“Alfred?” Samuel’s voice jars me out of my trance. How long have I been staring at the words on the paper in my hand?
Now you must choose. Your kingdom or the boy’s. It is time for the debt to be paid.
I’ve been vaguely aware of the guards taking charge of Gunhild . . . of Laurence admonishing them she can put up a nasty fight . . . of Cedric . . . or was it Carew? . . . asking about a scar on the stranger’s face, looking to affirm that it was the Teuton king who sent the message. Of that, there’s no doubt. But, of course, they haven’t yet read his words.
Of all the scenarios Samuel and I postulated about what might happen when Denis came of age . . . all the discussions with Jasper and Evrouin and Carew about how we would respond . . . Even as we learned more and more about the brewing unrest in our neighboring kingdom and contemplated if or how it might affect us . . . or how we might come to the aid of a fellow monarch . . . Never did we imagine anything remotely like what we now face.
Has the Teuton been masterminding events in the Eastern Kingdom all along? Or did his spies simply uncover a situation he could exploit to his advantage? Either way, the anxiety that has nagged at my mind for so many months is now a reality that’s descended heavily onto my shoulders in the space of three short sentences.
I hand Richard the message and gesture for him to pass it around to the others in the room. By the time Coliar has closed the door behind the guards, everyone has read the message, and I retrieve it from Peveril’s extended hand as I resume my seat. All of them seem to be waiting for someone else to speak first. “Rather different from what we’d planned for, Jasper,” I address the knight commander.
“Yes, Sire,” he replies then, after a brief pause, adds, “Yes and maybe not so much. The presence of the Teutons does alter what we thought we might face in the east. But I think what it means is adjusting our plans – not starting over completely.”
“Is that possible?” asks Richard, his tone one of incredulity.
“It’s not out of the question, my lord. Thanks to the king’s insistence that I humor his visceral unease with certain modifications to the construction of the eastern garrison, we may be in a better position to respond to this new threat than we would’ve been otherwise. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to alter some things, but—”
“How quickly can you be ready to bring the Council – in fact, all the lords – into the picture?” Richard interrupts Jasper’s temporizing.
“Don’t rush them, Devereux,” says Samuel. “Plans concocted in a hurry can be full of more holes than a butt used for archery practice. Besides, my brother and Thorssen aren’t yet back from their errands.” Something of an understatement of their missions to prevent hostilities breaking out between the Peaks and the Territories by revealing it was Teutons, not Peaksmen, who’d sabotaged Korst’s tin mine. Phillip has the added task of finalizing the contract for Geoffrey’s marriage to the Peaks king’s daughter, Eirwen. This may put paid to Geoffrey’s hope of traveling to the Peaks for the betrothal announcement. On the other hand, that announcement might very well work to our advantage in this new conflict – something to challenge the Teuton’s assumptions.
“We may have to fill them in when they return.” Richard’s comment brings me back to the current discussion.
“I understand,” says Samuel. “But consider this. Whatever Gunnvor and the Teutons are up to, they feel in control of the situation. They’ve positioned their forces – here and across the sea – and can bide their time. The Teuton king will want to watch our reaction before deciding on his next move. And he no doubt has numerous tactical options already worked out with his field commanders.”
“Very well,” Richard acquiesces. “Let me rephrase the question, Sir Jasper. When is the right time for me to call the lords together?”
“Tomorrow afternoon might be best, my lord.”
“Let’s say two days hence. I think we should take de Courcy’s advice to heart.”
“With respect, your lordship, tomorrow might be better. You see, while you and Lord de Courcy have been talking, I’ve come up with an idea. Some might say it’s hare-brained . . .” Smiles all around the room acknowledge my own propensity for such things. “. . . but I think it could be what we need to change the balance of power. And time may be of the essence. I just need to work through it with Sir Evrouin. Sir Samuel too, if I can have a few moments of your time, my lord?”
“Would half an hour from now suit your needs?” Samuel asks.
“It would indeed. Permission to go get things underway, Sire?”
“Of course, Jasper,” I reply. “In truth, I’m looking forward to hearing anything that might help us out of this dilemma.” He bows quickly and hurries out the door. “The other part of the dilemma, gentlemen, is how to get word to Denis. Thanks to Peveril, we know Denis’s situation and his deployments, but he’s undoubtedly expecting us to be poised to come to his aid straightaway.”
“Any chance the Teuton king sent him an equally cryptic message?” asks Carew.
“Quite likely. And all the more reason we need to get word to him about how we intend to handle our own situation and still fulfill our commitment to him.”
“I can return, if that’s what’s needed,” Peveril offers.
“I’ve no doubt you would . . . and I’m grateful for the offer. But it seems to me that would be precisely the sort of move the Teuton would be watching for. Stealth is what we need. The longer we can keep him guessing about what we might be up to, the more we can tempt him into showing his own hand.”
Laurence recognizes my meaning straightaway. “I suspect you’ll also want the messenger to have the skills to help Denis work out how to mesh our plans with his own. And you’ll want someone you trust completely.” I nod in reply. “In that case, if Sir Cedric is willing to maintain his current state – maybe even add a touch of the smell of the sea that most fishermen can never seem to shed – I can get him in. What I can’t promise, in these circumstances, is when or how I can get him out.”