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Carousel of Kings

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Lucy jolts awake, a whispery voice calling her name. 

“Lucy.”

Extinguishing the light of the last candle long ago, it is completely dark in her bedchambers.  Slivers of silver moonlight creep through the closed shutters.  The hour of the wolf, which is apropos, given one is howling off in the distance.

“Lucy.”

She scans around the room frantically, but cannot see anyone. 

“Hello?  Who’s there?” Lucy asks.

“Lucy.”

Scrambling to ignite one of the candles by her bedside, she breathes in heavily.  The air is frosty, making her breath visible.  Cautiously, she peers around her room and sees something red and wet on the floor: a bloody paw print that is much larger than any of the dogs on the castle grounds.  She dons her dressing gown, slowly opens her door, and makes her way down the corridor.  Following the trail of prints for a while, they eventually lead her towards the castle courtyard.  Then, she sees it: a white wolf.  She freezes in place, too afraid to move.  The wolf stares back at her, before it discharges a bellowing howl.  Panicking, she lets the candle fall from her hand.  The wolf suddenly lunges at her, as she slams her eyes shut and screams.

When she opens her eyes, she’s back in her bed.  Sweat glistens on her body.  Panicking, she frantically sits up and checks herself for visible injuries.  It was only a nightmare.  She is safe, at home in Rittenfell, ancestral home of House Preston for the last two hundred or so years, and the home of the Kings of Ritten for a thousand years before that.  She was born here, and has lived here her entire life.  But, this will be the last night she ever spends here.  Today, she is leaving for King’s Keep, the capital city, to join her parents. 

Anticipating the news for some time now, she is beyond excitable that her parents have made a match for her, finally.  She thought it might never happen, considering most other maidens were wed by her age.  Her mother insists that Lucy is too important to just marry off to any lord.  Her mother hints, not so subtlety either, that she is trying to arrange a marriage with Prince Noah.  Lucy would be a princess, and her son would be king someday, even though power and influence have never been what she craves.  She just wants to marry a man she loves, have children with him and live a good life.  Perhaps, she was finally on a path to accomplish that dream. 

She would miss her life here in Rittenfell, but she would miss her sister, Amy, most of all.  Finding a new found independence out of the shadow of her parents during the last few years here, she has bittersweet feelings about leaving.  Her father, Sir Benjamin Preston, Hand of the King for over three years now, lives in the capital with her mother.  The only downside to that development was that in her parents’ absence, her uncle, Nicholas, is acting Lord of Rittenfell.  He is cruel and controlling on a level that makes her parents look like innocent newborn babies.  She worries about leaving Amy in an environment like that to fend for herself.  Yet, Lucy has confidence that her sister will be alright.  Amy is a wild child, while she obeys her parents’ wishes. 

She has the servants pack a few of her favorite dresses, as well as a few of her favorite books.  Once she is married, they will send the rest of her things to the capital.  She has never been to King’s Keep.  She has never really been outside The Glen, the area that her family rules.  The Glen is lush and green, with rolling slopes, high peaks and valleys, lakes and creeks, and vast, desolate moors.  It is the second largest in area; only The Tundra to the north is larger.  The Glen is located in the central part of the continent, and is bisected by the River Keynes.  Rittenfell, the ancestral seat of House Preston, lies north of the River Keynes in the northeastern section of The Glen.  The castle was originally named Castle Ritten.  Occupying and renaming the castle after the coup, it has been the home of House Preston ever since.  It is the oldest castle in the realm, and has had additions over the centuries.  The oldest parts are the circular stone keep, with its thick limestone walls and turrets, the bailey that surrounds it, and the crypts beneath.  Rumor has it that this section of the castle predates the Ritten Kings, only adding onto the structure when they first began inhabiting it.  Lucy never likes being in the old tower of the keep or the crypts.  Both make her skin crawl and give her an eerie feeling.

For some strange reason, she feels a compulsion to visit the crypts one last time before she departs.  She pays her respects to her grandfather, Ethan’s tomb, and afterward inexplicably finds herself descending deeper into the depths of the crypts, until she stops at the tomb of her namesake. 

The first Lucy of House Preston was a controversial figure to say the least.  Your opinion of her depends on your loyalties.  Many people consider her a great hero, others a traitor and a kin-slayer.  Lucy falls into the former camp.  She sees her as a brave woman, choosing to do what is best for the people of this land and fighting against tyranny.  She is proud to be named after her, although in Lucy’s mind, she is not quite worthy of such an honor.  She will never be able to live up to her legacy. 

The part of the crypt where her namesake is buried is in partial collapse, so Lucy never lingers long when she comes to visit.  There are times she comes there and talks to her ancestor.  She always feels better when she leaves.  Even if Lucy is well aware of the fact she is talking to no one at all, she always leaves with a renewal of confidence.  Perhaps it is because Lady Lucy couldn’t judge her innermost thoughts and feelings as living people did.  She's a sounding board for the confliction in her soul.  She will miss this too.  She places her hand on the tomb.  “Goodbye for now.  It has always been my greatest honor to be your namesake, and I hope and pray I will be able to live up to its legacy someday.”

She exits the crypts, and continues her final preparations for the long journey ahead.  Lucy feels a twinge of disappointment that they aren’t taking the long way to the capital, so she would be able to see more of the world.  But, her mother wouldn’t allow it.  She is to ride south from Rittenfell, along the Old King’s Road, and board a boat on the River Keynes.  From there she will sail east until she reaches the Sea of Cahill, where she will need to board another boat capable of sailing the open seas.  From there her journey will continue on to King’s Keep.  Too many boat rides for her taste, give her a horse any day. 

Lucy says her goodbyes to the servants and her uncle Nicholas, who seems glad to be rid of her.  Amy is the last to come upon her in the courtyard.  The sisters embrace in a tight bear hug, both in tears at this point, until Lucy forces herself to pull back and climb into the carriage. 

As the carriage rolls down the Old King’s Road, Lucy glances back at her childhood home, and openly wonders if she will ever see it again.  The green and purple banners of House Preston sway in the breeze, as the misty moors loom larger and larger, until the castle is out of sight.  Lucy is finally venturing out into the wild, leaving the safety of her ancestral home.  In another sense, the freedom she usually enjoys, (for the most part) will now be tamed.  She will have the expectations to be a good wife, give her husband sons, and attend to the other royal ladies of the court.  Life as she knows it will never be the same.

The boat ride down the Keynes is not exactly a pleasure cruise.  It has begun to rain, and the boat constantly thumps and makes her nauseous. 

A short while later, the captain informs her that they are officially entering The Watershed.  The Watershed is an area to the east of The Glen, and derives its name from the network of rivers, streams, waterfalls and lakes, which form the headwaters of the River Keynes and the mouth of the Sea of Cahill.  It has small mountains and forested areas, but mainly consists of low lying marshes and farmlands.  Fishing villages and ports of call for larger ships dot its coastal areas.  Lucy inquires of the captain if they will pass by The Bunker on their journey, but he tells her the ancestral seat of House Neville is too far to the north.  She feels a slight disappointment, as she has heard tales of it since she was a young girl.  All she knows is that the castle had been built directly into the side of the coastal ridge, was constructed of gray stone and had a circular appearance.  Everyone always says it’s an architectural marvel, but one needs to see it to completely understand.

At last they reach the river’s end, and Lucy is thankful that the rain appears to have stopped.  She will need to board a larger boat here, in order to continue her journey to the capital.  She has a few hours before the second ship sets sail, so she decides she’ll grab a bite to eat at the inn. 

The small town of Cahilla sprang up out of necessity.  It’s where the River Keynes meets the Sea of Cahill, and goods and merchandise regularly pass from the sea to the river at this juncture.  Large sea-going vessels dock here due to its deep ports.  The smaller river vessels, like the one Lucy had just been on, are used to disperse the goods and cargo across the realm. 

Above the port sits the town of Cahilla proper, a collection of brightly colored square-shaped houses, inns, taverns, brothels and stores.  It is the literal epitome of a crossroad of many different peoples. 

Lucy takes it all in, from the salty sea air, to the fiery smoke of the blacksmith’s forge.  She considers herself to be well-read and educated, especially for a woman in this age, but she lacks real-life experience with peoples of different cultures and classes.  If only her mother could see her now, as she walks amongst the fishmongers, butchers and blacksmiths. 

Lucy is a curious woman.  She always had been.  The best part of her little excursion is that no one knows her.  There is no bowing or curtsying going on, no one showing deference to her.  She is just another traveler. 

The air is still damp from the early morning rain, causing Lucy to tug on her green hooded cloak and pull it closer to her face.  She travels from the port to the village, with only one guard to detract attention from herself.  In need of some decent food, she makes her way through the winding streets to an inn that overlooks the port below.  She hopes that the warm bread will ease the chill in her bones. 

Lucy passively listens to a few of the conversations going on around her, as curiosity begins to get the better of her.  Cahilla is certainly colorful; a mixture of lower class and merchant class.  After she finishes her ale and pot pie, Lucy has the distinct feeling that someone is watching her. 

Glancing around the room, she comes upon a man in the corner, talking in a hushed tone with an older woman.  The man is in a hooded cloak, and all she can see are his eyes.  She’s pretty sure they’re green.  His face is hidden from her, but she’s able to make out the black riveted gambeson he wears.  She comes to the conclusion that he must be some sort of mercenary or sell-sword.  She cannot help but stare at him.  Their eyes meet, and he sits back in his chair and recedes into the darkness.

“Lady Lucy, we really must be going now,” her guard states.

Her guard pays the tavern girl, as she puts her hood back up and prepares to leave.  She glances furtively back to the corner, but the table is now empty.  She leaves the inn, and continues her walk back to the ship.  She feels as if someone has been watching the entire time, and relief washes over her when the ship finally leaves port. 

The second boat ride of the journey is slightly less nauseating, and Lucy is thankful of the sun deciding to make an appearance.  Standing on the upper deck of the ship, viewing the coastline for the first time in her life, Lucy happily muses at her constantly changing surroundings.

Later in the afternoon, Lucy’s able to spot land.  She finds it confusing, because she thought it would take all night to sail to the capital.

“Is that The Shoals?” Lucy asks the captain.

“No, my lady.  That is Scarlet Isle, one of the Burgundy Isles.  We will sail around the island during the night, and pass between it and Garnet Isle in the morning.  It’s the safest route to the capital.  Passing between the coastline of Cahilla and Scarlet Isle is treacherous.  Many ships have been lost over the years.  This way is longer, but we should arrive in King’s Keep shortly thereafter,” the captain responds.

Although she has never been out of The Glen for long periods, Lucy has seen some of the continent before, (not much though) and is well acquainted with its geography.  But, the Burgundy Isles were rarely ever talked about.  Most of her knowledge about them came from books.  Finding her journey exhausting at this point, she bids the captain good night, and goes below deck to her cabin.  The gentle rocking of the boat is a welcoming comfort, as she sleeps that night. 

When she wakes the next morning, Lucy is stiff.  Her traveling clothes aren’t exactly uncomfortable per se, but sleeping in a corset is the absolute worst.  She makes sure she is presentable, and then strolls up to the deck. 

The sun is bright, and a light breeze whispers on the wind.  Sea gulls squawk in the foreground, as the capital appears on the horizon.  The city is large and sprawling, with high stone walls surrounding it.  Looming above the city, stands the castle of King’s Keep, with its ivory-colored cylindrical and rectangular towers.  There are huge trilithons lining a stone walkway leading down from the castle to the garden overlook.  As the ship begins pulling closer to the city, Lucy can see the red tiled roofs and white walls of the city’s homes, some with a smattering of blue trim around them.  She finds herself bubbling with excitement and anxiety.  The city is magnificent and bursting with life.  This is going to take some getting used to.  Her life in The Glen is calm and quiet, but King’s Keep is noisy and busy. 

After disembarking the boat, Lucy and her guards are met by House Preston’s constable and numerous attendants. 

“Lady Lucy, welcome.  Your litter awaits you,” the constable says.

A litter, great.  Do these people have some kind of aversion to horses?  Lucy does not want to be carried like some helpless invalid.  Seeing she does not appear to have any choice in the matter, she climbs into the litter.  Her guards carry her through the winding city streets, until they reach the inside of the castle gate.  As she exits the litter, she hopes to catch a glimpse of her future husband.  Her hopes are slightly dashed when she sees only her parents there to greet her.  It has been two years since she has seen her mother, and three years for her father. 

“Lucy,” her mother beams, as she pulls her into a hug.

“Mom.  I missed you,” Lucy replies.

Her father stands there stoically, waiting for his turn.

“Father,” Lucy says, as she hugs him.

Her father kisses her forehead gently in response.

“Come.  Surely you must be tired after your long journey,” her mother states, as she puts her arm around her, “and we must find you something more elegant to wear than those unfortunate rags.”

Nice to see you too, Mom.  Her mother, Carol, embraces her marriage into House Preston, and thoroughly enjoys the perks that come with it.  Lucy, is more of a practical woman, and does not care at all about silk dresses and golden jewels.  At times, she feels as if maybe her mother is unaware she is her own, real-life person, and not a doll to dress and pose. 

They enter the Tower of the Hand, where her family now live; where she will now live, at least until she is wed.  After climbing the stairs that Lucy fears will never end, they come to a spacious courtyard.  On the right, white marble archways lead to a balcony overlooking the Sea of Cahill.  The view is breathtaking.  To the left, are the formal dining area and parlor, and upstairs are the sleeping quarters.  Her father’s office is tucked in a corner off of the parlor.  No wonder mother likes it here.  It is all so much more glorious than anything they have back home.  Even the weather is better here. 

“Lucy, you really must get some rest.  We’re going to be supping with the king and prince tomorrow.  You must look your best.  Do you understand?” her mother questions.

Lucy nods.  Right now, she really just wants to take this awful corset off, and go to sleep in a nice, comfy bed.

                                                             

“Cahilla? You can’t go to Cahilla, Your Grace.  What if someone recognizes you?” Sir Connor asks.

“We need allies and weapons,” Flynn replies.

“But Cahilla?  That’s in enemy territory,” Sir Connor complains.

“You think I don’t know that?  Would you rather I stroll into the capital, and walk up to the first blacksmith I see and order enough swords and armor to fill a cart?” he snaps.

“You can get swords and armor in Gallantos.  You don’t need to go to Cahilla for that.  Plus, it’s also a known pirate haven.  Not exactly the kind of place a high-born lady goes to visit.  You sure this isn’t a trap?” Connor queries.

“Of course not.  That’s why I’m bringing Karl.  The steel is better in Ritten, that’s why I need to go to Cahilla.  As for the lady….what better place to have a meeting than where no one expects you to ever go?” Flynn answers.

“Your Grace, I urge you to reconsider.  Let me and my son go in your stead.  No one knows us here,” Connor pleads.

“Exactly.  The lady doesn’t know you and will never meet with you, let alone make an alliance with you, even if you tell her it is on my behalf.  I have not seen her in ten years.  I’m sure she wants to get the measure of me before she commits any men to our cause,” Flynn responds.

“Well, do be careful Your Grace.  This invasion is doomed to fail if you are caught,” Connor cautions.

Flynn just shakes his head.  Sometimes, Sir Connor is worse than his mother.  Of course he knows it is dangerous, but it is a chance he has to take if he is ever going to avenge his family and take the throne.  He has waited a long time, ten years in fact, and has planned every move in inordinate detail, along with contingencies in case something goes wrong.  It's time.  He is ready.  Karl, the captain of his guard, will accompany him to the meeting.  If there is anyone Flynn truly trusts, it is Karl.  They’d met over two years ago, fighting for a company of mercenaries in Gallantos.  His mother had just died, and he was searching for purpose when he joined the company.  Karl and he have been through enough fights, and have had each other’s back since their first battle together.  They both wear their black riveted gambesons, and will appear to be common mercenaries if anyone glances in their direction.  He doesn’t want to wear any other armor or protection, much to Sir Connor’s dismay, as that would most likely attract attention to them instead, and there is no reason to be so heavily armed in the port town. 

Flynn and Karl take one of the ships they have brought with them from Gallantos.  The cog is a single-masted vessel, with high sides and a flat bottom, which makes it easy to load and unload cargo, their main purpose for this trip in the first place.  They bring a dozen additional men with them to sail the vessel, and it is not lost on him that a dozen or so mercenaries together is par for the course.  Two sailing a vessel by themselves, however, will get them noticed in no time flat. 

Pulling into the port of Cahilla, Flynn is reminiscent of the last time was there.  It feels like another lifetime ago.  It more or less was.  He was a young man then, unmarried and most likely getting into some sort of trouble. 

They dock their boat, and make their way through the maze of stalls of the lower market.  Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, Flynn and Karl stop at a few stalls along their way, as they constantly scan the crowd for potential enemies.  It is during one of these reconnaissance sweeps, that he sees her.  He literally stops dead in his tracks.  She is so beautiful, he forgets how to breathe momentarily.  She looks vaguely familiar, yet he is unable to place her face.  Her skin is as pale as moonlight, and the blush in her cheeks from the chilly air accentuates her porcelain skin.  Even though she is wearing a plain black dress and hooded green cloak, he can tell she is a high-born woman by the way she carries herself.  This fact is indeed confirmed, when he notices the armed man who seems to be accompanying her through the market.  Commoners do not have armed escorts.  She must be someone important, though her appearance and clothes give no indication what house she belongs to.  Flynn feels that it is a little strange.  Even when high-born persons travel, there is normally something he is able to pick up to clue him in: a ring, an engraving, their armor.  The soldier in him kicks in, and he begins to wonder if she is purposely trying to hide her identity.  Is she involved in some type of plot?  Is she here to spy on him?  Karl senses something as well, as he reaches for his sword, and maintains a firm grip on the pommel. 

“What is it?” Karl asks.

“Not sure.  Does that woman look out of place to you?” Flynn questions.

Karl eyes the woman up and down, and turns back to Flynn, “Not particularly.  Come on.  We’ve got work to do.”

They turn down an alley, and make their way to a blacksmith’s stall towards the end of the row.  Flynn lets Karl take the lead, as he placed the order with the blacksmith in the first place.  Once the transportation arrangements have been made for the swords and armor, Flynn and Karl make their way up into the town.  They prearranged their meeting at the inn closest to the port, just in case they need to make a fast getaway.  They enter the inn, and find a table towards the back, where it is darkest.  Karl hangs back, leaving Flynn alone at the table.  He is nervous.  A great deal depends on this meeting, and he isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy person.  He is battle-hardened and jaded, but less of a broken person than he was even five years ago.  Never in his life has he ever had a desire to be king, but he had made a promise to his mother on her death bed that he would avenge their family.

Just then a woman appears at his table, and takes the chair opposite him.  She removes the hood from her brown cloak, as a tavern girl brings two steins of ale to the table.  She is not alone, her guard standing a few feet behind her, trying to blend in with the other patrons of the inn.  Both eye each other tentatively.

“Lady Marri,” Flynn says with a smile, “It’s been a long time.”

“It has indeed, Your Grace,” the woman replies in an almost whisper, as she bows her head slightly. 

“I was sorry to hear about your husband.  Sir Ian was a good man,” Flynn states.

“Thank you.  Now, if we’re finished with the pleasantries, why am I here?” the woman asks.

“I want to know if you will honor your commitment to my house, my lady,” he explains.

“No, you want to know if I will commit my men to fight for you.  I have not seen you in over ten years.  No offense, Your Grace, but I don’t really know you.  For all I know, I would be trading one tyrant for another.  And who else is fighting in this army you’re assembling?” she inquires.

“I understand your apprehension, my lady.  You knew my mother well, did you not?” he asks.

“I did.  Queen Maria was an amazing woman.  It was out my respect for her that I even agreed to take this meeting,” she answers.

“And I swear to you on my mother’s memory, that I am not a tyrant.  I may not have been born to rule, but I was born to fight.  I will avenge my family, with or without your help.  I would prefer with it, but….”

“Who else is in this army?” she questions again.

“Ten thousand of my own sell-sword company, ten thousand of my bannermen, and five thousand men from House Bruhl,” he replies, as he stares directly into her eyes with as much conviction as he can muster.

The older woman sits back in her chair contemplating her options.  It is then that his eye flickers to the opposite corner of the inn.  It’s her, the same woman he spied in the market.  She is sitting at a table with the same armed man from earlier, and they appear to be sharing a meal.  Is she following me?  He doesn’t think so.  He has been more than vigilant about checking his surroundings during this entire ordeal.  But he did not notice her when he sat down, nor did he notice her entering the inn.  Then, her eyes meet his and lock for a moment, before he sits back in his chair and into the shadows of the inn.

“I will commit my men to your cause,” Lady Marri declares.

“Thank you, my lady,” Flynn responds.

“Denise, Your Grace.  No need for such formalities in private,” she states.

He nods his head, and they shake hands to seal their agreement.  Lady Marri pulls her cloak hood back up and stands. 

“Oh, one more thing.  This is for you,” she says, as she hands him a sealed scroll.  “I would take heed if I were you.  My daughter has the sight, and she asks that I give this to you.”

He takes the scroll reluctantly from her hand.  She turns and disappears into the crowd with her guard in tow.  Tucking the scroll into his pocket, he stands and stealthily exits the inn.  Karl and he make their way back to their ship.  The shipment of arms has already been stowed, and they prepare to set sail. 

Flynn goes into the cabin and sits at the desk.  He has never been one to believe in prophecy, visions or dreams.  But this scroll didn’t come from just anyone.  Lady Denise Marri has always been an honest, loyal woman.  He is also not ignorant to the fact that the women of House Marri have a reputation as seers, and that Lady Denise does not come across as a woman who believes in nonsense.  He reaches into his pocket, and pulls out the scroll.  Laying it on his desk, he peers down at the parchment.

Blood is spilled in your quest for the throne,

Three betrayals against you shall be sown,

One for blood, the other for clout,

Love is the third from which it will sprout.

A shadow’s double upon you looms,

And brazen goals could spell your doom.

Could it be any more cryptic?  He rolls up the scroll, and puts it back in his pocket.  He wouldn’t ignore it exactly, but he wasn’t going to lose any sleep over some prophecy that most likely would never come to fruition.  After all, he had a war to start.