“Don’t ‘cousin’ me, Eowain.” Tnúthgal stood in the hall of the fort of Dúnsciath. He had five armed men at his back, and all of them had just come in from the road. Behind them, a flutter of terrified servants gawked from the courtyard of the fort as Tnúthgal shouted for the king in his own hall. “King Lórcan! Your people demand to see you! Where are you?”
Eowain stood, broad-shouldered and bearish, with his arms crossed over his chest. He had a plain, unadorned short sword at his belt. “Quiet down, Cousin. I’m telling you, he needs rest, that’s all.” Eowain lowered his arms and stepped forward.
King Lórcan, had been nine days in his sick-bed, wounded in an attempt to apprehend a criminal. His brother, the Lord Eowain had kept the kingdom running, but the king’s condition was uncertain. Few beyond his circle of councilors even knew the exact nature of his injuries, but after nine days cloistered in his tower, the whole kingdom was concerned for the king’s life.
Eowain eyed his cousin up and down. Eowain wasn’t a tall man, but neither was Tnúthgal. His cousin was grizzle-bearded with age, but no less burly than himself. Eowain knew him for a veteran of a fierce history, of a generation with his own father. As Eowain stepped forward, Tnúthgal did not shirk from him, bridling in his coat of steel-ringed leather.
The Lord-Drymyn Medyr walked into the hall and went nose-to-nose with Lord Tnúthgal, waving a finger in the old lord’s face. “The king has been wounded and he is being tended. On my authority, he’s not to be disturbed until he is well enough to take back the helm of government. In the meantime, the Lady Rathtyen, Lord Eowain, and the King’s officers are carrying on the business of the court. No doubt, the king will be well enough to see you before long. I will be sure he knows you called to convey your concerns.”
“Lord-Drymyn Medyr.” Lord Tnúthgal bowed, but his tone mocked. “I trust you are well.”
“Do you now? I doubt that. But the king’s not taking visitors, so unless you have some business before the court, out with you. And take your truncheon-wielding thugs with you. Go on. Out.”
The five men bristled behind Lord Tnúthgal but he raised his hand to allay them. “You’re lucky you’re a drymyn, little man.”
“Out.” Eowain felt his brow twitch. The Lord-Drymyn had a seldom-heard edge in his voice.
The eyes of Tnúthgal’s men widened. No doubt they feared the Lord-Drymyn’s curse on them. But Tnúthgal only sneered. With disdain for the courtesies, he and his men went from the hall in a flurry of winter cloaks and ringing mail.
Medyr scolded the servants back to their duties. “Go on, then, all of you.”
As the gathered household whispered away like diligent mice, Eowain took the Lord-Drymyn’s shoulder and led him to the northern hearth, over which was mounted the mighty crest of a great elk. A trophy won by his father, who had once been king, as Eowain’s brother now was king.
“Medyr?” The Lord-Drymyn was a scholarly man of some thirty summers, his red beard only lately mottled with grey. But Eowain felt how deceptively strong his arm was beneath his priestly robes, and knew the drymyn was allowing himself to be led. And Eowain had learned well from Medyr as a young man. The gods despised those that harmed their servants, all the sacred tales said so.
But Eowain himself grew terse as they came away from the casual hearing of others. “Medyr, we can’t keep lying to people.”
“We’re not lying. He’s alive, he’s recuperating, and we have the government well in hand until he recovers.”
“I don’t understand you. He’s crippled. He can’t be king of Droma. It’s in the by-laws.” Eowain felt piquant then.
Medyr nodded, nothing more. “I also know we need someone of Findtan’s blood on the throne now. The coelbreni have told me so.”
“As well as me.” Eowain’s aunt, Lady Rathtyen, emerged from the kitchen. Eowain had left her aloft in the tower with his brother in order to attend to Tnúthgal. She was carrying her hands cupped together in front of her. She dashed a dozen wooden tiles inscribed with signs across the drinking-board of the hall.
Eowain’s throat clutched with fear. The tiles were each carved with a letter from the ancient language of the drymyn, and only those trained in their mysteries could fathom them. Superstitious dread filled Eowain’s heart. “Aunt—.”
“Phoo!” She waved a hand at him and leaned over the tiles like an accounting clerk. “The trade relations of this tribe, the survival of these people, depend on my late husband’s trade caravans and river-barges away down the Gasirad river. Farming and cattle are all well and good when they feed everyone. But when they don’t, we need trade to beg, borrow, and barter for what we need with other tribes that have it. We can’t do that without roads, caravans, barges, boat-docks and a proper market-place. And we can’t finance those without the surplus we make from the king’s estate. And the gods won’t favor the king’s estate if he’s crippled—.” She stabbed at a constellation of tiles on the table.
Eowain was already worried enough, and the taut look on his mentor’s sober features did nothing to reassure him. “The coelbreni say that a terrible winter will follow if Tnúthgal should become king. Many will die.”
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