The Iron Rook VI
For years Duncan had to contend with the thorns at court, threatening to prick him and the others with their poisoned tips and finish them off. The day they first arrived they had come with a small army, intent on overthrowing Duncan and doing to him what he did to the Riverlords. But Duncan managed to keep them at bay by closing the gates of the castle to them, and securing the entire force of the Skycloaks to stand as threats from the rear while the royal guards stood atop the wall ready with a surplus of crossbows.
Mira convinced him that they would make great allies in the management of the nations as a whole. But he couldn't allow them to enter the castle ground with all their men. So he decided to allow them in with only 50 men, and that the other 250 would march home that very day.
Lord Haden agreed to these terms without hesitation, and within the hour 250 of the men, he brought turned and marched out of the city. Even then Duncan didn't open the castle gates, not until that evening when it was confirmed the men had marched miles away from the city and only stopped to camp for the night, they had every intention to return home. Finally, Duncan let them in, but the men had to relinquish their weapons to the royal guards while they stayed there; again without hesitation Haden agreed to these terms and they were weakened even further.
And true enough they did prove to be very valuable allies in the court, well that is when they weren't trying to kill him. But thanks to Mira, and her new friend the sorcerer Zereff, they kept well away from those poisoned tips. Eventually, though they left the court, realizing they would never succeed in removing Duncan and the others from power, at least not while at the courts themselves.
And so began a game of gambits, gaining influence and control of men and woman at lesser seats of power to begin shifting the balance between them. But it turned out Duncan was great at this, probably the one thing he truly was great at, and he kept well ahead of the thorns, finding what people were under their control and managing to maneuver one of his own around them or to a higher position.
In fact, he was so good, he let it go to his head, and allowed Gerald into talking him into getting rid of the sorcerer, and his great influence over him. While Zereff was indeed on his side, or so it would appear, the old man held too many secrets, his magic powers were far too dangerous to compete with mortal men, and Duncan relied too heavily on him.
When next he appeared before them Gerald stuck his sword through his back. The room went dark for an instant and the sorcerer was gone, yet Gerald's blade was gleaming red with his blood. There was no way he could have survived that, magic or no, but Duncan feared that if he had, he would be a powerful enemy.
* * *
That night he couldn't sleep, so Duncan set up the chess board and put out the few special pieces he had on the tiles. Sage Ordon was the one who started this all, the one who brought him into the fold of his scheme. And now he is dead. He pushed the Golden Bishop over. The pinging noise from it hitting the board filled the silent room, and soon stopped.
The old Sage had an odd obsession with this game, even went so far as to categorize all of them as the pieces of the game. He was the Iron Rook, a castle, or rather tower, of fortitude. But that's the difference between him and Ordon, to the Sage this was almost like a game.
"Capture the king, win the game," he told him.
But life is more complicated than that, politics especially. But Ordon had the right idea, no one man should rule the world. "Control the king, control the world."
He knew better, you can't control men, but you can manipulate them. A king who listens to his councilors is a king who will rule well, so long as they maintained good council. But Ordon didn't listen to him, not when he tried to tell him that you can't end feudalism by killing the royal family, and especially not when you cannot trust the Redthorn family.
House Redthorn, House Lilen, house Imburgh, gods every noble house in the Greenlands were no good schemers. They don't earn their riches or lands the traditional way. No, they marry into homes with lands, wealth, or anything they desire and then wrap their vines around their throats and strangle them all. And then they take what is now theirs by law.
He warned Ordon about those gardens, and now the old Sage was nicked by a poisoned thorn. Duncan had spent his entire time at court carefully pushing, and snipping away those thorns and vines, slowly but surely removing as much influence as he could from the nobles of the Greenlands.
Finally, when they got the message, and realized that their roots would not grow in here, they left the court, and he could relax, if only a little. He knew they'd one day be back, their scheme, whatever it was, is finally set in motion. Albert's death was a great distraction for them, and they tried using William Royce to turn their heads so they could sneak up on them and stab them in back.
After all, no one pays that much attention to a common man, but after they tried that same thing with his father, Adam Royce, Duncan caught on. They almost got him with Adam though, the man had enough friends in high places to really do some damage. But his paranoia of the schemers saved everything, and Adam was dealt with before any more harm could be done. Still he figured the son might follow in the father's footsteps so he had a gambit of his own playing William.
And now William Royce is dead, Sage Ordon is dead, and a pair of Riverlords he persuaded to his side died several days later at a feast, before they got a chance to leave the court. He was sure it was the work of the thorns, reaching their vines back into court, most of it anyways. But something else was awry, he knew someone else was coming for him, but he missed a crucial piece of the puzzle to figure out who.
It was hardly setting past morning when Duncan poured his cup of wine. He started drinking one cup a day since William showed up with that Copper Pawn piece and the news that Albert Hathen was dead. Usually, he waited til his last meal to pour his cup, after a long day it never tasted better. But today his desk was so piled with work and bitter news from the day before, he might need to drink the whole flagon.
He grabbed the flagon and poured himself a cup. "I wouldn't if I were you," a mocking voice whispered in his ear from behind him.
He was so startled he dropped the flagon and turned around as it crashed to the floor, spilling the wine on the carpet. But when he had turned there was no one there, only his shadow. He got up, looked around, the windows were all closed shut. I'm hallucinating from all the stress, and lack of sleep, he told himself.
After sitting back down and resting a moment he remembered the dropped flagon of wine and sighed. When he looked at it, he realized a terrible truth. The pool of wine staining into the carpet had a shade of purple to it, it should be light crimson: it was poisoned.
"Shit!" Duncan exclaimed, grabbing his cup and tossing it out. "Guards!" he shouted.
The guards posted outside his door came in immediately, hands on their swords.
"Go find Lord Gerald, and Lady Mira right away. Send out the word to every guard and servant that I want them in here. And above all make sure they don't eat or drink anything, got it?" He didn't wait for a response before shouting, "Go!"
"You still think this is the work of another?" Gerald asked after Duncan finished explaining the attempt to poison him.
"I'm not sure, it doesn't seem like them to try the same scheme twice," Duncan said.
"He's right, the Thorn's are too smart to try the exact same thing."
"Perhaps it was a Vine, trying to strangle us," Gerald suggested.
"The Vines serve the Thorns. If they're trying to strangle us then it's only a distraction," Mira said.
"Mira is right, I have an odd feeling that there's more to this, but I can't ignore the fact that this has the strategies of the Thorn's written all over it. They don't make large moves until the very end, though. Right now they're still trying to set up everything to fall in their favor. We need to root them out of court yet again, this time, more thoroughly; we can't let them slip through the cracks."
Duncan let out a long sigh. "One thing's for certain, though, we've grown far too complacent over the years. Whether it's the thorns, or some new players in this game, they're after us. So from now on we better be a hell of a lot more careful." His eyes moved over to Gerald as he finished.
Gerald understood, "I'm not the careless man I was before," he said affronted. "While the years here dulled my blade, they sharpened my mind. I can take care of myself, and now we know we're being targeted for assassination. We'll find them, we always do."
Gerald took his leave after that. And when he was gone Mira said, "What he says is true. Before he wouldn't have survived without me watching his back, some days I was tempted to leave him to his own carelessness. But he's proved his worth more times over than we ever expected of him."
Duncan was only half paying attention. And took some time to speak after Mira finished. "I don't believe the sorcerer is dead," he told her. "There was a whisper in my ear that saved me from the poisoned cup."
"That can't be, you said you killed him."
"Gerald ran his sword through him, but he disappeared. The terrifying part is we don't know the limitations of his power, in some way he could probably survive wounds ordinary mortal men couldn't. He did claim to be well over two-hundred years old."
"Okay let's say it is him, why would he save your life knowing you betrayed and tried to kill him?"
"To torment me perhaps? The men of the City Watch down there have had talks about sorcery going on around the city late at night. I couldn't get the details but my own man, Derren, he had an encounter with what he believed to be the work of sorcery, and he's more skeptic than either of us were."
Mira left soon after, when she got tired of talks about magics, and shadow tricks. Duncan took another look at his cup, despite the recent event he still wanted to drink an entire flagon of wine.