The appearance of two platoons of villagers brought brief hope. I watched the platoons, mostly older men, troop in, still dressed in their tunics and pants. The nervous young captain, a parsnip farmer before he answered the muster, explained that they had no more young men and women. Most of them had left to join the border troops under Fazalur. He gathered all the older fathers and grandfathers because "it was only right". The rest of their women remained in their village, looking after frightened children and orphans.
Spring rains drizzled down. The siege machines had stopped. I knew they would start once more. Nevertheless, I trained the newer recruits in basic sword and spear drills. I watched them grapple clumsily at each other, holding their sticks awkwardly. They were painfully shy when it came to hand-to-hand combat. Their platoon mates were all their friends and neighbors who enjoyed a mug of home-brewed beer or cider in their village pub.
"Attack him," I yelled. "Pretend he's not your friend!"
It was not a laughing matter. These farmer-soldiers would be meeting Fazalur's men in combat. Their lack of experience frightened me.
It was almost dark when the lone horseman cantered up on a roan mare. Already on high alert, the palace guards and archers directed their aim at him. Notified by the captain of the palace guards, I hurried up to the parapet.
"HOLD," the horseman shouted. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. The voice was familiar. Cloaked in black robes and wearing a dark surcoat, the horseman calmed his uneasy mare.
"This is not the way how to treat a former King's Champion," his voice - oh his voice! - was commanding, confident. A warrior's voice. I had to steady myself. My knees were suddenly water.
"Let him in," I snarled at the palace guards. They obeyed quickly. The fortified doors groaned open.
I walked down slowly, forcing myself not to greet him like an excited little girl. I wasn't sure how we would speak to one another cordially after I left him. I had walked out, righteously angry and prideful. Watching him dismount from the roan, I wavered.
"My Lady Morgan," Vanyel lowered the hood and glanced around the courtyard, taking everything in. "Well met." His eyes stared right into me.
"Sir," I bowed slightly.
I heard a door slam open and Lisbet's voice rang across the evening air: "Lord Vanyel, about damned time."
Dinner, as expected, was akin to walking on a bed of thorns and egg shells. Lisbet was painfully polite while Vanyel sipped his pea and ham soup like any courtier. He spoke carefully, his words measured. I hadn't seen this side of him. I sat in their middle, focusing on my meal.
I simply wished dinner would be over soon. Retreating back to my own room and cold sheets, away from them, was an immense relief.