The counsel of southern Gillion, a group of twelve high officials gathered in haste by a crisis, an emergency of state, all brought together to determine their future, their lives, their very existence, had begun. During the day, and after d’Gravernaugh had made it known to the garrison what had befallen the royal castle, riders were despatched carrying messages containing news of the king’s demise to all the surrounding villages, towns, and hamlets, ordering a representative from each to attend the emergency counsel by royal command. All had returned safely and reported no incident and, all messages had been received and acknowledged by all intended recipients. The officials had safely arrived sporadically during the day and now they were gathered together with a common purpose, to preserve their kingdom – their very livelihoods.
After d’Gravernaugh’s provoking opening statement and once the murmured protestations had died down, it was then replaced by a loud clamouring exchange from everyone all trying to make themselves heard at once, people stood up pointing accusatory fingers at d’Gravernaugh out of self defense, and amid the inane babble coming from the table came another voice, a feminine voice trying to break through the cacophany to bring order to the meeting. No one noticed her at first, but the princess was now standing, gesturing with her hands for calm, but no one paid her any attention. She stood there with hands on hips looking annoyed, then suddenly she picked up a ceramic flagon from the table and threw it into the fireplace causing an alcoholic explosion of light and sound as it shattered followed by the hissing steam coming from the contact of liquid to bare flame.
The shouting abruptly stopped as everyone in turn stared at the fireplace and then looked at the vexed princess. Then all fell silent, silent enough to hear a pin drop. d’Gravernaugh, who had been sitting quietly throughout the outbursts had found it all a source of huge amusement. Everyone looked at each other then eventually sat down again looking quite embarrassed and self-conscious over their own immature behaviour. The only person now standing was the princess, she looked at each in turn then nodded her head in satisfaction that order had been restored.
“Thank you, Gentlemen,” she said with mild sarcasm while looking around at everyone. “And there was I worrying that I didn’t have the experience to sit through such a meeting as this without making myself appear as a fool! But it seems that I am wrong, does it not? I now find that I am conducting a classroom full of children who don’t now how to behave themselves properly and have to be scolded or punished so that they do!”
The princess paused as apologies came her way such as ‘my profuse apologies your highness’ or ‘please forgive me my lady, I meant no disrespect.’ She found, much to her own surprise, that she enjoyed the obvious grovelling coming in all around her from her subjects, and out of this enjoyment came the realisation to her that power, humility, and temperance, were all related and furthermore, that she had just learnt something important for future reference that she should not forget.
After the apologies finished and, looking rather self-conscious over her seeming lack of control moments ago, the princess gestured with a piteous shameful smile to one of the attending servants sitting over by a corner to clear up the mess she had just made.
She then turned back to the counsel and continued as if nothing had happened.
“Although I understand why you said what you did my lord d’Gravernaugh, I would ask you not to make such anger provoking statements again during this counsel, otherwise, we will get nowhere at all tonight!”
She looked directly at the captain as she said this, he responded by giving her the subtlest of winks that she, and she alone noticed. In his own clever, shrewd way, d’Gravernaugh had just made the princess unwittingly stamp her authority on proceedings and had made her find her voice, which, in effect, served to give her confidence she never knew she had before the counsel began. This she duly noted to herself and, she would be having some teasing, friendly words with him about that later on, especially regarding the wasteful destruction of a perfectly good ceramic jug and its precious contents.
“Right,” said the Princess in an airily manner while sitting down and looking pleased. “Before we go any further I think it a good idea for me to tell you all that I have been made aware of all the things that my father, in his wisdom, kept from me as a child and on into adulthood. I know about the curse from the Mekue sorceress and, that I am the generation that has triggered the emergence of our demonic nemesis that the curse refers to and, only my own demise would bring about an end to this curse. Adding to this, I now know the truth surrounding my mother’s death after I was born. I know that she was assassinated and consequently why, out of suspicion, my father decided to cut all ties with the other three Kingdoms. I also realised after I was told these disturbing truths, why it was that my father assigned his most trusted aide, Jules d’Gravernaugh as my childhood protector, my very own personal bodyguard to watch over me.”
The princess paused and reached for a jug filled with water and poured some into a goblet and delicately sipped some from it. No one spoke as she did this, they were all spellbound by the eloquence of her speech and the beautiful tones of her voice; it had an unexpected affect on all listening. Only d’Gravernaugh seemed unaffected and he inwardly smirked to himself as he studied the stunned faces around him. The princess had found her power, it shone through her clouds of self doubt – blowing them away – making him feel proud of her.
The princess put the goblet back down.
“So, gentlemen,” she said, confidently. “Do not feel that you need to hold anything back from me because of the decree enforced on the kingdom by my father. There will be no suppression of opinions here tonight, let free speech flow as if it were like water. I ask only that we conduct this counsel in a civilised manner and not allow ourselves to fall into displays of primitive behaviour such as was demonstrated earlier. I now give the floor to anyone who cares to begin.”
Having snapped themselves out of their momentary stunned paralysis, the counsel members all voiced approval of the address just given by the princess and so supported her attitudinal sentiments. Five of the counsel members rose to their feet to speak but four of them cordially gave the floor to the first who stood.
“My Lady,” said a well-dressed, rather stout man with a kind face and eyes to match staring out from under thick bushy eyebrows. “I am Velden Ducarte, I hold the office of Mayor in the town of Avenaria. I personally knew your father, please allow me to offer my condolences to you for his passing, I know that I for one will sorely miss him.”
“Thank you Mr Ducarte,” replied the princess with a soft gentle smile. “I knew I was loved by my father, and in view of the veil of secrecy being lifted I have come to learn just how much he really did care for my welfare. I will sorely miss him too.”
“If I may ask you, Lord d’Gravernaugh, or indeed you My Lady,” enquired Ducarte, looking to each in turn. “Could you please elaborate on the events at the castle, it would help those of us here to get a better understanding of the enormity of what we are facing and guide us in any decision we might make in response to it.”
“Yes, Mr Ducarte, I think that is an excellent suggestion,” agreed the princess. She looked to d’Gravernaugh with raised eyebrow and waited expectantly.
d’Gravernaugh, as requested, then told the counsel everything that had transpired at the castle just before the dawn of that day, the unexpected raid, the ensuing bloody battle, the king’s tragic death, the devastation and carnage, their escape from the royal grounds to the surrounding hillsides, their desperate flight of survival to reach the garrison at Marshtop, the intervention of the mounted horse guards, and their subsequent, timely rescue.
After d’Gravernaugh had finished his gruesomely graphic tale, there was complete and utter astonished silence. The princess had endorsed the validity of the tale (amid her own shudders at the memory of it) as it progressed by either nodding or voicing a comment to verify what had been said. The silence broke when another counsel member slowly rose to his feet to speak.
“My Lady, it would appear that we have Lord d’Gravernaugh to thank for the continuation of our most treasured royal bloodline, so please allow me to do so without reservation or fear of contradiction, and please accept my condolences for your father’s passing.”
He then bowed to d’Gravernaugh and soon after all the counsel did likewise, paying him tribute.
“Thank you Mr Mardenny, I remember you from your many visits to the castle. My father chose wisely the day he put me under lord d’Gravernaugh’s charge,” the princess agreed. “I know that I would not be here tonight if it were not for his loyalty and courage.”
d’Gravernaugh waved it aside with a brush of his hand while holding a goblet of wine to his mouth with the other and taking a swig from it. The princess looked around the room, shrugged her shoulders, rolled her eyes upward then held up her hands in surrender over d’Gravernaugh’s quite apparent lack of enthusiasm to accept such deserved recognition.
“If it pleases My Lady,” said d’Gravernaugh, placing his goblet down on the table and looking slightly impatient. “May I suggest that we centre our conversation on the matter at hand rather than on my own exploits. A time will come when such praise will be better received, and that time will only be when we have finally rid ourselves of these foul creatures once and for all, regained control of our kingdom, and have safely placed you on the throne of power as our ruling sovereign.”
“Yes My Lord, you are quite correct,” she conceded. “Gentlemen, I know and appreciate that you all are keen to extend your condolences to me along with your praises for Lord d’Gravernaugh’s selfless endeavours. I would ask then, that for now, we do away with such etiquette and expedite matters as fast as we are able.”
“And how does Lord d’Gravernaugh propose to achieve these three provisos so that we may congratulate him and pay our respects to the princess for the passing of king Mestian,” someone said, further down the table.
This pertinent question made everyone turn to face the man who had uttered it, then, after holding their gaze momentarily on him, turned back in great anticipation to hear how d’Gravernaugh would respond to it. The princess waited and remained silent.
d’Gravernaugh took a slow, long swig of wine from his goblet while casting his eyes over the counsel finally coming to rest on the princess who looked upon him with a blank expression. He gave her a subtle wink then put the goblet down.
“My Lord Trumaire,” he said flatly, turning to face him. “I have many a suggestion to offer as to how we might accomplish my three – provisos, as you so pointedly put it. But before I do, do you have a plan of your own that you would like to submit before the counsel?”
The princess, feeling slightly awkward bit her lower lip and maintained her silence.
Lord Trumaire, a tall, thin man, narrowed his eyes at d’Gravernaugh as if trying to weigh up his question and his intent. d’Gravernaugh held his gaze, unwaveringly. Trumaire was the first to break eye contact; an obsequious smile slowly spread across his face.
“My Lord, there has simply been no time for me to formulate any plan,” replied Trumaire in a defensive manner. “I, like everyone here – as you know, only received word of today’s horrific events after midday, and most, if not all of our time was spent in travelling here with little or no preparation, but I would humbly submit to anything that a renowned strategist such as yourself has to offer.”
Trumaire’s answer hung thickly in the air like a heavy dark rain cloud threatening to burst forth its load and shower all gathered with his own procrasting indecision. d’Gravernaugh held back what he wanted to say to Trumaire out of respect for the princess and her desire for dignified decorum. After a few moments of nervous shuffling in their seats and, when no one could bare the roaring silence any longer, another of the counsel: the Earl of Gillmere suddenly stood up.
“My Lady. My Lords,” said the Earl with some irritation. “I have a rather immediate question which I am troubled to find a solution to. Our king lays dead within the grounds of the castle, we need to recover his body so that we might properly bury him alongside his ancestors before he becomes carrion for the sport of crows. I would see that this is done with pressing urgency, anything less I would deem intolerable.”
The Earl sat back down, his face flushed with genuine frustration over the outrage he felt for the situation. d’Gravernaugh looked at the princess only to find her looking intensely at him with an expression equal in weight to the Earl’s question; she was silently demanding an answer. d’Gravernaugh still remained tight lipped but succeeded by facial gesture alone to tell the princess to be patient; her concerns dropped from her face the moment he did this.
“You have a valid point, Earl Arun’r,” came d’Gravernaugh’s response, suddenly and unexpectedly cutting through the air. He reached for his goblet taking another slow swig from it while looking deep in thought. All eyes were once again fixed on him, his body language alone displaying his relaxed, laid-back demeanour to the counsel. He lowered the goblet from his mouth taking a quick glance at everyone.
“Come Gentlemen! You must all have other concerns that you wish to voice, surely,” he said, provocatively, studying their faces.
As if by way of command, d’Gravernaugh’s prompt opened the stifled flood gates and everyone, in an orderly dignified manner, began to voice their own concerns and misgivings over what needed be done. d’Gravernaugh and the princess, without interrupting, both listened to each counsel member in turn until all their views and interests had been heard. This took the best part of two hours and no one during that time – out of fear or self-doubt – would commit themselves to suggest a plan of action to take. Inwardly, they all looked to d’Gravernaugh and would willingly defer to his military expertise, and his experience for guidance in this somewhat strategically, difficult matter.
“Excellent Gentlemen!” Said d’Gravernaugh, commendably. “Now, before we decide on a plan of action, does anyone else wish to add or ask anything more.”
“Yes My Lord,” said Ducarte.
“Yes Velden, what is it?”
“My Lord, since the emergence of these vile creatures there has never been any reported sightings of them in such vast numbers as that which assailed the castle – over a hundred you say. In the past, sightings were a regular occurrence, but in recent times it has become common knowledge that they are steadily growing in number. This begs the question of where they are coming from and how?”
d’Gravernaugh energetically nodded his head in approval.
“Exactly Velden! Where the devil are they coming from and how? I had many a conversation with king Mestian on this very subject. We sent out hunting parties all over southern Gillion to find the answers we sought, but every single mission we ever sent out came back empty handed and, to this day, the situation remains the same.”
“Could they be coming from one of the other three kingdoms…do you think?” Asked Ducarte.
“No, I think not Velden,” said d’Gravernaugh with a shake of his head. “My instinct is that they are coming from inside our own borders. Never once has any creature been sighted entering our lands from either the east, west, or north point guard towers, they would have been seen, they are not coming from those directions. That I am fairly certain of.”
“My Lord d’Gravernaugh!” exclaimed Ducarte, showing concern. “We have to find out, and soon don’t you think. We have no way of knowing when they will next attack – or in what number when they do. If this situation goes unchecked, in time…it will be the death of us all.”
The counsel members again, began muttering amongst themselves with a renewed fervour after Ducarte’s doom laden prediction. The princess looked to d’Gravernaugh who, after casually studying his nails, gave the princess a cue she instantly understood.
“Gentlemen,” she said, with positive authority while standing up and placing her hands flat on the table. The murmuring stopped as all heads turned to face her. “If we can restrain ourselves a little longer and not give in to our own fears, then I believe Lord d’Gravernaugh will now offer a proposal for us all to consider.”
An intense silence ensued. The princess sat back down and waited.
d’Gravernaugh rose from his chair and prepared himself.
“Thank you, My Lady. My Lords. It is my intention, come morning, to lead a hand-picked squad of royal guards, archers, and a compliment of ground troops to storm and retake the castle. Once we have secured the castle, and I see no reason why we should not be successful, we will find the king – that is you understand if his body can be found – and place him in the vaults until such a time when he can be laid permanently to rest. I have already made some arrangements in my plans to reinforce the areas surrounding the castle grounds in order to prevent and defend any further encroachments. When I am satisfied beyond any doubt that all is safe, the princess will be reinstated and claim her rightful place as ruling monarch of southern Gillion.”
d’Gravernaugh paused then addressed the princess directly.
“My Lady, are you agreeable with my plan of action as a desirable way to move forward…do we have your endorsement?”
The princess outwardly appeared calm, but inside she felt the weight of responsibility bearing down on her, making her unsure with doubtful fear in making such a decision that could, potentially, cost the lives of her subjects. But her faith in d’Gravernaugh remained stalwart, she would follow his lead as he had requested her to do before the meeting.
“My Lord d’Gravernaugh. You have my utmost confidence and so, I fully support your proposal,” she answered, with a level of pride in her voice.
“Gentlemen,” she continued. “Are you all in agreeance with lord d’Gravernaugh’s immediate proposal?”
All the counsel unanimously voiced their endorsement of the proposal.
“Two points My Lord, if you will indulge me,” said Ducarte.
“Yes Velden, what is it?”
“How many men are you planning to take to the castle? Also, you have not offered any solution to the matter of the creatures and how to wipe them out before they do so to us.”
d’Gravernaugh raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“I will take a total of two hundred men, no more will be required. As to your other concern, I have an idea that their numbers are not as large now as is feared. They suffered a loss yesterday morning, a loss that was not expected by their creator.”
“Creator,” enquired Ducarte with a curious expression. “What do you mean?”
“I mean whoever is making them. They do not just appear out of thin air, Velden. Something or someone is making them by means we are yet to discover. To find the source is to find the solution. I think that yesterday’s attack was intended to finish us once and for all, but it failed only killing one of two intended targets, the second being our princess. And however long it takes to create such numbers again will determine the time when another hoard is unleashed upon us. I have a sneaking suspicion this will not be any time soon so we have a window of opportunity to make the necessary preparations for when that time comes. But for now we need to concentrate our efforts in retaking and securing the castle, then after that, I will explain in much more detail what the king and myself discussed and what conclusions we came to. Is the counsel in agreement?”
Everyone, showing a mild reluctance consented. The princess then stood up.
“Gentlemen,” she stated. “It is well past midnight and Lord d’Gravernaugh must now seek rest, he has a full day ahead of him which requires he be fresh in mind and body. I ask you all to stay here for the night, I would not wish you to travel home at this hour for obvious reasons. I thank you all for attending this counsel and showing your support to me, may good fortune guide our path henceforth.”
The princess then called upon her servants to make sleeping arrangements for all the counsel members; they bowed and left the chamber to carry out her wishes. A short while later the servants returned with news that all was ready for them; the counsel members all rose bidding the princess goodnight then started leaving the chamber to retire for the night.
d’Gravernaugh suddenly called out to Trumaire just before he reached the chamber doors which were now wide open. Trumaire stopped and swung round to face him.
“My Lord Trumaire. I am wondering, is Tilda Darga, your resident authority on folklore. Is she still alive?”
“Yes, My Lord,” replied Trumaire. “But she is very old!”
“The princess and I will be needing to hold a conversation with her once things have settled at the castle. I will send word when the time comes.”
“As you wish My Lord,” said Trumaire, bowing. He then left the chamber.
By now everyone had left leaving d’Gravernaugh alone with the princess.
“Who is Tilda Darga,” she asked.
d’Gravernaugh allowed himself a smug smile.
“My Princess, she is the only person that I am aware of in the whole of southern Gillion that could help find and fit together some missing pieces of the puzzle.”
The princess, eyebrows raised in questioned wonderment, considered this new mystery which had just been presented to her. How little she knew about the kingdom and the people living within it.
‘I have much to learn,’ she thought to herself.