Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 9: The March To War

“Are you ready for a fight?” Laranna asked softly, though her gaze was drawn to the roaring fire that heated the keep’s Great Hall. Her fine sapphire dress, silver jewelry, and carefully composed expression were armor against showing the sullen fatigue that refused to leave. She hoped she looked more dignified than she felt.

The tall blond Marshall nodded wearily, though she managed an amused grunt. Her steel armor and sky blue uniform made her every inch the Marshal. The blond braid that just reached the length of her shoulders was the only nod to her femininity. “I think we can handle it,” she murmured to Gelan, who leaned close to listen.

He gave her an approving grin. Even with the contrast of his darker face and hair, they were a matched pair. “Half the kids they sent us don’t know one end of a spear from another, and the others are convinced they’re God’s gifts to Northspire, even with a dozen hours of losing to teach them otherwise. Compared to beating them into soldiers, facing the Holders’ Council will be child’s play.

“I must say, my Ladies are looking beautiful and commanding tonight. Perhaps that will be an effective weapon, also.”

Jaselle nodded thoughtfully, with just a quick curve of her lips to acknowledge the compliment. Her golden hair was set with emerald pins to match her flowing dress. In contrast to the others, she looked calm, her inner beauty reflected in her demeanor. “How are they coming along?”

“Not bad,” Athena replied, her pride brightening her features as she elbowed her fellow Marshal. “Gelan almost has them marching in a straight line. Being a soldier is hard in a lot of ways, but it’s mostly about discipline. Just stay in formation and keep those spears poking, and you’re well on your way. A guard has to overcome the bandits one-on-one. A soldier shouldn’t have to.”

Gelan smiled in return. “That’s simplifying things just a bit, but that’s not my worry. I wish we had a few more weeks before we could march, and that we had some idea what we’re marching into.”

“Way to dampen the mood there, hero,” Athena replied, sighing. “But of course, you’re right.”

“He tends to do that,” Jaselle agreed, eying the closed doors at the end of the hall. “Despite that, I envy you both. The Council only granted us an army because they thought they might need it for self-defense. Now, if all goes well, I have to face them all without it, and you. With any luck, the rebels will stand down at your show of force, and you won’t have to fight at all.”

“God send it is so, my Lady,” Gelan replied.

“Laranna, you’re so quiet. Are you alright?” Jaselle asked, a shadow of concern crossing her face.

The Regent stirred reluctantly, and turned her head to face her sister. She doubted her attempt at a smile was reassuring. “Yes, of course. Don’t give it a thought. Have the Holders arrived?”

“Last I checked, we were still waiting waiting for Jani and Holder Tarik,” Jaselle answered softly. “Are you sure - ?”

“Athena, can you bring in Brinhold?” Laranna asked, ignoring the question.

“Of course, my Lady,” Athena murmured, and stepped away from Gelan to get the door.

Gelan examined her shrewdly. “My Lady, all of us have heard the story of Lord Jacob by now, and the Sorcerer Innoken. You don’t think there are more Sorcerers out there, do you?”

Laranna eyed him for a long moment, wishing he would have let this question pass until after the coming fight. But he and Athena were leading his army, and so she owed him an answer. “Yes, I do. Father is going to face two of them, and I don’t think he can win. What’s in Talyk, who can say? But I won’t throw our men’s lives away. They can’t face another Innoken, and I won’t ask them to.”

Gelan bowed slightly. “My apologies, my Lady. My heart goes with the Earl.”

Jaselle’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know, Laranna?”

The Regent studied the floor for a moment. “Mother left a note for each of us in her drawer. I read mine, but yours is still there. I meant to tell you.”

Her sister stepped back, struck. “Is Father going to - ?”

“I don’t know,” Laranna replied, then looked right past her. “Ah, Steward Brinhold, it’s good to see you.”

“Thank you for inviting me, my Lady” the older man replied stiffly. His thinning greasy hair shone in the torchlight, adding years to his countenance.

To Laranna’s surprise as much as the Steward’s, Jaselle laid a slender hand on the man’s shoulder. “Thank you for stalling the Holders. Despite any disagreements we’ve had in the past, we need you more than ever. How is the mood out there?”

The Steward’s expression was inscrutable. “They are impatient and unhappy, my Lady, but I did my best.

“Jana’s here,” Athena said, “and Tarik was just arriving.”

Jaselle nodded. “Perhaps we had best call them in, then.”

The Council would make a lovely painting, Laranna noted. She and her sister were decked out in the best dresses and jewelry, and Jaselle certainly did justice to hers, with her striking golden hair, and sparkling emeralds. Gelan and Athena were imposing in their blue and steel, each armed with long swords that befit their stations. Even Brinhold did not look poorly, standing with the others against the firelight. Gathered around them were the Lord Holders and most of their spouses, each clad in fine linen, velvet, or proofed against the cold in elegant amfantha furs. The hearthfires were high, breads and sweetmeats were on display, and there was even a minstrel in the corner, deftly plucking the strings of a harp. A wine barrel sat by the broad doors, waiting to be tapped. Where the previous meeting had been packed into a makeshift dining hall, Laranna had demanded all formality for this one. She would need every scrap of authority she could summon. She waited for the initial buzz of conversation to hit a lull, then stepped backward, raising her own voice and arms.

“Welcome, Holders, to the Council at Northspire! Though I regret the necessity of calling you here again so soon, I welcome your company, and bid you enjoy the refreshments we have to offer. Unfortunately, I have only poor news to share: Talyk has requested our aid in the name of the Empress. Rebels have arisen against the Count, not simply refusing to provide levies, but demanding that Holder Talman Brightblade be installed in his place. He has already murdered the heir to Talyk.

“Count Ervallyn writes that Brightblade’s power-hunger will not be satisfied, and if he is allowed to take Talyk, he will certainly march northward against us. If the Count is correct, this rebellion must be crushed as quickly as possible. Brightblade’s army is small, but growing quickly. As you know, Talyk is more heavily populated than Northspire. Unless we act soon, we will be hard-pressed to resist the usurper.

“That is why I intend that Northspire will march in support of Talyk, and in defense of our own people. I will leave with Marshals Athena and Gelan as soon as soon as possible, though one hundred armed men will remain within Northspire to defend it. Happily, almost all of the promised soldiers have been delivered to us, and we will be able to meet this threat, if we act swiftly. This is not why our army was conscripted, but it is what Northspire needs.

“I propose that my sister act as Regent in my absence. As you well know, deploying an army absent the command of the Empress requires the ratification of the Holder’s Council, as does the appointment of an acting Regent other than the Earl’s nearest adult kin. Therefore I ask for your support in this matter. What does the Council say?”

Laranna’s words were met by a stunned silence. That silence soon gave way to a quiet buzz, and then a dull roar as the representatives of the twelve Holds of the Earldom discussed the news. The occupants of the chamber flowed throughout the room in frantic conversation, before coalescing into three major groups, centered around Vani, Tarik, and Coram. Servants began to circulate among the masses, distributing bread and goblets of wine. It was anyone’s guess how long it would be before the Holders would be ready to ask their questions, or state their positions. Until then, it was the Regent’s job to wait.

“You’ve really stirred the nest, haven’t you?” Jaselle asked, sipping her own wine.

“So it appears,” Laranna agreed. “But only because I had to: war is the last thing I want. Damn Ervallyn for not keeping control of his own people. I would blame his son Toram, if the rebels hadn’t already killed him. It’s no good to speak badly of the dead.”

“If you won’t, I will,” Jaselle growled. “If half the rumors I’ve heard of him were true, I’d have been glad to gut him myself.”

“Hardly charitable,” Laranna replied ironically, accepting a goblet from a passing servant.

“I save my empathy for humans and small furry animals,” Jaselle replied. “Not for sadistic trash.”

“Do you think the Holders will object?” Laranna asked, changing the subject. “I’m having trouble reading the room.”

“Jana is against us,” Jaselle said. “She’s already lost her husband, and one of her sons is in our army. No doubt she’ll say whatever trouble Count Ervallyn has, he’s earned it, and Brightblade has no reason to attack us.

“Jakol listens to her, and Coram’s not interested unless he can get a better deal than the rest. Those are the independents Brinold helped swing earlier, and we need them, but obeying the Empress and marching into Talyk are different things.

“Vani and Tarik will keep arguing, but we need to shake one loose, so the others will follow. Tarik’s a better bet for us, since he’s already committed to the army. We need whatever help we can get.”

Laranna’s eyes widened. “When do you get so good at this? You always struggled to keep track of what was going on in the districts.”

Jaselle shook her head, causing the golden waves about her head to bounce, without loosening a single pin. “If you’re thinking about the assessment figures, maybe. But I like to watch the people, and tease out their stories. Besides, I’ve been asking around, and the steward’s been helpful.

“By the way, have you noticed how close Gelan and Athena have been standing together tonight?”

“No!” Laranna whispered fiercely. “They wouldn’t.”

Jaselle laughed with genuine mirth. “Oh, Laranna, you were always too stuck in your books! Probably not yet, but if they have a thing for each other, there’s no harm in that. Athena deserves a good man, and there aren’t too many that could handle her. Gelan would be perfect.”

“I’m not sure about that - ,” Laranna started.

“My Lady Regent,” Vani’s voice called out, cutting through the conversation, and leaving silence in its wake. “I have a question for you.”

Laranna faced the Holder as squarely, with a suddenly patient smile, hands clasped behind her. Conversation quieted as the other men and women in the room turned to listen. The fight had begun. “Yes, Holder?”

The broad, dark-haired holder eyed her carefully. “A lot’s happened in a year. First, Sarronen kidnaps you. Then, we and some strange western lord put them in their place. A few weeks back, the Earl rides south to protect the Empress against seditious Southern Lords. Now there’s a rebellion right in Talyk. Any idea why this is all happening now? Maybe we should keep our men close to home. Talyk wants our help, so he’ll say whatever is good for him, but why would Brightblade ever ride this way?”

Laranna forced a brief chuckle. “Those aren’t easy questions to answer, but I’ll try.

“You may have heard rumors of Sorcery in the world - children’s stories, I know. But a half-year ago I saw Lord Jacob battle and defeat a flaming demon, the likes of which has not been seen since Khardum. I don’t blame you for your doubt - if I hadn’t seen it myself, I might not believe, either. Another Sorcerer, a monk named Brother Francis, warned us more would be coming. I believe the Southern Lords assailing our Empress may be those he warned about.”

Laranna paused, pacing slowly to the left as she considered her words, and the buzz of conversation briefly rose again, only to fall when she continued. Vani, like many of the Holders, looked stunned. “I can’t be sure of that, of course, and neither can my father. That’s one reason we’re to wait for his pigeon before joining him. I don’t believe he would ask normal men to face Sorcerers. I promise you, I’ll be waiting as eagerly for news as you will.

“Brightblade’s rebellion is another matter. I think after years of high taxes from the Count, the Empress’s levies are finally more than his people can bear. Believe me, the lesson is not lost on me. My sister, my father, and I ask only what we must.

“Why face Brightblade? Because we don’t know for sure how much of a threat he represents. All we know is that the sooner we deal with him, peacefully or otherwise, the fewer lives it will cost us. If the worst comes to pass, and Brightblade is as dangerous as Innoken was, I won’t send your sons against him, I promise. The wise only fight to win.

“In short, all the problems of the last year are one problem: Sorcery. With any luck at all, Sorcerers will remain rare, and we can avoid them. But we cannot even do that, if we hide from what’s going on in the world. Does this answer your questions?”

Vani frowned, crossing his arms. “Have you heard from Brightblade? Maybe he can speak for himself.”

“I have not,” Laranna replied. “I will send a messenger, but we can’t wait for a response before we prepare to march. Nor can we necessarily trust that response without examining the situation ourselves.”

“We are not in a position to invade Talyk,” Vani stated flatly. “It’s still not clear what good we can do there. If the Count can’t clean up his own mess, I doubt we can, or should. We should stay home. My Lady.”

When you’ve run out of arguments, simply restate your position. “As I said, Ervallyn writes that he was not able to gather a proper army before the rebellion broke out. If we don’t cover him, he will be trapped in his keep, and we may face Brightblade alone. Time is running out to help the Count.”

Vani stepped backward, troubled, and Laranna’s hope began to rise. Holder Tarik stepped forward to dash them. “That would be best. Ervallyn is a pain in the ass. It’s no wonder Brightblade rose against him. Once he takes the city, though, he’ll stop there, if only to appease the Empress. If he can prove he was mistreated, her Majesty might let the coup stand. If he starts invading other provinces, though? Impossible that he could win her support, unless we provoke him. We shouldn’t get involved in this, my Lady.”

Laranna closed her eyes briefly, thinking. Damn the man, he had a point, and if not for her dreams, Laranna might listen. But her mother had seen the future, and she’d implied Laranna would need her army, and not for joining the Earl. Laranna might not be able to trust her mother, but Adelin needed her alive if she intended to possess her.

“Foolish and weak,” the Regent snapped. “If we have to negotiate with either the Count or Brightblade, we’ll do it from strength. There’s no better way to do it than with an army, and Ervallyn has asked for our help. We don’t have to fight, but we certainly have to go.”

“Stupid girl!” Tarik snorted, face reddening. “A raging teenager solves every problem with a sword, but a regent is supposed to know better. We need information, and we need to try diplomacy first, and that means a messenger. You send an army into a brawl, you end up using it. Only an idiot wants that.”

The Holder took a deep breath, as if preparing to unload a longer stream of insults. Laranna’s eyes blazed, and she prepared to burn him to a crisp.

“Peace!” Jaselle interrupted, raising her arms. “There’s merit to both approaches, but Holder, do you think Brightblade will attack a superior force? My sister won’t, either. Lord Ervallyn has lost control of the situation. A rebel willing to kill a lightly guarded Count’s son won’t flinch at taking an Earl’s daughter, and who else can treat with him but us? It’s riskier to go without an army than with, and worse still to do nothing while an enemy gathers strength.

“Holder Coram, you must agree that a carrot and a stick is better than a carrot alone. Lady Laranna’s plan is our best chance at brokering a deal. I’m sure we all would be grateful for a voice of reason.”

Holder Coram’s eyes, which had been resting somewhat below her neck, suddenly snapped upward, and he grinned. “Of course. I’m entirely in favor of reason. What’s wrong, Tarik, have you lost your nerve now your son’s involved in something real? Negotiate from strength, or your opponents will do it first. You have my support, my Lady.”

“Anything for a pretty face,” Tarik retorted. “What’d she promise you?”

“That, Holder, is enough!” Laranna retorted, as Athena began to stir beside her. “Holder Coram speaks from his own wisdom, and I suggest you do the same. I had put impugning the honor of a Lady beneath you. We are speaking of the future of Northspire, so I suggest you attend.”

Tarik raised his hands slowly, in a protest of innocence. “I mean no insult to my Ladies, of course. I’m just telling you: bring your army, and there’ll be a fight. There’s boys who won’t be returning home, and that’s on your head, my Lady. But if all these fools agree, I won’t be the one to argue. I have your word, though: no sending spearmen against Sorcerers?”

“Of course not,” Laranna replied. “You have my word.”

“I’ll hold you to that, then,” Tarik replied. “Break your promise, and the consequences are on you.”

Laranna sighed in relief - quietly. After that, it was just a matter of hunting down the stragglers. Thanks to Jaselle’s gambit, and pretty smile, they’d won. Sometimes you did have to play dirty. Her sister was learning fast.

Outside, the dawn sunlight crept slowly over the land. Gray was bleeding into red, and the yellow crescent pulling above it painted the land outside. Beyond the open shutters were the tents and barracks, and the field where the trampled grass was already wearing thin. There were fires burning, and the smell and sound of sizzling fat, and the aroma of freshly baked biscuits to match. Those, of course, came from inside, right behind the tall, broad man whose brown eyes were burning through her now.

She wished - well, it did no good to wish, so she waited instead, and chewed on her breakfast. For weeks now, he’d made a habit of joining her before dawn. Sometimes they would speak, and sometimes he would only look at her, and smile; whether at her or some thought she was afraid to guess. And wasn’t that a thing? But this morning, he was quiet. Along with her other scattered concerns, it unnerved her. But some fears were safer to speak of than others, and so she turned her mind on one she could share.

“I don’t like it,” Athena observed, suddenly. It felt good to say it out loud, though it wouldn’t change a thing. The head Marshal sat close, armor making his body broad and bulky. Not the time to think about that, of course. There was never a good time. She shivered slightly - against the cold, of course.

“You and me both,” Gelan agreed. He leaned casually back in his share, folding his arms. As usual, he had eaten quickly.

He and Athena spent so much time in the office, it was beginning to feel like a second home. Or a first one: the adjacent cabin scarcely counted, and she no longer stayed with Laranna. Now, she’d be leaving again, and what would that cost her? Gather those thoughts, woman, she reminded herself. You’re not a little girl anymore. Northspire’s been good to you, so don’t borrow trouble.

It was hard, though. The respect she’d won here, the position she had, reminded her of when she’d climbed trees as a child, high above her father’s forge. The branches had begun to thin, and still she climbed, until one gave way, snapping angrily. She was lucky to be alive: the bough that finally caught her had left deep bruises. She was a Marshal of Northspire: that was the branch to hold on to.

“We need more weapons,” Athena added. “We don’t have enough armor for our officers, much less an army. Good thing we don’t actually plan to take on Brightblade. Without a few more weeks of training, at least, our army would fall to a stiff breeze. Demansil’s going to be pissed too - you know that. Are you sure you want to do this?”

The Marshal shook his head. “It’s not about what I want. The Regent has spoken, so we need to make it work. As far as Demansil, I made a promise, and Northspire needs the Holders’ backing.

“You’re right to worry, though. We’ll probably end up fighting Brightblade, or Count Talyk, before this is over. Hopefully not both.”

The blond Marshal’s eyes widened, and she leaned back on her right heel. “You think Laranna is lying to us?”

Again, Gelan shook his head. “Not exactly, but Holder Vani is right. When you walk into a brawl, you end up throwing punches. Armies have a nasty tendency of ending up in a fight. The Lady Laranna must know that, even if she can’t admit it.”

“She won’t let that happen,” Athena said, though her voice wavered.

“I hope you’re right,” Gelan replied with a rueful smile. “But it’s my job to be ready if she can’t, and yours. You’re a Marshal too, if no one’s told you already.”

There was nothing Athena could say about that, or her fears that maybe she was climbing too high. Instead, she changed the subject. “They’re waiting outside.”

“Yes, of course,” Gelan replied, and gestured toward the door. “After you.”

Athena placed her hand on the latch, and pushed the rough pine outward. Outside, men were lining up by the hundreds, as they had each morning for weeks. Half of them, of course, would be resting or running errands, until after midday. A thousand were too many to train all at once, so it was blue armbands in the morning, and white in the afternoon - and double for many of the instructors, for there were too few.

Hundreds of men would be marching this morning, and most of the rest would exhaust themselves in drills and sparring. Others, those who had shown some aptitude, would be training with bows, though it took a lifetime to master them. But first, there was this.

“Fall in,” Marshal Gelan bellowed, voice carrying far beyond what his frame should allow. That must be one of those things he learned at that War Academy of his, which was envied as far as Balina.

The men lined up, as sullenly as they dared, in their worn shirts and canvas breeches, some with furs against the cold. Those would be laid aside once the training started in earnest. They made a ragtag bunch. Northspire couldn’t afford to dress them in its colors: they wore what their wives, mothers, or sisters could spin. All they were given were strips of cloth to be used as armbands. No women had been conscripted. At times, Athena wondered what that said about her. Surely there were other women who preferred swords to knitting needles.

“Thank you for joining us this fine morning!” Gelan called out. “For those of you the rumors haven’t reached, our services have been called for. We’ll be marching to Talyk in less than a week, gentlemen, and I expect to be ready.”

The tall, blue-coated Marshall waited patiently for the grumbled curses to fade - his darkened cheeks might have been carved of stone. The men knew better than to talk, but this was news, the kind to change lives, or break them. Athena found herself praying it wouldn’t be so.

“Holder Brightblade has rebelled against Count Talyk, and the Count’s asked for our help before he can give his own support to the Empress. Our job will be to show some force, and to help the Regent talk some sense into the Holder. There’s been no declaration of war, so we can still hope Brightblade will surrender peacefully. Our job, though, is to be prepared for what comes.

“I’m going to call a few men forward, who we’ve chosen to help bear the responsibility of leadership. Each will be setting up their own troop of up to twenty soldiers. Up to that limit, all of you can join any troop that will take you. The officers will work out any trades: you don’t want my name involved unless it really has to be.

“Now, those whose names I call, please stand before me in a single line.”

Gelan’s smile was as cold as the dawn air, as he surveyed the mass before him. Beardless teenagers and grandfathers alike waited on his word, to see who would lead them. The Marshal lifted a small scroll, and began to read. “Demansil, Soren, Janlyn, Thorl, …”

Athena, standing beside him, crossed her arms, scowling. Demansil was a mistake, arrogant and unfocused, though he had skills and a certain charisma. Gelan had been right though, that they didn’t really have a choice. Only, if that was true of Demansil, why not some of the others? It was a slippery slope.

Demansil swaggered up in front of the Marshal like a tournament victor, silently gloating. Some of the others were just as proud, others bemused, and a few seemingly unconcerned by the honor. “Right arms out and down, lieutenants!”

Athena stepped forward, and slipped around Demansil’s arm a fine white linen band, with a blue direwolf skillfully embroidered on its surface. “Congratulations, lieutenant,” she offered.

Demansil smirked, but said nothing, only offering a slight nod before she moved to the next soldier. The others copied the gesture.

“Northspire, your lieutenants!” Gelan called out, to the scattered clapping of hands. “Over the next month or so, I will be selecting captains, each of whom will lead a hundred soldiers, and replacing their number within the list of lieutenants. I won’t deceive you: we have a long way to go before you and the men you see are worthy representatives of Travan’s high standards. But you’re doing well, all of you, and you’ve made me proud. Together we’ll serve Northspire until these brief clouds have passed, and then we’ll go home.”

The applause was louder this time, and longer. Some of the men gathered here craved the recognition of being a soldier of Travan, and the pay. Most would be happier if they could go back to their families or sweethearts tomorrow. However, just as it died down, a wry voice cut across the field. “… forgot my invitation!”

A broad, dark-haired young man stifled his laughter at Athena’s quick glance, though he didn’t look very chastened. Ah, that was Holder Vani’s son. She’d suspected that denying him a rank would cause objection, but from his friend Demansil. “If I wanted some low amusement, Eikan, I certainly would have asked you by name. Keep it quiet, soldier.”

“Oh, I will,” Eikan claimed, contradicting his own words. “At least until my father hears Blackhold was given office, and Greenhold was not. I don’t suppose you can explain that!”

Marshal Gelan cut in smoothly. “Perhaps I declined to trust the lives of twenty men to someone foolish enough to bleat his insubordination in front of hundreds. I have chosen my lieutenants, and I won’t be swayed by whining.”

Eikan’s sun-reddened face hardened, and he stepped forward. “Grab your sword, and you’ll do more than sway. Or do you let your girlfriend do all your fighting for you?”

“Demansil. Thorl. Take Lord Eikan to the post and tie him there. When you’re finished, we meet in the officer’s mess. The flogging begins at sundown.”

Athena frowned, but resisted raising a hand to her forehead against the yellowing sun above the horizon, watching silently as Demansil, subdued, escorted his stunned friend to the stocks. Today would be a long day.

Athena winced as the last lash fell. She was not a squeamish woman, and hadn’t been even before she became a killer, though that had changed her. Some nights, the sight of crumpled and bleeding bandits found their way into her dreams; they died pleading they hadn’t meant to hurt her, even as their fellows overpowered her and threw her to the ground. Even as their boots bruised her ribs, and their mad jeers echoed. Sometimes in her dreams she speared them, and watched them shudder like broken insects. Sometimes Jacob spared her the need. Once, she had flown away. Those dreams returned less often these days: she tried not to dwell on the past.

Gelan stood beside her, silent and unmoving, as if his thoughts were elsewhere entirely. As if the blood and tears were not as much his work as if he held the whip. Eikan’s punishment was complete, and he struggled to stand as his friends released him. One on either side helped steady him, to walk him to the cabin he shared with almost two dozen men. The trading had begun already: Eikan would be in Demansil’s platoon.

“Come,” Gelan intoned softly, “we should eat.”

Gelan had done the right thing, Athena knew. In an army, there was no room for questioning orders, for threats or conflict with a superior officer. Yet the man was so calm and gentle that it was impossible to connect his face with the sight of the bruised and shredded skin she had just seen. It was also impossible not to. She couldn’t judge, she who had killed three men this year, even if all were in self-defense. But in the moment, it felt different. Next to the man with whom she was fast-developing a deep connection, she still felt alone.

The lamb stew was waiting, hot and piquant in the fading light of a fading year. The ale was cold, but no less rich for it. It was wonderful: Emmah was a talented cook.

“I had to do it, you know,” Gelan said, breaking the long silence.

“I know,” Athena replied.

“I would have torn him to shreds in a fight,” Gelan mused. “He’s better than Demansil with a sword, but not good enough. But the men haven’t learned yet that the best swordmsman and the best Marshal are two different things. If I start accepting challenges, one day I’ll lose. I can’t afford that.”

“I know,” Athena replied again, softer, nursing her ale.

“I heard that you killed someone, barehanded. You saved Laranna’s life,” Gelan replied, stirring his stew with his fork for the tenth time.

“Yes,” Athena replied, looking down. Could you see old death in a woman’s eyes? “Well, not exactly. The assassin attacked with a dagger coated in two-step. I grabbed his arm, and he scratched himself, struggling.”

“Even so,” Gelan allowed. “It must have been something. How did you feel, after?”

Where was he going with this? Athena shook her head slightly. “I felt shaken, a little. But I only did what I had to, and I didn’t mean to kill him. It’s past. I try not to think about it.”

“Some of my men, our men, might die soon,” Gelan offered, voice melancholy. “I try not to think of that, either, but I was the one to draw first blood, it seems. But it was the righ thing to do: it will save lives.”

“It may,” Athena allowed.

“It sucks,” Gelan replied bitterly, hanging his head down, stew forgotten.

Athena placed her hand on Gelan’s neck, and began to rub it softly. The Marshals were still in their full uniforms, and hadn’t removed their chain armor. His neck was all she could reach, and his short dark hair, rough and slightly damp from his recently discarded helmet. He slumped into her touch. “You’re strong, Gelan, and I trust you. You don’t like hurting people, and I don’t see that changing. You’re a good man.”

Those burning brown eyes found hers, and took her breath. It was a low trick, to disarm her this way. Then he smiled, full and broad and sad, and beautiful. “Thank you.”

“I mean it,” Athena replied, still tousling his hair, and she did. This wasn’t weakness: it was only compassion, and responsibility. He acted earlier, swift and confident. Now, in private, he was taking account. Already, his shoulders were straightening. “We’re lucky to have you.”

Those brown eyes gushed with emotion, emotion which threatened to drown her. “You do have me, if you like.”

Breath still failed to come, but she leaned forward, hand now cupping the back of his head, and no words came. He didn’t need them, hearing instead her body and soul. His own hands came up, finding her hair, loosening her braids, and pulling her close. As his kiss overwhelmed her, she moaned gently.

The days after the Holders’ Council were a whirlwind. It seemed like only yesterday that the workload carried by Laranna’s family had been shifted onto only her and her sister. Soon, Jaselle would have to carry it alone. Or maybe not so alone. Brinold and his son had been more help than expected, and they’d found other clerks within the town to step in.

In the moment, Laranna had reached the eye of the hurricane. She found herself in the odd position of having made herself redundant before the army was actually ready to march. Food and supplies were still trickling in, but for the next couple days, there was little useful she could do. That left her sitting on the bench in the garden, heavy cloak pulled tight around her, with far too much time to think.

Would her mother, would Adelin, really consume her soul? That’s what demons were said to do. You need never be alone again, her mother had written. A statement that should have been loving seemed predatory, frightening. Her mother was gentle in life, yes, but also incredibly strong. Her presence could be almost overwhelming. With no privacy and no room to hide, how could Laranna ever know a moment’s freedom?

But she had always believed she and her mother were close, even if they were too busy to show it. Why would the person who had given her life take it way - and did she really have to, or was that a myth? She’d as much as said that she was sharing Laranna’s head, and Laranna hadn’t felt herself lately. She’d felt herself reacting in ways that made no sense: her irritation with Jeyne, for instance. Was that her nerves, or was the spirit already creeping in? What was she going to do? She’d tried to close herself off, but she already ached so much inside. Regency was a lonely business, and she’d been pushing away the few friends she had, even her own sister. What was wrong with her? It didn’t help to think that question might have an answer.

Thankfully, someone stepped confidently into the garden, distracting Laranna from her fears. It was a tall figure with blond braided hair under her helmet, clad in a blue tunic.

She pushed herself slowly to her feet, thrusting her emotions down, clasping her hands behind her, against her heavy pink dress. “Athena, it’s good to see you.”

“You look like hell, my Lady,” the blond figure in blue answered wryly.

“You’ve been there?” Laranna asked. “Never mind, I’m sure you came here for a reason. Go ahead and share.”

Athena squinted against a chill wind that smelled faintly of snow. Winter was on its way. “We’ve given the recruits a rest day, and most of the officers. Gelan practically kicked me out, told me I’d earned it ten times over. I figured I could practice with you instead. I haven’t seen you in armor in weeks.”

“Time has been in short supply,” the Regent of Northspire objected. “Every day a new fire to fight, and a dozen people with no idea how to provision an army. Jaselle and I got away once to spar, and that practically took a miracle. One where she beat me black and blue, actually.”

“Do you still want to do this?” the taller woman asked softly, coming to stand by her friend.

“Yes,” the Regent answered softly, her voice nearly muffled by the wind. “I’m tired of being helpless. Sarronen kidnapped me, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. Without you, Ervallyn’s assassin would have killed me. I’ve barely been able to keep up with the town’s needs and the new levies, and I’ve been worried sick about father, and about Jaselle holding Northspire by herself. She’s doing wonderfully, but it’s a tough job. If only I could - I don’t know, get something right. The point is, I need to be able to do this.”

“You’re not helpless,” the Marshal replied with a smile. “I’ve been there, and where you’re at - that’s not it. You don’t have to handle everything alone, you know, and neither does Jaselle. Brinold and his son are really pulling for her, and you’ve got me and Gelan. You’ll do fine, with the Holder, the army, or whoever tries to screw with you. You always do. Brinold and Tarik are still rubbing their backsides from where they’ve been kicked.

”So get off your skinny ass, and let’s get that armor on you, huh? My Lady.”

Laranna had to laugh. She could almost feel the bitterness draining away. No doubt it would collect in an invisible little pool on the ground. “I guess you would know. That uniform suits you, Marshal. I expected you to be worn to the bone, but you’re practically glowing.”

If she didn’t know better, the Regent would have sworn Athena actually blushed. “What can I say? The life agrees with me, and I couldn’t ask for better company. But enough about me, let’s get that armor on you. I’m starting to get bored.”

“Fine, then!” the dark-haired woman protested, raising her hands in defeat. “Let’s go.”

Laranna ached from head to toe, and her arms were almost too leaden to raise her glass. A hot bath and a roaring fire had done wonders for her mood, though, and the soft brown robe that enveloped her. She and Athena sat on opposite sides of her bed, leaning against a tapestry that blanketed the stone wall. The warm afterglow of hard exercise combined with a potent wine to leave her in a contented daze. She would sleep well tonight.

“Not bad,” Athena mused, tilting a wineglass to examine the velvety redness inside. She too lounged in a dark robe, which ran a tad short, exposing a hint of her calves. However, she looked no less at home in it than Laranna felt in hers. She leaned against a large pillow, knees folded, and her damp hair ran free down her shoulder.

“It’s marvelous,” Laranna countered with a lazy smile. “Even if my swordwork is abysmal, this makes it worth it. I’ve missed having you around, Athena. It’s no good drinking alone.”

Athena rolled her eyes teasingly. “Your sister would share a glass with you. In fact, I’m surprised you didn’t invite her. But I won’t hear it: you fought well. Are you sure you didn’t practice? You were almost twice as fast as the last time we sparred. Your muscles are starting to remember.”

“If you say so,” Laranna shrugged. “I did feel faster, but everything else seemed wrong. It was almost like waking up to how much I didn’t know. My feet were always out of position, and it was just that much more obvious how many moves ahead you were.

“Oh, and Jaselle wouldn’t be able to make it. She’s working late with the steward and the head cook tonight. She wants to have all her figures together before I have a chance to review them. She’s stubborn that way.”

“Look who’s talking,” Athena grinned. “It makes sense, though. In a few days, you won’t be here to back her up. She’s probably feeling the same way you are, realizing how much she doesn’t know, and determined to get it right. It’s a good sign. I’m sure I’d feel the same way if I didn’t have Gelan to back me up. He’s a godsend.”

“Thanks, I think,” Laranna chuckled, “You seem a lot more at peace with it than I do. In fact, you’re practically glowing.”

The raven-haired woman paused, then, sapphire eyes sharpening. “Speaking of Gelan, is there anything going on with you two?”

Athena raised an eyebrow, but her voice was hesitant. Her mouth was obscured by her goblet. “Why? What would make you even ask?”

Laranna grinned wickedly. “So there is something there! Come on, you have to spill!”

Athena sighed, though she lowered her glass to reveal an uncertain grin. “You know we’ve been working pretty closely together. When you first meet him, he’s so quiet you think he’s shy of speaking. But the man’s some kind of brilliant at his job. I’ve learned more from him in a week than in years in Ironwood, and nothing seems to rattle him. He can shout down a Holder’s son without even raising his voice.

“Now, get a couple drinks in him, and he’s a completely different man. He’ll sing a song or serve a mean Dirty Wench! That’s this dark ale and moonshine mix, hits you like a Kull ax. But his kiss - just one, and I swear I melted like butter. The man knows how to kiss. But so far, only that. Mostly. Oh, what will the Earl do?”

For a brief moment, Laranna felt a twinge of jealousy, but then it passed, followed by curiosity and regret. She summoned a smile of support. “Father might not be thrilled to find his Marshals working together quite that closely. But as long as you don’t find yourself with child, or have a falling out, I’m not going to stop you. You can still work with him, right?”

“Of course!” Athena responded, loud and almost too quickly. “We work well together. I mean, he’s good at his job.”

“And handsome too,” Laranna noted wryly.

“Oh yes,” the blond agreed fervently, studying her glass. “Man’s got an ass worth a long look.”

“Well, that’s that,” Laranna replied. “Just be a little careful. I’ve only seen him be a gentleman, but a woman can’t be too careful, I don’t want to see you hurt. You might want to be discreet too. If all goes well, maybe we can see to a more permanent match. Until then, just - be responsible.”

The warrior downed her wine, then stalked toward the decanter to refill it, not meeting her eyes. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. I’ve dealt with men before. It was only a kiss, of course. I just like to talk, you know? But since I’ve shared, it’s your turn. What’s going on? I know you’re under pressure, but I’ve gotten to know you pretty well, and something is bothering you.”

Laranna set her jaw, silently considering. Her friend only refilled her wine, and waited. What could she possibly say that Athena would believe?

The truth, she decided. Athena saved her life, and nearly lost her own defending Jacob from a fiery demon. “I’ve been dreaming of my mother. At first, it seemed normal, but then she started talking to me, and asking for my help. I think she’s in the Spirit World, and she’s trying to get inside my head.”

“Oh,” Athena replied, and fell quiet.

Suddenly, Laranna felt like the world’s biggest fool. She lifted her knees where she sat on the bed, and wrapped her arms around her legs. “You must think I’m crazy.”

“No,” the tall woman argued, approaching to meet her eyes. “Actually, the problem is I don’t. What does she want?”

“I don’t know,” Laranna whispered. “All the stories say that voices in your head are the beginning of madness, especially when you start to get stronger, or faster, or more confident. Just think what a monster Innoken was.”

Athena climbed next to her, placing an arm around her shoulder. “This is your mother, not some demon. You don’t think Brother Francis is crazy or evil, do you?”

“No,” Laranna replied, still huddled forward as Athena tried to comfort her. “But he’s practically as saint, and St. Thomas actually was one. She wants in my head, Athena. She says if I let her in, she’ll be able to see everything I do. For all I know, she could wear me like a puppet. I’m scared. But the worst part is - I miss her.”

“I know,” Athena said, placing her arms around her as the tears started to fall.

“I’m so tired of crying,” Laranna started to sob, still-damp hair falling loose out of the towel that tried to confine it. “I have to be stronger than that.”

“I know,” Athena replied, holding the smaller woman against her shoulder. “It’s alright. It’s me. You can let it out with me.”

“It’s so stupid,” Laranna protested, but held her friend close. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“You can worry about all that tomorrow,” Athena replied gently, soothing her friend. “Let it go. When you’re ready, I’ll get you another glass of wine.”

The respite passed, and the days leading up to the march southward passed quickly. Laranna felt better, much better, than she had for months. Logistics planning for an army meant long days bent over desks, but that was the kind of problem she knew how to solve, and she dove into it with a will. It was rejuvenating, and there had been no hint of her mother’s presence to ruin her mood. Best of all, Jaselle, having been thrown into the deep end of the pond, had learned to swim. Laranna meant to tell her so, and tonight might be her last chance.

Tomorrow, the Regent would lead almost a thousand men south to who knew what. But first, she intended to enjoy a fine dinner with the only family she had left in Northspire. Her sister already sat in the dining room, talking with Athena and Gelan, though she had spent most of the previous evenings with Brinold and his son. She sat with poise, in a tan dress so pale as to be nearly white. She looked more confident, more at peace, than Laranna had seen her in years. It was a wonder.

Jaselle beamed when she saw her sister, then gestured to the chair at the head of the table. “It’s about time you got here. I was afraid the bird would get cold. Try it, it’s amazing.”

Laranna lowered herself into the chair, returning the gesture with a bright smile of her own. “It’s good to see you too. You’ve been impossible to find, but you look well, considering all we’re asking of you.”

Her sister actually giggled, something she would never risk in front of Brinold. “Would you believe I’m having fun? The staff have been wonderful.”

“Why wouldn’t they be?” Athena asked, grinning. “You could charm the birds out of the trees. It’s sickening.”

“Is that where dinner came from?” Gelan quipped. “I might have picked a bigger one.”

Northspire’s next acting Regent shook her head. “Too bad my magic doesn’t work on Marshals. But sure, blame me for the cooking, when you’re about to leave me alone with the sharks.”

Gelan had the grace to chuckle, then lift a goblet in mock-toast. Athena gave him a quick elbow, which only brought out another chuckle.

“You’re doing beautifully,” Laranna reassured her. “You only make me wonder why I was so determined to do everything myself.”

“You’re a perfectionist,” Jaselle pointed out. “You keep trying to hold people to your own standards, and step in when they don’t meet them.”

“They should meet them, then,” Laranna groused, “but at least this way you’ll miss us when we’re gone.”

“I will,” Jaselle affirmed solemnly. “You could still afford to let Brinold and the clerks help you a little more. You might be able to keep better books than anyone else I know, but you can’t manage all of Northspire alone. You haven’t even met with the bodyguards Athena found for you. When I saw you with Jacob, I thought you’d finally started to open up.”

“Why do you keep bringing him up?” Laranna demanded, rolling her eyes. “I’ll never see him again, so what’s the point? But for the rest, don’t worry. I trust you: I haven’t wanted to tear your hair out in weeks.”

“Thank you,” her younger sister responded mock-graciously. “And Athena and Gelan, too, of course. I’ll miss you all, so you’ll have to come back well, and come back quickly.”

The raven-haired woman sat back into her chair, examining the Marshals. She liked them, even depended on them, but she really didn’t know them well. She only met Athena half a a year ago, and she’d barely spoken a word to Gelan before her father left. She got along with Northspire’s administration well enough, but she had never made friends easily. Her childhood friends had mostly gotten married and moved away, leaving her the old maid. That was a cheery thought. Her family had always been tight, but come tomorrow they’d be completely scattered, as well.

“What did Mother tell you in her letter?” Laranna asked suddenly, to her sister’s startlement.

“That she loved us, mostly,” Jaselle answered, though her face clouded in the candlelight. “She knew she was going to die in childbirth, but if she said something, she’d lose Joran too. She also said not to worry, that she’s in a better place, and I’d meet my new husband soon. I believe her, you know. Mom always had this spiritual side I couldn’t explain. I figured she told you the same things. Didn’t she?”

“Mostly,” Laranna replied, eyes unfocused. “She said she knew she was leaving, but she’d always be with me.”

“I miss her so much,” Jaselle said, then surprised her sister by rising and coming to embrace her, as Athena and Gelan pretended not to notice.

“Me too,” Laranna replied, trying to decide if she still believed it. She wanted to, of course, but she feared to let the presence back into her mind. She was afraid of losing her mother, but that was nothing compared to having her cherished memories defiled. What if her mother had become some evil demon? What if she’d always been one, and Laranna had just been too naive to see it?

“Nothing else?” Jaselle asked, after a long moment.

“She said I’d need the army,” Laranna replied, still detached.

“Do you know what we’ll face?” Athena asked, and Gelan leaned forward to listen.

“No,” the Regent sighed. “Mother knows, I think, but she won’t say.”

“Won’t say?” Jaselle asked.

“Wouldn’t say,” her sister corrected. “But if it’s a Sorcerer, what would an army help? Mother implied we could get through this, so I’ll have to assume the rebellion is mostly coincidence, touched off by what Father is riding to face. His latest message has him in the Capital, by the way. The Empress is convinced the Travansils will ride there to face her, so that’s where she’s waiting. Northspire’s is one of the few armies to reach the Capital from the North, though the Capital has raised tens of thousands on its own. What she can do against two Sorcerers, I don’t know.”

“What’s the point of saving Talyk, only to be captured by the Travansils?” Athena asked. “As a matter of fact, why do you want to save someone who tried to kill us?”

“I don’t know,” Laranna answered truthfully. “Maybe Brightblade is worse, or maybe we won’t have to fight at all. It’s just not something I can ignore.”

“I can,” Gelan noted. “This pheasant has to be the most wonderful thing I’ve ever tasted, however small.”

Meeting the stares of the others nonchalantly, the Marshal shrugged and continued. “Seriously, it’s good. A soldier knows better than to look too far into the future. Whatever we see, we’ll adjust to. And I have your word, Laranna, that you won’t send my men against a Sorcerer. So, tomorrow will have to see for itself. We’re ready to ride, and that’s enough for me.”

Athena shook her head affectionately. “A man after my own heart.”

“So it seems,” Jaselle murmured softly, then smiled ironically. “I suppose you’re right. A toast then - to the future!”

The others clinked their glasses, and drank, forgetting for the moment their anxiety.

The stone room was spacious, but cold and dark, with no windows and a narrow door. The upper corners were decked in cobwebs, the lower ones flecked with moss. In the center was an aging table, once of oiled dark wood, now covered in dust. Above, a chandelier was topped with guttering flames from a dozen small lamps. In a thick, high-backed chair, a beautiful woman of indeterminate age sat, waiting, in a dress of deep blue, lined with gold, glossy black hair coiffed high behind her. Her azure eyes were offset by carefully applied shadows, and her pink lips were set in an ironic smile.

Laranna smoothed her own sapphire dress, and stepped softly toward the table. “Hello, mother. I was afraid I’d lost you.”

The Adelin’s shadowed eyes bent to match a sad smile. “Would that please you, love?”

Laranna could feel an echo of the emotion, like a lump in her stomach. Was it sympathy or something more sinister? Her sense of fear and betrayal withered at the sight of her mother’s pain, but remained. All she could do was shrug. “I don’t know,” she offered, in a tone that said otherwise.

“I suppose I should have guessed, by the room you chose for me. This is your dream, not mine. You’ve been pushing me away lately, and I was barely able to reach you. If you do want to be rid of me, it’s in your power. But why do you fear me so? Whatever I sense from you, I can’t read your mind, not unless you let me.”

Laranna wrapped her arms around herself, and lowered herself into a chair across from the spirit in her dreams. Speaking her fears meant facing them, and the sense that the dangers of the world were outgrowing her. How long had it been since she felt she had control of her life? Not since Jacob left. “Come, mother. You must have heard the stories. Genil, Brie, Agathon, Harren? Each of them heard voices, and were given some wish, some kind of power. Then they went mad and started killing people. Is that what I can look forward to, mother?”

“Oh, my dear,” the ghost said, moving to place a hand on her arm. Without thought, the daughter recoiled. The discomfort returned, the sorrow gripping her through the pit of her stomach.

Adelin coughed gently, and the discomfort passed. “Those stories are true. I’ve learned a few things, since dying, from St. Thomas. Tell me, daughter, what do you know of demons?”

Laranna lowered her eyes. There were many tales of demons, but few worthy of belief. Demons were blamed for the slave revolts that fractured the Mirakan Empire. Khardum, who brought the Fall that finally ended Miraka and nearly destroyed Travan, was often described as a demon. There were other tales, older still. But Lazarus himself had offered a few words on the topic. “Demons are spirits cast from Heaven for their sins, who trouble the world by offering their false magics. They are why magic is forbidden, according to Lazarus. They are capable of possessing human beings, and eating their souls.”

Her mother nodded. “More or less. The spirits of Heaven are mostly immortal, but their power decays slowly, the longer they spend in the Spirit Realm. If they choose to be reincarnated, and return to the World, their souls can begin to grow in power, but unless they are immensely strong, they lose their memories in the process. Many spirits consider the loss of memories to be a final death - what are we, if not our memories?

“The more powerful spirits, though, can through deceit and manipulation, wear down the will of another, and possess them. Like a young maiden is swept away and deflowered, a soul can be consumed. But any spirit who does this, in Heaven or otherwise, is consigned to Hell, where they can’t reach anyone else. This is why the stories of men and women possessed are old. No one outside Hell even remembers exactly how it was done. Khardum, on the other hand, was not possessed. He was a demon powerful enough to escape from Hell, and be reborn. To the knowledge of Heaven, none has escaped since.

“My dear, I would never hurt you, even if I had the power. It would be like ripping out my own heart. But even if I did, I would be thrown into Hell, where only the most powerful survive. If you don’t want me in your mind, I understand, but never fear I intend to harm you.”


For a moment, that was all Laranna could say. Part of her was skeptical. This is what a demon would say, after all. But months ago she had gripped her mother’s hand, trying desperately to keep her in this world, and forged a special bond. Through that connection, she could sense the sincerity and sorrow, and wondered at her stupidity. “I’m sorry.”

The Lady Adelin sighed. “You’ve been through a lot, and there’s worse ahead. You shouldn’t have to do that alone.”

Laranna placed a hand to her forehead. “Worse? What do you know?”

“That you’ll need the army you’ve built,” Lady Adelin said. “Beyond that, only vague images. I can only see my own future, and until you’ve decided what you want, yours may not include me. It’s still uncertain.”

“What is it you want me to decide?” Laranna asked miserably.

“Whether to give up much of the privacy of your mind for the privilege of being a Sorceress, of a kind. As Ascended go, I’m not very powerful, but I may still be of some use to you. In fact, I feel like that’s my purpose. If I don’t act to fulfill it, I doubt I will remain an Ascended for long. But you don’t owe me that. You need to do what’s best for you.”

“I - I need to think about it.” Laranna found herself stammering.

“Of course, love. Just let me know. I’ll hear you,” Lady Adelin said.

“I only hope I’ll remember,” Laranna said. Already, she felt the lucidity of the dream begin to fade.

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