The flight from Senkin’s capital to the new border with the Green Council was a short one. The Council’s troops were still barely over the border into Senkin, but Alari flew on wings conjured by the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin giving her speed beyond the fastest wind in the sky.
“You could rival Haldraxan for mastery of the air,” Haldri said. Alari held her nemesis in her arms, the weight of the former queen of Paxmer and effortless burden to bear thanks to the strength Gallagrin granted her. “Odd that Gallagrin monarchs don’t routinely take the field.”
“Paxmer has always been our rival, but the other realms we share a border with have not always been our friends,” Alari said. “Committing the monarch’s might to any one struggle meant losing it to stand against the rest of the wolves. The tactically minded rulers were aware of that.”
“And the rest?” Haldri asked. The roar of the wind should have made speaking impossible but Alari’s magic shielded them from the worst of its effects.
“Cowards in some cases, or concerned about attacks closer to home in others,” Alari said. “As you saw, contesting a monarch’s reign weakens them greatly and if the monarch dies while weakened they claim is automatically forfeit.”
“So if anyone lays claim to your throne at this moment?” Haldri asked, looking at the hard ground that lay far below them.
“Then we die,” Alari said.
“You need to work on your lies,” Haldri said. “I know you too well now to be taken in as I was before.”
Alari smiled. The bond she shared with the Gallagrin was strong enough to make any counterclaims difficult to mount and the only people with a strong enough case were being held under Dae’s watchful eye. Alari didn’t want to let herself wipe out the Gallagrin Council of Nobles, but if they made another play her throne, she’d be more than forgiving if Dae did the work for her. And Dae would absolutely see anyone who tried for the throne buried in a deep and forgotten grave long before it became an issue to trouble Alari.
“We didn’t lie to you before,” Alari said, thinking back to the delicate and precise choices she’d made during her discussions with Haldri before the rule of Paxmer was changed.
“Of course you did,” Haldri said. “You made me believe you were a rage stricken youngster. Weak and foolish with hurt pride and lost love. You invited me to attack you knowing just how far I would overextend myself.”
“We were rage stricken,” Alari said. “That was no lie.”
Her old rage wasn’t forgotten. Even considering it made her picture dropping Haldri to the the stones below and the small joy that might entail. Once she wouldn’t have hesitated but time changes all things, even implacable fury.
“But you were not lost in it,” Haldri said. “You were not so off balance that you were blinded by that rage then, so I doubt you are quite what you appear to be at the moment either.”
“And how do we appear now?” Alari asked.
“You act as though you are terrified of the change you’ve made in the world,” Haldri said. “To the monarchs of the realms your flight here will appear as the action of someone desperate to maintain control and undo the damage they caused when I was removed from my throne.”
“But things appear differently to you?” Alari asked, hiding a smile. Haldri was old enough to be Alari’s mother, and while Alari could never forgive the former queen of Paxmer for the woman she’d been, there was a certain perverse satisfaction in having someone as accomplished as the old Dragon Queen recognize what Alari was truly capable of.
Where Dae offered support, Haldri offered a challenge. Dae would keep Alari from falling, would shield Alari from the gaps in her plan and take the blows Alari failed to see. Haldri would do nothing of the sort. She would push Alari over the edge in the blink of an eye and strike any fatal blows she could see a clear path to inflict.
Or she would have at one time.
In the intervening month since Haldri was deposed, Alari had seen a change settle over the former queen. She wasn’t friendly, she wasn’t trustworthy, but there was a respect that had grown between the two women. They both knew the weight of a crown of the realms and, unlike any monarchs before them in history, they’d been able to speak of the toll that burden extracted.
“You are young enough to play into people’s misperceptions of youth,” Haldri said. “The panic in you which the rulers of the realms see clouds their vision of the plans you’ve been working on for the last month, just as the control they see you scrambling to attain obscures the influence that you already wield.”
“Do you really think we are so powerful as that?” Alari asked as they flew into the wispy haze of a cloudbank. In their wake, the water vapor coalesced in the first raindrops of the storm the cloud held.
“Of course not,” Haldri said. “You’re far more powerful, but they don’t know that do they?”
“We should find it worrisome that our greatest enemy flatters us so,” Alari said.
“It’s not flattery though, is it?” Haldri asked.
“No, though we cannot tell if your words are meant as a warning or an inducement to hubris?” Alari said.
“And that is why they are true,” Haldri said.
By speaking with Haldri, Alari believed she was opening the former queen up to new ideas and new values. It was a tremendously prideful thing to conceive of – changing the mind of another was difficult enough, changing their soul was somewhere on the other side of impossible – and any evidence that it was working had to be weighed against Haldri’s skills at deception. Alari tried to quell her ego by telling herself that it was a game she and Haldri were playing. An intricate, deadly game, just as they had played before, but where the stakes had once been the fate of realms, in this struggle it was Haldri’s chance at a return to power (and Alari’s requisite downfall to allow that happen) against the redemption of a single greed and hatred tarnished soul.
On Haldri’s side, all she had to do was trick Alari into revealing the right moment of weakness. Even if Haldri couldn’t worm a path free of her confinement, even if she died in the process of destroying Alari, revenge would still be achieved and the broken pride of a queen satisfied. To reach that point though, she needed to make Alari trust her, and that meant behaving as though she could be trusted for as long as it took.
The two flew on together, passing so quickly over Senkin’s lands, that neither could make out many of the details below them. Vast croplands were shot through with streams and small forests before running into low hills and occasional deep valleys before returning to more croplands. Individual dwellings were gone in the blink of an eye, and even whole towns and cities passed from one edge of the horizon to the other without time to observe their unique character.
“You said we are flying to the battlefront,” Haldri said. “And not the Green Council directly?”
“The battlefront is where lives will be lost,” Alari said angling them down out of the clouds.
“Or are being lost,” Hadri said. “We have arrived too late it appears.”
Below them, a massive wall of yellow fog reached up to the sky. In front of the wall, on the Senkin side, a furious struggle was underway. What had once been a farming village was a burning collection of dwellings around which a sizeable troop of Senkin soldiers fought to keep the Green Council forces from advancing
Here and there around the battlefield, huge seeds, as a tall a human, were scattered. Most were blackened and burned but a few were billowing forth a yellow smoke which matched the wall guarding the Green Council’s new border.
The Senkin army was rallying to destroy the smoking seeds but towering plant creatures, the Green Council’s Warstriders, were fighting them off.
Alari and Haldri watched as the Senkin army assaulted the Warstriders with blasts of fire and javelins of light. Despite the lack of a proper keep for shelter and protection, the Senkin were making a desperate attempt to defend their realm and had marshalled an impressively large force to halt the Green Council’s advance.
Unlike the battle which Captain Suncourt had described, the troops that had rallied to front weren’t the undisciplined force that had been demoted to guarding a border that was never contested. The massed Senkin troops moved with precision and unity, with the casters firing a steady stream of blinding attacks at the Green Council’s Warstriders while the shield guards fended off the attacks of the massive combat monsters as best they could.
Where the Senkin forces held the advantage in numbers though, the Green Council had them overmatched in terms of raw power.
Flares of solar fire burned through the Warstriders, but no matter where the flares hit, the Warstriders didn’t falter. New vines grew to file the holes and new energy coursed through them as the giant monster hammered at the shields erected to provide shelter to the increasingly overwhelmed Senkin forces.
Each Warbringer fought alone, guarding up to half a dozen of the yellow fog seeds. They couldn’t protect all of the seeds, but neither could the Senkin shield guards protect all of their comrades. With each shield a Warbringer shattered, and each moment that a seed got to pump out more of the deadly yellow fog, the Senkin’s lost more people and more ground.
“They should retreat,” Haldri said. “No matter how much they burn the plant monsters the Senkin can’t hold their lines together.”
“We agree,” Alari said. “The situation is untenable from their perspective. They cannot flee however.”
“Why ever not?” Haldri asked.
“They were making for a keep that is now lost behind the fog curtain,” Alari said. “There is nowhere else close enough for them to flee to. The Warstriders are faster than they look. If the Senkin break ranks to retreat they will be destroyed before they make it to the next river bank.”
“You need to think like a Paxmer,” Haldri said. “Not all of the troops are equal in worth and the Senkin stand to lose the entire army they have marshalled if they do not outdistance their attackers.”
“So you would have the commanders expend the weaker forces in a delaying action while the others escaped?” Alari asked.
“There are no pretty choices in war,” Haldri said.
“It would seem the Senkin agree with you,” Alari said. “Look at how their forces are being repositioned.”
Below them the Senkin army was executing a defensive retreat, ordering their forces into a wedge that fell back as the Warstriders pushed forward and more of the fog seeds were flung forward from behind the wall of yellow smoke.
“It’s a poor strategy,” Alari said.
“Only because they executed it too late and without sufficient boldness,” Haldri said.
“No, it’s wasteful,” Alari said. “Look, the troops that are being expended to cover the rear guard are too weak to provide any meaningful resistance to the Warstriders. The Senkin should have used their best troops to make sure the rest could escape safely.”
“But then they would be crippled for future battles,” Haldri said.
“Then they need to make their troops better,” Alari said. “Except not today.”
“You cannot negotiate a ceasefire to this rout,” Haldri said. “The Green Council has won and they know it. They will listen to none of your pretty words of peace.”
“We know,” Alari said. “That’s why we’re going to speak to them in terms that they will understand.”
With that she pulled Haldri in close and spun into a steep dive, descending towards the battlefield like a comet wreathed in sapphire light.