Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you Chapters 5 and 6: Apologies, but this thing messes up my paragraphing.
Across the divide…
Hargrada told me to leave no survivors unless they alert the Nassians to our activities. Well, I’ll just have to tell him that two got away. I sent horsemen after them, but have heard no word as of yet. I admire the nerve of those two, attempting to cross the Divide. Perhaps I should not tell Hargrada after all, as they’re sure to perish in the wild. Still, they have nerve—or desperation. Either way, I wish them luck.
--Journal of Sisara Cassus
It was evening. The snow had continued to fall heavily, making it the one thing visible within the pale light. Through the drifts the storm created stumbled two lone figures. Both moved slowly, each step a struggle. Yet they were glad for the snow, for it meant no more pursuit.
They had long passed the small dome Natalia had earlier visited, and now struggled onward in a desperate effort to create a distance between them and their pursuers. As of yet only one small detachment of horsemen had caught them. Their bodies would hopefully serve as deterrent for any other such attempts.
Due to Natalia’s small size she found it more difficult to transverse the ever deeper drifts, but she refused any help Drakon had offered. Not that he was in any condition to help, which was partly why she refused. His wounds she had attempted to treat, but was unable to do more than give them a rough bandage. His own right hand had bonded to his sword hilt by way of the blood that had frozen there, and so he was, in addition to his other injuries, obliged to make do without the use of the hand on their journey.
The cold had only grown with the lengthening shadows, and both Natalia and Drakon were in desperate need of shelter. Natalia’s already pale face had only grown whiter, causing no small degree of worry to Drakon who was helpless to effect any relief without freezing to death. At least, he consoled himself, she would not have accepted it anyways.
As he thus thought, Natalia let out a breathless laugh of merriment and relief.
“We’re here,” she grinned, turning to Drakon. “Come quickly!”
The two struggled with a renewed fervor to the dome-shaped structure. Natalia found the door and stumbled in, closely followed by Drakon who closed and latched it with his one good hand.
“We made it,” he whispered.
“Aye,” Natalia agreed. “There’s no way they can follow this far with more than ten men at the most.”
“Indeed,” he said as he knelt by the pool and dipped his sword hand in. He gasped as the hot water came in contact with his frozen skin. Natalia smiled sympathetically.
“That bad, eh?”
He nodded, gritting his teeth. They both fell silent for a little space—Drakon not having the heart to speak and Natalia wise enough not to. At last, the hilt came free of his hand and Drakon pulled the sword from water, stabbing it in the floor nearby. He shook the hand twice and wrapped it in his cloak.
“How is it?” Natalia queried from her position leaning against the thatched wall.
“I’ll live,” he grunted and took a seat by her. He leaned his head back.
“Are you—” Natalia began. “I mean, about the village, leaving them…” She trailed off into silence.
He didn’t immediately respond. At length he replied in a quiet voice. “No. I just wish that…” he paused for a moment. “All my life I have practiced the art of war. All my life I have traveled.” He smiled. “A warrior rarely has the luxury of staying in the same place for very long, and I thought—I thought I could finally stay there. It felt the right to time to settle down and find a home. Now,” he sighed, “I ran.”
“No one can blame you for running. Don’t torment yourself over it; that will get you no where. If you keep your mind on your losses you can never move on.”
“Please, Drakon, just listen. There was nothing you could have done better. You gave it your best and no one can say a damn thing against that. There just wasn’t anything you could have done about it.”
“I know,” he whispered. “But I’m not going to run again.”
Natalia nodded slowly in agreement. “Better to fight and die than run and live with it, hmm?”
“Not this time, but…”
“Sometimes,” he affirmed. He looked over at her still figure. She almost looked asleep, yet he knew she was not. His eyes fell to the hastily made bandage about her side.
“Let me look at your wound.”
She nodded. He took off the bandage carefully and looked at the cut. It wasn’t dreadfully deep, but it hadn’t been a clean slice. “I don’t know what I can do, really, beyond bandage it again. We have no fire to cauterize it with.”
“I’ll live, I suppose. If it doesn’t flair up tonight it won’t be a problem.”
“The least you can do is clean it. That should help.”
“Aye, I will.” She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Get some sleep. I’ll wake you for your watch.”
He put a hand on her arm. “Don’t let me sleep long. Nightmares or no, you must rest.”
“Don’t worry. I couldn’t stay awake all night if I tried.”
Drakon closed his eyes, and fell into sleep within moments. Natalia looked a moment at his sleeping figure before standing. She stripped off her clothing and let it fall where it may. She slowly walked to the pool and sat, letting her feet dangle in. The water glowed, lighting the little place with a strange, pale light; not much, but enough to see. She could see no reflection on its surface. Her body gradually slipped into the water, and she flinched more than once as the water touched her wounds. There was a second cut on her leg Drakon hadn’t noticed.
“It’s a bloody miracle,” she whispered, “that we made it here alive.”
She dipped her head under the water for a moment, savoring the warmth it brought. Bringing her head back out, she laid her eyes once again on Drakon.
“It’ll be a shame to wake him,” she whispered to herself. “He looks so peaceful.”
Several hours later Drakon awoke to her light touch on his arm. Seeing his eyes open she turned away and allowed him space to arise.
“What is the hour,” he hoarsely questioned.
“The sun will rise in not four hours.” She wrapped her still-dripping body in a cloak and sat against the wall, resting her head upon her shoulder.
They set out early the next morning, but not as urgently as they had the afternoon before. If none had followed them so far, none could. The land itself would see to that.
The region they had entered was commonly known as The Divide those that lived on either end. It was called so for the extreme difficulty it took to cross it over. Mostly, in the spring and summer, it was a green land of meadows, fields, and trees, but even than there was an obstacle of passage.
A great river lay in the way; a wide, long river most referred mockingly to as “Hades”. Even in the hottest of weather (and indeed, it never grew very warm, even in summer), it was a bitterly cold body of water. It began far in the mountains to the north, and the swimming of it was as being immersed in ice. Neither had any settlement been built near the river for the purpose of ferrying to and fro, for as well as one might survive in the warmer seasons, in winter it was inhospitable. Thus the isolation of the former Nassian colonies.
There was, however, an easy way to transverse the river. In winter the waterway froze, and one could pass over. Even with this obstacle completed, the great expanse of frozen fields and forest would have been impassible save for one vital factor. There were, in certain places, strange springs of heated water. The water, inexplicably, only grew hot in the winter, a phenomenon none could understand.
Overtop of these springs lay small structures such as Natalia and Drakon had slept in. No one knew who built these life-giving domes either, for they had lain there for a time uncounted.
Even so, few traveled this way. The last to have traveled was Drakon, who had come long before, and sometime within four years of today, Natalia. Drakon had been on a long scouting patrol when passing by the final dome before the village. He had decided to stay the night. Inside he found Natalia lying deathly ill and unconscious within. He took her back the next day, and so their acquaintance began.
Now they strode the white plains together, side by side.
“Here.” Natalia tossed Drakon her sword. “Better to have two.”
Game was scarce here, yet if they were to live through the two week-long journey, they had need of food. Drakon had decided to attempt a hunt, and would meet Natalia at the next waypoint. She would gather firewood on the way and bring it with her.
“This’ll be a first,” Drakon muttered. “Hunting without a bow is archaic.”
“You’ll manage, I’m certain. Just remember it’s a steel blade, not a bludgeon, and you’ll do fine.” He nodded, and they parted ways.
It was almost dark before Drakon made it to the next shelter. Natalia greeted him upon his entrance, a small fire within a ring of stones beside her. Drakon slowly knelt and laid down the burden he had carried for far.
“Not so impossible as archaic, eh?” Her face was still pale, but her eyes glinted merrily.
“You could say that,” he replied slowly, noticing a dagger lying in the fire. Natalia followed his gaze and smiled grimly.
“Your injuries were neither deep nor serious,” she began. “Mine are.”
Drakon shook his head, seeing the second gash upon her leg. It was deep, even to the bone. “Why didn’t you show me the other wound?”
“Nothing you could have done about it; at least, not until now.” She picked up the dagger and twirled it in her fingers a moment before placing the blade back into the fire. “Here, warm yourself,” she continued, standing and limping over to where he knelt. “I’ll take care of the cleaning.”
“Very well, but we should treat your wounds as soon as possible.”
“Aye, if only to get it over with.”
It was another hour until the blade was red hot.
Fourteen large shapes glided silently over the ice-strewn waters. Each ship bore three masts, but the sails were furled. Long oars propelled the vessels down across the northern sea, the captains being unwilling to risk the sails with the strong wind. This was a small merchant fleet such as often traveled to and fro from the port cities, individual ships gathered for safety in numbers. Pirates and privateers were known to lurk along the rocky coasts and islands that dotted the area, so there was good reason in the combined shipping.
All at once, the order was given, and the oars were drawn in. Majestically, the ships glided through the straight and into the bay.
The oars extended again, and the mists of early morning parted to reveal the port city of Nassia. The city was a common example of the style in those days, namely small, twisting streets overshadowed by multistoried stone houses that seemed to close over the narrow roads in a gloomy canopy. These same roads emptied in both the city center and the grand waterfront, the pride of the coast.
Situated within a well sheltered bay, the city of Nassia was the largest and most powerful sea port along the stretch of northern lands. To this port flew all manner of humanity, ranging from the wealthy and respectable to pirates and villainy of every sort. Thus, its population became vastly extensive in proportion to its size, forcing the city to expand its boundaries beyond its high walls. Now the fortifications protected only the inner core of the city, while a massive spread of houses, stores, inns, tents, and roads lay across the valley. Beyond this there stretched an even more extensive display of farmland—farmland currently blanketed in snow.
Across these now-deserted fields came two figures. They tread quickly over the powdery snow and stepped casually onto the muddy road. The woman carried a limp in her stride.
“It’s been many a year since I laid eyes on this city,” Drakon commented as they walked.
“Only four for me,” Natalia answered. Her countenance was a mix between vacant interest and disgust. Her experiences in the city had been of a less savory nature than Drakon’s. “It looks the same,” she absently continued. “Not a thing looks changed.”
“It seems changed to me,” he replied with a shake of his head. “Strange how these cities grow so quickly.”
“Not so much, though, for the Northern Star, hmm?”
The city was often called the Northern Star for its great wealth and influence, as well as its position in the far north of the continent. It was a city-state, technically, but a powerful one. It’s colonies spread far across the western lands and its fleets were unparalleled, even by the Alliance.
“No, you’re right. It doesn’t seem too out of place for Nassia. It’s just that when I last came here,” he paused for a small laugh, “half of this wasn’t yet built.”
“Truly? You’re older than I thought.”
“Not as old as you might think.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a fast-moving horseman headed from the opposite direction. When he showed no sign of stopping, Natalia leapt to the side, landing on her injured leg. She staggered heavily, but kept her balance. “People these days!” she exclaimed, shaking her head.
“They could use more manners,” Drakon agreed.
“What they need is a year in the navy…”
“That is a pleasant thought, though highly unlikely.”
“Aye, the Nassian navy would never accept them, the undisciplined, scurvy…” she trailed off.
“You still have hard feelings towards this place?”
“Better not to show it.”
The traffic thickened at they entered the main thoroughfare. The slender roads were ill-prepared to take on crowds of the proportions traveling that day, and the two found themselves increasing pressed for effort to walk. Natalia was having the hardest time with it, and Drakon concernedly noticed her hand straying ever nearer the sword-hilt. Her lips were moving without speaking, but had she spoken, the words could have been nothing good. That in itself was worrisome to Drakon, for if anyone ever had control of their emotions, it was Natalia. The thing that could bring her to this visible—discomfort, for lack of a better word—was practically unknown to him
Spotting an inn, Drakon tapped her right shoulder. She said nothing, but jerked her face around to his. Drakon said nothing either but started forcing a way through the crowds to the inn. Natalia followed in his path. Reaching the door, Drakon stopped.
“What!?” She was not in the best of moods.
“There is a little business to attend to here, but we need not stay together.”
She raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“I’ll go into the main city and arrange things, but you can stay here if you wish.”
Her eyes shifted from her still-injured leg to the overcrowded street. “Fine, fine. Just—go, and come back soon. I don’t feel myself.”
“You don’t look yourself.” He made as to leave but turned back to her. “Don’t cause any trouble while I’m gone.”
“Don’t kill anyone.”
“You’re not yourself,” he said—she only looked down and sighed—“and we’ve got enough on our hands without having the Nassian law after us.”
“That’s asking a lot…”
“Well—try. Three hours at the most.”
And with that he disappeared into the multitude. Natalia stared after him for a moment, then absently waved her hand in a belated farewell and limped into the inn. The interior was almost as full as the outside. She sighed and resigned herself to a long wait. Picking a secluded table, she ordered a drink.
Drakon only made it back to the inn six hours later. The tavern was even busier than it had been earlier. He struggled to see Natalia through the heavy pipe smoke and the talking, laughing, shouting throng. At last he spied her sitting in the corner, her feet resting on the table. He approached her hastily, noticing the rather conspicuous pile of mugs that lay beside her boots. He felt slightly uncomfortable seeing her watching him coldly as he arrived. She had apparently picked him out of the crowd instantly.
“I’ve been waiting.”
“I know. I’m sorry, it’s only that—”
“I’ve been waiting the whole bloody day!”
She kicked her feet off the table and attempted to stand. Her legs slipped and she barely caught the table to halt the fall. “Come on,” she muttered, “I got us a room.”
Drakon seized her arm as she stumbled again and drew her up. He ran a free hand through his short, blond hair. It would be a long night.
Natalia awoke slowly, unwilling to regain coherence. As soon as she opened her eyes she turned upon the bed and pounded it angrily.
“Good God!—that’s the last time I drink that much before I sleep!”
Drakon opened his eyes as well and pulled himself straight in the chair he’d spent the night in.
“Your head afire?”
“Like all hell,” she mumbled, holding a hand over her face.
Over breakfast they discussed what course the day would take.
“Well,” she queried, her tone slightly more civil than earlier, “what of your business yesterday?”
“Didn’t I tell you last night?”
“If you did, I don’t remember a lone detail.”
He smiled and shook his head. “You really were drunk, weren’t you?”
“Suffice it to say, quite well. I secured a ship for passage and—”
“What do we want a bloody ship for!?”
“To get off this piece of land, obviously.”
“What’s wrong with this place?”
“First, you know you hate this city; second, and most important, I carry no worth here. On the western lands, however, I have some small authority and considerable influence.”
“I told you before.”
“I must’ve been drunk than too.”
“You know,” he thoughtfully commented, “you’re going to kill yourself if you keep drinking that much.”
She waved her hand abstractly in the air. “Ah, maybe, maybe not.”
“There are better ways to die.”
“I should hope,” she laughed, “as it’s a pretty sorry way to go.”
“I agree completely; anyhow, back to the matter at hand. We leave tomorrow with the tide.”
“How on earth did you pay for passage? It’s expensive these days.”
“As I said, I do carry some influence among those from the western lands.”
“You know,” Natalia said, straightening in her seat, “I heard some news last night.”
“Just odds and ends. For one, Aglean (aj-lee-an) vessels were spotted down around the southern tip almost two months ago.”
“Aglean? What on earth were they doing down there?”
“It was said there were three fleet groups. That could make for quite a few battalions.”
“You mean the attackers at the valley?”
Natalia nodded. “I’m sure of it—you saw the banner, didn’t you?”
Drakon shook his head.
“Red on sable. Now,” she raised her hands, “I wasn’t entirely sober and may not have gotten all my facts right, but I did hear quite a bit about the Agleans. It appears they’ve come back in power.”
“That’s quite the shock.”
“Indeed. And apparently, they’re expanding quickly. Why they would have taken three fleet groups all the way around south, and then trekked God knows how many battalions across hostile terrain to a nondescript valley is beyond me, but at the rate they’re growing, it’s not a risky bet that we weren’t the only place that was hit.”
“I suppose. Also, it seems the Nassians aren’t taking too kindly to the Aglean’s interference down south. Word is they’re bolstering the army.”
“That I can affirm. I saw twelve warships and six troop transports being built down by waterside.”
“Nassia seems to have ambitions of its own.”
“Oh certainly, but I think they tend to lean more to armed trade then to conquest.”
They finished their meager breakfast in relative silence. It was only once all the food was gone that Drakon spoke again.
“Before we leave, I intend to find out more about the Agleans and their purpose that far inland.”
“If I’m correct,” Natalia replied, slowly, “the Alliance could have more news on them than the Nassians.”
“Being that they’re traditional enemies?”
“Aye. It certainly seems more likely that they would be keeping closer tabs on them.”
“You have a point. I suppose my inquiry can wait until after our passage.”
“Excellent,” she confirmed, rising from the table, her charismatic front suddenly rising. “And I intend to have a look at the waterside myself.”
Alliance port city of Carrica, one week later…
Natalia strolled leisurely down the gangplank, showing none of her eagerness to be ashore. The week on board the ship had, strangely, done wonders for her leg, and she now walked almost perfectly. She gazed quizzically around at the city, having not been here for even longer than she had at Nassia.
This was an Alliance city. The Alliance, as it stood now, was a large collection of city states united by a single Council. Each city-state joining the league would be entitled to one representative in the leading counsel. The Alliance had begun with only three cities, but with promises of tariff-free trade and other benefits, the trend quickly spread until a huge swath of territory found itself under the protection of the Alliance. Now the whole northern part of the continent lay beneath the Alliance flag, the lands beyond the western sea being beyond their immediate ambition.
Carrica was one of the three original cities in the union, and as such enjoyed greater power and influence than many of the younger initiates. Drakon had chosen Carrica for the purpose of reuniting contact with certain officials and therefore “seeing how things lay”, as he had put it.
Drakon came up and stopped beside her, staring at the fog-covered city.
“Well, we’re here.”
“And where to?” she asked, turning to face him.”
“The governor’s fortress.” With that they began to walk, Drakon leading. Every now and again he stopped, as if trying to ascertain which way to go.
“It’s been a long time,” he offered.
“Aye, I’m sure it has.”
“Many years, to be exact.”
Natalia laughed. “That’s hardly exact. Besides, this ‘fortress’ should be conspicuous.”
“It is, were it not for these canyon-like streets.”
“And the civilians aren’t much help either,” she added with a shake of her head. “Not a single one knows where it is, or so they claim.”
“They know—they just desire money.”
“Money we don’t have. Nassia drained what little I had on my person, and I’m not going to sell myself out for directions…”
“It’s always a thought,” Drakon noted with a half grin.
“No, it’s not.” And he dropped it there.
The sound of ordered marching drifting down the street, and soon an armed patrol came in sight.
“They should know the way,” Natalia pointed out.
“I’m sure they do. Just a matter of asking…”
Drakon broke off from Natalia’s side and strode up to the officer leading the patrol. In but a moment he beckoned her over.
“This lieutenant kindly offered me an escort to our destination. Care to join us?”
“How can I refuse?” she answered, graciously.
The lieutenant, who eagerly introduced himself as a certain Cedric son of Petrus, was, as Natalia silently mouthed to Drakon, quite obliging. The people parted routinely before the guards, and thus their passage was not only guided, but also swift. It was but a short space of time before they broke free of the web of streets and entered a vast square. Rising up from the cobblestones stood an impressive display of stonework. The fortress was not truly immense, but it was strong. Most of the construction was, unlike Nassia’s flowing design, almost cubic in build. Twelve great towers decorated the walls, but they were themselves outdone by the height of the interior.
“Impressive,” Natalia remarked to the lieutenant.
“Indeed!” he exclaimed. “It’s the cornerstone of our city!”
They looked at it for but a moment longer before Drakon addressed Cedric again.
“I thank you son of Petrus, for your help. Good fortune be upon you.”
“And you, General.”
Drakon made a small bow and Cedric did the same.
“General?” Natalia questioned once the patrol had gone.
“Why do I sense you didn’t tell me this?”
“I told you I served as an officer in the Alliance.”
“Not as a general.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“That young man recognized you.”
“I told him my name.”
“Which name? Many are called Drakon.”
“Satiar. General Satiar.”
Natalia raised an eyebrow and began to walk to the fortress gates. Drakon followed her closely. Two guards bearing the Alliance emblem on their shields stepped forward as Natalia approached.
“State your business.”
Natalia began speaking. “We wish an audience with the governor.”
“Marriages are down the road,” one guard retorted while the other coughed amusedly at the well-worn joke.
“If you may, good sirs, please lend us passage.”
“Do you have a prior appointment?”
“Not exactly—maybe if we had asked, but as it stands…”
“Than you’ll have to wait. The governor is a busy man.”
“Than please place our names for an interview.”
“Very well. And your names are?”
“General Drakon Satiar.”
“It is my name.”
“Perhaps,” the other guard suggested, “they could go in now?”
“Yes—yes, I think that would be fine. Right this way.”
Drakon bowed, and Natalia faintly nodded her head. One of the guards entered the gate ahead of them, no doubt to prepare the way.
“Just follow him my lord—and lady,” he hastily added.
A smile teased the corners of her mouth. “Lord suits me fine.”
And so the two entered into the Fortress of Carrica.
“General Satiar, it has been far too long!”
The nobly dressed man walked towards Drakon, a hand held out in front of him. Drakon clasped the hand in his own. “Indeed William, it has been a while!”
“And you’re still alive, eh? My God, I thought you’d for sure died somewhere down the line!”
“Not as fate had it. Ah, but let me introduce a dear friend of mine. Natalia, this is Sir William Drayton, a long acquaintance of mine. We served together some years ago.”
Natalia stepped forward and took William’s offered hand. “They call me Natalia.”
“A pleasure to meet you m’lady. However, at the risk of haste and presumption, I ask how long you two have been together.”
“Oh, somewhere around four years.”
“An admirable amount of time,” he grinned looking back to Drakon. “You must know each other well.”
“Quite well,” he affirmed.
“You must tell me of your doings! Where have you been all these years?”
“Near and by: sometimes here, sometimes there, but mostly in the northern lands.”
“Truly? Pray, what flight of fantasy took you to the Nassians?”
“Oh, rarely to the Nassians; mostly beyond.”
“Across the Divide, eh? Few people go that way. Not even the Nassians.”
“True, there were few visitors. In fact, Natalia was really the only visitor from Nassia that came to my dwelling.”
“Ah,” he said, turning once again to Natalia, “you are Nassian?”
“Hardly,” she returned. “I simply had a bit of an unintentionally long stay there.”
“Understandable. But come! In my eagerness my graces are in lack! I can tell you came not here to only catch up on an old friend. I shall arrange quarters for you both, and we can speak more once you have been refreshed.”
“Refreshments would be agreeable,” Natalia agreed.
“Than I shall have a servant bring you to the guest rooms presently.” At his words, a page appeared and silently beckoned for her to follow.
“If you please,” Drakon asked once Natalia had left, “is it possible for us to share a single chamber?”
Sir Williams eyebrows rose and he grinned at his friend. “Ah, so it’s like that, is it?”
“No no,” Drakon laughed, shaking his head. “Nothing like that. You see, Natalia’s unintentionally long stay in Nassia was rather traumatic for her. She has had frequent—well, let us call them nightmares ever since, and can rarely sleep if I am not close.”
Sir William’s face grew concerned. “Of course, than you shall have the chamber.” He tapped a few fingers on his forehead. “A pity about her. She looks to be quite an exquisite but troubled woman.”
“She doesn’t have much tranquility of mind,” Drakon agreed, “but I wouldn’t trade knowing her for anything.”
“Yes, she does also seem that type. A pity. But as they say, little comes not without a price.”
“You speak truth, old friend.”
William clapped Drakon on his shoulder. “Go get some rest. You look like you could use it.”
Sometime later, the two, at the invitation of Sir William, were seated about a circular table. The food presented was of such a superb quality that they spared no words until most of the meal was finished. At last, all were satisfied, and servants unobtrusively cleared the table.
“Now,” Sir William sighed, “we can talk.”
Drakon voiced his agreement while Natalia simply nodded.
“First off,” he continued, “would you be inclined to explain to me how you managed this return?”
“Rather,” Natalia interjected, “I would know how you two became acquainted.”
“Of course,” he agreed.
“We met,” Drakon began, “at the city of Trelia. It was during the last war. The High Council had voted for a calling of all officers, and we both attended.”
“It was during the Nassian war,” Sir William added.
“Truly?” Natalia queried.
“Yes,” he affirmed. “Were you not in some way involved?”
“No, not greatly. I was younger at the time and do not remember much of it.”
“Well, it was a dirty business. Nassian ships controlled the seas and embargoed certain cities along the coastline. It was only a diplomatic crisis, but in a strangely bad toss of fortune, the Nassians got it in their heads to actually invade. They stormed this city and three others with over 60,000 well-paid mercenaries.”
“I can imagine the Alliance didn’t stand for that…”
“Correct. They called for all men of noble or military rank to the capital. There, they laid their plans.”
“Sir William and I were chosen to lead one of four armies, and thus began our friendship. We got to know each other quite well in the three-year war.”
“Which, after a sanguinary struggle, ended in the liberation of all occupied cities,” William finished. “But that was where I exited the story.”
“Hmm?” Natalia raised an eyebrow.
“Well, for my own reasons,” Drakon said, uncomfortably, “I left Alliance territory. I was, I suppose—tired of all the complications.”
“Politics,” William explained to her. “Drakon never had a mind for them, but they seemed to have a thing for him.”
“Suffice to say, it got too intricate for my liking, and I needed to get away from it all.” He than coughed in his sleeve, and seemed unready to say more on the subject.
“That I can understand,” said William, “but I do wonder why you came back than. If you’re still seeking to get away from politics, you’ve returned at the wrong time.”
“I came here to see if I could get some answers to a few questions.”
“Specifically,” Natalia spoke up, “about the Agleans.”
Sir William’s face darkened, but motioned for her to continue.
“To make it very,” she leaned forward, “very short, some years ago Drakon and I both, somehow, found our way to the same place. It wasn’t much but a simply township within a valley, but we both came to call it home. Now, the said town had a problem with raiders and bandits. We, together, took care of that problem to the best of our ability until some weeks ago.
“What happened was, instead of raiders, we found ourselves battling over two thousand Aglean soldiers.”
Drakon’s features grew gravely stern. Natalia continued, saying, “We were forced from the valley and had to run for our lives. Now, we don’t know what Aglean soldiers were doing all the way there, but Drakon and I—well, Drakon thought you might have an idea.”
“Perhaps. The Agleans are quite the problem these days.” He tapped the table rhythmically. “As I said, if you wished to avoid politics, you couldn’t have come at a worse time. Things are getting quite tense. You see, we in the Alliance haven’t paid much attention to the Agleans, but it appears they’ve been paying quite a bit to us. Not one month ago they raided an outpost along our border. No explanations, no apologies. Three days, three more outposts gone.” He snapped his fingers thrice for emphasis.
“Our diplomats made little success in negotiations, so a peacekeeping force was sent. This was kept strictly secret for reasons High Council disclosed only to those of the highest rank.” William sighed. “The army was lost.”
“The whole army?” Natalia asked in puzzlement.
“Mostly. Those not killed were captured, and those not captured dispersed back to their civilian lives as quietly as they could…”
“And no general alarm, no declaration of war, no alerting of the population? What sort of civilians do you have running this bloody government?!”
“Civilians is a correct and fitting name for them. They listen to nothing their generals tell them. But for your question, there has been no alert. The Council doesn’t want a panic.”
“Panic will come whether they like it or not,” she pointed out.
“Aye, but they can’t really see it. From what I can tell, they’re trying drawing the garrisons from many cities to form a second field army rather than raise the people to arms.”
“That’s imbecilic. It’s—”
“—it’s politics. Soldiers don’t pay taxes. Soldiers are paid from taxes. Soldiers cannot work merchandise. With the new trade agreements made between us and Nassia, the Council believes we cannot spare any of the workforce.”
“You don’t seem too worried.”
“I’m far more, well, resigned than worried. The Agleans have been building their army since the Selic Wars. Whatever military they have is undoubtedly superior to our own, but the Council has paid them no heed. I fear it’s going to take something drastic to make them take serious action.”
“Such as an actual invasion on Alliance soil?”
“Yes. It’s inevitable that the Agleans will invade. If that happens, the army will engage, and…well, even than, it’s going to take more than one victory. A lot more.”
“Not to seem uninterested in your important affairs,” Natalia said, folding her hands in front of her, “but that doesn’t explain why the Agleans were all the way at a remote valley with three to four battalions, nor why you said politics are presently perilous.”
“I can perhaps explain the politics, but not why they attacked your village. The best I can offer is that they were simply looking to gain fresh territory with little resistance. As for politics, here is why:
“In response to the Council’s handling of recent affairs, a second political party has been formed. This is made mostly of slighted and underused military officers and governors. They insist on drastic and immediate action. Their pride has been severely damaged by the Council sidestepping their authority, and now they’re clamoring for recognition.”
“I presume correct that you are a part of this group?” Natalia pointedly inquired.
“Quite correct. To make things simple, it is practical political war between the Council and my party.”
“That could get messy…”
“Very quickly. It all depends on the outcome of the impending combat. If our army is victorious, than the Council’s decision will undoubtedly stand, and the Agleans will simply rebuild and attack again. If the Agleans are the victors, than…” he shrugged. “If they win, things will get very drastic very quickly. Adding to this is the thought that if the Agleans win enough victories, Nassia might drop our trade for theirs.”
He turned to Drakon. “I’m sorry to say it knowing how you, my friend, feel about politics, but you couldn’t have come at a worse or better time.”
“So,” Drakon sighed, “in return for your kind hospitality, you want me to lend my backing to your political party?”
“Nothing of the sort. The main point here is to avoid or win a war by any and all means possible. If the Aglean task force is defeated, it may give us the time to gather a second suitable army without raising the people and thereby avoiding a political incident. You’re still a hero, General Satiar. So great is your fame that upon your sudden departure, the Council declined your resignation, but instead gave you an extended leave of absence. If you commanded the army, the Alliance could be saved a lengthy war and political disaster.”
“What makes you think I would even consider this offer?”
“One small, rather annoying factor that goes with most men of our kind: a slighted honor. If what Natalia has said is true, about you having to run before them…”
“Meaning that you believe I would do this because of one defeat.”
Drakon said nothing, but leaned back in his chair. Natalia spoke from her seat.
“You seem to figure without counting in a few details.”
“Oh? What have I missed?”
“One, without the people’s support, your little ‘insurrection’ cannot sustain momentum. If I am correct, you are still under the Council’s jurisdiction, and the only way to get your way is to have the people behind you. You can’t really afford not to have the people rise with a victor—and you know that they will. They always rise behind a winner. And until they are mobilized as an army with their support behind you, you can win a hundred ‘victories’ but never receive the recognition or power you desire. And that is what you desire, isn’t it?
“So,” she continued in a casual voice, “either you simply forget that fact in the telling of it, or you left it out. You know Drakon doesn’t want that kind of political—shall we say, responsibility—so why do you ask him to do this without informing him of the consequences?”
Sir William’s fingers tapped harder. “I would never—”
“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t, would you? Deceiving a close but ignorant friend is something that, as a politician, is beyond you, is it not?” She tilted her head to the side, her features still deliberately casual.
Sir William rose, red-faced. “The people are an irrelevant factor in all this! Our interests are to preserving the Alliance, at whatever cost. Drakon, surely you can—”
“—surely,” Natalia broke in, “he’ll do it for you as—”
“Natalia,” Drakon gestured with his hand vaguely, “I appreciate your insight, but I can defend my own interests.”
Natalia sat slowly, her eyes not leaving Sir William. “Perhaps, my friend, perhaps.”
“William, I have half a mind to take your offer. As it is, I am penniless, unemployed, and without a place to stay. I need occupation, and of the kind you proposed; however, I am concerned of the prospect of the people rising to arms behind me. I must say, I was surprised upon Natalia’s comments. It’s not what I would expect of you.
“But, as I said, I am in desperate straights. So, I’ll make a slightly different offer: I will retake the position as High General, but I will not lead the advance army. I will wait, and I will see what becomes of the man who wins—or loses—the battle. Whatever the case, you can count on my help as a nonaffiliated general, but if the people, for whatever reason, rise behind me, I will turn my path again and will not look back.”
“Who than?” Sir William sagged his broad shoulders. “Well, that is of course your choice. I suppose your offer is acceptable, so consider yourself employed, but that leaves me at square one concerning the army.”
“Not quite…” Natalia grinned from the side.
“If you’re that desperate to have an active general immediately, I’m always open.”
“You?” he looked to Drakon with a skewed face. Drakon shrugged.
“Of course,” Natalia continued, pouring a glass of wine, “I’m not truly serious.” She took a sip. “Not that I’m unqualified, but I see no more reason to serve in your army than dear Drakon does to be your poster boy.”
“You say you’re qualified?” William jokingly asked, stroking his short beard.
“If my memory serves me rightly, I do remember saying such a statement.”
“Don’t worry for Natalia, William: she’s quite serious.”
“Aye, listen to him. I’m always serious,” she laughed, taking another sip of wine. “But in truth, I would rather be of use in a different capacity.”
“Perhaps a fresh inspiration in your councils.”
“I suppose I should ask if you’re qualified, but…”
“…It would be a waste of time,” she finished.
William stared askance at her. “Do not imagine that I don’t see why you fancy this.”
“You desire to be in with our counsels for the reason of protecting your interests.”
“Drakon, your friend.”
“He’s hardly an interest,” she said, casting a sidelong glance in his direction, “but you have a point. It’s rather uncomplicated, actually. If you want Drakon as a general to save your Alliance, than you simultaneously accept my assistance. A two in one offer, so to speak.”
Drakon shrugged. “If you wish for me to take your offer…”
“Than—I suppose I have no choice than to say, welcome.”
Drakon nodded his head. Natalia poured another drink.
To make a war…
Natalia was alone in the stone chamber. Drakon had, because of his new duties, been sent to the capital. Natalia had remained here, as here was where those in opposition to the Council’s orders gathered. The room was rather empty to her eyes. It was well-furnished, but empty.
An ornate chess set lay on a table in the corner. Natalia sat near this table, staring at the board. Once in a time, she would pick a piece and move it to a new square. Than the board would be turned, and so would she move the next piece. It was a just a game to her. Most things were. Everything, big or small, was a game. How she played it was what mattered. A queen moved forward three spaces.
A game it was, but a very serious game. One watching her could not have doubted its importance. She played to win. A large move was no more important than a small move, but they both complimented the other. A bishop was removed from the board.
The Office of War, as the “renegade” council was called, had called a meeting two days before. It was one of a few such meetings she had attended. It hadn’t taken her long to make her stay a permanent feature, for she had a way of getting what she desired. Not in the way coercion, of course. No, that was too archaic, too obvious. She preferred a subtler method, or perhaps, a more effective method.
Every man had a secret. Everything had a counterbalance. All that was needed was to find that balance, and then…she tipped over a knight. Once you knew how to play the game, you could bend the rules. You learned that some could be avoided, some could not, and you learned how to play within those boundaries.
But why would she pay such intensity to this? Her affairs had been never intertwined with this place, and their politics had never been of her concern, yet now she twisted them to her liking. Not even Drakon could have known, though he could have perhaps guessed in part, but only in part.
In truth, it was just a game. It was a relatively balanced game to her, as she had no interest in it. There was no passion in it, no driving motivation. It was just a game she was playing to win, and none, not even Drakon, would know why or how deeply she played it.
She carefully moved a black knight to the same square as a white bishop. She tipped the bishop over. “Councilman,” she intoned respectfully.
She moved a white castle to the black knight’s square.
“Apologies, general,” she said in the same voice. Once both captured pieces had been removed, the game continued. The black had a very careful defensive position. The queen was, rather than in combat, securely cushioned inside three pawns and a bishop. That piece couldn’t be moved yet. It was an untouchable.
She rose, and walked from desk. The sun was in mid-flight, and there was business to attend to.
As she walked, the state of the kingdom was ever in her thoughts. A second army was still being formed, and it gathered near the city of Dransia. The commander was yet to be named, but the governor of that region, a certain Harold of Dalire, was taking temporary control of the army.
Drakon’s passage to High General had been quickly approved by the High Council. In truth, Natalia suspected that their pleasure at being consulted for such a move was the driving reason for their swift action. Drakon’s control was purely in name, naturally, for he had had little time to consolidate the various military generals under his control. They still reported directly to either the leaders of the Office of War, or to the High Council.
That was Natalia’s self-appointed task: to remove all opposition from Drakon’s complete and unequivocal rule of the army. She did this for several reasons. First, she held little respect for most military officers and their abilities. Where this arrogance came from was something none ever truly knew. Natalia herself was never entirely sure; however, it must be noted that this arrogance was not unfounded. If she was anything, Natalia was brilliant. By this brilliance she designed to move Drakon into a place of great power.
This in itself had varied reasons attached to each. It wasn’t so simple as her friendship with him, though that did play a great part. It was something that she could not completely place, something alike to instinct. It was her nature to play as best she could, and at whatever cost.
In her defense, it must be said that Drakon’s success and station in life meant a great deal to her. His behavior after they left the valley deeply concerned her, which was part of why she wanted him to have this post. In having it, he would be kept out of the main line of fire.
The task of giving him this power was a difficult matter. In order for it to happen, many individuals needed to be either moved or removed from the board. On the board she set her plans, and they carried into reality. Already two of her “opposition” had been removed, one from the war party and one from the High Council. It had been easy enough, just a light, unnoticed touch at the right place, and the high pedestals they thought were so secure came crashing down.
Ah, so dangerous at the top, she thought. Or, only if you don’t play it right. If you do, there are no limits to one’s designs…
She clasped her hands behind her back as she paced down the day-lit corridors. Yes, things were going smoothly. A servant opened a large door as she approached, but not before giving a short, respectful bow. She didn’t smile, but her eyes glinted. All was well.
She even looked like a noble, now. The rough clothes were gone, replaced by clean, crisp robes. Her newly-bound sword-hilt shone as burnished gold, contrasting pleasantly with the deep black of her sleeve. The tattered cloak was nowhere to be seen, and in its place was another, almost like the first in make, yet still retaining the stiff quality that testified to freshness of fabric. She laughed silently, and, if she had been given to such things, would have fairly leapt in the air and kicked her heels together.
It is a wonderful thing, she reflected, stopping to gaze out a window, of what one can do when not involved. I have no ties to this war, no obligations, nothing save my own designs.
A thought occurred to her.
Thus, I cannot afford to get involved. She leaned on the windowsill. Which is why Drakon must gain all the generals’ support. He has enough motive to do something stupid if he gets the chance, and I must insure he doesn’t get one. If something happened to him, I would have to get involved, and that I cannot afford either.
She tilted her head.
Well, perhaps I could afford such a thing, but it would not be as sure. Here, I can control it as I please, but the battlefield is a fickle thing. Men run, men drop their weapons, and accidents happen. I would have to get very involved to make it sure, and that would put me in far too deep to realistically get out.
Still, if the Agleans attack within three weeks, everything goes back to square one. The army is not ready, and they will be destroyed. If that happens, nothing will keep Drakon from taking the reins prematurely, and God knows what hell could break loose than.
Maybe, just maybe that could work. Yes, if they attack, that’s the only thing to do. I can’t let him die in a suicide charge for his slighted honor. The valley was worth any price to him.
And to you. You know it.
And what if I do? What if it does?
Aren’t you libel to make your own suicide charge, than?
I can take an insult. I can wait on a hasty blow to make a sure one, no matter how long it takes. Make no mistake, the Agleans will pay, and pay dearly for what they did to me. I simply wait to make the final revenge all the more certain.
If it happens—
If it happens, I’ll take control from both here and there. It will be messy, very messy, but it can work. I can make it work. If they force me to combat they’ll find that—well, they’ll find something for certain. Yet, I would rather stay in the shadows. The light has its time, but this war is not my idea of the correct time.
But, if even Drakon does control his fury—no that is entirely unlikely. As much as a gentleman he is, it only makes him twice as deadly when his manners desert him. Even so, I must consider it. If the war goes poorly, and it may, I might have to step in before my time has ripened. That will put me at a severe disadvantage.
Politics I can handle here, and politics I can handle there, but both? Perhaps, and not simultaneously. Soldiers need an image, and that image cannot spend most of that time three hundred miles away handling political affairs. No, if I was to move to the field, my dealings here would suffer.
But which is most important? Without politics, there is no gain in war, and without war, there can be no politics.
One might have thought her strange, or double minded, yet it was not so.
It is a pity that the Alliance and the Agleans are such mortal enemies. Playing one against the other would spare me many headaches. If only they weren’t so bloody fanatical I could do something with them. But as it is, I can do nothing. They follow Hargrada, and that’s that.
The Agleans were a purely militaristic society. They followed Hargrada, the name given to each that ascended to the crown. It was a pure, passionate dictatorship run by Hargrada, and thus they were spared the intricacies of politics, rebellion, civil war, and all other problems of that nature. It certainly had upsides.
Yes, battle with them will be messy. It’s going to take more than numbers to claim the victory. Drakon’s capable, but I don’t want him there. Who else than? There aren’t enough suitable generals for the amount of field armies I need.
There was one name I’ve heard around. Tareah, Admiral Tareah. She could be a prospect. I’ll have to look into her.
She ran a list of available and useable officers through her mind.
Yes, Tareah is, from what I can see, the most suitable. I’ll have her rank improved and give her a field command.
She discontinued that line of thought and began another.
Only three stand in opposition to my designs now. Sir William, and two Council members I cannot for the life of me remember the names of. Of those, only the Council members are vulnerable. Sir William, however, I still need. He will be instrumental in their fall, and then I can safely put him to the side. Drakon wouldn’t want me to harm him, and I shall respect his wishes.
There is also Jast, she mused. She is with the Council, though. Godfrey must yet decide. But they can wait, and are safe until they cast their allegiance.
It would be odd, almost fanciful for one looking at her still, smiling figure to imagine her designs. It seemed so beyond this one, so young in years, and only recently admitted to the world of politics. None could have faulted such a mistaken view.
Yet so it was, and so she was what she was. To say she was happy with herself was an entirely different matter, but an irrelevant one: at least, it was to her.
So few, she thought as her steps led her away from the window, know the pleasure it is to make a war.
From here begins Part Two, History of the Aglean War...