They raised their eyes as the great oaken door burst open, its clamour echoing throughout the hall; then, as the grizzled warrior strode into view, wolf-pelt cloak flowing behind him, they stood as one. They stood for their King.
“Who has answered my call?” he boomed, climbing the steps to the granite throne flanked on all sides by their own stone seats, throwing himself into its lap with the fierce aspect of the lupine he wore upon his back.
“Usterven, son of Agrevus, Lord of the North!” cried one voice.
“Sulter, White Duke of the Southern plains!” bellowed another. One by one, his lords added their own names and titles to the roll, until all the lands of his kingdom had been listed in the response.
The King allowed his gaze to trace over each of them, stout and steadfast to a man. He had need of all their steel now; their guile, too.
“It heartens me, friends, that you have met the need of your King so faithfully,” he told them, in solemn tones. “I must present to you a challenge so daunting, it has brought my own great house near to its knees. I pray your counsel can aid me, else it may cost me my very sanity.”
The assembled lords and barons absorbed his words with furrowed brows. Eventually, old Laenum Blackblade, the most wizened man of the council, spoke their thoughts aloud: “Put us to the test, My Lord. We stand ready.”
The King closed his eyes, breathed deep and long. When at last he opened them again, he spoke with a heavy heart.
“It’s my son. He’s three weeks old and had been sleeping fine, until last night… I tried to put him down after his 2am feed, but he went bananas. Like, BANANAS.”
Around the shadowy circle of chairs, heads nodded.
“I would pick him up and rock him until he was settled again. Things would be fine. But once I put him down, within a minute he’d be screaming and screaming. It went on like that all night.” He closed his eyes again, gauntleted fingers rising to massage his temples. “Seriously, all fucking night.”
The council considered their options. “Have you tried swaddling him, my liege?” asked Sandor the Red.
The King grimaced. “We have, but he was struggling quite a lot. We thought it might be annoying him, so we stopped doing it last week.”
Sandor shook his head. “It’s not too late to turn back, Sire. Swaddling is a strong option.” Several of his fellows nodded and grunted their assent.
“Have you checked if he is wet, my King? Or if he is hungry?” this voice was Sulter’s.
“Literally the first thing we checked,” the King snapped. Did they think him a fool?
After a tense silence, Usterven stood. “Sire, what I have to say may not please you. But say it, I must.”
The King nodded to him. “We have borne swords against overwhelming odds, Usterven; fought back to back and triumphed against the hordes of the Dark Pope himself. You have earned the right.”
“Very well,” Usterven assented. “Have you considered… giving him a dummy?”
“She’s REALLY not keen on it,” the King sighed, shaking his head. “When I suggest it, she’s like: he’ll be going to school before you know it, still wanting his dummy.”
“There is a stigma, to be sure,” Usterven agreed. “But it worked wonders for us, with both daughters. I counsel you not to rule it out.” He took his seat once more.
It was at this moment, that Cassinius of Amber chose to share his thoughts. The King had quarrelled often with Cassinius in their younger days, before ascending the throne – but although they would never be brotherly with one another, the slim-built man had wits as quick as a fox and a cool head. He had earned the king’s respect.
“Sometimes, My Lord, single actions will not prove enough,” Cassinius stated firmly. “What babes need is a routine, a tapestry of actions which begin to weave consistency throughout their young lives. If I may ask, have you kept similar practices and hours since your heir’s arrival?”
Stroking his beard, the King recalled the last three weeks. Eventually, he conceded: “No. For the first few nights, she was still in hospital… then when we got him home, I was keeping him downstairs and sleeping on the sofa so she could catch up on her rest… then we started moving him up to the bedroom when we were going to bed, but that actually unsettled him last night…”
Cassinius seized on the King’s words. “It is as I suspected, my lord: you have no routine, so you are adrift upon the sea rather than setting your own course. I recommend this, Sire – start to create a familiar pattern each night for your son. Perhaps bath him, then give him a feed, read him a story… and once these things are done, swaddle him as Sandor has suggested and lay him in his bed. Not downstairs with you, to be moved later, but in his true resting place from the very start; your baby-monitor will allow you to keep close tabs on him nonetheless. Make sure the room is only dimly lit, speak in soft voices; you must not rouse or excite him. And keep a dummy to hand, if he will not settle. Despite the stigma, a dummy is often your best friend!”
This speech met the council’s approval and as it progressed, men nodded and shouts of ‘Aye!’ became more frequent.
“In short, my King,” Cassinius concluded, “Create a relaxing, familiar pattern and you will treble your chances of success. More than this, you will strengthen yourself and our lady Queen, for the routine is more valuable for you than even for the child. It will give you structure and confidence; it will allow you to feel relaxed and in control, rather than as if you are at the beck and call of a child born less than a moon hence!”
As the chorus of assent grew amongst the council, old Blackblade leaned in close and whispered to the King: “Your old rival he may be, but Cassinius has given you today a greater gift than many a friend could provide. Heed his wise words – and you may yet reclaim your Kingdom from this troubled boy of yours!”
The King looked at his ancient counsellor and saw the merry glint in his eye. He began to smile, filling once more with the confidence of old.
“Men of this council, Lords of this land, I called upon you in my hour of need – and you have not failed me!” the King called out to them, raising his hand in salute. “I go now to the Queen, armed with your wisdom!” In a din of cheers, of fists thumping on breastplates and helms thrown, whooping, in the air he departed the chamber.
It seemed as if the torchlit halls and cold flagstones flew past him like the wind, so lost was he in triumph. All at once, the door was before him and he burst through it, startling his Queen as she sat upon a bench at her bedside, taking lunch from a fine rosewood table before her.
“What’s all this?” She asked incredulously.
“Silence, woman!” The King cried. “I bear the solution to all our problems – a veritable manifesto for pacifying that knave of a child we wrought together.” In quick sentences, he laid out the plan as it had been proposed to him, gesturing enthusiastically and growing increasingly red-faced. Eventually, breathing heavily, he was finished – and beheld a wry look upon her face.
“Is that really what you’ve spent all morning doing?” The Queen asked. “I just googled it after you stormed off earlier. Actually, I found a great video coaching thing on YouTube, where this guy from the US – ”
“YouTube be DAMNED!” roared the King, crashing his ironclad fist down upon the table with such force that it seemed all the room jumped an inch from the floor. “THE COUNCIL OF FATHERS HAS SPOKEN!”