Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 11: Fire in the Night

“This is it,” Daniel said, gesturing with a grim anticipation to the torn underbrush and deep wheel marks. They were partially hidden by the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon. This late in the year, night would come quickly.

“I can see that,” Jacob acknowledged. “How old are they?”

Central Annaria was grassy, for the most part, but this close to the Kattan river, there were wooded areas and Caerdann villages to work around. The population hadn’t risen as quickly as one might expect, but the Caerdann had inhabited the area for hundreds of years. That meant there were farms and ranches scattered throughout the territory, especially near the river. Happily, Daniel was expert in avoiding them, and with any luck, following the army wouldn’t lead right into a large town.

“Less than a day old,” Daniel replied, brushing the unruly hair from his eyes, and lifting his head. “Several hours, at most.”

“We can catch them tonight, then,” Jacob responded, after a moment’s calculation.

“Yeah, I think so,” Daniel replied, peering off into the east, where the tracks led. Most of the leaves had fallen, but some of the brush and grasses still stood. Further in the distance, a copse of trees obscured the view. Except for the evergreens, they were nearly naked to the branches.

With a quick pat to his horse’s neck, Jacob turned parallel to the tracks. An army that big left a trail obvious even to a rank amateur.

“Thank you for bringing me with you,” Daniel said, as he pulled along side.

Unfortunately, Jacob didn’t have another choice. Taking Halvar would have done nothing except expose Sarronen to the Kharse’s vengeance if this mission failed. Thaddeus and Ceann were neither trackers, nor adept in stealth. Jacob was irreplaceable in the mission, but so was Daniel, if he wanted any chance at infiltrating the Kharshe army, much less escaping alive. “I wish I didn’t have to,” Jacob replied, “but I need you.”

The boy straightened at the compliment in away that made Jacob a little guilty. Daniel’s faith in his abilities was a bit unnerving. He didn’t seem to realize the risk he was taking. “So, what’s the plan?” Daniel asked.

“We need to eliminate their supply train, and force the Kharshe to turn around and resupply in Caerda, tough to do in winter. However much damage he can do alone, a Sorcerer can’t hold a city without an army. If Dorgann comes at Sarronen alone, that’s my best chance to take him down, so I’m expecting he won’t. This isn’t victory, but it’s the best chance we’ve got.

“We shouldn’t approach until we identify the supplies. Then we sneak in, light the slow fuses, in however many places we have to, and get out. We’ll have to watch a bit to see what we’re dealing with. We won’t fight at all unless absolutely necessary.”

“Simple enough, I guess,” Daniel said, squinting ahead. His vision was excellent, but he swore it still helped. “Do you want me planting fires too, or on lookout?”

Branches crackled beneath hooves below, and Jacob took a moment to give his horse a pat. It wasn’t an idle question, as Jacob could run at least twice as fast as Daniel now. Unfortunately, even Jacob’s gifts might not be enough. It would certainly draw attention if he ran. “I’m going to need your help scouting out the baggage train, and any backup supply locations. If there’s more than one, we’ll have to split up and light the different areas separately.”

“I’ll have some time to scout, it looks like,” Daniel replied, pointing ahead. “Do you see the fires?”

Daniel was right, of course. Just above the trees ahead, dark smoke lazily billowed. So, it was all coming to a head. For the first time since leaving Ironwood, Jacob’s nerves began to reveal themselves. Marching toward Sarronen were not one, but two Sorcerers, each at least as dangerous as Innoken had been. He was less prepared for even one than he had been to fight Innoken, and that had nearly killed him. In fact, without Brother Francis’s healing, it probably would have, and he and Daniel were alone on this one. Both of their lives depended on not being caught.

“Yeah, I see it,” Jacob answered. “Should we keep our distance, then?”

Daniel nodded confidently. “I would, at least until dark. I haven’t seen any scouts, thank God, but if we round those trees, they’ll probably see us.”

“Then we wait,” Jacob replied, “but let’s find some cover to do it in.”

“The copse on the right will do,” Daniel replied. “That’ll give us a bit of distance until tonight.”

“After you,” Jacob answered, forcing a grin.

“I think that’s all we can learn from here,” Jacob murmured, stretching.

Daniel slowly stood, wrapping his cloak tightly around his body with a slight shiver. The autumn night was clear and cold, and the wispy blanket of stars was on full display. Behind were several scouts in southern furs, bows strung at their sides. “We can’t get any closer, either, with so many leaves gone. What I wouldn’t give for a few more pines.”

Jacob stroked the mane of his horse, a lovely chestnut, such as the Kharshe preferred. Halvar had been generous in outfitting the pair. Everything from boots and cloaks to travel food were the kind favored by the hunters of southern Sarronen, and the northern Kharshe plains. They had even applied oils to their faces to better match the coloring of true sons of Kharshe, though there nothing could be done about their blue eyes. Not unknown among Sarronen, they would certainly cause remark among the Kharshe, and possibly even the Caerdann. But perhaps they would not be noticeable in the dark, Jacob reminded himself for the fourth time. “There’s nothing to do then, but go in. As soon as we have someone to follow, anyway.”

“If I haven’t mentioned it,” Daniel grumbled, “this is the craziest idea you’ve ever had. If anyone else even suggested, I’d call them insane.”

Jacob couldn’t disagree: this was the next best thing to a suicide mission, and even if the Kharshe turned around, what did that buy them? A month? A season? They would be back in Spring, at best, and what would Jacob do then? Without the help of another Sorcerer, most probably nothing. But it was time, and time might bring new options. Could a Sarronen assassin infiltrate the army? Would a Sorcerer fall to a poisoned crossbow bolt? Dark thoughts. “When there are no good choice, there’s nothing to do but pick a bad one.”

Daniel grunted, pulling himself into his saddle, then turned his head to watch a pair of riders approaching the camp from the north. They were dressed much like Jacob and himself. Men, and occasionally women, had been trickling in for hours, though the numbers had started to fall. “This looks like a good pair to follow. Good thing the scouts are coming in late - must be because they spend the day traveling ahead.”

Jacob mounted in a swift motion, then urged his mare into a trot. He lifted his hood to hide his face, thankful that he had seen several of the previous scouts do the same, though he took care not to fully cover his ears. He heard Daniel follow a moment later, quiet now except for the uneven clop of hooves, and he pulled behind the returning scouts ahead. His ears strained to make out the conversation ahead, as the riders approached the camp’s perimeter guards. The guard was tall and thin, with a weathered face, and a red feather in his cap. His voice was as thin as he was, but not unpleasant.

“…good to see you back with no incident. You’re getting close to enemy land.”

The fur-wrapped scout snorted. “Enemy perhaps, I hope not for long. It’s quiet up there, and the village-folk don’t seem spooked. I don’t think they intend to fight.”

“Good news, I suppose. It’s always better to save our arrows for the damned Travans. Well, you know I have to ask - password?”

“Dorgann’s Honor,” the rider replied.

“In you go then, then. Akhor bless,” the guard said, motioning the scout through.

“Is it really that easy?” Daniel whispered.

Jacob felt his face tug upward, but said nothing, only giving a respectful nod to the guard, who motioned him to stop. “Scout? Alright, which direction?”

“West and north,” Jacob replied. “All quiet.”

The spindly fellow smirked in response. “No doubt, nothing really there. Password?”

“Dorgann’s Honor,” Jacob returned.

“That’s the word,” the fellow said. “A good night to you.”

“You too,” Jacob replied. “Akhor’s blessings.”

Without a glance backward, Jacob rode into the outskirts of the Kharshe war camp, Daniel at his side.

Inside, campfires burned in every direction, scattered over the grassy plains of Caerdann, carrying the scent of smoke, leather, sweat, and dried meat. And, of course, the stench of cattle. The surrounding villages, on the other hand, were sparse. There were just enough farmers and ranchers nearby to keep the trees mostly clear near the small and dirty northward road.

There must not be much occasion for trade or travel between the two kingdoms, Jacob figured. That hadn’t been part of his education, but he did know the two clans had fought vicious wars over the past century, which was one of the reasons Ironwood had traded with its neighbor for so many years, and not Sarronen. The idea of Queen Kaelynn turning on his home would have seemed outlandish only a few years ago. Now, it seemed unlikely she wouldn’t.

“This camp is huge,” Daniel remarked softly in Kharshe, squinting against the drifting smoke of a nearby fire. A dozen men huddled around its warmth, gnawing on some kind of dried meat. It didn’t look terribly appetizing. One of them gave Daniel a hard glare. The man himself looked no different than a thousand farmers he had seen passing through Caerdann, save that he bore a slightly dented iron short sword. There were no uniforms in sight, and few examples of worn insignia. This field could as easily be housing thousands of traveling pilgrims, or poor festival-goers, as an army.

“And it has an army to match,” Jacob agreed. “This many men could swarm Sarronen in an afternoon. As long as we don’t get lost, though, it doesn’t matter. It’s hard to see the lines in the dark, but I think the wagons are still straight ahead.”

“Yeah,” Daniel acknowledged absently, peering off to a hastily erected rope fence to the right. “The other scouts seem to be penning their horses, including the ones we followed in. We’ll get the demon’s eye if we don’t, too.”

“Wonderful,” Jacob observed, making the comment a curse. “We’re not getting them back, are we?”

The westerners reluctantly followed another pair of scouts toward the makeshift pen, where a team of young men were receiving the horses and seeing to their care. There were dozens upon dozens of mounts here: runners, draft animals, and even a few chargers, though elite Kharshe cavalry would no doubt tend their own beasts.

The stable boys looked lively, feeding the horses and rubbing them down. A slightly plump older fellow with a worn leather cap and a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard handed out bronze medallions with colored marks on them as the scouts returned their animals, apparently some official mark of credit. He barely gave the newcomers a second glance before handing one to Jacob, though he spared a look of appreciation for the horse.

The nobleman promptly hung the disk around his neck: anything that added credibility to his disguise was to the good. Daniel eyed his curiously for a moment before doing the same. Unfortunately, he doubted he would pass this way after setting fire to the wagons. It was going to be a long walk home.

It was a long walk, in any case. Jacob passed over several hills and valleys before he even caught sight of the sprawling inner camp. Whereas the outer area hosted a rag-tag bunch, here the guards wore bronze or iron armor, fashioned into breastplates or chain. Here, the groups were larger too, dozens of men and women around a single roaring fire. The groups were mostly segregated by sex, with spearwomen pitching their own tents, and flying their own blue banners and pennants. There were a few exceptions, and raucous examples of fraternization between soldiers, or with the camp followers that formed the core of a blossoming economy. The army had clearly been established for some time, as the following was large and varied.

There were banners everywhere too, their background colors signifying the god or goddess a troop bore allegiance to. However, the foreground was usually some animal or other device, carrying the pride of the troop or clan. These were the more professional and well-to-do warriors, though they seemed to be mostly infantry. Many, many legions worth of infantry.

The true elite were the cavalry and the mounted shortbowmen, though, and those were further ahead. Unlike the vast majority of the army, they did wear insignia. They had their own guards ringing the core of the camp, looking like exotic birds with their gleaming armor, and with their brightly color ribbons and feathers streaming from their caps. They also jealously looked over the baggage train, the tall and colorful wooden wagons that could barely be glimpsed over the next hill. They wouldn’t take kindly to the pair from Ironwood approaching the great wagons, much less burning them to the ground. There were only two posted men standing at the head of the train, but several hundred of the most dangerous warriors of the southern Kharshe plains would be ready to answer their cry. The mission was beginning to look impossible, and surviving it even less likely, if there was such a thing. And yet, it was becoming painfully clear that, Sorcerers aside, Saronnen was woefully unprepared to face the onslaught coming its way.

“Damn, that’s a lot of men,” Daniel remarked with a low whistle. “Do you think we can follow someone in past the inner guard?” Daniel asked.

“Probably not,” Jacob remarked, gazing toward the wide tents that had been erected ahead, and the decorated men and women entering and leaving. He leaned casually against a barren elm, as if discussing a place to lay his own pack. “We’re dressed as scouts, not officers.”

“Well, that’s a bloody stew of worm-ridden demon guts,” Daniel swore softly, bending to the pressure of his surroundings. “Can we steal different uniforms?”

“Risky,” Jacob replied. “We’d have to lure a two officers into a tent, kill them without a sound, and hope nobody recognized us. That’s crazy even for us.”

Daniel lowered himself onto a large rock, seating himself across from his friend, and wincing at the singing of two dozen drunken clansmen from a fire a few dozen yards away. “That doesn’t leave us many options.”

“Or with a little distraction,” Jacob muttered, “maybe it’s not so crazy after all.”

“What on Torvah are you talking about?” Daniel asked.

“See that tent just on the other side of those bushes?” Jacob gestured vaguely to clarify.

Daniel squinted against the darkness. “The little one that makes a corner there? Yeah, I see it. There’s no tents to the left of it, just a bunch of thorns.”

Jacob crossed his arms. “Well, I saw three officers go in. Maybe I could sneak and and take care of them, and get some uniforms after all. Since it’s in the corner, you’ll only have to distract one guard.”

“I will, huh? Thanks,” the tracker muttered. “And then where am I supposed to change?”

“Damn,” Jacob grumbled, then smiled wickedly. “I guess we don’t sneak by the guard after all. It’s time we put Halvar’s toy to use. Can you help me get our tent up, right next to the thorns?”

Daniel shook his head. “We’re so dead.”

Jacob rubbed his aching eyes, and then carefully brushed the sticky substance on his second dagger. The tension didn’t make the fatigue pass entirely, and it was late. Daniel was yawning ferociously, and he found himself copying the gesture. But almost everyone was asleep, except the guards, and it was time.

Jacob and Daniel approached the guard quietly, a tall, broad young man with a well-kept beard. He was proud as a cock on the walk, and as colorful, in his shiny armor and multiple badges, including one referring to the goddess of Winds. He was likely an archer, then.

“Who is it?” the guard asked, when they were ten paces out. “What’s your business among the Gods’ tents?”

Jacob kept walking forward, smile on his face, but the young man drew his sword. “Hold right there, and state your business!”

“Whoa there!” Jacob responded, raising an eyebrow along with his hands. “I just didn’t want to have to yell at you. I have a scroll to deliver, for the chieftain’s clerk. It’s a note from the scout’s tent. May I have permission to deliver it?”

The guard lowered his sword, but continued to scowl. He glanced once over his left shoulder, to see if the other guard on the watch was near, but that one still paced a hundred yards down the line. “Not unless you have the medallion and the password. Don’t you know the rules?”

Jacob lowered his eyes in confusion. “But I have the medallion right - well damn, where did it go?”

“You lost the medallion!” Daniel objected. “Demon-damn it, man, there’ll be hell to pay now.”

“Well - um,” Jacob stammered. “Maybe you can take the scroll, and give it to the next officer to head in? Or - can you read?”

“Let me see it,” the guard answered, exasperated. “Just you - have the other stay back.”

The merchant-lord approached slowly, carefully, pulling a rolled scroll from his waist. As the guard lifted it to his eyes, Jacob moved his other hand in a single swift motion, pricking the man in the arm with a needle as he began to examine the scroll’s seal.

“Ow! Shorath’s blinded eye!” the guard exclaimed, with a quick swipe of his sword.

But Jacob was already three steps distant. “What are you swinging at? Guard or no, I’ll kick your ass.”

“You poked me, with your dagger or with, um, something” the guard objected, eyes growing unfocused.

“What! Where?” Jacob asked. “I’ve been back here!”

The guard lifted his arm, examining it for signs of blood, but there were none. “It was here, I think. I don’t see anything.”

“Typical officer with a bug up his tail,” Jacob snorted with disgust. “Gets bit by a spider and blames me. You have the scroll, so I’ll take my leave.”

With that, he spun on his ankle, and began to pace back towards his tent.

“Wait!” the guard called out, taking a step forward, then put a hand to his head, and stopped, carefully steadying himself. “Shorath!” he muttered.

The rarest item Halvar had been able to provide was an amazing little paste that put a man to sleep instantly, leaving them in the world of dream for hours. Well, almost instantly: it wasn’t quite two-step. Jacob hadn’t been sure he’d need it, as it didn’t seem nearly as useful as the poison. But the difference between a sleeping guard and a dead one might be the difference between cover and a camp-wide alarm.

After a few steps, Jacob turned around to see the guard seated on the ground, holding his head. Jacob sauntered briskly by as the guard fell to his side and began to snore. Daniel followed, as nonchalantly as he could, and both of them ducked into the the nearest tent, the one with the three officers. All three were sleeping, but Jacob gave each a quick poke with his needle, guaranteeing they wouldn’t wake. In a few short moments, two were naked, and Jacob and Daniel were dressed in loose-fitting officers’ clothes. Maybe this mission wasn’t quite impossible, after all.

“There they are,” Jacob said, from a safe distance.

There were a dozen large wagons, in a line fading into the darkness, each brightly covered and heavily laden. This caravan would have done his father proud, with its neatness and the heavy weight of goods carried. It was almost going to be a pity burn them. But of course, to save thousands of lives in Ironwood, and many more in Sarronen, it would be a small price ot pay.

“How in the World are we going to get by eight guards?” Daniel asked bitterly. “You’re not planning to stick a pin in all of them, I hope?”

Jacob shook his head. “No, they’d raise the alarm after two. We have to plant the fires without them noticing. They probably won’t care if we walk near the wagons. We’ll just have to toss the fire-starters in and hope they don’t notice. I’ll start at one end, and you can get the other. When they raise the alarm, we run. You’re pretty fast without your pack.”

Daniel shrugged, and gestured at a low fire. “And here’s where it gets crazy. At least we have a place to light up the fuses.”

Jacob sighed, and clapped the other man on the shoulder. “Set the fuses long, and start placing them when you see me coming. If they raise the alarm, promise me you’ll get out of here: don’t be a hero.”

Daniel lowered his eyes and ran a hand through his unruly brown hair. “Yeah, I promise, Jacob.”

“I’ll see you in a few minutes,” Jacob said, holding his voice as steady as he could manage. “But if I don’t, thank you. It’s been an honor.”

“Get the hell out of here,” Daniel replied. “But we’re leaving together, and these wagons are gonna burn.”

Jacob grinned back with a confidence he didn’t feel, and walked briskly to the other side of the baggage train, ignoring the glances of the guards. The wagons were big, even taller than the ones that had ridden on to Talyk. He wondered how they were doing, and whether his friends would return to an Ironwood at peace, or an Ironwood destined for ash. But that was up to him: this was it. If Jacob could just burn the wagons, the Kharshe would have to turn their army around back to Caerda, Sorcerers or no. But he would have to move fast. In the darkness, he figured the guards wouldn’t even see the motion of his arms as he placed the dim spheres from his pack. Each of them would make an enormous flame once they caught, difficult to douse. The plan would work.

Luckily, the coals of a dying fire sat by the other end of the wagon. A few quick breaths brought the red back into the coals, and Jacob slowly lit his clay pipe from the flames, and placed it in his mouth. He inhaled smoothly, then took a quick puff, smothering a cough. Jacob hated smoking, but this was for a good cause. How else was he going to inconspicuously carry an open flame?

He then turned to pace back toward Daniel, down the long line of wagons, two see two guards looking question at him. “Fine night,” he said, taking a puff. The nearer guard rolled his eyes, but said nothing as Jacob walked down the line.

The first firestarter went in without a hitch. His toss was so smooth and fast, it didn’t even catch the near guard’s eyes, and the noise of the sphere landing in the wagon was negligible. One down.

Jacob continued to walk, a few paces away from the wagons. He palmed a sphere from his pack, lighting it carefully from his pipe, without remark from the guards. He looked away, out above the fields, examining the stars. The guards followed his eyes. Flick, toss, and another wagon was primed to burn.

So it was down the line. Three. Four. Five. Six. Daniel, leaning against a short log, came into view, and began to light his own pipe. Excellent.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” a guard barked, as a sphere bounced twice within the wagon.

“Just having a smoke and a walk,” Jacob answered easily, as a tall, very muscular guard came into view. He over-topped the merchant by a head, and probably weighed twice as much. Even with Jacob’s abilities, he made an intimidating sight.

“And what’s that you threw in the wagon?” the guard demanded.

“Nothing,” Jacob said. “Just a rock I picked up. Makes a nice bouncing noise.”

“Let’s see that pack,” the guard demanded. “No, place it on the ground, and put your hands behind your head.”

Jacob complied, looking around to see how many guards were paying attention. Two, and they were walking this way. He took another puff from his pipe. He was getting used to this.

“That’s the Sarronen version of the Akhor’s symbol on your pack,” the guard blurted, startled. “The general had it changed a year back. You’re a spy.”

Jacob whipped his hand to his side, where he still held his pin, and poked the startled guard in the arm. Too late, far too late.

“Help!” the guard yelled, and dove onto Jacob to tackle him.

With a roar, Jacob slammed his palm into the larger man’s face. It should have been laughable, but his unnatural strength forced the giant back.

“Damn you!” the man yelled, lurching forward, but he was already unsteady on his feet, and Jacob side-stepped him to retrieve his pack, pipe still held between his teeth.

He ran quickly down the line of wagons, but already four guards were in sight, weapons drawn, and the call had gone up. Daniel met his eyes, startled, then began backing away, heading the way he had entered the officer’s circle. Jacob gritted his teeth, and grabbed another sphere to light. It took forever - heartbeats upon heartbeats. The guards moved as if their feet were stuck in tar. Two more spheres went flying into the tops of wagons.

That was when a red-haired woman stepped directly in from of him, from between the wagons. Her smile was dazzling, even in the dark. “Hello, Lord Jacob. I have been absolutely dying to meet you.”

Jacob dropped his pack, spitting his pipe from his teeth. “Your Majesty.” There would be no sneaking past the Queen. He placed his hand on his sword.

Queen Kaelynn was lovely, breathtaking - even in the shadows of starlight. Her beauty was a carefully crafted perfection, an artistry only a Sorceress could perform. She was also deadly. His mission had failed, such as it was. But if he could kill her, it would be a huge blow for Ironwood, and for Sarronen. What’s more, it might allow him to live.

“Tsk, tsk,” she laughed, as Jacob drew his sword. “You won’t need that, boy. Will he, Chieftain?”

In a blink, Great Chieftain Dorgann stood at her side, his own sword in hand. It was lowered, for now, as he carefully looked Jacob over. “No, you won’t, Lord Jacob. I don’t remember inviting you, but thank you for stopping by. We have much to discuss.”

Jacob raised his sword, slipping into a guard stance.

The Chieftain shook his head, but he seemed more eager than disappointed. “This isn’t a fight you can win, boy. But perhaps you need to see that for yourself.”

A hissing sound from behind Jacob warned him that his firestarters had chosen that particular moment to light. Very well. Jacob stepped forward into a thrust, hoping that Dorgann might be distracted by the sound. The steady parry showed that his hope was in vain.

Queen Kaelynn sighed. “What abysmal timing. Drag this out a bit, if you would, my Chieftain? I’ve been aching to see you boys go at it.”

With that, she dashed to the flaming wagon, at a speed Jacob himself would be unlikely to match.

Dorgann counter-swung, deftly moving his feet to circle around Jacob, even as he drew a dagger with his left hand.

Jacob leaned backward slightly, avoiding the swing as he pulled the poison dagger from his boot. He could still do this. All it would take to win was a scratch.

Jacob feinted high, trying to gain advantage using his dagger’s guard to block. His left arm wrung with the blow, and the dagger’s hilt gained a deep notch. He staggered a step back.

Damn. When he’d fought Innoken, the man had been nine feet tall and swinging a fiery greatsword. Dorgann was roughly his own size, and had roughly twice the strength of an ox. He was devilishly fast, too. This was much more like fighting Brother Francis. Except Dorgann was even more dangerous - his forms were alien, and Jacob had neglected to practice lately against sword and dagger.

Swing, counter-swing, feint, duck, block, thrust, swing, dodge. Jacob moved faster and faster, trying to keep up in the dance. Dorgann, grinning, wasn’t even breaking a sweat. Jacob began to give ground. Guards had begun to gather around, watching slack-jawed as the two moved faster and faster, in a blur the eye could no longer follow.

“Thank you so much for waiting, Dorgann. I’ve blown out all the candles.”

Jacob grimaced. Unless he could kill Dorgann, the mission was lost. And that seemed less likely every second. The man was beyond belief! His own arms began to tire.

The balding Sorcerer grinned. “You forget, Lord Jacob, that I’ve seen you fight, when you faced Innoken. You’ve gotten better since then, but not enough, I’m afraid.”

The Chieftain’s blade became a living thing, darting around Jacob’s guard, hissing as it struck, nearly decapitating him. Time after time, he was barely able to fend the weapon away. He took a step back, and then another. He no longer had time to counter-attack, only to survive.

He had to win. For Ironwood, for Sarronen. For Anna. For Halvar. For Laranna. Laranna? Jacob gritted his teeth, moving faster than he ever had before, catching even Dorgann aback. With a quick flick, his sword penetrated the Sorcerer’s bracers, drawing blood. He followed with a quick thrust of the dagger. But the dagger was blocked, and then Dorgann again was throwing him back. Jacob stumbled, lungs heaving.

Dorgann didn’t capitalize, but took a step back. “Very good, Lord Jacob. Very good. Unfortunately for you, I’ve seen your best, and it’s not enough. I could have killed you half a dozen times so far, but I’ve let you alive. Why are you here?”

“For the lives of the men and women of Ironwood,” Jacob answered breathlessly, trying to recover. “So that a madman like you doesn’t kill them all.”

Queen Kaelynn laughed, and it was a sound tinged with pity, but it was Dorgann who spoke. “Why did you think I would? Perhaps you are not aware, but I am not Innoken. Surrender to me, and we can come to an agreement that allows the people of Ironwood to live. Force me to kill you, and I make no promises.”

Jacob took one more step forward, thrusting low. Dorgann batted his weapon away. “You cannot win if I fight in earnest, but you are too good to risk toying with any longer. This is your last chance. Surrender or die. That goes for you and Ironwood both.”

Jacob glanced at the Queen. For the first time, she seemed uneasy. In fact, she almost seemed concerned about him. He sighed, and carefully sheathed his dagger, to avoid the poison. The poison that would already have killed Dorgann tonight if he had risked applying it to the blade of his sword. Jacob carefully offered his own weapon forward, with the pommel in one hand, and the blade in the other, and lowered his eyes. “I surrender, my Lord.”

The mission was a failure, and in that moment, Jacob knew he was too. Even if the men and women of Ironwood were to live, the town was lost, and so was Sarronen. Everything he knew was over.

In that moment, Queen Kaelynn released a breath Jacob had not realized she held. Jacob spared a moment, in the thickening cloud of depression that threatened to smother him, to wonder what that meant.

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