tagMind ControlA War Dawning Ch. 07

A War Dawning Ch. 07

bySaddleRider©

Author's Note: Plot resolution here. No sex.

Chapter Seven

Neral Jaye rode with an odd sense of calm. She had her army behind her. It was by no means all of it, but the formations were substantial. A token force had remained in Erette and the populace enlisted should the Draleth have sent a force to try to sack the city. The rumors of the fire from the sky had not been dispelled and Evaline didn't try. Those that fervently believed that it was the end of Erette if not the end of days would still believe it and unrest would still fester.

Instead she chose to downplay those rumors. People knew that stories got exaggerated for effect, and one like that was ripe for it. Add to that that people simply didn't want to believe that their lives could be snuffed out in a heartbeat, and you have a people willing to believe any plausible theory so she played to that and, in so doing, quelled a great deal of fear. That there was a new weapon and that the King of the Draleth had issued a formal challenge was what she told them and that in this case it was her responsibility to meet it.

Even in the space of that day by the time they left, Evaline, Neral, and the army they'd mustered passed through an impromptu parade. They had both put their worry aside, smiled, waved, and projected the confidence that the people needed to see as people waved and cheered them on to war and victory.

The formations grew larger as they pressed forward towards the inevitable as the forces of the kingdom met them on the path, swelling their numbers. Civilians joined as well hoping to defend their kingdom, homes, and families. They inhabited the back of the lines looking like the ragtag bunch they were, but they had heart and will. Artillery was left behind as well in favor of speed with even the infantry in wagon or on horseback.

Neral was content. Her troops were at her back, her queen was to her left and Dion and Nelina to her right. She would fight to her last breath to come home, but she had said her farewells and made her peace. And at least she went into whatever would come with some of those she respected most at her side. She looked at the queen with her golden-armored brown steed whose plating matched the queen's own armor, from breastplate with the noble bird-of-prey that served as the symbol of her people etched upon it, to gauntlets, to boots. It was ceremonial garb, given away by the perfect white linen that covered what would otherwise have been exposed skin and the cape that settled in a flourish over the saddle.

Then there was the crown.

Evaline noted the appraisal."Have something to say, General?"

"No, Majesty," she said casually, as though discussing the menu at a Court dinner. "I simply note that it's been a long time since I've seen you in battle dress."

"There's a reason for that, not the least of which that I do not know how any of you breathe in it."

"Perhaps if you lashed them down."

"You have a flippant tongue for one of your station." She tried a breath and felt the unintended and unwelcome hug of the bindings. "Besides...they are and I still feel smothered by this thing. I'd rather have your mail."

She looked down at the fine silver webbing that adorned her. "I like to get down and scrap, so I have to move. You just have to look pretty."

"Since you're into that now."

Neral sounded exasperated for the dramatic effect in reaction to the quip. "You're the one thinking about it. Must you?"

The smirk she had played with grew. "Royal privilege. Is it distracting you?"

"Not at all, but it does seem to be consuming a fair number of your idle thoughts."

In the ever-shrinking distance between them Neral could see the columns of troops in front of and behind the red banner with hashes of black that came together to form the head of a bear. Neral gave credit, their columns were tight and they appeared as professional as her own as they formed lines. She expected no less, honestly, but, to her it was at least a hint that there was some honor among them.

"A good day for a fight?"

She looked up and around. It was cold, but warmer than it had been. The sun was peeking out from under the clouds. "The ground will be slippery," she noted with detachment, "but no glare from the snow on the ground. "There have been better days, my queen, but I'll take this one."

The Draleth marched ahead, though they slowed their approach. "Response?"

Dion watched Neral think it through. "Form the infantry lines, hold them here." She raised her voice. "Cavalry, follow in five staggered columns and let's be casual about it."

They moved carefully ahead, not rushing to them or expecting to be rushed, though she was prepared for that. Tanik and the White Guard fanned out behind the queen between her and the cavalry. As they closed the distance Neral could see Mareth's own royal garb. No cape, but armor of black steel and red trim was, like Evaline's own, made to impress but not fight. It was at that moment that Neral noted his right gauntlet.

Mareth tried to cover it in mud to cover that what had been cut to nestle into the leather was more something Deres would understand than she, but she was smart enough to know that the colored lights and text that fought to be seen under the dirt were likely the keys. She didn't know what all of the lights meant, but she weighed how quickly she could lop off his arm at the elbow and if it could be quickly enough.

General D'ravek, on the other hand, looked like a mobile wall all by himself. She had never met him in battle, but his reputation was known well. He was merciless to bandits and, in instances of unrest, he was almost equally merciless to his own people. His eyes were deep set and a light brown while his face was smooth shaven but gnarled from age and battle. That he wore leathers told her that he too liked to move. Full armor had its place, but too many relied upon it, thinking it made them invincible or would make up for a lack of skill.

The bulk of the troops on both sides lagged enough so that when both sides with their honor guards met they were initially alone. Neral saw that Tanik was cutting them both up in the safety of his mind. D'ravek tried to wither Neral, who responded with practiced indifference. Mareth, for his part, looked upon her as one might look upon a bug. He was a man who believed he held all the cards. "Queen Evaline."

"King Mareth. Welcome to Erette."

"Thank you." He laughed, allowing himself a moment to appreciate the humor. "Let me begin by saying that I forgive your, shall we say, lapse in diplomatic skill."

She gave him a grin in return, almost as though she might banter with a friend. "A lapse in diplomacy perhaps, but every word was heartfelt."

Mareth's sense of humor faded slightly. "All you really had to do was invite me to personally accept your surrender. I would have been happy to come as you please."

"I did not bring troops here just to surrender, bend knee, and pray for mercy that you'd never give me or my people anyway."

"Brave words for someone that I can send up in flames at my whim."

She looked up in the sky. She didn't expect to see it, it was just too rare that she took time for herself to enjoy the day and this wasn't a bad one in that snow wasn't blowing. "From what I've heard your toy doesn't discriminate so I'm willing to bet that at this range if it happens to me it happens to you." Her expression hardened. "I can live...or die with that."

Mareth studied those eyes. In that moment, he saw a hint of how the woman could be queen. She was fierce. She was ready to die to take him with her and it wasn't bravado. She was going to fall one way or another, but in that moment she earned a sliver of respect. Still, the inevitable wasn't called that for nothing. "Then why did you come, Majesty?"

"Erette has come to fight!" Her voice was loud and carried to the men and women on both sides, and the men and women of Erette cheered, and put weapon to shield to add to the ferocity of the sound.

"Fight?" He raised his voice as well, beginning to ride a slow circle around her, trying to meet the eyes of troops on both sides. "What will you fight? The Goddess Herself has lent us Her will, and, more importantly, Her power. She demands a new order. She demands an order where Her righteous power brings the world under one banner: her banner."

"Yet that banner looks suspiciously like yours." Evaline circled him as well, her eyes narrowing to make him the world. She is the Goddess, what does She need you for? What does She need me for? Snap Her fingers and She remakes the world as it suits Her."

"Let the Goddess come before me. Let the Goddess come before me, prove Her divinity, and then tell me what She wants the world to be and I shall be Her instrument in the world as I am now."

"Are you jealous, Queen Evaline? Are you jealous that She has chosen me to remake the world and not you?"

"She has not chosen you as her instrument."

"How can you be so sure?"

"You're an ass." Laughter rippled through her troops and she shared a grin with them and let her voice carry. "I simply refuse to believe that She would choose you. If that were true, She would be unworthy of worship, so I submit that She hasn't."

"If you are chosen, then put your greatest soldier to mine, here and now. Put your General to mine in front of your men and mine. Let's see who She favors, shall we?"

Neral didn't tense. Indeed, she was already fighting the battle in her head, trying to glean by his posture and his body how he might move and fight, having guessed at the only card her queen had to play. D'ravek tried to kill her with his glare even then as she kept her expression neutral. For his part, Mareth looked to Neral, who was nothing compared to his man in terms of physicality. That wasn't everything, he knew, but knowing him and knowing of her, he was supremely confident in his man.

More, he liked the notion as to how quickly this could be over.

He made sure that all could hear. "Are you saying that, should your champion fall, you will surrender?"

She mulled the words for what felt like forever to her, but committed herself. "I would accept that as a sign that you had Her favor, and I would yield to that."

He looked like a cat just about finished with the mouse. "I can accept that as well." He didn't really know if the Goddess had chosen him or not, but if the idea could be used as a cudgel to conquer his enemy without having to destroy his prizes, so much the better. He raised his hand and spoke to the sky, "Let us see, here and now, that the Goddess will use Her vessel to usher in a new age."

When Evaline turned towards her lines, Neral and the rest of the queen's soldiers moved forward. As they closed in, Neral saw the worry and fear crease Nelina's face, though she tried her best to hide it like any proper soldier. Neral understood. Neral felt it. If the worst happened, the part of death that she dreaded would be not being able to see how those people who touched her life would grow, love, and simply be. She would never see the woman Khylen would become. She would never see the proud soldier she knew Nelina was already evolving into. She did, after all, like to watch.

Nelina's voice was distant. "Perhaps Tanik..."

The leader of the White Guard was quick to cut her off, but he understood what the young woman grappled with. "It is not my place. I am the protector of the queen, General Jaye is the defender of the people."

"But my niece knows that, doesn't she." It wasn't a question, though the words did hang in the air as though a teacher pressed her student.

She swallowed so hard her throat hurt. "Yes, sir."

"If the order is honorably given, my life is my queen's to take. That is the way of things," she added, seeing the turmoil behind Evaline's eyes that only she and perhaps one or two others could ever note, "and the order is honorable."

"Let D'ravek's men actually witness some honor for once in their careers," Dion spat.

"Honor you cannot expect from Mareth once he loses," Tanik said harshly. "He'll never accept it."

"He will not," Evaline said, "but it doesn't matter what he does. It only matters what we do. We will show honor today and when he does not, if he does not, his men will see that. Even if they don't act, they'll know. And so will he. If, in the quiet and dark of the night, it cuts him to the quick that I was right about him, I will be pleased to haunt him that way."

"If he wins?"

The thought disgusted Evaline, but the truth brought hope. "Then I pledge support and work to keep my word as much as my honor allows, assuming he wants a figurehead rather than just my head." She tilted her head and turned to Neral, "As someone recently said to me, this land has overthrown tyranny before and it will again."

"To that end," her voice low and formal, "if this is the end of the me, or just the end of me as the sovereign ruler of Erette, Colonel Ynesa Dion, I charge you with the task of doing anything necessary to learn all you can about how to nullify this toy of his. Turn him into the mortal man he is again and our people would be anxious to snuff him out. Should I live, no future order I give you can nullify this one, even if I should state that it does. It is in force as long as the people of Erette answer to the Draleth and that...whatever it is still poses a threat. Is that understood, Colonel?"

With fist against her heart, "Yes, Majesty."

Decorum be damned, Neral sidled Stenna alongside Nelina and leaned toward her before she put her hand to the back of her head as Nelina returned the gesture. After kissing her forehead, Neral spoke. "Be the soldier I know you are. Be her every day. Do that and know that I am proud of you. Should I not be able to tell them myself, tell our family I did my duty."

Nelina squeezed Neral's neck as she resisted the tears that threatened to fall. She nodded harshly to beat back the worst of the pain, "I am...always proud to wear my name, but never more so than today."

Letting her go, Neral let her resolve take over and mix with her anger at the notion of the all the upended at best and lost at worst lives that her people faced and raised her arm defiantly into the air, her face a mask of determination. The cheers that followed shook the earth and strengthened that resolve within her soul.

As it died away, Evaline spoke with a quiet, reverent tone, "May I ride with you, at least part of the way, General?"

She searched those eyes, unsure of what to make what was behind. "Of course, Majesty."

As they moved beyond the assembled troops and into the no man's land that wouldn't be so much longer, Evaline's voice was still quiet as though she were afraid that she would break the spell of the moment. "I'm sorry."

"For what? This? It's a gambit that might work, or work in that it buys Erette more time. We're each doing what we have to. And, as I said, if the command is honorable, my life is yours to take, and has been since the day the crown was placed upon your head."

She hated the sound of that just then. She didn't want to be responsible for just a moment. She didn't want to be queen for just a moment. "Drop the ranks, please?"

Neral didn't miss a beat. "Besides, you've tried to get rid of me before, and I still come back."

"Try to get rid of you? Someone gives the kingdom a cross look and it's you personally that has to go out and pick a fight."

"It's all for your benefit, Evie. The more often I'm gone, the less often I have to be home to beat you at Strata and watch you pout when I do like you've pouted since you were a girl."

"Father always wondered why I allowed you to be so very rude to me. He overheard the way you talked to me...with no sense of propriety at all when you believed we were alone."

"And what did you tell him?"

She remembered the conversation well, as it was one of the few times she felt he actually understood her. "Because that's how she is with all her friends, and someday, queen or not, I think if I can get one hint of normal, I want it. She's the best friend I will ever have. And you have been. Thank you, Bootsie."

Hooves pressed into the ground to cause a sinking feeling Neral could just barely feel. "Easy to be your friend, Evie...even if you are talking like I'm already dead."

"Just letting you know I'll miss you is all, and I know you'll miss me." The corner of her mouth went up. You never even got to kiss me yet. You know, since you like that now."

Neral laughed at the haughty and coy look Evaline carried then. "You're the one that keeps bringing it up. I think you want to try that out and see if you like it. I think part of you wants to see me naked and if I can make your eyes roll back to the whites."

"There you go projecting again, Bootsie."

She inhaled the air, smelling the time of year in the way the crisp cleanliness of the air tickled her nose. D'ravek stood alone, his men cheering, his sword at his side and tightly within his grip, looking every bit the tree rooted to the ground. "Time for me to go to work, Evie."

Evaline offered her forearm. "I know that this is, while informal, still a military gesture. I mean no disrespect. There is no one I respect more. I could never do what you do. I would wither on the first march."

Neral clasped the arm just under her elbow. "This is friendship, respect, and fellowship. This is ours, too. And I could never do what you do. I don't know how you manage Court. I don't know how you manage the people and do it so that you keep most everyone pleased with you. We each have our gifts. I am as proud to call you my queen as my friend."

She dismounted smoothly and faced Stenna as Neral caressed down her face, so black she could disappear in the dark, sheer grace, and strength, and loyalty. "You can't come this time, all right? But root for me anyway."

Stenna's head bobbed at the caresses and Neral decided to take that as an affirmative.

"One favor, Bootsie?"

"Yes, Evie?"

"Make sure I get to watch him die."

She drew her sword and felt the comfort of its weight as an instrument of her power. "That goes without saying."

She stepped cautiously forward into fate.

***

Snow was falling hard from the gunmetal gray sky in fat flakes blown into their faces by a brisk wind and the trio was happy for it, as it combined to provide cover for their approach. The falling snow helped them from a distance and Bryana played her magic twisting the wind near the ground to force the snow to smooth if not fill the impressions made by their footprints. Deres was focused on stretching his own magic outward to seek others practiced in its art.

The signal he sought was like a beacon in the ever closing distance. Now that he knew what to search for, with a simple twitch of his magic and he could see the twinkling trail of energy streaming through the clouds and into space. Very convenient, at least. Part of him simply wanted to have transported himself next to it, but he didn't know exactly what he'd be in the middle of, so he refrained.

He felt the tremors of energy around him, and looked to Bryana who confirmed it with her own look back. Mages. They stopped in their tracks and Bryana fine-tuned her own search, looking for those tremors created by those that could pull the universe to them and twist it, as if the universe waited to be manipulated. He was more skilled in magics than arguably anyone else in the known world and Bryana, after years of tutelage was his equal in many ways. They could make a good guess as to the reach of the abilities of others and, any closer and they were likely to be detected.

"Three? Four," she said finally, "though one is farther away."

Deres could almost create a layout of the land based upon that. When people got close to them, that created its own dimple in that force. "Guards, too...at least two in front, two back."

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