“We should not be doing this,” Vintir mumbled, not for the first time.
“We’re not,” said Hali. “We’ve already finished. Speaking of, why are you still here?”
He looked like a wounded puppy at that, melting her heart. “Why… I thought…”
“I’m joking, Vintir. Mother mine, but you grow sour as an old woman afterward.”
“Sorry,” he murmured, reaching a hand over. She was about to swat him away, but he grabbed her shoulder and pulled her toward him to kiss her again. “I fear your disdain more than my enemy’s sword. So brave on the field, yet I’m such a coward in bed.”
“I would not exactly call this a bed anyway,” said Hali. They were on a quilted mattress that Vintir had brought with him from the Fire Mine, where he had been helping to put down another rebellion. Swift as the Commandrix’ forces had ridden east, he claimed to have ridden twice as fast to catch up to them, so great was his need to see her. She expected his real need was glory everlasting against the Monosi hordes, but he sounded sweet all the same.
“Good,” he whispered into her ear. “Let’s find a bed then. Perhaps I’ll prove more courageous.”
“Oh, but we should not be doing this,” she countered with her wickedest grin. She pulled herself out from under the sheets and stood, to fetch a towel and stretch her sore legs, but also just to get out from under the sheets. Hali had grown up in Khair the great port, far south and far colder. She said as much to the Commandrix when she finally brought the foot up the Bayan Ors Road to meet her, but the Commandrix said Dalsaman was not always this warm. Some of the heat from Supola Jengo, itself pushed down from the jungles of Monos, was getting blown into the bay early. All Hali knew was that Autumn in Dalsaman was hotter than the Summers in the rest of Zalja. It made the sex sweatier, for good or ill, but everything else was purely ill.
She picked up her woolen shift and wrapped it around herself, simply to avoid standing naked in a tent, but regretted it quickly. “I should have brought more linens,” she moaned. “I thought I’d be in Khabar this time of year.”
“Come back to bed,” Vintir pleaded. “If you’re too hot, I’ll keep the sheets all to myself. For your sake.”
She looked down on him. Vintir was a hard man with a long face and sharp cheek bones, but his eyes were brown like thick honey, his shoulders and arms were still solid, and his belly was as flat as a man half his age. Besides, his beard and hair were well trimmed, and he washed every day. That last was a crucial point, and a rarity amongst paladins on the road.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Late enough to be early. We’d best get some sleep while we can.”
“If I climb under those sheets again, I don’t think it will lead to sleep.”
“I’m almost forty, Hali. I promise you my vigor is spent.”
“How romantic,” she said, but she dropped the shift and crawled back under the sheets with him, tucking her head between his chest and shoulder.
“I nearly killed my horse to reach you,” he scolded mildly. “What more can I offer? I’ve broken vows for you. What would my wife say, if she saw us here?”
“What would your wife say? What would my husband do?”
“Imal is no warrior. I do not fear his fists.”
“But you fear your wife’s tongue?” She would not say her name.
“I am wise beyond my years.” They both breathed in and out for a moment. “Why would you be in Khabar?”
“Some bandits outside of the Solulan.”
Vintir snorted at that. “I’m sure the Khabarese paladins can handle that. It sounds a little… beneath you.”
“What could be beneath me? Before this, I was guarding a cattle train toward Ralah.” And toward her husband, it must be considered. “That’s not what I’d name a holy calling. I’ll be thirty come Winter, and no deeds to my name.”
“Thirty is nothing,” Vintir said at once. “Besides, you’re on the Commandrix’ Six. We both are. What honor could be higher?”
“A Commander’s Six is nothing. Once this campaign is over, those honors will vanish.” She sat up, despite herself. “When Ividar was my age, she had already slain the bandit king in Alwakha and the heretic out of Ikhan, both in single combat. She ended two great rebellions in two foreign cities, and marshalled armies seven other times, and people were singing her praises for years. And what have I done?”
“You have saved many lives,” he answered, still lying down. “Comparing yourself to Ges Ra Ividar is a very high bar to set for yourself.”
“Just so. But you must remember that Ges Ra Ividar is an Ividar. She spent her childhood training with the greatest masters her ridiculous wealth could buy. I know you’re of high birth, but you can’t compare yourself to that.”
Her face contracted at that. “What does that mean? You can’t be a great warrior unless you’re born into it?”
Vintir had closed his eyes. “It means it’s a lot easier to be a great warrior when you don’t have to wonder where your next meal is coming from.” Vintir had grown up in the great city of Bariat Uur, a second son to an impoverished house, scarcely more noble than a blacksmith. She should have expected such an attitude from him, but it hurt all the same.
“I am destined for something greater than guarding cattle trains,” she insisted, lying back down, but facing away from him.
“Destiny favors the children of khans and prefects,” he mumbled.
She shook her head to no one. “Destiny is chance and readiness. I am ready. I just need my chance.” He did not answer that.
As Vintir foretold, the sun came far too soon. Sir Kenahl had brought a cockerel from his cousin’s farm in Farar, which dutifully crowed incessantly every day at sunup. This had earned him intense praise and terrifying threats from the entire camp, but so far the cockerel remained alive and well.
If anyone thought it unusual that Dame Hali and Sir Vintir should emerge from the same tent so early in the morning, they wisely chose not to comment on it. Paladins were not supposed to fraternize, and adultery was cause for expulsion from the order, but these things happened often enough when on a campaign. Besides, one look at either of their ferociously sleep-deprived faces, and even Sir Rehfan would know better than to object.
She was still rubbing the sleep from her eyes when a runner approached. She had been summoned to the Divine Commandrix’ tent. “What about me?” Sir Vintir asked, but the runner shrugged and did what runners do. “I hope it’s nothing serious.”
“We’re at war, Vintir. I’m sure she just wants my counsel.”
“What about me?” he asked with admirably feigned outrage. “I’m one of her Six too.”
“For about a week, yes. Why don’t you go pout with Sir Rehfan? I’ll share the news with you when I return.”
He smiled and leaned in to kiss her, but she shoved him away. “Not out here,” she rasped.
It was unlikely they were charging into battle just yet, so Hali grabbed only her helm and her sword, mounted her red courser Firebolt, and rode north to the Commandrix’ tent.
She arrived to a surprise. The Commandrix herself was mounted, along with the two Khabarese paladins, with three eyes and two ears between them, and the grizzly old man who called himself King Paladrok, himself upon an enormous black destrier that looked to be worth all their mounts together. She felt half a child next to all these old warriors, and half a pup next to the old Euskati. “Commandrix?” she asked as she approached.
The Commandrix nodded at her. “The wizard shall be here soon. We’ll depart then. How are the foot recovering?”
“Better and better, Commandrix. We’ll be ready for war tomorrow morning, mark my words.”
“That is good,” she said, and nothing more.
The little old wizard Mamun arrived soon after on his broken-down mare, and they rode up to a great ridge the Commandrix called Denais Cliff. It overlooked all of Dalsaman, the Bay of Supol, and the River Alsir that flowed south of the city. From there, they had a clear picture of the enemy, their positions, and most importantly their numbers.
“Satar save us,” she muttered, gracing herself. She had been a paladin for ten years, yet had not said those words for eight of them. “How many thousands?”
“Twenty,” growled one of the Khabarese men, the one with no ears. “We have more horse, but that’s all.”
“I see no wizards anywhere about,” said old Mamun.
“Do they even have wizards in Monos?” asked the Khabarese with one eye. His other had a patch of snakeskin over it. “It’s all jungles and monkeys over there, isn’t it? They have no mines. They haven’t even got mountains.”
“They do now,” the Commandrix answered.
“We’ll take them back,” one-eye said.
No-ears scoffed at that. “Before they get any magic out of them, hopefully.”
The old wizard shook his head. “Even if they had it, it would take time for their wizards to properly prepare it for any purpose. Magic takes time, that’s why there are so few wizards in the world.”
“And why you’re all old men,” laughed one-eye, who looked as worn and weathered as the old man.
“Mamun,” asked the Commandrix, “what do you make of their dispositions?”
“Am I correct in assuming you mean the positioning of their forces, and not their personalities? I have heard that King Cenedras is a very charming man, and comely to look upon.”
“We’ll fix that,” growled no-ears.
The old man who called himself King Paladrok pointed south. “Why are all those soldiers over there, across the river?”
“The southern approach,” said the Commandrix. “There is a great stone bridge there leading into the city. They must invest there, just as they do the west and north, or else the city forces could escape.”
“Not a lot of troops, seems to me,” croaked the so-called king.
“If I were a tactician,” the wizard said, “I would want to keep as many of my soldiers together as I could, in anticipation of attack.”
“Then it’s lucky you’re not our tactician,” said Hali. The old people all looked at her.
“Go on,” said the Commandrix.
“Maybe the city doesn’t have enough troops to break through,” she said, “and that’s a maybe. Regardless, we’d be fools not to loop around and attack them from the south, break through that skeleton crew and hold the southern approach. They’d have to attack us from the narrows, limiting their forces, or cross the river as our arrows rain down on them, or stand there as we resupply the city.”
The Commandrix nodded at that. “So the question becomes, is this some sort of trap?”
“Or,” the wizard offered, “is our adversary truly as foolish as he appears?”
She paused to think, but only for a moment. “Tell me, Mamun, have you any Fool’s Fire with you?”
“Alas, Commandrix, I am not a fool.”
“More’s the pity. A few pounds of that—”
“And all of Dalsaman would burn to the ground,” he said. “Which, in a way, would resolve our problem, I suppose. Fool’s Fire is too dangerous, impossible to control. Hence it’s name.”
She grunted at that. “King Paladrok, would you honor me by lending me your horse when I meet with this Monosi king?”
Hali took the opportunity to inspect the horse. While the man who rode it looked be barely held together by the filthy rags he wore, the great black destrier he sat was a marvel to behold. A fearsome beast, three hands higher than any other mount present, it likely would terrify any barbarian lord that faced it.
The so-called king looked as though he had sucked on a lemon, but he begrudgingly nodded. “You may. Only for the meeting.”
“Only for the meeting.”
No-ears’ smoky voice rose up. “Commandrix, may I make a suggestion?”
“Of course, Sir Waldun.”
“These Monosi, whatever they are, are Motherless beasts who attack with no writ nor defiance. They have shown themselves to be honorless curs.”
“As we are not,” she answered, foreseeing his point.
“Still, Commandrix. Why should we treat them any better than they treat us?”
“Because we are better, Sir Waldun.”
“With respect,” broke in one-eye, “you’ve never faced an Ironhide ambush in the Cickatrice Tail. When it’s so cold you can scarcely move, and a gaggle of gray-skinned beasts in men’s skins flush out of the frozen forest to hack you apart, you’ll find your skull has little room in it for honor.”
The Commandrix looked at one-eye, harshly. Whoever this man was, he must have spent his live in the Cickatrice Tail, the poisonous frozen waste that made up the southern half of Khabar, to dare suggesting his experience in battle surpassed that of Ges Ra Ividar. “Thank you for your counsel, Sir Sanin,” she answered in a voice colder than a Khabarese Winter.
“What are your orders, Commandrix?” the old wizard asked, showing his wisdom by changing the subject.
“I want to fright this golden-haired king. See how he acts when pressed.”
“Ah,” the wizard answered, “I may have something that will serve, but it will take time to prepare. May I have your leave?”
“Yes, and quickly. I want to meet this king before the sun sets.” The wizard rode off at once. “Dame Hali, you will ride into their camp bearing a peace banner, and ask to treat with their king.”
The rag-king on the destrier snorted. “What even is a peace banner to these creatures?”
“One soldier on one horse should suffice to prove she’s not trying to kill them all,” rasped Sir Waldun. “But yes, take the banner.”
“Shall I depart now, Commandrix?”
“Yes, and bring Sir Rehfan with you.”
“Just in case.”
Rehfan had been dismissed from the Commandrix’ Six, and his reaction was well known throughout the camp. Hali had only just arrived, and spent little time catching up before falling into her tent last night with Vintir, and already shew knew of the boy-paladin’s poor repute. “Might I bring Sir Vintir, Commandrix?”
“No. Nor Dame Tiir, I have a purpose for both of them. Sir Rehfan needs to feel useful again, and I hope you may teach him to listen to…” she paused, looking out over Dalsaman. “to a superior.”
Biting back a horrendous sigh, she assented and rode back into camp. She found Sir Rehfan near the southern end, sitting on a small barrel, glaring at his squire as the boy scoured his armor. “Sir Rehfan,” she offered gravely, “I have need of your service.”
He was only three or four years younger than she, but he looked like a sullen boy. The naked jaw did not help, nor did the pouty stare he turned on her. “And what service is it you require?”
Paladins, she thought bitterly. They were capable of great things, yet put even two of them together, and great things fell beneath the weight of their pecking egos. “The Commandrix has ordered us to beg parley with the barbarian king. I require a standard bearer.”
Rehfan seemed mollified by that. “I must don my armor,” he said as he stood.
“I hope we’ll have no need of it,” she countered as brightly as she could.
“Hope is for fools.” He disappeared into his tent, followed quickly by the boy. Hali suppressed another sigh.
She took a little time to glance around. The uniform of the Zaljan soldier was fair to look upon. Black pants and stocks, a peached sleeveless tunic, black sleeves, peached bandanas around the neck all drenched with sweat, peached scarves beneath the helms of the infantry, black scarves for the officers. Every one of them dressed in quality. She held out her right arm and looked at the threadbare sleeve of faded yellow cambric. She wore her jack of black leather, hers since her time in the infantry, along with blue puffed pants and black stocks and blue boots. Sometimes she forgot how ridiculous she looked. Paladins often did not have time to preen after their appearance, which made for a striking contrast with how most of them had grown up.
Sir Rehfan emerged in burgundy sleeves and scarlet pants, a breast plate of black steel lined in peach, black tassets, and a fresh handkerchief of black silk about his neck. His helm, lined with a scarlet scarf, hung from the palfrey another squire was bringing by: tan-and-ghast, and fair enough to look upon. “You look very nice, Sir Rehfan,” she said. She had hoped to jab him more subtly, but he seemed to read her mockery easily. That, or he saw everything as an insult.
The peace banner was white as snow, but it still bore the Satari Triangle that was Zalja’s symbol. A triangle bisected down the middle: three lines falling from a single point, representing Satar’s light, Satar’s rain, and Satar’s lightning, the three avatars of her power over the earth. There were many legends of Satar walking the land as a mortal woman, bringing forth life where there was none, and her love and strength were credited with the vast, sweeping fields of fertile soil that Zalja claimed. No one ever mentioned how Yena, the nation of heretics, was also blessed with fertile soil and even more rivers.
Hali’s favorite tale was of Satar’s final visit to the mortal plains, when she took up the shining sword Thundersteel and led an army of her finest generals against the Ironhides, an army of vicious beast-men that infested the Cickatrice Tail, bringing blight and death with them. Her armies pushed them all the way south and east for the very edge of the peninsula, where they begged for parley. She agreed to meet with them, but was betrayed and murdered at the parley, whereupon her disciples finished wiping out the Ironhides and banishing their evil from the land forever.
Except, as Sir Waldun had recently pointed out, the Ironhides were still about, living in the frozen forests of the Cickatrice Tail, though many dismissed these stories as gossip. And if Satar’s love was responsible for the fertile soil, then why were the wizards and their Lesser Stone of so great a value? And why did the Khabarese tell such a different story, of a peaceful Satar who came down to unite all the disparate peoples of the world, only to be betrayed to the Ironhides by one of her most ardent acolytes? And why did the old Yenai Faith, thousands of years older than Satariai, worship Satar’s last disciples as fellow gods over the rivers, the animals, courage, lust, and dozens of other things? Hali wondered if these sorts of questions were why she had never risen higher. Divine Commandrix Ividar was a full decade older than she, but Hali was tired of waiting for some opportunity, anything, to come her way. She would simply have to believe harder.
The Monosi encampment was a chaotic jumble of men screaming like boys, dogs fighting in circles, and even a pit where men battered each other with what she hoped were blunted swords. Men were everywhere. The only women she saw wore filthy skirts and loose blouses, washing clothes and tending bruises, enduring gropes and other molestations from the men. Not a single woman could be found in armor.
The camp was a mess, but their sentries were adequate enough. They had not quite reached anyone before two mounted troops, both of them on the ghast side, rode up to challenge them. They were grey ringmail byrnies and brown leather jacks, along with the puffed pants of officers, brown with yellow stocks. Their half-helms had no scarving. Hali was unsurprised; she heard Monos was unbearably hot.
The older of the two sentries pointed his spear at them. “Hold! What mean you?” A quintet of grizzly men-at-arms in junked mail strode forth to back the sentries up, each with a naked blade in hand.
“We come in the name of Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar, who comes forth in service to the Khan, Alswavidid Ro Harashmalim, by the Grace of Satar the Second of that Name.”
“Hell of a name,” muttered the younger sentry, a fuzz-faced boy younger than Sir Rehfan. The assembled party laughed at that.
“We come to invite your war chief to treat with the Divine Commandrix on Denais Cliff before day’s end, to discuss the dissolution of this siege.”
“Is that a girl!?” one of the men-at-arms shouted, a thick-shouldered man covered in brown hair and boils.
“Flat enough for a boy,” a bony one with one greyed eye added, to the intense amusement of all gathered.
An older man with a shaggy black beard, dressed in hunting leathers, addressed himself to Sir Rehfan. “You always let your wife do your talking for you, son?”
“Ah, leave him be,” the bony one said. “I can never get mine to shut up neither.”
“Why do you think he’s here, a thousand miles away from her?” added the boil-faced one. More laughter followed.
Hali was at a loss for words. She had faced such defiance before, of course, but only from bandits, and shortly before the matter was settled at point of blade. She could hardly draw her sword and cut these men down, even if she wanted to. She was here on command. She looked to Sir Rehfan. If it were possible to shrug with one’s eyebrows, Sir Rehfan did so.
“Who here has the authority to consent to terms of parley?” she pressed.
“I have! I have!” Another young man was running up to them. Wisps of black fuzz adorned his smooth face, and a cloud of black hair floated almost like a halo about his head. He wore scarlet and pink, and looked so pretty that Hali was surprised to see bruises and a limp in his run, as though he had been training with swords of a morning. Half his outfit was woolen. She could not believe he was not sweating buckets as he staggered over to them, a blunted sword in his hand.
“Whom do I have the honor of addressing?” she asked.
The red-and-pink man blanched a moment, perhaps only then realizing she was a woman. He looked about at the other men, then addressed himself to Sir Rehfan. “I have the honor of being Massam Vival of Redoledo, Lord of the Hilldren. Who are you?”
Sir Rehfan offered him a glare, then looked to Hali.
“I am Dame Hali Alsras, formerly of Khair, a paladin sworn in quest to the Divine Commandrix. Will you see that your king meets with us upon Denais Hill before sunset?”
The men-at-arms snickered, but the boy Massam seemed merely confused. “Do you… who… Who is this… Divine Coommandrix again?”
She and Rehfan shared a glance. “Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar, who is charged by the Holy Solulan and the Khan himself to deliver Dalsaman from this siege.”
“You… you mean… Your king is not here?”
“No. Lord Massam, will you ensure that your king will treat with us upon Denais Cliff?”
The boy seemed to be gagging on his own tongue. “I, uh… that… where, where is, Denais Cliff?”
Sir Rehfan used the peace banner to point west. “There,” he said evenly. “The big cliff.” The men-at-arms chortled at that.
“Of course, Sir. And who are you?”
Sir Rehfan bobbed his head toward Hali. “Her subordinate.” More chittering still.
“Yes. Yes, of course. Zalja is certainly… certainly… it is… yes…”
“Lord Massam,” she repeated, “will you inform your king of this meeting?”
He jerked his head, so though only hearing the question for the first time. “Ah. Yes. Of course.”
“At Denais Cliff. Two hours hence?”
“Two hours. Ah. Yes.” The men were still snickering. They scarcely seemed able to stop. One of them whispered something to the boil-faced man, drawing a great guffaw. She only then realized that they all seemed to be staring at her breastplate. She almost blushed, but managed to command herself.
“Then will shall see you there, Lord Massam. Good morning.” He did not answer.
They turned at rode off. To their credit, the sentries flanked them until they were well beyond the edges of the camp, then turned and rode back.
“At least the sentries are disciplined,” she said as they slowed their mounts.
“Foreign armies seem very amused with themselves,” said Rehfan. “The Euskati were much the same.”
“The Euskati are not foreign.” He had no answer for that.
When they found the Commandrix’ tent and were let inside, they found her set in a tub of tin, steaming water being poured over her by two of her maidservants. They both stopped at the entry, but she waved them in. “Come in, come in,” she insisted. “Sarai, scrub my back. Nasra, my hair.” The women set to bathing her. “Is everything set?”
Rehfan stared into space, as though he had never seen a woman before. “It is, Commandrix. We are to meet at Denais Cliff two hours hence.”
“The Cliff?” she countered. “I had not thought of that. Hmm.”
“Should we return, Commandrix? Change the meeting?”
“No… no, that will do well. We cannot bring our full strength, but neither can they. They might not see how outnumbered we are. And they’ll get a taste of our advantage from the terrain. Perhaps that will fright them. What did you think of this king, Dame Hali?”
“We did not meet him, Commandrix, only a lord.”
“A strip of a boy,” Sir Rehfan added with no sense of irony.
“A lord?” the Commandrix mused.
“Something like a prefect, as I understood it.”
“I am familiar with the term,” she answered, leaning forward as the girl Sarai finished scrubbing the small of her back. “We once had lords in Zalja, in the earlier days of the empire. These Monosi seem very… very…”
“Primitive?” Rehfan suggested.
“Mm. I hope they are sufficiently advanced to understand treaties, or at least keep their word.”
“They certainly have a strong sense of humor,” said Hali.
“Mm. The Euskati did as well. That may be a good sign. Sir Rehfan, what did you make of these Monosi?”
He glanced at Hali before answering. “I think you should bring the Khabarese with you again.”
“Mm. More strongmen?”
“Only men, Commandrix. The few women we saw were washers and harlots.”
She looked at them. Sarai had finished her back and was standing by with a razor and shaving soap. Nasra was cutting swathes of hair into the tub. “Shall I shave your head, Commandrix?” Sarai asked. She nodded.
“You shave your head?” Hali asked.
“Before every battle. It sounds like we will soon be engaged.”
At that, her squire slipped into the tent. A boy of ten with a mop of curly hair and slit eyes, he wore a peach tabard with a black lion’s head roaring in profile. He was hauling in the Commandrix’ armor and shield. The shield, too, bore the black lion. Sir Rehfan goggled at that. “Commandrix,” he said, “ought we to… flout that… so openly?”
The Commandrix was now swimming in a disgusting soup of old hair, soap scum, and days’ worth of dirt and filth. Judging by her expression, she had not expected this either. “Talid, did you repaint my shield.”
The boy ducked his head, but smirked while he did it. “Well, Commandrix, it is your symbol after all.”
“Are you not a god-fearing boy?” she asked, and for the first time Hali heard an ounce of warmth in her voice.
“Well,” Talid hedge, “I though maybe we should consider what the barbarians might fear. A lion is scarier than three lines.”
Rehfan grunted. “Only if you don’t know what the three lines mean.”
“Well. The don’t, do they?”
“Let’s find out,” the Commandrix said. “Nasra, go see what is taking Anshi so long with my new clothes. Sir Rehfan, you are dismissed.” The paladin followed Nasra out.
Once they were gone, the Commandrix stood and took a towel from Sarai, the two both drying her and sponging off the vile leavings of her bath. “Dame Hali, you are certain the soldiers can fight tomorrow?”
“Certain. Some won’t like it, but they will be able.”
“Good. How did Sir Rehfan serve you during your brief labor. You say these soldiers are all men?”
“Every one, Commandrix. They were shocked by me, and half of them goggled at me as though we were about to go to bed together. The lord I spoke to was even younger than Sir Rehfan, and you might have thought I was a talking dog, the way he sputtered at me.”
“Mm. And Sir Rehfan?”
“Mm. Good. Good. You may go.”
Hali was at the tent flap when she turned back. “Commandrix?”
“What do the three lines mean?”
She eyed her a moment. “The Satari Triangle? The sun, the rain, and the lightning, I believe. Why?”
She nodded. “Nothing, Commandrix. Thank you.”