Chapter 19: Fire and Water
Lady Elshay Cabrinda fell exhausted into her chair in the throne room of Alquendiro. The Mordak Council was set to meet by the fourteenth bell. They had been left in charge of the city since most of the country’s Morschledu had vanished into the heart of the Dothorin forest, or been captured and enslaved by Guinira. The largest problem they faced with their rule was that almost half of the Mordak Council had died at Emin-Tal or had retreated into the forest with most of Drogoda’s decimated army, and the living members did not have the authority to name new ones. Only the four territorial governors, Elshay herself being one, and the representative of the Merchants Conclave, the Merchant Prince Ren Enschiva, remained in Alquendiro. Drogoda’s last High General, Regath Encarthian, had died at Emin-Tal, as had all five of the Masters of the Brotherhood of the Mordak. Morschcoda Edya Reeshnar had fled to the forest, the representative of the Grand Admiral was hiding with the rest of the fleet, and the last Prince of Morieden, her own lover, Elich Garrenin, had died two years before the New Deshik Wars began. Taren had never named another heir, and Elich had had no children. The affair of Elshay and Elich had been no secret, but it had produced no child and the throne of Castle Morieden was vacant. And so, she and the other governors had had to change. As she was the Governor of Alquendiro, the others looked to her to lead them, and so she had changed most of all. The long, elegant dresses had been traded in for pants and a shirt. Her quick tongue had been replaced with a quicker sword. She now wore boots in place of the dainty shoes that had only been suited for a dance floor. Arming herself was her first act every morning, and the few nights she did not sleep armed, removing her weapons was the last thing she did. She knew that the governors were the same way.
As the other four members of Remnant Drogoda’s ruling council filed into the throne room, Elshay studied them. Verdrick Billith of Grathen Province, made up of eastern, southern, and coastal Drogoda, had been a very prosperous Merchant Prince. He had bought his seat on the council by funding several of Taren Garrenin’s more legally dubious campaigns. He liked to be in a position of influence, but Taren had always ignored the man, only naming him Governor to ensure that the man’s vast fortune was always at the Morschcoda’s disposal. He looked terrible, like he had not slept in a month. Elshay did not doubt that she looked worse.
Comni Hargd of Morieden towered over the other four council members. Had Edya not been the reigning Prince’s Champion from a tournament that had not been held in almost fifty years, and as such the legal heir to the Morschcodal Throne, Comni would have had a strong case to take the throne herself. Drogoda’s Morschcoda, even the comparative few who were not Garrenins, had always come from the Morieden Clans. It had been Comni who had trained Elshay to use a sword, and it was Comni who was responsible for the little that was left of Drogoda’s armies. But the last living members of the Spear were in Dothoro, the Riders and the wild Mordak were being hunted, the Tai-Aren Coda had all but been destroyed at Emin-Tal, and the Morieden Clans were being pacified. There wasn’t much of an army for Comni to command.
Garva Tagro did not look much like a noblewoman, but she was one. Taren had needed someone with a strong personality, but who could also restrain themselves towards Armandans crossing the border, to govern the plains of Western Drogoda, and he had found that personality in Garva Tagro. She was not tall, nor broader than the other women, but she was a determined and fierce woman despite her stature. And as she had managed to avoid starting a war with Armanda before the New Deshik Wars began, they all knew that they could trust Garva’s judgement.
Ren Enschiva came from Grathen Province, like Verdrick. Unlike Verdrick, Ren had not made a fortune as a Merchant. He had made several. Textiles, jewelry, tobacco, alcohols like Eschcotan Whiskey and Storinean Wines, and the overseas trade to human lands in Alega and Acrosa had all played their parts in Ren’s rise to power as Drogoda’s most notable Merchant, and one of the chief members of the Merchant’s Conclave. He wore clothing similar to what the other four all wore, sombre and practical, but Elshay did not doubt that Ren’s idea of sombre and practical cost significantly more than her own did.
Even though they were all already seated, they still waited for the fourteenth bell to begin their discussion. They found the custom comforting, if nothing else.
Elshay knew that she was the only one who really had anything to say, so as soon as the bell rang she spoke, deciding not to waste time that her people might not have. “The True-Arms Masters are being hunted down, so we must train more. Comni, are there any left in the city?”
“There’s me, but most died at Emin-Tal. More died at Grathen Harbour when the Whip Crackers tried to catch the navy as it was evacuating anyone who could get out.”
Elshay shook her head. It was just more of the same bad news to which she had grown too accustomed. “Have any Tai-Aren Coda still in the city begin training any man or woman who owns a sword or can find one. Have smiths increase production of arrowheads and spearheads. More people know how to use a bow than a sword, and the spear is easier to train with.”
Verdrick groaned and yawned, despite the late morning hour, leaning to his left as he covered his mouth. He then slouched and rested his chin on his chest. “We don’t have the time to train a new army, Elshay.”
“I know, Verdrick. But Alquendiro has stood for hundreds of thousands of years, and it has only ever been conquered twice, both times by Garrenins. I will not be the one who let this city fall undefended. Your own people have brought news that Guinira herself is marching to war. She can only be coming here. We have no Mordak and no Riders, but we have time, for now. Everyone who can’t fight, especially the children, needs to get out of the city. I would prefer to send them to Dothoro, but we can’t. If we can get them to the Miashny Islands, they will be safe enough. Use anything that floats so long as there are no children in this city by the time Guinira gets here. I doubt that any save the Drogs even remember those islands exist, so they will be safe.” Elshay stifled a yawn herself. Verdrick was as useful as a sword made of gold: good for presentation, but soft and easy to bend. He didn’t have to hold the city together. Elshay did.
Garva had a surprisingly soft voice for a woman of her stature. “Elshay, Guinira is marching at the head of a trained army, over two hundred thousand strong. If she is coming here, then she will take Alquendiro. More than just the children should leave. We do not have any real defence against the Deshika. If they breach the walls, the city will fall.”
“But they have no way onto the island since we destroyed the bridges. I’m not saying that that’s a sure defence, but if they attempt to cross the channel, they will pay a high price. If we had a trained army, or can train one before she gets here, that price might be made high enough to make Guinira turn around. If we could get word to Morschcoda Reeshnar in Dothoro, any reinforcements that we might get from the forest could mean we hold the city.” Verdrick, Comni, and Ren all agreed with Elshay that they either needed an army or reinforcements, but Garva did more than just disagree with them. “For that army to be effective right after the Deshika cross the channel, they would have to be outside of the city walls. If the crossing was easier than we believe it should be, we would then have no defence against the Deshika. Guinira would raze the city.”
Elshay hung her head in thought. She knew that Garva’s point was valid, and that the Governor would not have brought it up unless she believed it was possible, or even probable. “That may be a risk we have no choice but to take, Garva.”
The councillors left their hall by various doors. Comni and Verdrick went out through the main door into the Great Hall, which in Taren’s time would have been filled with guards standing at attention, officers running through orders, and servants trying to stay out of the way. Lords and Ladies such as Elshay would have been decorating the cold stone halls with colourful ensembles trying to catch the eyes of each other. Though those days were only two years gone, they felt like ancient history to Elshay. Comni would be going out into the city to militarize it even further. Verdrick would be sending out messages to loyal servants throughout Grathen Province. Garva went through a smaller door leading out into the palace’s Royal Gardens. Elshay felt like a walk in the Gardens herself. They had always been her favorite part of the city; the only part of the palace that did not feel like a war camp ready to meet challenges everyone knew would not come. The Royal Gardens had always been bright and colourful, full of life and beauty. It had surprised her to know that it had been Taren himself and not the Merchant Princes who paid for the upkeep of the gardens. Not even Anyana Garrenin, Taren’s sister, had been involved with the delicate flowers, one of the only patches of colour in the drab grey city beside the cold grey sea. And despite all of his various and impressive reputations, his sole upkeep of the Royal Gardens was the only thing she could bring herself to admire about the older brother of her dead lover. Elich had been smaller, less deadly than Taren, not so forward in arms. But he had also been gentler, less arrogant and more caring, nothing at all like Taren, or the other two, Garret and Dreth. Elich had gotten his mother’s temperament. With a sigh, Elshay turned away from the garden door, and instead turned towards the outer city.
Eventually, she found herself somewhere she had not expected ever to go. She was standing at the door of the Topmast, the Great Tower of Drogoda, one of the tallest towers in all of Anaria. Without knowing what prompted her, she entered and climbed to the top of the massive column of stone.
The climb would have been beyond her before, but her training with the sword had conditioned her body as well as her mind. Still, the twelve-hundred-foot climb taxed her, but the view from the top was well worth it.
To the north, as far as she could see and further, the inland Sea of Drogoda stretched, cold and grey, dark and powerful. Across the narrow channel to the east, south, and west, the empty grass plains swept away in all directions. She could just see, tiny and far away, the northernmost of the cities that Verdrick represented on the Mordak Council. She made herself believe that she could see Guinira’s army marching closer, but even from that height, the border of Armanda was well beyond even Meclaryan sight. Finally, her eyes looked upwards. The Topmast extended for another fifty feet above her, and on the spire that grew out of the top of the tower was flying the largest flag ever woven in Anaria. The great Warship of Drogoda was hard to make out from directly underneath, but she knew intimately every detail of its proud stitching.
“I wasn’t expecting company.” Ren said as he walked around the spire to her side. The tall Merchant Prince joined her in looking up. “It is a magnificent sight, really.”
Elshay shuddered a little. “In my heart, I can’t help but wonder if the Warship’s days are numbered.” She turned away from the flag above her and looked down, out over the city and the thousands of lives that were her responsibility.
Ren shook his head as he joined her in looking down. “Elshay, why would Guinira come here?”
“Why would she go anywhere else, Ren? Alquendiro,” she gestured around them, “the standing testament to the Garrenins, The Kindler’s greatest foe. That flag above us was the last to stand firm at Emin-Tal, which I doubt that the Seven will forget willingly. It flies defiantly over this city as it ever has, but the city below it has changed. We are weak, and I can’t see us surviving if The Kindler has turned his armies toward us.” “Well, I wish I could say that my own thoughts were not as dark as yours, but I can’t. At the same time though, I have access to information from outside Alquendiro. You are wise to order the evacuation of those who cannot fight as a precaution, but I think that we are not so large a threat to Guinira and The Kindler as our pride would have us believe. When all else is conquered, we too shall fall, but even weakened, Guinira would know the folly that marching against Drogs on their own island would be. She knows she would pay far more dearly than she can afford for the crossing of the channel.” Ren stopped and looked back up at the giant flag. “No, my guess is that Morschcoda Dalrey is far more of a threat than our tiny rebellion here.” “And what about the Torridestan Merchant Clans? Yours is not the only ear that the outside world brings news. My own intelligence tells me that they are wavering in their allegiances. If they reach the brink, then I don’t doubt that the doors of the Vault will open for the Seven.”
“The Vault is harder to enter than you might imagine, and its secrets and riches not available to many. Erygan Dalrey is the first Torridestan Morschcoda in many generations to be invited up in to the topmost levels of Torridesta’s Great Tower. The home of the Merchant’s Conclave is more secure than the barracks of the Brotherhood of the Mordak ever were. Unfortunately, in a war, information brings as much profit, or more valuable ones, than trading goods does. And my friends in the Conclave seem very certain that this is no longer Morschen Anaria. That said, even the hardest man has a breaking point. And Vorteez is the greatest torturer that Morschen nightmares have ever known.” Panic seeped into Elshay’s voice, though she tried to keep it under control. “Vorteez is in Anaria? Have we not been through enough?”
“My last traders who put in at Grathen Harbour told me that Vorteez makes a weekly show of power in the town. He is, or was, trying to break any would-be heroes, or ensure that the people will keep their heads down and make any potential saviour do the same. Apparently, he burned a man alive for not putting his mug down when Vorteez entered a tavern. He made all of Grathen Harbour watch. Two people tried to leave the execution. He burned them as well.” As he said that, Ren left platform and began to descend the Topmast.
“Verdrick, have you had any news regarding Guinira’s army?”
“Guinira crossed into my lands along the road. If she intends to strike at the city, she has picked a strange course. She entered Drogoda by the western road. The last news I received had her camped where that road meets the road from Alquendiro to Dorok-Baan. I assume that she still intends to march north, because if she meant to march on Storinea, little purpose though that would serve, she would not have come so far north.” Ren coughed. “Actually Verdrick, that road is main trading route between An-Aniath and Dorok-Baan. So, she could still be marching west.”
Garva started to argue. “But why would they come this far north just to use the road? She’s not a stupid woman, as far as I know. She knows that she could have gone straight west and marched under the forest, instead of through most of it.”
“She could have done that, except that Armandan rebels have a strong hold west of the River Estal. And while I don’t believe that Guinira is marching on Storinea, I also do not believe that she is marching here.”
“Why would she be marching north if not to attack us, Ren?”
“Comni, I know well the past reputation of Morieden Plains for producing unrivaled warriors, but those days are gone.” Comni, the tallest person in the room, looked very much like a Garrenin: long black hair, so dark it seemed to shine blue in the light, and a thin frame, but powerfully muscled. She sat back in her chair as Ren continued, crossing her arms as though she agreed only reluctantly with what he said. “The Seven have a stranglehold on the plains. Vorteez has come to Anaria, and he has made it his mission to exterminate both the Mordak and the Dragons. And unfortunately, he has almost succeeded. I have not seen a wild Dragon, or a bonded one, in the last year. I have not seen a Mordak since Emin-Tal. He rules the coast with an iron fist, arresting, torturing, and executing people, not always in that order, simply because it amuses him. The warrior clans of Morieden are going untrained because the Deshika march through the villages and raid them almost weekly: Deshik weeks, not Morschen. Drogoda is large, but even had we a significant army behind these walls, Guinira would not see us as a threat. We are surrounded by water, and beyond that water is land that no matter what we say here belongs to Guinira and the Seven. We are but one very small piece on a board that we don’t control, no matter what our ancient and well-deserved pride would say. When the world has fallen, so too will we. And Guinira knows that to waste lives taking the city now is a waste she does not need to make. Dothoro, Noldoron, and Eschcota still stand defiantly against her, and Torridesta actually fights. She will march north through the west first.” Verdrick, smaller than Comni, and built like Ren, to whom he was related, asked the question everyone knew they had no answer to. “But what do we do in the mean time? We can’t just sit here idle, assuming that Guinira will look some other way. We must prepare to act, because if Guinira only has to wait until all else is conquered, she may not have to wait very long.”
“There is something else, and it will buy us some time. Makret Druoth has declared himself at Ra-Diavere. Before Guinira goes anywhere, she will have to deal with him. Declaring himself at a city that Guinira already controls screams treachery. But whom is he betraying? And what side, if any is he on now?”
“Without an army, Druoth is even less of a threat to Guinira and the Seven than we are.”
Comni coughed. “I beg to disagree. Makret Druoth, scum that he is, is one of the finest swordmasters to walk in Anaria in one hundred thousand years, if not more, and the best General in at least as long. Guinira can’t afford to ignore the fact that he is holed up in a city that she has a tenuous hold on, at best.”
Elshay agreed with Comni. “I also have heard rumours that Druoth does have an army. There is still several thousand of the Burning Sun in Ra-Diavere. It’s not much, but … under Makret Druoth? And behind strong walls? Guinira can’t ignore him. He is a threat.”