Two: Among Beggars and Thieves
Rhydan Ver Meldroc, King of Kennor, watched another snowfall and sank into dread. He stood inside the glass door of his rooms, watching the snow pile up on the balcony outside. Watching it bury his city and his kingdom in another blanket of frozen death. Almost daily for two weeks. Or was it longer? It was hard to tell. The cold never abated and the sky was constantly overcast. The days ran together, and the snow just kept falling. Some days it came light, a few flakes here and there, while other days it roared in from the northwest in gales, a Winterdusk blizzard come early and too frequently. Barely into autumn and the snow is two feet deep, he thought. Gods, what is happening? In his forty-five years he’d never seen such an early or severe winter. Rhydan heard the door behind him click shut and braced himself for more bad news. It was getting darker outside, the sun sinking behind a veil of gray. The temperature would plunge again in another hour.
The king caught sight of himself in the thick glass, a distorted reflection from the uneven candlelight behind him. He was a tall man, powerfully built with a broad chest and shoulders. He had a body more suited to fighting than ruling and a chiseled face that wore a permanent scowl. He ran his fingers through his beard, long and thick and black. I should shave, he thought idly. And a haircut wouldn’t kill me. He was distracting himself, pondering his reflection rather than facing whatever walked through the door. Still, Jentha, his queen, would appreciate the effort if he groomed himself.
“My lord,” Dariel said, still waiting just inside the doorway. Rhydan shook his head and turned to face the man. Dariel Ver Kadsun was a distant cousin and showed some resemblance. He was nearly as tall as Rhydan and larger in the chest. His bare arms were thickly muscled. Dariel had the coppery skin native to Kennor and the dark hair of Rhydan’s blood, though it was close cropped, and he wore no facial hair. Dariel saluted as his king turned to face him, fist over heart, bowing at the waist.
“What is it, Dariel?” Rhydan asked. “You’re interrupting my miserable evening.”
“I’m sorry, my lord,” Dariel said. All business. Always so serious. Dariel was a good man and a great fighter. He was Rhydan’s personal bodyguard and captain of his own squad, but gods above he was as straight-faced a man as ever lived. “I have the last of the day’s reports from the city.”
Rhydan waved toward another door in his suite, the one that led into his office. “Leave them on my desk with the others. I have a meeting first thing in the morning with my councilors to discuss what we’re going to do.” He doubted the meeting would be successful, but it was his duty. There was a stack of reports to read through before bed, each of them more dire than the last. People loathed paying taxes to the crown, but the first hint of early winter had them clamoring for him to tear down the sky and reprimand the gods themselves.
“Yes, my lord,” Dariel said. He strode into the office and emerged a moment later empty-handed. Rhydan thought about going back to his musing, staring out into the deepening dark, but halted himself when Dariel hesitated by the door and turned back around. “May I ask you a question, my lord?”
“You just did,” Rhydan said. Dariel gave him a puzzled look and Rhydan coughed to cover up a laugh at the poor man’s expense. Serious and without a hint of humor. “I suppose you may ask another.”
“Are we doomed?” Rhydan stared at the man, gauging his face but no, he wasn’t joking. It was an earnest question. How should I know? He thought. What a ridiculous thing to ask anyone.
“What do you mean?” Rhydan asked. Dariel winced under his king’s scrutiny, which gave Rhydan a small, sadistic bit of satisfaction. It was probably cruel, but it felt good. Dariel was a grown man, nearly twenty-two, and far from stupid. He must be very worried, Rhydan realized.
“I don’t really know,” Dariel said. “I’ve just never seen winter come so early and with the crop situation I don’t know how we’ll get through.”
“Have a seat, son,” Rhydan said. He gestured toward a cluster of chairs in the sitting room. It was the largest room in his suite, but the least utilized. He entertained very few private visitors. Dariel chose one, sitting stiffly with his hands clasped in his lap, and Rhydan sat down opposite him. The chairs were mostly decorative, and not remotely comfortable, but it was better than venturing into his crowded, cluttered office and staring at that stack of reports. “Winters come and go,” he said. “This one came early, it will likely leave early. Some are harder than others. Here in the city, we’ll be fine. It’s the people out in the countryside we need to consider. Small farms that subsist only on what they can grow or hunt, craftsmen who trade their goods for food and firewood. We’re the lucky ones in this. So no, we aren’t doomed. But we are going to have to be responsible to those who are facing much greater challenges.”
“What can I do?” Dariel asked. He’d relaxed visibly, but now he seemed genuinely enthusiastic. “How can I help the people?”
“Do your job,” Rhydan said. “Let me worry about the people of my kingdom.” Truthfully, he was very worried. Reports from much of Kennor indicated that the year’s harvest was poor and a significant portion of it was now frozen. There were food stores in some of the larger towns and villages, but they wouldn’t be sufficient if the winter didn’t let up. Kennor wasn’t one of the larger kingdoms in the world. Auroth to the east was much larger and the Shandar Empire dwarfed Kennor almost three times over. Polith was smaller, but they had strong ties and allies. Kennor had few allies to call upon. Situated between the Va’mel River on the east, the Gan-Kanar River in the west and the Gold Sea in the south, Kennor was practically an island. The land was fertile, but bad years happened, and this year was a particularly poor one.
“I will, my lord,” Dariel said. “And if there’s anything else you need, I am here.”
“Thank you,” Rhydan said. “What I really need tonight is to rest. I have some difficult things to work on tomorrow. Why don’t you get some sleep?” Dariel bowed again and left him alone with his thoughts. Rhydan felt better for having reassured the younger man. One of the nice things about being king was that when you told someone everything would be fine, they rarely questioned you. Unfortunately, it was also up to him to make everything fine. He didn’t have the slightest clue how he would go about doing that. Food and shelter come first, he thought. Sighing, he left the sitting room and went to his office, pulling his thick, blue robe around himself against the chill. In Polith, or so he’d heard, there were huge copper pipes being built into the castle walls that pumped heated water and kept the place warm without need for hearths. It sounded like magic to Rhydan, but magic was long gone from the world. If anyone could build such contraptions from mundane materials, it was the Polithi. He considered sending to them for aid but discarded the idea as quickly as it came. Polith was an island, a true island. It was large as islands went, but the terrain was rocky and unsuited to farming. As it was, they imported most of their food from the mainland. With the current winter, Rhydan doubted very much they had any aid to spare.
His office was a small, cramped space. It was carpeted in deep, lush violet and his desk of fine dark wood occupied most of the room. A few shelves for books and ledgers made the already small room feel even smaller. Rhydan liked it that way. Some men needed to move to be productive, pacing and taking up more space than a single man could occupy. Rhydan liked to be still. The pressure of a small room, enclosed and shut away from the world, helped him to focus. The desk was neat, save for a stack of reports and notes from his aides that was leaning haphazardly. A second stack, folded and neat, reports he’d already scanned and set aside, was waiting to be burned. I should recycle those, he thought, seating himself. Write on the back sides to conserve paper. He didn’t care for waste. A small kingdom needed to use every asset at its disposal. He began perusing the new reports, absent-mindedly chewing his lower lip.
In the northern parts of Kennor the reports were frightful, but likely exaggerated. No food stores, livestock would starve or freeze without enough to eat and adequate shelter from the early cold. Send up a few squads to help constructing shelter, he wrote in the margin, then added, and an auditor to see what they actually have stored. Central Kennor was better off. The area closest to the capitol was good for farming and he’d had some good news about early harvests. Recruit able-bodied men into a temporary militia to help patrol the area and keep banditry down. Offer monetary rewards for successful hunting of wild game to bolster our supplies. Southern Kennor, where the two river deltas made his lands marshy and fertile was even more encouraging. They had snow and cold, though it was less intense further south, and the Oldibar Peninsula, which jutted out into the Gold Sea, was having a ...