Chapter 4: The Cardor's Bloody Banks
Edya Reeshnar looked out over the walls of Eshtam-Nis. She could not see or hear any of the Dothorin people, but she knew that they were there. It was a feeling, more than anything else. Since the fall of the Morschcoda Council, Daliana Marcarry, with many of her people agreeing, gave over most of the larger settlements inside of the forest to the Drogs. The people of Dothoro dwelt out of sight, high in the trees they loved, and their cities got a new layer of defence, aside from the added protection granted by the presence of most of Drogoda’s remaining soldiers. Edya had had Ringlords create new lakes and rivers throughout the forest, surrounding every city and town. The Dothrin had accepted with the agreement that they be allowed to make pathways in the forest canopy over the waters so that they might take shelter inside of strong walls should Guinira march in force. Edya had been happy to agree.
As she circled the walls of Eshtam-Nis, she wondered if Makret had found the Anshawl that she had ordered be left behind. The sound of leathered feet running over bark high above her, and the Dothrin woman who leapt down twenty feet to land beside her, convinced her that he had.
The woman was panting hard, doubled over. She looked terrible. Branches had clawed her face and hands, and there were bits of bark and leaves sticking out of her hair and even her face. Edya recognized markings on the woman’s gear and knew that she had run from the edge of the forest, obviously not daring to slow down ever, in case she was too late. As soon as she had enough breath, she stammered. “Morschcoda … Druoth has come … Edge of the forest … Midday two days ago.” Edya looked in shock and admiration at the small Dothrin woman. She had run fifty leagues in just over a day and a half. That was impressive, even for a Dothrin courier. “Go find something to eat, and get some rest. I’ll do whatever I can to hold the Deshika at the forest edge.” She nodded, but did not go. “I met Morschcoda Marcarry. She’s taken two thousand Dothrin to where the Cardor leaves the forest. The trees aren’t as thick there. She believes that’s where they will strike first.”
Edya nodded and dismissed her for a second time. She looked to the southeast. Would Makret uphold their bargain? Or would she have to find some other way to get Morschcoda Daken Calmi out of An-Aniath?
Daliana Marcarry stood high above the ground among the branches of an ancient ash tree that grew close to the Cardor’s northern bank and looked across the Cardor into the Deshik camp, spreading for miles along the southern shore. It was a massive, sprawling thing, unorganized and dirty. Wagon trains that stretched for miles accompanied the forty thousand warriors, more than she had anticipated. She had thought that the Morschledu Remnant was not so large a threat, especially with Erygan rampaging at will throughout northern Anaria, and Alquendiro still unconquered. But then she remembered Makret’s words from when he had come to Alquendiro as The Kindler’s ambassador. “And that is just the armies of one of the Seven Devils, and by many accounts, not the largest.” The number of Deshika that had poured into Anaria with the supposed fall of the Morschcoda Council was mind boggling. Over one million had come with Nasheem, the second of the Seven Devils. Others of the Seven were rumoured to have walked in Anaria, but their armies had remained behind, or had slipped in unnoticed amongst Nasheem’s more numerous warriors. Daliana shook her head. It did not matter if any others of the Seven had armies in Anaria. The Morschledu Remnant was small, with the thousands who had been slaughtered at Emin-Tal, and pressed together into the few remaining pockets of the land that Guinira had not yet conquered: the island of Alquendiro, the Garuthen Mountains, the forest of Dothoro, and the Kingdom of Torridesta. The thought that Erygan still ruled over at least some of his lands gave Daliana and others in the Remnant some hope, but such sources of inspiration were in short supply. In their current state, the Morschledu Remnant had almost no hope of defeating Nasheem’s hordes, let alone those The Kindler still held in reserve. Daliana couldn’t help but feel that she and the other Morschcoda were gambling with time they did not have. If Guinira, The Kindler, Nasheem, or any of the others of the Seven called their bluff, the Morschen world would end.
In the Deshik camp, Makret was doing his best to manipulate the War Chiefs. To his relief, he was succeeding. He had taken the stance that the most likely place for an ambush was along the river, so the War Chiefs took the position that they were there to destroy any rebels they could find. Makret argued that they would be slaughtered. They countered that there were not enough Morschen left in the world to do that much damage to them. Makret gave way, and allowed the War Chiefs to continue, breathing a sigh of relief when they left. Daken Calmi, still using Trick of the Wind, with which he had created the slight disguise he had worn in An-Aniath to fool Guinira, stepped into the tent.
“I’m risking a lot trusting you like this, Druoth.”
“You and I both know that there was no other way to get you out of the city.” Makret’s reply was hushed. He didn’t dare speak too loudly, in case any of Guinira’s chosen Ringlords could hear him. “Guinira knows that Meclarya, like Drogoda, was left almost non-existent after Emin-Tal. But unlike Drogoda, Meclarya fell in a matter of days, not months. So any Meclaryan, even the ones who serve Guinira, or pretend to serve Guinira, attracts suspicion. If you had left the city on your own, any Meclaryan outside of the forest or the mountains would have been dead before the Silver Moon.” Makret leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. He shook off a few broken strands and watched them fall to the ground.
Daken counted up the time on his remaining fingers. “The New Year is only three weeks away. I doubt that even Guinira could act that quickly.”
Makret stood and looked down at the shorter man. Daken looked up, unimpressed, staring into the cold blue eyes that had defied death itself. They were both stubborn men, and likely would have stood there until the world’s end if Aleishi Mandrath had not pulled aside the flap of the tent and stepped inside.
“General.” The tall, thin Caladean woman’s voice was high, almost shrill, and had a slight lilting quality that reminded Makret of the ocean. He remembered, and quickly discarded, that she, like his fallen former friend Regath Encarthian, was from El Redro Delshoi, but Regath’s accent had been far less noticeable then the Caladean woman’s. “The War Chiefs are ready to begin their march. Two of the Armandan Ringlords have asked permission to march with the first ranks.” Makret nodded slowly. Aleishi turned and left the tent. Makret watched her go, curious about her and the way she walked. He had seen her grace and skill in battle. He had fought her more than once, and trained with her after Emin-Tal, but he realized that he did not know or understand the woman. She moved with the awkwardness of a newborn Mordak, not the grace and perfect balance that he would have expected of anyone like her; a seasoned warrior and a master of multiple weapons. He would have to ask her later, though, if he wished to unravel that mystery. Now, he had an ambush to plan.
Daliana had descended from her perch high in the trees so that she could give her orders. She marked the two Morschen that rode at the front of the Deshik column, only about five thousand strong. The Deshika either did not fear or did not respect the Dothrin. The red hair of the two women told Daliana what she had already suspected: Armandan Ringlords. Makret had not come to negotiate. Though the Deshika could be dealt with at any point along their march, if Daliana gave the order to attack the Ringlords before they actually entered Dothoro and Remnant Anaria, she would officially be at war with Armanda as well as the Seven. She groaned as she thought that. ‘It isn’t like there’s much of a difference.’ But she knew that to attack Armandans before they were officially at war with her could cost her Xari’s trust, and that was something that she could not afford to lose. Though she doubted that Xari would take things the wrong way, the thought of the risk involved made her feel like a gambler holding too many cards. All of the Morschcoda had changed, and understood that they were at war. Daliana doubted that attacking any Morschen of any of the Ten Nations would incite war within the Remnant if those attacked were marching with Deshika. So instead, she discarded her habitual musings on politics and the dangerous reactions she would incur were the Council still in command of Anaria and she prepared to give her soldiers the order to attack. She had spearmen hidden on the southern bank, knowing that her enemy could not ford the river, and her archers, by far a larger force, were with her on the north bank, and in the trees above. She had no fear that any of their arrows would fell her own soldiers. An archer in Dothoro was the sort of person one could count on to hit what they aimed for. She was about to give the order to release when a man emerged from the forest and knelt beside her.
“Take the Ringlords alive if you can” he hissed in her ear. “They’re ones that Guinira was once close to. She wants them dead.”
Daliana could taste the venom and hatred in her own voice as she answered. “They are traitors to Anaria, Druoth. I want them dead.”
Makret shifted to a more comfortable crouch. “There are five more that you can take your well-deserved vengeance on, Daliana. These two don’t understand this war or their own part in it.”
She didn’t look at him. “Then you shouldn’t have brought them.”
Makret laid a hand on her shoulder, but almost immediately removed it as she shifted away. “Guinira ordered them to come. I didn’t want to bring any Armandans. They just complicate things. But they could give you information. They might even be turned.” Daliana turned towards him. To him, she seemed angry at his general existence at that moment. “I’m already gambling, trusting you with Remnant lives, Druoth. I won’t trust your judgement with traitors’ lives too.”
“I did bring Daken.”
Daliana grunted, unimpressed. “You’ve done nothing more than what you promised. You’ve earned no favour from me or from the Remnant.”
“Daken is going to sneak away tonight, and tomorrow, the Torridestan I brought has orders to find his remains, like he wandered too far and was caught by a Lurnax.”
“Too many lives hang on that information not being revealed for me to tell you.”
“The lives of my people are among those.”
Makret fought with himself for a moment. “A High-Blood Torridestan, who was nearly caught spying in Storinea. I won’t say more. It’s not my secret to reveal.”
Daliana, knowing Makret was telling the truth and would say nothing more, let the matter of the Torridestan’s identity drop, for the moment. “So Guinira will suspect nothing about Daken’s disappearance. Would she care anyway?”
“Nothing that she can prove, even if some of her own make it back. And no, she likely wouldn’t care. She thinks that he’s only some Meclaryan Ringlord who joined her to avoid dying. She has no idea who he really is.”
For the first time, Daliana softened towards her dead father’s long-time friend. “You could stay here too, you know. I may not trust you, but I do need you.”
“I wish that I could stay. But there are other members of the Remnant still in An-Aniath, and other Morschen who only stay because I stay. They’re more useful in An-Aniath, but if I leave, they will disappear. Then, Guinira’s Morschledu Hunters will be out in force. Almost all of them have reputations that involve taking heads, not captives. That’s not something that would be good for anyone. I couldn’t get enough people out to Xari before she was forced to retreat.” Daliana understood, but she had half-hoped, no matter her personal feelings, that he would relent this time. ‘Maybe Edya would have better luck.’ Silently, she gave the order. Arrows rained down on the advancing Deshik line, scattering it in ruin, while her spearmen on the far bank charged and dealt with those that remained long enough to understand their mistake.
Makret had left as soon as Daliana had given her order to attack, but he still barely made it back to his command tent in time. One of the Armandans who had marched with the advance force stormed in, along with two of the War Chiefs. One of them had an arrow sticking out of his upper left shoulder. The other pointed at Makret with one of his four first fingers.
“You knew this would happen.”
Makret was facing the tent flap, but was leaning against his desk, staring down at the map spread over its surface. He did not look up. “If you’re going to accuse me of anything, War Chief, first remember that it was I who warned you against this attack.” Makret raised his head to stare at the accusing War Chief. “And second, if you must mangle this language, please do so as little as possible.” The War Chief lowered his hand and his eyes, cowed by Makret’s scorn and relentless stare. Makret turned to the woman. “What happened?” “Dothrin archers were hidden on the northern bank. Spearmen were scattered through the trees on the southern shore. We were caught between the two forces, and the War Chiefs broke.” She shot a hate-filled glance at the two Deshika in the tent.
“And the other Ringlord who marched with you … What happened to her?”
“I saw two Rangers grab her and drag her into the forest.”
Makret hung his head, as though disturbed by what had happened. ‘Daliana at least had upheld her end of this bargain.’ He nodded, dismissing them. Night would fall soon, and in the morning, Daken would be gone. No one, not even the Deshika, would be anxious to track him down with Lurnax on the prowl.
Edya and one thousand Drogs made their way down the Cardor River to the site of the brief battle. That was all that it amounted to anymore. There was no war to be had, no great deeds of song and legend to be done in one last desperate charge. The Morschen were too weak, their armies scattered, and their will all but broken. There was nothing left to do but guard the borders of their ever-decreasing land and wait for Guinira to launch her final assault. Searching through the mess along the southern shore, she found Daliana, questioning the captive Armandan. Dothrin Rangers were using magic to fill the surrounding forest with traps so that the Deshika would have to march along the river. She was just about to start over and question the captive herself when Daliana stood up, stretched, and walked over to her.
Daliana gestured behind her with a thumb. “She’s a hard one. Too angry to be useful.”
“Show me an Armandan who isn’t.”
“This one’s stronger than most. From what I understand, she used to be very close to Guinira.”
Another voice broke into their conversation. “And Guinira suspects her of being a spy.” Edya looked up to see Daken and Makret walking side by side. Many of the Drogs gripped their weapons tighter as their one-time General walked past them. Many of the Dothrin archers nocked an arrow, and pulled slightly on the string, ready to raise their bows and release should Daliana give the word. Makret could hear their muttered insults, and he could see the weapons they pointed at him. Admiration, more than anything, made Edya restrain herself as she spoke to the man she once answered to.
“You’re a brave one, coming here, Druoth.”
“Either you trust me or you don’t, Edya.” He paused to look around him. “You don’t have to answer; I know which it is. But end this spectacle. You know why I’m here, and we all want the same thing.”
Edya let a cold edge creep into her voice. “I’ve learned not to trust many people. You’ve given me more reason to not trust you than most have.”
A corner of Makret’s mouth lifted in an attempt to smile. “You may not be a Garrenin, but you’ve inherited their principles.”
“There are eleven people bound by the Garrenin Oath. You aren’t one of them. I don’t see that as a matter of principle.”
Makret sat down on a rock and looked up at the two women. Daken looked on, bored, but not having anywhere else to go. “Taren once named a pirate captain the Grand Admiral of the Imperial Drogodan Navy. It wasn’t because he trusted Tarick. It was because Tarick could do the job. Taren needed him, and you need me. You need me more than you need the other Morschcoda.” He leaned back. “And you know I’m right.” The Armandan looked up when she heard this. “So, you’re the traitor?”
“Yes.” Makret stood and stretched. “Convenient, isn’t it, being in charge of hunting for myself?” He turned and looked at her. “I’m only a traitor to those whom I do not serve.”
“We trusted you! You have led us to how many victories, and now you say that you do not serve with us?”
He walked over to her, and looked her in the eye as she stood up. “I was the right hand of Taren Garrenin himself. I will serve no lesser ruler.” She looked him in the eyes, pouring hatred and anger into her stare. He met it and laughed. “I have held the eye of The Kindler himself. I have looked into the eyes of the Last Garrenin. And you think that you can challenge me?” “So, why did you not just have the seven of us killed as we marched here?”
Makret looked the small woman up and down, and then he relaxed slightly. He was among allies, if not friends. He could say what he wished here. “You were already marked for death by Guinira. So is your friend. If not for me, you both would have died in that battle.” To that, the young Armandan had no answer. Makret turned away, walking back to the three Morschcoda.
“So, you really are with us.”
“I am, Daliana.”
“Then stay. We need you here.”
“If I stay, then yes, you will need me here. If I go, then you won’t. Not yet.” Daliana looked confused. Makret did not explain.
Daken broke in. “There are other Morschledu still in An-Aniath, and Ringlords that could be turned. Market should go back.”
Edya nodded. “You have our thanks for getting Daken to the forest.”
“And Gelinia Eshtarin.” He pulled a flask out of his boot, reminding many of those still watching him of Taren. “And Aleishi Mandrath.” As he took a drink from it, the physical reminder of one whom many of them had risked their lives to protect prompted the Drogs to lower their weapons. Several of them saluted Makret, and some bowed.
Daliana did not notice the various displays by the Drogodan soldiers. “And this High-Blood, yet nameless, Torridestan of yours … Is he staying too?” Makret nodded. “Who’s left in the capital for you to get out?”
He looked over at the young Armandan woman, still guarded by two Tai-Aren Coda. She looked up. “Any Armandan who realizes what has really happened since Emin-Tal, and those who still call themselves Morschledu. The Kindler doesn’t rule Armanda in name, but everyone knows that he’s responsible for the Deshika’s loyalty to its Queen.” “So, you will not declare yourself to be Morschledu?”
He looked at Edya, and she met his gaze. To her surprise, he answered. “When a Garrenin walks this earth again, I will declare my true allegiance to the world.” With that he turned and left the forest, returning to his camp and waiting for the morning.
No one heard Daliana mutter “But I’m a Garrenin.”
“General!” The yell from outside the tent sounded desperate, but Makret was not particularly inclined to answer it. But it repeated enough times that he finally had to make an appearance at the flap of his tent so that whoever was yelling would finally be quiet. What he saw instead was two Armandan Ringlords chasing a third. The Deshika seemed to think that it was some game, especially when the two chasing drew their swords. But Makret knew what was going to happen. He just could not stop it before it did. The one in the lead stopped and whipped her sword forward at the fleeing woman in front of her. The second Ringlord continued the chase so that in the unlikely event that the first sword missed, she could finish the job. Or rather, that was what would have happened if Makret had not stepped out of his tent. He moved out into the path, and with incredible coordination and skill, and a more than a hint of magic, in one fluid motion, he caught the cartwheeling sword by the hilt as it completed its revolution. Allowing its momentum to carry it, he drove it into the ground. The second attacker had not registered what had happened, until Makret turned full front to her, and she slammed into him at a full run, bouncing off his solid form and staggering back several feet to collapse into a heap. The woman who had thrown the blade was still staring in shock at Makret, not believing that he had caught her sword. She was terrified. He pulled the sword out of the ground, pointed at her, and then into his tent. She dared not argue. The woman who had collapsed, he ordered two nearby Deshika to ‘help’ her to her feet and deposit her in his tent. Their would-be victim almost dived inside the cloth shelter as he held the flap open for her.
He looked over the small table he sat behind at all three women in turn. The short one with burning red eyes, not normal brown eyes, who had thrown the sword, the even shorter woman with long, blood-red hair who had run into him, and the tallish woman who looked too pale to be a pureblood Armandan whom he had saved. He picked up the thrown sword from where it sat on the table, and pointed it at the two shorter women, who were sitting close together, apart from the one they had tried to kill.
“The two of you are lucky that you didn’t kill this woman.” He would have said more, but the shortest woman squirmed and seemed to want to say something. “Yes?”
“Well, sir, it’s just … We aren’t actually very lucky, because well …”
“By whatever gods exist woman, just spit it out.” An angry Makret tended to have that effect.
The taller of the two women spoke for her. “What she is trying to say, sir, is that her majesty gave us orders that the two other women, this one” she pointed across the tent at her target “and the other who marched with her in the first attack, were not to come back alive from Dothoro. So if she does not die, the two of us will.” She hung her head, ashamed of what she had tried to do.
“I know.” The two Ringlords looked up at him in shock. So did the other.
The taller of the two women stood up, outraged. “You knew? And you stopped us?”
“The way you tried carry out your orders was,” he paused, snapping his fingers several times as he searched for the word he wanted … “inappropriate for a camp this size.” He was staring directly at the two of them, not even glancing towards the third woman, who was rapidly becoming scared. Her left knee was bouncing uncontrollably, like she wanted to run but was afraid that would instantly cause her death. But Makret continued to ignore her, and the two other women did not dare spare her any glances. “Suppose word of this gets back to An-Aniath? Everyone who answers to Queen Guinira will be wondering if their assignments from her majesty are only meant to get rid of them, or if their companions on those tasks have orders to murder them in their sleep. If that were to happen, it would create chaos. Guinira would lose almost every supporter she has. Something like this is easy enough to hide in a battle, but in the middle of the camp, outside of my tent?” He stopped speaking. The tall woman was terrified. She was leaning onto her leg, not daring to move, in case she was noticed and Makret told the two to finish what they started. But he did not. Instead, he ordered the two to get out of his sight and forget Guinira’s orders. Then he turned to her. “You can breathe now.” She was practically numb from trying so hard not to move, so she collapsed to her knees the first time she tried to stand. He got up and walked around the small table, and held out his hand. She grabbed it and pulled herself up.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t order them to forget what Guinira told them just to let them try again.”
“How can we stop them, though? You let them go free. If they value their lives, and they do, they’ll try again.”
“No, they won’t. Not yet. Everyone in this camp saw them attack you, or will hear of it. The Deshika won’t understand what happened, but the Ringlords will know what it means. This will damage Guinira badly.” Makret shrugged. “That’s something that I am not at all opposed to.” “What?” She had meant to continue, but he clamped his hand over her mouth, silencing her. She tried to bite him, but he ignored that and whispered into her ear.
“If you didn’t notice, I’m no lover of the Deshika. As a Drog, I find it that much harder to pretend that I can work with them. Dealing with Armandans is almost as bad, especially Guinira and those like her. But you, I will tolerate long enough to help. If you listen, and say nothing to the other Armandan Ringlords, then I can get you away from both the Deshika and Guinira.” He released her and stepped back.
“Guinira just tried to have you killed, remember.” She nodded slowly. “Good. Now, the only place that I can send you is the forest.” She almost yelled again. “To the Morschledu Remnant.” She really would have yelled, but his hand went back over her mouth, and she came to her senses.
She pulled his hand away, and answered in a whisper. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t serve Guinira, or The Kindler. I want to see them both destroyed and the Morschcoda Council once more the rulers of Anaria. So, I can help you escape the trap that you have found yourself in.”
“Your safety is worse than this trap. The Morschledu won’t accept me any more than Guinira will. I might as well try to cross the ruined bridges and knock on the gates of Alquendiro.”
“If I believed you could get there, or thought you would go, that’s exactly where I would send you. A high profile traitor, and a ranked Armandan Ringlord, would be more than welcome in Alquendiro. But, those in the forest will accept you.” He dug through the papers on his table, pulling out a small, blue stone. “I’m sending you with a group of forty nine Deshika to scout along the river. The Remnant has orders, from me, to take any Ringlords they find alive, if possible. When you are brought before Daliana or Edya, show them this stone.” “I’ve lost my best friend to the forest already. I dare not go in.”
Makret looked down at his maps, preparing the next Deshik attack. He did not look up to tell her that her comrade was still alive. “You are going in there, and that could save her much unnecessary suffering.”
That night, the War Chiefs congregated in Makret’s tent. The topic that they all wanted to discuss was the attempt on the Armandan Ringlord, but Makret was tired of those rumours and demanded that they turn to more pressing matters. The first battle on the Cardor’s banks had been disastrous, but he was a dead man if he returned to An-Aniath so soon.
“No matter where we enter the forest, they can move through it much quicker, and they can attack us long before we even see them.”
“We have the advantage in numbers.” The War Chief who spoke was not one of The Kindler’s, or Venda’s which he had trained so carefully. This was one of Nasheem’s War Chiefs, new to Anaria and its wars. Makret would have to teach them the same way that he had taught The Veterans. So he laughed. He laughed at the thought that this War Chief believed that in such a battle, numbers meant anything. Makret had learned long ago that the only time when numbers had meaning against Dothrin Rangers was on an honest battlefield. And the tangled thickets and swampy banks that was the edge of the forest on the Cardor River was the farthest thing from a wide grass plain where two armies could sweep towards each other and decimate each other with sword and spear and magic. This was a battlefield for single warriors, scouting parties, roving archers, and spearmen that could leap down fifty feet and bury their spearhead in their victim’s throat, crushing him to the earth as they landed lightly on their own feet. This was not a Deshik battle. That was something that the Deshika would only learn as they lay dying on the Cardor’s bloody banks.
“Do you find something amusing, Druoth?” The voice, cold as ice, hard as steel, dark as a moonless night, caught Makret by surprise. He had not felt the ripple of Black Power that preceded the arrival of one of the Seven. But even as he turned, he dropped to his left knee in a bow, only to find himself not staring at The Kindler’s boots. Nasheem had come instead.
“My lord, I…”
Nasheem raised a hand and silenced Makret. “Save your breath, General.” He turned to his War Chiefs. “Leave us. Tomorrow is soon enough to renew our assault on Dothoro.” As one, the War Chiefs bowed in their fashion and left the tent. “Now Druoth, make your excuses.” Makret looked up into the face of Nasheem. The Devil reminded him of an Armandan-Torridestan half-blood that he had once met. He was very tall, thin and pale, but with blue eyes that burned with hidden fire. Something told him that this Devil was less easy to anger, but also much harder to lie to. “We tried sending a small force along the river, to test the defences of the Remnant. They’re stronger than we believed, but I have hope that with the right tactics, we can take a large portion of the forest and in time bring the whole country under our control.” Nasheem looked at him. And then he sat down. “Stand up.” Makret slowly got to his feet, his hand straying close to the hilt of his sword. That did not escape the notice of Nasheem. “You don’t need that toy, Druoth.” The sword belt fell to the ground. “Now, what you just said is what you would tell my brother and his idiot of a mortal queen. I am The Dread Commander. I understand the subtleties of war, and what you just told me is that you do not intend to win this battle for Karvieck or Guinira.” “Karvieck?” Makret was reasonably confused.
Nasheem smiled at the reminder that Makret would not let things pass unchallenged. “The name has not been spoken for over one hundred thousand years. It is the real name of the lord of the Seven, the one you and all others call The Kindler. In the Deshik tongue, it means ‘to ignite.’ In old Morsch, it means ‘defiler.’ Rather fitting.” Makret did not dare speak. Nasheem waved him off. “I don’t care on what ceremony you stand with Karvieck or your queen, but with me, you will speak your mind. You will be blunt, you will be honest, or you will die.” Makret started to protest, but Nasheem raised his hand to silence the Drog. “Now, you are not trying to win this war, are you?” Makret almost started to say what he would if he were being questioned by Guinira or The Kindler, but there was a knowing gleam in Nasheem’s eyes. He already knew Makret’s plans. “…No, I’m not.”
Nasheem nodded to himself, looking around to see what Makret had to drink, but didn’t find anything. Makret pulled the flask out of his boot and offered it to the Devil, who accepted it warily and took a cautious taste. “Eschcotan Whiskey. Excellent. And good, I’m glad you’re not trying.” Makret was confused. “I don’t want my soldiers needlessly sacrificed. I’ll need them when Karvieck tries to claim this land as his alone. Venda and I have grown weary of his timeless plots. The others of my brethren … I neither know nor do I care where they stand.” “Then what am I supposed to do? I have orders to take Dothoro.”
“Do those orders really matter to you?”
“No. But I must at least try, as much for my reputation as for my head.”
“Your reputation? Trying to lose will destroy your reputation, so it can’t possibly matter that much to you.” Nasheem thought for a moment, stroking the thick beard that grew along his jaw. He nodded to himself. “Go to your friends in the forest and ask if they will accommodate you with pitched battle north of the river. If they will, march your whole strength in along southern shore. The Cardor’s width will give you an advantage, if your numbers haven’t given you one already. You should have enough time to get those Ringlords on whom your favour rests out of your lines and into the surrounding forest before Edya Reeshnar and those like her set upon your army. If they can stop you, they can do it regardless of the battle’s location.” “You said you didn’t want your soldiers sacrificed.”
“This will give me the perfect excuse to start a small war with Karvieck. These are my men he’s wasting, so Caladea seems like a reasonable price. Yes, I think that that might make this sacrifice worthwhile. After this, you will return to An-Aniath with any army you have left.” “The Remnant will think that I am betraying them if I march in strength.”
“It is easy enough to lie to them. The Seven walk in Anaria. When they question you, as I don’t doubt that they will, you will tell them the truth. One of the Seven ‘improved’ your plans.”
With that, Nasheem stood up. He warped the world around him and was gone before Makret could speak again.
“No one ‘improves’ my plans.” Makret had needed to say something.
He got up and started walking, breathing hard and wondering why one of the Seven Devils, why Nasheem himself, had revealed the true name of the most feared and hated enemy of the Morschen … to him? What it meant, Makret thought he would never know. He did know one thing, and that was that he had business in the forest. Gelinia Eshtarin was waiting for him at the edge of the camp. In the black of night, the two were almost invisible. Even Erygan Dalrey would have a hard time seeing them tonight.
Two Drogs escorted Makret and Gelinia to Daliana and Edya. Makret noticed that no one in the small camp trusted him yet, but several Drogs recognized Gelinia as the Lord General of the Crystal Sword. Edya had met the woman once, in Agrista, before Taren had destroyed the city.
“Did you really have to come tonight, Druoth?”
“Yes, Daliana, I did.” The taught lines around Makret’s mouth caught Edya’s attention. They had not been there that morning.
He sighed and looked around for his flask, but realized he had forgotten it in his tent. Or maybe Nasheem had kept it. He couldn’t remember, but he wished he had something. Still, he pushed on without anyone noticing his distraction. “I have to appear to be doing something, otherwise, my value to The Kindler, to Guinira – to you – it all goes away. If I don’t attempt at least one more attack, I’ll lose my head, if I’m lucky.” “So what do you plan to do?” Daliana could be forgiven for the yawn she had to fight back as she asked the question. It was late, or rather, very early.
“I plan to send my whole force, thirty-five thousand, into the forest. We have rafts, so I’m having them cross the river, and they’ll march two miles north.”
That woke Daliana up. “Thirty-five thousand? Does it have to be so many?”
“Unfortunately, yes. If I can’t take the forest, I’m ordered to burn it down. So I need you to kill or capture the remaining Armandan Ringlords, or get more Drog Morschledu down here so that they can’t start this fire.”
“We’ll be prepared.”
“Then I leave General Eshtarin here, and you’ll have Mandrath and the Torridestan tomorrow.”
He turned to leave, but Edya called him back. “Makret …”
She did not answer, but threw something to him. He caught it easily, despite the heavy darkness underneath the trees, and opened his hand to look at it. A small blue stone sat there. “She told us what you did.”
She thought she saw a single tear roll down his cheek as he turned away, but it might have been light from some lone star glittering through the hundred-foot high forest canopy.
Later that morning, Edya’s army, with another two hundred Drogs that she had requested from a nearby settlement, was in position at the place where Makret said he would be entering the forest. Daliana’s archers were hidden high above, moving quickly and silently through their canopy pathways. She waited as the sun climbed higher. It was almost the fifth bell before she heard anything, but it was too small and too close to be Makret’s army. She beckoned two soldiers over, and the three moved with what stealth and grace they possessed towards the disturbance. What they saw surprised them all: a Torridestan and a Storinean fighting three Armandan Flame Weavers. It was strange, but Edya could not force herself to move. She did not have to.
Without warning, five of Daliana’s Rangers dropped from various heights, landing outside of a longsword’s reach. Two archers walked out from opposite sides, bows drawn, and arrow nocked and ready. The five stopped instantly. Edya stepped forward, and without hesitation, the Torridestan man shouted. “Morschcoda. Druoth marched south. Look to the river…” The man’s voice trailed off. The sword sprouting from his chest, and the look of savage ferocity and pleasure on the face of the young male Armandan behind him, reminded Edya that there were some, even Ringlords, who wanted the Seven Devils resurgent and the world brought to its knees. Two arrows buried themselves in the Armandan, and he died instantly. Edya recognized the Torridestan man as Eildar Dalrey, Erygan’s son, but she wasted no time beyond summoning a healer that she doubted would be able to help him. Within twenty minutes, her small force of just twelve hundred men, and Daliana’s slightly larger army were marching to intercept Makret Druoth and thirty-five thousand Deshika. Edya wondered if she had lost her mind.
Makret wondered if the two Morschcoda had gotten his message. He knew that they would never be able to stop him if they believed he was still marching north. He did not think that they could defeat his whole army anyway, but the two Morschledu, Eildar and the Storinean, had ridden out of the camp that morning as if the Seven were after them. Guinira’s three Flame Weavers had needed little urging to chase after them. If he was lucky, his two men would make the forest, and Daliana would deal with the Armandans. If he was unlucky, then he was marching into the heart of Dothoro with thirty-five thousand Deshik warriors. Most of the veterans of Emin-Tal were hiding in the Garuthen Mountains, almost two hundred leagues to the northwest.
Daliana and her people ran through the interlocking boughs of the forest canopy, traveling much safer and more well used paths than those that Edya and the Drogs below would have to use. It was not far, only three miles, but the run at top speed taxed her men. They dropped almost wearily to the ground, sometimes from as high up as seventy feet, landing on the wet but firm ground, just one hundred feet from the advancing Deshik horde. Daliana was one of the ones who dropped the furthest, but she also landed far better than most of her people, her right hand propping her up as she fell to one knee, with her spear braced against the ground in her left hand, and an Anshawl slapping against her left thigh. The Deshika needed no goading to begin a new war. Daliana was happy to oblige.
Edya saw the problem as soon as her men got within sight of the battle that Daliana had joined without her. The quarter-mile-wide Cardor River, born in the high mountains of Noldoron, was a rampaging monster almost all the way to Drogoda’s western wall. There were fords, but they were fifty miles away. She yelled her orders to the soldiers all around her. “I am going to slow the river. You’ll have to swim if you are going to join in this battle.” She did not turn around, so she did not see the looks of fear and guilt that many of the Drogs behind and beside her wore. Instead, she directed all her willpower, her concentration, and her vast strength towards the swift flowing river, slowing it, holding it back, flooding its soggy banks, undermining the vast network of roots that supported the giant trees all along the Cardor. She was aware of her small army surging around her, but she dared not divert any of her energy into paying attention to whether or not her men were getting across and were aiding in the battle raging on the far side.
The battle was not going well for Daliana. Her small force had halted the Deshik front, but Makret had enough men to continue his march while his column turned, driving Daliana and the Dothorin Rangers against the bank of the River. Pinned there, out from under the trees, her men were falling rapidly. But a single shout changed everything. She wheeled away from her enemy, dangerous as that was, and looked. Edya stood alone on the far side, but she had slowed the river between them to barely a crawl. And the Drogs she had, the water-loving and warlike people that they were, were swimming across to ensure that the battle went as planned.
Makret, from his vantage point well back from the battlefront, was stirred by, and afraid of, Edya Reeshnar. She wanted this victory, and she was willing to risk everything to ensure that she took it. Slowing even a tiny stream was a trial for most Drog Morschledu. Slowing a river such as the Cardor, at least a quarter of a mile wide, born of the wild ice in the bitter peaks of Anaria’s tallest mountains, was an immortal’s feat, impressive and terrifying. He did not know what Edya Reeshnar was, but he thought that then might not be the best time to find out. When the Drogs emerged from the river, Edya, no longer able to negate its massive momentum, collapsed. The Drogs though, their blood burning in their lust for vengeance, took the battle to the Deshika, driving them back under the trees, where the Dothrin Rangers could hunt and kill them with ease. ‘Yes,’ thought Makret. ‘It is time to retreat. Nasheem shouldn’t be too disappointed. I’ll save at least thirty thousand men.’ He gave the order to withdraw, and the War Chiefs, seeing the power of Edya Reeshnar, for once obeyed without question.