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Eric walked across the courtyard toward the Hall of Audiences. The morning sun had just reached the tops of the trees and the cool air energized his nostrils. The first hint of autumn was in the air, but he hardly noticed it. His mind was filled with anticipation of the morning's activities.
He reached the entrance to the hall and stopped. The two massive doors hung in a semicircular opening. Eric looked at the gray granite stones that encased them. From there his eyes focused on the carved face above the center. Intentionally it had been formed so it was androgynous, both male and female. The symbolism was that all received equal treatment within. Engraved above the face were the words, FROM FAIR JUDGEMENT COMES REAL PEACE. Eric thought, Today, the real challenge will be maintaining the peace.
He pushed open the doors and entered the hall. The chamber was forty feet in height and more than one hundred long. On each side of the hall a row of amber windows occupied the top one-third of the walls. At this time of the morning, the beams of sunlight only reached the midpoint on the walls, leaving the lower halves in shadow. The gray granite stones of the chamber reflected very little light, adding to the darkness within.
It took his eyes some moments before they adjusted to the dim lighting. As they did, he could see the rows of chairs on either side of the center aisle and the faces turning toward him. The individuals whispered to each other. In this place it was regarded improper to speak loudly except when in debate.
Eric's footsteps disturbed the silence by their clicking sound as the soles of hisboots made contact with the stone floor. Making his way down the length of the aisle, he placed his closed right fist on his left breast. This showed respect to all and as his eyes met others, he nodded slightly. At the front row he stopped and grasped the seated man's forearm. The man did likewise to him and placed his free hand on Eric's shoulder. It was Dovar of Nord, Eric's father. Neither man spoke and after a moment they released and Eric turned and continued.
Before him were two steps leading up to a platform. He climbed them and there stood a large chair sitting on a smaller platform, two steps above the second. This was the throne for the King of Woblem. Next to it and a little forward was another chair that Eric was to occupy. He moved toward it and unhooked the weapon belt at his waist. On the right side of the chair, he slid the sword and its scabbard into a holder. No sword could be drawn within the chamber without the permission of the king. To do so would mean immediate expulsion.
Eric positioned himself in the chair and considered the people facing him. Before him were eighty-eight chairs. All made from the same dark wood, the same height, and the same basic design. Some showed more wear and were stained by age. Others appeared newer and less worn. The length of time one's family was a member of this body was proportional to the age of the chair. Its location within the chamber was also significant. The House of Nord was front row right center. This position signified that its holder was commander of the alman, Woblem's noble elite. Across the aisle was located the deputy commander's spot. Giles the Hawk of the House of Agar occupied that seat. During Eric's journey to Gortha, Giles had been the noble who convinced Eric that he was King Nelman, while the real king returned in disguise to rally his forces. The rest of the front row was occupied by the oldest families and those with lesser tenure filled the following rows.
This was the arrangement during the occasion when the Federation of Houses was in session. Otherwise, the chairs were aligned along the outer walls of the chamber. This was also done according to rank with the commander in the front right and his deputy in the left front.
To be a member of this group, an individual had to be from one of the principal noble families of Woblem. Then they had to be trained by a master of the combat guild or perform some act of heroism for the crown. Eric fit into all three categories. At the age of twenty-five celeas, he had been adopted by Dovar of Nord, been trained by Namput Bunor as a master of weapons and had rescued King Nelman from the Gorthans. He had done all of this while saving the kingdom from Filus of Tyer.
The assembly contained twenty-one women and sixty-seven men. Both genders were dressed alike in what was known as court battle dress. It was similar to what a warrior would wear into battle but without the leather upper body protection. Instead they wore a soft facsimile that did nothing to diminish their warrior appearance.
Armor made of metals was nearly absent in this part of Carna because it was not needed. Instead the skin of the grakrul was used for protection. This beast had a hide more than an inch thick and when properly tanned and prepared, it could stop the sharpest sword or lance more effectively than steel.
Eric knew he faced warriors who were all sure of themselves and not afraid to speak. If he were going to win the day, he would have to show the same determination and offer the most persuasive argument. He mused that the wearing of the court battle dress was appropriate because the members of this chamber battled each other, not with swords but with words. The outcome could be just as deadly as a blade through the heart. He only hoped his mastery of words would be as sharp as his skills with the sword.
The king's throne represented the eighty-ninth house. For this meeting, it would remain empty. Eric would be King Nelman's representative at these proceedings, sitting in the chair of the speaker. It stood for no house and was there just for the presenter to have a place to sit or when the king held court, the chair was placed at his side so an honored guest could occupy it.
There was one other chair in the chamber. It was larger than all but the king's throne. Its occupant was dressed in a gray robe and he differed in all aspects from the rest of those present. This person held the title of Master of the Hall. He was neither a noble nor a warrior. He was chosen by the people and acted as a reminder that all power derived from the people. Power in the form of assigning the number of warriors for training was allotted to the nobles by the councils of elders. Each parish had its own council and they alone had the power to grant troops to the nobles. This system had been established many hundreds of celeas ago and this principle of law was what Eric was about to challenge. If he had his way, the power to call up an army would pass from the people and the nobles to the king.
Beyond being a reminder, the Master of the Hall's primary function was to begin a session, maintain order, and close all proceedings held by the Federation of Houses. His authority in these matters was without question. He could expel any noble who violated any of the rules of order within the hall. While executing his duties, he operated above any law or requirement established by the nobility or the king.
Behind the king's throne was the massive opening of a hearth. It was bare and cold and reminded Eric of the expressionless faces before him. The chamber was cold, for it would take many hours before the sun heated the stones of the building, and many of the lords had cloaks of fur draped around them. He had declined to bring his and now he regretted this decision. He hoped it would be the only decision he regretted this day.
Eric watched as the last of the members entered the chamber and moved to their places. He allowed his eyes to focus on Dovar and the older man nodded his head in encouragement to his son. Then his gaze swept to Giles, who gave the young lord a smile.
The group stirred slightly as the Master of the Hall rose and moved to the center of the chamber, then came to a stop just to Eric's left. "May this body come to order! May the Monarch of Woblem rule with wisdom and health!"
The body responded, "May we serve the people and their king!"
The Master declared, "This honored body is here to render a decision in regards to matters brought before it by the most noble Eric of Nord, Lord of Sommonee and son-in-law of our beloved King Nelman."
Sommonee was the name of the continent of which Woblem was a part. It was divided into two parts. East and West Sommonee were separated by diversity in culture and history rather than geographic location. If contact between the kingdoms of West Sommonee had been limited, connection with the eastern portion was nonexistent.
The title "Lord of Sommonee" was an honor bestowed upon Eric by Woblem, Naudan, and the client kingdoms at the end of the war between the Forum of the Four and Naudan. It loosely meant commander and had not been conferred to anyone for over two hundred celeas. He wasn't sure of its significance or what it all entailed but he had done some research and discovered that most references referred to the title as the "Conscience of the Kings," or as the "Balance". In some, the word "Primec" was attached to it, but the writings made it clear that the title did not always grant the use of the additional Primec. The texts implied an almost mystical quality to the term and left his inquires with many questions unanswered.
The Master of the Hall looked at Eric and moved off the platform to resume his seat. Eric rose and took a step forward before addressing the body.
The shaft of light now fully illuminated the left side of the chamber. He could clearly see the faces of the members sitting on that side. For the most part, they were as gray as the walls. They sat expressionless watching him. He knew some of them envied his accomplishments since arriving in Woblem and his position. Others didn't care. While many others were his supporters in his efforts. He knew to win this day, he needed to exercise care and elegance and he would have to gain the support of many who considered his proposal as a violation of the basic law of the land. This battle he would have to win not with the sword but with words. He wondered if he was up to the task.
Eric took a deep breath and began to speak. "Members of this council, we are here to address a most serious issue. We are here to establish a standing army for Woblem."
Immediately, Armon of Sydon rose to his feet. "Young Lord, I must correct you. That is not the reason we are here." A murmur rose within the chamber. "We are here to debate the need for a standing army and if necessary, vote on such measures. That's my understanding." He returned to his seat.
With a slight look of embarrassment, Eric replied, "Quite right, my Lord. I stand corrected. We are here to debate and decide if Woblem is to have a standing army." He thought, Must be careful not to lose the battle before it even begins.
"Woblem is a land of peace and has been for more than two hundred celeas. But that can change in the blink of an eye. An enemy can overwhelm us before we can react. Our peace can be shattered in one night."
DeWyan of Rockcliff rose and interrupted, "What you say is true. We have been at peace for more than two hundred celeas. In all that time, the only threat to the peace has come from within and has been dealt with quickly and efficiently. So why is it necessary to change anything?" DeWyan turned as if to foster support.
"My Lord DeWyan, we considered the mountains to the east a barrier against any who would attack us. Today we know an attack could come from anywhere at any time." Eric pointed toward the back of the chamber. "The air ship anchored beyond these walls is proof of my words." A murmur rose again in the chamber. "It was believed that an army would move slowly through the passes of the mountains allowing us time to call up our forces. That belief is no more. We are left with the cold fact that an enemy could launch one, two, or three hundred ships and would crush us before we had time to organize."
The murmur rose to a shout. DeWyan demanded, "Where would these imaginary ships come from? You yourself reported that the Forum was defeated, and that our new ally of Naudan holds the lands to the east. What do we have to fear?" With a smile, DeWyan looked at his companions. "Has the lord of the land become afraid of the darkness?" Laughter arose from the chamber.
Before Eric could speak, Giles the Hawk rose and turned to face DeWyan. "It is not fear but awareness. It is a foolish man who goes into the dark without protection. I have been to the same places Lord Eric has gone. I have seen what he has seen. Just because we were unaware of the danger in the past does not justify us acting as if it does not exist.
"I do not know from whom or where it will come, but it will come." With that, Giles returned to his seat.
The chamber once more was silent and Eric continued, "As I was saying, an enemy can reach us by air, conquer key locations, and be upon us before we could form our forces. A standing army of five thousand warriors would give us the time necessary for the rest of our forces to group and counter."
Chandra of Harbin rose next. "Lord Eric, this number of five thousand. Is it special?"
"No, my Lord-Lady Chandra." The title of Lord-Lady was the proper salutation for a female member.
"Then why five thousand? Why not ten? Or twenty thousand?" The chamber burst alive with a rumble. "Or why not five hundred? There are approximately eight hundred good warriors in service to our king at all times. So why isn't that enough?"
Slowly Eric replied, "Because it is but a small number in comparison to what it could face. A single ship can carry eighty warriors. The Forum had more than one thousand ships capable of carrying that number."
"So we are to believe that five thousand good warriors can hold eighty thousand any better than eight hundred? I would rather sacrifice eight hundred brave warriors so five thousand could be spared to fight with our combined forces. Better to lose eight hundred than five thousand. I am sorry, my friend, I cannot support you in this request. It speaks against my better judgment.
"If Filus had had such a force at his disposal, he would now be sitting in the throne behind you." The members of the chamber shifted uneasily in their seats.
Markus of Hispar next spoke. "We are training men in the use of these air ships our friends the Naudanese gave us. With the speed of flight, all the forces of the combined houses can be brought to bear in a matter of days." He turned to his fellow members. "So you see, my noble companions, there is no need for a standing army. Our young lord's request is not valid."
Eric regained control. "Lords, the Forum had more than two hundred fifty thousand combatants. I request that we establish a minuscule number by comparison. Is it too much for the safety of our beloved king? For the safety of our land and people?" The chamber became silent and he continued, "This is to enhance a system that has worked well to keep our land safe and at peace."
Simon of West next spoke. "Lord Eric, as always, it is good to see you."
Eric smiled and replied, "And you, my Lord."
"Eric, what of the law? It speaks against having a standing army."
Without thinking, Eric replied, "Then change the law."
The chamber broke into pandemonium. Nobles rose to their feet shaking their fists at Eric. Others turned their backs as if to signify they had heard enough. The meeting would have perhaps ended right then and there if it had not been for Dovar.
He rose from his chair and shouted, "Lords! Lords!" The chamber settled down. "I am sure the young lord did not mean to imply that we do away with the law." He turned toward Eric and gave him a look that said this mistake had better end here and now.
"That is correct, my Lord. I apologize if I misspoke. Never would I suggest that the law be abandoned. I believe that the law gives this body and the people the right to create such a force and can only exist at the will of the people and their nobles."
Dovar returned to his seat and again he gave Eric the look that told the younger man to tread carefully.
Scott of Delmont was the next to rise. He was known to be the leader of an unofficial coalition of ten northern houses. These domains were located in the province of Woblem known as Royer. Royer had existed as an independent country until a little over two hundred celeas ago. As the result of a conflict between the two, Woblem had annexed it. Though the two areas had been at peace since that time, the unspoken dislike of the Royer nobility to its southern big brother was well known by all.
The House of Tyer had been the foremost dukedom of that prefecture and Filus its ruler. He had attempted to depose King Nelman and set himself up as king while Nelman was missing and presumed dead. As head of the almen, he had the authority to pick a husband for Princess Melinda and his choice was his son Will. Through Will, Filus would have the kingdom. That was until Eric's quest and rescue of Nelman from the Darvus slave camps. Their return had stopped the union, and resulted in Filus and four other lords being executed for treason. These rebellious houses were disbanded and replaced by ones appointed by King Nelman. Though they would never voice it, the remaining old Houses of Royer regarded these upstarts as unwelcome aliens to their lands.
Because he had foiled Filus' plans, Eric expected very little support from this northern coalition. With the demise of the House of Tyer, the House of Delmont stood as the senior noble house and Lord Scott would act as spokesperson for the group.
"Young Lord Eric, you may convince some of your misspoken words, but it is my belief that you regard our law with little favor. You are not of Woblem, nor are you a true servant of her history." He gave a sharp smile to the other members of the northern houses. "I do not argue that your desire is honorable, but what you ask is but a prelude to aggression and the loss of the people's power to grant troops is an intrusion into their basic rights and will disrupt the balance of power.
"We of the Houses of the Northern Province are well of aware of what consequences aggression can bring."
A chant of, "Hear! Hear!" went up from the other Houses of Royer.
"It is our most heartfelt desire to do what is best for Woblem, but what you propose is nothing more than discarding the law which has allowed for two hundred years of peace in this land and the federation that is Woblem.
"I am sure I speak not only for myself but for many here when I say this petition could be construed by some as an act of treason."
Both Eric and Dovar rose at the same time. Eric was the first to speak. "Do you call me a traitor?"
Scott of Delmont gave a gesture with his hands as if he was surprised by the reaction. "The young lord misunderstands me. I do not call any in this great hall a traitor. I but give counsel to the young lord that there may be some in and out of this body who might think your words could lead to treason. Remember this, our law is our life."
Dovar returned to his seat and Eric responded, "I will take your words as a conformation that you did not intend to imply any hint of treason on my part, but only as a warning that some might."
"That is my intent, young Lord. I but wish to protect the accord that has maintained the peace for all these years." He made an apologetic gesture . "As we have seen in recent events, the law is the only thing that keeps the power-hungry from taking control of this land."
Delmont spread his arms apart and stretched the right one toward Eric. "Along with your service, young Lord."
Again the chamber resounded with, "Hear! Hear!"
The debate went on for most of the morning without any real progress. The hitch pin was the law. The law of Woblem forbade a standing army greater than one thousand warriors. This would be changed only if a clear need could be argued. It had been established in a time when fear of kingly power was greater than that of external threats.
Eric was speaking about the firepower of rockets when the Master of the Hall called out, "My Lord, the King!"
King Nelman entered from a door near the rear of the chamber and all within dropped to one knee. He walked over to his throne flanked by two guards. Positioning himself, he looked over the council. "Rise, Lords!" They rose and took their places. Eric started moving toward the side of the chamber when Nelman said, "Place this chair by me and sit." Eric did as the king directed and took his place.
"I know what you debate is challenging, but I am sure your wisdom will decide what is right. I thank you for being here." He stopped and looked at the congregation. His final gaze rested on Eric. "I request that you take some time to consider what has been spoken here. I therefore call this council ended until a later summons requests your return."
The Master of the Hall shouted, "This council is at an end. Long live the King of Woblem and her people!"
All within replied, "Long live King Nelman and may we serve!"
The nobles bowed to the king and without speaking left the chamber. Eric slowly rose and took a few steps toward the stairs. He stopped and turned to face the king. "My Lord, may I inquire?"
Nelman smiled. "You know you may."
"Sire, why did you call an end to the debate?"
"Because, Eric, we were about to lose."
"Sire, I believe I was going to carry the day."
"No, the day was lost for us before you began. I just discovered that last night, enough of the lords had made up their minds not to support the issue. You could not win the fight." Nelman smiled. "But you fought it well. I know we must change the minds of my fellow nobles and you will be the instrument to help accomplish it, but we must make sure that the houses don't feel threatened by the move.
"Remember, I am absolute but the houses have their own power. If they are to share that power, they must come to see the need and advantage of doing so. Woblem is a federation of nobles and the House of Berkley is only one of those houses. My forefather, Alan, became king by consent of the other lords. It is by the law and this consent that I rule.
"The law discourages a large standing army, but as you, I believe we must have one but in accomplishing that, we walk the edge of a fine blade."
"Sire, what are we to do?"
"What are we to do? For me, I will go on as I always have. There will be another time for the issue. As for you, my son-in-law, you are to take some time and rest."
"Sire, I have too much to do."
Nelman spoke a little slower and firmer. "Eric, you will take some time. You and my daughter will go to Nord for a rest. It has been four vorgus since your return from Naudan and you have not taken any rest. My daughter will be angry with me if I allow you to harm yourself because you haven't rested. So hear me! Go to Nord and visit your mother."
Eric thought for a moment and then replied, "Yes, sire, to Nord and to home. Yes, I'll go home."