Authors: Pierre Pevel
He felt good and smiled. It had been a long while since he had felt this …
One of the thugs decided that the game was no longer worth the effort and fled before his leader could retain him. The two others hesitated. In their eyes, the odds had changed.
It was Lorn who launched the next assault.
He leapt forward, avoided a clumsy blow from a club, spun round as he slipped beneath the guard of one thug and, rising up, planted his dagger several times in the man’s body: three quick stabs, each of which pierced a vital organ. Returning to the one whose club he had dodged, Lorn sank his dagger into an eye. The blade broke off and remained in the socket, from which blood spurted.
The leader finally attacked.
He’d unsheathed a very long dagger. It was a blade of fine quality, which he’d looked after with care and knew how to use. It hissed twice in front of Lorn’s nose. On the third pass, the knight grabbed hold of his opponent’s wrist with both hand, drove his knee into the man’s belly and followed up with an arm lock. The bald man grimaced and fell to his knees, incapable of making the slightest gesture due to his pain. He dropped his dagger and moaned:
But Lorn pressed down with his full weight and dislocated the man’s shoulder. With tears in his eyes, the man choked with pain and vomited. Lorn bent down, seized him by one ear and obliged him to look him in the eye.
What the gang leader saw there terrified him.
‘M … Mercy,’ he repeated.
Lorn slowly leaned forward, until their cheeks brushed one another and the scent of the man’s sweat and filth filled his nostrils.
‘Thanks,’ he murmured in the man’s ear as he picked up the fallen weapon.
The bald man gave him a look of disbelief.
‘Th … Thanks?’
He did not see the dagger thrust that passed through his throat. Lorn stood up and took a few steps back to watch the man choke in his own blood, his heels scraping the ground while a necklace of pink bubbles soaked his chest.
When the body no longer moved, Lorn took a deep breath before walking over to a barrel of rainwater placed beneath a drainpipe at the entrance to the alley. He plunged his head in, washed off the mud and the blood covering his face, and brusquely straightened up, refreshed, his hair dripping.
But something wasn’t right.
He sensed it just before the pain struck him in the abdomen like a hammer blow. He fell to his knees, moaning and grimacing as he held his belly. It felt like a small animal was devouring his intestines. He took hold of the barrel, trying to stand up, but his suffering was too great. And suddenly, he thought a red-hot nail had been driven through his left hand. He let out a cry. Incredulous, he lifted up his marked hand before his eyes burning with sweat and observed it as if it did not belong to him, as if he were seeing these curled fingers and muscles tensed to the breaking point for the very first time.
The pain in his belly intensified and blinded him.
Rolled onto his back.
He retched and, before passing out, vomited a thick black bile which spilled across his cheeks.
‘Exasperated by the queen, some great lords had reached the point where they nurtured projects of rebellion. They united behind the Duke of Feln, who was an inveterate plotter.’
Chronicles (The Book of the Three Princes’ War)
A secret messenger had announced their coming.
The riders arrived in the night and, from his window, Count Teogen of Argor watched them enter the courtyard of his castle. It was a keep built on the side of a mountain and partly hollowed from the granite, an austere and solitary dwelling to which the count had retired after being removed from the High King’s Council. He loved this place, no doubt because he flattered himself in thinking it resembled him: hard and cold, but solid and without pretence.
And belonging to another era.
The riders wore great dark capes which covered the rumps of their mounts. Swordsmen for the most part, they numbered a dozen, but only two dismounted, following the servants who had hastened to meet them with torches.
Teogen remained at his window, his gaze lost in the direction of the dark ragged silhouettes of his mountains. He knew what had brought the horsemen. He already knew what Duncan of Feln was going to propose and he was not yet certain what answer he would give. But the High Kingdom was in a bad way. According to some, the realm was poised on the edge of a deep abyss. It was all the fault of a king who no longer ruled, and an ambitious and hated queen.
There was a knock at the door.
As soon as he entered, the Duke of Feln threw his cloak on one of the armchairs placed in front of the fireplace and exchanged a formal embrace with Teogen.
‘Good evening, count.’
They had not seen one another since the Count of Argor had returned to his mountains. The count remained a force of nature despite his fifty-seven years. Tall and massively built, he had grown stout but still seemed capable of crushing a helmet and the skull inside with a single blow from his mace, his favourite weapon on the field of battle. Although he wielded a sword instead, Duncan had also distinguished himself by his courage in combat, which had earned him the scar that marred his cheekbone. He was reputed, however, to be more a wily politician than a man of war. With a well-trimmed beard and a confident gaze, he was ten years younger than Teogen.
‘My daughter accompanies me,’ he announced. ‘If you would permit it, I would like her to be present during our meeting.’
The count turned towards Eylinn of Feln, viscountess of Beorden, who entered the room in her turn.
‘Just one word from you and I will retire, count,’ she said, performing a curtsey that etiquette did not require.
‘No,’ replied Teogen. ‘Since it pleases your father that you should remain …’
A humble smile upon her lips, the young woman straightened up and undid the lace of her cape, allowing a servant to take it away. She possessed a delicate beauty: a lily-white complexion, a sweet face and ruby lips. But the most striking thing about her was her eyes, eyes full of life, intelligence and cunning.
‘Thank you, count.’
She was dressed as a rider, wearing black and red only as she was still in mourning for her husband, a very old and very rich lord whose fortune had refilled the chests of the Feln family.
Teogen invited the duke and his daughter to sit near the hearth, in order to enjoy the heat and the light of the fire crackling therein. Then he waited for the servant to pour the traditional ice wine of the Argor Mountains and leave, before saying:
‘I’m listening, duke.’
‘You already know why I’ve come here, don’t you?’
‘You want me to join your cabal.’
Without showing any sign of it, Eylinn was amused. It was Teogen’s way to get straight to the point: he belonged to a different era and a different world from her father. But Eylinn knew this was also a role he played in order to hide his own game and destabilise whoever he dealt with. The duke was aware of this as well, for he did not miss a beat and calmly declared:
‘I would like you to join the forces that will restore the High Kingdom to its former grandeur.’
The count smiled. He drank a mouthful of wine, keeping his eyes on Duncan’s. The duke continued:
‘If the High Kingdom was in a poor state when you were dismissed from the Council, matters are worse today. There are rumblings of revolt in the countryside. The harvests were poor and the people are overburdened by taxes. Nevertheless, the treasury’s chests are empty and the funds are lacking to attend to the kingdom’s essential needs. And what will happen when the High Kingdom is no longer able to defend its borders?’
‘For the last two months, the soldiers in the garrisons of the North and the East have been on half-wages,’ the Duke of Feln explained.
‘I doubt that Vestfald will attack us.’
‘I grant you that. But what about Yrgaard?’
‘The High Kingdom is about to cede Angborn to it.’
At these words, Teogen’s fists balled. Duncan noticed this but gave no sign.
‘Selling it would be a more accurate description.’
His fists still closed, Teogen clenched his jaw while Eylinn, whose eyes flashed, contained a smile. She knew the count numbered among King Erklant’s earliest companions, with whom he had reconquered the province of the Free Cities, defended his throne, and driven off the Black Dragon’s armies. Abandoning, losing, or – worse still – selling Angborn was a breach of the kingdom’s integrity, but also, for a warrior and a man of honour like Teogen, an insult to the memory of those who had shed their blood or given their lives to liberate the Free Cities from the Yrgaardian yoke.
‘For the High Kingdom,’ the Duke of Feln was saying, ‘it’s an opportunity to replenish its coffers. But for Yrgaard?’
For a moment, Argor thought the question was merely rhetorical, but Duncan evidently expected an answer. Annoyed that the duke was playing at being a teacher with him, he shrugged his shoulders, but nevertheless deigned to respond:
‘Yrgaard acquires Angborn, of course!’
Duncan of Feln could not prevent himself from showing a small, superior smile. Eylinn saw this and raised an eyebrow: because he thought he was more intelligent than almost anyone else, her father was sometimes his own worst enemy.
‘Yes, but more than that,’ he said. ‘Yrgaard acquires Angborn and its fortress. Which stand at the entrance to the bay of the Free Cities. Do you remember that island, Teogen? Do you remember that fortress?’
The duke nodded grimly.
Angborn had been the key stake in the final act of the Free Cities’ reconquest. For several months, a terrible battle had been waged in its ditches and upon its ramparts, the Yrgaardians fighting to the last to defend it. How many men had perished there? Teogen could only name some of them, but all had fallen close by him …
Still watchful, Eylinn reminded herself that her father knew what tune he needed to sing to Teogen. Yet, wasn’t he singing a little too loudly, forcing the note? Despite appearances, the count was not some easily fooled yokel.
‘He who controls Angborn,’ continued the duke, ‘controls the bay. And he who controls the bay dictates his law to the Free Cities. Believe me, Angborn is only the first step in a campaign of conquest.’
‘Armed conquest. The Black Dragon …’
Teogen ceased listening and raised his eyes towards a torn banner that hung on the wall. It was black and embroidered with a wolf’s head – seen face-on – in silver thread. The emblem of the High King. Not that of the High Kingdom, but the personal symbol of Erklant II. The king had given him that banner on the evening after a hard-fought battle and, since then, the count had kept it as a talisman.
He was a warrior, an old warrior who knew the price of loyalty and the value of shed blood.
‘The Black Dragon,’ he murmured.
He had never met her, or even seen her. On the other hand, he had fought one of her offspring. ‘Dragon-princes’, as they were called. They were human in appearance, but bore within them a part of their progenitor’s power. It made them formidable enemies, capable of releasing enough Dark force to mow down the front rows of an entire army.
Realising he had lost his audience’s attention, Duncan of Feln had stopped speaking. He hesitated for an instant. More skilled at detecting emotions, his daughter took the initiative and stood, rousing Teogen from his reverie.
‘I see that my presence here is superfluous,’ said Eylinn with a ravishing smile. ‘Moreover, it’s late. Could you tell me the way to your altar? I should like to pray before we set forth again.’
‘Pray to whom?’ asked the Count of Argor.
‘An altar devoted to any one of the First Ancestrals will suit me. No doubt he will carry my prayers to Eth’ril.’
‘My wife also prayed to the Dragon of Dreams. I will open her chapel for you,’ said Teogen, without showing the emotion he felt at the memory of his wife.
The young woman placed a hand upon her chest and bowed slightly.
‘Thank you very much, count.’
Once they were alone, Teogen and Duncan remained silent for a moment. The count had risen to pour himself another glass of wine. He drained it in one gulp and, in a matter-of-fact tone, said:
‘It’s too late to prevent the cession of Angborn.’
‘True,’ admitted the Duke of Feln. ‘So we need to prepare for the future. Even if the High Kingdom were at the height of its power and glory, the prospect of a war with Yrgaard should worry us, but in our present state … We’d better pray too, if we don’t act …’
Count Teogen was not the sort of man who looked to the First Ancestrals for rescue. Or to anyone, for that matter.
‘Pray!’ he exclaimed.
‘Yes, count. Let us pray that if the Black Dragon attacks, she attacks as late as possible. Let us pray that the tribute Yrgaard will pay suffices to replenish our treasury and, if not, let us pray that Vestfald continues to sell us grain on credit. Let us pray that the foreign bankers do not ask for an immediate reimbursement of the enormous sums they have loaned the Crown. Let us pray that the countryside is not set alight. Let us pray that the next winter is not too hard. And while we’re at it, let us pray that the king is cured of the illness that ails him and that the queen recovers a semblance of good sense. Let us pray, count.’
Teogen heaved a sigh. He sat down, reflected for a moment, and then asked:
‘What do you expect of me?’
The duke leaned forward and said:
‘Queen Celyane takes advantage of the king’s illness to exercise a regency that is not only disastrous but illegal. We have every reason to be opposed to her. If I stand against her, the great lords of the realm will follow me …’
‘For the sole good of the High Kingdom, of course,’ the Count of Argor commented ironically.
Duncan gave him a faint smile.
‘It’s true that some will only aspire to regain the titles and the honours that were theirs before the queen excluded them, just as she excluded you. But what do their motives matter? It’s a question of saving the kingdom.’
‘However, although the great lords will follow your lead, the lesser nobles of the sword will follow mine. And you would also like to be able to count on my wyverners. That’s why you want me at your side.’
In all of the High Kingdom, there were no better wyvern riders than those of the Argor Mountains. And only Argorians knew the secret of training the winged reptiles for combat.
‘Indeed,’ agreed the duke. ‘Except I do not want you at my side, but at our head.’
‘At your head,’ he said. ‘Well, well …’
He marked a pause and, looking Duncan straight in the eye, said:
‘So that my head will fall rather than yours if the little adventure you’re proposing goes sour …?’
The duke stood up and protested:
‘Count! You can’t—’
But Teogen cut him short by bursting into loud laughter.
‘I’m teasing you, Duncan. I’m teasing you … Sit down.’
But he meant every word, even so. Becoming serious again, he added:
‘It remains the case that you are asking me to take up arms against the throne. It would mean plunging the kingdom into a civil war.’
‘No. If you were leading our troops, I doubt very much that a single drop of blood would be shed or a single cannon fired. When she sees the entire kingdom has risen against her, the queen will have no choice but to give in to our demands.’
‘A regency, this one legitimate, until the king recovers.’
‘If the king ever recovers. And who will exercise this regency?’
‘Where you will sit.’
‘As will you.’
Thinking hard, Teogen nodded distractedly, his eyes lost in the distance.
‘If the queen does not give in,’ he said at last in a grave tone, ‘then it shall be war. And it will be a bloody one.’
After his meeting with the count, Duncan of Feln found his daughter waiting for him in the courtyard with his horsemen. Wearing her great cloak, she was already in her saddle.
‘Since when do you pray to the Dragon of Dreams?’ asked the duke as he straddled his mount.
‘Since I learned the late countess did.’
‘Clever,’ conceded Duncan with a smile.
He gave a slight kick of his heels and the troop moved off.
‘So?’ asked Eylinn before they picked up too much speed and the din of the ride drowned their words.
‘So I gave him food for thought.’
‘It’s what I was expecting. Teogen is a rock that can’t be easily moved. But all the same, this meeting was not in vain. After all, even the highest tower begins with a single stone, doesn’t it?’
With a satisfied cluck of his tongue, the Duke of Feln urged his horse into a gallop.