Chapter 1
The Tripartite Council

Caer Pendragon, Pendragon

The Chamber of the Round Table had four entrances, one for each of the cardinal directions. Each of these doors was reserved for a particular use. Besides the two guards posted at each door, the chamber was empty save for the Master of Ceremonies. When he gave the signal, the guards opened the doors and the Master of Ceremonies announced, "This, the fifteenth Tripartite Council of the Kingdom of Pendragon, shall now convene. His Grace the Bishop of Pendragon and Father Abbot of the Pendragon Abbey, Prince Abel Ambrosius Pendragon."
From the east door entered Prince Abel, also known as Bishop Ambrosius, accompanied by the Prioress Rosamond, Captain Thames of the Lesser Templars, Father Marcius his chamberlain, and a half-dozen attendants: two monks, two nuns and two Templars. The Bishop, the Prioress, the Templar captain and the chamberlain stood by their place at the table with their attendants behind them.
The Master of Ceremonies then announced, "His Highness the Steward of Norland and Lord of Pendragon Tower, Prince Cain Uwain Pendragon."
Prince Cain entered from the west door along with his captain Sir Bruno, the enigmatic advisor known only as Forktongue, and eight of his rough-looking mercenaries, more brigands than proper men-at-arms.
Once they had taken their place, the Master of Ceremonies announced, "His Majesty the King of the North, Seth Aurelius Pendragon."
King Seth entered the room along with Sir Eldridge the Knight Captain, Lord Cerdic the Mayor of the Palace, and the four Marshals of the Long Patrol. First the King was seated, then his two brothers and lastly those of rank in their retinue. The lesser members of their entourages remained standing behind them.
"This council is called to order," the King said.
"First, a word of prayer," Prince Abel said. Folding his hands and bowing his head, he then said, "Heavenly Father, we humbly beseech Thee for Thy blessings on this land and her people. Guide us, Thy ordained leaders, to govern with wisdom and justice according to Thy will. Protect us, preserve us and sustain us. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen."
When everyone's heads were raised from the prayer, the Master of Ceremonies said, "We begin with the Long Patrol's report. Marshal Xiaolang of the North Quarter."
Marshal Xiaolang rose from his seat to deliver his report. He was not a native of this land, one of the refugees of the Ming people who were shipwrecked in the year of the first Tripartite Council. A combination of his father's rank, the King's patronage and his own ability brought him to his current post. Though he was resented by many as a foreign upstart, he had the respect of the men under his command and the trust of the King. That was enough.
"Your Majesty, the far North is at peace," Xiaolang said. "Those who dwell in the foothills continue their rumors of dread creatures stirring in mountains, but as in times past, our investigations have yielded nothing. Nevertheless, we continue our vigilance."
The King nodded to acknowledge the report. The Master of Ceremonies then called the next marshal.
"Marshal Gareth of the East Quarter."
Like Xiaolang, Sir Gareth was a foreigner but of more familiar stock. He was called Gareth Hook-hand because his right hand had been cut off as punishment when he was expelled from the order of High Templars in Antioch. He was never supposed to wield a sword again but through force of will and tireless training, he taught himself to swing a sword with his left hand better than many knights could with their right. It was that strength and determination that won him the King's favor despite his dishonor.
"Your Majesty," he began, "my men and I have delivered the heads of twenty-seven bandits who have preyed upon the pilgrims to the Sanctuary. Despite these threats, still we are not allowed to patrol within the confines of the Wall."
Captain Thames countered, "The defense of the Sanctuary rests with my Templars, Sir Gareth."
"You continue to defy His Majesty!" Sir Gareth snapped.
It was less zeal for the King than a personal grudge with Captain Thames that drove Sir Gareth. The Captain was once his master when they served together in Antioch and it was said that he delivered the stroke that cost Sir Gareth his hand. For his part, Captain Thames did not speak a word against his fallen pupil after his initial objection was overruled. Sir Gareth, however, never ceased in his efforts to find fault with his old master, but the King was not apt to indulge such pettiness.
The King reminded him, "Sir Gareth, you are obliged to request permission to patrol within the Wall, but you are only granted leave by His Grace the Bishop."
"And I have every confidence in Captain Thames' judgment in this matter," Prince Abel added. "Defend without, Sir Gareth, and Captain Thames will defend within."
Sir Gareth sulkily returned to his seat while the Master of Ceremonies called on the third of the four.
"Marshal Gideon of the West Quarter."
Of the four marshals, Sir Gideon was the only one who remained of the original four assigned by King Lother. He was old enough to be granted leave to retire but was still capable of his duties. He still had a few years left before he needed to hang up his sword. As he rose from his seat, he eyed Prince Cain and his entourage before addressing the King.
"Norland is as troubled as ever, Your Majesty," he said gravely. "Bandits are everywhere, not only the common criminals and holdouts of the fallen kings, but also some who fly familiar colors."
He eyed Prince Cain again, prompting Sir Bruno to rise up from his chair, slapping the table to draw even more attention to himself.
"I must protest, Sir Gideon. You impugn the honor of His Highness with these accusations."
Sir Gideon was not cowed in the slightest by the younger knight's objection and replied coolly, "Either His Highness is ignorant of the excesses of his men or else he condones them. Either is unacceptable."
"I will not allow this insult to stand!"
"Be seated, Sir Bruno," the King said. He then asked Prince Cain, "Brother, what say you to these charges?"
Drink had not yet been served, but Prince Cain had a wineskin with him and took a long draught from it before answering the King.
"I collect the taxes owed to the Crown, I mete out justice, all my duties as Steward. The peasants know you are soft-hearted, so they craft tales to shirk their responsibilities. I fear Old Gideon is growing feeble-minded in his dotage to believe such tales. Perhaps it is time for a new Marshal of the West Quarter, one who understands Norland better." He nodded to his captain. "Sir Bruno, perhaps."
Sir Gideon bore the Prince's insults without a word, showing admirable discipline, as expected of a man of his long service. This was no small part of the reason the King did not dismiss his allegations out of hand.
Ignoring his brother's offer to replace Sir Gideon with his own man, the King told the old knight, "Sir Gideon, if you can present evidence of these charges, I will weigh it accordingly." Then to Prince Cain, he said, "And, Brother, if these charges are proven to be mere peasant tales, you will have Sir Gideon's apology and mine. But if they are true, I expect you to bring the perpetrators to justice and recompense any who may have been despoiled. And if you have knowledge of these excesses, that recompense will come from your own treasure."
Prince Cain made no reply, but he was not pressed for one either. Sir Gideon took his seat and the last of the four marshal was called upon.
"Marshal Dale of the South Quarter."
Dale, called the Elf-friend, was the youngest man to ever be named marshal, but there was not a more talented ranger in all the land. His father was the first Marshal of the South Quarter, awarded the post for his service during the Goblin War. Elven blood was said to flow in his veins and that he was trained in the Elves' peculiar arts.
"Your Majesty, the Goblins of the forest are coming back," he said. "There have been a few attacks by small raiding parties. Knowing them, more will come in the winter months when food grows scarce. My rangers have not yet found their hidden village, but we dare not venture too deeply with our numbers."
"I will hold council on mounting an expedition into the forest," the King said. "In the meantime, continue your scouting as far as you dare without needlessly hazarding the life and limb of your men."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Dale replied.
From there the council continued for a couple more hours, covering such topics as the state of the kingdom's finances, a shortage of barley in the Lothcaster, the proposal for a new diplomatic mission to Kyanopolis in the south, and a petition to improve the fortifications of Uthcaster in light of the increased risk of Goblin attack. As usual, not much was accomplished, but advancing matters of state in so little time was not the point of these councils. They were meant as a way for the King to be open with his brothers and keep them involved in the rule of the kingdom as a whole rather than keeping them confined to their domains. Being chosen for the crown ahead of his two older brothers, it was the least he could do for them.
Once their business was completed, the council was adjourned for another year. They would move to the great hall for a meal and that would be the last the King was likely to see his brothers until the next council. The effort to maintain the fraternal bond may well have been a wasted one, but he had to try all the same. If he could not keep the peace within his own house, how could he keep the peace in the kingdom?