Securing a Throne #shortstory

This is a sequel, sort of to an earlier piece I wrote here.

It is not yet dawn when silver trumpets pierce the stillness. A women opens her red ringed grey eyes and swears at the disruption of her uncomfortable sleep. She tosses the soiled wool cloak aside and rises in her dented, blood and mud caked armour. She grabs her helmet and shield before launching herself up the ladder to the battlements. Her bastard sword clanging against her shield slung over her back.
‘Where is the knave blowing that trumpet!’ She asks.
‘Queen Céleste!’ A Sergeant of archers says in surprise. The man recovers, salutes and points out where the trumpeter is. ‘One of theirs.’
Queen Céleste reaches into her pouch and draws a strip of brown. ‘My last piece of dried horse meat for the archer who silences the knave.’ She says.
The sergeant goes first with a toothless grin on his old face. His arrow soars towards the sound and disappears in the darkness. The trumpet stops and a commotion replaces it.
‘Shields!’ Shouts a sergeant at arms as a volley of enemy arrows responds. Queen Céleste covers the sergeant of archers with her shield as she passes over his meagre prize. The man shares it with his remaining men.
Céleste peers cautiously over the wooden battlements and lets out a growl. ‘They will come again today.’
‘Why?’ Asks a man at arms. ‘They have us starving.’
‘Silence boy.’ Says the sergeant next to Céleste. ‘The Queen knows more than us.’
‘Sorry your majesty but I don’t see the point.’ Says the man. ‘We are at the end of our supplies and famished.’
‘No word is getting through the siege to ask Lord Albert for relief.’ Says another man.
‘I’ve sent Lord Albert to secure Biron with the Duke. Some of the rebels wish to use my absence from home to their advantage.’ Céleste says moving to the ladder. ‘They are coming so be ready.’
‘Fools.’ Says an archer angrily readying his bow. ‘Pity the dragon Panphilos isn’t here to help us.’
‘All the dragons are rushing to protect the hatcheries from a great evil.’ The Queen says climbing down the ladder.
Queen Céleste finds her council assembled next to her ragged standard next to the ruins of her tent. She bids them sit on the few remaining casks that haven’t become fire wood.
‘Word arrived to the rebel lords this morning. Your Uncle has been unleashed by the Empress and is even now approaching the rebel stronghold.’ Says a shadowy figure.
‘Still vexes me. They proclaim their loyalty to your majesty then rebel as soon as Panphilos flies to defend his kin.’ Says Count Denholm. ‘I shall use their skulls as toasting cups.’
‘Count Denholm order the cooks to use the last casks of mead to make today’s pottage and to let each man have their fill.’ Céleste says and receives a kiss on her gauntlet before the Count rushes off to issue the orders.
‘Any other news spy master?’ Asks a captain with only one eye.
‘Admiral Matilda has conquered the pirate islands. She wishes to know what to do with them.’ The shadowy spy master says.
‘Use the revenues to support the fleet.’ Céleste says with a yawn. ‘Everyone with a horse will be held back to pursue the fleeing rebel army. Sir Miles will command them.’
‘You haven’t one yet majesty.’ Says Sir Miles from behind his grey beard. ‘You should ride with us when you do.’
‘No, I have no horse to ride and must see this capital of mine sooner than later.’ Céleste says. She coughs to cover the hunger growls from behind her breast plate. A spent arrow bounces off the standard pole.
‘North wall!’ A sergeant shouts and men rush to the north wall.
‘I’ll send your squire over to get my spare horse.’ Sir Miles says ignoring the fighting breaking out all around.
‘My squire died last week.’ Céleste says. ‘Your spare horse is for your own squire.’ She looks up at Sir Miles. ‘Do not go more than a day south into the rebel lands or your force will be overwhelmed.’
‘Right, chase the away and turn to join you in the capitol.’ Sir Miles says bowing to kiss his queen’s gauntlet.
Céleste is left alone with the spy master as her lords and captains rush off to the fighting. ‘How many of the eastern lords are raising their arms against me?’
‘All the ones who are not here with you.’ The spy master says.
‘We conquered a misruled, defiled, ravaged and bankrupt kingdom. Where peasants die in fear and starvation or turn to a life of banditry.’ Céleste says as a servant hands her a bowl of pottage.
‘Those bandits will make powerful allies to defeat the rebel lords.’ The spy master says refusing a bowl of pottage.
‘With what, daggers and hoes?’ Céleste says tasting the horrid food.
‘The weapons from your dead foes are piling up in the armouries in Biron. Lord Albert says the piles of armour and weapons in Vadstena alone is more than storage allows. It rusts in the rain my queen.’
‘How do I win these bandits to my side?’ Céleste asks.
‘Leave that to my shadows.’ The spy master says stepping back into the darkness.
‘Hold.’ The Queen commands. ‘What are you keeping from me?’
‘A great many things my queen.’
‘Who are the rebel lords rallying behind to take my throne?’
‘He does not wish to be king.’
‘Who doesn’t?’
‘They are taking him to the Hawk’s tower.’
‘Name this man.’ Céleste jumps up and stomps towards the spy master.
‘Togny’s brother Osbert.’
‘The wizard? Wizard’s can not rule.’
‘He agrees with you which is why he went into hiding. Not well enough if the hunters could find him.’
‘Send word to the Vixen I wish Prince Osbert delivered to me alive.’ Céleste says watching a group of her spearmen rush towards a breach in the palisade. ‘Excuse me spymaster, I’ve been neglecting my duties.’ Céleste draws her sword and runs to lead the charge against the rebel breakthrough.
The sun is high but obscured by clouds and smoke. Queen Céleste leads the charge over the siege works and into the main enemy encampment. Rebels flee before her and her hungry, determined men. Céleste grabs her sword by the point to use the hilt guard to trip a rebel who isn’t fleeing. She drops the tip into the sprawling man’s belly and drives through to the mud beneath.
Horns sound as Sir Miles charges past to ride down the panicked enemy rear guard. Céleste claims an abandoned rebel horse and mounts it to rally her men to finish the remaining rebels off in the siege camps.
‘Your majesty!’ Pleads a man at arms holding his sword hilt to her. ‘We surrender. All our lords are fled or dead.’
Céleste takes the offered sword and flips it around to hand the hilt back. ‘Follow your queen to the capitol and help me defeat the lord who abandoned you to die.’
The man rises and smiles as he salutes her. ‘To Highguard and beyond my sovereign.’
The remaining rebels surrender and pledge loyalty as the captured stocks of food and ale are distributed by the victorious army. Céleste indulges in the meal left by the rebel lords for their victory celebrations.
‘Count Denholm, prepare to march at dawn with as many men as we can. Leave some here to guard the spoils and release the levies of the western counties to their farms and shops. Other levies will follow us to Highguard.’ Céleste says as she finishes her third plate.
‘Let the men rest my queen.’ Pleads a tired captain.
‘We have rested here for more than a month. Time to see this capitol I’ve conquered.’ Céleste says and rises from her spot with her ale. ‘Build a monument to those we leave behind here.’
As dawn approaches Céleste, still in her armour, rolls out of a rebel lord’s cot and leads her army east to Highguard.
‘This is Highguard?’ Céleste asks a week later. ‘Livestock could conquer this place.’
‘They have.’ Jokes a knight of her escort pointing with his lance to some sheep and cattle wandering through the deserted streets.
The Queen leads her escort through the town towards the ruined castle in the centre of town on a hill. To her left are the forgotten wheels of mills, to her left are the town squares and empty market stalls. Chickens seem to own more houses than people do.
‘Wonder who comes to greet us?’ Asks Count Denholm referring to a group of riders coming down across a series of draw bridges from the castle.
‘Who approaches the gates of Highguard Castle?’ Asks the lead rider as they meet. She is an older woman with redish grey hair.
‘Céleste, Queen of Gastikland, Princess of Biron, Dragon Friend and champion of good souls.’ Says Céleste’s herald.
‘Where is my son Torgny?’ Asks the older woman.
‘In a pile of dragon shit near Vadstena.’ Says Céleste. ‘I claim all that was his.’
‘And my other son, what does he get?’ Asks the older woman.
‘Bring Osbert before me and find out.’ Céleste says before pushing past the late king’s mother and riding through the gates of her newest castle. She rolls her eyes as she inspects the poor repair of the castle.
‘My son spent more on his clothing and wars then his walls and kingdom.’ Says the late King’s mother. ‘He would change three or four times a day.’
‘I haven’t removed this armour in over a month.’ Responds Céleste dismounting near what was once stables.
‘Yes, I smell that.’ Laughs the late king’s mother. ‘I’ll have a bath readied and some clothes laid out.’ She says as she too dismounts.
Céleste nods and walks to a high inner wall and looks up with disgust. ‘Weak mortar, bad stone work.’
‘A sneeze could knock it down.’ Says Count Denholm. They go through the inner gate to the courtyard and the royal keep. ‘This is no fit place for a queen. It is no fit place for sheep.’ The count says looking at the keep.
‘Assemble the council in the throne room.’ Céleste says walking into the royal keep. She finds her way to the throne room to find a muscular woman with shoulder length blonde hair and tall riding boots lounging on the steps beneath the throne. Her dress has foxes embroidered into it.
‘You must be the new Queen.’ The woman asks while rising briefly to curtsey. ‘I hear you have need of me.’
‘Ah, Vixen. I wish Prince Osbert to honour us here with his presence.’ Céleste says stepping over the woman and sitting in the throne.
‘Interesting wish your majesty.’ Vixen says with a grin. ‘Interesting and expensive.’
‘I’m sure it is your grace. Expensive that is.’ Céleste watches as Vixen’s eyes narrow.
‘Do not tease nor try me. Your dragon is more than a thousand leagues away.’
Céleste narrows her eyes and leans towards the older woman known as Vixen. ‘The Duchy of Adelaide for the crown Prince of Gastikland seem fair to you?’
‘Seems mighty generous on your part. I should have my brothers join your cause and swear loyalty.’
‘I would prefer their loyalty to their heads.’ Céleste says with a smile. ‘Will you stay for supper?’
‘No your majesty. I will leave at once upon my quest.’ The Vixen prostrates herself before the queen and kisses the queen’s sabatons.
‘Fair well your grace.’
Céleste watches the woman leave and then sleeps a bit in the throne before the Queen mother arrives to wake her. She follows the women to the council chamber and sees a ragged group of the old king’s advisors looking around for the axe that will kill them.
‘The Vixen left quickly, my queen.’ Count Denholm says as the Queen sits.
‘You hired that woman to kill my son Osbert.’ Accuses the queen mother.
‘No, I wish to speak with him not kill him.’
‘And after you speak with him?’
‘He should die. The lords are rallying to his cause.’ Says Sir Miles.
‘I will decide his fate later.’ Says Céleste slamming the table. ‘Draw up letters of patent to restore the Duchy of Adelaide to the Vixen.’
‘If we catch the Prince first you could keep Adelaide for yourself. It is very wealthy land.’ Says Sir Miles.
‘I agree your majesty, the Vixen’s price is far to steep.’ Says one of the old king’s council.
‘The Vixen is resourceful and clever. I would value her as an ally.’
‘Very well my queen.’ Says Count Denholm. ‘The Duke has dispatched Lord Albert to us with fifty thousand men.’
‘With your uncle’s twelve thousand and our thirty thousand we can overwhelm the rebels in the south before the planting season.’ Says Sir Miles.
‘What of King Svante?’ Asks the Queen. The door opens and a man rushes in and apologizes. ‘Count Winoc.’ queen nods to the arrival.
‘Majesty.’
‘What news from home?’
‘Your father’s lands are becoming wealthier by the day.’
‘Enough to raise an army of fifty thousand.’ Says the queen mother.
‘Have you repaid our loans?’ Céleste asks ignoring the queen mother.
‘With interest.’ Winoc says. ‘Why have you sent for me?’
‘I need you to do in Gastikland what you did in Biron. Restore the treasury and get crops growing.’ Céleste says.
‘Very well, I will set to work at once.’
‘What of your coronation?’ Asks a councillor of the former king.
‘You put down rebellions and leave the ceremonies to me.’ Says Winoc with a smile.
‘Very good Count Winoc. You may dismiss or retain the former council as you see fit.’ Céleste rises. ‘And get those water wheels turning again.’
‘Before you leave us majesty.’ Says Count Denholm. ‘There are still some matters to attend to.’
‘Right, why won’t Svante unleash the armies of Varmland?’
‘You have his daughter here as a hostage.’ Says Denholm with a chuckle.
‘Pity it isn’t one of his sons. You could secure your rule with an heir.’ Suggests a councillor.
‘Sir Miles take that man to the dungeon.’ Céleste says and is instantly obeyed. ‘Which Princess?’
‘Palla, the one that was married to Prince Livio before he got himself killed in a tournament.’ Says Count Denholm. ‘She wishes to petition you for some reason.’
‘I’ll see her now in the throne room. At dawn have the army march to join Lord Albert and my Uncle. We will leave a garrison here of course.’
‘I request the honour of commanding that garrison your majesty.’ Count Denholm says with a bow.
‘No. I don’t trust you so I will keep you within a sword length. To many of your family are with the rebels.’
Céleste walks into the throne room to receive the Queen mother and Princess Palla. The three women are offered wine and food while the Princess struggles to find her voice. ‘You are a great warrior queen.’ Palla begins.
‘Skip flattery and get to the point.’
‘Do not send me back to my father. He’ll marry me off to some old fool to gain advantage. Let me stay as a lady in waiting. Please your majesty?’
‘No. Warrior queens need squires not ladies in waiting.’ Céleste says getting ready to take her leave.
‘So she is to remain here as a hostage with nothing to do?’ Asks the Queen Mother.
‘She is going home.’
‘I ran away last time you sent me home. Fought off bandits to come here.’
‘You can fight?’
‘A little, not very well.’
‘She needs training to take her father’s throne.’ The Queen Mother says. ‘Let her challenge her brothers, let my son live out his days as a wizard and I will have my nephew vote for you when the Empress dies and a new one is elected.’
‘Is that all?’
‘I want to build a canal between the two great rivers.’
‘You can work with Count Winoc after you plan my coronation.’ Céleste says with a yawn. ‘I take it my bath is now cold.’
‘It is being kept warm for you.’ The Queen Mother says rising to curtsy.
Céleste walks to the door and turns back to Palla. ‘Come squire, I need help getting out of this armour.’
It has taken months to herd the rebel armies together into a northern vale far from supply or support. The weary army of Queen Céleste waits for the order that will finish the rebellion. Céleste sits upon her horse overlooking the narrow entrance to the valley and the rebel camps.
‘Ready for your first real battle Palla?’ Céleste asks her squire.
‘You have trained me well your majesty.’ Palla says as another woman rides up but without armour.
‘Lady Emma, so good to see you. This is my squire Princess Palla.’ Céleste says. ‘Emma is my secretary and I’ve missed her this past year.’
‘I have missed you too your majesty. I come with terrible news though. The Empress has been thrown from her horse and may not live to see the sowing.’
‘Let me deal with this war before I get drawn into that one please, old friend.’
‘More news for you my queen.’ Says a shadow. ‘The Vixen is trapped inside the rebel army with the Prince. He maybe able to escape but it will cost the Vixen her life.’
‘I like the bounty hunter and wish her to be unharmed. Can you send a message to them?’ Céleste asks. She gets a nod. ‘Tell them we are charging to the rescue.’
‘That will be costly to your army.’ Says Emma.
‘Most of the rebels know of the two escape routes left in the mountains.’ Says the shadow.
‘What are you going to do with Prince Osbert?’ Asks Palla.
‘Killing him would be wisest.’ Advises the shadow. ‘The only other option is to have him the rallying cause of further rebellions.’
‘Tell everyone Prince Osbert will be my husband and anyone who challenges that will be disembowelled.’
‘Give me until noon before charging so I may pass the message.’ The shadow says before disappearing.
‘That will split the rebels against each other.’ Says Palla with a smile.
‘Why marry the brother of a defeated king?’ Asks Emma.
‘You have never met him, how could you be in love with him?’ Asks Palla.
‘Love is for peasants. I need a wizard. Especially one who is related to most of the royal houses of the empire.’ Céleste says.
At noon the shadow returns with a grin under his hood. ‘Your betrothed says wait for his signal. You’ll know it.’
‘How many allies has he brought over?’
‘He won’t know until the charge.’
‘Send word to all of our forces to be ready.’ Céleste says.
‘We should have cut the mountain trails so they couldn’t escape.’ Says Count Denholm. ‘They will just wait a few years and rebel again.’
‘There is no escape, only the appearance of escape.’ Says Palla with a grin. She looks at the Count and winks. ‘You don’t honestly think the Queen sent all the northern levies home, do you?’
‘The where are they?’ Asks the Count .
‘Follow me and I’ll show you!’ Cries the Queen spurring her horse forward. A brilliant green flash fills the the valley for an instant. As both giant armies are stunned looking at where the flash emanated from a second flash of red erupts above the valley. A rain of fire descends into the enemy camp as Céleste orders the charge.
A long column of twenty thousand knights and men at arms ride into the valley as the fire rain ends. Rebels scramble in all directions up the steep sides of the vale as Céleste and her vanguard meet the mounted rebels head on. Chaos and fear spread as the melee starts going the Queen’s way.
The rebels fall to the narrowest, highest part of the vale only to discover the paths to the mountains cut by the levies. Céleste turns to Palla and pats her on the back. ‘Mountain men belong in the mountains.’
Palla screams suddenly as an axe nearly slams through Céleste’s head. A flash of blue light spins the man wielding the axe around and off his mount. Palla slashes through the man’s skull with her sword before blocking another blow intended for Céleste.
‘You must be my betrothed.’ Says a man riding up on a pony. He removes his leather hat and bows while using his staff to trip a spearman trying to dismount Palla.
‘Majesty!’ A messenger says ridning up on a bleeding horse. ‘Some of the rebels have gotten into the camp and are setting our stores ablaze.’
‘Palla, I’ll knight you later, quickly take five hundred men and secure the camp.’ Céleste says and watches her squire assume command of a large company of knights.
‘My Queen, Count Denholm has betrayed you and is riding to Highguard with his kinsmen.’ Sir Miles says with disgust. ‘Let me take my companies and ride the dog down.’
‘No, this is wizard’s work. Denholm has been plotting to take the throne since my father died.’ Osbert says drawing a flaming sword and driving into a man trying to stab Sir Miles in the back.
‘Your mountain men are being overwhelmed.’ Says the Vixen riding up in her green armour. ‘Many rebels are escaping up the slopes and forming up to charge back down.’
‘To steep for horses my queen and men will be too tired to fight after climbing that.’ Sir Miles says.
‘They had forces up there all along.’ Says the Vixen.
‘Shadow, send the signal to my uncle.’ Céleste says and points to the right arm that forms the vale. A ball of white light is shot into the air and a loud bang with a brilliant white flash happens far above.
‘I know that trick.’ Says Osbert.
‘Do you know this one?’ Says the shadow with evil laughter. The laughter stops as nothing has happened in response to the signal.
‘We’re being defeated.’ Shouts a knight riding past Céleste. She slays the two rebels chasing him and orders the knight to join her guard.
Palla rides up from the rear without a helmet and blood rushing down her face from a gash. ‘Your uncle has been betrayed by his men and killed. All his army is joining the rebels on the high ground.’ Palla says gasping. ‘They’re descending into the camp. We’re trapped.’
‘More drinking cups for you Sir Miles.’ Céleste says before gutting a rebel captain.
‘Can’t trust anyone in this valley.’ Sir Miles says.
The Vixen shoots a crossbow bolt into another man charging for the Queen. ‘Think the rebels will honour my letters patent? You can trust me.’ She slams her war hammer into a rebel’s leg.
‘Majesty. We’re surrounded and being over run. What should we do?’
‘Ride to the mouth of the vale with me and watch plan b in action.’ Céleste says with a smile. She gets a wall of confused looks, including one from a man in the process of trying to unhorse her. ‘Sir Miles didn’t ask who I left camp to see last night.’
‘Lord Albert has joined us at last?’ Asks Sir Miles with faint hope.
‘Sadly Lord Albert has sent his regrets. He feels destroying the keeps of the rebel lords is more important. Send up another signal incase he didn’t see the first.’ Céleste watches the flare go up and then watches as Osbert casts a healing spell on Palla then other wounded loyal to the queen.
‘My queen ride away the rebel hosts are descending the slopes in force.’ Says the sergeant of archers from the siege.
‘Still serving me sergeant?’
‘Of course my queen. Until my last breath.’
‘More of your fire rain would be nice.’ Says the Vixen to Osbert.
‘He is more useful healing my men.’ Céleste says as more of her army gathers around. ‘Be careful when shooting arrows up sergeant. A friend is due.’
‘One dragon against so many?’ The sergeant asks.
‘Dragon?’ Asks Vixen with wide eyes.
Suddenly the smoke filled sky darkens and the noise of battle is drowned out by waves of terrifying, soul splitting screams of predatory ecstasy. The massed rebel armies erupt into flames as even the vale’s rock walls burn and melt. A dozen dragons swoop around the vale laying waste to the terrified rebels.
‘Sir Miles assemble any of our knights you find and help round up the rebels.’ Céleste says as Panphilos lands near her.
‘Most of these rebels seem to be surrendering. I think twelve dragons has won you the day my queen.’ Says the sergeant.
‘Only because we followed Céleste’s plan.’ Says Panphilos. ‘Oh look a wizard. I like wizards, they taste so magical.’
‘This one will be my husband.’ Céleste says.
‘Permission to ride after Count Denholm?’ Asks Palla.
‘No need. Lord Albert is waiting for him.’ The Queen says as she leads her entourage through the battlefield to camp. They arrive after dark to find the Imperial banner flying over Céleste’s tent. Céleste freezes after entering the tent.
‘Oh, hello mother.’ Osbert says seeing his mother sitting at the table next to a standing group of Imperial courtiers. ‘So today’s battle was planned?’
‘Mostly I didn’t plan on what you would do or who you would rally to out cause. Nor did I plan on my uncle getting killed.’
‘You didn’t reveal your plan to anyone?’
‘Do wizard’s reveal their secrets?’
‘No, we don’t.’ Osbert says sitting next to his mother and accepting a servant’s offer of wine. ‘So mother what brings you here?’
‘Silence Osbert, can’t you see the Imperial seal on these princes?’
‘Why are they here?’ Osbert asks.
‘Ssshh son!’ The Queen mother says harshly.
‘What message do you bring highnesses?’ Asks Céleste trembling.
The six men drop to their knees and bow their heads before Céleste. ‘The Empress is dead, long live the Empress.’ The leader of the men says raising the Imperial ring to Céleste.
Céleste takes the ring and puts it on still trembling. ‘Rise.’ She manages.
‘I am King Fletcher, Captain General of the Imperial armies. Why did she choose you as her heir?’
‘Simple. She’s marrying a wizard, befriended the bounty hunter in the Empire and has just found new homes for twelve dragons.’ Osbert says with pride. All six Imperial Princes swear their loyalty with smiles.
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