Declarations – an excerpt from The Bride of War

Chapter 14: Declarations

By the time the girls had returned to the house, the sun was setting in the west. They carefully hid the contents of the sack beneath Cassandra’s bed, and placed the flour in the pantry. Afterwards, Leanna helped Cassandra wash away the muck and dress in dry, warm clothes. They then sat alone in the kitchen for a quiet dinner. They spoke in quiet voices, and talked about the events of the day as if they were talking about doing their chores. Both tried hard to conceal their agitation and fear, but they knew each other well enough to see through the well-meant deception. Every once in a while, they would catch each other’s eye, and would knowingly smile or laugh nervously at the pretense.

Fearing that Cassandra’s mother was too busy to return for dinner, the girls prepared a meal to take to her, and dressed to return into the snowy night. The Flower Court was decorated beautifully, but almost no one had remained behind. They were all to be found at the Aachen Arms Tavern, which had been prepared for the reception of the brave warriors from the north.

Finding her mother still supervising arrangements, Cassandra and Leanna found themselves put to work, bringing food and drink from the kitchen. The mercenaries arrived in full armour, which they had at least taken pains to polish and straighten up for the feast.

Cassandra’s heart raced wildly when she spied Deiter, watching the people of Aachen with a smug expression of disdain on his face. When he spotted her through the doorway to the kitchen, he actually dared to leer at her with an air of dark bemusement laced with barely concealed menace. She turned away quickly, finding sweet Leanna standing by her, reaching to take her arm and lead her away from the door.

At her father’s order, Jakob Brandt appeared in the doorway and signaled to Amelia. He too could scarcely resist the urge to leer at both Cassandra and Leanna, who feigned lack of concern and went about preparing to carry food to the seated guests. Cassandra carefully avoided eye contact with the mercenaries while serving, except the one called Gunter, who appeared to be their leader. She was relieved to have villagers of Aachen to serve as well, for even the worst of these would never dream of harming her, including the members of the Gentlemen’s Circle.

Her mother served her father and the mayor, as well as Jakob Brandt, whose plate she had deliberately taken from Leanna to serve herself. Catching her mother’s knowing glances, it occurred to Cassandra that perhaps her mother had noticed his expression in the doorway, and read enough in it to suspect more than the girls had intimated to her before tonight. One of the other wives had the dubious pleasure of serving Deiter, whose eyes kept seeking out Cassandra in the nearly filled room. This too she felt certain had been arranged by her mother, who had clearly picked up that something was amiss there as well. Cassandra feared that she would have much explaining to do later, and worried that she might have to lie to protect her secrets.

Other villagers sat at regular tables lining the walls on either side of the long table, which stretched up the center of the room. Normally, the long table sat in storage beneath the floor along one wall. It wasn’t often that such gatherings were called, but Theodore prided himself on being a fine host. For their part, and aside from the disparaging looks from Deiter, the mercenaries proved themselves to be charming dinner guests, often sharing pleasantries and jests about northern lords they’d had the dubious privilege of dining with, whom it seemed had not been so hospitable as Aachen.

Despite her nervousness, Cassandra found herself relaxing and settling into the role of server, which in a way took her mind from her mounting fears. Her mother seemed to have intuited that this was the case, and so kept her working rather than give her special treatment. For this she was thankful, and even stopped her mother in passing to embrace and kiss her cheek, which quite surprised a few onlookers. Her mother smiled fondly and bustled off to continue her work, but smiled more often throughout the rest of the night.

At the top of the festivities, her father stood at the head of the table, and nodding politely to the mayor, called for the attention of the room.

“On behalf of Mayor Wenzel, who is enjoying his dinner, and the people of Aachen, whom I hope are enjoying theirs, I would like to extend my thanks and appreciation to Günter Eberhard and the brave warriors of the Jarlskind Clan of Sekandia. It is my deepest hope that these men will help to usher in an age of peace and prosperity, and end our ages old heartache. When the Dragon is at last expunged from the Cloven Lands, we will finally be free to start a new chapter in Aachen’s history. We will be able to build and to increase trade and to rise above the station that the Old Empire has felt content to relegate us to. We have been left to suffer in silence for far too long. Long has our land been regarded by our neighbours as a quaint throwback to a time of superstition and weakness. With the Dragon gone, we will be able to start anew, and show the world an Aachen proud and strong once more.”

“As is the despised tradition of this ancient and foul ritual, on the morn following tomorrow, my own beloved Cassandra is slated to go into the hills with the Dragon’s Manservant, the so-called Sir Martin Gorman of Bohmen. Many here have heard me speak volumes of the character and merits of this imperial lackey, and it is my great pleasure to announce that, along with this odious practice, his services will no longer be required either. Following the execution of the Dragon, Martin will be invited to leave the Cloven Lands, by force if necessary. Should any choose to defend his honour, they too will be invited to leave.”

“No, father!” The whole room turned to face Cassandra, standing just outside the door to the kitchen. Her mother moved to stop her, but Cassandra walked into the room and continued, “You must stop this madness before you bring ruination down upon us all.”

Theodore’s face grew red, but he smiled broadly and called out for the whole room to hear, “Daughter, have you so lost faith in your own father’s ability to know what is best for you?”

“I trust you to do what you deem necessary to remake Aachen in your image. At first I thought you did this to save me, but I detect a hunger in your eyes that I failed to see there before. But it has always been there, has it not? You crave power, and you intend to use these men to give you that power at any cost.”

“Silence, girl! You will not speak to me in this manner, here or anywhere! I am your father, and you will respect my wishes!” Theodore’s rage was growing, and Cassandra knew she was putting herself in danger. Somehow, the words wouldn’t stop coming out of her mouth.

“No!” she retorted. “You are not King of Aachen yet, father! Your only concern is that Aachen should see you as its new protector and leader. You seek to drive out Martin and any man who will stand by him, because they uphold the laws that protect us. Laws that keep you from controlling this land. Martin has never been anything but a loyal and trusted servant of the people of Aachen. You claim to do all of this for Aachen, and for me, but I can see what you are really doing here.”

She turned to the people of the room and cried out, “Can you not see what he is doing? Do you not understand that he will destroy everything you hold dear, all so that he can hold sway in these lands and place himself above you all, above any who would keep him from ruling here? You must see it! You must stop this before death comes to us all!”

Amelia hissed from behind her, but already, a few of the townsmen had risen from their seats at Theodore’s gesture. Cassandra started to run, but Jakob was standing nearby and caught her up in his bony arms. His strength surprised her, even as the chilling smile on his face filled her with revulsion and fear. As the men took hold of her and dragged her toward her father, Theodore quietly commanded, “Take her up to my office and lock her in tight. We cannot have her betraying our cause by warning Martin before the deed is done. He might yet find some way to ruin everything.”

The room was abuzz with the hushed voices of upset men and women, as her father’s men carried Cassandra’s flailing body up the stairs along the far side of the tavern. She cried out to Leanna, but the girl had already disappeared into the kitchen and out the back door into the night. Theodore ordered Jakob and a couple of other men to find the girl, but it was dark in the streets of Aachen, and they didn’t know where the girl had gone. Tense moments passed while Theodore called the room to order, but after searching up and down all of the main streets, the men returned to report that they knew not where the girl had gone.

“She has probably gone to warn Martin. If he is fool enough to come here and try to stop us, I will deal with him,” Theodore replied plainly. “Go wait for her outside of Martin’s room at the Widow’s place. If he is not there, she will soon give up waiting and return to free Cassandra. Stay out of sight and bring her to me when she does. If Martin is with her, let them both come, but follow behind. Soon the girl will join my daughter upstairs, and Martin will join his forebears underground.”

The Bride of War

© Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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