Ges’ shoulders ached as she sat atop her red courser, standing at the Way Ridge, a small incline in the great plains that swooped down into Euskati territory. They had been ten days riding, twelve hours a day, and for the last two she had been sleeping in her armor.
The western half of the Al Skati was a light but steady sweep of grassy fields, dotted with wild wheat, crystal ponds, and tiny forests of no more than nine or ten cedars, slowly growing higher as one rode east. There were only two major towns in the western half of Al Skati, on or near the River Questing, though of course dozens of tiny villages dotted the fair green landscape. The eastern half of the region, though, was essentially unsettled.
“We can still turn back,” Sir Rehfan offered.
She glanced at the young paladin. Well favored and strong jawed, Sir Rehfan Nudul shaved every day and eschewed any scarving, allowing his lustry hair to show whenever his helm was hooked to the side of his saddle. His tan-and-ghast palfrey was unremarkable as palfreys went, but a reliable horse beyond doubt. Much the same could be said of the man himself. Sir Rehfan was a paladin in his middle twenties, a third son that had given up what little inheritance he had to join the Temple. Aside from his blue eyes and naked jaw, Sir Rehfan was indistinguishable from any of the dozens of young paladins hoping to make a name for themselves defending Dalsaman from the Monosi hordes. Except that Sir Rehfan’s uncle was a good friend of some influential lord in Tsen Ikha, the capital of Zalja, so he was granted the honor of a position in Ges’ Six.
“Summon the wizard,” she said, stretching the cricks out of her neck. The boy rode off at once. She continued to survey the sweep with small eyes made sharp by years of honing. Even from here, far to the north she could see the beginnings of the Qualniri Hills, where the hill folk dwelt in their simple huts and hollowed caves. Simple, unlettered people, the hill folk were used to work the mines of the southern Shadowgate Mountains, which yielded Lesser and Greater Fire, as well as Lesser and Greater Stone. Those mines were critical to the success of the nation, as Lesser Stone was the magic used to grant fertility and viability to the soil. Khabar to the south was the only one of the four Great Satari Nations that did not have access to Lesser Stone, and a quick glance at their sear fields and the frozen forests was instructive in the value of magic.
These mines were vital, perhaps the most vital resource in all of Zalja. And they were dangerously close to the eastern front, and therefore the Monosi hordes. They were well defended, as the Khan pointed out, and East Mine would likely run dry in a few generations anyway, but the fact remained pertinent. Without a writ of war, they still had no way of knowing precisely what the Monosi and their king wanted. She was tempted to ride toward the mines and make sure of their defenses. But her duty and her heart drew her to Dalsaman.
She had left Dalsaman for the capital at ten years. In many ways, it could not even be called her home. Yet still she remembered reading in her father’s lap, eating peaches sent from Ubrorough to the south. Peaches were not unknown in Tsen Ikha, of course, but Ges Ra Ividar rarely had time for such indulgences. Much of Dalsaman had faded from her memory, but many a night she awoke with the scent of peaches lingering in the air.
“You sent for me, Commandrix?” asked a light but firm voice.
Nearly three-dozen wizards had joined this holy quest, most of them by direct order of the Khan. Wizards were a famously impious lot, and owed no obeisance to the Holy Solulan, going only where their studies or occasionally opportunity led them. This wizard, however, was different. Mamun wore robes of peach and yellow, while most wizards wore black, and said more than once that he looked forward to the day when the sun would never set on the Holy Zaljan Empire. An odd expression, as Zalja had not been an empire for two centuries. Still, he was an amiable man, who expressed no political preferences nor any personal ambitions. This meant either that he was an extraordinarily objective individual or an exceptionally skilled dissembler. Either way, he was a useful council.
Mamun had a fluffy fringe of mostly-ghast hair upon his weathered head, large eyes of grey, and a fatherly smile beneath his hooked nose. He was riding upon a sorrel mare that looked good enough to bear baggage and little more. She had not answered his query, so he instead looked out upon the eastern fields.
“The Euskati Plains,” he said appreciatively. He nodded to the left, “And the Qualniri Hills if I’m not mistook. I have never been. I should love to see where my Air Magic comes from.”
“They have Air Magic there?”
“A little, in the East Mine. It is running out, I hear. I hope the Khan will send expeditions farther into the mountains someday soon. There are tales of horrible devils and great beasts in the Shadowgates, of course, but then there are tales of the Twenty-Seven Mothers and the great Undersea in Yena to the west. Tales are everywhere,” he concluded, also appreciatively.
Yena to the west was a backwater nation that had never embraced Satar as the one true Mother, but still worshipped all her mortal disciples as gods. Many an Archon from the Holy Solulan had suggested Crusades into Yena in hopes of converting them, but neither emperor nor khan had supported such an action. Yet.
“What do you see?” she asked him, being deliberately vague.
“Beautiful grasses,” he answered at once. “Good Zaljan shortgrass as far as the eye goes, and I believe I spy some swathes of Yenai wavegrass, surprising this far east. A patch or two of sweetgrass there to the south,” he pointed,” we might find some flowers there, and some bees’ nests in those nearby cedars. A little disturbance near the horizon looks to be evidence of a recent antelope excursion. Perhaps a tiger scared them off.”
“Ahhh,” he nodded sagely, “perhaps you are rather asking me what I do not see. I fail to see any stretches of torn up earth, nor any great damage to the tiny forests. I fail to see any evidence of the Euskati having ridden here recently.”
She smiled grimly at that. “Good.”
“But of course, you knew this already, Commandrix.”
“I did. What can you tell me of the Euskati?”
“That you do not already know? Little enough, I expect.” He stroked his long, narrow beard in a manner that might have seemed obscene in another man. “Tribal, obviously. They live their lives on horseback. They revere their chieftains as gods, yet they elect those chieftains each time the prior one dies. There was once a chieftain a hundred years back or so, Gorifen I think was his name, who tried to bestow his title on his son. It ended poorly.”
“Gorifen? What manner of name is that?”
“An odd one, yes,” Mamun nodded. “The Euskati are Zaljans, through and through, but their chieftains grant themselves peculiar names upon election. The style supposedly comes from the northern empires, though how a tribe of nomadic horsemen could hold such intimate knowledge of cultures two thousand miles away is quite beyond me, I confess.”
“They are Zaljans, yes,” Ges agreed. “Why are they allowed to roam out here? Why are they permitted to harass travelers and waylay armies?”
“Most don’t,” Mamun assured her. “The tales you have heard may be exaggerated. Some chieftains take their godhood too seriously and try to carve out a little kingdom on these Plains, but most recognize the Khan, and his armies. More troublesome chieftains come by once every decade or so.”
Those were good odds, but still she worried. “Even so, should not the Prefect of Al Skati deal with them?”
“In truth, the Euskati’s ranging covers more of Bulgi Senene to the east than Al Skati. Both Prefects seem to think the other is responsible for handling them.
Ges tightened her lips. “And his Grace?”
Mamun cleared his throat. “The funny thing about these elected chieftains, is that they tend to be very old, age being conflated with wisdom as often as it is. Troublesome chieftains, when they do come along, are very often older than myself, and living on horseback does not often bode well for the elderly. So you see, Commandrix, time often takes care of these troublemakers before the Khan might bother to bestir himself.” He shrugged. “And who knows? Perhaps their current chieftain is the peaceable sort. They are hunters first and foremost, not warriors or raiders.”
She hummed at that. “Perhaps we can ride straight through without being seen.”
Mamun did not answer right away. “Perhaps, Commandrix,” he said at last.
They were all ahorse. The foot, archers, adherents, and other wizards had all been sent along the Bayan Ors Road to the south, under command of Dame Hali. It was a longer route, but paved, and safer for those on foot.
She summoned the remaining five members of her Six and divided them amongst the mounted troops. She gave orders to ride in as narrow a line as possible, in the fool’s hope of evading notice. Dame Hali was with the foot along the Bayan Ors Road, so at the front of her column she placed Dame Tiir: a pretty, young, but determined warrior who claimed to have ridden before she could walk. Sir Kenahl took the rear: a grizzled man even older than Ges, who was said to have eyes sharper than a harpy’s, and could be counted on to spur stragglers as well as to seek out pursuit. Sir Sanin and Sir Waldun were paladins from Khabar, and she charged with riding up and down the line; many grumbled when Ges added them to her Six, but they came with glowing recommendations from the Holy Archon himself. Sir Rehfan and herself kept the south and north side of the center. If an attack was coming, it would likely strike them from the north, looking to sever their line and maximize confusion, so that was where she kept herself.
Two more days passed with no incident. She wanted to ride longer days, but knew better than to push them through the night: the Plains were clear and level, but even a trained destrier could miss a divot, trip, and break its leg. If the All-Mother meant for them to cross the Eusktai, they would, and all the lamed horses in the world would not prevent that.
As if in answer to this, scouts brought reports on the thirteenth day of their ride of a host riding to cut them off about two miles ahead, from the north. She sent the scouts ahead with orders, then called over Sir Rehfan. “Tell my squire to meet me a mile on with my black destrier, and make sure Sir Sanin and Sir Waldun are with us when we stop there. Meet me there with my standard.” He assented and rode off.
“Your standard, Commandrix?” called the wizard Mamun, riding up just then. “Do you not fear the Euskati might react… poorly? That is the black lion on your standard, am I not mistaken?”
“What of it?”
“The black lion is the symbol of Ilwa Nuq, is it not? The Mother of Valor?”
“Many warriors wear the black lion on their armor.”
“But they do not fly it on their banners. The Euskati are still Zaljans. They are as Satariai as you or I. What might they think if they find an army riding through their lands with a heretic’s standard flying?”
She grunted at that, but could not deny his wisdom. “A shame we are not crossing the Yenai instead.”
“I agree. They have not fought a war in over five centuries, it is said.”
It was nearly an hour before the horses were assembled in a casual line: not threatening, but capable of moving into position at an instant’s notice. Dame Tiir and Sir Kenahl kept the far ends, ready to signal a pincer attack as needed. Sir Rehfan offered a wounded look when she ordered him to strike her standard, but he soon returned with a more conventional Zaljan banner: a black Satari triangle, tall and bisected down the middle, upon a peached field.
Sirs Sanin and Waldun were the clinchers of this treating. Veterans of many battles in the frigid south of Khabar, they made for singularly frightening figures. Both were even taller than Ges, huge of shoulder, their black leathers and purple wool lined with white and green bison hair. Their faces were blocky and worn pale by the harsh winters of Khabar. Sir Sanin had a patch of snakeskin over his right eye, which he claimed to have lost to a jealous lover. Sir Waldun was missing both ears and the tip of his nose, taken by frostbite his first year as a paladin. The three eyes they had were hard, flinty, and humorless, their black beards full and scraggly and fierce. Whatever this Euskati chieftain was, he would be a fool to underestimate these two men.
“The Khabarese are giving our men some pause,” Sir Rehfan murmured as he returned with the Zaljan standard.
“Good,” she answered.
The Euskati had expected to cut them off a full mile ahead, and so were now riding back to them directly from the east. It was late in the day, and the sun would be in their eyes if they were foolish enough to attack. Even as they approached, Ges saw the scouts’ estimates of their numbers had been too generous. A thousand at most. They could cut through them like butter, though not without cost. Besides, these were Zaljans, not foreign bandits.
The Euskati were still a minute or two away when Mamun arrived at her side, eliciting a grumble from Sir Rehfan. “Careful,” he said upon spying the Euskati chieftain. “If you speak too loudly, I fear this man may fall off his horse.”
True to Mamun’s prediction, the man at the Euskati head looked like to die in his porridge any day. Ghast as milk, with a grey beard that could eat Sirs Sanin’s and Waldun’s both, his hawkish nose drooped almost to his thin lips, and a harsh grey eye glittered in the dying sun. Over his left eye was a patch of black leather, and his left ear looked to have been sliced off, along with a portion of his skull, by an ax from the look of it.
“I like this fellow,” Sir Sanin said with a voice like stone grinding on steel. “Something about him looks homey.”
“No doubt he’s some distant relative,” Sir Waldun added with a leathery growl. Sir Waldun’s voice stirred parts of Ges better left sleeping, though the rest of him was as alluring as a dead snake. All the same, it cheered her to find that these two foreigners of stone had humors in them after all.
When the chieftain pulled up four yards before them, a burly old woman that looked to be his daughter lifted a huge horn to her lips and blew. A deep, rumbling bellow stormed out against the sky, and the ground seemed to tremble beneath them. The Euskati horses stood firm at this, but she was pleased to note that her own remained calm as well.
The chieftain’s horse was small, though nothing to scorn. A grey-and-ghast pie-bald stallion past its prime, she had seen for herself it could cover distance at speed. Next to her black warhorse, though, it was like the shadow of a mouse.
As she had hoped, the chieftain’s glance lingered on the Khabarese men for the barest moment before he spoke.
“Who are you,” he croaked.
Sir Rehfan hoisted his standard up. “You stand before Ges Ra Ividar, who renounced the Prefecture of Dejitsa to be honored as Divine Commandrix in Satar’s Holy Army; who subdued the rebels at Bariat Uur; who interposed—”
She held up a hand before him. “That will do, Sir Rehfan, thank you.” She nudged her destrier forward a few steps, both to make things more intimate and to ensure this chieftain got a good look. “My name is Ges Ra Ividar, I am a servant of the Holy Solulan and acting here under orders of the Khan. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
The old man beat his chest so fiercely she was certain he would have a bruise there the next day, assuming he saw the next day. “I am Paladrok the Second, King of the Euskati. What are you doing in my lands?”
“These lands belong to the Khan of Zalja!” Sir Rehfan began, before Ges interrupted him again.
“Monosi barbarians have struck the great city of Dalsaman to the east, laying waste to many homes and attacking innocent peasants and children. We hope to reach them as quickly as we can. We had no time to send messengers of courtesy to you. I am come to ask your forgiveness, as well as your leave to pass through your lands.”
King Paladrok’s eye bit into Sir Rehfan. “Who is this boy? His mother’s milk is like to dribble on him with no beard.” The nearby horsemen laughed at that.
“Mind your words, old man,” the paladin spat back.
“Sir Rehfan, go mind the baggage train.”
“I said, go mind the baggage train.”
“The baggage train is well, Commandrix.”
“Then this should be an easy job,” she answered stonily. “Go mind the baggage train.”
“Off with ye, boy,” Sir Waldun rasped softly. “You’re like to get us killed otherwise.”
“I am not a boy!” he cried sharply. The Euskati snickered at that.
“Boy, man, woman, or girl,” Ges answered evenly. “Be what you will, but be it at the baggage train.” She deigned to look at him, and found his blue eyes burning at her. He was still on his brown-and-ghast palfrey, having no finer mount, so she found herself looking down at him. It was several seconds before he broke and turned away, shoving the standard into Sir Sanin’s hands as he rode off.
“Is that your baby boy?” the king asked, eliciting more laughter from his troops.
“Pray forgive his outburst,” she answered. “He is young.”
“We Euskati keep our boys on the teat until they learn to stop crying.” More amused howls came from that, making her wonder if these were nomadic riders or a band of Yenai hyenas. The Khabarese paladins kept quiet, but she saw satisfied smirks on both their grim faces.
“He will answer for his actions,” she promised. “What say you to my request, King Paladrok?”
The king on his horse sniffed, then spat a glob of mucus into the grass. “What is this Dalsaman?”
“It is a great port city, at the coast of the Sea of Khabar, to the east. From there, ships sail to the far edges of the world—”
“I know what ships are,” the king rolled his head. “And what is this Dalsaman to you? Can they not defend themselves? Or is it a city of beardless boys?” More snickers answered that.
“They were taken by surprise,” she said, guardedly.
After all the japes, his face grew hard at that. “It is a mean, vicious thing,” he said, full of careful venom, “to be taken by surprise.” He was looking up at her from his palfrey, but his narrow eye squinted sharp as a spear.
She paused only a moment, then slipped lightly from her mount. The black destrier was enormous, yet she landed softly upon the ground, and more than one of the Euskati murmured approval at that. “I see I have offended you, and your offense is just. As apology, I offer you this warhorse. He was bred for combat, but he is fast for his size, brave and obedient. Please accept him with my apologies.”
The king’s eye grew wide at that, and for a moment she could see the boy he must have been, fifty or even sixty years ago, when his father first taught him to ride. He mastered his wonder shortly, though. “And what good is that swollen black beast to me?” he mocked, but no laughter came this time. “You say he is fast for his size, very well, but he’s big as a behemoth. How fast could he be?”
Ges looked about. She pointed north where, about a mile on, a small clutch of cedars were drooping away from one another, sheltering a trio of black-horn antelope from the faint heat of the declining sun. “You see those antelope, your Grace?” He nodded. “Perhaps you would like one, for the evening’s feast.”
A ferocious grin split his milky face, and his grey eye glittered like a black star in a foggy night. “I believe I would.” He thrust out his arm, and a boy near as shaggy as Sir Sanin thrust a cedar bow into his arm, then draped a quiver of arrows over his shoulder.”
“A bow,” Ges called. After a moment, she called louder, “A bow! At once.”
“Better make it twice!” the king hooted, and spurred his mount north toward the trees.
Someone finally shoved a bow and a handful of arrows at Sir Waldun, who tossed them to her. In truth, she was in no rush, but it was important the Euskati saw this as a challenge. It would not do to humiliate their king.
After making certain everything was secure, she heeled her mount, and the great black destrier charged north. They set an easy pace, yet even so they were catching up too quickly with the king’s ancient palfrey. She eased her horse back and let the king take the lead as they closed in.
By now, the antelope had already taken off, leaping north-westerly away from them. They followed, putting the sun at their backs. Ges had intended to pull up ahead of the king only at the last moment, so as not to shame his trusty mount, but to seemingly fumble with her bow, allowing him to take the antelope himself. The chieftain shocked her, however, by drawing and firing even as they rode, taking the hindmost antelope in the side and felling it with a single shot. “My gift to you!” he called through the wind. “Now where is mine?”
She did not fool herself for a second that she could fire from horseback. Instead, she buried her heels in the destrier’s sides and sprung forward, closing with the antelope until they sharply changed direction. She pulled to their side again and again, forcing them to turn south toward the cavalry, until they saw their error and turned toward the trees again. She had almost caught up to them when she finally pulled her horse to a stop, steadied herself, nocked, and drew the arrow back.
Satar, All-Mother, she prayed silently, favor me with this. Her shoulders were tighter than the bowstring, grating against each other like rocks, but she had no choice. She must do this.
She exhaled, and released.
The arrow flew true and buried itself in the antelope’s fore shoulder. The beast leapt again, then jumped, then limped, and fell into the grass. An enormous round of hooting and cheers came from the south, both from her own army and the Euskati.
We thank you, she prayed.
The king and the commandrix rode back to their companies. “That is truly a royal beast,” the king roared. “You honor me with this gift. Make your camp with us tonight, and you may pass through my kingdom.”
She looked up at the bright blue sky. There was still another hour’s riding, easily, but she knew better than to refuse. “I thank your Grace. We shall sup with you tonight.”
More howls of celebration erupted on both sides. Mamun the wizard rode up next to her amidst the din and said, “That is indeed a royal beast, Commandrix. Is it wise to sacrifice such a creature when going to war?”
“It’s only a horse.”
“I see. What is his name?”
“I have long since stopped naming my horses.”
The wizard hummed at that.
The celebration proved an enormous affair. The two antelope were roasted and braised in an oil Ges had never seen before, and presented to her and the king for their approval. The commandrix took a single slice before passing haunches to the Khabarese paladins, a leg to Mamun, and the rest to Sir Kenahl and Dame Tiir for distribution. Sir Rehfan sat nearby, sullen and silent throughout.
There was dancing and chanting, mock battles fought with sticks, and more than one couple sneaking off into canvas tents, many of them strangers before this evening. It was a needed respite for her troops, and she dearly wanted to partake, but her aching shoulders reminded her that there was another ride the next morning. And she still had work to do.
She stood and beckoned Sir Rehfan into a tent.
“Commandrix?” he asked as he entered.
“Remind me, Sir Rehfan, who is your uncle?”
“I have no uncle,” he answered automatically, the usual response from a paladin. “I have only a mother, the All-Mother.”
“Yet it was for your uncle’s sake that I was advised to add you to my Six,” she countered, “a singular honor for a man your age, I promise you.” Ges Ra Ividar had heeded the counsel of many Sixes in her years of military service. They were varied in experience, courage, and wisdom, as well as age if truth be told; but that did not need to be said now.
“Dame Tiir is a year younger than I,” he said.
“She is. She is also a rider without equal. I expect she could have felled that antelope from my horse without stopping, like a proper Euskati, and long before the chieftain did.”
“There is more to counseling than riding a horse.”
“There is,” she answered sharply. “Many virtues make a good counselor: wisdom, patience, courage, and judgment. Yet chief among all these virtues is obedience, a virtue of which you are in short supply.”
“Commandrix, I thought that—”
“I know what you thought, Sir Rehfan. I know it because you spoke it, the instant it entered your head. So you are lacking in wisdom, then, as well as patience and judgment. Perhaps you have some courage. We shall see on the morn of battle, leading a troop amongst my lines. But you shall no longer display your courage amongst my Six.”
“What you are is excused from my counsel, Sir Rehfan. Find Sir Vintir and send him to my tent, then I recommend you enjoy the festivities. We ride at first light.”
His hand strayed to his sword, unconsciously she was sure. “You cannot shame me like this!”
“Are you refusing my command?”
“I am a paladin, Ividar! Not some pikeman in a line.”
“You are a paladin, Sir Rehfan,” she countered, her voice cracking like a whip. “I know, because if you were under my command you would already be hanging from those cedars to the north.” His bright blue eyes burned like fire, but for once he did not respond. “I am under the Khan’s command, and therefore have no authority to execute you for disobedience, but I am under no oath to keep you in my army. You will find Sir Vintir and send him to my tent, or you will go home. Do I make myself clear, Sir Rehfan?”
A sheen glazed over his blue eyes, and his naked jaw trembled. “Commandrix,” he almost whispered. “Please.”
“I asked you a question, Sir Rehfan.”
In an instant, the moment was gone, and his eyes were fire again. “I understand, Commandrix.”
“Then go. Go to Sir Vintir, or go to your home. But go.”
Sir Rehfan slipped out of the tent with as much dignity as he could muster, the starlight glittering in his hair.
Ges Ra Ividar breathed out slowly. She breathed, again and again, but her shoulders would not unclench. She felt as though the earth were set upon them.
As she waited, she thought of Cenedras the Fourth, the King of the Monosi hordes. Whatever he was, she suspected he would not be cowed as easily as Sir Rehfan, nor won as simply as King Paladrok. Whatever he was, he was a new challenge. She rolled her shoulders, praying she was equal to the task.