The count ran a hand over his shaven head, the stitched scar on his cheek seeming to glow a little more red as he sighed his frustration and sought to formulate the correct response.
“Yes,” Vaelin told her from the opposite end of the table. “And it’s not just a matter of moving it. If we don’t find sufficient forage for the winter, this army could well starve.”
“Surely we have captured Volarian supplies,” Lyrna said.
“Indeed, Highness,” plump Brother Hollun spoke up. Like most present he seemed to have difficulty in not staring at her face. “Twelve tons of grain, four of corn and six of beef.”
“Without which my people will starve this winter,” Lady Reva stated. “I’ve had to start rationing again already . . . Highness,” she added, clearly still having trouble with etiquette.
Lyrna looked at the map, tracing the route to Varinshold, finding many towns and villages along the way but knowing most would now be little more than scorched ruins, devoid of any supplies. Two hundred miles to Varinshold, she mused, studying the map more closely. Half that to the coast . . . and the sea.
She looked up, finding the Shield standing outside the circle of captains towards the rear of the tent, his face half in shadow. “My lord Ell-Nestra,” she said. “Your counsel please.”
He came forward after a moment’s hesitation, Fief Lord Dravus’s twin grandsons making room for him with courteous bows he failed to acknowledge. “Highness,” he said in a neutral tone.
“There are many ships in your fleet,” she said. “Enough to carry an army to Varinshold?”
He shook his head. “Half the fleet was obliged to return to the Isles for repairs after the Teeth. We could perhaps carry a third of the number gathered here, and even then we would have to leave the horses behind.”
“Varinshold won’t fall to so few,” Count Marven said. “Not if the Volarian woman is to be believed. They are well garrisoned and supplied from across the sea and from Renfael.”
Lyrna switched her gaze to Varinshold. The capital and principal port of the entire realm, much of its wealth in fact drawn from trade with Volaria. She pointed to the sea-lanes off Varinshold and looked up at the Shield. “Ever take a ship in these waters, my lord?”
He considered the map for a moment then nodded. “A few. Not such easy pickings as in the southern trade routes. The King’s fleet was always a watchful shepherd for Varinshold’s trade.”
“Now there is no fleet,” Lyrna pointed out. “And the pickings are likely to be rich, are they not, given the enemy’s losses at the Teeth?”
He nodded again. “Rich indeed, Highness.”
“You gave me a ship yesterday. Today I give her back to you with a request you take your fleet and seize or burn any Volarian ship you find journeying to or from Varinshold. Will you do this for me?”
She felt the other captains stirring, hard gazes turning on the pirate. Don’t like to see a queen bargain, she decided. I’ll speak to him in private in future.
“My men may take some persuasion,” he responded after a moment. “We sailed to defend the Isles. And that task is done.”
Ship Lord Ell-Nurin stepped forward, bowing to her with accomplished grace. “I can’t speak for the Shield’s men, Highness. But my men are ready to follow you to Udonor’s Halls if you ask. As I’m sure will many more. After the Battle of the Teeth and . . . your healing, many wouldn’t dare refuse.” He turned to the Shield with an expectant expression.
“As the Ship Lord says,” the Shield grated after a moment. “How could we refuse?”
“Very well.” Lyrna scanned the map once more. “Preparations must be complete within the week. Whereupon the army will march not north but east, to the coast. We will proceed to Varinshold via the coastal ports where our Meldenean allies will resupply us with whatever riches the Volarian Ruling Council deems fit to send its garrison. Also, ports mean fishing folk, who I’m sure will be glad of the custom.”
“If there are any left,” Reva said softly.
“I hereby make the following appointments,” Lyrna went on, choosing to ignore the Lady Governess. “Please forgive the lack of ceremony but we have no time for such pettiness now. I name Lord Vaelin Al Sorna as Battle Lord of the Queen’s Host. Count Marven is named Sword of the Realm and Adjutant General. Brother Hollun, I name you Keeper of the Queen’s Purse. Captains Adal, Orven and Nortah are hereby made Swords of the Realm and elevated to the rank of Lord Marshal. Lord Atheran Ell-Nestra.” She met the Shield’s gaze once more. “I name you Fleet Lord of the Unified Realm and captain of its flagship.” She cast her gaze around the assembly. “These appointments include all due rights and privileges set down by Realm Law with grants and lands to be allotted at the close of hostilities. I ask you formally, do you accept these honours?”
She noted Vaelin was the last to voice his assent, and then only after the Shield had taken a seeming age to bow in agreement, a ghost of his usual smile on his lips.
“Other business, Lords and good sirs?” she asked the Council.
“There is the matter of the prisoners, Highness,” Lord Marshal Orven said. “Keeping them safe is proving a trial. Especially given the bow skills of our Cumbraelin hosts,” he added with a glance in Reva’s direction.
“They have been screened for useful intelligence, I assume?” Lyrna asked.
Harlick, the thin older brother, raised a bony hand. “That task was given to me, Highness. There are a few officers among them I’ve yet to question. Though, my experience to date indicates their usefulness is likely to be limited.”
“They can work,” Vaelin said, meeting her gaze with red-rimmed but steady eyes. “Rebuild what they destroyed.”
“I can’t have them in the city,” Reva put in, shaking her head. “The people will tear them apart.”
“Then we take them with us,” Vaelin responded. “They can act as porters.”
“And more mouths to feed,” Lyrna said, turning to Brother Harlick. “Complete your questioning, brother. Lord Marshal Orven will hang them when you’re done. My lords and sirs, to your duties if you please.”
• • •
She found him sitting by the river, seemingly no more than a well-built soldier plaiting rope with unusually nimble fingers. Vaelin had warned her not to expect much from him so it was a surprise when he scrambled to his feet as she approached, performing a bow of such perfection it would have shamed the most accomplished courtier.
“Cara said I should bow,” he told her, his broad handsome face lit by an open smile. “Showed me how.”
Lyrna glanced off to the right where the three other Gifted from the Reaches looked on. The girl, Cara, still pale and tired by her exertions the day before, regarded Lyrna with a suspicious frown, matched by the skinny young man who held her hand and the hulking fellow with copious hair who stood behind them both. Do they think I come to punish?
Benten put a hand on his sword as Weaver came closer, reaching out to touch her face. “It’s all right, my lord,” she told the former fisherman, standing still and allowing the healer’s hand to play over her features. It burned before, but now it’s cold.
“I came to offer my thanks, sir,” she told Weaver. “I would name you a lord . . .”
“Your reward is already given,” he said, withdrawing his hand. His face lost its smile, his brow creased with confusion as he tapped a finger to it. “Always the way, something comes back.” His gaze widened a little as he stared into her eyes. “You gave more. More than any other.”
Lyrna experienced a bout of the same near panic that had gripped her at the Mahlessa’s mountain, the desire to run from something unknowable but undeniably dangerous. She exhaled slowly and forced herself to meet his gaze. “What did I give?”
He smiled again, turning away to sit once more, reaching for his rope. “Yourself,” he said in a faint voice as his hands resumed their work.
“My Queen.” She turned to find Iltis marching towards her, his face paler than she would have liked but he still refused to rest. Beyond him she could see Brother Caenis standing with four common folk, two young women from the city, a Nilsaelin soldier and one of Lord Nortah’s free fighters. Lyrna saw the three Gifted from the Reaches stiffen at the sight of them, exchanging worried glances, the big one even hefting the quarterstaff he carried and stepping protectively in front of the girl.
“Lord Marshal Caenis requests a private audience, Highness,” Iltis told her with a bow.
She nodded and beckoned Caenis forward, moving a short distance away from Weaver. She paused a moment to view the frozen waters of the Cold Iron, then glanced over at Cara, now glaring in naked animosity at Brother Caenis as he fell to one knee before her. The power to freeze a river in summer, but she fears this man.
“Highness, I crave your attention . . .”
“Yes, yes, brother.” She waved him to his feet, gesturing at Cara and the other Gifted. “You seem to be making my subjects nervous.”
Brother Caenis turned to the Gifted, grimacing a little. “They . . . fear what I have to tell you.” He faced her, straightening his back. “My Queen, I come to offer the services of my Order in this conflict. We subject ourselves to your commands and shirk no duty in pursuit of victory.”