The village opened out beneath us - or what remained of it, in any case. We had been riding for some days, our borders being far-flung in this prosperous time, and there was a tightening feeling of having outgrown our ability to adequately come to my people's defence.
Only hopeful cooking-fires continued to glow, but the ashen scent still hung heavy in the air around the blackened wounds where thatched roofs once had been, the scattered timber-ends which once had been outbuildings. It was a wonder that the people continued to permit the presence of fire, but the nights were cold and I suppose they had no choice - or those who had made the other choice were invisible to us.
We were met by a delegation of the village elders, who confirmed our worst fears, and corroborated the story brought to us by the swift youth they had dispatched to spread the word.
"Men from Essur," they said, with one voice. They described the livery exactly; the raiders had not been hiding their affiliation. It was clear that Essur meant this as provocation, that they considered themselves strong enough to test our courage, maybe even to overwhelm our armies in open war. Certainly, such a feat would impress their neighbours and cow the region into tribute and obedience, if they could manage it.
I was glad that I had taken the young man at his word, and come in full force, even if it had taken a few days longer than venturing here as quickly as I could travel with just a token guard.
"I doubt they have gone far," Bardia advised me, watching the tree-line with a hawk's caution. "We have ridden long - but they will expect us to take advantage of the village's hospitality, or in any case such hospitality as remains to be had, and not to begin the search immediately..."
"You have scouts that are eager, and ready enough to make no fatal missteps that could have been averted by rest?" I asked - but it was clear that I would take whatever advice he gave me. He has always been the tactician, after all.
"I shall set them searching at once," he said, turning his horse and beginning to issue orders to the men.
It would have been churlish to reject the hospitality of the village entirely, however; especially as they had obviously tried so hard to provide some semblance of comfort and greeting, out of the ruins of their homes and livelihoods. So whilst the scouts headed out into the fading light of the evening, Bardia and I dismounted and took supper with the elders, along with a few of our commanders.
Seeing that their livestock had mostly been driven off and their stores burnt, I quietly ensured that the survivors were reprovisioned from our own baggage train, to assuage slightly the guilt that I always felt when taking a meal from those who had so much less than I - however much they obviously swelled with pride in their provision for their queen.
There was also a difficult balance, alas, between continuing to appear queenly and mysterious, and not slighting their efforts at provision. Naturally there was no question of lifting my veil in front of such company, but neither was it proper to eat in private - they might imagine that I rejected their poor fare and emptied it out in favour of my own provisions.
The nature of this meal was particularly awkward; sometimes there were fruits or similar small, self-contained items that I could prefer, which were much easier to consume under my veil, but here the centerpiece was a rich stew flavoured with many herbs. So, whilst carrying on polite conversation, I sat in mortal terror of tipping my spoon incorrectly and drenching my veil with the thick brown gravy of it.
Noticing my discomfort, Bardia whispered to a couple of the men; a few minutes later, an urgent message came back from one of the scouts, and I could make my apologies legitimately. I am still, to this day, unsure of how he manufactured the situation - the enemy camp that the scout had come across, which did in fact need my immediate attention to determine our strategy in facing, or at least to approve of Bardia's strategy, was quite real.
They had come upon the village in the night, while the occupants were sleeping and unsuspecting; so, after a little debate, we decided that it was entirely reasonable to pay them the same favour. While the men were somewhat road-weary, the ruins of the village had focussed their minds, and their blood was up; there was no question of them being too tired from the day's travels to engage with the enemy, their sergeants reassured us.
Naturally, the enemy did know that we were in the area. Their own lookouts had responded to our arrival some time back, as we had not exactly been the most subtle of armies. So the alarm would be raised as soon as we came in sight, perhaps as soon as we made our decision and wheeled in their direction. One of our scouts had caught them pulling back a highly mobile unit seemingly deployed to ambush a smaller force if I had come with one.
They did, however, appear to expect an ordinary battle; one conducted in the morning, perhaps at first light if we were particularly bold, but not in the darkness. Thus they had mostly retired to their tents early, leaving only the first watch awake.
We dispersed those soldiers who were on foot through the forest behind the enemy, sending them to apparently attempt to establish a place to camp on the far side, in case eyes in the trees were watching more closely than we thought. Then we gathered the horse, and began the charge straight from our assembly-point, the sound of battle to be the cue for the other soldiers to join us.
Charging horses through a forest were not the quietest way to advance on one's enemy, and the enemy in their camp were already waking each other and getting into order as we lunged out from the treeline. A few of their archers were in the first watch or had managed to string their bows in the few minutes' warning that they had received, and our line was lightly peppered with arrows as we advanced, but that primarily served to make the soldiers more determined to engage.
Bardia had cautioned against us attempting to employ our own archers in the dark of night - too likely to catch our own people, at the speed that we intended to engage, and unlikely to do much to the enemy with the difficulties of aiming in the wavering light of watch-fires.
As we charged into the fray, I was obviously recognised; a few arrows soared in my general direction, but as Bardia had said, it was surprisingly difficult to aim in bad light. Those enemy soldiers who were awake had formed a makeshift line, spears set against the horse; wheeling around, I declined to charge my poor animal right onto their waiting spear-points.
Elsewhere, our horse were making short work of the ragged edges of the enemy line, but it was clear that cavalry were good for surprise, bad for fighting amongst the close confines of the camp. Dismounting, one of the reserves saw my horse safely back into the treeline as I moved forwards with sword and shield, leading by example once again. A glimmer of flame from the far treeline showed that the other footsoldiers had been alerted to our successful engagement, and were now coming upon the camp from the other direction.
Then for some time there was nothing but the moment; the glinting, ever-changing awareness of it made dreamlike by the poor light, by the poor battle-array of our enemies, having just climbed out of their sleeping arrangements and half-clad in what armour they had to hand. Mostly we had the advantage, and pressed it with all our might; the only blow I took was a nearly-spent spear thrust that robbed me of breath for a few moments, which admittedly would have gone straight into me if one of my men had not pushed me back.
I suppose I should be grateful to Bardia for arranging matters thus. It meant that I was rather in the thick of the fighting, but that was where I belonged, and in any case I was always fighting men that were on their feet and facing me.
It was not until the battle had turned into the awkward logistics of taking half a camp captive that I understood his careful planning - that the men who had been most aggrieved at the village's plundering were arrayed in the second rank of the footsoldiers, and were quite happy to kill a sleep-clumsy man in his tent while their first rank and the cavalry distracted those who had managed to adequately take the field.
Those who had no great loyalty to Essur in the first place, who were loyal to their stomachs or their women or all those other things that occupy the heart of a man, we kept loosely and with the promise of return once the war was done with; mostly we set them to rebuilding the village, which was grateful for the extra hands.
Some others feigned this, but seemed to still have some spirit in them; those, Bardia set to clearing the battlefield and burying their dead. I worried it might inflame their passions to be so close to those who had been their brothers in arms and now were lifeless bodies. But he reassured me that it would, for these, dampen their enthusiasm for further conflict and extinguish the spark of hope that rising up against their guards might bring them glory and fame, rather than a cold grave in a foreign land.
And, of course, there were those that we had captured and bound, but who spoke defiance with every breath; most of these, of course, had perished in the night, being uncontrollable save by the final exercise of control, but some had been preserved.
One such was the man who led this army; Tannut, a young prince of Essur, unlikely to inherit but still of divine blood. The soldiers had him tied to a weapon-rack in his own command tent; when they had attempted to move him to a chair - to restore some dignity, as befit his position - he had struggled and clawed at them and would have bitten if he could have found a place to do so usefully.
Penuan had been in first, to attempt to turn him to reason so that we could more easily ransom him to his family, but he emerged shaking his head; there was no sense that could be talked into this one, he claimed.
So, naturally, I was expected to make the attempt.
His head was hung in some attempt at rest when I entered, but he looked up at the sound of even my soft footsteps, and when he recognised who he was in the presence of, he began to hiss and struggle at his bonds like a man possessed.
"Tannut," I said kindly, "prince of Essur, why do you comport yourself so?"
"Creature," he spat. "Abomination. I have no words for you. Offence," and he stopped for a moment to gather his breath and heave at his bonds, "offence against gods and men. How dare you," and he ceased his struggle for a moment to look straight at me with a wild fire gleaming from his eyes, "how dare you profane your blood like this, with your armour and your battles and your veil!"
"I had hoped," I said, wearily, "that we could talk as grown men, in the light of reason."
"There is no light from reason," he snapped, straining forwards, as if he would lunge out and tackle me, for my temerity, if he had the power. "You filth, poisoning the land with the whisperings of your Greekling - acting like the gods mean nothing to you and your polluted, despicable masses who accept your miserable perversion of rulership." He spat out the words like they were poison in his mouth. "You will see the strength of our gods, you hideous monster, you and the cowards that follow you. You will see the dark and terrible wrath of those you would hide behind your clean white marble facades, your painted mockeries..."
I had heard enough; and to tell the truth, I was not sure of my ability to stand impassive any longer, rather than taking my sword and drawing it swiftly across his outstretched throat, then asking his rapidly cooling body where real power and strength lay now.
And I feared that if I did that, it might just look up and answer me, with the terrible animation of the gods of Essur coursing through his dead eyes.
After paying atrocity with atrocity, the war settled into a more conventional pace. A herald was dispatched to their lands; times and places to meet in open battle were drawn up. This was done to make clear to all onlookers that Glome was not afraid of either kind of conflict - that we were not some dangerous rogue that all should turn upon and put down, that we did believe that the forms and proprieties should be observed, but if the other side dared to contravene them again, swift and even-handed retribution would be delivered in the night.
Tannut was kept captive in the best conditions we could arrange for him, given his tiresome habit of constant resistance and attempts to escape, and occasional bouts of refusing food and water. Fortunately, however, he was without the strength of conviction to actually kill himself, so we had our hostage against further pillaging and violation of the customs of war.
It was clear that Essur had been attempting to make the statement that we were not worthy of respect - that because they did not believe a woman could be a true monarch, Glome was not worthy of the consideration usually given to another kingdom, even one that was the target for conquest.
So our camps glowered at each other across the appointed valley, cooking-fires scattered insouciantly across the hillsides, both armies attempting to project their greater size and organisation by means of what could be seen of them in the night; although both were, in truth, quite even, and I harboured some doubt for our strategy. Bardia had offered that we could meet them while they were still in marching order, fall upon them from the sides, but it would not have been in the spirit of our agreement.
The Queen had no trouble consigning her men to their deaths over a detail of honour; of weighing up the long-term advantage of being seen to act in a customary fashion, in showing our strength full-on rather than letting people whisper that we could only prevail by foul trickery - and that, in return, there was no strategy too despicable to use against our people and our lands.
The remnants of Orual, which tormented me through that long night - even more so by the desperate need I had of sleep to be ready for the day to come - fretted over every familiar face that could be dead by the following sunset, snuffed out because I insisted that we did not use every advantage we could scrape together.
But soon enough the morning came, and I could submerge myself once more in the many necessary inspirational speeches, checking of gear, and final, almost ceremonial, giving of orders and dispersing of the camp.
It was an interesting tactical situation, both sides occupying high ground but being duty-bound to ride down into the valley to engage the other; and there were many copses and ridge-lines on the way, not to mention the snaking river at the base to cross, even though it was little more than a stream at this time of year. Bardia's plan had, as usual, gone straight over my head; I thought I grasped at least my part of it, but attempting to hold the entire battlefield in my head resulted in every detail eluding me, and I simply resorted to trusting his judgement on these matters.
For our part, we were to ride out to a clear and mossy expanse above a deceptively awkward slope; the idea was that we would draw out the enemy, who would be unable to resist overcommitting at the sight of me in a supposedly vulnerable, exposed position.
There was some desultory arrow-fire as we rode out, answered by our own archers, but the ranges were really too far for more than a couple of lucky shots to have any effect. It would be some time before the armies met in earnest, and for now I looked out across the landscape, idly daydreaming about how the bards would twist and misrepresent each feature.
For a moment, the view took on the shadow of the foothills, and in the morning mist which clouded the horizon, I almost fancied that I could see the Grey Mountain; and there was just an echo of those words I had put out of my head for so long, that feeling that Psyche had described so passionately - the call of the wilderness, of the beauty of untamed nature, asking me to leave my busy and everyday life behind; her hand held out to me, calling, Orual come!
And, whilst I scarcely remembered for some time after the battle what I had been thinking just beforehand, when I did dwell on these old memories I found myself selfishly grateful for those distant cries of surprise and pain dragging me back to the world of sharp metal and uncertainty.
It took me a few moments to recall the layout of the battle in my mind; to realise that the small group of horsemen which had been set upon from the nearby copse, where the ambushers must have spent the night, was the flanking group that were set up to hit the putative attackers on the slope before me.
To realise that it was Bardia's force, still in manoeuvering order, that was under such vicious and sudden assault.
The realisation itself was the action; there was no pause for thought or consideration between them. I had seen Bardia off into danger before; I had watched across the battlefield while his unit were under attack, while he fought desperately from his life and my place was to advance in another area.
But I knew, instinctively, that this force greatly outmatched theirs. And the very concept that I might stand proud and tall on my horse, waiting for an advance that might never come, while I watched him be torn apart by ambushers - but here I am making justifications after the fact. There was something deeper, something more instinctive that made me deaf to the shouts of my subcommanders, blind to the harm I might do to our strategic position.
There was no great and lengthy consideration of the tactical situation. There was just Bardia in the most immediate peril of his life that I had ever known, and the horse sprinting at full stretch beneath me, thundering down the dangerous incline.
No chance of a pause to examine the situation, to check the horse's headlong flight in order to line up a blow; instead, I must have barrelled straight into the enemy, flat out. Horses and men descended into a tangle of confused and bleeding flesh; I do not think I could tell friend from foe, save that Bardia should survive.
I think it was early in the charge that I was wounded. I scarcely noticed the flash of steel, already dazed and bruised from that first collision; had only the most peripheral awareness of my life gradually leaking from my side, as I whirled and clashed again and again, fighting everything and everyone. The world had shrunk to this tiny shell around my sword's edge, choked with blood and sweat and the sharp scent of metal blade skittering across metal links.
Plunging my sword into suddenly terrified flesh, it was hard to tell whether I was fighting horse or man at times. The men were on the whole better armoured, but the flailing horses had a desperate strength to their legs that made them just as deadly, just as worthy of careful consideration, even when they were already dying - whilst most of those caught in such close and bloody conflict would be ruined, such large creatures take a long time to realise that their death has come.
The death of animals, slaughtering of pigs notwithstanding, is quite different from the death of men; a horse's eyes will whirl around with panic and distress right up to the very last, when they exhale and go still and silent. The realisation dawns on a man's face when he is mortally injured, well before the light begins to dim and fade. The determination to take in every detail, to drink in every last drop of his surroundings fills his countenance, not - usually - some final terror, although occasionally some final frenzy, a last attempt to give as good as he has got, though the damage to muscle and sinew will often betray his fervent intentions.
In other battles, I have often seen the faces of those who would kill me, and those who I would kill, and wondered just a little at the lives that they leave behind - at the whole detail of their tapestry, with wives and children and mothers, brothers and sisters and stories that will never be finished. But none of the people I slew this day became people to me; they were all just a confusion of limbs and swords and helmets, meaningless things which stood in my way and threatened my vain and hopeless dreams of a possible future.
Gradually, as the fighting continued, a terrible slowness began to creep over me - weighting my limbs, dragging me remorselessly to the ground. There were a few breaths where no-one seemed to be against me at all, although I could hear - softly, and very far away - the sounds of ongoing battle from further out, and the scrabbling and reaching of the sorely wounded. I turned, and turned again, but there were none left to face me. Perhaps, it seemed, there were none left standing at all.
Only then, with the world spinning gently around me, did the dreadful wall of pain crash down, and take all other awareness with it.
I heard, later, what had happened while I was distinctly absent from the world. Bardia had also been injured in the initial conflict, before I had arrived, but he insisted that he would dress my wound. As few as possible accompanied him and me off of the battlefield - there was still a war to be won, after all.
The blood kept soaking through the dressings. I was mostly unconscious, but from time to time I would spring back into alertness briefly with a look of abject horror. At those times, he carefully fed me water, dripping it gently into my mouth from a cloth to avoid choking me, but knowing that I would need it for there to be any hope of recovery. He was only taken away when he became too weak to stand, to finally have his own wounds of shin and shoulder cared for.
There was, of course, an emergency sacrifice of some of the fresh livestock we had brought as walking supplies. Better doctors were urgently called, and examined the great cleft that the sword had made of my flank. I wonder how strange it was for them, not just seeing a man's injury on a woman, but that I would be exposed to them in that way and yet my face still covered - for there was no serious injury to my head, and hence no need to remove the veil.
Gradually filtering into my limited awareness, news returned from the battlefield. Bardia had feared that with both of us behind the lines, the morale of the men might falter; but instead they had redoubled their efforts, unsure whether they were fighting for a dead or living hero, but having the tale of my heroics garbled up with the rumour of my injury.
And, less happily, they had been rather less restrained than Bardia and I would usually have them. Whilst the victory and the safety of our own was always paramount, within those constraints we both of us liked to be merciful, as and when we could. After all, such consideration usually repaid itself in engagements that did not go so well, guaranteeing the return and continued health of many of our own captured soldiers.
But with the Queen to avenge - injured or dead, it scarcely mattered - and the burnt village still seared into many of their minds, they had given no quarter. The valley was heaped with the enemy dead, and no small number of our own, although the day was unquestionably Glome's.
I had finally ceased to bleed, and hence had probably weathered the worst danger, when the time came to journey back to the capital. Penuan had done the final negotiation of the surrender in my absence, and admirably so. With so many dead, Essur could not risk another battle, and promised lavish reparations in return for a promise of defence against the many potential enemies that were circling the now-beleaguered state.
But there was still a great fever upon me, and while it was written off later as merely the product of my delirium, I must here confess that I was sometimes more together than it might have seemed. And I used those moments to ensure, by crying out his name, and being otherwise inconsolable, that Bardia was kept by my side for as much of the journey as was possible.
Having almost lost him, and most likely saved his life, I did not want to have saved it for his wife, his family, the times he was apart from me. Not knowing how many hours, how many days I had left in me, for the wound-fever was often the end of a soldier even well away from the field of battle, I did not want any to pass without his company.
But once we were back at the palace, there was no keeping him. As much as I screamed and cried and begged in my seeming lack of lucidity, he had his own reassurances to be about, having been away such a long time and injured himself, and in mortal peril besides. And at length I recovered from the immediate symptoms, and needed besides to take up my duties again, as the business of running a kingdom waits for no sickness to run its course. Then I could no longer pretend that my wits were addled, when I wished to use them on matters of state.
So it was at that time, I think, that I redoubled my efforts to turn the hearts of his men; to ensure that not a day went past when he was not mocked for his quiet and steadfast devotion to that woman who was not I.