“How did they get behind us?”
“To arms! To arms!”
Queen Dara, ruler of Baranur, was jarred suddenly awake by voices shouting outside of her pavilion. She looked about blearily. By the light of the single candle illuminating her tent, she could not see anything out of the ordinary. Her sword leaned up against the trunk with her clothes in it, her chainmail gambeson was draped atop another trunk. She decided that she had been dreaming and snuggled back under her blankets.
“Damn you, get up you codswallops! To arms!”
“J’mirg’s Bones, they’re almost upon us!” That was Sir Zephrym Valdon’s voice! The last time Dara had heard such urgency in the voice of the captain of her household knights had been during their escape from Magnus nearly four years ago. The situation had been dire then, as news that Dara’s husband, King Caeron, had been killed defending the capital city, and the only hope for the realm was spiriting her to the safety of the northern marches before the insurrectionists could capture her.
“To arms!” Now it was Duke Sumner Dargon’s voice she heard. It seemed that all her battle lords were running about the camp shouting.
She heard the clatter of wooden bows and spears hitting one another and the clank of metal on metal. Light from torches flickered along the side of Dara’s pavilion. She hopped out of bed and nearly jumped as her feet hit the cold, sharp grass. Gasping, she grabbed her breeches and hurriedly pulled them on.
A gust of cold night air hit her as the flap to her pavilion flew open and the shaggy, grey-haired head of Zephrym Vladon thrust itself inside. “My lady queen, you’re awake. Good.”
“What on ‘diar is going on?”
“We’re under attack, my queen, by the traitorous Duke Northfield.” Zephrym kicked Dara’s squires, who were sleeping on the ground near the entrance. “Wake up you codless crowmeat! My queen, grab your sword and prepare to defend yourself; no there isn’t even time for armour!”
Dara grabbed her sword and ran out of the tent, following closely behind Zephrym. Being under attack was hardly anything new, as this civil war, which some called the “Great Houses War”, had been raging for nearly seven years. Shouts rang throughout the camp. To her left Duke Dargon pointed with his sword and shouted for torch-bearing soldiers to follow him in that direction. To her right, a man-at-arms in his full armour, carrying a sputtering lantern, led two men wrapped in blankets and a dozen others wearing only breeches and carrying naked weapons in another direction. Horses pounded past the other side of the tent and Dara caught only flickering torchlight out of the corner of her eye as they passed. Dara drew her sword and prepared for the worst.
“This way, my queen!” Zephrym took off at a sprint towards the centre of the camp set up two days march south of Irskin Castle. The castle had surrendered a sennight earlier without much of a fight once the garrison there realised that Aendasia Blortnikson, the Beinisonian pretender to the throne, would not move from the walls of Magnus, which she was besieging, to come to their aid.
Zephrym and Dara reached a large fire with more men and women gathered around it than Dara could quickly count. She hoped that this was the bulk of the army.
“Form a line you scrud-suckers!” Grethock Dargon, younger brother of Duke Sumner Dargon, roared. He grabbed a young girl with a chain hauberk on backwards and shoved her into place beside an older man in a dirty tunic carrying an old spear. He ran over to a blond boy staring blankly into the darkness and holding a bow. Grabbing him roughly by the hood of his cloak, Grethock shoved him towards the other side of the fire. “Archers over there!”
“We think it’s Northfielders,” Zephrym said to Dara. “As far as we know, Baron Narragan is deployed somewhere to the north, and Duchess Welspeare to the west, but none of the runners we sent made it back. We don’t know what size of force is attacking or what our losses are.”
“Your majesty!” The deep, rumbling voice of Cyruz of Vidin brought a little relief to Dara. “Why, you’re dressed in only a nightshirt; here, put this on!”
Dara obeyed, dropping her sword and allowing the monk to slide a chain hauberk over her head. Cyruz was a trusted friend, a holy man who had once met the Stevene himself, and she was happy of his presence and attention.
“Thank you, Father,” she said.
“Of course, your majesty.” The tall monk bowed slightly. “But I cannot tarry. I hear the cries of the wounded; I must help them!”
Before Dara could utter a protest, Cyruz’ towering form had disappeared into the darkness. She started to shiver with the cold and with fear. Despite the fires, it was so very black. She couldn’t see what was happening beyond a few fathoms. She grabbed her sword off the ground and took several breaths to calm herself.
“My lady queen, your horse!” One of her squires ran up, holding Dara’s white stallion by the reins. She pulled herself up into the saddle and tried to survey the chaos around her. Grethock had formed a line four soldiers deep and a few dozen wide, but several soldiers still wandered about the fire. She looked to the northwest and saw about a dozen torches accompanied by a rumble of shouting voices.
“Marabinga’s Girdle!” Zephrym shouted. “Defend yourselves!”
Blue-clad soldiers poured into the firelight and slammed into the line of Dara’s soldiers. Dara nudged her horse with her knees and the creature charged forward. A Northfield soldier swung his polearm at her, but she ducked, the wind from the weapon’s passing cool on the back of her neck. She stabbed the man in the throat and he toppled backwards, gurgling. She urged the horse onwards, into the enemy soldiers, knocking them down with its powerful chest. A woman screamed as the destrier’s hooves crushed her leg. Dara parried a sword, redirecting the force of the swing so that the attacking soldier turned his back to her. She then brained him with her own sword.
Another nearby soldier turned and ran into the darkness, as did his fellows, until only loyal troops remained in the firelight once again. “Hurrah for the queen!” several of them cheered.
“Zephrym, where are you?” Dara called.
“Here, my queen.” Zephrym emerged from the crush of bodies.
“We seem to have driven at least this group off. Send more runners to find Duchess Welspeare and Baron Narragan. And what of Duke Dargon? I saw him –”
“Your majesty!” A soldier with dirt blackening both cheeks nearly ran into her horse. “Duke Dargon sent me to tell you that he’s driven off more of the enemy, it looks as if they are breaking off the attack from where he’s positioned.”
“Good. Zephrym, where are my household knights? I want them armoured and mounted as quickly as possible.”
“I’ll see to it.” Zephrym grabbed Duke Dargon’s runner by the scruff of the neck and took off into the darkness.
The night seemed to quiet; there was certainly a lot less shouting and only a little moaning from wounded. Dara shuddered violently. What was she doing out here, in the middle of the night, giving orders? She found that she was better at it than she had expected. It helped that she wasn’t worrying about what an idiot she must look like to her lords, until she thought of that. Now that she had time to think, she wondered if she’d done right to send Zephrym off; she felt suddenly alone and unprotected without his presence.
Grethock moved up from her left and she jumped when he spoke. “Queen Dara, I’ve reformed the troops into something resembling a battle line. We should be better prepared if they attack again.”
“And the archers?”
“For the little good they can do in this blackness, I have them set up just over there.” He gestured to a position to the rear of the assembled foot troops.
Dara got no more sleep that night as her lords charged about trying to get the entire army organised and ward off further attacks from the Northfielders. There were only a few small skirmishes the rest of the night. Dara used her household knights to stop any gaps that were created in the lines until daybreak mercifully came and the Northfielders were nowhere in sight.
Dara dismounted her horse and winced at the pain. She’d been in the saddle all night and her muscles were not happy about it. She stepped over a dead body with a blanket wrapped around it: one of hers. Many other bodies littered the slopes of the grassy plain that the encampment had been set up on. She saw Duke Dargon approaching, dark circles under his eyes and a bloody bandage wrapped around his left forearm.
“Your majesty.” He stopped and bowed curtly. “Our losses aren’t as bad as they could have been, but the initial counts are still several hundred dead. We didn’t take nearly as many Northfielders with us, I’m afraid. They attacked Baron Narragan’s position without warning and he suffered the heaviest losses. Fortunately his squire was able to make it back in time to warn us before we were caught unawares also.”
“They attacked from the north? Monrodyans out of Thanailde Castle perhaps? But no, they wore Northfield livery.” She looked down at a corpse lying face down beside the body she’d stepped over. It bore blue Northfield heraldry on its bloodstained tabard.
“Aye, your majesty,” Sumner said. “They somehow got around behind us — must have snuck through Wherwell Forest, of all the ironies.”
Wherwell was the forest that Dara had used for cover in her escape from Magnus nearly four years ago. Dara felt anger boil up inside her. “We can hear the gossip from the insurrectionist camp about Valeran Northfield’s disgrace and banishment from the Duchess’ court over his tryst with some minor noble, but we can’t learn when he’s moving an army around our flank?”
“It was a masterfully and boldly executed move, your majesty. We had no way of knowing. He *was* still encamped outside Magnus only a sennight ago.”
Dara let out a long breath. Sumner was right, and at any rate, it wasn’t his fault that this had happened. “Anything else?”
“I’m afraid so. Baron Narragan was guarding the baggage train. The rebels made off with a good portion of our provisions before they withdrew.”
“And now that they’ve got position on us to the north,” Dara said, “there’s no way new supplies will reach us.”
30 Ober, 903
Queen Dara hungrily tore the last strips of rabbit meat off the bone she held between her two hands. One of her squires had been able to snare the creature earlier in the day and it was the best she’d eaten in a fortnight. There wasn’t much foraging to be had this time of year, especially since it seemed that Aendasia Blortnikson had cleared out all the local storage sheds for her siege on Magnus.
Dara sucked the last bits of marrow from the bone then tossed it into a nearby bush with orange and yellow leaves. Her stomach growled and she put a hand over it. Despite the rabbit, she felt as if there was a gaping pit in her stomach, and she had been eating much better than most of her soldiers.
A furlong down the hill, a group of her men had just finished digging a large hole in the ground. They tossed their shovels aside and began picking up bodies which they dropped into the makeshift grave. Insects bu ed about them as they worked and bu ards glided lazily overhead.
A tall man dressed in the white habit of a Stevenic monk broke from the group once the last body was laid in the ground and moved up the hill towards Dara. She stood from her seat on a clothes trunk outside her pavilion and moved to meet Cyruz of Vidin.
“Good day, your majesty,” he said in his deep voice, like thunder echoing amidst the Skywall Mountains. “Another fine day we have, out here on the plains of the realm, is it not?”
“If I didn’t know you better, Father,” Dara said, “I’d think you were being sarcastic.”
“Oh, it isn’t as bad as all that,” Cyruz placed a hand on her shoulder. “As I said to Baroness Fennell when she had similar thoughts, no situation is ever too dire as long as we have such good and dutiful friends among us. And what friends! Your majesty, these lords and peasants have followed you the length of the land and have never faltered.”
Dara nodded. “That’s true, but the disease, starvation … How much more can they take?”
“My lady queen.” Zephrym approached from behind the pavilion, holding a rolled piece of parchment in his hand. “I fear I have more bad news.”
“What worse could possibly happen?” she asked. She’d been unable to break through Duke Northfield’s lines for two sennights now. Earlier in the sennight, he’d lured a portion of her force over the Laraka and decimated them, forcing her to pull back further south and further away from a chance at getting food from Irskin Castle. Duchess Arval was still nearly a fortnight away and unable to assist her.
“It’s a message from Greg Jorym,” Zephrym replied. Dara stiffened at hearing the name. The mercenary captain had offered her his services in reparation for abandoning Caeron unto his death four years ago. Had he already reverted to his cowardly ways? “He and his troops have moved out of the swamps in southern Equiville and are making their way to Magnus. However, while passing through Equiville they learned of more troop movements from the southeast. It is his estimation that the Beinisonian Emperor has sent fresh levies to assist his mother.”
Dara’s hand went to her throat in the Stevenic sign of piety. “God protect us! Did he say how far ahead of them he is?”
“A sennight at most.”
“Then we’ll have to move on Magnus at once,” Dara said. She felt as if she’d been stabbed in the chest.
“But your majesty, maybe with Duchess Arval reinforcing us –”
“No, there isn’t time. We wasted too much time retaking Armand for Baron Narragan in the spring, and now we have run out of that precious commodity here. The emperor wouldn’t have sent a small force, and they’ll be Beinisonian professionals. No, our only hope is to finish it at Magnus now, before they arrive. Pray that King Hadrus has finally taken Thanailde Castle and has a clear route along Kings’ Road.”
“You’re most likely correct, your majesty.”
“Thank you Zephrym. I’d like some time alone with Father Cyruz now.”
Zephrym bowed and, without a word, walked off down the hill towards the main part of the encampment. Dara felt suddenly weak and had to lean on Cyruz for support. The monk, who had been silent throughout her conversation with Zephrym, took her by the shoulders and directed her over to the chest and had her sit on it again.
“You are tired, my queen.”
“I’m tired, yes. Tired of all the killing, tired of the treachery, tired of being alone. Cephas’ boot, Father, how has it come to this?” She could feel her throat tightening and her lips began to quiver. Tears heated her eyes.
“Such times must be faced by all those who defy injustice and evil, my child.” Cyruz sat down on the ground next to her and Dara had to look down only slightly to see into his dark, kindly eyes.
She looked away and covered her face as tears broke forth. “So much suffering. My loyal soldiers dying of disease and starvation, and she who killed Caeron, that miserable Duchess of Northfield who’s already an Empress of Beinison, wants his crown … What does *she* get? More reinforcements from her son. Her husband, still around to warm her bed …”
“Is an unfaithful husband so much better?”
“Anything is better than a dead husband!” Dara allowed herself to sob a few moments. She then collected herself and looked at Cyruz again. “How did it all go so wrong, Cyruz? If God wanted Caeron to be king, if Baranur is meant to be free, why did he fail?”
“He did not fail!” Cyruz’ stern tone of voice surprised Dara, for she had never heard it from him. “No, he did not fail. He succeeded in keeping the crown out of the clutches of the Beinisonians. He succeeded in passing the succession to you and, God willing, to Prince Brad one day. He passed just laws and ruled the land well ere he died. No, that is no failure, unless one measures a good king only by the number of years he reigned.
“King Vulpa, now there was a king whose reign was long indeed. Nigh on forty years he ruled over Baranur and one of the most disastrous forty years our realm has ever known! Now, he wasn’t an evil man and he was well beloved by the people for his kind and gentle manner, but he constantly gave in to false advisors and self-serving lords. His inability to stand up for good and make the necessary sacrifices led to much ruin.
“Mayhap it was precisely because Caeron did what was right, even when it was not expedient, that this all came to pass. Aye, men never learn from one age to the next. They resist good when it does not suit them, and embrace evil when it is easy. Thus it was in the time of first kings of Baranur who fought their children and siblings as often as foreign invaders. Thus it is now, when a good king is killed at the walls of his capital. Thus will it be in the future, but we must never give up, for there is good in the world too! So much good, and men and women who are willing to strive for it despite hardship. But it is because many other men are wicked, or perhaps merely lazy, that we must fight.”
Dara dried her eyes and looked down the hill at the tents and clumps of soldiers that dotted the hillside. A cold breeze swept over the hill, blowing orange and red leaves over the brittle brown grass. “We *will* fight, and one way or another, this war will end.”
11 Nober, 903
The ground was blanketed in a thin layer of pristine white snow, interrupted only by the dark shapes of war machines and pavilions that the besieging forces had set up. Dara could see those same forces clearly across the plain, arranged for battle, having abandoned their siege weapons. Dara had positioned herself on the western bank of the Laraka so that she could see the hill to the southeast where Caeron had made his last stand. To Dara’s north and west, Duchess Welspeare commanded her portion of the army.
She was shivering so violently that she felt she might fall off her horse. She couldn’t feel her feet, but she could certainly feel her stomach, which felt like a gaping wound. She clenched her teeth together in an attempt to keep them from chattering.
She examined the forces arrayed against her with what now felt like a well-trained eye, compared with her ignorance of warfare only a few years ago. Row upon row of foot soldiers dressed in the blue of Northfield and the gold of Blortnikson stood across the smooth white plain, their helmets and weapons glinting in the mid-afternoon sun. There were also large numbers of cavalry, each adorned in their own unique heraldry, save the Knights of the Dragon and the Star who wore the colours of their orders. The Knights of the Dragon Dara spied with special attention, swearing to herself that if nothing else, she would ensure those honourless butchers who had put so many towns to the torch would not leave the field alive. Duke Sumner Dargon, positioned on her south flank with the b ulk of the cavalry, would see to that, as she had ordered.
For the moment most of the enemy cavalry were on her side of the river, but she had ordered Greg Jorym to launch his attack from just the other side of the Laraka. Thus far, he had shown himself good to his word to redeem himself for his betrayal.
The enemy troops shuffled about, perhaps against the cold, but also perhaps because the pipes of the Lederians under King Hadrus, Caeron’s cousin who had pledged to support the Tallirhan cause, could be heard sounding to the east, and Comarrian heavy cavalry could be seen to the southeast. Aendasia Blortnikson’s forces still outnumbered Dara’s significantly, but Dara had surrounded them, evening the odds somewhat. There was still Duke Northfield to worry about, but Dara’s scouts reported that he was a couple bells’ ride away. They could only succeed if they broke the insurrectionist forces here at Magnus befo re he arrived.
A thin mist escaped Dara’s mouth as she took deep breaths to calm herself. She flexed her muscles to stop the convulsive shivering. It was not nearly as cold out as it had been on that Deber morning when Caeron had fought his last battle, she told herself. She closed her eyes and whispered a prayer to the Stevene. She also promised her husband that she would take the hill upon which he had died, and to build a magnificent tomb for him there if she succeeded.
“Brave soldiers of Baranur,” she shouted, moving forward and turning around to address her troops. “You have fought and bled with me across the great vastness of this realm. You have shown your worth time and again so that the crown that rightfully belongs to House Tallirhan will remain so, and Baranur will remain in the hands of Baranurians, not Beinisonians!
“I now call you to make this last stand for the kingdom and for truth and justice in our time. One way or another, this war that has torn our land apart and pitted brother against sister will end. How it shall end is up to us, and how we conduct ourselves this day!
“Be mindful of the great Knights’ Charge at Balkura, where the knights of Fennell sold their lives dearly so that justice might survive in this land. There are things worth fighting for in this world, and worth dying for even. If we determine to die for this cause, as did the Fennell knights, then we will be victorious! Fight with me today! Fight for King Caeron! Fight for Baranur!”
A cheer rose from her troops. Raising their weapons in the air, they cried, “For Baranur! For Queen Dara!”
Beinisonian drums and Baranurian horns sounded, and Dara turned back to face the insurrectionists. The enemy soldiers were advancing. She could not hear the thunder of the horses’ hooves as they trotted towards her, as they were drowned out by the shouts of her own troops. The horns sounded again and the enemy soldiers began to charge.
“Premature,” Sir Zephrym Vladon said calmly. “They will tire themselves out ere they reach us. Aendasia Blortnikson must not know what to do with armies attacking her from all directions. Look, the Knights of the Star are moving back across Kheva’s Bridge to face the Comarrians. I wonder if they’ve actually named that new bridge after Kheva? The original was destroyed at the beginning of the war, after all.”
Only the unflappable Sir Zephrym Vladon could make such a mundane observation with enemy soldiers charging towards him. Dara let the enemy soldiers charge until they were quite close before ordering her own trumpeters to sound the charge. As frightened as she was, she felt a certain amount of relief that it would all end at last. She pulled her great helm on and readied her lance.
“Charge!” Dara screamed as she urged her horse forward.
Loyally, her troops raised their voices even higher in a war cry and they surged forward. It seemed to take bells for the two forces to collide. Dara waited to lower her lance until she could see details on the soldiers’ faces. When she saw the jagged pink scar down the side of one man’s dirty and stubbled face, the man beside him with eyes wide and white with fear or rage, braced her feet against the stirrups. She nearly fell backwards as her lance impacted with the chest of the scar-faced soldier. It continued through him and impaled the beardless young boy behind him.
Dara gagged at the sight and dropped her lance. What had Caeron thought of killing his own subjects? She drew her sword just in time to parry a spear thrust that came from almost behind her; the momentum of her horse had carried her deep into the enemy ranks. Zephrym was beside her still, and he hacked at the arm of the spear-bearer. Another foot soldier slammed into Dara’s leg as he backed away from one of her knights. She plunged her blade into his shoulder. Still another enemy stabbed at her with his spear. She redirected the blow into a footman beside her, then dispatched the spearman with a slash to the throat. After a time — she did not know how long — Dara was able to break free from the melee and take stock of the situation.
She was shocked and gladdened to realise that her horse now stood on the hill where Caeron had made his last stand. The snow had been thoroughly trodden by the soldiers’ fighting, such that brown grass could be seen. The snow that remained was stained bright red. Even after years of fighting, the sight did not fail to turn Dara’s stomach. The many battles had honed her ability to see out of her great helmet, and she looked quickly over the battlefield. The Comarrians had driven the Knights of the Star back and they were trying to squeeze over Kheva’s Bridge. She saw one knight fall from his horse and into the icy river, while his fellows’ horses writhed about in apparent panic. Only one or two made it to the other side, while the others appeared to be jammed in place. Greg Jorym’s banner fluttered above the heads of knights at the west bank of the bridge.
The gatehouses leading into Magnus had been opened, and townspeople, armed with butcher knives, bill hooks, and blacksmith hammers were swarming out alongside garrison troops wearing royal colours. On the east bank, Duke Dargon and his knights were pressing the Knights of the Dragon back to the base of Kheva’s Bridge. A Knight of the Dragon collided with a Knight of the Star and both toppled from their horses, disappearing under the hooves of their comrades’ mounts. The gold banner of Blortnikson, accompanied by a forgery of the royal arms of Baranur, was being buffeted about in the middle of that confusion of horses and armoured men.
The group of soldiers that Dara and her household knights had been fighting broke and ran, and Sir Zephrym galloped up alongside her. “We may yet carry the day, your highness.”
“Mayhap,” Dara said. “But look to the north-west!”
There, she could see a blue banner surmounted by the white falcon of Valeran Northfield at the head of a column of cavalry moving towards Duchess Welspeare’s yellow banner, surmounted by a red diagonal bar. A large portion of Northfield’s force was holding, without moving, a little further to the west.
“Why does he not engage the rest of his force?” Zephrym wondered aloud. “Those troops to Northfield’s west could easily move here to reinforce the duchess.”
“Beinisonians are a proud people,” Dara said. “We heard the rumours of Valeran’s infidelity. Could it be that Aendasia Blortnikson doesn’t even want him on the same part of the battlefield?”
“If that’s so, then we can’t expect it to last long. Valeran is not stupid; it would be mindlessly outrageous for him to honour such courtly niceties while in the middle of a battle.”
“Indeed, which is why we must capture Aendasia Blortnikson as quickly as we can, ere Valeran comes to his senses! If we can force her to yield, the rest of the army will!” She signalled for Zephrym and the knights to follow her to Kheva’s Bridge. As she rode, the city dwellers who had come out of the gate nearest Dara recognised the Tallirhan banner one of her knights bore. They cheered and waived their arms in the air, then with a great bellow charged after Dara towards the Knights of the Dragon and the Star.
The fighting that followed was the most vicious that Dara had known; the Knights of the Dragon knew they’d get no quarter, and offered none themselves. Dara knew that her crown hung on the outcome of this battle within a battle and summoned what strength she had left. A Knight of the Dragon, his face hidden by a great helm, swung his massive morningstar at her. She threw herself backwards and the heavy spiked orb swished in the air bare inches from her face. She nearly fell backwards off her horse, but grabbing the saddlehorn, she pulled herself upright. The morningstar whipped through the air again, smashing into Dara’s shield, causing it to slam into her shoulder. She slashed with her sword, but the blow was knocked aside. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a sword flash. She was able to deflect it and redirect the momentum towards the morningstar-wielding knight. He blocked it with his shield and swung at Dara’s head with his weapon. She was unable to duck fast enough, and a loud clang assaulted her ears.
Reeling from the strike, Dara had to grab the cantle again to keep from falling and fought to still her vision so she could see what she was doing. She held out her sword blindly and it was knocked roughly aside. She felt a new flash of pain to her sword-arm shoulder and tumbled from the horse onto the hard ground. She scrambled to her feet instinctively and tore her helmet off.
Her vision was still a bit blurry, but she could make her opponent out from the other dark shapes that surrounded her. Her head felt as if his mace were continually pounding her skull. Her whole body ached; she could barely lift her sword and shield into a fighting position. The Knight of the Dragon’s arm moved back for a final blow. Would it end here? No! Dara dove forward and rolled. The morningstar sliced through the air above her; she jumped to her feet and stabbed the knight in the kidneys with what force she could muster. It did not pierce his armour, but he let out a cry of pain and dropped the morningstar nevertheless. Sensing someone behind her, Dara pulled the blade back and whirled about just in time to block a strike with her shield, though the impact knocked her down onto one knee.
For the first time, Dara was face to face with her enemy of seven long years: Aendasia Blortnikson Blortnikson. She was caked in mud and blood, a heavy two-handed mace clutched in her fists.
Dara’s first thought was that Aendasia Blortnikson was both stunningly beautiful and much taller than she was. Aendasia Blortnikson had luxurious blonde hair that flowed free of a helm that must have been knocked off earlier, and a clear, pale complexion despite the ravages of war.
The Duchess of Northfield hefted the giant mace over her head and swung. Dara threw herself to the right and heard the thud as the mace slammed into the ground.
Dara leapt up and swung with her sword. Aendasia Blortnikson blocked it with her mace and they were locked in a struggle for advantage. Dara looked up into Aendasia Blortnikson’s eyes.
“Yield, damn you!” the Beinisonian Empress Mother shouted. “The crown is mine; your husband stole –”
“You know you have no right to it!” Dara tried to shove the taller woman back, but it was like pushing a wall.
“Why all this death? Stefan named me, Dara!”
Dara felt a hint of pity seep into her heart. She could see in Aendasia Blortnikson’s eyes the same pain Dara felt at the loss of loyal subjects and friends, at the mindless destruction of her homeland. But no, Aendasia Blortnikson had not lost nearly what Dara had, and Baranur was not her home. King Stefan II had named Aendasia Blortnikson heir only out of resentment towards Caeron’s conversion to Stevenism and perhaps out of madness. No, the crown belonged to Tallirhan, and Caeron belonged to Dara!
“You killed my husband!” she shrieked, and kneed Aendasia Blortnikson in the groin. The woman staggered backwards. Dara gripped her sword with both hands and hacked at Aendasia Blortnikson with it as hard as she could. She kept swinging and swinging; her shield broke free of its straps and fluttered away. Finally, her sword broke over the shaft of the mace, but Aendasia Blortnikson fell backwards to the ground.
Dara jumped on top of the insurrectionist leader and pulled a dagger from her belt. She moved to plunge it into the woman’s eye, but stopped just before doing so. Killing her would not bring Caeron back. If she could use mercy to bring the battle to an end, saving as many of her subjects’ lives as possible …
“Order your army to surrender now, and I will spare your life!”
Aendasia Blortnikson looked at the dagger blade, less than a finger away, for several moments, then turned her head to the side. “Raimundo, order our surrender!”
“Exalted one!” An olive-skinned man moved into view. “You can’t –”
“It is over,” she said. “Order our surrender now!”
Dara stood and looked to the northwest where she heard hooves pounding the ground. Between two of her household knights, she could see in the distance the banner of Duke Northfield approaching. She stood and looked about desperately for her sword. If Aendasia Blortnikson’ trumpeters were too slow in issuing the order she’d need to defend herself. Her search was interrupted by the beating of deep drums and the sounding of horns. The approaching hooves slowed and stopped.
A lord with a stately white falcon atop his great helm forced his way through the knights. He tore off his helm, revealing copper-coloured hair and a handsome face: Duke Valeran Northfield.
“Exalted wife, what in the name of –?”
“It is ended, Valeran,” Aendasia Blortnikson snapped. She stood and turned her mace such that the shaft pointed towards Dara, and she offered it to the queen.
Dara was grateful at the offer; far, far too many lives had been lost already. She would demand what was rightfully hers, however. Thank the good God that Aendasia Blortnikson had enough sense to put an end to it when she was beaten.
“It is proper for a queen’s subjects to kneel before her and offer their fealty,” Dara said.
She could see tears welling up in Aendasia Blortnikson’s eyes. The Beinisonian empress bit down on a quivering lip, then slowly dropped to a knee and lowered her head. Valeran Northfield, too, dismounted his horse and lowered himself to a kneeling position. Dara handed the mace to a knight that moved to her side. She looked about the ground and found her sword. Wiping the blood off of it with the hem of her surcoat as best she could, she offered it to Aendasia Blortnikson. The other woman paused for a long moment, looking at the broken blade, then finally took it in her mailed hands and kissed it. Dara heard the clanking of metal and when she looked around, she could see that all of the knights around her were kneeling.
She turned around and surveyed the battlefield and, amidst the stiffening corpses that littered it, everyone was kneeling in homage to her. The Great Houses War had been won.
29 Vibril, 904
Seven years to the day after King Caeron had been crowned by his half-brother, Cyrridain, in the magnificent Magnus Cathedral of the Stevene, Dara strode down an aisle of deep red carpet that ran along the centre of the great hall in Crown Castle. A choir of men and women sang a solemn Stevenic hymn as Dara moved past the assembled lords, knights, and townsfolk who packed the massive chamber. Red and grey banners of house Tallirhan adorned the great stone pillars and walls.
She looked up at the vaulted ceiling high above her head and whispered a quick prayer of thanks. She felt an odd calm as she neared the dais where the throne of Baranur, with the sovereign’s crown resting on it, waited for her. After all that she had gone through to get here, the coronation ceremony seemed somewhat anticlimactic. She also remembered the beautiful Stevenic ritual coronation she and her husband had had, but knew that she had to assume her place as sovereign ruler in the traditional manner, as all the rulers of Baranur had before her. Cyrridain had been quite indignant at her decision, but Dara knew some compromises had to be made if peace were to reign for years to come.
She realised she was drifting off into her own thoughts yet again; a weakness she would have to work on, she reminded herself, and a brief smile crept across her face. She reached down and took the jewel-encrusted gilt crown in her gloved hands. Turning to face those assembled, she recited the words of regency.
“By accepting this crown, I take upon myself the duty to rule and protect our mighty kingdom of Baranur; may its enemies never overtake her. I swear to protect her citizens, both noble and commoner, of all faiths and lands. Behold your sovereign and ruler, Dara.”
She then placed the crown on her head and felt the floor shake beneath her as the crowd erupted with thunderous applause and cheering. Knights held their swords in the air and cried, “Long live Queen Dara!” Now, officially, she was queen and sovereign of Baranur, her homeland. She knew the honour ought to have made her glad, but she felt only sorrow that Caeron were not there as her king. She still wore mourning blue, even on this ostensibly joyous occasion, and the tears that she cried were not those of joy but of sorrow. The people would take them to be tears of joy and pride, like the ones that had trickled down her face in the great cathedral seven years ago, and that was just as well. She knew that nothing, not even a crown, could fill the emptiness inside of her.
Rather than being locked in a dungeon or otherwise punished for their treason, Queen Dara had mercy on Aendasia Blortnikson Blortnikson and Valeran Northfield, and they were banished to Beinison. The Northfield lands were handed over to Valeran’s eldest son of his first marriage. Arvalia was divided and a new duchy, called Narragan, was bestowed upon the loyal Baldwin Narragan. Monrodya, too, was cut up and a new duchy, Leftwich, was created out of its southern lands. Sir Zephrym Vladon was given governance of these lands as steward until the eldest child of Baron Leftwich, who had been boiled alive by Aendasia Blortnikson for his loyalty to Queen Dara, was old enough to rule.
Queen Dara reigned for twenty years and was much beloved by the people. Many of them called her “Dara the Great”. However, the wound of losing her husband was one that never healed, and finally the burden of that deep and abiding emptiness became too much for her to bear and she stepped down, giving the crown to her only son, Brad. She then retired to the Barony of Fennell in the Duchy of Dargon where her long-time friend and advisor, Cyruz of Vidin, had created a monastery for Stevenic monks. Dara lived there the rest of her days and was finally reunited with King Caeron in 946.
Her other most trusted and beloved advisor, Duke Sumner Dargon, lived the rest of his days ruling his duchy with wisdom and justice. He remarried and bore heirs, whose descendents include Duke Clifton Dargon II who, like his great-great-grandfather before him, fought valiantly for House Tallirhan when one of Aendasia Blortnikson’s descendents, Beinisonian Emperor Untar II invaded Baranur.
Cyrridain Tallirhan remained Master Priest of the Stevenic High Church in Magnus until his death in 932. In that time he recorded all the events of the Great Houses War and the lives of King Caeron and Dara in a seventeen volume account now known as the Anabasis of Cyrridain Tallirhan.