Daughter’s Justice Excerpt
The wagon’s constant rocking from side to side finally stopped and Stephenie sighed. She looked up from where she was propped among the leather packs at the two story wattle and daub building. A sign over the door proclaimed it Dom’s Inn. It was an unimpressive building and had a significant tilt in the right wall of the second story. However, the smell of food set her mouth watering, and for something to eat, she could easily ignore the building’s state of disrepair.
She slowly crawled to the back of the wagon where Sergeant Henton waited to help her down. She detested being injured and showing weakness. Injury was something she had always hid from others, but the Sergeant had seen her with significantly worse looking wounds. He had fed her when she had been nearly starved, bandaged her left forearm after it had been burned through to the bone by lightning, and carried her onward when she had overused her body and could not walk. It angered her to know her current state was far worse. Visibly, she looked generally healthy, if not too thin. The trouble was her very bones ached and her muscles just did not have the strength and stamina they should. The ten days of riding in the back of the wagon had allowed her no real recovery, though she did have to acknowledge that she could now at least stand and walk short distances on her own. However, that was a far cry from the twenty to thirty miles a day of forced marches she had been able to perform less than a month earlier.
Stephenie gave a small smile to Private Oliver, a sandy blond who had come up beside Henton to offer a second hand. She shook her head at both of them and made a point of sliding off the wagon without aid.
“Private Beth, you really need to let us help you.”
“Yes, Sarge,” she almost snarled, but kept her tone from being insubordinate. Ever since Henton had first called her Beth in an effort to conceal her identity, she had told him repeatedly that she did not think of herself as a Beth. It had done nothing to stop his use of the name.
He smiled at her, as if to say, just try and stop me. Then he turned to Corporal Will, who was in the driver’s seat and had turned to watch the excitement. “Corporal, you and Private Berman take care of the wagon, everyone else, grab the gear and follow me.”
Stephenie did not bother reaching for her pack; she knew it would be removed from her hand before she could lift it. However, she did grab her sword and slowly strapped the belt around her waist. She straightened her leather armor and pulled the belt tight, which was now in a second set of holes they had punched so the belt would stay up. While never having been much more than a thin girl, she had never weighed as little as she currently did. This, despite the last ten days of eating enough to feed fifty people. It was just another odd thing that made her certain there was something very wrong with herself.
Once Sergeant Henton and the other five privates pulled all the gear from the back of the wagon, Will and Berman drove the two horses forward and around the side of the Inn. The wagon was in poor shape, with damage to the side rails, the support structure, and the bed. However, Stephenie was very glad for it. Without the wagon, she would have to walk and that would demonstrate just how weak she really was. At least with the wagon, she could conceal it to some degree.
Henton signaled the squad to move forward and Stephenie fell in directly behind the twenty-seven year old man, whom despite all their differences, she had found she respected more than nearly anyone else. He was ten years older than her and while quite different in personality from her brother, she found herself wishing he could have been a second brother to her. He had accepted what she was and while it challenged his beliefs, he chose to give her a chance for the sake of the country at large. It was not something that many others would have done.
Inside the inn, the main room held four tables near a fireplace built into the left-hand wall. A counter with a variety of dried goods and supplies stood in front of the right wall. An older woman, whose grey hair was speckled with bits of brown, eyed them cautiously as they filed in through the door.
Henton took a step forward and nodded his head. “Ma’am. I am Sergeant Henton and we are in need of rooms, food, and stabling for two horses.”
The woman frowned at Henton. “You be a long way from the main roads. What are you doing this way with a wagon?”
Henton shuffled slightly and took another step forward. “Ma’am, we are returning to Antar. The King has need of supplies and a reasonably fit wagon is one of them. However, the main roads are a bit crowded and His Majesty, King Joshua, thought it would be a good idea for some of us soldiers to pass through some of the smaller towns and spread news of the war.”
“The war’s done. We had runners come through declaring Duke Burdger as holding Antar. Then a few days ago, more runners say Prince Joshua survived the battles in the Greys and is returning to Antar.”
“Ma’am,” Henton nodded, “I can confirm with my own eyes that King Joshua is indeed returning to Antar with several thousand soldiers and citizens of Cothel. The Senzar invaders were routed. Their leadership and most of their witches and warlocks were destroyed in the Grey Mountains.”
“By one of Elrin’s spawn they said. Elrin’s evil turning on itself. The get of that traitorous bitch who fled the country with the treasury.” The old woman squared her hips, “Now His Majesty thinks to take even more from us? His father, a good man, until he led us into this stupid war, which killed so many while robbing us of goods and supplies. What kind of spawn came from that Queen? We know at least one is a demon of Elrin.”
“Careful woman,” Private Tim said, stepping in front of Stephenie, his hand on the handle of his sword. “Less than that’s been considered treason.”
Henton raised his left hand. “Ma’am, I am sure you were just posing observations. I can tell you that His Majesty, King Joshua, is a true and good King. He did not abandon his people and wants to return peace and prosperity to the country.”
“By having the likes of me provide you room and board at my expense.”
Henton shook his head. “Ma’am, if that was your concern, we may have gotten off to a bad start with a simple misunderstanding.” Henton pulled out a coin purse. “We intend to pay the normal rate for three rooms, all the food we eat, and the stabling of our horses. The King knows everyone has given a lot and the Senzar have taken even more. He does not want to take anything if he has a choice.”
The older woman softened her expression. “Well, then, as long as you don’t go professing loyalty to that demon witch, we can just assume it is true that her curse came from her mother selling her soul to Elrin when she carried the child.”
Henton nodded his head. “Fair enough, ma’am. Princess Stephenie did save thousands of Cothel’s sons, brothers, and women from the Senzar heathens. She drove them from the Grey Mountains and killed thousands of the enemy. And speaking as a follower of Felis, I will not exalt her deeds to you; however, I will say that leave the evil of the mother where it lay and do not blame the children. The only daughter that cared for the traitor, who is no longer our Queen, was Princess Regina. That princess fled north with her mother to that forsaken country, Kynto.”
The old woman took a deep breath, but did not gainsay Henton further. “Three rooms and food.”
“We will need a fair amount of food. However much you cook, I am sure that nine hungry soldiers can easily eat it all.”
“Have a seat, I’ll have the food prepared.” She left the main room through a door in the back wall.
Stephenie, sorely feeling the effort of standing, moved toward a spot next to the fireplace. She slid into a chair and slouched to avoid having to hold herself upright.
“Beth, we don’t have to stay here with that kind of attitude.”
Stephenie looked up and met Tim’s brown eyes. She found the seventeen year old to be almost too intense most of the time. The private had thrown himself completely into the army life and had trained hard, making himself one of the strongest and fittest soldiers Joshua had at hand. His dedication to her and nearly zealous defense of her honor, despite what she was, had earned him a place as one of her personal guards. She trusted him as much as any of the other five men Joshua had added to what remained of Henton’s squad from
However, she wished he could scale back his drive from time to time. “Tim, it’s all good. We’ll see worse before we get to Antar. It’s why we are going this route in the first place.”
Henton cleared his throat. “And next time you want to interrupt my conversation, consider the fact that you are a private and I am a sergeant.”
“Yes, Sarge. I should have held my tongue. I will do better next time.”
Henton sat down next to Stephenie. “Good. Go help Will and then come back for some grub.” The Sergeant did not bother to watch as Tim put down the packs he was carrying and left. Instead he turned to Stephenie. “You going to be okay?”
“I’m starving. I can’t seem to get enough food.”
“What’s Kas have to say about it?”
“I’m a freak.”
“I’m serious. You’ve gone through all of our rations and you seem to still be losing weight.”
“He thinks something is out of whack with my body. Ever since I woke up after that night, I seem to be constantly consuming food. My body might be using it to rebuild itself, but it’s not going to my hips, that’s for sure.”
Stephenie interrupted Henton with a shake of her head and a quick glance at the kitchen door. She could sense the old woman returning. She knew there were three other people in the backroom, she suspected they were male, but her ability to sense much more than the vaguest of surface emotions from people near her had not improved. Kas called her mentally deaf, and from what she could tell, he was right.
When the woman returned, she was carrying several loaves of bread under one arm and a pot of stew in the other. “You need bowls or do you have your own?”
“We’ve got our own, thank you, ma’am.”
“Well, three rooms, food for nine, and stalls for two horses will cost you forty square.”
Stephenie watched as Henton swallowed what she expected was an angry retort. That much money was a lot even for a larger city. Obviously the woman wanted to test just how much King Joshua’s or Henton’s word was worth.
“Well ma’am, that is a fair sum. I assume you took me at my word that my men are hungry and will eat a lot. I won’t let them eat you out of home, but be forewarned, for that amount, we expect breakfast in the morning after a large feast tonight.”
The woman pursed her lips and nodded her head, “Fair enough.”
Henton counted out forty small square coins and handed them over. It was a good portion of what was left of their minted coins, many of which had been provided by Henton’s original squad. She still had several pieces of gold and silver, the remains of coins from the Dalar empire, long since dead and forgotten, the last set of which Joshua had melted into lumps of metal before he had left the Greys ahead of them. She had almost lost a number of those coins to some Senzar soldiers, and that could have led to more difficulties. As lumps of gold they were not as valuable, but they would not be traced to any specific country or time.
Paid, the woman went back to working on counting goods behind the counter as Will, Tim, and Berman came in through the front door. “Wagon’s stowed, Sarge. Horses in the hands of a stable boy.” Will sat down across from Stephenie, who was already eating from a loaf of bread as Henton loaded up her bowl with stew. “We’re going to have a crowd of people tonight.”
“Well, spreading news is part of our job,” Stephenie said with a full mouth.
Having grown used to her consuming all the food around, the others started digging into the bread and stew the moment she received her bowl from Henton. As Henton started to fill his own bowl, he called over to the woman behind the counter, “Ma’am, as I mentioned, we’ve been underfed for a while. If you can bring another round or two of food, we’d be much appreciative.” Frowning, the woman reluctantly returned to the kitchen as Henton sat down to eat.
=”chapter-para-norm-with-divide”>They were only into the second course of food, Stephenie her fourth, when many of the town’s people started to file into the tavern. Some of the men greeted the old woman as Ava, others simply moved to sit at nearby tables, but most people remained standing, clustering into small groups. It was not long before the room was filled with a mass of people and the odor that came with so many working men and women.
Stephenie had opened herself up a little more than normal, allowing the mental energy into her mind. However, the muddled mess of noise still meant little to her. Kas bemoaned her lack of mental sensitivity frequently and while it was useful when she had been around people as they died, it was frustrating to know that a normal person with the ability to use magic would be able to easily pick up surface thoughts, not just strong emotions. Of course, most normal mages had been systematically killed over the last thousand years and the only ones left in her part of the world were minimally skilled and untrained. And dead if anyone discovered what they were.
She put the thought aside and continued to eat mechanically. She was sensitive enough to know the room was full of apprehension, anger, and a bit of fear. The war that Cothel had been fighting was just barely over and the victory not entirely decisive. It was not unlike the other small towns they had passed through.
Henton stood, drawing her attention, but the strips of beef continued to move from her plate to her mouth. “Good evening.” Henton turned so he could briefly meet the eyes of everyone in the room. “My name is Sergeant Henton. I am glad that so many of you decided to visit with us. I wanted to pass on the latest news.”
“The war truly over?” someone asked from the back of the room.
Henton nodded his head. “The Senzar forces are in retreat. The immediate threat to Cothel appears to be over for now. His Majesty, King Joshua, decided not to pursue those retreating. While the actions of Her Highness, Princess Stephenie, had freed many thousand soldiers and citizens of Cothel and neighboring countries, it was decided that it was not in the best interest of Cothel to pursue them at this time.
“I can tell you that the Princess killed between six or seven thousand of the Senzar, including most of their witches and warlocks. She killed their leadership, leaving mostly lower ranking soldiers.”
“What of all those we heard were in the countryside as well as those back in Esland? They control most of that country.”
Henton turned in the direction the question had come from. “Those that were killed were in a valley in the Grey Mountains. They were after lost artifacts, which appear to have been destroyed as well. The top leadership was there. However, you are correct, there are still many Senzar west of the Greys. At this time, they don’t appear to be wanting any more conflict from us. We think they are stretched pretty thin.”
“We should never have been fighting this war.” The statement was followed by a number of affirmative comments.
Henton shook his head. “I cannot comment on what the late King did and his reasons for doing so, may he live on with the gods; however, King Joshua’s focus is securing Cothel and bringing it back to prosperity.”
“After his traitorous mother stole everything? He going to tax us to death so he can rebuild? He going to draft those few of us left to fight more battles? Duke Burdger took the crown.”
“Joshua does not plan to tax you to make himself live comfortably. He will only do what is needed. Regarding Burdger, the Duke took over before he knew Joshua was still alive. I am sure the Duke, who was friends with our late King, will welcome His Majesty’s return.”
Stephenie sensed a good deal of doubt from the crowd at that statement. She looked around, pausing in her eating. The people definitely were frightened and she understood that. She wanted to allay everyone’s fears. She just did not know how to do that and she hated to feel helpless.
A sudden sharpness of fear and perhaps anger drew her attention; the more intense the emotion, the more readily it stood out to her. She noticed a young man next to an older man who was in a fine set of clothing.
A whispered chain of comments spread quickly though the crowd:
Henton stopped talking as the mood of the crowd changed palpably in an instant. The man in fine clothing moved to the front of the town’s people, the holy symbol of Felis on his chest.
“Is it true?”
“It is!” the young man who had been next to him said from within the safety of the crowd. “I was on the top of the ridge. I saw her face; her red hair. That’s the demon spawn that brought the mountain down. And that sergeant was always with her.”
“Sergeant?” the old man questioned. “I ask as a priest of Felis, is this true? This woman the witch?”
Stephenie slowly rose to her feet, sending everyone in the room back a step. She wished this irrational fear of what she was did not exist.
Henton bowed his head to the priest. “It is true, she is the Princess.” He raised his hand to prevent comment, “but as one of Felis’ loyal men, I submit that she has never performed an evil act.”
“That is not for you to decide. Witches must be destroyed to prevent the spread of Elrin’s evil. Allowing her to live is spreading his tainted influence.”
Corporal Will rose to his feet and pushed his way in front of Henton. “Enough of this crap! I am so sick of everyone wanting to hurt Steph. She destroyed the Senzar heathens. She saved the country!” Turning to the young man, “She saved your life and you want to judge her?” Will shook his head and turned back to the priest. “Henton is as a devout follower of Felis as I’ve seen. When we served on The Scarlet, a ship in His Majesty’s fleet, his closest friend was a Holy Warrior of Felis. You cannot question Henton’s faith.”
“I was questioning his judgment.”
Will took a breath. “Why do you burn witches?”
“To remove Elrin’s taint from their soul.”
“Exactly. This young lady’s soul has been purified. I was there, I saw it happen. She burned in a holy fire and was remade.” Will took a step closer to the priest and held out his arm. “Read me. Prove what I say is true.”
The priest frowned, but took his holy symbol in one hand and grabbed Will’s arm with the other. After a moment, he nodded for Will to continue.
“The Senzar had shot her with arrows and threw curses and spells at her. She had fallen to the ground, her legs crippled, but she fought on to save those she was trying to protect. I was certain she would die at their hands, but then suddenly her entire body erupted in flames. The flames covered her from head to toe. It was so bright I could see her clearly from where I stood on the top of the ridge. Her clothing and everything she was wearing was burned away. The Senzar tried to retreat. These Elrin-loving demons were fleeing her.
“Then suddenly the mountain roared, exploded, and destroyed the invaders. Those Senzar warlocks and witches were destroyed in an explosion of fire and rock.” Will looked around the room. “When I reached her, we found her whole. Naked and in a crater of melted rock. She had many scars before; one on her cheek from an early childhood injury and others on her arms and legs from all the weapons training she had. But when we found her, they were all gone. The arrow wounds she had just taken, gone. Her body was perfect. The only mark is a black hand print on her left breast, just over her heart.” He nodded his head in her direction. “She was remade and purified by the gods. Felis’ holy warriors had fallen to the Senzar. Their holy symbols and the statues of power stolen and used against us. The same can be said of Ari’s, Duman’s, and several other gods from where the Senzar had marched. So I ask you, could not the gods have decided to take one of Elrin’s own and purify her and use her as a weapon against the invaders? She survived purification by fire and was remade. I do not believe Elrin ever had a hold on her, but after that fire, if there was ever a bit of taint, it is gone.”
Will held up his chin, “What say you, priest?”
The old priest removed his hand from Will’s arm and looked toward Stephenie. “Your words were spoken true.”
A murmur of surprise ran through the crowd and a low cacophony of comments drowned each other out. Stephenie wanted to walk over and shake Will. His interpretation of events was skewed. She had never heard him put forth that view of the events before and it worried her that others might start to believe the things he just said. I am NOT some chosen warrior for the gods.
The priest drew Stephenie’s attention again. “Is this true? Are you separated from Elrin? Would you submit to another trial by fire?”
Stephenie took a deep breath and moved forward. This time the crowd did not retreat. “I have never worshiped Elrin. I was born like this, with these powers. Yes, I was surrounded in fire when I fought the Senzar and yes, I have healed and,” she turned to glare at Will, “it seems more people have seen the mark on my breast than I originally thought.” She turned back to the priest. “I personally have not drawn conclusions about those events. However, having been covered in flames once, I do not think I really want to do it again.”
“Then the curse of Elrin was drawn to you by your mother as the rumors have stated. It would make sense, the traitorous…” the priest paused.
“Traitorous bitch is how I refer to her. She’s no longer my, nor Joshua’s mother.”
The priest nodded with a slight softening of his expression. “It would hold with her behavior. You have given me pause and something to consider. However, only the High Priest in Antar can make a proclamation regarding your status. It has always been something that is conceived of as possible, but there is no record of someone surviving purification by fire. If true, it would mean that Elrin has no power over you.”
“I have only ever acted to try to do what is best for Cothel and her people.”
Stephenie turned just before the man on her left jumped forward. “We cannot suffer a witch!” he screamed, a dagger in his hand. Private Tim moved forward as well, trying to draw his sword. No more, damn it!
Almost instinctively, she drew energy from her surroundings, the air, the wood of the floor and tables, and even the people around her. A slight chill followed the drawing of the energy, but it was so minimal it would scarcely be felt. Directing the energy through her body, she created a field around Tim and the man with the dagger. It was irregular in shape, matching their form. Kas had only recently begun teaching her how to control complex fields, but unlike reading thoughts, this was something for which she had an affinity.
The two men froze in mid-stride, confronted with a wall of energy that repelled their forward motion. Sensing and almost visualizing the pressures they exerted on the force, she kept what Kas referred to as a modified gravity field only strong enough to keep them where they were.
“I am sick and tired of people hurting each other. I am not here to hurt anyone. I am simply going back to Antar. If everyone will be kind enough to cease hostilities, at least until we leave in the morning, I think everyone will be much better off in the end.” She looked to the priest as she released Tim, whom she had already sensed had stopped his effort to move forward.
“Your Highness. I never trained as a Holy Warrior, but I do know what you just did is not considered easy. At least, not without injuring people. Your corporal has given me things to consider and I will be sending word to Antar regarding these events. I will give you the benefit of the doubt, at least until the High Priest can comment.” The old man turned his head to look at the people in the room. “Until we hear otherwise or have cause to know differently, we must consider that perhaps Elrin does not possess this one. Leave her and her soldiers to their own and they will leave in the morning.”
The priest nodded his head. “I pray to Felis that I am not making a mistake. But so far, your actions today do not speak of evil. And I do not think we could do anything to you even if we wanted to. Anyone that can bring down a mountain, as young Arvin described several days ago when he returned to us, is not going to be endangered by a small group of townsmen.”
Stephenie hesitated, wondering just how much of the priest’s proclamation was due to fear as opposed to actually believing she did not intend to harm anyone. “Thank you for the trust. We will not do anything to invalidate it.” She released the man with the dagger, who’s face was a mask of anger and fear. However, three other men grabbed his arms and pulled him back into the crowd. “If there are no other questions, my friends and I will finish our food and then retire to our rooms for the night.”
Stephenie crawled into the old and rickety bed that was leaning against the wall. She was in the middle room of the three that her group were using; her personal guards had divided up and taken the two on either side of her’s. She told them they should all try and get some sleep, but Henton insisted that one person in each room would remain up through the night. For Stephenie’s room, that would be Kas.
She smiled, sensing her friend floating beside her. He was never far from her, but he had been a bit more emotionally distant of late. “Kas,” she whispered and then waited for his form to slowly materialize. It started as just the hint of a blue-green glow, then his face, shoulders, and chest appeared in a very translucent image. “Kas,” she demanded a little louder and with a bit of mental command directed at him. She had not yet figured out how to direct mental communication. The ghost would only hear her thoughts if he was listening to her mind.
With a huff, the rest of his form materialized and shifted into the firm opaqueness that Stephenie preferred. While she could sense him clearly without seeing his form with her eyes, she noticed that he appeared to have more cohesion when he decided to be visible.
“Kas, I really need to talk to you,” she said in the Old Tongue. She was teaching him Cothish and he had picked up many words and phrases over the last ten days, but to have a full conversation, she needed to use the old Denarian language. “Did you pick up anything that Will said this evening? I wanted to strangle him. How in the world could he start making out like I am some gift from the gods? Or that the gods had anything to do with me?” She balled up her hands, “remade in order to defeat the Senzar, really, Will? Where did he come up with that shit?”
The ghost walked over to her bed and sat down, this time the covers moved slightly and Stephenie grinned at the effort he was making to behave more like a person with a body. “I caught only part of what was said. His manner of speech is rather quick.”
“I’m so sorry for how frustrated I must have made you when we first met. I really was the brain-damaged simpleton you called me. I’ve explained things to Will and the others, but even Henton is reluctant to believe. Sometimes I think he is willing, but…”
“Stephenie, you must learn to let it go. They are your friends and protect you. However, getting them to understand may be too much to expect. Besides, whatever he said seemed to quiet the townspeople for the most part and it is better not to kill those whom you wish to eventually like you.”
“But Will is going to try to make it out like I am some sort of warrior for the gods. I just know where he’s going to take it. I don’t believe in fate and destiny, but I could see it in his eyes. I could even feel it from him. I think he really believes I am some chosen person. The mark you left when you tried to freeze my heart, they think it is something special!”
“Stephenie, you still carry that mark because you wanted to. The more I think about what happened, the more I am certain you were able to somehow direct the excess energy into healing yourself. Even rebuilding and remaking your body based on some internal ideal you have, which removed the old scars and injuries, but, since you are so adamant that we belong together and you associated the mark with me, you subconsciously left it.”
“I have feeling there again,” she said, grinning at him from where she sat, knowing deep down that he was right.
Kas smiled back at her. “I’ve seen you playing with your breast.”
She shook her head and frowned at him. “You must have been a pervert a thousand years ago, watching me when I’m not looking.” She could not keep the grin from growing on her face as his eyes took on a mischievous light, showing a little brown through the blue-green of his luminescence. Stephenie wondered if he could produce a more natural color all the time, but had resisted asking. “But I’ve not been playing, just poking to see if it had fully healed.”
Kas’ form flashed out for a brief moment and he reappeared with his body standing and facing her. “Levity aside, we need to discuss a more serious topic.” He paused for just a moment, blinking out and back, but not moving position. “You are not getting better. I think your ideal you used to reform yourself must not have been correct. Either that, or your body is somehow stuck in a mode that it is constantly rebuilding itself. You are not regaining your strength of muscle. I am worried about you. What you did on the mountain is beyond my understanding. The fact that you even lived is unbelievable in itself, but if you continue to deteriorate, I fear you may die and one does not just become a ghost as you know.”
Stephenie raised her eyebrows. “What do you want me to do?”
“Get better,” Kas said, lowering his head before floating closer to her. “Magically speaking, you seem to have recovered completely, if not improved.” Pride filled his eyes. “I was quite impressed by the field you created tonight. Very well done.”
She smiled and leaned back against the wall. “Thank you. I was glad you held back from doing anything. People have enough problems with me…knowing about you would make it worse.”
“You are capable of protecting yourself, but you are not healing. Your constant need to eat is worrying. Regardless of how much of a pig you make of yourself, you are still gradually losing weight. You seem to survive when you are not eating, as if your body’s consumption of the raw materials slows, but the moment you eat something, it picks back up. I would need you to take more detailed measurements and record data over time, but it seems you lose more weight when you eat more.”
“Your size, how much you eat, and such.”
“I am not an experiment, Kas.”
“No, but we need to understand what is going on. Your body should always be slowly rebuilding itself, but it is almost as if you are stuck in a high-intensity mode. Like your body is fighting a disease or injury.”
“Well, perhaps that is why I’m so achy all the time. Any suggestions? Aside from prescribing this to my fat sister Regina?”
“This is not a joke. I think this is dangerous. You could end up doing a lot of damage to yourself in the long run. Plus, you are miserable.”
“I jogged and marched from Antar all the way to the Greys. That was five hundred miles and I did it while injured and half starved. Now I can’t hardly walk two dozen feet. I made it up those stairs using my powers to support my body.” She took a deep breath. “So yeah, I’m miserable and very scared. I really am. But what can I do about it? I don’t know how to fix it.”
Kas nodded his head and sat down next to her again. “When we get back to Antar, I will go to the library. I will need to check on the situation to make sure the ghosts in Arkani are still quiet. I will see if I can find anything that might talk about this. Otherwise, you might have to let me into your mind again and I can try to determine what is going on. But-”
“That’s too risky for you. I don’t want to harm you. I love you.”
“So you keep saying.”
“Kas. Don’t make light of my feelings.”
He looked at her and shook his head. “I have no body. I have no way to truly care for you. It frustrates me.”
“But you do love me as well, yes?”
“Stephenie. Yes, I do love you. Are you happy?”
She smiled. “Now I am. And no more talk of me until we know more, okay?” She reached out with her mind, drew in energy, and pulled her pack from across the room to her hands. Putting it behind her, she shifted it until it was more comfortable than leaning against the wall. “Let’s work on you learning more Cothish. There’s nothing to be done about me for now.”
Stephenie was awakened early in the morning. Henton had procured food directly from the kitchen and store room before anyone else was awake. He justified taking the food as having paid for it already and not wanting to risk someone trying to poison them. That was the preferred way to kill a witch or warlock. The idea was to overwhelm the witch’s body trying to deal with the damage from the poison and so prevent the witch from fighting back with magic. The other ways were to sacrifice a number of people to tire out the witch or to use holy warriors to bring more power than the witch had. Since her body was already working overtime, getting poisoned would be a significant risk, even if her powers did not seem diminished.
At first light, they were on the road and heading out of town. “Steph, we probably need to think about trying to get to Antar as quickly as possible. I don’t want those people sending word ahead of us to get a mob ready to take us. Perhaps we should also cut and dye your hair.”
“You don’t want to cut your hair or no to Antar?” Henton’s voice was filled with disbelief.
“I will not cut and dye my hair.” She sighed, knowing it seemed unreasonable, but she knew Kas liked her red hair long and she would not do anything that might give him another argument that she should find someone with a physical body.
“Do you get your powers from your hair?”
Stephenie turned to John, who’s blond hair was pulled back in a long pony tail. “No,” she said with a bit of skepticism. “Why would you ask that?”
“I heard old stories. Once people learned about you, there were lots and lots of stories going around camp. Some merc from the northeast had said witches get their power from their hair. That is why they never cut it. Didn’t apply to warlocks for some reason.”
Stephenie shook her head and then smiled at the crazy lack of logic some legends had. “I’ve not heard that before. Let me set you straight. No, my hair is not the key to my powers.”
“So it must be key to your vanity,” Henton said, his tone harsh enough to silence the others. “I am serious, Steph. We don’t need you recognized. It is going to be hard enough to blend in. Nine soldiers with a wagon are easy to spot.”
“Then it matters little that my hair is long and red. Leave it.”
Henton huffed, but said nothing further on the subject.
“That spell you cast on me,” Tim said, coming up next to John. “That was something else. I couldn’t move forward. You just froze me in place.”
“It wasn’t a spell,” she said, knowing a bit of frustration was leaking into her voice. Henton, Will, and Douglas had been with her on her journey to the Greys and had the benefit of her explaining what Kas had taught her. She had not had much desire to explains things to the five soldiers added to their number, but it was something she needed to reconcile now that they had seen her perform magic. “Nothing that I do is really a spell.”
“See, I told you, she’s not like the witches. She’s different.”
“Will, I am just like the priests and witches and warlocks. The difference is, I have Kas to help teach me things that most everyone around Tet appears to have forgotten.” She moved forward in the wagon, using her powers to help her move smoothly up into the bench seat. “Okay, everyone, I am going to explain some things, so listen up.”
Henton cleared his throat, “We should keep the scouts ahead and back a little. Clustered this close we won’t-”
“Kas is watching. He’s about a hundred feet above us and can see…well…more sense than actually see, in all directions around us. We’re safe for now.”
She waited for Henton to come in closer so she could talk in a normal tone. “Some of you have heard this before, but I want to stress this, what you call witchcraft, they used to call magic, but really it is just the manipulation of the energy that is already stored in everything around us. Light and heat are forms of that energy. The force that holds you to the ground and makes things fall is another form of energy. Long ago it was called gravity. It’s a little different than light and heat, it is a force that causes things to be attracted to each other, not just for things to fall to the ground.”
“Like Oliver to any pretty woman,” John joked and Oliver grinned.
“Well, okay, perhaps.” Stephenie shook her head, wanting to say â€˜More like Fish to water,’ but Fish’s death was too recent to joke about. “The force is actually fairly weak, unless the objects are large. But, there is some amount of it between your hand and the sword or your butt and the back of a horse, at least until it throws you.
“It’s a weak force, as I mentioned, but I can create a field that changes that. What I did to you, Tim, was simply create a field around your body that worked the other way; it repelled you. I made it just strong enough to keep you from moving forward. I would have had to constantly modify the field if you had struggled, otherwise you might have pushed through it. If I made it too strong, it might have crushed you.”
“Like you did to the Senzar mages who attacked us on the way to the Greys,” Douglas remarked.
“Right.” Stephenie put aside the memory of the cracking bones and the pain, anguish, and fear the people she had killed felt as they died. “I also had to leave room for you to breathe and a way for air to reach your face, otherwise, you’d have died because you would not have been able to breathe. It takes a lot of concentration and constant adaptation to get it right and keep it working. It’s not just some words you utter that does everything for you.”
“So, not a spell. Then why do witches always cast spells?”
Stephenie turned to Oliver and his cocky grin. “I discussed that with Kas. We suspect that the whole concept of spells might have come when people who have the ability to use magic accidentally did something that put their mind in the right state to make it happen. They thought it was what they did or said. Then over time, they got so hung up on the chanting or what they did with their hands or what they burned, that in the end, that was the only way they could repeat the state of mind. Some of the things might have been early learning techniques and people eventually lost understanding. For instance, I found moving something was initially easier if I moved my hand, because then I am doing something with more than just my mind. But truly, I don’t need to do that.”
Tim raised his hand. “And so selling my soul to Elrin won’t get me any power. You have to be born this way, right? That was what you said before.”
“That’s right. One of my ancestors had this ability.”
“But no one else in your family was a witch or warlock?”
“Not that I have heard of. Kas is a little bit at a loss to explain it. But the other day he asked me if we still bother to breed good qualities into animals.”
“You mean like we breed good hunting dogs. Choose a good bitch and stud to get a fast and smart dog.” Oliver’s grin widened.
Stephenie did not need her extra sensitivity to emotions to know Oliver’s thoughts were back on his own reproductive exploits. “Kas didn’t compare me to a dog. He chose horses, but the theory is the same. Sometimes you get what you expect, other times, you get something you don’t expect, something from deep in the animal’s past.”
“So you’re some odd freak of chance that happened to spring up?” Will asked, his eyes daring her to challenge him.
“I love you too,” she said, shaking her head. “Enough about me and my odd hang ups. My hair stays, it’s not a key to my power or undoing, and to answer the unasked question, apparently no one discussed good breeding practices with my parents before I was conceived.”
“Hey, I think you came out just right.”
Stephenie smiled despite herself. Henton had remained quiet and reserved as always, but she could sense admiration from the others and it felt good to know there were at least a few people who actually liked her for herself.
Stephenie opened her eyes. The change in Kas’ presence had awaken her from her uneasy sleep on the ground. They had passed through two towns earlier in the day, Douglas buying supplies ahead of their arrival. However, Henton had decided to press on until nightfall, fearful that word of their travels would precede them. In the end, the decision was made to sleep in an abandoned field.
Nearly two dozen men approaching from the north, Kas’ voice echoed in her mind. They are not very organized. Not soldiers, but, they are bent on conflict.
Stephenie rolled out from under her blankets and quickly moved over to Henton, shaking his shoulder, and bringing him instantly awake. “A couple dozen farmers and town’s men coming from the north.” He nodded his head and quickly went to wake the others on his left, motioning for Stephenie to move to the right. A couple moments later, everyone was awake and armed.
“We don’t want to hurt anyone badly,” Stephenie said as she forced herself forward using her magic to move her limbs. “These people have families and maiming someone won’t help make them accept me.”
“Ma’am, they’re coming to kill you, being nice to them seems a little stupid.”
Stephenie refrained from glaring at John. The light from the Mother Moon was bright enough everyone would be able to see her expression. Instead, she simply shook her head. “Be careful and don’t get hurt,” she added just loud enough for the others to hear. Sensing the mass of men growing closer, she raised her voice. “We know you are coming, so let’s just take a moment and have a conversation.”
The mass of men who had been slowly moving forward paused a moment, then a couple of men barked some quiet commands that drove the men forward again.
“We won’t suffer a witch,” one of the attackers finally shouted in defiance. “You soldiers walk away from the witch and we’ll overlook your sins.”
“She’s already been cleansed,” Will shouted back, earning a silencing look from Henton.
“We just want to confirm your claim. If your claim is true, she won’t mind a second burning.”
Stephenie looked into the blue eyes of the man who had emerged from the trees. Her night sight was always exceptional, and in this moonlight, she could see as well as she did during the day. The man’s voice had trembled slightly and while she could only sense the barest of emotions, the group of men were terrified. “Go back to your families. We’ve done you no harm and don’t want to cause your loved ones more loss.”
“Take them before she casts a spell to addle your minds!”
Stephenie watched in dismay as the men charged forward, a few with swords, most with pitchforks or sharp farm tools. Several screamed, yelling angry, fear-filled challenges as they massed into clumps.
Henton and the squad formed up in a silent and composed response. They came around both sides of Stephenie to protect her. She moved one step forward, staying just behind Douglas and Henton. A heavy sword held loosely in her hand.
The initial clash of weapons showed the differences in skill and discipline. Henton, a seasoned marine sergeant, easily defected the pitchfork aimed at his chest. Stepping to the side, he casually disarmed the uncertain youth. A quick punch to the boy’s jaw sent him backwards into an older man who had crowded too close.
Stephenie watched as Douglas turned aside one man’s sword and barely dodged a scythe. Oliver automatically moved forward and kicked out the right leg of the man with the scythe, allowing Douglas to concentrate on the first man.
Blocked from the conflict by Douglas and Henton, she reached out with her senses, trying to place where all her friends and their adversaries had moved. Berman and Tim fought to her left, while John and Will were being drawn off further to her right. Her men were better, but they were following her desire to avoid hurting their attackers, who outnumbered them more than two to one.
Douglas grunted under the blow of a mace formed from a tree limb. He staggered back and Stephenie reacted instantly, allowing the energy surrounding them to course through her body and she threw Douglas’ attacker back a dozen feet, knocking over two more of the twenty-three assailants.
To her right, pain from Will drew her attention; one of the three men surrounding him had landed a solid blow. Stephenie reached out with her mind and launched Will into the air. Almost instantly, he was twenty feet over the heads of the startled men around him. Stephenie angled his flight behind their line.
The attacking men, regaining their composure, started to move toward John, who was only just holding his own against two other men. Anger filling Stephenie, she drew more energy through her. Kas would complain about her lack of subtlety in creating a low-powered field to guide the energy instead of drawing it all through her body, but she did not have the time.
Unleashing the energy, which had made her hands tingle, she flung all the attackers back off their feet. Barely keeping the force in check, the sixteen men she hit sailed more than a dozen feet, several colliding with trees and each other. She felt several sharp spikes of pain from a couple men, but no one seemed to die.
“I told you we didn’t want to hurt you or anyone else. Go back to your homes and be glad you still have your lives!” Stephenie stood and watched with barely contained rage as the farmers and town’s men scrambled to their feet and retreated into the night. She could see several limping or holding their sides, but none appeared to be severely injured.
Turning, she rushed to Will, who was standing with the help of Douglas. “Where are you injured?”
Will looked over and gave her his innocent grin. “That was amazing. Throw me again.”
Stephenie straightened. “I thought you had been hurt.”
Will leaned into Douglas and struggled with the straps on his leather armor. After a moment, Stephenie moved closer and helped. “I took a hit to my side. Bastard had half a tree.”
“You don’t look like you’re bleeding.”
Henton moved in to also help Will get out of the armor and handed the boiled hide to Tim. “I don’t see any bleeding either, but we’ll need to watch for bruising. I wish we were on The Scarlet, I’d â€˜ve had Nermin heal you, but I think even if we hadn’t lost most of our priests to the Senzar, we’d have a hard time getting one to help us now.”
Stephenie looked to Henton and then to Will, her heart racing, knowing the problem was that they had thrown their support behind her and that marked all of them. “I…I could try to heal you.”
Will smiled and winked his left eye. “I’m fine, really. The fat man just caught me off guard. I took far worse swinging to the mast on that Mytian pirate ship.”
“Perhaps,” Henton mused, “but you’ll be taking it easy with
Steph in the back of the wagon.”
“Really Sarge, I’ll be fine.” Will tried to stand up tall, but could not hold back a cringe of pain. “Well, perhaps you can fly me into the wagon?”
Stephenie shook her head, but then smiled at the twinkle that came into Will’s eye. “Yeah, I guess I can, Corporal Lazy.”
“We should move out. Most of the night is gone anyway and we’re all awake.”
“Ma’am, can I ask why you waited to fight back?”
“And what of Kas?” Oliver asked, trying not to look like he was avoiding the ghost who had materialized next to Stephenie. “He’d have frightened them away sooner.”
Stephenie looked around, feeling the lack of strength in her limbs. Her magic was the only thing holding her upright. “We’ve, meaning Henton, Will, Douglas, Kas, and I, have talked about that. Scaring these people will not win me friends. They don’t trust power like that and I can’t blame them. I had really hoped that they would have turned away when a couple of them were knocked down. I didn’t want to use my power at all, but keeping Kas a secret is even more important.”
Henton handed the rest of Will’s armor to Oliver. “We should all try to minimize talking about what Steph can do. Whatever we say will get exaggerated in retelling. Why don’t you get Will’s bed role picked up. Tim, get the horses ready.”
“You going to fly me into the wagon?” Will asked, his puppy dog eyes looking up sheepishly.
Stephenie turned away from him, then drew in the energy and lifted Will easily the forty feet into the back of the wagon.
“Can you fly me as well?” came a chorus of voices from Oliver, John, and Berman.
“No she will not,” Henton snapped as he walked away. “She is not standing around for your entertainment. We don’t want to wear her out.”
Sticking out her tongue, she bounced Henton a foot into the air, making him stumble and her giggle. She had to use her powers to keep him from falling to the ground. “I think we can have a little fun as we pick up the camp.”
The ten of them continued to ride, march, and float toward the east for the next five days. Stephenie would have liked to drive everyone a little faster, since riding in the wagon was not a very entertaining pastime. The old wagon bounced and shook, keeping her from being able to read, so all she could do was sit and think. However, considering the condition of the back roads, the old horses were doing good to cover ten miles a day.
A couple of the privates, Oliver and John primarily, continued to complain about the long days and how tired their feet were. Stephenie had tuned them out days before and was startled back to attention when Henton finally broke his silence.
“Enough. If you two don’t stop the griping, I’ll have you jogging in place for a turn of the glass once we find a place to camp.” He shook his head. “We were jogging from before sunrise to well after dark without a break for days on end when Steph led us to the Greys, our current pace is slow even for us lazy, ship-bound marines. I don’t want to hear any more griping from you land grunts. You are supposed to be used to this.”
“Yes Sarge,” came their subdued reply.
Shaking his head, Henton picked up his pace and quickly outdistanced the wagon.
When Oliver looked at Stephenie, seeking approval or perhaps forgiveness, she shrugged. She was hopeful they would stop the complaining, but Henton’s response had been a little harsher than she would have expected. She knew the fact they had been dodging pursuit and attempted poisonings from locals was weighing on him. It had put everyone on edge for too long, but he was normally more reserved.
“We’re not heading back to the Grey’s, are we?” Tim nodded his head toward the mountain range that was just now visible through a gap in the trees.
“Those are the Uthen Mountains,” Stephenie responded after a brief look. “We’ve been heading east, not west.”
Tim frowned. “I was never very good off the main roads.”
“Well, you just have to look for the position of the sun and know what time of day it is. Or look for certain stars if it’s night.”
“And overcast days like today?”
“There are lots of tells. For…” Stephenie lifted herself up to peek over the drivers seat, Douglas, Berman, and Kas were moving quickly toward them with several bags of supplies over their shoulders. However, the anxiety she felt from Berman was high.
“What’s happened? Do we have to avoid this town as well?”
The three of them, joined by Henton, quickly came over to the wagon. “Your Highness, we’ve heard some news.”
Stephenie frowned at Berman’s use of her title, as did Douglas.
“Steph,” Douglas injected, “we’ve heard reports of what’s going on in Antar and it sounds bad.”
Stephenie used her powers to move over the edge of the wagon and land on her feet. “What’s happened?”
“It seems Burdger didn’t want to hand the crown back to His Majesty. He’s got himself locked up tighter than a clam. Your brother’s camped around the castle, but it’s been a stalemate they say. Nothing’s happening. At least for now. Burdger’s been going on about how the country’s coffers were emptied and that your brother has no money to pay anyone. The people we talked to thought we were troops that might be going to relieve Burdger.”
Stephenie’s fists were clenched and she felt the hairs on her arms rise as energy coursed through her body. Slowly she released the energy, afraid she might accidentally hurt one of the men. “Damn it! If they have relief coming, he can’t risk bringing down the walls. Plus, we wouldn’t have the money to rebuild them right now.” She nodded her head for Douglas to continue.
“Well, they say the High Priest has not thrown in with Burdger, instead, he’s ordered all the priests to remain neutral and only heal injured people and to not get involved with direct conflict. However, he’s still locked in Antar castle with Burdger.”
Stephenie’s mind raced. Switching to the old Denarian tongue, she turned toward Henton and Kas, “I need to talk with you. I need to throw some ideas around about how we can help.”
Henton nodded his head. “Sure.” He turned to the men, “okay, we’re going to push on. The holiday is over; we go as far as the horses can take us each day.”
Stephenie drew upon her energy and launched herself into the back of the wagon and Henton grabbed the side rail and pulled himself in next to where Kas had appeared.
The next seven days were torture for Stephenie and the men. While they were still fearful of attacks from farmers and villagers, Kas’ scouting allowed them to avoid any confrontations. Then each night, Stephenie insisted they work through multiple scenarios while she rehashed all the things they did not know. When she was not working with the men, she worked herself raw, practicing the attack the Senzar had used against her in the Greys. The fields were complex, forming a narrow beam of focused gravity speeding at a target, but the effect was as deadly as a ballista bolt.
The daylight hours were the hardest for Stephenie. Physically drained to the point of total exhaustion from her nighttime activities, she lacked the strength to do anything more than bounce around in the back of the wagon while obsessing over what was happening in Antar.
“Steph, it’ll be all right,” Will said as the tired horses pulled them up another hill. He had toned down his natural charm and Stephenie was grateful. She liked his sly smile most of the time, but she was tired of people trying to cheer her up.
She glanced in his direction, but said nothing as she turned back to watching the buildings they passed along the road. They were not in Antar yet, but in one of the many smaller towns and villages that existed just outside the largest city in Cothel. They had passed through Ivar earlier in the day when they crossed the large bridge over the Uthen River. The guards there simply assumed they were another squad of soldiers coming to Cothel to join the siege.
The people they passed along the road no longer identified them as anything except common foot soldiers and Stephenie could see the relief in Henton’s eyes when he talked with her over the last couple of days. His emotions were still quite muted to her senses, but she had noticed how the threat of being lynched had taken a sharp toll on him.
As the wagon passed another cluster of scattered buildings at the top of the hill, Stephenie looked forward and out across the valley before them. Antar was in the distance. It was a large mass of homes, businesses, and green spaces. More than one hundred years of relative peace allowed the city to grow well outside the original walls that were just noticeable as lines through the city.
Immediately to the south of the city, and on higher bluffs, sat Antar Castle, overlooking both the city and the Sea of Tet. Stephenie heard people say it lorded over the city, held aloof by a steep and rocky approach. However, she had always believed it had a more benevolent air, protecting and watching. Today there was no joy in its sight; an army of soldiers camped around the castle. At least it is an army commanded by Josh.
The last time she had seen the castle had been from within its walls and at that time, it was her uncle’s soldiers that had camped outside the walls. Those soldiers had helped her mother betray the country, stealing the war supplies, the treasury, and anything of value not built into the very foundation of the castle.
“Let’s get to Josh,” she said just above a whisper. She hoped Douglas and Tim had been able to get through to her brother and get them an escort past the sentries. She did not want to announce her presence for fear of the reaction. When in the Grey Mountains, the soldiers she freed had mostly declared their support for her, but that was more than a month ago and time and distance may have changed their opinion.
Without an escort, there was also the potential someone would think they were common soldiers and demand that they report in with the rest of the stragglers that were arriving. She could not risk either the delay or discovery.
To Stephenie’s relief, as they grew closer to Antar and the massing of soldiers, a group of horsemen wearing the gold and black crest of the wolf, which was the mark of Joshua’s personal guard, approached and stopped them. After a quick appraisal, Sir Walter turned his horse around and motioned for them to follow him. The five horsemen escorted the wagon deep into the encampment and to King Joshua’s tents.
Joshua’s tents were large, but not as large as their father’s had been. However, like their father’s tents, these tents were not gaudy or overdone, just a series of large practical structures. Her father’s tents had been primarily used for meeting with advisers, leaving only a modest area for his personal space. Based upon the number of people she sensed in the tents, she suspected Joshua had adopted a similar theme with these smaller structures.
Outside of the main flap to the larger center tent, eight guards stood and Stephenie noted the colors of at least five families. Taking a deep breath, with Kas invisible beside her, she moved herself forward. Once through the outer flap, she could hear the discussion taking place in a backroom of the main tent. The argument for retreat was being made strenuously by what sounded to be an older man.
When Stephenie entered the backroom, everyone became instantly silent. She noted many familiar people around a table, but only a couple of them held something other than a mask of carefully schooled indifference. They all had played at politics for far too long to allow their emotions to come to their face. However, even Stephenie could easily sense the chilling of their mood on her entry.
“Steph!” Joshua exclaimed, moving to quickly embrace her. “Your trip here safe enough?”
She nodded her head and was forced to steady herself with her powers. After a long hug, Joshua held her at arms length and looked her over. She knew she was dirty and in need of a bath, so she was not surprised to see a little scowl cross her brother’s face.
“You not eating?”
“I am, we were just trying to get here as quickly as possible. I heard Burdger was holding the castle against you.”
Joshua nodded his head toward the table and Stephenie followed him over to see what the group of people were discussing. She noted Lady Rebecca Cole watching her closely from the other side of the table, the symbol of Felis proudly displayed on top of her blouse. She was the only other woman here, but her femininity was offset by the fact that she was a Master Priest of Felis, one of eight who were supposed to report directly to the High Priest.
Rebecca had lived in Antar castle for the last five years and it was not a secret that Joshua often spent a fair amount of time in her company. Stephenie worried what Rebecca would now think of her. A Master Priest of Felis and a witch were often on opposite sides of any conflict. For Stephenie to have hidden her nature for the years Rebecca had known her, would put Rebecca in an awkward position to explain why she did not know.
“Your Majesty, perhaps Princess Stephenie would like to refresh herself from traveling.” Duke Yaslin Forest’s voice held a sharp edge of disapproval. “After we are done with the meeting, you could catch up on her trip. We have some important decisions to make.”
Stephenie knew it had been his voice that was arguing strongly for a retreat before she had entered. She had met the aging man a few times, but never really cared for him. Duke Yaslin held the lands to the north along the Sea of Tet. He rarely traveled from his castle in Turner and when he did, he always treated everyone else as though they did not have the first clue of how to do anything. Although Stephenie never wanted to have anything to do with him, the Duke had supported her father strongly in his policies.
“Stephenie is a Princess and is the reason many of us are alive today. I will not send her away as if she was a child.”
Yaslin bowed his head. “Of course, Your Majesty. I merely thought she might like a bit of rest.”
“I’ve had plenty,” she said, looking across the maps scattered about the table. She recognized Antar and the castle. Another set of maps showed the western duchies and the small markers would seem to indicate unfriendly troops to the immediate west and south, coming from East Fork and Dentar.
After a moment more of silence, Duke Yaslin cleared his throat. “As I had been sayi-”
“Your Majesty,” Duke Tallow interrupted. “Burdger’s baron’s have been demanding we hand Her Highness over to them. They intend to burn her. If they find out she is here, they will send even more troops. She’s the very reason half of them have turned on you.”
Stephenie’s breath caught in her throat; she had not expected the barons would react that strongly to her.
Duke Yaslin cleared his throat again, “As I was saying, our men cannot hold out against Burdger’s reinforcements. They may not be huge in numbers, but do you really expect your men, who come from all over the country, to fight their countrymen to the death in front of Antar? It would destroy their morale and since we can’t even pay them, it’s likely they would simply surrender. Antar is too large and the old walls not maintained. We could not retreat into the city. The only course is to give up Antar and head north. Turner is a fair distance, but once we are there, we can hold against Burdger and his barons…” He looked specifically at Stephenie, “and, we could secrete her further into the north country, out of sight and away from you.”
Baron Frank Willow shook his head. “The reinforcements are still at least four or five days out, we have time to try and negotiate with Burdger.”
Stephenie glanced at the short man. He was Joshua’s age, but four inches shorter than her. It made others discount the man rather frequently.
Yaslin turned his glare on Baron Willow, “Burdger knows the reinforcements are coming. He’s got no reason to negotiate. We can’t do anything to him. Although we’ve got a handful of priests, they’ve already said they will only heal those that are injured. The High Priest has prevented our loyal priests from acting, but we can’t count on Burdger’s to do the same.”
“But at least the High Priest won’t use his powers against us. So we can wait a little longer to try and reason with Burdger.”
Joshua cleared his throat. “Rebecca, if we were to assault the castle, do you think the High Priest will remain neutral?”
“Joshua, you know I cannot say with any certainty. However, it is my feeling that as long as we don’t force any of the priests into the battle, he will stay in the temple and not get involved.”
“And what of your involvement here?” Yaslin’s acidic voice whispered across the table.
“Burdger has Lord Evans to advise him. He’s a holy warrior of significant skill. I do not see why I cannot advise my long time friend.”
“And the fact that you are the last Master Priest alive?”
Stephenie could not repress the grin that rose to her lips at the look Rebecca gave Yaslin. She needed no words to silence the aging duke.
Joshua brought the conversation back to focus. “Yaslin, how long will it take to muster the men to retreat?”
“It would take us at least two days to pickup and leave with any order.”
Joshua frowned. “We are also waiting for word from Duke Marks. If he and his barons have men to spare, they could pressure Burdger to keep his men to the west to protect East Fork.” He sighed, “I had hoped to already hear from him, but we still might get a rider this evening. That could factor into our decision.” Joshua took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s adjourn for some food then we will discuss the other factors after we eat.”
The various people around the table bowed their heads and departed with a â€˜Your Majesty.’
Stephenie waited until the others had left and were out of hearing. “Josh, I thought Burdger was our friend. He and father always got along so well.”
Joshua smiled, but Stephenie could see the pain and desperation in his eyes. “He thinks he can do a better job of running the country than I can. He’s been atop the walls shouting to the soldiers about how the treasury was emptied by Mother. He’s been telling our soldiers that even if they take the castle from him, that no one will get paid because we have no money. He’s been trying to convince them to turn against me.”
Stephenie ground her teeth, “The bastard’s not any better than Elard. The father and son are alike.”
Joshua took Stephenie over to a series of chairs and sat her down. “How was your trip?”
Stephenie shook her head. Her limbs ached, but her mind was racing. “If he doesn’t have that many men, we could sneak in through the weakness in the east wall.”
Joshua shook his head. “He’s got somewhere between seventy-five and one-fifty. Not enough to repel a real attempt for long, but too many for a small force to sneak in and do anything. He’d pick our men off.” Joshua leaned forward. “He’s got enough food, and the wells will hold him for months. We can’t tear down the walls; if we do, then we’d have no defense once we took it.”
Stephenie rose and walked back over to the maps and stared at the markers. “Four days wouldn’t give us time to rebuild even if we could afford it.” She frowned. “These markers show you have about twenty-five hundred men. There are at least five hundred coming from the west and what, another five hundred to a thousand coming from the south.” Stephenie turned back to Joshua. “Where’d they get those numbers?”
Joshua rose, but did not come to her side. “We don’t know the numbers for certain, but not everyone sent the troops father had requested. We sent almost all of our own, but it seems some of the other dukes and barons held a fair number back. Mostly men from those dukes and barons that didn’t come to the front with the rest of us.” He stared at the table, “We lost a lot of allies to the Senzar. Which means our enemies are stronger.” He dropped his gaze, before turning toward Stephenie, “truly I think we’ll have to retreat.”
She turned to face him. “And, I’m a problem. I probably should be sent away. We don’t want more trouble to be caused by my being here. Perhaps that would reduce Burdger’s support.”
“I will not, I repeat, will not exile you. You are the last family I have left and they will just have to get used to you being a witch.”
Stephenie swallowed and turned back to the table. She could sense his protectiveness, but the word â€˜witch’ was a heavy word to hear spoken aloud by her own brother. She could tell by his voice, despite his love for her, that what she was still bothered him to admit aloud.
Putting that out of her mind, she stared at the table without focus for several moments, then lifted her head. “Josh, if we could get over the walls, there isn’t a building in there we can’t get into. I would imagine they’ve found several of the secret passages in the main keep because Mother discovered me spying on her. But, I doubt they would have found all of them. We get past the wall, we have Burdger.” She turned to face him again. “How many soldiers does he have on the gatehouse and the walls at night?”
“Eleven on the walls by our count. The gatehouse has always been something that could be held with just a handful. I would imagine Burdger only has a few there. Why?”
“Well, if they are not expecting magic, then perhaps I can get the gates open before anyone notices and you can rush the castle.”
“And how do you plan to do this? You brought down a mountain, I believe you could bring down the walls with ease, but we need those walls intact. Plus, you look terrible and I won’t risk having you fall into their hands. They’d kill you the moment they got the chance.”
Stephenie smiled and tried to force herself to look energized, despite how weary her body felt. “Josh, I’m not stupid. Plus, I doubt I could even bring down one of the walls. What happened in the Greys I don’t understand, but it is likely that what exploded were the artifacts that were buried in the rubble.” She shook her head. “What I will do is take my men and get us to the top of the gatehouse. We can come down from the roof and take out the guards. I should be able to open the doors from there.”
Joshua stepped closer. “And the portcullises? They are both down and both doors are shut and barred.”
“Once inside, we can hold the gatehouse, open the doors, and raise both of the portcullises. If you have people ready to rush the castle once I open the doors, we can take them by surprise. Perhaps even keep too many from getting hurt on either side. That would help keep people from feeling bad about our taking the castle back.”
Joshua stood, still shaking his head. “No. It would take too long to raise the portcullises. You’d need a dozen men to do that alone. They would wake the remainder of the forces and fill us with arrows from the walls.”
“Not with my magic. I can lift them quickly. I’ve been practicing with heavy boulders on the way here. If you have a handful of men ready to go. Perhaps a couple hundred ready to rush the castle as soon as the doors open, you can take them before they can muster those that are sleeping.”
Joshua shook his head. “I will not risk you.”
Stephenie crossed her arms. “I crossed Cothel with only a couple of men to rescue you. Don’t get over-protective with me. I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think I could do it.” She sighed, dropping her arms. “Josh, we don’t have time to come up with anything better and if the High Priest or Burdger learns I am here, they may not keep the priests out of the conflict. We have to take them before word spreads about me. We have to do it as soon as it gets dark. It is the best way to avoid too many people getting hurt. We can’t start a civil war.”
Stephenie raised her hand and looked at the tent wall in the direction of Joshua’s army. “I’ve got another thought as well.” She turned back to Joshua. “We can’t tell the bulk of the troops what we are planning, too much chance someone might get word to Burdger. Instead, tell the men to start preparing to retreat and pack up their tents. Burdger might even relax more if he thinks you are getting ready to leave. Have a small force you trust ready to go and leave some people in charge who know the plan, when the time comes, they can order the others to drop what they are doing and charge the castle. No need to wake sleeping soldiers. It will be a second wave and you’ll have the castle before morning.”
“This sounds risky.”
“What other option do we have? Retreat and run away? You’ll lose more support the longer you wait. People will start to feel perhaps Burdger and that bastard Elard should be in charge.”
Joshua shook his head, but finally relented. “I’ll agree, but only if you take some of my men. Your soldiers are good, but I’d feel better with people I know can handle things.”
“No. My men know me and we trust each other. We’ve been working on plans since we heard Burdger had the castle. I don’t need someone who might not take well to what I am going to do.”
“Steph, you are being very demanding that we do all of this your way.”
She smiled, through most of her life, she was always Joshua’s student; if felt good to be the one coming up with the plan. “You should know me by now.” She grew more serious. “We need to do this just after dark, it will give us enough cover and reduce the time for things to go wrong. I just need some time to rest, get something to eat, and explain everything to my men.”
Joshua nodded his head slowly, but Stephenie could sense his growing excitement of the plan. “Okay, you stay here and use my tents. That will lessen the chance of someone seeing you. I need to start arranging everyone else anyway.” He smiled at her, then gave her a big hug. “It is good to see you again. Don’t allow yourself to get hurt; I love you too much to lose the last of my family.”
Joshua’s personal tent was barely large enough for Stephenie and her eight guards to crowd together. While his clothing was scattered about the enclosed space, it was not as messy as she had thought it would be. Of course, he has less things here.
“I am uncertain this is the best option,” Kas said in the Old Tongue as she leaned back on Joshua’s cot.
Henton, sitting with the others on the thick carpet that was covering the ground, looked up. “I would agree. You are still far too weak to use a sword. What if you have to face someone?”
She looked back and forth between Henton and Kas, no one else in the room could understand the old Denarian language generally used only by priests and royalty. As normal, the men sat quietly, waiting for their discussion to conclude. “This is one of the possibilities we’ve been planning for. Plus, we don’t have a choice. Josh needs to move this forward. He doesn’t have the time or resources to wait out Burdger, and if Burdger gets wind I am here, he might convince the High Priest to put priests on the wall, so we have to work fast.”
“And after days of hard travel, we go into battle?”
“Henton, I assume you are simply trying any angle you can to dissuade me. Our march was not that hard and the five of us went into battle after more exhausting efforts than that.”
“Fine. I give up trying to protect you.”
Sighing, she pushed herself up from the cot, walked over to Henton, and knelt down. Grabbing his hands, she looked into his face. “Please don’t. I know I put you into difficult situations, but I do need you.” She looked around at the others and switched to Cothish, “I need all of you. I really do. I know I am asking a lot, but we are needed and we can do things others cannot.”
“No offer to let us back out if we don’t want to do it?” Douglas asked solemnly. “You always offered that before.”
She rose slowly to her feet. “Douglas, if you want out, just ask. But you all knew what I was before you volunteered back in the Greys. So, really, this should not be a surprise.”
Douglas smiled. “Everyone always takes me so seriously. I promised you before the Greys, I’m with you â€˜til the end.”
Stephenie shook her head, but smiled. “You all say I frustrate you. I can’t tell where I stand with you guys sometimes.” There was a chorus of comments affirming their support from most of the men. “Will? Henton? Your thoughts?”
“I’m in,” Will said, snacking on the last of the meat he had grabbed when the food first arrived. “You know better than anyone else what you are capable of.”
Henton stood, grabbed Stephenie’s wrist and led her back to the cot. “Of course we are all committed. I just wish you would not risk yourself so much. Now, everyone, get some sleep! We will have a long night.”