Nine

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The grasslands ahead of Ewen stretched on for miles. As the horses moved through the golden sea of grass, the riders could ride abreast. The openness of the plains made the threat of an ambush less and the mood was light as the men spoke and jested about the task ahead of them.

Ewen rode at the head, his most trusted men next to him. Their talk was less light however. It was necessary to plan a strategy to pass the section before the approach to the castle. The section that Freya had warned him of. On his last frantic ride to the east, in his attempt to save the Old King, Freya's father, Ewen had not paid much attention to that section. His thoughts more on the king and the smoke he could see from across the country. Today though, he knew that things were very different. He was now the King of the East and that made him a target for those who wanted his crown.

Ewen wondered how the Old King had managed his brothers ambitions. Perhaps blood was thicker than water after all. It did bother Ewen that the Duke had so publicly announced his intention to take Freya as his wife should Ewen be incapable of getting her with child. Although not unknown, it was not customary for an uncle to wed his niece. The closeness of blood made it unsafe but in this case there was also the significant age difference. Freya's father had been an old husband and even older father. His wife, Freya's mother was the sixteen year old daughter of a high ranking noble from the South. She had lived less than a year after their marriage, dying in the birthing of Freya. Ewen wondered again how life in that castle must have been for a young girl child. Her value as an heir lay only in her marriage and the production of a son to rule in her stead. For a brief second, Ewen wondered if she was with child already. He had certainly tried hard enough and it would strengthen his claim to the east significantly. At the same moment, he was also concerned for Freya if she was with child. Her small frame would struggle to bear a child easily and with a mother dead so young in childbirth, Ewen was concerned she might also die.

The shadows lengthened as Ewen and his men finally cleared the forest. Ahead in the failing light was the castle of the East.  It was strategically positioned at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the seas. Ewen was impressed with the original kings that had thought to place their seat so strategically. Although he also thought rather ruefully that the strategic position hadn't saved the Old King from the indignity of death in his own chambers.

Ewen halted his men. Although they could make the castle before night fall, he didn't want to negotiate the treacherous section that Freya had warned him of in the failing light. The Duke would not expect Ewen to camp that night and for that very reason Ewen would.

The new morning promised clear skies despite the icy bite in the air. The smoke of the campfires still hanging in the air as the men prepared for the day ahead. Within each group, Ewen had strategically placed his most skilled archers and swordsmen. When the ambush struck, Ewen planned to strike back. His men would appear outwardly complacent but there was a watchfulness about them that only Ewen could see.

The men continued towards the narrow section cheerfully. Most unaware of the trap ahead of them as they entered the narrow stretch before the final approach to the castle. Trying to keep his body relaxed, Ewen led his men deeper into the narrow ravine. He had an uncomfortable prickling in his back as he tried to ignore the narrowing path and prospect of what was inevitable.

The attack was as sudden as Ewen had anticipated. Fortunately his men were prepared and losses to his side were minimal. Although the ravine was narrow, Ewens strategy of having small groups of archers break off the main group and secretly following the path above the ravine had been successful. The Duke had lost many men that day. Trapped in the ravine with arrows from above and skilled swordsmen in the ravine, they had stood little chance.

As Ewen approached the Eastern Castle he looked up at the menacing turrets and towers. Even at midday, it was a cold castle with too many shadows. Forcing himself to sit more upright on his war horse, Ewen entered his castle at the head of a large group of men. His face expressionless as he was acknowledged by his cousin at the top of the main stairs and the men who filled the courtyard.

Ewen the Cold was the unrivalled King of both Kingdoms now and there was no man in that castle who was unaware of that fact.

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