Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 15: Failing Hopes

The silo was coming along nicely. Tubers, gourds, dried vegetables, and flour waited outside in a line of single-horse carts. Tents and small cabins were going up, and buildings abandoned by former residents of the outskirts of Talyk were being repurposed. Whatever happened to Talman’s brave supporters, they wouldn’t starve this winter. Donations were coming in from Holds in every direction. For the past few days, even the weather was mild. The sun melted away all but a few gentle clouds.

Meanwhile, as Talman watched, several hundred men were inexpertly training: with spears, with bows, or even with long-handled wood axes. Men dribbled in, too, every day, asking to join, asking to help fight against the Count and the cruelty and wandering hands of his elder sons. Toram, of course, had been the worst of them, possessed of all his father’s avarice, and none of his discipline. Morgren, who the Count seemed to be leaning more heavily upon these days, appeard to be a relatively decent fellow. Lord Ervan, though, the new heir, was much like his elder brother had been, with slightly more charm but even fewer brains. None of the Holders were eager to give him a chance. Just by being someone, anyone, to stand up against the Count, Talman had won more far more support than he’d ever expected.

He hadn’t asked for it. In fact, he’d dragged his feet at recruiting. Next week, if his and the Lady Laranna’s messengers got the right response, maybe he wouldn’t have to. But if the Empress asked for his head, Brightblade wasn’t going down without a fight, and neither the Lady nor the Count would be able to stop him. He just didn’t want to take a lot of innocents with him. None of this was permanent, and he didn’t need more dependents until he knew how this was shake out. It was hard enough to take care of his own as it was.

Oh Talman, if you only remembered, the ever-present feminine voice in his head sighed, You’ve led so much more than this. But it’s not going badly so far. It’s a start.

“Put the onions over there,” Jaima said, gesturing to a pile near where the silo was going up. A white-haired farmer eased his horse forward to the spot, then hopped out to unload a healthy stack of white onions with his son. He’d accepted only a token payment in return, which was well. Some Holders sent men, and others food or old supplies. Few sent coin.

Talman Brightblade held his son Olrik close, though he squirmed madly. The boy crawled like a fiend, and struggled mightily to escape his father’s arms, whether it landed him on his head or not. Even a babe shouldn’t be that fearless. He’d be walking any day now. After a squeeze, Talman lowered his son to the ground, where he made a bee line for the tall grass. His mother gently herded the boy back toward the clearing, though, with scarcely a glance down. Gods, he loved her.

“Why don’t you sit, and join me for some cider, Jaima? You’ve been working all morning. Even you can make time for lunch.”

The dark-haired beauty put her hand on her hip, and mock-scowled at him. “I know very well what you want to make time for, my Lord. But yes, cider, soon. I just need to see a few things in their places.”

Talman bit his tongue, waiting for a clever reply to bubble up, but it died on his lips. Off in the distance, what was that? Dust? “Jaima, why don’t you step inside? There’s someone coming, and it might be trouble.”

Without looking back, Talman turned toward the rising dust, waiting for his sight to adjust. When he penetrated the distance and haze, there were fifty horseman galloping over the hill in Talyk’s colors, half with bows already bent. He strangled a cry as they released, and their deadly little twigs embedded themselves in grass, trees, and men. Farmers who had been training with their weapons broke into a run, some toward the horsemen, and some away. Some fell to the ground, clutching limbs. Others twitched, and died.

Talman roared in defiance, “Line up, men, single file. Bowmen in front, spears and long axes behind. Swordsmen, fetch your shields, and get ready to take the lead.”

However, after a few volleys, once Brightblade’s bowmen had formed up, the horsemen galloped on past their line, straight toward him, where the barns and stables stood. Then, as he watched, horrified, they dipped their arrowtips into two successive clay pots, tightly wrapped and hanging by their saddle bags. The first was filled with pitch, and the second with coals. They loosed again, some at bales of hay, some at bags of wheat, a few at the wooden stable, and one at the still unfinished silo.

Damn them! Talman’s own bowmen fired toward the line of Talyk’s raiders, but they were at long range, and most of their shots went wild. Only a few landed, and most of those stuck harmlessly in the rider’s armor, or the thick hides the horses had draped over their sides. This was a well-planned attack, intended to demoralize as much as to wound. Unarmed women and children were running everywhere - most of the farmers had brought their families, as he had.

That invoked another dark thought - where in the world had Jaima gone? A muffled cry reached Talman’s preternaturally sharp hearing, answering the question. In the silo - his wife and son were hiding in the silo, and it was burning. Hurry, the voice in his head called, to them.

Brightblade was running full speed without even the sense of lurching into motion. He leaped high, and with his bare hands, scraped off the pitch and muffled the fire. But there were more shots, three, and they were high. Talman growled, then removed the silo doors, ripping them off their hinges. “Jaima, go! To the village.”

Then he was moving again, sprinting toward the line of horses. His own cavalry, such as it was, was mounting, and his bowmen were charging forward, setting up a new line. Swordsmen covered them with large wooden shields as they reloaded. The rebel force was stabilizing, and a couple of the raiders had taken injuries from their own arrows. Their captain lifted a horn, and blew. The bowmen fired their last shots, and their horses turned to retreat.

“Bowmen, keep on them,” Talman called out, as he sailed through the air. “Swordsmen, spearmen, to the buckets! Get those fires out!”

And then, without fully realizing how he’d done it, Talman had leaped into the saddle of one of the attacking bowmen, shoving him hard to the ground. A sickening crunch told him how poorly the bowman in chainmail was prepared for the fall. The confused horse bucked once, then twice, before he had it under control. Then, his sword was out and he began to lay waste among the raiding horsemen, their stragglers at least. Unfortunately, it was his bad luck to have picked a wounded horse, and though he urged it forward, it began to stumble. The bowmen, scattering, were already nearly away. Talman lifted a short spear from the horse, and with an angry grunt, launched it, impaling a rider between the should blades, and watched him fall.

Damn. Damn and double damn, he thought. However satisfying it had been to have his revenge, only four of the raiders had fallen, no - five. Talman glanced around rapidly, taking stock. Not counting any burnt supplies, and there would only be a few, thankfully - the raid had killed at least four times as many of his own men as the raiders had lost, and wounded others. Jaima and Olrik, thank the gods, were unhurt. Still, the pig droppings that had attacked him, and killed his men, weren’t going to get away with this.

He should have put up a fence, and spikes. He knew that now. Count Ervallyn wasn’t going to try to surrender, and he had nowhere else to go. All the idiot could do, all he had ever done, was destroy. Talman hoped the Empress responded soon, but whether she did or not, the Count was going to die. But first, it was time to give the man a bit of his own medicine.

No one is going to give you permission to lead, the harsh voice in Talman’s head insisted. This is what happens when you wait for it. The Lady of Northspire can’t stop you, and neither can Talyk. Gather your men, and take the castle, soon. Talyk and all of its Holds are yours, if you just reach for them. Be the man you were born to be.

Soon, Brightblade though in response, as his wife and son approached, frightened and hungry for his embrace. Soon. “Well done, men!” he called out, voice booming. “See to your wives and children, and make sure no one is hurt. Then we give them a taste of our vengeance!”


“Elbows higher in High Guard,” Athena bellowed, “Up! Up! Much better. No, don’t look this way, soldiers, keep putting those stakes in if you’re not sparring. We’ll work on the palisade tomorrow, but I want the stakes finished yesterday. Move!”

So far, Holder Brightblade and his men had only blockaded the roads leaving Talyk, not the walls themselves. Small groups, including merchants and farmers, were allowed to come and go, so it couldn’t fairly be called a siege. However, at the sight of any large groups, or soldiers in uniform, the forward scouts sent up a signal, and Brightblade’s army swung in. There were over a thousand fighting men in his camps now, and over one hundred mounted, even if only a few dozen of the bunch had any armor to speak of. Her own troops were better armed, but she would not want to gamble on the outcome if there were a fight, unless the Count’s troops were included. Then, they had a solid advantage - even if it seemed to be dwindling. That, of course, excluded Brightblade himself. No one was sure what he could do.

Maybe that was why the Count had sent a sortie out, an hour or so back. Athena was still seething - Laranna hadn’t even informed her ahead of time! Gelan was still in the city, trying to get a hold of some more supplies, but that was no excuse for not telling her. The woman had been so distant lately, it was almost as if they had never been friends - it was unnatural. Everyone needed some time to cool off, once in a while. Jacob had understood that better than anyone, though she could never stay mad at him - he had a certain way of melting the ice. She knew she’d needed to let go of him, but every once in a while her thoughts would stray to how much she missed him - although a lot less in the last couple weeks, she thought with an inward blush.

But Laranna had been cold and silent for almost a week, and now it was potentially affecting the safety of her men, and that was unacceptable. There was no telling what Brightblade might do, now that he’d been provoked. His forces had pulled back a bit when Laranna arrived, and Count Talyk had given Northspire special permission to use the public grazing land outside the town walls. As soon as Gelan had cleared it with the Count, they’d started drawing up plans for temporary fortifications, starting with lines of long, sharpened wooden stakes against the kind of lightning raid the Count had just initiated. Those couldn’t go down fast enough, in Athena’s mind, but some of the men had been dragging their feet.

That was when she noticed a line of horses cresting the hill, fast. Damn, damn, damn. Those stakes weren’t done yet! Only a split second later, a great horn blew, ringing across the camp. Men in armor and women in capes and skirts froze, staring in all directions, lost and confused.

“Pikes, line up!” Athena yelled, startling out of her own reverie. “In the gap, where the stakes aren’t in. Bowmen, line up behind. Infantry, spears or halberds by unit. Follow your lieutenants. Captains, call out the formations, and be ready to break the charge. Move, maggots!”

Thank God they’d still been training, and the men were out and armed. Three units of pikes were in place even before the horses arrived, and the bowmen were setting up. This raid was done before it began - if they pushed, it would be a slaughter. Demansil, bless him, had gotten his infantry together in a blink. His father would be proud. Athena considered fetching her own mount, but instead walked up behind the gap, examining the line from just beside the bows. “Well done, men. Just hold. Bowmen, if anyone advances another pace, make him a pincushion.”

Brighblade’s raiders seem to realize they’d lost, as they slowed to a stop, fifty paces back away from the bristling spears. One man, however, seemed to have a death wish. He slid disdainfully from his horse, then removed a vicious-looking great sword from its side, wielding it one-handed. He stopped only a moment to lift a broad shield for his other arm, and began to walk forward, long cape flapping in the light breeze.

Athena felt a chill as she examined him: tall, handsomely built, and clad in shining ring mail and Brightblade’s pale blue and yellow, he advanced. This was Holder Brightblade himself - this was a Sorcerer.

Her bowmen followed her orders, unleashing a full volley at the approaching figure. His large shield began to look like an ugly porcupine, despite how many shafts simply rebounded from it. His shoulders and arms too collected their share of arrows, standing erect in cloth and armor, but spilling no visible blood. Brightblade didn’t slow, but instead lifted his Greatsword high. Shit, shit, shit!

“Fall back!” Athena yelled, and her frightened infantry began to back away from the great figure, too slowly.

Brightblade, on the other hand, charged, and men fell like red rain. Demansil launched his spear the Sorcerer before trying to dash away. The Sorcerer was too quick, and another great swing left the man broken and bleeding on the field.

“Scatter!” Athena yelled. “He’s a Sorcerer! You can’t kill him! Flee!”

Whether Athena’s infantry listened, or simply panicked, she was never sure, but thousands of men, women, and children fled in all directions - soldiers, merchants, and even their wives and families tried awkwardly to work their way through the stakes that hindered them. That was when Brighblade’s cavalry started moving into a gallop, lances lowered at the backs of her retreating soldiers. By Khardum and all his demons, there were no words. This was going to be a slaughter. Laranna had broken her promise, and all her colleagues were going to die.

A few, seeing the approaching horses, had turned to fight, with bow and spear. Athena was among them. Her hands found a javelin, and with a great heave, she buried it in the unguarded face of a nearing horseman, killing him instantly. She retrieved the weapon, yanking it from the bloody ruin of the dead man’s face, and looked to find another target. In an eyeblink, she had killed him too. A tall, ruddy spearman downed another beside her. She might not be able to kill the Sorcerer, but by God, he was going to pay.

She saw him notice too, and grinned fiercely when he called for his cavalry to fall back. A few bowmen, also betraying their orders, began to pepper the horsemen, thinning the retreating line. That was when Brightblade lifted his own javelin, and sent it hurtling her way. Athena was quick, but her reflexes barely allowed her to lift her left arm, bringing a shield to block the projectile. The javelin splintered on her shield, but the long steel tip flew right through, impaling her shoulder and pinning her to the ground.

She tried to move her arm, tried to free the foot of shattered spear, but her left arm would no longer respond, and she felt the world slow and blur, realizing that she was falling into shock. No, damn it! She wanted one more swing at him. It wasn’t to be - she could no longer even force herself into a sitting position, and Brightblade was angrily stalking her way, ready to place the killing blow.

“Enough!” a voice roared, so loud it left the ears ringing as the word passed. It was a woman - Laranna.

Athena could barely make her out through the tears of anger and pain clouding her vision, but it was her, resplendent in her blue gown. By her stance, she must have just run in from outside the camp, from the city gates. From her vantage on the ground, Laranna seemed to stand tall and beautiful, an angered goddess of wisdom. She held a spear aloft, and then pointed its tip toward Brightblade as he approached.

The Sorcerer, for a wonder, stopped. “You’ve changed, my Lady. But no matter - why should I stop? I could remove you, and your whole army. Why shouldn’t I, after your treacherous attack?”

“My treacherous attack?” Laranna thundered, voice ice-cold and dripping with contempt. “You, a Sorcerer, ride unprovoked to kill my men, and have the gall to think you need not pay for it?”

Athena didn’t think, lying broken and bleeding, that her stomach could still turn within her, but it did. Laranna hadn’t known, and she hadn’t told her.

“Not an hour ago, men wearing the colors of Talyk rode into my camp, killing my holders, and nearly burning my wife and son alive!” the Sorcerer roared in response. “How dare you claim innocence!”

“I swear before Heaven,” Laranna responded, suddenly sorrowful, “I didn’t know. Northspire did not order it. Yet you attack us, not Talyk.”

“You shelter in his field, buy from his city, and train with his men. You cannot remain neutral forever, my Lady,” Talman Brightblade responded, too bitter and angry to be contrite.

“You’ve killed men dear to me. Innocents. Get the hell out of my camp,” the Regent of Northspire sneered. “And be glad I let you leave.”

“Let me?” the Sorcerer chuckled darkly. “Very well, but I expect a messenger back, within five days time, from the Empress. Whichever side you chose then, my Lady, chose well. Riders of Redhold, return to camp!”

He was leaving. Athena would live - maybe. She coughed painfully, and the world began to turn in circles. She was bleeding everywhere.

Suddenly, Laranna was kneeling at her side, hands on her head and arm. “Oh, Athena, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I promised, and this is all my fault. Are you hurt? Oh God, it looks bad.”

“Thanks,” Athena coughed, as a strange warmth filled her. “For - for letting me know.”

“God’s tooth and demon’s pus, what do I do? Mother, help me!”

Athena hissed, even through her haze, as Laranna put a cold hand on her shoulder. She felt - something. A warmth, a cold? She didn’t know how to describe it.

“It’s not working, mother! Athena, don’t leave me. You’re like no other friend I’ve ever had, and I don’t know what I’d do without you. Can’t you - can you just trust me?”

“Yeah, good then,” Athena responded dreamily. It was hard to focus, harder to talk.

Her friend yanked - hard, on the steel in Athena’s shoulder, and then something lurched. The cool of the afternoon suddenly seemed to settle in her, chasing back the warmth. It hurt. For a second, she reached for it, not wanting to let it go, and then she smiled at the face that peered with worry into her own eyes. Laranna loved her - she could see it clearly now. That was why she had been distant. Reality continued to seep into Athena’s mind and body, a reality where her chest and shoulder only slowly ached. “Laranna, what did you do? Are you a Sorceress?”

To her surprise, Laranna giggled, though she shivered, and her nose was red, and tears dribbled down from it, and wet her cheeks. “I guess I am.”


By the time Counter Ervallyn arrived in the sitting room, Laranna’s mouth was set in a hard line, and her fingers tapped against her chair’s armrest in a ceaselessly impatient beat. In the past, this room had seen cozy and comforting, or vaguely threatening. Today it felt like the spider’s web, except Laranna was no fly, but a full-grown Sorceress, with a simmering anger aching to find itself in full blaze.

“Laranna, my dear,” the Count greeted her with an oily smile, “I hadn’t expect to see you so soon. Whatever can I do for you?”

Laranna’s teeth ground impatiently. “For a start, you can tell me why you rode against Brightblade, without telling me first.”

The Count’s eyebrow rose in feigned surprise. “Oh? Have you become Empress then, that I have to answer to you? Every day, the rebel’s forces grow stronger, and you do nothing. I needed to dampen his recruitment. More importantly, perhaps, I had to know if the man was really a Sorcerer, and if so, what he could do. If you expect me to apologize for that, you’re welcome to wait as long as you like.”

Laranna’s eyes widened, and firsts tightened until her knuckles cracked. “Over two dozen of my soldiers died in Brightblade’s counter-attack, against me - not you. If I had known you were going to attack, I might have counseled against it. Or I might not have let my soldiers train with yours. The association made them a target. Now I have to tell one of my own Holders that his son was killed by your neglect. Who knows? After this, I might have an uprising of my own!

“But I can see none of that concerns you, Count Talyk. I’m forced to ask: whose side are you on?”

It was the Count’s turn, finally, to show a hint of human emotion. His own hands went pure white with anger as they gripped the arms of his own chair. “Whose side am I on? Whose side are you on, Lady Northspire? Mine? If you had made up your mind, you’d already be attacking one of us. Or asking for two-step to lace a poisoned dagger, like Jacob did.

“So spare me your hypocrisy, woman. Did you tell me you had written the Empress on Brightblade’s behalf? Of course not. Did you tell me that you, too, were a Sorcerer? No. Tell me this, then: can you beat him?”

For a moment, Laranna said nothing, but just sat there drumming her fingers on her chair. When the Count’s glance didn’t waver, she finally answered quietly, “I don’t know.”

That was a lie, though. She had no hope in any kind of “fair fight”. Holder Brightblade, she had seen, was very comfortable with a sword, and she wasn’t. Her mother’s warnings made clear that almost any Sorcerer she ran into would be more powerful than she was, and Brightblade seemed strong enough. Somehow, she doubted, too, that Jacob’s trick with poison would be enough. But the Count was right: if she were confident that Holder Talman couldn’t be dealt with, she’d have to try it anyway, and she hadn’t gotten there yet.

The Count snorted, as if she’d said the stupidest thing in the world. “You don’t know. Or maybe you’re afraid to know? There’s a rebel Holder who wants my head. We either have to defeat him or made a deal with him, and there’s nothing I can afford to give him that he wants. Lady Northspire, can you help me or not?”

After sleeping for what felt like days, Athena had gone from broken and exhausted to simply tired. For a wonder, her shoulder barely ached at all. When Brother Francis had healed her, she’d been laid out for nearly a week. Now, she wondered if she was ready to spar again - after a good long nap, of course. Or maybe once she had the chance to move around, she’d feel more like herself. Laranna had commandeered a small stone building near the entrance to the city, and hauled her into a bed. That’s about all she could remember.

“Whoa there,” a deep, gentle voice remarked, followed by a hand pushing down on her (right) shoulder. “You’re not quite ready for that yet, lioness or not.”

The blacksmith’s daughter turned her head to meet the thick, dark hair and the broad, relieved smile of Gelan, her suitor. It was strange to think of him in those terms. Her husband, Dag, had never been a suitor. He’d been the big, handsome man she’d sneaked away with, and eloped with when her heart got the better of her. She couldn’t regret it, regret him, after all they’d gone through to be together. But Gelan was respectable, the kind of man her father dreamed she’d marry. The father who’d barely said a word to her when she was kicked out of Ironwood. Now, after everything, it was almost comical. She’d have to send him a letter. “Lioness? Have we made it to pet names, then?”

“I’ve been listening to you sleep since yesterday afternoon. I think I’ve earned it,” the olive-skinned man chuckled. “How are you feeling?”

Since yesterday? She must have really blacked out. On the other hand, it was quiet, for a city, and dark. And the linen blankets were thick and warm, with a woolen comforter placed on top. If there was a guard, he was outside.

“Good,” Athena said. “At least, I think so. Someone won’t let me move around, but I just feel like I’m getting over a good bruise. I’m healing way faster than when I got hurt this Spring. Oh God, was it only that long?”

Gelan’s mirth faded, and his hand tightened on her shoulder. “I don’t know whether to thank Lady Laranna for healing you or curse her for getting us into this. She promised she wouldn’t send us against Sorcerers, but twenty-six men are dead. Because we’re here to defend a Count who, frankly, doesn’t deserve it. She healed you, God knows how, but that doesn’t do Demansil any good.”

Athena sighed, and ran her fingers down Gelan’s rolling bicep. “The Count set us up, you know that. We can’t ride south to the Empress while there’s a rebellion going on here, and if we side with it, that’s treason. Brightblade attacked us, not the other way around. None of this is Laranna’s fault. But she’s a Sorceress now, so maybe we have a chance. She saved my life.”

“Well, that explains that much,” the Marshal admitted, running his hand through his silky hair. He really didn’t have a right to be that handsome. “But when did that happen? Why not tell us?”

“This is between us,” the blond-haired warrior replied seriously, starting to sit up against before her suitor gently pressed her down, on her good shoulder. “You can stop doing that.”

“Fine, sorry!” Gelan admitted, raising his hands defensively. “I just thought you needed some rest.”

Athena sat up, then immediately placed a hand to her spinning head. She steadied herself a moment, then whispered into his rough-shaven cheek. “No, I’m fine. What I’m trying to say is Laranna’s mother is helping her from the Spirit Realm. She claims she’s not very powerful, but you can see what she did. I had a hole clean through my chest, by my shoulder. That’s gone.”

She lowered the fingers from her temple, and pulled Gelan’s hand to her wounded shoulder, just above the breast. She could swore he turned red, though the shadows in the small stone building shrouded his face. “Feel that? Of course not, because the wound’s all gone. I just need a little more sleep, and then I’m getting out of here. ”

“You worried me, you know,” Gelan whispered back, his lips tickling her suddenly heated cheeks.

“I’m a Marshal, comes with the job,” Athena sighed, leaning into him. “God, I’m tired.”

“Lay down then!” Gelan said, with just a touch of exasperation. “I’ll keep an eye on you as long as I can. I have to speak to the captains, though, and Laranna. Brightblade’s more dangerous than I feared. We need to figure out how to deal with him.”

Athena yawned heavily, and laid down, snuggling into Gelan’s large triceps. “Call me when you do. I don’t want to miss it.”

“Of course,” the Marshal added, then tousled her hair as she smiled contentedly. Within moments, fragments of dreams began to wash over her.

At that, Laranna’s anger and irritation rose again. “You made these problems, not me. You abused your people, let your son loose on them, and squeezed them to the breaking point. If this were all about Brightblade, no one would follow him, but more join him every day. My duty is to Travan, and right now that means supporting you. If the Empress agrees, then yes, I’ll help you against your rebellion, however I can. But don’t think I’ll accept blame for your problems, or thank you for getting my men killed to satisfy your curiosity. Are we clear?”

The Count rolled his eyes, then sighed with great exaggeration. “There’s so much you don’t yet understand. If Northspire ever grows populous enough, you’ll see where unrest actually comes from. But very well, I suppose I’ll have to work with that. At the moment, it turns out I need you, and I am not one to be ungrateful. Would you care for a drink, Lady Northspire?”

Laranna almost shook her head in disbelief. “Thank you, but no, I should be going. It seems I have some planning to do. I admit I’ve held out hope of a peaceful resolution, but now, at least, I know what I have to deal with. There’s nothing left but to make the best of it. My Lord.”


After sleeping for what felt like days, Athena had gone from broken and exhausted to simply tired. For a wonder, her shoulder barely ached at all. When Brother Francis had healed her, she’d been laid out for nearly a week. Now, she wondered if she was ready to spar again - after a good long nap, of course. Or maybe once she had the chance to move around, she’d feel more like herself. Laranna had commandeered a small stone building near the entrance to the city, and hauled her into a bed. That’s about all she could remember.

“Whoa there,” a deep, gentle voice remarked, followed by a hand pushing down on her (right) shoulder. “You’re not quite ready for that yet, lioness or not.”

The blacksmith’s daughter turned her head to meet the thick, dark hair and the broad, relieved smile of Gelan, her suitor. It was strange to think of him in those terms. Her husband, Dag, had never been a suitor. He’d been the big, handsome man she’d sneaked away with, and eloped with when her heart got the better of her. She couldn’t regret it, regret him, after all they’d gone through to be together. But Gelan was respectable, the kind of man her father dreamed she’d marry. The father who’d barely said a word to her when she was kicked out of Ironwood. Now, after everything, it was almost comical. She’d have to send him a letter. “Lioness? Have we made it to pet names, then?”

“I’ve been listening to you sleep since yesterday afternoon. I think I’ve earned it,” the olive-skinned man chuckled. “How are you feeling?”

Since yesterday? She must have really blacked out. On the other hand, it was quiet, for a city, and dark. And the linen blankets were thick and warm, with a woolen comforter placed on top. If there was a guard, he was outside.

“Good,” Athena said. “At least, I think so. Someone won’t let me move around, but I just feel like I’m getting over a good bruise. I’m healing way faster than when I got hurt this Spring. Oh God, was it only that long?”

Gelan’s mirth faded, and his hand tightened on her shoulder. “I don’t know whether to thank Lady Laranna for healing you or curse her for getting us into this. She promised she wouldn’t send us against Sorcerers, but twenty-six men are dead. Because we’re here to defend a Count who, frankly, doesn’t deserve it. She healed you, God knows how, but that doesn’t do Demansil any good.”

Athena sighed, and ran her fingers down Gelan’s rolling bicep. “The Count set us up, you know that. We can’t ride south to the Empress while there’s a rebellion going on here, and if we side with it, that’s treason. Brightblade attacked us, not the other way around. None of this is Laranna’s fault. But she’s a Sorceress now, so maybe we have a chance. She saved my life.”

“Well, that explains that much,” the Marshal admitted, running his hand through his silky hair. He really didn’t have a right to be that handsome. “But when did that happen? Why not tell us?”

“This is between us,” the blond-haired warrior replied seriously, starting to sit up against before her suitor gently pressed her down, on her good shoulder. “You can stop doing that.”

“Sorry!” Gelan proclaimed, raising his hands defensively. “I just thought you needed some rest.”

Athena sat up, then immediately placed a hand to her spinning head. She steadied herself a moment, then whispered into his rough-shaven cheek. “No, I’m fine. What I’m trying to say is Laranna’s mother is helping her from the Spirit Realm. She claims she’s not very powerful, but you can see what she did. I had a hole clean through my chest, by my shoulder. That’s gone.”

She lowered the fingers from her temple, and pulled Gelan’s hand to her wounded shoulder, just above the breast. She could swore he turned red, though the shadows in the small stone building shrouded his face. “Feel that? Of course not, because the wound’s all gone. I just need a little more sleep, and then I’m getting out of here. ”

“You worried me, you know,” Gelan whispered back, his lips tickling her suddenly heated cheeks.

“I’m a Marshal, comes with the job,” Athena sighed, leaning into him. “God, I’m tired.”

“Lay down then!” Gelan said, with just a touch of exasperation. “I’ll keep an eye on you as long as I can. I have to speak to the captains, though, and Laranna. Brightblade’s more dangerous than I feared. We need to figure out how to deal with him.”

Athena yawned heavily, and laid down, snuggling into Gelan’s large triceps. “Call me when you do. I don’t want to miss it.”

“Of course,” the Marshal added, then tousled her hair as she smiled contentedly. Within moments, fragments of dreams began to wash over her.


The practice yard made a somber picture, one that spoke of loss and hopelessness. Laranna saw it in the uncomfortable stares some gave her, and they way others turned their heads at her approach. Just inside the row of stakes, men were raising wooden towers, and the beginning of a palisade, but they moved with a listlessness that betrayed their thoughts. “What’s the point?” their muted speech and sluggish motions said. “How will this keep the Sorcerer from killing us all, if he wants to? Why are we here?”

Lady Northspire felt for them. She’d leave too, if she could live with herself afterward. But her duty was to Travan and the Empress, and to Northspire. That meant if she could help resolve this rebellion, she had to do it. That, unfortunately, was quite the caveat. She’d avoided the question long enough, stalling for more information, hoping that a solution would present itself. In the absence of action, all that had visited was death. It was past time to change that.

Gelan and Athena both looked her direction in the same moment, following each other’s glance across the damp, broken grass, where the frost had melted, not long ago. Laranna resisted an urge to pull her cloak tighter against the chill. The Marshals had been in discussion with a concerned-looking captain, but dismissed him before Laranna had fnished crossing the yard. No doubt both of them would have similar questions as the rest of her soldiers. She wished she had ready answers.

“Lady Northspire,” Marshal Gelan said, “What brings you here?”

He stood close to Athena, protectively, his deep blue tunic beginning to show hints of wear over his armor. The two must really be getting close, then. His eyes, however, traced over Laranna’s loose, flowing brown skirt, one of the outfits she wore when she took her lessons from Athena. It was short, not even reaching her ankles, wholly unfit for the the weather. No doubt he wondered why.

“Answers,” the Regent answered softly. “I need your help, Marshals, to discover what can be done about Brightblade.”

“We were rather hoping you could tell us,” Athena replied, though her voice was sad.

“Athena, didn’t you say poison was what killed Innoken?” Gelan asked, brows crinkling. “If we have to defeat him, poisoned crossbow bolts might do the trick. Unless, of course, you intend to fight him, now that you’re a Sorceress? My Lady.”

Athena looked unconvinced. “Gelan, she’s getting better, but a couple weeks back, she wasn’t a match even for most of our young recruits. Unless my Lady has gotten much, much more skilled with a sword, I don’t think that will work. That hasn’t happened, has it, my Lady?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” the Regent observed. “Shall we try a round?”

Gelan just crossed his arms, but Athena nodded affirmatively. “Don’t you need your armor?”

In response, Laranna closed her eyes for a moment, willing her mother to join her. Innoken had made his skin as hard as armor. Could she? I’m as curious to see what we can accomplish as you are, dear, but I think we can do that much. Tell your friend to strike your arm.

Laranna hesitantly lifted her left arm forward, and stared at it until it seemed to shine. “Athena, take a chop at my arm. Not too hard, but like you’d hit someone in armor that you didn’t want to cripple.”

Furrowing her brow, Athena unsheathed her sword and gave Laranna’s arm a tap. It rang like she’d struck a bell. “Do you make your skin into iron?”

“Yes, something like that - hard but with flexible creases, since I want to be able to move. You can hit me harder than that, though,” she encouraged her friend.

Gelan’s face remained neutral, though curious, as if he didn’t want to hope for too much. Athena screwed up her face uncomfortably. After all, she could deliver a lot of force, and though Laranna’s wrist did seem to reflect the light a bit under her pale cream blouse, attacking her outright made her more than a little uneasy. Still, she managed it, rearing back and unleashing a powerful blow. Her sword rang on contact, stinging her cold hands.

Laranna, likewise, yelped, jumping back, then shaking out her wrist as if it were in pain.

“Are you alright?” the blond Marshal called out, concerned.

“Yes,” Laranna replied. “I’m fine. That stung, but the pain is fading quickly. Try again - I want to see if it works better if I make my shirt into armor rather than my skin.”

As Laranna watched, the threads in her friend’s blouse thickened and hardened. However, instead of metal, they resembled something like bone, or an elk’s horn. She shrugged, then swung again, this time without so much of her weight behind it. This time, the Sorceress didn’t flinch. Athena’s sword seemed to catch a little, and then rebound. The shirt looked only slightly scuffed. “Better, I think, though it’s trickier to hold the shape in my mind,” Laranna said.

“Would it be easier to take something like your armor, and just harden it into better steel, my Lady?” Gelan asked.

“Yes, I think that’s a good idea, though for now, I’ll keep using this,” Laranna pointed out. “I want to see how hard it is to maintain. Athena, are you ready?”

Her friend nodded, and raised her weapon. The dark-haired regent mirrored the gesture, aware how odd she looked, sparring with live weapons in a dress and blouse. Many of the soldiers in the camp quietly dropped what they were doing to watch.

Laranna willed herself to think quickly, to move quickly, to be a blur of speed, as Jacob was, and felt her mind and body respond. When Athena feinted, her step, parry, and riposte were almost instantaneous. However, the veteran, though surprised, countered them easily, and picked up her pace.

The two went back and forth, with Laranna almost striking her friend twice, before the thwack of a sword forced her staggering back. It didn’t hurt, and she had done far better than ever before, but she’d still lost - soundly.

The blond spoke what she was thinking, and with the same emotion, disappointment. “You’ve gotten a lot better, and faster. A bit faster than me, actually - I could hardly keep up. But, it’s not enough. You’re not going to defeat Brightblade that way. Do you think you might get faster with practice?”

It could be, Laranna’s mother spoke, in her mind. You’re not used to thinking of yourself as a warrior, and neither am I. From what I’ve heard from the other Ascended, that matters. Even with great power, how vividly you can imagine yourself doing something new enables you to do it better. Sword-fighting isn’t something we’re good at.

You’re right about that, mother, but what else can we do? Out loud, Laranna replied without confidence, “Yes, perhaps. But Brightblade’s been doing this his whole life. I’m not Lord Jacob, it seems. We’ll have to think of another way.”

“We’re back to poison, then?” Gelan asked, though he seemed pleased that at least Laranna had tried.

I wouldn’t use two-step, the Lady Adelin offered, since Innoken’s started spreading his tale around Vallaton, some Sorcerers have been practicing how to make themselves immune to common poisons. There are animals that are immune to two-step, because of something in their blood that keeps it from stopping their hearts. Some Sorcerers have started taking on aspects of those animals to gain their immunities, as permanent changes in their bodies. Even those who can’t figure that out will likely make an effort to counteract poisons in a battle, with a more active effort. I wouldn’t count on being able to poison a Sorcerer anymore unless you take one by surprise.

Laranna cleared her throat, then rubbed her arms, and her shirt returned to its normal downy texture. “Mother says most Sorcerers are growing wise to dealing with poison, so that’s a gamble. I also think Brightblade must be stronger than I am. Just keeping my armor in place is making me cross-eyed. I’m grateful I was able to heal Athena, since that apparently can be difficult too. Thankfully, Athena, you’re a friend - I couldn’t do that with a stranger. Someone like Magister Francis probably could, though. He’s strong.”

Athena raise an eyebrow. “And yet, I swear your healing was faster. But it proves you can change the people around me. Tell me - do you think you could do for one of us what St. Francis did for Jacob?”

That, my dear, is an excellent question. Laranna shrugged in reply. “The only way to know is to try. Give me your hand.”

“Actually, maybe you should do Gelan,” Athena responded, glancing up at the broad warrior. “He’s a better blade than I am, and if Brightblade attacks, we’ll need the best we can get.”

The Regent looked the question at her Marshal, who nodded. “I would feel better not sending Athena up against Brightblade again. If anything happened to her, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Athena crossed her arms, and gave the man a glare, though it was obvious she was flattered, too. God, if they weren’t sleeping together now, they soon would be. Laranna fought down a twinge of envy, reminding herself that she was happy for them both, and that Athena hadn’t exactly walked the gentlest of roads. The two were a good match, and they both deserved that. If they did bring up the idea of marriage, she would back them to the hilt. “Very well, then give me your hand, Marshal.”

Gelan’s long, thick fingers engulfed her hand. They were warm through his glove, even in the near-winter chill. The raven-haired Lady held them tightly, trying to imagine him with all the speed and strength of a Sorcerer, trying to make that reality be. Then, after a long moment, she let go, though suddenly she felt a new fatigue, like a physical weight on her shoulders.

For his part, Gelan readied his sword and buckler, while Laranna backed away to watch them. Both Marshals grinned at each other, then nodded to signal the beginning of the bout. Gelan struck first, as swift as a serpent, and Athena was caught aback, barely interposing her shield between herself and his thrust. He flowed around it with an unnatural grace, clipping her shield away with his own buckler, and easily making the kill.

“Again?” he asked.

Once Athena nodded, he sprung again, and Athena was beaten backward, batting away his attacks frantically. This time, though her defenses were ready, his strength and speed were awesome, and she simply couldn’t match them. When Jacob had fought, Laranna hadn’t been able to follow - his motions had devolved into flashes and blurs. This time she could see, and realize just how good the man was, as well as be amazed that any human could move like that. Despite his grace, she saw Gelan slip a couple times as his body moved faster than it should. He would step so quickly, his shoes found no purchase in the ground, or move so fast he’d overshoot, though he was adapting quickly. Athena was overcome in moments.

Still, Athena had held her own better than expected. If Gelan was the better swordsman to begin with - “You’re not as fast as Jacob was, are you?”

“No,” Athena pointed out, though she was panting at being pressed so hard, “he’s not. Faster than he was, for damn sure, but I could still mostly follow what he was up to. With Jacob, I couldn’t.

“Hey, sweetheart, how’d that feel?”

Sweetheart? Laranna covered a grin.

Gelan only laughed, loud and rich. “That was amazing!” he exulted. “I’ve never felt anything like it. The whole world seemed to slow.”

“Yes,” Athena replied with deadpan amusement. “It was wonderful on this end too. I’m so looking forward to more of it.”

“Is it - that’s not permanent, is it?” Gelan asked, suddenly hopeful.

The Sorceress shook her head. “I don’t think so, but try now.”

He quickly dove through several sword exercises, blade blurring through the air in intricate patterns. For most people, those moves would be impressive enough, but he shook his head. “No, I guess not.”

Laranna nodded slowly in reply, then closed her eyes against a wave of dizziness, only to find Athena steadying her. “Sorry,” she blurted, “I’m just not used to doing this. Even though mother is doing most of the work, it’s still taking a lot out of me. I think I might have to quit for today.”

Gelan nodded sympathetically. “I can see that. I have to admit, I feel better knowing that we won’t be completely helpless against a Sorcerer, even if only for a few minutes. But I have to ask, are we going to have to face him on the field? I have to admit, my Lady, I’ll be much happier if the answer is no.”

“I don’t know,” Laranna replied, steadying herself. She felt completely drained of will and energy, but at least the dizziness had passed. “I’d hoped that the Empress could help us solve this peacefully, and she still might. She could depose Ervallyn and demand Brightblade offer his allegiance to one of the Count’s sons. Or she could offer amnesty and a title to him, and independence for his hold if he helps fight for her against the rebellion in the South. Or, he’s close to our borders - the Empress could even offer Redhold to us if he’ll swear to us.”

“Or, The Empress could ask that we depose him and end the rebellion, Sorcerer or no,” Gelan replied quietly.

“She could,” Laranna admitted, “but Travan needs all the Sorcerers it can get on its side, and he’d be much more useful as an ally. We were getting somewhere until Ervallyn pulled his idiotic stunt.”

No one said anything, and for a moment she realized that’s because the others were thinking how much better it would be if there were no Sorcerers at all. Laranna couldn’t help but shiver at that. Until now, the Lady Northspire hadn’t realized just how isolated she was about to become - she had thought being a regent was hard, but a Sorceress? Who could possibly trust her? Athena and Gelan were again standing almost inches apart, as if attached at the hip. Laranna felt another twinge of bittersweet jealousy. She had come close a few times, especially with Jacob, but she’d never trusted a man like that.

However, the moment passed, and she realized that whatever her concerns, she had two friends right here. All was well with Athena again, too, so at least one person in the World loved her besides her sister. And so it would be all right, once she was no longer so exhausted. What she needed now, most of all, was a hot shower, a good mug of mead, and a long nap. A book wouldn’t hurt, either.


“Have a seat,” his father said, gesturing vaguely across the room.

The Count didn’t look good, Lord Morgren observed silently. His eyes and cheeks were red, and his hair wavy and unkempt. He would have been up last night drinking again, then. His father, whatever his faults, had been a model of poise and discipline throughout his life - one whose example he’d always striven to live up to. Unfortunately, the man had a cruel streak, but one he’d mostly kept form his wife and sons. Recently, though, Toram’s death had hit him hard.

Morgren, on the other hand, had never been close to his jealous and callous older brother. Toram had avoided him when he could, and snapped at him when he couldn’t. He’d especially been bothered by the level of trust the Count had placed in Morgren.

Count Evallyn did not sit, but paced across the small sitting room, which had the virtue of containing some of the thickest walls in the keep. “I’m sorry to call you in again, when I know you have a lot to be doing. However, there are a few things I need to share with you, son, just in case - “

He paused for a moment, examining his hands, and the neatly tailored tunic that was finally beginning to creep over his belt. “Son, I’m sure you’ve realized by now that we’re losing. The Lady Laranna was already reluctant to help us, but now Holder Brightblade has been revealed as a powerful Sorcerer. I had hoped that his reluctance to attack Talyk mean that he could not. That hope has proved unfounded.

“Lady Northspire, damn her, was right. Toram went too far this time, and in backing him, I’ve made Talyk vulnerable as well. She, of course, holds the incredibly naive view that simply being nice to your subjects will cause them to be grateful for their circumstances. Be too generous, and you’ll find your money is gone when the first famine comes or storm strikes, and see how well your Holders think of you then! When the last famine hit, and we did provide grain, how long did that goodwill last? No, don’t answer. I’m babbling. The point is, we need to start thinking about terms of surrender, if we want to live.”

Morgren’s heart froze within him. A year ago, his father had been celebrating the city’s prosperity, confidently planning to expand to the west, perhaps even winning new titles for his younger sons. “Surrender, are you sure? Shouldn’t we tell Orvan?”

“Not yet,” Count Talyk admitted, “There are a few irons in the fire, but the truth is this is the direst threat Talyk has ever seen. Meanwhile, in the south, Travan itself may be about to fall. This is a poor time to stick one’s neck out. I’ll tell Orvan soon enough, but you always had more sense, and I wanted to hear your reaction first.”

“You’re hoping if you distance yourself from Toram, he’ll keep us around? Maybe give us Redhold in return for Talyk?”

“Yes!” his father responded, eyes widening. This was not the calm, dispassionate man who’d raised him. No, he was wild and his manner disconcerting. “You were always flexible. I’ll have to step down, of course - I’m too much of a threat. But you will make a good Holder. Orvan is too like his older brother, and I think we’ll want him to lie low for a while. We ask first if my stepping down will be enough to keep his loyalty to Talyk, but Brighblade is a Sorcerer, and he’s had a taste of power. Asking for Redhold will be our fallback position, so he will be more like to accept our offer. If Laranna has any sway over the Sorcerer, she’ll also be more likely to speak for you than Orvan or I.”

Morgren found himself nodding, though his heart alternately rose and sunk. Whatever his demeanor, his father’s thoughts were sound. But, Redhold? He’d never dreamed. Still, he had to ask, “What about those irons in the fire? Could this still be avoided?”

Talyk forced himself into a seat, no longer pacing, but running a hand through greasy hair. “Well, it’s remotely possible that the Empress will accept my abdication, but want you or Orvan as Count. Or, the Empress may, if she wins the fight for Travan with her own Sorcerer, simply punish the rebellion. But if the Travansils are victorious, I doubt they’ll care who holds Talyk. We must play for time while any chance remains, but I admit my hopes fade.”

“I see,” Morgren replied softly. And he did. Unfortunately -

At that moment, there was a knock on the door, hard. The Count turned to it, irritated. “Did I not ask to be left alone?”

“Yes, my Lord,” a muffled voice answered through the door, “but there’s a pigeon for you, and you said - “

“Come in!” Ervallyn nearly shouted, “and leave me the message.”

When the door cracked open, the Count nearly ripped the scroll from the messenger’s hand, and dismissed him impatiently. His eager eyes devoured the scroll as soon as the wax seal was broken, and the parchment unfurled. “Yes, yes,” he murmured softly, reading.

Morgren, for some reason, felt his heart pace, as if there were an energy in the air. His father’s grin, for a moment, was almost maniacal - he must have gotten very little sleep. “Oh, son,” he whispered with sudden intensity, “this changes everything.”

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