Needle Ash – Chapter 3: Strange Company, part 2

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Calasora was a massive city, spanning two sides of the great river Tallaros some miles before it bubbled into a wide delta and emptied into the South Sea. The two halves of the city, West and East Calasora, were joined by great stone bridges held above the slow moving river by columns of black basalt. From the river canals and waterways went into the city, supplying fresh water for the many public fountains that served both rich and poor. At the center of the city, standing from the Western shore to an island in the river, stood the great Citadel of Artifia, which served as palace, cathedral, and fortress to the royal family of Harthino, along with the rich denizens that inhabited the mansions that surrounded it.

The west bank of the city had also over the years come to be called the “City of Walls,” or more affectionately, “the Onion City,” on account of its long succession of defensive walls. Each of these walls was built during a different period in the city, and reflected different tastes and defensive designs. As the city grew out past a wall, a new one was built to contain it. At five walls the attempts had stopped, and the city just went sprawling over the rocky countryside and to the other side of the river, which had its own (smaller) fortress and wall entitled to whatever family was most politically connected at the time to the royal line.

The gates of the walls were offset from each other, but a wide avenue wound between them. It was on this avenue, and approaching the first gate, that Michael finally decided he could part ways with Sharona without feeling a loss of his honor.

“So, where are you headed?” Michael said.


“We are here.”

“Alright then.”

Michael grumbled. “Where in the city do you need to be?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you know? Do you just not know where to go? I know the city well. Tell me what you seek and I shall tell you where to go.”

“I don’t seek anything in particular.”

“Then why did you come here?”

“Because you were coming here.”

Michael slapped his own face. “So you had no reason to be here?”

“I had an excellent reason to be here. I’m here because you are here. Because you need my protection.”

“I don’t need your protection.”

Sharona laughed. “Of course you do. Why else would I be here?”

“You’re not making any sense!”

“Of course not. You don’t make sense, you have sense.”

“Artifia, grant me patience!” Michael sighed and turned to Sharona. She wore a half-smile, as if she was getting something over on him. “What makes you think I need protection from you.”

“Because I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need me. Didn’t I just say that?”

“What… What made you think you ought to come here, and that I needed you?”

“Didn’t you answer your own question?”

“Grim’s bones. I have some kind of luck.”

“There’s no such thing as luck, Michael, just as there is no such thing as coincidence. I ran into you under that tree for a reason.”

“That reason being I require protection.”

“It’s my assumption. It could be something else, but that will become obvious when it arrives. I just know that I was placed under that tree as surely as the farmer was placed in Garamesh’s cave.”

Michael urged his horse forward, and Sharona kept pace. “I know of an inn up the way here that’s rather quiet and safe. I’ll pay to put you up for a few nights, and you can decide what it is you need to do from there.”

“Alright, but I’ll pay. I’m no pauper. I can make money fairly easily too, if needed.”

“Suite yourself.”

“Of course I suit myself. What would I do if I didn’t?”

Michael shook his head and grumbled. As they ambled between the houses, he drew out the sealed scroll addressed to Julia, stamped with Johan’s signet of a scorpion.

“What’s that?” Sharona asked.

“A letter from my brother to his betrothed.” Michael looked at the rolled paper and chewed his lip.

“Curious what it says?”

“Yes, of course. Who isn’t curious what’s in a sealed letter?”


“You say that,” Michael said, looking to Sharona and her calm, generous smirk. “Actually, I might believe that you alone aren’t held by the curiosity of secrets, if you were to say it.”

“Oh, but I don’t say that. I said I wasn’t curious about sealed letters. When is the last time a secret was put to letter?”

Michael chuckled. “You aren’t noble.”

“I know. I’m virtuous. There’s a difference, you know.” Sharona paused and tapped her lips. “I think I could reseal the letter if you are indeed so curious. I know a little spell for moving things backwards a few minutes.”

“Handy, but no,” Michael said. “If there is something worth knowing in this letter, aside from private salutations, Julia will tell me. We spent our childhoods together and are friends, of a sort.”

“Why aren’t you betrothed to her?”

Michael paused and gazed at Sharona. “I don’t think I understand.”

Sharona raised her eyebrows, giving her calm face a frightened expression. “Your friends, grew up together you say, and you clearly share confidence.  You hadn’t thought of courting her?”

“It doesn’t work like that in Artilland,” Michael said. “Except maybe with peasants.”

“Well, who are you engaged to?”

“Nobody. Yet. Though I’ve had several offers, I think I shall find most of those maidens suddenly unavailable.”

“You’d think the prospect of marrying a prince would make them available.”

“That depends on which prince. A second son who has had his titles and pensions stripped? Not much value there, even in terms of prestige.”

They were silent for a minute or two, Michael refusing to look over at the mage.

“You never asked me if I was engaged,” Sharona said. “Isn’t it good manners here to return conversation questions as such?”

“Among equals,” Michael said. He grumbled to himself, then said, “Who are you engaged to?”

“Nobody,” Sharona said.

“Then why did you make me ask?”

“I didn’t make you do anything.” She sighed. “I’m afraid my father will not be pleased. He thought my standards were already too high, and now I am talking to a prince.”

Michael shook his head and sighed.


The castle, as grand as it was and as filled it was with servants and ministers, felt cold and lonely to Michael without his father, brother, and friends in arms hanging about. Not for the first time he missed his mother, if for no other reason than he knew she was somebody who would speak to him with love, regardless of what had happened following the last battle with the Ferrallese forces.

He made up his mind early in the morning to go hunting, favoring the warm spring weather and wishing to leave the ancient walls of Artifia’s citadel. When he exited the courtyard for the stables, his great hunting crossbow on his shoulder, he found Sharona standing idly by, playing a card game by herself on an upturned crate.

“Sharona,” Michael said. “I expected you would be on your way by now.”

“To where, exactly?” Sharona said, puzzling over the face-up cards in her solitaire game.

“To your home.”

“I decided that you still need me.”

“I do not.”

“I don’t believe you are in the best position to judge. Hence I will continue to protect you until such time as I feel that you do not need me.”

“I am in the best position to judge.”

“Then you have discovered who the traitor is. Are we off to rouse him?” Sharona stood up and adjusted an old sword that belted around her simple dress.

“What? No. I was going to go hunting. Now go home.” Michael turned to walk to the stables, but stopped as Sharona followed him.

“Do have to make the castle guard lock you up?”

“Are you actually going to have the guard lock me up?”

Michael grunted in frustration and walked to the stables. He picked out his favorite hunting horse, a roan he named Tutt, and with the help of a servant began saddling and setting up his gear.

He rode to the front gate, where the huntmaster, an old war hero with one eye named Sotoro, waited with his hounds. Sharona was there too, a few paces away and watching the hounds nervously.

“Who’s the wench, my magnanimous lord?” Sotoro said.

“A mage. Call her my bodyguard, I suppose,” Michael said.

Sotoro smiled. “You have good tastes, your beneficent grace. Your servant Sotoro, loyal to the last, approves.”

“It’s not like that, huntmaster.”

“Of course it isn’t, your high gracefulness. I wasn’t insinuating anything improprietous, my great and powerful prince.”

“Enough with the groveling, Sot. Have you a good line on the game today?”

“Most good, High Lord. Good deer, good foxes. Good boar too, mighty one.”

“Well… good, then. Lead on.”

They followed Sotoro out of the castle and down to the river, where they took a path that wound north, past rows of houses that grew steadily newer and of lesser construction, passing alongside a stone wall meant to defend an assault from the river. Eventually they came to a sparse wood, well maintained, and met another retinue of the huntmaster’s helpers, as well as a few soldiers. They were sitting in the back of a wagon, and this they followed further into the trees.

“Did you deliver your letter yet?” Sharona said.

“No,” Michael said.

“Why is that?”

“I haven’t had the time.”

“Which explains why we are hunting, yes? We are desperate need of food!”

“Very funny,” Michael said.

“Is it because you don’t want to tell her you got sacked?”

“Of course not. That will be news eventually anyway. Probably already is, the way my father runs the pigeons.”

“Ah,” Sharona said. “I think I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. It is like a child that stays away from home when he knows he’s done something wrong. The punishment is coming no matter what, but it feels better in the moment to avoid it than to take it on.”

“It’s nothing like that.”

“Then let’s go deliver the letter.”

“You wouldn’t be coming with me if I did,” Michael said.

At last they reached the royal hunting grounds, a wide stretch of meadows and woods near the great river. After watering the dogs, Sotoro unleashed them. He kicked his horse into a gallop, following them a dozen or so yards to their right. Michael rode off to their right, dashing ahead of them to intercept the prey they scared up.

The assistants to the huntmaster had already stationed themselves further up, and caught a few quail as the dogs snarled and snapped at a covey that flew up from some bushes. For the better part of half an hour they followed the two hounds around in a wide circle, but not larger game presented themselves. Michael decided to go further upland, in hope of finding a velvet stag, but after an hour of riding he acquiesced to watering Tutt at a creek and resting, finding his himself too inwardly distracted to search for the signs of deer.

The day wore on, at last they set out on the trek back to the citadel, no big game in tow.

“No luck today,” Sharona said as they ambled beside the river.

“Well, we got some quail. Good eating for the huntsmen.” Michael took a long drink of water and looked up at an overhanging pine tree, leaning precariously to one side.

“You’ve been quiet and far too polite. You seem distracted.”

“I am. Something you said, maybe. About a traitor. I keep thinking about it. In truth, I considered it during the battle but put it out of my mind since I had my commission stripped. That tends to obfuscate such thoughts.”

“Oh yes, Go on, who do you think it is?”

“I don’t know yet, but as my mind replays the events of the battle, I can’t help but think it likely. There’s no way Ballaco would have committed an entire battalion to a sortie down that northern ravine, unless he knew the resistance would be mild and the prize ripe. I doubt he even knew of the ravine, and certainly I find it unlikely he knew of the position of our forward camp. I think our camp placement, even was a weakness. So somebody had to tell him what we were doing.”

Michael snapped his fingers. “He was using our plan against us. Had he come through the ravine when he did, he would have had hundreds of men – fairly fresh men, at that – standing between our forward lines and our reserves. The men on the field might have been crushed with no fresh feet to replace them. And our reserves contained no cavalry. The field proper would be lost, and with the push of the entire Ferrallese army, the camp would have been overrun eventually, and above all we would be too scattered to reform and counter-attack after the route.”

“I just figured  I wouldn’t have been sacked unless I did something I wasn’t supposed to, and I happened to not be very informed as to what I was supposed to be doing.”

“Good point, though why not Angelico?” Michael shook his head. “I can’t see who would have done it.”

“I’m sure you can. Unless he is invisible,” Sharona giggled. “The army is a big group, though.”

“Yes,” Michael said. “But if you consider timing… The plan was disseminated until right before the battle to the other officers. It had to be somebody in top command, or else Ballaco was a very lucky guesser indeed.”

“Well, I say it was general whats-his-name, since the king has no reason to lose a war, and by extension, his sons don’t.”

“Or Towler.”

“Towler is far too honest for that,” Sharona said. “Not ambitious enough, and he’s terrible at keeping secrets.”

“He is?”

“Oh yes, he told me all about the battle plan.”

“That rat. It had to be him,” Michael said, sitting up in the saddle and petting Tutt nervously.

“Or the general.”

“Butler has always been loyal. Plus his daughter is Julia and engaged to the crown prince.” Michael pumped his fist. “Damn that they won’t be back for weeks. They’ll be in Ferralla negotiating with the queen for terms of surrender and peace. And that snake Towler will be there.Who knows what he’ll be able to accomplish?”

“I know. He’s a good mage and I’m sure can accomplish a lot, but I don’t think he’s a traitor.”

“He’s the most likely, the weakest link in loyalty.” Michael took a deep breath. “I’m going to have to travel to Ferralla, and quickly.”

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.


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