thought nothing of it.
"The usurper's name is Mirkyn Vadrini," he said. Then, with a rustle and another blast of cold, wet, wind, he vanished into the night.
"Mirkyn Vadrini," I whispered the name to myself, and the taste of betrayal I had felt upon leaving Redmont surged up in my throat again. "Mirkyn Vadrini."
And so the treachery was complete. Not only had I admitted an outlaw and a sorceress into my household, but had also left my doors open to her kin to murder and enslave my people.
Did my foolishness know no bounds.