DargonZine 19, Issue 9

The Great Houses War Part 4: The Empress of Beinison

Firil 12, 899 - Sy 30, 899


This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series The Great Houses War

Aendasia, Empress of Beinison, Duchess of Northfield, and Queen of Baranur rode west along the Kings’ Road at the head of her army. Her title of empress was merely a formality since her son actually ruled Beinison, but the title Queen of Baranur held real power. She had succeeded her great uncle King Stefan II upon his death, according to his wishes.

A short distance ahead stood Woldarun, a village under her rule, the last along the road before she would reach mighty Magnus. Caeron Tallirhan, her cousin and grandson of Stefan II, who had stolen the Baranurian crown while she was still in Beinison, had been killed outside the walls of Magnus in Deber, more than four months ago. Despite this, she did not hold the capital, for its citizens had stubbornly refused to surrender it and instead proclaimed Caeron’s widow, Dara, to be their ruler.

When two of her armies had been wiped out in Quinnat trying to capture “Queen” Dara, Aendasia had been forced to lift the siege she had levied against Magnus the previous year and wait until spring to resume her campaign. Now that the trees were in full bloom and the land was green once again, she marched towards Magnus.

Behind her, a force thousands strong stretched far down the road. It was comprised of professional Beinison soldiers and the citizen levies from duchies that recognised her as queen. The largest contingent was from Equiville, and Aendasia thought it very fitting that their livery colours were white, which to her mind represented the purity and truth of her claim on the Baranurian throne.

As she neared Woldarun, the town did not seem as joyful at their liberation as she expected. Yes, people lined the streets to greet her, but their faces betrayed unhappiness. They bowed only grudgingly when she rode past them, raising the ire of her battle captain, Raimundo Quikuches, Viscount of Marolleris.

“Exalted one,” he said, “we should teach these peasants proper respect for not only their queen, but an empress of mighty Beinison.”

“They will learn respect,” Aendasia said. She was sure of it. Caeron had been a powerful and charismatic speaker — she could not deny him that — and he had worked his magic on these poor, ignorant villagers. It would wear off eventually, though, now that he was gone.

As Aendasia scanned the crowd, her eyes came to rest on a youth with dirty matted hair, whose features smouldered with anger. He did not bow at all, and instead shouted, “Blortnikson! We bow only to house Tallirhan!”

Aendasia gasped. Such audacity! She couldn’t believe that she had actually heard the boy say that to her face. Wearing her diamond-encrusted imperial crown, she had thought she would overawe these peasants.

“King Caeron is our rightful ruler!” a villager out of view cried. A few others seemed to take courage from this and added their voices to his.

“Caeron is dead!” she shouted back at the villagers. The calls died down and the peasants became quiet. A small group nearby applauded. The voice of the angry, dirty young man reproached them.

“Don’t cheer for that Beinisonian witch!”

Duke Baldwin Equiville drew his sword. “Who called my lady queen a witch? By Nehru’s blood I’ll have you –”

“Exalted one, this is intolerable!” Raimundo Quikuches pulled his battle axe from his back and summoned the master drummer to his side with it. “We should kill these insolent dogs! Sound ‘to arms’.”

The master drummer beat out a tune on his large drum and his underlings echoed him. The deep, rich sound of the Beinisonian drums reverberated between the buildings of the small town. The army came to an abrupt halt and the clicking of hundreds of weapons being lowered from shoulders filled the air.

The villagers were now completely silent. They stared fearfully at the weapons arrayed against them. Everything was suddenly silent, until Aendasia shouted, “No! I will not have this. These are my people. As queen, I am their mother and I will not see them harmed, even for their show of disrespect.”

In truth, Aendasia would have been perfectly content to stay in Beinison, where she’d lived since she was wed to the Beinisonian emperor Alejandro VII at the age of ten, over a quarter of a century earlier. Baranur was a strange land to her after all these years, its people not nearly as disciplined as the militaristic Beinisonians. She had loved her uncle dearly, though, and she would see his wishes fulfilled. He wanted her to rule Baranur, so when she was widowed and her son rose to the Beinisonian throne, King Stefan had arranged for her to marry the Duke of Northfield, ruler of perhaps the most powerful of the Great Houses of Baranur. He had intended for h er to rule, and rule she would. It hurt her that she should leave her adoptive homeland for these people and they rebuked her.

“Exalted one –” Raimundo protested.

“I said ‘no’, and I meant it!” The words were curt, but she intended them to be. No one who was weak-willed could last long in the Beinisonian imperial court. “Now continue the advance.”

Drummers pounded out the order and presently the column was moving once again. It was only a few bells later that Aendasia could see the mighty walls of Magnus, just beyond the fast-flowing Laraka. They were a magnificent sight, she thought, even to a jaded eye that had seen the marvels of Cabildo, seat of the Beinisonian emperors, with its tall, dark spires and extravagant temples guarded by stone dragons and gargoyles. Even the massive slums of the city were impressive in their magnitude.

The army broke from its marching formation and began the process of blockading the city. They did not cross the Laraka however, for Aendasia expected her husband to arrive from Northfield within a day to cover the west bank of the river. Magnus’ gatehouses, castles unto themselves, had already been sealed tightly. Kheva’s Bridge and everything else linking the east bank of the Laraka to the west had been razed. The siege machines that had been left behind when Aendasia retired for the winter were nowhere to be seen, presumably looted for firewood by the peasants of Magnus. She ordered Raimundo Quikuches to oversee the construction of a new bridge to span the Laraka, as well as siege towers and ladders. With most of th e city’s defenders being untrained city folk, she felt sure an assault would be the fastest way to bring the royal city under her control. After that, Crown Castle could only hold out for a few months, she wagered.

“Baldwin,” she said, turning in her saddle to look at the middle-aged Duke of Equiville.

“Your majesty?” he replied, ever ready to take orders. His was among the houses which had immediately recognised Aendasia’s claim on the throne, unlike Arvalia and Monrodya who had only seen the truth when Caeron had insisted on being crowned by the Master Priest of the Stevenic High Church, or Asbridge and Othuldane who had only joined her in protest of Caeron’s legal reforms.

“I would like you to bring my terms for surrender to the people of Magnus and the castellan of Crown Castle. Sir Geoffrey Delborne, I believe his name is.”

“It would be my pleasure, you majesty,” Baldwin said, bowing his head.

“They are the same as in the winter. If they yield the city to me, I will spare it the ravages of Lord Quikuches’ Knights of the Dragon. Also, the castle garrison will be spared.” Aendasia had to keep her face rigidly still lest she betray any emotion. The Order of the Dragon was made up of capable warriors who did not wish to be burdened by the rigid obligations of knighthood. She had made the same offer to Pyridain City, and, when the duke had refused, she had been forced to make good on her threat. She could still hear the screams and the crackling flames of the city as her army had raped and pillaged their way through the streets. It made her sick to think of, but she did not dare to show any lack of resolve or strength. Curse Caeron; if he had never stolen her crown, none of it would be necessary.

Duke Equiville was now out of sight, riding off to commandeer a boat that would take him across the river. Aendasia remained astride her horse, just off the Kings’ Road, watching her army move past. Presently, the baggage train rattled into view. It carried with it enough supplies to keep the army fed for many months, tools for building war machines and fortifications, even large pots to boil traitors in, following the preferred Beinisonian method. It also transported Aendasia’s bathtub and other imperial necessities.

The most important item in the baggage train was a locked horse litter that carried High Mage Isidoro Mon-Orthanier, the only one of Aendasia’s sorcerers who had survived the battle outside Magnus earlier in the year. Nima Jaleit, youngest daughter of the loyal Baroness Jaleit, who was charged with defending the baggage train, rode up to Aendasia and bowed in the saddle.

“Your majesty, have you selected a position for your command tent?”

“The position it held in Janis will suffice,” she replied. “But first I wish to consult the High Mage.”

Nima Jaleit hesitated for a moment before answering. “As you wish, your majesty.” She dismounted and strode over to the horse litter. Several archers scurried to her side as she took a ring of keys from her belt and opened the heavy lock holding the doors of the litter shut.

High Mage Mon-Orthanier leapt out as soon as the doors were open and started to thrash about on the ground. The stench of faeces emerged with him; he had soiled himself yet again. He shouted a few incomprehensible words, then seemed to grow calm. The guards rushed up to him and took hold of his arms. He mumbled, but made no move to escape them.

“He is still possessed, your majesty,” Nima Jaleit said. “Likely he is still battling the High Mage Milverri Rhihosh inside his ravaged skull.”

Aendasia shook her head. Isidoro Mon-Orthanier had been one of the most powerful wielders of magic on Makdiar when he had left with her from Beinison. He had been a wise advisor and loyal subject, staying by her side even when her first husband, Alejandro, had died and Aendasia’s first-born took the throne. But at the Battle of Magnus, the Baranurian High Mage, who had allied herself with Caeron, unleashed a powerful spell that had destroyed all of the other Beinisonian mages. Had Mon-Orthanier not been so mighty himself, he would have likely shared their fate. Instead, he was now possessed, often violently so, and had to be locked inside the horse litter. E ven so, he could still be called upon to scry with telmatie blooms and give Aendasia valuable insight into the future.

He looked up at Aendasia, his eyes surprisingly clear. “E-exalted one, what do you desire of your servant-t-t?” He then descended into more babble and struck himself on the head several times.

“I require an augury for the future, High Mage,” Aendasia replied.

He nodded, mumbled some more, then shouted, “Telmatie! Bring it to me. And a leaf … the visions are clearer on a leaf …”

One of the archers wearing the livery of Barony Jaleit brandished a mortar and pestle, along with several dark purple flowers. Mon-Orthanier, still being restrained by other soldiers, took the mortar and pestle and began grinding the blossoms, producing a black paste. He then took a large oak leaf and spread the paste over it. He stared intently at the smeared black mush and mumbled to himself. Finally he looked up and spoke, but the words were incoherent. He cursed and started to struggle with his guards, yelling gibberish words. He broke free and stumbled towards Aendasia, clutching her leg.

Nima Jaleit and several of her soldiers drew swords and daggers, but Aendasia gestured for them to keep their distance.

“S-Spear … from the sumiggen …” His words again became impossible to understand. He paused and Aendasia could hear him grinding his teeth together. When he looked up at her, tears were welling up in his eyes and his brow was furrowed. More jumbled words spilled out of his mouth, then he managed, “Spear from the n-north … beware … destroy her and victory will be yours!”

He fell to the ground, apparently exhausted. The Jaleit soldiers grabbed his cloak and quickly pulled him a safe distance from their queen and empress. Nima Jaleit looked up at Aendasia.

“Did you understand any of that, you majesty?”

“I believe I did,” Aendasia said. Divination of the future was an unreliable art at best, owing much to the scryer’s interpretation of what they saw, but Mon-Orthanier had been renowned for his abilities in the craft and, even in his deranged state, she had an idea of what he had said. “Spear … I think he meant Welspeare, for it is known that Duchess Welspeare commands a formidable army. She will try to break our siege, and if I destroy her army, then the crown will be mine, for no army will be left to defeat me.”

Nima Jaleit nodded. “Mayhap, your majesty. We shall have to be ready for an attack from the north, then.”

“Your majesty?” Aendasia turned to see Duke Baldwin Equiville. His face was red and he looked very unhappy. “They would not even open the gates to allow me inside the city. I did not speak to the castellan, but the mayor was quite disrespectful. And the justiciar –”

“Surrender, traitorous one!” in the distance a booming voice intoned. Aendasia looked to see amidst the city defenders a man dressed in the red robes of the King’s Bench standing on the battlements. “I have a warrant for your arrest on the charge of high treason, Duchess Aendasia of Northfield!”

Aendasia stared in dismay. She was impressed that the city’s justiciar was able to shout loud enough for her to hear him at this distance, from the other side of the mighty Laraka, but his statement was no less ludicrous for its volume.

“If anything,” Duke Equiville sighed. “The people of Magnus are even more belligerent than those in the rest of the duchy.”

Aendasia could only shake her head in confusion. Why did these people resent her so? She was their rightful queen. Should they not hate Caeron and Dara, who continued his legacy, as thieves?

“Archers!” Duke Equiville shouted, then galloped off towards the nearest contingent of such soldiers.

“Pay them no heed, majesty,” Nima Jaleit said. “Those walls and the river they hide behind will not shield them forever, and then they will know justice!”

Aendasia could feel her lip start to quiver and bit down on it hastily. Then putting on the best air of indifference that she could, she ordered her command tent be erected. She supervised the army as it established the siege.

Archers fired volleys at the wall’s defenders, forcing them to hide behind the stone ramparts. Occasionally, one of them emerged long enough to send an arrow towards the besiegers’ lines. Turning her attention from the archers, Aendasia could see a group of two olive-skinned Beinisonian soldiers chopping down a tree. When it toppled over, they hacked off the branches and another band of dark Beinisonians, stripped to the waist, attached chains to the log and dragged it towards where the tools had been dropped by the Jaleit troops. Beside those tools a trio of soldiers wearing the white and black of Equiville were pulling the ropes of a tent tight and securing them with wooden pegs. It was almost dark when Aendasia made her way to the hill where her pavilion had been set up. Her ladies-in-waiting and other servants had emerged from t he carriage they’d ridden in and were busy preparing things for their empress’ stay.

Aendasia dismounted and handed the reins of her horse to a short, dark-haired squire. She strode stiffly towards the tent; it had been a long day. She ordered some of the servants to start a fire and begin heating water for her to bathe in. She then entered the pavilion itself, where Jacinda was waiting. Jacinda had been Aendasia’s personal attendant since she had been sent to Beinison as a child bride many years earlier. The middle-aged woman bowed as Aendasia entered.

“Exalted one,” she said in Beinisonian.

“I think I will have a bath and early to bed,” Aendasia replied in the same tongue. Now, in the inner sanctum of her tent, she could finally remove the mask of a hard, strong ruler. Jacinda was the only person with whom she could trust her true self.

She slumped down on the bed that had already been set out and buried her face in her hands. Tears began to trickle out from between tightly closed eyelids.

“Why do they hate me, Jacinda?” she sobbed. “It hurts me so, that they would prefer the wife of a dead pretender to me, my uncle Stefan’s appointed heir. I don’t even want to be here; I’d rather be back in Cabildo. Why am I doing all of this for them?”

“Shush, my lady,” Jacinda said soothingly, sitting down on the bed next to Aendasia. “Here, let me get that heavy crown off your head.”

She lifted the diamond and platinum crown and placed it carefully on a waiting pedestal. Aendasia felt instant relief as the weight was removed, for it was a formidable piece of jewellery to wear on one’s head. It was intended to be worn only on formal occasions, and even then, only for a few bells at a time, not a whole day. A full suit of chain mail did not ease the burden any.

“Now I’ll hear no more defeatist talk,” Jacinda said softly. Though the words were harsh, her tone was soft and gentle, like a mother’s. Indeed, Jacinda had been the closest thing to a mother Aendasia had known since the age of ten. The maid dabbed at Aendasia’s tears with a cloth.

“I loved my uncle so,” Aendasia said. “I must fulfil his last request, that I be queen. Ah, curse that thieving Caeron and his greedy wife who will not give up the crown even now.”

“Here, let me help you remove your armour, exalted one,” Jacinda said softly, pulling the surcoat bearing the Blortnikson coat of arms over Aendasia’s head. “The people will learn to accept your rule, in time. Truth is truth, and they must see that eventually.”

“They hate me because I am a Beinisonian,” Aendasia said.

“Beinisonian, Baranurian, Comarrian, Lederian … It matters not; you are their queen. They cannot hold true to a usurper for long; Ascendere will not allow it.”

Aendasia nodded. “You are right; I must keep faith. If Ascendere could place the stars, he will certainly come to my aid.” Jacinda pulled the heavy chain hauberk off and Aendasia suddenly felt as if she might float up off the bed. “Oh, Jacinda, I feel so much better just having that armour off.”

“Your majesty!” a female voice invaded the tent.

Aendasia ground her teeth at the breach in protocol. She could hear Jacinda gasp in disapproval as well. She thought she recognised the girl’s voice as one of her husband’s squires. Aendasia purposely kept her back to the pavilion’s entrance.

“What is it?” She made her voice as cold as she could.

“Forgive me, your majesty,” the squire panted, “but my Lord Northfield has just arrived, and he commanded that I inform you immediately. I swam the Laraka –”

“Inform my lord husband that I will call on him on the morrow,” Aendasia said icily. She could not see Valeran with her eyes puffy from tears. Furthermore, as an empress, she could make her husband wait if she wanted to. She was always in charge of their marriage and kept things that way with small acts such as this one. That her husband had ordered his squire to swim the river showed how anxious he was to see her. It was not that she did not want to see him. Indeed, she likely craved his warmth in her bed more than he desired her, but keeping him waiting would ensure he never forgot that she was not at his beck and call. It was another tactic she had learned from her experience as wife to a Beinisonian emperor.

When the squire did not leave right away, Aendasia snapped, “What are you waiting for? Bring my message to Duke Northfield.”

“Y-yes, your majesty.” The squire darted out of the tent and presumably back to the Laraka River.

***

It was late the next day before Aendasia deigned to commandeer a local fishing boat and cross the river to meet with her husband. When she arrived on the west bank, blue-clad soldiers were waiting for her with one of the duke’s horses. She mounted and rode casually through the camp. She was pleased to note that the Northfield army was well set up and Magnus surrounded. Several ballistae were being built to the north and would soon ensure that no ship could pass by unless it was loyal to Aendasia.

It was not long before she found her husband, astride his chestnut-coloured horse on a low hill, supervising his part of the siege. His copper-coloured, shoulder-length hair blew gently in the wind. She was happy to see that he was not wearing armour, for that would have taken several long moments to remove. She was almost beside him before he noticed her.

“Das– exalted wife.” He corrected himself at the last moment. He had almost called her by her pet name in public. Such a breach in protocol might have given him frostbite. Aendasia couldn’t help a little up-turning of the corner of her lip at that thought. She had him well trained.

“My lord husband.” She extended her hand and he kissed it. In the past he had complained that even Caeron Tallirhan “the pure” had kissed his wife fully on the mouth in public. Aendasia was still a Beinisonian empress, however.

“As always, it has been too long,” Valeran said. Indeed, they had not seen each other for several months while he was raising levies and calling on his vassals to reconstitute his army after the winter repose. “But as you can see, I was successful in gathering a substantial army. On the move north, I was able to ‘convince’ Piet Durening to finally surrender Beid Castle to me. After a winter under siege, I suppose he gave up on anyone coming to his aid. I was also able to take the Abbess Matilda of Shaddir and several knights captive in the deal.”

“An excellent bit of negotiation, my husband,” Aendasia said, allowing her formal imperial mask to crack just enough to show a smile. “Yes, that is most excellent, indeed. Duchess Welspeare has no more vassals to call upon now that the last of her castles has fallen. That is how I will gain such a victory as Mon-Orthanier said, if I can crush her army.”

“Isidoro Mon-Orthanier?” Valeran said. “But isn’t he –?”

“Never mind that. We must discuss some strategic matters. Your tent should be a suitable place.”

She gave Valeran a look that made perspiration break out on his forehead. “Uh, y-yes of course. It will be fine.”

He spurred his horse off towards his pavilion at the canter, but Aendasia followed at a much slower pace. She had no trouble finding his tent, for of all the blue ones present, his was the only one that flew the blazon of a white falcon above it. As she neared the tent, she caught the last of Valeran’s instructions to one of his male squires.

“… Ol’s balls, if anyone interrupts the empress and I during discussions, and I mean anyone, I’ll cut *your* balls off!”

The boy went white and nodded frantically. Then he noticed Aendasia and dashed over to take the reins of her horse as she dismounted. He bowed his head and mumbled a quick “Your majesty”. She ignored the squire and strode into the tent where Valeran was waiting. She carefully closed the flap behind her and they were alone.

“Ah, Dasia, I’ve missed you!”

“I know you have,” she said with a smile, turning her back to Valeran so that he could untie the lacing of her gown. He fumbled with it, but finally got the dress off. As she slipped the rest of her undergarments off, he took in a sharp breath of air.

“Shilsara’s bed, you’re beautiful!”

Some wives might have been insulted if their husband invoked the name of the Olean goddess of lust, but Aendasia rather enjoyed it. She had a firm body from years training for war, since a Beinisonian ruler also had to be a warrior. She also had long blonde hair that was almost white, a rare prize in Beinison, where most were dark. She was pleased that Valeran recognised and appreciated that.

As he frantically tried to pull off his pants, she pushed him down onto the cot and straddled him. As wife to Alejandro VII, a cruel and abusive man, she had been subject to her husband’s every will. Sometimes that meant beatings, sometimes worse, but with her duke of Northfield she was the dominant one. She would never let a man treat her like a belonging again.

17 Firil, 899

As the siege continued, the citizens of Magnus seemed to grow braver and braver. They started showing themselves on the walls more often, usually to curse Aendasia. This day, Aendasia sat on her horse next to Valeran and her battle captains to the north of the city, on the west bank of the Laraka. After Mon-Orthanier’s prediction, she had always observed the siege from a northern position so that she could lead her army into battle when the Duchess of Welspeare arrived.

At the moment, they happened to be fairly close to the walls of Magnus. Aendasia noticed there were quite a few townspeople without uniform on the walls. One of them, a butcher judging by his blood-stained leather apron, pointed her direction and shouted, “There’s the Duchess of Northfield!” Many peasants wearing shades of brown and grey started filling the ramparts, pointing and waving their hands.

“Beinisonian whore!” one of them screamed.

“Why don’t you go back to Cabildo so you can squirm with your Beinisonian cuckolds, queenie!”

“Erida curse their graves!” She felt the insults strike like arrows in her heart.

“You codless vermin!” Duke Equiville shouted back at them.

“Save your breath, Baldwin,” Valeran said.

Several of the townsfolk dropped their pants or lifted their skirts. Some showed their bare buttocks; others faced forward. More cries of “queenie”, “whore”, and worse rained down on Aendasia from the battlements. Duke Equiville snatched a crossbow from a nearby soldier and fired it at one of the men waving his penis in Aendasia’s direction. The bolt missed, but the man did lower his tunic and duck as the missile whistled through the air scant fingers away.

Aendasia balled her hands into fists. Never had she been subject to such ridicule, and this from her own subjects! She could take no more. “Assault the walls! By Gow, I want those knaves swinging by the end of the day!”

“No one is happier than I to see that Ascendere, the Lord of Justice, has shown you what these scum truly deserve, exalted one,” Raimundo Quikuches said. “But we are not ready. None of the siege towers are complete; we have but a few ladder–”

“I don’t care!” Aendasia slammed a mailed fist down on her thigh. “I ordered an assault, and we will take those walls. I don’t care if I have to climb a ladder and seize them myself!”

“Dasia –”

“Give the order, Raimundo.” Aendasia cut her husband off with an icy glare.

“As you command, exalted one,” Raimundo replied. He barked orders and soon the deep resonance of Beinisonian drums could be heard throughout the plains surrounding Magnus.

Aendasia summoned the squire that carried her war sceptre and took the two-handed mace from the girl. “Valeran, go to the south and order your siege crews to launch burning tar from the mangonels. I want the south side of Magnus aflame while we attack! And,” she grabbed her husband by his chain mail gorget and pulled him close so she could whisper in his ear. “If you ever call me ‘Dasia’ or question my authority in front of my battle commanders again, I’ll cut your cod off.”

“Yes, exalted wife,” he stammered. “Forgive me.”

“Of course,” she whispered, then planted a kiss on his cheek. She did not particularly enjoy being so harsh with him, but then he had never struck her, as her first husband had, so it was worth being hard.

Valeran galloped off to the south. By now, the army camp was in disarray as soldiers hurriedly doused fires, pulled mail hauberks over their heads, and readied weapons. Aendasia rode to the Westgate to address her troops before the battle, since that was the most formidable obstacle they faced.

She made a customary speech, reviling the enemy and predicting victory, for their cause was just, but she also added a few comments she felt sure would stir her troops to righteous hatred.

“Will you let these butchers and carpenters and smiths curse and taunt your empress from the safety of their battlements? Will you stand by while they call your queen a whore and a queenie? If not, then take those ramparts for me and let them taste justice! Gow and Nehru will guide you against such vile scoundrels!”

The troops let out a loud cry and as one charged the walls of Magnus, carrying ladders over their heads or waving their weapons in the air. The battering ram trundled towards the gates behind them, guided by several stout Beinisonians. Aendasia rode to take her place with her bodyguard of Knights of the Star, warriors who wished to prove their worth on the battlefield. It was customary for them to accompany the ruler of Beinison into the worst of the fighting.

Aendasia watched with pride as her loyal soldiers thundered towards the castle walls. A few arrows flew from the battlements, but the townspeople of Magnus had too few to do serious damage. Soon, the first ladder was secured and a white-clad man-at-arms of Equiville scurried up it, brandishing a mace.

The defenders were ready, however. They had made many poles to push the ladders off the wall. That first ladder was also the first to fall victim to the poles, and the maceman tumbled from the ladder and knocked over a few of his fellows when he plunged to the earth. His ladder sent more bodies flying as it crashed to the ground. A short distance down the wall, Aendasia saw a large cauldron with steam billowing from it emerge above the ramparts. It tipped over and a stream of yellowish boiling oil rained down on the soldiers below. Screams of pain roiled up from the attackers’ lines as men and women were scorched by the deadly liquid. A man-at-arms wearing the red and grey Tallirhan colours pushed a damaged piece of wall over the edge of the ramparts and it thundered to the ground, crushing several soldiers and smashing the leg of a downed ladder. Aendasia even saw a burning wagon wheel and a lit lantern fly down from the walls.

Her soldiers were brave, but Aendasia could see the attack was faltering only a bell into the assault. A Knight of the Dragon, his chainmail flashing in the sun, made it onto the ramparts, but the ladder he’d come up on was thrown away from the wall by a pair of townsfolk with their pole. As the knight turned and hacked at them with his sword, a bald man with a heavy blacksmith’s hammer approached from behind. He smashed the Beinisonian warrior over the head, and the knight disappeared behind the ramparts. An Equiville soldier was able to grasp the wall and prevent his ladder being pushed back, but then had his skull opened by a carpenter’s hammer and he and his ladder collapsed. Even when the battering ram finally made it to the gates, it and its crew were doused in boiling pitch. Burning torches were then thrown down onto the ram and it burst into flames so ho t that no one could approach it until it was no more than a pile of smouldering ash.

Even Valeran’s attacks from the south failed, for a strong northerly wind suddenly picked up, extinguishing many of the fires and blowing the smoke back towards the Northfield army’s lines.

Finally, Aendasia realised that the walls would not be taken this day, and staying in the fight would only result in more casualties. “Sound the retreat,” she ordered the master drummer who stood to her right.

She gritted her teeth and turned a baleful stare towards Magnus and its spiteful inhabitants, who were now cheering and showing their behinds once again as her loyal troops staggered away from the city walls. She would not allow herself to be humiliated thus again, and she swore that when she did take Magnus, it would pay the price.

***

As sennights gave way to months, Aendasia realised that the siege of Magnus was going to take a long time, possibly even years, and with no certainty of success. Given the breadth of the Laraka, ships were able to bring occasional supplies despite the ballistae and catapults set up along the banks. Even if she were to breach the city’s formidable walls that were a good seven feet thick and twenty-six feet high, Crown Castle was nearly impregnable, with a keep high enough to scrape the sky and double walls, encircled by a deep ditch and perched on a hill.

She soon grew restless, then discouraged, and by mid-Yuli decided that Magnus could wait. Abandoning the siege, she sought to cut off Magnus’ lifeline, the Laraka, by taking Irskin Castle, which had been held by Tallirhan vassals. She then turned her eyes towards Port Sevlyn. The previous year, forces loyal to Aendasia had besieged the ducal seat of Quinnat, but that siege had been lifted when the army was lured into a trap while attempting to capture Queen Dara. It seemed fitting to Aendasia, then, that a part of her revenge on the wife of he who had usurped her crown would be there.

29 Sy, 899

The sky above Port Sevlyn was a bleached blue-white colour that shimmered with heat, bereft of any clouds, for Sy had been a month of drought and dust. Aendasia was sweating heavily beneath her chain mail gambeson and surcoat bearing the arms of her adopted family, the Blortniksons. Her stallion, too, was lathered in sweat and pawing the ground.

Her troops waited all around her, hunkered down in the shadows of the houses that lined the street. The city walls had fallen to Aendasia’s initial assault three sennights ago. The castle, however, had repelled her attackss thus far, and Duchess Annora Quinnat had remained defiant, scorning all demands for surrender.

This day the outlaw duchess would regret her obstinacy. Over the past month, Isidoro Mon-Orthanier had recovered somewhat and Aendasia was ready to put his powers to the test once more.

Her husband moved close on his horse and whispered, “Dasia, are you sure this is a good idea? I think Mon-Orthanier is still possessed. Can we trust his magic?”

“I tire of waiting to starve these traitors out of their castles,” Aendasia replied, “and Isidoro Mon-Orthanier is one of the most powerful sorcerers in Beinison, in all of Makdiar, even. If he says he is ready, he is ready. But enough talk; my decision has already been made.”

“As you command,” Valeran said, “exalted wife.”

Aendasia signalled for one of her squires to bring forth her war sceptre; the time was almost nigh when the attack would begin. She could see the sorcerer Mon-Orthanier standing a short distance away, no longer restrained by Nima Jaleit’s troops. He raised his arms, and began to chant in a loud, deep voice. At hearing that, Aendasia felt any uneasiness she might have had melt away.

A low rumbling filled Aendasia’s ears. At first, she thought it was merely the Laraka, on whose banks Port Sevlyn was perched, but the thunder got progressively louder, until she felt as if she were in the middle of a mighty storm. The sky remained clear, however.

Three ear-shattering cracks rang out and Aendasia’s horse reared as the earth beneath it began to shake. She could hear Valeran curse behind her as he struggled to keep his mount under control. A villager darted out of her house and tried to move through the soldiers, screaming that she didn’t want to die. They pushed her back into her home, however. Aendasia looked over at Mon-Orthanier, who had fallen to his knees. He was still making signs in the air with his hands, but the motions were not smooth. His arms jerked as if some invisible opponent were trying to restrain him.

Again, a loud crack, and Aendasia looked up to see part of the castle walls buck as the ground directly beneath it heaved upwards. Stones toppled from the wall and timbers splintered. Aendasia watched in awe as her surroundings grew silent. Then Isidoro Mon-Orthanier let out a mighty cry and the house he was standing next to burst into flames.

Horses whinnied loudly and soldiers cried out in alarm as flames appeared on the keep’s ramparts, and more of the buildings around them were ignited without any apparent cause. Aendasia could sense that her own army was on the verge of panic, but so too must Quinnat Keep’s defenders have been. There was a breach in the wall from the tremor in the earth, and more masonry was tumbling to the ground each moment.

She didn’t know whether the effects she was seeing were by design, or whether the sorcerer’s spell had escaped his control, but she couldn’t allow this chance to pass. Waving her imperial war sceptre in the air, she spurred her horse forward and ploughed through the infantry in front of her.

“With me, to the castle!” she shouted.

“For the empress!” Valeran cried behind her.

With her Knights of the Star around her, she charged towards the gap in the wall. She realised as she was almost at the walls that she had not yet donned her helmet, having wanted to wait until the last possible moment before putting it on. No matter; it was too late now. She could see out of the corner of her eye that Raimundo Quikuches was leading his Knights of the Dragon on the attack as well.

Aendasia could feel her horse shy away from the flames, but she forced it onwards and jumped over the last bit of wall that lay before her. Then she was in the castle bailey. Soldiers wearing the green and blue of Quinnat swarmed around her, fleeing towards the safety of the keep.

She swung her giant mace downwards, smashing through the helmet of a soldier beside her. The man toppled to the ground and Aendasia wound up for another swing. Her knights surged into the crowded bailey, hacking and slashing about them, the Quinnat soldiers falling to their blades like sheaves of wheat.

The events of the next few bells dissolved into confusion and fear for Aendasia, and she didn’t remember much of it later. She could recall only certain images: the keep’s stables bursting into flames and the screaming horses inside desperately trying to escape, a young soldier pinned to the ground by a lance, and other troops being crushed as a part of the castle walls collapsed on them.

The keep was quickly overtaken and its occupants surrendered within a few bells. All told, the assault on the castle, the culmination of a three-sennight siege, lasted but three bells.

30 Sy, 899

Aendasia’s triumph proved to be less than complete. A thorough search of the castle revealed a frustrating fact: Duchess Annora Quinnat had somehow managed to flee the city. Whether she had made good her escape during the three sennights of siege, or in the confusion of the battle, Aendasia would likely never know. To make matters worse, her most prized ally, the sorcerer Isidoro Mon-Orthanier, had disappeared also. Raimundo Quikuches and his Knights of the Dragon were scouring Port Sevlyn in search of the possessed mage, but Aendasia had little hope that Mon-Orthanier would be found, even if he were still alive.

And so, Aendasia was in a foul mood, despite the capture of a strategically important city, as she sat in the sweltering great hall of Quinnat Keep. She squirmed uncomfortably in her chair as a group of dishevelled prisoners were dragged before her. The duchess’ uncle, Sir Arnulf Bankroft, had stayed behind, and now stood in front of the rightful queen.

His thinning hair was matted, his eyes bloodshot, and his cheeks and beard darkened by soot and dried blood. Shackles, which he seemed to wear as a badge of honour, bound his wrists, and he held his chin high as the guards forced him to his knees.

“I am here, my lady,” he said. “Do with me as you will.”

“You will address her majesty by her proper title!” Baldwin Equiville made as if to strike Bankroft across the face, but Aendasia stopped him with a raised hand.

“One might think you the loyalist here, rather than the miserable wretch of a rebel you are, scapegoat of your craven niece who fled rather than face me herself.”

“My niece is no coward!” Sir Arnulf barked. “In fact, we had to force her to leave ere you took the castle, knowing she’d be of no use to Queen Dara in one of your dungeons.”

“How dare you speak to me so?” Aendasia said, careful to keep her voice icy. “How dare you come before me in chains and boast loyalty to that unworthy woman, who isn’t even a Tallirhan by blood, that pretender wife of a dead traitor? I am the last surviving Tallirhan!”

Aendasia could feel rage bubbling up in her, like a cauldron boiling over a fire that burned too hot. Tears seared her eyes and heat rose in her cheeks. The impotent anger that had seethed inside her since the commoners of Magnus had taunted her threatened to break free, there in the great hall of Quinnat Keep.

“By the gods!” She gripped the arm of her chair tightly. She spoke strongly, but without raising her voice. “I was named the rightful heir to the throne of Baranur by King Stefan, my uncle. He wanted me to rule, so I left my adopted homeland to come here, to fulfil your dead king’s last wish. Think you that I do this for my own selfish gain? No, it is for King Stefan, and how am I repaid? How, I ask? My cousin steals the throne from me, and even when justice prevails and he dies, still you follow his illegitimate line!”

She looked around the hall, still strewn with the debris of the previous day’s fighting, the walls blackened from flames. Her dukes and barons were huddled close to the dais, intent on her every word.

“Ascendere, King of the Star Placers and Lord of Justice, told the prophets the terrible price of the most mortal of sins: treachery,” she said slowly, for her throat was suddenly tight and raw. “Death is the wage of treachery. And so, Sir Arnulf Bankroft will boil alive in the cauldron as traitors to Beinison rulers have for centuries!”

Aendasia swallowed with effort. Arnulf Bankroft’s jaw hung open as the colour drained out of his face. She heard Duke Baldwin Equiville gasp as he stared wide-eyed at her. Her husband whispered an oath under his breath. The rest of her barons just looked on in disbelief. Aendasia could feel her fingernails digging into the palm of her hand. She would see how defiant the rebel lords would be after this.

“Hang the garrison as well. Hang them all! Let them know what it means to swear fealty to a usurper.”

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