Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 12: Councils of War

Laranna examined her hands nervously. She had let her nails grow long, and had neglected to paint them. Too, despite the gloves she wore when practicing, her fingers and palms had grown unladylike callouses. Though Athena had been too busy, her new bodyguards had been willing to pick up her martial education. They claimed she had improved a great deal, though Laranna was acutely aware of how much left she had to learn. Athena had higher expectations of her than Jovan did.

Tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and brooding, Jovan waited now outside the sitting room Count Ervallyn had made ready for her. The last time she sat here, this room and the Count had been a comfort. She had been meeting an old friend after a difficult ordeal. Now she waited for the attention of a man who had most likely tried to kill her, though that was an accusation she couldn’t prove. She had come to help, and that alone was proof of how strange life really was. She thought she could also feel her mother’s unease with the man, a distrust she had carried for decades. Laranna pushed it away for now. The Count was afraid of her, or at least afraid of Lord Jacob’s revenge if any harm came to her. She was not too proud to use that. She was sworn to protect the Empress, and her servants and nobility. Unfortunately, that currently included one Count Ervallyn Talyk. That service required neither fondness or trust on her part. She would wait.

The Regent of Northpire in the meantime let her eyes wander the wooden paneling, the canvas paintings of great battles against the Kharshe, and something new: a portrait of the Count’s oldest son. By all accounts, he was a bastard, but it was difficult not to feel some sympathy for man whose son had been taken from him, or for the young widow who raised his children alone. Laranna almost missed the creak of the door.

“Lady Laranna of Northspire,” a mild voice greeted her. She looked up to see the middle-aged man approach and take her hand, offering it a kiss before seating himself. There was, perhaps, a little more gray in his hair, and a little more roundness to his gut and cheeks, but this was the man her father had once called an ally. The Regent admitted to herself that she was new to the game of Travanian houses. Perhaps in it such minor slights as attempted assassination could be forgiven.

“Greetings, Count Talyk,” she replied formally, “it is a pleasure to meet you once again, though I wish better circumstances merited it.”

“Yes, of course,” Talyk replied, expression guarded, as if wondering whether Laranna still held a grudge. He must truly be desperate to call her here. “I do not know what has stirred rebellion among the Empress’s provinces, but surely you are a noble soul to answer her call, and mine as well. I thank you profusely for coming.”

The old man’s thanks sounded more calculated than profuse, but Laranna realized she didn’t care. She wasn’t here out of friendship.

“Is that so?” the Regent replied innocently. “I’m told Holder Brightblade rebelled against the increased levies of war, turning people against you. This is at once tragic and infuriating. Are there other circumstances I should be made aware of?”

“No,” the Count replied hesitantly. “Well, perhaps. He has raised several hundred men already, though they are not well armed or prepared. Unfortunately, my son was responsible for gathering levies, and with his death, they have scattered to the wind. All I have are four hundred men within the city, many bound to the task of keeping the peace, though I am scrounging to train more here. Brightblade waits outside, preventing recruitment from the other Holds. I doubt he will draw near to the city until he has more men, enough in his estimation to comfortably destroy the rest of us, and take Talyk for his own.”

The Lady of Northspire nodded in unwilling sympathy. “It is an unfortunate situation.”

Ervallyn paused, staring into the floor. The confident and urbane leader, she realized, was shaken, in a way she had never seen before. “Unfortunate? The bastard killed my son!” he cried suddenly. “He has brought shame enough to Travan, but for that murder he will pay dearly. He’ll have no rest while I draw breath. How many men did you bring, my Lady Northspire?”

Laranna winced. “Nine hundred men only, newly recruited and still green. My father took his best to the Empress’s side over a month past. Still, we will do what we can to help you against unlawful rebellion.”

“Yes,” the Count replied, meeting her eyes. “We must crush Brightblade quickly! His forces grow by the day, and the bastard has some arrangement with the nearby villages. He does not seem to lack for food or money. With your help, though, and my four hundred, we can overwhelm him.”

Laranna really should have trimmed those nails, she thought, before forcing herself to meet the Count’s eyes. “I’ll have to speak to him, you know.”

The Count’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “What for? Any delay in attacking him only strengthens his position. Every day we wait will cost the lives of your soldiers.”

Laranna swallowed uncomfortably. Unfortunately, he might be right. On the other hand, if Brightblade was a Sorcerer, she needed to know before she risked the lives of her men, and violated her promise. Then, there was her sneaking suspicion that Ervallyn deserved what was coming to him, and she knew absolutely nothing about the Holder. “Everything wrong that’s happened this year, including the southern rebellion against the Empress, has been the fault of Sorcerers. Is Brightblade one?”

The Count sat back in his seat, frowning. “I don’t know. Rumors say he threw my son across a room with one hand. The other Holders idolize him and might have fabricated that, but - I don’t know.”

“We need to know,” Laranna replied. “If he’s like Innoken, we may not be able to beat him in a fight. You may not have noticed, but I’m not Jacob.”

“Then why did you even bother to come?” Ervallyn snarled. “If Brightblade is a Sorcerer, what will you do? Turn on me?”

Laranna cleared her throat softly. “I serve the Empress, and you are the rightful Count of Talyk. Maybe we’re not dealing with a Sorcerer, or maybe we can handle him another way. Jacob, in the end, killed Innoken using poison. But I need to know, and if you haven’t noticed, I’m the one with the army.”

Count Talyk sighed, drumming his fingers momentarily. “Very well, my Lady. Have it your way, but I hope we don’t find ourselves regretting it. Don’t expect me to meet with the man. One of us will kill the other, and I’m getting too old for this.”

Brighblade was handsome, Laranna realized, despite the strong nose, even at this distance. He was young too, his face and complexion smooth, in a mask of slightly weary confidence. His body language said guards were superfluous, simply friends along for the conversation. Talman Brightblade was no Innoken.

“Be careful, my Lady”, Athena whispered, serious for a brief moment. “This is not a man to be trusted.”

She and Gelan stood side by side, standing close, as if they preferred to be holding hands. Despite the gravity of the situation, both had looked unnaturally happy this morning. Whatever was between the two was going well, for what that was worth, though their near-foolish grins did not compliment their sober uniforms and officious steel armor.

Laranna clenched her hands, resting them carefully against the thick burgundy coat that matched her dress. It would be only moments until the two delegations reached the great white flag in the center of the field. “Why do you say so? He looks surprisingly reasonable.”

Athena pursed her lips, eyes temporarily unfocused beneath her deep blue hood, before glancing back down at her Regent. “He does, doesn’t he? It’s just that smile of his. That’s a man used to getting what he wants, and other people giving it to him. That kind will take you for granted, my Lady. Don’t let him.”

As if Laranna was some shrinking violet! “I don’t intend to,” she replied tightly. Athena only nodded.

Gelan left her partner’s side, and crossed behind the lady to speak in her other ear. “He’ll talk. His men aren’t nervous enough to have planned an ambush. It’s hard to hide, this close. Despite what the Count said, I doubt he has more than five hundred in his camp. We could ride him down now, if he’s no Sorcerer, anyway.”

“Mind yourself, Marshal. If he is,” Laranna pointed out softly, “he can probably hear you.”

Holder Talman was still two score yards distant, but lifted his hazel eyes to meet her own, and his eyes crinkled in a knowing smile. In that moment, Laranna’s heart sank. So, it was true. He was a Sorcerer of some sort, which meant her army would do her no good at all. Why was she even here? I trusted you, mother!

Patience, a faint voice echoed in her mind, startling her. Her mother could speak to her while she was awake? I can only see brief images of what will be, and then only sometimes. But I did see some of your soldiers in combat, and a man falling. You are where you must be.

Will it end well? Is it Brightblade we fight? Mother? There was no answer but a gust from the chill wind. Unfortunately, Laranna had no time to dwell on the revelation. Talman Brightblade stood before her, hazel eyes warm and dancing, and then he bowed slightly, and his voice was deep and musical. “My Lady Laranna. It is a pleasure to finally meet you, for you are as lovely as your reputation. Thank you for reaching out. I did not expect Northspire here, but it does my heart good to see you choosing to talk rather than fight, at least so far.”

“Thank you, Holder Brightblade,” Laranna answered, trying to find a middle ground in tone, somewhere between being too soft and too unpleasant. “Likewise, it is good to finally speak. These are my two Marshals, Gelan Redwheat and Athena Black.”

She waited only a moment as the pair offered shallow bows, before continuing. “I wish I had come under better circumstances, and I do hope that we can avoid unpleasantness. Unfortunately, I was apprised of an attempted rebellion against the Empress. It is my sad duty to determine the truth of the accusation, and determine if we are friends, or enemies.”

The holder clasped his hands thoughtfully. “My Lady, that is up to you. By the way, you may call me Talman. I have not, of course, rebelled against the Empress. Instead, I and my dependents were abused and attacked by the Count’s son. As we gathered for the Cerelia, he threatened, and assaulted one of the young ladies for whom I am responsible, even as he illegally inflated the Empress’s taxes. I was forced to confront the man, and then kill him in defense of my life.

“Predictably, the fool Ervallyn began to raise an army bent on revenge. He cares nothing for the Empress, or her commands, any more than he is willing to disavow the actions of his son. He wants only an excuse to press his boot further down upon our necks, and extract all our hard-earned wealth and pride. Unfortunately, I had no choice but to besiege the city, for the sake of my life and those of the men and women who depend on me.”

Laranna grimaced. She was faced with the sum of her fears: a Sorcerer who claimed he acted in self-defense, and who was prepared to conquer Talyk in response. Whatever he said, she doubted Empress Celene would be pleased. Northspire’s duty was to the Empress, but it wasn’t clear that Laranna could stop Talman, and she’d as much as promised to her Marshals not to try. Perhaps even more confusingly, he seemed sincere, even likable. He was nothing at all like Innoken. “You say you’re not in rebellion, then. Does that mean you intend to submit to the justice of the Empress?”

Talman folded his arms across his broad chest. He looked - amused. “Did the Empress protect me or mine from the depredations of her incompetent Count? If she will accept me in his place, she can have my oath. I will never submit to him again.”

Laranna found herself nodding slowly. Would she trust Ervallyn in his position? Hell, she didn’t trust him now. The last time she’d slept in his keep, an assassin had nearly killed her, and she still wasn’t sure if he’d been responsible. This time, she’d secured a separate building for her officers and bodyguards within the city. In fact, why was she supporting Ervallyn at all? Is that what the Empress would want? Probably. “I see. What are your plans for Northspire, Holder Talman?”

Talman’s grin was blinding. He had very nice teeth. “There’s no reason we can’t get along. We’re neighbors, loyal to Travan! Unfortunately, for the safety of my people, I cannot afford to leave the Count in power. I suggest you don’t interfere, unless you’re offering to help, of course.”

Laranna pursed her lips. Her duty was to the Empress, until and unless Travan officially ruled in Brightblade’s favor. But confronting a Sorcerer was insane, wasn’t it? “If I might be blunt, why has it taken so long? I have heard tales of you confronting the Count’s son, and throwing him a dozen yards. Are you not a Sorcerer?”

“A Sorcerer?” Talman asked, the planes of his face crooked into a half-smile. “Yes, I suppose you might call me that, though my patron is not one of the great Gods of Vallaton, who so love the title. Why not charge in by myself, you might ask? Your friend, Lord Jacob, has proved that we are not invincible, and time is on my side. So I will move carefully, but have no fear - I am more than capable of ridding the world of one useless Count. Nor am I worried by you or your army, my Lady.

“That said, I have spoken more than enough of my plans. What you yours?”

The Regent glanced at Athena, who gave a quick toss of her head, indicating a negative. Was she advising Laranna not to reveal her plans? Or was she trying to convince her to leave? There was no avoiding the question any longer. She took a long, deep breath before speaking. “My duty, Holder Brightblade, is to support the will of the Empress. At present, Ervallyn is the appointed Count. However, might I suggest a letter to the Empress herself? I am willing to affix my seal to your testimony. In little more than a week, a messenger should be able to reach her and return. If she supports your claim, then I will as well. We can meet again in a tenday, before the winter falls hard upon us.”

The hazel-eyes Holder placed a finger upon his lips, tapping it slowly. “I suppose I did just say that time was on my side. Very well, for the sake of peace with the neighbors, we will try it your way. I hope the effort succeeds. It would be a pity to kill you, my Lady.”

With that, Talman Brightblade bowed lightly, and the conversation turned to lighter topics. She knew she wasn’t forgiven for her doubt, though, as his eyes were hard. Despite herself, Laranna doubted the Empress would concede a Great Title so easily, and likely the Holder was skeptical too. A clock had been set, and who knew what would come to pass when the sands were emptied?

Talman had parted before dinner, claiming a fatigue and a desire to eat with his wife and child. A diplomat might have chosen to be offended. Laranna was relieved. Gelan had eaten quickly, and then excused himself to meet with one of the officers, leaving the Regent sitting across from Athena in a cramped canvas tent, sipping a goblet of wine in a gloved hand.

The clear sky and freezing winds were a reminder that the year would be ending soon, and early snow might arrive at any time. This morning, the grasses had been touched by a thin frost, and geese could be seen in lines stretching across the sky, flying south. Perhaps it would have been warmer, huddling around a fire, but Laranna had no wish to deal with the eyes of the camp, or the bodyguards she had left to stand outside.

Athena was still staring at the flaps of the thick tent, and had been nearly since Gelan left. She hadn’t spoken more of what passed between herself and Gelan, but by their smiles, and the way they stood closely together, they were clearly enamored of one another. That might not be the kind of thing the soldiers would mention, but they would have to notice. What the two would do about the attraction wasn’t clear, but they were a good match. Laranna wondered if they had much time to be alone, and what they did then. No doubt she was moved by a virgin’s jealousy, and a matching curiosity. She was beginning to feel old, and alone.

Well, she wasn’t entirely alone, so she might as well take advantage of the fact. “It could have gone worse,” Laranna said.

“Yes,” Athena managed, without meeting her eyes. “I suppose that’s true.”

“What is it?” Laranna asked.

“What are we doing here?” Athena returned, finally turning to face her friend. “Talman’s not going to attack us, and we can’t defeat him. As he said, even an indifferent Sorcerer is sure to be more than we can handle, and frankly, we don’t owe Ervallyn a damned thing. He’s the one who tried to have you killed, remember? Tell me why your men, my men, should die for him?”

Lady Laranna’s eyes widened. “Athena, you know I value your friendship and advice, but it’s my decision, and we’ll do what’s best for Travan. That means supporting the Empress. After all, I wouldn’t want my father to die for nothing.”

Athena shook her head, lowered hair swishing about her shoulders, and blue eyes flashing in the candlelight. “We don’t know that. What did his last pigeon say?”

“Very little,” Laranna admitted, bitterly. “The rebels are Sorcerers, but the Empress refuses to surrender. She has a Sorcerer of her own, not including the Magister, who won’t participate. Father is fighting village to village, hampering the Travansils’ recruiting efforts, and picking up new men of his own. So far, the Sorcerers haven’t entered the fight, but he promises to be careful, and not to spend his life uselessly.”

“There you go,” Athena replied with forced cheer. “He’s smart enough to let Sorcerers fight Sorcerers, and we should too.”

“I don’t know if I can do that,” Laranna nearly whispered. “Hopefully, the Empress will grant his request, and we can go home. If not, we have to stay with the Count.”

“You can’t be serious!” Athena exclaimed, throwing up her hands. “Why the hell did I save your life for this?”

“That’s enough!” Laranna snapped. She’d expected resistance from her Holders, but this! She’d been useless to her sister, abandoned by her father, used by her dead mother, and now her friend was turning on her. “You’re not some widowed slut anymore. You’re a Marshal of the Empire of Travan. If you can’t do your duty, I’ll find someone else! Don’t presume to tell me what to do!”

Athena recoiled as if she’d been slapped. “Widowed slut? If you don’t learn who your friends are, you’ll soon find you have none. But prove me wrong. Name one, my Lady.”

Laranna equally stung, spluttered uselessly, “I have all the friends I need!”

“Yes, my Lady,” the blond returned with a poisonous tone, ”I can see that. May I have my leave?”

“Go!” Laranna fumed.

Athena tossed back the remainder of her cup, and stood carefully, then parted the flaps of the tent.

Laranna stared for a moment at Athena’s back, then slowly closed her eyes. “Athena.”

“Yes, my Lady?” a bitter voice floated over the blue-cloaked shoulder.

“I’ll see you in the morning, for our meeting with the Count.”

The armored figure paused, nodded, and was gone. In that moment, all the things Laranna should have said rained through her mind. Insults, arguments, apologies: everything and anything that would have wrestled control of the situation from fate came late to her mind, ready to tumble from her lips, but there was no one there to apologize to. Why did Athena have to push her buttons? Or was it all her own fault?

Athena was right, though. Laranna had no friends to speak of: at least, not here. Back in Northspire, she had neglected the close acquaintances she did have, in her urgency to set the Earldom’s affairs in order after the death of her mother. It was so easy to find yourself alone.

Why was she risking everything for a Count she despised and an Empress who barely knew her name? Would the fate of Travan really ride on this? If the Empress lost to the Travansils, what did any of it matter?

And yet, Laranna knew she would do her duty, whatever that was, whatever it cost. If her father ended up giving his life for the Empress, he wouldn’t do it alone, and it wouldn’t be in vain. Jacob had been like that too, she reflected. Why did he come so easily to her thoughts? He was just another man, another friend she had rejected, so that when she finally found herself alone, it wouldn’t be because other people had rejected her. She wished him well, wherever he was. He hoped his Anna was lovely and brilliant. He deserved that, someone better than herself.

The Regent-absent of Northspire stared deeply into her cup, and then drank.

Athena and Gelan sat next to one another, whispering, as Laranna leaned back in her chair. Despite the roaring fire in the hearth, the chill seemed to radiate from the walls. She felt like a queen of ice, out of some folk tale, in her thick sky-blue dress and cloak. She rubbed her hands together to stir some warmth, but it did little good. It always seemed to be like this, when winter began, before her body adjusted.

Athena had barely said a word to her this morning. Part of her supposed she deserved that, but she was the Regent of Northspire, and it was her job to make the hard calls and protect the authority of the Earldom, even when her subjects disagreed. That was, until she ended up married off to some man who might insist on doing it for her. But no, her mother had carried her own authority, and she would too.

The door creaked, and Laranna’s eyes snapped up to the opening door. A sandy-haired man of middling height entered, face bearing a hesitant welcome.

“Lord Morgren,” the Regent spoke warmly,” it’s good to see you. I had expected your brother Ervan.”

The sandy-haired lord bowed low, and then seated himself in a chair opposite the raven-haired Lady. “He couldn’t make it, unfortunately. With Toram’s death, he’s being groomed in new duties, but he’s still heavily engaged in gathering recruits from the city for the militia. That takes priority even above this meeting, though my father will arrive in a few minutes. Might I get you anything? Wine, tea, a bit of bread or sausage?”

“We’re fine, thank you,” Laranna replied, forming dimples in her cheeks. She could swear she heard a stomach grumble beside her, though she ignored it. He’d been gracious, when last they spoke, even though she hadn’t been kind to him. There was little chance he’d been involved in any plot against her, and there was no need to burden the man with the sins of his father. Plus, Jaselle had put her interest in him behind, so he was no longer any threat. “How have you been? Has your father set you up with anyone yet?”

Morgren shrugged. “No, but there’s barely been time. He says he has a few names, and he’s sent letters out earlier this fall, but that was before war overshadowed everything. These are dark times, my Lady, though your eyes certainly brighten them.”

Athena rolled her eyes, though the others pretended not to notice. Laranna responded graciously, “Thank you for saying so. Flattery, as you know, well get you everywhere, my Lord.”

The Count’s son shook his head, though his humor remained undimmed. “I know too well, my Lady, how hard you are to win. How does your sister fare? I regret the loss of your mother. It must have been a blow to you both.”

“Well,” Laranna answered carefully, “As you say, it’s been difficult, but Jaselle has really grown. She’s managing the staff at Northspire as if she were born to it. It’s keeping her quite busy, but she seems to be enjoying the work.”

Morgren nodded soberly. “Very well, indeed. And you, Marshal Athena? It seems you’ve come up in the world.”

Athena broke into a genuine grin. “Northspire has been good to me, I can’t deny. Why they put up with me, I can’t explain, though Marshal Gelan keeps me in line. He’s taught me a lot.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Gelan replied with amusement. “Athena’s excellent with any weapon, and a fine administrator. The men look up to her. She has more than earned her place.”

“I’ve heard good things about you, as well, Marshal” the son of Talyk continued. “It seems our city is in good hands. But - ah, Father, I didn’t even hear you come in.”

Count Ervallyn eased into the remaining chair, introducing himself with an expression of mirth than never quite reached his eyes. “Sorry I’m late, though it seems you weren’t lost for conversation. By your presence, may I presume Holder Brightblade hasn’t frightened you off?”

Athena and Gelan met each other’s eyes, for a brief instant only, as Laranna steeled herself. “No, my Lord, though I have sent a message to the Empress for aid.”

“Oh?” Count Ervallyn asked. He did not seem amused.

Laranna leaned forward to explain, clasping her hands tightly together in her lap. “Holder Brightblade does indeed seem to be a Sorcerer, by his own claim, and by demonstration of superhuman hearing. That will make matters complicated. Therefore, I’ve sent a message asking for the queen’s aid and advice. My father’s correspondence tells me she has a minor Sorcerer of her own, so it’s possible he may return with the messenger, if the Travansils are not ready to march.

“Naturally, I’ve told Brightblade that the purpose of my letter is to ask the Empress to consider his claim to Talyk.”

“What?” the Count nearly yelled. “The Empress will neither support this man and his claim, nor send us her only Sorcerer in a time of war. I do hope there’s some purpose to this delay?”

Marshal Gelan cut in smoothly. “It’s a ruse of war, my Lord. How can we possibly assault a Sorcerer without the advantage of surprise? But this secret must be made as plausible as possible, if it’s going to work.”

The Count eyed him carefully, testing his sincerity as the Marshal stared back blandly. “There is something to what you say, but what kind of ally are you, to change plans so drastically without letting me know?”

“We have let you know,” Laranna answered firmly. “You declined to attend the meeting, and so we had to make a decision on our own. This was the best tactic we could think of. You can’t simply tell a Sorcerer you’re coming after him and hope to live.”

“Unless you’re Lord Jacob, apparently,” the Count muttered. The man had let an impression here too, it seemed. “Very well, we’ll make the best of it. When do you plan to attack? Or is it to be an assassination?”

“We haven’t decided, my Lord,” Gelan replied. “We’ve just barely learned what we’re facing. We’ll have to scout for options.”

“You mean you’re going to wait for the Empress to bail you out, or else get out of the way when she tells you she’s not coming,” Ervallyn accused shrewdly.

Laranna held her face still by sheer effort of will. That was exactly what she was planning. “No, of course not. But assassinations requite planning. We can’t simply poison some crossbow bolts, and hope for the best.”

The Count glanced at Athena, whose undiplomatic face hid neither her guilt nor surprise. He gritted his teeth, but continued. “Even that would be better than nothing. Since you mention it, I’ll have some prepared with various poisons. I suspect by your vacant expressions that I’ll have to do the rest myself. Very well, I’d best get to it. Keep me informed, and I’ll see you both tomorrow about your plans. Lord Morgen, please entertain our guests in the meantime.”

With that, the Count was gone, leaving Athena and Gelan staring at one another in disbelief, while Lord Morgren scratched his ears uncomfortably.

Athena had missed this. The fire was high, the ale was magnificent, and the freshly slaughtered pork practically melted off the bone. An enterprising grocer had opened up a storehouse to the visiting troops, serving meat hot off the spit, and casks of ale he’d laid down a year back. He’d even found a musician with a lute to keep the men entertained. The man knew every bawdy song North of Danryk, and more besides. Locals too, mostly officers from the Count’s own growing army, came here to water themselves too. If she squinted enough, it was almost like home. Ironwood anyway, when that had been home.

She found herself leaning back against the wall, thumping the table to the rhythm with the rest. She could barely hear the instrument above the roar of conversation and laughter. Pretty young girls had sneaked away from drunken fathers to admire the fighting men, and get a taste of a richer life. Some wound find it, she wagered. A few of these would find their way into the officer’s camps, and be welcomed home to families in the north as new mothers to be. Most marriages in middle families were happily celebrated after the fact. However, other women would be cruelly tossed to the wayside, with empty promises to return. But most would return home a little older and a little wiser, with stories to scandalize their children or grandchildren in the decades to come.

Like the other officers, those that were off watch, Athena came without uniform or insignia. But for the first time in months, she was dressed as a woman, in and red and tan skirt and blouse. It felt good. The eyes that traced her form were honest, and she didn’t fear them. Their owners were older men and young. Some were handsome lads, and one with a face like a goat’s ass. None could have her: it only felt good to be wanted. Well, maybe there was one man here for her.

“That smile looks good on you,” Gelan called out with a wink. “We should get you out of that uniform a little more often.”

Athena gave a little wiggle, just to see the heat rise in his eyes, that little warmth of desire. “Thanks for noticing, but I still don’t think you’ve earned it. My smile, I mean.”

“Oh?” Gelan asked, shaggy brown hair curling about his cheeks as he leaned forward. God, it wasn’t quite fair to make the man so handsome. “And how would I do that, assuming it were worth the effort?”

Athena grinned confidently, lifting both hands to run them through her hair, straightening it in a smooth motion that thrust her chest forward. “Oh, I’m worth it,” she purred, then downed the dregs of her cup. “I’m headed for another. You?”

“I’m good,” Gelan replied, as she stood.

She bit her lip to contain her amusement as she turned from him. She could almost feel his gaze caress the swish of her skirt. She twisted carefully to navigate the crowd. The center of the room threatened to swirl as she moved. Had she drank too much? No, of course not, it was just that the floor had been given to dancing, and those who refrained were pushed toward the wooden walls and doors.

“Sir,” she slurred - no, said to the man with the cask, with a crooked smile. “Fill me up, would you? I’m in need of ale.”

“Are you sure, my Lady?” the owner asked carefully. “I have sweet ciders, if you’re thirsty. Apples and pears, if you like.”

“I’ll fill you up if he won’t,” a low voice answered, acrid breath passing across her face. A hand clumsily found its way to her ribs.

Athena’s eyes flashed, and faster than thought, her fist was embedded in his solar plexus. She watched, detached and vaguely curious as the taller man stepped backwards, wheezing. “No thanks. If I want your touch, I’ll ask for it.”

She pivoted on her heel to the man behind the casks, twirling her wooden cup. “Ale, then?”

His look of horror was her only warning as the fallen man barreled into her. Her catlike balance abandoned her somehow, and she careened into a pair of dancers, who themselves stumbled into others. Athena had no time for that, though. She found her feet again, and stared straight into the face of spurned anger, with a bulbous nose and reddened eyes. “Think yer tough, lady? Ain’t a man in my troop who can take me. Don’t think I can’t show a girl who’s boss.”

Behind him, over his shoulder, Gelan stood, taking the man’s measure. Then, to her shock Gelan rolled his eyes upward, and leaned back into his bench, crossing his legs! Athena shook her head for the space of a blink, then bared her teeth in a rictus of challenge. “Oh, your pride’s never gonna come back from this.”

The thug with the wandering hands swung first, a body blow that Athena brushed aside in righteous anger, and followed with a countering jab. Stepping aside, she sent a quick feint with her right hand, which the man raised hands to block. That gave her a perfect opening for a heel kick to his shin.

Knob-face roared angrily, and lurched forward, trying to close and overpower her. The haze of drink seemed to fade into the crystal clarity of the fight, and she slipped to the side, launching a precise strike of the palm to his rounded nose. Blood returned with her hand, and she saw his eyes narrow and water. To his credit, he kept coming. He nearly caught her too. It was a close thing, with a brawler that size, but she slowed him with another slug to the gut, and retreated.

She nearly fell again, stumbling into the crush of the watching crowd. They were cheering, she realized. For her? It was hard to say, though she thought so. With another roar, the brawler came on, bloodied face twisted in a mask of pure fury. She stepped aside again, pummeling him with her fists, though he didn’t seem to notice. Damn.

The man was tough, too tough, and faster than he looked, though she’d stayed ahead so far. She had to cripple him, somehow. She aimed at thighs and knees, taking a punch to her own shoulder that left an echoing ache. She jabbed at his cheek and jaw, doubling up on his nose, though he mostly deflected her strikes, leaving as many bruises on her own knuckles as his arms and swelling face. She needed to find a way to end this.

She’d been dancing around him, left and left and right. Athena had to get the timing on this just perfect, or he’d kill her. Worse, she’d lose. Suddenly, with a fierce cry, she charged toward him, distracting him with a lower jab that drew his own hands. With a final yell, she hurled a body-rippling left-handed uppercut straight at his jaw. She swore that beneath the thrill of the roaring crowd, she heard a crack as his pupils floated upward into his skull. The brawler slipped quietly to the floor.

Athena startled to find a hand clapping her own back. “Damn good fighting, Marshal.”

She whirled to meet the eyes of one of her officers, Demansil, to find him suddenly unsure. “Sorry, I didn’t mean nothing by it,” he mumbled.

“Thanks, Lieutenant. Good to know you’re at my back,” she grinned, to his clear relief.

“Always,” the blond officer reassured her.

“Well done,” another deep and liquid voice added, and Athena found a warm mug of cider placed in her hands.

She took it gratefully, meeting his brown, beautiful eyes. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around. It sure wasn’t to fight my battles.”

The buoyant laughter of her officers surrounded her, and Athena found herself suddenly joining in. For the first time since Ironwood, she knew she had found her place - these were her guys. They’d be there for her whenever she needed them, and let her soar when she didn’t. “Drink up, boys. The night is long. Gelan, help me find my seat.”

With a bow and flourish, the lovely man took her hand, and led her to their corner, where she sighed and placed her head on his shoulder. Why was she so sleepy?

Athena shivered, pulling her red cloak tight. The night was cold and clear, and the protective heat of the alcohol was fading. She gripped Gelan’s arm for warmth. The moon had set hours ago, and the camp was nearly all in slumber. The morning drills would come no later for her revelry.

“And, here you are, Miss Black,” Gelan spoke, with a gallant bow, at the entrance to her tent. “I’ll see you at sunrise.”

“Ugh,” Athena groaned, still not releasing his arm. “Too soon. Just come in for a moment. I need to thank you before you go.”

“I’m not sure - ” he started, but then she dragged him in.

Inside, she lifted her lips, and leaned back into his ready arms, kissing him long and thoroughly, his warmth surrounding her.

Eventually, he pushed her away, despite her protest. He stood still at the head of the tent, eyes still hot, bracing himself against a wooden pole. “You’re shivering,” she said.

“Not from the cold,” he added huskily. “I should go, before I start something we might regret.”

“Oh”, she said, lowering herself to her blankets, with a wicked smile the darkness hid. “That doesn’t sound so bad. But maybe you’re right. Before you go, though - why did you leave me to fight that idiot alone?”

“Because you wanted me to,” Gelan answered with a chuckle. “I wasn’t going to take that away from you. You should have seen your face! I’ve been training men for a long time, and he didn’t have a chance. Though you did give me a couple tense moments.”

“You trusted me,” she replied, softly.

“Of course,” he answered. “Though I was there if anything went wrong. If he hurt you, I’d have broken his bones.”

“I believe you would,” Athena said. “You’re good to me, better than I deserve. What exactly are your plans for me, sir Marshal?”

“Marriage,” he answered flippantly, hand still resting on the pole.

“Oh?” she replied lightly, though her heart doubled its speed.

“Well, it’s an idea, if you’re into that kind of thing,” he continued, his voice at once rambling and conversational. “I wouldn’t want to rush in soon, but I’ve been alone long enough to find the thought attractive. And you?”

“I might be,” Athena answered keeping her voice as steady as she could manage. “If I could find the right man, of course. I was married once, you know, for a short while. He died, in a logging accident, and that’s why I had to be a guard.”

Gelan’s head dipped slowly, in the shadows. “That makes things much clearer. Any man would be lucky to have you, but I hope you will have me. I loved you almost as soon as I saw you, you know.”

“Why?” she asked, and to her shame, her voice broke, even in that one word.

He shook his head. “You have to ask. There’s not a woman I’ve ever met as strong as you, as beautiful, and yet still as vulnerable. It’s just not done. Maybe you’re too free a creature to tame, but I’ll take as much of you as you’ll let me have.”

“Are you sure?” Athena asked, leaning forward to place her hand on his arm. Her heart was pounding, and she didn’t know if she was going to burst into laughter or tears.

“Well, maybe a little bit of taming,” he added.

Laughter it was, then, long and free. “I think I could live with that. Do you really have to go?”

“No,” Gelan replied, voice barely audible. “I don’t have to go anywhere.”

It was a lovely Spring, laden with smell of nature’s change, and the sound of birds and insects filling the air. Laranna stood in the tower, all the green land laid before her, speckled with flowers. There were no bugs, though. She didn’t want them there, and in dreams, that kind of thing could matter. For long moments she looked out over the world, breathing in the air, examining the deep gray clouds in the distance. She willed them not to come closer.

Despite her efforts, though, the wind soon became bitter, and the grasses began to brown outside, and the flowers to wilt. The sky dimmed to gray, and out at the horizon, her vision was blocked by whirling snow. She huddled her arms to her shoulders and breasts, but it failed to protect her. She was cold, so very cold.

“You’ve had more pleasant dreams,” the lady Adelin remarked, long emerald dress fluttering about her heels in the wind, as she stood in the center of the tower.

Laranna whirled to meet her, surprised, and the winds faded to nothing. The grass remained as it was, stained but not dead. “I didn’t expect you.”

Her mother nodded, examining the tower room, and the rime that had begun to coat the stone walls. “I’ve missed you.”

Laranna shivered again, and smiled bitterly. Outside, the darkness pulsed threateningly. “It’s good to see you. I was beginning to think I’d pushed away everyone I ever met.”

“Not everyone,” her mother demurred.

Her laugh was so sharp it hurt. “You can’t deny, I have a talent for it. I drove away five suitors, two handmaids, several of the staff, Jacob, and now Athena.”

“Yes,” her mother said quietly.

“That’s all you can say, yes?” her daughter cried.

“Yes, you have,” Adelin responded calmly, “though you haven’t lost all of them yet. It wasn’t difficult, just choices that you’ve made. Some of those decisions can be changed. You just have to decide what you want.”

“I want Athena to forgive me,” Laranna said, turning to gaze at the approaching storm.

“Then you’ve apologized,” her mother said.

“Several times,” Laranna replied, voice shaking from the cold, “just not out loud. That’s the tricky part, it seems.”

Adelin still stood alone in the center of tower, so confident, so calm, and so wise. Why couldn’t she be like that? “You have to decide, love, what it is you want.”

“I don’t know,” Laranna said, “I can’t think. I don’t want to be alone, but I can’t seem to be anything else. Mom, if I did want to be a Sorceress, what would that mean? What would I have to do?”

“I don’t really know,” Adelin replied. “St. Thomas wouldn’t tell me. But I don’t think you have to do anything, except not push me away.”

Laranna clenched her fist in frustration, as if she could crush her indecision with her hand alone, then brushed away the veil of dark hair that had blown into her face. “And what are you going to do, Mom? What was all this about?”

Her mother smiled, broadly, ironically, in a way only she had. “I have no idea, honestly. I just don’t want to leave you. I’m only hoping you don’t make me.”

The wind died down, and the sun returned, outside the window. Laranna had to laugh. “That’s it? That’s all there is to it?”

Her mother shrugged. For once, she had nothing to say. It was the funniest thing in the world. Laranna took three steps forward, and wrapped her arms around her mother, embracing her with all her strength. “I think I can live with that.”

Her mother returned the embrace with a matching urgency, and stroked her hair, as she had when Laranna was a child. Was love really so easy?

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