My Cousin the King is set in the mythical country of Bregor. The Kingdom is bordered on the South and West by the sea. On its northern borders are the high ranges of the Crest Mountains, anyone going this way could travel over countless leagues of differing landscapes, eventually ending in the lands of the Norsemen. To the East is the country of Tadistan; a land which spans the borders between West and East.
Bregor is divided into many Provinces: each ruled by its own Lord. All, however, are loyal to the throne. All except one: Dorion, Lord of Gallantaire. He is a proud man who can trace his linage back to the original rulers of Bregor. He has never accepted the rule of the Fair haired Warriors who came from the North centuries ago. This story is about the consequences of his pride.
My Cousin the King
Somewhere in Europe, somewhere in time.
I wrapped my cloak closer around me; it was a damp chill night. The hot meat stew and the rich wine had done something to ease the ache of a day's hard riding, but not much. The men were talking or playing dice but my cousin looked to be deep in morbid thought. His handsome face was clouded by worry and concern. I knew exactly what was troubling him and I felt for him. Being a King was not easy: being a young King was even more difficult. He looked to me for advice, but on this occasion did not like the advice that I was offering. I tried again.
"I feel, Cousin that you are deluding yourself if you think that Dorion will accept your offers."
Edmund looked up from his musing, "You are probably right as usual, Merrick, but I have to try. I do not wish to fight him, but fight him I will." He sounded determined. "It is he who is deluded if he thinks he has any real claim to the throne after all these years. The house of Estalor has ruled for three centuries and the fact that my great grandfather was a bastard means nothing." He paused and sighed. "Why are we discussing this, Merrick? We know it all. We have discussed it many times."
I answered carefully, "We are discussing it, Edmund, because you, the warrior, are suing for peace, whilst I, the scholar, counsel war."
My cousin smiled, "You call yourself a scholar, Merrick but you are my most devious and trusted advisor." He thought for a moment, "However if we tell Dorion that we have made peace with Tadistan and my brother is bringing the army home from the Eastern Marches, then Dorion will not dare to challenge me."
"True, but he will wait until you are weak. Until Bregor is weak fighting some outside enemy." I let the words sink in, "But he will challenge you, Edmund, it is purely a matter of timing. He has not sworn allegiance, and it has been two years since you were crowned. Also our spies say he is preparing for battle." I offered my suggestion hesitatingly, "It is far better, Cousin, for that battle to be at a time of our choosing. If we can hide the fact that Garrett will soon have his army back at Cartagen then we have great advantage."
The truth as I saw it was that Dorion seriously underestimated Edmund. He did not know him. Although my cousin was obviously used to having his orders obeyed his basic nature was open and easy going but underneath ran a core of steel. He was usually slow to anger but once
his wrath was roused he made a dangerous enemy. Added to that he was a skilled and able warrior well versed in the art of war. Three years commanding the eastern army before handing over to his brother and taking the throne had honed his battle instincts. He would make all effort to offer the hand of peace and friendship to Dorion but if he was refused then I knew he would come down hard. The man had no claim and all but he knew it.
Edmund sat silent for a while and I did not interrupt him. "I have no stomach for this, Merrick," he said at last. "We have been fighting Tadistan for twenty years and now when we have made peace it looks like we will have to fight our own. I will offer all I can for his allegiance: a seat in government for him and his son make Gallantaire a Princedom if necessary but I can do no more." I was aware of the threat in his voice. "If he will not accept then he must take the consequences."
"Would there were another way," I offered. "Are you sure he does not have a daughter? A liaison would bring a permanent end to this. His descendants on the throne would surely satisfy him."
"He has two we are told," my cousin grinned. "My father had the same idea and made representations when I was born and again when I came of age. Unfortunately, I understand that they are still in the schoolroom." He laughed, "I would do many things for Bregor, Merrick, but playing with dolls and hoops is not one of them."
"Well you are going to need an heir soon. Are you going to marry Carina?"
Edmund's expression was a joy to behold. "One does not marry women like Carina, Merrick. I will look elsewhere for my bride."
I hid my relief but I had not really thought otherwise. "Does she know this?"
"I have told her. I made it clear at the beginning and I have never deceived her. In fact I am getting a little weary of her ways. Especially her melodramatics," he admitted. "She does not love me; she loves only position and power. I am sure that she will not grieve for long and that I will soon be replaced. When this issue is sorted with Dorion, whichever way it goes, then I will turn my attention to pleasanter matters. Perhaps we can find a wife each," he chuckled.
I personally thought that Carina would be rather reluctant to give up the position of King's mistress even if Edmund had promised her nothing more. I kept my feelings to myself and sighed, "I acknowledge, Edmund, that as you know I have always found women to be extremely pleasant and necessary. I am just worried that they change when you actually marry them."
Edmund laughed, "You my dear, Merrick, are just a confirmed bachelor. But I suppose no one will pester you for an heir anyway, with all your nephews." It was true, my elder brother Rayson was luckily, extremely prolific. Edmund turned to Tauren, his friend and the Captain of his guard, who had been quietly listening to all this. "If you had not stolen the prettiest and nicest lady in Bregor, my friend, then I would not have a problem." We all laughed. It was well known that Felanor had brought his daughter to court hoping for a match with Edmund but right from the beginning Astrid had had no eyes for anyone other than Tauren. I thought it was appropriate: she was a soft and lovely lady. Edmund would have trampled all over her.
"I always was way ahead of you when it came to women, Edmund," Tauren joked. "Even you will have to make an effort sometime: they will not all run to you."
"So you keep telling me." Edmund stood up grinning profusely, "And now since unfortunately there seem to be no women in sight I am going to get some rest. I wish to be away at first light and reach Gallant tomorrow."
"You are not feared, cousin, entering the lions den?"
"Nay, Dorion may be obsessive but I do not feel he is dishonourable. He has never hidden his feelings but I do not fear a stab in the back when supping with him." Edmund rose from his seat by the fire, stretching out his stiffness. "I bid you goodnight, Merrick."
I sat for a while after Edmund and Tauren had retired to their tents, deep in thought. We were camped on the edge of some woods a days ride from Gallant, the walled fortress city of the Lord of Gallantaire. The Province hugged the wild western shores of Bregor and not only Dorion but also most of the population were descended from the original inhabitants; tall black haired people proud of their linage. Every other region had now fully accepted the rule of the fair-haired warriors who rode south over the mountains centuries ago, conquering all in their path. All except Dorion. There had been skirmishes and battles on and off for generations but the previous Lord of Gallantaire had sworn allegiance to Edmund's father. Dorion never had. My cousin sought to make a final peace with him but although the idea of a Princedom was clever and generous, I felt it would find no favour. Edmund was a child of ten when Dorion last came to Cartagen but I, in my late teens, remembered him well. Even then I thought him arrogant and overbearing and now fifteen years later it seemed that his arrogance would lead him to disaster. With Garrett and the eastern army now only a few days march from Cartagen he would be outmatched. Dorion had welcomed Edmund's request to visit, probably wishing to learn all he could about my cousin, search for weakness in him. There was none. I hoped as Edmund hoped that the man would see sense but if I was honest then I thought that there was no real chance of avoiding bloodshed. I sighed and rose to leave the fire conscious that the camp had at last gone quiet; just the crackle of logs burning and the occasional snuffle of the horses or the stamping of a guard's feet warding off the cold. As I headed for my tent I looked around at the men wrapped in their bedrolls on the ground and wondered if they slept easy or dreamt of some useless battle that should never be.
We rose at dawn. A quick cold breakfast of cheese, bread and dried fruits, tents rolled, fires out, horses saddled and we were off. Edmund did not trust Dorion that much as he rode with his guard and half a division of cavalry. He was probably right though: assassinating him would not put Dorion on the throne. There was still Garrett, two years younger and nearly as able. All murdering Edmund would do would to be to plunge Bregor into total civil war. He had to mount a proper challenge.
The morning was cold with a wet mist hanging from the trees as we took the road west. Neither Edmund nor I had been this way before but the road was wide and well used. It was the time - worn trading route between the courts at Cartagen and the ancient capital of the western lands and its path was straight. The scenery was subtly changing: becoming wilder, more rocks, sparse of trees. Only two days hard ride from Cartagen but there were none of the lush fertile valleys of the central region. Gallantaire's wealth came from its mineral deposits and from the sea: the land looked most inhospitable. At least when we got to the city I hoped for a bath. The bathhouses were famous and were the oldest in Bregor, a country blessed by hot mineral springs. My thoughts lingered on pleasanter matters for the rest of the journey.
We could see Gallant, way in the distance, long before we reached the gates in the late afternoon. It was set on a rise amidst an almost flat plain of land that seemed to stretch for leagues to the north and the far-off mountains, but to the west, disappeared in a haze of blue where sea met sky. We left the main company to camp outside the city. Edmund and I with Tauren and the rest of the Royal guard passed through those ancient portals and then up the gently sloping road to the Citadel. I had expected the buildings to be made of dark volcanic rock but the stone was light and the street wide. The only darkness was seemingly in Dorion's heart. The citizens were curious and were casually lining the cobbled way. Not many would have seen a King before and Edmund as always was an impressive sight. Tall and broad shouldered with a mane of tawny hair he displayed a power and dignity that belied his mere twenty-five years. He was wearing only light mail over which was the wine coloured tunic bearing the emblems of Bregor, 'Leopard and Black Horse'. The women we passed gave him more than a second glance, looking up at him from under their lashes as they bowed their heads.
We reached the large central square from which a flight of wide shallow steps led up to the entrance to the Citadel. A guard of honour lined those steps and at the top waited Dorion, Lord of Gallantaire. Tall, imposing, enigmatic. I looked up at the Citadel where flying from the topmost point alongside the flag of Bregor, was Dorion's standard: 'Three silver fish on a background of blue'. I knew not what they were; nasty evil looking things.
The stone was icy to my feet as I glided silently along the dark passage. My dress was soft cotton, carefully chosen not to make the slightest sound. My father's wrath would be great indeed if I were discovered. I could hear the mumble of voices long ere I reached the grating. The place from which I knew of old would give me the greatest view of the small council chamber. Dinner long over, midnight come and gone, and still they talked. Not that I had partaken of that dinner; only a lonely supper in my chamber with the music filtering up from the great hall below.
Even looking down from where I stood it was difficult to make out the words spoken. I could see my father and my brother Ríon clearly. The King however was partly obscured by a pillar, although I could hear his voice, deep, rich and golden. I could perceive the controlled anger in it and sense his frustration. I strained my neck to see more of him. His hair was thick and wavy; a dark tawny gold which I deemed did match his voice. His face was partly concealed and I could only catch a glimpse of a jaw, hard set. However my maid had gleefully portrayed to me the details of his handsome countenance. I could see his arm quite clearly, the velvet sleeve, the candlelight glinting on his silver vambrace. I noticed how intricately embossed it was, the 'Leaping leopard' and the 'Rearing horse'. I watched fascinated as long fingers played with the stem of the goblet he was holding and I saw those fingers tighten in irritation as my father's voice rose in temper. My father, who was as usual not giving one grain, although Ríon and I did not expect it. Since childhood we had listened to our father's ranting and listened to him cursing these 'Usurpers from the north'. My brother had argued long and eloquently for him to give up this mad idea: 'Three centuries ago it was that they crossed the mountains, father.' Why fight them? We have the means to bring peace to this land. Your way,' my brother counselled, 'will only bring war and ruin to our people,' but my father would not listen.
I heard another voice, this one softer and more persuasive, offering compromises and saving face. I understood that it was Edmund's cousin. He was evidently a skilled negotiator but in Gallantaire was but wasting his breath: as if trying to stop an avalanche with a sword. Suddenly my father stood, all talk ended and no agreement made.
I felt shame and sadness. Shame for my father whose blind obsession would bring us naught but grief. Sadness for the young King whose only hope of permanent peace for his troubled land was hidden from him.