Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |
Epic fantasy |
Her brother had tricked her, and now he surely knew the value of her archers and would devise some defense. That was precisely why he had sent criminals into battle. He counted on their sense that they had nothing to lose, so their viciousness might provoke her. How had her brother become so skilled? How had he come to know her so well?
She returned to her tent, where Gerard waited. He had already met with the chieftains. “We lost hundreds. Maybe a thousand with injuries.”
“Tell me what you thought of my brother’s legion.”
“What do you mean?”
“That army we saw today. That’s the army that conquered the Trade Empire? Does that make any sense to you?”
“It was the Black Tide. Everyone’s heard of the emperor’s legion. You created it, didn’t you?”
Avestine slapped the table. “Where’s your sense, man? You watched them out there today. They were like boys stabbing cockroaches and chasing rabbits.”
“Maybe the Black Tide is not what it once was.”
“They’re not even soldiers. Those men out there were slaves and criminals. Look at their brandings.”
Gerard was surprised.
“And now he’s seen the archers, but how did he know about them in the first place? How did he know what I was doing? How did he know I’d bring them?”
“Perhaps you’ve been underestimating your brother.”
“I lived with that shit for thirty years. He’s not acting himself. He even came here. He was here. With the legion. I saw him, and he saw me. And here’s the thing I still can’t explain: he took Ureth Mourning in a week with those men. It’s impossible.”
“Improbable, not impossible. With planning, enough soldiers, someone to open the gates, perhaps.”
“Coth brand us all, but this isn’t the Darklaw I remember. This isn’t a Darklaw capable of defeating an army defending its homeland.”
When her guards brought her a request from a wounded soldier, she thought his claim outrageous, but agreed to receive him.
The man was sweaty and dirt-covered, with an untended cut on his cheek. “Lady,” he said, clasping anxious hands together as he bowed. “Blessed Lady, you don’t believe me, but I tell the truth. It was him. He did speak to me.”
“Why would he speak to you? How do you know it was him?”
“I broke through the lines. I charged and fell. There were others with me, but I don’t know who they were.”
“Yes,” interrupted Avestine, not caring to hear the tale. “You say you saw him. Then tell me what he looked like.”
A long silence followed, until the soldier said, “Forgive me, Blessed Lady, but the face of a god. The most beautiful face. Sula take my tongue, but I do not lie!”
She gritted her teeth. “What did he say to you?”
“His eyes glowed and he seemed a demon, despite his beauty.” The soldier reached into his tunic, but before he could pull his hand back out, the guards shoved him to the ground. His face hit dirt as two men bent his arms around his back. He grunted, gasped, and then managed to whisper, “I have something for you.”
At her nod, a guard took the object from him and held it up for her to see.
It was a pendant, a gold fishhook. Her hand went immediately to her chest and felt around before she remembered that she had given the charm to a soldier at Graystone many weeks ago. Her heart felt as if it stopped for a moment, but she smiled and took the charm from her guard. A new, elegant golden chain hung from it.
She tried to smile with appreciation. “Maybe this is my brother’s attempt to appease me, since he knows how much this means. I’m not usually sentimental, but my father gave it to me. You may go.”
Before the man left, Avestine stopped him. “Tell me something,” she said. “Did he scare you, this demon with a god’s face, more than me?”
“Blessed Lady, you’re my commander’s ally. Should I fear you more than a demon?”
She gestured him on and waited for everyone to leave except Gerard. After her guards stepped out the door, she dropped the hook onto the table and sat down.
Gerard said, “You’re tired.”
“This would normally be a duty for the Essanti, but since he isn’t here, I’ll have to rely on you.”
His eyes grew leery. “Rely on me?”
“Put that man at the most distant post we have. Have him disappear next sunfall.”
“Disappear?” His dark eyes studied her.
“Make it look like an animal, or just drown him in the river.”
“You want me to kill him?”
She rose and crowded Gerard, who, unlike Rook, refused to look away. “We can’t have him spreading stories about my brother being a devil. He’s a man, just a man.”
When Gerard’s hand moved toward his belt and the dagger he had there, Avestine said, “I’m not your enemy, Gerard.”
She calmed herself. “I tried to live an ordinary life. Arujan knows how I’ve tried. For ten years, I cowered and lied, trying to stay out of history’s way, but the gods led me here. And now, I’m commanding men who have no reason to do anything I say. Do you realize that? The Sovereignty should never have listened to me. They shouldn’t have sent their army here. I convinced them that Avestar was a threat to them.”
“You’re the only threat to them,” he said.
She nodded. “And even so, we came here to battle Darklaw, and we should not have won. They should have routed us. So you see, Gerard? What the gods have ordained isn’t for you or me to question. I once ruled a land of millions, and don’t doubt I’ll do it again. And, Gerard, when that happens.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “I will need a man I can trust.”