The horses neighed in complaint, but Valeaus urged them onward. For three days and three nights he forced his steeds to near exhaustion, his usual gentleness given in to urgency and resolve. When, at last, his destination rose above the form of the hills and the light of dawn graced its presence on the battlements above.
Castle dey la Conrath, also called Ethel’s Mourn. It stood proud in a valley of grass and wheat and surrounded itself with farms and markets. Its walls were thirty feet high, with a strange curvature that created an oval about the inner keep, more than four hundred feet at its length. The crenellations were outlined by triangular tips, with the banners of dey la Conrath, and Dragonfell above it, flapping wildly in the wind.
Not, Valeaus observed, the banner of House Conrath.
The country itself was now bustling with activity. Instead of farmers and children upon the brick road, now there marched scores of soldiers, dressed in the trappings of beaded studded leather and iron swords. The lead bannermen bore the symbol of Lord Beren de la Conrath himself, bearing the image of a lion and a thrice-scored shield born upon its back. Their timely marches echoed distantly throughout the valley and the clear thunder of orders, echoing the strength of Conrath discipline, sounded clearly in the air.
Valeaus hurriedly galloped past them, ignoring their wondering stares and estranged looks as the Darius-lordling expeditiously flew past their ranks. Within an half of an hour of sighting the castle, Valeaus was at the gates.
“Halt, then! In the name of Lord dey la Conrath. What be yer’ business with us?”
“I come by the leave of my father, Lord Arathoras Darius, watchman of the easterward forests and ranger of the land. I am Valeaus Darius, and I bring news of Ironheld in the south, tidings from Dragonfell.”
“Aye, then, m’lord? Beggin’ yer pardon, but I ain’t seein’ no Darius colors upon yer garments.” Indeed, Valeaus’s own white cloak and white garments were strange enough keep in any parts of Westra.
“My journey was done in secret, gatekeeper. Your Lord has failed in keeping the King’s peace, and my house colors would mark me for banditry and ill company.”
“Beggin’ yer pardon again, m’lord, but the King is dead. We keep our own peace here. But ye’ be Darius now. I hear it in yer voice and feel it in me bones. Open the gates, then!”
The gates opened loudly and Valeaus lead his horses inside the castle.
“…and with the last of the coinage and food received, for which he sends his warmest and most sincere thanks, Lord Justin Tyrenn pledges his armies and has committed them to the northern flank. They will be in Riverman lands in two weeks, m’lord.”
Beren dey la Conrath did not respond, but instead kept his eyes closed and leaned heavily on the arm of his throne.
Lady Rhea responded for him. “Very well, lieutenant. Tell Captain Farthing to prepare his messengers and make ready for his march within the week. We will send word when our horsemen will join him.” The lieutenant bowed deeply and hurriedly marched off.
Lady Rhea turned to look at dey la Conrath. He was still possessed of youthful countenance, Beren was, though he saw his fortieth nameday only two months hence. His crown laid levelly on his even head and a great many furs covering his worn and battle scarred armor made him look remarkably powerful even as he sat still and complacent.
“You would do us well, my lord, if you would speak with those who would fight for you.”
“For you,” Beren responded icily.
Lady Rhea scowled. “No, my lord. You know that all this is for you and for your family. I am only your serv—“
“I tire of your banter, woman!” Beren opened his eyes then and looked at her with a malevolent stare. “Never will you convince me that your aid is all for my benefit. All your ‘talk’ and ‘peace’ has atrophied at the spirit of my men. Rallied, they were, and squandered was their spirit. If we had followed my own will in this matter, we would be a hundred leagues from here and marching on Valnor in this very hour.”
“Patience will bring you victory, my lord.”
“You mean will bring you your victory. Your House is testing my patience, and my men are dying. Until I see your soldiers marching side by side our colors, you will not get one sentiment of praise from me.”
Rhea was about to respond when the herald’s voice boomed into the chamber.
“Valeaus Darius of the east is here to call on you, m’lord! News he brings of Ironheld and Dragonfell.”
Rhea frowned at the mention of his name. “Send him away. We have no wish to see hi—“
“Send him in,” Beren interrupted. Rhea frown turned to irritation as she looked at Beren’s young face.
“My lord. This is a very bad id—“
“I do not wish for your speeches, witch. Take your leave of me or I will have my guards ‘escort’ you out.”
Rhea stood impassive for but a moment, leaning a little more heavily upon her iron staff, before bowing to Beren and proceeded to doors.
Valeaus was already there and looking at Rhea with a stilled face.
“You are looking well, milady,” he said in passing.
“And you as well, Lord Darius.” She glanced at him, her eyes looking at him sullenly but the slightest hint of a smile at her lips. “You are dirty.”
“And you are very beautiful,” Valeaus said kindly.
“Hmm.” Rhea walked onward and disappeared into the halls behind him.
“Valeaus, please, come in!” Beren called to him. “I look forward to hearing what you have to say. I imagine much has happened since last you came here.”
“Ineed,” Valeaus said as he walked forward. “We have much to discuss.”