Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 30

Eorn enjoyed marching. Hiking was appealing too, the connection to the world that came from traversing it one step at a time and breathing in its myriad scents was its own form of magic, but marching added a unique social dimension to their experience.

“For a realm without any notable mountains, Inchesso seems amazingly adept at finding roads that are uphill for the entire length one has to walk on them.” Teo’s grumbling was forgivable in light of the fact that they were marching at high noon. His bloodline wasn’t one that found the sunlight anathema – he wasn’t going to burst into flames in other words – but that didn’t mean he enjoyed developing a good healthy tan either.

“You were the one who negotiated for us to be here though,” Eorn said, looking at the ranks of Inchesso troops that they were marching with.

The war between Gallagrin and Inchesso was officially underway. Hence troop movements were required. That the Inchesso troops being moved were heavily armed was no surprise. That they included one of Gallagrin’s most recently appointed ambassadors and his personal guard was more of a novelty.

Generally advancing armies don’t make space for their enemy’s diplomatic staff to join them after all, but this was a rather unique sort of war.

Eorn cast her gaze at the Inchesso livery that both she and Teo wore. It fit well. Better than her usual clothes did if she was honest. Her family had skilled tailors and seamstresses, but Inchesso’s textile skills were on a level beyond what a simple Ducal court in Gallagrin could match, even when it came to something as common as how they well they outfitted their rank and file soldiers.

Marching in Inchesso garb almost made it tempting to truly defect. Between the comfort of the fine cloth and the camaraderie that abounded in the troops, Eorn felt more at home than she had at any time since she’d been called to the Royal Palace in Highcrest.

The marching chants were by turns crude, and loud, and surprisingly stirring. There were long jokes about the backstabbing and treachery the Inchesso were famous for, and longer chants about the bawdy romances that filled the rest of the realm’s reputation. Underneath those though, Eorn saw people who were so very similar to the ones she’d known her whole life.

The boy who walked beside her, not yet sure of his place and trying to spend his enthusiasm where others could let experience speak for them.

The girl in the next row ahead of Eorn who was blessed with the confidence to dare the rest on when the talk turned to darker speculations as to their coming fates. She had experience the boy lacked and where that tempered her naive enthusiasm, she turned to humor to cast aside the morale killing cloud of grim dread that always threatened to swallow up an armies endeavors.

Even Teo’s grumbling complaints seemed perfectly ordinary, though Eorn noticed that none of them strayed into concerns for the battles to come.

It was a strange war indeed when maintaining the morale and combat fitness of the other side was a priority one had to keep in mind.

“The next time the Queen asks me to deal on her behalf, would you be so good as to break my spine,” Teo asked. “I’ll heal from it, I assure you, but the delay should cause the Queen select someone else.”

“Perhaps, but she would probably fire me for doing that,” Eorn said.

“I’m sure Ren could hire you,” Teo said. “Between running the Dawn’s March in Nath and acting as the Duke of Tel, he’s somewhat drowning in open positions he needs to fill.”

“I thought the Dawn’s March was supposed to be separate from the nobliity?” Eorn asked.

“It is,” Teo said. “The Dawn’s March is an oversight organization, so, officially, it is controlled by an appointee of the crown with the only restriction being that they can’t be part of a noble’s office – otherwise that noble would lack supervision.”

“But your husband is both?” Eorn asked.

“Not entirely by choice, and in any case, not for long,” Teo said. “Once the current issue with the nobles revolting against Queen Alari is resolved, his status as Duke will have to be addressed. The original hope was that his sister would be ready to assume the title by then, but recent events have suggested that she’s not likely to place an official claim on the title any time soon.”

“Why’s that?” Eorn asked.

“Because she seems to have taken up dragon taming as a hobby,” Teo said.

“She has done what now?” Eorn asked.

“Ren’s sister is part of your order,” Teo said. “Mayleena is a her name.”

“The guardian who stayed in Paxmer after the war there?” Eorn asked.

“The same.”

“I don’t understand why she did that,” Eorn said. “Or how. People seem to only speak of her in cryptic phrases.”

“Mayleena is unique,” Teo said. “That’s not a new quality. She was always an exceptional girl. Her Pact bonding followed that trend.”

“What happened?” Eorn asked.

“No one knows exactly,” Teo said. “Even Mayleena hasn’t ever been able to explain it completely, at least not to me. The closest I can come to understanding it is that the walls between the Pact Spirit and Mayleena never really formed. What should have been a bond became a merger.”

“But that can’t work,” Eorn said. “That would drive someone insane. It’s how Berserkers are formed.”

“Mayleena’s not a Berserker,” Teo said. “I can take a Berserker in a fight, if I’m well fed and don’t mind spending a lot of strength. Mayleena though? She scares me. Not for who she is you understand. I’ve known her since she was a tiny little thing. The woman who emerged from the bonding ritual though carries something within her that I don’t know though. She’s like a diamond, some facets are familiar and others are truly alien and altogether there is an unbreakable hardness that I have no interest in ever testing my strength against.”

“So why is she taming dragons?” Eorn asked.

“She was part of the mission to Paxmer,” Teo said. “From what I’ve heard, she was instrumental in its success too. Somewhere along the way though she discover something in the Paxmer dragons that called to her. An affinity of some sort. I’m not sure if she’s there to teach them, or if she’s learning something from them. Some form of control perhaps?”

“So no chance of her being Duchess until she’s done with that, which could take how long?” Eorn said.

“Probably until Gallagrin has some major crisis they need to recall her for,” Teo said.

“And going to war with Inchesso doesn’t count as a major crisis?” Eorn asked.

“Given that we’re most likely not going to be stabbing each other, I suspect not,” Teo said.

“That still seems strange to me,” Eorn said. “Not that I like the idea of Gallagrin and Inchesso painting battlefields with blood, but why are we calling this a war? All we’re doing is moving troops around.”

“The troops movements are for the benefits of those spying on us,” Teo said.

“Should we be more careful of what we say then?” Eorn asked.

“We have a small obfuscation field on us thanks to the oil that Eldest Lialarus provided,” Teo said. “That’s the stuff I had you rub across the bridge of your nose. To any spies or scrying spells not specifically searching for us, we’ll appear and sound like bog standard Inchesso troops.”

“And are we sure anyone is spying on us?” Eorn asked. “It seems like this could all be for nothing.”

“It’s less a question of ‘is anyone spying on us’ and more ‘is there anyone who is not spying on us’,” Teo said. “And also, of course, are the right people spying on us.”

“How can we tell that?” Eorn asked.

“If we wind up being slaughtered then, probably, the wrong people were spying on us,” Teo said.

“Will we get any sort of warning about?” Eorn asked.

“Yes,” Teo said. “We’ll find ourselves surrounded by people with drawn weapons. Also there will likely be a good deal of screaming.”

“That’s acceptable,” Eorn said, without sarcasm. If failure meant fighting, then that meant failure didn’t mean being poisoned in her sleep, and of the two, fighting seemed infinitely preferable.

Of course, as Teo had said, Inchesso’s reputation for being a realm of poisoners was as overstated as Gallagrin’s reputation for being a realm of rock-eating berserkers. A few extreme edge cases might make for entertaining stories, but by and large people were just people, no matter if they were human, dwarf, elf, sylph or any other of the many Mindful Races. Eorn knew the biggest risk of being poisoned she faced in Inchesso came not from the soldiers walking in formation around her but rather from the native cuisine that, while delicious, was not as well adapted for travel as Gallagrin road rations were.

“So, do we have people in Gallagrin spying on us?” Eorn asked.

“That I can guarantee,” Teo said.

“Could we use that to pass a message back home?” Eorn asked, her thoughts trending as they often did towards a certain slim young man.

“We are,” Teo said. “I said the low level obfuscation field would shield us from anyone who wasn’t looking for us specifically. Well there will be plenty of people on the Queen’s staff who are very interested in where we are. That’s one reason I wanted us to march with the Inchesso forces. It will give our people some free intelligence on where this army is going.”

“There’s more armies in motion?” Eorn asked.

“Each alliance of families in Inchesso controls an army,” Teo said. “I imagine that they’re all on the move at the moment. The key is whether they’re moving in the right direction or not.”

“If they’re move in the wrong direction, that will make things much worse won’t it?” Eorn guessed that would lead to the aforementioned drawn weapons and screaming.

“It will complicate things,” Teo said. “Our job will switch from intelligence gathering and diplomacy to convincing the wayward factions that they would be better served following the plans Queen Alari has for them.”

“How will we do that?” Eorn asked.

“You and I? We’ll speak with them,” Teo said. “Being that there’s only two of us, our military options are limited, and we are diplomats after all.”

“And when talking doesn’t work?” Eorn asked.

“Swords and screaming,” Teo said. “It’s barbaric, but we are all barbarians in some corner of our hearts.”

“If we have to fight an Inchesso army, we are going to die you realize?” Eorn asked.

She looked around them. The Lialarus family’s forces were far from the largest military in Inchesso and there were still several thousand fighters in the formation they had joined. Even in Pact Armor, backed up by vampiric powers and leaving aside any tricks of Inchesso magic the arm could bring to bear, that was not a fight which was going to fall in Eorn’s favor. In a positive light, a fight of that caliber would ensure that epic tales and songs would be performed in remembrance of her glory. Realistically though, Eorn was less interested in epic tales and more intrigued by the idea of living to see Gallagrin again.

“That’s why we are not going to fight an Inchesso army,” Teo said. “If we fight, we will be picking our targets very carefully.”

“And if our targets happen to have an army of their own?” Eorn asked.

“Then we’ll bring one of our own to meet them,” Teo said, smiling as his eyes caught a glimpse of something overhead.

Eorn cast her gaze skyward. In the air high above them soared the sun shadowed silhouettes of a flight of dragons.

Gallagrin was definitely not alone in Inchesso.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 29

Jyl raced up the side of the Star Seer’s tower like a bolt of lightning. Ahead of her, another bolt of lightning, shaped not at all unlike her sister flew up the sheer stone surface, keeping pace at the same two body lengths apart that they’d been when they started.

“You can’t get away from me.” Jyl spat the words out between the breaths that her transformed state didn’t require her to take.

“And you can’t catch me.” Jaan’s words were torn apart by the winds of the chase but enough fragments survived for Jyl to make out their meaning.

Metal claws and metal toes found purchase in the stone walls (or made it as necessary – a feat Jyl hoped the Queen of Senkin would forgive them for). She didn’t intend to damage the Senkin Royal Castle but when the alternative involved allowing her sister escape and wreak havoc on Gallagrin’s relationship with Senkin Jyl felt her path was pretty clear.

Jaan didn’t seem as determined to avoid damage, which was part of the reason she was able to stay ahead of her sister. Jyl had spent years training with her Pact Spirit. Jaan had only a few months of experience to draw on, but, as always, she had an artificial leg up on her twin. Where Jyl’s Pact Spirit was one she’d discovered for herself in a complex of lost and forgotten tombs, Jaan’s had a long and active history of previous bearers.

Jyl hated her for that, except even if she was given the option to trade, she knew she’d never take it. The Pact Bond was more than a business contract, or at least it was for Jyl. Some Pact Warriors seemed to regard the bond as little more than a power up. Their spirits were silent in a manner than Jyl found chilling.

For her, the magic of the Pact Bond had always included a sense of connection. Even from the beginning, she knew hadn’t found a lost treasure when she found the naming stones for her Pact Spirit. She didn’t have words for it then but as she’d pronounced the oath and shared her name with her spirit, she had the sense of being reunited with an old friend. Their bonding was the affirmation of a compatibility that already existed between the two of them.

People said the Pact Spirit’s never spoke, and Jyl couldn’t help but look at them strangely at that thought. It was true Pact Spirits didn’t use verbal language like one of the Mindful Races, but the steady ebb and flow of emotions from the spirit was as clear a form of communication as any other that Jyl had ever witnessed.

In standard Pact Knight doctrine, there was supposed to be a sharp line between the host and the spirit, with no influence from the spirit realm crossing over to corrupt the Pact Warrior. With a deep separation between the two, the chance that a Pact Warrior would lose themselves in a Berserker frenzy was, supposedly, diminished and controlled.

In theory that sounded good, but in practice it was all wrong. The relationship between the host and the spirit, or her relationship at least, was nothing without the depth that openness brought. People were right to fear the power of an unrestrained Berserker but it was only by being connected with her Pact Spirit that Jyl believed she was able to avoid going berserk given the situations she’d been placed in.

That was what made her pursuit of her sister so infuriating.

Jaan was a model Pact Warrior. She received her Pact Spirit as an ancestral gift, as so many other Pact Warriors did. Her skill with Pact magic came almost entirely from the spirit’s learned competency rather than anything Jaan brought to the relationship. Jaan asked for the magic and her spirit worked it for her. Simple and clean and, ultimately, limited.

From everything Jyl could see, Jaan evidenced no particular connection or accord with her Pact spirit, beyond the minimal contact needed for each to achieve their goals in the relationship.

And yet Jyl couldn’t catch her.

Jaan reached the top of the Star Seer’s tower, flipping over the parapets and onto the roof with the inhuman grace of someone whose strength far exceeded their body weight. Jyl hurled herself to the rooftop in a similar manner, but stopped at the near edge, knowing her sister’s penchant for striking back when cornered.

“There’s nowhere to go. Give back the ledgers and give up whatever this insane plan is,” Jyl said. She refrained from screaming only because letting the entirety of the Royal Castle know of her sister’s breach of their security would do noone any good, least of all anyone from Gallagrin.

“It’s not insane if it works,” Jaan said. “Then it’s ‘daring’ or ‘brave’. Haven’t you seen how accolades work?”

“I’m not interested in arguing this out,” Jyl said. “Give me the ledgers or I will take them from your broken and shattered body.”

“Why?” Jaan asked. “Why do you want these so much that you’d harm your loving sister to get them.”

“Oh, you don’t understand at all do you,” Jyl said, slowing edging a path around the Star Seer’s tower. The tower was narrow enough at the top of its spire that Jyl could have crossed the flat rooftop in a dozen paces but stalking around the edge meant she was able to keep the crenelated wall to her back. Always wise when dealing with her sister, she thought. “I’m hoping you don’t give me the ledgers. You see I really want a reason to hurt you that will stand up in court. It’ll work out better when I can’t stop myself from beating your stupid face in.”

“We would bring this castle down if we really went all out,” Jaan said. “And I know you don’t want to cause a diplomatic incident like that.”

“I don’t know, it’s not my castle, and not my country,” Jyl said. “At the rate things are going, it might not even be anyone’s country soon, so maybe there wouldn’t be so many complaints.”

“And yet you still want these ledgers back,” Jaan said. “Don’t lie. You’re watching them more than you are me.”

“That would be because seeing you makes ill,” Jyl said.

“Mirrors don’t do you any favors then, do they?” Jaan asked.

Her family always told Jyl that she and Jaan were identical twins, but Jyl had never seen how that could be possible. In her eyes, there was a resemblance between them, but Jaan’s face was always so twisted by mocking cruelty that it seemed like it should have been impossible to confuse the two of them.

“Why did you even steal those?” Jyl asked, certain that the reason would be terrible.

“These show the provisioning status for each of the forts and towns from her to the Green Council’s borders,” Jaan said. “It’s not much, but the Green Council should be able to use these to plan their attacks more efficiently don’t you think?”

The battle at the front line had become a siege instead of an unstoppable invasion. Haldri Paxmer’s touches were visible to anyone who knew she was there, with a dozen unconventional strategies stymying the Green Council’s forces from advancing further into Senkin.

If the Council knew of other, less resilient targets it could attack though, they could confidently renew their thrust into Senkin and leave behind only as many troops as were required to keep Haldri and her troops contained.

“Senkin will never forgive us. You can’t betray Gallagrin like that,” Jyl said.

“But I’m not betraying Gallagrin,” Jaan said.

“We’re allied with Senkin,” Jyl said. “They trust us. If you plunge that knife into their back, Senkin will hate us as they never have before. You’re dooming Gallagrin to fight against a new enemy when we just defeated our longest standing rival. There’s nothing else you can call that than a betrayal of Gallagrin and what it stands for!”

“What Gallagrin stands for?” Jaan mouth crooked into a familiar, unfriendly smile. “Gallagrin stands for survival. That is the heart and soul of our people. I thought with all the fighting you’d done, with how hard you’ve struggled, you understood that.”

“And how does putting us at war, again, help us survive,” Jyl asked. “People are going to die if you hand those ledgers over.”

“Yes, Senkin’s people,” Jaan said. “Except they’re going to die anyways. The Council is going to destroy them all.”

“Not if we can stop this war!” Jyl said.

“We can’t,” Jaan said. “This isn’t a war that wants to be stopped. Look at what’s happening. You know I’m right. The Green Council is too prepared for this, and Senkin, if it manages to survive, will never forgive them for it.”

“Our Queen doesn’t believe that,” Jyl said. “She’s out there, right now, working to put an end to this madness.”

“And she’s going to fail,” Jaan said. “You saw the reports. The Green Council is so incensed by her actions that they’ve started sending troops through the Frostmoon Pass. Gallagrin is under attack right now and these ledgers can help fix that.”

“You think the Council is going to call off the attack on Gallagrin because you give them a few papers?” Jyl asked.

“No, they won’t call it off for that,” Jaan said. “The ledgers are a gesture of good faith. They prove that there are those of us in Gallagrin that still value our old friendships with the Council. More importantly though the ledgers also give the Council somewhere else they can expend their military force.”

“You want to trade Senkin lives for Gallagrin lives?” Jyl asked.

“Yes,” Jaan said. “At any conversion rate. We’ve fought against the crown, opposed Alari on numerous occasions now, but our family has always been loyal to our realm.”

Jyl was stopped sidling along the wall and just stared at her sister.

“You really believe that don’t you?” she asked. “Somehow in all the lying and backstabbing and betrayals, you managed to convince yourself that our families actions are motivated by anything beyond greed and self concern.”

A low growl escaped Jaan’s lips.

“You are tiresome, do you know that?” she said. “You are so convinced of the evil in your blood that you’re incapable of seeing the world as it is. Yes, we look out for ourselves, because that’s what a family does. Yes, we supported the Butcher King, because our support meant that we and ours were safe from his excesses. And yes, we would sooner see Senkin fall than a drop of Gallagrin blood be spilled, because the people of Gallagrin are our people, and we are the ones who protect them. The rest of the world is not our concern, and if we try to make it our concern then we won’t be able to support and protect those who depend on us.”

“You think you’re too weak to protect strangers as well as kin,” Jyl said, resting back against the wall. “The truth is you’re too weak not to. We all are.”

“That’s ridiculous gibberish,” Jaan said. “Is that what Alari has been feeding you?”

“You think you’re justified in making hard choices today, in giving in to the expedient and self serving courses of action, but those have long term consequences that you never count and are far too weak to mitigate,” Jyl said. “Look at supporting the Butcher King, it kept the family safe in the short term, but he was routinely murdering his allies. Queen Alari saved you when she usurped his throne.”

“And so we owe her some kind of debt you believe?” Jaan said.

“That’s irrelevant,” Jyl said. “The point is your support for an insane monarch is still costing you. The people of Gallagrin hate the Lafli family for both the cruelty they supported in King Sathe and the cruelty our grandfather was all too free with inflicting because he thought his position near King Sathe sheltered him. Queen Alari received death threats for adding me to her retinue, despite the fact that our grandfather stripped me all connection to the family. I’m still too Lafli for anyone to trust, and that’s going to be true for all of the family’s descendants for a long time to come.”

“That’s why we have to seize the chances that are laid before us,” Jaan said.

“No, that’s why we need to rise above what we were and prove that the sins of our grandfather aren’t carried down into our generation,” Jyl said. “We can be better than he was. We have to be.”

“There are many ways to be better,” Jaan said, a trace of what sounded in the neighborhood of regret sneaking into her voice.

“We’re part of the world,” Jyl said. “Like it or not, its problems are our problems, and whether they’re kin or strangers, we need to protect and support people. It’s the only way we can buy a better future.”

Jaan frowned and shook her head.

“I wish it was really that easy,” she said.

“It’s not,” Jyl said. “Nothing’s easy, right or wrong. It’s like you. You’re never easy.”

“Maybe it’s good we both exist then,” Jaan said. “If your ideas are right, then there’s someone amazing working on them. And if I’m right? Well then at least there’s someone making sure that the important people will be around when everything falls apart.”

And with that she pitched herself backward over the parapet.

Jyl ran to the edge of the tower and saw her sister sprout wings from her Pact armor at the bottom of her fall, using the momentum gained to race out of Senkin’s capital city.

With a deep sigh, Jyl hurled herself off the parapets too, welcoming the embrace of gravity as it lent her speed and power.

She wasn’t going to let her sister get away. She couldn’t.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 28

Dae gripped the wooden figure in her hand and resisted the urge to hurl it across the room. It was an heirloom piece, part of set used to depict the placement of forces on the war map. Treating it poorly would be an insult to the generations of Gallagrin commanders who came before her. Plus it was sturdy enough that it would probably knock a sizeable divot out of the wall if she threw it as hard as she wanted to.

“The news from the Council is confusing,” Gala, the Green Council’s former representative said. “Their advance in Senkin has been halted, and there are reports that your queen has taken to the field personally.”

“At the same time we’ve got reports of shock troops pouring through the Frostmoon Gap,” Faen Kemoral said. “We’re going to lose Moon’s Reach and half the northern dells before we can get an army assembled to hold the Council forces back.”

“We have armies up there,” Dae said. “But they’re not organizing to fight the Council forces are they?”

“The Harli family’s army was recalled to Castle Harli yesterday,” Faen said. “They’ll keep the Council from taking the castle but they’re not going to directly oppose them.”

“That might be for the best,” Gala said. “Your forces don’t know what they’re up against.”

“To be fair, neither do the Council’s forces,” Ogma Daili said. Dae liked Ogma’s enthusiasm, but the Acting Commander of the Scout Corp was missing a few critical pieces of information.

“They might,” Dae said. “Operational security during our civil war was shot to pieces. The Council could have learned a lot about us by observing the battles from afar.”

“They weren’t even required to do that,” Gala said. “We were invited to witness some of the conflicts in the northern realms by the families we have connections to. In the early stages of the war, they wanted us to see that the realm would still stand. In the later stages they wished to show the inevitability of your queen’s victory.”

“We have to deal with the nobles,” Faen said. “They’re necks are on the line here too.”

“Not all of them,” Dae said. “The Harli’s are going to bear the brunt of the cost, so they may be willing to capitulate but the other families will leave them to hang in the wind. They have us in a poor position thanks to the invasion. It gives them leverage and if there’s one thing those snakes know how to do its exploit opportunities.”

“That’s always been our biggest problem,” Faen said. “Can’t trust them out of your sight, but if you keep them close the nobles will stab you in the back.”

“Are they truly so bad?” Gala asked. “It seems that if they were so adept at their schemes then they would have succeeded in one by now.”

“The ambassador raises a good point,” Ogma said. “We know there are nobles who supported the queen. Can’t we just ask those for help?”

“We can,” Dae said. “If we’re willing to admit that we’re keeping the other nobles here against their will.”

“They’ve been held in session for a month, I think everyone knows they’re here against their will don’t they?” Ogma asked.

“Not precisely,” Dae said. “Realistically, we all know what’s going on, but because the queen is working within the formal processes still, this can all still be resolved as just the wheels of bureaucracy moving as slowly as everyone jokes of them doing.”

“What she means is that no one’s been explicitly insulted yet, so whenever the queen’s ready, we can all pretend that this never happened,” Faen said.

“The alternative is that the Queen, or rather one of her agents, will have to call formal charges against everyone who was involved in the last attempt to usurp the throne,” Dae said.

“Why don’t we just do that then?” Ogma asked. “We’re paralyzed as it is. Maybe that would let us act while we still have a realm to defend.”

“Right now we’re fighting the Green Council,” Dae said. “The last thing we want is to fight both the Council and a rebellion of the noble armies.”

“They’ve proven that they’re willing to attempt to remove the queen from her throne. At this point open rebellion is the only tactic they haven’t dared to try,” Faen said.

“It’s worse than that though,” Dae said. “When the queen returned from the God’s Hall, she did so with complete certainty in her reign.”

“Yeah. you flew in on a Dragon King,” Ogma said. “That kind of made an impression.”

“But not a permanent one,” Dae said. “Haldraxan is gone, as is the queen for the moment.”

“Your queen left you in authority for the duration of her absence though,” Gala said. “Surely your nobles will respect that.”

“Some will,” Dae said. “The troublemakers are the ones who only recognized the queen’s power, not her authority though.”

“It sounds as though you must recall your queen then,” Gala said.

“That’s one of our many problems,” Dae said. “We can’t.”

“But it’s imperative,” Gala said. “I know what the Council will do. I can tell you of the weapons they’ll use. If they take a piece of your realm, you’ll never truly get it back, and even if you could, you wouldn’t want it.”

“I don’t mean that we’re not allowed to contact the queen,” Dae said. “I mean we can’t. She’s gone into the Green Council’s lands. Their magics block ours.”

“Then your realm is lost,” Gala said. “I will have to seek asylum with Paxmer. Perhaps their dragons can withstand the Council’s advance.”

“Our armies can hold against the Council’s forces,” Dae said. “They just need someone to lead them.”

“No,” Faen slammed his hand down on the table. “Get that idea out of your head Akorli. You are not going to the northern front.”

“I believe you were saying earlier that I was dangerous because I inspire people?” Dae said. It wasn’t true. Not in Dae’s eyes. Alari was the inspirational one. She was the one with the gift for working with others. Dae had training in command, but she hadn’t grown up as a public figure or experienced any desire to be one. Let the masses focus on Alari, Dae was content with looking along with them, provided she had the closest view of all of them.

“Without you, here, in this castle, this realm loses the last scrap of stability it’s holding on to,” Faen said. “You want to inspire someone? Inspire a brilliant general to head up there and take care of things.”

“Is that the sound of someone volunteering I hear?” Dae asked.

“I said a brilliant general,” Faen said. “Brilliance isn’t my stock in trade and we both know it. I’m needed here as much as you are. Maybe more so, since I seem to be the only one with an ounce of sanity left here.”

“There’s also the matter of the war with Inchesso,” Ogma said. “I have the Scout Corp mobilizing for it already, but I can shift their mission focus to the Council instead.”

“We can’t afford that either,” Dae said. “Invading Inchesso is a critical play in this game.”

“Should we really be treating this as a game?” Ogma asked.

“We have to,” Faen said, before Dae had a chance to respond. “There are too many lives at stake to look at this as anything other than a game that we cannot afford to lose.”

“But the Council isn’t playing around with us,” Ogma said. “Their invasion is serious.”

“All the more reason for us to work this like a game,” Dae said. “That doesn’t mean we’re playing around. It means we’re looking for all of the moves our opponents are going to make, and we’re looking for every form of victory we can win.”

“I don’t think I understand how that makes it a game,” Ogma said.

“A fight is simple, but it’s fast,” Dae said. “You don’t game a fight once it’s begun. There’s no time. Not in a serious fight anyways. You survive it, and you do whatever you can in order to accomplish that.”

“We’re not fighting now though,” Faen said. “And the Council isn’t either. So we have to stay aware of the broader realities behind what we see occurring.”

“How does that help here?” Gala asked. “Whatever you do, you’re still be invaded by an unstoppable force from the Council.”

“No one’s unstoppable,” Dae said. “Even the Sleeping Gods bled and died when the faced the wrong foes.”

“The Green Council is making one of the classic mistakes of warfare,” Faen said. “Opening a second front when they don’t need to is a recipe for defeat.”

“Only if you possess the power to fight back against them, and you are squandering that on an unnecessary invasion of Inchesso,” Gala said. “How is that any different than what the Council is doing?”

“Their forces are perfectly organized and coordinated,” Ogma said. “Ours are as likely to turn on each other as the enemy. So that’s a difference right?”

Dae couldn’t repress a grin. Ogma didn’t have the full view of Alari’s plan, but she was willing to embrace the insanity of it anyways. That was as much as a piece of madness endemic to the Gallagrin psyche as it was the sort of residual faith that Alari left in her wake.

“See ambassador,” Dae said. “If we’re willing to go into battle with troops like that, then victory must be assured right?”

Gala shook their top branches in a gesture that was too close to a human shaking their head for Dae to read it as anything else.

“What have I gotten myself into?” Gala asked.

“Don’t worry,” Dae said. “This isn’t your fault. This is the world moving like it was always going to move. We’ve nudged the timetable a little bit, but there wasn’t any real escape from this happening soon or later, and in this case, sooner is a lot better than later. If all this happened after our lifetimes, there’s no telling what kind of weird fictions the realms would be clinging to. Better that the truth comes out now.”

“And what truth is that?” Gala asked.

“The one we’ve been ignoring for centuries now,” Dae said. “The Sleeping Gods are gone. When they went away, it wasn’t for a little naptime. They left us, but more importantly, they left us this world.”

“That’s blasphemy,” Gala said. “All of the realms still venerate their deities.”

“Venerate the memory of, yes, that’s fine,” Dae said. “But it’s long past time that we admitted that they are not around to guide us or limit us anymore. We’ve been walking on our own for a long time now, and that’s a fantastic thing. We’re like children who haven’t noticed that they’re parents left a long time ago and that we’re adults in our own right now.”

“We will never have the wisdom or power of our creators,” Gala said.

“We don’t have it now, but we’re wiser and more powerful than we ever were under their care,” Dae said. “This is our chance to wake up, and to prove it to ourselves.”

“Why would you throw off our gods like that though?” Gala asked. “What if they awaken tomorrow?”

“Then the whole world will change again,” Dae said. “We let our fear of that world though keep us from living in this one.”

“That sounds great, but getting back to the ambassador’s earlier point; how does any of that help us with the army that’s coming through Frostmoon Pass?” Ogma asked.

“We can’t keep living in the world of yesterday,” Dae said. “Or expecting some greater force to come along and make everything right. We’re here, right now, because we’re the ones who can make it right. Even if it’s hard, and even if we don’t want to have to do it.”

“Which means?” Ogma asked.

“Which means, it’s time for me to meet with the nobles,” Dae said. “They’re a part of this realm too, which means whether they like it or not, they’re part of fixing this problem too.”


The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 27

The storm of energy unleashed by the Stone Warriors ended as abruptly as it began. As the smoke and debris it kicked up began to clear though, the light glowing from their target didn’t.

The Stone Warriors had directed their attacks at Iana but, where she stood, a pair of crossed wings were visible, shining with brilliant yellow light.

Alari rose a moment later, unfurling her wings as she did so that Iana could breath freely.

“The Council would be wise not to try our patience in that manner,” Alari said.

“We understand the nature of your magics,” the Stone Warrior said. “You have a far larger reservoir than your knights but all Gallagrin magic is inherently limited by the mortal the spirit is bonded to. You are powerful now, but each use of magic drains you, and without your homeland to call upon for support you cannot replenish yourself once you are exhausted.”

“You would plumb the depths of our strength and commit your realm to enmity with Gallagrin then?” Alari asked.

“Gallagrin has already chosen war, and in violating the sacred borders of our realm you have lost that battle whether you know it yet or not,” the Stone Warrior said.

“Are you receiving your orders directly from the Green Council or are you merely an underling interpreting their orders to your own ends?” Alari asked.

The Stone Warriors charged up the gems on their bodies in response, signaling that the time for diplomacy was finished. Alari sighed in regret. There were so many choices the Green council could have made. Their determination to head down the most miserable path for all was particularly frustrating though as, one after another, the options for a peaceful resolution to the conflict were removed from the game board.

The gathering charge in the Stone Warrior’s gem precipitated a lightning storm far worse that their initial assault but Alari didn’t allow them to renew their attack. She blurred briefly in place and each Stone Warrior exploded into a cloud of dust, their gems shattered to an irrecoverable mist of glittering powder.

“What just happened?” Iana asked.

“The Council tried to kill you,” Alari said, brushing off her shoulders. “Though it’s unclear why.”

“They’re afraid you’re going to use me against them,” Iana said. Her breaths were rapid and her eyes slightly unfocused.

“If the Council still holds your loyalty we will not ask you to act against them,” Alari said. “As the commander of the assault on Senkin, you were privy to details of the attack we needed to know, but the Council itself can provide that information as well.”

“I am not going to betray my homeland,” Iana said.

“Do you believe those who tried to assassinate you were working for the good of your homeland?” Alari asked.

“Maybe,” Iana said. “I don’t know what you can do with me, or how I would know if you were doing anything. If I’m exposing them, then…”

Her voice trailed off as she wrestled with the idea.

Alari let the girl ponder her situation. There would be deep roots of conditioning and loyalty dug into her psyche. Alari knew how hard those could be to throw off. For all the horrors her father had committed, she had always been spared from his madness. Choosing to challenge him for the Gallagrin Pact Spirit had been the hardest thing she’d ever done.  She couldn’t imagine that asking a young girl who was raised for combat to turn her back on the realm she was sworn to protect would be any easier.

So she didn’t try.

“I do not believe the world will be better with you dead,” Alari said, slipping into casual speech. “And the Council is mistaken to think I would ever use you to get to them. My desire to speak with them is because I want to bring representatives from both nations to the peace table. Senkin and the Council, if they could be reunited, would be a shining beacon to the rest of the realms, showing how we don’t need the mandates of the gods to co-exist with one another.”

“That is a big goal,” Iana said.

“It has been noted that my aims sometimes exceed my reach,” Alari said.

“What do you do then?” Iana asked.

“Reach farther,” Alari said.

“That must be easy for you,” Iana said. “The earth and the winds answer to you.”

“Only at great cost,” Alari said. “And power alone isn’t everything.”

“There are many paths to victory, for some the cost is too high, for some the road is too long. Always strive for the victories that leave you most able to secure more in the future,” Iana said, as though reciting from a textbook.

“You’ve had military training your whole life, haven’t you?” Alari asked.

“It’s what I was born for,” Iana said. “It’s who I am meant to be.”

“Meant to be by whom?” Alari asked.

“What?” Iana asked.

“Who meant you to be in the military so young?” Alari asked. “If you started as an infant, it wasn’t a choice you made.”

“I am Raprimdel,” Iana said. “I worked for that. I chose that.”

“The Raprimdel are some of the highest class of soldiers in the Green Council’s armies,” Alari said. “Did you have any other choice of what to be though? Or were your only options whether the lead or follow?”

Iana scowled but her eyes filled with tears.

“I am Raprimdel,” she said again. “I worked hard for that. It’s what I am.”

Alari saw the gaping wound in Iana’s heart. The one Alari had put there hours ago.

Iana’s identity was bound up in her role as commander of the Council’s forces. Her defeat at the front lines cracked that sense of self, and then the Council’s betrayal had widened that chasm in her soul even further.

Ordinary failure is difficult. Failure when it feels like a judgement on your worth as a person is even worse. The hardest part for Alari was that she didn’t know if it would be possible to reach the young girl. Life had thrown them together at an odd angle and what Iana needed might not be something that Alari could give.

Since the only other option was to do nothing at all and watch the girl be assassinated by the next strike team the Council sent, Alari refused to back away. Instead she changed her approach.

“As Raprimdel, are you sworn to the realm or to those who sit on the Green Council?” Alari asked.

“They are one and the same,” Iana said.

“And if you discovered one member of the Council was working against the rest?” Alari asked.

“The Council stands united,” Iana said.

“The Council is united, they are justified in their war and they have earned your trust,” Alari said. “But they will not speak to the other realms with a single voice, not even to provide the easy justifications for the war they are raging, and they would slay you despite the loyalty you shown them now. What do you think of that?”

“I think you’ve taken everything from me,” Iana said. “Sacrifice is all I have left.”

“No, it’s not,” Alari said. “You have your realm and all of the people in it. You are their protector, but that also means that they are your support.”

“But they think I should be…” Iana choked on the word and turned away, shame flushing her face at the unintended display of emotion. “I’m a danger to them. I should be dead.”

“No, if you die, your realm loses a defender who has worked her whole life to be what she was needed to be. If you die, you won’t be able to speak of what you saw, and you won’t be able to stand against the next group who comes with fire in hand looking to burn the next creche to ash.”

“But if I die, then no one can get to the Council through me,” Iana said. “It’s my duty to listen to them. I have to obey their wishes.”

“No, you don’t,” Alari said. “The members on the Council are not the whole of the realm. Their wishes serve only themselves. If they cared about their people they would not rush into this war. They would rally the other realms together, they would demand justice from Senkin, and they would honor those who died by refusing to sacrifice the living under their care unless no other option remained.”

“You aren’t from our lands,” Iana said. “You don’t know what it’s like here. They made me. I owe them everything.”

“If I took over the Council, and put my own puppets in their place, would you then owe me everything?” Alari asked.

“No!” Iana said.

“Why? I would be the Council wouldn’t I? All in the realm would obey me?” Alari asked.

“You would be a false Council, you wouldn’t care about us at all,” Iana said.

“What makes you think that isn’t what’s already happened?” Alari asked. “Not that I’ve taken over the Council, but that someone on it isn’t who they appear to be.”

“That can’t be,” Iana said.

“Ask you yourself if this campaign fits with anything you know of the Council you grew up with?” Alari said. “Why would the Senkin come and burn your creche now? You’ve been the friendliest of realms for centuries. Even Paxmer and Gallagrin, who hated each other since the gods made us, never raided each other’s nurserys.”

“I saw the remains of the creche,” Iana said. “I saw the troops from Senkin burning it.”

“I know, I have to believe you, nothing less would explain the ferocity of the attack on Senkin,” Alari said. “But why now, and why won’t the Council talk about it?”

Alari could think of many scenarios to explain the Council’s lack of transparency, few of which were good. The idea that one or more of the members had been replaced a hostile party was far fetched, but from the change in Iana’s expression that didn’t matter. The girl had been pummeled by tidal waves of emotion, swept from the anchoring surety of righteous rage into a swirl of confusion and betrayal that threatened to tear apart her world. However crazy the idea of a usurper on the Council was, Iana looked willing to believe it, or at least pretend to until a better explanation came along.

“What can I do?” Iana asked.

“I still want to see the creche,” Alari said. “If you can take me there? There might be more to learn from it and even if not, if I can testify to Senkin and Inchesso and all the other realms that I saw the destruction with my own eyes. That will carry far more weight than reporting something second hand.”

Iana was silent for a moment, her eyes locked on the floor of the destroyed command center she’d lain in.

“You would do that?” she said at last. “You would speak to the realms about what you saw? Try to get them on our side?”

“I walked in here, alone, specifically to find you, to ask why you attacked Senkin,” Alari said. “To do that and then not listen to you would be idiocy of an order greater than even a queen can aspire to.”

“But what about telling the other realms?” Iana asked.

“The very best thing for my realm, and for me personally, is peace between my neighbors,” Alari said. “Peace cannot be built on lies, and it can’t be built on secrets. Those fall apart too swiftly. For the crimes committed, there has to be justice done, and atonements made. It is in every realms’ interest to see the truth of that, so I will tell them what I saw and what I will see no matter how they try to avoid me, or how little they want to listen.”

Iana was silent again before saying a simple “Thank you.”

“We will need to move out soon,” Alari said. “The Council will be sending more forces to wear me down.”

“They’ll probably try to kill me again too,” Iana said.

“I thought of that,” Alari said. “And I think I have an answer.”

The Warbringer stepped down into the remains of the command bunker and a large enclosure opened in its chest.

“I don’t want to be trapped in there,” Iana said.

“You won’t be,” Alari said. “Once you climb in, I’ll relinquish control back to you.”

“But I could run away, or attack you.”

“I know. That will be your choice,” Alari said. “If I’m unwilling to trust you though, how can I ever ask you to trust me?”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 26

Alari didn’t like what she saw. She’d traveled deep into the Green Council’s territory, alone, tracking the connection from the Warbringer she’d commandeered to the leader of the Council’s forces that were assaulting Senkin. When the control lines that tethered the giant plant monster to its pilot lead to a small hillock under an overgrown tree, Alari had taken the only sensible course of action and ripped the tree and hillock apart before the Council’s General could escape.

From what she could see the General was long gone though. The only creatures within the underground command center were clearly support staff given how they were scurrying about and looking to everyone else for guidance on to react to a Warbringer breeching their secret lair.

The only person into the bunker who wasn’t scurrying around was a young human girl, maybe ten years old in Alari’s estimation.

The girl was suspended in a thick mesh of roots and vines which burned with bright yellow flames. Around her stood a pair of Fire Spiders, dripping lava-like venom as they prepared to finish the job they started.

“I don’t think so,” Alari said and waved her hand, calling on a negligible spark of the Gallagrin Spirit’s power.

Gale force winds snuffed the fire and blasted the Fire Spiders out of the bunker. The young girl wasn’t freed, the roots bound her too tightly, but the peril of the flames was averted at least.

Alari examine her, as the Warbringer stepped down into the remains of the bunker. The support personnel were fleeing, and Alari had no reason to pursue them. They would report her presence to their superiors, but the Council was already be aware of Alari’s movements. Eventually they would organize a response but, for the moment, the matter of an unexpected human girl concerned Alari more.

“What have they done to you?” she asked the girl. She stepped down from the Warbringer’s hand which she’d been standing in. Shock and awe was a fine tactic against enemy forces. Against ten year old girls however Alari had little interest in appearing as an all-powerful terror.

In response to Alari’s presence, the girl thrashed in her bonds, eyes wide as she tried to scramble away from both Alari and the Warbringer.

“It’s ok, I’m not here to hurt you,” Alari said. “You don’t have to be afraid.”

From the non-verbal whimpering the girl let out, Alari could see that she wasn’t afraid. She was terrified beyond the capacity for speech.

Assuming she could speak.

Alari prided herself on being a forgiving sort of person. Finding the good in others was important. People she couldn’t find the good in, she tended to decapitate with her bare hands. Granted that had only happened once, and everyone more or less agreed that the Butcher King’s head and shoulder needed to be several feet apart from each other at a minimum, but it was the sort of thing Alari didn’t want to make a habit out of. Or do. Ever again.

If the Green Council was raising human children underground and stunting their growth to the point where they couldn’t speak however? In that case, Alari wondered, if she might not have to make an exception to her general “no beheadings” policy.

Watching the child cower and shrink from her spurred royal rage at those responsible for placing the girl in such a situation, but Alari’s anger was drowned in the even greater waves of concern she felt. The Council was distant and a matter for another time. The girl was in front of her and needed aid immediately.

The Queen in Alari questioned her priorities. Was taking time to help one child appropriate with everything that was at stake? There were many children in danger. Thousands upon thousands that needed protection. In allowing events to proceed as they had, Alari was playing a perilous game with their lives, and it was likely that the game would not turn out well for all of them.

That was one reality. The other reality, the more difficult one for Alari to accept, was that even as the Queen of Gallagrin, even with all of her power, there were forces at work, tides of history, that were far beyond her ability to control.

She was playing the game as it was set before her. She was changing the rules and defying fate, but no matter how hard she tried, it wasn’t within her sphere to save everyone.  She could only do the best she could, try the most clever plans she could conceive, and hope to protect and spare as many as possible from a future that would otherwise drench the Blessed Realms in blood so deep there might be none who could rise above its surface.

That was why the girl before her mattered. This was someone she could protect. Someone whose path was entwined with her own.

“It’s ok,” she said. “I won’t do anything to you. Not unless you ask.”

Alari turned her palms up and stepped back, gesturing the Warbringer behind her to step back as well. Alari’s retreat put her a few extra feet away from the girl. The Warbringer’s took it out of the bunker altogether.

The girl quieted and eventually stopped struggling against the roots that held her suspended above the floor of the room.

“Do you want to be free of those?” Alari asked.

“Go away,” the girl said, her voice harsher and deeper than Alari guessed it would be.

“I can’t,” Alari said. “I need to find the commander of this Warbringer and I need to ask them some questions.”

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” the girl said. “Go away!”

Alari blinked and tilted her head. With another blink she shifted her vision over to see through the Warbringer’s eyes. Lines of magic ran through the great plant machine and down into the earth. Each ran directly into the earthen bunker.

And directly to the roots which held the girl aloft.

Alari’s breath caught in her throat, the reality of the situation falling on her in a crashing tumble.

“You command the Warbringers,” she said. “The Council raised you for this, didn’t they? They made you into a soldier? A weapon? From when? When you were born?”

The girl had regained some measure of herself and while she still shied away from Alari, there was a defiance in her eyes that hadn’t been there before.

“You will not take me,” the girl said. “I am Raprimdel. You took my Warbringer, but you won’t get anything from me.”

Alari searched her memories. Raprimdel was one of the Council’s military names, as much a rank as it was a family name, something like a senior General. Alari didn’t recall the details but it seemed like an odd rank for someone so young to hold. Nevertheless, Alari adjusted her bearing. The girl demanded to be treated by her rank, and Alari would honor that.

“We do not wish to either take or compromise you, Raprimdel,” Alari said, flowing into the proper mode of formal speech. “We seek only your direct and unfiltered testimony.”

“You what?” Iana asked.

“We have spoken with Senkin,” Alari said. “We would speak with the Green Council as well before committing to a course of action.”

“I’m not on the Council, and you can’t get to them through me,” Iana said.

“We acknowledge that, and thank you for the information,” Alari said. “At present however we seek to gain your view and testimony of the events which occurred. What orders you were given. What reason you were told the Council had for invading their cherished neighbor.”

“I’m not going to tell you anything,” Iana said. “I’m not going to betray my people, no matter what you do! You can’t trick me.”

“Despite appearances, we are not your enemy, not yet,” Alari said. “Our actions on the battlefield, though taken against the Green Council’s forces, were intended to prevent greater loss of life on both sides.”

Iana remained silent.

“The swiftness of the Council’s assault suggests that their motivation for attacking Senkin is tied to some unforgivable breech on Senkin’s part,” Alari said. “We have spoken with Queen Marie of Senkin. She offered no information as to what Senkin might have done which so grossly violated the Council’s territory. The Green Council has not apprised its neighbors of this breech either, but to motivate its forces, we believe they would have told you why it was you were fighting. Unless they treat you as nothing more than a drone?”

“They didn’t have to tell me anything,” Iana said. “I saw what the Senkin did.”

“An act so horrible to provoke an invasion of another realm cannot be a state secret,” Alari said. “Gallagrin will not stand with those who perpetrate atrocities.”

“That’s what it was,” Iana said. “They murdered our children. Burned them all. An entire creche!”

It was Alari’s turn to be silent. She’d known the Council would claim some compelling justification for what they’d done, but she’d hoped it wouldn’t be something so dire. Some hopes are things to cling to though and some are not. With a slow exhalation, Alari let go of the hope that diplomacy and shows of force would be enough to resolve the issues behind the war.

“Let us free you from those bindings,” Alari said.

Iana blinked, squinted and finally nodded. Alari waved her hand and the roots that she’d usurped control over unwound from Iana’s body, releasing her gently onto the floor.

“What are you going to do to me?” Iana asked.

“We ask nothing more of you than you are willing to give,” Alari said. “The claim against Senkin is a grave one though and so must be investigated. If you can bear witness to it, we would hear your testimony. If you are not free to speak of what you have seen, then we ask you to tell us who can testify in support of the Green Council’s claim.”

“We don’t have to testify,” Iana said. “We’re not on trial. It happened. They burned the creche. Now they have to pay.”

“You speak with the certainty of experience,” Alari said. “We do not have that experience, but if evidence can support the Council’s claim, then we can act upon it.”

“You want evidence? You want to see the creche? Smell the burned bodies? It’s still there! We can go right now!” Iana said.

“If you will lead us, we shall follow,” Alari said.

“She will lead you nowhere.” From the earth, creatures forged of solid rock, carrying gems blazing with stolen starfire, emerged. There were an even dozen of them, a full squad, and from the lightning that flickered from gem to gem on their bodies, they had arrived ready for combat.

“We do not lay claim to this one as prisoner,” Alari said. “She is free to return to your ranks. If the Council wishes Gallagrin’s favor in its campaign against Senkin however, we require admittance to the creche Senkin is accused of destroying.”

“Your request is noted and rejected,” one of the Stone Warriors said.

“It is curious that the Council will not engage with Gallagrin on this point,” Alari said, watching at the Stone Warriors slowly repositioned themselves “Almost as curious as the Council’s choice to wage immediate warfare without declaration to any neighboring realms.”

“Gallagrin is unwelcome here,” the Stone Warrior said. “The Green Council is sovereign in these lands and will submit to no one’s review or censure.”

“The Green Council has always held itself apart from the affairs of the realms,” Alari said. “It has never been so foolish as to think it is not one of them though. An attack on Senkin, however well justified, must provoke a response from the rest of the realms, Gallagrin first and foremost.”

“Your response in irrelevant,” the Stone Warrior said. “You have sided with Senkin, you have violated our domain. You will be destroyed and your realm along with you.”

The attack from the Stone Warriors was instantaneous and overwhelming, but it was not aimed at Alari. On the spur of the moment, twelve of the Council’s most devastating units unleashed their full fury on the space where Iana stood, firing enough force to obliterate her completely.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 25

Iana was familiar with anxiety, and anticipation and dread, but it wasn’t until her Warbringer was taken from her that she understood how sharp an emotion fear could be.

“She’s coming for me,” Iana said. “Dagmauru, she’s coming to find me. The one who took my Warbringer!”

“Calm yourself, Commander,” Dagmauru said. “The Gallagrin Queen can no more locate where you are than she could find one fallen leaf in all the forests of our realm.”

Iana wanted to believe Dagmauru. He was the Green Council’s War Advisor. He was her mentor. He had been right about the need to advance in a measured fashion and he had been right about the Senkin response to their invasion.

But he wasn’t right about the Gallagrin Queen.

Iana knew it down in the roots of her bones.

“Your consternation is understable,” Dagmauru said. “The arrival of so formidable a force at the battlefront was an unforeseen complication.”

“She destroyed our offensive,” Iana said. “She has power beyond anything we’ve faced before.”

“This is true,” Dagmauru said. “But the exercise of her power against your forces has won us this war.”

Iana had been trying to wiggle free of the control mesh that connected her across the distant miles to her Warbringer. She stopped, uncertain, but looking for reassurance in Dagmauru’s words.

Dagmauru pulled back to give her space, roots that had been entwining around her to hold her in place relaxing as Iana stopped struggling to escape her command bower.

“How have we won?” Iana asked, her fingers twitching at the controls for the Warbringer. At first, the connection had been numb, almost dead. Iana had lost Warbringers before though. Starved for magic on a long campaign, or caught in an unexpectedly ferocious ambush, the Warbringers were powerful but not indestructible. Whatever the Gallagrin Queen had done to Iana’s Warbringer though hadn’t destroyed it, and over time sensation had returned.

Iana could feel her Warbringer marching again, the difference was, she could no longer control it. That was the source of her terror. Not that she’d been defeated. Defeat was an inconvenience and an expense. Loss of control though was something else.

Warbringers took significant amounts of time to grow and develop, so the destruction of one was always a black mark on one’s record, and a blow against the controller’s pride. As a commander, Iana had proven herself better and stronger than her peers but even the best had their off days or runs of bad luck. In her hardest fought battle, she’d gone through three of the giant plant machines, but finally overcoming the massed army of divine rejects with a broken down and barely functional fourth unit that she’d scrounged from a regrowth pool that was within range.

Switching Warbringers wasn’t commonplace for a controller of Iana’s stature but it was always an option. Except the Gallagrin Queen had taken that option away.

In the command bower, miles from the front line, Iana’s actual physical form lay nestled in a safe and well protected net of roots and vines. Here and there, they enwrapped her, reading from her body and mind the actions to transmit to the Warbringer.

Or they had during the battle. Afterwards they had become a prison. Unresponsive to her touch and locked in around her, unwilling to let her go.

“We have won the war, because the Gallagrin Queen has committed her force improperly,” Dagmauru said. “Her presence was the daunting factor in our plans to invade Gallagrin if our southern neighbor came to the aid of Senkin. By striking where she did she revealed to us that her borders lie undefended.”

“Gallagrin still has armies doesn’t it?” Iana asked. She could feel the rumbling steps of the Warbringer as it surged closer. Her troops had hesitated after Iana’s Warbringer fell into the Gallagrin Queen’s hand. They probably couldn’t have stopped its advance anyways, not with the Queen protecting it, but they might have slowed it down. Iana wished they’d slow it down, because she felt like it was getting so near that she could feel the thunder of its footfalls with her own body rather than just through the link she retained to it.

“The Gallagrin armies are in disarray,” Dagmauru said. “They are not yet united following the coup that was attempted a month ago. The Queen’s move fails her country in another sense though. By exposing herself and venturing into our domain, she can be captured and Gallagrin can lose it’s divine gifts permanently.”

That drew Iana’s full attention.

“Is that possible?”

“For those who have delved deeply enough into the secrets of the Divine?” Dagmauru said. “Yes. All things are possible for the Council. The Gallagrin Queen made a grand gesture, possibly to win the Senkin’s favor. It will be the last such display she ever puts on.”

“But how can we stop her?” Iana asked. “She took my Warbringer. She still has it! And she’s locked me out of controlling it. If she can do that, can’t she take over everything?”

“I will not lie to you commander,” Dagmauru said. “That was a surprising achievement, and it did raise concern among the Council. We have analyzed the attack though. When the Gallagrin Queen usurped control of your Warbringer, she did so after being attacked with our own transformation mists.”

“I saw that, she breathed in the yellow mist and breathed something else out,” Iana said.

“Gallagrin magic is centered on the art of transformation,” Dagmauru said. “We believe she worked the transformation on the mist herself, and turned it into a control agent that responded to her will rather than yours. So long as we don’t give her any additional material to work with, she should not be able to repeat that trick.”

“Do we have a plan to defeat her?” Iana asked. “Will the Council be safe from her? She might still more of the mist and if she takes one of them…”

“Calm yourself commander,” Dagmauru said. “The Gallarin Queen will not be allowed anywhere near the Council.”

“Are we sure we know what her capabilities are though?” Iana asked. “That hurricane waves she unleashed on us were never mentioned in our briefings on Gallagrins troops.”

“The Gallagrin Queen is a force far beyond any of her soldiers, but even she has limits,” Dagmauru said. “She’s testing those limited, but we already know where they lie.”

“But we’ve never had a chance to study her, have we?” Iana asked.

“Our understanding of magic has advanced beyond the need for direct study,” Dagmauru said. “The Council can calculate, based on the fundamental principles we have discovered, exactly how much magic the Gallagrin Queen can invoke and exactly what she is capable of doing with it. Believe me when I say that we are prepared for the worst that she can offer us, and we are not concerned.”

Iana breathed in deeply. The alchemical mix of nature’s scents, from rich loam to growing moss to the dozens of fresh spring flowers that surrounded them reminded her where she was. Home. Among those who sheltered her and whom she sheltered in turn.

The rest of her troops were in their own command bowers, each safely isolated from the others so that a foe couldn’t stumble on a single command center and destroy the brains behind an entire army. That was how the Green Council was organized. Each part in support of the other, each bearing part of the load that was distributed to all. No matter what force the Gallagrin Queen could throw against them, the Green Council was safe, and so she was safe as well.

“Can you get me out of this command bower?” she asked.

“You need only release your hold on your Warbringer’s controls,” Dagmauru said. “We restrained you because tearing free would have done you great injury.”

“That’s what I need help with,” Iana said. “I’ve been trying to release from the Warbringer. It won’t let me.”

“That’s not possible,” Dagmauru said. “The Warbringer cannot be taken from you, but all you need to do is relax and you can disengage from it. We spoke of this in your first class. You were probably too scared before to properly relax. Try again.”

Iana took another long, slow breath and forced her muscles to go placid as a winter lake. She imagined the roots and vines that held her relaxing as well. One by one they would slacken and release her limbs, her body and finally her mind.

Her troops would wonder at the loss of their commander, but her second-in-command Wylinka would take care of them. Iana smiled at that thought. Her troops were good and Wylika was an excellent second. Based on her performance in this crisis, she could even earn her own command. Far from being jealous, Iana wished her second the best of fortune. It would be heart warming to be able to great Wylika as an equal rather than a subordinate.

With her body relaxed and limp, Iana waited. And waited. The control roots which should have been unwinding weren’t. The vines that tethered her mind to her Warbringer were not releasing her. Panic rose, but Iana slammed it down. She was trained better than that.

“I am relaxed. I am unafraid,” she said in a calm, measured voice. “The controls are not responsive yet though. Can we have an external check done on them. Maybe something is impeding their release?”

“I have your Tenders examining the linkages,” Dagmauru said. “Their reports agree with yours. The command net is not disengaging. I will have them try a physical override.”

Iana waited. She could still feel her body, something she occasionally let go of in the heat of battle, but she couldn’t feel anything being done to the roots that restrained her.

With great effort, Iana forced her eyes open. The bower was only dimly lit but long adaption to its confines left her able to see quite well.

The command bower was located in a small underground grotto. Water from a nearby river pooled at the far end and around her a wall of roots and solid earth rose just high enough for her to stand upright if she hadn’t been laying prone. Around the bower, various creatures, both humanoid and not, scurried. Each played a role in maintaining the careful weave of magics that connected Iana to her Warbringer and each one seemed to moving with the kind of panicked distress that Iana had only seen during a simulated calamity drill where everything conceivable went wrong at once.

“The physical override isn’t working,” Dagmauru said. “I am sorry Commander.”

“Sorry? Sorry for what?” Iana asked, the panic around her creeping in her voice.

“The command network is being corrupted,” Dagmauru said. “You were right. The Gallagrin Queen is tracking back to your position.”

“Sleeping Gods!” Iana swore. “How long do we have?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dagmauru said. “We cannot allow her to gain access to the Deep Roots. If she can access our secure communications, she will have a method tracking the Council itself.”

“Cut me out then!” Iana said as she started to struggle to break free once more. Injuries be damned, she couldn’t let the Gallagrin Queen catch her.

“It’s too late for that,” Dagmauru said. “I am sorry Commander, but we have no choice.”

“No choice about what?” Iana asked, confusing making a fuzzy mess of her mind.

In response she saw two of the Fire Spider guards scuttle down off the ceiling. Their poison did more than kill their foe. It reduced the victim to ash in less than a minute.

“You’re going to burn me free?” Iana asked, calculating how much that was going to hurt. She didn’t have enough information to gauge it more specifically than “a lot”.

“It has been a pleasure advising you,” Dagmauru said. “You will be remembered.”

Iana’s eyes flew wide. Remembered? Dagmauru wasn’t speaking of freeing her. The spiders were going to burn her, not the bindings.

“No, wait,” she said. “The queen’s not here yet. Don’t do this.”

“We cannot take the chance of being compromised,” Dagmauru said. “We must remain pure.”

“But I am still pure,” Iana said. “Don’t throw me away. I’m still part of you.”

Only silence answered her. Silence broken by the clicking of the Fire Spiders as they slashed a path through the command web.

“No!” Iana screamed. “Dagmauru! Come back! Burn the bower, but get me out! I am still loyal. I can still serve you!”

The Fire Spiders began to spit venom to hurry their progress and Iana felt the searing heat of the flames roasting her skin. The nauseating stench of ash filled her nostrils and she lost the last of what little composure she had left.

“No! Gods No! Don’t do this! Dagmauru! Don’t do this! I’ve served you! I’ve always served you! Don’t let me burn! I don’t want to die! Not like this!”

The Fire Spiders were neither creatures of mercy or pity though. They tore the last of the restraints that shielded Iana from them and she saw her death reflected in their hundred eyes. It wasn’t going to be a good death, it wasn’t going to be quick and it wasn’t going to be painless.

In the end though, it also wasn’t going to be at all. Death and flame were both held back by a miracle.

The sound of Iana’s scream of undiluted terror was dwarfed as the walls and roof of the bower were ripped from the earth by an unstoppable force.  Sunlight, pure and brilliant, flooded the hidden chamber and in the shadow of her Warbringer, Iana saw that the Queen of Gallagrin had come for her.

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.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 23

Undine wasn’t the type to want to stab people. He liked to think of himself as a gentleman, refined and assured and with his impulses towards violence well under control.

“If you decapitate the General, our Queen will take the blood price Gallagrin has to pay for him out of your yearly bonus,” Jyl said as she worked the etchings on her ceremonial sword of office clean with a fine needle. “For reference though, our yearly bonus is pretty large.”

“You wouldn’t dare offer violence to me,” General Pentacourt said, his gaze flicking rapidly from the mundane (but still quite functional) sword at his throat, Undine’s grim expression and the rest of the Gallagrin delegation.

“Violence is already offered,” Undine said, pressing the General back into the wall with greater force. “Retract your statement regarding our Queen or I shall assume the offer has been accepted.”

“You can not threaten me,” Pentacourt said. “If you draw so much as a drop of my blood, the entire force of the the Senkin army will be turned against you.”

In his life, Undine had faced many challenges that revolved around being taken seriously. From declarations as to his basic identity, to support for his dream of becoming a Pact Knight, he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t struggling to have someone believe the very simple words that came out of his mouth.

With a resigned sigh he drew his blade across the General’s throat. Not far, and not deep. Just enough to open a nick the size of a shaving cut. Just enough to allow a single large drop of blood to run down the General’s neck and into the white collar of his uniform.

“General, you will want to know that Guardian Undine has only recently come into the service of Her Majesty the Queen of Gallagrin and that he takes his service to her quite seriously,” Jyl said. “As his commander, I could order him to release you but there is a problem which prevents that.”

“What problem?” Pentacourt asked, the whites of his eyes full revealed.

“I don’t want to,” Jyl said. The elf looked up from her maintenance work and flashed Pentacourt a bright smile.

Before the General could say anything else and escalate the conflict to a level where decapitation was the only viable outcome, the doors to the Senkin Royal Strategy room drew open and a proclaimer announced; “Her Royal Majesty, the Queen is present, all rise.”

Undine didn’t need to rise, nor did General Pentacount. They’d been seated side-by-side before Pentacourt’s ill-advised declaration had lifted Undine from his seat and inspired him to drag the General by the throat to the nearest wall.

The rest of the room hadn’t remained calm in the face of that sudden burst of violence, but it had become very still. With the Queen’s arrival it looked like that stillness would be broken and the room would descend into a chaotic melee.

“General Pentacourt, why are you here?” Queen Marie asked, with no evidence of surprise or concern coloring her tone.

“He claimed he received reports from the events at the border yesterday and what has transpired since then,” General Skybright Phillip said. “The reports in question seem to be…biased, however.”

“Pentacourt, leave this assembly at once,” Queen Marie said, disregarding the fact that the General would have certain issues with obeying that order if Undine wished to insist on the apology for Queen Alari.

Undine considered that, and considered the kind of enemy he’d made in striking a General in the Senkin army. As long as they were within Senkin, Pentacourt would have resources to strike back against the insult Undine had given him.

Slaying one of the Queen of Senkin’s Generals in front of her wasn’t a brilliant move for a number of reasons of course, not the least of which being that the Queen would have to kill him, perhaps personally.

Oddly, that didn’t feel like it mattered that much to Undine. He had no wish to die, and no belief that he could withstand the displeasure of a monarch of the Blessed Realms, but what mattered more was being true to who he wanted to be.

In his mind, Undine’s ideal, most perfect self, was as the definition of “a true knight of the realm”. Poise and confidence, strength and courage, daring and sacrifice; those were all elements of what a True Knight was, but the most important qualities were far more challenging and elusive, right-action and merciful restraint.

Any fool could be confident and any bully could be strong. Those who cared for nothing could sacrifice everything on a whim and courage was a goad that led people to the stupidest of deeds.

Knowing the right thing to do though? That was something that required a lifetime of practice and a spirit that didn’t shy away from reflection on all of its weaknesses. For as difficult as it was to admit one’s own shortcomings though it was the quality of mercy, that was the greatest of challenges to embrace.

Undine’s blade hesitated for a moment at Pentacourt’s throat. The General would only understand an answer of steel to his words. Undine knew that. And he knew it didn’t matter.

What the General did, would be on the General’s head. What mattered in that moment wasn’t the General’s guilt or innocence, or the Queen of Senkin’s commands. What mattered was that the Queen Undine had sworn to serve wouldn’t want him to kill the man who slandered her name. Vice Commander Lafli looked willing to deal with the political fallout from spilling noble blood on foreign soil, but that didn’t make it right, just convenient, for certain oddly considered values of “convenient.”

Undine could be better than that.

With a flourish, he spun his sword in a parrying circle as he backed away from the General, wiping it clean of the drop of Senkin blood that ran across it before sheathing the blade at his side.

General Pentacourt blinked, caught  between his fear, his rage and the commandment of his Queen. Self-preservation won out, beating the other impulses he harbored and he wordlessly nodded as he fled the chamber at a pace that only barely qualified as dignified.

“What is the word from the front?” Queen Marie asked, pointedly ignoring the flight of one of her senior generals.

“The Green Council’s advance has been checked,” Skybright Phillip said.

“We asked for word from the front,” Queen Marie said. “Not what we already know.”

“In this case your General is reporting new information Your Majesty,” Vice Commander Lafli said. “The situation on the war’s border seems to have shifted over the last evening.”

Queen Marie shuffled over to the Royal Commander chair at the far end of the room and dropped into it like a pile of weary bricks landing in the shape of a queen.

“Explain,” she said, closing her eyes and rubbing the bridge of her nose.

“We learned late yesterday that the Gallagrin Queen arrived at the battlefield as the momentum of the conflict was against us,” Skybright said.

“We were getting our guts handed to us in a horse bag,” the Queen said, somehow mixing commoner phraseology with noble speech rhythms.

“Yes,” Skybright said. “Guts everywhere from the reports.”

“And Gallagrin saved us,” Queen Marie said.

“From all reports, yes, she did,” Skybright said. “We’re not clear exactly how, but her arrival at the main thrust of the Green Council’s forces was described by several witnesses as ‘apocalyptic’.”

“So she’s still holding that front for us?” the Senkin Queen asked.

“”Apparently not,” Jyl said. “That’s what General Pentacourt came to tell us.”

“Pentacourt’s an ass,” Queen Marie said. “Knowing him, we’re sure his word choice was close to worthy of decapitiation, but we would still know of what he spoke.”

“If his report is credible, and in the larger details it likely is, the Queen of Gallagrin did not stop at the Green Council’s front line,” Skybright said. “She apparently ventured into the territory held by the Green Council’s forces and then into the deadly mists that shelter their troops.”

“The Council’s mist weapon won’t be fatal to her,” Jyl said. “Your General cited that as proof that our Queen had betrayed Senkin and left those of us behind to enact nefarious deeds in her name.”

“His words were no doubt more quarrelsome than that?” Queen Marie asked.

“If I hear him speak again, I am likely to cut his tongue out,” Undine said, providing what he felt was a fair warning on his limitations and lack of maturity as a Knight.

“We shall have to remember that the next time a ball promises to be too dull,” Queen Marie said. “There is more news though. If Gallagrin has passed into the Green Council’s region of control then was a truce negotiated?”

“We have received no word of a truce Your Majesty,” Skybright said, “And you are correct, there is more news. The Council launched another attack under the cover of darkness.”

“After Gallagrin stopped their first advance?” Queen Marie asked.

“Yes, hours after,” Skybright said.

“And how did our troops fair on this engagement? Did the extra time to rally perhaps improve their skills to a degree where they were less of a colossal disappointment to Senkin?”

“The troops fought valiantly You Majesty,” Skybright said.

“Yes, yes, how much land did they give up to the nighttime sorte?” Queen Marie asked.

“None,” Skybright said.


“Their lines held Your Majesty,” Skybright said. “The commanders in charge regretted to report that they were not able to secure more than one keep in the area which had been taken, but the Green Council advanced no further, and has not successfully advanced since.”

The Queen was silent for a long moment and everyone else in the room followed her lead.

“Do you mean to say that the worst troops our nobles could provide somehow managed to stem the tide of the Green Council’s most determined attack, one the Council has been planning for centuries or longer?”

“It does seem incredible when put in those terms,” Skybright said. “But the couriers who brought the reports are among our most reliable.”

“We would sooner believe that the Council has developed a means to suborn our messengers than accept the reports they bring,” Queen Marie said. “Otherwise there is too great a chance that some strategy is afoot and the Green Council has outmaneuvered us again.”

“Is it impossible to believe our cavaliers and paladins cannot rise to the occasion? Perhaps the Gallagrin Queen’s attack exposed some weakness in the Council’s troops which our own have learned to exploit?” Skybright looked barely convinced by his own argument and the Queen even less so.

“And is this new weakness mentioned in the reports?” Queen Marie asked.

Skybright looked down at the paper in front of him.

“No, Your Majesty, not that I have seen so far.”

“Then it is no weakness of the Green Council that we see in their failure to move forward, but some deeper, more cunning plan.”

Undine wondered if the Senkin Queen was as paranoid (or insightful) as she appeared to be, why the Green Council’s attack had come as the surprise that it so clearly had.

“There is another possibility,” Jyl said.

“You would advise us that the Green Council is not moving to attack us along unseen paths?” Queen Marie asked.

“Oh, it’s very possible they’re doing that too,” Jyl said. “But there may be another explanation for the Council’s failure to advance.”

She passed one of the reports over to Skybright who passed it along to the Queen.

“What are we to see in here?” the Queen asked.

“This one was written by one of the field lieutenants,” Jyl said. “Or, if I understand your military structure correctly, one of the  guys who has to actually fight. Notice that he mentions how well his troops were able to enact the strategy drawn up by their new advisor?”

“Yes,” Queen Marie said. “This advisor sounds quite exceptional. We would have learned of them sooner had we known our forces possessed such a genius.”

“I don’t think your forces do,” Jyl said. “Not before today, and not in an official capacity anyways.”

“Who is this genius of who you speak then?” Queen Marie asked.

“Do you notice who’s not mentioned in any of these reports?” Jyl asked. “They all speak of Queen Alari venturing into the Green Council’s mists alone. Because she was the only person there who could survive them. The thing is, she didn’t leave here alone.”

“The Queen of Paxmer?” Queen Marie said. “She’s the one leading our forces!”