Read Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) Online

Authors: McKenna Juliet E.

Tags: #Fantasy

Darkening Skies (The Hadrumal Crisis) (10 page)

As he raised his voice to make that final bold declaration, he noted which lords were staring down at him with frank, sometimes prurient, curiosity.

Sure enough, Baron Karpis satisfied them with his next question from the comfort of his seat.

‘You may have married Lady Ilysh of Halferan according to law. Have you made her your wife in fact as well as in name?’

Corrain could see plenty of other lords were repelled by the thought of a rough-hewn swordsman a full generation older bedding a girl who had only just seen her thirteenth summer solstice.

‘My lord,’ he said mildly, ‘should you not honour this assembly by rising to speak?’

‘What?’ Baron Karpis was visibly taken aback as he realised his contempt for Corrain had betrayed him into such discourtesy. He was halfway to his feet before he realised he had nothing more to say.

‘Answer the question,’ he snapped, sinking down again.

Corrain could see some lords wondering if he had challenged Karpis’s incivility in hopes of avoiding an answer. Far from it. He had known from that first summons to this unprecedented parliament that he would face this question.

Just as he knew making such a reprehensible admission would guarantee their assembled lordships’ enmity quicker than spit could hit the floor. On the other hand admitting that he hadn’t claimed his rights as a husband would give Karpis grounds to attack the validity of this scandalous marriage.

Corrain had been in enough knife fights to know when to sidestep to avoid an over-confident thrust.

‘That question has no bearing on the legality of our union. If I was dissolving a marriage for lack of an heir of my body, then this parliament would be entitled to ask for such intimate details. If Lady Ilysh was seeking redress on account of non-consummation, the same would be true. Since neither case applies, Lord Karpis, how and when my wife and I share a bed is no one’s business but our own.’

Hopefully the honourable men on these benches would see the tacit denial beneath his refusal to answer. After all, a rank scoundrel wouldn’t shrink from boasting of his conquest to put the matter of the marriage beyond doubt. As for the others, especially those few betraying an unwholesome interest at the thought of deflowering a child?

‘I don’t suppose any of your lordships would welcome such impertinent enquiries into the business of your own bedchamber.’

Corrain’s life as a common guardsman might be over but there was more than a hint of a retainer’s livery in his sternly cut doublet and breeches of pewter linen, with dark red collar and cuffs to recall the Halferan standard.

Let these noble men consider what scurrilous gossip they learned from their own loyal servants. Let them wonder what he might have heard around the taverns and stable yards whenever their parliament had assembled these past twenty years.

Baron Karpis rose to his feet, though. Whatever else might be said of him, his devotion and fidelity to his noble lady was beyond reproach.

‘Whatever a wife might expect in the bedroom,’ he said with some distaste, ‘a more pressing question in the current season is what she might expect by way of protection. The Halferan barony has been ravaged by corsairs yet again and the demesne guard is reduced to greybeards and unshaven boys. Granted, these black-hearted raiders have retreated for the present, but there’s no knowing when they might return.

‘Karpis is the largest barony to border Halferan lands.’ The plump lord took a step forward and turned to address the whole gathering. ‘I have a fighting force of proven worth sworn to my service. We yield to no one in our resolve to defend Halferan’s worthy tenants as well as the widowed Lady Zurenne, and her two young daughters. Thus I propose myself as their most suitable guardian. This so-called marriage is an irrelevance.’

Wheeling around, he looked Corrain up and down with open contempt. ‘When you and I last met, you were weeping like a dairymaid who had dropped her cream dish. I would be failing in my own duty if I were to leave defenceless women in the care of such a vagabond so clearly seen to be unmanned.’

He made a point of staring at Corrain’s unwarrior-like plait of hair.

Corrain took care not to clench his fists. It wouldn’t do to punch the baron’s face so hard that the fat bastard spat out a mouthful of teeth.

Besides, there was no denying his collapse after he had been hurled back to Caladhria by that villainous mage Anskal. Halferan men and troopers from Karpis and Licanin had all been witness to it. Now Corrain saw that those few barons unaware of his humiliation were being quickly informed by avidly whispering neighbours.

‘I was exhausted, my lord Karpis, when you and I last met,’ Corrain said with hard-won composure. ‘I had been searching the coastal marshes for days, for any sign of those fleeing the destruction of Halferan Manor. In hopes of rescuing any who had been enslaved by the corsair raiders.’

Until he had finally returned, walking league upon endless league, as drawn by unthinking instinct as any courier dove to its nest. Where else could he go but back to Halferan?

Where Baron Karpis and his household guard along with Lord Licanin and his own troopers had escorted Lady Zurenne and her daughters back to survey the ruination of their home.

They had all seen Corrain reduced to helpless tears as he saw so many of those he’d thought dead had somehow been saved. Even if they didn’t know the full burden of the guilt that had driven him to his knees.

Corrain’s only consolation was he remembered so little of that dreadful day himself. With the seemingly endless anguish shredding his wits, his recollections were like glimpses through a distant window as shutters opened and closed.

Halferan Manor’s roofless buildings, half-consumed by fire. Lady Zurenne, so gaunt and pale yet stiff with resolve to protect her daughter’s inheritance. Lady Ilysh, looking so excruciatingly like her dead father whom Corrain had so grievously failed to protect.

‘You were talking of defending Halferan, Lord Karpis.’ Corrain fixed the baron with a penetrating stare. ‘Yet the manor and its village lie in ruins, along with countless hamlets and farms between the demesne and the sea. You singularly failed to prevent that destruction.’

Baron Karpis spread lavishly beringed hands. ‘I had no authority to stand between Halferan and the raiders. I had sought it, last Aft-Spring, after I had learned that Master Minelas had abandoned his responsibilities, and then again at this summer’s parliament, only to be denied in favour of Lord Licanin. Alas, entrusting Halferan to the care of a barony so far away proved a sad mistake.’

Lord Licanin sprang to his feet. ‘You were happy to entrust Halferan to a scoundrel and a thief. You stood before our summer’s parliament last year and gladly assented to Minelas of Grynth’s guardianship on the basis of documents which we now know to be base forgeries.’

His voice shook with fury and for the first time Corrain realised Lord Licanin was as angry with himself as he was with Baron Karpis, for taking so long to realise Zurenne’s true distress.

Licanin strode forward, walking in a wide circle to command the whole parliament’s attention. ‘If we are to consider who has safeguarded Halferan, my faithful guardsmen fought and died when those corsair raiders last attacked, intent on razing the manor to the ground.’

‘While my men helped burn their ships when they came to shore.’ Lord Tallat rose slowly from his seat, sweating despite the thick stone walls shielding the hall from the lingering heat as summer turned to autumn. ‘Though this is little enough to set in Raeponin’s divine scales against my most grievous error in not questioning Master Minelas’s claims. To see him revealed as a fraud and a thief and worse—’

As he broke off with a shake of his head, Corrain tensed. Had Tallat somehow discovered Master Minelas’s wizardry?

Could the Halferan barony weather that storm, if the parliament learned that Master Minelas hadn’t washed up on Caladhria’s shore by accident? That Baron Halferan himself had suborned the man’s magecraft, both of them defying the Archmage and Hadrumal’s edict. Until Minelas had betrayed Halferan for the sake of the greater gold the corsairs had offered him. And Corrain had been one of the few men who’d known the baron’s secret.

But that wasn’t what Lord Tallat was struggling to say.

‘I owe you a considerable debt, Lord Licanin, for rescuing the Widow Halferan from the unintended consequences of my dishonour. I can only beg forgiveness of the current Baron Halferan.’ The dark haired lord bowed awkwardly towards Corrain. ‘And if we are to consider who has defended Halferan most faithfully, there can be no doubt of his loyalty. His devotion has proved stronger than Aldabreshin slave chains!’

As unexpected voices acknowledged that with loud approval, Lord Tallat’s nerve failed him. He sat down with a jarring thump.

Baron Karpis wasn’t bested yet. ‘Yet Captain Corrain was nowhere to be seen when the corsairs last attacked. He had long since vanished on some mysterious journey which he still has not accounted for. Nor has he ever explained his miraculous escape from the southern slavers.’

‘More questions which have no bearing on the validity of this marriage.’ A soberly dressed lord rose from one of the middle benches.

Corrain recognised him, as well as the barons to either side raising their hands to support his contention. Baron Saldiray, with the lords of Taine, Myrist and Blancass.

They had been his dead lord’s allies. They had supported Corrain’s bold plan to demand aid from Hadrumal’s wizards, renewing Caladhria’s appeals to the Archmage themselves after the former Baron Halferan’s death.

Even after the Archmage’s unwavering refusal had hardened the barons’ unease about dealing with wizards into outright dislike, it seemed they believed Corrain had somehow secured magic to defend Caladhria. So if they helped give him Halferan, he would be honour bound to give them such help if the corsairs returned.

He could only hope they never discovered the true disgrace of his debt to wizardry.

Baron Karpis snorted, this time with outrage.

‘My lords?’ Baron Ferl was on his feet, swift to read the mood in the hall. ‘Shall we vote? That will at least tell us if there is anything more to be gained by debate.’

‘I agree,’ Lord Licanin said promptly. ‘Let those approving this new Baron Halferan show their assent!’

Corrain raised his head and squared his shoulders, standing in the middle of the flagstones. He looked at that far window as the lords muttered and argued among themselves. He dared not look as the first few hands were raised. He didn’t want anyone to look into his eyes and see how wholly unworthy he was to take his dead lord’s place.

He had failed his liege lord utterly. His desperate efforts to make some recompense had come at the cost of further failure. He had abandoned that fool boy Hosh, even though he was one of Halferan’s own, all for the sake of escaping from the corsair slavers. Even though he knew full well the lad could never survive a slave’s brutal life without Corrain to defend him.

It was almost enough to make him wish that he still believed in the gods, even at the cost of answering to Saedrin for all his sins. Then Corrain could have hoped that the wretched lad was already safely reborn in the Otherworld with all his injuries healed, every hurt that Corrain had failed to save him from soothed.

But there were no gods and Corrain had failed Hosh. As badly as he’d failed Kusint, after all that the Forest-born lad had done. Helping him to escape the corsairs; Corrain couldn’t swim much less sail a boat. Telling him of Solura’s mages who owed nothing to Hadrumal. Taking him north in search of just such a mage. Then Corrain had repaid him by allying with the Mandarkin, no matter what Kusint had told him of that wicked race’s villainy. No wonder Kusint had abandoned him in disgust.

The bright colours of the distant window blurred.

‘Very well,’ Baron Ferl said in measured tones. ‘We have our answer, my lords.’

Corrain blinked hastily and looked to see what that might be. He felt abruptly weak with relief as he saw more than half the assembly’s hands were raised, though some of the lords were already heading for the door.

‘Good.’ A nameless, exasperated noble said to his companion. ‘Let’s hope we can get on the road before the fifth chime of noon.’

Corrain didn’t care who had only voted in his favour in order to go home. He pushed his way through the shifting throng. He had to sit down.

Lord Licanin caught his elbow and pulled him roughly to one side.

‘Have you bedded Ilysh?’ he hissed in an undertone. ‘I won’t betray her shame but I have a right to know! I know your reputation.’

Corrain should have expected that. After he had joined the guardsmen’s barracks, he had rarely bothered to hide his dalliances with tavern girls and village maids. Why should he? They were willing and old Fitrel had shown him the uses of alum and beeswax so none ever arrived at the manor’s gatehouse with a swelling belly.

He had grown a little more discreet in later years but only because his tastes inclined towards married women. Not discreet enough, when it had come to Starrid’s wife. Corrain had grown too used to cuckolded husbands too busy with their own pleasures to notice a straying wife or to play the hypocrite if they did.

Halferan’s former steward had rolled the third side of that rune. He had beaten his hapless wife black and blue. There was no hiding that scandal so Corrain had lost his captaincy to ride as a common trooper. Of course Lord Licanin would have heard of that through his man Rauffe’s letters to his former home.

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