Aerren surveyed the battlefield. The men still standing were sparse compared to those who were not. The taste in his mouth was not entirely of victory but he was relieved to see the dominating presence was in violet. This was the best he could hope for in the circumstances.
He sheathed his sword and took off his helmet, taking in the chilled breeze. The sun even peered out from behind the clouds. Under his armor, he was soaked. Not to mention the dried blood and dirt caked on the outside. His foot slid in the mud but as he looked to the ground he saw a hand curled around his ankle.
He crashed to the ground, hitting his head and losing the air from his lungs. A soldier in crimson vesture clambered to his knees over Aerren and swayed unsteadily with the weight of his blade. Aerren fumbled for anything within reach as the sun disappeared again.
The soldier above him seized with a sudden grunt and slumped over with a sword protruding from his chest. Another crimson soldier crumpled to the ground.
A hand extended down toward him and hauled Aerren to his feet. His vision was slow to catch up.
“Ardrion,” the hand said.
Clearing his throat with the hope of clearing his head too, he shook the hand gruffly, “Aerren.”
The soldier froze. “The king’s son, Aerren?” he stuttered.
Aerren only nodded, regretting the movement immediately. He brushed past Ardrion in search of his officers. He slid toward the center of the congregating soldiers and put his arm around one of his men to pull him away. He had the grace not to make a show that Aerren’s gesture was more for support than friendliness.
“We don’t have the men to continue past the river, sir.”
“We’ve got the Terrilani banks?”
“For the time being. None of the other training camps are near ready to reinforce us. Calling the northern camp down this soon was bad enough. And the thinner we spread, the more we risk losing what we’ve gained so far.”
Aerren tapped his fingers on his armor. “Do we know anything at all about the state of the Vaszaloni army?”
“Definitively, no. Though, they can’t be in much better shape.”
“This is far, far too little for my father to accept and he expects me back.”
“How many will you take with you?”
“How few can I take while still arriving at Ellrez in one piece?”
His officers rarely humored his jokes. “I’m not sure we have the manpower to justify prisoners.”
“If they don’t retreat, add their bodies to the fire.” He turned away to gather his things. “The soldier, Ardrion, he comes to Ellrez.”
Aerren was relieved to finally be off of his horse, but the feeling vanished as soon as the shadow of Ellrez fell over him. The walls loomed above him like they were taller than when he'd last seen them. As petulant as it sounded, he nearly preferred the frontlines of battle to returning to the city, let alone the castle. His father would be waiting inside with his dripping self-importance.
How quickly can I get him to dismiss me from the hall? He considered starting a wager with his company. How few things can I utter before he begins to raise his voice?
He plunged into the depths of the castle where the halls were empty as always. It amplified the hollow echo of his boots on the stone floor. Without hesitation, he marched into the Great Hall.
The king sat precariously on the throne as he watched the procession approach. The sight was unnatural to Aerren but he was determined to swallow his nerves. A long moment passed before he took a knee.
“I must say, I've yet to hear good news since last I saw you.” The King announced.
Aerren stood slowly. “Your banner flies over the River.”
“And the Markor banks? Does my banner fly there?”
Only where it is necessary to anyone besides you. “Not yet. But King Markori's army is defeated.”
“Defeated? Or they have retreated?”
Aerren met his father’s eyes, steadfast. “They no longer occupy our lands.”
Valren nodded with an air of heaviness. “But Markori has access to the River.”
“I don't have the men or the resources to cut them from it. For now, I mean to hold our ground.” I mean not to waste my time.
“And so you plan to return and finish what I asked of you.”
“If I was planning on an early death, absolutely.”
“Aerren, I gave you this campaign because I believed you capable of succeeding.” Valren merely needed to rub his temples.
“You misunderstand the circumstances—”
“You misunderstand your duty to me,” Valren stood suddenly. “Now, there is a reason you are standing before me and I should like to meet him.”
We'll fight later, then. Aerren sidestepped and wordlessly waved Ardrion ahead.
The kid stepped timidly forward, his eyes on the floor.
“Come closer.” The King stated flatly, the echo rolling through the hall.
Aerren thought Ardrion might just bolt from the hall out of terror. Instead they both took to tracing the seams in the stonework on the floor.
“I understand you saved my son’s life.”
“I...yes...I didn’t know--”
“It seems he is quite indebted to you for that.” Aerren felt Valren’s eyes on him. Alas, Father, you must still deal with me.
“In that case, I wish to bestow upon you the honor of knighthood, son. What is your name?”
Son? Aerren bit his tongue like never before. It required far more effort than it should have. Ardrion was likely about to pass out. Little could be heard over the pounding in Aerren’s ears.
“And when you are ready, you will finish campaigning with Aerren.” Valren’s eyes turned to him again. “That should give you some time.”
Aerren nodded his acknowledgment. Yes, quite a concession, Father. There was more talk that passed straight through Aerren before Valren showed Ardrion from the hall. He might finally deserve the knighthood after suffering Valren’s tour of Castle Ellrez.
At the top of the stairs, the empty throne glared down at him. He climbed upward and slumped into it. The entirety of the Great Hall stretched out before him. His men were still at the River. Many of the nearby villages were abandoned to evade either his soldiers or King Markori’s. Aerren always had his words but there was little else to keep his men at their posts for much longer. He sighed as Valren dismissed them from the hall. Compromise was a very dear friend of his, but even that would be a long time coming.
“I suppose this is just how you campaigned the River so well.”
Aerren nearly jumped at the sound of the King’s booming voice. It was just the two of them. “I was merely seeing how you run a war-ridden kingdom.”
Valren sighed and for once, Aerren saw a tiredness in him. “Someday you will be ready for the crown.”
But Aerren only scoffed. “You would choose the next man through that door over me.” The echoes rang off the walls straight into the face of an approaching Ardrion. He clearly wished he was anywhere else upon seeing Aerren.
Ardrion began to stutter some excuse for needing to speak with the King right then. Aerren eyed one of the men at the door as he pulled Ardrion back to usher him elsewhere.
“He’ll be a knight, and I’ll, what, merely lead the campaign?” I’ll head your entire army and still be without a title. And when the war is over, I’ll be landless and lordless out of neglect.
Aerren stood from the throne and descended the stairs.
“When one emanates the qualities of a knight, when he earns the title, he will be honored a knight.” Valren put a hand on his shoulder, but Aerren shrugged it off.
“And what qualities are those possessed by the other thousands of men who died to win you the River?” He stalked down the hall.
Valren spoke slowly, “I could only speak for those who led them there.”
Aerren bristled for a moment.
“Understand, Ardrion is honored because he recognized the importance of saving you.”
Aerren turned back. He had no idea who I am. “Returning to the River leads only to more death.”
“That river is the single most important asset to Terrilan, and you’ve failed to instill your men with the sense that it is worth defending with their lives.” The King took residence on his throne.
Aerren couldn’t resist saying it out loud. “Is this really about the River? Or is this about Markori?”
“The River is the livelihood of this kingdom. It is the path through the moutains and one of the few means of commerce we have left to us. Gold does not rain from the sky in the propensity you think it does. Think of your people first, Aerren.”
“If by livelihood, you mean those very people, face down in your precious river, then I suppose it does really hold the prosperity of the kingdom. There are better ways.”
“You forget your place in my hall, boy.”
This is just too easy. “You forget that when you ask me to go to Markor for a fool’s errand, you’ve only got one son left.”
Valren shot to his feet. “He would have done it. Without question. He would have understood. Maybe then you could learn the meaning of loyalty; the value of obedience to your king. He would have been worthy of knighthood.”
Would have. “You would hold me to a standard that died twelve years ago?”
“You do not understand what it means to be a knight. To be king!”
“I'll never be king because that throne was made for him. Everything that I'm not, he would have been. That throne remains empty because you can't crawl out from the grave you'll never stop digging for him.”
“To sit on this throne is a fate too good for you, boy.”
Aerren's face betrayed no reaction as he turned and wordlessly stalked from the hall. The same to you, Father.