It began with a visit from the Lord of Letters. He was a god, modestly garbed with worn-thin sandals from his endless travels. He was not a powerful god, but he was necessary.
The great halls of Balor were one of his last visits. We were a city-state of the Valyran Empire. And our great halls were not so great as befits its Queen. We were a petty Kingdom, with a timbered, low-ceilinged hall that housed more cobwebs than men.
But the Lord of Letters visited us all the same. We had been expecting him for weeks, after word spread of his visits to Valyra’s highest Kings and Queens.
He had unrolled his parchment, dusted it off and read it as loud as trumpets. “The gods command you send your fleets to the Eldish Empire!”
“We’ve only one ship,” said the Queen of Balor. The Lord of Letters did not seem to hear her.
“The High Queen Maev’s daughter and riches have been taken! You are commanded to dispatch your forces to Eld and join the cause against its Empire!”
“We’ve heard—” Others had said their message stopped there, but the Lord of Letters continued. “The Lord of Waves sends his favor, and will grant you safe and swift passage—on the condition the Queen send her daughter in her stead.” Then he rolled up his parchment and walked out of the hall, sandaled feet slapping the floor.
I never said he delivered long messages. Only important ones.
Not everyone called their banners. For Eld and Morgad had been building their empires for centuries. Our forces were so evenly matched that there were whispers that even the gods were divided on which side should be taken. I remember one man swearing he saw the Lord of Letters after we set sail, his worn-down sandals keeping him afloat across the expanse toward Eld to deliver a notice to begin their defenses.
Some Kings and Queens wished to stay out of the conflict, or found better chances in the Eldish cause.
Nevertheless, ours was an army the likes of which the world will never see again. Kings and Queens across Morgad came with an army at their backs.
Balor had listened to the Lord of Waves—for it was a generous offer and a great risk to deny her. So she sent Lordess Théa in her stead, who chose me as her shieldmaiden. We had been friends since childhood. We knew each other well.
Too well, maybe.
Eld’s walls were far inland, though you could see them from the beaches if you didn’t mistake it for the skyline.
We beached on Eld with a few other small fleets and gathered our soldiers together to join with what men and women of Morgad had already arrived.
Many of the High Kings and Queens had access to better shipwrights or materials. We did not all arrive in a cluster. We came ashore to find three large, timbered longhouses ready for the Morgad’s armies; made partially from some of the longboats in the High Kings’ and Queens’ fleets.
“That seems a poor choice,” I had told Théa.
“Nonsense, love,” she told me, arching an eyebrow like a bowstring drawn taut. “Do you think we’ll be leaving Eld with all of our forces?”
“How many longboats did it take to make all this?” I had to arch my neck to see the roof as we came into its shade.
Théa didn’t smile. “We have a long war ahead of us.”
The High Queen, Maev, hosted a feast for us newcomers, though it was a scant one with strips of meat thin as tree bark dripping with pink juice. Théa insisted I sit with her on the dais with the rest of the Kings and Queens.
“My Lady, I do not belong there,” I said. “That dais is for Kings and Queens and men and women of status.”
“Are you not my shieldmaiden? You’re my right hand, Fitz.”
I bowed my head. “As you say, my Lady. But I am also a bastard. My name itself will remind your company that I do not belong there.”
She seized me by the back of the head and pulled my forehead toward hers. “Then we will watch them cast their scornful glances, and when their tongues turn leaden on the name of my personal shieldmaiden it will be our turn to glare.”
And so, we did. If ever there was a moment I was glad to be a bastard, it was when I watched Kings and Queens trip over their tongues trying to say my name or address me.
Queen Maev cast the most glances. I was grateful she did not acknowledge my presence, for it would not do to upset the High Queen of Morgad.
Well into the night, after the halls were clearing, Théa had a red-brown trunk brought to her. Even Maev had heard of the petty-Lordess’s red-brown trunk. It was adorned with no locks and the wood was inlaid with no scrollwork. But it was said that the lid was heavy—like the ocean rested on top of it.
Théa lifted it without any trouble. I watched Maev as she opened it. To her credit, she kept her face almost implacable. The surprise on her face was there and gone quick as a candle-flicker.
Théa produced the trunks contents—a small thing, wrapped in white linen that made a tingly sound when she touched it. She poured herself into the task of unraveling it, savoring the reveal of her lyre. The headstocks wound or unwound, tuning itself, and she played a song about the daughter of the Lord of Waves, said to have to choices in all of life’s offers: one would lead her down a path of peace and long life, to be quietly forgotten—while the other lead to a path of war and a young death, upon which she would become a legend remembered for all time.
She played her lyre like it was a stage; and the strings were her dancers; pirouetting and singing their notes.
Fingers of moonlight filtered through the longhouse, striping Maev’s face as she watched Théa play. I lost track of time listening to her music tell its tale. But when the last echoes faded there seemed an emptiness that stayed with us.
All eyes went to tight-lipped Queen Maev, gauging her response. It was now the Queen’s turn to hold all breath stoppered.
Unsmilingly, she began clapping, never breaking her gaze from me. Slowly, the rest of the hall followed her applause.
She wrung it at the neck when she spoke. “Kings and Queens—to me, she called. All others leave immediately. I do not care how high or low your station is. I would like to be alone with our Empire’s rulers.
Théa and I lodged in the smallest longhouse in between the tallest and widest and one slightly skinnier. We’d been gifted a bed smothered in animal hides. It was there that I awaited her return. It was almost dawn when she entered.
I threw my arms around her and she stumbled back, laughing. “Beloved! What news from the council?”
She squeezed a little tighter and then let go and began helping her out of her armor. “She had few kind words for me, Fitz. She said I offered her great insult today. That I was given an honor to sit amongst such great Kings and Queens. She said she did not like having her kindness returned by seating a bastard at her table.” She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “They were her words—I’m sorry.”
When she’d on only her tunic I sat her down on the bed and took her hands in mine. “For what?”
“For saying her words. I shouldn’t have repeated them.” She lowered her head.
I pinched her chin between thumb and forefinger and tilted her head up. “Would that I could know myself what they say about me. Since I cannot, I would have you tell me. I’m not upset. Did she say anything else?”
“She has her doubts of me. Others seemed to agree. High King Elias even said most of the council were rulers of empires and great cities. But not only was I a mere Lordess, my Mother is but the ruler of barren rock and infertile soil. They called her the—the—” Her thoughts seemed as frenzied as a bag of wet cats, so I finished for her:
“The Queen of Goats.”
“Bastards tends to have ears in dirties places than Lords or Lordesses—or at least tend to hear things their spies aren’t like to report to them.” I grabbed a fistful of her tunic and pushed her back onto the bed. “That said—” I leaned over her “—They seem to forget about your Father’s rule.”
Théa’s eyebrows cut into a V shape. “They know all too well.” She spoke as if bringing him up imbued her with his authority. “They’re wise not to name him. That would draw his attention. And I doubt they want him joining the Eldish cause and taking his daughter with him.”
“Why don’t you do that?”
She shrugged. “Because that’s the wrong path.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. But we’ve time enough to discuss this tomorrow.” She clasped her hands together around the back of my neck. “Shall we turn out the light?” She nodded to a candle, grinning.
“I’d like that,” I said. “I’d like that very much.”
Théa was wrong—though neither of us new this at the time. We had no time to discuss Queen Maev’s wroth the next day—nor the day after that. For some time in the night some of the gods decided to intervene on the Eldish side.