Alari felt a tingle of delight ripple from her fingers down to her toes. The Green Council’s army lay decimated before her. She’d shoved their toxic defenses back a mile into the territory they’d taken, and she had the key to converting their Warbringers her to do her bidding. It felt so good to not hold back any longer.
“You shouldn’t smile so much,” Haldri said. “People will begin to think you’re enjoying this.”
“People would not be incorrect,” Alari said. “But your point is a valid one. There is still much to do here, and many who are injured or worse.”
Limiting herself to formal Gallagrin speech was irksome. Alari had learned imaginative profanities for all sorts of occasions from Dae. Dae’s repertoire had even included a number of celebratory blasphemes which Alari was toe curlingly eager to use given the circumstances.
With a sigh, she composed herself though. She was the Queen of Gallagrin. Displays of power aside, she needed to maintain the proper facade to remind people of that at all times.
“The Council will not be happy that you are suborning its resources I think,” Haldri said, glancing at the giant Warbringer that stood at attention awaiting Alari’s orders.
It was that change, even more than her arrival on the battlefield and subsequent disruption of the conflict via tornado-class winds, which had halted the Green Council’s advance. The Council was willing to match its strength against her, rightfully, but was hesitant at allowing her steal the forces it had deployed against Senkin.
It was a shame. Alari was impressed with the size and power of the Warbringers. Stealing a small army of them would make dealing with a certain subset of her nobles much easier.
“We suspect you are correct about the Council’s feelings,” Alari said. “These devices are exceptional creations. The Green Council really should have taken better care of them.”
“Devices?” Haldri said. “So they are not intelligent creatures in their own right?”
“They do not seem to be,” Alari said. “The modified transformation mist I exposed this one to would not have controlled the mind of a sentient creature. It only redirected the flow of its magics so that they originate from land beneath it instead of the Green Council.”
“And it is loyal to you for this new freedom?” Haldri asked.
“It has no loyalty,” Alari said. “Whatever Guiding Will once directed its actions, their command of the device seems to have been severed when its energy source changed.”
“I see why the rest of the Council’s forces have pulled back,” Haldri said. “They will not remain disengaged for long though.”
“You believe they will attack again once their courage returns?” Alari asked. “Or you believe that they have a weapon they can deploy to counter our strength?”
“Most likely both,” Haldri said. “The Council has been ready for this war for a long time. They have doubtless taken Gallagrin’s interference into account as well.”
“They have made a mistake though,” Alari said. “Haven’t they.”
Neither Alari nor Haldri were privy to the inner workings of the Green Council, neither knew the hidden agenda of its members, but each step the Council took revealed details of its true intentions.
The simplest example of this was the speed with which the Green Council launched its attack. The Blessed Realms lived in harmony and peace with one another. This was by Divine Decree. Even when the Sleeping Gods were awake the level of observable peace and harmony between the realms was not always particularly large though. There were natural barriers and divine constructions which helped keep the worst of the inter-realm animosity under control and times of actual warfare between realms were rare as a result.
Gallagrin and Paxmer were typical in this regards, where the sharp peaks between them limited battles to scuffles over border resources and bloodshed in the name of honor or glory. Neither realm made serious attempts at conquest of the other until the time of Alari’s father, and neither made any real progress in the attempt until Alari and Haldri’s final feud.
Unlike Gallagrin and Paxmer though, Senkin and the Green Council had been distinctly peaceful allies. Their border was free of any divinely erected dividers to segment the realms. In place of physical barriers though, there were social walls that grew taller with the passage of time. The two societies were alien enough to each other that both sides found the other primitive and unappealing to associate with, so they stuck to their own sphere.
All of that meant that neither had any reason to maintain the sort of army which could invade the other. Military forces to deal with marauding monsters were one thing. All of the realms possessed those, but an army that was draw together enough to present an undeniable threat to a neighboring realm? That required planning and coordination, which in turn revealed intent.
There wasn’t time to raise an army the likes of which the Green Council had raised, with specialized supplies and a surplus of extremely powerful units, in the month since the conquest of Paxmer. The forces which Alari faced therefor were prepared and placed over the space of the winter in all likelihood.
Or in other words, the Green Council had observed how the events had played out with the Consort-King Halrek the previous autumn, and had learned of Alari’s response to Paxmer then. They’d seen the tides of war swelling and had wagered that the edicts of the Sleeping Gods would be tested by the conflict. They weren’t the only realm to notice that, just the one most prepared to act on it, from what Alari could see.
“Yes, they’ve made the same mistake I did, I believe,” Haldri said. “They think you crave dominion over them and will fight to take the power they possess. They’re going to marshall their forces against you, but you’re not going to be here are you?”
“Though our enemy you be still, we could ask for no sharper advisor,” Alari said. “You mind is all edges of a blade, brilliant from every angle.”
Alari meant both the compliment and the implied challenge in her words. Haldri was no longer queen, but her true power hadn’t been her command of the Dragon King Haldraxan. She was keenly intelligent and more observant than almost anyone Alari knew. Since her fall from power, the expression of that intelligence had begun to change, as though being cast down had given Haldri perspectives she’d long been missing to fill in the gaps in her awareness.
That didn’t make the former Queen of Paxmer less dangerous, or any kinder, but wisdom was a tempering force all on its own. It was the sum of that which gave Alari hope, but she was keenly aware of the other side of that knife edge, where opportunity and stored resentment could combine in Haldri to deadly effect. Alari’s spoken observation was therefor as much recognition of Haldri’s capabilities as it was a warning that Alari was ready for them.
“It appears the Senkin forces are as stunned as the Council’s,” Haldri said.
Behind them, the Senkin troops who had been in full retreat were paused and silent. They had been chased by dire plant abominations that looked like they stepped out of a nightmare. In place of the monsters two women stood before them, and the monsters seemed hesitant to move forward. Discretion easily overwhelmed valor in that situation as even the bravest in the Senkin forces chose to wait a few moments and take stock of the new arrival on the battlefield.
The only ones who were still in motion were the medics. The violence with which Alari scattered the Council’s forces had not left the Senkin troops entirely unscathed either. Troops and equipment had been blown around the battlefield and there were still plenty of wounded to care for.
“It’s difficult to blame the Senkins for feeling out of their depth,” Alari said. “They have no training for scenarios like this and, it seems, no leadership who are up to the task of devising successful strategies against a foe who presses attacks of this scale against them.”
“It seems fair to blame them for failing to meet the challenge which they were trained for in the general case,” Haldri said. “An aggressor seeks to claim their territory. There is complexity in how the answer to that threat is phrased but even with their greater might and coordination, the Council’s forces are not all that different from the monsters the Senkin fight routinely.”
“We are glad that you feel such sentiments,” Alari said, delighted to see a look of surprise flicker across Haldri’s face.
“I thought you held kinder hopes for the Senkins,” Haldri said, speaking to what she knew Alari was going to say next rather than responding to what she’d already said.
“On the turn of this moment, there is but one kindness we can bestow on the Senkin,” Alari said. “Though we imagine you already know of what we speak.”
“I am not sure that I do,” Haldri said, surprise still wrinkling her features.
“Time races away from us, so we shall be brief,” Alari said. “We shall depart this field, but you shall remain.”
“You give me my freedom now? Here?” Haldri said.
“No, you remain our prisoner by right of conquest,” Alari said.
“And what cage will you place me in to keep me so?” Haldri asked.
“You needed be caged to rightfully be our prisoner,” Alari said. “That is the only the legal truth though. In practice, your prison is this conflict.”
“And why by all the Sleeping Gods would this open plain serve to hold me in?” Haldri asked. “I have never held concern for either realm on this field. They were ever your neighbors and of little interest to Paxmer.”
“The Senkin need a leader,” Alari said.
There were many more reasons why she’d chosen Haldri for that role, but they went unvoiced. Alari didn’t need to tell Haldri that there was no one else she could give the task to, no one who held the necessary mix of cunning and charisma matched with experience in leading large groups of people.
She didn’t need to tell Haldri that Senkin and the Green Council were in every measure just as much prisons as Gallagrin was. As the former queen of Paxmer, Haldri was too valuable (and dangerous) a piece in the grand game to be allowed any liberty. The Queen of Senkin knew that Haldri was in her country and would not allow such a powerful bargaining chip to either escape or take up a quiet life hidden away somewhere.
Flight into the Green Council’s lands would be even more perilous. If they discovered Paxmer’s former queen in their lands, their most likely response would be to render her down to parts and sell those pieces immediately to the potion makers in Inchesso. Anything else meant risking playing into the kind of deep schemes which nobles can afford to spend a lifetime crafting.
By arriving with Alari, Haldri had been placed in support of the Senkin by association. Her best hope for survival lay in taking command of the local army and guiding them to victory. If nothing else that could earn her the loyalty of the troops she fought with, and at best would force Senkin’s Queen to bestow her royal approval on Haldri’s presence.
There were deeper reasons Alari had chosen this assignment for Haldri, but she believed they might have escaped the Dragon Queen. If so it wouldn’t be surprising as they were founded on little more than the fairydust of hopes and dreams. In some things the Gallagrin Pact Spirit could offer unconscious nudging from its vast wisdom, but the spirit had never seen a king or queen attempt what Alari was trying so it had no guidance to offer her.
The gaze Haldri leveled at Alari was not a happy one, but there was a resignation to it.
“I thought you were kinder than this?” Haldri asked and Alari knew she wasn’t referring to the fact that Alari was abandoning her. She was speaking of what she would be able to do to the Senkin troops.
“Perhaps it was not our kindness you were seeing,” Alari said. She didn’t place a hand on Haldri’s shoulder. Their relationship was not one that admitted such gestures.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Haldri asked.
“Yes,” Alari said. “This Warbringer was in charge of the rest. We will use it to find the Green Council commander who directed this operation and have words with them.”
“The Green Council forces may not allow that,” Haldri said.
“Then you will be able to defend Senkin very easily,” Alari said and turned from the Dragon Queen to march into the maw of the largest army the Green Council had ever assembled.