Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar rolled her shoulders again and again, but they remained tight as drums. Every few moments, she would glance north to the Gazwood, where she had hunted as a child. Named for Gazid Ro Ividar, the legendary father of her line, the Gazwood was replete with red deer and white foxes, and she smiled to think of the first doe she had felled. Only eight years old, her father had said, and she was already shooting like a huntress. She showed a natural skill, he had said. Lucky thing, since paladins spent so little time with the bow and arrow. It was frowned upon as cowardly. Yet if she had not spent those times in the Gazwood as a child, she may well have missed the antelope whose death had won the Euskati to her side.
But that was nonsense. The Gazwood was thirty years ago. “Mother Above,” she whispered to no one. “When did I get so old?”
She forced herself to look away from the woods, but that only made her think of the southern approach. She had placed Sir Waldun in charge of the foot, and had spent every other minute since wondering if she should have placed Sir Sanin there. She was far too old for such second-guessing, yet here she was. Sir Waldun came with extraordinary recommendations, just like Sir Sanin, and was supported by Sir Kenahl regardless. Every company was in position, there was nothing more to consider, except the dead past.
She had divided the horse into two companies, with the Euskati led by King Paladrok and the cavalry by Dame Tiir. They were each mounted behind her, the king on his new monstrous destrier, Dame Tiir looking like a child next to him on her red courser.
She shifted in her saddle, rolling her shoulders some more. A halo of royal purple was starting to grow behind the shining city of Dalsaman. She spared a moment’s thought for Hali, but only a moment. She was young, but she had done her job. There at least, Ges had no doubts.
After an hour of waiting, suddenly the sun was up. The Monosi horde remained as it had, surrounding the city, looking scattered as skittles by a stony river.
“Are they not going to form up?” Dame Tiir asked. A slip of a woman in her early twenties, Tiir had small, beetle eyes like Ges, and her armor still bore the coloring of the House of Ernir: crimson and gilt.
For a second, Ges saw herself mounted on that fiery courser, caught between her home and her rank. She blinked, then said, “If they form up, they’ll leave the gates exposed. It may be they still don’t realize how greatly they outnumber us.”
“These men are fools.
“I see no men,” King Paladrok croaked, “nor fools. I see a sweep of antelope. Try and outhunt me this time, Commandrix.”
“I look forward to it, Grace.”
The sun was blinding, but it could not be helped. Their position was the riskiest, but also the most vital. Part of her wished they had attacked before first light, but such resentments were useless now. She had given the Monosi ample time to prepare for the attack, as any honorable aggressor would. Her enemies’ fates were now on their own heads.
She let the sun flash off her sword as she lifted it into the air, whirled it around her head once, and pointed forward. She breathed, deep, filling her lungs and stomach. Her voice rang out like Satar’s own thunder when she cried, “Companies! Chaaaaarge!”
Her own thunder was quickly drowned out by the horses. The king flew ahead of her on his new destrier, many of his Euskati doing their best to keep pace. Some had knives or spears lashed to their saddles, but all were armed with the bow and arrows. They whooped and screamed as the king slowly broke away, drifting northward to swoop around to the bay and attack the north gate all the way from the east, firing at the enemy as they rode.
Ges was pleased to see the Euskati keeping rank relatively well, but soon dropped them from her thoughts. She looked forward, to her foes. The horse were scattered amidst the infantry. The archers stood behind shield men, but beyond that there seemed to be no organization at all. It’s a trick, she told herself, there must be some trick. No king can be this foolish. Yet she charged on, committed, and no snare revealed itself.
Her cavalry slammed into the horde like a great warhammer crushing a child’s stool. She lay about her left and right, trying to focus on the spearmen who could easily unhorse the unwary. Tiir was nearby, she knew, leading the attack on the enemy’s cavalry. Even as they laid waste to the foe, she could hear their commanders crying “Hold! Hold position! Hold!” It was madness.
They were wolves amongst goats, but the goats had horns, and there were so, so many of them. In a free second, Ges stood in her saddle to look south. The foot were heavily engaged, she saw. She wanted to look north, should have looked north first, but an arrow came from nowhere and slammed into her helmet, sending the world spinning for an instant. She went back to work with her sword, knocking her great shield against nearby cavalry as her blade bit into archer and pikeman alike.
Finally, she heard a great boom far to the north, and screams of horse and men. The wizards, stiffened by five hundred horse led by Sir Sanin, had emerged from the Gazwood with their firepops. Greater Fire, also called Fool’s Fire, was dangerously unstable, but Lesser Fire was a vital Zaljan resource. It could not summon cataclysmic conflagrations, but it could make great noises, and the Monosi horse were clearly unaccustomed to that. They would be flying south now. Ges examined her immediate perimeter, then turned to face them. “From the north,” she cried out. “From the north!” She could already see the Euskati shepherding the far northeast enemy into their ranks.
Dame Tiir flashed by in a red and gold wink. “Fall back!” she shouted to her troop. “Fall back west! West!” Ges retreated with the rest of them, opening up room for the Monosi retreat.
A glitter of steel flickered to her left, and her shield instinctively flew up to catch a fearsome ax aimed at her shoulder. “Faberion!” cried the short, muscled man that wielded the ax. “Faberion! Westheart!” Many of the men around him echoed his cry.
Ges had not faced an ax in over a year, but she knew how to block a blow. The Monosi man did too, though, and his shield was made of hard oak. Monos was rich in trees, if nothing else. He snorted like a warthog as he laid into her, seeming to take joy in chipping the enamel from her shield. “Lion!” he bellowed. “Always wanted to slay a lion!”
For a mad moment she thought of spitting defiance back at him, but it was a waste of breath. His shield was painted white, with a green likeness of a little man bearing an ax. It did not inspire fear. His own ax did, though.
A blow landed square in the middle of her shield, breaking through the wood and jouncing her arm. Pain shot up her shoulder, and she let out a choked roar as she whirled her sword about her head, forcing the squat man to lean back. She broke away and spurred her palfrey west as more Monosi flooded in from the north.
“Run!” the squat man shouted after her. “Run, girl! Hah! Run!”
She tried not to smile like a fool as she withdrew.
Dame Tiir had already reached the predetermined point and turned her mount around to face their pursuers, which were few enough. They had more horse than Monos, and there was still a shocking lack of organization in their ranks. Hope was bubbling up in her chest, but Ges took it and shoved it back down. There was no time for that. She rode up to Dame Tiir and turned her palfrey. Their pursuers were nearly a minute away, and scattered.
“Are you well, Commandrix?” she called.
“I am. How are our numbers?” she asked, merely to have something to say.
“Well. None of note have fallen.”
“Good. Good. The enemy approaches.”
“You heard her!” Tiir cried out. “Let’s push these fools south!”
They spurred their mounts and dove back in.
It had been too long since the drunkenness of battle had been upon her. Time slowed, and her ears felt submerged in water, yet her vision cleared and sharpened. She cut a man off his charger almost contemptuously before slashing the arm of a passing cavalier. In an instant she was through the line and galloping right back to the walls. She glanced over her shoulder and found that all the pursuers had been cut down.
The Monosi foot was squirming along the walls like foxes being hounded to a flooded hole. Their cavalry and archers were scattered everywhere. The Zaljan wizards were already retreating back to the Gazwood, and Sir Sanin had joined his support to push the Monosi south. Behind them all came the city watch of Dalsaman, flooding out of the northern gates. What appeared to be a thousand men, starved and fever-eyed, looking ghast and wild with their new freedom, screaming as they rode and ran, wearing the blue and green of the House of Ividar. Against her will, a flush of pride struck Ges’ face. At their head, riding atop a skeletal gelding, Dame Hali bit ferociously into the madcap Monosi foot, felling pikemen and archers at will.
She could not help herself. Ges threw her head back and let out a roar of triumph as her soldiers continued to mow down the barbarian horde. Far south, she could see Sir Waldun’s foot flooding the River Alsir with blood. At the western wall, meanwhile, a knot of roiling chaos was slowly moving south toward the river, toward Waldun’s voracious jaws. A single knight had broken free of the knot of death and was actually riding north again. The day’s first craven, flying the battle.
Something caught in Ges’ chest, and she eyed the craven more carefully. Brilliantly armored in bronzed and gilt mail, a gold and black shield and a shining white sword, with a gilt and crenelated helm, it was the king himself. Alone. It was too good to be true, yet there he was.
He was far, too far, but it was her chance. Ges spurred her mount forward, dropping her shield and fumbling to sheath her sword. She pulled up near a fallen Euskati warrior, dismounted, and grabbed the great bow and a quiver of arrows. “We thank you,” he muttered as she leapt back up onto her horse and spurred off.
The gilt-and-bronze king had his sword up and was shouting something. From within the roiling battle, more and more Monosi horse were peeling off and moving back north, abandoning their pikes and archers. It began to look as though the entire Monosi cavalry were moving north.
Her heart stopped.
Surely they had not left the north gates open. No one could be so foolish. She buried her heels in her mount and readied the bow.
It was a massive thing, larger even than the Khabarese pine bows that could supposedly fire a thousand yards, if the drunken boasts were true. She kept riding, knowing he was too far away, his black destrier outpacing her even as her own mount lathered and looked like to stumble. She nocked an arrow in the bow, sill galloping, knowing it was foolish but daring to hope.
She aligned her shot, not at the armored king but at the magnificent beast that carried him. Fell the destrier, and the king was good as dead.
Cenedras turned and waved his sword about, and more cavalry peeled off after him. It was him: no decoy or deception, it was him. She grew closer. She knew she should pull up and stop, she had never fired from horseback, but something spurred her forth as insuperably as she spurred her palfrey. When the king turned and rode toward the north gate, she knew it was now or never.
Ges breathed out slowly, breathed in again, and whispered “All-Mother, bless this our cause.” And released. The arrow fired from her bow with explosive power, and shattering pain rocked her left shoulder. It flew forth, flew fast, and flew fierce. But it did not pierce the destrier, nor even strike the king. It flew past them, vanishing in the blinding sunrise.
Ges shook her head and nocked again. She heeled her mount once, twice. She could feel the horse failing her, so heeled it again and again as she drew and breathed in.
A horrifying scream, like a wounded child, erupted beneath her, as her palfrey tripped and fell.
Blue sky became earth, green earth became sky. By habit, Ges kicked her heels to try and free them as she flew forward, over a thousand pounds of heavy meat and sharp bones tumbling with her. She threw her arms out, sending the bow flying, then drew them inward, taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling as the green needles over her head rushed up to meet her.
Her shoulder exploded and a childish scream burst unbidden from her lips as she tumbled, over and over, her armor battering her without mercy. One great ‘wump,’ then another, accosted her tender head until her helm was thrown free and the air opened up to bite at her skull as it was knocked aside and back and forward. All training left her, and she threw her limbs out, trying to stop herself. She heard a crack and bit her tongue as another cry ripped out her throat. Even as her vision dimmed and slowed, the world still seemed to be throbbing around her, beating and punching at her. We are not enemies she wanted to cry, but her voice had been screamed away. There was none left.
Her sight returned. She felt groggy, as though she had napped, but she did not remember passing out. The pain certainly felt fresh, like a giant stomping on her repeatedly. Nearby, there was a manic, high-pitched scream. At first she feared it was her, but she turned her aching neck and saw her palfrey down with a broken leg, crying out horribly. Every few seconds, the sky seemed to flash black with her heartbeat, but she knew it was just blood loss. She was bleeding somewhere, even if she could not feel it over the shriek of her bones.
There was a rustle, and she tried to each for her sword. She had felt it battering against her thigh enough to know it was still in its scabbard. Her arm moved sluggishly, and not as she willed it, floating in seemingly random directions. As she fluttered her fingers in a vain attempt to navigate, a hulking shadow blocked out the sun. “Commandrix,” it grunted, “are you well?”
She blinked, and slowly the shape resolved into a man, huge and brutish with a thicket of a beard. Khabarese. One of Sanin’s adherents, no doubt, whom he had led out of the forest to support the wizards. She tried to nod, but could not move. She tried to assure him, but could not speak. After a moment, the shape melted away, and she heard the terrorized wail of her palfrey’s throat being slit, then a bare second of silence. The shape returned.
“Commandrix,” it said again. “The Monosi have fled into the city, through the north gate. Those idiots left it open. Their foot are still out here. There’s a lot of them, but—”
The stranger’s throat erupted in a red spray, with a cruel metal barb sprouting out of it like a flower. The brute fell. Don’t fall on me, Ges thought, callously, but the man was powerless now. He was lighter than her horse, but she still wheezed in agony. Her throat was too torn to scream.
The clear blue sky throbbed above her, and she spied a single white puff of cloud drifting lazily along. It blurred and shimmered, and she angrily blinked the tears from her eyes. The sky flashed black again. Far, far away, the sounds of battle rang on. She could smell smoke in the air. She tried to move, because there was nothing else to do.
The sky flashed black again, but stayed that way, and the rest of the world followed. Ges gave in, because there was nothing else to do.
She floated in beautiful, numb, cottony darkness, suffocating on nothing, pressed between two unseen mattresses, crushing the breath and life from her, yet nulling the horrible pain of a broken body. Of life.
In the dark, three pillars of light fell to the ground. The first was orange and gold, warm and lazy and welcoming, and in it was an old dead man in a chair, reading a book. A scent of peaches hung about him, and his lap was empty. The second pillar of light was cold and blue, bracing and clean, smelling of steam and soap, and in it sat an iron tub filled with bubbling water. A woman in a sea-green slip stood next to it, shears in one hand, a cloth in the other.
The third pillar of light was blinding yellow and white, crackling with fury and judgment and truth. No one and nothing stood within its light. It smelled of smoke and blood and rot.
She felt herself moving toward the third pillar. There was no one there, she was clearly meant to fill that space. Her eyes were moved to the old dead man reading on the chair, and for a moment he seemed so huge she might sit in his lap again, and feel the juice of peaches run down her chin, and read, and feel his beard against her cheek as she hugged him so tight she thought she might break him, even though nothing could ever break him. But she knew the old dead man was gone, and even though it tore at her like a hook buried in her heart, she moved again toward the third pillar. Someone had to step into its crackling light.
Steam entered her nostrils, and her eyes slid across the second pillar. Cold though the light was, the bath was even warmer and more welcoming than the old man. She knew how these things went, though, and she did not linger on it. There was a third pillar. That was where she was meant to end. No matter how she ached, no matter how she longed to rest, there was work to be done.
She moved to the third pillar, and for an instant she was tempted to reach her fingers out, to test the light before stepping in. But she knew these things of old, and she strode into the light without hesitation. She was meant to be here.
From the inside, the pillar smelled like nothing. Outside it, there was nothing. She stood in the light and waited. She looked up into its source, but it blinded her more than the morning sun. She looked down, and only then realized she had no feet. No legs. No body. She was not there at all.
The pillar flashed whiter than white, and a great jolt thrummed through her.
Her eyes tore open, and her entire body seemed to be falling apart. Above her was a sharp blue sky. Upon her was a dead stranger, his wild beard abrading against her neck. She smelled blood and rot, and a hint of smoke, and the shit in the dead man’s pants.
“Commandrix,” came another voice. Her aching eyes resolved upon an old man with fringe of hair around his head. Mamun peered down at her with a pitying look upon his face. “Forgive me, Commandrix, I do not have the strength to pull good Hermid from you. I shall fetch some soldiers.”
Wait she croaked. She was unsure at first if any noise had escaped her mouth, but Mamun turned back.
She wanted to ask what had happened, but she could feel blood welling in her throat as she scratched out meaningless noises. Mamun knelt with some effort, and from his robes produced a skin of some potion. He opened it and gently tilted it to her lips. Unthinking, she drank it down.
It was water. Already tepid, but a welcome balm to her scratched throat. She downed most of the skin before choking and coughing, then downed the rest.
“Can you speak, Commandrix?”
“Barely,” she rasped. “What has happened?”
The wizard turned and waved an arm over his head, apparently summoning someone over. “We have lost most of our foot, I fear. Expected, I know, but still hard to bear. Many of our horse remain well, and of course the wizards are unharmed.”
The enemy, she tried to ask, but her throat seized up.
“The enemy,” he said, echoing her thoughts. “The Monosi cavalry is inside the city, locked up tightly. They abandoned their infantry and archers. A few surrendered and have been taken for questioning, though I cannot help feeling there is no great strategy they might divulge that would explain what has happened here today. There were about twenty more captives among their camp, all noblewomen. Two were slain in the battle, I fear, both women of Mansaikhan. We did manage to capture one of their high lords, however. He was charged with burning their siege engines, so we could be unable to use them against the foe. We caught him as his men were setting fire to the Gazwood.”
Her throat closed at that, and her eyes flew wide.
He looked down upon her with a father’s eyes. “Shall we bring this high lord to you, Commandrix?”
Her bones ground against themselves horribly, but she managed to nod at that.
It was nearly an hour before the man was brought to her. First, four Khabarese adherents arrived to remove the dead man, Hermid. One of them wailed and blubbered upon seeing the corpse, and fell upon it, beating its chest and cursing him for a fool. The others tried to ignore him as they stood over the Divine Commandrix. Next, three wizards arrived with a small cauldron of boiling water, in which Mamun dunked some bone gem and got to work making Mother’s Salve. The other wizards removed her armor as delicately as they could, then cut away her leathers and silks, leaving only a few strips of her linens to shield her from the heat of the Autumn sun, too hot for this time of year in Dalsaman.
Ges was no stranger to Mother’s Salve, and she breathed a sigh of relief when it was applied to her wounds, burning and stinging and cleaning them out.
The same potion was used to make plaster. Sir Sanin had arrived by then, and offered his own cloak to be cut into strips to make the casting for her arm. Mamun said it had been broken in three places: the shoulder, the middle of the bicep, and just below the wrist. Ges believed him. One of the Khabarese adherents knelt behind her and eased her up to a sitting position, allowing himself to be used as a support for her back. Another wizard, calling herself Baedra, massaged some Mother’s Salve into her shoulders and neck. It helped, but only a little.
Sir Vintir’s troop arrived next, one of them bearing a camp stool. “I’ll not be able to sit in that,” she assured them. Sir Vintir apologized and sent his men for a chair with a back.
“It could have been worse,” he offered after an uncomfortable pause.
Sir Sanin glowered at him from his one eye. “I find that sort of thing to be poor comfort,” he growled.
More water had been poured down her throat by now, and Ges managed to rasp, “Where is Dame Hali?”
Sir Vintir started, then examined his boots. “She has taken her company back to camp.”
“Bring her to me.”
Still he would not look her in the face. “Hali is feeling a bit—”
“Bring her, to me.”
Sir Vintir did not respond, but he strode to his horse, mounted, and rode west.
Sir Rehfan was next to arrive, kneeling before her to report that Sir Waldun had taken wounds to the thigh and gut. The wizards had only now reached him, and his outlook was poor. Sir Sanin looked ill at that, but said nothing. Dame Tiir was still managing the new encampment in Ges’ absence. No word had been given on Sir Kenahl.
By the time Sir Vintir returned with Dame Hali, the Monosi lord was already being marched toward them. Some troops had brought a canvas-backed chair, into which they delicately lifted her. The Khabarese adherents stood about her with fierce, almost charming protectiveness, while the other wizards begged her leave to see to the rest of the wounded. Someone had found a loose, cloaked gown of sea-green to drape about her, hiding her left arm and torso while keeping her right arm free to move.
She gave Hali a single look. “Stay behind my seat, both of you.” They obeyed wordlessly, falling into place as the Monosi lord approached, hands tied behind him, a young paladin on either side of him.
It was the short, burly man that had broken her shield with his ax. His nose was broken, and a fierce purple bruise covered his left eye, but he was clearly unbroken, proud even of his captivity. He had been stripped of his armor, but still wore brown leathers and white-and-green cambric. His forest-green pantaloons were absurdly puffed, making even his broad legs look skinny in their white stocks. His broken nose was held up in the air, still defiant.
Ges swallowed and took a steady breath. “May I have the honor of your name, my Lord?”
“Lord Eugeno Faberion of the Westheart, son of Eugentio who was son of Eugen the Huge, who slew the Dragon of the Western Hills. Good right hand to King Cenedras the Fourth.”
Ges had never heard of any dragons in the hills surrounding the Shadowgates. Still, many and more terrible tales came from the dark expanse of those mountains, why should not the hills in Monosi territory carry such myths as well?
She nodded. “You have been taken honorably in battle, and will be treated according to your birth, provided your answers please us.”
He snorted at that. “Zaljan mercy, a most contingent blessing.” He spat a gobbet of blood upon the ground.
The Khabarese adherents drew their swords, but a nod from Ges saw them re-sheathed. “It is my dearest hope at this moment to show you the extent of Zaljan mercy,” she answered evenly. “Tell me, Lord Eugeno, how is it you come to be outside the walls of Dalsaman, when the rest of your cavalry are now safely inside?”
“Not so safe,” Dame Hali sneered. “Not for long, if at all.”
Lord Eugeno ignored that. “His Highness the king ordered me to fire our siege weapons, to keep them out of your hands.”
She continued to stare. “And the Gazwood?”
“The forest?” He shrugged. “Little point in firing the engines if you’re just going to build new ones in a fortnight.”
“Then it was by your own initiative, Lord Eugeno, that the Gazwood was burned.”
She sighed through her nose. “That is unfortunately for you. What does your king mean to do within the walls of Dalsaman?”
The squat man shrugged again. “To rule. That’s a fine city you’ve built, and Geumsil’s growing cold. He says he means to name it Vargano. He means to make it the capital of Monos.”
One of the adherents growled at that. “It is indeed a wonderous city,” she agreed, “and I do not doubt it would honor your nation greatly as its capital. Sadly, that will not be its fate. How many of your cavalry survive?”
“Enough.” She stared at him, but he offered no more.
She sighed again. “Sir Rehfan, take this man to your tent and keep him under watch. No fewer than four sets of eyes should be on him at any time.”
“Will you truss me up like a pig and stuff an apple in my mouth, woman? Is that Zaljan mercy?”
Ges took a deep breath and slowly, carefully, eased herself up onto her feet. “You say your grandfather was a legendary dragon slayer. The woods you burned were thousands of years old, named for my father’s father beyond recall, who quelled the Taraxi and drove the Devils of Ihgolgit back into the Shadowgates, before time began. I name you a dragon, my Lord, a wyrm fit for slaying, and if Sir Rehfan sees fit to bind you hand and foot and stuff your fiery mouth with ice and suet, know that his cruelty is a great Zaljan mercy compared to what I would do to you, had I not taken the title of Divine Commandrix. Sir Rehfan, remove this man at once.”
Sir Rehfan led Lord Eugeno’s guards west, along with eight other troops, toward his tent.
“Dame Hali,” she said as she eased back down into her chair, “before me now.”
The woman fell to her knees so quickly it looked as though she had been stricken. “Commandrix.”
“You and Sir Vintir will repair to my tent and await my pleasure.”
She looked up at her, blanching, then looked over at Sir Vintir. They departed without a word.
Mamun next stood before her. “And now, Commandrix?”
Amidst the aches and sores and sorrows, she closed her eyes. For just a moment, she dreamed of never opening them again.