Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 14: The Arms of the Enemy

Consciousness neither came nor went that night, but wandered miserably between the doorways of dreams and guilt. God, it seemed, had abandoned Jacob and Ironwood to fate, though his mind spent hours in rebellion against the admission. Why had his maker carried him against Innoken, against such impossible odds, only to leave him now? Was his failure a product of his own arrogance, or was it simply meant to be?

For hours upon hours, Jacob spun within his blanket, attempting to spare one ache or another from the icy ground, trying not to worry his chafing wrists or ankles. What did it say that the Chieftain hadn’t even bothered to put a guard in the room? He could break the ropes that bound him, probably. Possibly. But his too-honest despair reminded him there was no point. The men and women of Ironwood might still be allowed to live, if he held to his surrender. That was his hope. What he didn’t quite understand was why Dorgann hadn’t killed him. What kind of pawn did the Kharshe want to make of him? Jacob had no answers, and no means to gain them. He had nothing to contemplate but his pain and the cold, until the morning light slowly overcame the void, shade by shade.

“Are you awake?” a voice asked impatiently. The dialect of Kharshe was a bit slower, a bit harder than the one he had heard in Caerdann or Sarronen. Or else the guard that had just entered really didn’t like him. He was grateful he hadn’t killed anyone in infiltrating the camp, or this would have been even worse.

“Awake enough,” Jacob answered dryly.

“Good,” the guard muttered. “The Chieftain and the Queen wait for you. Will you come peacefully?”

“You have my word,” Jacob answered.

The guard grunted skeptically, but quickly sawed through the ropes. Jacob started to rub his ankles, hoping to calm the buzzing bees within his feet as they slowly awoke, but the guard refused him the time. “Move.”

Jacob raised a hand to forestall the man, and climbed awkwardly to a standing position, before ducking outside of the tent. The shadows were still long, and the sun at the edge of the horizon, but he didn’t stop to stare. The guard prodded him towards a large tent, at the center of the camp’s elite circle. It was impossibly ornate, a deep purple and gold that could only be magically enhanced. He moved toward it quickly, trying to loosen his bonds enough that his hands could breathe, and walked inside, followed by two spearmen with grim faces.

The inside was as beautiful as its purple and gold shell, perhaps more so. The canvas sides were intricately painted with images of fanciful creatures and gods and goddesses, in states of undress that made him blush. The Kharshe had relatively little use for body modesty in comparison to Margon: they were an earthy and practical people.

On a graceful wooden throne, carved in fine detail, sat an exquisitely dressed woman with long copper hair. Her white-and-gold robe was long and elegant, but draped along her firm muscles in a way that a westerner could not help but find suggestive, especially a fit young man of twenty years. Yet her stern face and formal posture gave nothing away in terms of authority, and her form and face were a carven ideal that spurred more intimidation than lust.

High at her side sat the Great Chieftain of the Kharshe of the southern plains, most direct descendants of the Horde of Khardum, and a thorn in the side of Travan and the southern nations. He was perched on a leather seat that looked something like a saddle, a red-and-golden monstrosity only a massive draft horse could carry. His own face was statuesque, and his broad warrior’s form garbed in the traditional dark-furred tunic of his people.

Jacob felt his throat dry as he was led to his judgment. He stood still, trying to read the monarch’s eyes, and then bowed deeply.

“Kneel,” the guard insisted in a quiet but firm voice. Jacob gritted his teeth, but obeyed, keeping his sight upon the pair.

Chieftain Dorgann’s voice was deep and fluid, musical yet commanding. “You may rise, Lord Jacob. Free his hands, so that we can speak comfortably.”

Jacob’s minder complied, with no sign of reluctance. The brown-haired fellow looked young and earnest beneath his scrubby beard, made serious only by his august company. In another place and team, he might be someone to share a drink with. The merchant lord rubbed his wrists, examining the deep red indentations the bonds had left. “I am at your disposal, your Majesty.”

A ray of mirth entered the Chieftain’s face at the bleak joke. “Well and politely spoken, for so you are. Perhaps we can find some use for you yet. Wine?”

“As you please,” Jacob replied. “May I ask why you called me, your Majesty?”

“You, Lord Jacob, are a unique individual. You are no Sorcerer, or Sorcerer’s Champion, and yet you have done something no other mortal has managed: you have killed a great Sorcerer of the Kharshe. What is more, your swordsmanship is superb among your kind: you remain a credible threat to most Sorcerers who walk this World. Many in Vallaton know your name, and some even fear you. That marks you one of the most dangerous mortals alive. Tell me, why do you imagine I should suffer you to live?”

“Because of the Compact,” Jacob realized aloud. “You aren’t permitted to kill your enemies, if they are Sorcerers. I can.”

“Exactly so,” Dorgann replied. “And yet, I have shown you better than to challenge me, should I imagine you were paying attention. So I have a question for you, Lord Jacob: what is it that commands your loyalty?”

“Ironwood, your Majesty, the land and people that made me. Do you think I could serve you, when you would burn my home and kill my family?”

The Chieftain shook his head sadly, as if dealing with a misbehaving child. “I am a man of my word, and I did say the lives of your town might be spared. The gods, such as they are, have submitted the lands east of the Wall to me, including the town of Ironwood, though the good Queen Kaelynn will administer that part of my realm. However, I am not Innoken, nor do I share his love of burning.

“Would you not say it is only right for a Chieftain to protect his own? If you pledge your service to me, I am prepared to be lenient to your kind. Even now, Sorcerers of Margon, at the request of myself and Akhor, are urging your father to accept the Earldom of Marin, and bring his people with him. With your assurances, I can afford to be generous regarding their relocation.”

“No,” Jacob whispered in horror. “Will you kill those who remain, then? That’s not good enough, your Majesty. My people do not leave.”

Chieftain Dorgann’s face hardened. “I have been more than reasonable. Perhaps you overestimate your value to me, or my patience.”

The merchant-lord stepped backward, and his hand found its way to his empty hip. What stubbornness possessed him now, he wasn’t sure, but Dorgann clearly intended to honor his arrangement with the other Sorcerers of Vallaton whether Jacob lived or died. He refused to sell his freedom for nothing more than the chance to be an assassin. Somehow, he found the courage to meet the Chieftain with a defiant stare.

It was Queen Kaelynn who broke the silence, with a voice that was somehow both silk and steel. “A moment, Chieftain. Lord Jacob, will Ironwood obey you?”

Jacob stared at her in shock. Despite her half-smile, the Queen’s question was deadly serious. Unfortunately, he served his father, not the other way around. “I don’t know. Perhaps.”

Like Dorgann before her, the Queen shook her head in seeming pity. “Such leadership!” she admonished. “A weak man vacillates, where a strong man takes. I was willing to suggest that those who swore to you, and through you, me - might stay in Ironwood. I can afford to be merciful, and Caerdann and Ironwood have always been at peace. It would be a pity to lose their iron and craftsmanship. But if you cannot acquire them for me, they are not worth the trouble.”

Jacob glanced from the Queen’s mocking regret to the Chieftain’s too-patient composure, and his heart skipped a beat. Authority or no, this was his only chance to save his home. “Your Majesties, I will pledge myself to you, and deliver Ironwood at your feet, as much as can be saved.”

“Then it is done,” Dorgann’s melodious voice announced, “We ride west as soon as Sarronen has surrendered to me. Will you herald our announcement? It seems only fitting, given your attempt to shield them from my justice, and the unity of the Kharshe.”

So, this is what the Chieftain had planned. The pleased acceptance on the Queen’s face made clear they both had. Jacob had been outmaneuvered in every possible way. Some savior he was proving to be. And yet, Ironwood would live. Jacob sighed. “As you wish, your Majesties.”

After a moment, Jacob found that he could keep his eyes lifted no longer. The weight both of Vallaton’s triumph and his masters’ utter lack of surprise was nearly impossible to bear.

“Very good, Lord Jacob. I accept your service. You must be fatigued - your guard will show you to your tent, and see that your needs are met. Welcome to the new Empire of the Sons of Kharshe.”

To his great surprise, Jacob was offered a position of honor in the Kharshe forces, even allowed to walk by the Great Wagon that held the army’s standard, though he had no retinue or serious responsibility as of yet. His scout clothing had been replaced with that of a Kharshe Lord: a long deep green tunic, a stone-gray cloak, and a pair of trousers in a tan to honor the god Akhor. He wore a medallion, too, but with Atha’s insignia, and a deep stream-blue armband. Even as he watched, one of the Kynzri embroidered a second tunic with runes advertising his deeds and rank. The steadiness of her hands as the great wagon stumbled over rut and rock was extraordinary, especially in the cold.

She was attractive: young, fit, and dark of hair and eye. Her skin was so tan as to be nearly brown, and she wore a light blue apron dress in honor of her Queen. Her dark braid bobbed with the motion of the wheel as she worked. Despite his being an outsider, her smile was bold and appraising. “You’re well-built, my Lord. When I’m done fitting, you’ll have a flock of pretty doves on your shoulders, I promise you.”

Despite the guilt that shrouded him, Jacob was touched, and managed to summon a hint of genuine gratitude. “If I do, it will be your skill to blame. I’ve never seen so fine a hand.”

The Kynzri barely nodded, as if the statement were simply her due, but the corner of her mouth did tip up.

It was a resonant soprano that rplied from behind. “Heda is immensely talented, even more so than her mother. It will be a pity to lose her, but she was never destined to remain a Kynzri. How long until that young warrior sweeps you up?”

“A few months only until we are married, your Majesty,” Heda lowered her work to reply, eyes still downcast. “My pardon, but I did not hear you approach. Thank you for approving the match.”

“It was my pleasure,” Queen Kaelynn replied generously. “You would be utterly wasted as a servant. You are right, of course, about Lord Jacob: he’s handsome enough now, and I have no doubt you will make him stunning.”

Jacob cleared his throat. “You are too kind, my Queen.”

The redhead’s gaze was mischievous, though couched in an ageless dignity. She had emerald eyes that could pierce steel, but they were laughing now. “Don’t count on it, young man. Wisdom is too deep for kindness, and honesty too strong. But you are mine now, and a woman cares for her possessions. Tell me, Lord Jacob, a bit about yourself, and the land you were prepared to die for.”

Jacob forced himself to match her gaze. It was a fine balance, maintaining his dignity without offering a challenge. It was only now that he admitted to himself how much he had underestimated the Kharshe. The Queen’s hair suggested a hint of Mirakan blood, though her complexion was too smooth and dark for it. But it was the confident brilliance in her eyes that caught him. She had barely said a word, and yet she was as intimidating as anyone he had ever met, a state only enhanced by her poise and grace.

“What would you know, your Majesty?” he countered rhetorically. “Ironwood, as you are aware, was founded by St. Thomas as a refuge against the politics of the West. We may be small, but we’ve been growing quickly, and becoming steadily more important to the economy of Annaria. We’re the gateway between the Free Cities and the North, between Margon and Travan. Well - that is, we were. And Ironwood is lovely, if I do say so, my father and sister-in-law having worked hard to make it so. Arbored flowers in the Spring and Summer, and a rainbow of colors in the Fall. It is a bit cold and white in the winter, but you can’t have everything. Father gives all of himself to his home: Ironwood serves Ironwood, he says.

“As for myself, I’m unimportant, or was until Innoken thrust me onto the stage of events. I am a second son, betrothed to Anna Whitesail of Pearl Bay. Father arranged the match, of course. We’ve always struck a delicate balance between East and West: the cost of living off trade, I fear.

“All that will change, I suppose. When the land is filled with warring giants, one must eventually pick a side. Ironwood is of the East, now, not the west. Your Majesty.”

Queen Kaelynn’s sympathetic expression barely shrouded a piercingly analytic stare. It nearly hurt to see her slight frown at his explanation. “Mortals do not pick their Gods, but are chosen by them. That is difficult for you, I’m sure, but the feeling will pass, and the World will be the better for it. Atha has watched you since Ironwood was raised from the rubble. She has seen the cycle of life a dozen times or more. She will find room for you, I promise. As queens must care for their possessions, so too must gods. A bond with Atha is a boon beyond price.

“Nothing in life is quite free, unfortunately. Your betrothal, I fear, does not suit your Goddess. Your allies are no longer to be found in Margon, but among my own subjects. You will have some time to establish your own match among the daughters of Kharshe before we intervene, but understand: you must be married to us to become one of us.”

Jacob closed his eyes, indulging himself in a moment of shock and grief. Had he really wanted to marry Anna? He thought so, but now he wasn’t sure - he hadn’t allowed himself to consider the question from the point of choice. In one sense it didn’t matter - he had accepted the notion of marrying her as part of himself, and now it was ripped clean from him. Being an Ironwood of Margon was the foundation of who he was, and in an eyeblink that was gone - he was a Kharshe Lord, of a Kharshe family. His old life was a cut flower, no less dead because its blooms hadn’t yet faded. He opened his eyes, but the Queen’s sculpted beauty was inscrutable. He could not hide the bitterness from his voice. “Of course, your Majesty. Obviously, any scrap I might keep of my old life would be one too many. Will you have Ironwood tear down its buildings and replace them with Kharshe tents?

“Anna waits for me, and I do not look forward to the news I have to give her, my Queen.”

To Jacob’s shock, he found the Queen’s gentle hand heating his shoulder. She stepped next to him, her immaculate robe swishing against his leg, her warm breath on his cheek. With he careful focus, he continued to walk, refusing to turn to face her.

“I am sorry for your pain,” the monarch of Caerdann offered softly, “but it must be. God willing, you may even come to thank me, in time. Your honor that rebels against losing your Anna, but your heart mourns the loss of your identity. It will take time to become Kharshe.

“I have been among the people of Margon, and I recognize the west holds advantages my people often underestimate. Still, you will find that life among the Caerdann has much to recommend it, as well. Do not fear for Ironwood: Dorgann is man of his word, and perhaps you will not find me so harsh a mistress.”

Jacob looked over his shoulder to see the Queen’s deep emerald eyes only inches away. It was unnerving, and thrilling. “As you say, your Majesty, but a flower must always wilt when transplanted, though its colors later return.”

Her laugh threatened to puncture his stubborn sense of loss. “A gardener, yet! You might think us barbarians, but Atha has planted more flowers in Vallaton than you have seen in your lifetime. When the war is done, maybe we will finally have a chance to do the same in Caerdann. I have seen Ironwood, when you were young, though you might not remember. It was indeed lovely. That was years ago, before your sister-in-law’s influence.”

Jacob grinned despite himself. “Her work must be seen to be believed, though there are others in Ironwood who have the art. The keep’s starflower bushes are sculpted into the shape of every fantastical animal a storybook could name. Even a Caerdann Queen may find some joy in them. However, I must admit I have seldom seen such art as I witnessed in your Great Tent, Majesty. Certainly not in my brief time passing through Caerdann, your Majesty.”

The warmth of her hand slid down Jacob’s back, and pulled free as they walked ahead, leaving the wagon and Kynzri behind. “There is much you don’t know about us, though I look forward to your education. Ironwood and Caerdann have long been friends, and may find themselves a better match than you fear. But please, do call me Kaelynn when we are alone. The one who holds Ironwood for me should have that right.”

Jacob nodded. Why was she so patient with him? What did she want? Her kindness might be genuine, but she was royalty: there would be strategy beneath it. “It would be my honor, Kaelynn. Still, having a goddess always in your ear must cut the loneliness. Was Atha with you your entire life? You are lucky to never be without a friend.”

The Queen chuckled, a musical sound. She almost seemed surprised. “It is easy to forget, Jacob, how much you’ve experienced of the Ascended. Until a few months back, no one in the World even knew we existed.

“The bond is a wonderful thing, something Atha and I forged back in Vallaton. You might not know, but only a fraction of Ascended women are attracted there. Most join the Gardeners, the Artists, or the sharers of hospitality, though Heaven holds its share. Atha and I, though, had our most recent lives in the army of Khardum, where every man, woman, and child was made a warrior. When we came to the Spirit Realm, we had been at war most of our lives. Vallaton was not an easy place for a woman, of course, but it contains an exhilarating beauty.

“Every day in Vallaton there is a battle among some of the greatest warriors who ever lived. Atha and I had always been friends, but there we became a team, closer than lovers. When the time came that I started to feel the longing for the World again, becoming a Sorceress was an easy choice. Even so, four hundred years is a long time, and we know each other almost too well by now, so we’re not immune to loneliness. Very few mortals can begin to understand us, or speak a word we haven’t heard a thousand times before.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow, curious despite himself. “Well, thank you for your indulgence, then. But surely you and the Chieftain must be friends. You seem to trust one another. After all, you’re conquering half of Annaria together.”

Kaelynn’s eyes crinkled with mirth, or perhaps she was only considering what to say. “You, Lord Jacob, have managed to be interesting, almost too interesting for a mortal.

“Dorgann and I do trust one another, as much as rivals in Vallaton can. True friendship is still risky, however. Most of us make only one or two close allies, for fear of losing position in the Game. In Vallaton, competition is life. Without it, we must return to the World. Atha and I have vanquished thousands of Ascended, and I could list our true friends on one hand.”

“That does sound lonely,” Jacob admitted, “Here, I was prepared to envy you.”

For some reason, that struck the lovely Queen as funny, and she laughed aloud. “Jacob, we spend every hour steeped in the envy and fear of mortals. If you’re willing to discard it, you’re a rare creature indeed. Still, it seems fitting. In all likelihood, you will join us, sooner rather than later. With Atha’s help, I can maintain my youth for centuries. I expect you will meet her face to face, long before then.”

“If she’s as lovely as yourself, I look forward to it,” Jacob quipped reflexively.

“Be careful, young man,” Kaelynn said, shaking her head at his audacity, her mirth showing despite herself, “I think she’s starting to like you.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Jacob asked, suddenly afraid that perhaps it was.

“I don’t know,” she answered wryly. “I’ve never seen anyone flirt with a Goddess before. She might decide to burn you to a crisp.”

“I didn’t realize she was that anxious to see me face to face,” Jacob’s tongue remarked for him, as he pulled his cloak close. “At least then it wouldn’t be so damned cold.”

“You are the fearless one, aren’t you?” Kaelynn marveled. “If not for concern for Ironwood, you’d have fought Dorgann to the death.”

“I’m glad I didn’t have to.” Jacob admitted, memory of his failure echoing again through his memory. “The man’s entirely too good.”

“I am too,” the redhead remarked, ambiguously.

“Thank you,” Jacob said, with sudden earnestness. “You were never in favor of killing innocents, were you? You saved my life, and Ironwood, when you intervened for me. You are a much better person than I gave you credit for, Kaelynn. My apologies.”

For the first time, the Queen’s eyes looked troubled, and she paused before speaking. “It was simply good sense. As I said, I do take care of my own. Excuse me - I have matters within the camp to attend to, and I have kept too long from them. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Jacob.”

“My Queen,” he said, with a short bow. She gave a quick, uncomfortable smile, and departed.

“Ironwood’s going to be a handful,” Queen Kaelynn remarked pointedly.

The Chieftain didn’t blink an eye at the complaint. The hard lines of his shorn scalp and sculpted beard were as stony as his God’s namesake. He rode beside her atop his enormous black stallion, far over-topping her on her snowy mare. He claimed his people needed an icon to look up to. She was sure that forcing her to crane her own neck to speak to him was simply a perk. His own voice was fluid and mellow. “Anyone who defeated Innoken and nearly burned our supply wagons is going to be stubborn. Is that your concern?”

“No,” Kaelynn replied waspishly, then looked over her shoulder to gauge the height of the sun, as the horizon bobbed behind. They would have to halt the wagons soon. Armies moved slowly in the best of times, and with winter coming, it was critical to protect the supplies - as Jacob had realized. His raid had been a desperate move, but a smart one too, one of the few that could have offered any chance at success. “He’s been the very picture of grace and charm, considering.”

Dorgann’s laughter was dry and cool as the late autumn breeze. What did that portend? The tone of his response was perfectly matched. “A trial for you, I’m sure. Did you think Innoken was brought down by a moody teenager?”

It was just his way to mock her exasperation. Kaelynn enjoyed a challenge as much as the next woman, but she had no time for this. The power and wisdom of an Ascended were not to be spent coaxing petulant mortals into eating their vegetables. Yes, she needed Jacob, and yes, he was no average mortal, but he was entirely too comfortable around her. Worse, it was her own fault: she had planned on taming a skittish beast, and found a confident and resilient young man. Clawing him back into humility would be undignified, and worse, part of her didn’t want to do it. Clearly, she’d spent too many centuries alone. We have, Atha confirmed. But the boy is harmless enough for us, and susceptible to the kind of intimidation we excel in. We should keep to the plan: alternating the stick and carrot. Dorgann is much more suited to acting as the stick, and we should let him.

Kaelynn’s lips curled slightly. So he is, she thought. But carrot or not, we’ll teach him respect. Even the Lords of Vallaton show us awe, not sympathy. We’ve baited Jacob with kindness. Now we set the hook.

In satisfaction, she ruffled the mane of her peerless white mare, her own flame-red hair falling to dance about its neck, and raised an eyebrow at her would-be tormentor. “No, but he is too naive by half. I expected him to have the sense to be impressed, so I chose to be approachable. Now he thinks he is a friend. Perhaps if you remind him who he’s dealing with, it will be easier for me to do the same.”

“You thought he would melt at the beauty of your face, and follow you like a prize hound,” the Great Chieftain confirmed. “It seems you’ve underestimated him. Well, if so, I take him for an honorable man. He’ll see, soon enough, that honor and pragmatism both demand obedience.”

“Be careful,” the Queen remarked with irritation. “Honor prohibits things like killing one’s family for the sake of a title, and assassinating minor Sorcerers who haven’t rebelled against the crown. We need the boy to be a weapon, not a useless dreamer.”

The Chieftain’s eyes grew hard. “Am I then useless, vassal? He will obey me even more strictly than you do, or suffer the consequences. Obedience to the clan is the beginning of honor, and he will learn it well.”

“As you say,” the Queen murmured, with a bob of the head that might have served for a bow. “Of course, it would be a pity to have to kill him. I do hate to waste resources.”

“As do I,” Dorgann responded darkly. “He is here, is he not? But an untrustworthy tool is more dangerous than none at all. I brook no disloyalty. I’ll make the clear to him - you will too.”

“Yes, Chieftain,” the Queen replied. “When it is time to ride against our enemy, all the sons and daughters of Kharshe will be ready, and Ironwood will march with us. Even if I have to kill Jacob myself.”

“Very good,” the Chieftain said. His mind had already moved on to other matters, it seemed, as he contemplated the lines of the great eastern plains. Soon they would all be theirs. And then - Travan.

“Come,” Dorgann said. The Great Chieftain of the new Kharshe Empire did not wait for answer, but strode by in his elaborate red-and purple coat. It looked well on him, even with the tunic and short broad pants of a unarmored Kharshe warrior. His hard-planed face gave nothing away of his intentions as he marched steadily toward the flat grasses where the Great Tent had been raised.

There was nothing for Jacob to do but follow, and so he did, winding throughout the rest of the hastily erected camp. The army was nearly to the Great Highway, and might reach the Capital of Sarronen only two days after that, despite its lumbering pace. Today, they’d halted a good hour before the sun met the horizon. Time had not lessened his appreciation for the sheer size of the force, though: several thousand men and women at the least. He might have asked how many people he traveled with, and how many towns they represented, if there had been someone he trusted enough to ask.

It was a foolish impulse, of course, and dangerous. The Kharshe would look poorly on any indication of disloyalty, and Jacob hadn’t gained enough credibility to make the question innocent. He had been slow to make friends among the Clans, holding himself distant, perhaps because some part of him still hoped he could return home the man that had left. He knew better, but his heart was reluctant to accept just how much had changed. He hadn’t had any choice but to swear to Dorgann, but that wasn’t quite the same as saying he’d done the right thing. He needed to be sure. This wasn’t the kind of arrangement he could be afford to be lukewarm about. He needed to know more about who he’d just given himself to.

Of the two monarchs, Queen Kaelynn was far more approachable, though he hadn’t seen her in the past couple days. It would be a pity if he’d offended her, though she seemed friendly enough to forgive him, if he had. Of course, she was a Queen, and it was probable she simply had more important things to attend to than him.

One Caerdann Lord actually had reached out to him, though, a middle-aged fellow with a portly figure and a truly spectacular beard, long and flowing. Jacob had actually never been to the court at Caerdann, though a few of its members had visited Ironwood. He might not trust the man yet, but he’d been glad of the company.

“Sorry, Snorre,” the son of Ironwood remarked. “When the Chieftain calls, a man must answer.”

“Even a prince!” Snorre responded cheerfully. “I’m not trying to keep you. Instead, I am coming with you. If the Chieftain is about what I think he is, I want to see this.”

“Oh?” Jacob asked, mind racing. Convincing the men and women of Ironwood to call him Prince, of a great Kharshe Empire no less, was a problem for another day. If it was the right thing to do, he’d find a way. “Care to let me in on the secret?”

“After you,” the hefty fellow replied with an elusive grin.

The Chieftain halted in a flat grassy area near the Great Tent, then paced ten careful steps, swiveling his head to examine the terrain. Apparently satisfied, he turned to smile at Jacob. “Grab a sword, Prince Jacob. Not yours, of course, but I think the Queen’s Clanguard will be able to find one to your taste. I’ve been looking for someone else to help keep my skills sharp. Let’s see if you’ll do.”

“Of course, Chieftain,” Jacob replied, moving toward the Great Tent. He supposed it made sense. There was no one else here but the Queen who could even give Dorgann pause, and the members of Vallaton loved competition. Of course, without his own sword, Jacob couldn’t truly threaten him either, but maybe he could learn something. If he was lucky, he might even hold his own.

He didn’t even reach the open flaps before he was face to face with Queen Kaelynn herself, bearing a dazzling smile, and holding forward a sword. “You’ll be needing this, Prince Jacob. And yes, I do I have very good ears. I missed most of the scuffle the other night when we met, so I’m looking forward to seeing what you can do. Don’t let me down.”

“Thank you, my Queen,” Jacob answered, bowing deeply. Her only response was a slight nod of the head, and so he retrieved the sword. It was similar in weight to his own, perhaps longer and heavier, but only slightly. Happily, Jacob already wore his chainmail - it seemed too precious to part from, and perhaps too dangerous.

On the grassy circle, Dorgann waited with his arms crossed as Jacob approached. A small group of people had gathered behind Snorre to watch their Chieftain fight. They likely seldom had the chance to see him in action, certainly not against an equal, and Jacob was an unknown to them. Kaelynn watched from outside the Tent, coppery hair stirring slightly with the chill breeze. The Sorcerer only waited with a steely half-smile. He would not go easy on Jacob this time.

“Begin,” he called out, in a voice that rang effortlessly through the air, and drew his blade, lifting a buckler from his side.

The Prince-to-be approached cautiously, his own shield raised, trying to bait Dorgann into the first action. The older man only waited, stony face radiating a mild amusement. Jacob stepped still closer, testing the Sorcerer’s response. Dorgann remained unmoved until Jacob’s sword was inches away from his torso. Then, with a quick flick, the westerner’s blade cut deep into the Sorcerer’s cheek - or would have, if it had been anyone else in front of him.

Dorgann’s rapier swiveled up, tapping aside his Jacob’s blade just enough to step through, then launched into a vicious buckler punch and following overhand blow. Jacob stumbled backward, awkwardly deflecting the buckler with his own, and swayed away from the rapier swing. His own long sword came down, but the Sorcerer completed his punch just quickly enough to deflect Jacob’s weapon with his buckler, and then advance forward again, with a thrust Jacob was barely able to parry. He never caught his balance again, but wobbled back and forth, weapon in desperate defense, until the Sorcerer was able to claim his first kill, a slice to the throat that would easily have been fatal if not pulled at the last possible instant.

Snorre was clearly impressed. His jaw dropped at the speed and power of the two combatants, and he blinked repeatedly, trying to make sense of the blur of motions - a minute-long contest compressed into short seconds. Kaelynn shook her head in disappointment. Jacob, breath whistling through his teeth, agreed with her.

“Not bad,” Dorgann stated, “not for a mortal. Still, I had hoped for better. Shall we try again?”

Though he was practical enough not to inflict serious injury, the Chieftain struck fast, and hit hard. Minute after minute went by, and soon Jacob’s skin bore the thin red streaks and bruises of dozens of deaths, dozens of abject failures. Each time, Jacob shook his head in awe and frustration. When he had a moment to look toward the Queen, she seemed unimpressed, even bored.

Once Jacob had held Dorgann off for two minutes, an excruciating contest of blades that tested his speed and skill to the limit, as he struggled to land a blow. The contest wasn’t utterly without consolation: he was at least convinced that Dorgann held little if anything back. The man was ruthless. Still, Jacob’s sword had once clanged against the Chieftain’s impervious arm - though his bracer likely would have nullified the damage.

However, the bitter truth was that Jacob was badly outmatched. Worse, he stretched himself to the limit in trying not to be overwhelmed by sheer speed, and that effort had finally left him bent and aching: utterly exhausted. His chest heaved involuntarily as he gulped for air, diaphragm tight and burning with the effort of supporting a body living at nearly three times the normal human rate. Jacob felt too broken and humiliated to even raise his eyes to the murmuring crowd.

Dorgann clapped slowly. “Not bad. You’re no match for your queen, of course, but you showed improvement tonight. Even Vallaton would not find you hopeless: I expect you would best perhaps one in five of its inhabitants. We’ll have to improve on that, though, if you’re to become useful. But I do believe it’s worth the effort to try. You are dismissed, Prince Jacob, though we must do this again.”

Jacob found just enough air to murmur his thanks, then scanned the crowd for friendly faces. There were a few, impressed that anyone had managed to hold off the Chieftain’s blade for even a few moments at a time. Snorre’s eyes were wide. Queen Kaelynn, however, was gone. Discouraged, Jacob stumbled to his tent, and collapsed into a broken heap.

Jacob, for the first time in a week, slept soundly, a gift brought by pure bone-numbing fatigue. He accepted it gladly, though he awoke bruised and aching in nearly every inch of his body, save of the tip of his nose. It reminded him of when he’d first started training with the Guard in Ironwood, years back. It was a sensation best left to nostalgia.

The best way, though, to handle the discomfort was to get up and move, and so several moans and a long grunt later, Jacob stumbled out of his tent. The reddened sun had risen just enough to peek over the eastern pines, which meant there was still time to join the Kharshe Lords for breakfast. The other Kharshe Lords. In time, that thought would come naturally, God help him.

“Lord Jacob,” a feminine voice called out, as he dragged his way to the tent.

It was the seamstress, the one Kaelynn had working on his new clothing. In fact, she was weighed down by a heavy bundle of folded clothes. What was her name? Jacob raised his fingers to his temple, trying to remember. “Heda,” he said, forcing a pleasant tone and something like a smile. “It’s good to see you.”

“Likewise,” the Kynzri answered with a charming grin. “No doves on your shoulder yet, my Lord, but I think I can change that. Have a look at these.”

Jacob’s eyes widened as Heda lifted three woolen cloaks, one by one, for his approval. The first was slate gray, and the next two were the blue of a valley lake freshly gorged with melted snow. All were embroidered with fine white thread depicting a falcon in flight, and the subtly interwoven symbols of the Kharshe Gods. “They’re beautiful,” the would-be Prince remarked.

“Naturally,” she remarked, white teeth almost sparkling against her deeply tanned face, though her pride was plain. “Well? Try them on, my Lord!”

The great gray cloak fell to the top of his boots. It hung comfortably on his shoulders, and held by a silver broach, enveloped him against the icy wind that warned of winter’s arrival. One of the blue cloaks was lighter, designed for a milder day, or the coming spring. The other was at least as heavy as the gray. “Very comfortable.”

“And they fill out your shoulders nicely, my Lord, squaring out your figure. Now, let’s see the tunics and trousers on you, if you please. I’ll wait here.”

Jacob folded the cloaks neatly, and lifted two blue tunics from the impish figure, one so pale as to be nearly white, and the other dark and royal. The trousers were neutral, earth tones of tan and brown. After a couple moments in his tent, he merged wearing the darker trousers, the strikingly light blue tunic, and the deep gray cloak. His chain-mail remained, for the moment, under his bedroll.

“Oh my,” Heda called out, mock fluttering her lashes. Now, let me show you the proper braid to set that dark hair in, and you’ll lay waste among the daughters of the court.”

Jacob seated himself obligingly on a near stump, and the Kynzri went to work, her fingers quick and deft. In a few short moments, she placed a short leather tie, and leaned back. “There. Perfect. I only wish you could see. A quick shave, and you’ll be stopping hearts, my Lord.”

“You flatter me,” Jacob noted, but his eyes crinkled, “and I dare say it’s working. Still, you can afford it. If you weren’t engaged already, I wager you could have your pick of young Lords.”

“I already have,” she confirmed with a wink, “but thanks for noticing. Now, since your clothes fit, don’t let me keep you from your breakfast, my Prince. And if you’re thinking of letting slip who dressed you up, don’t be shy about it! I could use the business.”

“You’ll have nothing but praise from me,” Jacob assented. “I promise. Do I owe you anything? I’d offer coin, but I don’t want to offend.”

“Well,” the woman offered coyly, “the Queen has paid me well enough, but I wouldn’t refuse a token, especially before my wedding.”

Jacob dug into the small pouch at his waist, and fished out a couple silver coins to hand her. “All I have are Ironwood coins, but perhaps we’ll be heading there in a few weeks. Or I could try to get these exchanged, if that would help.”

“Much appreciated, Lord Jacob,” the seamstress offered cheerfully, pocketing the silver in a blink. “I expect they’ll spend well enough in Sarronen. Thank you, and I hope this day treats you better than the last!”

Jacob grinned wryly, and lifted a hand to a tender spot on his cheek that pained him when he did. She knew, then, about his losses, and had probably seen his embarrassing defeats firsthand. Of course, he was beginning to suspect that Dorgann was one a few of the most dangerous swordsmen the World had seen in centuries, entirely aside from the magic that empowered him. It was sheer hubris to be surprised by that, and arrogance to think he could have been a challenge to the Sorcerer. He knew that now. But he was human, after all, and losing hurt, especially when he had been thrashed so badly. The nagging thought remained, though: did the impossibility of defeating Dorgann relieve him of the duty to try?

That wasn’t the point, he tried to tell himself. That decision was made, and his choice was the right one. His failure to sacrifice himself was saving Ironwood, as a town if not a people. He thought he believed that. Having the argument with himself, for the twentieth time, would solve nothing. Eating, at least, would quiet the protest in his stomach. That was a fight he could win.

Speaking of fights, it was time to show just a little bit of trust, and leave his armor in his tent. It was a distinctly different style than the Kharshe wore, and there’d been no sign of anyone in his tent while he was gone. Maybe, for a day, he could be a Kharshe Lord instead of an Ironwood warrior. The chain-mail remained under the bedroll, as Jacob left the tent for the smell of roast chicken.

For the past couple days, all the warriors had lined up by the large campfires to get an end of bread and a bowl of thin stew, and then returned to sit among their hundreds of circles to enjoy it. The fare was different today, especially for Lords and officers. Dozens of fowl had been slaughtered, and there were cheese and vegetables to be had with the bread. Jacob’s mouth started to water as he approached the long line of well-dressed Kharshe leaders.

“Looks pretty good, huh?” a low voice suddenly asked from behind.

“Yes,” Jacob replied, turning casually upon his heel. “Good to see you, Snorre. So what’s going on? Not that I’m ungrateful, but is there some occasion?”

“No one’s told you?” the broad fellow replied, squinting against the sun. “They’ve been mentioning it at the War Council, and I forgot you haven’t been invited yet. Soon enough, I’m sure. Anyway, this is the last day on the road before we set up a permanent camp outside of Sarronen. Then, they either surrender, or we fight. Either way, it’s a fine time for a feast.”

“What then?” Jacob asked. “West to Ironwood? Do we all go home?”

“Well,” Snorre hedged with a wink, “if their majesties haven’t told you, I won’t be the one. Let’s see how tomorrow goes, and then we’ll know. Ironwood, though: that’s your problem, not theirs, or so I’ve heard.”

“Yeah,” Jacob affirmed, grimacing. “I’m not really looking forward to that part, to be honest. Family’s enough of a pain when you’re not telling them to surrender or die.”

“I had an uncle like that,” Snorre pointed out.

“Oh?” Jacob asked, nudging his way forward. The plates were still several people ahead, resting on a spindly-legged table. “I don’t imagine you put up with that very well.”

“He didn’t last long after threatening us,” Snorre agreed. “Stubborn arse, he was, vicious. Imagine a badger whose mead you just drank - that’s him.”

“I’m sorry, a drinking badger?” Jacob asked incredulously. “Can’t say I’ve seen that.”

“Well, you ever seen a happy badger? No? That’s why? Sour as piss, they are, and my uncle too. Tried to kill my dad for the chieftainship, ended up bleeding out. Nasty business. No one in my clan wanted to try me on, though, lucky for them. I hear in Ironwood only the oldest inherits.”

“Yeah, usually, unless something happens to him,” Jacob sighed. “That’s part of the problem. Erik lives and breathes Ironwood. He’s not going to like this.”

“You going to get rid of him, then?” Snorred said, arching his neck to get a look at the fare ahead.

“Thanks,” Jacob interjected, taking a plate, and a generous helping of chicken wing and thigh. Another quick handful of cheese and roast vegetables, and he was on to the mead, then followed his new friend ahead to a great circle of men seated before two thrones. Dorgann remained as aloof as ever, but Kaelynn showed a ghost of a smile as she caught his eyes, before her gaze moved on again. She was dressed in blue, today, a long multi-layered dress, with each layer a complementary shade. It set off her brilliant hair, raised in elaborately braided cords that circled her brow before being bound behind her. It reminded him of nothing so much as the petals of a great rose. Her lips and eyes were darkened to offset them. She was, as always, a striking sight.

“No, no, of course not,” Jacob finally replied to Snorre’s insistent gaze, eyes still fixed on the Queen. “He and my father will still serve Ironwood, but under me. They’ll see the need, and if not, neither could last a minute in a fight against me. I doubt I’ll have to hurt them.”

“You set your sights, high, lad,” Snorre remarked with a chuckle.

“I’m sorry?” Jacob asked, confused.

“Are you interested in the Queen, then? More than one ambitious man has broken himself on that rock. Fire, snow, ice, and flood: that’s our Kaelynn. She may have given you a glance, and that’s a far sight more than most men ever earn from her, but there’s no man strong enough to tame her.

“You’re good, Jacob, amazing even. I’ve never seen anyone cross blades with the Chieftain and live to tell about it, other than her. But they’re gods among us. Talented as you are, my friend, and I’m not dumb enough to tangle with you - you’re still human.”

“Hmm?” Jacob replied, then looked away when the Queen’s eyes slid across him, as if he weren’t even there. “I wasn’t thinking anything of the kind. I’ve served Ironwood all my life. Can you blame me if I’m curious who I’m following? I’m as loyal as the next man, but I just prefer it not be blind. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“Prefer all you like,” Snorre snorted. “Just a little friendly advice, that’s all. Trying to be helpful.”

“No problem,” Jacob answered mirthlessly. Snorre was right to warn him. Maybe he hadn’t been interested in Kaelynn as a woman, however beautiful she was, but he did want something from her. Recognition, perhaps, of his usefulness, or just a friend in a strange place, since Dorgann was too stony for it. But that was foolish, he realized. He was a tool, a broken tool. The Sorcerers wanted him to keep control over Ironwood, but he was no fighter compared to them, and they didn’t need his military expertise. In fact, he was a convenience alone - not a necessity, and not a friend. That shouldn’t have mattered to him, but for some reason it did. A lot.

The feast, such as it was, did not last long. Jacob had let Snorre introduce him to a few friends. Though his heart wasn’t in it, the “Prince” had played the part, listening attentively to braggadocio and jokes that passed him by. There were a few women present too, and most were warriors themselves. One clan chief’s daughter had sized him up and claimed she could best him herself. He’d said that sounded delightful. Apparently, that had been the right response, given the ensuing laughter. She’d punched him before joining in the mirth herself. Jacob had the sense the Kharshe would remain, for some time, a strange people.

After that, the army moved again, marching long into the night. Jacob remained with his newfound friends, as they drank, boasted, and sang songs of victory. Most gave it an even chance whether Sarronen would give in without a fight. Every other young man claimed to be looking forward to a battle. Some were even foolish enough to believe it, and their joyful anticipation appeared to be contagious. It made Jacob feel ill, though he dared not show it, any more than he could refuse the wine they plied him with.

Some of the Kharshe asked him questions, about Ironwood, and about what it was to contest with the avatar of a God. Jacob, for his part, embellished his contest with Innoken shamelessly, drawing roars and cheers from the small crowd. The chieftain’s daughter asked him, of course, how he could defeat Innoken and still be completely outclassed by Dorgann. Jacob replied, with a burp, that Dorgann and Akhor were the best fighters Vallaton ever had, and who was he against that? That too had been the right thing to say. More cheers. The evening was hazy after that.

Jacob again woke blurred and aching, his head and stomach hollow and dry. In time-honored tradition, he swore never to drink again, and staggered from his tent. He squinted against the too-bright sky, realizing he’d slept in. Like many of his new comrades, he ate sparingly, his stomach still offended and grumbling at even the sight of food. Snorre was either still dreaming or recovering alone, and so Jacob consigned himself to solitude, waiting for the pressure behind his eyes to fade.

“Lord Jacob,” a smoky voice intoned, dripping with amusement.

He turned - too quickly, and winced at the pain it brought. Standing before him, hand on hip, was Queen Kaelynn Riverstorm, resplendent in a long cream and aqua dress, wrapped in a thick sapphire cloak. Her mouth quirked. “You’ve been enjoying yourself. Your choice, of course, though it might make the ride a little bumpy.”

“What ride is that?” Jacob asked, rubbing his temple.

“We won’t make it to the city today on foot, Jacob,” she pointed out, entirely too reasonably, flipping a copper lock of hair from her eyes. “You have some news to deliver.”

The “prince” groaned inaudibly. “Today? But no one is picking up camp.”

“Oh yes,” Kaelynn added, smile broadening. “When you bring ten thousand armed men within the sight of city walls, people tend to try to put arrows in them. That would be rather a waste, don’t you think? Much better for you to help convince ‘King’ Haldor to bend his knee. So, grab a horse and mount up, Prince Jacob. We’ll be leaving shortly after. I’d offer you a token for the stables, but it seems you already have one.”

Jacob fingered the bronze medallion he’d been given for his horse when he and Daniel infiltrated the camp. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that she’d seen it. He’d been searched when he was captured, but they had left everything but his poisons alone. “Haldor will think I’ve betrayed him.”

“Haven’t you?” the queen asked, in a gentle voice, with merciless words. “True, you’d already botched your so-honorable sabotage, and been beaten handily by the Chieftain. Still, you could have chosen an honorable death, but you surrendered. As it happens, that was the wiser choice for everyone involved, including Sarronen. But then, honor and wisdom so often part ways. That’s why wisdom is a feminine word, and honor is what men use to justify their pride and stupidity.”

The young man’s eyes widened as her verbal thrust struck. He almost raised his hands to his chest to staunch the blood. After all, honor was the measure of a man, one of the great purposes most likely to save a soul. Would she also rip the heart from him as she smiled, and trod on it as it beat? “Is that what you tell Dorgann, whose strength you hide behind, and whose honor keeps you at his side?”

Kaelynn’s laugh was musical. Her hair rippled like a banner in the breeze, and she tossed her head back. “You have fire, Jacob, I’ll give you that. Yes, that’s exactly what I tell Dorgann, and he laughs. He may be short on stupidity, but he has enough pride for a dozen men, and the strength to back it. Honor is a luxury he can afford. You, on the other hand, should go get your horse.”

“Walk with me then,” Jacob replied. Why had he said that?

The queen’s eyebrows rose, and then she chuckled. “Why not? You’ve been amusing this morning. At least you had the sense to dress well.”

Jacob shook his head, then slung his pack onto his shoulder, including his armor. A year ago, it would have been uncomfortably heavy. “Heda is very talented.”

The queen nodded, and turned her eyes forward as she glided up to his left side. They passed the guard to the inner camp without incident. The queen was unmistakable at almost any distance. The rope-fenced stable was just ahead, though carpenters and loggers were preparing to put up more sturdy structures. It seemed the Kharshe were preparing to stay here for a while. “She does well enough for a mortal. But compared to the beauty of Vallaton? It’s almost a curse to carry such memories, as glad as I am that Atha has held them for me.”

“You remember it then, all of it?” Jacob asked, leaning forward eagerly. “What’s it like?”

Kaelynn’s eyes took on a wistful cast at first, but then began to blaze. “Even a Sorceress can’t juggle so many centuries in her mind. Atha carries most of my time in Vallaton for me, but she’s shared enough. It’s beautiful, Jacob, beyond your imagination, though its residents can be harsh to one another. They have reason, of course. The single greatest danger in the Spirit Realms is boredom, but any form of weakness can kill you in time. The Ascended refine themselves, exploring the limits of their deepest desires, abjuring those that weaken, that distract. We compete fiercely, and those that lose heart fall, and are lost. Vallaton is not so much good as great.”

How strange that Kaelynn shared freely what Brother Francis kept hidden. She reveled in it, in being better, brighter. She seemed so lonely, so hungry where Francis had been so complete. Jacob wondered if he still was. “That sounds - well, amazing. But if it is, then why are you here?”

The queen offered him a wry look, stopping ahead of the stable guards. ”Don’t expect me to give away all my secrets. But I’ll tell you this: for all the advantages of the Spirit Realm, only this World can generate life. Nothing can be found in Vallaton, including power, that does not originate here.

“Well, Prince Jacob? What are you waiting for? Go fetch your horse.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Jacob offered with a bow and flourish. “Right away.”

Jacob rubbed the neck of his sable mare gently, examining the walls ahead. The wooden outer wall was over a dozen feet high now, and there were a handful of young bowmen standing upon it. They squinted nervously against the sun, and stared at the armed men who waited outside. They were not intended to stop an army, not yet, but they looked like they missed their fellows, who might be called to do just that. They had good reasons to be concerned, and the former Margon Lord and close friend of Sarronen wasn’t pleased to be one of them.

Jacob, and the dozen others with the Chieftain had ridden quickly on fresh horses. They waited now, banner held high, just outside the gates to Sarronen. Men and women peered curiously from streets and huts to the sides of the road, but none came near.

The chieftain, tall and broad in his shimmering gray cloak, was like a statue, a monument before the city to the strength and stoicism of Kharshe leadership. He watched unmoving as King Haldor and Prince Halvar approached with a small congregation of Clan Chiefs behind, and also the members of Jacob’s former caravan: Ceann, Thaddeus, and Daniel. Had it only been a week since he’d last been with them? They looked confused to see him, though they probably had only been allowed to come because Jacob was there. He tried to summon a smile for them, but found himself unable. The last time he saw his friends, he was willing to give his life to save Ironwood and Sarronen from the Kharshe, and now he stood with the Kharshe army. That was an explanation he dreaded to give.

“Hail,” King Haldor called as his delegation slowed before the representatives of the Kharshe Empire. In another time and place, they would have looked splendid, in the red and gray that once signified the gods Sarronen served. They had seemed theologically rudderless when Jacob spoke to them, a week back. That would likely change soon. “What brings the Kharshe, Karim, and Caerdann to my doorstep?”

Chieftain Dorgann did not answer, or stir, until the King of Sarronen halted his great chestnut stallion before him. Only then did the Chieftain nod his head slightly, not lowering his eyes. “It is a pleasure to see you, your Majesty. I have come, of course, to invite you to join the new Empire of the Kharshe, to offer me your allegiance, and place your kingdom within its fold. You will retain your sovereignty within your borders, as hereditary Prince of the province of Sarronen, provided you agree.”

“Suppose,” King Haldor responded calmly, “that I don’t, Chieftain. What happens then?”

“Well,” Dorgann replied, stone lines of his face cracking just enough to imply amusement, “in that case I kill you. Not now, though Prince Jacob could do it before you drew two breaths, if I asked. But if I could not convince you, I would walk straight through your gates, breaking them down with my hands, and do what I must. Please do not inconvenience me, or I will return the favor.”

“What exactly is your relationship with Jacob, Chieftain?” Haldor asked, face unmoved. “I had not heard you were allies. In fact, had offered me little reason to trust you, when last we spoke.”

“Prince Jacob,” said the Chieftain, gesturing for him to answer.

“Ironwood has sworn loyalty to the Empire,” Jacob stated heavily, “and I am vowed to act in the interests of both.”

“Why, Jacob?” Prince Halvar interjected. “I understood nothing meant more to you than honor. Why have you betrayed it? What did he offer you?”

Jacob lowered his eyes. “Life. For myself, for Ironwood, for Sarronen, and for you. I found out the hard way that Chieftain Dorgann was beyond my capability to confront, but he’s been nothing but generous so far. I didn’t really have a choice.”

“Bastard,” Halvar mouthed softly.

“I understand better now why you served Innoken,” Jacob murmured back. “There’s always something you won’t trade for anything. For you, that was the honor of the clan. For me, it was Ironwood.”

It wasn’t that simple, though. The hurt in Halvar’s expression was hypocrisy. Innoken had given him a choice between death and killing innocent men in the name of the Fire God. Halvar chosen the latter, and called it honor. He might have cheered Jacob against Innoken, but he’d never raised a hand against the Sorcerer. Halvar’s rebuke might sting, but the pain was skin-deep.

Daniel’s reaction was another matter. His brown eyes radiated pain, and when they weren’t lowered to watch his hands fiddle with his mount’s bridle, laid on him accusingly. Why?

Jacob’s glib words to Halvar were no answer. He’d let the young man idolize him, no - encouraged it. Jacob had led Daniel to believe that honor and courage were enough, that God and fate would protect him. He’d promised, if only implicitly, to deal with the threat of Sorcery or die trying. Now Jacob rode with the enemy, and Daniel looked pale, stricken to the bone.

Even Thaddeus appeared sickly, though his slow nod showed that he, at least, understood why Jacob had given up the fight. Ceann, on the other hand, seemed to take the information in stride. Ironwood wasn’t to be burned - that was good enough for him.

“Well spoken, Prince Jacob,” Dorgann noted, clasping his hands together. “There’s hope for you, yet. Tell me, your Majesty, does embracing the unity of the sons of Kharshe interest you? Or, as Prince Jacob put it, life?

“If it will assuage your own honor and pride, I’m not unifying our people for my benefit alone. Do you think there are no other Sorcerers in the world? Do you think they love you? Foolishness. There are two within Travan alone who would destroy every son and daughter of Kharshe to walk the earth: Demond and Tandar Travansil. Their father remembers every lost mother and child Travan suffered in the Triumph over Miraka, and he’s not the kind to accept surrender. We’ll need everything available to face them. It’s a pity Innoken is no longer with us. Despite his enormous errors, he would have been a great asset. However, what’s done is done, and we will see if Jacob can help replace the loss. I do not promise you an easy road, but a far better one than falling to the swords of Travan.”

More Sorcerers? More war? No wonder Dorgann was eager to find a way to harness the population of Ironwood, rather than surrender it to Margon. Ironwood was a tool, and Jacob was the Chieftain’s pawn. If, that was, he proved worthy to play the game. Jacob grimaced. Even that was growing doubtful. The Kharshe had outmaneuvered him completely. He’d given his own Sorcerer-fighting capability to them, such as it was, and now they would ask him to raise an army for them. Jacob had thought only of saving Ironwood - now men that might have escaped to Margon would be led to their deaths instead, and Jacob had promised to help, and been grateful for the opportunity. The worst part was he was still going to do it. It was still the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

“Tell me,” King Haldor asked hesitantly, “what would this mean for my people? What would the Empire require of us, should we join?”

“Don’t worry, your Majesty,” Kaelynn reassured him, voice musical and soothing, “we mean no harm to your people, and we’ll make this as painless as possible. As the Chieftain said, we are concerned first with the preservation and glory of the Kharshe. Our desire is not to punish, quite the opposite.”

“As I said,” Dorgann continued firmly, “you will retain Sarronen as a princedom, and swear yourself and your territory to me, though you and your Lords will retain their standing in all other respects. We will collect taxes for the good of the empire from you, and retain the right to call you to war, but you retain powers of administration and may lead your own armies behind the Empire’s banners.

”In other words, you remain a ruler within a larger Empire. I remind you: I have more fit warriors ready to assault you tomorrow than the entire population of your city, and yet Queen Kaelynn and I alone would be sufficient to defeat you. Today, you have no more choice than Prince Jacob had, and every reason not to regret it. After that, the rest are only details.”

“Very well then,” Haldor replied softly, “let us hear the details, Chieftain.”

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