“It was necessary,” Michael said.
“I didn’t say anything,” Sharona said. The were riding out past the Ferrallese army encampment, their troops having left it abandoned save for a few cowardly men who refused to bar the way forward.
“The look on your face said that you didn’t care for our dispatchment of the captain.”
“I don’t believe it was the only solution, ‘tis true,” Sharona said. “I broke his leg so we would not have to kill him. Otherwise I would have done something to simply kill him quickly.”
“If we didn’t kill him, the army would have, for bribery and other high crimes. The only other solution would be to take him with us, and we can’t spare the thought for an injured man. If anything, we treated him mercifully, for the army would have given him much more pain in attending to death.”
Sharona rode beside Michael along the wide road that cut through the open plains of Ferralla. Farmhouses long gone to ruins dotted the grassy landscape around them, along with remnants of stone walls and the occasional fence post. Herds of antelope roamed unmolested between groves of dry oaks and willows near creek beds.
“How much longer, do you think?” Sharona said.
“By our old catalogues we will reach the city tomorrow night. We should find some semblance of civilization today, though I think we may find it somewhat diminished.”
“What happened here?”
Guissali cleared his throat. “My lady, do not trouble yourself over the details. The people here left.”
“I am strong of stomach, if you are thinking of describing a battle, or plague,” said Sharona, smiling at the frowning Guissali, bent over on his horse in a sort of bow.
“It was one, then the other,” Michael said. “But of a terrible sort. It is considered bad luck to speak of it.”
“I told you that there is no such thing as luck,” Sharona said.
Michael smiled. “It was during the reign of my grandfather, when the kingdoms of the Divine Strand were poised to once again be united as the once great Empire of the Divine. Pious Patruffi, the king of Verbia by original title, was uniting all the twelve kingdoms, one by one, under the banner of the Golden Sun. The first few kingdoms to fall – Nautalia and Nosterina, if I remember well my books – fell by the white sword, but the other kingdoms, witnessing the might of Verbia and the swiftness with which Pious was reorganizing their militaries in imperial form, soon began to form tentative alliances with one another, unheard of in these times.
“The conquest continued, but mostly via civil machinations. Pious satisfied many by removing the title of emperor from himself and agreeing that it should belong to his daughter. A daughter that would be birthed by the princess of Ferralla, that being the only country whose military might might withstand the rest of the other other kingdoms.”
“Why a daughter?” Sharona asked.
“That no king might seek the seat of the empire for himself. It tempted many, for therein seemed to lie the prospect of peace in our wide lands. Even my grandfather Thomas, shrewd and cautious, saw the virtue in it and soon swore fealty to Pious.”
“He saw the way the wind was blowing, your highness,” Guissali said. “He was never a fool to believe in prophecies and promises. He knew that if Ferralla was under the influence of Pious, we wouldn’t stand a chance on the battlefield. Better fealty with conditions than servitude in conquest.”
“Guissali has his opinions,” Michael said. “Being a great veteran, he sees it partly as it was. There was no way we could resist without our alliance with Ferralla. But, these things did not come to pass. The princess of Ferralla, the mother of queen Alanarae, usurped her father and claimed the monarchy for herself. In truth, the coupe had been staged by our own spymasters. Adonala was the name of the princess, and her coupe was swift and total, supported by most of the land’s lords.
“She nullified the arranged marriage with Pious, who was more than twenty years her senior, and the great war began.”
“This plain held a great battle,” Guissali said. “The greatest that has been fought in the Fourth Dominion. It was here that Pious revealed a bit of who he really was – an apostate and a sorceror. He used… forbidden magic.”
Sharona raised an eyebrow to Guissali, who chewed his lip.
“He raised the dead,” Michael said. “A forbidden act, even among mages. A contagious was spread, and men fell. They rose again as undead thrall.”
“That is ancient magic,” Sharona said. “I presume he was stopped?”
“Yes,” Michael said. “My grandfather betrayed his oath and turned on Pious. With Ferralla and Artalland working together, he was stalled, even as the ranks of the dead grew. What happened after is… uncertain.”
“It was a dragon,” Guissali said. “A dragon brought the men of the north down and slew Pious.”
“It was not a dragon,” Michael said. “But there was a cadre of sorcerers who came from the north, mostly a mix of elves and men of the petty kingdoms. Nobody was sure of who assembled them, but they broke the stalemate and gave the dead peace. Pious was killed by my grandfather in the final fight, but was struck dead for it, a consequence of his betrayal and the magic that Pious had laid on him.”
“That’s where Tolwer’s from,” Guissali said. “He came down at the end of the war and just ended up sticking around, helping the young king do everything important.”
“How did you go from being allies to enemies?” Sharona asked.
“Politics,” Michael said. “Failure of agreements made in the wake of that conflict, which couldn’t be met.”
“What about your father’s aims?” Sharona said. “Did he not wish conquest?”
“He does desire conquest. He is not Thomas, after all, but one cannot propose a campaign of conquest, for it is distasteful. You have to cook up other reasons for a war to fund the damn thing, and then act like conquest is a happy accident when you pass out knew fiefdoms to your power base.
Now that we are successful these lands can be re-settled by Artallan people, the fields resown and renewed.”
“If any will come,” Guissali said.
They stayed in a town called Lore that night, under the story that they were merchants traveling to Forgoroto, though the mood in the town was sombre and nobody, not even the sheriff, seemed to care about their story. Many of the houses stood dark and shut: abandoned for long or for but a short while, they could not say.
The next day brought them within sight of Forgoroto, which was built upon a defensible hill of rock, its proud gates shut and manned, it’s banner of a bright red hammer flying proud in the winds of the plains. Before it and around the walls stood encamped the great army of Artalland with its three legions. Michael’s legion now flew the green banner of Butler’s command, a sign that he had truly been excised from the force he had spent the last few years training and deploying in war to great effect.
Michael watched the fires of the night being lit from where he camped with his own party, on a tree-clad hill a mile or two away. A fenced area within held what Michael knew to be the prisoners of war from the last battle, a bargaining chip to proceed a possible siege, though Michael thought from the size of the enclosure a good portion of the Ferrallese army had managed to flee back to Forgoroto and add to its final defense.
Michael stood as a horseman approached. The man atop waved a banner that could just be discerned to be blue in the failing light.
“Angelico!” Michael said, laughing as his friend rode forth. “I thought you’d have been discharged for sure!”
Angelico slowed and dismounted. “Evening sir. I was discharged actually, along with the sergeant major. Butler gave me a new commission before I could pack up and leave camp. He offered to reinstate Gadero, even demanded it, but he said he’s as soon be hung a deserter as work a day past when his proper retirement ought to begin.” Angelico laughed. “He wanted you back, too, but you left so quickly. You might yet get your commission back, actually. I can just talk to Butler for you, tell him you are here.”
Michael was silent for a moment, mulling it over in his head.
“I don’t think so, just yet at least,” he said. “I didn’t come here to try to get my position back. I came here because I believe there is a traitor somewhere in high command.”
“What?” Angelico said. “Come off it.”
“Have you spent much time thinking about the battle?”
“Well, yes of course, sir. I’ve been thinking about how damn lucky I was you showed up.”
“The luck was in seeing the approach of the Ferrallese division, if there was any luck. Have you thought about why the enemy sent that many men down that corridor, away from the field?”
“Trying to flank us.”
“I forget you weren’t in the war council,” Michael said. He scratched his chin nervously. “I foiled a plan to make us lose that battle. Someone in the council sent a message to Ballaco, and he acted on it. I believe it is Fowler, but I cannot prove it yet.”
“The mage? Why him?”
“He’s the only one that had anything to gain.”
“Maybe he sent a message using magic, eh?”
“Maybe, maybe not. A good spy could have gotten a message out without much difficulty. We like to pretend we have good security, but spend a little time at the top of command and you know that’s just a passing idea to impart fear to the lower-downs. Anyway, I need your help to corner Fowler, before he can try to do anything else.”
“What do you think he’ll do?”
Michael put his palms up. “I really don’t know, partly because I don’t know what’s going on here. My guess is that he’ll do something to push this into a proper siege and then sabotage our efforts.”
Angelico looked off to the camp with a puzzled look on his face. “Why not just kill the king? He’s around him all the time.”
“I don’t know, but I presume if that is what he intended he would have already done that.”
“Then it seems likely to me to be someone other than Towler. Somebody else lower down the command chain without access to the king.”
“Or mayhap he feels the need to escape. It would be easy to do in a battle route.”
“True, true. Or in a siege turned into open battle.”
Michael snapped his fingers. “What if he’s attending the negotiations with the king?”
“It would be an opportunity to kill your father, whilst everyone in the room is disarmed.”
Michael nodded. “We’ve got to keep him away from the king in that contingency. When are the negotiations taking place?”
“Tomorrow at sundown.”
“That’s not much time. Is there some way to keep him occupied and away from the meeting?”
“I’ll try to think of something. Maybe we could start a fire or let the horses out. An event that would force him to attend to the immediate danger and ignore the council, or risk being outed.”
Michael thought for a moment. “I’ll present myself tomorrow. My father and brother may accept me into the council as a member of the royal family.”
“What are you going to do against a mage?”
“I have my own mage. She’s very clever. She was with us in the battle.”
“I think I remember her. Sharona? Your brother sent her home quite abruptly. She didn’t seem to care.”
“Yes. It was father who sacked the rest of us. But your brother wanted that woman out of camp for some reason.”
Michael frowned. “She can be a bit much. Personality-wise, I mean. But she’s very talented and a sore asset to be lost to the military.”
Angelico shrugged. “That’s not my area of expertise, magic.”
“I’ve learned a bit. Do you have any men you can trust?”
“Of course. And you’re earned a great amount of goodwill yourself. There’s plenty of men in the legion who would follow you to hell and back after what you did in the last battle.”
“What are they calling that battle anyway?”
“The men are calling it Ballaco’s End.”
“Good name,” Michael said, smiling.
Michael startled awake and reached for his sword before realizing the face above him in the dim lantern light was Langelo.
“What is it?” Michael croaked.
“Sire, I’ve seen a man go over the wall.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was keeping watch on our camp. The big army camp, I mean. I saw a man go up to the wall and over it.”
“He climbed the wall, or had a ladder let down?” Michael said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
“Neither, sire. He sort of… floated up.”
“Magic?” Michael said, looking around the tent, confused.
“Can’t think of anything else, sire.”
“It’s towler. We need to watch and see if he comes back down.”
“I’m on it,” Langelo said.
Langelo came stumbling back into camp as Guissali and Michael were eating a sparse breakfast of eggs and bread.
“Never a sign all night, your highness,” he said breathily.
Michael frowned. “We’ll have to do better today. Where is Sharona?” Michael added absent-mindedly.
“Sleeping still,” Guissali said. He shoveled some eggs onto a plate and handed them to Langelo. “I was thinking, sire. Why not just do Towler in? You’re a good shot. I’ll put you in the back of the wagon, cover you with hay. I could get you real close to the gates, too. You could just pop a bolt into the mage, and problem solved.”
Michael stopped eating for a moment. “I’ve thought of that, too. But that would be death for all of you, for conspiracy in the assassination of the head of the mage corps.”
“But no execution for you. Royal blood and all.”
“No,” Michael said. “Out of the question. I’ll not accept living while my friends hang. Besides, I want to catch and expose Towler, not simply kill him. I don’t want his treason to go unrecognized.”
The flap to Sharona’s tent moved and she emerged, clothed in a wrinkled dress and looking disheveled.
“I had a dream,” she said affirmatively before sitting down on a rock by the campfire and dishing food out to herself.
“We all had dreams,” Guissali said. “I dreamt I was falling into the ocean, but the ocean was stone instead of water.”
“I had a dream I was looking in a mirror, but it wasn’t my reflection, it was someone else’s,” Sharona said. “Someone with a different face who spoke to me with a different voice.”
“Does it mean something, though?” Michael said.
“I means I’m afraid,” Guissali said. “As if we all aren’t.”
“It means I’m not seeing well enough,” Sharona said sadly. “I don’t like feeling uncertain.”
Michael laughed. “Nobody does, but uncertainty is this day. Let’s make a good show of it. Oh, and here.” He handed across a small cloth bag. “I traded that from one of Angelico’s officers, who’ve been keeping an eye on our little camp for us.”
Sharona undid the bag and withdrew a finely carved pipe of dense, dark wood depicting a simple dragon on the bowl.
“It’s real briarwood from the Northmarch.”
“Thank you,” Sharona said, her eyes narrowing as she examined it. “I… Thank you.”
“There’s some tobacco in there as well.”
Sharona gave Michael a soft smile, and put the long stem in her teeth.
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.