Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 39

Dagmauru surfaced, pulling his consciousness from the Deep Roots back into the shell of his primary body. Despite the long months he spent with his mind wandering the under layers of the Council’s realm, coming back to himself never felt strange.

“Thank the Sleeping Gods for their little gifts,” he said, working rich loam and fallen twigs from his mouth. His arms and legs were fully responsive and he could feel his sap flowing through his body with the rushing rhythm that only came with full wakefulness.

“Yes sir,” Blinet said. Or one of the Blinets. It didn’t matter which one, they were his staff and aside from meaningless variations in the coloring of their fur, each was usually interchangeable with the rest.

“We should moving to the Speaking Glade,” he said. “How long till we arrive?”

“We began transporting your host within ten minutes of your orders sir. We should arrive in just over an hour,” Blinet said. It was a different Blinet, but as Dagmauru had neither praise nor reproach to offer for their performance he made no effort to identify the speaker any further.

An hour of preparation was in some senses fifty nine minutes more than he needed, and in others years less than he would have liked.

“Do we have a roster of the Council members who will be in attendance for our emergency session?” he asked as he stood up.

The ground he had embedded his body in was moving, carried on the back of a Trolliphaunt.

The four legged creature towered over the trees of the swamp they moved through, it’s long limbs easily picking a path around and over the growth which would otherwise impede the flat disk that made up the majority of its body.

The Trolliphaunt wasn’t the first conveyance beast that Dagmauru had owned. He’d lost a dozen or more similar creatures during the divine skirmishes in the age that predated the gods’ slumber. Since their fall he’d had to make do with lesser mounts, ones that he’d been able to fashion for himself. They weren’t the equal of the divine steeds he’d been graced with by the gods, but the lack of divine meddling meant they also lasted longer.

“The Council will be complete for the session,” Blinet said. “We will be among the first to arrive of those who are not already in residence at the Speaking Glade.”

Dagmauru allowed a moment of peace to flow up from his rooted toes.  Events were moving as he’d foreseen they would. There were always surprises of course. Those were unavoidable and expected to a degree. Some of them were even pleasant.

The Gallagrin Queen invading the Council’s realm on her own, rather than at the head of her army, had not been in the script he’d written, but it played into his greater ambitions so well that he could almost believe it to be another gift from his gods.

Almost, but not quite. Not with knowing what he did about the Council’s more hidden areas of mystical research. Fortunately, most of the rest of the Council was ignorant of the efforts he’d directed, just as they were ignorant of the plans he laid which stretched back centuries.

It was the one thing his fellow Undying Ministers failed to grasp. They moved with the seasons and looked to the cycles of life, but so few could see beyond that. Yes, small changes across many repetitions led to growth and progress but there were also the watershed moments. Occasions when massives changes shifted everything in an instant.

There were some of Dagmauru’s peers who saw that reality, but few seemed willing to admit to it and even fewer willing to plan to exploit those moments when they arose.

“Sir, we’ve received word from your staff at the Glade, Balmauru has arrived ahead of schedule and is asking for a personal conference before the session begins,” Blinet said.

Dagmauru felt the peace that flowed through him wash away in an acid tide.

Balmauru was his closest ally. As such Balmauru knew of the extent of Dag’s research. That made Bal also Dagmauru’s more dangerous adversary.

Balmauru shared Dag’s long seeing outlook. Among the Undying, they were the two most concerned about the preservation of the realm beyond the next turning of the cycle. Their views were so close they should have been braided together as a composite being, like a number of the other Undying were. They would have done so on their own, save for the thorns that stood between them.

Bal’s view of the long future was a naive one. They saw that change would come, they agreed that there would be periods of devastation and calamity, but they believed that the Children of the Gods, both the Mindful Races and the other creatures who lived within the realms, would find new paths that would see them all through to even better days.

Bal believed in building strength across the cycles, of exploring the world to the depths of its darkest reaches and the width and breadth of its most open expanses. In all those things, Dag agreed with them. They differed in only one principal.

In Bal’s world, everyone could rise, could become more than they had been, and in this Dag found their vision flawed. The world provided so much evidence to dispute the notion of everyone moving forward at once. It was fundamental to nature, to the construct of the world the Sleeping Gods had crafted, that for one being to move forward, others must fall and be consumed to provide the fuel for growth and change.

“Tell them I shall seek them out the moment I arrive,” Dagmauru said. Balmauru didn’t want the meeting anymore than Dag did. Dag was certain of that. Each knew where the others heart lay, each knew the choices the other would argue for. They had been companions for centuries and friends for longer than that.

It would all end at the emergency session though. It was better that it happen in the Speaking Glade. The sacred space would restrict them both. They’d come to the point where their views required action, where the plans they’d each worked on had to either come to fruition or wither away to ash, and neither could let that happen. Not even if it cost them everything they were to each other.

“Tarismauru has also dispatched word,” another Blinet said. “He wishes to meet with you as well, though he did not specify a time.”

“Reply that I shall sit in his bower during the session,” Dagmauru said. “We need not meet before the proceedings begin though, instead he is to seek out those most staunchly in opposition to us still and listen to their position.”

“You wish to send Tarismauru as your diplomat?” Blinet asked. It was rare for his staff to question Dagmauru, but in this instance he allowed it. Taris was an idiot. A useful idiot, and a willing pawn, but not at all cut out for any sort of delicate work.

“No,” Dagmauru said. “Instruct him very clearly on this. He is not to attempt any diplomacy at all. He must not attempt to convince any of the people he visits that our cause is sensible, right or just. He is only to listen. I do not wish our opponents to be convinced. I want to know exactly why those who are still opposed to the war hold the positions that they do.”

“Should he ask as to what compromises would be acceptable to them?” Blinet asked.

“Absolutely not,” Dagmauru said. “He is to offer nothing except his understanding, and his silent acceptance of what they have to say.”

“What should he do if they impune his honor?” Blinet asked.

“Tell him that I will carry his honor and he shall be cloaked in mine,” Dagmauru said. “He goes to them not of his own accord but at my request. Any dishonor they would cast on him, shall fall on me, and I will seek no duels and answer no challenges until the emergency session is complete.”

Dagmauru knew his opposition. It was impossible not to after serving the realm for as long as they all had. He knew those who would oppose him on the principal that he was the one speaking, and the ones who opposed him because they were uncomfortable with the issues being raised. For the later group, being able to vent their concerns to something who offered no judgements, and no arguments would be enough to settle their minds, especially if Dagmauru could twist their concerns back against them as though he could read their hearts and held the answer to their deepest worries.

The Green Council had existed in peace with its neighbors for so long that the thought of war against them was abhorrent to most of the Council’s members. Even preparing for such a war raised fears and doubt the likes of which they had never had to confront before.

The was the first thing Dagmauru had worked on. He had spent what felt like an eternity convincing the Council of the need for stronger defenses. The gods had aided him in that. By leaving their half baked monsters still prowling about the realm they’d made it easy to argue for new and better weapons, and more troops to keep the people safe at all times. Nothing came before the safety of the people of the realm. It was an argument that carried every debate.

Dag and Bal kept their victories in that arena small and low key though. Too great a change, to quickly, especially outside the umbrella of a terrible external calamity, and their plans would be dashed by the unreasoning backlash of the Undying who wished to never see the world become unfamiliar and strange.

Instead they moved slowly forward, delving slightly deeper into the mysteries of their magics with each season, and crafting ever stronger (and more deadly) spells from what they discovered.

Few in the Council knew the real depths to which Dagmuaru had set his researchers. The work was tricky and dangerous they had been told and the realities of what the researchers  had done was hidden behind project names and code words.

The researchers themselves were cut off from the Deep Roots, in part to shield them from distraction but more to enforce that all of their communication with the outside world went through Dagmauru or his staff. The horrors they’d created were not easily understood by those who hadn’t followed their work across many lifetimes. It was for the best that the Council not have to be fully aware of the forces they deployed, in Dag’s view. The Council needed only to know that they had unstoppable might at their disposal and that the time had come to use it.

“Sir, we are receiving reports from the warfronts,” a Blinet said.

“Which ones,” Dagmauru asked, hope soaring in his chest that his predictions would prove to be true. He could manage in any turn of events, but if he’d guessed correctly then the battles to come would be so much easier.

“We have reports from the spy crows which circle the Royal Palace of Senkin, and our troops in Gallagrin,” Blinet said. “There is also one other report, an unexpected one.”

Dagmauru narrows his eyes. Unexpected and aligning with his predictions did not measure up well.

“Where is this report from?” he asked.

“An elf,” the Blinet said. “She claims to have escaped from Senkin carrying intelligence which will aid our cause.”

“What sort of intelligence?” Dagmauru asked, the tingling of hope restrained buzzing in the tips of his fingers.

“The true layout of the Senkin reserve forces,” Blinet said. “We have also captured a Gallagrin Pact Warrior who seemed to be pursuing the elf.”

“What is the elf’s name?” Dagmauru asked, a delighted suspicion arising in him.

“She gave it as ‘Lafli’ sir,” Blinet said.

Slowly a smile spread across Dagmauru’s face. He knew the Lafli clan. They were sympathizers he had spent the better part of a century wooing to the Green Council’s cause. For the daughter to arrive at the eve of the emergency session was the last bit of proof he needed. He was going to win. When the dust settled, the Council would no longer be the smallest of the realms and the world would respect its power.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 38

Alari held her breath as they cleared the edge of the forest, emerging from the thick undergrowth into a fire ravaged wasteland.

“This is it,” Iana said. “This where we found them.”

Though the sound was generated by the magic of the Warbringer, Alari could hear the thick tension in Iana’s words.

No ten year old should have been asked to contend with the carnage that lay before them. The charred skeletons of various forest creatures were still visible in the ruined wasteland and the thick carpet of grey ash had yet to sprout any growth.

“There’s no green left here?” Alari asked. Even in Gallagrin, there would usually be some errant weeds surging forth to prove their resiliency. It was impossible to imagine that the Council’s botanicals weren’t similarly hardy.

“The fire burned too hot,” Iana said. “Everything died.”

“But the winds, certainly they would carry new seeds to take root?” Alari asked, piecing together what she saw with what she suspected.

“Seeds that land on this soil wither and die too,” Iana said. “They left us with nothing here.”

Alari grimaced. She’d hoped she would find some signs of new growth. Some signs that the burning had been a tragic accident. The unbroken ash before her though spoke to a different purpose.

“Put me down,” she said. “I need to see something.”

Iana complied, bending the Warbringer down so that it’s should was only a few feet off the ground. Alari stepped down and walked into the ash. The burning odor was still strong, but underneath the physical aroma there was a scent she’d wished wouldn’t be there.

“There’s an enchantment that remains,” she said, the magic in her nostrils more revolting than the odor of the ash.

“What kind of enchantment?” Iana asked.

“I can’t say for sure,” Alari said. “Analysis isn’t my forte. All I can make out is that it’s Senkin magic and that it’s linked to the fire.”

“The fire’s gone,” Iana said. “We tore the one’s who were casting it apart.”

Another thing which no ten year old should have been asked to do. Alari knew she needed to remain impartial and calm, but her patience was starting to wear away on multiple sides. Senkin shouldn’t have been here, and the Green Council should never have been free to employ children in the capacities that it did.

“The casters are dead, but I don’t think their fire has left this field,” Alari said, focusing on the problem at hand instead of the broader ones that loomed on the horizons. “I’m guessing at this but it feels like the things that burned are still blazing on the spiritual plane.”

“What does that mean?” Iana asked. “They’re ash here, how can they still be burning. We stopped them!”

Desperation gripped the young girl’s voice, and Alari remembered the creche that had been destroyed.

“The things we see here that were destroyed are gone,” she said. “They’ve burned as much as they’re ever going to. The ashes that remain are a sort of spiritual conduit though I think, ready to channel the flames back to this world if something else tries to take root here.”

Alari couldn’t be sure that some aspect of the plants, or worse the children from the creche, weren’t still being torn apart by the fire, but she was reasonably certain nothing sentient was still suffering. Death had swept the ruined landscape, ending all pain and anguish for those it took as was its province. Alari knew that would be little comfort for Iana, since she found it only sparse comfort for herself.

“So nothing will ever grow here again?” Iana asked.

“Enchantments don’t last forever, but some of them do linger for a very long time,” Alari said. “Unless they’re broken.”

“Can you do that?” Iana asked. “Can you fix what’s wrong here?”

“Maybe,” Alari said. “This is well outside the reach of my dominion, and I’m not certain if I even should.”

“Why would you leave it like this?” Iana asked. “This is an abomination. There should be flowers here, or something. We can’t let them win!”

“I know,” Alari said. “I don’t understand why your Council hasn’t broken the enchantment already though, and that makes me cautious.”

“Maybe they didn’t know about it?” Iana said.

“The Council has better magic weavers than anyone else in the realms,” Alari said. “They know exactly what this enchantment is, and the exact cost of breaking it.”

“Maybe they’re not strong enough?” Iana asked.

“If there’s one thing your attack proved beyond a doubt, it’s that the Green Council is far from weak,” Alari said. “No, I think they’re leaving this here as an example.”

“To who?” Iana asked.

“Not to Gallagrin,” Alari said. “Or to Senkin. The Council wouldn’t speak to either one of us.”

“Who else is there?” Iana asked.

“There are the other realms,” Alari said. “Inchesso, Authzang. They’re the closest to being involved in this too. At least from the Council’s point of view. But neither of those will have any interest in entangling themselves in a war between the Council and Senkin.”

“Could they be waiting until we’ve conquered Senkin to use this as proof of why the conquest should be accepted?” Iana asked.

Alari turned and smiled. For a girl who’d been raised as a disposable weapon, Iana had the sort of insight and cleverness that Alari prized.

“That’s certainly possible,” Alari said. “A completed conquest is much more difficult to argue with, and this could help ease the burden of assenting to it after the fact. The only problem I see is that by waiting until the conquest was complete, when there would be no Senkin voices to respond to the allegations, there would be an inevitable belief that the Council fabricated this scene after the fact.”

“We would never do this to our own,” Iana said, her spirit rising in her voice.

“The history of the realms suggests that each of us would do far worse than this if it came to getting what we desired,” Alari said.

“We’re not…” Iana began to say but Alari cut her off gently.

“…willing to slay a loyal soldier in order to avoid speaking to a foreign queen?” Alari said.

Iana was silent for a moment before mumbling, “That’s different.”

“It is,” Alari said. “But it’s still wrong.”

“I failed them,” Iana said.

“You failed no one,” Alari said. “At every moment, you’ve been loyal to your homeland and worked to preserve and protect it. If anyone failed, it’s the one who commanded you.”

“I should have been stronger,” Iana said.

Alari let a small, weary sigh, escape her lips.

“That’s a lie,” she said.

“A lie? How can needing to be strong enough to win be a lie?” Iana asked.

“Because it traps you,” Alari said. “The idea that you need more strength. That if you can just grab enough power, you can make everything ok. That you can protect everyone and always win.”

“Isn’t that what you did though?” Iana asked. “You became queen and now you can beat everyone.”

Alari sank to her knees and reached into the ash, her mind falling back through a panoply of images. Halrek betraying her. Her noble’s rebelling against her. Her citizens dying one after another after another under her father’s barbarism. Her stillborn child. All of her failures. All of the things that rested inside her like blades of glass, never quite growing so dull than the memory of them couldn’t slice through her sternest defenses.

“I’m not here because I can beat everyone,” Alari said. “I’m here because I can’t.”

Iana was silent, waiting for Alari to explain.

“For all the power that comes with being a Queen, I can’t change the world,” she said. “Not on my own. I need people to work with me. To stop this war, I need the Council and Senkin to want to stop the war. To stop the wars that will follow, I need the other realms to come together and agree that they don’t ever want this to happen again.”

“They’ll do that though,” Iana said. “Won’t they? Once you tell them about this?”

“I hope so,” Alari said. “But that’s another reason why I am unsure about breaking this enchantment.”

“”Because if you do there will be less proof for the other realms to see what happened here,” Iana said. The sorrowful slump of her shoulders was writ large on the Warbringer she piloted.

“We don’t have to stay here,” Alari said, rising to her feet again. “I can bear direct witness to this before the other monarchs now. And I can speak to the enchantment on these ashes.”

“I understand,” Iana said, her voice small and hollow despite the booming depth of the Warbringer’s speech.

Alari looked around the ashed remains of the once verdant forest.

“This place serves as support for my words,” she said after a long moment. “But it’s not the only support they could have.”

“What else would convince the other realms?” Iana asked.

“Are you willing to speak to them?” Alari asked. “To tell your story whole and true?”

“They’d never listen to me,” Iana said. “I’m not important enough.”

“You have the Queen of Gallagrin’s on your shoulder,” Alari said, hopping back onto her perch. “You’ve led forces in one of the most important battles in the past millennia and you have personal experience and insight with the incident in question. Trust me, you are more important than you can even imagine.”

“Won’t the ashes be even more convincing though?” Iana asked.

“No,” Alari said. “They won’t. Walk us out into the fields.”

Iana hesitated and then took a step forward. The ponderous bulk of the Warbringer kicked up a cloud of soot that rose to the giant’s waist.

At first that seemed to be the extent of what they were accomplishing but as the Warbringer moved out into the field and the grey ash settled back to the ground, it became rapidly obvious that something in it had changed.

“Why are we leaving a swath of black in our wake?” Iana asked.

“That’s what the ashes should look like,” Alari said. “We’re disenchanting them.”

“What? How are we doing that?” Iana asked.

“Your Warbringer, it knows what the Council’s plant-life should look like, spiritually,” Alari said. “I’m using it as a pull the enchantment from the ashes. They can return to the soil and nurture new life again.”

“But why? I thought we needed to preserve the enchantment? For the other realms?” Iana asked.

“If the other realms won’t accept your word and mine as to what was here, then physical evidence will do little to convince them either,” Alari said. “Also, this abomination needs to be purged. If the land can’t heal then neither will its people.”

“Do you have enough strength for this though?” Iana asked.

“We’ll have to see,” Alari said. “So far it’s not proving difficult, but there’s a lot of devastation. Take us over to the far edge there and we can start working in rows.”

Iana stepped up the Warbringer’s pace, ash blackening into rich fertilizer for the soil with each step. When she reached the far side of the burned area though, she paused.

“What does this say?” she asked, pointing at a plaque on a small pillar at the edge of the burned area.

“Let me see that,” Alari said, jumping from the Warbringer’s shoulder.

She studied the pillar and the plaque for a minute before speaking.

“The writing is in Senkin’s script,” she said. “It calls this the ‘Treaty Stone’. What treaty is it referring to?”

“I don’t know,” Iana said, “but there’s a divine sigil on the back side of the pillar. One of ours.”

“So clearly a treaty between Senkin and the Green Council,” Alari said. “Not surprising given it’s location.”

“See if the pillar is hollow,” Iana said. “We store things in stone vaults like this sometimes.”

Iana twisted the top of the pillar, which came off easily. From the hollow core, she draw forth a tube of gold with the seals of both the Green Council and Senkin cast in the wax that held the tube’s top sealed shut. Without hesitation, Alari broke the seals and drew forth the scroll that lay within.

“What does it say?” Iana asked.

“It codifies water rights,” Alari said, her eyes narrowing.

“Water rights?” Iana asked, confused how something so arcane could be meaningful compared to the destruction that lay behind them.

“Yes,” Alari said, her gaze going distant. “The lake. It belongs to the Green Council, but it feed rivers that run down into Senkin.”

“So?” Iana asked.

“So the people of Senkin depend on those rivers to water their crops, and sustain their villages. The Treaty established Senkin’s right to depend on the rivers. The Green Council agreed never to dam them or restrict their flow.”

“There’ve been no dams built though,” Iana said.

“By the Treaty, the Council agreed to keep this whole area as undeveloped land,” Alari said.

“Wait, they saw our creche and thought it was a dam? So they burned it all down?” Iana asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Alari said. “If they knew something was here, they would have targeted that directly. They burned indiscriminately because they were trying to ensure that the Council couldn’t take their water away.”

“It’s been thousands of years though,” Iana said. “We’ve never taken their water away. Why would they do this now?”

“Because of me,” Alari said. “Because I showed the world that one realm can conquer another. I don’t know who on Senkin’s side did it, probably whichever Duke controls the province across the border, but they tried to steal a march on the conflict they saw coming.”

“By killing our young?” Iana asked.

“Yes,” Alari said. “Whether they meant to or not, that’s exactly what they did. And then failed to confess their sins when you invaded out of fear than Marie Senkin would behead them.”

“We killed the people burned our lands though,” Iana said.

“You killed the ones who wielded the flames,” Alari said. “The ones who ordered them to do it though? I guarantee you they remained safe at home.”

“Then we should slay them too,” Iana said.

“There is a deeper problem here,” Alari said. “Whoever authorized the building of the creche did so knowing that they were constructing it on land they’d pledged never to develop on. A Senkin wielded the flames that killed your young, but given how well your places are hidden, it’s likely they had no idea what they were burning. The people who chose to build here though knew that they were placing the younglings in unprotected territory.”

“Why would they do that?” Iana asked.

“Did you question the order to invade Senkin?” Alari asked.

“No,” Iana said, seeing Alari’s point. “And the Council was unanimous about it too.”

“Then that’s your reason,” Alari said. “Someone on the Council wanted this war and sacrificing children of the realm was an acceptable sacrifice in their eyes to make it happen.”

In the forest on the far side of the burned swath, something ominous rumbled towards them. The Council had caught up to them again, and Alari had to wonder how much farther they would go to keep their secrets.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 37

Undine tried to sit comfortably. It should have been an easy task. The cushions on his chair would have made clouds seem harsh and overly stiff.  Whatever craftsman had manufactured the royal furniture for Senkin was beyond a master of his trade. Even the fruit of so skillful an artisan though was not enough to allow for relaxation in the presence of the monarch of Senkin.

“Have you tried the mistberry tarts?” Marie Senkin asked. “The berries are harvested from our estates in the Blue Coast Hills.”

“They are exquisite Your Majesty,” Undine said. “There isn’t any chance that they can retain that wonderful sweetness over a night of transport is there?”

The Senkin Queen huffed a small laugh.

“Thinking to start an import business?” she asked.

“Only for personal use,” Undine said. “I am spoiled by the fare you provide. For as much as I love my queen, her court cannot compare to the culinary mastery yours possesses.”

Undine felt spoiled by more than the cuisine the Queen of Senkin provided. She was also bestowing an unusual amount of attention on him, the latest of which being a dinner to which only he was invited.

Dining with royalty was something Undine was prepared for. He knew the proper forms of etiquette and had mastered the basics of making harmless and charming small talk when required, so as not to upset anyone’s digestion. Those talents were largely predicated around being in a group setting though. Having a monarch’s full and undivided attention was an arena Undine had never expected to find himself in.

“We are glad our people excel in that,” Queen Marie said. “Though we must confess that the greater variety of herbs and spices which grow in our climate work in our favor.”

“The blessings of the Sleeping Gods are nothing if not varied,” Undine said. “It’s a credit to your realm that you’ve learned to do so much with them though.”

“Yes, Senkin holds many blessings,” Marie said. “The question is for how much longer they will remain ours?”

Undine placed his cutting fork and knife back beside his plate and picked up his small portions fork. He didn’t spear the next tidbit of food though, sensing he would need to be able to speak freely for a while.

Monarchs were different from other people. They held power both magical and political that only another monarch could understand the weight of. For all that though, they were still mortal. Human or Elf, Merrow or Sylph, whatever the ruler’s race, they were still prone to the frailties and insecurities that beset any other sapient being.

Marie Senkin was no different. She was many things and more powerful than Undine knew he could guess, but despite her strength and intelligence, she was also afraid.

Afraid of losing her kindgom, afraid of the suffering her subject would endure in the conflict to come. She was one of most powerful beings in the realms, but she still wasn’t strong enough to fix the problem before her on her own.

“I cannot speak for the future with certainty,” Undine said. “But I can say that Gallagrin will not stand for the destruction of any of the realms. The Council’s advance has been halted and we will see this conflict ended in a sustainable peace.”

“Yes, we have ample evidence of that desire in the insanity of your Queen’s actions so far,” Marie said.

Undine remained silent. Even in private with the Senkin Queen he couldn’t voice his support of the notion that Queen Alari’s solo trip into the Council’s realm was lunacy, however much he agreed with that appraisal.

Marie used her fork to pick up a slice of pear that had been coated in a thick raspberry sauce. Between nibbles on the sweet fruit she said, “We have been presented with a plan to assault the Council’s territory.”

“A bold move,” Undine said, wheels turning in his mind.

“Uncharacteristically so,” Marie said. “Our generals are not prone to extremes of action, or any action which could expose them to harm. And yet, one of our most sensible generals, Pentacourt chose this afternoon to present us with a plan to assemble our Grand Army and take the battle to our enemies homeland.”

Undine held off eating anything for a moment longer.

“The circumstances are unusually dire,” he said. “Perhaps General Pentacourt was pushed to unusual action by the unusual gravity of the threat before you?”

“Or perhaps he was inspired by one of our guests from Gallagrin,” Marie said. “Judging from your Queen’s actions, a direct frontal assault seems to be the sort of strategy which your realm favors.”

Undine smiled, a sliver of his confusion at being alone at dinner with the Queen of Senkin resolved. She wanted answers, and she didn’t want them clouded by what her flock of advisors might say or think. Without them around, Undine could afford to ignore the geopolitical implications of what he said since it only mattered how Marie Senkin reacted to his words, not how her advisors would expect her to react to them.

“That also seems likely,” Undine said. “I believe General Pentacourt had dinner yesterday evening with Duke Telli. I would be shocked if they didn’t speak of the state of the invasion.”

The Queen knew who her Generals were dining with. Undine was sure of that, so acknowledging it wasn’t a violation of any confidences. More importantly trying to be circumspect would have sent exactly the wrong message to Queen Marie. She wasn’t looking to punish either Duke Telli or Undine. If she was interested in that, she would have had them dragged to the dungeon as spies.

“That leaves us in the precarious position of allowing Gallagrin to rule our realm, if only indirectly,” Marie said.

“Anyone who would claim such is unworthy of gracing your presence,” Undine said. “In his role as your advisor, Pentacourt collected strategic information. That it came from a foreign Duke is a credit to his ability to draw on diverse sources of intelligence.”

“But as the source was foreign, the plan presented is necessarily flawed,” Marie said. She took a long pull from her wineglass and relaxed back into her chair, the resignation that twisted her lips the only visible sign of the turmoil that gnawed at her.

“All plans are, by virtue of attempting to predict the unpredictable future, flawed,” Undine said. “Is there a particular weakness with the plan Pentacourt presented that renders it nonviable?”

“Yes,” Marie said. “Althought it would be kinder to say it is suboptimal. That’s the most damning part of it.”

“I am certain Duke Telli would be willing to incorporate any operational intelligence he lacked when fabricating the original plan,” Undine said.

“He wouldn’t dare,” Marie said. “Not to correct this mistake. Not if he wished to remain in our good graces. And yet, curse your Queen, he must have known that. Wretched Duke.”

“What is it that Duke Telli omitted from the plan to assault the Council’s lands?” Undine asked.

“His plan is bold and reckless and daring,” Marie said. “It’s success is success in all arenas, and so its failure would be similarly complete.”

“The Duke has played for high stakes before,” Undine said. “It was his report to my commander Lady Akorli as to the treason of his father which prevented the attempted coup last fall. If she had failed to end the threat the previous Duke Telli posed, Ren and his husband would have been executed in one of our spectacularly messy fashions.”

“We are unused to such dire stakes,” Marie said. “We are not certain that our constitution is the equal of them.”

“I don’t believe anyone is equal to the tasks life puts before them,” Undine said. “The deepest trials we face are the ones where we become more than we are.”

“And yet we can never be more than we can be,” Marie said.

“No one can ever know what we can be though,” Undine said. “That is unwritten and can only be sketched from the choices we make.”

“We wish we had your youth and optimism,” Marie said.

“I wish I had your wisdom and bearing,” Undine said.

“They would ill suit you,” Marie said. “You make too fine a gentleman to be wasted on royalty.”

“Are we not all meant to aspire to the example which royalty sets for us?” Undine asked.

“Sleeping Gods, no,” Marie said. “We had the misfortune to be mistaken for a princess when we were born and so our whole life has been shaped by the duties therein, rather than the duties of the peasant girl we sometimes feel we should have been. We make a terrible role model for those who can find their happiness without the oppression of a court and realm depending on them.”

“You make me feel that I am the fortunate one among us,” Undine said.

“Born to greater freedom were you?” Marie asked.

“Ultimately yes,” Undine said. “As you were taken for a princess when you were born, I was taken for a daughter. I won’t claim that impression was easy to correct, but it was worth the effort.”

“Your family stood against you?” Marie asked.

“No, their spirits stand with me even today,” Undine said. “My adoptive family was more mixed. Pa was delighted, he’d always wished for a son to share his craft and time with. Ma took a bit longer to come around, but once we started forging my armor together we found common ground.”

“Gallagrin is the realm of transformations,” Marie said. “Couldn’t you simply magic yourself into a more accurate form?”

“I couldn’t wait until I gained a pact spirit to resolve the issue of my identity,” Undine said. “And, in truth, pact magic offers few options in that regards.”

“We were under the impression that bodily transformation was at the heart of Gallagrin’s magic,” Marie said.

“It is, but by necessity such transformations are temporary,” Undine said. “In any pact bond there is the mortal host and the spirit. During a transformation the two are fused more strongly together than at any other time. That is why it’s so important that a clear line be maintained between the two at other times.”

“So that the spirit doesn’t overwhelm its host?” Marie asked.

“So that they don’t overwhelm each other,” Undine said. “To retain our individuality, the core essence of who we are, we must maintain some separation from each other. If we merge for too long then the distinctness that defines each of us is lost. That’s what leads to Beserkers. The essence of the host and the spirit are blended together and neither has enough sense of self to exercise any restraint. Since most transformation take place on the battlefield that means the situations Berserkers finds themselves in are invariably violent and hostile, and so they react in kind.”

“So you cannot permanently transform yourself then?” Marie asked.

“Not via pact magic,” Undine said. “I am not quite as I would have been, thanks to some alchemical potions, and not quite as I would wish to be, but I am happy with who I am now, most days anyways.”

“You’ve lead an interesting life Guardian,” Marie said. “Perhaps we would have your courage if we’d be faced with such challenges.”

“You do not wish to be me, Your Majesty,” Undine said. “The world needs a Queen Marie Senkin and anyone else would be only a poor imitation.”

“A poor imitation would be appreciated at this hour,” Marie said. “Though we would not inflict this calling on anyone else, we suppose.”

“Calling Your Majesty?” Undine asked.

“Your Duke’s plan,” Marie said. “It calls for our best and strongest forces. It calls for us.”

Undine blinked and set down his fork.

“Our forces must succeed in this endeavor,” Marie said, drawing herself up in her chair and breathing in regal authority. “We will accompany them ourselves. We will follow the example of your Queen and bring the might of Senkin’s throne to bear against the forces the Council has assembled.”

Undine saw the courage that Marie thought she lacked. The Senkin Queen knew the terrible risk she was taking. She knew she would be the prime target for every Council soldier on the field. She knew she couldn’t couldn’t hide behind her troops but would have to march in front of them, blazing a path with the power she carried as she led them all into greater danger than anyone in their realm had ever faced, and yet she was going to go anyways.

“Though I am sworn to another, and though my loyalty and honor lies with Gallagrin, if you would have me, I would march at your side and defend you from all harm,” Undine said.

Marie Senkin nodded and allowed a small, willowy smile to grace her countenance.

“We would like that,” she said. “Though you are not sworn to us, we would feel our courage bolstered if you were by our side.”

“My course is chosen then,” Undine said. “Gallagrin fights against the Green Council and I fight by your side.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 36

Dae caught the enemy’s blade less than an inch away from her throat. As parries went, it wasn’t her finest work, but since her head remained attached to her shoulders she didn’t worry about her technique too much.

The Council Soldier who faced her was an elf, half a head taller than Dae was. He wore a strange form fitting armor that looked like it was grown around him from some dense variety of wood. Against an unarmed foe, the soldier would have been invincible. Against someone with an axe, he was decidedly weaker and against someone with a Pact Blade, the armor offered little, if any, protection.

Dae’s sword was still the normal blade she wore as part of her standard garb. It couldn’t penetrate the soldier’s armor except through the tedious process of hacking away at the wood directly. Ogma’s blade, however, was not so encumbered.

She skewered the soldier and when he reached for a frond at his belt to magic the wound away, she spun her blade in a small arc and then stepped over his headless corpse to press the battle onwards.

“Duke Zendli has fallen,” Duchess Harli said as she stepped up to fill the gap that Ogma’s charge left.

“Did you see where?” Dae asked, scanning the battlefield again after the distraction of a Council soldier breaking through their ranks.

All around them dozens of isolated melee’s raged, each with thousands of Council forces contesting against a scant handful of Gallagrin’s nobles.

Dae’s group was the largest of the Gallagrin squads, numbering eight in total. In part that was because they were the vanguard, the squad that had rushed in the furthest and the fastest. They’d flown ahead of the rest of the Gallagrin forces in order to disrupt the Council’s communications and prevent their forces from joining together. Thanks to the unexpected attack the Council was unable to bring their full weight to bear in any specific area of the battle whose front was less a line than an amorphous blob.

The other reason Dae had chosen to surround herself with twice as many nobles as the rest of the groups had was because of Kirios, her Pact Spirit. Her hope that a battle of historic significance would be enough to coax him into transforming with her had proven to be an empty one. While the other nobles strode and leapt and flew into battle arrayed in magic the likes of which the world had rarely ever seen gathered in one place, Dae entered the fray as nothing more than herself.

“Zenli was with the group on the rise,” Duchess Harli said, pointing to the cliffs to the east of them. “He got pushed off and fell into that horde of Marsh Trolls.”

Marsh Trolls were a race unique to the Green Council’s domain. With a legendary capacity to regenerate damage, and claws that were mystically hardened to the point where they could shred steel armor like it was the thinnest paper, even some Gallagrin fairy tales featured them as terrors to be avoided.

“We’re moving east then,” Dae shouted. “Zenli found some Troll Ichor, let’s go folks before he bottles it all up!”

Troll blood retained some of the amazing healing capacities and was a frequently sought after ingredient for healing potions. It wasn’t greed to get their hands on such a valuable substance that convinced the nobles around Dae to pivot from their own battles and rush to render aid to one of their fallen brethren, but the lure certainly put some extra pep in their stride.

“Do we know Zenli even needs to be rescued?” Ogma asked, resuming her place at Dae’s side as they raced across the battlefield.

A small troop of Council forces, no more than a hundred or so, rallied in front of them, a rank of spears ready and archers behind them. The Gallagrin nobles didn’t even slow when they met them. Arrows shattered against Pact Armor chests and the spears were reduced to kindling as the nobles overran and the left the Council troops in the dust behind them.

Dae used her fellow nobles as both sword and shield, trailing a few feet in their wake to allow them to break the enemy’s ranks and create a clear path for her to run though.

Unlike many who bore a Pact Spirit, Dae had never given up on her training regime. Occasionally she’d been too hungover to perform it, but even that was becoming a thing of the past. Her fellow Pact bearers would tease her on occasion but without that commitment, it would have been impossible for Dae to keep up with her squad. As she vaulted over a pile of bodies the nobles had left in their wake and the burning in her lungs reached barely tolerable levels, she had to reflect on whether working to make something impossible merely agonizingly difficult instead was really such a brilliant overall plan.

“This assault succeeds or fails on our being untouchable,” Dae said, fighting for her breath as they ran. If she’d been transformed, the furious speed they were running would have taken nothing from her. As it was, she was slowing them down and was still barely able to speak. “If one of us is slain, the rest are going to become much more tentative. And that will lose us the fight.”

“Even if it’s someone you’d just as soon see dead?” Ogma asked.

“Yes,” Dae said between breaths. “Definitely then. This isn’t a trap to kill off the Queen’s opponents.”

“If Zenli gets a chance it could become a trap to kill you off,” Duchess Harli said. Her armor bore the pattern of stags flying through a forest. If unrestrained, she could have reached Zenli and been back already, but Dae refused to let the members of the vanguard range freely.

The noble’s had grumbled about that, but once they were crushed in the press of battle each become silently grateful to have their companions around them. They might be able to face odds of a thousand to one and win, but then again they might not and the unknown was always easier to face with an ally by your side.

“I’ll have to make sure we keep feeding him Council forces then,” Dae said.

“It seems like there’s plenty to go around,” Ogma said, spitting a goblin on her sword as he angled down towards them on a glider  that was filled with some form of combustible material.

Dae rolled away from the exploding glider, while Ogma let the fiery sap run over her, the heat providing a pleasant warming of her armor’s surface.

The Gallagrin noble’s had descended on the Council’s forces while they were still focused on creating a wide range of defensible positions. Without those, supplying troops within a foreign realm was going to be difficult to impossible, but the cost of setting the positions up had been that the Council’s army was scattered and distracted when Gallagrin’s attack fell on them.

“They probably thought they were bringing enough troops,” Dae said.

The army that marched into Gallagrin was an impressive one. Dae estimated she could see at least ten thousand troops and she knew that their forces held a backline and two flanking wings which were obscured from her vantage point.

Thanks to the Miner’s Guild, Dae was reasonably sure she knew where each of her enemy’s forces were deployed though and thanks to the speed Pact Armor provided, all of them were embroiled in battle.

From the Green Council’s view the strategy had to look like madness. Sending small squads against entire regiments of the Council’s forces. Even worse, engaging every unit of the Council’s forces at once meant that there was no backing out for Gallagrin’s fighters. With three to four Pact fighters in a squad, there was no one who could form a defensive line if the squad was injured and pinned down.

Of course if the noble’s needed to retreat, Pact Armor offered many options for quitting the battlefield faster than the Council’s forces could follow. That was something the Council might have known, but since that level of transformation wasn’t commonly available to Pact Soldiers, it wasn’t the kind of thing any sane tactical planner on the Council’s side would have given serious consideration to.

Dae smiled at the thought. The Council expected her to bring a force to bear against their invasion, but no one in all of the realms could have expected this. Under no other circumstances could she had coerced Gallagrin’s nobility to fight personally in such a small army. It would never be an option again either.

Unleashing the power of the collective nobility would be a tactic which the other realms would watch for in the future. As it was, there was still a chance that someone would react fast enough to cause trouble in the provinces which were bereft of leadership and protection, but with inter-realm conflicts in an uncertain area, Dae was willing to bet that no one would tempt fate by trying such a bold move against Gallagrin, at least until it was clear that Dae hadn’t left behind any traps to cover the absence of the various nobles.

“They have him pinned!” Duchess Harli called.

“Take them apart!” Dae ordered and held back to watch for the Council units that were repositioning to aid the Marsh Trolls. “Ogma, we’ve got another squad of Poison Archers west-southwest from here. They seem to have noticed us.”

“That’s a shame for them,” Ogma said. “Can you hold out for thirty?”

In another battle that might have referred to thirty minutes, or thirty hours, or thirty days. Given the exposure of the Poison Archer’s position and Ogma’s speed though, Dae knew she meant thirty seconds.

“Go,” Dae said. “We’ll be here.”

The Marsh Trolls were a more resilient foe than the archers. Duke Zenli was holding them off but on his own he wasn’t able to exploit the openings he could create. The arrival of Dae’s squad helped change the balance of the fight. Together the Gallagrin nobles were able to slice the Troll ranks apart fast enough to allow Zenli to reposition and join up with them. The balance of force slipped back in the Council’s favor though more Trolls threw themselves from the cliffs to join the battle, pinning the nobles and Dae between a wall of stone on one side and a wall of regenerating flesh on the other.

“I never thought I’d be wishing for a dragon to show up on the battlefield,” Dae said.

“I’ve always hated those stinking lizards,” Duchess Harli said. “But I agree. A nice spot of fire would be welcome.”

Dae parried a blow for Harli, severing the fingers from a Troll’s claws. She was surprised at the force of her own blow, and surprised as the cutting power of a sword that should have long since been blunted into little more than a metal bat. The wounds she inflicted made for a bloody mess, but, unfortunately, they didn’t inconvenience the Troll much since its fingers grew back instantly.

Or almost instantly. Duchess Harli use the opportunity to stab the Troll and drive it back into its nearest companion, the force of her blow blasting a hole through both creature’s chests.

The creatures roared in unison, but refused to die like any reasonable mortal thing would. The one Harli pinned smacked her so hard in response that she flew sideways head over heads, and skidded to a stop several dozen yards to Dae’s left.

Dae stepped forward and, on instinct, threw her off-hand knife into the Troll’s. It reared back and clutched at the hilt but Dae was able to land a palm strike on end of knife, driving it forward to sever the creature’s spine.

Paralyzed it dropped to the ground, taking Dae’s knife with it. She let it stay there. The only method she had for preventing the creature’s return to instant healing was to leave the knife in place so that the spinal cord couldn’t regrow through it.

While that seemed to be a viable tactic against a single enemy however, it proved insufficient for the situation at hand where they were faced with more Trolls than Dae could carry knives to disable. In fact, before she could even unsheath a second knife, another Troll knocked her to the ground, bloodying her lips and bruising her arm and side. Before it could finish her off however, Duchess Harli was back, a spinning swirl of blades and fire that unravelled the Troll standing above Dae.

Dae kicked herself back and away from the blazing remains as they dropped onto her.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“Another goblin tried to dive unto me,” Harli said. “Looks like their glider bombs work just fine on Trolls.”

“I’ll have to get one of those for myself,” Duke Zenli said, joining them as he spun around a troll. Dae couldn’t see his face, since it was hidden under his pact helmet, but the formerly sour and bitter man sounded surprisingly cheerful. Despite the poor turn he’d taken in being pushed off a cliff and surrounded by unbeatable enemies, the rush of battle seemed to agree with the Duke.

“Your family is good with alchemicals isn’t it?” Dae asked, recalling one of the pillars of the Zenli wealth.

“We have a few prodigies in our ranks,” Zenli said.

“Including yourself as I recall,” Dae said. Zenli had lost faith in Alari, but he was still a son of Gallagrin and on the battlefield that was enough to unite them in fine spirits.

“I’ve dabbled a bit,” Zenli said, a hint of pride in his voice.

“If the goblin fire is interesting to you, collect as much as you want,” Dae said. “We can wait before pressing forward again.”

“Really?” Zenli asked. “There’s still a lot of ground to reclaim.”

“Take your time and collect your samples so they won’t spoil,” Dae said. “We’ll watch your back.”

“Why are you doing this?” Zenli asked.

“We’re not just here to defeat them,” Dae said. “We’re going to make them regret ever coming into our realm. If there’s anything we can take from them, take it. If there’s anything we can learn from them, learn it. I intend to fight this battle once, and only once. When it’s done, I want the world to look at what happened here and never desire to come within a hundred miles of our realm bearing any hostile intent.”

Zenli shook his head and sighed.

“If only our queen had your heart,” he said.

“Who do you think gave me those exact orders?” Dae asked. “She’s merciful to our people, but she’s far from weak. Believe in her again, just like she believes in you.”


The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 35

Dae marched at the head of the strangest column of troops which Gallagrin had ever assembled. She walked with a smile on her face but the song in her heart held notes of apprehension

“There are nobles who will never forgive you for this,” Ogma Daili said, keeping pace with Dae easily as they trekked along the high road that lead to Gallagrin’s northern province of Moon’s Reach.

“They can join the ranks of the ones who’ll never forgive me for beheading Telli and the Paxmer bastard,” Dae said. “The important thing is that they fight for us.”

“Oh, they’ll do that,” Ogma said. “For as much as they hate you, there’s a lot to be won in hating the Green Council more. Even the ones who are allied with the Council serve to gain from this expedition.”

“It’s the wonderful thing about our nobles,” Dae said. “Offer them just a little chance to plunder a neighboring realm and you only have to demote a handful of them for the others to see the error of their life choices.”

The road to Moon’s Reach was broad and well maintained, thanks in no small part to the policies Alari had enforced over the years of her reign. That the road they had complained about maintaining made their trip easier was something the marching nobles refused to acknowledge. They were enjoying their grumble-fest far too much to allow rational thought into their arguments.

“I understand why you didn’t allow the sky carriages to bring us closer to a defensible position, but why restrict my scouts from using them as well?” Ogma asked.

“For the same reason,” Dae said. “The Council has penetrated our border, but they’re not used to fighting on our terrain. They’re trying to dig in and establish supply lines. We don’t want to give them any more idea that we’re coming for them than we have to.”

“Don’t we need to know where they are though?” Ogma asked. “You’ve got my scouts ranging forward of us, but not far enough to give a complete picture of the Council’s deployments.”

“That’s because I already know how they’ve laid their forces out,,” Dae said. “Your scouts are preceeding us with unlimited kill orders to blind our enemy. I want their vision of us to darken slowly. It’ll be nightfall by the time we make it to Moon’s Reach and by morning it’s going to be ours again. Between then and now I think it’s important that we create a few new nightmares for the Council forces to bring home with them.”

“How do you know where to find them though?” Ogma asked. “Scrying spells?”

“I wish that was an option, but the Council’s spellcraft is significantly better than ours,” Dae said. “Even with the advantage of casting into our realm, we haven’t been able to pierce their veils.”

“How do we know my scouts aren’t walking into a trap then?” Ogma asked.

“They are,” Dae said. “But by now they’ll have connected with the Miner’s Guild, so any traps ahead of them will be easily avoidable.”

“The Miner’s Guild?” Ogma asked.

“If we fly above Moon’s Reach in sky carriages, the Council will spot us, and possibly bring us down, their air forces are formidable too,” Dae said. “But the Old Roads and the Deep Fortresses are something they can’t see or spy on. From down below though, the Miner’s can hear everything that’s going on above them.”

“How did you get the Dwarves to work with you? They’re very protective of their Under Cities I thought?” Ogma asked.

“The guild employs more than just Dwarves”, Dae said. “And I owe them a huge debt for the work they did in helping us assault Paxmer. They like to keep investments of that sort afloat, and if our realm is conquered my debt to them will die along with me. Also, I promised them the mineral rights to their cities and holdings.”

Ogma stopped marching and blinked.

“You did what?”

“It turns out that Queen Alari wasn’t kidding when she gave me the ability to speak in her voice,” Dae said, her gaze fixed ahead while a smile spread across her lips.

“The nobles are going to assassinate you,” Ogma said. “You’ve stolen away their wealth.”

“Some of it,” Dae said. “The reality though is that the Under Clans already own most of mines that produce any real value. The rest are lying unused due to competing claims over their ownership. Those claims are now resolved. That should work out well for the nobles too. They’ll no longer be taxed on assets that aren’t productive and while the Under Clans have gained the rights to pull up precious gems and enchantable ore, they’ll also all be trading in the Royal Market to sell to the businesses who specialize in refining and crafting with their materials.”

“So the noble’s lose money on the resources, but gain it back on the worked goods, the Under Clans lose money on the price of their materials but make it up in volume of sales, and the crown loses money on taxes on the mines but makes it up on taxes on the sale of goods?” Ogma asked.

“And everyone makes slightly more money because the overall system is slightly more efficient. Kemoral thought of the idea,” Dae said. “He’s talented with logistics like that.”

“They’re still going to assassinate you,” Ogma said. “Just for proving them to be needlessly stubborn for centuries now.”

“They’re welcome to try,” Dae said. “The Queen didn’t want me to kill her subjects, but if they chose to commit suicide on my blade, I can’t help but feel it would be the realm’s advantage.”

“This upcoming battle will be a prime chance for anyone who has that in mind,” Ogma said.

“The thought has occurred to me,” Dae said.

“So you’ll stay back at the command tent then?” Ogma asked.

“That would be the safe and smart move,” Dae nodded and picked at her teeth. The mountain air was refreshing but what was to come was going to be messy.

“Safe and smart, so there’s no chance it’s what you’re going to do, is there?” Ogma asked, causing Dae’s smile to broaden even further.

Ogma was fun to work with. The Master Scout seemed had grasped the essentials of Dae’s character shortly after they first met. More importantly, despite being lower rank, Ogma was willing to challenge Dae’s choices, something the Queen’s Knight knew she needed since she didn’t even try to think clearly in some cases.

“I’m going to lead the first charge,” Dae said.

“Please make sure to tell me when that will be so that I can bind you up in our strongest ropes,” Ogma said. “I know that will technically count as assaulting a superior officer, but I believe Queen Alari will not only forgive me but also pin a medal on my chest.”

Dae snickered. Ogma wasn’t wrong. Alari would be furious with Dae for risking herself in battle needlessly, especially given the fact that Dae couldn’t transform freely.

“Our queen left me behind to coordinate the realm’s defense and see that the noble’s came together,” Dae said. “If any of them want to kill me, I at least want them wading through a horde of Council troops to make the attempt. Also, I think the safest place for me to be is surrounded by the nobles who I know are still fully committed to Alari’s reign. By fighting at their side, I can honor the sacrifices they’ve made and show that we are willing to support them, with blood, if need be.”

“Why lead from the vanguard though?” Ogma asked. “That’s the most dangerous unit to be part of.”

“Which is why I need to be there,” Dae said. “Aside from the training they received in their youth, and the skills and knowledge carried by their pact spirits, many of these people have never fought before. I need them to see that I am asking no more of them than I am willing to give myself. We’ve lost too much of Gallagrin’s spirit over the last decade. It’s time we show that we remember how strong we can be together.”

“We are a rather small army though, are we not?” Ogma asked.

“We number over a hundred,” Dae said.

“By last count, the Green Council’s forces numbered in the tens of thousands,” Ogma said. “Including creatures the likes of which we’ve never seen before.”

“It’s a shame the numbers are so unbalanced,” Dae said. “They really should have brought more troops.”

“More? You think we can win?” Ogma asked. “I thought this was a delaying tactic until Senkin’s forces could rally and draw the Council back to fight on that front.”

“If anything it’s the reverse,” Dae said. “We’re going to drive so hard into the Green Council’s army that the assault on Senkin should weaken. If we’re successful, the Green Council will feel compelled to deploy their strongest units and seek out as much additional magic as they can muster in order to deal with us.”

“I say again though, there’s only barely more than a hundred nobles in this army,” Ogma said. “We didn’t even let them bring their personal troops.”

“There wasn’t room in the sky carriages,” Dae said. “And they weren’t needed. The Council’s forces are so numerous because they’re all regular troops, even if they are from little seen races like the Insect Warriors.”

“Tens of thousands of regular forces are still quite formidable,” Ogma said.

“Agreed, but consider the true might of the people behind us,” Dae said. “Even the ones who aren’t fighters, still carry a Noble’s Pact Spirit. Our Pact Soldiers, the ones with the weakest spirits, who can only manifest a single piece of armor or weapon, are worth a dozen regular troops, and our Pact Warriors are worth a dozen Pact Soldiers each. A Knight, at least one who takes the job seriously, is worth two dozen Pact Warriors and the Noble a Knight is sworn to holds more power than three dozen of their knights.”

“That approaches a very large number,” Ogma said.

“In simpler terms, with Gallagrin’s nobles united, we alone could demolish an invading army that numbered in the millions,” Dae said.

“You make it sound as though our victory is assured,” Ogma said.

“It’s not,” Dae said. “We have the advantage in power and familiarity with the terrain, but the Council could turn that back against us, or bait us into situations where the extreme concentration of our force would be a detriment.”

“What would you have me do then?” Ogma asked.

“Stay in the background and coordinate communications,” Dae said.

“I can manage that as easily from the front lines as I can from the back,” Ogma said.

“You’re not wrong about the vanguard being a dangerous position,” Dae said. “And unlike our merry band of nobles, you’ve done nothing to warrant placing your life in that level of peril.”

“Do I look like I come from another realm?” Ogma asked, offense heavy in her voice.

“No, with eyes like that you’re as Gallagrin as they come,” Dae said.

“Do I look like a coward of some stripe?” Ogma asked.

Dae chuckled, seeing where the conversation was going.

“You’re bravery is apparent too,” she said. “And there is, of course, room for you in the vanguard if you wish to run with us.”

“Good,” Ogma said. “Because we all know that’s who’ll have the first chance at the really good plunder.”

“Oh my Sleeping Gods!” Dae said, wry amusement in her tone. “The Gallagrin spirit is alive and strong and I’ve found it’s wellspring! That’s the most Gallagrin thing I’ve ever heard someone say.”

“Some things run deeper than even blood,” Ogma said.

“Yes, we’re all going to have a bit of fun with this,” Dae said as they crested the last hill before the Moon’s Reach valley.

Waiting below them were thousands of the Green Council’s forces, foreign troops who had no idea of the kind of hell that was going to be unleashed on them.

Dae called to Kirios, asking if he was ready for them to transform again, only to receive the same sensation she had the last several times she’d asked. If the need was great enough, he would be there for her, but more time was required.

The assault on the Green Council was going to be a battle that would be remembered through the ages, for good or for ill. Dae could only hope that Kirios would find that to be a great enough need.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 34

Rendolan Telli sipped the exquisite wine his host had provided, using the moments of appreciation for the vintage that were expected of him, to formulate a response to the delicate question that General Pentacourt raised.

“Vice Commander Lafli’s whereabouts?” Ren said, placing his glass back onto the velvet tablecloth and relinquishing the social armor it provided. “As I told the queen, she was forced to leave suddenly and wanted me to express her regrets for the swiftness of her departure. With news of the Green Council’s declaration of war against Gallagrin surely you can imagine how our plans in coming here to seek a peaceful resolution to your conflict have been dealt a telling blow.”

General Pentacourt placed his own glass down on the table as well and smiled at Ren. It wasn’t a cruel or sharp smile, but it held the menace of a man who knew he was playing a game, and being played, and who could sense that the story being presented to him was missing critical elements. Ren disliked perceptive foes as much as he enjoyed clever friends. The problem was in telling which of the two Pentacourt would prove to be.

“I can imagine many things,” Pentacourt said. “For instance I can imagine many reasons why our war room would be missing a pair of ledgers. What I can’t seem to imagine is any good results coming from that.”

“Ledgers you say? From a war room? I would have to concur. No doubt they contained critical information. Troops movements and composition if I could hazard a guess?”

“Oh nothing that bad,” Pentacourt said. “We guard those sorts of ledgers with much greater care. No, these only held supply requisitions and logistic correspondences.”

Ren winced. Pentacourt had his suspicions, but he didn’t have as complete a picture as Ren did.

Vice Commander Lafli hadn’t stolen the ledgers. Ren didn’t know her well, but anyone Queen Alari chose to trust with her life was not going to go renegade for such a minor reason. Her sister Jyl though was another story.

“Supply requisitions?” Ren asked. “Are you, by any chance, in the habit of fabricating the data in those ledgers?”

“No, I’m afraid our bureaucracy works poorly enough even when feed with accurate information,” Pentacourt said. “The Sleeping Gods would rise back up if we asked those poor sops to deal with sorting real work orders from faked ones.”

“I’m afraid you may be facing a much worse problem than you know then,” Ren said.

“My realm is under attack by a hostile force which has, apparently been preparing for this day for centuries, and our best defense lies in a deposed queen of another realm taking control of the military forces we have present in the area,” Pentacourt said. “Do tell me of a problem that could be worse than that.”

“As a child I spent a significant amount of time reading,” Ren said. “It seemed to please my father the Duke. He believed it helped prepare me for my role as my brother’s exchequer.”

“You were not in line for the Ducal throne then?” Pentacourt asked, shifting back in his seat and indicating his tolerance of the digression by tilting his head to the side. Dinner in Senkin was a time to discuss light topics usually, but a private meal offered the opportunity to speak freely that was rarely afforded to high ranking generals or Dukes.

“I was third in line, by my father’s express order, behind first my elder brother and then my sister,” Ren said. “Needless to say, things did not work out quite how he hoped in that arena.”

“My condolences on the loss of your siblings,” Pentacourt said.

“Oh, they’re both still alive,” Ren said. “One is a wanted fugitive though and the other is taming dragons.”

Pentacourt paused, raising an eyebrow as he read Ren’s face for sincerity. Nobles weren’t often allowed to survive long enough to become fugitives if they crossed their rulers and no one, not even the lord of Paxmer, truly “tamed” dragons.

“Yes, my husband is a vampire and I’m considered the normal member of the family,” Ren said.

“Sleeping Gods preserve us but your realm is mad,” Pentacourt said.

“No one in Gallagrin will deny that,” Ren said. “It’s even a source of some pride. Of course we see all the rest of you as mad as well, just differently so.”

“As interesting as that is, I don’t quite follow how it connects to the loss of our ledgers as being a terrible threat to my realm?” Pentacourt said.

“Ah, yes. In my studies I was always fascinated by where victories began,” Ren said. “The classic stories point to moments of heroism by this commander or that knight but when I looked at the record of those battles, the bright moments that were lauded were often an inevitability by the time they occurred.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” Pentacourt said.

“Take the Battle of Blue Spire,” Ren said, leaning forward and arranging the salt shaker and plates to illustrate the long ago battlefield. “The only tale remembered of it comes from the final battle wherein the Steward of Blue Spire Keep road out of the gate with a mere dozen knights and carved a path to the Commander of the forces from Singing Rocks Glen who had besieged them for months.”

“None of these names or places are familiar to me,” Pentacourt said.

“Most in Gallagrin don’t remember them either, just the bawdy ballad of the Steward and the lover she stole from the Duke of Glar, where Singing Rocks Glen is found,” Ren said. “The important bit though is that Singing Rocks was successfully sieging Blue Spire Keep. Food stores had run out, the rats were all eaten and starvation was just starting to set in. In one triumphal charge though, the Steward managed to break the siege and through single combat end the threat poised by the Duke of Glar’s forces.”

“Sounds heroic,” Pentacourt said. “And now you will tell me that the besieging troops numbered no more than twenty and the charge took place on the back of Mountain Mammoths or some insanity I presume?”

“No, the charge, as best as I can determine, was every bit as impressive as the tales made it out to be,” Ren said. “The Steward’s troops were vastly outnumbered but with her leadership they absolutely crushed the forces that were waiting and prepared for them. At least the ones the encountered in their charge to army’s commander.”

“How badly were the odds against them?” Pentacourt asked.

“The enemy forces had them matched at least one hundred to one, by the most conservative accounts,” Ren said. “The key however is that the Steward devised a path that ensured they didn’t have to fight all of their foes, only a small subset who stood between Blue Spire Keep and the Commander.”

“I feel as though the tale should continue with the rest of the army annihilating the Steward’s forces, regardless of how well her strategy worked,” Pentacourt said.

“That is because you have a realistic view on how warfare works,” Ren said. “And you are correct, the Steward’s forces were doomed. They rode out with the thought that a death in battle would ensure that they didn’t die of starvation. The Steward however promised them more than that; she promised them victory.”

“And apparently delivered, but how?” Pentacourt asked.

“As the Commander of the besieging army fell, the King’s forces arrived at the besiegers rear flanks. There was a brief skirmish, but after a few hundred additional casualties, the besiegers surrendered, being unwilling to fight a superior foe who was also their sworn ruler.”

“Rather convenient timing for the Steward,” Pentacourt said.

“Yes, that bothered me too,” Ren said. “Then I found the provisioner’s log for Blue Spire Keep.”

“And what insight did that shed?” Pentacourt asked.

“The siege began just before the end of winter,” Ren said. “It’s a terrible time to move an army, but a fantastic opportunity to catch a castle at the low ebb of its food stores. The Duke who ordered the attack chose his time to strike exceedingly well given that his army was able to traverse the mountains and lay in the siege while keeping its own supply lines open. By rights the castle should have starved out within a week.”

“And yet it survived?” Pentacourt said.

“They held on for close to two months,” Ren said. “And the provisioner’s log explained why. What the besiegers didn’t know was that Blue Spire Keep had been selected as the site of the King’s First Vernal Festival of the year. The staff at Blue Spire had stockpiled supplies to last them to the exact day the King was scheduled to arrive with the Royal Army.”

“Quite convenient,” Pentacourt said.

“Somewhat, though less so as they were unable to receive the additional supplies they would have needed to be able to host the festival itself,” Ren said. “The important part however is that the Steward knew the day the King would arrive. Their survival and victory were all but assured given the assistance that was due to arrive. Her charge was an attempt win glory and prevent the Commander of the besiegers from presenting the Duke’s case for the return of the Duchess.”

“One would think the Duchess would be able to present such a case for herself,” Pentacourt said.

“That presupposes that the Duchess was not the one who instigated her flight to Blue Spire,” Ren said. “The bawdy ballad suggests otherwise and the copy of her diary I’ve read makes the ballad seem chaste by comparison.”

“Scandalous,” Pentacourt, “But I’m afraid I’m beginning to see the shape of your concerns with our missing ledgers. On their own they may seem innocuous but read with the proper eye they could reveal a great deal about the disposition of our forces.”

“Yes, they would be an enormous boon to an enemy who already is already in motion and has reason to search for the soft targets rather than tangle with an unexpected thorn that has arisen,” Ren said.

“You speak of our dear ally, the former Queen of Paxmer?” Pentacourt said. “I must confess I still don’t quite know what to make of her.”

“Assume she is a more dire threat than the Green Council, and also your best hope for retaining the sovereignty of your realm,” Ren said. “Despite her reduction in position, I believe her to be the second most dangerous person in all the realms at present.”

“I am curious as to your Queen’s designs in bringing her into Senkin?” Pentacourt said. “It seems almost a declaration of war on its own.”

“I cannot claim to be privy to my Queen’s reasoning but I believe releasing the Paxmer Queen into a situation where she needs to overcome impossible odds with insufficient and under trained forces is a gesture of friendship and respect.”

“To Senkin?” Pencourt asked. “I can see how it’s to our benefit but I believe a troop of Pact Knight would have accomplished the same result.”

“I was thinking more that the gesture was directed towards Haldri Paxmer,” Ren said. “The ex-queen’s renown can only swell from her actions here, and there’s little which dragons seem to like more than adulation.”

“I imagine in this instance, she might also find reinforcements rather agreeable,” Pentacourt said.

“And yet you cannot send any to her,” Ren said.

“So says my Queen,” Pentacourt said. “She’s concerned that Haldri Paxmer’s position is not a tenable one to support the defense of the realm. So while the battle rages, we dither over where to send the bulk of our forces.”

“I have to wonder if Queen Marie’s concerns lie less with the tactical realities of Haldri Paxmer’s location and more with the strategic issue of sending more troops to be subborned by the Dragon Queen’s charisma and acumen,” Ren said.

“You are not alone in that suspicion,” Pentacourt said.

“Regardless though, your Queen is right not to send aid to the front lines,” Ren said.

“And why would that be?” Pentacourt asked. “Because of the stolen ledgers?”

“In a sense, yes,” Ren said. “Even without their loss, the Green Council’s next move will be to broaden their assault. They gain nothing by contesting with a tenacious foe and everything by crushing the Senkin forces who remain isolated from each other.”

“And yet we can’t gather all our might together into a Grand Army of the realm without leaving ourselves exposed to widespread devastation,” Pentacourt said.

“That is not entirely true,” Ren said.

“In what particulars?” Pentacourt asked.

“Given that the delegation I came here with was dispatched to facilitate peace, I am loathe to point this out, but there is one certain method of finding a spot to defend your realm from. One strategy which will guarantee that the Green Council will meet you at the place of your choosing.”

“What trickery do you speak of?” Pentacourt asked.

“No trickery at all,” Ren said. “Just this; you must attack their realm. Strike into their heart and force them to recall their troops. Place them on the defensive, and you can set the pace and parameters of the conflict.”

Pentacourt leaned back and steepled his hands in front of his face, considering for a moment the impact of Ren’s suggestion.

“My Queen will not be happy with the prospect of extending our forces like that,” Pentacourt said.

“Then perhaps you can offer her this,” Ren said, “If Senkin pushes into the Green Council’s territory, you will not march alone. By this time tomorrow, Gallagrin will have responded to the Council’s declaration of war and will be marching across the high mountain borders. The Council may have plans in place for dealing with its neighbors but they will not be ready for the forces my queen has put in play against them.”

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 33

Alari rode on the Warbringer’s right shoulder, her high perch giving her as much visibility as the thick forest they moved through would allow. Thanks to the Gallagrin Pact Spirit, she had stronger and richer senses than anything else that walked in the enchanted woods, but she knew that wouldn’t necessarily be enough to alert her to the next attack the Green Council sent against them.

Since they began their trek, Alari and Iana had faced a flight of murder birds, a deadfall into a pit filled with a variety of subterranean enemies and a river that rose up on its own and tried to drown them. None of the  attacks had been announced, and none of the ambushes had gone well for the Council’s forces.

Each cost Alari some of the magic she carried, but, for as formidable as their assailants were, the Council had yet to bring a serious threat onto the game board.

“I don’t understand why they’re blocking me out,” Iana said, the Warbringer rendering her voice into a bass so deep it shook the trees they were passing back. “They’re supposed to trust me to make decisions. Why aren’t they trusting me on this?”

The plant giant swatted a pair of trees with enough force to reduce them to kindling.

“You were afraid I would corrupt you,” Alari said, “That’s likely what they’re afraid of too.”

Alari leaned against the Warbringer’s head, allowing herself a moment of real fatigue. Banishing the weakness of her human form with Gallagrin’s magic was perfectly possible, but conserving her strength wasn’t a bad thing either. With Gallagrin’s help Alari could have lived free from pain or the need for rest, but doing so came with a price. To live as a human, meant to experience human weaknesses. Some of the past monarchs of Gallagrin had ignored that and become cold and removed as time went on, their empathy for their people withering as their power insulated them from the struggles that beset those they ruled. Alari knew she couldn’t afford to be fully human under the present circumstances, but her designs were forged, in part, from her empathy. The ability to understand and care for others wasn’t a weakness in her hands, but rather the most dangerous weapon she possessed and she knew she couldn’t afford to let it grow too dulled from disuse.

“But you’re not doing that, and from what Dagmauru said it should be stupid to worry about that,” Iana said. “Our magic is deeper and stronger than yours. Even if you could enchant me, the Council is supposed to be protected. From everything.”

“No one’s protected from everything,” Alari said. “But I’m sure their defenses are formidable. Certainly beyond any enchantments I could cast. That’s not Gallagrin’s speciality.”

The Warbringer’s rolling gait wasn’t the most comfortable transport Alari had ever taken, but it was relaxing nonetheless. The big problems, the ones that faced the realms in general, she was moving through the heart of them, but her die was already cast. The temptation to keep trying to do more was hard to fight, but she had to comfort herself that some steps in her scheme had to be given time to play out. The other realms needed the opportunity to see what was happening and to react to it.

For the realms which didn’t have a border in the conflict, like the Sunlost Isles or Authzang, those reactions would be slow and carefully considered. The world was changing and, until people had a sense of what the new rules were, no one in power would be overly anxious to risk their positions by moving too quickly.

“Hmm, is that why I’m doing this?” Alari didn’t mean to speak her thoughts aloud but they slipped out before she noticed them flittering over her lips.

“You’re try to learn to how to enchant people?” Iana asked, confused by unspoken the change of context.

“No, I was just wondering if I’m here because I don’t want to be queen anymore,” Alari said. It was a thought that had bubbled close to surface hundreds of times but when she’d always managed to avoid paying too much attention to it.

“Why wouldn’t you want to be queen? You’re so powerful!” Iana asked, the steps of the Warbringer slowing as she twisted to see Alari and read her expression.

“I never wanted to be powerful,” Alari said. “I just didn’t want the wrong people to be in charge and the only choice I thought I had was to take over myself since there wasn’t anyone else who could do the job.”

“What about now?” Iana asked.

“That’s the question I’m asking myself,” Alari said.

“That doesn’t sound like a leader,” Iana said. “Dagmauru taught us that we had to project strength and confidence no matter what we faced. If someone who’s following us sees that we’re hurt or scared or weak, they’ll lose their faith that we can make things ok.”

“That’s pretty standard leadership advice,” Alari said. “My tutors taught me the same thing. I don’t know that they had it right though. Pretending that a role is effortless, or that you’re not afraid of terrifying situations is a lie, and when the shell of lies breaks you’re left in a worse position that if you’d been honest all along. ”

“That sounds nice but running scared in battle will lead to people being killed,” Iana said.

“It depends which direction you’re running,” Alari said. “Run towards the enemy, even when you’re full of fear, even when your troops know you’re full of fear, but they can see you rising above it? That can be one of the most powerful forms of leadership.”

“It’s easier if you don’t feel the fear at all,” Iana said, her voice dropping to a whisper.

Alari narrowed her eyes.

“Did Dagmauru give you elixirs to help with that?” she asked.

“Not for me. For some of the weaker recruits, yes,” Iana said. “Leaders are allowed to tap into the Deep Roots through.”

“What are those?” Alari asked.

“They’re how we communicate,” Iana said. “In battle we commune with the Elder Thanes and draw on their courage and strength. It’s still hard, but with their strength directing us it’s a little easier.”

“When they commune with you are they offering encouragement or do they take control of your actions,” Alari asked.

“They encourage,” Iana said. “At least, now they do. Most of the time.”

“When do they take your control of yourself away?” Alari asked.

“When we’re not doing what they want us to,” Iana said.

“That may be why they’re not letting you contact them,” Alari said.

“Why? I didn’t do anything wrong,” Iana said.

“No,” Alari said. “They did. And if they try to take control of you again, I’m likely to do something politically unwise about it.”

“But I don’t want to lose my command,” Iana said, stopping the Warbringer. “You’re going to talk the other realms into backing us and they’ll see that I’m still loyal.”

“I’m going to tell the realms what Senkin did,” Alari said. “I don’t know things will turn out after that. Not exactly. I just know that the next steps the realms take have to be built on the truth. Without that we’re going to fall apart.”

“Would that be so bad?” Iana asked. “Senkin’s terrible, Gallagrin’s bad enough that you don’t want to be queen of it, and all the rest of the realms are worse than that.”

“So burn it all then?” Alari asked. “Even your troops? Even your friends?”

“No,” Iana said. “They haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Neither have you. But if the realms fall apart, they’ll suffer with the rest of us just the same. That’s the problem with letting things fall apart,” Alari said. “Everything’s connected. If Senkin burns it’s going to affect Gallagrin, and Sunlost and even the Council, no matter how isolated you try to be. There’s a better way though.”

“What’s that?” Iana asked.

“We work together,” Alari said. “Even with all the power I’m carrying, I can’t do something as simple as take a walk in these woods and get to where I need to be. That’s all on you.”

“But that doesn’t count, it’s too simple,” Iana said.

“Nothing’s too simple to count,” Alari said. “And talking with me? That proves you’re braver than anyone on the Green Council. They didn’t foresee that I’d bring Gallagrin’s power into the their domain like this. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re half terrified trying to figure out what I really plan to do here and half ecstatic about the opportunity my being here offers them. If they had an ounce of your courage, they’d be demanding a meeting with me rather than desperately trying to keep me isolated from them.”

“What can you do to them though?” Iana asked.

“Talk to them, and then tell the other monarchs of the realms the truth of what they’ve done,” Alari said.

“Why would they be afraid of that?” Iana asked.

“That’s an excellent question,” Alari said. “I didn’t expect it to be, but based on their behavior, I have to guess the answer is something worse than treating people how they treated you.”

“What’s wrong with how they treated me?” Iana asked. “They always provided for me.”

“For your body, yes,” Alari said. “But turning children into weapons is the kind of behavior the other realms won’t be comfortable with endorsing.”

“I’m not a child,” Iana said and Alari could hear each of Iana’s ten years striving to back up that assertion.

“That’s the problem,” Alari said. “They stole that time from you.”

“But humans have such short lifespans, if we’re not trained early we barely live long enough to do anything useful at all,” Iana said.

Hearing the desperation in Iana’s voice, an odd thought occurred to Alari.

“We’re not quite that transient,” Alari said. “How old do you think I am?”

“Twelve?” Iana’s guess was met with instant laughter from Alari. “No? Well how old are you then?”

“Over twice that,” Alari said. “And I should easily live more than double my current years, and hopefully even double that again.”

“That’s impossible,” Iana said. “That’s long enough to watch trees grow. No humans live that long.”

“How long do you think humans live?” Alari asked.

“Between twelve and thirteen years,” she said. “Beyond that we change and our senses dim so we can’t be Warbringer pilots anymore. That’s when we go to the Wintering Green and wait to be reborn into a new life.”

“When I was twelve, I started to change,” Alari said. “My father was well into his madness by then, and so my caretakers were growing more distant. I had no idea what was happening until…until Dae found out for me.”

“Who was Dae?” Iana asked.

“She was my best friend,” Alari said. “She was the one who kept me sane, who kept me myself.”

“What happened to her?” Iana asked.

“I made a terrible mistake and let her go away,” Alari said. “I thought it was the right thing to do for her.”

“But it wasn’t?” Iana asked.

“I don’t know,” Alari said. “She learned a lot, and I learned a lot, but we were both miserable.”

“So what did you do?” Iana asked.

“Well, I got thrown off a castle and she came to rescue me, and aside from silly things like invading foreign realms, we’ve been together ever since,” Alari said.

“Do you love her?” Iana asked.

“More than my heart can bear,” Alari said. “She’s what I’m doing all this for. She’s why I have to make this world a better place.”

“I wish I had someone like that,” Iana said.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world quite like my Adae,” Alari said. “But there may be someone who could be to you what she is to me. That’s the world I’m willing to fight for; one where you can find that person.”

“But what if they banish me?” Iana asked. “They’ve cut me off from the Roots. What if I’m cut off from everything? What if I have nowhere to live anymore?”

“The ones who cut you off have something to hide,” Alari said. “I promise you that we’ll bring it to light. You will have your home back when this is done even if I need to depose those who would keep you from it with my own hands.”

For a brief moment, the ghostly echo of royal blood ran down Alari’s hands, giving the sickle of her smile a terrifying finality.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 32

Iana’s heart felt like it was pumping liquid confusion through her veins. Less than a day earlier she’d been swallowed up by a pure crimson certainty, righteous anger thundering in her ears as the tread of her Warbringer thundered across the land.

“The interfaces are all under your control now,” the Gallagrin Queen said. “You can do as you wish with your machine.”

Being nestled in the heart of the Warbringer held both a disquieting warmth and a comforting dread.

She shouldn’t be inside a Warbringer. Only if a sanctuary was breeched were the pilots evacuated inside their war machines, and even then only if the pilots lives were in immediate danger.

Iana’s sanctuary was more than breeched. The Gallagrin Queen had destroyed it utterly. Using the power of Iana’s own Warbringer. The destruction had been almost incidental though, a casual shortcut to facilitate their conversation. Despite that Iana’s life didn’t seem to be in immediate danger. At least not from the Gallagrin Queen.

Iana felt more unsure than she ever had in her life, but against her deepest wishes, she found herself believing the Queen’s words. Whatever else Queen Alari wanted, Iana didn’t believe the Gallagrin meant her any harm.

Which made no sense. They were enemies.

Except it was her own people who’d abandoned her. Who’d tried to kill her.

Iana had no illusions about the Stone Warriors’ attack. It had been aimed at her, and the raw flood of power they unleashed was hundreds of times more that should have been required to ensure a kill. The only reason Iana was still alive was because the Gallagrin Queen had reacted without a moment’s hesitation and had been strong enough to weather an attack that could have obliterated a hundred armored soldiers.

“You’re weapons systems are live and loaded as well,” Alari said. “We can disable them if you’d prefer, but we don’t believe a fiction that you are our prisoner will serve you as well as a real capacity to defend yourself.”

“I don’t understand this,” Iana said, testing her Warbringer’s responsiveness. A lifetime of training sent her fingers and toes flickering over the sensory vines inside the Warbringer’s command bower.

The layout was the same as the remote bower she’d been piloting the machine from but the resonance strength was profoundly greater. Good pilots talked about “becoming one” with their Warbringers when they reached a state of perfect focus and synch with their living machines. Sitting inside the plant machine though provided such a direct and unfiltered connection to its systems that Iana felt herself slipping deeply enough into the Warbringer’s senses she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to part from it again.

“There is very little to understand,” Alari said. “You have your machine restored to you. You are free to leave with it, attack us, stay here, or to travel with us. We would advise against attacking us, but if the Council requires such a show of loyalty we will not hold your actions against you. We are well aware of the unreasonable demands those in authority can place on young girls.”

“I don’t understand why you’re letting me go,” Iana said. The weapon systems tested out as fully functional. Which was an even greater mystery. She couldn’t picture why she wasn’t dead. The Gallagrin Queen was an enemy. The moment she found Iana’s bower Iana should have been vaporized. Dagmauru, Iana’s closest mentor, had ordered her to burn. The flames should have taken her, reducing her body to ash and sending her spirit to the Wintering Green. She should have been dead, but she wasn’t because some pillar of her world was broken. Something she knew as a certainty wasn’t right.

“We are not enemies,” Alari said. “Even under the current circumstance, Gallagrin claims no animosity towards the Green Council.”

“You attacked us!” Iana said, amorphous confusion boiling into anger then bursting as she spoke into chilly fear.

“Let us call that non-verbal negotiation,” Alari said. “If we intended to attack the Green Council, our tactics would have been very different.”

“What do you want me to do?” Iana asked, choking back a sob as her emotions threatened to overwhelm the dams of professionalism her mentors had disciplined into her.

“Help us,” Alari said. “Show us what you’ve seen. Walk with us and let us see your realm as you see it. We refuse to judge and act from a position of ignorance. We need your story to understand the story of the Green Council and why events have led us to this place.”

“Really? You don’t want anymore than that?” Iana asked. “You have so much power, and you’ve fought on the same side as Senkin. How can I believe that this isn’t a trick to help them conquer us?”

“We cannot reason you into believing in us,” Alari said. “Any argument we make would allow for counter-arguments.  We can ask for your trust however, and for the opportunity to show you who we are.”

Iana felt her world reeling under her feet. The Queen’s words weren’t anything profound. There was no magic spell wrapped within them. Somehow though they upset so many long held belief that Iana felt like she was in danger of falling off the world if she believed them.

But believing seemed so right too. Maybe it was the residual terror at almost dying in flames. Maybe it was gratitude for being spared the Stone Warriors’ wrath. Maybe it was as simple as the Queen demanding nothing and offering only respect.

“Ok,” Iana said. “I’ll take you there. Everyone should know what Senkin did.”

“Thank you,” Alari said and, with a single light step, leapt up to the Warbringer’s shoulder.

With her passenger sitting comfortably, Iana began to plod towards the last place she ever wanted to revisit.

They’d traveled no more than a few dozen yards before the next of the Council’s attacks descended on them. A flight of Razor Crows, each bearing a vial of Demon Bile, swooped down from the clouds, their wings slicing through the wind faster than any natural bird could manage.

Instinctively, Iana readied the Warbringer’s defenses. She was under attack. Panic and confusion were no longer useful. Calculations were required. With practiced efficiency Iana determined how far out she could intercept the attacks and how close the birds needed to get before the Demon Bile would be effective.

She didn’t like the answer to either question. The birds were moving so fast that they could slip by all but the closest of her defenses and the Demon Bile would enter an effective dispersal range long before then. Barring phenomenal luck, Iana knew that her Warbringer was seconds away from being dissolved into a large puddle of goo.

As she jerked away from the birds to buy time though Iana saw the phenomenal luck she needed manifest directly in the crows path. From nowhere a storm of serrated daggers appeared, tearing upwards as though hurled by a legion of giants with immeasurable strength..

Pact Knights are able to call forth weapons and armor. Pact Queens were apparently able to call forth entire armories when they desired.

The hail of enchanted daggers spun through the Razor Crows like a tornado, reducing the magical birds to a cloud of feathers and viscera. The force that accompanied the daggers blew the crow remains and the Demon Bile back in the direction they’d been traveling, on an arc that took them safely away from Iana’s Warbringer.

“It would be agreeable if your commanders would cease trying to kill you,” Alari said.

“Maybe they were after you?” Iana said.

“They’ve seen me blow back their forces across the space of a mile,” Alari said, switching to common speech. “I don’t think a flock of birds would strike them as a likely assault force.”

“Yeah,” Iana said. “I’m not sure what we could throw at you that would work.”

“I’m sure they have something in mind,” Alari said. “If they believed I was unstoppable, they’d send everything they have at me now. This feels more like they waiting for me to exhaust the magic I carry as much as possible before they put their real forces into action.”

“How do you know that?” Iana asked.

“I don’t,” Alari said. “It’s just how I think a smart opponent would react. Idiots can be dangerous, since they’re difficult to predict, but their efforts don’t tend to build on each other like an intelligent adversary’s work does.”

“Is that something you have to worry about as Queen?” Iana asked.

“Most days, yes,” Alari said.

“Have you been Queen all your life?” Iana asked, not clear on how Gallagrin ranks worked. It had never been an element that was important enough for her mentors to touch on.

“No, when I was born I was just a princess,” Alari said.

“How did you get to be Queen then?” Iana asked.

“I ripped my father’s head off his shoulders,” Alari said, speaking as though it was a more common subject than the weather to talk about.

“Is that how the rulers of Gallagrin are selected?” Iana asked, puzzled at the kind of realm that would allow for such a barbaric transfer of power.

“Not usually,” Alari said. “How about you? Have you been a Warbringer pilot all of your life?”

“No, it takes a long time to qualify,” Iana said. “We spend years practicing before they let us connect to even the training models.”

“You seem to be something of a prodigy,” Alari said. “How long have you held a command rank?”

“I was groomed to be a leader early on,” Iana said.

“That couldn’t have been easy,” Alari said. “Fulfilling and exciting I would imagine, but never easy.”

The Gallagrin Queen spoke with notes of longing and wistfulness painting her words to reflect a time long ago. Despite the chasm between them, Iana felt an echo of familiarity in the mix of emotions.

“They always ask for so much,” Iana said. “And I get why. We have to make sure we can handle everyone’s problems not just our own, but sometimes you just want a break.”

“Five minutes away from the world. Ten minutes where no one can find you,” Alari said. “Somedays those would be worth a pot of gold.”

“I always wanted a coin I could give people that would say ‘Solve it Yourself’ so i could pay them to go away,” Iana said.

“That’s a brilliant idea,” Alari said. “You have no idea how tempting it is to tell the royal minters to cast a hundred of them.”

“Can’t you do that?” Iana asked. “You can do anything as the queen right?”

“Not anything,” Alari said. “My nobles have direct governance of their subjects. My powers are mostly involved with arbitrating the interactions between them.”

“Can’t you just kill them if they don’t do what you want?” Iana asked.

“My father thought he could,” Alari said. “That didn’t turn out so well for him though and I’m trying not to repeat his mistakes.”

“Dagmauru says that humans don’t live long enough to develop true wisdom,” Iana said.

“The gods claimed that none of the Mindful Races had the capacity for true wisdom,” Alari said. “I think they’re both wrong though.”

“But we die so soon,” Iana said, “It’s why we’re so good at war. We don’t have as many years to save as the long lived races do.”

“Just because they’re brief on the scale of the mountains and the trees, doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless flashes in the night,” Alari said. “What we do, who we are, the people whose lives we touch? Those all matter. With each breath we change the world, and sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that matter the most in the long run.”

“Maybe that’s true for Queen’s, but I don’t think it’s the same for the rest of us,” Iana said. “I don’t matter like that.”

“Don’t you though?” Alari asked. “Right now you’re changing the world, and right now the Council is spending a lot of effort on stopping you from helping me.”

With the next step that Iana took, the ground underneath her Warbringer collapsed, sending her and Alari tumbling into a cavern that had been hastily repurposed as a pit trap.

From the walls, Iana saw a variety of the Council’s rapid strike forces pouring forth.

“Case in point,” Alari said, a blazing sword in her hands and the crescent of a dangerous smile splitting her lips.

The Heart’s Oath – Chapter 31

Dae braced herself before entering the assembly room. In one sense the nobles waiting for her inside were her prisoners. She held their lives in the palm of her hand, and they had already witnessed proof that their noble standing wouldn’t be enough to spare their necks if she was driven to move against them.

In another sense though, she was at their mercy. Their realm was being invaded, and it was on Dae’s shoulders to not only prevent that, but to turn the tide around so that Alari’s plans could run their course. Alone, Dae didn’t have the power to make that happen. Even if her bond with Kirios was healed and she could transform at will, the movements of the realms were simply too broad for her stand against alone.

The worst part was that the nobles knew that. The good ones, the bad ones, even the ones who didn’t want to be involved with realm-level disputes at all, all of them were looking to the meeting Dae called to see what they could get out of her.

As she stepped through the central doors to the Grand Assembly room, Dae felt a stab of concern lance through her. There were so many missteps she could make. So many different possibilities for how she could fail Alari. She could even win the war, but trade away so much in doing so that Gallagrin would tumble down into ruin anyways.

“All Rise for the Queen’s Voice,” the Grand Seneschal called out. The door to the hall closed softly behind Dae, with a hush that had the finality of the closing of a coffin lid.

The last time she’d stood before the assembled nobles of Gallagrin, she’d been flooded with enough rage to render her immune to their stares. With a cooler heart came the flush of self-consciousness though and her trip to the throne left her more unraveled than composed, despite her careful breathing.

The assembled Dukes and Duchesses sat in their familiar spots ringing the throne. None of them were directly behind her though. For as foolish as they were, Gallagrin’s nobles weren’t stupid enough to try to claim that level of unfettered trust under the circumstances.

“None of you want to be here, do you?” Dae asked as she sat down. She’d considered a variety of clever openings, elaborate traps of words and wit that she could fence Gallagrin’s elite in with. One by one she rejected each of them though. Political stratagems were not her weapons, and if she came to battle with them, she would be out fought in seconds by those who’d mastered the Noble’s Stage long before she’d been born.

Instead, she chose to be blunt. It was the tool she was most experienced with and one which she knew they would never expect.

“Our stay has been longer than anticipated,” Duchess Harli said,speaking up before the others could reply. It was a tactful and non-committal answer, which was one of the many choices Dae foresaw the noble’s making.

“Have you come to your sense about releasing us,” Duke Varsli asked. “Some of us at least that is?”

Varsli had been one of Alari’s staunchest supporters, but when Sanli put out the call to challenge Alari for her throne, Varsli had been silent in response.

In some cases the silence of Alari’s supporters had been due to physical coercion. Ren Telli and Duchess Harli were an examples where Sanli’s supporters had locked them away from the meeting room so that their voices wouldn’t be cast against her plan.

For other supporters though, like Varsli, the coercion had been less bold. Silent threats, for example, were effective against parents with child who were in exposed situations. The credibility of Sanli’s claim to the throne was backed up by the extensive research she and her allies did into the other nobles of the realm. For a large number of them, the levers to push were obvious to those without scruples or restraint. The key simply lay in pushing them in the correct order and at the right pace so that the weak fell under her influence first and, by the time Alari’s strongest supporters were contacted, Sanli’s cabal was riding a tide of unwilling support that made her victory seem inevitable.

“Or are you here to slaughter us all at last?” Duke Zendli asked.

Zendli belonged to a third class of noble. He had backed Alari throughout the civil war, hoping to emerge among the rich and powerful at its completion. When Alari refused to allow her supporters the right to plunder their defeated neighbors though, his loyalty had shifted. Not to the opposition of course. He still despised them for backing King Sathe, to whom he’d lost both of his sons. That hatred had not secured his affection for Alari though, so when the time came to support her again, he found silence a perfectly welcome state.

“Is that what you want?” Dae asked. “It would be the simplest path forward wouldn’t it?”

“You can’t kill us,” Duke Linli said. “You don’t have the power or the authority.”

Linli was the last class of noble, and the least in Dae’s mind. His loyalty was to those who opposed Alari at every turn. Though there wasn’t much proof concerning the members or the working on Duchess Sanli’s cabal, Dae was certain than Linli had joined her early and had campaigned for her cause with all of his influence and cunning.

Reaching back into her earliest discipline drills, Dae managed to remain still and calm. Linli was the worst of a bad lot, but there were many tied with him for that title.

Dae understood why Alari didn’t want to murder her nobles, why she’d taken great pains to offer reconciliation to even those most adamantly opposed to her. She understood, but she didn’t share the sentiment. Linli and those like him couldn’t be swayed by kind words or a forgiving heart. They lived to hate, and in their hate, they could do real and permanent harm.

A younger Dae would have known the answer to the riddle they posed. How to deal with those who could and would harm you at any opportunity without becoming as bad as they were? The Dae from as recent as the previous fall would have said the answer lay in the edge of a blade.

One quick cut, drawn in defense of those who would be harmed by the raging malevolence of Linli and his fellow disciples of unreasoning hate. It was such an easy, seductive image to picture. No more insults, no more lies, no more taunts and jeers. Every stupid, hurtful utterance silenced at last. The world a better place for their absence from it.

The Dae who sat before the assembled nobles though held a different view. Fear of what Linli could do to her was something she could dismiss with ease. He was an awful, evil man, but he held no power over her, and she wasn’t going to let his malevolence twist her decisions. He wasn’t that scary.

In the fight with Haldraxan, she’d faced fear beyond reason, beyond the capacity for a soul to endure and she’d come out, if not intact, then at least functional. Her triumph, she knew, didn’t lay in any superhuman reserves of will or wisdom, but rather in the fact that even standing before Haldraxan without anyone else one the battlefield, she hadn’t been standing alone.

“You are mistaken as to the Lady Akorli’s capabilities,” Faen Kemoral said. “I believe we have seen ample demonstration of that last fall. In fact, I believe there’s still some evidence on the high pillars that the grounds crew has not been able to clean off yet.”

“If she touches one hair on any of our heads, there will be war again,” Linli said.

Dae sat up to her full height. Mixed feeling stirred in her chest. Part of her relished what was to come, gleeful that Linli had given her an excuse to act against him. He was an idiot, but an influential one, though that was about to end.

Another part of her though was concerned. Everything would have been so much smoother and more beneficial to all if the nobles would put aside their jockeying for power for a single minute and worked towards everyone’s mutual benefit.

With a small sigh, Dae reflected that this had been Alari’s life for years. Struggling to steal small victories out of the jaws of idiocy.

“Our capacity is of less importance than our intention, Duke Linli, but know that you have misjudged both of them today,” Dae said, slipping into her best formal speech as she felt the mantle of Alari’s authority settle over her. “You, all of you, are here at the queen’s sufferance. You imagine her the equal of her father and expect treatment from her as you would expect from him. You, all of you who think that, are fools. The Queen is far more than her father ever was. Far more kind, and, for appointing me to oversee your fates, far more cruel.”

A wave of murmuring swept through the crowd, but no one made the mistake of interrupting Dae, guessing that such a faux pas could have fatal consequences.

“Monelle Linli, step forward,” Dae said, addressing the young woman who stood behind  the Duke of Linli.

Monelle wore an expression caught halfway between a scowl and a trembling frown. Many of the family members of the Dukes and Duchesses were present in support of their parents or children. Monelle was typical among them, though the distance she placed between herself and the Duke of Lin suggested an unwillingness to be associated with her father. Dae allowed that to kindle a spark of hope.

“Monelle, eldest daughter of the Linli family, has your father named an heir to his seat yet?” Dae asked.

“Don’t ask her,” Duke Linli said. “You can’t threaten her. You can’t threaten any of us. You have nothing here. We own this realm. We own you.”

“Answer the question Monelle,” Dae said, ignoring the Duke’s outburst.

“He has not,” Monelle said. By proper form she should have included an honorific in there as well, but Dae was willing to let it slide given that the girl clearly thought she was facing an execution.

“Would you see the Duke of Lin live?” Dae asked.

The room went silent awaiting Monelle’s answer.

“I will not…” Duke Linli began, but his daughter interrupted him.

“Yes. He should live,” she said quickly. She was visibly shaking with, what Dae took to be, anxiety over what her request was going to cost her.

“We acknowledge your choice,” Dae said. “Place your hand on his forehead.”

“Why?” Monelle asked.

“Shut up, you don’t do anything she says,” Duke Linli said.

“Place your hand on his forehead,” Dae said again, making eye contact with Monelle and offering the girl a small, reassuring nod.

Monelle blinked and then did as she was instructed. Her father tried to slap her hand away, but Faen drew his sword and dimpled the flesh at the Duke’s throat to insist on the nobleman’s compliance.

“Duke Olgovauld Linli, you are charged with sedition and treason,” Dae said. “In lieu of a trial, the throne forgives these charges, and releases you from the threat of capital punishment for them. Let all know that your service to Gallagrin has been seen and is valued.”

Stunned confusion greeted Dae’s words, even from Faen who she’d discussed the handling of the nobles with at length.

“You have also given insult to the throne however, both in deed and in word, and given insult to those of your domain and the domains of your peers,” Dae continued. “In this matter, we shall act as the final arbiter and pronounce our judgement.”

Wide eyed panic graced more than a few faces as the collected nobles prepared to witness a gory spectacle. Duke Linli didn’t share their opinion however and greeted Dae’s words with crimson faced rage.

“Duke Olgovauld Linli, you are unfit to serve this throne. We do hereby strip you of your title and lands. We cast you from this court, never to return, on pain of mortal consequence. Lastly, we break the bond which ties you to your family’s Pact Spirit and name Monelle Linli as the new Duchess of Lin, with all the lands, right and privileges thereof,  as well as being the new bearer of the Lin Pact Spirit. All hail Duchess Linli.”

The nobles gazed at the young girl who was literally glowing with newly invested authority and magic, and at the unconscious form of the former Duke of Lin who’d been overwhelmed by the shattering of his power on all levels.

“Nobles of Gallagrin, this is the judgment we lay upon you,” Dae said, rising from the throne. “You have failed your queen, you have failed each other, but for all that, you have not yet failed this realm. For all of the internal strife we so love to engage in, in our hearts we all know one thing to be true; for as bad as we are, our neighbors are a thousand times worse. So today, as Gallagrin stands in peril, this last choice is before you. Stand with us, with our realm, or stand aside and let someone more fitting rule in your place.”