Her shoulders felt like stones, but she was finally moving her arm again. She had lain Dame Hali into the dirt five times. Sir Vintir had only fallen twice, but then she had only invited him to face her twice. Sir Kenahl’s scouts assured her the enemy was still two days away. It had been a fortnight since Dame Tiir had departed west to request reinforcements from the Khan, but she knew they would not return in time. There was nothing to do but wait.
This was not the first siege Divine Commandrix Ges Ra Ividar had led. Zalja had called itself a holy empire two centuries back, but that was then, and people were people. None of Zalja’s neighbors could hope to defy them, true. Yaalk was a blistering field of thinkers and heretics, and Yena was full of farmers. Only Khabar could hope to so much as challenge them, and they were united by their love of Satar. Before now, no foreign force had truly threatened Zalja for nearly three-hundred years. But Zalja was a great and powerful nation, and such nations bred ambitious lords. Ges had spent more of her career putting down rebellions and hunting criminals, than she had on any foreign fronts.
She knew sieges, both lifting them and leading them, and they were often a dull business. Yet this one was more stressing than others. She knew the enemy was desperate and few, outpowered and hopelessly overwhelmed by the citizenry and the remaining watch. Yet still the gates did not open. There could not be more than a thousand trained warriors within the city walls, yet they had somehow managed to hold it. She longed to storm the city and paint the streets red, but who could say how many hostages they had amassed. Dame Hali had confirmed that both gates were watched by fifty men, with two hundred more nearby. The beylan and his family had been taken, of course, and Hali confirmed that the Ravirs and the Enisads, principle families in Dalsaman, were in custody as well. She could take the city easily, but all Zalja would rebel if the Khan allowed such weighty names to die at the hands of barbarians. A khan who could not defend his people was no khan at all.
She grunted in mild frustration as Hali and Vintir were disarmed yet again. The two seemed to be enjoying it, truth be told.
“Won’t you try me next?” came the gruff but friendly voice of Lord Eugeno Faberion. A short, stout man whose ferocity was outdone only by his beard, Ges almost felt she might miss the man once he was handed over later that day. It had been Lord Eugeno himself that had tried to fell her in battle, breaking her shield and mocking her for a woman as she followed the first retreat. He looked a bit sheepish when thrown at her feet at the end of battle, yet even in defiance he had shown himself charming and, though loud, a little self-effacing. Of course, it was also Lord Eugeno who had set the Gazwood aflame. His men had all died for it. Sir Sanin suggested the Lord who gave the order ought to die as well. Ges was inclined to agree, but there were rules for these sorts of things. If she did not allow Lord Eugeno to be ransomed, who knew what the wild and willful King Cenedras might do to their own hostages.
She had sent criers to the walls, offering amnesty for all in exchange for the king in chains, but no one seemed willing to take the offer.
Lord Eugeno approached, his wrists fettered. “My Lady?” he asked.
“It would contravene our laws to arm you, my Lord.”
“Ah,” he nodded, smiling. “Laws. Yes. Of course.”
“I am a Divine Commandrix,” she explained. “It is important to our order that I follow protocol.”
“Naturally,” he said. “Protocol. I see.”
“Give him a sword, Commandrix,” Dame Hali urged as she helped Sir Vintir to his feet. “They’re blunted, what can he do?”
Drive it through my eye, she thought. Beat me bloody. She did not think he would, but she no longer trusted her own instincts. She eyed the man evenly, then shook her head.
“Terrible shame,” he sighed. “I pray we may meet honorably on the battlefield again, my Lady.”
“And I pray to hang your brigand king for crimes of dishonor against the rule of war.”
“Hah!” Lord Eugeno bellowed. “He’s a bold lad, I’ll grant you. But this business of writs and defiance is not our custom. Would you punish us for not praying to your Satar neither?”
“Some might,” she countered, “but not I.”
“True…” He stroked his thicket of a beard. “Your man with the one eye… I complimented his beard, and he told me he wanted to rip mine off and shove it… well, I’ll not repeat it before a lady.”
Ges could not help smiling at that. “Sir Sanin has suffered much at this siege.”
“Soldiers suffer,” Lord Eugeno grunted, “but it is a poor knight who forgets his courtesies. What does he mean, leaving that gaping hole in his head exposed for all to see? The ladies must be fainting at such a beastly sight.”
“I fear our ladies may be made of sterner stuff than yours, Lord Eugeno.”
At that, the man grew still. “Mmm, I’m not so sure there, my Lady. I don’t doubt your women are fitter to sit or horse or batter in a poor, bearded fool’s head,” he smiled thinly, “but when it comes to bearing the hardships of the world, I sometimes wonder if we men are as mighty as we call ourselves.” He lifted his manacled hands to stroke his beard. “The boy, King Cenedras, I mean… his mother was arrested for witchcraft by his uncle. She was interrogated for two years before they finally executed her. How they got the confession… what they did to her… and what they could have come up with, after two years… I shudder to think of it.”
Ges felt a twitch at her eye, but otherwise showed no emotion. “If you hope to awaken sympathy for your barbarian king, I suggest you try another method.”
Lord Eugeno grunted again, shaking his head. “No, my Lady. The last ten years or so have been harsh for the Monosi. Our last King was obsessed with wiping out the Old Faith. We all cheered him on, cause if we didn’t, we might be next. Yet Siella, the princess, that is Cenedras’ mother… she said no. She never stopped saying it was wrong.” He muttered something under his breath.
“What’s that, my Lord?”
“Until the end,” he said. “I didn’t see her die, of course. But she must have said or done whatever they wanted, in the end, or they wouldn’t have waited two years to kill her.” He sniffled. “I’m a loud man, my Lady, I need hardly tell you, but I saw that my whole family survived that ugly business. It is my greatest pride, and my greatest shame.”
Ges held her hand out, and a squire grabbed her blunted sword from her. “Is this business with Dalsaman about your Old Faith?”
“No, no,” he said, before stopping himself with a chuckle. “And yes. The boy’s a new king, and he needs us to see he’s not his uncle. His grandfather wasn’t much better, truth be told.”
“Some might say a king who invades foreign lands without defiance is no better than a murderer,” she said. “Some might say your boy is himself not much better.”
“Mm,” he nodded. “A Zaljan might say that, for certain. No doubt you would prefer a king who kills his own people, so long as that king weren’t Zaljan.”
He meant nothing by it, but Ges find herself thinking of the rebellions she had put down. She thought of the thousands of starving widows, widowers, and orphans that had risen up at the Fire Mine. She thought of her foray into Yaalk, and the bandit king of Alwaka, who had been raiding the Zaljan miners who were illegally plundering the Mine of Yaalk. She slew him in single combat and left him to rot at the foot of Mount Threshold. She thought of rebellious prefects, and their soldiers who had died for them. She thought of the rough-clad pikemen of Monos whom she had so recently cut down like the overgrown wheat that grew wild in the lush, abundant fields of Zalja.
“Ahhh,” Lord Eugeno groaned, “forgive me, my Lady. My own mother oft accused me of talking out my tail. Our king’s a complicated man, but I’ll not deny we took your towns. Think what you will of him. And of me.”
And of me, she thought to herself.
A runner arrived shortly after to announce the arrival of Lord Borromeo, the man charged with trading hostages. She sent the runner to fetch Sir Sanin, charged both Hali and Vintir with Lord Eugeno, and ordered her company assembled to meet at the north gate.
Borromeo had wanted to meet at the southern approach, but Ges wanted Sir Sanin with them, and would not trust him to keep himself at the site of Sir Waldun’s death. Ges spared a thought for the earless man and his leathery voice, but there was no little for such things. She mounted her courser and rode to the north gate.
There was no need to fear arrows. The Monosi inside Dalsaman were all knights, and it seemed a mounted warrior’s disdain for the bow was a universal trait. The Euskati had all ridden home, taking with them the magnificent black destrier she had granted King Paladrok. Their arrows were greatly needed now, but she feared neither Tiir nor anyone else would be able to move them back to these walls, save perhaps herself, but she could not abandon the camp. Her only hope was that the besieged Monosi did not know help was coming.
The north gates opened, and out rode seven men. They were pale and thin, their horses mere skeletons, and their four hostages came on foot. Such a small company told her everything. They were weak, they were dying, and this Lord Borromeo did not want her to see how desperate his soldiers were. It may well be they did not have enough horses for them all.
She had already heard that Lord Borromeo looked like a corpse at the best of times, but the man approaching her on his stick-thin grey palfrey looked beyond dead. A round head with thinning white hair, his eyes were sunken and dark, and his lips seemed to be pealing back from his teeth. He was ghast as bone, and his brown and grey silks hung on him like old laundry piled beside a washtub. His knights were dressed in breast plates, mail, and bucket helms, obscuring their starvation.
Ges did not immediately recognize any of the hostages. Two of them had the high cheek bones and long noses of the Enisad family, and one flat-faced girl of twenty looked like to be a cousin of hers, but none were familiar.
Finally, another woman walked free among the party. Dressed in a brown wool skirt and white blouse, her light brown hair bound in a braid behind her, she carried a small sheaf of paper and a charcoal pen. One of the so-called spellers these Monosi brought with them, as reading and writing was deemed insufficiently masculine for a warrior.
Ges missed her great black destrier, but the man before her sat even lower on his starved palfrey. For all his obvious disadvantage, however, this man Borromeo held a confident look upon his face, bored even.
“Good afternoon,” he offered with cold polity. “I believe it is Zaljan custom to exchange introductions before treating, yes?”
“It is,” she answered. Sir Rehfan rode beside her, flying her own banner, the black lion roaring proudly. “All the same, we are all tired. Let us make things simpler. My name is Ges Ra Ividar, and I am the commandrix of the Zaljan forces.”
The lord nodded. “I am Borromeo Ruger, high lord of Gemosia and lord of Geumsil, the capital of Monos. For now.”
“Is the king unwell?” she asked lightly. “He seemed to enjoy treating with us before.”
“He is busy,” he answered, “much like your khan.”
“The boy’s not sick, is he?” asked Lord Eugeno. “Tough young lad, but I doubt he’s ever gone a day without a meal before. Is he well?”
Borromeo looked down at Eugeno with eyes of fire, but the rest of his face remained still. “As I said, His Highness is well, but busy. Occupying a city is… diverting work.”
“Of course,” Ges nodded, allowing the faintest traces of amusement to color her voice. “Then, I see you have brought four highborn hostages. I regret I have only one to offer in return.”
“I’m worth four men any day, I assure you,” Eugeno laughed, “but I’ll not pretend to be worth even one fair maid.” Hali and Vintir kept firm grips on him, though he seemed placid enough. The maids in question were unimpressed by his gallantry. One of the Enisads was older than Ges and looked more accustomed to rule than to being pandered like currency. The other three women seemed of milder cast, but had no doubt suffered more greatly at the hands of their Monosi captors than their immediate appearance might suggest
She looked down upon the flat-faced girl. She was stooped despite her youth, and kept her eyes trained on the ground, looking up only briefly and rarely, trying to take in her surroundings without being noticed. Her hair was black as jet, the type that might shimmer if it were clean. Like all the hostages, she wore the loose, greying linen shift the Monosi seemed to dress all their hostages in. At least, all their women hostages. “How have your captors treated you?” she asked the flat-faced girl.
“They have been treated with honor, as befits their rank,” Borromeo answered. “You have my word as a high lord.”
She met his eyes only briefly. “How have your captors treated you?” she repeated.
The girl kept her face down, her eyes flashing up only in starts. “Well, Commandrix.”
Ges looked to the speller in her brown skirt. She, too, kept her eyes down, looking up only intermittently. A strange flush of anger filled Ges’ face, and the edges of her vision seemed to darken, but in a moment she calmed herself. Nothing had shown.
“I am familiar with Lord Eugeno,” said Borromeo, “so pray let me introduce my guests to you. Ladies Halmia and Veli Ra Enisad, of the southern gatekeepers, Lady Vera Ulnud, a refugee from Mansaikhan, and Lady Nes Ividarhan, whom I believe is a distant cousin of yours. Lady Halmia, as I understand it, is herself given charge of the southern gatehouse.”
Lord Eugeno grumbled something, and there was much uncomfortable shuffling in the ranks.
“I fear there has been a miscommunication,” Ges said. “These hostages you present are of insufficient rank for this ransom.
As one, the women looked up at her, fear shining in their eyes.
“Oh?” Borromeo wondered with impressively feigned innocence. “I was given to understand that a woman was as valuable as a man in your nation. I have brought four women, to your one man, yet you tell me this is still not a high enough price?”
“Eugeno is a great lord, ruling over several minor counties and the multiple towns within them,” she explained, unnecessarily she knew. “Lady Vera is the daughter of the beylan of Mansaikhan, I believe, and I do not doubt Captain Halmia commands a personal company, but these four women together command little more power than a paladin.”
“How troubling,” Lord Borromeo answered, at once.
“Where is the Beylan?”
“He is being kept according to his rank,” he answered with overt patience. “If you are concerned for your family, perhaps Lady Nes here can assuage your concerns.”
“I belong to the Holy Solulan,” she answered at once.
“Enough of your shit smiles!” Lord Eugeno roared. “If the lady wants a Beylan, bring him out.”
Borromeo looked at his fellow lord much like he might a dried-out toad. “I am acting under the direct orders of the King of Kings, Lord Eugeno. If my Lady is unhappy with our offer, then I am afraid we can offer no trade at this time.”
Eugeno was a short man, but the rumble in his chest was great. “Where is the boy?” he demanded.
“If you refer to his Highness, he is in the royal Palace of Vargano, setting the city to order.”
A horse whickered as it strode up next to Ges. Sir Sanin appeared next to her, his enormous black beard shot with grey. He still refused to wear his eye patch. “Bring out the king or we don’t treat,” he growled.
Lord Borromeo’s grey eyes widened at that. “Is this man your commander, Commandrix?” he asked.
She had hoped to remind Sir Sanin what honor was, but it seemed she had only created another Tiir, another Rehfan. “Sir Sanin, return to your position.”
“Where’s the king?” he demanded. “Why’s he sending out this corpse? Has your king fled back to Monos like the cowardly boy he is?”
“We are currently in Monos, Sir Sanin,” Borromeo answered calmly, “and perhaps you have failed to notice your commander’s army besieging our new city. Strolling out for a jaunt has become something of a challenge.”
“Our Hali’s done it twice,” Sanin answered, pointing down at her. “I don’t doubt your weaselly king’s got someone to smuggle him out if he wants.”
Borromeo glanced at Dame Hali, and for a brief instant genuine concern seemed to flit across his face. “Has she? Then surely she has seen the king in his palace. What other reason could she have to spy on us so?”
Sir Sanin was about to answer, so she spoke up. “Sir Sanin. Return to your position. Now.”
“Why did you call me here, if not to speak to these murderers?”
“Obey your Commandrix,” Lord Eugeno bellowed. “Else I’ll rip off your beard.”
Ges’s eyes widened at that, but there was no time to answer. Sir Sanin ripped his sword from his scabbard and spurred his black courser over to Lord Eugeno. Dame Hali and Sir Vintir both drew, but they were on foot. Ges’ shoulder twinged as she twisted to reach her own sword. “Sir Sanin!” she commanded, “you will return to your position at once.”
“Bring out your brigand king!” the Khabarese paladin roared, “or I’ll spill his guts on the field!”
Hali and Vintir were pointing their swords at him, but no one yet moved. Lord Eugeno glared fiery defiance at his would-be murderer. Ges had not yet drawn her weapon.
Lord Borromeo looked as bored as ever. “I am certain Lord Eugeno’s widow will be sorry to hear that. Good day.”
At a gesture, his soldiers turned and began pulling the hostages back into the city gates. Lord Borromeo remained, staring down at his fellow lord, until his retinue had made it back inside. Then he turned, and rode slowly back in himself.
As the gates boomed shut, Sir Sanin let out another roar as he reared back, looking ready to cut Lord Eugeno in two. Hali and Vintir stood firm below, ready to block his attacks if they could. Ges still had not drawn.
Instead, she heeled her mount. Her horse obediently drove forward into Sir Sanin’s black courser, knocking it over and spilling Sir Sanin onto the ground. His roars twisted into cries of agony as his leg shattered beneath the weight of his horse.
“Sir Vintir,” she said, “take Sir Sanin’s blade.”
The sword had scattered away, and Vintir recovered it easily. Lord Eugeno made no effort to take advantage of the sudden diminishment of his guard. Sanin wailed and cried, and Ges looked down on him with a face carved out of wood.
“Sir Sanin,” she said, “you are dismissed from my army. Ride back to the Solulan, if you can, and beg forgiveness from the Holy Archon for your treachery.”
“Commandrix,” Sir Rehfan asked, “should we not look to his injuries first?”
“He gained those injuries trying to murder our lawful captive,” she said. “Were a soldier in my army, I would hang him like a brigand.”
Sir Sanin fell silent at that, choking on whatever emotions were roiling in his head. He looked at her, his own bright eye burning in outrage. A wad of mud and grass had gotten stuck in his empty eye socket, a grotesque mockery of the snakeskin patch he once wore. “Ges,” he said.
“I am a Divine Commandrix,” she countered. “Do not presume to speak my name, Sir. If you remain within my camp by nightfall, I will hang you, Sir. Believe that, more than you believe in Satar’s grace.” She graced herself as she said it, to push the point.
Still he choked on his pain. She was unsure if anger or fear prevailed, but broken beneath his horse as he was, his feelings ultimately did not matter.
“Someone should help him,” Sir Rehfan said.
“I kept him from becoming a murderer,” she said. “I will not let these Monosi turn us into them.
“My Lady,” said Lord Eugeno.
“Commandrix,” Dame Hali broke in, aghast. “Sir Sanin is one of us.
“He was,” she countered. “We are paladins, not brigands. Leave him, and return to camp.”
“My Lady!” Lord Eugeno repeated. “Look!”
He was pointing southeast, around the bend of Dalsaman’s great wall. Steel was ringing against steel, and the cries of horses and soldiers sounded together. From around the bend, a single rider was galloping furiously toward them.
“Attack!” she cried, an arrow sticking out of her shoulder, “Attack! Attack from the south! Attack!”