A Beginning (Part 1)

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I swear fealty to you, and to the crown and country of Deusetats. I take your friends as my friends, and your enemies as my enemies.

The words ran through Philomena's mind. Her heart rattled around her chest. Near the great double doors that led into the throne room, she could just see Tancred's brown hair. Holle stood near her. She was wearing a gold filigree coronet and a red velvet cloak trimmed with ermine. Her hair was brushed loose and shining down her back. She stood to one side, an empty place beside her. Where Rainhart ought to be.

I swear fealty to you...

As if it were a thought someone else had planted in her mind, Philomena remembered standing on a stool while seamstresses swarmed around her tutting about the rush, and how could they be expected to produce gowns fit for a coronation with two days' notice? But here stood Philomena, in her white gown trimmed with pearls, her ermine and red velvet cloak. Tancred's new steward had taken them through the steps of the ceremony the previous day. The hall would be full of the nobility; the galleries crowded with common folk who had been fortunate enough to be invited.

At Tancred's signal, a fanfare would sound. The doors would be thrown open, and Tancred would lead the barons into the throne room. And then...

I take your friends as my friends...

Forcing air into her lungs, Philomena smoothed the front of her dress. She had never expected Tancred would ask this of her. That he would put this kind of trust in a common Alysine girl who had stumbled into the company of royalty. She had thought she might be allowed to become a priestess and serve at a temple near the Darkwood.

"Your highness, my lady, please take your places."

Instead of speaking, Philomena squeaked. Holle turned around. "Nervous, sweet Mena?" she said. Her hand curled around Valdon's cane, and blocked her mind from Philomena's. The rubies on her fingers sparkled. 

Philomena nodded. Holle would needle her whether she admitted it or not.

"You'll get used to all this nonsense," said the princess. "Come on."

The great double doors were thrown open, and Philomena heard the fanfare. In front of them, the barons began to make their way into the throne room. Soon the room was empty except for Holle and Philomena, and the attendants. The double doors remained open. Philomena half-heard the words being spoken by Tancred as Baron of Reuz and king of the Teuta, and by Griselde, who had been chosen lesser queen of the Cimbra.

Philomena, Tancred had said the evening of the day Rainhart left for Jovan, it is time we continued our conversation about your future. You said you would like to guard the Darkwood. I agree wholeheartedly. But I wonder--do you understand what that would mean?

"The Moot of Barons calls Lady Philomena Sylvanus Alysius to the throne room," said Tancred.

Philomena stood stock still. I swear fealty to you, and to the crown and country of Deusetats.

"Mena, it's time for you to go," said Holle. Philomena jumped as the end of Valdon's cane dug into her ribs. "I'll be right behind you."

One foot in front of the other. It was easy enough to do. Of course she wouldn't forget the words of the oath. I swear... I swear... Her mind went blank.

Somehow, she found herself standing in front of the barons. They were in two rows, looming above her. Their expressions were solemn. Some were sullen. They accepted her presence in the throne room, but they did not welcome it. She fixed her attention on Tancred.

"Lady Philomena Sylvanus Alysius, the Moot of the Barons of Deusetats has elected you Baroness of Traumwald, and mistress of all the lands within that demesne." He paused, smiled. "We charge you to protect and nurture your domain, honour our laws, customs and beliefs, and to take up arms without hesitation if Deusetats is threatened. We offer you this solemn responsibility. Do you--"

Tancred stuttered into silence, looking over Philomena's shoulder. A frown flashed across his face, and Philomena turned to see what had caused this reaction.

There, by the door, stood a man in muddy riding leathers, his gloves clasped in one hand.

Rainhart bowed. "Your majesty," he said.

"We haven't reached that part yet, Prince Rainhart," said Tancred in a tightly controlled tone.

Rainhart bowed again. He met Philomena's eyes for a moment, avidly searching her face. Then he nodded and stepped to the side, next to Holle.

Tancred cleared his throat. The frown on his brow didn't lighten. "Do you accept?" he said to Philomena.

The constriction in Philomena's throat eased. She could feel Rainhart's gaze, and it warmed her to her core. Tancred looked furious, and she didn't know what Rainhart had said or done to Lord Cassius, but now she would have a few more moments with Rainhart. She would be able to tell him what had been in her heart since they had parted.

"I accept," she replied, and her voice seemed strong and steady in her ears.

"Then Baroness Philomena Sylvanus of Traumwald, I invite you to join your peers."

Tancred moved to one side, and Philomena slotted herself in beside him. She found Rainhart again in the crowd. Would he think that Tancred had promised her Traumwald before he asked her to send Rainhart away? She'd had no idea Tancred planned this, that the concessions he had made to the barons and to Merot had been so that he could put her in Traumwald, charge her with protecting the Darkwood and give her the power to do so.

She could feel the way the barons leaned away from her, as if they wished to leave the group that she was now part of. Ruling Traumwald would be no easy task.

"Now," said Griselde, "there is the matter of the kingship. It is the will of the Kingmoot that Tancred Ansgar of Reuz be crowned King of Deusetats for a period of five years, at the end of which, the Kingmoot will reconvene to consider the question of kingship once again. I now ask each member of the Kingmoot to affirm the legitimate claim that Tancred Ansgar has laid to the throne." 

One by one the barons said, "I so affirm and declare it." When it was Philomena's turn, she found her voice and was rewarded by a warm smile from Tancred.

"Then it is done," said Griselde. "Long live King Tancred."

"Long live King Tancred!" The words bounced around the room. Philomena followed Griselde to one side, and found herself standing opposite Rainhart. She raised her eyebrows at him. He should be halfway to Jovan.

He gave her a rueful smile, and she couldn't help smiling back.

Tancred ascended the dais and the High Priestess came forward to perform the coronation. She said some ritual words, which Tancred answered in a calm, commanding voice. She took the crown from a cushion held by an attendant and laid it on his brow. Tancred bowed his head under its weight for a moment, then straightened.

Then it was time for the nobles to declare their loyalty. Philomena watched as Holle and Rainhart went forward. They spoke the words, and bowed their head to receive Tancred's blessing. Tancred leaned very close to Rainhart, and they had a brisk, low-voiced conversation. When Rainhart stepped away, Tancred's expression had transformed from a scowl to faint, wry amusement. 

When it was Philomena's turn, she knelt on the first step of the dais and bowed her head. "I swear fealty to you, and to the crown and country of Deusetats. I take your friends as my friends, and your enemies as my enemies. I have no lord above you, and take no man's word above yours. You are my sovereign and my liege. I am yours to command."

She felt Tancred's hand come to rest on the back of her head. "I accept your oath with gratitude, Baroness Philomena Sylvanus of Traumwald," he said.

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