(tell me whatcha think....)
Ellis frowned a little. She liked cold weather, but this was absurd. Only midwinter, and snowdrifts were piling up like there was no tomorrow.
The wagons had just brought in another load of the dead, who would need to be buried or burned quickly. Malnourishment and cold were taking their toll.
She shivered and pulled her worn cloak a little tighter, scowling as the wind whipped strands of chestnut hair into her face. The rest of the kingdom hadn't lifted a finger to help them. The king had sent barracks-loads of troops to protect the border against the bandit threat over the winter, but no supplies or housing. Her people were bearing the brunt of it all.
Ellis should know. She was the only daughter of the late lord of Tallen, and since her father's death, she had been ruling the region with the help of her father's steward, Cyrus. Quite technically, she should have been married off to the first man who would take her. Young women weren't supposed to be in charge of chunks of the kingdom at all, no matter how small. But Tallen was so very small, and so very poor, and stuck so far up in the cold northern regions that it was largely ignored by the rest of the kingdom. At times, El hadn't even been sure anyone was aware it existed at all.
Apparently though, the king had been enough aware of its existence to pile it with extra troops and no supplies. Just thinking about it made El's blood boil. At least the man was finally dead, and his successor would soon be arriving to take his place. Perhaps the new king would be more reasonable. She would have gone formally to meet him and complain, but she was too afraid of drawing attention to herself. He would certainly want to know why she wasn't married. Tallen may have been dirt poor and worth almost nothing, but she was not about to relinquish it, or her freedom, to some stranger of a husband. She could think of few things she'd relish less.
She hurried across the courtyard into the ramshackle protection of the castle to look for her steward Cyrus, determined to shove aside these old thoughts.
She almost bumped into him as she walked into the chilly hall. "Milady," he gasped, sounding relieved. "You'd better come quickly. It's urgent."
Ellis glanced at him curiously. Cyrus was generally a very solid sort of person. Dependable, boring, and not easily rattled. "What on earth has got you all aflutter?" she asked bemusedly, as he led her back out into the freezing cold, heading toward the stables. It was probably not good news. Nothing was these days.
He shifted nervously. "You'll see in a minute, milady."
"I was looking for you anyway," El told him, recalling her earlier errand. "I wanted to ask you if there has been any word on the new king? We don't have enough supplies to keep feeding these troops much longer, and no one else can overturn the old king's decrees. The man was a lunatic anyway, to have sent all of them up here, bandit threat notwithstanding...."
The new king was supposed to be arriving at the capital any day now, and El was impatient. He was her final hope for a reprieve from the troops.
She broke off as they entered the stable, which was empty except for two men standing uneasily by one of the stalls. They were thin and ragged, looking like they hadn't had a decent meal in days. "Cyrus, what is going on?" she asked impatiently. It wasn't like him to be so mysterious.
"It's.... rather bad news, milady," he began. "These two men were out hunting near the main road, and they found....well anyway, you can see for yourself."
The two men in question drew away as Ellis approached. She reached the spot they had been standing, and looked curiously into the empty stall, feeling a vague tightening of her stomach.
Her jaw dropped.
"This is bad, milady," Cyrus said from somewhere near her elbow.
El closed her mouth, swaying a little. "Cyrus, is that....please tell me that's not who I think it is." It could not be. It must not be....
"I'm afraid not, milady. That is, or perhaps I should say was, the new king. Look, he's got the cloak and the signet ring to prove it."
Ellis knelt queasily down by the still figure of a young man who had been stretched out on the filthy straw of the stable. Sure enough, he was wearing a richly embroidered robe, and the signet ring of the new king's house. There was a deep, ragged gash stretching full across his chest, and from the caked blood all over his tunic, it was quite evident he was not alive. El felt all of her hopes go swirling away with the wind as she pressed her fingers hopelessly against his clammy wrist.
She looked up at Cyrus, who was twiddling gnarled fingers nervously. "But, if he's dead, then who...." She trailed off, and turned to the two men standing in the corner. They went a little pale at her glare. "What happened?" She asked, more harshly than she had intended.
One of the two stepped forward uneasily. "We were hunting down by the main road, milady, and we hadn't had much luck. Not that that's surprising. We were just about to turn and go back when we saw something through the trees. We went on, and came to a little clearing a few yards away from the road. It was," he swallowed, "full of bodies. We figure it must have been bandits. And then we saw him." He gestured at the dead man on the floor. "We brought him with us here, milady, and that's all we know. The others are still there."
"I see," Ellis said softly. She glanced at the
dead man again. She didn't recognize him on sight, of
course. No one would. But unfortunately he had the new king's
signet ring. Ellis recognized it from the missive that had been
sent a few weeks ago.
The man, who was the old king's nephew, had been schooling away in Swavorlund for the past twelve years, and had only begun the journey back to Audin when he'd learned of his uncle's death. No one had ever seen him before. But the signet ring was proof enough.
She turned to look at Cyrus. "If it was bandits, why didn't they take the ring and the robe? Surely they're worth something?" Her mind was whirling. If the man had left Swavorlund by the northern route, his journey would take him right through Tallen on the way to the capital city. And bandits had always been a problem, especially in winter.
Cyrus shrugged, his lined face looking wearier than she could ever remember it being. "The only thing I can figure, milady, is that they wanted everyone to know who it was that they'd killed. They'd be delighted to make this kind of trouble."
It did sound like something one of the bandit tribes would think up, and it was trouble. Ellis turned back to the dead man, scowling at him. He had been the only close relative of the old king. If he was dead, it would take the royal genealogists months to work out who would be the new ruler. In the meantime her people were starving. Spring wouldn't come for months, and supplies were dangerously low. El had been counting on being rid of the troops in the next few weeks.
She frowned angrily. She would dearly love to
throttle whoever had come up with the ridiculous idea that only a new
ruler could countermand the old ruler's decrees. Now there was no
one who could do anything at all about the troops.
"Milady," Cyrus asked softly, "what are we going to do now?"
She sighed. "I don't know, Cyrus. But in the meantime," she turned to look at the two hunters. "Why don't you go into the kitchens and have them find something for you to eat? I would ask you to remain quiet about what you have found. It will mean trouble, one way or the other, and I have not fully decided what to do yet."
The two men bowed nervously, promised they would say nothing, and headed back out into the courtyard.
El turned to look bleakly at Cyrus. "This is bad," she said helplessly. "We can't last but another week, or two at the most. We need supplies now. Isn't there any way we could get them?"
Cyrus shook his head.
"I don't suppose," asked Ellis suddenly, feeling a brief flare of hope, "that there's any way this could be some sort of mistake? Couldn't someone have forged a copy of the king's ring?" It was a faint possibility, but it was something at least.
Cyrus looked at her, his disbelief obvious. "I doubt that very much, milady, but if you like, I could ride out to the rest of the bodies, and have a look. If this is really the king, he should have had a few members of the royal guard with him, and I don't think anyone would risk impersonating one of them."
Ellis nodded in relief. "Would you please do that, Cyrus? That should tell us, one way or the other."
Cyrus left to do as she asked, and returned an hour later looking grim. Ellis ran to meet him as soon as he dismounted in the courtyard, her heart thudding in her throat. "It was the king," he told her grimly. "I found three of the royal guard."
Ellis stayed up late that night, staring out the blackened windows of her chilly room without really seeing anything. The candle had long ago guttered out, and she couldn't bring herself to care.
She was used to hardship. Times had always been rough for Tallen, and even she, the nobleman's daughter, was used to no luxury. But food was a necessity, especially in the dead of winter. No one would do anything about the troops - only the king had that power. But surely there was some way to get food?
El pounded her fist lightly against the old stone wall. If she had been a man, she could at least have gone into the capital to talk with the other nobles, and find out if perhaps one of them would be willing to trade for food. She blinked, rubbing her eyes. She could disguise herself as a man, and ride into the capital.
It was a bad idea, though. There was nothing Tallen had worth trading, and besides, they would want to know who she was. Everyone probably thought her father was still alive and ruling. A strange young man who claimed to be lord of Tallen would raise too many eyebrows. She didn't want any attention.
There was a slim possibility of being able to trade over the border with Elreach, the neighboring kingdom, but again, Tallen had nothing worth trading. There was no money in the treasury, and nothing in the storerooms.
El groaned, rubbing at her temples. The beginning of a headache was starting to pound as she forced herself to face the worst idea of all. She could draw the attention of all the nobles, wait while the squabbled over her land, and then marry one of them. At least then the people of Tallen wouldn't starve to death. She could pester her new husband until he saw to it. But everything in her rebelled sharply at that idea. She could not, she would not, be trapped like that. There had to be another way, and El didn't care what way it was, as long as it was possible. Surely there was some possibility that she had overlooked.
The idea crept up on her suddenly, and she exhaled, her breath a chilly white mist in the room. She could dress up as a man - and not just the lord of Tallen. She could dress up as the king. No one knew him. She could cut her hair, "borrow" the signet ring and cloak, and ride to the capital. Not only could she send food for Tallen, she could move the troops elsewhere. Cyrus would be dead set against it, but he would give in if she was stubborn enough.
He would also be able to handle the business of ruling Tallen while she was gone.
El felt the beginnings of a smile flicker over her lips as she leaned against the windowsill, staring at the pale moon. She wouldn't even have to be gone that long. She could stay just long enough to issue the new orders, then stage her death and slip back home.
It was nothing short of sheer lunacy. And there were bound to be complications.
But anything would be better than starvation.
She shuddered slightly. Or marriage to some cold nobleman who wouldn't care a whit for me.
The stars shone icily down as she collapsed into bed, determined to speak to Cyrus about it, and leave at first light in the morning.
A/N - Just something I thought I might have fun with. Is it worth it? Read and review, please!