Eorn itched to transform. A skin of iron and a blade that could cleave stone felt like desperately good ideas under the circumstances. Conversely, sitting unarmed and unarmored atop a hill while an enemy army advanced on them hand felt like the opposite of a good idea.
“This is literally the worst plan you could come up with wasn’t it?” she asked.
“No, of course not,” Teo said. “The worst would be to greet them naked.”
“Without our pact armor, we pretty much are naked,” Eorn said.
“Think of the epic tale you’ll get to regale your family with then,” Teo said. “Who else in history has faced down a realm conquering army without so much as a dagger in their hands?”
“A large number of corpses,” Eorn said.
“That’s a valid point, but just because no one’s ever pulled off a scheme like this before doesn’t mean we can’t be the first,” Teo said.
“There are many gravestones that should have those words carved into them,” Eorn said. “I have to confess I was hoping mine would be adorned with something at least a trifle less embarrassing.”
“Well it looks like you’ll have plenty of time to pick out the phrase of your choice,” Teo said. “If things were going according to plan, there would be a thousand soldiers marching out of the Council’s forest at us already.”
“See it’s that part of the plan where I begin having problems with what we’re doing,” Eorn said. “A thousand soldiers seems like a low estimate for how many the Green Council send to invade another realm, but a much higher number than I’d want to be waiting for without any tools to defend myself with.”
She looked down the north side of the sharply sloped hill to where the thick forests of the Green Council had grown up like a wall, hedging the ancient realm in and all foreigners out. The hill they sat on ran for miles to the west, rising as it went, until turning into the foothills that lead to Gallagrin’s mountainous cliffs. To the east, the hill slowly dwindled in height before plunging into the Swamp of Tears that formed an all-but-impassable border between the Council’s lands and Inchesso’s northern provinces.
The dense undergrowth of the forest showed no signs of movement, but a preternatural shadow lingered under its canopy that could conceal almost anything and was definitely the product of some odd branch of sorcery.
While, they couldn’t see any movement from within the Council’s lands, Eorn felt like far more than a thousand pairs of eyes were trained on her.
“You’re probably right,” Teo said.
“That we should transform?” Eorn said.
“No, that a thousand soldiers is too low a total,” Teo said. “That was Queen Alari’s guess at the minimum force they would send, but on this scale a thousand soldiers amounts to a small raiding party.”
“I wish we could know how things were going on the other fronts,” Eorn said.
“It could be a good sign that we’re not seeing troops from the Council yet,” Teo said. “If Senkin is winning, or our forces have pushed in far enough…”
“Then communications wouldn’t be silent,” Eorn said, cutting Teo off.
“Yes, I suppose that’s true. That doesn’t mean we need to assume the worst has happened though.”
“It’s not the worst possible outcome I’m worried about,” Eorn said. “It’s all the horrible things that are more likely than that but not quite as bad.”
“I know,” Teo said. “I feel the same. Ren should be safely ensconced in the diplomatic wing at the Royal Palace in Senkin. He should be far away from danger and able to flee the country long before any of the Council’s forces can menace the capital. I’ve been reminding myself of that every five minutes or so.”
“He’s not the type to stay behind in safety though is he?” Eorn asked.
“No,” Teo said. “Sadly he is not.”
“Neither is Undine,” she said. “Maybe if we’re really luck they won’t be on the front line itself though?”
“Knowing Ren, that’s likely,” Teo said. “But only because that idiot will volunteer for a scouting mission that’s even more dangerous than frontline combat.”
“Ah, yes,” Eorn sighed. “And Undine will be right there beside him.”
“Is there irony in our complaining about our loved one’s putting themselves in danger when we’re sitting here?” Teo asked.
“Probably,” Eorn said. “But they deserve it.”
“Just so long as we’re agreed on that,” Teo said.
“You don’t have to sit with me by the way,” Eorn said. “It will only take one of us to spot the Council’s army and one of us to greet them.”
“That could as easily be me as you,” Teo said.
“Yes, but it’s my job to keep you safe,” Eorn said. “You have no such obligation in return.”
Teo rolled his eyes.
“Perhaps not by direct royal mandate, but we all have a responsibility to each other. That’s what the Queen is fighting for.”
“She’s not what I expected her to be,” Eorn said. “She’s so…”
“Thoughtful?” Teo guessed.
“I was going to say ‘soft’, but that works too.”
“Her ‘Bloody Handed’ nickname does seem like a poor fit,” Teo said. “But remember that she earned it in a literal sense. What you see as ‘thoughtfulness’ is a studied, self-willed trait. There’s more strength in her than many people ever glimpse. Too much I sometimes worry.”
“Worry? Why?” Eorn asked.
“When she held us, Ren and the other nobles, locked up, I think her ‘thoughtfulness’ was being tested severely. If not for the distraction of this war, I don’t know how events might have played out. Ren trusted her, but I’ve seen what power does to those who possess it and it hasn’t been a pretty thing in my experience.”
“But you still serve her?” Eorn asked.
“The answer is more complex than a simple ‘yes’ I’m afraid,” Teo said. “I stand with my husband, always, and he stands with her. More than that though, I serve the ideals she sees as the best part of Gallagrin’s spirit. Even if she falls short of them, those ideals are worth upholding.”
“Unto death?” Eorn asked, and gestured to the forest’s edge that was bristling with movement.
A faint smile crossed Teo’s lips.
“Well, unto someone’s death,” he said, fangs lengthening slightly as he watched the first of the Council’s troops stride forth from their supernatural cover.
The good news, Eorn decided, was that there weren’t a thousand soldiers in the enemy’s forces. At least not in the groups that marched out onto the broad open grassland at the foot of the hill she sat on.
The bad news was that there were an awful lot of giant plant monsters in their number – Warbringers if her briefing was correct – as well as a contingent of green goo covered people who were about as natural as a snowstorm in Paxmer in the summer.
“Interesting troops they’ve brought to visit us,” she said.
“Easier to move special forces around,” Teo said.
“Also harder for us to kill,” Eorn said.
“There is that too. Think they’ll be interested in talking before the violence begins?”
“I kind of hope not,” Eorn said.
Teo glanced over at her with a raised eyebrow.
“The sooner the violence starts the sooner I can transform,” she said. “Until then I am not going to feel safe.”
“You are a very unique woman, do you know that?” Teo asked.
“Lady Akorli seems to feel the same,” Eorn said.
“In my experience the Queen’s Champion is not a good subject to measure one’s sanity against,” Teo said. “But perhaps sanity is not precisely what’s needed at this juncture.”
“Perhaps not,” Eorn said. “It looks like a small party is advancing.”
“Seems sensible, they’ll want to know what we have waiting over the hill for them.”
“They’re bringing one of the Warbringers and two of the gooey people,” Eorn said. “Can we take a Warbringer, six regular soldiers and two gooey people?”
“Certainly,” Teo said. “It’s the hundreds of reinforcements behind them that may be problematic.”
“One problem at a time though, right?”
The contingent from the Council’s forces advanced without displaying a flag of parley or truce. It would have been within Eorn’s rights to transform and strike them all down the moment they stepped on the hill and entered Inchesso lands. That, however, was not part of the plan, so she held her place and sat uncomfortably, waiting for them to close to speaking distance.
“Inchesso citizens,” the leader of the Council forces called out in a surprisingly good version of the North Coastal Inchesso dialect. “This land and the magics contained therein are hereby placed under Divine Annexation by the Holy Order of the Green Council. Vacate our domain or be subject to Council law!”
“Divine Annexation?” Teo said, speaking in the same dialect and raising his voice enough to cover the hundred or so feet that separated them. “That’s a doctrine that slumbers with the gods, and even they put it aside centuries before they left us.”
“Your gods may still sleep,” the leader called out. “Ours do not, and by their holy will, this land is now ours.”
“What do they mean; they’re gods aren’t asleep anymore?” Eorn asked quietly.
“I have no idea,” Teo whispered back, not looking away from the Council army or allowing his smile to fade. “Sounds just wonderful for us though doesn’t it?”
“We have very different definitions of wonderful,” Eorn said, her frown deepening.
“So, these Woken Gods,” Teo asked in a loud, Inchesso, voice. “I don’t see any of them in your number there. I’ve always wanted to meet one, they’re not a bashful sort of god, are they?”
“Blasphemy against the Holy Order is punishable by death,” the leader said.
“I meant no blasphemy good Captain,” Teo said. “But come, advance closer. We are no threat to you at this moment, and I believe it would be good for you to see the land you hope to claim.”
The Council forces followed their Captain up the hill under they were standing just below the top of the rise.
“Welcome to Inchesso Captain,” Teo said. “Though I am afraid I cannot offer you a formal invitation for passage beyond the border. We are foreigners as well you see.”
“Who are you?” the Council Captain asked.
“You may address me as Sir Telli, husband of the Duke of Tel of Gallagrin,” Teo said. “My companion is the Queen’s Guardian Eorn Bromli, also of Gallagrin.”
“The reports were true then, Gallagrin did try to launch an attack on Inchesso before we could,” the Council Captain said.
“See for yourself,” Teo said and gestured to the south where two armies stood facing one another across an impossibly small divide.
On one side stood the massed forces of Inchesso’s Northern Regiments. On the other stood a mixed forced composed of Gallagrin’s Royal Army and Paxmer’s Far Riders. Each force was roughly triple the size of the Council’s army that lay to the north of the border awaiting the Captain’s order to march.
“We arrived just as you were about to begin a battle?” the Captain asked, confusion and disbelief warring for possession of his voice.
“In a manner of speaking,” Teo said. “More accurately though, you kept us waiting to start a battle. Now that you’ve so kindly stepped foot on Inchesso’s domain though, that problem can be rectified.”
At Eorn’s signal, the two opposing armies pivoted in place so that both sides presented a common face to the north, ready as a single force to engage with the Council invaders.
“You have some special troops with you,” Teo said. “Before that gives you too much confidence, allow me to direct your attention to the new construction on the far side of the battle field. Do you know what that is?”
“A weak wooden stockade of unusual height,” the Captain said. “That won’t be enough to slow my troops though, you have no idea what we’re capable of.”
“Oh, we have some idea I’d say. Word spreads fast from Senkin and Gallagrin’s northern border. What you’re missing though is that the structure over there is not a stockade. It’s an embassy.”
“An embassy? For who?” the Captain asked.
“Paxmer,” Teo said as a flight of dragons lifted into the air.