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Betrayal, war, and the risks of loyalty collide in the epic conclusion of the First Argentines series by the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Lady’s Ransom.
Ransom Barton has served three Argentine kings. The new successor to the throne is the ruthless Jon-Landon, a fallible strategist when it comes to war. After losing against the Occitanian armies, the king forces Ransom to bear the blame and removes him from the council. But Jon-Landon isn’t yet through with humbling the honorable knight of Ceredigion.
When a retaliatory battle succeeds, Jon-Landon invites Ransom back into his circle. Though Ransom’s Fountain magic is made stronger by his fealty, he’s once again forced to make a terrible choice. And this time, Ransom’s wife, Claire, and their sons could pay the price for Ransom’s loyalty.
But as tensions between Ceredigion and Occitania reignite and alliances at court begin to crumble, a desperate Jon-Landon discovers his only ally is the knight he betrayed. With the future of Kingfountain hanging in the balance, Ransom agrees to help. And as secret enemies reveal their endgame, Ransom knows that he may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for the survival of the Argentine dynasty.
Release date: January 4, 2022
Print pages: 455
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* * *
There’s a saying in the Fair Isle—“May the dreams you hold dearest be those that come true.” Yet it’s my nightmares that haunt me and fill me with dread. I slept poorly last night, for in my sleep I was again a prisoner in the queen’s tower in Kingfountain. And Jon-Landon, the prince, kept coming and trying to woo me. In the strange way of dreams, I knew I was married to Ransom, only I was not. Jon-Landon kept pressing me to accept him, to make him lord of Legault. And when I refused, he became angrier and more demanding, until I hurled myself from the tower window. I woke before hitting the stones.
It was a loathsome dream, and the dread of it worried in my stomach all day long. Now, at dusk, I gaze out the window of Connaught castle, wondering when Ransom will be home again. He’s fighting a war with King Benedict, trying to reclaim the lands we have lost to the Occitanians, whose hunger for broadening their empire has brought so much pain to our people. Benedict is laying siege to Tatton Grange, and Ransom is trying to retake Josselin castle. Duke Kiskaddon is playing the scourge, ravaging the Occitanians’ fields and lands.
I’m grateful it was only a dream. I’m grateful that Benedict became king and not the youngest Argentine. It would be a disaster if Jon-Landon ever wore the hollow crown.
—Claire de Murrow, Queen of Legault
A Midsummer’s Eve
* * *
The Wizr Board
The stench of smoke choked the air, and the hiss of crossbow bolts came like the drone of angry bees. Ransom Barton gazed at the walls of Josselin castle—his castle—and felt anger burn inside him. The Occitanians’ garrison was formidable, and each attack that day had been repulsed. It was a strategic castle, along the western border shared by Ceredigion, Occitania, and Brythonica. Seeing a banner with the Fleur-de-Lis hanging from the castle made him want to rip it down and burn it.
He stood solemnly, sweating beneath his armor on the hot summer day, watching as his men continued to lash together another siege ladder in preparation for the next assault. Crossbowmen lined the walls, taking aim and loosing arrows down on Ransom’s soldiers, who had built pickets to protect themselves. Occasionally a shaft made it through and injured one of the men.
A rider came into the camp carrying a shield with the emblem of Prince Jon-Landon: three lions atop each other, the tallest on the top of the shield and the smallest on the bottom. It was a variation of King Benedict’s standard of a single lion. Ransom had heard it said, in jest, that Jon-Landon had chosen three lions to represent himself and his two elder brothers. Privately, he suspected Jon-Landon had chosen three because Benedict had only chosen one.
“Where is Lord Ransom?” asked the newcomer with the shield.
“Over there,” answered one of Ransom’s men, pointing. “And get off your charger before you get shot at, you fool!”
Even as the words were spoken, a bolt whooshed past them and struck a nearby tree with a resounding thud. The knight dismounted without any haste, seemingly unaware or unaffected by the danger, and then walked over to where Ransom stood observing the castle from within the shelter of the trees.
“My lord duke,” said the knight. “My name is Captain Faulkes.”
Ransom had heard of the man. He was Jon-Landon’s battle captain, the knight Benedict had assigned to keep Jon-Landon from getting himself killed in battle. A royal bodyguard. He looked too young for the job, for he was surely younger than Ransom, but then, age was not always a quantifier of ability.
“Why aren’t you at the siege of Averanche?” Ransom asked the knight.
“It’s all smoke and fire. They’re keeping us within the walls. I’d rather be here where the real fighting is,” said Faulkes, putting his gauntleted hands on his hips. “The prince asks you to send a hundred men to join him in retaking the castle.”
“I don’t have a hundred men to spare,” Ransom said with a snort. “Did he ask the king for more men?”
“He did not,” Faulkes said with a tired look. “For he knew the answer would be no. The king needs all he has to retake Tatton Grange.”
“Just as I need all I have,” Ransom said. “We don’t have the funds Estian does. We can’t hire mercenaries to join our ranks.”
“Pity the ransom we paid was so high,” Faulkes said, giving Ransom an accusatory look.
Ransom had negotiated the release of the king from his imprisonment in the Wartburg in Brugia. The amount was higher than any ransom that had previously been paid by any king. A hundred and fifty thousand livres. Some of the money had come to them as a windfall, but the rest had come directly from their coffers and put them sorely in debt.
“I don’t have a hundred men to spare,” Ransom said, ignoring the jab. “If the king bid me, I would find a way to do it, but I have a hard enough task as it is. We’re about to make another run at the castle.”
“Can I help?” Faulkes asked, gazing at the castle. “I’m in no hurry to go back. Especially knowing the answer will displease the prince.”
Dawson, part of Ransom’s mesnie, came up to him. “The ladders are all ready, my lord.”
“Looks like I came at the right time,” Faulkes said. “I’ll tie up my horse and join the fight.”
“As you will,” Ransom said, although the man’s attitude didn’t impress him. If Ransom had been serving Jon-Landon, he would have returned with the news as soon as possible.
Ransom gave the order to prepare for the assault. Knights with broad shields prepared to lead the way, followed by those bearing long ladders with smaller shields perched atop. They’d be under a torrent of crossbow fire as they arranged them at the base of the wall.
On the cusp of the attack, Ransom found himself thinking of his wife, Claire, and his family in Legault. He felt a throb of longing to be with them instead of fighting the king’s wars, but it was Benedict who’d allowed him to marry Claire, and he owed him everything, including his rank as Duke of Glosstyr. Loyalty bound him to do his king’s bidding.
When the men were ready, Ransom gave the order to attack, and the three crews hastened out of the cover of the woods. The soldiers guarding the pickets had been alerted and quickly removed sections of the fencing so the crews could charge past them and throw the ladders up in three different places. Cries of alarm rose from the castle walls, and the defenders began to rally. Ransom watched in consternation as black shafts began to rain down on his men, clattering against shields and armor. But some found weak spots, the vulnerable gaps in the armor.
Ransom observed fitfully as his men charged toward the wall, the advance led by Dawson and others he trusted. He had deliberately resisted using trebuchets, both because he didn’t want to reduce his own castle to rubble and because the king needed them at Averanche and Tatton Grange. Cries of pain and shouted curses came from Ransom’s men as they jogged ahead under the onslaught.
He saw the first ladder clack against the wall as the knights began to position it. Once it was set, some began to scrabble up the length to reach the defenders atop the wall. He knew Dawson would be in the forefront, even though it was the most dangerous part of the charge. The young man was occasionally too brash for his own good, but Ransom admired his pluck and courage.
The second ladder went up and then the third. As Ransom watched, clenching his fist and tapping it against the tree trunk, he saw several Occitanians appear with long spears and hooks. One of them managed to snag the edge of a ladder and then shoved it backward, the weight it supported dragging it down. Ransom’s mind went black with rage as he heard the groans from the impact. The soldiers at the pickets rose to get a better look, the anguish they felt obvious at any distance.
Ransom backed away from the tree and then whistled to get Captain Baldwin’s attention.
“That was unlucky,” Baldwin said, his head protected by a chain hood. “I’m going to send in another score of men to get that ladder back up.”
“I’m going to lead the charge. Tell them to follow me.”
“That’s too risky,” Baldwin said. “The king would—”
“I’m going!” Ransom barked. He lowered his visor and started to jog toward the wall. He heard Baldwin cry out for men to follow him, and a quick backward glance revealed there were more than a score coming up behind him. Ransom felt a crossbow bolt deflect off his armored arm, but it didn’t even slow his pace. More shafts rained down on him, but he was too angry to care about the danger. When he reached the fallen ladder, he saw the knights pinned beneath it, twisting and groaning to free themselves from the weight. Ransom signaled to his men to grab it and help the wounded retreat.
Together, they hoisted the ladder up against the wall, and Ransom was the first to begin the climb. He had no shield himself because he fought with a bastard sword, which required two hands. His lungs burned for air, and his legs throbbed from exertion, but he ignored both sensations as he scrabbled up the ladder. One of the other ladder crews had made it onto the wall, and fighting had broken out. He had a glimpse of the shield with the three lions—somehow Faulkes had made it up before him and was already dispatching opponents with skill.
As Ransom reached the top, a man with a hook and pole approached and tried to upend his ladder. But he was high enough to grab the hook, and he pulled hard, sending the defender into the edge of the wall with a grunt of pain. He let go of the weapon before he could be pulled from his perch.
Three knights charged at Ransom as soon as he breached the wall. He drew the bastard sword, and his Fountain magic roared to life as he smashed into his opponents, knocking them back and barreling forward to provide room for those behind him. Down below, he saw more Occitanian knights trampling through his gardens.
“Dex aie! Dex aie!” he shouted. It was the battle cry of the Argentine family.
His sword bit into armor, eliciting a shriek of pain, and Ransom elbowed the second man, pivoted, then withdrew his blade and whirled around to cut down the third knight. He felt something jolt against him and a tingle of pain, but he was too ablaze with fury to sense it, and he knew the Raven scabbard he wore would begin to heal the wound immediately.
More knights of Ceredigion streamed up the ladder. The momentum was shifting. Some of the knights down below had begun to flee to the interior of the castle, which would make the castle harder to take. But if they could claim the outer walls of Josselin, and hold them, then it would only be a matter of time before the defenders were starved into submission.
And it was right then, in the thick of the battle, that he felt a grinding sensation in his soul, as if a boulder were being dragged. With the sensation came the immediate compulsion to go to Tatton Grange. He recognized the feeling instantly. The king’s Wizr board had been activated. The board’s powerful magic allowed the royal families represented by the pieces—the Argentines of Ceredigion and the Vertuses of Occitania—to summon their loyal supporters where they were most needed . . . and to keep watch on the other side’s moves. Estian, the Occitanian king, had possessed it, but Ransom had stolen it from him.
Benedict had summoned him in the middle of the fight—a fight he knew he could win.
It made Ransom furious. He was so close to accomplishing his objective, to reclaiming the castle he’d lost to Estian. Part of him wanted to rebel against the order. But the mere thought made his Fountain magic shrivel. His power came through loyalty to the king, and any direct disobedience would strip him of his magic.
Silently cursing, Ransom looked around and then ordered his men to keep pressing onward. They needed to take the gatehouse so that they wouldn’t have to scale the walls to get inside. Already his knights, led by Dawson, were fighting down the stairs leading to the interior. Ransom walked back to the wall, still gripping his bloodstained sword, and saw more knights emerging from the woods to join the attack.
Since he couldn’t make it down one of the ladders—too many men were still coming up—he went down the stairs, following his rushing men. Dawson and the others had conquered the guards at the gatehouse, and a cheer went up when the iron door was thrust open.
It pained Ransom to walk away from the battle, from the sweetness of a possible victory, but he did. He returned to the camp, and Captain Baldwin approached him with a worried expression. Although Baldwin had once trained Ransom, back when both of them served Lord Kinghorn, Ransom’s cousin, the man now served under him. Seeing him always served as a reminder of Ransom’s long ties to the Argentine family, for it was Baldwin who had paid for Ransom’s release from Lord DeVaux’s dungeon at the bidding of Queen Emiloh.
“Are you injured?” Baldwin called out.
“No,” Ransom answered. Despite the wound he knew he’d sustained, he couldn’t feel any pain. The compulsion to leave was so powerful he found himself gritting his teeth. “I have to go to Tatton Grange.”
“Now?” Baldwin asked with confusion.
Few people outside the royal family knew of the Wizr board’s existence, so he couldn’t explain the summons. Staying as close to the truth as possible, he said, “Yes. I want to take some men with me. I think the king is in trouble.”
“Is that what the other captain told you?”
Ransom shouted to one of his squires to have his destrier, Dappled, saddled. “Be quick about it!” Turning back to Baldwin, he said, “No, he came on Jon-Landon’s orders, asking for a hundred men. We can’t spare them. I’ll bring a score with me to go to the king.”
“Why not fifty?” Baldwin suggested. “There are Occitanian knights rampaging everywhere in the borderlands. Best to be cautious.”
“Fifty, then,” Ransom agreed. “I’m going now.”
“It’s nearly sunset. Wait until morning.”
But a feeling of dread pulsed through him, and suddenly he was sure the king was in trouble. This was no normal summons.
“I’ve got to ride now. Get the men ready.”
“Aye, my lord.”
In the fading light, the knights were assembled to ride for Tatton Grange. Dappled stamped impatiently as the others mounted. One of Ransom’s squires offered him a leather flask, and he accepted it and drank quickly.
Captain Faulkes strode up, his armor dented in a few places and smeared with dust and blood. “You’re leaving?” he asked Ransom with a tinge of anger. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard.”
“I’ve been summoned to the king,” Ransom said.
“What for?” Faulkes asked with a tone of impertinence.
Ransom gave him a hard look and didn’t answer. Faulkes rubbed his mouth as he gazed at the company. “And you’re taking men with you? Men you couldn’t spare?”
“Return to your master,” Ransom said curtly. “I’ll not suffer your insolence any further.”
Faulkes glared at Ransom and then shook his head and stormed off. Through his Fountain magic, Ransom could tell that the knight was highly trained. He’d fought hard during the campaign in the East Kingdoms. But there was a spot of darkness in his soul. It seemed to suck the light from the fading sky.
Dawson approached next, giving Faulkes a dismissive nod as the man passed him, then said to Ransom, “He’s a brainless badger, isn’t he?”
It was one of the terms that Claire liked to use, and Ransom appreciated its use in that moment. “It’s true. Hold the gatehouse gate, Dawson. I’m hoping I won’t be gone long. Take your orders from Captain Baldwin.”
Dawson nodded, and Ransom could see from his disappointed look that he’d hoped to be placed in command. But he didn’t argue. He was maturing. “Of course, my lord. Ride safely.”
There was no questioning of Ransom’s sudden departure. His men trusted him, and he counted on their obedience and discretion.
They rode all night long, trying to reach Tatton Grange by dawn. Some of the knights’ horses went lame from the punishing pace, so they were down a tithe in men by the time they arrived at the king’s camp. It was midmorning when they rode in, and the looks on everyone’s faces showed grimness and defeat. Some of the knights shook their heads at Ransom with haunted expressions.
“What happened?” muttered one of Ransom’s men.
Ransom dismounted Dappled—whose strength had far outlasted the other mounts—outside the king’s pavilion. Although he was weary from the fighting the previous day and the all-night ride, he immediately marched to the tent and opened it.
The smell of sickness wafted to him at once.
King Benedict lay on a pallet, sweating profusely, his face pale but for the dark smudges under his eyes. The smudges weren’t from lack of sleep. It was dried blood. The sight so viscerally reminded him of the deaths of Benedict’s father and brother that his insides clenched with dread. He glanced at the king’s barber, who knelt by the pallet, and the man gave him a helpless look. “He took a crossbow bolt in the shoulder yesterday,” he said, his voice trembling. “I pulled it out straightaway, but it’s infected. The king said . . . the king said he’s been poisoned.”
Ransom knew it to be true. His stomach shriveled as he knelt by the king’s side, his hand falling to his Raven scabbard as the king’s feverish eyes opened.
“Is that you, Ransom?”
Ransom gripped his hand. “I came. I felt the summons.”
“Sir Gordon? Did he bring you the chest?”
Ransom wrinkled his brow. “I’ve seen no one. No one came.” He looked around the tent and noticed his brother, Marcus, among the few gathered. The look of sadness and agitation on his brother’s face showed they all knew the truth.
The king would soon die.
Ransom didn’t think he could save him. He’d attempted to use the Raven scabbard to heal the Elder King, and it hadn’t worked.
Benedict shut his bloody eyes. “She was here, Ransom,” he croaked. “I saw her piece on the board.”
Ransom knew what that meant. He referred to Lady Alix, the Fountain-blessed poisoner related to both the Argentines and the Vertuses. She’d killed Benedict’s brother and his father, and now she’d given him a death sentence too. A feeling of helplessness and outrage thundered inside Ransom’s heart. If she’d been there, he would have twisted her neck and killed her with his bare hands.
“I’m as weak as a pup,” Benedict said.
Ransom glanced at Marcus. “Did you send for the queen dowager?”
“Aye,” Marcus said. “But it’s days to Kingfountain and back.”
The king squeezed Ransom’s hand, drawing his attention. “I’m dying, Ransom. I’m going to the Deep Fathoms . . . to be with my brother . . . my father.” Benedict’s fevered eyes bore into him.
Ransom swallowed and maintained a firm grip on the king’s hand. “What is your will, my lord?”
Benedict coughed, and there were flecks of blood on his lips. “Estian has my nephew in Pree. He made Constance . . . marry one of his knights. The boy is lost to us, and Brythonica too. My brother is my heir. All of you are witnesses. Jon-Landon will be King of Ceredigion. Swear your loyalty to him. I beg of you. It is my will, my last command as your king.”
Ransom squeezed harder, his stomach twisting with resentment. The other men he’d served—he’d believed in them, however flawed they had been. But Jon-Landon? He didn’t know if he could serve such a man. He unbuckled the scabbard and laid it on Benedict’s chest. The other men gathered wouldn’t understand the significance of the gesture, but none questioned it. Ransom watched the raven sigil, hoping it would start glowing. It did not.
There was nothing else he could do to save the king.
Returning the scabbard to his belt, he bowed his head. The Fountain had made his duty known to him. He was meant to protect the Argentine line, to ensure Jon-Landon’s unborn son rose to the throne. The boy’s descendants would hearken the return of King Andrew’s glory.
“I swear it,” Ransom said firmly, looking Benedict in the eyes.
“I so swear,” said the other knights and lords assembled in the pavilion.
The strength left Benedict’s grip, and his head sagged to one side. “Good,” he sighed. “Send someone to my brother. Tell him to come claim his crown. I want . . . to go into the river, Ransom. Not the palace. Here. Like my father. His curse won in the end.”
Tears filled Ransom’s eyes.
“My lord,” said one of the knights, putting his hand on Ransom’s shoulder. “Who should go tell Jon-Landon? May I?”
Ransom hardly knew the man who’d asked the question. He turned to his brother, Marcus. “Take your knights to Averanche. Tell Jon-Landon his brother is dying and to come at once.”
Marcus nodded and left the tent without a word.
It was the last time Ransom saw his brother alive.
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