Disclaimer: I own nothing that was invented by Juliet Marillier.

BEFORE

Chapter Three: Allegiance

Sweat glistened on the faces of the men. Sunlight shone from directly overhead, reminding all that summer was approaching. Drust the Bull stood back, evaluating. Later, Maelchon and Drust would begin the battle of wills to make allegiance between their lands. Until then, they would focus on other matters.

Drust watched as the foreign king andDrust's champion fighter squared off for a practice match. Maelchon stood tall, his imposing size a threat to any man. Talorgen stood almost as tall, and didn't appear threatened in the slightest. The two fighters were evenly matched. Both men were of imposing size and both were swift and light on their feet. The small crowd made the appropriate gasps and cheers as the mock fight began. Bets were made, and money passed around.

Aniel's observant eyes missed nothing of the match. A fight could show much about a man. Not simply about his fighting proficiency, but about his nature. Whether he was stubborn and persistent, or willing to back down. Whether he cared about his opponent's fate. How highly he valued a win, and what he was prepared to do to get it. Whether he could take losing well. Whether he could be a graceful winner. It told more than the simple sword parry that the onlookers saw.

After a long well fought battle, Maelchon knocked the sword from Talorgen's hand. The people in the crowd dissipated, alternatively groaning or celebrating at the result. Talorgen stood and shook Maelchon's hand. Maelchon offered Talorgen's sword to him. He accepted it with an appreciative nod to the foreign king.

This manly ritual done, the group moved towards the archery compound. Maelchon observed Aniel for a moment. He was well aware of the evaluation being made as he fought, and wondered only what conclusions were drawn. But without mentioning his examination, he stepped to Drust the Bull's side, and struck up a conversation.

At the archery compound, Maelchon, Talorgen, the two bodyguards and Drust lined up and made five consecutive shots each. As each took their turn, the others made the appropriate sounds of admiration and consolation.

When they moved to inspect the results and retrieve their arrows, Aniel and Rhian remained.

"Who is she?" Rhian asked, nodding her head to the edge of the training area. A formidable, elegant lady stood, observing with an analytical look in her eyes.

"That's the Lady Dreseida." Aniel said after glancing over. With true advisor form, no opinion touched his expression or voice.

"She's been watching since we arrived." Rhian said.

"Observant, aren't you?" Aniel asked, curious. She gave an enigmatic smile that only piqued Aniel's curiosity. She was a mystery, this one.

"I try to be." She said carefully. Her sharp eyes looked out over the courtyard.

"Looks like the king won this one." Aniel said. She nodded slowly, her mind clearly elsewhere. The men returned, diplomatically congratulating each other.

"It's getting late into afternoon," King Drust pointed out. "Perhaps we might return to prepare for tonight's feast?"

"Lead on," Maelchon said. As they moved away, Rhian eyed the targets and the bows. She waited until the group was some distance away before she gave in to her weakening restraint. It took her only moments to string a bow and choose five arrows. She stretched the bow a few times and aimed.

She didn't notice Drust glance back just in time to see her fire off five shots in quick succession. She didn't hear him gasp with surprise as all five settled into the dead centre of the target in a neat cluster, easily beating Drust's own earlier success. She smiled happily and replaced the bow on the rack. By the time she caught the group, Drust was facing forward once more, and Rhian was unaware of any such observance.


The dining hall was full. The six long dining tables were loaded up with the fifth course of an enormous feast. Ale and wine flowed freely and several couples stood to dance to the music a small band provided. Chatter and singing filled the room.

Silence fell as King Drust stood up from his decorated throne. After a day of diplomatic entertainment, and three days of diplomatic discussions, meetings and negotiations with the foreign powers, the people knew that the following words could pronounce the future of these two lands. Tension grew as everybody stopped talking and awaited the words of their king.

"A toast!" He called. The hall rang with noise as everybody found a goblet or glass.

"To the Priteni, and to Gwynedd, and to peace between us!" He said loudly.

Drinks clinked all over the room, along with murmurs of cheers. Drust sat once more, and the noise resumed.

"Nicely done. Short, informative, attention-grabbing." Rhian murmured quietly at his side. She had moved to take the seat vacated by Maelchon moments before. Drust turned to face her. His gaze would have daunted a weaker person – the gaze of a man of authority.

"As nice as your shooting a few days ago?" He asked mildly.

She blushed, looking horrified.

"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean - "

"It's fine." Drust interrupted.

They fellsilent for a few moments as waiters filled their drinks and moved on.

"You are not what I expected, Rhian." He commented. She raised her eyebrows in inquiry.

"You're clearly more than a competent archer. You are extremely observant. You not only voice opinions, you voice intelligent, informed opinions. Even Aniel was impressed earlier. You are unique."

Rhian blushed and ducked her head modestly. Before her eyes disappeared under her painted eyelids, Drust noticed a tiny sparkle in her gaze.

"I'm sorry if I have offended - "

"You have not." Drust said, with diplomatic reassurance.

She finally looked up, and they exchanged a glance that was no longer an evaluating inspection, but more of a communication.

"I'm glad." Rhian said simply.

"Tell me. Do you think the Dalraidan's will stay away?" For the first time, Drust asked a question not for the evaluation available in an answer, but in actual interest. Rhian hesitated for a moment, and then spoke with passion in her voice.

"They won't. Their interpretation of their religion demands that it be the only religion, the only faith. They will invade."

Drust listened attentively to her words.

"And what can be done?" He asked.

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"They will invade no matter what you do."

"So I must simply lose my land?"

"They don't want land. They want to spread their religion."

"What if we don't want it?"

"It's not a bad religion. It's seemingly better than the old ways. Is it true that your religion involves ritualistic sacrifice?"

Rhians eyes lit with anger and passion, though she kept her voice carefully calm. Drust's eyes darkened with the shadow of memory.

"The old ways must be followed. The gods must be respected." Drust said, his voice bitter.

"No gods should require loss of life." Rhian muttered.

"Nonetheless," Drust said, taking a long gulp of ale, "they do."


At the other end of the table, Aniel rested his ale mug next to Talorgen's with a loud clunk.

"Do you think those moves Maelchon taught the men could be pulled off in battle?" Aniel mused.

Talorgen didn't answer. Aniel looked over to see his friend's eyes locked somewhere else. Aniel followed Talorgen's gaze and saw Maelchon. On his way to speak with Talorgen, Dreseida had stopped him. Now she was using every charm she had to keep his attention. Maelchon looked perfectly happy with the situation. Talorgen did not.

"Yesterday, that was me." Talorgen muttered, gulping down the contents of his ale and gesturing to a servant for a refill.

Aniel eyed his friend dubiously.

"It's Dreseida. She will choose the richest, most advantageous marriage she possibly can. She wants power, not a man." His evaluation of the girl was true, if unflattering. And yet, for her, entirely achievable. She was beautiful, in a refined and immaculate way. She was well spoken, intelligent and competent.

"She deserves it. She deserves the best man she can find. I just wish…" Talorgen trailed off.

Aniel followed his friend's gaze once more. Then it clicked in his brain. He was not watching Dreseida snare another rich man. He was simply watching Dreseida.

"You wish you were that man?" Aniel guessed.

Talorgen said nothing.

"You love her?" Aniel asked.

Talorgen sighed heavily and nodded.

"There's a chance," Aniel said. He didn't quite understand why Talorgen would fall for Dreseida, but he wouldn't question his friend. "You're rich, powerful… She might want you."

Talorgen took a long gulp pf ale. His voice, when he spoke, was hollow.

"Why would she have a battle commander when she could have a king?"


At the throne, conversation has shifted from religion to a lighter topic.

"You have thirteen siblings?" Drust asked incredulously. Rhian nodded, smiling.

"And mum has twelve siblings and dad has ten. All of them have children."

"Wow." Drust said, trying to imagine such a large family. He, in a tradition of monarchs, was an only child.

"That's partly why Maelchon asked if I wanted to come here. He knows my home is… hectic. I've been staying at his home for years. But if he left I would have had to go back to Powyrs. This was a far better option."

"I'm glad you came." Drust said softly. His hand touched hers lightly as he reached for his ale mug. She shivered slightly, and smiled.

"Do you dance, my king?" Rhian asked.


Much later that night, Talorgen, Maelchon and Aniel were in fine form. With the aid of copious amounts of ale, they were telling stories of battle, and women, and tales of their childhoods. The last bells had rung out hours before, and the hall had emptied. Only those three remained, as well as the waiters, who had invaded in hordes to begin cleaning.

"Maybe it's time to retire." Aniel suggested. Maelchon nodded and stood. The other two men broke into loud chuckles as he stumbled and almost fell. A servant appeared at his side to lend a sturdy shoulder in support.

"Well, men," Maelchon said, his booming voice heard clearly on the other side of the hall as he slung an arm around the servant, "I like you. And I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship."

"I'll cheers to that." Talorgen agreed, and Aniel nodded. Another waiter appeared to accompany Aniel. Talorgen slumped on the table.

Instead of cheers, snores echoed across the room as Maelchon and Aniel stumbled their supported way back to their rooms.

Maelchon kept up a steady chatter to his walking aide as he stumbled to his quarters. He passed King Drust on the way and stopped to cheers once more with what was left of his ale.

He arrived at the door to his allocated quarters just as Rhian slipped inside the entrance, singing softly. He was too tired to inquire.

"Night cuz." He mumbled as he fell into bed. She stopped at their adjourning door.

"Sleep well, my drunken relative." She murmured.

"Mm."

"Sure."

He was asleep in seconds, joining Talorgen and Aniel in slumber. Rhian stayed up far longer, reminiscing. Maybe this King Drust was a good man after all. On the other side of the castle, Dreseida lay awake, planning. A perfect husband AND a backup. This was perfect. Life was perfect.

King Drust slept soundly in his top tower, getting in a few hours sleep before he woke early to be a king. But for tonight, for this night, he wasn't a king. He was a man.