Despite the dim light in the room, King Jonathan – Jon to his closest friends and advisors - winced and rubbed his eyes wearily with one hand. Light bled in through windows holding sputtering candles, and with the glowing blue orb he'd summoned for more steady light above the makeshift confrence/throne room, it was too much.
A sharp elbow nudged softly at his left side. "You look terrible," Thayet, his wife, queen, and co-ruler informed him, leaning forward to stare sternly into his face. Black hair swept forward from her shoulders with the movement, framing her pale skin and making her dark green eyes more intense than usual.
If he were any less exhausted, her concern and looks would have been more outright attractive. As it was had to stop himself from letting his head fall on her shoulder, even though his wife still sported battle armament and it likely wouldn't have made a very comfortable pillow. Instead, he settled for sarcasm. "You're too kind," he replied, voice a low rumble.
Thayet sighed through her nose, and shuffled through her layers of armor for a bit. "Men," she said softly, shaking her head. After a few moments of shifting through her gear, she was able to coax a small belt-purse out from under her clothing. She pulled out a piece of rock candy from the belt and handed it to her husband. "Eat it," she told him.
Jon twisted the bit of candy between his fingers idly; black, purple, and green light bounced endlessly around inside of the clear rock, marking it as the energy-renewing poultice that Duke Baird had invented. Sighing, he smiled wanly at his queen and popped it into his mouth. Almost instantly his mind began to clear and the ache behind his eyeballs let up a bit.
"What did you do with your ration?" Thayet demanded, beginning to rearrange her armor again.
"Mages," Jon told her from behind the piece of candy in his mouth. Even with the extra energy boost it gave him, he still felt as though he could crawl into a bed and sleep for a few years. He rolled the candy into his left cheek so he could speak clearer. "They needed it more than I did at the time, if I recall."
Thayet sighed, and leaned up against the back of her throne, looking almost as bad as Jon felt. "At least it's over."
Jon nodded, grateful that the headache he had was fading, but grim in the knowledge that it was merely delayed, not gone. Magic could only heal so much; the body still needed recuperation time.
The only reason why the king wasn't recuperating at the moment was that he was waiting for word from his second-in-command, Sir Gareth the Younger. The second battle for Mastiff Fortress had been especially exhausting for the king; the only thing to be glad about was that the Scanran War was finally complete. All that was left was the legal dances and treaty-signings and then Jon wouldn't see hide nor tail of the rocky, freezing, unforgiving north for a while. In the direct aftermath of the battle, the royals had been quickly spirited away from Mastiff, both for logistical and safety reasons. Groups of Riders, Knights, and the King's Own had been dispatched for cleanup purposes.
Normally it would have chafed at Jon to be sent away to wait, but he was so exhausted his bones were creaking and he couldn't find the energy to even put up a fight on principle. He tried to smother a yawn.
Thayet placed an absentminded hand on her husband's back, her other curled into a fist and being used to prop up her chin. Between the two of them Jon knew they weren't looking particularly royal or competent, but he was too tired to care.
About a month ago, a small group of ragtag knights along with members of the King's Own braved a long sojourn into enemy territory to retrieve kidnapped civilians from a fallen refugee camp, and had killed the necromancer Blayce the Gallan in the process; this destroyed the terrifying machines known as "killing devices." After a brief collapse in the Scanran lines most of Tortall had considered the war over, but the gods hadn't finished with them yet, it had seemed.
Along with the killing devices that had terrorized the northern borders of Tortall for the months preceding Blayce's death, the necromancer had also been working on a separate device, this one aimed at the consumption of magic. For the two weeks between the demise of Blayce and the king sitting in his makeshift throne room at Northwatch, the last true battles had been marked by Tortall's inability to utilize war mages. Every spell or enchantment that was thrown at the enemy, had it been from a generic university student or from Numair, who was possibly the strongest mage in all the Eastern Lands, had been harmlessly absorbed into a small black box that was always in the rear of the Scanran forces.
The only two mages who remained unaffected by the magic-absorber had been Daine the Wildmage, whose magic could never be done away with, and the incorruptible power of the Dominion Jewel, which was the reason the royal couple had been at Mastiff in the first place and had resulted in King Jon's currently exhausted state. Usually he hated using the Dominion Jewel since it seemed like a crutch and had the potential to beggar the land, but given how his – and everybody else's – Gift had been rendered useless, it had been the only tool for the job against the legions of enemy Scanran mages.
The only thing to be thankful about, Jon thought, was that it was all over for the moment.
Please, Gods, let it be over.
# # #
Jon wasn't sure how much time had passed before he heard the door creak open, but he was very sure that he had fallen asleep in his throne and his headache was back with a vengeance. Stirring to his left told him that his wife had also nodded off.
Gareth the Younger stepped into the room, looking as serious and intelligent as ever, despite his clothes being ripped and torn from the last battle. A long slash down Gary's left arm appeared recently healed. Jon had changed before awaiting news in his throne room, and was mildly surprised that Gary hadn't done the same before coming into his presence. Jon had never requested that his officers report to him in clean clothes, but Gary always had of his own volition. The strangeness of it made Jon sit up straighter. Something had to be wrong.
"Sire." Gary's voice echoed through the chamber with its usual power, impervious to all the shouting he had done during the battle. "Sire, I have an audience with me."
Thayet also sat up a little more, though she made no move to arrange her skirts. She had also changed after the battle, though was still in almost full armor, against the chance that something would happen in the aftermath. Jon sighed. He was in no shape to deal with an audience, but he knew that Gary wouldn't have brought one if it wasn't important. Just like he would have stopped to change before he presented himself if he'd had time. "Admit them."
Gary stepped in the room and was followed in a very correct line by rank and order: Duke Baird, the chief palace healer, Alanna the Lioness, first female knight of the realm in over a century and Jon's Champion, then Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak, commander of the King's Own, Keladry of Mindelan, the second female knight in the realm, and last, Owen, who was from a fief that Jon couldn't currently put a finger on and was currently a squire under Wyldon of Cavall.
Jon looked curiously at the last two young members of the procession, as the line fanned out so Jon could appraise all of them at once. Baird, Alanna, and Raoul weren't unusual additions to Jon's inner circle of advisors, but Keladry and Owen were a bit strange. Keladry faced forward with level eyes that betrayed no emotion, but Owen was nervously shifting from foot to foot and seemed to have to constantly remind himself to look forward, rather than down at his feet.
Thayet made a quiet noise in the back of her throat and her dark eyes reflected worry. Not for the first time, Jon found himself wishing he could read her thoughts. Instead, he turned his attention back to the audience before him. "The report?" Jon asked, tapping his fingers against the throne with the rhythm of his pounding headache.
"The battle has ceased about three hours ago," Gary replied, smoothing down his mustache with one hand. "We've had crews sent up on cleanup detail, both to separate the Tortallan from the Scanran dead, and also to chase down any Scanrans who thought it might be fun to stay behind and try their luck at raiding before the season gets too cold." Gary's lips ticked up in a smile. "We already caught up with a couple groups who thought they'd give some border villages a go. Buri and Flyn from Second Company are heading the clean-up crews, else Buri would be here as well."
Jon nodded once, squinting. His conjured blue light-giving orb had expired a while ago – probably when he had nodded off – but his head still ached. Duke Baird frowned from where he stood and stepped forward with an apologetic mumble before he reached forward with his right hand laced with green-black fire. He pressed a gentle fingertip to Jon's right temple, and the ache faded almost instantly.
Jon muttered his thanks while Thayet cleared her throat. "To bring the question out in the open, what brings all of you here?" Her voice was polite, but firm. "Surely, this must be something that can't wait."
Alanna, who appeared to be filled to bursting with the effort it had taken to keep silent, jumped on the opening. "They've stolen our mages."
Jon felt his headache roar back to life, even against Baird's soothing coolness. "What?"
"That magic-grabbing box had laid all our mages next to uselessness, so most who could had taken up arms and fought the traditional way." Red rage spots climbed high on Alanna's cheekbones, though she seemed to be able to keep it in check, if not barely. "When the battle was over and the Scanrans defeated… they were gone."
"Who was gone?" Thayet demanded. "Lady Kni- Champion," the queen changed title, reminded that there were two such women in the room that shared the Lady Knight mantle, "you are a mage, yet you are still with us."
Raoul cleared his throat. "Your Majesties-" Jon always hated it when Raoul took to titles, as he always sounded mocking, "-it's because Lady Alanna didn't attempt to use magic on the field of battle."
"It's why I'm still with you, as well," Duke Baird said quietly, his magic taking on power equal to Jon's headache. "I was in the infirmary the whole time, so the magic-box didn't pick up on me. At least, that's been the only rational explaination any of us can come up with."
"Numair?" Jon asked quietly, bracing himself for the news. Numair was one of the most powerful mages in the realm and losing him would be a terrible blow.
Alanna shook her head. "He knew about something was strange with the magic-box as soon as he felt its presence. His power was restrained to strengthening the healers', mostly. He also poured magic into Mastiff." Her expression changed to a wolfish smile. "At the end of time, when Chaos swallows the world, even the Queen of Chaos will have a difficult time digesting that place."
"Then who?" Thayet asked. "How many?"
"Every mage that used magic on the field of battle," Raoul repeated patiently. "We lost about one hundred and fifty people."
Jon winced. "All mages."
Alanna and Raoul nodded grimly. Jon felt the fingers pressing against his temple tremble slightly.
Jon looked up at Baird, and frowned at the way the older man's lips pressed together. He turned, and suddenly understood the presence of the younger knight and squire. "Your son," he intoned quietly. "They took your son."
"Sire…" Baird breathed softly through his nose, and looked back. The audience shifted; Gary crossed his arms, Alanna bit her lower lip, Raoul exhaled sharply through his nose. Keladry alone remained still; Owen looked away.
Confused, Jon turned to Thayet, who had gone paper-white.
"Thayet?" Jon asked, fear beginning to mount in his stomach. It took a lot to upset his battle-worn wife.
Thayet's small, scarred hand rested over his own. "Roald," she said tightly.
Jon looked up, the fear evaporating as a cold shock burst over his system. "But… Roald's a healer," he said, stunned. "And what was he doing on the field of battle? He's the heir!"
"Sire," Alanna said, voice quiet, "he is a healer. The magic-box absorbed all magic that was used on the field of battle, not only offensive maneuvers."
"My son is a healer too," Baird reminded him, just as quiet as Alanna. In the silence that followed, Jon heard water dripping off an eave somewhere; at some point, it had started raining.
"Who was he-" Jon cut off, as Owen twisted nervously in his spot again. Keladry's eyes flicked over to Owen, and her lip twitched, but she said nothing.
"Begging your majesty's pardon," Owen said, his voice miserable. The squire pulled aside his collar, showing a long cut, recently scabbed over. "I didn't know that the magic-box would…" he looked up finally, meeting the king's gaze, and fell silent once more.
"Do we know where they are?" Thayet asked, her grip on her husband's hand tightening painfully. "I thought we ran down the stragglers?"
Gary smoothed his mustache down again, though no stray whiskers were to be seen. "One ship made it out on the Vassa, a few leagues past where Mastiff stands – it had a strange multicolored forcefield around it… even when Numair threw a bolt at it the forcefield only absorbed it. We can only guess that that's where the magic-box was being smuggled away, along with our mages."
"Myles is working on it," Alanna added. "He's furious that we got so far into the war without hearing anything about this… Daine says that even the animals hadn't heard of such a thing, but for most animals magic coming from a box is a difficult thing to sense. Six-foot-tall metal monsters are quite another thing altogether."
Jon fell silent, resting his chin under his fist. "Mithros," he said finally, closing his eyes. Jon wasn't a particularly religious person; he paid appropriate respect to the gods, of course, but the thought of his first son being hauled away on a prison boat to a hostile country was almost too much to bear, and the gods were all he could think of. "Goddess," he went on in a whisper, invoking the patron saint of children.
"Sire." It was Keladry, the last to speak. Her eyes and mouth gazed at the king levelly, like stone. Jon had always been impressed with the gods over her: a more different woman than Alanna he had never met. Whereas Alanna would pour out a storm of words, Keladry rarely seemed to have more than two syllables to rub together. From most outward appearances and interactions with her Jon thought her brave and extremely intelligent though dull, but all that had close contact with her had little but good things to say. Any female warrior that could impress Wyldon of Cavall was definitely worth her feed, as far as Jon was concerned.
For now she seemed to be awaiting permission to speak. Jon nodded. "Lady Knight?"
Those level hazel eyes never wavered. "Permission to go after that ship, Sire?"
Jon cocked his head at her. Of course, she would ask. She was the one that disobeyed direct orders to go to Scanra just over two weeks ago, and that was over a bunch of commoners entrusted to her care. Of course she would ask to go after her friends. He sighed, shaking his head. "Lady Knight-"
"It's a good idea," Alanna interrupted him firmly. Jon looked at her warily – by the strictest of protocol she shouldn't be interrupting her king, but Alanna and Jon had long since come to an understanding regarding who spoke when.
"We can't do it. I mean, go ourselves," Raoul added. "Alanna, myself… we're too well known throughout the Eastern Lands. We can't go anywhere without there being a lot of fuss."
"And they don't know her?" Jon demanded, gesturing towards Keladry. "She just went on a rescue mission less than a fortnight ago! And killed the Scanrans' key weapon in the war!"
"Sire, nobody saw my face," Keladry said firmly. "Only the people who work the border crossings, and those who were at Fief Rathhausak, all of which were either killed, taken prisoner, or patriated to Tortall." She shifted. "Permission to go after that ship, Sire?"
Jon sat back in the uncomfortable, high-backed chair and sighed, trying not to let his emotions get the better of him. They had his son, those bastards had his son. "Keladry, this isn't going to be like going after a bunch of refugees through the Scanran backwaters. They have the-" his fingers tightened on the arms of his seat, "-Tortallan heir to the throne on that boat. They have other high-standing nobles. They're going to be expecting an ambush. They're going to have all the mages in the country on top of the prisoners-"
"What will you do, then, your highness?" Alanna asked, voice tart. The rage spots were high on her cheeks again. "Will you listen to yourself? You're just going to let them take Roald and Neal and a hundred and fifty of your best battle mages? Are you mad?"
In no mood for insubordination, Jon glared at her, voice icy. "Lady Knight, you forget yourself," he snapped. feeling his headache roar back into life. Duke Baird had stepped back, his hands crossed neatly before him, though Jon could read the pain in his eyes like a book.
"This will be my third son lost for the Crown," Baird said distantly, his eyes flicking off to the distance. "Sometimes I wonder if the gods just have a very cruel sense of humor."
Jon looked away, drumming his fingers against the arm of his chair again. His audience, waiting for his answer, stood as still as a painting. Nobody moved. Not Alanna. Not Owen.
Jesslaw, Jon finally remembered, as if it were of any importance. Owen of Jesslaw.
"Does nobody else find this extremely foolish?" Jon finally asked, turning to his wife.
Thayet's very red lips trembled – with anger, with grief, Jon didn't know. Likely both. She took a deep breath and settled herself, her eyelids fluttering closed. "Foolish, perhaps. But do we sit by and do nothing?"
Jon closed his eyes. My son. Images washed up unbidden, Roald as a toddling three-year-old, blue eyes bright and smiling below an unruly mass of black hair, unaware of the weight resting on his shoulders, tugging on the gold laces of Jon's tunic and grinning with new baby teeth. Roald, on that ship to Scanra beneath a forcefield of Gifts. His eyes stung.
"Goddess," he implored again, his fingers starting to shake. He curled them into fists, not willing to let logic give into emotion.
A hand rested on his shoulder – not Thayet's. Jon looked up into an ocean of purple, Alanna's long copper-red hair falling out of the tail she had it swept up in, the heavy scents of sweat and blood and battle rolling off her body. "Jon," she said quietly, "we won't let them go into it blind. They'll have money and maps and the best information that Myles can get."
Jon looked around the room, from Duke Baird's penetrating stare to Keladry's stone gaze to Thayet's glare.
Sighing, he invoked the Goddess a third time – for his son, for Baird's son, for all the sons and daughters on the ship and laying prone in the battlefield – and gave permission.