Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
THE DELIGHTFUL PERFORMANCE in the arena below had finally cracked apart the moodiness that had been with Kami since she arrived in Avjakar. Avestine watched her from the corners of her eyes as they sat together in Severesh’s box enjoying a demonstration by horsemen from the city of Koledoon.
Kami was an interesting young woman, even when she wasn’t naked. Another person’s pleasure had never mattered to Avestine, not even Rook’s, and despite all the time she had tried to discover what pleased Kami, she still never knew just what she would enjoy, although today it was horse tricks.
Avestine tried to appear impressed by guests of the king, but she had to clamp her mouth shut to avoid yawning. She stretched and looked through the audience. The crowd was observing her, as crowds always did.
Returning her gaze to the arena, Avestine thought to herself that the horsemen were skilled performers. They could stand on their hands as they rode, they could do acrobatics, ending up underneath their horses, and they could even snatch rings as they leapt through fire.
When the horsemen reached a full gallop, twenty men were racing in a circle. Riding bareback, without stirrups, they nonetheless had perfect control of their horses. Each of the men used his hands to release arrows from brightly-painted bows. It appeared that they aimed at each other, but the arrows always missed the men and stuck into wood targets propped outside the circle of men like a palisade.
As she maintained a smile, she tried to return to her thoughts of Kami, but something nagged at her. As the show continued, she leaned forward and began to study the performance.
The men of Koledoon were expert horsemen who used their skill for performing. Their weapon was fit for hunting, and archers filled the ranks of most hunting parties. Sometimes, archers walked the walls of town garrisons, but arrows were useless against heavy infantry. Still, the Koledoon riders’ control was amazing. Even Darklaw’s cavalry couldn’t boast such precision and speed with spears.
If only the weapon could be more useful. It would need to be bigger and flung harder, like a catapult’s ballistic, though something a man alone could manage.
Distracted with creative strategies, she left the show with Kami, absently waving her away. She locked herself in her room and sat alone with a bottle of whiskey, staring into a crackling fire through sunfall. She reached a decision before evensun. All she needed was to get the cooperation of Severesh.
She considered several ways, and later that day, she met with Severesh and laid out her idea to visit Koledoon. She told him that if she wanted to understand the archers’ techniques, then she needed to be where the archers trained and built their weapons.
Severesh was not interested. “You have to prepare our troops to meet Darklaw’s infantry.”
Avestine regarded him with an expression of boredom meant to unnerve. She glanced at Gerard to gather his reaction. His father had been born to those restless people who roamed the plains of Koledoon’s peninsula. She thought Gerard held little resemblance to the noble warriors she had heard about. He possessed instead the attributes of the most sophisticated and decadent Avjakar. This made her trust him little and like him immensely.
She thought perhaps he took pride in his father’s people, known for their command of horses, so she spoke to his vanity. “I’m telling you, there’s potential here. The Tribes of the Sun are famous for their horsemanship. They were in perfect control, more than any cavalry I’ve ever seen. With its armored infantry, aided by a heavy cavalry, Darklaw has always crushed through the lines of its enemies. There’s no point in trying to fight on their terms. But I can make something of these archers. With a highly mobile division, I can harass, confuse, create holes.”
After Avestine finished, Gerard glanced calmly from her to his king. One dark eyebrow fluttered upward and dropped as quickly. He rubbed his dark beard. After another glance at her, his eyes narrowed. She was surprised when he said, “I think it may be worth trying.”
Severesh rose to his feet, his lavender tunic swinging about his arms. “Worth trying? We planned to be ready in forty days. We just finished the fort. The commanders are scouting camps and planning for bridges. That planning will have to be delayed, and have you thought that maybe Avestar won’t wait? He’s camped not three weeks from our borders.” He looked at Gerard. “Are you ready to take our legions against Avestar without her?”
“No!” interjected Avestine.
Severesh turned cool eyes on her.
She calmed herself. “I’m asking you to wait. I’m going to Koledoon to see if they can be a help to us. I’m not sure how I’ll use them yet, but I have to see these men, learn what they can do. You won’t have a chance the way things are now.”
Severesh stared at her a long moment. “You told me just days ago that my army was ready.”
“I’ll go with her to Koledoon,” said Gerard.
Avestine sliced the air with her hand. “That’s too dangerous.”
Severesh grew suspicious. “You just said Gerard’s presence wouldn’t help us if your brother attacks.”
“But you still need your warmaster to mount some defense should it be necessary to get you to safety.”
“Komek has served at Gerard’s side for many years.” Severesh turned to Gerard.
“He’s never disappointed me,” replied Gerard after some thought. He looked at Avestine. “I can get you to Koledoon. With my escort, there will be few questions, and you’ll need an introduction to the Tribal Council from someone they trust.”
“No. I can get through the port if I have a signed letter from the king. And it will be better for me to slip away at sunfall,” insisted Avestine. “If the warmaster leaves the city, it won’t matter if his lieutenant steps in or not. Rumors could get ugly. People may panic.”
Severesh raised his hand to silence her. “And if your brother learns you’ve left Avjakar, he may not be satisfied to sit at our borders any longer, anyway.”
“Then why risk Gerard?”
“Do I need to say it?”
Avestine understood the thought that Severesh didn’t share, that though he loved her like a daughter, he didn’t trust her. She nodded with resignation, but cheered up quickly as her thoughts raced far away to the desert of Koledoon.
When she had been their general, the Darklaw legions were her joy, their strength resounding in the pounding of thousands of hobnailed boots on stone roads. She could recall the bodies—thousands upon thousands of bodies. They were disciplined, unified, obedient men clad in black helmets and cuirasses, indistinguishable from each other but for their slight variations in height and breadth. She had made them a single, perfect weapon. That was Darklaw’s wealth, at least the Darklaw she had left with her brother ten years earlier.
She didn’t have such disciplined troops. Severesh was a good king in peacetime and a lousy one in war, and disease was spreading through the army’s ranks. She had to find another way, another tactic that could outclass her brother’s forces; the forces that she, herself, had created.