"On to the next order of business," Ühunt, court advisor and minutes-keeper for the meeting of the Lords Remaining, suggested. "The freewoman Carin, ranked second in the notable Tjesmond's Trusted Companions, has brought to this council's attention word of Crow scouts prowling the northern villages. She suggests a swift response - "
Carin rose. "I suggest," she said, "That I should be freed to take the actions necessary to stop the Crows before it is too late. I know their plan; my men are ready. We can leave within the hour - if you give us the word. I am certain of victory, if there is no delay."
The rash words were unlike her - but she had reason for them. As she stared down the council table, Carin glanced at each of the members of the council - the seven Lords Remaining, led by the iron-willed Éosei, once a claimant to the throne. (Her planned rebellion dying unborn when the Crows came.) They would all support the plan - Éosei supported it, and she had the rest scared into line. They weren't the problem - that was the eighth member of the council...
"This is rash," said Tjesmond; once a monster-killer in the King's employ, now the leader of all Estelundian forces not trapped by the Crows' three-year siege. "The Crows are masters of deception; they feint and withdraw, mislead and misdirect. You think you have out-thought them? You think you will march directly to them, meet them in honest battle, save the day? You should know better by now. They will poison your water, strike from ambush, kill and torture without mercy; then they will strike here, at our weakened forces, and it is we who will be lost. Rethink this, Carin. The Crows are not a foe to be taken lightly."
"This is the same tale you have been peddling since the war began," Carin said, angry. "The same story, of fear and despair, again and again. But do you know what? I think it's all in your head. The Crows have no diabolical wit. Their plans are simple - raid where they see food, feint where they see uncertainty, strike where they see weakness. They are predictable - and I know what they will do next - "
Carin paused, suddenly - looked around the table. The Lords Remaining were with her, convinced - this was something they had been whispering in quiet for some time, behind closed doors. Éosei in particular was glowing, triumphant - this conversation was one she had been urging Carin towards for some time. But Tjesmond -
Tjesmond's face was stoic, but in his eyes Carin could see hurt, betrayal. How could you do this? his eyes seemed to ask Carin. I gave you all you have, your training, your position, even the sword still at your belt; I made you who you are today. Now you tear me down at the behest of that harpy Éosei, begging at her feet for scraps?
Carin turned away. She would find another way.
"I have taken no part of this business lightly," she said instead, starting again. "From the first report I had of the Crows' movements, I kept the utmost secrecy in the operation, not even telling my other scouts what the first had seen; I have not even told you worthies what I know of the matter, besides the barest necessary, for fear of eavesdroppers. I am well aware of their treacherous ways, and the treachery they inspire in the fearful common-folk; but I have their measure today. By the skills you taught me and with the men you gave me, I think I can deliver them a thrashing they shall not soon regret - "
Tjesmond shook his head, suddenly weary. "Very well then. You are my trusted second; I will give you my faith in the matter. If there are no objections?"
There were none.
"Then we can proceed to the next matter," Tjesmond said, excusing Carin with a nod. "Seneschal?"
"On the matter of the eastern provinces' crop yields..." Ühunt began.
As Carin left the room, she glanced back, and noticed to her own surprise that Éosei was smiling widely, seemingly quite pleased. But then - Carin realized - why shouldn't she be? For all she had drawn back at the end, this was by far the closest Carin had come to siding with Éosei against Tjesmond's leadership - something Éosei had wanted for some time.
But to betray Tjesmond - even if it meant the difference between victory or defeat, in the war -
She would talk with Éosei when she returned, Carin decided. But first - she had a battle to win.