❮ read Chapter 1

“It is a disaster, my lord.”

Baron Jehan held up his hand. He could tell the sergeant of the army, Gillet, a man with an annoying, nasally voice, but a most talented tactician, was going to continue. Ordinarily, Jehan was not adverse to criticism, in particular when it was due, as it was due now, but, like a headache that would not go away, this ringing in his ears, recently acquired, brought a quick end to his patience.

“I have little interest at this point,” he said. His voice was low, but menacing. Everyone who visited the manor, now more like a keep as workers built stone fortifications and towers around it, had noted his change in demeanour over the past few weeks. And, after witnessing a few bouts of violent discipline, they had learned to hold their tongues.

The table remained silent. Jehan gathered himself to continue.

“As I said, what has happened has happened. Now we must see to the future.” He looked up, finally, into his sergeant’s eyes. “What is the current state of our forces?”

“The current state…” Sergeant Gillet began, clearly ready to launch into a tirade. But those dark bags under the baron’s eyes had Gillet check himself. “There is almost nothing left,” he finally continued. “We spent ourselves almost completely. All that is left is your personal guard.”

“Then we must reconstitute our forces from the town.”

“My lord,” Gillet practically squirmed in his seat. “The town bell rings night and day in mourning. There are few men of fighting age left to call upon.”

Jehan put his hand to his forehead. Yes, those bells were contributing to the painful ringing that clouded his mind. It filled him with rage.

“You will post throughout the town for volunteers, with a promise of conscription of all men from twelve to sixty should too few come forward. In the meantime, you will declare looting the battlefield a capital crime, and hang anyone caught in the act. You will also conscript as many people as necessary to sweep the fallen for weapons, armour, or any equipment that night serve the cause to defend our lands.”

The room went quiet as the baron gritted his teeth and massaged his forehead with his hand.

“My lord,” Thevenin said finally, “all this drain on the townsfolk will put the harvest in jeopardy. And this will effect taxes. The king is expecting…”

“I know what the king is expecting!” Jehan shouted, smacking his hand on the table, prompting his wife to release a small cry of shock. He turned to her. “Countess, I must beg your forgiveness. As you know, of late I have been most sorely vexed. Would you do me the kindness of granting us time to sort out these pressing matters?”

“Of course, my lord,” Countess Ysabeau said, softy, as she rose from the table and motioned her attendants to follow.

“And perhaps, if you would indulge me,” the baron continued, taking her hand, gently now, under control of himself once again. “I would be most grateful should you send for your nurse, and have her bring more of that most wonderful medicine.” He brought his other hand to his ear. “This ringing is most vexatious. It makes me quite beside myself.”

“Of course, my dear. Our sun rises and sets upon your good health. I will send for her presently.” With this the countess exited the dining hall, her retinue following fast on her heels.

“Baron, your heath!” One of his advisors interjected, when the room was free of the lady’s presence.

“My health,” the baron repeated, “is of no consequence, so long as this threat remains. If we fall, then I will be killed. There is no greater ill-health a man can face.”

Jehan paused, taking some small measure of gratitude that no one at the table took advantage of this silence to hurtle more obstacles in his way. “Sheriff Thevenin, your council is heard and heeded. We must walk the acrobat’s rope, treading most carefully. To one side lays the threat of these unceasing attacks on our small barony, as part of some unknown foreign design upon our monarch’s realm. We are the toehold they require to launch attacks into the mainland, which we must not allow. On the other side lies our duty to the king’s campaigns to the west, upon which the financial contribution of our blessed lands, at least in part, rests so delicately.”

“The king asks the impossible,” Sergeant Gillet complained.

“Perhaps,” the baron mused. “And yet, we will answer his call. I for one have no wish to bend a knee to these savages from across the shallow sea.”

Murmurs of agreement from around the table put the matter to rest.

“And now, if you will indulge me, I will take my leave,” the baron said, standing as he did so. “Both the king and I thank you for your service.”

“To your heath, baron,” one of the men at the table said, and all raised their cups to drink.

Jehan gave a nod and slight smile, then turned and walked from the room.

#

By the time Baron Jehan reached his chambers the ringing in his ears had become so extreme he felt the need to steady his walk by keeping a hand upon the wall. He felt as if the room was in motion, as if he’d drunk too much wine. Once again, as he’d wondered ever since the ringing had begun, if perhaps he was the victim of some kind of poisoning. But after careful scrutiny of his food and drink, of his environs, this possibility had supposedly been ruled out.

Lady Ysabeau was already at his chambers, with her attendants and the nurse he had requested, holding in her hand, to his great relief, a small vial.

“Will this be your wonderful curative?” asked the baron, as he held out a hand.

“Yes, my lord,” the nurse replied, handing him the tube of liquid. She continued as he downed the foul concoction. “But I fear this is much more than a simple medical condition!”

“Then poisoning, or some kind of disease?”

The countess put her hand to her lips at this.

“No, lord,” the nurse assured. “I have conducted every test I know. There is no sign of poison, nor illness. No, what I fear is some form of sorcery.”

“Witchcraft?”

“You must forgive me, lord, but in these matters I am only casually informed.”

“Then to whom can I turn? Do we have a magician in the house?”

“Baron!” his wife exclaimed. “No member of this household, nor its servants, are practitioners of the dark arts. You must cease this line of questioning.”

“And yet,” the baron countered, his voice approaching a yell. “And yet, not poison, not ill-health, but still I am afflicted, while beset upon by a powerful enemy that looks to use our lands as a means to set upon our king. Surely my enemies are not beneath heresy in order to achieve this end!” The baron paused. The nurse, his wife, and her attendants had all grown pale with fear. He took a deep, deliberate breath, then took his wife’s hand. “Forgive me,” he begged. “I am vexed beyond reason. This affliction…”

“Is more than any man could be asked to bear,” the countess finished, while squeezing his hand with both of hers. “Pray, has the tincture soothed your distress?”

“Yes, I must admit, to a degree at least.”

“Then won’t you lay down to rest for now, my lord, and let me make inquiries with the bishop about what we might do to restore your health?”

“Thank you,” he said, in a rare moment of emotional nakedness. It was not the lord of the manor who spoke, nor the baron of Vernont, but rather a thankful husband leaning on his beloved. “Yes, some rest shall do me good. Thank you, again, and adieu, my precious, better self.”

*featured image credit: DALL·E 2