The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 24

Haldri Paxmer was a name the former Queen of Paxmer was ready to leave behind. It came as a surprise to her to discover that though. She’d been unseated from her throne for barely more than a month. People didn’t change so drastically as to reject their own name in a the space of a handful of weeks. But then Haldri always knew she was special. As the Dragon Princess who won the throne, that fact was self-evident. If the time had come to shed her old scales and take on a new and more deadly form, then so be it.

“Your advice proved most sound,” Acting Captain Hexcourt Frederic said. “Whom may we praise in citations to our our Queen?”

Frederic had been the first to fall in line when Haldri arrived at the makeshift field office. His advancement to Captain had come as a battlefield promotion when the assigned Captain for the Solar Paladins had dropped in the first moments of combat. Frederic was technically fourth down the chain of command for the Solar Paladins and held the post only due to purchasing the rank he felt would meet his needs for propriety once his term was served. That the remainder of the Senkin command was filled with more officers like Frederic than not, made Haldri’s task both easier (in terms of filling a power vacuum) and  more complex (in terms of utilizing the strength of the forces available, as strength and talent were in short supply). Nonetheless, Haldi knew her answer without the need to spend time thinking about it.

“Your Queen will know who was responsible for turning the course of the war,” Haldri said. Technically true – Marie would know that Alari had intervened, but the troops would read the statement as a claim that Haldri was responsible, and accord her the deference she required. “We spoke before I journeyed here.” Also true, though not in the manner the troops would percieve it as. “You may address me however as Lady Fortune.”

As sobriquets went, it sounded ostentatious to Haldri’s ears, but for what she would require of them, Haldri needed her troops to believe she was nigh unto mythical in knowledge and power.

“An apt name under the circumstances.” Captain Sunrover Guenievre. “We wouldn’t have survived the night without you.”

Guenievre was one of the other six leaders of the Senkin force, and like Frederic had gained rank by filling a battlefield vacancy. Unlike Frederic though, she was used to command, having held the rank of Captain prior to the battle. She’d lost the rank as a penalty for some misadventure or misbehavior. Haldri didn’t care to push hard enough to find out which. It only mattered that Guinievre knew that regaining her former position was a tenuous thing and poor performance on the field would doom whatever career she aspired to possess afterwards.

“I am more concerned that we may not survive the day, even with my counsel,” Haldri said, striving to keep the focus on the matter at hand. The Green Council was a threat sufficient to overthrow a realm. Haldri needed to make sure it was also perceived as enough a threat that she could overthrow the normal rules command and usurp the power she needed. If Frederic and Guenievre and the other leader remained off balance, they would have fewer questions for their ‘advisor’ and allow her orders to simply flow throw them and be acted on as the hands acts on the orders of the mind. “Has any word come of reinforcement troops being dispatched?”

“None as of yet,” Frederic said. “But certainly they are mustering as we speak.”

“That’s unlikely at this juncture,” Haldri said. “Queen Marie is not a fool. The troops needed here are not ones she will be willing to spend so easily.”

The situation was almost too easy to play into. If Haldri had planned things from the start, she would have been reading from a script very similar the one she was inventing on the fly.

“But if we fall, the heart of Senkin lies open to the invaders plunder,” Guenievre said.

“Not if,” Haldri said. “When. The Green Council has mounted an unprecedented offensive in this attack. The forces we have here are not prepared to resist an onslaught that has is as built up and calculated as the Council’s is.”

An old voice in her heart laughed at that idea. If there was one failing she was never guilty of as the Queen of Paxmer it was being unprepared for an assault upon her realm. Against the Butcher King and his daughter, Haldri had always been ready to repel their armies and protect her people.

‘Her people’. She had called them that for so long, she couldn’t think of the citizens of Paxmer in any other manner. They’d been hers just as the gold in her hordes had been hers, each one counted and catalogued and leveraged to bring still greater wealth and power to the throne of Paxmer. No one and nothing was ever allowed to take what was hers.

And yet, she’d lost them. Her people. Her treasures. Everything she’d fought so hard to protect. No. Not protect. Guard. One does not protect a vault. One guards it. Because what’s inside doesn’t matter. All that matters is who it belongs to.

“You said that retreat is impossible though?” Frederic said, wringing his hands together. Although he was unwounded, his pallor was worse than some of the lucky few who’d made it to the medical tents that were setup after Alari’s assault on the Green Council’s forces.

“It is,” Haldri said. While that also served to place the Senkin forces under her control, Haldri wished it wasn’t true. If there was a real chance for any part of the Senkin force finding safety in fleeing the field, Haldri would have arranged to travel with them and left the rest of the Senkin to their inevitable demise.

“So we’re doomed then?” Guinievre asked. “If we can’t fight and we can’t run, our only option is to die with honor.”

Haldri had to suppress a smile and wistful longing. What she would have given, in hindsight, for Senkin to be Paxmer’s northern neighbor rather than Gallagrin. Black-and-white thinkers were so easy to manipulate, and so soon to abandon a situation when their imagination failed them. If Paxmer had been set to contend with Senkin when the gods went into their slumber, Paxmer might have conquered the world.

Of course, it was being neighbors with Paxmer which drove Galagrin to develop the martial prowess and acumen it possessed, and that process probably would have repeated with any of the other realms.

“We cannot retreat, and we cannot resist the Green Council’s offensive,” Haldri said. “But we are not doomed. The Council expects Senkin to defend its lands, we’re not going to do that.”

“But we have to defend the realm,” Frederic said. “Mounting a defense against invaders is the reason we exist as a fighting force in the first place.”

“The Green Council is prepared for your defenses. They can push through them because you’ve used the same tactics for centuries,” Haldri said. She didn’t have to guess at that, the troops she’d spoken with had proudly proclaimed how expert they were in proven battle formations that went developed while the gods still walked the Realms. That the gods no longer walked the realms or offered their direct aid in support of the battle formations was lost of everyone but herself as far as Haldri could see.

“But how can they know us that well,” Guinievre said. “We’ve never run joint missions with the Council forces!”

“Do you only perform missions when the sky is clear and no birds are on the wing?” Haldri asked. “Are your troops warded against scrying magics? And do you possess sufficient prowess with scrying magics yourself to spy on all of these who would spy on you?”

The race in technique for those capable of mastering scrying spells was part of an eternal war fought between all of the “intelligence divisions” of the various realms. Everyone could spy on one another, to various degrees, but no one knew if they could see everything, or how much of what they saw was what the realm under observation wanted them to see.

“So, we need to hide from the Green Council then?” Frederic asked. “That’s our other option besides a failed retreat and a failed defense?”

“Yes, but not in the manner you think,” Haldri said. “We can’t hide and let the Council’s forces pass. They will be looking for us, and if we crawl into a warren like a pack of rabbits then they will be able to set the terms of the battle, as they’ve set the terms of the war so far.”

“You had us harry their forces last night,” Guinievre said. “We used our most mobile units but they are exhausted or injured or both from the work. I don’t think we can call on them again for such service.”

“We will need to press them back into battle before their wounds are mended, but you are correct, we cannot use them again so soon,” Haldri said. For a brief, traitorous moment, she wished Alari were in the room. The Senkin Captains were too easy to manipulate. They didn’t push back hard enough which left Haldri feeling unusually shaky in her reasoning.

As a Queen she hadn’t lacked for advisors. She hadn’t been overly generous in her treatment of them though and had dismissed their opinions as simply lesser than her own. Arguing with Alari had been a shocking change in light of that. Both before and after their conflict ended, Alari had been someone who Haldri wanted to dismiss but couldn’t.

Their discussions were civil, but barbed. Haldri spent many of them looking to inflict what shallow wounds she could on her captor, but Alari’s verbal defenses were formidable. Faced with a worthy opponent, Haldri felt her mind latch on to the flow of words between them and expand as it tried to form ever sharper rebuttals to Alari’s points.

If Alari were here, she would act as a perfect sounding board for Haldri’s hastily assembled schemes. Of course, if Alari were here, Haldri’s schemes would be placing the Paxmer Queen at the heart of the conflict and hoping the chaos of battle would do what Paxmer’s long drawn out plans had failed to achieve.

“Our forces are still in disarray,” Frederic said. “Even if we present them with a masterful battle strategy, I don’t think they will be able to carry it off.”

In his own manner, Frederic was a wise commander. He knew his limitations, and he knew the limitations of the troops he commanded. If he could have paired imagination with those traits, he might even have been a good one.

“It’s been long enough,” Haldri said. “They’re not in disarray, they just don’t want to fight a foe that can crush them into jelly or transform them into fungus with a simple cloud of dust. That’s why the strategy we must pursue must be a simple one.”

“Won’t the Green Council be ready for any simple strategy we employ though?” Frederic asked.

“Not if we present them with the right mystery,” Haldri said. “Give a commander an unexpected puzzle and they were lose focus unless they are trained in the arts of deception themselves,” Haldri said.

“What mystery can we give them that they would care about though?” Guenievre asked.

“We’re going to make them believe that our army has doubled in size, despite no one seeing any forces arrive to reinforce us,” Haldri said.

“We don’t have any Sunlost illusion casters though,” Frederic said.

“Yes, and that’s going to work in our favor,” Haldri said. “When they see the extra people on our battlements, they’ll believe that what they are looking at is real, because they’ll know it can’t be an illusion.”

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