Chapter 9: A Burning Sword
When Taren returned to Eshtam-Nis, he found, on his arrival, something not altogether unpleasant and not completely unexpected either. The Warship of Drogoda, the Sword of Taren, and the Fist of Makret flew over the walls of the city, in place of the banners of Anaria, the Morschcoda Council, and Oak Tree of Dothoro that had flown only ten days previously. Edya Reeshnar met him at the gate with half of the members of the Spear who had stayed in the city. Nodding to them, Taren said “Take me to Makret.” As he moved deeper into the city, Taren noticed many things that seemed out of place, patrols of Mordak Riders being the most common. Other things he noticed were archers walking along the rooftops and balconies of taller buildings and the bridges between the tower-like trees that many Dothrin dwelt in, as well as the five Tai-Aren Coda who guarded each entrance to the barracks of the Half-Elvin. Another ten True-Arms Masters guarded the entrance to the palace. Makret met Taren in the great hall, just inside the gate of the palace.
“Captain Reeshnar met me with about half of the Spear, but she would not say anything about what I saw. What in the name of Nasheem happened here, Makret?”
Makret, not a religious man, drew a circle over his heart to ward it from evil upon hearing the name, though it was more as a habit than a belief. “I didn’t know you were one to invoke the names of any of the Seven Devils, Taren.”
“Yes you did, and don’t pretend otherwise. Now, by The Kindler himself, what happened?”
Makret made the sign again, sighed tiredly, and began slowly. “When you were two days gone, the Half-Elvin sealed the city. I didn’t mind, as your orders had been to stay out of the city anyway. But two days after that, they attacked us without provocation. We were unprepared for the attack, and we lost almost three hundred Riders. Eighteen were members of the Spear. We fought off the attack, but we had to siege the city. We only broke the gate three days ago. After that, we were able to gain control of the city, not easily, but it was done. All told, we lost about five hundred of the men you left here, twenty seven of which were Spears.”
Taren shook his head. “Too many. It will be hard to replace them, and it will be harder to forget the men and women who used to hold those places.” Taren looked down and muttered “May their grey ships have calm waters,” an old Drog blessing for the dead, placing his right hand over his heart. “What did you do with Daliana?”
“We had to arrest Daliana. She didn’t fight once she saw that the city was ours. And she promised that her men would lay down their arms as long as her people weren’t threatened. I was happy to agree with her. But she’s locked in her rooms and guarded by three Tai-Aren Coda, all women, as much for her protection as to keep her from escaping. We keep the Half-Elvin confined to their barracks, as you no doubt saw, and we patrol the streets ceaselessly. The Dothrim are a free people, and they didn’t like the thought of being confined to the city.”
“I’ve only been gone for a week, and more has happened now than in the last five years.” He shook his head. “Take me to Daliana.”
Makret started to walk, but stopped quickly. “I think you should know, Taren, Daliana may have ordered the assault, but she did try to stop it once we broke the gates.”
“Do not worry, Makret. I will only be as harsh as I have to be. My wrath is reserved for Guinira. You and I both know that she was the one who really was behind this attack. Somehow, I will make her account for the dead that came to save a part of her empire.”
“This way then, my lord,” said Makret, beginning to walk.
The door to Daliana’s room was guarded by two Tai-Aren Coda. Only Makret, and now Taren, were allowed to pass them. Inside, another True-Arms Master stood guard. She left at Makret’s command.
“You may remain if you wish Makret, but know that certain things said here cannot leave this room.” To Taren’s surprise, Makret decided to withdraw, leaving Taren and Daliana alone. The first thing she did was kneel.
“I don’t deserve it, but I ask mercy from you, Taren Garrenin.”
“And why don’t you deserve it, Daliana Marcarry?”
“Because, even though Guinira ordered the attack against your men, she also released Dothoro from Anaria. She intended to try and win it back from you after she took Noldoron. I was acting under my own power when the attack took place.”
“There are many things that I know you to be, Daliana. You aren’t a skilled liar, nor even a practiced one. And yet, I feel that you at least believe this is true. I disagree with you, but even if it is, I understand why you did it. The Dothrim are a free race, and the thought of being passed from one empire to another with no say upset you, as it should.” Taren was silent for several long minutes. “Stand up.” He was silent for a moment. “This does change some things, but not irreparably. However, it does alter that which I planned on telling you. That must now wait for a later time. I will say this, though. Without your willing cooperation, you are worse than useless to me. You have the ability to lead, which is part of the reason I am sparing you. It is also the reason that, if Noldoron falls, Dalasin won’t live to see the next sunset.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Dalasin can lead people. At least, if they are willing to follow someone, he has the ability to be that person. I was hard on him during his first sitting. I thought he was weak and had no place among the Morschcoda. I freely admit I was wrong. Now, his people are used to looking to him as their leader. Guinira won’t let that to continue. She will remove him so that he doesn’t become a threat, the same way she removed Atalin, so that he didn’t become a threat. And that is the reason that I’m not killing you. Well, part of it anyway. The gift of command is not so common that it can be willingly ignored. Your people are used to you. I want you to be a symbol to them that, even though their loyalties have changed from one empire to another, nothing in Dothoro has changed. But for that, you must bow willingly.” With that, he turned to go.
She was all but unable to find her voice. “But … did I not just bow before you?”
Taren smiled as he turned to look at her. Not the cold, cynical smile of a hard, jaded man that she and most every other Ringlord in Anaria was used to, but a real smile, full of warmth. It softened his scarred face for only a heartbeat, but it allowed her to see something other than the cold, calculating Morschcoda and General that he was. And then it was gone, and the mask that he wore was back in place. “You knelt in fear of the retribution you thought I would demand, not because you wanted to.”
Taren chose to leave Makret and one thousand of the Brotherhood in Eshtam-Nis, so that Guinira would not try anything foolish on her way back to Armanda from Noldoron. The rest, he took with him back to Alquendiro.
Dalasin did get back to Galzeen sooner, soon enough that he was able to close the bridge over the river that was the one way in to the valley that housed the city of Galzeen. Guinira was not pleased that Dalasin had been able to retreat so quickly. She had hoped to fight him on the plains, either outside of the mountains, or in the ravine before the walls of the city. She had not expected to fight a war just to reach Galzeen, but the battle for the bridge raged fiercely for days. Almost six thousand of the Rayed Sun had fallen before they forced the passage over the river. Finally, Dalasin was forced to retreat into the city itself. The Army of the Sun, strengthened by Armanda’s Flame Weavers, proved too much for the already battle weary armies of Noldoron. For ten days, Dalasin fought to hold the walls and gate, losing many and killing more. But he had neither the men nor the supplies to sustain his defense of the city. The Tall Dwarves which he had held in reserve, and the Stone Warriors which he had wanted to keep a surprise, were finally called into battle before Dalasin had wanted to use them, as so many of his common soldiers had fallen already, either defending the walls or in battle in Dothoro. Flame Weavers attempted to raze the city with fire, but many of their strongest Morschledu had remained in Armanda, and those that were with the army had little appreciable skill. It was one of the mysteries that the Forgers had not explained before the Seven Devils had exterminated them. All they would tell was that the more Rings a nation possessed, the more diluted their magic would become. The Forgers could not, would not, or had not had the time to explain better. And so, Morschledu in Armanda who could pose a reasonable threat to an army or a city were few and far between. So, the battle before the walls of Galzeen dragged on, neither country’s Morschledu being able to tip the scales enough to ensure victory. Even after Guinira’s army finally broke the gates, her forces still had to contend with large numbers of Stone Warriors and Tall Dwarves for the possession of the city. The Tall Dwarves’ armour made them difficult to kill, as Dwarven Steel could withstand all but the heaviest attacks, and the Stone Warriors were considered equals in skill even with the Brotherhood of the Mordak. In the end, however, Guinira would not be denied, and the numbers of the Rayed Sun, still almost twenty thousand strong even with their heavy losses, took the city.
While Ranny, surprising Guinira and to a lesser extent Xari as a competent commander, marshalled the army, took care of orders, and secured the city, Guinira and Xari entered the castle. The fighting inside of the building had not been as devastating as that outside, but it had obviously been ferocious. Though it was a fortress when necessary, Galzeen’s castle had been designed for luxury by people used to luxury. Already, servants had started to clean up after the battle, though it was only just over. They had begun by removing the bodies, the number of which surprised Guinira. But more common than the bodies of her own Flame Weavers, who had lead the attack on the palace, or Stone Warriors, the presence of which had surprised her, or even the Tall Dwarves that she had expected were a group of armed men, wearing neither armour nor uniform, though they had wrapped scarves around their faces. The only mark that her soldiers could find on them that tied all of them together was a silver necklace that bound a tooth around their throats: the fang of a snake. Her mind turned for the first time from Dalasin to the criminal warlord El Darnen, hiding she knew not where, preying on merchants and scouting parties. ‘I must next deal with the Serpent,’ she thought to herself. But she had other business in Galzeen. She entered the main audience chamber and sat down on Dalasin’s throne. She did not wait long.
Dalasin was brought before her, in chains. “By resisting me and fighting against the rightful ruler of Anaria,” she began, before he even had the chance to bow, as they both knew he would not, “I name you a traitor, Dalasin Mectar. Do you have anything to say before I pronounce your sentence.”
“I can’t commit a crime against a Queen I do not have,” answered Dalasin, defiantly. The words rang in Guinira’s ears. She recognized them. They were the words with which Taren had answered a similar charge. And then he had forged an empire.
“Nevertheless, Noldoron, and you with it, is now under Eliish Del Anaria.”
“Not me with it, though, if I am to be put to death.”
“Have it your way, Dalasin. You shall be a public example to others that would dare oppose the power of Anaria.”
“Killing me will change nothing. Erygan still marches on Agrista and Taren will no doubt take Dothoro from you while your back is turned on him.”
“Dalasin Mectar, I sentence you to death.” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand, and turned her head away. “Take him away. I do not wish to see his face again until his execution.”
With that, she stood and turned her back on Dalasin, who muttered a hurried spell under his breath. The chains binding him snapped. “You should know that you cannot bind Noldorin Ringlords with chains.” Turning, he pulled a sword from the belt of one of the men guarding him, and with it slew both soldiers. “You can’t take me alive, Guinira. You’ll have to kill me yourself.”
As Taren and his warriors left Eshtam-Nis, the Anarian army had forced its way over the bridge and begun their attack on Galzeen. As Taren re-entered Drogoda, Guinira engaged Dalasin in single combat. As she fought off his first few blows, she remembered that any man or woman who wished to be known as sword masters had to defeat at least one Noldorin Aren, or Weapon as they were often called. The practice was much the same as for any archer who wished to join the Eagle-Eyed. They had to at least hold their own with a member of the Half-Elvin. She had understood the practice where the archers were concerned, but not when it came to sword mastery. The Noldorin Weapon she had defeated had not stood long before her. Up until Dalasin’s first attack, she had had the same mindset of arrogant overconfidence. She did not keep it long.
As Dalasin fought for his life, Guinira began to notice things that should not be. The sword seemed at times to move by itself, or to grow longer or shorter. It was only then that she realized how completely outclassed she was. The Weapon she had fought had not been Morschledu. He had not been able to do what Dalasin was doing. ‘This’ she thought to herself ‘is why most high ranking soldiers have Dwarven Steel weapons. Otherwise, Noldorin Ringlords can manipulate them at will.’ Because of the magic that impregnated Dwarven Steel, similar to the magic of the Drog war bows, the elemental magic of the Ringlords could not affect it. And so they fought. Guinira’s skill was by no means worthless in such a battle, but she was not fighting a man. She was fighting a sword. It made a difference, for the sword required no style or form of its own. It could change styles depending on its shape and size, and it would not be unsettled the way a person would be. And the day wore on towards night.
Xari watched the duel in growing admiration of the man she did not know. Dalasin was not a sword master, he was not even a respected swordsman, and yet, here he was, holding his own with one of the best masters of the blade to come from Armanda in many hundreds of years. It had been over an hour already since he had broken his chains. As she watched, she saw that Dalasin as far outclassed Guinira as Taren had herself. Dalasin’s sword caught her eye as its point turned into a curve and the longsword changed into a scimitar. ‘It is not Dwarven Steel!’ she thought, happily. ‘He can manipulate it at will to counter Guinira.’ She was not the first Armandan to realize that. She saw a male Ringlord across the room, chanting to himself, his eyes fixed upon Dalasin’s blade. She knew why. He was weaving a spell that would break Dalasin’s control of the steel. Xari looked at Guinira. The Queen could not maintain the fight for much longer. If Dalasin won, it would go badly for Noldoron. At the same time, Xari had stood by enough during Guinira’s bloody reign. The upstart had removed her from any military authority, placing a male Ringlord at the head of the Flame Weavers. Such a thing had not been done since El Bendro Dakoia. ‘No,’ thought Xari. ‘Guinira’s abuses of tradition and status end here.’ Slowly, she began to chant in counter-point to Guinira’s guard, disrupting the weaker Ringlord’s spell. But others of the Queen’s guards noticed Xari’s chant, and, thinking she was attempting to break Dalasin’s magical hold, began to add their power to the spell. Xari alone could not hold the counter spell together.
Dalasin felt the spell that was ever so slowly removing his hold on the weapon he had in his fist. He saw Xari’s chanting, knew she was the one opposing him, and he would not allow Guinira the satisfaction of beating him because her vassals had no more morals than she did. ‘Is that not exactly what you are doing, Dalasin?’ he questioned of himself. It was different though, because he felt it was different. Guinira meant to have him dead, so any advantage he could take to prolong that was allowable in his mind. And then he saw things differently. He knew exactly what he had to do to remove Noldoron from her control completely. Suddenly, he shouted. “You intend to kill me publically to break my people, Guinira? Well, I will not give you that power!” Taking the sword completely under his control, he drove against Guinira desperately for one more minute, pushing her back with a ferocity that stunned everyone in the room, including himself. Finally, it was the right moment. Guinira swung her sword to block a blow that did not come. Instead, Dalasin, sinking to one knee, had plunged the blade into himself. The sword, which the Armandan spells had heated to glowing hot to keep Dalasin from winning, killed him instantly. She had not killed him, and now, she could not break his people with him. Guinira looked down at her lifeless enemy. The ghost of his last challenge and defiant stare would haunt her memory for years to come.