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The Brothers' War

Chapter Text

You would think that races as long-lived as dwarves and especially elves would have written records going back for many millennia, but that isn’t the case — the oldest date from around 200 B.C., and concern various tribes dealing with a series of setbacks: massive weather shifts, invasions of orcs and their ogre cousins, and all too often a clash between elves and dwarves and their gnome cousins. Some great catastrophe had obviously happened, but no written records reach back far enough and if any elves yet live that remember those days they do not speak of it.

It took six hundred years, but eventually things stabilized, with the dwarves in their mountains and the gnomes in the mountains’ valleys, the orcs on the plains, and the elves in their forests. But while elves and dwarves more or less got along, both races, but especially the elves, suffered from constant harassment from the orcs. Around 350 A.D. some particularly brutal orc tribes with stolen dwarf weapons virtually annihilated the elves living in the western Ytarrian Forest. Only the toughest, most skilled, and luckiest elves survived, and the brutalized survivors resolved to do something about the orc problem — and the dwarves while they were at it. These survivors formed the core of a movement calling itself “Defenders of the Shaded Woodlands,” dedicated to the elimination of non-elvish sentient life from Yrth.

About 600, the Defenders convinced the leaders of the elves to go to war with the dwarves of Zarak, an attack the dwarves consider completely unprovoked and have never forgotten, but the war went poorly and ended when a dwarven peace delegation faced down the Defenders’ spokesmen in front of the elven High Council. That debacle discredited the Defenders for many elven generations, and the Defenders chose to focus thereafter on the orcs and ogres. They rebuilt their reputation defending elven villages from orc invasions and spent centuries trying to exterminate the race but continually failing due to the orcs’ high fertility.

Tiring of the constant stalemate between elvish skill and power versus orcish fertility, around the year 1000 the leadership of the Defenders decided drastic measures were called for. The movement counted among its supporters many of the most powerful mages, and together they designed a massive ritual designed to either send the orcs to another world (most likely), summon creatures that would be hostile to orcs (unlikely), or simply a “wish” for something that would take care of their problem (very unlikely). The main ritual was cast on the western edge of the Ytarrian Forest, with supporting rituals performed in elven communities across the continent, and reached its climax on June 26, 1050.

The result was the most massive spell backfire in recorded history. The devastation at the center of the ritual created the mana-less wasteland known ever after as the Great Desert, while the backlash cascading into the links with the supporting ceremonies reduced many elven communities to flaming ruins, then jumped to other high mana spots, not all of them elvish.

That alone would have been bad enough, but the Defenders got their Bane as well — thousands of beings snatched from their worlds and deposited across Yrth’s surface. From the arid world of Gabrook came the lithe, short, green-skinned, curious goblins, as well as kobolds, hobgoblins, and reptile men. From the sylvan paradise of Loren’dil came halflings, giants, minotaurs, and centaurs. From the water world of Olokun came merfolk, shark men, and maybe dolphins and octopus folk. And especially, from Earth came humans—humans from England, Europe, Dar al-Islam, the Orient, and more. Nor was that the only such event — the occasional banestorm still occurs, depositing a few stunned and bewildered people in a new world, and the last major banestorm event, from 1551 to 1606, deposited thousands of humans from Renaissance France mainly on the islands of Araterre.

Over time, the newcomers adapted to their new home, learning magic from the elves and continually growing in population (especially the humans), until new nations formed, Christian, Muslim, the bizarre Oriental stew of Sahud, as well as regions of pagan tribes. While the ancient dwarven kingdom of Zarak remains as impregnable as always, independent elven communities survive in the remnants of the Ytarrian Forest (especially the Blackwoods and the Great Forest), and orc tribes fight with nomadic tribes of centaurs and humans for control of the plains west of the Great Desert, it has become obvious that the future of Yrth now belongs to humans and those races, primarily halfling and goblin, that join themselves to their destiny.

Some Defenders actually survived the catastrophe, but this time there has been no forgiveness from the rest of elven society (that have never forgotten that all the orc raids together hadn’t done as much damage to elves as their own people) and they now form their own separate communities with sympathetic spies scattered throughout the greater elven communities. They still call themselves Defenders or Purifiers (as some began calling themselves), but to the non-elven races they are simply the dark elves.

Chapter Text

King Conall VI sat in the window seat of his chambers in Castle Carrick, basking in the morning sun and looking out across the River Conn at Carrick Town — city, really, 20,000 or more inhabitants were just a bit much for a town. But “Town” had been included in the name when it was founded in 1812, when the last of the orcs had been driven into the Great Desert, to make their way across to the Orclands (or not, leaving their bones in the desert). It hadn’t been changed in 1822, when the Emperor of Megalos summoned the third son of the Duke of Craine, the organizer and leader of the colonization effort, to the Imperial capital to officially extend the borders of Megalos to include the County of Caithness with Conall the first count. Nor had the name been changed in 1826 when Count Conall cut himself and his county free of Megalos by declaring himself King Conall I and made the town the capital of his new realm. So Carrick Town it remained.

At least, it will if the Megalans don’t rename it when they finally overrun Caithness. They’ve tried often enough in the past, and they’ll try again. And with this damned civil war, they might just succeed next time, he thought grimly, and looked over at the large map hanging on his chamber wall, his eyes tracing the western border of his realm, along the edge of the Great Desert from the mountains of Zarak in the north, down to the Great Forest and around its western edge. Tacitus is faithful, but Wallace below it is in rebellion as is Ferrier below Wallace. Simonton below Ferrier is neutral — and I can’t say I blame Lord Walton for staying that way, after the way the lording of Blythe was overrun by reptile men from the desert and most of the fighting men of Harkwood were killed in a rebel ambush. I suppose I should be happy he’s just staying on the fence, instead of joining the rebels however much he detests Cabble.

For a moment, Conall’s eyes rested on the Barony of Harkwood below Simonton, bounded by the Great Forest to its south and an arm of the Great Desert to its north. And just what are the elves up to? he wondered. I suppose I should be grateful for the elven archers and swordsmen that marched out of the Great Forest and claimed they were there to help defend Harkwood from orcs and reptile men — and incidentally the rebels — so the barony didn’t end up like Blythe to the southwest. I just wish I understood what they hope to gain out of their generosity!

But after a moment, Conall’s eyes returned to Wallace. Wallace is the key, he thought. If Lord William will abandon the rebels and rejoin me, then Lord Walton will probably bring Simonton in on my side as well. Then with Ferrier boxed in on north and south and the desert to its west, Baron Nabbick will probably rejoin me as well. It isn’t that prosperous a barony to begin with, and having invading armies investing the castle while eating up its flocks wouldn’t be “efficient” — and Baron Nabbick is a great believer in efficiency. That would give me the entire north and west—and maybe even enough fighting men to win when Megalos comes in on the side of the rebels while there’s still a side to offer an excuse.

At that moment, a knock came at the doors and one creaked open to reveal a nervous page, who bowed deeply as soon as he saw his king looking at him. “Your pardon for disturbing you, Your Majesty, but the wizard Myrddin has returned from his embassy to Wallace and craves admittance.”

Carefully suppressing any hint of amusement at the boy’s formality, Conall nodded. “Thank you, Brutus, please show him in and then make sure of our privacy until our discussion is over,” he ordered, and the page bobbed another bow and stepped out. A moment later, a lean man of average height and black hair and long beard shot with gray wearing the robes expected of the court wizard of Caithness stepped through the door and glanced back as young Brutus closed it behind him.

“Now, that is a proper young knight-in-training,” Myrddin observed wryly, and Conall chuckled.

“He’s new, his manners will become more natural as they become more experience and less training,” he observed. “And I was just as stiff and twice as old when you stood at my side at my crowning twenty years ago.”

“True,” Myrddin agreed with a smile at the memory. Then his smile faded as he sat in the chair Conall motioned him to take and the king moved over to his own usual seat and cocked an expectant eyebrow at his old friend and mentor.

“And just what did Lord William say to my offer?” he asked, and Myrddin shook his head.

“I’m afraid nothing has changed,” the older man responded regretfully, and Conall’s hands curled into fists. He jerked to his feet and stalked over to the window he’d been sitting at a few minutes before.

“What can we offer him?” Conall asked in a tired, dispirited voice. “We can’t offer him the Barony of Ferrier to his south, we need its fighting men intact if we are to have a quick and relatively bloodless victory, which we won’t have if we have to conquer it — which we will if we promise it to Lord William, Baron Nabbick is hardly going to rejoin us peacefully if it means giving up his lordship. Besides, Lord William would consider the offer an insult. I suppose we could offer him the Sterling lording to his east, telling him that I’m doing so to give him the power to oppose me if I violate his trust rather than offering him a bribe. But that would make him as personally powerful as I am in wealth and manpower, and I haven’t spend the last twenty years trying to rebuild the power of the throne that vanished with my father’s death when I was six just to toss it away!”

Myrddin sighed and shook his head. “It wouldn’t matter if you promised him the throne itself,” he said. “With all the refugees that fled to the Lording of Wallace when Castle Defiant fell, the offer to personally lead an army across the Great Desert to retake it from the orcs would be enough if he just trusted you. Thanks to the way you used the abortive relief expedition to reveal Lord Deneral as a traitor and take the Barony of Mershall away from him and make it part of the Crown lands, Lord William doesn’t trust you, and so it doesn’t matter what you offer him.”

King Conall stared unseeing out over the city again for a long moment. “You know I intended to lead a second relief force to Castle Defiant’s rescue, but it fell faster than expected — too fast,” he finally said quietly, and Myrddin snorted.

“Oh, I know that, I helped you plan the whole trap from the beginning. But Lord William doesn’t know it, or rather doesn’t believe it.”

“And so we have our stalemate,” Conall said with a sigh, and Myrddin nodded.

“And so we have our stalemate,” he agreed, “and we’d better end it soon. The Sterling Rebellion is already six years old, if it drags on too long the separation will come to be accepted as the natural state of things and we’ll have two minor kingdoms that will be easy meat for the legions when Megalos gets around to snapping us up, however much the deficiency of mana hinders the legions’ battle wizards.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, like how to prevent it,” Conall said sourly, and Myrddin barked laughter.

“When I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know,” he promised.

Chapter Text

The refugees moved downhill through the snow-covered mountain forest they’d found themselves in when they’d come through the tunnel the previous day, scouts out as before, though Mu Tse and Xian Pu, being more accustomed to moving through wild terrain, were now in front.

It was all Xian Pu could do to keep her eyes forward, scanning ahead, instead of turning to her left to glare back at Akane along the flank. It had been a cold night, and those not on watch had paired up for warmth — Soun, Genma and Nodoka; Akane’s friends; Ryoga and the green-haired farmgirl; Ukyo and Konatsu; Nabiki, Kasumi and Dr. Tofu. And Akane and Ranma. They had been on watch at the same time and so had cuddled up together for sleep, along with the seer that had warned the Tendos and Saotomes of what was coming. Xian Pu knew Great-grandmother had helped determine the watch list and couldn’t understand why the matriarch hadn’t seen to it that Akane and Ranma were paired up rather than “suggesting” that she sleep with Yuka and Sayuri.

Then Xian Pu’s ruminations stopped as her eyes sharpened at a hint of movement ahead — a wide-eyed teenage girl wearing strange (but definitely warmer) clothes stared at the approaching group, then dropped the load of wood she’d been carrying and whirled to race downhill ahead of them.

/oOo\

Sir Morgan, the Kildar, stepped out of the front entrance of his keep, his men-at-arms spreading out on each side and Father Andre stepping up beside him to his left and Sergeant Osric to his right, as the strangers the Keldara messenger had reported walked up the hill toward him along with their escort of Keldara villagers, and his eyes narrowed. The newcomers had the appearance of the Sahudese merchants he’d seen occasionally at the port docks of Megalos during his service in that nation’s legions, but what a party from that bizarre country was doing in the back of beyond for Caithness, much less Megalos, he couldn’t imagine. (Sir Morgan had come to love the demesne he’d received along with his knighthood after investigating and revealing the assassination plot against King Conall as a sergeant of the city watch of Carrick Town, but he had no illusions that the mountain villages of the Keldara were anything but a backwater.)

Besides, even as odd as the Sahudese were, they didn’t ride around on giant boars.  The tall, salt-and-pepper-haired man found his mind drifting into thoughts of how boars of that size would do as cavalry mounts, and shook his head slightly to banish the thoughts.  Later, Morgan, you have more immediate things to handle right now, so pay attention!

He examined the strangers as they closed the last bit of distance, and his eyes narrowed. Now that they were closer, it was possible that these blanket-draped, blue-lipped, shivering people weren’t Sahudese, however they looked. He might actually have something to report to Myrddin. This was no band of merchants, no poor family simply on the move looking elsewhere for a better life — this was a group of refugees from some disaster, and wherever that disaster had been it was definitely warmer. It was also recent — as a legionnaire during the Frontier Wars he’d seen that look of stunned disbelief more times than he cared to remember on the faces of people fleeing north from the advancing Al-Wazifan armies.

The group came to a halt before Sir Morgan, and his eyes widened as a tiny, wrinkled old woman bounced forward on a short staff and bowed to him while balancing, saying something in a language that he failed to recognize. Are they not from Earth after all? I haven’t heard that any halflings have ever lived there, but no humans ever lived on Loren’dil. Let’s hope these rings Myrddin gave me and the good father work out, he thought as he returned the old woman’s bow. “Welcome to Kildar Keep and the valley of the Keldara,” he said in the language the ring imparted.

The strangers stiffened and exchanged glances and some quick exchanges, then a teenage pageboy-haired, blue-lipped, shivering girl stepped forward beside the ancient ... halfling? gnome? ... and bowed. “Thank you for your welcome,” she said. “Please pardon the rudeness of our delay, we were not expecting to hear someone speak English.”

“Yes, well, I have special help with that,” Sir Morgan said with a smile as he turned and motioned toward the doorway. “But let’s continue this inside, where you can get warm.”

/\

Father Andre stared at Nabiki across the remnants of a meal on the table in stunned disbelief, the delight the stout brown-haired priest had been taking in her exotic beauty banished. Beside him, Sir Morgan whispered, “Almost six billion people dead?”

Nabiki murmured in the odd-sounding language the refugees spoke, and beside her the wizened matriarch that they’d been assured was fully human, however she looked, nodded. Yes,” Ku Lon responded through Nabiki. “They aren’t dead yet, but they soon will be.” From Nabiki’s other side the well-preserved middle-aged redheaded woman that had been introduced as Nodoka nodded agreement, face calm but eyes moist.

“Surely, the End Times have begun on Earth,” Father Andre asserted. “Charity demands that we save those we can!”

Sir Morgan frowned thoughtfully for several minutes. I just knew Father Andre was going to say that — amazing how different most clergy in Caithness are from their Megalan brothers. But he isn't the one that will have to see to their needs. Finally, he nodded. “Of course we must, Father,” he said, and motioned over a page standing beside the door. “Peredur, find the seneschal, tell him that I want to know how many people we can support for the next ... three months, on the food we have stored, as soon as possible.”

The page nodded and vanished, and Sir Morgan turned to his sergeant. “Osric, I’ll be taking half the men with me. We will be leaving for the Cave of Worlds as soon as I discuss supplies with the seneschal.”

Yes, Kildar,” Sergeant Osric acknowledged with a nod, then rose from his seat and strode out.

Turning back to Father Andre, Sir Morgan asked, “Will you come with us, Father? You are the only one here besides me that can speak English.”

The priest hesitated, but finally nodded and rose. “Of course, Sir Morgan. I will prepare immediately.”

As Father Andre hurried from the room, Sir Morgan turned back to the newcomers. “I will need some of you to come with me, how many and who is up to you. I assume not everyone we encounter will be able to speak English. Why don’t you go choose who will come, and get a little rest while we get everything ready?”

Some more discussion in that odd language, then the portly, bald middle-aged man seated beside Nodoka said something in a sharp tone and Nabiki turned back to Sir Morgan. “Agreed, Sir Morgan ... and thank you. Can you supply warmer clothing for those that go with you? We weren’t exactly prepared for the weather when we arrived.”

“Of course, I’m sure we can find something,” Sir Morgan agreed, and the four “Japanese” followed the servant summoned to escort them back to the rest of their party, passing the seneschal hurrying in as they left.

“Ah, Geoffrey, you have the numbers I asked for already?” Sir Morgan asked, and the portly balding man nodded.

“Yes, Kildar, I do. May I ask why you need them?”

“We are going to be having some very unusual guests, Geoffrey. I’ll be leaving to collect them within the hour, as soon as you can collect some spare cloaks and blankets to take with us, and after I write a message to be sent to the king.

“Now, about those numbers ...”

Chapter Text

King Conall VI sat in his study, surrounded by his personal library — the largest in Caithness, numbering in the hundreds. Literacy was wider spread now than ever before, what with every major town in his realm having at least one printing press. Actually, Caithness had more printing presses per capita than Megalos, however much the Megalans looked down their noses at their “backward” neighbors — properly authorized that is, for every licensed press in Megalos, there was at least one more underground press pumping out political, heretical, or salacious tracts (sometimes all three at once, the sex lives of the less popular bishops and archbishops was always popular, if illegal, reading).

But this morning, King Conall wasn’t enjoying any of the books Myrddin had taught him to love as a child, or even mining them for ideas for breaking the deadlock the civil war had settled down into. Instead, he was enjoying a goblet of the beer he preferred (much to the chagrin of those of the Caithness nobility that favored the wines Megalan high society called for) with Siccius, Archbishop of the Church in Caithness.

Finishing off his goblet, Conall put it to the side and focused on his guest. Siccius lifted his own half-finished goblet of Bordelon wine in a semi-toast, the finest wine produced by the Megalan island province of Araterre (or at least, the finest that could handle being shipped all the way across Megalos). “Still drinking that rotgut, I see,” he said, nodding to the King’s empty goblet.

Conall just shrugged. “What can I say? It’s what I grew up with while in hiding.”

Siccius chuckled. At Conall’s quizzical look, he explained, “I was just remembering the time you were offered Bordelon wine and turned it down for — that,” gesturing at Conall’s goblet. “Sir Geremy was mortally offended.”

Conall grimaced. “He didn’t challenge me to a duel, so his offence wasn’t that strong, but yes ...”

He shrugged, then straightened in his seat. “To business,” he said with firm reluctance. “So, Archbishop, I know you can’t tell me much, thanks to the Church’s official stance of neutrality in the civil war. But what can you tell me?”

“As you say, my son, not much,” Siccius replied, setting aside his goblet. “My concern is properly the spiritual and temporal welfare of the flock, not the political maneuverings and ambitions of its secular rulers. However, I can report that Archbishop Flavius of Raphael and Sir Geoffrey Freeman have reportedly heard rumors of malfeasance in the Caithness archdiocese. They ‘requested’ that I permit an independent investigation of the archdiocese’s records, and since I refused are calling for the Curia to require that I do so.”

“What, is Archbishop Flavius looking to add to the five pounds of gold he wears on one hand?” Conall asked with an angry sneer.

“Now my son, you must be understanding — that five pounds of gold causes the ten pounds of gold on his other hand to unbalance him, making him list to one side as he promenades down the street, blessing the poor,” the Archbishop said with an admirably straight face.

Conall snorted, then sobered. “And just what are they playing at?” he asked.

“I suspect they’ve heard reports of my sermons on the need to put doctrinal issues to the side and focus on what Christ actually said will get one into heaven — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the sick and afflicted,” Siccius said with a shrug.

Conall frowned. “Right, very dangerous doctrine, that.”

“To them it is. Flavius’s archdiocese shares its southern border with al-Wazif, and half of his subjects had Muslim grandparents. And Sir Geoffrey, well, he didn’t rise to become Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller by being relaxed about heresy and paganism. And both Raphael and New Jerusalem are on our border, ideas are going to drift across along with our trade goods.”

“I imagine your refusal to wear the silk robes of your predecessor hasn’t reassured them, either,” Conall commented, waving at the Archbishop’s plain if sturdy cassock. “To tell you the truth, I’m a little surprised you haven’t stripped Adseveration Cathedral of at least some of its luxury.”

“Actually, I considered doing just that, at least around the edges,” Siccius admitted. “But in the end I decided that, so long as the luxury doesn’t extend to living quarters and offices, it is but an outward show of our recognition of our debt to God, especially when it comes from donations rather than taxes.

“But Your Majesty, do not mistake Sir Geoffrey’s and Archbishop Flavius’s love of luxury for venality — however much they enjoy the wealth their positions bring them, they are true believers in the Church, if not necessarily in God, and my refusal to join them in enjoying what they see as the natural benefits accruing to those of our station probably reminds them more than a little of the mystics. And you know the Church is always more comfortable with a mystic once he’s dead and safely turned into a saint.”

The King frowned thoughtfully. “Do you think they realize you’re laying the groundwork for another Schism?” he asked, then glanced up at the suddenly still Archbishop. “You can relax, Your Holiness,” he said with a wry grin. “I haven’t ordered the Silver Hand to keep an ear on the Church’s private discussions, just the public pronouncements and mood of the people. Still, the Church is a Power in my realm and I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t keep an eye on it — even if I generally count it a friend, William of Wallace taught me of the need for that. And for anyone that really knows you, hearing what I do of what your subordinates are saying, it’s fairly obvious what you are up to.”

Siccius relaxed, and shrugged. “I suppose you are correct,” he said at last. “And no, I doubt the Curia in general or my fellow curiates in particular realize what I’m up to — they don’t know me as well as you, and I suspect are too focused on what they intend to do to us to worry about what we may do to them.”

Conall chuckled and reached for the pitcher to refill his goblet, when the door to the study opened and a very nervous page stepped in and bowed to the two men. “F-Forgive the interruption, Your Majesty, Y-Your Holiness, but a messenger has arrived from the Kildar and insists on delivering his message directly to the King, immediately.”

/\

Myrddin, formerly guardian and now Court Wizard to King Conall VI, looked up in surprise from his book and rose to his feet as that former ward now king burst into his living quarters unannounced. Conall closed the door in the face of his guards, and glanced around. Finding the two alone, he turned to his father figure with an attempt at a lighthearted smile. “I’ve just received a message from Sir Morgan the Kildar about some arrivals through the Cave of Worlds. Myrddin, you’re going to be taking a little trip, though at least this one will be a little warmer than your last — at least until you hit the mountains.”

Myrddin put his book on the table beside the chair he’d been sitting in. “Yes, of course I’ll leave immediately,” he said with a smile. “It’ll be good to get some news of home — it’s been years since the last Banestorm victim to cross our path.”

The King’s attempt at a smile died, and he took a deep breath. “Myrddin, Sir Morgan included some of what the newcomers had to say, and I’m afraid the news is not good — not good at all.”

“Six billion people,” Myrddin whispered to himself, slumped in the chair he’d occupied when Conall had burst into his room.

From where he sat stiffly in a chair beside him, Conall hesitantly laid a hand on his Court Wizard’s arm in an attempt at comfort. “Perhaps it isn’t as bad as these — these ‘Japanese’ think it is. And even if it is, didn’t you tell me once that your own family were ranchers in some backwater called Idaho?”

Myrddin took a deep breath and forced himself to straighten, scanning the rest of the Kildar’s message. “Yes, if they’re still on the family ranch they should be all right, at least for the short term. Though it’s been over five decades since a mini-Banestorm dropped me here — who knows what my family has been up to since? Still, even if our new guests are unlikely to have personal word for me, they may have some bit of knowledge that could help us break the deadlock before Megalos rolls over us.”

Suddenly he brightened even as he rose to his feet. “Sir Morgan’s going to send a party to the nearest library in Japan as soon as he’s collected as many survivors as he can support?! Conall, you picked a winner with this one.”

The King chuckled wryly. I didn’t exactly pick him, Myrddin — the man risked being drawn and quartered as a traitor in order to do his duty; I had to reward him somehow! And with his Megalan background and lack of knowledge about the court, having the position of Kildar open up just before I knighted him seemed like a godsend. We’re just lucky he’s as loyal and competent as he seemed.”

Sobering, Conall rose to his feet. “While you’re getting ready for your trip into the back of beyond, I’ll be getting together the stores he’s requested to at least start to replace what he’s using for the refugees and requisitioning the barges needed to get everything as far west as Tacitus, and write out instructions for Baron Elohar to supply the necessary cartage to get you the rest of the way, along with the rest of the replacement supplies. I’ll have to promise to make good what he donates, of course ...” the King mused as he headed for the door he’d burst through a short time before, but Myrddin hardly noticed, already looking over his bookshelf in an effort to decide which books from his precious library to take with him.

Chapter Text

“To this strategy of celerity was added tactical surprise. In a century when men wore increasingly heavy mail, the Swiss came near to discarding armor altogether. Only a helmet and breastplate protected a warrior who deemed rapidity of movement a better defense than iron. As a result the hedge of bristling points often bore down upon a medieval host before it could form into line of battle. Thus if the Swiss lacked a mounted arm, their warfare did not suffer either in respect to mobility or shock effect.

“Swiss skirmishing tactics, moreover, showed a real appreciation of light infantry values. The swarm of crossbowmen in advance of the main body served both to screen the assault and clear the way....”

Nabiki broke off, looking up from the book she was reading aloud in English, and Sir Morgan put down the quill pen with which he had been furiously scribbling down what he heard. The two turned to look at the young page, Peredur, standing stiffly just inside the door to the keep’s small (and now very crowded) library.

“Sir Morgan, a messenger has arrived from the Court Wizard,” Peredur said, doing his best to keep his excitement out of his voice. “His party will be here by mid-afternoon at the latest, along with replacement supplies.”

“Excellent,” Sir Morgan replied, the salt-and-pepper-haired man carefully concealing his usual amusement and his page’s attempt at adult gravitas. “Is there any private message for me?”

Peredur shook his head. “No, sir, simply notice of his arrival.”

“Very well, inform the seneschal and Sergeant Osric of the Court Wizard’s impending arrival. Take the messenger with you, they’ll want to know if the size of the stores and his party have changed.”

Peredur stiffly bowed and stepped out of the library, closing the door behind him, and the sound of running feet was briefly heard. The Kildar chuckled, shaking his head.

“Oh, like you were never that young!” Nabiki chided with a smirk in the Anglic she had been learning over the past weeks — she had learned enough to get the gist of the page’s report.

“You’re right, I wasn’t,” Sir Morgan instantly agreed. “Where I grew up, we didn’t have that luxury.” At the teenager’s quirked eyebrow, he added, “There’s a good reason why I spent years in the ranks of the Legions, and never rose above the rank of sergeant. So, shall we continue?”

Rather than picking up where she’d left off her reading, Nabiki marked her place and set the book to the side, frowning thoughtfully. “Actually, I have a question first ... just what are you looking for?”

Face suddenly gone expressionless, the Kildar gazed at his guest for a long moment, marveling once again at the girl’s composure. As the only one of the first group that spoke good English, she had been a part of the rescue efforts from the beginning until they’d reached — surpassed, really — the number of extra mouths they’d be able to feed. She’d been there as the Keldar’s small garrison had held the cave against other Japanese that had followed the rescue parties, trying to push through, looking for food and clean water. And, after those trying to push through to sanctuary had finally starved to death, she’d been a member of the party that had travelled through the ever-growing stench of rotting flesh to the nearest small town in order to loot the libraries. While the horrors she’d seen had left shadows behind her eyes, outwardly she seemed the calm and collected girl with the wry (not to say biting) sense of humor that he’d first known.

“And what makes you think I’m searching for something?” he finally responded. “I spent years as a soldier, and as Keldar I command the garrison here.”

“True, but you — or rather we — are jumping around too much for it to be simple curiosity. You’re searching for something, abandoning each book when it becomes clear that the answers you’re looking for aren’t there. This might go faster if I knew what you’re looking for and could suggest paths of research.” And isn’t it interesting how you’ve shown no interest in gunpowder weapons?

Sir Morgan winced behind his expressionless mask. This is a sharp one, Morgan, don’t ever underestimate her again! he told himself sternly, as he wondered just how much to reveal. Finally, he simply shrugged. “You’re right, but I’m not the one to decide what and how much to tell you — what was that expression you used? Oh, yes, it’s above my pay grade. Fortunately, someone that can make that call will be here shortly. So, why don’t we finish this chapter and take a break?”

Nabiki gazed at him intently for a long moment, then returned his shrug and picked up the book she’d been reading. “Fair enough. Let’s see, where were we? Oh, yes —

“ ... Then came the moral impact of the three forests of spears surmounted by countless flags and pennons, including on occasion the great red banner with the white cross. If the enemy was not already demoralized, he had in a very short time to deal with onrushing steel points guided by men who gave no quarter....”

/oOo\

Myrddin looked around curiously from the head of the long snake of provisions-loaded wagons as his party wended its way up the valley of the Keldara toward the Kildar’s keep.

Everywhere he looked, there were people busily tending fields, many of them — hundreds — obviously not Keldara, or from Caithness. Though they did resemble the Japanese soldiers he vaguely remembered seeing in World War Two movies as a child. And they were tending all the fields, even the one in three that would normally have left fallow.

As he looked closer, one thing became quickly obvious — the newcomers were working hard (when they weren’t taking a quick break to watch the newcomers), but they weren’t very good at it. Right, like you just naturally fit right in when you first arrived all those decades ago, he thought to himself with a grimace.

Then, as the snake of wagons approached the keep, Sir Morgan, a priest that had to be Father Andre, several armed men came out of the front doors to greet the newcomers and Myrddin broke off his wide-ranging observations to focus on the arrival “ceremony.”

/\

“All right, take a break!” the cute redhead dressed in loose leather pants and shirt called out, and similarly-dressed Xian Pu and Ukyo stepped back away from each other. They lowered their weapons, battle spatula and chuí now loosely held, gasping for breath. Ranma smirked as she watched the two. Looks like the ol’ ghoul got it right, when she suggested I train the girls. Then, grimacing, And her “suggestion” I go girl for these spars was probably right, too. At least, they seem more relaxed — a bit.

“Say, Shampoo, do ya think Cologne’s gonna want a head back ta Japan soon?” Ranma asked as the two slowly walked over to the edge of the clearing and sat down on some handy tree stumps next to Yuka and Sayuri.

“Shampoo no know,” the purple-haired girl replied. “Dying time over, rotting time mostly over — but need enough food to cross to China, get inland past coast settlements.” Then, glancing wistfully at the redhead, she asked, “Ranma sure not come, too? Family safe here, Godkiller be very welcome in village ...” Her voice trailed off as her former husband-by-Amazon-Law shook her head.

Sighing, Xian Pu turned to Sayuri and Yuka. “Not join us, either?” she asked. “Would need much training, but at least be in own world, maybe return to Japan one day even if Cave of Worlds changes place.”

Yuka just shook her head, and Sayuri said, “Thanks, but we don’t really have any reason to return to Japan — there’s no way our families survive, not in Tokyo, without our headstart and with no place to run to. And we have friends here.” After a moment, she asked, “Are you going to ask Miyo?”

Xian Pu immediately shook her head. “No,” she said regretfully. “Great-grandmother think about that, very impressed by Sight, but Seeing Girl going crazy, spending all time not working in church, demanding answers from gods — not healthy. She maybe not last long, like others. And if do, better here with friends.”

Ranma glanced over at Akane, standing at the edge of the clearing and practically bouncing on her heels. “Yeah, Akane, yer next,” she said, “against me while Ukyo and Shampoo rest.” Akane stepped to the center of the clearing, but instead of following her Ranma paused, frowned, and stepped to the clearing’s edge, and through the circle of trees to look down the hill at the valley of the Keldara below them. Her eyes widening, she called out, “Hey, girls, get over here!”

Within moments the other five girls joined her, staring at the long line of wagons wending their way up the valley toward the keep. “The food’s here, cool!” Ranma said, grinning.

“Yeah, Sugar, we aren’t going to starve before next spring, after all,” Ukyo agreed. “So, we going down to meet the new bigwigs — and get you some hot water?” she continued, quirking an eyebrow at the five girls’ part-time sensei.

“The rest of you go ahead,” Ranma agreed with an evil grin. “Me an’ Akane have a sparring session, first.”

Akane winced slightly at Ranma’s tone even as she eagerly turned back toward the clearing. “Right, let’s do it!” she called over her shoulder.

Ukyo and Xian Pu exchanged glances. “Nah, we’ll watch and go down with you two,” Ukyo said nonchalantly. “Maybe we’ll learn something from the Tomboy.”

“Right, what Spatula Girl said,” Xian Pu instantly agreed, Yuka and Sayuri nodding their enthusiastic agreement.

Ranma shrugged, and waved them back toward the clearing with a chuckle. “Then come on, Mom and Cologne’ll be wanting us down there pretty quick.”

Chapter Text

Father Andre stepped into the small centuries-old church that served the Keldara — smaller than it should be for as large a population as the Keldara had, but considering what he’d long since guessed about their true allegiance he supposed he should be grateful for the congregation he had.

Looking around in the light coming through the clerestory, the priest found the girl he was looking for, in the place he’d expected — the tiny side chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. She was kneeling, her eyes fixed on the statue of the Blessed Virgin, twin tear-tracks running down her cheeks. Quietly, he walked over to stand behind the teenager. In the English that his ring granted him that was the only language they shared, and that poorly on her part, in as gentle a voice as he could manage he said, “Miyo, it’s time for dinner, and the Wizard Myrddin has arrived. He wishes to speak to the first of the newcomers, and it has been long since the noon meal. Will you not join us?”

For a moment, he thought she was so totally focused on her prayers that she was unaware of his presence, but then she shook her head slightly, eyes still fixed on the icon.

Opening his mouth to try yet again, Father Andre paused. There really wasn’t any point, not yet. This was hardly the first time he had seen overpowering grief and a demand for answers. Sometimes those answers had been forthcoming, or at least comfort given. Sometimes the petitioner had wavered in his or her faith and fallen away in despairing pain at the silence of heaven. He’d given up trying to guess which way any petitioner might go and that was for Christians, which this girl was not. But he’d never dreamed that a petitioner would stay on the knife’s edge for week after week. Of course, those other petitioners hadn’t been grieving for the death of an entire world....

Finally, he sighed. “Very well, I will have a servant bring some food. You will eat this time? We can’t afford to waste any of what we have, and you have not been eating enough. Promise me?” After a few moments Miyo nodded. “Thank you,” Father Andre said, and turned to walk toward his own awaiting dinner with perhaps the second most important man in Caithness — even if they weren’t in Caithness, technically.

Stepping out of the church, Father Andre turned toward the keep then froze at the sight of a column of dwarves coming down from the upper end of the valley toward the keep.

/oOo\

Miyo listened vaguely to the sound of Father Andre’s retreating footsteps. She felt sorry for the priest — he was a good man, and worried about her, she could hear it in his voice, even feel it. But for all his compassion, he had been unable to give an answer for why her world — and her friends and family along with it — had died, and so she continued her struggle, demanding answers from the only being or beings that could give them, the ones that had killed the Fire and her world with it.

Once again, she slipped into the meditative state that she had used for years as she sought to perfect the future sight she’d discovered in herself, only now directing it out instead of turning inward. Again, the church around her dimmed and faded, until only the statue she knelt before seemed real — the statue of a robed woman standing upright, face tilted down toward the girl kneeling at her feet, arms spread wide as if offering an embrace. The artist that had carved her had been a master, and even in the dim light sorrow and compassion were plain on her face and in her stance. The priest had said she was the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God (and wasn’t that a contradiction in terms?) and a saint, but Miyo had labeled her Kuan-Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and poured out her heart, demanding to know why the Goddess of Mercy had had none on her people.

Suddenly, Miyo realized that something was ... different, brighter, somehow. The faint sunlight shining through the opening behind her into the main chapel and reflecting from the bottom of the figure’s robes was brightening, making the teenager squint. The light slowly climbed up along the woman’s robes, spreading down along her arms while her face shone brighter and brighter, until Miyo’s world was washed away in a flood of light.

/\

When the light faded and her eyes cleared, Miyo found herself kneeling on grass beside a minor river, the gently flowing water green with sediment. Rising to her feet, she looked around, frowning at the unfamiliar sights and sounds. The trees were unlike any she’d ever seen; the underbrush they grew up out of was a faded, tired green; the air was dry and warm. Bird song filled the air, but she didn’t recognize the songs they were singing.

“The River Jordan,” said a woman’s voice, and Miyo whirled to find an olive-skinned, dark-haired woman of middle age and average height behind her, dressed in primitive-looking plain robes. Her face showed long exposure to sun and weather, smile-wrinkles around eyes that somehow shone with stern wisdom. “In the north of the Holy Land,” the stranger continued. “An ironic name, seeing how it’s perhaps been fought over more than any other land on God’s earth, as is happening again as we speak.”

“I ... how did I ... ?” Miyo managed to get out as she fought through her shock.

“How did you get here? You aren’t, not really. You have been demanding answers, child, and I thought to give them in a place familiar to me.”

“Familiar ... you aren’t Kuan-Yin then. Are you Saint Mary?” Miyo guessed, only to see the stranger shake her head.

“No, child, I’m quite a bit older than that blessed and cursed woman — twelve centuries older. My name is Deborah, and in my life I was a prophetess and judge in Israel.”

Miyo stared at her in confusion. “I ... I’m sorry, but I don’t recognize ...”

Deborah chuckled softly, and her eyes seemed to lose their sternness as the laugh lines around them crinkled up with her smiling laughter. “Relax, Miyo-chan, I don’t expect a pagan living on the opposite side of the world to recognize a name that too many Christians wouldn’t know, either.” Just as suddenly as it appeared, the smile vanished. “Though I’m afraid that too many of the few survivors will need to turn to me for inspiration in the future.”

At the shock of the reminder of the questions she’d been crying out, Miyo stiffened and paled, closing her eyes as she fought for control. Finally again opening eyes hard as flint, she simply asked, “Why?”

Deborah sighed and motioned toward several large stones embedded in the ground near the bank of the river. “Sit, child, this will take some time.” Miyo nodded silently and sat beside the prophetess, waiting patiently. Deborah simply sat for a time, frowning thoughtfully, then shook her head slightly. “This would be easier if you were Jewish, or even Christian. Do you know anything of the conquest of Canaan by the Children of Israel?”

Confused by the apparent non sequitur, Miyo frowned thoughtfully, then nodded at a memory. “Yes, I remember —” She broke off, suddenly blushing.

“Remember what?” Deborah asked.

“I remember some friends ... they said they didn’t understand why Jews were so horrified by the Holocaust, when ...” Her voice trailed off, as her gaze fell to the grass at their feet.

“When my ancestors tried to do the same thing when they invaded Canaan, and we aren’t ashamed of it, right?” Deborah finished, and Miyo jerkily nodded. “No need to be embarrassed, child, it’s a fair question.” Miyo looked up at that, and Deborah smiled sadly, gazing off into nothing. “Tell me, child, have you ever known someone that had beliefs about how to live that were simply wrong — not just wrong, but selfish, even evil?”

Miyo slowly nodded, thoughts flashing through her mind of the Kuno siblings.

“Unfortunately, as with individuals, so with an entire people — and how do you kill an idea, a way of life? You can preach, excoriate, cajole, plead, do your best to convince people of the error or their ways, but when they won’t listen ... when that happens, when that people reach the point that there is no hope for change for the better, the Lord may move against them. He prefers to use the nations around them as weapons to His hand, as He did when he sent the Israelites against the Canaanites — a people for whom adultery was a religious duty and burning infants to death as sacrifices to their gods a way to dispose of unwanted children — and later with His chosen people when we fell away, bringing against us the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and even later the Romans. But early on, when the world was less populated and there were no other nations at hand, He took a direct hand — the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

“And so it was again — the rich nations of the earth were living a life of wasteful consumption, uncaring that the poor nations that provided what the rich nations consumed suffered under tyrants or writhed in chaos. And that was not enough, the rich nations were taking water and oil from the earth faster than they could be replenished. Sooner or later the day would have come that their greed and self-indulgence would turn upon their heads, ending their civilizations in a flood of disease, starvation, and their own fire falling from the sky. ‘A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?’

“So in His wisdom, the Most High chose to cut those days short. The immediate toll of the dead will be at least as great, but the Earth itself will not be poisoned with disease and invisible death from the pillars of fire. And as we rebuild again, there will be those that know why, and pass it on to their children so that when once again He returns the Fire to them they will use it more wisely.”

Miyo sat silently as she struggled with the images the prophetess’s words had brought to mind: reports of famine with food donations turned into political markers, shrinking glaciers and dropping water tables, refugee camps filled with starving people while their enemies prowled around the outskirts waiting for the chance to rape and kill, massacres and oppression as one dictator was replaced by another. She had ignored them before — they were happening to other people far away, after all, and nothing she could do anything about. “How long, before we’d have destroyed ourselves?” she finally whispered.

“You are young, most likely within your lifetime,” Deborah answered. “Perhaps even within your parents’ lifetimes, if your leaders proved truly blind.”

Miyo jerked to her feet and turned away from the older woman, staring down along the river. She found herself rubbing her upper arms and raised her crossed hands to hug her shoulders. “All those billions dead and that was the merciful outcome,” she finally murmured. “We did it to ourselves!” The tsunami of grief Miyo had been holding at bay with her demand for answers finally rolled over her, and dropping to her knees then falling to her side, the young seer curled into a ball as she was wracked by gut-wrenching sobs.

When she once again became aware of anything but her pain, Miyo found herself in Deborah’s lap, the prophetess rocking her gently and stroking her hair as she crooned a soft tune in a language the teenager didn’t recognize. For a time she simply lay there, soaking in comfort from the adult’s care. Finally, reluctantly, she sat up and pushed herself away, scrubbing at her eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Hugging her legs to her chest, Miyo turned again to look at Deborah. “Why?” she asked quietly.

Deborah frowned in confusion. “ ‘Why’, what?” she asked.

“Why am I here, why are you telling me all this? Why are you telling me all this? I can’t be the only one demanding answers and you can’t be visiting everyone that’s asking.”

Deborah nodded. “You are right, for almost all crying for comfort, the most they will receive is a sense of comfort — that, however things may look, all is well, or will be.” Taking a deep breath, she continued, “But for you, it is different because you are called to service — to battle, often enough.”

Miyo shot bolt upright in shock. “Me?” she squeaked. “But, what for? Why me? I’m nobody, less than nobody, now!”

The prophetess shook her head. “No, Miyo, you are not ‘nobody’, and never have been — whatever happens, your Father loves you, never forget it. But for this ... your new home is in trouble, and it’s going to get worse. Because of the initial Banestorm and the conditions its victims found themselves in, the peoples of this place are very hidebound. That wasn’t a problem even with the occasional new victim transported here from our world, or even the occasional banestorm, until our world developed gunpowder, and all the social upheaval and new devices that came with it. As a result the elites, especially the wizards, formed conspiracies to keep the new knowledge out of the hands of the common people. Not all of it, of course. Much of it was harmless to them, even useful — new ways of growing crops, knowledge of disease. But anything that might threaten their place in society, especially gunpowder and any hint that kings and priests aren’t the pinnacle of society or at least answerable to the people, that has been suppressed through everything from burning texts, using magic to wipe minds clean of dangerous knowledge, to outright murder. Though they missed a march when it came to how you make books reproduce like rabbits,” she added with an urchin grin. “They didn’t realize how dangerous that is until it was much too late!

“But here in Caithness, it has always been different,” she continued more soberly. “The way that magic is more difficult to use there has kept out most wizards, and restricted those that are here to those few constrained places where manna enjoys its usual vigor — except for those sufficiently powerful and skilled that the dearth of manna is overcome. And aren’t they truly scary when they travel outside the country? The frontier conditions of the land kept out most of the nobility, and has kept those that did take part in driving out the orcs that used to live here and stayed afterward closer to their subjects. The church was independent from the Curia for a short time and is more independent-minded to this day, and closer to the mystics and the people it is supposed to serve. The way Caithness is at the tail end of the trade routes, except for some of the dwarves here, means the merchants are comparatively poor and powerless. True, the king’s” — her mouth twisted as if about to spit for a moment, before she thought better of it — “ his ‘Royal Majesty’s’ spies, the Silver Hand, help maintain the secret gunpowder ban, but much more dangerous to the elites is a saying found throughout the country’s common folk: ‘If new Jack be not worthy, old Jack can hang.’

“Some outside of Caithness, at least, have come to realize the danger and are maneuvering for its destruction. And if this people falls, without the continuing yeast of newcomers from your world able to leaven the dough with new ideas it will be many long centuries before the opportunity comes again, limited to a few desperate searchers hiding in the shadows while grasping for what scraps of knowledge they can discover and pass on.”

She fell silent. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to continue, Miyo asked again, “But why me? I may not be ‘nobody’, but I am to them. Why should they listen to me?”

“Don’t underestimate the advantage that comes from being an outsider,” Deborah rebutted. “True, it means you start with only those allies you can find, but it also places you outside the pile of memories, slights and grudges, histories of one family with another. That can be of use. Also, you are young, and an exotic beauty — that, too, will help, as will the fact that you are a maiden. While in the long run throwing a people’s childbearers into battle will destroy it as surely as losing those battles, Caithness will not have the luxury of looking that far to the future for some years. With you leading them into battle, the people’s daughters will take up the cause, enough at any rate, and the sons with them—what young man wouldn’t eagerly follow young women anywhere?” Glancing at the dumbfounded look on the young girl’s face, Deborah smiled sympathetically. “Yes, child, if you agree to this you will be spending a large part of your life living in army camps. Though I suspect that you will find that it just means that you have more bodyguards than you could ever wish for or want — you will be their living banner, and they won’t want to risk you. That’s certainly how it worked out for me.”

“I ... please, tell me about it?” Miyo requested, and Deborah shrugged.

“Not much to tell, really. It was yet another would-be conqueror coming into our tribal lands, and there was no man with the charisma and standing to rally the people to his banner. I was already well known as a woman of wisdom and sought out for judgment, and so I sought out the best man available to lead our warriors, a man named Barak, and sent out the call to rally to his banner and marched with him to battle. I came up with a clever plan, at least I thought so — using part of our army to lure Sisera to the Kishon River, where the soggy ground would hinder his chariots, and attacking him from the rear with the larger part of our army. I wanted to lead the lure, because if the battle went badly for us they would be trapped against the river and destroyed. I wanted to share the risk.” She grimaced. “But Barak refused to allow it, told me that if I didn’t stay with him he wasn’t going to go, and the rest of the army agreed with him. We won, and the invading army was itself trapped and destroyed, Sisera killed by having a tent peg driven through his temple.”

She again fell silent, waiting patiently as Miyo rose to her feet and began to pace. I can’t do this, I’m just a kid, I don’t know anything! Surely ... She whirled to face the older woman. “I can’t be the only hope this world has! Isn’t there anyone else that could take this on?” she asked desperately.

Deborah shrugged. “Of course there is, but none that could do as well, that are as well-placed as you to act.”

Miyo’s shoulder slumped, then squared as she straightened and took a deep breath. “All right, I’ll do it. My people failed one world, I won’t fail another!”

“Wonderful!” the prophetess responded, standing and walking over to the teenager and placing her hands on her shoulders. “It will be a hard life, but a rewarding one, I promise. And you won’t be alone, nor are you the most unlikely person God has called to His service. At least you weren’t as hard to convince as Moses, he did everything short of running away, and Jonah even did that!” she added with a whimsical smile. “Now, let me show you the breadth of your task, and some of those that will rally to your cause....”

Chapter Text

Nodoka sighed to herself as she set out the last dishes of the meal on the large table in the crude ... ‘hovel’ wasn’t really appropriate, the building was too large and sturdy for that, but it certainly wasn’t a proper home. The Saotome matriarch didn’t consider dirt floors and log walls with mud chinking a proper house, even if it had separate bedrooms for the men and women.

Still, she couldn’t really complain — it was better than the true hovels the rest of the refugees from Japan were living in, the result of being the first arrivals and having a skill to teach that the locals wanted, badly. She chuckled to herself as she thought of the way Akane had demolished the best fighter the Keldara had had to offer, and their expressions when they were informed that the youngest Tendo was the least skilled of the warriors in their little group. Yes, there had been no problem negotiating a house and enough food for everyone in return for training in the Anything Goes school.

Not that that had stopped Nodoka from insisting that everyone pitch in and help, of course, a couple days a week in the fields for the men, and more than that helping with the fields, cooking, and watching the overabundance of children for the women (not having the excuse of spending time training the Keldara men).

Glancing at Akane sitting to one side of Ranma and competing with Ukyo, seated on Ranma’s other side, for her fiancé’s attention, Nodoka smiled as she remembered everyone’s reaction to Akane’s cooking — why they seemed so relieved at the quality of the plain, simple dishes that were all they were able to prepare with the materials available had confused her until her son had taken her aside and privately explained the usual results of Akane’s occasional attempts to prove she could cook. I suppose if you take away all the confusing options, it’s easier to deal with what’s left, she mused as she stepped back and looked around to make sure everyone was there. Ranma and the girls were back from their training (and Ranma once again male), Nabiki was back from the keep, everyone but Miyo was there, but Miyo’s absence was no surprise. Satisfied, Nodoka moved around to her own seat.

“Itadakimasu!” echoed through the room, then everyone dug into the food that had been hastily sent to them when they’d abruptly found themselves extremely apologetically disinvited from the feast prepared to welcome the visitor from Caithness — something about other surprise visitors that had to take precedence, Nodoka’s Anglish was still rudimentary and she wasn’t sure she’d understood the servant that had delivered the news along with the slightly cold food.

/oOo\

Just as they were finishing the meal (most of them, anyway — Nodoka had succeeded in getting her husband and son to slow down, but ‘slower’ was not the same as ‘slow’), the front door opened and Miyo stepped into the large common room. Nodoka glanced over at the teenage girl with a welcoming smile only to feel that smile stiffen at the sight of the girl’s face. Something had changed. She had the same calm expression she’d maintained in public since their arrival, but the desperate pain that had lurked behind the façade was gone. No, the pain was still there but the desperation was gone, replaced with a calm acceptance that seemed to add years to her age without changing a feature.

Out of the corner of her eye, Nodoka caught Elder Ku Lon as she stiffened, eyes widening in shock. “Incredible!” the ancient matriarch murmured, then rising to stand on her chair, she gently asked, “Child ... Miyo ... you have received an answer to your questions?”

“Yes,” Miyo replied, then to Nodoka’s surprise the teenager blushed. “But the answer came with a price.”

“They usually do, child, the more important the question the costlier the answer. Tell us what happened.”

/\

Miyo finished her story of the vision she’d received, looking around at the stunned expressions surrounding her, staring at her — except for Elder Ku Lon, who simply sat thoughtfully. After a long moment, the wrinkled old woman nodded. “Quite a tale, young lady, and quite a task you have been set. I’m almost sorry I’ll miss it.”

Miyo blushed again. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. Come on, Miyo, suck it up — you’re going to be a true leader, not just a figurehead, and it has to start with the people in this room. Opening her eyes to gaze at the matriarch, she started to speak, and everyone exchanged confused glances — except for the three Amazons, who straightened abruptly as they realized the young seer was speaking in their native language. “About that ... I didn’t tell of all of the — the briefing — I received, to prepare me for this. Elder Ku Lon, your village is safe. And between its isolation, relatively primitive technology, and the fighting skills of your warriors, it will almost certainly prosper. The truth is that neither you, nor Xian Pu or Mu Tse, are really needed at home.

“The same is not true here. For Xian Pu and Mu Tse, we will be fighting almost yearly for years to come. For yourself — the form of ceremonial magic of which you are a mistress is known only in a primitive form, practiced by barbarians and peasant wisewomen. Your knowledge would be a great help in my ... my quest in this world, of great help to our sisters. Would you consider staying to help?”

Ku Lon gazed at Miyo for a long moment, face inscrutable, and the two younger Amazons turned to look at their Elder. Finally, she quietly said, “I will have to ponder this. You will have your answer tomorrow.”

Miyo hesitated, then reluctantly nodded. “That’s reasonable, I can’t ask for more. Thank you for considering it.”

Turning to Genma and switching back to Japanese, she continued in the calm tone from before, “Genma-san, all your life you have been playing — playing hard and very seriously, but playing nonetheless — mastering the ancient warrior arts in a world that no longer needed them. Here, now, those arts are needed very much — both for scouting, precision strikes, and on the battlefield. Will you join my cause, and put your training to its ancient use? In repayment for the aid our people have received here?”

Genma had opened his mouth when Miyo began her speech, but paused, suddenly thoughtful. “I ... I ...” he started, then stopped. That’s ... an interesting way to put it. To put my training to the use it was intended, not simply for its own sake ... After a long moment, he straightened, even as a new light seemed to flicker in his eyes. Putting on a solemn expression, he said, “Of course! I have always said that it is the duty of a martial artist to protect the weak and innocent.” Ignoring Ranma’s snort, he continued, “From what you’ve said, our hosts are both in the right and helpless before their foes. I will be happy to do my part.”

“And I!” Soun spoke up from his seat between his two older daughters.

Carefully not laughing, Miyo turned to Ranma. “Ranma, while your father and Soun-san will be invaluable when the actual fighting starts, neither has experience as leaders. Neither do you, but you have the natural qualities. The Keldara have the warrior spirit, but will need to be trained as soldiers, and our own Japanese men with them will need to find that spirit in their hearts. Would you consider taking a part in that training, becoming their leader in the ranks?”

Ranma broke off smirking at his father to stare at his classmate. “Me? Why me? What do I know of bein’ a soldier?”

Before Miyo could speak up, Genma broke in. “No, son, Miyo-san is right. Only the most highly trained warriors will defeat soldiers en masse, and our opponents —” Turning to Miyo, he asked, “They will be soldiers?”

“Most likely, not at first. We will have to deal with the rebels first, at least in part, and those will be like ... like from our feudal age — feudal levies called up for a campaign, stiffened with professionals hired from wherever they can be found. Of course, our own side will be the same.”

Genma nodded thoughtfully. “So, mainly levies made up of peasants with a minimum of training, with some that are personally skilled but not drilled to act together.”

“Yes,” Miyo agreed, “though many of those trained to fight will be cavalry — sort of like the armored knights in those movies about King Arthur.”

“But later, we will be facing true soldiers?” Genma questioned.

Miyo nodded. “Yes, when Megalos, the empire to the east, comes in on the side of the rebels.”

Genma was grinning, now. “Oh, yes, that’s perfect! Soldiers may beat warriors in mass combat, but put them up against men with a warrior’s spirit and a soldier’s training ... and first the fights against the rebels to give our men some experience to go with their training and spirit ...” Turning to Ranma, the Saotome patriarch said sternly, “She is right, it is your duty to do as she asks. I cannot; I don’t understand why, but people have trouble trusting me.” Again ignoring the snorts and snickers from around the room, he continued, “But for some reason, people trust you. You, they will follow.”

The pigtailed boy stared expressionlessly at his father for a long moment, then turned his gaze to Miyo. “Is Pop right?” he asked quietly.

Miyo, hesitated, but finally nodded. “Yes,” she said. “That is essentially it.”

“A lot a’ people are gonna die.”

“True,” Miyo replied. “But a lot of people are going to die, whatever we do. This way, they have a chance of preserving their homes and way of life. Or at least,” she added wryly, “have their way of life changed in a way that allows them to make their own decisions.

“And you would be perfect for leading our united people from the line. You’re a skilled warrior, so the Keldara will be willing to follow you. You’re Japanese and a skilled warrior, so our ... the refugees will be willing to follow you — eager, in fact; the Keldara have been generous, but have looked down on them as weaklings and cowards. The men know it, and will welcome a chance to prove them wrong and regain their self-respect. And both sides will recognize that you care about all of them, not just one group or the other. And as your father has recognized, this will give you a chance to put your training to use.”

“But what about home?” Ranma asked. “I mean, yeah, Japan’s gonna be hard hit, but we’re tough, always have been — we’ll be recoverin’ from the wreckage.”

Miyo paused for a minute, gaze seeming focused inward and a drawn, tight look across her face. Finally, two tears rolling down her cheeks, she said, “You are right, Ranma, but not as much as you think. Yes, the Japanese are tough, but the problem with the Dying isn’t a matter of toughness, but of too many people on a few islands without enough food to support even a tithe of them for long. The Emperor’s people got him and his family out to one of the smaller islands with enough food to last them through the dying time and long enough to get crops in and harvested, but ... even for the survivors on the smaller islands and in the few places up in the mountains fortified well enough to hold off the starving hordes and with enough food to last long enough to get a crop in — monasteries, mostly — how many know how to grow those crops, without machines? And of those that do know, how many will survive the chaos? With the total deaths and loss of knowledge, for generations Japan is going to be reduced to the scattered fishing villages we first grew out of, united only by wandering tellers of tales and loyalty to a distant and never seen emperor. No, while there will be the occasional bandits, Japan won’t really need warriors of your capacity for generations, until the population has again grown large enough to make true unity a possibility. Meanwhile, the people here that have taken in as many refugees as they could — more, really; if the king in Caithness hadn’t responded by sending supplies we’d be facing starvation here as well — do need your skills, and will for many years.”

“An’ what about my curse?”

Miyo shrugged even as she wiped at her tear-tracks. “What about it? You’ve been helping train the Keldara for weeks, now. Has it caused any problems?”

“Nooo,” Ranma said slowly. “They were pretty weirded out when they first saw it, but most don’t have a problem now — other than feelin’ sorry for me,” he added with a grimace.

“And do they follow your orders?”

Ranma nodded. “Yeah, they know I got what they want.”

“So there you go,” Miyo said. “And your curse might even be a help when we start training the girls.”

Ranma nodded thoughtfully, and Miyo looked to the side at Akane, then Ukyo on Ranma’s other side with Konatsu beside her (in men’s clothing, as he had been dressing since their arrival). “And speaking of the girls, they, too, could use exemplars to test them, show them what women are capable of as they exercise to grow stronger, train with them when we teach them to use crossbows, knives and shortswords. Will you help?”

Ukyo and Akane glanced at each other across a suddenly sweating Ranma, then looked back at their former schoolmate. “Wherever Ranma goes, I go,” Ukyo said firmly. “If this is the best way I can help while staying with Ranma, I’m in.”

“But why do we have to be with the girls? Why can’t we join the men?” Akane growled. “I’m as good as any of them!”

“Yes, you are — better, actually,” Miyo agreed. “But they wouldn’t be comfortable with you in their ranks, not now, maybe not ever. And the girls will need inspiration — leadership — in the tasks they can accomplish, not in the tasks they will likely never do.”

Akane leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms and muttering to herself, and Miyo turned to Konatsu. “I don’t suppose I have to ask if you’ll join?” she said with an impish smile.

The seeming-girl, even in men’s clothes, chuckled lightly and shook his head. “No. Where Ukyo-sama goes, I go.”

Miyo nodded, and turned to look at Nodoka, then across at Kasumi. “An army needs more than soldiers to function — you could be a big help in supporting us, seeing to it that we have enough supplies, that meals are prepared, clothes tended to, whatever needs doing while freeing up the warriors to train. I know that neither of you could handle all that right now, not on this scale, but you can help — and learn.”

Glancing again at Tofu, she added, “As well, we will need people to see to the sick and wounded. It won’t be pleasant, but it is vital.” Looking back at the two women, Miyo continued, “Understand, this will be dangerous. Just because noncombatants don’t fight doesn’t mean they won’t be attacked — especially if things go wrong for the army they’re supporting, but sometimes not even then. Kasumi, did Taniguchi-san teach Shakespeare’s ‘Henry the 5th’ when you took his class?”

“Yes, he did,” Kasumi said.

“Remember the killing of the boys with the luggage?”

Kasumi nodded, then looked across the table at Nodoka. Nodoka gazed back for a long moment, then nodded. “Where my husband goes, I’ll go,” she said firmly, then shot a hard look at Genma when he stiffened. “I am not staying behind while you march away for months or years, not this time!” she asserted firmly, and Genma froze, mouth open.

After a moment, he slumped back in his chair. “Of course, dear,” he said. “A Saotome goes where he — or she — is needed!”

More chuckles echoed around the room, as Kasumi looked over at Tofu. “Tofu?” she asked softly.

He looked back for a long moment. “I will be joining, of course, even though I will have to find someone to teach me about the herbal remedies for our new home,” he said at last. “As a kampo, I will go where I’m needed. But do you really wish to join, Kasumi? It is going to be ugly, and as Miyo said, possibly dangerous.”

“Yes, it is what I wish,” Kasumi said calmly.

“Then, please come,” he replied. “I’ll continue to teach you what I know, though I’ll need to find someone that can teach me about the local herbs,” he added with a grimace.

Kasumi’s smile lit up the room.

I really hope she doesn’t regret that decision, Miyo thought worriedly as she turned to Sayuri and Yuka. The two girls were staring at her, wide-eyed. “Miyo, what happened to you?” Yuka asked in bewilderment. “I mean, I know you had a vision, but you’re so ... so ...”

“So calm, mature?” Miyo asked, smiling.

“So take-charge!” Sayuri supplied. “You’ve never been this outgoing, this ... forceful, before.”

Miyo shrugged. “I think I’m still riding the high from my vision,” she mused thoughtfully. “I told you all a lot of what I saw, but ... but not the intensity of it.”

“True,” Ku Lon agreed. “There is no way to describe the impact such visitations can have, it must be experienced.” The two girls glanced uncertainly at the Amazon elder, then hastily back to their school friend.

“I don’t think you’ll want to stay here when the rest of us move down into Caithness,” Miyo said. “You could always help Auntie Nodoka and Kasumi with managing our care and feeding, or ... you could join Akane and Ukyo.” The two girls were back to staring at her, and Miyo shrugged again. “You don’t have to decide right away, but soon. If all goes well when I talk to the Kildar, training will be starting in a few days at most.”

As the two girls started whispering to each other, Miyo turned to the middle Teno sister to find Nabiki watching her with a sardonic smile on her face. “So, are you going to call me to battle? Or to be a glorified laundress?” she asked.

Miyo gazed at her for a time, but Nabiki simply stared back, smile unwavering — until Miyo’s calm expression vanished into an impish grin. “Actually, considering the number of people that are going to ... object ... to our plans, I thought I could use an advisor. And who better than the Ice Queen?” Nabiki’s jaw dropped, and Miyo’s grin broadened. “Think about it,” she said, and as Nabiki’s face lit up with thoughtful excitement she turned to the final couple.

Ryoga and Akari had silently watched and now they waited, a grim expression on the Lost Boy’s face while Akari anxiously clutched at his hand.

Miyo studied the pair for a long moment, then sigh. “I’m going to ask something completely different of you two — and harder,” she said sadly. “Would you consider returning to Japan, to Akari’s farm? It would mean having to clean up the bodies in the area, harvesting crops in the area by hand, finding survivors to build a new community ... and almost certainly never seeing us again, or learning how things work out here.”

The room was silent for a moment as everyone digested what she’d said, then echoed to shouted questions and demands until Ku Lon bounced to the table top and shouted for silence. In the restored quiet, she turned to the young seer. “Explain, child. That doesn’t seem to match well with what you’ve been saying.”

“I know,” Miyo agreed, “but it isn’t the same situation. Tell me, Ryoga-kun, have you wondered why you are still here? Why you haven’t found yourself wandering the length and breadth of this new world?” she asked, turning to Ranma’s rival, and he nodded slowly. “It’s because of the nature of magic in this world,” she continued. “It works against magic that allows rapid movement — including the way you jump from place to place. So long as you stay here, you will stay here. Or at least, get from place to place the long way. However, that also means you won’t be bouncing around the world to where you are needed, and back at home there are many, many places where your help is needed.

“And for you, Akari,” she said, turning to the green-haired girl, “there are your pigs. There’s no way we can feed them here, Katsunishiki and the few others we brought already eat more than we can really afford, however useful they’ve been helping haul trees and clear land for more crops. But back home, keeping them fed should be no problem, if enough of the refugees choose to risk returning with you — and enough should. And in time, the cavalry those pigs can become will be invaluable to an emperor working to reunite the islands and rebuild our nation in truth instead of just name — if someone is there to gather them together again, train them in their new task, and present them to the court when it returns to the main island.”

She fell silent for a time, giving the couple a chance to consider her request, then added, “You will need to decide soon. The Cave of Worlds changes where it leads to from time to time, and that time will be within weeks, and you will need time to ask around and see which of the refugees will want to join you.

“And now,” she said, slumping back in her chair with a sigh of relief with her first task done, “Is there anything left to eat? I’m starving.”

Chapter Text

Ku Lon looked around from where she sat in the middle of the circle of symbols and lettering painted on the smooth rock of the mountain ledge the Amazon matriarch and her great-granddaughter had chosen for the ritual. It was an excellent location, high up the side of the mountain valley on the opposite side from the Cave of Worlds, so there was no chance of encountering the guards of the new door closing it off and less of random wanderers in the night stumbling across them. And with the tall, ancient pine trees screening the ledge from below, there was little chance of any late night wanderers seeing the flickering light of the lanterns lighting the ledge.

Noting that the lanterns were well placed away from the screening trees with no chance of accidentally starting a fire, she next checked that Xian Pu and Mu Tse were on guard as ordered and was pleased to see that they were actually acting as guards and not an audience, looking out into the night and not ruining their night vision by watching the lantern-lit ceremony — not that there would be anything to see, only a very old woman sitting in the middle of the circle with her eyes closed and her staff laid across her crossed legs.

Finally, Ku Lon carefully looked over the circle she and Xian Pu had created, checking for missed or misdrawn letters or symbols, and gave a satisfied nod. Xian Pu might at her young age be more interested in the arts of the warrior rather than those of the priestess, but she had at least learned her symbols properly. All was in order, and it was time to start.

The tiny crone closed her eyes, shutting out the outside world — the touch of the cool breeze on her skin, the smell of the pines, the sounds of the wind through the trees and the nighttime insects — as she focused her heart on her cry for aid even as she quietly chanted the ancient prayer of praise.

Suddenly, between one chanted verse and the next, her world changed. The cool night air was replaced by a soft warm breeze, the feel of sunlight on her face, and she opened her eyes to find herself sitting by a still artificial pool before a small stately, pillared temple made out of marble such as her ancestors had worshiped in centuries before, far from the home in the backwaters of China. Frescos of home and play, crafts and war, ran along the edge of the roof, gaily painted.

Standing, Ku Lon looked out across the vista revealed from the grassy hilltop the temple occupied, at the open fields and patches of woodland below, then ran her hands over her nude body. Yes, she was once again her long-lost height, her skin again smooth, her breasts again large and firm. Brushing her hair back as she knelt down by the pool, she examined her mirrored reflection in the still waters and smiled in delight at the sight of the unmarked face she’d had before her years as a warrior, and the scars they had brought — those scars had been badges of honor and symbols of victories won, but they had turned one of the loveliest faces in the history of the tribe (she fondly believed) into something ... much harder.

“Are you sure it’s me you want to speak with, and not Aphrodite?”

The voice came from behind her, and Ku Lon rose and turned to find what she expected. Standing in the entrance to the temple was a tall, imposing woman dressed in light flowing robes from her shoulders to her feet, belted at the waist and covered in the front by a light breastplate. On one bare arm she bore a shield with a lightning bolt on the front, in her other hand she held a long spear with the butt braced against a sandaled foot, and a golden old-style Greek helmet was tilted up on her forehead.

The young Ku Lon bowed deeply to the goddess. “There are a great many things for which I would seek the lovely Aphrodite’s company, but what brings me here tonight is not one of them. Thank you, Athena, for hearing my petition for advice.”

Athena stiffened, face clouding up, until she caught the urchin grin on Ku Lon’s face. Relaxing, the goddess shook her head with a chuckle. “You do enjoy living dangerously, don’t you?”

Ku Lon laughed. “What kind of Amazon would I be if I didn’t?” she asked lightly. “I may have grown old and exchanged my warrior’s sword for an elder’s staff, but I can still remember the exhilaration risk brings.”

“Yes, and there is something else I’m sure you remember,” Athena replied, voice going soft. Leaning the spear against a column, she slipped the shield off her arm and placed it beside the spear. Stepping forward to embrace her naked young/old companion, she pulled her into a deep, hungry kiss. “The couch is still in its usual place inside, or would you prefer the grass and the open sun?”

“Out here will be fine,” Ku Lon replied huskily, fingers working at the straps of the breastplate.

/\

An endless time later, a sweat-covered Ku Lon sighed as the echoes of pleasure again passed through her body. Beside her, an equally sweaty Athena sat up with a very satisfied smile on her face. “You have lost none of your skill since the last time you visited,” she remarked, stretching. Noticing the way Ku Lon’s eyes followed the interesting motions her stretch engendered, she laughed. “No, Ku Lon, as much as I would enjoy another round, the night is growing short in the world your body occupies. And considering which world that is I suspect we have much to cover. I do have to admit that I was surprised at where you were calling from.”

Ku Lon sighed regretfully, then sat up herself and looked out across the grassy hillside and the fields and copses beyond. “You know of Yrth?” she asked.

“Yes, some Olympians have worshippers here. There are some in the Megalan countryside, a debased form of the old religion that hid in the occasional backwater throughout western Europe, but most of them are in the cities of Megalos. Actually, Ares has the most, but they’re mostly common soldiers in the Megalan legions. Aphrodite has the next most, but they’re mostly bored rich and would-like-to-be rich women looking for a thrill. I like to think that my worshippers are of a higher caliber than the others.”

Ku Lon shook her head slightly, suppressing a chuckle. It isn’t hard to see where we Amazons get our egos, she thought, carefully keeping any hint of her ruminations off her face as she turned to face her goddess. “Good,” she said instead, “that means that I don’t have to give as much background as I thought I would.”

With as few words as possible, the Amazon matriarch explained how she had ended up in Yrth, the result of Miyo’s demand for answers, and the request the newly-minted seer had made of the three Amazons.

When she finished, Athena gazed into her eyes for a long moment, then turned to also turned to admire the view. “You’re tempted to take her up on it, aren’t you?” she idly asked.

“Of course I am,” Ku Lon replied instantly. “What Amazon wouldn’t? Miyo is going to be the center of one of the great epics in history, and the names of those closest to her are going to be repeated in stories for centuries. Perhaps as I am I cannot be spoken of with the fighting prowess of an Achilles or the cunning of an Odysseus, but certainly I can be remembered with the wisdom of a Mentor. As well, with their training, Xian Pu and Mu Tse will earn their place in the tales.

“But we Amazons learned long ago that personal glory earned at the expense of the tribe is no glory at all, and we have only Miyo’s word — or rather this Deborah’s word, given through Miyo — that the tribe is safe and not really in need of our services.

“And as well, there is this,” she added, waving at the landscape around them. “If I accept her offer, I will have to adapt what I know of the mystic arts to the Christian faith, and for that I will have to convert. And it will have to be a true conversion, the Christian saints and angels will most likely be as jealous as their God, and unwilling to answer one that only pretends at their faith. I would miss this ... miss you.”

Athena turned from the watching the landscape to smile softly at the young-seeming woman that she had known for centuries, intimately for much of that time. Then her smile turned into an urchin grin that very few were privileged to see on the normally serene goddess’s face. “What? Just because you convert, you can’t visit an old friend?” she asked impishly, then laughed at Ku Lon’s dumbstruck look. Finally sobering, she returned to her previous soft smile. “I mean it, Ku Lon, just because you may no longer be a worshipper, singing my praises, doesn’t mean you can’t still visit. And if you are no longer petitioning me for aid, you can still ask me for advice.

“Now, for what Deborah told Miyo, it is the truth — your tribe is as well off as it has ever been, and its future abruptly much brighter. When you throw your lot in with Miyo’s crusade, you need not fear an adverse impact on those you have left behind.”

Ku Lon sighed, seeming to shrink a little as she relaxed at the news, then cocked an eyebrow at her companion. “You are very confident in what my decision will be.”

“Of course I am! What other decision is possible for a follower of Olympus but to reach for the olive wreath, so long as her people are not injured? And now,” Athena added, her appreciative gaze roaming over the lovely nude woman sitting beside her, “I think we have enough time for one last round before you return to your charges, and your new cause.”

/\

Ku Lon opened her eyes to a brightening world, the lanterns long guttered out no longer necessary, the morning birdsong ringing through the woods. Sighing, she stood with the help of her staff and stretched, relaxing muscles stiffened from her hours sitting in one position, then turned to her two guards.

“Great-grandmother, were you with the goddess Athena? Did Miyo tell the truth?” an excited Xian Pu demanded even as she continued to scan the trees around them.

“Yes, child, I was, and she did. I will be staying, though you and Mu Tse will need to come to your own decision — I will not command in something this important. If you do choose to return to the tribe, I would suggest joining the Lost Boy in his wanderings — sooner or later he will pass by the village, and you will have less trouble with your cursed forms if he is with you. But more discussion will need to wait until after breakfast, let’s get this cleaned up so some woodsman doesn’t stumble across it and panic, and go home.”

Chapter Text

Sir Morgan sank into his favorite chair in his library, his guests following suit as his page circled a library now emptied of the overflow of books from the Dead Earth pouring wine for everyone. (The Kildar briefly hoped the delegation from King Thransiravst didn’t stay long — he liked being able to move about his sleeping chamber, and the piles of books now infesting it made that difficult.) The wine poured, Peredur bowed and left the room, and Sir Morgan knew his page would take UP his place in front of the closed door, making sure they were not disturbed — or spied on.

As he sipped what his steward insisted was a superior wine (Morgan wouldn’t know, his years as a sergeant of the Megalan legions hadn’t been conducive to furthering his education in wine snobbery), he glanced around at the room’s other inhabitants: Court Wizard Myrddin, Father Andre, and Captain Sindviral, the last pretending very well to be comfortable in the human-sized chair he had insisted on — no child’s chair for the proud dwarf! Firmly quashing a chuckle as he thought of stunts his soldiers had pulled just to show how tough they were, Morgan reflected that in the dwarf’s plain if well-made clothing, he didn’t much resemble the dwarven merchants that dropped in regularly (though moreso than he had when he’d arrived, in chain mail a king would have been proud to wear if it had fit, and his small but heavy battleax). But appearance wasn’t as reliable a marker of status among dwarves as humans, and Morgan reminded himself of the dwarvish saying King Conall told him when he’d accepted the post of Kildar: “If you can’t be skilled, be strong. If you can’t be strong, be rich.”

Morgan waited until the others had had a chance to enjoy their fermented grape juice before clearing his throat. “Captain Sindviral,” he said, “as always you are welcome in my hall, as are any of Thransiravst’s people passing through, but usually those dwarves that visit are merchants seeking to trade in what limited goods my people produce, and that in the fall after the harvest. Your arrival was ... unanticipated.”

Sindviral shrugged. “Yes, well, from what my scouts have been reporting over the past few weeks, it is doubtful that there will be any merchants this year. Considering all the effort going into clearing ground and planting crops, it is unlikely that you will have enough of the usual woodwork to make a visit worthwhile, and none of the food — considering all the additional mouths you have to feed, now.” He grinned when Morgan stiffened. “You didn’t know you were being watched? Good, it means they were doing it right. We’ve been using your people for training our scouts for almost as long as we’ve known of them — the Keldara are perfect, country people with a feel for the rhythm of the land, but farmers rather than woodsmen. They make excellent practice for beginners.”

“You know, all those new mouths aren’t actually a violation of the agreement the kings agreed upon, almost two centuries ago,” Myrddin said nonchalantly from where he sat to the side, and Morgan gratefully relaxed back into his chair as Sindviral turned to Caithness’s Court Wizard.

“How so?” the dwarf asked. “It seems straightforward enough. We would permit the king of the new kingdom of Caithness to appoint a Kildar as the Keldara requested, in spite of this land being within Thranel’s boundaries — the Keldara had been here for centuries before we found them living here, much less centuries before the lowland orcs were cleared out and your kingdom was founded, and we were happy to trade with them for surface goods that we prefer not to produce ourselves. But in return, your king agreed that he would not claim overlordship over the Keldara, permit any wizard to live here, or send additional settlers up into these valleys.”

“True,” Myrddin acknowledged, “and King Conall holds to that agreement. I am not here to take advantage of the stronger currents of magic, and will be leaving soon enough. As for all the new settlers, they are not from Caithness.”

Sindviral’s gaze sharpened, but he slowly nodded. “I would like to believe you,” he said, “and that would actually fit what the scouts reported — a large number of new mouths, but no signs of travel on the road up to the valley. But they had to come from somewhere, there have been none of the signs of a banestorm, and we know they didn’t come over the mountains even if that had been possible with the winter snows. So where did they come from?”

“From the same place as all other humans, and they got here the same way the Keldara did, those centuries before you found them,” Myrddin replied. He paused in thought for a long moment, then reluctantly filled in the dwarf on the existence of the Cave of Worlds, and what had brought on the flood of refugees from the human homeworld.

Sindviral frowned thoughtfully as he mulled over what he’d been told. “A sad tale, if true — and no, I do not doubt its truthfulness,” he hastily added, raising a hand. “But I will still need to verify it before I return to my king, so that I can tell him that I saw with my own eyes. But what do you intend to do with them? They may not be a violation of the agreement, but neither are they covered by it. They cannot remain here on Thranelese land.”

“No, they can’t, nor do I suspect most of them want to — these mountain valleys would be colder and drier than what they are used to. But there are problems with moving them out right away, as well. Things are ... unsettled, down in Caithness.”

“That is true,” Sindviral agreed, straightening, “but it is also your affair, not ours. I can’t speak for my king, but I am sure that he will insist that they be gone as soon as the crops they are planting are harvested.”

Myrddin leaned back, searching for an argument that might convince the dwarves to allow the refugees to stay, where they wouldn’t come to the attention of the Anti-Gunpowder Conspiracy. The wizards scattered throughout the realm on the few pieces of land where magic was known to flow at its normal strength had so far stayed mostly neutral in the civil war tearing it apart, but word of the arrival of this many newcomers with possibly dangerous knowledge could bring some of them, at least, out of their towers — and on the wrong side, if they thought the king was trying to keep the newcomers away from them.

The wizard glanced over at Father Andre, but quickly dismissed any possibility of help there. The dwarves were serious about honesty and keeping agreements, but there was little to no universalism in their worldview — there were dwarves, and there was everyone else, and what happened to everyone else concerned them not at all. No, any appeal to mercy that the good priest might make would fall on deaf ears; Sindviral was likely to simply respond that it was not the place of dwarves to interfere with the crucible needed to lift others to the Eternal, and that Eternal was too impersonal for an appeal to divine judgment to work.

There was a knock on the door, and Myrddin looked toward it in carefully hidden relief even as Morgan jerked angrily to his feet.

Striding to the door, the Kildar yanked it open and snarled “I thought I gave orders that we were not —” He abruptly broke off his rebuke at the sight Nabiki and another of the first refugees — the grief-stricken girl whose name he couldn’t remember, except that burden of grief seemed to be missing — standing behind his pale and sweating page.

“I-I-I’m sorry to disturb you, my Lord,” Peredur stammered, “but they insisted that they needed to see you and your guests immediately, that it has to do with what you are discussing.”

Morgan quirked an eyebrow at Myrddin, who nodded back, and Morgan turned back to his page. “You did well, Peredur,” he reassured him, and the boy sagged a bit in relief. “Now find a couple of chairs ...” He turned and surveyed the library, then continued, “No, make it stools, chairs won’t fit.”

Peredur nodded and scurried away, and Morgan stepped back and motioned for the two girls to enter. The two stepped in and looked around, Nabiki’s eyebrows rising at the absence of the stacks of books that she had been reading from the previous day. “Maid Nabiki, Maid ... I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name.”

“Miyo,” she replied. She glanced over at Father Andre, to find him sitting bolt upright, staring at her.

“Miyo, what —” he began, then broke off to collect himself. “Child, you received an answer to your questions?”

She nodded calmly, fighting to hide her nervousness. “Yes, I did, and more — much more.”

The priest stared in shock at the sound of the modern version of French that his ancestors had brought with them four hundred and fifty years before in the last massive banestorm, then eased himself back into his chair, puffing out a relieved breath. “That is good to hear. The results of such questions as you were demanding are not always ... positive,” he replied in kind. “What hap — ? But that is for later.”

Switching back to Anglic, he continued, “So what do you and Nabiki have, that needs all four of us now?”

Also switching to the Kildar’s Megalan-accented Anglic, Miyo said, “Actually, I will need to tell you what happened to me to explain why we’re here.”

Taking a deep breath, she paused as Peredur reentered the room with a pair of stools. Myrddin and Father Andre hastily rose to their feet, offering their chairs to the girls and taking the stools. Sitting down stiffly upright, Miyo waited until the page had again left the room, then took another deep breath, clasping her hands together to keep them from shaking. “Father Andre can tell you that I have spent what time wasn’t necessary for work, eating or sleep in the chapel praying to know why my world, and my family with it, were destroyed,” she started. “Last night, I received an answer....”

/\

Miyo finished her story yet again to complete silence. For a time the men simply stared at her, until Sindviral finally stirred. “An incredible story,” he said. “I have heard the stories of Ascended that have separated themselves from the Eternal to provide guidance for those left behind, but never thought I would meet someone that has been so visited. But other than the warning it offers about greed and hubris, I do not see what war among the lowland surface dwellers has to do with the situation here. As sad as it is, it is none of our concern.”

“For us, it is simple enough — better a broken ax than a bent knee,” Miyo responded, and Sindviral started at the dwarvish proverb spoken in his native tongue, clear and without accent. Switching back to Anglish, she continued, “For you, it is also simple — would you rather have Caithness for a neighbor, or Megalos? Megalos, with all its corruption, drive to conquer, and religious fanatics? Because if the future isn’t changed, that is what you will have.”

Sindviral gazed thoughtfully at the teenage girl, then said, “So your Deborah asks that the dwarves march to war in your defense?”

“No, we don’t,” Nabiki replied from where she sat beside Miyo. Miyo glanced over gratefully at the other girl, then slumped back with a faint sigh of relief. “Miyo’s vision included a fairly extensive briefing — much more than the impression I got of what prophets normally see from what little I’ve read of the Bible,” Nabiki continued, glancing wryly at Father Andre, then focusing again on Sindviral and the Kildar, “but perhaps that was because of how ignorant we newcomers are of what’s going on. After Miyo came home last night, we spent much of the evening discussing it.

“We decided that what is needed to break the stalemate in Caithness without bleeding the kingdom white and letting Megalos just walk in are more soldiers, with a new way of fighting — lightly armored and armed with long spears, with crossbowmen for skirmishers. We have all the people we need right here in the Keldara, but they need training and equipment. Sergeant Morgan can provide the training” — she smiled wryly at the Kildar — “if we have the equipment and enough food that the trainees won’t be spending all their time in the fields. Thranel can supply both.”

“I see.” Sindviral sat silently for a time, deep in thought, then nodded. “I certainly don’t have the authority to make such a decision myself, and even if I did I would want to consult the elders of the clan, but I will take word of your request to the king. But for that I’m going to need specifics. Just what kind of armor are you referring to, what kind of weapons, and especially just how large of a force are you considering....?”

/\

Miyo glanced away from Myrddin’s interrogation of her and Nabiki about recent Earth history toward the library door as Sir Morgan stepped back inside the library from seeing off the dwarves, Peredur closing the door behind him as the page again took up guard to protect their privacy. So intent was Myrddin on his pursuit that he hadn’t noticed the Kildar’s return — or the pinched, drawn expressions on the faces of the girls he was questioning.

“Enough, your Honor,” Sir Morgan said firmly as he took his seat. When Myrddin looked up, he added, “Later, when we don’t have the here and now to worry about.” And when they’ve had more time to heal. “Now that Captain Sindviral and his people have left, I have some questions I couldn’t ask while he was listening.”

Myrddin paused, then nodded and settled back, oblivious to the grateful looks Miyo, Nabiki and Father Andre gave to Sir Morgan. “You are correct, we have more immediate concerns than satisfying my curiosity,” the Court Wizard admitted with a sigh, then looked back at the girls. “As the Kildar says, I wasn’t about to ask while Captain Sindviral was here, but can a few hundreds of lightly armored footmen with nothing but spears and crossbows make that much of a difference?”

“Properly trained, they can, if they have the courage to resist a cavalry charge,” Sir Morgan said. “If that’s the case, they will rule any ground they stand on — Nabiki and I were just reading yesterday before you arrived about ... was it the Swiss pikes?” He glanced at Nabiki and she nodded. “Of course, that’s in Caithness. Anywhere that magic flows at its normal pace, they would have to deal somehow with war wizards. The Megalan legions especially would be a problem, with the way that war wizards are integrated into the ranks.

“My own concerns are different,” he continued, turning to Miyo. “You can’t carry spears of that length up siege ladders, so they’d be armed with their daggers and wearing no armor but their helmets — it would be a slaughter. It won’t do us any good to beat the rebels in the field if they simply fall back into their castles and wait until Megalos comes to their rescue.

“And where will all these men come from? All the able-bodied men the Keldara can provide could just fill the numbers you gave Captain Sindviral for pikes, but what about the crossbowmen? You aren’t thinking of using young boys and old men for skirmishers?”

“No, we aren’t,” Nabiki replied, then grinned. “Actually, we’re planning to call all the fit, young maidens to arms for the skirmishers.” Her grin turned into a sharp laugh at the stunned expressions on the faces of the three men, and even Miyo chuckled. “Didn’t think of that, did you? I imagine that neither will the rebels.”

“I ... no, I didn’t, but ...” Sir Morgan stammered out. “Father Andre?”

The priest gazed at Miyo for a long moment, then nodded. “So that is why it was Deborah that visited you rather than one of the saints,” he murmured, then glanced at Nabiki. “And you are the one chosen to be Aaron to her Moses?”

At the girls’ blank expression, he chuckled and tried again. “You are chosen to be her spokeswoman?”

The two girls exchanged glances, and after a moment Miyo said, “Sort of ... I was told where we need to go, but not exactly how to get there. Nabiki is ... one of my advisers. Also, she’s better at bargaining than I am.”

“I see. Child, did your visitation come inside the church?” Miyo nodded, and the stout priest turned to the Kildar. “If one of the prophets calls the young women to battle in our extreme need, who is a humble priest to argue? But the Keldara will most likely feel differently, and they are ... not as firm in the Faith as I would like,” he continued, turning to Nabiki. “Will they be willing to allow their young maidens to serve?”

“That will be my job,” Miyo responded firmly, trying not to shake at the thought ... she was not looking forward to meeting with the Keldaran elders.

“So, assuming the Keldara agree to go to war, will that be enough?” Myrddin asked Morgan. “You said something about sieges.”

“Yes, I did. There isn’t much point in bringing more men ... people ... to battle if they die uselessly — which they will if they try to storm a castle’s walls. And we will have to do just that for this to work. Wherever we attack, we need to succeed quickly to so that the rebels won’t have time to react.”

As well,” Myrddin added, “a surprise attack on one of the rebel nobles, even if successful, is likely to simply stiffen the spine of those that remain and have them call for Megalan aid — we need something to bring at least some of them to our side voluntarily, to strengthen our numbers.”

Nabiki grinned. “Well, for storming castles, how would you like to have some people that can leap to the top of castle walls and fight well enough with their bare hands once there to clear those walls while regular troops charge forward with siege ladders?”

The three men stared at Nabiki, dumbfounded. I think I may be hitting my limit on the number of shocks for one day, Myrddin thought. “But magic doesn’t work on Earth, how did they learn?” he demanded.

“It isn’t magic, it’s ki,” Nabiki replied with a shrug. Then seeing the men’s blank looks, added, “Life energy. It’ll work wherever people can live.”

Myrddin and Sir Morgan exchanged glances, hard grins spreading across their faces. “So even where magic doesn’t work ...” Myrddin began. “... we have our battle wizards,” Morgan finished. “Oh, yes, that’ll make a difference!”

“As for convincing some of the rebel nobles to switch back,” Nabiki continued, “from what Miyo was told they seem to fall into three groups—those that have actually broken the laws of the kingdom and will be deposed if they lose, those that actually think the king is growing too powerful, and those that simply don’t trust him. So what if we aim at the ones that don’t trust him, give them a reason to give him another chance? What we came up with —”

“What you came up with,” Miyo murmured.

“— is that King Conall announces the creation of two new Grand Councils, one made up of the kingdom’s nobles or their appointed surrogates, and the other made up of the common people’s chosen representatives, for the purpose of giving him advice on the direction of the kingdom. If he also publicly swears not to change or repeal any laws or create new ones until the Grand Councils have had the chance to give their advice, do you think that would satisfy the ones that don’t trust him?”

Myrddin gazed at Nabiki, brow furrowed. There was something in what she’d said that was teasing at his memory — as a teenaged geek in the 1950s he had been in love with the King Arthur myths and nothing like that was to be found in them, but he had heard about advisory councils to kings somewhere.... Wait, wasn’t that how the English legislature got its start? Is she really thinking that far ahead? It did take centuries for the ... the Parliament ... to eventually become a real democracy. But do the in charge of suppressing dangerous knowledge in Megalos know that? Not that it matters, they’re coming sooner or later, regardless.

Finally, he nodded. “Your ideas have merit, though of course it will depend on whether King Thransiravst agrees to equip our new soldiers and feed their families. Hopefully, he will decide quickly, I can’t stay for long — I’ll need to return to King Conall with word of what is happening here along with your suggestions.”

“Why wait?” Nabiki asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Aren’t you a wizard? I’d think you could just, I don’t know, warm up your crystal ball and talk to him.”

Myrddin chuckled, shaking his head. “If only it were that simple. Actually, I can use a crystal ball to whistle up Carrick Town. However, only wizards can use crystal balls, so I’d have to speak with another wizard who’d pass on what I say to the king. As well, anyone who knows that a long-distance conference is going on can join it — or just listen in. Considering what’s at stake, I’d rather not risk Megalos having a spy in the capital listening in.”

Nabiki made a face. “Right, let’s not.”

Myrddin’s chuckle turned into a laugh, and he turned to the Kildar. “So, Sir Morgan, why don’t you show me the books you collected from Earth, especially what they have to say about the Swiss pike?”

Chapter Text

Normally, Nabiki would have found Castle Carrick impressive, for a medieval-style fortification. All the stone construction certainly had a more ... solid ... feel than the fortresses from Japan’s comparative era, like a solid block thrust into the landscape with none of the grace of Japanese architecture, and the fact that both it and the supporting Carrick Town had been occupied and the royal holding of Caithness for almost two centuries rather than the two plus decades of the town of Tacitus made it the largest city she’d seen so far — it might even have a couple tens of thousands of inhabitants.

Unfortunately, Myrddin had decided to stay with the Kildar long enough to give King Thransiravst a little time, at least, to decide whether to aid Caithness — as well as to see at least the initial reaction of the Keldara to their call to arms from Miyo-chan. As a result, by the time the Court Wizard had felt it time to make the cold (if not as cold as a few weeks earlier), wet, muddy journey back down the mountain trails to Caithness, the barges he’d hoped to use to travel from Tacitus to Castle Town were gone, headed back for more food to replace what Baron Elohar had sent to the refugees and their Keldara hosts. Myrddin had decided not to wait for the river transport to return with the food, and now Nabiki was one solid bar of pain from her buttocks and inner thighs straight up her back after long, hard days in the saddle pushing from dawn to dusk as fast as they could without foundering the horses. It had been the roughest two weeks in her life.

Still sitting on her horse in the castle courtyard waiting for one of men-at-arms that had traveled with them to help her down (she absolutely was not going to try to dismount herself), she watched as the Court Wizard mounted the steps up to the castle’s massive front door to greet a well-dressed couple (even possibly luxuriously-dressed, though she hadn’t seen enough of this world, yet, to be sure). The man had a gold circlet on his head, so he was probably King Conall, but in all conversations with Myrddin about the local situation during the nights she’d spent talking with Myrddin’s tent on their trip as his latest purported mistress he’d never mentioned a queen. (One good thing about what the pace of the travel had done to her, the men traveling with them hadn’t been surprised that talk and sleep had been the only use they’d put the tent to.)

King and woman greeted the returning advisor; the king warmly, the woman less so but not merely politely, and Nabiki frowned as she watched the body language on display as the three conversed. The sexes were switched around, but the dynamics were all too familiar — the king was in love with the woman, and not only did she not return it, she was either oblivious or very good at ignoring it. At least there’s likely to just be the two of them, nobody could match Ranma that way, right?

Then one of the men-at-arms was beside her, reaching up to her. “Let’s get you inside and into a hot bath, soak the soreness out of you a bit,” he said sympathetically — at least, that’s what she thought he said. She’d been trying to distract herself from the pain on their journey by practicing the Anglic spoken in Caithness, but was nowhere close to what she’d consider proficient. Lyon lifted her down, and she fought back a gasp and clutched at the man-at-arms when her fiercely aching legs refused to support her. He chuckled and swept her up in his arms and strode toward the castle.

One advantage to pretending to be Myrddin’s latest mistress, I’ll be able to take more time resting on my back before meeting anyone, she thought, suppressing a grimace at her less than sweeping introduction to the castle folk. Myrddin had assured her that his reputation for selecting mistresses as much for their exotic knowledge as their appearance would provide the perfect cover for adding her to his entourage, but she hadn’t been exactly thrilled with the idea and it was nice to find another upside to it.

As Lyon carried her through the halls toward the Court Wizard’s suite, she wondered for a moment how things were going with her family and the rest of the refugees back in the mountains in the weeks she’d been gone. The kami — or whoever — be with them, she thought, shivering a little as she remembered the meeting with the Keldara elders.

/oOo\

Akane turned around on the road (trail, really) to jog backward at an easy pace. “Everyone, pick up the pace when I say, and we’ll call it a day once we reach the lower watch point and get back up to the keep instead of going another two rounds. Miyo, pass the word to the Keldara.”

Miyo, face streaked with sweat and staggering just a bit, jerked her head in a nod, then called out what Akane assumed was what she’d just asked her to pass on. Akane again turned to jog forward, waited a moment, then shouted, “Now!” and broke into a trot. At that the rest of the girls and a few boys unfortunate enough to be too small for the pikes, Japanese and Keldara alike and just as sweat-soaked and weary as Miyo — except Kuonji-san and Konatsu-kun, of course — somehow pushed themselves into a shambling trot, crossbows and quivers full of quarrels on their backs bouncing against the stiffened leather armor they all wore.

Good enough, I guess. Akane thought, trying to keep from grimacing. She still wasn’t exactly happy with the way the training duties had been divided into endurance and fitness for her and basic hand-to-hand for Ukyo. True, Ukyo had proven able to beat her regularly when they sparred under Ranma’s tutelage (though she was having to work harder for it). But, considering the complete lack of training any of the girls they were teaching had, that wasn’t an issue. Rather, even Akane had to admit, if only to herself, that Ukyo simply had both more patience and a better grasp of how to pass on what she knew to a beginner.

At least Shampoo’s gone. She smirked as she thought of her former rival — arguably the most skilled of the fiancées, certainly the most beautiful, definitely the most dangerous, with her great-grandmother backing her up, and in the end undone by her inability to master other languages. Ultimately, she had decided to return to Japan with Ryoga and Akari, and of course Mousse went with her. But that thought wiped the smile from Akane’s face. She hadn’t known Akari all that well, but she was going to miss Ryoga — a lot.

Glancing up at the sun, the only clock most people in her new world seemed to have, she decided that they’d made good enough time that she could justify a little target practice at the firing range the Kildar had ordered set up down by the watch post before returning to the keep. It would give them some experience shooting when worn out, and incidentally give them a chance to catch their breath. That way, they’d actually be able to return to the keep at an uphill trot and she wouldn’t have to carry through with her threatened additional rounds.

Then, most of them could get back to their home duties, she and her friends (and Ukyo and Konatsu) could get in some training with Ranma, and Miyo could get in some more Bible study with Father Andre. (That last seemed a bit backwards to her, shouldn’t the study take place before the baptism, not after? But apparently Christians had no problem with it, and she had to admit that the solemn ceremony had had a feeling of ... peace? serenity? acceptance? ... that she’d felt at shrines back home, even if she hadn’t understood a word.)

A shout jarred the raven-haired girl from her reverie, and Akane focused down the hill, to see a young Keldara boy running rapidly up the road toward them ... one of three she’d seen at the watch outpost the first couple of times her trainees had reached it in their run that day. She smiled ruefully at the sight. Someone must have really read those boys the riot act — sure, it was their job to report anyone approaching up the mountain valley to the Kildar, but at the speed he was running, he’d be so out of breath by the time he got to the keep that he wouldn’t be able to report to anybody.

Then as the boy reached her, and stopped to grab her arm and gabble something, waving down the valley. And it wasn’t a happy gabble, either....

“Miyo, get up here! What’s he saying?” she called back as the girls behind her came to a stop.

The newly-minted prophetess stepped forward. “He says there’s a lot of armed ... nonhumans coming up the road. He thinks they’re orcs.”

“What are orcs?”

“A nasty nonhuman race that lives across the desert that lies on Caithness’s western border. They’re the ones that used to live in Caithness, before human settlers drove them across the desert to join the rest a few centuries back.”

“Any chance they’re friendly?” Ukyo asked.

Miyo shook her head. “Not from what Father Andre said. You’ll find the occasional orc mercenary or two in human lands, even some Christian converts, but if it’s an entire band they’ll almost certainly be raiders.”

Ukyo nodded. “Right, let’s get back up to the keep.”

“But we’re supposed to be skirmishers, slow down the enemy while the men come up,” Akane protested.

“With the crossbows, keeping away from the infantry,” Ukyo replied. “That means we need to be able to hide behind the men or run away, instead of fighting up close. I don’t see the men around; and as for running away, we’ve already been down to the watch post and back twice. The girls are exhausted, and the orcs probably aren’t.”

Looking over her people — sweat pouring down their faces, trembling and not just from fear — Akane reluctantly decided Ukyo had a point. Turning to the boy, she said in what Anglic she had managed to pick up, “Go, tell Kildar, tell Ranma. We behind you.”

The boy nodded and took off up the road. The rest followed as quickly as their exhaustion allowed, Akane, Ukyo and Konatsu keeping at the rear to make sure none of the others got left behind. Akane found herself searching the crowd in front of her, and relaxed a bit as she found Yuka and Sayuri at about the middle of the pack. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about their decision to join, especially now....

Raiders! Miyo said raiders! Oh, shit! Akane grabbed Ukyo’s shoulder and pulled her to a stop as bits and pieces of the tactics the Kildar had been teaching the new battle-leaders-to-be, when they were able to squeeze in a few moments, swirled about in her head. “Ukyo, Miyo said they’re raiders! When they get up the valley, they aren’t going to bother with Ranma’s pikes, they’ll break up and go after the settlements! The Keldara might be able to fight back some and their houses are the next thing to mini-fortresses, but all our people are helpless, out in the open, they’ll be slaughtered! We can’t let the orcs get that far.”

Ukyo stared at her, face suddenly pale. “Oh, crap, you’re right!” She looked the few yards up the road where the rest had stumbled to a halt. “But we can’t stop them, they’ll just roll over us and keep going.”

“We have to at least try!” Akane insisted. “Listen, Ranma will be bringing the pikes down to meet us, he’ll want to keep the orcs as far from the settlements as he can. If we can find a good place to hold them back for just a little bit, we can send someone to tell him where, and to hurry.”

Ukyo stared at her for a moment, then looked back down the road twisting down the mountain valley. There wasn’t anyone visible yet, but some birds started up from the trees at the edge of sight where the valley curved. Taking a deep breath, she nodded. “The Pillars,” she said. “I can chop down a tree on each side, give us a low wall. You, me, Konatsu in the middle, others with crossbows to each side, we should be able to hold for awhile.”

“Good idea,” Akane agreed, and looked up at the others. “Miyo, did you hear all that?” A pale Miyo nodded, and she continued, “Run up to Ranma as fast as you can, let him know.”

“Why me?”

“Because we can’t afford to lose you. Come back with Ranma if you have to, but keep safe,” Ukyo ordered.

“But what about communication? Nobody here except me is exactly fluent in Anglic.”

“Damn! You’re right.”

Akane and Ukyo exchanged glances, and finally Ukyo shrugged. “Sayuri, you’re one of the fastest here, you go instead, give me your crossbow. Hrefna, you too, go with her.”

Miyo quickly explained what was going on to the Keldara, and the two girls handed Ukyo their crossbows and quivers and resumed their run as fast as they could go.

“Everyone, to the Pillars, now!” Akane called in Anglic, and the crowd again resumed its slow run up the road.

Chapter Text

Grishnak grinned broadly, baring oversized canines as he strode up the trail that snaked down the mountain valley at the center of his warband (and his more trusted lieutenants — now would be a bad time to take a knife in the back). They were almost to their new home!

What’s left of us.

His grin vanished at the thought. When he had left the tribe in the middle of the night to cross the Great Desert seeking a new home, not as many had followed him as he had hoped. And all the forks and grubs had died of thirst and starvation in the crossing — all he had left were warriors. And very frustrated warriors, at that — the discipline needed to avoid raiding human farms and villages they’d passed by since leaving the desert on the way to the mountain valley his grandfather had told him about had led to a few impromptu beheadings.

Okay, there may only be warriors, but there will be enough to take the valley — it’s been so many generations since the People were driven out of our lands on this side of the Great Desert, the humans here must have become soft, weak. Once we’ve conquered them, they’ll supply the slaves we need, and the forks for producing more spawn. The forks will be human so the spawn won’t be as tough, but they’ll be tough enough. And at least we’ll be living as true orcs should — no dueling circles, and dueling only when not injured or sick, or pregnant, no forks getting above their place, no giving weaklings special place just because of what they know or can do! Let them accept their places as breeders and slaves — they’re supposed to serve us, not us them.

Certainly, the new ways Karlag and his friends and kin had introduced had enabled them to drive the human invaders out of their stronghold at the edge of the last bastion of the People, back across the Great Desert to where they’d come from four generations back, but where was the glory in winning if one was just one more slave-in-all-but-name following whatever orders one received? And then to keep to the new weakling ways after victory was won....

A shout from the front of the band interrupted Grishnak’s thoughts, and the mob bunched up as it came to a halt. Forcing his jaw to unclench, Grishnak motioned for his lieutenants to force a way through the crowd to the front, and his eyes widened. Ahead the valley narrowed for several hundred yards until the trail passed through a notch between sheer cliffs, the opening about ten yards wide. The length of the notch was short before apparently opening out again, perhaps fifty, sixty yards? It certainly wasn’t like anything he’d seen in the arid steppes, scattered woods, and low rocky hills of home.

But what had gotten the attention of the orcs at the front of the band was the massive pine tree that had been cut down across the notch, with all the branches along the top cut away leaving the branches facing forward — and the figures behind it. Even as the warband spread out behind him, Grishnak squinted as he stared, then grinned. Humans, undoubtedly quaking in their boots, hoping this pitiful show of force would scare off him and his band and praying for their weakling gods to save them. They hadn’t at Castle Defiant, and they wouldn’t here. And ... were they forks?

“Come on, boys, time to introduce ourselves to the first of our new slaves!” he shouted, swinging his shield around from off his back and pulling his sword from its sheath, his lieutenants following suit as they fell in alongside him (as well as behind, no point in risking an ambitious knife). With a guttural shout, he strode forward, the mass of orcs behind him following suit. He doubted they’d actually be able to catch them, with the forks not wearing armor or carrying weapons, and fear to give them strength in their flight. Just as well — while his warriors were a bit hungry and nothing put fear in new slaves like eating a few of them, he had a better use for forks than a meal. No, that object lesson would be reserved for the males that were bound to object when their women were hauled off to warm the orcs’ beds.

As they strode forward, a few crossbow bolts came to meet them. Then a few more. And a few seconds later, some more. One bolt slammed into his shield, piercing through above his arm and scratching his ill-fitting but prized mail shirt. But few of his men had anything but hardened leather, and not many more had shields of any kind, and orcs were falling. The valley was narrowing, the sides getting steeper, and they were getting pushed together. Some had already tripped and were being trampled by those behind them.

Crossbow bolts continued to slam into the front of the horde, and beside him Krishig stumbled, Grishnak’s best friend and right hand for years (and one of the best armed and armored of the warband) going down with a bolt sticking out from between his eyes.

Enough! Grishnak broke into a full-out charge toward the fleas killing the men he was going to need, bellowing his war cry. His lieutenants and then the rest followed his lead, the slight delay spreading his men out a little in the narrowing confines. Another of his lieutenants went down and a bolt glanced off his helmet, and then he was forcing his way through the branches toward the tree trunk, yanking on his shield when it was caught by the branches — and a small fork appeared on top of the trunk in front of him, wearing good leather armor and with a large, oddly shaped, red glowing hammer in her hands, screaming like a banshee. One lightning-fast blow smashed into his sword arm and his sword went spinning away as the bones in his forearm snapped like twigs. Gritting his teeth against a shriek of pain, Grishnak yanked his shield free of the branches it had caught on, but even as he started to lift it the fork’s hammer looped up and around with the same impossible speed, and the last thing he saw was the hammer’s red glow coming down straight down at his upturned face.

/\

Standing behind the pine tree that Ukyo had cut down and from which she’d sheered the top branches and the ones on their side, Akane glanced anxiously around her at the girls and few boys she’d been helping train. They were pale, some of them shaking, and the faint stench from the results of the few that had lost their last meals hung in the air. But they all stood firmly in the five lines she and Ukyo had ordered them into, crossbows strung, waiting in silence, and Akane suddenly realized that she was proud of them. They had not been raised for this, the Japanese no more than the Keldara, but none of them had hesitated when ordered to stop, much less kept running. My people.

“Here they come.” Ukyo’s resigned voice pulled Akane’s attention around, back down the valley, and she blanched at the sight of the squat figures bunching up several hundred yards down the valley where they’d come into sight from around a twist in the trail, where the trees pulled away toward the valley’s sides. Details weren’t easy to make out at that distance, but she thought she could feel the stench of gleeful malevolence even at that distance. So soon. Ukyo should have stayed behind, cut down trees up the trail, slowed them down. There would have been plenty of time for her to set up the barricades.

Then they were again marching forward, throwing guttural bellows at the scouts behind the tree.

“Ready!”

At Ukyo’s shout, the five girls at the head of the line raised their crossbows, making sure the bolts were securely in their grooves, picked targets.

A few seconds later, “Fire!”

Five bolts flashed down toward the approaching impossible to miss uncountable mob, and the girls stepped to the side and hurried to the back of the lines as those behind them (along with one boy) stepped forward. At Ukyo’s shouted orders another five bolts flashed downrange, were replaced by the next five. She could see men — orcs — falling. Another five, and Akane’s fists clenched as the ugliest “men” she’d ever seen bellowed even louder than before and broke into a run straight at her — her people. They were dying, she could see them dying, falling to the crossbow bolts, stumbling and getting trampled as the valley narrowed, why didn’t they stop?

And then they were there, dark-skinned, hairy, bared teeth showing massive canines, waving swords, axes, hammers, clubs. “Fall back!” Akane shouted, and her following scream threw her defiance at the attackers as the Hammer flashed into existence and she leaped to the top of the barricade, barely aware of Ukyo and Konatsu following suit to each side. She knocked aside a sword, felt the crunch shiver up her arms as her follow-on strike smashed into a rage-twisted face and he dropped like a puppet with cut strings. A collarbone, shattered. An axe, torn from the grasp of itswielder. A leather-covered chest, crushed....

Then suddenly Ukyo was beside her. “Akane, fall back, our people are back, go!”

Akane glanced around to find the three of them alone, Konatsu’s wakizashi leaving a trail of red in the air as an orc behind them fell to the side. Orcs out of reach of the girls were clambering over the tree trunk, several falling backward as bolts slammed into them, one dropping forward limply — to land beside a slender, blonde girl, her blue eyes staring sightlessly up at the sky, her chest covered with blood.

Akane froze in horror, hammer vanishing, the world suddenly going hazy, unreal even as Ukyo’s battle spatula took off an orc’s axe-wielding hands at the wrists. Ukyo glanced down, sighed, and grabbed Akane and threw her over her shoulder even as she dropped to the ground inside the notch and raced past Konatsu. “Kon-chan, come on!” she shouted even as she beheaded an orc from behind and charged toward the second tree she’d dropped, on the other side of the notch. Already there were orc bodies scattered throughout the narrow confines of the notch, and a more ahead of her dropped even as several crossbow bolts zipped past her.

Staring ahead of the three Akane’s eyes widened, her fog of unreality shivering at the sight of Miyo and one of the Japanese boys helping lift a Keldara girl clutching a blood-drenched leg over the large tree trunk denuded of its branches lying across the high end of the notch. In front of them, a Keldara boy and girl and a couple of Japanese girls were crouching with shortswords in hand while more bolts flashed past from the other side of the tree trunk.

Then Ukyo and Konatsu leaped, clearing the improvised barricade, the girls immediately behind it, the lines behind the first in line breaking up as the girls scattered, and with the jolt of the landing Akane’s world abruptly came snapped back into focus. Even as she started struggling against the arms holding her, Ukyo was shouting for the scouts inside the notch to be pulled to safety as she swung Akane to her feet.

As treesap-smeared girls and boy were pulled up over the barricade and the lines reformed, the kunoichi and two martial artists rushed to the trunk, only to stare in shock down the notch — empty except for bodies and a few orcs scrambling back over the first barricade. “They had us on the run — at least, they must have thought they did,” Ukyo said after a moment. “So why aren’t they still coming?”

“I don’t know,” Akane replied. “Konatsu, why don’t you go find out?”

The former crossdresser (still breathtakingly beautiful in plain men’s clothes and leather armor, with no makeup and sweat streaking his face — damn it!) glanced over at Ukyo, then at his mistress’s slight nod leaped back over the barricade, and Akane turned to look around for the wounded girl.

Chapter Text

Several minutes earlier:

Miyo fought to suppress a smirk even as her grip on her crossbow tightened painfully. The prophetess that had appeared to her in her vision had been right about how she’d end up with more bodyguards than she wanted, but when Akane and Ukyo had placed her back toward the rear of her line inside the notch they hadn’t quite thought things through. Now the newly-minted prophetess was only a three spots back from the barricade, and soon it would be her turn to fight ... to kill. The thought curdled her stomach, but she couldn’t hang back and leave it to the rest, she just couldn’t. They were out here because of her, and she had to share in whatever came.

Two spots back.

One, and the girl in front of her was lifting her crossbow ... firing ... stepping to the side to head to the rear — and even as Miyo began to step forward, Akane shouted “Fall back!” as she leaped to the center of the tree trunk, Ukyo and Konatsu doing the same at either end.

Miyo glanced over the barricade as she stepped back and started to turn, and froze as Akane’s red-glowing mallet smashed aside the first orc’s sword — they’d held off the retreat too long, and ... suddenly rock-steady, she lifted her crossbow, and the bolt took the orc that had leaped on top of the tree trunk in the chest. The three martial artists couldn’t cover the full length of the notch!

She dropped the crossbow as the orc fell backward, hand snatching at her knife’s hilt as she turned toward Akane’s other side, only to see another orc falling forward, shrieking and clutching at the shaft of a bolt buried in his groin.

A few yards up the notch stood two Keldara girls and a Japanese boy. Thora, tanned face pale, was recocking her crossbow as Keiso and Fritha fired their own.

Whirling back around, Miyo shouted in Anglic, “No time to reload! Keiso-kun, with me! Thora, Fritha, there!” pointing at the gap on the other side of Akane.

Without waiting to see if she was obeyed, the brown-haired girl darted forward even as a new orc leaped to the top of the trunk. Twirling her knife in her hand to reverse the blade, Miyo reached behind the orc’s heel and sliced across the tendon, the orc bellowing as his leg gave way and he fell forward. Even as Miyo turned to follow him, the bellow cut off and she paused at the sight of Keiso’s shortsword buried in the orc’s throat. With a sigh of relief she turned back for the next ... and the next ... and two crossbow bolts slammed into the chest of the next.

Turning around, she looked down the notch at the line of four of her comrades crouched in front of the second barricade, the rest on the other side, firing their crossbows down the notch. Slumping in relief, she called out as she turned back, “Keiso-kun, time to go, Thora, Fritha — Fritha!” she hurtled herself at the hideous squat figure standing over Fritha. The Keldara girl had one hand clutching her leg with blood spilling between her fingers, her shortsword upraised in a shaking fist, but she’d never be able to stop the orc’s upraised axe....

“Don’t you touch her!” Miyo yelled in a new guttural tongue harsh enough to hurt her throat, and the orc turned toward her just in time for her to see his face as her knife slammed into his side, piercing his crude hide armor to spear into a kidney. The orc stiffened, back arced, mouth wide in a silent shriek of pain as she twisted the blade. His grip on the axe loosened, and Fritha dropped her sword and grabbed her leg with both hands as she rolled to the side and the axe head buried itself in the ground where she’d been. Gritting her teeth, Miyo yanked her knife to the side, and blood splashed across her face as the orc collapsed to the side.

Gagging, fighting to keep down her breakfast, Miyo spit her mouth clear of blood. You can be sick later, you’re busy right now. She crouched beside Fritha, eyeing the blood seeping between the fingers clamped on the other girl’s leg. At least the blood isn’t spurting, no arteries have been cut, Miyo thought, looking around. Now, where’s — She froze, then sagged as her roving gaze found the other Keldara girl’s body, her blood-covered chest split open. Oh, Thora ... God receive you.

Then Keiso dropped to his knees beside the two girls, his and Miyo’s crossbows in his arms.

“Drop the crossbows, it’s going to take both of us to get Fritha to safety,” Miyo ordered, fighting to keep her voice level.

Keiso glanced at Fritha’s blood-covered leg. “Right.” He laid down the crossbows, then slid one arm around Fritha’s shoulders and the other under one knee, Miyo following suit on the other side. Fritha’s breath hitched when the two lifted her and jogged back toward the second barricade, teeth clenched against a scream.

/\

On the safe side of the second barricade, Miyo ignored the sounds around her, the lines reforming, the confused voices of Akane and Ukyo. Instead, she was focused on the pain-twisted face of her friend, her bloody hands and blood-drenched leg. “Okay, let’s see it,” she murmured in the Keldara girl’s language. Without saying a word, Fritha lifted her hands, and Miyo winced, face stiffening as she fought to hide her dismay even as blood again began to spill from the deep wound.

Fritha gasped as she clamped her hands back down on her leg. Taking a deep breath, she nodded toward a pine tree nearby. “Okay, tie it off tight, put me against that tree, leave me a stack of crossbows. If the orcs come over the barricade, I can buy you a few seconds.” Pasting a shaky smile on her face, she continued, “Maybe Thora will wait on the other side long enough for me to catch up to her.”

“No! It won’t come to that,” Miyo asserted even as her heart sank. It was bad, very bad. Even what little she saw through the fresh blood flowing with the release of pressure was enough to tell her that. It would be a long time before Fritha rejoined the scouts — if her leg ever healed well enough to permit it — but even worse at the moment was that there was no way the girl was walking on it. And no way that they would be able to take her with them if they weren’t able to stop the orcs and had to run.

Thoughts of the miracles she’d read of in her studies of her new religion since her baptism ran through her mind. She was supposed to be a prophetess, right? And prophets performed miracles, right? Ignoring the whisper in the back of her mind that no, not every prophet had been a miracle-worker, she laid a hand on Fritha’s shoulder. “Everything will be fine,” she murmured.

Up till now, she had been a passive vessel for Power, as surprised as everyone else at her baptism and when she had spoken to the Keldara elders by the torrent of fire rushing through her veins, the words limned in flame in her mind’s eye that she’d listened to own voice reading out loud. But now for the first time she sought out the Power, demanding its aid. Closing her eyes, with all her strength she sent a one-word plea to whomever might be listening: Please!

Suddenly, she felt arms circle around her from behind, and the voice of the prophetess she had met in vision whisper in her ear, “Gladly, child. Her time hasn’t come yet, so you had but to ask.”

Again, the fire burned through her. This time, it seemed to focus in her hand resting on Fritha’s shoulder, and her fears drained away as she felt herself encompassed by what felt like all the love in the world, centered on her.

She didn’t feel it as she toppled to the side, caught by a stunned Akane who’d found them just in time to see the warm glow between Fritha’s gripping hands and her wound. She didn’t feel it when Ukyo gently picked her up to move her back as a shrieking Akane threw herself over the barricade, both hands gripping her hammer, at the orcs that finally resumed their attack and had managed to charge through the five-shot volleys to the end of the notch and reach the second barricade. She didn’t see the bright flashes of Ranma’s Moko Takabisha as he and his father arrived well ahead of the pikes and charged to the relief of his surrounded fiancée while the scouts in their fallback arc picked off the trickle of orcs that managed to slip by her and cross the barricade.

She awoke only just in time to attend Thora’s funeral the next day, standing beside a fully healed Fritha as the flames of Thora’s funeral pyre roared into the sky.

/oOo\

Sir Morgan sighed as he and Miyo climbed the last few yards of the trail up the side of the valley and the “garden” came into view. The sigh was partly relief that the climb was over. He was very fit for a man his age, but he wasn’t getting any younger, and he was wearing his mail coat — they thought the few orcs they hadn’t killed had fled back down the valley toward Caithness, but they weren’t sure. But most of the sigh was one of contentment as he looked out over the “garden.”

One of the refugees had been an old man, one that was well past being capable of working in the fields. When Mifune had offered to return to Earth with most of the rest of the elderly to make room for more children, the other refugees had flat-out refused to let him. The Kildar had wondered why, until spring arrived — and as soon as the first rush of clearing and spring planting was over, some of the refugees had found a flat space up the valley side, and spent their free time laboring under Mifune’s guidance to create what Sir Morgan could only describe as a holy place. It didn’t look like any garden he’d ever seen before — much of the space was taken up by patterned sand and apparently randomly placed rocks — but whenever he visited he could feel serenity seeping into his soul, as if he had stepped into a church.

And as Sir Morgan had expected, someone very much in need of that serenity had preceded him. The youngest Tendo was sitting cross-legged in the usual spot gazing out across the garden, dried tear tracks streaking her cheeks.

Sir Morgan and Miyo sat down, Miyo between Akane and the Kildar and slightly back, and for a time the two newcomers sat with Akane in silence. Finally, Sir Morgan quietly said, “Thora’s father has missed you at the wake.”

Miyo translated, and Akane’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t know why he would want to see the girl whose stupid mistakes got his daughter killed,” she muttered.

Sir Morgan shrugged. “You don’t understand the Keldara. I didn’t understand the Keldara until Nabiki pointed out my blindness. In spite of almost two centuries of peace, they are a warrior people, and the way Thora died is the most honorable that they know — she almost certainly is the first woman of her family to receive the honors she did today, and her story will be told for generations. No, her father doesn’t hold her death against you.

“Still, you’re right, you made mistakes, and those mistakes probably got Thora killed. Do you think this is going to be the last time that happens if you continue to lead warriors? No matter how experienced you become, you are going to make mistakes, and those mistakes will kill people under your command. And even if you don’t make any mistakes, no matter how hard you train, how well you plan, how stupid your enemy may be, your people will still die — it’s the nature of the job, and the flip side of glory’s coin.”

He paused to wait for Miyo’s translation to catch up, then continued, “If you are going to blame anyone, blame me. The first and biggest mistake was mine — I essentially dumped the job of first sergeant on you and Ukyo, without assigning one of my men to show you just what that entailed. Sure, I had my reasons — you were only doing endurance training and target practice, while the pikes were practicing maneuvers — but it still meant that when the hammer fell you lacked the guidance you should have had. And at least your mistakes were made out of ignorance rather than panic or cowardice, instead of carelessness like mine. I can’t tell you how impressed I was by the fight you and your scouts put up.”

By now, Akane was staring at the Kildar, haunted eyes searching for signs of prevarication. “Do you mean it?” she asked desperately. “You aren’t just trying to make me feel better?”

Sir Morgan shook his head. “No, I’m not. For soldiers going into their first fight with less than a month’s training and no experienced leadership, your performance was the best I’ve seen. If you continue, you — all of you — are going to become legends.”

Akane stared at him for a moment longer, then fresh tears started rolling down her cheeks, and Miyo scooted forward to embrace her former classmate, pulling Akane’s head down against her shoulder as the other girl sobbed.

Sir Morgan looked at Miyo for guidance, then at the prophetess’s smiling nod turned to look out over the garden, shoulders slumping in relief. In all his years in the legions giving pep talks to young officers learning their trade, he’d never imagined having one of them breaking down like that and having it be a good thing. But then, the legions were exclusively male.

Feeling more than a little out of his depth, he waited as Akane’s sobs eventually died down to sniffles. When she finally thanked Miyo and straightened, he glanced over to see her scrubbing at her cheeks. “Feeling better?”

Akane nodded and replied in heavily accented Anglic, “Yes, I am, thank you.”

“Good.” Sir Morgan hesitated, but finally sighed. Might as well get it over with, let’s hope this works. He glanced back at Miyo, then continued, “Maid Akane, don’t take this wrong, I meant every word I said before, but while you and Maid Ukyo will continue sharing overall authority over the scouts, I am removing you from direct battlefield command.”

Akane’s face darkened as Miyo translated. “Why?” she asked in a strangled voice, hands shaking with her struggle to maintain control.

“Because you’re a berserker,” Sir Morgan replied, keeping absolutely still. “And while most berserkers don’t last very long, with your training and power — there isn’t a commander alive worthy of the name that wouldn’t seriously consider selling his soul to have you under his command. If things go as badly as Myrddin is afraid they might, you are going to be the tip of a spear that will shatter armies. But that same fury in a battlefield commander? Think about yesterday’s fight — once Ukyo had to shake you out of your fury, and the second time if Ranma hadn’t arrived when he did and the scouts been forced to fall back, you may well have died. And you weren’t capable of giving orders either time.”

Akane’s gaze lost focus as she thought over the fight, and the shaking of her hands eased off as she reluctantly nodded. “You’re right, I lost track of everything except what was happening right in front of me, around me,” she admitted, sounding defeated.

Sir Morgan leaned across to grip a knee. “Remember, just because you can’t command on the battlefield doesn’t mean you can’t fight. We’re going to be very happy to have you before this is over ... very happy.” He hid a smile as Akane brightened. Good, she’d bought it — it helped that it was mostly true, and at least one young officer would avoid a burden she couldn’t handle. She would have the extra distance she’d need to accept the inevitable casualties, and they would have a hammer to break open enemy formations. “And now,” he said, standing up and offering both girls his hands, “we need to get back. We have a life to finish celebrating.”

Chapter Text

Myrddin walked through the door to his private suite, the king he’d helped raise and Bronwyn, Baroness of Durham, behind him. He glanced around and frowned. His pretend mistress had begged off the evening’s feast on grounds of weariness (not to mention bone-deep soreness and bruising from their weeks of travel), but he’d expected to find her ensconced in one of his padded chairs reading a book from his small library. Certainly, she couldn’t still be in his magically heated bath (one of his few extravagances), could she? Yes, he’d been told by Peredur, the man-at-arms that had carried her up to his suite, that she’d almost wept with joy on learning of its existence, but he’d strictly forbidden her to take any of his precious books into the bath with her after he’d hastily used it in preparation for dinner. He’d noticed during the previous few weeks they’d spent together that even when she was in intense pain from the travails of travel by horseback, she’d craved intellectual stimulation — she’d been incapable of simply losing herself in contemplation of the passing scenery. No, she wouldn’t still be in the bath after hours with nothing to do but think, even as sore ... Right.

“If you’ll excuse me a moment, Your Majesty, My Lady,” he said to the two behind him, then walked over to his bedroom door.

Sure enough, the teenage brunette was lying on his bed propped up on her elbows and reading one of his books, her shapely backside covered by one of his robes — apparently the only thing she was wearing in the room comfortably heated by a Franklin stove. Myrddin cleared his throat.

Nabiki jerked, her head whipping around, only to relax when she recognized him. “Don’t do that!” she ordered in the Anglic that she’d practiced so assiduously over the past weeks.

“And what are you reading so intently you didn’t hear me come in?” the Court Wizard of Caithness asked, arms crossed but grinning.

“God’s House,” Nabiki replied. “You mentioned the Order of the Knights Hospitaller is one of your neighbors that might intervene, so when I found this one on your shelves I thought learning about how their New Jerusalem was established was just what the doctor ordered.”

“An excellent thought, but you’ll have to put it aside for now — the King and Baroness of Durham are here to hear what I’ve learned.”

“Right, showtime,” Nabiki murmured, twisting to sit up, then hastily closing the robe when it fell open and glaring at Myrddin when he grinned at the sight.

“Hurry up and dress, we’ll be waiting,” Myrddin said, beating a hasty retreat — he knew Nabiki was no threat to him even if she’d actually been that angry, but she still had a glare to weaken knees.

/\

“That’s ... quite a story,” King Conall mused as he lowered his mug of chilled beer, after Nabiki and Myrddin finished their tales and observations. (The ale came from Myrddin’s cold box, the only place he could get it chilled, usually. His acquired taste for cold drinks didn’t really justify the cost of acquiring a cold box himself in the middle of a civil war ... unfortunately.) He glanced apologetically over at Nabiki before focusing on Myrddin. “Do you believe that this Miyo is actually a prophetess? That the prophetess Deborah has really contacted her?”

Myrddin shrugged. “I’m a wizard, not a priest, and I’d never met the girl before her vision so I can’t personally say how she may have changed. Certainly, Father Andre seems to think her claims are genuine, but that is a matter for the Church. You have his letter to forward to Archbishop Siccius.”

King Conall nodded. “True. And since the Keldara also seem to believe her, to the point that they are permitting their maiden daughters to train for war, we’re going to have that unit of ... ‘pikes’, you called them? ... and skirmishers by the campaigning season. Yes,” he continued thoughtfully, “that could be just what we need to break open the military situation — troops no one else knows we have, trained in the Megalos style of infantry warfare. I’m less certain, though, of Sir Morgan’s suggestion that we hold off the actual campaign until the end of the season. Certainly, he is right that it will likely cause the rebels to relax their guard and limit the time both they and ... others ... have to react, but his plan’s success depends on the ability of these ‘martial artists’ to open a path for our troops into Castle Sterling. Can they?”

“Absolutely,” Myrddin confirmed. “Genma, Ranma, Konatsu and Elder Cologne all showed me what they could do. It’ll take a little planning, but they can do it.”

Conall gazed at his old mentor, and finally nodded. “All right, let’s wait until Sir Morgan’s usual yearly visit in a few months to see what he has to say about his pikemen. If our former sergeant of the legions has a good report, we can use his plan. If not, with the current stalemate it’s not like we were planning any other attacks this year — nothing but some skirmishing around the edges, hoping to get lucky.

“But I’m not so sure of the second part of your plan,” he admitted, frowning. “These ‘Grand Councils’ you’re proposing.”

Myrddin suppressed a sigh. He’d been afraid of this — his son in all but name had been fighting (sometimes literally) for years to return the kingship to its previous level of power after the long regency. And rightfully so, without that central control and oversight Caithness was in danger of disintegrating into independent baronies and lordships, to be easily overpowered by the empire they’d broken away from almost two centuries before. But there was a difference between sovereign power being centered in Carrick Town and it being centered in the king.

“You Majesty,” he said, “if we are to get Lord William of Wallace trust you enough to return to the fold, any gesture we make will have to be serious. This will give him and the other nobles a say in royal policy while balancing them against the common people. And nothing in what we are offering will actually require you to take their advice, just let them know about any change you propose in laws and taxes ahead of the fact and give them a chance to debate it and let you know if they think it’s a good idea. You power remains undiminished, this simply slows the process down a little.”

“Really?” The king grinned at his mentor. “I saw you palm that card, old friend. It will take a strong king indeed, who rejects the judgment of a majority decision of these two councils.”

“True,” Myrddin agreed, “but if majorities in both councils think something is a bad idea, perhaps the king shouldn’t push it through anyway? And certainly, it would help to learn that a law will be unpopular before it is implemented instead of after. As well, consider taxes — raising taxes will always be unpopular, but if you can convince the Grand Councils that it’s necessary the common people are more likely to accept it.”

“That ... has possibilities,” Conall mused. “Yes, spreading the blame would make things easier — especially if the commons’ own chosen representatives choose to go along. But how long would it be before these Grand Councils decide that changes to laws and taxation require their consent, and not just advice?”

“Generations, and then only if conditions are right.”

At Nabiki’s interruption, wizard, king and baroness all turned to look at her. “Explain,” Conall said after a moment.

Nabiki shrugged. “It’s true that England’s own joint Grand Councils, called Parliament, eventually gained the power you say, and became known as the Mother of Parliaments as a result,” she replied. “But that wasn’t because it was the only such council around — just about every major monarchy in Europe had one. It was just the only one that took the power and made it stick. And that took a century of almost constant foreign wars with the taxes needed to fund them raised through Parliament. By the end of that century, it was simply assumed by everyone that raising taxes required Parliament’s consent.”

“So even if that does happen down the road, we are only taking the first steps,” King Conall said thoughtfully.

“Right, and the first steps of a road that may not be taken. And even if it is, will that really be a bad thing? England went on under King and Parliament to build the largest empire Earth had ever seen, for as long as it lasted. And the nation that replaced it as the world power had no king at all, just a parliament. Either way, anything we do is going to cause problems for the next generation, and we have our own issues — as your book says, ‘sufficient to the day is the evil thereof’.”

The king’s eyebrows lifted at the reference to “your book,” but he nodded. “That’s true, if a bit cynical. And I do have to agree that the offer may well allay William of Wallace’s concerns. My Lady, what do you think?”

Baroness Bronwyn hesitated. “I’m not so certain. He is a proud man. Wouldn’t he see this as an even more extravagant bribe? If this is to work, we’ll need ... something more. It can’t just be an offer.”

“Myrddin? You were the latest to meet him,” Conall said, glancing at his mentor.

Myrddin considered, and finally nodded. “Baroness Bronwyn has a point. So, don’t make it an offer. Instead, crank up the printing presses and send announcements of the first meeting of the Grand Councils on, say, the fall equinox to all the loyal lords and barons and their major towns, and then send a personal invitation to Lord William. Have your representative arrive in Wallace about the time we’re knocking on Castle Sterling’s front door.”

“Excellent idea, I like it,” King Conall enthused, grinning broadly. “All soft diplomacy, and an invitation not a bribe — and at the same time we’re recovering the lording to his southeast, cutting him and Baron Ferrier to the south off from the rest of the rebels — I doubt they’d be able to convince Lord Walton of Simonton to their south to get off the fence, and there’s no way they are going to hack a new road through the forest to the southeast between them and Denton, not good enough for moving armies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ferrier’s love of ‘efficiency’ brings him back into the fold. If we can get Simonton off the fence in our favor that’s pretty much a certainty, Ferrier isn’t going to want to have armies marching into his lands from south and east at the same time. We’ll have to see if we can smuggle announcements and an envoy down to Simonton....”

His enthusiasm dimming, he added, “Of course, next year we’ll have the legions pouring across the border into the southeast to rescue the other three rebel lords, but maybe that will get the wizards out of their towers in our support ... ? Maybe we should hold the first Grand Council in midsummer of next year, and ask Archbishop Siccius if we can use the Adseveration Cathedral for the meeting ... that would give us a more centralized place on neutral ground, and put us directly northwest of the legions’ southern road into Caithness....”

Shaking himself free of his thoughts, Conall turned to Bronwyn. “But that’s next year. This year, if any of our enemies in Megalos get a hint of our plans, they might choose to preempt us by another thrust for Carrick Town. I know the reputation of your barony for chewing up armies usually has them trying to push through Fordham to your north, but the Megalan opinion of female knights, much less baronesses, may lead them to think that this time you would be the easier target — and with my own forces moving against Lord Towne of Sterling, I won’t be in a position to help.”

“The Megalan opinion of female knights and baronesses?” Bronwyn asked with a rueful grin. “It’s only been seventy years since your great-grandfather knighted Lady Dame Devin for valor on the battlefield, and he was about as ‘eccentric’ as you can get and still be functional. It took years for her to find someone else willing to knight Dame Teress. And then there was everyone’s reaction when I married Sir Wickham and didn’t turn the job of managing the lording over to him....”

Her voice trailed off suggestively, and Conall shrugged. “There’s a difference between ambivalence and outright scorn,” he replied. “You need to be ready.”

Sobering, she nodded. “I will be.”

“Good enough.” Then the king took a deep breath and straightened. “But while I can’t offer any real aid for a defense that may not be necessary, I can offer a knight — Sir Geoffrey. Could you use him?”

Bronwyn stiffened, then after a long moment forced herself to relax. “Yes, of course, he is a highly skilled fighter and inspiring leader. I will have no trouble at all finding work for his hands.”

“Good ... and thank you.”

The room fell silent for a long moment before the king nodded. “So, if we are going to summon a Grand Council, we’ll need something to talk about. I suggest asking about support for reconquering Fort Defiant from the orcs, both financial and men-at-arms. That will make the Fort’s refugees in Wallace happy and make Lord William more likely to rejoin us....”

/\

Nabiki waited where she stood, very grateful to be out of her chair even if her trembling legs were threatening to dump her on the floor at any moment. While the chair had been as comfortably padded as any she’d known on Earth, that hadn’t stopped the pain of her travel-raw and -bruised muscles from growing as the discussion went on and on. It hadn’t helped that as soon as the discussions got down to details she’d been lost in a sea of unfamiliar names, she assumed both people and places, and she’d decided against slowing everything down by asking for background every time a new name popped up.

Myrddin closed the door behind their departing guests and glanced back at Nabiki, then hurried over to offer her a shoulder to lean on, an arm around her waist. “Let’s get you to bed, I think your day’s been long enough,” he said, steering her into the bedroom. “Mine certainly has been.”

Nabiki heartily agreed, and grabbed her fresh night clothes from where a servant had left them while she was soaking in the bath. “So what’s the story with Sir Geoffrey?” she asked as she staggered behind a screen to change.

“Picked up on that, did you?” Myrddin asked, and laughed at the disgusted sound from behind the screen. “I suppose it would have been hard not to. He’s just what Baroness Bronwyn said — a man any noble would be happy to have serving under him, or her in this case, especially when a serious fight is coming at you. He’s also the younger brother of Lord Towne.”

Nabiki paused in the middle of pulling on the chemise that passed for a nightgown — sexy it wasn’t, but that wasn’t something she minded considering the circumstances. “Wait, Lord Towne? The Lord of Sterling, the lording we’re going to overrun?”

“That’s the one.” Myrddin grimaced. “I know, it’s very medieval. I don’t know if Sir Geoffrey is serving the King out of true loyalty, or simply to insure that the lording won’t be lost to his family if the rebels lose. Either way, Conall has been careful to avoid pitting him directly against his brother. But now, the only major push we’re going to be making this year is directly against his family, so —”

“— we need to get him out of the way, without offending his sensibilities,” Nabiki finished.

“Exactly. And what about you? I thought you were planning on pretending to be a Christian, but with that comment you made about ‘your book’....”

“I was going to,” Nabiki agreed. The chemise on, she carefully stepped out from behind the screen so that Myrddin could use it. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about that first night after Miyo’s vision, her baptism, and when she spoke to the Keldara elders. I don’t know what it was, but there was something ... there. Something ... I don’t know, I felt ...” She broke off, at a loss for words to describe the experience, and shrugged. “Let’s just say that I’m considering the possibility that there might be something to it. And so, I’m going to be treading very, very carefully — whether in the Old Testament or the New, the Christian God has a low tolerance for hypocrites and pretenders.”

“Not a bad thought,” Myrddin agreed as he waited until Nabiki was safely on the bed they were going to be sharing. Walking behind the screen, he began to strip off his own clothes. “I’ve seen many strange things since I first arrived in Yrth all those decades ago, and not all of them could be explained with magic. It’s always best to tread carefully around anything claiming to be divine.”

He fell silent, and Nabiki pushed back the covers and crawled into bed as she waited for him to continue. On top of all the other miseries of her journey, she had never been really warm the entire time. And even before that, she couldn’t say that Sir Morgan’s little keep was exactly toasty. From what she had seen on that trip she had expected the same here — the Franklin stoves had been a pleasant surprise, but the problems of weatherproofing in the various inns they stayed in (when they weren’t sleeping in tents) had meant the stoves were fighting a losing battle. Not here. Between that and the pile of blankets, he was looking forward to her first warm night in months, and beginning to wonder if becoming a wizard’s lover for real would be so bad if she got to continue enjoying the side benefits.

When Myrddin failed to pick up where he left off, Nabiki finally asked, “And what’s the story with the King and Baroness Bronwyn?”

“Story? What story?” Myrddin asked.

“I mean, what’s going on between them? And don’t tell me that it’s nothing, I have a lot of experience picking up on budding romances, even if they are one-sided.”

Myrddin sighed as he finished pulling on his own night robe before walking around the room to blow out the lamps and join his putative lover in bed. “The king wishes there was a budding romance,” he replied. “But she’s one of his nobles, and he has to be careful how he treats her to avoid charges of favoritism. Raising her from a Lady to Baroness was pushing the limits — even as competent a ruler as she has proven to be, that caused some whisperings. So he’s been reduced to occasional hints, which she apparently fails to notice. In the eight years since her husband’s death, she’s been devoted to her son and apparently oblivious to any male interest.”

“Ah, just like Ranma only without all the excitement,” Nabiki mused, and Myrddin chuckled as he thought of the stories she had told him during their journey. They had all seemed incredible, but considering the abilities the martial artists had shown him they were remotely believable. Yawning, he snuggled into the bedding and was just fading off when Nabiki asked, “And what do we tell the servants?”

Sighing with exasperation, he asked, “Wha’?”

“What do we tell the servants?” Nabiki repeated. “Sex is kind of messy and smells, and I imagine they are familiar with all the signs — they are going to know that we aren’t doing anything, and they gossip.” She thought back to some of the choicer pieces of gossip she’d gotten from the Kunos’ servants, not that she’d made much selling them. People hadn’t been all that interested in the lives of the rich and loony, in part because they’d had trouble believing just how loony they’d been. She wondered briefly how the kendoist and gymnast had made out in the collapse, before shoving the painful, useless speculation aside.

Beside her, Myrddin was trying to think through fatigue-induced fog. She was right, he hadn’t thought of it, and he should have — he’d been extremely careful with what servants he’d involved in hiding Conall after his father the previous king died until Conall’s coronation, after all. They would — his thoughts broke off with a jaw-splitting yawn. “We’ll talk about it in the morning,” he murmured. “With the condition you arrived in, they won’t be surprised if nothing happens for a few days, we’ve got time.” And with that, he relaxed and faded into sleep, Nabiki soon following to dreams of a Lord Tatewaki in Sir Morgan’s keep pursuing Keldaran versions of Ranma and Akane.

Chapter Text

A middle-aged Halfling took a deep breath of the morning air as he walked out of his family’s small cottage, then sighed with contentment. Yes, times were tough and uncertain, what with their new arrogant lord and the ongoing rebellion he had joined — and the new taxes that rebellion required to fund it (though at least the Oakwood lording was safely insulated from armies with other rebelling nobles to the south and west, and church lands to the north) — but the cool, soft mornings of early summer hadn’t changed. To Godhun, they were still as beautiful as ever.

Behind him Cenric and Caedmund, his eldest and youngest sons — and the only two left at home, the oldest because he was the heir and the youngest because he wasn’t yet married — stepped out behind him, with Waeric, the only hired hand they had left, shuffling along with them.

Godhun suppressed a sigh, as always when his thoughts turned to Waeric. He really should have let him go and kept one of the other two hands he’d let go, but he just hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it. With Waeric’s twisted leg — an orc-wound that hadn’t healed properly and ended his time as a mercenary scout — he simply wouldn’t have been able to find a new position. With his family in Megalos he would have ended up as one more beggar living on the charity of the Church and what alms he could beg from passersby, and Godhun just couldn’t do that to him. So Waeric put in as good a day’s work as he was able, and Godhun pretended that he was pulling his weight instead of a charity case and kept his conscience clear.

Besides, his granddaughters loved the stories. So did his sons.

Enough woolgathering, the day isn’t getting any younger. Godhun turned to the others. “North field again. Waeric, Caedmund, turn the hay we cut yesterday while me and Cenric finish mowing the rest, then —”

He broke off when he realized that the rest weren’t paying attention, looking at something over his shoulder. He turned and felt his good mood evaporating at the sight of two of Lord Brance’s men-at-arms in quilted cloth armor with hands resting on the hilts of their shortswords ambling down the dirt road that passed his cottage, an odd ox-drawn four-wheeled boxy covered cart behind them being driven by another Man riding on the back of the ox. The last thing he wanted was a reminder of where his extra taxes were going. “Caedmund, roof,” he heard Waeric murmur, but ignored his youngest son scrambling away, keeping his focus on the men-at-arms as they turned off the road into his small dirt yard. He stepped between his oldest son and hired hand to stop in front of the two Men and stared up at a hard, grinning face that casually dismissed the three Halflings before looking out across his freehold. “Can I help you?” he asked after a long moment of silence.

The two turned their focus back to him as the ox-cart stopped in the road behind them. “Freeholder Godhun?” the grinning man-at-arms to the left asked.

“That’s me,” he agreed.

“We’re here to collect your tax.”

“What tax?” Godhun asked, mind racing. He’d barely managed to cover the last payment but he’d made it, and the next wasn’t until after the first harvest.

The man-at-arm’s smile broadened. “Why, the new tax announced just a few Sundays back, surely you heard it?”

Godhun’s mind flashed back to the Sunday Mass two and a half weeks past, his heart sinking as he remembered the sheet of paper nailed to the side of the chapel entrance that of course none of the Halflings in their little village could read — and the way their priest had felt ... off ... since that day. He’d blown it off, figuring whatever was bothering Father Edstan was his business, but thinking back now he could recognize the man’s shame. “So how much do I owe?” he asked, fighting to keep his voice steady, then gaped at the named sum. Were they crazy? “Is Lord Brance crazy?” he demanded, hands curling into fists.

“Oh, the actual tax isn’t that large, it includes the penalty for being late,” the man replied with a shrug.

“And how does Lord Brance think we all are going to pay that?” Godhun asked. “He isn’t going to have a peasant or freeholder left in his lands!”

The grin was back, wider than ever. “Not all of them, only the Halflings living on his lands. As for payment ...” His voice trailed off, and his partner glared at him.

“Rauf, enough,” the other man-at-arms growled, then turned to the Halfling and Godhun felt his premonition of disaster grow as he recognized the same shame Father Edstan has felt. “We have orders to take your two granddaughters as payment.”

Godhun stared at him, the world going hazy, a roaring in his ears. “But ... but selling children into slavery requires the consent of their father certified by a priest —” he gasped out.

“Got it right here!” Rauf crowed, slapping the large pouch hanging from his belt ... and the world seemed to freeze as a knife hilt sprouted from the man’s neck.

Even as Rauf took a step back, hands lifting to his neck as blood began to spill down his chin, Godhun heard his hired hand shout, “Caedmund, now!” and his youngest son hurled himself off the roof of their cottage to slam into the other man-at-arm’s chest, knife flashing across the man’s throat, then he was dropping to the ground and rolling away as the man staggered, arterial blood spraying across the yard.

The driver on the ox gaped, then dropped his goad and whirled to throw himself off the ox on the opposite side of the cart only to fall out of sight, another thrown knife hammering hilt-first into the back of his head.

Waeric cursed, then shouted, “Caedmund, Cenric, take him down, fast!”

The two younger Halflings charged forward and disappeared from sight, Caedmund rolling under the ox and Cenric throwing himself over its back. There was the sound of a brief struggle and a bloodcurling shriek of fear and pain that abruptly cut off. A few moments later Cenric and Caedmund walked around the back of the cart, ignoring it as the now-snorting ox started to amble forward. The limping Cenric was spattered with blood, but a glassy-eyed Caedmund was splashed and dripping. Halfway back to his father and Waeric he doubled over, dropped to his knees, and threw up the breakfast he had just eaten.

Waeric shuffled over to the young Halfling and clumsily dropped to one knee to lay a hand on a shoulder, then sighed at the sight of Caedmund’s tear-stained face. “I know, lad, I know,” he murmured. “But we don’t have time for this. We won’t be the only family they were here for. You’re the fastest one of us, you need to warn everyone else. Tell them to gather some bedding and as much food as they can carry and meet us at ... the May Day clearing.”

Caedmund jerked a nod, wiped his mouth on his sleeve then gagged and spit at the taste of blood, and straightened. “Right, I can do that,” he said in a shaky voice.

“Good lad, get moving. Your mother will have a change of clothes for you at the clearing.”

Caedmund nodded again, sprang to his feet, and rushed from the yard down the road toward the village.

Waeric accepted Cenric’s help rising to his feet, and nodded toward Rauf’s dead body. “The pouch that motherless bastard slapped, fetch it,” he ordered. Cenric nodded and moved over to the body as he drew his own knife, and Waeric shuffled over to where Godhun was still staring at the bodies, and his open palm cracked across his employer’s face. “Pull yourself together, man, there’s work to be done! You need to take care of your women.”

Godhun’s head rocked to the side with the slap, and he shook his head as the feeling of unreality vanished and the world snapped back into focus. He glanced over at the door of his cottage to find the women of the household clustered there. “Failend, you heard him, bedding and food, a change of clothes for Caedmund, packs for everyone including little Catan and Cingit.” His pale wife swallowed, nodded, and chivvied her daughter-in-law and granddaughters back into the cottage.

As they disappeared from sight Godhun turned back to his son approaching with the large pouch in his hand. Cenric offered it to Waeric, but he shook his head, then nodded toward his employer. “Godhun, you’ll need that for proof for whoever you want to make a complaint to. Make sure you know what’s in there before you offer any formal charges, though. And when Lord Brance’s men catch up with you, go after the foresters first — they’ll be the ones that can track you, with them dead you have a chance of getting away. Once you’ve lost them in the forest, see if you can send someone to around to Photius — the Archbishop is a good man, he’ll help you if he can.”

“Wait, what do you mean, what I’ll do?” Godhun asked. “You’re the one that knows what he’s doing, you should be the one in charge.”

Waeric shook his head and slapped his badly healed leg. “With this leg I’ll never be able to keep up, I’ll just slow you down. I think I’ll just wait here and smoke a pipe, and let the men-at-arms know what I think of their lord when they show up.”

“But ... but you’ll die,” Godhun protested.

Waeric shrugged. “I should have died years ago, Death’s just finally caught up with me. I can promise you one thing though, after they find me you’ll have fewer of them to face yourself. Now go take care of your family.”

Godhun started to turn away, paused, then turned back to offer his hand. “Thank you for giving us a chance,” he said softly.

Waeric clasped the offered hand in a strong grip and smiled. “Thank you for a home these past years,” he said. “God go with you.”

Godhun swallowed and nodded. “And with you,” he replied, then hurried into the cottage.

Waeric hobbled over to the bench beside the door and eased himself down. Godhun was a good man and a natural leader, but he’d never been a soldier, as he’d just proven when he bought the story Waeric had spun. It wouldn’t take him long to recognize the line of bullshit Waeric’d fed him about slowing them down, though — probably when he saw some other family with an ancient granther being pulled along in a handcart. But by then it would be too late to come back for him, and there wouldn’t be any issues with divided leadership. It wasn’t like the situation wasn’t plain enough. Besides, Waeric had had a good run and had friends waiting for him, and maybe more. Leaning back against the cottage wall, he closed his eyes and smiled as he thought of Muireann. He wondered if she’d be waiting for him, or if he’d have to wait to explain to the most beautiful lass he’d ever known why he’d never come home to her as he’d promised. Either way, he knew she’d forgive him after she’d had a chance to rant about what idiots men could be. He was looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

Archbishop Siccius groaned as he painfully dismounted in the yard of the Adseveration Cathedral.  At least he was able to swing down from his horse without help, something that surprised him as much as it apparently impressed his escort.  He was definitely getting too old for mad dashes across the country on horseback.  He would have much preferred the palanquin the dignity of his position normally demanded, but when a Halfling had shown up at the cathedral with a bag full of writs he swore on the altar were forged and begged for aid, time had been of the essence.  Unfortunately, Siccius hadn’t moved quite fast enough.  At least the return journey had been slower.

Once safely on the ground, he looked up at Sir Edward, the knight assigned to lead the escort that had guarded the archbishop on his journey, knights and men-at-arms of the Order of St. George of the Dragon, Caithness’s native militant religious order.  “You will see to it that the refugees are properly cared for?” he asked.

Sir Edward nodded.  “Of course, Your Holiness.  The Order has everything needed in stores, and tents we can loan the refugees until more permanent housing can be found.  At least Halflings don’t take up much space — the same can’t be said about food!”

The archbishop chuckled at the veiled request.  “Very true!  And these Halflings have been on short rations.  Tally what they consume while I find somewhere to settle them, and I will have my people replace it from the Church stores.”

“Thank you, Your Holiness, I will so inform the Grandmaster,” Sir Edward replied blandly, finishing up their little dance.  The Order was unofficially devoted to the archbishop, but officially it was a separate organization with its own lands and income.  Appearances had to be maintained.  “Actually,” he continued, “you may not need to provide land for settlement.  I believe there is some freshly-cleared land to our north that hasn’t been settled yet, and this is one group of Halflings that has proven they will fight if needed.”

“If so, that would be of great service,” Siccius said.  “Please have Grandmaster Osric let me know at his earliest convenience whether you can settle them, or if I will need to make my own arrangements.”

Sir Edward agreed and made his formal farewells before reining around his charger to rejoin the escort and the refugees he had just assumed responsibility for on the last short leg of their journey.

Archbishop Siccius watched him go, smiling at the sight of the Order’s symbol on the shield slung on Sir Edward’s back — a black dragon’s head with red blood spraying from the stump of its neck on a brown background.  In his youth the Archbishop had been considered a fine up-and-coming knight, and he had been tempted to join the Order before finally deciding that God had called him to a more peaceful path.  Not that his chosen vocation didn’t have battles of its own, just as fraught with danger, but they were fought with word and pen rather than lance and sword.  But there were casualties, nonetheless.

Sighing, Siccius turned to walk toward the living quarters to the side of the Cathedral.  You’re getting melancholy in your old age, he thought.  You got there with the Order knights before Lord Brance’s men could pin down the Halfliings he was attempting to enslave — the innocents have been saved, mostly, and he won’t try that again.  That is what’s important, even if you forgot to bring along a Hand of Michael to handle any investigating that might be needed.  That was true, but his inability to stomp on the man responsible grated.  Unfortunately, Father Edstan’s apparent suicide and the death in battle of the leaders of the men-at-arms that caught up with rearguard of the Halfling refugees had given the lord of Oakwood the perfect scapegoats to shift the blame to.  But no, he had been in too much of a rush and hadn’t even considered adding some Michaelites to the impromptu rescue party.

Focusing on his destination, he sighed again at the sight of his slightly overweight redheaded secretary hurrying toward him.  Father Matthew was something of a fussbudget, but even so his stormy expression wasn’t promising.  “Yes, Father, what’s so important it couldn’t wait until I’d bathed and eaten?” he asked wearily.

“Your Holiness, you have a visitor, the Court Wizard.  He arrived yesterday with a letter from the king,” Father Matthew answered, and the Archbishop instantly relaxed.  It wasn’t another emergency, just Father Matthew’s personal prejudices.  His secretary was no Penitentine heretic, claiming that Yrth was Purgatory and mages and nonhumans were corrupter demons to be exterminated, but he was one of the sizable minority of Christians that was less than happy with the Curia’s declaration that magic was a tool — that a mage’s salvation or damnation depended on how his gift was used, not the gift itself.  That distaste perhaps had something to do with his posting to Caithness, making him one of the few priests from outside the mana-poor — and so mage-poor — country.

Archbishop Siccius forced his tired mind away from minutiae to refocus on his secretary.  “ ... needs to see you as soon as you can make yourself available,” Father Matthew was saying.

The Archbishop’s shoulders slumped, and he forced himself to straighten again.  “Very well,” he said.  “Let His Honor know that I’ll meet him after I’ve bathed, changed and eaten.”

/\

The Archbishop finished the letter from Father Andre for the second time and laid it down on the low table between the goblets of wine on top of the letter from his king, then leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.  It was rude, he knew, to do so in front of his guests, but his life had just gotten even more complicated than it had been, and he was oh, so tired.  “Not a saint, but a prophet, and with the gift of tongues to prove it,” he murmured.  “No, not a prophet, a prophetess, and not even a Christian at the time of her first vision.  Won’t the Curia just love this?”

“At least she wasn’t actively persecuting Christians at the time of her first vision, like Paul.”

The Archbishop opened his eyes to look at the young woman pretending to be the Court Mage’s lover.  She was an exotic beauty even in a local dress, what with her hair cut shoulder-length, her faintly darker skin tone and her almond eyes.  But in truth it was her eyes that held his attention — they were alive with a mocking intelligence that made him shiver.  He suspected that once she adjusted to her new situation and had matured a bit — and with the king’s support — she was going to be a dangerous woman.

“Yes,” he said drily, “well, Saint Paul didn’t claim that Judea was the last hope of the world, that the powerful empire on its border wanted to crush it, that members of the Sanhedrin were actively supporting the effort, and essentially call for a holy war against those he claimed were the empire’s surrogates in a Judean civil war.  And he certainly didn’t claim that the situation was so dire that women needed to be called to arms in his people’s defense.  He didn’t use Jeremiah five, verses thirty and thirty-one as the basis for his sermons, either.”

Nabiki quoted, “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority, and My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it?”  She grinned.  “I agree, that does have a certain ... kick ... to it.  She’s right, though, isn’t she?  Members of the Curia are supporting the conquest of Caithness by Megalos, and they are using Caithness’s own rebel lords as surrogates, aren’t they?  And if Miyo is actually talking to the prophetess Deborah as she claims, then they obviously don’t have God’s approval.  At least I managed to talk her out of using 1st Samuel chapter eight.  Not that we might not get to that, if we end up going to war with Megalos, but I thought a text that could just as easily be aimed at King Conall as the Emperor was probably a bad idea.”

Siccius shuddered at the thought.  More than one self-declared prophet (of course, they were all self-declared) had used the Prophet Samuel’s diatribe against monarchy as his foundational text, and the results had never been good.  “Yes, let’s hold off on that particular text until we’ve settled things here at home or Megalos’ legions give us a target at which to direct the people’s anger.”  He tapped the stack of letters and looked over at Myrrdin.  “The Grand Councils the king writes about in his letter will help blunt any temptation to apply that text to him, as well.  We’ll need to discuss how we feed and house so many attendees, but I see no reason why at least the first meetings of the Councils can’t be held here — they wouldn’t violate the Church’s official neutrality in the civil war, since neither side would dare attack the other on Church lands and all are to be invited to attend or send representatives, on both sides.  These Councils are a brilliant idea, actually, who came up with it?  Not the king, certainly.  He’s an intelligent man, but the focus of all his adult life has been restoring the monarchy to its previous position of authority, not diluting its power.”

His two guests exchanged glances, then Myrrdin shrugged.  “She did,” he replied, nodding to Nabiki.

Yes, a very dangerous woman.  For a time he simply gazed at her, further impressed as she kept her own gaze level under the weight of his attention.  “Myrrdin,” he said at last, “I would like to speak to … your paramour … privately.”

Myrrdin lifted an eyebrow at the emphasis.  He’d had his doubts that they would fool one of the most perceptive men in the realm, though perhaps Conall had said something in his letter.  “Certainly,” he said, rising to his feet.  “There’s an errand I need to run, anyway.  You’ll want one of the novitiates for company?  We can’t have the Archbishop of Caithness spending time alone with a foreign woman, after all.  Everyone knows how loose they are, Delilahs the lot of them.”

“Yes, it’s amazing how universal I’ve found that opinion to be, wherever in Yrth I may have traveled,” Siccius agreed with a grin.  “The local women are always paragons of matronly virtue, while foreign women are always sly, lustful, eager creatures.  Ask Brother Joscelyn to come in — he always has a book with him to keep him occupied, and oblivious.”

/\

Nabiki fought to stay calm as Myrrdin strode from the room.  She didn’t think she was in any danger — certainly her putative lover didn’t seem to have any worries — but she’d heard a lot back home about the attitudes of Christian fundamentalists toward both women and heathen, and couldn’t help but wonder why literally medieval Christians should be any different.

The Archbishop refilled the goblets with fresh wine (oh, how she missed her sister’s favorite teas!) as they waited until the new ... priest? monk? ... whatever a ‘novitiate’ was, she wasn’t exactly familiar with the various Christian religious titles, something she would have to rectify ... settled into a chair in a corner of Myrrdin’s guest suite and became absorbed in his book.  (The ostentatiously disapproving priest that had escorted them to their rooms had placed her and Myrrdin as far apart as the cathedral’s guest suites permitted and without saying a word had made it clear that, whatever decadent pleasures they engaged in elsewhere, there was to be no hanky-panky on Church property.)

“You said if your friend is talking to Deborah.  Are your doubts because you aren’t Christian?”  Nabiki’s eyes snapped back to her host, and Siccius waved a hand at the letters on the low table.  “King Conall said that you referred to the Bible as ‘your book’.”

Nabiki winced.  Remember, no lies, no hypocrisy, not for this.  She shrugged as nonchalantly as she could.  “I was raised mostly in Shinto and Buddhist traditions, if that means anything to you, but didn’t really believe in anything until Miyo — a girl that was pretty much broken by the death of our world and her family with it — walked into our cabin with a fire in her eyes like I’d never seen before.  Since then I’ve been reading the Bible, but ... some of the things in it are ... hard to accept.”

“Good, that means you’re taking it seriously.  Anyone who easily accepts everything in that book is either not bothering to think about it, or is living on blind faith.”  Siccius smiled, eyes twinkling merrily as Nabiki’s jaw dropped.  “What, did you expect me to react like a Protestant, mortally insulted that anyone could doubt a single word found within the Bible’s pages, even when it contradicts itself?  Sometimes I think they’ve replaced God with God’s Word.”  He took a sip of his wine as he waited for her to recompose herself (and hide her relief).  For a moment, his face seemed to sag with weariness before again firming up.  “But as happy as I would be to discuss your issues with the Bible, we have more immediate concerns to discuss.  Later, if we have time.  Tell me about Miyo.”

“I ... I ... I ...”  Off-balance from the Archbishop’s easy acceptance of her doubter’s status and thoroughly whipsawed  by the abrupt change of subject, Nabiki paused to take a large gulp of her wine.  “I’d think Father Andre would have told you all about her in his letter,” she finally said.

“Oh, he did,” Siccius agreed.  “But all he’s known is the broken soul and then the prophetess feeling her way into her new role and religion.  You knew the young woman from before.”

“Better to say I knew of her,” Nabiki disagreed.  “I only saw her at school, and she was a year behind me so we didn’t really have anything to do with each other.”

Her fortunetelling!  For a moment she considered not mentioning Miyo’s hobby, but reluctantly rejected the thought — while only the family and acquaintances that had first arrived in Yrth were from Nerima, she had no way of knowing what they might say back with the Keldara and she hadn’t thought to suggest they not mention it before she left.  “The one thing she was really known for was telling people’s fortunes,” she said, but hastily added, “but she wasn’t really very good at it — she took it seriously, not like the so-called ‘professionals’ that tell you what you want to hear, and her rate of success was about what you’d expect from pure coincidence.  Until she showed up on our doorstep in a panic just before the Fall and turned out to be right, I thought she was delusional.  So did everyone else.”

Siccius frowned thoughtfully.  “What kind of fortunetelling?” he asked.  “Summoning spirits?  Reading omens?”

“A tarot deck, actually,” Nabiki replied.  “I don’t think she brought it with her, either.  At least, I don’t remember seeing it in her things, and she never took it out once we were here — just spent every free moment praying in the chapel until she got an answer.”

“And her not a Christian,” Siccius mused.  “Perhaps like the young child Samuel, she was receiving calls even before her premonition of disaster.  If she had even less of a basis for understanding than he did, she would have turned to what she knew for answers.”  He gazed thoughtfully into his wine for a moment before taking another sip.  “And after she had her vision?”

“At first I had my doubts,” Nabiki said, “even after she spoke Chinese to Elder Cologne — I thought she might have learned it in school and I hadn’t known.  Her premonition hadn’t been a full-blown vision, after all.”

“And you’re naturally cynical?” Siccius asked.  When Nabiki paused, he nodded toward the letters on the table.  “That’s ... let’s just say both king and priest hint at the possibility.”

“I ... suppose that’s fair enough,” she admitted.  “But the next day she spoke to Captain Sindviral in perfect Dwarvish....”

Chapter Text

As he rode into the temporary encampment full of child-sized Halflings (still rising, in fact, loaned tents were still going up, with some of the armsmen of the Order of St. George of the Dragon assisting them in the unfamiliar task), Myrrdin couldn’t help grinning to himself as for a moment his thoughts returned to the look of fear-laced betrayal on Nabiki’s face when he’d left her with the archbishop.  He had no worries — if anything Archbishop Siccius would find her refreshing, he delighted in sharp minds with honestly held opinions — but the Court Wizard’s putative lover had apparently had her doubts.  The experience will do her good, he thought as he reined his mount to a halt and swung a leg over the horse’s withers to drop to the ground.  That girl is entirely too confident and self-possessed for someone her age, she needs a little uncertainty.

He banished his smile at the approach of small (in all senses of the word) gang of young men.  The Halflings obviously weren’t trained fighters, but they bore their makeshift spears with a confidence borne of fresh experience.  And that same fresh experience was unlikely to allow them to share in his amusement even if they knew the cause.

When the suspicious Halflings came to a stop in a half-circle around him, Myrrdin nodded to their apparent leader.  “I am Myrrdin, Court Mage to King Conall,” he said.  “I need to speak to whomever’s in charge on an important matter.”

/\

From their seats, the tent’s two occupants watched its flap swing shut behind the departing knight.  Sir Edward had been happy to verify that the court mage was who he said he was, having met him once at the king’s court, but he’d also bee happy to leave the mage and Halfling to their discussion once he had.  Myrrdin was sure the holy knight had guessed just what the mage wanted to discuss with the accepted leader of the refugees, but the Sir Edward would also be mindful of the official neutrality of the Dragons in the civil war.  What he hadn’t heard, he could swear later with a mostly clear conscience that he hadn’t known.

Then Godhun turned back to Myrrdin.  “All right, Sir Edward has agreed that you are who you say you are, so why do you want to talk to a homeless vagabond?”

“From what the archbishop said you won’t be homeless for long,” Myrrdin replied, then paused as he considered the Halfling.  Godhun … did not look good.  Certainly, he moved like the healthy middle-aged farmer he was (taking into account his bandaged leg and tree-branch cane), but his reddish hair was shot with gray and there were lines on his face that Myrrdin suspected were new, and they weren’t happy ones.  But the Halfling was bearing up under the Myrrdin’s scrutiny with remarkable calm for someone one step above a peasant.

Finally, Myrrdin continued, “The archbishop said that the Order of St. George might have land for you to settle.  Do you know yet if that’s the case?”

“It is.”

Myrrdin waited, then suppressed a sigh when Godhun didn’t continue.  He said, “It is much too late in the year for putting in a crop for this harvest.  I would imagine that you all will have plenty to do building new homes and preparing fields for winter planting, but the first won’t take long and the second is something you won’t need to concern yourself with for months.”

“And I suppose you have something else we might turn our hands to?”  Godhun glanced toward the tent flap.  “Something Sir Edward wouldn’t appreciate?”

“Oh, I’m sure Sir Edward would appreciate it, he just can’t approve of it, not with the Dragons’ official neutrality in the civil war.  So better he doesn’t know — he certainly thinks so, why do you think he was so eager to leave?  He’s an intelligent man, I’m sure he has a pretty good idea of just why I’m here, but as long as he doesn’t listen in he can swear on God’s throne that he didn’t know.”

“Right.”  It was Godhun’s turn to consider his visitor.  Finally, he said, “I’m afraid I can’t help you.  Even if my leg permitted, my wife and I have a widowed daughter-in-law and two granddaughters to look after.  The girls especially have only just lost their father; they shouldn’t lose their grandfather as well.  You are talking about returning to Oakwood?”

Myrrdin shook his head.  “I wasn’t actually thinking of you specifically returning to Oakwood, even before I saw your injury.  But you’re the leader here, and probably will be for the rest of your life.  You can call for volunteers, help organize it, be the person for the king’s people to contact.  All very quietly, you understand — if this is brought to the official attention of Grandmaster Osric or Archbishop Siccius, their need to maintain at least a façade of neutrality will force them to disavow you and probably order you to leave.”

“And just what would you have us doing?”

Myrrdin shrugged.  “The usual — spying, killing the occasional man-at-arms or courier.  Possibly organizing a revolt, Lord Brance is newly raised to his lordship and from what the king’s Hands have been able to learn isn’t very well liked by his people.  And one other thing, your people can keep an eye on the other Halflings living in Oakwood, that weren’t caught up in Lord Brance’s attack on you and yours.  While his partial failure this time means he won’t be trying this particular stunt again, he’s bound to try something else.”

Godhun had stiffened in his seat.  “What do you mean, a partial failure?  And why will he try again?  He has the eyes of the Church on him now, after all.”

Myrrdin shrugged again.  “Unlike his father, Lord Brance despises nonhumans and he wants you all out of his lording, at least.  He didn’t get any young girls to pass along for eventual sale to Megalan brothels and you killed some of his men-at-arms and foresters, but you at least, are no longer ‘befouling’ his lording.  He will account that a success and will look for the opportunity for more, he won’t be able to help it.  With people on the ground, you can both guide others to safety here and recruit more for the resistance.”

Godhun had frozen at the word ‘brothels’, his eyes flaring and fists clenched, then he started to literally shake in his seat as he flushed with anger.  Surprised at the intensity of his reaction, Myrrdin fell silent and waited through the long minutes it took for his host to regain control.  Finally the Halfling forced his fists to relax and his harsh breathing to ease off.  “Your pardon,” he said, “my granddaughters were two of the little girls he sent his men for.”  He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath.  “I am no prancing noble to lord it over others, I cannot simply order others to aid you, but I’ll be happy to act as your go-between and I’ll pass the word to those as might be willing.  I expect you’ll have your band of marauders.  But I’ll need more than the little you’ve told me, so just what did you have in mind for us?”

Myrrdin carefully kept a triumphant smile off his face.  If Oakwood, directly south of Photius and one of the two rebel lordings bordering on Megalos, broke out in open rebellion at the same time the king’s army along with the Japanese refugees overran Sterling, that would be two of the six rebel lords gone, and the four remaining broken in half, unable to support each other — with Lord Nabbick of Ferrier and Lord Wlliam of Wallace, their backs to the Great Desert to the west and only Orcs on its far side and any Megalan aid needing to cross Caithness to reach them.  And of course, that would mean handing over at least the southern half of Caithness to the Empire.  Neither lord would be able to accept that, not with their loyalty to the kingdom if not the king, even if they thought the legions could reach them before the king did — they would accept the Grand Councils as the implicit offer of amnesty they were and return to the fold.  Baron Cabble of Denton was a ruthless schemer who most likely would conclude that his best opportunity to increase his wealth and power — or at least hold on to what he already had — would lie in a reunited kingdom rather than as a new Megalan border march occupied be the legions.  That would leave Lord Marsden of Donlis, and he couldn’t accept amnesty, because that amnesty wouldn’t cover the original charges that he’d condoned swamp pirate attacks on Megalan merchants along the River Smoke, the charges that had pushed him into starting the war in the first place.  But he’d know he couldn’t win, either, so he’d probably flee into exile in Megalos.

The civil war would be over by Christmas.

“We have some spies in Oakwood, of course,” Myrrdin began....

/oOo\

As usual, when the party drew up in the courtyard of the castle that was the heart of the Barony of Durham, one of Baroness Bronwyn’s men-at-arms offered to help her dismount.  As usual, she ignored the offer, swinging her leg over her horse’s withers (made possible thanks to the men’s breeches she wore) and dropping to the ground.  And as usual, her men-at-arms were grinning at her display of independence.  It had become a game over the years since her father’s death and her ascension to his title, with her men-at-arms insisting on treating her like the lady she was even when she was traveling by horseback (not that she traveled any other way, the last time she’d used a palanquin she’d been pregnant) and wearing men’s breeches, and her pretending the treatment wasn’t happening.

Yes, it was a game now, but had been very different when she had first assumed her position and the shock had been real — as had the dismay at having a ruling lady.  Thankfully, that had mostly faded away as well.

“A most imposing edifice, My Lady,” Sir Geoffrey observed as he dismounted to join her, his gaze sweeping across the imposing central keep and the inner walls that surrounded it.  Of course, the outer walls were even more imposing, the almost vertical drop-off on three sides, the drawbridge across to the next hill, the steep, winding road leading from the riverside town up to the drawbridge.  All in all, the barony’s keep was one of the most defensible in the realm.  But then —

“It’s needed to be,” the baroness replied.  She nodded in the direction of the east-flowing River Conn.  “That’s the most direct — and most easily supplied — route to the King’s court in Carrick Town.  The Megalans certainly know that, considering how many men they lost over the generations before they finally learned the wisdom of trying to go around.”

Sir Geoffrey was just about to reply, when he realized he’d lost his host’s attention.  All her focus had shifted to two newcomers that had just walked out of the keep’s main entrance and were now standing at the top of the stair — a stern-faced older woman dressed in a noble lady’s flowing gown and a sober boy in a young nobleman’s hose and tunic and brimless felt cap.

The boy bowed.  “Lady Mother, welcome home,” he intoned.

Bronwyn managed to keep a straight face as she strode forward and mounted the steps until she was eye-level with her son.  She returned his bow with a more shallow one.  “Thank you for your warm welcome,” she returned solemnly, before she lost her fight for control and began to giggle.

At the sound, the boy grinned and hurled himself into Bronwyn’s arms, knocking her back down several steps into the supporting arms of the grinning men-at-arms that had stepped up behind her.  “I missed you, Mommie.”

“I missed you too, Dearheart.  So your grandmother’s been teaching you manners, has she?” Bronwyn asked, glancing up at the now-smiling older woman.

“Yeah,” her son replied.  “But you were supposed to curtsey!”

“In breeches?  Not a chance.  But I have someone else for you to practice on.”  She lowered her son to the steps and turned around.  “Lord Wardell, please welcome Sir Geoffrey.  The king asked him to join us in case Megalos comes to visit.  Sir Geoffrey, this is my son and heir, Lord Wardell.”

A properly sober (with difficulty) Sir Geoffrey bowed.  “Lord Wardell, I am honored to meet you.”

Wardell hesitantly returned the bow, blushing when his mother murmured, “A little deeper, you rank him.”

“The honor is mine,” he replied.  “Such a … a … brave knight … will … will be a big help?”  He glanced up at his mother.

Bronwyn smiled down at her son.  “Well said ... for a first time,” she said, “and very true.  He is a valiant and skilled warrior, and will be a fine addition to our forces.”

You would be the one to know, Sir Geoffrey thought wryly, thinking of their occasional spar during the ride from Carrick Town.  He hadn’t truly believed the spreading stories of the Baroness’s prowess, considering them to be ... exaggerated ... to strengthen the Loyalist position — it had seemed to be the sort of thing someone with the king’s twisty mind would come up with. The first time they sparred, he had expected to have to coddle her to avoid hurting her feelings while maybe slipping in a few lessons. She had disabused him of that notion within the first minute, and riding had been a bit uncomfortable for the next few days thanks to some bruises in unusual places.  He’d treated her much more cautiously after that and so managed to avoid a repeat of that humiliation, and once he succeeded in forgetting she was a woman when facing her across bared blades he had come to enjoy their practices immensely.

But in spite of that enjoyment, and in spite of the fact that in their discussions as they rode he had found her wit as sharp as her blade was quick, he’d wondered if, under the burden of her responsibilities as baroness, she had come to forget that she was a woman as well.  Now, as he watched her tease a son she obviously adored, he realized how foolish that concern had been.  The Baroness of Durham could be as serious as any man when her responsibilities demanded it, but when she was able to put those responsibilities aside her buried feminine nature shown through.  And so did her natural beauty, her face lit up with the joy of home.

Bronwyn turned to her mother, then paused as she blushed.  “Sir Geoffrey, my pardon.  Please be known to my mother, the Lady Alyce.  Mother, Sir Geoffrey, heir of Lord Towne of Sterling.”

Lady Alyce smoothly curtseyed.  “Welcome to Durham, Sir Geoffrey, your fame precedes you.  You will be a welcome addition to our defense,” she said, then as he bowed glanced over at her daughter with a sly grin.  “Perhaps your son isn’t the only one needing lessons in courtesy?”

“Mother!”  Bronwyn’s blush deepened, then she smiled slyly.  “Perhaps.  I did just spend several weeks with the king, after all, I’m out of practice.”  Her smile broadened into a grin at her mother’s startled snort of laughter, and she continued, “Mother, could you have one of the servants show Sir Geoffrey to his suite, then after he’s had a chance to freshen up introduce him to Ranulf?  He’s my chief man-at-arms,” she added to Sir Geoffrey. “He can introduce you to the rest of my men while I wash off the dust of the road and change into something more appropriate for home.”  She glanced up at the sun.  “After that, we should have time to go over the maps of the barony before tonight’s homecoming banquet.  We’ll be riding over the ground so you can see it in person, of course, but that will at least give you an idea of how it all fits together.”

“Of course, until later then.”  He gave an elaborate bow, much moreso than either usual or necessary, to her startled giggle and the grins of the men-at-arms, then turned to the maid Lady Alyce had summoned.

As he followed the maid into the castle, he reflected that his stay here was going to be less onerous than he’d feared.  He had enjoyed the baroness’s company on the road, but had been worried that once they arrived he would shuffled off to some makework position — where her people could keep an eye on the heir of one of the rebel lords without offending his dignity or questioning his loyalty.  But it seemed she intended to make him an integral part of her barony’s defense, to trust him, and he was suddenly eager to get on with it.  Of course, the fact that Baroness Bronwyn intends to be the one that shows you around has nothing to do with that, does it? he thought with a wry grin.

The maid opened the door to his new suite.  “These are your rooms, My Lord.  I’ll fetch a bowl of water and some towels, then make sure your baggage is brought up while you wash off the dust of the road and let Lady Alyce know when you’re ready.  If there is anything I can do to make your stay more pleasant — anything at all — please let me know.”

Sir Geoffrey had been looking over the room, with the usual stone walls and rushes, embroidered tapestries on the walls rather than the king’s wood-paneled walls and floors, but he glanced over at her at that last, to find the maid already leaving with a slight, inviting sway to her hips.  She was serious.  And not unpleasant to look at, he thought as he slipped off the sleeveless leather jacket he wore when traveling and began to untie the laces to his shirt (the jacket provided at least kept some protection, and he’d thought the Baroness’s man-at-arms would be more comfortable if he wasn’t wearing his armor while on the road).  Yes, his stay here looked to be a pleasant one, indeed.

Chapter Text

“That’s right, Sayuri, ya got it!” Ranma enthused from where she stood at the edge of a forest clearing as she watched one of his few normal friends and currently her student flow through a basic kata. “Now, run through that until I tell ya ta stop. Yuka, you’re up, let’s see how well ya remember last week’s lesson.” As she watched his other normal friend run through what she’d learned the last time they’d met, the redhead really wished they could do this more than once a week. But between training with the pikes and teaching the Keldara men with his father and Soun, he was busier than he’d ever been in his life. He was lucky to see any of the girls before dinner time and nightfall except in passing and during joint exercises of the pikes and scouts. And of course, by the time the family (now including Ku Lon, Sayuri, Yuka and Miyo) did get together half of them were too exhausted to stay up long and the others didn’t want to waste candles just to stay up and talk.

“Good, you’ve been practicin’,” Ranma praised when Yuka reached the end of the kata. “Were ya watchin’ Sayuri?”

“Yes, sensei.” Yuka flowed into the newest series of punches and kicks.

Ranma watched her student closely, occasionally correcting her form with a touch. “Once more,” the redhead ordered when Yuka reached the end of the kata.

When Yuka reached the end the second time, Ranma was grinning. “You’re getting’ good at this,” she said. “Run through it another five times. Sayuri, break an’ watch Yuka, make sure she’s doin’ it right.”

As a gasping Sayuri gratefully finished her last run-through before sitting on a tree stump to watch her friend, Ranma turned to the center of the clearing. Even as she’d been instructing the two beginners, she’d been listening to the cracks and thumps from Akane and Ukyo’s sparring match and noticed that the pace had been picking up. Now she frowned as she focused on the pair even as Akane used the massive two-handed hammer Sir Morgan had found for her to knock up and away another slashing attack from Ukyo’s battle spatula.

Ranma wasn’t particularly worried about the pair hurting each other. The battle spatula was covered by leather and wood sheathing with another block at the end of the handle for balance, and the hammer had a thick leather sheathing of its own. Combined with the thick cloth armor both girls wore and some care where they directed their attacks, the worst either weapon would leave were massive bruises (at least that was all for high-end martial artists). No, what concerned her was how the two girls’ back-and-forth felt less like a sparring match and more like a duel.

Then Akane used the momentum from her block to swing her hammer up and around in a circle toward Ukyo’s side, and Ranma tensed as she noticed faint, misty ribbons of red light playing around Akane’s hands and creeping up the hammer’s handle.

“Akane, Ukyo, break!” the redhead shouted over the belling sound of the hammer rebounding from Ukyo’s parry.

The two girls sprang apart and lowered their weapons, sucking in deep breath after breath. Ukyo dropped her spatula’s blade to the ground and braced herself on the handle. Akane unclenched her own grip on the hammer’s handle, practically one finger at a time.

Ranma breathed a soft sigh of relief as the raven-haired girl dropped to crouch on her heels. That was close, she thought shakily. Too close. And the truth was lately it was Ukyo getting too intense as well, not just Akane — the newly-revealed berserker just had a way to let people know when she was getting close to losing it. Ranma just couldn’t afford to let the two spar, anymore.

Fortunately, there was a second issue with Akane and Ukyo’s training, and the two problems dovetailed nicely into a single solution.

“Akane, Ukyo, I’m not really gonna be able ta help ya much more with yer weapons,” she said, walking over to the girls. “The Saotome school doesn’t focus on weapons the way yours do.”

Both girls stared.  Akane demanded, “Who are you, and where have you hidden the boy who can’t admit he isn’t the best at everything?”

Ukyo laughed as Ranma grinned. “He got told ta hold buckets in the hall by the teacher. Truth’s truth, I’m learnin’ more watchin’ ya spar than you are sparring,” the redhead said. “And truth is, Ukyo, you’re not helpin’ Akane much, either.  Yer spatula balances differently, more like a sword with a really wide blade than a hammer.”

Ukyo straightened with a sigh and lifted her spatula to check the sheathing’s ties.  “You’re right, I’d noticed the same thing,” she said.  “So, oh wise sensei, do you have a solution?”

Ranma struck a pose, fists on her hips. “But of course!” she asserted pompously, then relaxed as Akane snorted laughter. The Tendo was over being angry, good. “Some a’ the dwarves that have been bringin’ in supplies carry hammers, I thought I’d see if one a’ them could give you a hand.  And I thought I’d see if you two can spar with some a’ Sir Morgan’s men-at-arms instead of each other.  After all, none a’ the guys we’re gonna be fightin’ will be carrying battle spatulas.

“Also, Akane, yer pop has been better since we got here, an’ he’s doin’ good with trainin’ the Keldara.  Why don’t ya ask him again if he’ll train you in yer own family school?  It’s not like ya won’t be in the middle a’ the fightin’ whatever he says, so maybe he’ll change his mind.”

Akane brightened at the suggestion, and Ranma hid a grin. Good, that should keep you busy and away from Ukyo except when trainin’ with the scouts.

Ukyo glanced sidelong at her now-former sparring partner.  “Not bad, Ran-chan,” she mused, “maybe you’re growing up.”

“Maybe we all are,” Ranma replied, then glanced over at Sayuri and Yuka.  The two girls were trying very hard to focus on Yuka’s katas instead of the conversation, and failing miserably … and the shadows of the trees cast by the setting sun had reached the far side of the clearing.

Ranma stretched and yawned.  “I think we’re about done here,” she said. “Akane, a quick spar with Sayuri, Ukyo take Yuka, then we’ll head fer home before it gets too dark.”

/oOo\

Elfrithr sighed as she leaned back against one of the logs that surrounded a small bonfire. It was the weekly evening for Ukyo, Akane, Sayuri and Yuka to join Ranma (in his disturbingly cute girl form) for more martial arts training, as usual Miyo was spending her evening studying her new religion with Father Andre, and early on the scouts had gotten into the habit of enjoying an evening together in the absence of their leaders.

Though maybe it’s time we discontinued this little tradition, she thought, wincing a bit as she gazed at the others around the fire in the gathering dusk, the way they were bunching up in separate groups.  Though at least none of the groups were purely Japanese or Keldara.

Things had been getting tense over the past few weeks.  It had started with Akane and Ukyo, then spread as various girls took one side or the other.  Not all of them, but enough. (So far, the few boys in the scouts had been smart enough to stay out of it.)  And while there hadn’t been any fights, there had been a few shouting matches after training, when the girls had returned to their various homes.

Not that that hasn’t been entertaining occasionally, Elfrithr thought with a giggle, remembering one memorable shouting match — between sisters, no less.  The fun part had been when their mother got involved, and berated both girls for arguing over other girls’ marriage arrangements.  The ribbing Bergdis and Runhildr had gotten over that had actually calmed things down for a few days.

Her amusement faded into a slight frown. But only a few days, she mused.

“Aren’t you the thoughtful one.”

She glanced up at her newest friend Kahori, one of the newcomers, standing by her with two bowls of stew in her hands.  “Just thinking about quarrels,” Elfrithr said.

“Oh?” Kahori dropped to sit cross-legged beside her and handed her one of the bowls.  “Akane.”

“Ukyo,” Elfrithr rebutted.

“So, that’s settled,” Kahori replied, and started into her stew.

Elfrithr shook her head, smiling, but silently dug into her own stew.  It was thicker than it had been weeks earlier, before the arrival of the mage with the first shipment of food from Caithness, and before the dwarves had started supplementing the Keldara’s food supplies along with the weapons shipments.  This time it even included some chunks of venison, someone had gotten lucky hunting.

Finally, the edge off her hunger, she said, “Settled for us, maybe, we don’t really care much — Akane’s and Ukyo’s business, let them deal with it.  Some of the others, though …”  Her voice trailed off as she tried to think of a polite way to phrase it.

“… are a bunch of excitable, gossiping busybodies,” Kahori finished.

Elfrithr sighed.  “Yeah, that,” she agreed. She finished off the last of her stew and set aside the bowl. “So what do we do about it?”

“What do we do about it?” Kahori asked, an eyebrow lifting. “And when did it become our job?”

“I don’t see anyone else stepping up to the plate....” She paused when her friend giggled.  She’d found the baseball games the Japanese refugees liked to play to be an unusually silly waste of time, but she’d also found that Kahori found it amusing when she used newcomer sayings — and after all the months since she had arrived from her dying world, she still didn’t laugh nearly enough. “As I was saying,” Elfrithr continued with a mock-scowl, “The lieutenants are too busy circling each other to pay attention to the rest of us, and when the Prophetess isn’t training with us she’s studying with Father Andre. And even after the fight with the orcs, the men-at-arms training us are still half-convinced we’re a bunch of empty-headed girls, so —”

“How dare you! After everything Ukyo has gone through —”

“Yeah, right, just because her father’s a bastard she decides to waste ten years of her life training for revenge on a six-year-old boy, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for her?”

Elfrithr’s head whipped around to find Vedis and Naora, two of their leaders’ most ardent supporters — unfortunately on opposite sides — on the other side of the bonfire standing face-to-face shouting at each other. “That’s done it, we are a bunch of empty-headed girls,” she muttered. “Come on.” She rose to her feet, Kahori right behind her, and stepped around the fire.  “Easy, now, there’s no need to —”

Vedis abruptly shoved Naora, sending her staggering back several paces. Naora gaped for a moment, then stepped forward and her open hand seemed to blur as it cracked across Vedis’s cheek. “Come on, bitch, if you want a fight, I’ll — ooof!” All the air left her lungs as she doubled up around Vedis’s fist buried in her gut, then collapsed, retching.

And a perfect hit, too, just like Akane and Ukyo showed us, if a little high, Elfrithr thought despairingly.  She grabbed Vedis’s arm.  “That’s enough!” she shouted. “Everyone just calm down and —” Unfortunately, Vedis was Akane’s supporter, and Elfrithr realized her mistake just as someone slammed into her side, knocking her over.

For a moment they rolled on the ground, kicking and gouging, and then Kahori was there yanking her attacker off her and kicking the other girl away. She reached down a hand to pull Elfrithr to her feet, and the two girls turned to stand back-to-back for mutual protection. They looked around them at the field suddenly full of girls struggling with each other as other girls and boys hastily backed away.

“So much for team bonding,” Kahori commented wryly. “Let’s see if we can work our way out of this mess.”

“Right,” Elfrithr agreed, “to the left — my left — looks like that’s the closest edge of the brawl, let’s go.”

The two girls edged their way through the scrum, careful to keep their backs to each other.

/oOo\

“My lord, Lieutenant Ukyo and Lieutenant Akane are here,” Peredur announced.

Sir Morgan, Kildar of the Keldara, looked up at his page from the large book on the window-lit table in front of him with a sigh of relief. Even with the spread of printing presses, more of Caithness’s nobles than not were semi-literate at best. He wasn’t sure why, though — a sergeant of Megalos’s legions needed to be able to read, and since his resignation from his service to the emperor he had found it a valuable skill both as a city guard at Carrick Town and especially as the next thing to an independent lord.

But that didn’t make reviewing his seneschal’s books any less boring.

Then the names his page had given fully registered, and Sir Morgan abruptly wished he could go back to reviewing the books. He did not want to be doing this — while he had had to dress down soldiers many times over his career (even the occasional knightly young scion of nobility he’d had to oh-so-politely take to task) he had never enjoyed it. And the fact that these two ‘soldiers’ were attractive young women added a surreal edge to the situation that made it even worse. Still, he had put this off as long as he could — too long — and he should have known better. He hadn’t gotten where he was by letting problems fester. No matter how embarrassed he was by what his duty demanded this time.

“Thank you, Peredur,” he replied, rubbing at his eyes. “Please show them in, then see to it that we are undisturbed.”

“Yes, my lord.” The page bobbed a bow and hurried from the room. Sir Morgan ignored the sound of voices as he rose from his chair and picked up his tankard. When the window’s iron, arrow-slitted shutters were open that seat was in the best-lighted part of his library, but it was also the location from which conversations could be most easily heard outside or in another room through its open window. Best to have the discussion on the other side of the room. Of course, if this conversation gets loud enough, being away from the window isn’t going to help, he thought with a wry grin as he turned to face his subordinates. It’s too bad I didn’t have time to learn Japanese while they were learning Anglic, a shared language no one else in the manor knows would have been useful.

Peredur stepped back into the library with the two girls behind him, sketched another quick bow with a murmured “Your guests, my Lord,” then backed out of the room and closed the door.  Ukyo and Akane made their own salutes of a closed fist thumped against a left shoulder, the standard salute of the Megalan legions he’d shown all the new recruits. Well, almost, it was a little and high — but he didn’t think the maidens would approve of thumping a breast as a form of greeting, even when wearing armor. Of course as maidens they should really curtsey, except that those of the lower order in the towns of Caithness — and certainly the Keldara — didn’t go in for obsequious manners much. And even if they did, a curtsey from a sweat-soaked maiden dressed in leather armor with a crossbow and quiver on her back would just seem strange. But though they’d already proven their worth, he was still uncomfortable taking a military salute from maidens as pleasing to the eye as these two were even after a full morning of training.

Not that the issue that had had caused him to summon the two lieutenants (as he had decided to call them) of his new scouts was military, exactly.

He returned their salutes, then waved them toward the rug-covered, upholstered chairs sitting by the fireplace (completely emptied of ash and cleaned, with the arrival of summer). He took a seat himself, subtly watching the pair as they set aside their crossbows and quivers and sat down, then poured each of them a tankard of water (properly boiled to make sure it was safe) and took a gulp of beer from his own tankard. As the grateful girls emptied half their tankards at once, he hid a frown — the two girls were apparently civil, but both were pretending that the other didn’t exist. When they did acknowledge each other’s existence, their crossing gazes were like clashing swords.

Finally, he sighed as he put down his tankard and leaned back. “So,” he said conversationally, “tell me just why my scouts are breaking up into two mutually hostile — and armed — camps.”

The two girls gaped in shock at the question, mouths hanging open until they recovered enough to start stammering responses that mixed together incomprehensibly.

Sir Morgan straightened. “Enough.” He waited a moment until the girls quieted, the two shrinking back slightly in their chairs under the weight of his stern gaze. “I know the two of you haven’t been fighting, or even trading insults. You have, in fact, been nothing but polite to each other — too polite. It’s obvious to everyone that those manners and your mutual responsibilities have been the only thing keeping the two of you from coming to blows, and after last night’s brawl we can’t say the same about your supporters, can we? Kasumi tells me that Shoshi won’t be able to resume training for at least a week, it’ll be several days for Yusuke, Michi and Rjupa, and the only reason it wasn’t worse was because Genma stepped in when Thordis pulled her knife — she isn’t coming out of her cell until Shoshi rejoins you. The training in unarmed and knife fighting you’ve been giving the girls was intended to be used to fight off overly amorous men, not each other!”

Ukyo and Akane blushed, eyes dropping, and Sir Morgan sighed and relaxed back into his own chair. Quietly, he said, “When the two of you were given your positions I knew you were rivals, but you seemed to be friendly — I thought Nabiki’s stories were exaggerated. What happened?”

“Ranma was my friend first —” Ukyo started to say, only to be interrupted by a bolt-upright Akane, a misty red light playing around the clenched fists that she pounded on the table.

“Ranma didn’t even know you were a girl! The Tendo agreement came first, and I was the one that helped him —”

“Enough!” The quarreling girls broke off, shrinking back in their chairs again under Sir Morgan’s glare. “I already know you’re quarreling over Ranma, I asked why it’s gotten worse over the past weeks — why you aren’t friends anymore.”

“I —” “We —” The girls broke off again, exchanged glances, and Ukyo motioned for Akane to start. Akane nodded. “We ... Ukyo’s nice,” she said softly, eye’s falling again. “If it wasn’t for Ranma I think we’d be friends. But that made her a bigger threat than Kodachi and Shampoo, much less the occasional new fiancée that dropped by. Then the power went away and people started dying and we had to run to get here, and then we had to work to make sure there’d be enough food ... it just didn’t seem as important for awhile. Now ...”

Her voice trailed off, and Ukyo picked it up. “Now, Kodachi didn’t come with us, Shampoo went home with Mousse, Ryoga, and Akari, we have enough food and the training with the scouts is easing off a bit, so there’s more time to think. Right, Sugar?” Akane nodded again, and Ukyo continued, “And we have a fight coming up, a real one, people are going to die — like Thora did, when the orcs hit us. Suddenly, marriage seems a lot more important.”

Sir Morgan rubbed the side of his nose as he thought — this was a new one, even laying aside the role reversal. Sergeant Morgan had had to lay down the law for soldiers fighting over a woman before, but never over which one would get to marry her — that wasn’t something soldiers thought much about when it came to camp followers, and when it did happen it was more of a practical arrangement than a romantic liaison. If there was any group of people more practical than soldiers, it was camp followers.

Finally, he sighed and straightened. “Listen, I understand that this is a longstanding situation, and that you both believe that you have valid claims. I also understand that you both have been trying to keep this from getting in the way of your working relationship, and have actually been successful for the most part.

“However, the same cannot be said for your people. You don’t have to like the men … the people you are fighting beside — I detested some of the men I served with — but you have to be able to trust them, to know that they’ll have your back. Right now, I’m not sure the scouts have that.

“So, I don’t care how, but I want your differences settled. If they aren’t, the scouts won’t be going with the pikes when we head down to join the king. Understood?”

He hadn’t raised his voice, but the two girls were pale when they jerkily nodded.

“Good. You’ll report again in one week.”

Sir Morgan stood, and the two girls rose, saluted, and grabbed their crossbows and quivers before turning toward the door, only to pause and turn back around when he cleared his throat.

“Akane, you owe me for a new table.” He nodded toward the table they’d been sitting at, now with a crack running half its width. “Also, after last night’s brawl I decided you need some sergeants — Maids Elfrithr and Kahori. According to the report on last night’s brawl they tried to prevent it, then when they failed they guarded each other’s back in spite of being on opposite sides of your little feud. Tell them the four of you are to report to Sergeant Osric for instruction in their new duties, he knows to expect you. Dismissed.”

Akane and Ukyo saluted again, blushing as they realized they hadn’t waited before for his dismissal, then practically ran from the room.

Chapter Text

The lesson on a sergeant’s duties finished for the day, Akane and Ukyo made their farewells to Sergeant Osric, then to Elfrithr and Kahori as the other two girls pealed off for their own homes and dinner. They were alone again with their duties done for the day, and the silence quickly grew uncomfortable as their thoughts returned to Sir Morgan’s order.

Finally, Ukyo said, “So, Sugar, just how are we going to do this?”

“I don’t know,” Akane replied. “We could duel, I suppose, but ...”

“But whoever wins, how do we get Ranma to accept it? It’s not like any of our other fights have gotten him off his butt,” Ukyo continued when Akane’s voice trailed off. “I suppose we could duel over who gets to court him, but that wouldn’t settle things down with the scouts — that’s the real problem.”

“Besides,” Akane added as they stepped through the door into the Tendo/Saotome & friends’ home, “do that and we’re back to treating Ranma like a prize — not a good way to get him to go along.”

Ukyo blinked. “Wait, what?” she said. “You were in there with the rest of us!”

Akane took a deep breath, sighing happily at the scents coming from the fireplace where her older sister was stirring a large pot — alone, Ranma’s mother must still be caught up in her quartermaster duties — quartermaster training, really, still, but less so all the time. Akane found the amount of detail involved in keeping track of all the necessary supplies for hundreds of soldiers to be mind-numbing, but Nodoka seemed to be not just rising to the challenge, but thriving.

Akane shook herself free of the momentary distraction and refocused on the current issue. Suddenly, she felt almost giddy. Win or lose, the whole issue would be over— and she didn’t expect to lose. And this could actually be fun, in a Nabiki-kinda way. “Kasumi, that smells great, some real meat tonight!” she enthused, then turned back to Ukyo. “Yes, I was in there with the rest of you,” she said, grinning, “but you need to remember that I didn’t want to get married — not right away — and you know what the fathers were like. For that matter, in the beginning I didn’t want to marry Ranma at all, I had a crush on Dr. Tofu.” She shrugged. “I got over it, but by then bickering had become a habit. I was there when he needed me, though, and like I said, it helped keep the fathers away. But it seems that isn’t an option, anymore. Besides, by this place’s standards we’re old maids!”

Ukyo stared at her, slack-jawed, then shook her head. “Who are you, Nabiki in disguise? I don’t believe it, not for a minute — you made that up after the fact.”

Akane just continued to grin back at her competitor, fighting back a giggle. “Hey, just because Nabiki is the one that made her mind her primary weapon doesn’t mean Kasumi and I are stupid — we’re sisters, after all! Right, Kasumi?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you are talking about,” Kasumi replied, her usual serenity almost firmly in place — Akane was happy to see that her lips were twitching. Her older sister’s mask had already been getting a bit threadbare even before the Second Fall, as Father Andre had taken to calling the catastrophe on Earth, thanks to the return of Tofu to Nerima. Her long hours with him since Miyo’s vision, throwing herself into learning what passed for medicine on this backward world as well as what Tofu could teach her of his Art in what free time they had, had simply hastened the wear and tear of that mask even further. Akane had already loved and respected her oldest sister, now she was finding she really liked her as well. And so did everyone else that came into contact with her, her eagerness to learn and help whoever and whenever she could had played a significant role in the Keldaran acceptance of the ignorant and incompetent (from the Keldaran point of view) Japanese refugees that had suddenly been dumped on them, even before Miyo’s vision.

Kasumi continued, “So, just what are you talking about, beyond the usual?”

Akane sobered. “You heard about yesterday’s brawl?” The look Kasumi sent her had her giggling for a moment before sobering again. “Of course you have, everyone has — that’s part of the problem.” With a sigh, she told her sister of the dressing down she and Ukyo had received from the Kildar, the marching orders he’d given them, and her and Ukyo’s discussion, such as it had been.

When she came to the end of the story, Kasumi sighed. “So time has run out for Ranma. And you are right, Akane — the decision is his, not yours. At least the number of choices has been narrowed, not that Ranma was ever serious about most of them.”

“Serious about what?”

The three turned to find the redheaded girl stepping through the doorway, hands and face still damp from the pre-dinner cleaning. Kasumi immediately turned back to the fire, and a moment later offered Ranma a metal pitcher with a cloth wrapped around the handle that she kept close enough to the flames to stay warm enough to reverse the curse. Seconds later the flame-haired girl was a raven-haired young man, and Kasumi refilled the pitcher before returning it to its place by the fire.

“Serious about what?” Ranma asked again as he ran his fingers through damp hair.

Ukyo and Akane exchanged glances. The former chef said, “You’ve been doing all the talking so far, no reason to stop now.”

“Thanks a lot,” Akane grumped, then took a deep breath. “Sir Morgan summoned me and Ukyo today, because of last evening’s brawl....”

/oOo\

Ranma wandered aimlessly through the empty, gathering dark, his mind awhirl, still stunned by the sudden demand for a resolution to the fiancée war. And this time the demand wasn’t one from the fathers or his grandchild-hungry mother that he could evade, or from yet another family his father had sold him off to, to yet another girl that he could barely remember if he’d ever even met her.

No, this time it was from the lord of the valley, his new military commander, and if he played games to avoid making a decision the ones that would pay were the scouts — the girls and boys that had trained and fought, and would be left behind when it was time to march off to war.

As he walked under a lone tree a gust of wind shook the leaves, and he sighed as he was spattered by water left over from a recent shower, feeling the change wash through him when the curse activated. He’d found that it was easier to avoid changing here in his new home — there simply was less water around to splash him — but once he was splashed it took longer to get changed back. Hot water was a lot less available than cold, she usually had to wait until she returned to their new home, and the pitcher waiting by the fire.

And you’re lettin’ yerself get distracted, tryin’ ta avoid thinkin’ about who you’re marryin’, she thought wryly. Not that that was really the issue. Still ...

She briefly considered visiting the magnificent garden old Mifune had created, where Akane had fled to after the funeral of the scout that died fighting the orc raiders, but resisted the temptation. True, she wouldn’t have any trouble finding it in the dark, but it would be just that — dark. The garden was more for meditation, anyway, and Ranma needed to order her mind, not empty it. Going there would simply be another dodge, and if Mifune caught her there in her current mental state he’d probably smack her for faking.

On the other hand, the church was always open, and none of her people would think to look for her there.

/\

Ranma stood in the side chapel of the clerestory, gazing at the statue of Saint Mary, the statue Miyo had knelt in front of day after day, demanding answers — and had gotten them, and changed everything, including indirectly forcing the decision that led to the redhead standing there staring at the statue lit by votive candles. From the patterns of smoke and melted wax the candles were new, or at least more numerous than they had been.

She had to admit that the artwork was excellent, as fine as anything he’d seen at the various temples and monasteries he and his father had visited during the long years of training. Even at the wrong angle she felt the impact of the loving, compassionate, sorrowful Mother of God, and she imagined that at the right angle — kneeling in front of the statue looking up at it — that impact would be incredible. She could understand why Miyo had chosen this statue to pray to. Still, she felt only the slightest temptation to kneel there, herself. Ranma had never been a particularly devout person, not even in the way of his people and certainly not after the manner of the Christians, but growing up he had heard the stories of Shinto and Buddhism and had taken part in the occasional rite, and had absorbed their meaning. As impressive as Miyo’s transformation was, he was happy with the religions he had grown up with.

“You are troubled, my son.”

Ranma turned, unsurprised by Father Andre’s approach. “Your son?” she asked in the Anglic they shared, taking a deep breath to accentuate her oversized chest.

Father Andre smiled, shaking his head. “And does your sense of who you are change with a splash of cold water?” he asked. “Are we likely to have a rumor sweeping the valley that you were caught in some man’s bed?”

Ranma gagged. “Not a chance!”

Father Andre shrugged. “There you are. If you were to choose to marry a man and have his children I might reconsider, but not before then. But that isn’t what troubles you, your opinion on the matter is too strong.”

Ranma hesitated for a moment, but she really needed to talk this out with someone, and none of her circle of family and friends would do — they all had their own agendas and loyalties. And for Christians, priests were supposed to be people they went to for advise, right? Besides, Father Andre had done his best to provide all the help he could to the refugees since their arrival, without care that they were mostly pagans. He was neither as earth-haired nor as stout as he’d been when the Neriman refugees first arrived — grey now faintly streaked his hair thanks to his added burdens, and he had accepted the rationing they all had to endure because of their numbers without complaint....

“Yeah, you’re right,” she said with a sigh. “I’m sure you heard about the brawl yesterday, and today the Kildar called in Akane and Ukyo....”

/\

“So now I got to choose or the scouts don't go south with us, and I can’t without dishonoring someone, how do I decide?” Ranma finished. She had to admit that she was a little surprised by the priest’s reaction to the story — he hadn’t so much as chuckled, or even cracked a smile. Even if he’d heard the story before from someone else, repeats usually had people having to suppress their amusement. But Father Andre had listened to the story with a sober mien that hadn’t so much as threatened to crack throughout the recital.

Then he started to speak, and shocked Ranma to her core: “You’re lying, you know, even if to yourself — you’ve already made a decision, you’re simply reluctant to put it into effect.”

Ranma gaped at the priest. “What!?” she demanded.

“Consider each young woman separately. Can you honestly tell me that you don’t prefer one over the other?” Father Andre asked. “Thanks to your positions of leadership I’ve been watching you all, and while the signs are subtle they are there.”

Ranma thought back over the past months since their arrival, then on back to the fight with Saffron and the wedding fiasco that followed it, the way he and Akane had tried to get closer without setting off fiancée brawls — even to the point of Ranma willingly spending time as a girl while they dated, to try and keep the others from becoming suspicious. He had made his choice. And as she thought back to earlier that evening, how angry Akane had become when Ranma refused to make the call then and there, to the point that Kasumi had to restrain her, the desperation Ukyo had tried to hide, she realized that the girls knew it, too.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she mused. “At first I hadn’t, and for awhile I actually enjoyed the girls fighting over me, though that got old pretty quick, and I still don’t really want to get married that much — but yeah, I did make a choice. But how can I betray Ukyo’s honor by rejecting her?”

Father Andre shrugged. “From the sound of it, thanks to your father’s greed there is no way for you to avoid offending someone’s honor, and how honorable is it to keep both girls in limbo by putting it off year after year, instead of letting the girl you reject get on with her life?”

“But there’s got to be a way!” Ranma insisted. “What if I marry them both, like King David and his wives?”

“King David?” Father Andre asked, surprised. “Have you been reading the Bible?”

Ranma shrugged. “Yeah, a bit,” she admitted. “After Miyo’s vision I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.”

“And did you read the beginning?”

“Nah. I started to, but it was pretty weird ... uh, no offense?” Ranma blushed when the priest laughed, then shrugged again. “Okay, maybe no more weird than the creation story of Japan I’ve heard. But I jumped to where it tells of Deborah and went from there.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised that you found the story of King David interesting,” Father Andre mused, “what with the fighting, the challenge by Goliath, the years he spent on the run from a king he refused to kill because it would be dishonorable. But by skipping the beginning you miss other stories that may be less interesting but have lessons you need. Let’s sit down for a moment, and I’ll tell you the story of Jacob and his wives.”

Ranma followed the priest to one of the benches for the congregation during services, and listened to the story of the trickster tricked: how at his wedding, when Jacob lifted his bride’s veil he found Leah, the older sister of the woman he loved. How he’d married Rachel as well, and the jealousy of Leah for her more beautiful and always more loved sister. Of the insane baby competition the two sisters had gotten into, to the point that they had offered up their handmaids to their husband as additional wives to have more babies for when they couldn’t. And finally, how Jacob’s favoritism of one wife over another carried over into the next generation to her son, to the point that one of his brothers had to talk the rest out of murdering him, and how instead they sold him into slavery and faked his death.

Ranma shook her head when Father Andre finished. “Wow! Okay, so maybe marrying two women that don’t like each other very much isn’t the smartest idea I’ve ever had.”

“From what I’ve seen they like each other just fine, at least when you aren’t around,” Father Andre disagreed. “But how much chance is there that they would continue to like each other?”

“You’re right, none at all. Guess I might as well get it over with. Maybe me and Ukyo can get back to being friends again, later.” Ranma stood up with a sigh and started for the doorway.

“True, this is something better behind you than ahead of you. And Ranma?”

The redhead paused and looked back toward Father Andre. “Yeah?”

“Your idea wouldn’t have worked even if you’d wanted to go ahead with it. We don’t allow polygamy anymore.”

“What?!” the redhead shouted. “Why didn’t you tell me that instead of that whole story?”

“Because you were more likely to listen to me if I told you why it was a bad idea, not just dictate to you yet again. Laws are what they are for a reason, and from the sound of it you’ve gotten enough simple dictates in your life already.”

Ranma barked a laugh. “Yeah, you got that right! Thanks.” She gave the priest a strained but sincere smile and quickly left.

/\

Akane’s temper was doing a slow burn. Actually, it was down to a slow burn — it had burned a lot hotter when her fiancée had refused to instantly pick her. If it hadn’t been for Kasumi grabbing onto her arm as Ranma turned and walked back out into the gather dusk, she would have used her summoned hammer and Ranma to put a new open skylight in their ceiling.

Since then she had waited, her mind churning as she pushed her food around on her plate and occasionally glanced at Ukyo across the table, looking away whenever their eyes met, at everyone else around the table. (It was still a good-sized table, with the fathers, Nodoka, Kasumi, Ukyo, Konatsu, Sayuri, Yuka and Ku Lon seated at it as well, but not as crowded as it had been before Ryoga, Akari, Xian Pu and Mou Tse had returned to Japan and Nabiki had left with the wizard.)

Akane knew Ranma loved her, she knew it! She’d known it ever since the fight with Saffron, the way he’d acted afterward, the way he’d watched her — the dates he’d been willing to go on as a girl to deflect suspicion. Why couldn’t he have just admitted it at the wedding? If he had, her temper wouldn’t have slipped its leash a bit and she wouldn’t have mentioned the water from the spring of drowned man, they’d have gotten married then and they wouldn’t be in this mess now!

Of course, Ukyo and Shampoo would have still charged in throwing explosives around, but we could have beaten them off together, right? Ryoga would have helped. And it wouldn’t have mattered that Ranma was too young and we’d have to wait to register the marriage until his birthday, his honor would have recognized it even if the law didn’t. We could have spent a few months enjoying being married before making it legal.

Then she was jarred from her thoughts at the sound of the door opening as the room fell silent, and she knew who had just come in.

She had been sitting with her back to the door (she’d have preferred to sit on the opposite side and not start at every hint of sound outside, but she refused to show concern by abandoning her usual seat). Now she twisted around to find girl-Ranma walking towards the table, and felt her heart stop, then explode with fresh anger. The redhead was looking at Ukyo, not her.

Her hands curled into fists as she felt her anger snarling and clawing, trying to escape, and she was opening her mouth to shriek her anger at her fiancé when Ranma spoke, and her fury blew out like a candle in a breeze to be replaced by pure elation.

“Ukyo, I’m sorry.”

Akane turned to look at Ukyo and she found her no-longer-rival stiff-faced and shiny-eyed. Ukyo simply nodded her acceptance, ignoring the fathers, who’d bounced up with happy shouts and were busily singing badly if enthusiastically while dancing around a Nodoka doing her own victory fan dance.

“I understand, Sugar. It’s not like I didn’t see it coming.” Rising from her stool, she walked around the table and past Ranma out into the night, quickly followed by Konatsu.

Ranma turn to follow only to pause when Kasumi spoke. “Not now, Ranma, give her time. She’ll be all right, but right now you’re the last person she wants to see.”

Ranma sighed, but sat down.

Akane was surprised to find herself on her feet, staring at the dark doorway. She felt herself growing angry again — this should have been the happiest day of her life, and it had been for all of a second. But the raw pain in Ukyo’s eyes.... That could have been me.

At least she had a legitimate outlet for her rising anger, and she ignored the hesitant congratulations from Yuka and Sayuri as she stalked around the table toward the fathers with clenched fists and shouted, “Will you shut up!

/\

Outside in the dark, even through her heart’s storm Ukyo had to smile at Akane’s shout. (Well, scream, really — she suspected people had heard it on the other side of the valley.) It wasn’t hard to guess what had set off her former rival. You tell them, girl, she thought, before refocusing on what had brought her out wandering in the night.

Her Ranma was gone. Oh, he’d still be around, but he wouldn’t be her Ranma, not anymore. Of course, he wasn’t really yours to begin with, was he? And you knew it. If he had been, you wouldn’t have blown up his wedding — you’d have just sat back and enjoyed the show when he blew up at Akane and the fathers. He was just being nice to you. All true enough, but she had hoped ...

And now that he’d actually been forced to make a decision, he and Akane wouldn’t be hiding their feelings for the sake of the peace. Even if Akane didn’t crow about her victory, this was going to hurt.

Looking around, she realized that her wanderings hadn’t been as aimless as she thought — she was standing by the fire pit where the scouts’ brawl had dashed her hopes. She sat down on one of the surrounding logs with a sigh, staring sightlessly into the dark as she considered her lonely future, then started as someone else sat down on the log — her faithful self-declared servant had followed her, and she hadn’t even noticed. Well, Konatsu was a highly skilled kunoichi, he wasn’t supposed to be noticed, but she suspected she would have been just as oblivious if he had been stomping along like an elephant.

“First thing in the morning, we’re packing up and moving out,” she said abruptly. “I’m sure a family of one of the scouts will be willing to let u stay long enough to find or build a place of our own.”

Konatsu nodded. “Of course, Ukyo-sama.” He hesitated, then asked, “Ukyo-sama ... are you all right?”

“Of course I’m all right. I’m a tough girl, I can t-t-take care of my self-f-f-f.”

But the tears suddenly rolling down her cheeks said otherwise, and Konatsu visibly screwed up his courage and gently pulled her head down to soak the shoulder of his tunic as she sobbed out the loss of her dreams.

Chapter Text

Myrddin ignored the deep ache in what felt like every muscle in his body as he looked around as he rode up the mountain valley to the Keldara settlement for the second time that year, heartened by what he saw — and didn’t see. The fields he’d seen people busily at work in on his first trip lay fallow, abandoned to the weeds and wildlife, and though he could hear a raised male voice somewhere shouting out a cadence there wasn’t a man in sight. The dwarves must have come through and with food not an issue the men were off training somewhere, like the girls and a few boys he’d seen practicing with crossbows on a slapdash firing range he’d passed below.

Actually, he had been impressed by the skill those girls had displayed, both in the accuracy of their fire and the speed with which they’d recocked the crossbows — and unlike the men-at-arms he’d watched train at Carrick Town, half of the girls had been practicing while lying down.

Then he turned a bend in the road around a small hill and sighed in relief as the keep came into sight. This was going to be a very fast turnaround, he hoped to be back on the road retracing his trip in the morning, but a hot bath, a hot dinner not cooked over a campfire, and a night on a mattress instead of on the ground would be welcome. But first he had to talk to the Kildar.

/oOo\

Sir Morgan stood as his page ushered the Court Wizard into his office. According to the strict rules of protocol he shouldn’t have, he was technically an independent ruler while Myrddin was just as technically a well-paid commoner. But as usual there was the letter of the law, and then there was the reality of power. That was how things had been when he’d been a sergeant in the legions, and he hadn’t seen anything to change his opinion since his arrival in Caithness — though his view had softened during his time in Carrick Town’s city guard. Caithness was at least a little better at making the ideal of Christian equality a reality. He sat again while Peredur escorted Wizard Myrddin to his chair and filled a goblet with Sir Morgan’s best wine, thinking, if new Jack be not good, old Jack can hang.  It was a local saying he’d heard while patrolling the streets. He had scoffed when he’d first heard it, but over time he’d realized that Caithnessers were serious about it. Oh, a baron was still a baron, but he had best tread lightly in a land where almost four out of five peasants were free villeins whose ancestors had volunteered to move to the territory recently taken by force from the orcs and who still treasured their legally free status and their self-image as tough, self-reliant frontiersmen — not like those ‘effete spineless weaklings’ that had stayed behind!

Still, even if in Caithness status and privilege didn’t count for as much as in the states on its eastern and southern borders, skill and power ... and even patronage ... were still recognized and Myrddin had an overabundance of all three. Even if he didn’t look it in his stained and smoke- and sweat-scented travelling clothes.

Sir Morgan shook off his woolgathering. “Peredur, tell the servants to heat water for a bath, then wait for me to finish talking with Wizard Myrddin,” he instructed. “Afterward you’ll be escorting him to his bath and scrounging up some food to tide him over until dinner.”

“Yes, sir.” Peredur bowed and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Myrddin drank down the goblet, refilled it and half-emptied it again before leaning back in his chair. “Sorry for the mess,” he said, waving at his travel-stained garments. “I want to be back on the road tomorrow morning and didn’t know how much time you’d need to meet the king’s requests, so I couldn’t wait to clean up first.”

“That’s fine,” Sir Morgan said, waving off Myrddin’s apology. “I’m well familiar with the smell of sweat. So what does King Conall want?”

“A few things but most important, will the troops be ready to march in a few weeks?”

Sir Morgan frowned. “The pikes will be ready, and the ki masters were ready from the beginning. The scouts ... have issues.”

“Really?” Myrddin raised an eyebrow. “I passed them on the way up and they seemed at least as good with their crossbows as your usual man-at-arms.”

“The problem isn’t their training, it’s their bond as a troop. It frayed badly and hasn’t entirely reknitted yet.” He quickly told the story of the way the scouts had divided into separate Akane and Ukyo ‘the one true fiancée’ camps and the riot that resulted, and had to smile as Myrddin failed to contain his laughter. “I know, I know, it really is funny,” he agreed, chuckling, then sobered. “But taking a troop that’s that badly fractured into battle is a good way get your people killed and maybe lose. I’ve taken steps and things are getting better —” A grin flickered across his face as he remembered the quick wedding that had followed his ultimatum. The decision to limit attendance to family had been a politic one, a suggestion he suspected had come from Ku Lon — that meant that Akane’s close friends hadn’t been able to be there, but they’d also avoided the awkwardness inherent in inviting Ukyo ... or not ... and her refusal to accept ... or not. But there had been nothing ‘politic’ in Akane’s refusal to allow either of the fathers to attend, with Ranma’s enthusiastic support, though even that had helped heal the rift in the scouts once word spread of her loud questioning of what creating the mess in the first place said about their intelligence and sanity. It hadn’t been a case of losing her temper again, either — her apparent rant had been public, in Anglic, and considering the length and breadth of her answer to her own question (boiling down to ‘infantile’ and ‘none’) she must have asked some of the men-at-arms he’d assigned to train the scouts for appropriate insults just for the occasion. Ranma’s own additions had been less extensive or inventive, but just as heartfelt. “— but I still have my doubts. Maid Ukyo hasn’t taken her rejection well, for all that she’s tried to hide it, and it’s becoming an issue.”

“But the pikes will be ready,” Myrddin mused, then when Sir Morgan nodded continued, “That should be enough. King Conall wants them in Carrick Town just shy of the end of the campaigning season, so when we move against Sterling the rest of the rebels — or Megalos — won’t have time to organize a counterattack.

“Now, for the king’s other requests, he needs a couple of the newcomers to return with me — one of the ki masters, one that knows what the rest are capable of, and someone able to translate the books I took with me last trip. He’s fascinated by them, but feels that Nabiki is too valuable as an information source to waste on translation duties.” And as an advisor, Myrddin didn’t add. The king had been impressed enough by their first meeting and the letter Archbishop Siccius had sent him after meeting her that he’d insisted she attend all his planning sessions, ostensibly to answer any questions about her people that came up (a cover that had the advantage of being true). She’d never spoken up in the larger meetings, but the king had been further impressed by the few suggestions she’d offered in the more private planning sessions with Myrddin. He’d been even more impressed when she hadn’t pretended to knowledge she didn’t have when he asked her about the ki masters’ capabilities — advisors smart enough to admit their limits were a treasure.

“That explains why she didn’t return with you, I’d wondered. But what does that do to your cover story?” Sir Morgan asked.

Myrddin shrugged. “That’s pretty threadbare, anyway,” he replied. “Even with the servants’ help maintaining the illusion, more and more people have been expressing their ... lack of conviction, shall we say? The fact that she’s been spending more time with the king than with me hasn’t helped, though it has started its own set of rumors.”

“I see.” It was Sir Morgan’s turn to shrug, suppressing a chuckle — he could just imagine the kind of rumors that would spark. “Well, that’s your affair ... or not,” he added with a grin, “I’ll leave you to it. There shouldn’t be a problem with either of the king’s requests.” He stiffened at a sudden thought and his grin widened. “In fact, this could be just the thing to solve my problem.” He refocused on his guest and straightened in his seat as he called for his page. As Peredur entered, Sir Morgan said, “Why don’t you grab that bath and a snack. After dinner you can tell me everything that’s going on down in Caithness. Peredur, return immediately after fetching Wizard Myrddin his snack, I’ll have some messages for you to deliver.”

Myrddin nodded and wearily hauled himself to his feet. Sir Morgan was hastily scribbling his messages before his guest was out the door, only to look up when Myrddin stepped back into the office and placed an unadorned silver goblet on the table. “A gift for Ranma, Nabiki suggested it,” the wizard said.

/oOo\

Ukyo walked along behind Miyo and the Kildar’s page whose name she couldn’t remember as they walked up the road to the keep, ignoring the concerned glances from her fellow lieutenant at her side. Ignoring those glances was absurdly easy, as easy as it had been to ignore the ones Akane had been sending her throughout the days since Ranma had made his choice. It had been just as easy to ignore the same looks from Konatsu, and to blow off the clumsy inquiries from Ranma about how she was doing, the much less clumsy inquiries from Kasumi and Nodoka, and the subtle probes from Ku Lon. Miyo’s silent concern had been harder to ignore, for all that her friendship with the new prophetess was more recent than any of the others, but Ukyo had managed. What had been truly hard was to force herself to pretend that nothing had happened and go on with the training that only her sense of duty made possible, and it got harder every day.

Her interest was piqued a bit when she saw the new tents to one side of the keep, horses staked on long lines close by. With the latest delivery of food from the dwarves the keep’s guest rooms and barracks must be full, and she vaguely recalled a party passing by on the road next to where she’d been practicing her marksmanship with the rest of the scouts. But the page didn’t say anything as the girls he was escorting washed their hands and faces before he led them to the Kildar’s office.

Sir Morgan looked up from a book full of columns and numbers as the page showed them in. “Ah, good, you’re here,” he commented, shoving aside the book and leaning back in his chair with ill-concealed relief as he motioned to various seats.

Once the girls were seated and the page left, closing the door behind him, Sir Morgan said, “I imagine you saw Wizard Myrddin’s party when it passed you on the way here. Beyond learning if we’d be ready before the end of this year’s campaign season, he had some requests from the king, one of which pertains to you. He wants one of the ki masters familiar with your capabilities to join him, so he can better plan the campaign.”

Ukyo shifted where she slumped in her chair, frowning. There was a reason he was telling them this — just them, but she couldn’t see it. She was still trying to force her depression-numbed mind into gear when Akane beat her to it.

“So you want one of us to go. Me, I suppose, since Ukyo is the scout field commander. Ranma will insist on going with me.”

“Yes and no,” Sir Morgan replied, smiling at Akane approvingly. “Yes, I want one of you to go, but I believe it should be Ukyo.”

Me?” Ukyo demanded, shooting bolt upright, the fog in her mind abruptly blowing away. “Why me?”

Sir Morgan shifted his attention to her, eyes sympathetic. “Because you’re hurting,” he answered, “so much that it is getting in the way of your duties. It’s not your fault,” he continued, lifting a hand to override her protest. “And I know you’re doing your best, but in this case your best just isn’t good enough, not yet. Once you’ve had time to heal I will be happy to let you reassume your position as lieutenant, but not right now. And since that’s the case, I think it’s best if you weren’t here for awhile — both for you, and for your replacement.

“Which won’t be you,” he added, refocusing on Akane.

“No?” She stared at him, from her confused expression unable to decide whether she should feel relieved or insulted. “But who, then?”

“That would be me.” The others turned to look at Miyo, as she continued, “I can’t think of any other reason why you asked me to come. Am I right?” When Sir Morgan nodded, she straightened and tried to smile confidently. “So I’m not going to be wrapped in bubble-wrap and stuffed in a closet like Barak tried to do with Deborah. Sure, I’ll do it. It’ll mean dropping my Bible studies until after, but there isn’t really anyone else that can, is there?”

 “I don’t know what ‘bubble wrap’ is, but you’re right,” Sir Morgan said, grimacing. “You don’t belong on a battlefield, and damn sure not out in front as a skirmisher, but there is no one else so the job’s yours. Just please remember that you’re important — if the scouts get in a tight spot and everyone else dies getting you back to camp, we can count it a win. Don’t take stupid chances.”

“I won’t.”

Sir Morgan gazed at her for a long moment, and Ukyo noted the way she was beginning to shiver. She knew where Miyo was going to be spending her evening — in the chapel on her knees in front of Mary’s statue. Finally, Sir Morgan murmured, “Good, you’ll be a safer commander than some of the gloryhounds I’ve served under in my time.”

Shifting his gaze to Akane, he said, “Since the fight with the orc band, the scouts have dropped their training in fighting barehanded to focus on knives and shortswords, right?” Akane nodded, and he continued, “I want you and Ranma to drop everything else to start up training the girl scouts again, at least. We’ll be leaving in a few weeks, and remember that not all the men we encounter in Caithness will understand that you aren’t ... ‘available’. Or care. Coordinate group size and scheduling with your corporals.

“Now,” he finished, straightening, “Wizard Myrddin wants to leave in the morning, so I’m giving the scouts the rest of the afternoon off. Throw a party, just not another riot, okay? Oh, and Akane, this is for Ranma.” He picked up an unadorned silver goblet that had been sitting on his desk and tossed it to her. “It’s enchanted, any water in it is heated. Maid Nabiki suggested it.”

/\

For the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, smiling faintly as she watched a Ranma whose hair never completely dried because he kept trying out his gift, Ukyo was surprised to realize that for the first time since the wedding all she felt for Ranma was pure, unadulterated joy — simple happiness at seeing her oldest friend so happy, unmindful of the way he was cuddled up with Akane — with his wife. And with that realization the mixed emotions she’d felt since being informed of her new assignment vanished. She could not continue being constantly reminded of what she’d lost, weighed down with resentment and bitter regrets. It was time to move on. In the morning she would walk off down the dirt road — path, really — with Konatsu (of course with Konatsu — he hadn’t even stated he was going, he’d simply assumed it) and she wouldn’t look back.

Chapter Text

Armstan’s jaw ached with the effort it took not to grind his teeth from pure hatred as he watched through the underbrush as a pair of Lord Brance’s foresters in their brown leather and green homespun approached along the forest trail, bows unstrung and slung across their backs, right where the new rebels’ impromptu spies had said they’d be. And alone, just as expected as well.

It had been a hard few months for Godhun’s second son — first the shock of suddenly finding himself and his families, his, his brother’s and his parents and younger brother, on the run from his lord’s men-at-arms along with the rest of the halflings in their village; then his older brother’s death when they ambushed those same men-at-arms just before they caught up with the fleeing families; then being found by the Archbishop’s men and escorted to Photius and safety only to be offered the chance to return to Oakwood. And not just return, but assume leadership of the marauders — with his brother’s death he became his father’s heir, and where before that would have just meant inheritance of the family farm now it meant he was the one given first shot at leadership of their little band.

Not that they won’t look to someone else if this doesn’t work, so let’s make this count. There was no way in hell he was going to let someone else take the lead in exacting their pound of flesh. Closest to the heart, he thought, remembering the play a traveling show had put on once.

For a moment the faces of his wife and son flashed across his mind’s eye, before he forced them away to focus on the now. If he didn’t return, his father would see to Hildgyth and their little Theodhere, just as he was seeing to Cenric’s wife and daughters. Not that there was any chance of dying today — not for him or his, at least.

Then the two men crossed the invisible line he had designated, and all around halflings rose from where they’d been hiding and crossbows thrummed. For that close a shot the innate halfling talent for ranged weapons was unnecessary, and both foresters were knocked back a step by the multiple bolts hammering into their chests (and one to the forehead) before dropping limply, dead before they hit the ground.

I knew it. Armstan stepped over to yank out the crossbow bolt from where it stood up between one of the corpse’s empty eyes and checked for the personal marking he’d insisted all the men put on their bolts. I knew it!

The rest of the halflings gathered around — some grinning, some pale, but all veterans of the ambush back when they’d first run so none of them were puking their guts out — and Armstan looked around for one particular halfling. As soon as he found him he stepped over and hammered a fist into his groin, then when Daniel collapsed onto his knees clutching at himself, kicked him in the stomach hard enough that he was puking his guts out.

When Daniel was through and had shakily sat back, Armstan snarled, “What did I tell you about head shots?”

“But it was an easy shot — less than thirty feet!” Daniel protested.

“I don’t care — this isn’t an archery contest, shooting for a side of venison or a few farthings, this is serious business,” Armstan retorted. “When the men-at-arms start showing up with their armor and helmets, then you can start thinking about head shots. Until then, if you have an easier shot that’ll do the job, take it, don’t show off!”

He waited until Daniel shakily nodded, then turned to look down at the two corpses and grinned coldly. Here it started — within weeks his band would own this patch of woodland, and there was no way that arrogant bastard of a lord would accept that. He’d send in his men-at-arms to clear them out, they’d teach the scum fresh lesson in why it was a bad idea to mess with halflings in fields and woodlands when they didn’t have homes to defend, and when the real fight started those soldiers would be nowhere near it.

He spit on the face of one of the corpses. Kill my brother and try to sell off my nieces as whores, will you? Turning away, he said, “They probably won’t be found until tomorrow, but we might get unlucky. Let’s get out of here.”

Behind him, his men exchanged glances. Armstan was proving as competent as his father, they had no problem with accepting him as their leader — but they really hoped the laughing, playful halfling they’d known would return someday.

/oOo\

Nabiki was waiting for Myrddin’s cavalcade in the castle courtyard, hands worrying at the full skirts of her gown even as she tried to maintain her usual mask of confidence (though these days she was trying to tone down the smirk). True, she didn’t really need to be there, even with her ‘public’ reason for being in the castle — especially with her public reason, mistresses didn’t typically greet their lovers right out in front of God and everyone. That was what wives did. On the other hand her cover as Myrddin’s mistress was pretty much shot, though the rampant speculations (and betting) on what she was that the servants reported to her had been highly entertaining and had only grown moreso since Myrddin had left without her. Her current personal favorite was that she was a Sahudese princess smuggled south by the dwarves of Zarak to cement an alliance by marrying the king, and Myrddin was shuttling back and forth to arrange the passage of the Sahudese army through the dwarven realm that would help reunite Caithness.

She frowned thoughtfully as she reconsidered that particular rumor. Part of the reason it was her favorite was because she’d invented it — she knew how inventive a rumor mill could be, so someone was bound to come up with an army of some sort, and there were other armies that would be close enough to the truth to cause concern when the rumors reached the wrong ears. Such as one of the dwarven subkingdoms abandoning its neutrality. Hopefully, the rumor she’d had the servants start was so outlandish that it would prevent those more reasonable rumors from taking root, or taint the entire idea if they did anyway. The only real danger the rumor posed was that if Sahud had any martial arts masters to match Ranma — or even Akane — someone in Megalos might consider that moving a few men (they wouldn’t think of women, of course) south through the mountains of Zarak (or under, if the dwarves cooperated) was much easier than moving an entire army.

Nabiki considered the permutations of her personal rumor yet again, before minutely shrugging. It’s not like I could make things worse, she thought. There’s no disguising where Myrddin’s traveling to, and everyone that knows anything about Sahud takes one look at my eyes and assumes that’s where I’m from. Besides, even if there are high-level martial artists in Sahud, I doubt anyone in Megalos believes the stories. From what everyone here says, Megalos suffers badly from top dog disease — if they don’t come up with it, or don’t have anything like it, it must not be worth knowing.

Then Myrddin’s party came thundering across the drawbridge and through the barbican and gatehouse into the inner courtyard, and she found herself frantically searching the riders for familiar faces, only to slump when she found them, bitterly disappointed: Ukyo and Konatsu (still in men’s clothing, of course, and didn’t that still seem strange), the two on foot. Nabiki hadn’t really expected any of her family to come — or those she had found herself considering family — but ... It seems I miss them more than I realized.

Still, she had an act to put on, however unbelievable it might be now, and she forced a cool smile as she walked down the stairs to greet her putative lover.

/\

Nabiki leaned back in her seat at the table in the rooms she shared with Myrddin, placing her fork on her empty plate and glancing around at her two dinner guests. Myrddin and the stranger that had come with him to translate the books salvaged from Japan were eating with the king in the Great Hall, but she’d suggested that Ukyo and Konatsu have private meals to try and avoid attention. The fact that it also allowed her to catch up on the latest gossip from what was now home was happenstance, really. So she had been enjoying speaking in Japanese while her guests had been enjoying not moving. Not that they were in anywhere near as bad a condition as she’d been — they’d avoided riding by essentially jogging all the way to Carrick Town. Myrddin and the men-at-arms accompanying him had been impressed.

Nabiki sighed when Ukyo finished bringing her up to date on her family’s latest lunacy. She didn’t know what to think, really — her sister a berserker (okay, that part was believable, it explained Akane’s tendency to respond to embarrassment or fear by getting angry), Akane a blooded warrior (if not a soldier), Akane and Ranma actually finally married (Nabiki’s ribs still ached from her laughter after she’d heard of the brawl). The last was perhaps the hardest to believe. For over two years since that wet evening that a redheaded girl and a panda had shown up at the Tendo home the whole fiancée war had been so much a part of their lives that it had become a fact of life, as constant as the sun.

I guess all things come to an end, she thought whimsically, then almost gasped at a sudden wave of melancholy as for a moment her thoughts turned to the world that had died around them as they’d run for this one — something else that she’d found herself having to deal with since her arrival at Carrick Town, especially once Myrddin left her behind for his second trip to the Keldara, and the first real chance she’d had to just relax since arriving in their new home.

And to really remember. She’d plowed through what books were available that she was interested in, the king only had so much time to discuss things irrelevant to governing his realm, and there wasn’t anyone else in his court learned and intelligent and interesting enough to hold her attention. It had been all she could do to keep from starting up the kind of games she’d played in high school, just to distract herself from her thoughts.

Shaking away her distraction, Nabiki refocused on her guests. There was a real possibility here, a way to help rig the game in their favor.... “Ukyo, the king will be grilling you for the next week or so for what you and the rest can do, but probably not much more than that. Still, it won’t be all that long before Ranma and the rest show up.” She watched closely and caught the younger girl’s slight wince. Thought so.

“Still, there’s a way the two of you could really help us,” Nabiki mused. “It would mean leaving before our little army arrives, though.”

 “Just what is it, Sugar? If it’s really important we won’t have much of a choice.”

Nabiki shrugged, hiding a smile as Ukyo’s attempt at nonchalance failed to hide her eagerness to be elsewhere. “I don’t know that it’s important, just that it could be. Let me show you.”

She stood and quickly shifted the empty dishes and platters to the floor, then walked over to a cabinet to pull out a rolled up map on parchment. Unrolling it on the table, with Ukyo and Konatsu’s help holding it open, she placed a finger on a tiny castle on a river, east of a large desert and just south of a huge mountain range running east and west. She said, “Where we are right now, Carrick Town, on the River Conn.” She ran her finger along the river, first east, then southeast through a forest, then east across a dotted line to another tiny castle. “New Jerusalem, fifty miles across the border into Megalos, and the semi-autonomous capital of the Knights Hospitaller, also on the River Conn.  The Hospitallers don’t like us much, and the River Conn is a natural invasion route all the way to our capitol. The Megalans didn’t use it the last few times they tried to take land from Caithness, though, because of how badly they got hammered by the Barony of Durham, here.” She ran her finger back west along the river into Caithness to a tiny tower where the river bent toward the northwest. “The various barons of Durham have kicked their asses so badly that the legions won’t try it again without a full-on invasion force powerful enough to roll over the barony. And they haven’t tried that in generations, they’re too busy focusing on crusading south against al-Wazif.

However,” she continued, looking up at the pair, “right now Durham’s baron is actually a baroness, Baroness Bronwyn, and the Hospitallers take a dim view of women ‘doing a man’s job’, they buy into that whole ‘weaker sex’ nonsense. And Sir Geoffrey, the Grand Master of the Order, doesn’t much care for what our Archbishop’s people have been preaching, he considers it heretical. He may just try to push through Durham and take Carrick Town if he gets the opportunity.” Shifting her finger back to Carrick Town, she ran it south to another tiny tower. “And when we go after Sterling, we’ll be giving him that opportunity — we’ll even be taking some of Bronwyn’s men-at-arms with us.” Looking up at Ukyo, Nabiki said, “The king thinks that we’ll be moving so late in the campaign season that the Hospitallers won’t have time to react when they hear about it, but just in case I’d like you to be there as back-up.”

Ukyo nodded thoughtfully, looking at the map. “Yeah, I can see that. Sure, I’m not one of the one’s throwing balls of ki around, but once the king’s done with me here we’ll be happy to watch your back.”

“Actually, it would be just you. I have another job for Konatsu, if he’s willing — one for a kunoichi.”

“What?” Konatsu looked up from the map to stare at Nabiki. “You want me to leave Ukyo-sama?”

“Only for awhile,” Nabiki replied. She shifted her finger from where it still rested on Stirling southeast through a gap between two forests, east past a tiny building with a cross, to another tiny tower. Looking up at Konatsu, she said, “Oakwood, another of the rebels and ruled by a new lord that is busy alienating many of his subjects. There’s already some hit-and-run attacks against his men,” — or should be, by now — “and when word reaches them of our capture of Stirling the lording is going to blow up. I want you there when that happens.”

“I see.” Konatsu frowned. “You want me to assassinate this new lord when the rebellion starts?”

“Oh, no, not a chance. Use assassination to take down enemy nobility? Just not done here and now, King Conall would never be able to win over the rebels if we did that — he might have trouble holding on to the lords and barons he still has. Besides, Lord Brance is as delusional as a Kuno, we want him to stay in power until we take his lording away from him.”

Nabiki paused, gazing down at the map, her stomach churning at the thought of what she was going to say next. This needs doing, really. So do it. Taking a deep breath, she looked back up at Konatsu. “But he has a family retainer, Sir Domitius, that been with them all his life, he’s the captain of the men-at-arms. There’s nothing wrong with that man, and Lord Brance listens to him. Once the king is finished interrogating you two, when you both leave for Durham, Konatsu, I want you to slip away, head south to Oakwood, find Sir Domitius and kill him once the rebellion starts in earnest. Preferably, it should look like some rebel got lucky. With him gone Lord Brance will take direct command of his men, and there’s no way that can do anything but help us. Oh, and you can’t contact the rebels, they need to be in the dark as much as everyone else — plausible deniability. Can you do that?”

Konatsu looked over at Ukyo. “Ukyo-sama?”

Ukyo shook her head. “This one’s your call, Kon-chan, I can’t make it for you.”

He smiled for a moment at Ukyo’s use of the diminutive form of his name, before his gaze dropped to the map where Nabiki’s finger still rested on Oakwood — the easternmost of the southern rebel lords, and so with no other lordings between it and Megalos. “It’s what I trained for,” he mused. “Nabiki, you’re sure this will help?”

“Absolutely.”

He straightened. “All right, I’ll do it.”

Nabiki gave him a tight smile. “Thanks,” she said, “Now if you’ll excuse me —” She bolted for Myrddin’s wonderful bathroom, with its magical equivalent of modern plumbing, and got her head over the bowl just before losing the dinner she’d just eaten.

Chapter Text

Sir Geoffrey, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, stalked into his second’s suite, fists clenched, still dressed in his dress chainmail and tabard, his finery contrasting with the plain robe his subordinate preferred when not training at in the field.

Sir Tristanus rose to his feet for his superior, both spiritual and temporal, from the table he sat, then looked over at the Order brother standing in the hallway and pulling the door closed. He wisely waited until the door was fully closed, then said as he sat back down, “So the good archbishop is on his way home?”

As he’d expected, Sir Geoffrey exploded into a long rant as he strode back and forth as he expounded on the dietary and sexual habits of the Archbishop of Raphael, the Duke of Craine and the legates in charge of the imperial legions in Megalos’s western territories, and the sad impact said habits had on their ability to comprehend simple Anglish.

Sir Tristanus stacked the reports he’d been reviewing of New Jerusalem’s stores of food and equipment and pushed them to the side (silently cursing yet again whatever brilliant idiot had invented preprinted forms shortly after the introduction of the printing press — yes, the efficiency and security the added paperwork provided were nice, but the time they ate up!). Estimating with long practice that his superior was nearing the end of his tirade, he poured wine from a crystal decanter into a pair of gold, jewel-encrusted goblets and placed one in front of the padded chair across the table.

Sir Geoffrey glared at the goblet for a long moment before dropping into the chair and grabbing it up to gulp down the wine.

“Careful, that silk tabard isn’t cheap,” Sir Tristanus warned. “The show you need to put on occasionally won’t be enhanced by wine stains.”

Sir Geoffrey surprised himself with a chuckle at his subordinate’s ostentatiously dry comment, but took rather more care with his drink before setting down the now empty goblet.

As Sir Tristanus refilled the goblet, he commented, “You know, Duke Bran and the legates do have a point.”

“King Conall is up to something,” Sir Geoffrey insisted.

Sir Tristanus shrugged. “Of course he’s up to something. I don’t know if he has the mind of a snake or just listens to the advice of Myrrdin who definitely does, but that pair is always up to something. But I don’t care how well the Keldara are trained,” — and they would be very well trained indeed; their lord might be nothing but a jumped up sergeant, but he’d been a very good sergeant in the only professional army in the world — “mercenaries don’t handle bloody frontal assaults well, and it’s too late in the year for anything else.”

“I know,” Sir Geoffrey agreed sourly, “and so does King Conall — which means that Myrrdin’s trips up into the mountains probably involve more than just hiring some imperial-trained mercenary foot. But they’d have to think twice if we could just get a legion posted on Caithness’s southeast border, and even if they didn’t we’d be in a better position to intervene.”

“True.” Sir Tristanus shrugged again. “But that’s where Duke Bran and the legates have a point. King Conall might be up to something, but the Dark Elves in Blackwood definitely are — and that is right in the middle of the western Empire, not on its western border. That expanding forest and the monstrosities hiding within it at the Dark Elves’ beck and call are more urgent than suppressing a nascent heresy in another kingdom.”

Sir Geoffry glared at his subordinate. “I am concerned with men’s souls, not their paltry earthly lives,” he ground out.

“I know,” Sir Tristanus agreed, “but if we overrun Caithness only for the Dark Elves to expand the Blackwoods behind us enough to cut off all land routes between us and the rest of Megalos we’ll likely just lose it again, and may well find Raphael and Craine overrun and ourselves besieged in New Jerusalem when the heathens of al-Wazif take advantage of the situation. We need to deal with the rot at our core before we deal with the rot on our border.”

Sir Geoffrey maintained his glare for another long, fulminating minute before slumping with a sigh. “I know, I know, I’m just kicking against the pricks,” he agreed. “Where’s your map?”

Sir Tristanus bolted upright in his chair, slamming down his goblet and ignoring the wine he splashed on his plain brown robe in the process. “Wait, you think we should intervene ourselves?”

“Of course, who else is there?” Sir Geoffrey asked. “This might be our only chance to nip this heresy in the bud!”

“How so?” Sir Trstanus asked, frowning.

“I’ll show you, fetch your map.”

Sir Tristanus quickly moved his paperwork and the decanter and goblets aside, used a sleeve to mop up the spilled wine, and spread out his map of Caithness and western Megalos.

Sir Geoffrey frowned as he studied it. “The more I think about it, the more I believe that we are only looking at Keldaran mercenaries,” he mused. “Whatever’s going on up in those mountains can’t have anything to do with wizardry, the dwarven kings have made it clear that they won’t tolerate human wizards in their territory and King Conall isn’t going to risk their armies invading his kingdom from the north while he’s trying to reconquer his south. And since all the more powerful wizards sitting on those tiny plots of land in Caithness where magic flows naturally have refused to involve themselves in the civil war, that means Conall still lacks a door knocker for dealing with rebel castles. So he’ll bring down his new, untested mercenaries late in the season, use them to clear resistance in the field and intercept any relieving armies, and assault the rebel castle with his own blooded household troops and whatever personal troops of his loyal nobles he can gather in a hurry — his target will be Wallace along the western border on the Great Desert if he’s being conservative, Sterling in the center if he’s ambitious. Then he’ll use the Keldara to garrison his conquest and use it for a jumping off point next year.”

Sir Tristanus studied the map and slowly nodded. “You could be right,” he said. “If so, it’ll be Sterling — Conall may be as twisty as a snake but he’s a plunger, he’ll go for the quick win.”

“That sounds like him,” Sir Geoffrey agreed with a fierce grin, “and if you’re right that means he’ll be bringing Redhall’s levies when he makes his move, and that means we have an opportunity — here.” He ran a finger from New Jerusalem west along the River Conn across the border into Caithness to the tiny castle labeled ‘Durham’. “Redhall’s the only lording close enough to support Durham if we move fast, and with those levies in Sterling there won’t be any. And once the Baroness of Durham runs away, we’ll have a clean run up the river. If Conall has called up the levies of Fordham and Deerhall as well, we may even have an open road all the way to Carrick Town!”

Sir Tristanus stared at the map, then look up to match his superior’s fierce grin. “And if that happens, then next year the rebels roll north, and it’s all over. We put a puppet on the throne, within a decade or so the emperor can declare he’s a duke again under the emperor’s direct authority, and when Archbishop Siccius dies either our puppet or the emperor can recommend a replacement to the Curia that can root out the heresy corrupting Caithness’s people.”

“Exactly!” Sir Geoffrey enthused, then frowned as the expression on his subordinate’s face turned thoughtful. “What is it?”

Slowly, Sit Tristanus asked, “How do you think will the Curia react? Yes, this may be our only chance to stop this heresy without declaring a crusade and wiping it away with fire and sword, but it is a rather blatant interference with a Christian kingdom’s internal affairs. And the Curia hasn’t labeled Archbishop Siccius’s teaching a heresy — it doesn’t even have a name yet.”

“True,” Sir Geoffrey agreed with a shrug, “but enough of the Curia will go along once we’ve won, if only because a majority of the Curia is under the emperor’s thumb and the emperors have wanted Caithness back in the fold ever since Earl Conall took it away from them.”

“But what if we lose? Or even only get as far as Durham? What then?”

Sir Geoffrey bolted to his feet, knocking his chair back. Slamming his fist on the table, he shouted, “We are on God’s business, we can’t lose!”

But Sir Tristanus just shook his head in the face of his superior’s anger. “God’s ways are mysterious,” he replied. “It may well serve Him better to allow this canker to fester for a time, perhaps to test His children and make its evil all the more plain. If so, what then?”

Sir Geoffrey paused, then righted his chair and slowly sat back down. “You may have a point,” he reluctantly admitted. He leaned back, deep in thought, then nodded. “When Conall makes his move and we move in response, I’ll leave you here, with hints that you don’t approve but ostensibly in case something drastic changes with the Blackwood. That way if our intercession fails the responsibility will fall on my head alone, and when I’m packed off to a monastery somewhere the Order will accept you as its new grand master.”

Sir Tristanus considered the plan, and reluctantly nodded. “God grant it does not come to that, but if it does that should work.” Taking a deep breath, he rolled up the map and set it aside, and picked up the stack of papers he’d been reading when Sir Geoffrey was first ushered in. “When you came in I was just going over the stores we’ll need for the campaign. We’ll want to quietly shift supplies down to the docks so they can be loaded on boats at a moment’s notice....”

Chapter Text

Walking down the road — trail, really — in alongside the marching column, Ranma couldn’t keep from smiling. Not that he was trying all that hard, life had been surprisingly good to him lately and he had no problem showing it.

First, there was his marriage to Akane. True, it had been rushed, and pushed on them, and had brought on some good-natured ribbing from both the men-at-arms training the Keldaran and Japanese volunteers and the volunteers themselves about learning a new ‘art’. And the way Ukyo had looked beaten down when she left.... But it also meant that the whole mess was over — that all three of them could get on with their lives, and the sheer relief that had brought had been incredible. And it seemed Akane agreed with him, because she had been easier to live with as well, her temper not as chancy. And a good thing, too, since between sharing a bed and training the girls they had been spending a lot more time together than ever.

Second, there was the fact that with the regiment on the march he wasn’t teaching classes anymore, neither in the basics of martial arts to some of the men or self-defense to the girls. He understood why the classes had been necessary, both to help pay for the aid the Japanese had received from people that didn’t have all that much to share to begin with and to prepare a gaggle of girls who’d soon find themselves surrounded by strange men. But he’d learned something over those months of the first and weeks of the second — he didn’t like teaching, at least not the basics. One-on-one with a few friends like Sayuri and Yuka, no problem. More advanced training like Akane and Ukyo, that had been fun. Teaching scores of beginning students that he didn’t know all that well if at all, a serious problem. Though some of those students, both men and girls, had shown some promise — once the teaching resumed he’d just have to train them up to the point that they could teach the basics. Once they reached that point, he could step back and supervise while continuing to train them and any others that wanted to take their martial arts training seriously. But for now, that training was on hold and wouldn’t resume for months.

Third, there was the goblet that heated any water it contained that Myrddin had given him. It hadn’t turned out to be the unalloyed blessing he’d expected, he’d found cold water seeking him out more often and in more incredible ways as the days passed (really, the ground collapsing under his feet to form a new spring?). At the moment, he was testing out the old ghoul’s belief that it was simply a matter of balancing out the time he spent in each form by sleeping as a girl. Thankfully, Akane was being unusually understanding and didn’t seem to mind cuddling at night with a cute redhead instead of her manly husband.

Ranma frowned for a few moments as he considered that Akane had actually been more cuddly lately, and he couldn’t figure out why — it wasn’t like she’d shown any real attraction to her husband’s redheaded half at any other time.... He glanced behind him, to where the bunches of scouts were walking between two blocks of pike, with Miyo in the middle (Sir Morgan had decided that they didn’t need scouts out in front or on the flanks before reaching Carrick Town and the king, and armed girls leading the march might dangerously startle the populous). Ranma couldn’t see his wife anywhere among them and he wondered for a moment where she was and why she wasn’t with them, but he was in too good a mood to dwell on the incomprehensible behavior of women (it wasn’t like he’d ever understood them before, whatever advantages others thought his curse gave him). His momentary introspection was washed away by his delight in the day.

Because finally, the best thing about life at the moment was that they were finally on the road! Never in his entire life had Ranma spent so much time in a single place — not even Nerima. True, the Tendo dojo had been home for two years, but his time there had been broken up by any number of trips, some extensive. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed being on the road until now. And to make it perfect, everyone else was coming along — even Kasumi and his mother, there was no one left behind to miss or worry about.

Yes, life was definitely looking up.

Then the trail twisted around a patch of trees, and Ranma stumbled, his eye’s eyes widening at the two ... people? ... that came into sight.

Well, one of them was clearly a person: male, somewhat thin, full head and full beard of blond hair where it wasn’t white, dressed in artfully tattered brown leathers — and with an indefinable air to him that Ranma instantly recognized, having met some examples among the many masters that had trained him. The old man was blind, but seemed ordinary enough beyond that.

But what had Ranma shocked to the point of clumsiness was the man’s ‘mount’. It would have been an ordinary stallion — except that where a horse’s neck and head should have been, there was instead the torso, arms and bald head and trimmed beard of a man gone white with age, as white as his tunic. Not that the age was apparent in the torso and arms’ musculature, that would have done any brawler proud.

Beside Ranma, the sergeant on loan to the cohort sucked in his breath. “Blind Lars!” Sean exclaimed. “What’s he doing here? And riding a centaur, too. If I wasn’t seeing it right now I wouldn’t believe it, not even him. Centaurs simply do not allow themselves to be used as mounts.” He waved forward one of the few boys among the scouts behind them. “Run back up the column, tell Sir Morgan that Blind Lars has joined us,” he ordered.

“Who?” Ranma asked as the boy handed his crossbow off to one of the girls and race away up the trail beside the column. Miyo trotted forward to listen.

“Blind Lars,” the sergeant replied. “He’s a singer and storyteller out of the Nomad Lands north of Megalos, one of the best in the world — maybe the best. He’s been wandering the world for decades, looking for excitement he can turn into poetry.” He frowned thoughtfully as he watched the pair rapidly approach. “But why is he here?” he murmured. “We’re supposed to be a secret!”

“And so you are!” Blind Lars called out. (Ranma noted to himself that the old man had the sharp hearing the long-time blind often developed.) The centaur reached the front of the column and turned around to pace alongside Ranma and the sergeant, and Old Lars continued, “Several months ago I was visiting Windy, here, catching up on the plains gossip and passing along the latest news from Outside, and we heard a whisper on the wind that here we needed to be for the stories and knowledge to cap a pair of lifetimes. So here we are.”

His ‘mount’ sighed. “That’s Windwalker,” he corrected.

“Windwalker?” Sean repeated faintly.

“Ah, you have heard of my humble musings,” the centaur said. His voice was deeper than any Ranma had ever heard, but seemed to silently laugh at the sergeant’s reaction. “I must admit I’m somewhat surprised — I didn’t believe my reputation as a scholar extended to ever-practical soldiers. The Megalans I’m more accustomed to are the scions of the Imperial elite, that their fathers want to toughen up at the same time they gain an education.”

“I might have mentioned you.” Sir Morgan reined his horse down from to trot to a walk on the other side of Windwalker and Blind Lars. “Well met. I am Sir Morgan, the Kildar. We met once, when I was still a sergeant in the legions I was assigned once to escort one of those well-fathered brats to your school. It was the first time I passed through Caithness and Zarak.”

Windwalker bowed his head in acknowledgement, and Sir Morgan glanced down the trail. “Where are your students? I’m surprised they aren’t with you.”

Windwalker replied, “We left them at the foot of the mountain —”

Blind Lars broke in, “Hey Morgan, your knighting put your head so high in the clouds you can’t recognize an old friend?” He held out a hand more or less in the Kildar’s direction.

Sir Morgan reached out to clasp forearms. “Now Lars, as a knight and the Kildar I am honorbound to recognize a renowned scholar and teacher before an old wandering vagabond.”

Lars laughed. “You aren’t still upset about that song, are you?” he asked.

Sir Morgan shrugged, smiling ruefully. It’s been ten years since you travelled with my legion during the Frontier Wars and the last time a minstrel passed through he didn’t know it was about me, so I suppose so. What have you been up to?”

“Oh, you know me,” Lars replied, “as it says in your Book, roaming Yrth, going back and forth on it.”

“Now don’t go saying that where any priests can hear you!” Sir Morgan said with a laugh. “Enough of them mistake you for a servant of the Devil as it is, if not the Devil himself!”

“Well, if they wouldn’t live such interesting lives, I wouldn’t tell stories about them,” Lars said, joining the laughter for a moment before adding. “And speaking of interesting lives, my Muse tells me that there are stories to be found here like none I’ve ever heard.”

Sir Morgan instantly sobered. He stared at his friend for a long moment before saying slowly, “You know, I’ve never been sure if you really have a spirit whispering to you, or the best ear for gossip and rumor I’ve ever known. As much as Father Andre would berate me for saying so if he’d come along on our little stroll, right now I’m really hoping it’s a spirit.” He glanced down at Ranma, still walking beside the sergeant and Miyo. “But yes, some of us, like Ranma and Miyo here, have some incredible stories to tell.”

“Ranma and Miyo?” Lars asked.

“Uh, yeah, that’s us,” Ranma said. The blind bard turned his head down toward the sound of his voice, and Ranma shivered slightly under Lars’s strangely intent sightless gaze.

Lars murmured, “I’d almost say Sahudese, from your accent, but that’s not quite right. Are you from Old Earth?”

Ranma glanced over at Miyo, and when she gave an almost imperceptible nod, replied, “Well ... yeah, we are.”

“Incredible! Where in the Orient did you live? What was your life like? Tell me all about it.”

“Uh, now?”

“Of course! Nothing makes the miles pass more quickly than a good story. We’ll trade, you and I — you tell me of your travels, and I’ll tell you of mine.”

“Okayyy ...” Ranma glanced at Miyo again for another encouraging nod (something Windwalker took note of), then grinned as a thought struck him. Ten years, huh? I wonder how long a song about Pop can stick around. “I guess the excitement started for me when I was a little kid, and my stupid pop ...”

Chapter Text

“Thank you for your report, and your efforts. I truly do appreciate the risks you take,” Baroness Bronwyn of Durham said quietly, careful to keep her shock and worry hidden. She jotted down several items on a piece of old parchment along with prices and stood to hand it across the small table she was seated at to the ragged, motley-dressed wandering merchant trader before her. “Take this to my steward for payment for the books,” she ordered as she sat back down, “and tell him I said to see to it that you have a decent meal and a corner to sleep in.”

Warren Longshanks bowed extravagantly in the manner of the wandering player he had been at one time. “Thank you, My Lady, I live but to serve,” he said before hurrying from the room.

Bronwyn waited until the door closed behind him, then turned her chair to face the others standing in her working room — the ones that she had ordered be quietly located and led to that room through the secret passage when she’d been notified that her spy in New Jerusalem had arrived. She motioned the two men — Old Ranulf, the captain of her men-at-arms, and Sir Geoffrey — to several chairs by the currently empty and cleaned fireplace and rose to join them. The single lady-in-waiting that the baroness accepted as necessary for appearance’s sake (and longtime friend) hurried to fill and serve goblets of Bronwyn’s favorite ale, then retreated to a corner by the window and resumed her embroidery.

“So,” Bronwyn began once everyone had had a chance to enjoy some of the ale, “the Hospitallers are secretly loading supplies on river barges.”

Geoffrey shrugged. “So they’re getting ready for an expedition. We knew they might be coming.” He’d been more than a little surprised to be included in the impromptu war council — as courteous and welcoming as everyone had been, he was the brother of one of the rebel nobles. And Durham was one of the border baronies with a less-than-friendly Megalos on the other side of that border. He’d expected that courtesy as befitting his rank as a knight and noble heir, but he’d also expected to be kept away from the center of things as he had been back in Carrick Town.

Ranulf chuckled, hiding an approving smile. Geoffrey had impressed the grizzled veteran in the weeks since the younger man’s arrival, both by his skill with horse, lance and sword and by his good-natured acceptance of both the wariness with which he’d been greeted and any task he’d been assigned. But for all that, Sir Geoffrey was a young man lacking in larger practical experience, as his statement had just demonstrated. “You’re right, Sir Geoffrey, we already knew they might be coming, but now we know where — or is there anywhere they might be headed with those barges that we would care about, that doesn’t go through this barony? No, if the Hospitallers plan to invade, it won’t be north through Fordham as the Megalans usually do. If that was the case, they’d be sending those supplies north to Arvey.”

Geoffrey grinned ruefully. “Yes, I suppose knowing that might be important,” he agreed, adding his own chuckles to the other two’s amusement.

Still smiling, Bronwyn said, “From the reports we have from the king there is no evidence of the legion along the southeast border mobilizing — just the opposite, troops are being pulled out, most likely headed for Hyrnan to deal with the dark elves in the Blackwood. So this is most likely an attempt by the Grand Master to distract us from whatever we might plan. If he does attack without legion support, it’ll be as a response to what we do, and it will take some time after the king marches from Carrick Town for word to reach him. So, Ranulf, we’ll hold off on summoning our own people from their lands until after the king marches, to avoid alerting the Grand Master ourselves and to save on our own stores here. We’ll know long before any spy could get word to New Jerusalem, so our people will be all nice and concentrated before those saintly hypocrites hear about it. Considering how late the king will be marching, by the time the Grand Master learns of it we may well be getting close to the first snowfall so I doubt he’ll march on us. Still, better to be safe. If nothing else, we can use the practice in mobilizing.”

She paused for a moment until both men had nodded their agreement, then continued. “However, there is one task that we need to start on as soon as we can — the town of Pilton. I’ve just received a report I requested on the state of its walls, and there are ... issues. The city’s inhabitants haven’t been lax, exactly, just ... comfortable with the way Megalos has been avoiding us for the past few generations.” She focused on her guest. “Sir Geoffrey, I want you to journey to Pilton and take charge of the necessary repairs. As well, learn the ground around the city. If the Hospitallers do come at us, that is where I want to meet them.”

Geoffrey nodded his agreement. Pilton was the walled town on the river closest to the eastern border, and he didn’t care how many barges the Hospitallers had available, the army wouldn’t be travelling on them — the barges were for supplies, the army would be marching along the bank of the Conn. More, the Grand Master couldn’t leave Pilton unoccupied behind him, not the way it dominated the river.

As he thought over everything involved in his new assignment, he felt something inside unclench. Since his arrival he had been treated with all courtesy, but had never been able to shake the feeling that everyone was watching him with wary eyes. He couldn’t blame them, not with his older brother being one of the rebel lords, but it had still been wearying. But this task — this was vital, and a silent gift of trust that he hadn’t even hoped for.

Then he remembered another soul that had seemed more than a little lost since her arrival, spending much of her time on the battlements staring out across the town and countryside beyond — lonely. He could understand that. He asked, “Can Ukyo come with me? I think she could use a change of scenery.”

Bronwyn’s eyes widened, then narrowed in suspicion. “She isn’t another serving wench you can tup for your pleasure,” she warned.

“Hey, Maye enjoyed our sport as much as I did!” Geoffrey protested. “And I gave you enough gold to see to the child’s needs once it’s born.”

“True enough,” Bronwyn acknowledged, “but whatever Ukyo may be, she is nothing like Maye. She’s much more intelligent, for one thing.”

“It isn’t her mind I’d be worried about,” Geoffrey said with a laugh, “it’s that strange ax she carries. Credit me with some intelligence, I am not going to seduce a woman that can slice me into pig feed without breaking a sweat.”

Bronwyn grinned, remembering Ukyo’s demonstration of her fighting skill the day after her arrival — and how she had easily beaten every man-at-arms and knight at the castle, and then followed it up by beating them all at once — and Geoffrey had been among the men she had handled like children. But he had a point — Ukyo had demonstrated her skill, told what she knew of her people’s capabilities and the king’s plans for them, but since then had seemed a bit lost. Yes, a change of scenery will do her good. “Very well, ask her if she would care to join you. And you may take your pick of the men-at-arms quartered here to take with you. Meanwhile,” she continued, rising to her feet with the two men hastily following her example, “I will make another trip out to see Mad Marc.”

“Again?” her captain asked with a groan.

“Yes, again,” she replied firmly. “I know I’m probably wasting my time, but he’s the only wizard in the barony, and the Hospitallers hate magic — they won’t have any wizards with them. He will be invaluable if I can convince him to help us.”

“True enough,” Ranulf agreed, shrugging. “And even when he rejects your offer again, the ride will do you good. You’ve been cooped up in this castle too long.”

“That it will, old friend,” Bronwyn agreed, smiling at the thought of getting a horse between her legs and open countryside before her. It had been too long. Still, she wished she could tell her liege man and old friend the truth, she hated keeping secrets from the man that had faithfully served her family all his life. But some truths were much better left unspoken until they were needed, and just how thoroughly Mad Marc lived up to his name was one of them — not many wizards had an underground engineer hidden away in his tower’s basement making gunpowder, after all. From what Mad Marc had said (with more enthusiasm than she found comfortable) at least in part because the ones that tried had a tendency to die when their towers exploded.

/oOo\

Nabiki glanced up from her book (the Bible, in Japanese) at the knock on the door to the suite she was sharing with Myrddin. Aylara set aside her mending and rose from her own seat to hurry to the door. The maidservant had assigned herself to be Nabiki’s constant companion to the point of sleeping on a mat in the parlor (for reasons that completely escaped Nabiki, nor had Myrddin had a clue — and Aylara had only smiled and changed the subject when Nabiki asked her). She asked, “Who knocks?”

“Sir Galardon, sent by the king for Maid Nabiki,” came the muffled answer.

Aylara turned to where Nabiki was curled up in her favorite upholstered chair. “My Lady, Sir Galardon comes with a message from the king.”

Nabiki suppressed a giggle — even after the weeks she had been living in the castle of Carrick Town, the manners still felt like playacting. Marking her place and setting aside her book, she uncurled and rose to her feet to hurry into the sleeping chambers and its mirror. She checked her reflection and decided her hair wasn’t too much out of place from its simple style, smoothed down her equally simple dress (though costly — there was nothing too costly for Myrddin’s putative mistress), and strode back into the parlor to nod to Aylara. The maidservant opened the door, to reveal the king’s foster brother ...and the court’s knightly fop.

Well ... ‘fop’ may have been a trifle unkind, this was Caithness, after all. Nabiki suspected that a true Megalan knight would find Sir Galardon’s manners and dress unrefined, even crude. The cut of his clothes might have been impractical for wearing under armor, but it was of the same practical cloth as the other knights she had observed. And as much as those knights might have looked askance, if not disgust, at his hose (rather than more practical trousers), elaborately embroidered tunic and bejeweled and filigreed hilts of sword and dagger, the one time Nabiki had seen him draw that dagger she had noted that the blade at least was fine steel and eminently practical — and competently handled.

Now Galardon strode in and bowed deeply before Nabiki, sweeping off his broad-brimmed, feathered hat to reveal hair as fiery as Ranma’s girl-side. In a smooth voice that Nabiki would have sworn contained a hint of laughter, he solemnly intoned, “My Lady, our king desires your wondrous presence.”

Suppressing another giggle (with more difficulty this time), Nabiki dipped in a practiced (much practiced) curtsey. “But of course, my lord, I am but his to command,” she responded just as solemnly.

This time a hint of giggle escaped, and a grin flashed across Galardon’s face. Straightening, he crooked an elbow. “Then may I have the singular honor of acting as your escort?”

Nabiki replied, “The honor is all mine, to be seen in the company of such a magnificent knight.” She tucked a hand through the crook in his elbow and ignored the snort of strangled laughter from ####, simply nodding imperiously to her maidservant as she allowed Galardon to sweep her from the room.

The two kept up an exchange of barbs and innuendos as they descended down the stairwell that circled just inside the tower’s outer wall. Nabiki was so thoroughly enjoying the exchange that she didn’t even notice that they’d taken a slight detour, not until they stepped through a doorway and she realized that they were alone in a storeroom.

Instantly, she let go of Galardon’s elbow and stepped away as she turned to face him. “Sirrah, this is most ungentlemanly!” she intoned, looking haughtily down her nose at him and hoping that the slight twist to her body hid her hand slipping through a specially designed slit in her dress to grip the small dagger strapped to her thigh.

Galardon had stayed by the doorway when Nabiki had stepped away from him, and now he backed up to lean against the door frame as he grinned at her. (She noted that he was angled so that he could both see her and have the corridor in his peripheral vision.) He said, “As much as I enjoy being alone in storerooms with pretty women, I’m afraid this is business. We need to talk before I deliver you to the king.”

“So the king really did ask for me?”

He nodded. “Yes, but since I volunteered to fetch you he won’t be surprised if we’re somewhat delayed, and not just for my reputation as a womanizing flirt — I’m his day-to-day contact with the Silver Hand, you see.”

Nabiki stiffened at the mention of the king’s rumored spy organization, then her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “And just why are you telling me this?”

“Because we’ve found out that while two Nerimans set out for Durham, only Ukyo arrived. May I ask just where Konatsu ended up?”

“No, you may not,” Nabiki instantly replied. “For one thing, I’ll need to verify with King Conall that you are who you say you are, rather than simply a womanizing drunk that the king puts up with because you were his childhood companion.” She tensed, ready for him to jump her, but he merely shrugged.

“My reputation makes for a perfect cover, doesn’t it? Not a problem, I can wait — but not for too long, the king has a very ... interesting proposition for you.” He frowned thoughtfully for a moment. “Our main concern is that we not trip over each other. While the Silver Hand’s reputation is somewhat overblown, we do have some conspiracies moving forward.” After another moment’s hesitation he shrugged again. “Where we could really get in each other’s way is Oakwood. You might have guessed that we’re organizing a rebellion against Lord Brance, to kick off when word reaches them that we’ve taken Sterling. Would whatever you’ve planned interfere with that?”

Nabiki hesitated, but finally decided that she was at least partially busted. “How I answer that depends on the king says.”

“Excellent!” Galardon straightened. “Then let’s get you to the king, and he can explain what he has in store for you.”

Nabiki motioned toward the hallway. “After you,” she said dryly.

Galardon merely chuckled and turned toward the hallway, then paused and turned back around. “Uh, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that little conspiracy to the king. I believe your people call it ‘need to know’.”

Nabiki lifted an eyebrow. “The king doesn’t need to know?” she asked.

“With everyone that he needs to be able to honestly assure that he knows nothing about any underhanded plans by the nefarious Silver Hand? Absolutely, he doesn’t need to know. He isn’t the best liar in the world — all that backwoods chivalric training during his childhood, you know, if he’d been raised in a properly corrupt court he’d do better.”

Nabiki chuckled even as she motioned again toward the hallway with her free hand, still clutching her dagger with the other, and Galardon again turned his back on her to lead the way.

/\

Nabiki sat bolt upright in her chair. “You want me to be what?!” she all but shrieked at the king.

“I want you to be my ambassador to Lord William of Wallace,” Conall repeated, as calmly as if he’d suggested she accompany him for a day’s jaunt to view the autumn colors.

“That’s what I thought you said,” Nabiki said, collapsing back. “You are all stark, raving mad.”

Conall laughed. “Please, tell me what you really think,” he said, “no need to concern yourself with my royal sensibilities.” Nabiki’s glare did nothing to quell his own broad grin. The grin vanished when he sat up, though, and he rubbed at tired eyes. “At least, there’s no need to be concerned in private, and not too loud,” he added. “As much as I enjoy those that don’t play the courtier game, I do have a public image I need to maintain.” Straightening, he asked, “So why do you think it’s a bad idea?”

Nabiki rolled her eyes, careful to keep her expression free of the sympathy she thought the king wouldn’t appreciate. “Oh, I don’t know ... too young, too female, my Anglic still has rough edges, I’m not Christian, my skin’s too dark, will that do for starters?”

Conall shrugged. “Your age and sex might be an issue if I was sending you to negotiate with him, but I’m not — not officially, at least. Officially, you’re just delivering in person the same invitation to attend the first meeting of the Grand Councils come spring that the broadsheets my people will distribute will offer his people. Unofficially, I would be more than happy if you could negotiate a separate peace within the limits I’ll give you. And for that negotiation, your age, sex and obvious foreignness may actually be an asset — he doesn’t trust me, Myrddin, or anyone else associated with me at all, but he may be more willing to trust you. And what does the color of your skin have to do with anything?”

Nabiki stared at him for a moment, then waved it off. “Later. It would take too long to adequately explain, and it’s irrelevant, anyway.” Still, as backward as she found her new world there were aspects of it that she definitely liked, and the lack of racism as even a concept was one of them.

She sat up straight in her chair again and asked, “So you really think I can talk Lord William around?”

Conall shrugged again. “Realistically, probably not — he’s a stubborn old man, loyal to his friends, and really doesn’t trust me. But you’ll have a better chance than anyone else we have available.”

Nabiki mused, “And once you take down Lord Towne of Sterling the situation will have changed, he may be looking for a way out.” She nodded. “Okay, so what are the limits within which I can negotiate?”

Over an hour later, Nabiki rubbed at aching temples, head full of whirling facts, opinions and suggestions that might be related to each other and relevant to what she found when she arrived at Wallace ... or might not. Why anyone wanted to be royalty was beyond her, just getting pulled into the center of one of the king’s crisis fires was making her head hurt. “Is there anything else that I need to know about right away, Your Majesty? Because if not, I need to talk to the seamstresses right away.” She had suggested, and the king agreed, that arriving on horseback rather than in a palanquin would allow her to move faster while appearing stronger and more exotic, but now she needed to have dresses modified so she could wear them while riding astride (sidesaddle just wouldn’t do for the image she was trying for).

Conall shook his head. “No, that should cover it.”

“Great!” She stood and stretched, suppressing a smile at the way the king’s eyes followed her curves (and forgetting that she was supposed to wait for the king to rise first). She turned toward the door, then paused and turned back, waving a hand toward Galardon in the seat by the window he’d occupied since escorting her into the king’s presence. “By the way, Sir Galardon tells me that he’s your contact with the Silver Hand. Is that true?”

Conall started, eyebrows rising. “Yes. Yes, he is,” he replied.

“Good to know.” She turned toward Galardon. “No,” she said, then swept from the room. She was not looking forward to spending the next hours as a pin cushion. While some noble women had maidservants that matched their shape and height to act as seamstresses’ dummies, Nabiki wasn’t a noblewoman. And besides, she hadn’t seen any maidservants that matched her height and body type.

/\

Conall watched Nabiki sweep from the room, then turned to the head of his Silver Hand. He asked, “What was that about?”

Galardon chuckled, shaking his head. “Nothing you need to know about, Con,” he said, “just making certain we aren’t working at cross-purposes.”

“ ‘Working at cross-purposes’?” Conall repeated, eyes narrowing. “Is she beginning to ... play?”

“Maybe a little,” Galardon replied, shrugging. “It’s a good thing you came up with this ambassadorship, I think she was beginning to get bored.”

“Bored!” Conall shuddered, thinking of the quick-witted, dry-humored, sometimes sharp-tongued young woman that had attended his councils — and what Archbishop Siccius had written in his letter of his own impressions of her. what a woman like that could get up to if she started trying to ‘entertain’ herself didn’t bear thinking on ... though if all that sharp-edged intelligence could be harnessed to his own purposes.... “Gale, sometime between your wenching and tavern-crawling, give thought to who might be an appropriate match for her.”

Galardon’s eyebrows rose. “An arranged marriage?” he asked doubtfully. “If her people are anything like the other banestorm victims that have arrived here lately, she won’t care for the idea at all.”

Conall shrugged. “Perhaps, but those other victims were from the opposite side of the world, maybe her people are different. And if they are, a marriage or two to more closely bind their fate to ours wouldn’t be amiss. And we can certainly make good use of her ... of them all.”

“True.” Galardon hauled himself to his feet. “And speaking of wenching and tavern-crawling, I’d better get to it. I’ll let you know if anything comes up you need to hear.”

Chapter Text

Akane swung herself up onto the seat of the supply wagon Kasumi was driving, frowning grumpily as she slipped the straps to her backpack and crossbow off her shoulder and swung it up onto the canvas-covered wagonload. As she adjusted the lay of her shortsword on the seat, she thought, Couldn’t we have stayed in Carrick Town even one night? She’d hardly seen her husband at all during the short march south down out of the mountains to Tacitus, there had been no privacy at all on the river barges that had brought them east downstream along the River Conn to Carrick Town, and no sooner had they disembarked then the pikes had formed ranks (or at least the men, they’d been met with orders to leave their pikes on specially-made carts) and marched smartly through the town to join the king’s personal troops. And now they were hitting the road again and would be under marching protocols meaning no leaving camp past the pickets, she was at her least fertile point in her cycle and she wanted to get laid. Ranma had proven as much a prodigy at learning the marital arts as he was with martial arts, and for once she hadn’t had to fight down jealousy as he picked up techniques as easily as breathing — she was too busy enjoying the results of his experiments. Cuddling with the redhead had been nice, even comforting, had mostly helped keep away the dreams of what was coming, but with no birth control available Akane hadn’t wanted to risk getting pregnant. And now that she was safe there wouldn’t be an opportunity ... she just wanted to scream!

Beside Akane, Kasumi glanced sideways at her little sister before refocusing on her reins with a slight frown. She and Nodoka been quickly trained in driving a wagon when they’d insisted on coming along, but her only real experience had been coming down out of the mountains and she was still nervous. But her nerves weren’t the reason for the frown, and she glanced around and decided everyone else was far enough away to give her and Akane some privacy so long as they kept their voices low. Besides, they had the best way to keep things private available, a foreign language. She murmured in Japanese, “Akane, shouldn’t you be with the scouts?”

Akane waved off her sister’s concerns. “We’re just getting started, there’ll be time enough later. I want to spend more time with my sister. Sisters, really, why’d Nabiki have to be gone when we got here? It’s been months!”

But Kasumi refused to be diverted. “Akane, we’ve spent weeks now ‘catching up’, and like you said Nabiki isn’t here. And you’ve been avoiding your friends, even the ones that came with us, and they’ve noticed. Yuka and Sayuri have each asked me privately what they’ve done to offend you, and I didn’t know what to tell them. What’s wrong?”

Blushing, Akane opened her mouth to hotly deny the charge, but Kasumi glanced over toward her again and she couldn’t — her older sister’s usual serene mask had vanished, her worry plain.

Akane started to cry. She whispered, “Thora’s dead.”

“Thora?” Kasumi glanced forward for a moment to check on her driving (not that it was really necessary, the horse was simply following the wagon ahead of them), then refocused on Akane. “You mean the girl who died when the orcs attacked?” At Akane’s nod she continued, “Akane, that was Sir Morgan’s fault, not yours, he told you so himself!” It was only when Akane shushed her that she realized she’d been raising her voice. Blushing, she glanced around to find that the nearest men were ignoring the two girls — perhaps a little too hard, but if they were courteous enough to pretend they hadn’t heard, she’d be courteous enough to pretend she hadn’t noticed them pretending. She shifted her reins to one hand and used the other to pull her sister against her.

Akane buried her face in Kasumi’s shoulder and whispered, “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, Thora’s dead. And she isn’t going to be the only one, just the first, and it hurts.”

“Oh.” Kasumi sighedas she finally realized what was wrong with her sister. “Akane, it’s too late, you aren’t going to be able to hide from the pain. All you’re doing is worrying your friends and depriving yourself of some happy memories that you’ll regret missing later. I know, after mother died ...” She broke off, her throat tightening, and Akane’s own arm circled her waist.

For a time the two women rode in silence, until Kasumi reluctantly broke their embrace and shifted her hand back around to retake the reins. “Akane, you’re married now and I no longer have the right to tell you what to do, so I’ll settle for what you should do. You should wash your face, paste on a smile, and rejoin your friends. Go make some more good memories before things turn serious. Get everyone singing ‘The Mad Master’, again, see how red Uncle Genma can turn before he vanishes. Can you do that for your big sis?”

For a moment Akane quailed at the request. She began to shake at the thought of rejoining the scouts, smiling and joking with people she cared for, that could be dead in a few days — Stop it! Kasumi’s right, it’s just fear. A martial artist faces her fears, she doesn’t hide in the closet like a baby. It’s not the first time, Ranma almost died fighting Saffron and you with him. She sternly quashed the tiny voice telling her that it wasn’t the same, that the scouts had nowhere near her level of training, much less Ranma’s. She squared her shoulders and nodded, wiping at wet eyes as she forced a smile. “Yes, I can do that. Thank you.” She twisted to grab her backpack, hopped off the wagon, and shrugged the pack back onto her back as she went in search of someone along the column with a water bottle and a semi-clean rag. Nobody else was going to be leaving her if she had anything to say about it.

/\

On his mount alongside the head of the marching column, Sir Morgan glanced back over his shoulder at the sound of horses approaching, then straightened and bowed in his saddle as the king and several of his knights reined their horses down from a canter as they joined him.

King Conall glanced back over his shoulder. “Did I really see a crowd of centaurs back there?” he asked bemusedly before the Kildar had a chance to greet him. “And Blind Lars actually riding one?”

“Oh, yes, Your Majesty,” Morgan confirmed, “the centaurs are one of their scholars, Windwalker, and his students. Windwalker and Blind Lars joined us just as we were beginning our march to Tacitus. And no,” he added when the king looked sharply at him, “I don’t know how they knew, Blind Lars said a spirit whispered to him that we are the place to be for his next big epic.” He chuckled suddenly. “He’s been talking to the newcomers, and he already has a new tavern masterpiece from their stories — ‘The Mad Master’, about the training trip from Hell. Have him sing it for you tonight, you’ll laugh till you cry.”

“I look forward to it,” Conall replied, “I could use a good laugh.” He glanced around at the open country with scattered copses the dirt road meandered through, then nodded ahead at a hill denuded of trees by the village at its base. “We can speak privately up there.”

Soon Conall was again reining his mount to a stop, turned so he could look down the hill at the small army passing below. As Morgan reined in beside him, the king commented, “They’re moving along smartly.”

The Kildar chuckled. “Your men, perhaps, but my people are ambling.”

“Really?” Conall asked, glancing at his companion with an upraised eyebrow.

“Really,” Morgan replied. “Besides training the pikes in the different formations and the scouts in archery and stealth, I emphasized endurance. Right now, they could march any legion I’d care to name into the ground. Of course, they don’t have the chain mail and shields legionnaires have to wear, so that helps. So does the fact that as per your orders they aren’t carrying their pikes.”

“Hmmmm.” The king frowned thoughtfully, and Morgan grinned.

“Thinking about changing your strategy?” he asked.

Conall shook his head. “No, at least not immediately. Actually, we need to slow down a little.” It was the Kildar’s turn to raise an eyebrow, and the king added, “The rebels are bound to have spies in Carrick Town, and I want to give a little more time for word to reach Lord Towne. He’s young for his position and a bit of a hothead, it’s possible he’ll march out to meet us instead of holing up in his castle. If he does, I want our encounter to be as far north of Sterling as we can manage without being obvious. Then when we break him, fewer of his troops are likely to make it back into the castle.”

“Ah, so that’s why my men aren’t carrying their pikes!” Morgan exclaimed.

“Yes, the word I want getting back to Lord Towne is that your men are light infantry I’ve hired out of desperation. And hopefully it’ll help convince him he can meet us in the field and win. After all, we can do a fair amount of damage to his lands while he’s hiding in his castle, and he’s been reinforced by the other rebels. He is one of the two obvious targets. I figure in about a week your men can have their pikes back.”

With that, the king flicked his reins and his mount started back down the hill, Sir Morgan catching up within a few seconds. As soon as he did, Conall said, “Now, why don’t you introduce me to your doorknockers?”

“My door — oh, you mean the Nerimans.”

“Yes.” Conall grinned. “Maid Nabiki has told me some interesting tales, and I’d like to see how they measure up to reality.”

/oOo\

The king was right about the possibility of the rebels having spies in Carrick Town, of course. In fact, he’d understated the case — he knew there were spies, even knew who they were. Or rather his foster brother knew who they were, all Conall needed to know was that they existed. He’d ordered Sir Galardon to have those Silver Hand agents in Caithness’s center of government to not only not prevent those spies from reporting on the newcomers that had joined the king’s forces and where they were headed, but to actually aid them if it could be done discreetly.

But what neither Conall nor Galardon knew was that the rebels weren’t the only ones to have spies in Carrick Town, and the same day that the king’s small army marched out for Sterling a workman ambled out through the same city gates. He was a bit of a joke to the city watch, a brawling carouser that would do whatever odd jobs he could find in the countryside around the city until he could save up enough for a week in the city’s fleshpots (such as they were). The men of the watch had no idea what he was going to do when winter hit, and suspected that he didn’t, either. None of them would have been surprised to eventually find his frozen corpse in a doorway one morning.

It wasn’t going to happen, though. He’d decided that this was going to be his last report to the wizard masquerading as a hermit living in a woodland clearing miles from his closest neighbors — with a crystal ball. While the spy hadn’t actually been told anything he was far from stupid, and he had a fairly good idea of what the results of the king marching on Sterling with practically every man-at-arms he had along with those pitiful mercenaries would be, and that any further reports wouldn’t change anything. Besides, he was becoming too well known to the city watch, it was time for someone else to take over.

So once he’d passed on his report he would follow along in the army’s wake, only he’d eventually take the east road to Redhall. With a little luck, he could be out of Caithness and in New Jerusalem before the winter really got started.

/oOo\

The Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller looked up from the open bible on his suite’s table when Sir Tristanus strode in past the two brothers stationed outside the open doors. One look at Tristanus’s carefully controlled excitement and his second instantly had his undivided attention. “What it is?” he demanded.

“I just got the latest collection from Donnwulf, and there’s a report from Carrick Town!”

At the mention of the mercenary wizard he’d paid to settle down in a nearby village and act as the center of his crystal ball network (the network no one would believe the magic-wary Hospitallers would have) Geoffrey bolted up from his seat and held out his hand. Tristanus slapped the bundle of pages into his palm, and Geoffrey thumbed through them for the report from Caithness’s capital. He read hastily and grinned. “King Conall has done it!” he exclaimed. “His Keldaran mercenaries arrived yesterday, and they’ve already left for Sterling along with the king himself and all his personal men-at-arms!”

“Yes!” Tristanus enthused, only to pause when Geoffrey frowned. “What is it?”

“King Conall is being clever, somehow,” Geoffrey mused. “The Keldaran mercenaries are supposedly light infantry at best, with leather armor and short swords. They don’t even have shields, not even bucklers. And many of them are actually maidens! I don’t care if there’s hundreds of them, he can’t think that’ll be enough.”

Tristanus thought about it for a few moments, then shrugged. “Does it really matter?” he asked. “After all, he’ll be proving his cleverness in Sterling, so he’ll be badly out of position when we make our move.”

“True.” Geoffrey nodded and waved the pages in his hand. “I can’t imagine there’ll be anything in the reports from the rest of our spies — it’s not like the rebels have done anything but sit on their butts this year — so go ahead and pass the word that we’ll be moving in ... two days.”

Tristanus raised an eyebrow. “So we’re still going for the long shot? Not just trying to unhinge Conall’s plans?”

“Right,” Geoffrey agreed, and decided to repeat his reasoning once more. After the first flush of excitement Tristanus had been growing increasingly nervous, urging caution. “God willing, Conall to be just reaching Sterling when we hit Durham, as far from Carrick Town as he’s likely to get and having to choose between trusting his loyal lords to stop us or break off his assault. I know making it all the way to Carrick Town is a long shot, taking Durham and Fordham is as much as we can reasonably hope for, but let’s give God as much of an opportunity to load the dice in our favor as we can — maybe Conall will dither long enough for us to carry through. And even if he decides to ignore us and continues his assault on Sterling and we can't carry through anyway, just taking Durham and Fordham is a more than fair trade.”

Tristanus nodded. “I hope you’re right,” he said, “and either way you’re the Grand Master.” He bowed to his superior, made his farewells and hurried off on his appointed task while the Grand Master sat back down at his table to finish the rest of his spies’ reports before returning to his bible reading.

Chapter Text

Lord William of Wallace sternly suppressed his frustration as he stood at the entrance to his castle’s central keep — a keep that was actually one of the strongest in the realm, and for good reason. The lording of Wallace was only one of five holdings along Caithness’s border with the Great Desert (previously six, before the southernmost and most exposed, Blythe, had been overrun by the Reptile Men that infested the desert four years before). But Wallace was also the border holding on the most direct line for raiding Reptile Men or especially Orcs to strike directly at Caithness’s seat of government. That hadn’t been a concern for generations, not with Castle Defiant and its Caithnesser colonists just across the Great Desert in the southeastern Orclands, but with the fall of Castle Defiant in eleven years before the possibility had returned and Lord William had ordered repairs as his surplus allowed. They’d been completed five years later — just in time for the civil war to break out, and with Lord William’s decision to join the rebels King Conall’s bulwark has abruptly become the greatest threat to his western flank.

Which, of course, was why Lord William had been receiving what sometimes seemed like an endless stream of emissaries, all trying to convince him to return to his previous fealty to the king. He had hoped that after Court Wizard Myrddin’s embassy that would be an end to it, but apparently not. So now here he stood, waiting to greet one more silver-tongued hanger-on when he could be doing something useful. And it would just be the beginning, there would be the feasts and meetings that would drag on until the emissary, however it was, decided it was hopeless and went away.

Lord William wondered who this one would be. He didn’t see how it could be someone more important than Myrddin, so maybe closer to the king? But Sir Ordsig, the knight that had raised King Conall in hiding during his minority after the death of his father, was years dead along with his wife. That only left Sir Galardon and maybe Baroness Bronwyn, the first the king’s childhood friend and the second rumored to be his lover. But the first was a wenching, brawling fop and the second with her barony on the border with Megalos occupied with more immediate concerns, so Lord William couldn’t see either of them as likely. But then he shrugged as he set aside the speculation. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t know in a little bit, and wouldn’t care much whatever he learned.

Then the cavalcade came through the gate, and he got his first glimmerings that this embassy was different.

The first hint were the knights. That they and some squires were part of the party wasn’t a surprise, leaving aside the need for extra protection on the road when traveling through a kingdom at war they’d be included for prestige value alone. But that they were all members of the Order of the Knights of the Stone and half of them female was a surprise — while it had been decades since the first woman was knighted in Caithness there simply weren’t all that many female knights, and fewer still in the king’s own Order. That half of the escort’s knights were female had to be a deliberate statement.

Then Lord William realized just which of the riders had to be the emissary, and the reason for that statement became clear: the emissary was young, exotically beautiful even in plain (if expensive) riding clothes ... and undeniably female. She definitely wasn’t native to Caithness. And she was riding astride, even if she was apparently wearing some form of split dress.

Then she swung one leg over her horse’s rump (scandalously exposing a trim if stocking-covered calf in the process) and dropped to the ground rather than waiting for one of the knights to help her dismount. She even took a moment before turning to the lord of the castle to help her maid dismount from her more typical sidesaddle and made sure the clearly exhausted young woman (if perhaps not as young as her mistress) had the support she needed to stay on her feet from one of the female knights.

Having seen to her companion, the young foreigner approached Lord William. She stopped at the foot of the stairs rising to the keep’s entranceway and dropped into a proper ... if somewhat unpracticed ... curtsey. “My Lord William, I am Maid Nabiki Tendo,” she announced in a quiet but firm voice. “I come on embassy from the king.” Even her voice was exotic, her words correct but carefully stated with an accent he had never heard before.

“You are most welcome, as is any opportunity to bind the wounds of this war-riven kingdom,” Lord William replied. He was surprised to realize that he actually meant it — he didn’t know what, but something had changed and he found himself hoping that the change was for the good, however unlikely that seemed.

He motioned toward the door. “Come, rooms await you all where you can rest from your journey, before tonight’s feat.”

“Thank you, my lord, for your gracious welcome. A rest will be much appreciated.” She mounted the steps toward him, the rest of her party behind her now that the knights had handed their mounts’ reins to squires and stablehands, and followed him into the keep.

/oOo\

The next morning:

Lord William rose as a servant ushered Maid Nabiki, dressed in the same type of split dress she had worn the previous day and carrying a document case, into the working room of his chambers with her older maidservant behind her. As her servant hobbled over to a padded bench by a window to gingerly sit and set out some embroidery, Nabiki strode over to him and curtseyed. “Thank you for seeing me so promptly, my lord,” she said.

“The matter is of some urgency,” he replied. “Please, sit. Ale? I’m afraid that I can’t offer more of last night’s excellent wine, but that vintage is expensive enough to reserve for special feasts.”

He eyed Nabiki as he poured the ale while she sat in the room’s other high-backed, leather-upholstered (and expensive) chair, that his wife typically used. He thought that she had taken his point that her arrival had turned the normal evening meal into a special feast, but he couldn’t be certain — he suspected that even if her exotic appearance didn’t make any attempt to read her difficult, her own self-control would have done so. Even sticking to inconsequentials, his conversation with her during the feast had told him that her status as an emissary wasn’t a joke. Though he’d also been shocked to learn that not only was she foreign, she wasn’t even Christian but an honest to God pagan! That simply didn’t fit the image he was building of a bright, quick-witted, educated young woman — pagans were flea-ridden, fur-clothed barbarians from the Nomad Lands or country rustics hiding their bonfires from the local priest in woodland clearings, or the Lizard Men and Orcs that raided out of the Great Desert. At least she isn’t a Muslim.

Nabiki sipped at her ale and he hid an approving grin when she didn’t grimace at the taste — he’d deliberately selected the closest beverage in his cellar to the rotgut he remembered from his youthful wandering days, and she’d taken it with the aplomb he’d expected after the previous evening — then put the mug down on the table and leaned back in the chair, fingers at the clasps of the document case in her lap. “I appreciate your courtesy,” she said in her careful Anglish, “but the matter isn’t so urgent as you believe. I am mainly here to answer any questions you might have about this.” She pulled a single sheet of paper out of the case and passed it to him.

Frowning, he accepted the sheet. His frown deepened at the size of the printing, and he carefully took his glasses out of their case and tried again (very carefully took out his glasses — outside of his armor they were perhaps the single most expensive item he owned, and certainly the hardest to replace). He read down the page, eyes widening, then read it again ... and again. Finally, he burst out, “Grand Councils ... no changes in law without their review and comment ... meeting this spring to discuss funding or providing the forces needed for the recovery of Blythe and Castle Defiant ... is he serious?!”

“Oh, yes,” Nabiki replied. “I was there when the Grand Councils were discussed, and later when Archbishop Siccius agreed to allow the first to be held at the Adseveration Cathedral — as church lands, Photius ought to be acceptable as neutral ground. The Great Councils are for real. Or will be.”

Lord william demanded, “Do you expect me to simply inform my people of the councils? Help them choose their representatives? To pretend that the past six years of war haven’t happened, and Conall doesn’t still sit on his throne at Carrick Town?”

“Actually, we thought we’d relieve you of that decision,” Nabiki replied lightly, an impish smile on her face. “Last night copies of the announcement were posted on the church door and throughout the town — especially in the quarter now mostly filled with refugees from Castle Defiant. I suspect that there are enough literate people in town to ensure word spreads.”

Her smile held for a moment as Lord William’s clenching fist crumpled the announcement, then she straightened with a sigh, face abruptly sober, and placed her document case on the table. She said, “After years of stalemate we’re into the endgame, and just who gets checkmated is up to you. These announcements are also going out to Ferrier, but not Sterling, Denton, Oakwood or Donlis. Sterling is going down this year, maybe Oakwood if Lord Brance can’t get the rebellion brewing in his own lands under control. That will tip the balance decisively in favor of King Conall. At that point the decision is yours: which do you prefer, an independent Caithness with Conall on the throne, or Caithness as one more province of Megalos? Because the only way you’ll be able to win will be through direct intervention by the legions, and that will be the price.” She tapped the document case. “The invitation to the Councils is Conall’s assurance that your and Baron Nabbik’s rebellion will be ignored if not forgotten, and his promise to share the guidance of the kingdom with its nobles and people.”

“And how long will that promise hold after we give up the rebellion?” Lord William ground out, face turning red with anger. “Then he will be free to move against us individually, and forget that there ever was such a thing as the ‘Grand Councils’.”

Nabiki shrugged. “For the first year at least, assuming the Councils aren’t too strongly opposed, he’ll be campaigning across the Great Desert, retaking Castle Defiant. After that, you’ll be able to join with the legions when they come across the southeast border. You alone would probably be enough to ensure that the legions win at least the south, Baron Nabbik’s joining you would clinch it.” She grinned mirthlessly when Lord William gaped at her. “As I said, we can take down Lord Towne, maybe Lord Brance — but not Baron Cabble or Lord Marsden. But their positions will be untenable, they are going to run away to Megalos and take Deneral with them. And in a few years, after the legions dealt with whatever is going on in the Blackwoods, they’ll will be back, using returning them to Denton and Donlis as an excuse. Count on it.”

Lord William frowned thoughtfully, his anger cooling. He asked, “You are aware that I will be telling Lord Towne of the threat to Sterling?”

Nabiki shrugged again. “Of course, and I expect that your messenger will cross paths with his messenger to inform you of the same. If he doesn’t know about it yet, he will any day now.” She opened the document case and pulled out another, uncrumpled copy of the announcement and handed it to him, then rose to her feet. “I think I’ve given you enough to think about for the moment. My instructions are, with your permission, to stay until you have an answer for the king — and to answer any questions you might have, of course.”

A jolt of anger flashed through him at her peremptory dismissal, before he dismissed it with a mental shrug. As well-mannered as she’d been she was a foreigner, after all. She probably didn’t realize the faux pas she’d just committed. Rising to his feet, he slyly asked, “Any questions?”

“Well, not any question. We do have secrets, after all,” she replied, her impish smile back, as her maidservant put away her embroidery and stiffly rose to her feet. Moments later the pair was gone, leaving a very thoughtful lord behind them.

/\

As soon as Aylara joined her inside the room they’d been offered the previous evening, Nabiki closed the door and locked it ... then dropped to her knees, fell onto her side, curled into a ball, and shook. Aylara tossed her embroidery onto her cot, dropped to her knees and pulled her mistress into her lap, crooning softly as she stroked Nabiki’s hair until her shivering eased off. Finally, when Nabiki stiffened and pushed herself upright, the maidservant rose with a groan and offered her a hand up. She asked, “Better?”

“Yes,” Nabiki agreed. She stepped over to flop on her bed. “Pulling off the act was a lot easier when there weren’t any real consequences.”

“That is usually the case,” Aylara agreed. She stiffly sat on her cot and picked up her embroidery. “When we return to Carrick Town, we are taking it slowly,” she said firmly. “I am very tired of that horse, and I suspect it is equally tired of me.”

Nabiki laughed softly but nodded her agreement.

After a few minutes of comfortable silence, Aylara remarked, “That was a rather interesting approach you took with Lord William.”

“I didn’t have much of a choice,” Nabiki replied, then bit back a yawn. “However exotic I might be, Lord William has no reason to trust me any more than any other envoy. So the best I could do is lay out how the game has changed, and make him responsible for the outcome. From what Myrddin and King Conall said, the last thing Lord William wants is to hand the kingdom to Megalos. We’ll have to see if he bites.”

“And do you think he’ll ‘bite’? What if we fail to capture Sterling?”

Her only answer was a soft snore, and Aylara smiled fondly, then groaned as she pushed herself to her feet, so she could pull the bed’s topsheet across the sleeping girl. She wasn’t surprised, considering how poorly her mistress had slept the previous night. After she’d lost her breakfast as well, the only question had been which would hit Nabiki worse, exhaustion or hunger. Apparently, exhaustion had won out.

Returning to her cot, the maidservant resumed her embroidery yet again, reflecting on just how to report the day’s meeting to Sir Galardon. The king’s spymaster would be pleased with Nabiki’s performance but not, Aylara thought, surprised.

Chapter Text

Miyo instantly awoke at the soft touch on her shoulder. She opened her eyes to the pre-dawn night still so dark that she could only see the faint form of her awakener, outlined by the still-strengthening breakfast fire. Stifling a groan, she forced herself up out of her blankets into the cool night air, cool enough that if there’d been light enough she would have seen her breath, and stretched to work out the kinks from yet another night on the hard, uneven ground beneath the trees. She murmured, “The Wolf Hour shift?”

“Their replacements are headed out now,” her awakener — Akane, again — reported, “they should be in any moment.”

“Good.” Instead of the usual practice of leaving the pickets serving out the last watch of the night in place until everyone was up, she’d taken the Kildar’s advice to replace them with fresh people. After all, the early morning was one of the traditional times for a surprise attack, best to have pickets in place that hadn’t already spent hours staring at nothing.

Miyo rose to her feet and stretched again, before crouching to find her leather armor, quiver and short sword by feel and memory. Rising again, she slipped them on with the help of her self-appointed bodyguard, then picked up her crossbow and headed for the fire to help with breakfast. She didn’t really have anything else to do at the moment (Sergeants Kahori, Elfrithr and Osric had taken her aside a few days after she’d become the Scouts’ sole lieutenant and explained the hazards of micromanaging), but she refused to just stand around and look self-important.

As she dished up porridge for the tired scouts that had picket duty for the last watch, she accepted the ready reports from her two sergeants (Osric standing back even more than he’d been doing when she was first promoted, at this point really just watching and giving occasional private advice), then glanced up at the sky. Being encamped in the middle of a forest she couldn’t see the lightening horizon, but she thought the few stars visible through the trees were dimming. It wouldn’t be long, now, before she’d be able to tell the difference between a white thread and a black one. “Replace the relief pickets so they can eat,” she ordered, “we’ll be moving out when it’s light enough we won’t be tripping over tree roots.” Those orders wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, it was the routine for the past several days, since King Conall had decided they were close enough to wait for Lord Towne to meet him, but the repetition seemed to make everyone happier.

The relief pickets straggled in and she dished out their porridge then stood as she listened to the soft snippets of conversation around her as her scouts waited for the day, wondering if this would be the day the rebels showed up. Between one breath and another she knew — today would be the Day.

“Miyo? Miyo, talk to me, what’s wrong? ... Miyo!”

Awareness of the world around her seeped back in, and Miyo realized that arms were around her, a worried Akane kneeling on the ground, holding her in her lap, scouts gathered around. She eased herself out of her friend’s embrace and sat up, briefly smiling her thanks before rising to her feet and offering Akane a hand up. “Akane, go to the king,” she ordered in the Anglic that was everyone’s common language. “Wake him up, tell him that I said that Lord Towne will be showing up today — he needs to get the army up and moving as quickly as possible. Then catch up with us.”

“But —”

“You’re one of the newcomers, Ranma’s wife. Between that and the sparring exhibition you two put on a week ago, his guards will take you more seriously than anyone but me and I can’t leave. So go!”

Akane jerked a nod and was gone.

Miyo looked around and called out, “Kahori! Elfrithr!” Her sergeants materialized out of the fading night. “It’s going to be today, but I don’t know when,” she said firmly before they had a chance to say anything. “Spread the word we’re going to be double-timing to the ford.”

Her sergeants nodded and separated, one headed east and the other west through the forest to pass the word. At least we won’t be making as much noise as we would a little later, Miyo thought as she sat down to wait for them to return. The leaves of the intermittent woods they had been marching through the past week had been turning brilliant shades of orange, red and yellow, but had only just begun to fall as the nights grew colder.

It was only when the Scouts were headed for the ford that the doubts hit. What if today wasn’t the Day? She had expected another visitation from Deborah to pass along any prophecies. That was the way it had worked so far ... how it had always worked in what she’d read of the Bible ..., dreams, visions, visiting angels, not pure knowledge shoved into her mind like ... like ... she didn’t know what it was like, she’d just known, as certain as the tides. What if thanks to her own anxieties she was just deluding herself?

So when the forward scouts fell back to report that there was already an army crossing at the ford and King Conall’s oh-so-clever plan had just fallen apart, her first emotion was pure, selfish relief.

/oOo\

Armstan threw off his blankets and sprang to his fur-topped feet looking around frantically, the halfling alert for any sound to indicate that they’d been found again ... nothing. His shoulders slumped in relief and he rolled up his blankets, then picked up his crossbow and strode over to the tiny, smokeless fire where breakfast was cooking, softly murmuring to those of his followers he passed to pack up and pass the word. The foresters had proven better than he’d expected — the halfling natural stealth facing off against years, even decades of experience and proving wanting — and even as deep into the forest as they were the core of the incipient rebellion against Lord Brance of Oakwood had been too long in their current camp.

But we didn’t have a choice, he reminded himself, not with the arrow Hobson took in his thigh. The other wounded could keep up with us, but not him— and it’s tough to sneak about while being carried on a stretcher. Which was true, but it had required Armstan to break away from his little war of ambushes and escapades to get him to safety. If he ever did this again, he would set up a base camp where the wounded could recover and his men (and a few women) could relax between raids.

Or two camps, one for the the raiders and one for the fleeing halflings they were smuggling out of the lording. Though that probably wouldn’t have worked out, either, not with the unpleasant surprise of the foresters’ competence. Those Men were more likely to find a camp with children than one with just raiders. At least by keeping one base camp the refugees would have protectors if it was discovered.

But that was a ‘shoulda-coulda’, and with Hobson mostly recovered it was time to smuggle out the handful of families with them and get back into the fight before all those men-at-arms went home. Maybe they could keep keep them busy in this part of the forest, and smuggle the refugees through another area? No, we’re bringing them here to break the trail, force the foresters and men-at-arms to deal with us instead of hunting them.

He’d just finished his own bowl of leftover venison stew when one of the sentries slipped into the clearing. “Foresters,” he said quietly, “coming this way.”

By now they had moving out in a hurry down to a routine — though they didn’t have time to clean up to the point that it would look like they’d never been there, not as long as they’d stayed — and in no time (or orders) they were ghosting through the forest, crossbows drawn and quarrels in place, with those that hadn’t stood watch in the lead as scouts and those who’d stood the last watch bringing up the rear with the pair of families in the middle, the children quiet as a mouse and terrified out of their mind.

And almost immediately, Rowan, one of the lead scouts, was racing back, her blond ponytail rippling against her back. “Men-at-arms up ahead,” she murmured as she fell in alongside Armstan.

Armstan felt his heart stutter at the news, but managed to push through the shock to whistle out the pattern of bird-calls for a halt in place, then the pattern for group leaders assembly. As soon as they arrived, he said to them and the rest of the hobbits close by, “They’re ahead of us, too, and if the child-slaving bastards are in front and behind, they’re probably on both sides and we don’t have time to check. Besides, not everyone will have heard the alarm and stopped. So we’re gonna sneak as close to the men-at-arms in front of us as we can and when I yell out we’ll give ‘em one volley then charge, bull our way through the line in front. Don’t stop for anything, or you’ll just get trapped when the rest close in. Scatter when you’re clear, we’ll meet at ... everyone remember the camp two weeks ago, with the waterfall? We’ll meet there. Now spread out and pass the word, as quick as you can, we’re outta time.”

“What about the families?” Rowan asked.

Armstan winced. “Blanco, Daisy, stick with them and hang back, see if we can make a hole you can use. If they get through, have one of your men stay with them as a guide while the rest guard their rear, give them time to break contact. Let’s go.”

His mood darkened as he ghosted forward, and he castigated himself for every misstep that had led to this disaster. It was so obvious now that he should have sent the wounded away to be cared for by some of their supporters in the villages, instead of letting off the pressure on the foresters and men-at-arms, that even if he had kept everyone together he should have shifted camp at least once, and why hadn’t he arranged more birdcalls than ‘stop in place’ and ‘go’? Why hadn’t he had a separate camp to guide the refugees to, that the main force could distract Lord Brance’s men from with their own attacks? Why hadn’t he set up a rally point ahead of time? There was no way that everyone was going to get the word, especially the rear guard. And even if the ones that didn’t get the word simply charged with the rest, some of them were going to end up wandering lost in the forest. Once as many of us get to the waterfall as are going to, I’ll hafta hold a vote, see if they still want me in charge. He honestly couldn’t think who could do a better job, but at the moment he couldn’t see how anyone could do worse.

Then he caught the first hint of an armsman ahead trying to hide behind a tree, and froze in place. It wouldn’t be long before his rear guard caught up, and they’d see how generous God was feeling this day.

/\

Sir Domitius waited in the second line of men-at-arms, drawn sword resting on one shoulder and uncaring of the long-accustomed weight of his chain mail, struggling to remain at least outwardly calm and confident as he waited for his lord’s foresters to hopefully sweep the rebels into the waiting ambush, assuming they were there (it was the third site he’d set up a sweep for, after all). Not that he had much hope that the ambush would go undetected, of course, not as stealthy as even untrained halflings could be, but he hadn’t left them any choice but to either try to break through his lines, or double back and try to break through the foresters with their bows. Either way, they would find multiple lines of men-at-arms to force their way past. There would be leakers, of course, he didn’t have enough troops for the solid lines necessary to stop at least some from escaping, but enough should be killed or captured to break the back of the rebellion, reduce the survivors to scattered banditry.

Not that there would be many prisoners, not if his men had picked up on the hints he’d dropped that they would not be welcome. He was already heartsick of the whole brutal catastrophe his new sworn lord’s blind stupidity had inflicted on Oakwood and had no desire to oversee the drawing, hanging and quartering for treason of a multitude of prisoners when that lord had tried to engineer the seizure their children and siblings to be sold off as slaves. Sex slaves, most likely in the case of the maidens, he had no illusions about that. He had no idea what Lord Brance was thinking, but it was his duty as his lord’s sworn man to carry out his wishes however ugly they might be. But at least it would soon be over and he could put it behind him.

A suddenly horn rang out and even as he came fully alert at the signal from his foresters that this time they’d found the rebels’ camp, a loud shout came from just ahead of the first line ahead of him and that line was abruptly no longer there as armsman after armsman collapsed, fell backward, stumbled about screaming as they clutched at quarrels imbedded in cheek or eye. Only a handful were left in the first line, and he had only a moment for a horrified glance along the row of fallen to realize they had all been taken down by head shots before screaming hobbits erupted out of the brush and charged toward the survivors. How had even halflings gotten that close!?

The wounded! Jerking himself out of his shock at his first line’s instant decimation, he shouted, “Forward, now!” He led the charge himself, to pull those of his men that hadn’t heard or understood along with him, then sighed with relief as the hobbits coming to meet him dodged around the few survivors of the first line without stopping.

I suppose they don’t have time to finish off the wounded, he thought distantly even as his descending blade hacked away one hobbit’s arm at the shoulder, then looped sideways and up to slice deep into the skull of another hobbit trying to dodge around him. He twisted the blade to dislodge it from the writhing soon-to-be corpse, and felt fresh shock hammer into him at the sight of the hobbit’s well-developed chest. He’d just cut down a maiden. And where there was one, there’d be more. I really hope none of the men show any of them misplaced mercy, he thought grimly as he whirled and lunged after another hobbit that had slipped by him, sending a head bouncing across the forest floor. Drawing, hanging and quartering was a punishment only applied to men ... the women would be burned at the stake, instead. Much better a clean death.

Suddenly fire seemed to pierce through his throat, and he was choking. Hot wet was flowing down his throat, both inside and out, and he couldn’t breathe! He dropped his sword and clutched at his neck with both hands, for his fingers to find the slim shaft of what must be a hobbit’s quarrel. The wet heat was blood filling his lungs and drenching the quilted cloth under his chain mail. He dropped to his knees as the dark gathered round, and smiled as the world faded away. At least he wouldn’t have to listen to the screams of men (and whatever his lord thought they were men, even if they weren’t human) as they were hung until nearly dead, then cut down, emasculated, disemboweled and beheaded before their bodies were hacked into quarters and put on display ... or the more high-pitched screams of their wives or sisters as they were wreathed in flames. It was a fair trade.

/\

Konatsu watched as the man he hoped was the Sir Domitius Nabiki had asked him to kill toppled over to thrash on the ground even as two halflings jumped over him to disappear into the forest. He waited until the knight slumped bonelessly in death, then hesitated at the sight of an actual family of halflings snatched off the ground by men-at-arms catching them from behind—one of the children had stumbled and the rest had stopped to pull him to his feet. No, you can’t risk more shots. You can deal with anyone that sees you, but that’ll still mean the mission is a failure. He carefully slung his crossbow across his back and began the climb up higher into the tree from which he’d taken the shot. He was just grateful that the leaves had only just begun falling, in a week or so there wouldn’t have been enough left for cover and while he was certain he could escape if detected, Nabiki had been crystal clear on the need for the assassination to appear to be a chance happening of the battle. Of course, she’d also wanted him to wait until whatever was happening up north kicked off and the lording here erupted in rebellion, and he hadn’t been able to do that. With this ambush of the rebels’ camp he hadn’t thought that he’d have a second chance — there might not be a rebellion after this.

Reaching the perch he’d picked out, he pulled the carved stick he’d used to allow his crossbow to fire a quarrel sized to a halfling’s and broke it up, stuck the pieces underneath a slit in the bark, then went still. He figured he’d spend the rest of the day in his tree, then come down in the early morning darkness and look for the opportunity to do some eavesdropping, make certain he’d killed the right man. Hopefully, after that he could begin the trip north to rejoin his mistress.

Chapter Text

From where she crouched behind one of the trees at the edge of the woods, Miyo stared at the small river several hundred yards to the south across the field — and at the bustle surrounding the ford. To the east the ground dropped off sharply, and the river had spent who-knows-how-many-centuries cutting its own bed deeper. It hadn’t been all that successful, the gully was only man-deep at this point and the river waist-deep. Still, some time since the foundings of Redhall and Sterling someone had gotten tired of swinging miles east where the gully ended at an escarpment or more likely miles west where the gully started when traveling between the two and had cut ramps into the gully walls.

Now Miyo and the rest of the scouts watched as a column of men-at-arms marched forward, momentarily disappearing from sight as they dipped down into the gully before reappearing on the other side. Lord Sterling must have camped for the night on the other side of the ford, and had made an early start of it with almost half-a-hundred men-at-arms already on the north side and approaching the woods, and the one thought that filled the prophetess’s mind was, This is going to be bloody.

She glanced back into the woods and shook herself free of her fear as she considered King Conall’s plan, then fell back far enough that she couldn’t possibly be seen by the approaching men-at-arms and motioned for all three sergeants to join her. As soon as they gathered round (along with Akane, who’d caught up with them before they reached the ford), she said, “The king should be coming up as fast as he can and a messenger already on the way to tell the knights to the west to swing around to take Lord Towne in the rear, but if we fall back the enemy will already be in the forest before the king meets them and the pikes will be useless. Who knows what will happen then, but whatever it is we can’t risk it.” She glanced from face to face, ignoring Sergeant Osric’s twitch of an approving nod, though his face was pinched and pale — undoubtedly because he already knew what was coming next.

Taking a deep breath, she continued, “So it’s up to us to keep them out of the forest, and the only way for us to manage it is to push them back across the ford and hold it until the king comes up. Elfrithr, Kahori, you’re going to go up the line as quickly as you can to let as many as you can what the plan is, but you probably won’t have time to get all the way — we’ll just have to hope the rest follow our lead. When Sergeant Osric has given you as much time as he can, he’ll signal the attack — Sergeant, you’re the only one here that’s been in more than a single skirmish, it’s your call — we all step out of the woods and give them one volley, then sling crossbows and charge, hit them as hard as we can, as fast as we can, push through to the ford. They’re bigger, better armed, many better armored, but a lot of them will be down from the volley and we’ll have surprise.

“Kahori, when we reach the ford, your people turn back to deal with anyone we left behind. Elfrithr, you and your evens hold the ford, your odds join Kahori’s people in the clean-up. As soon as our back is safe, we line up along the gully to keep them away. Remember, until the army comes up we only have so many quarrels — don’t use them up all at once.” She glanced over at Sergeant Osric just long enough to catch his twitch of a nod, then back to the girls. “Understood?”

The two girls were now as pale as Sergeant Osric, but nodded without hesitation.

“All right, go!”

They darted off, and Miyo, Akane and Sergeant Osric moved back up to the edge of the woods. As they watched the column of men-at-arms march closer along the track, Sergeant Osric murmured, “There’s going to be a lot of empty bedrolls tonight.”

“I know,” Miyo murmured back, “but we’ll lose even more if they get into the woods, maybe lose the campaign. What else could I do?”

“Nothing,” he replied, “you made the only call you could, for a plan fucked up this badly. But don’t lie to yourself — a lot of empty bedrolls.”

Miyo nodded and refocused on the approaching enemy, ignoring the churning in her gut and the chills sweeping through her. A few more minutes....

/oOo\

Akane crouched next to her school friend (well ... acquaintance, to be honest, at least at the time — much more now) and peered through the leaves at the approaching line of men-at-arms, her hands whitening as they clutched her crossbow as she fought to maintain her calm. She could not go berserk, not yet — if she lost it and hammered into those killers the same way she had against the Orc raiding party, there’d be no Ranma to watch her back. He was at least half an hour away, perhaps as much as an hour, along with the pikes.

She glanced to her left, where she knew Sayuri and Yuka were stationed, but couldn’t see them through the undergrowth fringing the woods. But she’d be able to see them any moment when the horn blew. And they weren’t the only ones, even if the only ones beyond Miyo she’d known for more than a year, and she’d heard every word Sergeant Osric had just said.

Then Sergeant Osric was rising to his feet and lifting his trumpet to his lips, and Akane rose to step onto the track and out of the woods alongside Miyo as the trumpet call blared out. Ahead of her the approaching column was stuttering to a halt, shouts of consternation rising and men scattering to the side and some even knocked down when the men behind them walked into their abruptly halted comrades, and in spite of her worries Akane’s lips stretched into a fierce grin as she lifted her crossbow to her shoulder.

She glanced over her available targets through her crossbow’s crude sight, considering the man in chain mail and carrying a lacquered shield for a split second before rejecting him, remembering the Sergeant Osric’s advice to the lieutenants and sergeants back when they were training: “The best dressed and armored enemy is the obvious target, but that means he’ll already be drawing half a dozen shots. Look for the next best armed man close to him — that one will be his sergeant.” So she searched ... searched ... There! Then the trumpet rang a second time, and she squeezed the trigger.

It was a slaughter. All along the line from the head of the column almost back to the ford, men were dropping. Oh, in proportion to the number of men in the column there weren’t that many casualties — not all the shots had hit, of course, and many that did had punched into shields, still more had hit arms or shoulders. And of course those with the best equipment had been targeted by more than one scout, just as the Kildar had said would happen. But it looked like as much as one in ten were down, including most of their leaders.

Akane lowered her crossbow and grabbed the sling to swing it over her head, shrugged to settle the crossbow now crossways across her back and the sling on one shoulder, then drew her shortsword ... any time now ... Sergeant Osric’s third trumpet call rang out, and Akane shrieked out the high-pitched, spine-twisting scream the scouts had adopted as a battle cry and charged forward alongside Miyo straight for the head of the shattered column.

The men-at-arms ahead of them were true veterans — even taken completely by surprise, under fire and both their captain and sergeant down, they were still trying to form a shield wall when the charge reached them. Six yards out, Akane pushed ahead of Miyo and leaped, slamming feet first into the shield of the shocked man-at-arms in the middle of the haphazard line. Even as he was knocked off his feet, flying backwards into the men behind him, Akane twisted as she dropped to land on her hands scissor her feet into the legs of the men to each side. One man dropped to one knee and the other staggered, knocking into the man next to him, arms thrown wide for balance — then Miyo was there, shortsword stabbing into the staggering man’s side under the ribcage even as Akane curled up and thrust upward to take the kneeling man under the jaw into the spine.

Then the man Akane had first knocked back recovered and spring forward, Akane found herself fighting to survive, to keep Miyo alive, to fight down the aching need to release her anger and the battle shattered into a chaos that she was to remember only as a series of disjointed images: blood spraying as her shortsword carved through a man’s throat; Miyo spinning away from one spear thrust and knocking aside another as she desperately backpedaled before Akane took down the first spearman from one side as Yuka and Sayuri finished off the second spearman from the other; Hallkatla falling with one leg almost taken off at the knee, leaping over her friend even as she clutched at her leg to stop the spray of arterial blood to slam into the man that crippled Hallkatla before he could finish her off. And above everything, a mind-numbing cacophony of battle cries, screams, and the clashing thunder of metal beating on metal and wood much worse than the clash with the Orcs.

Oddly enough, the very chaos surrounding her helped her to hold down her anger — the need to sort enemy from friend, threat from distraction, to keep one eye on Miyo and those around her all helped to focus her attention on everything and anything but the burning need to rend and tear. Then it happened —

“Yuka!”

Akane’s head snapped around at Sayuri’s scream, and she froze at the sight of the other of her two oldest friends dropping her sword, folding over, a bloody mist spraying from her mouth as a red-coated blade thrust out of her back. She’s dead ... whether within seconds or long minutes there was no was Yuka could survive that. Akane simply stared as the laughing giant of a helmetless, red-maned man kicked her friend off his sword to curl up on her side on the bloody field before he turned toward Sayuri ... and Akane’s shriek yanked him back around as she dropped her sword and her red-glowing Hammer flashed into existence. She charged straight at him, all awareness narrowing to focus on his dropping jaw, his widening eyes.

He really was good, he managed to knock aside her first swing. But the Hammer had no mass, and her second lightning-quick swing smashed into his shield and spun him around off his feet and before he could so much as refill his lungs the Hammer came down and splattered his head like a pumpkin.

Akane howled in triumph and looked around — another man-at-arms facing away from her bent backwards with a wet crack as the Hammer smashing into the base of his spine sent him flying into the Keldara girl he’d been toying with, her swinging foot kicked up into another man’s crotch and lifted him three feet into the air to drop and curl into a sobbing ball, a third man knocked backward with broken arm and shattered shield to scrabble for his dropped sword before her stomping foot crushed his throat ... one figure after another, face after another: snarling, stunned, pain-filled, terrified, pleading, the backs of fleeing men, shouts of “demon!”....

“Akane, stop!”

Miyo’s voice came from behind her. The prophetess’s shout seemed to carry an undertone of distant battle cries, and Akane’s all-consuming anger vanished as if a switch had been flipped in her mind. Trembling as bone-deep exhaustion washed over her, she looked around and realized she was at the bottom of the ramp cut in the embankment, standing in knee-deep water ... at the ford.

Several scouts scrambled down the ramp. Each pulling one of Akane’s arms over their shoulders, they helped her back up the ramp. At the top of the ramp Akane looked around to find more scouts unslinging crossbows and dropping to a crouch all along the edge of the gully. There was no way Lord Towne would be pushing his army across the ford, not without clearing out the scouts and their crossbows first. Maybe he had enough archers and crossbowmen of his own to pull it off, but it would take time to win that kind of ranged duel — time he didn’t have before King Conall showed up with his army.

We won.

She didn’t realize she’d spoken the words out loud until Miyo said, “No, Akane, you won.” When Akane stared at her blankly, Miyo gently took her by the arm and turned her around to look along the track toward the woods they had come out of. Akane’s eyes widened.

From a few feet in front of her all along the track to as far as the head of the column of men-at arms had reached before the scouts struck, the bodies of men lay scattered both on its hard-packed earth and the grass on each side. Some of the men lay writhing or struggling to pull themselves away, but most lay still — and from the odd angles and distorted shapes many of them had been bent into, not many of them would ever get up.

“I did that?”

“Yes, you did. And because you did, we won. We failed to cut off the ford to more men-at-arms, until you ...”

Miyo was still talking, but her voice had become meaningless sounds because at the end of the column of shattered bodies was Sayuri sitting on the ground, clutching a body of her own. Akane shook off her commander’s hand and began walking toward her friend.

/\

Miyo broke off her reassurances in mid-sentence as Akane simply walked away. She watched where her friend was going, and tears began rolling down her cheeks when she saw Sayuri holding a body she assumed had to be Yuka. So that was what set Akane off. She wished she could join them — while they hadn’t been close before Judgment Day had destroyed their world, the few Neriman teenagers had become as friendly as the needs of survival, training, and responsibilities had permitted. She had liked Yuka — no real talent, but friendly and filled with a fierce determination to do her part that had her pushing as hard in their training as anyone. Apparently, it hadn’t been enough. But Miyo had her duty to the living, and she looked around the battlefield.

The battle was definitely won, at least their part of it, though drop in the number of scouts she could see was enough to make her blanch. What men-at-arms she could see still on the scouts’ side of the gully were running away to the west where after some miles the gully ended and they’d be able to rejoin their army, disarming and removing their armor under the watchful eye of crossbow-wielding scouts keeping a safe distance, or helping move their wounded to the aid station that had already been set up by those scouts with some training in the healing art (an empty spot of ground at the edge of the forest with a banner attached to a tree branch to mark the location, but at least everyone knew where the healers were). The scouts were either in positions along to gully’s edge with their crossbows at the ready — most bunched by the ford but some spread further along both sides in case Lord Towne brought forward any archers he might have — guarding the prisoners, or checking the bodies for signs of life and carrying wounded to the aid station using the side-by-side two-person method one refugee from Earth that had been in the JSDF had shown them (no stretcher, they were too cumbersome for the scouts to carry moving ahead of the army). Yes, everything looked good.

She turned to their assigned babysitter, again beside her in spite of the red soaking one sleeve below the strip of cloth tied around his upper arm. “Sergeant Osric, you’re in charge now. Sugai, Matsuda, find your sergeants and let them know. I’m going to join the healers.” She had been granted healing for Fritha, perhaps it would happen again.

Chapter Text

“You were fighting what!?

The sergeant reporting to Lord Towne of Sterling blanched at the anger filling his lord’s voice, made worse by the fury twisting his features. “M-M-M-Maidens, mostly, m’lord,” he repeated. “Didn’t have a choice, they came out of the woods and fired on us then attacked! We had ta fight back!”

Towne forced the snarl off his face and nodded. “I understand. You were attacked, and had to defend yourself. Continue.”

“Well …” Ealdstan hesitated, then said, “They really put up a scrap, m’lord — smaller than us, weaker, but they threw themselves at us without stopping. It was …” He shuddered, wiped at damp eyes. “They was losing, though. They couldn’t get through ta the ford and cut us off, we were bringing in more men.

“Then one’a the maidens screamed something fierce — loud enough ta be heard all the way from the head of the column, and you know how loud a battle is. I dunno what set her off, I wasn’t much past the ford. Good thing, too, or I’d be dead. When I finally saw her she was swinging a huge glowing-red hammer, plowing through the boys like they was babes. I managed ta get back across the ford and was yelling fer what archers were up, but she stopped when she hit the ford and went back.”

“A ‘red glowing hammer’?” Lord Towne repeated, frowning. “Some of the men that broke and ran were screaming about demons.”

But Ealdstan was shaking his head. “Not less’n demons cry, that girl was hurting. I think we killed someone that mattered, ta her at least.”

Lord Towne’s face tightened at Ealdstan’s words — from the sergeant’s report that dead loved one was almost certainly one of the maidens already lost, and the berserker mourning her loss would be far from the only one. Thinking of losing one of his own little twin girls all grown up and fallen on a bloody battlefield, he could imagine the grief that family after family would suffer from the losses already inflicted.

And he was going to have to inflict even more. How could even Conall think of recruiting maidens to his banners? May their mothers and fathers stand witness against him at the Final Call and God bury him in the deepest pits to burn for eternity!

Forcing the hazy image of his grown-up daughters’ bloody corpses aside, he nodded his thanks to Ealdstan. “My thanks for the timely word, Sergeant. I won’t forget it.” He turned to look over the knights gathered around him. “Sir Peredur, Sir Salvius, with Captain Richard and his lieutenants dead someone needs to take charge up there while I bring up the rest of the army. And we have to take that ford. If Conall’s skirmishers are attacking infantry head on to push us back across the ford, the rest of his army must be far enough back in the forest that whoever’s in charge isn’t expecting immediate reinforcements — he’s trying to keep us on this side to give Conall’s army room to deploy when he finally gets here. If we push across and deploy instead, we can keep him penned in among the trees. Make it happen. But when the maidens break don’t pursue, let them go. And do what you can for their wounded, even before your own except for life-threatening injuries.”

“It will be done, my lord,” Sir Salvius replied, Sir Peredur nodding his agreement.

Reassured by their own anger simmering in their eyes, Lord Towne forced a smile and reached out his right hand to clasp arms. The two knights mounted their warhorses and accepted their lances from their squires, and headed at a fast trot up along the edge of the road filled with infantry, the pennants on their raised lances flapping in the breeze, their squires behind them.

As Lord Towne watched them ride away, another man dressed in a robe split front and back for riding with only a dagger on his belt stepped forward. “If magic is involved, perhaps I should go with them?”

Lord Towne frowned thoughtfully, then shook his head. “No, Master Laevius,” he said, eyes bleak, “from the sound of it the only magic is the berserker and Sir Peredur and Sir Salvius should be able to handle her. Spears, maybe, I think some of the men-at-arms carry them; or lure her out front, then let the archers pincushion her.” And give one more family a daughter to grieve over.

Pushing aside the thought, he continued, “Besides, you are the only one that can use that crystal ball of yours. I don’t doubt your capability to handle a single berserker, but all it would take is one unlucky arrow and we would lose our link with our allies.” And most likely the Court Mage is with the king, I doubt you could handle him, for long. But he didn’t let any hint of the thought show. It wasn’t really fair, anyway, the only wizards in Caithness able to match Myrrdin’s power were ensconced in their towers on the scattered plots where magic flowed more freely — the wizards of the towns and nobles’ courts were those lacking the strength to seize and hold their own tower. Not that Myrrdin was likely to get involved, any more than he had in the few previous battles. He probably wanted to keep those wizards ensconced in their towers.

When Master Laevius nodded his acceptance of his lord’s reasoning, Lord Towne turned to consider the rest of his army. Or more like, his mob — his peasant levy led by his men-at-arms mixed with companies of hired mercenaries, with no one individual in command except him. Not the best force for what was coming, but between his own people and those paid for by donations from the other rebel lords not directly facing off against the King and his supporters, it was what he had.

So let’s make the best use of it. “Sir Senovir, I’m sending you to Captain Epetinus, Sir Horatius, Captain Toutio, Sir Furius, Captain Stephen, the rest of you are with me to Captain Verres. The orders for all of them are the same, they are to get their men headed for the ford as fast as they can while not being too exhausted to fight when they get there. Sir Renown ...” He clasped the shoulder of a pale, sweating knight. “With the way you were throwing up this morning, I’m afraid God has picked you to stay with the levy. Don’t try to push them, just get them back on the road after the companies pass and keep them moving. Can you do that?”

“I will see it done, my lord.”

“Good man.” Lord Towne gently shook his shoulder, then turned to stride for his own warhorse, his squires and standard bearer hastening to join him.

/oOo\

Miyo dropped down to sit next to Akane on the grass to one side of the dirt road a few yards from the drop-off to the river. Akane had been occasionally glancing at the enemy on the other side of the river, but most of her attention was on the girl lying at her side with arms around her waist and face pressed into her stomach.

Akane glanced over, still running her fingers through Sayuri’s hair, then again for a longer look. “Are you all right?” she asked in their native Japanese, then winced. From the bruised look around the prophetess’s eyes so dark they almost looked painted on and the way her arms had shaken under her weight for the brief instant they’d supported her as she was sitting down, that had been a very stupid question.

But Miyo simply gave her a smile that was probably supposed to be reassuring but just looked heartbreakingly exhausted. “Even if the power is not my own, the kind of connection I need for healing is tiring. But none of those that reached me with life-threatening injuries died and I didn’t go into a coma for almost a day, so I’m getting ... stronger? More in tune, I guess.”

She winced as she remembered her last sight of Akane and how what she had just said must sound to her friend, then slid an arm around Akane’s waist in a one-armed hug. “Akane? Sayuri? I’m sorry about Yuka. She’ll be fine, but I know you’re both going to miss her — we all will.”

“Thank you. You’re right, I’ll ... we’ll miss her, but she’ll be fine.”

It was Akane’s turn to attempt a smile that utterly failed to reassure its target, but Miyo chose not to say anything. Instead, she asked, “So what’s been happening while I was gone?”

“Not much,” Akane replied. She swept her gaze along the other side of the river, looking for any of the enemy trying to sneak closer again. “Their archers tried to drive us away from the edge of the embankment, but we have a lot more crossbows than they have bows and they gave up. Beyond that we’ve just been waiting.”

“Akane!”

At the sound of her husband’s voice Akane twisted around to look toward the forest, then waved as Sayuri reluctantly let go of her and sat up.

Miyo twisted around as well, looking eagerly toward where the road entered the forest, but was disappointed to realize that only Ranma was there. What, did you think the army had learned how to fly? And there’s nothing ‘only’ about Ranma! she thought, trying to reassure herself. And in truth his presence was reassuring. If those people put in another attack ...

Ranma ran up to the two girls, absentmindedly dodging a couple arrows and knocking another out of the air. Dropping down next to his wife, he looked across the river. No other archers decided to try their luck, so he pulled Akane into a one-armed hug and a brief kiss, then nodded to Sayuri before focusing on Miyo. His eyes instantly narrowed. “You look terrible.”

“Ranma!” Akane exclaimed, pulling away to smack him lightly on the back of the head.

Miyo giggled at the display then lay down, waving at the others to do the same. No point in drawing more attention than they had to. “I’m just worn out by healing,” she explained again. “How far behind you is the army?”

“Dunno,” he replied with a shrug. He and Akane had ignored her wave and stayed upright. “Getting everyone up and sorted out, out of the trees and onto the road was taking awhile. We should’a pushed through and camped here when we could. That’s why the King told me ta run on ahead.”

Miyo smiled up at him. “At least he got that right. Sergeant Osric was already pretty sure we could hold the ford. With you here, if those people try anything now —”

Ranma broke in. “They’re trying something now.”

“What!?” Miyo sat up again, then grabbed onto Akane’s shoulder for a moment as the sudden rush of adrenaline combined with her change of position to make the world roll and waver. After a few seconds everything settled and she looked across the river. Ranma was right, something was up — the archers were spreading out in a line across the dirt road, the men-at-arms were forming up. And the way sunlight is reflecting off a couple of the men, they must be wearing steel armor. Probably chainmail, I haven’t seen any plate. Though that would probably change if her scouts’ use of the crossbow became more widespread.

She pushed herself to her feet, swaying in place for a moment until Akane grabbed her arm to hold her up, then took a deep breath and shouted in their common Anglic, “Up! Up! Everyone up, to your places, pass the word!” For a moment she wished that Sergeant Osric was there with his trumpet, but he’d taken an arrow to the chest and died before his bearers could reach her; and no one else knew how to use the trumpet. Something else we need to fix, she thought, before pushing the thought and grief aside to focus on the moment — there were many dead to mourn, but it would have to wait.

“You’re heading back to the aid station.”

“What?” Miyo tried to glare at Akane, but was too exhausted to do a proper job of it. Replying in the same Japanese, she said, “Sergeant Osric’s dead, Elfrithr’s crippled and Kahori is running her half of the Scouts while trying to keep an eye on Elfrithr’s replacement, someone has to take overall command.”

“And that will be me,” Akane replied. “It’s wonderful that you’ve saved so many lives, but you can barely stand. How are you supposed to command? Besides, there’ll be more lives to save soon enough.”

Miyo hesitated — Akane had an excellent point, several of them actually, but ... as gently as she could, she asked, “Akane, what if you go berserk again? It took Deborah’s help to stop you last time.”

“Now she has me,” Ranma stepped in to say. “I’ll watch her back and keep her centered. She’s right, you’re in no shape ta fight.”

Miyo finally worked up the strength for a proper glare, but her two friends didn’t flinch. We don’t have time for this! She reluctantly nodded. “All right, but we’re moving the aid station closer, too many didn’t live long enough to reach me.”

Akane managed not to slump with relief — as the young prophetess had settled into her new role it had gotten harder and harder to fight with her — and nodded to several of the scouts that were crouched around them with their eyes on the enemy. Reverting to Anglic, she said, “Sayuri —”

“I’m staying with you.”

Akane gave her friend a flat glare that hid her deep concern for her last pre-Dying friend — Sayuri was no more fit to fight than Miyo, if for a very different reason. But ... never give an order that you know won’t be obeyed. The Kildar’s leadership advice sounded in the back of her mind, and she reluctantly nodded. “Hildisif, Thorthr, help ... ah, accompany Miyo back to the aid station. Eylaug, Kimie, let Kahori and Elfrithr ...” She paused, glanced at Miyo.

 “Elfrithr’s replacement is Asny.”

“... Asny know that I’m resuming command. Everyone else ... spread out! They’re already trying to kill us, let’s not make it easy for them.”

As Miyo left with the two scouts assigned to make sure she made it to the rear (and, Akane hoped they understood, made sure Miyo stayed there), the newly self-appointed commander of the scouts looked around for a short sword to replace the one she’d cast away when she’d gone berserk. With the number of scouts that had died fighting around where she stood, it shouldn’t be hard to find one.

It wasn’t, and she snatched one up and refocused on the enemy, frowning thoughtfully. It looked like they were forming up into a column on the road (path, her mind tried to insist), and ... yes, the archers they had left were spreading out on both sides. They were just going to try and pound their way through, no finesse at all. Be fair, Akane, it isn’t like they have a lot of choice outside of not attacking at all. And if it hadn’t been for Ranma, it might have well worked — even with her at the tip of the spear the Scouts simply weren’t up to a stand-up fight against regular infantry, not if that infantry was willing to push through their losses from the crossbows to close the distance. And if she lost it again ...

But Ranma was there, and she turned to her husband. “You and me, down inside the ravine holding the ford. If we can’t hold them, none of the rest of the scouts can. Sayuri ... stay behind us, take care of anyone that works around our flanks — but keep your head down below the ravine wall, I don’t want any archers trying to pick you off.” Sayuri nodded, and the three hurried over to the ramp carved into the ravine down to the river.

/\

“Finally!” Lord Towne muttered as he rode out of the river and up the ramp, the column of his knights following behind him behind the screen of bowmen he had sent across first to push the surviving maidens and their crossbows into the woods and away from his knights. It had been a hard fight and longer than he’d ever thought it would be, but his forces were finally across the river. The three maidens holding the ford had been absolutely terrifying, especially when the redhead had started throwing balls of light at the troops trying to push him away from the river, balls whose impact had thrown men back as broken and sometimes ruptured corpses. In the end, the three had pulled back only when the just-arrived Lord Towne had ordered the additional mercenary archers that had come up with him to clear the maidens with crossbows away from the river, then had them concentrate their arrow fire on the ford. But by then riding his charger over the submerged corpses of knights and infantry weighed down by their armor in the ford’s watera had been a chancy thing. He could not believe the price he’d paid for the crossing.

Though not as high a price as they did, he thought. Normally that thought would have been intensely satisfying — even before the Orc raid that had killed his father and so given him his lands and title, in his brief knight errant days he had fought against Orc and Reptile Men raiders and knew how it felt to be the victor in a hard-fought battle. But now, as his gaze shied away from yet another too-small maiden with bloody hands clasped over spilled intestines and unseeing eyes staring at the sky, all he felt was burning hatred for the man responsible mixed with gnawing guilt that the sacrifice of the maidens that had fought so bravely against his men had been useless.

The blaring of a trumpet up ahead yanked his attention away from his dark thoughts, and his eyes widened as a fresh wave of men-at-arms erupted from the trees ahead of him to charge with a high-pitched, twisting scream at his line of bowmen. Some of those in that charge were the same maidens that had so recently retreated into the forest, but most were men — fresh arrivals, though they seemed no better armed than the maidens had been, the light infantry his spies had reported.

Instantly turning to the knights behind him, he shouted, “Spread out, form up for a charge! We’ll take them —”

Another horn sounded, and Lord Towne whipped around in his saddle to stare behind him and to the left, just in time to see a line of knights with lances pointed skyward ride over the crest of one of the rolling hills to the west — a hill on the south side of the river, where most of his army was still strung out on the road. Even as he watched, the lances dropped and the chargers broke into a trot. They wouldn’t reach their full gallop until just before they hit so his mercenaries would have a little time to prepare to receive the charge, but not enough — they were going to shatter like dropped crystal, and go running down the road to slam into his peasant levy. Those peasants were going to use that well-known peasant common sense to throw away their weapons and take to their own heels as fast as they could run — and being fresher and without armor, they’d probably leave the mercenaries in their dust, for Conall’s knights to ride down. Unless ...

Twisting around again, Lord Towne swept his gaze across his line of archers now tangled up with the scouts and light infantry — no chance there, either, the archers would never break free. Forget about providing support for the infantry from the north side of the river, they were gone. All that was left was ... “Everyone, toss your lances, back across the ford, now!” Some of his more experienced knights had obviously recognized the inevitable, they instantly threw away their lances and pulled out of the column to ride back alongside it toward the ford. The less experienced hadn’t been ready but followed their lead quickly, though some had stared at him incredulously for a few moments first. What, did you think we were going to charge straight at the forest, with our retreat closed off, most of the army on the wrong side of the river and running for their lives, and the rest of King Conall’s army coming straight at us? His lips twisted into a wry smile as he reined his own charger around to follow. Now at the back of the mob of knights, he winced at the sound of individual quarrels slashing into the scrum, then noticed the now-trampled corpse of the maiden he’d seen just a few minutes earlier and mentally saluted as he passed her again. It looks like you didn’t die in vain, after all.

The ford could have been an unholy mess, but fortunately he’d had the wisdom to ask his oldest, most experienced knight (a lot more experienced than his lord, to speak truth) with his famous mace to stick to the middle of the column to keep an eye on the overeager young bloods. Even as Lord Towne trotted up, he could hear Sir Bayhun’s voice trumpeting out names — he was mandating the order in which the knights were recrossing (and at least one knight was on the ground with a dented helm), and ...

Lord Towne stood up in his stirrups to look over the heads of his knights, and saw what he’d been hoping — his knights that hadn’t made it across the ford had backed off and turned around, were forming their own line facing south. That was good, because if whoever was in charge of Conall’s knights had any sense and control over his own men he wouldn’t try to run down the fleeing mercenaries with a force of knights at his back. “Make way, make way!” he shouted. Sir Bayhun’s head jerked around, then he was shouting as well.

A few minutes later Lord Towne was cantering up the ramp to push his way into the middle of his south-facing line, his standard bearer slotting in next to him. On his other side, Sir Julius’s helm briefly turned toward him. “You’re just in time, my lord,” he said as he twisted to hand his lance across even as he looked back at the line of the king’s knights thundering towards them.

“So I see,” Lord Towne agreed with a sigh — he wasn’t sure how many of his knights had rejoined the southern line, but he suspected the charge he could now see bearing down on them was at least half again as numerous. At least they no longer have their lances, he thought was he waited, watching them close — that would give those of his knights with him a brief advantage. It’s time. He couched his lance, bellowed his family’s motto — “Nos consto!”: We stand firm — then spurred his charger to meet the enemy.

/\

“Kazuyoshi, tell the wagoneers to come forward! Bruni, sound rally!” Ranma — once again male thanks to the magic goblet he’d been gifted — shouted in Anglic, then looked back out over the field as the trumpeter lifted his horn to his lips. Akane and Ranma had been just inside the forest watching the enemy archers approach with the knights crossing the ford beyond them when the vanguard of the Keldaran pikes came down the road, and the pair had been happy to help lead the charge back out of the forest against the archers. Of course, with all the trees there hadn’t been room to unload the pikes from the wagons first so like the Scouts the Keldaran men had only been armed with their shortswords and daggers.

But now with the enemy archers dead or scattered and the knights trying to pull back across the ford there was room to deploy the pikes, and Akane bared her teeth as the knights she was glaring at — along with the rest of the world — were suddenly tinted pink. This was going to be beautiful. You will pay....

“Whoa, Akane, dial it down,” Ranma whispered, in the Japanese that many of the men around them couldn’t understand. “You’re just short a’ formin’ a visible battle-aura, and if ya look like ya burst into flames everyone’s gonna think you’re a demon — not good around here. You gonna be alright?”

At her husband’s question Akane realized she was grinding her teeth, her hands white from how hard they were clenched onto her crossbow. She forced her jaw and hands to relax, and growled, “I’ll be all right once we’ve ground those ‘whoresons’ into the mud.”

Ranma glanced sideways at her, wondering what that unfamiliar Anglic word had meant — from the rest of what his wife said he doubted it was complementary. But ... he glanced around at the block of pikes that had been forming around them, the pair in the middle of the front line. Those Scouts still alive and mobile had seen the forming formation and fallen into place on its flanks as they’d trained. He didn’t have time to ask, they needed to move. For a moment he considered suggesting that his wife join the Scouts on the flanks. No, berserker, need ta keep her with me. In Anglic, he shouted, “Let’s show ‘em who really owns the battlefield! Forward!”

The block lurched into motion, the pikes of the front ranks dropping to level at the knights, and the red tint vanished from Akane’s world, swept away by horror as she realized they’d forgotten something — the bodies scattered across the ground between the pikes and the knights. While the corpses wouldn’t do anything for the Keldaran’s footing they had been trained on broken ground. But while the surviving Scouts had policed the battlefield during the break in the fighting, from the way some of those bodies were moving the counterassault against the enemy archers had planted a fresh crop of wounded — and the pikes were going to march right over some of them.

And she wasn’t the only one to notice, the square was breaking up a little as some of the men in the front ranks slowed and were bumped into by the ranks behind them.

“Ranma, stop the pikes!” she hissed, then darted forward, shouting, “Odd numbers, clear the wounded! Evens, cover!”

A scattering of Scouts slung their crossbows on their backs and hastened to join her (several only just stopped by the breveted sergeants or the Scouts next to them from removing the loaded quarrels by firing them at the knights). Within minutes they were moving from body to body and pulling the wounded aside as gently as they could manage.

Akane had joined them, checking bodies but handing off their wounded to other Scouts to pull aside while she kept crossbow in hand and an eye on the knights (who were using the sudden break in the fighting to sort themselves out), when a faint groan caught her attention. It was male, and much too deep. She quickly glanced around to find one of the enemy archers stirring. No, he was writhing slightly, hands clutched around two quarrels stuck through his leather armor and into his stomach — he was alive! Her vision went red again and she strode toward him, crossbow in one hand and the other curling around misty-red light.

He looked up toward her with unfocused eyes as she approached. “Mama?”

She stumbled at the word, eyes widening. Did he just — ?

“Mama, don’t be mad, I’m sorry, I should’a listened, I —”

She sighed, the red clearing from her vision. She dropped to her knees next the young man — boy still, really — her hand uncurling to stroke his dark hair away from his sweat-beaded forehead. “It’s all right, baby. Everything will be all right. I’m afraid this is going to hurt, though.” She slid the quarrel from the crossbow into her quiver and set down the quarrel on the grass, then slid her arms under his shoulders and knees and rose to her feet.

Blood spattered her chest as the boy hissed, eyes clenched shut. Then his bloodstained lips curved into a smile. “Mama.”

He died in her arms on the way to the impromptu aid station.

/\

From the edge of the mass of knights still trying to get across the ford, Sir Bayhun sighed with relief as he watched the foreign girl carry the wounded archer away — for a moment he was afraid she was going to kill her enemy instead, and then he would have lost what control he had of the hotheads still on his side of the river. From the sight of the rock-steady ranks of spears longer than any he had ever dreamed of, all pointed straight at him and the rest of the knights, that wouldn’t have ended well. God be praised that whoever those people are they’re better Christians than soldiers, if they weren’t they’d have rolled right over us while most of the young idiots were still trying to get back across the ford.

He glanced over his shoulder, and his face tightened at the number of enemy knights visible on each side of the line of his lord’s knights that had managed to recross the ford or not crossed in the first place. Too many, the best he can do is break through them and run away, and anyone else crossing to join in will be on the wrong side of that mess, they’ll never make it out. I have to get my people out of here.

Spurring his mount forward and turning to face the knights still mobbing about on his side of the ford, he waved his sword above his head to get everyone’s attention. “Follow me!” he shouted, then charged ... to the west along the ravine. He glanced over his shoulder to find a scattering of other knights following close behind, the mass growing thicker behind them as the rest realized they were leaving. Good. He just hoped they’d continue to follow him when they found out he wasn’t just flanking those odd spearmen, but leading his men to the end of the ravine several leagues away where they could cross the river, then head cross-country back to the keep — instead of turning around and coming back. The battle was lost, but ... young hotheads. And some not so young. Well, he’d just have to hope.

/\

As Lord Towne galloped toward the line of enemy knights charging equally rapidly toward him, he focused on the shield of the knight most likely to match up against him and grinned fiercely — a blue background behind a yellow dog leaping, its jaws gaping wide to bite. Azure, hound salient or, he thought, King Conall’s fornicating, drunken ponce of a foster brother. He was a little surprised that that waste of a knighthood would actually have the courage to seek out battle instead of remaining at Carrick Town ‘keeping an eye on things’ (meaning the whores in the taverns, of course), but he wasn’t going to complain about his good fortune. Sir Galardon didn’t even have a lance, just his sword! Though that sword was blood-slimed, he’d at least put it to use.

He braced himself as the space between the two shrank, aimed his lance for the upper corner of Sir Galardon’s shield — then at the very last moment twitched the lance tip up and to the side, targeting the full helm completely encasing his head.

In a move too smooth not to be long practiced, Sir Galardon’s sword swept up to bat aside the lance tip. A shocked Lord Towne let go of the lance and grabbed for his sword hilt as he braced his shield — and Sir Galardon whipped his sword around and down. Chainmail links parted as the sword sliced through them like a knife through butter and deep into the neck of Lord Towne’s charger.

Enchanted sword, must be, Lord Towne thought distantly as he let go of his half-drawn sword, kicked his feet free of his collapsing mount’s stirrups, and tucked himself behind his shield to roll as he hit the ground. Fortunately there had been only one rank of knights so he didn’t have to worry about being ridden over by others behind him, but he still pushed himself to his feet beside his dying charger as quickly as possible and looked around — his own knights’ lances had told, many of them had broken through and were racing south after the rest of his broken army. Some enemy knights were in pursuit, others dismounting and using lances as makeshift spears to close the ford to his knights still trapped on the north side of the ravine....

Sir Galardon was in neither group, he’d turned around and ridden back and was now looking down at the man he’d brought down. “Do you surrender?”

“That was a most unchivalrous blow,” Lord Towne grasped for his sword only to find the scabbard empty. He looked around frantically ... there! He stooped to pick his sword up from the grass where it had fallen.

Sir Galardon’s chainmail- and tabard-covered shoulders shifted in faint shrug. “I’m more interested in winning the war than acting the perfect knight. So do you yield?”

He remembered his wife and daughters standing in the entrance of his castle’s keep dressed in their finest clothes, his wife fighting to hide her fears as the twins looked around at all the mounted knights in the castle courtyard, wide-eyed with excitement — they were too young to understand the seriousness of the occasion — as the three bid Godspeed to him and his knights. He forced the memory aside. It wasn’t like he’d ever see them again, whatever he did. “No, better here than the executioner’s block.”

“As you wish.” Sir Galardon swung his leg back over the high cantle of his saddle and dropped to the ground, readied his sword and shield.

“I thought you were more interested in winning the war than acting the perfect knight,” Lord Towne taunted as he raised his own sword and shield.

Sir Galardon shrugged again. “The war’s won. With your defeat the only way the rest of the rebels can win is to bring in Megalos, and that’ll be enough to swing Lord William of Wallace back to our side — especially with the offer we just made him. And that means I can ... indulge myself.”

“And does that chivalry extend to my family?” Lord Towne glanced around at the knights and squires gathering around the pair — at least he was buying time for some of his fleeing army.

“You need have no worries there. Your brother is safely tucked away helping Baroness Bronwyn guard our rear, he’ll be receiving your lands and title. And as much as he dotes on those two little munchkins, your daughters’ biggest problem will be finding suitors with the courage to face him when they grow into their mother’s beauty.”

Lord Towne didn’t know what a ‘munchkin’ was and had no idea how Sir Galardon knew how badly his brother spoiled his nieces, but he felt his heart lighten at the clear sympathy in the man’s voice. He swallowed to clear away the lump in his throat and husked out, “Then let’s get this over with.”

With luck, he could draw out his final fight as much as a quarter-hour or more, and buy some of his fleeing men that much more time.

Chapter Text

Sir Galardon slowly limped through the dusk-shrouded camp, doing his best to ignore the pain lancing through him from the stitched-up slice in his thigh that Lord Towne had managed to inflict just before he’d finally knocked the rebel lord’s shield to one side and taken him through the bottom of the jaw. For a few minutes there, Sir Galardon had wondered if he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

It would have been just your luck if your chance to play the reckless plunger had proved as fatal for you as it always is for those idiots, he thought with a wry smile. I’ll be glad to get back to playing a wenching, brawling drunkard—it’s safer!

Safer or not, he couldn’t pretend (to himself, at least) that he wasn’t enjoying the newly-respectful nods and acknowledgments he was getting from knights he passed on the way to report to the king. That was the reason he’d traded his enchanted blade for Sir Luccius’s normal (if Dwarven quality) one, and why he wasn’t using the crutch he’d been offered; he wasn’t going to undermine that newfound respect for his skills as a knight with a display of weakness—that reputation would remain even after he resumed his apparent hard-partying ways.

Don’t lie to yourself, Galardon, you were happy to have a reason ... an excuse, really … to let the mask slip and you wish to God that there’d been someone else Conall trusted enough to be his spy master when he was crowned!

That was true enough, and his brief humor vanished as the canvas of the king’s large tent glowing from within ghosted out of the dusk ahead. This time his report wasn’t from the Hands he oversaw, but bad news was bad news. And from the lack of even a single guard his foster-brother was in no fit mood to receive it, not when he was pulling away from all human contact no matter how slight. Sir Galardon really wished that he could have been the one to go off on some unspecified errand and let Myrddin be the bearer of bad news.

/\

King Conall sat in the chair next to his collapsible desk, ignoring the susurration of the tent’s canvas walls all around him as they undulated under the evening breeze. He stared down at the wooden cup in his hand half-full of beer. It was the strongest beer he’d had back at Carrick Town—since he couldn’t bring much he’d brought something with a kick—and right now he was fighting the temptation to empty his cup over and over, until either his supply ran out or he could no longer remember the bloody field that had awaited him when he’d finally emerged from the woods north of the ford. So many dead maidens ...

He’d been able to keep busy through the rest of the day. First, there’d been pushing his army over the ford and past the battlefield on that side of the ravine until they’d only had to remove a few bodies cut down in flight. Then with his army settled there’d been going over that battlefield to separate the wounded from the dead, to do what they could for the first and bury the second. But since then, he’d had time to think ... to remember.

He straightened and turned toward the tent’s entrance at the sound of footsteps outside, and a moment later the flap was pulled aside and his foster-brother stepped in. The king waved him toward the second chair, and worry curdled in his gut when Sir Galardon limped over and carefully lowered himself down. “You were just over with the wounded, why didn’t Maid Miyo heal that for you?” He dug in his pack for another wooden cup, then filled it with beer from the keg on its stand to one side before topping off his own.

Sir Galardon hesitated as he discreetly eyed the quiver in his foster-brother-king’s hands, but finally shrugged. “Apparently, even a prophetess touched by a saint has her limits. Maid Miyo was only healing those that needed her touch to live, and as soon as she dealt with the last that survived long enough for her to reach him she collapsed.” At the king’s alarmed start, he hastily added, “She should be fine. They told me the same thing happened the first time she healed someone. She just needs to sleep it off.” He shrugged. “One of the newcomers that wasn’t a scout had a neat hand with a needle. A comely woman, too, even if she’s married.” He grinned for a moment, only for the grin to vanish when his king didn’t join in his merriment.

“How many died?”

“Con—”

“How many died?”

Sir Galardon hesitated, then sighed. “About a third. Another third are too badly wounded to be moved far, though that’ll probably change once Maid Miyo has recovered.”

“A third,” The king repeated. He stared at his spymaster for a long moment before lifting his cup with hands that had gone from quivering to shaking and gulping down the contents. Cup empty, he dropped it and buried his face in his hands. “My fault. All my fault. When Myrddin mentioned that maidens would be marching to war I was so desperate I just accepted it. Sure, there would be some deaths, but they’d be scouts ... skirmishers! In battle they’d harass our enemies, then fall back while the infantry and knights pushed Lord Towne back into his castle. They weren’t supposed to do the real fighting.

“But no, then I had to get fancy, had to try to suck Towne into a position away from his castle he couldn’t retreat from, to end the war in an afternoon, and ... they weren’t supposed to be the ones making the stand! All those dead maidens—”

“They aren’t maidens—not here, not now.” The two men turned to find the Kildar standing in the doorway to the tent. He sketched a bow. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but there was no guard to announce me and Master Myrddin thought you might have need of my council. It seems he was right.”

The king stared at him for a long moment then nodded and waved toward his cot. He dug into his pack for another cup and picked his own off the tent floor. As Sir Galardon filled all the cups from the pitcher, King Conall asked, “What do you mean, they aren’t maidens right now? That isn’t a status that they can just put aside for awhile, either they are or they aren’t.”

Sir Morgan accepted his cup and shrugged. “As to whether they are truly maidens, who’s to know? Peasants are an earthy, practical lot ... though I pity the man that just assumes anything about those maidens. And as for the Suhadese—the Japanese—newcomers, they are mostly pagans. But whether they are truly maidens or not, what they are right now, are soldiers ... blooded soldiers now, the lot of them, and I could not be more proud to have them under my command. But not as proud as their families will be. Oh, the Keldara will grieve, and they can’t afford to take those kind of losses among their young women-folk often if they’re going to survive, but those soldiers’ names will be honored for the victory they gave us for generations. As for the Japanese, they have their own history of famous warriors—samurai, they call them—and living with the Keldara has been reawakening their own memories.”

He leaned forward on the cot, elbows on his knees, and gazed firmly at Conall. “And that is why you are going to put the bung in that beer keg, get a good night’s sleep, and in the morning you will attend the burial service the Scouts intend to hold and honor those fallen soldiers instead of weep over the fallen maidens. And then you are going to go on and win this war.”

Sir Galardon had stiffened with outrage at Sir Morgan’s tone, and was just opening his mouth for a blistering response, when the king began to laugh—a real laugh, even if it still had a hard edge to it. The king shook his head and tossed back the last of his beer before set his mug aside on his collapsible desk. “It seems that the contamination goes both ways. You and these newcomers ... hard truths plainly spoken—and we Caithnessers call ourselves a blunt-spoken bunch ... take pride in it. At least you do it in private.” He stared into the flame of his oil lamp for a long moment, before shrugging. “Still, you are right, and we have a war to win.” Turning to face Sir Morgan, he asked, “You are sure that there is nothing in Caithness that can stop your pikemen?”

Sir Morgan straightened, his gaze sharpening. “Not right now, no. Once others know more about them, have a chance to adapt, yes, but not yet.”

“Good. Then in the morning, once the the burial service is over and Maid Miyo has seen to the last of the wounded, we’re all going to get back on the march and your pikemen and the scouts will be putting the speed you boasted of to work. When we reach Sterling they’re going to keep right on going. I’ll keep the ‘doorknockers’, the ... ki adepts?” Sir Morgan nodded, and Conall continued, “ ... the ki adepts with me until we take Sterling, then they’ll catch up with you ... before you reach Oakwood.”

Sir Morgan’s eyes widened. “Good God!”

The king knew what Sir Morgan was thinking: the Archdiocese of Photius wouldn’t be a barrier, though with the Church’s official neutrality in the civil war there wouldn’t be any resupplies not paid for, but Denton ... But then Sir Morgan began to grin, and Conall knew what he was imagining, now: the scheming, greedy—and in this case blithely ignorant—Baron Cabble of Denton leading his knights and men-at-arms out to deny the pikemen passage through his lands to Oakwood, and paying for his lesson in the new military reality in blood that he could not afford to lose with the fall of Sterling putting the king’s forces to his north and cutting him off from Wallace and Ferrier, and Oakwood to his east breaking out in a rebellion of its own. The only ally he’d have left able to support him would be Donlis ... and Lord Marsden of Donlis had been a reluctant rebel, joining only because if he hadn’t he’d have lost his lording anyway, thanks to the Silver Hand proving that he had been supporting—and receiving a cut from—river pirates preying on Megalan merchants. And maybe if Caithness were really lucky, Baron Cabble would pay for his lesson with his life, like Lord Towne had. Not likely, the Devil looks after his own, which is why Towne is dead while scum like Cabble will live on.

Conall pushed aside that cynical—if possibly realistic—thought as he responded to Sir Morgan’s exclamation. “Yes, God is good. He’s given us the means to not only end the civil war, but to win it so thoroughly that we can keep Megalos’s legions out of our southeast, for a few years anyway. And in a few years, who knows?” He rose to his feet, the other two rising with him (Galardon with a stifled groan). “So you two should look look to your bedrolls, tomorrow is going to be a long day.”

Chapter Text

Ukyo leaned on the crenellation of Pilton’s town wall and gazed out at the gathering dark, her thoughts going to those she’d left behind. By now, the Scouts she’d left behind should have arrived at Carrick Town (well named, even if the natives insisted on calling it a city). She wondered how long they’d stop there, before heading south against Sterling. Maybe I should ask if I can return to Carrick Town. Yeah, Ranma and Akane will be getting back in a few weeks, but I’ll have to face them sooner or later. And at least the campaign season will be done so we’ll have the winter and spring for me to get used to it, and for things to settle with the Scouts. But Konatsu knows I’m here, he’ll be coming to join me when he’s done. I hope he’s doing all right ... assassination may be what he’s trained for and it’s all in a good cause, but I doubt he ever thought he’d actually put his training into practice.

The faint clinking sound of someone wearing chainmail distracted her from her thoughts, and she glanced out of the corner of her eye to see Sir Geoffrey now leaning against the crenellation next to her. Eager to turn from a problem she couldn’t do anything about to one she could ... maybe ... she considered the young (though not as young as her) knight in silence for a long moment. When he didn’t even acknowledge her existence—a major change from his usual extravagant manners—she said, “Can I ask you something?”

He turned to face her, still leaning against the crenellation. “Of course, my lady, anything at all, your wish is my command.”

Now there was the constant flirt she’d come to know. “Why am I here? At Pilton, I mean. Sure, this is where we’ll be fighting first, but that’s not happening for a while. And when it comes to walls, I’m a great okonomiyaki cook.”

“Ah. I don’t know what ‘okoyaki’ is, but ...” The roguish gleam in his eyes seemed to dim, and he turned back to the view of the cleared space around the town’s wall (a space considerably more cut back than it had been when the pair and their escort had first arrived). After a moment he shrugged. “Truthfully, you seemed ... a little lost, and all we could think of to help was a change of scenery.”

“So you weren’t looking for an opportunity to seduce me?”

He laughed softly. “Why is that always the first assumption? The Baroness asked me the same thing.”

Ukyo actually found herself giggling. “Getting a servant girl pregnant might have something to do with that.”

“Well, perhaps. Though I suspect that the gossip was more over astonishment that I paid for the child’s upbringing.”

“True, the servants thought you’re some kind of saint.” Which did not reflect well on the other men of his class, now that Ukyo thought about it. “So?”

Turning again to face her, Sir Geoffrey smiled—a true smile, without the lecherous edge his smiles directed toward her usually had. “So I’ll tell you the same thing I told the Baroness: I’m smart enough not to seduce a lady that could carve me into gibbets without breaking a sweat. However, my flirting has kept other men from making advances. They seem to think I’ve made some kind of claim.”

“Really?” Ukyo asked, just before movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. Night had set, and now she turned to look down over the walls to see someone stagger into the moonlight from a distant stretch of trees. Whoever it was, was so far away that she was having difficulty telling if the figure was male or female, but that figure was staggering in a way that spoke of injury or deep exhaustion. Sir Geoffrey had seen the staggering figure as well, and even as he turned to shout for the closest sentry the distant figure stiffened, then collapsed.

Ukyo was over the wall dropping to the ground without a thought, drawing her battle spatula from her back as she raced toward the still form. It took her less than a minute to get there, and she dropped to one knee beside the figure while her gaze swept across the line of trees, looking for any sign of an attacker while holding the spatula across her chest, ready to block any fire. Nothing.

Keeping half an eye on the tree line, she dropped her gaze to the figure beside her ... a teenage boy, a peasant from the rough tunic, with three arrows in his back. She pressed fingers against his neck, but couldn’t find a pulse.

Several men-at-arms came jogging up from the direction of the gates, their own eyes fixed on the tree line except for a quick glance from one of them at the corpse. “Dead?”

“Yes, at least three bowmen. What’s over that-a-way?”

“Another peasant village.”

 Another man-at-arms sighed. “Well, I’d say that the number of people in the village has grown a lot today.”

“No, not possible.” In the dim moonlight Ukyo could see the first one shake his head. “If the Hospitallers were coming there would be refugees. I’ve seen it, in the wars with the Mohammedans.”

“Not if the Hospitallers know where the village is, sent out riders to circle round and cut off anyone running away. And I can’t think of anything else three bowmen would be willing to kill to keep us from learning about. Can you?” When the first one didn’t respond he turned back toward the town. “Let’s get back inside, I’m feeling naked out here alone.”

Ukyo scooped up the corpse and slung him it over her shoulder, and quickly followed the jogging men back toward the gate.

/oOo\

“I’m sorry, Your Highness, one of ‘em slipped by us. We only managed to catch up with him after he’d come in sight of the town walls. We got him then so he can’t tell ‘em anything, but it was noticed and they found the body, carried it back into the town. They know something is going on.”

Captain Garalt, the commander of the men-at-arms, archers, and scouts, was a brave man—he’d given his report without hesitation, his gaze firm, and Sir Geoffrey Freeman, the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller and so ruler of New Jerusalem, kept his fury hidden as he nodded his acceptance where he sat in the middle of his large tent. “It was always a throw of the dice, Captain, peasants always know their own lands better than invaders and we could not count on all of them being within our cordon. There is no fault to be attributed to your men. Thank you for your report, you will have your orders for tomorrow soon.”

The captain nodded respectfully at his obvious dismissal and left the tent, and Sir Geoffrey waited until he was gone before hammering his fist into his thigh with a snarl.

Most of the war council made up of the most senior knights of the Hospitaller army, standing on both sides of Sir Geoffrey’s chair, remained silent in the face of their leader’s fury, but one spoke up. “My Lord, your words to Captain Garalt were true, you said as much when we planned this campaign,” Sir Sythyn, acting as his second in the absence of Sir Tristanus, reminded him from where he stood to one side.

“I know,” Sir Geoffrey agreed with a sigh, slumping in his seat. “But we have been doing so well in keeping word of our advance from sweeping ahead of us that I was hoping that God had chosen to clear our path. But it seems He is leaving it to us to prove our worth in His service.” He stared thoughtfully at the moonlit night through his tent’s open flaps for a time, not that he could see much thanks to the effect of his tent’s oil lamps on his night vision, then straightened in his chair. “Very well. While we would undoubtedly overcome any token resistance Baroness Bronwyn might choose to put up, it would cost us time we cannot afford. Therefore, we will be assaulting the walls directly instead of attempting to negotiate the town’s surrender. And ...” He hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath and continued, “we will be taking no prisoners. Kill all you find within the walls.”

All the men around him stiffened, glancing at each other. Finally, Sir Sythyn said, “Your Highness, may we ask why?”

“We cannot leave a garrison behind, we will need every man if we hope to reach Carrick Town. Nor can we take the time to bring down the town walls, and the town commands the river the supplies we will need to make it all the way to Carrick Town will be using. If we cannot supply a garrison and cannot deprive the town of its walls, we can only deprive the town of its people.”

“But these are Christians, not Mohammedans!” Sir Salvius protested.

Sir Geoffrey shrugged. “They may not be pagans, but they are heretics—that is even worse.”

“But ... not all of them are heretics, perhaps not even most whatever the Church here may preach!”

“God will recognize His own, and we have souls to save. You have your orders, carry them out.”

The knights around him hesitated a moment longer, then one by one slipped out of the tent.

Chapter Text

Again up on the wall, this time above the town’s gates, Ukyo watched as the army continued to snake into view. The newcomers were being careful to stay far from the wall, to the point that much of the column was being broken up by the line of trees the peasant had been shot from the previous night, and she nudged Sir Geoffrey. “Why so far away?” She asked, nodding toward that particular ongoing trainwreck.

He chuckled. “Archers. They have no idea how many we have inside the walls, and don’t want to find out.” He sobered as he looked toward where the column had disappeared from sight around the curve of the wall. “At least we were able to send people out last night to the western village, to get them within the walls, but the food stores they had to leave behind aren’t going to last long. When this is over Baroness Bronwyn is going to have to send down supplies to get them through the winter, maybe even ask King Conall for help.”

Ukyo nodded but didn’t reply, as the last of the invaders came into view. The latest newcomers moved off the road, turning into a line with one end anchored on the river. Rather chaotically, but that was true of the entire army—certainly nothing like the military units she’d seen march in parades. And while she couldn’t be sure at the distance, she didn’t think they were wearing uniforms of any sort either. No flags, either, though she did see some banners hanging from cross-pieces atop poles.

In silence, the pair watched as the semi-column turned into ragged, broken-up lines surrounding the town.

/oOo\

Hidden in a copse crowning a hill to the west of the town, beyond the peasant village that helped feed it, Sir Hengist absentmindedly shifted his balance and reined in his jittery palfrey as he watched the head of the army circling the town reach the river. He frowned as it shifted into lines. What that army should have been doing was tasking some bands with guarding against a sortie from the town while the rest set up camp and ransacked the village for any supplies that might have been left behind in the scramble for the safety of the town walls. After all, the usual first call for surrender and offer of terms—and the time for the town’s council to consider those terms—would take the entire day, the first assault wouldn’t be until tomorrow. Unless—

“They aren’t going to even try to negotiate a surrender,” Scribonius said.

Sir Hengist glanced at his squire beside him on his own palfrey. (Neither of the two were happy about leaving their warhorses in the town, but it was speed rather than size that mattered now.) “No, they aren’t,” he replied, then grinned. “You’d think they were in a hurry, or something.”

“Or some—” Scribonius broke off with a choked gurgle as an arrow sprouted from his neck. Sir Hengist stared in shock for a moment, then yanked on his reins, turning his palfrey around, and jabbed his spurs into its flanks. The horse bounded forward through the trees, and he yanked his sword from its scabbard and whipped it around to cut down one archer as the palfrey’s shoulder knocked another out of their path. Then he was out of the other side of the copse and galloping down the hill. Arrows began to flash past him, but he didn’t look back. His head rocked slightly as one arrow skipped off his helmet, and another punched through his chainmail into his arm. There were a handful of mounted knights ahead of him but they were on chargers rather than palfreys and he easily avoided them, breaking past to reach the road to Durham. He didn’t stop to remove the arrow from his arm and another from his horse’s rump for almost five miles.

/\

Back at the copse, Sergeant Jacques watched the knight escape, turned and sank his fist into the stomach of the archer beside him, then when his victim doubled over hammered him to the ground with an elbow to the back of the head. “I told you to wait until I gave the word!” he shouted at the barely conscious man at his feet, then turned away and stalked back through the trees to stare down at the besieged town.

At least that’ll be over soon enough, and I’m not in it. The orders that had been passed throughout the Army that morning had not been pleasant to hear, at least for him. Though he’d seen any number of men just shrug, and a few that had grinned in anticipation.

/oOo\

“What is that big, long thing?” Ukyo asked when Sir Geoffrey rejoined her.

He glanced to where she was pointing. “A battering ram,” he replied. “Their Sir Geoffrey put some thought into this—the ram’s too light for the castle at Durham and the moat would make the point moot anyway, but Pilton’s gate doesn’t have a portcullis, just the doors ... something I’m going to mention to the Baroness when we see her. Anyway, Fordham doesn’t have a forward walled town like Durham does. No, that battering ram is for us and us alone.”

“Great, an opponent who thinks, I hate those,” Ukyo groused. “Give me a stupid plunger any day.”

Sir Geoffrey barked a laugh. “The Grand Master may have now proven himself a plunger, but he’s not a stupid one.”

“All the worse,” Ukyo rebutted, “intelligent plungers are the most dangerous. So when do you think they’ll send their negotiator?”

Sir Geoffrey shook his head, brief levity gone as if it had never been. “If there was going to be one, he would have been here by now. They’re just going to try to roll right over us. They’re probably going to succeed, too. The Grand Master must have emptied New Jerusalem for an army that size, and we expected to have enough forewarning to bring in enough troops to hold the walls. Right now, we don’t have them.”

“We don’t!?”

“No, we don’t, not against that army.”

“You have me.”

Yes, and you will absolutely rule anywhere you are, so long as you don’t get surrounded and swarmed or turned into a hedgehog by archers. Meanwhile, all around you—”

“Everything else is going to Hell in a handbasket. So what do we do?”

Sir Geoffrey winced at the expression she’d picked up from some of the American tourists that had arrived with the rest of the refugees from Japan, but soldiered on. “A breakout. I’ve passed orders that once it is clear that the walls are lost those men that can are to fight their way to the gate and we will leave. Which is why you are going to stay right here. When the battering ram breaks through the doors, I want you to be waiting. Pile up the bodies in the gateway, don’t let anyone in. Most of the other knights will be up on the wall above you, along with the most experienced men-at-arms. Can you do that?”

Ukyo nodded, face grim. “Yes. When you’re ready to bug out, I’ll be waiting.” These wouldn’t be the first intelligent beings she killed, that ‘honor’ belonged to the Orcs that had tried to raid the Keldara; but they would be the first Humans, and somehow that made it worse. Akane and the rest of the Scouts will have to face that themselves, soon enough. I can’t do less.

“ ‘Bug out?’ ” Sir Geoffrey repeated with a chuckle. “Sometimes it’s easy to tell Anglic isn’t your native tongue, you use the most colorful phrases.” He sobered again, and straightened. “I’ll be on the wall on the east if you need to find me.” He held out a hand, then ‘oomph’ed when Ukyo took his hand then pulled him into a one-armed embrace. They held it for a moment, then separated and he grinned and bowed extravagantly. “Just what I needed before battle, the embrace of a beautiful lady. God bless.” Ukyo felt her cheeks heat up, and he laughed as he turned for the stairs to the street and was gone.

/\

The Grand Master sighed when the scout finished his report from Sergeant Jacques, but nodded. “Very well. Tell your captain that there are no changes in his orders.”

“Yes, My Lord,” the scout replied, and quickly vanished—eagerly, Sir Geoffrey suspected, no one liked to be the bringer of bad news.

But at least it isn’t too bad; that knight wouldn’t have been the only messenger, only the last, so the only loss is that Baroness Bronwyn will have a better sense of our numbers. He turned his attention back to the town, telescoping the spyglass he’d been gifted by one of his knights that hailed from Araterre. Sir Geoffrey had no idea why Sir Renart had journeyed so far from the ocean that the inhabitants of that island province loved so much (when asked he’d muttered something about wanting his lunch to stay his lunch), but the spyglass he had brought with him was a welcome innovation. Sir Geoffrey had to wonder why that handy took hadn’t spread inland, if it was as common on Araterre’s ships as Sir Renart said.

Spyglass open, Sir Geoffrey’s one-eyed gaze swept along the town wall’s battlements and his lips stretched into a hard grin. His archers were already forward, the first arrow-fire going back and forth, and while one after another of his own men were dropping—especially close to the town gates, where more defenders seemed to be concentrated—here and there he saw an archer pitching backwards off the wall. And he could afford to lose a lot more men than the town’s defenders could.

Don’t get cocky. This may be a stroll, but that doesn’t mean you won’t miss those men in the days ahead.

“My Lord.” He closed the spyglass and turned to Sir Helvius. Without waiting for acknowledgement (a show of servility that others used to feed their pride, and a waste of time Sir Geoffrey had made clear he neither needed nor wanted), his current Second continued, “The last of the couriers are back, everyone is ready.”

“Excellent, signal the charge.”

Without waiting for Sir Helvius to pass on an order that he had heard perfectly well, a man-at-arms a few yards away lifted his long trumpet to blow a loud blast. The signal was promptly repeated by other horns along the ranks in both directions, and with a shout the army began its charge toward the town—a slow charge, it’s hard to climb a ladder when doubled over gasping for breath. But the walls weren’t that far away and they got there soon enough, except for the few stretched out on the ground or falling back (or in some cases crawling back) with arrow wounds.

Then the ladders were rising, several falling as the men raising them were targeted by enemy archers. But more were thunking home, men scrambling up them with swords in hand and shields on their backs, his own archers trying to target the heretics trying to push the ladders away. Good, everyone should be thoroughly engaged....

Sir Geoffrey nodded to the page next to him. “Tell the battering ram to advance.”

“Yes, My Lord!”

The lad scampered off, and Sir Geoffrey watched as the men carrying the small battering ram trundled forward before once again telescoping the spyglass and swept his gaze along the wall. He really wished they’d had time to put together a proper one—yes, that would be overkill for gates of Pilton, but it would also include the covering that would shield the men pushing it forward from arrows. Still, if the archers still on the walls along each side of the gate switched to the men carrying the battering ram, they wouldn’t be firing on the men climbing the ladders. Either way, his men would be in. Now, where is the best place to reinforce ... ?

/\

The sergeant on the wall above the gates cursed. “They’re bringing up the ram.” He raised his voice. “Archers, switch to—!”

“No!” Ukyo shouted from where she stood in front of the gates. “Ignore them!”

Sergeant turned and crouched, staring down at her. “They’ll break through.”

“Let them.” Ukyo hefted her battle spatula with one hand, spread the throwing spatulas in her other hand like a hand of cards. “I’ll be waiting.”

He gazed down at her for a long moment, then nodded and rose to his feet and called out, “Archers, ignore the ram, stick to the ladders!” He turned back around as the top of another ladder thunked against the crenellation next to him; grabbing the two poles, he pushed sideways as an arrow skipped off his helmet.

The first heavy thud against the gates caught Ukyo’s attention, and she shifted her gaze downward just as the gates shook with the next hammering blow. It wouldn’t be long, now.

She never would have thought it, but she really wished Akane was beside her ... with her Hammer.

/\

The Grand Master stared intently through his spyglass, focused on the town gates as the men carrying the battering ram swung it again and again: the wood was splintering under the constant assault, the gates suddenly pushed in slightly, then more, the bars holding the gate closed were cracking ... and not a single one of the men swinging the battering ram had fallen to archery fire. He lifted the spyglass to sweep it along the wall’s parapet, and frowned—the archers, those few that hadn’t been killed or found themselves helping fight off those of his men that has made it onto the wall, were still focused on the men climbing that ladders, ignoring the battering ram. Why? He supposed whoever was in charge had decided to focus on doing one task well instead of two tasks poorly, but—

Faint cheers pulled his attention back to the gates, now pushed back; the wooden bars holding them closed had splintered, bent, but not yet broken. Another swing forward, and the men holding the battering ram stumbled forward as the gates sprang open and the cheers were replaced by screams. Men stumbled back, dropping the ram as they cleared the way for men-at-arms with swords and shields in hand ... but not as many as there had been.

Then those that had been waiting, holding their shields up as protection against arrows that hadn’t come, bellowed as they lowered their shields and charged forward ... and fresh screams arose before they fell back. Again, not as many as had gone in.

And then a single figure stepped into view in the middle of the open gates—a woman, but one hefting a massive axe covered with blood. At least, Sir Geoffrey thought it was an axe, though he’d never seen one with such a huge, flat blade. It had to be enchanted somehow, he couldn’t imagine the man that would be able to wield that thing otherwise, much less a woman. And wield it well, from the blood covering her as well as her axe—he was well accustomed to the blood and gore of a battlefield, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen a warrior as thoroughly coated as she was.

He slapped the spyglass closed and handed it to his page and waved him back. “Everyone mount up, we’re going in.”

/\

Ukyo stood in the middle of the open gate, legs spread for balance as she swung her battle spatula, arrows bouncing off it. Normally she’d be much more easy on her feet, but a good deal of her style was built around using the momentum of her spatula’s swing to pull her where she needed to go. Knocking arrows out of the air called for short, precise swings; overcoming the momentum instead of going with the flow.

The invaders had attacked twice more, once seriously and once to pull bodies and the battering ram out of the way, but now they’d pulled back while their surviving archers tried to bring her down. They weren’t having much luck, even if the number of archers was growing as more and more of the wall was swept clean of defenders.

She now had men behind her, protecting her back.

Then a ... bugle? trumpet? ... something loud and brassy, anyway, blared out and the archers in front of her snatched their arrows out of the ground where they’d stuck them for quick access before running to each side ... and behind them was a column of mounted knights, two wide, cantering toward her. She really should have noticed them before over the heads of the archers, but she had been too focused on the men shooting at her to pay attention to anything else.

As soon as the last of the archers were out of the way the column sped up to a gallop and the lances of the two in the front dropped. They clearly intended to deal with the living wall keeping them out by simply bulling their way through, and Ukyo had to admit it was a far from stupid plan. One hand dropped to her throwing spatulas, before she shook her head and returned to her two-handed grip on her battle spatula even as she shouted a warning to the men behind her ... as sharp as they were her throwing spatulas weren’t pointed, so she could guarantee that they’d penetrate the knights’ chainmail, much less their shields. That left their horses ... their massive horses, unlikely to be dropped by a single thrown blade, at least not fast enough ... and so for that she had a better idea.

As the charge thundered toward her she shifted to one side so that only one of the lances had a clean shot, and then she waited ... and waited ... and just as the lance was about to hammer into the battle spatula held in front of her she spun aside. The battle spatula spun with her, held wide, then bit deep into the warhorse’s leg, shearing clear through in a spray of blood right below where the leg met the torso.

The screaming horse collapsed, sending its rider skidding across the cobblestones of the town’s square, and her next spin took the next rider in line in the spine just before his mount tripped over the still-kicking horse in front of it. But the third rider was warned and she had to break off her spin to dodge as he swung his horse toward her, as the charge came apart. Ignoring the whirling brawl behind her as many of the men-at-arms that had been guarding her back charged with shields up and swords swinging at the no-longer-charging knights, Ukyo threw herself back into the gateway just in time to intercept the men-at-arms that had followed behind their charger-mounted betters.

She did her best to ignore the screams of men and horses, both behind her and those she was cutting down.

/oOo\

Ukyo was crouched on her knees gasping for air, leaning on her battle spatula to keep her legs out of the rivulets and pools of blood that coated the square’s cobblestones (a wasted effort, as blood-soaked as she was), when a another mob burst into the square from one of the side-streets. She managed to push herself to her feet and raised her battle spatula, only to sag in relief when she recognized Sir Geoffrey in the lead. He paused for a moment at the sight of the bodies of horses and men armored in chainmail, leather, and cloth scattered across the square (and pieces of men, where Ukyo had made her stand), before jogging over to her and saying, “Good, you held.”

“Yeah.” She stared at the mob that had come with him, now skirting the blood-soaked square ... especially the women and children splashed with blood, some clutching knives and makeshift clubs. “Why all the women and kids? I thought we were just taking what fighters we could.”

Sir Geoffrey’s face twisted, the hand clutching his sword going white, and Ukyo stiffened when she realized that he was fighting to control deep, burning anger. He growled, “They are killing everyone they find, no matter how young or old. We have to save as many as we can.”

For a moment the words made no sense, then she realized she was snarling, her ears pounding to her beating heart, the haft of her battle spatula actually creaking under her grip. It’s a good thing Akane isn’t here, after all—she’d be charging back into the town to kill as many of those motherless bastards as she could before they brought her down. Forcing herself to loosen her grip, she sucked in several breaths. “Right, then we’ll need the archers out first, to take care of the archers still out there. I can get us through whoever’s in front of us, but I can’t be everywhere to deflect arrows.”

“Not all of the archers, we’ll need some to watch our backs, but you’re right.” His gaze swept the men-at-arms around the square, holding every street that entered it, and he started pointing as he raised his voice. “You men, and you! Through the gate, clear out any archers still out there! You, you, you men ...”

As Sir Geoffrey handed out orders, organizing the breakout, Ukyo noticed smoke rising over the roofs toward the middle of town, the open flames. She winced at the sight—when she’d asked why the second and third stories projected out over the streets to the point they were almost touching the walls of their neighbors, Sir Geoffrey had told her that town property taxes were traditionally determined by the square footage of the ground floors ... which meant that with the upper stories all so close together, if the wind was from the wrong direction fires could sweep from one end of town to the other. And the strengthening breeze was wrong, the town was going to be gutted; they’d be lucky if there was anything left but the walls and the mayor’s stone-built home. Maybe if we’re lucky, some of the scum carrying out the massacre won’t make it out in time. Let them burn, if their priests are right it’s just a taste of what’s waiting for them.

/oOo\

The Grandmaster slowly opened his eyes. It took him a few minutes to realize he was on his cot, staring at the ceiling of his tent; someone had removed his armor and he was warm in his robes and blankets both covering and beneath him ... more than he’d actually brought himself. He tried to sit up, then carefully lowered himself back down as the pounding in his head told him how bad an idea that had been.

“My Lord!”

That was Sir Sythyn’s voice. His temporary Second. Sir Sythyn had been one of the knights leading the assaults on the walls. “Wha ... what happened?”

“You don’t remember?”

“I ...” Sir Geoffrey did his best to think through the pounding in his head. “There was a problem getting through the gate ... a demon in the form of a young woman. She was piling our men up like cordwood, after chopping them to pieces first. I ... did I decide a charge might push her out of the way?”

 “That’s what it looked like. We found you lying unconscious in the square just inside the town gates. Your charger had had a foreleg sheered away in one blow.”

Sir Geoffrey slowly pushed himself up and sat with his head in his hands. “The rest of the knights with me?”

“Dead. So are most of their chargers. They were swarmed by footmen, not the woman that took you down—there’s no mistaking which men she killed, as you said they’re in pieces, or close. She only killed one of the knights you led, almost cut him in half; but once you were through the gates she stopped the foot soldiers from following you, leaving the knights to fight the enemy foot soldiers alone.”

And with the momentum of the charge gone and no foot soldiers of their own, his knights would have been quickly pulled down and slaughtered ... the only reason Sir Geoffrey had survived was because he had been knocked unconscious and the heretics must have been too busy to loot the bodies, realize he was alive. Mourn the dead later, right now you have your duty. “What about the rest of the assault, did any of them escape?”

“There was a breakout through the gates, foot soldiers and archers led by a handful of knights, guarding some of the women and children. They managed to punch through the men you ordered to maintain the cordon around the town.

“With the women and children our men would have been able to pursue, but decided rescuing our own men inside the town was more important—someone started a fire down by the docks, and the entire town went up. Captain Hrothhelm, Sergeant Jacques, a few others outside were smart enough to realize what that meant and got all our ladders up on the walls for most of our men to get back out, but too many didn’t realize the danger in time.”

Sir Geoffrey nodded, then clutched at his head. When the pain ebbed from blinding to merely excruciating, he said through gritted teeth, “They made the right call, we will need to think of a proper reward. In the meantime, get those too severely wounded to continue on empty supply barges to return to New Jerusalem, and the rest of us will resume the march on Durham in the morning.”

“My Lord, you should be on one of those barges. I can continue on in your stead.”

Sir Geoffrey almost shook his head but caught himself just in time. “No. I may not be fit to ride, but I can stay on one of the supply barges coming with us. I will continue with the army.”

Sir Sythyn began to protest, but broke off as he apparently realized the hopelessness of trying to convince his superior otherwise. “Very well, but I strongly suggest you use the jakes and eat what you can, then return to your cot. There is nothing you are needed for that I cannot take care of in your stead, and the men will be heartened enough just knowing that you are still with us.”

“That, my friend, is an excellent idea. Summon my squire—no, he would have been in the charge.”

“He was,” Sir Sythyn agreed, “but I can take his place for this.”

With Sir Sythyn’s help the Grandmaster slowly eased to his feet and shuffled toward the tent’s entrance. Perhaps if he managed a good night’s rest he’d be able to ride in the morning. But he doubted it.

Chapter Text

Baroness Bronwyn jerked awake at the hammering on the door to her bedchamber, and groaned. The harvest was in, she and Master Rayner, her steward—what was the word she’d heard from Maid Nabiki ... accountant?—her accountant had been going over the records of the resulting stores. Then she and Ranulf had burned the midnight oil considering plans for when the fanatics of New Jerusalem moved against her, if they did. Now she didn’t know how long she’d been asleep, but ... she rolled over and pushed the curtain about her bed aside a crack and looked at the window ... it was still dark outside.

She’d long since adjusted to the fact that, unlike other women of her class, in a rush she might have need to have men enter her bedchambers at any hour, so she always had a female servant sleeping with her. Now she could hear Alice lever herself off her own pallet, presumably pushing her feet into her slippers and throwing on her robe over her sleeping garments, before padding over to the door to crack it open. A whispered conversation with the page assigned to spend the night outside Bronwyn’s chambers, and she closed the door and turned around. “My Lady, Sergeant Ranulf needs to speak with you right away.”

“Of course, please fetch my quick dress.” Early on in her time as Baroness of Durham, Bronwyn had realized that her liege men speaking with her at any hour could easily mean right now, which would conflict with her need to never appear before those same men less than fully dressed lest more scandalous rumors start spreading. (Rumors without a hint of truth to them, to her occasional regret—it had been a long time since her husband’s death, and it wasn’t just his love and sharp mind she missed.) So she had closeted herself with her seamstress, and the pair had designed a dress that looked as full as those typical of her class (so long as she didn’t move around too much) but took considerably less time and only one servant to put on. Now with Alice’s help and an oil lamp lit with a rare (and costly) match it was only a few minutes before Bronwyn was seated in one of two chairs by her writing table as Alice again opened the door to let in her late night caller—or more likely early morning, the fatigue trying to crush her down into her chair wasn’t strong enough for just a couple hours of sleep. Though the bracing night air through the nearby window with its shutters now open was helping a bit.

She was still tired enough that she couldn’t keep her eyes from widening when three men entered, her faithful captain in the lead, followed by a stranger—a man-at-arms, from the thick cloth padding he wore and the empty scabbard at his side—and a man she recognized, Sir Hengist. As the pair approached closer and became more clear in the flickering light of the lamp on the table beside her, she felt cold fear growing as she observed the stranger’s travel-stained clothes and the lines fatigue had carved into his face; Sir Hengist was better armored and his hose and surcoat higher quality, but the latter were equally travel-stained and he had a dirty bandage tied around one arm. Not only had Ranulf not waited for morning to bring the obvious messenger to her, but he hadn’t even permitted that messenger a chance to wash off the dust of the road first. And there was only one thing she could think of that would be that important and not have the word received from King Conall by crystal ball.

Without waiting for the newcomers to drop to a knee, she said, “The Knights Hospitaller have stolen a march on us and Pilton has fallen, hasn’t it.” She was surprised that she’d managed to keep her voice steady.

They dropped to a knee, anyway, and Sir Hengist spoke. “We cannot say so from our own eyewitness, My Lady—Julian, here, left the town well before the Hospitallers arrived and waited as a prearranged place for word that our suspicions were wrong and it was safe to return; I, myself, left before any assault on the town began, but from the sheer numbers I could see from beyond the west wall the outcome could not be in doubt.”

“I see,” Bronwyn replied, “you may rise. And it seems you, Sir Hengist, put off your delay longer than you should have.”

The two rose to their feet, Sir Hengist staggering slightly and staying on his feet only with Ranulf’s unobtrusive hand on his elbow. “True, My Lady, we were ambushed and I only barely escaped with my life. Scribonius was not so fortunate.”

Bronwyn closed her eyes for a moment to hide her grief, remembering the boy that had been a page in her own household before Sir Hengist had taken him on as a squire, a youngest son as clueless and eager to please as a puppy. When she had her emotions under control, she said, “I will let his parents know of his sacrifice. I know you only saw the enemy on the west side of the town, but what would you guess the numbers to be?”

Sir Hengist gusted out a faint sigh of relief. “Thank you, My Lady. For the numbers, I would say all of them—there must not be enough men left in New Jerusalem to man the walls.”

Bronwyn hid a wince and nodded. “Thank you for bringing the word.” She raised her voice to call the page still outside her doors, and when he entered ordered, “Take Sir Hengist to the physicker to have his wound looked at, then find them some beds. Sir Hengist, once you’ve had some sleep and broken your fast we will meet again, for any details you might be able to remember.” The two followed the page out, and as soon as the doors closed Bronwyn slumped in her chair and rubbed her eyes before waving Ranulf to the other chair. “So the Hospitallers stole a march on us. I’m surprised—Sir Geoffrey isn’t the type to throw his entire Order into the unknown, but I can’t see how he might have learned of the king’s plans. But he must have, the timing is too good.”

Ranulf shrugged. “That is a matter for the Silver Hand, our job is to deal with this mess.”

“Right.” Bronwyn rubbed at her cheeks. “What hour of the night is it?”

“Dawn should be in about an hour,” Ranulf replied, glancing out the window.

“Right,” Bronwyn repeated, before straightening and taking a deep breath. “We can wait a few hours until Master Martin wakes up to send word to the king, but send messengers to all the knights within a day’s distance, tell them to muster their levy and be here as quickly as possible. And send some scouts down the road toward Pilton right away, find out how close the Hospitallers are. I’ll get fully dressed and wake up some cooks, and we’ll have an early breakfast while we plan what to do next. This time, don’t drip on the maps!”

Ranulf chuckled but nodded. “Yes, My Lady, I’ll see the messengers off and meet you in the hall.” He rose from the chair and strode from the room.

Bronwyn waited until the door closed behind him, then rose to her feet herself. “Alice, start laying out my gown, I have a message to write first.”

Alice was already at the wardrobe taking out all the layers of clothing her mistress needed when she wasn’t practicing her martial skills. “A message, My Lady? For who”

“For Mad Marc, something he gave me when I last visited him. You mustn’t let anyone else know I have it.” As her maid acknowledged Bronwyn’s order, the Baroness swung open the lid to her personal travel trunk and pulled out a roll-up sheet of parchment with a red silk ribbon tied about it in a bow. Untying the ribbon and unrolling the parchment, she pricked a finger on the quill inside and started to write with her own blood. (When she’d asked Marc why these parchments weren’t used instead of crystal balls, he’d told her that they had to be made in pairs that could only communicate with each other, and their range was short. But that range was just long enough to reach his tower from her castle, and unlike crystal balls couldn’t listen in or even notice they were being used, and the message that the Hospitallers had moved more quickly than expected and he needed to get to the castle with whatever stores of gunpowder he’d managed to mix now would be waiting for him on his own sheet when he got up. She just hoped he was checking it before every meal like he’d promised.

/oOo\

King Conall and Lord Lathan Redbeard of Redhall stood watching the light of the rising sun sweep down the walls of the castle army had encircled the previous afternoon, surrounded by their knights (both those of the Order of the Stone and those sworn to Lord Lathan), waiting for the return of the herald the king had sent to summon the castle to surrender. (Including one brilliant-scaled, tailed Reptile Man, to the shock of the newcomers ... they hadn’t expected to ever see a walking, man-sized dinosaur in armor and tabard, the Order of the Stone’s rock emblazoned on its shield and sword scabbarded at its side.) Akane, standing not far away with her father and father-in-law—the remaining ‘doorknockers’—had to admit that Conall looked every inch a king in his own chainmail and tabard, gold circlet resting on wheat-blond hair ... everything Western movies had led her to expect.

But Akane wasn’t paying much attention to the king’s party, even with the addition of the Reptile Man knight. She was staring south down the road that the Pikes had taken with the band of Centaurs (‘herd’ of Centaurs, like horses?), Blind Lars on Windwalker’s back, the Scouts out in front—along with every surviving friend she’d made since she’d arrived on Yrth, her sister and mother figure, her mother-in-law, her last living friend from Earth ... and Miyo.

In her new homeland funerals, much less simple graveside services, didn’t include orations ... just prayers and maybe some hymns and something chanted in Latin. But that hadn’t stopped Miyo from giving an oration at the mass grave of all the fallen Scouts; Akane couldn’t remember much of what the young prophetess had said, but with the words had come a sense of peace like a balm for her wounded soul. And then had come Blind Lars’s contribution, that he’d stayed up through the night to compose (she couldn’t say ‘written’, since she doubted he could read)—a song of soaring victory that for all its difference from the music she had grown up with and in a language she still wasn’t fully comfortable in had lit a fire in her heart, and in the eyes of everyone she could see. Including the King, who had seemed ... fragile, somehow, when he had joined them at the graveside, for all his muscular health and upright bearing.

And now that peace and fire were both guttering as worry fought to snuff them out. The fact that Sir Morgan was traveling with them didn’t help. Neither did the fact that. Ranma was with them as well. (Sir Morgan had pointed out that he should have at least one ‘doorknocker’ that could blow things up at a distance, just in case one of the handful of mages in the kingdom chose the side with the rebels.)

Motion out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she turned to see the herald trotting up, his banner waving in the slight breeze. He reined his mount to a halt and swung down.

King Conall didn’t wait for his feet to hit the ground. “What did they say?”

“Your Majesty, Lady Gunnsig spoke from the battlements herself. She said that she would not abandon her husband’s dream so easily now that he is dead.”

The King sighed. “What I expected, she’s trying to buy time. I don’t doubt that she sent word to the rest of the rebels by crystal ball before we were close enough for Master Richard to listen in, and has no doubt been promised that they will come to her relief if she holds out long enough.”

“And she won’t want to risk surrender, not with two young daughters,” Sir Galardon added. “Sir Geoffrey might be the heir, but who knows what might happen to him? With him dead you would be the one to decide who their regent is, and you know the truly nasty rumors about you some of the rebels have been spreading. Even if she doesn’t want to believe them, she’s going to wonder.”

“True.” King Conall stared at the castle for a long moment, then nodded. “All right, Sir Morgan says that right now the pikes can chew up anything the rebels have, and we’re going to take him at his word. We’ll lay siege for a few days, give any reinforcements time to get out in the open where they can encounter the pikes on the road, then—”

“Your Majesty!”

The King broke off at the shout, and everyone turned to see Master Richard, robes flapping about his thin legs as he rushed toward them. “Your Majesty!” he shouted again, then bent over with his hands on his knees, puffing. After a moment he straightened and gasped out, “There was a message from Durham ... the Hospitallers are on the march ... they’re only a few days away from the castle!”

King Conall stiffened, the blood draining from his face. “They had to have left New Jerusalem the same time we left Carrick Town,” he whispered. He turned to stare northeast, as if he could see through the intervening forest and around the curve of the earth. “How did they get word so quickly?”

There was a long moment of silence, the knights glancing at each other, then Lord Lathan cleared his throat. “Shall we order the army to break camp and march north?”

The king considered the question, then shook his head. “No, Carrick Town is in no danger. The Grandmaster has no idea what kind of grinder he has thrust his ... hand ... into—he may capture Durham but he won’t be able to bypass it, and whichever he tries Baroness Bronwyn is going to gut him.” He continued to stare to the northeast for another long moment, then squared his shoulders and turned around. “But once he’s taken those losses he may give up on Carrick Town and come after us. Lord Lathan, take your own men and return to Redhall. Sir Geoffrey might have Redhall under siege or bypass it on his way here, either way occupy his attention, slow him down, face him head on if the losses Bronwyn ... the Baroness has inflicted on him are heavy enough. I will stay with the rest of the army long enough to capture Sterling then follow you with all but the garrison. Master Richard, let the Baroness know that we are depending on her to inflict as many casualties as she can. Genma!”

Akane’s stout father-in-law stepped forward (stout, but any fat he had carried long gone). “Yes.”

The knights around the king stiffened at Genma’s brusque reply, but Conall ignored the lèse-majesté. “You can promise to open the castle gates?”

Genma turned to look toward the castle. This was the first actual castle Akane had seen—as opposed to city (town, to Akane’s modern eyes) walls—and she had been disappointed by the lack of a water in the moat like in the movies until one of the knights she had asked had pointed out the lack of a river, telling her that the castle’s water supply came from wells. Now Genma eyed the castle’s raised drawbridge and for once spoke without his usual overconfident bombast. (Of course, Akane thought snidely, his bombast is usually about what ‘the boy’ can do instead of him!) Still, there was no hesitance when he said, “If that mechanism is the same as those for the city gates I was shown in Carrick Town, yes. Me and Soun can open the gates.”

“Good. Forget trying to draw out the rebels, we’ll be making the assault tonight.” He looked around at all the knights gathered about. “It’ll be dark, chaos. Make sure all our men have their green cloths wrapped around their right arm, the battle cry will be ‘A Conall’. Akane!”

Akane started at her name, but stepped forward, ignoring the way her father tensed and started to object until Genma grabbed his arm. She managed to stammer out, “Y-y-your Majesty.”

“I have an especially important task for you. Terrible things can happen to women and children when a castle falls to assault, even in as quick and hopefully bloodless as this one promises to be. As soon as the castle gates are open and our men have entered the castle, you are to find Lady Gunnsig and her daughters and make sure those terrible things do not happen to them.”

Akane straightened in surprise. She was actually being entrusted with a vital mission! “I’ll do it!” she eagerly agreed, then, remembering Sir Morgan’s advice for accepting assignments, hastily added, “But ... I don’t know what they look like or where in the castle they’d be.”

The king winced. “Of course you don’t. Sir Galardon will describe them, maybe even sketch them out. Galardon?”

“I can do that.” The handsome knight waved toward the clump of pavilions set up for the knights. “Come, fair Akane, and I will sketch out the castle and describe the beneficiaries of your mission of mercy.”

Ignoring her father’s stiffness and worried expression, uncaring of the whispers she’d heard of the king’s foster brother’s drinking and whoring, Akane hurried after him.

Chapter Text

Nabiki suppressed a groan as she slid off her palfrey, then suppressed a grin as her maidservant Aylara did groan as she was lifted down from hers by one of the Knights of the Stone bodyguarding them. After her initial meeting with Lord William of Wallace where she had laid out the situation for him there had been no point in further meetings, so her time with him had been limited to wide-ranging discussions of peoples, places, and politics (lessons, really, considering her level of knowledge of her new world) during the nightly meals and over the occasional game of chess (also lessons, considering her poor knowledge of chess, but she was rapidly getting better). Beyond that she’d been at loose ends without much to read—though more than she’d expected from a medieval society, she’d forgotten to take all the printing presses into account—so she’d filled up much of the time with long rides and receiving training in sword and knife-fighting from some of the female knights in her escort. (She’d had to keep from giggling when she used the line from that movie ... ‘those without swords can still die on them’.)

Aylara had rejected the offer to join her in either training or riding, preferring to stick to books and embroidery. So when a messenger from Sterling fell off his dying mount in the castle courtyard to gasp out word of the Lord Towne’s catastrophic defeat north of his castle, and Lord William had agreed to allow Nabiki to come along (as she’d pointed out, it wasn’t like she’d be picking up any secrets to pass along to the King), Aylara had not been ready for the brutal pace Lord William had set. He’d even pushed ahead with his knights, leaving the soldiers behind to set the best pace they could. She was not a happy maidservant.

As the squires and knights of both parties hastened to set up the tents and start the fires for the evening meal before darkness fell (some more practiced than others, it was fairly obvious which of them were accustomed to make do without servants from time to time), a stiff Lord William stepped over to Nabiki’s side. “Nabiki, may I speak with you privately for a moment?”

“Of course,” Nabiki replied, hiding her surprise. He’d been distant since the word had arrived, she’d assumed because of first hastily organizing a relief expedition that they both knew was likely to be too little too late, and then because he didn’t want to share his worries with a representative of the king he considered his enemy. But he had also dropped the ‘Maid’ from in front of her name (after the third or fourth request).

Now the pair walked aside enough that they could talk without being overheard while still being within everyone else’s sight. Lord William looked around and, satisfied, turned back to Nabiki. “Nabiki, did you advise me of the King’s planned move against Sterling in order to lure Lord Towne out where he could be crushed in the open?”

Nabiki’s jaw dropped. She struggled to come up with something to say that might be believed and came up blank, but after a moment Lord William relaxed with a chuckle. “The expression on your face ... I see the thought hadn’t occurred to you. And I doubt that anyone could have hinted at it without a woman of your intelligence recognizing the manipulation for what it was.”

“I ... no, no one was really sure what I could say that hadn’t been said before ... I was left to come up with my own approach....”

Her voice trailed off, and Lord William chuckled again. “It is good to see that sometimes the King’s cunning is mastered by his intelligence. Let’s eat and get to sleep, it will be an early start again tomorrow.”

He turned to walk back toward the campfires, and Nabiki grimaced as she walked beside him—trail rations weren’t exactly a banquet, a bedroll on the hard ground no match for even the mattresses of her new home, and she was no more fond of early mornings now than she had been in Nerima. Still, she’d known what she was getting into when she’d asked to come along. After a moment her grimace turned into a wry smile. Aylara wasn’t the only one not looking forward to this. Still, just a few more days. Then we can slow down to the normal day on horseback, oh joy!

/oOo\

Akane crouched at the base of the castle wall to one side of the gate, deep in the black of the shadow, hiding from the light of the moon and flickering torches spaced along the parapet, waiting ... and the rope dropped from above smacked into the side of her head, knocking her into the wall. Grumbling quietly (Genma or her father had dealt with the guard directly above them, but that didn’t mean any other soldiers in the rooms above the gate didn’t have ears), she grabbed the rope and began to pull herself up hand-over-hand, wishing she’d put just a little more practice into roof-hopping ... the castle walls were just a hair too high for her to risk jumping to the top like her father and Genma had. Up at the top she swung herself over the crenellation and landed in a crouch, hurriedly looking around ... all quiet and the only enemy in sight was a soldier lying against the wall; from the angle of his neck, he wasn’t going to be raising the alarm ever again.

Turning away and pushing aside the memory of the boy that had died in her arms, she murmured, “What now?”

Genma nodded at the tower beside them as he pulled up the rope she’d climbed. “The mechanism for raising the ... ‘portcullis’ ... we were told has to be down behind the drawbridge is in there. Soun, you’re strongest, we clear out the room and the floor above us, then you get it raised—it’s bound to make a racket, so one of us has to guard. Then I’ll drop the drawbridge.”

And of course, you find another reason to avoid the real work, Akane though snidely. “What about me?”

“When everyone hears the portcullis raising they’ll come running. You take the door to the wall on one side, I’ll take the other. Don’t close and bar the door, that’ll just mean we’ll have to open it again when we leave, with them right up against it—they might actually push us back into the room and get lucky.”

/\

Genma had been optimistic. There hadn’t been any soldiers in the room directly above the gate, the cauldrons for boiling oil to pour through the murder holes in the floor empty and the fires out, either the castle’s defenders weren’t expecting an immediate assault or the were hurt on fire wood. And the squad on the higher floor with the mechanisms for rising the portcullis and drawbridge were as dangerous as so many puppies thanks to being caught by surprise, but the very brief sounds of combat had been heard by somebody ... several somebodies, actually, with shouts of alarm being raised by sentries along the wall in both directions. Then a clamor arose, like someone hammering on a shield, and her father sighed as he dropped the last soldier, that he had knocked out by the simple expedient of grabbing a fistful of his chainmail and banging his head against the smoke-blackened wood planks of the low ceiling of few times. “Well, they know we’re here.”

Akane held back snark more appropriate to her husband (and in no way appropriate for one’s father) and ran for the stairs. In moments she burst through the door opening onto the wall and froze at the sight of armed men running toward her, then flinched as a few arrows skipped off the wall beside her. Stepping back into the shadow of the doorway, she realized she had a problem ... two problems, really. First, she needed more room to swing her hammer—the doorway wasn’t wide enough—unlike swords the Hammer lacked a point so thrusting it wasn’t as effective—but if she stepped forward for room to swing, she’d expose herself to the archers.

And that led to her second problem, she was having trouble summoning the Hammer. It was powered by her anger and always had been; before that hadn’t been a problem, more of the opposite ... it had always seemed to be simmering just below the surface, ready to explode at a moment’s notice. But now as armed men charged toward her and she reached for that anger, she saw the face of a young man—practically a boy—as he died in her arms thinking she was his mother. A boy that might have been one of those charging her now, if things had gone a little differently. These were men fighting to defend their home, not Orcs on a raid to rape, murder, and plunder. The anger wouldn’t come. I’ll just have to make do.

Then the men were there, and she sidestepped a sword thrust and hopped back a step for a little room and kicked, pushing her ki into her legs even as she did, as if she were about to leap for a rooftop. The man’s shield cracked under the impact and she heard a wet snap that must have been his arm as he flew backward, slamming into the man behind him. That man stumbled back under the impact, bounced off the man behind him, misstepped as he tried to catch his balance, and they both screamed as they fell over the edge of the walkway and plummeted the multiple stories to the ground.

Ignoring the sick feeling growing in her gut, Akane whirled to grab the soldier trying to push past her by his shield and shoulder (his sword thankfully held in the hand opposite from her), slammed him twice into the doorframe, then hurled him back into the men behind him ... they weren’t in danger of falling to their deaths in the inner courtyard and the crenellations were high enough that they weren’t likely to fall the other way into the dry moat, but they could still fall on the walkway and tangle up the men behind them.

That gave her a few seconds’ breathing room, and behind her she could hear the clanking of some sort of gear and the metal-on-stone rumble of the rising portcullis. She was considering closing and barring the door anyway, especially with the screams coming from Genma’s side (he was obviously more lethal than she’d been so far) when she heard her father shout: “Genma, it’s up! Switch!” Akane glanced back just in time to see Genma back-flip out of the way as her father dropped off the stairs and stepped into his place in the opposite doorway, then Genma disappeared up the stairs again. She turned back to face the again-charging soldiers on the wall even as she heard the rattling chains followed by the echoing thud of the drawbridge slamming down.

A moment later she was staggering back from Genma’s yank on the back of her collar as he slammed her door shut and held it closed. Ignoring the thuds of bodies smashing into the other side, he shouted, “Girl, bar the door!”

Akane looked around wildly, saw the wooden bar leaning against the wall beside the door where she might have expected it, snatched it up and dropped it into its brackets across a door quivering with the blows of the soldiers outside trying to force their way in.

Genma relaxed and stepped away from the door. “Soun, you’ll need to stay here and guard the winch for the portcullis. Girl, you’re with me, we’re going down to clear the gate so the troops don’t have to fight their way in.” Her father instantly objected—loudly—even as he beat back another rush, and Genma replied, “Would you rather she stayed here alone? The gate is wide enough to need two of us, so that’s one up here to keep them from dropping the portcullis if they break through.”

Her father glared at Genma for a moment (a very rare occurrence), then nodded as he almost absentmindedly beat back another attempt by the men-at-arms on the wall to rush the doorway. “I’ll push them back, give you room to drop down.” He charged through the door and more shouts and screams arose, along with the same thudding sound she’d heard when her kick against a shield went home, and when the men that had fallen off the walkway hit the cobblestone-covered ground.

Genma followed him through the doorway, Akane right behind, and she went a little green at the sight of the body parts scattered about, the blood that seemed to coat the surface and crenellations of the walkway, dark in the torchlight ... Genma hadn’t been taking it easy on the ‘enemy’ on his side, and she had to salute the courage it took to keep trying in the face of that. But she didn’t have time to throw up, as Genma simply stepped off the edge of the walkway and dropped toward the cobblestones below, and the crowd of soldiers there. Again, Akane was right behind him—she might not have been able to leap as high as the top of the castle wall yet, but she had no trouble dropping that distance.

Akane had a split second to see Genma’s landing simply hammer a soldier to the ground, then she landed on another. She felt his neck snap under the impact and rode the corpse to the ground, her rolling ‘dismount’ knocking several other soldiers over. Then Genma grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet as the stunned soldiers stared for a moment before a shout went up and suddenly it was as if she was back at Furinkan the first day Ranma had attended, with the Hentai Horde surrounding her ... though the padding some of the Horde had worn was better than the chainmail and leather these soldiers had, at least against fists; even if the bats, hockey sticks, and other tools of their various sports weren’t as lethal as the soldiers’ swords. Within seconds the pair of Martial Artists were the center of an empty space (except for the bodies of unconscious and dead soldiers, of course); for Akane the hardest part of the fight had been not getting in Genma’s way.

Genma glanced around and nodded. “I’ve got this, you’d better be on the King’s business before they close the doors to the keep.”

Akane glanced at the half-circle of soldiers around them, then over her shoulder at the night on the other side of the now open gate. That night was now full of torches as the army alerted by the crash of the dropping drawbridge charged toward the castle—they’d be there in only a few minutes at that rate, and with Genma there the castle’s defenders wouldn’t be able to bottle them up. “ ‘Wide enough to need two of us’,” she said, repeating Genma’s words to her father from only minutes before.

Genma shrugged. “Your father wasn’t happy about the order the King gave you; he didn’t say anything, but he’d be looking for an excuse to keep you close here and now he can’t. Now go.”

Akane looked up over the heads of the soldiers around them (pulling back now, archers coming forward ... Genma casually knocked a couple arrows out of the air), at the still open doors to the keep, at the top of a wide set of stairs. Without bothering to reply she charged straight at the encircling soldiers. The one in front of her braced themselves, spears facing her this time, but just before she reached the points thrust toward her she gathered herself and leaped.

Shouts and exclamations sounded below her as she soared over their heads, the handful of archers not stunned into immobility too shaken to aim, including the archer she slammed into beyond the immediate circle. She felt something crack under her feet as the pair hit the ground (probably ribs), then she was dashing for and up the stairs into the keep. As she raced through the huge doors, bouncing a soldier trying to pull one of them closed off the wall as she passed, she heard the now-familiar shouts, screams and ringing metal-on-metal sounds of battle break out behind her. The first of the King’s troops must have reached the gate Genma was guarding, that had been fast.

Chapter Text

As soon as Akane pushed into the castle, she knew she had a problem.

No one among those around the King had been able to tell her just where in the castle its Lady and her children were likely to be found, but she hadn’t really worried about it ... a castle might be an imposing structure for an Iron Age society but they weren’t that big, and she’d know when she found the right room by the guards outside the door. Simple, right? But instead, she’d found herself in a dark warren only occasionally lit by torches and time was rapidly running out.

So when she turned a corner and found herself almost face to face with a ... squire, she thought, from his armor, age, and simpler tabard ... hurrying out of a stairwell with a torch in one hand, she stopped rather than simply pass him by as she had several others over the past handful of minutes. (The first time had been a little scary, but she had to be a servant however she was dressed. Why else would a young maiden be in the castle, right?) She said, “Excuse me, can you tell me where the Lady of the Castle and her children are quartered?”

The squire paused at the request, turned to look at her, and his eyes widened. “You!” He grabbed for the hilt of the sword at his side, but before more than a few inches of steel was pulled from the scabbard she caught him by the wrist. Her other hand bunched in his tabard, and she swung him around and slammed him against the wall, cringing each time at the ringing of the steel of his cap against the wall’s stone ... once, twice, three times before he went limp.

“Hold your fire!”

Akane whirled at the shouted order to find more men on the stairs, a knight in chainmail on the bottom step with a shield on one arm and his helmet tucked under the other, two bowmen above him with arrows drawn and pointed at her. She let go of the limp body in her hands and stepped back.

The knight stepped down to the corridor floor, followed by the soldiers behind him, and gazed at her for a long moment. “Thomas was right, it is you, isn’t it? From the battle at the ford, the girl with the massive red glowing hammer.”

“Thomas?”

The knight nodded to the squire now slumped down against the wall. “How is he?”

Akane knelt, placed fingers against his throat looking for his pulse, while keeping an eye on the knight and the men with him. “He’s alive. I think I managed not to break any of his ribs, though I might have cracked some. No point in checking his eyes in torchlight, but he probably has a concussion.” She stood back up and braced herself for battle. “Yes, I was the girl with the hammer at the ford.”

“I thought so, I saw you when you helped clear out the wounded between us and your men with those long spears. I saw that red light flickering around your fist and thought for a moment that you were going to kill them instead.” He paused for a moment, his eyes searching her face ... for what, Akane didn’t know. “Why didn’t you?”

Akane swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. “The boy mistook m-me for his m-m-mother....”

She stopped, her throat too choked to speak, and the knight gazed at her for another long moment, eyes thoughtful, before suddenly smiling. “You’re here to protect them, aren’t you? Lady Gunnsig and her daughters. I can’t imagine a girl that couldn’t kill a dying boy can kill a couple of even younger girls.”

That she could answer, as she forced her thoughts back onto her mission. “Yes, that was the order the King gave me, to make sure the Lady and her children were unharmed.”

“Did he,” the knight murmured, then glanced over his shoulder at his men. “Tristan, take her to Lady Gunnsig.” One of the men—boy really, Akane assumed another squire from the quality of his clothing and armor, and age similar to the boy she had just knocked out—began to protest, but the knight cut him short. “One more sword isn’t likely to make a difference, and the maiden, here, will need your help to get Lady Gunnsig to accept her.” Tristan’s shoulders slumped, but he nodded. The knight reached out to gently shake his shoulder. “Good lad.” He glanced back to Akane, nodded to the boy with a questioning look.

For a moment she was confused, then nodded when she realized—yes, I’ll keep him alive.

The knight gusted a small sigh of relief. “I assume you will let us pass.” When she nodded and stepped aside he started forward, than paused. “I suspect I won’t have the opportunity later, so ... thank you. May God watch over you and those you guard.”

He’d just started forward again when, struck by an impulse she didn’t understand, Akane blurted out, “I’m Akane Tendo.”

He paused again, looked at her, and dipped his head. “I am Sir Bayhun, the knight commander of the last of the forces holding Castle Sterling.” Then he strode past her, followed by the rest of the knights and soldiers with him.

Akane waited until they were all past on their way to the battle she could hear raging in the castle’s courtyard, then turned to the boy. “Tristan, was it?”

The boy jerked a nod.

“Let’s go make sure your Lady and the children survive the night.”

/\

Sir Bayhun strode through the halls toward one of the keep’s side entrances, one they could use without fear of it being taken behind them (the height and the way the stairs came up to it along the side of the wall meant no battering ram could be used against it).

Sir Horatius, his Second since the disaster at the ford, sped up slightly to come up beside him and murmured, “Bayhun, was that wise? Do you really think this ‘Akane’ can be trusted? We could have taken her—she hadn’t summoned her hammer, the hall isn’t that wide, and I don’t care if those people can knock arrows out of the sky, surely she couldn’t have from that close!”

Sir Bayhun chuckled mirthlessly. “Horatius, do you really think we’re going to win this? Tonight? From the sound of it they’re already through the gate, and you saw what that hammer can do, the same as I did. Do you think the keep’s doors can resist it?”

“Well ... no,” Sir Horatius reluctantly admitted.

“No. So why is she sneaking through the halls, instead of in the courtyard leading the charge through our men, ready to hammer open the doors and release the flood into the keep? It certainly isn’t to assassinate Lady Gunnsig and her children—I can’t imagine a maiden that chokes up at the memory of a dying boy mistaking her for his mother being capable of murdering children.”

“ ... I suppose not.”

Without breaking stride, Sir Bayhun clapped Sir Horatius on the shoulder. “Buck up, it isn’t like we’ll find out until we see who joins us in Abraham’s bosom. After all, if she’s in here, that just means they have someone else able to force their way through the doors and take our heads.”

Sir Horatius snorted. “You always were rather poor at finding comforting words.”

“A curse those that see clearly must bear—”

And suddenly men-at-arms poured around the corner they were approaching, men with green strips of cloth tied around their arms, shouting the King’s name—somehow they’d broken in through the very side door Sir Bayhun had intended to use!

He flattened against the wall with a curse, letting Sir Horatius lead his own men’s surge forward as he lifted his helmet to settle it over his head. “Sir Gawain, back up and circle around!” Not that it would make a difference in the end, not with cross-corridors the invaders would be flooding down as well, but at least Sir Gawain’s men would ‘get it stuck in’ right away instead of waiting for everyone in front of them to die first. And Sir Bayhun wouldn’t have to worry about being overwhelmed from the rear, not before being overwhelmed from the front, not with the men he had with him....

His helmet on and strapped, Sir Bayhun’s sword shknng’d free of its scabbard as he stepped forward to thrust through the stomach of the man-at-arms stepping over Sir Horatius’s limp body.

/\

Lady Gunnsig dropped the crossbar across the door to the bedchamber she had shared with her husband and turned to lean against it, fighting not to shake. The castle was falling—not just the outer walls, but the keep itself. She didn’t know how the King had done it, but the firing slits of the bedchamber looked over the courtyard and by the torches streaming by underneath the enemy was already through the keep’s main doors. Right now all she wanted to do was collapse in a wailing fit, but she had two young daughters that were already wailing themselves and couldn’t afford the time. Besides, the three of them had company, the two of the guards that had been assigned to her—and just those two, with the keep falling to assault one of the pair had suggested that the two stationed outside the room join the resistance, no need to announce to the invader which of the rooms was the important one.

Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself away from the door and hurried over to her daughters clutching at each other on her bed, gathering them into her arms. They buried their faces against the crook of her neck, clutching at her now, their wails eventually dying down to hiccups.

She was just relaxing herself, when she heard the sounds of parting metal and a meaty thunk. She looked up toward the guards, and for a moment couldn’t understand what she was seeing—one guard stumbling back, falling to his knees trying to draw his sword with one hand while his other hand slick with red pressed against his side, before falling limp onto the floor ... and the other guard holding a long thin dagger coated with blood up to the hilt. The still-standing guard looked down at the body writhing at his feet for a moment and sighed as he drew his sword and swung it across the dying guard’s throat, then stepped back to avoid the arterial spray. “It’s really too bad, I liked him. But he’d have never have gone along with Baron Deneral’s orders if I’d told him.”

At Baron Deneral’s name Gunnsig felt her her blood run cold, the entire scheme instantly obvious. The fall of the Sterling lording to the King’s forces would put the rebel lords at a serious—and demoralizing—disadvantage, both geographically, in manpower, and thanks to the death of their titular head (and her husband) and could lead Lord William and Baron Nabbick to sue for peace; but with her and her children dead in the castle’s sack to outrage both those lords and their followers ... “You’d never get away with it,” she stated as calmly as she could manage. “You’ll have to unbar the door when you leave, and without the door being broken down—”

“Oh, I won’t be leaving by the door, I’ll be using the secret passage over there.” He waved at a wardrobe, and chuckled when she paled. “Building a stairwell from the kitchen to the bedchamber, then having people you trust brick up the entrance to the kitchen while leaving the outside door alone was clever, but not clever enough.” He knelt, avoiding the pool of blood, wiped his knife clean on the dead guard’s clothing, sheathed it, and rose to his feet as he drew his sword.

Gunnsig took the only option left to her—she took a deep breath, and screamed.

/\

Akane walked silently beside the squire Sir Bayhun has assigned to guide her. The halls and stairs they had taken had been mostly empty, all the servants were hiding in their rooms (she assumed) and the soldiers had already joined the fighting behind and below, though there had been a few of both they’d encountered. Most had simply nodded as they hurried past, a few had been appeased by Tristan’s statement that Sir Bayhun had sent them, only one had attacked without asking for an explanation and Akane had handled him as easily as she had the first soldier she’d encountered.

Other than when he’d talked the few soldiers out of attacking her Tristan had been silent, and Akane could almost smell the scorched ego and found herself having to keep from giggling because it was as if she could hear her own voice from less than a year ago: “I’m a Martial Artist, too!” She had to wonder if Ranma or even Ryoga—sweety that he was—had had to keep from wincing at her pronouncements.

Then they turned a corner into another hallway, and Tristan stiffened. “Something’s wrong, there are supposed to be two guards!”

Akane frowned. “Maybe they’ve joined Lady Gunnsig and her children?” she suggested. “Make it less obvious where they are?”

“Well ... maybe,” Tristan agreed doubtfully. “But there are already—”

A woman’s scream interrupted him, a scream as loud and terror-filled as Akane could imagine a human body producing.

“My Lady!” Tristan dashed down the hallway to a large door and tried to push it open, then hammered on it when it refused to budge. “My Lady!”

As Akane joined him fresh screams erupted, the voices of children, and the voice of a man cursing ... and for the first time since a boy had died in her arms Akane’s vision tinted with red as the old, familiar anger flooded into her. She snarled, “Get back!” as her manifested Hammer shaded everything around them in red. Tristan took one look at her and hastily stepped out of the way, and a single swing sent the door flying open in a crunch of wood and explosion of splinters.

Akane was through the door before it hit the wall, Tristan right behind her, and the red tint to her vision deepened at the sight of a finely dressed woman desperately clutching at the crossguard of a sword thrust through her abdomen, the soldier holding the hilt cursing as he struggled to pull it out, two little girls shrieking where they huddled against the outer wall.

Even as Akane charged, the soldier let go of the sword’s hilt and snatched at a dagger sheathed on his belt as he threw himself to one side. But she simply shifted slightly and the Hammer smashed into his side, hurtling him against the outer wall only a few paces from the children with a sickening crunch. The possibly-already-dead body collapsed to the floor, and blood and fluids spurted as the impact of Akane’s follow-up overhead swing ruptured stomach and intestines.

Turning away from the corpse and ignoring the stench of shit and blood now filling the room, Akane let the Hammer fade as she hurried over to where a wide-eyed Tristan was bracing up his Lady, blood dripping from his gloved hand and oozing down the blade as he held steady the sword thrust through her. There was nothing wide-eyed about Gunnsig’s expression, though, she was snarling and Akane didn’t think it was just from pain ... not the way her gaze was fixed on the corpse instead of Akane.

Akane crouched by the bed, gently pulled away Gunnsig’s hands from where they had been clasped against the entry wound, terrified at what she would find, then sighed with relief. “You must have twisted as he stabbed you, it looks like the blade should have missed everything important. Give me a moment, and we’ll pull it out.” She hastily undid the leather laces keeping a pouch at her belt tied shut, and pulled out some cloth bandages that had been boiled then wrapped in paper once they’d dried—far from the sterilization standards of her lost birthworld, but the best they could do.

I really wish Miyo had stayed behind like the King wanted, but she’s the commander of the Scouts and she insisted ... though her point that the Pikes and Scouts were going to be isolated and with no reinforcements until he could free some up, and so most needed the healing power she’s been granted, didn’t make the him any happier about letting her go!

Shaking off the distracting thoughts, she opened the bandages’ wrappings and laid them on the bed, tore open Gunnsig’s dress around the wounds, then rose to her feet so she could grip the sword’s hilt. “Tristan, let go. Lady Gunnsig, keep still, no matter how much this hurts,” She waited for a moment until the Lady jerked a nod and Tristan unclenched his bleeding hand, then pulled the sword free with a quick, smooth draw and threw it to one side as she crouched again, snatched up two of the cloths from off their paper wrappings and pressed them against Gunnsig’s wounds front and back, relieved at the lack of gushing blood that would mean cut arteries—Gunnsig might just survive her wounding even without Miyo’s Gift. She glanced at Tristan’s still-bleeding hand and grimaced, but nodded toward the third unwrapped cloth. “Tristan, wrap the wound tight.” It would mean blood on the wrapping from his own cut hand, but it couldn’t be helped—her own hands were bloody from staunching the Lady’s wounds, and the doctors with the army would have to change the bandages anyway when they washed out the wounds with wine and stitched them up.

Then it was done and Gunnsig eased down to lie on the bloodstained bed. Akane dropped to her knees and sagged back onto her heels, gasping with relief, before glancing over at the two little girls—still huddled wide-eyed against the wall, spattered with blood and filth from the man she’d killed only yards away, clutching at each other, but at least no longer screaming. She tried to smile, saying softly, “It’s all right, your mother will be all right.” I hope. “What’s your name?”

The girls’ eyes widened even more for a moment, before one of the two whispered, “Sophia.” A moment later the other whispered, “Mercy.”

“I’m happy to meet you, Sophia and Mercy.” And very happy we didn’t arrive a few minutes later. She spread her arms wide in invitation, and was almost knocked onto her back when the two little girls hurtled themselves at her.

Chapter Text

Nabiki could feel herself getting more and more tense as the morning wore on, and it wasn’t just the pounding her ass was taking as Lord William continued to push the pace. Since their little private talk he had gone back to his previous distant friendliness, but as they got closer to Castle Sterling he had become more and more focused on the terrain ahead of them. And more and more worried. More, his worry was affecting the knights he had brought with them.

Nabiki’s own escort wasn’t as worried, if just as alert. They’d already spoken with Lord William, pointing out that their own assigned task was keeping Nabiki safe, so that in any clash between Lord William and the King’s forces they would pull their ward out of danger and go into turtle mode (her description, which both parties had found amusing); he had found that acceptable and had ordered his men that in such a case they were to give Nabiki’s party the chance to do just that. But there was no guarantee that the King’s men would allow a group of strange knights to just walk away.

Finally, when they stopped to breath the horses by a stream passing through another patch of woods (Aylara refusing to suffer the pain of dismounting, since then she’d just have to the suffer the pain of remounting), Nabiki leaned over and murmured to Lady Gisselle, the knight commander of her bodyguard, “Lord William is about ready to jump out of his skin, what is his problem?”

“Pickets, Maid Nabiki,” Lady Gisselle replied. (Unlike Lord William, she had repeatedly rejected Nabiki’s request to drop the ‘Maid’ as improper for a knight watching over her charge.) “We should be getting close to the edge of the woods west of Sterling. With the castle under siege, by now we should have encountered the troops set to guard the approach from Wallace.”

Nabiki grimaced. “So why is Lord William rushing ahead like this? That’s seems spectacularly stupid, and he doesn’t strike me as a particularly stupid man.”

Lady Gisselle chuckled. “Yes, it is, and no, he isn’t. I’m sure he’s aware of how stupid this is, but he just can’t help himself. Castle Sterling, and its Lady and her children, are in trouble, so he will get to where he can at least see what is going on as quickly as he can. I just don’t know why the pickets aren’t out here—the King isn’t stupid, either.”

“Unless the castle has already fallen, of course.”

Nabiki and Lady Gisselle jerked around at the new voice, Lady Gisselle yanking her sword from its scabbard as she turned, to find a stranger leaning against a tree a few paces away ... a woodsman rather than a soldier, from his leathers and the unstrung bow in one hand. The woodsman tensed at the drawn sword, then relaxed when its bearer only stepped in front of Nabiki and asked, “Fallen, you said?”

“Yes, two nights ago.” The woodsman looked past Lady Gisselle and Nabiki and raised his voice slightly. “Lord William, I’m a little surprised to find you in the company of the Order of the Stone.”

“The King’s ambassador rides with me, they guard her,” Lord William replied as he stepped over beside Nabiki, his eyes fixed on the newcomer. “I recognize you.”

“Niall of Scotshome, you might have seen me with my men bringing in kills for the kitchen the last time you came to Sterling.”

Lord William nodded. “Lord Towne’s chief forester. If the castle has fallen, are you out here hoping to join any relieving forces that might arrive?”

“No,” Niall replied, “we’re out here to intercept you short of the castle before something unfortunate happens due to a misunderstanding. Though I expected your army to be a little larger.”

Lord William chuckled. “Oh, it is. It’s also several days behind us. But you said ‘we are out here’?”

“I did.” Niall whistled loudly, and grinned as more foresters stepped out and around the trees around them, with their bows strung and arrows nocked. “Just as well your army isn’t here yet. If you will follow me, Lady Gunnsig wishes to speak with you.”

/\

Nabiki had expected that they would be escorted into the castle that soon came into view, but instead they were led to the largest of the tents still clustered on the fields around the castle—one of a handful of pavilions, a round one easily large enough to house an even dozen soldiers and their gear, and Lord William’s expression had hardened when he saw it.

As the party dismounted, Lord William looked around at the bustle of an army still clearly encamped. “May I ask why, if the castle has fallen, the army is still out here?”

Niall shrugged. “The castle fell to a bloody assault, and while the bodies have been buried the servants are still cleaning up the carnage. The doctors felt that the wounded would be better off out here until they were done.”

“But the Lady’s quarters—”

“Are among those needing to be cleaned out. When Maid Akane kills a man, she doesn’t do things by halves.”

Nabiki stiffened at her sister’s name and the implications attached to it, but before she could say anything the pavilion’s entrance was swept open and King Conall stepped out. “Lord William, I am happy to see you here so quickly. Lady Gunnsig has a story to tell you.” As Lord William began to step toward the entrance the King held up a hand to stop him. “She is recovering from a wound but the doctors assure us that she will recover, with no worse than a scar. The wound is part of her story.” He stepped aside, and Lord William hastened into the tent. Conall motioned for Nabiki to enter as well. “You’ll want to hear this, too.”

Nabiki stepped into the pavilion, she saw Lord William dropping to a knee beside the cot of a woman that she assumed was Lady Gunnsig, from the quality of the blankets she was bundled in … and sitting on a cot a few feet away, Akane with a pair of young girls sleeping curled up against her. Her little sister brightened at the sight of her, and she carefully shifted the girls to each side, then threw herself into Nabiki’s embrace. Nabiki was surprised to realize Akane was shaking, and suspected the shoulder of her dress was getting damp.

“I’m so glad you’re here, it’s been horrible,” Akane murmured, voice muffled.

“Yes, you always did hate babysitting,” Nabiki said dryly.

She got the response she’d hoped for, a wet giggle. (Yes, Akane was crying.) Her sister pushed herself away and lightly thumped her on the arm before wiping at her eyes. “Prat. Those two are the only reason the last day or so have been bearable. Miyo’s led the Scouts and Pikes on down the road, and Ranma and Kasumi and Mother have gone with them ... and Yuka’s dead.”

“Yuka? Oh, Akane, I’m so sorry.” Nabiki struggled to find something more to say as she pulled Akane back into as strong a hug as she could manage.

Before she could come up with anything, they were interrupted by an attention-getting cough and looked over to find king, lord, and lady all watching them. “As loath as I am to get in the way of your reunion, Maid Nabiki,” Conall said, “you really do need to listen to Lady Gunnsig’s tale.”

“And Akane, an introduction to your sister would be nice,” Lady Gunnsig added with an impish smile. “This is the sister you gushed about, right? The cunning one?”

Akane hastily broke her sister’s embrace, blushing furiously. “I’m sorry. Lady Gunnsig, this is Nab ... that is, Maid Nabiki, my sister acting as the King’s ambassador.”

“And done so very well,” Lord William added. “Her method of argument has been unique—no soft words or twisted arguments, just hard truths laid out for me to make of as I would.”

Lady Gunnsig sighed. “I am afraid I have some more hard truths for you.” She shifted on her cot and hissed, then glanced over at the two little girls when one of them whined and sat up, in the process bumping the other. As the second girl blinked before sitting up with a yawn, Akane hurried over to pick up the pair, one on each hip. “Sophia, Mercy, why don’t we go see if the cooks will sneak us a snack?”

The pair sleepily cheered the suggestion, and Lady Gunnsig nodded. “A good thought, they already have nightmares from living through this, they don’t need to hear it told.” She waited smiling fondly as Akane carried her arms-full out of the pavilion (Nabiki hurrying over to hold aside the entrance flap for them), then glanced at Nabiki as she rejoined the others by the cot. “Your sister truly has been God-sent. Not only did she save our lives, but the comfort and security she has given the children that I could not due to my wounding has done wonders.”  She sighed and shifted with another hiss of pain, then looked over at Lord William. “My lord, let me tell you what one of your and my h-husband’s allies tried to do....”

/\

When Lady Gunnsig finished her tale with a voice gone thin and shaky from more than simple pain, Lord William lifted the hand he had captured with his own in the midst of the retelling to gently kiss her knuckles. “Thank you for your clarity and courage, My Lady. Have no fear, I will take this from here.”

Lady Gunnsig smiled with lips gone bloodless in a face gone pale, and she glanced over at Conall.

He nodded his agreement and looked over at a page standing at the back of the pavilion. “Harry, fetch Master Thomas. I believe Lady Gunnsig could do with a sleeping draught if he will permit.”

Eventually the doctor arrived and approved the draught, and once Lady Gunnsig sank into sleep Conall led them from the pavilion. “Lord William, if you will join me in my tent, I believe we have much to discuss.” Lord William nodded his agreement and Conall began to lead the way, then motioned Nabiki to join them when she turned away to hunt down her sister. “Maid Nabiki, would you join us? Your insight may be needed ... and this could well involve you as well.”

Nabiki shrugged as she fell into line with the other two. “Like I’m going to say no?”

An uncomfortable silence fell as Conall led them to his tent, waved them to seats as he sat in his own chair by his collapsable desk. He waited for the page that had been sitting on a stool at the back to fill three goblets with wine before ordering her out of the tent. Once they were alone, Conall sipped at his wine and asked, “So what do you think of Lady Gunnsig’s story?”

Lord William stared at him for a long moment from the chair he sat slouched in. “I’m sure it happened just as she said, but we only have the assassin’s statement as to who employed him. He could have been lying.”

Conall’s lips twitched into a crooked smile. “Meaning, it could have been me that sent the assassin, and sent Akane on his heels to stop him. Do you believe that?”

Nabiki found herself holding her breath as Lord William hesitated, then drained his goblet in one long pull. “No, I don’t—I believe he worked for exactly who he said. I may have supported Lord Towne after the highhanded way that you seized Mershall for yourself after Baron Deneral attempted to take Carrick Town from you, and the way you played with the hopes of the refugees from Castle Defiant to create the opportunity to do that. But ... Baron Deneral is worse—from Lady Gunnsig’s tale, much worse.”

Conall drained his own goblet, then refilled his and Lord William’s. “I really did intend to send a relief expedition, but even with the need to cross the Great Desert I thought I had more time. I should have had more time, Castle Defiant should have held out longer than it did. I don’t know why it didn’t.”

Lord William promptly kicked back half of his wine. “Because the Orcs had catapults—they knocked down much of the upper embrasures, brought up a battering ram and ladders, and used crossbows to sweep the battlements clear of defenders while they carried out an assault.”

“Did they? My Hands didn’t find that out. The Orcs must have had some renegade Dwarves helping them for some reason, I can’t imagine where else they would have gotten actual siege equipment, much less learned how to operate it. I wonder if the Dwarves survived beyond the end of their usefulness?”

“Let’s hope not,” Lord William said grimly, “or they might be knocking on my doors next. Concern of just that is what’s kept me and Baron Nabbick mostly at home.”

“I see. I figured you were concerned about Orc raids across the desert to go with the usual Lizardmen raiding your flocks—the “Lizard tax” isn’t it called?—but didn’t know you had such good reason to be worried. And now?”

Lord William stared into the remaining wine in his goblet. “What do you intend to do with Sterling, now that you have seized it?”

Without hesitation, Conall said, “Lord Towne’s brother is serving Baroness Bronwyn faithfully. If Sir Geoffrey survives the Knights Hospitaller’s assault on Durham, he will be the new Lord of Sterling. If not, Lady Gunnsig will serve as regent until little Sophia reaches her majority.”

Lord William shot upright in his chair. “The Hospitallers have invaded?!”

“Yes, that is why I ordered Sterling assaulted ... or rather, why I ordered it assaulted as soon as I did.” Conall smiled grimly when Lord William stared wordlessly for a moment, then gulped down the rest of his wine. He asked, “So what will you do now?”

“Hard truths indeed,” Lord William murmured as Conall refilled his goblet, then sighed. “Lord Towne is dead and Sir Geoffrey serves you, so we have no true claimant to the throne left to support, not with as good a claim as yours, at least. With Sterling in your hands our position is precarious, and Towne was the best of us, anyway—Baron Cabble and Lord Marsden are ... not men I would want at my back. Lord Brance is reliable, but he is distracted with a rebellion of some of his peasants and yeomen. And with me and Baron Nabbick watching the Great Desert over our shoulders and now the Knights Hospitaller needing to be sent home, and Baron Deneral ... as Maid Nabiki hinted to me some weeks ago, it is over.”

Nabiki’s gasp of relief must not have been as quiet as she’d hoped, and Conall glanced at her with an approving smile before refocusing on Lord William. “Good, your presence at Photius when the first Great Councils meet will ... I will be glad to have you there.”

“So you still intend to hold those?” Lord William asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, yes, I gave my word in the postings I ordered my Hands to distribute. And hopefully they will go a long way to binding Caithness back together after these years of war, we will need that if we are to retake Castle Defiant and hold back Megalos again once the legions finish dealing with whatever the Dark Elves are up to in the Blackwoods.”

“Yes, you may be right, at that,” Lord William murmured. He hesitated for one last moment, then set his refilled goblet on Conall’s collapsible desk and leaned forward. “So, my liege, my army should be here within the week. What do you want me to do?”

Chapter Text

Sir Geoffrey twisted around at the rustling sound behind him, and his eyes widened at the sight of Baroness Bronwyn crawling through the fallen leaves toward him. Waiting until she joined him to peer out between the trees at the edge of the copse at the two scattered lines of bowmen contesting the dirt road below, he murmured, “What are you doing here?”

She chuckled softly. “That was rather impolite, your pursuers would wonder where the suave shining knight has gone.”

“My pardon, what are you doing here, My Lady?” He eyed her lithe form stretched beside him. “Especially dressed like that.”

Now her soft chuckle turned into a soft laugh. “Brightly polished plate and chain might be appropriate for battle, but can you imagine trying to quietly sneak around while wearing it?”

Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “True, but soft leather without even a shield is likely to make your son a baron well before his majority.”

Bronwyn looked over his own soft leathers. “I’d say the same about you, except your child won’t even be born for months.”

“I’m not planning on leading any charges, just yet.”

“Nor am I.”

“Which leads back to my original question. What are you doing here?”

Bronwyn sighed, all humor vanishing from her face. “I’m fetching you. I’ve gotten the final word back from the King—we’re on our own, except for whatever Redhall might be able to get through to us, which isn’t likely to be much and is over a week away at best. King Conall is expecting Lord William’s army any day now, and has no intention of removing his own army from Castle Sterling until it’s come and gone, and when it goes it’ll be headed south instead of northeast. So collect your bodyguard and leave the scouting and harassment to those that actually know what they’re doing, we have a battle to plan.”

/oOo\

Sir Geoffrey strode into Bronwyn’s tent, now wearing his more typical chainmail, followed by Maid Ukyo with her giant, really strange axe on her back, the two glancing at Bronwyn’s Captain, her son, and an earth-haired stranger in rumpled, scorched, and stained scholarly robes, before focusing on her, and the Baroness had to keep her face stern. The situation was too serious for happy smiles, but she was pleased to see the life returned to their eyes, replacing the almost-emptiness that had lurked there when several of her foresters that had been tasked with watching the road to the east had escorted them into her castle ... along with the dirty, stumbling, injured, exhausted, hungry survivors that might well have been all that was left of the entire population of Pilton.

The thought of those survivors banished any temptation to smile.

“My Lady.” Maid Ukyo bowed to the Baroness on her camp stool, and Sir Geoffrey—Lord Geoffrey, and Bronwyn was happy that word of his brother’s death and the serious wounding of his sister-in-law hadn’t snuffed out that returning life in his eyes all over again—dipped his head in the salute of one equal to another. Now that they were social equals the game the two had enjoyed playing where he would flirt and she would pretend to be dismissive when she wasn’t oblivious, to the amusement of all around them, simply couldn’t continue.

Bronwyn nodded in acknowledgement then waved for them to be seated. She waited until they sat—Lord Geoffrey on the camp stool next to Ranulf and Ukyo beside the tent’s other occupant—and her son acting as her page handed them wooden goblets and filled them with wine, then opened the impromptu meeting. “So, the Hospitallers are finally on their way. I’m surprised they waited so long, any thoughts on what delayed them?”

Her Captain shrugged. “More of their men must have been caught in the inferno Pilton turned into than we thought, perhaps enough to need the extra time to care for them and ship them home. Maybe even some of their important leaders—not their Sir Geoffrey, unfortunately, if they’d lost the Grand Master they would be in retreat.”

Bronwyn shrugged. “We’ll just have to ask them before we send them home with their tails between their legs.” Now she did grin at the dumbfounded look on Geoffrey’s face as she waved toward the man Geoffrey and Ukyo wouldn’t know. “Sir Geoffrey, Maid Ukyo, be known to Master Marc, master of Firmont Tower.”

From Ukyo’s expression she didn’t recognize the name, but Geoffrey’s own gaze sharpened. “Mad Marc,” he murmured, just low enough that she could hear it, but that he could deny any intention to offend if the wizard took offense.

But ‘Mad Marc’ was both aware of and unbothered with his reputation, and he simply smiled back with a nod. “Yes, ‘Mad Marc’,” he agreed, “but not mad enough to want the Hospitallers for neighbors, not with their suspicious views of magic.”

“Master Marc has volunteered

 To help us see off the invaders,” Bronwyn continued, “and has come up with an alchemical mixture of ... an eruptive nature. The trick is how to get it placed so that it will do us the most good. I believe we can take a page from the classic stories....”

/\

As the meeting broke up and the others left, Sir Geoffrey held back. Waiting until everyone was gone but her son, he stepped close and spoke low enough that anyone lurking about outside wouldn’t be able to hear him. “My Lady, this alchemical mixture of Master Marc’s ... would it require a great deal of charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter?”

Bronwyn stiffened, and she slowly nodded. “Yes, I believe it does.”

Geoffrey gazed at her determined eyes for a long moment, then sighed and ran one hand through his hair. “You’re taking an enormous chance, My Lady. If they figure out that you’re playing with gunpowder they will not be happy.”

“Formally, I’m not the one playing with gunpowder, Marc is,” Bronwyn replied. “And I would think that if they figure that out they would be happy for the example we are about to provide of what can happen when you mix gunpowder and magic.”

Geoffrey barked a laugh. “Considering the Hospitallers’ opinion of magic, I don’t know how they’d feel about that.”

“Oh, they’re going to be very, very unhappy,” Bronwyn replied, her smile like that of something from the deeps she’d never seen. “Considering what we’re about to do to them? Very, very unhappy.”

/oOo\

Sergeant Jacques frowned as he peered around the trunk of the tree he was lying behind at the edge of the woodlands, at the dirt road running along the river through the open rolling grassland that would normally be covered by any number of grazing flocks. Those flocks were long gone, of course, the shepherds warned of the approaching army that would be all too happy to supplement the supply barges following on the river with fresh meat.

But those flocks weren’t the only thing missing, so were the foresters that he and his men had been skirmishing with for the past almost two days—and skirmishing hard, they’d slowed him and his men down until they were almost pressed up against the army behind them.

It’s just the open ground, they don’t want to get into a pissing match with us with them out in the open and us in the trees. There’s no way that ground is as flat as it looks, there have to be any number of places they can hide.

And he really believed that, about the ground at least. But there was an empty feel, the absence of eyes on them that he had felt ever since shortly after the last of the most seriously injured had died or recovered enough that they could be placed on barges headed back downriver to New Jerusalem, and the army had finally left the camps around the burned out shell of Pilton.

(The good sergeant could understand why they had waited, between the Grand Master’s concussion and how vulnerable the worst wounded would be to anyone that swung around the Hospitallers’ army to fall upon those left behind, but he wasn’t sure that they’d saved all that many lives—not with the scouts that had been lost in the skirmishing that had started almost as soon as they’d started moving.)

Finally he sighed. “All right, pass the word along the line to remember that anyone out there will see us long before we see them, and just because no one has used crossbows so far doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Be careful going over any hills, someone might be waiting on the other side. Let’s go.”

/\

Hours later, Sergeant Jacques could feel his nerves singing like so many over-tightened mandolin strings, ready to snap at the first pluck—he and his men hadn’t encountered a single person since leaving the woods behind, not on the other side of the occasional hill the road they were following had circled, not in the occasional dip in the ground they hadn’t known were there until they were walking down into them, not in the occasional grove of trees within a few hundred strides of the road. And in all that time, the feeling of hidden eyes upon him had never ceased.

But now it didn’t matter, as the tops of the roofs of Castle Durham’s towers were coming into sight as they climbed what was probably the last hill before the town outside that castle. (the road went around, of course, but scouts that stuck to roads often ran into nasty surprises.) The town would be empty, of course, with as much warning as its inhabitants would have received and word of what had happened at Pilton, and Jacques suspected that the Baroness Bronwyn wouldn’t be as quick to surrender to the Hospitallers’ host as he’d heard some of that order’s members boast so things were likely to get bloody soon, but the dangerous part of his job was just about over—he wouldn’t be one of those trying to climb the ladders or swing the battering ram to force their way in, he and his archers would be tasked with trying to keep the defenders’ heads down.

Then his head topped the hill, and his eyes widened at the sight in front of him—he’d been right, the this was the last hill before the town, but what he hadn’t expected was another road from the north joining the one he’d been following well short of the town’s outskirts ... and a several wagons large enough and with enough filled bags piled up that they took two oxen to pull them, right at the intersection with eight men-at-arms striding alongside.

Instantly he was over the hill’s crest, shouting for his men to follow. His shouts alerted the men-at-arms and they spun around to look even as he was drawing the arrow he’d held nocked to his bowstring up to his ear, and a moment later that arrow took one of the men in the chest. The other seven men took off running with the drivers throwing themselves off their seats to follow, but Jacques’ second arrow and those of his men took down the nine men before they’d managed more than a few strides.

The oxen were bellowing, startled by the sudden noise, but there was a good reason why they weren’t usually used for transporting army supplies—oxen were slow. The scouts had no trouble catching up to and stopping the ambling beasts, or tossing the ten bodies on top of the wagons’ piles. Turning the wagons around to get them behind the hill he’d first seen it from was harder, but they managed it. And apparently no one at the castle had seen anything, since there wasn’t anyone boiling out of the castle’s gate.

Once they were again hidden from view, Jacques pulled the bodies off the wagons (they’d leave them at the side of the road, to feed the birds if no Caithnesser patrol found them) and opened one of the bags, and frowned at the dark brown powder he found inside it. He shook his head at one of his men’s question. “I have no idea what it is.” He hastily checked some of the other bags. “But whatever it is, there’s a lot of it, and they think it’s important enough for an armed guard.” Looking up at the sun’s position in the sky, he sighed. “Let’s back up a few hills and wait for the army, maybe one of the Order’s knights will know something. They should be here soon.”

/oOo\

Ukyo stood between Sir Geoffrey and Baroness Bronwyn, all three leaning over the bowl of water sitting on the collapsible table in the Baroness’s tent. Her face tight as she watched the images that the magic of the wizard standing across from her showed instead of her reflection.

The other two were no more happy about what they had seen than she was, and it showed in the flat tone of the Baroness as she looked up past Captain Ranulf at Mad Marc. “They should have been closer to the castle, farther away from Sheep Hill before the scouts showed up. Why was your signal to start late?”

Marc sighed as the faint glow surrounding his hands cupped on either side of the bowl vanished, and the image in the water with it. “I gave it on time, for the speed the scouts were moving. They must have speeded up after your men pulled back.”

“It could have been worse,” Captain Ranulf said. “If they’d been any faster they might have missed the wagons completely and then where would we be?”

“In serious trouble,” Bronwyn said, and Ukyo had to agree as she thought of all the soldiers camped around them ... and the bare handfuls still in the castle, just enough to put enough men on the walls that the castle would appear to be manned if any of the scouts had gotten close enough to see.

Geoffrey straightened. “Well, the trap’s set, it’s time for us to get into position for our own parts now that the scouts are pulling back. Let’s go.” He turned to Ukyo and offered a hand. “I’d say it’s too bad we didn’t think to teach you how to ride, but you and that strange ax of yours are probably more effective with the infantry anyway. Good luck and God bless.”

Ukyo accepted the hand, and pulled him into a one-armed embrace. “You be careful, Sugar. Remember that you’ll be able to kill more of those butchers if you don’t lose your temper and get yourself killed early.”

“Hey, you, too,” he replied, hesitantly returning the embrace for a moment. “Don’t think I haven’t seen how angry you get whenever anyone mentions the Hospitallers.”

“No need to worry about that, I got too many people I want to see again.” Ukyo waved a salute at Captain Ranulf and nodded to the Baroness as she left.

Once away from the tent she paused for a moment to close her eyes and lift her face to the sun, enjoying the warmth on her skin, listening to the birds that seemed to fill the fields around her (a lot more birds than she had ever known in Japan, she’d never realized until she’d arrived on Yrth how much the massive modern populations had emptied Earth of other life), and thought of those familiar faces she hadn’t seen since leaving the Keldara—those she had walked away from ... and one who had followed her when she had, that she had expected to join her in Durham weeks before.

“Konatsu, where are you?”

Chapter Text

Sir Sythyn sighed in relief as he rode into the growing camp out of sight of Castle Durham—both because the forward units of the Hospitaller army had followed his instructions to stay far enough away from the castle that a sudden sortie couldn’t take them by surprise, and because he could get off Swiftsure. As one of the senior knights of the Order his personal palfrey had the smoothest of gaits, of course, but that didn’t keep staying mounted for practically the entire day as he rode from one end to the other making sure all was well and ‘encouraging’ the stragglers to pick up the pace from being wearying (even if the day was ending a little early, since they’d arrived).

Of course, part of the reason for the worst of the ‘stragglers’ was the Grand Master’s insistence on continuing with the army instead of travelling on one of the supply barges. Yes, Sir Geoffrey’s own palfrey had a gait as smooth as Swiftsure’s if not more, but that was nowhere as smooth as a river barge and the way he had been pushing himself wasn’t helping him recover from his concussion!

As if you ever expected him to not stay with his men, however much you tried to convince him otherwise. You were going through the motions, just ... very vigorously. Sir Sythyn snorted at the thought as he dismounted and handed his reins to one of the Order squires—let Flavius see to rubbing down Swiftsure, he needed to check that enough supplies had been distributed, the jakes had been properly dug, and the scouts were keeping an eye on the castle without alerting the heretics that the army had arrived. But first he had to grab a bite to eat, he was ravenous.

And then his shouted name caught his attention and he looked up to see the captain of the scouts approaching. Sergeant Jacques called out his name again, then saw he had Sir Sythyn’s attention and saved his breath as he finished jogging up. “Sir Sythyn, I’m glad you’re here. We’ve got something odd for you to take a look at, maybe you can tell us what it is.”

Sir Sythyn sighed—so much for that quick meal, the Sergeant was a steady man who wouldn’t bother him unless it was important. “Lead on, tell me about it as we go.”

Jacques nodded and turned away, leading Sir Sythyn toward the center of camp. “Just short of the castle we grabbed a couple of ox-pulled wagons. They’re important enough that they had an armed guard, but all they’re loaded with are bags full of some sort of brown powder I’ve never seen before. A lot of bags.”

“Odd,” Sir Sythyn agreed. Jacques had enough experience both from the yeoman’s farm he had grown up on and his years as a scout that whatever it was had to definitely be unusual.

Then they walked around the tent being set up for Sir Geoffrey when he arrived, and a pair of wagons came into view. They were still stacked high with bags, course-woven as usual so brown powder was leaking through the fabric. He pulled off a glove and rubbed some of the powder between his fingers, then sniffed it. So, it can’t be dangerous to breathe or get wet, or get insect- or rat-infested, or it would be in barrels. And that means it can’t be some kind of food. So what could it ....

He paled as a sudden though occurred to him. Scrabbling a scrap of paper out of his pouch, he scraped some of the powder onto it. “A striker.”

Jacques pulled a striker and flint out of his own pouch and Sir Sythyn held the paper out, carefully turning so his back was between his hand and the wagons. Jacques’ first strike sent sparks cascading down, and the powder smoldered for a moment before flaring up. Dropping the burning paper, Sir Sythyn stared down at it, catching the scent of sulfur in the air, then whirled to grab and tear open one of the bags on top of the pile. The brown powder from the torn bag spilled down across the other bags, and he snatched up one of the tumbling objects mixed in with the powder—a tiny, jagged piece of metal. Sir Sythyn whirled around and shouted, “Everyone, away from the wagons, now! Go, go, go!”

/\

“Mad” Marc sighed at the image of the shouting, gesticulating Knight Commander in his scrying bowl in his tent. He’d been hoping that even if anyone among the Hospitallers could recognize gunpowder for what it was his extra treatment to change the color would disguise its nature, but the gambit had failed before the full army had arrived at the campsite.

Ah, well, we’ll just have to be satisfied with the bird in hand. He let the image fade as he turned to pick up a crystal sharing space on the collapsible table with his scrying bowl, two half-medallions, and a tiny hourglass (though with considerably less than an hour’s worth of sand). A moment’s focus and the crystal began to glow, and he turned over the hourglass and grabbed the half-medallions, one in each hand. He waited impatiently until the hourglass had run through about half of its sand—early, but with the enemy camp alerted he couldn’t wait any longer—and began to murmur words in ancient Elvish. He didn’t actually speak Elvish, the words he was repeating by rote were almost the only Elvish he knew, but he didn’t need to in order to activate the magic items. These had been enchanted by some of the first Human wizards on Yrth, the first newcomers taught by the Elves that were skilled enough in their craft that their work could reliably function in mana-poor Caithness. And now as they glowed the two other halves—each buried deep in the wagon stacks of the bags of gunpowder that the enemy scouts had placed at the center of the Hospitaller camp—also glowed, but with red-hot heat.

/\

Ukyo forced herself to lie perfectly still, however her nerves wanted her to move, as she peeked over the crest of a low hill a little east of the growing camp, and north across the road along the river. She and the scores of soldiers with her had waited until after the vanguard of the approaching army had passed and begun to set up camp to quietly creep to their hiding place behind this and several other hills, but they were still in a dangerous position with the growing camp between them and Castle Durham. They’d already been found by one enemy scout, but their own scouts that had guided them into place had managed to take him down before he could escape or raise the alarm. But now they were on a time limit, with no idea how soon anyone was expecting that scout to return....

She turned her head to look to the side when she heard Sergeant Ranulf faintly hiss. No, Captain Ranulf, Bronwyn insisted even if he said it felt like he was puffing himself up. The newly minted Captain pointed toward a band of knights moving slowly along the road, a band with a white banner now streaming in a sudden breeze to reveal a black cross. “That’s Sir Geoffrey, the Grand Master himself,” Ranulf murmured. “I thought he’d already be in the camp. He may be a bloody-handed murderer, but he leads from the front.”

Ukyo frowned in thought, that flag looked familiar.... “How fast do they pick a new leader? Is it automatic?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Ranulf replied, glancing over at her curiously. “I think I heard the senior knights of the Order gather to select their new Grand Master, then confirm their pick with the Curia. Why?”

“Because that banner was carried by the charge through Pilton’s gates I helped bust up. But I thought all those knights died. Would he send the banner on a charge he wasn’t a part of?”

“Noooo ... no, he wouldn’t. Did you check to make sure they were all dead?”

“No, we were kinda busy making sure more of them wouldn’t break in to make us all dead. Not that it did any good, with them coming over the walls everywhere....” Ukyo forced away the ugly memories of that day ... she already relived it in her dreams too often, no point in going through it again when she was awake.

Ranulf turned his attention back to the band of knights. “That might explain why they didn’t move as fast as we expected. If the Grand Master was wounded ... All right, change of plans. We aren’t going to wait for Sir Geoffrey—our Sir Geoffrey—to fix their attention. As soon as the trap springs, we charge. Ukyo, you boasted that a true martial artist can run down any horse ever foaled. Did you mean it?”

“Yessss,” Ukyo slowly agreed, “over enough distance.”

“In that case, as soon as we charge, while the rest of us head for the camp you head straight for that band of knights—” Ranulf pointed again, as if it wasn’t obvious. “—and pick out the leader, and bring him down ... alive. Lady Bronwyn might have a few questions for him.”

Ukyo stared down at the band, eyes narrowed against the sunlight. “How do I pick out the leader?”

“Easy, whichever one the rest are trying to keep you—”

The world ended.

/\

Lady Bronwyn’s charger tried to sidle sideways, almost bumping into Sir Geoffrey’s—Lord Geoffrey’s—and she kneed the stallion back into line. She didn’t know how long she had been sitting in her saddle, the butt of her lance braced on a stirrup, sweltering in the sun as she waited for Mad Marc’s signal. Not that she had been mounted the entire time, of course, she and her liege knights ... all of them, she had ordered even the furthest away to join her as quickly as they could even if they didn’t have time to raise their levies. And then it turned out that more of them could have raised their levies than expected, thanks to the Hospitallers’ inexplicable delay.

No, most of the time they had been waiting several low hills away from where they’d expected the advancing Hospitaller host to camp they had been dismounted, their chargers’ girths loosened, with scouts out to warn them if the enemy decided to encamp closer than expected, early enough for them to move out of the way.

But their concerns had proven unfounded, the enemy scouts had decided on exactly the location they’d expected—it was the best location just east of the castle, after all ... if you didn’t know the lay of the ground all about it, and the places close by that could hide more enemy forces than one would think, just looking around. But now that the time had to be getting close the squires had retightened all the girths, everyone had mounted up and formed their line, and they waited ... and waited ... and waited.

The sudden heat from the crystal hanging between her breasts by its chain around her neck, under the breastplate her knights had long insisted she wear to battle, was both a relief and shock after the stupor she’d fallen into, causing her to jerk, then rein in her charger again. “The signal is given!” she shouted. “Wait for it!”

The rest of the knights and squires perked up, grins appearing on faces no longer bored. Lances raised, ready to couch at a moment’s notice, even though that wouldn’t be until well into the charge. Riders shifted in their saddles, getting better positioned. Everyone was staring in the direction of the enemy camp over the hills. None of them were ready for the the billowing ball of red and black that seemed to shake the ground, or the massive wall of sound that hammered into them like all the thunderstorms Bronwyn had ever experienced rolled into one and multiplied a hundredfold. Bronwyn had to fight to keep from screaming, and she was sure that more than a few of the others failed if they tried to resist at all.

And abruptly every single horse wanted to be Anywhere But Here. Chargers were twisting, rearing, a few were even bucking (quite a feat, that, considering chargers’ sheer size, plus the weight of their chainmail under barding and armored riders). Riders were being dismounted on all sides, and a few had lost control of their mounts (or had given them their heads) and were fleeing as fast as they could gallop.

And then a hail of debris rained down, knocking more knights and squires from off their mounts. Somehow she wasn’t hit, but she felt her stomach churn as she realized that much of that debris was arms, legs, heads, and less recognizable pieces of bodies.

Looking around, her heart sank as she counted—perhaps a third of her force was still mounted, though many of those dismounted were pushing themselves to their feet ... some more steadily than others—Lord Geoffrey among them, clutching an arm that bent in the wrong place. And all the horses of those dismounted were outpacing those still mounted in their rush for the horizon.

We did not think this through. But maybe we can still salvage it. After all, the army that explosion had been in the middle of was even closer. She yelled as loudly as she could, “Everyone that’s dismounted that can, help the injured! Look to Lord Geoffrey! The rest of you, follow me!” She would have raised her lance but she found she’d dropped it, so she drew her sword and waved it over her head before pointing at the enemy and spurring her charger into a trot.

She kept her pace slow as more and more of those mounted realized what was happening and caught up, until looking to both sides she thought she had everyone left, then picked up the pace. The line crested one low hill, another ... then they crested the third and she heard the knight beside her curse.

Below them was a scene straight of out Hell—a central space of nothing but blackened ground, scattered with pieces of shredded tents and scorched and broken bodies (some of which she was horrified to see were actually moving), and beyond that circle burning tents and shrieking men, other men hobbling among them providing what aid they could.

She wasn’t the only one stunned by the sight and she could feel the charge collapsing under the horror—and it couldn’t, not if they were to survive; as terrible as the devastation was most of that army was still intact. Baroness Bronwyn spurred her charger into a gallop and screamed, “For Pilton!”

The name of the massacred town hit the knights like an almost physical blow and a massive bellow came back, “For Pilton!” Every last man (and a few women) pushed their own chargers into a gallop and the lances of those that still had them lowered.

She had been in a charge before—had faced a charge before—so she knew what it was like to face the thunder of the approaching hooves, see the line of lances drop so half-a-dozen points seemed to be pointed straight at her, to feel the curdling of her gut as she made unnecessary tiny adjustments to her shield’s position ... and none of those in the army they were charging suffered from any of that because they didn’t even realize the attack was coming until it smashed into them. Are any of them not deaf? the Baroness wondered distantly as her arm quivered with the force of her blade cutting down her first enemy (victim), remembering that wall of all the thunder in the world of a few minutes before as she galloped through the camp cutting down at fresh targets one after another as more went down under her charger’s hooves.

Then fresh shouts of the name of a burned-out shell of a town turned into a battlecry went up on the far side of the camp and she twisted in her saddle to see a mass of men-at-arms rolling over what little resistance there was on the other side of the camp, and the first shouts for quarter and helmets raised on sword and spear went up.

Fury shot through her at the cries, and for a long moment she wrestled with the temptation to continue shouting the name of the town where the same cry must have gone up, and been ignored. But finally she sighed and shouted, “Give quarter! Give quarter!” Her cry spread as her knights close to her heard and picked it up ... some more enthusiastically than others (undoubtedly as sickened at killing men thundershocked into near-helplessness as she was).

Looking around for one of the squires that had accompanied the charge, she waved over the only one she could immediately see. Hlotheard? Hrofheard? Hrothheard! “Hrothheard, ride back to the camp and then on to the castle, have as much ointment and bandages brought here as we can spare.” He acknowledged the order and left at a gallop, and she looked around again and waved over a knight. “Sir Readstan, grab a few more knights, I need to go down to the Hospitaller supply barges to convince them to hand over what medicinal supplies they have, and need an escort so I’m taken seriously.”

“And so none of them get greedy,” he added in a faint shadow of his usual jesting tone. “At once, My Lady.” He rode off shouting names, and she pulled a cloth from her belt to wipe her sword’s blade clean of blood before she sheathed it. (There was no point in making more work for the servants that would be tasked with cleaning her gear when she got home ... whenever that would be.) That done and her sword back in its scabbard, she dismounted and, glancing around and not seeing another squire close by, wrapped her reins around her wrist, pulled her shield off her other arm, and knelt to pray ... until she was able to acquire the needed supplies, it was all she could really do for the overabundance in need all about her.

Some of her knights riding haphazardly about and staring in shock at the devastation (one could hardly call it a battlefield) were attracted by Sir Readstan’s shouts and saw her at her prayers. They exchanged glances before a couple of them quietly swung down from their own chargers and handed their reins to other knights, then stood guard behind her with swords drawn ... just in case.

/\

Ukyo, scrunched up in the ball she had instinctively curled into as her battle spatula shielding her shook with the impact of a last few pieces of falling debris, then after a silently ringing minute sat up and looked around.

While no one else with her had her battle spatula, practically all of the soldiers had shields. A few of them, like Captain Ranulf, had seen her drop and cover and had had the sense to follow suit. A few more had been quick-witted enough to realize what was coming and had dropped and covered without an example. More had done so when the first pieces of debris had dropped out of the sky around them.

But most had been too slow-witted—or simply too stunned—to act before it was too late and all around her men were lying on the ground groaning, some writhing as they screamed ... and some lay limply still.

Ranulf levered himself up to his feet with his shield (a shield Ukyo absently noted was spattered with red—probably due to the forearm half-covered by smoking cloth now lying at Ranulf’s feet). As the Captain looked around and began shouting orders, Ukyo looked over the hill’s crest toward the knights she and Ranulf had been observing just before the trap had done its work too well. The knights were dismounted and most on the ground (some also writhing but most still), as were some of the mounts (most kicking and screaming piteously, some still)—no surprise, that band would have caught whatever shrapnel the explosion would have thrown out head on, they hadn’t had a hill for cover like Bronwyn’s soldiers. And mounted knights must have made a nice big target, elevated above the men and tents of the camp, and any horses not taken down by that shrapnel would be wild with pain and fear, heading east away from the explosion as fast as they could gallop.

Which meant that it was a miracle that there was still a horse down there, two knights fighting to keep it from bolting while another two knights lifted a limp body up to the knight trying to stay in the saddle. It wasn’t a warhorse, she thought, not massive enough for that—

Ranulf had joined her and took in the situation at a glance. “Ukyo, the unconscious knight they’re loading on the horse, that’ll be the Grand Master, go, go, go!” Without waiting for her to respond he turned back to the shellshocked soldiers below them. “Men, we still have a job to do! To me, for Pilton! For Pilton!”

Even as she raced up over the hill and down toward the surviving knights and the single horse she could hear the cry come back, scattered at first but growing stronger with each repetition: “For Pilton! For Pilton! For Pilton!”

She wasn’t the only one to hear that building battlecry, several of the knights below looked up to see her coming. One of the two holding the horse’s reins shouted something then let go of the reins and stepped away, turning to snatch up a shield from the ground. A few moments later the two hoisting the Grand Master had him up in front of the knight in the saddle, and as the mounted knight spurred his horse into a gallop the other three on the ground snatched up their own shields.

For a moment Ukyo considered just leaping over all four and continuing the chase after the fleeing horse, but rejected the thought—she’d have to deal with the four on her way back if she did, better now when she wouldn’t have a body over one shoulder. Instead when she did leap, she skimmed across the last 20 feet to land at the right end of the tiny line, whirling to slash at a knight still stunned at her prodigious jump. Chainmail parted as her battle spatula sliced through his sword arm and deep into his chest. The second knight had managed to turn and her blow sliced completely through his shield but only cut open the tabard and skringed along the chainmail covering the chest of a body already being hurtled back by the impact. That knight collided with the third and the pair went down in a cursing tangle, and the fourth stepped to one side to avoid them only for Ukyo to take his leg off just below the knee. Two quick ringing blows with the spatula’s flat denting the helmets of the two on the ground, and the fight was over.

Ukyo turned to continue her chase, but paused at the sound of a pain-filled groan and looked down to find the fourth knight with his hands wrapped around the stump she had left him, trying to stop the bleeding. Quickly pulling free one if the strips of cloth hanging from her belt, she dropped it beside him. “Here, it’ll work a lot better with that.” She glanced up toward the hill the men she’d been with had been hidden behind to see them streaming over the crest, ignoring her and the knights she had fought to hammer into the enemy camp, then turned to resume her pursuit of the escaping knights.

/oOo\

Bronwyn felt the hand in hers go limp, and sighed as she gently laid it on a chest seared black and red and closed unblinking eyes—another one mercifully gone to his Maker. With her quickly gathered escort and a shouted explanation for that massive eruption she had been able to talk the enemy barge with the medicinal supplies to the shore from the middle of the river where they’d all moved for safety, but many of the men that hadn’t been close enough to the eruption to be instantly killed had been so badly seared that there was no point in wasting resources on them. All that could be done was to make them as comfortable as possible (which, from the constant groans and occasional scream that filled the air, was not much) and give what comfort they could until nature took its course. And though she had been careful not to watch for such, she suspected that some of her knights and men-at-arms hadn’t been waiting, but sending them on their way with a mercy stroke. She was sure God would understand.

She was beginning to have second and third thoughts bout using gunpowder again for anything, no matter how great the need.

“Lady Bronwyn.”

She rose to her feet and turned at the sound of Lord Geoffrey’s voice, to find him with Ukyo, the latter filthy and bloodsoaked. Lord Geoffrey had the reins of a palfrey gripped in the hand of the arm without a splint, a knight Hospitaller swaying in the saddle with one leg missing below the knee, and Ukyo had body over her shoulder.

As soon as she had the Baroness’s attention, Ukyo slid the body off her shoulder and dumped him at her feet. “Lord Geoffrey tells me that this is Sir Geoffrey. Led me quite a chase, but I got to him just before he could be taken onboard a barge.”

Bronwyn stared down at the instigator of the entire catastrophe. “Is he dead?”

Her answer was a groan as Sir Geoffrey shifted, then slowly sat up and clutched at his head.

Her hand ached thanks to the strength of her grip on the hilt of her sword she hadn’t realized she’d grabbed, and she had to struggle to relax her jaw enough to talk. “Sir Geoffrey, why have the Knights Hospitaller invaded a Christian realm?” she demanded, voice quivering with the effort not to shout. “Why did you massacre my people in Pilton without even so much as asking for their surrender?”

His head slowly rose to stare up at her and for a moment she thought she would have to repeat the question. But then he tried to stand only to flop onto his face. Pushing himself back up to sit, he rubbed dirt and grass from his face and took a deep breath, and with a voice weak but steady said, “Caithness is being lost to heresy, it needs to be brought back into Megalos’ fold and the heresy its archbishop has ordered preached stamped out, for the good of its people’s souls.”

“And Pilton?”

“With only the Order we lack the men to garrison the towns along the river that our supplies would have moved along, and God recognized His own.”

Bronwyn actually found herself trembling from the white-hot anger that filled her and fought for control, taking deep breaths until her trembling eased. Once she was again still she drew her sword. “Remove your gorget and kneel.”

All around her except a confused Ukyo stiffened, and the crippled knight on the palfrey made a choking sound. The Grand Master’s eyes widened. “You cannot mean this, I am the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitallers, a member of the Curia!”

“Since by your own words you chose to slaughter Christians in a self-declared crusade you are a confessed mass murderer, and I will not let the Curia bundle you off to some out-of-the-way monastery to live out the remainder of your days.”

“The Curia will demand your head!”

“That will be King Conall’s decision. As Baroness of Durham, it is my duty to seek justice for those of my people that cannot demand it for themselves. Now, kneel! Or will my knights have to hold you in place?”

Sir Geoffrey stared at her for a long moment, then pulled off his gloves, scrabbled at the ties for his gorget until they came undone and it fell from around his neck, weakly pushed himself up onto his knees, and leaned forward. For a moment it seemed he was going to tip over onto his face again, but he caught himself and braced himself up with his hands on his knees and dipped his head forward.

Bronwyn stepped around to his side, raised her sword with both hands gripping its hilt and swung with all her strength, and stepped aside as the Grand Master’s head rolled across the grass followed by a fountain of blood from the collapsing body.

Dropping to one knee, Bronwyn wiped her blade clean on the corpse’s tabard, then looked up at the pale face of the knight Hospitaller on the palfrey. “Who now commands your men?”

“Uh ...” The knight straightened in the saddle and dipped his head. “I do, My Lady. Sir Sythyn.”

“I care nothing of who you are, except another murderer.” Bronwyn rose to her feet. “Your men-at-arms will return to New Jerusalem immediately, without their arms and armor. Those too injured to move under their own strength will be placed on barges emptied of their contents. Those too injured to be moved will be cared for here until they succumb to their injuries or recover enough to be shipped home. You and your knights will remain here until your ransom is paid, you may see to the care of your wounded and witness that they suffer no mistreatment.”

“Ransom!”

“Ransom. If you are going to engage in wars against fellow Christians that have not been declared heretics, then you will be treated as common knights rather than as members of a religious order.” She nodded to Ranulf, still holding the palfrey’s reins. “Captain, take him away to the prisoners and get them on their way now.”

Ranulf dipped his head respectfully. “Yes, My Lady.”

As the Captain guided Sir Sythyn’s palfrey away towards where the captives were being held, Bronwyn turned to Lord Geoffrey. “Sterling, I need to return to Durham, and have Master Martin let the King know what I have done. Will you see to our own wounded?”

“Of course, I would hardly be an adequate escort with a broken arm. And you will take an adequate escort, you know that at best we only captured half of the Hospitaller host. Even after that eruption, that other half has stopped running by now.”

“You’re right,” Bronwyn agreed with a sigh, “We need to send out parties of our people along with Order knights to spread the word that their invasion is over and they are returning home. Something else for you to see to?”

At his willing nod she turned to Ukyo and gave her a smile without realizing how heartbreakingly exhausted it was. “Maid Ukyo, I cannot possibly repay the debt we owe you for making justice possible for Pilton’s slaughtered people. Whatever happens I will always be grateful. Now let us go home, it is perhaps best to send you off to your own people as quickly as possible. I’ll write up a full report for you to take to the King.” Before your name becomes attached to my deed.

/oOo\

Cursing under his breath at the pain shooting through his still-healing leg, Sir Galardon climbed the stairs circling up to the top of Castle Sterling’s highest tower where King Conall had gone for privacy when word of the events at Durham had arrived. (The servants had finished scrubbing up most of the blood a few days ago.) He nodded to the squire straightening at his appearance on the last landing before the top, not saying anything about how the boy had been leaning against the wall rather than standing ready ... it had been hours, after all, and no bench to sit on. “Has he given you any instructions?”

The boy shook his head. “No, sir, he hasn’t said anything at all ... do you really think you should disturb him?”

“If his childhood friend”—and secret head of the Silver Hands—“can’t disturb him, who can?” Galardon held up the sack of wine that was almost his signature item. Since the battle where he had killed Lord Towne in a duel out of a bard’s song and the fall of Castle Sterling he had reverted to his normal hard-drinking ways. (Though not hard-wenching, not away from Carrick Town and its fleshpots ... and whores happy to spread rumors of his supposedly oft-demonstrated prowess in bed. Loyalty to the King was worth a lot and sufficient gold added to their usual earnings quite a lot more, not that he was averse to allowing a few of the more enthusiastic whores to ‘earn’ the gold from him in the traditional way on occasion.)

He had been pleasantly surprised, though, that for the most part the ‘real’ knights hadn’t reverted to their previous poorly hidden contempt, instead shifting to an odd mixture of tolerant disapproving amusement. Now the squire chuckled, shaking his head in mock condemnation. “Now, Sir Galardon, you know drink can’t solve all problems ... respectfully, sir.”

“Maybe not, but it makes those problems look better.” He grinned at the squire’s laugh disguised as a cough, then sobered and nodded at the door to the tower’s top room. “Is there anyone there?”

“No, sir.”

“Then perhaps you should drop down another level, give us a little privacy.”

“Of course, sir.”

Galardon waited until the squire’s footsteps on the stairs reach the landing below, then walked up the last stairs to to top of the tower.

King Conall glanced toward him from where he was leaning against the crenellations that surrounded the tower’s roof. “Gale.”

“Con.” Galardon hid his confusion at the sight of the tear tracks on his foster brother’s cheeks.

Conall turned his gaze back out over the surrounding countryside. “Has Master Richard gotten the message off?”

“Yes, a Hand of Michael will be leaving Carrick Town for Durham in the morning, if they haven’t left already, and Lady Bronwyn alerted that they’re on their way. Not that it will matter much, by the time they get there all they’ll be able to do is take witness statements and walk through Pilton’s burnt-out shell. And it isn’t the facts that are really in question.”

“You’re probably right, but tying down those facts so they’re beyond question isn’t a bad thing.”

Conall had spoken without looking at his foster brother, and Galardon leaned on the crenellation next to him to stare out at the same darkening countryside. “True enough. What’s eating at you, Con? You can’t be upset that Lady Bronwyn relieved that raving lunatic of his head. Why the tears?”

“Once the Curia meets they’re going to demand I turn Bronwyn over to them, you know. The archbishops and the heads of the Holy Orders in Megalos dance to the Emperor’s tune and he’ll be overjoyed at the excuse she’s given him to turn the Church against us—make it a crusade instead of just a quarrel between princes.”

Galardon shrugged. “So what? It isn’t like we didn’t know a new schism between the Church here in Caithness and the Curia wasn’t coming anyway, Archbishop Siccius has been getting ready for it. So they demand we turn her over, you tell them to go pound sand—strange expression, that, I wonder how the storm-lost came up with it?—the Curia declare us to be heretics and call a crusade like they were going to do anyway, and the Prince and Lords of Cardiel pretty much ignore it like they were going to do anyway. They’ll see it for what it is, an excuse for the Emperor to reacquire Caithness like the emperors have wanted ever since we told them where to stick it.”

“Yes, Gale, they will ... so long as I don’t give anyone cause to think otherwise, such as by marrying Bronwyn.”

Galardon stilled. “Oh.” He suddenly realized that Conall was gazing in the direction of Durham.

“Yes, ‘oh’,” Conall repeated with a forced chuckle even as fresh tears rolled down his cheeks. “I know there was never much chance that Bronwyn would consent to marry me, she’s shown no particular interest and either ignored or not noticed my hints. But now I can’t even ask without giving support to the Emperor and Curia’s inevitable claims that I’m just doing it because I’m infatuated by her beauty.”

Galardon sighed as he slung one arm around Conall’s shoulders and tugged him toward the stairs. “Come on, Con. You need to get drunk, the sack I brought with me isn’t near enough, and the top of a tower is a piss-poor place for a drinking party anyway.”

Chapter Text

Conall cracked open his eyes and grimaced as the morning light stabbed through them into his brain. He clenched them shut again and slowly pushed himself upright on his bed, groaning as he clutched at his pounding head. The pain-filled sensations of a hangover weren’t unfamiliar—he’d done his share of drinking even if not to the extent as his foster brother actually did, much less as much as he pretended—and this one promised to be spectacular.

So he sat there for a few minutes, working up his courage, before he pushed himself to his feet. As much as he would like to lay about with—how had Myrddin put it that one time? hair of the dog that bit him?—he had people to see and places to be.

Now he just needed to find the door to Gale’s quarters in Castle Sterling without opening his eyes more than a crack.

/oOo\

Conall glared at Galardon with bloodshot eyes across a table with the remains of a late breakfast scattered across it. “You are entirely too happy.”

Galardon shrugged with a grin. “It’s been a long time since we got drunk together as newly-sworn knights. I’ve had a lot more practice than you since then.”

Conall growled, though he had to hide a smile at the giggle the exchange elicited from the table’s other occupant, that he had asked to join them. The smile Lady Gunnsig was hiding behind a hand was something he hadn’t seen on her face since she’d been brought to the medics’ tents the night her castle home fell to his army.

Of course you aren’t seeing it right now, either. But the thought was a complacent one in spite of his headache as he watched Galardon finish off a slice of the loaf of bread fresh from the kitchen before grabbing the leftover loaf. “So, what now?” Galardon asked as he started slicing another slice.

Conall sighed at the reminder of his duties. Not that he needed it, he’d been thinking about it since his pain had dimmed enough for serious contemplation. “I believe I will be leaving most of the army here, just in case ... if the castle’s stores are plentiful enough?”

He’d glanced at Lady Gunnsig during that last, and now she frowned thoughtfully. “We should be all right for a few weeks, so long as the entire army leaves then. If you wish to leave a garrison of any real size behind the rest will need to leave fairly quickly.”

Conall considered that for a moment, then replied, “I think that should be left to Sir ... to Lord Geoffrey. Gale, make sure I don’t forget to have Master Richard pass the message to Lady Bronwyn to have Lord Geoffrey return here as quickly as possible.” He thought some more, then continued, “I won’t be here when he arrives. I think instead I’ll head south to catch up with Lord William’s army. I really need to speak with Archbishop Siccius about these developments.”

“This is where it all gets political, isn’t it?” Galardon said with a grin. “In that case, I think I’ll be headed back to Carrick Town, it’s really too quiet here and there are some establishments back home that must be missing my custom by now.”

“No!” Lady Gunnsig’s exclamation yanked the two men’s attention to her, to find her face pinched and white, all humor fled. “No, you will not,” she continued. “You killed my husband in single combat, as the culmination of a battle that the bards will be singing about for generations to come, and in so doing inextricably linked your name with his. I will not have his name tied forevermore to a glutton, drunkard, and whoremonger!”

Two sets of eyes widened and swiveled to stare at each other, then Galardon smiled wryly and settled back in his chair with a shrug. You’re the king, you make the call. Not that Conall expected Galardon to have much doubt over what his decision would be. And quickly.

Conall sighed and planted his elbows on the table as he leaned forward. “Lady Gunnsig, you must swear by the name of God, the saints, and all His holy angels that you will not pass on to anyone what I’m about to tell you.”

Lady Gunnsig’s gaze shifted from Galardon to the King even as the fury in her eyes was replaced by confusion. “Your Majesty?”

“Swear, My Lady.”

“I ... yes, of course, I so swear by God and His holy angels.”

“Thank you.” Conall leaned back and waved toward his foster brother. “Lady Gunnsig, be known to one of the most important links between me and my Hands.”

“Your ...” Her now wide eyes turned back to Galardon. “You mean it’s all an act?

Galardon shrugged again. “Not entirely—I am a man with a man’s needs, and no wife. But for the most part, yes, the whores of Carrick Town are being paid considerably more to spread rumors of my prowess in bed than they would if the stories were true.” He grinned again. “It does make a believable cover, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes, it does.” She fell silent for a time, obviously conflicted, before hesitantly suggesting, “If ... if you actually want a family, to continue your line, now would be a good time to reform your reputation ... to become someone in the eyes of the world that men would actually be willing to offer to marry their daughters to—at least, men that you would actually want as fathers-in-law.”

Conall had to laugh at that. “Oh, attracting future wives won’t be a problem, not for the new Baron of Marshall! The problem will be sorting the wheat from the chaff, and you’re already well-placed for that.”

“What!?” Galardon whirled to stare at his childhood friend.

Conall shrugged, his laughter dying down to a broad grin. “So long as I keep Deneral’s former barony under royal control there will be suspicions that I intend to aggrandize royal power, and there is no one else that deserves it—or that I trust—more. You took on a tough job that you’ve often hated and done it well the the past twenty years, but it’s time to pass it on to someone else and look to your own future ... and our father’s—my foster-father’s—line.” He picked up the goblet of wine (there was none of his favorite beer in the castle) and raised in a toast. “And Lady Gunnsig is right, now is the moment to do it. And the bards will love it.”

Galardon made a face. “They’ll turn both Lord Towne and me into saints.” He glanced sideways at Lady Gunnsig’s hopeful expression and sighed. “Very well, there’s no way I can refuse both a life-long friend and a lady in distress. I should still head for Carrick Town—I’ve been away too long as it is, I need to start investigating how the Hospitallers knew we were on the move as quickly they did, and I can start laying the groundwork for my successor.”

Conall slapped his hand on the table (wincing only slightly, his headache mostly gone) and rose to his feet. “So that’s settled. Now we need to get moving, I want to be on the road by mid-day.”

The other two rose, but Lady Gunnsig hesitantly added, “Um ... Your Majesty? What about Akane?”

/oOo\

Akane looked over at the sound of the door creaking open, unsurprised to find Laady Gunnsig standing there—who else would be admitted the rooms of her suite without permission, or even unannounced by the guards always stationed there? (Guards selected by Sir Hugi, the senior knight sworn to Lord Towne to survive the fall of the castle to the King’s assault, from among Lord Towne's surviving men-at-arms ... Akane sometimes thought wistfully of Sir Bayhun, the knight commander that had allowed her to pass, to protect his Lady; she wished he’d lived, she would have liked to get to know him better.)

But if Akane wasn’t surprised Lady Gunnsig was, though in her case it wasn’t by the presence of her daughters and their now always-present guardian. The children—and Akane—were sleeping on cots set up in her bedchambers rather than in the nursery. Rather, it was the sight of her daughters barefoot and in their oldest dresses standing with their feet spread, hands curled into fists with one tucked under their armpit as they thrust the other one forward while shouting numbers in a rising count. Fighting back giggles, their mother asked, “What are you doing?”

“Keep going, girls!” Akane ordered when the pair broke off the alternating thrusts of their fists, and walked over to the Lady. Lowering her voice, she continued, “I’m teaching them the fundamentals of my family’s Art. That’s all I can teach without my father’s permission. Between their small size and how constantly growing messes with their coordination it’d be years before they could actually fight someone if they needed to, but I thought it might help with the nightmares.”

It was an unusual morning that didn’t find one or both of the girls piled on top of Akane’s cot—Akane had already asked if a larger bed could be moved into the suite for her—so their mother simply nodded her acceptance. But when she did speak, it wasn’t to comment on the spectacle her daughters were putting on. “Akane, the King is planning on leaving at noon, to catch up with Lord William’s army.”

Akane instantly perked up. “He wants me to go with him?” she asked hopefully. Since her mother figures—her sister and (to her surprise) mother-in-law—had left with her husband and the Pikes and Scouts for Oakwood, then Nabiki had left with Lord William on the same road, she had been surprised to find herself intensely lonely. With not only her husband and entire extended family elsewhere but all the other Japanese refugees, leaving her alone among a people whose ways she barely understood, she had never felt so isolated in her life. And as well—

“Yes, if you wish,” Lady Gunnsig replied, then hesitated for a moment before adding, “but I hope you’ll stay.”

Akane paused halfway turned toward the door, then turned back around. “What? Why? You seem to be getting along with the King just fine!”

“I am. I think I even trust him, which surprises me. His foster-brother as well, and that’s even more of a shock. But they’re both leaving, the King for Photius and Sir Galardon for Carrick Town, and it’ll a some days before Sir ... before Lord Geoffrey arrives.”

Akane didn’t miss the catch in the Lady’s voice when she spoke of the man stepping into the shoes of her dead husband, and she turned to her temporary students for a moment to hide her indecision. It was just as well, the pair’s movements were growing ragged ... Sophia had stopped shouting out her thrusts and looked totally squee-worthy with her tongue poking out the side of her mouth. “Enough, take a break!” Akane called, clapping her hands, and hid a smile as the pair collapsed panting. They might be hopelessly weak and unpracticed compared to her at their age, but she couldn’t fault their determination. Maybe they hope it’ll keep the nightmares away, too. Though probably not, she doubted the thought had occurred to them.

But that thought passed quickly as she turned her attention back to her hostess—a woman that wasn’t just a Lady, but a new widow, a too-young mother, and in her own way even more alone than Akane. Finally Akane said, “How about compromise. I’ll stay until Sir Geoffrey gets here, then catch up with the King.” Summoning up a weak smile, she continued, “I’ll miss your little monsters, but we have to come back this way again, on our way back to the Keldara, right?”

“Not necessarily, at Photius the road forks, you could go up through Durham instead. In fact, you probably will, I imagine the King will want to discuss things with Lady Bronwyn. But I’m sure we’ll meet again, at Carrick Town if nowhere else.” Lady Gunnsig smiled slyly. “Eager to reunite with your husband?”

“Yes!” The two girls looked over from where they were lying on the floor, and Akane lowered her voice. “I miss his confidence, the way he panics when he realizes he’s said something stupid yet again and frantically apologizes, the way he looks at me ... I even miss the sarcasm.”

“And another warm body in your bed that isn’t a couple of tiny girls.”

“Well ... yes,” Akane admitted, blushing now. “We haven’t been married that long and even if we weren’t sleeping in a tent the entire march down here he was spending all the nights in his girl form to avoid getting splashed during the day and he’s cute as a redhead and nice to cuddle with but I want to get laid!”

“Breathe.” Akane sucked in a deep breath as she realized that she’d said all that in one long rush, and Lady Gunnsig smiled wistfully. “You’ll have your chance to take your husband to bed again. And I really do want to meet you again, and him ... if only to see that curse.”

Akane grinned. “It’s quite a shock. When I first found out about it I tried to hit Ranma with a rock—I did hit him with a table. I ... I’m sure if I ask the King will at least let the Pikes and Scouts come back this way.”

“Perhaps. Why don’t you go tell the King you’ve decided to stay, at least for awhile, and then you can get back to your students.”

“Actually, after that work-out it’s time for a mid-morning snack, I think, and then their naps.” When the two girls groaned she added, “After the naps, we can visit the forest.”

The two girls cheered and scrambled to their feet, and there was nothing wistful about the soft smile Akane saw on Lady Gunnsig’s face as the Scout joined the children at the door.

/oOo\

Hugh silently slipped through the undergrowth, careful of the earliest falling leaves that littered the ground, arrow nocked to bowstring as his eyes searched everywhere, nerves singing. In the days since Sir Domitius had actually managed to catch the Halfling rebels by surprise in their camp at the cost of his life, the woods that camp had been hidden in had gotten very dangerous, to the point that the foresters had first begun working in pairs and now were patrolling in threes just to survive.

He could not believe that so many of the rebels had managed to break past the men-at-arms waiting for them ... in fact, he knew they hadn’t, he’d been one of those that had tracked them for a time before they lost their trails. Some of them, anyway—the rebels had scattered in all direction, presumably to meet again at a predetermined location. The foresters had been searching for that hiding place ever since, without any luck. That didn’t particularly surprise him—they were hunting Halflings after all, no other race except maybe Elves could match them in woodlands—but he’d thought that at least the attacks on the foresters would offer hints of what general part of the forest hid them.

Only the attacks had been happening the length and breadth of Oakwood’s forests. They had to have received reinforcements.

He came to a patch of forest where a falling tree had left a hole in the canopy, and carefully peered around a tree trunk into the tiny clearing to measure the angle of the shadows the afternoon sunlight cast ... it was time to turn back, and past time—no forester that wanted to wake up in the morning camped in the woods now. He stepped back away from the clearing and turned around. “Peter, Bardulf, let’s—”

The shock of piercing pain in his throat stopped his breath, and then he was choking, his mouth filling with the taste of blood. He lifted a hand to his throat to find it wet with a ... a stick? ... No, a shaft. And as the sunlight faded into dark he realized the scent filling his nostrils from the wet gushing out of his mouth and down his chest matched the taste in his mouth.

/\

Konatsu watched, eyes sad, as the third man he’d killed in the last quarter hour dropped to his knees then buried his face in the falling leaves that littered the ground, the impact pushing the Halfling-sized blood-covered quarrel through until almost all of it thrust up from the back of his neck. The male kunoichi suspected that his one-man war on Oakwood’s foresters was over, he doubted they would be back. He certainly hoped that was the case, as good as they were in the woods they were completely outclassed and he was sickened to the depths of his soul at killing honest men that didn’t even know he was there. “Kon-chan, you just might be in the wrong business.” The voice in his head sounded like his beloved Ukyo-sama, and he had to smile wryly and shake his head. Yes, Ukyo-sama, I know, now—it’s one thing to train to be Death from the shadows, another to actually act. As soon as you rejoin the Scouts I will be more than happy to rejoin as well. And she would, he was sure, once the storm in her own heart settled and Akane’s marriage to Ranma became old news for the Scouts.

But at least the stealthy slaughter of honest men was done. With what he’d overheard of their quiet conversation while they’d eaten their noontime meal, he needed to reveal himself to the rebel Halflings still recovering from the ambush. They would not like what he’d have to tell them.

Chapter Text

Armstan winced as the wind shifted the branches above him, and the morning sunlight filtering through the trees flickered across his eyelids. He had been lying in his bedroll pretending to still be asleep and wishing that the night hadn’t passed so quickly, but from the snort of the Halfling sitting next to him Bungwina hadn’t been buying his act.

“Ready to join the world of the living?”

“More like the world of waking nightmare,” Armstan grumbled, but quietly. Very quietly ... saying such things in front of the maiden that had become his second after Adold had failed to survive the ambush—like so many others—was one thing, where any of the others could hear quite another.

“Better than sleeping nightmares,” Bungwina replied just as quietly. “This nightmare, we can do something about.”

“True.” Armstan sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “How are Mungo and Otho?”

“Better. I think they might have recovered enough that they can be moved to one of the farms.”

“Good, we can get that done, then move the campsite—I know we were stuck until the worst wounded died or recovered enough to be moved, but we’ve been here too long. I don’t know why the foresters haven’t found us yet.”

“Because I got in their way.”

Both Halflings jerked their eyes upward toward the voice, shocked to find a Big Folk crouched in the branches of the tree above them. With a yell Bungwina rolled to her feet, yanking her blade from its scabbard, as Armstand scrabbled for his crossbow and quiver.

The stranger stepped back, raising his hands even as more shouts sounded around them. (Armstan cringed, even though the sentries would have alerted them if any foresters were that close. But then, they should have done the same for this Big Folk as well.)

Within moments another half-dozen Halflings had surrounded them, crossbows pointed at the stranger ... who was disturbingly calm, for someone that could die at any moment.

Armstan waited until Bungwina waved off more of their band, sending them out to join the sentries, then asked, “So how did you ‘get in the way’ of the foresters?”

The stranger shrugged. “What you would have done yourself, if you hadn’t had wounded to guard—I hunted them, all over the woods ... both to push them out and to keep them from knowing your general location by where they were attacked.”

You did that, all by yourself?” Bungwina demanded.

The stranger glanced up at the branch he had been perched on then back down at Bungwina, and Armstan nodded at the unspoken reply—someone skilled enough to sneak into a camp of alert Halflings (some of them, at least, the night watches), and perch in a tree right above the band’s leader without being noticed probably did have the skills to ambush patrol after patrol of Lord Brance’s foresters without even being seen, much less caught. And now that he looked more closely, there was an odd air to the stranger, an unusual accent, a shade of skin and shape of the eyes that Armstan had never seen before that hinted at the non-Human. Who knew what abilities he might have inherited from his other parent, or even grandparent?

Finally, he ordered, “Everyone, lower your crossbows.” As the crossbows dropped to point at the ground (some more reluctantly than others), he held out a hand. “I’m Armstan, for my sins, the leader of this pack of fools willing to follow me. But then, you knew that.” He tossed his head up toward the leaves above them.

The stranger dropped to one knee, bringing their eyes closer to level, and shook Armstan’s hand with a careful grip, along with an odd half-bow. “I knew you were the leader, yes, but not your name. I am Konatsu.”

“And a good day to you, Konatsu. So just why have you dropped in on us?”

Konatsu sighed and dropped down to sit in front of Armstan, legs crossed. Armstan could sense the Hobbits surrounding them relax at the newcomer’s deliberately placing himself in a vulnerable position, that he couldn’t quickly get out of. Armstan himself had his doubts—that move had been very smooth, graceful even, somehow feeling ... feminine? Certainly Konatsu was pretty enough that if all Armstan had seen was his face he’d think him a girl. Perhaps he actually is a girl, wearing men’s clothing for safety’s sake? Not that he was going to say anything either way—he didn’t need the embarrassment if he was wrong (for both, likely, he doubted Konatsu would happy about being mistaken for a girl, either), and didn’t need to put Konatsu at risk if he was right (a Big Folk girl that tall wasn’t at risk from any Halfling’s amorous attentions, but they might talk in the hearing of someone larger sized).

So instead he simply waited patiently until Konatsu had made himself comfortable and started to speak. “As I said, I’ve been stalking the foresters. As I have, I’ve overheard some conversations once they started traveling in pairs and then threes ... and for the last patrol I ambushed, the conversation wasn’t a happy one. They were just as happy to be in the forest, even with its dangers, because it meant they’d be away from the town during the executions of your friends and the parents of the family captured in the raid on your camp, along with a farmer found harboring one of your wounded. The family’s children are apparently being kept at the castle until after the executions, before being taken somewhere else. One forester was afraid that they’d be forced to watch.”

Angry murmurs erupted all around, something that Armstan was distantly pleased about in spite of the sick fear and anger filling him—this time none of the Halflings were shouting their anger, in spite of Konatsu’s assurance that no foresters were close enough to hear. Once Armstan was sure he could keep his voice steady, he simply asked, “When?”

“Two days. One of the foresters pointed out that staying out that long was pushing the limits of their instructions.”

Armstan thought it over as he considered the Big Folk sitting calmly in front of him as if he didn’t have a worry in the world, and finally looked around. “Emmald, get your men and head out with Mungo and Otho. Aila, you’re the fastest runner, you’re going with them. Ralph’s a Big Folk so he’s more likely to have heard any gossip about executions. If Konatsu told the truth, you can run back ahead of the others with the word.”

The Halfling he’d picked out nodded as the assigned runner handed her crossbow to a friend and stepped over to join him, but someone asked the question Armstan hoped they’d leave off: “If he’s telling the truth, what do we do?”

He sighed. “I don’t know yet, we’ll come up with something.”

/oOo\

Ranma watched the line of knights form up across the road in front of the square of pikes. Well, behind them, really, since they had had to catch up with the fast-marching pikes, but a square didn’t really have a ‘front’, and they wouldn’t be moving on until they knew they wouldn’t be attacked from the rear.

Though he’d never say it out loud he was worried, and he really wished that Kasumi and his mother had stayed behind with the king. He thought they ought to be all right, in the center of the square along with the regiment’s supply mules. But thanks to those mules the pike square was awfully thin....

If Sir Morgan was worried he wasn’t showing it any more than Ranma, simply standing between him and his father, his own gaze fixed on the enemy. Finally, he quietly asked, “So what do you think?”

Ranma struggled for something to say. The truth was that while he had listened to the Keldar’s comments and stories that revolved around battle, tactics, and army life, he hadn’t really given them the attention they deserved. He’d expected to be more of a mouthpiece—passing on orders and leading charges—he remembered one of the American tourists turned Pikeman saying something about ‘leading bravely and dying gallantly’. “Kinda ragged, aren’t they?”

Sir Morgan chuckled. “They’re cavalry, they’ll always be more ragged than properly trained infantry—horses often have opinions that differ from their riders. And these aren’t even regular army, they’re a house squadron. They may have practiced at tilts, taken part in any number of jousts, but I doubt they’ve all charged together in the same direction more than a handful of times. And they’re knights to boot, at least half will be dreaming of immortal glory and looking for an opportunity to shine when they aren’t trying to force it. A properly trained Imperial squadron would be much more impressive.”

Considering what Sir Morgan had just said, Ranma looked over the pike square again. Just as quietly, he replied, “I wish our lines weren’t as thin as they are, and that we didn’t have to split the Scouts’ crossbows up over all four corners. They’re just going to come straight at us, aren’t they?” Why did you have us form into the square instead of the usual layered line?”

“Yes, they’re going to come right at us, they lack the training and cohesion for fancy maneuvers. But they could have shifted around before forming to charge, and they could make that shift faster than we could swing the entire line—horses, after all, and our baggage train and camp followers in the way. So what do you think of their chances with our lines as thin as they are?”

Ranma grinned fiercely. “With me and Pop here? Not a chance.”

Sir Morgan grinned back, his just as fierce. “I don’t think so, either.”

/\

Baron Cabble of Denton snarled as he glared at the enemy formed up in that odd square formation. He had never seen anything like it, but it wasn’t hard to guess its purpose—prevent being flanked by any mounted force. But it also it also meant that the enemy wasn’t going anywhere, that three quarters of those men would be on sides that his knights wouldn’t be charging, and that those men-at-arms had to be spread thinner than normal ... if they could even be called men-at-arms, these had to by the mercenaries the king had hired, from the mountains north of Tacitus, which meant that other than the spears they were carrying they would by lightly armed and barely armored if at all. They’d be throwing away their spears and trying to run away before the charge ever reached them.

But those are awfully long spears. And where did they come from? The spies that watched them march through Carrick Town said they just had steel caps, leather armor some of them, and shortswords. They didn’t even have shields!

Though now that he thought about it, he didn’t see any shields over there, either. But it didn’t matter—the mercenaries had tried to get through his barony before he could react—and had moved surprisingly fast, they’d almost made it—but now they were done. And that would make the difference between Cabble grabbing what he could and running for Megalos, and having time to pack up properly. But either way, the mercenaries’ very presence this deep in rebel territory meant that the rebellion was done. All the plotting and intriguing to improve his position and increase his treasury, so much wasted effort.

The charger of the squire holding his banner’s staff snorted as it all but danced in place, jerking Cabble from his dark thoughts, and he glanced both ways along the line. Everyone seemed to be in line as best he could tell, so he touched his spurs to his charger’s flanks. Skyflame started forward at a walk, then at further encouragement broke into a trot as the rest of the line joined him.

/\

Miyo’s grip on her crossbow tightened as she watched the ragged mounted line trotting toward them. This wasn’t like the last battle—that had been a long, drawn out affair, where after they had first successfully pushed Lord Towne’s men back across the ford, thanks to Akane’s berserker rage, she had ended up at the aid station using the healing gift she’d been granted to save as many lives as she could, both the Scouts she had trained with and officially led and those of the enemy that were brought in during the lulls after her own wounded had been seen to. This time Sir Morgan expected the initial shock to be the entirety of the battle, and she had insisted on taking her place among the people she commanded. She could ask for healing for the survivors after it was over.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ranma and Genma stepping forward in front of the pikes—it was time. “Move out!” she shouted, stepping away from her place in the corner of the formation. The other Scouts that had been assigned to this corner followed then flowed around her, stretching out in a line across the charge coming toward them. (She had wanted to be at the end of the line, but Sir Morgan had told her that there was sharing the dangers faced by those she led, and there was being stupid—he was not unduly risking the devastation her death would inflict on the spirit of the troops ... all the troops, Pikes as well as Scouts.) Seeing the line formed, she shouted out, “Remember, do not target the knights around the banner!” (Something else she hadn’t been happy about, it didn’t seem fair to kill the knights and not the man leading them to their deaths, but Sir Morgan had pointed out that the King would have an easier time declaring Baron Cabble attainted and seizing his lands if he was alive.)

Now all she could do was wait as the line of knights shifted from a trot to a gallop, the lances dropped from the vertical to point at the square waiting for them ... and everything exploded into chaos as Ranma and Genma waved their arms across themselves, and faint, almost invisible arcs ripped through the air and into the host on both sides of the advancing banner. Ranma’s aim had been a bit low, and half a dozen knights smashed forward into the ground as their now headless mounts collapsed. But Genma had aimed higher, and horses ran free as now-headless bodies of the riders toppled sideways against knights charging beside them, spraying them with blood pumping from neck-stumps.

Miyo pushed the sight away for near-certain future nightmares (like memories of the battle at the ford) and shouted, “Aim!” She raised her own crossbow to set its butt against her shoulder, aimed for a knight that had dropped his lance to wipe blood from his eyes, his shield dropped to one side to leave his chest exposed. “Fire!” Her bolt hammered into her target’s chest, easily piercing chainmail, and he canted over and slid off his shying mount. “Fall back!” She dropped her crossbow and slid back through the multitude of pike tips, crouching when she reached the line of men and drew her shortsword as she turned to look back. The line of Scouts stretching away from the corner was swinging back toward the side of the square, the other Scouts ducking under the outstretched pikes as she had. It was an idea the Kildar had come up with, the crouching Scouts to act as one last line of defense that any enemy trying to push through the hedge of pike points wouldn’t expect. Though he admitted that he couldn’t be certain how well it would work in practice, since he’d never heard of anyone using spears that long. And ... she twisted to look toward the charge again, and even as inexperienced as she was she knew they weren’t going to find out today.

The charge had come apart. At the very center still rode the rider with Baron Cabble’s banner, a knight on one side, she hoped to be Cabble. One either side of the pair was a stretch that was almost empty, just a few still-mounted knights pulling up their mounts and riderless horses following their training to stay with the charge. Beyond them on both ends, where the line had actually overlapped the side of the square, the knights were peeling away, throwing away lances in their panicked flight. The few knights in the center quickly followed, some that had apparently been knocked off their mounts struggling to their feet and trying to catch some of the riderless horses or throwing aside shields and running away.

“Kodiak Company, rear guard! Marching order!”

Miyo blinked at the orders, then stood and walked out to pick up her crossbow as the square behind her began to break up. That was it? It was over? She cocked the crossbow and reached for another bolt from the quiver on her hip as she eyed the field. She did have to admit that she didn’t see any real chance of another attack, not after that shock, but ...

She looked around at the Scouts falling into their assigned rearguard positions on either side of the company of Kodiak Pikes forming a new line (as the company’s name indicated, commanded by one of the handful of American refugees, a native of Alaska), then whirled to push through the Pikes to find Sir Morgan, calling for one of the Scouts to follow her. Sir Morgan was standing in the middle of the seeming chaos. Even with a comforting hand on the shoulder of a pale, shaky-looking Ranma, he was keeping an eye on everything as the handful of camp followers that managed the baggage mules got themselves sorted out safely between the two groups of Pikes forming their own marching columns. He noticed her approach, but before he could say anything she asked, “What about the wounded?”

“What wounded? They never reached us, and had no archers.”

Their wounded! They’re all over the field!”

Sir Morgan stared at her for a long moment, then sighed. “Miyo, we’ve bloodied Cabble’s nose, but that was because he was overconfident and in a rush thanks to how fast we’ve moved through his Barony. If we stay we’ll just be giving him time to summon his levy and try again, this time with his archers to back up his cavalry and footmen. He wouldn’t be any more successful than he was before, but he’s likely to bleed us white and cost us time we can’t afford. Remember, our target is Oakwood, we can’t afford to get bogged down here.”

“So leave it to the Scouts. We’ll search the field and I’ll ask for healing for any we find, then we’ll catch up. Except for the ones I send to scout ahead, of course.”

She hurried away without giving him a chance to respond. She was breaking protocol she knew, but technically she wasn’t violating an order since she hadn’t given him a chance to give one ... though she supposed he could have shouted. That wouldn’t look good, though, the expedition’s leader shouting orders to one of his subordinate commanders hurrying away from him. Still, she was going to have to apologize later. In private.

She glanced over at the Scout she’d ordered to accompany her. “Magnhildr, get over to the left wing and tell Eydis to send ... three Scouts to the center of the line, I’ll be joining them with three I pick up from Askatla on the right. Hurry, men could be dying right now.”

Magnhildr repeated the order and dashed away as fast as she could run, and Miyo turned to find Ranma beside her. “I'm sticking with you, just in case anyone out there gets stupid.”

She considered him for a long moment and simply nodded her agreement—with a task he seemed to be feeling better, his color returning—and broke into a trot toward the Scouts on the right wing. As she ran, she thought about the number of bodies she’d seen scattered across the field. At least this time, when she was done offering healing to those she could help, the Scouts weren’t likely to have to carry her on a stretcher as they caught up with everyone else....

Chapter Text

Ralph sighed, looking down at his farmer’s hands clutched together on his table, tanned skin and scars vague in the flickering candle-light. “Yes, as I told Aila, it’s true. Lord Brance has not only announced the executions tomorrow, but he’s commanded that everyone living a day’s walk away attend.”

Armstan, hands clenched into fists that he was struggling not to hammer on the table he and Ralph were seated at, fought to keep from grinding his teeth together—he’d been doing that a lot, lately, and it couldn’t be good for them—but Konatsu straightened up, away from the wall of the the freeholder’s home he’d been leaning against. “Will he be attending himself?”

“I ... I don’t know,” the farmer stammered. “I think so?”

“As much as he hates Halflings, he’ll be there,” Armstan ground out, turning to look up at Konatsu. “Why?”

“Because if he does he’s a fool.” Konatsu stepped over to stand by the table. “It’s the perfect opportunity to deal with him as well as rescue the captives.”

For a split second Armstan felt his heart leap at the suggestion, but then his mind catching up with his heart had him shaking his head. “No. I mean, yes, we could kill him and keep our people from execution, but who can tell what condition they will be in? They will not be able to move fast—if we don’t need to carry them—and we are too few to protect them when the men-at-arms and knights not there catch up with us. And they will catch up with us, the foresters that still survive will have our trail.”

“So we need more men.” Konatsu turned his head to gaze at Ralph.

Ralph gazed back, and after a moment his eyes widened. “Wait, you want me to join you? Revolt against m’lord?”

“Not against your lord, but for the king that he has revolted against.” Konatsu paused for a moment, then continued when Ralph just stared at him. “And not just you, whoever else you can get to join. It’s not just Halflings due to be executed, after all, there’s a couple of your friends, neighbors ... family. Are you going to stand aside and do nothing?”

“I ...”

Ralph hesitated, and Armstan murmured something he’d once heard in the Sunday sermon: “As you have not done it for the least of these ...”

Apparently Ralph remembered it as well, from the way he grimaced. “We’re part of ‘the least of these’, too. If we rebel there’s no way we can face soldiers in the open field, what do you think happens to our families when they get over the shock?”

“That’ll take awhile,” Armstan replied with a shrug. “Once we knock them back into the castle, pack up the families and your stored food and send them to the Church lands like we did, then find some places to hit ‘em and run away if they try to catch you before the families can get there.” Leaning forward, he planted his arms on the table and hissed, “Are ya really gonna let your bastard of a lord get away with doing this ta women and children?”

After a long moment, Ralph straightened in his seat and shook his head. “No, I won’t stand aside. And neither will the others.”

Armstan gusted out a sigh of relief—Ralph might be less than happy putting himself forward, but his word carried a lot of weight in this village. Unfortunately they didn’t have time to try to rally other villages, not with the executions tomorrow, they’d just have to hope at least some of them would follow their lead. “So, here’s what we do....”

/oOo\

Konatsu carefully did not look around the open field whose edge he stood at, at least not in any way that implied a sense of urgency. The plans were made, the opening phase going on for hours with the Men and Halflings joining the crowd around the field a few at a time. They weren’t ignoring each other the way Konatsu was, but then, they were supposed to be locals whereas Konatsu had the appearance of a wandering tinker, thanks to the gear that the peasants of Ralph’s village had managed to scrape together.

On the other hand, the fact he was a stranger didn’t mean he couldn’t do some looking around, he just couldn’t focus on any particular individual—though one peasant’s motley clothing was worth a second look (along with some ribbing from his friends), and Konatsu used the opportunity to discreetly pick out some of the people he’d met before nonchalantly shifting his gaze elsewhere. It looked like everyone he could recognize was in position, so he reluctantly shifted his gaze back to the center of the field, and the new additions there—several upright poles with wood piled around, and a platform with two upright frames obviously designed to hold someone spread-eagled, one Man-sized and the other for a Halfling. The poles were where the captured Hobbit women were to be burned, and the frames where the captured men—Hobbit and Man—were to be emasculated and disemboweled. Apparently Lord Brance had decided to skip hanging the men until almost dead first.

And the lord had spread the word to the villages within half a day’s travel that attendance was mandatory.

Konatsu glanced around at those gathered about the clearing again, allowing himself to look a little nervous ... the crowd gathered was not a happy one, and the few people that had tried to provide some entertainment for a few copper farthings had quickly given up because the few people that had paid them any attention had been angry, even threatening. Lord Brance was definitely a fool, so buried in his prejudice and sense of privilege that he couldn’t imagine the explosive situation he’d created. But his minions could—the closest of the soldiers standing at intervals around the execution site to keep the crowd away were sweating, and Konatsu didn’t think it was just because of the lack of shade from the sun beaming down in a cloudless sky, not the way their eyes were darting about.

And then a murmur swept the crowd, one that had an undertone of bared teeth, and Konatsu glanced out of the corner of his eye toward the lowered drawbridge into Lord Brance’s’s castle ... yes, there was a new group crossing it now. And the man in the lead was dressed in embroidered robes whose bright colors and shine equaled wealth in this world, especially this backwater—some kind of silk that would not be cheap this far from its place of origin. I wonder if Sahud has silk, and if they have a trade route through Zarak’s Dwarven tunnels? Maybe it actually costs less here than farther east toward the coast.

But that was a distraction, the important thing was that that man had to be Lord Brance, Konatsu couldn’t see someone with the ego the stories he had heard said the new lord had tolerating anyone dressed more finely than himself. If I was him, I’d be wearing my finest armor. The soldiers and handful of knights certainly were, their attention much more on the crowd they were approaching than the bloodied prisoners in torn and bloodstained clothes stumbling along—a few even being dragged along, for all intents and purposes, only occasionally able to stagger along a few feet on their own. And one pair of Halflings had several terrified children clutching their clothes as well.

A rumble like a predator growling swept through the crowd and the soldiers flinched or clutched at the hilts of their swords, some of them unconsciously shifting closer together as their eyes darted around from one possible threat to another. Konatsu took the opportunity to shift a hand closer to the knives at the small of his back without drawing attention, careful to keep his borrowed cloak over his left arm. Others weren’t so careful, and here and there he caught a flash of blue strip tied around an upper arm.

Lord Brance mounted the platform, the male prisoners hauled up behind him along with the Halfling children torn from their parents and dragged up by one of the soldiers, while the women were pushed over to the poles. Konatsu decided there was no point in waiting—it would just get the amateurs more wound up (or scared), and the women tied to the stakes. He grasped the first of his knives, and a moment later it was protruding from Lord Brance’s throat.

Even as the lord staggered back, the hands clutching his throat red with spurting blood, Konatsu’s second knife found the throat of the soldier gripping the hands of the screaming children, all along the front of the crowd people—both Man and Halfling—threw off their own cloaks to reveal weapon-filled hands (even if many improvised) and upper arms bound with blue, and charged at the stunned men-at-arms shouting, “The King! The King!”

Konatsu charged forward with the rest, careful not to trip over the pack at his feet as his hands filled with two more knives—daggers really, this time—a Halfling female and another male Man joining him on either side. He almost might not have bothered, one farmer that had been expected to bring a cart for the castle’s night soil had brought the Halflings’ crossbows with it, and now soldiers were falling as quarrels flashed through the air. (For some reason, Armstan’s order to aim for the head to avoid any armor had had his Halfling followers laughing.) But Konatsu leaped up onto the platform anyway, to find it empty of soldiers and—he breathed a sigh of relief—two children with their arms wrapped around their still-bound father. If they had tried to run away instead, into the middle of that chaos ...

He whirled to sweep his gaze across that chaos, leaving releasing the prisoners to the other two to look out for any soldiers that hadn’t been swamped, that might decide they weren’t getting away and to get revenge by killing the prisoners ... there weren’t any, the last of them were dropping, tackled by both Men and Halflings—most with the blue cloth strips tied around their arms but some without, and all shouting the name of the king—thrusting daggers making sure the soldiers wouldn’t be getting up again. And from the castle he heard the rumbling crash of the portcullis dropping. Just as Armstan had hoped.

And then Armstan himself pulled himself up onto the platform. His shirt had a long slice in it and a corresponding cut along his side bleeding freely, his knife and the hand holding it were covered with blood that wasn’t his and his eyes blazed. But his voice was steady as his gaze swept the chaos—though a chaos that was rapidly diminishing as most of the crowd fled from the field, leaving only a few Men and Halflings behind, and the bodies of soldiers and a handful Halflings and Men in peasant clothes scattered about. “The men-at-arms are down, and so is the castle portcullis. That was less bloody than I expected.”

“It always is, when an ambush works.”

“I know, I just didn’t think we could pull it off, not like this.” Armstan looked down at the Halfling woman comforting the wailing children as the Man cut free the prisoners. “Bungwina, the kids all right?” The woman nodded without looking up from the clinging children in her arms, and Armstan sighed with relief. “Good. Get them to their mother, we need to get the families on the move, and get ready to convince anyone coming out of the castle that it’s a bad idea ... try to figure out where the knights on their fiefs will gather when they hear about this, see if we can set up another ambush ...” He walked over to the body of the first man Konatsu had killed without care for the blood pooling about it now coating the soles of his bare feet, stared down at the unblinking eyes staring up at the cloudless sky, then spit in the corpse’s face and turned back to Konatsu. “You’d better get on your way.”

Konatsu bowed to the Halfling, then without a word turned to jump down from the platform and hurry back to the pack he’d abandoned. Armstan and Ralph knew the ground and their people, and while Armstan’s band of Halflings might not be as skilled in the arts of stealth and subterfuge as Konatsu, he knew of no one that was and they were better than anyone else he’d encountered. There was little he could do to add to their efforts, so it was his duty to take word of the revolt to the king’s army. Surely by now King Conall was on the march, and the Keldara/Japanese ‘mercenaries’ ... and his friends ... with him? Maybe Ukyo-sama will have rejoined them! This mission had turned out to be much longer than he had expected and he missed the woman he loved, as hopeless as that love might be.

Chapter Text

As Sir Morgan watched the pair of knights walking across the castle’s drawbridge toward the small party standing on the road a few paces from the drawbridge’s end, quietly enough that only those close could hear, he said to Blind Lars, “This is going to play hell with your next song, isn’t it?”

“Why would you say that?” the wandering bard murmured back without turning his head.

“Doesn’t any great epic require a great battle to cap it off?”

Blind Lars chuckled. “The battle at the ford is climactic enough for any bard to work with. A desperate struggle to hold a vital ford against overwhelming odds by a band of mostly young women called to the moment by a prophetess? The sad pride of the families left behind for their fallen heroines? The survivors’ salvation at the last moment by their fathers and brothers, with the final victory achieved by a glorious charge of the King’s knights followed by an epic duel between the King’s foster brother and the pretender to the throne? Oh, yes, there is more than enough to work with. The fact that there were additional battles after that epic struggle are just ... what was your Christian saying? Ah, yes, kicking against the pricks.”

On Sir Morgan’s other side Ranma laughed. “Yeah,” the currently-redheaded female said, “give all the credit to the good-looking girls. What was that story Nabiki told us, about the green Roman sentry nervous about the German barbarians coming through his gate? How after the sweating kid manages to keep his cool when the glaring, muttering, masses of muscle walk past, the old-timer sharing guard duty assures him the men aren’t any worse?”

Miyo, standing next to Ranma, mock-pouted. “My Scouts are hardly ‘masses of muscle’, more like sleek, agile cats. If you want the hulking, muscle-bound brutes, check out the pikes.”

Blind Lars burst out laughing at the prophetess’s rare moment of levity, and Sir Morgan caught the glowers on the faces of the approaching knights now close enough to hear the laughter. He hissed for everyone to be quiet, the last thing he wanted was for those knights to resume a hopeless resistance because they thought they hadn’t been proper respect. As the others fell silent he glanced out of the corner of his eye at the apparently empty spot of open meadow where Genma had said he would be watching, and from which he could launch another attack like he and Ranma had during the massacre at Denton. Sir Morgan still couldn’t see anything. Of course, he couldn’t see the effeminate young man that had brought word of the peasant revolt—the uprising in the King’s name—anywhere in the empty field on the other side of the approaching knights, either. And they say they aren’t mages.

He set aside the pointless thought as the approaching knights finally reached the waiting party. Though he resolved again to ask what a young man that had always been at Ukyo’s side and left with her when she left the Keldara with Master Myrddin, and that he assumed had left with her when she was sent to the Baroness Bronwyn, was doing in Oakwood. Or maybe he wouldn’t ask, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

At least the approaching knights’ expressions had smoothed out as the rest of his party abandoned their moment of levity—or rather, they had resumed the blank faces of men very unhappy but determined not to let their enemies see it. He’d seen that lack of expression more than once in his career as a soldier, on the faces of both enemies and his own superiors. The knights’ eyes looking past his party to the the men standing in still ranks with their pikes upraised and the Scouts with crossbows at the ready on both flanks said those expressions weren’t likely to change anytime soon. Not that those Pikes and Scouts alone would have been enough to bring on this moment, the castle’s defenders didn’t know what the “door knockers” with him could do and he didn’t have anywhere close to enough troops for an assault. But their very presence in front of the castle gate was enough to announce how the game had changed.

Now that the knights were close enough he stepped forward away from his escort, Ranma stepping forward to join him. (There had been some discussion who should be his partner in this informal ceremony, and he’d been surprised how forceful the prophetess had been pushing Ranma forward. But her points about the need to keep stories about miracles and prophecies from spreading as long as possible—at least among the movers and shakers of Empire and Church—and how rumors of her own claims would already be spreading were well made, but he had to wonder why she was pushing the martial artists onto the stage so vigorously ... and why she’d insisted that Ranma be in his female form. Or why she was with his small party at all, for that matter.)

One of the two knights stiffened, his expression tightening, undoubtedly offended at an (apparent) maiden dressed as a commoner (and a male one at that) joining the parley. The shortsword at her side probably didn’t help. But that knight was young, his tabard clean and new and his chainmail bright and unmarked, and Sir Morgan assumed the absent sword one hand was grasping for and finding only empty air was equally bright; his companion was considerably older, and from the wear of his tabard and chainmail considerably more experienced, and his own glance saw past Ranma’s female exterior to the experienced warrior within.

“What is she—”

The younger knight broke off his building tirade when his companion reached up to grip his shoulder. “I am Sir Felix, this is Sir Paullus.”

Sir Morgan nodded. “Sir Morgan, appointed Kildar of the Keldara, leader of their warriors taken into the service of King Conall for this year.” (Soldiers, now, really, the only real soldiers in the kingdom, whatever their sex.)

“Mercenaries.”

The older knight’s grip on his companion’s shoulder tightened at the young man’s muttered comment. “Are you empowered to speak for him?”

“Enough to offer terms for a local garrison that faithfully served their sworn lord.” The two knights relaxed, and Sir Morgan silently wished once more that Conall I, the first king of an independent Caithness, had had the imagination to do the same as the conqueror or England that Nabiki had read to him about, back in his keep overlooking his village—the one that had required all the knights to swear loyalty to him, not just their local lords. It was too bad that King Conall couldn’t follow that example now, but with the main excuse of the civil war being the King’s supposed tyrannical designs ... though now that he thought of it ... “I will demand no penalties or hostages, all that are not guilty of particular crimes committed in the course of the rebellion—” his thoughts flashed to a town destroyed and its inhabitant massacred, and Lady Bronwyn and a beheaded Grandmaster of the Hospitallers “—will be free to return to their holdings ... once the King arrives and takes their oaths of fealty.”

The two knights stiffened. “Not to our new lord?” Sir Felix asked carefully. “I am certain you have heard of Lord Brance’s death without issue—his lady widow has already left for her family’s holdings. But surely the King will appoint another in his place?”

“I’m sure he will,” Sir Morgan agreed, “and you will of course give your oaths to him—or her—as well. But your oaths to the King will be paramount. If you again choose to follow another lord in rebellion, you will be held accountable.”

The two knights stared at him for a long moment, and then Sir Felix began to chuckle. “And of course we are unlikely follow into rebellion a lord that the King has chosen.”

“Yes, it does seem unlikely,” Sir Morgan agreed blandly.

“But the precedent will have been set.”

“Yes.”

Sir Felix’s chuckles turned into a barked laugh, but he nodded. “We will take your generous, if unusual, terms to our fellow knights. I have no doubt they will be accepted, after some discussion.”

From Sir Paullus’s thunderous expression, Sir Morgan suspected that it would be a lot of discussion, with a fair amount of shouting involved. But he also had no doubt of Sir Felix’s ability to eventually deliver. He’d met a number of men like him—both during his imperial service and in Caithness—the men that kept both Kingdom and Empire from sinking into a despond of corruption and incompetence (or at least, in the case of Megalos, enough to allow it to function). So he simply nodded his agreement. “We’ll await your word.”

The knights turned to return to the castle when Ranma spoke up. “Do you speak for all of Lord Brance’s knights?”

Sir Morgan’s hand twitched as he suppressed the urge to facepalm (a gesture that was becoming common among the Keldara, since the arrival of the refugees)—he really should have asked that himself.

The two knights stiffened, then Sir Felix sighed and turned back around. “No, we aren’t all here. Some of Lord Brance’s sworn knights have gathered their men-at-arms and pursued the fleeing people of the villages that rose against their lord.”

“I see,” Sir Morgan stated, his mind racing as he considered time and distances. “And you didn’t join them?”

“We’d heard rumors of invasion from the north, and felt that to avenge our lord on peasants only to return to find his castle held against us would be ... unwise. That it would be better to hold the castle and await support from our lord’s allies.”

“Good decision, that support isn’t coming, the rebellion is over. While you make your decision whether to accept my terms or wait on the King and Lord William’s army, you may wish to send messengers to those knights with word of my terms. The terms will hold, so long as they break off their pursuit immediately. Or they can deal with the King on his arrival, as well.”

/oOo\

Sir Abraham clenched his gloved hand around his scabbarded sword’s hilt, his mount shifting nervously under his tense seat as he watched the rapid approach of one of the few foresters that had accompanied his small vengeful company—too small, and he found himself gritting his teeth again at the thought of all the knights that had stayed behind at Oakwood Castle. If even half of them had joined him, he and the other knights that had joined him could have run down the fleeing rebels ... with their families slowing them down, they could never have escaped the righteous vengeance.

But with only the handful of knights that had joined him, if they had pursued them alone the sheer number of crossbows facing them would have taken down half of the knights before a charge could be carried through and the surviving knights isolated enough that they be swarmed. So those knights that still held to their duty to their murdered lord had had to return to their holdings to call up their own liege men and march them in the peasants’ wake. Now as he lifted his eyes from the approaching forester to the reds and yellows of the distant autumn forest beyond him into which the road vanished, the burning fury filling his gaze should have turned the trees lining forest’s edge into blazing torches. But it was a hopeless fury, because he knew what that forester was going to tell him.

The dark-haired man in green homespun and brown leathers dropped from a trot to a fast walk as he turned and walked alongside Sir Abraham’s still-pacing mount. Sir Abraham waited for a moment for the man’s gasps for air to settle to more regular breathing, then asked, “Well?”

“They’re all into the woods, m’lord, all of ‘em, nobody broke away from th’main pack,” the man reported. “An’ now that they’re in there, me’n the other foresters will be waitin’ out here. They’re watching, you can feel the eyes on you. If you want to get you and yours chopped up an’ left for wolves you can, we’ve lost enough friends over the past weeks to add more to th’list.”

Sir Abraham was gritting his teeth again. He forced his jaw to relax as he swept his gaze along the approaching tree line. He couldn’t see anyone, but he wouldn’t. No, once they followed the road into that green they wouldn’t see anyone until the quarrels started flying ... and considering so many of those they were pursuing were Halflings, maybe not even then. Oh, if his men-at-arms plunged into the trees away from the road they were bound to get a few, but nowhere near as many as he’d lose. And the knights would be next to useless.

Finally, he raised a hand in signal and reined in his mount, then circled around to look behind him at the column stumbling to a halt. Sir Cuthstan, the closest of the other knights, trotted forward to join him. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong is that we’re too late. If we follow them into the woods most of the blood that will be spilled is ours.”

Sir Cuthstan looked past him at the distant trees and sighed. “Why couldn’t this had been a few weeks later, when the leaves are falling. What now?”

Sir Abraham sighed as he turned his horse to ride back along the column and get everyone turned around. “Now, we go home. I’ll be grabbing what little I can load on a pack mule and heading across the border to Craine. You’re free to join me if you wish, or face me across leveled lances in a few years when I and the others that still oppose the tyrant return with the legions.”

/\

Armstan watched the halted column, and the knights riding along its length, heard the distant shouts of what he assumed were orders, then sighed in disappointment as the Men he could see turned around to march back the way they’d come. “Well, damn. For a bit there I thought they were really going to stick their dicks into the millstone.”

All the Halflings and Men within hearing distance but one winced at the imagery, and the single holdout was the only one of the handful of females with the band close enough to hear him. Bungwina just laughed softly, shaking her head. “Looks like not even they are that stupid. So, what now?”

He watched the men-at-arms slowly grow smaller as they marched away, then sighed. “We go home to our families. It’s over.”

/oOo\

King Conall stared at the rebel baron kneeling before him with head bowed. In fact, he had been staring at him for some time as he struggled to find something to say. Finally, he managed, “What?”

Without lifting his head, Baron Cabble repeated, “Your Majesty, I request that you grant my petition to travel with you to Adseveration Cathedral, that I may beg the Archbishop’s indulgence to enter holy orders.”

“I heard you the first time, I just didn’t believe it.” The King glanced at Nabiki on the left of his chair and Lord William of Wallace on his right to find them as confused has he was, looked around the confines of his tent with its walls glowing with the light of the noontime sun, then waved a hand. “Rise, rise.” Baron Cabble raised his head to meet Conall’s gaze, but remained on his knees. Conall waited for a moment, then shrugged and continued, “Really, I have trouble believing you’re here at all. You aren’t stupid, you must know the rebellion has failed. I expected you to be halfway to Megalos with everything in your treasury by now.”

Conall was surprised by a chuckle from his petitioner. “I imagine that is just where my wife and children are. As soon as I abdicated my title my son ordered everything be packed and they left the next morning. I expect they will have arrived at Donlis by now, and will be taking a boat across the border to the Duchy of Craine with Baron Deneral and Lord Marsden. You will not be catching up with them.”

Conall sighed, disappointed though he couldn’t say he was surprised. “Cabble, if all you wanted to do is see the archbishop you would have left at the same time as your family. True, you would have had the Kildar’s force in the way until they passed through Photius on their way to Oakwood, but you must have known where they were going and could have just followed behind them. Why are you here?”

The apparently former baron’s brief flash of humor vanished and his eyes dropped. “Because I have sinned, against you, the kingdom, and my own people, by helping foment this civil war. Oh, I could make a pretty speech on your assault on baronial liberty, but all I really cared about was increasing my wealth and power. Now I need to beg forgiveness from you, from the kingdom, and from God, for the wealth that has been wasted and the blood spilt out of petty greed and ambition.”

Conall stared at him for a long moment, eyes wide, until Nabiki began to giggle. When he turned his head to look at her, she said, “He met Miyo.” He turned back to find Cabble had raised his head to stare at the maiden, cleared his throat, and raised an eyebrow when Cabble turned his attention back to him. “Did you?”

“If Miyo is a young dark-haired maiden of exotic beauty, then yes, I did,” Cabble agreed, his expression softening into serene wonder. “When your mercenaries marched through my barony I summoned my knights and hurried to catch up with them. Just short of the edge of my holdings I did so, and fought the shortest battle of my life—they formed a square, we charged through the hail of crossbow bolts, the two mages you hired stepped out and cut down half our line with two spells, the survivors capable of moving scattered to the winds in a panic, and they broke ranks and marched away.”

“They weren’t mages,” Nabiki broke in to say, and Cabble’s eyes shifted to her, his gaze sharpening—Conall assumed due to the similarity of her features with the prophetess, he had been so focused on the king that Conall doubted he’d even realized that Lord William—his former ally—was standing across from him. The maiden was committing lèse majesté by inserting herself in the conversation without his permission, but Conall merely leaned back in his chair and exchanged a glance with Lord William. He doubted she’d done it intentionally, and she was almost frighteningly cunning (unless you were her target, when there would be no ‘almost’ about it); better to give her her head and see where she went.

Nabiki continued, “My people—a very few of my people—have learned to make use of the very breath that God breathed into us. It isn’t as flexible as magic and takes many years of training, but ki adepts are as powerful in their own way as any mage. Though it isn’t anything that Miyo learned, hers came from hours on her knees before a statue of the Virgin Mary asking God why.”

Cabble held Nabiki’s gaze for a long moment, then rather than asking the question Conall expected—ask God why what—simply stated, “And she received an answer.”

“Yes. It wasn’t an answer we liked, but an answer nonetheless. And from the Prophetess Deborah, no less. It came with marching orders.”

“A fighting prophetess ... how appropriate,” Cabble mused with a chuckle.

“So if the battle was so short and the Keldara simply marched away after it was over, how did you meet Miyo?”

Cabble’s gaze seemed to turn inward, the serene wonder returning to his face. “I was in the center of our charge, the spells, whatever you may call them, passing me on either side so that I was neither dismounted nor beheaded. But that didn’t prevent the suddenly headless corpse of Sir Raymond from falling into me and knocking me off my charger. I landed badly, and all I could do was watch as my knights fled in all directions and my enemy broke ranks to march away, while trying to writhe with legs I could no longer feel, much less command.”

He paused for a long moment, staring at a memory. The others waited until Nabiki gently coughed, making Cabble jerk as he was yanked from his thoughts. “And then?” she quietly asked.

“And then a small group of what looked to be men-at-arms at a distance came out onto the battlefield, moving from body to body. I believed they were killing the wounded and thought that at least my end would be swift and not after long pain-filled weeks in bed or by being drawn and quartered if you followed ... as you have.”

His gaze began to again turn inward, until Nabiki cleared her throat. “Right. They finally reached me and I was shocked to learn that they were maidens-in-arms, for the most part, some of them as tanned and fresh-faced as any Caithness freeholder, but others with dark hair and skin of a darker shade, and oddly shaped eyes revealing a nonhuman heritage ... such as you, milady.” He grinned when she choked. “You cannot deny it, milady, it is as plain as your beauty.” Sobering again, he continued, “They realized I yet lived and one of them, undoubtedly your Saint Miyo, reached down and laid her hand on my chest ...”

“And she healed you,” Nabiki all but whispered.

“Nay, milady, she did not,” Cabble firmly disagreed, “but God through her. It seemed as if through her touch His light flowed through me and His gaze saw into the depths of my soul. Never had I imagined such love ... or such disappointment.” He turned his gaze back to his king. “And that is why I wish to ask Archbishop Siccius if he might find a place for me in Holy Orders. I have wounded Him who loves me most, and have much to atone for.”

Conall sighed. “So do we all. Sir Charles!”

One of the knights standing guard at the tent’s entrance turned and stepped into the tent. “Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Find ... Sir Cabble, I guess ... a tent, he is to be guarded at all times. Sir Cabble, you may go.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Cabble responded without a hint of hesitation at the only title he had left, rising to his feet and joining the guard at the entrance, only for both to pause when Nabiki again spoke up.

“Sir Cabble, you will find that in Sahud north of Zarak most of the Heavenking’s subjects have eyes and skin tone like mine. There is nothing nonhuman about us, only a different humanity.”

He gazed at her for a long moment, then dipped his head. “As you say, milady.” With that he was gone.

Conall sighed and slumped in his chair, then murmured. “Maid Nabiki, what was that about?”

“What?” Nabiki twitched, her gaze shifting from the tent’s entrance to the king and lowered her voice to match his. “Oh ... I didn’t think he should leave believing Miyo to have nonhuman blood. He might eventually doubt the source of his experience.”

“I doubt that,” Conall disagreed dryly, “but I meant earlier—the bit about your family not being mages.”

“That? I knew your guards could hear everything and didn’t want rumors spreading that we’re mages—other mages on their little plots of land might decide we’d broken the unspoken truce and intervene. At this point I doubt they’d change anything, but it would be an unholy mess. Now instead the gossip will be about Cabble’s conversion.”

Conall shuddered. While some of the mages scattered around Caithness on the small plots of land where mana flowed with its normal strength were like any mage of Megalos and so almost helpless when away from their lands where mana’s currents ran sluggish and shallow, most were very aware of the nature of the kingdom in which they lived—which meant rather than spreading out their research they delved deep into the nature of magic itself. That meant their selection of spells might be much more limited than mages from more civilized realms, but they could use the spells they knew even within the kingdom proper ... and that they were absolute terrors to fight on their own lands. Nabiki was right, that would be an unholy mess. Still ...

“That wasn’t all they could hear, they also heard you insert yourself into the interrogation without my leave.”

Nabiki paled. “Uh ... oops?”

Conall chuckled. “No harm done, people often allow obvious foreigners more give in such matters. Just don’t do it again, at least not until we get back to Carrick Town and Sir Galardon can instruct you in the art of proper court etiquette ... and when you can ignore it.”

“ ... Right, you got it.”

Chapter Text

Archbishop Siccius, dressed in the full, elaborate robes of his office, leaned back against the high back of his chair. His robes actually fit with the splendor of the chair he sat in (really almost a throne, though not as ornately carved as the King’s throne in Carrick Town—his predecessor that had commissioned it had been no fool). And the chair matched the splendor of the room that surrounded it. As he calmly considered the man kneeling before him—Sir Cabble, the former baron of Denton—he once again took a moment to consider stripping the room ... the cathedral, really ... of its riches. Perhaps the coming crisis would be so expensive he could use it as an excuse? Certainly, with the way things were likely to go he wouldn’t have to be concerned about the opinions of the other member of the Curia ... or rather, his successor. Later, you have more important things to think about right now, like the man in front of you.

He’d had forewarning of who King Conall was bringing with him and why so he wasn’t as flabbergasted as the King must have been. He’d even had some time to consider what to do about Cabble’s request, and he had to hide a smile—the King wasn’t the only one that could be flabbergasted, no matter how strong the serenity Cabble’s vision had given him. And from the expression of the former baron, that serenity was fading—no surprise, while the Archbishop had never had such a close personal encounter with the Divine himself, Sir Cabble wasn’t the first person he had known to do so ... while the impact on those so blessed would never completely vanish, over time they would come to live in the world around them rather than their memories. In this case, Siccius suspected it would happen faster than normal. “So you wish to become a monk.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“To atone for your many sins.”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

“Many of those sins are also crimes.” The Archbishop looked up at the King, standing with his entourage a few paces behind the petitioner. “Your Majesty?”

Conall shrugged. “Yes, he’s a traitor to the throne. But he’s clearly penitent, has renounced his lordship, and surrendered himself to my authority when he could have run with the rest of his family. If I punish the rebel lords that give up the fight I’d have to start with Lord William, here.” He nodded at the lord standing stiffly upright beside him (probably more from the trial of the journey than any offense, Lord William wasn’t as young as he had been.). “That would not be a good idea.”

“Considering that the army camped outside of town is mostly his, yeah, no.”

Maid Nabiki’s muttered comment was quiet enough that Siccius could ignore it, and the quiet chuckles from the others. He dropped his gaze back to Cabble. “As the King declines to summon you to judgment for your crimes, I see no reason that I cannot grant your request. I even have an order in mind ... the Order of St. George of the Dragon.”

Cabble’s eyes widened. “Your Excellency? I ... I had hoped ...”

“You had hoped to leave this world and its problems you helped create behind so that you could focus on your vision and the desperate need to beg for repentance on your knees it engendered.”

“ … Yes, Your Excellency.”

Siccius shook his head. “There is more to repentance than begging forgiveness, there is also fixing what you have broken as well as you are able. I fear we will have need of your sword and leadership in the days to come.”

“I ... I don’t understand,” the now thoroughly confused penitent admitted. “The Order of St. George is sworn to the protection of Christians, it stays out of the affairs of princes. Even if the legions invade, it will be neutral then as it was in the rebellion.”

Siccius looked up at the King again. “You didn’t tell him about Durham?” When Conall shook his head, Siccius looked back down at Cabble. “While the King was marching south to deal with the rebellion, the Hospitallers invaded up the River Conn. Lady Bronwyn ambushed them with the help of a local mage, but not before they assaulted a town without demanding its surrender and massacred all that lived there except a few that managed to fight their way out the front gate—all done on the direct orders of the Grandmaster of the Order. He was captured when Lady Bronwyn shattered his army, and rather than turn him over to the Curia to be tried she personally executed him.”

“Executed him.”

Siccius nodded at Cabble’s flat statement. “Yes. Apparently, she felt that spending the rest of his life herding sheep in some country monastery wasn’t sufficient justice for the murder of so many of her people.”

Cabble looked up over his shoulder at the now grim-faced King, then turned back to the Archbishop, and Siccius knew what was going through his mind—the occasional rumor that the King’s support for Lady Bronwyn was because he held her close in his heart rather than through any quality of her own (though her singlehanded defeat of the Hospitallers ought to squelch that for a time). Siccius thought that wasn’t quite fair—that in this case Conall would have acted the same even if he despised her—but Cabble’s conclusion would be accurate enough ... the King would never turn Lady Bronwyn over to the Curia for judgment and execution by burning at the stake. He was proven right when the now pale Cabble whispered, “It won’t just be the legions coming, it’ll be the Church.”

“Yes. And since the Grandmaster carried out his invasion because of what he sees as rampant heresy in Caithness, and since the Megalan members that control the Curia will likely desire to make him a martyr in order to further their own designs on Caithness”—and do the bidding of the Emperor, he didn’t add, though every Yrth-born present knew it—“they are likely to agree with him posthumously. Which means what comes won’t just be an invasion, it will be a declared crusade.”

“And the Order of St. George will fight to protect Christians from attack ... in Caithness.”

“I am sure that Sir Osgood will release from their vows those who cannot in good conscience raise their swords against the Curia so they they may follow where their conscience guides them.”

A brief smile flitted across Cabble’s face—the Order’s loyalty to the Archbishop was well known, earned by his simplicity of life and message placing charity and justice for the common folk at the center of what it meant to be a Christian. The chances of a sizable number of defections from the Order in the event of a declared crusade against Caithness were slight. But that smile vanished as quickly as it came as the former rebel considered what he had just been told. Finally, he nodded. “You are right, we rebels gave the Grandmaster the opportunity he seized on, it is my duty before God to do what I can to deal with the results with my sword as well as my prayers.”

“Very well.” Siccius looked over at the handful of priests attending him. “Giles, escort Sir Cabble to a cell. Arthur, send word to Sir Osgood that his Order has a new novitiate.” The two priests acknowledged their orders, and as Giles escorted Sir Cabble from the room Siccius turned his attention to the rest of the King’s party. There were several knights, of course, Siccius assumed of the Order of the Stone given that Order’s loyalty to the King—though one of them, the female one, was standing closer to Maid Nabiki than Conall. There was Lord William, more relaxed now that Cabble had left ... perhaps less than happy with the penitent’s ready admittance of his evil motives for pressing the rebellion they had both been a part of. Sir Morgan, the Kildar, arrived with a small party from Oakwood the same day as the King’s army from the other direction, was known to Siccius as well. But the other four, a young man and three maidens, were a surprise, all young—younger than Nabiki, he thought, though he couldn’t be sure given the foreign cast to their features—and all with the almond-shaped eyes of Nabiki’s race. One of them was clearly Nabiki’s sister, and from the way she and the young man were clutching each others’ hands and apparently unconsciously snuggled up against each other, they were either lovers, affianced, or married. The second maiden was another matter—she was clutching Nabiki’s sister’s other hand, but there was nothing romantic about it, and she bore the signs of recent, strong grief. But it was the third maiden that drew Siccius’s attention, and he had a strong suspicion who she was. “So,” Siccius finally said, nodding to the four, “I recognize Sir Morgan, Maid Nabiki, and Lord William, of course, who might you be?”

The four exchanged quick glances, then the maiden that had most caught his eye stepped forward. Her hands were shaking and her head twitched as if she’d begun to look toward Nabiki, but then she took a deep breath and utter calmness seemed to wash over her. She motioned to the other maidens. “This is Maid Akane, Maid Nabiki’s sister, her close friend, Maid Sayuri, and her fiancé Ranma.” Another deep breath. “I am Maid Miyo.”

He’d been right. Straightening in his seat, Siccius sternly sharpened his gaze. “So you are the one that claims to be a prophetess. I suppose you have ... suggestions ... for me?”

More than one petitioner much older than Miyo had fallen to his knees under the weight of the Archbishop’s undivided attention. He was impressed when her gaze didn’t waver. He was surprised when she actually grinned. “Oh, no, Your Excellency, I wouldn’t dream of giving you ... suggestions. I am a newcomer to this world, what do I know of the currents of power or the management of a church? Nor has Deborah given me any ... suggestions ... to pass on to you. Consider her history—like her, my fields will be of training, battle, and army camps rather than the pulpit; more of a Judge than a Prophet. Besides, what could I tell you of what is coming that you don’t already know? What I do have is a request.” She glanced over her shoulder at Conall, and her eyes softened at the sudden guilt in his eyes. “I have already spoken to the King. We will be establishing the Order of Saint Deborah, a school for maidens and matrons, in the arts of defense and war.”

“War!” Siccius exclaimed. “Surely you aren’t suggesting that the King should call women into the ranks of his army!”

Miyo gazed at him for a long moment. “You are aware of just who made up the bulk of the Kildar’s scouts, when we passed through on our way to Oakwood?”

“Yes. I knew about the Keldara maidens serving the King before you first arrived.” And had considered ‘requesting’ that Miyo meet with him when they’d first passed through, but had decided that it was not the time. Time enough once the rebellion had been defeated. “But surely this was a unique occurrence, given the exigencies of the moment?” Miyo glanced in the direction that Sir Cabble had been led away, and Siccius quietly chuckled at the hint of the discussion he had just had with the former baron. But only for a moment. “Even so. It is Man’s duty to protect Woman, not the other way around.”

“And how well did that work out at Durham?” Siccius winced at the reminder of the massacre at that barony, and Miyo gusted out a sigh. “That wasn’t entirely fair. I’m sure the men of Pilton fought like tigers in defense of their families, but they died ... and their families with them. I’m not saying that all women of the proper age should be expected to serve, or even most of them. But there was a saying from a popular ... play ...” She waved a hand uncertainly. “ ... before. ‘Those without swords can still die on them.’ Or worse. Even if only a tenth of those women capable of serving join the colors, don’t you think they may well be needed? And even if most of the women trained don’t join, at least they will be able to put up a fight of their own if the men tasked with defending them are overwhelmed.”

Siccius considered her words, and finally nodded. “As you say, difficult times. So what is your request?”

“I ask that you assign a priest to see to the spiritual welfare of those that choose to join the new Order, or just train with us.”

And give my unspoken approval to the Order. But the words went unspoken, not that there was any need to say them—everyone in the room that mattered had understood. Still, it wasn’t an unreasonable request and it wasn’t like the Curia didn’t already have other ways they could force a break, so Siccius was opening his mouth to agree when he caught the subtle sign he had worked out with Conall years earlier. “I will consider your request and have an answer for you before the King continues on to Oakwood and Lord William and his soldiers return home.” He rose to his feet. “Your Majesty, now would be the best time for us to discuss the Grand Councils meeting here next year, if you have time?”

“Of course, Your Excellency. Lord William, your wisdom would be welcome as well.” Conall murmured instructions to the others of his party, then with Lord William and one of the two knights following he fell in beside the archbishop as they walked toward the same doorway that Sir Cabble had taken—no hint at subordination for either here!—and Siccius breathed a soft sigh of relief. It would be good to be able to get out of his ‘official’ robes and into the plain robes he vastly preferred, put up his feet with a glass of wine (a mug of beer for Conall), and find out what was really going on.

/\

When the King’s party exited the Archbishop’s audience chamber on their way back to the army camped outside the town, Miyo began to shake ... it was all she could do to keep walking instead of leaning against the closest wall for support.

Nabiki grinned even as she snaked an arm around Miyo’s waist for support. “Yeah, the Archbishop can be intimidating when you’ve got his attention, can’t he?” she said in their native Japanese. “Better you than me, he terrified me the last time we met, when I came down here with Myrddin. I noticed you didn’t mention that your ‘school’ is also going to be a refuge for abused women and their children ... or that thanks to the dangers of the road—or possible pursuit—you’ll have to send patrols throughout the kingdom to escort the abused women back to the school.”

“The King said that could be a touchy issue, so he’ll pass the word himself ... in private. He said something about having knights of the Order of the Stone act as escorts for the patrols.”

Nabiki pulled her arm away, now that Miyo was steadying, and shrugged. “Makes sense, this place’s take on women’s rights are ... well, medieval ... not that there weren’t plenty ...” She broke off, the way pretty much all the refugees from Japan did, whenever they referenced their lost home. “But in some ways the medieval views of women were an improvement—better on a chivalrous pedestal than chattel property. Having the knights act as escorts is a brilliant idea, buys into that whole Camelot myth, and we’ll probably see some marriages out of it, knights with both rescued women and Scouts. So where do you want to build your school?”

“I don’t know,” Miyo admitted. “It can’t be up with the Keldara, they’re too isolated and cut off by snow a good chunk of the year. Ideally, it should be in the center of the kingdom, so women fleeing abuse can get to it faster.”

“I know where,” Akane said from Miyo’s other side where she and Ranma were holding hands as they walked—she had arrived at Photius just about the same time as everyone else, and been very happy to be reunited with her husband. Though she was demanding that the pair take a room at the town’s inn instead of sharing a tent in the camp, so they could do more than cuddle and sleep with at least the illusion of privacy. Now as Miyo glanced over at her, she continued, “At Sterling. It’s right in the middle of the kingdom, and the ... ‘lady of the castle’, I think I heard someone call her ... likes me. And considering she almost died on one of those swords you mentioned—nice pop culture reference, what do you want to bet it’ll become a proverb here?—and will have the scar to prove it for the rest of her life, she’ll probably want your training herself even if she can’t join the Scouts. And Ranma and the fathers can start the dojo they’ve been talking about there, too.” She smiled, gently. “I even know who the first two students could be, young enough to start building their ki and determined to learn. I wonder if they’ve kept up their exercises?”

Nabiki’s grin was less gentle and more sharklike, her eyes distant as she considered the ramifications. “Who says she can’t join the Order? She’s a widow, that gives her more freedom than just about any other woman out there, in this culture. And even if she just gets training, that would still be another endorsement, considering that I doubt most people will distinguish much between the dojo and Miyo’s school—they’ll both be seen as bizarre foreign interventions. What’ll the dojo be called? We can’t go with a family name, since it’ll belong to both families.”

“What about the Yuka Dojo?”

Akane stiffened at her husband’s suggestion as Sayuri, then the so-far-silent girl let go of Akane’s other hand to throw herself at Ranma, spinning him around slightly as she yanked him into a hug ... and kept on spinning, whirling Ranma around and forcing Akane, Nabiki, Miyo, and the knight following Nabiki—Lady Gisselle, Miyo thought she’d heard Nabiki call her—to step back. “Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s perfect!” Sayuri finally stopped spinning, and though she was smiling tears were coursing down her cheeks as she whispered, “We miss her.”

Ranma glanced at his wife, then returned the hug, gently pulling Sayuri’s head down against his shoulder as Akane wrapped her arms around both. “Yeah, me too.”

“The fathers are going to scream,” Nabiki noted.

“We’ll just sic Mom and Kasumi on ‘em,” Ranma asserted, to general laughter (if somewhat watery on Sayuri’s part).

A cough sounded behind them, and the party turned to find a ... priest? monk? lay servant? Miyo was going to have to learn to tell them apart by their dress ... frowning at the group. “The Cathedral is not the proper place for such displays, and it is proper to speak in public in the local language,” he said repressively. “Maid Nabiki, the King has requested that you remain so that he may discuss a matter of importance immediately after he finishes his discussions with Lord William and His Excellency.”

Nabiki’s eyes widened. “Me? They don’t wish to speak with Maid Miyo?”

“Not that I was told.”

“Huh.” She turned back to the others and continued ... in Anglic. “I’ll see you all back at the camp. Tell Kasumi and Nodoka to save some of their cooking for me, I was looking forward to that.”

“Sure, we’ll tell them. But we don’t exactly have a fridge and microwave, so don’t take too long or we’ll just have to eat it for you.” Ranma grinned at Nabiki’s grimace, and the small party continued on its way out of the cathedral and through the town on the way to the army camp.

They arrived at the Nerima contingent’s campfire to find Blind Lars there with Windwalker, the pair sitting (or in Windwalker’s case his lower half lying) on the ground by the fire with the Bard leaning against the Centaur’s withers, both enjoying their own bowls of Kasumi and Nodoka’s creation.

At Kasumi’s called greeting Bard and Sage added their own, and Ranma handed around the bowls of stew Kasumi was filling from the pot hanging close to the fire (close enough to maintain some warmth, far enough away not to have it at a boil—yet another of the many tricks to cooking over an open fire that Kasumi had been rapidly picking up since their arrival on Yrth). Lady Gisselle attempted to refuse, saying something about keeping to her duty, but gave in at a hurt look from Kasumi.

“You’re lucky there was enough left for everyone, or blind or not there would have been consequences,” Ranma quipped as he dropped to sit crosslegged with his own bowl.

“Your marriage-sister was insistent on keeping enough for all,” Blind Lars replied, holding up a hand reddened on the back.

“Yes, why a blind man thought he could sneak some extra is a mystery,” Nodoka commented from where she was peeling some form of tubers whose name Miyo could never remember.

That sparked a round of laughter all around, including from Blind Lars, as everyone settled with their bowls of stew. Ranma was one of those most quickly done, of course, even if not at the speed the Nerimans knew from experience he was capable, and he set the bowl aside and leaned back on his elbow. “So, Lars, Windwalker, what are you two going to do now that all the excitement is over? Lars, your new songs are a big hit and I’ve told all the best stories about me and Pop on the road; and Windwalker I’d think you’d be eager to get you and your students back to your plains where new students will be looking for you.”

“Actually, I’ve decided it’s time to settle down,” Blind Lars said blandly, “and this old half-horse has decided to join me—become the first Centaur sage to teach off the plains, he muttered something about setting up a proper library. I guess that would beat sticking to whatever his students can carry in their packs. Most of his students have agreed to stay with him, some are talking about asking families to join them.”

“Really, where?”

“I dunno, where are you setting up your school?”

Ranma stiffened, then sat up straight to stare at the blind man and his apparently unconcerned friend, eyes narrowed. “We’re thinking of asking Lord Geoffrey if we can set up the school at Sterling.”

Windwalker shrugged nonchalantly. “With the way your wife saved the lives of his nieces and their mother, he won’t say no—he owes you, and these Caithness nobles take their honor ... or at least their reputation ... seriously. Good choice, nice central location, some excellent open grassland just north. Do you think your king will mind a Centaur herd—and some of the finest cavalry in the world—making themselves at home in the middle of his kingdom?”

“Answer that carefully,” Blind Lars added cheerfully. “Not all Centaurs are like Windwalker, here. Most are rowdy brawlers.”

Ranma just laughed. “I think King Conall will put up with that if it means having some of the finest light cavalry in the world setting up camp in his kingdom ... as long as that light cavalry fights as hard to protect their new home from invaders as Sir Morgan told me they fight to protect their own corner of the Orclands from the Orcs. How you gonna get ‘em down here? The Orcs and the Great Desert are kinda in the way.”

Windwalker waved off the question. “It won’t be a problem, I’m sure the Dwarves of Zarak will let us use their tunnels.”

Considering the aid those Dwarves had given in arming the Japanese refugees and Keldara that had marched to war, Miyo had to agree. So that was where the Centaurs she had seen fighting in Caithness’s ranks had come from! She already knew about the Dwarves, so now she was just waiting on the Elves she’d seen....

/oOo\

Nabiki sat at a tiny desk in the Cathedral library, doing her best to puzzle out the meaning of the theological treatise she was reading in the cool early afternoon light coming through the open window. It was tough going, what with the ornate script the treatise was written in and her lack of a foundation in the theological principles the author was expounding on, but it was one of the few books she’d been able to find that wasn’t in Latin, and better than stewing in her own juices as she waited for the King and Archbishop to finish their own private discussion. Definitely better than being part of that discussion, she’d be just as happy staying as far away from Archbishop Siccius as she could manage—the man was sharp, and as a man of the Church there was no guarantee his own priorities would line up with the King’s, much less those of the refugees.

Though that preference weakened as she shifted in her seat, trying to relieve the growing ache in her butt—she knew monks were sworn to lives of austerity, but did they have to make their chairs into instruments worthy of any torturer?

A quiet cough drew her attention away from her thoughts, and she sprang to her feet at the sight of King Conall standing beside her, then stumbled as her thighs protested, so Conall had to grab her arm to keep her from falling against him. “Your Majesty!” she exclaimed, looking around, then sighed with relief when she found the monk that she had been sharing the small room with had left at some point without her noticing. Straightening, she rubbed at her sore butt. “You’d think they’d know about cushions,” she grumbled, “they were only invented five thousand years ago. At least.”

Conall chuckled as he stepped past her to lean out the window and look up. (Unlike the castle at Sterling and the Kildar’s fortified manor, Adseveration Cathedral actually had windows, real ones, instead of arrow slits.) A moment later the king was back inside and closing the window before leading her to the corner of the room as far from the window as they could get ... which wasn’t very far, but she supposed was better than nothing.

“So, what’s up?” she asked quietly, an enquiring eyebrow raised, when he turned to lean against the shelves. “I expected you all to want to talk to Miyo, not me ... and not just you.”

“I suggested that the Archbishop avoid paying too much attention to the Prophetess for awhile. The Curia is going to be overjoyed with the gift Lady Bronwyn gave them, we might as well make use of it to give Blind Lars’ new song time to spread before they realize how important a part she—and the rest of you refugees—played in ending the rebellion.” He shrugged, though his expression had tightened at the mention of the Baroness. But before Nabiki had a chance to shift the conversation away from the King’s hopeless crush he continued, “I never got the chance to thank you properly for the part you played in Lord William’s decision to abandon that rebellion. If he’d shown up at Sterling ready for a fight, things would have gotten ... ugly.”

Nabiki shrugged uncomfortably. She was a little surprised, actually, back in Nerima she would have been grabbing all the credit she could with both hands. Now, though, with actual lives on the line ... “Like I said, I just laid out the hard facts for him to make of what he would. Then had a panic attack as soon as I returned to my suite.”

It was Conall’s turn to shrug. “Maybe someday I’ll tell you about the night before my coronation. It was also supposed to be my vigil before my knighting. But I got the job done the next day, and you got the job done first—and it worked, certainly better than what any of my other emissaries had tried, including Myrddin.”

He fell silent, and Nabiki waited, then as the silence stretched into uncomfortable finally asked, “So what did you want a private chat about? It certainly wasn’t just to compliment me.”

He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and ... was he blushing? He was! Finally, the King chuckled. “I suppose I’ll take a page from your book. Maid Nabiki, are ... are you a virgin?”

What? Nabiki’s mind blanked for a long moment as she stared at Conall with eyes wide, before she shook herself out of her shock. “No, I’m not. Virginity ... wasn’t prized by my generation in Japan the way it is here.”

“It wasn’t?” He frowned. “Wouldn’t that have led to a large number of bastards?”

“No, we had developed birth control much more effective than anything I think you have.” She smiled wryly. “And yes, I know you have that ‘fill the earth’ command in Genesis getting in the way of using birth control, but first I’m not Christian, and second we’d pretty much done that.” Her smile vanishing, she added, her voice flat, “Overdid it, from what Deborah told Miyo.”

“I see.” Conall frowned thoughtfully, taking a moment to consider what she’d said (and give her a moment to recover her composure—for some reason, with the war over she was finding it harder to not think about her lost home). Finally, he asked, “Is there any chance you’re pregnant?”

“No,” she replied instantly, “I haven’t shared a bed with a man for anything but sleeping since arriving on Yrth. And yes, that includes Myrddin. You can ask the servants, there’s no way to hide that sort of thing from them,” she added at Conall’s raised eyebrow, “I was in a hurry when I packed for the run to the Cave of Worlds, and it didn’t occur to me that birth control would be an essential. Not that what I could have brought would have lasted long, anyway. No way am I risking pregnancy here unless I want it.”

“As intelligent and practical as always.” Conall chuckled, then straightened. “Very well, that should work. So I have one more question ... will you be my Queen?”

What?

“You’d have to convert, of course, and we’d need to have at least one child as soon as possible, but—”

“What?! Wait, wait, wait, hold on! You want me to marry you?”

Conall tried to keep a straight face, but utterly failed in the face of Nabiki’s astonishment. Grinning broadly, hands clasped behind his back, he nodded. “Yes, I do.”

“But why?!”

He sighed, amusement vanishing as fast as it came. “I’m sure you’ve noticed my ... infatuation for Lady Bronwyn.”

When he paused, Nabiki simply nodded. Like everyone else with eyes to see that have ever shared a room with the two of you.

Perhaps picking up on her unspoken thought, he smiled wryly as he continued, “Well, either she never noticed my hints or refused to acknowledge them, and now thanks to her execution of the Grandmaster of the Hospitallers it’s an impossible match.” At her questioning look, he clarified, “When I refuse to turn her over to the Curia for judgment, I’ll have to appear as unbiased as possible. And with the gossip and rumors that Galardon has told me are filling the taverns ...” He shrugged.

“Okay, that makes sense,” Nabiki agreed, frowning thoughtfully. “But why me? I’m a foreigner.”

“Yes, a member of a family of very powerful foreigners. Our marriage would help make sure that my cause remains your cause. And in these perilous times I need a queen that is a partner as well as a wife, as smart and ruthless as any king, capable of actually ruling if I am killed and she becomes a regent for a child—after my father’s death my own mother struggled with that, while I was raised in secret. You are a very capable young woman. And if all else fails, there’s a better option for a bolthole than across the Great Desert to Castle Defiant for you and our children, if the Dwarves cooperate—through Zarak to Sahud. With the appearance you share you can disappear into the people there and never be found by agents of the Empire.”

As Conall fell silent, Nabiki realized from the heat in her cheeks she was actually blushing! She gazed at him for a long moment, her mind racing as she considered the implications of her being on the throne alongside Conall—a true co-ruler, not just a brood mare and pretty face—for her, for her family, for all the people that her sisters, at least, seemed to be adopting. Then she grinned. “Normally, I’d say something about needing time to think, to pretend that I need to consider all the pros and cons. But there’s no real point to it, I’ll do it. Whatever else, it’ll certainly be”—fun!—“exciting. When’s the wedding?”

Conall breathed a sigh of relief. “I was thinking of holding the wedding at the same time as the Great Councils in spring....”

/oOo\

Ku Lon knelt on the stone floor of the Keldaran chapel in the center of the ritual circles she had spent days drawing out, smoothing out, and looking over on her hands and knees with her eyes mere inches away looking for breaks. She glanced over at Father Andre standing a few yards beyond the edge of the circles—he was standing straight, hands clasped behind his back, trying to hide the nervousness she could see only because of the months she had spent with him discussing the theology of the Christian faith—most especially, the saints, angels, and archangels, and the roles they played. (She had been rather surprised at the depth of his knowledge and understanding, and had wondered who he had offended to end up at the back end of nowhere like he had.)

He hadn’t been nervous at all when she had been baptized just the previous afternoon, in the prelude to this moment, though when she had passed on what had been happening in Caithness, that she had learned about during her last night with Athena, he had suggested she hold off on her baptism until those that had marched out to war returned. She had refused, though. Father Andre was a good man, as fine a person as she had ever met, whose personal piety and charity clear to anyone that knew him had, she suspected, played a large part in the wave of conversions among the Japanese refugees. But she suspected he had only limited political skills ... so he had missed the hints in the news she’d passed on that had her suspecting that those important to her among those that had marched out would not be returning with the survivors. Besides, even if they did return they would not be back for weeks, if they could make it back at all before the winter snowfall cut off the Keldara mountain valley from the rest of the world. (The Dwarves wold just have to put up with the refugees remaining with the Keldara for one more winter.)

And her “conversion” to Christianity had been a sacrifice, not something to celebrate.

Now she took one more look around at the austere stone chapel with its many alcoves holding saints’ statues between the equally many windows (she would have preferred to use the same mountain ledge she’d used for her visits to Athena, but she’d ultimately decided on Christian holy ground to help ease Father Andre’s growing concerns); took a deep breath as the last of the bar of light shining through the closest window vanished, telling her it was as close to noon as she was likely to get without one of the watches that had died with the Fall; closed her eyes and began to chant.

When she had used similar rituals to seek out the goddesses her people still worshiped millennia after they had left their homeland north of the Middle Sea, the transition from the world of matter to that of spirit was instantaneous, between one eye blink and another. This time the outward appearance of the world didn’t change, not at first. It was the same stone walls, the same whitewashed statues, the same votive candles at their bases half-melted and waiting for fresh supplicants. But the noon-day light glowing beyond the windows slowly brightened, seemed to flow into the nave, along floor, walls, and up to the ceiling, and sink into everything it touched until Ku Lon had to shield her eyes from the glow.

Then the glow faded away, and she found herself standing in a grassy meadow dotted with unfamiliar flowers, the sound of songbirds filling the air, and in front of her stretched a pure white wall scores of feet high. Just as when she had visited her goddesses she was young again, in her prime, but rather than arriving in the divine realm in all her naked glory, this time she was dressed in the clothing and armor she had worn as a young warrior, with a long dagger strapped to her waist and the half-remembered weight of the two crossed swords on her back pulling on her shoulders. And unlike her visits to the home of the Olympians, a peace settled on her that made her worries (fears) simply drift away.

Before she could turn to look around a door opened in the wall in front of her and a man stepped out—Human, tall, handsome from what she could see behind the cheek guards on his helm, the horse-hair plume arcing across the top of the helm front to back, front-and-back armor over a white tunic, a long sword at one side and a round shield on one arm. Exactly like the warriors her ancestors had fought beside and against, in their long-lost homeland. And even without the enforced peace of the land—no, the realm—she would have been eased by the welcome in his bright blue eyes.

Then he spoke, and his voice seemed to carry hammering drums and the high call of trumpets. “I am Michael, commander of the Lord’s hosts. You wished to speak to me.”