The message arrives in the hours of early morning.
An eagle, dark feathered and resplendent, silhouetted against a blushing sky. Parchment clutched in her talons, plumage ruffled by the wind, she soars through the biting air, far above the castle grounds, and descends in slow, wide-arcing spirals: once, twice, thrice circling about the tallest watch tower.
A man stands there, among the crumbling battlements, waiting, watching. His eyes follow the bird being chased by the sun's rise. He holds up a hand as she nears, and the eagle swoops low, but does not land and the parchment tears as he pulls it free.
He unfurls what he has as the eagle soars on, holds it flat against cool stone. The light is still dim, but though the words are chilling, they are well marked, letters large and precise and darkly inked, and the man reads them with ease.
"Montgomery is advancing," he sees written, with ice in his stomach. "The North is at war."
Far away, the eagle flies still, unwatched as the man disappears within. She stretches her claws and the shred of parchment she still carries falls, heavy, to the edge of the castle grounds, weighed down by unmarked wax.
The seal is bright, crimson red, in the morning light, and it settles in the grass, glistening with fresh dew, like the spill of blood.
Eldron the Unerring, second of his name, High Lord of Tynsden, sits alone in his chambers preparing for his untimely demise.
Sir Karthik, trusted right hand and Commander of his Vanguard, hovers in the doorway, uncertain. His left eye twitches, a single concession to the depths of his concern, concealed behind his impassive facade. Lord Tynsden gestures at him to come in, and he does so after a moment’s pause.
They greet each other formally, despite their many years of acquaintance. Lord Tynsden is first to relax, nodding to a chair beside him whilst settling further back into his own seat. “Come. Sit with me, one last time.”
Sir Karthik tenses, just barely, at his words, but nonetheless he obeys. Still his eye twitches, and still he says nothing. Lord Tynsden continues, instead.
“We prepare to march out on the morrow. It is perhaps a week's journey to Salisford, and the Lady Cathryn will be expecting us, and can arm us there. You will ride with me, I hope?”
Sir Karthik finally stills, turning to face him fully, meeting his gaze. “You do not worry that we are leaving Tynsden undefended, my Lord?”
Lord Tynsden sighs. “I could scarcely worry about a thing more. But what would you have me do? We do not have an army, that we might station one half here while the other rides out. We can mobilise a small militia, and contribute little else - how can we then ask to retain some number of the few soldiers we do have? No, we shall pray that Tynsden will cope, for we can do little else. It will likely be a moot point, anyhow - should the North fall to Montgomery and his Merchant King, then Tynsden will succumb regardless; we could not hope to defeat the combined forces of the Southern Seas even at our strongest.”
Sir Karthik appears to mull this over. “Perhaps…” He trails off, and starts over. “What if, we were to wait, my Lord? Before we declare our sides. Montgomery has no quarrel with us, and Tynsden is of little strategic value besides - we have nothing to gain from fighting these battles.”
Anger flickers briefly in Lord Tynsden’s eyes, before the flames are quelled with compassion. His face softens; a hand briefly rests upon Sir Karthik’s arm. “You speak in fear, out of worry, concern. I understand. And you are right that it might be that inaction is our best hope to keep Tynsden from harm. But we are a people of the North still, if in spirit more than location, and our allies are in need. It is a craven, contemptible man that would stand aside whilst his friends face harm.”
Sir Karthik opens his mouth, and shuts it. A strange look spasms across his face, foreign and unreadable, and so fleeting that Lord Tynsden wouldn’t wonder that he only imagined its presence. He nods, as though in deep thought.
Eventually, he looks up and says, “You are right, of course, my Lord,” and Lord Tynsden thinks nothing more of the matter.
He stands and makes his way across the room, to where he keeps a flagon of the finest sweet Southern wine.
“Let us have one last drink, then. To the end of peace time, and to the hope of its return.”
“And to the wares and goods of the South not being lost to us forever,” Sir Karthik finishes, with a reluctant smile and blank eyes, as he takes the proffered goblet, and Lord Tynsden chuckles as he sits back down, and the two continue their talk.
Sir Karthik turns cool metal between his fingers.
He does not quite know why he took his Lord’s crest. Indeed, he had not known that he was going to do so until a goblet of wine was pressed into his palm and, quite on a whim, he took the opportunity to substitute his Lord’s signet with a plan ring from his own hand.
He studies his prize now, absently, as his thoughts race. One finger traces the ridges that mark out the proud wyvern, symbol of Lord Eldron’s house, and meanwhile his mind keeps replaying the conversations from the morning, pondering his next move.
So lost in his own head is he, that he barely notices the woman walking towards him until she has plucked the ring straight from his own hands and he finds them suddenly empty.
The Lady Matilde stands before him, one hand held towards the flickering candlelight, examining the stolen crest.
Sir Karthik flushes, and hopes his complexion hides it.
“You will forgive me my boldness, Sir, but this ring of yours seems eerily familiar.” She drops her hand. “A gift, I presume,” she asks, sharp eyebrows raised.
“The Lord Tynsden, that is, we were speaking this morning, and he, for -”
She holds up an empty palm and he stops speaking, grateful for the respite. “Please. Breathe. Take a moment and consider what you mean to say before you force me to hear it.”
Sir Karthik feels the corner of his mouth twitch upwards despite himself. “Right you are, my lady.”
“Now. You were with the Lord this morning?” At his nod, she continues. “Pray tell, what was the result of your conversation.”
“We were simply discussing the best course of action regarding our militia, that will ride out come the morning.”
“Ah,” she says, knowingly. “Say no more. You no doubt suggested a more… measured, approach, and he attempted to refute your arguments with meaningless talk about honour, and the result is that all our able fighters will march out at dawn regardless so that our Lord might keep his unerring conscience clean.”
Sir Karthik hesitates. “Your brother… The Lord… He is, a very, noble, man. Loyal to a fault, in every sense of the term, but he means -”
“My brother is a fool, Sir, and I admire your restraint in not saying so yourself.” She takes the ring and begins spinning it around her smallest finger, absently. Slowly, she says, “There is a class of people, who find themselves so caught up in seeking power, that it encompasses all they do. A leader should above all else fulfil their duty to their people, but when a person seeks power only for power’s sake, then they are forever looking upwards.
“I would like to believe, that my brother is a good man. I believe at least that he has a good heart, critically unaided thought it might be by his brain. And of course, I love him. I do not believe that he is knowingly behaving in this manner. But I do feel sometimes, that holding true to such tenets as friendship and fealty are well in theory and inane in practice.”
Sir Karthik nods, very cautiously, and Lady Matilde continues.
“Now, my brother, and Lady Cathryn of Salisford, and the Duke and Duchess of Achre, I’m sure will all congratulate themselves for holding so steadfastly to their principles, to their treaties. And should they fall, they will lead lives of diminished stature, or perhaps be imprisoned in relative luxury. And should they die, then at least it was in service of the cause that they chose. They will reap the rewards that will be proportionate to their actions and decisions, for better or for worse. That is only right.”
Sir Karthik speaks now. “But for the people left here, behind, without say…” and she nods gravely at him.
“Montgomery is not known for his understanding. And I hear that the Merchant King is fair, but ruthless. Whatever is left standing once those blue goons have had their run of Tynsden will simply be ruined over the following years instead, with tax and seizure. The last harvest was poorer than average as it is, and all the smiths and craftsmen now levied to fight a war.”
The silence sits heavy in the air between them.
Sir Karthik speaks into it, barely louder than a whisper. “There is good trade to be had with the South.”
“That there is,” she replies, matching his tone. She studies him then, all of a sudden, appraisingly. “You have been content as a Knight and reluctant commander all these years. You never wanted more?”
Sir Karthik answers at once, and truthfully. “I never saw the need.”
She hums. Then, with the air of one who has abruptly come to a decision, she nods. “I see.” She tosses the ring to the air - he catches it, startled - and turns on her heel to march down the corridor, beckoning over her shoulder. “Come. I believe we may have much to discuss, and time is running low.”
Lady Matilde steps out into the morning sunlight to bid her brother farewell, and wish him good speed on his ride West to Salisford. She stays close to the castle walls, some distance from the handful of horses and carts and drafted soldiers. Perhaps ten feet away, she can see Sir Karthi exchanging some final words with his Lord, second of his name, Eldron the Unerring of Tynsden. Their conversation drifts over to her on the light breeze.
“You are still happy, then, to stay behind and follow after us.”
Sir Karthik laughs, as if he were a man with nothing to hide. “Of course. The Vanguard will, for once, bring up the rear. And it is the right decision, to take some time to fortify our natural defences before all the trained and able bodies take their leave. We will follow you in a timely fashion, and draw less attention too.”
Lord Tynsden nods. “Very well. If you are sure, and I cannot tempt you elsewise…”
Lady Matilde lets her attention stray and turns her gaze back to surveying the field before her. She feels more than sees Sir Karthik make his way to her side, and she smiles vacantly as slowly the caravan of footmen and horses begin to wend their way away from the castle, from Tynsden, from the rising sun.
The two stand together and watch them go, and only when the procession is swallowed from their sight by the forest do they turn to each other.
Sir Karthik speaks first. “It is done, then.”
She nods. “Yes. For better or for worse.”
The silver ring gleams upon his finger. Lady Matilde takes the hand bearing it and, half-mocking, half-sincere, leans down to kiss the crest.
She straightens and turns toward the castle. “Come, then. The future awaits, my Lord, Sir Karthik the Usurper.”