DargonZine 20, Issue 3

The Great Houses War Part 7: The Knights’ Charge at Balkura

Firil 28, 902 - Firil 30, 902


This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series The Great Houses War

Baroness Galina Fennell sat in a simple pine chair, staring into the fire that crackled in a stone hearth. The floor beneath her feet was dirt strewn with rushes, the building a peasant’s dwelling that doubled as a tavern of sorts. The master of the house, a widow of the civil war that had raged for nigh on five years, served homemade ale and rented the rooms upstairs to travellers. Such was the best a humble village like Balkura had to offer. Such was the best that a loyal vassal of the rightful queen, Dara Tallirhan, could command, Galina thought bitterly.

In the early days, things had seemed far better. Caeron and his wife had been much loved by the people, and had been crowned to much celebration by the Stevenic Master Priest, Cyrridain. But then Aendasia Blortnikson, Empress-consort of the deceased Beinisonian Emperor Alejandro VII and Duchess of Northfield, had moved north with her Beinisonian troops to steal the crown from Caeron. She believed that she was rightful ruler because the spiteful King Stefan II had named her heir so that the Stevenic Caeron would not be king. Early battles had gone well as King Caeron had been an excellent battle commander, but in the first days of 899 the king had died defending the walls of Magnus, his capital. Since that time, city after city and castle after castle had fallen to Aendasia’s armies.

Queen Dara, Caeron’s wife and heir, and what remained of her nobles, were trapped in Dargon Keep, besieged for over half a year. Galina looked up from the fire and towards the north where Dargon Keep lay. Of course, the lone window that faced that direction was shuttered against the cool winds. Spring had begun several sennights earlier, but in the Barony of Fennell, in the dense woods to the south of the city of Dargon, frost still covered the ground some mornings.

“Can I get you anything more, milady?” The owner of the makeshift tavern interrupted Galina’s line of thought.

“No, thank you.” She mustered as much pleasantness in her voice as she could. It would not do to allow others to see her dark mood. “You may retire for the evening.”

“Thank you, your ladyship.” The peasant woman curtseyed and backed away out of the light cast by the fire.

A familiar voice, deep and rumbling like thunder, met her ears. “Another fine night God has given us, is it not, your ladyship?”

Galina turned to see the Stevenic priest, Cyruz of Vidin enter the room with her husband, Baron Boris Fennell in tow. They made for an odd pair. Cyruz was tall and thin, with a broad brow overtopping a face constantly creased with a smile so warm that each strand of his thick brown beard seemed to curl in amiability. Galina’s beloved Boris, on the other hand, was short and as solid as an ancient oak. He had blocky features and several scars on his face earned in many battles.

The Baroness of Fennell couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the two. “Father Cyruz, you are ever in good cheer no matter what befalls you. I am oft unable to fathom it.”

Cyruz chuckled as he always did and pulled up a chair for himself and sat next to Galina. “I live in the Stevene’s Light; how can I not be happy?”

“Even with the kingdom in tatters around us? With Queen Dara besieged in Dargon Keep, and we but a few knights and squires holed up in one of the least of my villages?”

“Ah, but what grand knights and friends you have with you!”

“I can hardly argue with that,” Boris said as he, too, pulled up a chair and sat near the fire to warm himself. Indeed, the Fennells did have their most trusted friends and vassals with them in the town: all of Galina’s household knights, and those landed knights of the barony who owed her fealty directly. Even counting the squires, however, they amounted to little more than fifty.

“But, Stevene help me, hardly enough to be of much help, are we?” Galina said.

“Nonsense! Have you not learned what I have taught you these many months?” Laughing softly and pouring himself a cup of warm posset from the pot hanging over the fire, Cyruz looked from one Fennell to another. “Nay, more than months, it has been nigh on two years since the two of you, and your knights, embraced the Stevene’s Light! Put your trust in that Light. The God of Stevene favours the just!”

Galina could see Boris smiling and nodding at that, and she could not help but smile herself, as Cyruz’s energy and joy was infectious. She laughed and patted the kindly cleric’s knee. “You are always able to make even the bleakest situation a happy occasion, father.”

“It is little wonder some have started to call you Cyruz the holy!” Boris laughed.

“Holy am I, now?” Cyruz said incredulously. “More of that nonsense about me meeting the Stevene in Pyridain, I suppose. No matter how much I tell people I was but a senseless boy at the time, they refuse to listen!”

From some the words might have sounded angry, but Cyruz was good-natured about everything, and his voice betrayed no hint of animosity. The three of them sat in silence for a while after that, watching the flames slowly devour the log that rested in the hearth.

“This is truly our — and the queen’s — crucible bell,” Galina said. “But as long as we have good and loyal friends by our side, and the Stevene’s Light shining down from above, we shall weather it.”

“You have a new convert’s zeal, your ladyship,” Cyruz said. “Treasure that, for it may not last forever.”

Boris smirked. “Yes, perhaps you’ll one day end up like Katrina Welspeare, lusting after both men and battle!”

“God forefend!” Galina exclaimed.

“Now, now,” Cyruz chided, “have charity, my friends. None are perfect in their adherence to the Stevene’s teachings, even, I dare say, the Master Priest Cyrridain.”

Before any more could be said, the door to the makeshift tavern banged open as a breathless squire, his tunic soaked through with sweat, nearly tumbled into the room. He hurried up to Galina and Boris and took a knee before them. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he delivered his news.

“Midlord, milady, I fear I bring ill tidings.”

“That’s hardly something new,” Boris said.

Galina shushed her husband, then turned back to the squire. “What news? Has Lord Connall met defeat?”

She had been expecting news on the battle that Connall Dargon had engaged in a few days’ ride to the east. It was an attempt to circle around behind the bulk of the Northfield forces and reunite with Galina’s knights, as they had been separated during a skirmish with Baron Coranabo. She had received word from Connall that he planned to attempt this gambit three days ago, but had heard nothing after that.

“No, milady.” The squire’s head dipped as he looked down at the dirt floor. “I did not make it across the Coldwell, for fresh Northfield forces move north along the west bank. I recognised the heraldry of the Baron of Bastonne leading the army. They appeared to be heading west towards Fennell Keep, milady. I galloped here as fast as I could, but if they kept the course they were on, they will be between us and Fennell Keep. by now.”

Galina’s hand went to her throat in a Stevenic gesture of piety. “Stevene preserve us! Their strength?”

“A thousand at the very least, milady,” the squire replied.

“Cephas’ boot,” Galina whispered. A host that great would undoubtedly be able to crush Fennell Keep. Then, once it had reinforced the army under Valeran Northfield at Dargon Keep, the insurrectionists would likely be able to storm the castle and dash the royalists’ hopes once and for all.

Boris put a hand to his throat. “By the good God, what can we do?”

Firil 29, 902

The next evening Baroness Fennell gathered all of her knights in the temple that dominated the centre of Balkura, as the makeshift inn was too small to hold them all, despite the fact there were barely three dozen of them. Even so, they didn’t leave a lot of extra room in the temple. She was uneasy about using another religion’s sacred shrine for these purposes, but there was nothing for it. She was sure the villagers were less than pleased themselves, but they weren’t about to deny their baroness access to any of their buildings.

She had spread a map out on the altar at the centre of the temple and she now traced on it the situation with a thin index finger. “Lord Connall Dargon is somewhere in this vicinity on the far side of the Coldwell, but we have no way of knowing whether his attack met with success. A fresh Northfield force approaches Fennell Keep from the east — here. For certes they are headed to reinforce Duke Northfield at Dargon after taking Fennell Keep. Scouts report that they have cut off our route through the forest to Fennell Keep.

“Either way, we are in a difficult situation. We cannot return to Fennell Keep to defend it. We cannot go to Dargon itself, either. Even if we could sneak past Bastonne’s army, Baron Talador now fights for the Duchess of Northfield, and the insurrectionists hold Winthrop Keep. Even then, we obviously haven’t the forces needed to lift the siege.”

“Is there nothing we can do?” one of her knights asked. “By the Stevene, we cannot just stand by and do nothing.”

Galina paused for a few moments before answering. She had prayed long and hard for guidance while the knights were roused and assembled in the temple. Unfortunately, the good God had not given her a blast of sudden insight as he had Queen Dara over a year before, which had led to the end of the first siege of Dargon. Galina had, however, come to a determination of her own. It was more of an absolute lack of options than any great stratagem. She hesitated to state it, but knew it was the only course, save staying here in Balkura and watching the Northfielders pass by.

“We have but one honourable choice: to attack the Northfield army, and do what harm we can to them, in hopes that it may purchase for the queen a better chance, or at least some time.”

“Such a course would be nothing short of suicide!” one of her knights said, to the accompaniment of a handful of his comrades.

Boris, whom Galina had consulted on this matter, stepped forward. “We will all die one day. Would you rather it be years from now, in your beds, or now, when we have a chance to save Baranur from the depredations of the Beinisonian heathens?”

“What are the virtues that Cyruz the bard has taught us lo these many months?” Galina asked. “Has he not taught us that the Stevene’s Light calls us to be courageous, faithful … loyal? Has he not also taught us that those who uphold the Stevene’s Light will be rewarded in the next life?”

“But what did the Stevene ever say about God choosing queens?”

“Mayhap the Stevene said nothing directly,” Galina said, “but God did choose Dara to rule this land and I do not presume to question His will. I did not let the force of superior numbers turn my heart when I knew what was right, and I won’t do that now. We will ride for pride and honour, knowing that right will prevail as long as there are good and brave folk alive in this land. We will ride for our hearts and our faith, knowing that the Stevene favours the just.

“Dara will reign in Baranur; righteousness will reign in Baranur because we stood firm when others would fall cowering back. And should we lose our lives in this fight, our blood will have purchased more than life: a victory of loyalty and honour in a kingdom where fear and greed shall never reign!

“We have perhaps lost our chance to share in that victory here on Makdiar, but we have been given a chance to give this victory to generations to come. Let us make such an end for ourselves that it shall be sung by bards down through the ages! Let every stride we take as we charge to embrace the enemy be a resounding thunderclap in heaven for those who would uphold the good against all odds ”

“Hear, hear!” Boris shouted, his voice echoing off the temple walls.

Several of the knights nodded in approval. A few more audibly assented. Finally, one of the youngest of the host, Sir Aleksandr Kozulin, raised his fist and shouted, “Let it be so! I’d rather die two menes from now knowing I did my duty than a thousand years later having shirked it!

“By Cephas, let us give the traitors something they shall ever remember Fennell by!”

“And give them that we shall!” Galina slammed her fist down on the stone slab altar, forgetting its religious nature. “Let us adorn ourselves as if for a grand tournament and ride out onto the fields of battle one last time in the name of our God and our queen!”

Everyone cheered, then spilled out of the temple and into the streets. Those who were not staying in the peasant woman’s tavern had commandeered villagers’ homes, and each went to his dwelling to prepare for the battle the next day. Galina and Boris roused their squires, and their son Oleg, and ordered that their weapons and armour be polished and cleaned as for a plaisance.

Long into the night they worked, even going so far as to sew additions with what cloth they could find to their surcoats and horses’ caparisons such that they would resemble what one would wear to a glorious tournament. When this was done, there was little point in sleeping, not when all knew this was their last night alive.

Outside the tavern, Galina could hear Cyruz and the other Stevenic priests who had accompanied them singing hymns and other songs of praise and worship. While their followers did this, Galina and Boris bathed one last time, that they might face their end at their best. Boris pleated his wife’s hair as for a banquet. They spent the remaining bells in a tender embrace, remembering all the blessings that had been bestowed on them in their lives.

Firil 30, 902

Galina Fennell waited astride her horse, several paces ahead of her knights, on the field north of the village of Balkura. Out of the corner of one eye she could see a farmhouse about half a league to the west. Beyond the house lay dense forest blanketing the horizon. To the east, the borders of the forest were even closer. She knew that if she turned in the saddle she would be able to see Balkura itself several leagues behind her, with the small temple and the wattle-and-daub houses huddled around it.

Ahead, she could see the Northfield army approaching. Blue banners flapped in the air. Some of them bore the black falcon that denoted the presence of Northfield vassals but not the duke or duchess of Northfield, in which case there would have been a white falcon somewhere amid the banners. She could see the banner of Baron Bastonne, a blue field divided in half by a red bar starting in the top-left corner. It also bore the blazon of a baronial crown, as did Galina’s, and stag’s horns, indicating the baron fancied himself a great hunter.

The army was hemmed-in by the forest that had not been cleared as far back from the road at their position as it was at Galina’s. As such, it was deployed with a very small frontage of troops that Galina judged would be unable to surround her knights when they charged.

As she expected, the baron’s representative, a young noble who looked as if he’d just eaten something distasteful, cantered away from the army and towards Galina, who also urged her mount forward to meet him. As they approached one another, she could see his eyes move over the line of Fennell knights arranged in one row abreast of each other. His eyes widened in shock and his voice bore a note of indignation when the two met.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “We have arranged in order of battle to face an army, yet there are but three dozen knights here!”

“I see your liege-lord has not taught you manners, child,” Galina said mildly. The youth’s face reddened and she didn’t think it was out of embarrassment. “Even in times of war it is customary to address nobles by their proper rank.”

The boy looked as if he were about to say something more, then thought better of it. He glanced back at the Northfield army, which had now stopped. Galina looked also and was glad to see the troops milling about in confusion and a degree of disarray rather than prepared for battle.

“Begging your ladyship’s pardon,” the young noble said grudgingly, “what do you intend to do with but a handful of knights versus the mighty host aligned against you?”

Galina looked from left to right, taking the measure of the army. They stood about, as if fighting were the last thing they expected to do today, and well they might. Their ranks were not much wider than her own knights’ frontage, and packed dozens of soldiers deep. The bulk of the army was positioned behind these front lines. There were archers and varying degree of men-at-arms, from peasants with farm implements to well-equipped castle guards bearing shields with their lords’ livery and chain hauberks. Their cavalry were not in their customary places on the flanks thanks to the forest; in fact, Galina could only assume the Northfield cavalry was stuck further north, unable to manoeuvre to the front quickly enough to face her.

“I do not know what strength we have, but I do know this,” Galina finally said after close to half a mene had passed while she surveyed the troops arrayed against her. “You will not be allowed to leave this place. These soldiers will not reinforce Duke Northfield at Dargon.”

The youth snorted, but did not laugh outright. Instead he looked at her with raised eyebrow, as if to say he thought her completely mad. Galina pulled a piece of cloth that she had tucked beneath her mount’s saddle. It was a piece of her gown, the type of favour a non-fighting lady might give her champion at a tournament. She held it out for the Northfielder to take.

“You will take this to the Baron Bastonne as a token of my respect for him, but he will not be allowed to leave.”

The boy took it and Galina turned her horse and rode back to her knights. Each was resplendent in his or her personal heraldic devices, scrubbed and cleaned to a fine gleam in the morning sun. So too, did their armour sparkle. Each had their crest proudly displayed on their great helm. Indeed, each was adorned as if for a tournament, and they had turned out their best, for this would be the last course they would ever joust.

As she reached the assembled knights and squires, many of them nodded to her or saluted with their lances. Cyruz of Vidin and a couple of other Stevenic priests were also there, having prayed for them through the night and given blessings while they had waited for the Northfielders to arrive. Galina’s squire trotted up on one of the baroness’ horses. So too, did Boris, his helmet not yet donned, a soft smile upon his lips.

He took Galina’s hand and kissed it, even though it was covered with a chainmail mitten. “Better to end our lives now while we are still full of a new convert’s zeal, would you not agree, my love?”

Galina could feel tears sting her eyes. She reached out that same mailed hand and stroked Boris’ leathery cheek with it. Yes, in a way it was good to end thus, before the fires of her love for the Stevene’s word might die out, or a hundred other horrible things might happen. She only prayed that what she did today would not only save Queen Dara, but keep her own children safe who were now in Fennell Keep. “Yes, my love. Before the day is out, we shall be basking, together, in the Stevene’s Light.”

One of her children, her eldest son Oleg, was not safe in Fennell Keep, but rather riding up alongside her, bearing the baronial banner. He was dressed as a squire, with no devices on his heraldry, and wearing far less armour than the knights. He had only a chainmail hauberk and leather leggings to protect him. He looked a lot like his father, with a square jaw he had set with a look of determination.

“Mama, I am proud to be able to serve the queen thus.”

Galina shook her head. “No, Oleg, neither you, nor any of the squires will accompany us this day. You must take them back to Fennell Keep after the –”

“No! I’d rather die now with you than live a thousand lifetimes knowing I abandoned you.”

“Oleg,” Boris said in a gravely voice. “You have never disobeyed or dishonoured us before. Do not start now. You must lead the barony for us.”

As with all sixteen year-olds Galina knew, Oleg had no real concept of what death meant. Galina remembered her own attitude at that age, thinking she had been invincible, that nothing could harm her. She knew the same held true for Oleg. Despite his brave words, he did not really think he would die.

“Fennell will need a good ruler, and none of your siblings is old enough for the task,” Galina said, “and you are the only one who has learned of the Stevene’s Light with us. You must share that with them.”

“Father Cyruz can do that.”

“No, you must.” Galina fixed her son with a glare that would brook no contradiction and took the banner from him. “Now take the other squires to safety … and keep my great helm in remembrance of this day.”

She motioned for the squire who had first ridden up to her to give the helm to Oleg. She leaned over to hug her son. She let the tears that had been welling flow down her face as she kissed him on the cheek. When she pulled away, she could see that his face, too, was wet with tears. He did as she commanded, however, and slowly turned and led the squires away from the battlefield.

Galina sniffed and felt her husband’s hand on her shoulder. She turned to him and they held each other’s gaze for a few moments. There was nothing more for either to say. She kissed him on the lips and whispered, “May our love burn as brightly in the hereafter.”

He then donned his own great helm and took his position with the other knights. Galina took a short moment to collect herself. She looked across again at the enemy army. They must have seen the squires leaving and appeared to have taken it as an indication that the Fennell knights would soon follow suit. Many were leaning lazily on their spears; others looked to be chatting with one another. Baron Bastonne had not ordered any change of formation it seemed. When she looked to his banner, she could see that several of his knights had left his side and were trying to cajole the troops back into order, while the baron himself seemed to be shouting. Galina nodded her head; the time was now. She turned to face her knights and held her banner high.

“This is to be our end, but let it be such an end as to be spoken and sung of for hundreds of years in great halls. Let us, God willing, purchase with our steel and our blood the crown that Queen Dara so richly deserves to wear. It is better to die for a cause than to surrender it, and our cause is the defence of our true queen!”

The knights, barely three dozen of them, raised their lances and cheered as Galina spoke the words. She held her war hammer aloft and rode down the length of her assembled host, her voice growing louder and steadier with each pronouncement she made.

“King Caeron was denied his rightful inheritance by King Stefan, but the Stevene’s Light allowed him an opportunity to take that which was lawfully his. Let us not squander that opportunity he was given, by our cowardice on this field! Though Caeron, our great king, was laid low by the knives of traitors at Magnus, his queen and son live on to continue the Tallirhan line!”

The knights cheered again, more loudly. Galina turned her horse and galloped along the line of knights. “Follow me into the warm embrace of the Stevene as he will greet us in death! Follow me for the queen! For Baranur!”

“For the queen!” some knights shouted; others bellowed, “Long live Queen Dara! Long live House Tallirhan!”

“For Fennell!” Galina was now screaming at the top of her lungs. Her horse reached the middle of the line and reared up on its hind legs. The destrier’s powerful hooves then pounded upon the earth and Galina surged forward, the faithful knights of Fennell close behind. Galina focussed her gaze on the soldiers across from her, wearing the blue livery of Northfield, her vassal Bastonne, and the other houses of that duchy that seemed to blend into one another. Their eyes were wide with shock and with fear. Bowmen fumbled frantically to bring their weapons to bear, while other soldiers drew swords and other hand weapons. Some broke and ran while the charging knights were still many strides away.

A deep, melodious voice, like snow and boulders rumbling down the side of the Skywall Mountains, filled the air. Galina’s heart began to beat yet faster, and she felt lighter in her saddle as Cyruz the bard’s sacred chant of praise reached her ears:

Prostrate I adore thee, deity unseen,

Who thy glory hidest ‘neath these shadows mean;

Lo, to thee surrendered my heart is bowed,

Tranced as it beholds thee, shrined within the mist.

Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail

But hearing only we may here prevail.

I believe all that the Light hath told;

What the Stevene hath spoken that for truth I hold.

The other priests who had come to the field to bless the knights joined in the song. It seemed as if all other sound from the battlefield was no more, for Galina could only hear that beautiful polyphony as she neared the enemy soldiers. Time seemed to move slowly as she closed, and she was filled with a deep and abiding calm. She bore no lance but could see out of the corner of her eye the lowered lances of her comrades. The first rank of soldiers crumpled before her as lances pierced flesh and bodies were trod underfoot.

Time returned to normal, and rather than the sonorous chant of the Stevenic priests, Galina’s ears were filled with the terrible sounds of battle. Men and women screamed, shouted, and moaned. Metal clashed with metal and hundreds of feet pounded the ground. Galina swung her war hammer again and again. A small band of soldiers tried to pull her from her horse. She shattered the skull of one with the hammer, then impaled another through the eye on the backswing with the point that balanced the hammer head. Her horse reared up and bore another to the ground under sharpened, flailing hooves, and others fled. Almost as soon as the first engagement had begun, it seemed to be over. Enemy soldiers were fleeing in a disordered mob. Galina knew too well that the battle was far from over.

She called to her knights to reform a line and prepare for another charge. They obeyed, forming a neat line with Galina at the centre. She could see that the Northfielders were scrambling to get into better position to fight, now that she was in amidst them.

“Charge! For the Stevene!” she screamed and launched her mount forward once again. This time, arrows started to whiz through the air past her as she and her knights surged towards the enemy. She heard a few cries of pain as one or two of her knights were wounded by the shafts. They pressed on nevertheless, and were quickly in amongst Northfield troops once again. Galina laid about her with her war hammer with all the might she could muster. Men and women fell to her blows one after another.

She turned and saw Aleksandr Kozulin being pulled from his horse. Once he was on the ground, the soldiers pinned him and, pulling up his gorget, slashed his throat. Bright red blood spurted out and the knight soon stopped struggling. Galina charged the band of soldiers and her horse’s powerful body knocked several to the ground then trampled on them.

Charge after charge she led her knights on, leaving bodies strewn all across the roadway and grassland that separated it from the trees. More and more of the brave souls she led fell to arrows and spears as the morning progressed. Galina had no concept of how much time passed, nor did she have time to consider, as Baron Bastonne finally started moving his own knights into position. Without trying to form into a line, or even take stock of how many men and women still fought on her side, she charged towards the enemy knights before they were properly arranged, screaming a battle cry as she went. At least a few hooves pounded after her, and once again the melodious polyphony of Cyruz and the priests’ chanting reached her ears. The sound filled her with renewed vigour, and she lifted her tired arm to smite one of the enemy knights with her hammer. The man’s helmet caved in and he toppled from his horse. His fellows, armed with lances in preparation for a charge, were ill prepared to meet this sudden attack. Galina parried a clumsy attempt to use a lance as a club, then slammed the sharp point of her weapon into her opponent’s throat.

Confusion swirled around her, the world descending into a cacophony of noise, the stench of blood and faeces, and the constant shift of shapes as knights rode about her and slashes and parries were traded. At one point, she somehow managed to break free of the enemy knights and onto a small rise in the land. She could see bodies strewn in every direction. She recognised the heraldry of one or two of her knights here and there, scattered and surrounded. They hewed and slashed with their weapons, dropping many of their enemies, but in turn, they were hauled down from their horses or cut down by enemy knights.

She could see one of the priests, dressed as for a Stevenic celebration in a church, lying dead a short distance away amidst the bodies of enemy soldiers. She was deathly tired, such that she could barely hold her weapon or her banner, but she resolutely refused to drop either. Mustering up the last of her energy, she whispered to herself, “May our love burn as brightly in the hereafter,” then spurred her horse towards the nearest group of enemy knights.

***

Galina lay on her back. She could see the sky and noticed that the sun was not yet at the midpoint; no, it had crossed the midpoint and was already on its descent into night. She struggled to move, but found that she could not. From the waist up she felt as though she’d been stabbed a hundred times, though from there down she felt nothing. She wanted to sleep; her eyes started to flutter shut. But what of the battle? She opened them again. She was certain all of her knights were dead; she remembered that much of the battle. But what harm had they inflicted?

A dark shape blocked out the sun. She looked towards it, and as it drew nearer recognised the heraldry of Baron Bastonne adorning a dirty surcoat. The man knelt down next to her.

“The day is yours, milady,” he said.

Galina realised this was the baron himself. He was younger than she had expected. “W-what do you mean?” She could barely speak. Her mouth tasted of blood and her throat felt as though a strong hand were choking her.

“My army is broken. I have never seen such bravery before.” He shook his head. “I cannot continue. Not only have I hardly anything left to fight with, but … your courage, your loyalty … the empress does not command such as these.”

“Then why do you serve her?”

“Hmmm. I don’t rightly know … In truth, I do not know that I can serve her any longer after what I have seen this day.”

For a moment, Galina felt happiness that eased the pain wracking her body, but then she felt coldness begin to creep into her. She started sobbing without intending to. “M-my husband,” she stammered through tears. “Where is he? Please, let me see him one last time?”

“Your valour has earned you that and more. I only wish my physician could do something for you,” Bastonne replied. He signalled, and a short while later the limp body of Boris was dragged into Galina’s fading sight. The tall, thin man pulling him placed him so that his head rested upon Galina’s chest.

“Rest easy, my lady.” She recognised the voice of Cyruz of Vidin. “You have done your duty; now you may rest in the Light of the Stevene.”

Galina could say nothing but only cried more. She could not move her arms to clutch Boris to her; in fact, she could no longer feel her arms either. Cyruz put a hand to his throat and stretched another over her. She was vaguely aware of him saying something, but could not make out the words. It only sounded like rolling thunder. Then when she could feel nothing, and could not even move her eyes but only stare up at the clear blue sky, Cyruz moved his fingers over her eyelids and there was darkness.

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