SFReader 2002 Story Contest
Third Place Winner
Howard Andrew Jones edits technical books for a living, but he’d much rather be writing tales of heroic fantasy. His fiction has appeared in several semi-pro magazines and some pro ezines, and he has written a half-dozen computer game hint guides. He lists his six favorite authors, in no particular order, as Shakespeare, Lord Dunsany, Saki, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett, and Harold Lamb. He is especially proud to have been asked by Wildside Press to select, edit, and write introductions for a series of books reprinting Lamb’s historical fiction, and hopes his efforts will help lift this talented author from obscurity.
Marmion blinked in the darkness as he fumbled for his pistol. Elise’s assassins had finally come, and were even now pounding upon his door.
“My lord, my lord!”
The strained voice was that of his chief minister, Lothair.
Marmion hesitated and then lowered the pistol into its bedside drawer. It had occurred to him that assassins would not knock, and irritation replaced his fear. “This had best be good!”
“The barbarians have crossed the mountains, majesty. The second legion has been routed in a great battle.”
Marmion never launched into rash decisions, but he moved quickly that night, and by early morning he had seconded the grand Marshall’s contingency plan.
And so the third legion raced from Vendekar into the path of the oncoming barbarian horde. That afternoon Marmion impatiently awaited word of them, striding back and forth in the palace gardens, his nerves so taut that he spent only an hour with his favorite mistress.
At last a courier galloped in from the Marsolan road. He stopped to speak to no one, but somehow word careened through Archatain anyway. The third legion had been massacred almost to a man. The barbarians were en route for Archatain itself. If not for the rich looting of the villages and towns in their path, they might have reached the city already.
Archatain flooded with refugees from the suburbs. A crowd of thousands gathered outside the towered palace, repetitiously chanting a two syllabic name.
Marmion, gathered in his council chamber with the chief minister, the grand Marshall, and his other ministers, could not help but hear them, though he pretended otherwise.
“They call for Elise,” the grand Marshall said.
Marmion snarled. “I know.”
“Perhaps,” Lothair said, then cleared his throat delicately. “Perhaps your majesty should consider recalling her.”
Marmion slammed his palm against the table. It hurt more than he expected, but the raised eyebrows pleased him. He rarely surprised his ministers. “We will not recall the witch!” Elise had poisoned the mind of his own father, turning him against Marmion’s mother. Elise had pushed his mother from his father’s bed, then ruled after his death as first counsel until Marmion was old enough to grasp the reigns. Only luck and the loyalty of a few well-paid friends had seen Marmion through her many plots. Elise was too well-regarded to kill outright, so Marmion had relieved her from duty, letting it be known in all but word that her return to her ancestral lands was exile.
“There must be something else that can be done!” Marmion cried.
“There are the household troops,” the grand Marshall suggested. He was a young man with a square chin, appointed recently to his post because Marmion had witnessed his excellence upon the riding field. It was accident that he had a small reserve of common sense.
“No.” Marmion shook his head. “Who will protect the palace?” He frowned during the silence which followed. The chanting for Elise seemed to have grown in strength—a surging wave of sound breaking on the palace walls.
“We can dispatch all but a hundred of them,” the Grand Marshall suggested. “That will put two thousand in the field. I will lead them personally, and with your leave, will take the first legion.”
Marmion fingered his bottom lip. “If you send out the first legion, who will defend the city?”
“If this effort fails, majesty, it may not matter,” Lothair said grimly.
Marmion rocked back and forth in his chair for a short moment. “Very well. Leave immediately. And disperse that crowd out there! Remy, throw them some coins or something.”
And so Grand Marshall Armand rode forth. It was said that his men fought bravely, and held the barbarians at the great northern wall for almost three hours. In the end, though, they fell. One of Armand’s last actions was to send a post rider galloping back with word of the defeat.
Marmion had already learned of it, however, through the scrying ball of his sorceror, and by the time official word reached him his servants were loading wagons with his favorite belongings. Lothair found him pacing beside the gardens. The spring foliage was bright with fragrant carnelian blossoms. Beyond the walls the calls for Elise reverberated once more.
“You are leaving, majesty?” Lothair could not quite disguise his contempt.
“I go,” Marmion explained, somewhat defensively, “to lead the legions from the southern border.”
“Your father would not have left Archatain, no matter the odds.”
Marmion snapped his answer. “My father was a blind fool wrapped about a witch’s finger.” He raised one arm to indicate the chanting crowd out of sight beyond the walls. “Listen to those idiots. They deserve whatever happens to them!”
“They want only protection, majesty.”
“I’ve done everything I can. The armies are routed. Remy tells me the walls will hold for a time, but we’ve few soldiers left to man them.”
There would be even fewer if the king left with his bodyguard-—though he would need them to fend off the mob which was sure to be whipped into frenzy at sight of their ruler fleeing with his tail between his legs. Lothair waited, frowning, while a servant ran up with news that the smoke from burning villages could be seen from the walls.
“My horse!” Marmion cupped his hands together and shouted. “Bring my horse!”
“Majesty.” Lothair stepped in front of Marmion. “Majesty. I would beg a final favor.”
“Of course, you may come. The ship is waiting.”
The chief minister shook his head. “With your leave, I would call back Elise and reinstate her rank.”
Marmion’s lips curled back from his teeth, and he raised his hand, as though he meant to strike.
At that moment the king’s horse was brought forth and Marmion turned, scowling. He leapt effortlessly into the saddle. If nothing else, Marmion was a fine horseman.
He swung the brown mare’s head around and regarded Lothair. “Call her, then, if you will,” he said, adding spitefully: “If she can save Archatain now she must truly be a witch.” He pursed his lips. “I leave you to her, and the mercies of the barbarians.” With a perfunctorily salute, he cantered for the stables, where his guard awaited. If he had to leave his wagons, then so be it. His mother had always told him a ruler sometimes had to make painful choices.
Criers rode through the city with word that Elise was restored to rank and returned that night to Archatain. The throngs cheered, praising her name and sharing tell of her victories. They had grown in the years so that some were but distant cousins of the truth.
Elise herself, slim and erect still for all her fifty odd years, cut an uncommon figure for adoration. She wore only her loose traveling clothes and sea-blue cloak. The garments were well-fashioned but absent of glitter, as were the trappings of her horse. Steel gray hair shot through with black hung barely to her shoulders, a fashion out-of-step with the high elaborate hairstyles of courtly ladies, who would not have been seen in trousers lacking make-up—-or sitting astride a horse–in any case.
Luciene rode after Elise, still topped by a floppy blue hat with a single feather. His slight chin was now concealed by a short gray beard.
The people pressed toward Elise, but did not reach out, as though Elise were a creature of mist or an illusion that might vanish if they dared touch her. They called her name, and some even asked how she planned to save them, but Elise said little.
Within a quarter hour of her arrival, however, the criers were in the street again. Their call was simple. Any and all veterans who had served with Elise were to gather in Panaus circle before the Theatre of Shadows by ten bells.
And so they came, old scarred men, fat or balding or limping, bakers, butchers, city watchmen, tanners, innkeepers. Luciene watched their arrival from the topmost stair of the theatre. Torchlight mirrored orangely from the gray marble of the theatre’s columns, and gleamed off the immense bronze stallion that reared in the circle’s center. The old soldiers talked quietly amongst themselves and stood in little groups. Comrades from years before clasped hands and shared stories and reminisced. Many spoke of the enormous odds against them, and all were watchful, looking for sign or word from Elise.
At last she arrived, on her coal-black mare, her blue cloak unfurled behind her. She dismounted at the circle’s edge and walked into their midst. She greeted even those whom she did not remember, calling by name many familiar faces.
“Marshall,” one cried, “do you remember me, at the gorge of Mehmet?”
“I do, corporal. So do the Feydani.”
“Marshall!” A round man in a green robe had pushed forward and Elise halted before him.
“Colonel.” She smiled. “Or should I say brother? When did you join the order?”
“Ten years now, Marshall. But I am no brother this night. Again I am your Colonel.” He clicked his heels together, though he wore only slippers, and bowed with a courtly flourish never seen among Hearth Brothers.
There were other comrades, some dear to her, and Elise moved among them all, quiet, composed. None dared ask her plans and she volunteered nothing.
As she reached the bottom stair another voice cried out to her and Elise turned. The gathered men turned with her. At the edge of the circle two pot-helmed spear-carriers in red prison livery stepped forward. Between them was a manacled, begrimed figure in tattered brown.
“This man here says he served wi’ you,” one of the stout jailers said.
“It is me, Marshall,” the prisoner cried.
Something in the voice set Elise’s eyebrow twitching, and her soldiers parted before her as she strode, hand pressed to the sword at her side. She halted before the jailers and their charge, and no trace of disgust from the prisoner’s unwashed odor crossed her face.
She peered long at the man, seeing something familiar in the thin face. At first his eyes searched hers hopefully, like a dog longing for a pat, but he then drew himself erect, threw back his thin shoulders, and held up his chin.
“Dupris,” Elise whispered.
This bedraggled man with missing teeth was some nightmare version of the reckless young man she had known. Thousands of yesterdays lay between this night and the afternoon he had stood with squared shoulders in the shining sunlight, trim and fit in his dress uniform as the king pinned a gleaming bronze medal upon his breast and bestowed his captaincy. She remembered the clear longing in his eyes, that day, a searching gaze that had become more and more troubling the longer they served together, until she had finally dispatched him to the northern marches lest she take the vibrant young man by those powerful shoulders and press her lips to his.
A brief play of these memories showed on her face, and tears streamed suddenly down Dupris’ cheeks, though he still stood ramrod straight. “I have sunk low, Marshall.”
“What did you do?”
“I…”Dupris hesitated, then his mouth shaped a grim line. “I killed a man, Marhsall.”
She nodded slowly. “A duel?”
Dupris opened his mouth as if to agree, then shook his head. “No, Marshall. It was over a gambling debt.”
Still she regarded him. Abruptly she turned to his jailers. “Strike off his chains. His sentence is with me, now.”
While one of the jailers fumbled with his keyring, Elise walked back through her army. They were so quiet that they heard the click of her boot heels on pavement, accompanied by the harsh musical note of jangling keys and the clatter of manacles dropped on stone.
Dupris stepped up to the other old soldiers, feeling his wrists, while Elise climbed the stairs. She left her hand on her pommel and looked out at the men as Luciene whispered in her ear. Three-hundred and thirty-four. Against tens of thousands of Riegans.
“We’re grayer and slower now,” she called to the men. “But most of us are a lot smarter, or we wouldn’t still be here. Or we’re just plain lucky. Either way, I’m glad to have you at my side-—you can never have too many smart or lucky men.”
She paused briefly. “The Riegans have larger numbers, but you should know that numbers don’t count-—it’s how you use your numbers. We showed the Riegans that before, and the Feydani, and the Rakourans. In the morning we’re going to teach the Riegans again.”
She considered their anxious faces. Elise knew nothing she might say could convince a man he was as fine a soldier as he’d been at the height of his youth. So for the first time, she played directly upon their faith. It was the sort of trick she had always despised in leaders, but she needed them to believe.
“Let them have their numbers,” she said. “You have me!”
That raised a ragged cheer. She held up her hands and the men silenced.
“I have never failed you,” she called, “and I will not fail you now! Ride with me, brothers! We will raise the standard and scatter the enemy like chaff!”
This time the cheers swept over her in a great crescendo. She let them wash over the crowd, so that they might take strength from their confidence. But she wasted no more words—there was too much to be done.
They found horses in the noble houses and royal stables and even took racing mares from the Grand Palais. From the Theatre of Shadows Luciene culled bright blue flags emblazoned with the number 15—Elise’s legion, disbanded by Marmion. The legion’s real banners had long since been destroyed, but the theatre had kept copies of them in storage, from a series of banned plays. Armor and arms proved more challenging, but Luciene hunted them out in homes and shops and even in museums.
So it came to pass that a mounted host rode forth from Archatain in the hour before dawn, their armor shining in the torchlight, their banners high. The high walls of Archatain were manned by sailors, jailers, bodyguards, and the desperate, cheering populace, craning for sight of Elise’s host, praying to the sea goddess Shayla and the Lord of hearths and whomever else might be listening that she would somehow save Archatain one last time.
The wisest of them prepared to die.
“Victory!” The bald shaman grinned and looked up from the human finger bones he had scattered in the golden plate.
The broad-faced, mustached men to the sides of Gutchluk’s throne laughed with pleasure. Gutchluk Khan, though, grunted. It pleased him to hear another prediction of success, but the priest had touched the bones overlong before making his pronouncement.
“What more?” Gutchluk asked his shaman.
“I have watched the spirit-ball, as you commanded, my khan. And the city of the silver walls has coughed up a new army.”
“Tell me of it.”
“The ball is dark-—and it is difficult to see much, even for one with my skills…” He did not add that there seemed to be a mild distortion about the army, as though someone interfered with his visions—to say as much would indicate his power was not as practiced as he pretended. “The army seems small. And a woman leads it.”
The men about Gutchluk laughed, all save a gray-haired warrior on Gutchluk’s left, who stared meaningfully at the khan.
Gutchluk’s eyes narrowed and nodded for the man to speak.
“It may be her,” the gray-haired warrior said. “The one who leads armies like a god.”
“Subotai fears a woman, oh khan,” one of the other warriors said. “Let me go, and I will smash her.”
Their came other murmurs of assent. Subotai grasped his pommel and growled.
Gutchluk held up his hand and all fell silent.
The people south of the mountains were soft, and their wine was good. Their women were lovely, though useless. But their land was strange to Gutchluk. Everything seemed backwards. They kept men and beasts behind walls. The horizon was too close—it was hard to see long distances because of the countless hills and forests. The men fought like women. Yet the greatest of these southerners was a woman herself. Gutchluk’s uncle had learned his final lesson when he laughed at an army led by this woman, and it was because of her that no Riegans had dared the southerners for many years.
“Speak, shaman,” Gutchluk said. “Tell me what else the bones said.”
The shaman licked his thin lips. “We will leave with much gold and booty, khan. But there will be a struggle.”
“There are always struggles. Can you tell me more?” Gutchluk watched the shaman blink and realized that anything more he said would be lies. He waved him silent. “You may leave.”
Gutchluk watched in the smoky yurt as his generals debated. Most favored challenging the city people. The older warriors knew that these southerners had other armies posted further south and they would likely arrive soon. The successes, though, had convinced the men that all these armies were as grass to be walked through, and Gutchluk was inclined to agree.
Yet at his side stood Subotai, his most trusted advisor, who had ridden at the side of his uncle and seen his defeat at the woman’s hand. Two ideas struck Gutchluk—that the raid had gone well and it was ill to tempt the spirits of this land further. But Gutchluk thought that he would like to try this woman’s army, or at least look upon her. It would be something to see a woman who led armies like a god.
“Ulmak-—ride forth with a troop and see this woman’s army. Count it and test it, if you will. I want the woman alive.”
“It will be so, my khan.”
Ulmak, a tall man with two red-dyed eagle feathers in his felt hat, bowed before the khan and left the yurt. He found the shaman waiting just outside, and beckoned him to follow.
Many of the warriors were drunk on the sweet southern wine that morning, and it took Ulmak an hour to ready them. In the days of the old khans drinking on the march had been punishable by death. Today many of Gutchluk’s generals were just as drunk as the warriors they led, even though a dawn council had been planned.
Ulmak, though, was sober, and his muddy brown eyes scanned the horizon as he led four thousand horsemen forward. A fog lay over the rolling land, so he sent out three lines of scouts to find their way. At mid-day they passed an abandoned village and he had to send word back to the khan that they had yet seen no enemy. The shaman told him that the fog and light rain which followed were the work of enemy wizards. Ulmak grew more cautious.
In the evening one of his scouts led him to the height of a great hill and he looked down upon a swath of woodland. Beyond the woodland was a lesser height, upon which burned countless fires, as of a mighty host. Beyond those fires, on the horizon, stood the silver-white walls of a city so vast Ulmak could scarce believe its size.
The shaman, Tendu, cast the finger bones and laughed.
“This is but a trick, my leader.”
Ulmak, squatting on the ground beside the older man, frowned. He did not like the finger bones or Tendu’s odor, for the shaman always smelled faintly of entrails. “Those are the southern armies.”
“Nay, my leader, this is the woman’s doing. She seeks to trick you with extra fires. Only a few hundred ride with her. She is desperate,” the shaman whispered. “If you ride against her now, she will be yours.”
His scouts had relayed that there was a good wide road through the forest, but Ulmak hesitated. He did not care for forests.
“We dare not wait, or more armies will join her,” Tendu said.
“Quit your croaking, toad,” Ulmak growled. He sensed the shaman spoke truth, at least about his finger bones. The rest of his advice was tainted by desire for glory, but there was wisdom in it as well. Gutchluk grinned. Why was he hesitating? Even if this woman did lead them, she led only more soft southerners. What trick could she play upon he, Ulmak, nephew of Gutchluk?
And so he rode down into the gloom of the forest in the hour before twilight, and under the shading poplars and elms and silver-leafed oaks he found the army of Archatain.
A sudden storm of arrows and spears volleyed into his column from left and right. Men and horses went down screaming. Ulmak sent men into the brush to fight them, but the enemy retreated, calling taunts, and his men grew frightened.
And then came the thundering hooves.
Ulmak kicked his own horse into gallop, and he and the front rank of men collided with Elise’s cavalry.
Ulmak sliced down two thickset men in armor and pressed toward a slim figure slashing left and right with a cavalry saber. Their eyes met, and he realized with a start that this beardless man must be the woman general. He rode at her. He heard a faint pop over the roar of battle and only then saw the pistol in the woman’s hand.
But she had missed. Once, twice he swung, but she parried deftly. The battle lust was hot within him, but Ulmak suddenly recalled that the woman was to be brought back alive, so he struck more carefully, hoping to disarm her.
Again she blocked, and suddenly Ulmak faced a swarm of angry men riding between himself and the woman. He was startled to see how old and wrinkled most of the warriors were. He knocked one down, to be trampled beneath the hooves of the shifting horses, and pressed back toward the woman. Again he swung, his blade clanging upon hers, and his greater strength beat down her guard. Elise’s saber twisted from her hand and spun to earth.
Ulmak raised his blade again, fully expecting to knock Elise senseless with its flat. Instead she twisted in her saddle and tugged on the reins. Her horse reared and spun and Ulmak suddenly faced two slashing hooves. His sword swung up uselessly. One hoof smashed in the side of his face and the other crushed his collar bone. The combined strike threw him into the churning hooves. He did not even have time to scream.
The battle was won that moment. Leaderless, spooked by the arrows from the darkness and the unexpectedly strong resistance, the Riegans fled. They would never know that less than fifty men had fired on them from the forest, moving swiftly from place to place, and that less than three hundred, the rest of Elise’s force, had engaged the front of their column. It did not matter. In the narrow space only the forward ranks of Ulmak’s column could fight, and against those men Elise had triumphed. Those untested retreated with their fellows.
Elise followed Gutchluk’s leisurely retreat, breaking her small force into four separate columns that could be glimpsed by her foe, as though they were the advance of some much vaster force. Her warriors rode proudly.
The Riegans were content enough with the vast stores of wealth and slaves they had raped from the countryside. If they had probed more carefully—if Elise had died rather than the Riegan leader she’d killed—she knew they would be marching on Archatain even now.
Two days after the skirmish with Ulmak, as twilight gathered, she looked down from a ridge as the Riegans set up camp near the foothills of the mountains. She nearly tingled with frustration—the small, rolling plain would hamper the Riegan cavalry. If she had a larger force, she could finish them.
“Marshall.” Dupris called her name. She turned in her saddle.
Dupris wore a baggy uniform that sat poorly on his thin shoulders, but he was cleaner, and more fragrant. His careworn face had only a shadow of its former beauty. He smiled sadly, as if sensing her thoughts, then waved a hand back to the south. “A rider approaches.”
Elise brightened. Might the reinforcements finally have arrived?
Luciene approached from the south, trailed by a younger man. The stranger, his dark cloak billowing out behind him, his helm feathers quivering, galloped up the rise and then gave a passable salute. Luciene rode up to Elise’s right hand.
“Greetings, Marshall,” he said. “The king sends his regards.”
“How helpful of him,” Luciene remarked.
“What does he want?”
“He has personally led the second and fourth legions from the Feydani border, and they are but a few hour’s march behind you.”
For the briefest of moments Elise’s heart surged with joy. The king’s arrival could not have been more fortuitous.
“You are removed, effective immediately, from command,” the courier continued. “Any activity which might be construed by the Riegans as hostile is to cease at once—we do not wish to antagonize them further.”
Elise’s mobile face froze.
“Antagonize them?” Dupris snarled.
“The king feels,” the courier continued, shifting in his saddle, “that the enemy retreat is fortuitous and we do not wish to give them cause to turn about.”
“They’re retreating because of Elise!” Dupris said.
“Do you have a written missive?” Luciene asked.
The courier blinked his large brown eyes. “No, sir, I do not.”
Luciene smiled and started to speak, but Elise raised her hand sharply, almost as thought she were smacking the air, and he fell silent.
The courier watched Elise’s face as she slowly lowered her hand and stared over his shoulder. When she turned her gaze into his own it was as though he faced two burning blue coals.
“Tell the king that he may return home to play with his horses and women, now that I have saved it for him. Do you have that?”
“Yes…” the courier said.
“Repeat it!” Elise snapped.
The man stammered for a moment. “The king may return home to play with his horses and women, now that you have saved Archatain for him.”
“Good. Tell him further that I mean to crush the Riegans and have no need of his armies-—after all, he needs someone to hold his hand on the way home. Do you have that?”
The courier nodded, wordless.
“Go,” Elise snarled.
The courier blinked stupidly, but before Elise could yell at him, he saluted sharply, turned, and galloped down the rise.
“Dupris, ride with him. Escort the king back to the front and see if there are any worthwhile officers with him. And make sure the king gets my message precisely.”
“Yes, Marshall.” Dupris saluted. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
He did not wait for an answer—he squared his shoulders and galloped off. Elise watched him. From a distance, if she squinted, Dupris’ carriage resembled that of his youth.
“You have finally lost your mind,” Luciene said. “We cannot face the Riegans in open battle. And there is nothing but open battle below. We need those legions.”
“We do,” Elise agreed. “And if I had told the king to bring them up, he would have held them back out of spite. Now he’ll march them double-time.”
“Perhaps—-” a grin briefly crossed Luciene’s face—-“but what are you going to do when he gets here?”
Elise didn’t answer.
“You don’t know, do you?”
Still his Marshall said nothing. Luciene almost prompted her further, but noticed that a familiar fixed expression had come upon her face. If Elise had not known what she would do a moment before, something had come to her just now.
“Luciene.” Absently she unclasped her cloak and swept it from her shoulders. “Take this.”
Luciene urged his mount closer and took the garment, searching his Marshall’s eyes for meaning. The cloak, he knew, held a mild enchantment and helped mask her movements through scrying balls.
“Leave me fifty men. Take the rest around the Riegans and position yourself in the pass. The Riegans are liable to have a few scouts moving through, so there will be some fighting. Under no account are any of you to be seen by the main force. Do you understand?”
“But of course-—but we could not hold them off in the pass—”
“It is a bluff, Luciene. Once you are positioned, signal me obviously so that the Riegans can see. Light many bonfires, as we did the other evening. With the aid of my cloak, and the oncoming night, Riegan scrying balls will tell little.”
“The Riegans will think they sit between two forces,” Luciene realized out loud.
“But you assume that you will be able to lead the legions the King marches towards you-if he does as you hope. In a few hours time he may have you in chains.”
“I will worry about that. Go, Luciene.”
He shook his head. “I had grown fond of retirement,” he said. He saluted with a sigh, then galloped off, crying for Colonel Harbin.
Elise too had enjoyed the simpler life, losing herself in the care of the vines and the cycle of seasons. Her son was proving an able manager and the land was good to them. How pleasant it was to be walking in the warm sun helmed only by a straw hat, no machinations to concern herself with save for the simple complaints of the fussy miller. Let Marmion fuss and preen in Archatain—he could have the city and all its cares. Not since that fateful spring of her fourteenth year had life been so sweet, and simple. Elise found herself looking forward to concluding the campaign and the forthcoming tussle with Marmion—-there was planting to do.
One of Marmion’s redeeming habits was his predictability. Elise knew with certainty he would ride in advance of the army, fuming, with an honor guard and toadies, in only a few hours. So she was at first surprised and then concerned when there was no sign of him whatsoever come nightfall. At least Luciene was in position—-the bonfires of his pretend horde burned like so many fireflies beyond the circled Riegan troops.
Her sentries did announce an arrival, but it had not come from the king’s legions. At Elise’s word, three Riegans were brought before her.
All three were broad shouldered, broad faced, and squat, with long mustaches and hair. Their legs were bowed, lending them almost a waddle as they walked up to Elise, still seated on her mare.
The largest halted four paces beyond Elise, flanked by his companions.
Elise swung down from her saddle, ignoring a warning from one of her guards.
And so she stood almost eye-to-eye with Gutchluk Khan, who stared at her for a very long moment. Finally he bowed quickly, in an awkward semblance of an Archatain court bow. Elise nodded once. “Speak.”
The Archanar that came from his thin-lipped mouth was grossly accented and guttural, and Elise understood him only with difficulty.
“The Shaman’s spirit ball whispers many things, but I do not trust him. My eyes see the campfires there.” He half-turned to point out Luciene’s force. “I know an army follows you.”
“A wise man trusts his eyes and not the words of others,” Elise said.
Gutchluk seemed to mull this over, then grunted his appreciation. His people had a similar saying.
“What do you want, Riegan?”
“I wished to see the face of the woman who leads armies like a God.”
“You have done so. Now I shall give you terms. You will leave the slaves you have gathered, with no further harm. You will leave your plunder. You will leave us a thousand horses. I will signal my men to depart the pass, and you will advance through it this night. We will not follow.”
Gutchluk said nothing for a moment. Then he nodded. “We will do this thing. My word is not smoke.”
“My word is sure as the wind upon the grass.”
Again Gutchluk grunted his approval.
“Know you, Khan, that if you come again into our land I shall not be so merciful.”
Gutchluk grunted once.
“You may go,” Elise said. She nodded to Gutchluk’s bow, then watched them be led back to their horses. Only moments after their departure she finally heard hoofbeats to her rear, and the sentries reported that a cavalry unit had arrived. Elise smiled grimly to herself. So long as there was at least one toady of common intelligence among those with the king, all might still go well. The dead could not be restored to life, but the captives at least would be restored to liberty.
She could not guess what the king would do. Would he permit her even to return to her lands? Surely he must, after her victory here. And what of her son? Might August walk free in her fields, or had she doomed him by her actions? Quietly she cursed Marmion, wondering again if there was something more she could have done to guide the affable child down a path that would have led them other than here.
The king did not ride in the forefront. Elise’s eyes instead found the paunchy chief minister, Lothair, in stiff military jacket with a long cloak. With him came a parcel of unfamiliar officers, accompanied by Dupris.
Elise dismounted and called for torches. So lightly had her army traveled that there was no field tent in which to conference.
The light flickered on brass buttons and brushed the lean faces of the grim-faced soldiers. Elise looked back and forth between them and returned their salute. She understood, then. The king dared not appear to arrest her himself—he had sent these men to do it.
“Marshall,” Lothair intoned solemnly. “We regret to inform you that the king is dead.”
“What?” For once Elise could not conceal her surprise.
“There was an accident,” the chief minister continued. “Something the courier relayed… upset him, and the king struck his mount several times with his riding crop.” The chief minister watched Elise’s face but could tell nothing from her blank expression. “The beast reared, and he fell.”
“I was right there, Marshall,” Dupris added. “but there was nothing I could do.”
Elise wondered what that meant, but explanation followed from Lothair, who nodded sadly.
“Yes, it was fortunate your personal physician was on hand—”
At this Elise searched Dupris’ face, but he revealed nothing. The only thing Dupris knew of injuries was how to make them.
“—but the king ceased moving altogether and died.”
“You may be assured that it was painless,” Dupris relayed.
The chief minister’s gaze was momentarily cogent, as if he meant to communicate something. He dropped his eyes, almost in shame, before continuing.
“This is a difficult time to broach this, Marshall, but, the king is without heirs… and we… I mean the army and the people of Archatain–” Lothair fell silent, for he had observed tears upon the Marshall’s cheeks. He removed his hat, and the officers doffed their hats and helms. Elise turned away, angrily shrugging Dupris’ hand off as he dared her shoulder.
The remorse she showed that night fed into her legend, and it was later told how she had openly wept at the death of the man who had scorned her. The officers supposed that their new Queen recalled Marmion in his youth, or that she mourned Marmion because he was the son of the king she loved. Their assumptions were true only in part. They never knew that she wept for the wine fields she would never tend again, and for her son, who would one day bear a crown.Share