A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Twenty-Three)

MacGil peeled open his eyes, awakened by the relentless pounding on his door, and immediately, he wished he hadn't. His head was splitting. Harsh sunlight shone in through the open castle window, and he realized his face was planted in his sheepskin blanket. Disoriented, he tried to remember. He was home, in his castle. He tried to summon the night before. He remembered the hunt. Then, an alehouse, in the woods. Drinking way too many casks. Somehow, he must have made it back here.

He looked over and saw his wife, the Queen, sleeping beside him, under the covers and slowly rousing.

The pounding came again, the awful noise of an iron knocker slamming.

"Who could that be at this hour?" she asked, annoyed.

MacGil was wondering the same thing. He specifically remembered leaving instructions with his servants not to wake him – especially after the hunt. There'd be hell to pay for this.

It was probably his steward, with another petty financial matter.

"Stop that bloody banging!" MacGil finally bellowed, rolling out of bed, sitting with his elbows on his knees, hand in his head. He ran his hands through his unwashed hair and beard, then over his face, trying to wake himself up. The hunt – and the ale – had taken a lot out of him. He wasn't as limber as he used to be. The years had taken their toll; he was exhausted. At this moment, he felt like never drinking again.

With a supreme effort he pushed himself off his knees, and to his feet. Dressed only in his robe, he quickly crossed the room, and finally reached the door, a foot thick, grabbing the iron handle and yanking it back.

Standing there was his greatest general, Brom, flanked by two attendants. They lowered their heads in deference, but his general stared right at him, a grim look on his face. MacGil hated it when he wore that look. It always meant somber news. It was at moments like these that he hated being King. He had been having such a good day yesterday, a great hunt, and it had reminded him of when he was young, carefree. Especially wasting the night away like that in the alehouse. Now, to be rudely awakened like this, it took away any illusion of peace he had had.

"My liege, I am sorry to wake you," Kolk said.

"You should be sorry," MacGil growled. "This better be important."

"It is," he said.

He spotted the seriousness of his face, and turned and checked back over his shoulder for his queen. She was still asleep.

MacGil gestured for them to enter, then led them through his vast bedroom, and through another arched door, to a side chamber, shutting the door behind them so as not to disturb her. He sometimes used this smaller room, no greater than twenty paces in each direction, with a few comfortable chairs and a big stained-glass window, when he didn't feel like going down to the Great Hall.

"My liege, our spies have told us of a McCloud contingent of men, riding east, for the Fabian Sea. And our scouts in the south report a caravan of empire ships, heading north. Surely they must be heading there to meet the McClouds."

MacGil tried to process this information, his brain moving too slowly in his drunken state.

"And?" he prodded, impatient, tired. He was so exhausted by the endless machinations and speculations and subterfuges of his court.

"If the McClouds are truly meeting with the Empire, there can only be one purpose," Brom continued. "To conspire to breach the Canyon and overthrow the Ring."

MacGil looked up at his old commander, a man who we had fought with for thirty years, and could see the deadly seriousness in his eyes. He could also see fear. That disturbed him: this was not a man he had ever seen fear anything.

MacGil slowly rose, to his full height, which was still considerable, and turned and walked across the room, until he reached the window. He looked out, surveying his court below, empty in the early morning, and thought to himself. He knew, all along, that one day a day like this would come. He just had not expected it to come so soon.

"That was quick," he said. "It's been but hours since I married off my daughter to their prince. And now you think they already conspire to overthrow us?"

"I do, my liege," Brom responded sincerely. "I see no other reason. All indications are it is a peaceful meeting. Not a military one."

MacGil slowly shook his head.

"But it does not make sense. They could not let the Empire in. Why would they? Even if for some reason they managed to help lower the Shield on our side and open a breach, then what would happen? The Empire would overwhelm them as well. They would not be safe, either. Surely, they know this."

"Maybe they are going to strike a deal," Brom retorted. "Maybe they will let the Empire in, in return for their attacking us only, so that the McClouds can control the Ring."

MacGil shook his head.

"The McClouds are too smart for that. They are crafty. They know that the Empire cannot be trusted."

His general shrugged.

"Maybe they want control of the Ring so badly, they are willing to take that chance. Especially now that they have your daughter as their queen."

MacGil thought about this. His head was pounding. He did not want to deal with this now. Not so early in the morning.

"So then what do you propose?" he asked, short with him, tired of all the speculation.

"We could preempt this, sire, and attack the McClouds. The time is now."

MacGil could hardly believe it.

"Right after I gave my daughter to them in a wedding? I don't think so."

"If we don't," Brom countered, "we allow them to dig our grave. Surely they will attack us. If not now, then later. And if they join with the empire, we would be finished."

"They cannot cross the Highlands so easily. We control all the choke points. It would be a slaughter. Even with the empire in tow."

"The empire have millions of men to spare," Kolk responded. "They can afford to be slaughtered."

"Even with the shield down," MacGil said, "it would not be so easy to just march millions of soldiers across the Canyon – or across the Highlands, or to approach by ship. We would spot such mobilization far in advance. We would have warning."

MacGil thought.

"No, we will not attack. But for now, we can take a prudent step: double our patrols at the Highlands. Strengthen our fortifications. And double our spies. That will be all."

"Yes, my liege," Brom said, turning, with his lieutenants and hurrying from the room.

MacGil turned back to the window, his head pounding. He sensed war on the horizon, coming at him with the inevitability of a winter storm. He sensed, further, that there was nothing he could do about it. He looked all around him, at his castle, at the stone, at the pristine royal court spread out beneath him, and he could not help but wonder how long all of this would last.

What he would give now for another drink.